Category Archives: Horror

The Europa Virus

Subject number 03198 was administered water about two hours before the adverse effects started to surface. This was the longest stretch of time yet without any sign of symptoms and Dr. Norton was feeling confident about this one. She hoped that she finally made water safe to drink again. But just as her hopes were rising, so was Subject 03198’s fever.

The subject was in a padded room with a large observation window. All the subject saw was his own reflection but Dr. Norton could see right into the room. Around Dr. Norton were a collection of different machines all reading different data: body temperature, heart rate, blood pressure, brain activity, all the essentials when you’re fairly convinced that you’re watching a person die. Dr. Norton was in the room alone when Subject 03198 started showing symptoms. She reached down and turned off the communication microphones and speakers between her and the subject. She never liked hearing their screams.

She often thought it was cruel that the subjects had a mirror in the room with them. As the symptoms got worse, the subjects watched themselves more. They would first start looking into the mirror to see the sweat dripping off their faces as the fever got worse. Look up every once in a while when they start coughing. The first time they noticed the blood on their hands, they always look up at the mirror, as if they’re looking through and staring directly at whoever was in the booth, asking, “What the fuck did you do to me?” The first time they vomit they look into the mirror to see if any if left on their faces on got onto their clothes.

When the vomit turns to blood, it’s like they don’t stop looking into the mirror. As the blood vomit gets out of control, they only ever seem to stare at the floor. The vomit stopping is the worst sign and Dr. Norton almost wishes the vomit wouldn’t stop until they’re dead. But every time the vomit stops, the subject looks into the mirror, and their eyes start to throb. They last thing they see is their own reflection as their eyes pulsate more violently and finally pop like week-old zits. The screaming is always worst by this point. Sometimes they scream for hours. Sometimes they scream right up until their bodies finally give and they die lying on the floor. And that’s why Dr. Norton always turns off the microphones and speakers.

Subject 03198 was no different. All the same symptoms, all the same reactions, and the same end result. Another dead person lying in the observation room.

Dr. Norton didn’t even have time to pull her eyes away from the window when Dr. Edwards came into the room. “Jesus Christ!” he blurted out. “Not another one! I thought we had this one figured out. What happened?”

“Same symptoms,” Dr. Norton said. “Same order, same reactions, just started a lot later. This one didn’t show fever until two hours after introduction to the water sample. We are making some sort of progress with this –”

“Christ on a fucking stick!” Dr. Edwards interrupted. “How the fuck is it being delayed? It’s a virus. It shouldn’t be delaying. It either goes or it doesn’t. How is it delaying?”

Dr. Norton took a minute to review the notes she made while watching the subject before answering Edwards, whose fuming temper was warming the room hotter than the subject’s fevers. “It could be that there were fewer virus cells in the sample. That could delay the reaction. But judging by the symptoms and how quickly Subject 03198 is currently decomposing, the virus replicates at an enormous rate once introduced to the human digestive system. This shoots down any theory that humans could have an immunity to a small number of cells. It’s not the number of cells, it’s the virus itself.”

Dr. Edward and Dr. Norton both looked into the observation room and saw that Subject 03198’s decomposition was like all the rest: a week’s worth of rotting and stench in a matter of minutes. Dr. Norton looked down at the body temperature readouts and saw they were just as high as all the rest. Like the bodies were so hot inside that it was melting the flesh right off their bones and speeding up all the bacteria responsible for decomposition. Like leaving meat out in the sun on a hot summer day.

“In any other case, most bodies drop temperature once all life signs cease,” Dr. Norton pointed out. “This virus is completely different. Like the other samples, subject 03198’s fever temperature is persisting post-mortem. Almost 110 degrees. Hottest still was 112, I don’t think anything will break that record. But still, it’s inhumanly hot. It must have felt like they were being boiled from the inside out.”

“They probably pray for death,” Dr. Edwards said. “I know I fucking would. There are fates worse than death and any kind of pain like we’re seeing from this virus for any longer than a few minutes and they should drop dead just to stop the agony. Funny, because of how quick most subjects die after symptoms begin, this may be the most humane virus there is. It’s agony, but at least it’s quick. Funny how that works.”

Dr. Norton knew there was nothing humane about this virus. Dr. Edwards rarely stayed while any subject was in the observation room. He never had to hear the screams and see the agony in people’s faces. He never looked into their eyes before they exploded in their sockets.

“Any progress in eliminating all virus cells from the water samples?” Dr. Edwards asked.

Dr. Norton shook her head. “The virus doesn’t react the same way to conventional sanitation and decontamination methods. Fluoride and chlorine do nothing to the virus cells, electromagnetic radiation only makes the virus replicate faster, even when we try to distil the water, the virus cells latch on to the hydrogen and oxygen molecules during vaporization. I’ve never seen anything act like this before.”

“So we can’t altogether get rid of the virus,” Dr. Edwards began. “And the human body can’t withstand any exposure to it. Our investors aren’t going to be happy about this.”

Billions of dollars had been poured into what was being called Operation Europa. With the deterioration of the Earth’s atmosphere, weather patterns became more erratic, then altogether stopped existing. Cloud formations became minimal and the total precipitation on Earth over the past few years had been equal to a single spring in Arizona. Water was depleting fast and it was Operation Europa’s job to find a suitable substitute for the naturally occurring water that used to fall from the sky and that all life on Earth still needs to survive.

The biggest investor was Albert MacFarlane, who was a billionaire philanthropist constantly giving to every needy charity on the planet. At least, that was his public persona. When a person gives that much money to help stop the spread of Ebola in developing countries and provide winter jackets to homeless people living through harsh winters in northern climates, you tend not to question where the money came from to begin with. Everyone working on Operation Europa was under strict orders to not question where MacFarlane’s money came from, but be grateful it was coming in.

“When’s the next shuttle set to launch?” Dr. Norton asked.

Dr. Edwards looked around briefly, and then spotted a computer sitting on a table. He leaned over and started typing and scrolling. “Next week,” he answered. “They’re planning on extracting twice as much water on this mission as the last. According t schedule, we should have made the water safe by now.”

“We’re just going to have to tell MacFarlane that the water won’t be ready for public consumption,” Dr. Norton said. “We just need more time to better understand the virus in the water and how best to treat it.”

“Which one of us will be explaining this to Mr. MacFarlane?” Dr. Edwards asked.

*****

Albert MacFarlane’s age was showing more and more every day. Murmurs were that the stress of trying to fund Operation Europa was putting deep creases into his botoxed face. His temper was getting shorter and shorter the more he heard about the water contamination. Like a child who wasn’t getting what he wanted right away and his tantrums were getting louder and more violent.

“Ms. Norton,” MacFarlane began. “You do understand that the public unveiling is in a matter of weeks. The next trip to Europa is meant to fill the glasses of all the investors and all the politicians behind Operation Europa. Fresh, clean water for the world. I don’t understand how water, simple water, can be killing so many people.”

Dr. Norton shook where she stood. She looked down at her pale, frail hands and realized that she was in the room alone with Albert MacFarlane. She knew his reputation of violent eruptions. She was terrified as to how drastically he would explode at the prospect of cancelling the cocktail party where the operation he heavily funded would save the world.

She tried to speak, but MacFarlane leaned forward and put his index finger in front of his mouth, shushing her before she could get a full word out. “Please, keep in mind Ms. Norton –”

“Dr. Norton,” she blurted out.

“My apologies,” MacFarlane smiled. “Please keep in mind, Doctor Norton, I’m not a sciency kind of guy. So try to explain this to me in a way that I can understand.”

Dr. Norton took a deep breath, trying to slow down her jackhammering heart, and began. “All water has microbes and small organisms in it. They’re not bad for us, in fact a lot of the microscopic life in water is essential for humans. The water we’re extracting from Europa is similar in that way, only the microscopic life in the water from there is killing whoever drinks it.”

MacFarlane squinted, his hand on his chin. Dr. Norton could tell that he was listening, but couldn’t tell what he was thinking. “Well, why would this micro-whatever in water that usually helps us live kill us now?”

“We think it’s because the water is coming from a different planetary source altogether,” Dr. Norton continued. “Europa formed around Jupiter, and Jupiter is a mass of gas almost entirely composed of hydrogen with some helium and sulfur. Where Earth has a lot of carbon, and all life on Earth is carbon based. We think that the microscopic life in the water from Europa is evolved from hydrogen, or even sulfur, rather than carbon, and so when it’s introduced to our bodies, our bodies completely reject it, like an abomination. Things mix that shouldn’t mix and create a chemical reaction that heat the body from the inside out and completely destroy it.”

MacFarlane leaned back in his chair. “And there’s absolutely no way to destroy this virus? No cure? No medicine? How am I supposed to tell all the people who invested billions of dollars into this and all the big players passing bills to support this that it’s all a waste now?”

“It hasn’t been a total waste,” Dr. Norton replied. “Life forms evolving from anything other than carbon was completely theoretical up to this point. This is actually a huge discovery if we’re correct –”

“It doesn’t mean shit unless I have water to sell!” MacFarlane screamed. “I’m not funding this for the sciency mumbo-jumbo bullshit! I’m funding this to get some water back on this planet, sell it to everyone, and get my name down in history as the guy who saved the fucking world! And I’ll tell you what I’m starting to think. I think that you’re making these results up and pretending this water is making people sick so that the lab can stay open, you can Edwards and keep your jobs and keep playing scientists with my money!”

“Sir, I can assure you,” Norton’s voice was shaking, her hands were trembling, and she was holding back tears for the sake of staying professional looking. “The biological threat that this water is imposing—”

“Threat nothing!” MacFarlane screamed. “I’m serving this goddamn water at the party straight from the fucking plant and without any of your science-bullshit! And when you see everyone drink it fine, you’ll be fired and I’ll sue you for every paycheque of yours that I signed!”

*****

The worst part has always been watching people die. Norton knew that was obvious. If it ever got to the point where they could talk about the experiments and how people had been reacting to Europa’s water, the first thing she always knew she would say would be that watching people die was the worst.

The second worst was always the clean up. The funders behind Operation Europa were more than happy to supply the lab with a bio-waste disposal suit. Its metal armour and mechanical gears moving every joint in sync with its pilot’s body was built for cleaning out massive waste deposits on warfields. It could lift twenty human carcasses at a time and still be able to walk as if it was carrying a bag of groceries. Norton knew a bio-waste disposal suit like this was overkill for such a small lab. She heard that the team even had some difficulty getting it into the building at first. The suit was already in its place by the observation room by the time she was hired to be part of the research and experimentation team. She asked Edwards about the suit and why the heavy precaution. Edwards explained that the investors were worried about airborne pathogens coming out of whatever virus was infecting the test subject. The bio-waste disposal suit was the best tool for such a messy and dangerous job.

Norton climbed into the suit, slid her arms and legs into the padded opening through each of the suit’s limbs, used the suit’s arms to close the chest plate and fasten the safety mask and helmet. Norton adjusted the smell blockers, an addition she made to the suit after the smell of cleaning the subjects’ remains became too unbearable, and walked into the room smeared with fluids. Norton could have sworn the walls were still vibrating with the sounds of subject 03198’s screams.

Inside each of the arms of the suit were a set of control, small notches and buttons for each of the suit’s sanitation functions. It took Norton some time to get used to all the controls and remembers which function could be found with what. But she was a fast learner.

She moved through the room, mapping out how would be best and most efficient to clean what was left of subject 03198. She moved her right arm inside of the padded tube, found the switch to turn on the hot water power-spray, and started soaking the room. The tiny red bits of person smeared on the walls and along the floor moved easily. Nothing would settle on the coated walls and floors specifically designed to withstand the kind of mess drinking Europa’s water causes.

