Reading Suggestions: International Women’s Day

It’s International Women’s Day!  And I have some reading suggestions.

I know what you’re thinking: dude, nobody cares about your stupid opinion.  I know!  But I’m going to do it anyway.

Of course, there are certainly obvious books to read for International Women’s Day.  Ain’t I a Woman, by bell hooks.  Girls to the Front, by Sara Marcus.  Cunt, by Inga Muscio.  There are many amazing books on the topics of intersectional feminism.  But I’m not going to write about those books.  Feminism and feminist theory are very important, of course, but I don’t have the breadth of knowledge required to make a list of must-reads in that area.  Instead, I’m going to write about really awesome, amazing books that happen to have awesome, amazing female authors.

For instance,

Anything by C. V. Hunt

C. V. Hunt is, according to her website, “the author of several unpopular books.”

Hunt is also an entertaining, transgressive, hilarious author of dark fantasy and horror.  Some of my favorites include Ritualistic Human Sacrifice and Misery and Death and Everything Depressing, both of which will make you laugh and cringe and wince.

You can pick up Hunt’s books in paperback, kindle, and even audiobook.  If you’re into it, you can also pre-order her upcoming work, Home is Where the Horror Is.

Something in the Potato Room by Heather Cousins

Do you like prose-poetry?  Do you appreciate beautiful language?  A fan of dark subject matter?  Heather Cousins wrote the book for you.

Something in the Potato Room is a beautiful book, brilliantly written, about deeply unsettling subject matter.  The line between fact and fantasy blurs and quivers in this gorgeous, liminal work.  Relatable and harrowing with an exquisite sense of language, Something in the Potato Room reaches into the dark recesses of the human spirit to find the exact spot where decay blooms into life again.  Or…something like that…

Through the Woods by Emily Carroll

Through the Woods is a collection of short faerie tales bundled up with striking illustrations and gorgeous graphic layout.  Creepy, haunting, and even heart-warming, Through the Woods collects emotionally diverse and fascinating stories.

I can’t get these stories out of my head.  Sometimes, out of nowhere, maybe on a subway platform or just walking down the street, I’ll get the lyrical lines of “Cold Hands” stuck in my head.  They’re so good.  So bloody good.  Of course, this isn’t the only work Emily Carroll has been involved with and her site will give you an idea about the breadth of her other work.

Get in Trouble by Kelly Link

Get in Trouble is another collection–this time of short stories.  Kelly Link has been hailed as a bold and brilliant voice in contemporary fantasy and sci-fi–for good reason, too!  These stories are intelligent, charming, and moving.  Her excellent prose and storytelling skills really shine in this award-winning collection, and I personally had a fantastic time reading it.  Link’s ability to examine tropes and genres in fresh and interesting ways is virtually unmatched.  If you haven’t given Link’s works a read, yet, I highly recommend you do…and what better place to start than this cool collection of short stories?

The Listeners by Leni Zumas

If you’re looking for something a little more ‘literary,’ The Listeners is for you.  Leni Zumas’ use of language shows an expert command of English and a willingness to commit to heightened and experimental styles.  Zumas’ sentences are razor-edged and cunning.  Though it uses references and metaphor from the genre world, The Listeners takes place very much in an unmagical reality.  Dripping with meaty imagery, cut wide with sharp and razored prose, and bleeding with emotional turmoil, the book is a brutal crime scene of real-life.  The plot is a bit weak, but the characters are deep deep deep and the language is to die for.

Night Film by Marisha Pessl

It’s a thriller.  A supernatural thriller?  Who knows!  Night Film plays with concepts of belief and faith, and makes extensive use of the subjective nature of ‘reality’ and ‘fact.’  The beauty of Marisha Pessl’s work is in the storytelling, her ability to play games with what is known and what is unknown, and how thin the line between.  The charming, enrapturing characters help, too.  A spiral of madness and a thriller well worth reading, I recommend picking up Night Film in any of its various forms immediately.

Gonzo Girl by Cheryl Della Pietra

If you’re a fan of close-to-life fictionalized accounts, Gonzo Girl is fantastic.  Pietra was an assistant to Hunter S. Thompson for, well, long enough, and her time in this role serves as the prime inspiration behind this wild, crazy ride.  It follows a newbie editor out of NYC as she’s pulled into the orbit of a madman writer out in the middle of chaotic, drug-fueled nowhere.

Cheryl Della Pietra has also been a magazine editor and short story writer.

Gutshot by Amelia Gray

Amelia Gray is a lovely writer.  Her stories are hilarious, personal, deep, cutting, jarring, and dark.  Is that too many adjectives?  Too bad!  They’re all accurate.  And Gutshot is an amazing collection of her work.  More than once, I winced.  Many times, I cackled.  I didn’t cry at any point, but there were definitely very poignant moments.  I highly recommend checking out her work, and particularly picking up this gem of a collection.  Hey, if the New York Times says it’s “bizarre and darkly funny,” who am I to disagree?

Did You Get All That?  Good.

This is just a short list, of course.  I didn’t have anything by Octavia Butler!  And Octavia Butler is a brilliant author.  Kindred is a famous, amazing work!  And it has a graphic novel adaptation.

I also left off several amazing female-oriented collections, such as Sisters of the Revolution (a collection of female-authored spec-fiction works) or She Walks in Shadows (a collection of female-authored Lovecraftian works).  These collections showcase an incredible range and breadth of talented authors, and I don’t think I can finish this blog entry without mentioning them.

