By Kenneth Yu
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The kalesa halted right in front of my humble boarding house. I folded my newspaper and looked up from behind the front desk, just as the sound of the horse’s canter on the cobbled street ceased. The early afternoon sunlight, as bright as my lobby was dim, caused me to squint to get a better look at the two people disembarking from the upper carriage. All I could see were their silhouettes framed in the doorway.
The driver hefted the baggage down, a blur of action. He lifted them through the entrance and, without stepping inside, placed them on the lobby floor. He then held his palm out – strangely, at a full arm’s length – to the other one, the passenger. It struck me then that the driver seemed to be in a rush and that he was crouched and breathing heavily from exertion, even if the bags he had just carried did not seem particularly large or heavy. The passenger picked from a purse and delicately placed some coins into the open hand. Perhaps it was a trick of the light on my eyes, but the scene froze and the two silhouettes became shadows, dark and thin, almost skeletal, the taller one holding out some benediction to the other, more shriveled one. It lasted but a moment. In the next, the horse on the street whinnied nervously and shook its mane, restoring movement. The driver took his money and bowed, then quickly clambered onto his box-seat; with a click of his tongue and a “Hee-ya!”, the kalesa clopped away.
The remaining man approached the front desk slowly, his footsteps echoing hollowly. As my eyes adjusted and my vision cleared, allowing the silhouette before me to gain features, I noticed his mouth: wide, two long lines of pinkish lips in a pale face, open in a grin that seemed to show more than the normal amount of square, white teeth.
“Good afternoon,” he said, his tone friendly but his voice rasping. “I would like to rent a room; may I?”
I grunted an affirmation, heavily opened the registry between us, and waved lightly at the pen. He took it and I noticed how pale his hands were, how long and thin his fingers. He bent over, dipped the pen in the inkwell and signed his name. “Edilberto Rosalino Alhambra Lorenzo” his name was, or so he had written, one typical in length and the usual pretension of the upper classes and those trying to be like them.
“Señor Lorenzo,” I addressed him, but even so, I was unsure of his name’s claim to any inner kastilaloy heritage. There seemed an oddness to his look, not quite mestizo, but not quite indio, either; and in the first place, my boarding house was not one for my “betters”. Nevertheless, his manner and bearing were impeccably societal and as long as his money was good….
“I would like to have a room on the highest floor, away from everyone else. From the outside, I noticed a high corner protruding on one side of your fine establishment. Could that be an attic, perhaps? An upper-level mezzanine? If that is indeed a room, I saw that the window points to the sky, to the stars. That would be perfect for my needs.”
This was the most he had said in one breath and I admit to having been taken aback. The uppercrusts never bothered with more than what needed to be said to those like myself. He must have noticed my surprise, but instead of holding back as I expected, as someone of his stature should’ve done, he pressed on, still loquacious.
“I am, ah, an amateur musician, you see, a student in between teachers, if you will.” He waved his arm toward his baggage and I wondered how I could have missed the bruised and faded guitar case between two other smaller pieces of luggage, equally battered.
“I would not like to be a disturbance to your other guests.” He doffed his hat, revealing a bald, bulbous, white pate bulging with purple veins. In doing so, he aged himself instantly by twenty years before my eyes. For a moment, he seemed less human and for the first time, my unease threatened to overwhelm me; I shuddered from a cold that came from within. No, he was not young, only seemed to be, properly concealed.
“You see,” he continued, “I am working on a piece of music, a short concierto and an even-shorter opera, just an amateur’s attempt at art, so to speak. I expect to be composing late into the night and I would not like to be a disturbance to your guests.” This time, at the sight of his teeth and his strange smile, I was nearly unnerved.
“It’s our most expensive room.” Business was just so-so and my occupancy was not high, but for some reason, I uttered the words as if to dissuade him. My voice quivered slightly as I spoke and I struggled to regain some control of my illogical nervousness. He asked for the rate and I named one higher than normal, which he accepted by re-opening his purse, counting out a wad of bills and placing them neatly before me.
I could only cast my eyes downward at the money, mumble a “Yes” and ring the small bell I keep behind the reception table. Rosalino – the teenager I employed as an all-around assistant – walked in from the back.
“Lino,” I said, acutely aware that I was making an effort not to directly address my new guest, “here are the keys. Show Señor Lorenzo to the high corner room. It is his for the next four nights. Take his bags.”
“Be careful with them,” Señor Lorenzo said, turning his smile onto the boy. Lino hesitated and his eyes widened, before he hurriedly picked up the bags and trotted up the narrow wooden staircase on his bare feet.
Señor Lorenzo nodded to me, restored his hat to his head, and followed Lino upstairs. For some reason, to my ears, his footsteps echoed more hollowly than the muted thudding of Lino’s own.
“Did you hear him last night, Señor Santos?” Lino asked me the next morning. We were both early risers, and were sharing a breakfast of eggs, garlic-rice sinangag, and barako coffee.
I had heard faint pluckings of the guitar strings from my quarters on the ground, but only when I strained to listen. They were easy to ignore and not loud enough to disturb me. My own room is hidden away behind thick walls and a thick door, and I am not in the habit of sleeping by an open window, even with a kulambo – an old but still serviceable mosquito net. When I sleep, I prefer it quiet and utterly dark.
