Dogs in the Drywall

This is my final text of this story, as heard on Season 10, Episode 9 of the No Sleep Podcast.

I hear the dogs before I see them. It’s Monday morning, I’m in the bathroom stall, pants down, pretending to shit and making polite throat-clearing noises every few minutes. The rotten vegetable green paint on the walls never fails to give me a headache, so I have my eyes shut tight. Still, I can spend twenty minutes here, three to four times a day, eating up an hour. More if you factor in the round trip from office to toilets.

My legs are numb despite my best efforts to restore circulation. That’s my cue to stand up, to go through the motions of wiping, to flush, and to pretend to wash my hands. Before I can lurch upward, I hear them, inside the wall to my right. Nails clicking on pressboard and metal. Fur scraping drywall. Breath like a shuddering air conditioning vent. It’s right next to me, too big to be a rat, and far too real. I spin away, dopey grin on my face in some idiot desire to catch someone’s eye, to have a shared moment of surreal “did you hear that?” camaraderie, but I’m alone in the handicapped stall of a men’s restroom.

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East

It’s been a long time since I’ve seen the Storm.

It’s always been there, behind us, whispering through the shuddering ground. A background roar behind the wind. We’d been ahead for so long, moving slightly faster than its clockwork crawl. Until the mountains. Then, as we ground ourselves upward against these slopes, we heard it rumbling closer, a rising quake in the earth. But it’s been a while since I turned around and actually saw it. Sitting here on the side of the mountain, in the frigid morning, it fills my vision and stings my eyes with the monstrous unreality of it.

It rises like an unbroken wall into the sky, obscured only by the limits of my sight, fading into the clear blue, and stretching away north and south, curving away with the earth. The sunlight doesn’t seem to touch it. Nothing does. At the ground, where the churning wall of sickly blue lightning and black clouds grinds across the earth, I can see the Unmaking. The lower peaks, already shaking apart, burst and ablate away at the event horizon of the Storm. The land dips before the onslaught, as if shying away from the kiss of the boiling wall. I can feel the violence beneath my feet as millions of tons of ancient mountain falls away into its infinite maw.

It’s going to be on me in a few hours. I wonder if I’ll die when the peak caves away, crushed in a free-fall of slate and stone, or whether I’ll be alive when the Storm touches me, shredded and atomized, erased and Unmade. I wonder, again, what it might feel like.

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The Blues

The Blues appeared in episode 351 of the Pseudopod Podcast. I am beyond thrilled to have made a sale to the very market that got me interested in writing short horror.
 
 
The first wave hits me as I stand on the old bridge, looking down into the green and still waters. It’s like an army of fingertips, starting in my scalp and tracing down my skin and I shudder involuntarily. Familiar fog takes shape in my mind, a cotton candy spiderweb, snaring thoughts and vibrating in time with the wind through the trees. In the distance I can hear King hollering, followed by the tinkling sounds of shattered glass, and then Leif’s laughter.

I shut them out, make my world the rusting footbridge, the warm air, and the dark water below. An untouched bubble of space that I alone inhabit. On the worn concrete abutment beneath me, someone has scrawled in white paint the words LOOK UP, and I do so, without thinking, the command bypassing conscious thought. The sky is perfectly blue, cerulean above me and cornflower in the distance. I tumble the words through my hands, adding to them: azure, cobalt, bondi, indigo, ultramarine. The blues merge and swirl, dripping through my hands leaving long streaming trails of letters.

I shake my head and laugh loud, listening to the sound travel on the warm breeze. Happy. For the first time in many months, I am free, in control. My life is my own again.

“Rog! Roger!”

I try to ignore the voice, but I know Alex is already walking down the bridge toward me. The brief surge of freedom is already starting to fade. I try to hold tight to the moment, leaning out and surveying the debris choked creek beneath. What I had taken for a filthy styrofoam beer cooler catches my eye, and I look closer and see a green and mossy haunch. A rotting human thigh, the remaining skin greenish white, the rest of the body vanishing into the algae choked water.

I feel sick, the last scraps of joy congealing, turning rancid. The fear is creeping back in. I turn to Alex, my island of calm in the half-year storm, and watch him walk towards me like a barefoot saint, his sandy hair tangled and wild. His wide and white grin lights up his face beneath dark eyes, and the fear does not vanish, but halts its approach.

“How you feeling, Roger?” He asks, his eyes twinkling.

