Tag Archives: Short Story

The Dark Beneath – Part Four

© Ilkin Guliyev | ID 91026947

By Christopher Opyr


          Sitting around pondering her next step wouldn’t do her any good. Maybe that thing had broken into her room, maybe it was still right outside that door. Either way, Lori had to be quick.

          She chewed at her lip, drumming up her courage and listening for any sound of that abomination. The room had fallen silent.

          Beverly? The thought struck Lori with a sudden wave of panic. Her eyes darted to the dark beneath the bed.

          Her fear slammed to a halt, her emotions shifting from one extreme to the next almost instantly. Lori could almost taste the adrenaline pulsing through her system, colliding with that heart-stopping relief as she saw Beverly staring up at her.

          Then Beverly began to bark once more.

          CRACK!

          That man-thing thrust itself back through the rupture in the door. It must have eased itself out when she was in the closet, but much of the splintered wood had also given away with its retreat. Now it managed to fit both arms and its head through. It would be able to climb right in.

          It gnashed its hideous, blood-stained teeth at her, the ripped flesh of its lips crusting over in another basaltic cooling, that ooze secreting, dripping, and steaming off of it. A thin stream of blood hung from the torn flesh, a drip of blood-spittle. As it bit the air, thrashing to reach her, that dog-like saliva sprayed across the wood paneling.

          Lori dashed for Beverly, thrusting her hand beneath the bed and gripping the Pomeranian by the scruff of her neck. She hauled her out and thrust her into the dog carrier, flung it over her shoulders and bolted for the window.

          Time slowed and the soft sounds of the room amplified, while the yowling of that man-thing fell away to a distorted muted scream in the background noise of Lori’s panic. Above all things, loudest of all, she heard a pin drop. No. A screw. As it bounced, another soft echo of metal against wood sounded. The sideplate. It seemed to clang against the floor for minutes that stretched into eons. Then came that final horror. The sound of the wood rending apart as the door collapsed in.

          Already swiveling her legs down to the ledge, Lori looked back to find that monstrosity bounding towards her, the door biting into its midsection, transformed from the widening maw to some hideous splintered tutu of jagged wood encircling burnt flesh. The image struck her as both hideous and absurd, and a laugh bubbled up unbidden.

          And it stopped.

          That man-thing stopped and it tilted its head at Lori as if considering her laughter. The thing’s eyes still hid away beneath the drooping flesh fusion of its forehead and cheeks, but just that askew tilt alone signaled its puzzlement with perfect clarity.

          Lori had no clue what to make of it, but she also had no time to stop to consider it. Beverly barked at the thing in the door waking Lori from her reverie. Instantly she flew into action, slipping the rest of the way out onto the ledge, nine stories up. She had planned to sidle over away from the window, but as she slipped into the cold night air outside her bedroom window she heard that thing snap back into action itself. She could feel the breeze on her back as it charged, and praying for luck, she pivoted on her right heel, swinging herself out over the nine-story gap, until she had turned a full 180 degrees, her face now pressed against the rough Art Deco exterior.

          Beverly slipped in the carrier, sliding into the side and dragging the bag off Lori’s shoulder with her weight. Quickly, Lori hooked her elbow, catching the bag and her dog before they fell to the pavement below. As she did, a blackened hand pounded into the concrete where her head had been. The exterior pebbled, spider-webbing from the impact.

          Her head knotted from the tension, Lori sidled three feet to the left, her arm still hooked around the carrier’s shoulder strap. That thing groped out with its sickening arm, searching for her, but as she lay still it could not find her. Next, it thrust its head through the opening and cast its gaze about in every which direction and still it was unable to spot her.

          Lori didn’t even dare sigh her relief. She pressed as tightly as possible to the wall and thanked everything that was holy, whether she believed in it or not, that the near drop of the carrier had startled Beverly into silence.

          Then it happened.

          That thing reached a hand to its face – a gray hand, so much char having flaked away that the skin had lightened – seized upon the melted flesh before it eyes, and yanked back tearing a bloody hunk away and casting it down towards the street. Blood oozed from the open wound in a heavy stream, but behind that crimson waterfall a cold eye stared out and spotted her.

          The thing’s motions slowed, taking on a more considered countenance. It gripped at the casing as if to to ease itself onto the ledge.

          Panic surged in a fresh wave through Lori. This had to end. She sidled as far away as she could, never removing her gaze from the intruder at the window, then stopped, unable to continue further with the carrier swinging from its tenuous grip in the crook of her elbow and pulling her off balance.

          She tried to right it, lifting her left arm, leveling it out, then raising it, all the while gripping as best she could to the concrete wall. As her arm passed level and the bag began to slide down to her shoulder, she felt her entire sense of balance spiraling.

          She lowered her arm, grabbing at a protruding lip of cement before an indented panel, and recovered her balance. She couldn’t shift the bag one-handed, and she couldn’t reach the bag with her right arm without pushing herself back from the wall, risking the nine-story drop.

          She froze.

          That blood-curtained eye remained locked on her, and the man-thing began to lift its leg out onto the ledge. This was it. Lori was dead.

          Below a siren blared to life, an emergency vehicle racing through the LA streets. Oh the music of Los Angeles. As the sirens wailed the man-thing watching her scrambled back into the apartment, its hands clawing at its ear nubs trying to rip out the loud sounds of the city.

          Lori let out a sigh of relief. Now she simply had to traverse an eight inch ledge around the bend and another twenty feet to her balcony. No problem.

          She sidled closer to the indented paneling, tightening her grip. Thank goodness for Art Deco. One hand clutching to the paneling, the other holding on precariously close to the window casing, she inched her left arm up, slowly sliding the carrier down towards her shoulder. Her legs quivered and she could feel the tremors rattling her knees as she desperately battled to maintain her footing. Bit by bit, the carrier slid down her arm, constantly shifting Lori’s center of balance. At last she could raise her arm no further without losing her grip. The carrier still had inches to go.

          Lori glanced to her right arm, still pressed so close to that open window. How long until that thing returned for her? She eased her hand closer and closer, until it tucked in right by her side. Now she just had to reach between herself and the wall so she could get a grip on the bag and right it. She slid her hand forward squeezing between her and the cement.

          As she crept her hand closer and closer to her shoulder, Lori had to press back, making room for her to gain leverage. She could sense the emptiness behind her – the open air and the long fall down. That void called for her, taunting her, and she froze. The tremors tore at her knees once more, her balance shifted, and Lori screamed. Her right foot gave, slipping into nothingness.

          She clung to the paneling with her left arm, and hurriedly reached back out with her right, pressing it back towards the casement. Her left leg struggled, the knee buckling as she threatened to fall. And with this sudden shift in weight the carrier strap slipped over her shoulder and slammed against her neck.

          Lori lost her balance.

          Still gripping the paneling, her right knee came down hard on the ledge, and her right hand slipped from the casing, down beside her knee. Pain burst in another flare clouding her vision. Her other leg shifted to the left, compensating for the quick drop and change in balance. Only her left arm remained in place, still gripping for dear life.

          Holy shit, holy shit, holy shit. The words rang out like an internal mantra, repeating on an infinite loop. Holy shit, holy shit, holy shit.

          Her breath came in panicked gasps, and her lungs hurt. She wasn’t getting enough air; she was hyperventilating.

          Holy shit, holy shit, holy shit – calm!

          Lori had to calm down. She had to calm down now. That thing was still inside, still waiting for her, but she couldn’t even worry about that now. One death-defying panic at a time. First she had to make sure she didn’t plummet to the street.

          Calm, calm, calm. A new mantra. A better mantra, offering sage advice rather than blind panic.

          Calm, calm, calm, she repeated, willing herself to regain control. Slowly, her breathing returned to normalcy. Her heart pounded and skipped. Skipped? Did it really skip? Calm, calm, calm.

          The racing in her breast eased. It didn’t go away – that wasn’t likely to happen anytime soon – but yes it did ease. Lori let out a long, slow, exhale. She could do this.


          “Come on, Lori! You got this!”

          She could hear her softball team cheering her on as she stepped to bat. This was the moment of truth for the Badgers. She had to bring Joy home. No outs remained. She looked to Joy, and Joy waved and smiled with that perfect homecoming queen smile.

          “Go Lori! You got this!”

          But Joy had never cheered her on. None of them had. They had shunned her. They had called her a bitch and a slut and they had swooned after boys that all called her a feminazi, like wanting equality was some fascist, insane desire.

          This wasn’t how it had happened. This was how she had wished that it had happened, that they had liked her or more importantly respected and accepted her. That they had rooted for her rather than spat at her. This time she had to hit the ball home.


          Lori let out one final deep exhale and pulled herself to her feet. Her left knee strained as it took on her full weight, the veins on her wrist protruding with the effort of gripping the paneling. Her right arm scrambled for purchase, at last finding a slight crack in the cement. Her landlord would need to be notified about that. She chuckled at the thought, letting the tension wash away ever so slightly.

          A little higher now, a little more weight in that left foot… she could feel her knee threatening to pop. Just a little further. Sweat greased her palms, threatening her handhold on the indention. Just a little more.

          And…

          She was up. Her right foot found solid ground and she finally let out a sigh of relief. Beverly was properly shouldered after nearly dragging her down, Lori had her footing, and now she could begin the trek around the corner of the building. Things were looking up already.

          One step. Two steps. Three steps. Four steps.

          Not so bad. The window to her bedroom receded every so slowly, the distance between her and that thing widening.

          Six steps. Seven steps. Eight steps.

          The cool concrete felt rough against her cheek and the palms of her hands, but Lori didn’t dare push back. She had reached a relative calm, but that was the calm of someone pressed to a wall nine stories up – not a reassuring or strong calm. Definitely not one that instilled confidence.

          Ten steps. Eleven steps.

          The sweat poured from her palms. As Lori reached for another indented panel, her lead hand slipped rather than gripped. She could feel it fall into the empty space, and her heart didn’t so much sink as plummet. She slapped it back to the wall, the concrete scraping against her skin and the friction finally outweighing the sweatiness of her palms. Lori regained her handhold.

          Sweet Jesus, Lori.

          She caught her breath and chanted her internal mantra once more. Calm, calm, calm.

          Better. She only had a couple more steps to the corner. She could do this.

          Thirteen steps.

          She heard it before she saw it. The sound of the window being thrust up above the warp in the stile. It must have fallen when that thing had retreated inside. Suddenly, Beverly began to yap once more.

          “Damn it, girl, shut up!” That’d tell her.

          Her throat constricted and Lori could feel the imminent paralysis of fear threatening to take over. With deliberate and very careful attention, she turned her head.

          That burnt thing had lifted up the window and now sat there, perched just over the opening watching her. The aloe-like coating over its skin seemed to have vanished, and splotches of the dark burnt layer had flaked away revealing more gray skin beneath, this too seeming to crack like parched earth, but smoother than the previous char layer. The only large protrusions of char that remained still bubbling clung to a lump above its eyes, still drooping just down from the forehead, a scabbing around its lips, and a few tumorous protrusions encircling its waist.

          Fifteen steps.

          Lori made it to the corner, the ledge widening to accommodate a small statuary embellishment – a carving of a gargoyle. It wasn’t a full on landing, but at least here Lori could rest for a moment, resituate Beverly, and ease the tension in her shoulders and knees before traversing another twenty feet or so to her balcony.

          Standing there on the relative security of the widened corner ledge, Lori rolled her shoulders relishing with each stretch as her tension eased. All the while she stared at that man-thing. As it stared back, any release Lori had gained from the comfort of her increased footspace vanished. The shift in its appearance alone would have been enough to unnerve her, those bubbling char-scabs crusting over its most recent wounds – healing? – but her anxiety rooted less in the shift in its physical appearance and more in its change of demeanor.

          That thing hadn’t crashed through the glass of the window. It hadn’t clawed its way out to the ledge like a beast. It had opened the window. Opened it. More, as it stared at her, it didn’t thrash about hunting her with animalistic abandon. That thing watched. It was studying her, its eyes cold and calculating beneath that scabbed over brow.

          It was planning.

          Lori grabbed Beverly’s shoulder strap and lifted it from her left shoulder and over her neck to her right. Now she shouldn’t have to worry about her dog falling so easily. She leaned down and whispered to Beverly.

          “Shhh, girl. Shhh. It’s going to be okay.”

          She didn’t believe the words, but the calming tone was the trick. Beverly yapped a few more times as Lori continued to whisper in a smooth, dulcet tone. At last she cast Lori one confused glance, yapped a final time at the thing terrorizing them, then quieted in her carrier.

          Lori stood and readied herself for the final twenty feet. All the while, that thing had watched. As she took the first step around the bend she could see it still watching, its eyes locked on her – unwavering. A cold intelligence simmered in that gaze. As the char chipped away, so too did its animalistic inclinations. The rules of the hunt had changed.

Back to Part 1

The Dark Beneath – Part Three

© Ilkin Guliyev | ID 91026947

By Christopher Opyr


          And she waited. The minutes passed, the hour changed, and no one came. No sirens approached, no knock at the door sounded, and no key turned the locks. No rescue arrived and neither did Dean.

          Lori glanced to the door. Was that thing still there? Had it left? She doubted she’d be that lucky, but she needed to know for sure. Waiting for help that might not come seemed just as likely to end horribly as any other option, and Lori would rather face whatever was coming with action than inaction. She would not die waiting for a white knight.

          Once more she tiptoed across the room, her slippers struggling for traction against the slick wood paneling. She tottered her arms out from her sides for balance, and assured of her footing continued towards the door.

          Wooden splinters pierced out from a crack down the center of the bottom panel, jutting out as if a grotesque underbite of some monstrous maw of needled teeth. Yet, fractured as it was that splintered door provided no glimpse into the hall beyond.

          Lori noted the bent sideplate at the top of the door with great trepidation. Her eyes flitting between that sideplate and the cracked maw of the wood, she lowered herself to the floor. Averting her gaze for as long as she dared, she stole a glance through the gap beneath the door.

          She made out no more than a dense patch within the darkness. If it was again that thing shadowed within the dark of the hall, or if it was nothing more than the normal black pitch of night, Lori could not say.

          She lay still and listened. The gentle whir of her central air buffeted her and she found a moment of comfort in the cool current raining down from the ceiling vent. Then the air abated and she heard it: a low rumbling, almost as if a deep and guttural snore. Was it sleeping out there, or was that merely the tembor of its breath?

