Friday, already?  As you count down to the weekend, please enjoy a special 1200 word flash fiction piece, Dark Cargo.  My vampires never sparkle, but they are always very, very hungry.  Enjoy!

DATE: 12/27/11

MEMO: Investigation Summary Incident #269-2011

TO: Director, Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration/Department of Transportation

FROM: Frank J. Straker, Straker Investigations

The Freightliner tractor-trailer pulled into the parking lot of the Flying J truck stop at mile marker 22 at 9 p.m. on December 26, 2011, but no images of the driver were caught on film.  Meteorological reports indicate that it had been snowing steadily since noon, with over two feet of snow and ice accumulated in central Indiana.  Playback of the footage recorded by the security cameras showed several staff members leaving at 5pm, with the last vestiges of daylight lingering in the sky.  It can be extrapolated that management opted for a reduced staffing pattern based on weather conditions.  Timesheets indicate that at 6 p.m. five employees were working onsite.  It is unknown how many customers were present at the time of the incident, but it is estimated that the number could be as high as fifteen.  Three individuals, whose vehicles remain parked on the premises, are unaccounted for. 

 Twelve customers – predominantly long-haul truckers – purchased fuel at the Flying J between 9 p.m. and 11 p.m., although none were able to provide any additional detail about the Freightliner when interviewed the day following the event.  Only two individuals recalled noticing the truck in the parking lot.  The cab was a high-gloss black, with no distinguishing markings. 

 Shortly before midnight, the video reveals the appearance of footprints leading away from the driver’s side door of the cab, trailing to the back of the truck.  Both doors of the trailer are seen swinging open.  A line of tracks belonging to at least four pairs of feet – three adult-sized, one child-sized – appear.  These footprints lead away from the truck, cross beneath the canopy over the fuel pumps, and are on a trajectory for the building’s entrance.  Based on analysis of the available footage, these tracks cannot be attributed to other patrons inside the Flying J at the time. 

 The last transaction completed at the cash register in the convenience store took place at 11:05 p.m.  Vera A. Martin, of Batesville, purchased a large cup of coffee, a package of Combos, and paid for 14 gallons of gas with her debit card.  Investigators documented these purchases as present on the floor beside the front counter.  Next to these items was a woman’s white Nike tennis shoe, size 9.  Blood was encrusted in the treads and on the left side of the shoe.  A diaper bag was found next to her purse.  Ms. Martin’s corpse was found behind the building, partially devoured.  Her husband and infant son have not yet been located. 

 The transaction appears to have been completed by Wade Crawford, who had been employed as a clerk at the Flying J for six months.  Mr. Crawford’s remains are in storage at the Johnson County medical examiner’s office.  Identification was confirmed by tattoos on his arms, back, and upper chest.  Although dental records were available to assist with the confirmation of his identity, they were unable to be utilized.  His death certificate notes a crushed skull with avulsion of cranium and brain, as well as forcible separation of the head from neck.  The bottom half of Mr. Crawford’s head was not located.  However, the top portion of his skull and scalp was found beside the cash register. 

 Crime scene reconstruction suggests that at least nine individuals were in the restaurant section of the truck stop at 11 p.m.  Laney Jacobs, 22, was working as a server.  Her body was found draped across the rear portion of the buffet.  The ME reports that rigor mortis was slowed due to the ice and refrigeration components of the buffet for salad, fruits, and other perishable items.  A head belonging to an unidentified man with brown hair and brown eyes, approximately thirty-five years of age, was found approximately four feet from her body on the opposite end of the buffet in a soup tureen.  A ticket book for the patrons present was found in Ms. Jacobs’s apron.  Although saturated with blood, it was possible to determine that she was working five tables in the restaurant.  This is considered consistent with the relative positioning of the other cadavers.

 It appears that one cook was also present in the restaurant.  His head, like that of Wade Crawford, is missing.  The results of DNA testing are pending, and no fingerprints were on file to assist with identification, but based on time cards at the location, the body is presumed to belong to Roger McPeak.  Two feet, believed to be Mr. McPeak’s, were found browning on the grill.  While a substantial amount of blood was present at the scene, it cannot be rectified with the amount of blood remaining in the corpses, which have an oddly desiccated appearance.  Of the ten autopsies that have been completed to date, all ten victims were determined to have been exsanguinated. 

 The night shift manager, Charles Benoit, was found in an office in the back of the building.  The office door was locked and barricaded on the inside, impeding the entrance of investigators.  Mr. Benoit’s throat incurred significant injury.  His wallet was found under the desk.  Over $75 in cash and several credit cards were present in it upon discovery, which suggests that robbery was not a factor in this incident, although photos of his two small children have bloody fingerprints on the edges.  These prints do not match with those of Mr. Benoit, and did not have a match on file.  The prints were curiously smooth, according to forensics team members.

 Miranda Stevens, of Indianapolis, Indiana, was apparently assisting in the convenience store with stocking responsibilities.  Her upper torso was discovered in the refrigerated storage area of the store.  One of her legs, a section encompassing approximately two inches above the knee extending to the ankle, was recovered from a trash barrel on fuel island number three.  Sizeable bite marks were noted in the calf region.  Type AB blood – matching that of Ms. Stevens, was found in both the storage area and in the trash bin, although the amount is not commensurate with the extent of gross trauma evidenced by her wounds.  A Ziploc bag containing a six inch section of her intestines was discovered in a snow bank in the approximate vicinity of the location where the Freightliner had been parked. 

