26 Stories

26 Stories: Wonderful

Happy Holidays, readers! This story comes from an idea I had some time ago based on the premise that the George-less reality of Pottersville from It’s a Wonderful Life continued to exist; a lawless community where a mad man claiming to know people in the town and the funny little man who claimed to be an angel. What would Bert the cop think when the man he’d pursued to the bridge on the edge of town seemed to have vanished, and he had to go back to his life as a beat cop in Pottersville, which I assume became a den of iniquity during and post Prohibition. I may have to go back and clear up some details later, as even though I’ve seen the movie too many times to count, I still probably missed some details. But as always, this exercise is not about getting it right, but getting it write… er, written. Whatever.

A word of warning; this is my usual somewhat dark take on something, and some people consider It’s a Wonderful Life a beloved story brimming with hope, optimism, and sappiness. I may or may not horribly kill off characters from the movie, because of course I will.

Enjoy!

16th Floor
Wonderful

               Bert looked off the end of the bridge down at the water below. The river was rushing, swollen with the recent rains and wet snow. The kook he’d chased from Main Street was nowhere to be seen, all signs of him stopped where he now stood. Given the obvious, Bert figured that the body would wash up somewhere down river, hopefully far enough out of the township to be some other chump’s problem. It had been a strange night, to say the least, with the unknown jumper (who claimed—insisted—that he knew Bert) and the odd little man who had seemingly vanished out from underneath as he’d tried to apprehend him at the old house on Sycamore Street. Bert was ready to go home, crawl in bed, and not see daylight for at least two days.

               It was a luxury he wouldn’t get, however, as the week of Christmas to New Years in Pottersville was “all hands” for the authorities. Not that it helped, since most of the force was in the pockets of Potter, and the old man had a vested interest in the town’s lawlessness. Still, there were petty drunks and hooligans to bust, and they’d be out in force all week. There wouldn’t be a smidge of rest for Bert until sometime in mid-January.

               Worse still, his sleep was troubled. He dreamed of life in Pottersville, only it was clearly a different town. Pleasant, even, more like Seneca Falls than a town that never drug itself out of the bootlegging operations of Prohibition (funded, again, by Potter himself with the police and town leaders in cahoots). Ernie was there, which was at least something normal, though he had flashes of dinners with Ernie’s family; something that had never happened even before the shrew had taken the kids and split. The scene that struck him the most when he woke up was of himself and Ernie outside that run-down house where he’d tried to arrest the lunatic and his vanishing friend singing in the rain. He knew that they were singing to the crazy man he’d pursued (and shot at) last night and the spinstery librarian… Sarah or Mary or something he couldn’t recall. As nightmares had gone, given all he’d seen on the beat in Pottersville, it was rather tame, though it left him with a sense of unease.

               When he arrived at work next morning, the station house was buzzing. Someone had found Gower, the town drunk, dead in an alley behind what was once his pharmacy. It had been his family business until the incident, and after that, he’d spent time in prison and later on the streets. Bert assumed that he’d finally decided to kick off and do so at the one place that reminded him of a normal life, but based on the talk from the other officers, it seemed unlikely.

               Unless he’d burned his own eyeballs out, turned his tongue to mush, and shoved some sort of spice in his ears. Thyme or basil or something. It was being treated as a murder, but there wouldn’t be any real effort to solve it. Someone else could now take to occupying Gower’s regular bench in the drunk tank.

               Violet Bick was the next one they found, with similarly burned out eyes. Her lips had been sewn shut, and they found flecks of gold under he fingernails. It was determined that she had pissed off one of her “clients” the previous evening, and when the police had let her walk after a night in holding, he must have found her and exacted revenge. To Bert, it was clear that the two deaths were connected, but a homeless drunk and a dead prostitute didn’t exactly cause an uproar.

               When they found Nick, eyes jelly and his body shoved into the hollowed out remains of the jukebox that had also doubled as the entryway to his rum running operations, that’s when the force was tasked to investigate. Potter himself set the dogs loose. While Nick wasn’t an upstanding member of the town, he had been Potters top muscle. The orders were clear; whoever was killing citizens of the town now had to be stopped. Bert, having the most experience on the force, was put in charge of the operation.

               There were no leads, at first. Not until a coincidental report filed by a fellow a few blocks from the bridge. He’d been out that night and come home to one fewer trees in his yard. Bert just happened to overhear one of the younger officers who had drawn the short straw to deal with the insistent man talk about how a crazy drunk had claimed to have hit the tree with his car, even though the tree was fine. The drunk was insistent that not only had he hit the tree, but that he’d interacted with the homeowner earlier that evening. That triggered Bert’s instinct, and he took time out of his investigation to talk to the man.

*             *             *             *

               “That tree,” the homeowner said, “was the oldest tree in Pottersville.”

               “Yeah,” Bret replied, “you’ve mentioned that.” Several times already.

               “I think that drunk came back and pulled it out. Left nothing but that hole in the ground; not even roots or a pile of dirt.”

               “Now why would a crazy drunk dig up your tree?”

               “Because that’s exactly what a crazy drunk would do.”

               Bert sighed. “Could you describe the fellah, buddy?”

               “He was really tall. Eyes were crazy. He had a kind of, I don’t know, deep voice? It was dark out, honestly, and I had groceries to get in the house, and didn’t want to deal with him.”

               Bert jotted down the notes, but already made up his mind that the homeowner’s drunk and the man he’d chased to the bridge were one in the same.

               “Did you see him again that night?”

               “’course not. You think I’d go out there on Christmas Eve? I could, if you lousy bums did your job, but it’s a lawless slum out there. Dunno why I still live here, if we’re being frank with each other. I just want to know why a man would dig up another man’s tree. Did you know that tree was….”

               “…the oldest tree in Pottersville. Yeah, I get that.” Bert closed his notepad. “Thank you for your time, and if we hear anything, we’ll let you know.”  As Bert walked away, the man stopped him.

               “You don’t think he’s the guy that’s killing all those other folks, do you?”

               “I can’t talk about that.”

               “Well, he may have taken my tree, but it he’s killing bums and whores, then I can’t imagine he’s all bad. Doing your job, at least.”

*             *             *             *

               The police found that man the next morning, along with his tree, deep in the forest. In addition to the eyes, the tree had been hollowed out just enough to force the overweight man into the tree. The prevailing theory was that the killer had missed him when he went to deal with him, removed the tree, and came back later to finish him off.

*             *             *             *

               It got personal to Bert when they fished Ernie’s cab out of the river. Bert had to ID the body; what was left of it, at least, after the fish had taken their pound of flesh. At least there hadn’t been any eyes for them to gorge on.

*             *             *             *

               Bert was sitting in his patrol car, trying to come up with any leads, when the angel visited him. It had been abrupt; one minute, Bert was looking down at his notes, and in an instant, the little old man who had somehow wiggled out from under him and disappeared was in the passenger seat next to him.

               “Hello, Bert,” the little man said. Bert instinctively drew his sidearm. He fired a shot into the little man, who not only didn’t react, but didn’t seem to even be hit. Had the gun misfired, Bert had a second to think before the gun was just… gone.

               “Oh now, Bert, that wasn’t necessary. I am sorry I startled you.”

               “Who the hell are you?”

               “No, no, no… not Hell, my friend. Heaven. I’m an angel.”

               “You’re under arrest is what you are.” Bert reached for his cuffs.

               “They’re not there,” the little man claiming to be an angel said. Feeling nothing, Bert went for the radio. “No radio, either.” To Bert’s dismay, that was true. He pushed back to try and open the door, but it was jammed shut. “You can’t get out, and no… you can’t attack me, either.” Bert had been about to pounce on the man but found that he lacked the will to do so. “My name is Clarence,” he man said with a childlike smile, “and I have been sent down from Heaven to straighten all this mess up.”

               “If you’re an angel,” Bert stammered, “where are your wings?”

               “You’ll see them soon enough. They’re brand new. Thanks to my dear friend, George Bailey.”

               “Who?”

               “The man who hit you on Christmas Eve. The man you thought jumped from the bridge, and the man you were starting to suspect of all those murders in town.” The man’s smile was suddenly sorrowful. “That man wasn’t supposed to exist here, but I had to show him something. Something wonderful. To save him.”

               “Look, buddy, you’re going to be in a lot of trouble when I get out of here. You can’t hold a cop prisoner in his own car, you know?”

               “Have you had dreams, Bert? Dreams of a different place? A better place?” Clarence studied Bert’s reaction. “Ah, I can see you have. If it makes you feel any better about what’s going to happen, you have a very happy life, there. Here?” he looked outside the car at the “Pottersville” sign. “You’re a prisoner to this place, not to me.”

               “You’re nuttier than a fruit bat.”

               “You could have left any time you wanted, but you didn’t. You out of all your colleagues resisted Potter as much as you could. You tried to make the town better; to make it more like it was supposed to be. Like Bedford Falls.”

               “Like where?”

               “Do you know,” Clarence continued, “that once I had my wings, I was able to see so much more? There are infinite versions of this town; some that are better and some that are far, far worse. There’s a version of this reality that is nothing but a plane of endless, out of control cancer.”

               “You’re insane.”

               Clarence nodded in agreement. “Going a bit mad a little inevitable, really, when you can observe all those realities at once. But the one that mattered, at least this time, was the one George Bailey came from. I can assure you, he is not responsible for the unfortunateness here in town. George is a kind and loving man and has long since gone home. Back to his reality. To his wonderful life.” Clarence sighed, sad. “But, his presence here left ripples that I couldn’t foresee before I had my wings, and Joseph has tasked me with righting.”

               “You killed them.”

               “I did. It is, unfortunately, the only way to keep this reality safe from instability. Everyone with whom George interacted must be put out of their misery. Well,” he said with a chuckle, “the misery to come, at least, if the reality bleeds really kick in.”

               “What are you?”

               Clarence was suddenly out of the car, standing in front of it. Bert couldn’t move. “I told you, I’m an angel.” His body had begun to glow, and the light grew in intensity until it was blinding. Bert saw, before his eyes began to bubble in his skull, a fiery wheel sporting six wings. He did get his wings, Bert thought just moments before the blinding vision was replaced by the blackness of oblivion.

               Clarence stood before the police car, the job done. He had one more to take care of, and he did not look forward to this one. He’d tried to warn George not to seek this person out; that he “wasn’t supposed to tell him” where she was. Joseph had warned him there would be consequences, and he’d wanted to spare her from this. But, alas, there was a job to do, and it would be better than what would happen to her as her if he let her be.

               With a deep sadness, Clarence turned to the library, and began to walk, the sound of ringing bells carrying faintly on the wind.

 

The End

26 Stories

26 Stories: A Diner in OZ, 3 am

I am returning to a character that I know I’m going to come back to in the future, even after this project is done. My favorite urban wizard… sorry… “ritual practitioner,” Dominic. Who would probably be offended by the implication of the phrase “urban” wizard, since he’s African American (and also, not a wizard. Though now I absolutely have to work that line into a future story. Odd how, so far, my favorite characters are the spirit of a Pakistani woman from a strict Muslim culture, a black ritualist, and an Asian lesbian homicide detective (she’s coming back, too, and I think all three are going to meet, eventually). And me with all my straight, cis-hetero, white, male privilege. I’m sure nothing can ever go wrong with that.

Anyway, enjoy Dom’s continuing adventures!

15th Floor
A Diner in OZ, 3 am

               It was at the point that the kid said, “you’re a wizard, Harry,” to Dominic that he had decided he’d had enough of this conversation. He pressed his fingers to his sinuses in the universal sign of fed-uppedness while his late-night (early morning?) breakfast cooled. The diner was sparsely populated, mostly by drunks realizing that their evening was over and that the hangover was coming.

               “I am not,” he said, “a wizard.”

               “But you, you know.” He mimed flicking a wand around in the air. “Poof, magic, right?”

               “No.”

               “I saw you in that alley. When you made that scary dude vanish in the fire circle?”

               “That was a ritual that I’d spent a better part of the day preparing and you almost fucked it up.”

               “That guy was a demon or something, right?” The kid was far too excited and speaking far too loudly for Dom’s taste.

               “Okay,” he said, “three things. One, keep your voice down, because the drunks think we’re the weird ones. Two, demons aren’t real. Three, and this is critical, I am not a wizard—there are no wizards.”

               “Then what are you?”

               “I am a practitioner of ritual magic.” Dom said.

               “So, you do do magic.”

               “Yes, I guess.”

               “And how does that not make you a wizard?”

               “Because magic isn’t something that you do with faux-Latin words and a stick. Magic takes rituals, and rituals take practice. Hence, ‘ritual practitioner.’”

               “I don’t know, seems like you may as well be a called a wizard.”

               Dominic clenched his fists. If only I were a wizard, I’d set you on fire right now, you little piece of sh-

               “But, anyway, you still made that demon thing vanish with magic.”

               “It was a spirit. And what’s your point?”

               “I,” the kid said, “am producing a podcast, and it would be awesome to have an interview with a real wiz.. uh… ‘practitioner.’”

               “Can you at least use ‘ritualist?’ ‘Practitioner’ is sort of offensive.”

               “Is that like the n-word?” The kid, to his credit, cringed immediately. “Sorry, brother… I mean, sorry my man. Or, just man.”

               “Get on with it.”

               “Uh… right, the podcast. I’m covering local lore, and, well, I kind of saw the real deal.”

               “Local lore?”

               “That monster in the alley was something called ‘the Long Man.’ He’s supposed to be, like, a demon who was summoned during a botched sacrifice by some kids in the fifties when—”

               “He,” Dominic said, “was the spirit of a homeless man who died in that alley ten years ago.”

               “Murdered?”

               “Cancer. And a bunch of other issues. That alley was the only home he ever knew, and he was having a hard time leaving it.”

               “That’s… anticlimactic.”

               Dom shrugged. “We could all only be so lucky.”

               “Why’d you banish him?”

               “He asked. Politely.

               “Oh…”

               “Kind of kills the Long Man story.”

               “Eh, I’ll just make some shit up. Oh!” He snapped his fingers.

               “No.”

               “You can be the focus of my podcast!”

               “No goddamn way.”

               “I could shadow you and learn all about the magic arts. Maybe you could even teach me some.”

               “That’s isn’t how any of this works.”

               “Meeting you was fate!”

               “Okay, fine. I see where this is going.” Dom unscrewed the top of the table’s salt shaker.

               “I might even be the next, I dunno, chosen one or something.” The kid pulled a recorder from his bag and fiddled with it. “I could at least play that angle for the story. Blend of reality and fiction.” Dom carefully poured the salt around the kid’s untouched coffee mug, then shaped the salt circle into an octagon with his finger.

               “What’re you doing?” the kid asked.

               “You want to learn some basic magic?”

               “Yes!”

               “Great. Lesson one of one: every ritual involves at least two components.”

               “Wait, wait!” The kid grabbed a notepad and pen from his backpack. Dom paused dutifully until the kid was ready.

               “There’s a sympathetic component,” at this, he produced a flask and poured its contents into the coffee, “and the symbolic component.” Dominic adjusted the salt octagon around the mug.

               “Sympathetic… symbolic” the kid muttered, writing.

               “Drink this coffee,” Dom said.

