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fiction sketches

A Bucket of Tiny Madnesses

It sits on your desk: a bucket, not too big but big enough, filled with tiny, squirming madnesses.

It’s full of spindly-armed things with bulbous eyes; sluggish long things with tapeworm mouths; round little winged things that bite with an unfurled proboscis.

At times, they spill over the edge, tumbling with bumble legs to skitter or slurp across your desk, but you scoop them back up (their little teeth pinch) and dump them back into their bucket. When you press them down, you hear their angry little squeals.

Do they leave the bucket when you’re not looking? You think maybe, yes. They might use the cover of night to sneak under bedsheets, nestle in tennis shoes and ears, but how can you be sure? (In your sleep, you hear chittering, you feel soft barbed toes against your cheek, but those are dreams of course.) They’re always in their bucket the next morning.

You know you should get rid of the bucket (take it to a professional, for instance, or maybe a dumpster), but you’re afraid that would mean trading it in for a larger madness, one that would sit on your lap and yowl to be fed.

So you’ll take your small things; they like their bucket. They’ve never, not once, (okay, maybe a few times) built up the courage to start a good swarm.

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fiction sketches

All her Killers

After “High Beams,” Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, Schwartz, p. 66

In the back seat of her car grew a portal, one that spat out serial killers: hitchhikers with switchblades in their sleeves; charming young men with sharp smiles and freezers full of hearts; clowns with homemade costumes and barbed wire balloons; nurses with air-filled syringes in their little white caps; pale people with long limbs and black suits; santas with axes; step parents with strychnine pies; government agents with pockets full of chemicals destined for the river; antivaxxers; four star generals; bad doctors; landlords; cancer in one large lumpy alien spit out from the cosmos; high-fructose corn syrup; and one, dirty-kneed stow away with a fear of the light and an old-fashioned razor blade.

They packed on top of each other. She tightened her grip on the wheel. They poked each other with their blades, spread their blood on the windows. She kept driving all night, the dome light left on, ignoring their grumbling, the are-we-there-yet, ignoring the flash of lights in her rear view mirror.

Categories
fiction sketches

We’re Being Eaten

J– is studying at the kitchen table, pencil scribbling, lamp-lit, while the things slide in from the back yard. They slide out from holes we never noticed before (or maybe we always knew they were there, burrows with milk-gray wrinkled things inside, like overlarge moles, like leftovers we forgot about). J– needs to pass this test because she owes far too much already, and her children sing softly to each other under the covers because the night is too dark. When the things push their noses through the sliding glass door, she clamps down her gaze to her notes, arcane scribbles of magic that might save her, but such talismans can’t stop the barbed yellow teeth that bite through her ankle.

M– is sitting in the park, sipping, his silver flask glinting off the halogen lamps, wondering what to do next now that everything is gone. He hears the things slide up from under the leaves (like skinks or snakes. They’re so large but they only make a slight shushing sound. It must be, he thinks, because of the slime.) He picks at the hole on his right elbow, a twist of thread in his blazer that’s come unraveled, and he thinks of how much it took to get this blazer in the first place, how much he had to give up. The things snake under the bench and needle narrow-tipped fingers through the gaps to poke at his haunches. Their mouths water.

Q– closes the blinds. They avoid the broken slats, not just because they can’t be caught squatting but because the things slide through the streets, a slow tide of sludge, their entangled bodies twisting around each other like a mole rat king. The bloodied parts of meals are dragged along the tide, arms and feet and noses, shreds of clothing, workplace badges, uniforms. Q– tapes up the gaps between the doors and walls, stuffs blankets between the cracks, whatever they can find, and under a tiny lamp they write letters to anyone who may still be left. The letter will be thrown into the air, tossed into the sewer grate whenever they dare venture out again. The shushing sounds move over the door. They do not expect a reply.

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fiction

The Pieces she Kept

Marisol lived upstairs in the house with the others. She never wore shoes. When the others weren’t looking, Marisol broke into the parlor and destroyed the tea services, one piece at a time: cups, pots, saucers, sugar bowls. Each time, she plucked a piece out from the china hutch and dropped it, effortlessly, and smiling as she watched it hit the hardwood floor.

