Radio Man I, or: A Man Wakes Up Any Morning

(Originally published as “A Man Wakes Up Any Morning” in Sanitarium Magazine, Issue #38.)

Radio Man I, or: A Man Wakes Up Any Morning

 

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.

“Steve?” Sarah’s voice was sleepy-soft.

“Yeah?” he asked, pretending not to know the question.  Pretending not to have heard it every day for as long as he could remember, going back more days than he had any reason to keep counting.

“Could you make breakfast for the kids?  I had a late night.”

“Sure.”

The form of her was invisible beneath the sheets, but he knew she smiled.  It was a small smile, no teeth showing.  He’d maneuvered a glance at it on one of the hundreds of days that were all exactly alike.  Within minutes, she’d be back in the depths of sleep.

*****

He scrambled eggs in the frying pan.  They spat oil and sputtered as he chopped at them with the spatula.  The dog, Shep, wove between his legs excitedly, as if expecting a helping herself.  He stared at the pan, listening to the sound under the sizzling eggs.  Radio static, in crescendo.  The clock on the stove blinked to 7:35 AM.

The television flickered on in the living room.  The news anchor sounded exactly the same as the Radio Man, sounded exactly the same as his boss, sounded exactly the same as how many other people he’d met living the same day over for months on end.  The anchor leaned toward the camera, “His wife, author Sarah Clarke, was still sleeping when the slaughter began.”

He walked over to the set and turned it off.  He stared at the blank screen until the smell of burning eggs brought him back to the stove.  He swore he saw something move behind the black veil of the dead screen, but he could never make it out.

*****

He didn’t remember buying the gun.  He remembered the code to the safe, the number he punched into the keypad to unlock it, but he didn’t actually remember buying the thing.  It was as if it had always been there, waiting, whispering in his dreams.

The safe was in the closet of their bedroom, on the opposite side of the house from the twins.  He remembered it being there when he brought them all home from the hospital.  Had it been there when they’d moved in?  Had it been there when they bought the house and he carried Sarah over the threshold like a second wedding?

The question hurt his head.  He walked back to the kitchen, closing the door quietly behind him.

*****

Amy was up, first.  She came out of her room so fast she would’ve crashed right into the wall if he hadn’t been there to catch her.  He’d learned that from the first few times the day repeated: same time, every morning, Amy careened out of the room fast as a bullet right into the wall.  Being there to catch her saved him twenty minutes of crying.  It saved her a nasty knot on the side of her head, too.

“Watch it there, kiddo,” he said, smiling down at her.

She was very small and young and knew little about pain.

She pulled herself out of his hands and ran toward the kitchen table.  “You’re coming to the play tomorrow!” – not a question, a statement.  Amy had a role in the school play, and had been increasingly excited about it during the lead up.  She was bubbling over.  Except tomorrow never seemed to come.  All her enthusiasm was trapped in the present, imprisoned in the same endless morning.

“You bet,” he whispered back, knowing she couldn’t hear him.

Charlie came out of the room next, rubbing his eyes.  “I don’t wanna go.”

Steve reached down and ruffled his son’s dirty blond hair.  “Too bad, Chuckie man.”

“It’s a stupid play.”

“It’ll only be one night.  You’ll be fine.”

Charlie grumbled his way into the kitchen and sat down at the table.  He poured too much ketchup on his eggs.

*****

He brought them both a glass of milk and half of an English muffin with peanut butter and jelly.  It was what they had in the house: milk, eggs, English muffins, peanut butter, jelly, and four cans of tuna.  Groceries had been tight.  Everything had been tight since they’d discovered they were having fraternal twins instead of a single child.  It didn’t help that Sarah hadn’t had a successful book in four years.  Or any book at all.  A sales job in telecomm wasn’t enough to feed a family of four.

The debt had worried him until the calendar stopped moving.  Now it seemed like a funny joke.  If a collector called, he would cheerily give them all the appropriate information and hang up the phone, knowing nary a dime would go missing from it.  Another of the fringe benefits of not having a future.

“Never put off till tomorrow,” he muttered to himself, watching his children eat.  It was a joke he’d made, before.  It wasn’t funny and it wasn’t aging well.

“You’ll break,” the dog had the Radio Man’s voice.  Its mouth didn’t move, but Steve could hear it in his head.  “They all break, eventually.  One way or another.  What do you think you have in you?  A couple more months, maybe a year?  How long can you make the same breakfast every morning?”

He glared down at the dog and found it jumping up and down around the kitchen table.  Charlie slipped it a palm-full of egg and ruffled its ears.  The animal glanced back at Steve with mischief in its eyes.  Charlie loved the dog, of course.  Charlie couldn’t hear it whisper in his head.

*****

How many times had he done this?  How long had he fought?  How many ways could he avoid doing it?  How many times could he wake up in the same bed and hear the same news report and decide not to let it happen?

Over.  He just wanted it to be over.

*****

The bus picked the kids up a few minutes late.  8:39 instead of 8:30.  Of course, after the first few times Steve had just started taking them out to the curb at 8:35ish.  He waved them aboard the yellow bus and watched it drive away.

There was one thing he hadn’t tried, yet, but he didn’t want the kids to be home if it worked.

*****

Sarah was still sleeping when he tip-toed back into the bedroom.  He went to the gun locker, opened it, and took out the rifle.  It was a 30.06 and held five bullets.  He loaded it up and listened to the safe sing static in his ears.  It was always static.  Static and the radio voice, out of every pore of the world.  The dog had the voice.  The stray cat had the voice.  The birds had the voice.  The mouse scurrying across the sidewalk had the voice.  He could hear the news report shivering beneath the earth’s skin.

