Monthly Archives: October 2018

26 Stories

26 Stories: The Hike

I almost didn’t post this today, despite having written it two days prior. I had overextended myself with stuff (volunteer turn at the theater). Furthermore, I had to read over it at least once. I decided to do it, anyway, even staying up well past my bedtime. It would be a shame to delay my 12th story–nearly half of my goal. I’m glad I read it, anyway, because I managed to shave off about 15% of the content. It’s a major step for me, as the biggest comment I keep getting at my Writer’s Workshop sessions is that I am too wordy. This is something that I, of course, already know. And you probably do, too.

In any event, this was also inspired by a recent trip to Colorado. I admit to feeling the same pull my unnamed protagonist felt when I stood at the base of the Rockies. I, however, am far more sensible, and opted not to be drawn in.

Perhaps that was for the best.

The Hike
11th Floor

               At their base, the pull of the mountains was strong, and instead of fighting it, he gave in. With little preparation or thought, he left his life, such that it was, and walked from the foothills of the Rockies into the haze of their valleys and peaks. It wasn’t a particularly beautiful view on that chilly fall day that drew him in. There was something in the air. A drumbeat that tugged at his subconscious. He wouldn’t be missed; his job was replaceable, his friends nonexistent, and no family to speak of. If anyone cared enough to file a missing person’s report, it would be because they felt some sort of duty to do so. It would be filed, and it would languish. He would receive one, maybe two more paychecks before anyone thought to terminate his employment. His apartment would stay in his name for months before the missed payments turned into an eviction.

               The first day was a wonder of discovery, with every crested elevation revealing another portrait of green and gray. The mountains were more than he’d expected them to be. That he couldn’t see for miles with unobstructed views was better, like there were secrets still to reveal. That day, and the day after, he still saw enough hikers to not lose himself in the remoteness. He avoided them, of course, when he could. As he trekked further in, off of the worn hiking trails with their signs guiding wanderers back to civilization, the frequency of those encounters diminished.

               On day three, he realized that hunger and thirst were two things he should have considered. He had a water bottle with him, and because of the mist and available moisture everywhere, he could slake his thirst, but his hunger was a different story. He hadn’t had even a granola bar to tide him over. He decided that, before he found himself starving, he needed to learn to find food before he was too weak to do so.

               It was easier than he’d thought, to find rabbits and other rodents. This close to the trailhead, the rabbits and squirrels were still conditioned to, if not trust humans, not stay out of sight then they came close.

               The cooking of his catch almost killed him. But he survived, even as he pushed farther into the mountains. Even as the cold got more bitter, the elevation higher, and the food more skittish. He managed to find food here and there; almost as if it were being provided. In fact, in once instance, he found two skinned rabbits already hanging from a tree with no apparent owner. Later, an old camp abandoned with still edible jerky and granola, both of which he devoured hungrily.

               When he found the rift I the land and the stairs leading down, his clothes were ragged, his frame lean, and his general hygiene “filthy,” for lack (or need) of a better word.

               The pull that he’d felt from the foothills was strong here, and it was clear that this was its source. Hesitating now made little sense, given how far he’d already come. There was a difference, here; at the foothills, the majesty of the mountains hinted at wonders and beauty to find. This, on the other hand, cause him to pause. While it wasn’t clear what kind of darkness awaited him, he was scared in ways he hadn’t felt when faced with more “banal” questions of survival.

               He decided that to not walk into that ravine was to betray what brought him there in the first place. And so, he descended the roughhewn stairs into oblivion.

*             *             *             *

               He walked for what seemed like hours, but because the already fading light of the afternoon sky had also been consumed by the darkness of the ravine, it was difficult to see the mine’s entrance, but it was there. There was enough ambient light to see the roughly square opening in the cliff wall as his feet settled on the rock floor at the bottom of the stairs. It seemed impractical to have a mine entrance this far down a narrow ravine with a steep staircase. Maybe, he thought, this was an exit, and the entrance was somewhere else. Somewhere practical. Maybe the miners had carved the stairs up the ravine. It didn’t feel right to him, though.

