Carlin Reese had two broken yolks, one headache, and zero bars on his phone. He winced as he mopped up the last of the eggs with a bit of toast and tried to be as subtle as possible as he took in the other patrons of the diner. They all stared into their meals, pushing food around as if ignoring him. At least three glistened with clammy sweat, even in the air conditioning, their skin the texture of freshly washed squid. Something was wrong here. Carlin tasted something bitter on his tongue and realized, unexpectedly, that it was fear.
“Enjoy your meal?” The waitress was a middle-aged woman whose face was a memory of beauty supported by load-bearing makeup. She smiled in exhaustion, the basecoat cracking under the strain of being polite to a New Yorker, like fractures in drying mud.
Carlin cleared his throat and ignored the furtive stares of the other diners. For some reason, he was acutely aware that there were seven of them and one of him.
He looked the woman in the eye. “So the Lone Ranger and Tonto are standing on a mountain,” Carlin said, checking his phone one last time for a signal, finding none, then pulling out his wallet. He didn’t see a phone-pay scanner anyway. “The Lone Ranger looks north and says, ‘Tonto, what’s that to the north of us?’ ‘Five thousand Indians,’ Tonto says.”
Carlin started to pull out a credit card, but he didn’t see a card reader either. He pulled out a hundred-dollar-bill instead, flopping it down. “So the Lone Ranger looks to the west and says, ‘What’s that to the west of us?’ ‘Five thousand Indians,’ Tonto says. ‘What’s that to the east of us?’ ‘Five thousand Indians.”
Carlin scanned down the counter, across a shifting ocean of flannel and bad hygiene. The men glanced back at him with flat glares, then at the waitress as if they wanted her to leave, then down at their meals. They looked for all the world like a group of men preparing to do something drastic. Either waiting for the last witness to leave or for a signal of some kind. He scanned the group to find the leader. “He finally looks south and says, ‘What’s that to the south of us?’ ‘Five. Thousand. Indians.’ The Lone Ranger looks around, the panic just starting to sink in and says, ‘It looks like we’re surrounded. What are we going to do?’” Carlin cleared his throat. “And Tonto looks at him and says, ‘What do you mean “we,” white man?’”
Carlin paused for the laugh, but none came. One of the men farther down the counter whispered, “That was kinda racist.”
Meanwhile the aging waitress just said, “I can’t change a hundred.”
The hell she couldn’t change a hundred. She’d taken in more than a hundred while he was eating. Still, best just to get the hell out of Dodge.
The glares radiated down the counter and he wondered distantly if any of them had ever eaten a city boy on one of those big hick farms they probably had. He needed to get back in his car and back on the road. Next time he got hungry on the road through Oklahoma, instead of stopping he’d eat his coat.
And as he considered the men, the whole image seemed to flash. One moment he looked down the counter, the diner exactly as it should be, the next he was a few stools down, and while the same people were there, they stood in different positions and wore different clothes.
[pullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Next time he got hungry on the road through Oklahoma, instead of stopping he’d eat his coat.[/pullquote]
Everything flashed back. Carlin grabbed the counter to steady himself and shook he head. A wave of fear washed over him, so powerful it seemed to resonate through the room. His headache pounded, blinding. He needed to get air. He squinted his eyes. What the hell had just happened?
“Keep the change.” He gathered his Armani wool-cashmere coat and started for the door. One of the men started to move, but another put out an arm to stop him. That was the leader.
“Why you tell that joke?” the leader asked. He was stocky with dark hair well-groomed and moussed, in flannels so sharp they had an actual crease. Carlin blinked at him. He and this man were like night and day in size and breeding, but the hick’s hair was almost identical to Carlin’s own.
His eyes scanned the rest of the yokels and landed back on the waitress. “I have no earthly idea.”
He pushed out the door and into the parking lot of the Ozark diner. Green trees crowded the winding mountain road on either side, the parking lot and diner cut out of the living wilderness. A cool breeze took the grill stink out of his nostrils as he moved to his Cadillac Escalade Hybrid. He opened the back door and hung his coat on the hanger he kept there, then moved to the driver’s, tapping the voice assist on his headset. Lexi beeped.
“Lexi,” he said, the words conveyed to the phone in his pocket via the magic of Bluetooth. “Take me to civilization.”
