*We publish a new issue bi-monthly on the 1st of the month. We are here on behalf of the interest of the writers to promote them on a consistent basis. We will feature 8 new short stories every issue. Thank you and enjoy the Feb/Mar issue of SNM.
Open themed for previously published SNM authors.
The only warmth Jasper felt was from the blood filling his mouth. He coughed a splatter of red on the pristine snow. The pain in his ribs prompted him to tighten his protective grip around his midsection. He had to get back to the cabin, back to Jane…before it did.
Jasper stumbled and went down on all fours in the knee-high snow. Once standing – an arduous task in and of itself – he realized his rifle was still submerged.
“Aw, hell,” he said as he continued forward.
If he were to have gotten back on his hands and knees to search for the weapon, he didn’t think he could get back up again. Besides, with the exception of a false sense of security, his rifle wasn’t likely to help him anyway. Jesus, what the hell am I dealing with here?
All Jasper knew was that about twenty minutes earlier, he had a fourteen-point buck in his sights when the snow seemed to come alive. The view through his scope went white and as he pulled his head back to see what was going on, the snow closed in on him and lifted him into the air.
He felt a sweeping sensation of weightlessness. The moment was fleeting, however, as he was thrown against a tree. He heard a crack and felt the associated pain as his frame gave way then fell to ground like a slab of meat. The layers of powdered snow padded the impact.
Jasper lay still, stunned, as the snow once again overtook him. It arched up without form then came down. He felt something else there as it seemed to come in through his eyes. His vision went white, but it was not from the snow. It was internal, like his brain was being wiped clean and shutting down.
Behind the white, something was forcing its way into his mind, raping the private places in his thoughts he used to protect himself from the world. Jasper was rendered mentally and emotionally naked.
This was only the beginning as the presence drilled deeper until it was eating even those parts of his very being he had kept hidden from himself. Those forgotten experiences that created that singular identity and consciousness gave him the ability to refer to himself as “I.”
It started with embarrassing memories. Like when he exposed himself to a girl when he was four years old and then proceeded to tell her she had to do the same. Then there were the more vital conscious and unconscious memories of events that had shaped the man he’d become. These were often profound and rife with insecure and volatile emotions. A lifetime of anguish was thrust upon jasper in a single and powerful instant.
His father moving out and the subsequent questions of what he had done to cause such a thing to happen. Endless attempts to impress that same man as he occasionally showed up to spend an hour or two with his son. Memories of fantasizing about how he would impress the individuals that encompassed the favored cliques in school. Then there was the latent shame and embarrassment when reflecting on these events later in life.
And what of the things he had done to Jane?
Jasper had never cheated on her. He didn’t possess the nerve to do so. Still, there were the subtle, public insults that seemed to humor those who didn’t know any better. Between Jasper and Jane, however, they were comments that dug deep into the heart like a greedy dagger.
There was the time Jasper knew how insecure Jane felt around Pamela Kirkwood, the wife of Jasper’s best friend. In Jane’s mind, Pamela was perfect: her body, sociability, personality, cooking, children...her life. So one night when they were having dinner together at the Kirkwood’s, Jasper said with a smile:
“Boy, I never knew a roast could taste like this! I thought it was much rubberier and tasteless. Once I asked Jane if we were broke because why else would she be cooking the soles of our old shoes!”
Everyone laughed, including Jane. He knew his wife’s feelings of inadequacies and used these moments to hurt her.
As that white presence ate through his brain and brought all those moments to the surface, Jasper knew he was indeed a small man. He didn’t have the nerve to even belittle his wife to her face. All he could do to hurt her was to publicly display passive aggressive means. But why would he want to do such a thing? She was a good and lovable woman that deserved better than him and he knew it.
It made him angry, which, in turn, made him feel even smaller.
As Jasper’s entire being was dismantled, he resolved to be a better man...a better husband. He could be that man; it was possible. Despite his loss of vision, rendering him lost in a pathetic history, he still had his other four senses, however fleeting. His bare fingertips burned with cold as did his lungs.
His body ached from the previous impact.
Slowly, all of that was going away. He could feel himself drifting deeper and deeper into his past until, he knew eventually, it would be lost. His grip on even knowing and understanding the reality of his demise was also slipping away like a greasy rope.
Soon he would disappear in that world of the past, not even knowing his body was slowly freezing to death. Furthermore, Jasper didn’t care. He deserved all of this, to die in the anguish of what he was. And what he had become.
Now, something else was happening. The presence that had overtaken his mind wanted to control it. It spoke to him. Not with words, but in a more elementary form of understanding unhindered by the imperfection of language. Still, if the inner communication were to be translated into words, it would say, “Let go, Jasper. Let me have you. Let me take you away.”
But then a single thought made him realize he couldn’t let that happen: Jane. He had to not only redeem himself, but give her the life and man she deserved. Before the last vestiges of warmth drained from his hands, he clenched his fingers into fists and pumped his legs.
From some distant place, he heard a man cry out and realized it was his own voice. He fought. Whatever this thing was that fed off his most tainted memories, it would not have him. Jasper kicked, punched and screamed.
“You can’t have me!” he cried.
Like all of the air being drawn out from a vacuum, the force left him. Jasper gasped and pushed up onto his knees. Somehow he knew where the presence had gone: to find a more willing victim. The time it spent in his thoughts revealed everything about Jasper’s life; including the fact that Jane was still asleep at the cabin.
What was also revealed was the fact that Jane had been a much stronger person than Jasper. Once. After you spending twenty years being punched in the gut with words by someone you love, things changed. The presence had revealed Jasper to be an abuser of his wife’s will, hopes and happiness.
There are abrasions far worse than those brought on by physical violence. What gave Jasper the strength to expel the mind-ravaging being was not a will to live. It was, instead, the need to save his wife. He wanted to heal the subjective reality he’d altered, tarnished and atrophied.
“Oh, Jesus,” he said through strained breaths.
With this knowledge, he stood and began his trudge through the snow to the cabin. Jasper made it about a mile down the trail, where he would find himself spitting blood, falling back into the snow and losing his rifle.
There was still a half mile or so to go.
From behind, he heard the sound of torture. Jasper turned to see the buck he had in his sights a short time before wailing out a sound he thought not possible from a living thing. It thrust its head from side to side as the invisible force whipped snow around the animal.
After a moment of being unable to move, Jasper watched as the snow fell to the ground. The buck’s head faced downwards so the broad tree of antlers was pointing at him. It breathed heavily from its snout, sending small clouds of white powder up around its snout.
The buck looked up at Jasper and what he saw created a sense of fear like he had never before known. The initial attack from the being in the snow was so surreal, and had occurred so quickly, that shock left little time to be afraid.
The buck in front of him was quite different. It was staring at him with eyes painted over to a single color: white. Its body was tensed and it breathed heavily.
The buck was going to attack. The snow-being was the hand and the buck was its hammer.
It swiftly leapt through the snow with grace and speed, easily diminishing the hundred yards that separated the two. Jasper moved to his left, hoping to get behind a large tree before one of those fourteen points impaled him. He lumbered through the snow with all of his attention on the tree that was only a foot away.
As it was within arm’s length, a large force pounded into him and he was lifted into the air for the second time. Only his body did not feel weightless. It was thrown upwards, anchored by a sharp pressure in his side. His brain briefly registered that the pressure he felt was from an antler and that he was being thrown over the back of the buck. The impact beat the breath out of Jasper as he fell on the snow.
He removed his hand from his side. Jasper registered the blood before rolling over just in time to see the buck coming down on top of him. He reflexively reached out and grabbed the antlers in an attempt to hold the beast off. Hooves stomped on his legs. Blow after blow hit his thighs and calves.
Everything was moving too quickly to isolate each impact; there was only unrestrained pain. He knew that if he was fortunate enough to live and even more fortunate to make it through the mad buck attack without a broken bone, it would be because of the snow.
He was not going to be able to hold the buck off for long. Then Jasper remembered something that gave him hope: the buck knife sheathed at his belt.
If he were to release one of his hands to unlatch the sheath and remove the knife – both of which had to be accomplished underneath the snow with frozen fingers – he would not be able to hold the buck back from ending the fight. The only hope was that, perhaps, he could do everything quickly, before he was completely trampled or filled with holes.
Time did not allow for thoughtful consideration and there were really no other options.
Jasper let go of his grip with his right hand and dived his fingers into the snow. Like a car skidding on one tire, the left side of the buck pushed forward as Jasper held fast with his left hand. As his fingers felt the pressure of the sheath buckle, the side of the left antlers came down on Jasper’s face.
His increasingly numbing fingers clumsily undid the buckle and removed the knife. The antlers pinned his arm down, not allowing him to lift it from the snow. Jasper let go of the right antlers with the hopes that the buck would stumble and give him the second he needed. The buck lost its balance.
Jasper brought the long blade from beneath the snow and up into the back section of the snout and into the animal’s brain. For a brief moment, he looked into the clouded over eyes and felt as though his mind was being drawn into a relentless vortex consuming everything in its path. The white cloud dissipated and there were only the eyes of an animal.
The dead bucks’ body began to collapse. It was falling to the side, but not enough. If he were to get pinned beneath, Jasper knew that, in his condition, there was no way he could push the carcass off of him. With all the feeble strength that could be mustered, he pushed the buck away from him and tried to move in the other direction. The buck collapsed.
