Encounters Magazine

Encounters Magazine
This publication copyright 2015 by Black Matrix Publishing LLC and
individually copyrighted by artists and individuals who have contributed to
this issue. All stories in this magazine are fiction. Names, characters and
places are products of the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any
resemblance of the characters to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely
coincidental. Encounters Magazine is published bi­monthly by Black Matrix
Publishing LLC, 1339 Marcy Loop Rd, Grants Pass, OR 97527. Our Web site:
www.blackmatrixpub.com
ABOUT OUR COVER ARTIST
Candra Hope
Candra Hope is a freelance illustrator and landscape artist based in Lanark, Scotland. You can see more of her work online at https://candrah.artstation.com/ or to discuss a commission, contact her at hopecandra@yahoo.co.uk.
ENCOUNTERS MAGAZINE
Volume 03 June/July 2015 Issue 14
Table of Contents
Short Stories
REMEMBER THE SUNFLOWERS by K.C. Aegis – Page 5
THANATOS IV by Max Gray – Page 24
MEAT FOR THE BEAST by Buck Weiss – Page 50
THE LEATHER BRACELET by Guy T. Martland – Page 71
CHRISTMAS EVIL by Darren French – Page 85
Novelette
SHRIEK OF THE HARPY by Sebastian Bendix – Page 96
PUBLISHER: Kim Kenyon
EDITOR: Guy Kenyon
From the Editor's Desk
As the search for habitable worlds around other stars
continues to expand, most estimates place the number at a
billion or more in our galaxy alone. Many of those planets are
likely more hospitable to life than our current home. A perfect
candidate would be a planet slightly larger than earth, circling
in the habitable zone of a slightly cooler star. The more stable
star would allow life more time to evolve into an intelligent
species and the larger planet would hold its atmosphere longer
and retain its interior heat an additional few billion years. This
would allow a molten core to create a strong and stable
magnetic field to shield living organisms from harmful
radiation, and sustain active plate tectonics that have proven
important to the development of life here on Earth.
It's important to recognize that planetary systems have a
shelf­life, and ours may be approaching its expiration date
faster than we realize. About 3.5 billion years ago Earth
enjoyed a much thicker atmosphere, a higher concentration of
oxygen and a biosphere far more dense than today. Most
insects were measured in feet, not inches. All this at a time
when Earth was squarely in the center of our Sun's habitable
zone.
Today we are circling on the inner edge of that zone. The
Sun has grown hotter and more luminous as it converts the
nuclear fuel in it's core to heavier elements and will push the
habitable zone beyond our orbit in the next billion years. Long
before that, pandemics, changes in the global climate, super
volcano eruptions, asteroid and comet strikes or a gamma­ray
burst orginating within our galaxy could seriously damage or
destroy human civilization (perhaps as early as within the next
five­hundred to a thousand years).
It's time as a species that we take seriously the need to
expand outward into the universe. It's a matter of survival.
Guy Kenyon
Encounters Magazine
05/12/2015
ENCOUNTERS MAGAZINE
Issue #14
REMEMBER THE
SUNFLOWERS
by K.C. Aegis
I tell myself I'm not afraid of death, not really. But I am
scared of old age. Seems funny, I know—especially since
most have considered me ancient for decades. During that
time, however, I didn't feel old. I had Gina, my wife, to
make sure I took care of myself. But since she passed five
years ago, I haven't been so motivated. Now, it seems my
body's finally had enough. It's closing up shop, locking all
the doors and boarding up the windows. Everyday, I wake
up with a body that aches a little more, moves a little
slower and thinks a little less clearly. It's the agonizing
crawl at the end. That's what I'm afraid of. But I keep going, don't I? Fear doesn't stop me, does it?
And even now, I go on living. The alarm goes off at six a.m. but I'm already awake. I
don't sleep much, you see. I reach across a bed that is
empty and cold to flick off the noise. When I rise to a
sitting position, I pretend the cracks I hear are coming
from the bed and not my shifting bones. I get dressed. It takes longer than it used to. Everything
does, but I've adapted. I slip my feet—swollen and
deformed stumps of raw hamburger meat—into nylon
tights. It's supposed to help with the circulation but it's
just duct tape on a damaged car.
After a modest breakfast prepared by Silvia, my chef,
she drives me to work—she's also my driver although I
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use the term lightly. People don't really drive anymore,
you know. The onboard intelligence links with the Sense
Way and does the real driving while Silvia just helps me
get in and out without falling like the old fool I am. In any
case, I enjoy her company. The drive lasts less than twenty minutes in which I gaze
out my window at the city. It's changed so much in my
lifetime that its labyrinthine flow of streets is now a
stranger to me. Actually, the streets I grew up on—black
asphalt with potholes and such are gone now. Well, not
gone I suppose. The old streets still exist below the newer
sensor ways. Some say they've become a kind of slum
called the Undercity, but I can't imagine a world down
there without sunshine, people living in the shadow of
progress. The idea could keep you awake at night if you
chose to believe it.
And the streets aren't the only changes I've witnessed in
my years. Skyscrapers that were once so iconic have been
torn down. Newer, flashier edifices were constructed on
top of the old foundations. The way of the world, I
suppose.
We arrive at our destination—the building that bears
my name soars one hundred and sixty floors into the
azure sky. Silvia helps me out of the car and holds out my
cane. She takes my elbow and guides me through the
doors of Leaf Tower. The main lobby is impressive in both
size and wealth. The walls are lined with steel pillars that
twist and curve like liquid metal. The engineers that
updated its aesthetics say it uses magnetism and some
type of superconductivity, but the fluidity is just an
illusion. The pillars are quite secure, so I'm told. I don't
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much care for their explanations because at my age
everything is near collapse. The floor beneath the pillars is marble and shines with
a reflective gloss. Many a young lady has been
embarrassed upon entering the lobby and realizing that
wearing a skirt was a mistake. When I look down, an aged
man wobbling on a wooden cane stares back at me. It's an
image of great contrast with Silvia who is still young and
full of precious vitality. She gently urges me along. She
doesn't think I notice the impatient frown on her face.
"I'll be back at five," Silvia says and vanishes back the
way she came. What she does in the time she's not taking
care of me, I can't say. Would be impolite to ask.
I'm less than halfway to the elevators when Tom Bellis,
a narrow post of a man, strides across the glossy floor to
stand directly in front of me. "Good morning, Mr. Leaf." He extends his hand, but I
don't take it. I'm not interested in hearing his soliciting
spiel again and frankly, just walking from the car to my
office has become a strain. My mind is set on the soft
leather chair behind my desk and not the man who is so
insistent on selling me his Reset Plan.
I move past Bellis without responding and his hand
drops. Behind me, he calls, "When you're ready to talk,
Mr. Leaf, you know where to reach me." I think he's given
up when he says one more thing. "Say hello to Diana
Brandt for me."
I halt at his words. Diana's one of my chief financial
officers. She's been with the company for close to thirty
years and she's become a dear friend in the meantime.
She's the kind of person that would just as soon
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compliment you as call you a fascist idiot, but I admire
her honesty. And over the years, I've come to depend on it
more than she knows. Sadly, she's been on medical leave
for over a month and the idea that Bellis would bring her
up in his sales pitch is a bit too much to take. I mean to
say so, but he's already gone by the time I've turned
around. My knuckles crack as I form a fist. I move on.
A quick ride in the executive elevator and I've reached
the top floor. When the doors open into the reception
area of the executive suites, there's quite a commotion
going on.
For one thing, no one is working. Usually by this time,
the offices are buzzing with boardroom meetings and
video conferences, but instead of this, everyone has
emerged from their glass­walled offices and is standing in
a semicircle around a woman I've never seen before. At
least, that's what I think. Her back is to me so I can only
make out a slim, attractive physique with long auburn
hair. Those around her are grinning ear to ear. Others are
applauding like they're at some kind of stage show. All I
can figure is that this strange woman is telling them
something that gets them going. What that is, I can't say. A few of my staff catch sight of me stepping out of the
elevator and hush up pretty quick. The others follow suit
as if I'm a teacher who's just walked into a room of
misbehaving students.
The woman must notice their shift in attention because
she spins around to face me. When her hair flips behind a
surprisingly youthful face, I notice two things. First, she's
not a woman at all, not by at least three years. She's
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pretty, but with features not fully developed. She's just a
child, I think. And second, this girl knows me. I'm certain that I've
never seen her before, but something about the way she
looks at me—the unnatural confidence that burns behind
her young, hazel eyes makes me think twice.
"Do I know you, young lady?" I say. The people behind
her break into laughter, but I can't imagine why.
"Mr. Leaf," the girl says. "It's me. It's Diana Brandt."
Without warning, the room is closing in on me and the
floor falls away. I know I'm going to faint but soft hands
catch my arm. It's the girl. Her hands are slim yet
powerful. She guides me to my office and helps me into
my seat behind the wide wooden desk.
People are speaking frantically, but I don't hear their
exact words. They sound as if they're underwater. I look
up to see the girl—the one who says she's Diana—shooing
people away from my door. When the last of my staff has
left, she pulls the blinds closed and shuts the door,
leaving me alone with her.
Sitting down helps and after a few minutes, my head
clears.
"So, you went ahead and did it," I say. "You got the
Reset Plan."
"I did." She beams and spins around in a circle. Her
blue sundress twirls with her movement. "Can you believe
it, Mike? I'm young again!"
Her joy is infectious and I feel it pouring through my
discomfort. Still, I manage to voice my concerns. "But you
were already young."
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She stops her spinning and gives me a look of
exaggerated disgust. "Sixty­three years old is not young,
Michael Leaf." Then after a pause, she says, "No offense."
"But you weren't dying," I protest. "Your body still had
twenty, maybe forty years left."
She folds her arms and says, "Why wait? With all the
medical problems I've been having lately, I figured, why
not start over sooner rather than later?"
Her words echo in my mind. I've heard them before,
but not from her. It's the same pitch that solicitor Bellis
used. "So, how old are you now?" I say.
"Fifteen," she says. Her cheeks flush with color. "It's
crazy, Mike. Just last month, I could barely walk across
my living room without my bones cracking. Now, I can
jump and dance and sing and run and laugh all day
without even getting tired. This body..." She runs her
hands up from her stomach, over slim shoulders and
through silky hair. "I haven't felt this alive in half a
century."
"Did it hurt?" I say.
She smiles and I'm taken aback by the playful
innocence she displays. "Not even a little. The last thing I
remember was lying in the personality transfer ward. The
technician put an IV in my arm and the room began to
stretch almost immediately. Before I really knew what
was going on, it was two weeks later."
"Why so long?" "It takes time for the data carriers to fully embed
themselves into the new body. I mean, we're talking over
sixty years of memories to be switched over. The data
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carriers enter the blood through the IV and their
programming guides them into the brain. They know
where to go. They latch onto the hippocampus and feed it
with memories—my memories. "When the process was complete, I opened my eyes and
saw the world with vision so clear—it's hard to explain
how different it is. I stretched out on the bed with joints
that didn't ache with arthritis. And when I called for the
nurse, my voice didn't croak with all the years of cigarette
smoke I've poisoned it with."
"What about—" I'm not sure how to say my next
question without insulting her, but it's not until this
moment I realize how seriously I've been considering
Reset for myself. "What about your old body? What
happened to your original self?"
"They time the whole thing so right when the process
finishes, your old body passes on."
"They killed you?" Her face contorts into a scowl. It's a look that is out of
place on the young body. "Do I look dead?" Diana says.
It's true, the person before me certainly isn't deceased, but
she looks nothing like the woman I used to know.
"How do you know they transferred all of you? What if
part of you was still left uncopied in your old body?"
"It's pretty thorough, Mike. Before the transfer, they
send in memory receivers—tiny machines smaller than
blood cells. They scour the brain for every trace of your
personality. Once they've created a complete copy, the
transfer begins."
"Do you know where it came from? Your new body, I
mean."
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The awkward silence that follows tells me I've offended
her. Finally, Diana says, "Sheesh, Mike. What's with all the
questions? Are you happy for me or not?"
"I am...I'm just...just curious, you know."
An impish smile spreads across her lips. "Why? You
thinking about doing it too?"
I avoid the question and she doesn't push it. Instead,
the conversation turns to her plans for the future. She
says she'll be taking a great deal of vacation days in the
coming months. She'll take her young body on a tour
around the world. With a lifetime of accrued wealth and a
body full of energy and hope, she wants to take
advantage. She says she might even take a shuttle to the
moon and do a space dive on the way back.
I urge her not to overdo it. She wouldn't want to get
herself killed.
Her carefree laughter reveals that death is the farthest
thing from her mind.
After another hour or so of prattle, we say our
goodbyes. She wraps her arms around my brittle bones
and I'm surprised when tears form in my eyes. She was
my friend, but now there are so many years between us. I
wonder how much longer she'll even want to talk to me
like this.
She knows I'm upset and before she leaves, she
whispers in my ear. "I'm still me, Mike." Then, she turns
away and flutters so quickly out of my office that I
wonder if she was really there in the first place. I sink back into my chair and stare at the atomic clock
on my desk. The hours crawl on until the end of the
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workday. I don't take any calls and my secretary
reschedules all my meetings. I don't even think, not really.
Recover is a better word. For the entire day, I sit behind
my desk while my mind slowly, painfully makes sense of
what Diana told me.
By the time Silvia arrives to take me home, I'm already
waiting for her on the curb. Without a word, I slump into
the backseat.
"Bad day?" Silvia asks.
In response, I shut my eyes to close out the world.
Silvia reads me well and doesn't try to coax me into
conversation.
Later that night, I 'm sitting on the edge of my bed with
a business card in my hand. It's contact information for
the Bellis fellow. I turn the card over in my hands—my
stiff, aged hands. Blue, bulging veins crisscross the back of
my hands like lines on a transit map. My fingers are
misshapen with arthritic joints. But they're my joints, I
think. My hands. My body.
"What should I do?" I ask no one in particular, but
when I look up my eyes fall on a small, framed picture
resting next to a bedside lamp. A fine layer of dust has
formed on the picture of my wife, Gina, but I can still
make out her sweet smile and sparkling eyes. She had
always been so full of laughter, even in death. She had
died in her sleep—a wisp of a smile on her face.
What would she say if I didn't follow her? Would it be a
betrayal to the woman who had always stood by me?
I think of Diana and her new, young body—the body
that had belonged to someone else just a few weeks prior.
Can the soul really be separated from the body? Gina's eyes
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are on me from the frame. They are not judgmental eyes
—never were, but they burn just the same. Looking away,
I make a decision, and with popping knees, I stand. Bellis' business card folds in my gnarled fist. I take a
step towards the waste bin resting in the corner of my
room. I mean to toss the card in the trash, but crushing
pain grips me where I stand. A cry escapes me and I crumple to the floor. The pain
presses against my lungs and cuts off my air supply. The
last thing I see is Silvia's horror stricken face as she turns
me onto my back. Trying to escape the pain, I close my
eyes while death grips my throat and pulls me under the
earth.
Time passes. I can't say how long because I'm in and
out of consciousness. At one time, I wake to find myself
ensnared in a myriad of tubes and wires. An image of
grim faced doctors at my bedside flickers briefly before
I'm back under. Time flows like a river all around me, but I'm not
affected by it. I've become a heavy boulder resting in the
middle of a stream. Its waters wear away at my edges,
smoothing me out, but I don't move. Too large to be
pushed downstream.
I might remain this way forever, but the outside world
is calling me. Begging me to return. Slowly, the haze
fades away and I open my eyes.
At first, the lights in the hospital room are blinding, but
after a few moments, I can see clearly. In fact, the colors
on the various posters around the room are so crisp that
I'm afraid they might jump out at me. One poster in
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particular—A warning about cross contamination—has
lettering so clear, I feel that it's shouting at me.
The nurse call button is hanging from the side of the
bed. I reach for it and—My hands! The varicose veins are
missing. In their place is skin that is tan and smooth. My
fingers are slim and strong. I kick the bedcovers to the
floor with legs that are not mine. They are young and
powerful. A moment of glee surges through me but is
quickly dispatched by a dawning realization. A deep chill
creeps up my spine.
A nurse all but hops into the room. She's smiling
stupidly while holding a white clipboard in her chubby
fingers.
"Mr. Leaf," she says. "So good to see you've come back
to us. What do you think of your new body?"
I can only stare. I don't know if I should yell, cry, or
laugh. The nurse ignores my silence and continues going
through her routine. She asks me a series of questions to
make sure the personality transfusion was a success. She
asks me my name, my address, what I do for a living.
Then she moves on to more personal questions about
when I met my wife, what was her favorite song, what is
the name of my second grandchild, and so on and so on. I
answer each of these questions with a voice that is
horribly foreign in my ears. When she's finished, she sets down her clipboard and
begins detaching several cords and wires. After she
removes my catheter, she gives a playful smile and says,
"You really lucked out, Mr. Leaf. Your new body is...very
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handsome." I feel sick. This nurse is young enough to be
my grandchild. "How old am I?"
The nurse checks the clipboard and says, "Seventeen."
Eighty years gone in a blink. Not gone, stolen.
I want to walk and the nurse helps me stand because
even though I'm now young, I've been asleep for over two
weeks and my limbs are all pins and needles. At first, I feel that my legs are so powerful that I might
accidentally jump through the ceiling. It takes me a
moment to adjust to the increased energy and before long
I've taken to the hallways in long strides. I make at least
ten laps around the hospital ward before returning to my
room. Tom Bellis is waiting for me. "Hello, Mr. Leaf," he says.
"Looks like the Reset was successful." Several pressing
questions come to mind. Bellis must see it in my eyes
because he says, "Is something wrong?"
"I didn't agree to this," I say. Bellis puffs out his cheeks and his eyes widen. Too bad,
those eyes say. "I didn't give consent."
"When your caregiver, Silvia, found your almost­corpse,
you were holding my card. That's all the consent she
needed. As your nurse, she holds certain medical rights
that allow her to make important decisions in situations
when you are unable to do so. She acted fast and saved
your life. Saved your life and gave you a new one."
I look down at my new body and say, "And what about
him? The kid whose body I've moved into?"
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Bellis waves his hand dismissively and says, "All
volunteers give up their bodies willingly. And besides, the
compensation their families receive is far more than most
of them can earn in a lifetime. Most volunteers are
honored to know their body will go on to do great things."
This is another sales pitch and I don't want to hear it. I want to scream, If you think nobody is forced into
suicide for the sake of their family, then you don't know a
thing about poverty. But I'm silent. What the hell do I
know about it anyway? I've lived the high life for decades.
Any empathy I have for the poor is imagined at best. By the time Bellis starts to explain Reset's insurance plan
that guarantees a new body in case anything should
happen to my current one, my blood is boiling.
I cut him off mid­sentence and demand that he leave.
He feigns a hurt look, but exits without further discussion.
On his way out, he tacks another one of his business cards
to the bulletin board next to the door. Silvia arrives soon after and takes me home. Our
exchanges are a little awkward because she's so used to
helping me around, but now I'm younger than she is. I'm
sure she's wondering where she stands in my world now
that I no longer need a caregiver but she doesn't bring it
up. Instead, she silently drives me home and carries my
things to my room without a word. After that, she leaves
and I'm left alone in someone else's body.
In the privacy of my own bedchambers, I stand in front
of a tall three way mirror and stare at my new reflection
for hours. The body is slender, but not frail. A muscular
physique is adorned with patches of light fuzz—I wouldn't
call it hair—on the chest and cheeks. Deep blue eyes stare
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back at me from within a face of smooth skin and soft
angles. Aside from a small star­shaped scar on the
underside of its chin, the face is flawless. And it's
handsome, there's no denying it. A boy's face on the cusp
of manhood. Turning away from the mirrors, I catch sight of my
wife's picture beside the bed. I open a dresser drawer and
set the picture inside. I bury the image of my late wife
beneath a pile of socks and close the drawer.
Out of habit, I sleep. When the morning wakes me, I
rise. Silvia brings me breakfast, but I don't eat. Instead, I
get dressed in a pair of jeans and a flannel shirt—I have
to punch extra holes in my belt because the pants are too
big. Silvia tries to start up a conversation when I emerge
from my room—trying to dispel some of the tension that's
sprung up between us—but I don't respond. I just walk
out the front door without a word. When I reach the
sidewalk, I keep walking. About three blocks later, I start to jog. Two blocks after
that, I'm sprinting. My pulse pounds in my ears, my
breathing is unlabored and rhythmic. On some level, I feel
like I might run too hard and damage this new body.
Blow it out like a new engine pushed too hard. But after a
few more minutes, I realize that's impossible. The body is
too young and too powerful for that.
I slow to a steady pace and let my feet carry me along
the early morning streets. I fear people will stare at me as
I pass like I'm some sort of abomination, but they only see
a young man on an morning run. They don't see the
elderly hijacker hiding within stolen skin.
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Sweat is dripping in my eyes when my feet stop
moving. This isn't a conscious decision. I wasn't planning
on stopping—I just do because something has grabbed my
attention. Half a block up the sidewalk on my left is a
narrow opening between two buildings. I might have
missed it if I hadn't stopped, but now I'm intrigued. Old
age has limited my desire to pursue any curiosities.
Whether it's cynicism or a weak bladder, I can't say what's
caused my lack of adventure. I only know it's been awhile
since I've felt comfortable enough to try something new
and unexpected. I figure that I've always wondered about the Undercity.
Why not see if it really exists? A peek inside the opening reveals a narrow alley with a
steep descent below street level. I step inside a deep
shadow and walk through air thick with humidity. At the
end of the alley, someone has tied a torn cardboard box to
a rusted chain link fence. I move the board aside to reveal
a room full of darkness.
I should feel fear, I know. Doubt should be rushing in
and urging me to turn back the way I came. Go back to
what you know. But there is no fear. No doubt bars my
way. I step into the dark and let the cardboard door close
behind me. A faint light from somewhere up ahead reveals some
kind of parking structure long abandoned to vagrants and
rodents. The edges around me are lined with several
forms buried beneath blankets and piles of junk. People of
the Undercity. I shuffle through mounds of garbage and occasionally
jump back as rats scurry through the darkness. Again, I
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know what I should do. I should stop this foolishness and
return to the world above. I'm about to do just that when
something up ahead catches my eye. At first, I think I'm
not seeing clearly or perhaps it's a crack in the concrete
above that's letting in a ray of sunshine. But as I grow
nearer, I see that I'm not mistaken. Growing from a
mound of muck on the floor is a flower that glows bright
yellow.
I reach for it and something heavy shifts from within a
mound of blankets.
"Ey! Get yer own! Leave mine 'lone!"