And I shouldn’t exeunt stage left without giving a shout out to my favorite guilty pleasure series… My Life as a White Trash Zombie, by Diana Rowland, is perfect beach-reading in my opinion.

The Library Is Endless

I suppose that’s a good enough start.  I still feel as if I’ve left out a virtual library of brilliant work, but that’s bound to happen with a list like this.  Anyway, this has been a list of works by some of my favorite female authors, in no particular order, with no particular organization.  Just off the top of my head.

I didn’t even get to do shout-outs to my favorite short story writers whose longer works I haven’t read yet.  But maybe we’ll save that for another list.

In the meantime, I think I’ve put together a really nice starter-list for anyone seeking a good book.

Go forth and read!

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The New American Apocalypse, Pt. 23

(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; Part SeventeenPart Eighteen; Part NineteenPart TwentyPart Twenty-One; Part Twenty-Two;

Part Twenty-Three:…)

Day 40

The universe is going to end.  Ultimately, everything does.  Species go extinct, eras come to a close.  The apocalypse happens…not with a bang, and maybe not even with the over-quoted whimper.  The apocalypse is a mundane thing.  It happens every day.  An old man halfway across the world closes his eyes for the last time and takes everything he might’ve done next week with him.  A young woman overdoses on pain medication.  A species of insect is just discovered the day before it vanishes.  A billion lightyears away, an old star finally gutters out.  The apocalypse isn’t flashy.  It doesn’t brag.  It doesn’t drive a nice car or pour overpriced champagne into its hot-tub.  It just waits and, eventually, it wins.

Bummer, right?

But you never think you’ll be there for it.  You’re vaguely aware that one day you, personally, won’t exist anymore.  You’re vaguely aware that a distant future happens without you in it.  But the whole shebang?  The end of mankind?  No way, right?

This apocalypse was slow, too.  The New American Apocalypse was decades in the making.  We just didn’t notice it because, most of the time, the apocalypse isn’t flashy or bright or particularly fast.  Most of the time, the apocalypse is boring and dull and takes an incredibly long time.

Where did this one start?  Well, it was long before I wrote my shitty poems, I’ll tell you that.  Before the Cult of M’Ra or the Church of the New American Jesus.  But when?  I stay up at night, too tired to move and too scared of my own thoughts to sleep, and wonder…when?  When?  WHEN?

But I can’t find a date.  Can’t even figure out the era.  If someone asks me “where did this all get started?” I’d have to shrug my shoulders and mumble something about inevitable entropy or maybe the cruelty of human nature or the absolute resourcefulness of the Great Darknesses.  I think that scares me more than everything else.  If I could point to an event, or a decade, or a moment, or something, if I could point to something in our shared history and say “here, it started here,” then maybe it wouldn’t feel so inevitable.  But it’s like people keep telling me: I just put the straw on the camel’s back.  Everything else was already there.  Added slowly, over decades, maybe even over centuries, by so many people with so many different ideas that it’s impossible to narrow it down.

Nobody in history woke up and said “well, time to start the apocalypse, I guess.”  Nobody wakes up and decides to be the bad guy.  They just kind of…do it.  It’s only evidenced in retrospect, in the vast archives of history.  Vanderbilt was a cruel, self-righteous criminal.  Pullman was a heartless money-grubbing monster.  They didn’t wake up and decide to be assholes.  That’s just the best that they could do with the beliefs that they had.  With their priorities.  With their perspectives.

So it goes, I guess.

Same thing with the Cult of M’Ra.  I bet every single one of them, from the Grand Penis to the lowly Scrotophyte, believes that they’re doing something that has to be done.  Talk about delusions of fucking grandeur.  But there’s something there, right?  They didn’t wake up in the morning and pray to their Mighty Veined Deity to be assholes.  They do it because they believe in something, they legitimately believe in something.  They do it because they think there’s something wrong with the direction things were going in before the Great Darknesses rose up.  They have faith in their own goodness.  Faith in their Cock God and the moral structure of its hairy testicles.

Yeah, well.  I think this world has seen enough of what faith can do.

“What’s got you up so late?” Mr. Baldwin asks.  His wounds are recovering admirably, but we’ve all had to continue covering for him.  I’m waiting for those interned psychos to come knocking.  Or worse.  The Scanners.  Surely they’re looking for him, by now.

“Thinking about inevitability.  About the way people act that makes these things happen.  About maybe how this is just the path human nature takes us down, that there’s never been another way to go.”

“You really think that?” he’s on the bunk below mine, bandaged and salved, and his voice has a quality that makes me think that the Earth, itself, is speaking.

“I dunno.  Maybe.  It just makes sense, sometimes.”

“You think the Cult of M’Ra makes sense?” he asks, as if reading my mind.  “You think a bunch of crackers wearing Halloween masks and walking around with longsword-sized dildos makes sense?”

“In the context of the human species?  Maybe.  Maybe this is just what we are, you know?  What we’ve always been.”

“Jesus, no wonder they got you so easy.  Programmed you to forget their agenda, made your eyes blind to the structures of their systems, your ears deaf to the evils of their scriptures…then they waited for your nihilistic foolishness to do the rest.  Instant patsy.”

“But am I wrong, though?  The Great Darknesses made this all possible, but the people did it.  The Cult of M’Ra, the Church of the New American Jesus, hell, even the zed middle management types and the cannibal class chasing everyone out of their apartments in Queens–they’re all just humans, living or recently deceased.  They were just waiting for some squid-faced monster to give them the go-ahead.  That’s all.  They just needed permission.”

