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PseudoPod

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Rank #47 in Drama category

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The Sound of Horror

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The Sound of Horror

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Wonderful

By Rookie smile - Dec 05 2019
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A great podcast for weekly horror.

Scary Good

By Weshjook - Dec 05 2019
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Always creepy. Always good.

iTunes Ratings

914 Ratings
Average Ratings
815
58
15
13
13

Wonderful

By Rookie smile - Dec 05 2019
Read more
A great podcast for weekly horror.

Scary Good

By Weshjook - Dec 05 2019
Read more
Always creepy. Always good.

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PseudoPod

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The Sound of Horror

PseudoPod 599: The Boy with the Glass Eyes

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PseudoPod 599: The Boy with the Glass Eyes is a PseudoPod original.

The Boy With The Glass Eyes

By J.L. Flannery

My son arrived in a brown cardboard package, no bigger than a shoebox.

I lifted the lid to see him lying there flat on his back, eyes closed, as though he were asleep.

‘Go on,’ my Boss said, ‘lift him up.’

Nervously, I lifted him up out of the box and cradled him in my arms. His skin was velvet. His smell; pure talcum powder. I looked down at his sleeping face and put on a smile, pretending the nausea that was rising in my throat didn’t exist.

My Boss, Mr Yamamoto, stood staring, waiting for me to react.

‘It’s incredibly lifelike,’ I said in Japanese.

He nodded, ‘Just like a real baby. Go ahead. Power it up.’

I hesitated a moment. What on earth would Alice say when I bought this thing home with me?

‘It’s a great privilege to be chosen,’ Mr Yamamoto said smiling, as if he could sense my unease.

I nodded, ‘Yes, I know. Thank you. I’m very grateful about it, honest I am. It’s just…’

‘It’s just what?’

‘Nothing,’ I said, ‘it’s nothing,’ and I held down the button on the base of its spine and the baby woke up.

Slowly, his eyes opened and he turned his head to look at me with his blue eyes made of glass.

‘The baby will be on at all times,’ Mr Yamamoto explained, ‘the light at the base of his spine will glow green to tell you its on. He’ll automatically go into shutdown mode at night, once the room is dark. If you need to, you can force shutdown mode by putting him back in his box.’

I nodded, but I wasn’t really listening. The baby I held in my arms was smiling at me, a big gummy smile. As far as AI go, this was the most remarkable I’d seen. It looked like a real baby. It’s skin felt soft like a baby’s. Hell, it even had the same scent as one. I was fascinated and disturbed in equal measure.

‘Your wife will enjoy having him for the weekend, I’m sure,’ Mr Yamamoto said, smiling proudly.

‘Oh yes,’ I lied, ‘I’m sure it will make her very happy.’

It was my idea to move to Tokyo. At the time my wife, Alice, wasn’t so keen.

If you have never been there, the experience is hard to describe but I’ll try my best: neon buildings grow out of the concrete, stretching up to reach the sky. Zebra crossings zigzag in all directions, whilst people in their thousands march across in total silence. Cartoon characters stare back at you everywhere you look: on a subway pass, on manhole covers, on shop signs, on crisp packets and tourist leaflets. Boys wear eyeliner and t-shirts emblazoned with nonsensical English. Girls wear ghostly white make up and Bo-Peep dresses, giggling like porcelain dolls come to life. Dogs wear bows and sequin outfits. In one corner of Tokyo, Roppongi Hills, a giant spider stands keeping watch over the city. In Odiba; a giant gundam robot. Toilets flush themselves. Hotels rooms are space age capsules. Stepping into Tokyo feels like stepping into the future.

We visited there when we first got married and I’m pretty sure Alice loved it as much as I did. After visiting Tokyo, England lost its shine. It was difficult to hide our irritation at people talking loudly on public transport, the lateness of just about everything, and the general selfishness of people. When it was cold and rainy at home, we longed for the sun and cherry blossoms of Japan.

And, of course, we’d just lost the baby.

Jasper was only two weeks old when he died.

Alice gave birth to him at only twenty-eight weeks and if I’m honest, I knew as soon as I saw him that he was going to die. He looked too tiny, too fragile to live. I would sit for hours at his bedside, just watching him lying there in the incubator, struggling to breathe in. Every time he breathed he made this awful rasping noise. The doctors said even if he had survived, he would have had respiratory problems for the rest of his life.

The first time I got to hold our baby in my arms, he was already dead. We dressed him in the blue flannel sleepsuit Alice had bought for him and we took photos together as if he was still alive, and we were a ‘normal’ family. Jasper looks just like a doll cradled in our arms.

Depression washed over the both of us for a long time, but for Alice it was much worse. I was scared she was going to let grief wash her away completely. She refused to get out of bed. She cried all day long. She blamed herself for Jasper’s death even though it was nobody’s fault.

For a while I was scared to leave her alone for fear she would hurt herself, but gradually with time and with medication, her grief began to ease a little and that was when I suggested we came to Tokyo.

It was meant to be a new beginning.

A way to forget.

The night I bought the AI home, I couldn’t bring myself to tell Alice straight away. I left the baby in its box in the hallway of our apartment whilst I thought of a tactful way to break the news. I waited until we’d both finished eating dinner before I told her about him. She listened to my explanation and instead of bursting into tears like I thought she would, she seemed enthusiastic about the idea.

‘Well, bring it inside,’ she said smiling, ‘you can’t just leave him outside, John. What if your Boss found out you’d left his prototype in an apartment hallway?’

So, I bought the box inside and placed it on the kitchen table.

‘You ready?’

She looked back at me and nodded.

As soon as I lifted the lid, I saw the look of surprise in her eyes. She was expecting Astro Boy, not a doll so realistic it could pass for a real human baby.

She reached out slowly to stroke its soft blond hair, and the baby writhed and held up its arms. Alice jumped back from the box, afraid, but then she moved forward again and picked him up, laughing nervously at herself for having been startled.

The baby gurgled in her arms.

‘Wow John! This is unbelievable,’ she said.

It was the first time in eighteen months I had seen her smile like that.

I thought then, that it would all work out okay after all.

But I was wrong.

That night, as the sun set and the room grew dim, the baby did just as Mr Yamomoto said it would and powered down. It’s movements slowly stiffened and eventually came to a stop. I watched Alice’s face change from contentment to panic and I quickly snatched the baby away from her and carried it over to its box.

‘It’s okay. It’s meant to do that,’ I reassured her, ‘it’s powering down for the night.’

But as I stood putting the baby in the box with my back turned, I felt that feeling of nausea return again. I knew what Alice was thinking: when the baby went still and stiff, it looked as though it was dead. It looked just like Jasper.

I put the lid on the box and turned to her, ‘Are you okay having him here?’

‘Sure, I’m fine. I was just scared for a moment that I’d broken it that’s all. He’s beautiful John. He’s just so real.’

‘I know.’

I moved towards her and pulled her close to my chest. Her hair smelled of cherry shampoo and I kissed the top of her head. She looked back up at me with those big brown doe eyes of hers and we kissed.

I’m not going to give all the juicy details of what happened next, but we had sex for the first time in weeks and I finally relaxed, wondering how I could have hesitated in bringing this baby home.

I woke up in the night. The clock said 3.30am and the other side of the bed was cold. Alice was missing.

I got up and found her, sat downstairs at the table in the dark, her back turned to me.

‘Ali, you alright?’

She jumped round, ‘Shit John! Don’t sneak up like that. You scared me to death.’

‘Well, I’m not the one roaming the house in the middle of the night. You scared me, shuffling about down here.’

She sighed, ‘I couldn’t sleep. I keep hearing it crying.’

I shook my head, ‘It doesn’t cry Alice. Mr Yamamoto said the developers thought it might put people off.’

She still looked unconvinced so I stood behind her, rubbing her shoulders the way she liked me to, and tried to reassure her.

‘Babies cries are as loud as a road drill. If it cried, which it can’t, I would have heard it too.’

‘Are you sure? I swear John, I heard it.’

I’d already explained to her how it worked. I couldn’t see what else there was left to say. The baby couldn’t cry – end of story. I stopped rubbing her shoulders.

‘It must be someone else’s kid. Next door’s maybe. You know how thin the walls are here. Come on Ali, its late. Just close the damn lid and come back to bed.’

I watched her get up from her seat and close the lid of the box. I followed behind her as she climbed the stairs.

I was knackered the following morning; and like most people, when I’m tired, I’m easily irritated.

I took a shower and got dressed, leaving Alice to take the baby out of the box and make breakfast. When I came downstairs, I found she had taken the red sports bag from the garage and was knelt down with it unzipped, its guts spilling out onto the tatami mat floor.

I knew what she was looking for in there: the blue flannel sleepsuit Jasper had worn. I couldn’t bear to see it again.

‘Why’d you bring these with you? I thought you had thrown those things away,’ I snapped.

But Alice didn’t look up. She was transfixed by the contents of the bag and was pulling them out one after another, like a magician pulling never-ending handkerchiefs from a hat.

‘Those ‘things’ were our son’s clothes that he never got to wear. Of course, I kept them. Why wouldn’t I?’

I stood by, watching her sifting through them as she pulled out each piece of clothing and held it up to inspect each piece for its suitability. All the time, the baby writhed around next to her on the mat, like a baby that was alive.

It dawned on me how absurd the whole thing was. She was sorting out our dead baby’s clothes for a doll and saw nothing wrong with it at all. I could have killed for a cigarette right then, only I knew she would start going on at me if I lit one up in the flat.

‘Ah, here it is!’

She held up the blue flannel sleepsuit.

‘You’re not really going to dress it in that are you?’ I could hear my voice shaking as I spoke.

‘Why not?’ She said.

I wanted to say things like, ‘because it’s wrong. Because that way, you’ll never let go of the past. Because we both know they belonged to Jasper and this is just a lifeless, soulless doll that could never replace our baby boy.’

But of course, I never said anything.

Maybe you think I was being unfair. After all, she was a woman who’d lost a child. What was the point of making a fuss? Its only clothes, right?

Wrong.

In Japan, some believe that everything you own has an imprint of your soul on it, as if some part of you rubs off on it when you touch it. Even clothes. That’s why you won’t find a charity shop anywhere in Tokyo. It’s also one of the reasons why nobody steals anything. Why would you want to own something that had traces of someone else’s soul all over it?

I’ll give you an example: there’s a famous doll called Okiku in Mennenji temple in Iwamizawa, whose owner died in the 1930’s from fever, when she was just three years old. Because the girl carried Okiku everywhere with her, it’s believed that the girl’s spirit possessed the doll the second she died.

But that’s not the worst of it: to this day the doll’s hair keeps on growing. Growing as if the doll were alive and breathing.

So to use your dead child’s clothes to dress a toy…well, you can see how that might be a problem for some people. For me.

After the disagreement over the sleepsuit, I went for a walk around the block to get some air. And by ‘air’ I mean ‘smoke a cigarette.’ I knew how Alice hated my smoking and so I held each drag of the cigarette deep in my lungs until it burned, and when I exhaled, I puffed out smoke rings in defiance.

When I got back to the apartment, I was expecting her to smell the smoke on me and start another fight, but I could hear her in the bathroom retching, and my petty rebellion was quickly forgotten. I felt guilty now that I had left her, even for that short amount of time.

I knocked on the bathroom door, “Ali, you okay?’

‘Yeah, I’m fine.’

She opened the door, her eyes watery and her hair unkempt.

‘I dunno what caused that. I was just sat there with the baby and all of a sudden…’

I pulled her close and kissed the top of her head.

‘I’m sorry I was such an asshole earlier.’

She wriggled out of my grasp, ‘It doesn’t matter. Hey you should see the baby now. It started sitting up while you were gone.’

I don’t know why this bothered me so much. It was an AI after all, which meant was meant to learn and develop and grow. Just like a real baby. Only real babies don’t sit up after just a day.

We went together into the living room and there it was just sat on the mat playing with a ball Alice found in the garage. The sports bag was gone. But it was wearing the blue sleepsuit.

When I walked into the room, it’s head turned and its glassy eyes looked right at me.

‘Amazing, isn’t it?’ Alice knelt down and starting using that baby voice women always reserve for the ears of tiny puppies and small children, ‘aren’t you a clever one? Mama’s special boy.’

The hairs on my neck prickled to watch my wife talk to it like that, as if it was real. Mr Yamamoto had been right; childless women the world over would fall in love with this AI.

And then it dawned on me: after all this time trying to prove to my Boss that I wasn’t just another worthless foreigner, all I had had to do to prove my worth was bring this baby home and tell the company it was a success. I might even get a promotion.

And yet, something about the whole thing made me uneasy.

When Alice gets a craving for something, there’s nothing that will stop her until she gets it. That day she was desperate for some freshly baked donuts.

‘I dunno Ali,’ I moaned, ‘it’s pissing down outside. Can’t we go another day?’

‘You stay here,’ she said tying up her laces. You and the baby can get to know one another.’

When she was gone, the baby gave a giggle. I picked it up and put it on my lap. It didn’t feel like a real baby; it was too heavy. I tipped it upside down and held it by the leg to see what it would do, but it began to frown, so I quickly turned it the right way up. Then I felt stupid for being momentarily manipulated into thinking the damn thing was real.

‘You’re just a piece of metal in there,’ I said to it.

The baby wrinkled its nose at me.

‘You’re not real.’

It gave a grin.

Alice returned with a box of six donuts and she ate them all, one after another.

‘Do you remember the last time I craved these? It was when I was pregnant. Isn’t that weird.’

‘Yeah honey, I guess it is.’

I suppose the alarm bells should have been ringing then. Vomiting. Cravings. It was like that AI was causing her to relive the pregnancy all over again. I started thinking of how I could get out of this. Perhaps I should call my Boss. Just explain that we had lost a baby and that my wife has had severe anxiety and depression and that this could possibly bring about a relapse.

I did think about doing it.

But then I saw how happy she looked.

So I didn’t.

That night, Alice woke me up.

‘I can hear him John,’ she kept saying, ‘can’t you hear him? He’s crying. He’s making that rasping noise. Just like Jasper did.’

I didn’t really know what to say. I mean, I couldn’t hear the noises she claimed she could. And I’d already explained it couldn’t cry. It was impossible. It hadn’t been programmed to.

I held her tight in my arms, ‘Hush now Alice. It’s okay. You must’ve had a bad dream that’s all. Listen.’

She lay there in my arms, both of us listening to the silence.

‘See,’ I said, ‘it was just a dream.’

She wiped away her tears and I stroked her hair until she seemed calmer.

‘I’m so sorry John,’ she whined, ‘I just don’t know what’s happening to me.’

‘You know, if its too much having the baby here, I could power it down. My Boss wouldn’t even have to know.’

‘No,’ she answered far too eagerly, ‘don’t switch him off, John. I’m fine, honestly. It’s like you said, it was just a dream, that’s all.’

She turned onto her side and I lay down on my back, staring at the ceiling, waiting for her to drift off. It was making her ill again, it was clear for anyone to see. Once I heard her snoring, I started to relax a little. I lay there for a while thinking of what to do.

And that’s when I heard it too.

The crying.

For a moment I thought I was imagining it. I looked over at Alice but she was fast asleep.

There it was again.

The sound of a baby crying in our apartment.

My stomach somersaulted and I lay there frozen to the spot. What if the Japanese were right? What if that baby had somehow obtained the spirit of my dead boy by wearing that damn sleepsuit? It was a completely irrational thought, I knew, and yet…

I got up out of bed and slowly, so not to wake Alice, opened the door and listened. The crying had stopped but there was a scuttling sound, like something running across the floorboards.

It couldn’t be the baby, I told myself. That was impossible.

I tiptoed down the stairs, heart pounding. I didn’t switch on the light. I was worried it would wake my already anxious wife. If that happened, how would I explain it? I could hardly say that I heard it crying too. That would tip her right over the edge.

When I got to the bottom step, something rushed past me, giggling.

The baby had obviously learned to walk.

I stepped down and tried to see it in the dim light but it was hiding.

‘Hey baby,’ I whispered to it, ‘dada’s here to see you.’

I heard it rustling around in the bin, pulling out Alice’s donut box and dropping it onto the floor.

I pulled open the drawer in the table and fumbled for the emergency torch we kept there. When I switched it on and flashed it around the room, I could see him. He was standing there in the corner of the room. He was looking straight at me with those glass eyes.

‘Come on now baby,’ I said in a singsong voice, ‘come to Dada.’

He started walking towards me with his arms outstretched and that grin on his face. I picked him up.

‘Gotcha!’

‘John, what are you doing?’

I turned to see the figure of Alice on the stairs.

She switched on the light, and as she did so, I could have sworn the damn thing sunk its teeth into me.

‘Little shit!’ I dropped it and it bounced onto the mat.

Alice dashed over and picked it up, ‘Jesus John! It’s just a baby!’

Just a baby? Like hell, it was.

‘There’s something wrong with it,’ I said to her as calmly as I could manage, ‘there’s a fault somewhere. I need to restart it.’

Alice was staring at me like I was about to commit murder.

‘Don’t be ridiculous John! We’re not turning him off. How could you even suggest that?’

She pulled him closer to her and the baby snuggled into her chest.

‘Give him to me Alice.’

‘No,’ she held onto him even tighter.

I swear, I didn’t mean to hurt her. I mean, I wanted the baby, sure I did, but only because it was making her paranoid. I lunged forward and pulled at her arms, trying to prise them open so I could get to the baby.

‘Stop it John. I won’t let you!’

The baby writhed and wriggled like crazy, but it never made a sound as we fought with one another. I pulled hard until Alice was unable to fight any longer. She let go and I grabbed hold of its head and pulled him away from her.

‘No John, please! Please don’t take my little boy!’

I lay him face down on the table and unzipped his sleepsuit and found the little green light at the base of his spine. I could hear Alice sobbing and begging me not to do it. Believe me, I felt awful, but I knew now I should never have bought the damn thing home in the first place.

I dug the tip of my finger into its spine and held it down until the baby grew stiff and still. The green light went out.

Alice was shrieking and sobbing and so I went to her and tried to hold her close, even though she kept pushing me away.

‘It’s okay,’ I said, ‘It’s okay. It’s over.’

She settled down then and stood weeping quietly into my chest.

But it was then, as I stood comforting her, that I saw it move. The damn thing rolled over onto its back and sat up.

‘Jesus Christ Alice! That thing’s alive.’

I pushed Alice out of the way and picked up the AI again. There was no green glowing light and yet there it was, writhing and wriggling and biting me, fighting to stay alive.

I slammed the thing face down onto the table and pushed down hard with my hand to keep it still. It’s legs and arms flailed wildly and I could hear Alice crying out behind me, ‘John, please John! Stop it John, you’re hurting him!’

Beneath it’s soft velvet skin I could see its blue wires. It was only now that I realised how they looked like human veins underneath that translucent material. I hesitated for a moment and tried to think of another way but there wasn’t one. It’s just a robot, I told myself. Don’t look at it. Don’t listen to Alice. It’s just a robot.

I dug my nails into the soft pink skin on its back and I tore it open.

The baby let out an ear-piercing shriek. One long, shrill note.

Alice stepped forward screaming and shrieking, trying to pull me away but I shook her off, sending her stumbling backwards. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw her drop to her knees, and at first I thought she was just upset. Distraught at having her baby taken away from her for a second time.

It’s not real. Just a robot.

I shoved my hand into the cavity in the baby’s back and gripped the cords as tightly as I could and pulled hard. The baby screamed. Try as I might, the wires just would not break. They stretched out, like long laces of licorice. I pulled and I tugged and there was a sickening sound like tendons snapping, as the wires finally came off in my hand.

The baby lay on the table, convulsing and shrieking so loudly I had to place my trembling hands over my ears to block out the noise. Eventually, the baby gave a final whimper and lay still. I waited a moment to check if it moved again, but it was dead this time.

‘I’m so sorry Alice,’ I said, ‘I should never have bought it home. I guess I thought…’

But Alice wasn’t answering.

I turned to see her lay on the floor clutching her stomach.

‘It’s okay Ali, you’ll be okay,’ I said, ‘it’s not like it was real. It wasn’t our Jasper. It was a robot. You’re okay, Alice. Alice?’

But Alice couldn’t answer. She lay on the tatami mat, blood trickling down her legs, spreading out like a tulip beneath her.

The post PseudoPod 599: The Boy with the Glass Eyes appeared first on PseudoPod.

Jun 15 2018

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PseudoPod 608: A Visit to the Catacombs of Via Altamonvecchi

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“A Visit to the Catacombs of Via Altamonvecchi” was originally published in Karamu (vol. xx, no. 2, Spring 2007), a literary review out of Eastern Illinois University. In addition, I have featured a shortened version in readings around the Chicago area, including at the Twilight Tales reading series at the Red Lion Pub (then the only haunted bar in the Chicago metropolitan area).



This soundbed utilizes the following sources from Freesound.org (https://freesound.org/):
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Long Low Thunder 02 quiet autumn downtown street 03 Low Rumble pasture ambience LONG INT Cave Room tone Mystical Cavern Water Dripping in Cave Ewater_drip-echo stream running under rocks, glamorgan coast, wales Water Through Drain (With Reverb)

A Visit to the Catacombs

by J. Weintraub

Welcome to the catacombs of via Altamontivecchi, the grandest and one of the most ancient in the world. I will be your guide for this special pilgrim’s tour in the English language. If you have booked in advance, you will find the number 34 stamped on your ticket. If you have not booked in advance, you have no business being here. Please return tomorrow in the morning when there will be more tours for you in several languages.

For those of you who have booked in advance, please step inside.

Again, welcome to our tour. I trust you have all signed the waiver and have also had the opportunity to visit the facilities as instructed? Good. The visit will be of long duration, and there will be no opportunities once we are inside. Now, please hand over your tickets. Twelve places only. Thank you. Thank you. Please step inside. Thank you.

Before we proceed further, several cautions need to be spoken. Please stay close to me together so you will hear all of my instructions and absorb all the history and the other observations without the need for repetitions. But more important, you must not stray from the group. This is absolute. The galleries of via Altamontivecchi are quite intricate and are estimated to extend over 15 kilometers, longer than even the great complex of Domitilla outside the walls of Rome. Galleries lead into galleries in a most confusing manner, intersect with upper and lower levels, and at its outermost extremities, to the east and to the south, merge with unsafe pagan columbria linked to the worship of Mithra and Sabazius. If you become lost in these extremities, there is no assurance you will find your way out or be found. In the past century, in fact, an entire class, sixteen students and their professor, disappeared without a trace.

Of course, you might be saying to yourself, “All I need do is to follow my way back towards the light!” But that is not such an easy thing as you might think. I myself once thought in a similar manner, but I mistakenly took a passage that led me in the opposite direction, and when I tried to retrace my steps, I could only see an occasional flickering, like fireflies on a moonless night. Fortunately, I had not penetrated far, but there are sectors where huge crevices have opened, quite deep enough to swallow anyone who has strayed from the guided tour and then gone from there into eternity. Even in ancient days, when the galleries were new and expanding, guides like me were hired and passages were obstructed to prevent visitors and relatives from losing their way and eventually polluting these holy places with their unsanctified corpses.

So, please stay with the group and avoid curious wanderings. We want you to enjoy your visit!

Also, please avoid touching the walls and masonry. The galleries we will be visiting are quite safe, but catacombs require a soft, penetrable rock like this tufa. Slabs can be easily dislodged, and there are pockets just beneath the surface where the rock becomes loose and granular, almost like a liquid. Also, the ancients strengthened many of the vaults and stress points with brick, mortar, and plaster, all subject to erosion. You do not want to risk bringing down several tons of volcanic rock upon our heads for a souvenir.

And yes, to remove anything from the premises, from the smallest stone to an undiscovered fragment of a relic, is a criminal offense. The Altamontivecchi catacombs are a national treasure.

So, we are understood? Are there questions? Good. We can begin our tour. Please hold onto the railing and proceed carefully. The descent is steep and the steps are as old as the catacombs themselves, carved directly from the rock and rubbed smooth by the footsteps of numberless pilgrims just like yourself. Note the small square apertures cut into the walls where oil lamps were placed to light the way for many centuries, depositing an impressive residue of soot and grime along the passageway. Another reason to avoid contact with the walls and to thank providence for the miracle of electricity.

We arrive now at the most recent construction, an extensive marble altar erected shortly after the rediscovery of the catacombs during the so-called Bloody Schism. Here it is said that many sacraments were performed in private until the authorities of the Counter Reformation put a stop to it. Note the fine decorative ornament on the altar stone, with garlands and cornucopia almost pagan in their exuberance.

Now as we turn down this path . . .  and then into this one, you will note that all natural light has vanished behind us. Without the electric lights on the walls and the torch in my hand, we would be in total darkness. Here, along both walls, in the displays behind the glass, are the artifacts that have been found in the tombs and their surrounding spaces. Note the iron, bronze, and ceramic lamps that I mentioned earlier. Also we have the digging tools—mattocks and picks—left by the fossores, numerous offerings—coins, glass vials, earthenware vessels—and mementoes of the dead—rings, bracelets, and brooches, and even this toy doll, carved from ivory, found embedded in the stucco sealing the grave of the eight-year-old Aurelia Hyacinth.

In the far corner, you see pottery shards, cooking pots, stone fetishes, and iron utensils of great antiquity. These were found at the end of the last century with the collapse of a wall during an excavation that revealed behind it a cavern hidden since Neolithic times. Among the shards and cookware were fragments of human bones, also scorched like the pottery. It is unknown whether this was the result of primitive funerary practices or, as one radical archaeologist suggests, signs of ritual cannibalism among our native ancestors. In either case, it speaks of the long habitation of the site and its ancient ceremonial significance.

Now, as we turn into the central gallery, look up to the roof of the vault. Near what was once a skylight, you see the great image of the Majestas Domini, thought to have been painted in the late third century. Scholars tell us that since this is the first known portrayal of Christ Enthroned surrounded by a nimbus—a device typical of pagan iconography–the painting is likely to have been superimposed upon an earlier fresco of Helios, God of the Sun.

It is also exactly here at this spot, just where that young lady is standing—no, no, Miss, you don’t need to move —where Tomas the shepherd fell through that very skylight above us to his death. The opening had been sealed long before to prevent such an unfortunate incident, but perhaps several months of floods and the seepage led to its collapse. We can only hope that enough natural light followed from his fall to illuminate the magnificent image above him as Tomas lay there on his broken back, dying.

Tomas was given credit for the re-discovery of the Altamontivecchi catacombs, but in truth, it was his herd of abandoned sheep and his barking dog that brought the villagers to the site. And if it had not been for the intercession of Father Adrian, now beatified by the Holy See, the opening may have been quickly resealed by the superstitious peasants and the catacombs again forgotten. A simple parish priest, Father Adrian was also a learned man and deeply committed to the defense of the Church against a violent iconoclasm then wreaking havoc and bloodshed across the countryside. What a superb witness then is this striking vision above us to the importance and power of the image for the first believers, the founders of the true Church.

As we descend deeper into the earliest parts of the complex and turn here, we arrive at the Corridor of the Martyrs, the most important of our pilgrim sites. Yes, it is quite impressive, isn’t it? Row upon row, tier upon tier of burial slots, graves like shelves or berths on a ship carved into the rock. They are called loculi and they extend seemingly endlessly into the darkness, ample evidence of the ferocity of the third- and fourth-century persecutions, particularly during the reigns of Valerian and Diocletian.

No, all of the loculi here were emptied of their remains long ago, some the victims of barbarian plunderings, others translocated to the surface where they could be venerated more publicly, and still others transported far beyond our borders during the eighth and ninth centuries when the market for relics was especially active and profitable.

And, of course, not all of these are the graves of martyrs or saints. Most of the epitaphs and graffiti were inscribed years after the burials, and entire communities wished to be entombed near those who could intercede in their behalf in the world to come. But note the simplicity and starkness of the arrangement and the lack of ornament or display, testimony to the modest circumstances of the original believers, but also the willingness of those in higher stations to humble themselves as part of a congregation before God.

But still, martyrs and saints were laid to rest here, and we know for a fact that in this tiny niche the holy Palladian once reposed, and in these six graves, one atop the other, lay the six Coronati—Praetorian guards converted, brutally tortured, and thereafter crowned with the gift of martyrdom. Here, at my eyelevel, was once the saintly Petros, and in this narrow slot just below, lay his skin, now venerated in Budapest. In here the holy Valeria was interred, although her head was claimed for via Altamarina. Here Palomon the Elder and by his side Palomon the Younger, or at least those parts that could be retrieved from the horses. Posidius. Pontesilea, Aprius—said to be a follower of the anti-Pope Novatian—Dalmatius, Onager, Vitalia, Rubilla, Viktor, and the one, two, three, four, five sons of Renata, and above, the blessed Renata herself. Beneath this cavity, you can still see engraved the single word Stercorius, or “abandoned in garbage,” although whether this is the name of the martyr or simply where his remains were first deposited is unknown.

These two cavities, when opened, first seemed empty, but the inscriptions and the traces of paint seemingly depicting flames on the arcosolium of this one convinced the ecclesiastical authorities that the heavy residue of ash found inside was none other than St. Eventius. In the other one? In there nothing more than two pairs of pincers were found, but it was believed that the shreds of flesh soldered into the grooves of the prongs once belonged to St. Marcella.

Farther on down the loculi become more sparse, but the graves increase again in number as we move into the latter half of the fourth century with its multitude of heterodoxies, and then at the end of the passageway, behind the grating, the surprisingly ornate ossuarium of the Heresiarch Ostian, who was interred here with the bones of 200 of his slaughtered followers. If you visit the smaller complex at via Altamarina, you will see the crypticum of the Archbishop Fabian, who has been credited with the extermination of the cult.

Now, allow me to turn on the interior light, and as you pass the grating, look toward the lunettes of the arcosolium just above the altar, and you will see a series of remarkably realistic chthonic and zoomorphic representations painted by an anonymous Thracian artist, who, if the inscription is to be believed, was sympathetic to the sect and eventually joined them here.

Oh, my . . . oh, no . . . Don’t be frightened. Please, Madam. . . . This happens on occasion. Power failures like these are common in the late summer. Or perhaps there’s been a short circuit. The severe humidity. Here, let me try something. This switch just over here. . . . Sometimes after an overload, we can simply click it off—there—and then wait a moment before I click it back on. . . . There. . . . No, that’s not it. I suppose it is a power failure. We have had a very oppressive summer, and I’m sure the lights, air conditioners, refrigerators, and such above ground are all in the black, too, just like here below. But still we must proceed, and thankfully, I have the light of my torch to guide us. The batteries were replaced several weeks ago, so we should be just fine. But please, stay close to me as we move on.

These stairs will lead us to the next level below and into the fifth century. I will shine the light on the steps, but be sure to take hold of the railing as you descend. Yes, I know it is a bit unsteady from the porous nature of the rock here, but it will be perfectly safe if you proceed carefully. . . . Here, I have reached bottom, and if you will first gather around me, we will continue into the gallery.

On this level, we witness the enormous growth of what was once a tiny congregation of true believers now spread across the land despite the state’s attempts to eradicate them. Again, row upon row, tier upon tier of graves, excavated at considerable cost, yet worth the expense to those who wished to be interred nearby the saints and martyrs of previous generations.

Here much of the original plaster and terracotta tiles are still in place, along with the remains interred inside. Apparently this level was unknown to the barbarians and others who vandalized the tombs. But they would not have found much of value had they in fact penetrated this far. These were ordinary folk, their bones not worthy of public veneration, the mementoes interred with them—copper jewelry, vials of unguents, small coins, and toys for the children— all of little artistic or monetary worth. But still a unique site since many of the epitaphs are as visible as when they were inscribed into the plaster. See HIC REQUIESCIT here, and here HIC REQUIESCIT, and here HIC REQUIESCIT, and up and down the gallery HIC REQUIESCIT, HIC REQUIESCIT, HIC REQUIESCIT. Not very creative, these ordinary folk, but an impressive display, nevertheless.

As we turn towards the chamber reserved for your group, the corridor becomes very narrow. Please single file here, and you might want to place your hands on the shoulders of the person in front of you until we reach the great Cryptoporticus of Danilo at the Spelunca Magna.

Now attention, please, as we turn here. The rubble you see on your right spilling into your path seals a transverse gallery that once led to the famous Capella of the Good Shepherd—all destroyed when the passage and several others collapsed five years ago last month during the previous eruption of Altamontivecchi and the ensuing earthquake. An unredeemable loss. By the by, I hope you have had the opportunity to visit our Altamontivecchi volcano during the evening time. A spectacular display, particularly around the crater where the lava flow is especially impressive.

Here you see the plaque recently dedicated to the Dacian pilgrims who were awaiting the return of their guide when the first tremors struck. Unfortunately, my good friend Nicolo, who was still on the surface, was killed instantly in the collapse of the basilica, and with so much chaos and devastation above, little thought was given to those awaiting Nicolo here below. Of course, it probably was no matter, since the galleries and cubiculi hereabouts seemed to have disappeared completely. At least, when shafts were sunk from above, they struck nothing but rock, and excavations here were abandoned in face of the tons of solid granite that had tumbled into the passageway.

It was no accident, some superstitions people say, that the incident occurred in the vicinity of the Cubiculum of Danilo, and here we are. Note the brick masonry on the vault, required to support the tufa in this sector, and the plaster surfaces where fragments of color from the frescoes that once appeared here can still be seen. Over there, behind the grating, is the throne of Danilo carved from solid rock and where bits of gold leaf still sparkle in the light of my torch.

On either side are the seats occupied by the catechist and presiding deacon, and the low stone benches were probably set aside for the instruction of the catechumens. No one knows what rites were performed here, although there are suggestions of a corrupt Eucharist liturgy. The paintings were largely destroyed during the purifications of the late fifth century, but note the remnants of la banquet scene on the vault, either a celestial or diabolical convivium, and over there is what might be the earliest representation of the devil. You can barely see the gaping mouth of the demon amidst the roaring flames of hell, although some scholars say it is rather the maw of the leviathan about to swallow Jonas and the flames are merely waves.

Behind the throne is the crypt where the sarcophagus of Danilo was to rest. The walls here, too were once covered with frescoes and grotesqueries, but in this instance even the plaster was scraped from the masonry, and nothing remains. Of course, the great Apostate was never interred here, his ashes scattered to the four winds, but it is said by superstitious people that his spirit animates these corridors when the sun disappears in the west.

Now we descend in this direction, and please form again into a very narrow single line. Careful. The ground is uneven, and you will notice a trembling at your feet as we cross over a very swift subterranean river. The current is especially strong this year because of the heavy summer rains, and this explains the thick moisture on the walls and the chill in the air. No, no, Madam, that was only a cold draft, I’m sure,  that passed over your feet. From the river, probably. There are no vermin down here.

And here we arrive at our terminus. This chamber is called the Capella of Peace, from the inscription IN PACE AETERNA engraved over the portal.

All of you come inside. You must now remove the robes from your packs and put them on. There are additional robes on the shelf there if you neglected to bring one. Place your packs, your guidebooks, and your other belongings in the corner here. They will be safe.

Be sure all of your garments are well covered. The loculi here are clean–all remains and offerings, of course, have been removed—but dust and dirt continue to erode from the walls. Use the hoods to protect your heads, but careful not to wrap it around your nose or mouth. It will be close enough for you inside as is.

All the loculi here are about the same size, but the elderly among you may want to choose the ones closest to the ground. There are stepladders about for those of you who can climb to a higher tier and are not uncomfortable with the sensation of height.

No, I’m sorry. You must all find a place for yourself. Yes, I know, people do change their minds, but there is nothing I can do about it now. You have come this far and you must carry on to the end. No, I cannot take anyone back under any circumstances. You must find your place here. There are no benches or resting spots nearby, and besides, you must not leave the chamber in my absence, especially now that we are suffering through a power failure. I assure you that this is an experience that will change you forever. To meditate among our ancient martyrs and saints in this famed locus sanctus, to join spiritually a community of primitive believers and the pilgrims and people of God who followed in their path and acted as you are about to act, this is a privilege permitted only to a few and many have waited in vain for years to participate. As the graffito over there  reminds us: Intra limina sanctorum, quod multi cupiunt et rari accipiunt.

So, take my hand, and you can slide in right here. That’s right, on your back with your arms crossed over your chest. A nice fit. Yes, I know it feels tight. It often feels tight. Our ancestors were smaller than we are, and they usually arrived here in a state of considerable desiccation. But this will help you to remain still. You must not move or shift your position. You certainly do not want to wedge yourself inside, by trying, say, to turn onto your stomach, and be sure, all of you, to avoid sudden movements. Tufa is soft rock, but it is rock nevertheless, and the mattocks have left sharp ridges.

Those tremors? I am sure they are no more than the vibrations from the river running beneath us nearby.

Now, all of you, now that you have found your places and are comfortable, breathe slowly and quietly. If you become anxious, concentrate on breathing more slowly, regularly, silently—otherwise, you will feel as if you are suffocating, which only contributes to your anxiety. Respect the meditations of those around you and the sanctity of the place. Yes, I know. I have participated in this very chamber twice myself. I know how tight it can feel, and I, too, have tasted in my mouth the dirt and the grit of the place. But that is all part of the experience we promised you, as is this. . . . There. I have extinguished my torch, and you find yourself within a darkness so profound it is palpable. Do not be afraid. Study the darkness. Look into the darkness until it becomes one with you and you are one with it, separate from every living thing in the world above.

I can find my way out in the darkness. Ignore the quiet breath of your neighbors and allow the silence to envelop you as I leave.

I should be back before very long.

The post PseudoPod 608: A Visit to the Catacombs of Via Altamonvecchi appeared first on PseudoPod.

Aug 17 2018

43mins

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PseudoPod 500: A Bit Of The Dark World

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“A Bit Of The Dark World” originally appeared in Fantastic Stories of Imagination, February 1962. It is presented here as the 7th part of our 10 episode “A CENTURY OF HORROR” celebration – with 9 other episodes made available only to subscribers!

A Bit Of The Dark World

by Fritz Leiber

… and then one of the last rays of the sun must have struck a mirror-surface in the summit-crag, perhaps an outcropping of quartz, for it struck back at me like a golden rapier, making me blink, and then for an instant the beam was glitteringly black and I thought I saw (though nothing as clearly as I’d seen the black all-knowing spider-centipede on the pinnacle) a black shape — black with the queer churning blackness you see only at night with your eyes dosed. The shape coiled rapidly down the crag, into the cavern gullies and around the rocks and finally and utterly into the undergrowth above the fold and disappeared.

The post PseudoPod 500: A Bit Of The Dark World appeared first on PseudoPod.

Jul 24 2016

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PseudoPod 578: Alarm Will Sound

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PseudoPod 578: Alarm Will Sound is a PseudoPod original.

As mentioned by Alasdair:

Art Bell-The Frantic Caller

https://youtu.be/ee3bld4lTG0
The Peoria Plague

https://archive.org/details/ThePeoriaPlague

Uncanny County-The Boy Who Cried Martian

http://uncannycounty.com/episodes/page14/

The Hugo Awards have these things they call nominations tallys but they are commonly referred to as The Long Lists. These include the top fifteen nominees, and show who just missed making the finals. For example, Escape Pod, PodCastle, and Mothership Zeta all made the long list last year for Semiprozine.

One of the great values of these long lists is that it allows readers even more excellent works to add to their “to read” pile. David Steffen has worked to make mining those lists significantly more convenient for you. For the third year in a row, David has published a volume of The Long List Anthology. In this most recent version are included works from names familiar to fans of Escape Artists. Lavie Tidhar, Ursula Vernon, Caroline M. Yoachim, and Ken Liu, among a host of amazing others.

Want to know what sort of story makes it to this anthology? Go listen to episode 607 of Escape Pod and catch Red in Tooth and Cog by Cat Rambo. Been procrastinating picking up Hammers on Bone by Cassandra Khaw or Run Time by Escape Pod’s S.B. Divya? This anthology will assuage your guilt. You can find The Long List Anthology Volume 3 at all the usual purveyors of books. If you’re already the proud owner of this book, become a subscribing supporter of Diabolical Plots which is also edited by David Steffen. Subscribing there puts you in line early for not only the ebooks of the original stories published in Diabolical Plots, but also gets you in line early for The Long List Anthology Volume 4. Go support this fantastically creative human being.

Alarm Will Sound

by Christopher Shultz

And we’re back. This is hour two of Talk it Out. I’m your host, Gabrielle Esposito. If you’re just tuning in, in our first hour on the air we talked at length with Mary from Poughkeepsie, New York, who has been having suicidal thoughts. She was able to talk through a lot of what’s been bothering her, and I think overall we left things in a good place.

Now of course, if this is your first time listening to the show, I want to reiterate that I am not a licensed therapist, nor do I behave like one. What we provide on this show is an avenue for people just to talk. I listen, and the rest of you, the audience, listen too, and we share messages of positivity and encouragement from you listeners, which you can send via email or post to our Facebook page. I always recommend that anyone experiencing things like suicidal thoughts, like Mary, or any other psychological issue, to seek out counseling. Now, Mary definitely wanted help, and we gave her several numbers of therapists in her area to call. My producer Michelle just told me that Mary was okay with a callback live on the air next week, so for those of you concerned for her well-being, be sure to listen in.

Okay, it looks like we have a handful of callers waiting in the queue, so let’s answer the next one in line. We have Charles on the line, from a small town in Oklahoma. Charles, welcome to Talk it Out.

Hi, Gabrielle.

Charles, how can we help you today?

Um. I’m calling from Scissortail, Oklahoma. If you haven’t heard of it, that’s okay, but I’m hoping after tonight, everyone will know the name. Scissortail, remember. Oklahoma.

Okay, no problem. Scissortail.

Thank you. See, this deals with what I believe to be…some kind of force or entity or intelligent being, attempting to make contact in some fashion with my town. Maybe, even, attempting to take over my town. Now, I know that sounds crazy, but please just hear me out. Please don’t hang up.

I promise not to hang up on you, Charles. I do believe that you believe this is happening.

This is all actually happening. I’ll swear on a stack of Bibles as tall as Everest if you ask me to. Just let me explain…

Please, Charles, go ahead.

Okay. This all started with what we assumed at the time to be an unknown graffiti artist everyone called Alarm Will Sound. None of us knew if that was the artist’s name, but that’s what he or she spray-painted in big red block letters all over the place, just those three words, Alarm Will Sound. You know, like on emergency exit doors. The lettering was always crude, like the artist had a shaky hand.

That’s a very cryptic phrase. Do you know what it means?

I…I don’t. No. The wife and I and our friends are about as far removed from the modern art scene as you can get. Which isn’t to say we’re uneducated, we know about the big famous painters, your Picassos and Van Goghs and whatnot, and we knew about Banksy because we watched that movie about him on Netflix. But, you know, we didn’t know the who’s who anymore, locally or internationally.

What I’m trying to get across here is this: we were only aware of Alarm Will Sound because he or she—or it—was EVERYWHERE. Sometimes it seemed like he or she—I’m going with “she” on this one, I don’t know why, that’s just…it’s fitting. I don’t know.

Whatever is easiest for you, Charles.

Thank you. What was I saying? Yes…She was everywhere, all at once. And she was fast. You’d see the tag in a few places one day, and then the next, she’d’ve hit fifty other places over night. Now, that’s not so strange, I suppose, but looking back I know there was a kind of…I don’t know, um…mutual eeriness we all felt about it, but nobody really wanted to acknowledge it.

It wasn’t too long, though, that things started getting weird. Scary.

Case in point: I’m on the phone with Glenna—that’s my wife—she was at the grocery store, and we were talking about Alarm Will Sound, about how fast she is, and she stops mid-sentence, and there’s a pause. And I say, what is it? And she tells me she was looking at the side wall of the building where she’d parked, and she looked away for a split second, and when she looked back up, there was the tag, right there in front of her, ALARM WILL SOUND. She swears it wasn’t there not two seconds before. It just appeared out of nowhere.

Now, I’m a rational person, always have been. I complement Glenna in that way because she’s fanciful. And she complements me, reminds me to not be so buttoned-up all the time, as she puts it. But I default in this case, because I believe that the simplest solution is always the correct one, and in most cases I’m right. So I tell her, love, you probably just didn’t notice it before. The store’s a red brick building, and this artist paints in red, so it probably just blended in and you didn’t actually see it until just now. She concedes to that, and she starts the car and is getting ready to drive away.

Here’s where this particular part of this story gets really strange, because I cannot explain what happened next. I mean, I could—I did explain it away at the time but…

Are you still there, Charles?

I’m here. Yes…Now, I didn’t mention before that at the time of the phone call I was outside doing a little yard work, just some raking, you know. And I consider myself an observant person, overall. Now, I wasn’t looking anywhere in particular while I was raking, you understand. I’m not going to lie and tell you I was staring at the wall of my house the entire time I was talking to Glenna, because I wasn’t. But our house is white, you see, a lot easier to see big red letters across the wall…

I think you know where this is going. I hang up with the wife, look up…And there it is. ALARM WILL SOUND, right there on the wall, right under our bedroom window. Put another stack of Everest-tall Bibles on top of the one we’ve already got, and I’ll swear on those too. I am ninety-nine percent positive those letters were not there the ENTIRE time I was out raking the lawn. No, it was like…I don’t know what it was like. It was like…she knew we were talking about her. The artist, I mean. And it sounds totally crazy. And at the time, I did think it was crazy, because…well, I just couldn’t completely let go of the rational. Not completely. I held onto logic. Even though this…this defied logic.

But I was adamant about a reasonable explanation. I think I read somewhere once that people do that, that we cling to logic and reason and begin making excuses and rationalizations in our heads for the things we can’t comprehend, like a defense mechanism to keep us sane, or something like that. And I think that’s what I did. I created a scenario that made perfect sense.

And Charles, if I may ask

Please just listen, I think I’m running out of time here—

You have all the time you need

I don’t. You don’t understand, just listen…

I told myself there were two possibilities: Either I truly hadn’t noticed the graffiti, which meant my powers of observation were beginning to fail—certainly a possibility at my age—or, the artist had done it while I had my back turned to the house. So the writing Glenna saw at the grocery store had been there the whole time, and she just hadn’t noticed it upon first glance. Meanwhile, Alarm Will Sound tagged me while I wasn’t looking, and the timing of the two “events” happening side by side while Glenna and I were on the phone, well…it was just a coincidence.

That is very sound logic, Charles.

It is, but…That’s what I told myself, anyway, and I cursed and I got out the extra bucket of house paint I had in my garage and painted over the message before Glenna got home, because I didn’t want her getting anymore funny ideas about the whole thing.

But see, I couldn’t hold on to my logic and reason for very long. About a week later, Glenna and I went over to Jim and Lisa’s—they’re our friends—for a barbecue. Some of the other couples from the neighborhood were there too. And this one couple, the Brandons we called them not because it was their last name but because they were both named Brandon, told almost an identical story to the one Glenna and I had experienced, only they were both having lunch on a patio at some restaurant or other, sitting at a table facing each other, and in the blink of an eye—that was the term they used, the blink of an eye—they each saw the message “magically” appear on a wall and a telephone post, respectively. They were facing opposite directions, you understand. I mean, looking at each other as they talked, but you know, we notice things out of our peripheral vision. And—again, in the blink of an eye—the same blocky red letters just appear.

And just like Glenna and me, they were talking ABOUT Alarm Will Sound when it happened.

It was like she knew, see? She knew they were talking about her. I don’t know how, I don’t know why. But she knew.

Well, I confessed about the message I saw then, too. Glenna was a little miffed at me for not telling her, but she understood. It was my way, she knew that. And together, we told our tale, our impossible little tale. I don’t know why I was willing to give in, to share this story with my friends, as though we were kids around a campfire. Like I said, I’m always sticking to the rational, and I’m the last person to want to cause any kind of panic in people, but…I don’t know. In the same way I’m telling this to you, Gabrielle, and the rest of the world, it just seemed…appropriate.

We do appreciate you sharing with us

At the time, it was appropriate, but now, it’s MANDATORY.

I do understand

No, you don’t. See, when we got home from the barbecue, and Glenna’s all freaked out as it is, guess what we find as we pull into the driveway? ALARM WILL SOUND. In the EXACT same place as the one I painted over. The exact same letters, even down to the same EXACT drip mark coming off the W. It was like the message had bled through the three coats of paint I’d put over it. Glenna was in utter terror over this. I was too, to tell the truth.

Wasn’t long after that, the messages began popping up, well, like I said, everywhere. But everywhere times a thousand, you understand? All over the place. On people’s cars, on the streets, on trees, everyone’s houses. And not just once per surface. I’m talking like an insane person writing on the walls of their padded room, over and over and over, the same thing, ALARM WILL SOUND ALARM WILL SOUND ALARM WILL SOUND. I mean, our house basically looks red at this point.

And this is why this is so important, you see, because our local media, they’re acting like there’s nothing going on. There hasn’t been one single news report, one single newspaper article, no one radio DJ or Internet blogger or anyone has written anything about it. And speaking of bloggers, one of the Brandons, well he decided to start writing about it himself, since no one else would. So he set up a blog, he starts writing, pushing out these awareness pieces, trying to get more people to reach out to him and share their stories, so that maybe we can figure out just what the hell is going on, but every time he publishes one, it just disappears. Do you understand what I’m saying? It just flat out disappears. You can’t find it on the Internet, you search for it on Google and you get no results, you search for ALARM WILL SOUND and you get stuff about emergency exit doors and some avant-garde musical group based in New York. I don’t think they’re related at all.

We’re afraid. We’re all afraid. I mean, true to the message, all our internal alarms are going off. I mean, we don’t know what the hell is going on.

Because here’s the thing, and you may look into this, you may not, but I want to be upfront with everything, because I don’t want you or anyone else thinking I’m crazy. I know how all this sounds, but…the thing is, if you try to look up our town, Scissortail…you’re not going to find it anymore. It used to be on the map. It isn’t now. And, and…We can’t get out anymore. If you drive to the edge of town, it’s literally an edge, there’s just nothing, nothing but a big huge cliff, and the road just ends, and all over the edge of the road and the edge of the cliff, and all down the cliff side, ALARM WILL SOUND ALARM WILL SOUND ALARM WILL SOUND.

And I know what you’re thinking, this guy is just making all this stuff up to get on the radio. Scissortail never existed in the first place, and it’s just a matter of convenience he’s saying it’s no longer on the map. I’m just a big liar, right? I’m not. Take all those Bibles I mentioned before and place them atop my own mother’s grave, and I’ll still swear on them. I’ll do whatever you ask me to do to get you to believe me. We’re desperate here, we don’t know where else to turn, because it seems like every time we try to find help, all we get back is silence…Although that’s not even true, because all we get is ALARM WILL SOUND ALARM WILL SOUND ALARM WILL SOUND ALARM WILL SOUND, and it may just be words but when you look outside and all the world is red all over, all those words bleeding into one another, smashing up against each other, it begins to sound like alarms, like…what’s the word…klaxons. That’s it. Klaxons going off in your head. ALARM WILL SOUND ALARM WILL SOUND ALARM WILL SOUND ALARM WILL SOUND, over and over and over, and none of us…none of us…knows what it means, I, I…I can’t explain. Any of this. I have no logical explanations. I can’t reason my way out of this anymore…

Charles?

My front lawn is red…

Charles, are you still

Oh God…right now! It’s right now! It, it’s Jim outside…he’s red, he’s covered in red…he’s walking outside, he’s getting covered in paint, right now, it’s happening RIGHT NOW! He’s alone but it’s happening right now. His face, OH JESUS—NO DON’T LOOK! GLENNA! DON’T—

Oh. Oh my God, oh Jesus oh Jesus oh…

He’s alone out there. He’s…I’m watching…He…

Oh GOD…

Oh—Please, someone look into this, try to find out, we’re still here, it says we don’t exist but we’re still here, we’re still here, I’m sounding the alarm, oh Jesus, I’m sounding the alarm, is that what it means? I’m sounding the alarm right now, this is the alarm, this is the warning, ALARM WILL SOUND ALARM WILL SOUND ALARM WILL SOUND ALARM WILL SOUND ALARM WILL SOUND ALARM WILL SOUND ALARM WILL SOUND ALA—

…Hello?

Hello?

Michelle, did we lose Charles…?

Well, Michelle tells me we must’ve lost Charles from…Oklahoma, correct?

A small town in Oklahoma.

Well, Charles, if you’re still listening, we’re sorry we got disconnected before you had a chance to speak with us, but do please call back and we’ll get you back on the air. And if we don’t hear back from you, well, we certainly hope that whatever’s been troubling you, it gets worked out soon.

Okay…Next we have Ronny from Schaumburg, Illinois. Welcome to Talk it Out, Ronnie…

The post PseudoPod 578: Alarm Will Sound appeared first on PseudoPod.

Jan 19 2018

27mins

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PseudoPod 539: The Fear

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“The Fear” was first printed in Macabra: A Journey Through Australia’s Darkest Fears in 2010 and reprinted in the US in Year’s Best Horror 2010.

“Yes – imagine that film! Even though it may not end up the way you expect, visualize just how it might look and sound on the screen!”

The Fear

by Richard Harland

“It’s impossible to explain without visuals. You’d have to see the movie to know why it was so frightening. Think yourself lucky you never will.”

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Apr 21 2017

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PseudoPod 481: Unheil

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Unheil” was first published in Pantheon Magazine. It also appears in Typhon: A Monster Anthology which is currently available from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Createspace.

Unheil

by Kathryn Allen

South-West Africa. 1909.

I came south because I was hungry and the same-old-same-old of drought and famine, which generation after generation encourages young men to seek a different future, made hiring myself out to the Germans seem like a good thing. Everyone was doing it. If Father had been ten years younger… Or so he said to Mother when she complained about how far away I would be. As if I would not return home as soon as the rains came. As if I would not write. She shed a few tears the morning I left, but not as many as she would have if she’d believed I was never coming back.

To their great surprise, as they looked before and found nothing, the Germans had discovered diamonds in the deserts of the Skeleton Coast. Or rather a man from Cape Town, who’d dug for many years in the Kimberley mines, picked up a raw stone whilst working on the railway line to Lüderitz. I suspect he did not get to keep it, though, as he was black.

