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Between the Walls

The Eastern Empire
Late July, Year of our Lord, 626

When Lecho saw the three walls of Constantinople, rising up like a storm on the horizon, each taller than the last, he knew he’d made his worst mistake. Around him marched the great host of the Avar Khaganate, dragging the skeletal fragments of siege towers. Ahead, he could pick out individual Roman watchmen lining the middle wall, leaning with relaxed arrogance on the crenelations.

Lecho summoned the vilest curses he could and spat them in a circle at his feet. Not for the first time, he damned the blind, hateful luck that had brought him to the foot of the greatest city in the East, ready to grind his flesh into the unbreachable walls until there was little but dust and blood.

As the sun sank in the west, and camps were staked, his motley detachment of Bulgar raiders, Carolingian fugitives, Slavic peasants, and mercenaries from across the continent gathered to hear the words of a minor Avar Khan. Lots were drawn, and they received the honor of being the first over the walls. Lecho watched the Khan palm the tile with the low number etched on it, and pretend to draw it from the ceremonial leather sack, made from some great enemy’s scrotum. He’d known they’d be first, one way or another, but he could do little more than spit in a circle and try not to catch the Khan’s eye.

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First Souls

This story first appeared in FLAPPERHOUSE Summer 2016 issue, and I discussed its genesis on the Other Stories podcast.

 

The waitress brings us our coffee, dishwater pale murk in cracked porcelain cups. Behind the thin surgical mask, her face is unreadable, but her gaze flicks from me to my companion and back again before she leaves without a word. Mickey watches her go and then fixes me with that stare that locked us together only an hour ago. For a long moment, the silence continues, as our eyes confirm what our hearts seemed to know the instant we passed outside my office building.

“Okay, Dale,” he says, his voice hoarse and still raw, like my own, but with an accent I can’t place – perhaps a district on the other side of the city, perhaps another country. “I’m going to ask you a couple of questions, but I think I already know the answers.”

I pick up the coffee, finding it smells as weak and thin as it looks, and contemplate taking an exploratory swig. Around us the few lunchtime patrons of the dingy coffee shop are listlessly eating, lifting up paper masks to shovel in crumbling and greasy burgers, backsides squeaking on red vinyl seats. Those that aren’t are staring at us, at our uncovered faces.

“Okay,” I say, “Shoot.”

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Summer Night

This isn’t a new story, per se, but instead something I wrote up recently for a subreddit while I was waiting for some code to compile. This is, for most intents and purposes, a “true story”. Or rather, that’s what I said when I posted it there. There is one slight fabrication here, a keystone to hold this together as a narrative, as opposed to just a simple scene. But other than that, the rest is as I remember it, with all the unreliability that that implies. Enjoy.

I love horror, and I write scary stories, but I’m a skeptic, a strict rationalist through and through. I am not a believer. There have been, however, a couple of events in my life that I can’t properly explain.

When I was in college, a group of six friends and myself were on college campus, fresh from the disappointment of a failed attempt to score some hash. The college has a large arboretum, that edges a wide slow moving creek. It was a perfect California summer night, hot and muggy punctuated by gentle breaths of cool breeze.

We were walking along a long stretch of path, a wide paved trail with a steep drop into the water on the left, and a steep incline up a hill to the right. We’re talking too steep to go up without using your hands. On the incline to the right, a row of oak trees stood side by side with tall thin streetlights, casting the only light around, as it was a new moon. Ahead, we could see two hundred meters of trail, wide pools of orange light broken up by the deep black shadows under the limbs of the oak trees. But the path was flat and straight, so although the areas beneath the trees were inky dark, you could see there was no one else ahead of us on the path. The only sound was the gentle breeze and the frogs and insects in the creek.

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Metapost: Ultrashorts

Hello, all. I’m trying to work on being more economical with my words, so I’ve given myself a homework assignment. I’m writing a series of ultrashorts, 140 characters or less, on Twitter, of course. They’re not likely to be good, but the challenge is rewarding.

Try it with me, I’d love to see your short stories, and I’ll post some here.

“When it returned the 3rd night, it no longer seemed content to shriek and stare through empty sockets. It wanted something. Something alive.”

“When the sun failed to come up one autumn morning, we burned coal, wood, and our money. By winter, we were burning each other.”

“When the fire died down, and the wreckage of the crash could be sifted through, nothing made sense, least of all the dozen extra skulls.”

“We shared our last breath, back and forth, until it burned our lungs. The rising pressure of the black water played a steady funeral rhythm.”

“A silhouette projected on the blinds by streetlight frosts my heart. It is only the outline of a man. Yet this is my third floor window.”


“She looked at me with those eyes, those bloodshot eyes, and I knew this was no longer the woman I loved. She was dead to me.” – Chris Vaughn, of Terror Tortellini

“The breathing was all we heard. But when it ceased there was nothing I wanted to hear more. Until it was right behind me.” – Cameron Bell, @XxCanNibalCamxX

“I never went into her bedroom again, but made a ritual in the hall of laying down newspapers wherever she had trickled out under the door.” – Andrew

(if you object to me posting your shorts here, drop me an email, and I’ll remove them) 

All work is wholly owned by the listed creators.

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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