 Security camera footage reveals a series of bloodstained footprints appearing outside the building at 11:28 p.m.  These tracks led back to the Freightliner.  It is possible to see the back doors of the trailer slamming shut 42 seconds before the cab door opens and the truck’s headlights are switched on.  The Freightliner was navigated across the Flying J’s parking lot at 11:35 p.m., turning left onto Whiteland Road in the direction of interstate 65.  One report received within the last 48 hours indicates that a tractor-trailer matching the description of the Freightliner was spotted in St. Charles, Missouri.  That vehicle appeared to have Utah plates.  It was parked at an Iron Skillet restaurant and truck stop; no description of the driver is available.  This is the extent of information concerning incident #269-2011 available at this time.  Investigation will continue.

###

On really good days, writing doesn’t feel like work, it feels like a slot machine paying off – the right words come tumbling out and fill the pages so rapidly that I am no longer certain who is in control of the story – me or it.  On really bad days, I feel like I am on a literary snipe hunt with a flashlight and gunnysack with a hole in the bottom.  I’m starting to discover that there is a vast range of variables and contributing factors to writer’s block, but in the end, the only way to fight through it is to write.  I’ve also discovered that naming my fear – referring to myself as having writer’s block – can be a self-fulfilling prophecy, or at least reinforce and exacerbate my fear that the words have dried up like the blood spatter from a zombie headshot in the Mojave.

Writing, particularly fiction writing, is a labor of love – a commitment to breathe life into a story from a flash of an idea, or a skeletal outline.  Sometimes we’ve got to rob some graves and piece together the exquisite corpse, and then jumpstart the monster’s heart with a surge of electricity.  I’ve recently been feeling a whole lot like I’ve been robbing the wrong graves, prying the words out of my skull and examining them in the harsh light of day – and finding them inadequate.  But writer’s write, and so I persevere.  I don’t wish writer’s block on anyone who has a love affair with words, but in case you ever find yourself wrestling with this brain-sucking, inertia-inducing hydra, here are some of the strategies that keep me sane enough to pass in society and producing creepy crap.

Write something, every day.  Even if it is 250 words, or just a sentence – move your story forward.  It may require revision or editing later, but advance the story with what you know of it, and don’t wait for the perfect words to manifest if it feels like they are holing up drinking tequila, trying to outwait you.

Jump to a new scene or POV.  Sometimes approaching the story from a different angle can loosen the block.  Jump ahead to a different scene, try a flashback, or relay events from another character’s perspective. 

Watch the movie.  That is, play it out on the big screen in your mind.  Imagine what the characters are saying, what they are thinking or doing, just as if you are watching a blockbuster film of your story after optioning rights to it for mega-millions.  Then write what you saw.

Ask the characters.  Discretion here is important unless you want to end up experiencing the world of psychotropic medication, but ask your characters wassup.  Ask them why they did or didn’t do something.  Ask them what they are going to do next.  Let them tell you.  Jot down their dreams, desires, and motivations.  The more real they are to you, the easier it might be to get in their head as the action unfolds.

Up the ante.  Ratchet up the tension, introduce some horrible, unanticipated barrier, kill somebody, raise the stakes, put your character through the wringer and see what they do under pressure.  It’s cathartic.  It’s fun.  When you’ve painted yourself into a corner plotwise, or need to get out of the mire, Raymond Chandler advises “when in doubt, have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand.”  Modify as needed for horror fiction:  “when in doubt, have a zombie stagger through the door and nosh on someone.”

Moonlight with another project.  Spend some time on another story, and give yourself a break.  It can also be fun to try your hand at story prompts or writing exercises – anything to spark your creativity and get the words moving.

Location, location, location.  Change up your writing space.  Try writing somewhere new or unusual.  Or try writing differently, not harder.  If you usually type on a laptop, switch to pen and paper, try dictation, or tell your small child or family pet the story and stop worrying about using the right words, just articulate the essence of the tale. 

These are just a few of my favorite strategies for getting unstuck; what are some of your favorite tricks, tips, or techniques for battling the block?

Friday has rolled around again, so it’s time for a little flash fiction to celebrate the weekend!  This week I am going to begin a small experiment.  Recently I’ve read about a resurgence in popularity of serialized fiction, and how eBooks are making that increasingly possible.  As a kid, I loved serials, especially that old television show Cliffhangers from the late 1970’s (which featured, incidentally, Dracula in one of the stories, and aliens in the other).  With the ever-increasing demands on our time and attention, it can be difficult to carve out a half hour or more to settle in with a lengthy short story or novel (although eReaders are vastly increasing the portability and accessibility of stories for readers). 

 Serialized fiction such as that featured in pulp magazines, dime novels, and the penny dreadfuls was once extremely popular.  The concept of serials is enticing; it allows for stories to be told in manageable portions while retaining continuity, sets the stage for cliffhangers, and perhaps most importantly, leaves the reader wanting more, leaves them hungering to find out what happens next.  Forcing that delay of gratification  leads to an eager anticipation of the next episode.  In that spirit, I would like to share my first serialized short story, The 50 Minute Hour.  Please let me know your thoughts as readers and writers about serialized fiction, and in the meantime, enjoy!

