Countdown

Harry wakes to heat, and to silence.

He opens his eyes to a leak-stained ceiling, but everything feels too bright and he closes them again, trying to push past the cotton-wool thickness in his head to sort out exactly why the quiet is wrong. There’s a small stinging ache at the back of his neck and a sour iron taste in his throat, like he’s held a mouthful of old coins.

There’s no background noise.

That’s it. Harry opens his eyes another fraction. He’s lying on a bed in an unfamiliar room—in the Bonneheure Hotel, if the fleurs-du-lys stamped on the center ceiling tiles are any indication—but there’s no hotel ambiance, no voices or footsteps or air-conditioning hum. No air’s circulating at all: the room has a stifling musty smell that makes his nostrils burn. There’s just the rasp of his own breathing, and the corner of his smartphone digging into his hip inside his pocket.

And the weight of another body on the bed.

Harry turns his head, dizzy, frowning. The woman lying beside him, covered by a sheet pulled above her breasts, is bottle blonde, immaculately made up, her mouth a candyfloss shade of red and her eyelashes crisp with mascara.

Is she a hooker? He’s never seen her before.

Harry doesn’t remember coming here. Or bringing a woman, or anything that can tell him why he’s lying in his clothes on a bed in a silent hotel room with someone he doesn’t recognize; his last memory is of standing in front of his boss’ office door and feeling a sudden cold sting in his neck.

So that’s the pain above his collar; it’s starting to itch. He’s been…drugged? Kidnapped? But why—

This place closed last year, he thinks, and belated understanding brings him fully awake. Harry sits up and his right shoulder is jerked painfully: there’s a cable tie snugged around his wrist, attached to another, and another, a chain of cable ties that leads somewhere under the bed. He shifts on the mattress, heart picking up, sweat breaking out hot on his face; something shifts with him and rolls against his thigh.

The woman hasn’t stirred. Harry glances at her, then at the object, and pulls it into his lap with his left hand. It’s a roll of leather, and he fumbles it open to find a set of steak knives, gleaming blades of various widths, their serrated edges like broken sharks’ smiles.

“I don’t understand,” he says hoarsely. Harry looks back to the woman—his sitting up should have woken her, but she still hasn’t moved. Has she been drugged too? He reaches out with his free hand to shake her, clumsily.

She’s cold.

She’s not breathing.

His phone rings.

Harry shrieks, almost voiceless, and starts to his feet. His cable-tie tether jerks him down, and his knees bang painfully on the worn gray carpet, his head just missing the edge of the bedside table. He shuts his eyes again and exhales a ragged breath, heart stumbling against his ribs, sweat pouring beneath his shirt. The smartphone trills again, breaking a tiny sob from his parched lips, and with effort he wrests enough slack in his plastic restraint to pull the phone loose and thumb the screen. “H-hello.”

“Harry.” He knows the voice. It’s Conrad from work; Conrad, right hand of their boss, Kurtz, though Harry can never remember what the man actually does for the company. “I take it you found our present.”

“Conrad, God, Conrad, you have to help me—” Harry has almost no saliva, and when the words register, even that dries up. “…Present?”

“Do you like her, Harry?” Conrad is smiling, Harry can hear it in his voice. Can picture it, in fact: the perfect teeth, perfect tan, perfectly parted hair. “Lola. You wouldn’t have known her, she was down in HR,” Conrad purrs. “Shame, really, she’s a hell of a looker, but she was convenient.”

He sounds like a cat licking cream from its whiskers. Harry swallows, looking back over his shoulder at…Lola. “Conrad. What’s going on? Why’s this happening?”

“Oh, Harry, honey. You know.”

There’s a hint of laughter in Conrad’s voice, one that becomes more than a hint when Harry whimpers. “Look. Okay, look. If this is about the money, I—”

“Of course it’s about the money.” Conrad’s friendliness gives abrupt way to a hard edge. “You don’t skim off the top, Harry, not with Kurtz. You knew better. You may be swimming in the accounting pool, but you’re not one of the sharks yet.” The laugh comes out, a short sharp bark. “It’s the assumption that hurts, you know? Mr. Kurtz doesn’t appreciate people thinking he’s stupid.”

“I—” Harry’s heart is tapping painful double-time against his sternum. He’d assumed just that thing, had assumed his wide-bodied, pig-eyed boss was the idiot he resembled; it had been a correct assumption before, with some of the others. He works his jaws, trying to think fast as whatever he’d been doped with burns off. “So what happens now? The cops show up, they find me, they find…Lola”—he chokes on her name—”and they assume the worst?”

“That’s a neat convenient package,” Conrad muses. “And Mr. Kurtz wants to make an example of you. Only…not like that.” He sucks his teeth audibly. “Nobody’s going to look for you there, Harry. That hotel’s been closed fifteen months. It’s scheduled for demolition tomorrow.”

Harry’s chest constricts.

“And there’s Lola.” Conrad must be grinning. “Isn’t she a beauty? Kurtz got a clever idea. There’s a bomb in her.”

The blood drains from Harry’s face with a palpable loss of heat. “…What.”

