Short Story: Track 01

1.

I watched her change.

It was slow, at first.  These things are always like that: achingly slow and then all at once.

It started when we found the CD in the backyard.

It was the first house we’d ever really lived in.  We were squatters, before that.  I mean, there’s enough abandoned footage in Oceanrest that I don’t really consider it a crime, and it’s no secret the economy’s eating everyone’s money and shitting it out in China or wherever, but, yeah, we were squatters.

But I got a job at a gross hole-in-the-wall bar downtown and she started doing paid drug testing for non-FDA approved cocktails at Winters-Armitage Labs.  We didn’t make much, but we made enough where we didn’t have to curl up shivering in a bunch of stolen blankets every winter.  We made enough to live in a place with real working electricity and gas and not have to worry about another squatter stumbling in on us in a bad mood.

We rented part of a house.  Not an abandoned one–a real one, by the edge of town, with a backyard.  And the third day we were there, we took a walk through the grass toward old Lafayette Street, thinking we could head down to the hollow carcass of our old hallowed homestead, and we found a box.  Just a box.  A box that could’ve been any other box in the world until we opened it.

But we opened it and found the CD.

That’s all that was there.  Just a CD in a little blue jewel case.

‘This is for you,’ black marker promised along the curved edge of the disc—where people used to write band names or mix names or the name of their crush with little hearts around it.

‘This is for you.’

We didn’t own a CD player, but we were curious.  I liked to imagine that it was a sacred relic.  That it was someone’s love letter to someone else.  Another girl like me, nervous about liking another girl like Lee, put a mix together on her old 2001 computer and burned it to an old 2001 CD-R and wrote a little message on it, trying to keep her handwriting steady and androgynous, and then handed it over after class with all the racket in her head cranked up to 11.  That’s what I liked to imagine.

And it is a love note, in a way.

To us from…from whatever It is.

 

2.

When Lee wanted something, she had her ways of getting it.  It was a skill she’d developed through two and a half years of heroin spiral, scamming and conning her way all the way to the bottom.

She came home one day holding a CD player and headphones, smiling widely.  She didn’t have a beautiful smile.  We aren’t beautiful women…three years of being homeless will do that to you.  But even though her teeth were worn and maybe smaller than they should’ve been, I liked her smile.  It made me happy.  And Lee, well, she didn’t smile very often.  Three years of being homeless will do that, too.

But that day, she flew into our apartment like a bee.  Buzz buzz.  I was still eating breakfast, cold cereal with water poured on it and instant coffee, and as soon as I saw her jumping up and down (oversized sweater, wiry black hair like a pot scrubber, green hazel eyes shining for the first time in weeks), I burst out laughing.  I dug the CD out of the underwear drawer (spent my first paycheck on clean underwear instead of food, figures) and we sat on the floor and took turns listening to it.

Lee put on the headphones, first.  She hit play and watched the digital read-out.  A few seconds passed.  Her face dropped.  The buzz-buzz left her eyes and she started hitting other buttons along the edge of the player.  She turned the volume all the way up.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“Dunno,” she shrugged.  “Don’t think it’s got…”

I waited for her to finish her sentence, but she didn’t.  She just stared off.  Her eyes made me think of the real crazy ones, the guys we ran into while squatting who just weren’t home, who wouldn’t notice even if we took the sweaters off their backs.  She turned toward me.  I felt like she could see my molecules moving.

“Come on, knock it off.”

Her lips opened a little, the way they do when she’s turned on, and a small, quiet groan came out.  I don’t know why, but it made me angry.  The way the sound felt when it came out of her dead-eyed face, it made me really, really angry.  So I reached over and grabbed the things off her head—and as soon as they were off, I wasn’t angry, anymore, like it was a need I’d fulfilled.

She closed her mouth and focused her eyes on me.  “You gotta hear it.”

The tone of voice people use when they’re trying to sell you heroin…

But out of her mouth, I believed it.

I put the headphones on and started the CD from the beginning.  The volume was so high I could hear the hiss of the silence.  I think maybe that’s why they wrote the Devil as a snake in the beginning: the sibilance of deep, unrelenting quiet.  I reached for the CD player to skip the track, but Lee grabbed my hand.  She shook her head, eyes wide and serious.

That’s when I heard it: something under the silence, around it.

And somehow, as soon as I noticed it, I noticed everything else.  I could feel every inch of skin on Lee’s body, every inch, knowing she’d showered for the first time in days and knowing how deep the pores in her face drilled down.  I could feel her thoughts pushing out against the cage of her skull.  I felt a fantasy she had about killing her dad.  I felt the way his blood would feel on her small hands, the way it would pulse out of him, weak and weaker with every dying beat of his heart.

I felt the skin of the world like Lee’s skin.  Stone and dirt and magma and pores that drilled all the way down, cavern systems full of undiscovered dead, their decaying ghosts pushing up against the rocks like thoughts against the bones of Lee’s skull.  I felt the earth dream.  Or I felt things inside the earth dream.  I felt shapeless fantasies rippling through black space.

And then it wasn’t just feeling, it was being, and knowing, and…

Watching molecules split and organisms self-replicate and stitch themselves together, creating life, creating Sisyphus, Sisyphean consciousness, self-awareness, thousands of molecules dreaming at the same time, Sisyphus the All-Father, protons and electrons all dreaming at the same time, and all humans all dreaming, telling each other dreams like stories, inventing Sisyphus, pushing our rocks uphill, dreaming that one day we’ll be at the top…

Then I heard Its voice.  I don’t remember what It said, that time, or if It said anything at all.  I just remember hearing It.

The voice under the silence, its mouth breathing into my ear around the silence.

That voice.

It sounded like the whispering voices of Hiroshima ghosts.  Like gas pouring out of shower heads.  It tasted like non-FDA approved drug cocktails and chemical sweetener.  It felt like oil and radiation poisoning and cancer creeping through my bones.  It was a vile thing that happens, that just happens, and nobody ever finds out why, even if they spend the rest of their Sisyphus lives looking for answers.

Lee pulled the headphones off my head.

I got up off the floor.

“You were screaming,” she whispered.

 

3.

I threw the CD away.  After I got back from bartending, a pocketful of cash tips and a gut full of brandy, I plucked it out of the CD player and dropped it in the trash bin.  I slumped into bed with Lee and curled up around her.  She stirred, turning her body toward me.  Her lips parted, just slightly, and she reached her hand up and wreathed my hair with her fingers.  She made that sound, that whisper of a moan, and I kissed her.  She kissed back ravenous, her body grinding against mine.  Her hands grabbed me, squeezed me, sent shivers through my skin.  She threw me onto my back, always stronger than she looked, and straddled me.  In the near-black dark, she was a statue towering overhead, smooth stone eating moonlight.

It was dawn before I fell asleep, sweaty and hot even in autumn, my brain floating in a sea of serotonin and oxytocin.

She was gone when I woke up, off to report to whatever doctors handled her drugs.  I pulled myself out of bed still high, brain soaked in enough orgiastic chemistry to keep my hangover on mute.  I sat on the edge of the mattress reminiscing about the night before and took the time to dose myself another orgasm before breakfast.

I ate cold cereal with water and drank instant coffee.  I fantasized about having enough money to stock up on real food.  I remembered having a pantry when I was a kid…it seemed like a nice idea.

I didn’t notice she’d plucked the CD out of the garbage bin.

That night at work, things were weird.  It’s hard to explain.  A kid came in to make an order and I could tell from the texture of the skin on the back of his hand that his ID was fake.  A man ordered a drink and I could smell on his breath that he wanted to fuck me.  It wasn’t his tone of voice or the way his eyes touched me like tongues, it was the scent that belched out of him when he opened his mouth.  I knew.

The whole night was like that, one customer after another.  They wore their secrets like too much cologne; they reeked of their hidden histories.

When I got home that night, I found Lee still awake, sitting cross-legged on the bed in the dark.  The moonlight stole in through the window and kissed her skin like a secret lover.  I stopped in the doorway.

“You’re still up?”

Her head snapped around.  “Huh?  Oh.  Yeah.  What time is it?”

“Almost four-thirty.”

“Oh.”

And she rose from the bed smooth and fluid, came to the door, and kissed me, hungry.

The days played out like that for a while.  I came home from work and she’d still be awake, sitting on the bed, staring into space, grabbing me like she’d never felt human skin before…or she’d be sleeping, curled fetal in the sheets with her lips moan-parted, waiting.  I thought it was the new place, the excitement to have our own roof, the closeness of the room…I never stopped to open the CD player she kept on the floor under the foot of the bed.

Never opened it.  Never saw the disc still inside, stolen from the garbage bin.

‘This is for you.’

Never knew what she was putting in her ears.

 

4.

One morning I found her side of the mattress coated in pale flakes, bits of dry skin and dander, white flecks like maggots in the sheets—and they smelled.  They smelled like her, but stronger, as quintessence, as a perfume made from the oils of her skin.  I brushed them onto the floor and swept the whole mess up into the bin.  I sat there staring at the bed, afterwards, wondering what the hell they were.

This would’ve been a little over a month after we found the CD.

By then, I’d stopped feeling those weird sensations at work.  I’d stopped with the synesthesia and the oily, visceral insights.  I could still remember the voice, but only in my nightmares and just after I’d woken up.  So I didn’t make the connection.

I asked her about it that night.

“Yeah,” she said, statue-still in the dark, still awake at 4:00 AM, “the doctors told me about that…new drugs they’re testing for bipolar.  Said that might happen.  A severe kinda side effect.  Said I should stop taking them if it happens.”

“So you’re gonna stop?”

She hesitated.

I repeated myself: “You’re gonna stop.”

She rose from the bed like a mantis unfolding.  “I don’t know what they’ll put me on, after.  Don’t know if they’ll even have anything else.”

“There are other jobs.”

She got close to me, close enough for me to see her small, worn smile in the moonlight.  “There really aren’t.  Not for people like us.”

“Can you see if they’ve got…something, at least?”

Her arms fell around my neck and pulled me in.  She pressed her forehead against mine, her breath saccharine as aspartame, “I’ll ask.   Kiss me.”