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Shiva

My mother is crying so loud that at first I can’t make out the words. When I pick his name from the tinny sine wave of her wailing, I know my brother Lev is dead. My guts constrict, wrapping into a knot, and I the air rushes out of me. I let her go as I struggle to stand, eyes tilting skyward to stem the tears. When she’s out of breath, I hear my father’s cracked baritone mutter. After a while I start to hear his words, hear ‘shiva’, and my guts twist again, counterclockwise this time.

They want me to come home.

1

I land in time for the funeral, crossing the continent in a few bleary hours. At the cemetery, I still wear the sweaty reek of the plane’s cabin on my clothes. The coffin is in the ground before I fully grasp what it means: this is my brother’s body, and this is forever. I’m still spinning the thought like a smooth stone in my hand when we arrive home. I place my bags onto a familiar bed that looks smaller than I remember, and return to the ground floor.

I shake hands and nod to a swirling fog of faces from childhood, grown strange with age. I find the rhythm in answering the same questions, my work, my life, the past twenty years, and soon I no longer have to think about the responses.

The faces drift away with the daylight, and the house becomes dark and empty. Wherever I twist my eyes, something triggers a tiny explosion of memories. A dented baseboard. Dull silver on a salt shaker.

My mother and father sit side by side in plastic folding chairs across from the couch. For a moment I think about helping them to some relative comfort. The moment passes. I sit in my father’s overstuffed recliner, and try to keep my head above the flood.

The edges of my vision grow dim – there’s something odd about the light. I look to my mother, and see the shining chrome trim of her glasses, see the dark hollows of her eyes almost black. The contrast sharpens, and the uncanny light becomes too painful to look at, to even think about. I shake my head, and look back to the neutral tones of the embroidered couch.

My brother is there.

Dressed in funereal black, his hair is long and wild. He is staring at me, and beneath his uneven beard, his mouth moves. No sound escapes, not even the sibilant pops and clicks of lips and teeth. No breath.

Engines whir in my head, and I close my eyes. I’m tired. Under extreme stress. Still not quite well. I should have expected this. I press fingertips to my eyes, and focus on the purple and blue geometric explosions of false light. Count the angles and lines. Breathe.

Breathe.

Open.

Lev leans forward, reaching his arms across the table at our parents, and his lips continue to dance without sound. My parents look down, leathery faces impassive. My father is asleep.

Lev turns to me, and his bright eyes flash. He smiles. That wild, wide Lev smile. Mischief and revelation and something else. He speaks, and with a sudden snap, like the bursting of a soap bubble, I hear.

“The light, Ronen. Can you see?”

Breath escapes me like a pierced balloon, one long sigh until I am empty, and at last I begin to cry. Lev’s eyes are locked on mine, and I clutch at the moment, until the creak of my father standing breaks the silence.

“I’m glad you’re home,” he mumbles as he takes my mother and leads her towards the stairs. “Thank you.”

Irrational, childish anger wells up in me, and I turn to scream at him, but the strange light has faded. I am crying in an old chair in a familiar room on a warm, wet evening.

Lev is gone.

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Roadwork

When Conner arrived at the gas station, he exited the car with a speed that surprised even him. He took a few quick steps, almost at a run, before turning back towards the car. Under the garish sodium lights of the service station, the little blue sedan was a sickly greenish gray. It looked squat and malign in its stillness. The throbbing headache at the base of his skull seemed to diminish with every step and he began to catch his breath.

He took the phone from his pocket and raised it high into the night sky, waving it from side to side like a semaphore flag. Nothing. The signal meter defied him by remaining empty. Not even a flashing roaming message. Conner scowled at the phone and thrust it back into his pocket.

He glanced around the station, two solitary pumps and a closed convenience market. An isolated island of pale yellow light in the dark of the North Carolina forest. The silhouettes of trees bit into the starry night sky, surrounding him like a ring of teeth. The grating hum of electricity mingled with the crackling of insects from the woods beyond, drifting in the warm summer night air.

Jutting from the side of the shuttered market was a scraped and listing pay phone, its metal stalk visibly bent from some long ago impact. Conner approached it, digging a pair of quarters from his pocket, and gripped the scarred plastic handset. For a moment, nothing happened. The sense of isolation deepened, like the ground being pulled out from under him, and the panic returned. A series of quick clicks bit into his ear and the dial tone chimed. His fingers felt numb as he dialed.

Even at a few hours past midnight, Reynolds answered on the first ring.

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