I Drive the Dead

I drive the dead.  It’s a job.

If you were to ask how it started, I couldn’t answer.  The cab has always been there, just like the apartment on 34th, and the clients.  I’m always hard-pressed when I try to explain how or when it began, the gaps in my memory like dark chasms between neurons.  It’s the same black blank that comes to me when I try to make sense of the fact that I can see and speak with the dead, or that I should know the roads they travel.  After so many years, it just is, and I’ve learned to accept it.

Still, on some nights, when I’m sitting in the cab, and the meter’s off for a bit, in the silences that come between the drumming of rain on the roof, or the voice of a fare, I catch glimpses.  My mother, dressed in black, humming lullabies in a dim room, twilight filtering through.  My father, a hulking man, dark like mahogany, and depending on his mood, wearing either a fierce scowl, or a smile like moonlight.

It was one of those nights when she came to my cab.  Pale skin, the color of milk, and auburn hair that rippled and strayed in the wind.  She was wearing a knee-length dress, the kind of red that reminds you of dark roses, or wine.  She smiled through the window, he teeth straight and just white enough to let you know she’d lived, and got in.

My heart ached and let out a pang that let me know if she hadn’t already been gone, I would’ve never had a chance with her.

She got in, and closed the door behind her.  In the space of that second, I could hear the wind picking up, playing music on the concrete of the city while the rain increased its tempo against the roof of the cab, as though it wanted to go where she was.  More importantly, I could smell her.  Not in a creepy let-me-borrow-your-hair way, but in the way you notice someone when they pass by.

I could smell jasmine and vanilla, the wet musk of her hair, and the cloth of the dress that clung to her like a second skin.  I was trying not to stare in the rearview.  I reached for the meter, and stopped.

Her clothes were wet.

                You might think a thing like that shouldn’t surprise me.  The thing is, regular people, everyday people, with jobs and kids and mortgages, and most importantly, lives, don’t see the cab.  You only get a glimpse, a chance to ride if you’re already gone.  For this woman to get into my cab, she had to be very close, practically knocking on death’s door herself, and yet I saw only a healthy, rain-soaked lady.

I looked into the rearview again, and met her eyes.  They were the kind of dark green you only see on grass in the summer after a good rain.

“You sure you want this cab, miss?”  I looked for an excuse.  “I’m off-duty.  Should be another along in a few minutes.”

She smiled at my reflection.  “Yes, this is fine.  I’ll match half your fare if you can take me home.”

I thought about it.  I usually kept a pretty tight schedule, but it wasn’t like the dead were short on time.  I turned the heat up in the back a bit, and put the cab into gear.

“Where to?”

“42nd and Broadway.”  She said.

I eased into the street, traffic sparse that time of night.  The cab’s headlights cut the dark, revealed the edges of buildings, sidewalk, and asphalt, the white lines throwing back the light and glowing with a ghostlike quality.  Here and there pedestrians strolled beneath umbrellas, the glow of streetlamps making the black fabric glow in the night.

As I drove, I snuck quick glances into the rearview to check on the woman.  She stared out of the window, watching the city slip by.  Streetlight and neon lit her face in flashes as we passed.  She had begun to dry somewhat, though her hair still clung to her neck, and her clothing looked like it would be chilly if she stepped into the wind.

Despite her condition, her eyes had begun to droop, and I figured it wouldn’t be long before she was asleep.  I reached up and shut the meter off as quietly as possible, and heard her stir in the back.

I turned my attention back to the road, made a right, and drove on.

*

                Bram Stoker once wrote that the dead travel fast.  Those dead had never come over the Jefferson Bridge at bar close.  I slowed the cab to a near halt, and waited for traffic to move along.  While I did, I kept an eye out for bicyclers who were crazy enough to still be riding this time of night and for the occasional case of road rage that might flare up and result in the cab being trashed.

What I said before – about the living not being able to see the cab.  It wasn’t exactly right.  The living can see the cab, in traffic, or in passing, but not when they’re looking for one.  They won’t go out of their way to hail me, or try to get in.  Most will even walk an extra few feet out of their way to avoid it.  To those people, the cab is dim, a shadow of a shadow in the waking world.  As a bonus, that instinct for the living to avoid it has kept my insurance premiums down.

I flicked a glance to the back of the cab.  The woman there slumped halfway between the seat and the window, her cheek pressed against the soft fabric.  I worried that she had passed, and I hadn’t noticed.  I watched for another moment, and saw her chest rise and fall, her pulse beating in the hollow of her throat.  I turned back to the road, and crept forward with the traffic.

As we moved, traffic began to thin, revealing a small crowd of uniforms and flashing lights ahead.  Behind an officer directing traffic, was a group of about five others, police and EMTs, gathered around a twisted wreck.  Blood ran from the passenger door, either torn or cut off from the accident.  It pooled on the asphalt, shimmering in the flashing emergency lights, darker than the rain.

Between two officers, a black bag lay on the ground, zipped closed.  They stood over it, watching the scene with cool detachment.  Neither could see the middle-aged bespectacled man dressed in khakis and a button-down shirt, staring at the bag.  As I approached the officer directing traffic, the man looked up.  He raised his hand, and waved.  I shook my head and gestured at the back, and he let his hand drop.  The look on his face went from hopeful to annoyed, and then, as though he realized he had plenty of time, he nodded, and waved me off.

Like I said before, the dead understand.  They have all the time in the world.

The officer waved the cab through, and I took the right, moving toward the upper side of town, and the young lady’s home.  I still didn’t understand how she had found my cab.

*

                I pulled onto 30th and Jewel, at the lower end of the shopping district.  Markets and boutiques, small bakeries and specialty shops nestled against one another here.  Tasteful awnings and big plate windows declared the names of the shops, and showed off their merchandise.  Out of the heavier traffic, I relaxed, and slowed the cab a bit.

With the meter off, most cabbies would have hurried their fare to the destination, regardless of altruism.  One off, one on, equals more money.  Unlike most cabbies and their fares, I had plenty of time, and no real money to make.  To be honest, the meter was more of an affectation anyways.  Besides, I was enjoying the quiet time.  The rain on the roof of the cab beat out a steady hypnotic rhythm, the woman in the back was sleeping contentedly, and also, she smelled nice.

I turned up a side street, and a pair of headlights that had been behind me for some time separated from the stream of cars and followed at a discrete distance.  Probably just a late-night window-shopper, I thought.  My gut knotted, and I doubted the idea.  I took a couple of more turns at a leisurely pace, so as not to let on I had seen the car.

I can’t explain why the car behind me, a late-model grey sedan, bothered me so much.  It wouldn’t be the first time I was followed, and probably wouldn’t be the last.  With so many people around, you’re more than likely to share a destination with more than one of them.  Maybe it’s just that I’m not dead yet, and don’t plan to be any time soon, if I can help it.  So, when trouble rears its head, which it does from time to time, I do the only thing I’ve ever really known.  I drive.

When zigzagging through the streets didn’t work, I picked a block and circled it, hoping the car behind me would think I just had a window-shopper on board.  He followed, still at a discrete distance, though I got the impression that he didn’t so much as care about being seen as he did about how I’d react.  For the situation being unnerving, I thought I was reacting well.

Ten minutes of driving aimlessly hadn’t shaken the car behind me, and I watched in the rearview as it began to gain ground.  The action made my mind up.  I sped up, and pushed the cab around the nearest corner, and then again, making a quick left and a right.  The sedan kept up, and inched closer.  Again, I whipped into a turn and a turn, and the grey car kept up.  In the back, the woman in red stirred in her sleep and murmured, but didn’t wake.

Clive Barker once wrote that the dead have highways.  I weighed my options, and did the only thing I knew.  I drove them.

*

                I took a left, turning off from the circle I had been driving.  Ahead, the road diverged, splitting into left and right forks.  The fork hadn’t been planned by an engineer, nor laid in a pique brought on by a panic triggered by a lack of roadway.  It was a secret road, laid by a divine hand, and it led to one of a hundred thousand afterlives.

I pulled onto the fork while it wended and wound its way between and around buildings, over the river, and past factories and homes.  The road ahead shimmered with a pale haze, as though it had been baking in the sun all day.  The city began to drop away, buildings and utility poles replaced with trees, the lights replaced with stars.

I glanced in the rear view, and nearly drove the cab into a small pond that had sprung up beside the road.  The grey sedan was still behind me, a feat that should’ve been impossible for anyone else.  It was still gaining, as well, and I put the pedal down, hoping to at least keep them at distance.  An alarm bell was going off in my head, and I shifted my gaze to the woman in the back seat.

She was still sleeping in that easy slouch, though it looked as though she were dreaming now, her eyes dashing out Morse code behind her eyelids.  Whoever she was, and whatever her situation, the alarm in my head was screaming this woman was Trouble, capital T, and if I didn’t get her home soon, I might be better off kicking her out on the side of the road somewhere.

I rejected that idea out of hand.  I may deal with the dead, but that doesn’t make me immune to compassion for the living.  Besides, my shallow side said, she’s gorgeous.  She was, at that.  I flicked a glance back at her one more time, taking in her delicate cheekbones, the gentle curve of her neck, and her full lips.  I swallowed hard, and returned to the road.

Not wanting to dump a damsel in distress off in the middle of nowhere left me with one option.  Get her home in one piece.  I glanced again at the sedan behind me.  For the first time, I noticed the windows were tinted, and what would normally be chrome on a car was a black matte that seemed to drink in the light.  Something about that one detail, the black instead of chrome, made me uneasy, made my stomach clench for the second time that night.