I remembered then that Lino had chosen a recess at the back of my boarding house as his place of rest, needing only a makeshift wooden cot, a rattan banig to lie on, and one of my discarded kulambo for protection from insects. That spot was three stories down and directly below the window to our latest guest’s room. If anyone would have heard Señor Lorenzo’s music, it would have been Lino.
“No, I did not,” I told him. “Did you? Was he any good?”
“Oh, he sounded like a good guitarist, Señor….” His voice trailed off and I noticed immediately the way the young boy’s face scrunched up in perturbation.
“What is it?” I asked.
“It’s not that he played poorly. I could hear much of his music. He’s certainly a better guitarist than my Tito Manuel from Pampanga. Tito Manuel has been playing all his life, but Señor Lorenzo is far more skilled. It’s just that….”
“Señor, I could not recognize the type of music he was playing last night. It did not sound like any music I had ever heard of. It was different.”
“Did you enjoy his music?”
“No, I can’t say that I did, yet I couldn’t stop listening. Even if his music made me feel – what is the word? – ‘uncomfortable’, I wanted to hear more of it. But our guest did not play his song through. He would stop, then resume again, then stop, change something a bit in the tune, as if he did not yet know fully the song he was playing.”
“He did say that he was composing a concierto and an opera.”
“Perhaps that is why.” Lino sighed. “I could not sleep at all, Señor. Strangely, I did not want to sleep, and I felt irritated whenever he would pause. I’m sure I did not get more than three or four hours last night.”
“Was he up that late?” I asked. It was then that I noticed how bloodshot Lino’s eyes were. “Well, this cannot be. You cannot do all the work I need you to do if you are not rested. Maybe we can move you to one of the small closets in the meantime. You can empty one of them of whatever they contain and move in temporarily.”
“No!” Lino surprised me with the passion of his response, with the way he jerked his head up at me to express his dismay at my suggestion. He reacted as if I had meant some punishment for him, when clearly, I did not.
“No, sir!” he said. “I’ll be fine. I can still do my work and more, if necessary. I am happy where I am!”
“Well, then…,” I began, when the sound of someone clearing his throat startled the two of us out of our conversation.
Señor Lorenzo stood in the doorway to our small kitchen. We had not heard his approach, not even the creak of the stairs as his weight pressed on the wooden steps. He was, as far as I could tell, wearing the same clothes as the day before, and when he said “Good morning” and smiled at us, the same, initial fear renewed itself within me.
“I hope I am not bothering you,” he said, “but I will be going out today and I will not return till later this evening. I have locked the door to my room and I would like to request that it not be disturbed. I am quite particular about my belongings.”
It was a strange request. Did he not want us to sweep the floor, or empty his bedpan, at the least? But I could only nod my head at him.
“Will you be playing again tonight, Señor?” Lino asked with a boyish eagerness that surprised me as much as the audacity he displayed in addressing a stranger he should not have been speaking to in the first place.
“Yes, and for every night,” our guest said. “Could you hear me? I am sorry….”
“No. It’s all right,” Lino cut him off, another breach. “It’s all right, Señor.”
“Well, thank you. Goodbye.” He turned around and disappeared out the main door.
I would have reprimanded Lino then and there for speaking before being spoken to; I would have reminded him that only I am allowed to speak with guests and if he is ever questioned, he should answer quickly and directly without developing any familiarity. But just as Señor Lorenzo left, someone else thundered down the stairs.
Another of our guests, a Señor Juan Martin Fernandez, one of two travelers from Cavite, all disheveled and wild-eyed, burst in upon us.
“Carlito is dead!” he screamed.
Lino and I followed him upstairs to their shared room. He was gibbering about how he had woken up from a poor night’s sleep haunted by terrible dreams and when he stepped over to his companion’s bunk to shake him awake, discovered him with eyes open but blank, staring at the ceiling, his mouth open and frothing with green sputum, his face a ghostly pale and lined with thin, purple veins.
I sent Lino to call the Guardiya Sibil, and he returned with them and one of their superior commanders post-haste. They all reached the same and immediate verdict that I had: one of our guests had died in his sleep and a cart was needed to take his corpse away.
The worst that could happen to my business is a fire. A fire can destroy everything and leave you with nothing. It is said that it is better to be burgled than to have your home and your business go up in smoke and flames. But a death! Unlike with a fire, I still had my building, but a death at this moment felt just as devastating.
The doctors came and took the body away. One of their assistants clicked his tongue as he covered my guest’s face with a white sheet. They saved me from the indignity of being questioned, instead turning their curiosities upon Señor Fernandez. While he was whisked away, I heard the word “quarantine” uttered more than a few times. Memories were still fresh as we were only four years removed from a flu that had ravaged Manila.
My other guests had woken to the commotion. From the corners of my eyes, I caught them whispering among themselves. They saw and heard the same things I had. In a few minutes they were all dressed and lined up at the reception. I entreated with them to stay, that nothing had been conclusively proven, that it was all speculation, but to no avail.
“We don’t know anything yet,” I pleaded. The more polite guests apologized; the ruder ones claimed that their past night was restless and that their dreams were disturbed, as if that could have been my fault. By eleven, they had all packed, paid and left, all covering their mouths with damp handkerchiefs.