               The mine breathed at him, stagnant air washing over his body. It was, the noticed, remarkably square and even with its construction. Too perfect, it seemed. Any extra light from the outside world that might have filtered down from the opening high above him did not extend past its threshold.

               And yet, like he did at the foot-hills days (weeks? Months?) ago, he walked in, determined to follow the pull to its source.

*             *             *             *

He stumbled around blindly, feeling the wall for direction and shuffling his feet to avoid sudden drops. He waited for his eyes to adjust, but at this depth they never would. He pressed on, drawn ever forward toward something, certain that he would not take a wrong turn. Minutes became hours became days became an unknowable amount of time. His hunger faded, or he stopped caring. He drank water that dripped from the ceiling, pooled on the ground, or ran down the walls. It had a distinctly chalky taste, no doubt the minerals shaping the cave’s invisible features it carried.

               From time to time, he thought he heard sounds. He should have been scared, but the ever-present drive forward made him feel that his journey had a purpose, and that nothing would interfere. Forces were in play that would protect him, he knew.

               In time, he noticed a soft, blue-green glow. He didn’t know how long it had been there or how slowly it had brightened enough to merit observation. It resolved itself, slowly, into lines, like capillaries, running through the cave walls, floor, and ceiling. Thin at first, but thickening as he pushed on, the glow—some sort of phosphorescent to bioluminescent phenomenon—intensified, adding a myriad of colors. They ran like deep veins in the rock, leading him; lights showing him the way forward just as he’d come to believe he would forever wander in darkness. It warmed him, seeming to imbue his body with energy that it had long since spent. He laughed out loud, a sound of unrestrained joy. As it echoed down the tunnels, the lights pulsed and change in response. Encouraged, he laughed again, changing his pitch and volume, and the lights danced. He let this last one die out, watching the waves of changing color flow down the tunnels with the sound.

               As quiet returned, the colors stabilized. And then, from the tunnels ahead, he saw the colors changing, drawing nearer. His smile faded as the changing colors caught up to him and brought with them what he knew they had to bring. Another laugh, but not his. The colors raced past him with the alien laughter, back the way he had come. For the first time in his journey, he considered turning around. He would never find his way back, he knew. Someone, or something, awaited him ahead.

*             *             *             *

               When he saw a figure approaching, his heart trembled in his chest, and he stopped, as did the approaching shadow. When he stepped forward again, it did as well. Each step and halting pause of his was perfectly mirrored. As he drew close to the apparition, he made out its features in the glow. He gasped as he recognized himself, as it gasped, and shifting violets and oranges raced toward each other, melded in a spectacular display of colors, and passed on. He put his hand out, and the figure did the same. It was a mirror… it had to be.

               It was not the case. He had raised his right hand and the reflection had done the same; it had not raised what would have been its left hand. This was no mirror image. He walked forward, and it continued to do so. As he got closer and pressed to the right wall, his “reflection” did, as well. The two copies of the same man passed each other that way, in the tunnel, each afraid of the other. Once past, they stared at each other. He understood now. It would be him, back in the world he left behind. It would take his place and live out the rest of his uninteresting life. No one ever would come looking for him, now. Even if it was an imperfect, empty image, it would do. When he turned his head, the reflection did as well.

*             *             *             *

               The tunnel narrowed, and he knew his journey in the dark was coming to an end. The glowing veins of dancing colors had gotten narrower and dimmer, but there was a new light ahead of him that was unmistakably daylight. Weak, but it was the sun. The walls closed in on him. He had to turn to his side to continue on as the light grew stronger, resolving into a vertical slit. The ceiling lowered until he had to drop to the ground, crawling on his side and wiggling to move inches. Panic rose, the walls crushing him. Moving forward was now impossible, but so was retreating. He would die here, so close to the exit.