You see, I was not innocent of the ways of Europeans. I did not go south expecting to make myself a fortune but because the Germans were hiring labourers to make theirs. I knew I would have to work hard for only a modest reward. Even so, the men who came to the Owambo Kingdoms, promising bed-and-board, money to send home, and a few coins to spend, said nothing of chains or beatings. There was no mention of day upon day spent on hands and knees, crawling across every inch of every desert hill and valley, fingers cracked and bloody from combing through the burning sands, the overseers never content with either pace or productivity. I was not innocent, but I was too trusting.

Hunger drew me south and hunger killed me.

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Mar 11 2016

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PseudoPod 490: Murmurs of a Voice Foreknown

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PseudoPod 490: Murmurs of a Voice Foreknown is a PseudoPod original.

“As an adult human being, I’m an odd misfit, but I was truly a ghoulish child—small and rail thin with a large, square face capable of making the most hideous expressions (usually only for my own amusement in the bathroom mirror). I’m sure my dark humor and morbid bent are due in no small measure to an older brother who delighted in telling me scary stories almost every night of my early childhood. My brother pathologically despised me when we were kids and actively (and creatively) fed my fears and doubts when he wasn’t physically causing me discomfort or pain. My earliest memories are filled with his threats, creepy lies and bizarre, improvised stories. Many years later, they still haunt my imagination, and I wrote “Murmurs of a Voice Foreknown” with these childhood memories in mind.”

Murmurs of a Voice Foreknown

by Jon Padgett

I was seven years old the first time my brother tried to kill me.

The post PseudoPod 490: Murmurs of a Voice Foreknown appeared first on PseudoPod.

May 13 2016

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PseudoPod 428: When It Ends, He Catches Her

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“When It Ends, He Catches Her” was originally published in Daily Science Fiction in September 2014.

Many thanks to Matthew Foster for sharing this story with us and you.

Music in the outro is “Cylinder Nine” by Chris Zabriskie, from the Free Music Archive.

When It Ends, He Catches Her

by Eugie Foster

The dim shadows were kinder to the theater’s dilapidation. A single candle to aid the dirty sheen of the moon through the rent beams of the ancient roof, easier to overlook the worn and warped floorboards, the tattered curtains, the mildew-ridden walls. Easier as well to overlook the dingy skirt with its hem all ragged, once purest white and fine, and her shoes, almost fallen to pieces, the toes cracked and painstakingly re-wrapped with hoarded strips of linen. Once, not long ago, Aisa wouldn’t have given this place a first glance, would never have deigned to be seen here in this most ruinous of venues. But times changed. Everything changed.

Aisa pirouetted on one long leg, arms circling her body like gently folded wings. Her muscles gathered and uncoiled in a graceful leap, suspending her in the air with limbs outflung, until gravity summoned her back down. The stained, wooden boards creaked beneath her, but she didn’t hear them. She heard only the music in her head, the familiar stanzas from countless rehearsals and performances of Snowbird’s Lament. She could hum the complex orchestral score by rote, just as she knew every step by heart.

Act II, scene III: the finale. It was supposed to be a duet, her as Makira, the warlord’s cursed daughter, and Balege as Ono, her doomed lover, in a frenzied last dance of tragedy undone, hope restored, rebirth. But when the Magistrate had closed down the last theaters, Balege had disappeared in the resultant riots and protests.

The post PseudoPod 428: When It Ends, He Catches Her appeared first on PseudoPod.

Mar 07 2015

39mins

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PseudoPod 492: The Fisher Queen

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“The Fisher Queen” was first published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, May/June 2014. It is available to read free online at fu-GEN.org. “The Fisher Queen” was on the shortlist for the 2014 Nebula along with Eugie Foster’s last story, “When It Ends, He Catches Her” which ran last year on Pseudopod. It has been translated into Chinese, French, and German. “The Fisher Queen” is set up in the fashion of traditional oral storytelling, where truth and myth blend together. However, it’s about the very real effects of societal, systematic violence against women.

The Fisher Queen

by Alyssa Wong

My mother was a fish. That’s why I can swim so well, according to my father, who is a plain fisherman with a fisherman’s plain logic, but uncanny flair for the dramatic. And while it’s true that I can cut through the water like a minnow, or a hand dipped over the edge of a speedboat, I personally think it’s because no one can grow up along the Mekong without learning two things: how to swim, and how to avoid the mermaids.

Mermaids, like my father’s favorite storytale version of my mother, are fish. They aren’t people. They are stupid like fish, they eat your garbage like fish, they sell on the open market like fish. Keep your kids out of the water, keep your trash locked up, and if they come close to land, scream a lot and bang pots together until they startle away. They’re pretty basic.

My sisters tried to talk to a mermaid once. It was caught up in one of Dad’s trammel nets, and when they went to check the net out back behind the house, they found this mermaid tangled in it. It was a freshwater one, a bottom-feeder, with long, sparse hair whose color my sisters still argue about to this day. Iris, the oldest, felt bad for it and made May splash some water on its fluttery gills with her red plastic pail. She asked the mermaid if it was okay, what its name was. But it just stared at her with its stupid sideways fish eyes, mouth gaping open and closed with mud trickling out over its whiskers. Then Dad came home and yelled at Iris and May for bringing in the nets too early and touching the mermaid, which probably had sea lice and all kinds of other diseases.

The post PseudoPod 492: The Fisher Queen appeared first on PseudoPod.

May 27 2016

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PseudoPod 402: The Recovery

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“The Recovery” was first published in a slightly different form in Strange Tales IV from Tartarus Press, edited by Rosalie Parker. It is forthcoming in a translation by Anne-Sylvie Homassel in Le Visage Vert.

Please consider helping out P.G. Holyfield’s family here.

As mentioned by Al, please consider throwing a few bucks to the Bobby Lombardi Fundraiser or PayPal to: Piercewmc@gmail.com

ALS fund can be contacted here, and Waterkeeper here.

Also, Saladin Ahmed could really use your help.

The Recovery

by H.V. Chao

Tonight, I hiked to the chapel of the town’s patron saint. On the way, you pass something like a chimney sprouting from the ground. Topped by a Madonna, it marks the spot where the saint is said to have sauvé la terre, vanquishing a dragon by throwing his ring in its mouth. The chapel is flanked by pines and had been locked against vandals. On a nearby rise are the remains of a long, low barn: the fractured roof timbers, a wall of wattle and daub still whole but reeling as if from a mighty blow. The decrepitude bespoke neither neglect nor the cheap residue of expedience, but the weight of centuries withstood. From atop the hill, I could see the cemetery.

The whole town was there, gathered by a grave. Their backs were turned to me, and a tremor passed through the group: shoulders swayed, weight shifted to the other foot. I saw the butcheress draw closer to my landlady and further from the cheesemonger. I watched until the group slowly scattered, then I skittered down the hill to the graveyard. Wrought-iron masts and crosses, plaques, shattered flowerpots. On the tomb were a shovel and a bottle of wine, but the grave was empty. I was still standing there when it began to rain.

A village is a murder mystery. The conversation of townsfolk is rich in allusion; red herrings in shared histories you don’t understand. The air of conspiracy inspires you to imagine a crime. Everyone has something to hide, but you cannot tell if it pertains to the case at hand, or if it will merely prove a false lead: another skeleton in another closet, a private and irrelevant embarrassment. Yet surely this suspicion of wrongdoing is only a hallucination of exclusion. After all these months, I was still a stranger to the town, while my neighbour had found not only love, but he would abscond with it.

The post PseudoPod 402: The Recovery appeared first on PseudoPod.

Sep 05 2014

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PseudoPod 478: ARTEMIS RISING Women In Horror Showcase: Jay’s Place

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PseudoPod 478: ARTEMIS RISING Women In Horror Showcase: Jay’s Place is a PseudoPod original.

Not only is Jay’s Place a Pseudopod original, but also the author’s first professional publication sale. PseudoPod couldn’t be prouder to introduce you to this author.

Jay’s Place

by E. Lee Vicar

The road looked like it was there by accident. Turnoff so steep it felt like driving straight into the trees. Houses set far apart, hiding suspiciously at end of long dirt driveways, husks of cars crouched on their lawns. These were not the kind of people who made friends with their neighbors, but that was all right for now.

His place was second from the end of the street, a rocky oval where lost souls could pull a three-point turn and get back to the interstate. The house looked like it was built more recently than its neighbors. It was a little too narrow for its two stories, but the siding was all attached and the roof hadn’t yet shed any asphalt tiles. Jay examined it critically from the end of the unpaved driveway. Even this late in the evening, he had to shield his eyes against the fierce glare of the sun.

“No one’s been in there for a while,” said his brother, “but I just got it inspected and the inside’s actually all right. Hot water works, electricity’s not gonna kill you.” He leaned against his truck, boots crunching in the gravel.

“What’s it need done?” Jay asked.

“Well, once the yard is cleared out, I figure we’ll fix up the porch. Windows are okay but the screen door needs replacing. The rest is for you to figure out. Once they demo that dump next door, I think we may have a chance of selling.” He gestured to the neighboring property, barely visible behind a tangle of underdeveloped trees.

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Feb 19 2016

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PseudoPod 559: Granite Requires

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PseudoPod 559: Granite Requires is a PseudoPod original.

Thanks to our sponsor, ARCHIVOS – a Story Mapping and Development Tool for writers, gamers, and storytellers of all kinds!

Granite Requires

By T.J. Berry

Granite requires my baby’s eyes. Only one of them really, but that’s still one more eye than she’s gonna give. That granite already took one of mine.

I may have only one eye, but I’m a worker, not a taker. I have three jobs. First and most importantly, I’m a mama to my baby girl. She will always be priority numero uno. Secondly, I do remote transcription for a vet in Albuquerque when their regular people get behind. And third, I have a side agreement with a few of the guys in this town that keeps me in tax-free cash. God bless America.

I’m never going to be like Mama Tracey, who sits out front of Dell’s General Store holding out her mug for cash. People give it to her too, paper money like fives and tens, cause she gave both of her eyes to the granite.

They took the first in fifty-two after she was born. The other she volunteered in eighty-eight when pickings were slim in town and the rocks started to collect their due.

I could give my second eye in place of my baby and collect fives and tens too, but I bet there’s not room in front of Dell’s for both me and Mama Tracey. She’s wide in the hips and also people will think I’m a copycat and give me less. Anyways, I have my Nightlee now and lord knows you need at least one eye to take care of a baby.

I’m walking up the steps to Dell’s, which is why I’m thinking on Mama Tracey. There’s a ramp, on account of all the townies missing eyes and toes, but I like to take the stairs. Just to show I can.

Mama Tracey puts down her mug when I come around. I wonder how she always knows it’s me coming up the steps. Maybe she can hear my flip-flops making a particular sound on the wood, like that blind superhero. Or maybe she can hear the old guys stop talking so they can at stare at my boobs.

The four old men who park themselves at Dell’s are siting on either side of the entrance. They’re not panhandlers officially, but they’re always begging for your time and attention when you just want to walk on by. I don’t have to wait long for them to quit loving on the second amendment and start loving on me.

“You want an ice cream, Miss CassieLyn?” asks one of the old guys.

I adjust Nightlee onto my other hip so I can give him a full-on look that says to take your ice cream and shove it. He knows very well that I’m lachrymose intolerant and I’ll be farting like a dog if I have ice cream.

He laughs and I’m annoyed because he’s teasing me. I could shut that garbage down by telling his shriveled friends that he likes a pinkie up his ass when I blow him on Tuesday nights, but I can’t do that because public relations is a big part of my job.

“No, sweetie,” I say.

“You going shopping, honey?” asks another old guy, staring at my legs.

“I came to ask a question,” I say, stepping up onto the porch so that Nightlee’s fuzzy head doesn’t burn in the sun. “I want to know how to switch rocks.”

All three of them answer with outraged little puffing sounds through their thin lips.

“Your baby belongs to granite,” says my Tuesday night appointment, whose name is Jack. The old guy smell up here is making me want to gag–and I almost never gag. “It’s a damn shame. Her blue eyes remind me of the sea off the Amalfi coast. I was there in forty-six,” says Jack.

One of the other guys points to his foot.

“Born to marble in the lean years. Gave two toes before middle school. Navy wouldn’t take me, so I packed parachutes in El Paso.”

I move Nightlee back to my other side because damn if they aren’t revving up to recite their list of injuries, which starts with the parts they gave to the rocks as babies and ends with mole biopsies and gallbladder removals.

“That’s nothing, I had dentures before I was thirty for all the teeth they took for the breccia.” This guy clicks his false teeth up and down, showing the pink crescent of his gums and I have to bury my face in the sweet shampoo smell of Nightlee’s scalp to keep from throwing up.

Mama Tracey chimes in from her chair.

“I can’t see a thing on account of that damn granite taking both my eyes.”

They murmur their approval.

The third guy smacks his walking stick on the porch with a loud rap. He raises his eyebrows and then opens his mouth to show off a crooked stub of a tongue in his cavernous mouth. He waggles it around with a slapping sound.

“I guess Dickie wins,” says Jack.

“Dickie always wins.”

“Goddamn that limestone.”

Dickie rests his chin on the top of the walking stick with a smug smile and I guess if you’re going to have your tongue carved out before your first birthday, then at least you should be able to one-up your friends.

“Anyways,” I say, eager to get away from the self-congratulatory torture roundtable. “How do I get Nightlee another rock besides granite?”

“Well,” says Jack, “There’s an order to things, CassieLyn. You can’t just choose the rock you want. Everybody would pick shale and the other rocks would come after the rest of us.”

“I’m not asking for shale,” because that would be ridiculous. Shale requires hair and anybody with half a brain would be willing to go bald instead of blind. “But if granite can wait a few months, Kaidence is having her baby in December–”

Jack reaches behind his chair for the Calendar. I let Nightlee pull tiny fistfuls of my hair and shove them into her mouth, even though it hurts like a bitch, because it keeps her quiet and I need to focus on this negotiation.

The Calendar is one of those big jobbers that spans a decade, one year on every page. Jack’s marked the due date for each rock in tiny little block letters that they don’t teach us how to make at school any more.

“Well,” he says, tracing the months backwards to last year. “It’s been twenty-three months since granite had an eye.”

“The longest granite ever went without was twenty-six months,” says Toeless.

“Right, but Kaidence’s baby comes at twenty-seven months on the granite. Isn’t that, like, within the martian of error?” I ask.

They’re quiet for a bit, looking back and forth with little smiles. For about five seconds I think I have a real shot. Then the mute one shakes his head, quick and snappy like a drill sergeant.

“Dickie’s right,” says Jack. “We can’t chance it. The granite could come for anybody. You’d be risking everyone’s life. We can’t allow that.”

“Think of the common good, CassieLyn.”

“Take one for the team so everyone wins,” says Mama Tracey and I suddenly feel all ganged up on. “We all gave our due.”

“And then some,” says Jack, waving toward Mama Tracey, who nods even though she can’t see him wave.

They’re all fuckers. Especially that Jack, who owes me at least a little leeway, considering the places my mouth has been on him. I tilt my head like I’m concerned.

“I gotta mention, Jackie, that I noticed a bump on your prostate when my finger was up there the other night. You should probably get it checked out. For the common good.”

Jack’s mouth flaps open and his friends whoop and holler, all except the mute one who bangs his stick on the wooden porch.

As I leave the porch my heel misses the last step. I sort of slip-slide and come down hard, kneeling on the packed dirt. It’s a depth perspective problem on account of my missing eye. But Nightlee didn’t fall because I’d never let go of her no matter what.

“Don’t hurt yourself, Miss CassieLyn,” says Jack in a singsong voice that makes my arms go all goose bumpy.

I lift my middle finger over my head and hold it where Nightlee can’t see, as I don’t curse in front of my baby. I’m going to have twenty minutes free on Tuesday nights from here on out, I guess.

Schist requires an ear, so Kaidence probably won’t swap for an eye, but I’ll kick myself if I don’t ask. A missing ear is easy to work with, just grow your girl’s hair long to cover it up. And since they only slice off the outside part, not the guts inside, schist people hear just as well as anybody else. You always find a way to work around the pieces they take off you.

Kaidence’s trailer is at the back of the Shipyard, which is just a trash dump with a fancy name. As I pick my way around old tires and broken bottles, Nightlee starts making little grunty noises. I realize I should’ve brought a bottle with me.

I knock on Kaidence’s door and her boyfriend Cody answers. Now I learned at the regional high school, where we all got bussed to an hour each way, that there are two kinds of Codys in this world. One is the type with white teeth who runs track and is a mathlete or some other activity that doesn’t require stitches. That type of Cody won’t give someone like me the time of day.

Then there’s this other type of Cody, who shoots himself in the leg showing off his new rifle and decorates one entire wall of his bedroom with empty Crown Royal bottles. That Cody will be all over you, but he’s an anchor who’ll drag you down. I don’t know if there are other types of Codys in the world, but I haven’t met one yet.

Cody Tigh was the second kind of Cody.

“Is Kaidence here?” I ask, standing sideways on the stairs so that Nightlee is on the far side of me, because you never know what the second kind of Cody is liable to do. And also, Cody Tigh has a particular interest in my Nightlee.

“Maybe.” He draws the word out real long to make sure I know he’s gonna make me work for it, but I’m not playing today. I back down two stairs, making it look like I’m leaving.

“Okay. I’ll come back.”

“She’s here. I’ll let you in if I can hold the baby,” he says, smiling at me with blue-stained teeth.

Now I have a carborundum on my hands, because on one side I do not want to give my baby girl to Cody Tigh who is a liar and a cheater. And on the other side, he’s kind of Nightlee’s father so I think I am required by law to let him and her have a visitation.

After a minute, I hold Nightlee out under her armpits. Cody glances over at the window of the trailer, but the tv is up loud and Kaidence isn’t going to look up from her shows.

He takes Nightlee from me and squashes her against his chest like he’s holding a biology textbook. She meeps and squirms.

“Not so tight. Just hold her bottom half. She can sit up by herself.”

He touches Nightlee’s cheek.

“She’s pretty soft.”

“Yep.”

“And wet.”

“As always.”

A muffled voice comes from inside the trailer.

“Code, did you get my smokes?”

Cody shoves Nightlee back at me so fast that her head knocks me in the mouth and she squeals.

“Dammit Cody, be careful.”

I ruffle her fuzz and find two little imprints from my front teeth. Not bleeding, but swelling up all red.

Cody is in the house like a shot and I follow him. He rummages through a plastic grocery bag on the kitchen table and tosses a fresh pack of cigarettes to Kaidence on the couch. She looks over her shoulder and her eyes go like slits.

“CassieLyn, you have no business being in my house.”

“I came to ask you something.”

She ignores me and whacks the package on her palm for a good long time. The trailer smells like mildew and everything’s buttery yellow from the sheen of old smoke. I was here years ago, when Kaidence’s mom and dad were alive and the place was kept up. Her dad died when the gneiss was left for too long without a nose. People say that three-ton hunk of stone dropped right out of the sky onto his Cavalier.

Kaidence lights up. Smoke drifts past beams of sunlight shining through a dozen tiny holes in the living room wall. Someone’s been trigger-happy with a shotgun. I’d place my bets on Cody.

I sit on the corner of the couch, putting my knuckle in Nightlee’s mouth to keep her quiet. Kaidence leans back and rests a hand on her belly to remind me that she also has a baby from Cody Tigh.

“I talked to the Calendar boys and they said we can trade rocks, schist for granite, as long as you’re willing,” I say, trying to make it sound more official by bringing up the Calendar.

Kaidence makes a sound like the air coming out of a balloon and takes a long drag. I can see her eyes say no before her mouth says anything.

“You are stupider than they say, CassieLyn. No one would trade an ear for an eye.”

“I can pay.”

“How much?”

I have a dozen twenties saved up. Plan A is swapping rocks with Kaidence. Plan B is a bus ticket to Albuquerque.

“Two hundred.”

Kaidence puts her head back against the couch.

“Jee-zus, that’s an insult. I’m not raising up a half-blind kid for two hundred dollars. No offense.”

A roach skitters across her thigh. Her pale skin twitches, but she doesn’t swat it away. I stand up, hoping none of the bugs are on my clothes. Things that crawl on you in trailers are sometimes hard to get rid of.

I turn to see Cody Tigh behind me, holding his hunting knife.

“If you aren’t giving the baby’s eye to the granite, you have find a replacement,” he says, picking at his thumbnail with the blade, “You giving your other one?”

My stomach clenches. I fight the urge to step back. You never show a Cody you’re afraid or they’ll tail you like a coyote until you’re exhausted and weak and they take anything they want.

“Definitely,” I say, leaning so close that I can smell blue raspberry Jolly Rancher on his breath. His eyes widen. “I’m gonna use the same knife they used to carve that big-ass hole in the middle of your face.”

He puts up his hand without thinking, checking that his prosthetic nose hasn’t come loose. It’s still on tight, but I see the split-second flash of fear in his eyes. And he knows that I see.

“Get out,” he says with a hitch in his voice and I feel triumphant and awful at the very same time.

On the walk home, Nightlee is full on crying so that every damn person in town stares at me and thinks about what a terrible mother I am. I stick my knuckle in her mouth again, but when she sucks and comes up dry, she screams even louder.

As I pass Dell’s, there’s a crash that sounds like train-on-train action from the lot behind the store. The old guys hit the deck and people come trotting out of every building on Main. Nightlee is startled into silence by the kind of booming vibration that you feel in your heart.

“What the hell was that?” asks Mama Tracey, picking herself up off the ground.

I’m guessing people are just pretending they don’t know, because we’ve all heard that noise before. It’s the sound of one of the rocks smashing into a house.

I come around Dell’s and take a minute to figure out where the trailer used to be, because I can only see the basalt, standing on its small end like a skyscraper.

It’s nestled in the new guy’s place. He was passing through last year and found our little town so very welcoming that he stayed the night. We’re good at making strangers feel at home. Spend one night here and the rules say you’re in the rock rotation, just like the rest of us.

When we told him about the requirements, he laughed and refused to give a finger to the basalt. I thought maybe some of the men would hold him down and take it from him, but they said it was fine to wait. Based on the Calendar, that rock had plenty of time on it.

They even offered him a trailer for free. I think he was glad to have a place where no one questioned who he was or how he ended up here. Which is not too great a criteria for picking new neighbors.

Every day those men on the porch at Dell’s would remind him to give the basalt his finger. Tick tock… the rocks only wait so long. But that guy, he dicked around playing his guitar, fishing the stream, and drinking PBR in his yard.

When it got close to a year, they warned him that the basalt was nothing to mess around with. The longest the basalt had ever waited was fifteen months, so time was a-wasting. This week, he’d just about made up his mind to give his right pinkie–which you don’t need for strumming–when the basalt decided it had waited long enough.

That’s one thing we do know about the rocks. They don’t always come for us in a particular order, but they do love them some newcomer blood.

Around the back of Dell’s, that monstrous rock has dropped straight through the top of the trailer, blowing the walls down flat like the petals of a daisy.

It sits in what used to be the kitchen. A pair of legs splays out from underneath–like the wicked witch but with cowboy boots. We tried to tell him.

“Idiot,” says the man next to me, holding a pair of bolt cutters with nine fingers. “Shoulda just gave it.”

Even on my bad side, I feel his stare on Nightlee. If granite doesn’t get its due soon, it’ll come for her or anyone with an eye left.

“You know they’re careful about it,” says the bolt cutter man in what he thinks is a soothing voice that makes my butt tingle. “They’ll put her to sleep and like a real operation. Doctor Inez takes good care that nobody gets an infection. They’ll make the socket look real nice. Even better than when you were a kid.”

He reaches out to touch Nightlee’s head and I yank her away. He spits his chew onto what used to be the bathroom wall, kneeling down to pull off the dead man’s boots. He positions his cutters and starts crunching off toes one-by-one. No one knows for sure if recently alive parts count for anything, but we’re not going to pass up the opportunity to try.

I see my dad near the edge of the crowd. Our eyes meet for a second and I hurry away from him, but he’s faster because he’s not carrying a twenty-two pound baby.

“You give that granite your girl’s eye, understand?” he says into my ear. I smell his cologne and it smells good and terrible. I stop walking even though I don’t mean to.

“Get out of here, Ed,” I say. “You don’t have claim over me no more.”

Nightlee reaches out and grasps a strand of his greasy hair, pulling him closer to her wet face.

“Hi baby,” he says in a gentle voice that makes my breath stop moving.

I pull back, but his hair is all caught up in her fingers and we can’t go anywhere.

“Get off,” I say. “I’m not giving the granite her eye.”

I’m talking too loud and a few lookie-loos peel away from the dead man and come to watch us instead.

“I didn’t raise you a fool, CassieLyn. You give that eye or the rocks will come for her.”

“They’ll come for all of us,” says Jack, walking up behind me. “Get your girl in line, Ed.”

I untangle strands of gray-black hair out from between Nightlee’s fingers. The loops pinch tight when I pull and she howls.

People press in on all sides of me.

“Ed, we can’t have this. There’s an order to things,” says Toeless.

“If she won’t give it willingly, we’ll have to take steps. The rocks are moving a lot these days and the granite isn’t going to wait.” Jack drapes his arm around me, but turns to face my father. “You don’t want it to be like Linda, Ed.”

The way he says my mother’s name, my throat gets all tight and tingly. I clear it a few times and try to cough the hurt out.

“CassieLyn,” says Jack, reaching up to brush his thumb across my eyebrow that frames a big, smooth hole. “Just a quick nap and it’ll be over. I promise she won’t feel anything. You don’t want to end up like your mama, do you?”

He pulls a funny face and Nightlee giggles. My outsides are frozen in place, but my insides are throbbing in time to my heart. I feel like I’m thirteen again, moving to this tiny desert town with my parents. Mom has a new job as a third-grade teacher and I’m hearing some made-up story from the other kids about rocks that fall from the sky and the body parts everyone gives to keep them from killing. I’m hearing my mother’s screams as people grab her outside of school one morning. They already have a substitute teacher lined up. I’m meeting my mother at our front door the next day. She looks down at me, groggy and mute. Her hands shake so hard as she packs up that half the clothes stick out the sides of her suitcase. I’m screaming myself hoarse as my blank-faced father hands me over to the people who gather in our yard. I’m thrashing against the callused hands of four grown men pressing my arms and legs onto a metal table before the IV makes everything go white. I’m waking up under a patchwork of bandages and gauze, turning my head when my father whispers that I did a good job and I’m safe from the granite now.

If I don’t agree, they’ll pluck Nightlee right out of her playpen in the middle of the night.

“Okay,” I say quietly. “But I get to bring her in.” I stop talking and press my lips together so no one sees them shake.

Jack smiles.

“Good girl. We’ll do it tomorrow, as soon as the doctor gets in.”

I nod, because that’s all I can get to come out of me.

My father puts his hand on Nightlee’s head and I have to fight myself hard to let him keep it there.

“It’ll be all right, CassieLyn. You’ll see.”

His eyes are wet, but mine are dry. That’s how you can tell I’m the stronger person. He gave in to them when I was thirteen, but I won’t ever give in for my Nightlee.

The crowd breaks up and shuffles toward home for dinner and television shows and turning down sex for the tenth night in a row. But I stand behind Dell’s for a minute, listening to a nearby dog echo Nightlee’s hungry howl. Something moves behind me and again there’s Cody Tigh, leaning against a stop sign watching us, still picking his nails with that hunting knife. That boy must have the cleanest nails in Cibola County.

“You want my help, CassieLyn?” he asks. I can barely hear him over Nightlee. I turn toward home and walk as fast as I can.

“I do not.”

Cody’s footsteps fall in line behind mine.

“I know you’re going to run away. Probably got a bus ticket to Albuquerque. But I’m telling you it doesn’t work that way.”

Cody Tigh was born here and they took his nose when he was too little to make a fuss. He likes to lord his knowledge of the rocks over me and all the other newcomers.

“They’ll find you and drag you back unless the granite gets an eye,” he says, sheathing the knife.

People are looking out of their windows, watching us pass, on account of Nightlee and Cody’s big mouths. Like father, like daughter.

“Shut up,” I say, turning and walking backwards. “Everyone can hear.”

“I’m saying you need a replacement eye. So the baby doesn’t have to give up hers.” He grabs my free arm and pulls me toward him.

With both hands occupied, I’ve got nothing left to hit with, so I twist my arm around his until he has to let go.

“You get off me. Leave us alone. You can’t have my other eye.”

My heart is pounding and I can barely hear myself think above the whooshing in my ears. I watch Cody’s hands to make sure he doesn’t take out that knife again, since he seems dead set on taking my good eye tonight.

He holds his hands up like he’s surrendering.

“That’s not what I’m saying.”

“You keep following me like we have business, but we do not,” I say.

“We kinda do,” he says, looking first at Nightlee, then at me.

“You have not once taken an interest in this baby, so don’t pretend you’re suddenly going to become the Bill Cosby father of the year.”

Cody shoves his hands in his pockets so deep that the change rattles at the bottom.

“Things are different now. I mean, maybe they could be,” he says so quietly that I almost don’t hear.

I don’t know what he’s offering, but if it’s him asking to move in with me because his pregnant girlfriend is tweaking all the time and taking his cash, well he is greatly mistaken.

“I don’t believe you, Cody Tigh. People don’t change and nobody does things just to be nice.” I shoo him along. “You get going now to your Kaidence and lie in the bed you made for yourself. Me and Nightlee are not your concern.”

I spin on my heel to make a big exit and of course my flip-flop gets all twisted and comes off. I bend over to fix it and Nightlee, suddenly upside down, is stunned into quietness. I hear Cody’s voice, very soft, right before he heads back to the Shipyard.

“I’ll make you believe.”

And the hair on my arms is standing up again.

At our place, Nightlee takes her bottle cold, sucking down formula with her eyes closed and cute little groans coming out after every breath.

While she eats, I put together a go-bag for each of us. We have to get out now because that Cody Tigh will dog you until you give in. And we have an appointment in the morning that I have no intimation on keeping.

I don’t have a car, but there’s a bus stop an hour outside of town. I was hoping to leave Sunday afternoon, when everyone’s glued to their televisions watching football, but it’s cooler to walk there after dark anyways. We’ll get to Silver City by dawn and on to Albuquerque.

I pull the folded stack of twenties from inside a sock and hope it’s enough for a ticket. I don’t know how much tickets are or if there’s even room on a bus for a stroller.

I pack so many cans of formula that the stroller basket under Nightlee scuffs against the road. I’m wearing my high boots with thick socks because even though I have a blacklight for picking out scorpions, I don’t have three D batteries and Dell’s is closed.

The sun is down and the blackflies dive-bomb both of us. There’s no way to keep the mosquitoes and no-see-ums off either, but at least it’s not completely dark. The moon is mostways full, so I can see the centerline of the road.

An animal brays in the distance. It’s a thick sound, all hoarse with pain. There’s something big getting attacked out there in the desert. A group of coyotes can take down something the size of a horse when they all work together. As a group, they’re stronger than the individuals that make it up. Even weak ones missing toes or tongues are dangerous when they’re in a pack.

My skin prickles as I see two headlights shining away from me up ahead. Up at the granite that makes me nervous anyway, for obvious reasons.

The animal cries again, low and gargling, like it’s choking on something wet. I fix my eyes on a bright spot on the horizon–the gas station near the bus stop–and move as fast as I can. I put my boot down and something slithers out from under it. I shiver, but keep on walking.

We’re passing the granite and I notice that I’m holding my breath. There’s something moving on top of the huge slab. It suddenly makes sense–the sounds I’m hearing. Someone’s killing an animal up there, which is stone cold stupid because if the rocks took animal parts, I wouldn’t be trotting down this road in the dark stepping on god-knows-what right now.

The animal yells again, but it doesn’t sound like a horse. It’s moaning like a person. I wish I’d greased up the stroller wheels, because they’re squeaking like the door of a haunted house right now, calling all sorts of attention to us.

Headlights light up the granite. It’s a flat slab, tipped over on its side, like a table about chest high. Someone’s on top of it, curled up in a fetus position like they’re doing a cannonball into a stone pool.

I watch to see if they make a move towards us, trying to keep those squeaky wheels from getting snagged on tumbleweed bits.

We’re mostways past the granite when the moaning person puts out an arm and drags themself to the edge of the rock. They ease down the side feet first. As the headlights catch them around the waist, I recognize that ass. It’s Cody Tigh.

He turns frontways and his pants are spattered with a spin art of blood. He can’t seem to lift his feet properly and his boots catch in the sand. He falls to his knees, shirt all soaked. He presses a rag to his face and stares into the headlights with a blank look like his mind isn’t completely there. He leans back against the granite and stops moving. I hear his heavy breathing from thirty feet away.

Cody’s other eye is still open, but doesn’t move when I wrestle the stroller closer through the sand, not even when I nudge his leg with my toe. His hands have dropped into his lap, but the rag sticks to his raw eye socket, hanging there like a limp white flag. The moonlit outline of a tiny, bloody ball sits on top of that great big rock.

“Damn you, Cody. What the hell did you do?”

He turns toward the sound of my voice and I brace my knees a little, ready to drag that stroller back to the road if I have to run.

“You don’t have to go now, CassieLyn. You both can stay.” His words sound like they’re rasping through half a bottle of whiskey. And really, I don’t blame him for that, seeing as what he’s undertaker here tonight.

There’s a sizzling sound, like those fajita skillets they bring out at a fancy restaurant. Cody’s eye is smoking in the moonlight on top of that granite. Hand to God, it sinks right the hell into the top of the stone. Sucked into the rock like a drop of water into a dry sponge. Makes me wonder if you could wring out the rock and get all our parts back.

I take a big sigh full of cool night air and catch a little no-see-um in my throat that makes it go tight. Or something like that. I clear it away and make a speech to that boy marinating in his own blood next to the granite.

“While I am very much grateful for your generosity toward my Nightlee, we’re leaving anyways.”

“Take me with you.” The blood is drying fast. When Cody talks the smears on his cheeks flake off onto his hands like a tiny red snowfall.

“No, honey. You’re dead weight. I will take your car though. Just borrowing it until you get better, understand? You can’t drive until you figure out depth perception anyways. Trust me. When you’re all fixed up, you come find me in Albuquerque and–.”

He raises one shaking hand to interrupt me and I lean down close to his ear, smelling that penny red reek of fresh blood. He opens his mouth and I’m suddenly dreading what he has to say that’s so important he has to gouge out his eye to get my attention.

Being so close, I can see the seam between his prosthetic nose and rest of his face. I feel a pang in my belly. It’s not right when people give more than their due. Folks like that end up begging on the stoop like Mama Tracey. Thinking on that makes me put my finger across his sticky lips.

“Shh. I believe you, Cody Tigh,” I whisper. Under my finger, the corners of his mouth rise and I see his blue raspberry Jolly Rancher teeth.

Nightlee doesn’t wake up when I move her from the stroller to the back of Cody’s car. I shove the rest of our stuff in the trunk, on top of fishing gear and a couple of rifles. The keys are in the ignition and we’ve got half a tank of gas and $200 cash.

Cody holds up his hand as I put it in reverse. I don’t know if he’s saying goodbye or asking me to wait, but I keep going anyways and under the dash I give the finger to that big old rock that I never want to see again.

As we turn onto 152 North, I call Jack and tell him to go get Cody from the granite. If he stays out all night something’s liable to eat him. Save him from one coyote pack by handing him over to another. Sometimes, you just can’t win.

I’m ready for Jack to yell at me, but he’s quiet and respectful, like maybe he imagines I dug out Cody’s eye myself. Let him keep right on thinking that.

The radio is loud, playing a song about a man who lost his love then found her again. I flick it off and listen to the coyote pack get farther away instead. I’ve got a lot to think over. Apparently, there is a third kind of Cody in this world. I believe I have just met one of them.

The post PseudoPod 559: Granite Requires appeared first on PseudoPod.

Sep 08 2017

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PseudoPod 519: Perfect Reflection

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PseudoPod 519: Perfect Reflection is a PseudoPod original.

Perfect Reflection

by Elizabeth Siedt

You hate mirrors.

You use them, sure, begrudgingly checking your hair and doing your makeup and smiling into them after you’ve finished brushing your teeth. But you’ve never liked them, how they throw back at you a world you take for granted is your own. Antique mirrors in particular unsettle you, like silent mercurial ancestors, hanging on your wall and looking right into your eyes. The worst are the oval ones, with the thin, gold frames. They look like enormous keyholes to a darker world.

The post PseudoPod 519: Perfect Reflection appeared first on PseudoPod.

Dec 02 2016

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PseudoPod 673: Venio

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“Venio” was originally published in Vastarien, Spring 2019

Venio

by Gemma Files

Watch out.

I’m going to tell you about something, and then . . . you’ll know. You won’t be able to un-know or forget why you should want to. And even if you decide you don’t believe it now, you’ll still have thought about it long enough to make that call, so it’ll still be too late. Because now it knows you know, it’ll be able to find you. To home in on you.

Just like it did with me.

Sometimes, a door is enough, open or otherwise. Or an empty moment, an empty page.

An empty head.

I remember the night my group and I first played the game that led us here, the Shut Door Sessions. It was all about imagination, or the lack of it.

We were writers, you see, supposedly. Desperate to be. And yes, I know the received wisdom, thank you very much—how you can fix bad writing, but you can’t fix no writing. How nothing you put down in words is ever going to match that gleaming, awe-inspiring thing you glimpse at the back of your head, so you might as well just let it come as it comes and try to make it better later. Try not to fixate on how the gold you had just before you started trying to hammer it into words somehow seems to have turned entirely to shit, an alchemical working in reverse: albedo up out of nigredo and back on down into nigredo again, hi ho, hi ho.

Always seeking the same goal, all of us, with no real hope of achieving it: something fresh, something new, something real—unique. The impossible fucking dream.

We’d all been there. We’d all spent most of our writing lives there, high school awards or university chapbook-publishing aside. And we’d still be there now, still stuck on the stories we weren’t qualified to wrestle from dream to page, if we’d never started playing that game.

Christ, how I wish we’d never started playing that game.

Here’s how it works: you each get a piece of paper—blank, lined or unlined, depending on what works best for you. You each get a pen. It can’t be your own pen or a piece of paper from your own notebook, if you have one; the work must be done physically, not electronically—no tablets, no laptops, no phones. And I don’t give a shit about how your ADD means you can’t spell without spell-check, Trevor. This isn’t school. I’m not taking marks off for presentation.

Four people around a four-person table, the sort made for family dinners. One person per cardinal direction with just enough elbow room to scribble without hurting each other, assuming you’re all similarly-handed. And at the top of each page you draw a door, any sort, so long as it’s shut.

Draw a door, a shut door, locked if it must be, and look at it. Look at it for as long as you must before you can write down exactly what’d be behind it, if it opened.

And which of us was it who first got the idea that grew into this weird-ass prompt-turned-ritual? Oh, that would be Leah, obviously. Little Ms. “The Voices in My Head Aren’t Talking to Me Directly This Week” herself, the queen of pants versus plot, always puking out stuff in seemingly unrelated chunks before stringing it together afterwards and telling people her characters told her how to do it. The woman whose whole idea of outlining is to basically throw a pack of Tarot cards in the air, turn them over at random once they hit the ground, and see what happens.

Leah and I had once been together in the sharing-a-bed sense, as opposed to the simply sharing-an-apartment one: met in first year, moved in together by third year, then broke up the year after graduation only to discover there was nowhere to move within public transit distance that wouldn’t cost twice as much rent as we were already paying. Which is how we still came to be “together” when she started the Shut Door Sessions, two roommates turned exes pretending we could actually be some variety of friends even after what happened . . . happened.

Such a cliché, too, all said and done, especially for two people so deeply engaged in trying to avoid clichés like the plague. One of those uncomfortable breakups where you don’t really want each other’s company any more but have far too much in common to avoid each other without making a scene. I mean, nobody wants to be the Crazy Ex from Hell, do they? The bitch, the asshole, the one who ruins things for everyone else. Don’t want to make your other friends unhappy, assuming you have some. So why throw the few friends you’ve already got away over something as negligible as mere post-physical entanglement heartbreak?

Just play along, guys, okay? No matter how silly it seems. Look at your door, let your eyes unfocus. Relax. Breathe deep and open yourselves up.

Just open yourselves up and wait to see what comes through.

Leah’s voice in Yuri’s living room that first night, excited enough to turn just a bit breathless, the way I’d heard it so many times before, albeit under very different circumstances. Which maybe explains why I was not only willing but eager to go along with this ridiculous plan of hers—chase the monkey down the monkey-track one more time, in hot pursuit of a truly inventive creativity I already suspected I had never really possessed. I’m talking about the ability to see something lurking inside a block of mental marble and free it with just a few pen-strokes. Craft a sentence clean as a bone over and over again, then hook them together into the skeleton of something never seen before.

My door was featureless, graphic, almost hieroglyphic—I’m a writer, not a visual artist. A bare rectangle with a small circle inside, halfway down the right-hand post…a handle, probably smooth brass, or maybe one of those old glassine diamonds with a bit of paint-slop left down around the part that rotates, turning left to pull tongue from lock and open inwards to reveal—

“The part that rotates,” hell . . . I really should know what that thing’s called, right? Considering my profession.

The door, and what’s behind it. What’s behind your door? See it, guys. Write it down.

Write it down, then tell me.

And now you want to stop, I’ll bet—to pull out before you go much further, let alone the whole, full way with me. But you can’t, can you? You need to know what you won’t be able to stop thinking about, if you do.

Besides which: it’s already too late, really. I mean, you’ve already read this far.

Haven’t you?

Here’s what I wrote, that first time:

A dark road, or what looks like one. No moon and no horizon. Hard to see where the ground blends with the sky, but as it comes towards the door-frame it starts looking porous, tactile. Tiny holes or tiny stones? Gravel? A bed of gravel on either side of two long, dull gray lines with lighter lines between them like a ladder on the ground or maybe train-tracks, away into the distance. Trees on either side? Shadows, spiky, overhanging. They switch back and forth on the tracks, no noise but if there was it would be rustling. Distant. A high and a lonely wind. Nothing else.

Breathing in, breathing out. Resisting the urge to check my watch. Listening to the scratch of other people’s pens around me—trying not to picture Leah with her tongue-tip caught between her teeth, bottom lip a little furled to show darker pink inside pale lipstick. Trevor scribbling hard, like he’s fighting the alphabet. Yuri humming. Trying not to recognize the tune.

The posts are darkening, shadow spreading outwards. A black thickening at the threshold, like drool.

(I wanted to stop then too, believe me. That early on. Before I’d even seen . . . anything.)

Another tick, a half-breath, barely tasted. And then—

Now a sense of something changing in the furthest section: a dot, dark separating from dark. Thinning as it moves closer, paced like a man’s stride, not quick, not slow. Steady. Taller now. The track isn’t completely straight like it seemed, there’s a rise, and he’s moving up it, cresting it. Very tall now, very, in a long dark coat like the song. Head down, hood up. Movement around the knees, pump of muscle and flutter of wind. The coat is black. His face is pale, obscure. Pitted? Hair down across the eyes? Chin pointed?

Nothing to stop him. Nothing that can stop him.

I don’t know where he’s going. Coming.

Coming HERE?

My hand formed the word, the question mark, HERE plus a squiggle above a dot. Underline swooping up into two-part quirk done so fast it scarred the page, barely separated, ink bleeding into ink.

Shut it again, and fast, I remember thinking, breath hissing back out like a stomach-punch, just do it slam it lock it. Just shut shut shut the fucking door.

“Annnnd done,” Leah chimed in overtop, cheerily. “Pens down, guys. Let’s see what we’ve got.”

I remember sitting back, flipping my paper as I did so, like I was afraid what might come out of it. Then seeing Leah point at Trevor, who winced, and started reading.

“Behind my door, um, what I see is, like . . . a long, dark road,” he began, flat and halting, eyes squinched as if having trouble with his own words. “Or a bunch of train-tracks? One track, going off through a forest, uh . . . and it’s really hard to see where it goes because the trees are all, like, jam-packed in on either side—”

Across the table, Yuri snorted. “You fucking kidding me?” he asked, glaring at Trevor.

Leah, still breathless: “Uh—no crit until we’re all finished, please…”

“Oh, seriously? When joker here just read mine upside-down and copied it, instead of making up his own? Real mature, T.”

Trevor flushed. “Am I supposed to know what the fuck he’s talking about?”

“Guys,” said Leah. “Guys.

But Yuri was off again, as he so often was during these workshop attempts: he was an old-school Asimov fan who believed anything other than Ass-In-Chair-Hands-On-Keyboard was self-indulgent time-wasting and didn’t think much of Trevor’s too-obvious eagerness to try anything Leah proposed. Nor had he ever stinted at saying so, bluntly. If anything was a surprise this time, it was the uncharacteristic ferocity with which Trevor came back at him, for once; within minutes both were on their feet yelling at each other, with Leah shrinking between, her feeble efforts at mediation completely silenced.

Nobody noticed me, at the time, picking up Trevor’s page and scanning it. Then Yuri’s. After which, I got up and left, leaving my own scribble on the table without saying anything.

I don’t think anybody noticed that for a while, either.

“Kris?” Hand on my shoulder, light, tinglingly familiar. It took some effort not to roll towards the touch for a kiss. “You awake?”

“Am now,” I muttered. The bedroom was dark, but it wasn’t like Leah needed the lights to know her way around. “Sorry. Should’ve said goodbye.”

“No, no. I understand.” The hand withdrew; a small, compact weight settled itself on the bed, carefully distant. After a moment, paper crackled. “I, um—I thought you might want this.” And there it was, thrust without warning in front of my face. My Shut Door Exercise. I had to stifle the urge to rip it from her hands and tear it into shreds.

In hindsight I don’t think that would have helped. But I still wish I had. Instead, I just took it, levered myself upright and slipped it into my bedside table drawer. Leah watched, wide eyes glinting in the dark.

“Is that really what you wrote?” she asked.

“What do you think?”

I hate how you do that, I remember her shouting at me. Dodge questions by asking more questions. You always put everything back on me! But she surprised me. Not saying anything, she shuffled close enough to reach the bedside lamp, turned it on, then gave me another piece of paper. I stared at her. She just nodded at the paper and gazed back.

Her door was pure Leah: a neat little sketch of opened gates with arching tops and angular runes above them, Tolkien’s Mines of Moria entrance in miniature. Below that, her handwriting reeled across the page in the familiar chicken-scratches. Reading it had always, always been an effort in squinting patience and guesswork . . . until now. Railroad tracks off into the dark, it began. I see them through the trees. A night with no moon, and he comes walking. . .

I didn’t need to read the rest, any more than you need to read it now. All sleepiness was gone, though I couldn’t have told you what replaced it. Fear didn’t seem like the right word. It felt more like prickly queasiness. Like nothing I’d ever felt.

“Trevor didn’t copy Yuri,” I said, roughly. “Neither did you. Right?”

Leah shook her head. “I—I thought, for just a minute, that he might have. I mean, if he was really desperate enough to impress you, then maybe he—”

“Impress me? I thought he was hung up on you.”

That got a smile I hadn’t seen in a long time; something caught in my throat. Leah shook her head. “God, Kris, you never could pick up on that kind of thing.” The smile faded. “No, he was too angry. Which means it was real. Which means . . .” She let out a shaky breath. “I also got this word in my head,” she said, without segue. “Like I was hearing it from far away. An echo of an echo. Something—something Latin, I think.”

“I didn’t know you knew Latin.”

“I don’t, it just—sounded that way to me. Like a Roman name from Asterix, or something.” She stopped by the door, arms folded, half-turned away. I couldn’t see her eyes anymore.

“Are you okay?” I blurted, before I caught myself. We’d stopped asking each other that sort of thing. But all I got was a dull shrug.

“Sure.” A deep breath; a sidelong look. “I don’t think the exercise worked tonight, though.”

“Probably . . . better not to do it again, then,” I answered carefully.

“Probably.”

So much that could have been said, in that look. None of it anything we could say. Nothing that would have made a difference, even now.

“Good night, Kris,” she said, and left.

Not a forest this time. Flat, open prairie, an achingly wide night sky overhead; stars like spilled salt, crusting purple clouds. I stood amid swaying, whispering plants that might have been corn, or wheat, or savannah grass. A black shadow painted a depthless rectangle before me on the plain; I could smell the barn’s wood mold and wet hay, undercut with dead mice and desiccated cow shit. A road cut across the plain past me, straight as a laser beam. The full moon blazed.

Made it all the easier to see.

The walker was farther away, tiny, only a smudged speck of moving black where the road disappeared into the invisible horizon. No way to tell where he was looking, though his shape inched slowly but evenly down the road’s dead center, as if he was staring straight ahead. But I knew he knew I was there. Just as I knew why he wasn’t hurrying. What need? He knew I couldn’t move.

It should have taken a long time for him to reach me. Maybe it did. Time slips around in dreams, we all know that. But he didn’t change course even as he approached. Hooded, black-cloaked, nothing but shadow under the cowl; his head didn’t angle towards me. He wasn’t even particularly tall—maybe six feet, if that. And the cloak draped and flowed like a perfectly normal human was wearing it. Even his movement looked like an ordinary walk. A steady, slightly-too-rhythmic walk, but a walk.

And… he was passing me. Not even turning to look.

I had half an instant to feel a surreal mix of giddy relief, bemused shock and even something like indignation, like part of me wanted to yell Is that it?! But then—

I want to tell you the word he told me: the word that sounded right in my ear, despite the distance between us; the word spoken at a nearly normal volume, calm, quiet, without rancor, without haste. But the explosion of sheer terror it detonated inside me erased it even as I heard it—a trauma so huge it blotted itself out in the instant of its own creation, the way the mind discards any pain too huge to process. Like when a tooth’s pulled without freezing or a bone breaks; when you knock the wind out of yourself, when you get a concussion. You know it happened, and you know you never want it to happen again, but . . . that’s all, that’s it. Nothing else.

Just the scar where it’s been.

At some point I realized I was awake. My mouth and throat felt dry, and dizziness lingered; I must have been hyperventilating. Had I screamed? Leah would have come running to check on me if I had. Unless—I checked the alarm clock and groaned. No, she was long gone to work by now. I made myself get up, shower, and get dressed, even though my shift at the bookstore didn’t start for hours.

The apartment was unnervingly quiet. I did what little busywork I could find, which didn’t take long. And then, without letting myself think about it, I went into Leah’s room and sat down on the bed.

I hadn’t allowed myself to do this in nearly two years. This had been the room we’d shared while we were together—I’d taken the spare bedroom afterwards because I had far less stuff to move out; I’d never collected anything like her vast array of kitsch, knickknacks and tchotchkes, like the horde of ceramic monkeys still taking up an entire shelf or the rows of unused Sacred Heart candles littering her dresser. Boxes and boxes of odds and ends, strewn along the windowsill. The closet stuffed to bursting with clothes. And her smell, still in the air, without any need to press my face into the pillow.

You had to look close to see what was missing. Beside the stereo, the stack of CDs was half the height it had once been. A sparsely-filled bookshelf, slightly bent, as if it had long held up a much heavier weight. A protruding nail on the wall where a picture had hung, the sort of thing everybody reminds themselves to get around to removing and never remembers. But if you didn’t think to look, you wouldn’t notice. You might think nobody else had ever slept here.

Maybe it was anger that made me get up and go to the second box from the right on her windowsill, the only one you needed to know the trick to open. Fingernails in the right hidden slots: slide, twist, press, click. I dug out the notepad and pencil that Leah had showed me, the pad where I knew she wrote down her dreams. And for the first time in two years I sat down and started reading.

Nothing about me, which was both a relief and a disappointment. The usual surreal nonsense. One surprising scene about Yuri, of all people—I’d always known Leah’s tastes were wider than mine but hadn’t thought she felt anything for him beyond friendship. Journeys, conversations, images clearly plucked out and set aside for some future poem—

I turned to the last page and stopped. She’d written something down here . . . but it had been utterly obliterated by a black charcoal smear scribbled so forcefully onto the paper that the sheet itself felt warped under my fingers. I tilted it back and forth under the light, trying to make something out, but gave up when my eyes started to hurt.

Then a better idea came to mind. I flipped to the next page, took the pencil, and began delicately shading light gray over the paper. The impression of the word bloomed up in white against the gray, gouged into the pulp; almost, but not quite, too faint to see.

(Like I was hearing it from far away. An echo of an echo. Something Latin, I think . . .)

On her desk, Leah had left her computer open and running, as she always did. One Google search, and the answer was there in front of me. It was, indeed, Latin. My face felt numb.

Venio.

I am coming.

I begged off sick from my shift, waited for Leah to get home and told her what I’d found. I was a little surprised she didn’t get angry—violation of her privacy was one of the few things that normally set her off—but I guess both of us knew we were beyond that now. We called the guys. Trevor, surprise surprise, was perfectly willing to meet tonight even on this short notice; Yuri took some persuading, but finally agreed, and even offered his living room again.

Once Yuri had finally gotten it through his head that no, this wasn’t some kind of practical joke, he practically went berserk; it was the most excited I’d ever seen him. “Don’t you get it, Kris?” he raved, striding around the room. “We’ve actually achieved something paranormal here! Subconscious telepathic communication, at least—or maybe we actually contacted something! A spirit, a ghost, whatever . . .”

“Well, you know, it could also be—” Trevor began.

Yuri didn’t listen. “We have to do this again. Now we all know what to concentrate on, maybe we can make contact consciously. God! I should record this. Let me get my phone.” He sprinted out and was back in a second, setting up his phone on a sideboard by the dining room table. Trevor looked at me helplessly.

“Yuri. Yuri.” I had to raise my voice. He blinked at me. “Yuri, we didn’t do this to convince you to keep going with it. We want it to stop.”

Yuri stared. “That’s ridiculous,” he said after a moment, in a perfectly level voice. “That’s stupid. That’s like Alexander Fleming throwing out his moldy petri dishes without checking them first. Look, we’re not calling up Captain Howdy on a Ouija board here. We’re confirming whether we’re sharing the same mental experiences. That’s all. Besides, if you want it to stop, doesn’t it make more sense to finish it? Wrap it up, bring it to a conclusion, whatever it is?”

Trevor cleared his throat. “I, um . . . I gotta say, I kind of don’t want to leave it hanging either. You’re . . . you’re supposed to face this stuff, I think. That’s what Dr. Tallan always says.”

I turned to Leah for backup. The look on her face was like a slap. My fists knotted. “Fuck’s sake, don’t tell me you’re buying this,” I said.