There’s a long pause.  I can hear him think.  He can hear me, too, I bet.  The two of us just stewing in the darkness.

He breaks the silence.  His voice has the strength of coiled roots drilled into the soil.  “Long is the way and hard that out of darkness leads up to light.”

I furrow my brow, though he can’t see it.  “Is that Milton?  Are you quoting Milton at me?”

“Don’t be weak,” he says.  “Don’t be a coward.  Don’t look for an excuse to give up.  You want the truth?  The truth is that the world can be shit.  People suffer.  People are always going to suffer.  Some more than others, and for reasons that won’t make any sense.  So you have to make a choice: you either give up, turn a blind eye, tell yourself there’s nothing you can do about it…or you can do something about it.  The world doesn’t need another asshole like you in the first category.  That’s what it is.  The path is long and it is hard as all hell, but it’s the only path leading up.  The only path running against the one you’re so afraid is your only option.”

I nod, though he can’t see it.  “Guess so.  Just…why bother?  Because…extinction, you know?  If not the Great Darknesses, maybe just bombs.  Or a plague.  Or the sun eating the Earth.  Or–”

“Excuses.  Philosophical bullshit.  Academic nonsense to make you feel better about not wanting to do shit.  You ever hear the story about that photographer?  Uh…what’s his name?…Carter?  The guy who took the photo of that starving kid and the vulture?”

“Yeah.  Yeah, I know that one.”

“Yeah, well.  Look at that shit and tell me about how the sun’s going to eat the Earth and nothing matters, huh?  Existential depression.  You’re lucky to be in a place where existential depression is the shit that you’re worried about.  Extinction.  Meaning.  Maslow’s damned pyramid.  Do me a favor, alright?”

“Uh-huh?”

“Feed the kid, when it happens to you.  Just feed the fucking kid.”

A long pause.  I say nothing.  I can’t think of anything to say.

He speaks, next: “Tomorrow, by the way.  The attack happens tomorrow.  We’re going to open a portal, again, and this time you’re going through.”

“Oh.”

“Don’t fuck it up.”

I would say ‘ye of little faith,’ but I’m not a man of much faith, either.

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The New American Apocalypse, Pt. 21

(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; Part SeventeenPart Eighteen; Part NineteenPart Twenty;

Part Twenty-One:…)

[Day 26, Cont’d]

I read the words of the Dark Ones, in the tongue of the Great Darknesses, yes, I spake!:

“A woman’s place is in the home! The Lord himself seeds all wombs! Abortions shall be performed only with hooks and hangers! A child of rape is a beautiful creation, deus vult!  Hupadgh’fhalma!  Goka gof’nn!  Damn the sluts to a thousand squirming young!  Damn the prudes to barren wombs!  Serve!  Serve!”

My mind clouds!  My vision dims!  Oh, forgive me!  Ms. Bradbury, especially, forgive me!

But I go on!:

“He was a troublemaker!  He stole something!  Look at his social media photos!  The police are endowed with the right to decide what constitutes reasonable force!  The burden of protecting the citizenry is a heavy one and wears on their nerves!  De-escalation is an impossible option!  All lives matter!  Mnahn’orr’e!  Bow!  Bow!”

The starless cosmos glowers in my periphery!  Mr. Ballard, Mr. Baldwin, Mr. Conrad, ah, I swear though my mouth betrays, my heart is not in it!

A portal forms in the center of the room, small and growing, purple and photo-negative light coils around us…the spell continues:

“The great Phallus M’Ra, worship!  M’Ra’fhtagn!  Rise up hard and vast, oh massive godlike Phallus, rise up and into our spirits!  Come into our hands!  Give us strength, M’Ra, strength of hand to silence, strength of grip to serve, strength of finger to spread the gospel wide!  Ia!  Ia!”

Neverending gospel of the Great Dark Ones!  My lips seem to peel away from my face as I speak!:

“Uln’Vanderbilt!  Uln’Pullman!  Uln’Reaganomics!  The worms and slaves beneath shall serve as meat for the monster of industry!  Chew between the white-collared teeth those back-broken wretches, hunched in inferiority!  Chew against lean muscle and fatty gristle, burn their calories empty, devour their spines!  Hain’t I got the money?  Hain’t I got the power!?  Vanderbilt’fhtagn!  Robber King of Gutted Economy, rise!”

The tenebrous portal devours all light as it opens like a vast maw in the earth!  I lose my voice and it is Mr. Baldwin who smacks me over the head and keeps me speaking, even as the words I utter turn my guts and raze my weak and harrowed soul:

“Plug in!  Download the Hollywood programming: yea, first we believe in the bootstrap mentality, that all men and only men and maybe a couple very attractive women are created equal and have access to equal opportunities and therefore any failings are failings of the character; yea, and second we believe in the doctrine of the meaningless, that no story shall afflict the brain with questions, no story shall drive us to act, all tales exist for the sole purpose of entertainment!

