A Splinter in the Mind

Jan. 23

I’ll tell you how it starts. Maybe you’ll see. Maybe you’ll know.

It starts as an itch, a splinter in the mind. You can feel it, worming its way forward. The headaches are the worst. Feels like an ice pick lodged in your veins. Feels like someone taking a ball-peen hammer to the side of your head, and just when you’re ready to give in, to move on, and take a sabbatical – ideally, where there is no light and noise and scent – it stops. You breathe relief. Your skin relaxes. You didn’t know that your skin was tight, like someone was holding electrodes to your flesh and making it tighten involuntarily. Then, it’s in your eye. The feeling of something there that isn’t. A pulsing, throbbing, stabbing pain. You close your eye; rub it, thinking something is stuck inside. An eyelash, a crossbeam from the Empire State Building. Water flows from the ducts, but it doesn’t go away. You take a breath, and you think it’s going to burst from your skull, your eye a deflated sac, vitreous fluid streaming down your cheek. Then it stops, and you see. You see them. Them.

They’re shadows. I don’t know where they come from. Maybe some alternate universe where light is dark and dark is light and somewhere, Martha Stewart fucks Mitch McConnell on screen every night precisely at 5 pm. Maybe that’s all they are – shadows. It’s the reflection of a long-dead sun, or a star that burned out millions of years ago, and the spaces where they stood are just now hitting our irises. Maybe we broke something when CERN went online, and they’re something else entirely, swimming through higher dimensions the way birds drift on currents.  Maybe they’re devils, and we’re close to the end. Whatever. They’re there, and just because only a few of us can see them, means shit in the long run.

 

Feb. 3

Saw four of them, hanging around the bodega on Ninth. They drifted around the entrance, transparent. The way they move, I’m not sure they know much. Maybe they really are some sort of new species, just learning the ropes of their nascent life. Fuck, that’s a lot of maybes. Anyway, they just sort of hang out. They remind me of finches on a branch, waiting for seed to settle in the feeder. A woman came out, carrying a bag of groceries. The shades just fluttered around her for a moment, like startled mice. She walked on, and they settled by the door again. Part of me wondered if they could go inside, if they’d buy a burrito, maybe a pack of smokes. Maybe burritos and Marlboro are illegal where they come from, and they’re hoping for an adult to buy some.

I waited for an hour before the cops drove by, breaking up my surveillance. They’re not keen on strange men standing and staring too long at any one thing. I’m not keen on having my head broken. I moved on.

 

Feb. 5

More of them, in the park. They flitter among the children. The kids don’t know – they skip and run and shout, bright colors on their coats making ribboned blurs against the eye. The shadows just float there, watching. I wonder what they’d do if they saw a child skin his knee, or bloody their nose. I wonder if there are little shadows back home, Timmy and Sally Dim, maybe with their shadow dog, Sparky. I wonder if maybe they’re closer to animals. Do they eat their young?

Some kid loses his ball and it veers into the road, and he runs after it. I hold my breath. I want to scream out as the traffic on Fifth ripples past the light because he doesn’t see it. My heart skips a beat, and I hear tires squeal on the pavement. Someone’s shouting, but I can’t see who because I’ve closed my eyes. More shouting and I open them. Someone – an au pair, a mother – is carrying the kid back into the playground. My heart slows. The shadows watch.

 

Feb. 7

I keep thinking. What if? What if they’re refugees? Survivors of a dying sun, remnants of us, humanity, slipping back in time, people fleeing from some Xenu-like construct, and they can only get one foot in the door? If it were true, if more people knew, could see them, would we legislate their existence? Would we try to help? Could we? Would causes spring up around their existence, men with guns and men with signs? Would someone try to shoot one, to see what happens? Would someone try to feed them? How would they react?

My head won’t stop with the questions. They bore into me like beetles, doubt and conjecture. In the end, maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe it’s all shadows and light, anyway.

 

Feb. 12

I met a man. Hiram, I think. He smoked, like a chimney, and watched the streets like they were filled with wolves. I bummed a smoke off him and stood with him, his scarf wrapped around his neck like a gorget, his eyes hollow. He told me about the shadows, the way they watched everyone. We were in the park, the sky threatening rain. The trees kept making clacking sounds as the branches banged together, and he told me about how he kept seeing those things everywhere, and how he was a raw nerve because they hadn’t done a damn thing yet. I listened and nodded, but couldn’t commiserate. Of course, I saw them. Of course. But they weren’t in my head yet, and I wasn’t letting them in. He left with wet eyes and a hack that told me the cigarettes were in his lungs. After, I watched the leaves on the trees shiver until the rain came.

 

Feb. 15

One of them is in my building. It hangs out in the hallway by Mrs. Kossakas’ apartment. Every now and then, it drifts down the hall and back, like it’s bored, or maybe looking for a way in. I don’t think they can go through walls or doors. This one must have slipped in behind a resident, or the UPS man. I skirted it and took the stairs by the laundry room. I keep my door locked, just in case. Just in case.

 

Feb. 17

I saw Hiram again today. He looked worse, pale, and skinny. Sweat collected on his forehead like dew in the spring. Purple bags rode under his eyes. We found a bench and talked a while, mostly about nothing – football, the local deli, the weather – neither of us followed it, but our mouths made the sounds. In a small copse of trees nearby, three of the shadows drifted. Hiram showed me the gun in his pocket, a little silver thing, and old. Looked like one of those revolvers they’d have on bad cop shows. He pulled it out and stuffed it away real quick, his hand doing a little jitter, like palsy was the thing on tap. He smoked and looked out at the woods, and I could see it in him. The internal math. Do I shoot them now? Does someone hear? What happens? What happens? In the end, he left again, his hand jammed in his pocket, a cigarette drooping from his lip. If the cigarettes and shadows don’t do anything, he’ll find a use for that pistol. I could almost see Damocles’ sword hanging by its thread. The shadows didn’t notice.

 

Feb. 19

I can’t find the thing from the hall. I’m not sure where it went, but I haven’t seen Ms. K in a while. I knocked, but no one answered. She was old. I’m sure she has family, has someone who knows where she is. I don’t know, I’m not her keeper. I thought of something, an idea that clung to me for a while, but when I dug out Hiram’s number, the phone only squealed and the voice on the other end did her little disconnect dance. Maybe he found the solution to his math.

 

Feb. 22

There’s more of them. Less people on the street. Is it Sunday? I only know the number. I only know there are less people on the street on Sunday. I think about them, crammed in their churches and synagogues and mosques, praying, genuflecting, singing. I wonder what they would make of this. Punishment? Angels? Demons? I wonder if I should stop by St. Anthony’s. I call information, but the phone only hums. That’s normal, right? Is Google down? If Google’s down, everything’s down.

I think about going to the library – they have computers there. They’d know. Then a shadow passes on the street, and I think about home. I check the sky, and it’s gray, like steel wool. I think about the way you could unravel it, set fire to the end, and watch the sparks climb the metal spindles like a burning ladder. I wonder if that’s what’s going on in my brain, if that’s why I’m seeing these things. I wonder if that’s how the world ends, a steady slow burn that leaves only black in its wake.

 

Feb. 24

Is it a leap year? I wonder briefly if that’s why this is happening. All those stolen seconds leeching into hours and days and years – are we breaking time? A nice lady picked up Hiram’s phone today. She said she didn’t know where he was, and wanted to know my name. Why would she need that? I hung up. I thought about disconnecting my phone, but what if one gets in here? I’d need to call for help. I could say I was having a panic attack, or I had fallen. Instead, I went to the park.

 

Feb. 24

They’re everywhere. I can’t – I thought I heard Hiram, hacking in the woods, and went to him. They were close enough to touch – I didn’t. I couldn’t. What about space AIDS, or possession, or melting my skin off? I slipped between them while they watched. His pistol was lying in the leaves. There was an empty shell in it. No sign of Hiram. Did he try to kill them? Did he do himself? I took the gun. He’ll want it back. They just watched. What did they see? I didn’t ask – couldn’t find my voice. Would they have answered?

 

Feb. 26

Why don’t they do anything? It’s a riddle wrapped in an enigma, wrapped in a cheesy burrito. Taco Bell would be fucking proud. They just stand around and watch. I don’t see many people outside, but it’s been raining for a day. People don’t like the rain. These things, it doesn’t bother. Nothing much bothers them. I doubt their humanity. I wonder at my own. Why can’t I say something to them? Am I afraid of the answers? I hold Hiram’s gun at night and think until my brain hurts. Until the headache throbs and my vision doubles. Nothing. Nothing.