I could only wait for the authorities to return, either with the news that they were closing us down or that my boarding house was clear.
“Señor Santos?” Lino called me from the stairs. The tremor in his voice betrayed his fear.
“What? What is it?”
“I think you should see this,” he said and he led me upstairs.
I thought he would lead me to the room where our guest had died, to show me some frightening piece of evidence that indeed, the flu, or some other plague, had returned. But he turned away at the landing and brought me instead to the high corner room. The door stood ajar.
“Did you unlock it?” I asked. He nodded, and handed me the master key I trusted him with.
“I thought to clean his room….”
“No, you did not!” I said, with all vehemence and he knew I spoke the truth. Chastised, he bowed his head.
“I wanted to see his things. I wanted to hear Señor Lorenzo’s song again.”
And now, so did I. What could have taken a hold of this boy, who previously had shown no taste for any kind of art, to make him obsess over this music?
I faced a choice then. To shut the door and lock it, to keep myself in blissful ignorance, would have won me over, if not for Lino’s plea.
“You must see!” he said, and he pushed the door wide. He took my arm and pulled me bodily into the room. The assault on my senses was immediate.
My grandfather suffered from vertigo late in his life and he always complained about losing his sense of balance, of dizziness. This was how he died: he fell down while getting up from the sofa in the sala and the sudden movement caused him to fall and hit his head on the floor. He never woke up from his coma. The doctors couldn’t do anything and neither could the albularyos with all their herbs and potions. When I entered Señor Lorenzo’s room, I knew that this must’ve been how he felt.
Tacked on the walls were large, yellowing parchments of hand-drawn illustrations of what seemed to be buildings, but none of a kind that I had ever seen. In my youth, before my family fell on difficult times, I had been to Europe, to Paris, Bonn, Stuttgart, London, Barcelona, Madrid, Berlin. They were fascinating places and I had thought then that I had seen the apex of human architectural creativity. Upon seeing these drawings, I knew then that there was something beyond man’s capabilities. Taken together, the drawings presented a city designed following some inhuman geometry, one that seemed off with what the world I knew presented. The angles made no sense and neither did the placements of what I took to be gables, awnings and other fixtures. My eyes began to tear, which was fortunate because I knew that if I stared at the drawings for too long, I would surely pass out. And these were simply penciled sketches! I feared for what this might do to me if they had been real.
Lino’s voice called me back and I shielded my eyes from the walls so as to focus on him. I reached out and held his shoulder for support. “Look,” he said and against my will, I beheld the crumpled paper he thrust in my face. My schooling had included some formal lessons in guitar, an instrument which I had no talent for, but I recognized the writings as sheet music. The piece was untitled and I noticed in parentheses a German name, Erich Zann, but surely our guest was the true composer behind it. Beneath the notes were words, lyrics, I presumed, of his opera, but it was in a language I could not recognize – and based on the formations of the letters – much less pronounce. On the table was an open, leather-bound book, handwritten and not printed, ragged around the edges, with many loose sheets of music and other notes inserted between the pages. I recognized some of the words from this book as being the same as those on the sheet Lino held up to me. Clearly, they were being transcribed to the music.
As with breakfast earlier that morning, the sound of a throat clearing made us look up and as before, standing in the doorway watching us with unveiled vehemence, stood Edilberto Rosalino Alhambra Lorenzo.
“I warned you most politely,” he snarled, “not to enter my room!”
“Señor! It was me! I am sorry!”
“Wait!” I said, mustering my authority. I was still the proprietor of the boarding house and I called on those rights. Despite my quivering knees, I said, “We have had a death due to illness this morning, sir, and the doctors and inspectors may shut us down. I am expecting them to return any moment. We only inspected the room to make certain of its safety. You may have to leave at once. These are unusual circumstances!”
In his silence, Señor Lorenzo was more menacing than he would have been in passionate anger. He stepped inside the room and closed the door behind him. Lino and I were frozen in place and could only watch. He stepped slowly to the unused bed where, for the first time, I saw his guitar case lying open. He sat on the bed and pulled his guitar out and in the strangest of reactions to all that had happened, began to play and sing.
Lino’s mouth opened wide in surprise and recognition; the song was surely the same as the one he had played the night before. Señor Lorenzo started slow, calling forth mixes of chords and sounds both weird and dreadful. Certainly, the music was not natural to this world, and I could hardly believe the indefinable vibrations that he was calling forth from his throat and from his instrument. It filled me with a brooding sense of wonder and frightening mystery. That such a symphony could be brought forth by one man playing one instrument was unbelievable.
The music picked up and Señor Lorenzo’s hands and fingers began to move in such a frenzy they became a blur to my eyes. He began to shriek his words in time to his playing and as if in answer, the sky outside clouded over and the wind began to howl through the open window. Señor Lorenzo was certainly a genius and also clearly insane, as his eyes took on a look of madness as he turned the full energy of his work upon us. My heart beat rapidly in my breast.