I did.  She bit my lower lip, just hard enough to arouse a small, shivering moan from the back of my throat.  I grabbed the back of her head, felt her hair suddenly smooth, commercial smooth.  Her skin, too, when her clothes came off, smooth as lacquered pearl.  So smooth my fingers just rolled off of her.

The next day there were more flakes.  Not as many, but enough to put me on edge.

The flaking went on for about a week.  Less of it every time.  And she started to look different.  Her lips reddened, her skin glowed; all the dry, sallow color of her drug-drained complexion turned radiant.  Her hair, I already mentioned.  She still didn’t smile much, her teeth small and discolored, but the rest of her looked better than ever.  Healthy.  Happy.  And every time I brushed the flakes into the garbage I paused and turned it over in my head.  New drugs they’re testing for bipolar.  I should’ve known.

 

5.

“They switched me to something else,” two weeks later.

“What?”

“Something new.  Dunno what it’s for.”

“They didn’t tell you?”

She shook her head, wearing her hair loose, now, velvet sheen flickering around her jawline.  It glowed like it ate light.  “Said it was some kinda triple-blind study, which I never heard of, but…real small group of people.”

“Sounds like bullshit.”

She nodded.  “Probably.  Say we’re doing a 30-day test and then we gotta decide if we’re gonna opt-in.”

“Opt into what?”

“In-patient stuff.  It’s like that.”

“I don’t like the sound of it.”

“Me, neither, but…”

She turned her head and stared wistfully out our bedroom window.  Her small teeth rested against her lower lip and pressed in.  A sound followed, somewhere between sigh and moan, and she tilted her head as if trying to hear something through the walls.

“But what?” I asked.

“I’ll show you.  I don’t think you can understand unless I show you.”

 

6.

She tasted like everything I ever wanted to eat.  The tree of carnal knowledge.

Straddling my face, she looked like a statue, skin pure pearl.

When she pulled away she kissed me, hungry as ever and greedy, trying to eat herself off of me.  Her fingers rolled over my skin and came to rest between my legs.  Her touch was the vibrator of the Gods, Aphrodite’s Olympic Lust.  I gasped, mouth wide, shuddering in whispered moans.  I bucked and she met my motions.  I collapsed limp, relaxed down to the bone, the wettest definition of serenity.

After, she rolled over and fished a baggie out of her discarded pants.  Five pills like beads of black opal lined the bottom.  There were things more important than cuddling.

“What’s that?” my voice airy with oxytocin.

“New pills.  Stole some while the doc wasn’t looking.”

“What are they?”

She cupped one in the palm of her hand, “You have to try it.”

That heroin-dealer voice, offering the first dose for free.

But out of her mouth…

It went down like a gel cap, smooth and easy.  She took one, too, and told me to lie back down on the bed and close my eyes.  She said it was unlike any drug she’d ever taken, prescription or otherwise.  She was right.

It was similar to the CD.  The breadth of it.  When it hit, the initial buzz a touch softer than speed, I could feel the earth hurtling through space.  I could feel the skin of the world shiver.  I heard the sibilance in silence.  I felt like I had been given private access to a secret frequency and I was tuned in to the song of the universe.

In every breath I felt alive.  I could feel my lungs expand to fit a million possible futures, eat them up in the form of oxygen, and exhale the path I was on.  I could feel potential energy pulse in my veins.  I could feel the impossible weight of sitting at an intersection, wondering which way to turn.

I was so caught up in the initial rush of it, the inaudible bassline of the cosmos, I didn’t notice Lee put the headphones on my head.

Until I heard It.

There weren’t any words, at first—it was just a sensation, a sound, something like a dream throbbing between my ears.  I felt all my insides wet and slippery.  I heard the magnified noise of a thousand hearts beating in tandem.  I felt my skin shift and dry, the beginnings of my personal chrysalis.

When It spoke, I felt it more than I heard it.  It hummed in my rib cage and resonated up the bones in my legs.  The pieces of my skull jittered and vibrated.  “Do you want to change yourself?  Do you want to change the world?  What do you want?  What do you really want?”

I pulled the headphones off and jerked up, sitting on the edge of the bed.  A thin lacquer of sweat varnished my skin.  Lee stood across from me, still naked, watching.  Observing.  I climbed off the mattress.

“I threw it away.”

Lee shook her head, “You heard It.”

The drug was still thick in my veins, telling me secrets in the waver of her voice.  “You listen to it all the time.”

“Doesn’t it feel good?”

It did.  It felt amazing.

But: “Why do you have that?  How?”

Something flashed behind her eyes, like a snake squirming against the side of its tank.  “I saved it.  What’s so wrong about that?”

“Whatever this is,” I picked the CD player up off the bed, “we shouldn’t have it.”

“Why not?”

The question stopped me dead in my tracks.  Why not?  I stood holding the CD player for a long time, feeling the earth breathe beneath me.  “It’s dangerous,” I finally said, “something like this, whatever it is, is dangerous.”

She crossed the room to me and put her hand on my hand on the CD player.  Her skin melted with mine, molecules rubbing against each other, flesh comingling with flesh, dreams comingling with dreams.  But hers were different, somehow.  She squeezed my hand and I felt all of her thoughts roaring inside of her.  She was so much bigger on the inside, so much more powerful.

“It’s for us,” she whispered, lips trembling against my ear.

I let her guide me back to bed.

 

7.

That night at work, I felt cockroaches breeding in the walls.

The customers made their usual orders and tongued me with their everyday eyes.

Lee listened to the CD, the self-help love note from God or the universe or the hungry mouth at the bottom of a black hole.

 

8.

I came home to find the bathroom door shut and locked.  I could hear Lee behind it, sounding like she was hunched over the toilet bowl, retching.

“You okay?”

“Fine,” she choked out, voice ragged through the door.  She coughed and I heard something drop into the toilet water, small and light.

“What’s going on in there?”

The sound, again, a drop in a bucket.  “I’m fine.”

I knocked, louder this time, “It doesn’t sound good.”

“I said I’m fine!” her voice echoed in the porcelain.

She was lying, of course–I could feel it crawling on my skin like an insect.  I stared at the door.  I thought, for a split second, about putting my shoulder to it, breaking it open and storming in…but if she wanted to hunch over the toilet and suffer in secret, that was fine.  “Let me know if you need anything,” I said, not meaning it, a little heat in my voice to let her know.

She didn’t answer.

I went looking for the CD player.

It wasn’t hard to find: I could hear it singing for me.

Singing such sweet songs, the choir of the infinite cosmos.  I could feel myself get close to it, feel the magnetic crackle between the CD and my skin, the force of universal attraction, all the way down to my electrons and protons all spooning each other, dreaming.  I took a deep breath and grabbed it off the floor.  I felt the earth spin beneath me as I stomped back out through the foyer and into the garage.  It wasn’t enough to throw it away, that much was clear.  I had to destroy it.

The garage was stocked with tools the last tenant left behind, old wrenches and hammers rusted orange with age.  I grabbed one of the hammers and set the CD player on the ground, the cool calm cement floor.  I sat in front of it and lifted the hammer over my head.

But I didn’t bring it back down.  I stared at the device and felt it leach away my anger, felt it like arms wrapped around me, like breath on the back of my ear whispering sweet nothings.  It was my infinite black tar mainline.  I set the hammer back down and touched the headphones with my fingertips, feeling them want me.

I put them on.

 

9.

Weird dreams, that night.  I don’t remember how I got to bed, but I remember the dreams.

I felt something growing inside of me.  Not like a baby where it’s all in one place, a cellular clutch expanding in the uterus, but like a fungus where it spreads across the whole surface.  In my guts, under my fingernails, between the layers of my skin–I felt it growing.  It itched.  And I was so hungry I thought I could eat the world.  I thought I could eat the neutrons out of atoms and the sunlight out of the air.

Lying down in our backyard, where we found the CD, I stared up at the dream’s sky: Lee’s eye.  I could see the veined imperfections of her iris, her pupil a black hole pinned overhead.  She stared back down at me.  I could feel her dreams running beneath mine, pressing up from the soil like flowers blooming.

I gave birth on the grass.

It tore itself out of my torso, stretching out my skin until I burst open.  It came from me like the guts of an overripe fruit.  Its placenta was my viscera.  And as it lifted its head, wet and glistening in my blood, I realized it was me.  I’d given birth to another version of myself, and as Lee’s eye opened up and poured rain from the heavens, I realized it was a better version.

When the rain cleaned the blood off, I saw she was perfect.  Her skin glowed like a magazine ad and all her teeth were white and straight.  She’d never had an amphetamine problem.  She was soft and smooth as a newborn should be, unflawed by all my bad decisions.  She leaned over my opened ribcage and smiled at me with full, curved lips.  “Don’t you want to change your life?  Don’t you want to change the world?”

I nodded, lost in my own new eyes.

“I can make all your dreams come true.  I can give you anything you want.  What do you want?”

I don’t know what my answer was.  I woke up to birdsong outside our bedroom window.

I felt like I hadn’t slept a wink.

Lee was already gone.  She’d taken the CD player with her and left a note in its place, held to the floor by a half-full coffee mug.  It read: ‘I’ll be back in a few days.  Taking a trip to clear my mind.’

I read it to myself a dozen times, thinking there was a secret message hidden in the English glyphs.  I left it at the foot of the bed and walked to the bathroom.

The little black gel pills sat on the corner of the sink in their plastic baggie.  There were three left, set aside just for me.  I picked them up and held them to the light, trying to see through the smooth sheath to the ink inside.  Maybe I saw something twitch.  Maybe it was a trick of the light.

I brushed my teeth, examining them in the mirror.  They weren’t magazine-ready.

I froze before I sat down on the toilet.  I saw something at the bottom of the bowl, a small pale chiclet by the drain.  One of Lee’s discolored teeth.  A cold flash pulsed through me.  I reached into the water and took it out, turning the bone over between my fingers.  I dropped it back in and listened to the familiar plunk.

The sound made me shiver.

 

10.

I swam through the next week.  I couldn’t get the dream out of my head, the way it felt so real…it felt like I was awake when I was dreaming and dreaming when I was awake.  The dream world was the real one.  My job at the bar eyefucked by middle aged men scraping the bottom of the vanishing job market was a fiction.  Real life happened under a sky made of other people’s eyes, pregnant with a better version of myself.