Part One: The Hollow Men

Greg Farrier swung from his heels; the Ping graphite and steel driver he was gripping connected solidly with the side of the thing’s head.  It exploded in a macabre confetti of brackish blood, brain matter, decaying skin, and thin fragments of skull.  The thing collapsed at his feet.  He had only seconds to survey his handiwork before another one shambled around the corner of the Walgreens they’d taken refuge in the day before.  Greg allowed it to approach, listening to it hiss and moan as it stumbled forward, and dispatched it with a single swing of the golf club. 

Until now, the closest to golf he’d ever come was playing putt-putt with his twin sons.  All that had changed two weeks ago.  Greg was still trying to figure out how to manage the mess his world had become.  He was a therapist, a clinical psychologist, not a killer and certainly not a gun-toting survivalist.  His sons had been students at Franklin College, one with a dual major in journalism and theater, the other in political science. 

Purgatory, he thought, this is a trip through purgatory, and we’ve all been invited along for the ride.  He wondered if his ex-wife was still alive.  Things could only be more hellish if she was, he decided, and swung the club at a corpse that had clawed its way across the parking lot, missing its legs, intestines trailing behind it in filthy grey streamers. 

“Dad!  Up here!” his son Aiden called.  Greg looked up to see Aiden and his brother Andrew on the roof of the Shell service station across the street.  The walking dead milled about below them, circling the fuel pumps ceaselessly.  Andrew carried a Mossberg pump-action shotgun.  Andy held a muddy aluminum softball bat in his left hand and a scoped rifle in his right.  Both wore identical expressions of exhaustion and concern.  The time for fear had passed; now Greg and his sons were concerned only with the most pragmatic aspects of survival.  They had left the drug store in search of a more defensible location, but had not gotten far before the undead had converged on the gas station across the street, forcing them to take shelter on the roof.  As far as Greg could tell, the dead had only gross motor skills and basic locomotion.  They staggered around with an insatiable determination, but it appeared that more complex physical tasks such as climbing ladders or trees was beyond their ability. 

“There’s a ladder around back.  Follow the alley.  We’ll cover you Dad,” Andrew shouted.  Greg watched Aiden cross the roof and reconnoiter the area behind the store.

“Clear,” Aiden shouted.  Greg didn’t hesitate.  He sprinted across the parking lot toward the gas station on a diagonal, dodging a pair of dead women sitting in the middle of Jefferson Street who were consuming, with a ferocious intensity, the remains of an older man in a Vietnam-era army jacket, hair tied back in a graying ponytail with a piece of leather.  Greg tried not to look too closely; he knew the man.  He knew most of the dead who now walked the town, and he knew many of the corpses who littered the streets, bones stripped clean of flesh, unable to rise, unable to walk, unable to join the army of the living dead that now populated the city. 

Attracted to his movement, a large group of dead detached themselves from the mass stalking the fuel area and stumbled toward him.  Greg ran harder, heart pounding in his chest.  His backpack shifted awkwardly on his shoulders with every stride, throwing him off balance, slowing him down.  He considered ditching it, but it held a bounty of supplies from the drug store, and he was reluctant to give it up so easily.  Rounding the corner, he lunged down the alley and spotted a pair of dumpsters and a ladder extending halfway to the ground from the roof of the store.  Greg was so focused on the ladder that he only half heard the crack of a rifle, but he sensed something thud to the ground several feet behind him.  Another shot rang out as he watched Andrew lean over the roof with one hand extended.

“Throw me your pack,” he shouted.  Greg didn’t hesitate.  He slipped the backpack from his shoulders and heaved it up toward his son with all his strength, feeling something give in his right upper shoulder and lower back in the process.  That can’t be good.  Something brushed the back of his head and tangled in his hair as he scrambled on top of one of the dumpsters.  He balanced on the rim like a tightrope walker, putting as little weight as possible on the plastic cover.  A snarl emanated from inside the dumpster.  Greg Farrier lunged for the ladder and closed his fingers around it in a sweaty but death tight grip.  He felt a tug on his boot.  Dead fingers sought purchase around his ankle.  The reek of decay from something unspeakable filled his lungs and he choked back bile as shook free of the thing’s grasp and frantically pulled himself up the ladder. 

“Dammit,” he heard Andrew shout.  “Ade, shoot that fucker!”  Greg heaved himself over the edge of the roof and stared up at the cloudless blue sky, feeling the warm sunshine on his face as his son put a bullet through the head of what had once been a person, but was now nothing more than a reanimated hollow shell.

#

Or more properly, do the undead dream?  What horrors lurk in the quiescent minds of the walking dead, or of the writers who breathe life into those decaying corpses shambling about, stinking of the grave and hungering for the taste of human flesh? 

Just in time for the holidays, Dark Moon Books has released Frightmares: A Fistful of Flash Fiction Horror, an anthology of “delightfully squeamish short fiction” which offers a glimpse into a nightmare world of the undead and other denizens of the dark. 

I am especially excited about the release of Frightmares, as it includes Dead Reckoning, my first published flash fiction piece.  Now I can cross that off my bucket list.  Or maybe it should have been on my undead bucket list?