 

Feb. 28

There’s another in my building. I couldn’t talk to it, but I waved the gun. It didn’t notice. Or pretended not to. My skin itches all the time now. I honestly can’t tell if it’s because I got too close in the park, or because anxiety is ramping my senses up to twenty. I almost left today. I called Hiram instead and listened to the dial tone for a while. I wonder if he’s somewhere safe – maybe the cops picked him up after he fired the gun. Maybe he ran off. I wonder if he’s got cigarettes, and my lungs ache for that old burn. I’m not leaving.

 

Feb. 28

Woke up by the sound of something scratching. Could be rats. This is an old building. Tried watching Kimmel. There’s an old girlie mag under my bed, but I’m not that kind of keyed up. Finally decided to open that bottle of Wild Turkey from under the sink. I brought my chair to the entry so I can watch the door. The whiskey burns, but it’s a comforting burn. I wonder when they’re going to do something. That’s what strangers do, right? They wait, and they watch, then they hit you when your nerves are high so you make a mistake. They give you a smile, and you relax, and then you give them your money. Or they slit your throat. I think of Hiram, pale and sweating. I feel the weight of the pistol in my lap and mentally count the bullets. Will it matter? They’ll do something soon. They have to, right? Will it matter? I count the bullets again. Will it matter? One of them will. One of them will.

Ancestry

cnn.com

WOMAN, 32 CHARGED WITH MURDER

As details of a grisly murder surface, questions arise

by David Rath

Alerted to the possibility of foul play, investigators were called to the home of Maria Rathbone, 32, of Howard’s Falls, Idaho on Wednesday. After speaking with the homeowner, one of the officers asked to see the inside of the home, alerted to something amiss by what he described as a ‘suspicious odor’. Ms. Rathbone was compliant, and led the officers on a tour of the home, culminating in a small den, the scene of which investigators said reminded them of a butcher shop.

Ms. Rathbone had murdered her father, Elias Rathbone, 72, and was attempting to connect his organs to the internal components of her desktop computer. Ms. Rathbone has not been forthcoming about her reasoning behind the murder, and investigators are currently awaiting the results of a psychological evaluation.

Sherriff Stephen Clarke of Howard County was unavailable for comment.

 

The Ones We Left Behind (excerpt)

by Amy Wong

Simon & Schuster

…and in the context of family, it’s the weight of a thousand years that drags us down. Our grandparents, and their grandparents, and their grandparents’ grandparents all lead to an unbroken genetic chain that informs everything from our eye color to the things we fear. Can we look back on that chain, at the sacrifices and mistakes and lost loves and wonder what if? Can we truly say we are doing them proud, or that we have our own future generations’ lives and livelihoods at heart? What happens when we forget those things that build our heritage? Who lives for the ones who died? Who loves those? Is it all worth it, or would they find disappointment in their modern descendents? Is there any one thing we can do to bring them joy? Or are we only serving the memory of a life that simply doesn’t exist, a light that winks out when the void closes in, clinging to religion and belief and tradition like lichen to a stone? No one really knows, but I like to think there’s something there. Even if it’s only in our hearts and minds. My grandmother used to say There is only one life, but it goes on forever. In that, maybe we have all the answers we need.

 

honeydo.org

Seeking Mr. Wrong

Oh, SamMy, I KNOw you see me. PLEasE Call.

 

Sun-Valley Tribune  

Obituaries, May 9

Vera Sawyer, age 63, passed away today at Carrol Family Care. She was preceded in death by her husband, John Sawyer and her parents, Claude and Juliet Hopper (Baumann). Vera leaves behind a son, Samuel, three grandchildren, and one great-grandchild. The family has asked in lieu of flowers, a donation be made in her name to the Voight-Kampf Memorial Fund.

 

wechat.com

flowergurl has entered the room

dingdong97: Hey!

humpa: Hey!

samman: hey

[samman to you]: hey, you like flowers? what kind?

[flowergurl to samman]: Gardenias, lilacs.

[samman to you]: you like Georgia O’ Keeffe?

[flowergurl to samman]: Who?

[samman to you]: the vagina lady

[flowergurl to samman]: Shame on you, Sam! You were raised better!

flowergurl has disconnected

 

theguardian.co.uk

WORLDWIDE OUTAGE AFFECTS 75% OF USERS

Internet row could cost well into the trillions

by James Canon

On Tuesday, a massive outage affecting nearly the world’s entire Internet user base was attributed to solar flares. Experts in IT, commerce, and infrastructure are still reeling from the shutdown that affected commerce, transportation, and medical care.

Perhaps more interesting are reports that alongside the outage, many users experienced visual or auditory errors upon logging on, including the voices of people they knew, or files on their desktops they couldn’t remember saving.

When asked about the situation, one MP referenced the harsh new conditions the Tories wish to place on Internet in the UK.

 

abovetopsecret.com

[Mr. Higgles] Theory: The government not only knows about magic, but is keeping it secret. In 1997, they started building the largest database of death certificates in the world. You know who else manipulated the dead? Necromancers. I’m telling you man, they plan on using our dead relatives in a future conflict, most likely against their own people. Sure, a well-armed populace can stand up to their government, but how the hell do you fight ghosts?

Before you poo-poo me, take a look – there’s an entire database online. It’s like they’re not even trying to hide it. And they sort them all by Social Security Number. I keep telling you guys – pay to get that shit erased. Otherwise, you’ll be serving well into the next seven lifetimes.

[HubbleEyes] Have you filed an FOIA request?

[JFKWASNOTALONE] How do we know you’re not a Russian plant, man? Who says ‘poo-poo’? A quick Google search tells me that phrase isn’t US-based.

[MKULTRAHIGH] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Necromancy

 

twitter.com

VERA SPEAKS @veraspeaks

Hello? Hello?

VERA SPEAKS @veraspeaks

Sammy? It’s dark in here.

VERA SPEAKS @veraspeaks

Sammy

 

cnn.com

COPYCAT MURDER BRINGS QUESTIONS

The second murder in a week, this one raises more questions

by David Rath

Alerted to the possibility of foul play, investigators were called to the home of Samuel Sawyer, 40, of White Plains, New York on Wednesday. A call was placed by neighbors who reported screams coming from the home of the White Plains lawyer.

Mr. Sawyer had murdered his wife, Celia Sawyer, 38, and in a scene similar to the previously reported murder was attempting to connect her organs to the internal components of his desktop computer. When questioned on the scene, Mr. Sawyer claimed his mother was ‘so, so lonely’.

Vera Sawyer passed away last month.

Lawyers for Mr. Sawyer declined to comment further on the case.

 

twitter.com

Celia @samwife

Sammy?

 

 

The Things We Leave Behind

“Do you think he was a narcissist?”  Katie asked.

She was wearing shorts rolled up at the thighs and thongs, and a y-back shirt with a sweat stain up the lower back.  Her long dark hair was pulled back in a pony, and she was leaning a large mirror with a gilded frame against the wall, and frowning down at her reflection.  She had spent the morning helping me wrap and cover and move my dead father’s more valuable belongings in bubble wrap and bed sheets.

I glanced over at her reflection and shook my head.

“Never struck me that way.  He was a lot of things, but never really vain.”

She tossed a sheet over the mirror, and I watched it billow out and float down, the fabric softening the sharp edges.  She shrugged.

“Odd thing for that man to own.  Fancy.”

I knew what she meant.  My father was not an ostentatious man.  I nodded absently, and went back to taping boxes shut.

*

We had lunch with the door open, letting a meager breeze play down the hall and through the rooms.  I chewed my sandwich, and watched the whisper of air move loose strands of her hair.  They lifted and waved, and settled, and in between bites, she would absently smooth them down.

I looked at her, and thought of my father’s relationships.  He was terse, and cold.  Sometimes, he would drink, and it would bring him to the edge of violence, but he never raised a hand, at least to the women that shared his bed.  I remembered the way he shuttered physical pain the same way he shuttered emotions.

He had a way of subsuming people to his will.  Sometimes he bullied, sometimes he cajoled, and sometimes he just broke them.  In the end, they did what he wanted.  He could be brutal.  I remembered scars and bruises brought on by hard, calloused hands.

He was deeply flawed, and yet, somewhere in there, there must’ve been more to the man, because there had still been women, and a family.  I’d loved my father, maybe in the way that a hostage loves his captors – a Patty Hearst sort of reaction to trauma; Stockholm of the heart – but I hoped to God I didn’t share any of his traits.

In the middle of those thoughts, Katie caught me looking at her, and winked.  I grinned back.  Then, we were finished with lunch, and we got to our feet with aching backs and aching knees, and went back to work.