“A bomb, Harry. Goes boom? One of the IT guys rigged it.” Conrad’s friendliness is back. “That’s why you have the knives, Harry. Nice knives. Japanese carbon steel. Got ’em at Sears. You cut her open and find it, you might have a chance. Kurtz believes in fairness, Harry, even if you don’t.”

The façade drops again. “You have five minutes. Goodbye, Harry.”

The call disconnects. Harry stares at his phone, aghast, but slowly gets to his feet, sits on the bed.

Stiffly, he pulls the sheet from Lola’s cold body.

She’s naked, flawless. Aside from a tiny blue pinprick wound on her throat, there’s not a mark on her. How many times had he passed this woman in the hallway and never picked her out from the others?

It’s a joke, right? It’s a sick joke, it has to be, he can’t—

Within the dead woman’s abdomen, something begins to beep.

∼ Scarlett R. Algee

© Copyright Scarlett R. Algee. All Rights Reserved.

Too Close to the Ground

Cassie finds the remnants of the angel strewn across the sidewalk.

She’s too late. For a second she hugs her kit for gathering specimens to her chest; then  lets the strap sag through her fingers, the leather bag coming to rest gently on the spiderwebbed concrete. Someday, someday, she’ll get to one of these things fast enough.

There isn’t much left: a string of glassy vertebrae, and an elongated skull with no lower jaw and too many eye sockets, already translucent. No flesh—there’s never any flesh. No meat, no decay, not even the signs of scavenging insects. Just this fading, delicate wreckage that’ll be gone by noon. Cassie glances skyward briefly; the otherworldly corpses dissipate quickly under a high sun, and her stomach knots in protest at missing out once again.

Only one portion seems to have retained more substance than the rest: a single outstretched feathered wing, accordioned into the pavement. Jagged shards of glistening, porous bone protrude from amongst the plumage, and Cassie squats to pluck out a fragment with an attached pinion. But the feather flares up in her grasp like white phosphorus, and when she opens her hand, there’s nothing on her palm but an oily white smear.

“Third one this month, an’ it ain’t the fifteenth yet.”

Cassie whirls, kicking over her kit bag, internally swearing at the sound of vials jostling inside. The speaker’s an elderly man wearing a red baseball cap and overalls; he’s chewing a toothpick tucked in the corner of his mouth. He’s vaguely familiar, and she realizes she’s seen him in her apartment building: Stan, or Steve. Steve sounds right.

“You’ve seen the others?”

“Yep.” The toothpick hitches; Steve picks at the front of his plaid shirt, and there’s a certain preoccupied vacancy in his gaze. “People ate part o’ the first ‘un.”

Cassie pushes her glasses up and stares at him. “You just said people ate an angel.”

“Yep.” His boots scuff on the sidewalk. “People got curious, see, when they realized it wasn’t lastin’.” Before she can get in another question, he adds quickly, “It ain’t really meat. Nothin’ like that. Breaks off dry, like chalk.” The words are wet and soft. “It’s like nothin’. Flossy. Sweet. Like cotton candy, just melts in your mouth an’ don’t get to your gut, an’ you don’t remember how it tasted.”

“Unbelievable.” She rakes both hands through her hair and notices he’s drooling a little around the toothpick. A glance back tells her the angel is a film of greasy powder. “What happened?”

“I ain’t growed wings yet, if that’s what you’re askin’.” For a moment Steve’s gaze is hard and crystalline; then his whole face grows slack again. “Better question is, what’s happenin’ up there that they’re throwin’ themselves down?”

But when he looks up toward the sun, there’s a light shining from between his teeth. He squints, and the lines across his face suggest a multitude of eyes.

Cassie carefully reaches down and feels for her bag.

Maybe she won’t have to wait for another specimen after all.

∼ Scarlett R. Algee

© Copyright Scarlett R. Algee. All Rights Reserved.

Patient Zero

The first thing you do when you wake up is peel your eyelids open with your fingers.

Your lashes are gummy, and almost stick together again when you squint against the too-bright light. Your tongue feels parched and furry, clinging to the roof of your mouth. When you work your jaws there’s the distinct sting of flesh parting. You taste something metallic, like blood, but thick and rancid. Sweat slicks your forehead, oily and cold.

Cold. You fumble the back of your hand across your forehead and yes, your skin is cool. Your fever must have broken.

Annalise had been sick at the office party last night, or at least she’d complained of feeling unwell. So had Brian and Tamsin, separately; Brian had said his kids had come home from school aching. Some sort of crud, you’d all agreed, something going around. They’d decided to go home early. You’d felt fine at the time, but talking to them had left a psychosomatic scratchiness in your throat.

Or at least you’d thought it was psychosomatic. By the time you’d pulled into your own driveway, you could feel the swell of your tonsils every time you swallowed, and your skin had felt like parchment paper left in an oven too long; brittle and scorched around the edges. You’d choked down water and ibuprofen in the kitchen, then stumbled out of your stilettos and staggered to the bedroom where, vision blurring and hands beginning to shake, you’d read your temperature on the digital thermometer as a hundred and four.

I’ll go to the ER, you’d told yourself dizzily. Right after I just lie here a few minutes.