I’ve nearly finished reading my copy of Frightmares, and if you are hungry for a grim and glorious collection of bite-sized and easily digestible (mmmmm, braaaaiiinnnssss) tales of the macabre and horrific, this is the book for you.  It weighs in at a hefty 258 pages – all of which makes you shudder – then eagerly turn to the next one.

I’ve got a confession to make: I’m a professed horror junkie, an avid and enthusiastic writer of horror who is unable to write anything that doesn’t feature some denizen of the darkness hungering for human flesh, and yet after midnight when the lights are off and the house is dark, I watch documentaries.  That’s because my imagination likes to run rampant when given just enough fodder.  I watched Paranormal Activity on Halloween and I am still vaguely spooked by it.  I hope that none of my cats get up in the night and stare at me for hours – oh wait, they do.  And that incessant scratching sound at the door?

This week, however, I’ve been substituting some of my favorite B horror movies for the documentaries, and I’ve been having a blast.  It’s been a little like hanging out with old friends.  Although there are many more modern movies, I keep gravitating like a junkie back to my favorites from the 60’s through the 80’s.  Some of these are pure cheese cinema, but there’s a lot that can be learned, even from the schlocky ones, about how to establish mood and ambience, how to create and maintain suspense, how to develop characters, and how to visualize and describe fast action.  Even though it is predominantly a visual medium, movies help stimulate my thinking about how to tell better stories – or in other instances – what to avoid.

Some of my favorites, which have graced my computer screen over the last week as part of my B Horror Extravaganza, include:

Carnival of Souls (1962). This gem, in lurid black and white, was written and directed by Herk Harvey of Lawrence, Kansas.  He spent his career making educational and industrial films, and Carnival of Souls was a significant divergence for him, but it is an exceptional movie.  Although the pacing can be slow at times, the movie is moody, atmospheric, and disquieting.  The sequences shot in the abandoned Saltair Pavillion are spooky, well-done, and surreal. 

Burnt Offerings (1976).  The first time I watched Burnt Offerings as a kid, I avoided the public swimming pool for most of the summer.  This is an outstanding haunted house story, in which the house itself draws its vitality from the unsuspecting occupants.  I’ve always loved the vampiric aspect of this story.  The family station wagon, attire, and hair styles are a time capsule for any of us wishing to revisit the 70’s.  Bette Davis does an outstanding job portraying Aunt Elizabeth, and the end, although anticipated, is surprisingly dark.

The Last Man on Earth (1964).  This is the first horror movie that I remember absolutely terrifying me; I probably watched it first  on our tiny black and white television on the Friday Night Frights when I was seven or eight years old, but it still creeps me out today.  Vincent Price did an excellent job as Robert Morgan, and although I never could discern if he was battling vampires, zombies, or some plague-derived hybrid of the two, it really doesn’t matter.  What matters is the almost stifling sense of isolation and monotony Morgan struggles with on a daily basis, fighting to keep the hordes at bay, to replenish supplies, and to conduct his reasearch.  This movie is the most faithful adaptation of Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, although the Omega Man with Charlton Heston and I Am Legend with Will Smith are enjoyable movies in their own right.  The ending is dark and poignant.  What I learned as a second grader after watching this movie: burn ‘em, or they’ll knock on your door as a vampire a few hours later.  This might be why I write horror.

Race with the Devil (1975).  As a kid, the first thing that struck me about this movie was how much I would love to have an RV and a dirt bike; the second thing that struck me was the importance of not inadvertently interrupting a Satanic sacrificial ritual in Texas.  The third thing that struck me was to avoid swimming pools at RV parks where Satanists hang out.  This is why I don’t swim, I think, between this and Burnt Offerings.

Hell House (1973). Oh, no, I was wrong, there is another reason why pools creep me out.  The basement pool and sauna sequences in Hell House still remain some of the spookiest I’ve encountered in books or film.  The movie, featuring Roddy McDowell, is engaging and suitably creepy, but the real treasure is the book the movie is based on, Richard Matheson’s Legend of Hell House.  A skeptical physicist and a team of psychics are isolated in Emerich Belasco’s mansion – the Mount Everest of haunted houses – on a mission to establish the existence of “survival” after death.  Rich with suspense, with some horrific moments, this is a romp of a ghost story.

The Exorcist (1973).  Proving once again that inviting Captain Howdy over to play Ouija board with a pre-adolescent girl is not a stellar idea, the Exorcist offers a great storyline, quite a bit of pea-soup flavored heresy, and enough contortions to horrify a chiropractor.  I would love to believe the story circulating in my family that a relative fainted while watching this movie at a theater in Times Square when it was originally released.  Although the sequel, Exorcist II, is forgettable with a hokum bio-rhythm hypnosis machine and a meandering plot, all of William Petter Blatty’s books, including Legion, are excellent, creepy reads.

Phantasm (1979).  Perhaps one of my favorites, Phantasm is genuinely imaginative and unnerving – there’s just something about the Tall Man that shrieks malevolence.  Replete with cemeteries and mausoleums teeming with the shrunken, reanimated dead, and deadly silver orbs (never mind that the alien aspect is never really satisfactorily explained or resolved, just go with it), Phantasm is a relentless, clever, and effective horror movie. 

Tonight I’ll be watching Poltergeist, and perhaps Paranormal Activity II – with the lights on.

What are some of your favorite scary movies, old or new?  What films give you a genuine case of the shivers?  I’d love to hear from you and add to this cabinet of horror!