All Jasper could do was lay still.
He couldn’t feel the puncture in his side from the antlers. His legs throbbed and he supposed he wouldn’t know if anything was broken until he tried to stand. He considered, however, if he wanted to even attempt that task. Just laying in the snow and dying seemed a much more pleasant way to spend the afternoon. He thought about Jane alone in the cabin. Perhaps she had woken. If so, she was probably still in bed, sipping tea and reading.
What was that book called? Oh yeah, he remembered, the Scent of New Mown Hay. He only remembered because the book sounded strange to him. She did like the strange stuff. Scary stuff. Little did she know that something from a storybook was coming for her, to take her into oblivion. Without the benefit of the snow, she wouldn’t even see it coming.
“Oh, God, Jane. I’m so sorry,” he said. Jasper reconsidered the defeat not just in his words, but in his life. “I’m coming, Jane.”
He pushed himself out of the snow, first to his knees and then to his feet. His legs hurt like hell, but they held him up and he couldn’t have asked for much more than that. He touched his side and then looked at his blood-covered hand.
No time to worry about that now. Jasper went over to the buck and put his hand on its snout.
“I know it wasn’t your fault,” he said before removing the knife. It was stuck in there pretty good. Normally, Jasper would put his foot on the snout and give the knife a tug.
But, somehow it seemed too demeaning. Besides, he didn’t think he could lift his foot up out of the snow and maintain his balance. He gave it a few more tugs, deciding if it wasn’t going to come loose, then so be it.
Fortunately, it did on the third try. He tried to wipe the blood off on his pants, but it was too cold and most of it was already freezing to the blade. Jasper looked up. The cabin was about a half-mile away, maybe less.
He started forward.
Excluding the injuries, the remainder of the trek took place without incident, supernatural or otherwise. Jasper moved as fast as he could. Still, there were many stumbles and near pass-outs on the way. The trail let out on the side of the cabin.
With his arm around his side and his alternate hand gripping the handle of his buck knife, he limped around to the front porch. Most of the trip had proceeded with his head down, watching every step.
As he reached the top of the porch, he gazed up and, at that moment, exhaustion gave way to fear and adrenalin. As he entered, he saw that the front door was open.
“Jane!” He yelled as he ignored the pain and ran up the steps and into the house.
The front room, which included the kitchen and living room and was the only space other than the bedroom and bathroom, was empty. Jasper stopped and looked toward the bedroom.
“Jane, you in there? If so, please say something, please.”
There was no response and he really hadn’t expected one. He stepped to the bedroom door, which was also open, and looked inside. Jane lay on the bed, motionless with the exception of her chest that lightly lifted with each breath. He ran to her, sat down and gripped her arms.
“Jane, can hear me? Please, fight this thing. You don’t have to let it take you, I promise.”
Jasper let go of her arms, laid his head on her chest and wept.
“I’m so sorry, baby. I’m so sorry.”
He pulled over a chair and sat. Personal experience had taught him that there was nothing he could do. She was swimming somewhere in the depths of her mind and past. He had had memories of guilt that provoked him to want to live. What did Jane have to look forward to as it dissected her being? A life wasted on a waste of a man. Further diminishment of her life and aspirations? Jasper let out a deep, painful breath.
“You know,” he said. “I remember when we met all those years ago at the college bar. What was it called? Hell, I don’t know. I was trying to get with some woman that would make me a hit to show I was big stuff. You came up and started talking to me and, at first, I blew you off. Not because you were below me or something like that. But, because I needed that thing that made me look good in front of others. And, for some reason, when you saw me again a couple weeks later, you came up and talked to me. Don’t know why you’d do that after how I acted toward you, but you did.”
Jasper took another breath and looked down at the floor. Then he looked at the knife still in his hand and dropped it. It made a loud thud.
“I wish you hadn’t, you know. You would have been better off. You might’ve found someone who treated you the way you deserved. Wouldn’t have taken some crazy, invisible snow monster to make it happen. You should have called me out as the asshole I was…I am. Jesus, I’m so sorry.”
He hunched over and broke down crying. Red stained snot and spit fell to the ground. All he could hear was his jerking cries. As he stared at the floor, he could see the blade of the knife and considered what he could do with it. Why not?
He might as well have killed Jane; he killed her life as she lived it. Even as she was on the bed, Jasper realized he was still more wrapped up in his grief and inadequacy than what his wife was experiencing. He was preparing to reach for the knife when two petite feet came into view. Jasper looked up. Jane was standing in front of him with her eyes closed.
He was going to stand when he noticed the powerful, deep way in which she was breathing. Her eyes were still closed. Jasper thought of the buck and how it behaved right before it charged him.
Jane opened her eyes.
They were completely white.
She jumped on him and gnashed her teeth into his cheek. Jasper stood and pushed his wife off in one move. Her head hit the corner of an end table, seeming to stun her as blood dripped over her face from the fresh wound. On the floor was a small piece of flesh Jasper could only guess was from his cheek. He held his hand to the wound. Blood gushed through his fingers.
Jane seemed to regain her focus on Jasper as she looked right at him and then sprinted forward. A single punch to the face knocked her to the ground. Despite the possession of the being from the woods, she was still very small.
Jasper picked up the knife and looked at his wife who had become an animal. The two just stared at each other. Jasper with shot nerves, grief and guilt. And Jane – because, in some way, she still had to be Jane – assessing her adversary, her desired prey.
Jasper looked down at the knife, knowing that he could easily put an end to this. But, he couldn’t do that. How could he? He lifted his arm with the knife extending from his hand and dropped it before turning his back to the beast that was once his wife. All his muscles burned as he slowly sunk to his knees and looked down at his two outstretched palms.
They were stained with blood.
He said, “I’m so sorry, Jane,” as he heard the quick pitter-patter of footsteps rushing up from behind.
Matthew Nelson makes his fourth appearance in SNM Mag, including being twice published in the Bonded By Blood anthos with Sunsets and Consequences and Just a Little Itch in BBB V. *Other publications: Death Head Grin and Deadman's Personal blog for his book reviews, stories, and other info: storiesfromtheether.blogspot.com. Paranormal research article on the examiner.com along with his wife, Danielle, found on: www.examiner.com/astrology-and-paranormal-in-columbus
Roy leaned glumly over the railing on his balcony and watched the dark figure moving along in the parking lot below. With the moon covered by clouds and the majority of the lights in the complex not working, Roy couldn't say for certain who the gangly looking guy was, but if he had to guess he thought it might be Steve Danvers from C-12 given the shape of the messy hair and the way he was scratching at his arm where all the needle marks were.
Roy peered at the large house just on the other side of the street. The sight made him take another swig of whiskey. The last swig, he sadly acknowledged, before letting the empty bottle fall and crash on the sidewalk below.
His area was by no means lacking in unsavory elements, and the large house his tenant was walking up to wasn't even the only crack house within walking distance. Ever since the people had moved into that aged, dilapidated building, Roy had seen a lot of his tenants taking trips over there, and almost as many turning up dead from an overdose.
Roy wasn't surprised by that. It went with the territory, given the area his complex existed in, but that didn't mean Roy felt like dealing with the headache of clearing out the apartments. Worse yet, going without a paying tenant and finding new ones to replace them with.
Roy was just drunk and angry enough that he wanted a bit of trouble tonight. He hadn't thrown his weight around in a while, and Roy had plenty of weight to throw around.
Stumbling around in his dark, cluttered apartment, Roy pulled a shirt down over his hairy gut, paused in front of the bathroom mirror to brush what remained of his hair to the side, and fished his gun out from his closet.
He walked across the uneven asphalt in the parking lot toward the two-story home. The old building looked like most of the homes in the area: the wood had chipped white paint, the roof missing half its shingles, front lawn a mess of parched dirt and weeds. The large front porch probably had rotted patches of wood and even a few animals living in the space beneath it.
A light shone on the porch above a man reclined back in his lawn chair, eyeing Roy's approach, thick arms across his chest. He was certainly a strong looking guy, made to look stronger by the two- sizes-too-small shirt he wore, stretching tightly across those bulging muscles, but muscles alone weren't enough to scare Roy. He figured the guy pulling himself up from his seat on the porch might've been an ex-con, until the guy spoke.
“Can I help you?”
At first he couldn't say what about the voice felt wrong, until it dawned on him the guy didn't have even a hint of the local accent. In fact, the words had a certain crispness to them, almost business-like. This man didn't come from the area, probably didn't even come from poverty, adding an additional bit of confusion to the situation.
Roy walked up those last three steps to stand toe to toe with the man, both about the same height at six foot. “You seem to be popular with my tenants,” Roy said.
“What do you care?”
“Normally I wouldn't,” Roy said, looking at some flies swooping around the porch light, then past it to the boarded up windows. “People taking drugs doesn't mean much to me until I find their dead bodies around.”
“Isn't my problem.”
“Thing that confuses me is I was talking to my groundskeeper the other day. Guess he decided to buy a bit off of you guys and from the way he says it, your prices are so low, he doesn't know how you're even making a profit. Seems you want a bunch of people clamoring around your place, people that have a habit of turning up dead.”
“Look,” the man said, taking a step closer to Roy, trying to get into his personal space, puffing out his chest as he did. “What we do is no business of yours. You're going to turn around and go home and that's that. I'll throw you off of this porch if I have to.”