“Yea, and download the News Media Add-on: that third we believe in the news cycle, we adhere our attentiveness only to a spread of five-to-seven-days before moving on, that all problems not solved in the time frame are unsolvable, that the entertainment ends and curtain falls, that out of the camera’s focus nothing exists; yea, that fourth we believe that class does not exist, that wealth is a byproduct of competence, these men and primarily men and maybe a couple acceptable women with the right parentage are pillars of industry, Messiahs of Commerce striding among poor shriveled indigents, worthy the vault of fortune they possess; yea, that fifth we believe in Fair and Balanced reportage as labeled by articles set forth by the blinded gods of chaos chirping in the far reaches of space, that our duty as journalists rests on strong research, on finding the most disarming photographs available of white killers and most alarming photographs available of the black and brown ones, that our duty as journalists rests on adherence to the principals of the party, the writhing chaos gibbering around our meaningless lives;

“Yea, and download the Fast Forward Tube Feed: that sixth we believe in strict overabundance, that fatted bodies cannot fight and fatted minds cannot think and so we must stuff the mouths of the Cattle Class with all the cheapest feed available; yea, and that seventh we believe in the blinding flash of overly compressed frames in every minute, of pumping out a kaleidoscope of entertainment and reportage instantly overwhelming, of generating sensory overload on a scale that cannot be contained, cannot be expressed, cannot be understood except in the glibbest, blithest, most meaningless of observations delivered in under 140 pithy characters!”

And so the portal opens wide its endless mouth and down the throat of that terrible maw we see the hideous truths.

There: the American Heart of Darkness.  There: the pulsing balls of the Great Darknesses.

This is dead land; this is city land.  Moonlight crawls along broken columns.  A horde of human flesh is fed to a machine tyrant.  It devours factories full of four-fingered children.  It devours poor neighborhoods and low-income housing.  It devours streets and counties and parishes and dead-end towns miles away from the nearest grocery store.  Its innards roar like the mouths of a thousand garbage disposals.  It defecates money and meat, both equally bloody, and leaves a trail of half-digested bodies still twitching in its wake.  Its eyes are black holes.  Its mouth is a black hole.  Its hunger is bottomless.  It feasts forever.  It feasts not with agenda but out of blind idiot instinct.  It feasts because it can.  It feasts because it feasts.  There is no ‘why’ and maybe there never was.

Its world is a shattered grayscape of wasteland.  The subway cars are oil-slicked worms eating their way through the mantle of the earth.  The highways are taut strings clenched in its clawed fingers.  The mountains are the spines of Its brethren.  Smoke gutters its way up from everywhere.  Charred skeletons stare up empty-eyed from mass graves lining the globe.  Tentacled robber barons and zed middle-management types eat the remains of mankind with paired wines behind picture windows. The skyscrapers are great phalluses.

And every radio station and every TV show and every newspaper and every cheap liquor ad with a pouting woman on the poster all say the same thing: This Is The Way Things Are.  This Is The Way Things Are.  This Is The Way Things Are.

No!  No!  This is the way the world ends!  This is the way the world ends!  Not with a bang but an advert!  Between The Way We’ve Always Done It and the Way We Could Change Things falls the fucking shadow!

I am screaming, I realize.  I shriek with horror.

The thing, the monster I now realize is leading the Great Darknesses in their newest assault on our world, the Beast itself, peers up at me through the portal we opened and I see the infinite darkness of Its eyes shift like oozing tar.  Its gaze upon me, It grins.  Its teeth are smeared with blood.  Viscera hang between its many fangs.  It is in sore need of floss.  But worse: Its breath.  Or worse, still: that I can smell Its breath, that It laughs at me, at my smallness and my weakness and my cowardice, that It snickers so giddily and so happily that the reek of Its corpse-enriched breath reaches me.

Mr. Baldwin wrenches me away from the portal, clutching my wrists in his grasp.

He tells me I was trying to claw my eyes out.

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The New American Apocalypse, Pt. 20

(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; Part SeventeenPart Eighteen; Part Nineteen;

Part Twenty:…)

[Day 26]

It begins.  We are a quiet bunch and must be secretive, but we begin.  Let it be put down in the history books that this day the…whatever day it is, now…late summer?  Early autumn?…well, let it be put down, at least, that at some point during this season of growing night, at some point during these dark days, a collection of artists began to hone their craft in secret from within the clutches of the Great Darknesses, themselves.

I am assured, also, that the request for art has been ferried along to every open ear on the east coast.  In the sewer hideouts of the DC rebels and the abandoned subway tunnels inhabited by the terrified survivors of New York’s zombie gentrification apocalypse, people will be making art.  In the overpopulated Employment Camps spread across the northeast, ink and paint and blood will spill from the minds of the dispossessed and indigent and onto canvas and paper.  Those few zed still possessed of enough brainpower to harbor free will…soon their bloodshot eyes will be brought to gaze upon Truth, and if the bare human truth captured in art is not enough to stir them from their corpse-like slumber, then it is already too late.

Their minds have been massaged by rapid-fire images seared through their eyes, projected against them by so many screens that they are uncountable.  They’ve been numbed to questioning.  The afflicted have been comforted and the comfortable have also been comforted.  Sedatives and painkillers have been pumped through their skulls, the sole nourishment for their brains.  Now we will change the picture.  Or so we hope.

It’s a multi-pronged attack, of course.  We still need the guerrillas in DC and the team in New York to stay active, to put pressure on, to make a show of force against the darkness…to prove, really, that there’s another option to take.  We’ll need rebels and revolutionaries fighting tooth and claw every step of the way, bearing the most risk for the least historical reward.  People with backs strong enough to carry the burdensome crosses of this battle.  But while they take the fight to the streets and markets and parks and apartment complexes of this twisted, tormented nation, we will hack our way into the airwaves and distort the images purveyed by the mind-numbing screens until they disturb rather than dissuade, until they question rather than comfort.  We’ll print the posters and post the bills and tag the Cyclopean halls of Wall Street with bright multi-hued graffiti.  We’ll write essays and fictions and manifestos and poetry and multi-genre multi-media works that jerk the veil of comfortable illusion away from the eyes of the zombie class.  We’ll wake them up.

