Snowflake Sanction

A dream woke Hank Jessup. He’d been a kid again, imagining Santa’s sleigh jingling overhead. Sad that it wasn’t real, Hank took a flashlight and stepped onto his deck for fresh air. Dark pines walled his house. The moon painted his yard in shadows.  

December in southern Louisiana. Christmas Eve. The air hung heavy, humid, warm. He’d lived here thirty years, seen two feeble snows that melted faster than boiled ice. He missed winter; no one should have windows open at Christmas. 

Snow cleanses the world.

Something winked, catching Hank’s eye. He looked up. Hundreds of fat white flakes descended through the moonlight.

Snow! It’s too warm. But what else could it be?

A smile tugged Hank’s lips. He flashed back to childhood Christmases, his last happy times. Snow sledding. Warm soup. Shiny presents. Maybe this snow would cleanse his life, his soul.  

Something like tiny voices caught Hank’s attention. He frowned. Hundreds of flakes had settled to earth now. Another landed on his deck railing. He reached to touch it, pulled suddenly back. It was no snowflake. He turned on his flashlight.

A tiny being cut away its white parachute, then drew a silver tube from its belt. Hank wanted to laugh, and shriek. It was a tiny elf, with yellow eyes and pointed ears. And sharp, sharp teeth.

“Wait!” Hank said as the creature pointed its tube and shouted:

“Merry Effing Christmas!”

A wintry blow stunned Hank. He dropped as if axed.

All over the earth, the same strange snow began to fall.

∼ Charles Gramlich

© Copyright Charles Gramlich. All Rights Reserved.

Two Villages, Two Scholars

Two scholars finally get a chance for some field work to study the stone age cultures they’ve been reading about for years in the abstract. A helicopter takes them into a remote region and drops them off. It’ll return for them in late evening.

The scholars quickly identify two local villages of interest. One sits high on the edge of a great cliff; the other lies in a deep gorge at the foot of the same cliff. The scientists are glad to be observing from a distance when they see that the village in the gorge is surrounded by bone fields of butchered creatures. They identify both animal and human skeletons. The cliff-side village, on the other hand, is remarkably tidy and clear of any kind of debris.

Towards evening, a radio message comes in from the city. A tremendous storm has arisen over the airfield and the retrieval helicopter can’t take off. The two men will have to camp for the night. The chopper will come for them in the morning.

The men had not planned to camp in the wild but they’d prepared anyway. They have a tent, some supplies, and a cook stove. Their main problem is to decide just where to lay their heads. Finally, they pitch their tent high on the cliff, near the tidy village and well away from the settlement in the gorge where they witnessed the bones. Exhausted from their exciting day, both men fall asleep easily. Neither of them awakes.

Soon, more bones are tossed over the cliff to join the debris pile below.

∼ Charles Gramlich

© Copyright Charles Gramlich. All Rights Reserved.

Cthulhumas

One week before Christmas, Todd noticed a mystery present under the tree. Purple paper wrapped it; no card was attached. It was paperback size. Todd figured his wife, Kelly, was behind it.

The present had grown the next day. And the next. Todd grinned. Kelly was imaginative. She enjoyed the occasional prank. The mystery entranced their seven-year-old, Hannah. She shook the growing present each evening; it made no sound.

Christmas morning. Boiling with excitement, Hannah hurried her parents to the living room. With amazing restraint, she passed out those presents with names on them. Then she studied the purple one. It was as big now as a wide-screen TV.

The present must be for Hannah but Todd couldn’t imagine its nature. He winked at Kelly, leaned to whisper: “Cool idea. Making it ‘grow.’ She loves it.”

“What?”

“Who gets the purple one?” Hannah interrupted.

“You open it,” Todd said. “Then we’ll know. Anything really cool is mine.”

“Dad!” Hannah protested. But she grinned.

Kelly whispered back to Todd: “I thought it was you.”

A terrible sludge of pressure filled Todd’s gut. As Hannah reached for the present, he shouted, “No!”

Hannah ripped back the paper on a glittering universe of cold stars pinned against a backdrop of one tremendous eye. A huge, mustard-colored tentacle reached from that universe and grabbed Hannah.