“The nearest town is 430 feet away,” the digital assistant said in his ear. “Pull out onto State Road—”
“No,” he said. “Real civilization. This place is a shit hole.”
“I’m afraid I can’t help you with that,” Lexi said. Stupid phone app.
“How far to St. Louis?”
“Three hundred and fifty-two miles.”
He slid into the driver’s seat and said, “Take me there.”
The instructions played over the headset, and he tried to start the Escalade, but nothing happened. He tried again. Still nothing. Completely dead. He pulled out the phone. Lexi processed the navigation app on the screen, but he still had no bars.
“Dammit,” he said, staring back at the diner. “Dammit!”
It took ten minutes for Carlin to work up the energy to open the door to the Escalade, and by then his headache had somehow gotten even worse. He didn’t want to walk back into that place, but he really didn’t have a choice.
He spent about five more minutes doing the ritual “no signal” dance, trying to find a location where the phone could contact a tower, but no matter how high he stretched or how he hopped, the phone didn’t so much as ping. Lexi must be working off the new internal cache instead of the central Lexi servers. If he wanted to make a call, he’d have to find a land line.
He slid out of the SUV, but left his coat in the back. It was a cool autumn day, and the altitude left the air uncomfortably chilly, but it wasn’t truly cold. He strode back to the diner, cringing at what the loose asphalt must be doing to the soles of his patent-leather shoes.
He pushed through the door and into a solid wall of disdain. The low hum of conversation ceased the moment he broke the threshold and all the flannel jockeys turned to look at him. The stocky leader in the freshly pressed flannel stood next to a gangly blond man who looked like Alan Tudyk with about ten grand less in lifetime dental care.
Their eyes fell on him, flat and emotionless, the way that creepy kid in the fourth grade had looked at bugs. It was like stepping into seven twin beams of… no, not hate… animal indifference.
And another flash. This time the faces of all the patrons were missing. In their place glistening, bloody muscle. The gangly one’s intestines spilled out onto the floor and the well-groomed one knelt nearby, forming them into strange symbols.
Everything flashed back and Carlin gasped. His headache gnawed at the back of his eyes, scratched the inside of his skull. His heart pounded in his chest and he aborted his move for the counter, instead turning and riding a wave of fear in the direction of the rest room, the gazes burning his skin.
Light gleamed off the metal bands that surrounded the edges of the counter and tables as he moved under the ponderous judgment of the uneducated. He needed to get out. Out.
He pushed into the hall at the back of the diner and through the door into the rest room, then pressed his back against the door and gulped air.
Jesus Christ, what was going on? Was the headache making him see things? Was he having a psychotic break? It had to be fear, but while only one of them had seen the business end of a washing machine, they were just people. They weren’t monsters. All that staring had just spooked him. His mind was playing tricks…
This is just one of the stories in the anthology Redneck Eldritch, coming this month from Cold Fusion Media!
Jody dropped the tailgate on her K5 Blazer and hoisted herself up to enjoy her Slim Jim and Red Bull in the Gas’N’Go parking lot. “Breakfast of champions,” she muttered, but mostly because she didn’t feel bad about it. She’d earned it. Besides, it was too damn hot to be doing coffee and donuts. It was only 9 and pushing ninety degrees already. In November. Earthquake weather, if you believed that sort of shit. Jody didn’t.
“Hi, hi, Jody.”
It was Ted shambling through the parking lot, looking rougher than usual, gaunt and clammy, his nose and lips all red and chapped to hell. You’d never guess by looking at him that he was only a couple of years out of high school.
“Hey, Ted. You’re up early this morning.”
He gave a high-pitched wheezy imitation of a laugh. “Oh yeah, I guess. Hey, what are you doing?”
“Right now, I’m just having my breakfast. What’s it look like to you, Ted? You high?”
“Oh yeah, I guess.”
Jody shook her head. Ted had been a nice kid when they’d been in school. They’d even dated for a while and gone to formal together their sophomore year. Now Ted was just another Georgebrook casualty.
“Listen here,” Ted said. “There’s a big party tonight down by the lake, at Spider Camp. Gonna be a bonfire. Everyone is gonna be there. Come.”