Around the car, the landscape changed in bits and pieces, as though sets were being rolled on and off an enormous stage.  Copses of trees came and went with small ponds and lakes, rivers and creeks.  Grass was replaced by tall waving stalks of wheat, mountains and rivers in the distance.  Here and there, stone benches and homes dotted the fields, and the night slipped to day, the rain tapering off.  The sun shone, and the air took on the hazy yellow quality of a high summer afternoon.

Men and women and children walked among the wheat and sat on the low stone benches.  They were young and old, dressed in togas and Victorian garb and modern clothes.  They spoke and gestured and laughed, and the children played in the sunlight.  Idyllic.  A soft sigh escaped me, and the woman behind me echoed it.

I checked the rearview, and noticed the sedan still there.  It made sense, in a way that nothing else about it did.  Elysium wasn’t exactly a dangerous road.  They would have nothing to fear here, no reason not to try to catch up, to waylay us.  Even as I watched, the car sped up again, and closed ground.  Curiosity led me to stay the accelerator, and I let them get closer.

The sedan sped into a car length, and I got a good look.  In addition to the tinted windows and the matte replacing the chrome, the car wasn’t a true grey.  What I had mistaken for grey was a mottled steel color, blotches of paint spreading across the surface like diseased skin.  Its headlights, which the driver hadn’t bothered to shut off since coming out of the rain, were a pale yellow, and its tires seemed to bulge and ripple, as though they were living things.

The sun shone through the windshield, piercing the tint for a moment, and I caught a glimpse of the driver.  A wide figure swathed in the interior shadows of the car, its head resembled that of a bat.  Pointed ears stuck up on either side of a face marked by small black eyes and a pug nose.  Then, we passed a copse of trees, and shadows filled the tinted glass again.  I turned back to the road and tried not to think too hard about what I’d seen.  Things like that only showed up on the deep trips, the ones where men and women with black souls went to burn.

I thought about the gun under the seat.  I didn’t keep it for the dead.  It wasn’t like a bullet was going to worsen their condition.  I wondered how it would affect the Neverborn, and hoped I wouldn’t need it.  I pressed the pedal down, and the cab leapt forward again.  Another thought entered my mind, and I wondered how long the engine would keep up.  The gas gauge still lay at three-quarters, and the tires still whispered against the asphalt with hardly a bump.

I looked around.  Elysium had always been my favorite destination, what I imagined true Paradise to look like.  The thing behind me didn’t belong here, and I had the feeling if I gave it the chance, it would stop, and wreak as much havoc as possible.  There were places it did belong, however, and I briefly weighed the safety of my passenger against the danger.  In the end, I decided the only safe route was through that danger.

Ahead, the road forked again, and I took it.

*

                The road down is always quicker than the road up, though no easier.  We drove, and the blacktop began to show wear and cracks, small potholes and ridges in the asphalt.  The shimmer above the road took on a sinister reddish tint, and black clouds slipped over the sun.  Whoever designed the afterlife had a flair for theatrics.

As we drove, wheat and fields of grass and trees gave way to sere earth, cracks spreading through the dried sod.  Rivers and ponds became black and brown and brackish, and rocks and boulders replaced the smaller bushes and clusters of flowers.  Each feature of the landscape rolled in and out again, changing the face of the land as we drove, becoming more alien with distance.  Eventually, the cab rolled into a landscape dominated by grey spires of rock standing sentinel over black earth, the cracks glowing with a sullen red light.  Asphalt gave way to red rock, worn smooth over millenia.

The sedan behind us had begun to change as well, becoming a sleek grey thing, resembling a long spider with black legs and eyes, its driver a huge man-bat strapped to its back.  It scuttled and moved faster than its size indicated.  Even in the cab, I could hear the scuttle on the rock of the hooked bones that served as its feet.

I pushed the cab faster still, and she leapt forward one more time, though with a shuddering protest.  I knew any harder would kill her, and that would be the end.  Still, it wasn’t enough, and the scuttling of bone on rock became louder, the spider’s legs echoing in the landscape.  It reached one of its considerable legs up, throwing a shadow on the hood, and I juked the cab.

We zigged to the left, though not fast enough, and the leg came down.  Bone squealed against metal, making my eyes water.  It ripped a hole in the roof, and I tugged the wheel right, tearing free with another screech that set my teeth on edge.  Again it came, and again another hole was punched into the cab before I was able to shake free.  Through the opening above, I could hear the driver making wet grunting sounds in anticipation of the kill.

Ahead, the land dropped off, and the road narrowed.  I felt my pulse double as I realized the glow coming from below was fire – not lava, but true hellfire, and I realized where I had driven us.  Even as the cab approached the bridge, something huge and dark rose from the hellfire, wormlike, and slammed itself into the stone.  It turned toward us, its lower half disappearing into the depths, and its mouth opened, a nightmare of impossible angles and razor teeth.

A shadow fell across the hood again, and I did the only thing I could think of, a thing I had seen in Top Gun once.  I grabbed the emergency brake, while spinning the wheel.  The car slugged to a hard stop and began to spin.  I felt a weight slam into the seat behind me, and I prayed I hadn’t broken the woman’s nose.  I felt there was a very strong possibility that had she not been asleep, she would definitely be unconscious now.

When the cab hit a full one-eighty, I released the brake, and stomped the gas.  For a moment, it seemed the car was going to ignore my request and simply give up the ghost, and then the engine roared, and we shot in the other direction, and under the spider.

In the rear view, the spider had reached the bridge, but it was too late for the bat and the bug.  The thing on the bridge opened its mouth, and tentacles sprayed forward, wrapping around both, and pulling them in.  I drove on, with the screams of the damned echoing in my ears.

When the land had returned to trees and fields and lakes, I stopped the cab, and check on my passenger.  Still asleep, though a little askew in her seat.  I decided I didn’t want to wake her up quite yet, and started the engine.  We were almost there.

*

                Country gave way to city, and city gave way to residential.  I pulled up to 42nd and Broadway, and cut the engine.  The rain had stopped, and I could see the stars through the holes in the roof.  Behind me, I heard a yawn, and looked in the rear view.

She stretched prettily, and smiled back at me.  “Thank you so much for the ride.  How much do I owe you?”

She pulled out a wad of cash, and I waved it away.  “Don’t worry about it.  I ended up going a bit out of the way.  I’d hate to charge you for it.”

She smiled, shrugged, and put the money away.  A part of me was cursing over that.  The roof was going to cost an arm and a leg to repair.

She opened the door, and the wind caught her scent and swept it out of the cab.  It spread her hair, and moved her dress.  She walked to my window, and leaned in.  I could smell her – clean and sweet.  I wondered why they had wanted her, and consoled myself with the fact that you don’t always get answers out of life, poor consolation that it was.

She kissed me on the cheek, and walked to the entrance of her apartment, fishing the keys out of her purse.  When she had the door open, she turned one last time, and waved.  I returned it, and pulled out of the drive.

On Broadway, I took a right, back downtown, and toward an accident, and a middle-aged man in khaki.

After all, I drive the dead.

Muse

This is the last of my published work to date, a short story titled ‘Muse’. It’s Lovecraft-influenced, and as such, was considered a good fit by the kind editors over at shoggoth.net. It’s ostensibly about where authors get their ideas, or specifically, where one man does, and the price for talent.

 

Muse 

“Where do you get your ideas?”

The question came from a voice out in the audience.  Sam squinted, but couldn’t see past the stage lights.  A bead of sweat tickled his hairline and threatened to roll down his face, smearing the pancake makeup.  Those lights were so hot.  He struggled with a feeling of irritation and pushed it down, then smiled.

“My ideas?  I have a muse trapped in my closet.”

Cue laughter, next question.

It went on that way for the next fifteen minutes, with the host interrupting every now and then to deflect the hard questions with a quick joke or sly obfuscation.  What do you think of the criticism that your female characters are sexist?  How do you feel about groups like PETA protesting the treatment of the Robinson’s dog in Shattered Bones?  Are you a supporter of LGBTQ rights, and why isn’t there more diversity in your novels?

The questions came on like a deluge at times, but Sam weathered it, the easy questions making it easier, and the thought of a fat payout for a speaking engagement making it even easier still.  A part of him was even slightly pleased.  He had a new novel coming out next month, and the better this went, the better it would sell.

Then, the interview was over, and the host thanked him, a tall older man with graying hair and breath like a menthol cough drop, and shook his hand, and then a PA ushered him from the set and to the hall beyond amid the echoes of applause in the background.  He let pride swell his chest for a moment.  One small step for man, one giant leap for hardcover sales.

They assured him his check was in the mail, and the exit was straight down the hall to his left.  He paused in the light, the sunshine bright beyond the door.  He could still hear the echo of the host’s voice in the studio, and the approval of the crowd.  He soaked it in, even though it wasn’t his.  Then he moved on.

*

Sam flopped on his couch and loosened his tie.  He took a pull from the beer he’d grabbed from the fridge, savoring the way the cold coated his throat.  He looked around at his apartment, a sprawling loft with a desk in one corner, a bathroom in another, his bedroom up a short flight of stairs, and a kitchen with an honest-to-God island and granite countertops.

He thought of the critics who said his writing wasn’t worth the paper it was on, and thought to himself – this is what the author hath wrought, look upon my works, ye mighty, and despair.  He snorted and finished the beer.  He sometimes wondered if his critics had ever read Shelley, or if they were all disciples of the kingdom of Marvel.