               “What, with the booze in it?”

               “Yes.”

               “Why?”

               “Booze is also called a ‘spirit,’ a common linguistic designation that forms a sympathetic bond between the drinker and the spirit world. Plus, drunk people tend to experience the world differently.”

               “Do I have to get drunk.”

               Dom sighed. “Sympathetic doesn’t mean literal.”

               “Is this going to make me see ghosts?” Without waiting for confirmation, he chugged the coffee.

               “Yes. LSD or peyote would be better, but that’s hardly diner fare.”

               “And the salt octagon?”

               “That’s the symbolic part.”

               “Like, uh… are there eight planes of the dead or something?”

               “No. People expect mystical circles of salt. It actually doesn’t do shit, you just think it does.”

               “When will it work?”

               “Soon enough. I mean, it works right away, just, there might not be any spirits nearby. Oh, and,” he said off-handedly, “since people tend to drink to forget, you won’t remember any of this conversation later.”

               “What?”

               “Sorry, kid.”

               “But I’m recording it.”

               “Yeah,” Dom said, “about that. Magic came before technology. That will ‘forget,’ too, because it’s yours and the spell works on you.”

               “That’s not coo—” The kid looked past Dom to the front door. “Oh shit.”

               “What?”

“It’s working, but… what kind of ghost is that?”

               Dom turned. Any amusement at the kid’s situation fled as he saw the entity at the front of the diner. None of the other patrons reacted; only he and the kid could see it. Rippled in the air, as if they were looking at in an aquarium.

               “That’s not a ghost.”

               “Is it real?”

               “Very.”

               The thing turned what could generously be called its face to their table, and Dominic swore under his breath. It looked like a cross between a jellyfish and the rotted remains of the upper torso of a murder victim, left underwater for at least a decade. The human-ish skull’s jaw hinged open, and a raspy voice scratched and burbled.

               “Prrrrractitioner….”

               “Did the Snake send you?”

               “You haaaaave stolen knowledge that doesssssn’t belong to youuuuu.”

               “Right, definitely the Snake.”

               “What snake?”

               “Kid,” Dom said with forced calm, “now would be a very good time for you to clear out of here.”

               “I…”

               Dom stood, grabbed the kid by his collar, and yanked him out of the booth. “Move. Back exit. Now.” The kid moved. The waitress behind the diner managed a quick “hey” as he ran past her, through the kitchen.

               “What’s his problem,” she asked Dom.  Dom shrugged, not taking his eyes off the Snake’s hired muscle. A bloated purple tongue, or a close enough approximation to one, wormed out of its mouth and lapped at its nonexistent lips.

               “This’ll cover me and the kid,” Dom said to her, not taking his eyes off the monster and placing an old shopping receipt on the table.

               “I’ll be right back with your change,” she said, scooping up the receipt, unable to pierce the veil of the magic that made her think it was money.

               “Keep it.” She smiled at him.

               “Thanks, honey!”

He hated wasting the enchantment it on cheap diner food, but there were more pressing issues. “I’m just leaving,” he said, more to the entity than the waitress, “and heading outside.”

               “Well, you have a good night, darlin’,” she responded.

               “Uh-huh,” Dom replied, and edged his way around the other side of the tables, past the creature, and to the front door.

               “I will have you, practitionerrrrrrrr,” it purred.

               “Outside,” he replied, knowing that not seeing the entity wouldn’t save the people in the diner if it came to violence. Thankfully, things like this had just as much of a desire to stay off the radar as he did. He’d only make it as far as the nearly deserted streets, Dom knew, before it attacked, but that gave him time to at least contemplate how to get out of this. If he could get out of this. He hadn’t counted on a retaliation from the Snake this soon.

               He felt the thing slide out onto the sidewalk behind him, and abomination of a presence behind him.

               “Look,” he said, “I don’t see the harm in a little knowledge. I mean, isn’t that the Snake’s thing, anyway?”

               “You tricked ittttttt.”

               “Is it mad about the trick? Is that it? Because I’m pretty sure that’s kind of hypocritical on its part.”

               “You sssssshould not knowwwwwwww what you knowwwwwwww.”

               “That’s fair.” Dom put a hand into his hoodie’s pocket, fumbling around for anything that would work. “That said, given Snake’s place in the cosmos, I think that knowing things I shouldn’t know would be, like, its jam, right? Doesn’t it hate gods who hoard knowledge?” The thing across from him laughed, grating and slick laughter, like oil on water. Oil that was on fire.

               “Do no try to appeal to its hatred of pathetic human religions.”

               “So why did it send you, then? I didn’t know that the Akatharton were thugs for hi—” The thing lashed out with a blast of power that hit Dom with a mix of physical, psychological, and emotional pain. It cored his soul like an apple and drove him to his knees, gasping against the pain and a thousand images of his failure throughout life smashing into his memories at once. He had known that the savagery of the attack would be coming, but he’d hoped for at least a few more seconds to put together whatever weak defense he could. He’d had an idea of what he needed, but since it didn’t look like he’d get the courtesy of an evil villain monologue, his options were limited to dying or suffering whatever his attacker had in mind for him. And that attack was it going easy on me.

               “Stop!” The podcast kid stepped out from the shadows, his hands raised, placing himself between Dom and the monster.

               “Damn it, kid,” Dom muttered.

               “You leave this man alone.”

               “Who arrrrrrrre you?” it asked.

               “Me?”

               “Don’t.” Dom gripped at the trinket he’d finally found. Jacket pockets enhanced with mini-worm holes were, in retrospect, not very helpful when you needed something specific, fast.

               “I’m the protector of this ritualist. I’m the chosen o—” With little fanfare, the kid evaporated into a fine red mist in the street.

               “Insssssssect.” It turned to Dom, who now stood.

               “Yeah,” Dom said, “but to give him some credit, he did give me time to do this.” Dom withdrew his hand. He held a narrow, wand-like object in his hand. He waved it with a flourish, threw in a quick “abracadabra” for good measure, and tossed it to the creature. It caught it with a misshapen appendage and was mesmerized.

               The pen, bought at a truck stop somewhere in the Midwest, showed a pin-up girl in a plastic window along the barrel. Water held a plastic bikini top in suspension across her chest. The thing turned the pen straight up and down, and the swimsuit covering her breasts slowly drifted down. The creature howled in frustration as it found itself unwillingly frozen by the cheap titillation. The magic of the minor ritual that Dom had flung at it was enough to give Dom a fraction of a second of a window. To gather all of his will and respond to this manifestation of pure evil that had erased another human from existence without a second thought.

               Dom ran.

 

*             *             *             *

 

               Dominic knew that he was outclassed. An Akatharton had been sent after him, and would have massacred him, even if he’d had time to prepare. He might, in fact, have only bought himself a few days with the pen trick. Which made it that much more important that he get to Austin sooner rather than later.

               He took out the folded piece of paper he’d picked up in Atlanta; a flyer advertising an underground film festival. For most people who received the flyer, it was an opportunity to be a part of a schlocky, independent horror movie fest. He, on the other hand, had read the flow of magic in the printed words. It presented him an opportunity, and one he was now even more hard-pressed to take. What the Snake had shown him in Upstate New York was dangerous knowledge, and if he wanted to do anything but die with it (or worse), he had a lot of work to do, and decreasingly less time.

               Against his better judgement, Dominic would have to open a byway.

               It was far safer than risking an Akatharton.

THE END

26 Stories

26 Stories: Peddling Ascension

Hot off of a revision of a story about an elevator ride that felt like it would never end is a story about a staircase. This one is an odd bird; it came from a dream I had last week. 

In that dream, I was going to Hogwarts, which was located past a secret entrance at the back of an ice cream store in the retail district of a semi-futuristic city. There were a lot of odd thing about the dream: it was only 24 miles away and I decided to run there in 30 minutes. The ice cream shop had Dumbledor on the marketing. I could fly, encounters were triggered like video games (I play too many video games), and Hagrid–played by Gerard Butler–really didn’t want me to know about the staircase in the back that went up forever. 

Well, I distilled all the Harry Potter and video game references right out of that, and this story was left. 

Enjoy!

Peddling Ascension
14th Floor

“Do you want to know a secret,” the guy at the ice cream joint asked me. He’d already asked me if I thought that the ice cream was “magical,” evidently the tagline for the shop. I had agreed, albeit awkwardly. To be fair, the ice cream at “Cream-o-mancy” was incredible. The wizard on the shop’s signage, with his traditional pointed hat replaced by a waffle cone, seemed to think that the cream was pretty special. The guy behind the counter was buying into the theme, too, though his long gray hair and scrabbly beard were both wrapped in nets, spoiling the image.

               “Uh.” Nothing good ever came from a strange bearded man, peddling sweets, and offering secrets. I was a little old to be lured into the back of a van, but the guy’s excitement was nearly manic.

               “Come on, man… not everyone knows about this secret. It’s cool.” His eyes were also a little bloodshot. Maybe he’s going to offer me drugs? In that case, I was a little interested.

               “All right, I’ll humor you.”

               “In the back, waaaaay in the back, there’s a staircase that goes up forever.”

               This was significantly less interesting a revelation, though I was right about the drugs.

               “Okay.”

               “Nah, really! It’s, like, you can see it going up, but it doesn’t stop.”

               “Haven’t you ever walked up it?”

               “Fuck no! But one guy that used to work here said he did. Said he walked up it for at least half an hour, and when he gave up to turn back, he hadn’t gone up more than one or two steps.”

               I laughed. How could I not?

               “Your friend sounded like he was on some good stuff.”

               “Not him, man.”

               “Okay, well, in any event, the ice cream was great, but I—”

               “You wanna see it?”

               I considered carefully. Should I deny a guy clearly strung out on something, or should I take my chances in the back with mister wizard here?

               “Fine.”

               “Yes! My man, you aren’t going to believe this shit.” He took off his apron and walked into the back without so much as a check to make sure there weren’t other customers. I followed, through a swinging door and into the cold of the storeroom. He led me past empty tubs of ice cream, beyond the large walk-in freezers and their noisy generators, and out the back door.

               The shop was in one of those galleria malls downtown. Going “out back” didn’t put us outside, but in some featureless white hallway. Back doors to other businesses flanked us, and the place held the faintest smell of old produce.

               “So, we gotta go back this way a ways. This place it like a maze, man, all twisting and turning and shit.” I followed trippy Gandalf as he took us around a few turns, down more featureless corridors, and through at least four more swinging doors. He wasn’t kidding; in short order, I was lost. I had tried to keep track of which mechanical room doors we passed, where the electric boxes were, and how many exits signs I counted. All the while, the running commentary from my guide in this demented quest got less and less coherent. The smell of rotting produce got stronger, and then faded, turning musky. We were still somewhere in the interior alleys of the city—we had to be—but it felt like we’d been winding around for a long time.

               We continued this way until we emerged in the galleria.

               Or rather, a completely empty portion of it. I’d been in the galleria a few times over the years, but this was completely new to me. New and deserted.

               “Is this part being remodeled?” I asked.

               “What? Nah, they just forgot about it.”

               “Then why does it still have electricity and,” I noticed, “muzak?”

               My guide shrugged.

               The storefronts were all staples of the malls of my youth; stores like KB Toys, B Daltons, and Sam Goody. Doors were all open and shelves stocked, but there wasn’t a single person in sight. I got the feeling that I could have walked into any one of those stores, taken what I wanted, and no one would have stopped me. There was no one to care.

               “C’mon, man, it’s just over there.” I suddenly felt like an idiot.

               “That’s an escalator, dude,” I said, nodding to the moving staircase he’d pointed to. “It goes around and around, not up forever. Jesus, man, I have to admire your commitment to a joke.”

               “Huh?” He was confused. “Oh, I get it. Maaaaan, that would be a good joke. Like, a total play on, like, expectations or something. But that’s not it. It’s up the escalator and at the end of the hallway.”

I nodded, a little disappointed that this trek wasn’t over. “Oh. Okay, well, let’s go, then.”

               “Dude, I’m not going up there. This is all you, now.”

               “What?”

               “I told you, I don’t like it. And, like, when you see it, I wouldn’t do anything but look.”

               “You’re… you’re at least going to wait here, right? I don’t think I could find my way back.”

               “Sure, sure,” he nodded. He pulled a joint out of his pocket and stuck it between his lips. “I’ll be right here when you get back.”

               I’m not sure why I did it, but I stepped on the escalator. Fluorescent lights and the incessant tunes of synthesized Celine Dion followed me as I went. The walk was a little longer than I expected—clearly, my guide’s definition of “just ahead” and mine were different—but I went on. Sunk cost; I’d gone this far and could go just a little farther for what was sure to be some kind of drug-addled misunderstanding of how stairs worked.

               I was at least a few minutes down the hall before I noticed that the shops and storefronts. The stores of my youth were replaced with less familiar ones. Gadzooks and Camelot Music and Kenny G muzak. Then to Contempo Casual and Casual Corner with versions of ABBA and the Bee-Gees. And on to Chess King and Kinney Shoes. The muzak eventually faded out altogether, replaced by the distant calliope of a carousel.

I was already starting to believe the ice cream wizard’s story by the time the storefronts were nothing but displays and rows of window displays of staircases. All the store names were stair themed bastardizations of the mall stores of the past—KB Stairs, Pepperidge Stairs, and so on. Kiosks advertised nothing but rotating pictures of stairways. Stairs spiraling up (or down, depending, I suppose, or your perspective). Grand staircases in plantations style homes and concrete steps in parks nestled in hidden corners of the country.

The last staircase at the end of this maddening walks was the one the ice cream guy was talking about. There was no mistaking it.

               He wasn’t wrong; it was unsettling. I felt like its impossible length was a trick of perspective, and that it really didn’t go up forever, but just got smaller in scale as it went up.  I thought about turning back at that point, but it seemed like I could no more do so that no breathe. If he really had a friend who had at least tried walking up the stairs only to turn back and leave, that person had more will than I did.

               And so, up I went.

I didn’t decide at any point to turn around. I was in it for the long haul, so to speak, and I wouldn’t stop—couldn’t stop—until I reached the top. Whoever it was that was my wizardly guide here, that dark practitioner of the ice cream arts, had to know that I wouldn’t be coming back. But I think he didn’t expect me to come back.

               I think he knew that he was leading me to a path without end. An escalator ride that never looped around.

THE END

26 Stories (Revised): Elevator

No, this isn’t my regular update. That’s not scheduled until the 29th, and I’ve been working on that one since my dreams laid the foundation for it a few nights ago. This is a revision of one of my earlier stories. These won’t be so regular as they will come as I feel like tackling them. Remember that a lot of these are simply raw writing exercises. From time to time, I may decide there’s something there to flesh out. Or I may decide that I just want a more polished version of what I already wrote. 

In any event, this story is a revision of my earlier story, Elevator. It’s shorter, a little more to the point, and hopefully more entertaining. Writing isn’t just about putting stuff to paper… there is a bit of revision required. And I suspect there will be more rounds of revision required on this and any given story. 

So enjoy, possibly again or possibly for the first time.