I would wake up sometimes from weird dreams feeling like I hadn’t slept at all, that I’d been awake through the whole thing, and I’d go through the day feeling like I was dreaming, asleep, turned off in some important way.

Until one dawn after trudging home from another day behind the bar, double-dosed on self-medication, I took one of the little black beauties waiting at the bottom of Lee’s Ziploc.

I understood, then.  The dream was an offering, a half-finished question from something bigger than me, bigger than Oceanrest, something squirming in our bones and in the skin of the world.  Something beating in our hearts and singing in the background radiation of the universe.  I can make your dreams come true.  The CD was a love note, a mix assembled by the yawning darkness itself.  God, if you will.  Or the Devil.  Burning stars and hungry black holes and Sisyphus organisms eating each other at the bottom of the Mariana Trench.

Lee had known from the start, from Track 01, something inside of her recognizing what the silence was saying.

The note she’d left in place of the missing CD player was her reply.  It wasn’t just jotted off to let me know she was gone and she’d be back, it was her response to the CD’s call.  ‘This is for you,’ ‘I love you, too.’

I wanted the CD player back the same way a junkie wants a cheap fix, even after she’s gone from China white to black tar, even after she’s ended up on the street.  Even after I find her one night sobbing because she scammed her mother’s laptop for $200 and she can’t go back home.

 

11.

Another month passed and the world started to feel normal, again.  Sleep started to feel like sleep and the job felt like the job and I was taking deep breaths and being grateful to have a roof over my head that I paid for with real money.  I started to feel okay without the CD player, without the silence whispering to me.  Started to feel like it had all been a nightmare to begin with…but it wasn’t over, yet.

I woke up sometime between midnight and dawn, pitch-black room silhouetted by waning moonlight.  I sat up in bed, not sure if I was awake or dreaming, and squinted into the darkness.  I could feel something in the room with me, something magnetic calling out to all my cells.  “Hello?”

“Hey,” Lee replied.  She was at the foot of the bed, a shadow in shadows.  When she smiled, her bright white teeth, full and straight, caught all the moonlight in the room.  She became a Cheshire grin hanging in the darkness.

“What’s…what’s going on?”

“I wanted to see you, again.”

“What?”

She climbed onto the mattress, slow and graceful.  “I have to go away for a while.  Not too long, but a couple of months.  I want you to come with me.”

“We just moved in.”

Her hands found my body, her smooth, gentle fingers, her unworn palms.  “Just for a while,” she whispered, smile glowing.  “We can always come back later.”

“Let’s talk about it in the morning,” nervous and happy at the same time, not wanting to dive in but not wanting to back out either.  “Okay?”

She straddled me and I felt her lips press against my neck.  The kiss tickled, followed by a gentle bite: her new, perfect teeth pressed into my skin.  I groaned.  Her lips moved up, following the curve of my neck to my jawline and then my mouth.  A hunger opened up inside me, in my chest and my abdomen and inside the walls of my pelvis.  My body was a black hole and she was the burning core of a massive star.

The cool body of the CD player pressed against my breast, just over my heart.  “If you want to, you’ll find me.”

She climbed off me, standing next to the mattress.  She was a monument, a statue lapping up all the light, sacred with gravity.  She was the same, but different.

“I love you,” I muttered, body shivering with anticipation and hunger.  So much hunger.

“I love you, too.”

And she left.

 

12.

That was two weeks ago.

I woke up the next morning thinking it might have been a dream, but the CD player was there.  It came open during the night, lips spread to reveal its silver tongue, the words ‘This is for you’ scrawled on it in genderless handwriting.  I thought I would listen to it after work, thought I’d feed that hunger in me with it.

Except, that night, I heard about what happened to Lee’s dad.

His house had burned down–something electrical, ostensibly electrical.  They had to identify his body through dental records.  How had he burned to death in the kitchen?  Shouldn’t he have smelled the smoke, heard the flames snickering as they tore his home apart?  Of course.  And if there’d been anything left of his body, I’m sure they would’ve found a knife wound, a mean gash like a middle finger starting at his diaphragm and pushing up between his lungs.

I’m sure because I know what it would be like to feel his life pulse away over my hands, Lee’s hands, as his heart chokes through its last ragged humps.

I went home and stared at the CD winking at me between those electronic lips.  I remembered the first time I heard the voice, not the smiling promise of the dreams to come but the first time.  It was the voice of holocausts and nuclear ashes, cancer growth and heroin sizzling in a spoon.  Artificial sweetness: I can make your dreams come true.

I shivered.

I put the CD player in the garage.  I couldn’t bring myself to smash it, not with the CD inside, but I could stow it somewhere, hide it from myself.  I locked the garage door and crawled back to bed, staring out the bedroom window at the sunrise.  I ground my teeth like the addict I used to be and thought about the pills still lying on the edge of the sink, beads of black opal humming the secret frequency of the universe.  I thought about the CD, the voice of the unspoken word.

I thought about Lee and her new skin and her new teeth and all that power pulsing inside of her.  About the way she kissed me while she was listening to the CD all the time, like she was starving for it, like I was a feast she’d been eyeing her entire life.  I thought about the hunger inside of me, gnawing emptiness in more than just my cunt, more than my guts and my mouth and everything else.  A hunger on a different level.

I went to the pantry, now fully stocked, and stared at the food.  I didn’t want any of it.  I still don’t.

I haven’t slept much.  I wake up, I go to work, I come back home, and I pace between the garage and the bedroom and stare, stare, stare at the door to the garage.  I know what’s on the other side.  I know what it can do.  I’ve seen it in the skin flakes covering my bedsheets, seen it floating yellowed and small by the drain of the toilet bowl.  Felt it in Lee’s darkest fantasies brought to life.

I am so scared.

Not of Lee.  I want Lee to come back.  I want her to touch me with those electric hands, soft and smooth and uncracked, to feel her lips brush against my skin.  No, no, I’m not scared of Lee…

I’m scared that I’m still so hungry.  That I pick up Lee’s magic Ziploc baggie every morning and touch the pills through the plastic and moan.  That I still feel something growing inside of me in my dreams.  That I can unlock the garage door any time I want and just step inside and put the headphones on and hear silence ask me what do you want? and I’m scared of what I’ll answer.

I look at myself in the mirror, the way my skin looks before I put on all the barmaid make-up, pale and sallow, and I want to change.  I hear roaches sing love songs in the walls at work and I want to change.  I feel the bristle of men’s tongues coming through their eyes as I walk past them and I want to change, want to change the whole world, want to see what would happen if the door of the bar got jammed shut and the whole place crumbled to black ashes overnight.  But what would I do if it all really happened?

And there’s something else, too…

That heroin dealer voice only gives you the first sweet nothing for free.  After that, well, Lee knows all about what comes after that, about all the things she stole and all the scams she ran and all the cons and the screams and the sweats and the bad shakes and the anti-addiction meds…

So what does it cost?

If that aspartame voice makes good on all its silent promises, what does it cost?

And how long is it going to be before I find out?

I run my fingers over the body of the CD player.

What do you want?

What if I answer “Everything?”

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The New American Apocalypse, Pt. 16

(The New American Apocalypse

Table of Contents: Part One; Part Two; Part Three; Part Four; Part Five; Part Six; Part Seven; Part Eight; Part Nine; Part Ten; Part Eleven; Part Twelve; Part Thirteen; Part Fourteen; Part Fifteen;

Part Sixteen:…)

 

I run.  I don’t remember for how long.  I also don’t remember in what direction…my natural sense of direction is pretty shit.  I usually rely on my friends to point out the right way to go or, barring that, I try to use streetsigns to orient myself, but the streetsigns are impossible to read in the new darkness of Manhattan, where the only light comes from a photonegative glow wafting up from patches of alien fungus and spots of darkness so deep it seems infinite.  Some of these spots of darkness seem to open up in the middle of the street, where they’ve swallowed everything around them.  Miniature black holes?  Wounds in reality like the one I saw in the fast food joint?  It doesn’t matter.  I avoid the hell out of them in any case and just run, run, run…

I know what we’re all thinking: didn’t I have a job to do?  Am I not, in small part, responsible for this madness?

Well, yes, technically.  But I’ve pointed out many times that courage is not one of my virtues and, having seen what I saw in the fast food joint, I’m in no mood to push my way through the shifting horde of the zed populace in search of even more dangerous enemies.  Though the drugs and booze and the support of my friends and loved ones might have given me a temporary boost of the nerves, these things are no match for the soul-splitting horror of this new American terrain.

Ms. Bradbury was right.  This is indeed a Lovecraft-scale emergency.  And, like most protagonists in H. P.’s old tales, my options seem limited to three choices: (1) flee in terror, (2) lose my mind, or (3) die violently devoured by the darkness around me.

What the hell would you do, if you’re so brave?

Eventually, after so much running that I can barely breathe (I am uncharacteristically fit for a broke writer-type, I’ll have you know), I see a glow in the distance.  This is not the black-purple glow of the great darkness hanging over Manhattan, nor is it the neon-halogen glow buzzing like a bee hive around Times Square.  No, this is a much more normative, natural glow.  Orange and yellow.  I heave a sigh of relief–is this a sign of real humanity?

Ah, to be so young and foolish, again.

I approach cautiously.  I am ill-prepared for confrontation, I’ve now realized, and the single weapon I’ve brought with me seems increasingly useless.  In a world so populated by monsters and possessed by darkness, what the hell am I going to accomplish with a knife?  In the darkness of what I’m hoping is not an eternal night, I roll my eyes at the naivete of my past daylight self.

It’s a bonfire.

No, that doesn’t capture it.  It’s a blaze.  A conflagration.  A whirling inferno reeking of burnt plastic and kerosene.  It burns evil and throws its sinister light across the fierce faces of the cult that revels around it.

I keep my distance.  The stories Anna Bradbury told me make much more sense, now.  Now that I see the Cult of M’Ra first-hand.  Now that I can behold their barbarism with my own two eyes.

The blaze they’ve lit feeds off of pride parade floats and piles of sex dolls.  Used porn magazines provide extra kindling.  There are brutalized effigies mixed in at random– the warped features of Ruth Bader Ginsberg transformed by hungry tongues of fire.  The smell makes me cringe, makes my eyes water and my face burn.