               Then he felt the walls shift and ripple. They pulsed, pushing him forward with each wave. The slit ahead of him grew closer and seemed to expand with each

contraction

movement, until finally he was pushed out of the cave and onto damp earth. He closed his eyes against the light and turned his face to the earth to block it out. He didn’t know how long he lay there like that, shrinking away from the sun. Finally, though, it was time to finally see.

               Cautiously, he raised his head and opened his eyes.

               The light in the sky was weaker than he’d thought and was a color that he was not immediately able to categorize. Something like a pink or coral, but not quite. The trees that towered above him were difficult to make out, though the slowly resolving blurriness of his vision was doing him no favors. He blinked a few times and rubbed at them. He saw the shapes of birds darting across the sky. The air was constricted, as he would expect from higher altitude. He must still be somewhere in the Rockies, though he wasn’t sure where he would expect to be. The indelible pull had gone; the very force that had summoned him here dropped away as if it never existed at all. Why would it lead him here to another point in the same chain of rocks, only to abandon him?

               He rose, shakily, and looked back. There was a large rock face there, but try as he might, no amount of squinting revealed the crack he had crawled out of. As his eyesight finally cleared, he looked again to the sky when a flock of birds drew his attention.

               Only, the things in the sky, silhouetted against the strange color, were not birds. These things flew without wings. They were more like long snakes, winding their way in the air. A star-shaped protrusion at the front wriggled small tentacles in the air, and occasionally, they shrieked at each other from far off, the noise piercing not just his ear drums, but into his psyche. They were also much further away than he had thought; not darting just above and among the trees, but flying high in the air, miles away at least. They were massive creatures.

               Something landed on the ground next to him with a dull thud, snapping him out of his trance. A fruit of some kind lay at his feet. A pomegranate, he though, and he reached down to pick it up. While it vaguely resembled a pomegranate, however, its texture was more like a tumor. It wriggled in his hand, causing him to drop it. Small cilia burst from its surface—some that appeared to have small eyes and some gaping and hungry mouths. It rose on still others and scuttled away from him in to the forest.

               Which showed him the truth of the trees. They were not covered in bark, but they were made of something slick and oily. Protrusions that he thought were branches swaying in a breeze were moving of their own accord. Sometimes, a “branch” would latch onto another “tree,” and it would sink wicked barbs into it, drawing out a black ichor as it greedily drank of the other’s essence.

               He ran.

               He ran through the trees, careful not to touch any. He ducked at screeches from the flying things, imagining them diving down on him and carrying him away. More of the scurrying “fruits” of the trees ran beside him or climbed up the trunks of the strange forest sentinels. He ran up a hill, the soft ground giving spongily with each step, until he reached the crest.

               He saw.

               He saw something titanic on the horizon. A behemoth, giant flesh trunks for legs and a bulbous, shifting body resting on top. Scores of whipping tentacles thrashed in the sky. It uprooted some of the strange trees and carried them up to parts of it that were (blissfully) obscured behind a cloudy haze. Flocks of the airborne creatures snaked toward it. They flew in and out of a great, honeycomb surface that appeared to be part of the leviathan’s very flesh. He dropped to his knees as it made a sound so deep and terrible, so primal and wrong.

               He wept.

               He wept until hand rested on his shoulder. A woman’s hand. The woman it was a part of smiled sadly as he looked up to her. She was beautiful beyond comprehension; flawless skin on a perfectly symmetrical face. Her smile was comforting, and without thinking, he fell against her, wrapping his arms around her and burying his tear-lined face in her chest.

               “Why?” he said, the first full word he uttered in ages. It would be his last.

               She placed her hands on either side of his face and gently lifted it to hers. She didn’t respond, the perfect smile unchanged. He sniffled, and forgot, for a moment, the scene of alien terror all around him. He smiled weakly back. He knelt there before her for a time, a supplicant before his goddess.

               He understood.