Elevator (Revised)
5th Floor

               Danielle rode the elevator from the fifth-floor, her laptop tucked into her messenger bag. She took a deep breath and closed her eyes, hoping that the elevator didn’t make any stops. Stops would give her more time to think. She didn’t want to sabotage her presentation to the C-levels by overthinking. For a business analyst with barely three years at the company, this was almost unheard of. So much so that her boss had given her an awkward pep-talk before she headed off.

               “Well, Danni,” he’d said, calling her by the nickname she’d grown tired of insisting he not use, “this is a big step for you. I’d hate to think,” he continued, “that the team might lose you after this, but what is the world of business without sacrifice?” He’d tried to downplay it, but the mix of emotions was clear. If this went well, she could have passed him. She was also aware of his crush (not at all returned on her part) even though he thought he’d managed to hide it. She was looking to transition off the team, it was true, but not solely because of his unrequited feelings. He was content to be a middle manager. He wasn’t going anywhere, and if he didn’t go anywhere, she wasn’t going anywhere.

               She was moving up, literally and—fingers crossed—figuratively. Her insights into the data processing the company used to precisely target potential customers were groundbreaking. As the old building’s quaint elevator jolted to a start and began its slow climb, she ran through her presentation.  After some extra work in the evenings and weekends from her studio apartment, she’d managed to find something the company’s army of data scientists had overlooked. There had been a subtle and unique pattern that resolved into a perfect picture of behavioral trends. What the complex interactions between the sea of numbers meant (as she wouldn’t bore the executives with the minute details) was that she had found an entirely new way to target customers. Thanks to the company’s “Brain-icane” sessions, where even the most “out there” ideas were considered, she was now on her way to a one-on-six meeting at the very top level of the organization.

               She opened her eyes, hoping to see the floor indicator close to twenty-six, unable to contain her nerves for too much longer. She was surprised to see that she was only passing the sixth floor. How was it that time always went sideways under stress?

“Time is constant my ass,” she said to the empty elevator car.

               She leaned her head back against the wall.

               This is fine, she thought. Like Stewart said, this is just a small sacrifice. Her presentation was immaculate. Not too much text on each slide, no animations, and plenty of room for further explanation. She’d timed herself last night and the entirety of the initial presentation came to just around seven minutes (Toastmasters approved). She would be able to communicate the salient points and have more than enough time to entertain questions. The C-levels were too important to spend more than half an hour on any given topic—time being an immense amount of money when you factored how much each one made every minute; every second. Likely, she would be giving them back five to ten minutes. Her efficiency and conscientiousness would be noted. Things like that always were at that level.

               The elevator chimed, and she re-opened her eyes (she hadn’t realized she’s closed them again), expecting to be at least close to the twenty-sixth floor. The number on the display suggested otherwise.

               Six? She thought. That can’t be right. She stared into an empty elevator lobby, waiting for another rider. No one boarded with her. The floor was deserted. Just as a shadow shifted in the hallway, betrayed by the washed-out fluorescent lights, the doors slid closed.

               The elevator lurched again, her stomach pressing down as she went up. Not wanting to obsess over her presentation again, she stared down at the ugly 1970s pattern in the carpet. She tried to let her mind wander.

               When she checked again, the elevator display still showed six.

               It has to be broken, she thought. The display is malfunctioning, which wasn’t surprising. The building that housed her office was at least a hundred years old. The elevator was likely added sometime in the fifties. She tapped it, not sure how that would help but conditioned to do just that. It didn’t budge. Well, she thought, I can feel the elevator moving, so I’m not stuck. She’d reach the top floor where the doors would either open, or—failing that—she could call for help. There was an executive assistant (Tammy, she seemed to remember) right outside the doors, so it wouldn’t be hard to get her attention. It would be embarrassing, but she was skilled enough at speaking to spin it into a humorous anecdote. Furthermore, there were three elevators in the building. If the elevator stopped again, she could either take the stairs or wait for a different one.

Take some calming breaths, she told herself. Practice “mindful meditation” like your therapist taught you. You have got this. Those execs will be floored. At that, she opened her eyes, convinced she felt a slow-down in the elevator’s momentum, ready to razzle and even dazz-

               The display flipped from six to seven. She felt the familiar tug of an anxiety attack. Mindful meditation, she thought. Mindful meditation.

               As she wrangled her anxiety back down for storage in what her therapist called her “emotional quarantine,” she had a moment of clarity.

               “Right,” she said aloud. “Duh.”

               Right where she expected it to be, on the wall under the buttons, was a panel. She popped it open easily enough and picked up a telephone handset wired into the elevator via a corkscrew cord. She placed it to her ear. She heard the ringtone. After three rings, there was a click and a tired man’s voice.

               “Building maintenance.”

               “Hi, yes, this is Danielle Anderson. I’m on elevator number… uh…” She looked and saw the appropriate number. “Number four,” she finished.

               “Um… are you sure about that?”

               “Well, yes. I mean, it is the number listed right above this phone, right?”

               “It should be,” he said.

               “Then that’s the one. Can you figure out what’s going on? It’s taking a long time to get to the top, the floor thingy isn’t changing, and—”

               “Ma’am,” he cut her off, “I’d like to help, but if you’re in elevator number four, then a line got crossed somewhere.”

               “I’m sorry, what?”

               “Are you in the Waverly building?”

               “Yes.”

               “Ma’am, there are only three elevators in this building.”

               “Well,” she said, annoyed, “then the wrong number is on the panel. It’s the elevator furthest from the main door. Can’t you look on a status panel or something and see which one I’m in?”

               “I can, and I am, but everything is showing up just fi-” The man’s voice was cut off.

               “Hello?” she asked. No response.

               “Hello?” she asked again, an edge there.

               “Hell-” and then she trailed off. The line wasn’t dead, as she thought. She could hear—or thought she could hear—ambient noises. Quiet hums, or the steady whooshing of a fan or air conditioning from a ceiling vent.

               “Are you… is anyone there?” she asked. She was certain she heard something in the background. Voices engaged in a lively discussion far away? A child crying somewhere? With effort and strain, she latched onto a rhythmic sound. It started quietly but grew in pitch and volume. She imagined that this was what it felt like to stand on train tracks as a freight train bore down. As it intensified, she found herself pressing the hand-set so hard into her ear that the sound of her blood rushing with each increasingly frantic heartbeat first covered, then merged with, and was soon drown out by the noise. Something larger than even a train; a horrific mix of mechanical parts and fused flesh was rushing toward her. When it reached her, it would drag her screaming into the darkness of some other world, where elevators ran on forever. Just as her mind was about to snap, right when she was about to begin to scream and scream and scream, a vibration at her wrist shattered the spell.

               She dropped the phone and gasped for breath as she slumped to a sitting position and pressed against the wall. The vibration at her wrist persisted, and she looked down to the cause of the disturbance.

               “Wow!” her fitness watch told her, “Exercise Goal Achieved!” It showed her current heart rate, blasting at 175 (well into the “Cardio” zone, it cheerfully displayed). She stared incredulously for a moment, then laughed. Her panic attack had caused her fitness tracker to log her rapid heart rate as a workout. Already short of breath, she gasped between uproarious guffaws, aware that if the elevator doors opened right now, she would seem completely unhinged. Imagining the look on some poor schmuck’s face made her laugh harder. She laughed until tears streamed down her cheeks, which she wiped with the back of her smartly pressed jacket. After a few minutes of laughing, followed by the occasional aftershock of chuckles between deep breaths, she reassessed.

               “Still floor seven,” she said, the display taunting her. She put her head back, grateful for the wall’s tangibility. She looked at the handset she’d dropped, contemplating putting it back on the receiver and trying again. After all, the person she spoke to seemed to think there might be a crossed line somewhere, and the abrupt change to some other connection seemed to suggest the wiring was faulty. She could try again, and either get someone who could help or at least try to work out what was going on with the person she spoke to before. Also, she thought, it would be nice to talk to someone.

               The bulbous ends of the old-style handset stared at her, either curiously or maliciously, from the floor. The honeycomb of holes in the plastic bulbs made her skin crawl. She opted to leave it there for now.  

               It’s just a matter of time, she thought, before someone figures out that something is wrong with the elevator. Still seated on the floor, she brought her knees up to her chest and wrapped her arms around them. The panic attack had made her tired; back when she had them regularly, she would end up sleeping for hours after. Up on the opposite wall, next to the doors of the elevator, the display still read “7” as the gentle vibration of the elevator lulled her to sleep.

*             *             *             *

               Danielle was jolted awake, disoriented, the fog in her mind lifting. Waking from a nap was too much like a hangover without the fun of getting drunk. When she saw the elevator display, now turned to nine, she sighed with relief. I just dozed for a second, and the elevator moved up two floors, she thought. Good… good, I only lost…

She checked her watch and frowned. Her meeting with the executives was scheduled for 2:30 pm, and while she’d suspected that the malfunctioning elevator would make her miss the meeting, her watch claimed that it was 6:23 pm. She ached from her awkward position on the floor. If she’d been here for four hours, surely someone would have come to find her. Standing, her knees popping in protest, she checked it again. It must be out of sync with my phone, she thought, and then practically smacked herself.

               “My phone! Holy shit!” She reached into the pocket of her bag. She pressed her index finger to the sensor on her phone and it came to life showing her… 6:23 pm.

“Doesn’t matter,” she said aloud, “whatever time it is, I can call someone to get me out.” She opened her contacts and swiped the screen down as quickly as she could to Nathan’s number and pressed the call icon. She held the phone up to her head, still mad at herself for not thinking of this earlier.

               Her phone was silent. No dial tone. No connection. No nothing, despite a full set of signal bars. Wondering if it would make a difference, she sent a text to Nathan briefly detailing her situation, explaining that she had no service, and that he needed to call or text her “ASAP.”

               She retrieved her laptop and powered it on. She watched as her laptop, curiously down to about 17% power, struggled to connect with the office network. She was sure, given how paranoid she’d been about the impending presentation, that she had fully charged the computer. It occasionally claimed to make a connection only to disconnect before she could even open her email. She slammed the lid down.

               “Fuck!” she yelled, pressing both hands to her forehead. People didn’t just lose time on elevators that refused to move above a snail’s pace. There had to be a reasonable explanation as to why she wasn’t getting anywhere, and why she was confused as to how long she’d been here. Was there a gas leak in the building? Was she dreaming? After all, it wasn’t like she didn’t have anxiety dreams about college, her relationship with her parents, or with the fact that she felt like she was an imposter in her job. Yes, she reasoned, this was all some intense nightmare. By letting herself slip into a semblance of sleep, she would wake up and be back in her apartment—or in Nate’s bed. They could laugh about it over breakfast.

               She slept again.

*             *             *             *

               She woke at 4:35 am, still in the elevator, and had a second panic attack.

*             *             *             *

               At 12:45 pm the next day—or someday—her fitness watch informed her its battery was low on charge. How did it drain in one day, she wondered, and cursed herself for not bringing her portable charger from its spot on her desk, and then found it funny that she was worried about that now. The humor turned from a roughly five-minute session of uncontrolled laughter into at least half an hour of uncontrollable sobbing.

*             *             *             *

               It was dead the next time she woke up.

               Her phone was on 4%, with no signal, and said it was 1:15 am. As to what day, she wasn’t certain. The phone was showing gibberish where the date would normally be. Sometime in her delirium, she had taken to using the far corner of the elevator as a restroom. She didn’t remember making the decision to shit and piss on the floor, so in a strange way, she accepted it as a decision made by someone else.

               After trying a few more times to get a call out, she resorted to playing one of those stupid color-matching games on her phone until it finally died on her. That even this small lifeline to anchor her to something normal was gone was in and of itself a relief. She didn’t find it odd that she wasn’t at all hungry, but really, the only feeling she still felt in her stomach was the ever-present downward push of maddeningly steady upward motion. Absent any other option, she curled up on the floor.

*             *             *             *

               She woke again. If she’d been lucky, she wouldn’t have done so. If she’d been lucky, she would have slipped away, into catatonia, a coma, or death. Any option was better. By rights, she should have been dead. Surely, she’d been in the elevator for days, if not weeks. She hadn’t had anything to eat or drink, and while she wasn’t completely up on her biology, she was fairly certain that you had to have food and drink coming in for waste to go out.

               Why up? The thought crossed her mind that at some point she’d died. Up didn’t make any sense. If she’d gone down, this never-ending ride might have made sense. She was a lapsed Catholic, after all, and damnation would fit (she’d fucked a couple of other people on the side when Nathan was off on business trips; and Hell, hadn’t they been living in sin, anyway?). Damnation was down, not up. “Up” was supposed to be good. “Up” was how she felt when the anti-depressants were working. “Up” was what it was like to wake in the morning with Nathan next to her, no matter how shitty she’d been to him behind his back. “Up” was good. “Down” was when she had hurt herself, before her therapy and the Zoloft. Back when she was cutting on herself. But now, here, up was madness and up was never ending. Salvation wasn’t up. Relief wasn’t up. Even death wasn’t up, because even if she’d had some means to end her own life (she thought about bashing her head against the elevator walls but knew that she’d just pass out and wake again), it wouldn’t stop.

               What is the world of business, a familiar but long-forgotten voice whispered in her ear, without a little sacrifice?

               “Sacrifice,” she said out loud, half laughing.

               At that, the elevator dinged, and the doors opened. She saw that the floor listed was “26.”

               She stood, tugged at her suit jacket, and hefted her messenger bag over her shoulder. She ignored the dried streaks of shit that ran down her thighs. She ran a hand over her hair, pushing a filthy errant strand into place over her right ear. It was time for her meeting. It might not go well, given the delays, but they would understand.

*             *             *             *

               Wind howled around Dannielle. Even after so much time ascending, she exited on the ground floor of a ruined building. Its skeletal remains reached up toward a starless yellow sky as if in supplication. Wind-born dust raced in spirals and twisted around half destroyed walls and supporting iron beams.

               She felt the presence of strange things pressing in on her, watching her with a hunger she could feel. She didn’t fear the shadows, though. She had, after all, a well-prepared PowerPoint and a scheduled meeting to make. The things in the dark—the trundling, oozing things—wouldn’t dare inconvenience the executives. Their time was infinite, and if time was money, then it had infinite value. What mattered was what she could bring to the table. What she had to contribute to the company.

               The two oak conference room doors stood before her just past the elevators. She stopped there, taking a final moment to confirm that everything was in order, cleared her throat, and entered, confident that her sacrifice would be appreciated.

               She was going places, after all.

*             *             *             *

               The doors opened into a vast conference room. The table was impossibly large and built at odd angles, but the six figures in severely pressed suits were somehow intimately close. They turned to her in unison, their faces nothing but vast, black holes that gave the appearance that someone had cut into them and scooped out the insides of their skulls like pumpkins on Halloween. Inside the holes, she could see the entirety of the universe, and many universes beyond. There was a moment of vertigo, but Danielle composed herself admirably. A giant obsidian rectangle appeared above the table. Danielle powered on her laptop, which screamed to life, drawing a fresh charge from an unknown source. The rectangle, the glassy blackness reflecting nothing of what was in the room, flared with blinding light, dimming back down until it showed the first slide of her presentation.

               “Business,” she said, “requires some degree of sacrifice…”

*             *             *             *

               Danni’s presentation killed.