I took the week off from writing.  Maybe that is not exactly true; the words and the stories didn’t seem to be there when I needed them, and so I stopped trying to find them.  Today I will try again.  I do know that the longer I go without writing, the harder it is to get the literary engine to turn over. 

This has been a rough week.  On Monday, one of my dearest friends and mentors, Phil Cramer, passed away.  I’ve known him for almost 30 years – and although that sounds like a long time, my heart protests that it wasn’t long enough.  Two days later, on Thanksgiving, Inky passed away.  She was a beautiful cat and a spirit filled with joy.  I found her on a Halloween night in Kansas a decade ago – she was the black cat that crossed my path and brought nothing but happiness and love.  The ten years Inky and I shared together went too quickly, and I miss her terribly. 

When Phil’s health suddenly failed earlier this month, I sat with him in the hospital many evenings.  I don’t know if he knew I was there, but I told him about my dream of being a writer someday, and about my first story which will be published later this month.  On the drive home from the hospital about two weeks ago, I started toying with the premise of a different kind of vampire story, one that evokes compassion rather than horror.  Stakes and Stones was the result. 

She couldn’t see well in the dark, and the other children taunted her for it until she fought to keep tears from spilling down her cheeks.  She blinked hard, but lost the battle.  Being unable to produce tears themselves, the children watched with curiosity as she sobbed quietly, her head lowered and eyes downcast, until the school bus arrived.

The girl was second in line to board the bus.  As she stepped forward, Pytr gave her a vicious shove.  She fell forward with a gasp, pinwheeling her thin arms for balance to no avail.  Her nose and upper lip smashed into the edge of the school bus’s doorframe.  Blood gouted from her now crooked nose, and she spat two of her front teeth into the gutter.  The teeth gleamed in the moonlight, slick with blood.  One was her upper left incisor, which had already been chipped from a previous encounter.  The other was the dog tooth that had neighbored it.  It was much smaller, more rounded, and less pronounced – unlike the wickedly sharp canines of the other children. 

The scent of her blood set off a cacophony of howls, catcalls, and laughter from the children on the bus.  Blood dripped from her chin and saturated her threadbare, hand-me-down paisley print blouse.  It had been one of her favorites.  The bus driver sent her home to change clothes; she’d have to walk to school.

When she arrived at home, her mother took one look at her ruined face and shirt, and berated her for getting into another fight, reprimanded her for not trying to get along.  The girl accepted the scolding wordlessly.  She slipped on a clean shirt.  It was more tattered than the one she’d been wearing. 

Her mother’s parting words chased her out of their tiny apartment.  In a sudden fit of anger, the girl slammed the front door.  It rattled in its flimsy frame.  All of the low income housing units were cheaply built and poorly constructed.  It was the only life she had ever known.  Despair engulfed her as she trudged to school in the late night darkness.  She’d already missed her favorite part of the school day.  First hour: reading.  If she took her time, she’d miss second hour as well.  Social studies.  Tonight they were supposed to be learning about minority populations.  She figured she already knew more than enough about that. 

###

My project for National Novel Writing Month derailed my short fiction writing this week.  In fact, I am becoming convinced that NaNoWriMo actually has the ability to speed up time during November.  This week researchers at CERN discovered particles that travel at rates exceeding the speed of light.  I think they should designate them NaNos.  At any rate, although Flash Fiction Friday has come and gone, I’d still like to offer One Drop, Then Two, a 300 word piece which I hope unnerves you as much as it did me while writing it.  Enjoy!

One drop, then two.

The faucet had a slow leak with a rhythmic, almost hypnotic pattern.  The sound was the only thing keeping her anchored in the moment as panic tried to pry its way in and overcome rational thought.  He was sly, she had to give him that.  She’d thought she had been the one with the upper hand.  After all, she’d recognized his MO and put in the long hours of interviews and investigative work that was certain to get her a byline, and maybe a Pulitzer.

One drop, then two.

She’d posed as a hooker, haunting the truck stops between Kansas City and Salina.  She’d found him in Junction City.  He’d invited her into the cab of his Freightliner tractor-trailer.  He poured them both a glass of cheap wine.  She watched him fill her glass, but hadn’t seen him slip in the sedative.  It hadn’t taken much to knock her out.

One drop, maybe two.

When she came to, her wrists were in shackles, chain looped over a steel bar set into the concrete walls of a stark, utilitarian bathroom.  The bar was supposed to serve as a rod for a shower curtain, but she was the only thing dangling from it now.

One drop, then two.

She had no idea when he would return. She had no idea how long she’d been unconscious.  She did know that the remainder of her life was being measured out in the interval between drips.  She was certain he would slit her throat, just as he had done to the 37 women before her.  She wondered what it would feel like when the wickedly serrated blade of his knife pressed into the soft flesh below her chin.  She knew there would be blood.

It would start with one drop, then two.

###

Flash Fiction Friday has rolled around again, and to kick off the weekend, I’d like to share One Too Many, a 200 word flash fiction tale.  This story originated after I read a prompt to write a scenario in which a character has too much of something – anything – and after I had lain awake in the dark with a nasty bout of insomnia.  Of course, I couldn’t resist a dark twist.  Enjoy!

The man weaved along the Missouri River, sipping from a 64-ounce can of cheap malt liquor and humming tunelessly to himself.  His name was Abe, and he had no home, no driver’s license, and no place to go.  He also had a BAC of .27.