She soaked the room and moved all of the human remains into a single pile in the middle of the floor and thought about how all these small bits of mess make a human. A complete human laid in front of her, all the pieces were there.

*****

Norton and Edwards continued the experiments as scheduled, hoping to god they find something before the cocktail party when the psychopathic philanthropist pours the toxic water in hopes to out-gustoing their research. The weeks passed with no progress made. They watched the shuttle launch knowing that it was the shuttle that would bring the deaths of a few hundred people. They watched the shuttle return like the four horsemen come to bring the end. And still, they found nothing to slow down the virus that lives in the ice found on the moon Europa.

The cocktail party was held in the same facility as where all of Operation Europa was conducted. The shuttle and exploration teams used the upper floors, the science and research departments were in the underground floors, and the main floor was reserved for the massive reception area with water fountains, gold plated steps, and a reception hall.

Norton and Edwards both attended the party in full formal wear. They looked around hesitantly, not sure if they’re more terrified to watch a room full of people die, or see them live and know that every penny they will ever make from that moment forward will go right back to Albert MacFarlane. They knew their science was solid, but MacFarlane was ruthless. Norton half expected that MacFarlane would fill everyone’s glasses with the last of the Earth’s water, just to prove a point and save face.

They watched the servers hand out the crystal glasses of water. The guests all held their glasses by the dainty tips of their fingers. MacFarlane stood up to the podium and started making a speech. Norton wasn’t listening. She was watching the guests.

“Did we ever test a subject without any pre-emptive sanitation process?” Norton asked Edwards.

“The first ones, yeah,” he answered. “All the same results. We burned the bodies right away because we were afraid of contamination.”

“What do you mean you burned the bodies?” Norton asked. “They completely decompose in minutes. What’s left to cremate?”

Edwards stared out silent for a minute. Then answered, “Those ones didn’t decompose right away. We didn’t wait long enough to see what would happen. We were so scared about contamination, we just burned the bodies within minutes. Do you think we missed something?”

“We’re about to find out.”

MacFarlane finished his speech and everyone applauded. He held up his crystal glass and took a long drink of water. As he finished swallowing, he stared out and locked eyes with Norton.

Norton held her gaze in MacFarlane’s eyes for a moment, then looked out into the crowd, to catch everyone just as they swallowed. The sounds of joyous amazement filled the room, like a crowd who just witnessed a magician pull off an amazing trick. They smiled and laughed and mingled amongst themselves. Norton and Edwards kept staring out, observing and wondering what was going to happen next.

There were a few moments where it almost looked like MacFarlane might have actually filled everyone’s glasses with Earth water. The mingling kept going, MacFarlane’s icy cold stare jabbed at Norton and Edwards every time they looked in his direction. Norton wondered if he would have gone that far just to make them look bad and himself look good.

The first person at the party started vomiting about five minutes after the toast. It was an older man in a pinstripe suit. He tried covering his mouth and running out of the room. But his insides were spilling on the floor before he could make it anywhere near the hall’s exit. People were shocked, they stared at him with disgust. Then the second person started vomiting, this time an older woman in a golden gown. She keeled over, holding her stomach, and spilled herself right where she was standing. She didn’t even bother trying to move, like she knew there was no point.

One by one, all the guests were getting more and more sick. All except MacFarlane who stood on the stage looking down with wide eyes at everyone dying in front of him. He exhibited no signs. Norton knew right away that every guest had water from Europa, but MacFarlane gave himself Earth water. He was too much of a coward to drink it himself.

The shrill screams of everyone in the hall all dying at once filled the room like a television tuned to white noise. “Why are you just standing there!” someone screamed at Norton and Edwards. There was nothing anyone could do to help these people, and Norton and Edwards knew that. So they continued to observe, because there would no other good that could come of this situation except for maybe a better understanding of how the virus progresses in people. This was no longer a banquet and these people no longer had any hope. They were simply the next batch of subjects in this ongoing experiment.

A hand grabbed Norton by the shoulder and she looked back to see MacFarlane with a frantic and panicked look on his face. Beads of sweat dripped from his forehead, leaving long streaks of fear along his face. “Why didn’t you tell me the water was this dangerous!” his voice screeched through his teeth.

“We did tell you,” Norton answered. “You didn’t listen.”

The putrid smell of rot was already filling the room. It was no different from the other subjects. All the same symptoms in the same order and the same reaction from everyone suffering from the virus. It was a quick death, but the pain and anguish that accompanied it must have made it feel like a thousand years of suffering.

“I’ll call for sanitation and clean up,” Edwards said.

“No, wait,” Norton stopped Edwards. “You said you destroyed the bodies almost immediately last time someone was administered completely untreated water? I want to see what the bodies are like after an hour. I want to see if untreated water acts differently post-mortem than treated water.”

“Why?” Edwards asked.

“The virus acts the same in a living host, but what if treating the water actually does make a change, but the change isn’t prevalent until after the body dies?”

“What will that prove?”

“That the treatments are doing something. That all of our efforts didn’t leave us empty handed. And if it acts differently post-mortem, then there has to be a point where the virus acts differently while the host is still alive.”

Norton knew where her brain was heading with this idea, but she wasn’t sure if Edwards saw it too. He stared at her in silence, barely blinking, like his brain was trying to process what he just heard but couldn’t come to any sort of logical reasoning of his own. He was lost in Norton’s idea and completely froze trying to get it to make sense.

“Trust me,” she tried to assure him. “This will bring some progress.”

The acrid smell of rotting flesh started to bother Norton. She coughed into her sleeve, trying to keep down the contents of her stomach. Her instincts told her to get out of that room before she becomes violently ill. But she knew she couldn’t miss any minute. This was crucial.

Forty-five minutes passed and the bodies were almost completely liquid. Even the bone melted with the flesh and all that was left of the banquet guests was a puddle of human remains. Norton pulled her phone from her pocket and started taking photographs. She looked around as she was snapping photos and noticed that MacFarlane was nowhere to be seen. The sounds of screaming echoed through the hall and caught the attentions of both Norton and Edwards. It sounded like MacFarlane’s shrill, panicking voice.

Edwards tried stepping in the direction the sound came from and stepped directly into the liquefied human. The hiss of a burning acid sang out from under his foot and steam rose up, reeking of burning hair and melting rubber. He quickly jumped back and pulled his shoe off and threw it to the ground. The hissing and steaming continued as the shoe completely dissolve in front of them.

Edwards slipped off his other shoe and touched the gelatinous mass that once was a room full of people. The hissing rose up again and his other shoe dissolved as quickly as the first. He threw it to the ground and examined the bit of ash left.

“Corrosive,” he said. “Extremely corrosive. Some of Jupiter’s sulphuric atmosphere must be in this water as well. It’s mixing with the hydrogen of the water and the carbon and oxygen in the people. The pH levels are probably comparable to sulphuric acid, but this is like a much stronger dose.”

“Why isn’t it dissolving the floor?” Norton asked.

“These floors have the same coating as in the observation rooms,” Edwards explained. “A synthetic poly-ethylene plastic coating. Whatever this bit of mess is, it must only damage organic cells.”

Norton noticed that the mass of liquid corrosive human was crawling along the floor, spreading out like a droplet of water on a table going through osmosis. She tapped Edwards on the shoulder and pointed to the crawling threat and the two walked out of the room and headed back down into the lab.

*****

The first thing that Edwards ran to once the two made it into the lab were the binders of research notes. “If that keeps spreading,” he said. “It could coat the whole facility and burn up every piece of organic material in here. We’ve worked too hard to understand this much of it so far. There’s too much else left to learn about it and there’s no time to backtrack. Save every piece of record you can. If it’s paper, grab it and keep it safe.”

There were notes all over the lab. Norton grabbed for everything that she could see. From the scribbled covered notebooks to the small post-it notes stuck to the walls, she moved in a fury to grab everything she could. She handed a massive handful of notebooks and loose paper to Edwards, who looked at the pile from Norton and looked at everything he had gathered thus far.

“We need to start moving this out,” he said. “There was plenty of floor space left upstairs, and the mass was moving slowly when we came down to the lab. Stay down here and keep collecting everything you can and keep it in a single pile. I’m going to run this stack outside and into my car. It will be safe in there until we can get the rest out.”

Before Norton could get a syllable of objection out from between her lips, Edwards was already out of sight. She darted form one side of the lab to the other, picking up every sheet of paper she could see. She opened drawers, stood on chairs to reach top shelves, scoured every hidden space in the lab for anything. Once she gathered what she believed to be every sheet of paper in the lab, she noticed that Edwards still wasn’t back. She checked the clock on the wall and saw he had been gone for almost an hour.

She walked through the lab’s hallways and found the stairwell that led back up to the main floor. She called out for Edwards with only her voice echoing up the stairwell being her response. She stood still and waited, waited for Edwards to reappear for the next set of paper to carry upstairs. But there was nothing.

Then, a small drip started pouring off the top step. Norton watched it with curiosity. Not sure of what she was looking at, she grabbed a post-it note with a message that read “Call Mom,” and reach up with it to the top step. The paper touched the small drip trickling down and started smoking and hissing.

In a panic, she dropped the paper into the small puddle that was gathering on the next step. The paper burst into flame and was reduced to ash in a second. A heavy section of the mass then toppled over the top step as the corrosive human remains started pouring rapidly over, like a tower made of champagne glasses.

She ran back into the observation room and rummaged through the papers. She tried to read the notes as quickly as she could, trying to prioritize what would be most important to save. But she knew she was running out of time before she would have nowhere she could move to. She threw down all the papers back onto the desk and peeked out into the hallway to see the mass crawling its way down to the observation room.

She looked around for a window, an air vent, anything she could crawl through to get to safety. All there was around her were grey walls and fluorescent lights. She knew the stairs were her only exit, but there was no way she would get through the hallway now. She walked forward and touched her toe lightly to mass and her shoe instantly burned up. She kicked off both shoes and moved back to the observation room.

Standing just beside the doorway was the bio-waste disposal unit. It moved slowly. She never tried to walk up stairs with it before. But the metal armour was coated with the same poly-ethylene plastic to protect it from bacteria growing on it. She would at least be safe in the basement if she couldn’t get up the stairs.

The suit was already open and Norton just had to climb in, secure her limbs, and close the chest plate and helmet. Once secure, she began walking through the mass. Each slow, thudding step dispersed the mass under its heavy foot. The mechanical sounds of each limb moving as she walked along seemed louder than any time she cleaned out the observation room.

She made it to the steps, which were now soaked with corrosive human remains. The liquid poured along like a never ending fountain. She lifted her foot and stepped onto the first step. She could feel the foot slipping from under her. She tried to steady herself, but she was quickly losing control. The foot finally slipped out from under her and she fell back in the bio-waste disposal unit and landed directly on her back.

Her body seized up. The pain of the landing shot through her whole body, which refused to move despite any command coming from her brain. She laid flattened, staring at the ceiling through the helmet. She could see the liquid dripping out of the vents and through the fluorescent light fixtures. It dripped slowly down and landed on the helmet’s view screen, clouding Norton’s sight.

The fog from her breath condensed inside of the helmet, leaving it wet and smelling like rotting food. Her limbs began responding her commands and she tried moving the suit to stand back up. Gravity was not on her side as she began feeling like a turtle turned upside down on its shell. She was able to move the mechanical arm and wipe away the accumulating mass clouding her vision. She looked around and noticed on the far side of the lab from the observation room a small window. Small, but just big enough to crawl through.

Unable to get up still, Norton began kicking out her legs and flailing her arms, pushing the suit across the floor towards the window. She grabbed onto walls and kicked at corners, moving the massive metal body across the floor. After some hard pushes, she finally made it to the window.