          It didn’t matter. Her exit remained blocked.

          Or did it?

          She peered back over her shoulder to the window on which she had scrawled her message for help. Below that window ran a small ledge, no more than eight inches or so wide but running the length of the building. If she were careful, she should be able to make her way to her balcony, then into the living room and a straight shot to the front door. Or perhaps even all the way to the next apartment over, if the first option proved too risky.

          Dean was late, but he could arrive at any minute. Lori had to act quickly. Sure, if Dean stumbled in and that thing killed him, his death would not be her weight to bear, but her inaction would be. Would she be able to live with herself if she did not even try to do something?

          She really didn’t need to ask that question.

          Lori eased away from the door. Step after cautious step, she inched towards the window. The backwards muted rose letters confronted her, her haggard reflection mingling with the scrawled message. She stopped short upon seeing herself there, reflected against the cityscape. The knot on her head had grown, but it was the strain and the fear etched beneath her eyes that halted her. That thing out there had done this to her. It had changed her. It was trying trying to break her.

          It would fail.

          Carefully she closed the distance to the window and grasped the rail below the catch. It had been a long time since she opened her bedroom window, and it had never opened easily. The effort would likely be a loud one.

          Lori steeled herself, one solid breath in through the nose, gripped tight, then heaved. The window raised an inch, and with a great clamor as the warped stile caught against the casing.

          Immediately the thing behind her sounded. A loud din rose up and she could hear it frantically thrashing against the battered door. She spared a momentary glance over her shoulder.

          The door rattled in its frame, the upper sideplate bending and another screw working its way out. The hinge joint would not last. The splintered maw shook and stretched jutting further out into the room, now revealing a small gap through to the hall beyond. Flurried shadows danced as that thing flailed, its breathing now ragged and turbulent, the same guttural growl quaking beneath each roaring breath.

          Lori averted her gaze. She did not have time to watch fate approach; she needed to focus on making her own. She heaved once more upon the rail. The window stuck in the frame, resisting her. She strained, never slacking. Behind her the door cracked and she heard the soft clatter of metal tinging off the wood paneling. The damn sideplate. That would be the loosened crew, she supposed, but didn’t dare look to verify.

          She stopped, catching her breath, then stuck her fingers in the small opening beneath the bottom rail. A morbid thought struck unbidden and she envisioned the window snapping down crushing her fingers against the sill. Instinctually she wanted to withdraw her fingers from that gap, but she held back against the urge. The door would be coming down. She had to open that window.

          She bent her knees, locked her elbows at her side, and hauled up. Again the resistance of the warped stile mocked her, and she scrambled to come up with a new plan; then it gave. The window slammed up past the warp in the wood.

          Relief momentarily flooding in, she took a hurried look back to the door. The top sideplate held now by only one screw and the bottom plate had begun to give as well. A fresh pounding sounded as that thing struck against the wood, and the maw yawned open.

          A charred arm struck through, a blackened tongue scraping over the splinter-fangs. That aloe layer still clung to the cracked and blackened skin, but in places that basaltic black flaked away, like healed scabs ripping from raw skin.

          Lori pounded out the screen of the window, sending it falling. She hoped someone would notice, but as she heard it hit she heard no accompanied exclamations. The street below was empty. She swung one leg over scrambling for footing on the narrow ledge. It felt so soft and for a moment she blanked, puzzled by the unexpected sensation. Then she winced, furious with herself, but with no time to dwell on it. She kicked off her slippers and tried again.

          Eight inches wasn’t a lot of space, but her footing felt firm. She swung her second leg over and prepared for the ledge walk, her heart racing, and her her stomach lurching. Just as she gripped the bottom rail and prepared to duck all the way out, she heard it. Or her.

          Beverly began to bark.

          Fuck me!

          Lori cut her eyes to a bouncing Beverly yapping from beneath the bed. Why couldn’t she have just stayed asleep?

          At the door that thing had managed to squeeze a full arm and most of its head through the maw in the shattered wood, the door teetering as it pushed through the widening rupture. Lori could see that the thing appeared very much human, though so much stronger. Yet, there was no way it could actually be human. If so it would have to be dead.

          It’s skin, under all that pulsing aloe-like layer, flaked and peeled, crisp and burnt and raw. The thing’s lips seemed fused together, only parting slightly and just off center. And yet it snapped at her, showing glistening yellowed teeth hidden within that burnt carcass of its mouth. It’s breath whined through narrow slits in the equally fused nostrils of its nose, and its eyes…

          It looked for her, though a melted mass of charred flesh drooping down from its forehead and melding with its cheeks. Only its ears seemed unblocked, though it had only nubs rather than a full pair of ears, as if the rest had sloughed away.

          As it strained to force its way in, the wooden shards of the door raked into the burnt flesh, more ashen char flaking away, and tiny trails gouging through the raw skin beneath, leaving thin streams of blood. The thing paid the pain no mind. The trails bubbled, and darkened, more of that aloe coating seeping out from the thing’s pores and the wounds knitted together, solidifying into that burnt flesh layer, as if lava cooling upon colliding with the sea.

          Lori clenched her jaw and swallowed back a lump of bile. She felt certain she was going to retch, and not so much because of the grotesque nightmare playing out before her, but more from the putrid rot that clung to it. The smell choked her, a tangible filth, almost like a thin layer of soot that stubbornly blanketed the room. Her eyes watered from the smell.

          All the while, Beverly jumped and barked from beneath the bed, and that thing, that burnt man continued to strain, squeezing through the broken door. It seemed a man, too, didn’t it? If it bore some kin to humanity, Lori had no doubt it was male.

          She knew she needed to go before it forced its way in or broke down the door completely, yet, Beverly would not quiet. Lori glared at her, and motioned for her to sit and shush, but the dog was in no mood for tricks. If that thing made it in, would it kill her?

          Lori cursed herself then hauled her legs back from the ledge and into her bedroom. She had to move fast. As she landed, the burnt thing, the man at the door, snarled and stretched open its mouth, the tiny split widening and ripping, as the fused flesh parted in a spray of spittle and blood. The crimson stained its yellowed teeth, a blood wash that clung to the gums, as if some hideous image of decay you might see tacked up in a sadistic dentist’s office.

          Lori darted for her closet, sliding across the wood floor, and crashing into the hanging clothes. She brushed them aside, rummaging through the junk cluttering the back of the closet, and yanked out a small tote dog carrier. As she turned back, heart pounding, she heard a rending noise, then a clatter from her bedroom. She sped to shut the door, only as she slid out reaching out for the handle she found a puzzling scene.

          Broken wooden shards lay strewn about the entryway to her room, but the torn maw lay open and shattered, and the door held. The thing, the burnt man, was gone.

          Where the fuck is he?

          In a frenzied hurry she scanned the room, but she did not see him. Shit, shit, shit.

          Don’t panic, she thought, only it was the perfect time to panic. In the history of the whole damn universe, this was the time to panic. Henceforth, if one were to look up panic, this would be listed as the epitome of the appropriate moment to go bat shit crazy with it. There was no doubt in Lori’s mind.

          Only if she panicked, she died.

          She threw back her head, in a silent, frustrated laugh. She couldn’t see that thing, and that was so much worse than seeing it. Especially, as she could still smell it. Its rot still hung over the room. It hadn’t left.

Back to Part 1

The Silence of Alium – Chapter 1

ID 36883161 © Andrey Armyagov | Dreamstime

By Chris Hutton

Author’s Note:

Yes, today is supposed to be a writing blog, but I have a story itching to get out and I couldn’t shut it up until I wrote it. So I hope you enjoy the beginning of The Silence of Alium. I will return to the blog soon.


1 – The Burning Sky

          The stars shined through the black of space, tiny pinpricks of light, distant beacons sending out messages from the past. How they shined! Their light did not twinkle, but rather, with no atmosphere to refract that light, shone true and steady. No matter how many times he witnessed their brilliance in the unimpeded vacuum of space, Dr. Carlo Offredi never ceased to be amazed by their majesty.

          How many of those distant systems had already blinked out of existence, he wondered as he stared out through one of three small porthole-like windows. They were positioned in a circle in the upper portion of the descent capsule, three skylights to the universe beyond. As the faintest tug of gravity settled him into his seat, the doctor continued to ponder the view.

          How many billions of Earth analogs had formed, their own ecosystems evolving and collapsing and their species never escaping their individual geocentric understanding of the heavens? Then again, how many of those systems spawned life at all, let alone life that freed itself from the constraints of its birth planet and fled out into the stars?

          He liked to think that the number was beyond measure, but Carlo had grown to doubt the probability of intelligent life. The numbers were in its favor, but centuries of interstellar exploration had turned up hundreds of habitable Earth analogs, a good five percent of which supported native life, but none of which showed signs of intelligence or civilization. Each such life-bearing planet had been quarantined, allowing only for the presence of a minimal research crew, which had to operate under the strictest of procedures. Abiding by the Centauri Mandates was a must, along with the ELP provisions of the Space Settlement Act of 2069 and all subsequent Amendments. Essentially where there was life there was bureaucracy to oversee it – and Dr. Carlo Offredi was part of that machine.

          “Doc, you secure?” Staff Sergeant Simmons locked his ever vigilant gaze on Dr. Offredi.

          “Yes, Simmons. Not my first rodeo.” Carlo gave his safety harness a firm tug, visual confirmation that he was secure.

          A safety light glinted off of Simmons’ bald pate providing a halo effect around him as he stared down the doctor. He cast a striking silhouette, his dark features lost in the resulting shadow. Carlo thought the man looked like an angel, a solid, immovable angel that he sure as hell didn’t want to cross.

          “Good.” Simmons nodded, then turned to his second-in-command.

          “Sergeant Robles, call platoon leader and confirm package Omega is secure.”

          “Yes, sir.” Robles, strapped in so tight it was a wonder the harness wasn’t cutting off circulation, tapped an earpiece and began barking up the chain of command. Carlo tuned him out.

          He tried to revert his gaze to the stars, but their uninterrupted brilliance had abated, the characteristic twinkle of atmospheric interference just beginning.

          Bang!

          The pop of the metal reverberated throughout the capsule.

          Bang!

          Bang!

          Directly across from Carlo, a young soldier, eighteen at most and baby-faced as they came, jumped in his seat. He rose balloon-like, floating and slowly drifting under the minimal gravity. At his apex he grabbed at his unfastened safety harness, pulling himself into his seat as the continued shaking of the descent capsule jostled him from side to side. The newest member of the squad, Private Bills worked clumsily at his harness attempting to secure the straps but fumbling his grip with each bang. The whole capsule shook.

          “It’s like a train wreck,” Private Bills said. “Nah, nah, it’s like a train wreck followed by a train wreck, followed by ten more train wrecks.” At last he buckled the first strap of the five-point harness, and smiled as if he had just won a marksmanship award, or whatever it was soldiers did. Dr. Offredi was along for the ride, but he wasn’t military.

          Private Second Class Varma chimed in. He looked old for a private, maybe just a few years shy of Carlo, but he also looked more seasoned than even the sergeants. Varma was a bulwark of a man, a literal human shield. He hadn’t even bothered to strap in but was standing aloft, or more accurately swaying as gravity slowly increased, and holding a safety handle above his seat as he rode through the turbulence. “You been in many train wrecks, Bills?”

          Bills grinned, a cocky smirk. He hadn’t learned the pecking order yet. “Does your mom count?”

          Before Varma could respond, Bills doubled over. “Oh holy balls, I’m going to throw up.”

          “First drop?” Carlo asked.

          Bills’ team sergeant spoke up, Sergeant Lance. She exuded calm. “Yeah. New blood,” she said, taking no notice of the loud fireworks popping and banging at the tin can protecting them from what would otherwise mean certain death. “We’re poppin’ his cherry.”

          “No,” Bills chimed in. “I thought I made it clear. Varma’s momma already took care of that.”

          “Stow it, Private.”

          Yet another private piped up. They had a full house. The squad was divided into two four-man teams, Able and Baker, each commanded by a Sergeant and both under the command of Staff Sergeant Simmons. With Dr. Offredi included, the capsule held ten passengers in close quarters. As the pull of gravity increased, Carlo could tell his sense of smell was returning. Based on the cramped conditions, and the adrenaline-fueled descent complete with macho posturing and rather rank body odors, he wished that his sinuses had stayed clogged.

          “Lock that in your V-containment or I’m going to pummel you when we land, Bills.” Private First Class Ruegger. Thin, spectacled, he looked the part of a young commissioned officer or a specialist. How he’d wound his way into the rank and file of the enlisted, Carlo couldn’t even hazard a guess.

          “Just say barf bag you pretentious fuck.” Private Second Class Waller, Walker. Ah hell, Carlo couldn’t keep track.

          “Say, again?”

          “You heard me.”

          The two continued to bicker. Across the way Bills clicked together the last buckle of his harness, while Varma continued to ride the turbulence. Sergeant Lance had shut her eyes and tuned everyone out, and Sergeant Robles was still barking into his ear piece. The last two privates were strapped in just to Carlo’s left. One, a young Korean man, leafed through the pages of a creased, dime store paperback. Carlo didn’t know his name, but he did know the woman sitting just beyond him. Private Karzai. She stared out at the stars, watching as Offredi had moments earlier, oblivious to the bickering. Catching his gaze she smiled at Carlo.

          “Enjoying the view, doctor?”

          Is she talking about the stars or something else? Carlo assumed it had been the stars. The good doctor knew his place in the colonial order. A military woman like Karzai would eat him alive.

          “Doctor?”

          “Yes, very much so.”

          Bills interrupted. “Come on, doc. You can’t be telling me this don’t feel like a shit ton of train wrecks to you, can ya?”

          Bang!

          Bang!

          Bang!

          The capsule continued to shake as it plunged into the atmosphere, the violence of the descent increasing exponentially.

          “As I said, not my first rodeo.” He was posturing, playing along with the enlisted. That wasn’t like Offredi. He feared he might be trying to impress Private Karzai.

          “Anyone else feel like they’re in a train wreck?” Lance. She didn’t even open her eyes as she spoke, her voice smooth and serene – at complete peace.

          “Hell no, sir,” Walker/Waller grunted. All officers were called sir, regardless of gender. “She rides like a beaut.”