She swallowed but didn’t flinch. “Kris, I’m sorry,” she replied in a small voice. It sounded almost exactly like the way she’d said I’m sorry two years ago, when she’d first asked me to move out. “But I don’t want to have that dream again. Do you?”

No, but— The words disintegrated in my mouth, leaving nothing behind.

Yuri clapped his hands, as if that had settled it. “Okay, then. Let’s do this. Everybody, get a piece of paper from someone else; Leah, give me your pencil, I’ll get pens for the rest of us . . .” Of course, he’d remembered the procedure exactly, even while he was scoffing. Before I knew it, we were all seated around the table again, and Trevor, at Yuri’s order, was setting a timer on his own phone under the steady stare of Yuri’s camera lens. Yuri took his seat, practically rubbing his hands in glee. “You know how this goes, guys. Draw the door. Concentrate on it. And open yourself up to see what comes through.” He nodded to Trevor. “Go.”

Trevor started the timer, then bent his head to his paper. So did Leah and Yuri. I put my pencil on the paper but sat still, fully intending to draw nothing, write nothing. Okay, I’d scribble the pencil around meaninglessly a little, just to make it look good, but—

My mouth dried.

From what I’d been sure were completely random muscle movements, the cartoon-simple shape of the door—rectangle, tiny circle—had somehow emerged. I couldn’t take my eyes from it. My hand cramped; my fingers hurt; my forearm ached. The pencil scribbled across the page. The door seemed to be blurring in and out.

Not real, I thought fuzzily. Think of something real but faraway. If he’s coming to where he thinks you are, show him something different. Send him on. I tried to conjure up places in my mind that I knew I’d never seen, even to recognize on TV: Boise, Cleveland, Saskatoon. Minsk. Aachen. Beijing. Locations that were nothing more than a name and a vague direction.

But the problem is that the more you try to imagine what’s too unfamiliar to conceive, the more your own familiarities snap into place in the gaps, like a default reflex you can’t control. The nameless city becomes your own city; a shapeless street becomes a road you know. Any building becomes your building . . . or your friend’s. The corridor becomes an all-too-recognizable hallway. And as the shadows pour down that hallway, surrounding the silently walking figure, its hand lifting to the door to knock, the more your head wants to turn from the paper door to the real one, even while part of you is desperately screaming not to look up, not to look, not to—

Trevor’s phone went off in a flurry of electronic chimes. I jumped. Across the table, Leah looked like she wanted either to burst into tears or throw up. Yuri shook his head, seeming to snap awake. “Whoa,” he said. “Okay, I’ll read mine first, then we—”

A knocking came at the door. Not loud, not heavy-handed; polite, almost diffident. Yuri scowled. “Fuck me, go the fuck away,” he muttered. When the knocking came again, he repeated himself, this time in a shout: “Fuck off, asshole!”

The knocking only continued. Yuri rolled his eyes. I stared at him, trying to get enough breath into my lungs to ask him: couldn’t he see it? The shadow, coagulating thickly around the edges of his front door, like tar seeping through cardboard? Couldn’t he feel the cold in the air? But I couldn’t even get my hand to move as he rose from his chair and strode towards the door. Leah was whimpering. Trevor stared at me like a kid waiting for his parents to explain something he didn’t understand. Yuri reached the door, grabbed the knob, twisted it, and flung it open.

There was nobody there. And simultaneously all the shadow, all the chill, it was all gone. I could move again. Breathed easily. The absence of fear felt almost like being drunk. Yuri looked down the outside hall, then blew out an exasperated breath. “Well, that was—” he began, turning around.

The doorway behind him went night-black. Something reached out of the darkness behind him, seized his shoulder, and pulled. Yuri flew backwards like a stuntman on a wire and vanished, the void that swallowed him gone in the same instant. The door hung open. The hallway was empty.

I sat there still, same position. Couldn’t move a muscle. Leah was the one who went white. Trevor was the one who vomited.

I don’t think it ever occurred to any of us to call the police. We couldn’t have told them anything they’d believe, obviously. But worse than that, we couldn’t have told them anything we’d believe. Every 911 call ever made boils down to one of just two messages: Help me please or It’s not my fault; both at once. Problem is, neither of those were true. They still aren’t.

Nobody could help Yuri, any more than they could help us. And it was our fault.

Trevor cleaned up his sick while Leah had a sobbing breakdown on the couch. I replayed what Yuri’s phone had recorded, over and over, but the lens hadn’t been pointed towards the front door. Again and again, the knocking came; Yuri scowled, swore, shouted, then got up and walked out of frame as the three of us stared after him; his last, almost-inaudible half sentence; and then, the reaction—Leah swaying, me frozen, Trevor doubling over. It was nearly hypnotic. I only came out of it when Trevor tapped me on the shoulder and told me he was walking me and Leah home.

We had to leave the apartment door unlocked, of course.

I don’t remember much of that walk. I barely remember Trevor in the door of our apartment, insisting that it was no problem at all to crash on our couch, and Leah pushing him out, sounding too tired to be either kind or harsh. I remember huddling up under my blankets the way I hadn’t done since I was eight. I think I remember Leah lying down next to me, but she was gone when I woke.

The day crawled by. My manager called once, asking if I was feeling better; I told her no and tried to feel touched when she sounded worried. In the afternoon, Trevor sent me and Leah several e-mails from his office address, carrying multiple links and attachments. I read them without replying. The final message’s subject line had degenerated into all-caps begging, and when I saw it was addressed only to me, not Leah, I deleted it unread. I spent some time looking at the photos and videos of Yuri I still had saved on my phone, trying to think what I’d say when whoever eventually went looking for him started to ask questions.

The light from the windows inched across the floor and faded away. I sat in the deepening gloom. Listening. Every hair on my body stretched out, feeling for a chill in the air.

I am coming.

It was mostly dark when Leah finally got home. She waved a sheaf of paper at me as she came in, apparently unsurprised to find me waiting on the couch. “I printed it all out,” she said. “Everything Trevor found. What do you think? It makes a lot of sense to me, I have to say.”

“I don’t know,” I said. “If this is something we . . . we created, just out of our minds with that exercise, why don’t we have control over it? Why can’t we turn it off?”

“Well, we haven’t exactly tried yet.” Leah flipped on the lights, came over and sat down beside me, shuffling through the papers. “That Reddit discussion thread, about how to destroy tulpas—”

“Where they all say you just have to stop paying attention to them? How’s that been working for you?”

Leah put her hands on her knees and breathed deeply. “The post near the end,” she said, when the color had faded out of her face. “It says one way to actively dissipate a tulpa is to force something into its definition that’s essentially a self-contradiction. Like, if you create an imaginary friend, you have to visualize it doing something nobody you call a friend could ever do, like stealing your ex, or . . . or something like that. And then when it can’t believe in itself the way it was built to, it falls apart. It literally melts down from the cognitive dissonance.”

I snorted. “Yeah, and there are other posts that say the only way to kill a tulpa is to kill whoever created it. Are we buying into that too?”

Leah flushed again. “No! Look, Kris, all I’m saying is that it’s worth a shot. I mean, have you got any other ideas?”

Now who’s throwing everything back on who? I got up and went to the window, glaring out at the traffic whooshing by outside on Bathurst Street; my legs burned. “We could leave,” I said. “Just pick up and get out of here, go as far as we can. See if that makes a difference.”

“‘We?’” Leah replied.

It was my turn to flush, abrupt and fierce. I opened my mouth to snap That’s not what I meant, not at all sure what I had meant . . . and coughed out the taken breath in a gasp, heat draining to cold in an instant. “Oh, Christ,” I gulped, staring across the street. “Oh, shit—Leah.” I pointed, amazed to see my hand was shaking. “Do you see that? Tell me you see that!”

“See what?” Leah had raced to my side, squinting through our images in the glass. “Hang on—” She dashed back to the door, turned the lights out. Darkness dropped over us. The black figure across the road, a silhouette huddled in the corner of an alley, became sharper, seemed to loom closer out of the dark. Leah returned to the window; I felt her stiffen. “Oh, shit,” she breathed. “Kris, what do we do? What do we do?”

Good fucking question. I tried to pull my brain back into one piece. “We could try going out the back door of the main house,” I said, voice hoarse. “We’d have to hop the fence, sneak out through the property on the other side, but . . .”

The figure pushed one hand back awkwardly over its head. Pale hair glinted momentarily in a flicker of the streetlight. And my terror collapsed so completely and quickly into exasperated rage it almost made me puke. “Oh, fuck me,” I said, yanked the window open and stuck my head out. “Trevor! Get your ass over here!”  The black figure jerked; the hat it had been wearing fell off, and Trevor hunched down to grab it as if ducking out of a sniper’s line of fire.

“What the hell were you thinking?” I bellowed at him a minute later on the doorstep of our building. “Were you fucking trying to scare us into a heart attack?” Trevor seemed to shrink as I kept yelling; Leah looked like she wanted to say something but couldn’t think what. “This is not a fucking game any more! We don’t have time for this kind of stalker bullshit—!”

I wasn’t . . .” Trevor’s voice cracked. “I’m not stalking you guys, Kris, God! I just . . . I just want to make sure you’re safe, OK? Both of you! You’re, like, the only people on this planet I give a shit about at all, and if I lost you, I don’t . . . I don’t . . .” He trailed off, swallowed liquidly and scrubbed one hand across his face, not looking at me. “You never answered my last e-mail,” he finished. “I tried to say it all in there. But you never answered.”

Fuck. Of all the times for Leah to be right. I couldn’t decide whether to laugh, cry or scream. “You give a shit about us?” I asked instead. “Fine. Then fucking listen to me and get it through your head: Leah I don’t know about, but I am very definitely Gay All Day, and you know that thing about ‘if this was the last minute before death would you at least kiss me goodbye?’ Hate to say it, man, ‘cause you’re my friend, and I love you, but not like that—this probably is our last minute, and, no. Never. Not ever. Please, just . . . go the fuck home and think about it until you get that.”

Trevor stared at me for a long time, his eyes wet. “I . . . can’t,” he finally whispered, so quiet I could barely hear him. “I’m scared, Kris.”

I sighed, too exhausted for any more anger. “Yeah,” I said. “Me too. So come in if you want. But no more of this shit, okay? That’s done.”

Trevor only nodded, staring at the concrete steps.

I want to say his silence worried me, as we got him set up on the couch to stay the night. I want to say I was thinking about him at least that much. I want to say I was thinking about anything at all but the sick dread pooling in my stomach and the sounds outside our apartment’s front door.

I want to say that all I felt when I went into the bathroom in the morning and saw Trevor hanging from the showerhead, a pair of Leah’s hose serving as a noose, was what anybody would feel: shock, horror, anguish, pain. Rage at the pointlessness, the selfishness. Grief like a hole chewing its way through your gut, even before I read his note through streaming eyes: It took all four of us to make it. Maybe it needs all four of us to keep going. A tulpa dies when its maker dies. Maybe this will break the chain. I’m sorry, Kris. I can’t think of any other way.

I only ever wanted you to be safe.

I was sitting on the cold bathroom floor, note crumpled in my fist, muttering between dry sobs: “Oh, God, Trev, fuck you. Fuck you, Trev. God, God. . .” when Leah came in, and started to scream. Which finally gave me something else to think about besides the sickening, contemptible truth: in that first moment of comprehension, what I’d felt, more than anything else . . .

. . . was envy.

There wasn’t any way to keep the cops out of it this time, though nobody official acted like an asshole. You figure the people who handle this sort of thing learn to tell the fakers from the genuinely traumatized pretty quick most of the time. Not that that’s exactly consoling. I remember one bad moment when one of the uniformed officers gave me a narrow look, like something about my no-I-didn’t-have-the-slightest-idea-but-he-was-in-therapy answer didn’t ring right, but he didn’t do anything except give me a card and tell me to call him if I thought of anything else. Leah had cried herself into unconsciousness before anyone had even gotten there, leaving me to handle the clean-up.

After everything was over and everyone was gone, I went into Leah’s room and sat at her desk, waiting. For a moment I thought about lying down beside her but couldn’t bring myself to do it. The urge didn’t last long anyway. Eventually, she woke up and looked at me, and I knew the truth the instant I met her hollow, reddened gaze.

“He’s still coming,” I said.

Leah only nodded. “He was . . . I recognized the street. It’s in Windsor. I grew up there. I could smell the fog . . .” Her voice was raw, a wreck of itself. “This isn’t . . . I don’t think we made this, Kris. Not completely. Maybe we gave it a shape. But this thing—it’s something else. From somewhere else. I think, maybe, it’s been looking for a door for a long time.” Her gaze dropped to the bedclothes. “And we gave it four of them.”

“And wrote it a fucking set of directions,” I said.

Leah frowned, sitting up. “Wait. What if—what if that’s it? We wrote its path out for it. Who’s to say we can’t write its ending the way we want?” Suddenly energized, she swung her legs off the bed and leaned forward to grab my hands. “This whole thing started as a story. Maybe if we want to finish it, we have to finish the story.”

I stared at her. “Finish it, like . . . how? Just write him going away?”

“Why not?” With what was now almost manic enthusiasm, Leah leapt up, dug her dream journal out of her box, and slammed it down on the desk in front of me. “That’s my book, so you’ll have to write it, but we can do this right now! Come on, come on . . .” Unable to find words to argue, I let her swivel me around, took the pencil she shoved into my hand as she flipped the journal to a blank page. “Okay. Go for it. Draw the door and write the ending.”

“This can’t . . .” But my hand was already moving. Same door as before: rectangle, circle. I closed my eyes and saw shapes move in the blackness. Saw one shape moving slowly, steadily, coming nearer. Leah was muttering in my ear: The road goes ever on and on, and the traveller must follow, no stops, no destination, no visits; no one waits to welcome him, only the endless road, leaving all other souls behind, untouched, safe in the light, safe in the light, safe in the light as he disappears forever—

Jesus!” My entire arm suddenly cramped in vicious agony, driving the pencil across the page so hard it tore through the paper and snapped in half. Leah yelped, jumping back. I wrung my hand, feeling blood seeping from my gouged knuckles. “Fuck! Okay, that didn’t work.”

“No. No, of course it wouldn’t, that wasn’t an ending, that was just a copout.” Leah grabbed the book, flipped to another page and yanked another pen from the desk drawer. “It’s a journey, right? Journeys have to end somewhere.” She sketched a door of her own, this one no more complicated than mine, and paused. “We have to send him somewhere. Somewhere a person couldn’t survive; somewhere we know nothing could survive.” She looked at me expectantly.

I shrugged, at a loss. “Underwater?” I said. “I don’t know! Um, underground. Buried.” Leah nodded, scribbling furiously. “In space. In the center of the sun . . . Wait! No, he wants his door. I don’t think we’re gonna keep him away from it.”

Leah stopped writing and drew a shuddering breath. She never did give up. I’d loved that about her once, before I’d hated how it meant she never let a fight go until she thought she’d won it.

“Doors,” she said. “That was how it happened with Yuri, too. Maybe—maybe that’s the key. Not the words. The door.” I gaped at her as she turned to one more blank page and, glancing defiantly at me, drew a different rectangle: this one wider than it was tall, with no knob on it or anything else.

“You want to put him inside a wall?” Terror drove through me like freezing water forced down my throat. “No! No, goddammit, Leah, if you do that it’s only going to make every wall a door! He’ll be able to get in anywhere!” I leaped forward and dragged her away from the desk, into the middle of the room, holding her by the shoulders as I cast around wildly. “Oh, Christ, he’s close, isn’t he? He can fucking hear it in our heads! Don’t think of him in the walls! Don’t!”

Leah shook her head. “No, shit, you’re right, you’re right . . .” She closed her eyes, taking deep breaths, half-determined and half-dismayed. “Not the walls,” she muttered, fists clenched. “Not the walls, not the walls, not the—”

She stopped, staring down. I followed her gaze.

Two shadows stretched out in different directions from her feet.

Leah’s head snapped up, eyes wide, breath sucking in. “Oh, shit, Kri—” was all she got out, before two massive arms made of something that looked like molten tar exploded out of the floor, wrapped around her, and jerked her back down into it. Under. Through. Away.

So that was three days ago. I’ve been working on this ever since, on Leah’s laptop.

I told my boss I wasn’t coming back to work, after which I unplugged Leah’s landline and turned off both her phone and mine. There was a banging on the door yesterday that sounded like a cop’s knock, but I just stopped moving and didn’t say anything. After a while it stopped. I haven’t eaten much or slept much. Strangely, when I do sleep, I don’t dream.

And now you know why you shouldn’t ever have started reading, whoever’s reading this. Because he gets stronger the closer he gets. If you know about him, he knows about you. The only thing I can think of is that if enough people learn about him, he’ll be—I don’t know—maybe dispersed somehow. Like a drop of ink disappearing in a lake. I want to believe that, because I don’t have anything left to think about the alternative.

And maybe if all I do is give him more people to . . . to take, he’ll be grateful enough that whatever he does with me, whenever he does come for me, maybe I’ll at least end up where Leah is. Wherever she went. Wherever Yuri went. I want to hope maybe somehow Trevor will be there, too, but I don’t know how reasonable that is—

Reasonable. Jesus Christ. I just wrote the word reasonable.

Maybe I should have tried harder to make this story unreadable, unbelievable. Forgettable. But that’s the trick about forgetting: you can’t ever really choose to do it. You can only wait and hope it happens. Sit in an empty apartment, breathing as quietly as you can. You can try to unfocus your eyes. Try not to read. Try not to recognize words. Try not to put them together.

Try not to think of water.

Try not to think of darkness.

Try not to think of the inside of your wall.

Try not to think of the inside of your own body. Of the inside of your own head.

Try not to think of anything.

Try to think of nothing.

The post PseudoPod 673: Venio appeared first on PseudoPod.

Nov 05 2019

52mins

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PseudoPod 514: The Show

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Originally published in BOX OF DELIGHTS, you can read “The Show” online at NIGHTMARE MAGAZINE.

This story was also reprinted this month as part of Nightmare’s special issue People of Colo(u)r DESTROY Horror! Read along with the story over at their site. Listen to two more stories from this issue over on the Nightmare podcast feed, and add it to your podcatcher while you’re at it!

The Show

by Priya Sharma

The camera crew struggled with the twisting, narrow stairs. Their kit was portable, Steadicams being all the rage. They were lucky that the nature of their work did not require more light. Shadows added atmosphere. Dark corners added depth. It was cold down in the cellar. It turned their breath to mist, which gathered in the stark white pools shed by the bare bulbs overhead.
Martha smiled. It was sublime. Television gold.

The post PseudoPod 514: The Show appeared first on PseudoPod.

Oct 27 2016

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PseudoPod 526: The Great American Nightmare

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PseudoPod 526: The Great American Nightmare is a PseudoPod original.

“One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors.” – Plato

“They who can give up essential liberty for temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” – Benjamin Franklin

The Great American Nightmare

by Moaner T. Lawrence

The sky over 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue was clear and blue at 12:00PM EST on Friday, January 20th, 2017. At 12:01, a fleet of Secret Service byakhee swarmed over the abstract visage of what was once The White House. Faster and faster, they beat their jet black wings, until the unholy force tore a hole in the sky. It became a swirling vortex, and the composer Erich Zann, considered missing for over 120 years, began conducting a chorus of six-foot albino penguins, alongside the United States Marine Band to a discordant rendition of Hail, Columbia. Opposite the band, a crowd of three million attendants held fast to a double-reinforced security railing, or anything else they could grab onto, so as to bear witness to the spectacle before them without being sucked into the portal forming above.

The post PseudoPod 526: The Great American Nightmare appeared first on PseudoPod.

Jan 20 2017

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PseudoPod 532: Flash On The Borderlands XXXVI: Artemis Rising Showcase

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PseudoPod 532: Flash On The Borderlands XXXVI: Artemis Rising Showcase is a PseudoPod original.

“When First He Laid Eyes” first appeared in Fireside, February 2016. Sometimes what is scariest in the world is what we normalize. This story is for the women who have lived this reality.

“Eyes That See Everything” is a Pseudopod original.

“Standard Procedure” first appeared in the anthology For Mortal Things Unsung.

“Us, Here” is a PseudoPod original. “A while ago I ran a roleplaying event, tabletop style, that explored a character’s dysphoria and body-anxiety through this kind of “meatscape” environment, basically exaggerating and inflating all of the points of greatest unease, making the internal external. I’d been thinking of incorporating that idea into a more discrete story for a while, and this seemed like a great time to do that”.

“Nothin’ ever seems to turn out right/I don’t wanna grow up”
Tom Waits

When First He Laid Eyes

by Rachael K. Jones

A girl’s first stalker is always a cause for celebration. She will phone her mother with the big news and spill the story in a tangle of words, voice raw with emotion.

Her mother’s heart will swell at her daughter’s achievement. Every mother hopes for this day. A stalker means beauty. A stalker means desire. It is always a compliment for a girl to become a man’s intended. Her mother will fuss over the details: How did they meet? What was he like? When will they see each other again?

These are hard questions for a girl. If her stalker is a proper stalker, if he observes his social graces, his intended cannot pinpoint the enchanted instant when he first chose her, the moment their lives entangled. She thinks it might have been on a dark thirty run at Cape Canaveral, when the humid Southern air pressed hot and moist around her like a stranger’s breath. She remembers red Mars, hazy through the Spanish moss on the oaks. She fancied she could run there if she continued down the trail through the park, past the beach, and on into the Everglades, into an alien world. Her stalker must have spotted her on that route as he walked home from the bar that sold half-price beer to men in uniform. She probably waved to him, because a girl is friendly to everyone. A girl always smiles. A girl ignores the dread in her stomach when a man’s gaze impales her like a needle rammed through a butterfly’s thorax.

Dread is traditional, of course. It is only natural that a girl should feel nervous about her first stalker’s intentions, just as it is traditional for him to weave secret plans for their future together. Whether he intends a courtly affair which worships at a distance, or if he intends to close in on her gradually like a satellite on a collapsing orbit, or whisk her away in his car, or bring their relationship to its final consummation on the cold asphalt of an alley–well, whatever he intends, it would be gauche to spoil the surprise, which he has worked so hard to prepare. His intended should never know precisely what he intends.

A girl’s friends will celebrate with her when they hear the news. Some have had their first stalkers already. They will reminisce about their first time, how they met, what he planned, how it ended. The other girls, the stalkerless ones, will listen carefully to the wisdom of their peers, hoping to glean useful tips for attracting their own admirers. A girl will have to describe her outfit over and over. They want to know everything: the fabric, the cut, her accessories, her makeup. Everyone knows that stalkers prefer a certain look. They almost disbelieve her when she describes camouflage-print sweats, the ones that were supposed to melt her into the trees. A girl is lucky to have done so little and yet attracted him anyway.

No one compares to a girl’s first stalker. No one holds quite the same place in her heart. Others may address her as “Ma’am” or “Ms. Martinez”, “sister” or “Anya” or “Darling”. People call a girl a lot of things, but no one else would dare call her “girl”. That right is reserved for her stalker.

A stalker has the right because no one else is so dependable. Not her boyfriend, whose pride that his girl is intended sours to jealousy over the nonstop attentions. Not her friends, who will not forgive her sudden reticence, her avoidance of public spaces. Not her subordinates, who resent her for her tardiness when she takes labyrinthine routes to work. Not her mother, who calls her flighty when in rapid succession she takes up Portuguese, then astronomy, then sailing, then self-defense. Her stalker is always there for her. In the morning, she watches for him in all the usual haunts on her running route. He will appear, steady as the sun. In the evening, she spots his Ford Escort three cars back on the drive home. At the grocery store, she senses him staring through the gaps between tomato cans. He will watch while pretending not to, and she will do the same. They have come to rely upon each other, call and answer, strophe and antistrophe.

And if distance comes between them, what then? If one morning she fails to appear on the trail for their usual tryst? If he spots a stranger parking her car at an office that is not hers? If the curtains change color in her kitchen window, and a “For Rent” sign appears? If he finds her bedroom strewn with star charts and sea maps, and a suitcase missing? If, from their beach, he watches a sailboat launch into an ocean stained battle-red in the sunset, all his secret intentions swept away in a roar of breakers, a diminishing trail of broken surf?

The truth is this: a woman will attempt an escape. She will throw her weight against the ropes to turn the sails. She will lift the sextant and sight Mars ascendant in Libra, and correct her course against the tyrannical stars. She will watch the continent recede at the aft, while a shore approaches, remote but clear, on the fore.

Only when she has landed will she think of her stalker, when at the dock the locals greet her in a foreign tongue and she finds herself watching for him among their faces, throat tight, heart a-thumping. That is when she will realize that a stalker’s gaze is no needle. It is a hook, and his hand patient, and his line is long, and just when a girl forgets him, he will tug, and she will feel the keen red star pull on her like a baleful eye that will not blink, and remember that she is intended, and what he intends for her is fear.

A girl never forgets her first stalker. This, too, is traditional.

Eyes that See Everything

By Karen Bovenmyer

“Back off, retard.” Jeanne and Stacey block the hallway to the bathroom, arms outstretched, hands knotted together so they make a human chain. “This toilet’s for normal kids.”

Max is angry. I feel him heavy in my pocket, but I don’t want to get in a fight and pee my pants, so I pick Luke instead. I pull him out and his feet get caught so I have to untangle him while they taunt me.

I hold him up so they can hear him. “Excuse me,” he says, in his most even voice, “I need to use the bathroom.” Luke is the most level-headed—thick chestnut hair, denim jeans—non-threatening, like somebody’s brother on TV.

“Get. Lost. New. Kid.” Jeanne nods her blonde head, as if dotting the period after each word. Her movements jerk Stacey forward, who laughs, blue eyes narrow and mean, dark curls bouncing.

Oi! She is vicious, no? ‘Ette talks in the way dolls talk only to me. Her father is in love with another woman. Next week he goes, she will feel so badly, yes. I don’t want to feel sorry for Stacey. My dad works too much, but he is going to be a good dad until he has a heart attack thirty years from now. ‘Ette told me so. I worry about it sometimes, but thirty years is a long time. ‘Ette says I’ll be grown up and out of prison five years and able to take care of myself by then.

“Excuse me,” Luke tries again. “Class starts soon. We will all be late.”

“Not gonna happen.” Jeanne walks forward. I grip Max—his breathless mumbles haven’t stopped—push her down and stomp on her face but you’ll need to elbow the other one show them right for being bitches do it now while they are close and surprised and they won’t be able to stop you before they are both bleeding

Do not listen, ‘Ette says. What trouble he is, non? Be nice, remember Jeanne’s time is close to gone. ‘Ette knows three years from now Jeanne will die in a car crash.

“What is wrong with you?” Jeanne’s face is so close I can see the broccoli stuck in her pointless braces. She shoves me hard. A little pee comes out. She grabs for Luke and I try to yank him back, but she twists my wrist until I let go.

Don’t worry. We will be all right. Luke’s voice is distant and afraid. I lift both fists, Max in one, ‘Ette in the other. Everything about Max is hard and stark—pale skin, black hair, shiny shoes. He has thick eyebrows and a deep frown. ‘Ette’s layered skirts float around her like a tissue ghost, her long white hair in fluffy waves. Her features are too large for her face—huge eyes that see everything under a high forehead.

“Oh!” Stacey’s breath comes out in a gasp. ‘Ette is that beautiful.

“There is no need for this, mon ami,” ‘Ette says. “Life is too short.”

Jeanne turns Luke upside down and laughs. “Is that supposed to be an accent? God! You are such a weirdo.” She thrusts Luke in my face, bobbing him up and down. “I’m a super freak baby who plays with dolls.”

Stay calm. There is panic in Luke’s voice. Not Max.

—hit her in the soft place in her belly and then push her and take the pencil out of your pocket and ram it through her eye—

“Non, non. Put ‘im down gently, s’il vous plaît?” ‘Ette is upset too—more French creeps in. If ‘Ette loses it, we will only have Max, and that will not end well. Max can change even ‘Ette’s futures.

Jeanne grabs Luke’s head and twists. He screams, but only I can hear it.

“I want this one,” Stacey says and she lunges forward, her fingertips tangling in ‘Ette’s hair. I hold on to her, but Stacey kicks me hard in the stomach, pushing me back, pulling ‘Ette from my grasp. Sharp pain, and a hot flood of pee rushes down my legs.

“She wet herself!” Jeanne laughs, then pulls Luke’s head so viciously it tears from his body. His scream stops suddenly.

Non! ‘Ette’s voice is tight with pain. She dangles from Stacey’s fingers as the other girl looks from her friend to me, her mouth open. I will never forget her expression.

Max’s voice continues to howl in my head—the pencil right now while she is laughing—and Luke is silent and ‘Ette is crying and I have an empty hand now so I pull the pencil out of my back pocket and jump on Jeanne, hitting her in the mouth with Max. The pencil comes up, then down at her face.

There’s a soft pop and the yellow spike of wood is sticking out from her eye as she screams and drops Luke’s body. Stacey drops ‘Ette and runs away down the hall, yelling, yelling.

I pick up Luke and ‘Ette and step over Jeanne, who is rolling on the floor, clutching her face, and lean against the wall, sliding down until I’m sitting in my own puddle. Very bad, my little cabbage. ‘Ette says. Now we will go to another school. We are running out of schools.  I hold Luke’s parts and watch Jeanne. But you have saved her, oui. ‘Ette tells me that the boy who was going to ask Jeanne out, the boy whose car she died in, is creeped out by her staring glass eye and never asks her out, so she gets to live, and her braces aren’t so pointless after all. ‘Ette’s whispering voice tells me that Stacey’s father decides not to leave his wife and child just then, after such a trauma, and the other woman gets angry and leaves him instead, so he stays with Stacey’s mom. But I’m barely listening. Luke is broken, and I am broken, and like Jeanne’s eye, I will never, never be normal.

Bon rien,” I whisper over Jeanne’s crying. It’s nothing.

Standard Procedure

by Dagny Paul

When you turn twelve, they take out your teeth. Before that they’re bendy and kind of see-through and can’t do much damage, but after they get hard and brittle. And sharp.

Today is my twelfth birthday.

Mama helps me get ready, using the special soap the doctor gave us. She says that it’s important, that it’s an exciting time in my life because it means I’ll be a woman now, but she doesn’t look at me. She smiles at the floor instead and says that she’s proud of me and that daddy is proud of me, too.

In the last year, I’ve touched my teeth a few times, even though they say you’re not supposed to. They say we shouldn’t play with them because they could hurt us, but they also say we shouldn’t because girls shouldn’t be touching themselves there. I’m not sure which one is right.

My teeth are thin and smooth and getting sharper. I don’t tell anyone, but they feel warm and tingly when I let them open up, yawning, and rub the undersides with my fingers. It reminds me of the way a kitten I once had would open and stretch his claws when I touched the little jellybean pads of his paws.

I like to sit in the bathroom with the door locked, when everything in the house is quiet, and practice retracting them and pushing them back out. When I pull them all the way in, they feel like hard little nubs under my skin. It’s nice to have something I can control, that makes my blood race through my body in happy waves.

I can’t tell Mama because she’s still looking at the floor and smiling at the carpet. I wonder if she wanted to keep her teeth, too.

She pulls a cotton dress over my head. It slips over me easily because I don’t have breasts yet, but Mama says that they’re coming soon, and even if they don’t, getting rid of the teeth is the most important thing. Men will marry a woman without breasts, she says. They will not marry a woman who still has teeth.

I’m not wearing underwear and it feels weird, but Mama runs her hand through my hair and whispers to the floor not to worry, it will be all right.

Daddy doesn’t come, because Mama says he is busy, so she drives me to the doctor. On the way, I practice retracting my teeth and pushing them back out without using my hands. It feels good.

The receptionist tells us to wait in the straight-backed chairs across from her desk. She doesn’t look at me, either. Mama reads a magazine and I look around. There are no windows, but there are posters of smiling girls in bright colors.

I pull my teeth in. I push them out. It’s nice.

The doctor opens the office door and calls us back. He is old and wrinkly and white-haired, and he is the first person to look at me all day. He smiles. I try to smile back.

We walk down the hall to a little room with a table with stirrups at the bottom, and the doctor tells me to lie down on it. Mama has her hand on my shoulder, and it’s shaking a little, but she gives me a push and I climb on the table.

The stirrups have socks that hide the metal underneath. The socks have little happy faces on them, yellow circles with black dots for eyes, a curved black line for a mouth. The doctor tells me to take my shoes off, and when I ask him about the socks he gives me that awful smile again and tells me it’s so my tootsies don’t get cold.

I can hear Mama breathing. She is sitting in a corner on a small, straight chair, and she isn’t looking at the floor anymore. She’s looking at the silver tray of instruments next to the doctor’s stool.

He sits and rolls toward me and tells me to pull my dress up to my waist and put my feet on the smiley-face socks and scoot my butt to the edge of the table. “Scoot, scoot, scoot,” he chants. I do.

He takes a tool from the tray and puts it between my legs. I feel a shock of cold and my teeth come out without me wanting them to. It doesn’t feel good, the way it does when I do it myself, and I am scared.

Mama’s breath whistles through her nostrils.

The doctor doesn’t notice, or maybe he pretends not to. He pokes at my teeth, making little humming noises, and then his head pops up from between my knees and he smiles at me again. He’s still trying to look friendly.

I am cold. My flesh is covered in goosebumps and I want off this table. My teeth feel as angry and naked and exposed as the rest of me.

The doctor turns to his instruments and picks up what looks like a pair of tweezers, long and clean and sharp. Mama says she has to go to the bathroom, and she bumps her shoulder hard on the door on her way out.

The doctor puts his gloved hand between my legs again. I can tell he’s being careful, and his smile falters. His lip curls a little, the way Mama’s did when she found a dead mouse on the doorstep and had to use a plastic bag to pick it up.

He raises the tweezers. “Are you ready?” he asks.

I’m not. I nod.

“This won’t hurt a bit,” he says, and his smile is back, Santa Claus and favorite grandfather. He looks at me for a long time. He wants me to believe him.

I want to believe him, too. But I don’t.

Us, Here

by Victoria Winnick

We are crawling. The space around us is tight and hot, and beads of muggy condensation run down our face– positive feedback ramping up the heat and the wet until the difference between breath and sweat is lost. Finally we’re out, gulping air and lying sweatslick on flesh that heaves beneath us, skin sticking on skin and apart as we breathe, and the ground breathes beneath us.

There’s a pillar in the distance. Thick, veined, prominent; never straight, never upright. It sags against the horizon, its bulk imposing even through the blood haze and the forest of curling spires that look like smoke, or a tangle of wire, or the nest of a bird that built only with ash. Our eyes drift to the shivering mass of it before our mind can process, and the meat below swells under our body, umbrage and shame and revulsion driving it up and around and over, trying to swat us away, a deep and ancient reflex. We sprawl, buffetted, not injured but not unhurt, and try to give the imposing, wilting tower the blessing of our ignorance.

It’s always the same dream.

We close our eyes and we turn, facing the opposite direction, willing the spire out of our minds, but it’s there again on the horizon. Smooth flesh beneath our feet grows rough with tiny pinprick spires beginning to rise here, too. They grow and climb, and perhaps in time there will be another forest of ash on our horizon. Spires climb from flesh in whatever places it remains unpierced, remains unburned, and they will always. We try to run. Eyes pressed shut and meat heaving apart from meat, we tilt to run, heedless, but the first step finds void, and our stomach thuds against our throat as we feel the beginning of the fall.

My leg jerks, and I spasm awake. I feel my hand slip out from underneath the skin at the small of Sam’s back, the junction in my palm snapping loose and severing my connection to her dream. I can’t see it anymore — the fleshscape of her dream, her meat draped in sinew and quivering, the spires, and the ever-present tower above it all. There’s a thick and heavy darkness in our room, but I can feel her shaking, inches away, as the dream begins to overtake her. I’ll never know how she managed to hold on before we found a way to share the strain of it.

I squirm forward and wrap my left arm around her shoulders, pressing her back against my chest. She almost elbows me when she feels my touch. If she were awake, we’d do our ritual exchange of apology and assurance-that-apology-is-unnecessary. And it is, truly. I know just how much it means that Sam lets me this close in the first place. I’d have to be a stone-cold bitch to hold a reflex against her.

I wriggle in close, my lips brushing the nape of her neck, and whisper; “Hold on, baby. I’m coming back.” Reaching down with my free hand, I feel for the part in her skin at the small of her back. It’s raised a little from the flesh beneath, like the hem of a shirt. I curl my fingers around it and lift, hearing the soft, wet sounds of flesh spreading apart from itself, and I slip my hand inside and press down. In my palm I can feel the crests of her spine pressing back against me, and… there. There, between bones, the little metal contacts, mated to the ones in my palm, clicking together with magnets like an expensive laptop and its power cord. It’s not even a second before her body begins to still, her breathing begins to slow, and I am we and we are…

In the dream.

The tower has risen, sturdy for the briefest of moments. This time, instead of trying to look away, we look up. The part of we that is still I whispers, “Look up!” and we agree. Above is other flesh. Not our flesh — flesh that is smooth and uncomplicated, distant as if seen through frosted glass, forming the sky of the world we live in every night. It is flesh that has come to us from places other than our body. Flesh that lives in our mind, set there by light and sound and thought.

We feel a yearning, we fight the yearning, for the impossible flesh that makes us love and hate our own. Our gaze falls back to the meat around us, the meat that is ours, the meat that aches and bleeds and shrivels.  All that we can do is try to live here. Here, where the spires grow up and pierce our feet. Here, where the tower menaces with its shrieking need to be ignored. Here, where disgust will vomit us and doubt will squeeze us and desire will bleed us and we will know every grisly inch. Here, because this is our flesh, and it is the only dream we’ll ever have.

“You are wearing a text. The lines

Droop to your shoelaces and I shall never want or need

Any other literature than this poetry of mud

And ambitious reminiscences of times when it came easily”

Crazy Weather, John Ashbery

The post PseudoPod 532: Flash On The Borderlands XXXVI: Artemis Rising Showcase appeared first on PseudoPod.

Mar 04 2017

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PseudoPod 447: Coo Coo

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PseudoPod 447: Coo Coo is a PseudoPod original.

Coo Coo

by Elan Hold

She’s still here. Now that it’s over, it’s not as bad as I thought because she’s still physically present; they can’t bury her and they can’t ignore her, they have to deal with it.

They watch me with new eyes, tho. They’re waiting to see what will happen.

While she was dying I panicked and got really dizzy; now, I feel strangely calm, but I’m winded. She didn’t have much of a brain but she did do most of the breathing. Without her, I can’t take a good, deep breath. She made these funny little hiccuppy gulps that comforted me, and I’m having trouble sleeping without them.

She died three days ago.

Her head hangs far forward without her holding it up. It was stiff for a bit, but today it’s gone floppy and keeps bumping against my chin. I don’t want to think about the stench; it’s so thick I can almost feel it, but it doesn’t matter because I can barely smell. I got a sinus infection years ago and they didn’t treat it; I burned the poison out using a piece of wire I broke off the cage, and a lighter I stole from Godfrey. They watched that, too. They think I can’t see them thru the one-way glass, but I can always tell, even when they’re quiet. I can sense it, the vibrations. The hairs on my spine stand on end, tickling, tickling. When they’re watching, I like to sleep, or pick thru her hair for lice. But all the lice left her head when she went cold and now I’ve got twice the load on mine.

She would have laughed at that.

The post PseudoPod 447: Coo Coo appeared first on PseudoPod.

Jul 18 2015

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PseudoPod 426: ARTEMIS RISING Women In Horror Showcase: The Devil Inside

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“The Devil Inside” first appeared in SOMEONE WICKED: A WRITTEN REMAINS ANTHOLOGY by Smart Rhino Publications.

“I did actually have a baby this past summer, but she is not possessed or evil – so far as I know.”

To find out more about Women In Horror month, please visit WomenInHorrorMonth.com.

The Devil Inside

by Shannon Connor Winward

‘What do you mean by that, Rebecca?’ the doctor queried. ‘What did no one tell you?’

Becca studied the drops of rain on the window, little falling jewels of light.

She felt evil, just saying it. ‘I read all the books. They warn you about everything that can go wrong. Preeclampsia. Preemies. Feeding problems. But no one tells you what to do when you don’t love your baby. Like it’s … unthinkable.’

Her words hung for a time, as Dr. Marsh scribbled on his pad. ‘It’s quite common. Many women experience post-partum depression …’

‘I’m not depressed, I just don’t love him.’

‘Why is that, do you think?’

Why? Because he didn’t love her back? Because he cried? All the time, always, screeching until his little voice cracked. Because Becca couldn’t cry?

‘I just don’t feel it,’ she murmured.

The post PseudoPod 426: ARTEMIS RISING Women In Horror Showcase: The Devil Inside appeared first on PseudoPod.

Feb 21 2015

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PseudoPod 509: Night Games

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Night Games” was originally published by The Devilfish Review on June 27th, 2014. It is still available to read on their site here.

“If you’re unfamiliar with baseball, consider these two things. One, the pitching mound is a lonely place, not only because the pitcher is separated from the rest of the team, but also because he dictates the pace of the game. There’s a very real sense of isolation and pressure. Two, the catcher is both field general and psychologist to the pitcher. He calls the game (suggests which pitches to throw), and when the pitcher gets into trouble, the catcher goes to the mound to calm him down. As such, the relationship between pitchers and catchers is often quite strong. The pair are often called the “battery,” a word with appropriate military connotations, as the pitcher and catcher form a strategic plan throughout an at bat to get the hitter out.”

The beautiful Horror in Clay 01 – The Murders in the Rue Morgue mug Kickstarter can be accessed at the link! Check it out, for the love of God, Montressor!

Night Games

by Aeryn Rudel

Randall Simmons only plays night games. As he steps into the right-handed box and taps his bat on the plate, he reminds me why. His smile, aimed directly at the pitcher’s mound, is wide and predatory. The bright stadium lights catch for a moment on his teeth, and even from 60 feet, 6 inches away, I see those teeth are too long and too sharp.

The Eighth Day Brotherhood is a new novel by Alice M. Phillips that should be of interest to PseudoPod listeners. If you want a novel with the milieu of The Stress of Her Regard but tighter pacing, look no further. Couple this with the sensibility of Fincher’s Se7en and you have a tense and relentless thriller. Alice’s love for the tenebrous portions of the Decadent period glows through Paris while the Eiffel Tower rises on the bank of the Seine and as the city prepares of the Exposition Universelle. It manifests with an abiding love for the period supported by an incredible depth of research. Do yourself a favor and pick up this book from Black Rose Writing.

The Eighth Day Brotherhood by Alice M. Phillips — Black Rose Writing

One August morning, in Paris, 1888, the sunrise reveals the embellished corpse of a young man suspended between the columns of the Panthéon, resembling a grotesque Icarus and marking the first in a macabre series of murders linked to Paris monuments. In the Latin Quarter, occult scholar Rémy Sauvage is informed of his lover’s gruesome death and embarks upon his own investigation to avenge him by apprehending the cult known as the Eighth Day Brotherhood. At a nearby sanitarium, aspiring artist Claude Fournel becomes enamored with a mesmerist’s beautiful patient, Irish immigrant Margaret Finnegan. Resolved to steal her away from the asylum and obtain her for his muse, Claude only finds them both entwined in the Brotherhood’s apocalyptic plot combining magic, mythology, and murder.

The post PseudoPod 509: Night Games appeared first on PseudoPod.

Sep 23 2016

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PseudoPod 679: The Woman Out of the Attic

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“The Woman Out of the Attic” was originally published in Flame Tree’s Haunted House anthology

Out this week is The Dead Girls Club by Damien Angelica Walters. This coming-of-age horror novel focuses on a group who have named themselves the Dead Girls Club in celebration of the generally nameless victims of serial killers. They played a game when they were kids, leaving one of them dead. The girl’s mother took the blame and went off to jail for years. The narrative alternates between the past leading up to the events of the death, and the present, where we learn the mother has been released from jail. The pacing is excellent, cutting away from each timeline leaving us wanting to jump ahead, but we dare not.

Don’t just take my word for this. This week’s author, Gwendolyn Kiste said “Damien Angelica Walters once again proves why she’s a major voice in the horror and thriller genres…Put this on your reading list now, as it’s sure to be among the top books of 2019.”

Want a sample or a reminder of her work? Make sure to check out the stories of hers we’ve run before, including “Take a Walk in the Night, My Love” and “Falling Under, Through the Dark” and “Scarred.” Or you can check out the original story  “In the Deepest Darkest Holes” that she contributed to our 10th anniversary anthology “For Mortal Things Unsung.”

The Woman Out of the Attic

by Gwendolyn Kiste

Here’s what you know for sure: you won’t survive the film. There’s no chance a woman like you will live to see the end credits. Heck, you might not make it through the opening credits.

But even if you’re dead before the very first frame, that doesn’t mean you’re gone. There are other ways of being in the picture. You could, for instance, linger like a ghost, there and not there. A whisper in the heroine’s ear, a dull ache in the brooding hero’s heart.

But it’s important that you remember: this isn’t your story. None of this—not the man or the glory or the happy ending—belongs to you.

Please don’t forget. Or the film will have to remind you.

Fade in.

You blink into existence and wonder where you are. Who you are. This could be many different places, and you could be many different people.

For instance, if the audience is in the mood for propriety and corsets, this could be England in the 19th century, and you’re the wife tucked away in an attic, forgotten like a yellowed family photo album or a box of moth-eaten winter clothes.

Or this could be mid-century after the war with you as a bright-eyed, wanton socialite, or maybe it’s modern-day and you’re a lonely career girl who isn’t eager to be ignored. After all, there’s never a lack of women who misbehave in a world desperate to correct them for it.

You blink again, and regain your bearings. This time, your role is simple. This time, you’re already dead.

Your husband isn’t your husband anymore, and you’re haunting his mansion where he’s got a new woman at his side, a dewy, ruddy-cheeked bride. She might have a name. She probably won’t. Or if she does, he’ll never use it. Instead, he calls her what she means to him.

Beloved. Wife. Mine.

For what it’s worth, she knows your name. As she wanders the long corridors alone, your name brands itself on her tongue, though she never speaks it aloud. That, of course, won’t stop her from speaking about you.

“I hear she was very beautiful,” his bride whispers, and the staff members on the estate nod and hurry about their business.

This is what you’ve come to expect. Your beauty is the one thing everyone remembers about you. It was all you had to offer. You were never a nice girl. You laughed too loudly. You stayed out until dawn. You enjoyed sex, and sometimes not with your husband. If his new bride wants to do better than you, she should be a good little wife and stop with the questions now.

But perhaps she isn’t as docile as they think. The bride keeps asking, and everyone keeps pretending they don’t know what she’s talking about. Especially her new husband.

“Do you grow roses on the grounds?” she asks him at dinner, and he bristles on instinct.

“Absolutely not,” he says with a snuff, and doesn’t elaborate, doesn’t tell her how he hacked down your dozen rosebushes the day after your funeral, his palms blistered and his face burnt and twisted in the sun.

At the other end of the long table, his bride blushes and regards her plate of sirloin and wilted asparagus. “That’s strange,” she says. “I swear I smell them everywhere I go here.”

At this, he slams down his wine glass, the jagged shards shattering across the scarlet tablecloth. He storms off without another word, and with dinner abruptly over, she sneaks off to the study, where she cries alone at a blackened hearth.

You ripple through the walls after her. You aren’t a very good ghost. A ghost would haunt this young girl, terrify her in this moment of grief. All you want to do is comfort her, though you don’t know how.

As you watch her in the lamplight glow, she reminds you of someone. The gap between her teeth, the way her hair falls over her eyes. You barely remember who you are, but somehow, you remember her.

Films can play tricks on you. They can cast the same person in two roles, or reincarnate someone just for kicks, just to drive the knife in deeper.

You do your best to avoid her, to avoid remembering, but she senses you in the house. She’s the only one who seems to know you’re still here. When he retires to bed in his separate room each night, she whispers to the high-up cornices on the ceiling.

“What do you want?” she asks, her voice sweet as candy floss, but trembling too. “I’ll give you anything. Anything except him.”

You try to tell her you don’t want him and that she shouldn’t want him either, but you’re dead, and nobody listens to the dead.

As she sleeps, you smooth her hair, and you hum her a lullaby to help her through a nightmare. In the darkness, she calls out his name, not yours. As though he’s the one here to comfort her.

Then she returns to dreaming. You pretend you can still dream too.

On a lonely winter morning, you stumble upon her in the wardrobe that was once yours. It’s filled with her satin gowns purchased in expensive boutiques on the Champs-Elysees. You know because those are the same places he took you on your honeymoon.

She runs her fingers along the tailored seams. “I don’t belong here,” she says.

At first, you think she’s talking to herself. Until you realize she’s speaking to you. His bride is having a conversation with a ghost.

You part your lips to respond, but no sounds comes out.

Flashback.

In every version of the film, one thing is a constant. You always ask yourself the same question: how did I die this time?

Maybe it was in an accident. That’s if you’re lucky. More than likely, your end was something much more sinister. A coarse hand around your neck, a dollop of rat poison in your afternoon high tea. So long as you got what was coming to you.

It’s a lesson every girl learns early. Strange women, disobedient women, never claw their way to a happy ending. They put their heads in ovens or stones in their pockets. They swallow lye. They wrap a rope around their throats instead of waiting for a hand to come along and do the job for them.

Or they take the hard way out like you did. They marry a man who everyone loves and wait until the day he no longer loves them.

The film will be halfway over before he makes his confession to his bride. The midpoint is the perfect time for a Byronic man to spew his secrets to a woman who shouldn’t have to listen. But you always listen. Because until he speaks it aloud, you aren’t completely certain how you died. Film after film, you always have your suspicions, but until he names it, you can’t be sure.

“She was so beautiful,” he says, reminding the audience again of your worth.

His gaze is set on some faraway point, and his bride huddles next to him in the bedroom or the boathouse or the bathtub where you died.

“But after we married,” he says, “she changed.”

You could play a game of bingo with the words that inevitably follow.

Spoiled. Lying. Lascivious.

“She had unchaste desires,” he whispers, and says no more about it, because to him, this is your greatest sin, the one too terrible to mention aloud. A woman who doesn’t swoon at her handsome husband, who swoons at someone else instead. Another woman’s husband perhaps. Or another woman.

“I didn’t mean to hurt her,” he says, and spends more time describing what he did to you than who you were. His brow knit, he insists you coerced him into hurting you. How it was all your fault.

You wonder if he’s ever stopped to think how a woman should never be able to goad her husband into murdering her.

“I’m sorry,” he says, his words and heart hollow, and his bride watches him, tears glistening in her earnest eyes. She must be crying for him, but you pretend she’s weeping for you. For how he owns your narrative, and shapes it like clay in his hands.

At this point, you wish you could rewind the film and try again. You would take this new information about your death, and you would try to live. It wouldn’t matter, though. The film would always turn out the same way. That’s because you’re the same. You won’t get a happy ending.

The film has taught you that much.

Jump cut.

Now his bride knows about you. He thinks, his chest puffing out like a peacock, that she’ll feel for him. That she’ll understand him and what he’s done. That he has her in the palm of his hand forever.

But as the winter days wear into spring, she isn’t so worried about him anymore. It’s you she can’t stop thinking about. Each afternoon, while he’s out, she gazes at your faded portrait strung above the staircase. A flicker of memory passes across her face. You want to call to her, to tell her you remember too, but the moment is quickly gone.

Still, the two of you have plenty of time to get to know each other. Her husband’s always away on some obscure errand.

“What does he do when he’s gone?” she asks you, and though you could tell her all about his dubious business dealings, she doesn’t really want to talk about him.

She wants to talk to you. Sitting cross-legged on the lawn, she leans back next to the air you occupy and smiles. She tells you her secrets. She tells you her name. You spend every day together, listening to the sea if it’s nearby in this version, or listening to the wind if you’re landlocked. Or maybe just listening to each other, her body nestled in the dirt where your rosebushes used to grow.

“What are you doing out there in the muck?” her husband asks when he returns home early, but she only shrugs.

“He’s a fool,” she whispers to you in the dark that night, and giggles. You’re desperate to giggle back, to share something as intimate as joy with her, but you lost your voice when he stole it from you.

She turns over in bed to sleep, and your invisible hand lingers over her.

“I love you,” you want to say, but the white noise of your existence rattles in the empty walls, fading like an echo into the night.

Deleted scene.

There are no moments in the film from your point of view. This isn’t your story, remember. But if you could get only one scene, this is what you’d choose: the day you met her.

It might have happened at a boarding school or a Beverly Hills high school or in the forest behind the church where you skipped out early on Sunday school. It doesn’t matter the era or the place. She was always there, and you always recognized her.

It was behind a line of rosebushes where she sneaked off to smoke, so the headmistress or pastor wouldn’t see her. You stumbled upon her there, and she grinned at you, a tiny impish gap between her front teeth.

“Hello,” she said, and you blushed and smiled back at her.

After that, you met there regularly. Every day if you could, you saw her, and every moment, you thought of her. The two of you in the grass, giggling, her hair falling over her eyes.

“We don’t have to stay here,” she said, and you wished that were true. You wished you could run or fly or vanish together.

But you couldn’t, especially once your parents found out about her. They kept you apart, locking you in your room, letting you out only for school and sometimes not even then. They told you what you wanted was wrong, and because you were tired and afraid and worn down, you believed them. You spent every moment for the rest of your very short life hating yourself for it, but you believed them.

So when a man with a fortune and a mansion and no love in his heart proposed to you,  you had no reason to decline. No reason except her.

You asked her to meet you in front of the rosebushes at midnight. She brought her satchel, and this twisted a blade in your guts. She thought the two of you were running away together. It was what you both wanted, but what you couldn’t have. Not in this version anyhow.

You shook your head, not looking at her. “I’m sorry.”

You told her goodbye, and then you left to tell him yes.

As you walked away, you didn’t turn back.

Afterward, no one ever mentioned what happened to her, and you never asked. But it was easy to guess. A razor, a rope, an accident. You already knew how it ended for women like you.

You tried not to think of any of that. Instead, you put on white lace and a string of vintage pearls tighter than a noose, and you took the longest walk of your life down that aisle.

At the altar, he lifted your veil, and you kissed his lips, but all you could taste were roses.