But problems do have solutions.

He left the bedroom with the gun and walked out to the backyard.  It was a quiet neighborhood.  The only sound was the pop and crackle of the thing living inside the air, the rustle of leaves scratching each other like record needles.  He took a deep breath.

His teeth felt strange against the barrel, like biting into a piece of flint.  It was cold and hard and it made his enamel itch.  He closed his eyes and fumbled for the trigger with his thumb, awkwardly hunched over the gun.  He tried to block out the gritty texture and the coppery taste of metal.  He struggled not to gag.  His thumb found the curved edge of the trigger, and he heard himself whimper.

He squeezed.

*****

The radio man said, “He killed his son, first, splattering blood across scrambled eggs like watery ketchup” and Steve reached out and slammed his hand on the alarm clock.  He rolled over and pulled Sarah close to him, feeling her body ease into his.  She helped his lungs expand.  The alarm clock turned back on.  “His daughter tried to run away, screaming for her mother, but he shot her in the back of the throat before—”

He turned away from Sarah, grabbed the alarm clock, and wrenched it from the wall.  He pushed himself out of bed and threw the clock on the floor, watching its plastic pieces break apart to reveal electronic guts.  He picked up the remains and threw them down, again, watching them shatter and spin away from each other.  The floor was covered in debris.

“What the hell are you doing?” Sarah sat up in bed.

Steve swallowed air to drown the fire in his chest.  “I’m sick of it.”

Sarah seemed small in the center of the mattress, caught in the whorl of sheets.  Her voice seemed smaller still.  “My parents said…if we have to…”

He shook his head at her, bull-like, “No.  That’s not—I’m not living in a basement with two kids, the dryer banging around all night, living behind walls we make out of shower curtains.”

Moving would be a waste of time, anyway.

“Just until I finish the book,” she offered.

He took a deep breath and started picking the shattered radio pieces up from the floor.  “It’s fine,” he muttered.  He bit his tongue to stop himself from talking about the news report, the Radio Man, the repeating day.  She never believed him, anyway.  “Keep writing.  I’ll figure it out at work.  We’ll figure it out.”

He hadn’t even gone to work for months.  It seemed pointless, now.

“I’m sorry,” he dropped the radio innards into the bin at the foot of the bed.  “Just…work stress.  The boss.  We haven’t had a cost-of-living raise in years and…nevermind.  I’m just sorry, okay?”

She nodded, not replying.

“I’m so goddamned sorry.”

“Come here,” Sarah reached out with open arms, “let me hold you.”

*****

One day, to kill the monotony, he told the kids to skip school and go to the zoo with him.  He snapped at Amy when she tried to turn on the car radio, smacked her hand harder than he wanted.  She didn’t cry, but she looked up at him with wide, scared eyes.  The tape deck grinned at him, spat out a tape like a tongue.  He grabbed it and threw it out the window, watching it shatter against the road behind them.

The day was muffled and distant inside his head.  The kids jumped around and took photographs on disposable cameras, snapshots of big cats and exotic birds.  Steve tried to keep his eyes on his feet, feeling the gaze of every animal branding his skin.  Monkeys howled at him, teeth bared, “His daughter tried to run away!  His daughter tried to run away!”  Their laughter chattered in his head.  One of them threw crap at him, spattering his slacks with their shitstain.

The kids got tired and grumpy and started to whine, so he took them to lunch at a cheap burger place down the road.  His wallet was out of cash, so he paid on a credit card.  The kids’ faces got gross with condiments, their fingers sticky.  Steve wiped them off with sanitary napkins despite their arguments.  Amy was particularly against it.  “Daddy, stop!” she yelled, drawing the attention of parents at another table.  As if they were any better.  As if their children were so polite.  He wrangled Amy still and wiped her mouth with the moist towelette as she squealed.

The overhead speaker snickered at him in Radio Man static.  “The only way out is through.”

“Come on, let’s go,” Steve muttered, angrier than he wanted to sound.  He grabbed his children by the wrists and ferried them out of the restaurant.  He sat them down in the back of the car and locked them in.  He paced around the parking lot for fifteen minutes before he joined them, begging God or the Universe or anyone for an answer, for a tomorrow, for something to do.

A young woman, maybe fifteen or sixteen, walked around the side of the lot.  Bleach-white hair sat mop-like on her head, the sides shaved clean down to the scalp.  She was fatally thin and smelled of unwashed summer heat.  She scanned the parking lot until her eyes fell on him.  “Sir…?”

The stench of her made him recoil.  He fished a couple crumpled bills from his pocket.

She took the money and ferreted it away in the folds of a tattered, XXL hoodie.  “Thank you.  But that’s not what—”

He was already walking away, unlocking the driver’s side door of the car and sliding into the seat.  She stood outside the burger joint staring at him, something behind her eyes making him think about police detectives or psycho-analysts.  He turned his keys in the ignition and tried to clear her smell out of the back of his throat.

“Daddy?” Charlie asked.  “Who is that?”

“Doesn’t matter,” he mumbled.  It didn’t feel like a lie.

*****

One day, he told Sarah, and she didn’t believe him.  He told his boss, and he didn’t, either.  He told a therapist and she prescribed him drugs.  He told a cop and spent the day in a cell.  He told anyone that would listen and nobody did.  There was no point in keeping it secret, day after same-day.  The Radio Man didn’t seem to care, either.

“Tell everyone!” fifty televisions called out inside a Wal-Mart, “Tell everyone and maybe they’ll start tuning in to the same channel!”