The walls around the window still had no liquid on it. She knew she pull herself up through the window and pivot herself against the wall to get out of the facility. But she had to get up to reach the window first.

She opened the chest plate and helmet to the suit. She pushed one of the doors to the chest plate as far open as the hinges would allow, then pushed it further to pop the hinge and let the door swing from the other side. She stood up with her feet inside the suit where he back usually is and stepped out onto the open door and pushed herself up the wall and through the window.

Once outside, she walked directly to where Edward’s car is usually parked. There was no sign of Edwards or his car anywhere. All there was in the parking spot where his car usually is was a single piece of paper. An observation that she wrote during 03198’s brief time as a subject. She didn’t even remember scribbling down “this is hopeless” on the paper, but it’s how she felt while watching 03198.

She looked back to the facility and saw the liquid seeping through the doors. It crawled along the concrete and into the grassy area. Smoke billowed up to the sky and the sound of its hiss was louder than the traffic on the nearby highway.

She watched the grass burn and pictured what it would do to the trees, forests, jungles, how it would spread all over, burning up every piece of organic material on the planet. She wondered if Europa was once a forest moon, full of life and growth and potential. Until someone drank the water.

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The Meat Freezer

The warm feeling of my breath against my frozen hands was what woke me up. My eyes were barely cracked open before I heard the screams. The blood curdling type of screams that immediately sends your body into panic mode. The adrenaline surge from my flight-or-fight instinct got me wide-awake and immediately assessing my situation.

I was handcuffed and the cuffs were wrapped around a steel bar that usually holds meat hooks. Between me and the next hindquarter hanging, there were two support beams that ran from the freezer’s floor to the roof, giving me only a small range to slide the cuffs across. My feet were barely touching the ground.

The sound of more loud screams pierced through the walls. I leveraged myself on the tips of my toes and started sliding the chain of the cuffs back and forth as hard as I could, hoping some steel on steel friction could get me loose. The scrams got louder and closer, and I started rubbing harder and faster. I didn’t know who that butcher was taking care of next but I wasn’t about to give him the satisfaction of seeing me trapped still.

The chain of the cuffs snapped and I fell to the ground, knocking the hanging cow carcasses that surrounded me. The carcasses continued to sway as I stood up and noticed that the screaming stopped. And it was too quiet.

The freezer door clicked as I pushed against it and slowly slid it open. I peeked through the crack, checking to see if anywhere was down here with me. The room was dark, but the stairs leading back up to ground level were illuminated still by one small, glowing orange light.

My foot slipped as I took my first step out. I didn’t fall, but it was enough of a slip to catch my attention. A long red streak ran from the freezer door right to the stairs. I followed the trail and saw more smears along each step. When I finally made it to the ground level where the butcher shop front was, I found the butcher and his two employees.

One employee was sliced open from his collarbone to his groin. His chest was opened up like a book and his ribs protruded out like stalactites in a cave. His intestines were pulled out and wrapped around his throat and then tied to a longhorn hanging above the meat’s display case. He swayed back and forth like the hindquarters in the freezer.

At first, it looked like the other employee only had a screwdriver punched through the back of his head. The back of his skull fragmented and mixed with the brain and blood and matted all through his hair. As I got closer, I could see the screwdriver came out the other side and lodged itself into the butcher’s chopping block. He guy had both of his hands stapled to the butcher block with two of the longest knives in the shop. This was an execution.

I found the butcher by the cash register. When he was alive he was easily four-hundred pounds and had a belly that practically hung to his knees. The belly was split open like a cantaloupe. His legs and shoes were drenched in a blood and fat soup mix that has the consistency of a thick mud that stuck to the bottom of your feet. Both of his shoulders had knives stuck into them that popped out the other side and stuck into the wall behind him. There was also a pair of garden sheers stuck into his mouth and opened up. The sides of his lips wrapped around the blades started splitting and bleeding where they lay against the metal, looking like a large jester’s smile.

This was a slaughter and all I could think was that either whoever did this was still there and waiting for me, or bolted and left me to take the blame.

I ran for the back door and kept running through the town’s industrial park and ran into the first payphone I saw. The sun was about totally set and the shadows of the warehouses and factories loomed over me while I crunched myself into the glass box and picked up the receiver.

I called my editor.

“Jumping fucking Christ, Harmond,” he said to me. “You sound like you just saw a dead body.”

“Three actually,” I replied, barely catching my breath. “The butcher and his two staff. Fucking slaughtered, man. I’ve never seen anything like that before. Holy fuck.”

“Shit, you’re fucking serious,” he muttered back, sounding like he barely believed what he was saying let along what I was saying. “Who the fuck… Just fucking… It wasn’t you, was it?”

“Christ no!” I yelled back. “The fat fuck locked me in the meat freezer. Handcuffed me next to hanging beef carcasses.”

“How the fuck did you wind up there?” he asked.

“The butcher didn’t like me snooping around,” I answered. “Got really mad when I asked about his daughter’s disappearance. Next thing I know, I’m waking up in a fucking freezer with a killer headache.”

“Wait, did you say you were handcuffed?”

“Yeah.”

“Either this guy’s got some freaky fetishes or the cops know what he’s doing,” he sighed hard. “Careful with these fucking small towns. Everyone knows everyone. This butcher probably played football with half of the police force. If he was responsible for anything, the cops probably know and are trying to cover it up as much as he is.”

“Do you think one of the cops could have killed the butcher?”

“I don’t know,” he replied. “Just be fucking careful. Look, I’ll wire you some money. Whatever you need. Just get the fuck out of that place.”

“Do I really want to gamble with having that psychopath wanting to follow me back home? What if he’s hunting me right now? He didn’t kill me back there, but what if he was waiting for me. What if he’s watching me right now?”

“Get a fucking hold of yourself!” he yelled. “What if he didn’t know you were in that freezer? Besides, staying in that shit-hole town isn’t going to help.”

“But if I do have this psycho’s attention, at least it stays here and doesn’t follow me home,” I checked my pockets for any semblance of money other than the change that butcher didn’t take out of my pocket. “Well, my wallet’s gone, which means no money. Even if you wire it over, I’ll be fucked. The hotel room’s paid for the next few days. I’ll try to lay low there for a while and nothing happens in those few days, I’ll head back.”

“Does the car work still?”

“Knowing my luck, the butcher sunk it into the bottom of the lake. I have no idea where it is.”

“Alright. I’ll drive in. Just lay low. No cops, they’ll think you were responsible, or worse, try to finish what the butcher started. Don’t talk to anyone until I get to town, then we’ll get the fuck out of dodge. Alright?”

“Ok, thanks Sam.”

“A dead writer is no good to this magazine, Harmond. Don’t do anything fucking stupid.”

Sam hung up before I did and I heard the phone click. The wind picked up and blew hard against the glass box I was crunched into and was the only sound I could hear.

The walk back to the hotel was long and it was only getting colder outside. My breath hung lingered in front of me and the fog got thicker the further I walked. I could feel myself stepping against the concrete harder with each step as I hurried to back to the motel, jumping at every shadow that moved and every branch that rustled in the wind. It felt as though every street light I walked under, there was a second shadow just steps behind me. Like in every shrub there were a set of eyes watching me as I walked by.

The motel was one of those two storey roadside stops where out of town businessmen stopped at to strangle hookers. My room was on the second floor, and as I walked up to the door I could see through the window that there was a light on. I stood close to the door, tried to hear any voices inside, when the door swung open and there stood a brunette with hair that waved down just beneath her shoulders. Her green eyes were hidden behind a pair of round glasses. She had one of my black button-down shirts on. The tops three buttons were undone.

“Fuck, is this your room?” she said to me. “Look, the door was unlocked, I’m just hiding out here from a john who decided to bring a rope and some chloroform to the party.” In one smooth motion, she pulled out a switchblade knife, the blade clicking out just as it reached the front of my face. “I cut his balls off and I wouldn’t hesitate to cut yours off too. But you don’t seem like the type to try and hurt someone for kicks. You actually looked damaged. It’s the normal ones you gotta look out for.”

I pushed my way back into the room and shut the door behind us. “How long have you been hiding in here?” This was my only gauge to know how long I’d been out for.

“Just a couple of days,” she replied. “No one’s come knocking. Place was a fucking mess though. You gotta keep better care of your stuff. This was the only shirt that wasn’t on the ground and stepped all over.”

No one came knocking because they had already been by even before she got into the room. At least two, maybe three or more, days that I had been out. No wonder Sam seemed so excited on the phone. I usually check in with story progress every day. I was only supposed to be there for a day, maybe two. I wasted a week trying to track down the fucking butcher, spent three days locked in a meat freezer, this story was way more trouble than it was worth.

“Hey, what’s your name,” the girl asked.

“Harmond,” I answered.

“Oh, you’re that writer guy snooping around about Grace’s disappearance.”

“What?”

“Small town. Everyone knows what everyone is doing everywhere and all of the time. Probably not used to that in the city where you came from. But once the population drops below a ten thousand, you’re at the scrutiny of all your neighbours, and all their friends, and all of their family.”

“So you know about me being locked in a meat cooler then?”

“Shit,” her eyes bulged and her head tilted. “I knew Maurice had a temper, but that’s over the top.”

“The fat fuck was going to kill me.”

“No he wasn’t,” she stood pointing her index finger at me. “He was probably trying to scare you, but he could never hurt anybody. Be it a nosey reported or his own daughter, he could never kill anyone.”

Then I remembered what I just ran from. She didn’t know. And now I had to tell her.

She didn’t take it lightly. She sobbed so hard I could barely make out what she was saying. I guess he was a customer once or twice. He actually treated her decent. I guess that’s rare when you’re in her business.

Against my better judgment, I left the room to get some ice and a couple cans of soda. The ice machine grinded like a table saw about to fall apart. The pop machine shot out cans that were actually hot. I had to wait a couple of minutes before I could pick them up.

Then I heard it again. The screaming.

I dropped the ice bucket and ran back to the room. The door was open when I got there and I looked in to see the top-half of the brunette lying on the bed, her arms spread and her eyes still open. Her bottom half was on the floor beside the bed. Her legs were crumpled, like a cripple’s when he falls out of his wheelchair.

On the wall above the bed, in red smears painted on with that looked like a pallet knife, was written, “Tag, you’re it.”

With barely enough time to finish reading what was on the wall, I could see the red and blue flashing lights coming through the window. I ran to the bathroom, but the window wasn’t big enough for me to jump through. Two officers were already in the living room when I stepped back in. Their guns were drawn and my hands were up.

I got down to my knees as the one cop started to cuff me. He laughed when he saw the cuffs with the broken chain still on my wrists.

This wasn’t my first time being arrested. Hell, it wasn’t my first time being arrested for something I didn’t commit. Comes with the territory I guess. I write about crime, I wind up walking in on crimes, I wind up getting blamed for crimes. I wonder if this happens to other writers who do what I do.

I knew the routine well. They read me my rights and I chose to shut up. When they asked about a lawyer, I said not yet. It always looks bad when you lawyer up right away. It’s right up there with refusing a breathalyser.

The room they stuck me in was a touch bigger than a broom closet with a single table in the middle of the room and two chairs on either side. Two detectives, one perp, one lawyer. Made sense. The fluorescent light fluttered a bit every few minutes. The walls were painted a flat white, like an insane asylum.

The detective came in and unzipped his blue track jacket. He sat across from me and started reading a file, flipping papers, trying to look like a ton of ground work was done before he even got there.

“What are you reading?” I asked. “And be honest.”

He sighed. “The Sunday comics. I keep them on me when something gruesome comes up. Around here though, we don’t see much of this. Dead animals, for sure. Hunters killing off season, maiming animals’ bodies for kicks. But murders….” He sighed even heavier. “I’ve never actually had to investigate one.” He looks up at me. “You’ve had to look into a lot of these. They usually this brutal?”