It wasn’t so much an invitation as a command. Not exactly the way to win Jody over. Still, Ted was a good guy. Lost, maybe, but not a bad person, and she didn’t have the heart to reject him flat out.
“I’ll think about it. But do me a favor, Ted, will ya? Take it easy down there. Pace yourself.”
Ted stared back at her blankly. “Come,” he said again, and then the Gas’N’Go door jingled as someone else walked out, and it was as if Jody no longer existed. Ted shuffled toward the man. “Hey, hey,” he said. “There’s a big party tonight.”
Jody had seen enough. She hopped down from the tailgate and walked to the driver side, safely out of sight from Ted. Poor fool, she thought as she fired up the Blazer. She guzzled down the last of her Red Bull and slapped her cheeks to make sure she was fully awake, then gunned it out of the parking lot onto Main Street, headed for home to put in a few hours on her psych term paper before crashing out.
“The Pride of the Mountains,” read the engraving on the stone archway out front of the Town Hall. Jody rolled her eyes as she cruised past it and all the other historic buildings lining Main Street. Georgebrook might have been the pride of gold country back in the 1850s, but these days it wasn’t the pride of anything. Apart from the architecture in old town Georgebrook, there was nothing here that interested her anymore. She couldn’t wait to get out. One more semester at the JC and working nights at the animal hospital, and she was gone.
Once clear of old town, she laid into the throttle and sped past Georgebrook School, where she’d attended grades K through 8, and then Georgebrook High right alongside it. A mile beyond, she slowed as she turned onto Oxbow Spring Road, and then she was in the thick of the evergreen forest. Evergreen was another misnomer these days. More than half the ponderosa pines had succumbed to drought and bark beetles and stood brown and brittle, ready to go up like a tinder box at the slightest provocation.
The dead trees made Jody think of Oxbow Lake, itself withered away over the last several years of drought to finally reveal its forgotten secret. She considered driving out there again, but then she thought of what Ted told her, about there being a party out that way tonight. She remembered, too, how disappointing her last visit to the lakebed had been.
[pullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]The dead trees made Jody think of Oxbow Lake, itself withered away over the last several years of drought to finally reveal its forgotten secret.[/pullquote]
“Nope, going home, gonna knock out a few pages on my paper, and going to sleep.” She wasn’t even self-conscious about talking to herself out loud anymore. She’d grown accustomed to talking to the dogs and cats at the pet hospital as the only night attendant, and it had just sort of carried over into her daily life.
“It’s time to go out and pee, Jack boy.”
“Looks like that bandage is leaking, Dobie. We best change it out.”
“I’m right here, Ms. Mittens, washing my hands. I hear you.”
“Why is my mother texting me at two in the morning about praying for me? What doesn’t she understand about the word ‘no?’”
“The u-joint on the K5 has been clanking pretty loud the last week or two. I best swap it out this weekend. Won’t do myself any good if the axle busts loose.”
“Gonna knock out a few pages on my paper, and go to sleep.”
It was like she was narrating her own life. Once she said something out loud, it became reality. That was certainly the case now—she was going home and straight to her room, hopefully without having to speak to her mother. Even so, the thought of the dried lake made her slow down as she came to the turn-off for it. She peered out the passenger window down the dusty tract between the trees, and was surprised to see two figures standing there, no more than twenty yards away. They waved their arms when they saw her.
Jody pulled to the shoulder and braked hesitantly, figuring it was meth-heads, but these guys weren’t the local flavor. The older guy—middle-aged, graying, with the start of a gut—was wearing a pink polo shirt, khaki cargo shorts, and some serious-looking hiking boots. He even had trekking poles. The other guy was a skinny Asian dude in just a t-shirt, jeans, and Converse sneakers. He had a big DSLR camera hanging from his neck. The two of them couldn’t have been more out of place in Georgebrook if they’d tried. Jody rolled down the passenger window as the Asian guy trotted toward her.
“Hey, thanks,” he said. “You think you could give us a ride back into town? Our car is stuck and phones aren’t working. Can’t get ahold of Triple A.”
Jody regarded the two of them. No way she could leave them out here to fend for themselves. Most of the other locals would probably help them if they happened to pass by, but not all of them, and not many passed by at this time of day. So it looked like no sleep for a while…
This is just one of the stories in the anthology Redneck Eldritch, coming this month from Cold Fusion Media!