*****

Shep slept on the floor in front of the dead TV screen.  Steve stared into the flat black and drank espresso.  Something moved behind the screen, inside the darkness, he was sure of it.  He just had to see it.  It was part of an answer.  It had to be.  Because there had to be an answer and he had to find it.  He finished his fourth coffee of the morning and heard Sarah open the bedroom door.

“What are you doing out here?”

“Called out for the day,” he answered, his words caffeine-sharp.  “Needed time to think.”

He could feel the words she wanted to say, feel them like static around the hairs of his arms.  You shouldn’t skip work right now, maybe, or: we really need the money.  But she kept the words to herself and set about making her own clone of the kids’ breakfasts.  Eggs, English muffin, milk.  The tuna sat in cold cans uneaten.  He refilled his mug while she ate and sat back down in front of the screen.

“I’ll go back in tomorrow,” he said, feeling her eyes still on him.  “I just needed a day off.”

“You deserve one.  I’m sorry about…” a pause, more words unsaid, “I’ll start freelancing again.”

“We’ll figure it out,” he waited for the screen to pulse, for something to writhe inside it.

Shep roused with the smell of food.  The squeak of dog-yawn made Steve wince.  Radio Man came through Shep’s mouth: “Police won’t comment on what the man said, but one local neighbor said it was ‘disturbing.’”  The dog panted a couple times and trotted to the kitchen.

Steve kept staring at the screen.

Sarah did her writing outside, that day.  In the quiet neighborhood with the nice grass, blissfully unaware of the thing vibrating under the skin of the world.  Steve just sat in front of the television, eyes glued to the blank, endless black.  The kids came home, troubled their mother, and went to bed.  Sarah came back inside, laptop under one arm and children’s toys under the other.

“Nice show.”

“Trying to meditate.”

“Okay, then.”

She vanished into the bedroom, where he could still hear her fingernails clack against keys.  The clock ticked forward.  9:30pm, 10:00pm, 11:43pm…it rolled over to 12:00am, 12:15am, 12:23am.  Steve felt his breath get short.  It was tomorrow.  A smile crept across his face and he started giggling.  1:17am. He jumped up off the couch with a laugh and—

“…but his behavior had been bizarre leading up to the incident…” he turned over in bed and shut off the radio.  A sob wracked through his body, and something hot lashed back at it.  He stood up.

“I’m going to kill him,” he muttered, pulling on a pair of beaten sweatpants and a t-shirt from under the bed.  “I’m going out there and I’m going to kill him.”

It was such a simple solution, he couldn’t believe he hadn’t tried it, already.

*****

He walked out into the front yard and the grass smelled like disinfectant and absence.  He wasn’t sure if Sarah would follow, and it didn’t matter anyway.  In less than 24 hours she would forget anything she’d heard him mutter that morning.  For her, a rock song would play on the radio and she’d curl back up in bed.  He crossed the lawn and reached the sidewalk.

Shep was there, waiting, staring up at him.  A stray cat sat next to her, staring with the exact same eyes.  Their mouths opened at the same time and a rush of static washed through his head.  Radio Man came out of their mouths: “You can’t kill me, here.  You can’t die.  Haven’t you figured it out?  Go to the gun locker, open it, and take out the rifle.  It’s easy when you do it.  Wake up and it will be tomorrow.”

He rushed the animals and they scattered, running along green grass in different directions.  He roared after them.  When he turned back around, he saw the blond homeless girl staring at him from behind a tree.  Her hood was up, but the look and the smell were unmistakable.  “What the hell are you doing?” he snarled, stalking toward her, hands balled into fists.  “Did you follow me?  Did you follow me to my house?”

She retreated as quickly as the animals had.  Something about her didn’t make sense, but he couldn’t place what.

*****

Oceanrest Rock & Blues was in a tiny building on top of a hill northeast of town.  It took him four hours to walk there.  He could’ve taken a car, but he didn’t.  The time gave him space to breathe, to brood, to let the answer solidify in his head.  He had to kill the Radio Man.  That was the only other option.  Then it would finally be over.

He expected to find a reception desk when he threw the door open, but there wasn’t one.  There wasn’t anything.  The place had been torn apart.  A dented air vent hung from the half-collapsed ceiling, exhaling cool, sweet air into the dusty room.  The remains of four destroyed chairs lay scattered across the floor like limbs after a bomb.

His loafers were quiet against the floor as he made his way into the station.  Broken wires like nooses hung from everything.  Ceiling tiles had been pried away to reveal leaking pipes and busted vents.  Something had come through here and destroyed the place.  He found no one waiting in the hallways as he went.  The building was catacombs-empty.

The window that looked in on the recording studio dripped with opaque gray sludge.  Steve reached out and touched it, feeling it cool and mud-like oozing around his fingers.  He wiped the viscous residue on his pants and turned the corner.

The door to the studio hung open.  Static crackled from inside the room.

Steve walked in.

The Radio Man stared at him from the center of the room.  He had microphone heads as eyes and a smile that anyone in America could buy into.  He tilted his head to one side and spoke in the same voice Steve had always heard, “Do you think you’ll wake up and it will be tomorrow?”

Steve charged him and put a fist in his everyman smile.  His skin split around the Radio Man’s teeth.  Radio Man stumbled back and crashed spread-eagle on a small, worn table.  Steve rushed forward and hit him, again, this time in the throat.  Electric feedback warbled from Radio Man’s mouth, loud enough to make Steve grab his ears.

“His wife was out of the room two seconds later with a small pistol from the same safe.  She fired and hit him in the stomach.  He returned fire, spilling all her love out of her chest,” the Radio Man was back on his feet, his voice deafening in Steve’s head.  “He was found strangling his dog on the front lawn, screaming.”