More tentacles lashed at Todd and Kelly as they lunged, screaming, for their daughter. All screaming stopped as the Old One shouldered out of his universe into ours.

∼ Charles Gramlich

© Copyright Charles Gramlich. All Rights Reserved.

The Slice of Razored Wings


I lie on cool moss while the sky drips sun. The world brims with light. It stars my eyes until I see little more than a melted, gold-dust haze. But my ears are open and aware. My skin entangles the moment. For a pleasant fragment of time, my mind lies fallow.

Then something with razored wings slices through the stillness and savages my serenity. A kiss stings; a whisper bites. Thoughts and emotions bloom and settle, like bubbles on a slough. They are foreign, alien. I deny them. But subtle movements become a roil. Shapes rise, lift shaggy heads from the mire. They are draped in silken folds of weed and mud. Beautiful and repellant, they smile with bold teeth, they lick lips of glory.

The promises they bear are fanged and holy, like talons dipped in sacred filth. And now I can see the glitter of fatal edges even through my blindsight. Old scars fold open like the petals of rotted roses. Thoughts take wing, hateful raptors that slice through the ruby heavens of doubt. They shriek upon me.

To save myself, I lift the twin shields of kindness and cowardice. But they are worn and rusty. A sharp strike may shatter them and leave me defenseless before this predator. And so in desperation I call out the beast’s name. With hope of a reprieve, I plead for mercy.

From love.

 

~ Charles Gramlich

© Copyright Charles Gramlich. All Rights Reserved.

A Single Breath

A whale surfaces. Exhales. Foul air spumes thirty feet high. The droplets fall, winking with sunlight beneath the blue sky. The whale draws a fresh breath. It flows crisp and cool into his lungs before he slides back beneath the waves. He doesn’t dive, just lets himself slowly sink, using his flippers and fluke only for balance.

This whale is old, tired. He hasn’t eaten in a while. He wants to rest. No other whales are around. He’d been swimming with a small pod but had fallen behind. That doesn’t seem to matter.

The water is a clear and diffuse yellow here just beneath the surface. It glows warm from the sun and the whale wants to hang onto that warmth. But the effort required to do so is tremendous. He sinks a little further, his flippers stroking fitfully at the water.

Yellow light turns green, then turquoise. The water cools a little. It’s like a vast liquid gem, flawed with bubbles and whorls of current. There are no fish, no krill. He is at the center of the turbulence. Then the turbulence dies away. The green water darkens toward emerald. He sinks.

How much farther does he need to travel to reach the krill fields? Will there be anything left when he arrives? Will any of the other whales still be there? His flippers stir, then still.

He sinks a little more. The water is purple now, like twilight at the surface. But unlike at the surface, there is no wind, no roughness of waves. The ocean has a silken stillness to it. A memory comes. His first mate. Her flank brushed his, sometimes as silken as this ocean, sometimes so barnacled-rough that it scratched his flesh.

The memory passes. The ocean darkens. He drowses.

The world is black when he awakens. He drifts through a formless void. A faint pressure in his lungs lets him know that he will need to rise soon. He will have to breathe, and the surface is a long swim away now.

Then light distracts him, glittering, dancing light. He recalls youthful nights, broaching beneath a festival sky strewn with stars. A song stirs deep within but does not pass his throat. These lights are not stars; they are luminescent plankton stirred by his decent through their level. And he is not young. There is no song left.

The moment is here. He must swim now or never swim again. The surface is far away; his lungs begin to strain. Working his fluke and flippers, he begins to rise. Then he stops. The plankton have drifted away from him. He is in blackness again. Alone. The water is cold, cold.

All tension bleeds from his body. He sinks. Deeper and deeper. At some point he exhales. And the bubbles rise. In a while they will burst on the surface, and there will never be more.

~ Charles Gramlich

© Copyright Charles Gramlich. All Rights Reserved.

God of Dreams

A milk-pale rain fell from a blurred black sky. It tingled softly on my exposed arms. Behind me stood a lake of shimmer. My birthplace, perhaps. I could not remember how I’d gotten here.