          Varma, still riding out the bucking and popping of the descent, agreed. “Best damn roller coaster at the fair.”

          Karzai tapped Carlo on the shoulder, then pointed up to the windows. “You’re about to miss the best part.”

          Carlo gripped the sides of his seat, using every ounce of self control that he had to not white knuckle his chair as the capsule listed side to side while the atmosphere outside buffeted at its thin metal shell. “No. Not for the world.”

          With great control, and far less nonchalance than he had hoped, Dr. Offredi turned his head up to the three upper portholes. The sky beyond burned, flames licking at the windows, and the deep blue of Alium’s atmosphere tinting a cherry red, darkening to a burnt umber, and at last to black as the windows’ protective layer crisped in the fireball of atmospheric entry. As even the black began to flake away Carlo could see wisps of ablative shielding shriveled like burning paper, disintegrating into charred curly-cues before peeling completely away and being consumed in the flames.

          BANG!

          The entire capsule shook, slamming in every which direction as the atmospheric friction battered it on all sides. Varma held tight to the grip handle, but his muscles bulged and his veins distended under the strain as gravity slowly took greater and greater hold.

          “Buckle up, Private.” Sergeant Lance opened one drowsy eye as she spoke, watching to see that she was obeyed. The soldiers knew their place. Orders were not to be tested.

          “Yes, sir.” Varma waited until the capsule listed just right, then lurched into his chair using the momentum and the renewed gravity to propel himself into the safety of the crash couch.

          He deftly maneuvered his straps buckling and securing the five-point harness with practiced ease. “Tight as a bug in a rug, sir.”

          Carlo closed his eyes and settled his head back into the contours of his cushioned headrest. His skull sank into the soft security of its safety, minimizing the painful jolts of the violent entry, but the crash couch could do little to minimize the strain as gravity tugged him down towards Alium and returned weight to his atrophied limbs. He could feel the heaviness of his boots anchoring his feet to the aluminum-lithium alloy flooring, and even his hands felt like lead weights pinning down his arms.

          “Focus on your breathing, or the slow whistle of winds returning. Anything but your weight.”

          The voice came from his left. Carlo didn’t need to open his eyes to know it had been Private Karzai. His stomach tingled, a lightness erupting in it that he hadn’t felt since he was a teenager. Hell, Carlo. Get a grip. You’re a grown man. A professional. Not some daft kid.

          The effort was futile. He couldn’t will the emotion aside. Even as he cursed himself for his crush and swore it off, he simultaneously felt mortified that Karzai had witnessed him in a moment of weakness.

          At last he did as she said, focusing on the in and out of his breath. Still gravity yanked him down, the growing awareness of weight a sucker punch to his gut. So much for that.

          He shifted his attention to the increasing cacophony that engulfed the capsule. The descent vehicle bucked against the external pressures, the metal continuing to pop.

          Bang.

          BANG!

          He had become accustomed to this sound, although Private Bills still appeared to be struggling to remain in his seat, his every instinct screaming for him to run. And why shouldn’t that be his instinct? What rational mind thought it was sane to hurtle towards a planet trapped in a tin can engulfed in flames relying on a couple parachutes and a few retro rockets to hopefully slow your momentum just enough that you weren’t obliterated on impact? In what universe did that qualify as an acceptable method of travel?

          His eyes still shut, Carlo focused as a high whistle joined the loud banging. Slowly the whistle eased off to an even keel of high winds howling just beyond the windows. He opened his eyes. The protective layer on the windows had all but burnt away and the blue of Alium’s atmosphere once more dominated Carlo’s line of sight. It rushed by the last of the flames dying off, and Carlo gave up all attempt at grandstanding. He white knuckled his chair, fully aware of what came next. There was was no manual override and the backup was subpar at best. The automated system would kick in or it wouldn’t. In the history of planetary colonization and manned atmospheric entries, this next stage was the critical phase – the one most likely to result in a catastrophic failure. If their descent were to fail this would be the point where it all fell apart.

          Private Bills faked a cool smile, as if his shaken grin could cover for the rivers of sweat drowning his uniform. “Hell, that wasn’t so bad.”

          He had no idea.

          The chute opened and the descent capsule yanked back with incredible ferocity. The world blurred as the capsule swayed in all directions. The sudden and violent shift made the popping of atmospheric entry seem like an evening stroll. The wind screamed, their descent rapidly slowing even as the capsule rocked back and forth with an increasingly erratic intensity.

          That’s when Carlo heard it. Amidst the howls of the wind came the unmistakable sound of ripping cloth. The parachute had torn.

The Dark Beneath – Part Two

© © Ilkin Guliyev | ID 91026947

By Christopher Opyr


          Thirty minutes passed with Lori staring out the window, considering her options. She didn’t open it. She knew once she did she’d have to be prepared for anything. If It heard the window being forced open she might not have much time to react. So instead, she stared out through the dirty panes of glass into the grey of the Los Angeles night. Lights blinked to life in the nearby buildings and cars sped by below, but she had seen no one close enough for her to ask for help without being heard by that thing in the hallway.

          As she stared, hoping for some answer to miraculously appear, she caught a glimpse of her reflection in the glass. A nesty welt rose just below her hairline, scrapes and minor cuts covered her arms, and bruises loomed everywhere. Every inch of her ached, her side and the fractured rib most of all.

          She hugged herself tight, that beast right outside her door, and let herself slip away.


***


          The Badgers were down by one in the bottom of the seventh to the Coyotes. They already had two outs and as she stepped to the plate, Lori was very aware that any chance at staying in the game rested on her turn at bat. Ready, her bat raised and her eye on the pitcher, Lori prayed she didn’t screw this up. The other girls on the team weren’t fond of her. She didn’t buy into their shit, and hadn’t bothered to try to endear herself to them. If the loss fell on her, she’d never hear the end of it. Lori glanced to Joy Stevens. The barbie doll blonde danced on third base. One decent hit from Lori and the Badgers could at the least tie up the match.

          Whack!

          The pitch came in hard and fast, right as Lori glanced to Joy, but it was off. Lori felt the pain burst in her eye as the ball connected right in her face. Her head whipped back and Joy fell into the dust behind home plate. As she winced and the fairy lights in the black that clouded her vision, she could hear Coach Edwards telling her not to move. She could feel his calloused hands on her neck and cheek as he examined her face.

          At the same time, she could feel the blood from her busted brow dripping down towards her. She could taste it as the blood trickled from her nose and back down her throat. She opened her good eye and she could see the pitcher smirk. That jerk had meant to hit her. She’d done it on purpose.

          “Lori, how many fingers?”

          The coach waved his hand stupidly in front of her, but she didn’t have time for this shit. She could feel a rage building up inside her and before she knew what she was doing she was on her feet, pushing past her coach and through her teammates. They had crowded to see the blood, surely, because not a one gave two craps what happened to her.

          “Lori!” Coach Edwards again. He said something else after, but Lori was already two thirds of the way to the pitcher’s mound and didn’t have time for his nonsense.

          “Hey, that looks like it hurt.” The Coyotes’ pitcher stood a good six inches taller than Lori and absolutely confident in her upper hand. “Maybe you should go put some ice on that.”

          Lori had thought about saying something witty – all the cool action stars did – but she was pretty certain she’d just screw it up. Best just to let her actions speak for her.

          She feinted for the pitcher’s face then sucker-punched her gut. As she doubled over she kneed her in the face.


***


          Lori smiled at the memory of it. She’d been kicked off the team for that stunt, but she’d never liked those girls anyway. Now, looking at her battered reflection, she realized she hadn’t had a broken bone since that ball fractured her eye-socket. It had hurt like nothing had since, not even the fracture in her rib, and she had stood her ground. She could do so again.

          Outside the door she could hear the gurgled breathing of that man-thing. In her final flight into the room it had been obvious it was almost human, like a walking corpse covered in third degree burns or even worse. It’s skin felt crisp beneath the wet of that outer layer, like aloe spread over a blackened char. The breathe continued slow and steady and wet. It was waiting.


***


          Lori hadn’t tamed with age, not really. She had perhaps grown less physical, but had become quite prone to focal confrontations. Much like with her fellow Badgers, this trait had done little to endear her with coworkers or employers. She’d held a slew of jobs since graduating summa cum laude, most well below her skill level.

          Currently she was on her third year as a project manager with an entertainment marketing firm, Spotlight 15. They were small time, mainly working in the digital space, though the firm had grabbed an Emmy campaign for a streaming startup last year. That had been their biggest campaign yet. Her employer hadn’t let her anywhere near it. Instead she’d been stuck on the marketing campaign for a direct to video sequel for some aged action star nearing his seventies. They were all the same to her, and though she’d felt the campaign was beneath her, she’d played her part.

          And when Teddy from accounts tried to steal her copywriter two days before deadline to help with that Emmy campaign, Lori had flipped her shit. There was no way in hell she was going to miss her deadline because Teddy wanted to start prep two months before the client needed copy approval. Hell with that.

          Teddy lit red when she refused to let him take her writer. He’d been ready to have her fired. Then this junior, this account manager in training, steps in trying to persuade Lori to calm down. He tries to tell her that they only need the copywriter for a day and that he can get back on her campaign before deadline. Yeah, right. Because accounts always got shit done on time. No, she lit in him, too.

          He’d fought right back. Dean had a much stronger backbone than Eddie. She had started dating him three months later. And he never did get that copywriter.


***


          Crap, she thought. Dean!

          Lori glanced to the clock on her nightstand. Dean was supposed to arrive in fifteen minutes. She had to act now.

          For not the first time, Lori cursed herself for having set her phone in the organizer in the foyer. She couldn’t call to warn Dean, and her computer was in her home office so she couldn’t login and message him either. Being nine floors up, she didn’t suspect anyone in the street would pay her any mind, and she couldn’t yell to them without drawing that thing’s attention. She could try to get someone a message though. All her paper was in her home office, along with her pens and markers, but there had to be something that she could do.

          She looked giving her room a once-over and at first saw nothing of use. Then, her gaze fixed on the master bath. She had an idea.

          Roughly ten feet stood between her and the bathroom, and its door was catty-corner to the bedroom entrance, and the thing on the other side of that threshold. She’d have to approach as quietly as possible.

          Sticking out from under the bed she could see the soft, fluffy heels of her bedroom slippers. She inched over as quietly as she could and slipped them on. As she did, she knelt and glanced under the bed. Beverly had crammed herself all the way back against the wall just beneath the headboard and buttressed by a nightstand. The dog was sound asleep. How long had she been trapped in the apartment with this thing? How exhausted did that dog have to be to have fallen asleep with It right outside the door?

          No matter the answer, Lori decided it was for the best. If Beverly stayed asleep, stayed quiet, she should be safe until Lori could get help.

          Lori rose and tip-toed in her slippered feet towards the master bath. The cushion of the slippers dulled the noise of her footsteps, and yet she thought she could make a change in the breathing beyond the bedroom door. Was she imagining it, or was it growing faster, almost as if it were anticipating her approach. She could still hear the wet gurgle caught in each breath, but even that had lessened, the exhalations now taking on a more raspy quality. She paused three feet from the door. There was something else besides the breathing, something fast, almost like running water. No, that wasn’t right – not running water, but boiling water.

          Lori lost traction beneath her slipper, tumbling to the floor with a loud thud. Immediately the bedroom door bulged, straining at its hinges as that thing outside slammed against again.

          Wham!

          The door bulged again. Lori fixated on the hinges, watching as they shifted. One of three screws on the top hinge seemed to be loosening and the side plate was prying loose from the frame.

          Wham!

          It hit again, and this time the door splintered. Lori didn’t dare move. She waited for the next battering, for that thing to break the door completely. As she waited, her gaze shifted between the loosening plate of the hinge and the ragged crack in the center of the door. Too many points of weakness.

          A minute passed and then another, yet it did not attack the door again. Slowly its breathing settled and she could hear its footfalls as it retreated elsewhere into the dark of the apartment. This was her moment.

          Careful to regain her balance, Lori rose to her feet and tiptoed the rest of the way to the master bath. Her overhead lights and the exhaust were connected so she didn’t flick the switch. If that thing came back, if any sound drew it, she doubted the door would last. As quietly as she could she slid open her makeup drawer, rummaged in, and pulled out a tube of lipstick. Muted rose. It would have to do.

          Two drawn out minutes later and she had returned to the bedroom window without alerting that thing, whatever it was. She opened the tube of lipstick and carefully scrawled a message on the window so that would be legible from outside.

Intruder. Call 911. Apt. 905

          That done, she examined her handiwork. The letters could have been larger and the color didn’t pop as much as she would have liked, but the message was direct and impossible to misinterpret. With the light on in her bedroom the message should be readable. She only had to hope that someone, anyone, would see it and call for help.

          With nothing left to be done, she settled to the floor, her back to the wall. On her nightstand the clock continued to while away the minutes. Dean was due in five. She hoped he’d be late, and though she didn’t believe in a higher power, she prayed nonetheless. She prayed that someone would call for help before Dean also stumbled in on this nightmare. She prayed and she waited.

Back to Part 1

The Dark Beneath – Part One

© © Ilkin Guliyev | ID 91026947

By Christopher Opyr


          Lori huddled, arms clasped around her knees, in the furthest, darkest corner of the closet, her eyes fixated on the open door. A clump of blouses and dresses swayed, rocking back and forth on their hangers like silk pendulums, partially eclipsing her view as they reached the zenith of their movement. Her breath slowed into deep but rhythmic exhalations, even as her grasp on her knees tightened, and the clothes gently eased to rest, the wake of her hurried flight into the closet now little more than a splintered memory.

          She closed her eyes and focused on her breathing until it too at last softened, evening out. No longer feeling as though she would hyperventilate at any moment, Lori struggled to envision the thing in her kitchen. She had never caught more than a vague impression of it, each glimpse either a dim, peripheral rorschach or a kaleidoscopic flurry too disjointed to take form.


***


          She had just emptied her pockets into the wall organizer in the foyer, her keys clattering softly against the other discarded keys in the storage cube. She had been making her way around the threshold into the kitchen to grab a snack when she first spotted the flicker of movement out of the corner of her eye.

          Lori lived alone, and the only other person with a key was her boyfriend, Dean. They had plans for the evening, but he wasn’t supposed to be off work for another hour yet, and even if he had cut out early, he wouldn’t have sulked around her kitchen in the dark.