Roy couldn't help but smile at the threat. He believed the man was capable of it. Roy might've had fifty or so pounds on the guy, but Roy had fat and the man staring at him was all muscle.
“What could you possibly be up to?” Roy asked more to himself than the man, and he saw something flash in the man's eyes, an understanding that Roy saw through part of the charade, even if he had no idea what existed beyond it. The man began to move, perhaps make good on his threat, but Roy took a step back and brought up his hands. “I'm going,” he said.
He turned and started down the steps, away from the house, and most importantly away from the light spilling out from the porch. He paused on the sidewalk and turned back, using the movement to stop the guy from seeing as he pulled the gun out from his waist. The man hadn't sat down yet when Roy walked back in the house with the gun close to his side, seeing him pull the gun from his waistband.
“You know what I love about this area?” Roy said, stopped at the base of the steps. At such a close range it wasn't hard to put a bullet in the man's right foot. He fell screaming to the porch, no longer looking as tough, as he grabbed his bleeding foot with both hands, clamping down hard on the end of his shoe where the bullet had torn into him.
Roy walked up the steps and pointed the gun at the man's head. He froze, hands still gripped on his foot, staring with wet eyes up at Roy's smile. “You hear a lot of gunshots around here, and no one wants to call the cops. But you probably didn't know much about that, did you? Looks like you didn't know dick about this area except that it's poor and you could get people's attention by selling cheap. So what I want to know is, why?”
“You don't want to deal with this,” the man gasped through clenched teeth.
Roy sensed a deep desperation in the man's glazed eyes, one that made him pull back just a bit before eyeing the door leading in. Some part of Roy told him that maybe he didn't want to know what was going on in there. But he knew he had to. He'd already come this far already.
He tried the knob but the door wouldn't open.
“Open it,” Roy said, and the man pulled himself up and limped over to the door.
He'd seen the inside of a few crack houses before, usually when he had to track a tenant down for overdue rent money. But the home he stood in didn't look anything like what he'd been expecting.
All of the walls had been painted stark white, making the bright overhead lights appear brighter due to the intense reflection. Even the wood paneling had been painted over, with thick streams running and drying down to the floorboards. On top of the new paint, someone had written over it with black marker. The dark scrawls were everywhere, running from the floor to the ceiling, the various shapes filled with loops and massive spirals, both chaotic-looking, yet somehow purposeful.
Roy realized they grew denser as they stretched back toward the end of the hallway, leading to a door. Though the place was two stories, the staircase leading up to the second floor had been destroyed, even the hole in the ceiling boarded over.
“What the hell is this?” Roy asked, staring.
The guy had his back against the wall by the front door. “We can't stay in here,” he said, looking towards the end of the hall. Roy realized the man was afraid, but not of the gun in Roy's hand, but of the door on the far end.
Roy had seven keys on the ring, and looking closely at the door, he realized six of them went to that very door. He'd never seen so many deadbolts built into a single door, that even the door itself was reinforced with metal along the edges. Either they really wanted to keep their money safe, or there was something else, Roy thought, scratching his chin for a few seconds before inserting all the keys and opening the deadbolts one by one.
The money, Roy thought. “Hey,” he shouted, getting the guy's attention. When the man looked his way, he slammed the butt of his gun into the guy's forehead. The body fell limply to the floor. The man wasn't dead, and at that moment Roy couldn't say if he really would come back and finish the job or just head out with the money. He found a key, inserted into the lock, unlocked it and whispered, “Just the money and drugs” to the empty air, and pushed the door open.
He stepped into a small, well-lit room, but there weren’t any stacks of money or tables full of drugs waiting for him. He thought the walls in the room had been white like the living room outside, but the black marker was so thick it almost covered every visible inch. He could still make out the swirling shapes, but the space between each line was paper-thin. The only thing untouched was a door on the right standing open and leading to another hallway. Roy ignored it, instead staring at the statue placed in the middle of the wooden floor.
The gray stone looked like a man standing upright, the body thick with muscles, shoulders unnaturally broad, arms held tightly at its sides. Metal chains surrounded the figure, but they weren't carved in stone; they were actually metal.
Though the general shape was of a man, the body contained clear abnormalities; the feet it stood on only had three thick toes, just as the hands held at the sides had three fingers. Deep veins had been carved all throughout the form, the attention to detail so thorough that had the color not been gray and the figure so motionless, Roy might have thought it was alive.
The greatest abnormality existed within the head. The top of the bald head had deep crevices running all over it. The face had no eyes or nose that Roy could see, but it did have a large mouth full of what Roy assumed were teeth, though with the coloring the same within the mouth as the rest of the bulky form, he couldn't say for certain. What Roy did know was that the thing had a creepy vibe to it and acted as a centerpiece to the room.
Something moved through the door to his right. Roy brought up the gun, thinking there had to be someone else in the place, maybe someone keeping a watch over the cash, or setting up more of the supply. He thought they would have heard the gunshots and come out if that were the case, but Roy didn't know what else to expect as he inched his way over toward the open door and glanced inside before pulling his head back.
He frowned at the image he'd seen. Roy stepped out into the open door to stare at the man chained to the wall. “D5,” he said quietly, unable to think of what the guy's name was, knowing that he was one of the better tenants about getting his rent in.
Mr. D5 had already been a bit scrawny, just like the majority of the drug addicts were, but now he also looked starved, his skin grungier than normal; brown hair getting a bit long and blocking out his eyes. He sat on his knees; his body leaning forward against the chains attached to the wall.
Roy saw them around his ankles as well. At first, he thought he was dead given the way he hung there, but the head shuddered, rose upward, eyes locked with Roy. They were dark red, the color contrasted against the dirty skin surrounding it.
He'd had enough. It didn't matter if there was still money to be gained from the whole thing. The walls were covered with that crap, the statute in the middle of the room, and now his tenant looking up at him with red eyes had gone far beyond Roy's ability to handle.
He turned to leave, but stopped as he saw the head of the statue in the other room turn his way. It looked just as solid and immobile as before, though Roy thought he saw something beneath the surface of the stone, as if a light was coming to life inside.
He left the door open as he hurried down the hallway toward the man rising to his knees by the front door. Before he could get back to his feet, Roy grabbed hold of his hair and yanked his head back, pressed the barrel of the gun into the man's face, asking him what was back in that room, knowing he didn't really want to know.
He was dealing with something he wanted to put behind him and never wanted to look back again.
“You know who I am?” Roy asked him. Given what he'd already been dumb enough to tell the man, he expected nothing less than the head to nod ‘yes.’
“You live in that complex across the street,” the guy said, eyes a bit groggy, but they snapped into focus at the sight of Roy's tension. “Did you go back there?” he asked, began to reach out to Roy, to grab hold of his shirt, the man's eyes growing wide as he got his answer from Roy's expression.
The gun fired point blank into his face. Roy recoiled from the blood as the man fell limply against the splattered wall, still twitching as Roy jerked open the front door and stepped out into the night.
He'd had no choice. He'd seen the look in the man's eyes.
Roy was to suffer the same fate as Mr. D5, chained to the wall.
But now it was all over.
Roy just wanted to put it all behind him.
Two hours and six bottles of beer put the worst of his nerves behind him. He'd spent a bit of that time on his balcony staring at the light still glowing on the front porch of the house across the street. No one arrived in those hours. It didn't really mean anything, but Roy didn't think they'd have anyway of knowing it was him.
While his nerves settled down, his stomach chose to get riled up, gurgling loudly inside him, refusing to calm itself no matter how much alcohol he pumped into it.
He fell to his knees at the toilet and puked up half his drinks for the night and the bag of chips he'd managed to get down. He managed an hours worth of sleep in his bed before he woke again with his stomach crying out. Some watery vomit splashed on his feet before he made it to the toilet and flipped the lid.
It was in that state, sitting on the floor by the tub, both hands gripping his stomach when he heard the rapping at his door. Roy scrambled across the floor toward the dark hallway and the bedroom where he kept his gun. He shoved his hands into a wad of clothes by his bedroom, trying to find where he'd tossed the weapon. Behind him he heard voices and the scampering sound of feet moving quickly through the apartment.
Just as his fingers first touched the metal handle strong hands grabbed hold of his shoulders and pulled him away before he had a chance to grab it. Roy was thrown onto his back; his arms and legs were held down, empty faces staring at him, barely visible in the light spilling in from the open bathroom door.
“What the hell are you guys doing?” Roy shouted, trying to pull free but the hands were too strong, wouldn't let him budge at all. A man more dignified looking than the others knelt down over him and grabbed hold of his chin.
The man looked to be in his fifties, wrinkles spreading out from his eyes, forming a permanent frown on his face. He stared at Roy with bloodshot eyes, and Roy had a feeling he'd only been recently woken up.
“He's seen it,” the man said nodding his head to the others.
The men holding him brought both of Roy's hands up, making his palms press together. As they held them there, they took out a pair of tight metal cuffs and secured his wrists together. Once that was through he saw another part of the metal contraction, one they used to drive a sharp metal spike through both of his hands, twisting the thing to permanently hold his hands together.
Roy fought back the scream of pain He screamed again when spikes went through his feet; for a third time when steel sunk into his soft ankles.
Roy spewed vomit into the air, splashing it down his neck and chest, eyes watery from the pain, but he shoved it all away as best he could and locked eyes with the older man standing over him.
“I have to know why,” Roy screamed at him. “You bastards can't break into my home and do this to me without letting me know what’s going on.”