I walked, not looking at the path my feet trod. Instead, I stared into the sky, which gradually cleared until I could see a myriad of stars, an entire alien milky way in the shape of a blunt-winged moth. In the aftermath of the rain, peacefulness steamed like humidity on my skin.

I came to an arch so old that plants grew from the soil accumulated in the cracks of the stone. I passed beneath it into an abandoned field grown wild. “I am disembodied,” I said. “I am dreaming.” And I knew what that meant; the rules of normal physics no longer applied to me.

Flight is a blessing for lucid dreamers. I lifted my arms—and though sometimes in such dreams I struggle to get off the ground—there was no struggle tonight. I soared with ease into the air, let myself spin slowly with my arms out and my fingers scratching trails of light from the darkness.

A forest of new growth surrounded me. I ducked and wove through the trees, dodging black branches that grasped for me. My laughter bubbled as I came out above the woods and saw the moon grown full and bright and red as a molten coin. Beneath the moon flitted dozens of dragonflies with white and black bodies and spiderweb wings. I joined them, and they were not afraid.

Now, Luna magnetized my gaze again. I spoke to myself: “I don’t have time to fly to the moon.” But something inside me wondered if I did. I reached my hands, prepared myself for the leap to space.

Flight faltered; I fell. I grabbed for a tree limb but it broke beneath my weight and I plummeted down, away from the light and toward the deep, still, forever night below. And yet, I smiled. For this was a dream and nothing could harm me.

Or so I thought until I landed: and flesh gave way, and bones shattered, and punctured lungs spasmed as blood painted an abstract scream across the darkness. And so I lay, while dragonflies came to hover, while they fitted their bodies together and became a deity with a thousand eyes and a thousand wings and limbs as numerous as the skulls of the dead.

With a tongue long and coiled black as a snake, the dragonfly god whispered in my bleeding ears: “I am the architect of dreams. And in time, all who sleep become my prey.”

∼ Charles Gramlich

© Copyright Charles Gramlich. All Rights Reserved.

Red Book

Only moonlight lit the old barn. But I could see. My eyes were sharp as a wolf’s. Every crack in the walls bled electric blue. The night had texture; it had intensity. It smelled sour. It smelled like rust.

Why was I here?

The bottom floor of the barn was empty: no hay covering the dirt, no troughs for pigs or stalls for horses. It was quiet ground, waiting, gestating. A ladder to the loft stood to one side. I climbed, stepped off onto a board floor that creaked under my boots.

What had drawn me here?

The smell changed, grew wet, like paint. The light held a black shine. Two wooden sawhorses rested near the wall with a plank lying across them. A row of small clay vessels stood upon the plank; a set of artist’s paintbrushes waited in one.

Waited for what?

I stuck a finger in one of the clay pots, as if into the smooth, rounded interior of a skull. The bottom was coated with a residue, both sticky and gritty at the same time. I lifted my hand, sniffed the finger. I couldn’t quite identify the scent or the feel.

The light dimmed as a cloud swallowed the moon. I’d come prepared. Taking a votive candle from my pocket, I lit it and held it up. The glow was too bright, like tacks stabbing into my eyes. I pushed the candle out to arm’s length—and saw writing on the wall.

Wild words, sentence fragments, snatches of poetry. Some phrases scrawled; some ran as straight as razors. They extended to my left and right, reached from the top of the wall to the floor. The individual letters were baroque, almost runic, written in crimson-black and adorned with loops and swirls.

Had I been led here to read this message?

Was it meant for me?

With the candle as guide, I edged my way to the beginning. The message began at the top of the wall on the far left. It read:

“I dream in heat, on cracked roads whose fissures you would have smoothed before me. I dream the river where dirty flesh is laundered, where saints wallow in the bile of love, where the flow is dark with the froth from wounds. I am the mire into which the froth flows; I am bittersoul turned amber in the trees. Why hast thou forsaken me? How may I turn your ear once more my way?”