I shook my head. “Nothing I’ve ever written about has been this… creative, I guess. Usually gang wars, drive by shootings, some sort of surface explanation as to why it happened. These have absolutely no rhyme or reason.”

“Except that you were at both scenes when they happened,” the detective interrupted.

“I was…” I dropped my head, hoping the detective wouldn’t see me getting choked up. “What… what was her name?”

The detective looked up at me like I just asked him where’s Santa Clause. “Who? Oh, the girl in the room? Grace something or other. Well-known hooker in town.”

Grace?

“Sir, how well did you know Maurice the butcher?” I asked.

“Uh, I dunno, not that great. Most of us working on the force here only arrived when we got our jobs. This is one of those towns where the population is so small that the province actually sends police from other towns to full the precinct. I’ve only been here six months or so. You hear some crazy shit, but I don’t let if faze me.”

Sam wasn’t usually wrong about things. But he was way off on this. The butcher came at me when I asked about his daughter because he knew exactly where she was and what she was doing. He had no ties to police, and you can buy handcuffs anywhere. Sam had me thinking so much about this town and a looming conspiracy that I had no time to think about the murders happening around me.

“The way you’re talking to me gives me the impression that I’m not being charged with anything,” I pointed out.

The detective nodded his head. “Witnesses at the scene say they saw you by the ice machine when they heard the screams. And there’s no way to place you at the butcher shop either.” He smiled at me. “Getting one hell of a story out of us, aren’t you Harmond? You came here for a missing girl case and now you’re sitting in a town where the murder rate just shot up four-hundred per cent. I gotta ask, what was so interesting about this case? The missing girl?”

“I wanted to look at the effects crimes and tragedies have on smaller communities,” I explained. “I’m always writing in the bigger cities. Murders there are as common as popping zits. I wanted to go somewhere where losing a life still had meaning.”

The detective nodded his head. “You came to the right place.” He stood up and adjusted his belt. “Well, like you said, you’re not being formally charged with anything. I’ll get you your release papers, I’ll need a couple of signatures from you and you can be on your way.”

The detective left the room. I could see him stop for a moment in front of the door. There was a small window in the door at about head length. I could see the detective’s head through the window. He nodded a bit, then there was a pop and all I could see on the window was a large, red smear.

The lights started to flicker and then we were cloaked in black for a second. Then the emergency power generator kicked in, lighting everything in crimson. I walked up to the door and saw that someone drew two eyes and a smile in what was left of the detective’s brains.

Peering through the doorway, opened just a crack, I could see that no one was in the hallway: alive or dead. Another red trail smeared along the white floor made a map of where the detective may have been dragged to. I started following the map when I heard another scream and saw a woman running towards me. She wasn’t in a uniform. She wasn’t armed. She was crying and screaming as she ran, coughing and losing breath.

She stopped and grabbed me. “They’re all fucking dead!”

She looked over her shoulder and kept running. Down the hall where she ran from, I could see someone walking toward me. Tall, broad shouldered, dressed in a black jacket, black gloves, and his face was covered with a simple, plain black mask off of a Halloween costume. He had a gun in his right hand that he raised and pointed at me.

Click Click…

Like a robot processing a simple command and not moving his head, he threw the gun to the side and drew a knife from a belt holster and continued walking towards me.

Someone grabbed my arm and I turned.

“Run mother fucker!” screamed the woman who ran by me before.

We start running. I peer over my shoulder and see the tall man in black is still just walking, his knife swaying with each step he took.

“There’s a… back door… just down… this hall,” she huffed out. “My car’s back there…” And she started coughing again, losing her footing and falling. I stopped and grabbed her by the arm and pulled her up. And we kept running.

We made it to her car and I jumped into the passenger seat. She kicked on the ignition and started driving toward the parking lot’s entrance. Standing there was the tall man in black. Standing completely still and waiting.

And she sped up. “Not today, mother fucker!” she yelled as she floored the gas pedal, hitting the man in black straight on. His body exploded like a water melon with a stick of dynamite stuck into it. Blood smeared her windshield and I could hear his head rolling across the roof and smack the back windshield where his mask got caught on her roof rack.

She pulled over. “Ha! Nailed that son of a bitch!” she blurted out as she stepped out of her car. She walked to where the mask hooked onto the roof rack. “Let’s see who this cocksucker is.”

She pulled off the mask to reveal the detective. His head wound was still fresh and bits of the skin off of his head flapped as she slipped the mask off. The head dropped and hit the concrete, splattering more of his blood and brain on the ground and leaving trails of hair as it rolled.

I was too busy staring at the detective’s head to notice her dropping her lunch on the concrete with a cough and a heave. She was wiping her mouth with her sleeve as I looked back. “Holy fucking Jesus Christ what the fuck is going on,” she sobbed. “Was detective Ramirez that psycho?”

“No,” I replied. I walked over and tilted his head to show the gun wound that opened his head up like a split cantaloupe. “He was dead well before you hit him. I have no fucking clue how he got him to stand there like that.” I reached down and picked up the head. There was a metal wire embedded into the back of his head, like a sculptor would use for a life-size piece. “When the fuck did he get time to do that?”

Her steps clicked slowly as she walked up behind me. “What the fuck is going on?”

“I have no idea,” I replied. “But I feel like I need to call my editor now.”

We start driving to a near-by payphone that she knew about. On the way, she told me her name was Sandra. She only just got hired this police station a few weeks ago. She was working on the police website.

I called Sam and told him everything that happened in the police station.

“You have to be fucking kidding me,” he said. “And you saw all of it?”

“Saw it? I had to fucking survive it!” I yelled back. “What the fuck did you get me into sending me to this goddamned place? I’m being stalked by a guy now who likes turning dead bodies into action figures.”

“Are you sure he’s a guy?” Sam asked.

“Broad shouldered, tall, walks slowly, a little bit of a limp. He as hunched over a bit too,” I explained.

“Either a guy or one butch woman,” Sam laughed.

“I’m not fucking laughing, Sam,” I snapped. “Are you still coming into town? I don’t think I can take this girl’s car to get out of here.”

“Be there in a couple of hours,” Sam answered. “Meet me at the elementary school. The doors should be open. No one locks shit in a town like that. Stay inside, stay safe and I’ll drive up to the front door.”

“You know the elementary school here?” I asked Sandra.

“Yeah, everyone who grew up here went there,” she answered.

“That’s where my editor is picking me up,” I said. “Can you drop me off?”

She agreed, saying that the school was only a few blocks away.

We get there in about ten minutes. Orion Elementary School is written in bold letters above the front door. Every window is dark and the trees rustled against the chain linked fence lining the schoolyard. The wind was getting colder and flakes of started floating by.

“Alright, thanks for the ride,” I said. “I don’t know what you should do, but I really need to meet my editor. He’s going to get the fuck out of here…”

“You think I’m just leaving you?” she interrupted. “Nu-uh, whoever the fuck that was in the freaky-ass mask probably knows who I am. Everyone knows everyone in this town. He’s probably in my house now waiting to cut me up. Until this gets figured out, or I find another police station where everyone isn’t dead, where you go, I go.”

We walked into the school together. Sam was right; the doors weren’t locked. The two of us walked through the hallways and peered at all the class photos hung on the wall.

“So, you didn’t grow up here then?” Sandra asked.

“No,” I replied. “Grew up in the big city. My graduating class in high school was more than two-thousand kids. Nothing like these thirty kids in a class.”

“What got you writing about murder and all that?” she asked. “Have some traumatic childhood story where your work is helping you deal with some emotional scarring?”

“Believe it or not, I grew up completely normal,” I answered, reading a class photo. “I write because people will read it. People thrive off of fear. It helps move the economy. People are scared of bad men, so they buy houses in suburbs far from where the bad men live. They buy home security systems to help them sleep at night. They buy dogs to bark whenever strangers walk by and they buy food to feed those dogs and keep its loyalty. Fear is the oldest human emotion and it drives the market. And people need to remember what to be afraid of. And that’s where I come in.”

“Awfully cynical, don’t you think?” She asked, and I doubt she was actually looking for an answer.

“They’re paying,” I replied. “And so long as they’re paying, I’ll keep writing about gunned-down drug dealers, missing teenage girls and slaughtered humans. It sells magazines, it sells ad space and lets me live a certain lifestyle I do happen to enjoy.”

“Really? How do you deal being around death every day? Day in and day out you live in the utmost worst in humanity. Aren’t you scared you’re glamourizing it a bit? Doesn’t it ever get to you?”

“They’re subjects, that’s all. You can’t get invested in it. You can’t even recognize they’re human. That’s when you start losing sleep. You start worrying about every dark corner you have to turn. I just keep it out of my head when I don’t need it. But even I have my house in the suburbs and my dog and my home security system.”

I started walking down the halls of the school as Sandra kept looking out the window, waiting to see who would pull up. I scanned by the class photos, each from ninth grade, the last grade any of these kids spent in this school. I noticed a familiar name as I scanned by: Samuel Gibson, my editor. I had no idea that he was from this town. He never gave any indication that he had any connection to it at all. It might be why he was so adamant that I check out this story about the missing girl. My beat was usually inner city crime, murders and drugs and gangs. This was the first time I investigated a small town crime like this. I guess Sam thought this would be a good entry point for me to start writing about it. Get the people in the suburbs scared too. Get them upgrading their security systems, buying property in the gated estates, and most of all, get them buying magazines still. Remind them that there are things to be afraid of all over.

A couple of photos over from Sam’s was another face and name I recognized instantly: the fucking butcher. Sam knew him, went to school with him, I wondered if they were close. I kept scanning through and placing faces with people I met throughout the town: the butcher’s assistants, Grace, even Sandra. They all went to this school, they were all connected. One photo bothered me the most. It was a name I didn’t know, but a face I knew but I couldn’t place. He left this school the same year as Sam and the butcher. I was inspecting the photo closer when I heard Sandra yelling for me.

I ran to the front door and saw through the window a black car pulling up. Only the car didn’t stop, it sped up. Drove right for the front door. I grabbed Sandra by the waist and pulled her back as the car crashed through the front door. One of the larger blue metal doors slammed into us as we tried to run back. Bits of stone wall and ceiling dust covered us as we dug our way out from under the door. The car’s door opened and out came a man dressed all in black. I was almost too panicked to notice that he was walking straight, no limp.

He pulled out a gun from behind his back and aimed it at us. He started laughing as he pulled his mask off. I knew the face right away. This is the third time I’ve seen it now: the first time was in the motel when the girl was slaughtered, the second time was on the graduation photo. The one fucking cop in this town who grew up here turns out to get his rocks off hunting and slaughtering people.

He didn’t say a word. Just aimed and smiled. I had to distract him, even for half a second.

“What, no knife? No theatrics like the rest?” I asked him.

He started breathing heavier, like a panting dog waiting for a stick to be thrown. “I got some theatrics for ya,” he answered. “Got some nice metal bars in the back of this car to put the two of you on display once I’m done here, like two little dollies who never had a chance when big brother came by to cut off all their hair and take apart their limbs. I got a special pose for the two of you.”

From outside, someone starting yelling, “Harmond? You in here? What the fuck is going on?”

With his head turned for that half second wondering who’s yelling, I kicked out the back of the cop’s knees and he crumbled to the ground, dropping his gun on the way down. The gun rolled toward Sandra while the cop pounced on top of me with his hands around my throat. He pushed down against my trachea, he grip was only getting tighter and I started trying to push him off me, kicking out my feet and pushing against him. I was losing air fast and losing strength when I heard a bang and my face was suddenly soaked. His grip loosened as he toppled over and landed on top of my face. I pushed him off and scrambled my way back onto my feet and looked back at Sandra, holding the cop’s gun. I coughed while wiping his blood out of my eyes and looked down to see a tennis ball sized hole in the back of his head.

