I run a shoppe on the High Street, a tiny place that has a terrible word of mouth reputation, primarily for the produce I sell.
In my shop, Sebaceous Splendors, you can find the finest cuts of skin, the purest jars of blood, and the cleanest bones on the continent. Looking for a body part? Come to Sebaceous. Need a fresh organ to grind? Sebaceous has you covered. And where do you go when your sinew and tendons run low? You guessed it: Sebaceous.
In the cold light of day, townsfolk would not be caught dead entering my establishment, which is why I switched to night hours.
Under the cloak of twilight, as the rest of the village sleeps, slippered feet shuffle across cobblestones and slink into my shoppe. The shadowed alleyways surrounding my business are choked with clientele awaiting their turn to dash in and purchase a bit of the abnormal, either for spells and enchantment or to satisfy an unnatural appetite. I cast no aspersions. I sell what I sell. What you do with it is your own affair.
Not all who visit are right-minded, as one might surmise. Some syphilitic fingersmiths seek to cheat me of my efforts by attempting to nick a spleen or appendix and make a mad dash for it, which is why I purchased a NeverEver dog, so named because if one ever sank its five rows of teeth into you, you would never commit that or any crime ever again.
So, the next time you have a craving for something that cannot be procured at your local mart or need to bind someone to you, heart and soul, for all eternity, consider dropping by Sebaceous Splendors, open Midnight to Dawn, with nightly Hour of the Wolf specials!
Everyone wrote Mise en Place off as another cheap reality competition knockoff tv series because the premise was identical to a much better cooking show in which two teams of amateur chefs competed for a lucrative position at a Michelin 5-Star restaurant, while working in a restaurant-style kitchen set up in the television studio sound stage.
In order to test the rookie chefs’ knowledge base and skills, a series of cooking challenges that escalated in difficulty were designed to eliminate weaker contestants until there was a single winner.
Despite this similarity, the show set itself apart immediately in the very first episode during the “Eat It, Now Meat It” challenge, where chef-contestants had to recreate a protein dish prepared by celebrity chef and host, Jacquez Devereaux, by taste alone. The loser of the challenge faced elimination after the host delivered the show’s signature catchphrase, “You have been cut from the line, prepare to be served.”
When it was later revealed that the protein in the dish was human flesh which also had to be correctly identified by gender, nationality and country and city of origin, in order to secure a win, and the loser was escorted to the show’s abattoir to be cut into sections for the next competition, the show became an instant ratings success.
Coralin Ann Bloye never ran with any of the crowds, popular, dangerous, nerdy or otherwise. Even from a young age, she was that oddly shaped piece that never fit any societal puzzle, but she wasn’t exactly unpopular, being blessed with a certain charisma that couldn’t be hidden or ignored. It wasn’t long before the myriad other high school misfits were drawn into her sphere of influence.
Coralin’s Clique, as they were casually referred to, never involved themselves in normal activities, so when All Hallow’s Eve rolled around, the group, too old for tricks or treats, too disinterested in dressing up in lame costumes for themed parties or participating in Mischief Night, opted instead to camp out in the woods overnight and honor the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain.
“Are we gonna sacrifice cattle?” asked Andy. Every group had that one questionable tagalong and Andy never failed to take a matter to the extreme.
“You even think about what you’re gonna say before you open your mouth?” asked Janae, the clique’s self-appointed second in command. “And do you have access to livestock? I know I sure as hell don’t.”
“We’re observing the ritual only, no animal cruelty,” Coralin advised. “You need to satisfy your bloodlust, pick up a soy burger on the way and have at it.”
The spot chosen for the campsite was far enough away from town so they shouldn’t be disturbed all night, the weather was actually decent for the end of October, the moon was full and bright, and the ankle-deep mist that hugged the earth in a comforting blanket that moved as serene water, perfectly set the stage for their festival. When it came down to who would collect the wood for the fire, no one volunteered so they played several rounds of roshambo and despite her best efforts, Coralin lost in the end.
“Don’t you dare start without me,” warned Coralin.
The clique promised they would wait but while their de facto leader was away, Janae, who not-so-secretly wanted to dethrone Coralin and run the group by her lonesome, showed the group a video she came across while scrolling YouTube. It featured a naked middle-aged man and woman doing things to themselves and each other that were unexplainable. If it was sex or even some sort of weird torture, it was kink on a level unlike anything they had ever seen or read about or could even have imagined in their dark and depraved teenage minds. But one thing was for sure, none of them, no matter how confused or disgusted they were, were able to tear their eyes away from the video that played on a loop.