As soon as the others heard the shatter, they chased her out of the parlor, beating her with brooms and rolled up magazines. They wept over the loss of their fine country roses, their Noritake and their gold-trimmed Warwick. They swept up what they couldn’t salvage, but a few shards became embedded in Marisol’s feet as she ran away. She kept those. She plucked the shards out one by one and stashed them in a box under her bedroom floor.

Eventually, after months and months of bleeding soles and plucked shards, she collected enough materials. She stole a bowl of wallpaper paste and Aunt Crinoline’s jar of rubber cement, then she took the shards and glued them together to construct a figure: a three-foot tall hairless Siamese cat, her own feline-shaped gargoyle to loom over her bed.

When the others asked, Marisol promised her cat did not hop down from the bedpost and wander the house at night. That clicking sound was not its claws on the floorboards in the hall. She insisted the cat was just a sculpture, a mosaic of mismatched porcelain, sleek and inert. The dark puddles of liquid around the cat’s heels were not blood, of course, no. Those were just stains from leftover tea.

Categories
sketches

It Only Played Piano

The homeowners were, for the most part, grateful the ghost only made tinkling musack, inoffensive easy listening tunes, and did not wail or howl at all hours of the night. It didn’t even weep ceaselessly. The ghost didn’t throw knives or stomp or bang on the walls. No one’s toes were nibbled. There were no figures in the mirrors, standing right behind them, over their shoulder, glaring a death’s glare (or worse, a grin!). There was just the sound of C sharp, B minor, the occasional chord plunking away right in their ear wherever they turned. They never woke up to scratches (maybe some headaches), and the songs the ghost played were never morose or doomful (although it was clear, from the occasional off-note, the slips, that the fucker needed to practice, didn’t it?). It only played repetitive, uncomplicated modern compositions, (how much Philip Glass can one ghost take at a time?). And while the ghost did help for parties, its origins were quite the conversation starter, at some point they stopped caring whether it was the spirit of a murdered cut rate musician, or a musically frustrated housewife turned to suicide, or if the piano itself was possessed with some poltergeist of bad taste, or if perhaps it was just a curse (they were pretty sure it was a curse, though).Yes, they would say, (before they stopped saying anything at all), the ghost only plays piano. And no: it isn’t very good. And no: it never, ever stops.

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fiction

This Town has too Many Dark Festivals

In April, there is the Feast of the Black Finch, where a number of townsfolk are strung up in the trees, their limbs covered in feathers and sweet hazelnut mash, whereupon they are left to dangle until throngs of local songbirds swarm the branches. The songbirds devour the mash so slathered over the townsfolk, and in so doing peck incessantly at the hapless participants with their tiny, dagger-like beaks. The rite has been described as highly uncomfortable.

In November, during the Circus of the White Newt, the most disliked members of the community are draped in red robes with their lips sealed shut with masking tape. The town elders lead a procession of the chosen disliked into a winding maze of catacombs beneath the town, until such time as the morose group arrives at a cavern riddled with blind albino cave salamanders. The blind albino cave salamanders swarm the chosen with their sticky little feet and weird little noses, until such time as the chosen ones are itchy and disturbed and drenched with slime. Then, the procession leaders serve coffee and sweet yam pie, of which the chosen are not allowed to partake. It is tremendously cruel.

In May, the local children build floats for the Parade of the Everlasting Cud, their dioramas comprised entirely of bubble gum wrappers and half-digested alfalfa.

Every forty-third year on the Winter Solstice, there is the Carnival of the Dark Perambulation, during which an effigy of the titan Iapetus is constructed at the edge of town. The titan is comprised of the residents themselves, nervously stacked on each other’s shoulders, bound by dried blackberry brambles and old beeswax, and during the construction the participants sing a cacophony of unholy hymns, a dark ruckus of malicious oratorios, a canticle the likes of which drives sane folk mad, and this song lasts all hours of the day until, just before the onset of night, the titan begins to walk, lumbering with the screams of the townsfolk screeching at its very joints, every movement a crush of tiny limbs and heads within, and the titan trudges into the blood-red sunset, to the edge of the fields where the bones of hundreds of the townsfolk’s ancestors lay littering the soil, those sad remnants shed off where the titans of past Carnivals once walked, as though a massive constrictor shed its scales upon the fields or a dark star rained down in hot particles of unknown cosmic matter. The townsfolk within the titan dance the dance of the untold ancients; then they head back to town and finish up their Christmas shopping.

