Harbinger (Pt. 6)

Around seven that evening, coincidentally at the same time Ben Dowling was getting out of work, Jack Handlan was getting done with a “responsibility” of his own.

Jack had gotten home from a hard day at work for the tree service, taking down three trees and trimming the branches of a few others, essentially all by himself since the other guy on the job, Billy Brissler, couldn’t even tie his shoes correctly.

Jack had sweated, Jack had bled, but he had put in a solid day of work and had been paid accordingly. He busted his back and his ass to put food on the table when he got home, so when he walked in and found that particular night’s meal to be cold and unsavory, he knew what had to be done.

Kelly was a sweet girl with an angelic face that could pass for eighteen even at age twenty-eight. Her eyes were deep, dark, and sensual, and her hair matched perfectly. Her face was a smooth, pale palate without a single natural flaw. She was a sweet dream of a woman.

The fact remained that she was a woman, however, and Jack Handlan was of the opinion that a strong man had to keep his woman in line.

With the new age feminism bullshit springing up left and right, it appeared to Jack that every woman got it in her head that it was okay to be a regular slut; to show her tits off and shake her ass toward any cock that came her way. Jack wouldn’t have a woman like that. He have a woman who was proper like his mother had been, and she had only been proper because his father had kept her in line.

Jack only hit Kelly because he loved her. He wanted her to be the very best wife and person she could be. Any little slip up could start a bad habit, and one bad habit left unchecked and festering could derail someone’s life. Jack played the role of authority in Kelly’s life, a role she desperately needed and he was happy to fulfill.

It meant he loved her, after all.

The moment Jack took a bite into the cold chicken and mashed potatoes, however, he lost any trace of love or happiness. His body ached from a hard day’s work and his stomach craved nourishment. After all he had done to bring home some money, that ungrateful bitch couldn’t even find the time to make him a proper meal. It wasn’t like she had much else to do the rest of the day; Jack was the only one bringing home the bacon.

Kelly needed a lesson in appreciation. Kelly needed a lesson in manners.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” Kelly wailed, raising her hands in self defense. She backed up towards the wall, her one hundred and twenty pound figure dwarfed by his two hundred and twenty pound frame.

“I was just catching up on the laundry. I didn’t know when you would be in and…” Jack didn’t let her spit excuses any longer.

POP! He hit Kelly on the side of the face with a half-closed fist and she stumbled backward, somehow maintaining her balance. Years ago, Jack thought mildly, that would have dropped her without any resistance. I’m putting some piss and vinegar in her that’s for sure.

Kelly held her face, and the excuses were gone. “I’ll make it again. I’ll make you a proper dinner.” Her eyes were to the floor, her voice masked in shame. Typically this was enough. If it hadn’t been such a rough day, Jack would have let her off with one good pop.

But he was in such a terrible mood.

BAM! Words weren’t needed as he spoke with his fists, hitting her in the eye with a straight right. Kelly shrieked and fell backward into the wall, sliding down it and crumpling into a heap on the floor.

Jack had never gone too easy on his wife when he beat her. His father had always said if you hit like a woman, someone would mistake you for a woman. It was important to let Kelly know Jack was a man and she would get no slack if she did wrong.

“You just don’t learn do you, bitch?” he shouted. “I don’t ask for too much and this is how you treat me?”

“I’m sorry, Jack! I’m sorry! Please . . .” Kelly pleaded, hiding her face, too ashamed to stare at the man she married and the life she had chosen for herself.

Jack kicked her in the side, aiming for the ribs so she would feel it enough to never forget to serve him a real dinner. Kelly let out a short yelp but after didn’t make a sound. She knew at that point she would only make it worse for herself, so she did the only thing she could: accept her punishment and wait for it to be over.

Jack kept kicking and kicking, two in the gut, then a few more to her shins as Kelly balled up in a weak attempt at defending herself. Jack hated when Kelly went silent like that. He never knew if he was doing a good enough job at hitting her unless he could hear its effect—no man wants his treatment to be ineffective after all. In order to assure she was getting the message clear as crystal, Jack aimed his last kick at Kelly’s head. He connected the toe of his work boot to Kelly’s forehead through the small gap in her arms.

Kelly’s head shot backward. It slammed off the wall behind her with a loud thud. She collapsed to the carpet, lying as a limp form battered, bruised, and thoroughly beaten.

The sight convinced Jack that Kelly had learned her lesson.

“Now make me a real dinner,” Jack spit.  “I’m going out to get a drink but by the time I get back there better be something mouthwatering on this table. And wear something sexy too, I’m planning on plowing you later.”

Kelly’s silence was acceptance. Jack knew she would listen, and by the off chance she didn’t, she would earn another beating.

Sometimes he suspected she liked it.

After he was done with his duty, Jack stood outside his small home, a run-down modular on a dirt road just off Washington Street, and considered what he had done.

I taught her good, I’m doing a good job keeping that bitch in line. Once she realizes how good she has it thanks to my work I can be a little softer on her but ’til then I can’t tolerate slip ups, no sir.

Jack stared off into the foggy evening, thinking of his father and all the beatings he had let loose on Jack and his mother. Kelly had it easy compared to what Jack’s mom had to suffer through. If Jack’s father was ever offered a cold dinner, that woman would lose a tooth, and if Jack ever had anything to say about it he would lose one too.

As he looked out into the fog, he could hear his father’s voice telling him he would amount to nothing, he would never be half the man his father had been.

“You’re soft, Jack, just a regular momma’s boy. You wanna keep suckling on her? You’re never going to go anywhere in life, you soft little shit.”

Jack took a somber moment to reflect on whether he was doing his father proud. As he took the first few steps away from his home, he noticed something odd.

Did the fog just get thicker, right in front of my eyes?

Jack’s pickup was only twenty feet away from him, and a moment earlier had been in perfect sight behind the light layer of mist. Now it was like a cloud had swept in and isolated him from his vehicle. He had just seen the truck but now it seemed like it was a football field away. It was only a small, dark outline behind the haze, and it seemed to be shrinking, disappearing.

What the fuck? he thought, straining his eyes in an attempt to beat the optical illusion. Then he heard it.

Tssssshhhhhkkkkkssshh.

The noise came from behind him. It reminded Jack of the sound made when his father sharpened the ax before they went off to chop firewood in the backyard, except this noise wasn’t completely metallic. It had a guttural element to it, like it was alive.

Jack spun around, seeing nothing but fog.

“What the fuck was that?” His shout seemed to hit a wall only a few feet in front of him. There was no response and, to Jack’s dismay, he could no longer see his home.

Going to give you a lickin’, Jacky boy! Gonna get the belt out for this one you little shit!” Lawrence Handlan taunted his son from beyond the grave.

Jack couldn’t see anything. There was only that awful blank wall of gray. It moved toward him, overcoming him, enveloping him, consuming him.

Whoosh. Whoosh. Something moved with amazing speed in the fog, just off to his right. Jack jumped backward.

“Hey, whoever the fuck you are get out of here before I break your fucking face!”

Whoosh. This time it passed close in front of him, and he could make out a dark blur. He stumbled back, nearly falling, but the close contact with the figure was not the only thing that startled him.

The smell, he thought. What the fuck is that smell? It smells like a tower of burning tires, or some three week old roadkill, or maybe some mix of both.

It was a pungent odor, the type that seemed to stick to him despite how quickly he recoiled from its source. It was vile, sickening, and so overwhelming. Jack had done enough physical labor and had ended up in enough dive bars to have experienced his fair share of foul odors, but none of them could compare with what he had just taken a whiff of.

Whoosh. It was behind him.

Come get what you deserve, you little bastard,” his father cackled.

Jack spun around and he saw something that did not make sense; something that was impossible.

The figure was coming out of the fog, as if it had been part of it. It phased in and out of existence, becoming more and less visible as it drifted back and forth. Jack’s mind couldn’t immediately understand the physical nature of what was before him, and he didn’t have the composure to settle down and truly take in the form of the beast.

Jack saw darkness, deep darkness, around a body vaguely resembling that of a human. Jack couldn’t avoid the thought that shot through his head.

