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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The Hollow: A Podcast

I wrote a podcast and you can listen to it right now!  It’s called The Hollow and it’s an anthological horror fiction podcast following a different story and characters every season.  Season One is airing now!  Check it out!  I promise it’s not bad.

Season One follows the plight of a lonely, self-important (and self-flagellating) author as he flees his real life and personal responsibilities to stay at a nearly empty inn and Work On His Book(TM).  Of course, things aren’t quite what they seem in this little hamlet, and both the inn and the author have quite a history to unravel…

You can find the podcast on The Hollow official site and on iTunes.  You can also follow the podcast on Facebook and Twitter for updates.  Please give it a listen!  And, if you like it, please leave a review on iTunes.

Seriously, please leave an iTunes review!  It would help us enormously!

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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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Resident Evil 7 : Review

Why would an author write a Resident Evil 7 review?  It’s a video game, after all.

Because this author plays a lot of video games.  More on that in the near future.

(Also because I have access to a blog platform and the absurdist millennial belief that anyone cares a spit about my banal thoughts.)

The TL;DR version of this review is as follows: purchase this game.  If you’re a fan of the franchise (which I’m not, really) or a fan of survival horror (which I am), you’ll love it.  I might recommend waiting for a sale (I didn’t), since it comes in a bit short for its price point.

Alright, now for the long version.

Selling Point 1 : You’re Not Helpless.

I’m pretty sick of helplessness as a game mechanic.  If a game is only scary because the player is helpless, it’s secretly not a very scary game.  Anything can be scary if it’s done in low light with tense music and ALSO YOU’RE HELPLESS.  This entire trend is even more absurd because, very often, the player character is walking around an environment often littered with weapons.  Look, Outlast scared the shit out of me, despite having some of the most eye-rollingly ‘shock’ moments in gaming history, but at a certain point I started rooting for the monsters.  The player character may be a journalist, but he’s a journalist walking through halls full of possible improvisational tools!  Pick something up!

People and, by extension, fictional characters, have a tendency to create tools and even weaponry with pretty much whatever is at hand.  They don’t call it ‘The Stone Age’ for fun, they call it that because the tools and weapons were made from stone.  Human beings are so desperate for tools and weapons that we literally made them out of stone.  But apparently our frightened avatars in modern horror games are too busy panting from terror to stop for a second and gather tools.

[/rant]

Resident Evil 7 assumes your character wants to make and use tools and weapons.  That assumption changes everything.  The environment is littered with resources, from big fuck-you-up guns to various chemicals and herbs to garden tools.  It creates a more interesting dynamic than helplessness.  Holding an ax gives you a sense of possibility, of strength.  Swinging it gives you a sense of power.  Whacking it into someone’s neck in a moment of desperate terror gives you an inch of control.  Turning around to find the corpse mysteriously missing…

One of my favorite horror games ever was FEAR (and its sequel, FEAR 2.)  It armed me from the start.  The game handed its player a series of awesome, fuck-you-up guns.  And then it peeled away the frail veneer of your confidence and dropped you into a situation far beyond your depth.  Resident Evil 7 does something quite similar.

Selling Point 2 : A Dreadful Sense of Intimacy

The primary setting of RE7 is a sprawling plantation estate in rural Louisiana.  It’s a family’s property.  A fucked up family, but a family nonetheless.  And the banality of that fact, the familiarity of a house’s interior, serves to create an unsettling intimacy.  Family photographs, sports paraphernalia, book shelves, kids’ trophies, etc… the details of a family history are all there.  There are even receipts and passive-aggressive sticky notes.  And the player is pressured by game mechanics and curiosity to check everything, to look into every corner, to experience as thoroughly as possible this maddening juxtaposition of the familiar and the grotesque.

Perhaps this is what I like most about the game: the minimal scope.  You are a lone human maneuvering through a minuscule slice of the globe.  The massive, overarching lore of the franchise is missing.  The vast scale of backstory is unimportant.  This is a game about the protagonist and the antagonists and very little else.

