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Bug Report


You know that feeling you get, right at the edge of sleep, when consciousness has slipped away and that long, dark abyss yawns open in front of you? You lean out over the maw and gravity, like tentacles from the depths, wraps itself around you. Then there’s that tiny little tug, that little yank, and you startle back into waking again, gasping for breath.

I’ve been waiting for that tug for months.

It feels like months, anyway. I guess it could just as easily be five minutes or five years. You start to lose track after a while, and there’s nothing in the long dark to ground you.

Sleep for an eternity, return before dinnertime. That’s the plan, anyway. Some new hyperdrive the big brains in engineering have cooked up. I can only pretend to understand it myself, but they’re sure it works; they’ve tested it on synthetics and the readings say they reached the Pleiades before their programs locked up and they had to be recalled. “Poisoned Apple,” they call it. And guess what they call the protocol that wakes you up? “Prince Charming.” Cute. Some geek was real proud of that one. We left low-earth orbit on schedule, entered hibernation with all readings normal. But something’s wrong. There’s something down here with us. Or up here. Whatever. Whatever this thing is has gotten into our dreams somehow.

Baxter’s dead.

I saw him not long after the sleep began, which I thought was strange. Usually, I dream of home. In fact, I was dreaming of home, of holding my kids and hugging them and telling them how much I’d missed them, Maisie with her uneven ponytails, Drew, missing two teeth different from the last time I saw him. Then they’re gone and there’s Baxter, standing next to the tire swing in my front yard, looking as confused as I feel. He’s bleeding from a cut on his face, he’s sweating like he’s just run six miles in the rainforest, and there’s this living terror in his eyes, like he can’t believe he’s alive. And he asks me — he asks me — if I’m real. Before I can calm down enough to realize that it’s a dream, I’m just imagining it, there’s this screech, like a thousand nails on a thousand chalkboards, and these footsteps. Fast. Too fast, like one of those old silent movies where the action’s sped up. And Baxter looks behind him, and he pisses himself — I know, because I smelled it; I can still smell it — and he takes off running.

I wanted to chase him down, but you know what it’s like; it’s a dream, you can’t move, you’re a prehistoric mosquito trapped in amber.

Then this … thing spirits past me. It’s after Baxter, and it’s terrible. I can’t describe it, but every hair on my body stands up just thinking about it. There’s pure horror radiating off of the thing, and it’s all I can do not to piss myself in fear, just like Baxter did. And as it passes me, it lets me see one thing. Its eye. Slitted and seeking and the color of hellfire, it blurs through the dark like a shooting star, and it stays there in my mind. It goes on chasing after Baxter, but somehow its eye stays there, floating in my vision, peeling back the skin on my soul.

It knows me.

Don’t ask me how I know, but it knows me, from the things I did when I was a snot-faced brat in the third grade selling candy outside the lunchroom, to the affair before my divorce that nobody knew about, to my irrational fear of spiders. I can see all this written on my own face, reflected in that awful eye, and then it’s gone, and my front yard has burned away with it and left me in the dark. I hear Baxter’s running footsteps, but he’s not fast enough, not nearly fast enough, and then all I can hear is screaming and slicing and spilling and then nothing. I’m alone in my dream again, for now.

That was a week ago. Or a month, or more. Who the hell knows? All I know is that my only hope is that Prince Charming will kick in and wake us up before that thing comes back for me.  I only took this posting because they say the windfall is going to be huge, that once they can show that Poisoned Apple works with humans there’ll be money coming out of the walls. But I think they’re gonna be surprised when they wake us up and we’re all dead, our minds turned inside out or roasted in our heads or … whatever that thing does to us.

Baxter’s dead. Soon I’ll be dead too. My luck, that thing will come for me as a plague of spiders. I only hope they give my kids a big payout to keep them quiet.

#

“The subject’s mind is a wreck. He’s a vegetable.”

“But he made the trip?”

“Well, his body made it.”

“That’s good enough for this stage. What was it that fried his brain?”

“Well… we can’t really tell.”

“What do you mean?”

“Right before flatline, his brain lit up like a Christmas tree. Fight-or-flight response, fear response, everything fired at once.”

“He hallucinated and scared himself to death.”

“I’m not sure it was a hallucination. Based on his cognitive scans –”

“What, you’re saying he really saw something that scared him to death?”