He glanced back at the desk and the closet beside it, a narrow thing with a wooden door and a brass knob that seemed out of place in a room with tile floors and steel and leather furniture.  As he watched, it rattled softly in its frame, a sort of persistent ticking that reminded him of a clock whiling away the hours.  He waved a hand at it.

“Hold your horses.  I haven’t even changed yet.”

He got up and went to the bedroom.  He threw on pajamas and a robe and grabbed his glasses from the nightstand.  That done, he went back downstairs and grabbed another beer, then it was over to his desk, where a sleek laptop waited for him, the screen dark.  He sat down and powered it up.  The door behind him rattled again, more insistent this time, as though it were ready, as though it were excited.

The screen lit with the glow of electronic life, and he opened the document he’d been working on.  He stared at the last paragraph he’d written, and tried to find the thread again.  Something something.  C’mon Ozy, be brilliant.  The door rattled behind him, and he took a sip of beer and turned toward it.

“It would be much easier if some people would just. Be. QUIET!”

The door stopped rattling, and he turned back to the laptop, setting the beer down maybe a little harder than he necessarily needed to.  A dollop of foam escaped the lip and rolled down the side, forming a puddle around the base of the beer.  Sam looked at it and frowned.

He got up, grabbed a towel from the kitchen, and spent five minutes cleaning the desk and the bottle.  When he was done, he dropped the towel in his laundry basket, and returned to the desk.  He put on his glasses, and settled in to work.  Spotty, he thought, and spent another five minutes cleaning the lenses.  When that was done, he slipped them back on and stared at the paragraph on the screen.  No new words had shown up.

He leaned back in his chair and took another sip of beer, his brow furrowed.  The door rattled behind him, once.  He continued to frown at the screen.  The door rattled.  Frown.  Rattle.  Frown.  Rattle.

He blew air out through his nose.  “FINE!”  He took a deep breath and stood.  He placed his glasses on the desk, and walked to the door.  The knob felt warm to the touch.  As though in anticipation, the door pushed against the frame.  A part of him warned against opening the door.  Another part chastised him for stolen genius.  He pushed those thoughts away, and turned the knob.  The door swung open.

Beyond the door was a black vastness so wide and deep it made Sam’s head swim.  Somewhere within, a thing glowing with an inner radiance spun slowly by, ice caking its massive body and flaking off with each agonizing rotation.  Tentacles and eyes protruded from its shapeless mass, and it continued to ride cosmic waves in its blind idiocy.

Sam held his breath and waited, his toes on the edge of the gulf.  He could feel the chill wind that blew from that place, and a shiver walked his spine.  It was only a moment, and an eye, the color of lavender and the size of a beach ball hove into view, its gaze unblinking.  Mottled skin the color of jaundice and stippled with coarse black hair surrounded it.

Feelers, thin and questing, broke the plane of the door and wrapped themselves around Sam’s torso.  He breathed out in ecstasy as they wrapped his neck and the tips found his temples.  The feeling was like breathing honey, like rediscovering sex.  He found he had an erection, and neglected to feel shameful about it.  He felt a presence enter his mind, eager and fertile, questing for the words.  They found them, and he felt the seed planted.  His mind’s eye burst with imagery, symbolism, meaning.

Then it was over, and the feelers pulled back, withdrawing into the dark.  He felt the absence of the presence, and the hole it left behind, and sucked a great breath, as though he’d forgotten to breathe the whole time.  The eye blinked once, and slipped into the black, and he was left staring at mindless things drifting in the great dark.  He closed the door.

*

He sat at his laptop, and the words spilled out, like headwaters, like ink from an overturned pot.  The story began to take shape, the words crawling across the page at first, then walking, then sprinting, a race of imagery that left him feeling elated, and when he typed the last word of the day, spent.

When he was done, he went back over what he had written.

Joe Abercrombie was a hard man.  He liked his whiskey neat, and his women warm.  MaryAnn was one of those women, soft where it counted. He preferred to eat the souls of the young and split the sun in black.  Shia Ia Fthog.  Then there was the Cleveland case.  It was the wolves, they ate his brother on the freeway.

Ha ha, very funny, he thought.  He frowned, and corrected the paragraph, and wondered if he’d had too many beers.  He could get morbid when he drank too much.  He went over another section.

In the beginning was the dark and the throne and the throne was flesh and gristle and the eye that sees burned bright on its crown.  We are the path and the door we are the way to the world beyond the world where the light is never and the dark burns eternal.

His hands shook as he deleted the paragraph.  What the hell?  He flipped the laptop power off and made his way to his bed.  He flopped there and lay, staring up at his ceiling.  Must’ve been corrupted data.  Maybe I shouldn’t have had the beers.  Maybe I pissed it off, making it wait.  He began to drift off.  It’ll be better in the morning.  The light went out of his world for a little bit.

*

He dreamt of the door, of the book that had opened it, De Vermis Mysteriis, and his first frightened and wondered reaction.  He heard a voice in the black of his mind, where the light of reason failed.

PAIN.  COLD.  ENDLESS VOID.  A CRACK IN THE DARK.  FLESH, WILLING AND FERTILE.  PAIN.  PAIN.  PAIN.

*

Sam woke clutching his hand.  He looked down at it through bleary eyes and saw a suppuration had opened in his palm.  He used the bed sheet to wipe away the oozing pus, an action that hurt as much as it helped.  Once it was clean, he could see the palm had split in the middle on a horizontal line, the flesh drawing back in a terrifying imitation of lips.  He pried at one of the folds, and winced in agony as it moved, and he got a glimpse of something black behind the flesh.

God, I hope that’s not tendon, he thought.  He made his way to the bathroom, and dug out the antibiotic cream and a gauze bandage.  He smeared the cream on, and a wave of nausea passed through him.  When it passed, he wrapped the hand in gauze, and grabbed coffee from the kitchen.  After a moment of doubt, he sat at his desk and flipped the laptop on.

It purred to life, the glow of the screen dimmed in the morning light.  He opened the document he’d been working on, and fought the cold dread that made him want to delete the whole thing and start over.  He began to read, his frown lightening as he went.  When he was done, he sat back and breathed a sigh of relief.  The words were just words.  He scrolled back to where he’d left off and stared at the last paragraph he’d deemed worthy of keeping, fingers poised over the keys.  Nothing came.

He wanted to scream in frustration.  Maybe if I just burn down the apartment and start over.  Maybe as a lumberjack.  Maybe as a crash test dummy.

His hand throbbed in time to his pulse, and it was distracting.  He got up and searched his medicine cabinet.  He found a tablet of Clindamyacin, a couple of Tylenol PM, and half a bottle of Vicodin left over from carpal tunnel surgery he’d had a couple of years ago.  Jackpot.  He swallowed one dry, stuffed the bottle in his robe pocket, and sat back at the desk.

A few minutes later, and the Vicodin had kicked in, making the throb in his hand a dull ache that was tolerable.  He poised his fingers over the keyboard, and waited.  Nothing came.

“SONOFABITCH!”  His voice echoed off the glass wall that looked out over the city and rang in the rafters of the loft.  The door behind him stayed quiet.  He turned his chair toward it, and sipped his coffee.  Not even a rattle.  With no little bit of trepidation, he approached the door and grabbed the knob, the brass cool under his hand.

He turned the knob, and the latch clicked, the door opening a crack.  He pulled it wider, and saw only a closet, bare boards as mundane as cornflakes lining it.  A cool dread filled him, that of the threat of his livelihood being cut off, his inspiration drained away like water through a sieve, and he shut the door with a slam.  His head spun, and the ache in his hand redoubled.  He staggered over to his desk chair and sat, his stomach in knots.  He passed a shaking hand over his forehead and looked around, his gaze aimless.

Maybe you pissed it off.  Maybe it needs something.  You take but never give back.

The thought flashed through his brain.  He tried to think of what his muse would need.  What did arcane, eldritch horrors snack on?  He racked his brain.  Doritos?  No.  People, obviously.  But he couldn’t do that, could he?  Maybe he should start small.  There were plenty of rats in the city.  The thought of trying to catch one – sneaking around the sewers with a hunk of cheese and a hammer – made him give a snort of derision.  He thought of hamsters.  That might work.  Hamsters.  People fed them to their snakes all the time.  Why not elder gods?

He stood and felt his cheeks, where stubble lay like a poorly-shorn forest.  He jumped in the shower, taking care not to get his hand wet, then shaved and dressed, and left for the nearest pet shop, a spring in his step.  Best-seller list, here I come.

*

The hamsters were more expensive than he’d expected.  They were cheap, sure, compared to a dog or cat, but ten dollars a rodent was surprising.  He bought three, and a cage, and just so the clerk wouldn’t question his use for said hamsters, a bag of cedar chips and a pouch of food.  He took them to the cab and set them beside him.  As they drove, he watched the little fellas play, scampering this way and that, and felt a pang of remorse for what he was going to do.

Omelet, eggs, buddy.  You can’t write a good book without sacrificing a few adorable rodents to an alien horror.  He barked a laugh and the cabbie glanced back at him in the mirror.  Sam put on his best smile and said “They’re funny.  The little one was dancing.”

The cabbie just shook his head and muttered something in Farsi, but left him alone.  The rest of the ride was spent in silence.  They arrived at Sam’s building, and he paid the man, and then went inside.  Three blind mice, see how they FEED THE SIGHTLESS ONES.

He shook his head to clear it, the thought like static on the radio, and went on up to his apartment.

*

Inside, he kicked off his shoes and tossed his jacket on the floor.  He laid the cage on his desk, pushing the laptop to the side.  The hamsters inside scurried around, unaware of their impending doom.  The thought made him giggle a little.  No Mr. Bond, I expect you to diiieee.