He’s hiding in the fog. He’s not revealing himself to me. There’s more . . . there’s a lot more.

“What the fuck do you want?” Jack did his best to maintain his tough guy edge, even though he was shaking so badly he couldn’t have intimidated the most skittish five year old.

The figure did not respond. It moved with eerie grace, gliding through the noxious fog without effort. It stared at him with eyes Jack could not see, but eyes he could feel. It stared at him with hate and hunger; it gazed upon him with the most malevolent form of desire. It circled around Jack, drawing closer and closer with each pass, and with each pass the creature’s form started to solidify. Soon Jack’s mind began to piece together and reveal the shape of the monster bearing down on him.

What the hell? That’s not possible. This thing is not possible. This is a fucking dream.

Jack spun away from his hunter and made the first steps in what he thought was an escape.

He was wrong.

Tssschnkkktchchhhnnktcchh, it screeched. With a whoosh its speed returned and the thing moved in front of Jack, cutting him off only a few steps into his run.

It’s just that fast. This was his first thought. In his bewilderment, his mind could come up with no other conclusion. Nothing could move that fast, but his eyes were telling him this thing did.

There was only one thing Jack could do in the face of such a tormentor. As a temperamental and violent man, Jack held esteem in his ability to solve problems with his fists. His next course of action was brought on by his panicked fear combined with raw survival instinct: Fight.

It towered above Jack. He now put the figure’s height at around seven feet, but it had not been that large earlier. Had it grown? It stood looking down at him, unmoving, gazing at him through infinite darkness. He could now make out nearly the whole form of the monster, but felt fortunate to see its face was still clouded amongst the foggy darkness. That face was something he didn’t want to see—something he had to make go away.

Jack swung like he had never swung before, throwing his full body into the hay-maker aimed for the side of the thing’s head.

His furious hook was cut short by a vice grip with the stopping power of a brick wall.

With effortless precision, the creature grabbed a hold of Jack’s arm halfway between his wrist and his elbow. Jack felt the most horrible sensation on his skin as the dead hand (claw?) held him tight.

Jack’s skin was on fire, or was it freezing? It was the worst of both worlds in the creature’s grip. His skin was filled with awful sensations of discomfort, somehow too hot and too cold at the same time.

There was no dispute as to what was happening in the rest of his body however; he was freezing. The blood flowed warm from his heart but came back cold as ice.

It’s draining me of heat, it’s draining my blood of life.

Jack was paralyzed, he couldn’t even offer a struggle in the being’s mighty grasp. He was helpless to resist as the creature made its first devastating move.

SNAP! It sounded like the snapping of small tree branches, a sound Jack often encountered in his tree service job. He would habitually snap small bothersome branches out of the way so he wouldn’t have to pull out the chainsaw to deal with them, only the big branches really required that baby anyway. But this wasn’t a simple tree branch that had snapped.

It was his arm.

With the slightest turn of its wrist, the monstrosity had snapped Jack’s forearm in half. He felt a hot rush of pain and disorientation, his nerves screaming in protest as jagged ends of bone stabbed their way through his flesh.

Jack tried to fall but the monster held tight to his limb, now broken in two at the forearm. Jack was held up by tearing muscle, tendons, and skin. Blood squirted out of severed veins, spraying up and soon landing on Jack’s arm, dripping down the rest of it and leaving deep stains on his shirt.

Jack Handlan screamed a wet, pitiful scream into the fog, but it traveled only a handful of feet, heard only by his own ears.

Jack was crying. He hadn’t cried since he was a child, he hadn’t cried since his father had beaten him mercilessly for acting like a “goddamn sissy boy.” Tears poured down his face the dark figure leaned down, the terrible monster moving its face closer.

Jack turned his head away, like Kelly had done so many times over the years when she was facing a beating. How things had come full circle.

He cried out in disgust and fear at what came next.

It felt like a tentacle, but Jack recognized it as the creature’s tongue. It ran up and down his arm, near where it had been split in two, licking and lapping at his bloody wounds with rough strokes.

Tsssskkknnnnnchhhttch. The cry had the same emotionless tone as it did before, but Jack could sense something more: pleasure.

The licking stopped. A full minute of silence. Curiosity took over, and Jack turned his ead to look up and witness the monstrosity.

SWIPE. It was the same motion Jack had used when he had given Kelly the black eye, but the results were so much more devastating.

Jack’s head jolted backward as the monster’s claws tore through the flesh of his face. One claw grazed his eye and sunk into it, popping it instantly. Blood and fluid spilled onto his cheek as his eye-socket became a gelatinous mess, his eye resembling a half-eaten cherry.

The flesh on the left side of his face was torn away like wrapping paper. What remained  dangled and flapped as blood gushed past the ruined flesh. Eyeball fluid poured down his face into the remains of his tattered cheek and into the hole where his left nostril had once been. Jack Handlan was the image of a living corpse.

Jack fell to his back and gurgled a low scream, choked and cut off as blood found its way into his mouth. Then it was over him, and with his one remaining eye he could see it fully for the first time.

He was too terrified to scream.

Jack felt a vice tightening around his heart, his sanity failing as he stared into the eyes of Death itself. The pain of his face was suddenly irrelevant—it was now second to the hell his eye revealed.

Then came the teeth.

More than Jack could perceive. They came out of nowhere, surrounding him like the fog itself. They ripped, tore, and tasted indiscriminately. Gnash. There went his fingers. Chomp. Chunks of his chest gone. Ripppp. His penis and testicles were consumed.

Jack Handlan had no time to scream, but an eternity to suffer as his body was eaten and his soul consumed. The only things he registered were absolute pain and suffering before his world abruptly faded to black.

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Murderers Anonymous (Pt. 5)

I’m going to fuck your grandmother. I’m going to fuck her until she breaks in half.”

“My grandmother is dead, sir.”

“I’ll dig her up, shit in her skull, and fuck the eyehole then. You call me again asshole and you’ll see.”

Click, he hangs up.

Ring, ring, another call goes through.

“Hello?” an unfamiliar voice says.

“Jonathan Marcus, please.”

“Just a moment please,” the female voice says.

“Jonathan speaking.”

“Hello Mr. Marcus,” I begin. “I’m with Royal Payments. I’m calling in regard to the merchant account.”

“Merchant account?”

“Yes, the merchant account. You accept credit and debit cards as a form of payment at your business, correct?”

“Yeah, are you with my bank?”

“No sir,” I say. “I’m calling to inform you that as of April there are new federal policies in place qualifying your business for industry low processing fees. The unfortunate thing is your current processor is not required by law to inform you of what you qualify for.”

“I’m not interested.”

“Of course you’re not, I haven’t told you anything to be interested in!” I say this approximately two hundred times a day. “We have representatives in your area ready to drop in and show you the benefits of switching to Royal Payments and break down just how much money you will save. And if you still aren’t interested, we’ll give you a five hundred dollar Visa gift card just for your time. Fair enough?”

“I said I’m not interested. Have a good day.”

“Sir, if you would just…”

“Take a fucking hint you cocksucker. Never call again.” He slams the phone down.

Ring, ring, the next call goes through.

Rinse and repeat.

An “appointment setter” at Royal Payments handles anywhere from seven to nine hundred calls in their eight hour day. This depends on a multitude of factors, including but not limited to, how many people hang up the phone without saying a word, how quickly the automated system deals out numbers, and the success rate of the appointment setter. A strong day would see five of eight hundred calls ending in success, where a normal day ranges from zero to three.

This is sifting through the filth of humanity.

Appointment setters are paid a rate of eleven dollars per hour with various commission-based incentives thrown on top of their salary. While these commissions are generous, for the most part they are unobtainable due to the fact that people do not wish to speak to telemarketers.

If an appointment setter is successful, they ring a bell at their station, raise their hand, and wait for a “closer” to come and finalize the appointment. Then they revel in the joy of victory, putting a mark up on the board, before getting back to the grind. Every day begins with a cheer and chant to revitalize spirits, and every day ends with competitive jiving and promises to perform better the next day.

