Can You Keep A Secret?

Walton had done the calculations. The building stood twenty-two stories tall which was approximately two hundred and forty feet and his freefall wouldn’t last longer than four seconds, reaching seventy-five miles per hour on impact.

That should do the trick, he thought as he closed his eyes, held his breath, and stepped off the building ledge.

A hand caught the crook of his arm in a vise-like grip and yanked Walton violently back onto the roof. He was confused when he opened his eyes and saw…

A ghost?

No. Although she was so pale she almost looked faded and thin to the point of anorexia, skin stretched over bones, the woman standing over him was definitely corporeal. Walton wasn’t one to judge a person’s appearance but she wasn’t attractive. Her hair was baby-fine and lifeless and it collapsed onto her shoulders. He was in midair when she grabbed him but there was no way this frail, bony woman could have yanked him back onto the roof.

“I didn’t mean to manhandle you like that. I just didn’t know your story,” the woman said. Her voice was mousy but her tone was strong.

“Are you insane? What are you talking about?”

“I wasn’t the one about to swan dive into concrete, so let’s not judge anyone’s sanity here, okay? And I’m talking about your story. Everybody’s got one and it would be a shame if you did what you were about to do and nobody knew your story.”

“Wait, you stopped me because you wanted to know my story? Not because I was going to kill myself?”

“Let’s be honest here, if you aim to top yourself, you’ll find a way to do it, and there’s nothing that I or anybody else can do to stop you. I’m just curious to know who you were.”

“You mean are.”

“I mean were. You’re going to kill yourself after all.”

“You really are crazy.”

“There you go again, with that label. Hello, pot, meet kettle.”

“What are you doing up here anyway?”

“I could ask you the same question.”

Walton pointed toward the building ledge. “Isn’t it obvious?”

“Oh yeah, right.”

“Look, I don’t have time to waste talking nonsense with a stranger,” Walton said, rising to his feet and dusting himself off.

“Vonda Darleen Honeycutt,” Vonda said, extending her hand.

“What?”

“My name. We’re not strangers anymore. And you are…?”

“Not interested.” Walton walked past her to the roof’s edge.

“I’m just going to go downstairs and rummage through your gunky remains until I find your ID, so why not save me the trouble?”

He let out a sigh of exasperation. “Walton.”

“Got a last name there, Walton?”

“Summers, all right? Walton Mayson Summers, are you happy now?”

“Hey, we got something in common, you’re a three-namer like me. Ever wonder why middle names went out of fashion?”

“No, now if you’ll excuse me…”

“Uh-uh, not so fast. I still don’t know your story. It must’ve wrapped up in a shitty day to bring you to this.”

“How about a lifetime of shitty days?”

“That would certainly do it. Wanna get it off your chest? You may not know it to look at me but I’m a helluva listener. Besides, I’m only gonna keep snatching you off the ledge until you tell me.”

“Then I’ll take you with me,” Walton said.

“Are you a murderer?”

He wasn’t. Walton sat on the ledge and asked, “If I tell you my story, will you let me do what I came here to do?”

Vonda made the sign of a cross over her left breast. “Cross my heart and hope to…well, you know.”

And with that, Walton told her the story of an unsuccessful author whose work failed to connect with an audience of any kind, who turned to alcohol, an addiction that chased away his wife, his family, and his friends, relationships he wasn’t able to repair even though he had been sober for almost five years.

“Not exactly a life worth living,” Walton concluded.

“What if I could show you something?” Vonda asked.

“Let me stop you right there, I’m not religious, never have been, never will be.”

“I’m not proselytizing, not trying to sell you on a cult, but what I have to show you will damn sure feel like you’re having a religious experience.”

“What have I got to lose? This will all be over in a minute, anyway, so go on, show me.”

Vonda began feeling the air. looking like a mime trapped in a box. Walton rolled his eyes and was about to swing his legs off the side of the building when the odd woman found what she was looking for. She traced her fingers down an invisible seam in the air and dug her fingers into it. With a bit of effort, the bony woman pulled back a piece of reality.

Walton’s eyes grew wide as saucers as he looked upon a sight that altered his perception of himself, his life, everything. It was similar to the overview effect reported by astronauts who viewed the Earth from outer space. What stared back at Walton from the rift in the space/time continuum allowed him to see, for the first time with his mere mortal eyes, the big picture: his life in relation to the universe at large.

Vonda closed the rift, making sure it was sealed tight. Walton walked to where the rift had opened and felt around. He had to see it again but his hand touched nothing except air.

“I never knew,” he said.

“And now you do,” Vonda said. “But there’s a catch.”

“What sort of catch?”

“What you just witnessed has to remain a secret.”

“I’ve just had a cognitive shift in awareness, how can I not scream this from the mountaintops?”

“Them’s the rules,” Vonda shrugged. “In exchange for this experience, you can never tell anyone about what you’ve seen. You can’t even write about it, not in a story, journal entry, email, or text. You are forbidden to utter or issue a single word referring to it.”

“Then why show it to me?”

“You’re about to kill yourself, who are you going to tell?”

“Well, I don’t want to kill myself now, do I?”

“I don’t know, do you?”

“You know damn well I don’t, which is why you showed it to me!”

Vonda shrugged again and held out her pinky. “So, do you promise to keep this a secret?”

“You want me to put it on a pinky swear?”

“It’s universally accepted as a binding contract,” she smiled.

Walton locked his pinky with hers and agreed to keep the secret.

Then something occurred to Walton. “Wait, if this is such a big secret, how were you able to tell me?”

“I have special dispensation, you should have been able to work that out on your own by my ability to peel back reality. Besides, I didn’t tell you anything, I showed you. Big difference.”

“Will I be able to do that, too?”

“Learn to crawl before you walk, pal.”

It turned out that Vonda had been sleeping on the roof since she had no place to live. How could Walton not allow her to crash at his rundown apartment? She was the keeper of the greatest secret unknown to mankind, after all.

Sheer proximity to one another and the sharing of a perception-altering experience led them to become involved in a serious relationship and through her encouragement, he sold his first short story. Vonda turned out to be his good luck charm because published short stories turned into published novellas and Walton’s life soon improved as his struggling writing career became wildly successful.