The collective sound of their young minds snapping was almost audible over the ambient noise of crickets, owls, and frogs.
Not long after, Coralin returned to the clearing, twigs and branches bundled under one arm, saying, “You better not have…”
Her sentence trailed off at the sight of the empty campsite, but the cooler, backpacks and rolled sleeping bags poked their heads above the fog, so Coralin knew her friends hadn’t ditched her.
“Ha ha, funny joke, planning to jump out when I least expect it, but you’re wasting your time,” Coralin called out to the surrounding trees. “I don’t scare that easily.”
She let the firewood fall to the ground, which dispersed the fog enough for Coralin to notice something strange about the grass. The moon provided enough light so that she wasn’t stumbling around in the dark, but she pulled out her phone and turned on the flashlight app to get a better look.
The ground beneath her feet was moist, which she naturally attributed to evening dew but upon closer inspection the yellowing grass was freckled red and so were her white sneakers.
“What was this meant to look like, blood splatter? Are you kidding me? Your stupid little prank got fake blood all over my sneakers! If this stuff doesn’t wash out, so help me God…”
There was a noise. It came from the treeline to her left.
“I am seriously going to kill every last one of you,” Coralin said without any real conviction because a suspicion that something wasn’t quite right was slowly creeping up on her, largely due to the blood that trailed off in the direction of the noise she wasn’t able to properly identify.
Following the swath of liquid red, she stepped into a place that wasn’t the woods anymore, at least not any sort of woods she had ever been in. This patch of land had been transformed into hell on earth. The smell of excrement and blood was overpowering; the air rang with the lingering echoes of screams of pain, cries for help, and wails of mourning. And what she saw, shifted the earth beneath her feet.
Coralin fell on all fours, her own heartbeat pounding in her ears, and she vomited violently as the blood rushed from her head and pooled at her hands and knees before turning into molasses and weighting her to the spot.
The trees surrounding her creaked and groaned from strain, threatening to collapse under the weight of the disemboweled bodies of her friends, and somewhere amongst them was the thing that had caused all this misery. It remained hidden, leaping from shadow to shadow, with the only visible bit being the claw-like hand that held a smartphone playing a video that was too far away for Coralin to make out.
But whatever this creature was, it wasn’t alone. Noises were coming from all around her, unnatural noises that existed just above the invasive low-frequency hum of nature, and hidden by the trees and evening fog, something was scrambling toward Coralin. That was all that was needed for a rush of panic-driven adrenalin to unlock her paralysis. Without realizing it, she sprang to her feet and hauled ass in the direction of the main road.
Although running in a blind panic, Coralin accidentally stumbled upon her car, a gray Mazda 3, handed down by her old man when he upgraded to a Dodge Challenger, hidden in the brush just off the road’s soft shoulder. Frantically rummaging through her pockets, she prayed to God that she hadn’t somehow stupidly left the keys at the campsite. Luckily she found them, fumbled to slot the key into the lock, and managed to shut the door behind her just as something massive slammed into the side of her car with the force of a speeding truck.
“Please start, please, please,” Coralin pleaded. Fear lodged in her throat as she turned the key in the ignition. She knew for certain the engine was going to stall because that was the way of the world and just her dumb luck. But on this occasion, she was dead wrong. The engine turned over and she stomped on the gas pedal to the squeal of metal pulling away from inhuman claws as the Mazda peeled off out of the brush and onto the deserted road.
In the rearview mirror, Coralin definitely saw something, some things, on the road in the distance chasing after the car. Pedal to the metal, she pushed the car as fast as it would go, trying to put as much distance as possible between her and whatever the hell they were.
Safety and reinforcements were just up ahead. She spotted a bonfire, hellabig, that was probably part of a bunch of idiots’ mischief night prank, but Coralin quickly discovered it wasn’t a bonfire at all.
It all began, as a great many things do, with a young girl being a nosy parker and snooping on her parents’ computer in a private folder that, in all fairness, should have been password protected. In that folder there was a video clip that ran exactly one minute and fifty-four seconds, the average length of a movie trailer.