They call one man Paulie Payments because of his uncanny ability to set appointments. With commissions he nearly makes forty thousand dollars a year, making him a hero in the office.  He uses his vast wealth to seduce recent high school dropouts; he’s gotten two pregnant. He’s marrying the latest one. He’s forty-three, she’s nineteen.

God Bless America.

I do not buy into the revelry. I speak like an automated machine. I recite the same lines time and time again. I navigate through the brunt of people’s strife and hatred for hours on end.

I do not think. I work.

Is there a difference?

We purchase the numbers from companies that compile lists. Sometimes the data is bad. On one occasion I called asking for a Mr. Frank Orden, only to hear from his distressed widow that he had passed seven years earlier.

I read the script as usual.

During our lunch break, a group of coworkers discuss politics. They express their dismay with the president and asserting they know the direction the nation needs to take. They do this despite the fact that two barely graduated high school and the third was a community college dropout.

The Dunning- Kruger effect is a common phenomenon in which unskilled individuals rate their ability/intelligence much higher than is accurate. This is attributed to the inability of these people to recognize their ineptitude. As a result of this, actual competence, as exhibited by professionals with a wealth of knowledge or experience, is perceived as threatening and is met with hostility.

Sound familiar?

I walk into the break room to grab another Diet Coke when I see her. She turns around from the refrigerator and my heart stops.

It’s the new girl.

It’s Kelly.

I can’t breathe. I want to run but my legs become a mix of cement and Jello; too heavy to move yet too weak to support me. My hands shake and my vision blurs.

She raises her eyebrows as she sees the sweat pouring down my face. My breathing is heavy and my motions spastic, but I am able to force my legs to move, stumbling as I turn and hurry out of the room.

I let loose a choking cough as I head into bathroom. I push my way past Mike (or is it Steve?) and into the nearest stall, falling to my knees and spraying the contents of my stomach into the porcelain below. A hot mix of digested meat and bile coating the seat of the toilet.  

She isn’t Kelly, but she’s damn close. The silky chestnut colored hair, the deep, shimmering brown eyes, the soft skin and supple lips.

She could be her sister.

I have to strangle her.  

I place my hands on the toilet seat and push up to rise. My legs shake and tremble the entire time. I wipe the drool from my lips and walk past Mike/Steve like nothing’s happened.

I leave the bathroom and head for the office exit. Charlene stands between me and freedom. Her mascara is running, inky rivers coursing through the wrinkled canvas of her face. Her face scrunches up in deep lines as she scowls my way.

“And just where do you think you’re going?”  

“I’m sick. Ill. I need to go home.”

“What the hell are you talking about?”

I stare at her, clammy and complexion pallor.

“Jeez, what’s the matter?” Charlene asks

“S-stomach,” I say. I keep my eyes focused on her raisin face despite repeated urges to look around for the Kelly girl.

Charlene studies me up and down. “Shit, you look like a mess. Go home and rest up then.”

“Thanks,” I say, rushing past her. I don’t look back. I can’t look back.

If I see that girl again I just might lose it.

Terminal (Pt. 5)

I feel like I’m choking.

The world is dark.

It’s shoved down my throat and there’s nothing I can do about it.

It’s feeding me.

It’s keeping me alive.

But is this alive?

I hear my family. I hear my friends.

They’re sobbing.

I’m here but I’m not.

I’ve heard that hearing is one of the last things to go when someone is in a coma. They can’t see or speak but there they are.

Trapped.

I open my eyes. I’m standing over 418. There’s a layer of sweat latched to my brow.

A patient is intubated with a feeding tube when they are unable to swallow food and/or medications by mouth, due to the nature of their medical concern. Intubation involves the insertion of silicone tube down the trachea of a patient. An example of this would be a patient who cannot swallow or has some type of other mouth or throat concern (collapsed trachea, for example) and feeding orally is simply not possible.

I’m here to change 418’s feeding bag. I’d taken over for Joey, who is missing in action somewhere on the floor. 418 is in a coma, a tumor the cause of her woes. She is unconscious and unresponsive as I get to work, but I wonder if she can hear me, the sounds of my shuffling about a strange mystery to her active mind. I feel an empathy I didn’t know possible of myself, as if she and I are in the same situation.

I clip the new bag into place. The muck inside is brown and sludgy, the color and texture of coffee but a little thicker. For a moment, I have flashbacks to the most recent ass-disaster.

418 is bound to be transferred to ICU or hospice sometime soon. Things had taken a strong turn for the worse. I look down at the patient and wonder if this is life. If this is something worth living. If what is before me can even be considered a person. No consciousness, no ability to subsist on her own, kept alive by a feeding tube and a series of machines.

Is this what God intended?

418 didn’t ask for this. Didn’t ask to be kept alive like a science experiment. Wouldn’t killing her be the kind thing? Is the family keeping her alive for her or themselves?

418 is going on my list. I can free her during my next night shift. Imagine living that way. You’re stuck in a sick state between life and death, simultaneously tempted and denied by both. I know being put out of my misery is what I’d want if I was in her situation.

See: The Golden Rule.

I refocus my energy back to my shift. The ticking is an echoing background noise as I do my duties. I fetch water, retrieve fresh sheets, get a patient another snack, all typical divots within my routine. The shift is nearing its end when I return to 403’s room, to get his vitals as requested.

There’s a woman standing over 403 as he sleeps. Her skin is soft, the constant hue of a blush lingering behind it. Her hair is the shade of wheat and eyes walk the line between blue and green. She’s plain in a wholesome manner that makes her subtly attractive.

One of the more difficult challenges of my job is dealing with families. Take our availability and combine it with our lack of medical acumen, and we end up serving as counselors to the families, listening to their ills, gripes, and life stories. Sometimes we become the objects of their ilk, and they take their aggression out on us.

I’ve had six people slap me.

Four more throw things at me.

A teenager deliver a well placed kick to my shin.

Despite the tendency for some people to do this, some families go the opposite route. The declining state of their loved one causes them become detached, separating from the situation and emotions of the moment, or even has them take their frustration out on the person who is dying.  

On one occasion, a wife shouted at her comatose husband. “How could you do this to me?” she wailed, kneeling over him on the bed. “Don’t you know what this is doing to my life? I don’t deserve this, wake up! Get better!” She slapped him repeatedly, the wet whacks echoing off the walls. “Get better you selfish fuck!” The woman screamed before being restrained, yanked off the bed and held to the floor by Joey and myself.

I wanted to tell the lady to settle down. To not take it out on her husband.

He was the one with brain cancer, after all.

“Hello,” I say to the woman.

She turns and looks to me. Like Molly, there’s something familiar about her, but I can’t put my finger on it. I decide that either she’s visited before or we went to highschool together.

“Hello,” the woman says.

“Is this your father?” I ask.

“I suppose that’s one word for him.”

A low hum of machinery as well as the pings and beeps of his 403’s medical equipment serve as the background noise to our conversation. At any time, one of these machines can start beeping frantically, indicating to my new acquaintance that her father’s heart has stopped.

“I’m his aide,” I explain. “Your father is a good man, it’s been a pleasure taking caring of him and hearing his life stories.” I say these types of things to most families and they eat it up. It’s not that they truly believe the statements, but they certainly want them to be true, as if having a worthwhile family member says something about their own life.

The woman scowls. “Don’t bullshit me. My father is an awful man and you know it.”

“Is he now?…um…” I look to her.

“Robin,” she says. “My name is Robin. And yes, he’s awful and you know it.”

“My name is Trevor,” I say. “And I’ll admit, he’s been very spiteful and rude.”

Robin nods. “He’s an alcoholic, and an abusive one at that. When he wasn’t beating on mom he turned his attention to me and my brothers. He still has no remorse.” Her face is stoic, even peaceful upon first glance, but there’s a darkness lurking beneath her expression, like a serene lake hiding a shipwreck below its still waters.

“So why are you here then?” I ask. “Why bother seeing him if you hate him so much?”  

Robin shrugs. “I don’t know, to be honest with you. I’m not sure what I’m getting out of this. It’s not resolution, not fully, but I guess I’m in a place of power with him now. A place of control.”