The face of the speaking vagrant is shrouded in
darkness, but his eyes glow fiercely with the reflection of
the illuminated flower. A demon in the dark.
It's a wonder I don't bolt for the exit, but I'm still
overcome with wonder for this strange place I've
stumbled into. Without arousing the vagrant any further, I step away
and move towards even more light coming from below. I
follow the parking structure down two ramps and a
stairway lined with empty liquor bottles until I step out
onto the street—an actual street— the asphalt and
potholes of a city long forgotten by progress.
A sense of recognition strikes me and the dark corridors
around me suddenly transform back into a scene from my
youth. A movie marquee flashes with tube lighting while a
folk band plays joyously on the corner. An open guitar
case at their feet is filled with glittering coins and dollar
bills. Beside me, Gina smiles and tosses a coin into the
case. She takes my hand and kisses me softly.
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The scene from my youth fades back into its new, dark
reality. A series of slanting pillars line the street. They
must be the support beams for the Sensor Way that lies
overhead. It blocks out the sun and has turned the
Undercity into a sea of shadows and forgotten memories.
Aside from a few sputtering streetlamps in long need of
repair, the only other lighting comes from a glowing
storefront directly across from where I stand.
With nowhere else to go, I cross the street and push
against an iron barred door. A tin bell rings as I step
inside what first appears to be a convenience store of
some kind. I'm not sure because there seems to be no
rhyme or reason to what's stocked on the shelves. They
aren't any more organized than the streets just outside,
but one thing in particular catches my attention. An entire row at the back of the store is stocked with at
least twenty of the glowing flowers I first saw in the
parking structure. Each one is resting in a plastic cup
filled with soil. I pick one up to get a better view. It looks
like a tulip, but its petals glow with a slow pulsing yellow.
"Ey, mister," says a woman's voice from behind me.
"You thinking 'bout buying a Sunflower? They's real
specially made, ya. Specially bred with phosph'rous, ya.
They keep dat glow for two, three weeks before they
darken."
I mean to turn and face the woman, but I can't. An icy
chill has plunged into my center and I stand motionless.
The woman says something else but I'm not listening.
Instead, my attention is latched onto a picture pinned to
the wall next to the row of Sunflowers. In the picture, two
kids—a boy and a girl—are kneeling next to a box filled
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with the glowing flowers. They are covered head to toe
with dirt, but they are smiling. They seem unconcerned by
the black world they live in. The world where the only
sunlight is the kind produced by their bio­engineered
garden. The girl I recognize right away. It's Diana Brandt—at
least, not the Diana I knew, but the one I saw yesterday in
my office. It takes me a moment longer to recognize the
boy.
The woman behind me speaks again, this time more
urgently and I spin around with the Sunflower still in my
hands. The woman gasps and puts up a black smudged
hand to cover a face ridden with wet sores and lined with
deep cutting wrinkles. Her eyes show the horror I feel.
"Tim?" she says. Her voice is little more than a whisper.
"Is dat you, Tim?"
"I...I'm sorry...I shouldn't be here..."
The woman steps backward, bumps into a shelf and
knocks a bottle of vinegar to the ground. It shatters and
the acrid stench fills my nostrils.
"No," she says, her horror turning to disgust. "You ain't
him. I shoulda known. First his girl, Lucy, volunteered. He
couldn't stand it. His girl alive but gone. I couldn't stop
'im. A few weeks after he left, they sent me da money. A
check wid a lotta zeros. I was thinkin' that if I didn't cash
it, he'd come back." Her eyes narrowed. "But I see you
ain't him. Why're ya here, then? Ya come to rub it in?"
"No, I didn't mean—"
"Get out!"
In my haste to exit the store I commit another crime
against this woman of the Undercity, and it's not until I'm
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back in the sunlight that I realize I'm still holding the
flower.
Its radiance is diminished in the mid afternoon sun, but
it still pulses with that yellow light. I stare at it for a long
time. Whether it's my imagination or not, I can't say, but
somewhere within the illuminated petals are memories
from another life. A life that ended abruptly before its
time was up. As I gaze at the flower, I wonder just whose
memories guided me to that subterranean store.
Coincidences are a fool's explanation.
I begin heading home—walking this time—all the while
asking myself the same questions over and over. Am I
Michael Leaf, an old man with a young man's body?
Or...am I Tim, a young man with an old man's memories?
I don't know the answer, but I suppose I'll have a long life
to figure it out.
In the meantime, I think I'll pay Diana another visit. I
will show her my new souvenir from the Undercity. I
want to know what she thinks about it.
I need to know if she can remember the sunflowers.
K.C. Aegis lives in Southern California with his wife and three kids. When
he isn't writing science fiction in the middle of the night, K.C. teaches
English in a public school classroom. You can learn more about K.C. Aegis,
leave comments, and/or read sample chapters from his novels by visiting
kcaegis.weebly.com.
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THANATOS IV
by Max Gray
The siren wails in his dreams every night. It’s always
changing. First it’s shrill and incessant, like a high wind,
and the next time it’s a pulsing warble. The fact is, if it
actually went off, he would have no way of knowing what
it would sound like because U.N. Command didn’t include
that in his training module. All he knows is the siren
means the end of everything. Dender’s conception of the
apocalypse is probably no more accurate than that of the
people living down there, on Earth. Forget Heironymus
Bosch, forget Durer. Dender knows beyond a shadow of a
doubt that the end of the world will be far nicer than all
that, not to mention instantaneous. This time it isn’t a
siren at all, but a baby crying. He sits up in bed. The sheets are limp with sweat. His
lips are dry. The heart rate monitor on the ceiling reads
92. He has seen and heard infants before only in the
movies. That means his brain recreated the pitch, the
frequency of the child’s screams by confabulation. Dender
shakes his head. This is troubling.
He exits the dark cocoon of D1, the bedroom, and
passes, barefoot, into the dim maroon light of D2, the
gym and track room, through a portal connecting the
exercise sphere to the “numb room,” which powers down
overnight. The portal hisses open, admitting him to D4,
the observation sphere. Dender shields his eyes from the
light. The spotless primary window turns with the
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imperceptible rotation of the satellite so that it always
faces Earth. As expected, the alarm beacons lining the
walls are dormant. It’s quiet but for the gentle hum of
automated gyroscopes and other instruments that Dender
isn’t required to understand or even to identify. The Earth looks pensive. Clouds like shredded cotton
drift over the surface. The blue skin of the Atlantic Ocean
and the Gulf of Mexico show through the holes in the
clouds. The rim of the Earth shines emerald with a faint
infusion of pink, as though it’s blushing. C02 levels would
be through the roof. Conditions on the ground would be
worsening by the day. By now it would feel like living
inside a vast bowl of pho. The celestial body that was once considered the center
of the universe now occupies the innermost chamber of
Dender’s heart. He revolves around it 14.42 times a day,
365 days a year, every year, until they, in their infinite
wisdom, decide to pick him up.
He’s hated this planet for so long that the hate sits in
his stomach like an avocado pit. Dender is beginning to
doubt that he’ll ever get the chance to press the button
that will destroy it. Of his 500­day deployment, this is day
611. And to top it all off, he’s pretty sure he’s going
insane.
Zero eight­hundred. Lights on. This week – this Earth­
week, that is – the alarm clock is set to a 22 nd century
psycho­pop song by a group called the Auto Erotics. Brush
your teeth to a waterfall of crashing cymbals, a machine
gun of staccato bass notes. Don’t bother headbanging. The
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last time you had the motivation to headbang was almost
an Earth­year ago. Next week is Wolfgang Amadeus
Mozart, fifth symphony. Good luck getting up before ten.
Zero nine­hundred. Lie on your stomach and place your
palms flat on the floor. Arch your back and feel your spine
stretching. Breathe in, breathe out. Dial up the controls
for the exercise sphere and deactivate the automated
track. Today you want to run without any help. It’s an
easy day. The log says not to stop until you hit ten miles,
and you don’t. You stop at ten miles, exactly, and not a
step farther. You can be as precise as a machine, if you
want to be. That’s what got you here. That’s why they
chose you, over all the rest. You were the closest thing to
a ‘bot that they could find. You remember the white coats
watching you through the glass as you ran on the
treadmill, electrodes taped all over your chest, and the
expression on the faces of the military brass. Incredible,
you imagine they probably said, what a specimen, or some
such drivel. You saw a way out, and you ran faster; you
ran until they told you to stop.
Twelve­hundred. Lunch time. Unseal the wrapper on a
Long­Term Dry­Packed Nutriment Unit, or LT­Ration. The
ugly, brown slab inside gasps for air. It’s the size of your
hand – odorless, cold to the touch, inflexible, utterly
unappetizing. You put it in the enriching oven for thirty
seconds and out comes an odorless, inflexible brown slab
that tastes miraculously like a bacon cheeseburger on a
toasted Kaiser roll with melted provolone cheese, tomato,
sliced onions and a pickle. Hold the mustard.
Twelve­hundred thirty. Computer, dim the lights. You
assume the full lotus position and allow yourself to think
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of nothing. Well, first many things, then some things, then
a few things, and then… When it’s really good, only one
thing; the only thing there is. The button on the master
dashboard. How it depresses with a satisfying click.
Tendrils of fire bloom out from the surface of the planet,
like a stop­motion film of orchids opening. Clouds ignite
and seas boil. The Earth becomes a molten sphere, a
flawless marble, a diamond in a coal mine. It is finally
perfect. Shit. Think of nothing. Breathe in, breathe out…
Thirteen­hundred. Free time. Try the cross­word puzzle
again, maybe this is your day. Computer, thesaurus. Look
up erstwhile. Never mind. Computer, dictionary. And
browse. This is the closest thing you have to recreational
reading. The books all remind you of Earth. Half the
words in the dictionary are useless to you. Arachnid.
Middle management. Teamwork. Dragonfly. Freeway.
Close your eyes and walk in a straight line for as long
as possible without bumping into anything. Your record to
date: twenty­eight paces. Fourteen­hundred. Set up the easel in front of the
primary window on D4. Choose a new spot. Move it up a
few inches, then back again, now a bit more to the side.
That’s it. Break out the brushes and the pencils and the
charcoal. Express yourself. Employ whatever colors or
methods your heart desires. By now you no longer need
to look out the window. If a bad LT­Ration struck you
blind, you would still be able to paint it just as well. You
close your eyes, and there’s Earth, shining in the darkness
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When you’re done, you hang it up to dry with the rest.
Or crumple it into a ball and eat it.
Sixteen­hundred. Shadow­boxing. The hologram
opponents are Mike Tyson, Rocky Marciano, Sugar Ray
Leonard. The hologram is Dr. Gregorian, the head of the
U.N.­Com research team, one of the last human beings
ever to lay eyes on you. The hologram is God, is the Devil,
is a composite image of a man based on rough sketches of
the hooded individual who donated you to science, whose
image was captured on security cameras sprinting across
the lawn of the U.N. Climate Reclamation complex in
Toronto, having left you on the doorstep in a basinet,
swathed in blankets like baby Moses. Little did he know, a
ticking time bomb manifested in flesh and blood. You
hope your progenitors, the man and woman who
conceived of you more than twenty­five years ago, are still
alive when you press the button. You were not, are not,
will never be what they wanted you to be. You are not
Moses, but the angel of death.
Seventeen­hundred. Retire to the numb room, where
you congratulate yourself for putting it off for this long.
All of human history is distilled onboard the satellite’s
video library. Every film that’s ever been produced,
accessible at the touch of a finger. The lights go down.
You watch all of John Huston’s movies, Steven Spielberg,
David Lynch. Nothing released since the turn of the 21 st
century interests you. There was a time when an ancient
film called 2001: A Space Odyssey used to make you
laugh. You don’t laugh anymore.
Nineteen­hundred. Have a leisurely dinner on D4. Eat
with your back to the window.
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Round out the night in the numb room, watching
documentary footage of the last four known genocides,
only three of which were state­sponsored. An entire
ethnic tribe at the foot of the Caucasus Mountains
decimated by a horde of flying ‘bot wasps in JP Morgan –
Inbev jerseys. The last one in North America, sparked,
ostensibly, over water rights, degenerates into an all­out
purge of a rural sub­population based on their peculiar
blue eyes. You watch it happen in high­resolution video
and it’s almost like you’re standing there with them. You
try to feel something, anything, and fail.
You can have almost any woman who’s ever lived, via
hologram. And you do. Cleopatra, Ann Boleyn, Mona Lisa,
even, in a moment of shame that floods you from the
inside like ice water, the Madonna. You can’t help but
notice an eerie resemblance between the mother of God
and Catharine the Great.
The computer diagnoses you with insomnia, brought on
by an overactive imagination. It prescribes a break from
the numb room and increased time for artistic expression.
The thought of even more painting makes you want to
scream, though nothing else interests you besides clay
sculpture, which is “non­conducive” to Low Earth Orbit. Earth­days, solar­weeks, nuclear time, space­time. Time
elongates; it is elastic; subjective; two polished mirrors
facing one other. The sight of the calendar on the
bedroom wall begins to irritate you. Back when your
deployment started you used to count the days
religiously. Tallying them comforted you. Now the notion
of quantifying time strikes you as unnecessary, as a little
crazy. To what end? You might as well count your own
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breaths. Count heartbeats. Count thoughts. The urge to
measure, you realize, is a terrestrial mutation, suited
exclusively to Earth­dwellers. Thanks to your training,
you are above such trivialities. They’ve evaporated like
liquid off a stovetop. Only the urge to destroy remains.
Late into the night, you watch history videos on
interstellar imperialism. The bio­spheres of the Moon,
mining colonies on Mars, the New Caledonia ice caves
beneath the crust of Enceladus. This last segment captures
your attention, if only because it will be your penultimate
resting place. If, God willing, you finally push the button,
the satellite is programmed to transport you by magnetic
trajectory to Saturn’s frigid moon, where you will live out
your retirement as a border guard for the frontier colony.
There, in the dark, and the cold, thousands of miles away
from the remnants of the Earth, you will have earned the
purest solitude imaginable.
You begin to doze off during a documentary feature on
the development of space­based weaponry in the late 22 nd
century. It was a time of great innovation and
unprecedented state spending on defense, a deep­voiced
narrator intones. But not every project was meant to go
smoothly. Take Ares VI, for instance. The image of a
satellite flashes across the screen. You perk up. By
modern standards, the thing looks laughably complex,
loaded down with solar panels and arcane sensors. You
watch as the satellite reenters Earth’s atmosphere,
spinning recklessly, its metal appendages heating up and
breaking off. The deep voice chimes in. Due to a
malfunction on board the satellite, monitors on the ground
weren’t alerted to the problem until it was too late. The Ares
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VI project officially ended when the satellite crashed­landed
in the Indian Ocean, two hundred miles off the coast of
Seychelles.
Zero one­hundred. Computer, power down. You stand
in the near­darkness of the numb room, not in the least
bit sleepy, as an idea begins to form in the back of your
mind.
A series of compartments underneath the master
dashboard house an array of wiring related to sensors
affixed to the exterior of the satellite. The sensors are
attuned, like sunflowers, to the slightest change in the
heady mix of vapors comprising the Earth’s atmosphere.
At least, that’s what he remembers from training. To be fair, that was fifteen years ago, and recently
Dender has felt a bit… blunted. But he figures it’s a good
place to investigate. In theory, if the sensors aren’t at peak
functionality, then the composition of the atmosphere
could reach critical levels without tripping the alarm, and
if the alarm doesn’t go off, then he won’t know to push
the button, and if he doesn’t push the button, then he fails
in his duty, and if he fails, then all this is for nothing, and
if all this is for nothing… Yes. He will check the sensors. Calling home base for help is impossible, as specified by
Directive Number 13. Permanent radio silence: initiated
on the premise that long before atmospheric levels went
critical, the boys on the ground would lose all impartiality
due to symptoms associated with an ailment the white
coats referred to affectionately as “termination sickness.”
Dender knows the satellite is incapable of transmitting
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outgoing messages of any kind besides an emergency
S.O.S., and that would surely be unnecessary. That would
be the boy crying wolf. Besides, he doubts U.N.­Com
would look kindly upon non­essential instrument
maintenance. That sounds like tampering, they’d say, if
they could. That’s not what you’re up there for, dammit.
You’re living in the most sophisticated luxury apartment
complex ever conceived by man. Remember your directives?
No assembly required.
Dender knows just what they’d say.
This is no laughing matter. You’re impartial. Emotionless.
Reliable! Understood, soldier? Do you read?
It’s surprisingly easy to remove the rivets on the
compartments using a multi­tool from the utility cabinet.
The wires are color­coded and organized in packets.
Dender proceeds to poke around, in search of something
amiss. Poking proves vaguely satisfying. He tries tapping,
prying, and, ultimately, yanking. It becomes increasingly
obvious that he cannot distinguish between good packets
and bad. He has to face it. Dender has no business
underneath the master dashboard. He isn’t a mechanic, or
a scientist, or a commando, or even a do­gooder. He’s a
grunt. He’s nothing but a goddamned button pusher. In a moment of frustration, he strikes the inside of the
compartment with the butt end of the multi­tool. The
lights flicker, and the sibilant background noise of the D4
instrument bank goes silent, for an instant. Dender lies on
his back. That was stupid, he thinks. That was really
stupid.
“Testing, one two three… Testing… Hello? Is this the
right button?” 32
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Dender’s eyes widen. Very slowly, he crawls out from
under the master dashboard.
“There we go. That’s better. Lah­dee­dah. Greetings
Earthlings. This is Thanatos Log Number 482.”
A hologram of a woman is playing in the center of the
room. She’s wearing leggings and a U.N.­Com tunic and
looks about twenty­five. Her blonde hair is tied up in a
sloppy knot on top of her head. It lolls like a wilting
flower. She talks rapidly about her parents and a golden
retriever named Pygmalion. Dender kneels and studies
the side of her face.
“I can’t believe there’s only a few months left. At this
point, I’m a little scared to go back, of course. But that’s
natural… I think. I’m going to be honest. If I wasn’t going
back, who knows what would happen to me. Forget
what’s natural. I’d worry about my sanity.” The woman
crosses her eyes. “I’d probably lose it. But wouldn’t you,
dear viewer? I dare say you would too. It’s lonely up here
in space. It’s a relief to even hear myself say that – it’s
lonely. It is! Five­hundred days is a long time. It hasn’t all
been wine and roses, dear viewer, let me tell you.”
She speaks like a person who’s accustomed to the sound
of her own voice. The woman engages in a variety of
nervous gestures. She bites her nails, plays with her
collar, and corrects a strand of hair that slips out of place
as she’s talking. A metallic trill rings out in the
background.
“Oh, shoot. That’s the oven. Wouldn’t you know it, I
completely forgot. This is Jenny, Operative Seventeen,
over and out.”
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The hologram vanishes, and it’s quiet again. Dender
blinks. He stands up and puts his hands on his hips. “Well,
I’ll be…”
The speakers on the observation sphere crackle, and the
hologram of the woman reappears. “Hello, Earthlings! It’s
me, Operative Seventeen. Thanatos Log 483.”
Dender finds a chair in the utility cabinet. He gets an
LT­Libation and sits by the door, face to face with Jenny’s
hologram. He barely sips his drink. He watches Logs 483,
84, 85, and 86. The computer sounds a bell at thirteen­
hundred, and at fourteen­hundred. Dender ignores it. He
leans forward and rests his elbows on his knees. At nineteen­hundred hours, the hologram is still going.
Dender is afraid to touch the wires again. The more he
sees of the woman, the more he resents her, and the more
he begins to wonder. He begins to wonder if he has been
compromised by the passage of time. The nagging worry
fossilizes into a certainty. He is definitely crazier than this
woman.
Two days later, Jenny – Operative Seventeen – is still
talking. Dender retreats from D4 and spends all his time in the
other activity spheres. He cooks his meals in the bedroom,
burns the hours away with exercise and watches videos in
the numb room. Despite his efforts, Jenny’s voice
penetrates all the way through to D2. She provides a
soundtrack for his lifting regimen. It sounds like she’s
underwater, like she’s been gagged with a soft cloth. Her
voice is high and excitable. Dender has never met a
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teenager before, but the sound of Jenny reminds him of
archived video clips from the numb room. The takeaway
is that he can no longer bear to watch his favorite sitcom,
‘Bot Party Summer, or 20th century classics like Full House
or Step By Step. This doesn’t make sense. Operative Seventeen – Jenny –
must be about Dender’s age. Teens, if they’re lucky
enough to be admitted to the weapons project, are
restricted by U.N.­Com to full­time training exercises.
They don’t see the light of day, let alone the inside of an
operational satellite. You’re drawing illogical connections,
Dender thinks. Stop free associating.
He passes through the portal linking D2 and D3, and
pauses on the threshold. Something doesn’t feel right.
Dender takes two steps backward, which feels better. And
four steps forward. That’s much better. He repeats the
steps the next time he passes from D3 to D2, and the next
time, and the next time. The pattern, the numbers, are
somehow comforting. Eventually he cannot move from
one sphere to the other without engaging in the correct
steps. The numbers increase from two to four and from
four to eight. Each time he repeats the pattern he moves closer to
Earth, and then further away. Closer and then further.
Jenny stands between them, chattering incessantly. She is
his problem. She is a living barrier between him and the
object of his hatred. It is unavoidable that she, too, will
become loathsome. Dender begins to wish he had a
‘Destroy Jenny’ button on hand, but that – haha – that is
just silly.
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Wormhole Adventures of Andromeda Nine is on and
Dender is eating zero­calorie sea salt­flavored potato
chips and cheese dipping sauce, with the volume turned
all the way up. For a short time, the video program
drowns Jenny out. Then, during a lull in the action, the
volume recedes, and he can hear her yelling.
Dender turns the volume up. For a few minutes, this
seems to work. When he lowers the volume again, it’s
quiet. He gets up and wanders across the room. For the first
time since the wiring mishap, Dender passes through the
D4 portal and enters the observation sphere. Jenny is
staring at the floor with her arms crossed over her chest.
Her shoulders quake, silently. The log number in the
corner of the hologram reads 505.
You’ve got to be kidding me, he thinks. It is Dender’s 615th day aboard the satellite, and this
woman is crying about 505. Dender remembers 505.
What he ate that day for breakfast. Okay, maybe it’s a bit
disconcerting to pass the deadline without hearing a word
from home base. Some uneasiness is understandable. But
a more dramatic reaction is unbecoming of a professional
weapons specialist. It’s nothing to throw a tantrum about.
Try 550, lady. Try 615. Then we’ll see what you’re
made of.