Steve dove at the man and tackled him to the ground.  He was deaf and blind from all the sound, but he didn’t need to see or hear to keep punching.  He lashed out with his fists until his knuckles were broken and all his skin was flayed by splintered bone.  The Radio Man laughed through it all, bursts of static snicker and radio-persona crack-up exploding from his mangled face.  He never fought back.

When the sound died away, Steve stood up.  All the pain shrieking in his hands seemed like a distant, foggy memory.  He staggered back through the empty radio station and walked out the front door, leaving twin trails of blood in his wake, dripping off his fingers.

Outside, a bird peered down at him from the boughs of a tree.

“The only way out is through,” Radio Man’s voice teased from its beak.

*****

Amy’s play never came.  Charlie never wanted to go, anyway.  Steve ran lines with her every morning, a rehearsal for a show that would never go up.  There were always eggs and English muffins and not much else to eat.  The safe whispered static in his dreams.  The world whispered static in his daylight.  The night ate the day and yesterday ate tomorrow.  Amy and Charlie never grew older, never grew up, never complained about dating or learned about unemployment.

They smiled and laughed and sometimes they ran into walls and that was as bad as things got for them.

*****

Static sizzled under the burning eggs.  Steve’s knuckles were bone-white around the spatula handle.  How long had it been, now?  How many times had he cooked the same breakfast?

“He went to the gun locker, opened it, and took out the rifle.”

Was it a threat, or a promise?  Was it the end, or the beginning?

*****

The eggs sputtered on the pan.  Shep wove between his legs.  “Go to the gun locker!” the animal yipped in Radio Man’s voice, “go to the gun locker!”

Steve picked the dog up and threw it against a wall.  It landed with a whimper on the kitchen counter.  “What the hell do you want from me!?” he screamed, grabbing the furry animal in his hands and shaking it.  “What do you want!?”

“His wife, author Sarah Clarke, was still sleeping when the slaughter began.”

He smashed the animal down against the countertop, hearing more bones splinter.  “Why are you doing this to me!?”

“You’ll break,” Radio Man’s voice was quieter, distorted, coming from a broken speaker inside the dog’s body.  “They always break.  The only way out…the only way…”

He lifted Shep’s body in the air and brought it down again, until the Radio Man stopped talking and the animal’s corpse painted his hands red.  Amy and Charlie went to stay with their aunt in Portland, and he spent the rest of the day in one of the police precincts.

*****

The voice got more persistent.  He unplugged the alarm clock and the birds outside would sing the report for hours.  The dog would bark it, the stray cat would mewl it.  The eggs started talking to him, the voice whispering beneath the sputtering oil.  The television would flick on and the Radio Man’s voice would come out of the news anchor, children’s cartoons, Tony Soprano’s mouth.  It was all he heard all the time every day.  It was in his head like a brain worm, eating his mind.

*****

He opened Sarah’s laptop and typed:

He went to the gun locker, opened it, and took out the rifle.  He loaded it with five rounds and leaned it against the fridge as he cooked breakfast for his children.  He walked back to the bedroom and kissed his wife on the forehead.  She smiled faintly and turned over in bed.  The walk back to the kitchen took the longest.  It was time.  There was no way out but through.  He ruffled his children’s hair and opened the fridge to reveal empty shelves.

His wife, author Sarah Clarke, was still asleep when the slaughter began.  He killed his son, first, splattering blood across scrambled eggs like watery ketchup.  His daughter tried to run away, screaming for her mother, but he shot her in the back of the throat before she could make it to the bedroom.

His wife was out of the room two seconds later with a small pistol from the same safe.  She fired and hit him in the stomach.  He returned fire, spilling all her love out of her chest.  He was found strangling his dog on the front lawn, screaming.

Police won’t comment on what the man said, but one local neighbor said it was ‘disturbing.’  His neighbor alleges he was screaming at the dog, sobbing, “Is this enough for you?  Can this all finally be over, now?” when the first cop cars pulled up across the street.

Neighbors say Steven Clarke is a good man, but his behavior had been bizarre leading up to the incident.  He’d written a grim short story on his wife’s laptop depicting a similar scene to what happened that morning, and hadn’t been to work for two or more days.  Was it a psychotic break from reality?  One witness might know the truth: a young homeless girl found on the sidewalk across from his home, crusted white hair cresting her otherwise shaved scalp…

*****

He hit ‘snooze’ and climbed out of bed.  He pulled on a pair of boxers and a dirty t-shirt.  He went to the gun locker, opened it, and took out the rifle.  He loaded it with five rounds and prayed, hands so tight around the barrel he hoped it might break.  Heat burned his cheeks as he begged the universe to intervene.  Maybe someone would remember something: maybe Sarah would find the document he left on her laptop, or his boss would remember him screaming in the office, or the cop would remember locking him up—they’d remember, and they’d stop him.  But he couldn’t keep doing it, anymore.  It had to be over.

He leaned the gun against the fridge as he cooked breakfast for his children.  He wrung his hands in front of the stove and pursed his lips in another prayer.  Shep looked up at him with microphone-head eyes, “After this, everything will be okay,” Radio Man promised.  “It’s easier than you think.  And then you’ll all be free.  All of you.  They’ll be free to dream what dreams may come.  You’ll wake up tomorrow.”

Steve opened the front door and let the dog out into the yard.  He walked back to the bedroom and kissed Sarah on the forehead.  She smiled faintly and turned over in bed.  Amy and Charlie laughed from the kitchen table.  Silverware scraped against plates.  Footsteps crunched the green grass outside, cutting across the front lawn.  Maybe it was a teenager on the way to school.  Maybe it was a cop coming to gun him down.  Maybe it was all in his head, anyway.