In the hall, the sheet had fallen from the mirror, and as I went to cover it, I thought I saw, for just a moment, a dark smudge in the bottom corner, like a stain on the glass, or the reflection of someone in the room behind me.  I shrugged it off, and dropped the sheet back over it.  I wondered how my dad would feel about that stain, knowing how he’d taken meticulous care of the things he’d owned.

Katie cursed from the other room, drawing me from my thoughts for the second time that day, and I went to see what the matter was.  She was standing in the den, a puddle of glass and water at her feet.  Small flecks of white drifted in the puddle, and led to a broken globe with a wooden pedestal.  The plastic skyline of Chicago stood out from the dome, and water seeped into the soles of Katie’s thongs.

She was looking down at the broken snow globe with a look of annoyance.  She looked up when I entered the room, and her face shifted to one of apology.  She gestured to the mess on the floor.

“Sorry.  I was trying to wrap it, and it just kind of jumped out of my hands.  Must’ve still had mayo on my fingers.”

I shook my head.  “No big deal.  Dad had about a thousand of these things.  They’re worth about five bucks apiece, and he never really made a big deal out of them.”

I left the room, and grabbed a towel and the broom.  When I returned, Katie thanked me, and I watched her as she soaked up the water and shuffled the broken pieces into the dustpan, then the trash.  I watched as she hunched over, the play of muscles in her shoulders, the way the hair clung to her neck.  When she stood, I flushed a little, hoping she hadn’t caught me looking.

“Thanks,”  I said.  She smiled again.

I turned to go, back to the living room to finish boxing the last of the paintings.  I paused in the hall.  The sheet was off the mirror again.  I picked it up from the floor, and lifted it to cover the mirror, looking around for some tape to fix it in place.  In the mirror, that stain had grown larger; was the shape of a man in a dark brown suit.

He was indistinct, still too far away to see fine details, but I could see him.  He was wearing a homburg, and his face was a smudged fleshy blur with two dark pinpoints for eyes.  His mouth opened, a dark slash in the pink flesh.  I heard his voice in my head.

Disappointing.  You can’t let these bitches rule you.  You can’t let them break your possessions.  It starts there, you know.  They break your things, and then they break your will.  They think because of the pink slash betwee-

            I didn’t let him finish.  I threw the sheet over the mirror, and found a roll of tape.  I taped the fabric down, my hands shaking, and then slumped against the opposite wall and closed my eyes.  After a few minutes, I felt the air change, and smelled sweat and something sweet.  I looked up.

Katie was standing over me, a smirk on her lips.

“Getting a nap in?”

“Sorry -”  I cleared my throat.  “Sorry, I was just – headache.”

Concern crossed her face and creased her brow.  “You okay?”

I smiled.  “Yeah.  Fine.”

She turned to go, and caught sight of the mirror, wrapped in tape and sheet.  She looked down at it, hands on her hips, then back at me.

“Well.  Afraid of it getting away?  Here, it’s on there all cockeyed.  Let me help.”

She started to unwrap it, and I watched, unease growing in my belly.  I couldn’t tell her to stop.  She’d think me insane.  Maybe I was.  It’s not every day that your dead father comes to life in a mirror.  She finished, and pulled the sheet free to resituate it.

He was closer, and I could see the disapproving expression on his face, and the ring on his hand that he was using to gesture with while he spoke.

See?  She’s doing it.  You might as well be neutered now.  Maybe next time she’ll change your diapers, wipe your ass.

The sheet settled back over him, and Katie never batted an eye.  She didn’t see him, then.  Didn’t hear his invective.  For a moment, I wondered what I had happened to cause this.  Had I breathed in too many fumes from the cleaning chemicals?  Had I smacked my head?  Heat stroke?  Whatever it was, it wasn’t going away soon.  I’d have to learn to cope.

Katie finished taping the sheet off, and turned back to me, a smile on her face.

“There, all set!”  She looked down at her watch.

My father must’ve been closer, because I could hear him through the sheet now, though a bit muffled.

Checking the time.  Checking ’til when she can leave you and clean you out.  There’s a solution, you know.  You can stop this.  End it.

            The impression of a knife, long and sharp and silver, flashed through my mind.  I pushed it away with a mental effort.

Katie looked up.  “Head feeling okay?”

I nodded.  She leaned in and planted a kiss on my forehead.  “I have to run.  Yoga at four.  See you tomorrow?”

I nodded and kissed her back.  She was soft and warm and tasted of sweat and honey.  Then she left, and I was alone in the hall, an afternoon breeze pushing dust across the floor, and lifting the edges of the sheet on the mirror.

I looked around, and decided we’d done enough for the day.  I looked at the mirror, and decided it needed the trash.  I picked it up, and lugged it out to the car, tossing it in the hatch with little ceremony.  I was a little disappointed when it didn’t shatter.  I closed the car, locked the front door, and went home.

*

I looked at the mirror wrapped in sheets, leaning against my living room wall.  I wasn’t sure why I’d brought it home, or why it wasn’t in the trash.  Maybe it was because I’d seen my father in it.  Despite the venom that had come out of him, he was still my father.  Time and tide hadn’t changed that yet.

He’d been silent for some time, and I wondered again if I’d imagined it all.  Curiosity propelled my fingers, and I found myself pulling at the tape, and then the sheet.  It came away in a billowing puff of air, and I dropped it to the side and looked in the glass.

He was there, still in his brown suit and homburg, his gray hair peeking from beneath the brim of the hat, his dark brown eyes clutching at my face.  His lip curled up in a sneer, and his voice assaulted my mind.

Disappointment.  You were always weak.  And a bit stupid.  You never planned, never looked ahead, and never were cautious enough.  Now look at you.  Spineless, cowering under a woman’s skirts.

            “”Shut up -” I started to reply, and was interrupted by a knock at the door.

I listened.  Katie’s voice came floating through the wood.

“Hey, it’s me.”

Redemption.  You can make it right.  Let her in.  End it.

            Again, that vision of a blade flickered through my mind, and I found myself making my way toward the kitchen.  I forced myself to stop with an effort of will.

Weakling.

            She knocked again.  “Kevin?”

WEAK.

            Pain blared through my head with the force of that thought, and my vision disappeared in a wave of blackness.  When it passed, I was standing in the kitchen, groping for the knife block.  Once again, I forced myself to stop, to turn away from the knives.  Instead, I cast around for something heavy, and found the sharpening rod.  I pulled it from the block, and stalked to the living room.

The doorknob rattled, and the old man started in on me again, his voice like nails on glass in my mind.

You can do it.  Make me proud.  End it, and take control of your life.

            I threw the sharpening rod into the mirror, and it shattered, a thousand pieces scattering on the carpet.  The sound was loud, like the crash of a wave on rocks, and from the hallway, I could hear Katie slipping a key in the lock.

I looked down, at the shards of glass on the floor, and wondered how I would explain it.  The old man was looking back at me, a thousand disapproving faces, and a thousand pairs of angry eyes.  I heard his voice once again, a cacophony of discordant sound that raked at my ears.

DO. AS.  I.  SAY.

            I was in the kitchen again, and Katie was coming through the door.  I saw her turn the corner, and felt the knife in my hand.  I heard her footfalls on the linoleum, and saw the light play on her skin.  My legs twitched forward, and I could hear the old man laughing.

I sobbed, and drew the knife across my throat.

Vengeance

A short piece I wrote a while ago, when I was tinkering with different styles and even darker themes. Sometimes I write things like this just to break a block, or to work out an idea that makes its way into a more coherent piece. Enjoy.

Vengeance

                You know the clichés.  Revenge is a dish best served cold.  If you go looking for revenge, dig two graves.  An eye for an eye.  None of them matter.  In the middle of the night, when you can’t sleep for the rage that sits in your stomach, caution and reason seem like foreign countries.  Even when the cold light of day dawns and spreads reason like a beacon, you still calculate and plot, the anger like a pit of ice in your gut.

They took something from me in the woods.  I still remember rough hands and tight rope.  Lives snuffed like candles.  There are times I can still smell moss and loam and the dry dead scent of leaves rotting in drifts on the ground, and can feel the prick of their cold blades in my cheek.  I still see the pale moon resting overhead in a cold autumn sky, and wonder how much suffering it can watch before it slips its moors and hurls itself into the Earth.  Mercy or murder I wonder, and know my answer.

I watch them.  It cost my house and the insurance, and the tatters of my life, but I watched, and I learned.  I know where they live, where they play, and who they love.  Normal channels break down.  They tell me it’s an open case; they tell me they have no leads.  They tell me they’re working on it.  My therapist says it’s time to move on, to heal.  Still, I pick at the scab.  I open the scar and let the hate bleed through.