Franchises tend to bloat.  Scale expands and exposition piles up.  This game, ‘reboot’ or not, solves that problem with a sharp, indifferent knife.  It delivers what it needs: a tightly-focused story.

Selling Point 3 : Something For Everyone

Horror is lush with sub-genres.  RE7 does its best to tap as many as possible.

Supernatural horror is immediately dangled in front of our faces.  Body horror is omnipresent.  Sci-fi horror is the franchise staple.  RE7 even incorporates moments of splatterpunk and, of course, general action-horror.  Oh, I almost forgot, there’s a whole SAW-inspired puzzle-solving section, too.  Not to mention shades of Chainsaw Massacre throughout…chainsaw very much included.  Which also reminds me that southern gothic archetypes and references are everywhere in RE7.  There are also cosmic horror references, though that particular sub-genre doesn’t make any real appearances in the game proper.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that there’s something for everyone.  And though the run-and-hide mode of helplessness horror isn’t an expressed requirement of the game, running and hiding is often the wisest course of action.  So they’ve got that, too, if you like it.

One might worry that the ‘dash of everything’ approach might overclutter the game, but it doesn’t.  It provides different levels to the gameplay and, what’s more, always seems in service to the story.

Selling Point 4 : Sadistic Antagonists

I saw an article online lamenting the ugly gameplay necessity of key gathering, narratively lampshaded with the idea that the antagonists want to make it hard for you to escape.  The article pointed out that the antagonists didn’t bother reinforcing the walls, blocking the doors, or bricking up the windows.  I imagined that such measures would take away some of the ‘fun’ for the antagonists.  As much as they claim they don’t want to chase anyone down anymore, they seem to get a wicked joy out of doing just that.  If they made it too hard to escape, they’d lose the ecstasy of chasing down the desperately hopeful escapees and butchering them!

Such is the rabid sadism of our front-and-center antagonists.  Quite early in the game, during my second playthrough, I discovered myself gravely wounded by my pursuer.  Instead of finishing the job, he set a healing kit down on the floor and cooed at me to use it.  Once I’d patched myself up, he even gave me a headstart before coming after me again.  So, in my mind, the key hunting has nothing to do with making it difficult for me to leave; it has everything to do with providing the antagonists with entertainment.

These batshit crazy sadists provide the main antagonism.  Hordes of faceless monsters provide secondary, supporting antagonism (the ‘nameless goon’ variety, mostly.)  And then, behind it all, there lurks a vast, faintly-inhuman force (oh, wait, I guess those cosmic horror references make some sense after all).  Each layer of antagonism serves a purpose both to story and to gameplay.  The front-and-center villains are charmingly psychotic and extremely terrifying.  The nameless goons provide tense, strategic combat.  And the terrible intelligence behind the whole show creates a layer of moral and intellectual questions the game would otherwise lack.  It’s quite an exquisite array of enemies.

The Downside : It’s a Bit Pricey.

Currently, the game goes for $59.99, not including DLCs or soundtrack.  My first playthrough took 10 hours, my second took 7.  There’s an in-game achievement for managing it down to 4.  Though it’s a bit replayable, if only for the sheer moodiness and the awesome realization of its setting, replayability isn’t its prime directive.  I’ll certainly be prancing through it a third time, but I’m a particular sort of person.  In the main, I doubt most people will go through it more than twice.  So what that settles down to is that the base game provides, say, 10-20 hours of gameplay for a ~$60 price tag.  No thanks.

It was worth it, for me, because I love the genre and I’m utterly sick of helplessness horror.  I’ve played through twice and will be playing a third time at least.  I enjoy the game from a gameplay perspective and from a horror theory perspective.  I also sprang for the DLCs, not yet available for PC, which I hear add significant replayability–but we’re not discussing the DLCs, are we?  No.  We’re discussing the cost of the base game.  And the cost of the base game, unless you’re a weirdo  like me, is simply too high.

But I guarantee it’ll be on sale in the near future.  So if you’re the patient sort, you’re in luck.