The couple eventually married and had two beautiful children. The years rolled by as years were wont to do and Walton’s career continued to blossom, however, he had written so many books that he exhausted all of his ideas. Yes, he had earned enough money and invested wisely enough for him and his family to live comfortably for the rest of their lives, and if he needed to work there was always the lecture circuit or he could have sculpted aspiring author minds by teaching a masterclass, but a writer in the pit of their soul wanted to write, wanted to be read, and if he was being honest with himself, fame was a difficult thing to let go of.

Walton had written forty novels at a rate of four books a year and on the tenth anniversary with his publisher, his agent thought it would be a spectacular idea to mark the occasion with a new release. He agreed, even though his new idea well had run dry, because he felt he owed it to his fans to attempt to put out at least one final book before announcing his retirement.

The road to hell was always paved with good intentions.

He wrote in secret, and Walton’s conscience should have plagued him to no end but he somehow convinced himself that what he was doing wasn’t a breach of his promise because he wasn’t detailing the wonders his wife showed him ten years ago. He wrote a fable in allegory and metaphor, craftily altering elements and tweaking details until they in no way resembled the precise details of the truth. But the moment he put the finishing touches on his manuscript, Vonda and the children appeared in the doorway of his study.

“All you had to do was keep one secret and the world would have been yours,” Vonda sighed heavily, letting her head drop. Her teardrops beat patterns on the hardwood floor.

Vonda held out her pinky, a reminder of the vow he made, and Walton watched her pinky fade into nothingness. She screamed and clutched her two daughters tight, who emitted a heartbreaking wail as they began to unravel corporeally and dispersed into so much stardust.

And after they were gone, his current reality followed suit. Films and television programs based on his books became unmade, audiobooks were unspoken, novels melted away from bookshelves, his words vanished from the minds of fans and his publishing company, deals were unsigned, his house unbought, all the positive things that paved the path to his success were undone and time reversed on itself, speeding faster and faster until he was back on the ledge of the building again taking that first big step off.

But this time there was no hand to pull him back onto the roof and gravity did what it was designed to do.

13 for Halloween: Final Thought (audio)

Part 1 * Part 2 * Part 3 * Part 4 * Part 5 * Part 6

Six months. That’s all it took for the world to collapse. Six months after the first demon portal opened and if there was another living human soul left on the planet besides Mitchell Larkin, they’d be living an isolated life within a hidey-hole in the deserted ruins of some city or town, which meant they might as well be on the moon.

But that hadn’t meant Mitchell gave in to defeat, no siree bob. Part of his daily routine, after searching for food and supplies, was to scour all the books on the occult that he was able to scavenge, searching for a way to reverse the damage done by that lunatic couple in the deadly viral video.

He never had much use for religion, never believed in the supernatural, let alone the occult, but now, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more devout man on the face of the Earth, that was if you could have found another man on the face of the Earth.

He managed to survive so long because he barricaded himself inside his heavily fortified house, setting snare traps along the perimeter, and studied the patterns of the demons’ movements and attacks, assessing their strengths and weaknesses. That, and he uncovered a ritual that somehow masked his house from the demons’ senses. The practicing of dark arts went against the principles of his newfound religion, but he was a desperate man working on the fly so he hoped God would realize this and cut him a little slack.

This wasn’t to say that Mitchell was always on the top of his game. There were days that he simply went through the motions, and it was on one of these days that he accidentally stumbled on a possible solution. Within the pages of a book he thumbed through a thousand times, there were details that, when combined with a separate incantation from another book, should theoretically do the trick of exiling those bastard demons from Earth forever.

Mitchell was now a man with a mission. He checked and triple-checked his calculations, made special runs into dangerous territories to secure the items he needed, and prayed that God would look the other way this one last time. The newly converted should have been eligible for a three-strike rule, in his humble opinion, even if this was strike four.

The ritual was dangerous in the extreme, and if Mitchell mucked it up he could wind up pushing daisies, and to be clear, he didn’t want to die, but he couldn’t see any other options at this point.

Pulling off the ritual required knowledge and power. The former Mitchell was sadly lacking being a novice and all. The latter? Well, he just had to hope that the power of his convictions was good enough.

Mitchell created a large circle out of sea salt in the center of the living room floor and inside that circle, he salted the pattern of a pentacle. Dragging a steak knife across his left palm, he squeezed several drops of blood on each of the star’s points. Then he stripped down to his birthday suit, placed a lit white candle anointed in olive oil within the circle at magnetic north, and sat in the middle of the power circle.

Concentrating on the candle flame, Mitchell attempted to clear his mind of all distractions even though the salt was irritating his bare butt. His nervousness showed in the recitation of the rhythmic chant, he was speaking the words too quickly and had to force himself to slow his pace. Yes, time was running out for the human race, but in truth, he had all the time in the world.

He repeated the incantation over and over again, to the point of his throat becoming raw, and he thought he made an error somewhere, mispronounced a word, Latin wasn’t his strong suit, after all, and his confidence was on the verge of faltering…when the air suddenly crackled with charged particles.

Then he felt it, the tingle of the raw power of the earth itself, traveling up his chakras, filling his frame with the awesome energies of nature. For the briefest of moments, Mitchell existed in the sweet spot of existence, breathing in the rarified air of a cosmic entity as his soul made a connection with not only the planet of his birth but the entire universe as well.

And he wasn’t alone. Something tapped the outer fringes of his expanding awareness, a force that was unmistakably feminine. As their essences intermingled, Mitchell discovered her name was Flora when she used to have a physical body. She had been an astral traveler exploring higher planes of existence when the demons feasted on her dormant flesh.

Mitchell’s chanting drew her essence to this spot and as she had a score to settle with the beasties, Flora graciously infused his energies with her own. For a scintilla of a second, Mitchell felt invincible, filled to bursting with power and endless possibilities. Alas and lack, this power brought about its own set of difficulties.

The Mitchell/Flora union caused an energy surge that shattered the magicks which cloaked his home from the demons and, to make matters worse, it served as a beacon, beckoning the interdimensional invaders, challenging them to come. And they came in droves, from every direction, wave after wave.

Flora tried her best to keep the creatures at bay in order to give Mitchell the chance to finish the ritual and send the hellspawn packing back to wherever the hell they came from, but they both knew sure as bread fell butter side down that there was no way in hell that their combined energy was strong enough to see the matter through. And even if they had been able to draw upon more power, neither had the knowledge base to pull off a feat of that magnitude.