But that had been last night, or so you think. You’re still in the cocktail dress you’d worn to the party, and as you struggle upright, limbs heavy and joints crackling in protest, you catch sight of the bruises in the creases of both your elbows, large and slate-blue. The skin around them is grey, and panic twists heavily in your chest as you scrabble the thermometer from the bedside table and shove it beneath your stiff tongue. In a few seconds the thermometer’s alarm shrills, and you pull it free, squinting harder; the skin of your forehead creases and splits with the effort.

Eighty-five degrees.

You can’t feel your heartbeat.

Something is very, very wrong.

Standing is difficult; your knees have locked almost completely, nearly pitching you straight forward onto the floor. But you catch yourself against the nightstand and totter into the bathroom, holding onto the fixtures, the furniture, the walls. You grip the edges of the sink and haul yourself in front of the mirror and scream, except you don’t. The noise that comes out as you stare at yourself is airless and soft.

The skin of your face is ash grey. Your eyes are sunken and semi-opaque, surrounded by deep purple lids. You pull back your lips and see blackened gums shriveling away from your teeth. Shuddering, you hug yourself and rub your icy forearms, and a flap of skin drops away from one limb like a discarded glove.

Whatever this is, you don’t think the ER can help you now.

~ Scarlett R. Algee

© Copyright 2019 Scarlett R. Algee. All Rights Reserved.

Flycatcher

Jolene can’t stop staring at Sissy’s scars.

At least, she assumes they’re scars: four pink half-circle indents in the middle of Sissy’s forehead, like the marks left by dug-in fingernails. And Jolene knows she’s being rude, that it’s horrible of her, but she can’t stop, no matter how bad she feels or how much she tells herself to look away.

When she’d come back to town yesterday, ten years after high school, Jolene had expected something different for her one-time friend. A little house with a neat yard and a white picket fence, maybe. A job as a teacher, or editor of the town paper; Sissy had always been smart that way. A husband somewhere at the very least, since Sissy had easily been the most reserved girl in school, the one who blushed brick-red at the dirty jokes told in the lunch line. But not this. Not a seat in a beat-up rocking chair in a saggy rusting trailer on the outskirts of town, with grimy windows and pressboard walls, sweltering under a lazy ceiling fan. Not Sissy herself, now thin and wan and blushless as if she’s been bled. And certainly not Sissy’s one-year-old son Jimmy, crab-creeping strangely across the dirty floor on all fours, who’s been the subject of Jolene’s gaze almost as much as his mother’s marred forehead.

And if Sissy notices the stare, she doesn’t let on. Just drones on about her ex Tyler, Jimmy’s daddy, whom Jolene barely remembers except as a skinny wispy-bearded boy who’d sucked at playing baseball. About Tyler’s meth habit and how she thinks it’s the cause of Jimmy’s condition, and how the doctors at Vanderbilt think so too, though Sissy’s granny always claims it’s from that brown recluse that bit Sissy in her second trimester, and really, Tyler could’ve been a good daddy if he hadn’t blown himself to hell shake-and-baking crank in his mama’s toolshed, and—

Jolene’s broken out of her daze by little limbs clamping around her neck; Jimmy is so light she hadn’t even noticed him clambering into her lap. But his laugh is gurgling and bright, and it makes Sissy stop talking and smile, the first real emotion that’s touched her bloodless face in an hour.

“How ‘bout that,” she says, pulling up out of her worn recliner and clapping her hands. “He’s awful shy of strangers, but I shoulda known he’d take to you, Jo. You just hold him an’ let me find my phone.”

Jimmy crows as Sissy leaves the room, and nuzzles wetly into Jolene’s neck. His little body is stiff and Jolene embraces him awkwardly, dragging her fingers over his thick blond hair. He smells of sour milk and rot, and Jolene finds herself wondering if this trailer had been Tyler’s meth lab. If he’d worn some kind of rings that would account for Sissy’s scars.

Then Jimmy sinks his teeth into her neck.

Jolene’s shout is strangled. The baby’s grip is strong, and she can feel her skin parting for his teeth, for the deep burn of the bite. Then the pain passes, and she realizes something’s leaking into her from his mouth, something that stings and leaves numbness behind. Spots waver in her vision, but she can’t blink them away. She can’t blink at all.

“That’s enough, now.” Sissy lifts Jimmy from Jolene’s lap and sets him back on the floor. Jolene tries to look up at her, tries to speak, but her eyes won’t move and words won’t come, not even when Sissy puts too many hands under her chin and jerks her head up hard enough to make her neck crack.

“I’m sorry it’s you, Jo.” The curved lines on Sissy’s forehead flare more deeply red and then blink open, staring back, one after the other. “But I am glad you came by. We ain’t had a visitor in a while, an’ Jimmy was gettin’ awful hungry.”

∼ Scarlett R. Algee

© Copyright Scarlett R. Algee. All Rights Reserved.

Say

Say something.

Say I’m dreaming. Say I’m hallucinating. Say this isn’t really happening.

Say it’s not really you splayed here on the kitchen floor, limbs curled loose like a broken spider’s, your hair powdered white from its pillow of flour spilling from the bag tipped half off the counter. You always make a mess in here, always such a goddamn mess. What were you thinking? Say it. Say what you were thinking.