“You get to stand over him now,” I say. “You get to watch as he slowly withers away and dies.”

“Exactly,” Robin says, a vindictive flash streaking through her eyes. “After what he’s done, he deserves this.”

I feel something in my heart. It’s hard to describe.

We’re all drawn to people similar to ourselves.

Hoping they can understand.

Hoping we’ll be justified.

And loved for who we are.

No one can validate us but ourselves.

But still we try.

Call it the human condition.

As I stare at Robin I’m reminded of something. Of someone. I don’t know how to describe it, but it’s like being hit with a wave of what I used to feel. Hope, excitement, admiration, all coated in a dash of naivety.

I feel human.

It’s something I miss.

“Would you be interested in a date?” I ask. The words leave my lips without permission.

“Excuse me?”

“A date. You and I. I don’t have much time left here. I don’t have much left to lose, and well, you’re interesting.”

Robin narrows her eyes. “Is that what you do? Patrol the floor for single daughters? Play on their sympathies and try to strike when they are vulnerable?”

“You’re not vulnerable,” I say. “And I am not striking.”

Robin smiles in an amused way. “I don’t think you can handle me, Trevor.”

“You have no idea what I’ve handled.”

“Do you have a suggestion for this date?” Robin asks. “Or did you not think that far ahead?”

“We could throw a party,” I suggest. “Celebrate your father’s impending passing with pizza and board games played upon his still body.”

Robin raises her eyebrow. “Are you serious?”

“Do you want me to be?”

Robin grins. “Fine then, how about tonight? As appealing as the party is, I have an idea of something we can do. Something that will prove if you’re up for the challenge.”

“Sounds exciting. Where are we going?”

“Oh you’ll see,” Robin teases. “We’ll meet in the parking lot around seven if you’re free, then get to it. It will be the most memorable first date of your life, I can promise you that.”

“I certainly hope so.”

Robin laughs, the sound somehow both full and empty. “You say you need it now, but just wait.”

“I’m looking forward to it” I say. “I have to get back to my rounds, but I’ll see you later on.”

“I’ll see you then, Trevor,” Robin says.“I think this is the beginning of a very interesting journey for the both of us.”

As I leave the room I find I can’t agree with her more.

Harbinger (Pt. 4)

Rowley police chief Tom Williams paced around the scene of the crime, still in disbelief at what laid before him on the sidewalk.

In this town, in our town.

Tom had dealt with his fair share of problems over the past fifteen years. Seven years ago, a tourist had one too many drinks at Mac’s Bar, and got into a scuff with Steve Byson, which was a poor decision since Steve stood six foot four and weighed nearly three-hundred pounds. The fool lost almost all of his teeth and had to have his jaw wired shut. There also was that time ten years ago where Billy Johnson stabbed Phil Djurek over a botched drug deal, luckily for Djurek and the town he lived.

Tom had dealt with small drug busts, car accidents, assaults and even a firebug, but a murderer? In his town? The reality was dizzying and Tom was hit with a head rush as he realized maybe this type of case was too big for him and his force. Could his men deal with it? Could he deal with it?

Tom withdrew a deep breath and decided he didn’t have a choice. This was his job, his duty, and even though he had taken it with the assurance he would earn a fine living without really ever having to do much of anything at all, he still had enough of a sense of responsibility to consider this his commitment.

That didn’t mean Tom had to enjoy it though, oh no, he stopped enjoying being chief as soon as saw that body.

Tom wasn’t a particularly squeamish man, but he had a problem when it came to dead bodies. Sure, he took a few reports at homes of residents with family members who had heart attacks and other natural causes of death. He’d seen the bodies being removed, but in his combined thirty years of police work in Rowley he had never dealt with a single murder. In fact, he only knew of two that had ever occurred in Rowley and the last had been forty-five years earlier.

What Tom Williams had failed to consider in his review of the town’s history were the numerous “accidents” reported in and around Rowley that had not been sufficiently investigated. Just last year, Williams himself had declared the incident with Shelly Benning an accident. This coincided with the report provided by Teddy Rowlings, the only other occupant of the boat Shelly had been on in Lake Wiladongun. The story was that they had been drinking, and Shelly had fallen overboard and was unable to swim due to her inebriation. Most citizens of Rowley had considered the strong possibility that Teddy Rowlings had killed her; he wasn’t known as the kindest soul when he had a few beers in him, but no one made a big deal about it. It was easier to believe it had been an accident. Violence and murders just didn’t happen in a place as quiet and beautiful as Rowley.

The papers agreed with this sentiment. Murder was bad for tourism, so although there had in fact been a handful of suspicious “accidents” throughout Tom Williams’ reign as police chief, a murder had not been officially recognized.

But in this particular case, Tom was having a difficult time forcing himself to accept the notion that this could be an accident.

He glanced down at what once had been Mitch Joiner, grimacing at the grisly sight.

Whatever attacked him had torn him to pieces. His rib cage had been ripped open, broken down the middle and seemingly pried apart. The broken ends of his ribs jutted up through his glistening muscle, within the bowl of his rib-cage was some grotesque organ stew.

Mitch’s lungs had been yanked out of place. They were severely mutilated—badly bitten before being thrown seemingly every direction. His heart was torn in half, his liver was cut into pieces, and his intestines had been pulled up from his lower belly into his chest, capping the gruesome mess like a swirl of whipped cream topping off a nightmare sundae.

Tom shuddered. Mitch also had slash wounds up and down his arms and legs; his left hand was missing completely, the victim of a knife or saw . . .

Or teeth.

What perhaps startled Tom the most, however, were Mitch’s eyes. They were frozen open, pupils still wide with fear. Whatever killed him, Mitch had seen it and had been alive and awake for most of the damage. Mitch’s mouth, frozen in an eternal scream, also sent chills through Tom’s body.

Just looking at that face made Tom break out in goosebumps. He was pulled from his thoughts by a hand on his shoulder, nearly making him jump.

“Chief, you sure this wasn’t an animal attack? Something looks like it ripped him up and ate him,” his officer, Dan McNair, asked.

“I don’t know if it was, Dan,” Tom said. “To tell you the truth, I hope it was some type of animal attack, because I don’t want to imagine there’s a son of a bitch alive capable of doing something like this.”

“A person wouldn’t do this, not around here.” McNair’s tone seemed unconvinced, and he paused to contemplate. “I mean, who would eat his insides?”

Tom wanted to leave. He wished the coroner and his cronies would hurry up and finish surveying the scene and cart the body off. Cause of death? Being torn open and eaten alive.

“What could have happened,” began Tom, taking particular note of the all too precise slash across Mitch’s neck, “is some sicko could have killed him, and fed him to his dog for added effect.”

Dan McNair’s eyes were wide. “You don’t think some guy would really do that, do you?”

“I don’t know,” Tom said, frustration showing. “I don’t know what the hell is going on, Dan, but I’m putting ideas out there. Maybe Stuart will tell us the wounds are similar to that of a bear attack, maybe this is no criminal case, but . . .” he trailed off and Dan understood his meaning.

Dan McNair was no fool; he too could sense something was wrong. This wasn’t the type of crime people heard about around Rowley. There had been so much hate put into the dismemberment of Mitch Joiner. Dan had a sinking feeling this wasn’t the end of the gore, and his peaceful little town was about to get rocked.

Then Dan McNair snuck a sideways glance at Chief Williams. Was this situation above his pay grade? Could the bumbling Tom Williams assure order and safety if there truly was some nutcase on the loose?

Maybe you’re the man for the job, Dan’s thoughts offered. Dan’s body stiffened. The thought was so sudden and powerful that it almost seemed foreign. At first the thought was so startling it was unwelcomed, but then it started to make sense. Maybe I am the man for the job, Dan thought. At least more of the man for the job than Tom Williams.

Dan wondered whether he should be playing the role of police chief in the tense production that had just concluded its opening act. The thought fled as quickly as it came. Things wouldn’t come to anything like that. His mind was wandering, caught up in the insanity of this singular event. And that’s what it was: singular. One isolated happening.