There came a choking sound beside me and Lino fell, grabbing my shirt as he did so. His eyes had rolled up into his forehead and his mouth frothed with saliva and mucus in mimicry of the dead guest in the room below. I am ashamed to say that I could not help myself, but in disgust and repulsion, I stepped back and detached myself from my assistant’s clutching hands. Then, in the most unbelievable of events in a morning filled with them, I perceived the sound of another voice, one that growled in guttural anger, and another kind of music akin and in answer to Señor Lorenzo’s play, descend from the dark sky outside, growing in volume in its seeming approach. I ran out the door, fleeing for my life.
I do not remember staggering down the narrow staircase. I do not remember rushing outside as fast as I could in an attempt to distance myself from the madness that seemed to follow me wherever I went nonetheless. I do not remember finding myself in the middle of the cobbled calle, the kalesa bearing down on me from out of nowhere, the horse’s whinny, its rearing forelegs, the screams of the driver and bystanders.
I came to my senses in the hospital. My legs were broken, as was my right forearm. The doctors and nurses were kind, if wary. A young orderly, more patient than the rest, explained that I had woken screaming many times in the middle of the night, calling out my assistant’s name and the name “Lorenzo!” then laughing maniacally before falling back into unconsciousness. For three nights, I had been this way and they had needed to move me to a separate room because of the disturbance I was creating for the other patients.
I inquired as to my boarding house and Lino, explaining who he was to me. I gave my address and the name of my business to the orderly, which puzzled him, but he was accommodating enough to agree to send someone to check. He told me later that the messenger he had sent reported no such edifice at the site, claiming to have found only a vacant, grassy lot.
I think now: would that I could do the same for my memory and lose it as I have lost my boarding house, because in my dreams, in the darkest of nights, I can still hear the cacophony of Señor Lorenzo’s music; I can still hear his voice scream a babel of words whose meanings were never meant to be comprehended by man. When I am deepest in recollection, the world I know slowly transforms into that city, shaping itself into its mad architecture. In those moments, I know where I need to go to find my home; to find Lino, if he is still alive, which I doubt; and Señor Lorenzo, whom I never hope to see again.
Bio: Kenneth Yu is a writer from the Philippines. His work has seen print in his country’s various publications, including the Philippine ezines Usok and Best Of Philippine Speculative Fiction 2009; in the anthologies Philippine Speculative Fiction IV and V; and on the Philippine fiction podcast site Pakinggan Pilipinas. One of his stories also placed 3rd in the Neil Gaiman-sponsored 3rd Philippine Graphic Fiction Awards in early 2010. Elsewhere, his stories have been accepted by The Town Drunk and AlienSkin, with another forthcoming in the print anthology D.O.A. from Blood Bound Books. He also won Fantasy Magazine‘s 2009 Halloween Flash Fiction contest.
By Cheryl McCreary
Download the PDF version of our fifth fiction issue.
Crouched down and hidden beneath layers of metal and concrete, I hear them approach. The slow rumble of a writhing mass of worms eats away at the rock and steal of the bunker. My heart beats a steady rhythm in time to their nibbling. Even if I survive, I fear the man I was will not.
The heat of summer settled into the hills of Appalachia, the campus empty save for true academia. A scattering of nibbled leaves, a handful of black worms, an isolated insect manifestation grew into bare branches and stray worms among every bit of greenery. Spraying was futile, and experts provided no help. But, having just received a shipment of newly-unearthed artifacts about Heptet from a dig in Egypt, I paid little heed to anything outside my office, busy discovering more about the role the snake goddess may have played in Osiris’ resurrection.
It was two weeks later that I noticed the emptiness, even more so than the laziness of a college town in off-session. The worms had eaten through the leaves of tree, shrub and grass, and proceeded to eat away at the leftover wood, the cobbled walkways, perhaps the very ground. The buildings had been wiped clean of vines and moss. There was talk of evacuating, of calling in the National Guard.
I should have left then, with the last trickling fleers. But there were things to collect, those newly arrived artifacts, countless volumes on Egyptian mythology which could never be recollected or replaced. Boxes in hand and my old Honda standing ready, I began the difficult task of packing.
I thought I could actually hear them, the mass of worms, nibbling, nibbling. I shrugged it off, nothing but my imagination brought on by silence surrounding what usually bustled with energy. However, it rushed me along.
By the third trip to load my car, I feared it wasn’t just my imagination getting the best of me. The ground was a crawling black mass that crunched beneath my shoes, sending a chill up my spine. In the late evening light, the buildings seemed to shiver dimly, their aged red brick covered with worms, slowly being etched away.
A ghostly image glimmered in the distance, up the hill on the central green of campus. A figure stood tall, thin, knives in each hand. I squinted to make out the features better. Long, thick black hair fell down slender shoulders, but the head was that of a snake’s with a thin black beard on the long chin.
I shook my head, closed my eyes. When I looked again, the figure, one remarkably similar to Heptet, had disappeared. Only my imagination, and too much time with my research, only that, I told myself. Yet, something gnawed away at the back of my mind, as if I should know what was happening.
Forgetting the rest of my precious items, I entered the safety of the car and cranked the engine, only to find it dead. I tried again, pumped the gas petal, felt like cursing its previously reliable service. Finally, heart pounding, I popped the hood and got out to check, knowing my lack of technical knowledge would provide me with no insight, but feeling I must do something.