Say the drop of blood on the linoleum didn’t leak from the crook of your elbow. Say the tourniquet’s not still on your arm, the needle’s not still in the vein. Say your skin isn’t ashen and your lips aren’t gaping blue beneath the foam. Say your eyes aren’t open, aren’t fixed, aren’t glazed.

Say you’ll wake up if I jostle your shoulder or tug my fingers through your hair just so, like always. Say you’ll wake up, or I will. Say it’s just another of my nightmares and you’re fine. We’re both fine. Warm. Pink. Breathing.

Say you’re breathing. Please say you’re breathing. Say the pulse I feel when I press my fingertips to your carotid isn’t just my own. Say, as I kiss your cheek and stroke your hair back and snag a few strands on your earring, that it’s me who’s feverish and not you who’s cold.

Say I don’t have to do what I know comes next. 911. Ambulance. Sirens. You, carried away. Me, left behind. Say my last sight of you won’t be with a shroud over your face.

Say it was a mistake. Say it was an accident. Say you didn’t choose this.

Say it wasn’t supposed to be like this. Say it’s nothing I did. Say it’s not my fault. Say that loudest of all.

But say something, damn you.

Say something.

Anything.

Please.

∼ Scarlett R. Algee

© Copyright Scarlett R. Algee. All Rights Reserved.

Damned Words 39

 

Inner Matters
Lee Andrew Forman

The sounds of the world bring peace: crunching gravel, leaves dancing with nature, songs sung by the creations of life. Reality has other sides, some which only a vagabond can see along their journey. The pleasant are never left unappreciated. The darkest sit atop your shoulders, ever apparent in your sight.

A band of three delinquents emerge from the brush to intercept my path, smoke-filled ugliness trailing from their mouths. Their eyes immediately find me: the derelict, the tattered wanderer, the lonely victim. But their eyes only see what their minds can imagine. I sigh in response to their vile introductions.

Before they can hassle me further my front-side expands and splits down the middle. My innards expel themselves and splatter the deviants in carnage. Fluids dissolve their flesh; they scream a futile cry of agony no one will ever hear. Only when my would-be predators are mere remnants of ooze do my organs crawl back and nestle themselves where they belong, happy and well-fed.


Tracks
Charles Gramlich

“Shhhh, I’m here.”

The man shuddered, not quite sure yet what had happened to him. I rested his head in my lap, then pushed sweat-matted hair back from his face to see his terrified eyes.

“Help…me,” he begged.

I shook my head. “Sorry. This could have been avoided, but…” I gestured for him to look at himself.

He turned his head to gaze down his body. I let him scream at what the passing train had done. He tried to struggle, to thrash his arms and legs. He had no arms or legs. Shredded remnants of his severed limbs looked like piles of cooked raspberries strewn along the tracks. And, as I’d read would happen, the train’s weight had cinched the torn veins shut. He wasn’t bleeding out; he’d live a while yet. No one would find him here, though, where I’d tied him to the tracks.

“Please,” he begged again.

I shrugged and rose. “I warned you about those spam calls from your site.” Taking out my cell, I punched a number. The phone in the man’s pocket buzzed obnoxiously. “Press 2 to be placed on my do not call list,” I told him.


Family Honor
Mark Steinwachs

When I pulled the trigger years ago, I knew my turn would come. There is only one of us in the family at any time. My death is their first hit.

Blindfolded and with hands tied behind my back I shuffle along rocky ground. Whoever is behind me helps guide me. He nudges the back of my knee with his foot and I awkwardly let myself fall to my knees. He lays me flat, my face touching cold metal, then pulls the blindfold back enough for me to look down the long track. Not the same track I used of course, but the scene floods my memory. There is only one person who knows the story of my first hit. I never thought he would be the one.

“Thank you,” a male voice says, one I’ve known since he was born. “Your place of honor awaits.”

Those words, the exact ones I spoke when it was my turn, linger in my brain as I hear the click of the safety releasing.


Now You Stand and Wait
Scarlett R. Algee

They’d picked up her clothes along the track, almost too shredded to bother, and the whole time Shep had been grumbling you’re a damn fool, it ain’t the same no more; so when Shep squats by the rail and picks up a tuft of fluffy black fur, Ben hates him a little.

He clutches the ruined clothes, swats away Shep’s offered rifle, stares down the slope to the ground beneath the trestle bridge. Squints. Wonders. “She’s still my girl.”

Shep toes the claw marks along a rusted edge of rail. “You think that now.”

“She’s still Ellie. You just wait here.”

Alone, Ben treks down to the darkness under the bridge, stands at the bottom to a warning growl. He glimpses eyeshine in the black yards away. “Ellie, it’s Daddy.”

He steps closer. Another growl, deeper, but Ben can see the shape of her now, huge and magnificent, tail held out stiff. He clears his throat. “It’s gettin’ late. Your mama’s got supper waitin’.”

Ellie’s snarl is softer this time. Ben decides to take the chance. Sure, maybe he’s a fool, but she is still his girl.

Step by step, he walks into the darkness, toward the waiting wolf.


The Flattened Penny
A.F. Stewart

I can still smell the copper stench.

And hear the way the train’s wheels screeched as it rolled over the penny on the track, squashing it razor thin. I watched Denny pick up the flat coin, after it cooled down, and wave it around laughing.