Dender moves closer. Jenny wipes her eyes and puts
her face in her hands. A tear travels down from her
cornea, leaving a damp trail in the crease of her nose. Her
hair is mussed and her lips are chapped. Dender stands a
few feet away from the hologram. He mirrors her,
crossing his arms and uncrossing them. The Earth is a
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mottled orb in the background. Dender’s eyes flicker from
Jenny’s face to the planet. It seems to regard him for a
moment.
What are you looking at, Dender thinks.
Jenny’s skin looks softer in the blue glow of the planet.
The usual flush of her cheeks has given way to a sadness
that spurns the camera, denying an audience. She is
prettier than he first realized. Dender feels, suddenly, like
an intruder. “Something’s going on here,” Jenny says. Her breath
wavers in her throat. “And I’m going to find out what it
is.”
The numb room has familiarized you with “hearing
voices.” Sure, those are the voices that exist only in the
mind, commonly known as delusions. Illusions, allusions,
elisions. Sure. But you aren’t delusional. The voice
echoing in your brain is real; it’s Jenny.
Zero eight­hundred. You’re lying in bed with your eyes
open when the lights come on. You don’t blink; pupils
dilate. Today is 638 and the alarm clock is playing noise­
funk from the Wyoming marshlands. You can’t wait until
Day 666. There will be so many possibilities. It takes forty­eight paces to reach the wall separating
D3 and D4, ninety­six if you’re forced to begin again.
You’re always starting over. You put your ear to the wall
and listen. Layers of metal dampen her voice.
“…of course, I’m up here and you’re all down there,
waiting to be euthanized, and that’s A­OK with me. Just
think of me like a doctor, hmm? Like a crazy space­
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doctor, pointing a big laser beam at your entire planet.
Doctor Jenny is in, folks. Symptoms? Getting a bit hot
under the collar, you say? What else? Oh yes, abnormal
temperature fluctuations, roving monsoon season, yes. Go
on. Fascinating. This is more serious than I expected. Oh
yes, very bad, very bad indeed. I’m going to have to
prescribe self­destruction, or, as we’d say in the academy,
time to pull the plug. Haha. I know, what a tasteless
idiom. I’ll tell you what, folks, I’m going to level with you.
Come close. Closer. I’ll tell you a secret. I’m not a doctor
at all! Shh, keep it down. I’m a metronome. I’m an
executive’s toy, what do you call those, a Newton’s cradle.
We can’t let this information get out. Ix­nay on elling­tay,
okay?”
A long stretch of silence ensues, followed by an abrupt
bang and a clattering sound, as though someone has
opened a toolbox and dumped the contents onto the floor.
“Surgery time! Let’s see here, what does this gadget do?
Nope, next. How about this one? Better. Now then, what
can we pop open around here?” Another clattering sound.
“Oops, that was easy. What do we have here? Hello, my
lovelies. You’re a pretty set of circuit boards, aren’t you?
Are you two twins? Yes you are. Yes you are. Oh, you are
too cute.”
Jenny starts to sing, tunelessly.
“Come to mama. Mah­mah, lah­dee­dahh­dah, mah­
mah, mah…”
You remove your ear from the wall, but her song
continues. For a moment it feels like someone else is
listening in to the hologram next door, someone familiar,
and yet, a stranger. You are Dender, aren’t you? Yes. But
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you’re not. You’re orbiting him, along with Jenny, like a
moon, a space rock, an expensive satellite. You’re chained
to him, obsessed with him, the sun rises and sets with
him. You love Dender so much that it hurts, so much that
you hate him. But there’s a simple solution: push the
button, and spark a chemical reaction so violent that it
sends you hurtling outward to disappear like a pinprick in
the darkness, an explosion so momentous that it erases
the very idea of time.
Soon.
It begins as a smattering of half­choked sobs, and soon
escalates. Jenny is wailing, pleadingly, as though she’s in
pain.
Dender leaps out of bed. He bumps into the wall and
fumbles for the switch in the dark. He runs through the
exercise sphere and the numb room to D4. Bursting
through the door, panting, he finds her hologram doing
an exercise video. Jumping jacks. Kicks. Lunges. Her pony
tail bounces from side to side.
Dender has not been sleeping well. He isn’t himself. He
isn’t Jenny. He is nothing but anger.
“I hate you!” He screams at the hologram. “I hate you
so much! Just go away, would you!”
Jenny continues dancing in time with the music. The
beat pulses mindlessly. Suddenly, she slips and falls to the
ground. For a moment the hologram is vacant. Dender
takes an instinctive step forward. She climbs to her feet.
Jenny winces, pressing a hand to the small of her back.
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“Ouch.” Her brow furrows and she thrusts out her lower
lip. “That’s going to bruise.”
Dender’s mouth hangs open. The fall, he knows, is just
a coincidence. She couldn’t possibly have heard him. He
backs away, until he’s standing at the doorway. Jenny
rubs her back. She looks sad and angry. There’s no way
she can hear him. It wouldn’t make sense.
“I’m sorry,” Dender whispers, and lets the portal close
behind him.
He’ll be damned if he is going to let a girl sabotage his
mission. That’s the bottom line. Case closed. Dender passes briskly through the portal onto the
observation sphere, ignores Jenny, and marches right up
to the button. As a rule, he doesn’t let himself get this
close to it. The temptation is too great. But desperate
times call for desperate measures. The Earth is a ball of
fumes, is a giant zit waiting to be popped. It looms in the
window, taunting him. The button is bright red and
covered in a fine sheen of dust. Dender’s hand hovers over
it. This is how it was meant to be, he thinks. He cracks his
knuckles and scowls at the planet. It leers back at him.
His hand inches closer. For the first time since entering
the observation sphere, Dender becomes aware of the
silence. He turns around, slowly, to regard the back of Jenny’s
head. She’s sitting in a chair –the chair from the utility
closet, from the looks of it – and doing something with
her hands. In spite of himself, Dender circles the
hologram. She’s knitting. A ball of yarn rests in her lap, a
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placid expression on her face. Long needles click busily
against each other. He’s glad she’s averted her eyes, so he doesn’t have to
look into them. Part of him feels as though he’s wronged
this woman. Most of him, however, is sick and tired of her
chatter. Dender makes faces at her. He imitates the
pursed lips and the uncomprehending frown, the doe­
eyed smile. Jenny doesn’t look up from her knitting.
Dender sticks his tongue out at her. Satisfied, he feels the muscles in his neck begin to relax.
It isn’t so bad in here, he thinks. If it wasn’t for the God­
forsaken planet squatting out there, D4 might be kind of
pleasant. He sets up the easel on the left side of the window and
breaks out his paints and brushes. “It’s been a while,” he
says, out loud. Dender is startled by his own voice. He
glances at Jenny, involuntarily. “As if she’d notice,” he
mutters. He chuckles to himself and begins mixing colors.
It feels good to paint. The computer is right. Creative
expression does have its benefits. Once he finishes the
first landscape, he decides to try pointillist and abstract
versions. The Earth as a bowl of chili, raw and bubbling.
The Earth as a grinning face with an arrow through it.
The Earth as a medley of blacks and grays and greens and
blues, with flecks of white showing through the darkness.
Self­portraits: the Earth is Dender; Dender is the Earth.
“Come to mama,” he hums softly. “Mah­mah, lah­dee­
dahh­dah, mah­mah, mah…” He stops short. A dribble of
taupe paint falls from his brush and stains the floor.
Jenny’s song. He looks sideways at the hologram. Her
eyes are trained on the yarn.
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Dender has an idea. At first, it strikes him as
amateurish, almost maudlin; but it feels like a good time
to try something new. What else am I going to do? He
thinks. Watch The Cat Empress of Turkmenistan again?
Dender arranges a new palette of colors, a mixture of
warm and cool. He starts with detail work, and switches
to thicker brushes when he comes to the background. The
sound of his own humming barely registers. “Mah­mah,
mah lah­tee­dah… Mah­mah…”
When he’s done, Dender steps back from the easel and
frowns approvingly. It’s more of a caricature of Jenny
than a realistic portrait. But he’s gotten a few things right:
the gentle curve of her neck, the tip of her pony tail, and
the soft shading of her eyes. Not too bad, really. Not bad
at all. It’s good enough to justify another try.
At nineteen­hundred hours, he wraps up for the night.
On his way out, Dender hangs the portraits up to dry on
the wall in front of the hologram, where Jenny can see
them. When she finishes her knitting. On the threshold to
D3, he takes three steps back, three forward, four back,
four forward. Dender gets into bed and sleeps soundly for
the first time in months.
On Day 695 – Day 660 for Jenny – at eleven­hundred
hours, she stands up, yawns, and stretches her arms over
her head. She’s done knitting. “Well, that was
constructive,” she says. “I feel like dancing. Don’t you?”
“Not really,” Dender says.
“Great. I’ll put something on.”
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She leans off camera, and her backside suddenly
occupies most of the hologram. Dender’s cheeks flush. He
looks at the floor. The speakers in the background crackle
and snap. Jenny reappears in the hologram and begins
dancing to a drumbeat. A bass line and synthesizers come
in. She twirls, her arms lifted high over her head. Dender frowns. It doesn’t seem right to just stand there,
staring. But the song is terrible. In the window, the Earth
judges him. He glares back at it and bites his tongue,
seven times.
The heavy drumbeat fades out, transitioning to a single
voice and an electric guitar. It’s melancholy, but soothing.
Jenny sways back and forth, a slight smile on her face.
She’s enjoying herself, Dender thinks. That’s kind of cute.
He nods his head, keeping time.
The playlist shifts into classics from the 20 th and 21st
centuries. He recognizes a string of spare melodies: soul
music, the original genre preceding soul­dirt, Mongolian
soul drumming, and soul­metal­calypso. It’s a soft spot of
his. Dender can’t help it. He starts sliding back and forth
in an approximation of a shuffle.
“I’ve never danced before!” Dender shouts. Jenny
shakes her hips.
His fingers play the air like piano keys. The music
touches his neck and travels down his spine. He allows
himself to close his eyes. Dender shuffles in circles around
Jenny. She laughs and claps her hands. He is relaxed. Dender’s feet are floating. The pale glow
of the Earth seems to blanket the observation sphere in a
warm haze. For once its presence is comforting, even
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“This is a celebration,” Jenny yells. “Let’s celebrate me!
Because I hit the S.O.S. Mayday, Earthlings! Mayday! I’m
going ho­oome… I’m going ho­oome… Oh yeah, that’s
right…”
Dender stops dancing. His heart, for some reason,
jumps in his chest. “I’m done with this tin can. I’ve served my time!” Jenny
pirouettes awkwardly, one bare ankle kicking in the air. Dender gawks at her.
“I’m coming home, Earthlings! Mommie? Can you hear
me? I’m coming home!”
Jenny’s face is a fireworks show, is a sculpture of
burnished brass; her happiness, an airborne current
flowing through the room. She is free.
Dender sinks to the floor. His knees feel weak. The
Earth just sits there, in the distance, pitying him. He
doesn’t even need to look at it to know.
He sleeps all day and all night. Earth­day, Earth­night.
Words, ideas like these are obsolete tools of an alien
civilization. Time no longer holds him. Instead, there’s
only the computer.
Wearing a bathrobe, he wanders from D1 to D2, to D3.
And hesitates. Dender steps out onto the observation
sphere.
Jenny is hunched over with a tattered strip of tissue in
her hands. She twists the tissue into a coil, slowly, and
unwinds it again. Shreds of paper litter the floor around
her. In the hologram. The real floor, Dender’s floor, looks
clean as it’s always been. Behind the hologram, the Earth
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wears a veil of dappled clouds. It gives the planet a surly
complexion. Jenny is talking, as usual. Her hoarseness
suggests Dender has missed a long speech already. She
doesn’t appear to notice him, but then again, she never
does. He knows Jenny is a hologram, but it doesn’t matter
anymore. Dender is beginning to think he’s a hologram
too. Jenny speaks rapidly, with an absent­minded
inflection.
“…the S.O.S. signal has been broadcasting for sixteen
days, with no word. I’m sure it’s nothing to worry about. I
mean, it is, it is something to worry about, and I have, I
have been worrying, a lot. It’s fine though. I mean, what’s
another sixteen days?” Jenny sighs. “Talk, talk, talk.
Seems like that’s all I do now. That’s all I’m good for.
Forget that I have the whole world in my hands.
Whatever. All I’m saying is, how could everybody forget
about me like this? I’ll tell you, Earthlings, it doesn’t
compute. This reminds me of that time in second grade
when Dad got into that accident on the way to pick me up
from school and I thought he’d forgotten about me. I went
inside to tell the office lady that I’d been abandoned –
that I’d become an orphan – but I was too embarrassed to
say anything, so I hid in the bathroom. Do you remember
that, Dad? You called the school from the hospital and
asked them to look for me, and it took them forty­five
minutes to find me in there. I was sitting on my book bag
and punching my leg, trying to make bruises.” She pauses.
“I’m sure you remember. You know, it’s funny, in my
seven­year­old brain, I got the idea that I’d somehow
caused your accident. It doesn’t make sense, I know. But
you can’t blame me, can you? I was just a kid, I thought
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everything that happened in the world had to relate
somehow to me, and my seven­year­old life. Man, that all
seems so long ago. I’m a big girl now. No time for such
silliness anymore. There are much weightier matters
afoot, and I have a very important job. Wouldn’t you
agree? Dad, you were so proud when U.N.­Com accepted
me. Mom wasn’t so excited. She went on a three­hour
walk. You were mad, Mom. But you came around in the
end, after you saw how much it meant to me. A once­in­a­
lifetime opportunity, I said. Talk about seeing the world. I
wanted to see it all, and I did. It was so beautiful, back on
my first day. I wish words could describe it. It was like a
giant pearl. But it’s been a long time since I felt that way.
Now I just look at the button instead. I look, and think,
and look away, and look back. What else is there to do?
There’s just Earth, and the button. Sometimes I imagine I
can see you guys down there. And then I picture you
waving at me. Isn’t that dumb? I know. A little sad, too. I
hate it when I get all sappy and dumb like this. It must be
awful to watch. I’m sorry. I’m sorry you have to see this.”
Jenny examines her nails. “But I can’t help wondering
why no one’s picked me up. I served my time, and then
some. No one can say I didn’t do that. So what’s going on
down there? Seriously. What the hell’s going on? Two
years is long enough to be up here with no one to talk to.
To be all alone with that goddamn button. I’m tired of it
and I’m lonely, and I’m ready to come home now. Do you
hear me? Hello? Did I do something wrong? Why did you
forget about me?” Jenny leans forward. “Please bring me
home. Mommy? Can you hear me? I’m lonely. Can you
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just say something? It doesn’t have to be a big speech.
Just a sound. Anything at all. Please. Can you hear me?”
“Yes,” Dender whispers.
“I’m not kidding. I need you to speak up. Because if you
don’t, I don’t know what I’ll do. I can’t stop looking at that
stupid button. Hello? For God’s sake. Please! Say
something! Can you hear me?”
“Yes,” Dender says, louder. “I’m here. I’m right here!”
Jenny’s face dips closer to the camera. Her hair is
stringy and tousled. She laughs a sad, angry laugh and
wipes her eyes with the back of her hand. “That’s what I
thought.”
He’s never seen her like this before. Dread is a shadow
on the wall, is a chain of sunspots. Dread is a disease.
Dender inches up to the edge of the hologram.
“I know it’s there. The button. I can feel it. It’s looking
at me. It’s boring a hole in my forehead. When I’m
running, when I’m watching videos, it’s sitting there, in
the corner of my mind. I’ve been thinking about how to
get away from it. Sometimes I wonder, if I did get away
somehow, if I’d start to miss it. The button, I mean. Isn’t
that crazy?”
“No,” Dender says. He is rapt. He can’t look away.
“If anyone ever watches these logs, they’re going to
think I’m one sick puppy. Here’s a keeper, they’ll say. This
one’s gone off the deep end, Jerry. Sometimes I even
wonder, what if someone’s watching me right now? At
this very moment? That would be a shocker. There’s a
plot twist for you. Yeah. There’s something nicely
deranged about that idea. There’s a certain perverted
beauty to it. Don’t you agree? What if they were watching
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me talk right now? They’d probably turn to each other in
their white lab coats and grumble.” Jenny makes her
voice deep and pompous. “Oh, hell, she’s figured us out.
We better…”
Jenny abruptly disappears, leaving only empty air.
Dender starts. He reaches out and fumbles in the blank
space.
“Bring her back. Computer? Bring her back! Do you
hear me? Hey!”
He whirls. The room is empty. “Come on. Where did she go? Computer? Where did
you put her? Is this a joke?”
The Earth perches in the window and holds its breath.
Beneath it, as ever, is the button, mocking him. Dender
refuses to look at them. He tries to check the sense of
panic flooding his chest. Of course, it can’t happen any other way. The silence,
which had seemed a moment ago as loud as a waterfall, is
canceled by a sudden explosion of noise and red light.
Dender covers his ears, cringing. The observation sphere
is submerged in darkness. The red beams of the alarm
beacons chase the darkness around the room. It’s the siren. It’s what he’s been waiting for, all along.
Dender is reduced to a jelly, to a tremor in a mound of
flesh. It’s time.
Don’t you remember? You are the executioner. Isn’t this
what you wanted?
There, in the darkness, is the button.
Gingerly, Dender approaches the window. He crosses
the invisible line that he’d never, really, until this
moment, believed he would cross. He lifts the glass shield
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covering the button. Dender notices, for the first time,
that the hologram lens is mounted on the dashboard close
by. In order to film a video log, you would have to face
the Earth. You would feel, naturally, as though you were
addressing the planet, as though it constituted a friendly
audience. As though all the eyes in the world were trained
on you.
He squats on his haunches in front of the lens, just as
Jenny must have done. He feels her standing over his
shoulder. He faces the Earth and activates the camera. A
tiny sensor blinks at him.
He clears his throat. “This is Dender, Operative
Eighteen. As you can see by the lights behind me, it’s
time. The time has come. As you can see…”
He falls silent. Dender looks at the Earth for a long
time, for so long that he forgets the camera is on. The
beacons bathe the observation sphere in waves of shadow
and red light. All around him, they flash, and flash, and
flash… Max Gray is a graduate of the Rutgers-Newark MFA program. His work
has appeared in Conte, The Newer York, and most recently in Mount Hope.
He blogs regularly at The Rumpus.
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MEAT FOR THE BEAST
by Buck Weiss
TRANSCRIPT OF A LETTER FOUND APRIL 12, 1985 IN
AN ESTATE AUCTION NEAR THE TOWN OF ST.
CHARLES, MISSOURI.
January 20, 1863
Dearest Henry,
I sit down to write and address this letter to you in the
hope that you will spare our long suffering and angelic
mother, who when I last saw her, was frail of body but
mighty of spirit. I believe that the story I will tell herein and the fate of
her son, like the three that have passed before me, will
not sit well on her overly burdened soul. I fear that this
knowledge would fracture her wholly and may steal what
is left of her earthly form. I beg you to not share this grim
news with her. Burn this letter. I am sorry for the weight
of knowledge that the reading will place on your
shoulders, but I write only to show that I am lost to the
family and must never be found.
You should thank merciful God, Little Brother, that you
are too young to be pulled into this cruel and damnable
war. The need for secession felt great at the outset and men
who could speak stronger and more convincing words
than I dropped tales of injustice and resistance that would
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have enticed the staunchest abolitionist to set aside what
he thought of the Negroes’ plight and pick up his rifle for
what we now call the South. Missouri has never been the South, Henry. I see that
now as I wish I would have seen it then. We are slave
holders and farmers, not city people like the north east
Yankee, yet, we are not to be counted among the rich
Virginian or these glory hounds of Tennessee. I may have
signed up with the Army of East Tennessee, but I wore
Missouri on my clothes and skin, and kept a handful of
homeland dirt in my pocket. The men around me knew I
answered to Missouri as easily as to Connors and many
only knew me by the name of our great state.
Men pointed me out as distinct from the flag­waving
multitude around me and I learned quickly that I was not
a Southern man. Steven, may he rest in peace, knew this and said as
much. But, he could not convince Jed, Percy, or me to
stand aside and let the tide of war wage around us. Damn the Home Guard and every Lincoln lover in our
state for the deaths of our righteous and good brothers. I trust that they are all in the arms of the heavenly
father and that our papa is there with them. Though it
was their memories that bid me join under Major General
Kirby Smith and follow him into the great Army of
Tennessee, I fear that the final resting place of my soul
will be a hotter abode as far from heaven as the South is
from our beloved home.
By the time you receive this letter, news of the battle
near Murfreesboro has reached your door. My last letter,
from near Christmas told of the great welcome General
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Bragg and all of the troops received when we met there to
spend out the month of December. The pleasantries of
that letter, the dances and feasts, are gone now, replaced
by the cold, bloody reality of this harsh earth and what
lies above and below it.
I showed myself well on the battlefield. You can tell
your future children that their uncle was a brave and
honorable man at Stones River. That he shot many Blues,
but never in the back or through treachery. I was never a treacherous man before the Beast came
for me. I had never done anything to damn my soul until
I saw its eyes and knew that there was no salvation.
I skip ahead as my mind wanders, brother. Forgive me
my fight with time and chaos. You will have to look to someone else for a full account
of the bloody encounter that took place in the woods and
fields surrounding the fair city of Murfreesboro,
Tennessee. All I can quickly say is that we lost many and I believe
that the Union lost three for every one of ours. Yet, those
Blues are like the ants that we would torment as children.
You fill one hole and they pour out another. On the fourth day of the battle, we were less in
number, but strong in resolve. General Bragg heard that
Union reinforcements were arriving and bid us march
south and away. It was an honorable withdraw and I
place no blame on him for what happened next.
In the march to Tullahoma I was tasked with the job of
rear scout. I and four other non­wounded men took five
of the few mounts that were left after the battle and
moved off to the west of the main forces.
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It is common to worry about the pursuit of an enemy
and we were tasked with making sure that Rosecrans and
his boys were staying back. I was of the mind that they
were properly whipped and the reinforcements that were
on the wind would not be quick enough to catch our
movements. Yet, and thank God for it, I have never been
placed in a position where my thoughts or ideas
amounted to a hill of beans.
We spent the first day riding back toward the Stones
River and west, more in an effort to forage for food or
game than to actually find a following enemy.
That night we camped near a small creek in a vast
wooded area that seemed to go on forever to the west.
The men, in case you ever feel the need to contact the
army or their families, were: Boyd Reynolds of Millsburg, Tenn. He was betrothed to
an older school mistress in his hometown and read us
poetry that she would send him with her letters.
