At first I thought it was an earthquake. The entire world shuddered and groaned as if some massive thing was under the surface trying to shake off the cities we built on its back. I had never been in an earthquake before, my curiosity got the best of me, I was curious how the buildings looked, I heard they sway.Continue reading Flash Friday: Towering
Do you see that house? Shrouded overgrown plants like some sort of forgotten temple in the wilds of South America. You can imagine strange rites to stranger gods, swinging sex parties that devolve into cannibalistic orgies of violence. But none of that is real, all in your head. You see, that house is just that, a simple overgrown house, it doesn’t matter.
Adriana Priest was overheated. She was sweaty, her hair clung uncomfortably to her neck, and her armpits felt like swimming pools. She didn’t smell wonderful.
Mosquitos from the dense woods that lined the heat-warbled sidewalk where she walked were beginning exploratory dive-runs at her baking flesh. The strap of her bag, even with its integrated cushion of memory foam, was gnawing into her shoulder. Her left knee ached from a tumble she took two days ago during a tourist run through the Willow Road Murder House.
You don’t see them hop, you see them before the bounce, and if you are fast enough, you can see them once they land. But when they jump it’s completely different. Each parasitic intruder is moving so fast they can’t be seen. It means for that fraction of a second between jump and land, they are everywhere at once. There is no space that is not filled completely with fleas. When you can’t see them it means they are in motion, looming closer to us with each unfurling of bristled legs to pop into the every-space and then back.
It begins with the pudding. Calvin’s heart quickens as his stubby fingers brush against the carton at the back of the fridge – how did it get there? – but disappointment awaits. He bends as far as his immense bulk allows and retrieves the container. Only a paucity of the thick, off-white treat remains; hardly a spoonful. The store it is, then.
He dresses slowly. The bending and stretching required leave him short of breath, and so he pauses before he dons his shoes. His small apartment is awash in detritus; clothes strewn on the floor, empty pizza boxes piled in one corner, sink freighted with crusty dishes. A mild mammalian odor, not dissimilar to that of a barn, permeates the air. Calvin takes all this in in a sleepy glance before he turns, exits, and locks the door behind him. Continue reading Body Horror, Part Two: Borborygmus
Empty grocery store aisles beckon, he knows it’s a trap. It’s always a trap. Somewhere in the confines of that darkened storefront, things wait to make an easy meal out of fools looking for an easy meal. All he has is a machete, and his hunger to drive him inside.
Mondo’s house was a half-hour drive away in the Oklahoma heat, through the crumbling downtown and over the Arkansas River. On my first trip there, I tagged along with a trio of small-time criminals and county jail losers, Okies with bad teeth and oil-burning Adderall habits. That’s where Mondo came in.
Joe turned off the highway onto a small back road, he kept his brights off, trusting in his muscle memory and instincts as much as the headlights of his car to keep him from ramming into any trees. Even with his knowledge of these back roads, there was only so far you could get driving, and it wasn’t long before Joe left the truck behind on his trek north towards the creek.
At night, the woods were forbidding, towering pines stretching up towards a bright moon, it felt claustrophobic and agoraphobic all at once. Joe walked carefully, watching his steps in the light of a headlamp, terrible for hunting perhaps, he wasn’t hunting, and he certainly didn’t want to startle anything out here. Grim-faced Joe continued, listening to the sound of insects and owls, if they went silent, he would know he had ventured into the territory of the Pleasant Folk. Of course, the Texas wilderness housed more than supernatural threats, coyote, bobcats, snakes and even boar could prove fatal to someone who was careless.
After what felt like hours trekking over roots and pines Joe was about ready to take a break. He sat at the base of a tree, leaning his head back against the bark while his hands searched for the pocket with trail mix. When he opened his eyes again, he saw a pair of shapely smooth legs in the beam of his headlamp. Standing with a start Joe moved the light up the woman’s figure to her face. She was classically beautiful, pouty lips, pert nose, freckles and a mess of blond hair, combined with her body, she could easily lure lunks like Earl past the point of safe return. He stared at her face for a moment, taking in the wide, friendly smile plastered on her face before he sat back down heavily and started searching for his snacks again.
“What’re you doin’ out this way Cassie?” The smile dropped to form a pout before she plopped down beside him. The rags cloth that she had sewn together into a makeshift dress rustled a little, now that she wasn’t bothering to hide her presence. “And how long you been followin’ me?”
“You ain’t hard to follow Joe, no ranger blood in you, the possum could see you and the deaf bear could hear you miles off.” She stretched looking at her arms in the artificial light, as though the hue was a new and exciting experience. “You venturing farther than you should Joe, just cuz you got our blessing, don’t mean we can do nothing to protect you further out.” She glanced at him now, real concern on her face. “This about Earl?”