               He understood his place when her body split down the middle with the sickly tearing of wet meat, opening to reveal a great, gaping gullet lined with rows of needle-sharp teeth; when her tongue extended and wrapped itself around him and pulled him gently in to it, he did not scream. 

               He gave in.

THE END

26 Stories

26 Stories: The UnderGrand Guignol Film Festival

This was supposed to be a short story. I was trying to incorporate feedback from a few months of DFW Writer’s Workshop sessions that (rightly) point out that I am often slow to get things going. I wanted to write something that quickly jumped into the plot and didn’t get bogged down as it rolled along. Instead, it started to grow, like most stories do, and took me down a different road than I intended. As such, I didn’t finish the whole thing, and while this won’t be the first story I’ve left hanging as part of this project, it’s the first one I have done unintentionally. That said, it will give my two or three readers something to look forward to. 

Additionally, this will bring in other stories I’ve posted and tie them together. It’s not the first time I’ve revisited Rabia, as I did so two weeks ago with my sci-fi jaunt. As I add to this, I have plans to revisit two other characters (given that this is set in Austin, at least one of them can be pieced together from previous works).

In any event, I would have liked to finish this, but as always, perfection is not the point of this exercise. Practice and accountability is.

The UnderGrand Guignol Film Festival
10th Floor

               “Amateurish,” Franklin said into his recorder, “as if the filmmaker—and I use the term loosely—felt their first-year student film would be worthy of a showing in any venue other than in a class filled with similarly minded peers who cannot see past their angsty high school careers.” He clicked the pause button and took that moment to make some notes in his notebook as the final credits of the last film he’d watched scrolled past in the dark room. They ran backwards, accompanied by music from a calliope played in reverse; another attempt to unsettle that was as trite as the prior three hours of movie. He clicked the recorder back on after a moment of thinking about it, and added, “Scott, I hope you realize that you owe me a lot of drinks for this.” He scrawled some more notes on his notebook—bits that he would work into his review—and turned off the small light he had clipped to his notebook.

               The atrociously titled “UnderGrand Guignol Dark Film Festival” was considered an exclusive event with dozens of secrets hoops to jump through, seeded weeks before the first showing. The effort put into the marketing was far more impressive than the shows had been so far. Franklin’s initial excitement had worn off with the first black-and-while short of a tortured artist building her own cross and was now officially dead after the last overly long mess of jump cuts, footage of an abattoir’s killing floor, and one forty-five-minute long, time-lapse shot of an apple rotting. At least the self-crucifixion flick had been five minutes.

               He walked out of the unused cold storage warehouse where the film had screened, his joints protesting the time spent on a metal folding chair, and into the chilly Austin air. Several blocks away, he heard the usual thump of music and calling of voices from the bars and clubs on 6th street. He thought about blowing the rest of this festival off and joining them, even though the crowd would be a decade or two his juniors. His next offering, according to the messages pieced together from QR codes left on the backs of “voodoo” charms hidden around downtown suggested that he was in for some good, old fashioned cultural appropriation.

               Franklin focused on figuring out which of the historic cemeteries he’d have to take an Uber to for showing, was it number four tonight? Five? Just as he’d made up his mind on the one to try first, he looked up in time to avoid plowing into the man that was standing directly in front of him. Franklin jumped and started to mutter an apology when he saw that the man, who was easily close to seven-feet tall, was wearing a featureless white mask.

               “Ah,” he said. “Was that yours?” he gestured back to the warehouse. “If so, I’d… well, you can read the reviews tomorrow like everyone else. Now, if you’ll excuse me.” Franklin tried to walk around, but the looming person put up a white-gloved hand to stop him.

               “Okay, I get it. Creepy film festival, creepy masked guy. I’m not going to change my review of the film because of some performance art. The film has to stand on its own merits.” He received no response. “Great. Well, look. It’s been done, before, so why don’t you just let me get on to my next show…” At that, the man produced, with a flourish, a rectangular piece of paper and presented it to Franklin. When he didn’t immediately take it, the tall man gestured with it.