The cultists themselves are naked.  Well, almost naked.  They wear masks.  (As an aside: have you ever wondered what it is about cultists and masks?  Why do these kinds of people always wear facegear?  I’m not trying to imply that there’s latent fetishism among all cultists, but it’s certainly a strange kind of trend, isn’t it?) — in the case of the M’Ra cultists, the masks seem to be of anyone male.  Well, anyone male that Halloween stores carry masks of…Nixon, Bill Clinton, Elvis Presley, etc…though some people seem to have made their own homemade versions, various masculine figures whose identities are thankfully unknown to me.  I recognize a porn star, but I can’t recall his name.

How many of them are there?  It’s hard to tell.  I’m overwhelmed by so much nudity, so many erections and naked male bodies with the words ‘No Homo’ painted across their chests like team names at a sporting event…

They revel madly.  There are songs and more effigies and–are those pinatas?  I believe so.  A dozen of them, at least, with prominent women’s faces applied over the heads.  Anita Sarkeesian?  Taylor Swift?  Amanda Palmer?  Hillary Clinton?  bell hooks? — and more, too many more!  The cultists beat at the pinatas with massive rubber dildos.  Dozens of flopping multi-colored sex toys smash against papier-mache.  What’s inside?  What waits within these sacrificial effigies?  What prize do the cultists seek?

(The irony is also not lost on me that men in Bill Clinton masks are attacking a Hillary Clinton pinata with rubber dildos…but there are more important things to address:)

I am shocked to see that there are women in this cult.  It takes me some time to recognize them, due to their accoutrement.  They wear the same iconic Halloween masks as the men, but also wear body-suits that mimic pregnancy and, below the stuffed bulge of their false fullness, strap-ons of the most realistic variety.  Each of them flagellates herself with…and please, forgive the description…with what I can only think to call a “cat-of-nine-dicks.”

Consider this image, if you will: President Richard Nixon with pendulous breasts hanging over his pregnant belly, his massive veiny cock waving in the air.  Nearby, Elvis Presley attacks an Elizabeth Warren pinata with a double-ended neon-pink dildo.

Such a scene of horror no human is meant to behold!

Why?  Why had I bothered convincing Ms. Bradbury to leave her fortress?  Lightless though it was, at least it was safe shelter.  Out here in this madness, who could possibly survive?

I decide to flee before they notice me.  This, I think, is not so much cowardice as common sense.  A decision I made very early in life not to be beaten to death by sex toy wielding maniacs.

Unfortunately, I fear I paused for too long in surveying the madly reveling cultists before me.

Because when I turn around, I come face-to-face with three Scanners, their camera-lens eyes already focused on me.

“Citizen Hughes, you are under arrest.  Please submit to our will before we are forced to make things extremely unpleasant for you.”

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The New American Apocalypse, Pt. 15

(The New American Apocalypse

Table of Contents: Part One; Part Two; Part Three; Part Four; Part Five; Part Six; Part Seven; Part Eight; Part Nine; Part Ten; Part Eleven; Part Twelve; Part Thirteen; Part FourteenPart Sixteen;

Part Fifteen:…)

I don’t even bother picking up my food.  By the time my wits are back about me, the zombies are moving.  At least they’re shufflers, more Dawn of the Dead than 28 Days Later, at least these drooling fast-food-fed carcasses.  I’m up and over the serving counter before any of them can get a hold of me.  I almost slip on the blood spattered on the floor, but I manage to get a hold of myself before I go tumbling to the ground.

“NO CUSTOMERS IN THE BACK!” the voice from Beyond Reality shudders through my bones but I’m not about to start listening to rules, now, goddamn it, not by a long shot, not with my face still spattered in droplets of the poor cashier’s blood.

A long, purple, spidery appendage swings out from the hole in reality and I duck under it as I haul ass into the kitchen proper.

“STOP HIM!”

“Unions provide collective bargaining abilities to otherwise powerless workers!” I scream in response, shoving my way past the fry cook, whose arms and face are scarred from too many encounters with hot, sputtering oil.

He turns toward me wild-eyed, “Shhh!  Do you know what will happen if It hears you!?”

“Only through unity can the proletariat overcome the accumulated power of the plutocrats!” and I dive out of the way as someone bursts out of the manager’s office with a face full of fangs and six malformed arms sprouting from his/her/its back.  One arm swings at me with a mace (really it’s just a large club with a dozen nails driven through it and what looks to be broken glass superglued to its head, but in the parlance of the story we’ll refer to it as a “mace”) and I barely dodge out of the way.  The manager’s face peels open like a banana to reveal even more teeth lining all of its many-folded visage–I mean just jagged rows of them going all the way down a too-broad throat, just so many teeth you’d never be able to count them–and it emits a terrible shriek.  I clutch my ears at the sound of it and struggle to keep running as my head fills with the image of five thousand fingernails scraping one thousand chalkboards.  I stagger and crash into a stainless steel countertop, rebounding to face the monster head-on (unwillingly.)

“THE CORPORATION BELIEVES IN THE GOOD OF ITS WORKERS!” the Unreality Voice bellows, the basso accompaniment to the Manager’s awful treble.  “THE CORPORATION PROVIDES NECESSARY EMPLOYMENT FOR THE UNEMPLOYED!”

“You are all galley slaves chained to whims of a great darkness!” I backpedal away from the mace-swinging manager, my voice hitting a pitch I haven’t hit since I was six years old.  “Feudal peasants forced to labor under a wage that allows you no mobility and no future!”

The walls shake with the roar of the Monster from Beyond Reality and the screeching wails of its open-faced management underlings.  Where the hell is the back door!?  I spin away from another blow from the Manager and scramble across cracked tile to the very rear of the burger joint, praying to every deity in history to provide me with a waiting alleyway.

Luckily for me, the zed out front seem to be set on the rules.  Since no customers are allowed in the back, the drove of flesh-eating brain-dead half-people remain clustered at the cashier counter, unable or unwilling to pursue me through the kitchen.

See kids?  Breaking the rules just might be your only hope of survival.

The humor of the situation is quickly lost on me, however, as something the size of a pipe hits me in the side with the force of a very small car.  One of the Manager’s over-long limbs strikes me in the ribcage and sends me rolling across the tiled floor.  I can’t tell which limb did the damage (save for knowing it wasn’t the one holding the mace, thank the stars) but it hardly matters since I’m on my back clutching my aching body a half-second later in any case.

I groan and whimper in blind pain, rolling to my side and trying to push myself up.  I can hear the slavering Manager coming for me, and as I rise to my feet I now see tongues protruding between its fanged, banana-peely face, three tongues like stamens sprouting from its throat.  I reach for my man-bag, going for my knife, and I realize it came off during the struggle–my booze, pills, water, and weaponry are all zipped shut in a satchel (and/or murse) about ten feet in the wrong direction, and all I have to fight with are my weak human hands which, let’s cut the bullshit, aren’t going to be very helpful against a mace-wielding monster from another world.

And then: a miracle.

Twin waves of bubbling, sizzling oil crash into the Manager, searing its flesh.  A screech like a swarm of cicadas fills the kitchen as its flesh cooks.  My nose fills with the odious stench: imagine, if you will, a desiccated carcass stuffed with rubber and covered in shit being set suddenly ablaze.  And the gentle undertone of lilac.

I stand stunned for a second, until I see the fry cook panting by his vat.

“You’re a real American hero, you know that?” I say.

“What you were saying, about unions–”

“Yes, yes, of course, you should get to work on that!” I’m already walking past him, collecting my satchel and goods, eyes wandering as close as they can back to that tear in reality as something new starts to force its way through.  “I think if the whole lot of you worked together you could see some real changes around here.”

“You think so?”

“Oh, yeah, definitely.”  I get my bag over my shoulder and unzip it to check my supplies.  The scotch bottle isn’t broken, or is the water bottle, and my pill phials are intact…the knife is in fine condition, though I realize now it’s somewhat smaller than I thought when I first packed it.  I re-zip the man-bag and turn back to the fry cook.  “Where’s the back door?”

“Right over there,” he gestures with his head, his hands holding fry cages.

“Great.  Good luck with the union.”  I can hear the thing slithering out of the Reality Gouge–this one doesn’t have spider-legs, no, this is a different beast entirely, more traditionally Lovecraftian, part-aquatic, tentacled and slimy.  I don’t want to be here when it finishes its entrance.  “Anyway.  Ah.  Cheerio.”

Cheerio?  I’m American goddammit.  But that’s what I say as I rush off toward the back door, leaving the fry cook and his fellow employees behind to deal with whatever dark monstrosity is crawling its terrible way into the world.  Another envoy of the Great Darknesses…or, I guess, just the Middle Management of the Great Darknesses.  Either way, really, I’m out the back door as quickly as I can be, and slamming it shut behind me.

Unions, in this cannibal economy?  Best of luck.  It’s zed-eat-zed out here in Apocalypse County, one loud, awful meatgrinder churning brains into beef, and if the best armament these poor souls can get together is a vat of boiling oil and a few spatulas, well, whatever’s left of their humanity will be gone by the morning.  Eldritch abominations don’t have the best civil rights track record, after all, no matter what kinds of lies they utter behind the dreams of man.

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The New American Apocalypse, Pt. 14

(The New American Apocalypse

Table of Contents: Part One; Part Two; Part Three; Part Four; Part Five; Part Six; Part Seven; Part Eight; Part Nine; Part Ten; Part Eleven; Part Twelve; Part ThirteenPart Fifteen; Part Sixteen;

Part Fourteen:…)

I’m not ashamed to confess: I almost abandoned them.

I stood there at the gate of the glowing pit for a long time and considered running.  I could easily retreat, return to my apartment and call the Beast and say “yes, I’ve decided to join you, now, where shall I go to punch the clock and start work?  And has the girl calmed down enough to speak to me, yet?” and that could’ve been that.

It would’ve been so easy.

But that would only buy me time.  I’m not one of the Beast’s chosen demographic…and I’m about as far off from the Market’s golden ones as a man can get (without being homeless which…which…where the hell are they, after all?).  Eventually, one day, maybe in a week or a year or a decade or half a lifetime, someone would knock on my door and tell me it’s over.  And who the hell would be left to speak for me?