The walk back to the kitchen took the longest.

“Daddy,” Amy called, face covered in peanut butter and jelly, “is mom coming to the play?”

“She wouldn’t miss it for the world,” he replied, voice quivering like his guts.

Charlie rolled his eyes when Steve ruffled his hair.  The fridge was nearly empty.  Groceries had been tight for some time.  Everything had been tight for some time.  Sarah’s parents had an unfinished basement they could use for a while, but they’d have to bring their own walls.  Tuna sat uneaten in the pantry.  The sun rose at 6:45 AM and set at 8:20 PM.  Everyone breaks, eventually.

Steve licked his lips and felt a shuddering breath force its way into his lungs.  The children were very small and young and knew little about pain.  At least this way they would never have to find out.  He closed the fridge and picked up the rifle.  The only way out was through.  Maybe, if he was lucky, he would die from the stomach wound and it could all really be over.  Maybe tomorrow could be born without him in it.  Maybe the footsteps crossing the lawn were headed toward the front door.  It sounded like it.

He imagined a young homeless girl, smelling of unwashed summer, swinging the door in.  She would hold a knife in her hand and it would go up into his shoulder, on the inside, finding an artery on the way, and he would bleed out on the floor.  His family would never know why, and eventually they wouldn’t need to know why.  They would just live.

The doorknob turned.

He wrapped his finger around the trigger.

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The Treeline – Oceanrest Flash Fiction

She dreamt of the tree line.

In the dream, autumn slouched toward winter, and all the leaves had lost color and wilted.  The sky froze, the sun lanced warmth through cold clouds.  The clouds won, filtering the world into graywash dimness.  The trees, pale white and dull brown and mostly naked and leafless, reached out with kinked branches as if desperate to touch each other, and they almost never touched.

In the dream, she sat alone in her room, watching the sprawling wilderness from behind cold glass.  Her breath fogged the window.

The thing in crimson appeared, a slash of violent color against sludgy grayscape.  It wore a deep red robe and had an ivory skull the approximate shape of a deer’s.  Its thin antlers mirrored the tree branches.  They wanted to touch something with their sharpness.

It moved unnaturally, approaching the treeline.  It had an uneven gait, listing slightly to one side, as if unacquainted with bipedal movement.  When it reached the last of the trees before the sprawl of the Estate’s vast yard, it stopped.  It tilted its deerskull face up toward the window, gazing with eyes that were long gone their sockets.

In the dream, Nora couldn’t catch her breath.  She steamed her panic against the glass in short gasps.  Her fingers touched the cross around her neck.  She prayed, under her breath, in short staccato words.

The creature (or was it human) cocked its ivory skull, curious.

When she’d first come to the Estate, Ambrose had told her that the wards were ancient and powerful.  Later, when Ambrose died in Egypt, Victor reiterated this.  The wards of the Estate had protected the Blackwood’s Mansion for generations.  Nothing supernatural could cross.

Almost nothing, at least.  People could still cross over.  Human beings.  Even if they were psychic or if they knew witchcraft or if they knew nothing at all but how to wield a knife and put it to places that would hurt more than words could describe.

Nora prayed that the figure in crimson was not human.

It stood at the wards, head cocked.  The shade of its robe reminded her of the curls of life that swirled in the bathwater when she razored her skin.  It reminded her not just of blood, but of blood shed in a specific way, for a specific reason.  Its robe, the color of precisely reasoned bloodshed, was the only gash of color in the grayscape.  It unnerved her, how important that seemed.

The figure crossed the treeline, shambling, and began its uneven gait across the breadth of grass.  It paused, halfway to her window, and peered up at her with those empty skull eyes.  Lifting a robed arm, it extended a slender, sapient finger, and pointed crookedly at her.

you are chosen, a voice said in her mind.

The figure vanished.

A hand grabbed her shoulder.

She screamed.

“Whoa, there, Miss. Nora,” Victor said, jumping back from her reaction.

Awoken from slumber, she sat slouched in an office chair in the library.  Her eyes darted around, a panic of disorientation.  She leapt from her seat, spinning in circles, searching for a threat.  Her better hand went for the shiv she kept in the front pocket of her hoodie–one of the keepsakes from her homeless days.

“You okay?” Victor asked, brow rucked and gaze uncertain.

“Just a dream,” she said, panting against cold nightmare sweat.

“The bad kind?”

She nodded.  She was no psychic, her dreams contained no visions of possible futures, no premonitions of things to come–but they often arrived as omens, as metaphors, as threats.  Nothing she ever saw in her dreams came to pass literally, but the dreams always seemed so obvious after the fact.

She picked up the book that had fallen from her lap when she awoke.

“We need to prep anything?” Victor asked.

“I don’t know yet,” she answered, turning the book over in her hand.  “I mean…probably, yeah.  But.”  She shrugged, and flipped the book open to where she’d dog-eared the story before dozing off.

…’and the red death held sway over all,’ the bottom of the page told her.

A slash of color in grayscape.  A mask of something dead and age-bleached.  A finger, pointing.  you are chosen, it whispered, its voice coming from that distant place in the mind where dreams are real.

She set the book aside and fidgeted with her necklace.  She thumbed the cross and thought about how the old silver flatly symbolized two wooden boards.  Thought about what it must’ve felt like, being chosen, as people drove nails through a good man’s hands.  What must it have felt like, being chosen, when the hungry birds began circling overhead?

“You want breakfast?  Coffee?” Victor asked, trying vainly to pull her out of her thoughts.

She let go of the necklace.

Being chosen seemed like a raw deal.  Seemed a lot like being condemned.