In his final act, Mitchell thanked Flora for trying to help and released her energy back into the universe. There was no sense in taking her with him. And when the ravenous demon horde eventually tore through his makeshift security measures and entered the room, an odd thought struck him:

“Will I taste like chicken?”

And that just about does it for the 13 for Halloween series. I want to thank all of you who followed me on this experimental journey. I know I run this phrase into the ground but, it's very much appreciated.
And not only is it Halloween but it also happens to be my birthday, so please feel free to pick up a slice of PumpKill BirthSlay cake (okay, okay, I'm officially laying off the Cryptkeeper puns) on your way to the egress. HAPPY HALLOWEEN, all!

13 for Halloween: Baby’s First Feeding (audio)

Felicia Dunner hated people. Always had. Even as a little girl.

Why? Because people were ineradicably violent, unavailingly vindictive, immeasurably self-righteous, and the list went on. But plants? Oh, with plants she could just sit in their company for hours, enjoying the warm summer nights, breathing in the relaxing scents of honeysuckle and jasmine, plumenia, and gardenias.

Nighttime was always best. When she was young, Felicia would sneak out of the house while the rest of her family was asleep, step into the peaceful hush of her dormant neighborhood, kneel in the rich soil and listen to the gentle and soft evening breeze that rustled the leaves in the trees. And it was on one of those oh so long ago summer nights, when she was fed up with dealing with people, that her lifelong purpose came to her with a clarity she had never experienced before or since.

She studied botany, first on her own, devouring any and every book the library had to offer, then as an elective when it became available in school. Felicia had been blessed with strong analytical, mathematical, and critical thinking skills, and threw herself into the fields of botany, plant science, and biology to earn her doctoral degree.

A sizeable grant aided her in setting up a research facility deep within the Amazon Rainforest under the guise of discovering a plant-based cure for cancer. In reality, Felicia’s goal was to transcend the trappings of matter and biochemical pathways in order to twist evolution by stripping two disparate species and braiding them into a new, better, and stronger whole. If successful, the homo sapiens would experience the slow fade of an endangered species and give way to plantae sapiens, a race of human plants.

During her college years, she dated voraciously. Those who were narrow-minded and envious of her accomplishments branded Felicia as promiscuous, while those who sought to know her better thought she was coming out of her shell, stepping outside her comfort zone. Little did either faction know that she was collecting samples. Enzymes and plasmids were needed to help fuel her gene splicing and cloning experiments, so she compartmentalized her disdain for human contact and cast a wide net into the dating pool, male and female alike. To her, flesh was flesh, and as she was asexual and only interested in collecting raw genetic materials, she was immune to the preference of one gender over the other.

Felicia was plagued with failure upon failure, approaching her experiments from the standard cloning procedures of taking the plant-human spliced DNA and preparing an egg cell, inserting somatic cell material, convincing the egg that it was fertilized, and implanting it into an artificial womb. And it wasn’t until she had exhausted all of her genetic materials that she realized her error and cursed her meat-based brain. She was approaching the matter all wrong, thinking like a human.

Her misanthropic manner eventually drove away all her assistants so Felicia was forced to use samples cultivated from her own body, and instead of creating a replica of a human egg, she created a plant-like seed the size of a peach pit.

Felicia placed the seed in a container filled with a solution infused with human and plant enzymes and stored it in a dark place at room temperature for twelve hours to let the seed soak and initiate the germination process.

Failure.

Then she tried sowing the seed in quality soil with a sterile, seed-starting mix, planting it at the proper depth according to her calculations. She watered it wisely, maintaining consistent moisture, kept the soil warm, fertilizing, giving the seed enough light, and circulated the air.

Again, failure.

Giving up was never an option, but Felicia couldn’t deny she was balancing on the precipice of admitting the futility of her efforts, when, out of the blue, a thought struck her. Had she been planting the seed in the wrong soil? It had been nutrient-rich, to be sure, but perhaps it was missing that certain something, that bit of magic that existed in the blindspot of her prejudice. A human variable.

Hoping against hope, Felicia extracted the seed from the soil, rinsed and drained it, and then replanted it in the richest soil she possessed. With equal amounts of care and effort, she placed this unique seed, neither fully plant nor human, deep within her lady garden. She knew full well the dangers of retaining foreign objects in the uterus: infection and purulent malodorous discharge, granulation tissue formation leading to adhesions, and fibrosis, but she was desperate.

At first, she thought she was facing yet another failure but a missed period and tender, swollen breasts clued Felicia in that she was finally on the right track. All the other symptoms soon followed: nausea, but thankfully no vomiting, only dry heaving, increased urination, fatigue, light spotting, cramping, bloating, and constipation. Also, her sense of smell and taste became heightened and she was experiencing abdominal twinges, the sensation of her stomach muscles being pulled and stretched. All this occurred within the first three days.

Felicia’s stomach became upset on day four, as if her digestive system was in turmoil, swelling like a tidal wave before gradually subsiding. On day five, she awoke to a dull ache in her back and lower abdomen and there was a pressure in her pelvis that was indescribable, accompanied by strong waves that felt like diarrhea cramps. They couldn’t have been labor contractions, it was far too soon, and it hadn’t matched with any of her calculations!

Despite that fact, there was a pounding in her uterus and a wrenching intestinal cramping that felt like severe gas pains and just when it felt like she was about to pass out, her entire body was flooded with numbness. Felicia was aware of anesthetics that existed in nature. Was the seed releasing eugenol to numb her nerves?

Reclining on a makeshift examination table, she watched in absolute calmness as if detached from her physical body, as thin tentacle-like vines pushed their way free of her lady garden, extending, probing her thighs and calves until they located her ankles. Snaking around the bone just above her feet, the vines slowly drew her legs close. Felicia could feel her baby shift and move, it was extricating itself, pulling itself free from her womb, in essence, birthing itself.

Once breached, the vines released her ankles, leaving nasty welts, and crawled up to her belly, using its tentacle appendages as legs. Felicia cupped the leafy infant in her hands. It was so light yet so firm and it radiated such heat. She tickled the bulb of its head on some sort of motherly instinct and the petals began to unfurl to reveal the humanish face within that bore a resemblance to pictures of herself as a child if she had been made of foliage.