[NSFW language ahead]
“The People of the Book” refers to those persons and prophets represented in the three primary texts of the Judaeo-Christian-Muslim tradition: The Old Testament or Jewish Torah, what Christians call The New Testament, and the Koran of Islam. Of course, there are other, even older books which may not mention people at all…
Pallas, Daniel. The Necronomicon Cults: A Study in Ecstatic, Organic and Manufactured Religion. Aziz: Three Lobed Press, 1986. 235. Print.
But the idea that ideas themselves can be dangerous—that true wisdom comes from fervent faith, and that independent thought can lead you down a dangerous path—is an old one, and one that has sometimes led not to bibliophilia but bibliophobia, a fear that reading is perilous, particularly reading certain arcane and occult books.
The Journal of Rutgers Library. “Forbidden Words: Taboo Texts in Popular Literature and Cinema” by Stephen Whitty 2014
I couldn’t believe what the old man said. I wanted him to say it again.
“Say’t agin,” I told him.
“Ah set, ‘If yah want you some money so gotdamn bad, go get yah some.’ Go dig up some of that money in the basement if yah want money so gotdamn bad, gotdamn it,” he snapped. The old man snapped, barked, hollered, and yelled a lot. It was that or he was mute.
“What money? Yah got money. Inna basement?” I couldn’t believe it or him.
“Hell, yeah, Ah got money inna basement. Burred inna wall ahind one of them big ol’ clown pitchers. Been there fer years.”
I just stared at the twisted up old fuck, an old man knot of wasted human life just too furious to do anything other than rage. And drink. And use drugs. My old man was quite a guy in quite a few ways, but money-stasher was a new one on me.
“How much money we talkin’ about?” I asked.
“Twelve fuckin’ thousan’ skins,” he answered. “Yah shit.”
“Yah got $12,000 buried in the basement? What the fuck fer? Why the fuck yah do a stupid thing like that?”
“So you and yer retard brother couldn’t never get yer greedy fuckin’ paws on it.”
“Why yah telling me now?”
The old man clamped his mouth shut, his face collapsing around his toothless hole.
“Ah’m serious, old man. Why yah telling me only just now?”
“Ah got muh reasons.”
“Such as…? Ah mean, how long’ve yah been sittin’ on this stash of cash?”
“Long ’nough,” the old man answered. “And Ah got me some reasons. That’s all yah need to know.”
And, yeah, we found the money. Down in the basement in a hole in the wall behind the third picture we tried, the third choice out of all the clown paintings down there and it was right where the old man said it would be. Or, rather, what was left of it—a rotten, rat-shredded, moldy wad of slimy scraps and fiber. If you ever want to know what $12,000 looks like, do not ask me. All I can tell you about is what $12,000 looks like after my wet-brained, drug-addict old man hides it in a wet, dirty hole in our cellar’s wall and doesn’t tell anybody about it for ten or eleven years. That’s not all we found, of course, but finding those sludgy lumps of cash pudding was awfully disappointing.
[pullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””] If you ever want to know what $12,000 looks like, do not ask me. All I can tell you about is what $12,000 looks like after my wet-brained, drug-addict old man hides it in a wet, dirty hole in our cellar’s wall and doesn’t tell anybody about it for ten or eleven years.[/pullquote]
Mixed there among the clots of slimy black money were the bones of a child, the skeletonized remains of a little girl, a little girl around 12 or 13 years old, a little girl named Sharon Lebanon from my last class in my last year of school, a kind of cute girl who wore a TV-star cardigan sweater. There she was, yellow bones and ragged shreds of ragged skull hair and super-white teeth, some scraps of clothing, and that cardigan sweater with the sweater-belt tie.
Tobias stood there for a moment looking at the money-slop and the rest of it; then he just bolted upstairs. I mean, he spun around and he was pounding up the steps and the next thing I heard was his heavy boots thumping across the floor above and the meat-sounding smack of his close-fisted blows to the old man.
“Yah stupid, worthless piece a shit,” Tobias’s voice, though muffled, was clear and the space between each word was filled with the sound of another blow. “Yah… insane piece a… fuck… shit.”