“Coffee,” she said absently.

Seemed a lot like being damned, actually.

Or sacrificed.

Abraham wasn’t leading Isaac up the mountain to have a picnic, after all.

you, the dream warned her.  you.

chosen.

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A Test : Oceanrest Flash Fiction

The woman across from me wears a plague mask.  Except she’s not really wearing a plague mask, she’s making me think she’s wearing a plague mask.  She thinks I’m one of them–someone like her.  But I’m not one of them.  I’m not one of anybody.  If I was somebody, I’d have a real job, a real life.  I’d have a home.

“Are you paying attention?” she asks.

“Sure.” I lie.

She shows me a card.  The back is absence-white, color of nothing and everything at once.  “I need you to focus on the card,” she says.  “I’ll know if you don’t.”

She’s not lying.  I’ve danced these steps a dozen times.  I haven’t had a choice.  Legally speaking, I signed up for this.  Technically.  There’s a contract somewhere, my name’s on it.

I focus on the card.  Blank white.  Nothing white.

“What do you think is on my side of the card?” she asks.

“I don’t know.”

“Guess,” she says.

“The number seven.”

She nods curtly, sets the card aside.  From the stack of exact-same cards, she plucks a new one.  Holds it up between her fingers, nothing side facing me.  “Is this one also a number?”

“Sure.”

“Good job.  What number do you think it is?”

“Fucking thirteen for all I care.”

Another short nod.  “Interesting,” she says.

“What’s interesting?”

She sets the card aside, replaces it.  Blank back.  Everything is so white in this place.  Her coat: white.  Her mask: white.  The back of every card: white.  The floor tiles, the walls, everything.  Except the meds I’m allegedly ‘testing.’  Those come in all colors, shimmering like oil, glowing like a rainbow or the scales of a dead fish.

“This one is a picture.”

“Okay.”

“What is it a picture of?”

“The moon?”

“Right.”  She sets the card aside, shuffles the stack a couple times, cuts the deck, re-cuts it, re-shuffles, and fans them out in front of me like a row of too many teeth.  “Could you pick out the number twelve?”

“Probably not?”

“Give it a guess.  Go with your gut.”

I roll my eyes.  Pick a random card.

She turns it over.  Twelve.

“You have an eighty-percent success rate across two hundred guesses, in the time you’ve been here.  Are you sure you’re guessing?”

“Yes!” I slam my hand on the table.  She tilts her head.  I’d stand up, but my feet are chained to chair legs.  I slouch, instead, curled in.  “Of course I’m fucking guessing, they’re a bunch of blank cards.”

“Right.  On one side.”

I show her my middle finger but she doesn’t react to it.  Not that I can tell, at least.  But maybe she’s done that to me, too.  I can feel her in my head, tinkering around with my retinas, my eardrums.  Picking at the folds of my brains like a groping pervert.

“Do you know how long you’ve been here?” she asks.

“I signed a contract for ninety days.”

“And how many days has it been?”

I open my mouth.  Balk.  Close it.  How many days?  “Fifteen?  Twenty?”

She nods.  “Interesting.”

“How many fucking days has it been?” I yell.

An enormous figure shifts against the wall behind her, a blur against white paint.  She holds her hand up and the blur vanishes, melting back into nothing.  But I know something’s there, now.  If I blur my eyes I can make it out.  Man-shaped, but huge.

“Please don’t yell,” she says.  “I assure you, we will release you.”

“How many days?”

“Nine.”

“Out of ninety?”

“Yes.”

A cold pain rolls through my veins, rooting itself in the fabric of my lungs.  My jaw slacks, my eyes burn.  I clutch the edge of the table like a drowning man clutches the side of a lifeboat.  “No.  You’re lying.”

She sets a small amber pill down in front of me.  I know this one–tastes of honey and campfire, gives me tatters of dreams I can never quite remember the day after.  What kind of drug company is this?

She sets down a glass of water (where did it come from?) and pushes it toward me.  “Exit of the study is considered forfeiture of pay and all other signed gains.  The NDA, inclusive of all fine print, will still apply to you, however.”

“What are you doing to me?”

“We’re studying you.”

“Who is ‘we?'”

“Unfortunately, due to my own NDA, and my personal interest, I can’t answer that.”

“Who are you people?”

“Please, take the pill.  We will give you a break from memory and guessing tests for the next four days.”

“I can’t do this…” I half-collapse forward, losing all balance, suddenly nauseous and wet-faced, tears streaking my cheeks.  “I can’t–I can’t–I can’t…”

“You can, actually.  And you’ll be better for it.”  She puts a gentle hand on my shoulder, consolation for her own victim.  Squeezes.  “There is a power sleeping inside of you.  We’re just trying to help wake it up.”

“Don’t touch me.”

But I like it.  It feels good to have human contact.  Has it really only been nine days?

She withdraws her hand from my shoulder and pushes the water closer to me.  I take the pill.  When I look back at the room, she’s gone.  Or she’s making me think she’s gone.  She can do these things.  My ankles are uncuffed, unchained from the chair legs.

I wonder if the manacles were ever really there at all.

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Good News, Bad News.

Good news and bad news.  An update from the cave.  The hermit shambles forth from the dark mouth, a decree on his chapped lips.

(That’s me, by the way.)

Let’s start with the bad news: it seems unlikely that my work with The New American Apocalypse will continue, at least not for a long time (by which point it will be no longer topical and probably forgotten by its readers).  I know, I know–we were all looking forward to the final battle between our brainburnt narrator and the squirming tentacles of fascist, greed-driven evil, but I’ve fallen several entries behind and have taken on too many projects to spend much time catching up…and certainly not before voting day.

