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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Ghost Towns, Economics, and Horror

Hey there fellow humans *nudge-nudge, wink-wink* — as I’m no longer writing weekly-ish fiction to post on the blog, I’m transitioning into writing about process, theory, etc., as I work on non-blog projects.  Today I’m writing about ghost towns, economics, and horror, as the post title suggests.  Also, there will be a writing prompt at the end, for anyone who wants one.

Witness: The Ghost Towns All Around Us

The United States is littered with gutted towns and ex-cities and places of complete, desolate abandonment.  This relates intimately with, surprise surprise, economic opportunity and geographical marketshares.  That is to say: when Detroit was rich with middle-class jobs, Detroit was a metropolis, and when those jobs fell apart and vanished, well…what is Detroit famous for, today?

A personal anecdote: once upon a mid-day dreary, I found myself on the outskirts of what looked to be a vast stretch of empty and derelict buildings.  I urged the man in the driver’s seat of the car to pull into the emptiness so I could take photos of the buildings in decline.  As we drove down cracked, uneven streets and ogled block after block of ruined architecture, we slowly came to realize that the place was not, in fact, abandoned.  In the center of the far-reaching desolation, we found an actual population.  A white-haired man, shirtless, smoked a cigar in a lawn chair.  A gas station had its hours painted in white on its front door; it was open three days a week.  There was something that looked like a convenience store, where a handful of graying residents spent money primarily on canned goods.  We discovered, just on the outskirts of this population center, a building with four brick walls, no floor, no ceiling, and no doors or windows.  A bog had settled across its bottom.  The fellow who came with me discovered that it was full of fire ants.  He’d worn sandles that day.  We fled after this discovery, leaving this haunted place in our rearview mirror.

The vacated properties suggested that thousands of people had once lived there.  Now, it seemed, the population hovered somewhere in the low triple-digits at best.

Or, in 1986, in an introduction to Studs Terkel’s Hard Times:

Smokeless chimneys. No orange flashes in the sky. Empty parking lots. Not a Chevy or a Ford to be seen, not even for those with 20-20 vision. An occasional abandoned jalopy, yes, evoking another image of the thirties. Ours was the only moving vehicle for miles around. A stray dog; no humans. And it wasn’t that cold a day. In fact, the weather was unseasonably mild, accentuating the landscape’s bleakness.

Written about South Chicago, of course.

And places like these?  They’re everywhere.  I think the one I mentioned above was on the road between Pittsburgh, PA and Cincinnati, OH.  But there were similar places en route to Louisville, KY, too.  And I’ve seen smaller examples clustered around the Amtrak line between NYC and Rochester, NY.  Everywhere.

Desolation and Cosmic Horror

Cosmic horror is making horror literature great again (AHEM).  According to many literary critics and essayists, we are currently in the midst of a “horror renaissance,” and the horror genre is once again “good.”  I roll my eyes every time I read this allegation, but I’ll save that reaction for a different blog entry.  The real point is that the people who write book reviews and vote on awards and etc. seem to think that the horror being written today is better than the horror that was written 20 years ago.  Why?

Well, cosmic horror is having a pretty big comeback.  The list of well-respected and even well-known cosmic horror authors seems to be growing yearly, and hints of cosmic horror eddy around the edges of plenty of new urban fantasy and dark fiction, as well.  The fear of the vast unknowable and, even moreso, of forces acting on us beyond our control of comprehension, seems to be scoring big points right now.

Gee, I wonder if these things are related.

Here we have towns and cities gutted and demolished and sundered by vast conceptual forces their denizens can’t control and almost nobody seems to completely understand.  Would I relate globalization to Cthluhu?  Would I relate the complex worldwide politico-economic system to Azathoth?  Well, yes, of course I would.  Huge, unstoppable forces that grind away at entire populations without seeming to care about or even notice them?  Duh.

The anxiety of being destroyed by forces we can’t stop is, well, highly prevalent in today’s world.  Whether it’s government, economics, war, poverty, terrorism–these vast, powerful concepts seem, from ground level, to be tearing us apart as if we were meat fed to a grinder.  And how to combat them?  Our mouths gape for answers, but we are silent.  And all around us, miles of rusted sheet metal and slouching brick buildings shuttered by particle board.

What monsters lurk in the bones of our dead cities?

And So Your Editor Says “Use It”; Or: Fictionalizing Anxiety

Show somebody emptiness, and they will find a way to fill it.  The night sky is mostly void, but we apply it a meaning that fits us.  To some, awe; to others, anxiety.  The same goes for abandoned factories, gutted warehouses, long tracts of empty suburbs, and eternally-unfinished housing developments.

Horror authors have long excelled at creating environments that, themselves, feel hostile.  Whether it’s Lovecraft’s “At the Mountains of Madness” or literally anything Laird Barron has ever written, hostile settings and landscapes cloaked in dread have been key facets of horror writing since forever.  In olden tymes, when people read stories by candlelight and shifting shadows danced on their peripheries, authors tended to take it a bit too far (looking at you, Poe), but the tradition has always been there.  And as cosmic horror becomes more popular and more acclaimed, it seems it always will be.  At least for a while.  If we survive that long.

Which brings me to the “process” part of today’s blog entry, and a “fun” writing prompt for anyone who cares to partake in it.

In my Oceanrest writings, soon to be expanded, I’ve created a fictional city in Maine that has suffered much the same fate as dozens of other towns and cities in the United States.  Once, it was important; now, it wheezes on an iron lung.  Boom town, bust.  And while I’m not trying to write much cosmic horror in the vein of Lovecraft or Ligotti or Aickman or any other huge name in the genre, I enjoy the concept that my stories take place in a similar setting.  That is: the setting is one of cosmic dread and unknowable forces, but people still have to pay the damned rent and that seems more important.  And so I try to use words to express these inexpressible anxieties.  In Oceanrest, economic depression is a monster eating the town from the outskirts inward.  Its teeth are trees and its tongue is the ground itself breaking the streets into gravel.  Squatters live between its fangs like plaque bacteria.  To the wealthier people in city center, this is unnoticeable.  To the poor people on the fringes, this is terrifying…but there are more pressing concerns.  Like where to beg the next meal.

Of course, in this fictional world, there are also more literal eldritch deities squirming under the skin of reality, but that’s neither here nor there for the most part.  They are a far less immediate issue than the very real poverty that is eroding the town of Oceanrest.

That’s that for this “process blog”-slash-“horror theory” entry.

Enjoy a writing prompt: write a page (at least) in which the setting, itself, is the monster and/or primary antagonist.  Perhaps begin with Studs Terkel’s line, “Ours was the only moving vehicle for miles around.”

 

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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, 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: 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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