               Keeping a public stock option, as Danni’s boss had rightly implied, did require some amount of sacrifice, and she would have the glorious role of providing it. Shareholders had to be continually assured that there were no uncalculated deviations in the direction of the company, yet they also had to see that continuous change was in the cards. After all, business didn’t move forward without big, hairy, audacious goals, so they said.  “BHAG,” one of those acronyms that corporate America was always coming up with as part of the secret, ancient language of corporations. She hadn’t realized just how ritualistic the repetition and overuse of the lingo was. She performed her part to the letter, laying out the sacred numbers of the data and cryptic diagrams of the occult process flows, all in the proper sequences designed to maximize ROI. As the C-level executives, in unison, chanted back to her the proper verses of “synergy,” “paradigm shifts,” and “scalable solutioning,” Danni felt the real power of what it meant to be one of the highest of the executive priests. She envied their power, wanted so much to join their ranks, but it wasn’t in the cards. Still, she would contribute to the overall success of the organization. She was a valuable member of the team, and as the presentation wrapped up and the executives finished summoning the Big, Hairy, Abomination of a God (B’HAG! B’HAG! B’HAG!), she welcomed it. It pushed its way through the obsidian screen, which opened like a dilating cervix. She was there—it was, in fact, her accidental discovery that made it possible to move the timetables up as much as they did with minimal risk acceptance—as the organization birthed its greatest solution (infinite scalability that positioned the business to organically maximize market share in all demographics), still covered in the fluids of its afterbirth. Danni held her arms out; while she wasn’t the mother, she would be the nursemaid. It would feed off of her until it was fully grown. Thanks to her status as an exempt employee, she would be “on call” twenty-four seven, which was a little severe, sure, but the health benefits were worth it. With a little dedication and—yes—a lot of sacrifice, she was sure to retire early, if she wanted to.

               The thing suckled from her, this twisted abortion of the American Dream, and she was content.

THE END


26 Stories

26 Stories: Flesh of my Flesh

The second half of this effort begins now with more goopy body horror elements. Also, I’m relatively sure that my sexual imagery is less subtext and just plan old text. I wonder what my therapist would say about this story?

As always, enjoy. Or be grossed out.

Or both!

Flesh of My Flesh
13th Floor

              “Is this one of those ‘War of the Worlds’-type things? It has to be, right?” Cal asked, fiddling with the antique radio.

              “This?” Martin replied. “These fire-and-brimstone preachers have been on these AM stations since Marconi played the mamba.”

              “Who did the what, now?”

              “You are so young.”

              “I’m not that much younger you. I’m just more cultured.”

              “The devil walks among us, children,” the radio preacher’s twang sounded like an angry child talking through a tin-can phone.

              “Grandpa used to play that shit all the time on this very radio. I wonder if he would find it ironic that it’s probably what made me gay.”

              “We are at war!” the Preacher shouted. “The communists, the freedom-hating liberals-“

              “Here it comes.”

              “The gays and their homosexual agenda.”

              “Nailed it!” Martin said.

              “The only thing on my agenda,” Cal said, “Is to eat. Aren’t you supposed to be making dinner?”

              “Crock-pot,” Martin said. “Been cooking for three hours.”

              “Oh,” replied Calvin.

              Martin kissed the top of Cal’s head. “You’re lucky you’re cute.”

              Cal stood, listening to the radio preachers continue his diatribe on the gays and the atheists and Democrats. “How did you survive growing up here?”

              Martin shrugged. “Deep closets.”

              “Speaking of closets, where are we going to start?”

              Martin scanned the living room of the ranch house. It was in remarkably good shape already on the outside, but too cluttered with kitsch and a hodge-podge of different eras of style. Martin also assumed that the details that were hidden in the walls would prove to be worse. Ancient pipes, bad wiring, thin insulation, and who knew what else waited for the tear-down. The storage company would be coming out in a few days to take the furniture away that they wanted to keep, the charity would come a few days after that everything else salvageable, and the waste management company would park a large bin outside for the refuse.

              “The bathrooms can be cleaned out pretty easily, but I suspect that’s where we’re going to find the most problems.”

              “Get the worst out of the way, then?”

              “Yeah, I think that’s the best approach.”

              “Okay,” Cal said, brushing off his hands. “You tend to that dinner and I’ll see what we’ve got in the master bathroom.”

              Martin left the room.

              “Temptation leads to damnation,” the radio preacher said. “When the merging comes, when the great Beast is birthed, the world be remade in its image of eternal Flesh.”

              “No gays though, I imagine,” Cal said to the radio.

              “All are welcome in the now world,” he said.

              “Yeah, I bet,” Cal walked away.

              “All, Calvin.” Cal froze.

“The change will not come in fire,” the preacher continued. “It will come in a rain of flesh and a changing of the body!” When the radio did not address Calvin again by name, he pressed his fingers to his temples. Convinced that he’d misheard, he continued on his way.

*            *            *            *

              Cal laughed over his half empty beer glass. “I can’t believe that he actually said that to you!”

              “I know, right? Straight guys are so awkward when they try really hard to be accepting. I guess I’m his gay friend he can use to prove his liberal street cred.”

              “We’re not exactly shattering the gay stereotype with all this catty talk, are we?”

              Martin laughed. “I guess not.”

              “Brothers and sisters, hallelujah!” a tinny voice said from the living room.

              “Didn’t you turn that off,” Martin asked.

              “I thought you did.”

              “Not me.”

              “Praise be unto Him, for I come with good tidings.”

              “I’ll get it,” Cal rose and headed to the living room, leaving Martin to take another sip of his Scotch.

              “Children,” the preacher said with a patronizing concern, “I know that I often talk about who stands against us; who we oppose. But make no mistake… this is not about hate. We hate no one.”

              “Sure,” hand on the dial.

              “The gays and their illicit lovers, living in sin,” Cal turned the knob to the left, diminishing the hateful voice almost fast enough, but not quite.

              “Fixing up the old farmhouse together. Making a ‘bed and breakfast’ to lure more of their kind to our good community. To pervert it. But we don’t hate them.”

              “Martin,” Cal called.

              “Yes?”

              “I think the radio preacher is talking about us.”

              “Not ‘about,’ Calvin. To you,” the preacher said on a clearer signal.

“What did you say, Calvin?” Martin asked from the doorway. “Did you decide that you still wanted to listen to that?”

              “I…”

              “Go ahead, Calvin. Turn it off. It won’t silence me.”

              “Did you hear that?”

              “Yeah, and if this guy is just going to repeat shit about the gay illuminati, he’s going to lose his followers to boredom.” Martin exaggerated a yawn.

              “No, I mean-“

              “Ugh,” Martin reached over and turned the radio off.

              “There. You coming back to the table?”

              “I told you,” the preacher said through the dead antique, still with a high-frequency hum. “You can hear the Word now, Calvin. You won’t be able to stop hearing it.” Calvin abruptly grasped the old power chord and yanked the plug from the wall. The action triggering a sharp pop and flash of a spark. Lights in the house flickered.

              “The wiring is going to be a real bitch to fix,” Martin said.

              “Yeah,” Calvin muttered.

              “The Word is truth, Calvin,” the preacher continued. “The truth of the Flesh is next.”

              Martin put a reassuring hand on Calvin’s shoulder. “Are you feeling okay? You look pale.”

              “What?” Cal asked, and then, “No, yeah… yeah. I’m just… tired. Too much beer, maybe.”

              “Don’t I know it,” Martin said. “Okay, we can get to work tomorrow.” He set his glass down on the top of the radio and planted a kiss on Cal’s lips. “Thank you,” he said.

              “Filth,” the radio said.

“For what?”

              “For helping with this.”

              “Sinners.”

              “Of course…” Cal tried to block out the voice in his head.

              “C’mon,” Martin said, taking Cal’s hand and leading him toward the bedroom. “Let’s go to bed.”

              “Fornicators.”

              “Sounds good,” Cal replied.

              “This is not how the Flesh is joined,” the preacher said to Calvin as the two men left. “But you will know soon enough.”

*            *            *            *

              Calvin stood on a vast expanse of skin. Tumorous growths rose around him like termite mounds, mottled pink, black, and blue. Scabs partially covered oozing sores. A fetid wind blew and carried with it the smell of putrescence. The land under his feet swelled and sank at regular intervals. He knew it was a dream instantly, albeit, it was a dream with a different quality than he was used to.

              “Calvin,” his father said, “I will not stand for this.”

              “Dad,” he replied, “it’s not like it wasn’t obvious.”

              “It wasn’t obvious to me!”

              “I played catch, dad! I dated girls. I did everything you wanted.”  

              “And yet you still fuck other men!” His father’s features ran and melted, oozing like putty left in a hot sun.

              “Daddy?”

              The puddle that was once his father reformed. The waxy pink fluid ran backwards, like a video reversed. As it took shape, Calvin stood face-to-face with man of about his father’s age, wearing a robe that wasn’t quite like a preacher’s vestment, but close enough.

              “Your father is with the Flesh, now. We all return to the Flesh. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust… flesh to flesh.” The preacher reached out and put a hand on Cal’s arm. Where his fingers touched Cal’s skin, cancerous masses, red and angry, erupted. Fire burned under his skin as his flesh twisted and his bones were broken, liquified, and reformed. Into what, he didn’t know, as the dream faded.

*            *            *            *

              “Slime mold,” Martin said, standing in front of the hole he had hammered into the bathroom’s drywall. Glistening, biological goop had glommed on to the wall studs. “I knew there would be something disgusting back here. We did get masks, right?” Martin waited. “Right, Calvin?”

“Uh… yeah,” Cal nodded.

“Good. If this is here, you can bet there’s black mold and we sure as shit don’t want to breath any of that in.”

              “I’ll get them,” Calvin said, anxious to leave the room. In addition to grabbing a set of mases, he snagged the box of latex gloves, too. I’m not risking touching that.

Martin had started music on his phone. “Thank you!” he chirped, taking a mask and the box of gloves from Calvin. Martin slipped on the mask, pulled on the gloves and made a lewd gesture in Calvin’s direction. When Calvin didn’t laugh, Martin pulled the mask down.

              “Are you sick, or hungover?”

              “I didn’t sleep well. Nightmares.”

              “Oh. Well, they’re just dreams, right? Can’t hurt you and all that?”

              “Thanks dad… er… mom.” Calvin’s stomach churned with the memory of the dream.

              “Mmmm-hmmm,” Martin replied. “Does princess Calvin need a nap? We’ve got work to do, and good music to keep us awake.” The current song—some EDM music that Calvin never got into—ended.

              “Hello Calvin,” the preacher’s voice said from the phone.

              Martin smiled, “That’s my jam!” He started to dance to an unheard beat.

              “No,” Cal said. “No, no, no…”

              “Yes, Calvin. You cannot escape the Word.”

              Martin frowned. “I know this isn’t usually your music, but we can play your depressing rock songs later.”

              “I don’t want to hear this.”

              “Okay, Jesus.” Martin stopped the music. “What the hell got into you?”

              “The Word is inescapable. The Flesh is inevitable.”

              “Leave me alone!”

              “Leave you alone? Calvin, you have to be sick.”

              “Your father is here, Calvin,” the preacher said. “And he’s felt the change.”

              “My father is dead!”

              “Calvin?” Martin, concerned now, stopped the music. “What’s going on? Are you… do you need help?” He held Calvin’s face in his hand, turning to look into his eyes.

              “Yes, let him take you in his arms. Be of the same sinful flesh. Your father understands, now, the pressing and melding and joining of flesh. He doesn’t hate you anymore.”

              “Stop!” Calvin yelled, pushing Martin away.

              “Stop what?” Martin replied.

              “Why, you and your father could become close, Calvin. So much closer, if you just accept the Word and embrace the Flesh.”

              Calvin ran.

*            *            *            *

              He ran into the countryside until his lungs burned and his legs gave out, where he finally collapsed. He tried to rise, to run more, but cramps rendered his legs inoperable. So he lay there, on the ground, and cried.

              When he stopped, twilight had set in. He didn’t remember when he’d left the house or how long he had been out. He knew, at least, that there was no radio out here to talk to him. No phone to tell him lies. He took deep, hitching breaths, and tried to center himself.

              Ahead of him, above a cluster of scrub brush, a radio tower loomed. The tower. Its blinking red lights glared down at him. Each a malevolent eye. From somewhere ahead, a speaker whined.

              “Brothers and sisters our newest sheep has come to join the flock.” Calvin rose slowly to his feet. He trudged forward, toward the tower and the voice, not fully in control and too tired to fight it anymore. “He has heard the Word, the Word of the Flesh, and has come to us to find salvation.” As he pushed past the cluster of scrub, he saw the small steel shack with its single metal door. There had once been a chain-link fence around it, but it had long since fallen. Faded warning signs tried to turn him away, but he ignored them.

              “He comes to be cleansed of his sin, the sin of impure Flesh. The sin of order.” Calvin pushed open the steel door, which screeched in protest on rusty hinges, but opened none-the-less.

The gurgling screams of his father welcomed him.

*            *            *            *

              When Calvin returned, Martin was pacing on the porch. He rushed down the stairs to him, wrapping him in an embrace.

              “Oh thank God, Calvin. You scared me! Where did you go? I thought you were hurt or…”

              “I had to take a walk,” Calvin said.

              “A walk?” Martin pushed back. “You ran out like you were being chased!”

              “I had to talk to my dad.”

              “Your dad’s been dead for years. So, okay, new plan. We’re going to get in the car and go home. You need to get out of here. We can go to that brewery you like, and—“

              “Home?” Calvin said. “I am home.”

              “That was never the plan. You know that. Home is back in the city. We’re just fixing this up.”

              “Home is here. Home is where the flesh is.”

              Martin withdrew. “You need some rest, and we need to get you out of here. Let’s go inside and pack a few things.”

              “Yes,” Calvin said as he followed Martin across the porch and into the living room. “We can listen to the radio.”

              “That thing? I’ve had enough of that. It’s unplugged, anyway, remem-” The radio came to life, a soft glow behind the dials and display.

              “…sins of the Flesh. These are the sins that our lord warned against. The sins that both corrupt us, and cleanse us.”

              “What the Hell,” Martin said.

              “Not Hell,” Calvin said. “The living Flesh is so much more than that.”

              “Calvin, stop. Please. You’re freaking me out.”

              “He’s right,” the preacher said.

              “What? Who?

              “He’s the prophet,” Calvin replied.

              “How did that nutcase know my name?”

              “I know all about you, Martin, and your life here.”

              “I don’t know what kind of bullshit you’re pulling Calvin, but this isn’t funny.”

              “I know about your fumbling with the boy in the neighboring farm.”

              “That’s… stop it.”

              “He wasn’t even gay.” Calvin said.

              “You can’t possibly know about that. Please stop.”

              “He raped a girl to prove it to himself.”

              Martin hit Calvin with a closed fist. “I said STOP!”

              Calvin reached out, despite the discoloration already forming on his jaw. “It’s okay, Martin.”

              “It is, Martin,” the preacher’s voice said calmly through the radio.

              “You didn’t know.” Calvin continued.

              Martin began to cry. “You… both of you… please stop.”

              Calvin held out a hand. “You can be cleansed, Martin. When he comes… when flesh becomes flesh; when all is fused, we can be joined.”