He’d snatched a twenty dollar bill from a purse in a dingy laundromat on Prospect Street, and had been drinking steadily since five o’clock.  The bells of St. Rose had just chimed midnight when a man stepped out the shadows, blocking Abe’s path.  Moonlight glinted off his wickedly sharp incisors.  Within minutes, he had hidden Abe’s exsanguinated and partially dismembered body in a dumpster, to be carted off to a landfill during the bright light of day. 

The alcohol and Oxycontin in Abe’s bloodstream was a heady mix, and the vampire staggered while crossing Highway 24.  He didn’t see the semi bearing down on him, didn’t know the driver screamed and slammed the truck’s brake pedal into the floorboard.  What he did know, as he bled out, pierced through the heart and pinned to a concrete barrier wall by a long shard from the truck’s grill, was that he had fed on one too many.

###

She heard a crash and spun around in the dark room, barely able to see in the feeble light filtering in through the boarded up window.  The building had been compromised.  She saw the undead, Dick Clark and Richard Simmons.

The Oxford comma will always remain dear to me.  I am supposed to write in AP style at work, but I choose to practice literary passive resistance and sneak the Oxford comma into grants, reports, and guidance documents.  When I don’t use the Oxford comma, my writing feels naked, vulnerable, and incomplete.  When the Oxford comma is not used, it does open the door to some amusing ambiguities.  Here’s some of my favorite examples:

We invited the strippers, JFK, and Stalin.  We invited the strippers, JFK and Stalin.

I would like to thank my parents, Ayn Rand, and God.  I would like to thank my parents, Ayn Rand and God.

The specter of the run-on sentence also rears its head without the Oxford comma:

The restaurant offered egg salad, ham and cheese and roast beef.

Earlier this year the Oxford comma garnered quite a bit of attention when the University of Oxford announced that the Oxford comma (or serial comma) would no longer be used as the preferred style for their press releases.  Big sigh of relief.  That means the Oxford comma will remain part of their style guide, but it is still troubling to me that it has become a grammatical second-class citizen for Oxford’s internal Public Relations department.  Maybe I am over-thinking it, but doesn’t every step down that sort of path lead to, well, decadence?  I wonder what Jacques Barzun would have to say on the issue.  Surely there must be some connection between the decline of Western civilization and comma usage. 

Although I understand that it is a discretionary writing practice, and predicated to some extent on what style you’ve been taught, I feel a kinship to the Oxford comma.  In Richard Matheson’s book I Am Legend, he advances the idea that when everyone else becomes zombie-like creatures, it is us – the lone holdouts and survivors fighting for our old ways – that are the monsters in the eyes of the majority.  It’s an interesting idea.  I kind of like the idea that someday I will be creeping about in the dark like Bela Lugosi, cape obscuring my face, spraypainting grafitti using the Oxford comma to the horror of the townsfolk. 

How about you?  Any fans of the Oxford comma, or of not using it?  The issue seems to be a bit polarizing! For those of you not comma-obsessed like me, any other writing conventions you can’t live without?

I’m not sure why he thought it would be a good idea, but my first exposure to vampires came when I was about seven years old, watching Kolchack (the Night Stalker) and Hammer horror films on Friday nights on a tiny black and white television set with my father.  I remember hiding my head under my blanket on the sofa during the scary parts, peeking out just in time to see Van Helsing or one of his counterparts pounding a stake through the heart of a vampire just as the last lingering rays of sunlight are about to leave the crypt in utter darkness,  and I remember the ghastly countenances of Max Shrek in Nosferatu, and Kurt Barlow in ‘Salem’s Lot. 

I remember being terrified of, but not wanting to miss, a single movie with Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Lon Chaney Jr., or Bela Lugosi in them.  I remember waking up with nightmares after watching Vincent Price in The Last Man on Earth, the 1964 film adaptation of Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend.  Most of all, I remember having an almost visceral understanding that vampires were inhuman, deeply evil, and insatiable creatures of the night.  Things to be feared.  And fear them I do.  I’d like to share with you my first attempt at vampire fiction, Stash.  It’s also my fledgling attempt at stream-of-consciousness narrative.  I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did writing it.  I wanted to tell a story about vampires that don’t glitter or wear eyeliner or suffer from existential angst.  I wanted to tell a story that will keep you up at night, and perhaps make you double check the locks on your doors and windows before you seek an uneasy slumber.  Enjoy!

I’ve never kept a journal before but I’ve never been in the business of stealing life before either, so like my dad used to say, there’s a first time for everything.    

I got this notebook at a Walgreens in Ferron, Utah.  The flashlight I found in the glove compartment of this car.  It’s a 1969 Chevelle – a sweet ride.  The flashlight is tiny, just a small Maglite, but it’ll do.  After sunset I’ve been locking myself in the trunk of the car.  Because I don’t want to make it easy for Nathan when he comes for me. 