Dissolve.

Back to the house you haunt. Back to being dead.

It’s a humid afternoon, spring rain pattering against the stained glass windows, and his bride wanders down a hallway and hums a song under her breath.

From inside his study where he hunches over a mountain of useless papers, he hears her, and with his eyes dark, he charges into the hallway and takes hold of her arm.

“Where did you learn that song?” he demands, tightening his grasp until she cries out.

She yanks herself free. “I don’t remember.”

That’s because she never learned it, not on purpose. It’s the lullaby you sing to her in her sleep. That means she can hear you, even if she doesn’t realize it. This strikes an ember of hope in your heart. Just because you’re a ghost doesn’t mean you have to give up.

Besides, what you want is so simple: to exist. To not be erased the way the film intends. You aren’t asking that much, but in a world like this, you’re asking for everything. You’re demanding the basic plot be rearranged in your favor.

But that’s what you want, and that’s what you have to fight for.

Close-up.

There’s a box of matches on the mantle. Later, they’ll say it was faulty wiring or a drip candle that didn’t go out the way it should have. They won’t know it’s your hand that reaches through the in-between and strikes the flame into existence.

(These familial estates always burn to the ground, don’t they? Secrets must make for the best kindling.)

You wait until she’s outside on a walk around the grounds, and he’s in his study, but it does no good. He escapes the smoky hallways anyhow, and they reunite in front of the crumbling house. As you stare out the window through the fire, he loops his arms around her, as if to remind you: she’s mine, forever and always. She can’t be yours. Love can never be yours.

She sobs silently into his chest, not looking at you, not able to do anything except cry out.

You want to cry out too, but the flames draw closer and melt what little remains of you. As the world cascades to black, you watch your former husband and you burn and you hate him with every cinder left sparking inside you, until there’s nothing left of you at all.

Fade out.

Try again.

Fade in.

The films starts over. The era might be different this time, and the mansion might be in the Art Deco style rather than the Queen Anne, but the fundamental thing remains: you’re dead from the get-go. It’s pointless to think you could change that, so you creep up into the ceiling and leave her to celebrate what ought to be her wedded bliss.

But she doesn’t want to be alone with him anymore. She wants to be with you. She remembers the before, gauzy as a dream. Bits and pieces, out of focus, just enough to make her want to know more.

“Where are you?” she whispers to the walls, her fingers gliding along the plaster, as though she’s searching for a heartbeat.

Your heartbeat. You wish she could find it.

Her husband leaves the house less often now, especially once he notices her spending more time looking for you than at the dinner table or in the four-poster bed with him.

“You have your duty,” he tells her, and this chills you to the bones you no longer have.

The fire starts earlier in the film this round, and you aren’t the one to light the match. You couldn’t light it if you tried. Your spectral hands are numb suddenly, and you don’t know why.

As the mansion burns to the ground at midnight, she watches helplessly from the front lawn, tears streaking her rouged cheeks. In the final frame, you stare out from the window and wish she could see you, but her eyes stare blindly through you, and because she can do nothing else, she shudders and turns away.

Fade out.

Back into the darkness. Why can’t you just find a way to survive?

Fade in.

In the garden where your roses used to grow, you meet her again, as if for the first time. You’re still a ghost, and she’s still a newlywed, but it feels different somehow. Like maybe this time, she’s yours, and you’re hers.

“I can almost remember it all,” she says to you. “Both of us here before. Do you remember too?”

If only you could smile and tell her that all ghosts can do is remember.

She misses his birthday supper that night, and his anger flares at her, the way it used to flare at you.

“I won’t tolerate this behavior,” he says, and you both know what he means. He sees how she converses openly with you, waiting and listening day and night for you, the phantom hanging over the film.

He watches her through narrowed eyes, his fists clenched, and all you want is to protect her. You want to do something, but you’re so strangely tired now. Too tired even to smooth the cowlick from her hair after the gaslight goes out. It seems the more she remembers about you, the weaker you become. Another trick of the film to ensure it gets its way.

In the last reel, he grins and lights the match when no one’s looking. But even as the wallpaper peels away like flesh, she doesn’t run with him. She stays in the house searching for you until all the servants come for her, coughing and clawing and pulling her to safety.

She screams, as they drag her out the front door. “Where are you?” she calls out, and you only wish you knew.

Fade out.

You’re fading too. Even the dead have a shelf life, and someone might say you’ve done pretty well for yourself. A hundred run-throughs of this film at least. And anyhow, you’re a ghost, and ghosts don’t get happy endings. The same as women like you. Stop expecting anything else.

But this film keeps playing, keeps looping.

Try again. Try one last time.

Fade in.

You can barely speak, barely move this time. There are no respites in the garden, no giggles in the bedroom. You’re thinner than mist and less substantial.

“Please,” she whispers. “Don’t leave me.”

You wish you could stay, but the final scene comes so early this time. His hand that lights the match. A blaze you can’t escape. They haul her to safety, and in front of the burning estate, he pulls her into him with a rough hand.

She recoils and turns back to the house, back to you. The flames move into you and through you, and the end credits are drawing nearer. This is almost over, probably for the last time. Weeping, she gazes up at your window. You expect nothing to happen, just like nothing’s happened before, but an electric look passes between you, and you’re sure of it: she sees you.

And she remembers everything.

The meeting among the roses, the engagement that shouldn’t have been, all the incarnations of the film that came before.

You think she hates you for abandoning her, to condemning the two of you to this fate. You’re wrong. She stares at the smoldering mansion, and with her eyes wild and unafraid, she calls out to you.

This is the first time she’s said your name, and at once, something in you shifts. The weight of the past and a thousand lives lost whirlpool within you, and you’re no longer without form. As the heat closes in on you, you don’t dissolve. You become the fire. Your body is whole again but different: more powerful, and surging through the halls you’ve haunted, devouring everything in your path.

She sees you there in the flames, peering out all the windows, turning the beautiful gowns he bought her on their Parisian honeymoon to ash. She should be afraid. She should run with the rest.

But she doesn’t. She walks to you instead.

Her husband, the man the two of you have shared, glowers on the lawn, his heart cold as the hand he placed around your neck. This isn’t how his story is supposed to end. Jaw set, he starts back toward the house, ready to admonish her, to strike her, to drag her back to him by her hair, but the flames rise—you rise—and knock him backward.

Not her, though. She keeps coming.

He’s frozen there in the grass, choking on the smoke, watching her go. He would scream her name if he remembered it, but she’s merely his wife, his missus, the second incarnation of you.

You aren’t the same as him. You know her name, and over the roar of the fire, you speak it to her. You repeat that name until she smiles and you’re sure she hears you.

She’s on the front stairs now, on the precipice of you. Without hesitating, she swings opens the door to what’s left of the mansion, and the two of you are truly alone for the first time.

“Hello,” you say, as she crosses the threshold, and her hand reaches out for you. The heat of your new body should melt the flesh from her bones, but the flames don’t sear her skin. Instead, she moves into you, and all at once, she becomes the fire too.

Together, you keep burning, and you don’t stop, not when her husband and the staff come with their buckets of well water, or when they bring in a whole village with firehoses and hand-powered pumps. There are more extras here than this film could ever afford.

They’re too late. The opulent floors of the house collapse beneath you, and even once the mansion’s fallen, you keep going. Burning on with no kindling except yourself. All the while, her husband stands there, watching the film he thought belonged to him dissolve to nothing at his feet. The last turret of his estate crumbles, and he screams out again, your name this time, but it’s for nothing. The extras have retreated in defeat, and no one’s left to hear him now.

The last of the Technicolor film stock unspools, but you don’t fade to black this time. Wrapped up as one, you and his bride-no-more laugh together, and as your flames rise to the sky, the scent of roses fills the air.

The post PseudoPod 679: The Woman Out of the Attic appeared first on PseudoPod.

Dec 13 2019

31mins

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PseudoPod 678: The Boy Who Killed His Mother

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PseudoPod 678: The Boy Who Killed His Mother is a PseudoPod original.

Content Warning:
Spoiler Inside SelectShow gun violence

The Boy Who Killed His Mother

by Rosemary Hayes

Nobody wanted to play with the boy who killed his mother. Nick Metcalf understood why in the same way he understood why the sun rose and set. Comprehension was simple for six year olds; things just were. So even though he accepted the other kids in his class avoided walking too close to him (in case they caught whatever made him a “bad” boy), or whispered when he walked past, (that’s him, he killed his own mother) that didn’t mean he liked it. He didn’t. Not one little bit.

One time Nick arrived at school to find “killer” written on a sheet of paper and left on his desk, as if whoever left it thought he needed reminding of the day his world collapsed around him. Maybe he did. If by some miracle he forgot his crime he might start to think he was just like everyone else. For endless seconds he stared at that word scrawled with red crayon, knowing (the way the sun rose and set) this was his label for the rest of his life. If he was meant to have a different label before he killed his mother (doctor, lawyer, president) it shattered the way his mother’s skull shattered when the bullet entered her forehead at close range.

Nick knew the kids meant to be mean by leaving that note but it didn’t faze him. I’m not a killer, he thought. With a million pairs of eyes watching him he scrunched up the note and walked to the small garbage bin at the front of the classroom and tossed the paper in. When he turned around, passive and unsmiling, he scanned the silent room but not one of the pairs of eyes met his own. If they thought to get a reaction out of him they were wrong. This was nothing compared to what his older brother did.

Since the day their mother died Zander hated him. His brother, older by four years, made it his job to punish Nick whenever he could for her absence. Nick tried to hide, run, make himself invisible, but it didn’t work. Each time Nick would yell out, “I’m sorry” through tears and pain as Zander punched and kicked him. One time Zander twisted his arm so hard behind his back Nick screamed and waited for the snap of bone. Only the early arrival of their father from work saved Nick’s arm that day.

When Peter Metcalf walked in and saw his boys – red-faced, sweat-sheened, breathing heavily—his half-uttered greeting turned into a ear-drum splitting bellow. First he picked Nick up off the floor, then he stared at them. After a minute, maybe less, he turned away, picked up the remote control for the tv and sunk into his armchair. The air hissed out of the worn cushions, or it could have been a sigh from his father, Nick wasn’t sure which. To him it seemed the once big man had deflated, crumbled, like the cakes their father tried to make from Mom’s faded handwritten recipes.

Nick blamed himself, of course. By killing Mom, he had killed his Dad too.

I didn’t mean to do it, Nick wanted to say. But the words wouldn’t come. Would it be the truth? He hoped he didn’t mean to kill his Mom, but he didn’t remember much about what happened. He was barely three at the time. What he thought of as “real” memories were few and brief, like flicking through tv stations: bright lights, his mother’s face, first smiling then eyes growing wide, mouth dropping open, a cold weight in his hands, an explosive crack. Was he upset or angry with her beforehand? He didn’t know. Most of what had happened that day he knew from conversations overheard, or discussed in front of him. Accident, they said. A man with fat cheeks and bad breath used to try and make him talk about it (his dad drove him to visit the man every week for three years) and when Nick didn’t talk the man gave him paper and crayons. “Draw what happened, Nick.”

Nick drew a stick Mom lying on the ground in their house. He colored her hair with red crayon, even though her hair was black. He colored her face red, and her dress and the floor beneath her. Next to her sat a little stick boy holding the handgun he found in his Mom’s bag.

The smelly man would put a hand on his head and pat him like dog. “Good.”

It wasn’t good. Nick wanted to forget what he did. But no-one would let him.

From six to sixteen the label followed him, even though his father moved them seven times: different suburbs, different schools. Yet every new place his reputation reached the school gates before he did. He always wondered how, but when he arrived home he only had to glimpse Zander’s hostile eyes to know the answer.

“There’s the boy who killed his mother,” teenagers whispered in the halls when he walked by. All he wanted was to be anonymous. To learn and study. To have a friend. To have a different label.

He had been at the latest school three months, pretending being an outsider didn’t matter, when a gangly teenager with blackheads peppered across his nose stepped beside him as he walked home.

“Hi, I’m Jacob. I’ve seen you around.”

Nick glanced at him, quickened his pace. He had seen Jacob around too. Always alone. Or getting picked on. An outsider—like him.

“I’ve heard about you,” said Jacob.

“Let me guess,” Nick’s voice was monotone. “There’s the boy who killed his mother.”

Jacob sniggered. “Yeah. Guess you hear them all bleating about you. Bunch of idiots.”

Nick flicked his long hair from his eyes. Glanced again at the teenager. Lank blonde hair. Pale skin. He was grinning at him. Unexpectedly a grin tugged his own lips wide. “Yeah. Bunch of idiots.”

From that day Nick started spending time at Jacob’s place. Mostly playing computer games or listening to music in the room with a single mattress on the floor and musty blankets covering the cracked windows. He lived with his grandmother who always smelt of sour wine, smoke and lavender, so strong Nick wanted to gag. But he put up with it because he finally found a friend. He turned a blind eye to some things Jacob did too. Like breaking windows of derelict buildings, pulling the legs and wings off live bugs he caught crawling on his mattress, or pinching his Grandmother’s cigarettes. They weren’t always just tobacco either.

“Ever had pot before?” Jacob lit the joint, as fat as Nick’s thumb.

“Nah. Your Gran really smokes that stuff?”

“As often as she can get it.” Jacob sucked in, held his breath for an eternity before pursing his lips to release the smoke directly into Nick’s face. “Don’t knock what you haven’t tried. Go on.” He held out the joint.

Nick took it, inhaled briefly.

Jacob laughed. “Not like that. Breathe deep, hold it.”

Nick tried. Coughed. Waved the smoke from his eyes. “Think I’d rather drink.”

“Yeah? Wait here.”

Nick waited. The game controller beckoned. He killed a hundred aliens before Jacob came back into the room with a curse, holding up an empty wine bottle. “She can’t have it in the house for more than a minute before she has to drink the lot,” he fumed.

Nick shrugged. He didn’t want to drink anyway. He saw what it had done to his Dad over the years. He drank to forget, he drank to remember. When his words slurred and his eyes turned bloodshot he’d find Nick and talk about Mom. Those red eyes would fill with tears, regret, accusation.

I didn’t mean to do it, Nick would think as he helped his stumbling father into bed. I’m not a killer

They smoked the rest of the joint. Jacob mostly. Nick didn’t feel any different and told his friend so.

“You’re not doing it right. Or you don’t want to do it right.”

Nick stayed silent. Massacred more aliens.

“Hey, I know where to get some booze,” Jacob pulled the controller out of Nick’s hands. “Come on.”

“I was only joking before, I don’t want a drink. It’s illegal.”

Jacob’s red eyes peered at him. “So’s smoking pot. So’s killing someone.”

There it was. Again. Nick’s stomach twisted. “Where’s this booze?” he said, standing up.

Moonlight and artificial light illuminated streets leeched of colour. Jacob bounded away like a pup eager to find its first pole to pee on. Nick zipped his jacket and let his hair fall over his eyes, following Jacob along a half dozen blocks crammed with houses tired of standing, until they reached a park that hardly ever heard the squeals of children anymore. Unless it was squeals of pain.

Under an oak tree Jacob approached a pile of rubbish. Boxes, a blanket, dirty clothes. Then the pile moved.

“Hey, old man,” Jacob said merrily as he approached. “You’ve got something of mine.”

The man pressed his most prized possession against his chest. A bottle of whiskey. “Go ’way.”

“Not ‘til we get what’s ours.”

Nick grabbed Jacob’s arm. “Leave him alone.”

With a yank Jacob pulled his arm free. “In a minute.” He walked forward, crouched in front of the shrinking man. “Hand it over.”

When the man didn’t oblige Jacob stood, then swung his leg in a sideways arc. His foot connected with the side of the man’s ribs.

“Jacob, no!”

“Don’t say my name, stupid!” Jacob rounded on him. “And what do you care. This thing’s a piece of shit, just like everyone else around here.”

“You don’t know what shit is, until you’ve tasted it.” Something in Nick’s tone, or maybe it was the expression on his face, made Jacob stare warily at him.

“Let’s go.” Nick stepped backwards. “Now.”

The choice spun in Jacob’s eyes like a slow-mo flipping coin. With a sniff, a wipe of his nose with the back of his hand, he turned his back on the foetal-curled man clutching his glass umbilical cord. Jacob had to jog to match Nick’s speed as they crossed the park. “I’m not thirsty anyway,” Jacob said. “But man, I am fuckin’ hungry.”

Back at Jacob’s place they raided the pantry. Chips, Oreos, Twinkies. Jacob ate most of it. They shot aliens. Listened to music. Joked. Laughed. Only later, back in his own bed, staring at a ceiling lost in gloom, did Nick feel the anger swell. Why did Jacob have to do that? Sometimes he could be a real jerk. But, he was his only friend. His own father wasn’t even a father, let alone a friend. His brother, well, he learnt long ago Zander was his enemy. How many bruises, how many cuts, how many times had he thought a bone was about to break, before he realised that? To be honest, it wasn’t the fights that made him face that fact. It was the shit.

The day he turned eleven had been a rare good day. The cake his Dad baked was edible. An Aunt and Uncle had visited and brought candy. They took him to the movies to watch a comedy. Nick didn’t remember ever laughing that much. In fact, he didn’t think he had ever laughed at all up until then. But the best part was when his Dad gave him his present—a ten-speed bike. Brand new. Even Zander didn’t have a ten-speed. That night he went to bed forgetting, for the first time, he was the boy who killed his mother.

Dawn had barely started to sieve through the thin curtains when eleven year old Nick’s consciousness stirred. The first thing that struck him was the smell. Invasive. Repulsive. Instantly recognisable. A split second later he realised his mouth was full of shit. He sat up spitting, gagging. When a slimy piece fell from his mouth onto his blanket with a plop, he vomited. Again and again until his eyes streamed with tears and his stomach brought up nothing but bile. Then he heard the laughter and a form loomed from the corner and stood before him.

“Don’t ever forget,” Zander said. “You’re nothing but a piece of shit.”

Even now, all these years later, Nick could still taste it.

For the next few weeks he continued to go over Jacob’s house after school and at the weekends. Neither of them mentioned that night in the park. They spoke about the latest games, the best weapon to use in an inevitable Zombie Apocalypse, the girls at school.

“Macey Myers is the prettiest girl in school,” Nick said, one warm Saturday afternoon. In other parts of town you might hear lawnmowers humming or hedge trimmers buzzing. Laughter.

“She’s a bitch. So’s that best friend of hers, Amy fat-arse. They look at us like we’re specimens in a pee jar.”

“They’re okay.”

Jacob glared at him. “They don’t even go near you. Just like everyone else. Doesn’t it make you mad? Makes me mad. Everyone thinkin’ they’re better than us.”

“When I leave school I’ll get away from ’em all.”

“Where you plan to go?”

“Probably a big city miles from here. Where nobody knows me. Or will ever know me.”

Gunfire, screams, and dying aliens were the only sounds for ages until Jacob said, “What was it like?”

“What was what like?”

“Killing someone.”

A mass of squirming worms appeared in Nick’s stomach. He could taste shit. “Don’t ask. Ever. ”

“Sure.” Jacob shrugged. “But you know me, I won’t knock something ’til I’ve tried it.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

Jacob leaned back and reached into the gap between the mattress and the wall. When he straightened he held a rifle in his hands.

“Where’d you get that?” Nick’s heartbeat throbbed in his chest, throat, ears. He tossed the controller away and stood.

“Found it under Gran’s bed the other day when she was passed out and I was looking for some cash. Think one of her ex’s must have left it behind when he dumped her.”

“Is it loaded?”

Jacob grinned. “Oh yeah.” He put the butt against his shoulder. Aimed the barrel at the TV. Hooked his finger around the trigger. “So what do you say, Nickie boy? Let’s blow this town after we’ve had some fun.”

“What sort of fun?”

He lowered the rifle onto his lap. Smiled. “Thought I’d open my window. Play a little shooting gallery game. Wanna play?”

“You’re joking, right?”

Jacob stood, crossed the small room, yanked down the blanket covering the window with his free hand. Dust motes swirled in sepia-toned sunlight, turning the room into a giant snow globe. “I thought you’d want to join me. We could have turns. Why do you think I wanted to be your friend?”

“You had this planned all along?”

“I dreamt of it all along. I didn’t think it was possible until I found the gun.”

“You can’t shoot people.”

“Some killer you are.”

I’m not a killer.”

Jacob smirked at him, then turned to the window, undid the latch. He tried to open it with one hand. It wouldn’t move. He had to lean the rifle against the wall and use both hands. The window screeched a protest. When the gap was wide enough, he poked the muzzle out, leaning the barrel on the sill. Over Jacob’s shoulder Nick saw a mother pushing a pram along an uneven path; a man jogging, earphones trailing over his chest like white worms; a kid, no more than ten, sitting on a front step on the squat house opposite. Jacob aimed at the kid . . . then tracked the jogger with the rifle.

Until the rifle fired the ear-splitting shot, Nick didn’t really think Jacob would do it. The jogger fell, screaming, clutching his leg. “Did you see that? I got him!” Then he lined up the kid again.

Nick moved. One arm around Jacob’s throat, the other around his chest and yanked him backwards, the rifle barrel scraping paint flakes into the room as they fell. Fought. Rolled. Nick ended up with the gun. He stood over Jacob.

“No more,” Nick said.

Jacob shuffled backwards on his bottom until he sat on the mattress, his back resting against the wall. “Not today maybe,” he said. “There’s always tomorrow.”

“The police will be here any minute, you’ll be arrested.”

“You think? Your prints are on the rifle too, man. I witnessed you stealing Gran’s gun, shooting that man. I stopped you. You’ve killed before, who you think they’ll believe?” He sniffed, wiped his nose with the back of his hand. “And when you’re gone . . . told you, there’s always next time.”

Nick heard sirens. Thought about the kid outside; he’d be sitting on the step another day. Maybe the woman with the pram would walk past again too. Or someone else, minding their own business, going about their day. Just like his mother. He saw her face, her wide open eyes, her mouth dropping open. His body shook, his ears rang. The blood. He didn’t remember the blood back then, almost black, but he saw it now, being soaked up by the single mattress on the floor, illuminated by sepia sunlight swirling with dust motes. He saw so much clearly now.

A note in childish scrawl.

Killer.

The post PseudoPod 678: The Boy Who Killed His Mother appeared first on PseudoPod.

Dec 07 2019

28mins

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PseudoPod 677: When a Beast Looks Up at the Stars

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 “When a Beast Looks Up at the Stars” was first published in Orrin’s third collection Guignol and Other Sardonic Tales

Werewolf Ambulance Podcast:

http://werewolfambulance.libsyn.com/

Pure Cinema Podcast:

http://www.nowplayingnetwork.net/purecinema

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When a Beast Looks Up at the Stars

by Orrin Grey

“What’s the earliest memory you have of your father?” my therapist is asking. Such a tired line, something that a therapist would ask in a movie. I don’t tell him the truth, of course. I cast around for an easy lie, the same one that I would give to Kenzie if she asked, though she never does. Tell him something about my dad wrapping Christmas presents in old shoe boxes, packing them in socks, a twenty-dollar bill stuck between two bricks, wrapped in faded paper. Something that could be cute but always felt mean-spirited.

My laptop case is lying on the floor of the office. In it is a letter on stationery from the Seldon Civics Committee or somesuch, a clipping from the Seldon Herald, complete with a grainy newsprint photo of the old Gorka Theatre, with its marquee like an art deco wave. I’m driving there from here, in a rented black Accord, but I thought it would be a good idea to get one last therapy session in before I go.

No, let me stop. That’s a lie, and I know it. Kenzie thought it would be a good idea, and she’s right, but I knew it would be a waste of time, and it is. I talk about Seldon, about my childhood, about my dad, but I skim over the surface, like I’ve taught myself to do. A rock skipping across a deep, black pond, never touching the water long enough to attract the attention of the beasts that circle below.

I had written a book; nothing actually very respectable, one of those “100 Films to See Before You Shuffle Off This Filthy Coil” jobs, but it made it into the Library Journal, found its way onto B&N shelves, and something of that must have been enough to attract the attention of someone at the Seldon Public Library. I learned, from the letter and then the phone call, that it was still in the same place it had always been—an old bank building, across the street from what used to be the drug store—kept alive thanks to the efforts of the same civics committee that was on the letterhead.

They were trying to save the Gorka Theatre and so were hosting a local film festival for charity. Obviously not big enough to draw in any actual celebrities, they had reached out to me and asked me to host a few screenings, maybe even write a piece about it for the Herald. Local boy makes good, that sort of thing.

So why did I say yes? Did I want out of the apartment, which seemed too claustrophobic now, as I tried to navigate around the not-quite-fight I seemed to be perpetually having with Kenzie, who, bless her, just wanted to help me, but I didn’t want to be better just yet? Did I think it was finally time to confront Seldon, maybe drive by the house where I grew up, or that other house, out on the long dirt roads that criss-crossed each other like gridlines of orange clay? Did I really care about saving the Gorka?

I remembered it from my boyhood. I had watched Tremors there and the Tim Burton Batman. I remembered the big pickles that they sold out of a jar on the counter, the Mountain Dews full of crushed ice, a flavor that I still mentally associated with monster movies on the big screen, even though I hadn’t had a Mountain Dew in probably fifteen years. According to the voice of the lady on the phone, the one-screen theatre was no longer privately owned, was instead kept limping along by the same civics committee that propped up the library, now dedicated to revival showings of The Wizard of Oz and the like.

Did I think, as I told my therapist, as I intimated to Kenzie, that maybe I could get another book out of this experience? If I was a film writer, after all, then the Gorka was my ground zero, wasn’t it?

I had memories of my parents dropping me off, the truck idling in the grocery store parking lot across the street as my mom pressed a few crumpled bills and pocket-warmed coins into my hands while my dad wasn’t looking.

The marquee was lit with neon pink, which spilled out onto the sidewalk around it. I remembered the strange tingly feeling I got when I saw older kids making out in the shadows of the alley next to the theatre. I remembered the way that the guy behind the counter—Sam Gorka, I know now, but didn’t know or care then—always knew my name, handing me my pickle or my Mountain Dew and smiling at me beneath his paper cap.

There had to be a story here, right? About my going back to the place where I learned to love movies, to love that tingle of expectation that crackled through the theatre like static electricity when the house lights went down. About the long walks home through the small town dark, hugging the middle of the side-streets rather than the sidewalks, because the sidewalks were full of shadows that suddenly loomed up tall. About sitting next to Stormy Willis in those ratty theatre seats, letting my knee brush against hers. About my own first kiss in that darkened alleyway, all hot and sudden and confusing.

What had the Gorka been to me? A place to escape a home that I remembered mostly as dark rooms and heavy silences, the furniture and the walls and the dark curtains all blending into a fungal mélange of lichenous drabness in my memory. Only one thing clear, my father’s voice, telling me how useless it all was. What was the line, the one that Walter Matthau gets in Hello, Dolly? “You artists produce nothing that nobody needs never.” My father would have agreed, even if he would have hated the movie, if he ever saw it, as he had seemed to hate most things.

That was the story that I had told even myself. That this trip back to Seldon would be good for me; good for my therapy, good for my nonexistent career. I dutifully ignored the voice in my head that knew better, that knew that if I was able to write about myself and my feelings at all then I wouldn’t be writing about movies instead.

They’ve graveled the roads since I was here last. I listen to the tires make that satisfying crunch as they roll over the new gravel because I’ve exhausted all of the downloaded episodes of Werewolf Ambulance and Pure Cinema Podcast on my phone. I wasn’t sure I would be able to find the house on my own, but here I am, rolling over the cattle guard and up to the place where the big gate used to hang. The sun is going down, it’s turning the whole sky orange and red. The sun itself looks like a squashed tangerine and all the light is the color of that scene at the end of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, with Leatherface dancing in the middle of the road.

The house isn’t where I grew up. When I was a kid it was my grandma’s house. It had been my grandpa’s farm once, but he died before I was born, and she hired young men from town to come take care of the cattle when it was time to sell them or brand them or do anything but milk and feed, which she handled herself until her dying day. I remember the house as a dark place—dim and faded, like an old sepia-toned photograph.

The sun doesn’t help now, shining through the slats of the house, through the broken out windows, turning the whole place into a silhouette, a paper cut-out of a Halloween haunted house.

My grandma died when I was in high school and my parents moved out here for my last summer. I spent three months in one of the upstairs bedrooms before I went to college, with a view out that window right there that took in the then-depopulated cattle pens, like something from a photograph of the Holocaust. But it was never home to me.

I park the car, shut off the engine. The fence is still here but the gate is missing. I walk up to the house, where all the windows are broken out, the paint stripped off by the merciless Kansas wind, the insides filled with broken wood and rat droppings. The house seems thin now, like a façade in a stage play or an old TV show. It seems like I could just reach out and push it over without much effort.

Why did I come here, rather than to the house where I spent most of my childhood, the house where now some other family lives? To my left are the cattle pens, and next to them the barn, which still seems solid and sturdy. Against the setting sun, it is a black block, a monolith. No light cuts through its walls or roof, but contrast also makes it impossible to pick out any details of the structure from this distance, and I don’t walk any closer. Scared of it, as I always was when I was a kid, when it was still full of big, roiling walls of flesh, of animals with bland eyes that seemed to look through you, behind which I could detect no consciousness.

My room is in the Stardust Motel, next to the Pizza Hut on the edge of town that was there even when I was a kid and the Speedy Stop gas station up at the top of the hill. There’s a Coke machine three doors down from my room that has ginger ale, and the bedspread is itchy, the shower missing its shower head so that the water just comes out in a gush, like from a tap. The water is pleasantly hot, at least, and the room only costs around $70 a night, so I don’t complain to the scraggly-looking kid who sits behind the front desk, sporting a patchy beard and mustache that haven’t yet completely grown in.

The town is different than I remember. Already when I was a kid the tides of prosperity that once buoyed up places like this were beginning to recede, and in the twenty short years since I was here last, they have drifted so far afield that they can no longer be seen, even on a clear day. More buildings stand empty than not, and those that have fallen have been replaced with characterless constructs of manufactured sheet metal, when they have been replaced at all.

Before checking in to my room, I drove down Main Street, looked in the empty storefronts. There’s a Dollar General Store now that wasn’t there before, and the lights from the grocery store were still on, though the place was closed for the night. I knew that the library wouldn’t be open either, so I sat in the middle of the road on Osage Street and looked at the darkened marquee of the Gorka Theatre, the dark alleyway next door, before I drove back to the motel and picked up my room key.

No cards here, still keys with those big plastic keyrings that will ship the key back if you drop it in a mailbox somewhere. It reminds me of The Shining, but here the room numbers only go up to 23.

I should call Kenzie, but instead I just text her. Let her know that I made it okay. Then I do my usual hotel routine of turning on every light in the place, even if, in this case, that consists of a yellowy dome light populated by the bodies of a handful of dead bugs and a table lamp by the single queen bed. I take a scalding shower, then sit on the scratchy bedspread with my laptop open in front of me, pretending like I’m going to write up something worthwhile about my trip so far until I finally just put in a DVD and fall asleep to the sounds of big atomic ants eating people out in the desert.

The next day I meet the librarian for breakfast at the Main Street Café, where she just drinks coffee into which she dumps creamer after creamer. I tell her I don’t drink coffee, and I order a Coke, even though if you asked me I’d tell you that I don’t drink soda anymore, either.

She looks like someone who got shrunk in the wash. Her wrists are skinny, her hair and glasses both too big for her face. She wears a floral print dress underneath what looks like the jacket from a navy-colored pantsuit. She could have been the librarian when I was a kid; I don’t remember that librarian looking any different than this.

She tells me how pleased she is that I was able to make it, how proud she is that someone from Seldon is a “famous writer.” I don’t bother to correct her. My eggs come out overcooked and rubbery on top of a pile of hashbrowns, so I chop up the whole concoction and dump some ketchup over it, wash it down with the forbidden taste of Coke.

Around breakfast, I answer the librarian’s effusive if uninformed praise by letting bland platitudes fall out of my mouth, as I have trained myself to do. I tell her about how some of my first expo-sure to film writing came from the old orange Crestwood House monster movie books that they used to have in the library here, about my early memories of the Gorka. She beams, like she’s supposed to, and I eat my food.

It’s Saturday, and the film festival is supposed to start this afternoon. To my surprise, they’re showing Paper Moon instead of The Wizard of Oz, and then they’re following that up with some made-for-TV-type pioneer movie that I’ve never heard of that was apparently filmed nearby. “We also found an 8mm film that was shot by a local filmmaker back in the 1970s,” the librarian says, “and the school had a projector that can play it, so we’ll be ending the festival with that.

“We’re so glad that you came back after all this time,” she murmurs, pouring more creamer into her coffee, stirring and stirring it with a little metal spoon that clinks against the edge of the cup.

“Everyone comes home sooner or later.”

In the slaughterhouses, they used to kill cows with hammers, right? Until they replaced the hammers with those pressurized air guns, like in No Country for Old Men. I saw my dad do it once. Kill a cow. No, not a cow, a calf. Kill it with a maul, blood on blunt steel. My dad seemed huge then, leathery and creaking, like an automaton made of bone and sinew.

That’s the memory I never tell to my therapist, to Kenzie, just like I never tell them that I was afraid of him, always afraid. Not of what he would do to me—the fear never got that specific—but of what he was. Something alien, something I could never understand, never get inside, while he was already inside of me from before I could form memories. My own voice in my head speaking his words, like a wooden puppet on the lap of a ventriloquist.

Telling me how useless everything was, what a waste of time was everything into which I ever poured my energy.

In the end, he was the one who looked like a puppet, reduced and shrunken, hooked up to the marionette wires of the hospital machines, nothing like the leathery golem of my childhood memories, blood dripping from the hammer in his hands, the mindless squeal of that dying calf echoing in my ears as I crouched in the darkness of the barn, the smell of blood and brains and hide filling the air.

By then, the time to confront him was already past. My mother had died years before, and he and I had stood silently on either side of the casket, nothing more to say to one another, not even then. At the end, there was nothing left in that withered husk, nothing that burned out from behind those dark eyes. If I was going to stand up for myself, I had already missed my chance, so I just stood there silently once again, my eyes on the floor, while he stared at me, his eyes cold and hard and mindless, like the cows in their pens. I walked away without saying anything. He died sometime in the night, and I didn’t drive back for the funeral.

Between Paper Moon and the other movie, Frontier Song, or whatever it’s called, I walk out onto the street for some fresh air. The sun is sinking behind the grocery store, and someone has turned on the Gorka’s marquee. Pink light paints the sidewalk under my feet, and I look up at the sign to see that about half of it is burnt out. Past it, I can see the stars just beginning to pepper the darkening sky.

The inside of the theatre looks almost exactly how I remember it—the ticket booth and the concession stand in the same place, the carpet still threadbare. The old movie poster frames have been taken down and replaced with painted reproductions of the posters for a couple of classic films, while the walls have been repainted and are already starting to peel again. The chairs inside the theatre are just as they always were—hard and narrow, smelling faintly like a thrift store—but I’ve got a couple of them roped off just for me, next to the librarian and a man who looks like a pastor and says that he’s from the civics committee when he shakes my hand.

Normally I would never agree to host something like this without getting to see the films first, but there’s not much that’s required of me here. Most of the seats are empty, and those that are filled are all clearly occupied by locals. The majority are people who look like they just came in from church—old and flabby and attempting to look prosperous in suits that they obviously wear only for special occasions—while a few are local teenagers who are unlikely to appreciate anything that’s on the day’s docket.

Before Paper Moon, the librarian got up in front of the crowd—such as it is—and introduced me, talked about my book as though it was a New York Times best seller, and then I walked up in front to a scattering of compulsory applause. I talked a little bit about movies, about growing up in Seldon and coming to the Gorka, and then I sat back down and the projector sputtered to life, and that was it.

Before I left the hotel, I popped a pill from the case that I keep in my pocket at all times, and now, standing out in the growing dark in front of the theatre, I chase it with another one, dry-swallowing. The concession stand inside is open, staffed by a kid with greasy hair under the same kind of paper hat that Sam Gorka used to wear, and I decide to go in and see if they have any Mountain Dew, if they still have crushed ice.

Inside the lobby the librarian is talking to the guy from the civics committee. When they see me come in, they both smile big, beaming smiles at me. I smile back, like I’ve trained myself to do.

I learned a long time ago that animals that behave themselves don’t draw unwanted attention.

The pills make me drowsy, and during Frontier Song I mostly doze off, so that I’m half-surprised when the credits are rolling and the house lights are coming back up. The librarian shuffles to the front of the house and leads a round of undeserved applause for the movie that just finished screening. “While our volunteers get us set up for our third and final film,” she says, “I want to say a few words about this theatre, and the movie that you’re about to see.

As most of you probably know, this theatre was started by Samuel Gorka way back in 1953, and it stayed in his family for two generations. What we’re about to watch is a short film that Samuel shot right here in Seldon back in the 1970s, using all local cast and crew.”

This time the applause is a little more heartfelt. Samuel Gorka had been the father of the Sam Gorka I knew; I remembered seeing him from time to time, a wizened man by the time I was a kid, who occasionally haunted the theatre like a ghost, mostly spending his time in the projection booth. A memory hit me then, sudden and hard, one that I had set aside and lost over the years, of Sam saying to me, “Dad treats those projectors like his babies.

Nobody else knows how to run ’em like he does.”

I look up at the window of the projection booth, but can’t see anything behind it from this angle. My imagination conjures up an image of Samuel Gorka, little more than a mummified corpse by this time, shriveled up like those shrunken apple heads that Vincent Price used to peddle in the backs of comic books, still running the projectors that no one else knows how to operate.

Before I can chase the weird fantasy too far, however, the librarian is sitting back down in the chair next to me, the house lights are going down, and the projector is sputtering to life once more.

The film is dark, which means that the house is kept dark, so that everything around me is murky and lost, save for the occasional glint off the librarian’s glasses. My fingertips are resting on the cold, sweating surface of my Mountain Dew, the wax paper damp under my touch. The footage is amateur, handheld, like a home video. Something that I would expect to see in a modern found footage horror movie. The setting is dark, lit by the flickering orange glow of long torches stuck into the ground, of a fire that’s somewhere off camera.

The cameraman is approaching a structure that I recognize, even past the darkness and the grain of the film. The door of the barn on my grandma’s property is like the mouth of a cave. In the background are the cattle pens, newer than I have ever seen them looking, and within them dark shapes that are not cows shift and jostle.

There are people gathered around, lined up on either side of the dirt path which leads up to the barn door, like they are watching a parade. It takes me a moment to realize that they are naked, their skin decorated with crude daubs of paint or mud. The people in the crowd are a mix of genders and ages. Here sagging bellies hang over flaccid genitalia; there taut, firm breasts are decorated with circles around the nipples. One man strokes an erection, but the camera doesn’t linger on the crowd.

From out of the barn door steps a minotaur, a sledgehammer cradled in its hands. No, not a minotaur, because the head isn’t that of a bull. The figure is just a man, isn’t it, in a rubber goat’s head mask and yak-fur leggings? Like Satan on his rock in Hammer’s The Devil Rides Out. But that doesn’t look like a mask, even in the grainy 8mm footage. It looks like an actual goat’s head, hollowed out for a man to stuff his own head inside. Yes, there’s even something, black stuff that must be blood, dripping down from the stump of the neck, staining the man’s torso in little smeared rivers, and all I can think is that he must be choking on the stuff inside there, his mouth and nose and eyes full of gore and filth. How could he stand it, even for the short duration that the camera will stay on him?

But the camera does stay on him, doesn’t flinch away, as it would in a studio film, to preserve the illusion, that glimpse of something wrong that stays stuck in your brain because you can’t fully process it, and so you fill it in, build it up. No, here it stays and stays, staring, transfixed. It draws slowly closer. Not a zoom, the cameraman actually approaching with shaky steps. Closer and closer to that bloody goat’s head mounted atop that leathery, familiar body.

Up close, it’s clear that the goat’s head is real. There’s nothing else it could be. And yet, and yet, how did they get the eyes to do that? To glow like that, yellow like that, with life behind them?

Those slitted, sideways pupils slightly narrowed in the middle, like hourglasses turned on their sides, the yellow around them glowing like a Tiffany lamp.

The cameraman is kneeling in the dirt now, looking up at the figure towering above him. I’m six years old, crouched in the dark, watching my father bring the maul down on the head of the calf, watching how its eyes change when it dies, hearing that squeal that has never left my brain, the stench that I sometimes still think I can smell in my clothes. The goatman raises the hammer up above his head, and the film doesn’t flinch as the blow falls.

I think that the camera is laying in the dirt now, still filming, but I can’t be certain because the film is starting to run in front of me, to wobble and distort. I can feel the beads of sweat on the cup against my fingertips, and I try to stand up, but the theatre seems to spin. The librarian is asking me something, and there is laughter in her voice as I stumble against the seatbacks in front of me, pitch forward, and crumble into the darkness between the theatre seats, then into a deeper darkness yet.

I wake on my knees, with a bag over my head. Under my jeans, I can feel the dirt, and I smell the rank stench of old hay and animals. Through the bag, I can see the flicker of flames, and I know where I am, even before they pull the covering off.

I’m kneeling in front of the door of my grandma’s barn, and all around me are the people from the theatre. They’re dressed for an older kind of church now, their clothes shed, their naked bodies daubed with what I now know is not paint but blood mixed with earth.

I wish that I was thinking of Kenzie, regretting the distance that I have always kept between us, but mostly I’m thinking of myself, of the stench of that dying calf, and other memories that I thought time and distance and ritual had scrubbed away. The stone has stayed too long on the surface of the pond, and now those circling creatures below have started to rise.

The figure steps out of the darkness, and I know it immediately, even as I know that it is impossible. The severed goat head drips black blood down across that familiar chest, and the hammer rests in those familiar hands. Its steps are mechanical, like a puppet being pulled forward by invisible cables, like the figures in one of those mechanized dioramas in a penny arcade. It steps forward, one foot, then the next. The hammer rises in its hands; a spring being wound tighter and tighter.

I look up at the stars that seem like they’re being blotted out by the goatman’s shadow, and wait for the blow to fall.

The post PseudoPod 677: When a Beast Looks Up at the Stars appeared first on PseudoPod.

Dec 02 2019

38mins

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PseudoPod 676: Things My Father Taught Me

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PseudoPod 676: Things My Father Taught Me is a PseudoPod original.


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Bigotry, genocide
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This story is based upon Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart,” though it’s set in modern-day Nigeria rather than colonial times. Beyond the locale, it has a few deliberate parallels. I loved how Achebe qualified the characters’ actions with wise sayings, which is something we’ve all seen before, but I have a soft spot for the device. The characters use the voice of tradition to give their actions weight, and so that’s an idea here too. Even the title speaks to it. With all the Shakespearean suffering in the original, I was convinced Achebe would focus on a father’s loss of a son. I’m still surprised that that was just a background detail, and so “Things My Father Taught Me” is the separation I wanted to see. It’s that same loss with a new family.

Things My Father Taught Me

by Rhoads Brazos

My father taught me old knowledge, not all of it useful. It was mostly platitudes that sounded profound until you realized that they were just the logic of one’s own wits. But I hold to this: If a man wants to go quickly, he travels alone. If he wants to go far, he travels with friends. Simple, direct, useful. I wanted to go far.

I was with Bwambale when he found the grenade amongst the scrapyard’s refuse. His uncle owned the business, an acre of steel skeletons rising from rust scale sheddings, and we often rooted about the new collections. His uncle was not a generous man, but if he didn’t know what it was that we had found, like the grenade, then we might pick it up cheap. Which is what happened.

And so afterwards, the three of us–Bwambale, myself, and our friend Godfrey–crouched in the dust behind the Soroti central market, looking as if we were throwing dice in its scant shade. The grenade sat between us like a squat little god.We wanted Godfrey’s opinion. Being the oldest, nearly twenty and full of wisdom, we valued his insights. His hair was already thinning, and his forehead swept back sharply like a falcon’s. The left lens of his round spectacles was cracked, and I wasn’t completely convinced he needed them. They might be an affectation. Understandable. A man should point to his strengths with two fingers–another of my father’s aphorisms.

“Concussion,” Godfrey said.

I had no idea what he was talking about.

“Mori,” he said, “you are truly stupid. Look.” He tapped at the grenade but was careful not to touch it directly. “You throw it high and when it lands, it doesn’t chew up your enemies. It thumps them so soundly that they fall asleep. Rather, it does.”

Bwambale’s eyes burned like two embers in a pool of pitch. “My enemies?”

“I am not your enemy,” Godfrey said.

“Nor am I.” I tossed a pebble at a stork that for the last quarter-hour had been watching us. Its ill breed flew in from Lake Kyoga to scavenge garbage off the streets of Soroti. The bird was a hideous thing with a face that seemed to be inside-out. I didn’t care for its hungry gaze.

“I know how we can make money,” Bwambale said. “You want money?”

We wanted money.

“Who has it for us to take?” he asked.

“Your uncle,” Godfrey said.

Bwambale scoffed. “He has the wealth of two paupers.”

“General Kony,” I said. The General was still on the lam, although his Lord’s Resistance Army and its thousands of child soldiers still roamed northern Uganda. I couldn’t remember a time that they hadn’t. If you were young, abduction was a way of life.

Bwambale squeezed his hands into two fists. He spoke hoarse and low. “You are mad.”

“The market,” Godfrey said. “But they don’t deserve that…”

“They don’t,” Bwambale said. He scooped up the grenade and balanced it on his palm like a bird’s egg. “I intend that we sell them goods.”

“We don’t have any goods,” I said.

“We are about to.”

I tossed another pebble at the stork. It struck it directly on the crown. The bird turned, snapped up the pebble in its long crusty beak, and out of vengeance, I thought, swallowed it like a tadpole.

Bwambale smiled.

The blue-helmeted Frenchmen came through town every weekend in one truck or in two. They filled their tanks with petrol and then drove the long way around the lake to Jinja, distributing charity in their wake. Food, clothes, useful implements–these were free to whoever grabbed them first, usually the wrong sorts, as most everything wound up being resold. From what Godfrey claimed, the Frenchmen then headed into Kenya where it was safer.

Sometimes, while the Frenchmen refueled their long dusty truck, we washed their windows. They didn’t tip many shillings, barely enough to buy banana pancakes and cassava chips between us. On a generous day, we might add a carbonated indulgence. Still, our situation was of Mistress Fortune’s design. Our faces were familiar.

There were always two men in the front cab, and we knew another fellow hid in back with the cargo. We never saw him, but had been scolded for getting too close to the rear hatch, and so it was plain that he was there. What these men had was of worth and they guarded it subtly to avoid undue attention.

And so, the next weekend, we waited near the petrol station. Bwambale and Godfrey’s cudgels drove off the younger children. They watched from the sweet shade of the jackfruit grove. They knew we had grave designs. Whether he wants to or not, a man wears his intentions boldly. Once more, my father’s wisdom. It would never be added to. I couldn’t afford to stay. An ambitious man only waits for the sun to rise; everything else he makes happen.

A truck approached and my blood was singing. Since there was no partner, this would be the day.

The truck creaked to a stop at the petrol pumps, heat bleeding off its engine like a fever. The two Frenchmen hopped down. They were as pale as watery milk and smelled of cloves. We shouted greetings and they waved in kind. That’s when we struck. Bwambale clubbed the heavyset man with more force than I wished to see. He may not be rising again. Godfrey jabbed the other hard in his soft gut, and the fellow’s breath wooshed out in a great blast. I’d already yanked the grenade’s pin. It was lost somewhere in the dust. I raced the length of the truck, counting to five, six, smashed the glass of the back window. Eight, nine? I threw the grenade in, fell back with my hands over my ears.

I may have counted too fast. Godfrey said that if the grenade went off in my hand then the birds would snack on my fingers. But there couldn’t have been more than two seconds extra, three at the most. Thoughts spun in my head, chiefly, what if it’s a dud?

It wasn’t.

My body lifted from the hard-packed earth, and I was floating. I was an oily iridescence sliding upon the puddle of the world. I was alive. I was dead. I was both. I dreamed of the future and all the wonderful things it held. Lacquered furniture, shade and soft music, a beautiful wife. A hand grasped my own. I was not sure whose. Its grip yanked me to my feet and I was pushed up into the cab. My belongings were tossed in after me. It’s a sad state of affairs when a man can wrap his world in a gunnysack.

But as my father used to say: We don’t hold our most important possessions in our hands. We hold them in our hearts.

I didn’t remember our escape. I blamed the concussion. Later, Godfrey described how he and Bwambale threw the men from the back compartment and how they fell as limp as laundry. They were stripped of their weapons, ours now. The onlooking children cheered, and before any elders reached us, we were off in the truck. As a ruse, Bwambale drove southeast. A couple kilometers away, he juked the truck off-road and met a disused track he’d scouted earlier. We headed north.

This isn’t to say our plan was foolproof. We had bested the angels and left them bleeding. We had their ride and their treasure. But there was an eventuality we’d overlooked. The Frenchmen had been refilling in Soroti for a reason. On a dusty red track scored from the flesh of Uganda, we coasted to a stop.

Bwambale pounded the wheel and swore every curse he knew. I argued with him over our next course of action. Abandoning the truck would be dismal. We’d gambled everything in an empty exchange.

We had yet to hear from Godfrey. He squinted at the passenger mirror and our settling dust. “It is suicide to return.”

The Frenchmen would be searching the city. We couldn’t go back.

He spoke to Bwambale. “How far are we from Arapai?”

“Ten kilometers, twenty?”

“You always brag of your stride. There are none so swift.” Godfrey said the last in a sing-song voice.

“I am not a braggart.”

“Prove it.”

Bwambale scratched grime from the wheel with his nails. He flicked it away. “I have to return too.”

“That would be wise.”

“Time cannot be bought,” I said, “only borrowed.”

“Our poet,” Bwambale said, and cracked open the door and slid to the road. Godfrey tossed him the driver’s wallet. While I had been woozy, the two had relieved each Frenchmen of his effects. With one last smoldering look at the truck, Bwambale departed down the track at a long lope, which I had to admit, was quite impressive.

“We shall have a wait,” Godfrey said, and passed me a pistol. I tucked it in my jeans. “Come.”

We circled around the truck’s back and unfastened the hatch. Its lip was bloodstained. As Godfrey explained, the grenade had gone off in a man’s lap, there had been some blood. The pronouncement made my insides tumble. Godfrey rubbed a palmful of dirt over the evidence.

He opened the door. Inside, it was a slaughterhouse.

I couldn’t imagine men escaping this and still breathing. The floor was slippery and the air stank like a charnel pit. The stacked boxes, not as many as I’d supposed there to be, they were still intact. French stenciled their sides along with cryptic markings I was embarrassed to not understand, because I had the impression that the average child was meant to. Red was a warning, after all. In the center of the truck lay a long, low box. It was set off from the others, not even touching them.

We peeked into the open containers, expecting to find dry beans and meal. We found diesel generators, a vast array of lights, long ropey cables, and gadgets covered with screens and dials.

“A metal detector,” Godfrey said. “Hallelujah, look at this! Cameras.” He pulled out one in each hand. They were massive, all-black with long tubular noses, like nothing I’d ever seen. He flipped a switch on one and pointed the barrel at me. It snap-flashed like lightning, and he showed me a picture of myself on its little TV screen. My face looked thin and scared.

“We can’t sell these at a market,” he said. “They are worth too much. My man, we are rich.”

“Who will buy this if not shopkeepers?” I asked.

He dismissed me with a wave of his hand. “Interested parties, men of means. We must only reach the city to find them. We want to be paid in pounds, not chickens, yes? And this vehicle”–he stomped on its floor–“we shall trade it too. Fifty head of cattle. Fifty, I tell you! But we will insist on pounds.” He pointed to the long box.

We had yet to open it. Its slats were nailed shut and wrapped with chain, four times about its breadth, twice about its length.

We found a few tool chests, a veritable treasure that we could sell for half a year’s pay, and Godfrey passed me a pair of long-handled bolt cutters. Though they had great value, the locks had to be sacrificed. If any of the Frenchmen had had keys to them, neither Godfrey nor Bwambale had found them.

As I worked at the locks, snapping through each with some sense of regret, Godfrey picked up a rifle. There was a stack of them along with a pile of pistols, knives, and other dangerous implements picked free from the guards.

“Wait,” I said, my bolt cutters poised upon the last lock. “How many men were there?”

“Eight.” Godfrey flipped the safety off.

“They were all back here in the dark?”

He pulled a flashlight from the pile and tossed it to me. I caught it. “Not in the dark, no.”

“But eight? It is very hot and–”

“Look at all this.” He gestured broadly with the rifle. “It is too much for one man to guard. It was too much for eight.”

Godfrey spoke with the confidence of leisure, yet his eyes told another story. They were furtive and didn’t meet mine. They scoured the box. I did not think he spoke French, but not everything upon the wood was written in words, and he was wise. He held his rifle casually, low at his hip, the barrel steady.

We hear the most when we hear nothing. That is when we hear ourselves. I heard grief, regret, shame. And something else, more than a betrayal of honor. An ancestral fear. I was a rodent in the bright light of day. A shadow fell over me. I heard the beat of wings and impending demise. No, not wings. A scratching, here with me now, beneath wooden slats. A nest of vermin waiting for me to join it.

I should have moved away. Godfrey spoke a warning, and as I cut the last lock, the chains snaked to the floor.

Godfrey laughed nervously, set down his rifle and picked up a prybar. He tore the lid free.

Inside lay a coffin. Its stone sides were carved with sinuous designs–provocative women dancing with skeletons, or worse. It wasn’t the kind of depravity you expected outside of city graffiti. I couldn’t even guess the coffin’s age. It looked older than any chapel.

“Fantastic,” Godfrey whispered. “The Princess of Ganda.”

“She conjures the winds with the seed of men,” I said.

Godfrey looked at me strangely. He grasped the coffin lid while I pushed from the other side. We slid it open.

We looked upon a woman, a princess, a queen. A goddess. Her face was haloed by the white pillow of her hair. She hadn’t been dead a thousand years, because she was sculpted when the primal clay was untainted. Perfect creations live forever. Her spirit slid under the earth in veins of perfect black, like an oil under its flesh, and her color shone through its skin as darkness. I’m not sure how I knew this.

“What the in the name of Heaven is wrong with you?”