              “What are you saying,” Martin asked, desperation in his voice.

              “We can be one in ways we never could have before.”

              “Listen to him,” the radio said.

              “I…”

              “Please, Martin,” Calvin continued. “Come with me.”

              Martin took Calvin’s hand.

              Calvin led Martin to the bathroom. Inside, in the hole Martin had bashed into the wall, the slime mold had grown. It had taken over the whole wall, spreading fleshy, throbbing tendrils. There was an opening, now; a vertical slit by angry red tissue and living tumors. Calvin stepped into it with one foot and turned back to Martin.

              “The choice must be yours,” the preacher’s voice said from nowhere and everywhere. “Do you want to know the Word and the Truth? Do you want to be one with the Flesh?”

              “Yes,” Martin said.

              “Then follow. In your sin, you shall be remade clean and whole.”

              Calvin fully penetrated the threshold, and Martin followed.

*            *            *            *

              A world of pain and cancer and fire awaited, yet to Martin, the pain was blissful. He was one with his husband. Their bodies merged, no longer in the figurative sense that had been part of their wedding vows. On the plane of skin and tissue, in the realm or tumors and yellow puss, the two men melted into each other, and in doing so, became one.

              “Flesh of my flesh,” the voice of the preacher of the Living Flesh said, “blood of my blood.”

              And so it was.

              And so it would be.

THE END

26 Stories

26 Stories: He Makes an Offering to His Muse

This post is kind of a big deal to me. Weird floor numbering aside (I just had to start this in the basement), this is story number 13, which is the beginning of the second half of this little project I started to keep myself writing. Over half a year’s worth of material, for good or ill, is nothing to sneeze at for a guy who went in to therapy not too long ago for depression that was largely fueled by a lack of writing.

As such, this story is going back to the beginning, to tell the next (but I assure you, not last) story of poor Jonathan Fredrickson, who may or may not have summoned an actual muse (if you don’t know who Cali is, then… well, you probably should). Only, there may be something more sinister to this muse than merely inspiring the struggling writer who, as it turns out, may not be struggling much, anymore.

Enjoy!

He Makes an Offering to His Muse
12th Floor

John sat on the edge of his bed. It was a large bed; far better than the ratty single bed he’d had when he lived in the building’s basement apartment. On his still-new-to-him 12th floor apartment, the sheets were silk, the pillows soft, and his companion in it as lovely and inspiring as ever. As if she heard his thoughts, Cali stretched awake and rose to a sitting position. The sheets fell from her bare breasts, and as usual, she made no motion to cover them. She draped an arm over John’s and rested her chin on his shoulders.

                “Hey there,” she purred. “What’s got your mind all wrapped up?”

                “Taking in the view.” He smiled and looked at her naked body.

                “You’re cute when you deflect, you know?”

                “Yeah?” He sighed. “Truth is, I’m kind of tired.”

                “Then come back to bed,” she said, patting the empty space behind him. “If you need more sleep, I’m sure I can wear you out.”

“Not that kind of tired.”

                “I know.” She caressed his cheek. “Too much to take in, too fast?”

“That’s it, exactly. I wanted all this,” he gestured to the fancier apartment, the posters for several of his plays, and the short shelf of awards, among other accouterments of the successful writer he had become, “but I thought it would take longer.”

                “You need some help, I think.”

“But you are my help. And I’ve got Randolph to handle the business side of things. All I have to do is write, and I’m afraid I’m running on fumes.”

                “I can fix that, but if we’re being honest, I need a little help for that, too.”

John chortled. “What do you mean by that? You just being you is all you have to do for me.”

                “A girl needs a little more than that,” she said. She swung her long legs over the side of the bed and rose, still not bothering with modesty.

                “I worship you… what more could you want?”

                Her eyes sparkled. “Funny you should mention ‘worship.’”

                “I don’t follow.”

“Being worshiped by you is wonderful. That I can inspire you to the heights you’ve reached fills me with a joy that I can’t describe. You probably could, but for me, the words don’t come.” She strolled around to his side of the bed and sat on his lap, draping her arm around his neck. “That kind of feeling… well, it gets a bit addictive. And, just like you draw inspiration from me, I provide that inspiration because of the pedestal upon which you’ve placed me.” She traced a circle on his chest with a long, delicate finger.

                “Okay, so what needs to change.”

“I need more—how did you put it?—worshipers.”

                “What does that mean?”

                “I can give you so much more inspiration, John. If you think you’re at the top of the world now, just imagine the heights I can propel you to with a little more… juice.”

                “I don’t understand.”

                She closed her eyes. “Go out there, into the world, and bring more people here. We’ll have a party!” She jumped up, excited.

                “I thought we were keeping us a secret.”

                “That was then, in the beginning. But I want to have a party.” She pouted at him. “Are you going to deny me, your goddess, a simple party?”

                He shook his head. “No. No, of course not.”

                She clapped her hands together in glee. “Wonderful! And invite that pretty little thing that answers Randolph’s phone, will you?”

                “Julianne? I… I don’t think that’s a good idea. I think she has eyes for me, since she doesn’t know I’m in a relationship.”

“That’s why I want her to come. Consider it… a gift to you.” Cali sauntered back toward John. “After all, I’m asking you to share me with the world. The least I can do is let you share our bed.”

                John was taken aback. “What? I’m not going to step out on you.”

“Who said,” she whispered, “I wouldn’t be there, too.”

*             *             *             *

The party was a roaring success. Hangers-on in Johnathan’s orbit were more than happy to finally get to spend time with the reclusive playwright (soon to be screenwriter, as well). Randolph was thrilled to invite not only Julianne, a lithe girl who couldn’t have been a day older than twenty, but others on his staff, and several “very important people in the entertainment industry” (as he conspiratorially put it to John, a little louder than intended thanks to the copious amounts of booze flowing that night). Johnathan was uncomfortable with the festivities, as they were still something outside of his usual comfort zone, but it was Cali who was the star of the night, and he was happy, to a degree, to stay out of the center of attention. He was also jealous of the way the other men would comfortably put a hand on her lower back and stand too close, but he remembered her promise to him. Remembered that she had suggested Julianne come, too, and based on the way she was staring at him, cheeks flushed by her own cocktail, Cali may have been working some magic on the girl, too.

                And what magic it had been. The party began to die down at two o’clock in the morning. Guests staggered out of the apartment, leaving half-full glasses behind. Still roaring with merriment all while struggling to stay conscious. Cali had made an excuse to engage Julianne in a lively and flirtatious conversation to keep her there long enough for only the three of them to be left when the door closed at two thirty.

True to her word, Cali had convinced the girl to stay. And true to all expectations, that night was by any definition an awakening for John in more ways than Cali had been before. While the three of them had made love on that bed, Cali had seemed to glow. To John, the glow was too tangible. In his semi-drunken state, clouded by the orgiastic pleasure he was experiencing, he felt that a light was indeed emanating from Cali’s body. The light streamed out through a million tiny holes in her skin. The holes, in a honeycomb pattern, seemed spongy and malleable, and even while light radiated from them, there seemed to be a darkness there, as well. Or perhaps, he though, revulsion trying to fight past the intense physical sensations he was experiencing, light was being drawn into the porous membrane that he skin had become. But before he could think on it further, the culmination of the act of wild and previously forbidden sex sank his consciousness into a blissful blackness of its own.

*             *             *             *

Julianne was gone in the morning. Cali said she didn’t remember when the girl had left, but didn’t seem too bothered by it, though John felt that something was hiding behind her bedroom eyes. He casually caressed her skin and was happy to see that it was whole, and not a sponge of tiny holes. It did, however, seem less pale than it had before.

                “It’s true what they say,” she said, again seeming to know his concerns before he voiced them, “about the afterglow.” She kissed him before getting out of bed and sauntering to the bathroom. “We simply must do this again,” she said as she closed the door behind her. In a moment, John heard the water running.

                “Yes,” John muttered.

When he called into Randolph’s office that afternoon, an unfamiliar voice picked up and transferred him to Randy. When John asked who the temp was, and if he knew if Julianne made it home safely after the party (stumbling slightly over his words to avoid revealing too much about the evening), Randolph claimed no knowledge of any Julianne. “Catherine,” he replied, “has been answering my calls for years, now. Are you, perhaps, hungover from last night?”

                John, concerned, conceded that he may in fact be, and ended the call as quickly as possible.

He turned, worried, as he heard Cali singing to herself in the shower; something melodic and… something old.

Before he did anything else, he grabbed his journal (where he took notes as ideas struck him, which was often these days), turned to a page near the back, and wrote “Julianne?” on the paper.

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.

26 Stories

26 Stories: Jonah and the Leviathan

Phew, I barely made my self-enforced deadline for this one. I wrote it today and just finished an initial proofread and revision. This is more raw than some of my other stuff, in more ways than one, as you’ll see (not that what I usually post is polished; that’s not the point of this exercise, really). It’s a sci-fi story, kinda, and it brings back at least one familiar face if you’ve been reading these stories (and another, if you read stuff of mine beyond the 26 Stories tales). Things are starting to come together for my mythos, I think. 

I’m also trying to employ some of what I’m picking up from critiques at the DFW Writer’s Workshop; namely, that I’m wordy and take to long to get to the story. Hopefully, this grabs you right away.

In any event, enjoy the story!

Jonah and the Leviathan
9th Floor

               The Axis Mundi’s sensor array detected the rogue planet with enough time to perform the necessary adjustments to guide the ship through Hawking Space. It would seamlessly re-calculate to avoid the damaging gravity shadow that would have torn the ship down to its component atoms and strewn them across at least this universe, if not others. Instead, some glitch or hiccup in otherwise stable subroutines opted to drop the ship into real space, to the surprise of the Mundi’s captain, Jonah Carthage.

               Jonah had been hauling cargo in his behemoth of a cargo freighter for most of his working life, and he could count the number of times the Mundi dropped from Hawking due to gravity shadows on one finger. Given the severity of failure to course correct and the energy consumption it took to spin an SH drive back up, the systems in these ships were infallible in replotting courses on the fly. As point of fact, the operator’s manual literally stated, “course correction algorithms are infallible.” Why they even existed in the first place could probably be chalked up to a time when computer systems were programmed by humans instead of other, smarter AIs. Hell, most ships didn’t strictly need non-AI captains, but the too-human need to be “doing something” hadn’t gone away with the Singularity. Most ships like the Mundi had full crews—and she could easily support a crew of a hundred or more—solely to stave off the negative effects of deep space isolation.

               Jonah, however, flew alone. The isolation was all he had ever wanted, and so the Mundi mostly flew herself, with him along for the ride. He would push the occasional button when the ship’s AI deemed is safe for human intervention.            He thought the Mundi must have liked him, or pitied him, to give him jobs to do, but he didn’t complain. He didn’t know for certain what she thought, because he’d deactivated her “personality” systems (another human drive; humanize the AIs to make them relatable) because even a sympathetic AI’s voice was more connection than he wanted. He knew she was there, though, which was enough, he supposed.

               He didn’t bother to turn the personality systems back on to find out what dropped the Mundi. It was easy enough to read the displays and see the rogue planet—invisible through the canopy in the pitch black of space but represented in the spatial modeling suite in stunning detail—drifting there, just a few thousand miles from his location. It was a mild curiosity, but hundreds of thousands of these wandering, star-less orphans had been detected and cataloged. He might get a small finder’s bonus from the trade guild if it wasn’t a known object, but little more. He was about to re-plot his course and begin the process of spinning up the drive, when the Mundi’s display highlighted a surface anomaly. Without his intervention, the render of the planetoid expanded as the eyes of the sensor mapping dove down to the craggy surface. Racing past mountains and over canyons, the view soared along a nearly flat plane, then stopped over a single mesa. Enhancing further, the plateau of the mesa grew, and there, resting on top of it, was what appeared to be a door.

               “Huh,” Jonah muttered, his little used voice hoarse.

               The door stood on its own, not attached to any walls or building. It looked older; “vintage” or “retro” would apply. Paneled wood. Door knob. A knocker that, had Jonah seen doors that looked at all like this instead of the flat panels that “whooshed” open and closed as he approached them, would likely be brass. There were three numbers above the knocker as well; 901.

               The Mundi’s display posed one simple line of text to Jonah directly: This should be investigated.

               Jonah was hard-pressed to disagree.

*             *             *             *

               Jonah did not particularly relish time in one of the ship’s smaller surface drones. He liked even less the claustrophobia of the EVA suit that he now wore as he stood on the barren surface of the mesa, facing the strange door. The Mundi rested behind him, dwarfing him, its cargo bay opened like the maw of a great leviathan. He wanted to return to the comfort of her innards; to wander the endless corridors and enjoy the space therein. Even loaded with cargo as she was, he could spend months in different parts of her and still not retrace a pathway. Out here, on the planet’s surface, he was much more aware of the thin layer of polymer fabric that separated him from vacuum and radiation and micro-space dust that would rip him to shreds without the protection of a suit, hull, or planetary atmosphere.

               And yet, as he stared at the door, standing in its frame with nothing behind it, he couldn’t bring himself to turn back. It called to him. This antique portal, he knew, would open to somewhere else. There was no question in his mind that this wasn’t just a doorframe left standing on a planet hurtling through space as some form of art installation or joke. It wasn’t something a bored spacer had left here on the extremely small chance that someone else would discover it, to their confusion.

               Jonah wanted to open the door, but he didn’t do it right away. Instead, he reached out and did the only polite thing.

               He knocked.

*             *             *             *

               The corridor inside the doorway was narrow, white walled, and trimmed in brown, faux-wood baseboard and molding. It felt old, like something out of a movie from the twentieth or twenty-first century. Pictures of indistinct people in gray or sepia tones were surrounded by ornate, gilded frames. Soft light came from an incandescent lamp on a side table. Jonah only recognized these things because he had watched a lot of media on his various trips. This place was in the style of an old New York (before the flooding) apartment. Somewhere, even though the EVA suit should have been sound-proof, he could hear the scratchy sounds of an old radio playing music, and the steady “tick, tack” of some mechanical device. The song wasn’t known to him, and as he tried to focus on and understand the words, they became harder to discern, as if they active fought against understanding. The ticking of the strange device was interrupted by the dinging of a bell, followed by a mechanical ratcheting, after which the ticking started up again.

               He walked along the hallway, toward a second closed door at its terminus. A warm, flickering glow trickled out from below it. The radio and the clacks were coming from this room, and like the first door, he knew that he was going to open it and knew it would be a place much different than this one.

*             *             *             *

               The apartment hallway gave way to a cramped cave, in the middle of which danced the flames of a small fire. Jonah’s first steps into this room were on a spongy surface that made wet sucking sounds as he walked. The smell of rotten meat assaulted him, and he gagged almost instantly. With sudden fear, he realized that his EVA suit helmet was now gone. On instinct, he forced all of the air out of his lungs, expecting to at least slow the effects of decompression as he frantically searched for his helmet. As he did, he saw that the smell came from the floor and walls themselves. They were not rock, but the sickly red and yellow of putrid tissue and muscle. Cancerous growths were prominent, blackened with tumors and undulating with the rippling of the flesh. He gasped, horrified as something that appeared to be a maggot the size of his arm pushed its way out of a pustule and, using large, wicked pincers, tore chunks out of the putrescence.