“You know it Cassie, I treated it as best as I could, but what they did, it isn’t part of the natural way of things, it ain’t gonna heal with Memaw’s magic and herbs, I figure I can talk to them, maybe get them to break the curse.” Cassie laid her head on Joe’s shoulder, staring into the woods, letting out a sigh, she knew better than most that arguing with Joe was a worthless endeavor. “You ain’t answered why you’re here.”
“Granny wanted to check on you.”
“But not herself?” Joe didn’t mean to snap so quickly, but it was out there now.
“That ain’t fair Joe, she loves you, she jus, she jus can’t accept that you ain’t followin’ in the family tradition.”
“Cassie, that there is bullshit, how am I not followin’ in tradition?” Cassie smirked, picking up her head to kiss him on the cheek.
“You may be followin’ the path Joe Jack, but you ain’t doin’ it traditional.” Joe sighed and nodded watching her get up and grin from ear to ear. “I’ll tell Granny you’re fine. But, if you keep goin, I can’t keep you that way, unerstand?” Joe nodded, he didn’t need his baby sister’s protection, not from the woods anyway, but he did need to get moving, once the sun crested the trees, the Pleasant Folk would be impossible to find.
It was another half a mile before he came to the creek that divided the what was considered out of bounds from the rest of the Pine Woods. A simple creek that any kid might go crawdad fishing in, shallow enough that all you would need to do is roll up your pant legs. But it never dried up. Joe stood on the edge of the creek, staring further into the woods. Here the insects and animals were silent, silence was never a good sign, not out here. Joe swallowed the fear that was bubbling up from his gut, threatening to make him vomit everything he had eaten for the last few days.
The Pleasant Folk looked mostly human, years ago, generations ago, maybe they had been human, but years of living in the deep woods, of inbreeding, and breeding with things that Joe didn’t want to think about, had made them something else. Occasionally Joe or one of the hunters from Sour Lake would come by and drop off meat and supplies, occasionally a girl, usually one from Beaumont would disappear into the woods. Joe didn’t like it, but that’s the way it was, the way it had always been.
Joe took a few moments to collect himself and make sure his rifle was loaded. There were things in the world, and in the woods, that couldn’t be put down by a simple slug from a rifle, but Joe had yet to meet a critter that wouldn’t be given pause by one to the chest. Finished stalling, Joe stepped across the creek, stepping on stones as he moved. The first step was the hardest, he half expected to be attacked as soon as his foot stepped on the moss on the wrong bank of the creek. Joe took the second step, and then a third before pausing. No warning shouts, no will-o-wisps moving through the trees, just silence.
He continued walking through the silent woods, every step he took done so with bated breath, he remembered the first time he was brought this way by his grandmother when he was still a child. They hadn’t ventured this far, of course, they had stopped just short of the creek to bring tribute to the Pleasant Folk. That night he remembered the trees had seemed to twist and squirm, blocking the moonlight from touching the shadows that moved under them on the other side of the water. He remembered seeing their eyes, glowing like a cats’ might. They hadn’t spoken with words like a person might, but with strangled bleats and yelps. After only a few moments, his grandmother had grabbed his hand and yanked him back, he had started walking towards the mind-bending shadows, unknowingly drawn to their wrongness.
A wet sound snapped him out of his reverie, a glance down confirmed that he had stepped in something dead, it looked like it had been torn apart by coyotes. But there were no coyotes out here. Steeling himself, Joe looked down again, this time taking his time to see the limbs and torso that jutted from the bloody mess. The hand had too many fingers, each one ending in a twisted filthy talon when Joe found the thing’s face, his stomach lurched hard enough to make him stumble. It was stretched in a way no human face could stretch, the jaw so far extended that it would be a miracle if it had been able to eat normally, it’s ears were misshapen, unmatched, and long enough to droop, horns of bone curled from the thing’s head, broken and bloody. The eyes were completely inhuman, sporting hourglass pupil like some bipedal goat, even though the face was as far removed from human as could be, Joe recognized the look of horror on its face.
His grandmother had taught him that the Pleasant Folk like all children of the Great Old Ones, were effectively immortal, and could only find their way to death through great violence. But what could do this kind of violence? Joe had seen bears do less damage than this, and then, what could cause so much fear in a creature as horrifying as the Pleasant Folk? Joe stepped back and had to stifle a yelp as the light from his headlamp played across the clearing. Scattered everywhere were the corpses of the Pleasant Folk, some places the bodies were piled high, in others there were only a few scattered limbs. Now that he was looking he could see the huts and cottages through the trees. This is where they lived, used to live, deeper in their village he could see some sort of light. Joe, trembling so hard that the rifle on his back rattled, stepped forward, determined to find out what had happened.