“No. I’m just saying, as far as our readings go, he didn’t imagine it.”

“Jesus. What was that?”

“What?”

“It looked like a spider just crawled out of your terminal. Must have imagined it. How long before the next round of testing is ready?”

“Just a few days.”

“Keep me posted. I’m headed home. Too late already, tonight.”

“Sleep well, sir.”

******

Chuck’s challenge for the week was an X meets Y mashup. I drew “Nightmare on Elm Street” meets “Snow White.” Which is just oodles and oodles of fun. Good job, brain, working on this one right before bedtime.


Imported Goods


Chuck’s challenge for the week: Begin with a body.

Usually I can tie the inspiration for these stories to something going on in my life, but for this one… man, your guess is as good as mine. It’s a little bit Soylent Green, a little bit The Matrix, a little bit Grapes of Wrath. And it’s a bit twisted, as usual around here, but … what can you expect, when you start with a body?

Imported Goods

“Got a shipment.”

He sits down right across from me, heavy boots and work gloves stained brown, putrid smell coming off his skin. I perk up. Hasn’t been a shipment in months, and the whole town’s running low. I look him up and down. He looks honest enough if a bit dingy, but who can tell? “They clean?”

He shrugs from under a floppy straw hat. “Does it matter?”

He’s got a point. Spot we’re in, we’d take ’em, clean or not. Technically speaking, it’s illegal to toss an illegitimate body in a harvester — that is, one that hasn’t officially been released by its claimants — but technically speaking, after just a few minutes, a harvester renders a body unrecognizable. Newer models don’t even leave behind usable DNA, they’re that efficient. The bio-nanites work fast, and they’re merciless, chewing up all the soft stuff and spitting out a softball-sized ball of bone and gristle. Used to be, we’d bury those as a way of payin’ our respects to the dearly departed who are now powering our garage doors and air conditioners, but that almost seems silly these days. The kids invented a new game with ’em and it’s taking off. Skeleball, they call it. Got uniforms and everything this year. My own kid keeps bugging me to come to one of his games. If I can make the time.

“So, you want ’em?” He’s looking at me from under the brim of that ridiculous hat, designed no doubt to hide his face, but nobody around here is going to look twice at a guy bringing in fleshy gold like this, not us, not here.

“Damn right, we’ll take ’em. How many you got?”

“Fifty or so.”

“Jesus. Where’d you come by ’em?”

“Big dope shoot-out on my block. Leader of the Wrecking Crew took out the families of a couple of Wandering Dogs. They hit back. Next thing, the block is engulfed in flames, and it’s bodies everywhere you look. Police cut back months ago, they still may not be there. And me… I was just trying to clean out my garage, and I happened to have a U-Haul handy.”

I dunno who referred him to me, and I dunno who might be chasing him. What I do know is that if I don’t move fast, he’ll take his haul on to the next town along. Time to make a deal. “How much you asking?”

#

Back in the day, I understand they used to have a guy who’d dress all in white with a goofy hat and bow tie and deliver milk to your door. Back before preservatives and whatnot, when you had to get it fresh from the teat. This is sorta like that, I guess. Preservatives of any kind screw up the processors, so the fresher, the better, and I’m driving a flatbed pickup door-to-door piled with the recently deceased. Some of ’em have bullet wounds, some have their throats slit, some are burned half to a crisp… all ages, too, and colors, a real smorgasbord. Some people are particular about what they put in their harvesters, like Drucker. He meets me on his sagging back porch and spits a brown stream of goo into a bush.

“Shit, are they all murdered?” He puts his hands on his hips and scowls.

“Earl, all I know is, I’ve got your ration for the month. Now, I came to you first, but what you see is what I’ve got. So pick something out that you like, I’ve got a lot of stops to make this morning.”

He decides on a younger girl, about sixteen, who might look at peace if the back of her head didn’t resemble an exploded sausage omelet. Tosses her in a wheelbarrow and nods at me as I pull the truck around.

“I don’t need to tell you to get that in your harvester right away. Never know who’s gonna come looking for ’em.”

Drucker gives me a smile and a wave, which I return. I flip my shades on and beat a little rhythm on the steering wheel. It’s a good morning. I never understood the law of conservation of energy in high school physics, but I sure as shit do now. You live your life, sucking up all the energy around you as you travel the world, or make your fortune, or push out a bunch of kids, or whatever you do. Then you kick off and end up supplying the juice for your neighbors to sit around microwaving processed burritos and watching old sitcoms. Nothing is wasted. The past becomes the future.