A fetid odor hung in the humid air. The almost twilight landscape seemed alive, the black mass of worms reaching in a sliver closer to me. The sight that I encountered under the hood astounded me. There, where the mechanical machinery of a car should be, nothing but a huge clump of shimmering worms existed. It lunged at me and I backed away, heart stopped.
Nothing but terror filled me as I turned and ran, crushing worms beneath me, swerving to dive away from outreaching masses on empty tree branches and building walls. The image of Heptet flashed in my mind. I stumbled along, the ground of worms trying to trip me. I tried not to think of what would happen were they to do so, were I to find myself face down in the writhing mass.
I couldn’t outrun them. I hadn’t the energy, and no knowledge of how far they must reach. My mind struck upon the idea of the fallout shelter, a lingering item of the distant Cold War. The newly-conceived plan kept my feet pumping, up hills and more hills to a distant stop I’d only visited once before. I wondered how I’d recognize it, only to surprisingly find it uncovered. I glanced further up the hill. Heptet stood, knives in hand and a curved smile on her snake head. I frowned and heaved open the heavy door. The worms suddenly circled tightly. They wiggled up my pants leg and began trickling into the shelter. Shocked, I jumped down and inside, slammed the iron door and wrenched it closed, watching worms flatten as darkness fell.
Choking back a scream, and wondering who would hear it, I shook the worms out of my pants. I felt as if I could hear them, nibbling and crawling about the floor. I proceeded to stomp around, hoping to squish them all, carrying on until I was satisfied.
That panic done, a new one began. I’d just closed myself in a fallout shelter. Darkness surrounded me. I groped the walls – cold, rough concrete – for a light switch until my sweaty fingers slipped on the metal of one. I tugged it down, waited. One bulb, dangling from the ceiling, flickered on. Its thin, worn filament glowed a faint orange in the darkness.
My eyes grew used to the dim light. I gazed around the small bunker. Four concrete walls surrounded me, rough and crumbling with age. Dirt, grey and fine, filled the corners.
Banging sounded on the door above. I stepped away from it, further into the darkness. I could hear them, the worms, eating away at the metal. Screeching sounded beside me, the worms eating through dirt and stone. Then I spotted the phone, hidden in the shadows, and darted to it.
The phone was mounted into the concrete wall. Once bright red, the colour had faded to a dirty rust. I picked up the receiver, and the twisted cord thumped against the concrete wall. I listened for a dial tone; only silence echoed. The phone contained no numbers, only one button and a light, now dead, on the top. I pushed the only button, listened again.
Crackling filled the line. “Hello,” my voice sounded far away as it echoed off the concrete walls. “I need help,” I continued. Only crackling responded. “I’m in the fallout shelter, on the hill above campus. The worms are everywhere. I’m trapped inside. Can you hear me?”
The last words faded into the crackling, and the crackling grew to a full silence over the phone. I frowned and hung up the receiver. How long would the worms last? Had anyone heard me? How long before someone stopped the worms or killed them? How would I know when it was safe to come out? Until then, I was trapped, I realized, as I glanced around the small bunker.
Pounding sounded on the door above; the walls creaked and groaned. The light flickered, and snapped out. Darkness filled the bunker. I felt the cold concrete behind me and crouched down with my back to it.
The image of Heptet seemed locked in my head now, she who resurrected Osiris from the dead and brought about his rebirth. The image morphed into a writhing snake and then a mass of black worms. A shiver ran up my spine. I hugged my knees and closed my eyes tight, wishing the image gone.
I’m not sure how long I waited, terrified in the dark. Hours, days, I lost track of time. I must have dozed off more than once. I could hear them above me, nibbling, nibbling. Slowly, they were making their way to me. I’d only postponed my doom.
Somewhere in that odd sense of nothing around me, time flowed by until I could make no sense of anything. This was only an infestation of worms, I told myself, nothing more. My mind and research on Heptet was playing tricks on me.
Nibbling, nibbling at the concrete. The groan of metal giving. A sprinkling of ceiling falls next to me, and I hurry to huddle in a corner. I can hear them plopping to the floor, slithering nearer. Moonlight filters brighter and brighter as more of the shelter falls about me, as they flow into what has been my safety.
My heart pounds harder and harder. Images of Heptet drift through my head. I can feel the worms on me now, crawling, nibbling away at flesh. I scream, distantly hearing it echo back from the crumbling walls, the surrounding hills. I’m frozen stiff, unable to brush them off. They eat away at me, tiny bite by tiny bite.
I feel myself dissolving away, becoming a part of them and her, part of the writhing mass as the trees and walkways and buildings did before. They sing a song of resurrection, of rebirth of this land and of me. But I know, deep inside, I will become nothing but a part of them. I try to struggle, more mentally than physically. This will not be my fate.
I drift farther and farther away, until the last bit of me is gone. For a fleeting moment, I am trapped inside something dark and ancient. Then a feeling of comfort and belonging sweeps over me. This was always to be my fate; why else would my work have surrounded and searched down Heptet? I have not given in, or been brainwashed into submission, I have found my place in the universe, with her.