His phone rang, and he fished it out of his pocket.

“Yeah?”

“Sammy, how are ya?”  It was his agent.

“Good.  Look, Saul, I know the deadline’s coming up.  I’m almost there.”  The hamsters played in his peripheral vision.

“I know you’re good for it, Sammy.  Look, I booked another show for you.  Sally Michaels, on Friday.”

Sam’s attention was pulled back from the hamsters.  “Tomorrow?  Jesus, Saul.  Could’ve given me more than twenty-four hours.”

“I know, I know.  But you know how important these pre-sale pushes are.  Just tell me you’ll be there.  I’ll make it up to you.”

“You going to take a cut in your percentage?”

He laughed.  “How about a steak dinner?  At that place on 54th?”

Sam sighed.  “Fine.  But I’m getting appetizers, too.”

“Great!  Thanks, buddy!”

Saul hung up.  Sam laid the phone down and opened the closet.  Still empty.  He turned to the cage and sighed.  Nothing to it, but to do it.  He opened it and grabbed a hamster, its little feet scrabbling against the gauze on his hand.  For a moment, he thought he felt something push back from the other side of the gauze, and ignored it.

He skipped ceremony, and set the hamster in the back of the closet, and closed the door.  He sat down, and waited.  His hand itched, and he scratched it absently.  It sent a warm pleasant buzz though his arm.  After a couple of minutes, there was a scratching at the door.  Excitement filled the pit of his stomach, and he stood and approached the closet.

The handle was that same cool brass.  He turned it, and the hamster scurried out, over his shoe, and through the kitchen.  He sighed, and grabbed the cage.  Not enough, maybe?  He pushed the cage to the back, and closed the door.  After a moment, he grabbed a beer, and sat back down.  His hand was starting to throb again, so he hunted down the Vicodin and popped one, washing it down with the beer.  After a while, the world grew fuzzy, and drifted off.

*

Sam awoke to his hand burning, his head throbbing, and a squeaking coming from the closet.  He stood and opened the door, wiping his eyes with his palms.  The bandages on his hand felt as though they were bulging, and he peeked under them.  Something black and thin and ropelike was protruding from the wound on his palm, and as he watched, it quivered.  He dropped the bandage back over it and ran to the sink, where he puked up his beer.

He wiped his mouth, and wandered back to the closet.  Inside, the hamsters still ran in their circles.  He opened the cage and lifted one out.  The thing on his hand snaked from under the bandage as he watched in horror, and circled the little beast.  There was a sensation of pulsing life, of pleasure, and then a snapping sound as the animal was crushed.  It died with a squeak, and he dropped it, half horrified, half fascinated.  He closed the closet door and sat back in his desk chair.

So…maybe people?  Maybe a doctor?  The thought made him hesitate.  He needed help.  He also needed to finish the book.  A voice in his head, loud and sudden, like a buzzsaw on metal, agreed with that last thought and flushed other concerns from his mind.

Talent feeds TALENT bring us the GRISTLE and let us suck the MARROW.  THE EYE BURNS THE TEETH TASTE THE BLACK.

Sam shuddered.  The voice had been loud.  It had been insistent, and now he knew what to do.  He knew how to make the words come back.  He changed into his pajamas and lay down.  Tomorrow would be a new day.

*

The Sally Michaels Show was new, and popular, and catered to a crowd that was less buttoned-down than the soccer mom set that watched Oprah, and smarter than the set that watched Maury unironically.  Sam was backstage, in his best suit, a fresh bandage over his hand, wrapping to the wrist, and only sweating slightly, a side-effect of the stage lights and Vicodin he’d popped earlier.  He had woke with a headache and a throb in his hand that screamed with his pulse, so he had downed two of the pills on an empty stomach and now he was a bit bleary, but numb.

Sally had so far featured a radio jock whose comments had nearly inspired a riot, a fresh-faced writer from Oklahoma who had penned a book about the humdrum life of Midwest bedrooms, and a model who was being touted as ‘brave’ for being a size 2.  Sam rolled his eyes at that last one.  Then Sally was saying his name, and the PA at his elbow was pushing him out onto the stage, under the hot lights.  Applause swelled around him, and he gave a wave and a smile, and strode across the stage to clasp hands with the blond 40-something wearing too-red lipstick.

Their hands touched, and the thing in his palm throbbed.  He could feel it, moving against the inside of the bandages.  THIS.  THIS.  THIS.  He caught himself reaching for the woman’s face, unaware that he was doing it.  In the front of his head, behind his eyes, a low throbbing had begun.  Sally had a look of trepidation in her eyes.  The audience had fallen silent.  Sam tried to recover with a smile, and raised his other hand.

“Boo!”  He said.

The audience broke into nervous laughter, and Sally pasted on a fake smile for him.  It said, nice recovery, but you’ll pay for that.  Out loud, she said “What else would you expect from America’s best horror writer?  Sam Jessup, everyone!”

The audience broke into applause again, and he waited for Sally to sit in the hostess seat before he sat on his own, next to the model, who smelled faintly of sweat and magnolias.  It was making his head hurt.  He leaned away from her.

“So, Sam, tell us about your next book, Blood Ties.”

Sam smiled.  This was where he shined.  He opened his mouth.

Shaggah fthag naggoth.”  He frowned.  Sally’s smile had frozen in place, and his head hurt something awful.  He smelled the woman beside him again, and turned to her.  “You fucking stink.”  He said.  He regretted the words as soon as they came from his mouth.

“What?”  Her face looked as though she’d just discovered something unpleasant on her shoe.

“Sorry, what I meant to say was crabbah hrdah frthag.”

What kind of shit are you pulling here, Jessup?”   It was Sally, in a whisper.  Sam snapped back to her.  She was close.

An urge came over him, an electric thrill like touching the rails of a model train, or licking a nine-volt.  He watched as his hand made its way to her face of its own volition.  The bandages had fallen away, and he saw the black thing reaching out toward her, undulating as it went.  He saw his hand close on her face, and felt the tentacle punch through her eye, and into her brain.  He felt pleasure, and knew his erection was back.  He relegated it to so much flesh and ignored it.  She tried to scream, but his other hand was over her mouth.  He was dimly aware he was no longer driving.

His head hurt, and he felt them, words forming in his mind as the woman who struggled and flopped against his grip died, blood streaming from her eye socket.  The audience had decided they didn’t like this, didn’t like it one bit, and had begun to flee.  The woman beside him had already run from the stage after letting out a high keening wail, leaving behind a piss stain on the couch.  Somewhere in the distance was more shouting, though coming closer, and Sam knew it was security, or the cops, or just a few goons with tasers.  He didn’t care.  He could see the words, like fire in his brain.  He’d waited so long.  He spoke them.

“SHAGGALAH FORNOTH CTHUUUN RTHAGGA GRACHKE.”

His forehead split, and pus rolled down his cheeks.  He could see clearly now, the world in the correct dimensions.  He breathed air that was air and not the endless cold of the void.  He smelled the warmth of flesh and the pulse of the world, and knew it was fertile.  The purple eye rolled in its new socket and sensed the men coming.  It didn’t matter.  The words were the gate and the way, and they came even easier now.

Abandoned cameras continued to roll under the too-hot stage lights, and the insidious creep of the words played on.

 

 

Cthulhu Misspelled

Another past published story – I wrote this one in a sort of zone where I was convinced of my own ability to be funny. Lucky enough for me, the publisher bought it.

Cthulhu Misspelled

            Everything was almost in place.  Harold had read the book cover to cover, though some of it seemed unnecessary.  Passages and passages on precautions, sigils and signs, secret names, and the proper way to flay a non-believer.  There were diagrams and illustrations, and in one instance, an esoteric mathematical formula that was supposed to guarantee immortality, though to Harold, it looked suspiciously like the quadratic equation as applied to the alphabet.

He had come across the Necronomicon by accident, browsing eBay for rare books.  It had been offered for little to no money, basically just next to the cost of shipping, and Harold hadn’t thought twice about jumping on the auction before someone else could.

Only used once, smells somewhat of fish.”  It was the only description the seller provided, and Harold actually liked fish, so he couldn’t see a downside.  Also, there was the added bonus of it being a book written for the sole purpose of summoning dark powers to do one’s bidding, and Harold had plans.

It had taken some time to gather all the things he needed for the ritual.  Blood of a mature virgin for instance.  It wasn’t like he could go around poking spinsters with needles, so he ended up spending six months volunteering at the local blood bank, and screening every applicant that came in.  When he finally found it, he had smuggled the chilled bag of blood out of the clinic in his underwear, while uttering a silent prayer to whoever was listening that his testicles would quickly re-descend.

Another hard to get item was the breath of a fish.  He had stared at that sentence for some time, trying to puzzle it out.  As far as he knew, fish didn’t even have lungs.  He spent a lot of time and money on goldfish.  At first, he tried holding their little fishy lips to a bottle and squeezing them.  That ended awkwardly.  In the end, he took several, threw them in a plastic bag together, and sealed it shut.  After they had expired, the bag puffed up, and he considered it good enough.

The last item was “a chunke of meate from the moste dangerous beaste.”  It was not pleasant, and had cost him about a hundred dollars, but he got it.  Shame about Homeless Joe’s pinky finger, though.  He actually felt pretty terrible about that, until he realized Joe had nine perfectly good other fingers, and he hadn’t even named that one yet.