Stuff like that. I couldn’t hear much of anything from the old man, but that was not in any way unusual. I can’t remember the last full sentence I heard him speak aloud before tonight and I’d stopped reading his little notes years ago. They didn’t make sense anyway when I did read them. “Cancer dog at the back door,” I remember one of them said; “Claws and beaks are all you eat,” was another one. They were like fucked-up fortune-cookie fortunes or something, like those notes in those little cookies at that Ho Ho Palace those gooks made up in to town.
There’s a story about the old man and a television like there’s a story branching off of everything other damn thing that ever happens. The old man was out, had been gone for a week, a not uncommon practice of his. He’d disappear for a day, a couple of days, a week, and once for almost three months. He’d come up home flush with money and bragging about his wise choices, he’d come home with a chain of catfish or a hindquarter of venison bragging about his woodcraft skills, he’d come home tattooed and puffed up on some kind of promotion he’d got because he was such a gotdamned good Book Keeper, he’d come up home busted up and broke and hungover like hell behind his eyes not bragging at all, he’d come up home with a woman or a couple of men bragging that his sons adored him and that what was ours was theirs but to keep their hands of his. The lesson there for young children such as ourselves was that nothing lasts, that everything can be changed or ruined or taken away instantly for any reason or no reason at all. People come and people go. Attachment to people or things or the things people gave us lead to dull heartache, to the kind of disappointment the old man sanctified, a repetitive chipping away at things like “affection” and “security” and “hope.” It was a kind of hollow understanding; a resignation to all foul things in the past, and all foul things in the present, and all foul things yet to come. Filth and disease wasn’t just a lack of hygiene or antibiotics. It was in The Book. It was the fatalism, the certainty of the nihilism that replaced all hope in The Book and in the supplicant’s heart. The father’s braggart’s ways and the money would both dry up. We’d eat fish and venison until it was gone and then we were on our own. Wounds would heal, the throbbing in his head would ratchet down to normal. The woman or the men would leave cursing him, in a flurry of violence, another loss to add to the losses already given up to The Book. And we, Tobias and me, we’d be right back where we always were no matter what he or we or anybody did…
This is just one of the stories in the anthology Redneck Eldritch, coming in April from Cold Fusion Media!
Sheriff Betty parked on the shoulder of Creek Road—well, “shoulder” was a generous description, given that her cruiser was practically in the woods, and that she had to force back knee-high overgrowth just to get her door open. Most of these back roads were only roads in the sense that they were slightly wider than walking trails. That made this little phenomenon with which she presently faced even more puzzling, the one she was eyeballing in her headlights as she kicked her way through tangled grass.
She’d come upon another derelict. This one was a four-door sedan that looked like it might be a couple of decades old—she wasn’t certain of the make or model at first glance, and walking around the abandoned vehicle didn’t offer any answers. The paint may have been cream-colored in a past life; now it looked like the skin of a bloated corpse, mottled and sickly. The sheriff aimed her flashlight through the driver’s side windows. The interior was brown leather—there might have been a small stain in the driver’s seat, she couldn’t be sure. Doc Spence kept telling Betty she needed a prescription for her eyes, reading glasses at the very least, but she hadn’t budged in her refusal. A woman cop took enough crap as it was, no matter who her daddy had been. She didn’t need bifocals compounding the issue.
The sedan’s plates were a mystery unto themselves. There was no indication as to what state they were from. No registration stickers either—the sheriff could only assume that they were fakes, and bad ones at that. No wonder the car had been ditched out here just south of Timbuktu. Whoever had been using—or misusing—this rolling eyesore must have finally figured out that the vehicle was a little too distinctive in its absurdity.
Betty knelt and leaned in to get a good read on the plates. The block lettering said NV-GO. Or maybe that last one was a zero, not an O. She scowled and grabbed the radio mic clipped to her shoulder. “Dispatch, wanna put me through to Jared or Abel? Got another ghost car.”
She recited the car’s limited description, along with the plates—November Victor Golf Oscar, or maybe Zero on that last one–—but she didn’t expect the dispatcher’s computer to get any hits off that, and she was right. Meanwhile, she imagined, Jared over at the salvage yard was being awakened by a middle-of-the-night phone call. A few moments later he was on his CB and being patched through to the sheriff.
“Where you at, Betty?”