“Holy fuck, what the fuck happened here?” I heard from behind and saw Sam walking in through the rubble. Sam looked up at me and his jaw dropped, practically hitting the floor. “Christ man, is that your blood?”

“No,” I coughed out. “His. She’s a good shot. You got here quick.”

“Yeah, traffic was light,” Sam replied. “Is that who… uh, you know… has been killing…”

“I guess so,” I answered, still trying to catch my breath. “This is how the guy in the police station was dressed. He talked about putting us up on display with metal bars, just like the detective.” I considered my next words carefully. “Uh, apparently you know this guy.”

Sam walked slowly over to the body and turned it over. “Roger Bates. Haven’t seen him since high school ended. He was pretty fucked up while we were in school. Was the type who shot BBs at birds and when he killed one, would tie a rope around its neck and hang it from a tree. I heard he got counselling for that shit but I guess it takes a lot more than that to fix a psychopath.”

“You knew the butcher too,” I blurted out.

Sam looked back at me. “Yeah, I did.”

“And you weren’t going to tell me that you grew up here. That you were connected to all of this?”

“I was worried it would compromise the story. Small town crimes can be really juicy and I’ve never had one fall into my lap before. Seemed too good to pass up.”

“And you had me accuse the butcher of killing his daughter even though you damn well knew he wasn’t capable to killing anyone. He was violent, but he didn’t have it in him to kill.”

“It’s the whole reason you’re alive,” Sam chuckled. “Whatever, you’re alive now, we’re sitting on a gold mine of a story. Seriously, first hand survival of a small town serial killer. This magazine is going to sell insanely. Especially once you write down all those juicy details in that beautiful style of yours, horror movies won’t be half as scary or gory as this. It’s going to be great.”

“You misdirected me the whole time,” I said. “This was the only cop who had any ties to this community. The rest all come from different areas and are assigned here. You grew up here, you knew that. Why did you have me paranoid over the cops like that?”

Sam looked around for a moment, as if having a sudden urge to go down memory lane. I had no idea how long it had been since Sam had stepped into that school. But he just kept looking around, then back at me. “I was just scared, that’s all. We’ve never been this closely tied to a story. I just wanted to make sure you’d stay safe. Come on, let’s get out of here.”

Sam walked past me and back toward the broken through the front door. I watched his walk.

“Sam,” I called out to him. “How long have you had a limp for?”

Sam stopped and turned back to me. That’s when I noticed he was wearing all black, including gloves. He wiped some sweat off of his brow with his wrist then reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a nine-inch blade, the kind that could slice a man’s gut open, spilling it all over his legs and shoes.

His eyes were fixated on me, he gripped the knife’s handle like a white-knuckled driver in a road rage fit, and bore his teeth as he started heaving heavily. He took one step towards me when I suddenly remembered that Sandra was still standing beside me, and she hadn’t dropped the gun yet.

BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG! 

Sam took five slugs to his chest and fell back, thudding against the ground like a dropped sack of potatoes. I walked up to Sam and saw his eyes staring out into nothing. The knife was still in his hand, he was still gripping it like he was still on the hunt.

I reached down and gripped his wrist, trying to get him to let go of the knife, he his other hand hit my throat and wrapped around. He rolled me over and got on top, the holes in his chest dripping on my like loose faucets. I kept my grip on his wrist, keeping the knife away from me, but he grip on my neck was too strong.

I could hear clicking and Sandra crying realizing the gun was only a six-shooter.

“What do I do?!” she screamed. “What do I do?! What do I do?!”

Sam started bleeding from his mouth and it dripped, drooling like a mad mastiff. His eyes bulged and he heaved like he was fucking out of hate.

Then his grip loosened. He toppled over. He was still breathing, but he was weak.

I coughed and gagged, threw up a little blood, when I looked over at him and looked at my fist, drenched in his blood. The bullets were finally taking their toll. Sam laid there, his chest bouncing with each breath, and then with one gasp, finally stopped.

I felt the bruises on my throat and looked back at the black car, still running. I walked to the driver-side door and saw it was still open, the keys were still in the ignition and there were six metal bars in the back seat, just like the ones in the detective.

Sandra walked up to me. “Are you ok to drive?”

“Yeah,” I spat out a bit of blood. “I’ll drop you off at the cop station, you can figure out if there are any cops left in town. I gotta get going. I got a story to write.”

Limited Space

There are so many small specks of light in front of me that I can’t stand back far enough to hold a complete picture. Millions and millions specks of light, so many unexplored, so many only leaving questions, so many whose existence can’t even be confirmed by looking at them. Their very presence is deceitful as time and light move at different intervals and the distance of these specks of light is immeasurable by conventional units used to gauge length of time. It disturbs me that I’ll never be able to touch each of these lights. To explore their mysteries and give each a name. But I still have to try.

The ship is the size of a relatively large apartment. When it was built, it was recommended that no more than three or four people travel in it for any extent of time. They warned of the enclosed limited space that the ship offered coupled with a lack of privacy and personal space could lead to significant conflict and possibly even a lapse in sanity.

There are two sleeping quarters on the ship. Our crew of four took turns on shift piloting the craft and analyzing data gathered from systems we passed through: two were on shift while two rested. The sleeping quarters are located toward the back of the ship and are next to the two bathing waste disposal facilities. The front of the ship is the main hull, an open space with three large windshields: one in the front and one on either side. The main pilot’s seat is situated in the middle of the hull. It’s a single seat with computer navigation systems in front. The pilot needs to see out the windshields and use the navigation computer to properly steer the ship.

The analyst’s computer is to the left of the pilot’s seat. It consists of a desk, chair, and onboard computer system with three large monitors: one that assists with navigation and direction, one that gives planetary read outs, and one that constantly analyzes the solar system the ship is in for any sudden changes or immediate threats.

Each member of the crew were trained for both piloting and analyzing, this way tasks during shifts can be changed to keep things fresh in the crew members’ minds. When someone does the same task for too long, it becomes automatic and they stop paying attention. When you’re in a crew of four, you’re thousands of galaxies away from your home planet, and there’s no guarantee of civilized life (let alone habitable planets), paying attention to everything is of the utmost importance.

I don’t know what happened in the last galaxy we travelled into. It seemed like a normal enough system: it had a star at its centre that acted as its sun and had five planets orbiting around it. The two furthest planets from the sun were gas giants and the two closest were inhabitable because of the immense heat and radiation from being so close to the star. But the planet in the middle showed signs of water and vegetation. It was the first planet that we encountered similar to our home world. We had been travelling for four years, which meant that if there were no established or intelligent civilizations on this planet, it could be colonized, our planet’s population and pollution issues could be resolved, and the crew on this ship could finally go home.

We approached this new planet, but stayed out of its atmosphere. We had no know what the plants were breathing before we could risk the ship and ourselves. I was manning the analytics at the time. Preston was piloting. We got up to wake up Daniels and Mackenzie to show them the planet.

“Roberts! Roberts!” Preston yelled out as he escorted Daniels and Mackenzie into the hull. “Tell them what you just told me! Show them the analytics!” Preston was smiling, but he was sweating too. He put his arms around Mackenzie and Daniels, smiling and talking about how we’re finally struck gold. Preston wasn’t blinking. His eyes were beat red like they were just blasted with sand.

“The planet definitely shows signs of water and vegetation,” I said. “But we still don’t have an atmosphere or planetary gas read. For all we know, as of now, this planet has a minimal atmosphere and the water and vegetation are feeding on radioactivity. I’m going to need a couple of hours for a full read out before we can even enter the atmosphere, let alone land and explore.”

Letting Preston know that it will be a while before we know if our mission is complete hadn’t hindered his excitement. We passed through what felt like hundreds of different galaxies, analyzed planets with surfaces too cold to sustain life, radioactivity that could melt a human in seconds, and surfaces submerged in liquids with PH levels of hydrochloric acid. No life, no growth, no habitation, just rocks and gas-balls floating in nothing, sustaining nothing, and revolving around nothing.

“Seriously, Roberts,” Daniels said as he rubbed the sleep from his eyes. “What do you figure are the chances that this rock is the rock we can land on and eventually haul half of our planet over to?”

The data readouts looked promising. I had only been monitoring them for a few minutes. Protocol read that we had to wait at least two hours before we were allowed to land. There was an incident where another crew found a planet with some of the most promising readouts in the history of our organization. It was almost four months before we found their transport ship, still floating just outside of the planets near damn-perfect atmosphere.

The crew took their miniature transport off to the planet. Once the crew landed, they immediately started sending signals back to their main transport to record their landing and exploration. The recordings from the ship told a story of the crew noticing something funny about the rock they landed on. It was soft. Almost like a sponge.

You could hear the crew start to panic when their miniature transport started sinking into the ground they landed on. The dirt and grass swallowed that transport like a headache pill. When the rescue excavated the crew’s main transport, the readouts showed that while the air had the right mix of nitrogen and oxygen and the atmosphere held off enough of the close-by star’s radiation so that the rock wasn’t a floating nuclear reactor in space. Unfortunately, they didn’t wait enough to read the planet’s air pressure and ground density. It was like a brick landing in pudding and then pulled under like it was being drug to hell.

“So far so good,” I replied back to Daniels. “We have another hour and a bit before we can load up and land. I’ll keep an eye on the readouts. If anything funny comes up, I’ll holler.”

“Stuck in the middle of nothing and we have to rely on silence for reassurance,” Daniels said.

Daniels and Mackenzie made their way back to the sleep quarters and passed Preston who was making his way back to the navigation chair.

“This is it, this is it, I know it!” Preston rambled on.

I kept my eye on the readouts, looking for even the slightest off readout that would make trying to habitat this planet difficult. Nothing. I even faked the time readout and got an extra half-hour of readouts. Nothing. Preston was still sitting in the navigation seat, rambling on and on and on.

“So, what’s the word, Roberts?” Preston asked. “Are we packing up and dropping down?”

I kept staring at that screen. It was a perfect planet. Every other planet we encountered had some flaw or some reason that it wasn’t quite right. I looked out the main navigation window and stared at the perfect planet. Not a thing wrong. Like god was handing it over to us in a silver platter. Even though we’d been travelling for so long and working so hard to find a planet like this, now it almost seemed too easy. Too perfect.

“I guess it looks alright,” I replied. “Still doesn’t feel right though.”

“It doesn’t feel right because we’re not down there yet,” Preston laughed. “Just think about it. Think about how many people we could fit on that rock. All the things we could build. The cities we could develop. I bet there’s some amazing tropical islands, untouched by people. No pollution or over-population like what happened in the Caribbean and Hawaiian islands. You’ll actually be able to get a spot on the beach and be able to lay out your towel comfortably. Shit, I don’t think those beaches have been that clean since the twentieth century, or even earlier.”

I remembered going to those beaches as a kid and wondering why so many people flocked to them. All along the horizon, you could barely see the sun or the sky or even the water. Just people and umbrellas and beer vendors everywhere. I felt like I didn’t have room to breathe. I was scared that every time I moved my arms I would hit someone I was walking past. I was scared that the people around me were feeling as enclosed as I was, they would be mad that my arm hit them when I walked by. I didn’t know how they would react. I was scared all the people around me. Even in this ship with only three other people around me, I was scared of getting in their space. God knows how someone with such limited space would react if you got into their personal bubble.

Preston was still staring off, probably imagining all the things we could do with a blank slate of a planet, when we heard the screeching from the sleeping quarters. It was like screaming and choking and vomiting all at once. Preston and I ran back to the sleeping quarters to see Mackenzie on top of Daniels. Mackenzie’s arms were pulsating to where we could see the veins clearer than we could see the pigments of his skin, his jaw was shattering, the sweat was pouring off of his head, and the drool was slipping off of the side of his mouth and dripping onto Daniels.