Perhaps it really was just an animal attack

A one in a million bizarre occurrence.

Perhaps.

Suicide Jack (Pt. 2)

He’s in the darkness.

Or maybe he’s part of the darkness.

Perhaps it’s part of him.

Either way, the dark man beckons. He wants her. And he’s planning to get her.

Just like he got her father.

Julie shivers and feels faint. She can’t believe her eyes but cannot deny them. She’s at the dark man’s mercy.

If he even has any at all.

He speaks to her and his voice emanates, a chilling sound smoothly wafting through the air. It sounds calm, pleasant even, but it’s pretending. It’s fake.

It’s an imitation of what a person sounds like.

The dark man isn’t human at all.

Julie has to run. She tries to scream but her voice is dry. Her heart is pounding out of her chest and she grabs at the straps holding her to the seat.

There’s no escape.

He’s going to get her.

The tears, they well up, they’re ready to come flooding out, when all of a sudden, as if from nowhere, another sound emanates, surrounding her, and Julie is jolted.

“Hey there,” Gregory Mertens says, sticking his face into Julie’s cubicle. A surprised tremor surges through Julie and it takes all of her strength not to shout out. Her daydream (nightmare would be more appropriate) had entranced her, and Gregory had nearly given her a heart attack.

Julie wipes the corner of her eyes, casually, skillfully, as to not alert attention to her tears. She’d been falling back into memory more and more, her past demons tormenting her, often at the expense of her sleep and productivity. There was a time in her life when this was common, expected even, but therapy had given her more autonomy over her life, and she hadn’t had such vivid flashbacks in years.

“Interrupting my work day, again?” Julie says.

“Oh, you know,” Gregory says, “Just wanted to drop in and spend some time with the most talented reporter here. Maybe I’ll learn a thing or two.”

Julie rolls her eyes. “Do those types of lines ever work for you?”

“You miss one hundred percent of the shots you don’t take,” Gregory says.

“That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t line your shots up properly.”

“How about this then?” Gregory says. “You’re an impressive writer and a good looker to boot. How about we get a cup of coffee sometime?”

I knew this was coming, Julie thinks. Ever since she started her job at The Times a year ago it was a bi-weekly routine for Gregory Mertens to ask her out on a date. At first she was modestly flattered. Now, Gregory was becoming somewhat of a nuisance. She didn’t think of him as a creep or anything like that, just a guy looking for love in all the wrong places.

“I appreciate it, Gregory,” Julie says. “I really do, but as you know I’m not focused on dating right now.”

“Ah, “ Gregory says. “Work, work, work, huh?”

“Get out of here,” Julie says, waving him off. “Go pretend you’re doing work or something.”

Gregory puts his hands up. “Okay, okay. You win this round, Ms. Forte. But the war isn’t over yet.”

“Oh please,” Julie chides.

“See you around,” Gregory says before wandering off.

Julie turns back to her desk and starts typing to stymie her thoughts. The dream was about the past, about the horrible life she had pulled herself out of. Now she was an up and coming reporter, soon to be investigative reporter in Philly or New York City even. That insecure, scared, small town girl living the shadow of a tragedy, she was in the past.

Wasn’t she?

Julie finally shakes the thoughts from her head, letting them fade to the rhythmic sound of her typing, the clicks and clacks joining in with the chorus that hover throughout the room, serving as constant background noise. It’s the sound of thousands of words and ideas firing off simultaneously, touching the page for the first time, creativity alive all around her.

Julie is putting the finishing touches on her latest article. It covers the developing scandal plaguing the Drayton Area School District, where several administrators are accused of dipping into the school’s budget for personal expenses, and grouping this money in with legitimate costs. This is the type of story that shakes the Drayton area, a sleepy city of 60,000 devoid of culture, violence, or crime.

She combs over each line, scrutinizing the use of every word, searching meticulously for a misused punctuation. It has to be perfect, even if part of that is the editor’s job. Those habits had gotten her this far, even if it wasn’t exactly where she wanted to be.

Julie sighs and taps a few more keys, finalizing the article. Her eyes scan it two final times before she is satisfied. With a click she sends it off to Brian Bradley, who had been editor in chief of the Times for two decades. By this point, it seemed he didn’t care much for journalistic standards; Julie could send him her third grade book report and he’d approve it for the next edition. Sometimes she was tempted to do just that as a barb at him. Some of her co-workers had gone along with it, publishing articles well below their capability, but Julie couldn’t bring herself to do it. She couldn’t lower her standards.

Worker bee, worker bee, work so hard but never get to fly, her thoughts taunt. What was it about this day? It had started normally but now she felt so off like she was sensing some bad vibrations.

The email sent, Julie tidies up her workstation, making sure not even a pen is out of place, her intense organizational habits perhaps not so coincidentally beginning after the incident with her father. She checks the clock and is relieved to see it’s time to head out, she’s actually been working fifteen minutes past her scheduled hours, though as a reporter, variable hours are essentially mandatory. Julie gathers her purse and rises, walking through the labyrinth of cubicles towards the exit stairs. She thinks about her plans for the evening and winces.

Twenty-three and I’m so tired I feel like going home and plopping on my couch. Let me guess, another predictable TV drama and a bowl of M&Ms. Maybe I should reconsider that date with Gregory…

The thought is dismissed from her mind. She had to get out of Drayton, that was the solution. Instead of snacking and watching movies she’d double her effort on her job search. A pity party wouldn’t help anything and she had to pull herself out of this funk.

“Hey there!” A figure shoots out of a cubicle and into Julie’s path.

“Shit!” Julie exclaims too loudly as she jumps back, and several coworkers poke their heads out of their cubicles like gophers emerging from burrows. Julie feels the stares upon her, which only makes her face glow redder.

Christine is already in a fit of laughter, doubled over in her chair and slapping at her knees as she chortles. “Swearing up a storm huh?” she asks between giggles.

“I thought you were going to run me down!” Julie says.

“That’s what you get for trying to duck out without me,” Christine replies with a smirk.

“Sorry,” Julie says, running her hand through her chestnut colored hair. “I was just so focused on getting out of here because…”

“Because of,” Christine interrupts, putting her hand to her mouth and draping her fingers down to resemble Gregory’s elongated teeth. She crosses her eyes and bobs her head up and down in her typical impression of him. It is mean, and a little inaccurate, but Julie can’t stifle her laughter. It breaks out and becomes a chorus as Christine joins in with her own. After a moment they receive reproach from the next cubicle over.

“Some of us are trying to work!” John Rawlston barks from behind his bushy mustache. Christine hadn’t been shy in her opinion that John needed to take some of his face rug and slap it onto his balding head. This thought comes to Julie’s mind and she nearly loses it again.

“S-sorry,” she wheezes, holding her gut to keep her side from splitting. “Let’s go, Christine,” Julie instructs. They leave the room together, giggling all the while. As they go down the stairwell their laughter finally subsides.

“What would I do without you?” Julie asks

“Become a decrepit old lady,” Christine says with a grin. “You know, get a few too many cats and sit at home, snacking on cheddar cheese popcorn and watching the Price Is Right, yelling your answers at the TV every so often.”

“Good god, you have that little faith in me?” Julie asks.

Christine grins. “Hey, for some that’s the dream life.”

“The Drayton standard,” Julie says. “You know, I was thinking about that before, how I can be an old grouch.”

“Yeah, what’s up your ass?” Christine asks.

“Do you really want to know?” Julie says, lowering her voice.

Christine cringes. “Maybe not.”

“What are you doing tonight?” Julie asks. “You’re right, I’m becoming an old lady. Let’s have some fun.”

“Why don’t we go out for a few drinks at The Pass tonight?” Christine asks. “It’s been awhile since we’ve visited it.”

“How many is a few?” Julie asks. She is a casual drinker at best, while Christine can throw back one after another without any threat of repercussion. Julie had seen Christine go shot for shot with men more than double her weight.

“Oh, c’mon,” Christine presses. “I’m not talking about getting trashed, just a few drinks and maybe splitting an appetizer.”