#

My last stop is at my own house. I back the truck up and slide the corpse right into the maw of the harvester. It’s missing an arm and the rest of the body is charred all over. Folks in town didn’t want it because it was unsightly, as if that mattered. But more than that, the missing arm means a couple days’ less juice we’ll get out of it. But I don’t mind scrimping a little bit. Comes with the territory.

My wife is making pancakes when I come in, absolutely gorgeous in that red polka-dotted apron. She doesn’t even wrinkle her nose at the death-smell clinging to me.

“Surprise delivery?” she asks, even though she knows already, since I texted her while I was making my rounds.

“Drug war or something.” I kiss the side of her neck, wrap my arms around her waist. “We lucked out.”

She beams at me and hands me a plate heaped with sweet-smelling flapjacks. The synthetic syrup is so authentic-smelling it makes me feel eight years old. “Well, then, guess it’ll be a quiet couple weeks around here, won’t it?”

I nod, sip some orange juice, and plunk myself down at the table. “More than a couple, if we’re lucky.” It’s been months since old man Jarvis killed his wife since he couldn’t pay his power bill, and it’d been almost a year before that. Today’s delivery will keep our community happy and healthy for a while.

The flapjacks taste like heaven, even better since nobody had to die to make ’em.

Well, nobody in our community, that is.


Self-Inflicted


Chuck’s challenge for the week: Diseased Horror.

I loved the idea at first but struggled to find a direction to take it in.  Then it struck me that while bugs that travel through the air or the water or various bodily fluids are horrible enough in their own right, what about one that could travel even more insidiously — through the mind itself, or even just through eye contact?

The only thing I’m not really sure about is the ending.  I’d love to hear some alternate thoughts, but I definitely wanted to convey that the disease doesn’t stop with the hero.

This initially came in way over the limit at about 1400 words, and I managed to trim the fat down to a very terse 999.  I hope you enjoy it.

 

Self-Inflicted

The bus is running late, and my coffee is too hot.  Ellen’s sent me a text message reminding me that she loves me — she knows this time of year can run me a little ragged.

I feel a prickle on my neck.  I look up and lock eyes with this guy across the aisle.  He’s staring at me, the top of his newspaper folded down covering his face below the nose, his eyebrows pulled together in an expression of cold fury.  I look back at my phone.

He’s still staring at me.

I meet his eyes again and then there’s this pressure in my head, like I’m in an airplane that’s just climbed thirty thousand feet in thirty seconds, like I might get squeezed out through my own ears.  There’s something strange about him.  He’s got a horrible scar from his hairline to his cheek, but that’s not it.  Then it strikes.  He looks like me.

Not quite like me — the eyes are a little bit smaller, the chin stronger, the cheekbones sharper — but it’s too much like looking in a mirror.  With a crack like a starter pistol, he snaps his newspaper back in front of his face.

I feel dizzy.  My ears are ringing and there’s a cloudiness in my head that wasn’t there a minute ago.  My phone buzzes.  It’s Ellen, asking if I got her text.  The bus driver is announcing my stop, fifteen minutes early. My coffee is barely lukewarm.

*****

By the end of the shift, my head is pounding.  The bus home is standing room only, and it feels as if everybody on the bus is staring at me.  Every time I try to catch one of them at it, though, their eyes dart away like startled goldfish.  When the driver lets me off at my stop, he tells me to have a good night, and I swear it sounds like me talking.

*****

When I wake up, the pain in my head is unbearable.  It feels like there’s some thing in my skull, skittering along on tiny insect legs, tearing at the grey matter with its rending beak.  I can’t call in sick, though — it’s tax time and the firm is understaffed — so I lurch into the bathroom and pop a handful of Tylenol.  I brace myself against the sink, taking deep, unhelpful breaths, then slam the cabinet shut.  The mirror cracks from the impact, and I see it — a bright red weal, the skin puckered and angry — running from my hairline to my jaw, just around the outside of my eye.