A man on a bicycle waited outside the truck. Suspended from a long pole slung over his shoulders were two heavy plastic containers. Liquid sloshed within them. The man set down his load and climbed up with us.

“I said, what is wrong–”

The man was Bwambale, but back so soon? He looked into the coffin, and he laughed. He reached forward. Godfrey snatched ahold of his hand. For a moment, loose on his feet as he was, it looked like he might hug Bwambale.

Bwambale tore away. “That is gold.”

Two coins covered the corpse’s eyes. I had never seen such luster but didn’t need to be told its name. I knew it as well as my own. Bwambale lunged. He shoved Godfrey away in an inglorious tumble, and snatched both coins from her lids. I thought of pelicans and pebbles.

He turned to me with his hands outstretched. Gold lay upon his palms. He looked like Jesus showing his wounds. When he tried to speak, words wouldn’t come. He smiled down at his hands and pressed his lips tight, like he was holding in grief.

Finally, he managed: “What are these worth?”

The last was directed toward Godfrey, who rose scowling. He held his rifle by the bore and I could tell that he wanted to swing it at Bwambale’s skull. In the brief moment before his gaze found mine, he wanted nothing more.

“That seal belongs to Caligula,” he said.

“Does it?” Bwambale choked the words.

It did. I too knew it with surety, though I couldn’t explain who that person was nor how I knew his name.

“They’re priceless,” Godfrey said.

Bwambale licked his lips. He slipped the coins into his pockets and looked to me. “We must leave far away. Fill the tanks.”

We were moving again, bounding northward with the world for our taking. We’d stripped away the rind and her flesh lay naked before us. Three men are enough to make an army.

Driving ever northward, we slipped into fuel depots to fill our canisters. We never ventured in directly. The stations were where the authorities would inquire of the truck, and if it wasn’t seen, there would be great confusion in tracking us. The stratagem was Godfrey’s, and I saw its wisdom. We were lions treading upon stones. Temper your failure with guile and it is rechristened as success. With the wealth of the unexpected equipment, the gold, the truck, and–by god–the corpse of a princess, our futures were brighter than the noonday sun.

We rolled over the wide land and the soil lightened from the red clay of Uganda to the ashes and sand of the Sudan. Our plan was to skirt its border, swing back around to the southern cities. The capitol of Kampala was the obvious place for us to sell, but not if its roads were guarded. We would sell everything in Masaka, where no one thought we could be. Then we would take a boat across Lake Victoria and into Kenya. Kenya, where a man might shape himself into a new form. The Kenyen men shaped themselves into new forms, unlike the Sudanese, who were only useful when burying carcasses.

Bwambale boasted of his purchases and his frugality. It was fate that he had learned to ride so long ago. He’d taught himself because no one else would. When he reached Mombasa he would buy himself a ten-speed and cycle with the tourists on the beach.

I sat between him and Godfrey, listening to this, not caring that it was a reverie. When Godfrey and I had gone to purchase more fuel, it dawned on us that Bwambale could simply drive away. As we trekked back from town, we thought it very likely. But there was the truck parked under the palm-shade of a towering tugu, and there was Bwambale sitting across the road with a rifle in his lap. Later, on the last refuel of the day, he told me to stay behind, a generosity on his part, and I kept behind the wheel for a while, not very long. I realized why he had been sitting on the other side of the road. The scratching from the back compartment filled my mind with forebodings.

Late in the day, we stopped at a dark crossroads outside of Adjumani. The dusk was uncomfortably warm, like the fetid breath of a vast, inky lizard. Godfrey wanted to cross the White Nile and continue down the Congo and Bwambale did not. Godfrey was still incensed about being bested earlier at the coffin. He may be the oldest, but Bwambale was a brute in manners and stature. I offered no opinion. I swore I heard a pacing tread in back. So stealthy.

“Look!” Bwambale cried. “Blessed Redeemer!”

Three figures crowded the road. They were at the knife-edge years when an admirer might either call them girls or women, depending on intentions. Their bundles lay in the ditch. One of them was sobbing into her hands while her sisters stood over her and wrung their hands.

They were not thin; they were lithe, like the tawny kob antelope. Muscular under their sleekness, an underbelly soft with fuzz and floss. Bwambale killed the engine and yanked the keys free.

“You fool!” Godfrey said.

“I am a moneyed man.” Bwambale jingled the keys within Godfrey’s reach, and when Godfrey snatched at them, he pulled them away. “Infinitely desirable. And we shall keep to this shore.” He slid from the truck and rushed to the women.

I hurried after him because there were three women and I might be of help with one. My flashlight lit the way. Godfrey followed. When the two sisters saw us coming, they helped the third to her feet. I spotlighted each in turn. They were indeed beautiful, maidens in distress, and what were we if not heroes?

The crying girl watched us with eyes dry and cool. “Remove your clothes,” she said.

“Excuse me?” Bwambale said. I couldn’t believe it either. Courtship demanded ritual.

“Take them off.”

Motion stirred behind the three, low and to the ground. We had stumbled onto a pride of lions. Shadows of pure menace slinked forward. They rose upon their hind legs and spoke in the language of the Lwoo.

You die,” they said, or words to that effect, not so much a statement as a warning, for they were not lions. These soulless shells were the child warriors of the Lord’s Resistance, and if we did not give them everything, then despite us, they would take it.

I had never had a weapon pointed at me, and a dozen gunsights left me dizzy. I fumbled with my clothes. They were no longer mine. Soon, I stood naked. Bwambale had yet to move. He shook in a fury.

“Thieves!” he cried. “Despots!”

The children grinned like skulls. They were a catacomb’s array.

How difficult it is for a man to sacrifice. He would rather have his head taken than his finger given. The children would search every stitch and they would miss nothing. It was all of use to them, from sweat-stained T’s to American laces. They would find the gold in Bwambale’s pockets, and he knew it. At this moment, he’d had never had less. I had never had less.

Gunfire erupted. Bwambale had drawn the pistol from his waistband. The darkness flashed with fire and I watched my oldest friend die. He was struck a dozen times from all sides, and his body hit the earth as lifeless as a stone.

I ran amidst jeers. I was no danger to them and so caught no bullet in the backside. That didn’t mean I would be suffered to live. The Lord’s Resistance executed the defiant as a matter of course. Their small stature demanded the dread of rumor.

Godfrey dashed across the road. His shirt was gone, but he had his pants and shoes, and so he was faster than me. Little good it did him. Small shadows met him, and he fell in a heap.

I struggled up the driver side before realizing that I couldn’t drive away. Bwambale had taken the keys. I leapt free and ran the truck’s length, and though it was the last place I wished to see, I climbed into the back. I shut the hatch behind me.

The night of my future was lit by a moon-sliver of the slimmest escape. It was dark and though I still held my light, I had turned it off. Maybe . . . maybe they thought I’d ran down the road. Would they follow my footprints like a beast’s? Would they trap me here? Almost certainly, but that was not an absolute. Not if I hid so well that I was lost.

I shoved the coffin lid aside, nearly toppling it, and ignoring my own sacrilege, slid inside. I slipped under the princess’s corpse. She was as light as linen. If anyone looked inside, they would see only her. They would be too afraid to look further. Superstition would save me. Her hair was in my face and my lips were against the paper-wasp nest of her neck. I reached around her, and with both arms stiff, pushed and twisted the coffin lid. I lowered it quietly.

I lay in the black pitch of the tomb expecting the lid to be thrown free amid a sledge-hail of rifle butts. It was taking them a long time to find me, which was good, though I should have heard motion. The cargo was their obvious prize. Didn’t they want to see it? I breathed in the scent of flowers, sacred oils. Pressed against me as she was, by god, I could taste her. There was a woman beyond the withered centuries, and I tried not imagine what she’d been. Not so easy when I was naked beneath her, the rag of her body soaking my sweat into old pores.

I strained to hear beyond the stone partition. Any moment I would be met by the crash of the doors being thrown wide or the lurch of the truck. I would be stabbed, shot, worse. Nothing. I was a lost to the world, eclipsed, a shadow within shadow with no form. My next inhale was an exhale as hot as ashes, and I tasted sugar. I’d dropped my flashlight. My fingers grasped, searched for its slim body. They found it, and I turned on its light.

The princess was above me. Desiccated, but not dead. She had turned about to see me and was watching with empty eyes like two black funnels. Her lips moved against mine with a hungry insistence, and I felt the yearning of centuries. It was a passion too deep to be sated. When her tongue knotted about my own, and they coupled as snakes do, my screams went into her. She drank them down, sighing. She swallowed more than my breath. She consumed me.

In the land of Uganda, it said that when a man travels, he learns. I have traveled far. Only the dead have gone farther.

Name him,” she said.

I didn’t see her. I looked down at the coffin, empty now. The rest of the cargo had been carted away. I stood naked and cold, like a babe fresh to the world. In that moment they’re never alone. Was I?

Name him.

She had taken something from me and made it hers. For even the destitute can still give of themselves. I did willingly at the end, when her body had swallowed enough of mine to live again and shine with old flesh new. And though I feel shame and revulsion, I’m not entirely regretful.

The truck’s door was tied open, and outside it was dark. The same night, the next? I could not say. I lowered my aching body to the ground. Sharp stones bit into my soles like the teeth of a beast, and so I stepped gingerly. At least I felt something. A man stomped up to me, ragged fatigues upon his broad frame and a zigzagging cigarette pinched between his lips. He didn’t look my way but breezed by muttering to himself about a goddamned something or other. I was not accosted. Ahead, a fire lit the darkness. Small shadows moved around it, twinning themselves upon the low, surrounding buildings. This was the enemy’s hold. Naked, more frail than I’d ever been, I drifted to them.

I saw a child wearing my clothes with a scarecrow’s grace. He would grow into them one day. Another rode Bwambale’s bicycle about. He fell and his compatriots laughed. An older child took his place on the seat. The group was gathered about the steel mesh of a circular yard. At its center rose a tall pole, and against it was a man I knew. I went to him.

Godfrey. He still lived. His tongue was stretched high and nailed three times into the wood. He would never again speak wisdom, but perhaps he never had any to give. His waist had been sliced to ribbons and hung loosely over his hips like a skirt. Death would come for him soon. It wasn’t his state that told me this. When I grabbed his wrist, my fingers slipped from his flesh. He was a fish in the stream. How he writhed at my touch.

From the sky, I heard her voice again: “Name him.”

An important moment. Profundities come in threes. When I spoke at Godfrey’s ear, his eyes went wide.

“I am a father,” I said.

“Mori?” he mumbled, and looked all about with his eyes, as his head was fixed.

I called out loudly. “His name is Mwenzi!”

It means traveler. Just like me. A name should remind a boy of his lineage, so that even if he doesn’t know where he’s going, he knows where he’s been.

When the hot wind blew, the children covered their eyes and ran. Not fleeing–their type never cowered–they danced within the body of Num, which in these lands was how the dust dervish was known. Godfrey wept. He sensed its power. It was eager to rend.

“Here he is,” I said. My pride was sincere. “A sorcerer of the winds, just like his mother. He will wander the horizon on my borrowed dream.”

The children released their dogs, a loathsome mix of jackal and hound. The curs of my land are always hungry and never refuse a meal. I consoled Godfrey as they ruined him, as they tugged him in cardinal directions. There was frothing, screaming, chewing, pleading. He howled and the wind of Mwenzi Num roared and the children sang in chorus. I’d hoped Godfrey would join me; I didn’t want to be alone. But he went elsewhere. My son did too. He twirled over the rooftops, laughing. He’d tasted blood, and it was like wine.

There was little left, and I had no reason to stay, not with a wife and a son roaming free. What mischief they would wreak! Him conjuring the drought winds and poison miasmas, bearing the locust swarms. Her lures of illicit perfumes, treachery, and gossip. I would wander the nations and taste their demise. My family would live forever, and as their witness, I would too. Eternity is a strange place to be. It touches every shore yet crosses none.

I don’t deny my fate. I embrace it until the two of us are one. For as my father taught me: the fool hopes to reverse the river’s course. The wise man rides it like a leaf.

The post PseudoPod 676: Things My Father Taught Me appeared first on PseudoPod.

Nov 22 2019

49mins

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PseudoPod 675: The New Mother

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The New Mother was first published in Anyhow Stories, Moral and Otherwise, Macmillan and Co., 1882.

Audio used in this episode:

Spoiler Inside SelectShow https://archive.org/details/joel_pulham_0307/03_joel_260307_knitting_skylarks.mp3
https://freesound.org/people/viznoman/sounds/267306/
https://freesound.org/people/ross_sinc/sounds/444793/

The New Mother

by Lucy Clifford

1

The children were always called Blue-Eyes and the Turkey. The elder one was like her dear father who was far away at sea; for the father had the bluest of blue eyes, and so gradually his little girl came to be called after them. The younger one had once, while she was still almost a baby, cried bitterly because a turkey that lived near the cottage suddenly vanished in the middle of the winter; and to console her she had been called by its name.

Now the mother and Blue-Eyes and the Turkey and the baby all lived in a lonely cottage on the edge of the forest. It was a long way to the village, nearly a mile and a half, and the mother had to work hard and had not time to go often herself to see if there was a letter at the post-office from the dear father, and so very often in the afternoon she used to send the two children. They were very proud of being able to go alone. When they came back tired with the long walk, there would be the mother waiting and watching for them, and the tea would be ready, and the baby crowing with delight; and if by any chance there was a letter from the sea, then they were happy indeed. The cottage room was so cosy: the walls were as white as snow inside as well as out. The baby’s high chair stood in one corner, and in another there was a cupboard, in which the mother kept all manner of surprises.

“Dear children,” the mother said one afternoon late in the autumn, “it is very chilly for you to go to the village, but you must walk quickly, and who knows but what you may bring back a letter saying that dear father is already on his way to England. Don’t be long,” the mother said, as she always did before they started. “Go the nearest way and don’t look at any strangers you meet, and be sure you do not talk with them.”

“No, mother,” they answered; and then she kissed them and called them dear good children, and they joyfully started on their way.

The village was gayer than usual, for there had been a fair the day before. “Oh, I do wish we had been here yesterday,” Blue-Eyes said as they went on to the grocer’s, which was also the post-office. The post-mistress was very busy and just said “No letter for you to-day.” Then Blue-Eyes and the Turkey turned away to go home. They had left the village and walked some way, and then they noticed, resting against a pile of stones by the wayside, a strange wild-looking girl, who seemed very unhappy. So they thought they would ask her if they could do anything to help her, for they were kind children and sorry indeed for any one in distress.

The girl seemed to be about fifteen years old. She was dressed in very ragged clothes. Round her shoulders there was an old brown shawl. She wore no bonnet. Her hair was coal-black and hung down uncombed and unfastened. She had something hidden under her shawl; on seeing them coming towards her, she carefully put it under her and sat upon it. She sat watching the children approach, and did not move or stir till they were within a yard of her; then she wiped her eyes just as if she had been crying bitterly, and looked up.

The children stood still in front of her for a moment, staring at her. “Are you crying?” they asked shyly.

To their surprise she said in a most cheerful voice, “Oh dear, no! quite the contrary. Are you?”

“Perhaps you have lost yourself?” they said gently.

But the girl answered promptly, “Certainly not. Why, you have just found me. Besides,” she added, “I live in the village.”

The children were surprised at this, for they had never seen her before, and yet they thought they knew all the village folk by sight.

Then the Turkey, who had an inquiring mind, put a question. “What are you sitting on?” she asked.

“On a peardrum,” the girl answered.

“What is a peardrum?” they asked.

“I am surprised at your not knowing,” the girl answered. “Most people in good society have one.” And then she pulled it out and showed it to them. It was a curious instrument, a good deal like a guitar in shape; it had three strings, but only two pegs by which to tune them. But the strange thing about the peardrum was not the music it made, but a little square box attached to one side.

“Where did you get it?” the children asked.

“I bought it,” the girl answered.

“Didn’t it cost a great deal of money?” they asked.

“Yes,” answered the girl slowly, nodding her head, “it cost a great deal of money. I am very rich,” she added.

“You don’t look rich,” they said, in as polite a voice as possible.

“Perhaps not,” the girl answered cheerfully.

At this, the children gathered courage, and ventured to remark, “You look rather shabby.”

“Indeed?” said the girl in a voice of one who had heard a pleasant but surprising statement. “A little shabbiness is very respectable,” she added in a satisfied voice. “I must really tell them this,” she continued. And the children wondered what she meant. She opened the little box by the side of the peardrum, and said, just as if she were speaking to some one who could hear her, “They say I look rather shabby; it is quite lucky isn’t it?”

“Why, you are not speaking to any one!” they said, more surprised than ever.

“Oh dear, yes! I am speaking to them both.”

“Both?” they said, wondering.

“Yes. I have here a little man dressed as a peasant, and a little woman to match. I put them on the lid of the box, and when I play they dance most beautifully.”

“Oh! let us see; do let us see!” the children cried.

Then the village girl looked at them doubtfully. “Let you see!” she said slowly. “Well, I am not sure that I can. Tell me, are you good?”

“Yes, yes,” they answered eagerly, “we are very good!”

“Then it’s quite impossible,” she answered, and resolutely closed the lid of the box.

They stared at her in astonishment. “But we are good,” they cried, thinking she must have misunderstood them. “We are very good. Then can’t you let us see the little man and woman?”

“Oh dear, no!” the girl answered. “I only show them to naughty children. And the worse the children the better do the man and woman dance.”

She put the peardrum carefully under her ragged cloak, and prepared to go on her way. “I really could not have believed that you were good,” she said reproachfully, as if they had accused themselves of some great crime. “Well, good day.”

“Oh, but we will be naughty,” they said in despair.

“I am afraid you couldn’t,” she answered, shaking her head. “It requires a great deal of skill to be naughty well.”

And swiftly she walked away, while the children felt their eyes fill with tears, and their hearts ache with disappointment.

“If we had only been naughty,” they said, “we should have seen them dance.”

“Suppose,” said the Turkey, “we try to be naughty today; perhaps she would let us see them to-morrow.”

“But, oh!” said Blue-Eyes, “I don’t know how to be naughty; no one ever taught me.”

The Turkey thought for a few minutes in silence. “I think I can be naughty if I try,” she said. “I’ll try to-night.”

“Oh, don’t be naughty without me!” she cried. “It would be so unkind of you. You know I want to see the little man and woman just as much as you do. You are very, very unkind.”

And so, quarrelling and crying, they reached their home.

Now, when their mother saw them, she was greatly astonished, and, fearing they were hurt, ran to meet them.

“Oh, my children, oh, my dear, dear children,” she said; “what is the matter?”

But they did not dare tell their mother about the village girl and the little man and woman, so they answered, “Nothing is the matter,” and cried all the more.

“Poor children!” the mother said to herself, “They are tired, and perhaps they are hungry; after tea they will be better.” And she went back to the cottage, and made the fire blaze; and she put the kettle on to boil, and set the tea-things on the table. Then she went to the little cupboard and took out some bread and cut it on the table, and said in a loving voice, “Dear little children, come and have your tea. And see, there is the baby waking from her sleep; she will crow at us while we eat.”

But the children made no answer to the dear mother, they only stood still by the window and said nothing.

“Come, children,” the mother said again. “Come, Blue-Eyes, and come, my Turkey; here is nice sweet bread for tea.” Then suddenly she looked up and saw that the Turkey’s eyes were full of tears.

“Turkey!” she exclaimed, “my dear little Turkey! what is the matter? Come to mother, my sweet.” And putting the baby down, she held out her arms, and the Turkey ran swiftly into them.

“Oh, mother,” she sobbed, “Oh, dear mother! I do so want to be naughty. I do so want to be very, very naughty.”

And then Blue-Eyes left her chair also, and rubbing her face against her mother’s shoulder, cried sadly. “And so do I, mother. Oh, I’d give anything to be very, very naughty.”

“But, my dear children,” said the mother, in astonishment, “Why do you want to be naughty?”

“Because we do; oh, what shall we do?” they cried together.

“I should be very angry if you were naughty. But you could not be, for you love me,” the mother answered.

“Why couldn’t we?” they asked.

Then the mother thought a while before she answered; and she seemed to be speaking rather to herself than to them.

“Because if one loves well,” she said gently, “one’s love is stronger than all bad feelings in one, and conquers them.”

“We don’t know what you mean,” they cried; “and we do love you; but we want to be naughty.”

“Then I should know you did not love me,” the mother said.

“If we were very, very, very naughty, and wouldn’t be good, what then?”

“Then,” said the mother sadly—and while she spoke her eyes filled with tears, and a sob almost choked her—“then,” she said, “I should have to go away and leave you, and to send home a new mother, with glass eyes and wooden tail.”

2

“Good-day,” said the village girl, when she saw Blue-Eyes and the Turkey approach. She was again sitting by the heap of stones, and under her shawl the peardrum was hidden.

“Are the little man and woman there?” the children asked.

“Yes, thank you for inquiring after them,” the girl answered; “they are both here and quite well. The little woman has heard a secret—she tells it while she dances.”

“Oh do let us see,” they entreated.

“Quite impossible, I assure you,” the girl answered promptly. “You see, you are good.”

“Oh!” said Blue-Eyes, sadly; “but mother says if we are naughty she will go away and send home a new mother, with glass eyes and a wooden tail.”

“Indeed,” said the girl, still speaking in the same unconcerned voice, “that is what they all say. They all threaten that kind of thing. Of course really there are no mothers with glass eyes and wooden tails; they would be much too expensive to make.” And the common sense of this remark the children saw at once.

“We think you might let us see the little man and woman dance.”

“The kind of thing you would think,” remarked the village girl.

“But will you if we are naughty?” they asked in despair.

“I fear you could not be naughty—that is, really—even if you tried,” she said scornfully.

“But if we are very naughty tonight, will you let us see them to-morrow?”

“Questions asked to-day are always best answered to-morrow,” the girl said, and turned round as if to walk on. “Good-day,” she said blithely; “I must really go and play a little to myself.”

For a few minutes the children stood looking after her, then they broke down and cried. The Turkey was the first to wipe away her tears. “Let us go home and be very naughty,” she said; “then perhaps she will let us see them to-morrow.”

And that afternoon the dear mother was sorely distressed, for, instead of sitting at their tea as usual with smiling happy faces, they broke their mugs and threw their bread and butter on the floor, and when the mother told them to do one thing they carefully did another, and only stamped their feet with rage when she told them to go upstairs until they were good.

“Do you remember what I told you I should do if you were very, very naughty?” she asked sadly.

“Yes, we know, but it isn’t true,” they cried. “There is no mother with a wooden tail and glass eyes, and if there were we should just stick pins into her and send her away; but there is none.”

Then the mother became really angry, and sent them off to bed, but instead of crying and being sorry at her anger, they laughed for joy, and sat up and sang merry songs at the top of their voices.

The next morning quite early, without asking leave from the mother, the children got up and ran off as fast as they could to look for the village girl. She was sitting as usual by the heap of stones with the peardrum under her shawl.

“Now please show us the little man and woman,” they cried, “and let us hear the peardrum. We were very naughty last night.” But the girl kept the peardrum carefully hidden.

“So you say,” she answered. “You were not half naughty enough. As I remarked before, it requires a great deal of skill to be naughty well.”

“But we broke our mugs, we threw our bread and butter on the floor, we did everything we could to be tiresome.”

“Mere trifles,” answered the village girl scornfully. “Did you throw cold water on the fire, did you break the clock, did you pull all the tins down from the walls, and throw them on the floor?”

“No,” exclaimed the children, aghast, “we did not do that.”

“I thought not,” the girl answered. “So many people mistake a little noise and foolishness for real naughtiness.” And before they could say another word she had vanished.

“We’ll be much worse,” the children cried, in despair. “We’ll go and do all the things she says.” and then they went home and did all these things. And when the mother saw all that they had done she did not scold them as she had the day before, but she just broke down and cried, and said sadly—

“Unless you are good to-morrow, my poor Blue-Eyes and Turkey, I shall indeed have to go away and come back no more, and the new mother I told you of will come to you.”

They did not believe her; yet their hearts ached when they saw how unhappy she looked, and they thought within themselves that when they once had seen the little man and woman dance, they would be good to the dear mother for ever afterwards.

The next morning, before the birds were stirring, the children crept out of the cottage and ran across the fields. They found the village girl sitting by the heap of stones, just as if it were her natural home.

“We have been very naughty,” they cried. “We have done all the things you told us; now will you show us the little man and woman?” The girl looked at them curiously. “You really seem quite excited,” she said in her usual voice. “You should be calm.”

“We have done all the things you told us,” the children cried again, “and we do so long to hear the secret. We have been so very naughty, and mother says she will go away to-day and send home a new mother if we are not good.”

“Indeed,” said the girl. “Well, let me see. When did your mother say she would go?”

“But if she goes, what shall we do?” they cried in despair. “We don’t want her to go; we love her very much.”

“You had better go back and be good, you are really not clever enough to be anything else; and the little woman’s secret is very important; she never tells it for make-believe naughtiness.”

“But we did all the things you told us,” the children cried.

“You didn’t throw the looking-glass out of the window, or stand the baby on its head.”

“No, we didn’t do that,” the children gasped.

“I thought not,” the girl said triumphantly. “Well, good-day. I shall not be here to-morrow.”

“Oh, but don’t go away,” they cried. “Do let us see them just once.”

“Well, I shall go past your cottage at eleven o’clock this morning,” the girl said. “Perhaps I shall play the peardrum as I go by.”

“And will you show us the man and woman?” they asked.

“Quite impossible, unless you have really deserved it; make-believe naughtiness is only spoilt goodness. Now if you break the looking-glass and do the things that are desired . . .”

“Oh, we will,” they cried. “We will be very naughty till we hear you coming.”

Then again the children went home, and were naughty, oh, so very very naughty that the dear mother’s heart ached and her eyes filled with tears, and at last she went upstairs and slowly put on her best gown and her new sun-bonnet, and she dressed the baby all in its Sunday clothes, and then she came down and stood before Blue-Eyes and the Turkey, and just as she did so the Turkey threw the looking-glass out of the window, and it fell with a loud crash upon the ground.

“Good-bye, my children,” the mother said sadly, kissing them. “The new mother will be home presently. Oh, my poor children!” and then weeping bitterly, the mother took the baby in her arms and turned to leave the house.

“But mother, we will be good at half-past eleven, come back at half-past eleven,” they cried, “and we’ll both be good; we must be naughty till eleven o’clock.” But the mother only picked up the little bundle in which she had tied up her cotton apron, and went slowly out at the door. Just by the corner of the fields she stopped and turned, and waved her handkerchief, all wet with tears, to the children at the window; she made the baby kiss its hand; and in a moment mother and baby had vanished from their sight.

Then the children felt their hearts ache with sorrow, and they cried bitterly, and yet they could not believe that she had gone. And the broken clock struck eleven, and suddenly there was a sound, a quick, clanging, jangling sound, with a strange discordant note at intervals. They rushed to the open window, and there they saw the village girl dancing along and playing as she did so.

“We have done all you told us,” the children called. “Come and see; and now show us the little man and woman.”

The girl did not cease her playing or her dancing, but she called out in a voice that was half speaking half singing. “You did it all badly. You threw the water on the wrong side of the fire, the tin things were not quite in the middle of the room, the clock was not broken enough, you did not stand the baby on its head.”

She was already passing the cottage. She did not stop singing, and all she said sounded like part of a terrible song. “I am going to my own land,” the girl sang, “to the land where I was born.”

“But our mother is gone,” the children cried; “our dear mother will she ever come back?”

“No,” sang the girl, “she’ll never come back. She took a boat upon the river; she is sailing to the sea; she will meet your father once again, and they will go sailing on.”

Then the girl, her voice getting fainter and fainter in the distance, called out once more to them. “Your new mother is coming. She is already on her way; but she only walks slowly, for her tail is rather long, and her spectacles are left behind; but she is coming, she is coming—coming—coming.”

The last word died away; it was the last one they ever heard the village girl utter. On she went, dancing on.

Then the children turned, and looked at each other and at the little cottage home, that only a week before had been so bright and happy, so cosy and spotless. The fire was out, the clock all broken and spoilt. And there was the baby’s high chair, with no baby to sit in it; there was the cupboard on the wall, and never a sweet loaf on its shelf; and there were the broken mugs, and the bits of bread tossed about, and the greasy boards which the mother had knelt down to scrub until they were as white as snow. In the midst of all stood the children, looking at the wreck they had made, their eyes blinded with tears, and their poor little hands clasped in misery.

“I don’t know what we shall do if the new mother comes,” cried Blue-Eyes. “I shall never, never like any other mother.”

The Turkey stopped crying for a minute, to think what should be done. “We will bolt the door and shut the window; and we won’t take any notice when she knocks.”

All through the afternoon they sat watching and listening for fear of the new mother; but they saw and heard nothing of her, and gradually they became less and less afraid lest she should come. They fetched a pail of water and washed the floor; they found some rag, and rubbed the tins; they picked up the broken mugs and made the room as neat as they could. There was no sweet loaf to put on the table, but perhaps the mother would bring something from the village, they thought. At last all was ready, and Blue-Eyes and the Turkey washed their faces and their hands, and then sat and waited, for of course they did not believe what the village girl had said about their mother sailing away.

Suddenly, while they were sitting by the fire, they heard a sound as of something heavy being dragged along the ground outside, and then there was a loud and terrible knocking at the door. The children felt their hearts stand still. They knew it could not be their own mother, for she would have turned the handle and tried to come in without any knocking at all.

Again there came a loud and terrible knocking.

“She’ll break the door down if she knocks so hard,” cried Blue-Eyes.

“Go and put your back to it,” whispered the Turkey, “and I’ll peep out of the window and try to see if it is really the new mother.”

So in fear and trembling Blue-Eyes put her back against the door, and the Turkey went to the window. She could just see a black satin poke bonnet with a frill round the edge, and a long bony arm carrying a black leather bag. From beneath the bonnet there flashed a strange bright light, and Turkey’s heart sank and her cheeks turned pale, for she knew it was the flashing of two glass eyes. She crept up to Blue-Eyes. “It is—it is—it is!” she whispered, her voice shaking with fear, “it is the new mother!”

Together they stood with the two little backs against the door. There was a long pause. They thought perhaps the new mother had made up her mind that there was no one at home to let her in, and would go away, but presently the two children heard through the thin wooden door the new mother move a little, and then say to herself—“I must break the door open with my tail.”

For one terrible moment all was still, but in it the children could almost hear her lift up her tail, and then, with a fearful blow, the little painted door was cracked and splintered. With a shriek the children darted from the spot and fled through the cottage, and out at the back door into the forest beyond. All night long they stayed in the darkness and the cold, and all the next day and the next, and all through the cold, dreary days and the long dark nights that followed.

They are there still, my children. All through the long weeks and months have they been there, with only green rushes for their pillows and only the brown dead leaves to cover them, feeding on the wild strawberries in the summer, or on the nuts when they hang green; on the blackberries when they are no longer sour in the autumn, and in the winter on the little red berries that ripen in the snow. They wander about among the tall dark firs or beneath the great trees beyond. Sometimes they stay to rest beside the little pool near the copse, and they long and long, with a longing that is greater than words can say, to see their own dear mother again, just once again, to tell her that they’ll be good for evermore—just once again.

And still the new mother stays in the little cottage, but the windows are closed and the doors are shut, and no one knows what the inside looks like. Now and then, when the darkness has fallen and the night is still, hand in hand Blue-Eyes and the Turkey creep up near the home in which they once were so happy, and with beating hearts they watch and listen; sometimes a blinding flash comes through the window, and they know it is the light from the new mother’s glass eyes, or they hear a strange muffled noise, and they know it is the sound of her wooden tail as she drags it along the floor.

The post PseudoPod 675: The New Mother appeared first on PseudoPod.

Nov 15 2019

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PseudoPod 674: Dust

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 Dust was first published in Mercy and Other Stories

Dust

by Rebecca Lloyd

Much has developed since the day in April I stumbled out of the Quiet Garden with blood running freely down my cheek. The intensity that has arisen over the months cannot be quelled, and I find myself engaged now in a monstrous negotiation, the nature of which I scarcely comprehend, and one that shifts ground continually. As much as I would keep Beth naïve, I sense in her silences that she is on the edge of recognition. I am touched as much by her innocence as I am by her fierce protectiveness of me—but I would keep her in ignorance for I have yet to comprehend the matter myself. I know only that I am involved in urgent entreaty on her behalf, yet I feel my resourcefulness weakening daily.

It is already November and the numbing draughts have taken up their habitual places and creep at will through the old kitchen. Beth has padded the windows with newspaper, and outside the sky is inky and swollen. She is determined to stay, and I can do nothing more to urge her to leave. There are many repulsive details I keep from her, but lately she has come to understand a little of what we are up against, although she struggles to deny it.

She has locked all the doors to the unused rooms upstairs, thinking to make the top corridor safe. At night she is anxious, and would have it that we sleep in the same room together as we did when we were children, as if by doing so things would change. I do not try to convince her otherwise; conversation between us has taken a strange turn lately. She and I should have much to talk about for we have not seen each other since the day she left in 1905, less than six months after our parents died.

She does not tell me about her life in Edinburgh, and she does not ask me how I have fared here alone—as she would have it. She asks me oblique questions and watches me all the time when we are together in the house. She wishes to protect me, she says, just as she did when we were children. She is older than me by seven years and her memories of our childhood differ from mine; I do not recall her protection. I remember only suffocating resentment should I find her in my hiding places. On many occasions in the summer months, I spied on her from the Quiet Garden, daring her to tread the path that would lead her to me, but she never did. She stayed instead in company on the south lawn playing with the dogs. She fancied that were one of us to be there, the other could be free. She declares that we were close as children, and would be so again, were I to allow it.

The Quiet Garden stands above the lower lawns. Curved steps spotted with orange lichen lead up to a platform of ancient pitted stonework no bigger than a large room, and surrounded on three sides by gigantic yew hedges. The place has a penitent heavy feeling about it that attracted me singularly when I was a girl. A stone ornament in the shape of a Greek urn stands off centre in the square, and it was close to this, on an old bench, that I would sit reading. Chinking blackbirds warned me if someone was approaching, and there was time to slip away through a narrow passageway between two overlapping hedges before I was found. The place was my refuge. As soon as I was released from company, I hastened there to the silence, relieved to be cut free from the panting of the dogs, my sister’s pale face, and the rough bitter jokes our parents flung at each other between their deck chairs all through the summer days.

I am certain that it is Beth’s return that has brought about the feverous escalation. Although through the years, I have been aware that the two of them, our parents, linger. It is only since Beth came home that they have made themselves so very obvious. It was barely two weeks after she arrived when I first found myself in conflict with them. I had walked the gardens, the south lawns, the nut tree path, and up to the stables and fields beyond. I returned then to sit in the Quiet Garden. It was late afternoon, chilly but bright, the sun silvering the air around me. I cannot tell now if the phenomenon had been sudden or gradual, and as useless as it is to say, the only words I can find to describe it are that things started to bend. It was as if I had swooned, but the swooning was outside me. The edges of the flagstones appeared to warp, and staring at them did not return them to their proper place. I looked away and noticed that the yew hedge on the west side was curving inwards.

I became aware that there was moisture on the back of my neck, and reached my hand up. A bubbly wetness covered my palm. I stood up quickly and looked behind me, and as I did so, what I took to be a shower of small stones slashed at my face. I was conscious of the abnormality of the thing; the force with which the objects hit my cheeks and brow would have needed some visible person to be no further away than three or four paces.

I noted that my body was afraid; my blood had quickened and brought about a pulsing in my ears, and my cheek stung. In my thinking, I was as yet too startled to be frightened even though I sensed a frisson of malice that transcended the ordinary. I was instead, indignant and very repulsed. I backed away slowly and then turning, took the steps too quickly, twisting my ankle as I went.

‘Some small cuts on my cheek, Beth,’ I said later. ‘It must have been one of the village children, they’re quite rough nowadays. Their fathers, you know, so many of them died in the war.’

The following morning, I found Beth standing in the gap between the yew trees at the edge of the Quiet Garden. I do believe she was searching the flagstones, looking for a scattering of small sharp objects to give credence to my story. ‘What are you doing out here?’ I asked.

‘I was concerned about the attack on you, Annie,’ she said, ‘and you do look very wan.’

‘Life has been a great strain hereabouts. Goodness, it is only two years since the end of the war, and there cannot be a soul in England who has not been dreadfully upset by the whole thing,’ I told her.

For a while, the Quiet Garden reclaimed its tranquillity and June passed by pleasantly enough, although there was a faint chill in the air. I sensed nothing immediately harmful, although I had become nervous enough to be startled even by the movement of birds in the bushes beyond. Beth and I had agreed to stay within calling distance of each other and come together again as dusk distorted the shadows of the trees on the lawn.

They did not return again until late in October, and this time I confronted them boldly by calling out their names. I have wondered if it was my insolence that gave them vigour, for they were upon me suddenly with brutal energy. Sometimes I fancied my neck was kissed or my hair brushed, and if I resisted, I was beaten. On one occasion, I was obliged to slip back into the house quietly and dispose of my frock that had been so badly torn that mending it would have been pointless. They would pull at me so and pester me, and it was as if I were mesmerised as their administrations became more intimate in nature.

I tried, at first, to keep a record of the particulars, as if by doing so I could assert the authority of all my forty-five years, but when later I read my jottings, I found that my writing was always the nonsensical scribbling of a child, and I could make no sense of it.

I have failed to keep the dark business away from Beth. She has become so nervous and brooding that the slightest matter upsets her terribly; she has but to drop a spoon on the floor and she will be in tears. She has set about once again, finding ways to stop the vicious draughts moving freely in the house and banging shut the doors as they always have done. She insists that we keep an electrical light on during the night. ‘Where do you go for such long stretches of time?’ she whispers at me repeatedly. She has become so persistent in her questioning that I am obliged to reveal a little of what is unfolding. ‘But why must you go to the Quiet Garden? It is winter now, and I know you go there even at night.’

‘I go because I must. Concern yourself only with inside matters. I alone am responsible for things outside, and for finding ways to keep them there.’

‘But what is out there that pulls at you so, Annie dear?’

‘It is just a habit.’

‘It is very eccentric, and I’ve become dreadfully fearful for you.’

‘Some small eccentricities are unavoidable in those who have lived lonely for so long.’ I did feel a great tenderness for Beth in her bewilderment, but I could not tell her then that I had no will in the matter. I could not say that the compulsion to keep tryst in the Quiet Garden was outside my own making; that the meetings were as unavoidable as when I was a child mute with obedience, bolstered only by the belief that eventually adulthood would free me from further misery. Sometimes I could see them clearly, before ever I reached the garden; they paced up and down along the yew hedges, impatient with my slowness.

In the middle of November, an occasion arose when Beth looked at me very levelly; she had led me to the kitchen, and stood with her back against the door. ‘Be truthful with me, it is to do with them, is it not? You think they are out there in the Quiet Garden.’

‘I cannot deny it. Of course it is them. The spitting and stones—who else would engage in such puerile activities?’ I did not describe how once my head was pulled sharply backwards so that I struggled for breath, or how on one occasion they would have my clothes from me and leave me to stand naked, and I witnessed my garments hanging in the air unsupported.

‘I did not realise you thought about them so much anymore. I do not,’ Beth said.

‘Why should you? You have been gone all this long time, and I have been here with them.’ She came towards me and I moved away, she could not change things that had already been done. ‘They are here, and they are very eager to make acquaintance with you again,’ I shouted.

‘Annie, hush, I cannot bear to see you so tormented. They are merely memories.’ I saw her shudder.

‘You do not believe me, do you, Beth?’

‘How has this all come to be, do you suppose? Ever since I came home you have been fitful and really quite strange, Annie.’

‘It is because of what we did.’

‘But it was you who first suggested it, if I recall.’

‘Perhaps, but you agreed. They have been about since then, sometimes together and sometimes separate. I have seen them by the water’s edge, or up by the stable. Never have they ventured into the Quiet Garden until your return. And they come back ferocious, more so than they were in life.’

I felt quite broken up and I did not resist her when she took my hand in hers and looked down upon it as if it were her very own. ‘Annie, perhaps if it really is us who have caused it, stopping it would also be possible, do you not think?’ There was a curious tone to her voice that made a child of me.

‘How, how could we stop it?’

‘Perhaps you alone can stop it. Where is the fine spirit I so envied you when we were little? You were not afraid to move away from them and find your childish sanctuaries.’

‘I think you should leave, Beth. That is the only way this business can be halted.’

‘I do not regret what we did, it was not malicious. Besides, I do not wish to leave you again.’

‘You did so without hesitation the first time.’

‘Poor Annie. I did not know you suffered because of that, truly I did not.’

I let her take me in her arms and pull my head down onto her shoulder, for I was all done in with my torment. ‘It was monstrous and pagan, the thing we did,’ I whispered.

I felt her tremble against me. ‘Can one be guilty of a thing if one does not understand the implications of it, do you imagine, Annie?’

‘Of course!’ I pulled away from her. ‘If those you have harmed think otherwise. That was exactly what our parents did think, as you very well know. We were guilty of things we had no knowledge of all the time.’

The relationship between our parents was debauched, and my sister and I lived in the murkiness of it. We crept between the intensity of the hatred they felt for each other and the extravagant ways they menaced each other’s bodies and thoughts. We spent time in the kitchen with our silent cook when we felt the need for the company of an adult through days in which our parents did not leave their bedroom. Or days in which they grappled together through the rooms of the house, shouting. There were times of quietude, but these were brief and their length unpredictable.

We did not think they would damage us when they were alive. They seemed hardly to notice we were there, and when they did, they looked at us as if surprised. Father spoke to us with a hesitating formality that seemed to suggest that had things been otherwise, his enthusiasm for our company would have been boundless. Our mother had a myriad of different ways to show us that her life before our births had been thrilling.

I would not have minded those facts alone; the house with its two staircases and extravagant gardens supplied much of what I needed as a child, and Beth tells me now the same was true for her. We would come across each other in the old sure places of sanctuary—in the cupboard under the back stairs, or in the spidery storage room in the winter. In the summer, we would find our way separately to the stables or the broken greenhouse and curse and rejoice at the same time if the other was there. Only the Quiet Garden remained mine, for it was too queer and sombre for Beth.

Despite their depravity, our parents were conservative people in the 1880s, and in the way of Queen Victoria, they never changed their opinions about the vileness of cremation. Beth believes it was because the first enthusiasts were gifted people such as Mr Millais and Mr Trollope. We suffered through many mealtimes listening to them threaten each other with cremation when death mercifully freed each from the other.

I recall one conversation over lunch—I believe it was in 1885 when Beth was seventeen, and I, ten years of age. The Woking Crematorium had just been opened, and a Mrs P., very well known for her opinions and presence in literary circles, was cremated there. In December of that year, the body of an extra-large woman was also subjected to the same treatment, successfully.

‘So then,’ began our father, ‘it occurs to me that this cremation business is a fitting end for obnoxious women, be they vile of body or mind, or in some cases both.’

Mother blanched. ‘The entire business of course was started by an individual who could be regarded as a true example of the stupidity and vanity of men.’ She coughed loudly and drank noisily from her water glass, ‘a ridiculous old Welsh man who claimed to be a Druid, if I recall correctly. Last year, wasn’t it? Teddy dear, you remember, he tried to cremate the body of his infant child and was arrested for his foul behaviour.’

I cast a glance at Beth and she looked away, we shared the same goal at that moment of judging a suitable pause in the sharpening exchange so that we could beg to leave the table. But our father turned his eye upon us. ‘Ask your mother to pass the salt cellar, Beth,’ he said. His moustaches were horridly wet.

‘Mother, Father would like the salt cellar,’ Beth mumbled.

‘Inform him that he must obtain it for himself.’

Beth leant forward towards her plate and began to weep silently. As often occurred, I intervened. ‘Oh, do let me get it, it is nearest to me,’ I said, as if the task would give me pleasure.

I watched my mother’s dark eyes travel across the vegetable dishes, the water glasses, the napkin rings, and up my neck until they rested on my face. ‘Do eat up, Annie. Otherwise what a surprise you will have at breakfast tomorrow.’

Beth fumbled for her handkerchief and buried her face in it so that our parents were not visible to her. Father began his customary tapping of the tines of his fork on the table edge as mother positioned the water jug and gravy boat around her as if building a fortress.

We were eating mutton and peas. To this day, the thought of it fills me with horror. I had devised a way of disposing of mutton and other meats as a child. I was frequently abandoned at table when Beth and my parents had left to go about their chores. At a chosen moment, with only the cook as guard, I slipped the meat into my pocket and claimed to have eaten it. Released from the table I went quickly to a spot on the edge of our land and buried the flesh, trying at the same time to push away the curious fantasies that came to me in the process.

Our parents died quite suddenly within hours of each other in 1905. In this, their last year, they had been shadows to each other about the place. They were like two deranged beings looking constantly for ways to thwart the other, their war poisonously silent. I was thirty and Beth nearing forty. We had made nothing much of our lives, for it was difficult in our circumstances to engage with the outside world. I knew Beth had a small circle of friends in those days, but of course she never did bring them back to the house. I, on the other hand, had only my books and my thoughts.

Mother died first. She dropped onto the dining room floor by the window quite suddenly and with no sound. He came in to stare at her as he often did—sometimes for half an hour without blinking. He made a small noise at the sight of her and wandered off into the garden. We found him later dead under the willow tree, his face still moist with tears. We had them cremated at West Norwood. For father we chose a simple ceramic urn in the Greek style, for mother a smaller, more rounded clay vessel. We stood them side by side on the dining room table and looked at them.

Beth laughed hard and for a long time, until I began to smile. ‘Don’t look so rueful, Annie, we are free.’ We had on the table between us a small bottle of Father’s malted whiskey. As the last remnants of the spring sunlight fell on the urns, we finished the liquor. ‘Are we in a ghastly stupor?’ Beth asked me, as we gazed at each other.

‘Putting them in these awful vessels would suggest it, I suppose,’ I replied.

‘No, they’re very fitting, Annie. The proud one is for a man and the little bevelled one is for a woman.’ She jabbed her finger at them, ‘A gentleman and a lady, a lady and a gentleman,’ she announced with unnecessary loudness.

I reached out and moved the vessels closer together. ‘What on earth are we going to do with them now?’

‘Put them in the attic out of harm’s way,’ she whispered. ‘I cannot tell you, Annie, how I cherish the silence now that they have gone. I too have plans to go.’

‘Did they really do some of the things I remember, Beth? Did I see them rolling down the lawn together when we were children and falling into the stream, both naked?’ I recalled the scene often, the spongy flesh of my father reddening in the grip of my mother’s bony fingers as they propelled each other towards the wet edges of the stream.

Beth nodded. ‘It is true that the relationship between them was frenzied at the time, but later on they did not box each other around so much; their wickedness became subtler, and I was glad you were too young to notice what they next embarked upon. They started to hide each other’s things and father cut holes in her dresses, little discreet ones nastily placed. From time to time, she tried to damage his automobile. Then, for a while she hunted him as though she were a different person.’

‘Say what, Beth?’

‘She wrote menacing little letters, she would go to London and post them from there. I read a couple of them once; they were in the pocket of her outdoor cape. He knew of course. When she came back, he would tell her earnestly what had happened, and what he would do to the person were he to catch them.’

‘You said you have plans, what plans?’

She frowned. ‘Oh, not this very minute, Annie. I’ll tell you later.’

I thought about my mother’s face, porcelain white and sharp jawed. ‘Even so, Mama and Papa could not have lived without each other, could they?’

‘Well, that is it exactly, Annie. It was as though they had cast a fairy spell upon each other. It is strange to think that love between two people could be so vile a thing for other people to witness.’

‘I think we should scatter them in the garden, I believe that is a fashion now. We should get rid of these hideous things they are trapped in. Maybe they could make peace if we did so. Indeed, I know the very place; there is a tree on the edge of our land.’ It was an idle thought, spoken only to cast aside the gloom that had descended upon us. I reached out and took the lids off the urns. Beth stood up and peered into each of them cautiously. ‘Let us put them together,’ I said. We were drunk, I suppose—but funeral drunk with a steadiness of purpose.

I picked up father, and she took mother. We laid a cloth upon the table and let the gritty grey particles trickle together, moving our heads back as fine dust began to form around the urns. And then we dared to go further, we mixed them with the tips of our own fingers, mingling them into one pile.

‘Do you think this is legal, Annie dear?’

‘They belong to us. I suppose we could eat them if we wanted to, with peas,’ I replied frivolously, and to my utter shame.

All is now in the open between myself and Beth, I have shown her the recordings I made of their appearances and she affirms that they made no sense. ‘Perhaps you were in a trance, Annie,’ she murmured. ‘But even if we must live once more with Mama and Papa, they cannot harm us one jot, you know.’

She was very calm, and I could not help but feel furious with her. ‘You make so little of it,’ I shouted. ‘You think your sophistication can expunge them.’

‘It is you who can expunge them, Annie, you alone. You must try mightily to let them go. They haunt you because you allow it.’

‘Why can you not own that it is something we did together, and why can you not see that if you had not left, they would not be so very angry with us now?’

So, our positions in this matter became fixed. We agreed that under no circumstances should we let our troubles become known to others. When tradesmen call it is she who has the task of speaking to them, and it is she who attends to our meals and comfort in the house. Although I feel she could be close to nervous exhaustion, she is wonderfully attentive to me most of the time; on that, I cannot fault her.

Now that November is nearing its end, strong winds blow against the yew hedges and the Quiet Garden is very much alive. Some dry snow has fallen, and more is likely in December. The bench close to the stone urn is swollen with damp and its tendrils of lichen so milky green in the summer, have taken on a darker hue. I spend much time there.

I wear the wide blue ribbons that hung limp in my hair when I was a child, so that they do not mistake me for Beth. I find new ways to appease them, thinking to charm them into placidity; I dance for them and sing the songs of our childhood that they never heard. I take meals to the garden for them. I lay the plates out carefully upon the ground; I fancy that mutton and peas are well tolerated. Sometimes I sense that the plates have been disturbed and call to Beth in my excitement. But it may be as she says—that an animal has ventured by and taken parts of the food, a fox, she suggests, or a domestic cat—for it is not I who eats them.

But lately a further development has occurred which has cast a new light on my duties. I have not yet told Beth because it is an escalation of a horrible kind, and the thing I most feared. It has become essential that I find a way of containing Mama and Papa within the Quiet Garden, for they have begun to venture from it in the last few days. It is as if over the months since my first encounters with them, they have gained new knowledge. They are like two children on the verge of intellectual discovery, and I sense their excitement, and with it their increasing malevolence. They wish to gain entry to the house, and I must at all costs stop this happening, for it is clear to me that once inside they will find Beth, for whom they hunger terribly.

The post PseudoPod 674: Dust appeared first on PseudoPod.

Nov 08 2019

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PseudoPod 673: Venio

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“Venio” was originally published in Vastarien, Spring 2019

Venio

by Gemma Files

Watch out.

I’m going to tell you about something, and then . . . you’ll know. You won’t be able to un-know or forget why you should want to. And even if you decide you don’t believe it now, you’ll still have thought about it long enough to make that call, so it’ll still be too late. Because now it knows you know, it’ll be able to find you. To home in on you.

Just like it did with me.

Sometimes, a door is enough, open or otherwise. Or an empty moment, an empty page.

An empty head.

I remember the night my group and I first played the game that led us here, the Shut Door Sessions. It was all about imagination, or the lack of it.

We were writers, you see, supposedly. Desperate to be. And yes, I know the received wisdom, thank you very much—how you can fix bad writing, but you can’t fix no writing. How nothing you put down in words is ever going to match that gleaming, awe-inspiring thing you glimpse at the back of your head, so you might as well just let it come as it comes and try to make it better later. Try not to fixate on how the gold you had just before you started trying to hammer it into words somehow seems to have turned entirely to shit, an alchemical working in reverse: albedo up out of nigredo and back on down into nigredo again, hi ho, hi ho.

Always seeking the same goal, all of us, with no real hope of achieving it: something fresh, something new, something real—unique. The impossible fucking dream.

We’d all been there. We’d all spent most of our writing lives there, high school awards or university chapbook-publishing aside. And we’d still be there now, still stuck on the stories we weren’t qualified to wrestle from dream to page, if we’d never started playing that game.

Christ, how I wish we’d never started playing that game.

Here’s how it works: you each get a piece of paper—blank, lined or unlined, depending on what works best for you. You each get a pen. It can’t be your own pen or a piece of paper from your own notebook, if you have one; the work must be done physically, not electronically—no tablets, no laptops, no phones. And I don’t give a shit about how your ADD means you can’t spell without spell-check, Trevor. This isn’t school. I’m not taking marks off for presentation.

Four people around a four-person table, the sort made for family dinners. One person per cardinal direction with just enough elbow room to scribble without hurting each other, assuming you’re all similarly-handed. And at the top of each page you draw a door, any sort, so long as it’s shut.

Draw a door, a shut door, locked if it must be, and look at it. Look at it for as long as you must before you can write down exactly what’d be behind it, if it opened.

And which of us was it who first got the idea that grew into this weird-ass prompt-turned-ritual? Oh, that would be Leah, obviously. Little Ms. “The Voices in My Head Aren’t Talking to Me Directly This Week” herself, the queen of pants versus plot, always puking out stuff in seemingly unrelated chunks before stringing it together afterwards and telling people her characters told her how to do it. The woman whose whole idea of outlining is to basically throw a pack of Tarot cards in the air, turn them over at random once they hit the ground, and see what happens.

Leah and I had once been together in the sharing-a-bed sense, as opposed to the simply sharing-an-apartment one: met in first year, moved in together by third year, then broke up the year after graduation only to discover there was nowhere to move within public transit distance that wouldn’t cost twice as much rent as we were already paying. Which is how we still came to be “together” when she started the Shut Door Sessions, two roommates turned exes pretending we could actually be some variety of friends even after what happened . . . happened.

Such a cliché, too, all said and done, especially for two people so deeply engaged in trying to avoid clichés like the plague. One of those uncomfortable breakups where you don’t really want each other’s company any more but have far too much in common to avoid each other without making a scene. I mean, nobody wants to be the Crazy Ex from Hell, do they? The bitch, the asshole, the one who ruins things for everyone else. Don’t want to make your other friends unhappy, assuming you have some. So why throw the few friends you’ve already got away over something as negligible as mere post-physical entanglement heartbreak?