It had been another three months of waiting, until Sarah had to take a trip to her sister’s, before he had been able to finally put his plan in action.  He had kissed her goodbye and stood in the doorway, waving and watching her go, waiting until the silver Taurus had rounded the corner at the end of the street and receded behind the screen of homes on either side.  When she was gone, he went back inside, closed the door, and fished the plastic bag from the toilet tank where he had been storing his ingredients.

In the dining room, he pushed the table and chairs to one side, and rolled up the area rug and propped that against the wall as well.  He snipped the top off the bag of blood he had lifted from the blood bank, and with a basting brush from the kitchen, drew a circle in the center of the floor.  Larger than a man, but smaller than an elephant, it was small enough to hold the entity he was summoning without risking his own safety, yet large enough to be comfortable.  He didn’t see the need to make the thing any grumpier than it needed to be, especially not if that mood were directed at him.

A few quick strokes with the brush painted the requisite symbols and signs at the cardinal points of the circle, with the beast’s name at the top.  Very carefully, he painted ‘CTHULU’, in letters large enough to enforce his intention.  When he was done with that, he placed the finger on the east side, and the rattling bag of dried goldfish on the west.  Finally, he stood in the south, and hesitated.

He considered for a moment that he could very well be quite insane by now, driven there by years of whispers behind his back.  (He knew it was happening, and about him.  Always about him.)  He also considered the idea that this might work, albeit too well, and he would summon something so powerful it would simply break free, devour him, and quite possibly the entire block.  He grimaced.  The homeowner’s association would not like that.

Harold took a deep breath, and decided the only way to know was to try.  He closed his eyes, began to whisper the Lord’s Prayer, then thought better of it.  Probably best not to attract His attention.  He remembered he had to prick his finger to start the ritual, and cracked his eyelids long enough to jab himself in the thumb with one of Sarah’s sewing needles.

Blood welled up immediately on the ball of his thumb, and he squeezed it out, then let it fall, just outside the southern border of the circle.  It hit the hardwood with a wet ‘plop’, sending little droplets out in a pattern.

That done, he closed his eyes again, and began the chant the book had specified.

Ia! Ia! Cthulhu Fthagn! Ph’nglui mglw’nfah Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn!  Ia! Ia! Cthulhu Fthagn! Ph’nglui mglw’nfah Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn!  IA! IA! CTHULHU FTHAGN! PH’NGLUI MGLW’NFAH CTHULHU R’LYEH WGAH’NAGL FHTAGN!”

            He said each sentence louder than the last, the unfamiliar words seeming to form themselves to his mouth with each iteration, his voice becoming stronger, ringing in the quiet house.  When he was done, the last syllables echoed away into the empty rooms, and he opened an eye and peeked.

The circle was empty.  Outside, a car drove by, tires crunching on loose stone in the street.  Further off, a dog barked.  Harold looked around the room, and deflated a little.  He knew he shouldn’t be surprised, or disappointed, and that hoping did not make something so, but still…it had been quite a show, he thought, with all the chanting and the blood.  He turned away from the circle to fetch the mop Sarah kept in the hall closet, and muttered under his breath.

“Ash was right.  Klaatu Verata Nicto, my ass.”  He said.

“It’s not there!  What do you mean, under the stairs?  Margaret?  Marga- oh.”

Harold stopped in his tracks, and spun around.  Someone was standing in his circle, and he blinked.

“Hello?  Hello?  Excuse me, who are you?”  The man said.

“Har- Harold.”  Harold struggled to speak for a moment.  There was a man standing in the center of the circle, hands on his hips, looking perturbed.  He walked back, the mop forgotten, and sat in the chair he had set just south of the circle, and stared at his visitor.

He had been hoping for a big bad.  Someone or something that could put a hurt on the world, someone who could avenge all the wrongs of his miserable life.  What he got was, well, not as impressive.

He found himself staring at a middle-aged man with thinning hair and a receding hairline.  He was dressed in chinos and a white button-up shirt, with the sleeves rolled back, exposing what looked like an old tattoo of an anchor on the left forearm.  His eyes were too small, almost beady, and nearly black.  A scraggly mustache sat above thin lips, and Harold could tell it hadn’t been trimmed recently, as there were several patches of hair that hung down over the man’s upper lip like tentacles.

The man had begun to glare at Harold, and he realized with a start that he hadn’t said anything since his name.

“Who are you?”  He asked the man.

“Robert Cthulu.  Not that you should know.”  He said.  He started to walk across the room, and stopped short, as though running into a glass wall.  He rebounded as if struck, and his glare grew even more annoyed.  After a moment, he sighed.

“I see.  You were trying to call up some demon, some greater power, right?”

Harold nodded.

Bob turned a circle, looking at the things Harold had placed at each of the cardinal points.  When he reached the north, he stopped, and snorted through his mustache.

“God damn it.”  He muttered, and shook his head.  He turned back to Harold, and walked as close as he dared to the edge of the circle.

“You spelled it wrong, you tit.”  He said, and Harold heard judgment in his tone.

“Uh, what?”  Harold said.

“Come see.”

Harold eyed Bob, and a thought flitted through his head.  Maybe this is a trap.  Maybe he thinks you look tasty, and you won’t know until his head flips up like a trashcan and turns into a giant leech.

            Bob sighed.  “Look, circle.”  He pointed at it with a toe.  “Can’t get out.”  He pressed his palms to the air, and appeared to mime being stuck in a box.

“I’m in a glass case of emotion!”  He wailed.

Harold eyed him.  “What?”

Bob dropped his hands and stepped back from the border of the circle.

“Anchorman?”  Another blank look from Harold.  “No?  You don’t get cable here?  Okay, fine, just whatever – look, just look over here.”  He walked back to the head of the circle and waited.

Harold followed him around, and looked where Bob was pointing.  He read it – ‘CTHULU’.

“You’re missing an ‘H’, genius.”

“Well, I don’t – how?”  Harold said.

Bob shrugged.  “Happens.  Now, how about you break this circle, and let me out?”

Harold walked back to the chair and sat down.  He shook his head.

“How do I know you’re not going to eat me, or worse?”  He said.

“Ew.  No.  But I will be very cross, if you don’t let me out.  Not to mention my wife.  I’m supposed to be finding pickles.”

Harold thought about it.  “Why can’t you just get out?  I mean, if you’re not a monster, can’t you just walk out?”

Bob sighed again.  Harold thought he must be either very tired or easily annoyed.

“Fine, look.  Cthulhu is my cousin.  I have a bit of the old family blood in me, and it makes it more than inconvenient when people go about misspelling names and painting circles around me.  It doesn’t mean I’m going to go on a murderous rampage, or traipsing off across the countryside, squashing cottages.”

Harold thought about it, and shook his head again.  “How about a deal instead?  You do something for me, in lieu of your cousin, and I’ll let you out.  I’ll even pay you.”

Bob appeared to consider it, and when he didn’t answer, Harold went on.

“I have uh, enemies.”

Bob let out a snort.  “What’ve you done?  Irritated the other accountants?”

Harold pretended to ignore him, and continued.  “They taunt me, and generally make my life miserable.  You make their lives miserable, and I’ll pay you, and let you out when you’re done.”

“Taunt?”  Bob said, as though tasting the word.  “Who says that?”  A look of mild distaste crossed his face.  It passed, and he seemed to consider.  “They made you miserable?”  He asked.

Harold nodded.  “Yes.”

“Did you paint a circle around them?  Because I can see how that might annoy a person.”

“Please?”  Harold pleaded.  “I’ve only got one shot at this, and I need to know there is justice in the world.”

Bob turned away, seemed to mutter to himself.  After a moment, he turned back, and regarded Harold.

“Fine, I can help.  First, bring me a toaster.”

Harold stared at him, not sure he had heard right.

“A toaster?”

“Yep, two slots, lever on the front, makes bread crispy.”

“Why?”

“You want this done, right?”

Harold nodded, and got up.  He walked to the kitchen, and unplugged the toaster.  He considered emptying the crumb tray, then reconsidered.  For all he knew, whatever curse Bob might cast could very well require a ‘crumb for every bit of misfortune’.  He carried the toaster to the circle.

“Okay, now hand it over.”  Bob said.

Harold stretched out his arms, then snatched them back at the last minute.  He had almost broken the plane of the circle.  He caught Bob smirking at him, and smiled weakly back, then tossed the toaster underhand to him.  The man caught it lightly.

“Thanks.”  He said.

He placed it on the ground on one side, so the slots were facing the wall.  Harold watched him intently.

With a shout, Bob jumped into the air and landed on the toaster.  It crumpled under his weight, and pieces spilled from the bread slots.  He jumped on it again and again, until it was a crumpled mass of plastic and metal.  When he was done, he stepped back, and leaned over, hands on his knees.  When he had caught his breath, he stood, and grinned at Harold.

“What was that?”  Harold asked.

“That was a perfectly good toaster.  Now let me out of the fucking circle!”

“Monster.”  Harold muttered.

“You should try bringing me a hairdryer next.”  Bob said, still smirking.

Harold sat down.  His cell phone rang, and he picked up.

“Hello.”  He said.

“Hi honey.  Just wanted to let you know, my sister’s sick, so I’m coming back.  I should be there in a bit.  You need anything?”

“Um, no, thank you.  Was just going to finish up some chores and watch some TV.”  He said.

“Okay, see you soon, then.  Love you.”

“Love you too, Pook.”

He hung up, and slipped the phone back into his pocket.  He looked at Bob, who was no longer smiling.  The man just stood there, watching him.

“Gonna have a hard time explaining all this, Harry.”  He said.