Nothing Mackenzie said made any sense. He gritted his teeth and growled out at Daniels while he pushed down against his throat. Daniels was kicking his feet, trying to throw Mackenzie off of his body. Daniels’ face was turning blue by the time Preston and I got into the room.

Preston and I pounced on Mackenzie and pulled off of Daniels and drug him onto the floor. Mackenzie kept fighting, swinging at us and clocking me across my jaw before Preston finally thrust his fist down into the middle of Mackenzie’s forehead. Mackenzie’s eyes rolled to the back of his head and he stopped struggling. Daniels behind us was still coughing and throwing up.

“Did you kill him?” I asked while rubbing my sore jaw.

“I don’t know,” Preston answered. “If he isn’t dead he’s probably concussed pretty good. He won’t be getting up anytime soon.”

Preston checked Mackenzie’s pulse, looked up to me and nodded. “He’s still alive. Barely. We better figure out something to do with him before, or if, he wakes up.”

Preston and I drug Mackenzie into the bathroom and latched the door from the outside so if he woke up he wasn’t getting out. Daniels was sitting up on his bed, still coughing a bit and wiping sweat off of his head.

“I don’t,” Daniels coughed. “I don’t know what the fuck happened there. I was sleeping. I wake up and Mackenzie is on top of me. I don’t know what the fuck happened.”

Mackenzie was fairly quiet this entire mission. He shone brightest while he was reading reports. He was very logically minded and loved reading through numbers and understanding data. You could tell he was most in his element while he was running data. He seemed like he was actually relaxing while he was running data. Everywhere else you could see how tense his shoulders were. We could all tell he wasn’t comfortable being with other people this close all of the time, but he never complained and he was never aggressive before. He was always polite but brief.

Preston started pacing the floor, wondering what we should do if Mackenzie woke up. Preston knew that we couldn’t land with one member of our crew losing his mind for seemingly no reason. This was probably sending Preston even more over edge. I wasn’t sure how long he could hold his anticipation for landing.

“You know, we could always leave him while we head down,” Preston suggested.

“We can’t do that,” Daniels replied. “If he’s hurt really bad, we need to help him. If he’s ok and wakes up and figures out we all left him alone on this ship, who knows how he’ll react. It could send him even worse over the edge. He could fly the ship off and leave us on this planet. And god knows how long we’ll last if he leaves us…”

“You’re wrong!” Preston barked out. “We’d be fine down there! We could probably last years until the rescue finds us. You have no idea what the fuck you’re talking about!”

“Calm down, Preston,” I stood up. “We’ll get down there soon enough. Don’t worry. We just need to know what to do about Mackenzie first.”

Preston turned and marched over to the bathroom where Mackenzie was locked. He opened the door and looked down at Mackenzie. “He won’t be waking up. He’s not our problem. Taking care of him isn’t our mission. Finding that planet is our mission. And the sooner we get down there, the sooner we can head home and start developing. If this piece of shit is the only thing stopping us I’ll make sure he’s out of the way.”

Preston lifted his boot and stomped down onto Mackenzie’s head. With a single stomp, Preston’s foot made its way through Mackenzie entirely and landed back on the tiled floor. A piece of Mackenzie’s skull rolled out of the bathroom and slid across the floor, landing in front of my foot.

Preston’s face was soaked, either in sweat or in tears or in both.  “What the fuck happened? How did I do that? That wasn’t supposed to happen. What the fuck happened?”

Preston stumbled out of the bathroom. I put my arms out to him, trying to get him to sit down. He shoved me back and I fell onto the data readout controls, crushing some of the circuitry underneath me. Preston paced, heaving heavily and wiping sweat from his mouth and off of his face.

“Get packing, we’re fucking landing,” he said through clenched teeth. “Be ready in one hour. You hear me? One fucking hour and we land on this mother fucker.”

Preston marched off to the sleeping quarters. Daniels was standing next to me, help me back to my feet and checking the damaged controls. “Asshole’s lost his mind,” Daniels said. “We gotta get him to calm down. And if he doesn’t calm down, we need to tie him down or something. If this planet’s no good, our mission is already fucked, we can’t read shit anymore. We deal with Preston first, clean up…” he swallowed hard and his lip trembled. “We clean up Mackenzie, and we figure out a best course home. We’re useless out here now.”

The door to the sleeping quarters flung open and Preston came marching out, his eyes fixated on Daniels. “Is that what you think?” he gritted his teeth and his face burned red. “You think we’re just going to turn this puppy around with its tail between its legs? Is that what you think mother fucker?”

“Preston, calm down,” Daniels tried to reason. “We’re still going to land, we’re still going to explore. You just need to mellow out a bit man, you’re acting crazy.”

“You know what’s crazy?” Preston spat out. “You assholes don’t want to succeed. You obviously don’t. Otherwise we would have landed the minute we found this place. God just handed the Garden of Eden to us on a silver platter and you assholes don’t even want to land. All of our planet’s problems can be solved with this rock. Why the fuck are we still sitting here?”

“Because you goddamn just murdered Mackenzie, that’s why!” Daniels yelled back. “Mackenzie just needed a few minutes to calm down. The anxiety of this place was probably just getting to him. You had no fucking right to…”

“That asshole was probably a vegetable after we had to fight him off of you,” Preston stepped to Daniels, staring him down like a dog fighting for territory. “Keep in mind, you’d probably still be gasping for air and turning blue if we hadn’t fought him off of you. We did what we had to do. He was compromising the crew and the mission.”

“He was part of the crew!” Daniels yelled.

“He stopped being crew and became a liability the minute he snapped,” Preston yelled back.

“If Mackenzie was a liability, what’s our contingency plan then with you?” Daniels stared back and buffed his chest like he was ready for a fist fight.

“The only contingency plan here is surviving and making it back home with something to report,” I piped up. “Our controls are destroyed and we’re going to kill each other if things don’t calm down. None of us are in our right minds right now. We should all just rest for half an hour, do something with Mackenzie’s body, then try to land.”

Preston looked to me and with a complete straight face and monotone voice, he said, “Let fucking Mackenzie rot where he is.”

Without a second breath, Daniels reached back and smoked Preston across the jaw, sending Preston toppling to the floor. Preston wiped the blood from his mouth and tackled Daniels, both landing on the navigation chair, damaging the controls. The ship started moving while the two kept fighting. I tried to fix the navigations and get the ship to stop, but it had already set its course and none of the override controls were working. I looked over to see Daniels on top of Preston, both hands around his throat and pushing down just like Mackenzie had been only minutes earlier. Preston reached beside himself and found a piece of a broken computer and lodged it into the side of Daniels’ head.

A blank stare immediately overcame Daniels’ face, like he was seeing the light to the afterlife glowing in front of his face. Daniels then fell over, stopped breathing and bled across the floor.

Preston sat up breathing heavily, brushing dust off of his t-shirt. “Well, two down,” he said staring up at me. “Do you want to make it three, Roberts? Or are you going to shut the fuck up and get us on that planet?”

I looked over to the navigation controls and looked back to him. “You broke both the data readouts and the navigation controls. Nothing works anymore. There are no overrides. The only thing still functioning is the autopilot with a destination.”

“Well where the fuck are we going then?”

“This galaxy’s star.”

Preston huffed and stared up out the window. “You gotta be fucking kidding me.”

“I’m not. In about twenty minutes, this ship will fry.”

“What about the transport? Does it still work?”

“Probably.”

“Well why don’t we get the fuck in there and save our sorry asses?”

“And land where!?” I yelled. “Onto that perfect planet!? That has no pollution. No ozone depletion. No man made problems killing every living thing on that world. You want to land there and start all over again? And just keep doing the same old shit? Fuck you, Preston!” I walked over to the hatch leading to the transport and slammed the emergency launch, sending the transport floating off into nothingness, with nothing inside and direction set.

Preston shook his head. “You fucking idiot. You worthless fucking idiot. We were so close. So fucking close.” Preston stood up and walked into the sleeping quarters. He didn’t close the door when he pulled out a revolver from underneath the bed. He looked out at me and held the gun to his head, splattering what was left of his mind all over the bedding and the walls.

He toppled to the ground, his legs crumbling beneath him like a marionette whose strings were dropped. I walked into his room and all I could think about was how surprised I was that no one had gone for the gun earlier. I guess we all still tried to be professionals. That got us far.

I still don’t know what got into Mackenzie. It won’t matter though, I’m sure the outcome would have been the same one way or another.

I wanted to name all of the stars I saw when I looked outside. Touch each of those lights in the sky. But I realize that the universe doesn’t want us. Nor, do we deserve it.

Patrick: A Story about Friendship and Growing Apart

I buried my best friend today. I listened to the eulogies and watched as people cried for a life they thought was cut too short. Twenty-six years isn’t exactly a life fully lived and no one ever fully realizes their potential in that little time. Patrick was different though. I’m not denying he was talented. Through a lot of the eulogies, old friends and relatives reminisced about how well he could draw and how many hours he would spend huddled over a drafting table getting every line as precise as he could, obsessing over every detail. I don’t know if I was the only cynical prick thinking about how Patrick hadn’t picked up a pencil since he was eighteen. Funny how people omitted that little detail. They only want to remember the god things. It’s like how after a rock star dies, suddenly everyone remembers all of their best songs and talks about how important they were to this and that and everything else despite their horrible downward spiral and how they alienated everyone around them. People just try to remember the good things.

I remember first meeting Patrick in high school. It was the second or third week, I barely knew my class schedule and could never find any of the rooms I was supposed to be in. My social studies teacher was something of a Nazi, especially for tardiness. His oversized forehead had veins that constantly bulged out and one of his eyes had a permanent blood vessel popped. The second bell to start class just rung as I snuck in and found the last available seat in the classroom off to the far right (the aisle nearest the door) and smack dap in the middle of the row. Sitting beside me was a guy with short spiky hair and wearing a black hooded sweatshirt. He bobbed his heads to the music playing through his headphones as he doodled all over his notebook. This was Patrick. And this is how I always remember Patrick. Listening to music and drawing on any surface that would stay still.

The teacher started his lecture through his two-packs-and-a-bottle-of-whisky-a-day voice and Patrick forgot to take out his headphones. Patrick hadn’t even raised his head from his drawing. The teacher noticed and came barrelling down the aisle, looking like he was ready to pummel Patrick. I kicked the bar that connected Patrick’s desk to his chair and his head shot up and spotted the teacher. With wide eyes and a grin that begged to let his life be spared, he said, “Sorry, I didn’t hear the second bell.” The teacher turned and continued his lecture and Patrick looked over to me and nodded his head. We met in the smoke pit after class where he formally thanked me. He bummed a cigarette from me and we talked about which junior highs we just came from and what our survival tactics were for getting through these next three years. Patrick could smell the geek off of me.

There are still a small handful of comics I can’t read without hearing Patrick’s voice as I read through the hero’s dialogue.

It starts raining as I keep standing over where Patrick is buried. It’s been a good thirty minutes since the ceremony ended and I have no idea what to do next. It feels like when you leave your house for work and you could swear you forgot something. You have no idea what but you definitely forgot something and you won’t remember what it was until three o’clock. That’s the only way I can describe how I’m feeling. Like I need to do something before I leave. But I don’t know what.

“What did you think of the service, Robbie?” I hear a voice from behind me ask. I turn to see Patrick’s younger sister, Mary. She’s about eighteen months younger than Patrick and even though they were in different grades growing up, they might as well have been twins. They talked the same, had all the same inside jokes, all they had to do was look at each other and they would start laughing and no one would have any idea what was so funny. They drifted though when Patrick was twenty. I was a little shocked that she was here.