Gregory Franklin of Brentwood, Tenn. A no good
scoundrel who was quick with an insult or a curse. Some
men of the company swore he was a horse thief, but he
had never done time for any crime.
Tom Ashwood of Murfreesboro, who lamented the
abandonment of his dear city as if it was his mother or his
true love. Ashwood was a dear friend and one to have
when stationed in his fair city. We had spent many a
night out on the town with him showing us the best
places to drink or chase skirts. And, Rich Fields of parts unknown, though many say he
was born on the streets of London. Rich was an actor
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with a traveling show before he signed up for the war.
You should have heard him sing. He led us as we faced off against those Blues at the
beginning of the Murfreesboro mess. I remember hearing
his voice as he belted the refrain from “Home Sweet
Home,” and thinking of fair Missouri. Many of our
number cried at the sounds of two armies, tied together
by as much as pushed them apart, squalling about the
love of hearth and home. One commented that he wished all wars could be
fought with talent rather than bloodshed and yet another
said that his talent was the shedding of blood. Such was
the unbridled talk of soldiers on the edge of violence and
death.
These are the type of men I sat down to sup with on
that cold night. We huddled over the fire with our
blankets tight around us and talked of the events of the
last few days. Franklin was in a foul mood and spoke of the end of
everything. “I had me a dream,” he ranted as we passed
around the beans and meager bits of a rabbit that
Reynolds had caught in the brush. “In the dream, death
was a looming figure. A creature that stood near me on
the battlefield.”
Franklin stood and lifted his hands like a fire and
brimstone preacher. “In this nightmare, my courage was
more than it would be now. I walked towar’ the Beast,
for a beast it was, shrouded in darkness. As I got closer I
could see the dark red gore crusting its body.” 54
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He rubbed his hands down his sides as if he was
covering himself in the blood he spoke of. I shuddered
and pulled my blanket closer around me. “Shut your lying mouth, horse thief or I’ll gladly shut it
for you!” called out Ashwood, and I could hear in his
voice that he was as chilled as I.
“I asked it,” Franklin continued without even hesitating
at Ashwood’s warning. “I asked it, what was the mean’en
a war?” “Ha!” barked Fields nervously. “You have a question
for death and you ask it something that no one…”
“HE ANSWERED!!” Franklin screamed, more like a wild
animal than a man. There was fear in his voice and in my
spine as well. “Dammit, Man!” Ashwood shouted back as we all sat
frozen by his scream.
Franklin stepped back from the fire and brought his
hand across his body to take us all in. “Death raised one
large arm covered in thick black hair and swept it across
the men gathered. His voice was so deep, I knowed I
could never make you understand how it sounded. It
vibrated like what an earthquake feels like. Like a loss of
control, of falling in a pit with no bottom.”
Franklin paused for a moment and I could feel the
tension around the fire.
“What the hell did it say, man?” I asked.
“MEAT!” It said. Franklin held his head proud, like he
was a prophet being told the secrets of the dark universe.
“YOU ARE ALL MEAT.” Franklin looked down at all of us. “Then he turned his
head toward me and I saw stark white tusks jutting out
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from his huge mouth. His eyes had a fire in them, that
would consume me, but I could not look away. He looked
at me and his mouth opened for speech once more. ‘WAR
PROVIDES MEAT FOR THE BEAST!’”
We fell into nervous, but relieved, laughter at Franklin’s
ludicrous ravings. He smiled weakly as he sat back down and took his
turn at the food. “That’s when I woke. I woke to a
playing of the bands and the feeling of a spook or omen.
Something telling me I’d fall in the coming fight, but here
I am. The Blues seemed to ignore me. As many that died,
and I killed my share, but never even felt as much as a
bullet break the air around me.” Franklin shook his head
seeming like a man lost, “Never a one.”
“You are just like the rest of us, Franklin.” Fields began
to philosophize. “The dream clearly means you fear death
and are searching for meaning in what you see as a war
without real reasons.”
“I know reasons, Fields!” Franklin fired back. “I don’t
doubt the great cause of the South and the place of the
slave like many a ya…”
“Watch that mouth, Horse Thief!” Ashwood interrupted,
drawing his long hunting knife out for emphasis. “We can
always say a ‘skirmish’ with the enemy left one of our
number dead.”
“Put the knife away and calm it down, Gentlemen.” I
said in as soft a tone as I could muster. “If we keep
yelling, we’ll have a real skirmish with Blues. It’s a
wonder you weren’t heard clean north at Stones River.”
With that, the camp fell into an uncomfortable silence.
We moved quickly to ready ourselves for the morrow.
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Watches were decided and I, being chosen for the last
watch of the night, went to my bedroll.
I tried my best to pray and place my thoughts on home
and family, but I wondered if the spectre of death was
going to make an appearance in my dreams as well. I awoke to the screams of horses in the night. A death
knell that was swirling above me. I started to rise just as
a huge weight was dropped on my lower body. The screams erupted again and I saw that one of the
horses was right on top of me. Somehow, it had fallen
across my legs, pinning me in my bedroll. I pushed upwards and felt the horse try to rise up off of
me. Then, it let out another heart gripping scream. I
thought in that moment that I would give anything to
stop that horse from throwing another noise into the
night. No sooner did the thought cross my mind, when I felt
the brush of something large go past my face in the dark
and the horse’s screams were cut short as its head was
severed from its body.
Blood and gore gushed into me and I had to fight for
air, feeling as if I was drowning in a sea of salty, thick
liquid. I could move my arms and quickly wiped at my face to
get as much of the grume as I could away from my
mouth, nose, and eyes. As quickly as the waterfall of
blood began, it trickled down to a slow and steady
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In the chaos, I could not see the landscape around me.
I was on my back with my head toward the dying fire.
The horse pinned me to the ground and I was not able to
push upwards. I paused for a moment to get my bearing and heard a
slow crunching and slurping sound coming from the other
side of the fire pit. This was not in my line of sight, being
past the top of my head. I maneuvered the best I could to try and glimpse the
events that were making such a visceral sucking and
crunch. It was as if a man was slurping his soup and
eating chicken bones at the same time. My head cranked around just enough to see a black
image silhouetted by the moon. I saw the top part first,
which looked like two limbs of a tree blowing recklessly in
a violent wind. The two limbs moved quickly and
erratically, though I felt not the slightest breeze.
Moving down the image, where the two limbs met the
main body, there was a strange connection, as if the limbs
did not sprout from a tree, but were falling slowly into a
large black shape. I craned my head more and I fully understood what was
happening before my eyes. A creature. Something black and larger than any bear
we had ever hunted with Pa and our dear brothers stood
on the other side of the fire pit. It loomed over the campsite, standing at least 8 feet
tall. It had its large face raised to the sky and in its
gaping and gnashing maw was what was left of a man.
The slurping sound I had heard was the slick blood of one
of my companions being sucked down this beast’s throat.
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The cracking was the breaking of his bones by the
creature’s humongous teeth. Only the legs stuck out from
the mouth and miraculously still kicked into the sky,
trying to run in air and going nowhere but slowly down
the Beast’s gullet. I thought of the dream and knew it for the omen that it
surely was. I started to recite the prayer that our mother
taught us to pray before we turned out the lantern each
night, “If I die, before I wake…”
Hands grabbing my arms brought me to reality and I
tried to punch out at whatever companions ran alongside
the Beast. “Dammit, Missouri!” I heard Ashwood whisper and I
silently thanked God as I stopped my fussing and opened
my eyes. “We’re gonna pull you out from under there,” Fields
said as he and Ashwood each grabbed a blood covered
arm and tried their best to get a grip. It seemed like forever, but I slowly slid out from under
the Beast’s little prison of dead horse flesh and quickly
found my feet under me.
I looked back at the Beast, just in time for it to finish its
meal and slowly turn its gaze upon the three men who
were too stunned to run away or attack. Illuminated by the fire, I could now see its full form.
The thing was black as pitch and the light seemed to hit
the barrier of its being and die there. Yet, one could
make out the large form of legs that brought the
creature’s waist up near my shoulder. Its arms were
elongated and hung almost to the ground. It was as
broad as a man is tall and the head rested on very little
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neck. The whole of its body was covered in midnight
black fur and blood caked detritus from the wood. Its head! God, Henry! Its face was the face of a demon.
It was unlike any creature I have ever witnessed before.
The simian face of a great ape, but altogether more
human. There was thought behind the creature’s eyes
and I remembered Franklin’s ranting that it spoke to him.
Yet, jutting from the creature’s maw were ferocious
canines and two large shiny white tusks that jutted up
toward the eyes. Each tusk was as big as a man’s hunting
knife and they looked twice as deadly. It took a step toward us and I was fully prepared to
hear words spill out from the Beast, but only the low
growl of a predator that sees cowering prey escaped its
lips. The Beast moved to step around the fire and still we
were rooted to the same spot. I feared that I would stand
there and let it kill me. I had almost resigned myself to
fate, when Franklin came out of the darkness with his
rifle.
Franklin let out a war cry and his shot went into the
creature’s middle just before he drove the bayonet home. Not even the guttural scream of the Beast brought us to
our senses and we stood dumbfounded as the creature
backhanded Franklin to the ground and shoved one large
clawed hand into the meat of his stomach.
Franklin’s flesh tore like cloth and the hand came back
out holding gore covered innards and intestine. To Franklin’s credit, he rolled away and stood up
screaming, “Move, Soldiers!” to the rest of us, who were
wasting his sacrifice by staying immobile.
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The Beast grabbed the man from behind and proceeded
to tie him to the closest tree with the chords that made up
the insides of his own body. The creature kept wrapping
them around the man and the trunk over and over again,
as if it really feared he would somehow untangle his guts
and run away.
Franklin’s feet kicked at the Beast the whole time and
his anguished screams finally broke the rest of us out of
our stunned ineptitude. Ashwood grabbed my arm and pulled me quickly into
the woods and away. No one spoke as the three of us ran full bore through
the dark woods. The high and almost full moon
somewhat lit our way as we pushed hard to the north.
We ran for what seemed like hours. Finally, Ashwood
paused ahead of me and leaned forward with his hands
on his knees. Just as I reached his spot, he vomited up his
dinner onto the leaf covered ground. Thank God we were all trained to sleep with our
clothes and boots on or we would be naked to the world.
Ashwood was smart enough to grab up his rifle and Fields
had his revolver, a weapon highly prized and bought with
his own money, but I was empty handed save my hunting
knife and gumption. Of course, we saw what gumption and a rifle got poor
Franklin. “Our Father,” I heard Fields whispering a prayer as we
all stood for a moment to collect our breath and thoughts.
I silently joined him as we stood trying to hear any
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A shrieking scream broke the silence from back toward
the south. Though the screech was almost human, we
moved quickly back into our frantic run, knowing too well
that it was the Beast.
The three of us, used to marching most of the day and
night, kept a strong pace. “There… hasn’t…” Ashwood tried to spit out as we
moved. “Been … another howl … since the first.” He was asking for a chance to slow our pace without
the disgrace of actually saying it. Fields and I obliged. We slowed to a brisk walk as the night wore on. The
moon was high and there were still some hours before
dawn. “What is this thing?” Fields spat out as we stopped for a
drink at a slow running stream. “Hell if I know,” Ashwood replied. “My Granddad
always said we should not be pushing westward. That
there were creatures that we Europeans pushed out when
we settled here.”
“That’s hogwash!” Fields fussed. “Indians were living
on this land for hundreds of years before we got here.
They would a…”
“The Indians know all about it,” Ashwood countered.
“Granddad said there are legends in many of the tribes.
Dammit, I should have listened closer to his stories!”
“Well…” Fields continued, but I shut him out. My mind
was falling back and remembering the dream I was
having just before I opened my eyes to this waking
nightmare.
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Though I had prayed not to dream of the Beast, the
creature was waiting there as soon as I drifted off. I was
walking the battlefield of Stones River. Bodies were
thrown about everywhere and the ground was muddy
with the blood of the dead around me. I looked up to see the creature from Franklin’s ranting.
The creature that I knew so well now. It stood in the
middle of the death. It towered over the battlefield like a
dark scarecrow and I noticed that vultures and scavenger
birds perched on its broad black shoulders. As Franklin before me, I was not scared in the dream. I
approached the creature with the need to speak to it. As I
got closer, I could see saliva gushing from its maw like a
river. As it looked out at the bodies of Blue and Grey
boys, its only thought was one of food and fresh meat. Before I could speak, it raised its head and broke the
silence. “Ask your question, Manflesh.”
I found in the dream that I knew exactly what to say to
this monstrosity. “You told Franklin that we were all
meat.” I started and the creature shook its great head.
“Meat for the Beast!” It replied harshly and the carrion
birds took flight off as if its mere voice could steal their
lives. I stepped back at the recitation of the words that
Franklin had screamed into the fire. “Ask your question,” The Beast repeated.
I noticed that the gap between us had lessened as we
conversed and I could have reached out my hand and
touched the blood matted blackness of the creature’s fur.
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I spoke in a hushed tone, lowering my eyes to avoid
seeing the gallons of liquid falling from its great maw.
“Will you…”
My mind was pushed back to the present by Field’s
panicked scream. I saw he was looking up into the trees,
and I turned my gaze just as the huge shape of the Beast
fell in among us. Huge black paws closed around Ashwood’s body and
lifted him from the ground. Ashwood’s screams filled the
night as the creature grabbed his legs with one large hand
and his body with the other. Ashwood’s rifle dropped to
the ground unfired and his life balanced on the knife’s
edge.
The despair of my friend spurred me to action and I
pulled the hunting knife from my belt. I ran in quick and
shoved the knife deep into the black fur­covered meat of
the monster’s leg. The creature howled and jerked away from me, taking
my knife with it. Even through the pain, it kept a hold on
Ashwood and suddenly I found myself being knocked
backwards as the Beast swung Ashwood’s still live body,
like a club, full into me. Fields quickly pulled me to my feet as the monster
turned its attention back to Ashwood. It viciously pulled
on both ends and the big man’s legs broke away from his
body with an ungodly ripping and a SPOP! Both legs pulled out of the sockets of his hips and the
flesh had torn away, much of it staying with the upper
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body so that long pieces of white bone stuck out of the
gore at the top of each leg. Ashwood’s cries were cut short when the Beast
slammed the top half of his body into the ground and
shoved the legs, bones first, into his chest. This pinned
Ashwood to the ground and for a moment he tried
desperately to pull his own legs from his upper torso.
Thank God the bones had been driven deep and
Ashwood’s agony came to a quick end.
As this unfolded, Fields shoved me hard and told me to
run. He then swept Ashwood’s rifle up and proceeded to
move toward the creature with the gun at the ready. It was in that moment that the last visage of my earlier
dream came crashing into my mind like a wild boar
pushing through the rough brush.
I could not face the creature as the question fell cold
and fearful from my lips, “Will you spare me… will I be
spared?”
The black demon laughed then, showering me with hot
saliva and the smell of old blood. It reached down a hand and cupped my shaking face in
its large paw, lifting my eyes past the sword­like tusks
until all I could see was the huge ape­like face floating
inches from mine.
“All feed the Beast, James Connors.” It chuckled
darkly, blowing the breath of a thousand digested corpses
into my choking lungs. He then brought his face in until our noses were almost
touching and the tusks framed my head, keeping me from
turning away.
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“Yet, I will promise you this, Brave Meat.” It continued.
“You will not die soon. James Connors of Missouri, you
will die last.”
That is when I awoke to one of my companions dying.
Coming out of the memory, I saw that another one was
stepping forward to make me the last. Fields was quick with the bayonet and caught the
creature in the throat with his first jab. Hot blood flowed
from the wound and the Beast was pushed back. Fields
pulled the trigger and the rifle went off directly into the
Beast’s face. The monster riled in pain and a vicious
scream broke into the night. Blood and gore flew from
the creature’s face as it yanked the rifle away from Fields
and seemingly more angered than hurt from the damage
it had endured, moved forward. Quick as a cat, Fields
jumped back out of reach and pulled his revolver. “Run,” He screamed as he fired the first shot at the
advancing shape. “God blast it! Someone has to bloody
survive!” He continued as he fired his second and third. I was away before the next shot rang out, moving
quickly north with the sounds of gunfire and the angry
roar of the Beast behind me. I heard a final shot and then
dead silence. I pray that Fields’ final shot was turned on his own chin
and he denied the Beast the pleasure of another kill. I
like to believe that Fields was the only man to ever hurt
the Beast, both physically and by stealing its victory. I
want to believe that he left the corpse of Fields where it
fell; that the man who fought so hard to save me had
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I ran on though the woods for what had to be hours,
only slowing to a trot when my exhaustion started to
make me worry that I would fall dead as the over­taxed
horses we saw at the cross country race a few years back.
As soon as I slowed, I could feel the Beast right behind
me. It was about to fulfill its omen from my dark dream.
My friends and companions were all dead. It promised
that I would be last. I began to feel myself give in, thinking that I was only
prolonging the inevitable. Better to face the creature and
die like a man. To try my best to deny the monster its
little victories as Fields had done. It was then that I heard a small commotion from the
northwest and saw light that could only be from a cook
fire. My rush north had led me back toward the Blues. I
must have been moving closer to a scouting camp. One
that was sent south from the main forces to patrol and
make sure we were not turning back for a renewed attack.
My mind raced as I continued forward. I should turn
back to the east and lead the damnable monster away
from the camp. Out of all the moments that had happened to that point
and have happened since, it was this one that I know
damned my soul. It was this choice that took a righteous
young boy from Missouri and turned him into a
scoundrel. Many would say that the Beast drove me to it,
yet many a good man had stood up to the creature and
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I have no doubt that Ashwood and Fields are in the
bosom of God at this very moment. I like to think that
Franklin and poor Tom Reynolds are there as well. But, I know that I will never see those pearly gates or
walk those streets of gold.
I know because the voices of God, Jesus, and the Holy
Ghost; the voice of my good and kind conscience were all
drowned out by the demonic baritone of the Beast’s dark
prophecy, “You will not die soon. James Connors of
Missouri, you will die last.”
Hearing this, I turned fully in the direction of the Union
camp and was spurred on by a new and grim
determination. I burst into their camp, blood and sweat covered, with
my hands up and a smile on my face. The division that
greeted me was at least thirty men strong. A young soldier checked me for weapons, and finding
that I had none, bid me to walk toward the center of the
encampment. We were almost there when the screaming
started. Looking back toward the south, one could see
bodies being thrown about by a huge and ominous black
shape. As my guard turned to see the cause of the alarm, I
stepped forward and placing my hands on his head,
twisted until the neck quickly snapped. No one noticed me as the men moved forward and fired
round after round into the rampaging creature. I collected the boy’s rifle and revolver, stole a horse
from the line, and was away before the demon had time
to kill everything between us.
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That was two weeks ago. I have abandoned war, land,
and family in my desperate fight to stay alive. I am far to the west now, holed up in a small hunting
cabin with a French trapper and his African wife. The
trapper has lent me paper and pen, in order that I might
write my family before I move on. Please, do not try and
find me here. I leave on the morrow and will not return
this way. One would think that the sounds of the screams and
gunshots, the aroma of death that permeates a place
where senseless, bloody violence is occurring would drive
a man insane. However, the game of war long ago stripped me of red
dreams of battlefield death or the need to relive even that
unholy night in the woods. No, my dreams are filled with the black Beast. It
whispers to me as it cradles me in the darkness. It tells
me of our pact of blood and bellows laughter at the
ignorance of my plea for mercy from death itself. It murmurs of the people it has tasted and the ones that
it will take next. It lectures me on my new role in the
world and promises that it will catch up to me in due
time. I know that my hosts here will soon be consumed by
the creature. It has detailed the delights it will take in the
devouring of the woman and the child that she does not
even know she is caring. I now fully understand that everyone I come in contact
with, everyone that crosses my path, line up in front of
me at the Beast’s banquet table. It is a power that I am
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burdened with and one that I hope my movement to the
west will help alleviate.
Yet, I find that I am still too much of a coward to face
the creature, and so, others must die in my place. Now, you see why I cannot come home and no one
must come after me. I am as dead as our dear brothers.
Tell mother as much and give her many grandchildren
to replace the wayward children that she lost to war and
outrage.
I must away, the Beast moves ever closer and it must
not catch me idle.
Always and ever your loving brother,
James G. Connors
Buck’s most recent publication is the short story, “The Magician’s
Study” in The New Pulp Awards 2014 nominated Carnacki: The
New Adventures from Ulthar Press. He has also had a short story
published in Machina Mortis: Steampunk’d Tales of Terror from
Knightwatch Press and edited the anthology, Hunting Ghosts from
Black Oak Media.
He can be found @WhyBuckWhy on Twitter and at his blog https://whybuckwhy.wordpress.com/
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THE LEATHER BRACELET
by Guy T. Martland
It was the summer between the end of school and the
start of University. Alastair traveled alone, his friend due
to meet him the next day at the hotel bar where he’d
agreed to work for the summer. The ferry crossing from
Lymington was calm and clear, the hotel growing on the
horizon as it approached, flanked by a Tudor blockhouse
castle. Gardens stretched down to a messy sand and shin­
gle beach, strewn with seaweed. To the left, a public pier
extended into the channel where an old paddle steamer
was moored.
It was a grand, ramshackle place, its glamour faded and
weather­beaten. Cracked black and white tiles lined the
floor of the spacious reception hallway. In the corner of
the room a piece of wallpaper was peeling away from the
wall, fluttering in the wind that followed him inside. He
sniffed at the slightly musty odour which hung in the air.
This was Mr. Johnson’s renovation project, having been
acquired recently. There was an old­fashioned call bell on
the counter which he pressed. A shuffling from a corridor
preceded the arrival a disheveled elderly woman, holding
a sheaf of paper. She scowled at Alastair unwelcomingly
until he stammered out an introduction.
“Ah, Mr. Thomas ­ Tristan’s friend. You can call me
Mrs. Stadwick.”
Alastair took her hand. It felt like parchment.
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“We’ve been expecting you. I’m afraid Mr. Johnson
isn’t around today to settle you in. But he’ll be here to­
morrow, before your first shift. We’ve got you scheduled
to start at ten.”
Alastair nodded a thank you. Mrs. Stadwick looked at
him quizzically, as if expecting him to say something, but
his mind seemed empty, the words which were normally
there oddly absent.
“Let me show you to your room.”
He followed her up a series of increasingly smaller and
narrower staircases to a collection of rooms beneath the
eaves, located at the back of the building. Mrs. Stadwick
pulled out a set of keys and slid one off the key ring, be­
fore opening a door into a small boxy space, which a bed
almost filled. A small desk was also somehow crammed
in; a bottle of wine stood on its warped wooden surface,
its base securing a note in place. After pointing out the
communal bathroom, Mrs. Stadwick gave Alastair the key
and took her leave.