Such is the goal.  We shall see.  I am torn, after what happened last night…I am flush with confidence and filled with terror.  Simultaneously, I believe our victory is possible and impossible.  You will understand when it is done.

For now: as Jim Morrison wrote, we will “[take] pills to stay awake and play for 7 days.”  That’s right.  I’m cranking into my vault of externally-abled courage.  I will rest no more.  Especially after what I’ve seen.  For as long as my drug-induced confidence holds out, I will be unshakable…which I may need to be, considering how quickly these operations are likely to be discovered.  In the battle of propaganda, and also just in literal terms, the Great Darknesses possess many watchful eyes.  The Scanners were only the beginning.

One night ago: Mr. Baldwin approaches me after a 10-hour day of digging graves.  All Employment Camp graves are dug in advance, I should mention, to a depth corresponding to the debt of the person who will one day fill it.  One of my several rotating jobs at the Camp is to dig them.  As you may guess, manual labor is not my favorite thing.  But, hey, when you’re a prisoner in the clutches of Great Darknesses trying to subsist on the questionable leftovers handed down to you by the Cannibal Class, you do what you gotta do, right?

Anyway, Mr. Baldwin approaches me after a 10-hour shift.  (Side note: fairly certain my “lunch” yesterday was a specific kind of morally discomforting veal…not to say all veal isn’t, in some way, morally discomforting, but it’s different when it’s likely your own species) — my apologies for the sidetracking, but there are some details of Camp life I haven’t gone into, as I have been drowning under a sea of existential malaise and general psychological malady.

Anyway, ahem, Mr. Baldwin approaches.  In his hand is a small book, perhaps the size of a stack of 3×5 study cards.  Its binding is stitched out of human skin and bat wings and the title is a symbol my hand can’t reproduce but that has been branded into the flesh with a hot iron.

“What the hell is that?” I ask, rightfully.

“One of the Great Dark Ones’ secrets.  Come on.”

I don’t ask further questions.  Instead, I follow Mr. Baldwin back through our self-dug cemetery to the plot of land reserved for his future corpse.  He leaps inside and I follow.  It seems one of the workers has dug a cramped tunnel leading from the bottom of his future tomb to some tiny earthen cavern.  Once inside this cavern (no larger than, perhaps, two coffins sat next to each other, which makes it still larger than the Employee Lounge we usually meet in), he sets the book between us and opens it up.  Strange designs draw my eyes–impossible geometries and bizarre lines.  Escher animations and hideous Beksinksian landscapes.  My mouth hangs wide.

“You speak their language, right?” Mr. Baldwin asks.

“I–no, I’m just a…a…” but I freeze.  Because he’s right.  I recognize some of these nonsense symbols–entire phrases, even!  Entire paragraphs!  I can’t make sense of every page, or even form a cohesive understanding of what I’m reading, but I speak the language, I know the tongue…how?

“Must have got to you young,” Mr. Baldwin’s voice is comforting, though I know it is an artificial comfort.  It has the practiced execution of someone used to easing people into harsh truths.  “I think that’s likely how it happened so quickly.  The Great Dark Ones had half of America brainwashed before they even rose up out of the sea.”  He shakes his head.  “Goddamn.”

“But…but I’m a writer!” I scramble back into the hard dirt, shocked.

“A path you chose…but think back.  How many messages were burned into your brain before you had a chance to fight back against them?  How much propaganda did the Great Darknesses spoon-feed you before you were even off of Gerber?  How often does your conscious mind have to fight back programmed thoughts?”

I stammer senselessly.

“Maybe that’s how they were able to use you,” Mr. Baldwin continues.  “Playing on sleeping instincts programmed into your brain.  Or maybe they just whispered to you at just the right moment…a moment when you had truly given up.”

I open my mouth to answer, but he cuts me off.

“You don’t have to trust me with the answer.  I don’t know if I’d trust you gave the honest one, anyway.  But just as they used you, so can we.”

He taps the top of a page.

He says: “I need you to read this.  I need you to cast this spell.”

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The New American Apocalypse, Pt. 18

(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; Part Seventeen;

Part Eighteen:…)

I spend a lot of time in the Employment Camp.  I don’t have the constitution to open myself to the memories of such horror, so the next bit will be transcribed from my old journals:

[Day 6]

Nietzsche once said that any civilization whose primary goals were optimism, knowledge, and advancement would necessarily require a slave class.  Sure, everyone wants to be a scientist or an artist or an academic or a philosopher or whatever, but at the end of the day someone has to grow the food, cook the food, and serve the food.  Someone’s gotta take out the garbage.  Someone’s gotta milk and slaughter the cows and someone else has to hold the buckets for all the blood.

Well, baby, here we are.

The Employment Camp is every bit as terrifying as I imagined.  These ramshackle apartments are tenements clustered so tight I have an anxiety attack before I’m even stuffed inside.  Human stench fills the air.  We’re like sardines but somehow saltier.  Men and women work their bodies to the bare bones in exchange for a pittance.  It gets worse.  Payment is made against our bail loans, which apparently have a 16% interest rate, and rent and food and water is taken out additionally, along with any penalties.  After working a week in these hellish conditions, I wake up on payday to discover that I owe the bosses money!