I’m lying here in the dark, writing in this journal.  Waiting for sleep, sunrise, or death.  I don’t care which anymore.  There’s enough light in here from the flashlight to see my notebook and to make out a few other dim shapes that share this coffin-like space with me.  A sleeping bag, but I wadded it up and use it as a pillow.  I don’t need it in the summer heat.  A couple of old milk jugs filled with water.  A pneumatic jack.  Not the cheap ass miniature kind that comes with cars nowadays this is a nice one.  I don’t know why I kept it though, it just takes up space.  I had to ditch my spare in order to crawl in here, so if I get a flat in the desert, I’ll be shit out of luck.  I’ve also got a shovel and a Mossberg pump action back here with me.  Not that the shotgun would do any good if Nathan finds me and decides to peel the metal skin of this car away like tissue paper. 

I was cooking glass in an abandoned wreck of a house near the Missouri river when Nathan found me.  It was a dilapidated dump in the middle of nowhere and I was cooking with the Hawk.  Hawk’s real name was Lawrence or some shit like that, but everyone I knew called him Hawk.  He could sniff out 5-0 like he was psychic or something.  Probably he was just paranoid, but we cooked together for almost a year and never got busted so what does that tell you?  He could boost pseudo like nobody’s business too.  He was smooth.  Hawk would go on these “shopping trips” and come back with all sorts of good stuff.  I had to get the red P and the anhydrous.  I grew up on a farm in Indiana, so that was no big thing. 

It was raining and just before midnight when Nathan walked in on us.  Hawk – I said he was paranoid, right?  Well he had an itchy trigger finger and he popped off three rounds into the guy’s chest with his monster of a gun, a .50 caliber Desert Eagle.  He was at point blank range.  It didn’t do a damn thing except punch holes through the man’s white shirt and chest, and through the wall behind him.  I was half-blinded by the muzzle flash, but what I could see for sure was the man, standing there, leering at us.  I saw blood on his teeth and I guess Hawk did too.  The man walked over to Hawk, and I swear to God I can still hear the sound of his boots crossing the old, rotting wood floor.  I watched him touch Hawk’s cheek, running a long, thick, yellowed fingernail across it in some sort of sick caress.  Hawk stood his ground, I’ll give him that.  The man’s nail looked like a dagger and it slashed like one, too.  One minute Hawk was standing there, staring at the man, and the next minute he was clutching his throat with both hands, blood spurting between his fingers.  He tried to talk but the words just kind of bubbled and garbled in his mouth.  I could see fear in Hawk’s eyes, but what haunts me most is that last look of confusion in his steel blue eyes as he turned to look at me before he collapsed. 

I knew he was dead before he hit the floor.  That was good because the thing that looked like a man fell on him, ripping even more deeply into his throat with sharply pointed teeth, tearing at his flesh with those terrible clawed fingernails.  Hawk’s blood was smeared all over his chin and cheeks.  His lips were painted cherry red with gore, like a cheap hooker.  When he had his fill he looked up at me and smiled, but his eyes were dead.  Bottomless orbs set deep into black-purple hollows above a gaunt, thin face and high cheekbones. He pointed at me and said something in a voice that sounded like sandpaper rasping in a mouthful of gravel.

Cook or die, he said.

Looking back maybe it would have been better if I had died, but maybe not, since Hawk got up and walked before the night was over.  He had the same dead eyes and same deadvoice as the thing that told me to call it Nathan.  Hawk brought back a small child from a nearby farm.  A boy, maybe eight or nine years old.  At first I thought he was dead but after a while I could see a faint pulse in his neck and when I kneeled beside him I could feel the feather touch of his breath against my cheek.  I took half a pint of his blood, filling the plastic bag Nathan had given me with a steady flow through IV tubing.  I had an aunt who went to college to learn how to take blood – there’s a name for that job.  I always thought she was creepy, but anyway stealing blood from another person – stealing their soul and vitality – is a lot easier than you might think. 

I don’t know if Nathan has the capacity for mercy.  Most likely he doesn’t care.  But I’m pretty sure the boy lived after we left him.  Twilight chased us into the cellar of a burned out house twenty miles away, near St. Joe, Missouri.  I slept that day with the thick stench of dirt, death, and decay in my nose.  I couldn’t run even if I had the nerve.  Nathan had handcuffed me to Hawk and we lay side by side under a pile of filthy tarps blocking the light of day.  At some point, I dozed off and awoke with a start at the feel of Hawk’s teeth against the soft flesh of my neck and I swear I stopped breathing when I saw his eyes.  No longer blue, but black as pitch with a dull red cast surrounding the pupil.  Nathan pulled Hawk off of me, striking him so hard across the face that I heard something in his neck snap.  After that, Hawk’s head canted slightly toward the right.  Somehow that was the worst, as if his deadvoice, black eyes, jagged wolf’s teeth, and breath that reeked of the grave wasn’t bad enough.  His head was just wrong on his neck somehow. 

Now every cook has his own signature, me included, but that night Nathan ordered me to cook glass but it wasn’t normal crystal it was crystalline maroon, nearly black at the tips it was so rich in hemoglobin.  At some point during that first cook I gagged until I saw black spots in front of my eyes and I was dizzy on my feet.  I puked into that first batch and Nathan beat me until I really did pass out.  I awoke to feel a tongue lapping at the blood that had welled up in the deep gashes in my cheeks and neck and chest, and I screamed until I was hoarse and my throat was raw.  It was Hawk.  He laughed in his deadvoice and I hoped he would just kill me then but Nathan returned with everything I’d need to start over and so I did.  What I created was unspeakable.  Nathan loved it.  He powdered out some of the crystals with the butt of Hawk’s Desert Eagle and snorted it from the tip of his dagger-like talon.  The one that had slashed Hawk’s throat open the night before, although it already seemed like an eternity ago. 