“Yeah.”  Harold got up, dejection sitting in his chest like a lead weight.  He walked over to the circle, and with a heavy sigh, smudged the line that separated him from Bob.

“Go on, get out of here.”  He said.

Behind him, there was a sound like wet paper tearing.  He looked back, and wished he hadn’t.  Bob’s head had flipped back, and in the gap between his neck and chin were teeth.  A lot of teeth.  All of the teeth.  Not-Bob stepped out of the circle.

Harold barely even felt the first bite.

 

 

 

Murderworld

Another of my published stories, it asks the question: ‘What if everyone really was out to get you?”.

 

Murderworld

            I’m not sure when it changed – the world, that is.  One day, you’re slogging through the 9-5 that keeps the wheels spinning and food on the table, and the next, you’re checking your cereal for poison.  It’s exhausting.

I’m not sure how it started.  Maybe it was a subconscious imperative, a collective neuron firing in the species, triggering the impulse to eradicate me.  Maybe it was technological slippage – a subliminal broadcast that was meant to spur the masses to buy more cheese puffs, but what they got instead was the overwhelming drive to end my life.  Hell, maybe it was a virus, 100% communicable and contagious, and the desire to murder me is connected to an antibody I possess.  Whatever the reasons, it’s a rare day I get a decent meal, and even more scarce that I sleep well.

I almost didn’t notice.  If it hadn’t been for the cat jumping on the table and helping himself to my corn flakes, it would’ve been me lying on my side on the kitchen floor, foaming at the mouth, though I didn’t know it at the time.  When it happened, I remember freezing, watching the cat lay there in convulsions, and then looking up at Kelly.  She was staring at the cat in fascination, and as I watched, her gaze slid upwards until her eyes met mine.

They were hard and flat, like a shark, and for a moment, I felt my bowels clench, and a finger of ice trace its way up my spine.  Then the spell broke, and she smiled.  She turned back to her toast, as though it hadn’t happened.

I wrapped the cat in a plastic grocery bag, and took a few extra minutes to bury it behind the shed, between two clumps of petunias.  Inside, I cleaned up, grabbed my bag and my keys, and bent to kiss Kelly goodbye.  She returned the kiss without hesitation, and I didn’t think anything else of it.  Sometimes cats died.

The drive to work was uneventful – scores of people all jostling for position, all trying to be the first to get somewhere, eyes ahead.  You never really notice the men or women in the cars around you, unless they’re making a point to be noticed, and even then, you might take a half-second out of your day to mutter ‘Jackass’, or ‘Douchebag’ at them.  Then it’s back to the drive, and the radio, and coffee.

Work itself was nearly as uneventful.  Not a lot of opportunities to off someone in a public setting.  Sure, it can happen.  I was nudged from behind while standing at the top of a set of stairs.  Nearly lost my footing.  Had it not been for the railing, I would’ve ended up at the bottom, looking like a fleshy egg someone had dropped from the roof.

It happened again at lunch.  I had ordered a panini, turkey on ciabatta, chips on the side.  When I picked up the sandwich, a long sliver of glass, sharp and wicked, slid from the bun and came to rest on the plate with a chime that only glass on glass can make.  When I peeled back the bun, I found others, nestled in between turkey slices, laying there like a deadly carpet of pine needles.  I paid the bill, and slipped out the back, reaching the mouth of the alley just ahead of an air conditioner that crashed to the ground behind me.

I got in the car and drove, my stomach twisting itself into knots.  The cat I could accept.  Pets died all the time, and not always under normal circumstances.  The stairs, I got.  It was easy to accidentally bump someone in a stairwell.  Narrow halls and tight turns made that an everyday occurrence.  The glass sandwich, and the air conditioner though, worried me.  Was someone out to get me?

The thought made me snort involuntarily.  No, that was paranoia.  I wasn’t one of those people who believed 9/11 was an inside job, or that contrails were really clouds of experimental mind-control drugs, or that all the leaders of the free world had been replaced by lizard-men.  I was rooted in reality.  My father had been a carpenter, and my mother was a florist.  Their worlds, and by extension, mine, revolved around a steady paycheck, and the product of their hands.

I was mid-thought when a taxi slammed into the side of my car, spinning me around.  I felt my body lash against the restraint, and the airbag went off.  Metal squealed, and while my vision spun, I watched the road whip by violently, and I registered the smell of coolant, steaming away and leaking.

Then it was over.  The airbag deflated, and I loosed my seatbelt.  I managed to crawl out of the wreck that had been my car, and take stock.  My vehicle was totaled.  The entire rear driver’s side had been demolished, and I counted myself lucky that it hadn’t hit the driver’s side.  The taxi was still in the intersection, it front-end a crumpled wreck.  I staggered over to check on the driver, who appeared unconscious, but otherwise unharmed behind his airbag.  In the distance, sirens began to wail, and I could hear it getting louder.

I leaned against the side of the taxi, and tried to catch my breath.  My vision was starting to clear, shapes and colors finally sharpening at a distance.  I hoped I didn’t have a concussion.  The intersection was clear.  I had been driving out of my way, trying to organize my thoughts when I was hit, and I didn’t expect much traffic.  Still, I could hear the sirens getting closer, and I realized someone must’ve witnessed the accident.

Stay or go?  The question circled in my brain.  Maybe it was the rattling I took, but I was starting to give the whole ‘the world is out to get me’ thing some serious weight.  The sirens drew closer, and I scrambled to latch on to a coherent thought.

If I ran, I risked serious complications from any injuries I might have incurred in the accident.  Kelly would worry, then feel betrayed.  Where would I go?  If I stayed, I risked exposing myself to whatever was going around.  What if the ambulance was hit while I was in it?  What if the janitor in the hospital crimped my IV?  What if, what if…the thought trailed off as the siren grew to a blaring crescendo, then cut off.  The street was bathed in red and blue.  A paramedic in blue overalls jumped from the cab and rushed towards me.

“Are you okay, sir?”  He didn’t wait for me to answer, and instead, grabbed my arm, and pulled me towards the double doors in the back of the ambulance.

His partner had opened them, and was stacking and sorting medical supplies.  I followed reluctantly behind the slim blond man while I watched the other paramedic pull out a syringe, and poke it into a vial.  He drew a bit of fluid out, and withdrew it, then tapped the needle a few times, to get the bubbles to float to the surface.  Satisfied, he stood patiently by the ambulance.

“What’s that for?”  I heard myself ask.  I stopped halfway to the waiting vehicle.

“Just something to help calm you down.  We’ll give you a little shot, and you can nap in the back while we drive you to the hospital.”  He said.

His partner had noticed we had stopped, and had begun to cross the blacktop, needle in hand.  I backed away.  It took a bit of force to wrench myself from the paramedic’s grip.

“No thanks, I’m fine.  Just check on the other guy, and call me a cab, and I’ll be on my way.”

The other medic had crossed over half the distance to us, and I noticed him speed up.  His eyes were hard and flat, and I remembered Kelly.  I backed away, nearly stumbling over my own heels, and the man with the needle started to jog my way.  His partner grabbed for me, and I managed to duck under it.  I turned and ran.

I ran hard, and I ran fast.  I ran though empty lots and dark alleys, under heavy canopies and across traffic.  It took a couple of minutes before I heard one of the men behind me curse, and the other calling for him to stop.  Still, I kept running.  I ran until it felt like my lungs would burst, until every muscle was a quivering mass of jelly, and then I ran a bit farther.  When I finally stopped, it was in an empty house at the edge of town.

I had managed to kick in the boards covering a window with a strength born from panic and adrenaline.  I slithered through on my belly, and fell onto a dusty floor that was spongy from years of neglect and exposure.  I lay there, my body burning from the exertion, sweat pouring from me like someone had snapped the valve off a faucet.   When I finally gained my breath, and it no longer felt like my heart was going to tear free from my chest, I listened.

Outside, I could hear the distant sound of traffic from the city proper, and the occasional rattle of shingles when the wind would kick up.  Behind the house was an empty lot, long overgrown, and if I held my breath, I could even hear the tall stalks of grass brushing together.  Other than that, nothing.

I sat against the wall, and waited another five minutes.  It was still quiet outside, and I risked a peek through the opening I had made in the window.  Sunshine colored the world, and for the moment, no one was trying to get me.  Nothing moved in the street, nothing moved in the house.  I was safe, for a time.

 

*

 

Those first few days were confusing, and terrifying.  I had a few close calls, because I didn’t yet understand how this new world worked.

The first thing I did, when I got my wits about me, was call Kelly.  It was a short call, out of necessity.  My phone had been in my pocket during the crash, and I had forgotten about it until the haze of terror and confusion had washed out me.  When I finally remembered, the battery was struggling to hold on.  I dialed, and hoped she picked up quickly.

Then phone rang twice before she picked up.  “Hello?”

“Hey, it’s me.  I just wanted to let you know I’m okay.  I had some things to do, but I should be home later.”  I hoped that was enough.

Either she hadn’t heard about the accident, or didn’t care, because the next thing she said was “Okay.”  Then she hung up.

I pulled the phone away from my ear, and thought for a minute about calling John, or my mom.  I scratched both of those ideas, and stuffed it back in my pocket.  I slid back to the floor beneath the window, and waited.  Sometime in there, I dozed off, despite the fear that still ran through me like a low thrumming thread.

When I woke, it was night.  I crawled from my hiding place into night air that smelled cool and crisp.  Crickets chirped in the empty lot near me.  In the distance, the sounds of traffic had slowed enough to be able to make out individual cars passing in the night.  I rubbed sleep from my eyes, and looked up at the moon, sitting placidly in the sky, and took comfort in its immutability.

