Quiet

A polished and updated version of this story will be included in the upcoming Cruentus Libri’s anthology “War is Hell”

I never saw the ocean till I was nineteen, and if I ever see it again it will be too goddamn soon. I was a child, coming out of the train, fresh from Amarillo, into San Diego and all her glory. The sight of it, all that water and the blind crushing power of the surf, filled me with dread. I’d seen water before, lakes, plenty big, but that was nothing like this. I don’t think I can describe what it was like that first time, and further more, I’m not sure I care too.

You can imagine the state I was in when a few weeks later they gave me a rifle and put me on a boat. When I stopped vomiting up everything that I ate, I decided that I might not kill myself after all. Not being able to see the land, and that ceaseless chaotic, rocking of the waves; I remember thinking that the war had to be a step up from this. Kids can be so fucking stupid.

I had such a giddy sense of glee when I saw the island, and it’s solid banks. They transferred us to a smaller boat in the middle of the night, just our undersized company with our rucksacks and rifles and not a word. We just took a ride right into it, just because they asked us to. The lieutenants herded us into our platoons on the decks and briefed us: the island had been lost. That was exactly how he put it. Somehow in the grand plan for the Pacific, this one tiny speck of earth, only recently discovered and unmapped, had gotten lost in the shuffle; a singularly perfect clerical error was all it took. It was extremely unlikely, he stressed, that the Japanese had gotten a hold of it, being so far east and south of their current borders, but a recent fly over reported what looked like an airfield in the central plateau.

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Exit

I know this road better than I know myself. I know each of Interstate 85’s 250 odd miles; I know that it takes me an average of 3 hours and 26 minutes to drive west, from Charlotte to Atlanta, and an average of 3 hours and 29 minutes to make the same trip going eastward. I know the price of gas at a dozen stands, and the closing hours of each fast food shack and greasy diner. I know the curves of each low hill and I know each stand of pine and oak trees. I know the stretching dark of the long winter nights and the wet heat of the summer breeze. I know these things well because they are the totality of my existence now.

I know the names of each exit, westward and east. Batesville, Poplar Springs, Spartanburg. They tick through my head as I pass, but the Silver Creek Road exit is never among them. In three years of this endless loop, it has never appeared again. If I ever begin to doubt that it will, then I have nothing left.

The Silver Creek Road exit doesn’t exist on any map, or at least, it no longer does. It may have once, but like the road itself, it has been razed from the earth and from all memory and record. At the beginning, I spent long anxious days poring over old surveying maps and neighborhood planning documents, searching in vain for any sign of the road, or the exit I know I had taken. When there was nothing left in the libraries and city halls to comb through, no meek county official left to interrogate, wide-eyed and frothing, then I began the drive.

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Fog

A polished and updated version of this story is can be found in Cruentus Libri’s anthology “The Dead Sea”, available now from Amazon.

If you are reading this, then I am dead, and you are standing aboard a derelict Cyclone class patrol ship, the USS Mistral, with her engines dead and her electrical systems nonfunctional. I am, was, the XO of this vessel, Lieutenant Commander Ryan Simmons.

Please read this carefully. If you are an officer or enlisted man in the United States Navy, this is an order:

Scuttle this vessel, immediately. Do not finish this letter. Get off the Mistral at once, and send her down. Consider this a quarantine scenario; all hands are likely dead. God help you if they are not.

We are eight days out of Kirkwall, tracking an intermittent and scrambled distress call from what appeared to be a Icelandic fishing vessel, the Magnusdottir, deep in the no-fishing zone of the North Sea. We found the vessel, or rather, we found a mile wide streak of oil and fragments, the largest of them still burning. The night before, the enlisted man on watch had reported seeing a flash of light on the horizon.

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West

September 2nd 1868
Arrived in Cheyenne in the new Wyoming Territory early this morning on the new Union Pacific line. Has been three years since I rode the locomotive. Did not realize it would remind me so strongly of Atlanta. Spent the last day of the journey with the phantom smell of blood and iron in my nostrils, and the bile rising at the back of my throat, but it is over. God willing, I will never have to ride the train again. Cheyenne is new born and mewling like a babe. Immigrants from the east and across the seas teem here, filling the streets with a babel of tongues and the raucous laughter of drunken listless youths. The hound I purchased before leaving tugs at his leash with delight at the sights and sound.