I take a deep breath and turn back to the mass of writhing bodies before me…and I step inside.

The murmurs, their unholy prayers…they make my ears itch:

“For thine is the Big Mac and the Whopper and the Frosty…”
“For thine is the Prada and the Gucci and the Fendi…”
“For thine is…”

This is the way the world ended.
Not with a bang,
but a commercial.

The zombies jitter around like bobbleheads.  They shuffle into and out of stores.  The cannibals pack into steakhouses and chain restaurants.  I can see them through the windows feasting on the dead.  In the Hard Rock Cafe, they dine on the meats of old artists, maybe Jim Morrison’s freezer-frozen flesh.  Later, they’ll shit his artistry into a meat grinder and repackage it as the soundtrack of a car commercial.  Black Polished Chrome, indeed.  You might have missed the point.

I push my way through the crowd.  If you’ve ever been to Times Square on a busy day, you know choice is an illusion.  Trying to maneuver through the shuffling bodies is impossible.  I make it a couple blocks before I’m diverted by the overflow of foot traffic through the nearest set of open glass doors.  Tile floors greet me.  In the harsh fluorescence, it takes some time for me to figure out where I’ve ended up.  A fast food joint.  Behind the counter, dead-eyed people in matching uniforms punch information into a register.  Their skeletal arms twitch and convulse with each motion.  The fingers are worn to the bone.  Several of them have been taking orders for so long that their index fingers are nubbed and bloodied, the nail peeled off.  Behind them, beneath the only unlit bulb, a gouge in reality vibrates.

I won’t go into detail about what a gouge in reality looks like…mostly because I can’t quite remember.  It’s something that, when you try to look directly at it, gives you a searing headache.  It’s something you can never quite look directly at.

I’m herded into one of five separate lines.  I whirl around, looking for the exit, but my sudden movement seems to draw the gaze of several slow-witted zombies.  They groan in my direction, a single rasping phrase: “did you see last night’s episode?” and I realize it’s in my best interest not to attract too much attention.  I nod.  “Yes, it was very good.”  The zombies, in unison, shrug.  “It was okay, I guess,” their hoarse voices chorus.  I shrug.  That seems to end the conversation.

I reach the front of the line and a woman with terrified eyes peers up at me from behind the register.  “How can I help you, today?” she asks.

“I’m still deciding,” I answer, only then looking up at the menu.  Maybe I’m not so different from the zombies, after all.

“Help,” she whispers, her voice a bare rasp under the cacophonous fast food sounds.

“What?”

“Help us,” there’s an urgency in her quiet, a despair.  The touchscreen of her register is smeared with blood.  “They won’t let us take lunch breaks.  They won’t give us a cost-of-living raise.”

“So leave.  Just run.”

She shakes her head.  “They’ll eat my children.”

“Yeah…” I scratch the back of my head, suddenly at a loss for action.  Being grievously outnumbered and coming face-to-face with a rent in reality itself does that to a guy.  “They do do that.”

“Please.”

“You know, I think I’ll just have a chicken wrap and a, uh, a diet soda…”

Her hand jerks forward and jabs at the screen.  A whimper sticks in her throat.  Her eyes glass over with tears.  She swallows.  “Do you…do you want fries with that?”

“FASTER!” a voice bellows from the hole in reality.  “FASTERRRRR.”

“Do you want fries with that!?” she yelps out in response.

“I think I’ll have a coffee?  Are you still doing that $1 promo with the coffees?”

A single tear streaks her face.  She nods.

“NO CRYING!” the voice bellows.  “SERVICE THE CUSTOMER!”

“Please do something,” she whispers.

“Yeah, so, a coffee definitely…no diet soda, I guess, that’s just too much liquid.  I don’t want to have to stop every few minutes and look for a public restroom, not in this environment.  I bet the lines are excruciating.”

“I’m so hungry.”

“NO COMPLAINING!”

I clear my throat.  “So, um.  I don’t know.  Isn’t there a union or something?”

“UNIONS WILL DESTROY THIS REALITY.”

She shivers and doesn’t answer my question.  “That’ll be $4.87, sir.”

“For a chicken wrap and a coffee in this shithole?  You’re kidding me.”

She shakes her head.  More tears are starting to roll down her cheeks.

“WE SAID NO CRYING!”

I’ll admit, I’m starting to feel guilty.  These poor humans…were they even still human?…and did it matter?  Should any creature be made to suffer the way these creatures suffer?  I purse my lips.  What then must we do?  Digging into my pockets, I decide that what I must do is pay for my meal and stay focused on the objective at hand: fixing my own fuckups.  I’m not Ms. Bradbury or Mr. Swift, after all.  I’m not a Save-The-World Type.  So I put a fiver on the counter and nod to her.

She starts sobbing.  “Please, please, please…my children, they need their mother, my children–”

And that’s as far as she gets before the creature comes through the gaping wound of reality.  I can’t see its body, can’t quite focus on the main mass of the thing, except for a massive vertical mouth that is, I swear, almost entirely made of teeth.  But I see the extremities, a dozen limbs like kinked spider legs, thick with cilia and tipped with claws and gaping suckers.  They reach through the gap and latch onto my cashier, digging into her flesh as she sobs and shrieks.  Before I know what’s happening, she’s been hauled back into the rift, sucked through reality itself, into the waiting maw of…of…whatever waits beyond.

Someone puts a paper bag in front of me, presumably loaded with my order.

I don’t notice.

I’m too busy screaming.

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The New American Apocalypse, Pt. 13

(The New American Apocalypse

Table of Contents: Part One; Part Two; Part Three; Part Four; Part Five; Part Six; Part Seven; Part Eight; Part Nine; Part Ten; Part Eleven; Part TwelvePart Fourteen; Part Fifteen; Part Sixteen;

Part Thirteen:…)

The streets are empty.  New York is silent.

This is dead land, this is city land.  Here the gold images are raised, here they receive the supplication of a broker’s hand under the vacuum of a halogen sun.

We keep to the shadows, fugitives in a skyscraper wasteland…except for me.  I’ve been given an out.  I already threw my lot in with the Beast and the Market and all the Devils who’ve crawled out of the bottom of the cracked world.  I could turn around whenever I wanted and pick up my phone and punch in the monster’s own phone number and tell him where we are right now and It might let me off the hook…for a while.  For a while, and then eat me later.  I can’t forget that.  I can’t let myself forget that I’m damned either way.  Once a coward like myself begins to fantasize about making it out in one piece, making it out alive…that’s when he begins to do foolish things…just as Dr. Faustus.

Ms. Bradbury is explaining how it all happened, but I can’t keep focus on her hushed and whispering voice.  I’m distracted by the hollowness of the streets, the echo of wind between skyscrapers, the distant glow of advertising visible from Times Square.  I catch tidbits: “…legalized mass shootings…” and “…registering atheists for advanced surveillance…” and “…M’Ra itself erupting from the heart of America, balls throbbing under corn fields…” but the story itself is lost on me.

The only long weave of the tale I hear: “…last of the free clinics still operating on an old aquatic research vessel off-shore.  The rest are all bombed-out or abandoned.  Before the M’Ra cultists hit Jezebel they tore hell across the country, outfitted pick-up trucks with spike-lined fenders and mounted the skulls of pro-choice activists on horns they stuck to the grilles…”

At some point I rouse myself out of my stunned, dizzied silence to say: “I didn’t vote for this.”

“Pardon me, Mr. Hughes,” somehow I forgot Ballard is still with us, until he speaks, “but if I may…you know what Mr. Swift would have to say on the subject.”

“What?”

“Mr. Swift would say that you did vote for it.  You voted for it by not voting for anything else.”

We all fall silent.  Goddammit.  Mr. Swift would certainly say that and, what’s more, Mr. Swift would be right.  The lot of us never rallied ourselves to the voting booths at the proper moments.  It’s almost a relief to know I’m not the sole proprietor of this foul business.  I might’ve penned the last words on the matter, but there were certainly signs of its coming.  How many of us allowed the opportunities to pass us by?  How many of us elected not to stop it?  Were we so absorbed in our social media feeds and our Reality TV that we forgot we could change them?  Thompson was right: we let them rob the whole store and tear it down and build their own and completely forgot we owned the deed to the property.  We were too distracted to stop them.  Now we’ve got the Apocalypse we so richly deserve…

We head downtown.  None of us say where we’re going, exactly…but we all know.  We know the nature of the city.  We know that whatever doomed us all lies somewhere between 30th and 49th streets, in the glowing heart of all Fear, in the throbbing skyscraper cocks of Advertising and Marketing, in the core of all Lies…the economic Heart of Darkness.

The glow of the place infects the empty streets as we walk.  It gets bright and brighter, and all around it is that purple-black silhouette, the void outline, the Event Horizon of Consumerism.  We aren’t yet able to see the specific details, not yet able to read the coiled text of the neon signs, but we are already warmed by its false-sun glow.

And the sounds!  We hear the sounds minutes before we come upon it.  Mumbling prayers.  Shuffling feet.  A low, threatening hymnal.  Every muscle fiber of my being wants to run in the opposite direction, but Ballard is behind me and Ms. Bradbury is next to me and they would catch me before I got ten feet.

The view: every store is open 24/7, spilling light onto the sidewalks; every neon sign hums with energy, grinning cursive letters down on the braindead populace; every video-billboard plays rapid-fire snippets of sexualized imagery in no particular order, just a chaotic jumble, random frames of porno stitched together by a blind child…below the constant stream of light is an endless circus of the damned.  Zombies and Cannibals and wretched, wretched Monsters.  This place is a small Hell.  Here, hollowed souls shuffle under neon and halogen, hands bound in prayer position, mouths rasping out meaningless slogans as they bow in prostration to Azathoth consumerism.  Overseeing the throbbing pulse of the place, aberrations of reality stand atop columns of broken electronics, their smiles made out of children’s bones.  Their many eyes, hundreds of them, blink like LEDs, and their tentacles drape from them like willow branches tipped with razors.  My mouth falls open.

“How do we get through?” I ask.