               Jonah threw up, suddenly thankful that he could—apparently—breath the air here, and more importantly, that his helmet had vanished, preventing him from coating the inside with partially digested ration packs. As the acidic bile of his vomit mixed with the smell in the air, Jonah threw up a second time, until wracked by dry-heaves.

               “That’s fine,” a croaking voice said behind him, jolting him and causing him to spin, the soft floor giving way under his feet and sinking him up to his ankles in rot. “I don’t think we’ll notice a little added mess in here, will we?” Jonah found himself face-to-face with the withered husk of a man whose advanced age he could only guess. He stumbled backward, his foot still caught in the hole he’d made in the “floor,” and fell.

               “Who… what… where…” Jonah floundered.

               “I don’t know the answers to any of those questions. Or rather, I do, but I can’t answer. Or I won’t.” The old man looked confused and scratched at the beard that stretched down to his navel. The white hair was wispy and thin, which did nothing to conceal the fist-sized lice that crawled therein. “I’ve been here for a long time. Or a short time. Or I will be here for a long time. Time…” He glazed over. “Time, time, time…” He trailed off, lost in thought, looking for all the world like a grotesque statue of an ancient corpse. Jonah scrambled to his feet and walked toward one of the walls of the cave, looking for the door that led back to the apartment, and back to the surface of the planetoid.

               “Time!” The old man yelled, again startling Jonah, who had so far only found a tunnel of flesh and cartilage receding into darkness. “Time is… broken here. Broken time.” Now the man scratched at the back of his head, wincing as he did.

               “Who are you?” Jonah asked, stringing together his first complete sentence in months.

               “I’m… many things. And no one thing. I was a king, once. And will be. Or am…” The old man swirled his hands around his head, frustrated. “All at once, and none at all.”

               “How do I get out of here? Back to my ship?”

               “Oh,” the man dismissed, “you can’t.”

               “That’s… there was a door back there. And my ship is…” Confused, Jonah looked around, still seeing no door, though he was positive he’d just stepped through it minutes ago. Or was it hours? Days?

               “No doors here.” He reached behind his head again, as if expecting something to be there. “Where did it go? Where did they put it?” Ignoring Jonah, he looked around on the ground, finally brightening. “Ah!” he said. “There you are!” He reached down to grab the severed end of a tube-like tendril of old flesh that was dripping with puss. The old man put the cable of flesh against the back of his head, smiling a mostly toothless grin. He let go, and it fell to the ground with a splat. The smile faded.

               Jonah tracked the line of flesh as it snaked along the ground. It stopped at what he could only think of as the top of the body of a large, fish-like corpse. The fish’s eyes (if that’s what it was) were gone, leaving only empty sockets. Its mouth lolled open, revealing a mouthful of long, needle-like teeth. Jonah shuddered, terrified at the remains more than anything else about his current predicament. The eye sockets seemed to contain something in the blackness. Some malevolent, utter darkness that seemed alive on its own.

               “It won’t stick. You there!” The old man said, snapping Jonah out of the trance he’d fallen into while gazing into the thing’s eyes. “Can you help an old man out?”

               “Uh… how?”

               “Make this,” he flapped the end of the flesh-tube that he’d retrieved from the ground at Jonah, “stick. Back here. Where it belongs.” He gestured to the back of his head.

               “I just want to get back to my ship.”

               “Yes, yes, fine… put this back and I’ll get you to your ship.”

               “Can you do that?”

               “Can I do what?”

               “Get me back to my ship?”

               “Your ship?”

               “My… the Axis Mundi. I left it parked…” he gestured vaguely in the direction the thought he’d come. “…back there.”

               “I tell you what,” the man said. “I can get you back to this ship if you do something for me.”

               “Help you put that back?”

               “How did you know?”

               “You,” Jonah stammered, “you already asked.”

               “Did I? Oh…” The old man held the tube to the back of his head again. “I’ll tell you what, if you help me put this back…”

               “You’ll get me to my ship. I know.” Jonah crept close to the old man, who waited patiently. When Jonah got to him and moved behind him, he saw that the old man did, indeed, have a festering wound of his own on the back of his skull. A few strands of long gray hair hung there, barely covering it.

               “Well!” the old man snapped. “Take this and put it there. And make it stay.”

               Tentatively, Jonah took the flesh-tube in his hand, glad that the thick gloves of his EVA suit hadn’t gone wherever his helmet had. It was soft in his hands, and for a moment, he felt that the only thing that he should do would be to squeeze it until it collapsed. To yank it out of the fish corpse and throw it all onto the fire. Instead, he pressed it to the old man’s head, gently brushing the hair out of the way.

               “Yes, good,” the old man said. “Now, sew it on.”

               “I… have a welder.”

               “Does it join flesh to flesh?”

               “I… I think so,” Jonah said.

               “Then do that.”

               “It’s going to hurt.”

               “Pain is relative. And fleeting. I need this, young man. I need it.” The voice held such desperation.

               “Okay.” Jonah pulled the micro welder from his suit’s tool belt. He flicked it on, and the blue flame ignited with a hiss. He had half hoped that it wouldn’t have worked. Taking a deep breath, he pressed it to where the tube met flesh. The skin began to boil and blister immediately. If it hurt, the old man showed no sign. Quickly, as the flesh began to scar together, Jonah worked his way around the circumference, until finally he was finished.

               “Ah,” the old man, signed, practically in pleasure. “Yes, that’s what I needed, boy.”

               Jonah walked back around to the front of the man. The man was smiling, a new clarity in his old eyes that hadn’t been there before. The thought of eyes drew Jonah’s back to the fish thing he’d soldered the old man to. Was there something in those eyes that wasn’t there before?

               “So, can you get me out of here?”

               “I can, young man.”

               Jonah sighed. “Thank you. So,” he looked around, “where’s the door back to my ship?”

               “I can get you out, but not to your ship. That way is barred to you forever.”

               “What?” Jonah asked. “You said you could get me back to my ship!”

               “Did I? I may have, but I wasn’t feeling like myself when I did. Can’t trust a confused old man, can you?”

               “But you’re still…” Jonah was about to say he was still a confused old man, but there was new vitality in the old man’s eyes. The skin was beginning to show some color.

               “My dear Jonah,” the man said, now certainly looking healthier, “you should count yourself luck that I am going to allow you to leave at all. It’s a gift I’m giving you.”

               “A gift? And how did you know…”

               “Not for helping me with my… difficulties. That doesn’t mean anything. Someone would have come along and helped anyway; could have been you or it could have been someone else. I had such big plans for that person. No, it was the other thing you did that has convinced me to be merciful. Besides,” he continued, “I can save my intent for those who put me in this prison of flesh and rot.”

               “I… but… what did I do?”

               The man smiled as the body of the fish behind him—the body that was not part of his own—heaved with life. “You knocked.”

*             *             *             *

               Jonah tumbled to the ground in the middle of a vast, white-sand desert. He rolled onto his back and took in air that was stale and dry but didn’t smell like spoiled meat and death. Above him, the sky was a sickly yellow. He thought that perhaps there was a sun behind a layer of clouds, but the more he stared, the less he thought that there were clouds. The yellow seemed to be the sky’s natural color, and if there were stars there, he couldn’t see them.

               He sat up and saw where he had arrived. The mummified remains of a giant beast of some kind, something fleshy and gray, with a gaping circular mouth, scabby ridged skin, and empty eyes (at least ten or so sockets, containing nothing… not even the unnerving blackness of the fish inside wherever it was he had been). It was easily as massive as the Axis Mundi. It had large fins (though there was no body of water here to suggest its natural habitat) and several tree-trunk like leg stalks. From where he sat, it seemed that he had exited the beast from its maw. This creature was old, though; it couldn’t have been what he was inside just moments ago, a still rotting creature, feeding maggots.

               Jonah shuddered, trying not to dwell on that. He truly did sense that he had been given a gift, and that whatever the man had originally intended to do to him would have been far worse than being left alive on some alien landscape.

               He stood, carefully, as the great beast held court over a sprawling kingdom of nothing. Turning to take in his surroundings, Jonah saw with a start that he was not alone.

               A young girl of about ten or so, with dark curly hair and what had once been a bright and colorful sundress, now dirty and faded, watched him. She, in turn, held the hand of what Jonah initially thought was a woman in a robe or a child’s caricature of a ghost, colored in black. Two eyes looked out from a slit in the robe, and he vaguely recognized it from old Earth books and something religious or cultural. The covered woman tilted her head at him, then looked down to the little girl, whose sparkling eyes turned up to meet the wraith’s. Jonah scrutinized at the tall woman and was startled to see that the black robe was colored like a bruise; more angry purple than black. He recoiled as he realized that the robe wasn’t fabric, but the woman’s flesh, fused to her body and shaped into the remnants of the vestments of an outdated civilization.

               “You’re lost,” the little girl said, having turned back to Jonah.

               “I am,” he agreed. “Where is this place?”

               “This is the Golgotha.”

               “Is that a planet in a specific system, somewhere? The Perseids, maybe?”

               “The Golgotha just is.”

               “Great,” he said. “I need to find a transmitter.”

               “It won’t do you any good, this transmitter you want.”

               “Kid, even a standard transmitter can broadcast over Hawking space, and…”

               “No Rabia,” she said, apparently to the woman, “I don’t think he understands.”

               “I don’t understand what,” Jonah asked, addressing the tall woman.

               “Here,” the little girl said, holding out her other hand to him. “We shall show you just how lost you are.”

               Jonah looked at her hand, to the desert of white sand, and back up to the starless, cloudless yellow sky.

               Without a word, as certain as he had known that he’d had to land to investigate the door, and had known to knock first, he reached out and took the little girl’s hand with the oversized glove of his EVA suit.

The End

26 Stories

26 Stories: The Invoked King

This one is an odd duck that I’m going to keep coming back to to revise it. A few years ago, I took a stab at writing an “immersive” play. The idea was that there was going to be a staged reading of a long lost, supposedly cursed play that recently resurfaced. The actors would be playing themselves reading the play as characters in the play. As they read it, things would go wrong, lights would cut out, cell phones would ring, actors would get sick, and some audience members (planted, of course) would experience their own problems during the show and during “intermission” (where the play actually continued in the lobby, restrooms, etc.). It is my attempt to create a “found footage” play. And yes, it is very much inspired by the King in Yellow (It’s called the “Invoked King”). 

Things is, it needs an actual play at its center, complete with academic studies, a history, and so on. This is part of that “paper trail.” The play also ties into my developing mythos as seen in stories here and other places (I reference a character from a series of Weird West stories I’m writing elsewhere who runs into one of the “Titans”). It even more directly ties into my earlier story in this series, “Regarding the Misattribution of the Provenance of the Titans in Greek Mythology.

This version of the cursed play is in my estimation, not good enough yet to be the center of a cosmic mythos. Still, I have to write something every two weeks for my own accountability and this is what I got. I hope you enjoy it!

The Invoked King
8th Floor

from:Gerald X King​​ <gxking@uchicago.edu>

to:Jonas E Dover <jedover@utexas.edu>

subject:  Found a Curiosity for your Titan Research

 

Jonas,

 

It’s been a while since we last talked. As I remember, Alex had just finished her​​ master’s​​ around the time of your last email to me. First and foremost, I want to say how sorry I was to find out about what happened to Miranda. I know that happened some time ago, too, and I don’t want to risk opening old wounds, so I’ll just reiterate that you and Alex have my condolences. I hope it’s not too crude of me to say, given the circumstances, but​​ as I sit here in my 8th​​ floor office, staring out at campus and all the lived that will eventually be affected by it, I have to say,​​ fuck cancer.​​ 

On to the topic at hand. I’ve attached a transcription of an old play that my research turned up recently. I’ve got the original here, complete with what appear to be handwritten notes by—I assume—the original writer, one Mister Archibald Wayward. This play was written as near as I can tell at the turn of the twentieth century; 1910 or so, to be precise. I did some research on the play itself and found some interesting circumstances surrounding it’s first and only production run in Chicago. I plan on scanning that and the original and passing that on to you as soon as the department here springs for a new scanner that can handle the older documents safely. Still, I’ve done my best to transcribe the play, the author’s notes, and some notes of my own from my own research.​​ I shall preface the author’s notes with “AW” and mine with “GK”.

You may wonder why I passed this on to you, as early-1900 theater isn’t even close to classical studies. The first thing to note is that this Wayward tried​​ very​​ hard to write it in the style of early classical theater; the influence of Oedipus the King is painfully clear. It is​​ dreadfully​​ overwrought, however, and the writer himself was obviously not a scholar of the material that inspired him. Prepare to cringe, my friend.​​ 

Second, there are some references here that seem to pertain to your research on the Titans and their parallels in other pre-historical cultures.​​ I have noted those parts for you as well, though I doubt you will miss the significance there (and likely see other references I missed, myself).​​ 

Read this over and let me know what you think. I dug this up in old records in the Chicago Public Library, along with the article I will also send you as soon as I can. It seems that the play’s performance met with no small amount of tragedy, and thereafter, while it wasn’t spoken off often, when it was, it was believed​​ to be “cursed.” Someone must have said “Macbeth” in the show, I imagine.

I look forward to what you have to say. The next time you’re up in Chi-town, get in touch with me, and I’ll do the same if I get down to Austin.​​ 

Take Care,

Gerald King, PhD
University of Chicago
Department of Classics

P.S. I nearly forgot to mention that you will notice by the page numbering that three pages appear to be missing between the “Characters/Setting” page. They are referenced a few times in the author’s notes, but were not included with the manuscript when I located it.​​ What might have been there is almost as interesting as everything else, including the tragedy of the performance.

 

******************************

 

 

The Invoked King

By

Archibald Wayward

 

 

 

 

CHARACTERS

 

KING​​ ANAKLETOS:​​ Male.​​ Large and imposing. See notes section for a short list of names of actors and​​ do not deviate.)

 

[GK: This is the first reference to what I assume are the missing pages.]

 

EIRENAIOS Male. Early 20s. Must portray the countenance of a scoundrel.

 

APOLLO​​ Male.​​ Grecian proportions, physically.

 

CHRYSANTHAE:​​ Female, Early 20s. Again, see notes section for specific questions to pose to actresses during auditions.​​ Ask all questions, no matter how “inappropriate” they may seem.

 

[GK: Now, more than ever, do I want to see these missing sections.]

 

THE ORACLE: Female. Middle aged. Actresses must at least believe in “occult” activities (tarot reading, mediumship, etc.), if not have dabbled with them in the past.

 

ARTEMIS:​​ Female. Haughty and arrogant, but statuesque in posture and proportion.

 

THE CHORUS: DIONYSUS (Male) and DEMETER (Female) will be part of the CHORUS. The performers for APOLLO and ARTEMIS may stand it, as they will be masked and only appear in this capacity here.​​ 

 

 

SETTING

 

A glade in the​​ dark forest. Several columns should be present as sentinels, long overgrown with vines. This is, perhaps, the ruins of a once great temple. There is an altar in the center of the stage. See the notes for the exact specifications of the design of the alter.​​ 

 

 

PROPS

 

Dress should be ancient Grecian. There will be masks for each of the characters (and an extra to stand in as the head of Orpheus), however, only KING ANAKLETOS’ mask must be perfectly designed as specified in the following pages.​​ 

 

[AW: I have taken it upon myself to stress those other items that must meet​​ the designs to exacting detail, but this one, above all others, must be precise. Do not fail!!!]