I am home, not to the hills of Appalachia, my cluttered office or cozy cottage, but to where I came from, something I should have known so long ago. I am them, and she has always been calling me. I had forgotten, but am finally found again. Were I to still have a face, I would smile.
Bio: Cheryl McCreary is a scientist by training and science educator by day. She’s lived in assorted locales, including the hilly college town of Athens, Ohio. She currently resides in South Carolina with her husband, a loyal Lab and an adventurous cat. Her work has appeared in Ruins Extraterrestrial Anthology, Fictitious Force and Space Westerns, as well as other places.
By Tom Hamilton
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If you look at city blocks from an airplane, there are way more squares then there are rocky diamonds. I remember this when I’m on the ground. And I did as I drove around searching for a mark. It’s not as easy as just finding the house with the most expensive car. The people who have all the money are smart enough to want to keep it. No one could possibly lift each fancy brass knocker or ring every single doorbell. I don’t have the strength or perseverance of the mailman. So, it pays to notice the subtlest of nuances: like a pick-up truck with a Sturgeon on the camper or a carved wooden plaque which says: Grampa and Grandma’s house.
When people think of con artists, the most elaborate and complex schemes usually come to mind: the pigeon drop, three-card Monty, the king in the tower. But it’s nowhere near as complicated as all that. It’s simply a matter of finding someone old and feeble-enough to impose your will upon. Preferably, someone who still has access to their banks accounts and doesn’t need a second signature from their son or daughter, nephew or niece. Then gaining their confidence while breaking down all resistance with a presumptuous and forward politeness. Like a fast, sleek point guard taking the defender off the dribble. Worming your way into their quilt-covered, big-box-TV living rooms and….
My thoughts were interrupted by a streak of colour off to my right. A strikingly-attractive young woman, who was wearing a tan, polka dotted sundress, was being tugged along by several leashed dogs on the sidewalk. She was tall, a little taller than I like them, with auburn hair flowing down past her freckled shoulders and complimenting a fair face, her thick and sensual lips, the shade and perhaps the flavour of caramel. A song on the radio told me the colour of her eyes in an instant of almost supernatural synchronicity: “…auburn hair and tawny eyes, the kind of eyes which hypnotize me through, hypnotize me through.”
The dogs were a perfect match for their master: an orange-sherbet Irish Setter, a caramel-apple Lhasa Apso and a Golden Retriever following a streamlined Doberman Pinscher, which was the subtle colour of coffee infiltrated with cream and just a hint of sugar-white fur underneath the chin. These animals foraged across the silver concrete, straining at their burnt-orange chords as if they wanted to circle the globe on four feet.
Almost involuntarily, I pumped the truck’s brake, waving my arms in a desperate attempt to get her attention. For I felt a need to be seen by her and to be thrilled by her reaction, preferably a clean-and-comely smile. My poor, ruined heart had been packed in ice for so long, it felt like a donor organ being transported in a six pack cooler. It was like a dead battery that needed to be jolted back to life by jumper cables. It needed to be held in tender, soft, svelte, petite female fingers; to be nursed back to health like an injured red bird. But she didn’t seem to see me and only kept on walking, as if senile or impaired somehow. Oblivious to my deep, sexual stare.
Finally, and with much help from the prick who was laying on his horn in the car behind me, I was forced to round the corner. By the time I’d completed my turn and shed the road rager, I was nearly at the next block. I tried glancing back over my shoulder across a vacant lot, which was strewn with shards of burnt-brown broken bottles and the bushy hairstyles of weeds. But the girl and her dogs could not be seen anywhere. Of course I made the square in an effort to relocate them, but it was as if they’d slipped into a doorway or dropped through a manhole. Sometime during my third trip around the block, I realized that they were gone.
“Well that seems kind of high Timothy,” the old woman said.
“‘High’ compared to what, ma’am?” I quipped. “Everything’s high, nowadays.”
We were sitting on lawn chairs inside her garage, looking out over a freshly seal-coated driveway. A pitcher of iced tea sat on a wooden ‘Fightin’ Illini’ tray table, along with two transparent plastic cups. She was frowning down at the invoice I had just slid across to her. When she didn’t say anything else, or more importantly, when she didn’t start writing the check out, I knew that I would have to talk:
“Hey,” I said, “you’re a senior citizen, aren’t you?” It wouldn’t have taken a carnival weight-guesser to make this estimation. “Are you over sixty-five?”
She looked up from the bill, pride twinkling in her eyes. “I’m eighty nine,” she said.
“Well that makes you eligible right there.”
“Oh,” She puffed up and purred. “For what?”
“For the senior citizen’s discount.” I tapped the calculator. “And with your 10% discount, that brings your total down too…$1475.00.” She didn’t look much happier, but she did start writing the check out. After she’d put her John Hancock on the document, however, she seemed to brighten and was soon back to her old affable self.
“Would you like some more iced tea, Timothy?” she asked. I despised iced tea. To me, it tasted like dirty eggs which had been soaked in tap water. It was all I could do not to retch upon sipping it.
“Yes, Ma’am,” I answered. “That would be wonderful.” I watched the bile-colored liquid cascade down through the ice squares.