I made my way home. I walked through darkened lots and backyards, and across suburban streets where I knew the residents would be cocooned in their homes for the night.  It took some time, but eventually, I could see my home, a two-story house between two others of similar architecture.  Curse of the suburbs, my father used to call it.

I let myself in through the back door, careful not to let it bang shut behind me.  Our room was upstairs, and I crept in, wary of any movement from Kelly’s sleeping form.  I grabbed some clean clothes, and snuck back downstairs, to use the second bathroom.  I peeled off my clothes, and started the shower, climbing in when it was just right.

I was in long enough to rinse my hair and a quick layer of soap off, before the water suddenly changed from mild to hot.  I stepped away from the water, sucking in a breath.  In the time it took to do that, the water changed again, from hot to boiling.  It touched my leg, and a shriek of pain escaped my lips.

I jumped out of the shower, not bothering to push the curtain to the side, and getting caught in it.  It and the rod came off the wall with a ‘sproing’ sound, and I landed on my ass on the bathroom floor.  I had used my hands to brake my fall, and I could feel my palms were slick with baby oil.  It only took me a minute to put it together.

At some point, Kelly had figured out I was home, and shut off the cold water to the bathroom.  That done, she managed to sneak into the room and coat the floor with oil, in the hopes that if I wasn’t boiled alive, I would get out and fall, and crack my skull on the floor.  If I wasn’t such a klutz, and hadn’t ended up wrapped in plastic that slowed my descent, it would’ve worked.

I got up as carefully as possible, dried myself off, and began to pull on my clothes.

“Mike?”  she was calling me from just outside the door.  I didn’t doubt that there was a very good chance that she had some other thing in mind for me.  Maybe a toaster to toss in the tub, or a knife for my neck.

I finished getting dressed, pulling on my shoes and socks last.  When I was done, I crouched just behind the door, and decided what to do.

“Mike, honey.  Do you want something to eat?  A sandwich, maybe?  I can make it for you, you know.”

I had no doubt she could.  I doubted very much that I would survive it.  I ignored the part of me that was trying to wrench itself free over everything that had happened, let alone the enormous betrayal perpetrated by my own wife.  I screwed up my courage and spoke.

“Yeah, sure, that’d be great.  Hey, can you come here for a minute?  I need a towel.”

The door opened, and she stepped in.  I threw my weight against the door, and it slammed into her.  She scrambled for purchase, but the slick floor betrayed her, and she went down like a sack of potatoes.  I heard a solid ‘thunk’ when she hit the floor, and just like that, she was out.  I checked her pulse to be sure.  It was still there, but she would be out for a while, I guessed.

I stepped over the woman I had known for fifteen years, and went to the kitchen, where I made myself a sandwich, sans glass or poison, and washed it down with a Coke.  When I was done, I went upstairs, and grabbed my spare bank card and a few other things that I stuffed in a backpack.  When I was done, I left the way I had come in.

Outside, the night was still cool, the moon was still staring down.  I knew tomorrow, that the world would go on, working without me contributing.  I started to walk.

 

*

 

I started by sleeping in alleys, hiding my face with a hooded sweatshirt.  I had cleaned out half the bank account, but hadn’t taken anything too valuable from the house.  I left the car because I hadn’t wanted her to report it a theft.  Attracting anyone with a firearm to me just seemed like an enormously bad idea.

It took some time, getting used to my new life.  I had to avoid even areas thick with the homeless, because they seemed just as inclined to off me as anyone else, and more than once I narrowly avoided losing my windpipe to a jagged shard of glass.

When I had to (when I couldn’t eat from dumpsters anymore), I ate in diners with very few people, always away from the window, and in the back.  If I didn’t disguise myself perfectly – never looking up, hood up – I found myself throwing my food away, and occasionally stealing someone else’s when they left for the bathroom.

I panhandled when I could, wearing a ski mask and the excuse that I was a burn victim.  That seemed to throw most of them off the idea of who I was, though some insisted on looking under the mask.  Those I had to scare away, usually by screaming and carrying on until I had turned enough heads to be an embarrassing situation for them.

In the meantime, I tried to figure out what had happened.  I would visit the library when I had the chance, under the same circumstances, and hide myself in the stacks, where I could read uninterrupted.  Nothing much ever came of it, though I did consider myself better educated than before.

In all, this was my world for the better part of two years.  I hid, and the world moved on as though Mark Jacobs had never even been a part of it.  Then Cammie came along.

 

*

 

In the beginning of the third year, I had holed up in the abandoned house I had first discovered in my flight from the homicidal paramedics, and managed to make it livable without being noticeable.  Tarps behind the boards kept the worst of the cold out, and stacks of books I had bought, stolen, or printed out lined the walls along the floors.  I kept a small pantry in one corner that held dried and canned goods, and a can of cash I was saving for emergencies.

I had been out for the day, trying to add to my rainy-day stash, and trying to cop a meal at a new diner that had opened up, though that had been a bust.  I had yet to find a place that let a man in a ski mask just walk about freely and browse.  Even the burn victim story didn’t work in retail.

I was considering plastic surgery, and then reconsidered.  I thought about what the surgeon would probably do to me, and I killed that line of thought.  I’d thought it before, and it just ended in circles.  All of it was just something to occupy my mind as I walked the mile back to my ‘home’ anyway, and I was only half-invested.

The grass in the lot had grown taller this year than the others, and I could see that someone had matted down a path in it, looking for an entrance to the house.  I followed it around, listening as I walked, trying to filter out the sounds of grass brushing on grass from anything outside the norm.  A nagging voice in the back of my head was telling me that now I was being actively hunted.  I squashed it.

I crept to the window in the back, the one I had cleared enough to let me in and out without too much trouble.  Unfortunately, it meant anyone else could find the way in just as easy.  Still, it was the only solution, considering what a trip to the hardware store would net me.  I didn’t see the advantage of having to dodge hammers and screwdrivers for a couple of hinges and a lock.

I peeked in, just enough to see over the sill.  I heard the humming before I saw my visitor.  It was high, and tuneless.  Sounded like a child’s voice to me.  I scanned the room, and saw her then.  She was small, just under three and half feet tall, and thin.  She was wearing a child’s white sundress that was smeared with dirt.  I watched while she kept humming to herself, wandering around the room.  Occasionally, she would pick up a book, flip through the pages, and then drop it, all interest lost.

I watched, trying to figure out how to handle the situation.  I had never had visitors before, and I figured she must’ve wandered here, one of the children of the other street people.  It posed a dilemma for me – let her wander off, and tell others of this place, scare her into never coming back, or try to talk some sense into her, and hope she didn’t come back.

She wandered into my pantry corner, and opened the cabinet the previous owners had left.  Her humming stopped, and something dropped to the floor.  It was a teddy bear, ratted out, and missing an eye, but well-loved.  I watched her fish a bag of jerky and a water bottle out, and sit on the floor.  It didn’t take long for her to finish half the bag.  I watched her snack, and decided to make my move.  I was hoping for ‘persuasive adult’.

I crawled in through the window, ski mask still on.  I wasn’t taking any chances.  She had picked up her teddy, and was holding him close while she watched me enter.  At least she wasn’t scared.  The more I thought about it, the more I was sure scaring her would only end badly with me.  I flashed momentarily on a mob with pitchforks and torches marching to Frankenstein’s castle, and squashed the mental image.

When I was all the way in, I stood up, walked over to her, and smiled.

“Hi.”  I said.  “Can I sit?”

She nodded, and I took a spot on the floor, a few feet away.

“Are you lost?”  I asked.

She shook her head.

“Where are your mommy and daddy?  Won’t they be looking for you?”

“Why are you wearing a mask?”  She asked.  “Are you Spider-Man?”

I shook my head, and felt a chuckle come out.  It surprised me.  I hadn’t laughed in a long time.  “No, honey.  I got hurt a long time ago, and now I have to wear this.”

“Okay.” She said.

“What’s your name?”  I asked.

“Cammie.”  She held up the bear.  “This is Mr. Squiggles.”

I leaned in, and took the bear’s paw.  I shook it as solemnly as I knew how.  “Nice to meet you Mr. Squiggles.”

I held my hand out to her next.  After a moment, she took it.  “Nice to meet you, too Cammie.”  I said.  She smiled, and I breathed a sigh of relief.

“Are you still hungry?”  I asked.

She nodded, so I stood, and reached over her, into the cabinet behind her.  I grabbed some dried fruit, another water, and a Kit-Kat.  She took them and began to dig in.  While she did, I thought of how I was going to get her to answer the parent question.

“Do you have any place to go, Cammie?” I asked, while I sat back down across from her.  She looked up at me over the dried banana chips she was chewing on.

“Sometimes we sleep by Giorgio’s.”

“We?”  I asked.

“Me and Mr. Squiggles.  Mr. Giorgio sometimes gives us breadsticks.”  She screwed her face up for a minute, as though something had occured to her.

“What’s your name?” She asked.

“Mi- uh,” instinct made me stop, and reconsider.  I gave her my middle name.  “John.”  I said.

She nodded, and went back to eating.  “Okay, John.”

When she finished, we sat watching each other for a time.  I wondered what had led  a little girl out here, and what had kept her alive all this time.  I wondered if it was the same thing that had kept me going as long as I had – the simple will to live, and the hope that someday there would be an end in sight.  For a time, I considered her a kindred spirit, and I was content to sit there in silence.