“It was nice,” I reply, not having any clue how people talk at these things. This is the first funeral I have ever been to. I didn’t even go to my grandparents’ funerals. I’m clueless as to what’s socially acceptable. But then I think about high school again, and what Mary and Patrick were like then. “I’m happy everyone talked about all the good things. That’s what’s most important.”

She smiles and nods. “Yeah, I guess there’s no point in bringing anything else up at an event like this. Might be in bad taste or something.”

Mary started going to our school the year after Patrick and I had started. Physically, she was never anything like Patrick. She had long blonde hair and always wore light coloured track jackets. But the minute she opened her mouth, you knew right away the two were related. They had their own dialect that was so distinct there were times I couldn’t tell which of the two of them were speaking.

We had a pretty small but tight clique: the three of us and a few other friends who would join us for video games or table top RPGs during the weekend. We would take turns finding people to boot alcohol and cigarettes for us. I was the only one with a license so Friday nights I would head home, borrow my parents’ van, then I would meet everyone at a small convenience store connected to a liquor store just a few blocks from our school. We’d fill the back of the van with booze, cover the bottles with blankets, stuff the cigarettes under the middle seat, and drive over to Patrick and Mary’s house. Their mom worked all weekend and most evenings. She juggled two jobs so that neither Patrick nor Mary would have to have jobs while they were in school. Their mom had a lot of hope in both of them and was really banking on scholarships for the both of them. That would be the only way either of them could get into college. God knows single parent working-class families struggle to keep up on the rent and utilities, there was never any space for a college fund. She knew how smart her kids were though, they both had a lot of opportunity waiting for them.

Mary was able to keep her grades up. She got the scholarships that her mom knew she could get. Mary finished her first degree by twenty-one, finished her Master’s by twenty-three.

“So, are you going to be going the PhD route now?” I ask Mary, not sure of what exactly to talk about. I haven’t seen Mary in a few years, just heard through the small town grape vine about all her achievements.

“I don’t think so,” she replies. “Not yet at least. I had a few big firms headhunt me. I want to bank some money for now. I mean, mom’s never going to retire working her shit jobs and someone had to pay for the service today. There’s always time for more school later.” She looks down at her brother’s grave. “At least I hope there is.”

We didn’t go right into college once high school ended. Patrick and I instead spent our summer working for a landscaping company, saving every dollar that didn’t go to booze or smokes. Once September rolled around, we were on the first plane to England with no return flight planned.

We stayed in whatever hostel would give us a cheap room for the night, lived out of our backpacks stopping at Laundromats occasionally, explored the cities, the bars, and the women not just in London, and not just in England. That was only our first week or so. We hopped on trains and travelled through France, Spain, Italy, Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, and in Holland. Our last few days in Europe saw us in Amsterdam, running through the red light districts drunk with joints behind our ears. We landed back in our hostel out of breath and not waiting to catch it before we pressed the mickeys in our pockets against our lips for another sip to keep us drunk.

Patrick dug through his backpack and pulled out his cellphone. He got really quiet. He wasn’t laughing anymore and he just kept staring at his cellphone. I finally asked him what was wrong.

“My dad just called,” was all that he said.

We were on the next flight back home.

Mary hangs up her phone and walks back toward me. She looks at me while I try to find something to talk about next. She beats me to it.

“That was just my mom,” she says. “She’s back at home and just wondering when I’m going to head over. I’ve been staying with her the past while. Just keeping an eye on things.”

I nod my head and ask if her mom is still in the same apartment that we would all hang out in when we were young. Mary tells me that the only thing that has changed in that apartment since then was the cost of rent. She’s a creature of habit and doesn’t take well to change. I think about how you can keep some things the same, trying to hold onto those good feelings that you never want to leave. And sometimes, things change whether you want them to or not. It’s not your choice and those good feelings are gone forever, no matter how hard you try to remember them. Sometimes they just die and all you have to do is bury them and move on. Being obsessed with a feeling can kill you.

Patrick and Mary didn’t have the same dad. Patrick’s dad left before Patrick was even born. His mom met Mary’s dad shortly after Patrick was born. They had Mary together, and then Mary’s dad died before either of the kids was in kindergarten. Their mom didn’t even bother trying to date after that, figuring she was cursed. She decided the only people who really mattered were Patrick and Mary. The sign of a true, strong mother.

Patrick had met his dad a few times over the years. He would kind of just pop up every once in a while without any warning. There was one time when Patrick and I were sitting in our eleventh grade math class and his dad came busting into the class and pulled out Patrick telling him it was an emergency. Patrick called me later that and told me that the only emergency there was was that his dad didn’t have enough vodka for the both of them so they had to stop at a liquor store before going to the park together. From what I understood, this was fairly normal for Patrick’s dad: show up, expect everyone to drop everything, he and Patrick would leave for the whole day with no clue as to where they were, and then Patrick would just show up back at home with no sign of his dad again until the next time he randomly popped-up.

When we were in Europe, Patrick hadn’t seen his dad since that emergency in eleventh grade. His dad wasn’t even at our high school graduation. Patrick was sure that his dad finally forgot about him and he would never see him again. The minute he found that call on his phone, it was like finding out Santa was real again. The whole flight home, Patrick told me about everything the two already had planned for when Patrick arrived. I wasn’t even sure of his dad was going to be there when we landed, god knows something else to grab his attention could pop up at any minute. But there he was, beige cap with a cod embroidered, dull leather jacket, black tank top, gold chain, and track pants, standing in the middle of the airport. The black stubble around his smile made his smile look like a clown in a black and white movie. He stretched out his arms, ready for a hug from his son.

“Hey kiddo!” he yelled as Patrick dove in for the hug. “Good to see you. And you too there… there little buddy.”

I outstretched my arm to shake his hand, “Good to see you too, Gus.”

Patrick turned to me. “We’re going to get going, Robbie. Are you good to find your own way back home?”

“Yeah totally,” I stupidly replied knowing that as Patrick got older, Gus got him doing dumber things. Gus gave him his first bag of weed, his first porn movie, I even remember him telling me he had to tell his dad he didn’t want an OxyContin for a headache he had. Gus always had oxycontin on him. He got a prescription for a back injury he had back while he was still roofing. From what I understood, Gus was able to steal one of his doctor’s prescription pads and worked diligently to copy his doctor’s signature. He would hop from pharmacy to pharmacy, making sure none of the pharmacists were any the wiser of his building habit. None of us were interested in drugs like that. At least, at the time.

After I left that airport, I didn’t hear from Patrick for weeks. No one did. Mary and I would call each other regularly hoping Patrick had called the other. No one wanted to report Patrick as missing, we didn’t want him to get into trouble because he was doing god knows what with Gus. It was six weeks before Patrick was standing on my parents’ front doorstep. He looked and smelled like he hadn’t showered, changed, or stopped running for the past six weeks. The whites of his eyes were bloodshot and the black circles under his eyes reminded me of the rings around a tree’s trunk. I swore I counted to his age and all the years he aged from the past six weeks.

Patrick walked into the house and started pacing and rambling. I couldn’t tell is he was trying to explain all the trouble he was in or how much fun he had with his dad. He would smile, then his eyes would bulge like he was panicking, then he’s retell conversations playing the voices of all the people he met. Then Patrick capped off with what was his final turn for the worse and the start of his uncontrollable spiral.

“I really feel like I’ve finally connected with him,” Patrick said smiling and laughing like he just found a bag of money. “We talked so much, and I met everyone he spends all his time with, and did you know he has a whole other family? I have two sisters and a brother. Can you fucking believe it?”

I tried pointing out Mary, saying he already has a sister, he already has a family. Patrick tried rationalizing that they were different and trailed off mid-sentence like he couldn’t justify his own bullshit anymore. He then looked around the room and asked if my parents were home. I should have said yes, but I told the truth.

“I need you to do something then,” Patrick said, pulling out the doctor’s prescription pad from his pocket. “All the pharmacies up have my dad’s picture, he’s banned from all of them. I tried picking up his pills for him but they saw me walk in with him. I obviously look too much like him to try and pick up his pills. I need you to do it. I can write your name on them and everything. You’re still on your dad’s insurance, you won’t even have to pay for them. You gotta do me this solid.”

Sadly enough, I considered it for a minute. I thought then about the pills showing up on my dad’s file. I thought about my dad talking to me about the pills and having to explain all of this to him. I read stories about people who did things like this for their friends. Their friends would always say that this would be the only time they’d need to help, but it’s never just one time. Even when you say no, they’ll keep coming back, like a parasite that’s found your blood to be a delicacy, doing anything they can to latch on even for a second. I didn’t need any parasites. He left me alone at the airport. Running off with his junky dad was so damn important. I told him to fuck off and pushed him out of my parents’ house. He was wiry and weak, trying to swing at me and push back. There was nothing in his system and pushing him out felt like pushing an empty box. Just hollow and easily bent.

“You know, she doesn’t blame you,” Mary says. “You should come by the apartment and talk with my mom, she would love to see you.”

I often think about visiting Patrick’s mom. Even when he was still alive, I thought about it, just to reassure her that Patrick’s spiral wasn’t her fault. I was scared, though. I was scared she would want me to find Patrick, to talk with him and try to help him. Get him into a program, clean him up, even try to get him back into school. Patrick didn’t want help. And you can’t help those who don’t want to help themselves.

“Yeah, I might try to stop by soon,” I reply.

Mary still thinks that the last time I saw Patrick was when I threw him out of the house. And, as far she knows, it was. She doesn’t need to know that I saw him when I was walking through downtown one day. We talked for a bit and he seemed like he was cleaning up. I gave him my phone number, told him to call me if he wanted to grab a coffee. He called me a couple of days later. He was crying, said he was in a lot of trouble. He robbed a pharmacy, said he beat up a pharmacist pretty bad and didn’t bother to check if the pharmacist was breathing or not before he ran out. He told me where he was hiding out and asked me to give him a ride to a hospital so he could start getting treatment.

I drove over to the house he was staying at. I don’t know whose house it was, but the doors were left open and I walked straight in. I found the room Patrick was in. He was shivering and had a bucket filled with vomit and shit. I thought he was trying to get the junk out of his system. He looked at me and smiled. Then I realized why the door was open. From behind me came another guy. He didn’t say a word. Just handed Patrick two bags of white powder. Patrick handed him the bottle of pills. Patrick wasn’t even smiling at me.

“I didn’t think this would ever come. You don’t want to know how long I’ve been low for,” he smiled and reached for a syringe he left on the floor next to his bed. “Man, I still can’t believe how much I get for just a few pills. This will keep me going for a long time.”

“I thought you were trying to get clean!” I yelled.

Patrick scrambled telling me to shush. “You would have never shown up if I told you otherwise,” he whispered. “I need you still, though. I needed you here in case my guy still wanted some cash, I’m strapped. And I need you to pick me up some food. Just enough until all of this dies down.” He didn’t wait for my response before he had his lighter in one hand and a spoon in the other.

“I’m not picking up anything for you!” I yelled again. “You can fuck rot in here!”

He filled the syringe like I wasn’t even in the room. I kept yelling but he just continued sticking the needle in his arm. He pushed in the plunger and his eyes rolled to the back of his head. He fell back on his bed and started shaking. First just his arms, then his legs, then his whole body, convulsed violently. He started throwing up and the vomit just shot up and fell back into his face. His mouth was full and I would hear him choking. If it were anyone else or any other time I may have turned him over and let the vomit drop from his mouth and let his airways open again. But I didn’t. I just watched. I watched until he stopped thrashing around. And I watched his still body for another ten minutes. Then I left. I got the call a couple of days later. Apparently the neighbours thought there was a dead animal somewhere in the house. They were right.