 

[GK: Yes, he added three exclamation marks. He was clearly quite serious.]

 

ACT I

 

SCENE I

 

[GK: As you can see almost immediately, the language is over-the-top in its attempt to mimic ancient theatrical prose.]

 

KING ANAKLETOS

 

[GK: I’m sure you figured it out already, but I researched the name “Anakletos,” and it means “invoked.”]

 

(Enters, masked as specified above)

O’ ye all who hath gathered here,

We call thee to pay homage to our patrons,

Dionysius, father of the theater.

 

DIONYSIUS

(Entering, also in a mask, that of a plump man with a laurel wreath around his head)

We invoke thee!

We invoke thee!

We invoke thee!

 

[AW: Do not forget to repeat each set of invocations three times; the rule of three is iron clad.]

 

KING ANAKLETOS

May your grapes bring forth the wine,

May the spirits you provide,

Please the souls of the dead,

Who toil in the underworld,

Bereft of joy.

 

Persephone, daughter of Demeter,

Who was taken to the bosom of Hades,

Bride forever,​​ queen of the damned.

 

DEMETER

(Entering in the mask of a fair woman)

We invoke thee!

We invoke thee!

We invoke thee!

 

KING ANAKLETOS

Weep not, for though you were taken,

You have been given a seat of honor,

At the right hand of the Lord and Master, Hades,

For whom no gift is too great for thee.

 

Orpheus, whose songs moved them,

The king and queen of the dead,

And in whose death was immortality gained.

 

CHRYSANTHAE

(Enters, not wearing a mask, but carrying the mask of a man, its face twisted in pain​​ and horror, like a severed head)

We invoke thee!

We invoke thee!

We invoke thee!

 

KING ANAKLETOS

Though the Bacchianids tore you limb from limb,

Your bodiless​​ head continued to sing out,

Your voice still pure and true,

For death could not come for thee.

 

And finally, to the Invoked King,

Whose reign was so frightful,

Whose kingdom twisted and foul,

And for whom such sacrifices were made,

That even the mighty Olympians trembled,

And who took care to wipe thine existence​​ 

From all history by exiling thee to lands beyond

Even horrible Tartarus.

So blighted were you that even the Titans,

Trapped in their eternal prison,

Were stripped of memories of you,

For you were older even than they.

 

[GK: This was the first of the references I believed would interest you. The Titans were directly mentioned, but this seems to suggest the existence—as least for the play’s story—of something older than the Titans.]

 

ALL

We invoke thee!

We invoke thee!

We invoke thee!

CHRYSANTHAE

Dark king from the folds of space

To thee we give you this poem,

So that while the gods attempted to erase you,

We shall always remember you.

May this sacrifice give strength.

 

KING ANAKLETOS

I shall be appeased.

 

CHRYSANTHAE

I am but a maiden, untouched by man.​​ Here I find myself, lost in the dark wood.​​ I fear for my safety, and for my virtue,​​ pure and strong. Gods,​​ show me the path through these woods!

 

[GK: I truly believe that the playwright specifically wanted an actual virgin for this part, given his obsession with the idea and his references to “inappropriate” questions.]

 

KING ANAKLETOS

The woods are dark, my child, and the path you seek difficult to see.

 

CHRYSANTHAE

(Startled)

You have frightened me​​ sir!

 

KING ANAKLETOS

In places such as this, there is much​​ not of man​​ to frighten you.

 

CHRYSANTHAE

But​​ surely​​ not thee, for​​ thine is the face of kindliness.

 

[GK: Yet he is masked. One can only assume it is a friendly looking mask?]

 

KING ANAKLETOS

Many are the beasts that would prey upon your flesh. Of countless number are the men who would prey upon it as well.​​ A kindly face may be a mask, hiding a darkness that wouldst do thee harm.

 

CHRYSANTHAE

I believe that the gods would show me guidance. These woods, as all, belong to Artemis.

 

KING ANAKLETOS

Not​​ these​​ woods, dear child.

 

CHRYSANTHAE

You should watch thy blasphemous tongue,​​ good​​ sir, for all woods are in Artemis’ domain.​​ 

 

KING ANAKLETOS

Not all corners of creation are visible to the gods, child.​​ To assume such is to grant the gods greater power than they presently have.

 

CHRYSANTHAE

Who are you, strange man who hides in shadow, that you would so cast aspersions onto the gods themselves?

 

KING ANAKLETOS

A king.

 

CHRYSANTHAE

A king, you say? Over what land do you rule?

 

KING ANAKLETOS

(Gestures)

Why​​ this​​ land, and all lands forgotten.​​ For forgotten lands are​​ my​​ domain, as you say all forests belong to Artemis.

 

CHRYSANTHAE

Lands may be forgotten by men, but no lands are forgotten​​ by the gods.

 

KING ANAKLETOS

These lands, are. But I digress; it is you who should provide answers to my questions, not t’other way ‘round, for you are in​​ my​​ home.​​ How have you come to this land,​​ here before​​ the time of,​​ and forgotten​​ by,​​ even the terrible Titans?

 

CHRYSANTHAE

(Laughs)

Creation was in its infancy when the Titans were born, so to suggest​​ that these lands were here prior to their horrible reign​​ is foolishness.​​ 

 

KING ANAKLETOS

It is what it is. I have been king of these lands since​​ before​​ Creation gave its first strangled cry.​​ I watched as Crinos was formed from the unknowable chaos of the universe and as he foolishly believed that he tamed the untamable currents of time. I watched him take Gaia as his lover, raping her and cowing her into submission so that the Titans would be born of their​​ unholy coupling. I have seen all​​ these things are more, as I have been around since the true beginning of time, which cannot be said to begin or end and which flows​​ like a distorted river​​ in directions and through spaces no man, god, or Titan can fathom. I am perhaps older even than the birth of that​​ very same​​ strange river. But again, you have avoided my questioning. How did you get here?

 

[GK: This reference here is the most direct reference to your own research. Does it mean anything to you?]

 

CHRYSANTHAE

I was lost. My guide,​​ Eirenaios,​​ had suggested a shortcut, but it seems he has​​ led us to the wrong grove. It is​​ certainly a land I know not.

 

[GK: “Eirenaios” means “peace, tranquility, and harmony.” I’ll leave it up to you to determine why that was chosen as this​​ character’s​​ name, as you’ll soon see. Okay, I shall stop doing research you are most capable of doing yourself.]​​ 

 

KING ANAKLETOS

But hush, for I have told you where you now find yourself child.​​ 

 

CHRYSANTHAE

Indeed you have,​​ even while you have been evasive with your answers,​​ and I sense that no further questioning will reveal more insight than​​ what you have already given me. As you appear to be kindly and bear me no harm,

(Aside)

Though clearly touched in the mind to speak of such things as time before great Crinos...

(Return)

I shall, instead, beseech​​ thee​​ to assist me in finding my way back,​​ if not​​ to my guide,​​ then to​​ the path to Ephesus​​ and​​ the temple of Artemis. I am to be initiated into the mysteries of the great huntress.

 

KING ANAKLETOS

More important, then, that you guard your virginity against those who would seek to defile it, such as your guide, Eirenaios. I fear he means you harm, and I would see no harm come to those who traverse my kingdom, lest they​​ bring harm upon it.

 

CHRYSANTHAE

Again, you show me much kindness, and you respect the laws of Xenia. However, your concern is misplaced. For you see, I have consulted with the Oracle, and she herself told me that she did not foresee any ill fortune befalling me on my​​ way to Ephesus.​​ 

 

KING ANAKLETOS

Oracles are quite wise, and​​ do​​ see more than many humans – and even some gods – can see of the future. Tell me, child, what were the​​ exact​​ words of the Oracle, as she said them to you?​​ 

 

CHRYSANTHAE

As I said, she did not foresee any-

 

KING ANAKLETOS

It is possible that you have misinterpreted her words and taken from them the wrong meaning. Let me hear her words​​ exactly​​ as they were spoken so that I may fully allay my worries for your wellbeing.

CHRYSANTHAE

Very well.

 

(THE ORACLE​​ enters, kicking off a flashback.)

 

THE ORACLE

Welcome, my child.​​ 

 

CHRYSANTHAE

Greetings, Oracle, I come to you in reverence for your sight that​​ pierces​​ beyond the veils of time and of space. I have come to you on the eve of my own great journey to​​ Ephesus, where I am to be inducted into the mysteries of Artemis.​​ 

 

THE ORACLE

You must be a woman of virtue, her maidenhead untouched, to be admitted so.​​ Ist thou​​ pure, unsullied by the hands of man?

 

CHRYSANTHAE

Indeed. I have come to ask if you see success in my journey, or if I am to fall victim to the dangers of the roads between Athens and​​ Ephesus.

 

THE ORACLE

I shall show thee the fate of the travels facing you. Be soft as I give an invocation to far-seeing Apollo.​​ 

 

(THE ORACLE​​ closes her eyes, entering a trance)

 

Oh Apollo,​​ 

He who navigates the raging river of time,​​ 

Dug and filled by Crinos and set,​​ 

On an implacable journey ever forward,​​ 

Sweeping along all life to eventually end in Hades,​​ 

Domain of the dead and prison of the damned,

Show me the threads of this maiden’s fate,

As she travels toward her destiny.

(Dramatic)

I see a road, long and hard, but not without havens of safety and hospitality. I see one who would proclaim to be your guide, who will offer his services to lead you to your end, proclaiming no reward required in return, as his only desire is assistance. I see a parting and then-

(THE ORACLE pauses.)

 

CHRYSANTHAE

Yes? Speak, Oracle, for I must know that the fruit of my lifelong studies and dedication shall not be denied to me by misfortune.

 

THE ORACLE

I see a wood, and... and-

CHRYSANTHAE

And what? Speak true, Oracle, do you see harm come to me?

 

THE ORACLE

I... the threads of your fate are difficult to unknot, but... but I​​ can see no harm coming to thee, child.

 

CHRYSANTHAE

(End Flashback, and spoken to​​ KING ANAKLETOS)

Those were her words, “I​​ can​​ see no harm coming to thee, child.”

 

[GK: I am going to pull in a direct quote from the survivor of the theater’s disaster. While much of what this witness said was disjointed and confused, the reporting was very specific on her memory of this.​​ She said she remember the Oracle launching into what seemed to be​​ an un-scripted monologue. Astonishingly, the witness recounted it in full. I’ll include it here:

 

“I see a false king, standing in the shadow of the true king. I see two faces, one a mask and one showing true. Beware, for kindness is deceptive, and much as terrible creatures in the darkest depths of the ocean dangle pleasant motes of light to draw unsuspecting prey into their horrible, be-fanged maws, so too does the mask conceal horror beyond human imagining.

 

“Beware strangers with pleasing faces and kind hearts, and search for the appendage of twisted, rotted flesh affixed to the back of their head, leading back to the true beast behind the lure, for to look upon such a creature is to know the truth of all creation, and the knowledge will shatter the mind of he who beholds it. False kings shall perish from the noose, while sacrifice and conflagration will claim the true offerings, opening the doorway from whence shall come the horrors from beyond the folds of the curtains.”

 

Did you catch that reference to “flesh... leading back to the true beast behind the lure?” Doesn’t that remind you of​​ an​​ anglerfish? And furthermore, didn’t you once dredge up some account from an old Confederate soldier who, before his death, talked about meeting a man who was a lure for a terrifying “fish thing?”]

 

KING ANAKLETOS

“I​​ can​​ see no harm coming to thee” is not the same as “no harm shall come to thee.” As I said, the words of the oracles are precise in their meaning, and you should take care​​ to​​ interpret them thus.​​ 

 

CHRYSANTHAE

Again, thy concern is touching, but her words spoke of kindness on my travel, and guides, which I took​​ to mean Eirenaios, but I now believe was a portent to prelude our meeting, for you have shown me naught but kindness, while I caught Eirenaios making lusty eyes at mine​​ shapely​​ hindquarters.

KING ANAKLETOS

But hark, speaking of your erstwhile​​ guide​​ has summoned him, as the thrice-repetition of one’s true​​ name is sure to do, by the mystical rules of​​ all the universe.

 

EIRENAIOS

(Enters)

Young Chrysanthae, it is I, Eirenaios, your guide. I fear that I have lost you in these woods, and would therefore have failed you in my duties as your guide.​​ 

 

CHRYSANTHAE

I am here​​ Eirenaios, and worry not, for the kindly king of these lands...

(To​​ KING ANAKLETOS)

... oh my, kind king,​​ forgive me as​​ I have neglected to inquire as to the name of my host.​​ 

 

KING ANAKLETOS

I am called King Anakletos.

 

[AW:​​ Thus marks​​ the first invocation.]

[GK: Odd choice of notes.]

 

CHRYSANTHAE

The kindly​​ king​​ of these lands has been naught but hospitable and provided me with sage advice and an assurance of safe passage. Truly, he serves​​ the gods by his​​ demonstrated​​ understanding of​​ the treatment of guests.

(KING ANAKLETOS​​ smirks)

 

EIRENAIOS

(Suspiciously)

Why do you smirk so, king, if that truly be your title?

 

KING ANAKLETOS

She says I serve the gods, but as I have told her... forsooth, pay it no mind, for it is of little bearing upon your countenance.

 

EIRENAIOS

What​​ knowest thou of my countenance?

 

[GK: The “forsooths” and “naughts”​​ and “knowests”​​ are saturating this writing. His editor must have hated him, though I bet he didn’t have one.]

 

KING ANAKLETOS

I know your intentions toward this young maiden are not the intentions of a gentleman, nor do you truly wish to guide her through these woods.​​ 

 

EIRENAIOS

That is not so! How dare you besmirch my reputation, oh king without a kingdom! I shall see thee run through for these insults.

(EIRENAIOS​​ produces a large knife.)

For sullying my honor, I shall challenge you to a gentleman’s duel.

 

KING ANAKLETOS

(LAUGHS, but takes no action)

You do amuse me, little man, with your bluster. But I know in thine heart that thou art a coward who soils maidens’​​ virtues​​ and murders their bodies. You would no sooner attack me than​​ you would slit your own throat.

 

CHRYSANTHAE

Please, gentlemen, this fighting upsets me! Cease it at once, for my sake, and the sake of the other I hear approaching this clearing.

 

EIRENAIOS

Another approaches!​​ Chrysanthae, stand with me so that I could protect you from perhaps an even more dangerous threat.

 

CHRYSANTHAE

I... I believe I​​ shall​​ stand between thee and my lord​​ so that I am equally protected.

 

ARTEMIS

(ARTEMIS enters, disguised as an old woman)

Greetings, strangers, I am but an old woman, traveling these roads,​​ and appear to have found myself turned around. Can any of thee help me find my way back to the road to​​ Ephesus?

 

CHRYSANTHAE

How fortuitous that you have arrived, kindly matron, for I, too, am headed to​​ Ephesus, and will require guidance along that path.

 

ARTEMIS

Ah, are you to be inducted into the Mysteries of Artemis?