The plot of land is still two days ride across the border and to the Southwest, but true to his word, the man from the bank has hired a guide to take me there. Sent a last letter to my wife and boys with instructions to meet me here in the spring, and have purchased a wagon and the supplies for construction. The guide, a half Indian fellow, I’d wager by appearance, but civilized in tongue, has helped me hire two young men: a Irishman with a sullen chinless face, and a German, watery eyed and stinking of bourbon. Both despicable wretches, but they have agreed to work for a pittance, and both claim to have experience in homesteading.

They may intend to kill me, seeing an easy mark in a naive settler, but I do not fear these drunken children. I’ve seen a generation of these boys spilled open, and I know what they are made of.

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North

There was a time when I believed running might help; if I could pack up my few belongings and burn the rest under cover of darkness and flee, I could start over somewhere new. But in this bleak frostbitten place, I admit to myself, truly, that I cannot outrun him, that I can never escape him. And should I slip into the warm embrace of doubt after an unnaturally long stretch of peaceful, empty days, he will be only too happy to remind me of this.

There’s almost nothing left he can take from me. The days before him are fading like an aged photograph now, a hazy yellow dream of stability and happiness with a long future of happy possibilities stretched ahead. Today, I am huddled in the eaves of a collapsing barn in the Yukon Territory, desperately trying to start a fire with sodden and rotting hay. The more I burn now, the less I have to use as a blanket. It is a delicate balance that I have not quite mastered.

I hitchhiked across the border two months ago, and have been making my way north steadily. Going any other direction than north is no longer an option. I do not know what I will do when I reach the Artic Ocean. Perhaps continue across the sea ice, if it has not thinned to the point of breaking. What I cannot do, ever, is return to my life, to Seattle. I can never see my son again.

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Chiasma

It wasn’t until I broke down in front of my sister that it occurred to me to use the word ‘haunted.’ When I tried to explain what happened, finally articulating the weeks of dread and utter dislocation, I found that no other word would come.

Haunted. There’s still a part of me that scoffs and glowers at this, to use the language of folklore. It seems to compress what I’d experienced into a simple banality, a prisoner of crude language.

I paid cash for the house in West Toluca Lake. Something about the 1930’s Spanish architecture tucked behind the grove of weeping willows triggered a strong association with my childhood ideal of what it meant to be famous and successful in Los Angeles. It was far more than I needed, and I struggled to fill the extra rooms with bedroom sets and elaborate lounges, more out of an obligation to keep up appearances when guests were over than to satisfy myself.

Even so, I was happy there, for a short while.

My friends stop visiting a few months after I moved in. Increasingly elaborate excuses were spun, and I soon stopped asking. It only occurs to me now that I was doing the same, finding every reason to stay in the house, to isolate myself.

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Barricade

An updated, leaner and crisper version of this story is available in the anthology “A Quick Bite of Flesh” from Hazardous Press, on Kindle or Paperback.

 

I’m about to do a very stupid thing.

I know it’s stupid. I know it. But I don’t think I have a choice anymore. And I have to do it now, while I have the nerve and the will. While my hands are still steady.

I’m sick, I’ve always been sick. Some days are better than others. When I was young, my parents prayed that it might just be a precursor of the onset of epilepsy, but the seizures never came. I just…can’t trust myself.

I see things. On some days, I can hear them and smell them too. I should say that I used to see them. After being on every possible combination of pills three doctors could come up with, I thought we’d finally found the right chemical key for my misfiring brain. It’s been six years of stability and relative normalcy, trading a halfway house for a tiny studio apartment, a collection of mostly tolerable side effects, and a steady job. I realize this probably sounds dull for most people, but I cherished every moment of that achingly simple monotony.

It went bad all at once.

Friday morning, I awake from the first dream I’ve had in years. A vivid phantasmagoria of colors and sounds, and begrudgingly leave my perfect and sterile clean apartment for the short walk to work.