Finally, she yawned, and I noticed her eyelids drooping.

“Tired?”  I asked.

She nodded.

“Follow me.”  I said.  I got up, and led her to a pallet I had built out of newspapers and discarded clothing.  She lay down on it, and her eyes closed immediately.  When she was asleep, I propped myself against the wall, where I could see the window and her.  After a while, sleep took hold of me as well, and I drifted into the black.

 

            *

 

I wake to the feeling of fingers working their way under my mask, and I recoil.  I almost lash out, and check myself when my vision clears, and I realize it’s just Cammie.  I pull back anyways, and pull the ski mask down tighter.  She watches with a guilty look on her face.

“Sorry.  I just wanted to see.”  She says.

I shrug it off, and dig us out some breakfast from the cabinet.  We eat in silence.  When we’re done, I clean up, and sit down across from her, as we had the night before.

“Where will you go today?”  I ask.

Cammi looks around, as though the idea itself is something scary lurking in a dark corner.  Finally, she shrugs.

“Can I stay with you?”  she asks.

I think that one over.  There are two major risks with letting this little girl stay with me, the way I see it.  The first is simple – what if she’s like all the rest, and tries to kill me when she sees my face?  For a moment, I imagine having to fend off a little girl with a jagged piece of glass.  I don’t worry that I can overpower her, but instead, about what the fallout of that might be.  Would she get hurt?  Could I live with myself if that happened, no matter the circumstances?

The second is harder – how do I protect a little girl from a largely uncaring and morally ambiguous world?  It’s an especially difficult question when I realize I hardly do the best job of keeping myself safe.  Adding another person to that equation without being able to balance my own becomes complicated, at best.

In the end, it comes down to one thing.  Can I just leave another human being, let alone one so young and relatively inexperienced, to the mercies of a world that had proven to me it had no vested interest in any one person surviving?  I looked at her, at brown eyes too-wide, at her face, still smudged and dirty, and decided I couldn’t.  Even if it killed me.

“Sure.”  I said, and try to smile the best I know how, despite the worry that gnaws at me.  In the end though, you realize it’s not the worry that gets you.  It’s the things you don’t see.

 

*

 

Noon, and we’re in the mouth of an alley, panhandling a bit.  Cammie and Mr. Squiggles are standing nearby, and she’s doing a good job of convincing people that her daddy is hurt and can’t talk, and we just need a good meal.

That’s where it starts.  She’s talking to a group of boys, maybe 13 or 14.  One of them is shifting on his feet, and eyeing me.  I start to get up, to stop what I see happening, but I’m too slow.  The shifty one pushes Cammie down, and grabs the can at her feet.  He starts to run, and the others follow, but not before the one in the back grabs my mask and pulls it off.

I’m disoriented for a minute, bright light flooding into eyes that had been partially shielded before.  I lunge for him, and miss, and the boys take off down the sidewalk.  I stop to pick up Cammie, and set her on her feet.

“Stay here.”  I say.  I don’t wait for a reply.

Three years of anger boil up in me, and I take off after the kids who have stolen not just a dinner, but my safety, and maybe the safety of a little girl.  They haven’t gone too far, and I realize I’m catching them fairly easily when they turn into an alley.  Everything screams at me to forget it, let it go and go home, but I ignore it.  I follow.

I skid to a halt in the darkness.  The boys are there, waiting.  I meet flat eyes, and cold stares, and realize they’ve seen my face.  One of them has a knife – just a small thing any kid might carry – and he lunges for me.  I twist out of the way, and use his weight to smash him into the wall, and hopefully daze him for a minute.

Too late though, and the other two are on me, kicking and clawing.  I feel a sharp pain in my back, and cry out.  My knees give, and I hit the pavement, borne under their weight.  I can feel a spot just above my kidneys getting warm and wet, and I hope it’s not too deep.

One of them sinks his teeth into the cloth over my bicep, and bears down.  I stifle the scream, and lunge backwards, and feel my elbow connect.  There is a cry, and part of the weight is lifted while the kids nurses his mouth.  One left, and he’s aiming for my kidneys again with a long rusted nail he must’ve found on the ground.

I twist out of the way for a second time, and wonder how many muscles I’ve pulled.  I smash my fist into the back of his head, and he goes down.  I stand there for a minute, fighting for my breath back, hand on my knees.  The kid with the busted mouth has run out the other end of the alley, and I’m left with two on the ground who don’t look like they’re getting up any time soon.

When I get my breath, I cast about, finally finding the can (still full, thankfully), and my ski mask.  I pull the latter on, and adjust it until I can see out of the eyes, then turn to leave the alley.  Cammie is waiting.

“Thought I told you to stay put.”  I say, not meaning to sound angry, but still wound up from the fight.  My side aches, but I think the bleeding has stopped.  Hopefully I won’t catch tetanus.

She looks up at me.  “Mr. Squiggles was worred about you.”

I sigh, and ruffle her hair.  “Let’s go home.”  I say.  It doesn’t even strike me as odd to refer to the old house that way.  As our home.

We walk home in silence.

 

*

 

We’re eating dinner, when she stops, as she sometimes does,  and screws her face up.  She’s been thinking about this one.

“You look okay.”  She says.

I freeze mid-bite.  It takes me a minute to finish the mouthful of food.  She saw my face, and I didn’t even realize it.  I watch her, but she’s tucking back into the burger I had her buy.  We finish dinner in relative quiet, crickets and distant traffic singing a lullaby.  I walk her to the pallet, and she looks up at me.  I see nothing of the flat grey look I had seen in countless faces before.

“Can I see your face?”  She asks.

My heart stops, and cold fear ripples through me.

I know I’m caught between several hard places.  If I say no, she’ll just try to look.  If I keep denying her, she may even just leave, and after having real, human companionship for the first time in a long time, I didn’t know if I could take that.

If I say yes, she may try to kill me.  Maybe not outright, because it didn’t always work that way – just in adolescents or the mentally ill, so far – but eventually.  My mind went back to how easy it was for a grown man to hurt even a teenager, and I quailed at the thought.  Better I left before that happened.

In a third part of me, buried deeper than it had been before Cammie, was the feeling of ‘why not?’.  Why not show her?  You’re tired, right?  Tired of running, of hiding.  Tired of pretending to hope for an answer, tired of no company.  Get it over with.

            I weigh them all, fight with all of them.  In the end, it’s a snippet of a poem, Invictus, that settles me.

I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.”

            I take a breath, and close my eyes.  I can’t look into those eyes if they change.  I lift the mask.  There was silence, and then a small hand touches my cheek.

“You look okay.”  She says.

I pull the mask back down.  I don’t want her to see me cry.  After a while, I can hear the soft sound of her breathing deeply.  I lean against the wall, and take a deep breath of my own.

I feel sleep creep in, pushing away the pain and fear.

I let it all go.  I would let the night sort it out.

 

 

 

 

 

Siblinghood of the World Blogger Award

siblinghood-of-the-world-award

My good friend Shannon Noel Brady at Pointing Telescopes nominated me for this, and asked me to answer a few questions. I’ll do my best to not sound like a blithering idiot, and that should keep the eye-rolling to a minimum.

What was the first story you ever wrote?

It’s been about 20 years, but I think the first thing I ever wrote was a short story called Bugs, about a germophobe whose condition steadily worsens until he sees everyone around him as giant cockroaches. Naturally, his cheese slips off his cracker, and there’s a big bloody climax.

What book have you read the most times?

It’s probably a tie. The Power of Myth, by Joseph Campbell; The Stand, by Stephen King; The Dragonlance Chronicles, by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman, and The Dresden Files, by Jim Butcher.

What are your favorite kinds of characters to write?

Flawed wiseasses with a heart of gold, and smart women.

How about your favorite kinds of scenes? (Action, steamy, tragic death, etc…)

Depends on my mood, what music I’m listening to, etc. As long as I’m happy with it when I sit back and reread it, and it doesn’t make another hair turn gray while I think about editing it, it’s a good scene.

Describe what your writing space looks like?

It’s an end table next to my couch. I can see the TV, I can kick out the recliner, and I can sit cross-legged and bang on the keys til my foot falls asleep.

What do you struggle with the most as a writer?

Confidence and impatience. I have a hard time convincing myself a piece is good enough for publication, and an even harder time not just sharing it and saying ‘to Hell with it – the next one’.

Any recommendations for good music to write to?

Depends on what I’m writing. If it’s a melancholy piece, I’ll listen to music with a lot of acoustic sounds and strings and usually down tempo.  Anything from Tom Waits to Fort Atlantic to John Mayer.  If it’s action, I’ll throw on some driving rock – stuff like Foo Fighters, Seether, Three Days Grace, etc.

What is the most age-worn, tattered and battered book on your shelf?

My Lord of the Rings trilogy.  I have the paperbacks from the Sixties, and the covers are off, the middles are loose, and the pages dogeared and worn, and I still dig them out every few years to reread them.

What’s your favorite book-to-movie adaptation?

Probably The Shawshank Redemption (I’ve seen it so many times I think even Stephen King and Frank Darabont are embarrased for me), though for pure fun, Stardust and the Princess Bride are right up there.

Do you have a notes system for on-the-go ideas? If so, share with us the most random note you’ve jotted down, even if it only makes sense to you.

I keep notes for story ideas and titles and sometimes just fragments of ideas. Most random? Probably:

Zombie/Cyborg/Steampunk Abraham Lincoln kept as pet

or

Virus that uses its victims of a network to crack a code. As it progresses, victims begin to share writing and speech.