It was once believed that homo sapiens only used ten percent of their brains and though that myth had been debunked, the truth of the matter was a region of human gray matter was purposefully made inaccessible as a sanity safeguard. There were things in existence, arcane matters which lived outside the boundaries of mortal ken, that were meant to remain forever unnoticed and unknowable. The video clip featured one of those forbidden subjects.
How her parents came into possession of the knowledge, why they decided to not only engage in but also record an act so heinous that it couldn’t be unseen or unremembered, remained a mystery to this very day.
What the young girl witnessed stripped away her common sense reasoning and even though she knew better, she downloaded the clip to her phone to show her best friend at school the following day, who made a copy and uploaded it to all the popular social media sites. These sites and their corresponding apps suffered an outage in the United States and most of Europe, remaining offline in excess of six hours. As a result, the President of the United States shut down the internet in North America but by then it was too late.
The act had been seen by millions, infecting all who viewed it and the madness was spreading, heralding the resurrection of the dormant Old Gods.
Popular belief has it that the universe is comprised of atoms. In reality, the universe is actually made up of…
If you are fortunate or unfortunate, whichever the case may be, to live as long as I, you will discover that the past becomes little more than a confustication of events which have been divorced from the depth of time and in that jumbled mental mix, you may find that you occasionally misplace those you love. My mother is one such person.
Her face is all but forgotten and the sole recollection I have is a time when I fell into her arms and inhaled the scent of her shampooed hair. I was aware of how fast her heart was beating against my chest. Why? I cannot rightly recall but I felt her tears washing down my face which let loose the flood that had been building up inside me.
Many has been the time I attempted to plant my feet in the soil of that instance in order to explore the reason for our tears and excavate other buried memories of my mother but the moment always passes too quickly.
Not my actual name, mind you, but there is no real reason for you to know me by anything else. I was born—well, that is not important either, is it? All you need to know is that I am an alien—the extraterrestrial kind, not the immigrant kind—we can engage in intercourse for a fee, and you will most certainly not survive the experience.
Upon entering my boudoir you will undoubtedly notice the notches on the posts of my ornate bed. Your first inclination might be to assume these markings to be sexual conquests, and you would be severely mistaken. They are actually deaths. The number of grooves carved into the wooden headboard is one hundred and ninety-seven, at present, but the actual number is at least four times that. Only the deaths I regret have been engraved here. The rest received precisely what they came seeking and ultimately deserved.
A bit harsh, I realize, but how could you expect me to pity or mourn the passing of those who have tossed away so many possibilities, so many futures in search of la mort parfaite?
But I digress.
Due to the residency protocols of your Office of Planetside Security, the majority of my life was made an open book, yet there are certain things that remain hard for me to discuss. It is known that I was charged with treason back home for defending my personal beliefs—which remains my concern alone—and because my mate stood by my side during the trial, we were both exiled from my homeworld.
Set adrift in space, my people chose to let the universe decide our fate. If we were intercepted by a space vessel and taken aboard or found a world that would permit us to stay, then we were fortunate and were surely meant to live. If not, we would die on our craft when the life support and/or provisions ran out.
We traveled for what seemed like an eternity and never crossed paths with another vessel. Eventually, the ship malfunctioned and crash-landed on your planet. Only I survived, pulled from the twisted wreckage of my prison ship by a farmer who hid me away and chained me in his barn like an animal. He hosed me down and threw me scraps to keep me alive. What I did not know was that he was mustering the courage to have his way with me.
When I realized what he had in mind, I tried to warn him but I didn’t speak the language yet. I’m not sure even if I did that it would have made a difference. He forced himself on me and upon orgasm, promptly died.
My race can only mate with one partner in our entire lifetime. The first union sets into play a biological defense against infidelity by secreting a vaginal toxin that forces orgasm and subsequently death.
I was later discovered by one of the farmer’s neighbors, set free, and promptly handed over to Planetside Security. There I was taught the fundamentals of English and given an aptitude test to determine if there was a place on Earth for me. It was grueling and humiliating. And when I was finally issued a caseworker, she sat with me and explained that the only opportunity available was in legalized prostitution. I was insulted and furious and baffled by the thinking behind this. Did they not understand that of all the professions they could have handed me that this was by far the worst possible choice? Then I stepped back to look at the bigger picture. The planet was overpopulated by indigenous humans and the influx of extraterrestrials and what better way to cull the population than to tempt the thrill seekers who wanted to risk death? To treat terminal patients who wanted sweet release?