There are words, if you know where to look, that provide the gate and the key.  They are whispered between madmen and scrawled in broken speech on bathroom stalls.  You can find them in dead letters and the spilling of bone shards in pools of gore.  I read them, and I know my path.

*

                The pills were cheap – soporifics I picked up from an online pharmacy.  The kind of place where they worry less about what kind of insurance you have and more about what kind of currency you carry.  The walls are marked, the highway laid out in the red language of intent.

I wash the pills down with a glass of wine and lay myself to sleep one last time.  In my mind’s eye, I keep the rage, all of the hate I feel for the world in an icy ball, and I think of the place I need to be.  Other thoughts, memories of a life once lived, drift past and I push them down.  I feel my heart slowing, like the unwinding of a clock spring, and feel no fear.

*

                Awake.  Aware.  You come into this place in a blinding pain, agony like fire encircling your neck.  Let the punishment fit the crime, they say.  Let them hang by the neck until dead.  But we’re already dead.  We swing in the hot breeze, ash and cinder floating by in the wasteland, hung from blackened trees.  The rope that circles my neck is hot and chafing, and I can feel it dig into my flesh.  I choke back the urge to scream, and reach up, forcing my hands under the rope.  Somewhere in the distance, drums beat the air.

It scrapes my skin as it travels upward, and I clench my jaw, force it past my chin.  In a sudden jerking movement, the noose slips free, and I am spilled to the ground in a heap.  I fall on my hands and knees and can feel the black glassy rock under the ash cut my palms, cut my legs.  It is warm, and it takes a moment for me to stand.  I am naked.

I turn and see that behind me lies a vast forest where the dead sway from stark limbs.  I reach up and pull the noose from its limb, the branch giving way with a sharp crack.  I wait, but no one comes to investigate.  The hate still cold in me, I begin to walk, toward a red horizon where jagged reefs of bone stand white against the sky and stab at its heart.

*

                I pass through a red desert of misery, trenches dug into the clay, where men and women chase back and forth, flayed by beasts with pale flesh and two faces.  One or the other mouths always call to the condemned, the air full of threats and promises.  They wield whips made from thin chains that jingle as they walk.  They don’t notice me as I walk atop their walls.

I walk a bridge made from screaming human flesh that spans a river where the dead are knee-deep and ravaged by birds with knife-like beaks that refuse to give them rest.  The bridge moans as you walk on it, and whispers thoughts best left unheard.  I ignore them and move on.  Through it all, the drums beat on.

Finally, I arrive at the black plain where the bones of beasts great and small lie buried and half-buried, jagged ends jutting out like the teeth of some vast predator.  In the black mud between lie more men and women, buried to their chests.  The heat is worse here, and their skin is parched and dry, their eyes sunken, their lips cracked and bloody.  They cry out for relief, though none comes.  They bite their lips and cheeks and drink the blood greedily.

It is here that I begin to work, finding first small jagged bits of bone, ignoring the cries of the damned.  The first one I skin screams until I can hear nothing else, not even the drums.  My hand shakes, and then steadies as the cold wash of my hatred, of my purpose, covers me and washes the doubt away.  After a time, they begin to fear me.  I leave a garden of stripped souls behind.

When I am satisfied I have enough, I begin to build.  Bone and sinew, and blood, to hold it together.  I wrap it in flesh and give it black stone for eyes.  It stares back at me, cold and hard and unyielding.  Still, it needs life.  I cut the heart from my chest.  It’s surprisingly easy, and when I hold it, it is cold, vapor coiling from it in a white mist.  I place it in the chest of my machine.

Mist coils from its mouth and the cold heart beats in time to the drums.  It speaks.

“Mother.”

I use the noose and fashion a sling for his back.  I’ve named him Peter.  I climb up and dig my heels into ribs he doesn’t feel.  I wrap my arms around his neck.  We walk.

*

                The dead have roads.  We walk them to the dark places, the places where the membrane between the worlds is thin, stretched taut like skin over bone.  We push against them, and slip through, gazing out of mirrors, peering from behind closet doors.

We find them, eventually.  It has been a long time, longer than I imagined, but they still live.  They still go on, after ending my life.  They scream.  They plead and weep.  They try to escape to madness, but we pull them back and rip the muscle from their skeletons before they die in puddles of their own excrement.

We are avenged.

*

                When it’s over, we walk on.  We rest in the quiet of the world, and we wait.  There is still so much punishment, and we are patient.

 

 

 

The Devil’s Piss – A Vignette

“Sonovabitch.”

There was a pause, and it came again, slower, more pronounced.

“Son. Of. A. Bitch.”

Kevin looked over at the man a couple of urinals away. He was on the shorter side, though a bit stocky. His head was bald, with stubble that covered his scalp and trailed down to his sideburns and cheeks to a Van Dyke. He was wearing an expensive black suit with a red shirt peeking over the top of the jacket. The man was looking down, holding himself with both hands, and rocking onto his heels every now and then.

“Sonovabitch.” He said again.

“You all right?” Kevin asked.

The man turned his head to look at him. Crow’s feet spread at the corners of his eyes, and laugh lines bracketed his mouth. He was deeply tanned.

“Yeah, it’s just when you get to be my age, it doesn’t always come unless you bully it.” He laughed, a friendly-sounding chuckle.

Kevin smiled, or at least tried to. Truth be told, he was having a little trouble now, too. He hated it when people talked to him in the bathroom. It was a toilet, for the love of God, not a public forum. He looked back down, not noticing his forehead creasing in concentration.

“Having a little trouble yourself? I hear if you blow on it, it’ll get things started.”

Without looking up, Kevin asked, “That ever work for you?”

The man chuckled again. “Oh hell, no. Just a suggestion.”

They lapsed into silence. Kevin was thinking about just quitting for now, going back to his cube. He had a meeting in about 30 minutes though, and he hated to think of being stuck in the conference room with an ache in his bladder. He felt something, the tickle that meant it was coming, and got unreasonably excited for a moment.

“Say, what department you with?” The man asked.

The tickle went away, and Kevin heaved a sigh of annoyance. He looked over at the man.

“Marketing. You?”

“Acquisitions.”

“Didn’t know that department existed.”

“New addition.”

“You like it? Marketing, that is.” The man asked.

Kevin shrugged. He did enjoy the work. Sometimes he wished he could move ahead, though.

“It’s fine.”

“Tell you what – ahh, that’s it.” The sound of a strong stream hitting the side of the urinal filled the room, followed by the smell of rotten eggs.  Kevin couldn’t help himself.

“You sure you’re ok- what the hell is that?”

Smoke had started rising from the urinal, like a thick steam. It obscured the man’s face for a moment, then it dissipated almost as soon as it had come, and the man was zipping up.  He took something out of his coat, and approached Kevin, who was trembling, though he didn’t know why. The man grinned, and for the first time Kevin noticed his teeth were white, almost impossibly so, and sharp. He tucked the business card in Kevin’s jacket pocket, and patted him on the shoulder, then turned and walked away, leaving the bathroom without washing his hands. After a moment, Kevin’s stream started, and he stood there in a bathroom smelling of rotten egg and pissing more out of fear than relief.

When he was done, he walked by the urinal the other man had been standing at. The porcelain was pitted and scorched, and he wondered if it had all been a prank. He washed his hands, and took the card from his pocket. It read

L. Morningstar

Acquisitions

Beneath that was a number. The alarm on his phone buzzed, letting him know his meeting was in a few minutes, and he silenced it and tucked it away. He looked back at the pitted and stained urinal, and the business card, then pulled his phone out for a second time, and dialed the number. After a ring or two, a voice, rich and friendly, answered.

“Kevin. So nice of you to call.”

The Expedition

Editor’s note – the following is an excerpt from the diary of Jonah Johnson, surveyor for the Carter Expedition, an outing to the Arctic Circle in the early 20s.  The expedition left the north-most region of Canada in April of 1923, and were presumed lost.  Jonah was survived by a wife and son and two grandchildren, Jesse and Caroline.

 

July 1923, Day 5

We left base camp in Canada five days ago, setting off from a remote island in the north and across the ice bridge that forms year round between it and the Arctic.  Our guides, two Inuit men named Aguta and Itigiaq, met us there, with two teams of sled dogs and accompanying sleds.  We took what supplies we could – a compass, a map composited from past expeditions and surveys, dry rations, fuel for fire lighting, tents, and a few gallons of water.  Despite the abundance of snow and ice, most of it is salt-based, and attempting to drink it would be a futile effort at best.

The party seems to be in good spirits, Milhausen and Carter joking, and Brimly looking on with a wry smile.  We’ve already covered good ground, and with luck, will be at our destination in fifteen days or less, weather permitting.