Felicia bore her breast and placed her baby’s lips to her nipple. This was indeed a product of her loins, her experimental hybrid baby was a flaming success, the next step in evolution, and yes, it would replace humankind but not in the way that the botanist had envisioned. Homo sapiens would become an endangered species because her progeny was a creation born not with the need for mother’s milk, but with the taste for human flesh, and she had no other choice than to see that her baby was properly fed.

13 for Halloween: Helpless Beauty (audio)

Part 1 * Part 2 * Part 3 * Part 4

A fortnight after the news reported the first interdimensional portal opening, Campbell stepped out of a gutted convenience store with several tin cans missing labels, a few jars of baby food, and a couple of packets of smashed ramen in his backpack. It was the first find in the seven stores he visited and while it wouldn’t have passed as fine dining, it was a damn sight better than the zero food in his apartment.

The main avenue outside looked like the aftermath of a demolition derby, abandoned cars smashed into one another in the street and on the sidewalk for more than three blocks. It was eerily quiet, especially for the city midday, and the air stank of insect musk and mildew. Soot-laden clouds hung so low a person could stand on the roof of a building, reach out a hand, and touch their underbelly as they drifted past.

He was about to head off in a different direction to try another store when he spotted a woman standing in the intersection, naked and alone, shivering in the ninety-degree heat. Campbell stopped dead in his tracks and rubbed his eyes almost like a cartoon character trying to clear a mirage from his vision. Head on a swivel, he looked around for any sign of demon threat and when he found none, against every ounce of common sense in his possession, he approached her.

Campbell made a throat-clearing sound and it startled the woman as if she hadn’t noticed him although she was looking directly at him as he approached.

“Don’t worry,” Campbell put his hands out. “I’m not going to hurt you.”

“…hurt you…” the shivering woman said. Her quavering voice was an octave higher than his but still on the husky side, and she spoke in an accent that he couldn’t quite place.

“Now, I know how this looks,” Campbell said as he set his backpack down and began unbuttoning his shirt. “But I assure you I’m not that kind of guy, okay? You just look like you need help.”

“…need help…” the woman repeated. She wrapped her arms across her bare breasts.

Campbell held his shirt out. “Here, take this.”

The woman said, “…take this…” but stood motionless, paying no regard to the shirt at all.

Poor thing must be in shock, Campbell thought, or maybe she didn’t understand English, the way she kept parroting the last words he spoke.

Holding his shirt out like a muleta, Campbell approached the woman slowly like a timid matador and made the shushing noise parents used to calm newborns. She remained stock-still as he maneuvered behind her and draped the shirt over her shoulders, but shied away when he tried to adjust it for a better fit.

“Okay, no touching,” Campbell said, backing off. “Understood. It’s all good.”

“…all good…”

“Are you all right?” asked Campbell, moving back into her line of sight. “What happened to you? Are you alone? Where do you live?”

“…you live…”

“Okay, too many questions at one time. How about this, are you hungry?” Campbell mimed putting food in his mouth and chewing.

“…hungry…”

Scooping up the backpack, he opened it and pointed at the tin cans and ramen. “Food.”

“…food…”

“That’s right, food, eat food, but we can’t eat here, we have to go someplace safe. I live nearby…”

“…near by…”

“I’ll share it with you but you have to come with me back to my apartment.”

“…apart ment…”

Campbell sighed. He wasn’t sure how much of what he said had actually gotten through but too much time was spent standing out in the open in this one spot and he was beginning to get nervous. And if he was being totally honest with himself, he had never been comfortable with his body and he was now shirtless in front of a beautiful woman. Yes, even though she was covered in grime, there was no denying how breathtakingly beautiful she was.

That wasn’t the reason he stopped to help her, he told himself, and almost believed it to be true.

Slipping the pack on his bare back, Campbell gestured for the woman to follow him before he turned and walked away. If she did, fine, and if not, then he tried, but he wasn’t about to risk burning any more sunlight out in the open. He hadn’t looked to see if she was following because if she wasn’t he’d be more depressed than he was willing to admit, but he did walk at a much slower pace than normal, just in case.

Remarkably, there was almost a peaceful quality to the city today, no roaming packs of either demons or human scavengers. All things considered, it was a good day in the apocalypse. And it just kept getting better because when he reached his apartment building, the woman was ten paces behind, walking with an unusual gait. He hadn’t lost her or his lucky shirt.

I’ll check her for injuries once we’re safely upstairs, Campbell thought, because the woman walked with an unusual gait, which made the climb up the stairwell time-consuming. When they eventually made it inside the apartment, the sun was beginning to set and the power had gone out eight days ago, so the first task was to light a few candles.

He silently cursed himself for not thinking to look for more candles when he was out. Sure, he had enough votives to last a few nights but having extra certainly wouldn’t hurt. He was going to have to learn to start making lists before going out to forage for supplies, especially now that he’d be providing for two.

He offered the woman a seat several times while he was darting around trying to tidy the messy apartment up but she continued to stand by the front door, shivering.

When his place was as clean as it was going to get at the moment, Campbell ducked into the kitchen to fetch a bowl which he filled with distilled water from a plastic jug. The building still had running water but the pressure was so low as to be nonexistent. He added a few drops of dishwashing liquid and gave it a quick stir with his index finger to kick up some soap bubbles.

Snatching a mostly clean tea towel off the rack, he set it along with the bowl on the foyer table near the woman.

“Get yourself cleaned up,” he said. “I’ll rustle up something for you to wear.”

“…to wear…” the woman said but paid no attention to the water or cloth.

“Look, you’re gonna have to get that gunk off you if you wanna stay here…”

“…stay here…”

With a huff of exasperation, Campbell took up the tea towel, dipped it in the sudsy water, and attempted to wipe the schmutz off her face, which up close was even more beautiful, almost unreal, like an oil painting.

The woman twitched and from somewhere inside the apartment came a scrabbling noise, which made his hand jerk and touch her face. A faultline appeared where the cloth made contact and divided her features. He gasped and took a step back as the crack in her face traveled down her body. She was being torn apart!