So, I embraced my role in society and performed my duty and was dubbed the “Whorebinger of Death” and the “Grim Raper” by the press. And naturally, because humans are bizarre creatures, there were ladies who worked the same profession who envied me.
I have yet to warm to this planet and it does not resemble my homeworld in any way. My assimilation was slow to nonexistent and this was primarily my fault since I declined to undergo the genetic surgery offered to offworlders to make us appear more human. Though the human form is better suited for the physicality of this world and less cumbersome and my world has turned its back on me, I am still proud to be of my race.
The more time I spend here, the less confident I am about my appearance. On occasion, I have watched a television show or movie, or glanced at an advertisement, thinking the models to be a proper representation of the human race. I have since learned that there are those among you who feel your appearance does not measure up to the so-called perfect people placed on display. If you are one of these people who question their beauty, I ask you to consider this: at least you are of the same species.
I stand at the edge of acceptability, balancing on the fine line of grotesque fascination and physical revulsion simply because my eyes are not the same color or shape as humans, and my hair, what little I have in places considered odd by your lot, was actually tufts of fine fur.
I also need to be aware of my nails and keep them within an acceptable length to where they were not considered claws. The same with my smile. Apparently, when I bare my teeth it triggers a fight or flight response in most people.
Turning on the television was almost always a bad idea. The one sure thing in all this madness was that every channel with a news outlet, syndicated and cable alike, provided twenty-four hour a day updates of variations on the same stories: people dealing with the spirits of loved ones. The sad fact of the matter was daily life seemed to stop the moment the dead returned to Earth. And that was the good news.
Interspersed between dramatic reenactments of tearful afterlife family reunions was the blowback religion was suffering due to its failure to provide answers for the reason Heaven was destroyed, the purpose of dead spirits returning to Earth and the overcrowding it was causing, and why anyone should continue worshipping if they were no longer a reward for living a righteous life. The suicide rate continued to climb but not all of the disillusioned practitioners were taking their own lives. Some took it upon themselves to express their anger in the form of the vandalization of churches, mosques and religious community centers which quickly escalated to bomb threats, physical attacks on parishioners, then to mass shootings and bombings. In order to minimize the death toll in America, the President passed an executive order to close places of worship and urged other countries to follow suit but failed to gain any traction as religious congregations across the states defied the ban.
Experts assembled comprehensive databases of bombers and mass shooters who aimed their attacks on religious groups or places of worship to try to better understand and help prevent future violence of this kind. They stated, normally the statistics would have indicated the perpetrators being men, mostly Caucasian, single and unemployed, ages ranging from twenty to forty, with histories of mental illness, substance abuse, and victims of serious childhood trauma. Worship murderers also typically fell into one of two distinct categories: ethno-religious hate groups who target a specific group of people to blame for their grievances; or angry individuals in crisis motivated by domestic issues. But new studies showed no gender, ethnicity or age correlation among the offenders. In fact, the common thread seemed to be people prepared to commit suicide who were afraid of dying alone. If they had to exist in void, they wanted to be surrounded by their family and friends.
To combat the escalating tension, celebrities formed organizations to hold Death of Heaven vigil simulcast on tv, radio, podcast and across all the social media platforms around the world to offer support for those suffering as a result of the loss, as well as counseling for those having difficulty adjusting to having dead abusive spouses and family members return into their lives.
Mayra shut the tv off. She couldn’t be bothered flicking through the channels to find something to momentarily distract her. Even the soaps had been forced to add current events into their storylines, thanks to deceased actors appearing on set and going through their former character motions.
Stretching out on the sofa, her hand reflexively reached out for her smartphone.
“There’ll come a time when you’ll have to face facts,” Bethany said as she crossed from the bedroom, heading for the kitchen. “In your own time, of course, but sooner would be better for your mental state and the baby’s health.”
Damn. She had been busted by her friend once again and though Bethany tried not to sound too judgmental, Mayra felt a sense of shame that she wasn’t strong enough to admit the truth and move on with her life.
“Yeah, I know,” Mayra said, thumb hovering over the number keypad. “I keep going over it in my head, but our lives are too entwined. Gavin hasn’t touched the bank account, not that there’s a lot in there to begin with, so that means he doesn’t have a lot of money. He has to either be crashing with a friend or maybe he moved back to his parents’ house.”