We traveled across the Midwest in an old white cargo van, taking the back roads and stopping for a few days at a time in dead and dying towns in Iowa, Illinois, and Kansas before Nathan decided to head west.  Personally, I think he hated the humidity.  It accentuated the reek of offal and death that emanated from the van, and the stench from our cooks hung over us like a coppery yellow curtain.  It was time to move on, but we left a trail of corpses in our wake.  Sometimes we just took blood and left men, women, and children behind – deathly pale, comatose, barely breathing.  Their souls belonged to Nathan.  Their essence and flavor was trapped in the rock.  He could come back for them at any time, and sometimes he did.  Other times Nathan killed them slowly, taking perverse pleasure in my horror, making me watch.  Then making me cook. 

Did I tell you they sold the stuff?  Nathan and Hawk smoked that blood red crystal constantly.  It made them edgier and more violent, but it also made them faster.  And it made their bloodlust run hot.  The grams of rojo skante that they didn’t smoke up they peddled.  I saw them selling it in seedy motel parking lots, behind truck stops and strip clubs, in dark alleys, outside bars and frat houses, one time in the men’s room of a Quik Trip in Norfolk, Nebraska.  There was always a demand, and there was always plenty of blood.

I lost track of time but we had been holed up on the outskirts of Vegas for at least a week the night Nathan went out to hunt and forgot to shackle me.  We were staying in a trailer house on the edge of town.  No one had lived in it for at least a decade by the looks of it.  The roof had caved in over the bathroom and the rear bedroom.  Nathan and Hawk didn’t seem to mind; they just pissed blood in the kitchen sink.  I could hear rats scurrying beneath the trailer at night, and could glimpse them occasionally through holes in the rotted floorboards. 

Nathan had gotten in the habit of chaining me to something during a cook so he could go out and hunt.  I cooked because there was nothing else to do.  Sometimes Nathan shackled me to a pipe, or an old radiator, and once heaven help me he cuffed my ankle to the wrist of a dead woman in a pale yellow floral print dress, her face beautiful on one side, ravaged by his teeth on the other.  But that night outside of Vegas he forgot – or maybe he was testing me – but I found myself alone and not wearing a chain.  I sat in the moonlight outside the trailer for at least an hour, frozen with a sick paralysis.  It wasn’t until I heard the shrill scream of some small animal turned prey in the clutches of a coyote, or maybe an owl, that I was able to act.  I lurched to my feet and I ran.  I ran toward the city lights glowing like a mad carnival in the distance.  My feet pounded and echoed on the pavement in the inky desert darkness and it sounded as if I was being chased by Satan himself.

I had no money and my clothes were filthy from living rough in them the past three or four months.  Truth is, I didn’t really know how long I had been Nathan’s hostage.  Nathan’s cook.  I stole some clothes – they were baggy and ill-fitting but clean – from a Salvation Army donation box.  I stole a woman’s purse from a dingy bar while she tried to sashay but mostly staggered around a pool table with her boyfriend.  I doubt if they even noticed me.  I ended up with $76 in cash and a handful of coins, ditching the purse in a dumpster behind the bar.  Sixty-six dollars got me a one-way Greyhound bus ticket to Ogden, Utah.  The bus didn’t depart until 8 o’clock in the morning, so I watched television in the brightly lit waiting room and relaxed for the first time in months in a grimy plastic chair, surrounded by the living.  I bought a couple of cheeseburgers from a Burger King across the street, but only managed to choke down half of one.  I could taste the blood in it. 

I spent a couple of days wandering around Ogden, enjoying the view of the mountains, the feel of sunshine on my face, and the clean, fresh air.  When it was time to leave, I stole the Chevelle from the faculty parking lot at Weber State University.  I didn’t even have to break out a window.  It was unlocked.  The V8 Super Sport didn’t purr – that thing growled its way to Ferron, where I knocked off a liquor store and got gas money and enough scratch to pick up the Mossberg from a pawn shop after I made my way to Moab.  By then I’d also ditched my spare tire, and started locking myself into the trunk at night.  I’d been hearing Nathan’s voice on the wind.  Calling my name. 

When I think about it, I think maybe Nathan understood why I had run.  Understood way down deep, in that part of him that had once been human.  What Nathan didn’t understand, and I don’t either, is why I stole his stash. 

I parked the car as the sun was lingering low and gold on the horizon, pulling off the highway beside a lone Joshua tree.  There’s been almost no traffic since.  From the sound of it, four or five semis and a handful of cars have passed since I started writing in my journal tonight.  Most of the pages are full anyway, and I am not sure what else there is to say.  I’m going to put my notebook in a ziplock bag and bury it beside the Joshua tree.  Maybe someone will find it one day.  Maybe not.  In the end, it might not matter.  After I bury the notebook I’m going to start walking east by the light of the full moon.  I don’t think I’ll have to walk very far.  I heard shrill laughter outside my car last night, you see.  I heard the sharp rasp as my trunk got keyed, but I don’t think it was with a key.  I heard a deadvoice whisper my name through the lid of the trunk in a sibilant hiss.  No, I don’t think I will have to walk very far at all.  Nathan wants his stash back.

###