Julie smiles. “Yeah, something like that sounds nice. I need to loosen up a bit.”

“We’re going then, and drinks are on me,” Christine declares.

“Oh, you don’t have to do that,” Julie says. “I owe you a few already.” They step outside, walking from the gothic style building into the parking lot, the weather nippy for September with a light mist drizzling down from a milky gray sky.

“Fine then, let’s make it a challenge. First one to my car is buying.” Christine says.

“What?” Julie asks but Christine is already off, running through the slick parking lot towards her car, heels slapping off the wet pavement with each frantic stride.

Julie bolts after her, a childlike grin on her face. Christine makes her feel young, makes her feel happy. She is already distracted from the cloud hanging above her head. As Julie rushes to catch up, gaining ground on Christine with each step, she takes one last moment to wonder why she is feeling so off.

Like something was so terribly wrong.

The thought flees her mind as she reaches the car door, a mere moment after Christine, and both laugh between their panting breaths. They’re laughing and in good spirits as they get in the car and head out for the bar. Julie’s mind is relaxed, complacent even as Christine cruises towards their destination.

She has no idea the magnitude of what is to come.

Landing a Literary Agent at 21

This isn’t supposed to happen.

But what if it is? At least for you…

My thoughts were tempting. I’d worked my ass off writing this novel. I was meticulous. Dedicated. It was as authentic of a work I’ve ever produced…

And yes, I’d pursued agents, and of course I hoped one would bite but…

I didn’t actually expect it, you know?

This was my reality during the winter of 2011. It was the second holiday season after my father had passed. I was still commuting to college (40 miles a day on 40 dollars of gas money a week) and my family was still steeped in hard times. Emotionally, financially, everything-ly. There were no respites.

But here, admits the darkness, a beacon of light.

Adrienne Lombardo of Trident Media Group wanted to represent my novel. Trident Media Group! They are major players. They are legit, big time, deal making…

I could hardly wrap my head around it.

And here I was, a broke twenty-one year old college kid living in rural Pennsylvania. The quintessential nobody, and they were interested in my story.

It seemed like the dream was finally coming true.

And it was like that at first. My family and friends celebrated with me. We framed the official letter welcoming to the Trident Team. We went out to dinner, we cheered my good fortune, we looked forward to the release of my future best seller.

And why not? After what we’d been through, we didn’t need reality. We needed hope. We needed something special to look forward to.

My hope would be dragged across a couple of years with Adrienne, and another seven years after that. I never received a major publishing deal, and I still have not released a novel with a mainstream publisher. This is despite writing ten since Adrienne fell in love with Harbinger, a Stephen King style horror novel about a nightmare lurking in Rowley Pennsylvania, a town based on one I grew up near.

I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t know how, after all the rejections I received from agents, I was destined to receive dozens more from publishers. The big ones weren’t interested. There was one mid tier publisher who was curious and thought about getting some money ready, but finally decided Harbinger was too similar to another title they were planning to publish.

So it goes in the publishing world.

So, where did that leave us? We ended up  publishing through Trident Media Group’s e-publishing wing. I didn’t know this would come without any real promotion or outreach. I was twenty-one, trying to finish college and plan for graduate school. I had no sense of what any of this entailed.

It didn’t sell great, but reviews were good. And then came the shocker…

Adrienne was leaving to become an acquisitions editor.

My partner. My champion, was on the move. Where did that leave me with Trident?

To put it kindly, it was clear that none of the other agents had the time or interest to work with me. After a few phone conversations where this was made abundantly clear, I decided to end my relationship with the agency.

So…now what?

Back to square one?

I thought having an agent spoke to the quality of my work, and that I’d be able to land future agents based on this and the merit of my new projects.

How wrong I was. It didn’t matter how close I’d gotten; I was back in the same pool. I was sending query letters and getting the same bundles of rejections.

In the mean time, I published Harbinger through Hobbes End Publishing. They were a dedicated team who churned out a quality product. Again, lacking internet marketing acumen, the sales weren’t amazing, but the reviews were great and I was proud of my work. Hobbes End eventually folded, and I elected not to keep Harbinger going as a self-published novel.

I was 24 when I landed my next agent for my 6th project, Murderers Anonymous about a self-help support group for serial killers in which someone goes missing everyone week because one member isn’t doing such a great job.

Finally. After struggling here was my big break. I’d held my novels back worked hard, and now my new agent (Also an Adrienne but this one Rosado) was going to get me that big book deal.

Months went by….

You know how the story goes.

This time there was some positive feedback. Editors enjoyed my writing. Enjoyed my story. But with how extreme the voice was, the market was likely small. Hard to take a chance on those types of projects.

So it goes in the publishing world.

I thought I was something special. I landed agents early in my writing career. I thought I was going somewhere. Time after time I was shown my work couldn’t quite make it. It was good, but maybe not good enough. And I had to deal with the rest of my life. Poverty, loss, disaster, depression. How to keep up? How can writing still be a priority?

I went through these things and emerged out the other side. I’m 27 now. Adrienne (Rosado) and I have submitted another novel, Terminal, to literary agents. It’s looking like these are all passes as well due to the darkness of the tone. I’m okay with this now. I’m working on polishing up my latest project, and Adrienne and I are prepared to jump right back into the fray.

I write this to show that writing in itself is a victory. Persevering is beautiful. The art we produce has value in itself. I thought that getting a book deal at 21 was the goal. It was the end all, but I doubt I would have produced some of the works I’m most proud of if things didn’t play out as they have.

I’m proud of my life. I’m proud of my writing. I’m hopeful for the future.

So look: even if you make it, sometimes you don’t. Getting an agent isn’t the end all be all. It doesn’t even really reflect on the quality of your work. It’s only one way to go about writing.

Be you. Write as you do.

 

Ice Cream and Debauchery (Pt. 4)

Mom sits at the dining room table, her usual perch, towers of old magazines and unpaid bills obscuring her cigarette smoking silhouette. She holds a shaky hand to her lips, where a cigarette trembles, her other hand holding a glass of wine good and steady. There’s a smattering of objects on the table around her, crumbs, dirty silverware, and a cavalcade of pills she may or may not have a prescription for.

Eventually, you stop asking about these kinds of things.

“Liam,” Mom rasps in a creaky voice. “Is that you?”

“No, it’s the milkman,” I reply, stepping over a drying puddle of cat pee. We have eight of them now, along with a bad case of fleas in a few rooms. I try to keep up with the cleaning, and as for an exterminator, well that takes money that we don’t currently have.

“Ah, go fuck yourself!” Mom says in a jovial sort of way. It’s a cultural greeting combining the rich colloquialisms of New Jersey with the “I’ve given up caring about anything” attitude of rural Pennsylvania.

“Go fuck yourself too,” Will says.

“Oh, Willie Boy is here?” Mom asks. She lets her wine down on the table, a splash decorating her shirt. She doesn’t seem to notice. The room smells like cigarettes and weed, but this has been the standard for so long that it’s seeped into the walls and carpet, and I barely notice.

“In the flesh and blood,” Will says. “How are you doing, Mrs. C?”

“Been better, been worse,” Mom says. “Shit’s a fucking sham. Been workin’ my fuckin’ balls off. My manager is being a real piece of shit, up in my business. They’re give me twenty five hours a week for eight bucks an hour and expect me to bend over backward. Fuck them!” Mom’s words are slurred slightly enough to tell she’s in a comfortable state.

“Amen,” Will says.

“How are you two?” Mom asks, dragging her wrist to her nose, wiping some snot away. Her skin is haggard and sullen, the bags under her eyes giving more into gravity every day. She’s not well, she’s never been well, but I stopped trying to convince her to stop smoking or see a doctor long ago.

“Not good,” I respond. This all feels so surreal that I just want to come out with it and speak my mind. “I think it’s the apocalypse.”

Mom straightens up. “Who has taco lips?”

“Apocalypse.”

“A pocket bitch?” Mom narrows her eyes and leans forward, knocking over a stack of junk mail.