 

July 1923, Day 7

We had considered the possibility that our rations would run out before we could return to base camp, that it was entirely possible to be stuck in the snow and weather past our scheduled time.  On the sixth day out, one of the sled dogs died, and though the idea was tossed about, no one here spoke on it or acted on that atrocity.  I can already see the worry that gnaws at Milhausen beginning to fester, and hope he holds himself together long enough to make this trip.   We all agreed to half-rations for as long as we could stomach it, which should be a good while.  I don’t think anyone wants to admit they had entertained the idea of eating a pet.

Aguta buried the dog in a mound of snow and marked the grave with a few jagged pieces of ice he managed to break free.  He seems like a good man, though quiet.  Itigiaq just looked on, and made a sign in the air at the grave.  I asked Aguta about it, and he explained it as ‘old superstition’.  Still, that night in my tent, I crossed myself and said a little prayer for safe passage.

 

 

 

June 1923, Day 10

Carter found something while striking camp.  One of the tent-pegs had cracked the ice in a deep rift, perhaps digging into an existing fissure and acting as a wedge.  Below, we could glimpse a rock formation that looked to be a vein of pure silver.  Milhausen claimed it was simply reflection caused by light striking a surface that had been eroded to a mirror over the space of ages.  With cold creeping in, and an estimated ten more days to our destination, no one was in the mood to argue.  But I know what I saw.

That night, I dreamt of things long sleeping under the ice, and other less pleasant things.  When we awoke in the morning, another sled dog had died.  Most of us assumed he had left the pack in the middle of the night and froze to death without their protection.  Aguta and Itigiaq had a heated argument while they buried this one, with Itigiaq finally storming off.  When I asked him about it, Aguta did not seem to think he would be with us much longer.

 

June 1923, Day 11

Solid travel, uneventful.  Maybe just acclimation, but it feels like it’s getting warmer.  More tomorrow, the hardest leg of our journey just ahead, what Brimly has dubbed our Everest – a four mile diameter sheet of ice riddled with pressure ridges and ice floes.

The dogs are fighting.

 

June 1923, Day 12

Snowstorm.  It came on us from the north (Ha!), and blinded us almost instantly.  A halt was called, and we managed to find each other through calls and our flashlights.  We figured the winds to be about 35 miles an hour, and had to drive our tent spikes twice as deep, though there is still the fear the ice will shift and loose a peg, and the wind will snatch a tent away.

The temperature has dropped again as well, and I can only heat the ink in my pen so many times before it becomes useless.  I will stop for the night, and pray the storm does as well.

 

June 1923, Day 13

Itigiaq is gone.  The storm abated in the night, and we woke to find he had taken a sled and three day’s supplies with him.  Milhausen is beside himself, and keeps asking when we’ll have to eat the other dogs.  I suggested that we consider turning back now, but Brimly would have none of it.  He’s convinced we’re only a few days from our destination, and will be branded cowards should we fail now.  Carter nodded assent, though I saw a worry in his eyes as well.

My other concern, I kept to myself.  That is, the farther we go, the more frequent the nightmares become.  No one else has spoken of them, but I see the dark circles under Brimly’s eyes, and the haunted look in Carter’s.  If I weren’t a rational man, I would think we were being hunted.

I had the chance to speak with Aguta before we retired to our tents.  He is upset as well over Itigiaq’s betrayal, but is sure the man will be brought to justice should he return to their village.  I am not so sure.  Three days’ supplies, and a twelve day trek back – the math does not work out well for him.

 

June 1923, Day 14

None of us slept well, between fears of dreams that had grown darker and listening to the sounds of the camp between gusts of wind.  Those dreams – I see things in the daylight now – half-shadows and shapes that lurk at the corner of the eye, and then dart from vision when you turn to view them.  I feel I should speak to Carter about this, since he is the medical expert in our group, yet I cannot bring myself to admit to another man, let alone myself, that I may be losing my mind.

When I left the tent, Brimly greeted me with a cup of coffee and a grimace.  We drank in silence for a minute, the ice just beginning to glisten from the rising sun.  He broke it first.

“Milhausen’s gone.  Poor bastard slit his wrists last night, bled out in his tent.”  He said.

I opened my mouth to ask about the others – Carter and Aguta, and Brimly cut me off.  “They’re gone as well.  Together, or not, I can’t be sure, but they’ve disappeared.  They took almost the last of our rations, the sled, and the radio.”

I took it all in, weighing our options.  Pursuing those two would most certainly constitute a complete collapse of the expedition, with precious time and resources wasted.  Brimly had apparently arrived at the same conclusion, and so we agreed on the most sensible course of action.  We would search the immediate area for signs of either Carter or Aguta, and succeed or fail, strike camp the next day to proceed to our final destination.  Depending on our supplies, should we be able to hold out there, our contingency plan called for colleagues back home to mount a rescue should we pass our trip goal.

We began our search, splitting the mile surrounding the camp into hemispheres, Brimly taking the west, and I the east.  I didn’t walk long before I found my first clue, red slush in a wide pool not even a quarter mile from the tents.

The cold restricted the senses, pressing in at times from all sides as though the air had walls and was slowly imploding.  I got to my knees and lowered the mask I had worn for the walk, and smelled almost immediately the coppery tang of fresh blood.  I looked around, trying to locate Brimly, loathe to waste one of the few flares we had left to signal him.

Luck seemed to be with me however, as I spotted him nearly right away.  He was near the center of camp, standing with his back to me.  I figured he had returned to warm himself at a small fire we had made.  I waved and shouted his name.

He turned, as though hurt or stiff, and I waved again.  Another moment passed, and he didn’t respond.  The oddest thought occurred to me then.

What if that isn’t Brimly?

A shadow flickered at the edge of my vision, and I turned my head.  Nothing there, but that thought bothered me.  This was the Arctic, after all, and we were the only two at camp.  The amount of blood I had found suggested another would be dead or dying, and as for the fourth, I doubted they would have made the trouble to come back.  I hailed Brimly again, and hesitated for a second, despite logic settling in.

I waved one more time, and saw him respond at last, his body turning in what again struck me as an odd, mechanical way, his legs punching into the snow like pistons.  I reached into my pocket and grabbed the only thing there – the flarefun I had tucked away – it wasn’t much in the way of a weapon, but it might do in a pinch.

At sixty yards, the bottom dropped out of my stomach.

Brimly was stripped to the waist, his chest a red ruin where someone or something had torn a ragged hole where his heart used to be.   In its place was a glass cylinder that seemed to be affixed by cables shunted directly into raw veins.  In the center of the cylinder, suspended in a mix of plasma and a glowing green ichor, a single disembodied eye glared out.

Even as I recognized it, it rolled in its fluid and fixed that stare on me, and I felt an unnatural chill roll its way up my spine and into the base of my skull.  For a moment, those shadows at the edge of my vision began to darken, and I could hear what sounded like words forming in the back of my mind.

I was torn away from the voices in my head, their words twisting like smoke in the wind, by the sound of Brimly, gurgling and then screaming from deep in his throat.  I stepped back, and for the first time noticed the ice axe he was dragging behind him.  He raised it, and I fell back again.

The axe whistled by me, the serrated head so sharp I could almost taste the steel in the air.  Unthinking, I reached into my pocket, and pulled the flare gun out.  Not aiming, not thinking, I raised it, and fired.

By then, the thing that had been Brimly regained his coordination, and I was knocked sideways even as an agonizing pain tore into my ribs.  I screamed and heard one in response even over what I was sure was the snap and crackle of breaking bone.

I pulled myself right even as the axe fell away from me, and heard the pop and fizzle of fire in snow.  I was able to clear my head long enough to see what had happened.  The flare had shattered the cylinder, spilling its contents onto the tundra, the eye a blackened ruin in a pool of glass and green ice.  Brimly’s body was not far from it, the torn tubing leaking green and red vital fluids into the snow.

Warmth slid down my leg, and I saw the blood seeping through the rent in my coat.  It took some time for me to stagger back to the tents, and once, I thought myself lost when my vision went black, and I found myself staring out at miles and miles of snow and ice.  Eventually, I made it, and crawled into my tent.  I was able to bind my wound with strips of cloth torn from my bedding, and when I could no longer hold my head up, I slept.

 

June 1923, Day 15

When I woke again, it was dawn.  I gathered what things I could, and determined that I would make our destination and wait for rescue, if it came.  On the way out, my pack loaded with what I could carry, I stopped at Brimly’s corpse and picked up the axe that had wounded me.  My ribs ached and throbbed, but I was able to keep them at a dull roar with some of the morphine from Carter’s medkit.

I made my way from the camp, heading due north, according to the compass.  The wind was up, and it didn’t take long for a numbness to creep into my skin despite my layers of clothing.  Head down, I crept forward, and it wasn’t until I realized a shadow had fallen over me that I looked up.