 

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fiction

This Old Hellhouse

Ralph and Edna Larned built Maalphegor in 1951, shortly after Ralph got a job teaching 9th grade geometry at Thomas Edison junior high. At the time, Edna had just been promoted to head nurse at the rehab ward of Cowley County Memorial Hospital.

Maalphegor, at first, had three bedrooms, two baths, six walk-in closets, and a fully equipped kitchen with all the modern conveniences. It was built by Ralph’s own hand (although much of the design and decor was handled by Edna) and due to the concrete and ectoplasm construction, it would never fall, never collapse in the event of an earthquake. No disaster could ever loosen the house from its foundations (or, at least, so it whispered to Ralph and Edna at night).

Living there, however, was always a strange crisis. The end of the world was always coming in Maalphegor, at least for the neighbors whose hellhouses weren’t as well built, and Ralph and Edna became convinced that preparation through consumerism was the only way to save off Armageddon. Thankfully, Maalphegor came with it’s own door-to-door salesmen; at the beginning, they looked a little like Bela Lugosi clones, but as the years wore on, the shadows in the salesmen’s faces deepened, a bit like Pazuzu from the Exorcist. Increasingly they began to look like Slender Men once Ralph and Edna’s children came of age.

The salesmen sold the family new appliances and luxurious additions to Maalphegor: delights such as weatherizing strips and desk lamps and a new washer/dryer, a sun room and a study and fifteen guest bedrooms. When the neighbors asked, the family insisted they’d do anything–anything–to halt the advance of apocalypse. For everyone’s sake of course.

By the time Ralph and Edna spent up all their retirement, the neighborhood looked considerably different, as Maalphegor had devoured the entire block, and the neighbors had all moved away. But Ralph still grilled up dinner on the massive back patio every Sunday (using what pigeons and squirrels still remained in the attic as meat) and Edna did her best to keep all the curtains tidy.

Categories
fiction

The Snuggly Dead

I. Evangelina thought death would be super terrible; then, she died. When they lowered the coffin into the ground, the coffin was a tidy little space, all firm cedar and clean corners, but eventually the coffin walls decayed into soft mounds of rotting mulch, and the soil leaked in and the worms crept in to nestle under her head. She began to think it wasn’t so bad at all, like a cool Sunday morning spent under the covers, dozing in and out of consciousness, particularly when her flesh slid off her bones and decomposed in pale, folded piles of decayed matter like a bundle of linen. She found herself smiling (the teeth on her skull bared clean), as she snuggled deeper into the earth with the beetles tickling her cheeks. The whole thing was made all the better for the fact that, thankfully, she couldn’t smell anything.

II. Tyrone, too, was really nervous about the whole death thing, particularly when they shuttled him into the fire and the automatic door of the crematorium slid shut. The flames weren’t as mean as he’d expected; they were more like the heat from a campfire while nestled under a wool blanket with a hot cocoa full of marshmallows and cream liqueur. He found himself sighing as the warmth tickled his toes and slid up his knee caps, and when his body dissolved into dry particulates, that felt pretty nice, too, a bundled up and folded feeling, safe and protected, like collapsing upon himself in child’s pose during yoga class.

III. Arturo’s body was never found, and that was all well and good because after getting chased around by that chainsaw-wielding maniac, he really could have used a break. After a long tumble down a ravine, his head found a spot to rest by the creek bed, the milkweed and thistles having caught him before he rolled into the water. His arms and legs were somewhere in the bushes; his torso flopped in the mud under a sapling. And, sure, after screaming his soul-guts out for a while, he was soothed by the trickling water over the rocks, the birdsong, the sunshine. It was like all the vacations he’d never gotten around to taking. So he lounged, warmed by the sun and listening to the breeze. He giggled as he felt the feet of ants and beetles tip-toeing over him, their little pincers like kisses. (They took parts of him to live in their colonies, little chunks of flesh to nibble on, which gave him a glimpse of life better than any David Attenborough documentary he’d ever seen.) Small carnivores snacked on him at night, those coyotes with their soft, wet noses and crows with their feathers brushing against his skull. Soon enough, the ivy grew over him and the soil covered the bleached surface of his bones, and he nestled in, the whisper of grubs and worms soothing him to sleep.