“The end of the world!” Will exclaims, throwing his hands in the air. “Y2J! Nuclear holocaust! Mark Wahlberg in the worst role of his life and John Cusack as an action hero!”

“What?” Mom asks.

“I don’t freaking know,” I sputter. “Maybe it’s demons or aliens or monsters or something. My entire world has been turned upside down in a night. I don’t even know what’s real anymore.”

“Are you boys high?” Mom asks, narrowing her eyes. “Is this like the time when Will spiked the punch at prom?”

“I don’t know,” I say. “Is it?” I ask, elbowing Will. “Because I really kind of hope so.”

Will shakes his head. “No, we won’t have anything like the shampoo bottle incidence of 2008.” He pauses. “But, seriously, I haven’t done anything this time. Liam isn’t exaggerating. There’s really some otherworldly bullshit going down.”

“So what?” Mom asks. “Monsters? Creatures? What are you babbling about?”

I sigh. I realize this is the moment in which I am bound to utter the single most stupid and embarrassing sentence I’ve ever spoken to my mother, and that’s including fessing up to some seriously questionable Google searches. “We’re dealing with celebrities transforming into blood-sucking tentacles monsters with really bad tastes in music.”   

There’s a pause, the only sound the light wisping of cigarette smoke drifting into the air before Mom responds, “I know what’s going on.”  

“What?” I ask.

“It’s the Illuminati,” Mom says knowingly. “The Illuminati,” Mom repeats. “I’ve been watching YouTube documentaries on them. Jay-Z is one of their big leaders. They killed Miley Cyrus and replaced her with a clone. And Justin Bieber? He’s spreading coded satanic messages in his songs.”

“Mom,” I protest. “We’re serious, we just saw…”

Mom holds a finger up. “I’m serious too. “They eat babies in the Bohemian Grove! That’s where the cabal of true world leaders meet and decide the fate of millions. Chemtrails, Monsanto, all of it part of the greater scheme to dominate us.”

“That’s just some crazy conspiracy theory and…”

“And you think that’s crazier than demons or whatever you’re talking about?” Mom exclaims.

“You don’t know what we’re talking about,” I say.

Mom coughs. It’s wet and throaty. She spits a wad of phlegm upon the table. There’s a shuffling noise followed by a series of shrieks as a few of our cats get into it in the next room. Something clatters and crashes to the floor, shattering, but no one bats an eye in that direction.

“So what are you talking about?” Mom asks.

“It all started with Gary Busey!” Will blurts.

“Gary Busey?” Mom asks.

“And Danny DeVito!” Will says. “I bashed their balls with a shovel by it just wouldn’t stop them!”

Mom’s eyes don’t leave Will as she takes a long drag on her cigarette.

“Is that it?” she asks.

“They started singing Smashmouth,” Will whispers gravely.  

Mom nods. “I know what’s going on here.”

“Mom,” I interject. “We’re not using any…”

Mom shakes her head. “Definitely Illuminati. The music reference is a dead giveaway.”

“I don’t know,” Will says. “I think this has something to do with the Neofamicon.

“The what?” I blurt.

“You’re gonna have to cut your hand off and replace it with a chainsaw,” Will proposes, stroking his chin. “Then we gotta find the Neofamicon in order to seal the demons back in their realm.”

“It’s Necronomicon,” I say. “And I’m not Bruce Campbell. This is serious!”

“Yeah it is,” Mom agrees. “The world’s gone to shit, I’ll tell ya. Now there’s monsters, or Illuminati agents, this…Necrocomicon, we might have to hold up in the basement until this blows over.”

“I’m not sure it will,” I say. A cold shiver emanates from my bones and clings to my skin. The way those monsters implicated me in all this, it’s rattling. I’m destined to be a nobody. For some people, especially those spawned from the loins of generational poverty, it’s just in their genes.

“Okay look,” Will says. “We can sit here yelling about conspiracy theories and sharing Infowars Youtube clips, or we can go with the flow and move past this. Maybe we’ll never know what happened, but I couldn’t tell you how a microwave works and I use those just fine.”

“What?” I ask.

“Sometimes you don’t quite understand life,” Will explains. “But that doesn’t mean you can’t cook your breakfast burrito.”

“He’s got a point,” Mom offers.

“Exactly,” Will says. “Let’s unwind the way we always have. How about we go upstairs and play some Mario Party?”

“Mario party?” I ask. This suggestion is somehow almost as surreal and dumb as the rest of our night.

“Oh, shit, Mario Party!” Mom exclaims. “It’s been a couple of years since I’ve played. Maybe after a few more drinks I’ll join you boys.”

“Sounds great,” I say, my voice distant, coming from across a canyon. I feel like I’m starting to break. I want to deny this is happening, but the longer the facade goes on the more real it becomes. And now, I can’t shake the nagging sensation that I actually know something. A deep, intuitive part of my psyche knows I have a part in this, and I want to avoid those feelings more than anything.

“I call Yoshi,” I say numbly.

“First there, first pick!” Will says, rushing past me and bounding up the stairs. There’s a crack as one gives way a thud as he face plants, but he scrambles up the stairs on all fours like a dog.

“Hey,” Mom says. “I don’t know if you boys are fucked up or if it’s really the end of the world. I’m serious about those Youtube clips. Either way, be quiet playing your game upstairs, Liam.” She blows the smoke into a cloud around my head. “Your brother is sleeping. He was up all night and morning, stumbling around and making a mess of the place.”

“Yeah…we’ll be quiet,” I say, still far away. I walk by Mom and head upstairs. Yeah, whatever is going on is mind-blowing, but this level of avoidance is standard for my mother, who likely hasn’t even really considered all we just spoke about.  

Oh well, the wine will take care of any fragments she remembers.

I pass my brother’s door, and despite the fact he’s sleeping there’s music pumping from his room. This time it is a tasteful blend of Limp Bizkit and Fetty Wap. My brother likes to play two stereos in his room at once, blending music he likes together in way that makes him feel like a deejay.

I walk into my room. Posters of early 2000s punk bands litter the wall, along with those of video game characters. Will’s sitting on the beanbag in front of my clunker of a television. He pushes old bags of Cheetos out of the way so he can click the buttons to change the channel to three. On the channel, we see a breaking news report.

The bottom banner of the screen reads: Hostage Situation in Rosedale. There’s live footage from outside of Kmart, where we were just a few moments ago. There’s more police cars than Rosedale has available, and I realize they called in the Staties. They have a perimeter sealed off in front of the building. All officers have their weapons trained on the entrance.

The reporter on site is saying something but I don’t hear any of it as I focus on the images on the screen. There, stumbling through the automatic doors, come Busey and DeVito, only they’re not Busey and DeVito.

They’ve changed.

They still resemble the two celebrities, but they’ve become more monstrous. DeVito has burst out of his designer women’s apparel, becoming bloated and blob-like, each boil the size of a softball and ready to burst. He wiggles and worms toward the police like a slug. Busey, on the other hand, has grown the other way, growing taller and more gangly. He’s gotta be over seven feet now, his clothes tearing at the seams, and his features have become more fierce and beastlike.

The police shout a series of commands. Stop. Get on the ground, the typical stuff I imagine, but it all just comes across as a massive blur of sound. The reporter speaks in a frantic, fearful way reminiscent of a chattering squirrel. There’s content to the words of what everyone says, but none of it reaches me or any of the audience. No, it’s the emotion that’s clear in the cacophony, shining through as the heart-shaking, bloodcurdling essence of chaos and fear. The people don’t understand what they’re facing, but on the unconscious level, their hearts are all too aware of what’s coming.

Hell.

Busey and DeVito don’t stop. DeVito is singing some Jamiroquai song, but it comes out in throaty, fiendish belts, croaked from the belly of a hell beast. The police open fire and there’s a cannonade of rounds, most hitting their mark and patterning the duo with smears of bullet holes, dark greenish-black liquid launching from their bodies as they’re torn apart. Even as the police keep up their volley, an untold number of bullets flying into Busey and DeVito, the two stand tall. In fact, they keep coming.