“Creek Road. It’s an odd looker if I’ve ever seen one. Not sure what else to tell you.”
“You said Creek Road?” Unintelligible muttering followed. Betty needn’t be able to make out the words to know they were colorful. Then Jared grunted, “I’ll see if I can get the truck out there. Creek Road. Damn.”
While she was waiting, Betty tried the doors. All stuck fast. Trunk too. The locks themselves were weird. She’d never seen these yawning triangular keyholes. Betty went to take a good look at that possible stain on the driver’s seat. It was there, all right, but it didn’t scream “blood” any more than it did “coffee” or “beaver fever.” That last one was the nasty byproduct of drinking creek water, and it in and of itself may have justified abandoning a befouled vehicle.
When Jared’s rig came trundling along, Betty had to return to her cruiser in order to try and move it over further, providing the tow truck enough clearance to situate itself in front of the mystery vehicle. Jared managed to make his way past the other two cars, although from the sound of it he took a few low-hanging branches with him. The bearded, bleary-eyed man slid out from behind his wheel and walked back to have a look at the derelict. He cast a glance Betty’s way, arching one bushy eyebrow. Jared wasn’t a day over thirty but he already looked like his old man, both in countenance and posture. He pulled the hook and chain down from the boom arm on the rear of his truck. Betty got out of her car to join him.
[pullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Betty went to take a good look at that possible stain on the driver’s seat. It was there, all right, but it didn’t scream “blood” any more than it did “coffee” or “beaver fever.” That last one was the nasty byproduct of drinking creek water, and it in and of itself may have justified abandoning a befouled vehicle.[/pullquote]
“Wanna see if you can jimmy it open and put ’er in neutral?” Jared asked without looking up. He knelt with a grunt and began slinging the tow chain around the derelict’s bumper. “Hope this bumper holds. Can’t reach that axle with all the goddamned thistles under here,” he muttered. “Pardon my French.”
But Betty only half-heard him as she headed back to her car to retrieve a slim jim, then started working on the driver’s door of the derelict. Couldn’t find the lock mechanism inside the door. She moved the slim jim back and forth and it seemed like there was nothing at all to catch onto. Was this thing even a car?
That seemed an odd thought, yet it stuck in the sheriff’s mind as she circled the vehicle.
“Can’t get any of these doors open,” she finally said with a sigh. Jared shrugged and turned on the winch attached to the boom. The derelict’s front end lifted out of the underbrush and its foremost tires settled on the truck bed’s rubber mats.
“We’ll see what happens,” Jared said, returning to his cab, and a second later he started to ease forward. Would the derelict’s rear wheels lock up and fight him? Betty waited for the screech of metal. Blessedly, none came. The derelict rolled after the truck without any complaint.
Jared braked and leaned out his window. “You want to come by tomorrow to process ’er? I’m dead on my feet right now.”
“That’s fine. Good night.” Betty watched as the two vehicles, moving in tandem like mating junebugs, crept down Creek Road and were eventually swallowed by the trees. Betty felt plenty bushed herself. Tomorrow she’d spend the morning poking through that car. Until then, dreamless sleep. At least that’s what she’d hoped for…
This is just one of the stories in the anthology Redneck Eldritch, coming in April from Cold Fusion Media!
The echoes of her moans grew more distinct as I followed the abandoned mineshaft to the pit where my pa held her captive. The cool, humid air tasted slick and dirty, like oil with a hint of rottenness seeping up from undigested victims long trapped in the bowels of the earth. Crumbling black walls of coal sucked the intensity from my headlamp, and smudged my t-shirt, jeans, and the industrial nylon of my backpack as I repelled foot-by-fist into the chamber no man had entered since the day they struck pure chaos nineteen years ago. She’d been here all that time. People’d heard her, sure enough. But nobody dared to wonder if she was more than a ghost or a warning to their ears for getting too close to a place where thirty-two men lost their minds, and their shit, and tore each other to pieces.
The infinitesimal significance of my own existence thickened on me as my fancy Mago Scarpas touched down on the floor of the pit. He was here. Probably hibernating until the time was right. I could see him looming in the shadows if I wanted, but I didn’t go looking.