I didn’t laugh.

Denny never heard the whistle of the other train, the death train. The one I had seen before, that should have been my ride. One penny to the conductor as payment, but that foul creature didn’t care much about who held the coin. Easy enough to cheat him.

Poor Denny.

That’s the smell of copper I remember. His blood.

But better him than me.


Taking the Ride
Nina D’Arcangela

The rumble loosens my gut; thrums through my body. My eyes quake in their jelly as teeth shiver saliva from plump, rouged lips. Searing heat washes over me as the screech assaults my core. I feel the shatter of my sinus cavities as the revolution of iron pressed upon iron crushes my head. Body thrashing in the wash, I Pollock the scree, feed the weeds; slick the rail for the next eager rider.


Definitely Not a God
Lydia Prime

Beneath the rocks and rails there lies a secret that our tiny town holds. We keep quiet and everything stays peaceful, that’s how it’s always been. Mama says it’s God under those tracks, says he protects us even in his sleep. I don’t think Mama knows what God is.

Late at night I sneak down to the tracks and kick the rocks as I walk past the iron ties. I can hear it, sometimes it sounds like snoring, but other times… If Mama could hear the noises I know she’d change her mind.

Just a ways ahead, the rocks shift and I sprint to see who’s there. The air smells of earth and death, my eyes settle on a gnarled looking creature hunching over in the moonlight. All six of its eyes blink then lock on me. I’ve never seen anything more gruesome, it grins and licks its crooked lips.

I turn to run but my foot snags the rusted rail. As I scramble to my feet, four more creatures step into sight. I was right Mama, definitely not a God.


Each piece of fiction is the copyright of its respective author and may not be reproduced without prior consent. © Copyright 2019

A Spot of Blood

I’ve just reached for the bleach bottle, my fingers tight on the cap, when she closes her hand around my wrist.

“Hold up, baby girl. What’s this here?”

She shifts her grip to under my arms and pulls me upright. I’m myopic enough from my time bent over the half-butchered corpse in the bathtub that the blot on the floor wobbles in my vision for a second before it resolves, and I feel the press of her covered boots against the outsides of my own.

A single spot of blood between my feet, between hers. She takes the back of my neck and squeezes hard, forces my head down and holds me there. “Now, baby girl, we’ve talked about this.”

And we have, but never about the things I’ve done right: how small-caliber rounds rattle around in the skull and don’t come out; how to accommodate the way the carotids can hide when the head’s pulled back; how to unfold plastic sheeting so it doesn’t even crinkle. For Christ’s sake, I’m wearing three pairs of nitrile gloves right now.

No, it’s always the other things: the cut that isn’t deep enough, the noise that isn’t muffled properly, this single drop of blood on a bathroom floor.

I reach blindly for the bleach. “I’ll take care of it.”

“Honey, I don’t think you realize how serious this is.” She presses on my neck. “We don’t leave traces. You know what I say about mistakes.”

“Mistakes get you caught,” I mumble.

“Damn right. And how many is this?”

She shakes me like a dog shakes a stuffed toy. I can feel my own carotids pulsing as I try to think. “Two…no…three.”

“And one I can forgive. Maybe two. You’ve been learning,” she says. “But not this one, missy, oh no.”

She lets go of my neck and grabs my hair, plastic cap and all, and yanks me to full height, spinning me around. The movement is dizzying. My vision swims.

When it clears, I’m looking out the open bathroom doorway down the hall, toward the kitchen. Two drops. Three. Dozens. Maybe hundreds.

I’ve left a blood trail.

She rips the surgical mask from my face. The elastic snaps. I whimper.

“You do the crime, chickadee, you’re damn sure gonna do the cleanup. And this time, you’re doing it the hard way.”

When she shoves me, I fold, topple straight down on my knees. She plants the toe of one boot in my side. “I warned you how it would be. Now get started.”

Knees burning, eyes watering into my safety goggles, I bend my face to the floor and start to lick.

~Scarlett R. Algee

© Copyright Scarlett R. Algee. All Rights Reserved.

Damned Words 38

Below Stairs
A.F. Stewart

Upstairs the music plays, a tragic operatic aria of lament and loss. It drowns out the hiss and creak of the steam and wheels, and the crunch of bones. Oblivious laughter—from the latest guests—mingles with the song, their merry voices drifting into a preceding silence of parties long forgotten.

For the dead no longer scream.

Beneath the gaiety, the servants’ footfalls tread along the stair, from back rooms and the kitchens, down to the deepest level. There, they feed the machines stockpiled flesh. Watching the meat grind, the blood and bone pulverize into dripping globs of raw spat out into vats, waiting for dinners to come. In another corner, maids tuck away silks and jewels to sell.

Nothing to be wasted. No remains to be found.

Above it all the people circulate, eating canopies and drinking wine. The host, he smiles and makes the rounds, greeting and exchanging pleasantries. He gives them all the best of times, a fitting end before they become his next feast.