Just play along, guys, okay? No matter how silly it seems. Look at your door, let your eyes unfocus. Relax. Breathe deep and open yourselves up.

Just open yourselves up and wait to see what comes through.

Leah’s voice in Yuri’s living room that first night, excited enough to turn just a bit breathless, the way I’d heard it so many times before, albeit under very different circumstances. Which maybe explains why I was not only willing but eager to go along with this ridiculous plan of hers—chase the monkey down the monkey-track one more time, in hot pursuit of a truly inventive creativity I already suspected I had never really possessed. I’m talking about the ability to see something lurking inside a block of mental marble and free it with just a few pen-strokes. Craft a sentence clean as a bone over and over again, then hook them together into the skeleton of something never seen before.

My door was featureless, graphic, almost hieroglyphic—I’m a writer, not a visual artist. A bare rectangle with a small circle inside, halfway down the right-hand post…a handle, probably smooth brass, or maybe one of those old glassine diamonds with a bit of paint-slop left down around the part that rotates, turning left to pull tongue from lock and open inwards to reveal—

“The part that rotates,” hell . . . I really should know what that thing’s called, right? Considering my profession.

The door, and what’s behind it. What’s behind your door? See it, guys. Write it down.

Write it down, then tell me.

And now you want to stop, I’ll bet—to pull out before you go much further, let alone the whole, full way with me. But you can’t, can you? You need to know what you won’t be able to stop thinking about, if you do.

Besides which: it’s already too late, really. I mean, you’ve already read this far.

Haven’t you?

Here’s what I wrote, that first time:

A dark road, or what looks like one. No moon and no horizon. Hard to see where the ground blends with the sky, but as it comes towards the door-frame it starts looking porous, tactile. Tiny holes or tiny stones? Gravel? A bed of gravel on either side of two long, dull gray lines with lighter lines between them like a ladder on the ground or maybe train-tracks, away into the distance. Trees on either side? Shadows, spiky, overhanging. They switch back and forth on the tracks, no noise but if there was it would be rustling. Distant. A high and a lonely wind. Nothing else.

Breathing in, breathing out. Resisting the urge to check my watch. Listening to the scratch of other people’s pens around me—trying not to picture Leah with her tongue-tip caught between her teeth, bottom lip a little furled to show darker pink inside pale lipstick. Trevor scribbling hard, like he’s fighting the alphabet. Yuri humming. Trying not to recognize the tune.

The posts are darkening, shadow spreading outwards. A black thickening at the threshold, like drool.

(I wanted to stop then too, believe me. That early on. Before I’d even seen . . . anything.)

Another tick, a half-breath, barely tasted. And then—

Now a sense of something changing in the furthest section: a dot, dark separating from dark. Thinning as it moves closer, paced like a man’s stride, not quick, not slow. Steady. Taller now. The track isn’t completely straight like it seemed, there’s a rise, and he’s moving up it, cresting it. Very tall now, very, in a long dark coat like the song. Head down, hood up. Movement around the knees, pump of muscle and flutter of wind. The coat is black. His face is pale, obscure. Pitted? Hair down across the eyes? Chin pointed?

Nothing to stop him. Nothing that can stop him.

I don’t know where he’s going. Coming.

Coming HERE?

My hand formed the word, the question mark, HERE plus a squiggle above a dot. Underline swooping up into two-part quirk done so fast it scarred the page, barely separated, ink bleeding into ink.

Shut it again, and fast, I remember thinking, breath hissing back out like a stomach-punch, just do it slam it lock it. Just shut shut shut the fucking door.

“Annnnd done,” Leah chimed in overtop, cheerily. “Pens down, guys. Let’s see what we’ve got.”

I remember sitting back, flipping my paper as I did so, like I was afraid what might come out of it. Then seeing Leah point at Trevor, who winced, and started reading.

“Behind my door, um, what I see is, like . . . a long, dark road,” he began, flat and halting, eyes squinched as if having trouble with his own words. “Or a bunch of train-tracks? One track, going off through a forest, uh . . . and it’s really hard to see where it goes because the trees are all, like, jam-packed in on either side—”

Across the table, Yuri snorted. “You fucking kidding me?” he asked, glaring at Trevor.

Leah, still breathless: “Uh—no crit until we’re all finished, please…”

“Oh, seriously? When joker here just read mine upside-down and copied it, instead of making up his own? Real mature, T.”

Trevor flushed. “Am I supposed to know what the fuck he’s talking about?”

“Guys,” said Leah. “Guys.

But Yuri was off again, as he so often was during these workshop attempts: he was an old-school Asimov fan who believed anything other than Ass-In-Chair-Hands-On-Keyboard was self-indulgent time-wasting and didn’t think much of Trevor’s too-obvious eagerness to try anything Leah proposed. Nor had he ever stinted at saying so, bluntly. If anything was a surprise this time, it was the uncharacteristic ferocity with which Trevor came back at him, for once; within minutes both were on their feet yelling at each other, with Leah shrinking between, her feeble efforts at mediation completely silenced.

Nobody noticed me, at the time, picking up Trevor’s page and scanning it. Then Yuri’s. After which, I got up and left, leaving my own scribble on the table without saying anything.

I don’t think anybody noticed that for a while, either.

“Kris?” Hand on my shoulder, light, tinglingly familiar. It took some effort not to roll towards the touch for a kiss. “You awake?”

“Am now,” I muttered. The bedroom was dark, but it wasn’t like Leah needed the lights to know her way around. “Sorry. Should’ve said goodbye.”

“No, no. I understand.” The hand withdrew; a small, compact weight settled itself on the bed, carefully distant. After a moment, paper crackled. “I, um—I thought you might want this.” And there it was, thrust without warning in front of my face. My Shut Door Exercise. I had to stifle the urge to rip it from her hands and tear it into shreds.

In hindsight I don’t think that would have helped. But I still wish I had. Instead, I just took it, levered myself upright and slipped it into my bedside table drawer. Leah watched, wide eyes glinting in the dark.

“Is that really what you wrote?” she asked.

“What do you think?”

I hate how you do that, I remember her shouting at me. Dodge questions by asking more questions. You always put everything back on me! But she surprised me. Not saying anything, she shuffled close enough to reach the bedside lamp, turned it on, then gave me another piece of paper. I stared at her. She just nodded at the paper and gazed back.

Her door was pure Leah: a neat little sketch of opened gates with arching tops and angular runes above them, Tolkien’s Mines of Moria entrance in miniature. Below that, her handwriting reeled across the page in the familiar chicken-scratches. Reading it had always, always been an effort in squinting patience and guesswork . . . until now. Railroad tracks off into the dark, it began. I see them through the trees. A night with no moon, and he comes walking. . .

I didn’t need to read the rest, any more than you need to read it now. All sleepiness was gone, though I couldn’t have told you what replaced it. Fear didn’t seem like the right word. It felt more like prickly queasiness. Like nothing I’d ever felt.

“Trevor didn’t copy Yuri,” I said, roughly. “Neither did you. Right?”

Leah shook her head. “I—I thought, for just a minute, that he might have. I mean, if he was really desperate enough to impress you, then maybe he—”

“Impress me? I thought he was hung up on you.”

That got a smile I hadn’t seen in a long time; something caught in my throat. Leah shook her head. “God, Kris, you never could pick up on that kind of thing.” The smile faded. “No, he was too angry. Which means it was real. Which means . . .” She let out a shaky breath. “I also got this word in my head,” she said, without segue. “Like I was hearing it from far away. An echo of an echo. Something—something Latin, I think.”

“I didn’t know you knew Latin.”

“I don’t, it just—sounded that way to me. Like a Roman name from Asterix, or something.” She stopped by the door, arms folded, half-turned away. I couldn’t see her eyes anymore.

“Are you okay?” I blurted, before I caught myself. We’d stopped asking each other that sort of thing. But all I got was a dull shrug.

“Sure.” A deep breath; a sidelong look. “I don’t think the exercise worked tonight, though.”

“Probably . . . better not to do it again, then,” I answered carefully.

“Probably.”

So much that could have been said, in that look. None of it anything we could say. Nothing that would have made a difference, even now.

“Good night, Kris,” she said, and left.

Not a forest this time. Flat, open prairie, an achingly wide night sky overhead; stars like spilled salt, crusting purple clouds. I stood amid swaying, whispering plants that might have been corn, or wheat, or savannah grass. A black shadow painted a depthless rectangle before me on the plain; I could smell the barn’s wood mold and wet hay, undercut with dead mice and desiccated cow shit. A road cut across the plain past me, straight as a laser beam. The full moon blazed.

Made it all the easier to see.

The walker was farther away, tiny, only a smudged speck of moving black where the road disappeared into the invisible horizon. No way to tell where he was looking, though his shape inched slowly but evenly down the road’s dead center, as if he was staring straight ahead. But I knew he knew I was there. Just as I knew why he wasn’t hurrying. What need? He knew I couldn’t move.

It should have taken a long time for him to reach me. Maybe it did. Time slips around in dreams, we all know that. But he didn’t change course even as he approached. Hooded, black-cloaked, nothing but shadow under the cowl; his head didn’t angle towards me. He wasn’t even particularly tall—maybe six feet, if that. And the cloak draped and flowed like a perfectly normal human was wearing it. Even his movement looked like an ordinary walk. A steady, slightly-too-rhythmic walk, but a walk.

And… he was passing me. Not even turning to look.

I had half an instant to feel a surreal mix of giddy relief, bemused shock and even something like indignation, like part of me wanted to yell Is that it?! But then—

I want to tell you the word he told me: the word that sounded right in my ear, despite the distance between us; the word spoken at a nearly normal volume, calm, quiet, without rancor, without haste. But the explosion of sheer terror it detonated inside me erased it even as I heard it—a trauma so huge it blotted itself out in the instant of its own creation, the way the mind discards any pain too huge to process. Like when a tooth’s pulled without freezing or a bone breaks; when you knock the wind out of yourself, when you get a concussion. You know it happened, and you know you never want it to happen again, but . . . that’s all, that’s it. Nothing else.

Just the scar where it’s been.

At some point I realized I was awake. My mouth and throat felt dry, and dizziness lingered; I must have been hyperventilating. Had I screamed? Leah would have come running to check on me if I had. Unless—I checked the alarm clock and groaned. No, she was long gone to work by now. I made myself get up, shower, and get dressed, even though my shift at the bookstore didn’t start for hours.

The apartment was unnervingly quiet. I did what little busywork I could find, which didn’t take long. And then, without letting myself think about it, I went into Leah’s room and sat down on the bed.

I hadn’t allowed myself to do this in nearly two years. This had been the room we’d shared while we were together—I’d taken the spare bedroom afterwards because I had far less stuff to move out; I’d never collected anything like her vast array of kitsch, knickknacks and tchotchkes, like the horde of ceramic monkeys still taking up an entire shelf or the rows of unused Sacred Heart candles littering her dresser. Boxes and boxes of odds and ends, strewn along the windowsill. The closet stuffed to bursting with clothes. And her smell, still in the air, without any need to press my face into the pillow.

You had to look close to see what was missing. Beside the stereo, the stack of CDs was half the height it had once been. A sparsely-filled bookshelf, slightly bent, as if it had long held up a much heavier weight. A protruding nail on the wall where a picture had hung, the sort of thing everybody reminds themselves to get around to removing and never remembers. But if you didn’t think to look, you wouldn’t notice. You might think nobody else had ever slept here.

Maybe it was anger that made me get up and go to the second box from the right on her windowsill, the only one you needed to know the trick to open. Fingernails in the right hidden slots: slide, twist, press, click. I dug out the notepad and pencil that Leah had showed me, the pad where I knew she wrote down her dreams. And for the first time in two years I sat down and started reading.

Nothing about me, which was both a relief and a disappointment. The usual surreal nonsense. One surprising scene about Yuri, of all people—I’d always known Leah’s tastes were wider than mine but hadn’t thought she felt anything for him beyond friendship. Journeys, conversations, images clearly plucked out and set aside for some future poem—

I turned to the last page and stopped. She’d written something down here . . . but it had been utterly obliterated by a black charcoal smear scribbled so forcefully onto the paper that the sheet itself felt warped under my fingers. I tilted it back and forth under the light, trying to make something out, but gave up when my eyes started to hurt.

Then a better idea came to mind. I flipped to the next page, took the pencil, and began delicately shading light gray over the paper. The impression of the word bloomed up in white against the gray, gouged into the pulp; almost, but not quite, too faint to see.

(Like I was hearing it from far away. An echo of an echo. Something Latin, I think . . .)

On her desk, Leah had left her computer open and running, as she always did. One Google search, and the answer was there in front of me. It was, indeed, Latin. My face felt numb.

Venio.

I am coming.

I begged off sick from my shift, waited for Leah to get home and told her what I’d found. I was a little surprised she didn’t get angry—violation of her privacy was one of the few things that normally set her off—but I guess both of us knew we were beyond that now. We called the guys. Trevor, surprise surprise, was perfectly willing to meet tonight even on this short notice; Yuri took some persuading, but finally agreed, and even offered his living room again.

Once Yuri had finally gotten it through his head that no, this wasn’t some kind of practical joke, he practically went berserk; it was the most excited I’d ever seen him. “Don’t you get it, Kris?” he raved, striding around the room. “We’ve actually achieved something paranormal here! Subconscious telepathic communication, at least—or maybe we actually contacted something! A spirit, a ghost, whatever . . .”

“Well, you know, it could also be—” Trevor began.

Yuri didn’t listen. “We have to do this again. Now we all know what to concentrate on, maybe we can make contact consciously. God! I should record this. Let me get my phone.” He sprinted out and was back in a second, setting up his phone on a sideboard by the dining room table. Trevor looked at me helplessly.

“Yuri. Yuri.” I had to raise my voice. He blinked at me. “Yuri, we didn’t do this to convince you to keep going with it. We want it to stop.”

Yuri stared. “That’s ridiculous,” he said after a moment, in a perfectly level voice. “That’s stupid. That’s like Alexander Fleming throwing out his moldy petri dishes without checking them first. Look, we’re not calling up Captain Howdy on a Ouija board here. We’re confirming whether we’re sharing the same mental experiences. That’s all. Besides, if you want it to stop, doesn’t it make more sense to finish it? Wrap it up, bring it to a conclusion, whatever it is?”

Trevor cleared his throat. “I, um . . . I gotta say, I kind of don’t want to leave it hanging either. You’re . . . you’re supposed to face this stuff, I think. That’s what Dr. Tallan always says.”

I turned to Leah for backup. The look on her face was like a slap. My fists knotted. “Fuck’s sake, don’t tell me you’re buying this,” I said.

She swallowed but didn’t flinch. “Kris, I’m sorry,” she replied in a small voice. It sounded almost exactly like the way she’d said I’m sorry two years ago, when she’d first asked me to move out. “But I don’t want to have that dream again. Do you?”

No, but— The words disintegrated in my mouth, leaving nothing behind.

Yuri clapped his hands, as if that had settled it. “Okay, then. Let’s do this. Everybody, get a piece of paper from someone else; Leah, give me your pencil, I’ll get pens for the rest of us . . .” Of course, he’d remembered the procedure exactly, even while he was scoffing. Before I knew it, we were all seated around the table again, and Trevor, at Yuri’s order, was setting a timer on his own phone under the steady stare of Yuri’s camera lens. Yuri took his seat, practically rubbing his hands in glee. “You know how this goes, guys. Draw the door. Concentrate on it. And open yourself up to see what comes through.” He nodded to Trevor. “Go.”

Trevor started the timer, then bent his head to his paper. So did Leah and Yuri. I put my pencil on the paper but sat still, fully intending to draw nothing, write nothing. Okay, I’d scribble the pencil around meaninglessly a little, just to make it look good, but—

My mouth dried.

From what I’d been sure were completely random muscle movements, the cartoon-simple shape of the door—rectangle, tiny circle—had somehow emerged. I couldn’t take my eyes from it. My hand cramped; my fingers hurt; my forearm ached. The pencil scribbled across the page. The door seemed to be blurring in and out.

Not real, I thought fuzzily. Think of something real but faraway. If he’s coming to where he thinks you are, show him something different. Send him on. I tried to conjure up places in my mind that I knew I’d never seen, even to recognize on TV: Boise, Cleveland, Saskatoon. Minsk. Aachen. Beijing. Locations that were nothing more than a name and a vague direction.

But the problem is that the more you try to imagine what’s too unfamiliar to conceive, the more your own familiarities snap into place in the gaps, like a default reflex you can’t control. The nameless city becomes your own city; a shapeless street becomes a road you know. Any building becomes your building . . . or your friend’s. The corridor becomes an all-too-recognizable hallway. And as the shadows pour down that hallway, surrounding the silently walking figure, its hand lifting to the door to knock, the more your head wants to turn from the paper door to the real one, even while part of you is desperately screaming not to look up, not to look, not to—

Trevor’s phone went off in a flurry of electronic chimes. I jumped. Across the table, Leah looked like she wanted either to burst into tears or throw up. Yuri shook his head, seeming to snap awake. “Whoa,” he said. “Okay, I’ll read mine first, then we—”

A knocking came at the door. Not loud, not heavy-handed; polite, almost diffident. Yuri scowled. “Fuck me, go the fuck away,” he muttered. When the knocking came again, he repeated himself, this time in a shout: “Fuck off, asshole!”

The knocking only continued. Yuri rolled his eyes. I stared at him, trying to get enough breath into my lungs to ask him: couldn’t he see it? The shadow, coagulating thickly around the edges of his front door, like tar seeping through cardboard? Couldn’t he feel the cold in the air? But I couldn’t even get my hand to move as he rose from his chair and strode towards the door. Leah was whimpering. Trevor stared at me like a kid waiting for his parents to explain something he didn’t understand. Yuri reached the door, grabbed the knob, twisted it, and flung it open.

There was nobody there. And simultaneously all the shadow, all the chill, it was all gone. I could move again. Breathed easily. The absence of fear felt almost like being drunk. Yuri looked down the outside hall, then blew out an exasperated breath. “Well, that was—” he began, turning around.

The doorway behind him went night-black. Something reached out of the darkness behind him, seized his shoulder, and pulled. Yuri flew backwards like a stuntman on a wire and vanished, the void that swallowed him gone in the same instant. The door hung open. The hallway was empty.

I sat there still, same position. Couldn’t move a muscle. Leah was the one who went white. Trevor was the one who vomited.

I don’t think it ever occurred to any of us to call the police. We couldn’t have told them anything they’d believe, obviously. But worse than that, we couldn’t have told them anything we’d believe. Every 911 call ever made boils down to one of just two messages: Help me please or It’s not my fault; both at once. Problem is, neither of those were true. They still aren’t.

Nobody could help Yuri, any more than they could help us. And it was our fault.

Trevor cleaned up his sick while Leah had a sobbing breakdown on the couch. I replayed what Yuri’s phone had recorded, over and over, but the lens hadn’t been pointed towards the front door. Again and again, the knocking came; Yuri scowled, swore, shouted, then got up and walked out of frame as the three of us stared after him; his last, almost-inaudible half sentence; and then, the reaction—Leah swaying, me frozen, Trevor doubling over. It was nearly hypnotic. I only came out of it when Trevor tapped me on the shoulder and told me he was walking me and Leah home.

We had to leave the apartment door unlocked, of course.

I don’t remember much of that walk. I barely remember Trevor in the door of our apartment, insisting that it was no problem at all to crash on our couch, and Leah pushing him out, sounding too tired to be either kind or harsh. I remember huddling up under my blankets the way I hadn’t done since I was eight. I think I remember Leah lying down next to me, but she was gone when I woke.

The day crawled by. My manager called once, asking if I was feeling better; I told her no and tried to feel touched when she sounded worried. In the afternoon, Trevor sent me and Leah several e-mails from his office address, carrying multiple links and attachments. I read them without replying. The final message’s subject line had degenerated into all-caps begging, and when I saw it was addressed only to me, not Leah, I deleted it unread. I spent some time looking at the photos and videos of Yuri I still had saved on my phone, trying to think what I’d say when whoever eventually went looking for him started to ask questions.

The light from the windows inched across the floor and faded away. I sat in the deepening gloom. Listening. Every hair on my body stretched out, feeling for a chill in the air.

I am coming.

It was mostly dark when Leah finally got home. She waved a sheaf of paper at me as she came in, apparently unsurprised to find me waiting on the couch. “I printed it all out,” she said. “Everything Trevor found. What do you think? It makes a lot of sense to me, I have to say.”

“I don’t know,” I said. “If this is something we . . . we created, just out of our minds with that exercise, why don’t we have control over it? Why can’t we turn it off?”

“Well, we haven’t exactly tried yet.” Leah flipped on the lights, came over and sat down beside me, shuffling through the papers. “That Reddit discussion thread, about how to destroy tulpas—”

“Where they all say you just have to stop paying attention to them? How’s that been working for you?”

Leah put her hands on her knees and breathed deeply. “The post near the end,” she said, when the color had faded out of her face. “It says one way to actively dissipate a tulpa is to force something into its definition that’s essentially a self-contradiction. Like, if you create an imaginary friend, you have to visualize it doing something nobody you call a friend could ever do, like stealing your ex, or . . . or something like that. And then when it can’t believe in itself the way it was built to, it falls apart. It literally melts down from the cognitive dissonance.”

I snorted. “Yeah, and there are other posts that say the only way to kill a tulpa is to kill whoever created it. Are we buying into that too?”

Leah flushed again. “No! Look, Kris, all I’m saying is that it’s worth a shot. I mean, have you got any other ideas?”

Now who’s throwing everything back on who? I got up and went to the window, glaring out at the traffic whooshing by outside on Bathurst Street; my legs burned. “We could leave,” I said. “Just pick up and get out of here, go as far as we can. See if that makes a difference.”

“‘We?’” Leah replied.

It was my turn to flush, abrupt and fierce. I opened my mouth to snap That’s not what I meant, not at all sure what I had meant . . . and coughed out the taken breath in a gasp, heat draining to cold in an instant. “Oh, Christ,” I gulped, staring across the street. “Oh, shit—Leah.” I pointed, amazed to see my hand was shaking. “Do you see that? Tell me you see that!”

“See what?” Leah had raced to my side, squinting through our images in the glass. “Hang on—” She dashed back to the door, turned the lights out. Darkness dropped over us. The black figure across the road, a silhouette huddled in the corner of an alley, became sharper, seemed to loom closer out of the dark. Leah returned to the window; I felt her stiffen. “Oh, shit,” she breathed. “Kris, what do we do? What do we do?”

Good fucking question. I tried to pull my brain back into one piece. “We could try going out the back door of the main house,” I said, voice hoarse. “We’d have to hop the fence, sneak out through the property on the other side, but . . .”

The figure pushed one hand back awkwardly over its head. Pale hair glinted momentarily in a flicker of the streetlight. And my terror collapsed so completely and quickly into exasperated rage it almost made me puke. “Oh, fuck me,” I said, yanked the window open and stuck my head out. “Trevor! Get your ass over here!”  The black figure jerked; the hat it had been wearing fell off, and Trevor hunched down to grab it as if ducking out of a sniper’s line of fire.

“What the hell were you thinking?” I bellowed at him a minute later on the doorstep of our building. “Were you fucking trying to scare us into a heart attack?” Trevor seemed to shrink as I kept yelling; Leah looked like she wanted to say something but couldn’t think what. “This is not a fucking game any more! We don’t have time for this kind of stalker bullshit—!”

I wasn’t . . .” Trevor’s voice cracked. “I’m not stalking you guys, Kris, God! I just . . . I just want to make sure you’re safe, OK? Both of you! You’re, like, the only people on this planet I give a shit about at all, and if I lost you, I don’t . . . I don’t . . .” He trailed off, swallowed liquidly and scrubbed one hand across his face, not looking at me. “You never answered my last e-mail,” he finished. “I tried to say it all in there. But you never answered.”

Fuck. Of all the times for Leah to be right. I couldn’t decide whether to laugh, cry or scream. “You give a shit about us?” I asked instead. “Fine. Then fucking listen to me and get it through your head: Leah I don’t know about, but I am very definitely Gay All Day, and you know that thing about ‘if this was the last minute before death would you at least kiss me goodbye?’ Hate to say it, man, ‘cause you’re my friend, and I love you, but not like that—this probably is our last minute, and, no. Never. Not ever. Please, just . . . go the fuck home and think about it until you get that.”

Trevor stared at me for a long time, his eyes wet. “I . . . can’t,” he finally whispered, so quiet I could barely hear him. “I’m scared, Kris.”

I sighed, too exhausted for any more anger. “Yeah,” I said. “Me too. So come in if you want. But no more of this shit, okay? That’s done.”

Trevor only nodded, staring at the concrete steps.

I want to say his silence worried me, as we got him set up on the couch to stay the night. I want to say I was thinking about him at least that much. I want to say I was thinking about anything at all but the sick dread pooling in my stomach and the sounds outside our apartment’s front door.

I want to say that all I felt when I went into the bathroom in the morning and saw Trevor hanging from the showerhead, a pair of Leah’s hose serving as a noose, was what anybody would feel: shock, horror, anguish, pain. Rage at the pointlessness, the selfishness. Grief like a hole chewing its way through your gut, even before I read his note through streaming eyes: It took all four of us to make it. Maybe it needs all four of us to keep going. A tulpa dies when its maker dies. Maybe this will break the chain. I’m sorry, Kris. I can’t think of any other way.

I only ever wanted you to be safe.

I was sitting on the cold bathroom floor, note crumpled in my fist, muttering between dry sobs: “Oh, God, Trev, fuck you. Fuck you, Trev. God, God. . .” when Leah came in, and started to scream. Which finally gave me something else to think about besides the sickening, contemptible truth: in that first moment of comprehension, what I’d felt, more than anything else . . .

. . . was envy.

There wasn’t any way to keep the cops out of it this time, though nobody official acted like an asshole. You figure the people who handle this sort of thing learn to tell the fakers from the genuinely traumatized pretty quick most of the time. Not that that’s exactly consoling. I remember one bad moment when one of the uniformed officers gave me a narrow look, like something about my no-I-didn’t-have-the-slightest-idea-but-he-was-in-therapy answer didn’t ring right, but he didn’t do anything except give me a card and tell me to call him if I thought of anything else. Leah had cried herself into unconsciousness before anyone had even gotten there, leaving me to handle the clean-up.

After everything was over and everyone was gone, I went into Leah’s room and sat at her desk, waiting. For a moment I thought about lying down beside her but couldn’t bring myself to do it. The urge didn’t last long anyway. Eventually, she woke up and looked at me, and I knew the truth the instant I met her hollow, reddened gaze.

“He’s still coming,” I said.

Leah only nodded. “He was . . . I recognized the street. It’s in Windsor. I grew up there. I could smell the fog . . .” Her voice was raw, a wreck of itself. “This isn’t . . . I don’t think we made this, Kris. Not completely. Maybe we gave it a shape. But this thing—it’s something else. From somewhere else. I think, maybe, it’s been looking for a door for a long time.” Her gaze dropped to the bedclothes. “And we gave it four of them.”

“And wrote it a fucking set of directions,” I said.

Leah frowned, sitting up. “Wait. What if—what if that’s it? We wrote its path out for it. Who’s to say we can’t write its ending the way we want?” Suddenly energized, she swung her legs off the bed and leaned forward to grab my hands. “This whole thing started as a story. Maybe if we want to finish it, we have to finish the story.”

I stared at her. “Finish it, like . . . how? Just write him going away?”

“Why not?” With what was now almost manic enthusiasm, Leah leapt up, dug her dream journal out of her box, and slammed it down on the desk in front of me. “That’s my book, so you’ll have to write it, but we can do this right now! Come on, come on . . .” Unable to find words to argue, I let her swivel me around, took the pencil she shoved into my hand as she flipped the journal to a blank page. “Okay. Go for it. Draw the door and write the ending.”

“This can’t . . .” But my hand was already moving. Same door as before: rectangle, circle. I closed my eyes and saw shapes move in the blackness. Saw one shape moving slowly, steadily, coming nearer. Leah was muttering in my ear: The road goes ever on and on, and the traveller must follow, no stops, no destination, no visits; no one waits to welcome him, only the endless road, leaving all other souls behind, untouched, safe in the light, safe in the light, safe in the light as he disappears forever—

Jesus!” My entire arm suddenly cramped in vicious agony, driving the pencil across the page so hard it tore through the paper and snapped in half. Leah yelped, jumping back. I wrung my hand, feeling blood seeping from my gouged knuckles. “Fuck! Okay, that didn’t work.”

“No. No, of course it wouldn’t, that wasn’t an ending, that was just a copout.” Leah grabbed the book, flipped to another page and yanked another pen from the desk drawer. “It’s a journey, right? Journeys have to end somewhere.” She sketched a door of her own, this one no more complicated than mine, and paused. “We have to send him somewhere. Somewhere a person couldn’t survive; somewhere we know nothing could survive.” She looked at me expectantly.

I shrugged, at a loss. “Underwater?” I said. “I don’t know! Um, underground. Buried.” Leah nodded, scribbling furiously. “In space. In the center of the sun . . . Wait! No, he wants his door. I don’t think we’re gonna keep him away from it.”

Leah stopped writing and drew a shuddering breath. She never did give up. I’d loved that about her once, before I’d hated how it meant she never let a fight go until she thought she’d won it.

“Doors,” she said. “That was how it happened with Yuri, too. Maybe—maybe that’s the key. Not the words. The door.” I gaped at her as she turned to one more blank page and, glancing defiantly at me, drew a different rectangle: this one wider than it was tall, with no knob on it or anything else.

“You want to put him inside a wall?” Terror drove through me like freezing water forced down my throat. “No! No, goddammit, Leah, if you do that it’s only going to make every wall a door! He’ll be able to get in anywhere!” I leaped forward and dragged her away from the desk, into the middle of the room, holding her by the shoulders as I cast around wildly. “Oh, Christ, he’s close, isn’t he? He can fucking hear it in our heads! Don’t think of him in the walls! Don’t!”

Leah shook her head. “No, shit, you’re right, you’re right . . .” She closed her eyes, taking deep breaths, half-determined and half-dismayed. “Not the walls,” she muttered, fists clenched. “Not the walls, not the walls, not the—”

She stopped, staring down. I followed her gaze.

Two shadows stretched out in different directions from her feet.

Leah’s head snapped up, eyes wide, breath sucking in. “Oh, shit, Kri—” was all she got out, before two massive arms made of something that looked like molten tar exploded out of the floor, wrapped around her, and jerked her back down into it. Under. Through. Away.

So that was three days ago. I’ve been working on this ever since, on Leah’s laptop.

I told my boss I wasn’t coming back to work, after which I unplugged Leah’s landline and turned off both her phone and mine. There was a banging on the door yesterday that sounded like a cop’s knock, but I just stopped moving and didn’t say anything. After a while it stopped. I haven’t eaten much or slept much. Strangely, when I do sleep, I don’t dream.

And now you know why you shouldn’t ever have started reading, whoever’s reading this. Because he gets stronger the closer he gets. If you know about him, he knows about you. The only thing I can think of is that if enough people learn about him, he’ll be—I don’t know—maybe dispersed somehow. Like a drop of ink disappearing in a lake. I want to believe that, because I don’t have anything left to think about the alternative.

And maybe if all I do is give him more people to . . . to take, he’ll be grateful enough that whatever he does with me, whenever he does come for me, maybe I’ll at least end up where Leah is. Wherever she went. Wherever Yuri went. I want to hope maybe somehow Trevor will be there, too, but I don’t know how reasonable that is—

Reasonable. Jesus Christ. I just wrote the word reasonable.

Maybe I should have tried harder to make this story unreadable, unbelievable. Forgettable. But that’s the trick about forgetting: you can’t ever really choose to do it. You can only wait and hope it happens. Sit in an empty apartment, breathing as quietly as you can. You can try to unfocus your eyes. Try not to read. Try not to recognize words. Try not to put them together.

Try not to think of water.

Try not to think of darkness.

Try not to think of the inside of your wall.

Try not to think of the inside of your own body. Of the inside of your own head.

Try not to think of anything.

Try to think of nothing.

The post PseudoPod 673: Venio appeared first on PseudoPod.

Nov 05 2019

52mins

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PseudoPod 672: In Regards to Your Concerns About Your ScareBnB Experience and The Halloween Parade

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PseudoPod 672: In Regards to Your Concerns About Your ScareBnB Experience and The Halloween Parade is a PseudoPod original.

Effie Seiberg: “As a card-carrying wuss, this is the first horror-eque piece I’ve ever written. This story finally lets me say that my work can be found in every single Escape Artists podcast, which is very exciting because I’m a wuss when it comes to horror and never thought this day would come. Perhaps the scariest part, to me, is how we have a culture where it’s somehow ok to treat customer service folks like trash even when they’re not responsible for whatever mishaps you experienced.”

In Regards to Your Concerns About Your ScareBnB Experience

by Effie Seiberg

Dear Mrs. Axelthorpe,

I’m so sorry to hear your family had a negative experience at our ScareBnB. While we aim to provide an atmosphere of family-friendly spooky overnight fun, I see that with your family’s unique experience we’ve missed the mark.

You’re right, the blood dripping down the stairs to the abandoned attic was a slipping hazard. However, we did have signs clearly stating that guests should not go up the abandoned attic stairs for precisely this reason. You’ll be glad to know that the stains will eventually come out of your family’s clothes with a little bit of bleach, but unfortunately the curse we use to keep the bloodflow going is non-removable, and your clothing will continue to drip.

After their arrival into the (closed off) attic, I understand that your children were distressed by the sounds of our attic ghost. However, after reviewing the logs and interviewing the performer on shift, Alex of the Screeching Chains, it appears that the upsetting sounds were of Alex weeping after your offspring doused him in several cans of WD-40 and tried to set him on fire. We encourage our performers to stay in character and will send him an appropriate reprimand once he’s out of the hospital.

While most of our guests are delighted by the Hallway of Knives And Very Pointy Pendulums, I am disappointed that we did not meet your requirements for entertainment. That said, after our staff put out Alex’s fire, they asked your children not to climb up the pendulums several times, as their weight would throw off the delicate balance of blade choreography. Despite this, they persisted on clambering all over the apparatus, which as a result disconnected and flew across the hall, decapitating our Haunted Knight. I understand your children were dissatisfied when they found the Haunted Knight staggering around looking for his head amusing rather than scary. For this I also apologize. (You might be interested to know that the Haunted Knight will also make a full recovery after another few rounds of ectoplasm transfusion.)

I would also like to assure you that yes, all of our bats, rats, and tarantulas have all been vaccinated. While I’m deeply sorry that your wife was bitten, the critters only nip when provoked. I understand that setting the castle’s tapestries on fire has a way of spooking them.

In regards to the tapestries, they are enchanted to show the current guests’ greatest fears. While I’m certain it’s unsettling to have your own image appear in magic needlepoint, unfortunately I am not able to determine who in your family is terrified of you. That said, we are grateful that you only burned the tapestries in the North Wing, as the South Wing’s tapestries contain the threaded souls of the damned and we do not want them getting out.

Finally, I understand that while you were asked to leave the house for the firefighters to do their work, your family wandered into the nearby (closed) graveyard. Unfortunately as this was merely the local graveyard and not part of the ScareBnB experience, we cannot be held responsible for your experiences there. That said, yes, it can be disappointing that the graves were only for the dead, and not the undead, and I understand your children’s frustration that their desecration did not yield more fruitful results. I can also understand your consternation at the arrival of the local pitchfork-wielding mob.

I’m sorry that this caused you to exit the premises, and you were not able to avail yourselves of our full overnight experience, complete with fully-locking coffins lined with the finest rotting shrouds.

For all of these, I’d like to assure you that your recent visit has been comped, and per local regulations, we’ve notified the police.

Best,

Mr. Swamppe, Director of ScareBnB Customer Service and volunteer firefighter

PS—While we are not able to offer you a discount on your next stay with us, as your account has been disabled, please instead accept these $50 gift certificates for each of our top competitors.

The post PseudoPod 672: In Regards to Your Concerns About Your ScareBnB Experience and The Halloween Parade appeared first on PseudoPod.

Oct 31 2019

25mins

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PseudoPod 671: Only Unity Saves the Damned

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“Only Unity Saves the Damned” first appeared in Letter to Lovecraft in 2014. We discovered this in the collection She Said Destroy released by the excellent Word Horde.

Click the link to pick up the collection She Said Destroy released by the excellent Word Horde.

Only Unity Saves the Damned

by Nadia Bulkin

“Dude, are you getting this?”

Rosslyn Taro, 25, and Clark Dunkin, 25, are standing in the woods. It’s evening—the bald-cypresses behind them are shadowed and the light between the needles is the somber blue that follows sunsets—and they are wearing sweatshirts and holding stones.

“It’s on,” says the voice behind the camera. “To the winner go the spoils!”

They whip their arms back and start throwing stones. The camera pans to the right as the stones skip into the heart of Goose Lake. After a dozen rounds the camera pans back to Rosslyn Taro and Clark Dunkin arguing over whose stone made the most skips, and then slowly returns to the right. Its focus settles on a large bur oak looming around the bend of the lake, forty yards away.

“Hey, isn’t that the Witching Tree?”

Off-camera, Clark Dunkin says, “What?” and Rosslyn Taro says,

“Come on, seriously?”

“You know, Raggedy Annie’s Witching Tree.”

The girl sounds too shaky to be truly skeptical. “How do you know?”

“Remember the song? ‘We hung her over water, from the mighty oak tree.’ Well, there aren’t any other lakes around here.

And First Plymouth is on the other side of the lake.” The camera zooms, searches for a white steeple across the still water, but the light is bad. “‘We hung her looking over at the cemetery.’”

The camera swings to Rosslyn Taro, because she is suddenly upset. She is walking to the camera, and when she reaches it, shoves the cameraman. “Bay, shut up! I hate that stupid song. Let’s just go, I’m getting cold. Come on, please.” But Clark Dunkin is still staring at the tree. His hands are shaking. Rosslyn Taro calls his name: “Lark!”

The camera follows Clark Dunkin’s gaze to the tree. There is a figure standing in front of it, dressed in a soiled white shift and a black execution hood. The figure reaches two pale, thin hands to the edge of the hood as if to reveal its face. And then the camera enters a topspin, all dirt and branches and violet sky, as the cameraman begins to run. Rosslyn Taro is heard screaming. Someone—the cameraman, or possibly Clark Dunkin—is whimpering, as if from very far away, “oh, shit, oh, shit.”

And then the video abruptly cuts to black.

They called themselves the LunaTicks. Like everything else, it was Bay’s idea: he named them after an old British secret society, supposedly “the smartest men in Birmingham.” There were ground rules not only for their operations, but for life as a whole: if one got caught, the rest would confess or expect to be ratted out; where one goes, the others must follow. Only unity saves the damned, Bay said.

Roz’s father thought the boys were a terrible influence on her.

These slouching undead fools had metastasized at his front door one day when Roz was in sixth grade, with their uncombed hair and unwashed skin and vulgar black Tshirts. He’d made the mistake of letting the vampires in. Under their watch, his daughter’s mood swings escalated from mild distemper to a full-blown madness. The charcoal rings around her eyes got deeper; her silver skull necklaces got bigger. She was vandalizing the elementary school; she was shoplifting lipstick. He’d tell her he was locking the doors at midnight and in the morning he would find her sleeping, nearly frozen, on the porch—or worse, he wouldn’t find her at all. So he excavated her room, vowing to take the Baileys and the Dunkins to court if he found a single pipe, a single syringe. He gave up when she failed to apply to community college. The screen door swung shut behind her and he thanked God that he also had a son.

He was not alone. Bay’s parents hated Roz and Lark as well; their hatred of the two losers who hung like stones around Bay’s neck was the only thing the former Mr. and Mrs. Bailey still shared. They tried, separately, to introduce Bay to different crowds: the jocks, the computer geeks, the 4-H club. Bay said he hated them all (too dumb too weird too Christian), but the truth was that they had all rejected him. Eventually Bay’s parents gave him an ultimatum: get rid of your friends, or we get rid of the car. So the responsibility of driving down bedraggled county roads—and all roads lead to Goose Lake, the old folks said—fell to Roz and Lark.

Lark’s parents couldn’t have named Roz or Bay if they had tried. “There’s that raccoon girl,” they’d say, or “it’s that damn scarecrow boy again,” before drifting back into a dreamless sleep.

None of the LunaTicks would have graduated high school without the other two.

The Goose Lake video went viral, and life started to change just like Bay predicted. They sent the video from Bay’s phone to the local news and suddenly they weren’t the LunaTicks or the “dumb-ass emo kids” anymore—they were crisp and poignant, three local youths who had captured shocking footage of their hometown spook.  People on the street gave them second looks of fear and fascination. A couple reporters came out from Lincoln and Omaha, though their arrogance forbade them from understanding what this video meant to Whippoorwill. They were interviewed on a paranormal radio show, Unheard Of, based in Minneapolis. For the first time in their lives, they came with the warning label they’d always wanted. “The footage that you are about to see,” dramatic pause, “may disturb you.”

Bay had to keep from laughing whenever he watched the Goose Lake video, because of the absurdity of his perky little girlfriend pretending to be a dead witch—for Halloween last fall, Jessica had been a sexy strawberry. He was proud of her moxie, even though she’d whined afterwards that she smelled like a dead rat.

“When we make the real movie, I want a better costume,” she said.

“We ought to hire a real actress for the real movie, babe,” he replied.

The movie was his big plan for getting out of Whippoorwill.

It was all that time spent working at the theater, selling tickets to the “sheeple.” Said “sheeple” couldn’t get enough of those found footage mockumentaries. But really, they had a lot of ways out of Whippoorwill. There was working on a Dream America Cruise, or hitch-hiking, or Greenpeace. There were communes and oil rigs. The LunaTicks would lie on the asphalt watching jets pass overhead and dream up these exit ramps out of car exhaust. I can’t wait to get out of here, they’d say, smiling wistfully—they’d been saying it for years.

Lark couldn’t stop watching the Goose Lake video. He got the file on his own phone and then showed it off like a newborn baby to his retired neighbors, the gas station clerk, the town drunk who sat outside the grocery store with a whiskey bottle in a paper bag. Lark always asked what they saw, as if even he didn’t know the answer. No matter what they said, he’d shake his head and mutter, “That’s not it.” Bay said he was taking the method acting thing too seriously.

Roz couldn’t watch the video at all. This played well during interviews because she seemed traumatized, but after the microphones were off she was angry all the time. She wasn’t getting enough sleep, she said. The silver maple outside scratched at her window, as if asking to be let in.

The town bent around them like a car wrapping around a tree during a tornado. Suddenly all these Raggedy Annies— Raggedy Annie in my yard, Raggedy Annie in my attic, Raggedy Annie in the hospital when my husband passed away—came crawling out into the sunlight. The entire town had grown up with the same story about a witch who aborted babies back when the town was still being sculpted raw out of the rolling prairie, and they all knew the matching nursery rhyme as sure as they knew Happy Birthday— we hung her over water, from the mighty oak tree/ we hung her looking over at the cemetery.

A girl from high school, an ex-cheerleader, chatted Lark up in the express lane at the grocery store where he worked. She was buying diapers, but she wasn’t wearing a wedding ring. “Aren’t you freaked out? God, I think I might have died if I had seen her.” Lark said that wasn’t part of the story. Raggedy Annie didn’t kill on sight. The ex-cheerleader made a mock screaming sound and hissed, “Don’t say her name!” She also said to meet her at The Pale Horse on Friday night, but she didn’t show.

So Lark sat at the bar with Bay and Roz. The bartender said he’d always known that bitch Raggedy Annie was real. “Shit, man, every time I drive by Goose Lake I get this weird feeling. I thought it was a magnetic field or something, like Mystery Quadrant up in South Dakota. But nah, man. Our fucking parents were right! She’s our demon. She’s our cross to bear, if you don’t mind me saying. And the bitch can’t let go of a grudge. There’s just this one thing I don’t get though… but why did she show herself to you? Of all the people who’ve been boating and camping out at Goose Lake, why you guys?”

What they knew he meant was why, out of all the great little people in this great little town, would Raggedy Annie choose these losers? Or was it like attracts like: yesterday’s demon for today’s devils?

On Monday Lark showed the video to a pack of shabby children in the candy aisle. Tears were shed; one kid pissed himself.

As a furious mother hoisted her away, one girl pointed at Lark and shrieked, “Mommy, the tree!” Lark’s co-workers would later say that they had never seen him look so freaked out, so cracked up. He started shouting—in desperation, everyone told the manager, not anger—“I know, it’s the Witching Tree!”

The day after, Lark neither showed up for work nor answered his phone. He probably would have been fired anyway, given the children-in-the-candy-aisle incident, but Roz and Bay had to make certain he hadn’t somehow died—a freak electrocution, carbon monoxide, anything seemed possible if Lark wasn’t answering his phone—because where one goes, the others must follow. So Roz drove them to the Dunkins’ house on the scraggly edge of town. No luck, no Lark. “I have no idea where he is,” said Mrs. Dunkin, from the couch. It smelled more foul than usual. “But he isn’t here, raccoon girl.”

His parents had really let the yard go—the branches of a grotesque hackberry tree were grasping the roof of the little tin house, like the tentacles of a mummified octopus. They always kept the shades drawn, so maybe they hadn’t noticed it. “Nice tree, Mrs. Dunkin,” Bay said as they left, but she didn’t respond.

Bay had the big ideas, but Lark was the smartest LunaTick. He slouched in the back of classrooms, mumbling answers only when forced. Most of his teachers dismissed his potential—as the twig’s bent, so’s the tree inclined, they said. But there was no arguing with test scores. When the time came to shuffle the seventeen-year-olds out of gymnasiums and into the real world, Lark got the Four-Year-Colleges handout instead of Two-Year-Colleges or The U.S. Armed Forces. He stared at it for a week before quietly applying to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

If he stayed he knew he would end up like Roger Malkin. Bay would eventually get a job at the Toyota dealership and Roz would marry some tool with bad hair, but he’d take up the mantle of town drunk. He had the genes for it. Roger would slur, “You’s a good kid,” and that meant they understood each other, damn it.

He told the other LunaTicks that he’d gotten into UNL while Bay was driving them to Dairy Queen. Bay was so upset that he nearly drove the car off Dead Man’s Bridge, and that moment of gut-flattening fear was the most alive any of them had felt in months. “Come with me,” Lark begged, but Roz just chewed her hair while Bay ground his teeth. They looked like scared rats, backing into their holes.

After the university paperwork started coming in—Get Involved! See What’s New!—Lark realized that his life in Whippoorwill was a mere shadow of real human experience. He saw himself in an inspirational poster: teetering alone on a cliff, muslin wings outstretched, DARE TO DREAM emblazoned across the bottom. In what should have been his final summer in his hometown, Whippoorwill shrank and withered until just driving down Jefferson Street made him itchy, claustrophobic.

He’d stand in the shower stall with the centipedes for hours, drowning out the coughs of his narcoleptic parents, willing the water to wash off his mildewed skin. All this is ending, he would think. All this is dead to me.

When he loaded up his car in August his parents pried themselves off the couch to see him off. “You won’t get far,” his mother whispered in his ear as she hugged him, bones digging into his back, and from the doorway his father said, “He’ll come crawling back. They always do.”

And he was right. After Lark came home for winter break, he never made the drive back east. Classes were hard. Dorm rooms were small. People were brusque, shallow, vulgar. Everyone had more money than he did. The jocks who’d made high school miserable were now living in frat houses behind the quad. He hadn’t made any real friends—not friends like Roz and Bay, anyway. They were waiting for him at Dead Man’s Bridge after the big December snow, smiling with outstretched wool gloves.

“We know you couldn’t stay away,” Roz said. For a moment Lark considered grabbing both their hands and jumping into the river of ice below.

Raggedy Annie stood at the end of the bed. It’s Jessica, Roz thought. Jessica broke into my room and she’s trying to scare me and she and Bay are going to laugh about this tomorrow.  She tried to open her mouth and couldn’t. She tried to pry her jaw open with her hand and couldn’t lift her arm.

The thing at the end of the bed— Jessica, Jessica, Jessica—stretched two bone-white arms to the black hood. Roz tried to close her eyes but before she could, the hood was gone and the face of the ghoul was revealed. She didn’t know what to expect, since Raggedy Annie never had a face in the story—but it was her mother. She was glowing blue-green, like foxfire in the woods, and if not for that glow her face was so flat and her movements so jerky that she could have been an old film reel. Her mother—who should have been a mile away and six feet deep in First Plymouth—opened and closed her mouth as if trying to speak, though only a hoarse, coffin-cramped gasp escaped.

She was a mess the next day. She forgot about make-up and coffee and straightening her hair. She forgot to call the landscaping company about getting the silver maple tree, the one that knocked on her window every night, under control. It was almost as tall as the chimney now; it was overwhelming the house.

The one thing I tell you to do, as her father would later say. You’re just like your mother. Apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, I guess.

She also forgot about the performance review that would have determined whether she’d be made Accessories Sales Supervisor at Clipmann’s, and ended up spending most of the review trying to save her job. “Are you on drugs?” her manager asked, disappointed. He’d made it clear how important it was for women to look put-together on the sales floor. “You look terrible.”

Old Lady Marigold, who had nothing to do now that her husband was dead except rifle through clearance racks, found her listlessly hanging hats upon the hat tree. They looked like a headhunter’s tower. “You shouldn’t have messed with Raggedy Annie, Rosslyn Taro.”

Roz squeezed the cloche in her hand and took a deep breath that was meant to be calming. “We didn’t do anything to her, we just…” The calming breath hitched in her throat—memories of smearing the white shift in damp dirt, saying hell no she wouldn’t wear it, watching Jessica slip it on instead—“We were just hanging out at Goose Lake and happened to…”

“You must have done something!”  Old Lady Marigold squinted as if to see through a curtain. “You must have been trying something, you must have invited…”

“You care so much about her now, but the town elders killed Raggedy Annie, didn’t they? Isn’t that the whole point of the stupid story? This town will literally kill you if you step out of line?”

Old Lady Marigold pursed her wrinkled, wine-stained lips but held her tongue for fifteen seconds longer than normal, so Roz knew that she was right. Not that anyone needed Raggedy Annie to teach them that lesson—just live in Whippoorwill long enough for the walls to build up, either behind or beyond you.

“It is not a stupid story. Good Lord, what did your mother teach you?”

She shoved the cloche into place. “My mother’s dead.”

“And you don’t want to let her down, do you? Now Raggedy Annie was an evil woman, but her story is part of our story, Rosslyn Taro, and for that alone you ought to have some respect. You shouldn’t have showed that tape to anyone. You shouldn’t have paraded her around like a damn pageant queen.”

Roz willed herself to say nothing. Bay had warned them about keeping quiet regarding Goose Lake, to make sure their stories matched. He was getting calls from famous television shows, Paranormal Detectives type stuff. He kept saying this is it, but Roz couldn’t help thinking that more publicity—more pageantry—would only make the haunting worse. Bay wasn’t getting visits from anything pretending to be Raggedy Annie, so he probably didn’t care. She’d asked him how they would explain Lark’s absence and he said, “Say he went insane, it’ll sound creepier.” She had never so much wanted to hit him.

“That friend of yours has been hanging out in Roger Malkin’s trailer. What’s his name, Lark?”  Before he gave up the ghost several weeks ago, Mr. Malkin used to sit outside the grocery store next to the mechanical horses, drinking whiskey from a paper bag. Lark would be sent to shoo him away, but never had the heart to do it. “My hairdresser lives out in Gaslight Village and she says you gotta get him out of there. The debt collectors are coming to get the trailer any day now.”

She called Bay on her lunch break, to tell him that Lark had not in fact run off to Mexico, and ask him if Jessica still had the costume—her tongue no longer wanted to voice the hallowed, damned name of Raggedy Annie.  “Because I think we should burn it.”

Bay was in an awful mood, supposedly due to a severe toothache. “Don’t flake out on me like Lark.”

“I’m not flaking, I just think we fucked up! I think we shouldn’t have done this!” She pulled back her hair, sunk into herself, felt the rapid beating of her heart. She thought she saw Raggedy Annie— Mom? —at the other end of the parking lot but then a car passed and it was just a stop sign. Talk about this and she’d sound crazy. Forget sounding crazy, she’d be crazy. Another loony. Just like Lark. She had to use language Bay understood.

“We should get rid of the evidence before anybody ever finds it.”

“Well, I have no idea where it is. I haven’t talked to Jessica since Tuesday. She’s being a bitch.”

If Lark was here, he’d say “no!”  all sarcastic and wry, and she’d let out her horse-laugh and Bay would get pissed because he was the only one allowed to diss Jessica, and she’d say, “What do you expect with some nineteen-year-old Hot Topic wannabe?”

“She’s never got the time anymore. She’s always working on her damn terrariums.” She heard him scoff through the phone.

“Here I thought she hated science.”

The next day Roz called KLNW news and said she wanted to come clean about the Goose Lake video. “Our first mistake was making the film at all,” she said on the six o’clock news. “Our second mistake was showing it to other people. I just want to say to the entire community that I’m so sorry for lying, and I’m so sorry for any disrespect we may have caused.” To the nameless, unseen power behind the visitations, she added a silent prayer: Please forgive me. Please let me go.

The Bailey family tree lived in Aunt Vivian’s upstairs closet.

Once upon a time when Bay was young and bored and his parents were having it out at home, Aunt Vivian had unrolled it and presented it to him on her kitchen table. It was his inheritance, she said. Just like his father’s Smith & Wesson and his mother’s bad teeth. Aunt Vivian’s lacquered fingernails ran from name to name, jumping back and forth in time. “That’s your great-great grandpa Johnny, he enlisted after getting married and then went and died in the War,” she said. “And that’s Laura Jean, she’s your cousin-twice-removed. She wanted to be a movie star, but she only sang back-up in commercials.”

“Why is it called a tree,” little Bay asked.

“Because we all grew from the same roots. Lots of people draw their family trees starting from their great-grandpas at the top, as if all your ancestors lived and died just so you could be born, you special little cupcake. But that doesn’t make a damn bit of sense. You start with the roots—that’s Herman and Sarah Bailey, when they moved here from Ohio. The rest of us are their twigs. We grew out of them.”