There was more, densely more. It sang, writhed, shrieked, tore, bruised, begged, licked. I followed it line by line by line. The ink with which it was written grew thinner, as if the scribe were running out and striving to make it last to the finish. But when I came to the end, there was no finish. The words just stopped.

“Enslaved to aff…”

Enslaved to what? Affection? Affirmation? Affliction?

Snarling, I kicked the wall. Dust tumbled into the air, danced in the candlelight with Brownian motion. There was meaning here. Such meaning. But who was it for? Why wasn’t it finished?

Whispering!

I turned to look. Dots of black whirled curlicues in the air. Flies.Their wings buzzed. There weren’t many of them. Then I saw the bodies—three—six—nine. They were pale as wax in the candlelight, except for the ruby necklaces that each wore. I understood. Their pallor was partly a coating of lye to keep away the flies and the smell. The necklaces were not made of gems.

I looked back at the wall, knew suddenly what ink this unfinished manuscript had been written in. Three—six—nine….

Three more bodies would provide enough blood to finish this red book.

I knew why I was here.

∼ Charles Gramlich

© Copyright Charles Gramlich. All Rights Reserved.

Sleep Tight

You wake beneath the glow of a urine-yellow nightlight shaped like a crescent moon. From the hall outside your bedroom comes a susurration of sound, a crippled shuffle, like rotted feet dragging themselves to bone on a sandpaper carpet.

Your heartbeat speeds. Sticky mouth dries. You sit up in vomit-clotted sheets. You’ve been sick, but you’re better now. Much, much better. Thanks to Momma.

But that sound. It’s almost midnight, the dregs of the day. Who is coming? Who is coming to your room in the hollow of the dark?

Something wet slaps against the old porcelain doorknob. It turns, scritches open on hinges that are more rust than iron. A bulk leans its head within, dressed in a pale wrapper of cloth under which odd shapes pulse and squirm. You’re reminded of a grubworm you once dug up in the garden—when there was still a garden. It’s just Momma.

A sigh possesses you as, from the doorway, your mother says, “Sorry I’m late tonight, Sweety. I fell asleep. Are you OK? Do you need anything?”

You’d begun to think she wasn’t coming this night. That maybe…. But you don’t complete that thought. It’s not a kind one and Momma does not like unkind thoughts. You only say, as mother’s clothes twitch and rustle, “I’m fine, Momma. Just fine. Thank you.”

She smiles. Her mouth is black because she’s forgotten her teeth again. But that’s all right. Her teeth are big and broad and so white they sometimes make you uncomfortable. She whispers that she loves you and turns to go.

You wait. She’ll turn back again. As she always does. She has one last piece of sweet advice to offer her only son. She gives it with a catch of emotion in her throat: “Good night. Sleep tight. Let the bed bugs bite.”

“I will, Momma,” you hear yourself say.

The door snicks shut. Momma’s feet move away. She sounds light as a thistle now. As if she’s able to dance on limbs shed of heavy flesh.

Quickly, you lie back on your bed again and let the wet pillow fold up around your face. You press it down tight over your eyes and mouth. From the door where Momma was standing, a swift flow of movement passes like a ripple over the floor. It climbs the bed posts, the trailing sheets. Like a wave of goosebumps it flows onto the bed to nestle all around you. They, nestle all around you.

You bite your teeth together and pull the pillow more tightly across your face. It’s not the right thing to do to deny them a part of your body. But you hate the way they slip beneath your lids and scrape at your eyes. And if they crawl up your nose and down your throat, you know the vomit will come again. It’s so unpleasant to lie in when it’s still liquid and hot.

The bedbugs—that’s what Momma calls them anyway—have tiny mandibles that catch at flesh and hold. It feels like ten thousand staples being tucked into your skin as they begin to suckle. But it’s a good thing. Momma has told you: they draw the illness out of you with your fluids. That’s why you’re feeling so much better, why you’ll soon be able to leave your room again. She has promised.

In the morning, of course, the bugs will return to Momma and clothe her anew. They’ll give her all the sickness they’ve drawn out of you. It’s a powerful display of the mother-child bond. How she takes your disease unto herself. You know she loves you very, very much.