Joe walked through the clearing of death, the reek of animal violence, blood and . . . something like fungus was thick enough in the air to make it hard to breathe. Nothing moved, the corpses, the trees everything was silent and still, his light played across scene after scene of the massacre. He stopped at the edge of the village, there in the middle of even more piles of bloody corpses, was a tear in reality. It showed like a beacon, weeping sickly light through into the night, everywhere the light touched a yellow moss grew, on trees, homes, even on corpses. Around the edges of the tear something that Joe couldn’t quite focus on writhed. The light of the tear and smell of the fungus made Joe’s head spin, and within moments he found himself running, without any control, through the forest full tilt.
He ran, for hours, not stopping for even a breath. heedless of scratches and the sounds of animals, every time he stumbled he picked himself and continued to flee. Only when he reached his truck did he stop running, gasping for breath he clutched at the truck, he had pissed himself at some point, tears were still streaming down his face. Joe rested his head against the car door, he needed to sleep, he needed to recover, not just physically but emotionally as well. He needed to get back to the diner.
Hours later, Joe was showered, cleaned up, he still felt shaky, like there was something just beyond his sight, and he would have sworn that he could see a sickly light just out of the corner of his eye. He was in the kitchen, looking at pancakes cooking on the grill top, the batter poured messily, his hands still trembling. Nancy watched him with something bordering concern.
“What happened out there, Joe?” He didn’t answer her, he wasn’t ready to speak of the wrong light, of the mold that whispered to him, of the slaughter, it was still playing over, and over again in his mind. “You goin’ to fix it?” Joe laughed suddenly, realizing he was starting to cry again. He had to get a grip.
“No, Nance, this shit is above my pay grade, but uh, I’ll see what I can do.”
They didn’t come all at once. But rather, I found them one at a time or in pairs, scuttling under the oven when I flipped on the light. And at first, I didn’t think anything of it. What were a few little bugs, escaping the rain or cold? By the time I realized they were a problem it was too late. We were infested.
The things covered walls, strutting in the open sunlight in defiance. There was nothing I could do, no matter how many I killed, how many traps or poisons. This was no longer my home, but theirs.
The arm in question was shriveled, blackened veins spread from a group of wounds near the elbow. The wounds themselves, five small crescent-shaped marks, glowed with a sickly purple light, pulsing gently with each heartbeat.
“Yup, that’s a real curse you got there” Joseph Jacob Bigelow IV sat up from the surgical magnifier that he had been hunched over and finally looked into Earl’s eyes. They were filled with fear, the kind of fear that unmakes a man. The kind of fear that takes someone from a buck hunting macho man to a whimpering sack faster than you can say ‘Ia Ia Ftagn.’ Joe turned off the lamp on his magnifier before getting up to walk over to the fridge and grab two beers. Earl finally looked at Joe when he popped the two cans open with his index fingers and offered one down to Earl. Joe stood beside Earl for a few moments sipping the beer in silence.
“What do I do Joe?” Earl was a big guy, shaped like a bull, about as smart as one too. quick to get into a fight, and just as quick to buy the guy a beer as soon as it was over. Joe looked him over, from his crew cut of peppered black hair, round head and massive shoulders, the beer gut, and camo pants completed the look of a backwoods idiot perfectly, just the kind of person Joe had come back home to save.
“Don’t get yourself too worked up now, Earl.” Joe could hear his own southern accent, it had been a constant sticking point to his classmates when he was in culinary school. But he had proven himself in the kitchen, a near-perfect palate, exceptional knife skills. His instructors thought he would end up at some Michelin star restaurant. Chef Jordan would be horrified to find him cooking in some greasy spoon in Sour Lake, Texas, Chef Mims would think that it’s wonderful, he was always a fan of cooking, no matter what or where it was. Joe was lanky, the type of chef you would look at and say, ‘never trust a skinny cook’. He ran one of his long thin hands through his sandy blond hair. “First thing first Earl, we gotta get over to the diner, I’ll get you something to help out with that there arm.”
“You can fix it?”
“Hell yeah I can fix it Earl, but, you gotta tell me everything that happened, and drink your beer, it’ll help with the pain.”
Joe had driven the two of them to the greasy spoon in his old truck, a Ford chassis with so many frankenstiened parts underneath the hood that no one could possibly tell what it had started life as. The diner itself had the classic look of a 1950’s establishment, and in fact had been around since the late 40’s, on the side of highway 105, proudly serving those who got lost and turned around on those east Texas back roads.