“And you’ve already dialed all those numbers a dozen times. Sure, maybe if you pester them enough someone will eventually break and fess up, but you don’t know what story he spun to them and you could wind up looking like the psycho stalker ex-girlfriend.”
“I don’t care what people think. I just need to talk to him. I need that, Bethy, I need it.”
“Sweetie, I’m not telling you not to call, not to try. All I want is for you to be happy and if happy isn’t possible right now then I want you to feel comfortable moving forward without that dead weight hanging around your neck. From what you’ve told me the two of you were more like house mates for a while now. If that’s what you want out of life then go for it and I’ll support you the best way possible, but if you want someone to love you the way you deserve to be loved I think you need to accept the reality that you kissed a frog and instead of getting a prince, you got warts.”
“I know calling him probably isn’t the smartest thing to do, but I need to hear his voice. Don’t hate me.”
“Never,” Bethany said, continuing to the kitchen. “I’ll leave you to it.”
Mayra dialed Gavin’s cell, cursing herself for being a weak-willed idiot.
“The number you have dialed is not in service, please check the number and try again.” The automated voice wasn’t what she expected to hear. She hung up and tried again. “The number you have dialed—” She disconnected and carefully redialed his phone number one more time. “The number you have dialed—” Mayra hurled the phone across the room and screamed, “Fuck!”
Bethany ran into the living room. “What is it? What happened?”
“That bastard changed his number,” Mayra said and suddenly the floodgates opened. Everything she kept bottled up came spilling out. Gavin hadn’t left a note or emailed her or even sent a text message. The very least he could have done if he was at his parents’ house was to have his mother or father call her to let her know he was safe. But no, all she got after five years of dating was an apartment full of the empty spaces he used to inhabit. She ended with, “He’s gone,” before breaking down into uncontrollable tears.
“Yes, he is, sweetie,” Bethany pulled her friend into her arms and gently rocked her. “But you’re not alone.”
Bethany had done more than Mayra could ever have asked. She worked out the apartment lease with the landlord, removing Gavin’s name and replaced it with her own, as well as smoothing things over with Mayra’s boss so she could take a few days off and still keep her job. At times Mayra had been overwhelmed by it all, and the complicated emotions that came with accepting her relationship with Gavin was well and truly over came and went like the tides. There were days when she hated her ex-boyfriend—and it had taken a while to adjust to thinking of him as an ex—for what he’d done and the only thing she really wanted to do was to hurt him the way he hurt her. Then there were days when she accepted the way things were, realizing there was nothing she could have done to change what was.
One of the best reasons for having Bethany so close was that Mayra could open the release valve when her brain became too cluttered with random, disturbing thoughts and voice things she ordinarily wouldn’t have been able to speak with Gavin about.
“I’ve been thinking a lot about miscarriages,” Mayra let slip while she and Bethany were working on a jigsaw together. It was a three thousand piece Educa Amsterdam with Red Bike Puzzle. Challenging enough to focus her concentration on since besides the red bike, the rest of the puzzle was in black and white with reflective surfaces. Still, idle thoughts had a way of creeping in.
“What?” Bethany gave her a look she’d grown accustomed to since moving in together, the look of being blindsided. “You shouldn’t be worrying about things like that. Stay positive. Everything’s going to be all right because there’s no reason they shouldn’t be.”
“You don’t understand. I’m not worrying about miscarrying, not yet at least, I was just wondering when life begins. Is it at conception?”
“I—I’m no expert but I’d say, sure, why not?”
“Then why haven’t we seen the souls of any aborted children? Or still births? Is it because their souls hadn’t properly developed?”
“Okay, that’s disturbing on a number of levels. Have you actually been looking for them? I wouldn’t even know what that would look like and I don’t think I’d want to know.”
“You’ve got a point there,” Mayra admitted. “But what about kids? Of all the people who’ve died and returned, why hasn’t anyone reported spotting children?”
“Oh man,” Bethany said. “With all the confusion going on, I never realized all we’ve been encountering are adults. What happened to all the kids? And people are tripping over ghosts outside but I haven’t seen one in our apartment yet. Have you?”
“I—” Mayra began, then thought about it. “No, I haven’t.”
“Somebody must have died here.”
“This isn’t a new building, is what I’m saying. What are the odds this is one of the few places on Earth where no deaths have ever occurred?”