Final Thoughts

RE7 provides an excellent experience.  It’s nerve-wracking, unsettling, frightening, and fun.  In my original 10-hour playthrough, I sweated and panicked through the first 2 hours like a man on the edge.  For the few hours after that, my mood shifted between anxiety and joy.  Anxiety at every door, every corridor, and every corner; joy at my increasing competence at solving my dilemmas.  Most of the last hour was spent in full action mode, all sound and fury and laughter.  It was an incredible emotional journey.

In my second playthrough, I was more confident.  My relatively eased anxiety allowed me to appreciate the setting and the art of the game more deeply.  The narrative flow, the peaks and valleys of fear throughout the story, etc.  It was during my second playthrough that I really fell in love with the game.

So, yes, it’s an exquisite game, an excellent bit of interactive horror media, and a decently written (if also unevenly written) story.  My only dismay is at the price tag, a number I think is a bit high for people less fanatical about their devotion to horror media and video games than I am.  But I suppose that’s for them to decide.

 

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Why Dark Fiction?

Hello, imaginary public, and welcome to today’s process blog entry: “Why Dark Fiction?”

Some time ago, on the internet, while discussing writing with a bunch of fellow writers (whom I’ll likely never meet in person), I was posed a question by someone who had actually read some of my work.  At first, I was stunned, because who reads my work?  But, then, I decided to answer the question.  The question, in essence, asked why I so rarely included ‘redemptive’ endings in my stories.

I assumed (s)he was asking about the ending of No Grave, because it seemed like a safe assumption to make.  My short stories don’t allow for a wide variety of endings, to be honest.  A story entitled “A Black House Rots North of Town” does not seem to promise a happy ending.

But it’s a fair question.  It taps into a kind of debate that I’ve seen people get involved with, before.  Especially in genre fiction–fantasy and sci-fi and such–where part of the allure is escapism: what ending do we provide an audience?  Are authors obligated to leave the audience at-ease?  Are we obligated to try to improve their real-life suffering by providing fictional easement?

My answer is unsurprisingly non-committal.  Mostly, my answer is an awkward, uncomfortable face and a series of tense, shrug-like gestures.  A few sounds akin to words like “eh?” and “maybe?” and “kinda?” and “iunno?”  Luckily, I mostly see this debate on the internet, where I’m able to scroll past without comment.  When asked about it on a forum, I provided a neat, clean paragraph that hardly covered my actual opinion.

But today, I’m throwing in my 2-cents.  And a writing prompt at the end.

Stop Reading Now If You Don’t Want No Grave Spoilers.

Seriously.  I’m not going to get too specific, but you’ll know the approximate ending if you keep reading.

Assuming you care.

Which, if you don’t, that’s okay, too.

Alright: last chance to stop reading.

Seriously, you can scroll down to the writing prompt and skip all this.

Still here?

Great.

So, several people I’ve spoken to regarding No Grave have some issues with the ending.  It’s a bit dreary.  The ‘good guys’ (to the extent any of them can be called ‘good’) sort of lose.  Or, at least, they certainly don’t ‘win.’  Whatever that means.  And the main character makes a choice that is deeply selfish in the face of great evil.  (For the record, I would probably make the same choice).  Perhaps worse: once the selfish choice is made, she’s not particularly effective at carrying it out.  It all seems pretty unpleasant.

Well, sure, but that’s the point.

I find it therapeutic actually.  Because, in real life, we lose all the time.  Or we make choices that don’t pan out.  Or we try to save people and they die anyway.  Et cetera.  Mostly, we’re very small and weak and human.  We fail probably more often than we succeed.

And this is the important part: that’s okay.

Tristan makes a terrible mistake and tries to salvage it and it doesn’t work.  Nicole commits to a losing proposition after essentially being pressured into it and she gets scared and doesn’t do it.  Cyrus pursues his own interests selfishly until he sees how far people will go for each other and then those people get fucked because of him.  Even though he tries his hardest to turn over a new leaf and save them, it’s just too-little-too-late.