I notice it as soon as the elevator opens, the unearthly stillness and silence in the heavy air. The front door of the complex is hanging open, unlocked and swinging gently, the faintest trace of smoke drifting inward in the damp breeze. Outside, the wide streets are empty and bare. My mouth is suddenly dry and I rock back on my heels, cresting a crippling wave of panic and déjà vu.

This particular hallucination, the quiet and the smoke and the emptiness, was always my most frequent; I haven’t had it in six years but the familiarity of it stings. I shut my eyes tightly, and jab my hand at the panels of chipped buttons. Moments later I am on the top floor, walking half blind the path to my door with practiced familiarity. Once inside I sit on my bed, gripping tight the handle of my cane, eyes closed, breathing slow and steady. Focused. Calm. Clear. I open my eyes.

I can’t be outside like this, I know this. I was hit by a car when I was homeless, wandering dazed into the street, while my fevered mind saw only emptiness. I’ll need a replacement hip before I’m forty. I can hear the slivers of bone grind a little with every labored step. I call my boss, and leave a terse message, apologizing for being too ill to work today.

I hold my breath as I open the one tiny window in my studio. It’s so close to the building next to me, I can almost touch its brick wall; I can’t see the street from this height and angle, but as I strain to lean out the window, sounds of yelling and a few whining engines drift up to me. The pall of unearthly quiet is broken, and I feel a great sense of relief, knowing that my episode is over.

I am counting the pills in orderly columns on the table, proving a fifth time to myself that I have taken my daily regimen, when I start to hear the screaming. It builds from far below; riding the struts and supports of the tower until it seems to emanate from the bones of the building.

An hour later the sounds seem like they are right outside; horrid, terrified, inchoate clumps of half formed words and pleas, punctuated by wet, ragged shrieks and heavy muffled thudding. The breathing and relaxation exercises aren’t helping, and I’m gripping the edge of my bed, soaked in sweat. The idea appears fully formed in my mind: I need to barricade the door. I struggle to suppress it. It would be like giving up; all progress I’ve made would be for naught if I entertain the notion that the episode is real.

But the screaming…this is a new one for me.

There’s the shuffle of movement outside, and the knob of the door twists violently and shudders against the deadbolt. I try to cry out, but my throat is parched and only a dry croak comes out. The door starts flex slightly as heavy blows land on the outside, and a mad, gibbering chorus of voices spits out a strange nonsense of broken syllables.

It only takes me a moment to decide now. I burst to my feet and throw all my weight into the bookshelf, crashing into it with bright white bolt of pain. It topples slowly, leaning at first like a tree and then smashing to the ground. On top of the bookshelf goes my desk and chairs, my hip screaming with each step. I collapse again on the floor, grasping for breath, and listen to the pounding subside and the horrid voices retreat.

That was two days ago.

They come back every day and scratch at the door, whispering in that vile gibberish. Sometimes I allow myself to think I can recognize the voices. The phone is dead, and the power is out. When I lean out the window and yell for help, the only answer I get is the occasional shriek or ululating babble.

When I was younger, when I was at my worst, my episodes would last for hours at most. I am at a loss. I have very little food left and the water pressure has already dropped.

Lying in bed in the late summer heat, in a moment of near total silence, the inevitability of it occurs to me. If I stay, I’ll starve. What happens to me on the other side of the barricade only depends on how sick I really am.

I want to believe with a sudden desire I am just ill, simply and profoundly ill. The sureness of it wells up in me, and I feel suddenly awake and lucid. I need a doctor, surely, but soon the hallucination will lift and my mind will heal. I just need to break through this.

I need to go outside.

I remove the bookshelf slowly, rotating it away from the door gently to rest with the other furniture. This is right, I assure myself. This is healthy. I turn the deadbolt, put my hand on the handle, and try to suppress the rising terror in my guts. I give it a little pressure.

Outside, I hear a dry shuffling and a low rising murmur of unfathomable voices, and my surety drains from me, leaving only cold and naked horror in its place.

My hand is on the door.

I’m about to do a very stupid thing.