The chart indeed looked like everyone since Herman and Sarah had grown out of their subterranean bones, children sprouting from their parents like spores.

“Does that mean we’re stuck here.”

Aunt Vivian cocked her head. “And just what is wrong with ‘here’?”

His parents had met in elementary school; they grew into a big-haired, Stairway to Heaven couple with matching letterman jackets. Whippoorwill born and bred, they cooed, as if that was anything to be proud of. They’d disproved their own manifesto by the time Bay was old enough to dial Child Services. For a while he was the only one who heard the plastic plates ricocheting off the dining room wall, the “fuck you”s and the “just get out”s, the stationwagon scurrying out of the driveway and jumping the curb. He wondered how to put that shit in the family tree. Attention, the tree is currently on fire. After the divorce severed his parents’ bond, he imagined his own name gliding away as if it had never been rooted to this gnarled monstrosity that began with Herman and Sarah. Yet nothing changed. He stayed tethered to the crown of the Bailey tree: a struggling, captive bird.

His father never liked it when he talked about New York, Vegas, Mexico. He would point a beer can at him and say, “You think you’re better than this town? We’re not good enough for you anymore?”

It seemed easier to say he was sick of “you fucking hillbillies” than to tell the truth. He knew that would get a response, probably a box in the ear for pissing on his surroundings. But what he really wanted to say was You were never good enough for me.

You were never good enough for anyone.

Rumor had it that the weirdo living in Roger “Alkie” Malkin’s trailer in Gaslight Village was an escaped convict. Tweaked-out gremlins in neon-shirts sometimes snuck peeks through the windows, standing on their tiptoes in the muddy swamp-grass that had swallowed most of the trailer’s tires. The weirdo was usually sitting in the dark with a flashlight, watching something terrifying on his phone. The glow on his face was lunar. When he noticed them he’d growl and scurry to the window and pull the curtains. The rumor adjusted—now he was a scientist from Area 51, on the run from the Feds.

But he was just a man—a boy, really—who had the misfortune of stumbling upon some hidden fold in the world that he couldn’t explain, and knew of no other recourse than retreat.

He was just Lark. When Roz knocked on the door of the trailer, distressed because she’d seen feet descend from the silver maple tree in her backyard, he opened the door. And when Bay banged upon the door an hour later, yelling that he knew they were in there, Lark again relented.

“The gang’s back together,” Lark whispered, trembling and huddling on the piss-stained carpet. He looked like death by then—he’d lost so much weight, so much color. But Roz and Bay were red-eyed too. They hadn’t spoken to each other since her confession to KLNW news. He had tried to contact her at first—called twenty-three times and sent seven text messages, including “Fuck you you fucking bitch” —but within forty-eight hours he was the one on KLNW, and Roz was the unstable nut-job with the ax to grind. He swore to the town of Whippoorwill that the video was one hundred percent authentic. “Only unity saves the damned.”

“I just got fired,” Bay said in the trailer. “My manager says she lost trust in me since my friend Rosslyn went on TV and said we faked the entire Goose Lake video.” Roz was clenching her stomach, refusing to look at him. “So thank you, Rosslyn. Thank you so much.”

“I was desperate!” she shouted. “You don’t know what it’s like! You turn every corner and you wonder—is she gonna be there? Is she watching me? Will anybody else see her? And even after I said sorry, she still didn’t stop!” She knelt down beside Lark and cautiously tugged on the hems of the blanket he wore like a shawl around his head. “Lark, I know you’ve been seeing her too.”

Lark stared blankly at her, and Bay clapped his hands over his head. “You’re unbelievable. It’s not Raggedy Annie, fuckwit, Raggedy Annie isn’t real! Remember? We made her! She’s Jessica!”

“Yeah? And where is your little girlfriend anyway? She’s a part of this mess, she ought to be here too.”

Bay nervously chewed on his fingernail as he stalked around Alkie’s trailer. It was empty save for plastic bags and cigarette butts and half-eaten meals: evidence of a life undone. “Jessica’s gone.”

The other LunaTicks were silent, but Bay slammed his fist into a plastic cabinet and snapped an answer to a question he’d heard only in his head, “I don’t know where! She’s just gone, she hasn’t been to work, her parents haven’t seen her… they think she got mad at me and ran off. When they looked in her room all they found were those… damn terrariums.” Suddenly exhausted, Bay slid to the carpet and pulled off his black beanie.

“They’re all the same too. Just one tiny tree in every one. Looks like a little oak tree.” The tiniest sliver of a bittersweet smile cracked Bay’s face. “Like a tiny Witching Tree.”

“Bay’s right,” Lark mumbled. “It’s not Raggedy Annie. It’s the trees. Here, look at the video again.” He held up his phone and their no-budget home movie began to play. Roz and Bay were so hollowed out by then that they didn’t have the strength to object to watching their little experimental film another, final time. They watched themselves skip stones across Goose Lake, watched the camera find the Witching Tree. They watched themselves act out the script they’d written at Jessica’s house the night before— “Let’s just go, I’m getting cold” —and watched Jessica stand ominous and hooded in front of the Witching Tree.

And finally, they watched the branches of the Witching Tree curl, like the fingers of some enormous dryad, toward Jessica.

“Do you see the tree?” Lark whispered, like he was coaching a baby to speak. The leaves of the tree stood on end, fluttering as if swept by a celestial wind, trembling as if awakening. “See it move?”

“I don’t understand,” Roz whined. “It’s the breeze…”

“No, no, no! Listen, I’ve looked this up, and these beings exist across the world, in dozens of civilizations across time… there’s Yggdrasil, there’s Ashvattha, there’s Világfa, there’s Kalpavrish-ka, and now there’s… there’s the Witching Tree.” Bay was about to punch Lark in the face, and they all knew it, so he spoke faster. “These trees, they connect… all the planes of existence, the world of the living with the world of the dead. The Witching Tree is our Cosmic Tree.”

Those words— Cosmic Tree—hung like smoke circles in Alkie’s musty trailer. Jessica’s terrariums. The trees that grew manic and hungry over their houses. The Witching Tree itself, eternal long-limbed sentinel of Goose Lake. And all roads led to Goose Lake…

Bay was the first to break the trance and grapple to his feet.

He claimed not to understand what Lark was trying to say. He said he couldn’t waste his time on this bullshit about trees, because what could a tree do to him? All he knew was that Lark and Roz had gone completely bat-shit, and now none of them were ever getting out of Whippoorwill, and was that what they wanted all along? Did they want to be stuck in this inbred town forever, maybe open a tree nursery if they were so obsessed with greenery?

“…dude, what are you doing to your teeth?”

Bay was picking at one of his bottom canine teeth, digging into the gum, trying to rip it out. “It’s the root!” he shouted through his bloody fingers. “It’s fucking killing me!”

Bay waited until he’d returned home to extract the tooth. He was so distracted by the electric pain that he failed to see that the dead cottonwood outside his mother’s house, the one that had broken his arm as a child, was growing green again. He used a pair of pliers and the bathroom mirror—the pain was nothing compared to the horror of enduring another moment with the tooth’s ruined root in his skull. Yet even as he stared at the ugly disembodied thing lying at the bottom of the sink, he could feel the roots of his other teeth rotting. He didn’t know what had happened to them—his bad teeth, his mother’s teeth—but he could feel their decay spreading into his jaws, his sinuses.

The thought of those sick roots growing into his bones—he saw them jutting out of his chin like saber-teeth, drilling down in search of soil—made him want to die…

They all had to go. By the time his mother came in, he was lying delirious on the tiles, his teeth lay scattered around him like bloody seeds.

The day after Bay was committed to Teller Psychiatric, Roz drove alone to Jessica Grauner’s house in the half-light. She went because only unity saves the damned, though she’d hated Jessica when she’d tagged along on the LunaTicks’ vandalism operations and petty larceny sprees. Where one goes, the others must follow, and she neither wanted to follow Bay to Teller Psychiatric nor knew how to follow Lark into his rabbit hole. And she had the squirmy feeling that Jessica was still hanging around—like Raggedy Annie hung from the Witching Tree? —somewhere on the property.

Roz had been to this house twice—once for a grotesque house party while Jessica’s parents were out of town, and once to prepare for the Goose Lake stunt. On neither occasion had there been a linden tree in the front yard, but now a full-grown specimen had broken through the earth to stand in proud, terrifying splendor before Jessica’s window. Its roots bubbled across the lawn, disrupting her parents’ carefully-manicured ornamental ferns. A large, discolored knot peeked out from the linden’s trunk—a malformed branch, right, a sleeping bud? But when Roz got close enough to touch it, she saw that it was a face: Jessica’s face, her eyes clenched shut and her mouth stretched open in an anguished forever-scream. Roz ran her finger down one wooden eye, heard Jessica’s nasal whine— I smell like a dead rat! —and quickly stuffed her hand back in her pocket, running back to her car.

Roz’s mother died during the Great Storm. She died at home, of cancer, while the world raged around them. Electric lines sparked, cars slid off roads, walls fell in, and smaller trees were torn out of the earth, but their older, larger counterparts miraculously survived. It seemed like a condolence card from God: the world is filled with death, but Life endures.

There were strange things said at the funeral. “She’s waiting for you, in heaven.” “We will all meet again, by-and-by.” Roz hated to admit it—because who wouldn’t want to see their mother again?—but when these words floated up on desolate roads at midnight, she was frightened. She wanted to hear that her mother was at peace, in a better place, had moved on—not that she was waiting, lingering, hovering,  skeletal hands outstretched to receive her daughter as soon as death delivered her—no. That was ugly.

Her mother loved trees. They were her favorite thing about Whippoorwill. Don’t you love how tall they are, how old they are?

These trees are older than all of us.  She was a native, so she had grown up with them—climbed them, slept in their nooks, taken their shelter, carved her initials into their skin with the neighbor boy. Roz’s father had agreed to move to Whippoorwill before they got married because it was supposedly a good place to raise a family—what with the safe streets and heritage fairs and seasonal festivals—but when he wanted to move to Lincoln for the sake of a higher salary, her mother had refused on account of the trees. But there are trees everywhere, he said. It’s not the same, she said. These trees are my inheritance. They’re the kids’ inheritance.

She had a special bedtime story about the Witching Tree. It had nothing at all to do with Raggedy Annie. It was about the men and women who first built Whippoorwill, back when America was young. They built the jail and they built the church, they built the courthouse and they built the school. And then they planted the Witching Tree, so after their human bodies died they would stay close to their children, and live forever.

Her father listened in once, and got so upset that her mother never told it again, and Roz never heard it again from anyone else. At middle school sleepovers—before the other girls decided she was just too weird—they only ever whispered about Raggedy Annie, the abortionist-witch. When she asked about “that Witching Tree story” they would indignantly snap, “That is the Witching Tree story, dummy!”

But one time in high school when they were all smoking pot in Bay’s basement, Roz tried to re-tell her mother’s version of the Witching Tree story, what little she could remember of it. It turned out Bay and Lark had heard similar shit from their parents, once or twice. Bay and Lark were, first and last and always, the only people she could count on not to lie to her. Lark said,

“It’s a creation myth. And an apocalypse myth, too. The end and the beginning, the beginning and the end.”

Dawn came, and they never spoke of it again. The Witching Tree story—the real one, the one submerged beneath the arsenic-and-old-lace of Raggedy Annie—was only whispered in the ears of Whippoorwill babies, so the truth would soften like sugar cubes right into their unfinished brains. These babies grew up and forgot except when they were sleeping, usually, but sometimes when they looked at the massive, infallible trees of Whippoorwill for too long, that primordial story writhed like a worm and they would shiver, listening to the leaves rustling like ocean waves, wondering who was waiting for them.

Raggedy Annie stood, again, at the end of Roz’s bed. Roz could almost hear her breathing.

“No,” Roz mumbled to herself. “She’s not real. Raggedy Annie is not real.” And maybe she wasn’t, but something stood there.

Something had turned Bay into a pile of dirt in Teller Psychiatric. Oh, that wasn’t in the official hospital report—the hospital said he somehow escaped, from the restraints and the room and the asylum, and the forest-fresh soil that had replaced him in the cot was—what—a practical joke? The LunaTicks knew all about those, but this was something else, something beyond.

Roz closed her eyes, telling herself that once she opened them, it would be morning and Raggedy Annie would be gone.

When she opened her eyes the figure was leaning over her, twitching. This time it wasn’t her mother beneath the hood.

This was the face that looked back at her in the mirror every morning, bleary-eyed and bloodless, sapped of life. It was her.

Her doppelganger cocked its head to the side like a bird and stared at her with her own big black eyes—black, then blacker, in the face of the ghost. It was death looking down; she could feel that in her veins, because that wasn’t blood roiling inside her anymore. It was sap. Slow like honey.  Death leaned in and Roz screamed herself awake.

It was midnight. Roz drove to Gaslight Village in a fugue, but Lark wasn’t there. Alkie’s trailer looked like it had been spat out by a tornado—it had been smashed nearly in half by a fallen tree. Branches had broken through the windows and now grew inside the trailer, as if they’d been searching for him. Her first thought was that the trailer had become his coffin, but after she scrambled to reach a broken window, cutting her hands on glass shards, she didn’t see a body in the dark. No soil, either. There was only one place, unhappily, that he would have gone.

She could see the woods around Goose Lake stirring before she even got out of the car. For a second she sat behind the wheel, trying to delay the inevitable, hypnotized by the razor-sharp static that had overcome the radio, until she saw again the figure that she’d been running from since they made the video. Raggedy Annie was standing where the trees parted to make way for a little human path. The hooded ghost turned and disappeared down the trail, and Roz knew this would not end if she did not pursue. Where one goes the others must follow, and Raggedy Annie was one of them. The truth was she always had been. Raggedy Annie and her mother and father and brother and Lark’s parents and Bay’s parents and Jessica and Old Lady Marigold and Roger Malkin and everybody, everybody in this town: they were all in this together.

She willed her legs to move into the rippling chaos. As soon as she stepped foot on the dirt path the air pressure dropped, and her bones felt calcified in pain. She’d been hoping not to return to Goose Lake. She’d been hoping to leave Whippoorwill. She’d been hoping… well.  Hope was just delusion that hadn’t ripened yet. The forest didn’t smell like pine or cedar or Christmas or anything else they could pack into an air freshener—it smelled like rot. A fleet of dead were howling overhead, and there was nowhere left to go but forward. Just like all roads led to Goose Lake, all of Goose Lake’s dirt paths led to the Witching Tree, the oak to seed and end the world.

The Tree had grown since she last saw it. She felt the urge to kneel under its swaying, groaning shadow. Even as worms crawled out of cavities in its trunk, new twigs and leaves sprouted on its boughs. Lark was a dwarf beneath it, wildly swinging a rusty ax. Every strike was true, but he wasn’t getting anywhere—not only was the oak enormous, but its bone-like bark yielded nothing except for a few brittle chips of wood. She could see this, even though she could not see stars through the foliage.

What stars? The Witching Tree was everything in this world.

Lark looked up and tried to smile when he saw her through his sweat. He looked so weak and mortal, a mere weed next to the Witching Tree. “We can make it, Roz! You and me. Just you and me. You just gotta help me. Help me end this thing.”

She shook her head. She could feel the Tree’s roots moving like great pythons beneath the fertile earth. “I don’t think we can, Lark… I don’t think we’re getting away.”

Lark frowned and paused his work, catching the blade with his hand. “But if we cut it down, it ends,” he said, and then cried out and dropped the ax. He was squeezing his left palm—he’d nicked it. Or it had nicked him, it was hard to tell. So the blade was sharp after all—just not sharp enough to slay the tower of space-time that was the Tree. He moaned and pressed his right hand into the wound. “Something’s wrong,” his voice warbled, holding out his hand. By the Tree’s light Roz could barely see it: dark amber where red should have been. It was sap. He was bleeding sap.

“Roz,” Lark whimpered. He sounded like the eleven-year-old Clark Dunkin that she had happened to sit next to in sixth grade: sniveling and sullen but still, full of a future. The years of dishevelment sloughed off in seconds, revealing the baby-face below. Was this how the Tree could promise endless life, like her mother said? “Help me.”

She blinked, and became faintly aware that she was crying.

“Don’t fight it.”

Now roots were bursting out of his storm-worn sneakers, running wildly toward moist earth—they were trying to find some place to settle, to never let go. Lark was trying to shamble forward but he could only heave his chest, retching until he couldn’t breathe. Tree bark tore through his jeans and his arms finally straightened and seized and were destroyed—no, trans-formed. Only the human skin died. Lark arched his back and would have broken his vertebrae had they not turned to pliable wood; his mouth tore open and a dozen branches leapt from his wooden throat, sprouting blood blossoms. It was almost beautiful.

Roz was kneeling by then, in deference and fear. When Lark’s screams finally stopped, she knew that it was her turn. Where others go, one must follow. She lifted her head and saw the great and gnarled Tree, glowing blue-green with something far stronger and far more alien than foxfire, achingly reach its branches toward her and then shrivel back. It was so jealous, so unsure of her loyalty. “Roz-zz-lyn,” her mother said, from somewhere in the rush of leaves, “why d’ you want to lee-eave us?”

Roz picked up the ax. A wail swept through the branches, but Roz only threw the weapon into the murky green waters of Goose Lake. “I’ll never leave,” she said, and began trudging homeward. “I promise.”

It was not a warm embrace. The Tree’s branches bit deep into her back as it entwined her, and she soon lost the ability to see anything but heartwood. Still, she melted into the Tree as easily and completely as if she had never been parted from it. Little by little, the walls came down: the walls of Whippoorwill, the walls of her skin. I’m scared, she thought as the flesh of her tongue dissolved into sap, and though the only response she heard was a deep and ancient drumbeat pulsing from far within the Witching Tree, she finally understood.

The post PseudoPod 671: Only Unity Saves the Damned appeared first on PseudoPod.

Oct 27 2019

1hr

Play

PseudoPod 670: The Devil Came to Mamie’s on Hallowe’en

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“The Devil Came to Mamie’s on Hallowe’en” was first published in Cemetery Dance Magazine #60

Content Warning: Spoiler Inside SelectShow Animal cruelty

The Devil Came to Mamie’s on Hallowe’en

by Lisa Morton

It was Hallowe’en night, and business was slow at the whorehouse.

Leona didn’t put much stock in the stories that kept other folk indoors on this night. She’d laughed over stories about Jacky-Ma-Lantern, who’d once outsmarted the Bad Man and then couldn’t get into Hell or Heaven, and so on Hallowe’en he wandered around lighting his way with a coal kept in a pumpkin. She’d once seen the strange blue lights in the bayou that some said led unwary travelers to their doom on this night, but she didn’t really believe they were spirits. And her favorite of Miss Mamie’s girls, Lizzie, had talked about going down to New Orleans once and meeting up with a real hoodoo man, who she’d watched bring a dead boy back to life on All Saints’ Day. But as much as Leona loved Lizzie, she thought even decent, smart folk could sometimes be bamboozled when they found something they just plain wanted to believe in.

It was about midnight now (“the witching hour”, Leona remembered Lizzie once calling it), and the swamp just behind Miss Mamie’s was dark and quiet, no flatboats poling up to the dock tonight, unloading new customers. Leona wondered again where Lizzie had gotten to; Beulah, the cook, said she’d left out the backdoor about four that afternoon, just as the sun was going down. She’d taken a big kettle with her, and said she’d be back around night. It wasn’t safe to wander around the bayou any night, and Leona couldn’t imagine where Lizzie had gone.

It didn’t help that Mamie’s scrawny old cat, Lumpy (so named because he was as black as a lump of coal), was missing, too.

So Leona sat on the back porch, waiting, hoping one or the other would show up soon. Beulah had already gone home, and the kitchen was cool but the night was unseasonably warm and humid. Usually she’d have to be in the main parlor, playing the piano for the customers, but there weren’t many of them tonight.

Leona cranked the phonograph again, and settled back on the old splintered wood of the porch steps to listen to Ma Rainey. Harold, Miss Mamie’s bartender and muscle, had been into town today, and Leona had given him seventy-five cents to get the record for her. It was “Traveling Blues”, and Leona swayed back and forth, humming along, as the song spilled out of the phonograph’s big horn.

I went to the depot, looked up and down the board,

I went to the depot, looked up and down the board,

I asked the ticket agent, “It’s my time on this road?”

Leona had listened to the song enough now that she’d be able to play it on the piano when she went back in; if anyone wanted to hear, she could sing it, too.

Fact was, she thought she could sing it just as good as Ma Rainey herself.

One of the funny things about Miss Mamie was that she only wanted live music at her “establishment”; she claimed the menfolk didn’t want to hear just records, although Leona knew plenty of menfolk who liked Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey and Sippie Wallace. Miss Mamie, though, said she’d paid plenty of money for that piano, and live music gave her place “a touch of class”. Truthfully, Leona was glad, because it gave her a way to make herself useful around Mamie’s place – she had a natural gift for the piano and for singing.

Unfortunately, even those gifts wouldn’t carry her much longer.

Miss Mamie had come into the kitchen yesterday afternoon, before most of the other women had even gotten up yet, and she’d called Leona away from the washing and sat her down at the table. Mamie’d just gotten back from doing some banking in town, and she was dressed up, looking fine for a woman of forty. It was no wonder she still got customers requesting her services.

“That Jackson Smith done asked about you again last night,” she’d said, while lighting a cigarette.

Leona had tried not to squirm. “That so?”

“Um-hmm.” Miss Mamie took a drag from her smoke, then went on. “He’d pay extra for you, Leona, since it’d be your first time. We’d both make some mighty nice money off’n it.”

“I’m not doin’ nothin’ with Jackson Smith,” Leona had replied.

“He’s not so bad,” Mamie said, squinting at Leona through her tobacco haze.

“I know he’s not, Miss Mamie, but I…”

At that point Mamie had actually set the cigarette down and leaned across the table, and Leona’d had to struggle not to lean back, away. “Now you listen to me, child: You sixteen years old, you a woman now. I promised your mama, God bless her, to look after you ‘til you was growed. She was one of the finest ladies I ever had work for me, and I owed her, but I figure the time you growed is now. I can’t keep carryin’ you, Leona – ”

Leona had cut her off. “But Miss Mamie, you your own self said I was the best piano player you’s ever likely to hear – ”

“I did, but, honey, we need somebody to play something livelier here, not those slow things you like. You put a few drinks in these boys and give ‘em that slow music, and they likely to just fall asleep before we can even get ‘em upstairs with a girl. Don’t nobody make no money then.”

Leona looked down, hurt. “That slow music’s the blues, Miss Mamie. I thought the men liked it.”

Mamie reached out and stroked Leona’s wrist. “They do, honey, but it’s not good for business. Now, I could get me somebody from town to play the piano, play them nice fast tunes; might not be so good as you, but I wouldn’t have to give ‘em room and board, neither.”

Leona had felt a cold chill settle into her then. She’d known for a time this was coming, but she’d hoped she might have a little longer. Just long enough to save for a ticket to Chicago or Atlanta and a couple of months of room and board while she tried to get a job singing, maybe even make a record of her own…

Miss Mamie had taken a last pull off her cigarette, then stubbed it out in a china plate. “I love you like my own, Leona, you know that; I done raised you since before you could put two words together. But you need to be makin’ a decision: Either you stay here and take up The Life, or you move on.”

Miss Mamie had gotten up then and left.

Beulah, the cook, had worked over the stove in the corner, listening quietly. She was a kind woman who came out here, to the edge of the bayou, every day to work for Miss Mamie. She’d never minded that Leona slept in the kitchen, and kept her phonograph there; she liked the music, too, and she liked Leona.

She’d waited until Mamie had gone, then she’d come over to where Leona sat, wiping furiously at her tears. “Don’t cry, honey,” she’d said, in her soft, sweet voice. “You can sing just as good as any of ‘em, just as good as Ma or Bessie or Victoria Spivey. You don’t need this place.”

Leona had looked up at Beulah gratefully. “You think so?”

“I know so,” Beulah had said, giving her a hug that smelled like warm cornbread. “The only men you need to make money is the kind that’ll let you sing, and you’ll make a lot more money than you’d make here. You believe that.”

Leona wished she could.

She tried to imagine herself saying yes, going into one of the upstairs bedrooms with Jackson Smith, who would be sweaty and smell like machine oil and liquor, and feeling his rough hands on her skin. She tried to imagine doing that every night, doing that five or ten times a night, until she was too old and none of the men wanted her.

Leona felt something hot on her cheek, and realized she was crying again. She brushed the tears away, angry at herself. It was a simple decision.

Stay or go.

Sing the blues…or live them.

The song finished, and Leona lifted the needle off the record. She was about to play it again when she heard something out in the brush, near the edge of the swamp.

“Lumpy?” she called out, hoping to see the mangy old cat scamper up.

Instead, she spotted a light bobbing among the trees, nearing. A few seconds later the lantern rounded a big mangrove, and Leona saw it was –

“Lizzie!”

She started to smile and was about to dart forward, when she saw Lizzie stop about thirty feet away.

“That you, Leona?”

Something was wrong with Lizzie.

Even from this distance, Leona could see her pale smock – usually spotless – was spotty and stained, and the night breeze took on a terrible scent, something spoke of death and terror, as it passed over Lizzie.

“It’s me, Lizzie. Is somethin’ wrong – ?”

Lizzie took a few more steps forward. “Anybody else out here?”
Leona shook her head. “No’m, just us.”

“Good.”

Lizzie reached her now, and Leona actually gasped. The older woman was covered in bloodstains, and there were long scratch marks on her hands and arms, marks that were just barely scabbed over. Her left hand was also burned, and Leona saw pink flesh and white blisters.

And the smell nearly made Leona gag.

“What that smell, Lizzie?”

“Leona, honey, can you do me a favor? Bring some warm water, a towel, some new clothes. I can’t let nobody else see me like this. Can you do that for me?”

Leona couldn’t stop staring. “Should I get the doctor?”

“No, that’s…that’s not my blood. It’s Lumpy’s.”

Leona placed that awful odor now: She’d smelled it once when Lumpy had lost part of an ear in a fight with a raccoon, and he’d somehow covered himself in this acrid fear scent.

“Lumpy…?”

Lizzie made a fluttering motion with her hands. “Oh honey, we’ll talk about that ol’ cat later. Can you just get me those things now?”

Leona nodded and ran off.

Five minutes later she had a pail of warm water, towels and a new dress. She stood by as Lizzie stripped out of the remains of her old clothes, and started to towel that smell off her skin.

“What happened to Lumpy?”

“I’m sorry, Leona, I know you liked that critter, but he’s dead now. Just as well, anyway – cat’s bad luck in a whorehouse.”

“Dead?” Leona actually flinched from the news.

Lizzie looked at the girl carefully. “Leona, honey, can you keep a secret?”

Leona nodded, but she was already starting to suspect this was one secret she wasn’t about to much like.

“All right. Remember I told you about that hoodoo man I met in New Orleans? Well, he gave me some secrets.”

“Secrets…?”

“He told me how to call the Devil.”

Leona gaped for a moment, then stifled a laugh. If she didn’t believe in Jacky-Ma-Lantern, she didn’t see much reason to believe in the Devil, either.

“Don’t laugh, child. I did it, and it worked.”

Leona made an exaggerated gesture of looking around. “Where is he, Lizzie? I don’t see me no Devil.”

Lizzie ignored her. “Here’s what that hoodoo man told me: On Hallow’s Eve, he said, you needs a black cat. You boil that animal alive, then you take the bones and wash ‘em in a spring, until the Devil comes to you. Then you can ask him for whatever you want.”

Leona suddenly realized the meaning of the scratches, the blood and the burns on Lizzie’s arms, of the kettle that Beulah had seen Lizzie leave with in the afternoon, and the knowledge staggered her. “Oh lawd, Lizzie…you boiled that poor animal alive…”

“Leona, that cat was so old he couldn’t even catch him a horsefly no more.”

“But that…that ain’t right…”

“Right or not, honey – it worked. I boiled him near that spring out in the woods, the one not far from ol’ Guffey’s farm, then I washed those bones in that spring, and I looked up…and sure ‘nough, I seen this man walkin’ up to me. He asked what I was wantin’, and I tol’ him.”

Leona asked, “What’d you say?”
Lizzie finished washing, and started shrugging into the new dress. “I tol’ him I wanted a rich man to come and love me and take me out of this place, far away. And he said it’d happen tonight.”

Leona guffawed. “You can’t believe that – ”

Lizzie finished straightening out the dress. “I can believe it. It’s happenin’ right now.” She walked up to Leona and gave her a small kiss on the cheek, and whispered, “You ‘bout the only part of Mamie’s I’ll miss.”

Then she walked past Leona, into the house.

Leona stood for a moment, shocked, unable to move.

She toed at the tattered dress Lizzie had left on the ground, trying not to imagine Lumpy being forced into a boiling kettle, screaming in agony as Lizzie held him down…

She shook the pictures out of her head, then turned and walked back into the house.

She was just leaving the kitchen and heading for the piano in the front parlor when Miss Mamie’s bustled up. “There you are, child! We’ve got johns, and we need some music. And for lawd’s sake, try to play somethin’ lively!”

“Yes, Miss Mamie.”

Leona hurried to the piano, and glanced towards the bar, where there stood only a single customer. He was leaning across the mahogany counter, chatting idly to Harold while his drink was fixed. He wore a spotless, expensive suit and hat in the most current style, in a pale pastel color. His hair was neatly pommaded into curls, and his posture and build shouted confidence and money. When he turned to glance back towards the piano for a moment, Leona’s breath caught in her throat.

He was without question the handsomest man she’d ever seen. He grinned as he saw her, with his liquid brown eyes and perfect jawline and gleaming teeth.

Miss Mamie was fawning over this newcomer, plainly sensing the money as well, and just before she sat down to play, Leona overheard the name “Lizzie.”

She was into the third bar of Sippie Wallace’s “Jack of Diamond Blues” when Lizzie entered the bar and sidled up to the stranger, smiling. Leona couldn’t hear their conversation, but it was only a few seconds before Lizzie cried out, ecstatic, leapt up from her bar stool, gave the stranger a brief kiss and then ran from the room.

The stranger smiled after her, and then turned that look on Leona.

And in that instant Leona’s fingers failed her, because she knew who the stranger was, and she knew that Lizzie had told her the truth.

“Leona, honey, play somethin’ happy,” Miss Mamie called to her, still grinning at the fine-looking man. “Looks like Lizzie done gone and got herself a marriage proposal.”

Leona tried to smile, but it was a weak attempt. She tried to remember one of the rags she’d heard on a trip to the music store last month, but it came out sounding melancholy.

Leona saw Miss Mamie bustle from the room, and realized it was just her, Harold the bartender, and the stranger now. She felt his eyes on her, and tried to look down only at her hands, moving across the keys, trying to find the sprightly melody that was hidden somewhere inside the tune –

“Why don’t you play something you can sing to?”

Leona started to reply, happened to glance back – and froze, her jaw hanging open like a cartoon character.

The handsome black man was gone; the man who had just spoken to her was white, mid-thirties, wearing a pinstriped suit.

“I heard you can sing pretty good,” he said, resting an elbow on the top of the piano, grinning down at her.

“I…ain’t so good,” Leona said, not because she believed it, but because she didn’t want to talk to him, no matter what color he was.

The Bad Man.

“C’mon, now, girl, you act like it’s a sin to sing.”

“Might be,” Leona said. Her palms felt sweaty, and she could hear her heart thumping faster than a rag rhythm.

He shrugged, and took a step back. “Guess I got the wrong girl. See, I’m scouting for the Toby. You know what that is?”

“Yes, sir, I knows.” Lizzie’d once had a john who played fiddle for Butterbeans and Suzie, and Lizzie had made sure he talked to Leona all about “riding the Toby”, or traveling the circuit put together by the Theatre Owners’ Booking Association. The fiddler had told her horror stories about being stranded in towns without hotels for coloreds, and dealing with theatre owners who charged performers three times what a meal anywhere else would cost…but he’d laughed as he told his tales, and Leona could tell he wouldn’t give up that fiddle for anything.

And it was sure better than working for Miss Mamie. Leona dreamed of a day when people came to listen to her, not just be entertained until they could get a girl to take them upstairs.

“I’m looking for new performers. Heard through the grapevine that there was a colored girl working in some backwoods whorehouse who’d knock my socks off. But, if that’s not you…”

“It’s me.”

What if he really was a booking agent for the Toby? Could she afford to pass up what might be her only chance? And if he wasn’t – if he really was the Devil himself – then she’d sing like heaven for him, and give him a case of the blues he’d never get over.

He chuckled, amused, then said, “So sing for me.”

She thought for a moment, and remembered Beulah telling her that she sang “Hard Time Blues” even better than Ida Cox. She picked out the opening notes on the piano, then let the pain and fear and humiliation and sadness explode deep inside her, until all the emotions could only be channeled up through her throat and out through her words, released into the world.

I never seen such a real hard time before,

I never seen such a real hard time before,

The wolf keeps walking all round my door.

All thoughts of where she was and who she was playing for vanished as she gave herself, body and soul, to the song. She closed her eyes and just felt and played, and when she finished she knew she’d never sung that well before. She was drained, covered in sweat and tears, weary with a bone-deep exhaustion she’d never felt before.

The sound of slow applause drew her back.

She wiped at her eyes and turned to see the white man slowly clapping. He finished, and half-collapsed onto the piano.

“Lord, girl, they weren’t just whistling Dixie. I do believe you may be even better than Bessie or Ma. You could make somebody a lot of money, you know that?”

Leona should have been pleased, but right now all she wanted was the comfort of her little pallet in the kitchen’s warm pantry.

The agent stepped closer, bending over her in what he probably hoped was some sort of intimate, even fatherly, gesture. “It really takes it out of you, don’t it?”

Leona just nodded.

“You’re too damn good to be stuck in this place. That Miss Mamie, she’s okay, but she don’t realize what she’s got in you. You need to be on the circuit. We can start you touring, just a few of the smaller theaters first, maybe opening for one of the bigger acts, then we move you up on the bill, get you bigger venues, start recording. How’d you like to see your name on a number-one record?”

Leona finally risked a glance up at him, and offered a shy smile. “That’d be fine, mister.”

He laughed. “Atta girl. Okay, so let’s make a deal, you and me.”

Leona’s fatigue was suddenly replaced with a numbing dread. “A…deal…?”

“Sure. Always gotta do the paperwork.”

He reached into a pocket and pulled forth a few sheets of folded paper and a pen. “Standard contract. All you have to do is sign, then I’ll make your arrangements. In twenty-four hours you’ll be on a train to Atlanta, ready to play the 81 Theater.”

Leona knew that wasn’t possible; no real booking agent could get anyone into Atlanta’s biggest theater in a day. At least no human booking agent.

“You’re him, aren’t you?”

“Who?”

Leona couldn’t bring herself to say the usual names; she settled on the one from the Jacky-Ma-Lantern story. “The Bad Man.”

She looked up now to see him squinting down at her. He didn’t look like the Devil – no red skin, no horns, no pointed ears or tail. He looked like what he said he was.

And yet…there was something in his eyes, something that wasn’t right. She suddenly knew this – thing – standing over her was ancient, and intelligent, and wanted her soul.

“C’mon, Leona, what’s worse: Me giving you the life you deserve, or Miss Mamie wanting to make you part of The Life that killed your mama?”

Leona didn’t answer, didn’t move. She got the impression that the lights had gone down around her. In an instant of panic she looked up for Harold, but couldn’t see the bar in the sudden gloom. She wasn’t even sure she could find her way out of this room now.

“Look what I’m doing for Lizzie: Giving her a fine, rich, handsome husband. She’s going to be happy, Leona. You could be, too.”

“Lizzie called you here tonight?”

He cocked one shoulder in a half-motion of apology. “Yes, and I know you liked that old cat, so I’m sorry about that, but sometimes the rituals must be…obeyed.”

“And what you want from me?”

“You know, Leona. It’s the usual transaction.”

Leona whispered, “My soul.”

He murmured in agreement, and then just stood there, looking at her.

Leona slid just far enough away from him that she could stand to look up, into his old, old eyes. “But how would I sing?”

He looked back at her, and Leona saw the first sign of doubt on his face, a crack in his confidence. “You’ll still sing just as well, your voice will still be yours – ”

Leona dared to cut him off. “But the voice ain’t nothin’ without the soul.”

“It won’t matter. You’ll be famous and rich anyway.”

“It’ll matter to me.”

He seemed to gain several inches in height, and the lights grew even dimmer, until his pale white face was all Leona could see.

“So, what – you’d rather be working here, letting Jackson Smith grind into you, or worse – how about Parson Mills? He must weigh – what, three, four hundred pounds? How’d you like to have that on top of you, Leona, pounding away at you, and all so’s you can make fifty cents, and get on with the next customer? Is that what you want?”

Leona’s face grew hot, and her eyes filled with tears again. “No, but I – ”

“But you WHAT?!” He was furious now, and Leona half-expected to see him start spitting brimstone sparks. “You really think you can get out of here some other way? I got news for you, honey: You’re good, but you’re not that good. You’d just be one more little colored girl trying to hustle up jobs until you get forced to be some white lady’s maid to earn a dollar, or worse – wind up as a crib whore in some house that’ll make Miss Mamie’s look like the Ritz. Hell’s gonna look pretty Goddamn fine after what life’s got in store for you, girly.”

Suddenly something changed in Leona, something she’d kept carefully tamped down erupted out, and she let it. She was on her feet and shouting into his moon-like face:

“Let me tell you somethin’, mister: I know how good I can sing, and I know there’s lots of white men and colored men both who’ll try to take advantage of me. But maybe I’m smarter than you give me credit for, and maybe I don’t mind hard work and some heartache, because I’m already pretty used to it. So maybe the best thing you can do right now is get outta my way and let me leave here on my own two feet.”

Leona walked by him, and the room was there again, and Harold was staring at her as she walked by him, her face still wet but determined.

“Leona…?”

She ignored him.

It took her maybe two minutes to rush to the pantry, and pack everything she owned into a burlap potato sack. If Lumpy were still alive, she would’ve taken him, too.

As it was, she’d leave alone. She’d managed to save up nearly ten dollars from tips over the last year, and she thought it might be enough to get her a train ticket to Atlanta, or maybe New Orleans.

She walked back through the parlor, towards the front door. Miss Mamie was there, staring at her.

“Child, what – ?!”

Leona silenced her with a quick kiss, and a goodbye. “I’m sorry, Miss Mamie. You been kind to me, and I ‘preciate it, but I got to go.”

“Tonight?”

Leona nodded, and headed for the front door –

– where the Bad Man stood, waiting.

“You sure you want to go that way? Even if you do get to the city, you know what to do when you get there?” Now his laughter was a hollow, bad sound. “You’re just like a rabbit runnin’ right into the coon dog’s mouth.”

“Get out of my way,” Leona said.

He didn’t move. “Last chance, Leona. I won’t come to you again, no matter how bad it gets. You’re liable to be wishing you could conjure me back up a month from now. If you even get that far; it’s a bad night, tonight. Lots of things out there in the dark that’d find you mighty tasty.”

Leona looked straight at him as she reached for the doorknob. “Can’t be nothin’ worse out there’n what’s in here.”

He let her go.

Without another word she strode out the front door, down the steps, and onto the soft dirt trail that eventually led to town, five miles on. He was right, of course; it was dangerous to walk this path at night, with everything from snakes to robbers about.

Somehow Leona didn’t think they’d trouble her.

There was a railway station in town, and she thought the first train came about sunrise. She’d be on it, no matter where it was headed.

She cradled the burlap sack in her arms, and started to sing to herself as she walked into the warm Hallowe’en night, away from Miss Mamie’s, never looking back.

The post PseudoPod 670: The Devil Came to Mamie’s on Hallowe’en appeared first on PseudoPod.

Oct 18 2019

35mins

Play

PseudoPod 669: Zanders the Magnificent

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 “Zanders the Magnificent” was first published in Fireside Magazine Issue 21 in March 2015.

Zanders the Magnificent

by Annie Neugebauer

“My handsome, darling boys,” Mrs. Zander said, placing a hand on each of their shoulders. “Which one of you wants to be alive today?”

Robby and Bobby turned their heads inward at the same time, staring at each other with identical dark eyes. Bobby blinked, followed shortly by Robby’s blink, and they both said, “Bobby. Robby was alive yesterday.”

Mrs. Zander nodded approvingly, clapping her hands against their shoulder blades. “Good, yes. I like it when you agree,” she said. “Now both of you go get Bobby ready for school.”

The boys lurched into a sprint together, their narrow shoulders brushing past the door frame at the same time, their synched footsteps thumping down the hall.

When they were safely within their bedroom, Bobby shut the door. Robby went and flopped on the left bed – indistinguishable from the right bed in everything but placement in the room – and sighed. “I wish it was Saturday so we could both live,” he said, covering his face with his arms.

“I know,” Bobby agreed.

They weren’t supposed to be talking like this, and Robby was supposed to be getting ready at the same time as Bobby, but their mother probably wouldn’t check in on them so soon.

“You’ll tell me everything?” Robby prompted.

Bobby pulled on a red and white striped shirt. Once his messy hair poked through, he shook his head like a duck ruffling its feathers. Robby never noticed that before. He tucked it into memory to practice later.

Bobby grabbed the matching red and white striped shirt out of Robby’s drawer and tossed it to him on the bed, his silent urge to get up and get ready. “Of course,” he said. “I always tell you everything.”

Finally, Robby stood, pulling the shirt over his head and settling his hair like a duck.

The door opened, and Mrs. Zander’s eyes raked over them. “What are you doing?” she snapped. Robby’s eyes dropped to his pajama pants. Bobby already had his jeans on.

“Sorry Mama,” they said simultaneously. There was a scramble as Robby rushed to change pants and Bobby tried to decide whether to take his back off to mimic Robby or wait for him to catch up.

“This will take more dedication than that,” Mrs. Zander scolded them. “Didn’t you learn anything from your father?”

The boys looked down at the ground, and Mrs. Zander huffed and walked out, leaving the door open behind her.

Robby put his hands over his face. Bobby mirrored him.

Mrs. Zander sat in the rocker as Robby watched out the blinds. Bobby walked down the sidewalk to the bus stop. Robby’s feet stepped in place with his twin’s; his hands rose to adjust an invisible backpack when Bobby adjusted his.

Mrs. Zander let out a strangled sob, and Robby turned. “Don’t cry, Mama.”

She sniffed and held out her arms, and Robby climbed into her lap. She wrapped him in a tight hug. “I’m just so sorry that you can’t both be alive today,” she said into his hair.

Robby’s hand patted her arm as his ear pressed to her chest for her heartbeat. Unlike when he could hear Bobby’s, he did not try to match his heart to hers.

“So sorry that both of my boys can’t yet stun the world with their splendor.”

Robby heard her crying quiet, and then she was chuckling.

“But it will be the most magnificent trick,” she said. “It will be the most magnificent trick, my darling. It will all be worth it.”

She began humming, deep within her chest, and the chair rocked back and forth, back and forth.

“So you will stay home with your mother today. You will be dead, and we’ll have a marvelous time.”

Robby, Bobby, and Mrs. Zander were all in the practice room. Robby and Bobby stood on either side of the stage, and Mrs. Zander lounged in a seat at the back of the room, the knitting forgotten on her lap. The boys were practicing the mouse trick, although now they were just using golf balls.

Robby lifted his cape with one hand, raising the wand in the other. A fraction of a moment later, Bobby’s flowed out as well, but Mrs. Zander interrupted.

“Timing, boys. Timing. Bobby, you must start precisely when Robby does. And both of you must use more drama in your movements. Remember your father’s stage presence, and work toward his proficiency. You must master that before we can learn the truly show-stopping tricks. To impress today’s audiences it must be something new. Something edgy.”

Robby scratched his cheek. Bobby scratched his cheek.

Mrs. Zander frowned. “Again.”

This time, both capes swept out simultaneously, like black wings lined in blood.

“I am Zanders the Magnificent,” they declared as one. Their capes stayed extended on one side as the support arms snapped into place, making it appear as if they were still holding them up.

“Welcome to the show!”

Each reached down on cue to retrieve the golf ball “mouse” from the clear plexiglass box. Bobby’s fingers snuck in as quickly and furtively as a mouse itself, as did Robby’s. But on the way out, Robby messed up. The lid to the box snapped shut on the tip of his fingers with a violent crack.

Robby howled in pain. He jerked his hand out, and as he did so he screamed louder, dropping his wand to hold the brilliantly red fingers up in front of him. His mouth formed a perfect oval bordered by his small teeth.

Bobby looked anxiously at Mrs. Zander.

“Bobby,” she said sternly.

His face flushed. “But Mama.”

“Robert Zander, don’t make me come up there.”

Bobby gritted his teeth together, sliding his trembling hand back into the box. A loud crack, and Bobby began wailing as well. He dropped his wand and held up his own red fingers, forming his mouth into a perfect oval.

Mrs. Zander stood and set her knitting on the seat before she walked up to the stage. She swatted Bobby firmly on the butt. “That’s for hesitating,” she said.

Then she swatted Robby, too, because she would never spank one and not the other.

“You must both be more disciplined,” she scolded. “Think of your father, and how disciplined he was, and even that was not enough. You must never forget what he went through. You must always remember that it is life and death on the stage. You must give the people what they want.”

Their yelling began to simmer into hiccupping sobs, each casting looks out the corner of his eyes to get the timing right.

“Now come on, my sweet boys,” Mrs. Zander said. “Let’s tend to those slow little fingers.” She drew them both to her and led them out of the room. “Let’s make sure those hands are fixed up good.”

In the empty practice stage glowing under the lights, the two white practice mice sat in the identical corners of their identical clear boxes, dead as golf balls.

As Mrs. Zander sat in her rocker and did her knitting, she imagined what the boys would look like at their first public show, when they were all grown up, even more famous than their father. With no paper record to prove their dual existence, their tricks would fool even other master magicians. They would become a worldwide sensation.

As Robby walked down the sidewalk to the bus, he longed to have his brother at his side. He imagined how many other people on the planet might be dead.

As Bobby watched him from the window, walking in place, he longed to be at his brother’s side. He imagined what it might be like to be alive every single day.

“Ladies and gentleman, you’re in for a treat! Tonight is the debut performance of the son of legendary escape artist Robert Zander, who, as some of you remember, met his tragic end over two decades ago during the stunt that is now known as the Chamber of Death. But thankfully for the world of magic, he has left a son to carry on his great name. May I introduce to you the one, the only… Zanders the Magnificent!”

Applause exploded through the room.

Bobby – all grown up – dashed onto the stage, tall and lean with his black cape billowing behind him. When he stepped into the spotlight, the red and white sequins on his shirt sparkled and winked at the dark, packed audience. In the front row sat Mrs. Zander, her hands clasped tightly in her lap, her eyes alight with a strange glow.

Backstage, Robby watched, hidden in the black curtains, his lips ghosting the shapes of Bobby’s words, his arms sketching phantom movements.

“Welcome,” he intoned in a deep voice, “to the most magnificent show you will ever see.” The crowd grew hushed, and he sent his words out like sleek promises through the shadows of the room.

“Tonight, I bring you wonder!” He took a deep bow, extending his cape out behind him with both arms, and when he stood back up, he held a long-stemmed red rose between his teeth. The crowd hummed.

“Danger!” He tossed it out over the seating, and in mid-air the rose changed to a cluster of scarlet streamers, falling like fireworks over the audience. The crowd ooed.

“And possibly even death!” He swept his arms in and back out, and the lining of his cape had changed from black to glistening red. The crowd gasped.

“But one thing is for certain: by the end of the evening, you will feel more alive than you’ve ever felt.” Thunderous applause.

“Let the show begin!”

With a billow of smoke, Bobby disappeared into a trap door. Instantaneously, Robby appeared on a balcony over the stage, and the crowd went wild.

They looked so much like their father had at their age.

Mrs. Zander’s eyes filled with tears as she watched her boys – no, boy. Tonight they were indistinguishable. With the heavy black eyeliner covering the single tiny freckle under Robby’s eye that allowed her to tell them apart, she could not even follow which was which. They were that identical. In their first public performance, they had truly become one.

They had truly become magnificent.

The young man on stage sent the audience into delighted giggles as the white mouse disappeared from the small clear box, only to reappear in the pocket on the front of his glittering shirt.

Mrs. Zander knew that there were truly two white mice, identical in every way, one hidden from the eyes of others at all times so it appeared to the world that only one existed. It was the oldest trick in the book – one that took grave dedication to execute so seamlessly.

Robert would have been proud of them all, she knew.

The tears in her eyes spilled over.

“And for my last trick,” pronounced Robby, “I will need a volunteer.”

His words brought a deep silence to the room, followed by a rush of movement as arms all over the theatre shot into the air. He looked against the stage lights into the darkness, scanning the front row for his mother’s surprised face.

“You there,” he said, sweeping one arm in the direction of her seat. “Yes, you. Come on up. Ladies and gentleman, can we give her a hand?”

Grudging applause sounded as Mrs. Zander made her way onstage. Robby could see the confusion in her eyes; this was not part of the act they’d planned. He caught a cordless mic tossed to him by a stagehand.

“What is your name, ma’am?”

Mrs. Zander blinked at him.

“Ladies and gentleman, it would seem we have a shy volunteer! Can we give her another round of applause?”

The crowd cheered loudly, and under the roar Robby said, “Play along, Mama. It’s all for the sake of the show.”

When they quieted down, Robby put the mic to her mouth and she said, “My name is Marie.”

“Well hello, Marie. Thank you for volunteering! For the assurance of our audience, please tell us: do you have any knowledge of the trick we are about to perform?”

“No,” she said honestly.

“All the better,” Robby said, shooting the crowd a conspiratorial grin. They all chuckled with anticipation. “You have lovely legs,” he told her, and Mrs. Zander gave him a baffled look, shifting nervously on her feet. Then an assistant wheeled out a large box roughly the shape of a casket. Robby centered it on the stage and pulled out an enormous saw with ragged teeth, lifting it to glint in the stage lights. “I hope you aren’t overly attached to them.”

The crowd laughed.

Unseen backstage, Bobby mouthed the line with him, timing perfect.

Robby set down the saw and lifted the top of the box upward so the audience could see inside. Their surprise was palpable. They could clearly see that there was no divider inside the box – no second woman curled up in the lower half to put her legs out the opening.

“Marie?” Robby asked, lifting out a hand for support. “If you would be so kind?”

Mrs. Zander eyed the restraints visible on the bottom of the box.

“Don’t get cold feet now,” Robby said. Again, a chuckle from the crowd.

Mrs. Zander stepped up and stretched out in the box. Robby went about fastening the restraints tightly around her shoulders, wrists, waist, and thighs. The silence in the auditorium grew so full that even the back row could hear the rubbing sound of the straps being pulled tight.

When Robby shut the lid, all that stuck out were Mrs. Zander’s head and her feet.

“Tonight,” Robby declared, “you will see a woman sawed in half.” Backstage, Bobby’s lips traced the sounds.

In the booming applause, Mrs. Zander turned her face toward her son, away from the audience. “I don’t know how this works,” she whispered. “How do I undo the straps to pull my legs up?”

“You must give the people what they want,” he told her, smiling. “Something new. Something… edgy.”

Mrs. Zander’s eyes grew wide as golf balls.

“Which half of you wants to be alive today, Mama?”

Robby picked the saw back up and grinned at the crowd. “On three,” he told them.

“One!” He raised it dramatically over his head.

Mrs. Zander looked at the audience with terrified, roving eyes.

“Two!” He lowered it to the notch in the middle of the box.

Mrs. Zander thrashed her feet and head about, trying to break free of her restraints.

“Don’t worry, Mama,” he whispered. “You will be dead, and we’ll have a marvelous time.”

In the wings, Bobby’s arm had already begun a sawing motion.

“Three!”

The post PseudoPod 669: Zanders the Magnificent appeared first on PseudoPod.

Oct 11 2019

25mins

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PseudoPod 668: Flash on the Borderlands XLIX: Dirty Deeds

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PseudoPod 668: Flash on the Borderlands XLIX: Dirty Deeds is a PseudoPod original.

Content warning:
Spoiler Inside
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assault, confinement, sexual violence

“Baby Fingers” is a PseudoPod original

“Polaroid, 1979” is a PseudoPod original 

“Metal, Sex, Monsters” was originally published in Gamut #5 in May, 2017

Metal, Sex, Monsters: “As you might be able to tell, this story was written with a Judas Priest soundtrack in mind. While writing it, I listened obsessively to all of Judas Priest’s back catalogue, so that is its main inspiration.”

Baby Fingers

by Pierce Skinner

narrated by Austin Malone

Curt stares out the into the dark beyond the jaundiced light of the motel sign. He’s got the sawed-off resting across his lap, hands shaking, face white as drywall behind his wild red beard.

I set my helmet down on the dresser, lean myself against the wall. The wallpaper smells like bleach. A fly thrashes between lightbulb and lampshade. TVs cackle through the walls and somehow, over all of this, behind it, the chittering, scratching. Like ants crawling over a microphone. It’s the sound the thing in the bathtub made before it killed Travis.

“You’re hearin’ it too.” He says, “We’re fucked.”

“No I ain’t.”

Curt’s eyes go red, wet. He looks down at his shaking hands, at the shotgun.

“Hey!” I growl. He don’t look up at me. “Christ, Curt! You a Mongol or ain’t you?”

Curt nods. “Yeah. I’m a Mongol, Dennis. But I ain’t never seen no shit like that before.” He looks up at me like he’s about to cry. “It…killed Travis.”

A headache builds behind the scratching sound. I try to tell myself that it’s just hearing damage. That emptying twelve rounds in an underground bunker did a number on our eardrums. But that don’t explain everything else. Not even close.

“What’s gonna happen to us?”

“Nothin’, Curt. Whatever it was, we killed it. Now I’m gonna call Mr. Senator. We’re gonna get our money, get out of the state. That’s it.” I pull the door open. “Stay here,” I tell him. “I’ll be right back.”

Soon as the door shuts behind me, the scratching sounds stop. The night is silent.

The headache don’t go nowhere. I light a cigarette.

I drop a quarter into the payphone in front of the laundromat across the street. It only rings once before a man’s voice says, “Hello?”

“It’s done.”