The other men pulled back, their eyes shifting toward the older man, who finally nodded, and knelt closer to Roy.
“We guard something important, something trapped within the statute you saw, but every day its power grows, gets closer to breaking free of the bonds we've placed it in. Looking upon it allows it to infect a person, but that process weakens it, as well, so we have no choice but to feed people to it in this way. The home was designed to seal in whoever it infects, to let them waste away and die in a slow manner common to addicts, and in this area, we knew no eyes would linger should such people die, none other than someone such as you. Why did you go to that house?”
“I own this place. I was seeing my tenants die, and knew they were overdosing because of that house. I just wanted to help them out a bit. You putting me in that home to waste away, then?”
Roy didn't like the pity in the man's expression as he took a step back and gestured towards one of the others. “You've been outside the seal too long. The infection has grown too deep. We can't kill you anymore, but we can contain you. I'm sorry your compassion for your tenants has led you to this. It is most unfortunate.”
Large hands grabbed a hold of his head, held him still as they brought down a hinged metal helmet that opened on the side. He could see through the opening the twin spikes meant to pierce through the eyes and a large spike designed to shove through the mouth and tear into the tongue.
Roy screamed and bucked but couldn't defend himself as the masked closed over his head and the pain swelled to such a level that it all but canceled itself out, his mind just floating in the darkness, lost within the agony.
Some part of him was aware of the hands grabbing hold of his body and dragging him away, but he knew it didn’t matter, nothing capable of mattering anymore. But from somewhere he did take a small bit of comfort from the look of pity the older man had looked upon him with. It wasn't pity at the miserable life Roy had lived, the kind of pity he was used to seeing, but rather a pity at the horrible fate his noble actions had led him to ultimately .
It didn't matter if Roy had only gone over there to stop the overdoses so he'd have a bit less work to do. The man hadn't known that, and maybe the man would think back to Roy from time to time, speak of him with an air of respect.
Roy’s mouth quivered upward into a smile around the rough spike driven inside it. There were certainly worse ways in which to be remembered, he thought as he felt a car rev to life, taking him away from his complex and the house across the street.
Philip Roberts lives in Nashua, NH and has been published in a variety of publications, including the Epitaphs anthology, Midnight Echo, The Horrorzine and SNM Mag. A full anthology of Philip’s short stories entitled Passing Through can be found on the Amazon kindle store. This marks his fifth story in SNM, twice in print. More information on his works can be found at:
They called it Ripoff Park, Needle Park, Troll Park, a haven for the homeless and the junkies, anything but its actual name of Walton Center Park. Whoever "Walton" was; some benefactor, maybe, years ago? Who had never dreamed the land they'd named after him would become overgrown with vines that twisted around its once tall, proud oak trees; its crumbling brick walls. That made a jungle surrounding its winding paths; scummed its pond over. Killed the ducks that once, no doubt, swam there. Turned rolling hills into ravines and mountains.
At least to a kid. The skateboarders, during the day, would still come there. And Peter, when he had time, would follow, to try to cut one from the herd of the others and shake the kid down for what change he might have. To cuff him a little, maybe, to show who's boss, maybe flashing his knife blade – checking first, of course, to make sure none of the older people -- the grampas, the grandmas, the nannies who sometimes came there with children on hot afternoons -- were looking his way. No sense in getting some old geezer frightened and make them call the cops on him. Not that he couldn't get away, but why take chances?
Because Peter was no kid, not Peter Schultheis, not a school kid the cops had just run off, or worse, maybe remand to Juvie Court. Not Peter Schultheis, who already had a record of sorts. Nothing serious, of course. Just brawls and fights. Petty theft kinds of things. Truancy up to a few months ago when he'd finally quit high school.
People like Peter gave the park a bad name.
People like Peter played a dangerous game.
He knew what they called him. But he was an optimist. Shit, he'd been bullied when he was a kid, too. Here in this same park, back when the grass had still been mowed, maybe more than once or twice a year. Bigger kids, drop-outs, had shaken him down for his school lunch money when he was little.
"Easy as stealing candy from a baby," they used to laugh when he would try to defend himself. Maybe they'd bloody his nose a little, just for good measure. Then make some remark, no longer at him, but maybe at one of the younger women on a distant park bench -- always just far enough in the distance so she wouldn't hear it -- minding a real baby in its carriage.
"I’d like to get laid by her!"
Then they'd snigger.
And so, he thought, it was really tradition. Some of those kids had jobs by now. Some might be pushers, which meant they might still come to Ripoff Park, but only after dark. Some of them might even be in college. Or others in prison.
Now he was of that age in a neighborhood that was losing its population. Where the best gangs were blocks away by now. Didn’t matter, Peter preferred to work alone.
So he was a loner. But he was a big kid. In his next-to-last year in high school he'd grown a foot taller -- it was like it had happened overnight. Broadened his shoulders. Grown tough, ropy muscles in his legs and arms. Muscles to flex with, or run with when that failed. Like sometimes when cops came into the park, but that wasn't often.
He fondly thought of himself as The Ripoff Park "Freeman." Something political with a cause. Carrying on the values, you know, like a young George Washington vandalizing cherry orchards. Him ripping off school kids. Teaching them to be tough. Showing them how life worked.
Once he'd mugged an older person, an old, wrinkled man who walked with a cane. He'd kicked the cane out from under the geezer, then busted his glasses. He'd kicked the guy until he’d bled, then bent to rip his wallet out of his pants when the guy spat on him. Right in his face -- spat blood right on his face -- blood and some other brown stuff, and then started screaming.
Peter remembered the screaming, high and wild, in a strange language he didn't know, like maybe Russian or maybe Spanish -- except it didn't sound like the Spanish they spoke at the market across the Avenue in that part of town where all the Spicks lived.
So maybe Russian, but the thing was the brown stuff stank on him and, all of a sudden, he was scared. So, he stayed away from geezers now. Instead, he concentrated on babies -- that is, the kids smaller than he was; who understood what their role in his life was, and how they, too, were a part of tradition.
Who took it in silence.
Except now, before him, just as he'd stepped around a curve in one of the park's paths, he saw in front of him a baby carriage with nobody else there.
He looked around to spot the kid's mother -- but no one was there. The bench the carriage was next to was empty.
Maybe, he thought, she was off in the bushes, fucking her boyfriend. That happened often enough in the park, some of the younger women who came there, their husbands still at work. Older kids left at home. Taking the baby into the park was the only chance they got. Except they didn't just abandon it.
Maybe she was high shooting up somewhere, which sometimes happened too, especially with the rent-a-nannies who took care of kids for women who worked as well.
Or maybe both. Who knew? He couldn't hear the sound of fucking, not the way you heard in cable movies on TV. Nor could he hear twigs breaking or dead leaves rustling, the way it would be if people were just rolling on the ground somewhere anywhere nearby.
Hell, he didn't hear anything from inside the carriage either, so he decided to give it a look. The top thing was up and it was dark inside, so he squinted.
Then he heard a sort of a slurping and saw, yes, a something, slurping on a big stick of candy.
He almost laughed. Stealing candy from babies. Of course, the phrase was only a joke. An expression of sorts. Nobody really stole candy from babies. Not literal babies.
Shit, he thought, why not? The mother, the nanny, whoever was supposed to be watching the kid, had gone off somewhere but would be back soon. Meanwhile, he hadn't seen anyone else around to rip off, and he was in a bad mood.
But here was a baby. And -- next to the baby-shape he saw more candy sticks, crinkly in cellophane. He could grab the first stick out of the little kid's mouth and throw it away, and grab the others then run like hell when the kid started squealing.
As easy as stealing…
Hell. It was tradition!
He laughed now as he reached in the darkness, first to the wrapped sticks at the baby's side. Stuffing them quickly into his pocket. Glancing around both sides, behind him, making sure "mommy" had not reappeared yet, then swiftly, snakelike, his hand shot inside again…
…And the kid bit him! Peter screamed. He didn't want to. The pain just came out.
Screams and curses!
The kid's teeth were sharp!
And then he smelled the stench. Like -- God! It came back -- just like the brown stuff the old man had spat on him that had scared him out of his wits because it had smelled the way he had thought dead bodies must smell. Except this was a worse smell. More acrid. A smell still living, but worse than a dead smell.
He didn't care now if the mother came back. If she brought the cops with her. He punched with his left fist, to make the kid let go. And heard something gurgle.
He must have kicked something under the carriage. Some kind of brake, maybe. Maybe a rock or something that the nanny had braced a wheel with. But now the carriage was starting to roll down hill. And now he couldn't move his left hand either -- something had grabbed it. The right one came free now -- he looked at it, bleeding, blood splashing behind him on the dirty bricks of the sidewalk as he hopped on one foot to keep up with the rolling carriage, his left hand still stuck inside. Jesus, it hurt bad! Still there was no one to see him. No one to hear him as he kept on cursing and crashing behind the carriage as it veered off the path into the bushes.
Over a ledge now -- some kind of low wall -- into a ravine as he and the carriage tumbled together, one over the other, into a shadow land of leaves and wild berries, rocks and brambles, and garbage where they tossed it when the park cans were full.
And now both hands were free as he lay, panting, stretched at full length. The carriage upside down on top of him.
And something was moving. Something was on top of him.