We are wageslaves chained to our basic needs.  The Darknesses know this.  They made a wise bet…they know we will always choose life, no matter how painful and miserable that life ends up being.  And the ones who don’t?  The ones who choose death, nothingness, the ones who go mad or kill themselves?  Fewer mouths to feed.

I exist, here, in a malaised despair.  This journal cost me a day’s labor, and the pencils another half-day.  It doesn’t matter.  Like most of the populace, here, I’ve given up hope of digging myself out of debt.  Until such time that a trial happens, lorded over by a Judge of the Great Dark Ones, I will rot here.  Maybe there are no Judges.  Maybe there are only Scanners and privatized bail loans and Employment Camps where prisoners work themselves to death…maybe this is all life has to offer, anymore…

And the bastards took my man-bag, of course.  I’ve been reduced to moonshine the other prisoners make it bathtubs and toilets.  Pray I don’t go blind…though maybe that would be a blessing in disguise…

I’ve noticed the daylight is retreating.  Every day seems shorter, every night longer.  The sun is dimmer than I remember it being.  The Great Darknesses seem to be winning, whatever that entails.  If they win, what happens to my words?  Losers don’t write the history books, after all.  With these pages mashed to dust, it will be as if I never existed at all.

A man named Mr. Baldwin (no relation) brings in the news from outside.  How he gets it, I don’t know, but it seems grim.  The eldritch abominations wreak havoc across the world.  The M’Ra Cultists ride through city streets on chariots, swinging three-foot dildos like swords at the non-believers.  The Church of the New American Jesus banned heretics from entering the country.  The smarter atheists have already fled to Canada.  Muslims make their way northward via an underground railroad system, hiding in attics like Anne Frank and waiting for a gap in Scanner security to move to the next city.  The Cannibal Class has taken to open safaris, roaming the hellish cityscapes with their zed underlings hoping to scoop out the brains of artists and retirees and homeless veterans and urban youth.  I’m surprised they still feel the need to use code…

There is no news of my old compatriots.  Will I ever learn what happened to Mr. Swift and Mr. Conrad in DC?  Did Ms. Bradbury and Mr. Ballard escape?  What of those other rebels whispering across the airwaves?  Is there hope still to smash this wretched system and rescue ourselves from the hungry abyss?  Or is it too late for foolish hopes like those?

I tell Mr. Baldwin my fears over mason jars filled with moonshine.  He makes no effort to hide his disgust.  “So you would give up?  Lie down and let them eat you?  Be my guest, then.  I won’t go out without a fight.”

How he maintains ferocity in such a place as this, I don’t know.  To toil beneath the will of monsters, to return to our tenements broken and exhausted…and still to find the fire inside with which to fight…he is made from stronger stuff than I.  But that seems obvious.  After all, what lies within me other than “weakness?”  Or the constant self-inflicted “cowardice?”

There must be drugs somewhere in this hellhole…and I shall sniff ’em out.  Mr. Baldwin may get his fire from internal sources, strong of will and spirit, but I’ve always found my courage hidden in the apothecary’s shelves or at the bottom of a bottle of whiskey.  To fight the good fight is easier when it’s done with a little intoxicant…

And I’m not beaten yet.  Mr. Baldwin may look down on me for my weakness, but I’m digging his fire.  I hope to find some of my own, even if I have to scoop it out of the bottom of a toilet bowl.

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The New American Apocalypse, Pt. 17

(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;

Part Seventeen: …)

I try to run away, but I don’t get far.  Between the cruel bonfire of the cultists and the Scanners, my ability to maneuver is, ah, limited.  But I do my best.

I make it about fifteen feet.  Maybe twenty.

Hey, I give myself credit for even getting that far.  These things are super-cops, remember.

I’ll skip the more embarrassing description of the “confrontation” (I can’t call it a “fight” on account of how terribly one-sided and brief it turns out to be) — but suffice it to say it’s largely composed of me screaming in a pitch that is not necessarily “manly” while multiple officers strip my man-bag away from me and get me into a pair of cuffs.  The actual choreography of this action is graceless–a blind fumbling–much like two teenagers trying to make out for the first time ever, but considerably less pleasant.

And with a considerably larger amount of tentacles.  I assume.

Needless to say, I end up in the back of a cop car.

They don’t even bother to cuff me.  Maybe protocol changed while I was blacked out, but I’m pretty sure handcuffs are generally favored by the Law & Order set, but I’m guessing they don’t expect much of an escape attempt from me after the pathetic display I mustered up when I first saw them.

I wonder how to explain this to my comrades-in-arms–that I’ve been arrested and am therefore no longer quite capable of accomplishing my mission.  Not that it had been going well, to begin with.

One Scanner watches the road, guiding us to whatever destination awaits, while the other keeps its camera eye planted on me.  I shift in my seat.  For the nth time in the past few days, I ask that damnable question, the one that’s haunted me ever since I first laid eyes on these creatures from beyond our keen: “What do you see?”

The camera lens whirs and focuses.  The beady little eye inside shrinks.

It replies with one word: “Weakness.”

I wait for more, but no more comes.  “Man, I could’a told you that.”

The Scanner looks away.  If it knows more, if it saw more, it says nothing.  It makes me think: is that all there is?  I know I’m a man of weaknesses, but I’ve always assumed I had more going on than merely weakness.  Do I have flaws, or I am merely flawed?