          Lori knew it wasn’t him in her apartment. She knew it deep down, and yet that nagging doubt, that inescapable voice of reason, assured her it must be him in her home. She couldn’t help herself. Instinctually she called out. Lori spoke her mind. Always had.

          “Who’s there? Dean, if that’s you, I’m going to kick your –”

          She never finished speaking. She didn’t see it, but she heard the clatter of dishes shattering and silverware falling as that thing leapt to life. What had at first appeared as an amorphous shadow, a darker discoloration within an already darkened room, burst forward with a rapidity that bordered on the absurd. Instantly the thing darted out of the kitchen nook and blasted into the foyer smashing into her. Lori shot back against the door and slumped to the floor, a spasm shooting up her back. She gasped in pain and it was once again upon her. Legs and arms pumping in fevered fragments – broken images piercing the dark but never coalescing. Before she could even focus on it, the thing ripped her from the floor and hurtled her down the hall and deeper into the apartment.

          She had landed with a sharp impact against the hall bench, her head drumming from the blow. Her vision swam, bursts of light salting the dark, and she dropped motionless, unable to get her bearings. Before she could even cry out, the world had gone black.


***


          When she came to, silence reigned. Silence and darkness.

          That had been the first thing Lori noticed. Then came the pain, her head throbbing. Her teeth clenched, gritting against the pulsing and a sudden wave of nausea. Finally, it clicked.

          Nausea and pain. She was still breathing – sore and spinning and struggling with an urge to retch, but breathing. Whatever it was in her apartment, it could have easily ripped her apart while she lay unconscious on the floor. Instead it had left her there.

          It.

          At that moment she had realized that she was convinced that it was just that: an it. Lori was not a believer in the paranormal; she wasn’t some New Age adherent fond of crystals and the healing power of positivity, nor religious by any means, traditional or otherwise. She believed in science, in hard evidence. Still she knew what she had seen was not definable by pre-existing means. And where did that leave her? Her worldview tilted askew and collapsed. She could almost hear it shatter.

          Another breath and the image of that shadow form flooded over her. As she had turned the bend from the foyer asking Dean to reveal himself and just before the flurry of movement, she had seen a tall shadow climbing the wall, cast by the dim twilight easing through the window. The shadow had shifted with her entrance, contorted and reversed, and on its edge, as it twisted back, lept a glimmer of the thing, the substance casting that shadow. It stood tall yet also hunched over and primal, a deep pocket of darker black within black.

          Still, she could have believed it no more than a simple intruder (was there such a thing as a simple intruder?) had it not been for its skin. She had caught just a momentary look upon its face as it propelled itself forward and those last words stuck in her throat. It’s skin had rippled and bubbled, almost as if burnt and liquified, melted back to reveal muscle and bone. Yet rather than dripping, the river of skin clung to its shape, shifting and sculpting into a living form.

          That’s when she had noticed the smell as well, as if food had been left in the drain to mold and rot. The stench latched on and she found herself once more fighting back a deep urge to vomit.


***


          Even there in the closet Lori could smell it, although not so much it, as the memory of it, as if just thinking about the thing summoned forth that putrid rot. She pulled up her blouse, covering her nose to block out the smell, but it had little impact – the stench called out by memory more than actuality. Yet as she shifted the blouse up, she noticed the gentle spray of blood on her hands.


***


          As she came to, the memory of that thing disrupting the delicate balance of Lori’s perception of the universe, her first instinct had been to dash back the way she had come and out the front door, yelling for help. Instead, she had held back.

          It had left her alone. Quiet and still, unconscious on the floor, the thing had lost its interest in her. Lori didn’t know if was the lack of movement or the lack of sound, but she felt confident whatever it was in her apartment, it wasn’t tracking her by simple sight or smell. As best she could tell, it either hunted by movement or noise. Of course that left a dilemma. There was no safe way to determine how it hunted and come up with a plan. She could make a sound and see if it came back, or she could walk quietly and hope it didn’t see movement.

          Actually, come to think of it, while she couldn’t test her theory without risk, there was only one good course of action – besides laying still on the floor and hoping help comes. No way Lori was waiting. Lori acted. That’s who she was, and this thing wouldn’t rob that from her. It had already silenced her. That was more than enough.

          She’d have to try to slip out silently and hope it tracked by sound, not movement. The only other option was to make a sound and see what happened, which only had one of two endings: one, it didn’t hear her and Lori would continue laying motionless on the floor; or two it did hear her and it came back to finish the job. Not satisfied with either possibility, Lori mentally prepared to make a slow, silent break for the door.

          Before she could, however, she heard a quiet whimper from beneath the couch: Beverly, her Pomeranian. Lori had no idea how long Beverly had been hiding there, but she saw her master now, and those eyes looked up at her with a mix of excitement and anxiety, begging for her help.

          Lori fought back the protective impulse to charge for her precious dog, to scoop her up and run her to safety. Instead she merely glanced at her to see that she was okay, then glanced away. If she looked at Beverly too much, the dog would bound right over and Lori couldn’t risk that. She lay motionless struggling to form a new plan. Beverly watched from under the couch. The twilight creeping through the window grew dimmer and vanished. Still nothing seized upon Lori. No demon of the dark tore her from her prone position. Lori just lay there, holding her breath, awaiting the inevitable, stuck trying to find any way to reach Beverly and not get killed.

          At that moment, a footstep sounded from behind her, sloshing against the wood paneling. Then another, and another. Each footfall came slow and steady, each wet and slick. At last she caught sight of a bare foot halfway between her and the couch or what should have been a foot. Here too the skin pulsed, blackened and veined in red, like cracks in a parched landscape, only a layer of water and puss gelled over the burnt surface of the skin.

          Lori didn’t dare move or make a sound. She lay motionless as the thing inched further into the living room. From her position on the floor she could make out no more than its feet in the growing dark, approaching ever closer to Beverly. The Pomeranian had shrunk further back beneath the couch, a trail of urine streaking back towards it. Lori desperately wanted to help her, and in that instant, Beverly locked eyes with her master and yelped.

          The thing leapt forth and flung the couch aside as if tossing a ball. The sofa crashed back with brute force cracking open the drywall and smashing to the ground. As it did, Beverly yelped once more and skittered across the wood floor searching for cover. Lori could see those blackened feet dashing after her baby, and without thinking she rose and screamed.

          Immediately the thing pivoted, and she felt the impact of its wet fist slamming her across her midsection. She doubled over and shot through the air slamming into a large, potted ficus, and fell to the floor in a tangle of branches, leaves, and potting mix.

          Sound. It definitely tracked by sound.

          Lori lay still, motionless and more importantly quiet as possible. Her body ached all over, bruises forming over bruises, and with each breath she could feel a stabbing sensation. Lori was not accustomed to injury, but she felt certain she had fractured a rib.
Laying there as motionless as possible she felt that rib, what she assumed was her rib, pressing in, pain rippling up from the break, and from the movement of bone against bone. If she could just shift, maybe the pain would ease.

          Then beneath all the pain she felt a broken branch lodged beneath her, the splinters of wood digging into her shirt and scratching at the skin of her back. She tried to focus on anything but the pain, but that left her instead focusing on that deep itch and the increasingly irresistible urge to scratch it. A shift just an inch to the right and maybe, just maybe, she could relieve the pain, but if not, she could at least shift off that damned branch.

          She tensed her abs and locked her elbows. Time to move. On three, she thought. One. It would feel so good to just not have that branch under her. Two. Of course, chances were her rib would hurt like hell. Would she scream? Three. She didn’t move. How could she? That thing was still here somewhere.

          What a coward. She rolled her eyes at herself. Or rational-thinking adult not interested in being mauled to death. Yeah, that too. Of course, in that moment she was back at square one – prone on the floor waiting without a plan.

          In a moment bordering on deja-vu Beverly yapped again, this time from down the hall towards the bedroom. Again Lori heard the rapid charge of It, of the thing in her apartment. Beneath its heavy footfalls she could just make out the scampering pitter-patter of Beverly’s paws on the wood.

          Lori braved a look. At the end of the hallway, she saw once again that hunched, primal shadow, that flickering discoloration in the black. She couldn’t see Beverly clearly, but she could sense movement along the floor line, and assumed that was her, cornered and skittering in circles. In the opposite direction, she saw the front door, nothing between her and escape. All she had to do was get on her feet and make a mad dash. Maybe fifteen feet or so, and she could be out of this nightmare.

          She looked back to the dark, where Beverly barked at the thing that had invaded her apartment. How did it even get here? What was it? She needed answers, but more than anything she needed to act. Lori acted. That’s what she did. For too long that night she had felt herself benched.

          She shifted her hand ever so slightly, tightening it around the broken branch beneath her back. Her fingers traced a slow path along its contours until finding its tip. She felt a needle of pain as she pressed down. The branch was plenty sharp.
Lori stood, careful to make as little noise as possible, and shuffled forward inch by inch. Ten feet between her and Beverly. Nine feet. Eight feet. Seven feet.
The shadow at the end of the hall stopped, and so did she. Lori held her breath, lest the slightest noise tip that thing off. A smaller shadow continued darting across the floor, but before it could escape, the larger hunched back down and swiped at it. Wood paneling cracked and ripped from the floor, but the dog remained unscathed.

          Six feet. Five feet.

          Spotting Lori, Beverly made a dash for her owner, but the intruder pivoted into the dog’s path. Desperate and cornered, the Pomerania bit into the thing’s ankle. A guttural, gurgling howl broke through the night and that thing reared back. Lori took her moment.

          Four feet. Three feet. Two.

          She stabbed down with the splintered branch as hard as she could thrusting deep into the base of the creature’s neck. It jerked away, flailing frantically, a thin spray of arterial blood misting out. Instinctually, Lori raised her hands to shield her face.


***


          Lori let out another deep and silent breath, then lowered her hands. As the beast squirmed and pulled at the branch sticking from its neck, Lori had been caught with her retreat blocked. With no choice she had opened the bedroom and fled inside. She shut the door gently, hoping the distracted beast would not notice nor hear, then propped a desk chair beneath the handle. She considered pushing her dresser over and barricading herself in, but was fairly sure the thing would have heard her and rushed in.

          Moments later, afraid to test her temporary security, Lori had fled into the closet, while Beverly hid far back under the bed. It was best that way. If her dog could see her, if they were hiding together, Lori doubted she would have stayed silent.

          Of course, once more Lori found herself motionless and hiding. Her heart pounded in her chest, sweat drenched her clothes, and her side ached more than ever. Another stabbing pain coursed over her and Lori wondered how long she could go without seeing a doctor. How long could she last without treatment?

          She didn’t even notice she had risen to her feet until she came to staring out her window. Her apartment was nine floors up, looking out onto downtown Los Angeles. She didn’t have a balcony off her bedroom but a ledge about six inches wide ran the perimeter of the building, just a foot below the windows. One bend around the building corner, and another ten feet and she’d be at the living room balcony. It would be a short dash from the living room to the front door, but if that thing was still waiting outside her bedroom, then it just might be possible. Fifteen feet total stood between her and escape.

          Of course, she had to be certain. She scanned a nearby nightstand, grabbed an empty tic-tac container, and threw it at the door. A great clawing lashed at the door and it shook upon its hinges, but the chair beneath the handle did not budge. Yes, It was still out there.

Hunger – Part 2

© Paraschiv George Gabriel | Dreamstime.com – Dental Xray right half

By Christopher Opyr


          ‘…always hungry.’ John could still hear his son’s words and he could see that look, those hopeful eyes, like Nicholas thought his father could do something, anything, to make him better. That he thought that somehow, his dad could take the pain and the hunger away.

          He pitied his son that blind faith in one’s father. There was a time that he had mourned for the loss of faith in his own father, but after Nicholas was born, he understood that no man could live up to the adoration placed upon them by their children. Now, when his own son needed him most, John knew that there was little he could do to help. Discipline wouldn’t cut it.

          He swept into the kitchen, popped open a beer, and chugged it back. John didn’t cope well with failure. When you had a job to complete, success was the only option. Yet no matter how he looked at the problem, he couldn’t see a way to help his son – not any method that he would have previously considered. The boy was scared. He was eating non-stop, talking to imaginary friends, and at the same time, Nicholas was just as mortified by his own decline as his parents were worried about it.

          John cast himself back into his armchair, and took another swallow of beer. A commercial for a local car dealership interrupted the preseason match as it went into the second quarter. John shut his eyes and tried to escape from the stress that tore at him. He might have to listen to Emily; he might have to let her take the boy to Brynn Marr. He hated to admit that – he’d have to think of some excuse, some way of making sure it came across as his idea, not an acquiescence to her. Giving ground would be a mistake. He wouldn’t let her have that.

          “John?”

          He sighed. “Yes, Em?”

          “How’d it go?”

          Like shit, he thought. The boy’s screwed. Something’s loose upstairs and there isn’t a damn thing we can do about it. Of course the truth hurt. Emily didn’t need that.

          “It went great, hon,” he said. “We’ll get this worked out. I promise.” No need for any more detail until he could figure out how to get his son seen without Emily gloating. Plus he’d have to find some way to do it quietly. If Nicholas saw a shrink, no one needed to know. It needed to stay a private concern – family only.

          “So he’s going to what, diet? Do extra chores? Exercise?”

          “I told you he’s going to be fine. I’ve got it covered.”

          John swigged from his beer again. Em needed to leave him alone already.

          “Yeah, but how?”

          “Christ, Em! Just let me be.”

          “Don’t raise your voice. He’ll hear.”

          “Em, enough. Can you stop pestering for five seconds? I just want to watch the game.”

          “Okay.” Emily raised her hands in surrender, then turned and fled. John could hear her footfalls, slow and heavy as she retreated down the hall. Finally their bedroom door slammed behind her and the house returned to silence – all save for the gentle buzz of the TV.

          John smirked. I’m going to pay for that tonight. He glanced about spotting an afghan flung over the back of the couch. He leaned over, grabbed it and a small pillow and yanked them both back into his chair. He and the armchair had a long night ahead of themselves. Mentally exhausted, he closed his eyes and drifted off.


***


          He woke to the national anthem winding down as the American flag waved in a gentle breeze on the television screen. John blinked trying to gather his bearings. The song ended and the screen cut to static, the crinkle of the white noise echoing in the silence of the night. John winced at the sound and flicked off the set.