It’s hideous.  I’m hideous.  I go into Ellen’s makeup drawer, rummage through piles of mascara and foundation, and find the concealer.  In great gobs I smear it on the scar, smoothing it out like plaster.  The skin underneath feels hot to the touch, like a pan left on the cooktop.  I go to ask Ellen how it looks.  Her body rises and falls beneath the sheet, and I decide not to disturb her.  No sense in making this her problem.

*****

The boss calls me into his office and slaps down a pile of returns on the desk.  Yesterday’s.  I’ve screwed them up, apparently.  My head starts throbbing and I can’t make out a word. All of a sudden he’s looking at me funny, and then his face changes.  His sallow, pale skin tightens up and tones, his receding hairline creeps forward.  The angry red scar I saw in my mirror this morning blooms on the side of his face.  The eyes scowling at me are my eyes.  Rage overtakes me.  I leap from my chair, my fist finds his face — my face — and for a split second, the thunderstorm in my head goes quiet.  The relief is so overwhelming that I grab the phone off his desk — one of those old-school jobs, stamped metal on the bottom — and smash it into his head, opening up a wicked gash to mirror the one that’s already there.  He ragdolls to the floor.  I straighten my suit and leave the office early.

My head feels better.

*****

I walk instead of waiting for the bus.  Every face is a shadow of mine: my jaw here, my nose there.  Every eye follows me as I hurry past.  I’m bumped, then shoved, then I break into a run, throwing the false mes aside, ignoring their protests as they topple from my path.  My headache creeps back in, threatening to sunder my skull.  My own voice shouts at me from a hundred mouths.

*****

I hear Ellen moving around in the bedroom, just waking up.  I sit down and turn on the television, and my fingers leave vivid bloodstains on the remote.  I turn and see her in the doorway, but she’s not Ellen.  She’s me.  My face, imploring me in confusion and mounting panic.  My voice, asking me if I’m all right.  The only thing missing is the scar, so I grab a kitchen knife.

*****

The headache is better now that I’ve dispatched that pretender.  My own distorted face leers at me from every person I pass.  It’s too ludicrous not to laugh.  I sit down for lunch and a cup of coffee, watching all the pale imitations of myself, and there — there — is somebody who looks different.  She’s normal.  I can’t take my eyes away.  She sees me, and looks uncomfortably away, but I am spellbound.

A lightness builds in my head and then a stretching, like some invisible tail reaching up out of my head and spanning the distance between us.  Then I have her eyes again and there’s a feeling of sweet release, like taking off tight shoes at the end of the day.  The scar opens up on her cheek, invisible, beneath her skin, but glowing, white-hot.

A passing me asks if I’d like a refill.  I scowl and tell me to get lost.

When I look up, the girl across the aisle looks just like me.


Neon Carrots


 

Aaand this one brings me firmly back into the wonderful wacky territory of WTF.

Chuck’s challenge this week is a story using a color in the title.  So I went to my trusty crayon box (okay, I went to Crayola.com) and started digging.  I was initially drawn to such fancy and whimsical colors as crimson and cerulean, periwinkle and chartreuse, but for some reason, when I saw the color “Neon Carrot,” my brain grabbed hold and wouldn’t let go, like a toddler grabbing hold of my leg hair.  (What, your toddler has never grabbed onto your leg hair?  LUCKY.)

So here’s “Neon Carrots,” a tale of vindication for every child who’s ever been a little bit leery of eating his vegetables.  I tried out a bit of a different style in this one: almost fairy-taleish.  Not sure if it reads or not.  Let me know what you think.

 

Neon Carrots

Zelda poked at a carrot, imagining that it jumped a little at the prick of her fork.

Bryan lifted a forkful of carrots and revered them under the fluorescent light.  “What’s with these carrots, mom?”

Mother gave a ceremonious clearing of her throat and smiled primly at him.  “They’re the newest thing.  I saw them in the grocery store this morning, and it was as if they were begging to be eaten.  I just had to try them!”

Father winked at Bryan and stuffed a bit of pot roast into his mouth.  “She just can’t help herself, your mother.  Sees something bright and shiny and it pulls her right in.”

“Well, aren’t they something special?”  She grabbed the pot and pulled it closer; the phosphorescent goop within illuminating her face from below like a campfire storyteller’s flashlight.  The orangey-yellow glow suffused her features and lent her a slightly sickly quality.  “Neon carrots.  Isn’t science incredible?”

Bryan and Zelda shared a look of mutual misery.  Zelda pushed her plate away.  “I don’t like them.”

