Posts Tagged ‘short story’

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.

###

Advertisements

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 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.

###

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.

###

It’s Flash Fiction Friday, and to celebrate the start of the weekend, I’d like to share Dry Run.  I stumbled on a challenge earlier this year to write a story of precisely 100 words, on any topic, as long as it included three of the five random words that were provided.  The three words I chose were: black, barrel, and soap.  I went for a short waltz with those words, and the result was Dry Run.  Enjoy!

He won the mannequin on eBay.  It arrived five days later.  He removed it from a shroud of tissue paper and bubble wrap, washing it with a delicate lavender soap.  They sat together on his porch as the sun set, drinking red wine and making light conversation.  Under the pale light of the moon, he strangled her with a length of sheer black nylon hose.  He dismembered her with a hacksaw and placed her arms, legs, and torso in a steel barrel filled with quick lime.  When all was in order, he returned inside to visit another social networking site.

###

What better way to celebrate the Flash Fiction Friday before Halloween than with a line from the Grateful Dead: “what a long strange trip it’s been.”  I took a brief leave of absence for a recent week-long trip for a training (mad props for Dialogue Education, an exemplary model for trainers and facilitators) in Chicago and have since had trouble finding the on switch for my writing.  It seems that the horror reactor powered itself down.  During this trip, my cell phone died and the motherboard on my laptop went out.  This theme, of technology turning on us, was in my mind as I wrote this story, Caller ID, in my battered writer’s journal on the train home from Chicago to Indy, gazing out into the depths of the inky Midwest darkness.  Enjoy!

His cell phone rang.  Ray McNamara glanced down at the phone number displayed on the screen, grimaced, and muted the ringer as he had done every time she’d called for the last six months.  He considered trying to turn the phone off, but stuffed it in his pocket instead without breaking stride.  Dry leaves crackled beneath his boots, and a reverent autumn hush had settled over the Appalachian Trail.  He relished the solitude and silence.

He’d tried, unsuccessfully, to block the calls.

He’d changed his number.  Twice. 

He’d cancelled his cell phone service, but the calls had simply been forwarded to his landline at home and at work, or to the phones of his family, friends, co-workers, and neighbors if he was not carrying one. 

At first he’d tried to manage the situation by turning the phone off, but it powered itself on again with each incoming call from her, charged or uncharged.  He’d flung his phone out of the window of his car during rush hour on the New Jersey Turnpike.  It had returned to him in the mail, fully functional, one day later.  The calls had become so disruptive professionally that his supervisor had asked for his resignation a week ago.  His number was private, unlisted, and yet the calls continued to ring through, every 17 minutes.  At night, the frequency of calls increased between midnight and 3:00 a.m.  Ray had maxed out his dosage of over-the-counter sleep aids and melatonin until he was able to get a prescription for Ambien.  He could still hear the phone ring in his dreams, although REM sleep for him had become a rarity.

The first time the phone rang and displayed her number, Ray had answered, thinking it was nothing more than a prank call or a sick joke.  He’d been assaulted with a blast of static and the sound of her voice, assailing him with her usual nasal litany of complaints and accusations.  He’d hung up the phone in a panic, white knuckles clenched around the cheap plastic case, stomach knotted, his breakfast mixed with thick bile in his throat.  The next call had come 17 minutes later.  The third time she’d called, he had expected it.

He had taken care to make his ex-wife’s death look like an accident.  It had been easier than he had anticipated.  A visit to her home with two bottles of wine, promises of increased child support, extended alimony, and an enthusiastic shove down her staircase had rid him of the shrew more completely than their divorce.  Ray didn’t regret killing her; he regretted allowing her to be buried with her cell phone. 

A white oak tree had fallen over the path.  Ray climbed over it, a thin branch tangling and tugging in the lace of his left boot.  He yanked his foot free and continued to hike, savoring the weight of the pack and the feel of sunlight on his face as he trudged further outside the service area of his phone.  His path wound along a deep, dry gorge.  He kicked a rock over the edge, and watched it bounce and tumble sixty feet to the bottom.  As his phone rang, Ray tugged it out of his pocket and hurled it into the gorge.  The black plastic casing shattered on the sharp rocks below. 

He decided to step off the trail and make camp.  It was as good a place as any.  The key would be to stay out of range of the transmitters.

I’m shut of her, he thought, a grin stretching across his pale and drawn face.  I’m finally free of that woman. 

Ray leaned back against a pine tree, his too-thin body sinking into a soft loam of leaves as he searched through his pack for his water bottle and something to eat.  He’d provisioned himself well for this trip, unsure of when – or if – he’d return home.  He half listened to sporadic birdsong, closed his eyes, and enjoyed the first sense of freedom he’d had in half a year.

Some distance back on the trail, he could hear the soft murmur of voices and footfalls making their way in his direction. 

Hikers, he thought.  Wanderers like me. 

“Not all those who wander are lost,” Ray quoted, and chuckled.  Behind him, a phone rang.  The laughter caught in his throat. 

“Really,” said a voice, incredulous.  “Raymond, huh?  Okay, I’ll find him.”

Ray moaned low in his throat, and clambered to his feet.  He crossed the trail and gazed into the gorge.  He thought about the phone he’d thrown into it, 17 minutes before.  He wondered what it would feel like to step into the abyss.  He thought he might find out.

###

It’s Flash Fiction Friday, and to wind down a long week, I’d like to share Waiting for Sunrise, a flash fiction offering of 55 words.  This bit of micro fiction was written in response to a challenge I came across to write a story of 100 words or less on any topic, with one stipulation: no word can be repeated.  If you like writing flash and want to give this challenge a try, I’d love to see your own dark works!  Feel free to share your stories in the comments, or post a link to your blog or other website, and in the meantime, enjoy!

A purplish cast lightened the night sky.  Sunrise was perhaps thirty minutes away, although time had become meaningless centuries ago.  His grave beckoned, promising cool, dark security.  Millennia stretched out endlessly, offering nothing beyond weariness and insatiable hunger.  He glanced once toward home, then settled down beside an ancient, dying elm to await dawn’s arrival. 

###