Slowly. Rhythmically. Easing his pants off. Now -- God, he felt teeth now! Teeth brushing on his prick, but, thank God! not biting, not like his hand before --
Jesus! he thought.
He was getting a blow job!
Jesus, he thought again. Now it was moving. He shut his eyes, tight, trying to be still. Trying to play dead -- to not move a muscle. As the baby -- the thing -- eased down on his prick, twisting and pumping. As, God! --
As, as if with a will of its own, his body responded. Spurting wildly as the creature raped him, pulling up off of him, then slamming down again, sucking him into it. Grunting and screaming and -- just like on TV -- like he couldn't help it -- he was screaming too, not screams of pain, or at least not all pain…And, over all, the stench of the coffin. The stench of the old man’s spit-stink blending in with his own sweat, the smell of his own body fluids.
He woke to sunlight catching a glimpse of some hairy thing had scuttling back underneath the carriage. The sound of footsteps through dead leaves and branches.
The carriage was off him now. Quickly he stuffed his shirt back in his pants, he pulled up his zipper; fastened his belt back. He reached in his pocket to find a handkerchief to wrap around his still bleeding right hand.
He tried to stand. He saw, scattered around him, where they must have come out with his handkerchief, a half-dozen or so sticks of candy. One disappeared under the carriage. A burp, then the wretched smell once more as a spit-glistening wad of cellophane bounced out against his shoe.
"You okay, son?"
He looked up. A cop.
"He found my child, officer," another voice said. This was a woman's voice, that of a young woman, maybe a nanny. He caught a glimpse of a gray three-quarter-length skirt like the uniforms rich people's maids wore.
"Nasty cut you've got on your hand, son," he heard the cop say. "You want to come downtown? Maybe have somebody take a look at it?" Cops. Hell no, he thought. Maybe have somebody look at his record too? But now he heard the woman's voice speak again.
"Oh, I'm sure he'll be alright, officer. If he wants, I can take a look at it. I've had nurse's training. But isn't it wonderful! He found my baby! Once the carriage started to roll downhill, he must have seen it and started to chase it."
He realized he was supposed to speak now. "Yes, ma'am," he said. He realized they must not have seen what had happened. That he was off the hook if he played it right. "I, uh, tried to stop it. But then, when it went off the sidewalk, I tripped."
He looked up again, this time at the woman, and saw that she'd gotten the carriage righted. And she was smiling. An odd sort of smile.
"Of course she isn't really my baby," the woman went on, "but, gosh, I was only away for a minute -- to get some ice cream. She so likes sweets. And other things too" -- she looked at Peter and smiled her odd smile again -- "but then, when I got back, the carriage was missing. But now it's found again. And she's okay, thanks to this young man. And thank you, too, officer for helping me look and find her."
Peter could see the cop had his suspicions, so he made a point of helping the woman lift the carriage back up on the sidewalk. He tagged along as she wheeled it down the path to the park gate, then out to the street and to her car, a half-block away. Hell, maybe she really did think that he'd saved the kid – or whatever it was in the carriage.
Maybe, if he helped her now as she opened the trunk to the car, then lifted out the blanked-wrapped thing and placed it inside, she might give him a reward or something.
But all he got was that funny smile again, as she folded the carriage up and placed it inside too, then gently closed the lid. Leaving him, as she got in the car, to stare at the diamond-shaped sign on the back window: TROLL IN TRUNK. And catch a whiff of something that wasn't just car exhaust as she pulled away from the curb.
But that was a joke, too, Peter thought. A God damn Yuppie joke. Making fun of the Baby on Board signs some people stuck on their car windows. Just a God damn joke. Just like "Stealing candy from babies" -- which was not easy, never mind what some of the older kids used to snicker when he was little.
Shit, he hadn't even gotten to keep it.
Then he looked down at his still throbbing crotch and realized that, hey man, it wasn't a total loss. At least he'd gotten laid. Well, maybe, technically, he'd been forced -- by whatever it was that had been swaddled up in that baby carriage.
But who counts the fine points? The thing was, he'd actually gotten himself laid!
Then he began to feel the itching...
James Dorr’s makes his three-times-is-a-charm appearance at SNM Mag. His newest collection is The Tears of Isis, due out from Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing in May 2013. This will join his 2 prose collections from Dark Regions Press: Strange Mistresses: Tales of Wonder and Romance and Darker Love, Tales of Mystery and Regret and the all-poetry Vamps, A Retrospective from Sam’s Dot Publishing. James Dorr is also an active member of SFWA and HWA with nearly four hundred individual appearances in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine to Xenophilia. He invites readers to visit his website at:
Story of the Month
That's what she looks like now; black particles drifting through the air. Breathing her in, my lungs burn. My esophagus swells. Within seconds, I'm hacking up black chunks that splatter the floor.
Dropping to my hands and knees, a hot gush of vomit explodes from my mouth. It's mixed with blood.
The door to the hospital room bursts open. Before I can warn the security guards, they're wheezing and clutching at their throats. Falling to the floor, they twitch as if they're being electrocuted. Their cheekbones become all too visible as their faces deflate, their eyes bulging from the sockets. Thick, yellow pus oozes from their tear ducts. Seconds later, their eyes shrivel to nothing, leaving the sockets black and empty.
Rolling onto my back, a full body spasm clenches me in a death grip so tight it breaks my legs. I try to scream, but it only comes out as a wet gurgle. The spasm forces my hips further and further into the air, arching my back until it snaps, folding my destroyed legs in a way that places them on each side of my head. I look over and see my shin bone protruding through the skin. It melts like candle wax, then dries into powder, then dissolves into nothing.
The hospital room is flooded with people wearing Hazmat suits. They tie off my shriveled arm and inject me with something. Nothing hurts anymore.
More people enter the room, wheeling what looks like a giant coffin. It's military green with a serial number stamped on the side.
Two people are standing over me. Even with their suits, I can tell one is a man and one is a woman before they speak.
Shaking his head, the man says, "I don't think this one's gonna make it, Doc."
The woman says, "We need every specimen."
"With all due respect, I don' think there's enough of this guy left to be considered a specimen."
"Load him up," the woman says.
"He won't survive the trip. He'll be dead before we reach the lab."
The woman stares at him for a moment. In a stern voice she says "Load him up. That's a direct order."
The man and a few others load me into the green coffin, strapping me in with a harness. They insert an IV into what's left of my arm. They stuff a breathing tube into my mouth. The man presses a few buttons and the lid closes with air tight suction.
There's a small glass window in the lid. Through it, I can see the female doctor looking in at me. Despite the faceguard of her Hazmat suit, I can still see the pity in her eyes.
I got into my first fight when I was ten. We were all standing outside, waiting for the school bell. A boy named Billy snatched my hat and wouldn't give it back. He held it behind him, forcing me to guess which hand it was in.
"Congratulations!" he said, holding up my hat. "You’ve got the right answer! Taking the hat in both hands, he held it upside down. "Here's your prize."
Pursing his lips, a strand of saliva oozed from his mouth.
The second that spit connected with my hat, my fist connected with his face. Stunned, Billy stumbled backwards, holding his mouth. The crowd oohed in unison. Billy's face turned red. He threw down my hat and took a swing at me. I dodged the first one, then the second, even a third. Just when I was starting to feel good about my performance, he caught me in the eye.
There was a flash of white followed by...nothing. I couldn't see out of my left eye! This really messed with my senses. I imagined my eyeball sunken into my skull, turned completely around, the optic cord dangling from the socket.
Billy came at me again. I put my hand up to stop his punch, but with only one eye, I had no depth perception. Billy was closer than I had thought. I jammed my thumb into his eye.
He stumbled back, holding his eye and shouting "Time out!
The crowd laughed at him.
I decided there was no time out. I wanted to finish it. Not just for now. For good. I wanted to put the perfect punctuation on the end of this sentence, something Billy would always remember me for. Taking a few steps toward him, I drew back my foot.
My depth perception was still off. I was further away than I originally thought. I missed. The force of my kick pulled my other leg out from under me and down I went, smacking my head off the concrete. Oddly enough, the impact returned the sight to my eye, or at least it seemed that way.
Shortly after, the principal ran out and broke up the fight, not that it needed breaking up. We had embarrassed ourselves enough already. The principal called our parents and we were sent home.
The next morning, Billy walked up to me.
"You were gonna kick me in the balls."
"I'm glad you didn't."
I just stared, waiting for him to try something. He took another step toward me.
"Let me ask you something."
"You like fishing?"
"I’ve never been fishing."
"You gotta come with me sometime. You'll like it."
Turns out, I didn't like fishing. It was slow and boring and we had to keep switching out our worms because they kept dying. After a while, it seemed like all we were doing was drowning worms.
"It's usually more fun," Billy said.
I nodded, but I doubted it. I decided that I hated fishing, but Billy was okay.
We hung out a lot, mostly riding our bikes and sneaking into R rated movies. That summer, he invited me to his parents' anniversary party.
It was a giant cookout. Picnic tables were lined up like in the cafeteria. There was a radio, playing the oldies station. The backyard was full of people I didn't know.
It was really windy that day. People were hunched over their paper plates, keeping a constant grip on their napkins. Every once in a while, a plate or a napkin would take flight, sailing into the distance.
With a big grin, Billy's dad said, "I know how they feel. I don't wanna be here, either."
Billy's mom gave him a light slap on the chest. They seemed to get along.
We piled our plates with food and sat at one of the picnic tables. Billy was really excited because his Uncle Stephen was driving in from Maine.
"He's a doctor," Billy said between bites of a hot dog. "But he's also an awesome fisherman. You should see some of the fish he catches up in Maine. He wins contests and stuff."
Stuffing the rest of the hot dog into his mouth, Billy held out his arms and said, "The last time we visited him I caught a fish this big!"
When a black Mercedes pulled into the driveway, Billy ran toward it in full sprint. The sun shone on the windshield, creating a glare that made it impossible to see inside. The engine was shut off and the driver emerged; a tall and slender man who looked like Billy's dad.
Billy latched onto him at the waist, shouting, "Uncle Stephen! You made it!"
With laughter in his voice, Uncle Stephen said, "Wouldn't have missed it for the world, Billy. How have you been?"
"Awesome!" Billy turned and gestured to me. "This is my best friend, Jim."
Uncle Stephen took a step toward me and extended his hand.
"Nice to meet you, Jim."
As I shook his hand, someone else got out of the Mercedes. It was a girl. She looked to be my age, maybe a little older. She had long black hair and pale skin. Her eyes were very dark, but somehow, I could sense an innocence about them, a childlike curiosity, as if they were looking at the outside world for the first time. I had never seen eyes like that before. They were so beautiful, so distracting, that it took me a few seconds to realize her mouth was covered by a white paper mask, the kind doctors wear.
Gesturing to the girl, Uncle Stephen said, "Jim, this is my daughter, Caress. Caress, this is Jim."
Caress averted her eyes, clutching a large three ring binder close to her chest. Her hands were covered by latex gloves.
Patting me on the back, Uncle Stephen said, "You'll have to forgive her if she doesn't shake your hand. She's shy."
From the cookout, we heard someone shout, "There they go!"
We stood there, looking up, watching paper plates and napkins sailing overhead.
I can still see her drifting through the hospital hallway; small black particles, like ashes. They gently hover over convulsing bodies. They slowly descend on shriveled corpses.
Men in Hazmat suits are scrambling all over. Some have silver containers shaped like a thermos. Others have guns. A man with a thermos stops next to a body on the floor; a woman who's bottom half has dissolved into a black puddle.
The woman is still alive, crying, reaching for the man as he crouches next to her, scooping some of the black liquid into his thermos. When he's finished, another man with a gun steps forward and fires a round into the woman's forehead.
Screams echo through the hallway. I can hear more gunshots behind me as I'm wheeled to the exit.
Outside, there is no outside. There is only a tunnel of semi clear plastic. The sun makes it all glow bright orange, revealing tiny dust particles floating about. But it's not only dust...it's her.
The wind was really whipping that day. Billy and I made a game out of chasing the paper plates and napkins, seeing who could gather more. Billy was winning, but it's only because I was distracted.
I couldn't stop looking at her. She was away from everybody else, sitting under a tree with a large three ring binder in her lap. I remember feeling sorry for her. The whole family greeted Uncle Stephen with hugs and handshakes, but they only acknowledged Caress with a simple head nod and a forced smile. One of Billy's aunts patted Caress on the shoulder, but when she walked away, the old woman rummaged through her purse, retrieving a small bottle of hand sanitizer. Caress saw her do it. She just looked away.
And there she was now, sitting under a tree all by herself. She was either drawing or writing, but whatever it was, it wasn't holding her attention. There were several times when I caught her looking over at me. So I decided to let Billy chase the paper plates and napkins by himself.
Her paper mask dangled around her neck, revealing tiny lips. When she saw me approaching, she averted her eyes, brushing stray hairs behind her ear.
"Hey," I said, raising my hand to half mast.
She looked up at me and smiled, but remained silent.
Gesturing to the binder, I asked, "What're you doing?"
She opened her mouth to respond, but was cut off by her father, who shouted her name from far away. Looking over my shoulder, I saw Uncle Stephen place a hand over his mouth.
Caress put on her paper mask. She stared at the ground, her cheeks burning red.
Pointing over my shoulder, I said, "Um...Do you want to play with us?"
Caress looked past me, to Billy, who was in pursuit of a flying paper plate. She shook her head no.
"Okay. Um...You wanna get some ice cream? Billy's dad has a whole bunch in his freezer."
Her eyes widened. Even with the paper mask, I knew she was smiling.
I extended my hand to help her up. She stared at it for a moment then tried to get up by herself, using the tree for leverage. Her hand slipped and she stumbled, dropping the binder. Before we could retrieve it, a gust of wind plucked several of the pages, carrying them high into the air.
Caress snatched up the binder and hugged it tightly. Tears streamed down her cheeks as she watched the wayward pages flutter over the treeline of a nearby forest. They lost altitude, disappearing into the thicket.
"Don't worry," I told her. "We'll get 'em back."
Looking over my shoulder, I saw that her father had his back turned toward us.
"Let's go," I whispered, taking Caress by the hand. Her latex glove squeaked when my grip tightened. We giggled as we ran into the forest.
We found the first few pages immediately. They were drawings. Each one depicted a similar scene: monsters attacking cities. Snakelike bodies wrapped around tall buildings. Giant pincers crushed small houses. An enormous, winged beast hovered in the blackened clouds, waiting for something to devour.
I thought they were very good, even though I didn't understand them. We continued to search in silence, walking side by side, stealing glances at one another.
Finally, I had to ask.
"Why do you wear a mask and stuff?"
"What do you have?"
"I don't know. No one does."
"Not even your dad?"
She shook her head no.
"All he knows is I'm not contagious."
"Then why do you wear a mask and gloves and stuff?"
"My dad's worried about the effect certain things have on me."
"Pollen, dust, germs, things like that."
We walked along the path for a while before I said, "Sorry about all the questions. You probably get them all the time, huh?"
"Actually, you're the first person I've talked to in months."
We could hear people shouting our names in the distance. I wanted to keep searching for the drawings, but Caress wanted to go back.
Her father was not happy. He made Caress wait in the car as he said his goodbyes to the family. Everyone begged him to stay, especially Billy, but he persisted.
Staring at me he said, "I think Caress has had enough fresh air today."
As I watched him walk away, someone shoved me from behind. As I turned, I saw Billy standing there, his face red with anger.
He said, "Nice going, ass face."
I ignored him and ran to the car, where Caress was scribbling on a piece of paper. She handed it to me just as her father started the car and sped off. I looked down at the piece of paper. It was one of her drawings. At the bottom, she'd written her address.
Men in Hazmat suits load us into the back of a semi trailer. I am one of the first, which places me toward the front. I can hear the driver and his passenger conversing:
"I heard it's already spreading to other cities."
"Jesus. How's that even possible?"
"The air, man. It's in the air."
A deep vibration surges through the trailer when the truck roars to life. Within seconds, we're moving. The rumbling of the gravel road is underscored by faint groans and gurgling noises. Somewhere behind me, someone is moaning the same two words over and over.
"Kill me...Kill me...Kill me..."
The truck rolls to a stop, but keeps idling. Somewhere outside, a man with a bullhorn is shouting. "This road is only open to military personnel! All civilians must turn back!"
Horns honk in helpless response. Someone screams, "This isn't right! You can't do this to us!"
The man with the bullhorn shouts, "This entire area is under quarantine!"
The sound of engines revving is followed by the sound of metal scraping metal.
The man with the bullhorn shouts, "Stop them! Stop them!"
There's gunfire. People are screaming. An explosion rocks the trailer, tipping over my coffin. I land on my side, watching several other coffins fall like Dominos, until one of them lands next to mine. The small windows in our lids are facing each other. I stare into the man's bloodshot eyes, watching thick yellow pus ooze from the man's tear ducts.
"Kill me," he says. "Kill me."
Caress and I became pen pals. One letter every week. My letters usually recounted whatever trouble Billy and I got ourselves into. Her letters usually described what she saw from her bedroom window and the various treatments her father was trying in order to find a cure. She always included her drawings: more monsters attacking cities. I thought she was getting better at drawing, even though I didn't really understand them.
Although I never got to see her, reading her words made me feel like she was there all the time. Every time I did something, I thought I can't wait to tell Caress about this.
As I got older, I found myself turning down invitations to parties and dances. I just wasn't interested in other girls. To me, they were just more people who were not Caress.
The letters came and went, as did the years. I was thirteen, and even though we shared photographs, I hadn't actually laid eyes on Caress in three years.
When Billy told me his family was going to visit his Uncle Stephen in Maine, I begged him to bring me along. Billy knew about the letters.
All he said was, "Just don't make Uncle Stephen mad, or I'll kick your ass again."
On the way there, Billy played tour guide, pointing out various landmarks and his favorite restaurants, but I wasn't really paying attention. All I could think about was seeing Caress.
As we pulled into her driveway, I could barely contain my excitement. I had hoped she would be on the front porch, ready to greet me with open arms, but there was only Uncle Stephen. He said that Caress was in her room. She wasn't feeling well. While staring directly at me, Uncle Stephen said that Caress would not be joining us on the fishing trip.
Still staring at me, he said, "You probably won't even see her this whole weekend."
While everyone was getting ready for the fishing trip, I was trying to make myself sick. I jammed my finger down my throat, but only gagged. I thought about faking it, but Uncle Stephen was a doctor. He would know. Since I couldn't make myself sick, I decided on another route: injury.
I stood in the bathroom, staring at the open medicine cabinet. There were razors. Maybe I would start shaving and had an accident? No. Too bloody. Plus, they'd probably take me to the hospital, which would take me even further from Caress.
The idea that she was right upstairs and I couldn't see her drove me insane. There had to be a way to hurt myself just enough to get out of the fishing trip, but not go to the hospital.
Then it hit me: a sprained ankle. It was perfect; too debilitating for any sort of activity, but not serious enough for medical attention. That was it. I'd just tell everyone that I sprained my ankle.
No. Uncle Stephen would know I was lying. It had to be real, which meant...
Stepping onto the toilet, I held out one leg, then the other, trying to decide which one to injure. I decided on my left. Teetering at the edge of the toilet, I bent my ankle from side to side, trying to figure out how to land on it. I knew there wasn't really a good way, so I just went for it. The first time, I just stumbled forward. The second time, I slipped and fell on my ass. Standing on the toilet once again, I twisted my ankle to one side as far as it would go.
Then I jumped.
I heard a loud pop, followed by a flash of white. I hit the floor hard and lay there, whimpering from an intense pain that seemed to be eating my entire leg.
Billy's dad ran in first.
"Jumpin' Jesus, boy! What the hell happened?"
"I fell on accident," I said, clutching at my ankle.
Soon, the bathroom was full of people. Uncle Stephen examined me and determined that yes, I had indeed sprained my ankle. I was wrapped up with an ace bandage, given an icepack, and laid into bed.
Uncle Stephen said, "I asked a neighbor to stop by and check on Caress while we're fishing. I’ll make sure she checks in on you, too."
I nodded. Walking to the door, he stopped and turned.
"Don't get out of that bed. You don't want to make your injury worse."
I nodded again, but when I heard them leave, I was already hopping up the stairs.
Pushing her door open, I could see Caress sleeping. I stood there in the doorway for a long time, watching her. She still had that same, sweet angelic face, but her body had developed considerably. She was turning into a woman.
Caress opened her eyes. She stared at me for a moment then smiled.
"I had a dream about you," she said. "Am I still dreaming?"
"Nope," I said. "I'm really here."
As I hopped toward the bed Caress sat up; a worried expression.
"What happened to your leg?"
"Oh, it's nothing."
Easing onto the bed, I could tell it was a chore for her to sit up. She looked really tired, but to me, it only complimented her beauty.
"I’m sorry I couldn't go fishing," she explained. "It's just...I get weak sometimes."
"That's okay," I said. "This is better than fishing any day."
She smiled and patted the bed.
"Do you wanna lay down with me?"
I eased onto my back and stared at the ceiling. After a moment, I felt her grab my hand. She pulled my arm, draping it around her waist.
"I meant like this," she said.
After spending so much time apart, so much time thinking about moments like this -- for me to actually be there was beyond comprehension. I didn't know if I was shaking from nervousness or excitement, but I knew I was shaking.
"Are you cold?" she asked.
"I can feel your heart beating."
"Yeah. It's really fast."
She squeezed my hand.
"I really liked your letters."
"I liked yours, too. And your drawings."
"Really? You don't think they're stupid?"
"No, not at all, but...why is it always monsters attacking cities?"
"I don't know. I guess, sometimes, I feel like I'm the city."
She squeezed my hand again. I squeezed back. We stayed like that for a long time. After some time, we fell asleep. I awoke to what I first thought was thunder, but it was Uncle Stephen stomping across the room.
Grabbing me by the arm, he shouted, "What the hell do you think you're doing!"
He jerked me out of bed. Caress pleaded with him to stop, but he dragged me across the floor, sprained ankle and all. He forced me downstairs into my room, throwing me onto the bed.
"You don't leave this room!"
When he slammed the door, it sounded like a gunshot.
I stayed in that room for hours before he came back. Uncle Stephen carried a tray, on top of which sat a plate of food, a glass of orange juice, and an assortment of pills.
Pointing to the pills, I asked, "What are those?"
"Just some multi-vitamins, some B vitamins, and a few other things. They'll boost your immune system."
I didn't want to take them, but he was watching me. I took them one at a time, washing each down with a gulp of orange juice.
Uncle Stephen moved closer to me on the bed, placing his hand on my shoulder.
"Now, Jim. I know I was hard on you earlier and I'm sorry about that, but you have to understand, I'm doing it for your own good."
He stared at the floor, taking a deep breath.
"You see, we don't know exactly what kind of illness Caress has. It's always changing, which makes it impossible to predict. As of right now, she's not contagious, but I'm afraid that one day she will be and that’s what worries me."
"But what if she gets better?"
Uncle Stephen smiled.
"Then I would be the happiest father in the world."
He took the tray and left.
On the ride home, Billy wouldn't talk to me. He stared out the window for a long time then finally turned to me and said, "You sprained your ankle on purpose so you could be with her."
When I didn't say anything, he shook his head.
"Man, that's screwed up. Why would you go and do something that stupid?"
Shrugging, I said, "What can I say?" I turned and looked out the window. Under my breath, I said "I get weak sometimes."
Men in Hazmat suits load us into a large cargo plane. We're strapped to the wall with harnesses. I watch as they wheel coffin-after-coffin up the ramp. There's more than I thought. Much more.
The cargo door slowly closes as the plane circles the runway. Even through the drugs numbing what's left of my body, I can feel the pull of take off. We're in the air now, headed for nowhere.
It doesn't matter how far they wheel us or drive us or fly us. There is no place in the world that will save us.
I can't shake the feeling of being inside a mausoleum. All those silent coffins. I try to count them to pass the time, but I can't make it past a hundred. There's more than that, much more, but my brain refuses to calculate what number comes after one hundred. I have to keep starting over. Pretty soon, I can't make it past ninety six, then ninety, then eighty. The more I try, the more I realize I'm initiating my own countdown. My own personal self destruct sequence.
This disease is creeping into my brain, no doubt dissolving it like my body. I keep getting stuck in these infinite loops that get stuck like a nervous tick, break apart until they're fragmented nothing infinite stuck, break apart, fragmented nothing infinite stuck, break apart fragmented...nothing...
I want to cry more than anything, but it won't come. It's like my body has forgotten how. The urge swells inside, until I can feel something thick oozing from my tear ducts.
One phrase keeps running through my head: "I'm the city...I'm the city..."
When we were sixteen, Billy told me his aunt was getting remarried. He invited me to the wedding.
"Why the hell would I wanna go to that?"
"Because they're having it at my Uncle Stephen's place."
Excitement swelled in me, but I had to ask. "Are you sure Uncle Stephen won't shoot me for trespassing?"
"No, man. Hell, he's the one that suggested it."
The wedding was a backyard ceremony, but I didn't care about any of that. I only wanted to see Caress again. Entering the house, I was immediately confronted by Uncle Stephen. Much to my surprise, he gestured for me to follow him upstairs.
"You know, you're all she thinks about. She never says it, but I can just tell."
When we got to her bedroom door, he stopped and turned to face me.
"I've made a few adjustments to her room this past year. Now you can spend as much time together as you want."
Caress stood behind a wall of clear plastic. Her bedroom was a mess of wires and tubes, connected to some sort of ventilation machine. When she saw me, her face turned red. I could tell she was ashamed.
"I'll leave you two alone," Uncle Stephen said, closing the door behind him.
"Well," Caress said, gesturing to the room. "Do you like what I've done with the place?"
"You didn't mention this in any of your letters."
"Yeah, well...I guess I didn't want to freak you out."
Walking up to the plastic, so close my nose was touching it, I said "None of this freaks me out."
Caress stepped closer, too. Our breath was fogging the plastic. We stepped to the side, but that spot became fogged as well. Laughing, we moved again.
We could hear the wedding outside. The preacher was just about to pronounce them man and wife.
Our breath fogged the plastic until Caress disappeared. Even though I couldn't see her, I knew she was on the other side.
When the preacher said "You may kiss the bride," I stepped forward, pressing my lips to the fog, and I felt her there.
I must've blacked out on the plane. I don't remember them unloading us. We're being wheeled down a long, concrete hallway. Bare light bulbs protrude from the walls, wrapped in little metal cages. The sound of boot soles slapping concrete almost drowns out the screams. But the screams get louder. We're heading toward them.
We're wheeled into a lab, at the center of which is a metal table. The table is currently being hosed off by a man in a Hazmat suit. Black fluid cascades over the edges, oozing across the floor. The man with the hose chases the fluid with a stream of water, guiding it to a drain. Once the table is cleaned, it still looks black. It looks burnt.
We're lined up against the wall, all of us except for the first coffin to enter the lab. It is wheeled to the table. Two men in Hazmat suits open the coffin and pull out what's inside.
The body is so emaciated, it looks like a skin colored skeleton. I can't even tell if it's male or female. When they place it on the table, it goes into a full seizure. The bones rattle against the metal. One of the men presses down on the shoulders to keep it still, but the shoulders give, smashing flat, displacing two globs of blackened flesh to the floor. The newly amputated arms fall to the floor as well, still twitching as they dissolve into a multicolored puddle.
A third person approaches the body. It's a woman. She's holding a small circular saw.
"We're losing the specimen," the woman says. "There's no time for anesthesia."
The woman steps forward and presses the saw to the body's ribcage. Black flecks spatter the face guard of her Hazmat suit, but she keeps going. The body continues to twitch, emitting a wet gurgling sound that seems to get louder, like it's trying to scream but can't. After a pause, everything stops: the twitching, the gurgling, and the saw.