“I love you, too,” you whimper into the pillow. As the bugs burrow in and the pain becomes like fireworks exploding through your body. “I love you, Momma. Love you, Momma! MOMMA!”

∼ Charles Gramlich

© Copyright Charles Gramlich. All Rights Reserved.

 

To Owe the Devil

Uncle Henry looked at me from his deathbed. Not much in his face was alive. Maybe the tip of his tongue behind his teeth when he told me a story of his youth.

“Growing up in Montana in the 1930s,” he said, “I had a friend named Jacob Hart. The winter we were eighteen, we were hunting in the mountains when the snows came. Couldn’t get out. Built ourselves a snug little cabin. We had food but barely enough. Figured we’d eat our burros if we had to. We never got the chance. Jacob, he got sick. Down with fever. Wanting to get him some fresh meat, I set a few traps. Caught a rabbit. Something got it first. Tore it to shreds. Tore up all the traps. There were no tracks in the snow. None except the rabbit’s. You understand?”

“An owl, maybe,” I said.

Henry nodded. “What I thought. At first. Then something came sniffing around the cabin that night. Something big. I figured it was a bear. Jacob was sound asleep in his fever. Next morning, I found tracks. But they were…wrong. I’d seen bear sign. This wasn’t it. And there was a dead rabbit with a broken neck lying right on our doorstep. Never one to look a gift horse in the mouth, I dressed the rabbit, cooked it in a stew, fed Jacob on it. He ate heartily. Ate almost the whole thing. Started feeling better immediately.

“Two days later Jacob was up and around. I told him about the traps I’d set, about the bear that didn’t leave bear tracks, about finding the rabbit like a gift. Jacob turned ashen. He began to shake. I thought his fever was returning but he told me I’d accepted a gift from the Devil and would have to give something back or the Devil would come take whatever he wanted. And since he’d eaten most of the gift, even without realizing it, his payment would have to be the larger. I laughed at him.”

I shivered. Maybe the bleak January sky outside the hospital had chilled me. Or maybe it was the strangeness of Henry’s story, a kind of tale I’d never heard him recite before. “So?” I asked finally. “Most people would laugh at something like that.”

“Could be,” Henry agreed, then continued. “Jacob told me I needed to leave out a gift for the Devil. Some salt or coffee. My timepiece. He did; I didn’t. One morning when it was still dark, we heard a monstrous racket. We’d built a shed for our burros, backed up against the cabin. The noise came from there. I ran outside with my gun. Jacob too. The shed was smashed in, the burros torn open, their innards spread around like jelly. Their heads were gone. There were the same odd tracks again. I followed ‘em. Jacob refused to. I trailed ‘em for miles. Came to a cave.…”

“And?” I prompted.

“Nothing. The tracks led to the cave’s mouth. But inside, it was empty. No bones of anything that might have been eaten there. No sticks dragged in for a nest. It looked like nothing living had ever touched that place.”

“And no Devil?” I said.

“No,” Henry said. “No Devil.”

“You must have felt pretty foolish.”

“A little. At the time,” Henry said. “Then I went home.”

“What did Jacob say?”

“Nothing. The cabin door hung open. There was a horrible stench. I ran inside to find one of the burros’ heads in the fireplace. The singed hair smelled like…nothing I can describe.”

“What about Jacob?”

“Hanging upside down from the ceiling. So naked that even his skin had been taken off.”

I winced, though by now I doubted the whole story. I figured it was made up, though why Henry would do such a thing on his deathbed, I couldn’t imagine. Maybe he was just losing his mind. “A horrible way to die,” I managed.

“Oh, he wasn’t dead. He lived several more days. Screaming most of the time.”

I wasn’t sure what was expected of me. Humor the dying man, I guessed. I squeezed his wrist gently. The skin was paper thin and felt cold and unreal. “I’m sorry.”

“No reason to be. I put Jacob’s body in the snow. Left him until spring thaw. Then I burned him in the cabin until nothing was left.”

“What about the…whatever it was that had attacked your burros and killed Jacob?”

“It left me alone the rest of the winter.”

“Any idea why?”

A humorless smile twisted Henry’s lips. “I left it an offering. Like Jacob told me too.”