          Hell, he thought. I missed the entire game. He grabbed the warm beer from the end table beside him and swigged down the dregs of the bottle. That done, he reclined the chair and rolled back onto his pillow, squirming as he fought to get comfortable.

          As he settled in, ready to return to sleep, he marveled at the silence that ruled the house. A quiet coupled with the dark, blanketing every room. Outside he could hear crickets, and the mating call of a lone frog. The refrigerator hummed in the kitchen, and a grandfather clock counted off the seconds with a slow, rhythmic ticking.

          John smiled, taking comfort in the quiet. The soft night sounds of a slumbering house had always put John at ease. He had spent many similar nights in his youth slumbering on the couch at his grandparents, that same grandfather clock ticking from their foyer. The familiarity soothed him.

          Then came the noise that he couldn’t place. It bubbled up, barely audible, a mix of hard and soft, fast and slow. It held an asymmetric quality, lacking any discernible rhythm – something organic and chaotic.

          John cast all thought of sleep aside and popped his ears trying to hone in on the sound. No matter how hard he tried, he just could not place it.

          “Em, is that you?” he asked. No answer came.

          Slowly he rose, noticing a faint light emanating from the kitchen. “Em?” he repeated. His question met with only more silence – more silence and that sickening, unplaceable sound scraping in the undercurrent.

          John peered around the doorway to the kitchen. The open refrigerator door hung ajar, its light cast out across the kitchen, shining on empty tupperware containers and discarded wrappers.

          John swore under his breath, then bent and collected the containers, depositing them in the sink. He glanced back at the wrappers, but decided that they could wait. Kicking the refrigerator door shut, he turned to leave, only before he could he noticed the open pantry. One glance inside revealed empty boxes and emptier shelves, along with a trash can overflowing with other cast aside food containers.

          That boy is going to eat our bank account down to zero, he thought. He needed to have a word with Emily. He’d be taking Nicholas to Brynn Marr in the morning. She could gloat all she wanted, they couldn’t take much more of this.

          John crept down the hall to the master bedroom, and gently eased open the door. Emily would still be mad about earlier, and he braced for that, knowing an argument was coming. Now, however, it was time to face that storm.

          “Hey, Em?”

          Again, nothing. The room was empty, the bedspread crumpled and tossed at an angle away from Emily’s side of bed. She was up and about after all.

          The master bathroom door hung half open, the room dark as the rest of the house. She wasn’t in the bathroom and she wasn’t in bed.

          “Emily, where are you?” This time he asked louder. If he woke Nicholas, so be it. He needed to talk to the boy again, anyway. Nick had gone too far with his midnight snack, and on top of that, John needed to have a talk with him about what the morning would bring – about Brynn Marr.

          “Emily, can you answer me?”

          John jumped as a loud ring pierced the silence, the grandfather clock chiming the hour. It stopped at three chimes. No answer followed; yet something else sounded in the wake of the clock. That same unplaceable sound: wet and yet almost a crunch. It sounded fast, then slowed, then sped up again, no rhythm to its tempo, no symmetry to form a pattern. Straining, John listened closer, then caught it: the unmistakeable rending of meat.

          After everything that they had discussed and the boy was eating in bed. John could feel his anger rising. He steeled himself. He had caved earlier, and now Nicholas was worse than ever. This time he had to be firm. He had to lay down the law.

          He opened the door and stepped into Nicholas’s room, then stopped, gagging as his breath caught in his throat.

          At the far end of the room, amid a nest of wrappers and half-devoured plates, lay Emily. She stared back at John, her neck twisted at impossible angle, her head hanging limp upside down, her jaw broken, and rivulets of blood leaking from her mouth and down into her hair. The rest of her body had contorted into a ball, bent and broken.

          There could be no doubt she was dead, and yet her corpse shifted in a small jerking pattern as that sound continued beneath. John could place it now, the sound of something eating, its teeth clacking against bone and tearing at meat, pausing as it consumed its kill, then resuming with another bite – a fresh rending.

          “Nick?” He didn’t want to even think it, but he couldn’t help himself. He pictured his son beneath that mass, eating and eating, sating the insatiable hunger that had plagued for months now. “Nicholas!”

          “Dad.”

          The door shut behind John revealing his son, clutching his knees and rocking, his back to the wall. John felt a moment of relief, then flinched as the low to which he had let himself fall sunk in. How could he even have thought for a second that his son was capable of an act so grotesque. That thought would plague John for the rest of his life, and yet, no time remained for such indulgences now.

          He grabbed a baseball bat from the floor and approached the broken remains of his wife. “You’re dead, mother fucker!”

          John heard himself scream those first words as he approached his wife’s body, then the pulsing anger drowned out all sound and all rational thought. He could feel the string of obscenities unleash, the spit and rage exploding forth, but time and space, sight and sound, all became meaningless, nothing more than background to the main event.

          He leapt behind Emily, ready for a man or even some wild animal, his bat swinging. It struck, the metal reverberating as it hit across something hard with a crack that John more sensed than heard, and simultaneously a soft give. That’s when the world exploded in a shrill creak-scream, an otherworldly mix of raspy violin chords tinged with a guttural bubble.

          John fell to his knees, his hands covering his ears, and his bat rolling away into the blood nest of discarded wrapper and meat scraps. Emily scraps?

          A pale form, almost translucent, jerked back, seizing as puss erupted from a crack along what John could only conceive of as a shell. It writhed, large, lobster-like claws clacking as they ripped away from Emily, and mandibles snapping, yet all too quick for John to catch a concrete glimpse before it burrowed beneath its macabre nest.

          “What the hell?” John skittered backwards across the floor, in an unsettlingly appropriate crab-walk.

          “Ade, dad,” Nicholas said from behind him. “Dad, Ade.”

          John glanced back. His son still set back to the wall by the door, but he had let go of his knees, his body slumping, legs now splayed out and his arms slack at his sides, as if a balloon deflating. And there was something more to that thought… John could still see the baby-like fat in his face, and multiple chins still consumed Nicholas’s neck, and yet, he seemed smaller somehow.

          “I don’t understand.”

          “She gave him to me.”

          “She who?” John rose, his gaze returning to the remains of his wife, even as he spoke to his son behind him. That thing was still in there somewhere.

          “I don’t know.” Nicholas said. “She was there when I found Matt, hiding in the mirrors. I only saw her for a moment.”

          “Nick, you’re not making sense.”

          Emily’s body shifted, her head tilting and the bulk of her mass shifting to one side. Somewhere below her that thing was moving. More, John had the distinct impression that it was burrowing.

          “She gave him to me. She reached through the window and she touched me and told me that everything would be okay.”

          His son wasn’t making any sense, but that was fine. He was alive. Right now life had just gone FUBAR. Sense could come later.

          “Nick,” John said, breaking through the crazy talk, “get the door. We have to go.”

          John kept his eyes on Emily’s body as it shifted, nothing left but a heap of pulverized bone and meat. As long as he kept his eyes on it, as long as he could see that thing coming, he and his son had a chance. Behind him, he heard Nicholas lift himself to his feet.

          “Good, son. Good. Now get the door.”

          “She gave him to me. ‘A friend for a friend,’ she said.”

          “Just get the door.” Emily’s body collapsed inward, then lay still. The wrappers and plates at the edge of the nest began to stir. “Now, Nicholas!”

          “I still don’t know if she meant a friend to replace Matt, or if she meant I was her friend and she was gifting me with a new friend. She didn’t stick around to explain, you know?”

          “Nicholas, get the damn door!”

          John turned, that pulsing anger resuming, not at his son, but at the whole situation. They had to leave immediately. As he shifted his gaze, his kneecap shattered and his world burst into a red flare of pain.

          John fell landing on the shattered knee and his world ruptured once more. He screamed and toppled to the floor, clutching at the broken mess of bone and flesh. As the red subsided, he caught sight of his son lifting a heavy meat tenderizer, then bringing it down with all his weight.

          John shifted, trying to roll away from blow. With the sudden movement Nicholas missed his other knee but the tenderizer still hammered home into John’s upper tibia. He screamed again as the bone fractured, then bit down on his lip. He could taste the blood trickling into his mouth and down his throat, yet he was thankful for it, as that new pain provided a momentary distraction from the absolute agony of his shattered legs.

          “What are you doing?” he said, struggling to get the words out.

          Nicholas stood above him, wiping a bead of sweat from his brow, and dropped the tenderizer to the floor.

          “I guess it doesn’t matter what she meant by it, really. She reached out from that glass, from within that window, and she touched me here, and Ade was born.” Nicholas patted at his stomach as he spoke, and with a growing sense of horror John realized what was so different about his son. His shirt hung loose, as if he had lost nearly twenty pounds in the span of a few hours.

          “Right here,” Nicholas repeated, lifting up his shirt to reveal folds of loose skin. In the center of those folds, John could just make out a large open wound. No blood poured from it, but a sticky mass coated its edges, like a glue sealing it shut.

          John scrambled back towards the door, dragging his legs behind him. He reached up to the handle, his fingers glancing against the knob, then slipping.

          “Don’t leave dad. It’s just me and you, now. Just me, you, and Ade.” Nicholas bent over, grabbing the tenderizer off the floor.

          “Why?” John asked, one hand reaching once more for the door, while the other grasped for anything that he could use to defend himself.

          “I don’t have a choice, dad.” Nicholas stopped, glancing back to his mother’s corpse, as if searching for his “friend” amidst its nest. “He depends on me.”

          “Then let him die.” John’s fingers caught on the handle once more. He twisted it and yanked the door open, falling back into the hallway.

          “You think it’s that easy? You think I haven’t thought of that?” Nicholas paused, cocking his head as if listening. As he did his brows furrowed, and he glanced back, his own rage bubbling to the surface.

          “Shut up,” he yelled. “I already let you have her.” He turned back to his father. “You hear this shit, dad? You hear what I have to put up with? It’s just never enough.”

          “It’s well beyond enough, son,” John dragged himself into the hall, his legs dangling behind him.

          “No, no, no, no!” Nicholas gripped at his head, ripping at his hair. “Fine!”

          He reached the door and slammed it as hard as he could, catching his dad’s mangled legs.

          John banged his fists against the floor, his eyes winced shut, and gritted his teeth against the wave of pain. How is this happening, he thought. This wasn’t reality; this wasn’t the world as he understood it. More, this wasn’t his son, not his sweet Nicholas, the soft momma’s boy.

          The door eased open and Nicholas, winded, slid down the door jamb, sitting himself upon his dad’s legs. “Don’t you get it, dad? I need him, too.”

          Nicholas struggled for his breath. As at last he eased back to a normal rhythm, he pulled at the fold of skin under his night shirt. “See this,” he said, waving the glued over wound at his father. At this distance John could see it more clearly – almost a surgical incision.

          “It doesn’t hold. If he doesn’t return, it will open, and I’ll bleed out.” He stopped, listening once again.

          “Nicholas,” John started.

          “Shhh!” Nicholas held one finger before his lips, then cocked his head back towards his room. Finally, he sighed.

          “Yes, I’m telling him. What the hell do you think I’m doing?

          “Well, hell with you. You know how long I’ve wanted to tell someone?” Nicholas turned back to his dad, shaking his head and rolling his eyes in a ‘can you believe this guy’ gesture.

          “I’ve so wanted to tell you, you know that right.”

          John looked at his son, a mix of pity and horror in his eyes. “You killed Matt. You and this thing, you killed the Hoffmans.”

          “Damn, dad. Have you even been listening? The girl did that. I just walked in at the wrong time and she gave me a friend. I had to feed him. He needed me to grow, but now he’s here.”

          From beyond Nicholas John heard a rustle, then that raspy, violin clicking as something large skittered over the wood, a squelching gurgle dragging behind it.

          “Huh.” Nicholas shrugged. “Ade wants to meet you. What do you say, dad?”

          “I’m sorry.”

          “What?”

          John lunged forward, grabbed his son, and slammed him back into the doorjamb! He screamed as his head cracked into the wood, and behind him that shrill, crackly gurgle split the night once more.

          John fell to his elbows and army-crawled down the hall, his son moaning behind him. Behind that, the skittering resumed.

          John had made it as far as the living room entryway when he felt a sudden yank on his leg, and yet another burst of fireworks blocked out his vision.

          “Dad,” Nicholas more breathed than said as he hunched over him. “Dad, I don’t want you to go. I don’t want to be alone with him.” Nicholas motioned beside him, and John shifted his gaze.

          A mass of shell and flesh coiled around Nicholas’s foot, like a cat rubbing against its owner’s leg. The thing had to be two feet long, its front resembling a cross between a tick and a lobster, all mandibles, antennae, and claws. Two lidless black eyes stared out,and behind its head, a small thorax with six segmented legs, quivered as it caressed against his son. Finally, the thing ended in a long multi-segmented abdomen, thin and translucent and riddled with veins dragging out in an amorphous mass that bloated at its end to the size of a basketball. The whole thing rippled and gurgled as it moved, then its eyes shifted to John, it’s mandibles opening and a mouth more mammal-like than insect, yawned open revealing rows upon circular rows of needle-like teeth and pulsing gums.

          John recoiled, then reached up and grabbed for his son. Whatever happened, he would not be a part of this abomination. Nor would his son, not even if meant killing him. Only Nicholas pulled back too quickly, dodging from his father’s grasp.

          That parasitic thing tensed around his leg. “But I don’t want to,” Nicholas said. John knew he wasn’t talking to him. “Fine.” He looked to his father. “Now, I’m sorry.”

          Nicholas brought the tenderizer down on John’s head and the world went black.


***


          As he came to, his head thumping to an excruciating internal drum solo, the first thing John noticed was the dust catching in the sunlight from the living room window. He found himself lying in his arm chair, his entire body aching. His son sat on the couch, showered and in a fresh set of clothes, his legs kicked up on the coffee table as he watched Saturday morning cartoons.

          “Nick?”

          “Morning, dad,” he said, stretching back into the couch, his shirt pulled taut over his massive belly, the fat once again bubbling out from a shirt now at least two sizes too small.

          “You think I could pick up some new clothes, today? These don’t fit anymore.”