Bones
Lee Andrew Forman

Firm structure to fine dust—machines turn in unending drudge. Bleach powder, chalky, light, stirs endless with their rusted labor. Ill fated are the powers which motivate the process; knowing soon they’d become its product. Weakness feeds the goods produced, monsters purchase its favor. With delicate pouf, makeup, attire; they parade around with gratuitous chortles. Their faces worn in layers of death, they grin ever wide with flavor. For a bit of coin, their color reborn, pale as frosted glass. Those suffered the gift of an end, worth only a minute of reception, would be stripped of flesh and ground to pleasure each patron.


Every Last Damnèd Soul
Scarlett R. Algee

It’s a tricky business, distilling souls. Always have to boil the bitterness off first; it gunks up the works if you don’t, and it’s a bitch to clean out, pardon my saying. Take this lot—they’ve been stewing for three days just to get the residual resentment out. Drowners, all of them. We leave the salt water in, though; customers say it adds a little something to the finished product.

Some of the souls scream while they’re rendered. Some of them sing. I’m told it’s quite enticing. I’ve mostly learned to ignore it, myself.

Madam. Madam. What are you doing out here on the floor? No, you may not touch the machines. The experience would be damnably unpleasant for both of us, pardon my saying.

Madam, please—what’s that? Your son? You think you hear your son? You have my condolences, but that’s quite unlikely. They aren’t really identifiable now, so for your safety I must insist—madam! Madam!

Oh…not again.

Patterson? Yes, idiot, of course we stop the process! We need an extraction here! She’s the third one this month!

But save the blood. Every drop. The customers say it gives a certain ambiance. Besides, she sings prettily already, doesn’t she?


Rust
Charles Gramlich

He fled. And the wicked followed. Their boots banged like gunshots as they chased him through the abandoned factory where he’d sought refuge. Down empty corridors, they went, through shattered doors. He knew this world and lost them in a room of silent turbines. The search moved on.

The hunters hooted through the vast spaces, first in glee, then frustration. The sounds faded, but the hunters were cunning. He stepped from his hiding place only to meet a brutal blow to the back. Tricked, he went down in terror, and rolled over to find himself encircled by humans. Snarling, they hefted steel bars torn from the factory’s rusted machines.

He threw up an arm; they hammered through that defense, smashing his limbs, crushing his abdomen, sending pieces of him clanging across the floor. Within moments his body lay in a heap of torn alloy. One eye sparked and sputtered. But with his other eye and the last of his consciousness he watched as they set him afire. His vision bloomed, then blackened. A human curse was the last thing he heard.

“Robot slag! Now let’s get the rest of ‘em.”


The Machine
Mark Steinwachs

I cough as my gnarled hands run over the tarnished machine. “It’s amazing how many people don’t believe it happened. Proof that humans are fools. Wirths, Mengele, Clauberg; they would have been nothing without me. Mere footnotes.” I lead him amongst the tanks, my fingers gently caressing them. I shuffle along as best I can, years of dust getting caught in the sun coming through the windows. The tiny particles remind of …“I killed millions. Let that sink in. Millions. And here I am. I live my life hidden in plain sight, just like her.” I kiss the tank gently. “Now it’s your turn. Go back and make your country great again, and then the world. Go, my lieb enkel, my dear grandson. Finish what I started.”

“I promise,” he whispers and kisses my forehead then walks away from me.

I lay down on the cold floor. The screams of decades ago flood back. Smiling, I close my eyes for the last time. I only wish I would get to hear that sweet anguish again.


Once
Mercedes M. Yardley

He was hungry. He was always hungry, always starving, always ravenous. His face was far too sharp and his cheekbones cut against his skin in the most visceral of ways. Once he had a name and even people who called him by it, and food was a bit easier to come by. Never quite enough, surely, but not too little.

He slept in the abandoned factory, catching rats and spiders when he could. It didn’t matter if they were malformed by radiation, because so was he. He stuffed them in his mouth, piece by piece, bit by bit. If he just held on, if he just stayed alive, all of this would make sense one day. He had to believe it.


Yes, Father
Lydia Prime

After closing the door, the towheaded child turned, “Father, I’ve returned the chalice. Is there anything else you need?”

“No son. Thank you for your service today.”

As the boy turned to go, he hesitated, turned back, “Father, one of the other boys mentioned a puddle in the basement, I thought I should tell you.”

Glancing at the boy, the Father headed toward the door leading down the stairs. “Where is this puddle?” he asked, hands clasped.

“Just to the left, Father, down the hall.” The boy looked shamed, almost embarrassed as though he’d heard the rumors. Could this one be asking? It seemed unlikely, but he couldn’t help himself, he ran his tongue ever so slightly across his lips.

“The generator room?”

“Yes, Father. The generator room,” the flaccid faced boy stood still and expectant.

“After you, my child.” The youth led him into the room, the light dim as always. Confusion took hold of the robed man, there were others there…waiting. The row of young boys tensed with anticipation. “What’s going on here? Did you all find the puddle?” A nervous chuckle.

“No father, we’ve found redemption. The shame isn’t ours.” As each youth smiled, the glint of their sharpened teeth told of a different indiscretion.


Feed the Machine
Nina D’Arcangela

Bones crush; the mechanism churns, always turns. Spinning, crunching, consuming. The snap of a skull; shrapnel slices the air nicking tympanic membrane. Those that man the machine have no hearing, they are born without; the ear a remnant from long ago. Chattle of the cause, a war not ours, we breed only to feed the machine.