 

CHRYSANTHAE

I am, indeed. But I am fortunate to have both a guide through these woods, and the assistance of the​​ lord​​ of these woods, and if you could but help settle an argument betwixt the two, perhaps we can all work toward​​ a beneficial end.

 

ARTEMIS

For an initiate of Artemis, I would see thee through thine conflict and we will then travel the road to​​ Ephesus​​ together, for I have business there, myself, though not of the initiates, sadly. I am too old for such things, but as a young girl, I would, too, have​​ been bound for​​ the mysteries. Now, what is this dispute you would have me settle?

 

CHRYSANTHAE

This young man, my guide, and the king of this forest both believe that the other means me harm. Both have shown naught but kindness to me. If neither means to take my virtue or my life, then both will perhaps​​ be at ease. If one means to harm me, then I must know, so that I will be certain to place my life in the correct hands.

 

[GK: This play could be made 50% shorter by cleaning up this sad attempt at the language and cutting out the constant repetition. The playwright was a terrible writer.]

 

ARTEMIS

And what if both mean you harm?

 

CHRYSANTHAE

(Laughs)

The Oracle prophesized that she saw no harm come to me, so surely at least one of my erstwhile guides is pure and true.

 

ARTEMIS

I see. And you would have me deduce which of these two men is your savior, and which​​ may be​​ the architect of your untimely end. Hmm...

(She eyes the two men.)

 

EIRENAIOS

I... I give you my word that I mean this young lady no harm in her travels. I come from a line of honest farmers, workers of land, where reputation is all a man has.

 

ARTEMIS

(Looks​​ EIRENAIOS​​ up and down)

You have an honest​​ him​​ face, but all men wear masks that hide the truth.

(ARTEMIS​​ moves to​​ KING ANAKLETOS.)

And you... you I find very hard to see clearly. Perhaps it is my old eyes, but there is a mystery to you.

 

KING ANAKLETOS

There is mystery to all men. As you yourself said, all men – and​​ women​​ as well-

(ARTEMIS​​ flinches while​​ KING ANAKLETOS​​ smiles knowingly.)

wear masks. Tell me, “old woman,” what mask do you wear? Hmm?

 

EIRENAIOS

You see?​​ She flinches.​​ She does not trust him. In her wisdom, she sees that he is a man of great darkness.

(Brandishes his knife)

Now,​​ Chrysanthae, allow me to take you from him.

 

ARTEMIS

I did not say you were an honest man, no more than I said I knew for certain that​​ he​​ was a man with murderous intent. Tell me, king, what is your name so that I might know you?

 

KING ANAKLETOS

Oh, I am certain you would not have heard my name spoken. ‘tis an old name and fallen​​ into​​ disuse.​​ 

 

CHRYSANTHAE

It is King Anakletos.

 

[AW: Thus, the second​​ invocation.]

 

ARTEMIS

A name I have not heard.

(Suspicious)

Would you not ask my name, then?

 

KING ANAKLETOS

I am certain that I know it, though it does not match your​​ current​​ visage.​​ 

(Smiles)

 

EIRENAIOS

Enough of this!​​ 

(Gets behind​​ CHRYSANTHAE​​ and puts the knife to her throat)

I grow weary of pretense. Yes, I mean to soil this girl’s virtue and murder her here in these woods. I would have done so quietly, but now this dalliance has taken its toll upon me​​ and my patience. I shall take her away from the both of you, have my way with her at my leisure, and be out of this accursed place!

 

ARTEMIS

(Ditching the old woman routine to stand straight and true)

Touch not my initiate, foul man!

 

CHRYSANTHAE

Could it be?

 

KING ANAKLETOS

(Unsurprised)

Indeed, it is.

 

ARTEMIS

Yes, it is I, Artemis herself! I lost sight of​​ Chrysanthae​​ as she traveled to my temple to be initiated into my Mysteries, and as she is to hold a place of high honor, I felt strongly the need to rescue her myself! And now I see that-

 

KING ANAKLETOS

Enough of this grandstanding, woman.

 

ARTEMIS

(Aghast)

Who would dare talk to a god in such a manner.

 

KING ANAKLETOS

I would.​​ 

 

CHRYSANTHAE

Please, do not speak so to my patron goddess, I implore you.

 

EIRENAIOS

Artemis herself? No this cannot be so. I will slit this woman’s throat and be gone from here!

(He tries to plunge the knife into​​ CHRYSANTHAE’S​​ throat, but​​ KING ANAKLETOS​​ holds up a hand.​​ EIRENAIOS’S knife stops in midair, then begins to tremble.)

What is this? Mine​​ own hand betrays me?

 

KING ANAKLETOS

I said you would no sooner raise that knife against me, or​​ Chrysanthae​​ for that matter, than you would slit your own throat. And now, I shall see thee to it.

(Flicks his hand)

(EIRENAIOS​​ runs the knife against his own throat)

 

EIRENAIOS

Ah! What cruel devilry is this!? I have slain myself against my very will!​​ 

(He then dies.)

 

[AW: This performer may well not be able to utter this line. It is of no concern; allow the show to proceed.]

 

CHRYSANTHAE

How? How dids’t though​​ cause the young man to​​ so mortally​​ harm to himself?

 

ARTEMIS

(Suspicious)

This I too would like to know.

 

KING ANAKLETOS

‘twas the darkness in his own​​ heart that caused such action. ‘tis nothing what he wouldn’t have done hads’t​​ he​​ truly​​ known himself.​​ 

 

ARTEMIS

You... strange king... what manner of man are you?

 

KING ANAKLETOS

(Smiles)

No mere man, Artemis.​​ 

 

ARTEMIS

If thee art a god, I knowest thee not.

 

CHRYSANTHAE

This is all quite strange. Am I to understand that I am in the presence of Gods?

 

KING ANAKLETOS

(Gesturing to​​ ARTEMIS)

A​​ god, should thee call this ancient woman as such.

 

CHRYSANTHAE

I beg thee, sir... if that be Artemis, speak to her that way not.

 

KING ANAKLETOS

Speak, speak, speak... my dear, young maiden, thou hast spoken enough.​​ 

(CHRYSANTHAE​​ opens her mouth to speak, but​​ KING ANAKLETOS​​ holds up a hand, stopping her.)

Speak thee not, for thine elders are conversing.

(CHRYSANTHAE​​ tries to speak, but mimes being unable to make the words come out.)

(To​​ ARTEMIS)

Now then,​​ goddess... why have you come to this, the road truly less traveled?

 

[AW: If all preparations have been carried out as​​ outlined, her silence will be most convincing.]

 

ARTEMIS

As I said... my future priestess disappeared from my sight. As her protector, I felt it my duty to find out why.

 

KING ANAKLETOS

Ah, such concern for these mortals.​​ 

 

ARTEMIS

The mortals are our charges as gods.

 

KING ANAKLETOS

The mortals are a burden on existence.

 

ARTEMIS

They burden not the gods.

 

KING ANAKLETOS

Not your existence.​​ My​​ existence. But, they have a purpose.

 

ARTEMIS​​ 

I cannot see into your purpose, stranger...​​ 

 

KING ANAKLETOS

Then perhaps you, a goddess, are more limited.

 

ARTEMIS

Let my disciple speak. I would converse with her.

 

KING ANAKLETOS

(To​​ CHRYSANTHAE)

Speak, child, if you must.

 

CHRYSANTHAE

(Gasping)

My voice, though taken, hath now returned. And I find myself struck nearly speechless again. Why hath the gods come here? How have I, a simple adherent of the Mysteries, drawn such attention?

ARTEMIS

Flatter thyself not, mortal. While you are certainly under my protection, our reason for coming here had less to do with you, and more to do with your host.​​ We can neither see him, nor his realm, in the manner that the gods normally see all of the cosmos.

 

KING ANAKLETOS

We?

(Aside)

Surprised, I am not.

 

APOLLO

(Entering)

Yes, “we” strange king, for my sister and I seek more knowledge.

 

CHRYSANTHAE

Surely,​​ I have​​ been blessed​​ to reach the concerns of​​ two​​ gods.

 

APOLLO

Sister, this mortal feels that she has risen in importance to us.​​ I must admit,​​ she is pleasing to the eye.

 

ARTEMIS

Covet her not, as she is of mine, brother Apollo.

 

APOLLO

Of course, sister.

 

CHRYSANTHAE

I mean no disrespect, oh gods, but this mysterious king​​ has shown me much kindness.

 

APOLLO

There is likely more to him that we know, for he and his provenance are mysterious and​​ hidden from us. We, my sister and I, have come to this place to seek out the answers, and not more than that.

 

[GK: Such chatter, and such repetition​​ from​​ each character. Talk, talk, talk; very little action.]

 

CHRYSANTHAE

You have not come to see me safely to Ephesus?

 

APOLLO

My sister may have some concern​​ for thee, but I am ambivalent.​​ 

 

ARTEMIS

All​​ virtuous​​ sisters are precious to me, but in truth, child, the ‘king’ before thee is of more import.

 

KING​​ ANAKLETOS

You see, child? Even the gods have abandoned thee. As all gods are wont to do to their creations.

 

CHRYSANTHAE

But... what am I to do in the face of such abandonment?

 

ARTEMIS

Listen not to him, dear child.​​ His is the domain of lies.

 

KING ANAKLETOS

I lie not, girl. The truth, in fact, shall I show thee.​​ 

 

APOLLO

His lies come swiftly!​​ Let us dispatch him, sister, and be done with it.

 

KING ANAKLETOS

Quiet, godling!

(He waves his hand, and APOLLO falls to the stage, lifeless.)

 

ARTEMIS

(Rushes to her brother’s side)

Villain! Thou hast killed my brother!​​ 

 

KING ANAKLETOS

(Bored)

So I have.

 

CHRYSANTHAE

(Shocked)

You cannot kill a god!

 

KING ANAKLETOS

I can do what​​ I wish.​​ 

 

ARTEMIS

Fool! Now, shall I visit upon thee my wrath!

(She draws a bow from an unknown​​ source and​​ aims​​ an arrow toward KING ANAKLETOS’ heart. He holds up a hand to halt her.)

 

KING ANAKLETOS

Foolish woman. You cannot​​ loose​​ arrow upon me. And now, I demand that you speak truth, as you would have your oracle speak...​​ 

 

ARTEMIS

(In a​​ sudden​​ trance)

And in his coming, so too came the madness and death and all that was foretold by​​ those​​ who see the future for what ‘tis and what shall always be. In fire​​ he is born forth in a form such that none shall bear witness. For in his sight, all are driven mad by the darkness that lurks below the waves. In his realm, mortals are but chattel, there for the feast that is to come in the era of man’s end​​ and in the end, may he find not peace, but eternal torment, to toil and​​ suffer in ways naught yet described in the fevered nightmares of man​​ nor god​​ nor​​ the god of Christ nor Allah nor Yahweh nor​​ Buddha​​ nor​​ Shiva nor​​ Zeus nor science nor​​ any attempt that man hath to offer to explain​​ while the false king sways with rope around neck, he who claimed to be the alpha and the omega but for whom death was but a blessing​​ and in the fires, may we all be taken swiftly.

(ARTEMIS, too, falls to the stage, lifeless.)

 

[GK: His use of modern gods is an odd and anachronistic choice, here, but as you can see below, this is where it seems to become an immersive play​​ by breaking the fourth wall to address the audience directly, and very heavy-handedly​​ so.]

 

CHRYSANTHAE

Thou​​ has done in Artemis, as well?

 

KING ANAKLETOS

Yes.

 

CHRYSANTHAE

Before she died, she spoke of gods with names I knew not. Christ and Allah and so on.

 

KING ANAKLETOS

Pretenders to immortality. False idols to the truth.​​ Much as the Olympians themselves.

 

CHRYSANTHAE

In this, I believe that thou hast deceived me!

 

KING ANAKLETOS

Perhaps, but in truth, thou were born into deceit. In life, you were fed lies. Hope. Sacrifice. Salvation. Grace. All of your kind has been lied to and will be lied to in all ways.​​ I bring truth.

 

CHRYSANTHAE

Oh, grant me sweet release!

 

KING ANAKLETOS

I shall, but even in the release of death, thou shalt not find peace. None who hear these words, who witness this show of theater, shall know anything other than the true horror that comest over the soul of man!

 

CHRYSANTHAE

Your words are terrible, but I cannot deny the hold they have over me!​​ Yes, then, allow me to be a​​ sacrifice to those eternal who seek to pierce the barrier between​​ theater and truth!​​ But first, please show me thine face under the mask.

 

KING ANAKLETOS

I shall do so, child.

(He lifts his mask)

(CHRYSANTHAE SCREAMS and SCREAMS until she falls to the stage, dead, her death mask that of pure fear.)

 

[GK:​​ Jonas, the section of the original was torn out, so what I will try to do is give you the somewhat fantastical account from the surviving witness to the fire. “When the man playing the evil king lifted his mask, we all gasped in terror... underneath, he had no face. I do not mean that​​ where his face would be was smooth skin lacking eyes or a mouth or so, but there was a hole that appeared to be carved into his very skull. Rather that bone and gore, however, the dark hole held and vast emptiness that contained the multitudes of our universe, and perhaps others. Such terror haunts my dreams and my waking hours!” The effects must have been rather advanced to pull off such an effect on the audience! Perhaps the notes on how to achieve this were included in the missing pages.]

 

KING ANAKLETOS

(To the assembled patrons of this doomed show.)

Witness this, the thinning of the veil. Witness this, the easement of reality and fiction, such that one shall bleed over to the other. Witness the​​ border between that which is story and that which is real becoming so permeable that neither is.​​ 

(He holds out his arms, taking in all his sacrifices and opening the doorway.)

Rejoice, for in your deaths shall the conflagrations of eternity purge all from this land and render it back to its true masters! Rejoice! Rejoice! Rejoice!​​ For Anakletos has come again!

 

[AW: And the third and final invocation!]

 

 

THE END

 

[GK: You see? The whole manuscript reads like an early attempt at one of those interactive or immersive plays that are becoming quite popular in theater these days. The writing, like I said, is atrocious, though I have to admit that it made the hairs on my arms stand up from time to time. When you take this in conjunction with the story about the disaster—that the theater burned to the ground and only one audience member survived—it almost seems like there was more to it. Perhaps it would be the plot for a B horror movie. “The Cursed Play,” or something like that.

 

You’ll notice from the story from the Chicago Daily Journal (long defunct) that the sole survivor of the fire, who was quoted a few times above, gave a very odd and, frankly, unbelievable story. She was also certain that the play was not completed before the fire consumed everything. It’s likely the stage was burned to a crisp with everyone on it before the final lines of “King Anakletos.” Poor Wayward didn’t get to his “third and final invocation” (I assume of the king’s name) after all. You and I both know of the significance of names and the rule of three in many occultic cultures. If I didn’t know any better, if I were to speculate fancifully, I think this poor sod (and terrible writer) was trying to put together some kind of ritual. But I’ll leave that to the authors of horror stories, and out of the halls of academia.

 

I wish you well my friend. Let me know if this adds any clarity to your own research. If not, consider it a novelty, then; the ramblings of a man suffering from some sort of mental breakdown.]