I was at the base of an ice ridge, pushed up from the sheet cracking and shifting, much like the earth’s crust after an earthquake.  It loomed over me like the hand of a long dead and frozen god, and for a moment, I could only stare, fighting the image in my mind of it crashing down on me, crushing me from existence.

I stepped forward, under the eaves of the ledge, and felt the wind drop off.  Mixed feeling flowed through me.  I was glad for the respite – frostbite can be a horrible thing – and worried as well.  The chill was helping to numb my wound, and I wondered how long out of it before it began to ache again.

I checked the compass and my surroundings, and made note of the length of the ridge.  In order to progress, I would have to go around, since I neither trusted the nature of the ice, nor my own strength to try to climb over.    I began to edge along its base, making my way to the far end where the summer sun split the shadow and turned the snow and ice into brilliant diamond reflections.

I almost fell into an opening in the wall of the ridge.  One second there was an unbroken wall of ice, and the next, an opening the size of a man, stretching down and back into the Arctic surface.  I looked into the dark, and could feel it trying to press back on me, the black like a pressure on my eyes.  After a moment, I was able to fetch my flashlight out and shine it in.

Pale light struck the walls of a smooth tunnel carved from the ice, lighting it up in a soft blue glow, and illuminating a worn path into its depths.  Outside, the wind shifted directions and picked up, and I could feel that chill coming back to me.  Snow began to drift, and then swirl in heavy gusts, and my mind was made up.  Whatever was in that tunnel, at least it wasn’t certain frostbite.  I took the first step in, and my flashlight flickered.  Shadows moved at the edge of the darkness, black cut from black, and then were gone as soon as the light relit.

I moved on, the ice beneath my boots creaking.  Walls that looked as though they were bored into the ice by a hot drill slid by, absorbing, then reflecting the light.  I could hear the wind outside, increasing to a howl, and took comfort in the idea that though I might not know my destination, I would not die in the snow.

After a long descent, the tunnel began to level out and widen, and the ice began to recede.  Walls of rock replaced ice, and hard-packed earth the floor.  I hadn’t been imagining the warmth.  Water dripped from the ceiling, and formed small pools on the floor.  After a time, I felt warmth begin to tingle in my fingers and toes, and I pulled off my mitts, trying to drink in as much of the heat as my flesh would allow.

After three hundred yards, I was amazed to find the cavern walls converging on a single egress point – as if the cavern had been shaped by purposeful hands.  Something in the pit of my stomach stayed my step, and I found myself unwilling to walk further than I had come.  I retraced my steps, to the furthest point from that black opening in the cavern wall, and set up a meager camp.

For a while, the smallest sound – water dripping on stone and earth, the distant howl of Arctic wind, even my own breath in my ears – kept me awake.  Once, maybe twice, I would swear shadows moved at the edge of vision, and then I shut the flashlight off.  I was growing too weary to be afraid.  Too tired to fear death, or insanity.

 

June 1923, Day 17

I made it a hundred feet into the tunnel at the end of the cavern today.  Something’s in there.  I can feel a warm breeze, and smell…something.   Smells like hot metal, sometimes like hot flesh.  I will make another trip tomorrow.

Shadows, and movement in the dark.  I can hear you, I can hear you I can hear

 

June 1923

I feel better.  Hunger, maybe sleep deprivation was getting to me.  I will have to leave this cave soon.  I fear I have been here too long, and missed the rescue crew.   I’ve eaten a few extra rations – it won’t matter if they’re here soon, or if they’re not.  I think I will walk through the tunnel today.

 

 

 

June

A man came today – I found the other end of the tunnel – he tried to stop me.  He tried to stop me, and I bit him, and hit him, until he fell down.  The shadows are back.  They talk to me now, and they wear the faces of my friends – Brimly, Milhausen, Carter.  Maybe they were always my friends?  I don’t sleep now, too much…

 

June 1923, Day ?

…took the man to the room at the end of the tunnel…he came back, but I had to kill him again…I will sit in the chair…no choice…out of food…out of time…

 

Editor’s note – The diary ends here.  No indication has been given as to how the diary was recovered, or by whom, and further attempts to contact Jesse Johnson, the author’s grandson, have gone unanswered.  Research of periodicals of that time indicates a rescue mission was sent to the Arctic, as scheduled, but was suspected lost as well.  

 

Epilogue

June 2012

Caroline said she wouldn’t take the house – had enough responsibilities, she said. Cleaning the basement was a bitch and a half, but I managed to get it done in a couple of days.  If I didn’t know better, I’d swear my grandparents were hoarders.

Found a cool old chair down there that I think I’ll have restored.  Looks kind of like an old dentist chair, with all kinds of tubes and instruments hanging off of it.  Just brought it upstairs for now.  If nothing else, I might be able to sell it.

I’m going to have to hire a contractor to wall off the addition to the basement – it looks like an old root cellar – just a wooden door there locked tight, but so old I wasn’t able to open it.  I think there are rats in there.

I keep hearing something moving, and more than once in that light, a shadow crossed the edge of my vision.

Panphobia

Airplanes.  Flying.  Heights.  Spiders.  Insects.  The dark.  Germs.  Thunderstorms.  Highways.  The list went on.  Harry tried to think back on when he hadn’t been afraid of all these things, and why, but all he got was nostalgia without reason.

He hardly watched the news anymore, or read it, for that matter.  Floods, fires, war, and rumors of war.  Murder, envy, and greed.  It was as if every time he picked up the paper or flipped on the tube, he gathered a new phobia to himself, and he already felt full to bursting.  He knew the ridiculousness of it, knew the news catered to sensationalism.  He knew there was enough good in the world to balance out the bad, yet another part of him sat in its corner and scowled out, and refused to believe it so.

That part of his mind had always refused to behave.  When he was younger, it held less sway over his life, though no less pessimistic; no less sour.  It came out in bouts of dour humor and cynicism, and occasional anger at the ridiculousness of the world.  The older he got though, the more that part of him took hold, entrenched itself in his way of thinking.  It reminded him that there was always a catch, always a downside.

When he finally grew to the point he could fight the pessimism, he found that the cynicism had turned into a dour fatalism that insisted the world was a dangerous place, and there wasn’t a damn thing he could do about it.  As a matter of course, the rest of his brain reasoned that must mean the world was to be feared.

For the most part, he was able to suppress his fears.  He found a job that let him work from home.  He had his groceries delivered.  He meticulously cleaned his home every three or four days, and himself every night.  (Not without making sure the adhesive ducks on the bottom of the tub were firmly in place, though.  Wouldn’t be right, being cautious, only to be done in by a tub faucet.)

He had considered therapy, maybe medication, but that would mean leaving the house.  It would mean exposure, both physical and mental.  He didn’t know that he was ready for that.  Until he found an MD willing to diagnose via internet, he was content to stay put.

*

The day Harry found the spider in his shower drain was the day that changed his mind.

It had been an ordinary day, as far as days went for him.  He had done some work for a client, a simple piece of freelance code for a website, and managed to wrap that up before noon.  The rest of the day he spent cleaning the house, since it had been three days – making sure the surfaces were wiped down, the floors swept and vacuumed, and the tub scrubbed of soap residue.  After that, he sprayed everything with sanitizer, and waited in his office while the fumes dissipated.

As he waited, he read a bit of news, though he couldn’t get much past the first story, an article about death squads in the Congo.  He wondered for a moment if such things were exclusive to third-world countries, and decided not to leave it to chance.  You never knew who was watching, and what they might deem punishable.  Maybe just visiting a global news site rather than local had already dropped him on a watch list.  He took a moment to dump his browser history, and then turned the computer off.  He should probably have alarms installed, just in case.

He walked to the bathroom, and dropped his clothes in the basket by the door.  He turned the faucets on, tinkering with the hot and cold until it was just right, and tested the ducks on the bottom by trying to slide his hand across the floor of the tub.  It stuck, and he was satisfied.  He got in, and wet his hair, humming to himself.  There was a song stuck in his head, ‘Fall Down’.  He thought it was by Toad the Wet Sprocket.  A part of his brain checked off the coincidence, and carried on.

He turned to grab the soap from the ledge by the showerhead, and stopped, mid-reach.  He had looked down, to make sure the drain wasn’t clogging with hair (though his wasn’t long, and he wasn’t balding).  A clogged drain meant soap and water build-up, and almost guaranteed slippage, no matter how many adhesive ducks you had in the bottom of your shower.  His gaze was frozen on the drain, still clear, water still swirling down.  Despite that, he could see two long legs poking from the holes.