He opened the small window above the desk, letting
the sea breeze flow into the room. The view didn’t offer
much, just a sloping gable and a triangle of sky above, but
he could hear the sea washing onto the shore below. He
picked up the note, which was from his friend’s uncle, Mr.
Johnson; it apologised for his absence, explained how he
was looking forward to seeing him the following day. The
bottle looked half decent with an embossed label; he re­
membered from his friend that the uncle was a connois­
seur of French wines.
Alastair placed his bag on the floor and lay on the bed,
staring at the ceiling. Cracks ran along it, one of which
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was being traced by a small spider, oblivious to his pres­
ence. As he watched, the arachnid seemed to be mending
the crack as it traveled across the ceiling; he studied it
confused, until he was distracted by some movement out­
side. He stood up and opened the door a notch, but there
was no one there. However, a strong odour filled the cor­
ridor, a smell, almost medicinal, which he couldn’t quite
place. He returned to the room to unpack, hunger even­
tually driving him back out to explore.
When he closed the door he noticed a young woman in
the corridor. She was in her early twenties, with long
dark hair and sad chocolate eyes. Her skin was a delicate,
fragile white and her hair was wet, as if she’d just taken a
shower. She seemed familiar in a way he couldn’t ex­
plain. As they passed, she looked up at Alastair and
seemed about to say something. He stopped and turned
but she had already disappeared along the twisting corri­
dor.
Outside, he found the nearest public house, bought a
beer and ensconced himself in a dark corner. He plucked
a book from a shelf and began to read; it was some mod­
ern horror story which featured a strange hotel. The simi­
larities were uncanny, right down to the abrupt reception­
ist, who shuffled around the place. After a few chapters,
the words began to slide off the page. He looked up and
something didn’t seem quite right. The room had altered
slightly: the angles of the beams had shifted and the door
seemed to have jumped from one side of the room to the
other. He shook his head, stood up and wandered out
into the night, taking long deep breaths of the sea air.
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As he navigated the corridors back to his room, he
found himself lost, the medicinal smell stronger than ever.
The walls of the hotel seemed to have shifted, moving
around as if having a joke with him. After a few false
turns and retreats, he finally found himself at the door to
his room. The curtains were billowing in through the still
open window, moonlight casting shadows across the bed­
spread, shadows that didn’t quite vanish when he turned
on the dim, fizzing electric light.
A few moments later, there was a knock at the door.
He opened it, surprised to find the young woman he’d
seen before standing outside.
“Er… hello,” he stammered.
“Hello,” she replied. “I was just wondering if you were
settling in OK.” Her voice had an accent he recognised as
Eastern European.
“I’m fine, yes it’s good,” he stammered. “I’m Alastair,”
he continued, holding out his hand somewhat formally.
“I know. I’m Saskia,” she replied. Her hand was warm,
but damp.
“Um… do you want to come in? I have some wine?” he
said, blurting out the first words which came to mind.
Saskia nodded and came into the room, looking around at
the austere walls. There was nowhere else to sit, so she
sat on the bed.
Mr. Johnson had helpfully left a bottle opener, although
only one wine glass. He found a half pint glass behind
the door on a shelf – it was dusty but seemed clean. He
brushed it out with a sleeve and poured the wine, giving
the wine glass to his guest.
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“So, you work here as well?” he asked, as they sipped
the wine, close to one another on the bed. The sense of
familiarity crept over him again, as if somehow, some­
where he knew this woman. He noticed that she wore a
leather strap on her left wrist, fastened by a small metal
clasp.
“Yes. I am a maid here. Summer job.”
“And from your accent, you’re from Eastern Europe?”
“Slovakia. Near Austria.”
“I know where it is,” he replied, almost too sharply. He
had an odd sense he had been there, but at the same
time, couldn’t see how or when this could have happened.
“So, maybe you don’t want to talk?” she replied, placing
the glass of wine on the desk. And then, a moment later,
she leaned forward and kissed him. Alastair thought she
tasted of the sea.
The next morning he woke up alone. He blinked the
day into his eyes, looking around the room, searching for
the girl. To the side of the bed, a full wine glass stood on
the desk. He remembered the odd feeling he’d had in the
pub the night before, wondered if he’d just imagined the
girl. Then he realised he was wearing a leather bracelet,
the same one he seen on her wrist the night before. To try
and clear his head, he took a shower before heading
down to breakfast. The staff dining room was a grim
black­walled box, sharing one wall with the adjacent
blockhouse. There were a few hard­looking youths
around the table, but no sign of Saskia.
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“You the new boy then?” one of them grunted at Alas­
tair, as he sat down with a plate of bacon and eggs. The
man who spoke was the larger of the two, but more fat
than muscle.
“Yes, I suppose so. Alastair, pleased to meet you.”
“Luke,” he replied, but didn’t introduce his considerably
thinner neighbour. In fact, the man was so skinny, it
seemed that skin, hair and eyes were all that separated
him from a skeleton.
“One of his mastership’s posh school friends then?”
asked Luke. Alastair hadn’t heard his friend referred to in
this way before, but nodded and continued eating break­
fast in silence.
Just as the two were about to leave, he asked them if
they’d seen the maid.
“Which one you talking about?”
“Saskia.”
The men were both silent for a time, exchanging
glances Alastair couldn’t fathom, until Luke spoke.
“You got no right, mentioning her. People don’t take
too kindly to jokes like that around here.”
He was left to finish his breakfast alone, wondering
what Luke had meant. Mr. Johnson appeared shortly af­
terwards to show Alastair around the main rooms of the
hotel. He also took him to the bar, behind which he’d be
spending most of his time that summer. The bar manager
would show him the ropes, but in the meantime, there
were a few odd jobs to sort out. The first was sorting out
the small beach at the end of the garden. “It looks scruffy,” Mr. Johnson said. “All the seaweed,
and so on. When the ferry arrives, this is the first thing
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they see of the hotel.” He nodded, remembering his ar­
rival the day before.
So he set to work, spending most of the day filling rub­
bish bags with seaweed and the various bits of jetsam
which littered the small crescent of strand. Amongst the
litter were bottles, pieces of rubber, fishing tackle and the
rotting corpses of a few dead fish. But the view across the
Solent made up for it. At one point he thought he saw
something flash across the sky, a flicker of metal, but
when he blinked it was gone. Oddly, at the same time,
there was the same strong smell of medication he’d no­
ticed in the hotel the previous evening. Moments later, it
was whisked away by the sea breeze.
At lunch he was again greeted by the laconic faces of
Luke and Simon and the kitchen porter, whose name he
didn’t catch. But no Saskia. As the sun began to lower in
the sky, the beach was looking a lot tidier. He looked up
to see the ferry coming in; on the upper deck he could see
someone waving.
Alastair was back in the public house across the road,
this time accompanied by his friend Tristan. They’d had a
few drinks, Tristan raving about a concert he’d been to in
Earls Court, some band Alastair hadn’t heard of, but he
had their CD and would play it later.
“What do you think of the hotel?” Tristan asked, taking
a gulp of his pint.
“It…it feels a bit like stepping back in time.”
“Yeah, it needs some updating.” Tristan nodded. “My
uncle’s big project.”
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“So who owned it before?”
“I don’t really know.”
“There was a scandal, though, so he managed to get it
cheap,” Tristan said a few moments later.
“Really? What happened?” Alastair felt the hairs on
the back of his neck begin to rise.
“I’ll tell you outside,” he said, nodding to the corner of
the bar. Where Alastair had sat the night before, Luke
was sitting, leering over some girl who didn’t look excep­
tionally happy to be there. The door seemed to be in its
right place when they left.
Tristan lit up Alastair’s cigarette first, before tending to
his. He took a deep draw before he started. “The previ­
ous manager got into a bit of trouble. He was a bit of a
lothario ­ put it about a bit, you know. He’d had a few
run­ins with his wife before, I heard later. Anyway, he’d
started seeing this member of staff, some chick from
Slovenia or somewhere.”
“Slovakia?” Alastair suggested.
“Something like that. Anyway, pretty girl by all ac­
counts. He was up to his usual stuff. Promising her the
world and so on. Anyway, his wife found out – another
member of staff told her. So his wife turns up at the ho­
tel, starts having this massive argument with her husband
in reception, which then moves out into the street.
Things get even more heated and she pushes him into the
path of a passing car.”
“Shit.”
“It gets better. Or worse, I suppose. The wife then goes
on the warpath, looking for this girl. Charging around the
hotel, smashing things up and so on. This poor girl is of
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course, terrified. She sees the blue lights of the ambu­
lance, thinks the woman has killed her husband and that
she’s next.
“The girl, Slovakia, runs down the fire escape, this
crazed woman running after her. Chases her across the
hotel gardens. Slovakia manages to escape but runs onto
the pier. Then she’s being pursued by the hotel manager’s
wife and the police. Or at least she thinks she is. But the
police were running after the wife, not the girl.”
“Anyway, end of the pier, not really anywhere else to
go but the sea. She jumps in and starts swimming. It was
a stormy night and there are strong currents out there.
They called off the search after a few hours.”
“Oh my God,” Alastair replied, numbly, grasping for a
cigarette from Tristan’s packet. “When did this happen?”
He found himself worrying the leather strap on his wrist.
“Hmm…” Tristan drummed his fingers on the table as
he thought. “Funnily enough, it was almost exactly a year
ago.”
He spent the next few days in a daze. Mist gathered
over the village, as if in response to his thoughts; it was
sometimes so thick he couldn’t even see the tip of his out­
stretched hand. Tristan seemed to gather there was
something the matter, but couldn’t fathom what. And
Alastair couldn’t seem to be able to tell him.
As the days passed, the mist cleared and Alastair began
to question himself, whether what he had experienced
that night was real or not. It certainly had seemed real,
the touch of her skin, the soft gentle way her hair had
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brushed on his face as they’d made love, the way she
smelt of the sea. But could he have been dreaming? He searched all the nooks and crannies of the hotel,
looking for a sign, although he found nothing. He hung
out with Tristan, went for long walks across the island,
explored all the public houses he could find. In a way,
things seemed to be returning to normal. Except when he
was alone – when his shifts didn’t coincide with Tristan’s:
late nights manning the empty bar on his own were the
worst; late nights when every sound seemed to represent
a drowned girl’s footsteps.
He took to searching the local second hand bookshops,
of which there were a few, for stories of the paranormal,
ghost stories, science fiction stories. He read hundreds in
his spare time, looking for an answer. Tristan’s uncle
ribbed him about being “bookish” as he always had a
tome in his hand. There were no answers of course. Oc­
casionally he’d see things in the sky above the sea, odd
shapes that seemed to appear from nowhere and would
disappear just as quickly as they arrived. Flashes of metal
machines; sometimes they seemed to be on fire, plunging
downwards into the water. He wondered if it was the
stuff he’d been reading, feeding his imagination.
And then the summer, which had previously seemed
endless, began to draw to a close. The prospect of Uni­
versity was looming and began to fill Alastair with trepi­
dation. While he should have been excited, there was
something which didn’t feel right, something about his ex­
periences in the early Summer which nagged at his mind.
Tristan was off on a gap year – India, then Thailand, then
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wherever took his fancy. As they had done before leaving
school, they vowed to stay in touch.
It was a few days before he was due to leave when it
happened. It was early evening and he was in the hotel
garden, clearing away glasses. It had been a long summer
day and the garden had been full to bursting with people
in varying states of inebriation. Wasps buzzed over empty
tumblers: a trap for the unwary.
Alastair was near the beach, glasses piled into a tray.
He looked up toward the pier, as he often did, remember­
ing the story Tristan had told him. The pier was empty
bar a single figure, near the end; he could clearly see it
was a girl with dark hair, wearing a long unseasonal coat.
The figure turned to look in Alastair’s direction: it had to
be her. He began to sprint, cutting across the garden to the
pier, just as she had done the year before. He dashed
across the small car park tucked behind the hotel garden,
losing the apparition behind the small pierhead café. And
then he was on the pier itself, hammering up the hard­
wood boards to the end. The pier was empty, but even so he ran to the end, cir­
cling the wooden fisherman’s shelter. Then he noticed
there was something lying on the floor, near where the
girl had stood. As he approached, he realised it was a
coat: the same coat he’d seen her wearing. Grasping the
white handrail, he found himself searching the dark, cold
water beneath. The water swished around the piles, whis­
pering words he couldn’t catch.
Then he saw a shape, just beneath the water’s surface, a
hand waving beneath the foam. Without thinking about
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the consequences, he found himself climbing over the
metal balustrade. And then he launched himself into the
waves.
“I don’t know how much time we have,” Saskia said
urgently.
“Where are we?” Alastair asked, looking around at the
deep blue walls of the room.
“It’s a construct, like the hotel.”
“A construct?”
“Alastair, there was an accident. You were on a shuttle,
heading towards London. There was a terrorist attack.”
“An accident… I don’t understand.”
“Do you remember who I am?”
“You… you were the girl who drowned.”
“No. Think deeper. Think further back.”
“That night in the hotel… I thought I recognised you…”
Something seemed to break in Saskia’s face, tears be­
gan to well up in her eyes. “It was much more than that.”
“What do you mean, a construct?”
“It’s a kind of programme. You are stuck in a time from
your past. Part of your mind created it for you… But we
managed to get me in there too,” she replied, brushing
her tears away.
“You mean the hotel isn’t real?”
“No, Alastair. You are currently hooked into a life sup­
port machine. In a hospital. They said you were one of
the lucky ones.”
More tears began to spill over her cheeks.
“A life support machine?”
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“Yes. The doctors don’t know…”
“Don’t know what?”
“Whether you’ll make it. I’m sorry, Al. I love you.”
She leaned forward and kissed him. Alastair thought
she tasted of the sea.
When he woke up, he was lying on the beach, his
clothes wet. Beside him on the stones was a crumpled up
coat. He felt his wrist: the bracelet was still there, intact.
It began to get darker, the late summer evening drawing
in fast. Mr. Johnson saw him on the terrace as he walked
back into the hotel, eyes widening.
“Have you been swimming? Fully clothed?”
“I fell off the pier…”
The laugh that followed sounded real enough. But
Alastair found himself wondering if he had created it, in
some dark recess of his mind.
The Summer ended, and life seemed to continue as nor­
mal. He went to University and began to live out his life,
as if nothing had happened, with only the bracelet on his
wrist as a reminder. After countless appointments with
the University doctor, the man finally ended up almost
shouting at him. “There is nothing wrong with you. You
are in perfect health.” But he knew he wasn’t.
He began to live his life again, although it wasn’t quite
the same. Not being able to remember the first time, it
seemed like everything was new. He had a sense that
somehow this time though, it was easier, as if the prob­
lems he’d had first time around weren’t problems. He
found himself taking risks, more risks than he’d taken be­
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fore maybe, although he couldn’t tell. His fellow students
thought he was a bit crazy. Every once in a while he’d see
a flicker of something odd in the sky, which seemed to re­
inforce what his peers told him.
The next Summer he returned to the hotel with Tristan.
Presumably as he had done in his previous existence. But
he couldn’t quite be sure. He’d spend hours on the pier,
gazing into the water, willing Saskia to appear once more.
But she never did. He wondered if the doctors were still
working on him, he wondered if time in this reality was
the same.
His hands stroked the bracelet on his wrist, the artefact
that linked him to his past and his future. One thing was
certain: if he carried on living, he would meet her at some
point. He wasn’t sure when, but he knew it would hap­
pen. Maybe then he could truly start living again.
When Guy Martland is not writing, he works in a hospital as a pathologist and sometimes plays a 19th century German violin (but not at the
same time). He is a Milford SF alumnus, having attended the course in 2012
and 2014. At 6'8“, he claims to be one of the tallest SF writers in the world.
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CHRISTMAS EVIL
by Darren French
There had to be at least a dozen of the bastards out
there. Rick watched through the window as a pack of the
creatures slid across the blue­white snow and disappeared
behind what was left of the McKellen’s house, now no
more than a wreck of charred timbers. Waiting until he
was sure they were gone, Rick snapped the curtains shut
and puked on his boots. He was having a lousy damn day.
He hadn’t barricaded the house like he should’ve, and
the freaks had broken down the front door and busted
several windows before he’d finally driven them back.
And all so he could scrounge up some grub for Matt. Steam and stink rose from the mess on his feet as he
went to the fridge and stuffed food into the old potato
sack he’d found in the basement. He didn’t pay attention
to what he was grabbing, which was a lot of condiments
and a package of expired bologna. When he finished, he
slung the sack over his shoulder and crossed the kitchen. As he neared the living room, he grimaced. Only one of the creatures had managed to get inside,
and Rick had killed it by lopping off its head with a large,
stainless steel bread knife. Now, less than a half­hour
later, the thing was already in the late stages of
decomposition: its head was liquefying, and its body
sagged on the carpet like a garbage­bag full of leaves.
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The only thing Rick could make out in the slop were the
thing’s eyes, which had lost their cold menace and
reverted back to stones.
The snowman had almost completely melted away.
Rick took one last look and then descended into the
basement with ketchup and bologna for his fourteen­year­
old son.
Whether or not he liked bologna, Matt didn’t eat. He
sat in shadows and dust in the back corner of the room,
staring wide­eyed at the squat windows that crowned the
far wall. He was nothing but elbows and knees, not a
trace of Rick’s hulking mass visible in his rail­thin body,
his mother’s son from tip to toe.
Rick ate his bologna and sat tugging his scruffy red
beard, sizing up the situation. Then he broke apart a set
of wooden chairs, laid the resulting pieces across one of
the window panes, and hammered them to the sills.
When the barrier didn’t even keep out the dying sunlight,
he stopped and sat in one of the remaining chairs.
Matt was still staring at the windows. Rick figured a
good old­fashioned tongue lashing would snap him out of
it, but he pointed at the sack instead. “Some bologna
left.”
Silence. Then, quietly: “They got in, didn’t they?”
Rick scowled. Damned kid had warned him about the
lack of barricades.
“How many of them were there?”
“Twelve. Fifteen, could’ve been,” Rick said, leaving out
that only three had actually attacked. The rest had hung
back, watching with their dark, glinting eyes, more of a
scouting mission than a raid.
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Matt looked down at his feet. “Do you think they could
make more…I mean…more of themselves?”
Rick shrugged. He hadn’t thought of that. It was
possible. Like the snowmen’s stone eyes, their stick arms
had taken on a surprising amount of humanity. One had
even made a pretty convincing fist. Neither of them said anything for a while, and when
the silence seemed thick enough to choke on, Matt said,
“Do you think it’s the snow?”
“Huh?”
“The snow. Is that what caused this, do you think?”
Rick thought about last night’s storm, how the snow
had sparkled so strangely, how it seemed blue as it fell.
He shouldn’t have let Matt play in the stuff that morning.
But how was he to know what would happen? Hell, how
was he to know the boy still made snowmen? The kid
might even be a queer, he thought. Be just like Skyler
and June to raise a fairy for a son.
“We should barricade the door…right?” Matt took a
longer, harder inspection of his shoes. “Don’t you think?”
“Knock yourself out,” Rick said, grabbing more bologna
from the sack. Matt slouched, but eventually rose and began the
process of blocking the lone entrance. When Matt was
done, Rick had to admit the barricade looked solid. The
kid had started with the empty cabinets, which he’d
dragged up to the door one step at a time, and then
reinforced them with cinderblocks. The final touch were
the chairs Rick had started to dismantle. Panting, Matt took the last of the bologna from the sack
and sat back down. He looked around the room as he ate.
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“Thanks for the food,” he said, quietly. Rick leaned back in his chair and eyed the boy,
wondering, not for the first time, if he frightened the kid.
He’d seen little of Matt over the last five years, and who
knew what crap his mother had fed him about his old
man. This was to be the first Christmas he’d spent with
Matt since the boy was six, and Rick knew nothing about
having a family Christmas. He hadn’t even put up a tree.
Those Klein bastards down the street had to rub it in, too,
with their lit­up eyesore of a house.
Rick finally nodded and stared up at the windows.
Matt finished his supper and sat back in the shadows.
Father and son, they waited.
Rick had expected the snowmen to return at sunset, but
one hour into the moonless night, he still heard and saw
no sign of them. He wondered if he should’ve gone back
upstairs before Matt built the barricade. They didn’t have
nearly enough provisions, and the bread knife poking out
from the waistband of his jeans was their only real
weapon. He stared at his boots. Puke had hardened like
concrete.
Hours passed. Rick fell asleep once or twice, but not
for long. He couldn’t take his eyes off the darkness
beyond the windows.
At close to midnight, Matt’s voice cut through the
blackness: “We’re moving.”
“Huh?”
“Mom, Skyler, and me. We’re moving to Arizona next
month…to where Skyler’s from.”
“Skyler. Son of a bitch. Can’t have his own kids, so he
takes mine?”
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Matt shrugged. “He’s alright.”
“Alright. Right.” Rick grunted. “Arizona, huh? No
snow at least.”
Matt laughed weakly. “Mom didn’t tell you, did she?”
“She supposed to?” “She said she would.”
“You gonna visit?”
Matt said nothing for a long time, and Rick thought the
darkness and the silence seemed one in the same. Finally
the boy said, “Mom doesn’t have money for a plane ticket.
Skyler says he’ll buy one if I work it off.” Rick scoffed, and when he finally spoke, he said the
only thing that came to mind: “Still make snowmen,
huh?”
Matt laughed. “No…I mean, not usually. I was
bored…I guess.”
“Sorry I don’t have no Christmas tree for you,” Rick
said.
“That’s alright. I’m allergic.”
Rick snorted. Silence gathered.
Then came a soft rustling, like something sliding over
the snow. Rick tensed, listening for numbers, but the
attack came like it had before: all at once. The snowmen had soundlessly entered the house and
now began throwing their bulk against the cellar door.
The cabinets and cinderblocks shook, but held. One chair
toppled off the pile and bounced down the stairs.
From the windows, stick arms smashed out three panes
of glass, and a head sneered in at them, then another, and
another, carrot noses contorted with rage. They breathed
plumes of frosty blue air, which sparkled and cast a dim
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light into the room.
Rick pulled the knife from his waistband and stumbled
in the half­light until he found Matt cowering in the
corner. The things at the windows were still struggling to
get in, but Rick could see it was pointless. Their abdomen
sections were too large, and they were wedged tightly
into the window casings, their stick arms flailing
helplessly. The snowmen at the door, however, were making
headway, and the wood splintered and flaked under their
relentless pounding. They broke free a chunk large
enough for Rick to see one of the creatures holding a
baseball bat in its twig­fingered hands, gently shaking it
like a slugger about to knock one over the fence. The snowman burst through the hole, pushed the chairs
out of its way, and crawled on top of the cabinets. It laughed, a sound like shattering ice.
With the rest of the snowmen still stuck in the
windows, the only way out was up. Grabbing Matt by the
arm, Rick barreled up the stairs, leaping what was left of
the barricade and hitting the bastards like a battering
ram. Stick arms tore through Rick’s shirt and into his
flesh as he swung the bread knife. Snow sprayed into the
air in plumes, and he broke through their lines in a matter
of seconds. Pushing Matt ahead of him, he ran outside,
and they stumbled toward the Klein’s house through the
blue, shimmering snow. The roof and walls of the house were covered in
multicolored bulbs, icicle lights dripping from the eaves,
and several inflatable elves, a plastic Santa, and eight
plastic reindeer stood merrily on the front lawn. It was
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the only house that remained untouched.
When they reached the front porch, Rick glanced over
his shoulder. Darkness. They went inside.
The house seemed abandoned. Though none of the
windows or doors had been broken, no one answered his
calls as he walked through the first floor rooms, and the
phones were dead. Maybe the Kleins had left for the
holidays, or maybe the snowmen had gotten them. After dead­bolting the front and back doors and locking
every first floor window, Rick grabbed a blanket from the
downstairs bathroom closet and then went into the
kitchen and rifled through drawers until he found a bottle
of lighter fluid and a box of matches to melt the icy
bastards. Finally, he ushered Matt into the study on the
far side of the house. The boy was shaking visibly, his
face the color of Crisco. Rick placed the matches and
lighter fluid on the table next to the door, sat Matt in the
leather recliner, and draped the blanket around the kid’s
shoulders.
When he was sure Matt was okay
with only a few
scrapes and bruises, Rick peered out the study’s window.
Nothing but the snow, sparkling like some alien
landscape. But within seconds the creatures came into
sight, an indistinct mass shifting and sliding toward the
house.
Matt had been right. There was at least a hundred of
them now.
Seeing the look on his father’s face, Matt jumped to his
feet. Together they ran to the front door, then the back.
The creatures were closing in on the house from all sides,
their shattering, barking voices growing louder. Rick
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realized he’d left the lighter fluid and the matches back in
the study, but there wasn’t time to go back for them now.
They had only one option left. He led Matt upstairs and
into the first room they came to. He hoped there’d be somewhere they could hide until
the creatures moved on, but when he was only a few feet
into the room, he stopped in his tracks. Matt slammed
into his father’s back, and then stepped slowly to his side.
The room shone a bright, glittering blue from the four
massive blocks of ice that stood beside the bed. Inside
each block was a neighbor: Jack and Ruby Blair, and Carl
and Melinda Cooper. Gathered in a semi­circle around
these poor bastards, like scouts around a campfire, were
kids playing with toys. Rick stammered and Matt blinked. The children gazed
at them doe­eyed. They were all about the same age, eight at the oldest,
but Rick recognized only three of them as neighborhood
kids. There was something familiar about a few of the
others, though, something about their features and their
hair. One of the boys, who was forcing a Ninja Turtle action
figure to ride a stuffed Rudolph, stood and stared placidly
at Rick. He hair was slicked back, and he wore a red
sweater with a picture of a snowman on the front. “Are
you here to play with us?” he said, his words tinkling like
silver bells. Wide­eyed, Rick stalked over, grabbed the kid by the
arm, and turned to Matt. “We gotta get them the hell out
of here.” He looked back at the boy in the sweater. “You
need to come with us. Now.”
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The boy wriggled free of Rick’s grasp, smiled, and sat
down with his reindeer and Ninja Turtle. The other
children went back to their toys while the creatures
hammered on the front and back doors. The floor
shuddered under Rick’s feet.
“What the hell’s the matter with you?” Rick said. “Get
up!” Matt placed his hand on his dad’s shoulder and
considered the kids for a moment. “Where are your
parents?”
In unison, the children sang, “At the doors. They’ll be
here soon.” Matt stepped back. Then he glanced at the people
inside the ice blocks and quickly backed away until he
stood in the doorway, clasping his hands to the frame.
Rick followed his gaze. The people inside the ice had changed. When he and
Matt had entered, the couples had been their usual
middle­aged yuppie selves. Now they seemed much
younger, maybe twenty, and their clothing was different,
too. Jack Blair’s blue polo shirt had grown bulky and had
lightened in color. A green blob at the center of the
sweater­shirt swirled until it resembled a Christmas tree. Rick stared at the kids with dawning horror. The frosty
breath. Not a single adult in sight. The child version of Mr. Klein looked up from his
Nintendo DS and grinned. His teeth were tiny sharpened
icicles. “You’ll be playing with us soon,” he said, “and
Christmas will live forever in your heart!” Downstairs, wood shattered, and there came a sound
like snakes slithering in a pit. 93
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Rick and Matt bolted through the door and down the
hall. Each room they passed was similar to the first: filled
with doughy children sitting around ice cocoons and
playing with toys as if it was Christmas morning. Rick
heard scratching behind him as the snow creatures
clawed their way up the stairs.
When Rick and Matt came to the end of the hall, Rick
looked frantically for a closet or an attic pull chain, but
there was nowhere left to run. He put an arm around
Matt and drew him close. The boy wasn’t whimpering or
shaking. Stuffing one hand into the side pocket of his
jacket, Matt withdrew the matches and the small bottle of
lighter fluid, which he must have grabbed as they fled the
study. Rick nodded.
They sprayed lighter fluid into each room and from one
end of the hall to the other. When they were done, they
went back to the far end of the hall and waited. The
creatures scratched, climbing closer. The children sang,
Oh, Holy Night.
The first snowman in line crested the final step and
stood. He had to be at least eight feet tall, with small
trees for arms. He belched blue transforming frost breath,
narrowed his coal eyes, and roared; it was the sound of
an ice­covered lake tearing apart. Rick and Matt lit separate matches and dropped the
tinder to the floor. Fire erupted, swallowing the hallway, the rooms, the
kids, the snowmen. As Rick and Matt were consumed by
flame, they listened to the roaring fire and the tinkling
bell­like screams of the children, and they watched the
snowmen melt. 94
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With their arms around each other, a warmth crept into
their hearts.
Darren French believes that Kage Baker’s tale “Calamari Curls” is the
greatest short story ever written. Using this and other odd tales as an
inspiration, he writes the weirdest fiction he can dream up. His short story
“Night of the Pygmy Root,” a campy horror yarn about class warfare, will
appear in an upcoming issue of The Realm Beyond. He holds a Masters
Degree in American and New England Studies from the University of
Southern Maine and resides in a small New England town with his wife Gill
and their son Jeremy.
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NOV. 8TH OBJECTIVE ACHIEVED!!!
Guys – it finally happened! I GOT THE JOB!! Yes, your
intrepid blogger Muriel Sharpe has FINALLY landed her
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dream gig as a film archivist. I’M SO EXCITED!!! It took
me 4 years of undergrad and 2 post but I am at last ready
to make my big screen debut! And by that I mean getting
down with some SERIOUS ARCHIVING and film
restoration!
But of course, it wouldn’t be my life if there wasn’t a
cloud to the silver lining. As it turns out, I’m not super
crazy about my bosses. First of all, their names are Kurt
and Kitt? Are you fucking kidding me? KURT and KITT???
Did they like, apply for their positions at the same time
wearing matching outfits? At first I thought they HAD to
be a couple, but nope, not even dating. They’re both
annoyingly attractive too, perfect, skinny and blonde.
Totally LA… and we know how much I LOVE that.
Seriously, if I could live somewhere else, I would be out of
here in a heartbeat. I am so OVER this town. But here is
where I need to be to do what I love, so Kurt and Kitt are
what I have to deal with. At least for the time being.
Oh, and one thing, OF COURSE Kurt is a TOTAL
CHAUVINIST. Even after I got the job he kept questioning
me about my qualifications and I’m like, hello! EIGHT
YEARS OF SCHOOL!! But no, he keeps going on and on
about “practical experience” as if I’m some ditzy girl who
doesn’t know how to handle a film print or something.
And I mean, yeah, I haven’t done a TON of print handling,
but I’ve spent a lot of time with Gina in the booth of the
Crescent and I think that with my EDUCATION the point
should be moot. But it’s not, because I am a woman. And
Kitt, instead of backing up a sister, just stands there
nodding to everything Kurt says like some sort of Barbie
automaton. WHATEVER. I’ll make the best of it, but I got
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a misogynist vibe there, BIG TIME. Anyway, heading into the office to talk about my first
real assignment! Later for now! The Downtown Nickelodeon, known to local cinephiles
as “The Old Nick”, was tucked in between a Mexican
grocer and a used stereo store on 8th street in the heart of
downtown Los Angeles. The once garish marquee had
been long torn down, but the greasy window of the
boarded­up ticket booth was still visible to the keen­eyed
observer. Muriel had to use Google maps to find it, a fact
that gave her a twinge of shame as she prided herself on
knowing the locations of all the old Hollywood movie
houses. Even in its heyday the Nick was a lesser
frequented theater, mostly a second run venue, so Muriel
felt she could afford a little slack. Besides, as exciting as
this assignment was, it seemed more janitorial than
archive­related, and Muriel was a little offput that this
dingy rung on the ladder was where she was expected to
start. I suppose I should be grateful that I landed the job,
Muriel told herself. But thinking it was one thing;
believing was another matter entirely. Standing at the chained and padlocked front doors, she
rooted through her fully stuffed backpack for the keys.
Past a bag of Skittles and a travel bottle of Aussie
hairspray she found them, twisted and stuck in the tines
of one of her roller­style hairbrushes. Muriel sighed as she
pulled the keys loose, carrying the weight of the world on
her mannish shoulders. Adding injury to insult the sky
began to drizzle, dampening her hair into a flat frizzy
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mop. California rain was a rare and bad omen, thought
Muriel glumly. Why did things always have to be so hard?
But Muriel’s soggy spirits were lifted as she took in the
wonderful, decaying lobby with its grand staircase and
tall proscenium archways. The velvet curtains were
tattered and moth eaten and the fixtures – no doubt
scavenged for scrap – were long gone, but the theater
held proudly to its old world glamour even under an
apocalyptic layer of dust. A toppled stanchion still clung
to a coiled, rotted rope, and the ruin of a concession
booth promised popcorn, soda and candy that had long
been consumed. Stepping fully into the lobby Muriel’s
footfalls echoed off of the chipped marble floor, invoking
the ghost heels of movie­goers past, and she found herself
swept up in a wave of nostalgia for a time she had never
lived. To a film preservationist this was not an uncommon
sensation, but here, in this once vital house of cinema, the
feelings were amplified tenfold, redefined with crystalline
clarity. The focal point of the lobby was a large marble
fountain that stood at the apex of the room like a holy
altar. It was cracked and crumbling and hadn’t held water
since the sixties at the latest, but it still had the power to
command the viewer’s attention. As a centerpiece for a
movie theater lobby it was quite unusual, both garish and
beautiful, and Muriel approached it with a mixed
appreciation. It was a multi­layered construction; a
medium size pool hung suspended by a column above a
larger, ground­level pool, the sea­shell sculpt of both
suggesting an odd, mid­century fusion of nautical and art
nouveau. Draped upon the column, in a spiraling,
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heavenward pattern, were winged cherubs, or angels
upon closer inspection. Even as an agnostically raised girl
Muriel had an affinity for angels, viewing them as
symbols of feminine power and strength. It gave her some
comfort to know they were there, keeping her in sight as
she ventured into the darkened recesses of the theater. It took her a few minutes to find the breaker room,
despite the fact that Kurt had explained to her in detail
where it was located, to the far left of the dilapidated
concession booth. It was dark and cluttered and she
needed her phone’s flashlight to find her way, but when
she flipped on the breakers the theater was rewarded with
welcoming light. Some bulbs popped from the strain of
being suddenly revived, but the ones that survived gave
off a hazily sufficient illumination. Apparently Kitt was
good enough at her job to put in the necessary call to the
power company and not leave her new employee
fumbling in the dark. “Hooray for small miracles,” Muriel
remarked aloud, giving herself the tiniest of chuckles. Beyond the lobby were the doors leading to the main
auditorium, and stepping through them Muriel was once
again transported across time. The three story screen was
yellowed and torn in several places, but it put to shame
most found in modern megaplexes outside of the ones
made to IMAX specifications. One could easily imagine
taking in a matinee show of Lawrence of Arabia here
during its initial run and getting entirely lost in the
projected vistas, overwhelmed by the sheer scope of the
all­encompassing anamorphic image. The seats, still
arranged in their three section pattern, had long gone to
seed and the room hung thick with the smell of mildew,
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rot and the specter of cigarettes long smoked. But it
wouldn’t have stopped Muriel from plopping down and
digging into a bucket of popcorn had some time­traveling
projectionist started running a freshly struck print of
Double Indemnity, or even better, Touch of Evil. Above and to the back was a grand balcony, the kind
you didn’t see any more in movie theaters, and Muriel
could almost make out the silhouettes of couples necking
in the shadowy back rows. Ten feet or so above the
balcony was the dusty window of the projection booth,
looking out over the auditorium like a giant’s cataracted
pupil. There lay Muriel’s destination, but down here, in
the safety of the aisles, it didn’t look like a very inviting
place. The blackness within had the stillness of a crypt
and Muriel could not shake the feeling that whatever
slept up there was something that was best left
undisturbed.
But it was her job to venture into that crypt, so after
lingering a bit in the auditorium’s splendor she
summoned her courage, slipped the key into the lock of
the projection booth door and entered to a stale gust of
air. The light from the hall barely cut into the gloom, so
Muriel fumbled along the wall for a light switch, at last
finding one and flicking it on. She needed a moment to
take in what lay there before her. The room was dusty
and stale and didn’t appear to have been used in many a
decade, but this was all to be expected. The cutting table
had fallen to termites and years of neglect, leaving one of
the legs snapped and the table top tipped over at an
angle. The splicing equipment sat rusting on the floor
with scraps of old leader littered about it like scattered
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petals. But the projectors, twin hulks of iron, glass and
steel, looked shockingly intact. Muriel found herself
running a hand along their smooth pleasing forms the
way someone might do to a thoroughbred pony or a finely
restored vintage car. There was sensuality to their
construction that was lost in modern equipment, a
craftsmanship that had fallen by the wayside for the sake
of efficiency and progress. It saddened Muriel to see them
so neglected, and even though it had not been suggested
or even implied in her duties, she was tempted to fire the
twin workhorses up to see if they still ran. What was implicit in her duties was to inventory the
moldy boxes that had been stored in the booth for the
better part of the century and see if they held any lost
prints. Stacks upon stacks of the boxes lined the walls,
sagging under the weight of the years and leaning
together like old people needing the other’s support. They
reeked of mildew and rot and their corners were ragged
and rat­chewed, but still they held a certain sad air of
dignity. “Might as well get started,” Muriel sighed to herself.
But in truth she was thrilled as she wandered into the
stacks and picked a box from the top layer, careful that it
wouldn’t upset the others. She set it down on the floor,
and tore open the moldy boxtop, an eager child digging
into a Christmas present. Her nose and throat were immediately greeted by a
blast of noxious fumes; the reek of photo chemicals that
were far past their expiration date. But the unpleasant
odor was a small price to pay for the glory that lay within.
Stacked neatly in the box were circular tins – the kind
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used to house prints in the old days. She felt the same sort
of thrill an archaeologist might feel uncovering relics that
had been buried for almost a century.
NOV. 11TH
GOLDEN AGE HOLLYWOOD GLAMOUR AT THE OLD
NICK
One word…AMAZING!!! My first day working at the
Old Nick was everything I could have dreamed! I mean, at
first I was a little skeezed out being by myself in such a
huge abandoned building, but after a few minutes I took
to the place like a fish to water! Looks like this old gal
(not really, I just turned 35…still young!) was born to be
a world­class film archivist. As if there was ever any
doubt! So as it turns out, I guess my bosses aren’t TOTALLY
CLUELESS, though I seriously don’t think they know what
they have with the prints I found in the projection booth.
In truth, I don’t know what we have either, but you bet
your butt I aim to find out! It’s not going to be easy – the
masking tape labels are worn and unreadable so I’m going
to have to get my hands dirty and look at the prints with
my own equipment, something that I’m not really
supposed to be doing. But screw that, I’m not going to let
those Ken and Barbie robots get the credit for finding
some lost classic! I didn’t tell either of them about my
blog, but I know I can trust you guys. That said, mum’s
the word, first rule of fight club, don’t let the cat out of
the bag, etc…
ANYWAY, more will be revealed when I go back there
tomorrow. If it wasn’t for the fact that I need to shower
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and get online to post, I would probably sleep there. I
have the feeling that I’ll be pulling an all­nighter one of
these days, or nights rather! ;) The following morning Muriel arrived at the Old Nick
early, pausing only a moment to admire her fountain
angels before heading directly into the booth. Any
reservations she had from the previous day were gone;
now the theater was an old and trusted friend and she
was its loyal caretaker. She loved its peeling walls and
threadbare carpets and if she had been a woman of
wealth she would have bought the place herself and
restored it to its former glory. Alas, all of her trust fund
had gone into college, and film archiving, while spiritually
rewarding, was not likely to make her rich. It was a sad
feeling to know that her time here was brief, that the Nick
would soon be gone entirely. But Muriel was no stranger
to sad feelings, so she pushed them aside and set about
getting to work. With a little creative – re: jury­rigged – re­construction,
Muriel was able to get the old splicing table reasonably
stabilized and quickly set up her own equipment. Less
than a half an hour later and she was holding her first
piece of celluloid under the looking glass and parsing
through clues as to its title of origin. She identified it as a
print of To Kill A Mockingbird, and while this was a film
Muriel quite enjoyed, it was a well documented title and
something most students had seen by their first year of
American lit. Putting it aside, she dug into another box,
then another, opening tin after tin, her spirits falling with
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every unremarkable find. Sunset Boulevard, The Asphalt
Jungle, Cat People – all wonderful films but all easily
found on DVD, Blu Ray or TCM on any given night. As the
morning wore on Muriel began to suspect that she would
not uncover any lost relics in this dreary acquisition, and
the feeling that her talents were being wasted re­surfaced
like a badly digested meal. After lunch Muriel resolved to remain optimistic and
shifted her focus to a stack of boxes that sat in the corner,
looking somehow moldier and more pathetic than the
ones she had opened already. Opening the first of the
boxes she was hit with a gust so foul that she could only
assume something had crawled into the packaging and
died, likely a mouse or small rat. She shifted the tins
around, checking the corners, and was happy to find the
box free of rotting animal corpses. But that horrible smell
had to be something, and she wondered if it would be
wise to invest in a breathing mask, or to stop the work
altogether. Cancer was not high on her list of wants, but
the fear of it was not enough to keep her from cracking
the first of the tins. Looking down at the magic that was
coiled within dissipated her apprehension along with the
fumes. Just by eyeballing the way the print had been stored,
Muriel was certain that she was looking at something
from the 1930’s or earlier, significantly increasing the
odds that she had unearthed something that had been lost
in the annals of time. As with the other reels the masking
tape labels were degraded and illegible, so the only way
to identify the print was by putting it on to her table and
under the glass, which is exactly what she did. There,
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magnified in vibrant, full­frame black and white, were
images that Muriel had seen only in film history
documentaries and reference books. She scrolled the reel
towards the leader, heart leaping as she scanned the
frames for the title card. When she found it she had to
steady herself from fainting. Looking back up at her in elegant script were the words
“Blind Courtesy”.
Blind Courtesy was a drama from 1931 that had been
directed by British auteur Lyle Abernathy, who would
only go on to direct two more Hollywood films before
returning to his home country to care for his infirmed and
ailing mother. The film’s primary claim to fame was that it
starred silent era ingénue Delia Whitmore in her first
sound role, and critics responded so unkindly to her deep,
manly voice that the tortured actress hung herself a mere
month after the picture ended its first and only theatrical
run. In a sad twist of irony Whitmore was nominated for a
posthumous Oscar, but lost to Helen Hayes’ and The Sins
of Madelon Claudet. Even in death poor Delia could find
no validation – a feeling to which Muriel, seeking
validation herself, could relate. Despite the apologetic nomination the film was a box
office flop, and after a fire on the Warner Brothers lot in
1940 it was assumed that all known prints of the film had
been destroyed. But here Muriel was looking at one, crisp
and clean as it was on the day of its eighty year­old debut.
How it had remained here undiscovered was a mystery,
but the answer, likely a matter of simple neglect, was
irrelevant. Now there was the only the question of what
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Muriel knew what her type­A bosses Kurt and Kitt
would want her to do. They would want her to follow
protocol, to re­box the print immediately and deliver it
straight to the home office. From there it would be
shipped back to the studio, shelved indefinitely unless
some bean­counting executive deemed it profitable to shit
the film out in a half­assed streaming format. And that
was if things went well. More likely was that Blind
Courtesy would remain in the dustbins of obscurity and no
one, Muriel included, would ever have the pleasure of
seeing it. The thought of this heinous injustice, this crime
against cinema, was too much for Muriel to rightfully
bear. It went against everything she believed in as an
archivist, and as a film lover. Screw Kurt and Kitt, screw their protocols, and screw
the studio. Muriel had to experience this lost treasure as it
had been intended; on the silver screen. And she was
willing to risk it all – her career, her future, everything –
for the privilege. She looked to the twin projectors, standing tall like iron
sentinels. There was something about them, some quiet,
ancient wisdom that made Muriel question what she was
about to do on a deep, preternatural level. But the lure of
Blind Courtesy was impossible for her to resist, so she
focused back on the table and carefully set about
assembling the five reel print. An hour later her trembling
hands threaded the lead of reel one into the gate, and the
film was ready to be viewed for the first time in many
decades. With the flick of a switch the projectors rattled to life,
and for a horrified moment Muriel was sure that they
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were going to seize up and mangle the print. But the gate
fluttered gently like the soft beating of a moth’s wing and
the strip ran through unfettered. The twin bulbs lit with a
soft glow and down in the darkened auditorium images
once lost in time were recalled from the ether like
welcome ghosts. Muriel could hear the scuffling of shoes
and the rustle of fingers in popcorn boxes echoing
through time, and she wanted so desperately to join them.
To hell with it, Muriel thought. If I am going to risk my
job by running this, why should I stay up here for the entire
screening? Of course, the responsible thing to do would be
to remain in the booth and monitor the projectors, but
Muriel had passed responsible a ways back and gone
barreling straight on to reckless. To come this far only to
be denied the experience of watching the film in a
darkened theater, well, that would just be stupid. And if
there was one thing that Muriel Sharpe couldn’t stand, it
was thinking of herself of as stupid. So it was decided. She checked the gates one last time
and satisfied that all was working properly, went
downstairs to take in a private, once­in­a­lifetime
screening of Blind Courtesy. Her only regret was that she
didn’t have any popcorn to munch on. NOV. 12TH
A “COURTESY” TO MY READERS…
Guys…I probably shouldn’t be sharing this with you,
but…I’m just too excited and I have to tell someone!
Today at the Old Nick, well…it seems that sometimes
dreams really do come true.
There I was, performing my archivist duties (I still have
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some qualms there, but whatever) when I stumbled upon
a treasure that has been lost to the world for many,
MANY years. What was this forgotten gem you ask? Let’s
just say, for the sake of argument, that it concerned the
blind daughter of a wealthy southern family, who despite
her obvious handicap has a better grasp on the lives of her
family than they do themselves. This of course leads to
both laughter and tears, and the heroine, after several
heart­breaking setbacks, ultimately finds love with a
handsome and rich friend of the family. Roll credits. Corny? Maybe by today’s cynical standards. But some of
us can still get swept up in a simple, elegant story told by
people who were more concerned with advancing a
magical new art form than making a quick buck. Sadly,
they don’t make them like this sweet, timeless tale any
more. Not that I would have first­hand knowledge of the
forgotten film in question. ;) Sorry to be so cagey, but those of you who love old film
as much as I do have by now figured out what I’m talking
about. I wish I could tell you that soon you’ll have a
chance to experience what I experienced today, but alas, I
do not currently wield that kind of influence in my chosen
profession. But a girl can dream, right? Anyway, hope I haven’t teased too much. I hope to have
an equally exciting day tomorrow, so I’m off to bed…if I
can get to sleep. I’ll see you lovelies on the silver screen!
Xoxo
The next morning, as she passed the lobby fountain,
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Muriel experienced a dim echo of the dream she had the
night before. It had been a rough­reworking of Blind
Courtesy, with Muriel naturally cast in the Delia Whitmore
role, but instead of suffering from blindness like the film’s
heroine, Muriel could only see the world in the rich, black
and white hues of early cinema. The events that
transpired were more drawn from her subconscious than
from the movie itself, and Muriel had trouble recalling
any real details, but she did remember something that
happened in the dream’s finale. She was rushing through
a train station to tell a faceless man not to go, that she
loved him but just hadn’t been able to find the words,
when something swept down at her from out of the sky.
Whatever it was it had great wings and long black talons,
and before she could scream the horrible thing was
shrieking and tearing at her face, waking her with a jolt.
This final, unpleasant detail had been buried until the
sight of the winged figures on the fountain dredged it
back up. Sadness crept in as she slumped up the stairs to
the booth; a feeling that her dreaming mind, and her
angels, had betrayed her. She considered starting with the newer boxes, the ones
that held prints of well­known and well­preserved titles,
but she couldn’t resist the temptation to scour the foul
smelling box for more lost gems. And to her delight, her
temptation was immediately rewarded. The third tin she
opened held an infamous, pre­code gangster picture titled
Knuckles Mahoney, and if Muriel had her film history
correct (and she was certain that she did) it had not seen
the light of a projector since 1938. All of the reels were
pristine and accounted for, making assemblage easy, and
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before she knew it the print was threaded up and ready to
roll. But there was one thing missing. She simply could not
endure another showing without some popcorn, so she
rushed out to the corner convenience store to see what
they had. Settling for a bag of the pre­popped kind, she
bought the snack and hurried back to the theater, eager to
get her matinee underway. When she arrived at the doors
a homeless woman was parked in front, a junk filled
shopping cart blocking the entrance. Muriel stood
patiently waiting for the woman to move, to get on with
her daily routine. But the woman just stared at the
theater, at the boarded­up ticket booth, pulling some
memory out of her addled, soggy brain. Muriel cleared her throat, attempting to facilitate some
sort of action, and the old crone turned to her, scowling
with a pair of eyes that seemed clouded by smoke. “I saw a picture there once,” the woman said. “When I
was a little girl. A horror picture. Dreadful film. Kept me
up at night for weeks.” Muriel had deep sympathy for the homeless, especially
the elderly, but the clock was ticking and she was anxious
to get to her movie. “That’s nice,” Muriel said
condescendingly. “I’m sorry, but I have to get inside.” “Nice?” The woman bristled. “Nothing nice about it! It
was a dreadful film, just dreadful. Some kind of
monster….with wings.” The deep creases in her forehead
became somehow more pronounced as she rifled through
a long­troubled mind for more details. “A harpy! Yes,
that’s what it was…a harpy, like in Greek myth.” Another
pause. “Dreadful film.” 111
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There had to be something Muriel could do to move the
woman along. The obvious finally dawned on her, and
she reached into her pack for a single, crumpled bill. No
sooner had she offered it when the dollar was snatched
greedily from her hand. The poor old crone was not above
charity, it would seem. “You promise me one thing,” she croaked. “If you find
that movie in there, you burn it. Burn it to cinder!” Though she had no intention of ever doing such a
thing, Muriel wanted to get the crazy derelict out of her
way, so she offered a placating nod. “I will. You have a
nice day.” With a scoff the crone pushed her cart on, rusty wheels
squeaking her disapproval of the younger woman’s
patronizing. But Muriel was too preoccupied to give it
much thought and five minutes later she was seated,
center aisle as usual, happily crunching away as Knuckles
Mahoney began what was certain to be a thrilling life of
cinematic crime. The film was pretty standard fare for the genre, and the
actor who played Knuckles, a long forgotten contract
player named Miles Hoover, had nothing on the great
screen gangsters portrayed by Jimmy Cagney or Edward
G. Robinson. The production was chintzy for a 1930’s
studio picture, and Muriel found the story offensively
misogynistic even by the lax standards of the day. She
was mentally composing a scathing review when the
effects of the heavily­greased, factory­packaged popcorn
took hold, causing her to doze off. As often happens to those who fall asleep during
movies, Muriel’s dreams fused with the narrative playing
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out onscreen, and in a devilish twist of irony her
subconscious cast her in the role of Cherry, one of
Knuckles’ poorly treated molls. Even stranger was that
Muriel thrilled at being the gangster’s plaything; every
cruel word, infidelity, and slap was endured with a rush
of dark, forbidden pleasure. When the vicious thug finally
saw fit to ravage her, Muriel lost herself entirely, clawing
at his pin­striped suit with garish nails, her moans of
pleasure rising to a lurid pitch that would never make it
past the MPAA censors. Her cries transitioned to the wail
of sirens, and she and Knuckles were now on the run,
hiding out in some abandoned old warehouse. The
gangster promised that the cops would never take them
alive, and when they burst through the doors, tommy­
guns blazing, Muriel closed her eyes and prepared to die
in a hail of bullets. Instead there was silence. She opened her eyes, finding
the dream warehouse vast and empty, no sign of the cops
or Knuckles Mahoney anywhere. She looked to the rafters
and saw something perched there, hunched in a cluster of
grey, filthy feathers. She thought that it must be some sort
of strange barn owl, but when it spread its massive wings,
wings too big for even a condor, that notion was
dismissed. The creature swooped down, descending on
her in a frenzy of flapping, and Muriel screamed as hand­
sized talons tore at her face. She awoke to find that the scream was not emitting
from her own throat; it was blaring from the auditorium’s
archaic and rickety speaker system. The image onscreen
was a mad flurry of frames, and Muriel’s awakening brain
figured that there was something going on with the
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projector – likely the print’s two­strip audio track had
gotten stuck in the gate and was causing the whole thing
to jam up. In a daze she stumbled from her seat, adding
bad popcorn to the already filthy floor, and raced out of
the theater as fast as her feet would allow. The scene in the booth was even worse than
anticipated. The final reel was gummed so badly in the
projector that it was shredding and peeling back on itself,
like a banana being forced through a pinhole. Why the
film didn’t melt was anyone’s guess, but Muriel, not
waiting to find out, slammed down the power switch on
the side of the lead projector. The machine rattled to a
stop, and she did the same to projector two, nearly falling
into panic as it violently hitched and seized. But then the
monstrous old work horse powered down with a sigh, and
Muriel allowed herself to do the same. After a long, slow
minute, her breathing caught up with her heart. She had managed to save the machines, themselves
valuable as museum pieces, but the print was another
matter entirely. The distressed film strip had popped right
off of the reel and was dangling out of the projector on to
the unswept floor in a tangled lump. What remained in
the projector was giving off an acrid, chemical stench, and
it didn’t take an expert to see that it was a total disaster.
This was a murder scene, a restoration homicide, and
Muriel was the prime and only suspect. The right thing to
do would be to gather the salvageable materials, come
clean with the matter, and accept the consequences with
whatever dignity she could find. But there was another option. If this was indeed a
metaphorical murder, could she not consider the
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possibility of covering it up? No one knew of what she
had found here and would be therefore none the wiser if
she just made it all go away. Did the world really need a
restored print of Knuckles Mahoney? In truth, where was
the crime in destroying a film that an enlightened film
scholar such as herself had deemed dangerously
regressive in its attitudes toward women? Wouldn’t it be
preferable to society on the whole that the cheap, nasty
little B­picture remain forgotten, that chauvinists and
rapists not to be given more fuel for their sick fantasies,
that they be denied a new icon to emulate like the
mobster hero of Scarface or the serial murderers of
Natural Born Killers? And if keeping this heroic act a
secret meant that Muriel was able to keep her job…would
that be such a terrible thing? Yes, she decided. This was the right thing to do. So
without further deliberation she gathered the mangled
reel off the floor and stuffed it into her backpack. She
considered allowing the undamaged reels to remain
behind; it wouldn’t be hard to claim that the print was
found with a reel missing. But the more she thought
about it, the more she wanted the whole film gone. So she
emptied her backpack of all other items and fit the rest of
the print inside. Then she bolted out the door, a criminal
fleeing the scene of the crime. She was past the fountain and almost out the front
doors when she ran into, almost quite literally, Kurt and
Kitt.
“Muriel!” Kurt greeted as the fleeing girl skidded to a
halt right in front of him. “We just came by to check up on
your progress.” 115
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“Uh, yeah, well,” Muriel stammered. “Not much to
report I’m afraid.” She shifted the overstuffed pack on her
shoulder, attempting to shield it from their prying eyes. Kurt and Kitt shared a mild look of bewilderment.
“Really?” Kurt questioned. “There was a whole stack of
film boxes in the projection booth last time we checked.” “Well, I haven’t gone through all of it yet. But so far all
I’ve found are titles that are readily available.” She tried
to maintain a chirpy tone, despite feeling as though she
was being, albeit deservedly, interrogated. “But hope
springs eternal!” With their eerily similar eyes, Kurt and Kitt shared a
look of skepticism, then re­directed at Muriel, smiling in
unison. “If you don’t mind,” Kurt said. “I think we’ll have
a look.” Muriel’s stomach dropped. Up there in the booth,
sitting on her editing table were five reels of Blind
Courtesy, clearly discovered and tampered with. Once her
bosses saw that they would know she was lying, and
when they looked in her bag they’d find what remained of
Knuckles Mahoney and assume she intended to steal it.
Then, in addition to losing her job, she would likely be
brought up on criminal charges. The jig, as Knuckles
might say, was up. She was about to crack, to confess to it all, when
something chimed inside Kitt’s designer purse. The wire­
framed blonde scrunched her perfect Aryan nose and
pulled out her smart phone, answering the call. “Yes?” she
barked into the device. “Christ Phil, are you sure?” A
weary sigh followed. “Fine, we’ll be right there.” “What was it?” Kurt asked with concern. 116
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“There was a mix­up at the Egyptian. The new print of
Playtime is missing a reel.” And like that, a bullet was dodged. Kurt and Kitt rushed
off to deal with the crisis at the Egyptian, leaving Muriel
in the lobby, flushed with adrenaline and relief.
Somewhere, someone had been watching out for her, and
glancing back at the fountain she couldn’t help but feel
that it must have been her angels. She offered them a
solemn, sincere appreciation and promised that she would
never, ever do anything like this again. A few blocks from
her house she ditched the pack in a lonely dumpster, and
that was the last anyone would know of Knuckles
Mahoney. After a restless, guilt­fueled sleep, Muriel returned to
the Old Nick the following morning and was relieved to
find that Kurt and Kitt had not been back to inspect the
prints in the booth. The circular tins that housed the now
discarded print sat there, empty accusers, reminding
Muriel that she would have to dispose of them as well if
she hoped to keep her crime a secret. But without her
backpack there was no way to sneak them out, and she
couldn’t risk just walking out the door with them,
especially in light of her employer’s unannounced visit the
day before. An idea struck her, and she went back to the
boxes, searching for a print that had been packed without
a tin. To her surprise, at the bottom of the rattiest box,
she found one. Collecting it the best she could, she brought the print
over to the table to see what sort of movie deserved to be
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treated this shabbily. Shockingly, the film was remarkably
well preserved, a miracle considering it had been left
unprotected for so many years. It was the right number of
reels to substitute for Knuckles Mahoney, so it would seem
that Muriel’s promise to the angels had been heard and
accepted. All she had to do was pack the mystery print
into the tins and no one would ever be the wiser. She
would even leave it for Kurt and Kitt to discover, let them
have the glory all to themselves. It was the punishment
Muriel rightly deserved. Resolved, she reached for the film, and the end spilled
from the table like a snake fleeing the grip of its handler.
As she bent over to retrieve the dangling strip, she caught
a glimpse of the images repeated in the frames, advancing
incrementally like pictures in a flip book. Images that
some haunted part of her subconscious demanded were
given a closer look. Don’t do it, Muriel told herself. Just wrap this thing as
tight as you can, cram it into those tins and don’t forget to
tear off the labels. Do not push your luck any further. Though it killed her to do so, Muriel was able to stick to
her guns and pack the film up without giving it another
look. But she decided not to tell her superiors about the
find until she had a night to sleep on it, so she busied
herself with tidying work and went home later that day
with the haunting images still spooling behind her retinas.
It wasn’t until she was home, sitting in front of her laptop,
that she recalled the strange interaction with the
homeless woman outside the theater the day before. A
few keystrokes later and she was drawn into the mystery,
like a hound chasing a rabbit down a deep and fascinating
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hole. NOV. 14th
NOT TO “HARP” ON ABOUT IT, BUT…
As most of you know, I am not the biggest horror fan,
but recently I have taken a…let’s call it an interest in an
obscure film from the 30’s that reportedly scared the
bejesus out of folks back in the day. The movie in
question is Shriek of the Harpy and it was released by a
fly­by­night production house named Anvil Pictures in a
shameless attempt to capitalize on the Universal Monsters
craze. The German auteur director, Rudolph Meiner, was
so embittered by the course of his Hollywood career that
he returned home to the Fatherland and joined up with
the Nazi party after Hitler invaded Poland. Though
Meiner was never heard of again after the war, some
accounts place him at a concentration camp that was
stormed by the allies, and it is presumed that he was shot
and killed in the battle. Good riddance, I say!
As for Shriek of the Harpy, the general consensus seems
to be that it was a reasonably effective chiller with a
standard script and some notable directorial flourishes
from Meiner, who was a protégé, at least in spirit, to F.W.
Murnau. The titular Harpy was inspired by the monsters
of Greek myth, and the creature design by legendary
make­up artist Charlie Spears was said to have been quite
shocking by the standards of the time. But the thing that
was remembered most by the small number of people
who saw Shriek of the Harpy was the blood­curdling
sound the Harpy made when it attacked its victims, the
“shriek”, as it were. It was a sound so awful that it gave
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viewers nightmares for weeks afterwards, a claim that at
least one viewer I have personally spoken to can support.
Sound designers were not credited in films of that era, so
we may never know who was responsible for the
remarkable noise. But whoever they were, by all accounts
they did their job maybe a little too well.
While all of this is fascinating, the thing about Shriek of
the Harpy that interests me is the well­documented
rumors that it was horribly, horribly misogynistic. I mean,
hello, the movie is about a monster woman who is
literally a harpy! Not too subtle there, Gustav! And
Meiner is certainly the one to blame – while the
screenplay was credited to writer Eugene Torrance, the
story is a creation of Meiner’s fevered brain and Torrance
later even apologized for scripting it, calling the finished
film “Sick, chauvinistic dreck.” (Sad footnote: Torrance
hung himself at the age of 40 in the barn of his country
home. His body was found swinging from the rafters,
watched over by a pair of hooting barn owls.) Needless to
say, my interest is piqued. Lordy, have I rambled tonight! Well, off to bed
sweeties. If anyone has any more info pertaining to this
lost “treasure” please let me know. I have a teeny weeny
hunch that we have not heard the last of the Harpy’s
terrifying shriek. ☺
Powerless against her curiosity, Muriel raced to the
theater the following morning, yanked the changeling
print out of the Knuckles Mahoney tins and slapped it
down on her editing table to have another look. Sure
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enough, staring back at her in a lurid, dripping font was
the title “Shriek of the Harpy”. In this, her third major
discovery, Muriel had stumbled upon a Holy Grail film for
horror fans. Except that no one would ever know she was
the one to discover it. Of course she could take credit and
boast about it online, but her claims on the internet
would not be taken seriously by the fans who posted in
the forums. And in terms of seeing it – well, she would
have to wait with all the other chumps, if the day ever
came when some distributor released it. Across the room, the projectors called to her. Muriel fell
into a fevered trance, and an hour later she was standing
before the twin iron hulks, now fully loaded and ready to
roll on the film. A force had possessed her, a facet of her
barely cognizant mind that demanded she bear witness to
this cinematic atrocity. What was needed, she
rationalized, was to face the film’s transgressions head­on,
to be incensed and offended by its backwards misogyny so
that she might arrive at a keen and thoughtful
dissertation, casting a healing light into a dark corner of
cinema history. Yes, it was crucial – important that Muriel
Sharpe view this terrible film, and nothing but a private,
immediate screening would suffice. She stood there, finger trembling over the lead
projector’s power switch. Here was the moment of truth.
She could back out now, leave Shriek of the Harpy to Kurt
and Kitt and be done with all of this madness. She could
do as she was told, follow orders and be the good girl.
The nice, subservient girl who allowed her male superior
to swoop in and claim all of the credit that she so richly
deserved.
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She threw the switch, ran down into the theater and
was in her preferred seat right as the melting candle wax
title appeared on screen. The plot unfolded in a manner quite typical of a 1930’s
horror picture. It concerned a young couple, Adelaide and
Calvin, who travel from an unspecified city to visit a
friend that has taken up residence in a country manor
inherited from his wealthy, recently deceased parents.
Once there, the cheerful couple find that their friend,
Rupert, is mercilessly henpecked by his shrew (one might
even describe her as a harpy) of a wife, Nellie Rae. The
constant nagging of his gold­digging spouse drives Rupert
into the only place on the estate where he can find solace
– the aviary; a magnificent bird sanctuary built by his
dead father.
When the brilliantly realized aviary set appeared
onscreen, Muriel’s heart palpitated. It wasn’t the room
itself that caused the reaction; though cleverly designed
as a dome­like cage, there was nothing unsettling about it
save for the fluttering and chirping of the live, on­set
birds. The feature that spooked Muriel was the room’s
centerpiece – an ornate fountain adorned with grim,
winged statuary. It was an uncanny cousin to the fountain
that sat crumbling in the lobby; so much so that Muriel
reasoned that they both must have been carved by the
same sculptor. A slow panic gripped her as she tried to
reconcile the coincidence, reasoning that the designers of
the Old Nick had somehow taken this film as the
inspiration for the lobby’s focal point. But in her heart
Muriel knew that the idea was patently absurd. In the aviary, Rupert discovers a parchment hidden by
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his father that appears to detail some sort of occult spell.
Adelaide intrudes, attempting to coax Rupert out of his
shell, but the gesture backfires when the married man
professes his undying love for her. Flustered by the
advance Adelaide flees, not realizing that Nellie Rae has
been eavesdropping the whole time. Using her husband’s
failed indiscretion as leverage, Nellie threatens Rupert
with a costly and humiliating divorce, and their heated
arguing drives the birds into a state of agitated cheeping.
The sound causes Rupert to explode, to toss off the
shackles of civility by grabbing Nellie and shaking her
violently. She responds by clawing him across the face,
and in murderous retaliation he pushes her into the
fountain’s pool and forces her head under the water. The
birds take to the air, swarming in a furious cloud of
feathers as Nellie struggles in Rupert’s death­grip,
drowning to the flapping of their wings. Though the scene was staged to downplay the violence
of the murder, Muriel still found it wholly distasteful. The
character of Nellie Rae was written to be so loathsome
that the viewer sympathized with Rupert’s decision to kill
her, and her shrill portrayal by an unappealing and rightly
forgotten contract player didn’t help matters. But the real
blame lay in Meiner’s cruel direction – his distaste for
women was palpable beyond the words that sprung from
the actors’ mouths. What strong­handed matron had
beaten this attitude into him? Muriel wondered. What
emasculating trauma had informed his viewpoint, warped
his personality into something so vile that it demanded to
be poured into every scene, every shot, every hateful
frame? Since the dawn of cinema female leads had
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suffered under the attack of monsters, but there was a
sadistic quality ingrained in Shriek of the Harpy that went
beyond simply placing damsels in distress. You could
sense Meiner behind the camera, leering as his violent
fantasies were trapped in celluloid, and easily imagine the
pleasure he would take in the back of a darkened theater,
watching women squirm in their seats while the men sat
smirking next to them. Shockingly, Meiner allowed the character of Rupert to
feel remorse, but it soon became apparent where all of
this was leading. Using his father’s witchcraft, Rupert
attempts to raise his wife from her watery tomb, his
efforts nothing but an act of madness witnessed by the
birds. In a moment of restored sanity Rupert tears up the
parchment and throws it into the pool, and that’s when
things take a turn for the supernatural. The birds settle
back on their perches, like churchgoers seating themselves
at a mass, and as they watch silently something rises from
the pool of the fountain. But it is not Nellie – at least not
anymore. Great wings crest, shaking off water, and
gnarled claws grasp at the fountain’s lip, lifting up a
terrifying figure. Emerging in Nellie’s stead is the Harpy, a
distinctly female monster spoken of fearfully in myth, said
to occupy a strata of Hell reserved for suicides and those
who profit from murder. A head flared with feathers
lowers its piercing gaze at the stunned and terrified
Rupert, and out of its beak bursts a terrible, soul­
wrenching shriek.
As had been reported, the sound was unforgettable and
deafening. It shook the theater from floor to rafters and
for a moment Muriel feared that the sagging old ceiling
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was about to cave in from the stress. Thankfully the scene
cut away, taking the awful sound and the briefly glimpsed
Harpy with it. But those eyes – silvery, piercing and
locked in a tight shot – stayed with Muriel long after the
frame faded into the next scene. She told herself that they
were a trick of make­up, primitive contact lenses, but she
could not shake them out of her mind. The scared little
girl that still lived in her heart believed that those eyes –
and the monster they belonged to – were real. The next few reels passed like a nightmare as the Harpy
unleashed its terror upon the household. Rupert avoids
death by fleeing into the night, but a pretty young
housemaid who comes to clean the aviary is not so
fortunate. The death toll increases with every following
scene as one hapless servant after another meets their
grisly fate at the talons of the Harpy. Keeping with the
censoring parameters of the time the deaths were not
graphically depicted, but Muriel found them to be far
more visceral and suggestive than similar scenes in either
the Universal or Val Lewton horror canon. The lurid
method in which Meiner utilized his camera – a subtle
hint of motion here or a lingering of a shot there –
suggested that the deaths were violent, protracted and
painful. It was a total affront to Muriel’s sense of good
taste, yet as the picture barreled towards its inevitable
climax, she found it impossible to pry her eyes from the
screen.
The prerequisite, horror movie thunder storm descends
on the manor, and when Calvin and Adelaide discover the
maid and butler dead they attempt to leave only to find
that their car is stuck in the mud dredged up by the
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rainwater. Back inside they are greeted by the disheveled
and raving Rupert – also driven back indoors by the storm
– and naturally the young couple assumes that he must be
the killer. But Rupert insists that the deaths are the work
of the Harpy, a creature he has summoned from Hell, and
when Calvin attempts to call the authorities to take the
ranting lunatic into custody, he finds the phone lines have
been taken down by the storm. A shadow falls upon the
living room skylight, and Rupert cowers by the fireplace,
screaming that the Harpy has come for him at last. Calvin
and Adelaide are convinced that his mind is completely
broken, but when the Harpy shatters through the skylight,
Rupert’s ravings are proven all too true. Shown at last in its full glory, the creature design for
the Harpy, though exceptional for the time, was no more
convincing than the iconic but loveably hokey make­ups
for the classic versions of Frankenstein, the Wolf Man or
the Mummy. The actress who played Nellie Rae had been
transformed into a monstrous angel of death with great
black wings and a crown of feathers that crested from her
head into twin horns. The woman’s fine narrow nose had
been re­sculpted into a beak, and those piercing, silvery
eyes were framed by thick rings of dark mascara. She
wore a Greek tunic­style dress that barely covered her
ample breasts, and when she raised her hands they were
re­figured into four­fingered, birdlike talons. By today’s
standards the monster design was quaint and would likely
illicit laughter from a jaded, special effects­savvy crowd.
But Muriel’s suspension of disbelief was strong and well­
fortified, and to her the Harpy was as terrifying now as
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The Harpy lunged for the camera and Muriel jolted
back, as if it was going to fly off the screen and attack her.
Calvin stepped in to defend Adelaide, attempting to ward
the monster off with a fire poker, but the Harpy swatted
the weapon away like an insult. The creature attacked
poor Calvin with both talons, raking long swaths of blood
down his blandly handsome face. This sort of grisly
violence was unheard of in films of this era, and even
though the black and white muted what full color would
have made plain, the effect was shocking just the same.
Adelaide screamed and Muriel looked away, not able to
face whatever horror came next. The Harpy shrieked,
rumbling the theater, and Muriel was shaken to the core,
certain that the sound was coming from somewhere other
than the auditorium speakers. There was a great crashing
noise from something outside, and suddenly everything
went black. Muriel sat there in stunned silence, thinking for a
terrible moment that the world had come to an end. Then
there was another teeth­chattering rumble, and she
recognized it as the sound of thunder – and not the
canned sound effect you heard time and time again in old
movies. There was a storm outside, just like in the movie,
but this storm was real and was likely the cause of the
power outage. Muriel felt a rush of relief, but that
gratitude faded quickly to annoyance at the
inconvenience of her show being disrupted. “Godammit,” she cursed. The room was ink black, the
row of seats barely visible in front of her, and rummaging
through her pockets she realized that her phone with its
helpful onboard flashlight was sitting on the editing table
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upstairs. Turning to the back of the theater, she stood and
began to fumble her way around, hoping to find her way
back to the booth without injury. After that she could try
for the breaker room, but she highly doubted that this
blackout was a simple blown fuse. The power was likely
out for the entire city block, and she would be lucky if she
could repack the print and get out of here using only the
light of her phone. She was almost under the balcony when the thunder
crashed again, freezing her dead in her tracks. When the
scare passed she laughed out loud, feeling foolish for
allowing herself to get so spooked. “Silly girl,” she scolded
herself playfully. A shattering, shrill sound atomized the air around her,
and Muriel’s soul practically jumped out of her skin. It
was the shriek of the Harpy, but this time it was not
diffused through the safety glass of cinema fantasy – this
time it was real and in the room with her. Muriel looked
about, wide­eyed, searching for falling plaster, broken
glass, twisted metal, something, anything that would
rationally explain the noise. But all she could see was the
darkness closing in on her, and all she could sense was
the certainty that she wasn’t alone. The shriek came again, louder and closer this time.
Glancing upwards she could see it now, a great shadowy
shape perched on the lip of the balcony, silver eyes
gleaming in the dark. The Harpy had come for her,
demanding that she answer for her crimes, and despite
knowing the fullness of terror Muriel couldn’t help but be
awed by the spread of its magnificent wings. The monster swooped from the balcony and Muriel
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dived into the nearest row, her knees landing hard on the
cement. She yelped as air rushed past her head, blowing
her hair back in the gust of a rustling wing. The shriek
blasted again furiously, and a steady flapping indicated
that the Harpy was circling for another dive. Stooped in a
painful crouch Muriel scuttled down the row, careful to
keep her head lower than the seats. She was almost out
into the aisle when talons tore at her back. Muriel screamed and thrashed her arms around as if
attacked by an angry swarm of bees, but after a few
seconds it became apparent that she was swatting at
empty air. Breathing heavy, she scanned quickly around,
and touching her shoulder she found no wounds, just the
unmarred fabric of her T­shirt. The Harpy, if still in the
auditorium, had gone silently to ground, leaving Muriel
standing alone with just the seats and the white vastness
of the movie screen. If the Harpy had ever been there at
all, that is. Tears began to well up in her eyes, but instead of crying
she broke into hysterical laughter. Madness. This was all
madness. There was no flying monster loose in the
theater. The stress of the job, the guilt over trashing a
print, the crushing loneliness and self­doubt with which
she was in constant denial – one or a combination of
these things had pushed Muriel Sharpe over the edge. The
right thing to do would be to call her parents and tell
them that she had cracked up, suffered some sort of
nervous breakdown. Lord knows it wouldn’t come as a
surprise. Yes, that’s what she would do – she would walk
calmly out of this theater, go get some help and leave the
world of film preservation, and this godforsaken place,
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behind. Feeling the fool, Muriel limped out of the auditorium,
stumbling into the lobby to the startling crash of more
thunder and the disorienting strobe of lightning flashes.
The rain was coming down so hard that the domed ceiling
had sprung fist­sized leaks, showering water into the
fountain’s pool, filling it to a frothing brim. From their
perches Muriel’s beloved cherubs glared down, their once
kindly faces full of scorn, their cheeks streaming with
bitter, rainwater tears. There was no comfort to be taken
from them anymore; now they were harbingers of doom.
As she neared the fountain, Muriel slipped on a wet tile
and was driven down to her already agonized knees. She
cursed and spat and blamed the cherubs, reaching for the
lip of the large pool to haul herself up. But before her
fingers could find purchase, a hand that was not hers
slapped down on the lip. A clawed, four­fingered talon.
“Oh god,” Muriel stammered as the Harpy rose from the
fountain’s pool, exactly as it had in the movie. Lightning
flashed again, illuminating the creature, and Muriel could
see that unlike its cinematic counterpart, this Harpy was
realistic and entirely convincing. Greasy black feathers
sprouted from grey mottled flesh, and its beak, no mere
make­up job, was tapered into a razor­keen point. It
extended its wings to their full glory, shaking off water in
an icy spray, spattering Muriel’s terrified face. The eyes –
those terrible eyes – narrowed as it opened its beak, and
when it shrieked a slimy tongue probed forth like a worm
seeking decay. Muriel didn’t even realize that she had gotten to her
feet until she stumbled back and crashed through the
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auditorium doors. Her mind was waging a war between
shock and hysteria with sanity caught in the crossfire, still
hoping that this was all some vividly realized nightmare.
Thankfully adrenaline flooded in to the rescue, clearing
the fog of terror, allowing her to snap into crisis mode.
She scanned the area for something, anything that could
be used as a defense, and her eyes fell upon a velvet
stanchion rope that had rolled under the seats five
decades past. Picking it up, she ran for the doors,
reaching them just as the flapping, screeching horror was
closing the distance. She pulled the doors shut and
wrapped the thick moldy rope through the brass handles,
tying it off into a makeshift barricade. The Harpy
slammed into the other side, shrieking in vengeful protest.
The obstruction was not going to hold the monster at
bay for long, so Muriel quickly set about finding an escape
route. She ran to the front of the theater, to the exits on
either side of the screen, but both had been bricked up to
keep out vandals and squatters. The only clear way out
was back through the auditorium doors and past the
Harpy, an option Muriel was not about to consider. There was the possibility of trying to escape through
the balcony, but she couldn’t remember if the upstairs
exits were boarded up or not. The question was moot as
there was no way to access the balcony from the
auditorium, unless she could convince the Harpy to give
her a lift. Whatever amusement Muriel took from that
thought was obliterated by the splintering of the
barricaded doors, and she furiously looked for someplace
to hide. The only place that could even warrant
consideration was the crawlspace that separated the
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movie screen from the theater wall, a space that
measured no more than a foot across. Cursing her
inability to commit to a diet, Muriel squeezed into the
crawlspace and hoped for the best. She fit, but just barely. The last of her body was pulled
into the space when she heard the auditorium doors
smash open with a mad flurry of wings. The Harpy made guttural chirping noises as it swooped
around the auditorium, seeking out its prey. It was only a
matter of time before it sussed out where Muriel had
hidden, so if she intended to mount some form of defense,
she had better do it fast. As if in answer to her prayers,
her eyes caught the dull gleam of metal lying on the
crawlspace floor, not more than three feet away. Looking
closer she recognized it as the head of a hammer, and as
the hideous, unnatural being flapped and chattered just
beyond the barrier of the screen, Muriel squeezed further
into the crawlspace in an effort to reach the weapon­
ready tool. With incredible effort she strained, reaching down and
hooking a finger under the cloven head. She lifted her
hand, balancing the hammer from her fingertips until it
was close enough for her other hand to grab it by the
handle. But her awkward positioning caused her hand to
jostle, and the hammer fell loose and clattered back to the
floor. The sound of feet landing was heard outside the screen,
and a winged silhouette stood there, listening. Muriel
held every muscle in her body still, hoping that the
creature would be thrown off by her silence and lack of
movement. In her terror, Muriel tried to reason what sort
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of mind – animal, human or otherwise – the Harpy
possessed. Did it think? Could it be bargained with? It did
possess feminine attributes – was there a possibility,
however small, that she could appeal to it on that level,
one woman to another? “Hello?” Muriel asked the silhouette. “Can we talk?” Silence. Not so much as a chirp. “Look…you don’t have
to do this. Just let me go and you’ll never see me again.
We can keep this between us girls. I won’t even tell
anyone I ever saw you. Girl Scout’s honor.” The silhouette cocked its flared head and for a moment
Muriel actually believed that the creature had heard her. I
did it! she convinced herself. I got through to it. To her. But then the Harpy gave its answer, an inhuman shriek,
letting it be known once and for all that there was no soft,
feminine side here to be reached. It lunged forth with
murderous intent, talons raking at the screen, tearing
away hunks in long, jagged rivers. In a final desperate
move Muriel reached again for the hammer, managing to
grasp the handle in her cramped and sweaty palm. There
was a loud ripping sound as the Harpy tore into the
crawlspace, and Muriel swung upwards with all her
strength, striking the monster hard on the beak. The Harpy stumbled back, talons clawing at air. How
you like me now, bitch? was Muriel’s not­spoken aloud
retort. The creature shook off the pain with a rustle of
feathers, and Muriel swung again, this time hitting it on
the scowling crest of its head. The fiend screamed and
spat and took to the air, and Muriel ran for the
auditorium exit, which had been left wide open in the
Harpy’s destructive wake.
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Muriel charged into the lobby, and forgetting about the
slick tile, went sliding across the floor, smashing her body
into the basin of the fountain’s pool. The Old Nick’s
ceiling was now a giant colander, showering down
rainwater and soaking Muriel to her already shivering
bones. As she pulled herself up to make a final dash for
the doors, the Harpy flew in from the auditorium,
screeching in hateful triumph. It landed in a crouch right
in front of the doors, and when it rose to its full height the
spread of its wings blotted out all routes, and all hope, of
escape. To the right were the marble stairs that led to the
projection booth, and without fully understanding what
she was doing, Muriel ran for them. She took the slippery
stairs two steps at a time, expecting the Harpy to descend
on her at any moment and tear her to shreds. But the
monster never came at her, and she reached the booth
winded and shaking but otherwise intact. She slammed
the door shut then grabbed an old chair to wedge under
the door knob, knowing full well that it wouldn’t hold the
creature back for long. But it gave her a moment to catch
her breath and allowed her frantic mind to formulate
some sort of plan.
The room was dark, but after some fumbling she was
able to locate her bag and in a nice bit of luck came upon
a penlight, which meant she wouldn’t have to use up what
little was left of her phone’s battery. She dug her phone
out of the bottom, and was about to call 9­11 when she
realized how insane her story was going to sound. Instead
she called Kurt, and getting his voice mail, left a message
that there was an emergency and he needed to come to
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the theater right away. As soon as she hung up, the
battery died. She turned her light to the projectors where Shriek of
the Harpy sat threaded, waiting to play out its grand
finale. It dawned on Muriel that perhaps, as crazy as it all
sounded, the manner in which the Harpy was destroyed
in the film would be the key to destroying it here in the
real world. Old horror movies always had happy endings,
and unlike the slasher films of the 80’s, when the
monsters died in the classics they stayed dead, at least
until the cheaply made sequel. And Shriek of the Harpy
had earned no sequel. Muriel ran to the projector, tore out the final reel and
dragged the last few feet of film over to her editing table,
not even bothering to detach the print from the machine.
Grabbing the looking glass, she held the penlight in her
teeth and furiously scrolled through the final reel, doing
her damndest to suss out the plot. The climax predictably took place in the aviary with the
three principles and the Harpy present. There were shots
that seemed to indicate Adelaide attempting to reason
with the monster (as Muriel had done) but ultimately it
turns on the true guilty party, Rupert. Muriel hurried
through the frames of Rupert being mauled by the
vengeful creature, but the killing seemed to go on and on
for several feet of film. Finally the scene cut to Calvin
recovering the parchment, and in a desperate move he
throws it into the fountain, which calls up some sort of
dimensional vortex from the depths. The Harpy follows
the parchment into the vortex and as lightning strikes the
manor and sets it aflame, the young heroes escape. The
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last shot was of the couple standing arm in arm, watching
the manor burn to the ground as the final title card
announced that in no uncertain terms this was “THE
END”. So that was it. She had to destroy the parchment –
throw it into the fountain, creating a dimensional vortex
that would summon the Harpy back to Hell. Only there
was no parchment. There was no magical document of
any kind. All Muriel had was the fountain in the lobby…
…and the film itself. Perhaps the print of Shriek of the
Harpy was the parchment, the magical Macguffin around
which this entire nightmare revolved. Yes, that had to be
it! It was the only thing in this insane situation that made
any kind of sense.
Something crashed through the projection window and
a tornado of dust and feathers exploded into the room.
Muriel instinctively grabbed her scissors from the table as
the Harpy picked itself up off the floor, once again rising
to its full terrifying height. Its wings were folded around
its body like a protective cloak, but when Muriel flinched
at it, wielding the scissors like a dagger, the wings spread
to their furthest breadth. Then it shrieked at her with such
force that her eardrums erupted into spasms.
Acting on blind instinct, Muriel lunged with the
scissors, stabbing them right above the monster’s ample,
womanly breasts. The creature’s silvery eyes widened into
glistening pools of shock and it withdrew, clawing at the
handle of the scissors, attempting to pull them out. Muriel
wasn’t going to wait to see if it succeeded. She scooped
up what she could of the print and fled the room, trailing
film in her panicked wake. 136
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Out in the lobby, the storm had built to a crescendo, the
crashing sound of thunder nearly drowned by a thousand
tiny waterfalls pouring through the ceiling. Muriel
stumbled down the stairs until a dangling loop of film
tripped her up and sent her sprawling the rest of the way.
But there wasn’t any time for pain. She struggled to her
feet, wrapped the tangle of film around her in a death
shroud, and launched herself towards the fountain.
But Shriek of the Harpy did not want to let her go. It
tightened around her like a constricting snake; sharp,
sprocket­holed edges slicing into her, a death by a million
paper cuts. It tripped her up again at the fountain,
causing her to smash into it with her shins, sending white
flashes through her body like electric jolts. Screaming in
both pain and frustration, she ripped and tore at the print
until her hands were bloody, but the celluloid was
seemingly forged of steel. Finally, she gathered a handful and shoved it into the
pool like a homicidal mother drowning an unwanted
child. Then she waited for the portal to appear.
At first nothing happened – no change in the surface of
the water – and Muriel nearly burst into tears. But then
there were ripples, and then a churning, and soon a small
whirlpool had formed, opening a fissure into some
terrible world beyond. Despite the nightmarish
implications of such a world, Muriel was so happy to see
it, so happy that it was real, that she broke into hysterical
gales of laughter. A shriek of torment carried over Muriel’s cackling and
she froze, staring blankly into the rushing vortex of the
pool. The air came alive behind her, charged with the
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flapping of great wings, and Muriel knew that the Harpy
was diving in to attack. She could not bear to face that
horrible thing again, could not stomach the thought of
those terrible eyes being the last thing she saw, so she
tensed and waited for the talons to rip her apart like
human taffy. But there came no pain, only a splash and a
spray of water, and Muriel opened her eyes to see the
Harpy torpedoing into the vortex after the rapidly sinking
print. Then, both the monster and the film from which it
was spawned were gone. “Muriel?” a voice asked behind her. Muriel whipped
around to find Kurt standing there, flustered and
confused. “What in heaven’s name is going on around
here?” That was a really good question. Muriel would have
loved to explain it, to tell him the story of how she had
saved herself and defeated a monster by drowning a rare
film print in a fountain pool, but all evidence of the
nightmare – the vortex, the Harpy…even the storm –
were gone as if they had never happened. No one would
ever believe her, and at this point, Muriel wasn’t sure that
she could believe it herself. All she could do was throw
her head back and laugh. And she kept on laughing for a very long time. NOV. 26th I’M BACK!
SO…gentle reader, your favorite (former, maybe one
day again…whatever) film archivist has returned with
another update. Right now I’m blogging from my parents
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as I have been released into their custody for the
Thanksgiving holiday. “Custody?” you ask? Yes, well,
that’s a story, isn’t it? Suffice it to say, Muriel Sharpe has
suffered a mild breakdown, at least that’s the official
version. I’ve spent the last few weeks in the beautiful and
palatial Angel Memorial clinic where I’ve been treated for
what the doctors are calling a “brief psychotic episode”.
Sounds crazy (pun intended), right? Yeah, well, what can
I say? Girl’s got an active imagination…I guess. Jury’s still
out on that one as far as I’m concerned. Regardless, I’m
on some serious medication, and not the fun kind. My
doctors (all male of course…hello “female hysteria”
diagnosis! ) say I may need to be on it for the rest of my
life. As if “my life” couldn’t get any better! (That last part was sarcasm BTW)
Since the cat (or bird more accurately) is now out of
the bag, let’s just say that my unauthorized movie
screenings did not have a healthy effect on my pretty little
brain. Somehow I got the idea that the monster from
Shriek of the Harpy was attacking me and I ended up
stabbing one of my bosses (Kitt, the fembot) in the
shoulder with some scissors when she surprised me in the
projection booth. (She’s alive, thank goddess, and not
pressing charges as long as I stay in therapy). Then my
other boss found me in the lobby, trying to drown the
horror movie print in the creepy old fountain that some
lunatic decided to build there. Yeah, quite a scene, I
know. Needless to say I lost my job, got sent to the booby
hatch and here we are, back at mom and dad’s. What an
awesome start to my career! Yay me!
(Again, sarcasm people, look it up) 139
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So that pretty much brings us up to speed. But before I
go…and not sure when I’ll be back…it depends how I
respond to “treatment”…I do want to issue a mild
warning: That stupid, misogynistic (and Holy Hell is it
misogynistic…but more on that someday) movie was
rescued from my drowning attempt and has been fully
restored. There is already a major home video release
planned, and no, I won’t be credited for finding it, thanks
for asking. Now I won’t claim that Shriek of the Harpy will
have the same effect on you as it did on your intrepid
blogger, but I do urge you NOT to give this EVIL film your
time, attention, or money. For horror fans I know that the
temptation might prove too great, especially with the
film’s sordid reputation, but I’m begging you, PLEASE just
let this hateful piece of celluloid fade back into obscurity
where it belongs. If you hear the Harpy’s shriek calling
you, I’m begging, BEGGING you to ignore it. Aaaaaaaaaaaand someone in a film forum I frequent
just posted that the studio who owns the rights has
already announced a remake. PERFECT. ?
Sebastian Bendix is a Los Angeles based writer and musician, as well as
host of a popular midnight horror film series, Friday Night Frights at the
Cinefamily. He attended school at Emerson College for writing and has had
pieces published both in print (Mean magazine) and online (CHUD.com). He
has written several screenplays in the fantasy/horror genre, one of which,
The Black Cradle, is in development as an independent feature. The
Patchwork Girl, a self-published YA horror novel, was his first foray into the
world of prose fiction. His second novel, The Stronghold, is nearing
completion and will be out to publishers in 2015.
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