The rest of the ride is quiet and uneventful.  We drive for a long time.  I couldn’t give you specifics, but it’s nearly dawn before the vehicle comes to a halt.  The door opens and I’m hauled out by the shirt collar.

“Citizen Hughes,” a new Scanner stands before me, this one garbed in nicer clothes.  “Your bail has been automatically subsidized by JPMorgan Chase Bank.  To receive this privatized subsidization you must agree to be released into their recognizance and to serve the time until trial as an employee at McArbyKing’s.  Do you agree to receive this subsidization?  If not, we have forwarded your headshots and resumes to other, more senior inmates in holding.”

Yes, these are the grim options I am given, held aloft by a dozen tentacles.

“You know,” I say, “I have some experience in minimum wage work!”

“Let it be shown that Citizen Hughes has agreed to the terms of the Employment Camp and is now being processed as an employee until such time as a trial is able to be held before a Judge of the Great Dark Ones.”

And without much further ado, I am handed a W-666 form to fill out.

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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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Short Story Release; No Grave Available!

“He woke up, again, to the same alarm as always: static hiss of radio underscoring the accentless newsman as he said, ‘…he went to the gun locker, opened it, and took out the rifle.’ He slapped the radio off before he heard the rest of the story and pushed himself up out of bed. Sarah shifted on the mattress next to him, an airy sigh slipping from her lips as she curled up in the covers. She never heard the newsman, no matter how many times he said the exact same thing. They’d had a fight about it, once. She always heard a rock song, from Oceanrest Rock & Blues Radio. The same song, every time…something by Nine Inch Nails, but he couldn’t remember the title. He only ever heard the news report, the same news report, over and over again.”

So begins “A Man Wakes Up Any Morning,” a short story I wrote published in Sanitarium Magazine, Issue #38.  Sanitarium is a great horror mag–I’ve been a subscriber for quite some time and I am thrilled to be part of it, now.  I highly recommend picking up a copy, if you can.

The ebook is available on Amazon.com US, Amazon UK,  Apple News Stand, and Google Play Store, with PDF, EPUB, and other digital editions available through the Issue Release Page.

It’s also available in the flesh (or paper, as it were) on Amazon.com.

And while we’re here, I’d like to bump No Grave for the millionth time.  It’s the sequel to my first release, No Reflection, and a far superior book in my utterly biased and completely un-humble opinion.

No Grave is available in digital format at Smashwords.com, Amazon.com, and Barnes & Noble.

No Grave is also available in the gruesome, gruesome flesh at Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.

Thanks for the continued support.  Enjoy the grim, terrible experience and we’ll talk again very, very soon.

Sooner than you think, dear readers.

Sooner, maybe even, than you would like…

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The New American Apocalypse, Pt. 3

(before we continue on our trek across modern apocalyptic America, I’d like to shamelessly plug No Grave, the second part in a book series I’m writing that you can now purchase on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Smashwords, etc…)

(The New American Apocalypse

Table of Contents: Part One; Part Two; 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;

Part Three:…)

 

I get off at my stop and make my way through deserted streets to my apartment.  People part their blinds to watch my progress, panicked eyes tracking me as I make my way to my front door.  Nobody steps outside.  I’ve never seen Queens so empty, not even in the pre-dawn darkness when all the bars have closed and everyone has crawled into bed.

The first thing I do is take a shower, possibly the longest one I’ve taken in my life.  It takes a while to wash off the fourteen-or-fifteen days of filth I accumulated during my blackout, and longer still to wipe clean the clinging sensation that the world is ending and the strange sense that I am, in part, responsible.  That my hands are dirty with more than just ink and mud and whatever else I’ve scraped off the world for the past two weeks.

Then I throw out my clothes (there’s no way to save them, now, no, they’ve been too long bathed in my excretions and given to the filth of the Earth) and put on something sensible but also (hopefully) attractive.  Sturdy boots, flexible jeans, and a plain gray t-shirt.  Not ideal for the baking summer sun, of course, but sturdy and reliable.

Next stop: gathering forces.  My friends have dealt with such Evils and Darknesses, before, and though I’ve usually served in the role of the scribe, accounting for events and writing them down as the bards of old might’ve done if they’d had amphetamines and whiskey and a smartphone and a handheld voice recorder, I get the sense that I’m playing much more of a leadership role in the new apocalypse.  To my great dismay.  So I pull myself up by my boot straps and start packing a man-bag.  A phial of powerful pills, a 24oz water bottle full of water, another 24oz bottle full of whiskey, a notebook, two pencils, two pens, a knife (the only actual weapon in my possession), my wallet, and a Ziploc full of multi-vitamins.  Yes, multi-vitamins.  That is not an euphemism.

I set out on foot, having, as I  mentioned, no other choice.  The atmosphere is heavy around me, yes, heavy with dread and fear.  Last week’s newspapers blow around like tumbleweeds and I catch a headline off of one: WAR IN THE MIDWEST.  For a second I don’t believe my eyes (surely they mean “the Middle East?”) but no, there it is, clear as day, in big, bold, Front Page lettering.  I pick up my pace, knowing things have just gotten much more serious.

Already I wish I had more room in my bag for additional whiskey.  Will there be liquor stores in the new apocalypse?  Will there be bars?

My first stop is to a female friend’s apartment, by name of Anna Bradbury (no relation, insofar as I know).  As I approach, I notice all her windows have been boarded shut and someone has constructed a barrier of furniture and barbed wire in front of the door.  It seems the spare key will not be terribly useful.