               Franklin sighed. “Damn viral marketing is out of control. People used to try to make it easy to find their stuff, you know.” He took the slip of paper and turned it over in his hand. “A boarding pass?” He asked. The figure gestured at the paper, whether in agreement or insistence that he read it, Franklin didn’t know. “Mission Airport… never heard of that one.” The back side had a hastily crawled “Scene I.” The figure gestured in precisely the same way. “Fine. I’ll… I’ll find it. It’ll be better than Voodoo Zombie Prostitutes or whatever. Guess your film will be in, what, some old abandoned…” Before he finished, the tall man turned and walked away.

*             *             *

               An hour and one confused Uber driver later, Franklin arrived at Mission Airport. It was one of those old private fields for private plane owners. Based on the condition of the runway, it had been along time since a plane flew out of here. Weeds and crabgrass grew out of countless potholes. Several ancient, aluminum hangars lined the runway where he’d been dropped off. He could see one rusted out skeleton of a Cessna that had cantilevered to one side. Small foliage grew through the cockpit; nature reclaiming the realm of man.

               He considered the possibility that he’d been tricked. He’d blogged negatively about more than a few local “filmmakers,” and there was ever the chance that someone would want to have him dropped off in the middle of nowhere as petty revenge. This day and age, he should probably be thankful that he hadn’t been shot. Just as he reached into his pocket to pull out his phone and call for a ride back, a flickering light appeared in the open maw of a hangar. The light danced in time to a familiar twenty-four frames per second. He had to give them credit for the effort, whoever they were, but he decided to reserve doing so until after the movie.

               The large sheet stretched across the back wall of the hanger displayed a plain, white sequence of empty frames as he walked in. There was one single chair (another damned folding chair) with an antique projector spinning two smallish reels. At least this one will be short, though he reasoned that it would not be worth the effort it took to get out here.

               “Well, there’s nothing for it,” he said to no one, and sat down. He pulled out this notebook, recorder, and small book light. With the soft glow of the light and the white glair of the projected movie, he said to the room, “let’s get this going, then.”

               On cue, the white rectangle went dark. He looked back and didn’t see anyone at the projector. It might have been a prop itself, with the real projector somewhere else, but before he could search it out, an intertitle card appeared.

               Silent movie? He jotted down. The image was in the style of the old silent movies he’d grown to love in his own film school years. “In Golgotha, the dead bear the Scars for all to see,” it said.

               Religious symbolism… another philosophical film, he scrawled. Leave it to these self-styled auteurs to go right for religion as if it made it deeper to do so.

               The title card vanished, and the scene opened on a great, white desert. The camera panned across it, bleak and empty.

               Shot on location somewhere? Not nearby, that’s certain.

               It came to a stop on a rob-wearing person. It was black and billowed in the wind that kicked up clouds of sand. The shot changed to the figure’s front, showing eyes peering through a slot in the robe’s front.

               Woman in a… burka (???). Muslim robe women wear. Look up the correct term later. Hope this isn’t attempting to emulate Begotten… would be par for the course.

               The camera lingered for an uncomfortable time on the woman’s face, and as it did, he was surprised by the level of detail the grainy, black-and-white 35mm film captured. It was a bit uncanny.

               Props are due to the cinematographer, he wrote. There was something about the way the robe clung to the woman’s skin that gave him pause. Before he could reflect on it further, the shot changed again, to another intertitle.

               “Rabia wandered alone in the desert of ground bones, her skin a reflection of her shame.”

               Next, a scene of a woman—presumably the woman in the robe sans the burka (niqab, he remembered, the ones with just the eye slit were niqabs)—recoiling as a liquid is thrown on her face. She screamed, or at least appeared to as there was no sound save some generic organ music. The liquid caused burns to appear on her face.