A manhole cover scrapes asphalt behind me.  I whirl around to see Anna drop into the darkness below.  Ballard peers up at me with sad eyes.  “I’m sorry, Mr. Hughes.  The Scanners will kill us on sight.  You’re the only one who can make it through the crowd unnoticed.  I’m sorry we had to deceive you like this.  We’ll be waiting on the other side.”

Then he, too, is gone.

The manhole cover grinds back into place.

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The New American Apocalypse, Pt. 12

(The New American Apocalypse

Table of Contents: Part One; Part Two; Part Three; Part Four; Part Five; Part Six; Part Seven; Part Eight; Part Nine; Part Ten; Part ElevenPart Thirteen; Part Fourteen; Part Fifteen; Part Sixteen;

Part Twelve:…)

Mr. Swift drops us off by the bridge crossing Roosevelt Island into Manhattan.  I watch as the Blue Whale passes under streetlights, vanishing in the distance.  Now it is only Anna, myself, and Mr. Ballard…at least for the time.  For a while, we listen to the ululations of the East River, the mumble of its waves.  It sounds hungry.

“Well, then,” Mr. Ballard says.  “Let’s get moving.  Mr. Hughes, if you will…” he gestures for me to begin along the bridge.

“Excuse me?” I scoff.

An uncomfortable beat.

“As our resident Straight White Male, you’ll be in the least danger taking point.”

Son of a bitch, he’s right.

I take a deep breath and plaster a smile on my face that is nowhere near believable.  “Great,” I lie.  “This is wonderful.  Sure.  Why not?  Ms. Bradbury, would you be so kind?”  I offer my arm.  “A woman oughtn’t to be walking around alone, at this time of night, after all.”

She wrinkles her nose at my arm.  “I’ll walk next to you, then.”

“Fine by me.”

The bridge is dead quiet.  There is no traffic, there are no cars.  I head toward Roosevelt Island.

Even from here I can see Times Square.  It glows at any distance, a sun in miniature, a constant burning engine of advertisement and blind, Azathoth consumerism.  It is the only light visible along the Isle of Manhattan.  All else is darkness, or something even darker still.  All along the edges of Times Square’s glow I can see absence, a great vacuum, darker than dark, impossible, a photo-negative reality.  I shiver to look at it.  I avert my eyes, bringing my gaze back to the bridge ahead.  So far, I see no danger.  Well, no immediate danger, at least.

“Do you know how many are left?” I ask.

Behind me, Mr. Ballard’s voice answers: “In Manhattan?  Not many.”

“How fast did it all happen?”

“Very,” Anna chimes in.  “Over days.  The details are still unclear…but something rose up from the sea, something dark and only half-real.  Millions heard its call.  Everything went to hell pretty quick, after that.”

“It devoured the Statue of Liberty immediately,” Mr. Ballard explains.  “The whole of it, gone overnight.”

“Jesus…” I turn my gaze southward but it’s too dark to be sure.  Still, I believe him.  “And we have no allies left in Manhattan?”

“Anyone with half a brain fled.  Brooklyn, Queens, Jersey…and then who knows where else.  The monsters fell on them so quickly they didn’t have time to pack.  The ones that did got on as many boats as possible and fled to the Atlantic…”

“But no one will take them in.” Anna interrupted.

“Right.”  Mr. Ballard cleared his throat.  “Assuming the things beneath the waves haven’t devoured them, already, it’s only a matter of time before they have to come back.”

There is no wind, tonight.  The very air has died.  I’ve never heard the city so quiet…so (and I cringe to use this word to describe my fair city, I cringe to use it to describe any of the five boroughs–cringe, I say!)…so tame.

We pass over Roosevelt Island.  I gaze down at the sprawl of it, dozens of buildings all looking alike…a glimpse of the future?  Good lord.  Imagine it: the same building, cloned, for as far as your eyes can see, each as quiet as the grave.  The tombstones of humanity.  The death of fun.  Zombie eyes watch behind picture windows, dreamless, hypnotized by TV, moving from the rectangles of their offices to the rectangles of their homes.

The bridge slopes down to Manhattan.  There is no graffiti, anymore.  Murals have been pasted over with advertisements.  Street tags have been replaced by brand names.  The three of us descend to 3rd Ave with no traffic fighting us.  White Jesus smiles down on us from a billboard.  The billboard next to him reads: “Could the terrorists be YOUR neighbors?  If you see something, say something.”

No birdsong.  No rolling tires.  No car horns.  No pedestrians, no cabbies, no car services, no tourist SUVs.  No drunk twenty-somethings stumbling down the boulevard.  No bar signs flickering neon.

And a thought that puts my teeth on edge, like I just bit into a hollow copper pipe: …with the exception of my earlier play-acting, my hobo-theatre performances…no homeless people.

None.

Where the hell did they go?

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The New American Apocalypse, Pt. 11

(The New American Apocalypse

Table of Contents: Part One; Part Two; Part Three; Part Four; Part Five; Part Six; Part Seven; Part Eight; Part Nine; Part TenPart Twelve; Part Thirteen; Part Fourteen; Part Fifteen; Part Sixteen;

Part Eleven:…)

Goddammit.  I should’ve seen this coming.  I really should’ve seen this coming.  There are a lot of reasons why, to be honest, ranging from the basics of classic genre story structure to…well, to taking a good hard look at myself and realizing that in my darkest moments, the people I love are the ones I tend to destroy.  But isn’t that true of everyone?  Isn’t that true of all of us?

I clear my throat, aware that the rest of my party of Tarnished Knights is staring at me.  “Um…um, hello?  Yes.  Ah-ha.  Ha.  Excuse me, I think I must have dialed the wrong number, ah-heh, heh, heh…could happen to anyone…”

“But you didn’t,” the Beast replies, its voice so foul it feels like a long, nasty tongue in my ear.  A long nasty tongue attached to a bottomless bank account and a face that would drive someone insane just to look upon.  “You dialed the right number.  You’re looking for the girl, right?  You warned us this would happen.”

“Oh, I did?” my voice ratchets up a whole octave, I swear, and I’m very happy that I didn’t put the call on speakerphone.  “When did I do that?”

Mr. Conrad rolls his eyes, his body following suit–yes, it’s a whole-body eyeroll, an expression of such pure and complete exasperation that your average man will never have to see it.  I see it, myself, merely on a weekly basis.

“Five days ago,” the Beast answers.  Oh, God, it sounds almost as bad as The Market.

“Oh?  Ah-heh.  Five days, well, well, well…” I can feel the first hint that the pill is working, the beginning of a hard-edged buzz under my perception, “You know, I wasn’t really in my right mind, at that time.  My wits were not about me.”

“I beg to differ.  You were smarter, back then.  You knew how to play the game, how to bet the winning horse, so to speak.”

Oh, shit.  Ohshitohshitohshit.  I fucked up.  Man, I fucked up.

Better not to let the others know, right?  Maybe this is something we can keep close to the vest.  Or maybe not.  Maybe this is something I should share.  I don’t know.  I don’t know…

“Well, um, look, is she there, at least?”

“Oh, she’s here, alright,” like being licked by something that could eat me, I swear I could feel its sandpaper tongue grind my face, could feel its breath, the reek of all the bodies it ate….  “She’s not in the mood to talk, right now.  She seems angry with you.  Seems to think you’ve betrayed her trust.  I’m sure she’ll come around after the re-education…”

“The–the what?  Ah, heh, ah, it sounded like you said…”

“Re-education?  Oh, I did.”

I make a sound like a crying animal, which I’ll admit is very embarrassing.

“Don’t worry, Mr. Hughes.  You just remember to bet the winning horse and I’m sure everything will turn out just fine.”

It hangs up and I’m left clutching the phone to my ear, white-knuckled and sweating.  Everyone else stares at me.  I can see the questions behind their eyes.  After a couple seconds I set my phone back down and swallow.  “Well.” I say.

“Well?” Mr. Swift asks.

“Well.” I repeat.

“Oh, stop that,” Anna finishes the last of the scotch in the first bottle and gestures to me with the butt of it.  “What happened?  What did you do?”

“Well, you know the story.  I was reckless with a brilliant woman’s heart, et cetera…had an existential panic about the breadth and length of my life, did something stupid, made someone cry…the usual sort of thing…”

Anna sighs.  She’s heard this story, before.  On more than one occasion.  She even played one of the roles, some time ages and ages whence.  She rolls the empty scotch bottle around in her hand and I think I see her consider hitting me with it, for a second, but she opts not to.  “Well.  We’ll add that to the long list of things you screwed up, these last couple weeks.”

Why did I lie?  Why?  There’s no going back, now, is there?  I could clear my throat, change my story, tell the truth, tell them I’d somehow betrayed this young woman to forces so dark and mad that I can’t fully comprehend them, that I’d not only thrown them and the American Public under the bus but also the girl, for fuck’s sake, that I’d thrown the whole world under the damned bus–yes, I could tell them that, I could, but, but…

As I mentioned, I’m something of a coward.

And, like a coward does, I lied.  Too late to look back, now.

“Anyway,” I continue, feeling the drugs ramping up in my system, feeling the impulse to act scratching at the inside of my skull and at all the muscles running through my body, “tonight we strike out, right?  We begin the Good Fight.  We take to the streets in the Blue Whale and make a run for Justice or something like it.”

“Right,” is the general din of agreement in the room.

“Then let’s get to it!”

We head down the stairs and back to the streets.  The screams have died down, now, and I wonder if the daily slaughter has really reached its end.  Are the Cannibals satiated?  Have they feasted to their fullness on the zombified civilian populace?  How many apartments have changed hands, tonight?  How many converts has the Beast scored?

Mr. Swift opens the doors of the van.  “We’ll have to split up for the first leg, I think.  Some of us will need to head out to connect with whoever’s still running The Feed…Conrad and myself, if I had to choose.”

“And what do the rest of us do?” Ballard asks.

“Well, Spencer will need to head into Manhattan to destroy the Poems of the Apocalypse.”

“He’ll need backup.”

“Right.  You and Anna accompany him.  I’ll take you as far as the river, and then Conrad and I will need to head out…we’ll maintain radio contact whenever possible.”  Mr. Swift, Esq, ushers Mr. Conrad into the passenger seat before opening the sliding door for the rest of us.  “I don’t think I need to remind anyone, but failure is not an option.”

“No it is not,” Ballard agrees.