I buzz her apartment and wait, not sure what else I should do.  Time passes, and so I buzz, again.  More time passes, et cetera.  Eventually I find myself leaning against the buzzer, applying constant pressure.

Finally, she answers: “GET AWAY FROM THE BUZZER BEFORE I BLOW YOU TO PIECES YOU LITTLE SHIT!”

Not exactly the warm welcome I had hoped for.

“It’s me!” I yell back.

Something moves behind her door.  I hear more furniture scraping against tiled floor, the rattle of chains being undone, the clack of bolts being opened, and the tick of small locks.  The door opens and I see the top of her head over the defensive barrier, a flash of dyed silver with mouse-colored roots.  A small passage opens at the base of the barrier, just large enough to squeeze through on my belly.  “Hurry up,” she says.

So I do.  I pass my bag through, first, and slide my own way in after she’s taken it.

“What’s up with the Great Wall?” I ask.

“Get inside, quick.”

She claps the barricade entry shut  and ushers me into the apartment, closing the door behind us.  She has a shotgun and four knives.  I don’t question this fact: it seems like a good time to be armed.  I watch as she hooks chains up along the door’s width and seals it with four deadbolts.  A secondary barrier made of desks and antique chairs blocks the foyer, which requires another feat of maneuvering and agility to navigate after she’s done.

“So, uh…what’s up with the Great Wall?” I repeat, hoping she’ll chuckle at my incisive humor.

She doesn’t.  “Where have you been?”

“I dunno.”

“You asshole.”

“No, I mean it, I don’t know.  I’ve been out for two weeks, give or take, and have no memory of anything.  I like to think of it as romantic, like pulp fiction amnesia, but mostly it’s been problematic, as the Apocalypse seems to have kicked off without me.”

“It’s full-scale evil,” she replies, and when she speaks I realize we are in near-darkness, with only one pale light bulb buzzing in her whole apartment and the rest lit by candles.  “A Lovecraft-scale emergency.”

“It’s dark in here.”

“It’s dark everywhere.”

“I meant literally.”

“I had to turn off all the lights.  And my phone.”

What she tells me next harrows me: she had to turn off her cellphone and disconnect her laptop because they were coming for her.  It started a week and a half ago with full Twitter outrage, a sudden tsunami of bile-spewing tweeters (or Twitterers or whatever) flooding the internet with viscous hatred.  It only escalated from there.

They’d sent her a thousand Snapchat dick pics and then someone had dug up her private number and started texting them.  The texts became so constant she couldn’t even answer a phone call from one of her fellow Fighters of Evil, so constant she couldn’t even touch her screen without summoning a veiny, baby’s-arm-sized cock.  So she turned off her phone…and they started to come through her computer screen.  Her laptop bulged with penises and hands and dark, angry-browed faces, all of them pressed against the screen trying to birth themselves into the physical world.  They tried to crawl out and rape her and kill her in ways too vile to describe and then rape her again in the eyes afterward.  One of them got a hand through before she pulled the plug and now the severed appendage twitches and spurts blood on her floor, somehow still bleeding even as I sit there listening.

She tells me there’s a cult, worshipers of the Great Phallus M’Ra who hunt women down across the country in great, violent mobs.  By the time I showed up on her doorstep (given, that is five minutes before she tells me the tale), they’d already hit Jezebel headquarters and left a trail of butchered corpses in their neckbearded wake.

That’s why she’s carrying a shotgun and four knives.  That’s why her doors and windows are barricaded shut and all the lights are off.

“But you fought Evil, before!  I know!  I wrote about it!” I wave my hands to emphasize the point.

“This is too big for us,” she replies, shaking her head, “it’s too big for anyone.”

I stare at her, slackjawed.

How has this happened?  How has this been allowed to happen?  This isn’t the world I know, certainly not the America I know.  Certainly not.  And even Anna Bradbury, heroic Fighter of Evil and icon of many of my tales, seems disheartened?  Has she given up!?  This is the work of something vile, vile, vile–yes, this is a Lovecraft-scale emergency!  Some dark, foul thing has awoken, I’m sure of it, some abysmal creature that has spent the last two decades chewing at the broken, desiccated heart of our country, growing strong on all our despair and insecurity and secret secret hatreds…

“No, no!” I declare, grabbing up my bag, “I know just the thing!  You can’t be hopeless, not you!”

I fish out the whiskey, a strong enough magic to get the fire coursing through anyone’s veins.  “Drink this,” I prescribe, handing her the bottle, “drink this potion and we’ll have you back on your feet and doing battle in no time!”

I pray I am right, because I have already seen and heard too much to do it alone.

And, I might mention, I am something of a coward.

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Flash Fiction: Your Bathroom

It’s 4:00 AM.

You get up and go to the bathroom.

Something is waiting for you behind the shower curtain.

No, that’s impossible. Nothing is waiting for you behind the shower curtain.

Right?

But you can kind of feel it there. A presence. An energy in the room. You are not alone. There’s something in here with you. Something behind the shower curtain.

No. That sort of thing isn’t real. And that sound, that low rasp like breathing, that’s probably just wind whispering in through an opened window.

Right?

So: there’s something waiting for you behind the shower curtain.

There’s nothing waiting for you behind the shower curtain.

The bathroom light buzzes and flickers.

What do you do?

Do you leave on all the lights on your walk back to the bedroom?

Do you feel safe closing your eyes and going back to sleep?

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