Perhaps I’ll resurrect the story and finish it soon, maybe 2 years from now, maybe in the form of a smaller, less-improvised, and even more grotesque little chap-book.  Who knows?  I don’t.  And even if I did, I would carry the idea in secret, hidden beneath the tattered folds of my yellow cloak.

On to the good news!

The good news: the reason The New American Apocalypse has been on the back-burner for so long, and the forces behind my decision to suspend all work on it (at least for some time) is because I’m juggling too many other, larger projects.  I am plodding along, slowly but surely, on a sequel to No Grave.  It’s unlikely to see release before mid-2017, but it’s getting done.  The Brownstone crew and the sundry other characters wrapped up in this world of shadows, secrets, and scares will visit upon you again!  Fear not…or, yeah, probably fear a little.

The second piece of news: I am also plodding forth in my dealings with the large (and largely-abandoned) town of Oceanrest, Maine.  By now, some of you might’ve noticed a story about a black house in the woods, or about a strange CD linked to hallucinatory effects, or about a man who wakes up every morning haunted by the ghosts of the future.  Or maybe you’ve just heard about Oceanrest from a mysterious diary page found in a rotting pile of debris.  In any case, the setting is going places.  I’ve hinted at something for a while and, to excuse my seeming abandonment of my improvisational blog project, perhaps it is time I came clean and told you: there are talks of a novel.  I’ve written it, three full from-scratch drafts and months in revisions and rewrites, working happily with editorial staff from various interested parties.  I don’t want to give away too much, in case we get caught in development/contractual hell, but there may be copies available in bookstores in the foreseeable future (assuming we do not all drown in hellfire or nuclear radiation first).  Expect to see more Oceanrest short stories in e-zines, magazines, and on my blog, and (hopefully) you’ll be able to get a larger look at the town and its denizens in the not-too-distant future.

The third piece of news: I am writing a podcast.  As these things often are, the podcast is being created on a tightwire budget above a vast crevasse of darkness, but the people in charge are people I’ve worked with on other projects and who have a history of creating quality goods despite (or because of) budgetary limitations.  They have a strong track record and I trust them.  These words will reach your ears, sooner or later, through the lips of talented voice actors.  Of course, I’ve never written a podcast before–and this is why, in the past four months, I have gone from 1 podcast subscription with 40 “heard” episodes, to 15 podcast subscriptions with 266 “heard” episodes.  I’ve been learning the ropes, writing and revising episodes, etc… and this has, in addition to the above-mentioned news, taken time.

So, between an upcoming Furies book, a possible Oceanrest book (and more Oceanrest stories in general), and a podcast…my plate is a bit full.  And so we bid (hopefully brief) adieu to our New American Apocalypse and its tentacular evils in order to march more steadily forward.

With great love and hope and utter sky-rending terror,

Spencer

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Out of the Dark: An Update.

Some of you have recently messaged me to ask “where the hell is the American Apocalypse?”

It’s still lurking in the darkness, worry not.  Its destiny will manifest, soon.  Due to its improvisational nature, a call-and-response to the madness of our national climate, its become somewhat run-away and I’ve had to resort to a degree of planning, a method of crafting its future to ensure it drives the deepest possible knife.  This has required a small break, but it will be back in action very soon, limping and squirming its way forward.

I also have other news that I hope will buy me pardon for my silence.

Piece of news #1: that Oceanrest project I mentioned so long ago has gained its landlegs.  Several of them.  I consider it still fairly Top Secret, and so won’t go too much into detail, but I’ve found myself in a position where the world and stories of Oceanrest need my focus.  Expect to see some more Oceanrest flash fiction and Oceanrest news in the near future.  I don’t want to jinx myself so I won’t say more.  If you happen to have an old chicken on its last legs, its eyes half-blind with cataracts, well, feel free to sacrifice it in my name.  If your chicken is healthy, however, consider giving it a name.  “Henry,” for instance.

Piece of news #2: I’ve started work on No Peace.  Oh, yes, I should clarify– No Peace is the third book of The Furies series, a sequel to No Grave.  I’ve only just now started scrawling the project in earnest, so release isn’t on the horizon, but between opening No Peace and my work on the Oceanrest project, my writing time isn’t as vast as it used to be.

Piece of news #3: I’ve taken to writing more non-fiction.  This isn’t of any particular note, really, although I now have some biased political screeds on http://perspectyve.com — but my sudden interest in essays and op-eds has proven distracting.  Does anyone really care about my thoughts on horror and dark fiction?  I doubt it.  Yet, I am compelled to write them down.  Maybe one day I’ll throw them on the blog, here, but for now I think it’s best if I keep my damned opinions to myself.

Piece of news #4: website re-design.  Several of the plugins and the previous theme I’d been using on this site have caused problems and site downages, preventing my precious words from finding their homes in your eager skulls.  Because I’m a narcissistic writer-type, I find this to be unacceptable.  So the site is undergoing the slow process of revision and “rewrite.”  As I hobble forth on this endeavor, there may be issues, though hopefully no site downages anymore.  This also takes time away from American Apocalypse.

But worry not, squidlings.  With the beginnings of a plan in hand, I’ve already started drafting the next segment and will have it online as soon as all these other horrors allow.

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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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Oceanrest Flash Fiction: Birth

I can feel my skin stretching over it, taut like the flesh of an overripe peach. I press on myself and I can feel it push back, feel it organic and ready, pushing, pushing its way out…

I don’t know what it is. I don’t remember when I first felt it. Sometime after getting to Oceanrest, after my first nights sleeping in the empty house by the shore, listening to the song of the Sargasso Sea. Listening to the sound underneath the song.