Earl sat in one of the many empty booths, this time at night, there was hardly any chance that anyone would come by the diner, hell, it wasn’t a huge issue during the day either. Joe had his share of regulars, locals who would come in between work shifts, or during their commutes into Beaumont, but by and large, he knew they would be largely undisturbed here.
Nancy, a woman who was old when the diner first opened moved through the aisle with a pot of coffee, Joe didn’t bother to ask if it was fresh, it was always fresh, Nancy had a preternatural gift for knowing what customers needed and wanted. It’s how she had held this job so many years. She also never asked any questions about the things that happened, the things that came into the diner, which Joe appreciated, even if he didn’t quite understand.
“Got yerself bit up there Earl.”
“Well, I’m sure Joe will fix you up just fine.” Nancy patted Earl’s good arm, and began moving back behind the counter, but not before sparing Earl’s bad arm a hairy eyeball. When she came around, she walked to the kitchen window and leaned against it. “That ain’t no bite Joe Jack.”
“No, Nancy, it ain’t.” He didn’t look up from the cutting board he was working on, chopping thistle, toadflax, and hydrangea as fine as he could before separating out half of each. He dumped half of the herbs into a foul-smelling liquid and dipped a cloth into that, the rest he mixed with chili peppers, salt, and a few other seasonings. He went to work with the movements of a surgeon, prepping potatoes, carrots and a nice meatloaf, coated in the seasoning he had created earlier. He tossed the vegetables into a small pressure cooker with some aromatics before pushing the meatloaf into an oven. With a timer set, he walked back out of the kitchen and sat heavily across from Earl. “Alright, man, you spill what happened, and where.”
Earl looked pained, but not because of his arm. Joe had seen the look plenty of times, usually from a dog that just shit on the carpet.
“Well I was out deer huntin’ you know it’s the season, and I just got this new rifle, so I wanted to bag a nice deer or two, get enough meat to last a bit, and then Ethel been askin’ for some hide to make a new jacket, so I thought I would take a quick trip up into the woods.”
“Pine Woods Estate, right?”
“Uh Yeah, Joe.”
“How far north Earl?” Joe knew the answer, he knew because it was the only reason Earl had come back looking like a beaten dog that did wrong, instead of trying together a posse. But Joe wanted him to say it, to admit that he did wrong and that he knew he did wrong.
“I went past the creek.” There were a lot of creeks and ditches in Sour Lake, even more in Pine Wood, but Joe knew what creek he meant. There was only one creek it could be. There weren’t a lot of rules out there in the woods, you tried not to be a huge dick and things tended to work out all right.
“You went past the creek, which you know better than to do, and then you did something to piss off the Pleasant Folk.” Joe heard Nancy stop suddenly, the diner was dead quiet as if just saying the name of those things that lived deep in the pine forests of East Texas was enough to bring them about. “What did you do Earl?”
“Nothin’ I promise Joe Jack, I promise I didn’t do anything to no one out there, I was just deer huntin’” Earl was almost desperate, pleading, grabbing at Joe’s hand begging for him to understand. After a few moments, Joe pulled his hand back. “Alright Earl, listen, I’m gonna fix you up, and I’m going to fix this, but you’re gonna owe me, and you’re gonna owe the Pleasant Folk, and that ain’t ever pleasant.”
Joe stood up and grabbed the cloth he had been soaking, handing it over to Nancy. “Bandage up that arm for me.” He pulled the meatloaf out of the oven and began plating the food, not that anyone in Sour Lake could appreciate the presentation, but he would be damned if he served a sloppy plate to anyone, even Earl.
A few minutes later Nancy watched wearily as Joe prepped for his own trip into the woods, a leather apron went over his work shirt, he wore jeans and hiking boots to protect his feet. He stood there sharpening a cleaver with an old whetstone, silent other than the consistent sound of blade on stone.
“I can feel you staring holes in my head, Nancy” He finally said, quietly enough that Earl, eating his dinner in the main room of the diner couldn’t hear.
“This is some foolishness boy, you don’t think them Pleasant Folk like you no more than him, do you?”
“Nah” Joe smiled, crooked ever since he and his dad had gotten into a fist fight so many years ago, his jaw had never been set right, in order to avoid awkward questions from child protective services. “But I think they would be more willin’ to talk at me than Earl, waving his gun around.”
“You ain’t takin’ a gun?” He wouldn’t have thought anything could surprise Nancy.
“Of course I’m taking a gun, I ain’t stupid, I just ain’t gonna wave it around, ‘less I need to.” Joe pushed the cleaver into his apron before turning around to grab his shotgun from beside the door, along with a few extra shells and slugs, just in case. “It’ll be fine Nancy, trust me, I ain’t exactly new to this part.” Nancy pursed her lips together but said nothing as she headed back out to check on Earl.