 

Each piece of fiction is the copyright of its respective author and may not be reproduced without prior consent. © Copyright 2019

Unto Us a Son Is Given

I wish to say I do not remember clearly, because I am an old man and more than thirty years have passed. But it is sin to lie and I cannot forget, so I will say: I remember, though the memory slay me.

When we saw the flare of light we were in the hills above Bethlehem, Micah and Ishmael and I; it was early autumn, the air just becoming crisp, and the ewes we tended were fat and tempting. Micah had killed a wolf with a stone from his sling; I stood watch while he and Ishmael skinned it.

And the sky caught fire.

I can call it nothing else. A great curtain of green light, bright as the sun, licked up from horizon to zenith in an instant; and in the same instant it coalesced to a single point, sickly and flickering, hovering over the mouth of a cave. We stared, bloody wolf forgotten. Ishmael was young then, and trembled. I trembled; I will not lie.

Then we heard the wings.

There were hundreds of them, perhaps thousands, lanky black things with great tattered bat-like wings that blotted out the stars and the strange green light. They hovered over us, and spoke; and their speech was not the speech of men, but a low evil buzz that twisted up words in my mind.

The one you were promised has come. Come. See. We take you.

One of the creatures snatched me up in thin cold hands; it had claws that pierced my robe and pricked my flesh. Then I was lifted; and if others seized Micah and Ishmael I did not see. I saw the ground rush under me, and closed my eyes against the nausea of movement, against the sight of my bearer’s shallow, featureless face.

Then I was set down.

I opened my eyes. I was at the mouth of the cave. The pale green light streamed down, hanging over the opening like a door, made my skin appear leprous in its wake. Then the creature shoved my shoulder with one clawed freezing hand and pushed me through.

Passing through that green glow was like passing through stagnant water: I gagged and retched at its stinking viscosity, and stumbled beyond feeling coated with contagion. Inside was dark except for a far dimmer light; my eyes took a long moment to adjust to the simple oil lamps. I smelled copper, sweat, decay.

And I saw the woman and her child.

She was a young thing, at a closer look, and panting still; the straw between her feet was clotted with copious blood, as though her labor had been precipitous and difficult. An older man, perhaps her husband or father, stood well back from her and raised wild eyes to me, his chin dripping saliva beneath his slack, working mouth. She had the glazed look of the exhausted unto death, and in the whiteness of her face I saw the clean stark lines of the skull beneath, yet through some strength she held the child to her.

Then the woman took the child and laid it in the manger: but the stone trough was lined with raw meat instead of clean straw, and flies buzzed over a butchered lamb in an empty stall. I saw then that the skin of her breast was flayed into fine strands, showing glistening red flesh underneath, and the liquid that dripped from her suckled nipple was not milk but blood.

She spoke in a croaky, breathless whisper: “Behold the son of God.”

Then the child moved: and for the first time I saw its slick black skin, tiny claw-tipped limbs, thin bat wings beginning to unfurl and fan. It gurgled, and its infant mouth showed needle teeth, ringed with tendrils like the barbels of a catfish. They spread out, twisting, tasting the air, perhaps sensing me, and I knew this was not my promised one.

Someone else came into the cave then, slipping effortlessly through the barrier of sick green light and wearing the shape of a man, if a man could be soot black and spider-thin. He was arrayed in tawny silks and bedecked in gold, his face covered below onyx eyes, and he trailed the fragrance of myrrh from the tips of long writhing fingers. He knelt: and as he knelt, his yellow silk veil slipped, and when I saw what lay beneath I ran from the cave screaming.

I screamed until I reached the top of the hill, and there I fell, breathing the sweet cool air, clutching fistfuls of long wholesome grass. Only when I came to myself did I see that the flock had scattered, and that of Ishmael and Micah and the dead wolf there was no sign, save a few tufts of gray fur and a patch of sticky crimson across the grass.

I left the hill country that night, and have not returned. In the thirty years since I have heard that the peculiar babe grew to manhood of a sort, gathered followers and wandered the countryside, preaching a new kingdom and performing strange miracles: giving the lame to walk on ropy tentacle legs, restoring sight to the blind to show them things no man should bear, raising men from the grave to show them crueler forms of death.

I was glad when I heard he had been crucified in Jerusalem. Such a blasphemy should only be put to death. But then I heard the tomb had been found empty three days later, its Roman guards devoured, and I could not be glad for that.

Those who followed him walk still, and they are much changed from men. One I met yesterday, on the road to Beersheba: he said his master had gone to his kingdom, under stone, under sea, to dream a new world and wait for stars to turn. The madman said his king will return to bring his glory.

May it be a glory I do not live to see.

~ Scarlett R. Algee

© Copyright Scarlett R. Algee. All Rights Reserved.

 

Damned Words 36

 

Gentle Caress
Nina D’Arcangela

Her tears fall in gentle caress; the cacophony within grows. Metal screeches and groans as rivets strain; the contortion as abnormal as the abomination itself. Haunting echoes mimic her pain; the moan of a mother forced to witness a great affront. Torn from her body: distorted, punctured, malformed. Mother’s milk tries to soothe that which can never be unwrought.