               Interesting cultural commentary, he wrote, impressed by the brutality of what he was seeing. The actress was skilled at conveying agony without the benefit of an audio track. Before he could write more, the scene changed to a shot—from the woman’s perspective—of a group of men standing over her, raising rocks over their heads and bringing them down with repeated ferocity. Franklin found himself cringing with each blow, easily imagining the sound.

               “She paid for her defiance; murdered for his ‘honor’,” the next card said and quickly shifted to a shot of woman’s bare feet suspended half a foot above the ground and swaying.

               Okay, he wrote, getting a little preachy. Reverting to “film school” clichés again. It was too bad, too, as he’d thought there might be some potential. A silent movie dedicated to the plight of a culture of women who were bade remain silent by controlling men? There was something there to explore, but it had to hold back a little.

               “Now, she wears her shame. Her Scar.” The specter again, in her niqab, staring across that desert. This time, he managed to place what about her robe stuck out.

               It is her skin, he wrote. Clever symbolism. Again, the shot of her walking across the desert—this Golgotha—felt more real than it should have. He was getting lost in the images, not noticing the lines, exposure marks, and “cigarette burns” that accompanied a 35 mm film. The space around him felt deep and empty, as opposed to the closed-in space a small plane hangar should have been. For a second, he could feel sand blowing across his own face.

               “Then,” the next title card said, startling him from his revere, “one came who was un-Scarred.”

               The woman now stood with a little girl, their hands clasped.

               Motherhood? He wrote. Or guiding feminism?

               The two looked across the desert together.

               “They met another,” the next card said, and showed a man in what appeared to be some sort of space suit. Okay, Franklin said, now I’m lost and the astronaut seems pointless. The group of three now set off across the desert.

               “They would face the Chained One, to stop it forever…” the next card said, and in that moment, Franklin’s senses were assaulted by vivid and terrible images of some indistinct creature displayed on the screen. It was bound by chains that he could tell were supposed to be titanic in size. They could have easily bound the world and held it in its orbit, had they been real. The beast, of which he could only see fragments, strained and fought against the chains.

               “…and they would fail,” the last card said, “for to bear witness was to break one of the four chains that held it fast in its prison.” At that moment, for the first time in years of watching a wide spectrum of shocking or disturbing horror and thriller movies, Franklin wanted to look away. He almost did, afraid that he might be the witness the intertitle spoke of. Even still, he watched, and in doing so, saw the chain strain against the power of the creature. The link began to separate and even though the movie was silent, he could hear a deafening screech of rusted iron.

“It stirs in its prison,” a small voice said next to him, and he jumped. Immediately to his right, a second seat had been added, and a small girl—the small girl from the movie—sat next to him, staring at him with eyes that begged him to look away from the movie, even though it was already too late.

               “What the He-” and he was jerked out of his visions by the sound of loose film slapping against the projector. Looking back to the screen, the movie had ended. The sheet now showed only a blank rectangle of light. He turned back and saw the girl and the second chair were gone.

               After a moment, he allowed himself to laugh. “All right,” he said out loud. “Very convincing.” No one answered. “Really,” he said, “you had me going there, but I’m going to say the same thing I said to the tall guy back in town. The movie has to stand on its own merits.” Still no response. He stood.

               “If you want an accurate review, you should probably tell me the name of your film. And who made it.” The empty hangar was his only audience.

               “Okay, I’ll just call it ‘Golgotha’ or something like that,” he said to no one. He turned to leave, then, and stopped as someone had placed a basket behind his seat. In it were two bottles of booze—a quality scotch and an exceptionally cheap malt liquor. He stopped down and saw that there was business-card sized square of paper. The blank side read “Part II,” and the flip side named a place called Dom’s Quality Spirits.

               “Ah,” he said, “I guess it’s not over, then, huh.” Pulling out his phone, his weariness with this night conflicting with a growing curiosity, he looked up Dom’s Quality Spirits and found a location in one of the seedier east side neighborhoods.

               “Part two it is,” he said, and put in the request for a second ride.