I nod and smile.  Nod and smile, yeah.

I think about rocks and hard places.

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The New American Apocalypse, Pt. 10

(The New American Apocalypse

Table of Contents: Part One; Part Two; Part Three; Part Four; Part Five; Part Six; Part Seven; Part Eight; Part Nine; Part Eleven; Part Twelve; Part Thirteen; Part Fourteen; Part Fifteen; Part Sixteen;

Part Ten:…)

Mr. Ballard breaks the silence: “We need to unite with whoever remains alive, outside.  Whoever is keeping The Feed running, whoever’s shooting the footage…whoever is still awake and unzombified.”

“We need to rile up the proles,” Mr. Swift adds, “we have to cut off the mind-numbing drugs being pumped through everyone’s eyes and ears.  We have to wake them up.”

“We have to stop the forces of darkness from advancing,” Ms. Bradbury finishes her scotch and punctuates her sentence by placing the empty glass on the tabletop.  “We have to meet them in the field before they swarm us all.”

I nodded.  “Good.  All of that sounds like a very good plan.  I’m glad it’s settled.”

“Just one second,” Mr. Conrad holds up a slender finger and turns his head toward me.  “We also need to destroy the Poems of the Apocalypse.”

“Hmm?  What?  Oh, right.  That.” I clear my throat, my feigned innocence unbought.

“And that,” Conrad continues, “is on your head.”

What did I hope for?  That they forgot?  That I could worm my way out of the action at the last second, that I could retreat to my apartment and barricade the doors and live on canned food until they either won or lost the day?  No.  The conversation was destined to play out this way.  I have to own up to my mistakes.  I have to fix them…a process I’d never been very good at, to be honest.

“Well.  So.  I think we’ll start in the morning?”

They all exchange a long look.  Finally, Mr. Swift nods.  “They’ll all be at work in the morning…that will be our best time to strike out.  We’ll have safe lines of travel and communication in all directions.”

“Except during lunch,” Conrad says.

“Right.  Except during lunch.”

“What if they take an early lunch?” I ask.  “Or a late one?”

“Well…we’ll have safe-er lines of travel and communication, then.”

“Safety’s an illusion I don’t think we can afford to have,” Anna pours herself another scotch and leans back.  “Remember, not every member of the M’Ra cult or every armchair neophyte of the Church of the New American Jesus has a job.”

“I still vote we wait until morning,” I say, “because I, for one, am drunk.”

Which is true.  You try splitting a twenty-ounce bottle of whiskey and another half-liter of scotch and see if you feel like fighting a revolution.  The fact of the matter is neither Anna nor myself are in any position to take up arms against a sea of–sorry, that’s Hamlet–but we’re not in any position to take up arms, I’m sure of that.  And by morning we’ll have at least sobered up enough to understand exactly how grim our situation really is…

“Actually, I’m changing my vote,” I say, “because I, for one, am drunk.”

“Excuse me?” Conrad asks.

“If we wait until we’re all sober, we’ll never do it.  We’ll be too scared.  We’ll turn on The Feed and see the masses of the zombified public praying to enormous, veiny masculinity and we’ll chicken out.  We’ll lock ourselves up and turn off the Feed and turn out all the lights and hide.  Our only chance is to strike while the iron is hot!  To get our rum up and move like we’ve got a purpose!”

“Do you remember what you did the last time you acted on your drunken thoughts?” Mr. Swift plucks the scotch from the table and drinks straight from the bottle.  “Or do we have to remind you?”

“But this is different!  I was by myself, then, depressed, sitting in a dark room with nothing but liquor and a keyboard for company.  Now I’ve got you!  Heroes!  Frontline soldiers in the war against the Great Darknesses!”

“That’s a bit dramatic, isn’t it?” Anna quaffs her drink after the question, eyebrows furrowed at me.

“No,” Mr. Ballard says, “it isn’t.  Mr. Hughes has an excellent point.  Right now we are feeling courageous.  Mr. Swift rammed a cop car with his van not four hours ago.  Mr. Hughes, you mentioned you stared down a Scanner to buy time for Ms. Bradbury to escape?”

“I did,” I say, a little proud of myself.

“Then maybe this is the time!” Mr. Ballard continues, “And what better time than now?  Tomorrow?  The next day?  Next year, next decade, next century?  If we don’t act now, we act never.”

Silence hovers in the air, again.  I can feel something change.  Yes.  Now we’re ready to be heroes.  Now we’re ready to get back out there and defeat the Great American Nightmare, to battle the Darknesses and push them back, to fight off this invasion of all that is just and right in the world.  Now we’re bloody ready!  Hell yes!  We can still change the future!  We can still change the world!

“But first!” I declare, “Another drink.  And, if we’re really serious about this, we’ll need something to keep us lively and awake.  Something to get our nerves steeled and our bodies able.  Something to put us on the very Edge, to keep us sharp and hard even through the blurry courage of liquid heroism…” I gesture to Mr. Swift, “in my handbag there is a bag of pills.  We’ll need one each.”

And this may be one similarity between the mad artists and strident activists of the 50’s and 60’s and those who live today: we really believe we can fix things, we really believe we can make the world a better place, or at least the country, we really believe we can save the day…but we also recognize that we have to be half-crazy and at least slightly high to get away with believing something so obviously insane.  We know the Vegas odds and we’re choosing to blind ourselves against them, to pursue Truth and Justice and Righteousness despite the overwhelming evidence that the whole game is rigged, anyway, because, dammit, we just refuse to give up.

So we each take one of my potent little pills and we finish the first bottle of stolen scotch and we wait for the Need to come upon us, the itching, undeniable desire to get to action and, while we wait, I pick up my phone and announce: “I’m going to call the girl, make sure she survived.”

If you know me, or any other crazed, whiskey-soaked writer type hammering away madly at a keyboard, you know there’s always a girl.  Or a guy, I don’t know, choose your poison.  In my case, girl.

And you might also know, if you’ve read any amount of pulp, hardboiled, noir, or any of the classic genre works, that the girl is usually where things go wrong.

Well…for once on this mad journey, I won’t disappoint you.

Because I pick up my phone and punch in the girl’s number and guess what happens.  Take a wild guess, a shot in the dark.  Throw your bet in on the roulette table and see what comes up.  I’ll give you a second to consider it, but I think we all know way down in our bones way down in the pit of our souls the only way this phone call can go in such a story as this…and that’s with the Bad Guys picking up on the other end, their voices carrying their ugly smirks all the way through the phone line and into my ear.

“Why, hello there, Mr. Hughes,” the Beast says, sounding like money and expensive cigars and thousand-dollar bottles of scotch.  “How nice to hear from you, again.”

And for a second, I think my heart might explode out of my chest.

And I’m a little disappointed when it doesn’t.

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The New American Apocalypse, Pt. 9

(Have you stopped the check out No Reflection and No Grave, yet?  Please do!  You already read them?  Oh, I see.  Well, then…maybe you wanted to write a review?  Please?)

(Also, check out Issue #38 of Sanitarium Magazine, featuring one of my short stories: “A Man Wakes Up Any Morning.”)

(The New American Apocalypse

Table of Contents: Part One; Part Two; Part Three; Part Four; Part Five; Part Six; Part Seven; Part EightPart Ten; Part Eleven; Part Twelve; Part Thirteen; Part Fourteen; Part Fifteen; Part Sixteen;

Part Nine:…)

 

And this is the truth: we’ve always been heading in this direction, since the inception of the nation, a delicate curve of roadway getting tighter and tighter up until now, until it became a spiral, a corkscrew turn downhill into madness, abomination, destruction…death.  And I threw caltrops and oil over the asphalt in front of the car, in front of the half-blind American public squinting through the windshield, and the car lost control.  It spun out, careening in squealing 360s right up until it crashed through the guardrail and plummeted into darkness…and as if all that knowledge isn’t enough, as if knowing now what I know isn’t enough…I also have to accept the knowledge that the public at large, the great mass of the American Republic…don’t care.  That they, for some reason, imagine the car tumbling through darkness into endless cleavage and some aberrant mutations of Truth and Justice nobody in their right minds would recognize.  The truth is, Mr. Swift is right.  I only ever added the straw.  The rest of it, well, we did it to ourselves.  Staring into my scotch, the Feed playing on low volume in the background, I know nothing so well as I know this.  We did this to ourselves.

So now what?  Is there some emergency parachute in the trunk of this Great American Car, a Ford of some metaphysical, archetypal variety–or are we truly lost?  Can we be saved?  And if so, what are we being saved from?  Is this what we really are?  Is it all we’ve ever been?

I imagine the future, as directed by the Great Darknesses:

In this future, the streets are patrolled by mutant cops, Cthulhu from the waist down with big badges and giant, blocky guns clutched in their six-fingered hands.  They scan into our souls with their camera lenses, they read our minds with their sensors, they stand at the ready with truncheon and tentacle to act on the merest hint of sedition.  They fall upon protesters and under-privileged youth with ravenous bloodthirst, fanatical in their devotion to the ‘Greater Good.’   Remember: your enemies walk among you.  They could even be your neighbors.  They could even be yourself.  Remember: you are only safe if everyone else is dead.  Remember: you can trust us.

In this future, the great priests of the Church of the New American Jesus lead us in Megachurch Prayers for a small pittance, a tax-exempt tithe taken from our corporate-controlled bank accounts.  They have bombed out all the abortion clinics and banned sex for any purpose except for reproduction.  Gays and other sinners are lynched by the dozen in the name of the new American Christ, whose blond-haired blue-eyed John Doe visage gazes smilingly down on us from towers of opalescent wealth.  Muslims and Atheists soon join the queer fruit hanging from the trees, but eventually other sacrifices will be necessary, too.  The Jews, again?  Or the Buddhists?  Or will the New American Jesus soon demand the blood of a different Christian sect?  One whose teachings are less in-line with the Corporate-Approved Scriptures?  The Quakers, maybe.  Unitarians.  Anyone who strikes out against the booming declarations of the morally Right American Jesus and his Hobby Lobby Apostles.