Categories
fiction

There’s a Big Demon Alligator Sitting on the Lawn

It’s certainly not regular-sized. It’s very big, in fact (the demon, not the lawn, because of course the lawn is tiny. In this housing development they put up last year there’s not much grass; each duplex’s swath of green is hand-tailored by the landlord, tidy squares of Kentucky bluegrass that the landlord says cannot be touched by flowers or junipers or decorative butterfly stakes that glow pink and orange. You love the decorative butterfly stakes; they remind of you of the yard of your grandmother’s trailer, cluttered with wildflowers and gnomes, but when you put the decorative stakes up the landlord said the only thing you can put in the yard is a lawn chair and grill). (You don’t own a grill.)

It slumps in the grass, it’s long snout sulking, the spiny ridges along its back a strange color between oxblood brown and peacock purple. Even just sitting there, its as tall as the whole duplex (and the neighbors glared at you, of course, because they think it’s your fault, this mutated crocodilian that looks like it borrowed a horned page from Tim Curry’s satan, and you don’t try to convince them that there’s no way you could have summoned this thing, you wouldn’t even know where to start, but the neighbors glared at you since you moved in, that day you said hello and they shuffled back into their house, leaving you wondering if you had your underwear showing or something stuck in your teeth. All the neighbors here only glare, they don’t say hello, so you’re beginning to think it’s not actually you). (It’s them).

Every now and then, it sighs, the big demon alligator, puffing out a plume of sulfuric smoke (and it seems kind of lonely, you think, and the more you stare at it from your kitchen window you wonder if it really is an alligator or just a long, scaly beast. Maybe you’ve projected onto it some vision of your childhood, those afternoons your grandmother fed the caimans that scuttled under her flowers, smallish versions of their hulking swamp cousins that grandma said loved little rare cutlets, bits chicken and pork, and everyone wondered how she hadn’t lost a hand yet, the gators would get her, but it was ultimately her neighbors who got her, hopped up on bath salts and playing with kerosene. And you wonder how flammable bluegrass can get, if it dries out for a few days while the demon sits on the sprinklers, and maybe grandma would be proud if you gave the big demon one little bite, something small and meaty and bleeding to eat). (Maybe you will.)

Categories
fiction

“Great, but Too Many Floating Eyeballs”

Review: Carpathian Dream Resort Hotel and Casino
4328 Cliffs of Despair Road
Cahul, Cahul District MD-3909, Moldova

4-out-of-5-stars1

My husband booked a room at the Carpathian Dream hotel for our anniversary, and for the most part it was a great establishment. The decor was super run down with moth-eaten curtains and faded antique rugs, candelabras everywhere full of these murky yellow candles that might have been made of real tallow. Wolves howled at all hours during the night, and there was always a full moon. The hotel would have been just what we wanted for a romantic, atmospheric honeymoon, if it hadn’t been for all the floating eyeballs.

When we checked in, the maî·tre d’ leered at us cruelly and refused to really say much beyond “We’ve been expecting you.” The bell-hop looked to have a little grave dirt left on his shoulders, his hat was a bit worm-eaten, and he dragged all of our luggage up by himself. (It must have been tough for him–he was so skinny!) Our room was bitter cold and no manner of warmth from the fireplace could chase away the chill, so snuggling deep into the pillows on the antique canopy bed was just the ticket. The moaning from the hallways really helped my husband get to sleep in the absence of his white noise generator, and breakfasts were served right on time, with plenty of black, crusty bread and what looked like cold, somewhat coppery tomato juice. Yum!

I’d have given the whole experience five stars, really, if it hadn’t been for the eyeball thing. God, they were just everywhere–and sticky, too. There’s nothing like stepping out of a hot shower to bump into a swarm of bloodshot ocular organs trailing their spindly pink nerves behind them. You wake up in the morning and find them in your hair, in your coffee, stuck to your forehead. Gross. The floor was just sopping wet with aqueous humor. And other guests maybe like the feeling of constantly being watched, but it’s not really our thing. My husband and I tried that for a bit in the 70s and it didn’t work out.

But aside from all that, the experience was great. The Carpathian Dream Hotel and Casino is now a tradition for my husband and I, so we’ll be looking forward to booking them again for our next anniversary. 9/10 would go again. (But not looking forward to the eyeballs.)