Reapers
A.F. Stewart

Rusting steel, exhaust, and the roar of engines. That is the world of ancestors left us. The screams of the hopeless and the lingering smell of blood in our noses. Tonight, I stand sentinel atop this makeshift parapet, above tribal bones bleached by time and weather. Each skeleton nailed to the metal with reverence, a sacrifice to Death and warning to would-be enemies.

I wait for the hunters to ride out. Nomads have camped at the far river, and tonight, their blood runs red into the waters. Save for two. They are young and fresh, in the turning years between child and adult. They are ours.

Seven days the boy will hang from our rack until pain becomes his mistress and he is ready to join our ranks. To serve Death. We will sacrifice the girl, her flesh flayed from her bones and her flowing blood replenishing the soil. I will cherish her screams well after Death claims her. I shall hang her skeleton from the north tower, in homage to our god. I long to hear her bones rattle in the wind.

I smile. This is who we are. This is what we have made of our world.


Gasworks
Mercedes M. Yardley

It was a busy park full of people and picnic blankets patchworked together on the hill. When it was sunny, everyone jammed themselves together like boats crowding the dock. They flew kites. They lapped up the rare sunshine. They watched their little ones playing tag with strangers.

It would be joyful, but Cora could see more than others. She could see a person’s life span, could see the vitality draining from them, could see who had fifty more years or ten more days or five more minutes. The people were bags of would-be rotting flesh, smiles peeling back in decay.

There were so many faces, so many draining hour glasses, that it was impossible to focus on just one. So much better than home where one timeline caught her attention, her stares, her focus. He was a small boy with a gap-toothed smile, one precious second running out each time he called her “Mama.”


Arrogance
Mark Steinwachs

“Let that gorgeous sky be a reminder; Mother Nature never worried about you. Your kind barely blipped on her radar. You brought the end on yourselves. Not through her destruction but through your baseness. Humans,” Michael’s voice booms, dripping with loathing. “You eroded yourselves and your punishment is at hand.”

You look up, frantically searching for an escape. Your mind goes to when God unleashed his minions and within those first few moments you knew how wrong humans were… about everything. You’ve watched angels and demons, heroes, villains, and gods from across time and continents display what it means to kill in His name.

Your attempt to survive ends in this insignificant place. The last thing you’ll see; rust-covered metal. The color of human legacy. Boots on grated stairs announce your fate. You turn. Michael, wings spread in glory, arcs his gleaming sword down.


As Yet, Disquiet
Scarlett R. Algee

For as long as we’ve lived in this valley, contending with the things under the earth that would devour us, we’ve had the Machine, and the Machine produces the Sound.

We talk about it in capitals, the Sound, though we don’t hear it; we’ve known it years, decades, longer. Only if you leave the valley will you become aware of its absence, poking into your senses the way you’d prod at the gap from a missing tooth. And when you return, you’ll actually hear it for an instant: your eardrums vibrating with the great low hum, your teeth set on edge, before the Sound slots back into your brain where it belongs. It’s everything that’s safe, this hum we’ve stopped hearing.

Or it was until fifty-seven seconds ago, when the Machine failed.

And already, we can hear something greater than the Sound: the grinding of earth in great jaws, tremoring below our feet.


Extinction
Charles Gramlich

I listen closely. Raw petroleum, pumped fresh from the ground, rumbles through the great pipe overhead. But that sound is always present. I’m in an oil refinery, after all. This is something else, a hollow, echoing throb. My mind offers a descriptor for the sound, one that makes no sense. The descriptor is…ancient.

I shake my head. It’s been a long day. Lifting the wrench I carry, I tap it hard against the pipe. Metal tings on metal, ringing like a bell in a church for sinners. I don’t expect an answer.

I get one.

The pipe booms. Rust powders down. I leap back convulsively. Metal rivets pop. A spray of yellow-black crude whips me across the face. I smell hydrocarbons, organics. Petroleum comes from once living things, like dinosaurs. Everyone knows that. But it’s all extinct now. No life could survive the pressures under which petroleum forms. No normal life.

More rivets explode. A thick stream of sludge nails me where I stand. Something that’s supposed to be dead slips taloned fingers through the breach in the pipe and begins to peel it open. Looks like extinction isn’t quite what it seems.

I hope that’s true for humanity.


Eye to Socket
Lydia Prime

The metallic taste in my mouth was nothing compared to the aroma that surrounded me. The tacky, filth covered walls offered no help in the darkness as I sloshed and fumbled.  Finally, I remembered the lighter hidden in my hip pocket; its tiny glow flickered amber. The rusted enclosure smothered my senses; russet liquid filled the chamber to mid-thigh. A loud rushing filled my ears as the fluid drained revealing small sepia mounds. I reached for one, brought it closer for inspection—breathless and alone, I stared eye to socket with my future.


All that Is
Lee A. Forman

All that is flows through bleeding steel, weathered like old bones left unburied. The drab shell holds fresh sustenance. Its purpose before, I do not know. Different stories, most untrue. I think it doesn’t matter. Only tomorrow, maybe today.

Over the heads in front I see the Waiters. They serve only the few. The many must leave their plates behind and be all that is.

Each piece of fiction is the copyright of its respective author and may not be reproduced without prior consent. © Copyright 2018