So what happens, then?  Everyone packs it in, tail between their legs, goes home, and eats a bullet.  No, wait, that’s not what happens at all.  They take their moment, they mourn, they cry about it, they feel guilt and pain and suffering and then they pick themselves up and get ready to try again.  They’re getting licked out there and they huddle up, count off, and prepare to hit the field.  Once more into the breach and all that.

As far as I’m concerned, their failure is a message of hope.

Let me explain.

Escapism vs. Hope

‘Escapism’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘complete fantasy.’  I don’t need to tell a story where the good guys win.  I don’t think the ‘good guys win’ formula is terribly hopeful.  Optimistic, sure, but not hopeful.  Hope isn’t hard to do when you’re winning.  Hope is hard to do when you’re losing.  And that’s the narrative I’m building.  Losing isn’t the end of a thing and neither is failure.  Loss and failure are just things that happen.  People make bad decisions, selfish decisions, wrong decisions.  People fuck up.  Then they try again.  Most of us will probably die with works unfinished and we hope others pick up where we left off.  The world spends a few months raining shit down on us and we hope we do better next time.  Hope isn’t in a victory, it’s in the attempt.

I have no desire to sell the ‘good guys win’ narrative, or any narrative of false optimism.  Or any narrative that feels false to me at all.  Sure, sometimes the good guys will win, I’ve definitely written and outlined stories where that’s what happens–because that’s what makes sense.  But in the main, that’s not the product I peddle.  My type of escapism doesn’t guarantee a happy ending, or a ‘redemptive’ ending as it was put to me.  But I don’t think people need those.  I don’t think they’re particularly helpful.  I don’t think they’re necessarily useful in easing real-life suffering or imbuing an audience with a sense of hope or wellness.  Instead, I aim to say: “hey, so, things suck right now, shit happens, whatever, but you shouldn’t give up.  Pick yourself up, brush it off, and try again.  Hold out for next time.  And the time after that.  And the time after that.”

Or, perhaps, in this trying era, Maya Angelou put it best: “You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated.”

There’s a common saying that things are always darkest before the dawn–so maybe my stories aren’t about the dawn.  Maybe my stories are about the darkness getting darker and the characters having the strength to hope that the dawn breaks soon.  To have the strength to use gas-station bics and old, beaten matchbooks to make their own dawn because they don’t want to wait anymore.

And sometimes the darkness takes one of them, and all the others go out and gather sticks and build a pyre and set it ablaze and that inferno is its own dawn, for a while.

Good guys don’t always win, but they always keep trying.

That’s the narrative I’m selling.

Writing Prompt!

If you feel like doing some writing today, try this one out: write at least one (1) page where the story begins with the character failing.  Bonus points if the character fails because of their own stupid mistakes.  After the failure is complete, what happens next?

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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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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. 19

(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:…)

[Day 14]

I wake up furious and by the end of the day I am too exhausted to do anything about it.  I am beginning to think this is how the place is designed.  It is easier just to wait and die than it is to fight.  On the plus side: I have found drugs.  If I corral enough of them, potent pills in particular, I might be able to draw something similar to courage out of them.  I may need it.

Imagine me, courageous.  What a change of pace that would be.

For now, though, I bide time.  Wake up hateful and fiery, full of the passion that revolutions are sparked from, work until the passion is drained out of me, and return to my bunk to collapse in defeat and forfeiture.

It seems there are few here who have the inner spirit to rise to Mr. Baldwin’s level.  I was surprised, at first, to see so few men and women in the spirit and soul of protest, so few angry faces screaming out for more.  After my first weak I felt beaten, yes, certainly, but it has been this second week that has taught me the meaning of defeat: to give up.  How easy it would be just to subsist, here, to let the banks wear me to my bones and brainwash me with the mindless TV images constantly berating my fellow workers, to let them pump me full of numbing, thoughtless bliss and let it carry me into a sleep as dark as the bottomless guts of the eldritch abominations who run the place.  How easy it would be to sag my tired bones into the dimple of a couch and let the flickering re-runs stretch my time into oblivion…

But Mr. Baldwin is there to remind me.  He and his small crew of secret rebels meeting in the quiet corners of this damnable place…they keep me awake and thinking.  They remind me that I am not…that we are not cattle.  We were not bred to work and slaughter.  And, yes, the fight is grim, and we are not winning, but there is still a fight.  To listen to him speak, even at a bare whisper, is to listen to the voice of revolution.  Of suffering given hope.