A chill goosebumped my arms despite my disbelief. “What offering?”

“Blood for one,” Henry said. “I cut my arm deep.”

I remembered the scar on my uncle’s forearm. From a motorcycle accident, I’d heard.

“For one?” I asked. “What else?”

“My soul, of course. What does one use to buy off the Devil?”

I shook my head. “Heckuva story, Uncle Henry. But you know I don’t believe a bit of it.”

Henry smiled and patted my arm with long pale fingers. “Didn’t figure you would, Charlie. Never figured you would.”

I checked my phone. “I gotta go, Uncle Henry. Anything I can get you?”

“No,” he said, “but I have something for you.”

“What?”

“Open the drawer on the bedside table there.”

I did so, drew out a small present in pretty wrapping paper.

“What’s this?” I asked.

Henry smiled again, and a little sliver of pink tongue protruded from behind his teeth. “Just a gift, Charlie boy. Just a little gift for you.”

∼ Charles Gramlich

© Copyright Charles Gramlich. All Rights Reserved.

 

 

 

Goodies

Stark and black, the oaks rose through the morning’s ghostly fog, Spanish moss dripping from their limbs like the hair of drowned corpses. Beneath the oaks, twelve-year-old Emmy stopped as a sound whispered along the trail before her.

“That you, Mom?”

It was just like her mom to scare her.

“Mom?”

There wasn’t any answer and Emmy doubted it had been her mother anyway. The breeze would have brought Mom’s scent. She hitched her heavy bag higher on one thin shoulder and walked on. Nothing jumped her.

Then she was free of the oaks and stalking through a meadow toward her grandmother’s cabin. It was brighter here, the fog lifting. Her feet swished in thick, wet grass. A spider web fingered her face. She brushed it away as she knocked on Grandmother’s door.

“Come in,” a guttural voice called.

The door creaked open. Night lingered within and Emmy flicked on the flashlight that she carried in one pocket of her red parka.

Grandma’s house was an abattoir.

Emmy’s eyes widened. There were more bodies than last time. Some were alive, or semi-alive.

“Well come on, Dear,” the voice called again, impatiently.

Emmy started forward between two chained rows of drooling forms. Hungry moans roiled the air. She ignored them. Broken fingered hands grasped at her. She ducked them, her feet kicking tibias and ribs from her path, some cracked and bleached white, some…meaty.

Just past the zombies, Grandmother’s door stood open.  Grandma lay on the bed amid quilts and pillows. She was still in wolf form.

“You brought the stuff?” Grandma demanded.

“I brought it,” Emmy said.

She sat her bag on the bed and Grandma jerked it away with taloned hands and ripped it open. Livers and hearts and links of intestines spilled out like a miser’s hoard, but Grandma had eyes for only one thing, a jar of rare delicacies. She grabbed it, tore off the lid and dipped within to pull out a pinkish, cauliflower-sized lump.

“Ah,” she sighed, popping the thing between her teeth. “Melts in your mouth.”  She reached for another.

Emmy frowned. “I thought you liked hearts best, Grandma. Mom only sent four baby brains.”

Grandma chuckled, stroked Emmy’s head with clawed fingers.

“Tastes change,” she said, grabbing another tidbit.

Emmy frowned again, and a sudden gasp spilled from her lips.

Grandma heard the gasp and turned bloodshot eyes accusingly upon her granddaughter. The last brain was chewed mush in her mouth.

“What, child?”

“That bite on your shoulder, Grandma!  Where did you get it?”

Grandma smiled, with teeth that could crush spines.

“Just a scratch, Dearie. Come give Grandma a hug.”

Shaking back her hood, Emmy drew the nickel-plated .357 from her other pocket. She knew where Grandma’s bite had come from. Grandma had gotten careless with a zombie.

With a howl, Grandma leaped from the bed, her eyes screaming, “Brains, brains!”

Emmy pulled the trigger. There was only one cure for what ailed Grandma.

A silver bullet.

Through the head.

∼ Charles Gramlich

© Copyright Charles Gramlich. All Rights Reserved.