In this future, the Eldritch Abominations strut through board rooms in crisp suits, their unreal faces ignored by the numb, mindless population.  They smoke cigars and drink $5000 cognac and carry suitcases made from leathered human skin.  Their bank accounts are padded by selling children into sex slavery after the poor kids lose too many fingers trying to put sneakers together.  Exploitation after exploitation, not unnoticed but simply unpunished.  Because nobody cares, mesmerized by reality TV and celebrity gossip.  They don’t even glance up from the screen as the Cannibal Class and its Dark Masters devour their neighbors, more meat for the market, more food for the horde.  The middle-management types, the zeds with a little extra brain in their skulls, tell the toiling workers that if they try hard enough, they, too, might one day earn a comfortable living.  In the meantime, it’s toil, toil, toil, and pray to New American Jesus that you keep your job until your debt is paid off (and it never will be, the Abominations have seen to that–at your current interest rate, it will take the rest of your natural life plus twenty years paying from the grave.)  The homeless and other inferior economic specimens will be shuttled to work camps, yes, like Gypsies in the old days.  They’ll be housed, of course, and given cots on which to rest their weary heads, so that should be an improvement over a park bench, shouldn’t it?  Never mind the fact that the showers aren’t connected to running water…

Never mind that, at all.

In this future, the Cult of M’Ra persists through allotment.  It has found a brother organization in the Church of the New American Jesus and so its teachings are allowed to filter through to the docile public.  Women will be ushered out of the workplace.  It will be taught across the nation that their brain power is diminished by the blood requirement of menstruation.  And with all the calculations going on in their tiny, adorable heads in search of an appropriate mate, how can there be room for extra maths?  These things can’t be helped–it’s just the way we’re built, biologically.  It’s not sexist, remember, it’s science.  And they will teach these things instead of Evolution, a silly theory if ever there was one.  Remember: men have challenges, too, and they shouldn’t be ignored.  The Cult of M’Ra has several pamphlets regarding prostrate cancer.  They haven’t put any money into research for a cure, and they haven’t exactly assembled an awareness council or even staged a march or a marathon…they just want you to know that it sucks, that they have to deal with it and you don’t, that their problems are very pressing, more pressing than your own concern over safety or privacy or rape culture or the breast cancer eating you alive from inside.

This future:

Don’t vote.  It doesn’t matter, anyway.  When has one vote changed anything?  Come and sit down.  Read a Bible.  Watch Keeping Up With the Kardashians.  Do you see what’s on Bravo, now?  Aren’t these Housewives hilarious?  Take these pills.  What do they do?  Oh, it’s nothing.  They make you feel good.  Isn’t this a funny show?  Don’t you feel better about life, now?  Oh, those people?  They’re your friends.  They live in your apartment.  Sorry, did I say your apartment?  I misspoke.  It’s their apartment, now.  You’re going to go live in one of the labor, er, Employment Camps with the other welfare recipients.  It pays minimum wage.  No benefits, but you’ll get cable TV.  Voting?  You won’t have time to vote.  No, no, no.  You have to work.  To pay the bills.  You only make minimum wage, after all.  Do you really want to take time off to register a vote that hardly matters?  Of course not.  Don’t stress about it too much.  There’s always Kim Kardashian.  Look at her little baby.  Look at her oiled up ass.  Take these pills.  No, I’m sorry, there’s no running water in the showers, but if you’re tired of feeling dirty all the time if you’re tired of all the sweat clinging to your pores if you’re just tired, tired, tired of the whole filthy world, I can turn one on for you.  There we go.  It’s not so bad, is it?  Shhhh.  Shhhhh.  Just close your eyes and let go.

I finish my scotch.  This is the Great American Dream, huh?  This is where we’ve all been headed.

To hell with that.

“What are we going to do?” I ask.

For a long time: silence.

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The New American Apocalypse, Pt. 8

(Have you been enjoying The New American Apocalypse?  Feel like helping a poor author?  For only ten cents a day–paid for a couple months in advance–you can feed a starving artist.  All you have to do is purchase the paperback or eBook copy of either No Reflection or No Grave!  And, if you’ve already read them, why not review them?  Isn’t it worth it to know you’ve saved a young adult from starvation?

And, if you’re interested, you can also check out Issue #38 of Sanitarium Magazine, featuring one of my short stories, “A Man Wakes Up Any Morning.”)

(In the meantime, please enjoy The New American Apocalypse, a semi-improvisational foray into the genre of Political Horror.

Table of Contents: Part One; Part Two; Part Three; Part Four; Part Five; Part Six; Part SevenPart Nine; Part Ten; Part Eleven; Part Twelve; Part Thirteen; Part Fourteen; Part Fifteen; Part Sixteen;

Part Eight:…)

 

Of course, we all always knew that reality television was a sedative, didn’t we?  But the concept that it functions on this magnitude, that Mutant Super Police could prowl the streets while M’Ra Cultists chop up journalists and the Church of the New American Jesus conquers DC and…and people are still sitting there, asses glued to seats, watching celebrities pretend to cry on camera?  Watching clever editors cut the world together into trite sound effects and misleading dialogue?

“How did this happen?” I ask, on my second glass of scotch on the rocks.  “How the hell did this happen?”  (I wish I could say I say it half-exclamatorily, but at this point my energy is deflating, my hope shriveling up like a man’s balls after a dip in ice cold water.)

“It was always happening,” the Voice, Mr. Ballard, tells me.  “The People have been hypnotized by daytime television for so long it’s hardly worth noting.  Come.  We’ll talk in the Liberty Den.”

Generally, we refer to this room as merely The Den, because it is just that: a den.  But every team of heroes, however motley, needs to have a fancy name for their headquarters, especially in times of strain and conflict.  So, ‘the den’ becomes ‘the Liberty Den,’ though its inherent function doesn’t change.  Some couches, a couple chairs, a large, beautifully sculpted coffee table topped in crystal, etc… the decor and purpose of the room isn’t changed with its title.  It’s just a den.  Don’t get too excited.

In the Liberty Den, we find the Sleeper Agent (Mr. Conrad and, once more, there’s no relation insofar as I’m aware) staring at the television, mouth agape in consternation.  He is slender and lean, wearing a tailored suit and a silk scarf.  Don’t let his appearance fool you!–he’s just as much at war with the Dark Powers That Be as any of the rest of us, he’s just approaching from a different angle.  Espionage.  Infiltration.  Et cetera.

“What’s on the Feed?” Ballard asks.

“I can’t…I just…” Conrad shakes his head, buries his face in his hands.  I turn my attention to the screen and see what has him so wearied: in DC, the Church of the New American Jesus has built crosses out of old CRT television sets and the M’Ra cultists are showing a constant stream of veiny cocks being jerked off.  Cannibals and zeds stand in the glow of the screens, praying.  I sputter on my drink, only managing to choke it down by reminding myself how much a single sip would cost, had I not stolen them.

The horror, indeed.

“One must imagine,” Ballard says, “that these are curated cocks.  Surely not every member of the M’Ra cult can have such massive equipment.”

“I’ve seen enough curated cock to last the rest of my natural life,” Ms. Bradbury plucks the open bottle of scotch from my hand.  “Turn that shit off,”

The shit is turned off.  There will be no cumshots tonight, ladies and gentlemen.  Not if we can help it.

Conrad, Sleeper Agent and Man in Havana Supreme, turns his eyes toward me.  “You blacked out?”

“That I did.”

“So you…you have no idea what you did?” he continues.

“That I don’t.”

“We thought it better to consult you before we dumped it on him,” Ms. Bradbury pours herself a couple fingers of scotch and takes a sip.  “Considering his state…sorry, honey, but it’s true, you’re a mess…it might be a little much for him.”

“I was just going to leave him to the Scanners,” Mr. Swift shrugs.

“Stop,” Anna huffs.  “Really.”

I drain the rest of my glass and clear my throat.  “So,” I say, “I propose, then, lady and gentlemen, that I very quickly have another swig of very nice scotch, and you tell me what I did that was so…was so…”

I can’t find a word to describe the magnitude of the situation.

The Poems of the Apocalypse,” Anna replies.

“The what?” having never heard of this bit of work, myself.

“You wrote a shitty book.”

Another shitty book,” Mr. Swift contends.

“Hey now!” I start, but then…I’m not exactly cranking out masterpieces, am I?

“Anyway, it was just the straw that broke the camel’s back or whatever,” Anna goes in on her drink, apparently quite thirsty (or trying to avoid a hangover after her earlier drunkenness…hair of the dog or the dog entire or just the parts of the dog most useful to her).

“So you’re mad at me because…because I wrote a shitty book of poems?”

The shitty book of poems,” Mr. Swift picks up, “a book of such awful poetry and prose and utter nihilism, a work of such searing cynicism and senseless rage, of such hopelessness and helplessness, lacking all substance, in such fragmented, nonsense verse that it just…well…” he gestures at the dead-black television screen.  “Now we’ve got that.  Nobody fighting back, nobody voting, nobody bothering to stand up for their neighbors, their community, their basic civil rights… while these new monsters trample all over them, while these dark forces tear us apart.”

I sit down next to Anna.  On the one hand, yes, this seems like a relatively small change, a minor footnote in America’s acceleration toward The End, and yet…I was supposed to be the scribe of the group!  I was meant to play the Bard to those Paladins who Fought The Good Fight…and instead I’d betrayed them, thrown them under the bus in one of my moods, turned away from them to offer supplication to Dark Forces and Evil Entities…to support the Heart of Darkness pulsing in the center of our nation.  The camel was huffing and puffing over the dunes, to begin with, and I, for one reason or another, felt it necessary to shower it with blackened, poorly-edited poems of the nihilistic apocalypse?  What had possessed me during those two blackout weeks?  What awful things had I turned to?…

The answers will all have to wait.

Now isn’t the time for self-pity or self-loathing or the myopic pursuit of my blackout memories.  Now is the time to rally.  To set right what I wronged.  To finish this glass of scotch and pour myself another and top off Anna’s glass and slump back down on the couch and shake my head and figure the rest of it out maybe tomorrow morning after we shake off our various hangovers, yes, I think tomorrow is the best place to start, sometime after the sun rises and all the ghastly creatures running amok in the streets have gone in to work…

“Shit,” I mutter.  “I really fucked up.”

Ballard turns a sarcastic eye toward me, “Really?  You think so?”

“Um.  Yes?”

Well, at least I can still make them laugh.

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