Now it plays violin with the hairs on the back of my neck.

Did it come in from the ocean? A microscopic thing? A spore that grew? I don’t know. It doesn’t matter.

I’m not afraid. I can feel it running its long tendril fingers gently along the folds of my brain. It doesn’t want to kill me. It just wants to change me. It wants to change the world. I can relate to that. Anyone could relate to that.

This body? Just a precursor to my next body. I can feel it, working its way through the old human skin…soon I’ll be born again. It will come out of me like light spilling through a stained glass window. I am the stained glass animation of the resurrection. “Come,” it sings in the tune of the Sargasso, “come live again with me.”

I push in on the flesh of my arm, so tight. Ready to break open. Ready to birth me, again.

Won’t you join us? Won’t you sing the Sargassan hymnal with us? Don’t you want to change yourself? Don’t you want to change the world?

Come live again with us.

Come live again.

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Oceanrest Flash Fiction, World Building Exercise

Oceanrest.  There’s something wrong with this place.

Can’t you feel it?

“Something in the water” people might say–but it’s not in the water.  It’s in the air.  Airborne, like fungal spores taking root in your lungs.  Spreading.  Turning your insides into a mushroomed jungle.  Greasy growing on your skin like milky sweat.  The fog around the docks, the leftover factory smell in abandoned warehouses, something not quite smog.  Can’t you feel it?

I can.  I can feel it inside my lungs, around my innards, on my skin.  It’s like a second me growing inside the first one.  A second reality waiting under our own, its lungs inside our lungs.  We inhale, it exhales.  It’s pushing itself through a crack here, something we can’t see but can vaguely feel.  Something old and instinctual.  We can’t see it, but an unconscious impulse deep in the twitch of our lizard brain tells us it’s here.  Tells us we should get away from it.

Can’t you feel it?

Inhale.  Exhale.  Don’t you feel that shudder?  That half-second weakness, shivering in your alveoli, your bronchioles?

There’s a heartbeat behind your heartbeat.  Listen to it.  No.  Listen closer.  Listen to the thing behind the thing, inside it.  Hear the whispers breathing through the crack.  Feel the spores drifting through the fog.  Feel the second reality living behind ours.  Feel it pulse there, waiting.  What is it waiting for?

Something about this place…something really wrong.

Makes people do bad things.

Might make you do bad things.  Maybe it’s small.  All bad things start small.  The spore that grows.  Might make you lie about something important, one day.  Might make you wait a little too long to hit the brakes.  Might make you pick up a gun and put it in an old woman’s gummy mouth.

Do you feel it, yet?

I can feel it.  Since the day I got here.

Might make me do something bad, one day.  Might make me do something bad to you.

Listen…

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Flash Fiction: Oceanrest Murder Confession

I did kill them, I’ll admit that.  I murdered them all, one at a time, using the curved, sharp edge of a seven inch blade.

But I didn’t write those words.

The blood wrote the words long ago, and I read them.  It was a sanguinary scripture.  Destiny scrawled out.

People used to read entrails and see the future in the guts–this was like that.  When I was a boy I looked up at the chalkboard and saw the blood dripping down the walls like runny jam.  The words were already there.  I saw the future in them, in their glistening shapes behind my teacher’s head.  I memorized them over days and weeks and never forgot what they said.  I knew the scripture forwards and backwards long before I ever contributed my hand to its diction.

You don’t seem to understand me.  To understand it.  You say that my fingerprints were found smudged in the gore, you say I chose to do it myself, taking their life from their throats and using my hand as a brush to paint my religion…I didn’t.  I am beginning a long standing prophecy.  You have to understand.  My actions, my subsequent arrest…this isn’t an ending.

This is a beginning.

I didn’t write the words.  The blood wrote the words for me, long ago.  I only read them.

The blood is still out there, writing.

Other people have read.

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Flash Fiction: Note From Oceanrest

(today’s flash fiction is not a macabre translation of life in NYC, but rather a little world-building exercise I did for a concept I’m working on)

treesinfog

[she found the papers in a ruffled pile in a disused stall in the woods]

[there was no explanation for them: what they were about, how they got there, how long they’d been sitting in undated excrement and woodrot]

[she has to read them.  The breadcrumbs led her this far, and she isn’t about to turn back, now.]

[she picks a sheet from the middle of the pile, like a child taking a card from a magician]

DATE UNKNOWN

The empty hallways fold in on each other like nesting dolls as I walk them, always empty, footsteps calling back to me in echoes, stretching on infinitely, longer and longer dialogues with the tiles.  One hallway becomes the next hallway becomes the next hallway.  Walking in circles.  Walking an ouroboros.  The hallways eat themselves while I’m still inside.

They fed me pills in every color of the chemical-spill rainbow.  I took them with water that shone like sunkissed oil.  All that color spilled darkness in me.

There’s something under it all like music but it couldn’t be music because the whole complex (the long repeating hallway) is absolutely silent.  Only my footsteps and the shadows pouring words into my ear.

I remember things, but I don’t know how I remember them.  There are three kinds of memories I find in the endless hallways: memories of impossible things, memories of things that never happened to me, and memories of things that happened too long ago to be clear.  I remember being followed by a woman in all white and a plague mask as her face, writing my life down on a clipboard.  I remember shadows whispering to me in every voice I’ve ever heard.  I remember a pale prince dying in my arms, the yellow sign blotted in the rorschach of his blood.

I remember you finding something hidden in your breath against the glass.

[wind rustles the autumn leaves and she glances over her shoulder.]

[but it was just the wind, wasn’t it?]

[she stuffs the papers in her backpack.  She knows she shouldn’t be here.]

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