          “Sure,” John said, shaking his head, trying to clear it. The drum solo intensified. Everything seemed so normal, the previous night nothing more than a vivid nightmare now vanished in a bad hangover. “Yeah, yeah, we can do that,” he continued, still staring at his son’s exposed belly.

          Suddenly it quivered, and shifted, something big pressing out against the skin. Nicholas leaned forward, grabbing a handful of shredded meat and bone from a plate sitting on the couch beside him. He shoveled the bloody concoction into his mouth.

          “Thanks, dad.” He offered the plate to his father. “Hungry?”

          John recoiled, trying not to think about what his son was eating. More he recoiled from his own reaction. His stomach rumbled and he realized that he was hungry; hungrier than he had ever been in his life.

          He tried to fight the urge, but instead found himself accepting the offered plate. He began to eat and something inside him twisted and turned and for a moment he thought he heard a quiet voice speaking in his head, urging him to eat even more. Again, John tried to resist, but he couldn’t. He ate another bite, and another, the drumming of his head softening as his own tears began to fall.




Back to Part 1

Hunger – Part 1

© Paraschiv George Gabriel | Dreamstime.com – Dental Xray right half

By Christopher Opyr


          “John.”

          “Not now.”

          John cracked a beer and settled back into his well worn armchair. Time for kickoff. Denver Broncos vs the San Francisco 49ers in Candlestick Park. He didn’t have any skin in the game, but he needed to unwind and it was on.

          “John! He needs help.”

          “Chrissake, Em. I just sat down.”

          Emily rounded the corner into the living room and, gripping the entryway, straightened herself into her most imposing stance. At barely five foot two and ninety-five pounds, the pose failed to impress.

          “Then get up,” she said. “This is our son.” She paused for emphasis then shifted gears. “And don’t use the Lord’s name in vain.”

          “Jesus, Em,” he said. Sometimes you had to goad back, even if you were poking the proverbial bear.

          John sat down his beer, careful to use a coaster (Emily insisted on it), and stood. He towered over his wife by nearly a foot, his figure lean and intimidating without any effort. Years in the Marines and a strict exercise regimen had kept the traditional middle-aged gut at bay.

          “What is it now?”

          “He won’t come out of his room. He’s been in there all day, just sitting and eating junk.”

          “Well don’t give him junk food and half the problem is solved.”

          “He says he’s hungry, but it’s more than that.”

          “Yeah. He’s fat and he’s lazy. If you’d let me work it out of him I could have him straightened out in no time.”

          John loved his son deeply, but the boy had no understanding of discipline. His mother had coddled him from the start and the horrors of this past summer had done nothing but make Emily softer on the boy. John had long felt the need to break Emily of the habit, but he had indulged her instead. Soon he would have to consider that his son’s needs outweighed Emily’s happiness. Nicholas needed to be taught a lesson.

          “John, keep your voice down.”

          “Truth hurts. The boy needs to hear it.”

          “You know it’s more than that. The boy needs a doctor.”

          “You mean a shrink.”

          “I mean a professional that can help him cope with what he saw.”

          John let out an exasperated grunt. This again. He and Em had danced this dance many times over the past two months – ever since Nicholas discovered the Hoffmans dead in an apparent murder suicide.

          As on most Saturdays, Nicholas had headed over to the Hoffman residence shortly after breakfast to visit his best friend, Matt. He hadn’t had any formal plan, but John suspected his son had intended to spend the day playing jungle adventurer with Matt and thrashing their way through the woods surrounding New River.

          Instead Nicholas had arrived to find the Hoffman residence locked tight and no one answering the door. Their cars had been in the drive, so, certain that they were home, Nicholas had wandered around back to rap on Matt’s window. That’s when he found the bodies mutilated and splayed out on the floor of his best friend’s room.

          He had not been the same since. John had provided his son space to grieve, but when a month passed with no sign of a return to normalcy he had begun to worry. He didn’t want to be harsh and he understood Emily’s concerns, but he didn’t believe the answer lay in the finely crafted web of lies concocted by some quack head shrink. Not only would Nicholas likely come back with his head stuffed with some mother-hating, daddy-did-me-wrong nonsense, but moreover if word got out that he was seeing a psychiatrist the boy would be a laughing stock. There would likely be more damage done from bullying than healing by his doctor.

          “John?” Emily crossed her arms and demanded an answer.

          “No. The boy needs discipline, not some fraud enabling him. I won’t hear it.”

          “You won’t hear it –“

          “– No, so don’t start. I’ll talk to him, but I draw the line at head doctors.”

          Emily withdrew into herself. “Okay.”

          That settled, John took a swig of his beer then wiped his lips dry with his arm.

          “Good,” he said, and started down the hall. As he strode by, Emily reached out and gently brushed his arm.

          “Be easy on him, okay?”

          He could see the pleading in her eyes and softened.

          “Of course,” he said. “I’m not a monster.” And with that, he turned parting from his wife and strode down the hall.


***


          As he neared Nicholas’s door an unease settled into his gut. Nick was talking to someone, but the conversation was one-sided, as if the boy were on the phone, but that couldn’t be right either. The cordless phone was charging on its stand in the kitchen. John could see it as he glanced back over his shoulder. Looking at it as he listened in on Nicholas he found himself more and more puzzled by the fragmented conversation.

          “…says I should slow down.” Nicholas paused as if waiting on an inaudible reply, then continued.

          “It was implied.” Silence again. Then:

          “Well, no… but she may have a point. Look at me.

          “You’re right. Odd phrasing, but still.

          “Well, yes, I am. Always. Nonstop. But that doesn’t mean I’m not huge. There is no way I’ll make soccer in the fall.

          “It is too important. It’s important to me. I matter here.

          “Well, I don’t know, but I don’t want to be this way anymore. I don’t. Does it have to be so much?”

          Nicholas’s voice trailed off, softer, slipping into a gentle whisper. John leaned closer pressing his ear against the door.

          From the other side he heard a faint scratching, mixed with a barely audible gurgling. As it stopped, Nicholas spoke once more, still in that muted whisper.

          “Are you sure? I didn’t hear nothing.”

          He paused and the gurgling bubbled up through the quiet, along with that soft scratching. As it subsided, John could make out the faint sounds of a bag of chips crinkling, followed by footsteps approaching.

          “Hello?”

          John pressed back from the door just in time as it eased open a crack. His son stared out, one paranoid eye framed in the gap between the door and the doorway.

          “Yes, dad.”

          “Open the door.”

          “What?”

          John sighed then butted his shoulder into the door. Nicholas stumbled back, pinwheeling his arms, then fell flat onto his ass.

          “You heard me. I said open the door.”

          John entered, stepping over his son, and shut the door behind him.

          “Who were you talking to?” he asked as he took in the entirety of the room. It was a mess of junk food wrappers, empty plates, trash fantasy books, and coverless comics – the last just one more habit of which John intended to break Nicholas.

          “No one, dad.”

          “Uh-huh.” John marched to the closet and flung the door open: nothing but shirts, both hanging and wadded in a ball on the floor. “You need to clean that up.”

          “Yes, sir.”

          John turned 180 degrees and hauled to the bed, lifting the frame up as he peered under. More comics and wrappers. A cockroach skittered back from the light.

          “Shit, son. You need to clean this whole room before our house becomes infested.”

          “Yes, sir.”

          “This place is a shitheap, you know that?”

          “Yes. Yes, sir.”

          “Well then why didn’t you do something about it?”

          John locked eyes with Nicholas. The boy stood at a rapt attention in the center of the room, fifty pounds overweight, his chins jiggling as he stuttered his responses. Sweat stains leaked from his pits, and his shirt stretched taut over his expanding belly.

          “Hell, boy. What are we going to do with you?”

          John didn’t wait for an answer. He stepped to the room’s sole window, yanked it open, and leaned his head out, searching the yard. “Who’s out there?”

          “No one’s there, dad. Really.”

          “I’m not stupid, son. You were talking to someone.”

          “Just myself. Really.” His chins wobbled again, and sweat beaded down his brow.

          John pulled in from the window and focused all his ire on his son. “You’re hiding something. Out with it.”

          John sat on Nicholas’s bed and patted the mattress beside him.

          “Come on, Nick. Fess up.”

          Nicholas plopped into the empty space beside his dad, the frame groaning under the sudden pressure.

          “Jesus, son. Sit yourself down, don’t throw yourself down. Have some damn sense.”

          “Sorry, sir.”

          “Now, who was it?”

          “Ade.”

          “A-who?”

          “Ah-deh.”

          “What the hello type of name is that.”

          “I don’t know.”

          “Well, they’ll just let anyone in now days, won’t they. Fuck. What the hell were you doing sneaking company? You’re allowed friends over. It ain’t late. No need to sneak them in and out.”

          “I didn’t sneak anyone in or out.”

          “Come again?”

          Nicholas bit at his lip, turning his eyes down. More, this bite wasn’t a simple nervous tick clamping down on his lower lip. No, Nicholas seemed to be nibbling at the lip. Almost tasting it. Finally he spoke.

          “Ade’s imaginary.”

          John let his chin drop to his chest as he flung his head down and shook it. “Oh hell, boy.” John shook his head some more and pressed at his temples. “I don’t know what to do with you.”

          “I’ll be better. I promise.” The boys eyes pleaded with him, and at last John caved.

          “I know. I know you will, but I’ve had hard enough time keeping you away from the head shrinks with you just overeating. Now you’re talking to people that aren’t there. Shit, once your mother finds that out, she’s liable to sneak you off to Brynn Marr whether I consent or not.”

          “Maybe that’s not such a bad idea, dad. I’ve gained what, seventy-five pounds in two months?”

          “No. Fuck Brynn Marr. No son of mine.”

          “That’s thirty-seven pounds a month. What if it doesn’t slow down?” The desperation dripped from Nicholas as he spoke. John couldn’t miss it. His son genuinely feared that the weight would just keep coming – that he’d what, eat himself to death?

          John wanted to lay down the law. That’s how his dad had raised him and how his dad’s dad had before him. You didn’t play warm fuzzies and go for long walks and talk it out. You told your child how it was going to be and you expected they followed through with the order. Yet, looking at the fear in his son’s eyes, he knew Nicholas was no soldier. He was a child seeking help.

          “Why are you doing it? It’s Matt, right?”

          “I thought so, but I don’t know.”

          “You can do better than that.”

          “I miss him, I do, and I still have nightmares–”

          “Nothing in that room room can hurt you,” John said interrupting. Nicholas needed to know that he was safe. “Not now and not ever. You understand that, right?”

          “I wouldn’t be so sure.”

          Nicholas tugged at his tight clothes trying to pull up his pants, and when that failed, trying to tuck down his shirt. They’d just bought him new clothes two weeks ago. John would have to hit the PX with his next paycheck. Even if he could get Nicholas to drop some of the weight, it wouldn’t be enough anytime soon. His boy deserved the dignity of proper clothes. He deserved more than that. John could see the fear in his son’s eyes, and at last he understood that it wasn’t fear of rapprochement. Something had terrified his son, not with the fear of God but with the fear of something much worse. Something darker. That just could not stand.

          “Look, if you saw someone, if you think you’re in danger, you need to tell me. We’ll tell the police. They can lock him up, and I’ll guarantee you no one will touch you. I’d snap their neck they so much as looked at you wrong. You’re safe here, you know that?

          “Yes, dad. It’s not like that. I didn’t see it happen, but I think they were right. I think it was a… a murder-suicide. I’ve accepted that and I’ve mourned, dad, and I’ll always miss Matt, but I’m not sad anymore.”

          “So what is it?”

          “I’m just… hungry…”


On to Part Two

Ablation: Part 7

© Aleksandr Korchagin | Dreamstime.com – Shooting star in the sky

By Chris Hutton

          Talia spent the day pondering the message she had sent. She knew that it had been necessary, but the pain of letting go still left her unsettled. She skipped lunch. The “mid-day” meal took place in the common hall of Zhōngxīn, a decision made by the colonists in order to to encourage a unity among the group – to build that all too critical sense of community. Yet it was that very sense of community that compelled Talia to remain behind. After her goodbyes, she had no energy left to deal with people.

          She stretched out on her bed, now littered with pillows pilfered from the empty quarters, and stared once more at the ceiling. As a child she had bedecked her bedroom with glow-in-the-dark stars, spending numerous evenings contemplating the great mysteries of space as she stared at them. Now she let herself drift back to those simpler times, when the expanse of the universe held such wonder and amazement, and she had not yet fathomed the sorrow of its conquering.

          She had stared at those stars and dreamt of soaring among them. Interstellar travel still seemed fanciful then, but Mars had been colonized and the asteroids and the outer planets seemed within humanity’s grasp. She had contemplated then what it would be to see the sun from the edge of the solar system, as another distant star. There had even been public debate about pushing into the Oort cloud; she had witnessed some of the exploratory panels in the VR newsfeeds. Soon the Oort cloud had taken on a Holy Grail-like intensity in her passions, and she had set her sights on its exploration. That mission had propelled her into the top universities, where her focus had shifted with the evolution of the public debates, resettling on the closest stars now nearing civilization’s extended reach. Still the stars guided her, their siren call unabated until she met Milton. With a family, everything changed.

          When she left for Anima twenty-four years prior, Talia thought that she could somehow cling to both the loves of her life, Milton & Bernard, and the stars. Only now had she accepted that such a thing might not be possible, and that realization soured her to the mission ahead, and to her own self worth. Still, Talia knew that she had not gone far enough. She had bid her family farewell, but she still clung to one remaining message, and as long as it went unseen, she would never truly say goodbye.

          She knew what must be done. Talia rose, steeled herself, and pressed play on her terminal.


***


          The screen sizzled to life popping with a frenetic energy unlike any message that Talia had previously viewed. Milton, older than before, but by at most a year, pressed at his eyes. His recent crow’s feet had grown deeper and his face had a foreign layer of stubble, but the most disconcerting change was his continued lack of glasses. As his eyes flickered about, his expression was devoid of the characteristic confusion that typically held sway when he didn’t wear his corrective lenses. He could see.

          He straightened up, pressing down on the collar of a light gray, seeming seamless uniform. This too sparked Talia’s curiosity, being far from his typical tweed professor garb.

          “I’m sorry, Talia. I’m sorry about my last message. We had to say goodbye. There was no way that I could know for certain that I would succeed, and the pain was becoming too much for Bernard. I didn’t want to continue to hurt him, no matter what hope I held.