Campbell’s mind clutched at the straw of reason, explanation, anything that could have made even the tiniest bit of sense out of what he was seeing. The first thing to come to mind was that a creature had somehow burrowed its way beneath her skin and now it was eating its way out but as he watched the way her body segmented itself and rearranged the parts in a way that defied the laws of biology, he saw that she wasn’t being eaten alive. Something unholy and unnatural was unfolding from within her.

All too late he pieced the clues together. Of course, she was too beautiful to be real because it was a clever disguise, a camouflage used to lure in dumb human apes, the way certain animals and insects disguised themselves to fool predators or attract prey. She wasn’t shivering because she was cold, it was struggling to keep itself compressed within the bits of its carapace that resembled a human woman when pressed together in the proper formation. And its voice, that sounded oddly familiar now that he thought of it, was his own parroted back at him at a higher pitch.

What a complete and utter fool he was, thinking that rescuing a helpless beauty would put an end to his loneliness when all it actually did was end his life.

13 for Halloween: Better Left Unasked (audio)

“I don’t believe you.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Your husband just walked past us looking like he stepped out of an abattoir, which isn’t exactly a normal look for an accountant, and you don’t seem fazed by it at all.”

“Well, it’s not the first time.”

“What?”

“Lately, Hughie’s been coming home bloody every night.”

“And you never thought to ask him why? Or what’s going on in his life?”

“No. My mother taught me early on that sometimes the secret to happiness is figuring out which questions you’re better off not knowing the answers to.”

Consider this light fare a palate cleanser from yesterday’s post while I concoct tomorrow’s entry.

13 for Halloween: Unplanned Cesarean (audio)

Part 1 * Part 2 * Part 3

Certain truths take a while to be accepted as fact. The world going to hell was the latest example of this, and unfortunately for the human race, most likely the final time it would happen because, by the time the populace at large began taking the news seriously, it was already far too late.

When media outlets first began reporting that the viral internet video which led to the Presidential Internet Shutdown was responsible for opening interdimensional portals all across the globe, allowing demonic creatures to invade the Earth, it was easy to see how the news could have been ignored. It sounded like a prank on the scale of the Orson Welles’ 1938 “War of the Worlds” radio scare. But the portals would continue to appear until it was no longer possible to ignore.

Those who had never been in the presence of pure evil before soon discovered it to be a palpable sensation that overwhelmed all the senses because its very nature was too raw for the sane mind to handle. That was the scene in the Corbyn household. As the other residents of the Notre Villa Cooperative fled the city in search of a safe haven, Barnaby Corbyn was boiling hot water and fetching towels for his wife, Margot, who was in labor.

Out of his depth, the poor man tried contacting his wife’s doctor, the hospital, the ambulance service, and even the police, but none of the calls were able to get through because there was no longer a dial tone on their landline or signal on either of their mobile phones.

Normally, Barnaby was not a man who was good in a crisis and knew absolutely nothing about delivering a baby, but needs must when the Devil drives, so he intended to follow his instincts and do his level best, which included keeping Margot calm despite the oppressive tension that filled the bedroom. He soon discovered that his level best would prove insufficient to the task at hand when he caught an unnatural movement out of the corner of his eye.

His legs buckled as he staggered toward the bed. At first, what he saw had not made a bit of sense. Margot had gone limp suddenly during her patterned breathing, her face taking on a deathlike pallor, and pushing its way free of her pregnant stomach was what appeared to be a tiny obsidian hand.

A shriek that had never been issued from a human, let alone a man of his stature, escaped Barnaby as fingernails sharpened to scalpel points slowly and deliberately scratched at his wife’s bloody belly flesh. Instinctively, he covered his mouth, attempting to choke back the bile rising in his throat at the same time as he was screaming.

Sanity slowly leaked from Barnaby’s ears as the realization dawned on him that one of those interdimensional demon portals had opened in the last place anyone could have expected…inside Margot’s womb.

13 for Halloween: Homeless (audio)

Part 1 * Part 2

I don’t dream. I never have. Dreams are reserved for people who are asleep. Me? I’m what they call a true illuminate because I can transcend into a higher state of consciousness, beyond the realm of mere dreams. When my physical body is at rest, recharging, I enter into a state of intensified wakefulness and the universe becomes a playground for my astral form.

Sometimes I travel with purpose, to view the birth of a star, or bear silent witness to the death of a solar system. Other times I drift aimlessly in the cosmos and ruminate on the miracle of existence. Then there are times when I’m caught in the undercurrent of an event that exists in defiance of the natural order and chaos of reality.

Tonight, it’s the latter.

I’m being drawn against my will to a bedroom, where a naked couple performs some sort of, I don’t know, ritual? that can only remotely be considered sex by a raving lunatic. The sounds of their ecstasy? lament? fill the air as their bodies bend, twist and contort in ways the human form isn’t designed for, even if they happen to be triple jointed. They both move in a feverish and jerky fashion, attempting to slot themselves together, like two shifting pieces of an ever-changing puzzle, until the man’s mangled body finally forms the proper key to tumble the lock of the woman’s hideously misshapen physique.

There’s a sound unlike anything I’m ever heard and suddenly a patch of reality behind the deformed mass of the couple segments horizontally and lifts like a venetian blind being drawn. I can’t be sure, but I think they somehow managed to open a door to another dimension? plane of existence? and now shapes are moving in the reality rift, clawing their way through the opening.

I try to move closer in order to get a better look, tamping down my fear of the unknown because in my astral form whatever they are can’t hurt me. And just as the lead figure is about to come into view, I’m being pulled away, snapping back to my physical body, by a force stronger than the one that brought me here. On the way I see things, brittle and broken images of horrible events happening all over the world, racing past me at subliminal speeds…before I come to a complete halt.

It takes a moment for me to realize that I’m back where I started from, the spot I chose to rest, at the treeline of the forest behind my house. But something’s wrong. I hear noises coming from within the forest, unnatural sounds trying to mask themselves within the hum of nature. My senses are sharper during intensified wakefulness and I can feel them, lurking in the field of trees, cloaked by the shadows of the night, moving stealthily toward my sleeping body.

I force myself to remain calm. I still have time to slip back into my body, wake myself up and make it back to the house before whatever’s coming can reach me. The process of slipping back into my physicality is so simple…

No! It’s impossible!

I didn’t spend that much time away from my body. I’ve traveled longer distances and remained out until the crack of dawn with no problem plenty of times before.