“You’re welcome, Timothy.” Of course my name wasn’t Timothy. It was obvious that the old woman’s weakened mind was confusing me with somebody else, someone from the lost and darkened decades before I was born. I was curious, however, and once I had the check in my wallet, I asked her:
“Timothy? Is that your son?”
“No,” she said, as her countenance darkened and what had been an unbridled sun was swept behind a cloud as huge and gray as a castle.
“But I did have a child once, a long time ago.” Her shrunken, slouching shoulders shrugged. I believe she was trying to guess my age. “Maybe…fifty years before you were born.”
“Oh?” I said, before taking another gulp of the horrid de-freshment.
“Yes,” she said, as her forehead cracked like a bulldog’s and her eyes filled with tinctured water and looked as big as buckeyes. Her features blackened and sank until her face looked positively possessed.
“We were trying to make it to the Quad Cities,” she began. “My mother knew a doctor there. Oh, they had automobiles then, but no one that we knew could afford one. So, I just lay there big as a house in the back of the wagon, exasperated from the heat. Then my balloon burst and there was water all over the boards. We had to get me off of the gravel, so my father pulled us into a roadside park. It was in Winslow Illinois, or ‘is’, I should say: it’s still there. Has been there since that August, 1915.”
I wasn’t going to ask where the husband/father was, but just as I wondered about this, she volunteered the information as if she’d read my mind:
“Killed in the Great War,” she said. “They never told me how it happened, but I knew: lost my wind in a dream one night; he’d choked the gas down just like all the others.”
“In 1915?” I said, confused. I hadn’t thought that the Americans entered the war until 1917. But even though the old woman’s mind seemed to dart in and out of reality, this time, she seemed to get the gist of my puzzlement.
“He was fightin’ for the Kaiser,” she said. “He was a German National,” she nodded along with me.
It was past time to get up and leave. But not only was I obliged to hear the end of the story, I found that I wanted to.
“Anyways, they spread a quilt out over a big picnic table and laid me down on it,” she continued. “The wind picked up in the afternoon and the horses spooked. It was all my father could do to keep them rounded up and settled. We had a woman traveling with us, some type-a-tramp or gypsy. She said that she knew something about birthin’ a child. Anyways, regardless-a-what she knew or didn’t know, I don’t suppose there was much choice left at that juncture.” The old woman paused before continuing with a violent demonstration: she thrust both hands in front of her as if clutching something and her fingers contorted like the branches of an old knobby tree. “She reached up deep inside of me and pulled that child out. If a child’s what it was? If that’s what you could call it.”
I swallowed and almost coughed.
“Well, the blood hit the front of them long skirts like a pig was sloppin’ it out of a bucket and they must have seen the baby before I did, because they stepped back, dropped it on the table top, aghast in the presence of the abomination they were witnessing.”
I took a tiny controlled breath and tried not to spit on the ground.
“And then I saw it: looked a bit like a bat, you know, a vampire bat, only covered in brown oil or some type of red syrup: like STP. But with whiskers like a cat, sort of. But it wasn’t innocent; that was what you gathered from lookin’ at its eyes; it had the knowledge of someone or something what had lived ten thousand years. Eyes black as the bottom of a coal mine.” The old woman paused again, lost her intensity, leaned back in the lawn chair and began to speak quietly:
“Anyways, it fell off the picnic table onto the grass; they never even tried to catch it. The midwife or whatever she was took a leak right there in her long gown just from lookin’ at it. I was passed out by that time, but years later before my sister died, she told me that it was tryin’ to move around on the ground a little bit, flapping around like a bird with one wing. Then Apple Eater – Apple Eater was my dad’s old Cocker Spaniel – well, he scooped it up in his jaws and ran off into the high weeds with it. They never even followed that old pooch, never even tried to save what had come out of me.”
I was at a loss for words. The old woman got up, took the pitcher of iced tea and poured it down a laundry sink. The diluted water dropped straight down from a pipe-less drain into a rusted filter in the concrete and swirled until it was gone.
“Dad found Apple Eater the next mornin’,” she said. “He was back in the heavier woods, his body all dried out and emancipated, but perfect like a taxidermy trophy. Funny, his brown fur had all turned gray. I knew that that could happen to a person, but I didn’t know that it could happen to a dog. Looked like a goddamn snow wolf.”
I was usually great at thinking of excuses to leave. But this time, my tongue felt thick and bulky. I tried to get up from the lawn chair, but my muscles wouldn’t respond.
“You want a piece of pie,” she smiled brightly, as the livid sun reappeared, as if it were mad from having to battle the winter for far too long. “I’ve got pumpkin and lemon meringue, but vinegar is by far my favourite”
The city seemed different to me, somehow. As if an aura of trepidation and dread had settled over the houses and tenements. The smell of all the oil and all the petroleum and all the fumes was making my stomach feel as if it were full of gasoline. The old woman had given me a check on some sort of credit union and I had no idea where it was or how to get there. Most credit unions closed at 4pm and it was already well past three. As I scanned the avenues and the street corners and the storefronts in search of a payphone or for an informed Samaritan who could perhaps tell me the way, suddenly, I saw her again.
She was wearing a black leather mini-skirt and tall biker go-go boots all the way up past the knee. Her eyes were a swirling black, formed with pressure like the cascading darkness at the bottom of a hopeless ocean. The eye shadow above and the lipstick below had been streaked on carelessly in dreamy shades so black that they looked blue. Her long, flowing dark hair was as cruel and beautiful as the mane of a wild mare.