Naked and caked in soot, she stooped on a heap of coal and rubble. Left arm flung across her waist. Her slight form rocking as her body attempted to cry or scream. She couldn’t manage it, though. Only those moans sighed out, soft and desolate, like a faun who’d lost her mama and was slowly starving to death. Except she couldn’t die like I knew she wanted to.
She still looked a girl, not a day older than seventeen, with matted blonde hair that draped in clumps around her shoulders and hung halfway down her spine. Aside from her belly she was thin, but had enough meat on her bones to pass as healthy if she weren’t so filthy. Clamped around her left wrist was the heavy, two-inch long metal cuff with strange symbols embossed on it like I remembered. I didn’t know how it worked. I didn’t know why she was special, why she hadn’t gone stark raving mad long before I was born. I only knew I was almost a man now, and I couldn’t ignore her pleading thoughts in my head no more.
“It’s you.” The cherubic whisper of her voice was thick from unseen cosmic static filling the air and blanketing her mind. Her right hand rested on her knee, clutching a rusty spike that dripped blood to a tiny splatter sunken in the dust by her foot. A long pink seam in the flesh of her swollen belly was the only testament to her desperation.
“You called me.”
She turned her head slowly to meet my eyes, as to a great dark fiend, such as I was. Her lips quivered and stretched into a strange, limp smile. I couldn’t quite discern from her thoughts whether her fear or her wonder governed this expression. Perhaps they were one in the same. “You’re still alive. I haven’t seen you in a long time.”
“Twelve years,” I said.
“How old you now?”
She swallowed. Her doe-brown eyes glistened and pinked in the light of my headlamp. Her voice hushed to a whisper, “I think she’s coming tonight. Could you take her away with you? I can’t stand to watch it again. Not this time.” She held out a blood-caked hand to me. “Help me?”
I licked my lips. I didn’t want to touch her, fearing I’d drive her mad if I messed with her head, even just to induce her and block the pain. But I couldn’t say no. This was what I’d come for. “I’ll try,” I said. I took her hand and bled my thoughts into hers until she’d settled down on the ground, contracting in hushed, noiseless breaths.
[pullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]The body came out first. It was full-term, but withered and blue, slimy with blood. Headless. The little she-thing wriggled and kicked in my hand as I pulled it to me in shock. The head came out separate a minute later, a tiny, faceless orb of overgrown skin, cartilage, and tentacles that had parasitized itself clean off.[/pullquote]
The body came out first. It was full-term, but withered and blue, slimy with blood. Headless. The little she-thing wriggled and kicked in my hand as I pulled it to me in shock. The head came out separate a minute later, a tiny, faceless orb of overgrown skin, cartilage, and tentacles that had parasitized itself clean off. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised, given that Ma and Pa were of vastly different species. It just wasn’t right, wasn’t fair.
“Can I see her?”
“She’s dead, Ma,” I whispered. “She didn’t stand a chance.”
The temperature of the air dropped, filling my chest with the tang of needles and turning my breath to mist. That eldritch force crawled across my skin like ants tearing flesh from a corpse one tiny bite at a time. I hated my flesh. My mother’s conscience burned within me whenever my thoughts turned dark and apathetic. Her own suffering was so senseless, yet she called me back from the void of a universe that I knew felt nothing for the life it excreted into existence. I saw glimpses of it from time to time, but I cared only because I cared about her.
I let the two lumps of infant corpse slip from my fingers and pressed my palms, slicked in Ma’s blood, to the front of my skull. If I didn’t let myself molt, I’d go blind with rage and terror in about a minute. An icy burn seared my flesh as it melted into a rubbery, knotted texture like porpoise skin studded with grain-sized barnacles. My nails grew out, curled and blackened. Claws extended through slits I’d already made in the fabric of my shoes. The tentacles normally suppressed by my human genes snaked out around my lips and throat. Sliming my clothes was about as pleasant as shitting my pants, and equally humiliating. Coupled with the fact that human emotions were poorly adapted to handle shifts in physical identity, I could either cut them off or remain at the mercy of the greater fiend stirring in the darkness where I dared not make my presence obvious by looking.
Ma pulled one of my remolded, talon-like hands into hers and squeezed. “It’s alright, Eustace. Go now. Go before he gets you…”
This is just one of the stories in the anthology Redneck Eldritch, coming in April from Cold Fusion Media!