My attention snaps back to the treeline. They’re braver now, all the stealthiness abandoned as they crawl out from the cover of the trees. And I see them for the first time, these things, like creatures out of a nightmare. I scream to draw their attention but they can’t hear me.

The inhuman beasts surround my defenseless outer casing. I try again to reenter my framework, but for some reason, maybe I was away too long, I’m now locked out of my own body. But I don’t give up. I lunge at them, swing my fists and try to kick them, which is about as effective as fighting air. So, I float, helpless to stop them, and all I can do is watch and cry as they tear the flesh from my bones and savagely devour my anatomy.

I once felt superior to everyone else. having the universe to explore, but now all I feel is homeless and alone, and I’m terrified because I’m not sure how long I can survive without the physical body that served as my anchor.

What’s Your Shark?

“Next question?” the woman at the podium asked. Her hawkish features placed her in the category of handsome rather than beautiful and were accentuated by raven hair cut straight around the head at jaw-level, with a fringe. She was dressed in a black Kevlar bodysuit which made her look like a cross between a superheroine and the baddie in a post-apocalyptic science fiction film.

“You there, the woman in the purple jumper,” she pointed into the sea of reporters.

“Miss Begum, given the mortality rate associated with your line of work, aren’t you the least bit scared that you’ll never grow old enough to start a family of your own?” the reporter asked.

Of all the questions Matilda Begum had ever been asked, this was the one she hated most, which was probably why it was the one asked most frequently.

“I learned to conquer my fear when I was young,” Matilda said, and then course-corrected. “Put a line through that. What I meant to say is that my father taught me at a very young age to use my fear as a motivator.”

“You mean, he endangered the life of a child by manipulating you to help him do his job,” another reporter piped in.

“First of all, my father was a good man,” Matilda snapped, caught herself then regrouped. “And he never manipulated me to do anything. I asked to help him in his work.”

“But as a parent,” yet another reporter added. “Wasn’t it his responsibility to keep his only daughter out of harm’s way?”

“You all already know this story, so I don’t know why you keep rehashing it, but for the sake of this conference, I’ll go through it one last time. My mother was murdered when I was a toddler, so I have zero memories of her. All I’ve ever had in my life was my father. When I was little, he was the biggest, smartest, most important person in the world. When I got older, I could see that he wasn’t really any of those things. He was just a man, flying by the seat of his pants, trying to do his best to raise a girl he didn’t properly understand. When I matured, I realized that he was pretty damned close to the man I thought he was as a child because he endured all my teenage rebellious nonsense, all the hatred and vitriol I spat at him, and never once held it against me.”

“That doesn’t answer my question,” the third reporter said.

“Who’s at the podium, you or me? I’ll answer your question anyway I see fit, and you will not interrupt me again if you wish to remain in this room. Clear?”

The reporter remained silent.

“Good,” Matilda smiled. “Now, where was I? Oh yes, my father would have preferred a son, he never said as much, but he raised me like one and I didn’t mind because I wanted to be just like him. He had turned his quest to find my mother’s murderer into an occupation, and when he finally located the killer, I wanted to be there, to help him get justice for a woman I never had the chance to meet.”

“But you were only ten at the time, were you not?” the second reporter asked.

“Ten going on fifty, as my father used to say.”

The first reporter asked, “And you weren’t scared?”

“Are you kidding me? I was petrified! We stood outside the killer’s house and I was shivering so much I could hardly stand.

“I told my father, I can’t do this!

“And he smiled and said, That’s okay, honey, you just wait here. This shouldn’t take long.

“But I told him I wanted to be there, I wanted to help, for my mother.

“And he asked me, What’s your shark? And I just looked at him like he was crazy.

“I never told you that story? he asked. I thought I did.

“Then he proceeded to tell me the story of the Sharks and Fish. Anyone familiar with it? No? Well, it goes like this:

The Japanese have always loved fresh fish, but the waters close to Japan haven’t held a great deal of fish for decades. So they built bigger fishing boats and traveled farther out to sea but the farther the fishermen went, the longer it took to bring in the fish. If the return trip took more than a few days, the fish weren’t fresh and people didn’t like the taste.

To solve this problem, fishing companies installed freezers on their boats to allow the vessels to go farther and stay longer. However, people could taste the difference and didn’t care for frozen fish, which brought down the price.

Then the fishing companies installed fish tanks, but once placed in the tanks, after a little thrashing around, the fish stopped moving. They were tired and dull, but alive. Unfortunately, the Japanese public could still taste the difference.

Apparently, because the fish didn’t move for days, they lost their fresh-fish taste. The fishing companies pondered over the dilemma until they stumbled onto the solution:

To keep the fish tasting fresh, the fishing companies still put the fish in the tanks, but now they added a small shark to each tank. Sure, the shark ate a few fish, but most of the fish arrived in a very lively state. The fish were being challenged.

“So, when you lot ask me if I’m scared, of course, I am and I think that anyone in this or any other profession should be in a constant state of fear when doing their job. This, of course, requires your willingness to break free from your comfort zone and push boundaries.

“If it isn’t already, life needs to be your exploration into that frightening undiscovered country. Every new project is an opportunity to attempt feats above your current skill set. To see what lies beyond the unfamiliar horizon. To embrace bizarre new thoughts, take on larger points of view. To shake hands with the intimidating unknown. To paint the world you live in with unique challenges. Anything less and you do a disservice not only to your work but also to your life.

“Challenging yourself is about punching above your weight class, learning to not only chew but swallow that which you’ve bitten off, and in essence growing as you come to the realization that you’ve just become something better than you believed yourself capable of.”

“So, when you lot ask me if I’m scared, of course, I am and I think that anyone in this or any other profession should be in a constant state of fear when doing their job. This, of course, requires your willingness to break free from your comfort zone and push boundaries.

“If it isn’t already, life needs to be your exploration into that frightening undiscovered country. Every new project is an opportunity to attempt feats above your current skill set. To see what lies beyond the unfamiliar horizon. To embrace bizarre new thoughts, take on larger points of view. To shake hands with the intimidating unknown. To paint the world you live in with unique challenges. Anything less and you do a disservice not only to your work but also to your life.