          “Some time back I realized that I had to shift focus. I started, oh, eight years ago. I knew after the first year that this wasn’t tenable. It’s strange spending the first half of your life dedicated to one century only to rededicate yourself to another, to multiple, as your middle years approach.

          “Again, sorry, if I’m not making sense. We’re in a hurry here.”

          In the background numerous men and women, all in the same smooth gray uniform, milled about each seemingly marching with purpose, though to what purpose Talia could not say. The throng of humanity crowded out any visual cues as to where Milton had recorded the message. One of those passersby bumped into Milton, shouting a rushed apology as he scurried away and accentuating Milton’s point. Everyone was in a hurry.

          “I’m not sure we have the planning down as well on this one, but it was a narrow window and we had to move quickly. As I was saying, I shifted focus. I now have doctorates in British colonial history, ancient history, and in twenty-first century Martian colonial history. I figured that I would cover my bases, you understand.

          “Of course you don’t. Maybe I should just show you.”

          Milton reached forward and tilted the camera up. Soon a massive colony ship dominated the screen, hovering behind the milling masses of people seen through the viewing window of large space station.

          “We couldn’t be sure to be accepted, but humanity couldn’t wait for Anima’s first settlers to arrive. I hedged my bets diversifying my studies and turns out with my expertise in the historical complications of ancient societies and colonization both terrestrial and otherwise, I actually have something to offer a mission like this. And since they sent over enough specialists on the first wave, they are actually allowing more slots for families this time around.

          The camera tilted down revealing a young boy of no more than ten, with curly brown locks and an ear-to-ear grin. “Hi mom! Dad says we’ll be there soon. Just a dreamless sleep away and we’ll finally get to meet!”

          “I wanted to tell you before,” Milton said, jumping back in. “But I didn’t want to get your hopes up. Or mine really. Any number of complications could have canceled this flight. I might not have been accepted, we might have failed training, administrative changes could have wiped it from the budget, delayed launch, or altered colonist requirements. You know how this goes. But now, now we are on the eve of departure, and our call to board is underway. We’re coming, honey. We are going to be a family again.

          “Come here, Bernie.” Bernard squeezed in by his father.

          “We love you,” they said together. “See you soon!”

          The recording stopped.


***


          0 Messages

          Talia let out her breath in a deep gust. She hadn’t even realized that she was holding her breath until that moment. Her family was en route to Anima. At least they had launched for Anima. That message had come almost nine years after she had left, so they were, what, fifteen years into their voyage by now? It would be a quiet eight years, but then they would be reunited. Talia could feel the elation welling up inside of her, but she also felt something else – a deep sense of dread.

          If they were on their way, if another colony ship was en route, why hadn’t she been told when she landed on Anima. The wake shift should have known. Gustavo should have known.


***


          Talia tried for five hours before she finally tracked down Gustavo. After searching Tir Corridor, she made her way to Nabu’s homebase where she cornered Alexei Mikhailov, the resident geologist, and one of three remaining chemists. Alexei was the eldest colonist outside of the wake shift and had struck up a well-known friendship with Gustavo since the evacuation. Outside of that friendship, however, he tended to the reclusive side. When Talia found him he was all too eager to point her in Gustavo’s direction and to return to the solitude of his research. He hadn’t even noticed the tension in Talia’s shoulders and the anger knitted in her brow – or if he did, he valued his solitude more than his friendship.

          Armed with directions from Alexei, Talia made her way through Ekata Hol and into Athena Corridor. The quarters were pressed against an outer hull, and though Talia knew the walls were too thick for sound to pierce, she swore she could hear the fiery winds raging outside reflecting the anger boiling within her with an odd synchronicity. The rage beating in her temples, she turned one final corner into the westernmost room in Enhet Basen. It jutted out from the rest of the base like a peninsula, windows opening on three-sides to the night of Anima. Gustavo stared out through the center window.

          As she entered, he spoke.

          “Sometimes I think that if I stare hard enough, I can see the faintest glimmer of the twilight. It’s never really there though – always just out of reach. Still, if I’m lucky I can make out a falling star or two.” He turned. “Care to join me,” he started, then cut off. One look at Talia and he surmised the truth of the situation.

          “I guess you know. You’re one of the only remaining colonists with actual family in flight. Figures you’d be the first to find out.”

          Talia stopped cold. She hadn’t expected Gustavo to just blurt it out. She’d expected a fight.

          “There’s no use hiding it,” he said, as if reading her mind. “I knew that it would come out eventually.”

          “Then why not tell us? We had a right to know. Hell, what about all of the colonists that left? Did they have family coming?”

          “Some.” Gustavo sat, showing the first signs of weariness that Talia had ever seen in him. He motioned for her to join him.

          “No thanks.”

          “I understand.”

          “Well, I don’t. Everyone that left. How many would have stayed if they knew their families were coming?”

          “There’s no way I can –”

          “– No, don’t. Don’t answer that. Just tell me why? Why wouldn’t you tell us?”

          “We decided it was for the best not to.”

          “We? The wake shift? The whole wake shift knew didn’t it?”

          “Yes.”

          “And you all unanimously gave a giant fuck you to everyone in cryo and agreed to keep your little secret – that there was a second colony ship en route?”

          “There was some disagreement, but not enough.”

          “You mind telling me who disagreed.”

          “I can’t. The decision was made. Unanimous or not, we all agreed to abide by it.”

          “And how many of you that stayed have family coming. Do you?”

          “No, but some of us do.”

          “And how many of you that left had family coming?”

          “None.”

          “Hell, Gustavo. That’s exactly my point. No one with family coming would have left. You owed it to them to tell them.”

          “Did we? What if I told you that the second vessel received orders to turn back two years ago?”

          Talia eyed Gustavo, weighing whether to trust him.

          “We received the message about a month before we landed. Six months after our sensors indicated Anima was tidally locked we received the first concrete data on the atmosphere. We had to report back to the Coalition that Anima was not the Earth-analog that we had hoped. Once they received that data, the Coalition sent out the order for Ravanna, the second ship, to return. They received that message almost two years ago. As of yet we have not received word as to whether the order was obeyed. No one knows what the crew decided.”

          Talia knew immediately the crux of concern. If anyone had stayed waiting for family they might have stayed in vain. There was no way to know for certain if anyone was coming. Not yet.

          “So?” Gustavo prompted.

          “So I don’t know.” She began to break, her anger receding with her understanding. “I still feel you should have told us.”

          “And if that vessel returned home? How many colonists would have stayed due to false hope?”

          “I understand that. I’m not thick. But if it didn’t? If Ravanna arrives at Anima, what then for those that left hoping to see a family that won’t be waiting for them?”

          “Those who chose to return had already committed to losing their families. Everyone they had ever known will be fifty years older than when they last saw them by the time Unity returns to Earth. For them, Earth’s call outweighed family bonds. If they had stayed and no one ever came, then they would not only have lost their family, but also their only chance of seeing Earth again.”

          “That’s how you justified it?”

          “I didn’t say it was my call, but that was the consensus.

          Talia noticed how Gustavo glanced back to the door, as if looking for the other wake shifters. He had been the voice of dissent. He agreed with her, and yet still he championed the decision he had fought. Even now, a quarter of a century lost to mission, and he was a man of orders.

          Dr. Ernst relaxed her arms onto the window ledge, easing the tension in her shoulders and looked out into the dark. Gustavo settled back in beside her.

          “How many more have family?” she asked.

          “Four of the primary crew, two of the wake shift.

          “Hmm,” Talia grunted. There was no more to say. A decision had been made, and though she could be angry with Gustavo for accepting that decision in the end (and she longed for that anger), she also knew that there had been no good choice to be made. She had accepted her fate when she thought that she had lost her family, and now that this was uncertainty, she could do no more than the same: accept.

          “There,” she said, pointing out a shooting star.

          The meteorite streaked across the firmament, its debris melting and evaporating in its wake as it broke apart in Anima’s atmosphere – another victim to the inhospitable planet, breaking apart and crashing, until it too settled onto the surface, now a part of this world no matter from where it once originated.

          “It’s beautiful,” Gustavo said.

          “Yes, it is.”

          Talia nodded, settling in as a small meteor shower began. Man had spread to the stars, and she had a role to play. More, she had hope once more, and whether Ravanna would one day hail them from orbit, or would return back to Earth, she knew that she had a family out there somewhere, fighting the friction and trying to remain whole. She would await word from them, a message that might never come, but also a message that might; and that was enough.




Back to Part 1

Ablation: Part 6

© Aleksandr Korchagin | Dreamstime.com – Shooting star in the sky

By Chris Hutton

          A week passed with the final message from home still unopened, then another, and another. A month after the majority of the colonists had launched back to Earth and a calm had finally settled over Enhet Basen. The remaining settlers, well, they settled. Life returned to daily routine, even if a new routine.

          Talia began each day with a quick breakfast in the kitchen off Mímir Corridor, which she shared with Haruka, Mímir’s group leader, and Dr. Sam Keeling, the physician that she had seen parting ways with an elderly relative in the Departure Hall of Launch Pad 73C so many light years ago. She now knew that the woman had been his mother, and that she had died only two weeks after Dr. Keeling left. He hadn’t had the heart to return to Earth after hearing the news. Now the three of them were the sole inhabitants of Mímir Corridor, which had been built to house fifty original colonists, with padding for 25% more. That had been built in as a safety precaution incase the colonists were unable to build new housing before the population expanded. Now, the empty halls and quarters echoed with the slightest movement, the untouched housing a reminder of everyone that had left the colony and everyone that had been left behind on Earth.

          All the remaining colonists had a sob story, not just Talia and Sam. Haruka had been one of the few to travel with his family, yet his wife and daughter had returned with the other colonists. This shared grief in the fresh loss of their families bonded the three final members of Group Mímir: a physician, a military commander, and an astrophysicist, and each orphaned in their own way. They were far from the oddest “family” to have formed within Enhet Basen – just one of many adopted families struggling to understand their new life in the twilight.

          Talia settled in beside Haruka for a breakfast of eggs and artificial bacon. They didn’t have the livestock for real bacon and while some of the groups had cultured meat, Mímir’s bioengineer and her team had not stayed behind, leaving their lab in Yedinstvo Kholl sadly unstaffed. They could have easily attained the supplies, but it was early yet and Talia lacked the energy to shuffle her way down to Tenjin corridor where Ikeno grew the cultured pork. At least eggs were in bountiful supply, as plenty of hens had made the voyage and themselves outnumbered the remaining human colonists.

          “Morning,” Talia said, before starting on her eggs.

          Haruka merely nodded.

          “Good morning ,” Sam said as he sat. “Any luck yet?”

          Sam was referring to Talia’s current project, collaborating with an engineer from Ogma to set up the observatory. Dr. Ernst wanted to collect as much information as she could about the local solar system. She had the opportunity to gather the most accurate data yet on the Alpha Centauri system. That would be the legacy she left for humanity; and one day it might prove critical for the colony on Anima.

          “Not much,” she said. “We found the files for the print, but we only have two functional print crews, and they’re still tied up on the start of Nabu’s electrolysis project and the construction of the first remote outpost with that architect, Lacroix out of Lao Zi. Bachir says it will be at least three weeks before one of the units frees up and two months before he has anyone trained for the third unit. Not that it matters. He’s already promised that one out.”

          Talia stopped and chuckled. “You know, for a colony dependent on interstellar travel, we’re already short–changing the value of the stars.”

          Haruka remained silent, but Sam nodded his agreement. “We always have. Just hang in there. You’re welcome to join me on my rounds. You know how awkward it can be when you’re the GP for half the people you know?”

          “I’ll pass.”

          “I thought so.”

          “Thought what?” Gustavo turned the bend into the kitchen. “Mind if I join you?”

          Haruka gestured for Gustavo to sit, maintaining his silence. The more time lapsed since his family’s departure, the less he spoke.

          Gustavo took a seat. While not a full-fledged member of the Mímir family, he had earned at the very least a satellite membership. He floated between Tir, Nabu, and Mímir, though he and the three other wake shifters had discussed taking over Athena Corridor, as none of its delegates had remained.

          “I come bearing gifts.” He slid a plate of cultured pork onto the table. “Ikena and the other growers set up a stall in Zhōngxīn.”

          “And this is why you’re always welcome,” Talia said.

          “I thought you would appreciate that. So where were we?”

          Sam caught Gustavo up on the idle chitchat, Talia nodding along. As they talked, Gustavo smiled and laughed, an ease in his posture hinting at a peace of mind that had escaped the others of the crew. Sam played as if his loss had dulled, smiling and chatting, but the tension in his shoulders and the vacant look in his eyes gave away the truth of his pain. Yet Gustavo displayed no such tells, his peace seemingly genuine.

          Perhaps that was truly the case. Gustavo had twenty-four years in flight to accept those that he had left behind. What’s more, he had stayed in communication. Rather than the over eight-year lag that the rest of the colonists would now experience with each message sent, he had been able to carry on communication from the start of the flight, the lag growing larger with each passing year, allowing him to acclimate to the temporal distance. He had watched as his family and friends aged, and he had aged with them.

          “What was it like being awake?” Talia asked.

          “Come again?”

          “Working on the wake shift for all those years, just you and a skeleton crew, pulling gradually further and further from Earth. What was it like?”

          Haruka perked up a little at this. He didn’t move or join in the conversation, but the clicking of his fork against the plate ceased and his gaze had shifted to his three crewmates. Even Sam’s chatter ended.

          Gustavo paused considering the question. “There’s no simple answer, I’m afraid. Lonely… and passionate. We were a small family, much like we have here, but larger. We had a lifetime together. You might as well ask a man to sum up his entire career, or an entire marriage.”

          He paused again, waiting for more. Talia didn’t respond. She had long ago learned you often learned more with silence than with questions. Sam, unfortunately, never learned that lesson.

          “Yeah, okay. Well, what about working comms? You and, what’s her name, Sofie?”

          “Safaa.”

          “Yeah, the Kenyan comm’s specialist.”

          “Moroccan.”

          Talia watched closely, noticing the first signs of frustration – no, anger – from Gustavo. Sam’s line of questioning, and more importantly his callous references to Lt. Safaa Jebbour, struck a nerve. There was a story there, between the two of them; between Gustavo and Safaa. There was always a story.