“You got him.”

Silence.

He breaks it. “You…you killed the other thing, too?”

And when he says it like that, says thing, then it’s real. And that’s when I start shaking.

“Not before it killed one of mine.”

“I…I’m sorry. If I had told you everything, you wouldn’t have believed me.”

I close my eyes and I’m right back there. The house. The Armageddon bunker. The room full of kids’ clothes. The table, heaped with tiny limbs, tiny hands. All of them missing fingers, all of them bloodless, some of them rotten and crumbling like last winter’s firewood. Symbols on the walls. The stink of mildew, blood, shit. The clawfoot tub full of brown water. Full of pale white worms, insect larvae. The smiling man with bright white teeth. Something familiar about him. Like maybe I know him. Shirtless to the waist, eyes rolled back white, swinging a rusted medieval claymore down the hall. Curt’s gun making the two of us deaf and the smiling man dead, head opened up like a red wet flower.

“That was the governor’s boy, wasn’t it? The news anchor?”

“Yeah.”

“Thought I recognized him.”

This explains why he went to the Mongols instead of the cops. Don’t explain the thing that stood up from the tub. Skin black, shiny like an eel, like the highway wet with rain. The thing took Travis by jaw, peeled him open like a sardine can, took six hollow points and two shotgun shells to die. No blood came out. Just brown water.

“I…” the man’s voice cracks. “I don’t know what it is. It’s what they feed them to. And I…I let them.” He starts to cry. Thick, heavy. Between sobs, he manages, “But…you killed it. It’s over.”

“Yeah.”

He sniffles. “You know where I am. I have your money. I’m sorry about your friend. You don’t know the good you’ve done.”

“Tomorrow,” I say. “Noon.”

A small, hot wind moves my hair. Overhead, something clacks its jaws, grinds its teeth and there’s that scratching, insect sound again. I drop the phone and back away but when I look up but there’s nothing. Not even moths crowding the streetlight.

I smell the blood before I see it.

Curt’s a pink smear across the carpet stretching from the bed to the bathroom mirror. His boots are by the edge of the bed. His face hangs from the lampshade. A fly buzzes panicked, caught in the bloody forest of his beard. Drawn in blood across the walls, the symbols from the house. Triangles. Zigzags. Bullseyes. Everywhere, the worms, the larvae. On the sheets, the carpet, spilling out from the vent above the bed onto the pillows.

The bathroom door creaks open. Brown water spills over the edge of the tub. There it is. The sound, again. Coming from the water. Coming from the worms.

But they ain’t worms. I can see them now, in the light. I can see what they are.

I turn. I run.

I don’t know where I am. The highway. West. Maybe. The road is empty. I am alone.

The sun comes up over the world. White snakes as big as God dangle from behind the clouds. Forests of glass needle teeth catch the light of swallowed suns in their bellies, split it into rainbows, turns the whole wide world into a karaoke dance floor.

The bike rattles. Fire spits from the tailpipe. My body is a vibration.

I shut my eyes, twist the throttle forward.

The tires spin themselves into black rags. Metal screams against the pavement, curses at me in sparks, reeking heat.

I spin the bike into the guardrail, and then I’m flying through the rainbows.

I stumble into the drugstore, bleeding. Ribs complain about how broken they are with every breath. The cashier, a young girl, pretty, the kind of girl that gets fed to things that shouldn’t exist, she says something to me. Looks real worried.

I can’t hear her. The only sound in my ears is the chittering. Ants crawling over my eardrums. Worms gnawing at my breastbone. That’s how I know what I gotta do. I know how it’s following me. The thing from the tub. It’s following me. Tracking me like a wounded stag.

I make it to the restroom, lock the door, back away from it, slide down the wall. I can feel them, in my arms, inside my chest. Plucking at my veins like guitar strings, calling out for daddy, racing toward my brain.

Well, shit. I almost laugh at how simple it is. I wish I could tell Curt. Wish I could have saved him.

The door shivers in the jamb. Thunder roars from the other side. Bang. Bang. Bang.

Something cold, wet against my hand. Water. Spilling from the sink. Gushing from the toilet. Brown water. Freezing, like from the deepest parts of the sea.

“You were right, Curt!” I bellow over the crackling in my ears, over the banging on the door, “But it ain’t gonna get me!”

I pull my knife out of its sheath. I shut my eyes. Right there. Inside my chest. Under my heart. If they get to my brain, I’ll wind up just like that news anchor. Like the governor’s boy. That ain’t gonna happen.

I put the knife between my broken ribs, open a hole. I scream. I twist the blade, searching, scraping. Air hisses out of my lung, makes pink bubbles in the blood. Nothing else comes out.

I ain’t worried. I’ll find them. Just got to keep looking. Keep digging. I cut again. The brown water rises. My blood turns it black.

“Damn.”

These things are smart. Fast. I can feel them now, bunching up into tiny fists behind my eyes, knocking against my skull, reaching for my brain.

I bring the blade up, laughing.

“Son of a bitch. I got you now.”

The door explodes inward. The water recedes. The lights go out.

Hands on me. Cold, slick, like fish skin. They pry the knife from my remaining fingers, drag me down into the brown water. And I can’t tell if what I’m hearing is myself, screaming forever or the roar of the worms in the sky or Travis crying as he dies or angel trumpets or Curt’s big belly laugh, somewhere in the dark, at the end of a highway wet with rain.

Polaroid, 1979

by Lora Gray

narrated by Setsu Uzume

Their skins never look as beautiful on her as they do on their original bones, but this boy drapes over Evelyn like silk.

She smiles at the cracked bathroom mirror and puckers her lips. The boy’s reflection kisses back. If she turns her head just so, she can almost believe those lips are hers, that she is a young man and not a monster. Except, of course, that his chin keeps tugging those lips toward the hollow of her throat.

Sighing, Evelyn presses his mouth back into place. She squares his shoulders over her own and lifts Roberto’s instant camera level with the mirror.

She takes the photo.

The camera whirs and the polaroid, square and slick with chemicals, rolls out. She should probably take another. Even with the image barely developed, she can see the line of her boy’s hips spliced by the mustard yellow sink, his chest obscured by the bulk of the camera. A train rattles past the apartment and the vanity lights flicker. His complexion will probably look waxy in the uneven light, too. Dead.

Roberto hates it when they look dead.

“Then he should take the pictures himself, shouldn’t he, darling?” Evelyn pats her boy’s cheek where it rests over her own.

Roberto shouts “What?” from the living room, his voice slurred.

Evelyn bites her tongue and shushes her boy’s mouth with her fingertips.

When she first found him alone behind a deserted bus terminal, Evelyn knew she’d love this boy. Her heart had quivered as she slinked, catlike and skinless, behind him. It thundered when she raised her pearl handled knife and slit his throat. He’d been so warm when she scooped his organs into that dumpster, so snug when she slipped into his skin.

When she was younger, Evelyn would have strutted into the daytime world wearing this boy, sumptuous as a mink stole, until the stench of rot and flies made people suspect, or until hunger forced her to eat what was left of him.

Playing with her food has always been a dangerous game and rumors followed her as she moved between cities and villages. A serial killer was on the loose, they said. A monster. But she’s never been caught.

The world isn’t as safe as it used to be, though. It’s bristling with security cameras, neighborhood watches and homicide detectives playing at Columbo in trench coats and battered sedans. It’s 1979. Evelyn needs protection. And Roberto, with his keen eyes, his blood lust and appetites, helps cover her ‘crimes.’ He gives her a warm bed and a safe place to feed if she lets him play with her skins.

Roberto, Evelyn tells herself, is a necessity.

But it’s been months since she’s done anything but find new skins for him to fuck. Months since he’s allowed her outside in the day time. Months of screaming and angry fists. Months of him threatening to turn her in to the police if she doesn’t make him happy.

On the back of the toilet, the butt of Roberto’s cigarette sags. His dirty underwear drips on the shower rod. Evelyn can hear him in the living room, belching and swearing, clicking from channel to channel on the new RCA. He sniffs, loud and long. Allergies? Cocaine? Both?

Evelyn gives the polaroid a weary shake. Her boy’s face swims toward the surface of the milky film and she imagines him rising toward her, escaping the confines of that photograph.

He’s been a good companion, such a lovely distraction from Roberto’s sweaty palms and hungry mouth. It was so much easier to admire the stretch of his skin over her bones than pay attention to Roberto rutting between her thighs.

Bad enough the time has come to devour what is left of this boy without Roberto reducing him to a sallow photograph tucked into the shoebox beneath his bed with the faces of all the others she’s killed for him, smudged with greasy fingers and crumpled at the corners from frantic, late night jerk offs.

When was the last time Evelyn killed for her own pleasure? When was the last time she did anything on her own terms?

Evelyn looks at the photo in her hands, her boy fully developed now, but trapped, and sets it on the back of the sink.

“Goodbye, sweetness,” she whispers.

And eye to eye with the polaroid, she feeds.

Hooking her fingers into her navel, Evelyn pries herself open. Her belly ripples and flexes its spongey jaws, tiny, flesh worn teeth gnashing until they snag the boy’s skin. The fibers clutching him to her pop loose and he sloughs away, a thousand teeth tenderly devouring. Another train rattles past. A cockroach scuttles to safety beneath the radiator. Her navel closes with a wet smack.

Evelyn smooths a hand over the pulp of her belly.

She is full.

She does not feel satisfied.

Polaroid in hand, Evelyn emerges from the bathroom, a shamble of raw meat and bones. The air prickles her exposed flesh.

It hurts.

“You done already?” Roberto asks, paunchy and pale in his recliner. “You know what’ll happen if that fucking photo isn’t-“ Roberto chokes on his beer. “What did I tell you about walking around like that?!”

Evelyn doesn’t reply.

She goes into the bedroom where the sheets are tangled with the remains of her boy’s clothes. She lays the photograph of him on the blood stained pillow, his face turned toward the window.

The sun is rising when Evelyn takes her pearl handled knife from the dresser. The world is bright when she slinks, catlike and skinless, into the living room.

Roberto isn’t beautiful like her boy was. He is ugly. Monstrous. But when Evelyn steps out of his apartment and into the dangerous world once more, his skin slumped around her like an oversized cardigan, the sun, at least, is warm.

The daylight, delicious.

Metal, Sex, Monsters

by Maria Haskins

narrated by The Word Whore

Yes, officer: I do remember my first time. I was thirteen, and the room smelled of drugstore perfume, apple-scented shampoo, and sticky lip gloss. I remember what the boy tasted like, too: potato chips and popcorn, teenage sweat, and bated breath. It was in the basement of a friend’s house, a party, out of sight of the parents, and Judas Priest was playing on the stereo when someone turned off the lights and said we were playing a kissing game: everyone had to walk around in the dark and kiss whoever they could get a hold of. It sounds kind of louche now, I guess, but it was 1981, and it’s not like we were drinking anything but soft drinks mixed with lemonade.

The boy’s hair and eyes were brown and I’d had a crush on him since grade two, though I’d never considered doing anything about it. I’d never kissed anyone before, either. But in the dark, with Rob Halford screaming about working class frustration in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain, he grabbed hold of me, probably out of pity, and kissed me.

I liked kissing him: liked the rush of blood to my head and groin, liked the way he held me. He might have tried to pull away soon after, or maybe he was just trying to breathe, but I persisted and he acquiesced, and when his lips parted just a little, I kissed harder, penetrating his wet, warm mouth with my tongue, nipping at the flesh. There was a taste then, familiar and new at the same time, slipping through me, of salt like tears, of rusted iron and oxidized copper.

I probed and bit and licked as something shuddered awake deep beneath my skin, rippling like the surface of a submerged dream, its sudden heat radiating through my capillaries, burning through my eyes and fingers, blistering my lips and cheeks.

Will you look at that? Look at my hands. Even now, thirty-five years later, the memory of it makes me tremble.

No, officer. I pulled away. He caught his breath and I thought he’d scream, thought he’d tell everyone that I had bit him. The blood was there to prove it, on his lips and chin, on my tongue as I swallowed. But he just put his hand to his mouth and looked at me, as if he’d caught a sideways glimpse of the hunger lurking inside me.

His family moved away later that summer. Probably just as well, even though I missed him.

But that’s not what you want me to talk about. You brought police photographs.

Let me see. Yes, they were all mine. Such gorgeous boys. Hell bent for leather, wouldn’t you say, each and every one. But then, rock and heavy metal gigs have been my venues of choice from the start. I love the music, of course, always have, and I figured those places were good for hiding in plain sight. There, I was just another hungry groupie, just another starving fangirl jonesing for a fix: unremarkable, disposable, forgettable. Considering how long it’s taken you to find me, I guess I was right about that. But it’s the bodies I love most of all. That’s what kept me coming back. All that lovely flesh wrapped in sweat and studs and tight denim, bones reverberating with the amplified sound of guitars and drums and bass, shouted vocals clawing at their throats, the air thrumming with scent, everyone resplendent in eyeliner and hairspray, lace and spandex. All those beautiful people: souls loosening their grip on mortal coils, words and breaths and hands rising, each one wanting to taste blood and skin, wanting to disappear into another, to be devoured by the music and the crowd…

No, officer. I don’t need anything to drink. I just need a moment.

The second boy I kissed was the first one who went all the way. I waited for him in the shadows on a street corner, after the club had closed: I was eighteen and starving. I wonder if you’ve ever been as hungry. Maybe you have. I’d been good for so many years after that night in the basement. It was hard, but school’s important, and besides, it takes more than hunger. At least for me. Something has to turn me on, there has to be a spark – heat, lust, love – call it what you want, but if I don’t want them, if they don’t want me, it’s no good at all.

Sorry. You look uncomfortable. Is that too much information? But then that’s what you want, isn’t it? Information. That’s what you said when you brought me here.

But I was telling you about the second boy.

Inside the club he’d slipped his arm around my waist and I’d left it there. He was barely older than I was, all strut and swagger in his leather jacket when he followed me outside and offered me a ride on his motorcycle. I held on to him, speeding through that gossamer night, my body bursting, flaring at the seams and joints with heat and hunger, trying not to take him too soon, too quick, trying to make it last.

In the tall grass by the river he took off my bra and I took him into me, whole and screaming and unwilling. He was my first, and I wasn’t as gentle as I should have been, as I’ve learned to be since. But that mingled taste of him – leather, beer, and cigarettes – it whets my appetite even now, just thinking about how he scraped and rubbed against my viscera as I brought him deep inside of me.

That was a long time ago. I’ve devoured so many boys and men since then.

How many? I couldn’t tell you. I’ve not counted them. But, yes. More than in your photographs, certainly. If I wanted them, and they wanted me, then I took them. And when I reached out, when I opened up and they saw me in my glory, when they were blinded by my bliss and consumed, they were not afraid. Not in the end, at least.

Are you afraid, officer? Or is that too personal a question to ask?

What it’s like? Why would you ask me that? You said you have video footage, so you must know. I don’t know what it’s like from outside. I only know what it feels like from within.

…heat and light, ignited and extinguished in the same moment

…reaching out through flesh and bones and web of veins and skeins of nerves

….unfurling myself

…unleashing myself

…unhinging myself

…unmaking them

…savouring the quavering tissue of life and memories, their first and last flashes of pain and ecstasy, the moment of their birth and the instant of their death.

Afterward, I can still feel them inside me for a while: plucking them like strings to hear the whispered echoes of who they were.

Yes, thank you, officer. I do need something to drink now.

What I am? Don’t ask me that. Tell me what you see, instead, when you look at me.

I don’t know what I am. I don’t know what awoke in that basement when I was thirteen, with British Steel pounding beneath my flesh, blood riveted to my tongue; when I awoke and knew that I was no longer what I’d thought I was, that I wore the body I’d thought was mine like a second skin pulled tight over my true self.

I’ve thought about that kiss, that boy, every day since.

Something was different that time. I know that now. I sensed it, but didn’t understand it until later, maybe not until tonight. That he was like me. That he hungered, too.

I wonder if he’s looked for me like I’ve looked for him.

I’d know him anywhere. I’d know his dark brown eyes, would know his hair even if it’s thinner and streaked with grey, would know the scent of him even thirty-five years on. I’d know him no matter where I saw him, or what uniform or badge he wore.

I’d know the heat, radiating from his skin before we even touched.

Yes, officer. I would know you, even if I’d waited decades, trapped and lonely inside an aging husk of skin and flesh, even if I’d lingered, sleepless for a million years in an empty space of stars and quantum rifts. I’d still know you.

Do you remember it? The dizzying taste of me in you? The fleeting promise of it on your tongue? Of course you do. That’s why you brought me to this bar rather than the police station.

And if we kissed again, you and I, here and now, with this Judas Priest song cutting through us like a screaming metal blade, cutting all our memories open; with the noise and blood and hunger throbbing in us like when we were thirteen; if we kissed now, what would we become then, you and I, if we unfurled, unhinged, unleashed ourselves together, devouring each other, our light and heat bleeding into the other, pulsing, flowing, mingling, fusing into one?

What, I wonder, will we become, now?

The post PseudoPod 668: Flash on the Borderlands XLIX: Dirty Deeds appeared first on PseudoPod.

Oct 05 2019

36mins

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PseudoPod 667: Allochthon

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“Allochton” was first published in Letters to Lovecraft: Eighteen Whispers to the Darkness

Hey PseudoPod family, is your TO READ pile getting shorter? We have a solution for you. Coming out this week is Monster, She Wrote: The Women Who Pioneered Horror and Speculative Fiction. This is written by our friends Lisa Kroger and Melanie R. Anderson who host the Know Fear Cast along with Matt Saye. I really enjoyed how each chapter begins with an introduction that explains the era and its representative styles. It then follows with a number of exemplars of that era and style in both short and long fiction formats.

And Quirk Books delivers again with the physical copy of this book. The layout is exceptional and O! The illustrations! Each chapter has illustrations in repeating patterns like could inhabit some creepy wallpaper, with subjects related to a number of the particular stories covered there. I loved the pulp panel in particular with Shambleau by C.L. Moore and The Canal by Everil Worrell – which just so happened to run as episode 648 earlier this year. I loved seeing a shout-out to PodCastle and narrator extraordinaire Dave Robison, and we’re looking forward to bringing some of the stories highlighted here to your ears in the not too distant future.

Allochthon

by Livia Llewellyn

North Bonneville, 1934

Ruth sits in the kitchen of her company-built house, slowly turning the pages of her scrapbook. The clock on the bookcase chimes ten. In the next room, the only other room, she hears her husband getting dressed. He’s deliberately slow on Sundays, but he’s earned the right. Something about work, he’s saying from behind the door. Something about the men. Ruth can’t be bothered to listen. She stares at the torn magazine clipping taped to a page. It’s a photo of an East Coast socialite vacationing somewhere in the southern tropics: a pretty young woman in immaculate white linens, lounging on a bench that encircles the impossibly thick trunk of a palm tree. All around the woman and the tree, a soft manicured lawn flows like a velvet sea, and the skies above are clear and dry. Ruth runs her free hand across the back of her neck, imagining the heat in the photo, the lovely bite and sear of an unfiltered sun. Her gaze wanders up to the ceiling. Not even a year old, and already rain and mold have seeped through the shingled roof, staining the cream surface with hideous blossoms. It’s supposed to be summer, yet always the overcast skies in this part of the country, always the clouds and the rain. She turns the page. More photos and ephemera, all the things that over the years have caught her eye. But all she sees is the massive palm, lush and hard and tall, the woman’s back curved into it like a drowsy lover, the empty space around them, above and below, as if they are the only objects that have ever existed in the history of time.

Henry walks into the room and grabs his coat, motioning for her to do the same. Ruth clenches her jaw and closes the scrapbook. Once again, she’s made a promise she doesn’t want to keep. But she doesn’t care enough to speak her mind, and, anyway, it’s time to go.

Their next-door neighbor steers his rusting car down the dirt road, past the edges of the town and onto the makeshift highway. His car is one of many, a caravan of beat-up trucks and buggies and jalopies. Ruth sits in the back seat with a basket of rolls on her lap, next to the other wife. It started earlier in the week as an informal suggestion over a session of grocery shopping and gossip by some of the women, and now almost forty people are going. A weekend escape from the routine of their dreary lives to a small park further down the Columbia River, far from the massive construction site for the largest dam in the world, which within the decade will throttle the river’s power into useful submission. The wives will set up the picnic, a potluck of whatever they can afford to offer, while they gossip and look after the children. The men will eat and drink, complain about their women and their jobs and the general rotten state of affairs across the land, and then they’ll climb a trail over eight hundred feet high, to the top of an ancient volcanic core known as Beacon Rock.

The company wife speaks in an endless paragraph, animate and excited. Billie or Betty or Becky, some childish, interchangeable name. She’s four months pregnant and endlessly, vocally grateful that her husband found work on a WPA project when so many in the country are doing without. Something about the Depression. Something about the town. Something about schools. Ruth can’t be bothered. She bares her teeth, nods her head, makes those ridiculous clucking sounds like the other wives would, all those bitches with airs. Two hours of this pass, the unnatural rattle and groan of the engines, the monotonous roll of pine-covered hills. The image of the palm tree has fled her mind. It’s only her on the lawn, alone, under the unhinged jaw of the sky. Something about dresses. Something about the picnic. Something about a cave—

Ruth snaps to attention. There is a map in her hands, a crude drawing of what looks like a jagged-topped egg covered in zigzagging lines. This is the trail the men are going to take, the wife is explaining. Over fifty switchbacks. A labyrinth, a maze. The caravan has stopped. Ruth rubs her eyes. She’s used to this, these hitches of lost time. Monotonous life, gloriously washed away in the backwater tides of her waking dreams. She stumbles out of the car, swaying as she clutches the door. The world has been reduced to an iron-gray bowl of silence and vertigo, contained yet infinite. Mountains and space and sky, all around, with the river diminished to a soft mosquito’s whine. Nausea swells at the back of her throat, and a faint, pain-tinged ringing floods her ears. She feels drunk, unmoored. Somewhere, Henry is telling her to turn, to look. There it is, he’s saying, as he tugs her sleeve like a child. Ruth spirals around, her tearing eyes searching, searching the horizon, until finally she—

Something about—

—the rock.

Ruth lifts her head. She’s sitting at her kitchen table, a cup of lukewarm coffee at her hand. The scrapbook is before her, open, expectant, and her other hand has a page raised, halfway through the turn. On the right side of the book, the woman in the southern tropics reclines at her palm in the endless grass sea, waiting.

Henry stands before her, hat on head, speaking. —Ruthie, quit yer dreamin’ and get your coat on. Time to go.

—Go where.

—Like we planned. To Beacon Rock.

The clock on the bookcase chimes ten.

Outside, a plane flies overhead, the sonorous engine drone rising and falling as it passes. Ruth rubs her eyes, concentrating. Every day in this colorless town at the edge of this colorless land is like the one before, indistinguishable and unchanging. She doesn’t remember waking up, getting dressed, making coffee. And there’s something outside, a presence, an all-consuming black static wave of sound, building up just beyond the wall of morning’s silence, behind the plane’s mournful song. She furrows her brow, straining to hear.

Henry speaks, and the words sound like the low rumble of avalanching rock as they fall away from his face. It’s language, but Ruth doesn’t know what it means.

—Gimme a moment, I’m gonna be sick, Ruth says to no one in particular as she pushes away from the table. She doesn’t bother to close the front door as she walks down the rickety step into warm air and a hard gray sun. Ruth stumbles around the house to the back, where she stops, placing both hands against the wooden walls as she bends down, breathing hard, willing the vomit to stay down. Gradually, the thick sticky feeling recedes, and the tiny spots of black that dance around the corners of her vision fade and disappear. She stands, and starts down the dusty alley between the rows of houses and shacks.

Mountains, slung low against the far horizon of the earth, shimmering green and gray in the clear quiet light. Ruth stops at the edge of the alley, licking her lips as she stands and stares. Her back aches. Beyond the wave and curve of land, there is… Ruth bends over again, then squats, cupping her head in her hands, elbows on knees. This day, this day already happened. She’s certain of it. They drove, they drove along the dirt highway, the woman beside her, mouth running like a hurricane. They hung to the edges of the wide river, and then they rounded the last curve and stopped, and Ruth pooled out of the car like saliva around the heavy shaft of a cock, and she looked up, and, and, and.

And now some company brat is asking her if she’s okay, hey lady are you sick or just taking a crap, giggling as he speaks. Ruth stands up, and slaps him, crisp and hard. The boy gasps, then disappears between the houses. Ruth clenches her jaw, trying not to cry as she heads back around the house. Henry stands beside the open car door, ruin and rage dancing over his face. Her coat and purse and the basket of rolls have been tossed in the back seat, next to the wife. She’s already talking up a storm, rubbing her belly while she stares at Ruth’s, her eyes and mouth all smug and smarmy in that oily sisterly way, as if she knows. As if she could know anything at all.

The sky above is molten lead, bank after bank of roiling dark clouds vomiting out of celestial foundries. Ruth cranks the window lever, presses her nose against the crack. The air smells vast and earthen. The low mountains flow past in frozen antediluvian waves. Something about casseroles, the company bitch says. Something about gelatin and babies. Something about low tides. Ruth touches her forehead, frowns. There’s a hole in her memory, borderless and black, and she feels fragile and small. Not that she hates the feeling. Not entirely. Her hand rises up to the window’s edge, fingers splayed wide, as if clawing the land aside to reveal its piston-shaped core. The distant horizon undulates against the dull light, against her flesh, but fails to yield. It’s not its place to. She knows she’s already been to Beacon Rock. Lost deep inside, a trace remains. She got out of the car and she turned, and the mountains and the evergreens and thrusting up from the middle, a geologic eruption, a disruption hard and wide and high and then: nothing. Something was there, some thing was there, she knows she saw it, but the sinkhole in her mind has swallowed all but the slippery edges.

Her mouth twists, silent, trying to form words that would describe what lies beyond that absence of sound and silence and darkness and light, outside and in her head. As if words like that could exist. And now they are there, the car is rounding the highway’s final curves before the park. She rolls down the window all the way, and sticks her head and right arm out. A continent behind, her body is following her arm, like a larva wriggling and popping out of desiccated flesh, out of the car, away from the shouting, the ugly engine sounds, into the great shuddering static storm breaking all around. She saw Beacon Rock, then and now. The rest, they all saw the rock, but she saw beyond it, under the volcanic layers she saw it, and now she feels it, now she hears, and it hears her, too.

Falling, she looks up as she reaches out, and—

The clock on the bookcase chimes ten. Her fingers, cramping, slowly uncurl from a cold coffee cup. Henry is in the other room, getting dressed. Ruth hears him speaking to her, his voice tired water dribbling over worn gravel. Something about the company picnic. Something about malformed, moldering backwaters of trapped space and geologic time. Something about the rock.

Tiny spattering sounds against paper make her stare up to the ceiling, then down at the table. Droplets of blood splash against the open page in her scrapbook. Ruth raises her hand to her nose, pinching the nostrils as she raises her face again. Blood slides against the back of her throat, and she swallows. On the clipping, the young socialite’s face disappears in a sudden crimson burst, like a miniature solar flare erupting around her head, enveloping her white-teethed smile. Red coronas everywhere, on her linen-draped limbs, on the thick bark of the palm, on the phosphorus-bright velvet lawn. Somewhere outside, a plane drones overhead, or so it sounds like a plane. No, a plain, a wide expanse of plain, a moorless prairie of static and sound, all the leftover birth and battle and death cries of the planet, jumbled into one relentless wave streaming forth from some lost and wayward protrusion at the earth’s end. Ruth pushes the scrapbook away and wipes her drying nose with the edges of her cardigan and the backs of her hands. Her lips open and close in silence as she tries to visualize, to speak the words that would describe what it is that’s out there, what waits for her, high as a mountain and cold and alone. What is it that breathes her name into the wind like a mindless burst of radio static, what pulses and booms against each rushing thrust of the wide river, drawing her body near and her mind away? She saw and she wants to see it again and she wants to remember, she wants to feel the ancient granite against her tongue, she wants to rub open-legged against it until it enters and hollows her out like a mindless pink shell. She wants to fall into it, and never return here again.

—Not again, she says to the ceiling, to the walls, as Henry opens the door. —Not again, not again, not again.

He stares at her briefly, noting the red flecks crusting her nostrils and upper lip. —Take care of that, he says; grabbing his coat, he motions at the kitchen sink. Always the same journey, and the destination never any closer. Ruth quickly washes her face, then slips out the door behind him into the hot, sunless morning. The company wife is in the back, patting the seat next to her. Something about the weather, she says, her mouth spitting out the words in little squirts of smirk while her eyes dart over Ruth’s wet red face. She thinks she knows what that’s all about. Lots of company wives walk into doors. Something about the end of Prohibition. Something about the ghosts of a long-ago war. Ruth sits with her head against the window, eyes closed, letting the one-sided conversation flow out of the woman like vomit. Her hand slips under the blue-checked dish towel covering the rolls, and she runs her fingers over the flour-dusted tops. Like cobblestones. River stones, soft water-licked pebbles, thick gravel crunching under her feet. She pushes a finger through the soft crust of a roll, digging down deep into its soft middle. That’s what it’s doing to her, out there, punching through her head and thrusting its basalt self all through her, pulverizing her organs and liquefying her heart. The car whines and rattles as it slams in and out of potholes, gears grinding as the company man navigates the curves. Eyes still shut, Ruth runs a fingertip over each lid, pressing in firm circles against the skin, feeling the hard jelly mounds roll back and forth at her touch until they ache. The landscape outside reforms itself as a negative against her lids, gnarled and blasted mountains rimmed in small explosions of sulfur-yellow light. She can see it, almost the tip of it, pulsating with a monstrous beauty in the distance, past the last high ridges of land. Someone else must have known, and that’s why they named it so. A wild perversion of nature, calling out through the everlasting sepulcher of night, seeking out and casting its blind gaze only upon her—

The company wife is grabbing her arm. The car has stopped. Henry and the man are outside, fumbling with the smoking engine hood. Ruth wrests her arm away from the woman’s touch, and opens the door. The rest of the caravan has passed them by, rounded the corner into the park. Ruth starts down the side of the road, slow, nonchalant, as if taking in a bit of air. As if she could. The air has bled out, and only the pounding static silence remains, filling her throat and lungs with its hadal-deep song. —I’m coming, she says to it. —I’m almost here. She hears the wife behind her, and picks up her pace.

—You gals don’t wander too far, she hears the company man call out. —We should have this fixed in a jiffy.

Ruth kicks her shoes off and runs. Behind her, the woman is calling out to the men. Ruth drops her purse. She runs like she used to when she was a kid, a freckled tomboy racing through the wheat fields of her father’s farm in North Dakota. She runs like an animal, and now the land and the trees and the banks of the river are moving fast, slipping past her piston legs along with the long bend of the road. Her lungs are on fire and her heart is all crazy and jumpy against her breasts and tears streak into her mouth and nose and it doesn’t matter because she is so close and it’s calling her with the hook of its song and pulling her reeling her in and Henry’s hand is at the back of her neck and there’s gravel and the road smashing against her mouth and blood and she’s grinding away and kicking and clawing forward and all she has to do is lift up her head just a little bit and keep her eyes shut and she will finally see—

Ruth’s hands are clasped tight in her lap. Scum floats across the surface of an almost empty cup of coffee. A sob escapes her mouth, and she claps her hand over it, hitching as she pushes it back down. This small house. This small life. This cage. She can’t do it anymore. The clock on the bookcase chimes ten. —I swear, this is the last time, Ruth says, wiping the tears from her cheeks. The room is empty, but she knows who she’s speaking to. It knows, too. —I know how to git to you. I know how to see you. This is the last goddamn day.

On the kitchen table before her is the scrapbook, open to her favorite clipping. Ruth peels it carefully from the yellowing page and holds it up to the light. Somewhere in the southern tropics: a pretty young woman in stained white linens, lounging on a bench that encircles the impossibly thick trunk of a tree that has no beginning or end, whose roots plunge so far beyond the ends of earth and time that, somewhere in the vast cosmic oceans above, they loop and descend and transform into the thick fronds and leaves that crown the woman’s head with dappled shadow. All around the woman and the tree, drops of dried blood are spattered across the paper like the tears of a dying sun. The woman’s face lies behind one circle of deep brown, earth brown, wood brown, corpse brown. She is smiling, open-eyed, breathing it all in. Ruth balls the clipping up tight, then places it in her mouth, chewing just a bit before she swallows. There is no other place the woman and the palm have been, that they will ever be. Alone, apart, removed, untouched. All life here flows around them, utterly repelled. They cannot be bothered. It is of no concern to them. What cycle of life they are one with was not born in this universe.

In the other room, Henry is getting dressed. If he’s talking, she can’t hear. Everywhere, black static rushes through the air, strange equations and latitudes and lost languages and wondrous geometries crammed into a silence so old and deep that all other sounds are made void. Ruth closes the scrapbook and stands, wiping the sweat from her palms on her Sunday dress. There is a large knife in the kitchen drawer, and a small axe by the fireplace. She chooses the knife. She knows it better, she knows the heft of it in her hand when slicing into meat and bone. When he finally opens the door and steps into the small room, she’s separating the rolls, the blade slipping back and forth through the powdery grooves. Ruth lifts one up to Henry, and he takes it. It barely touches his mouth before she stabs him in the stomach, just above the belt, where nothing hard can halt its descent. He collapses, and she falls with him, pulling the knife out and sitting on his chest as she plunges it into the center of his chest, twice because she isn’t quite sure where his heart is, then once at the base of his throat. Blood, like water gurgling over river stones, trickling away to a distant, invisible sea. That, she can hear. Ruth wipes the blade on her dress as she rises, then places it on the table, picks up the basket and walks to the front door. She opens it a crack.

—Henry’s real sick, she says to the company man. —We’re gonna stay home today. She gives him the rolls, staring hard at the company wife in the back seat as he walks back to his car. The wife looks her over, confused. Ruth shuts the door. That bitch doesn’t know a single thing.

Ruth slips out the back, through the window of their small bedroom. The caravan of cars is already headed toward the highway, following the Columbia downstream toward Beacon Rock. They’ll never make it to their picnic. They’ll never see it. They never do. She moves through the alley, past the last sad row of company houses and into the tall evergreens that mark the end of North Bonneville. With each step into the forest, she feels the weight of the town fall away a little, and something vast and leviathan burrows deeper within, filling up the unoccupied space. When she’s gone far and long enough that she no longer remembers her name, she stops, and presses her fingers deep into her sockets, scooping her eyes out and pinching off the long ropes of flesh that follow them out of her body like sticky yarn. What rushes from her mouth might be screaming or might be her soul, and it is smothered in the indifferent silence of the wild world.

And now it sees, and it moves in the way it sees, floating and darting back and forth through the hidden phosphorescent folds of the lands within the land, darkness punctured and coruscant with unnamable colors and light, its dying flesh creeping and hitching through forests petrified by the absence of time, past impenetrable ridges of mountains whose needle-sharp peaks cut whorls in the passing rivers of stars. A veil of flies hovers about the caves of its eyes and mouth, rising and falling with every rotting step, and bits of flesh scatter and sink to the earth like barren seeds next to its pomegranate blood. If there is pain, it is beyond such narrow acknowledgement of its body. There is only the bright beacon of light and thunderous song, the sonorous ringing of towering monolithic basalt breathing in and out, pushing the darkness away. There is, finally, past the curvature of the overgrown wild, a lush grass plain of emerald green, ripe and plump under a fat hot sun, a wide bench of polished wood, and a palm tree pressing in a perfect arc against its small back, warm and worn and hard like ancient stone. When it looks up, it cannot see the tree’s end. Its vision rises blank and wondrous with branches as limitless as both their dreams, past all the edges of all time, and this is the way it should be.

The post PseudoPod 667: Allochthon appeared first on PseudoPod.

Sep 27 2019

43mins

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PseudoPod 666: Breaking the Waters & The Second Coming

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PseudoPod 666: Breaking the Waters & The Second Coming is a PseudoPod original.

Content warning:

Spoiler Inside SelectShow Sexual assault

“The Second Coming” by W.B. Yeats was first printed in The Dial in November 1920. “Breaking the Waters” is a PseudoPod original released jointly with Nightlight, a horror podcast featuring creepy tales written and performed by Black creatives all over the world.

The Second Coming

by W.B. Yeats

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Breaking the Waters

by Donyae Coles

Bootsie is what her mother called her, only her mother, ever. She stood on the train platform, the air daggers of ice against her, cutting through her clothes, leaving her skin raw and frozen.

“Bootsie,” the man called, a hint of pleasure curling on the end of her name. She looked up because only her mother used that secret name, and the man, the Man With No Face, said it just right. Just like mother.

The Man With No Face wore a suit, brilliant white with a gray tie and black shoes that slipped and disappeared into inky pools of shadow from time to time. She stared at him as he approached, his steps sounding hollow and too loud, blocking out the howling wind.

“It’s so nice to finally meet you,” he said reaching out his hand to take hers. She gave it without hesitation. He called her as mother had called her, “She said you would be here. She said to call you that.”

“Who?” Bootsie asked pushing back heavy, dark curls of hair that the wind snatched from beneath her hood.

He smiled a sick smile. Bootsie couldn’t see it but she knew by the sound of his voice how his lips curled. “Your mother. She was very helpful. It’s a shame she couldn’t be used for the program. Too old,” he said shaking his head, mimicking regret, squeezing her hand before releasing it.

“And too dead,” she added wiping the gloved palm on her pants. Through the thick knit his touch lingered, crawling on her skin.

The Man With No Face shrugged, “A technicality. If she had been younger we could have worked around it. Then we would have had two. But you’re enough. You’re perfect, Bootsie. You were born for this.”

He smelled like danger. A scent that echoed in the lizard part of her. The part of her that let her see him at all. A Man With No Face who should not be there. Who should not be anywhere at all. The same part of her that told her to stay still, not to run.

“Now, Bootsie, we’ve been watching you. Digging through your trash. This is the perfect time. The perfect time with the perfect girl. This is our proposition. You let us impregnate you. Use your womb and track your dreams.  Before the thing sinks its tentacles into you, we will get rid of it. Everything will be taken care of. You just have to open your legs. You can do that, can’t you Bootsie?” his voice sounded like honey. Thick and sweet but under it, the sound of buzzing. The reminder of the bees that made it, their sting.

“The thing? The baby?” she asked.

The Man With No Face rocked his head back and forth, thinking, “It won’t really be a baby. Not really. But we can call it that if you would like. If that makes it easier.”

She shook her head, her train approaching. She could feel it rumbling on the tracks. “What if I say no?”

“You could say no. But the answer is still the same. The asking is a formality. Your train is here,” the Man With No Face said holding his hand out as the train pulled to a stop, the door opening in front of her, the warm air spilling from inside. She stepped in. There were no other options. The Man With No Face followed her.

“Are you,” she started, staring at the empty train car as it pulled sluggishly forward.

He cut her off, “No, here is fine. Here is perfect. Just like you Bootsie.

“Who is going to be the father?” she asked, the question felt stupid on her lips.

“Just me. Just like your father was,” he said, “Unbuckle your pants and bend over that seat there.”

“You said my mama wasn’t part of this,” she said dropping her jeans and bending as told. It was no use to fight.

“Did I? No, we are all part of this. You can touch yourself. It might be better for you if you climax but it is not necessary.”

“I’ve never done this before,” she said as he positioned himself behind her. His hands were cold on her hips. Cold and damp as if they had never felt the sun. As if they had never been dry.

“It doesn’t matter. The act is always the same,” and then he was inside of her. He moved in perfect rhythm, the rocking of the train had no effect. She thought about crying but it wouldn’t have done any good. He finished a few moments later and released her. She stood and pulled up her pants.

“Twice more, Bootsie. Tomorrow and the next day. Then we’re done,” the Man With No Face explained brightly.

“Are we?” she asked.

“Well, you and I, yes, but you’ll be hearing from my associates just as soon as that seed starts to grow.”

“And if it doesn’t?”

He chuckled, “Of course it will! We’ve been monitoring you, your morning piss. This is the perfect time. You are the perfect womb.”

She nodded. There was nothing to say.

“This is my stop, Bootsie. Tomorrow night. Same time. Same place.”

She could feel him, still dripping between her thighs, pooling in her underwear, like honey. The train slowed and stopped. He left in his pristine white suit, his shoes stretching into shadow as the car filled with bodies pressing against each other, searching for seats. No one touched her. No one sat next to her.

The next night was the same. He came in his white suit and then in her. The third night he completed the process. Afterwards, he reached down and patted her belly, “I feel we’ve grown so close these last few days. Word of advice, Bootsie. Get rid of it. When it’s done, you’ll get a choice. Kill it.”

He walked out of the open doors and the people filed in as they had for the past two nights. As if nothing had happened.

But it had. Not to them. Only she could see the Man With No Face. She didn’t tell anyone, there was nothing to tell. Instead Bootsie went to work and came home. She ate by herself and by the time the moon ran its course she had almost managed to forget about it. But her body had not because the body does not forget.

Her period didn’t come and she remembered as one missed day turned into two then three on to a full week.

A knock at the door broke her trance and she answered it, revealing the Man With No Face in the hall. Same suit, same tie, same black shoes that stretched into shadows. The shoes that could walk between worlds.

“Congratulations!” he said in his honey voice. A different man. Exactly the same but completely different.

“I’m pregnant,” she said.

“Oh yes. We’ve been monitoring your urine. You’re right on schedule. We are really pleased with you, Bootsie. Much better than your mother,” he said.

“I thought my mother was too old,” she said stepping aside as the Man With No Face bustled into the apartment.

“Did I say that? Oh no, she didn’t work out because she was dead. Age isn’t an issue. We can work around that,” he said.

She nodded and followed behind him as he walked into the bedroom and turned on the TV. The screen came to life with gray and black snow, the sound of static filling the room.

“It’s time for bed, Bootsie,” he said.

She opened her mouth to protest but closed it again. It wouldn’t do any good.

He sat at the foot of the bed and patted the comforter, like the other one had patted her belly.

“What are you going to do?” she asked.

“Watch your dreams. It’s all very boring. You won’t feel a thing.”

“For how long?”

“Until the Beast comes. Until She blesses us with the waters of her birth, the milk of her many tittied chest,” his honey voice light with praise, with worship.

Bootsie closed her eyes, the sound of static filling her ears.

Her feet pounded on the ground as she ran. The barking of the dogs echoing through the branches that pulled at her clothes, ripping at her skin, demanding blood for passage.

Something ran with her, just outside of her vision, the pounding of her feet matched another sound on the frozen ground. Something like horses but not as many hooves. The sound became louder, deafening, blocking out the dogs and shouts from behind her, mingling with the rhythm of her feet. From the corner of her eye she caught it, the thing that ran with her. The Beast that leaped and skipped through the forest.

Blacker than the sky, a void.

She fell frozen ground, thick roots meeting word hardened palms and knees., Her too round belly hovering just above the forest floor, ripping itself to pieces from inside, what lay there, still inside of her, fighting to get out. Skin stretched tight over her middle rippled as her body cramped around what was inside, what had been put there her body finding itself in the prefect position for what it needed to do.

The other, the void also stopped. It watched among the trees, the branches and her horns twisting together, becoming one. She was the forest. She was the sky.

“The baby is coming,” the thing whispered in an old language. A language not of her people, not of the men with no faces that stole her and got the baby on her. Something ancient that no one spoke but everyone understood. A language from a time before time.

“Push,” the thing in the forest commanded as her body demanded the same. On all fours the woman labored while the dogs barked, lost in the thick darkness, their calls a half heard chorus to her labor. While the creature in the forest watched with eyes like stars.

The woman screamed as the baby made its way slowly, achingly into the world. Her first, still covered in the waters of its birth, plucked from between its mother’s legs before it had a chance to touch the soil of the world.

The beast in the forest placed the baby on her own breast before turning away, leaving the woman.

Her chest heaving she waited, the mess of birth cooling on her thighs. She was plucked up by the night, carried by many hands, many unseen things. To the river where they plunged her into its cold depths, pulling her against its freezing currents to the other side. The birth washed from her as if it had never been. The sound of the dogs faded and disappeared replaced by the running river, the space they would not cross.  Could not cross. The price of her safe passage paid.

Bootsie woke, the morning light on the walls. The TV still played static but The Man With No Face was gone. Everything in her apartment the same except in her. She could still feel it, growing inside of her. Not a baby. Not a fetus. Whatever they had put inside of her, it grew moment by moment, inch by inch stretching its tentacles into her. She could feel it, subtle but there. Real.

She turned off the TV as she pulled on clothes for work. What else was she supposed to do?

She stalked through the aisles of the grocery store aligning cans in perfect symmetry, making order where she could.

After a week her flat belly became bloated with its passenger. After two her shirts no longer fit.

She showed The Man With No Face when he returned. He patted her swollen middle and said, “Don’t worry, Bootsie, as soon as she answers our calls we’ll take that thing and go. It will be like we were never here. Chin up, Bootsie! If your mother did it so can you!”

“You said my mother was too old and too dead for this,” she said wearily, the thing in her womb sapping her energy as she crawled into bed.

“Did I? No, you’re never too old or too dead for this. Now go to sleep. That many titted bitch is closer now,” he said turning on the TV.

The static sounded like waves, it carried her away.

She looked at her hands clasped in front of her as she walked, the people across the street screaming as she moved closer to the door. They knew, everyone knew and she could feel their eyes on her back, heavy enough to make her bend. Their voices following her through the door and into the waiting room, the words replaying over and over again. The clinic was crowded. All these girls and their mistakes. Some were older than her. Women but still girls because only girls were dumb enough to get knocked up by accident. Girls like her.

The nurses did intake in the waiting room. There were so many waiting girls. All waiting with their money in cash. She watched one girl hand the nurse three crisp bills. Wadded in her pocket, hers were crumpled tens and twenties saved up over the weeks. Almost too many weeks, almost too late to have it done. She wondered if the girl with the crisp bills was from town or if she had driven from hours away like her.

It didn’t matter. Here they were all the same, just girls who made bad choices. She darted her eyes over the room. Some of their clothes were nicer but they all had faces in shades of brown. White girls didn’t come here. They just had accidents, oops. This was the clinic for bad choices.

The nurse took her money, her tens and twenties just as she had with the crisp hundreds. She signed the forms and the nurse led her into the back. It all moved quickly, a well-oiled machine. The doctor was waiting.

They held open her legs and gave her a shot of something, no warning for the pain. She cried and begged them to wait but the doctor shushed her and told her it would do no good. No good to cry or wait. Maybe if she had waited before she wouldn’t be here now.

Then it was over and they moved her to another room, left her in another chair to wait, bleeding. She would have laughed at how alike they were, the doctor and the boy who got this baby on her but it hurt too much to laugh.

She turned, dazed as the shadows from the windows mingled with the setting sun. She could see the Beast watching her. The branches became her horns, the sun, her eyes. The Beast danced as she watched.

She had watched her when she opened her legs for the boy whose name didn’t matter.

She would watch her on her next trip here with her crumpled tens and twenties.

She would watch her when she couldn’t raise the money in time and finally pushed a baby into the world.

“No,” the girl said through her pain, “Please, I don’t want to come back here. Help me.”

The Beast made of shadow and light thought for a moment as the girl called for her, called her by an ancient name. Begging for her.

The horned one heard her call and granted the girl’s wish. Blood poured from between the girl’s legs washing away the future she had seen. The Beast’s kindness done she disappeared, searching for something else to nurse, there would be nothing for her there, ever again.

Bootsie’s belly had grown, swollen and huge, the skin so tight it looked like it would rip. Far larger than she should be for three weeks but it was not a baby that she carried.

She could feel it, digging its claws into her, fighting for a way out. It didn’t mean to hurt her but that was its nature. Not a baby, just a channel for the Man With No Face and she just a host.

They were not people, just a means to an end.

The Man With No Face patted her swollen middle. His suit, blinding white in the half darkness, the glow from the static on the set illuminating her belly where something pushed against the walls of her womb.

“Not long now, Bootsie, you’ve done so well! We are really impressed. If you survive this one we may even use you again,” he said nodding in the half darkness.

No, she thought as she shuddered in pain as the thing twisted in her womb. She knew how to ask now, how to keep it from happening.

“It’s time to go to sleep. You have been much better than your mother. You’re perfect but then,” his voice wistful, “she was perfect too.”

Bootsie didn’t question it. The static turned to waves against her mind and she drifted, down, down, down.

No more awake, only that deep dark space that wasn’t sleep anymore than what she carried was a baby but there was not another word for it. She rolled through dreams that were not dreams, tumbling from one memory to the next pain chasing her like howling dogs at her heels. She bore witness to the dark history of her, the Beast, the Goddess and all the poor worshipers sacrificed to her cult, just like Bootsie. Just like her mother.

Bootsie eyes shot open in the light of the TV. Covered in sweat, her body was bare, naked. She felt between her legs, her fingers came back covered in liquid, thick and sticky but not blood. It pooled on her bed. She thrust her palms into it and struggled off the bed. Her belly was pulsing in pain, the contractions steady but distant.

She pressed her birth covered hands to the screen. The static replaced by the soft waves of a river. A dark, impassable body.  The Man With No Face needed her because he couldn’t pay the price. The price for passage was a birth. Any birth. Fully formed or not, the Beast saw them all the same. Forced or given its own time. To begin a life or to end one before it started. That was the only price the Beast required.

No ferryman met her. Maybe the Man With No Face is the ferryman she thought numbly as the water rose from the screen and swallowed her whole, splashing over her laboring body, dragging her into the world of the Beast.

The river took her. There were no hands here, only the power of the current that pulled her along from her world into the next one. The Beast wouldn’t come to her, instead she drew Bootsie to her.

The current slowed and she washed onto the shore, coughing black water. She pulled her heavy body up and looked around.

The world on the other side was black and white mingled with gray shadows. Trees grew twisted and tall, their white leafless branches bore strange fruit, pale and heavy as they reached into the pitch black sky.

Bootsie walked to one tree, her body dripping a trail like a snail. She reached, touching the tree’s offering. The flesh of the fruit, soft and warm against her fingers, broke easily, dripping thick, milky juice.

Her feet led her over the twisted roots of the black and white forest. She could feel movement, just outside of what she could see in the fruit heavy branches. The sound of it coming to her in chattering and barks. Something, many things, alive and wild in its depths.

Her body moved forward, following its own path, picking through the trees nimbly despite her awkward shape. Her body knew things that her mind did not. She had only to trust it as it passed through the forest, her belly dully contracting.

The skeleton trees ended as she passed into a clearing, dazzled by the mistress of the forest before her.

Bootsie saw many things as she witnessed the Beast, the Goddess. In the awesome splendor of the Beast Herself, Bootsie’s mind grabbed and held what shapes and forms it could make sense of in the twisting splendor of the Divine. Great horns adorned her head. She was massive with many heavy breasts over an impossibly swollen belly.  Her legs were spread, revealing something that seemed close to Bootsie’s own sex, red and wet with birth. What could be called her face turned to the ink sky, the terrible gash in it, like a mouth, open and panting as she pushed.

She moved, shifting, and squatted on cloven feet, growling and panting, staring at the ground as her young poured from her, its head dropping and then the rest of it sliding from her, still wrapped in its sack, a bloody pile.

She stepped back delicately, her belly still swollen, her tits dripping a sea of milk. The sack moved, twisting as the thing inside pushed against it.

Bootsie stepped forward to help, but stopped. Her body knew that it was wrong and in this place, the body ruled.

The thing on the dry, gray grass pressed against the sides of its prison and gripping it in sharp teeth broke through, devouring its birth, swallowing its cord. The thing the Beast had birthed was many eyed, six legged, with wet fur matted from the waters of the womb. It paid no attention to its mother. Her work done, she sat back with her knees up, her sex exposed still wet and red from the last, ready for the next.

The creature she had pushed into the world stood and dashed into the woods that would protect him, raise him wild. He would mate with his sisters but it wouldn’t matter. Only the Beast could birth in these woods. Only the Beast and those aspects of herself that had wandered back. Paid the price and returned.

Bootsie called her name, the Beast’s true name that scratched and itched at the back of her mind from some ancient genetic memory.

“They’re looking for you,” Bootsie said as the deity took her in, her eyes like stars set in a face too like Bootsie’s own. “The Man With No Face. Them. They’re looking for you.”

The Beast with an ancient name laughed, the sound shot through with the pain of the coming birth. Close, but not time yet.

Her words were the whisper of dry leaves on the wind, “They cannot come here. They cannot pay the price.”

“I left a trail,” Bootsie said shaken, awed before the goddess.

“A trail of leaving. The water only flows one way. You have come to pay alms,” the Beast said running her hands over her breasts and sex, “You’ve come to worship my glory with your sacrifice.”

Bootsie nodded as her womb tightened, the pain closer. Time now. The dance she had started with the Man With No Face would be complete.

Her belly rippled with the coming birth. The thing that was not a baby fighting to get out. She squatted as the goddess had done. Her face drenched in sweat, her breast dripping the pre-milk, full of fat, running rivers from her nipples.

Her womb contracted on its own, there was only the need to push. Her body moved of its own volition, dropping to all fours. She pushed as her uterus tightened, trying to force out the thing they had got on her.

She reached between her legs, feeling herself open and stretch, the soft pate of the thing coming through. She had no breath to scream, only to labor, to bear down, to push it from her body.

It, the thing that was not a baby was dropping from her. Its head filling her palm, she moved her hand away and pushed again, her strength failing. Then there was a release as it fell from her, a wet plop on the dry grass. She fell back, her knees up, no grace in her movements. She did not dance in pain and joy.

The work not done, the thing still connected to her by the pulsing white cord that lead back to the part that fed it, housed it, grew it from seed to this thing, red and thrashing on the ground.

She bore down again and birthed the organ that had grown around the thing. Its job done, it sat on the grass, useless.

Bootsie breathed hard, relieved to still be alive, her purpose served. The thing struggled in its sack. Not like the one the deity had dropped. She could feel the ancient eyes on her as she moved to pick up the thing on the ground that wasn’t a baby.

She poked it, pressing her nail through the membrane, breaking it and digging in her fingers to reveal its face, like her own. It let out a cry, piercing the world with its sound, its tongue small and pink in its toothless mouth.

She shushed it and pulled the membrane back further until its body, a mass of tentacles that reached for her body, s