“Challenging yourself is about punching above your weight class, learning to not only chew but swallow that which you’ve bitten off, and in essence growing as you come to the realization that you’ve just become something better than you believed yourself capable of.”

“So, in the wake of your father’s passing, God rest his soul, does that mean you’ll keep up the family business?” a reporter off in the rear of the conference room shouted.

“Of course,” Matilda said, her smile beaming. “Vampire hunting is in my blood!”

©2021 Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys

The Face of Change

I watched him discreetly to see how he adjusted and was surprised at just how easily he accepted change. Don’t get me wrong, things were awkward at first.

Normally a surefooted man, he began stumbling into things and tripping constantly. Somehow, the growth of the additional eye must have thrown off his depth perception. This only lasted a few days, though. In no time at all, he returned to his usual graceful self, more so in fact. In recent times, I couldn’t recall him having a single episode of clumsiness.

His innate ability to adapt was a huge advantage and the more comfortable he became with his condition, perhaps the more likely he would finally feel comfortable to confide in me. I knew this wouldn’t happen any time soon because he was preoccupied with the advantages and shortcomings of his newly altered state.

Besides the obviously improved eyesight, his reading skill and speed increased one hundredfold. Magazines that he initially glanced through, the ones instantly bundled for the recycled trash day, he started tearing through, reading them cover to cover no matter what they were–Omni, Scientific American, Good Housekeeping, Cosmopolitan.

Once he conquered magazines, he moved on to books. At first, my little trashy paperbacks and dime novels, but then he moved onto more serious fiction. One time he even polished off Moby Dick and War and Peace in the same night. Many was the night that I tossed and turned to the sound of him in the den flipping through the pages of some book or other at a breakneck pace.

As fate would have it, just when I was beginning to adjust to his third eye, I discovered that his nose had changed. Nothing drastic, just a slight flaring of the nostrils. With this minute alteration came a sensitive sense of smell. Now I thought he’d have no choice but to talk with me about it, but he didn’t, he just became reclusive. It was obvious to me that this was just the beginning—of what? I had no idea. Concerned at this point, I began dropping hints. Asking how he was feeling. If he had an allergy or a head cold. When was the last time he had his eyes checked, surely reading for long periods under that dim reading lamp couldn’t be easy on the eyes.

He began to become irritated with my prying, so I stopped, convincing myself if he could live with the changes then so could I and maybe that would have been true if it stopped at his nose.

His ears were next. First the right and then a week later, the left. Sprouting upward to a point. The result was enhanced hearing. Accompanied by migraine headaches from sounds that even our dog couldn’t pick up.

Then his mouth. Bleeding gums that resulted from a second row of teeth that pushed their way to the surface over his original set. Tongue followed a short time later. Elongating. Forking.

After that, I couldn’t tell you what was next. I never saw him again. Not that he moved or I left him. He just kept himself forever on the other side of a locked door. Part of me was thankful. I was spared the sight of the monster he was becoming. And he was spared the look of revulsion that I could no longer hide. That didn’t curb my curiosity, however. I still peeked through keyholes and drilled tiny holes in the wall. Why? He was changing into a wholly new person and I had to see what the end result was. After all, he was the man I married.

On the few occasions when he caught me spying, he flew into a rage, demanding to know what my problem was. My problem? Like I was the one who looked like an inhabitant from the Island of Dr. Moreau.

And that’s all I know. Whatever loyalty I felt towards him, whatever love I had for him, was gone. Gone the moment I got a clear look at what he’d become and witnessed his potential for violence. I was probably an idiot for remaining as long as I did, but then, love blinds sometimes. All that was gone now. The very next morning I packed a change of clothes in a rucksack, emptied the bank account, gassed up the car and left. Without a backward glance.

And I avoided mirrors, afraid that I had contracted whatever disease afflicted my husband, for it was a known fact that the thing that affected a loved one, affected everyone surrounding it, and I was terrified of looking into the face of my very own transformation.

Text and Audio ©2011 & 2021 Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys

One Hell Of An Offer

Modestine was aware of the gap in her memory, the section of consciousness that was removed and two separate events seamlessly spliced together in a non-jarring, dream jump-cut fashion.

The first partial memory was of Modestine stepping out of the shower. Her petite foot missed the rubberized shower mat by inches and instead slid along the wet tiled floor. Her vision shifted up toward the ceiling and her eyes locked on the one hundred watt energy saving fluorescent light bulb. The next instant, at the point of the splice, she found herself standing inside a pair of pearlescent gates, as patient as the lamb she was in life.

She was dead, of this there was no doubt. There was also no cause for alarm. She had no memory of either fear, pain or the precise moment of her death. That was the portion that was mercifully removed from her awareness, no doubt to aid in her acceptance of events.

Modestine watched the hubbub of nervous yet joyous chatter and a flurry of feathers as angels tested their wings in the air above her. They flew from structure to structure — she hesitated thinking of the impossibly tall spires as buildings because their various shapes defied her limited perceptions of architecture — getting the lay of the land. Though no one told her, she somehow knew this commotion was normal for the first day of new arrivals in heaven.

While she waited, Modestine’s eyes drifted over to an ornate pulpit offset to the right of the gates. This, she assumed, was where the welcoming saint was supposed to have been stationed, but Peter was nowhere in sight. She noticed a few pages had fallen from the ledger on the pulpit, so she spent a little of the time laying the leafs out, deciding the order they should go in, and locating the exact spots in the book they had fallen from.

Finally, an angel arrived, tall and thin with black horn-rimmed eyeglasses he no longer needed. A remnant of his physical life that he clung to, a misconception that it was a permanent part of his appearance. A trapping that would fade in time. This was yet another thing Modestine had known without being told.

The glasses made the angel look bookwormish and out of place in their surroundings. Then she felt guilty for judging his appearance. Who was she to do this? She, who had always been short and mousy in the physical world, what her mother affectionately called the uns — undertall and unassuming. She wondered what she looked like to him and if the same rules of beauty still applied here.

“Hi, I’m Modestine.” she offered a hand and a smile simultaneously.

Bookworm eyed her head to toe and back to head again, before taking her hand for two firm pumps. He opened his mouth and let out a high-pitched screeching noise, intense enough to rock her celestial molars.