I hug Mary and tell her that I’ll call her soon to check up on how she and the family are doing. She tells me she looks forward to my call and just to call her mom’s house. I leave the funeral knowing that not telling Mary is the right thing to do. She doesn’t need to know how far gone her brother was. She doesn’t need to know that I was there for the last minutes of his life, whatever was left of his life. She would cry. Say that there was some glimmer of hope. That her brother was still in there, screaming to get out. She would have still believed there was something to be saved. Leaving it in the dark is easier for her. She doesn’t have to live carrying the weight I carry now. That’s my burden alone.

I do wonder what would have happened if I turned Patrick over. Let his airwaves open up again and given him the second chance he needed to clean up and be something. I wonder what would have happened if I felt this remorse and questioned my apathy just a little bit earlier, early enough that I didn’t have to bury my friend and lie to his family and live the rest of my days with the vision of his eyes rolling to the back of his dead carved into my eyes.

I live with the fact that I could have helped him. But I watched him die instead.

Like Fine Wine: Never Show Weakness

The first thing I always notice is how quiet it gets. Not just quiet with the fridge humming in the background or a lawn being mowed down the street. I mean the kind of quiet where you can hear your own ears ringing, the steady beat and odd trips of your heart, and that subtle whine from your vocal chords while you breathe. So quiet you think you can see better in the dark because you’ve convinced yourself you’ve gone blind. It gets so quiet.

I start walking around the house hoping to hear a creek in the floor or the click of a door. I think I hear my feet tapping against the ground but it could be just the feeling of contact and my brain telling me there should be a noise there. I can never be sure.

That’s when the lights cut out again with a clap of thunder and sudden downpour, the sheets of rain hitting my roof sounding like calm waves in the distance, but getting louder and louder as the storm became more violent. Storms have been heavy lately. Real hot during the day, then by about 5 o’clock, bam! There’s the first hit of thunder and the first strike of lightning. This storm seemed especially harsh, sudden, and loud.

I make it down the stairs by sliding my feet slowly off so I know when the step ends. I fell over myself one time by making it to the bottom of the stairs and thinking there was another step. I fell against the wall pretty hard. I swear I can still feel my body’s imprint along where I fell.

The main level of the house is made of three connected rooms: living room, kitchen, and dining room. Pretty standard house, circular interconnections between the rooms; I’ve lived in houses like these all my life and I can navigate them with the certainty a bloodhound on the scent of a shot duck.

I run my hand along the counter in the kitchen, knowing it’ll eventually lead to the fridge. I feel a counter and a large, smooth, cold surface in front of me. It’s probably sad to say that storms still scare me, so I figure a little wine will help me get some sleep.

I get the bottle out of the fridge and run my hand along the counter again trying to find the utensil drawer. This bottle’s still corked. Mama’s drinking fancy tonight.

I run my hand along and feel a wooden block stop my hand suddenly. My hand feels along it, investigating what’s in the way between me and a night of happy dreams. My hand runs up and slides inside the wooden structure and I realize that it’s the utensil drawer, open and barely still in its slot along my counter. I can’t for the life of me figure out why or how this drawer got open but it doesn’t hold my attention for long. There’s a fancy chardonnay to drink, after all.

With a whip of my wrist I slam the drawer shut and get drilling the corkscrew into my best friend for the night. I think the bottle came from Howard. Nice enough guy, best of intentions, but just didn’t have enough chutzpah for me. He was too nice. It got creepy after a while. A week with him was fun enough. I figured I ended things quick enough that he wouldn’t be affected by it but I still left the guy blubbering like a baby missing his binky. Men are so cute when they’re all broken up.

His blubbering wasn’t nearly as bad as Richard’s. You know, for a guy named Dick he was seriously lacking in that area. Like his mom had a sense of irony or something. His redeeming quality was that he was rich. Stupid rich. Venezuelan coke-dealer rich but with a regular paycheque. Had a nice month of fine dining and fake orgasms, but at the end of the day, when mama wants a fine chardonnay she won’t settle for a cheap cooler.

Without any company to impress, I gulp straight from the bottle. It doesn’t matter where I drink it from, it’s going to get me dizzy, happy, and sleepy all the same. I prop myself up on my counter and let my feet dangle while I take a couple of small sips, and then another decent gulp. It’s a shame that this wine needs to go like a frat boy with a set of car keys and a can of backwood special brew. A fine chardonnay should be enjoyed slowly: sipped delicately next to a fire listening to Sinatra.

Mark was like a fine chardonnay. I enjoyed him real slowly. Thick like a tree trunk, unfortunately I’m describing both heads here. Far from brilliant, I barely took him out in public. I quickly realized what he was good for. A smart dame like me found a good use of his animalistic tendencies, but the ride got old quick.

I still hold that troglodyte in a special place: you never forget your first.

The bottle’s half done and I hop off the counter, but the wine’s probably kicking in quicker than I expected because my feet crumble from under me and I land on knees. Thankfully, I kept my arms up and saved the bottle. My legs feel cold as I try to stand myself up and I realize that my legs are soaked and so is the floor. When the fuck did the floor get soaked? I smell and taste the water off my leg and it has no taste except for the bit of salt off of my body. It smells fresh though, like summer rain. Through my window I can see that my block isn’t flooding and there isn’t even that much water on my lawn. But I see something else out there.

A shovel lies on my lawn. An old one, I think my grandpa gave it to me when I first moved here. He died a couple of weeks later. The last thing my grandpa gave to me was a rusty old shovel. I made sure to find good use for it.

The problem is I keep that shovel in my back shed. First the utensil drawer, then the wet floor, now my shovel on the lawn. Something isn’t right here. I spent so much time staring at the stupid shovel on the lawn I almost missed my neighbours houses; whose lights were still on. Either everyone in this neighbourhood has a huge candle collection or something’s fucking with my house.

My lawn is wet and the rain’s still coming down hard as I run outside to grab the shovel off of my lawn. I pick it up and think of Mark: my first time.

Mark was dumb, sure, but he was a brute. He didn’t know how to say much and if he thought I wasn’t listening he made sure he had my attention. I hold the shovel with my right hand and start to feel around the inside of my mouth and play with the gap that used to have a molar in it. That was the first backhand he gave me. You always hear women say they think it’s only going to happen once. It never goes like that. I can’t believe I was that naive.

I tried to keep strong, take the punches when I had to. My grandpa always taught me to keep a strong face. Don’t let the enemy see you’re hurt, that’s when they know they won. At first, Mark gave up quickly when I wouldn’t flinch or cry or scream when he nailed me. Then it became like an open challenge to him. How far did he have to go to get a reaction out of me? Too far.

He was in a rage, started smashing everything in my house. He threw a picture of me and my grandpa. It was a picture of a time we went fishing and I got a hook stuck in my finger. I cried out but he grabbed my hand and somehow him holding it made the pain go away. That was the first time he told me to never show my pain, never show a weak face or your enemy will take advantage of it. They’ve already won if you show a weak face.

I grabbed another broken picture frame and threw it at his head. The glass shattered and he bled all over his face. That sent him into a screaming rage like a bear who’s fighting for survival. Only he was fighting for dominance. I wasn’t about to give that to him.

He chased me into the backyard and almost caught up to me. I grabbed the shovel and swung it as hard as I could. The spade at the end made it feel like I swung hard enough to crack the earth in two. I didn’t connect, though, not totally.

With a sharp shink I could see the blood splatter streak across the shed, Mark had his hands around his throat like he was trying to strangle himself. He fell to his knees and started coughing, blood flew out of his mouth like a popped zit. In his choking and coughing he got out a, “you bitch.”

Pretty much summed up his vocabulary. I took a step closer and speared the spade into the back of his head, put my foot onto the spade, and dug out what little was in his head. Obviously, not much.

I guess you could say I got hooked after that. It’s weird, you start craving it after a while. It just feels good. They beg and plea and you don’t show an ounce of anything and keep them guessing which way you’re going to swing that shovel. Even the slightest bit of remorse and you could lose them.

I almost lost Howard actually. When I had him on his knees he looked up at me through those dopey glasses of his, crying to where his eyes were as red as the tip of my shovel. He said the sweetest thing. He told me he was looking forward to the bottle of wine and a good talk tonight. That’s when I hesitated.

He got up and tried to run, luckily he wasn’t the most athletic. I threw the shovel and it lodged in his back like an archer’s arrow. He wasn’t dead, but he started crying more and louder, saying he couldn’t feel his legs. I stepped on the back of his knees to pull the shovel out. He didn’t make a peep. He wasn’t kidding.

I hear some heavy breathing from behind me. Something moves across the shadows in front of my house and I just run for the backyard; whoever’s fucking with me isn’t going to last long once he’s back there. I always get them back there.

I climb a fence and land behind my shed. I creep around and find loose dirt and dead grass all over my lawn. Somebody’s been digging around. Or…

And I hear the breathing again. It crept around the other direction and its footprints slush slush in the wet mud. The rain’s still coming down hard and I feel the wet drip along my face, but I keep it straight and together. Tonight’s not the night my enemy finds me weak.

The slushing becomes a wet stomp and he starts stepping harder and harder. He moves slow like I’m his prey and he has me cornered, just playing and toying with my until he pounces. I’m ready for his pounce.

He steps closer and I see there’s something in his right hand. Another step and I can see it’s a clump of hair, like a dead animal he found on the side of the road. Another step and I see his brutish face, mean and ugly, half decomposed and missing the top half of his scalp.

That’s when I realized no one dug into my lawn, someone dug out of it.

A sinister smile creeps across his face, showing what’s left of his blackened teeth and pussing brown gums. I swing my shovel again at him but this time he catches the spade and rips it from my hands, breaking the handle over his knee and tossing it aside. A show of arrogance but his arrogance seems justified as I know I’m not making it out alive.

A scream catches both of our attentions as another man dives towards the hulking mammoth seeking my death. The broken spade in his hand like a serial killer with a kitchen knife, he stabs the lurking threat over and over, shink shink shink. They both topple to the ground and I can’t see what’s going on until the smaller man stands with Mark’s head in his hands. He tosses the head towards me, spinal cord hanging off like a sperm and its tail.

I look closer and it occurs to me I buried Howard still with his glasses on. He’s still wearing them.

Teeth Rolling on Concrete: 300 Brutal Words

Blood tastes like autumn rain. Not like the brief spattering type, like the big globs on water that mixes with the chemical exhaust from the refineries down the road. That lingering taste of salt and iron.

I spit out the blood from my mouth and see a tooth roll along the concrete. My index finger enters my mouth as I try to feel around for which vacant spot this tooth just evacuated from. A quick sting in the moist, gummy gap lets me know it was one of my lower front canines.

I’m still staring down at the concrete slab while I try and pull myself up. My arms and knees support me while I stare up at the blonde with a two-by-four piece of wood. She stares down at me, smirking, like she’s thinking of a funny joke she’s heard somewhere before. But I know I’m the only joke at this moment.

She swings the two-by-four back like a golf driver, and swings with the fluidity of a Mike Weir drive before I have the time to piece together what’s about to happen.

When I come to, I look down to see my t-shirt’s covered in that crimson water that tastes of salt and iron. I try to open my mouth, but it feels like a vice-grip is trying to hold it closed. I spit again to see more tiny teeth mix in with the blood drying on the concrete. Touching my chin brings a hot stinging feeling like my goatee’s been knocked right off my face.

Beside the blood on the concrete, there’s a note written on torn paper from a notebook with blue pen in a graceful cursive that only a girl can write.

“You were fun while it lasted, but I’m bored. See you around.”

It’s not signed, but I know who wrote it.

I sit up holding the note and I think about how this isn’t even the worst break up I’ve been through.