“You haven’t tried them, dear.”

“I don’t have to try them.  They’re disgusting.”

Father leveled a steely eye at her.  “Eat your carrots, Z.”

“What about Bryan?”

“Bryan, too.”

Bryan scowled and elbowed her under the table.  “Thanks a lot, barf-bag.”

“Eat,” said father, in a tone which brooked no further argument.

Revolted, Zelda speared a slice of carrot and brought it to her mouth, pausing to take a deep breath first.  Like most of mother’s cooking, it was overcooked and undersalted, the end result being a pasty tasteless mass in her mouth.

Mother beamed.  “You can just taste the enzymes, can’t you?  They cross-germinated these carrots with bioluminescent kelp from the deepest part of the ocean to increase their nutritional value.  The glow is just a neat side effect.  Aren’t they fun?”

Bryan chewed thoughtfully before nodding.  “They’re not bad.”

Father winked at him.  “That’s the spirit.  Zelda, what do you think?”

Zelda swallowed.  They actually weren’t all that bad.  In fact, she suddenly felt compelled to try another bite, which she did.  She narrowed her eyes and bobbed her head up and down as the earthy undertones of the root, unnoticed at first, began to burst on her tongue.  She cleaned her plate and even asked for more carrots; mother grinned knowingly at father and spooned her another heaping helping.

They didn’t have the neon carrots again for a week, but in the meantime, mother brought home luminous squash and lustrous watercress, the latest genetically modified offerings infused with deepsea kelp and released by the Kane Farmers’ Association.  The children devoured their portions each more heartily than the last, with a zeal and excitement they had never shown for their food before.  Father became suspicious; he’d never known the kids to care so much about nutrition before.  Mother was just happy they were eating their vegetables.

*****

A week passed, and one afternoon while Zelda was playing with her dolls, she looked out the window and saw Bryan digging in the backyard like a crazed dog.  She dropped her princess and ran outside.  Bryan didn’t even look at her, he just kept scrabbling at the earth with mud-crusted nails, throwing handfuls of dirt and rocks over his shoulder.  His skin was oranger than usual, but she attributed that to the clay dust hanging in the air.  “Help me dig,” he insisted.

Zelda wanted to ask, “for what,” but she realized that Bryan’s digging wasn’t so strange, and in fact she felt like digging in the ground might not be such a bad idea herself.  They worked for the better part of an hour — neither of them thought to get shovels, and the feel of the raw earth under her fingernails oddly comforted her — and in the end had dug a little trench, two feet deep and three feet across.  Wordlessly, they nodded to each other, removed their shoes, stepped into the ditch, and began to cover themselves over with dirt — first the feet, then the ankles, then the calves.  The close, damp cold of the earth felt right around her toes.  They stood there, arms flat at their sides and chins upturned toward the sun, for a full hour before Father got home from work and asked them what they were up to.

“We’re neon carrots!” Bryan called, his face shining in the fading evening sun.

“So you are, so you are,” Father laughed.  “Come on inside.  Your mom’s picked up some incandescent cauliflower to go with the lamb chops.”

*****

During his bath, Mother noticed a tiny leaf on a tinier green stem just above Bryan’s ear.  She plucked it out, assuming he’d rolled in some grass, but Bryan began to howl and thrash in pain and could not be quieted again until mother agreed to give him another helping of carrots at dinnertime.

As they sat down, Zelda brushed her hair back behind her ear, deliberately showing him the tiny sprout at the nape of her neck.  “It’ll grow back,” she whispered.

Bryan wiped his eyes and grinned at her.

*****

Some nights later, signaled perhaps by the moon or a change in the weather, they met in the yard again to dig their ditches: deeper this time and faster, their bleeding fingers seeking the depth and the quiet and the dark of the earth, their vegetated brains numb to the pain.  As they stood in the earth with just the creeping tendrils of root and branch peeking up from the tops of their heads, they smiled at each other before entombing themselves in the ground until the harvest.

The bioluminescent produce was pulled from shelves a few days later with no explanation, and the Kane Farmers’ Association vanished like a thief in the night.

Mother and Father were upset when they disappeared, but  pleasantly surprised at the newfound bounty of neon carrots sprouting in the backyard.  Soon, Mother was pregnant again, and she was positively glowing.


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