Modestine, who graduated magna cum laude in never let ’em see you sweat university, replied, “Pleased to meet you…” and she tried her best to match the noise he made… but came up a little short. A lot short, actually.

Bookworm let out a burst of short laughs like a semi-automatic weapon. “Just messing with you. My name’s Phil. Welcome to Heaven!”

Modestine didn’t really get the joke but smiled anyway. “Are you here to give me the guided tour?” she asked.

“Heavens no,” Phil replied. “That’ll come later, once all this dies down. Saint Peter sends his apologies, by the way…”

“Oh, that’s no problem at all.”

“I’m here to take you to class.”

“Oh, okay.” Modestine followed behind Phil, a little unsteady on her wings, but through sheer determination managed to keep up.

Phil led her past fields of flora and fauna, the likes of which she could never have dreamed existed and finally into a structure that housed a vast amphitheater that was unmistakably set up like a classroom. Packed to capacity, its seats were filled with the most grotesque and vile creatures imaginable.

“Here you are.” Phil gestured in the direction of the amphitheater and was about to fly off.

“Wait! Wait!” Modestine caught his forearm and pulled him down to eye level. “Where do I sit?”

“At the podium, where else?” Even in Heaven, the duh look had a sting.

“What? Why?”

“Don’t tell me no one let you know?” Phil looked at the class with his best can you believe some people look. “You’re a teacher, right? Or were, before, you know…”

Modestine nodded, “Underprivileged kids. Twelve years.”

“Well…” Phil swept his arm in the direction of the class as if to answer.

“Oh, no… no way. I’m not qualified for this. I barely know what I’m doing here.”

“It’ll come to you as you need. Heaven’s cool that way.”

“But, this class…” Modestine whispered. “Not to be rude but what are they?”

“Our version of underprivileged students. They’re bussed in every day.”

“From Hell?”

“We tend not to use that term in front of the students. We call it The Basement.” Phil checked the invisible watch on his bare wrist. “Well, I’d love to stay and chat, but I’ve gotta run. Too many new recruits and not enough ushers. You’ll be great. I’ve got a feeling about you.” he smiled and shot into the sky, leaving Modestine’s jaw swinging on its hinges.

The once and now future teacher straightened out her ethereal robe, cleared her throat, turned and faced the class. “Pleased to meet you, class. My name is Modestine. Welcome to Introduction to Heaven.” The name she took off the lesson booklet on the podium. The completely blank lesson booklet. Beside it was the roster. “Hopefully you’re all in your assigned seats because it’s the only way I’m going to learn your names with a class this size.”

Modestine went through the attendance sheet and called her students one by one, each responding with a grunt or bodily noise that she assumed translated as “Present!” When she completed her check, surprisingly every student sat quietly or whispered inaudibly to their neighbor.

“Well, class, as some of you might have figured out, I’m new here, but don’t let that stop you from asking questions. My goal is to teach you everything about heaven, which means I’ll be learning it as you do, and if I don’t know an answer to your question, I’ll do my best to find out as quickly as possible. Today, though, I’m going to outline my expectations of you, and how you’ll be graded.”

The time passed swifter than Modestine had anticipated. Quite frankly she was surprised to be aware of the passing of time at all. For the most part, her students were orderly. A few class clowns, but nothing she couldn’t handle. She’d straighten them out before the course was over.

The entire class watched her closely, she never felt so scrutinized before, and a good deal of the period was spent answering questions about Earth. It wasn’t long before she realized these students were born in Hell and Earth was like some mythical place to them. When the earth questions began dying down, she introduced several icebreaking games before the class broke for recess.

As the class filed out of the amphitheater, some by flight, a few in a puff of eye-watering brimstone, and the rest on cloven feet, one student hung back.

“Miss Modestine,” the young demon said when all the others had left.

“Just Modestine, and, yes… ?” she searched the attendance sheet for the section he came from, hoping one of the names would jog her memory.

The demon shook his head. “You won’t find me on your list. I’m not one of your students.”

“You’re not? Then who… ?”

“Many names have I, from those who live and those who die, but for you, I wish to be known as Mister Thatch.”

Modestine frowned, looking down at this creature who straighten itself in an odd regality. “All right, Mr. Thatch… what is it you want?”

Thatch pulled a file folder from seemingly nowhere and opened it. “Interesting session today. I’m assuming you taught the class off the cuff, as I am unable to identify any of what was discussed in the pre-approved syllabus, correct?”

“As I stated at the beginning of class, this assignment was thrust upon me at the last moment, so if you have any objections…”

“No, please, you mistake my meaning. I’m not here to condemn you, I was simply assessing your performance. It’s what I was hired to do.”

“By whom?”

“Your superiors would call them Basement Management.”

“And do my superiors know you’re here?”

“They should. It would make for a shoddy operation if they didn’t. Now, as to my assessment,” he pulled a document from his folder, stapled in the top left-hand corner. “Here is an offer from my employers for you to teach your course to a larger audience of underprivileged students. Please study it carefully and feel free to contact me with any questions or concerns. Please be aware that agreement to the terms as stipulated in the contract will require you to abandon your post here. Out of curiosity, are you willing to relocate?”

Modestine stared dumbstruck at the professionally worded document in her hands. An immediate and instant “No” rested on the tip of her tongue but never quite made it past her lips, because, in her quick scan, she found a list of perks that tickled each and every one of her many interests, as any temptation worth its salt should have done.

“I’ll need to read this more closely, Mr. Thatch, before I can respond, of course.”

“Of course. I think you’ll find the compensation quite reasonable. If you have questions, you may ask me at any time. We have high expectations and we’re positive you can fulfill them, Miss Modestine.”

“Just Modestine, and why me?”

“You’re new and, as yet, unjaded by the caste system. We look forward to working with you.” Thatch held out a hand, which Modestine took. It was remarkably soft, despite its texture. “Enjoy the rest of your day.”

Modestine watched as the demon simply evaporated from the room. She looked at the contract. Am I willing to relocate? she asked herself as she walked over to her desk, sat and read the agreement more thoroughly. Again, she found it difficult to verbalize the word “No”. Chiefly because she loved working with underprivileged students and they didn’t come more disadvantaged than the denizens of The Basement. The second reason was she’d always preferred warmer climates and there was an odd constant chill to the air in Heaven.

Text and Audio ©2014 & 2021 Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys