Time for another giveaway! Since this summer will see the release of the second Cheap Caffeine cartoon collection, this giveaway is for one of three SPECIAL SKETCH EDITIONS of the first collection, Ethnic Albanians Need Not Apply!
The Goodreads giveaway for Levels was so much fun, we’re doing it for Shared Nightmares too! Just enter to have a chance to win one of two paperback copies of this horror anthology!
Thanks to reader Amy, who noticed some formatting problems with the print edition of Levels. Those problems have been corrected, and the new-and-improved version should be on sale at Amazon shortly.
(Those who bought the problematic version? It’s now a rare collector’s item!!1!)
If you’re detail-oriented (or obsessive), you may have noticed that, while Levels is listed as having seventeen stories, only sixteen story excerpts have shown up here. That’s not a mistake; one story, “Special Guest Stars,” is a flash-fiction piece, and a five-hundred-word excerpt would contain the entire story. Gotta preserve some mystery, you know.
The doctor’s waiting room smell like toilet bowl cleaner. Meredith sat uncomfortably in a chair molded from plastic, cushioned with a thin layer of synthetic rust-colored material the texture of burlap and bolted to three identical chairs before the row was broken by a featureless table on which were strewn a handful of magazines. There were more seats beyond that, and an identical arrangement on the opposite side of the room. The hands of the clock on the far wall said 10:24 A.M.
She had no intention of touching the magazines, all of which looked well-thumbed and at least two months old. Handling the pages that had been groped for weeks by the sweaty, coughed-upon hands of sick people… The idea gave her a queasy shudder in her abdomen. She had no reading material with her, and there was no TV or radio in the waiting room. She stared at her fingernails. They weren’t very entertaining.
On the other side of the magazine table sat an old man in black cargo pants and a black safari jacket. His arms were crossed over his stomach and he leaned forward, rocking slightly. Meredith hoped those weren’t the signs of nausea. He was more than old, she realized; he was very old. The hair sprouting from his ears was almost thicker than the few strands stubbornly clinging to his spotty scalp, and his eyes were lost in a corduroy sea of wrinkles. His lips were moving but made no sound.
Across from Meredith sat a chubby woman with an infant in her arms, swaddled so completely it might have been wearing a baby burqa. The woman was peering into the blanketed bundle, her unconscious smile waxing and waning. Some people are endlessly fascinated by their own offspring. Meredith had no children, so she didn’t know if she was one of those people, but she suspected she was not. Still, a baby had to be more interesting than fingernails.
The thin older lady in the far corner of the room was the only one browsing a magazine, although from the severe way she flipped the pages she seemed more to be judging the contents and finding them wanting. Her squarish glasses were the size of cathode ray tubes, her makeup was precise and meticulous, and her hair was dyed strawberry blonde to hide the gray and hairsprayed back into a simple straight style. For a moment, Meredith entertained the notion that it was actually the woman’s hair that smelled like toilet cleaner.
The only sounds in the room were the constant electrical hum of the clock and the fluorescent lights, and breathing: the old man’s shallow breaths punctuated by the consonants of his silent monologue, the wordless cooing of the chubby woman to her baby, the dismissive snort from the thin woman’s nose as she flipped the pages of the magazine. Meredith couldn’t hear her own breath along with the other three occupants in the room; was she really that silent a breather? Or do people learn to tune out the sound of their own breath? Experimentally she inhaled more deeply, and was rewarded with the soft whish of air passing up her nostrils, and a tickle of dust. She rubbed her nose with the back of her hand and set it back in her lap…
Malachi and his partners met the Ruk caravan at the trading hill outside the village, after a single Ruk, sweating and nervous, had come as herald into the village square to announce their approach and then scrabbled away as fast as his bandy legs could carry him. The hill was far enough away from the village to be hidden by the rolling land, though it was no secret where the village lay; one only had to follow the wagon ruts back from the trading hill, as the lone herald Ruk had done. But mutant tribes were never invited into a village of the Pure, not with rumors and reports of maidens spirited away by various mutant caravans to help keep those deformed races alive.
And then there was the fact that Ruks stank. Malachi steeled himself and kept from flinching as a Ruk from the caravan, evidently its trade captain, climbed to the crest of the trading hill and bowed. He was dressed, like all those in the caravan, in a plain tunic of scavenged fabric that reach to his knobby knees, and as the wind changed, the smell of him caught Malachi like a fist to the side of the head: sour and dank, like wine that had turned to vinegar mixed with mushrooms. Malachi’s polite smile never faltered, even as he heard his partners behind him shift and cough.
“Welcome to trade, caravaneer,” Malachi said formally. “I am Malachi Asael’s son.”
“Many thanks for your welcome,” the Ruk said. “I am Skuchi Var-Bel Frashaa.”
Malachi wondered idly if he had met this particular Ruk at a previous year’s trade. He never remembered their names, given only as a formality, and they all looked the same to him: short like a child, with a bald and square head squatting neckless on lumpy shoulders, a pot belly pushing the tunic forward, and spindly arms poking out of the armholes to end in spadelike fingers hanging fully to the knees. This one, this Skuchi, had a necklace of horses’ teeth and twisted bits of metal, probably to show his status as chief trader for the caravan. Two of his lieutenants lingered on the slope of the hill; the rest of the Ruks hung back at the bottom with their wagons, their various beasts of burden stomping and whinnying.
Skuchi folded himself to the ground and motioned to his lieutenants, who hurried forward, spread a blanket before him, and dropped several wrapped bundles before retreating. Malachi’s men did the same, setting covered baskets before him on the blanket they unrolled.
In a sitting position, Malachi didn’t have nearly the advantage of height over the Ruk, and they saw almost eye to eye. Skuchi smiled, showing the gapped, rounded teeth common to all Ruks, and Malachi had a sudden vision of this Ruk or one like it slavering over a winsome maid. He pushed this afterimage of old wives’ tales out of his mind.
“Let us trade,” Malachi said…
Finding the plantation house was a blessing from heaven. As the family wearily and silently hauled their wagon down the rutted road, they first saw its roof, a flat line of slate over the kudzu-covered trees, and quickened their plodding steps. When the full house came into view, it was all they could do to keep Little Bee from shouting out loud.
The colonnaded veranda was peeling, and the wooden steps down to what had once been a tended lawn were warped and crumbling, but the walls and the roof still held true. Kudzu covered the windows on the first floor, but hadn’t extended to the second or third. Pa motioned Ma to stay with the wagon, and Jacob to pull both of the rifles from the wagon and join him. Unbidden, Robbie followed them, holding his bow at the ready as a rearward. Ma set Eliza, Janice, Little Beatrice and herself each on one side of the wagon to keep watch and raise the alarm if anything moved that wasn’t a tree limb in the sluggish breeze.
Pa and Jacob advanced at the ready through the doorless entrance from the warped veranda. They kept their rifles aimed where their eyes tracked, and felt the floorboards cautiously as they stepped. There was furniture in the rooms, some still covered with age-spotted drop cloths, most naked and molested by vermin over the years, but the floor showed no sign of any human tread.
The stairs moaned in protest as they ascended to the second floor, but held solid even when Pa tested each with his whole weight on one foot. The second floor was less disturbed by flora and fauna than the first, and it too showed no sign of occupancy in decades at least. Pa motioned to Jacob and Robbie to check the third floor while he himself examined each of the rooms on the second. He found bed frames with no mattresses, old straight-backed and rocking chairs which held together by sheer Southern obstinacy, and fragments of silvered mirrors in frames warped and flaked by humidity, but no sign that anyone other than themselves was there, or had been, or would be.
Pa, Jacob and Robbie rejoined the womenfolk outside, and Pa gave Ma a long, slow hug. He spoke for the first time that day and said, “Let’s move our things in.”
While Robbie and Little Bee stood guard on opposite corners of the veranda, the rest hauled their possessions out of the wagon to the second floor. Then, while the womenfolk set to cleaning and arranging some rooms as their living space, Pa and Jacob gathered all of the chairs and slat furniture from all three stories. In a leanto out back Pa found a jar full of rusty nails to supplement his own meager supply, and he and Jacob nailed the wooden furniture into a mass of crosshatched timber and doweling. They threaded a rope through it, pounded a few nails into the ceiling above the second floor landing, and improvised a pulley from a caster off one of the old bed frames. When they were done, they had a light but effective barrier that they could lower into the stairwell, filling and blocking it to anything larger than a cat…
So it’s night, black night, not even the moon is out, and we’re driving a road that cuts through the pines on either side and not a house anywhere. Every once in a while I see the light from a house far back in the trees, but I can’t tell for the life of me how you’d get to one of them because there hasn’t been a crossroads or a fork or even a driveway for miles and miles. Not that I want to turn, this is the road I want, but still, how do people get to their homes? Hell, why do they live here in the first place?
Mary is in the passenger seat and I hate to glance over to her because everything that’s wrong with her now is right in her profile. Nose is still cute, sure, but under her chin I can see all the stuff that wasn’t there before she had kids, and that always reminds me of what’s under her coat, hanging over her belt. After the kids were born I said, Better exercise and do something about that or it won’t stay empty, it’ll fill in with fat, but she didn’t appreciate me saying that and didn’t exercise and what do you know, what I said happened. I think she did it just to spite me or something, because honestly, who’d want to look that way? Sure, I got more pounds on me than I had when we got married but men carry it better.
And it doesn’t help things that Mindy is in the back seat, Mary’s kid sister, and she leans forward between the front bucket seats to see the road and talk to us when we talk. She’s got a perfect set of knockers, better than Mary’s ever were even before she started squeezing out babies and her boobs inflated and deflated and inflated and deflated until they look like old pillows, and when Mindy leans forward toward us the V-neck of her shirt lets you see all the way to Florida. I adjusted the rearview mirror so I could see better because, hey, just because you’ve bought a horse doesn’t mean you have to close your eyes when you pass a stable, right? And anyway, it’s not like there’s anything else to see out here, the road goes straight in front of the headlights and disappears into the dark and there’s nothing but night further on and to the sides and behind us. That’s why I’m okay with twisting the rearview mirror to check out Mindy because it’s not like there’s anything behind us, hasn’t been for probably an hour, and anyway that’s what side mirrors are for.
Mary says, Keep your eyes on the road, almost like she knows what I’m looking at, but she can’t because she’s just staring straight ahead, has been all the way up from New Hampshire. Mindy’s got a job in Maine at some resort that wants her there this early in the spring to help them get ready and she doesn’t have a car, so we’re driving her up to drop her off until October. Nothing good on the radio, and Mary doesn’t say anything except stuff like Keep your eyes on the road, and Mindy’s a hottie but she’s dumber than hell, so it’s been a long silent ride…
Larry leaned toward the fellow sitting on the barstool two down. “So,” he said, “how’d you lose the leg?”
The man swiveled slightly on his stool and looked at Larry, and Larry looked back. He knew he wasn’t much to look at—Cindy had told him so for years, first jokingly, then simply as a matter of thoughtless habit—but he knew that he fit in, here in The Drowned Out, with the other low-grade white collar types who were taking up space at the bar and in the booths. He belonged. This one-legged man, though, was a novelty. His hair was white with a few scattered black threads running through it where it fell into his eyes; his skin was wrinkled leather as if he had spent fifty years staring down the wind and the sun, and his chin was frosted with white stubble. He wore a pea jacket, clinching Larry’s assessment of the man as an “old salt,” though what an “old salt” was doing in Ohio he had no idea. And of course there was that missing leg, without a prosthesis or even a peg in its place; the right leg of the man’s corduroys were rolled and pinned where the thigh abruptly ended.
The man took a long pull at his beer as he looked back at Larry, then said, “You’re a friendly sort, at you?” His muttered voice was strong but quiet, with a cadence that made Larry think of rolling seas and creaking yardarms or whatever creaked on a boat. Larry had never been on the ocean. He also knew that he was moderately drunk.
“Well, you seem like a man with a story,” Larry said, waving to Chuck behind the bar for another of what he had just finished. “No point in ignoring it, right? The leg, I mean. Everyone’s always trying to pretend that nobody’s got a handicap—no offense—but hey, the leg’s not there, and it’s hard to ignore. And it’s probably a damned interesting story.”
“I’m sure everyone in here has his own story,” the man said—not brusquely, not in an effort to end the exchange, but conversational-like. Larry scooted his drink with him as he moved to the stool beside the man. Up close the old pea coat was patched but clean, and despite the stubble and shaggy hair, the man didn’t smell or anything.
“Everyone in here,” Larry said, “has the same story. Me too. Got a wife waiting at home who ain’t really waiting. No matter when I get there, she’ll be sitting up in bed with the mudpack on, watching whoever’s on late-nite now, and when I crawl into bed she’ll turn out the light and roll over and that’ll be it. As long as I’m not getting any tonight, I might as well be here at The Drowned Out, getting pleasantly plastered. And there aren’t any one-legged men at home. At least, I don’t think her tastes run that way. So? What’s your story?”