His heart skipped a beat, and he took a step back, trying to make space between himself and those legs.  As he did, they began to move, as though they sensed his fear, trying to gain purchase on the wet surface of the tub.  Harry stood frozen for a moment, then with a curse, shoved the shower curtain to the side, and stepped out while watching the legs squirm.

Without turning the water off, he edged to the side, eyes still on the drain, and flipped open the cabinet under the sink.  He groped around for a moment, feeling his fingers brush a can of Scrubbing Bubbles, a block of soaps still in their cardboard boxes and cellophane, and a container of disinfectant wipes.

The legs seemed to notice he was up to something (maybe it was his imagination, though he didn’t care to make a distinction at this point), and seemed to be scrabbling harder for purchase.  He saw another set of legs worm their way through the drain, and he choked his fear down.

His fingers finally found the handle of the bleach bottle he kept under the sink, and he pulled it out with a triumphant grunt.  He spun the cap off, and without any ceremony or hesitation, poured it into the drain.  The legs fought for a moment against the added flow from the bottle, then lost the battle, and slipped away.

Harry let the water run for another minute, until the smell of bleach started to dilute with the steam in the air, and he was sure the spider wasn’t going to try again.  He hoped the damn thing burned all the way down the drain.  He dried off, deciding that was enough shower for one day.

He lifted the lid of the toilet – he really needed to pee after all of the excitement – and let fly.  He watched the stream hit the water, and looked down.  Legs the length of his pinky sprouted under the water, coming from the siphon hole.  They disappeared into darkness, though as he watched, they squirmed, as though trying to pull the rest of the thing attached to them to the surface.

His flow cut off like someone had kinked a hose, and he slammed the toilet lid shut.  After a second, he picked up the laundry basket and placed it on top.  He flushed once, and then twice, holding the lever down for longer than was strictly necessary, then left the bathroom.

He could hold it until he got to the therapist’s office tomorrow.  He looked at the toilet, and considered checking it.  Nope.  He could hold it.  He had to.

*

The therapist’s office was cool, white, and nearly sterile.  Harry liked it.  Two rows of two chairs sat across from each other in the waiting room, and an indoor waterfall babbled against one wall.  It was all very soothing.  The door to the therapist’s office was frosted glass, with stainless handles.  Stenciled on it in small neat letters was the name ‘Havel Patel, PhD’.

Harry was reading a paper someone had left on one of the small tables between the chairs.  It was, admittedly, a rare occurrence for him, but he figured he was already taking the right steps, surely another couldn’t hurt.

The news itself was surprisingly benign.  A new study had come out; revealing murder rates had dropped to all-time lows.  To Harry, that just meant his odds were better than ever to be killed by some psychopath or idiot with a gun.  As far as he was concerned, smaller odds for everyone else meant a higher rate for those within the target demographic.  He had left the house today, after all.  Surely that meant he had dropped himself into the likely target lottery.  He reminded himself again to check into an alarm system.

He moved on to another story.  Disease rates were down – better antibiotics, better treatment, and a greater knowledge of how disease worked were all collaborating to decrease why people got sick, for how long, and how severe a sickness could last.  Harry figured most of those people didn’t go out of their way to catch a bug.  Not like him, sitting in an unfamiliar office, holding a used newspaper, with a fountain sending unfiltered mist into the air.  He tossed the paper on the side table and brushed his hands on his legs.  He hoped Dr. Patel was coming soon.

As if on cue, the door to Dr. Patel’s room opened, and the man stepped out.  He was on the short side, a bit stocky, his head shaved to baldness, and a pair of glasses in rectangular frames perched on his nose.  He smiled at Harry.

“Mr. Dora?”

Harry nodded and stood.  Dr. Patel waited for Harry to enter his office, then closed the door behind them.  He hadn’t tried to shake Harry’s hand.  That was good.  There were two overstuffed chairs in the room, bracketed by walls of books, and a small window that looked out at the therapy center’s grounds – rolling lawn and trees that led to a small creek.  Harry took one of the chairs and waited for Dr. Patel to sit.

Patel sat, digging his backside into the chair for a moment before pulling up a notepad that had been nestled between the cushions.  He smiled over at Harry again.

“Why don’t you tell me a little about yourself, Harry?”  He said.

Harry hesitated for a moment.  Could he tell a stranger all of the things he thought?  What about the things he felt, the things that frightened him, even in the warm light of day; especially in the cold dark of night?

Baby steps he thought.  One at a time.

He took a breath, and began to talk.

*

He told Dr. Patel about his childhood, and his adolescence, his drift from fearless to phobic as he moved to adulthood.  He found himself talking about his belief in the degradation of safety in society.  He talked about how he knew his fears to be irrational, knowing what was versus what he felt, and not being able to reconcile the two.

Dr. Patel listened, taking notes through the entire session, and when Harry was done, he set the notepad down.  The room seemed more still than it had when he started, as though filling the air with his fears had hushed even the air.  The doctor glanced at the clock on the wall, and then leaned forward.

“This is a good start, Harry.  I want you to think about the things you’ve told me, and come back in two days.  Specifically, I want you to think about that cognitive dissonance you hold – the idea that your fears are irrational, and yet you cannot banish them with rationale.”

Harry let out a breath, and nodded.  He was a little disappointed.  He had built up a good head of steam, and it felt like he needed to get some things out.

Doctor knows best, he thought.

He stood to go, and Dr. Patel stood with him, leading him to the door, and opening it for him.  The doctor must have seen the look on his face, because he laid a hand on Harry’s shoulder.

“Don’t worry, Harry, we’ll get it all out.”

Harry nodded, and stepped out of the office.  The door closed behind him.  He waited to hear the click of the latch in the doorframe, and walked out.

*

Night found Harry lying in bed, staring at the ceiling.  His nightlight cast a dim yellow glow into the corner of his room, bright enough to comfort, soft enough to not stab his eyelids with light.  He wondered for a moment where the spider in his toilet had gone.  He’d taken the time earlier to move the laundry basket, and lift the lid, and found the bowl was blissfully empty.  He had bleached it anyway, and then flushed it for half an hour, just to be sure, and he felt he could use the toilet tomorrow with a reasonable amount of confidence.

He thought about what Dr. Patel had told him – that he held a cognitive dissonance, a fracture in his mind.  He knew the statistics and the facts.  Spiders were rarely venomous enough to kill (more people were killed by champagne corks than spider bite every year), flying was safer than driving (redundancies on redundancies), and you had a higher chance of dating a celebrity than you did of catching the bird flu.  Still, they remained.

It was almost as if his fears were the symptoms of a virus he had contracted, a malignant strain that invaded his mind and rooted itself there with iron barbs.  He could talk all he wanted about the rational, the real, but when it came down to it, when the fear took hold, his body betrayed him.  Sweating, heart pounding, short breath, and an anxiety that drilled into his gut like an electric wire all drove him to avoid the things that caused those symptoms, forced him into a corner where avoidance was preferable to confrontation.

He was snapped away from his thoughts when something in the house creaked.  He knew it was probably just the place settling, but his mind immediately went to the things that lurked at the dark corners of his imagination – great misshapen furred beasts, and thieves with knives and little to lose.  He cast a glance at his bedroom door, and saw it was still locked.  He considered flipping on his light, and reading a bit more, but pushed it away.  With effort, he closed his eyes, and tried to calm his breathing.

He still listened with half an ear to the hall outside of his room, but the noise never repeated.  Sleep started to claim him, and for a moment, he thought of all the things outside, all the things in the world that could shake a man to his core.  He let it slip by, and fell into darkness.

*

Two days slipped by quicker than Harry expected.  He spent them much as he usually did – cleaning, writing code, and wrapping himself in the comfort of his home, away from the fright of the outside world.  There were exceptions.

In the morning, he opened the paper, and saw two stories that interested him.  The first, a short piece in the nature and science section, was about the decline of poisonous spiders and subsequent fatal or near fatal.  It went on to say that due to climate change and aggressive pesticides, several species were either dwindling or migrating to climates that weren’t hospitable.

The second article was in the same section – a piece about new avionics.  It was said to be so reliable, the planes nearly flew themselves.  Even the pilots were happy about it – far less micromanagement involved in the general workings of the cockpit.  Further down in the article, one of the engineers was quoted saying what the article had already stated.  “The planes practically fly themselves.”

When he was finished reading, Harry put the paper down and frowned for a moment.  He was jealous of these people.  Every day, less things to be afraid of, and he still couldn’t force himself to see past it.  He tossed the paper down with a grunt, and went to clean the bathroom.  The spider still hadn’t appeared, but he’d been bleaching the bowl and the shower every day, just in case.