He brings in news from the front.  How it travels all the way here, I don’t ask.  He wouldn’t tell me anyway and considering my weakness against fear and interrogation…it’s better if I don’t know.  The news is as follows: it seems Mr. Swift and Mr. Conrad have joined a group in DC.  They’re limited to guerrilla tactics and have thus far been unsuccessful in dismantling the abyssal hold the Dark Ones have over the Capitol.  Ms. Bradbury and Mr. Ballard were last seen only days ago, alive, in retreat from a horde of rampaging zombies that have invaded the western coast of Queens.  One of them snapped a photograph, uploaded to Instagram with the tags #nofilter, #undeadgentry, and #TheEndIsExtremelyFuckingNigh.  It shows dozens of shuffling creatures flooding the streets, each wearing an off-the-rack suit and many holding bottles of craft beer, as they batter down apartment doors to claim their new residences.

I deflate at the news.  My old apartment is likely reclaimed, now.  I think of my roommates torn asunder, devoured by the zed onslaught, their bones bleaching in the New York sun.  Or worse: perhaps they joined the Cannibal Class.  Perhaps in the fight between the human spirit and the Great Darknesses, they elected to join the Great Darknesses…to exchange their threadbare lives for a wealth of status symbols and mindless servitude to gibbering, unknowable Gods.  In either case, I doubt my keys will still work.

Making the blind and foolish assumption, of course, that I ever get out of the particular hell I’m living in, now.

 

[Day 20]

I’ve accrued a solid collection of drugs.  Enough to keep me unafraid of death and debt for a week or so, should I delve into heavy use.  Which may be necessary, considering that my latest paycheck has come in with the ‘Owed’ line in big bold font, alerting me that not only have I failed to make a dent in my debt, but I’ve somehow grown it.  An attached letter from the bank CEO (a form letter, naturally, and the copy likely written up by some zed assistant who was happy to take on the work in exchange for an extra sliver of gray matter offered him by his masters) — it accuses me of not working hard enough, of failing to produce the numbers required to make good on the gracious loan they’ve made to keep me out of prison, of being a leech on the body of their goodwill.

This letter, combined with the general sense of anguish aching in my bones, has driven me to meet with Mr. Baldwin in discussion of certain ideas I’ve been toying with, ideas that his own inspiring voice has planted in the previously fallow trenches of my brain.

He has a network of informants and messengers, of course, though I stay clear of the details — which means he is able not only to bring news in, but to get messages out.  What he’s been using these means to do, thus far, is not on my mind.  I assume he’s acted as an intermediary between groups, the middle man of a small, quiet rebellion… but there are other methods.

“You know what I’m talking about,” I whisper.  We stand inches away from each other in an ‘Employee Lounge’ the approximate dimensions of a coffin.

“You would risk the lives of dozens of men and women.”

“But you know!  You must know the sway such things can have!”

He looks over his shoulder–an unnecessary and paranoiac reaction considering the claustrophobic confines we meet in–and purses his lips.  “You’re talking about making art.”

“It may be the only weapon we have left.”

“It will not work, alone.”

“You think I don’t know that?  I’m not proposing a solution, here, dear sir, I am proposing a step.”

“A dangerous step.”

“The good ones always are.”

He considers this for some time, his serious eyes boring into me somehow even further than the Scanners’.  What does he see?  What does he see that the monsters do not?  What does he see, at long last, that makes him nod?  And when he nods, he says: “I thought you might have it in you.  And you’d better not squander it.”

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