"They're dissolving too fast," the woman says. "How can we learn anything if..."
She releases an exasperated sigh, then shakes her head.
"Get rid of it."
One of the men walks to the corner of the room and hoists something onto his back. The other man helps him with the straps. There is a long hose connected to the back of a gun. After helping him with the straps, the other man lights the tip of the gun, creating a blue flame.
The armed man approaches the table. He braces himself then pulls the trigger. A ball of flame erupts from the gun, engulfing the table. When the flame is gone, so is the body. All that remains is a black puddle. The other man hoses it off.
They wheel another coffin to the table...then another...
As I watch the latest one being dissected, I'm confronted with one very clear realization: I am next.
By the time we graduated, Billy was obsessed with fishing. He insisted we move to Maine and become fishermen. Even though I still hated fishing, I agreed. I had an obsession of my own.
Uncle Stephen pulled a few strings and got us a small house by the water. It wasn't cheap, but we managed. We spent our days working on a fishing boat and our nights drinking whatever booze we could get our hands on.
When the weekend arrived, I visited Caress. During that time, we spent every waking moment together. Uncle Stephen even let me sleep on the couch. He told me I was good for her. "You give her hope," he said.
Three more years went by in a flash. Billy and I were twenty one now, which meant the bar scene. Billy loved it, especially the women, but to me, they were just like the girls in school. They were just more people who were not Caress.
I kept visiting her, never missing a single weekend. As far as I was concerned, this was the way my life was meant to be lived. I wanted it to last forever...
One weekend, I saw that Uncle Stephen was looking a little pale. He wasn't getting around so well. He insisted he was fine, but I knew something was wrong.
That night, I lay on the couch and listened to him coughing in his bedroom. I finally decided to bring him a glass of water.
When I pushed open his door, I dropped the glass. Uncle Stephen was lying on the floor. He was ghost white and shaking. I ran to him, crouching by his side, but I didn't know what to do.
"It's worse than I thought," he said. "So much worse."
"What's worse? What are you talking about?"
"There was a hole in one of the ventilation hoses. I breathed her air."
He coughed into the crook of his arm. When he pulled it away, there was blood.
"Her illness has mutated again. She's contagious now."
His eyes were wide with desperation. Clutching at my shirt, he said, "Don't ever tell Caress what happened to me. Do you understand? She can never know."
Another coughing fit shook his entire body. He rolled onto his side, vomiting up a splatter of blood. I ran out of the room to call an ambulance, but when I came back, it was too late.
I could hear Caress shouting her father's name. In a daze, I shuffled to her room and stood in the doorway. Before I could speak, we heard the sirens.
Red lights raced across her plastic wall. Tears streamed down her cheeks. I wanted to say something to her, anything, but I couldn't. Then the paramedics pulled me out of the house.
They kept me under observation for a few days. They wanted to make sure I wasn't sick. During that time, I didn't sleep. All I could do was worry about Caress.
When they let me go, Billy was waiting to give me a ride. It wasn't even noon and he was already drunk. We went back to our house, which was littered with empty beer cans. Billy grabbed the last two beers from the fridge and tossed me one.
"Uncle Stephen's funeral is next week," he said, plopping on the couch. "We gotta go buy some suits."
"Where did they take Caress?"
Billy shook his head. "You need to forget about her."
He stared at me for a moment and sighed.
"She's at the hospital, but they won't let you see her. Whatever she's got, it's real bad. I guess they're flying in doctors from all over the world to look at her."
I headed for the door. Billy launched off the couch and jumped in my way.
"Where do you think you're going?"
"I have to see her."
Billy swayed in the doorway.
"Oh no you don't. I already lost my favorite uncle. There's no way in hell I'm gonna lose my favorite friend."
Squinting to focus, Billy jabbed his index finger into my chest.
"And don't think I won't stop you, either. Remember when we were kids and I kicked your ass? Huh? Don't make me do it again."
I took a few steps back.
"I'm sorry, Billy."
He cocked his head to the side.
Stepping forward, I brought my leg up, planting my foot in his balls. Billy groaned and dropped to the floor. I stole his keys. Then I stole his truck.
The wind was cold and constant. It plucked several leaves from the trees, blowing them around in a synchronized swirl. A few of them blew into the cab and landed on my lap.
I rolled up my window and drove faster. Soon my breath fogged the windshield. I switched on the defroster and drove faster.
The hospital was silent. It was barely staffed, and the few workers wore paper masks. I could only see their eyes. They looked scared. I knew no one would tell me where Caress was, so I searched on my own. In the elevator, the fourth floor was covered with a strip of black tape. I stepped off the elevator and headed for the stairwell. At the fourth floor, I tried to ease the door open, but someone jerked it out of my hand. It was a security guard wearing a paper mask.
"You can't be up here," he said.
I knew I couldn't talk my way past him, so I didn't even try. Instead, I shoved him as hard as I could. He released a surprised yelp and lost his balance, falling on his ass. He tried to get up, but I couldn't let that happen. I took a step forward and kicked him in the face. His eyes rolled back and his body went limp.
Stepping into the fourth floor hallway, I didn't know which way to go. To my right, I saw two more security guards round the corner. I knew there was only one reason they would be stationed at that end, so I ran toward them. As we approached each other, I could see the fear in their eyes. For all they knew, I was a psycho capable of anything.
The first one went low to tackle me, but I raised my knee. When I felt something sharp dig into my kneecap, I winced. I knew it was the poor guy's teeth. The second guard had his fist cocked. I leaned back to avoid the punch, then jabbed him in the eye with my thumb. Both guards rolled around on the floor, reaching for their walkie-talkies, calling for backup.
Rounding the corner, I saw a magazine and a cup of coffee lying on the floor in front of room 406. I entered in a frenzy, searching for anything I could to bar the door. I was just jamming a chair under the doorknob when I heard her voice: "Jim?"
I turned and saw her. She was sitting on a hospital bed, behind another wall of clear plastic. She had a sketchbook in her lap. In that moment, I saw an ambitious little girl sitting alone under a tree, drawing monsters attacking cities.
With her eyes fixated on me, Caress sat the sketchbook aside. Her eyes glistened with tears. Her bottom lip quivered. She leapt off the bed, pressing her palms against the plastic wall. As I approached, her image suddenly became distorted to me, as if she was not only encased in plastic, but water as well. It took me a minute to realize that my eyes were watering, too. I pressed my palms to hers, feeling her warmth.
"They're sending people to get me," she said. "They heard about what I did to my dad."
"You didn't do anything to your dad," I said.
Caress shuddered with tears. "Yes I did. He died because of me."
"It's not your fault. None of this is your fault."
Caress shook her head.
"This is all my fault. There's something really wrong with me."
Security guards pounded against the door. I knew it wouldn't be long before they got through.
Sobbing, Caress said, "I want you to do me a favor."
"Name it. I'll do anything."
Nodding to the door, she said, "I want you to let them in. Let them arrest you and take you away from here."
"But you have to."
I stepped closer to the wall, pressing my nose to the plastic.
"I'm not going anywhere."
Caress stepped closer to the wall, pressing her nose to mine.
In a weak voice, she said, "You have to."
Our breath fogged the plastic. We stepped to the side, but I knew it was only a matter of time before she disappeared again. Pulling Billy's keys from my pocket, I clenched them so they protruded like claws.
Taking a step back, Caress shook her head.
I slashed through the plastic and stepped inside, pulling her into our first real kiss. I felt her lips on mine, our tongues touching. I felt her fingernails digging into the back of my neck. For the longest time, nothing else existed.
We were finally together...
Then I felt her lips harden. A deep crackling sound came from inside of her. When I pulled away from our kiss, I saw a blank expression staring back at me. Her lifeless face turned gray, then black, then...it cracked.
Caress shattered in my arms, exploding into a million tiny particles that looked like ashes. She swirled around me as I fell onto her bed. I squinted in the cloud of particles, focusing on a piece of paper. It was her most recent drawing; a city attacked by monsters. But this time, she'd drawn a man on one of the buildings. He had a sword and shield. He was fighting the monsters. Above the man's head, Caress had written my name.
That's what she looked like; black particles drifting through the air. Breathing her in, my lungs burned. My esophagus swelled.
Within seconds, I was on the floor...
A ball of flame engulfs the table in front of me. I watch them hose it off, knowing that I am next.
The female doctor steps up to my coffin.
"I hope one of these specimens gives us an idea of what we're dealing with here."
She leans close to my window. Her breath fogs the face guard of her Hazmat suit. Spitting out my breathing apparatus, I lean forward, fogging my window as well. Soon, she disappears.
I imagine Caress on the other side. Pressing my lips to the fog, I know she's there...
Brett Matthew Graham writes prose poetry and music. This is Brett's 7th published story following his novella collaboration with Senior Editor, Steven Marshall entitled, "Occultica." These are the first 7 stories he's ever published! He appears in BBB II, III, IV & V. He is also the 2009 SNM Author of the Year. Brett now has 3 published novels through SNM Publications. Once again, he strikes with SOTM. His previous story Jalopy from BBB V, placed 8th for best new horror story of the year on P&E. Brett currently resides inwith his lovely wife, Jenna, and enjoys playing out in a local band with his friends.
Brett Matthew Graham