A plane passed overhead while he was cleaning, and he imagined, just for a moment, the landing gear tearing free, or an engine working itself from its moorings, and smashing through the roof of his house, leaving him a broken mangle of flesh.  It passed after a moment, and he shook the vision off, and finished scrubbing.

Later that day, he was finishing up some chores, and had the television on for background noise.  He happened to look up just when the newscaster started to speak.

“A new study shows that violent crime – specifically murder – has dropped in the past few months.  It is now at an all time low, nationwide.”

The television cut to commercial, and Harry stared at it for a moment, not really seeing it.  Murder was down?  What was happening to the world?  The things that haunted him, that frightened him to the core, were slipping away.  It was as though the things that were real dangers, no matter how irrational the fear, were leeching from the world, and into him.

As soon as he had the thought, he shook his head, as if to clear it.  Tomorrow couldn’t come soon enough, as far as Harry was concerned.  He was starting to worry for his sanity.  Fear welled up in him, and he tried to quench it by pinching himself.

No, this is real, I am real, and I am NOT crazy!

He pinched until he bruised, and then pinched a little more.  When he was finally able to calm himself, he wandered to the bedroom and lay down.  Tomorrow he would see Dr. Patel.  Tomorrow it would be better.

I’m not crazy.

*

Dr. Patel’s office was the same.  Sterile, white, and soothing.  Even with only two visits, Harry was starting to feel comfortable.  He listened to the waterfall tinkling in its frame, and took a deep breath of cool air.  He ran his finger idly up and down the white fabric of his chair, making idle patterns in the fabric.  Generally, he tried to think of nothing.

The door to Dr. Patel’s office opened, frosted glass giving way to an inviting interior, lit by sunlight and lined with bookshelves.  Dr. Patel stood in the doorway and smiled.

“Mr. Dora.  Glad to have you back.”  He gestured toward the room.  “Come in, come in.”

Harry got up and entered the office, sitting in the same overstuffed chair he had last time.  Dr. Patel closed the door behind him, and sat across from him, picking up his notepad as he did.  Once settled in, the doctor crossed his legs and rested the pad on his knee.

They exchanged pleasantries for a moment – words about the weather for the most part, and when that died down, Dr. Patel began the conversation.

“The last time you were here, we talked about your fears, the irrational versus the rational.  How have you been doing with that?”

Harry sighed.  “Honestly?  Terrible.  It seems like the harder I try to convince myself that there’s nothing to be afraid of, the more afraid I become.”

He took a minute, and told the doctor of his new fears.  Dr. Patel listened, nodding and making notes on his pad.  When Harry finished, the doctor sat back and regarded him.  He looked concerned.

“Harry, I want to try something.  It’s a bit different, but if it works, we may be able to halt this…degradation…you’ve been dealing with.”

Harry could feel a pit of anxiety starting to worm its way into his stomach.  It must have shown on his face, because Dr. Patel’s tone changed; became soothing.

“I won’t lie.  What I have planned, you’re probably not going to like, Harry.  But it is effective.”

Harry swallowed, hard.  It felt like there was a lump in his throat.  He could already feel his heart rate trying to climb.  Dr. Patel set his notepad aside, and leaned in.

“It’s your best hope, Harry.  Ask yourself – do you want to live like this anymore?  Do you want to get worse?”

The answer was no.  It was easy enough to answer.  At the same time, that trickle of anxiety was working itself into a river, and he was starting to regret coming.  What if the doctor wasn’t a doctor?  What if he was trapped with a madman?  He started to push himself off the chair, and Dr. Patel held up a hand.

“Wait.  I know you’re feeling it again.  Sit down for a moment, and give me a chance, Harry.”

Harry did so, reluctantly, and Dr. Patel studied him for a moment more.

“There, behind you.”  He said, gesturing at the wall behind Harry.  “Would a madman have those on his wall?”

Harry turned to look.  Arranged in a loose square were several diplomas and certificates.  Harry leaned closer to get a better look at the largest one, decorated by flowing text and a gold seal.  As he did so, something pricked his finger, and he jerked it away from the chair, instinctively sucking on it.  For a moment, his vision blurred, and he gave up trying to read the diplomas.  He turned back to the doctor.

Dr. Patel was just leaning back in his chair, tucking a syringe into a small black case Harry hadn’t noticed when he entered.  Panic tried to well up in him, but it was felt distant, disconnected from him somehow.  He knew the doctor had stuck him, but he was having trouble caring.

“How do you feel, Harry?”  The doctor asked.  The lenses in his glasses reflected the overhead lights, making them look like white panels in wire frames.  Harry couldn’t see the doctor’s eyes.

A part of Harry screamed for him to run, to get the hell out of the office, and run until he was safe at home.  That part too, felt disconnected, and distant.

“Fine.”  Harry lied.

“Good, good.  You’re going to feel a little fuzzy for a bit, but when it wears off, everything will be fine.  You’ll see.

Now, I want you to listen, and think about what I’m going to tell you.”

Harry nodded, and felt a stupid grin creep across his face.  He fought it back, but not before he saw himself in Patel’s lenses, looking like an idiot.  Didn’t matter, he didn’t care.

Dr. Patel leaned forward again, and the illusion of shuttered windows in his glasses disappeared.  His eyes were intense, and held Harry’s own.

“The universe does not care.  This is the thing you must remember.  There is no vast conspiracy, the world is not out to get you, you are not statistically more significant than anyone else; you are not beholden to predestination.

If a thing happens outside our realm of choice, it does not boil down to fate, or destiny, it does not mean a damn thing other than that thing happened.  Move on, recover, and grow stronger.

Most importantly, remember this: you are not special.  You are not singled out by the machinations of world, and never will be, aside from the decisions you make directly impacting your own life.”

Dr. Patel finished speaking, and Harry felt the words sink in.  Combined with the disconnection he felt from his fear, and the intense gaze of the doctor, the way his gaze seemed to hammer home every word, Harry felt a weight lift from his shoulders.  Harry felt his eyes grow heavy, and they began to droop.  He felt Dr. Patel pat his knee.

“You can rest here, Harry.  Go home when you wake.”

Harry let his eyes close fully, and took a deep breath, then another.  In a moment, he was asleep.

*

He woke in darkness, the only light in the office a desk lamp the doctor had left on.  Harry stood, and stretched, then ran a fingernail over his tongue.  It felt like a cat had slept in his mouth.  He looked around, but saw no sign of the doctor.

“Dr. Patel?”  He called.

He stopped.  The desk lamp was on, and outside, he could see the neatly manicured lawn of the clinic, lit by carefully placed lights in flowerbeds and shrubs.  He wasn’t afraid.

He wasn’t afraid.

He felt a mix of emotions at that – elation, anger at Patel for tricking him, and an odd serenity.  Nothing mattered that he didn’t do to himself.  It was an odd kind of comforting thought, but there it was.  He made to step out of the office, and stumbled when his shoe bumped something.  He frowned and looked down.

A dark shape lay on the floor, but he couldn’t quite make it out in the dark.  Harry reached over and flipped the switch on the wall, flooding the office with warm light.  He looked down again, and stepped back.

Dr. Patel lay curled in the fetal position, his face swollen and blue.  His eyes protruded almost comically, and his tongue jutted just slightly from his mouth.  Harry nudged him with the toe of his shoe, and the body rolled slightly, exposing a lump the size of a Clementine just above Dr. Patel’s collar.  He bent down for a closer look, then straightened as a spider, black and swollen with venom, crawled from under the collar.

After a moment, Harry shrugged, and walked carefully over the body.  He opened the door, and left the office.   He passed through the waiting room, noticing someone had left the door on the other end open, the waterfall still gurgling away, and through the nurses’ station.  He didn’t notice the pretty receptionist who was sprawled in her swivel chair, congealed blood crusting in her pores and orifices.

He walked out of the office, and to his car.  In the distance, he saw a jogger stopped mid-stride by a large man.  She stood there, her body language indicating she was torn between fight or flight.  The big man grabbed her, and as Harry watched, drew a long blade from his jacket and opened her throat.  He turned away.  None of his business, not his problem.

He got in the car, and pulled out of the lot, out of the neighborhood, and started to drive.  It was a quiet night, aside from the cars that littered the side of the highway, and the fires in the distance.

He looked up at the sky, and something passed overhead.  For a moment, a jet blacked out the stars, and as Harry watched, a blossom of fire bloomed on its wing, and half the fuselage ripped away.  The two halves went spinning in opposite directions, and another moment later, he saw dark shapes silhouetted against the stars as well, each the size of a man.

Harry shrugged to himself again, and continued driving.  Not his problem.  The universe didn’t care.

Someone else could shoulder his fears.