The dogs were there, too: a fidgety Boston Terrier, black with white patches; a huge Rottweiler with a head as big and black as a bucket of tar; a moody-faced, pristine, and freshly-shaved black Poodle with knobs of hair at the ends of bare legs and above the grayish black paws. And a Doberman Pinscher: so black that its coat shone like vinyl; a fountain of tan fur bubbling out from underneath the chin then disappearing into whiskers near the dangerous teeth.
The girl looked even more stunning than she had earlier and her curves affected my emotions as if I were riding on a tilt-a-whirl. This time, however, I had no desire to look into her eyes. For I no longer wanted to be thrilled, as I was already charged with a terrific sense of fear. I tried to look away and discovered that I could not. Because the changeling was now looking at me and her eyes showed me what it was like to be old and feeble and helpless and unprotected. I felt the self-scorn, humiliation and foolishness that goes along with the experience of being mulcted by some little prick, just because he has a boy’s face or looks like your son or nephew or some nice guy that you knew from the U.S.O. dance during the Big War. And I was suddenly paralyzed behind the steering wheel. My arms went dead as if in a nightmare or like they were tied down with underwater weights. The truck veered out of control and headed for the curb. My strength returned just in time to avoid running off the road, where I would have totaled out a parked El Camino.
I was able to right my Chevy Silverado, but by now, I was past the group. Once I’d gathered myself, I looked back and saw that the Doberman was looking at me. They say that dogs are incapable of smiling, but I must disagree. For before the Doberman was pulled along and forced by the constraints to rejoin its party, before it turned away and jogged out to lead the evil pack which was headed southwest, it took the time to pause and see how I had made out in my near-mishap. Once it saw that I’d avoided disaster and was once again on the smooth asphalt, it raised its small-yet-vicious head and met my gaze. The eyes were tiny yet stern, like black marbles sprayed with Windex. And even though I was now too far away to hear a bark or a yelp or even a whimper, too far away to decipher what hate or loathing or lack of quarter those eyes held for me, still, I somehow knew that it was laughing.
Bio: Tom Hamilton is an Irish Traveler. His short stories, poems, plays, and articles have been widely published – recently, in Withersin Magazine, Existere Literary Journal and in the popular Dead Worlds book series. Along with his lovely wife Mary Theresa and their three small, adorable daughters, Tiffany, Hope and Catalina, he lives in Loves Park, IL, USA.
By Jarrid Deaton
Download the PDF version of our fifth fiction issue.
Her hair still shedding dust from the collapse, Carol Borgan speaks with a health department official who glances at the remnants of the small deli that continues to creak and break apart in front of them.
“I guess you could say I saw this coming,” she says. “My mother said I was crazy for even moving here, let alone starting a business. She said it was madness, that nobody would eat in my deli. I told her that there were plenty of mouths to feed. I was right about that.”
The health department official slides his ink pen across the small notebook he’s held since arriving on scene.
“Your comment, Ms. Borgan, doesn’t bode well for insurance purposes,” he says. “However, the community is glad that you came. It may be a surprise, but we get a large number of tourists who end up moving to our oh-so-special little area for the peace and quiet. Well, more for the quiet, I suppose. Whole families have found a new home here while passing through on their way to Plymouth with their history-seeking vacation plans. Also, we need to locate Mr. Thatcher’s body in order to finalize the records.”
“I doubt you’ll find John,” she says. “The shadows took him. It got so dark so quick. I’m not sure what I saw.”
Carol goes quiet and looks at the ground. Torn apart menus blow around her feet.
“Ms. Borgan, did it appear that Mr. Thatcher’s death was in accordance with the sacrificial literature that is prevalent in our library?”
Carol glances up, grit catching in her eye, more residue from the ruined building.
“I’m not sure I understand,” she says. “You’re speaking like a textbook.”
“You don’t need to understand, Ms. Borgan,” he says. “I just need a little more information about the end of Mr. Thatcher. So many things begin and end in Massachusetts, even for visitors. As you probably know, he was from Rhode Island, I think, an adjunct professor of ancient religions. He came here full of high ideas and preconceived notions. I would guess he expected to find us shambling around fearing the wrath of God, his version of old-time religion. According to our files, he was here to gather research on a book.”
“I didn’t know that,” she says. “All I know is that he really liked my vegetable soup and crackers, and he was a good tipper. Lord, this is horrible.”
“Your reaction is understandable,” he says. “You can return to your home. My office will contact you once our report has been completed.”
As Carol drives away, the health department official closes his notebook and places it in his coat pocket. His skin ripples slightly under his sleeves as he turns back to the street and begins the short walk to the office. Under the bright midday sun, he casts no shadow on the cracked sidewalk. His footfalls are light, and a mild breeze catches what’s left of the sound and carries it toward the bay.
Bio: Jarrid Deaton lives and writes in eastern Kentucky. He received his MFA in Writing from Spalding University. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Pear Noir!, Zygote in My Coffee, Six Sentences, and elsewhere. He can be reached at http://www.wrongtreereview.com.