          “Yeah, that’s what I mean,” Sam continued. “She was in communication with Earth, in charge of the data relays and whatnot, right?”

          “That’s right.”

          “Word is you two were close. So I was thinking maybe you were there for some of… well let’s say, the critical communications.”

          Gustavo eased. “Yes. I was there when we informed Earth that Anima was locked, and I was there when we received our new landing coordinates.”

          “So you knew that we’d be settling in perpetual dark?”

          “Not right, away,” Gustavo said. “No, at first we thought we’d be landing in the twilight zone. Lt. Perret discovered the miscalculation, but of course by then it was too late to course correct.”

          “Jesus. So you knew coming in the shitshow that we were landing in.”

          “I knew the challenges, yes.”

          Sam only seemed to be digging himself deeper, and simultaneously turning the conversation further and further away from Talia’s point of interest.

          “The distance,” Talia interjected, “did it have the same effect for you?”

          “Did the time lag destroy my relationships back home? Is that what you mean?”

          “Yes,” Talia said.

          “Some. Most to be more precise. But the goodbyes came long ago and once I could accept them, well, life became more bearable. You just need time.”

          Yes, time, Talia thought. Time and to finally let go.


***


          The green light blinked letting her know that her recording had started. Talia sat before her terminal in her personal quarters dressed in jeans and a simple blouse. She had printed the clothes specifically for this message. It was important that she not be in the same uniform as in all of the messages that had already been sent. It was important that Milton and Bernard finally see some change. Her hair had also grown longer in the six weeks since the colonists had landed. The outfit and her hair would have to be enough. Age wise there would be little difference visible.

          Part of Dr. Ernst wondered why she put this pressure on her appearance. She had decided during that breakfast with Gustavo that she had to say goodbye. Yet if that is what she truly wanted, she questioned why she had made such an effort to heighten the differences between this message and those that came before it. What did it matter if she had come to say farewell.

          Yet it did. It mattered. Her family needed a change to the status quo, and this was the least that she could do for them.

          “Hello Milton,” she started. “Hello Bernard. I wish that I could see you. Both of you. I wish that I could have been there to watch you grow up and grow old. I wish I could have shared those experiences with you. And I know I could have, that life could have been different – that I could have stayed – but… well would we have survived that decision? I don’t know. I’ve always been with the stars and to have turned down the opportunity to settle the first interstellar colony, I think that would have broken me all the same. Broken us all perhaps.

          “I know that doesn’t make what you have been through any easier. And I know that you said your goodbyes and that you needed to let me go. I understand that.

          “Where am I going? I should have scripted this. I considered it, but I thought you deserved better. You deserved to hear from me straight. No filter. Now I think I’m just rambling. Maybe I am. But…”

          Talia sighed and settled back into her chair, casting her head back and staring up at the ceiling.

          “Hell. I’ve made a mess of this already.”

          Talia leaned forward ready to cancel the recording then stopped. Instead she settled back.

          “When I started this, this recording, I told myself that I would give you what you needed. That I would let you go and that this would be my goodbye. I had even convinced myself that, well, that this closure is what I needed. I needed to let you go, too. There’s this man, Gustavo. It’s nothing like that.” Talia shook her head. “It has only been six weeks for me, but even if it had been six years or sixty I don’t think I could move on. But Gustavo, he stayed awake the whole way to Anima. He was the cryo-engineer if you remember. Anyway, I’ve seen him a lot since I decided to stay. Oh hell, I’m telling this all wrong.

          “Obviously you’ve heard the news. We missed the twilight. The atmosphere has less oxygen than we thought. The pressure’s good. A little less than Earth, and the air is breathable for a time, but we have to get the oxygen percentage up if there is any chance at long term habitability. The winds are strong though, and that carries the hot air from the starward side of the planet back, so even in the dark the temperatures are bearable. Better if we had made it to the twilight, but that is what it is.

          “Anyway, you’ve both known this for years, I’m sure. The point is, I had an option to come home. Most of the colonists took it. No one wanted another Mars fiasco, struggling to live in a hostile environment. We all wanted the Earth analogue that we had been promised, and that’s not what we got, although I think that we could make it work. I didn’t decide to stay for that opportunity though. I didn’t stay to be a part of the great mission that brought me here. I’ll be a part of it, and there will be some solace in that, but I stayed for you.

          “I do not regret my decision, either to come or to stay, but only that you could not join me. There is important work to be done here, but most of all, I had to stay for you. If I had returned home Bernard would be in his 50s, nearly two decades older than his own mother, and Milton, you’d be in your 80s. I might not even see you again. Here, however, I thought we could have a relationship, no matter how distant. I could watch you both grow old. We could be a family.

          “That’s what I told myself when I decided not to board the return shuttle. I wasn’t ready to let go. I’m still not.

          “I’m not even sure how this message is going to end. I told myself that I would say goodbye. That I would grant you the peace that you requested, and that with that closure I would be able to let go of the pain of our loss. As I said, I’ve been spending some time with Gustavo from the wake shift. We were speaking this morning. Haruka and Dr. Keeling are, well, they aren’t great. We’re all still grieving family that we lost. It is fresh for each of us and we haven’t accepted the goodbyes, not completely. Gustavo, on the other hand, he’s had time to accept his losses, to let those who needed it go. Speaking with him, I thought perhaps it was time that I accept your decision. The more I talk, however, the more I know that I can’t let go of you. I need you, and that’s not fair. Not to me, but more not to either of you. There may be no happy ending here. So what to do…

          “I still don’t know…”

          Talia let herself cry, for a moment, then dabbed at her eyes.

          “Well, hell. This really hurts. But you know that already, don’t you? I love you. Both of you. And I’ll always be here if you want me to be. But it’s not right. So I guess, this is goodbye. For good this time. I won’t message again, unless I hear from you. I wish you both the best. And I’m sorry.

          “Stop recording.”

          Talia leaned forward and clicked off the screen.




Back to Part 1

On to Part 7

Ablation: Part 5

© Aleksandr Korchagin | Dreamstime.com – Shooting star in the sky

By Chris Hutton

          Talia sat before the terminal, her fingers hovering before the ‘enter’ key. One click and twenty-four years of messages would begin to unspool. She glanced at the black & white photo of her family before Launch Pad 73C, their fake smiles beaming out in false reassurances. Though she looked barely a day older than when that photo had been snapped, her husband and son would now bare little resemblance to their images, the smiling faces of the photo no more than ghosts of their past.

          She stopped and waved her hand before the screen. The play window slid away and Talia tapped open another app. Her image popped up, consuming the full screen, and a record button blinked transparent in the middle of the monitor. She air-tapped the button and a red light lit up the corner as she began her message.

          “Well, we’re here boys. We’ve landed and… it’s… let’s say Anima is not everything that we expected. I assume newscasts went out years ago, but we landed in the dark maybe ten kilometers from the twilight zone. Who knew Anima was tidally-locked, right? Our projections predict another six years of dark before Alpha Centauri B casts its light on our side of Anima, and that the light of a dim evening at best.”

          Talia froze up.

          “Recording stop.” The red light blinked out of existence. She gestured with her hand and a delete window popped up. Yes or No? She tapped yes.

          Her family deserved better than a rote ‘we landed and ‘they’ fucked up message.’ She had so much more to say than the flight went smooth, but the accommodations are subpar. She needed to tell them something of significance – something that mattered – anything that would make the lost years tolerable. Nothing came to mind.

          Instead she swiped over to the backlog of messages, and tapped the first one.

***


          “Hi, Talia.” Milton smiled into camera, the green of a park stretching out behind him and trees swaying in the distance. Milton reached off camera then hoisted Bernard into view. He beamed at her, no older than the day Talia had left, and dripping wet.

          “Say hi to mommy, buddy.”

          “Hi” he squeaked, then began to squirm until at last he pulled free from his dad’s grasp and ran offscreen.

          “As you can tell, he’s enjoying the fountain. We went to Riverside, after all. The weather’s good and he’s having fun. We miss you already.” Milton cast his eyes away in his usual I’m not saying everything diversion, then looked back to camera. “Thanks for the message this morning. It was a… lovely way to start the day.”

          His eyes began to water. “We love you, Talia. And we’re so proud of you. I just can’t tell you how much –”

          “– Daddy!” Bernard shouted from off camera.

          Milton rubbed at his eyes. “What buddy?” he screamed back.

          “Water! Water!”

          “Sorry, honey. Gotta go. We’ll talk soon!”

***


          The verdant greens cut to black, with bold white text at the center of the screen declaring: ‘237 Messages Remaining.’

          Why so few, Talia thought. Even at an even distribution that would be no more than ten messages a year. Of course, why should she have expected more? She left them behind to carry on without her. How painful were those messages to record? Were they all as hard for Milton as the first? What would it be for Bernard sending messages to a mother he couldn’t remember? In the end, Talia decided she had been lucky to receive as many messages as she had.

          Thinking to the years ahead, she knew any message that she sent now wouldn’t be returned for at least eight years. Logically she might as well pace out the messages from her family, giving something to which to look forward in the slow but brutal days ahead. Even so, she knew that wouldn’t happen. She’d binge the 237 remaining messages in two Earth days or less.

          The colonists had been using Earth as a metric as best as they could. With Anima tidally-locked days did not really exist. One planetary rotation took nearly one and a half Earth years, the same as one revolution around Alpha Centauri A, or one Anima year. And in that entire time, no true day would come to Enhet Basen. Alpha Centauri B would eventually create a twilight period, but for now that star’s orbit placed it in conjunction with Anima’s main star, leaving night impenetrable. The colonists would have to last six more years for a chance at twilight.

          Talia could not yet bring herself to tackle the problems that this existence created, so instead she plunged further into her messages. Locking her quarters she settled in, shutting out her fellow colonists until she had done what needed doing.


***


          By lunchtime the following “day,” Talia had noticed a disturbing trend. The messages began abundantly, with nearly fifty in the first year. They ranged from short clips like the first, to long monologues from Milton expounding on the minutiae of everyday life, to desperate rages as anger at their abandonment boiled over. Those last messages were usually followed by softer, somber apologies muddied by grief. The emotional turbulence tearing her family apart wracked Talia in guilt, but it was a different trend that threatened to snap Talia’s last, delicate sliver of hope. The messages were dwindling year over year. By two years in ninety-two of the two hundred and thirty-eight messages were done. After two more years worth of mail, only eighty-two messages remained. Her family sent fewer and fewer messages with each passing year.

          Talia forced herself to watch straight through, her anxiety mounting as each message finished, signaling one less contact with Milton and Bernard. With each communication she watched her son age, from the toddler that she remembered to a young child at his first day of school, to a boy of nearly nine. At that point, only eighteen messages remained; eighteen messages for over seventeen years of travel.

          Talia had stayed behind when the other colonists had left for one reason: a chance to still have a family, and yet, as best she could tell that family had given up on her long before she reached Anima.

          At the end of the second day of her binge, Talia had two messages remaining. With a sense of dread, she opened the penultimate recording from home. It had been sent not quite eight years after she left.


***


          Milton’s haggard eyes darted back and forth, unwilling to settle on any one point, set deep in sockets more hollow than Talia remembered. Those were accompanied by a new pair of crow’s feet clawing at their corners, but more disturbingly, Milton’s eyes lacked the typical shield of his glasses. As he glanced about, Talia could imagine his confusion, unable to rely on the crutch of cleaning those lenses in order to avoid direct confrontation.

          “Um…I don’t know,” he started, then stopped. He swallowed, and rubbed at the bags of his eyes. “Where do I start?”

          As he asked this last part, he glanced offscreen and paused. Talia could read his hesitance, but even more his deliberation. Talia had seen that look many times as Milton mulled over his words.

          Finally, he turned and looked directly into the camera. “I can’t do this anymore. We can’t do this, Talia.”

          His eyes shifted downward, and he bit at his lip. Almost instantly he shut his eyes, ashamed at his lapse. Talia understood. Milton didn’t want to face this truth any more than Talia did.

          His eyes back to camera, Milton plowed on.

          “We receive your messages almost twice a month – your ageless messages. Do you know how weird it is to hear from you over and over again in endless variations of the same theme, and you never aging, and always in that same uniform? Message to message only minutes have lapsed for you, while weeks and months leave us in the dust. For Bernard, he might as well be sending fan mail to a favorite television show, only it’s less than that. Your messages are like a familiar commercial, you the recurring spokesman. What connection…. No, still more… how do you think he can hold a connection with a mother that he knows so little?”

          Talia winced. She had seen this coming as the messages dwindled. The dread had been building over the past day, but she had hoped it would prove unfounded, no matter how little she had believed in that hope.

          “I understand this will be… beyond hard on you, but you can at least,” he said, then hesitated once more. “You can at least hear it all at once, rip it off like the proverbial bandage. For us, this dissolution has been dragged through years – years of carrying on the pretense that a relationship could survive this distance. I love you. Don’t get me wrong, but I can’t do this to our son.”

          Milton’s voice shook now, overcome. His eyes watered, but he would not let the tears flow. Not this time.

          “It’s not fair for either of us, for any of us, to live like this – to carry on increasingly separated through time. This isn’t an attack on you or me railing against your decision to leave once more. We’ve had those discussions, if you can call these messages that. My piece has been said time and again when it comes to that decision and there is no need to rehash that here. At this point, I’ve accepted that you had to leave. I’ve even managed to accept your departure for what it was for you, not as an abandonment of us.

          “But that being said, even acceptance does little to mend the rift created by your travel to your new home. Over sixteen years to go before you even hear from us, and in that time, we’ll receive some pleasantries, but not one shred of real conversation. Nothing shared. Hell, it will be twenty years before I can even hear from you in response to this so-called conversation. No, It’s just not tenable. That’s all there is to it. We have to stop pretending. We have to say goodbye.

          “There. I’ve done it. I’ve said my piece.”

          Milton paused one last time, again biting at his lip. Talia guessed that lacking lenses he had resorted to a new diversion. Still, where were his glasses?

          “Anyway,” he said, “that’s it. There’s only one thing left to say. We love you, Talia. Both of us in our own ways. Bernard didn’t know what to say, and I didn’t want to force it. So this it. Goodbye.”


***


          The screen cut to black, white text dominating the center of the screen.

          1 Message Remaining.

          Talia couldn’t do it. She pushed back from the monitor, unwilling to open the final message.




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