Unteroffizier Erich Lang awakes long after the dawn to the distant sound of artillery. The gunmetal sky ripples with threatening black clouds, and the dusty smell of rain hangs in the chill air. He is slumped back against the earthen wall, his left arm crooked and folded behind him. It comes awake in a flare of pinpricks and fire, and he winces as he works it free and shakes. His slender frame is wrapped in his thick woolen coat, sodden and heavy with mud, and he feels cold water seeping in through his threadbare trousers. Besides the upturned helmet lying in the mud a few yards away, he is alone in narrow trench.
He pulls his long legs toward his body and stands, feeling the cold air glide through the shifting folds of his clothes. The coat tugs at him as he stands, weighted down with filth. There is water in his boots, running down his legs as he stands to soak through the layered socks that protected the last bit warmth and dryness. He scowls at the mud and the sky, and they are unmoved.
He winces against the sudden pain in his head and chest as he tries to sort out the jumble of memories and awakening thoughts. He wonders idly what day it is, but he cannot recall the chaplain’s last sermon, the only landmark he has to mark the progress of the days. He tries to remember the night before, or at least some small hint of how he’d ended here, soaking up rainwater in the trench. The preceding days are a monotone fog, a jumble of images and impressions of mud soaked boredom and terror.
“Thought you might be dead, ” comes a voice from his left. He turns to see a figure, leaning on the wooden post at the crook in the trench. His face is obscured by a gloved hand gripping a smoldering cigarette. Erich blinks and strains to focus on the man, but his blood is now surging in anticipation of tobacco.
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I awake, as always, to the click and whir of a thousand hidden cameras, and the rising glow of the ambient lights. Over the next 30 minutes, the curtains on my bedroom will slowly part, gliding on mechanized tracks, and the yellow sunlight of dawn will stream into the wide circular room. Like all mornings, I entertain for the briefest moments the thought of hurling myself at the windows and plunging the half mile to the ground. I hold on to the little fantasy of wind and sky and falling for as long as it will remain, dreaming of those magnificent moments of freedom and choice.
Even if I were not a coward, there are a thousand unseen barriers and safe guards. I can not see them, but several parents are doubtlessly just outside the door, and would be between me and the window before I could leave the bed. I allow the dream of freedom to evaporate for another morning.
The woman next to me, I can not recall her name, shifts and rolls to embrace me. I wrap my arms around her and return the affection, but there is no love in it. She is young and soft, skin still stretched taut over her athletic and perfect frame. I know that in my youth I would have been buzzing with anticipation and lust simply seeing her, but now I can only take solace in the momentary ghost of affection and emotion. Her skin is warm, and her fine and downy body hair is smoother than the silk of the sheets. I draw an abstract of pleasure from this closeness, feeling something akin to happiness when our bellies synchronize in breathing, pressed close as they rise and fall in an alternating rhythm. Her breath is hot and damp on my chin and neck. It only takes me a few moments to tire of her, and I swing my legs to the edge of the bed.
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My final version of The Algorithim will appear in the upcoming anthology “No Monsters Allowed” from Dog Horn Publishing.
Sometime during the third consecutive night spent huddled over the toilet, insides heaving and shuddering as I vomit forth seemingly everything I’d ever eaten, I realize what’s happening: He’s trying to poison me. It’s all so elegant, so perfect, and so clear, that I almost laugh, but another barrage of retching forces me into silence
The next morning I throw everything in the kitchen away, wrapping it three times in black plastic and burying it deep in the apartments communal trash cans, to prevent an unfortunate transient from crossfire of His wrath. I am out the door of the complex and halfway to the corner store when I realize: He knows, must know, where I would shop.
I pick a direction and walk, enjoying the chill winter air that soothes the ragged shreds of my inside. I turn at random intervals, following an improbable path out of my familiar neighborhood, until I find a small shop with an unfamiliar name. Once inside, I hurriedly fill a small plastic basket; brands that I never have eaten, strange tins of ethnic ingredients I can’t recognize, foods that I’d never thought of buying. Soy milk. Tofu. I can feel my stomach reborn in anticipation of an untainted meal.
I prepare the meal in a fog of nervous anticipation, trying to focus on savoring the aromas and the grease spitting sounds of the frying pan. It tastes clean, but then, so has every other meal before this. I try to tell myself that the mounting pain inside me is simple fear and anxiety, but before the stroke of midnight, I am again crouched in the dingy bathroom, surrendering the days work into the porcelain mouth of the sewer.
Nadja doesn’t make it. I turn at the steps of the bunker and watch as the artillery shell lands on the shattered street between us. I hold our daughter and watch my wife smolder in the crater, deaf to the thudding concussions around us. Someone grabs Inna from my arms, thrusts cold gloved fingers in the neck of my jacket, and pulls me back into the black throat of the small shelter. I see my last glimpse of Leningrad’s cracked and wounded skyline, and then it goes black. The door slams shut, screeching steel and spinning locks clattering in rhythm with gun fire. I finally find the voice to scream Nadja’s name.
Inna is crying in the dark, cradled by the last of Svetlana’s daughters in the small entry way. I suddenly find I have no knees and I am on the floor with a hot choking hand around my throat. Boris and Grigory slide away from me in the darkness, I can hear them averting their gaze, necks scratching against thick coats as they twist away from me. I thrust my tears into my gullet and gag, retching and heaving up the thin watery remains of my last meal. Inna needs me, and I need strength.
The rosy cheeked boy that led our last charge, all ill fitting uniform and tilting helmet, doesn’t have the grace to leave me be, and puts one soft hand on my back. I shrug him off, and stumble to my feet. In the slowly seeping light of his oil lantern, I see his face and his fear, and I look away. He backs away from us, turning down the long dark featureless tunnel ahead. Turning back, he surveys the dozen survivors before him, shivering and broken. The short run from the grand ballroom has taken its toll on our weakened bodies. The last of the ratty birds in the hotel’s eaves had been caught a week ago; a chorus of hollow sunken eyes now stare back at the trembling child clutching a rifle.
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A final polished version of “Dust” appears in Hazardous Press‘ ”Horrific History” collection, available in print or on Kindle.
The last storm was already on the horizon when I woke on Sunday morning. It hung in the south, a solid black wall of dust, churning and motionless. I’d every intention of sleeping late into the morning, as had been my Sunday custom since Adele and the girls had left, but the distant rumbling and crackle of lightning drug me from the bed just after sunrise. I shuffled around the farm in the early morning, lashing the doors of the barn, rounding up the two stubborn hogs, and shuttering the windows.
I found myself rooted in place, captivated and entranced by the writhing shape across the sky. It stretched impossibly wide over the horizon, rolling across the border from Nebraska. The air had a dry, electric chill, and the sickly yellow wheat swayed in anticipation.
To the west, I saw a small, light plume, picked out in stark contrast with the black beyond. The horse and rider at the base of the little dust devil approached the farm at a sharp trot, and my dust-bleary eyes registered the silhouette.
Carl Jordan owned the farm next to mine for as along my family has been in the Dakotas; I grew up with his great booming laughter warming our home nearly every night. His usual broad, yellowing smile was absent beneath his trimmed mustache and broad-brimmed black hat. His dark suit was blotted with fine layer of grit that he brushed at absently.
“Eddie.” His voice was tired and small as he looked down at me. “No church today?”
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