There are shouts now, audible over the hail of bullets. What the hells, what the fucks, holy shits and the like. Some of the cops back up and the cameraman stumbles backwards. There’s a halt in the firing. Busey, looking like a Swiss cheese nightmare, smiles with that impossible keyboard grin, before letting out a deep groan.

The sound is felt at the core, like the tremors of an oncoming earthquake. It’s a deafening groan too deep and complex to be biological, one part insect buzzing one part Titanic ripping in two. It blasts the policemen like an emergency siren before the nightmare is unleashed from Busey’s gullet.

A swarm of hornets emerge from Busey’s mouth in a cloud. They spew from him at an impossible rate, the wash of them enveloping the police officers in the matter of a moment. There are screams and gunshots and utter calamity as the camera man stumbles backwards and falls on his ass. Men and women are screaming and thrashing, swatting at countless mini-assassins. The wave descends upon the cameraman and he belts out a stunted shriek of terror as the hornets repeatedly pierce his flesh. The last thing we see before the feed cuts to the stunned faces of the anchors is DeVito, boils bursting like a collection of party poppers, spraying squirming leech-like abominations into the air.

The anchor’s mouths are open almost as wide as Busey’s was. This image only lasts for a moment however before cutting to black. Will turns on the N64 and the cheery sight of the Mario Party title screen fills the field of my vision, accompanied by charming music.

“What the hell are you doing?” I ask, barely able to breath.

“We’re playing Mario Party, aren’t we?” Will responds.

“Did you just see that shit?”

“Yeah, pretty screwed up,” Will says.

“Pretty screwed up?” I ask. “More like reality shattering.”

“Seems on par for our night,” Will responds. “But I went ahead with Mario Party because I didn’t think you’d like my immediate response.”

Wouldn’t like your response?” I sputter. “I’m not sure I can like or understand anything right now. What the hell is your response?”

Will sighs. “It’s being spelled out for us. We have to go fight them. You’re The Keybringer, or something, so we have a responsibility.”

“A responsibility?” I almost laugh. “To fight those things? This isn’t a game, Will. This is real, don’t you get that? Didn’t any of that bother you?”  

Will looks to me, a rare moment of clarity in his gaze. “You know, stuff like this doesn’t bother me. I had cigarettes driven into my arms as punishment day after day. I watched my mom give into drugs and become a prostitute. I had a few of her clients try to do things to me. So, you know, Liam, the known is pretty damn scary for me. This? Yeah it’s scary, but maybe I look at it the way I look at comics and video games. There’s evil, but there’s a chance to stop it. The cosmic monsters, the vile demons, there’s always a way to kill them if those with good intentions step up. There’s never been a way out of what I’ve been dealing with in my life but this feels like a chance. A new calling.”

“Will…” I say. “I know what you’ve been through man…but this is crazy. I’m not a Keybearer. I’m not a hero. I’m an overweight slacker with a useless history degree and bad case of acne.”

“It’s not about appearances, dude,” Will urges, slapping his hand on my shoulder. “We don’t all have to be tall and jacked like Tom Cruise to be an action star.”

“Tom Cruise is like 5’7.”

“Exactly, and look how far that little guy has come!” Will exclaims. “Look, we’re shitty, but maybe we’re just the shit the world needs.”

“Do you realize how that sounds? And what do we do? Hit them with shovels?”

“It worked before,” Will says. “That and the Cooter Scooter.”

“The what?”

“Well, I figure my steed needs a sweet nickname, and that kind of sounds like…”

There’s a series of pounds on front door followed by shouting.

“Police!” A voice shouts.  

Will and I look at one another.

Shit.

“Why are the cops here?” Will asks.

“Can’t be anything good,” I reply. “Maybe they think we’re suspects.”

“Suspects?” Will exclaims. “But I opened a jumbo-sized can of whoop ass on those jabroni fools.”

“Well…”

CRASH. The door downstairs bursts open. Mom lets out a squawking cry and boots thud against the floor as men storm in.

“Liam Carroll, Will Weaving!” a voice shouts.

“Quick through the window!” Will shouts, hopping to his feet. He takes a few steps and dives headfirst at the closed window. His forehead connects with the window pane and his shoulder ricochets off the glass. Will crumbles to the floor in a heap.

Damn it.

I hurry over and open the window. There’s a tree branch extending not far from it. We can reach it and climb down. I stretch my leg out the window and onto the sill and slip through. I put both hands forward, grab the tree branch, and check for stability before leaping forward, struggling to pull myself on top of it. I nearly slip for a moment but gain hold, and I’m in position.

The police are charging upstairs. They’re shouting commands and stampeding our way. Will climbs through the window but hesitates, looking at the small gap between the window and branch.

“What if I fall?” he asks.

“Then you’ll fall in those damn bushes and be fine. Just give me your hand!” I say, reaching out.

Will’s hand latches onto mine. I’m pulling him towards me when the police reach my room. They shout a command at Will’s ass, which doesn’t comply to their liking.

So they fire.

Will seizes up, grasping my hand tightly as his eyes roll up into the back of his head. He’s shaking, a contorted expression of pain engraved into his face. He shakes and moans as the Taser shocks him and it takes all my strength to hold onto him without falling.

Then Will falls out of the window.

Well, sort of.

He starts to slump out of the window when a police officer grabs him. The weight of the motion yanks me forward as I hold him, and I teeter. Will is a wobbly bridge between me and the police officer, and the two of us share an awkward stare.

“Uh…hey…there,” I say.

“Y-you…t-tasered my a-ass you b-b-bastards!” Will shrieks. He shakes and thrashes in our joint grasp and this is enough to pull me off balance. I fall forward, and as the cop holds Will by the pant legs, he functions as a rope and I swing towards the house. It looks like I’m going to smash into the siding, but our combined weight is too much. The cop tries to pull us up but he yanks too hard and Will’s pants come free of his body, the two of us spiraling down two stories into the bushes below.

Crunnnch! Crackkk! Pine needles fill up my vision and invade my nostrils. Branches scratch and scrape away at my skin, gnarled nubs pressing into my lower back. It’s a rough landing, and I don’t know how many of the snaps are branches and how many are my bones. Will’s knee connects with my midsection as he falls on top of me and all the air leaves my lungs in a whoosh.

Pain hits me in hot flashes and bolts. I want to lay there and moan, but my mind is sharp enough to remember the immediacy of the situation. I wipe the pine needles from my face and shake my head to get a grasp of what I can see.

There’s a dick swaying in front of my face, gently, with the rhythm and cadence of a clock pendulum.

I push the stomach above the limp knot, forcing Will away from me. He lets out a moan as he rolls sideways, sinking deeper into the bushes.

“Cut it outttt,” he whines.

“Get your balls out of my face!”

“My ass!” Will howls. “First the Taser and now there’s a branch lodged right up…”

“We have to run!” I shout, ignoring the pain and scrambling from the bushes. The cops are shouting commands from the window but I don’t listen as I hobble across the lawn towards the sidewalk.

Will whines but he’s able to follow suit, hurrying to his feet and sprinting behind me. We’re rushing forward, our desperate escape in progress, when a man in a suit steps out from the shadows. The suit is charcoal gray and sleek, form fitting and custom tailored. He’s wearing a white dress shirt and a blood red tie along with wireframe glasses and a heavy gold watch. His face looks welcoming at first, but that’s only because of the hint of amusement on it. There are deep lines cut into his face, bored from grit and experience. His eyes, on first glance a soft blue, hold the spark of cunning and intelligence that only comes with those of a predator.

From either side of him appear two officers…no, agents. Their attire suggests FBI or a similar agency. They raise their guns and point them our way. I freeze and put my hands up. Will hesitates, picking pine needles from his pubic hair.

“That’s enough now, Liam,” the man in the suit says. His voice is calm, disinterested even.

“What’s this about?” I ask.

The man chuckles. “Come along and find out. We have a lot to talk about.”

“Who are you? You’re not local.”

“You can call me Brooks” the man says the underlying air of a laugh. “You and I have a great deal to discuss. A great deal indeed. Now please get on the ground and allow these fine agents to cuff you.”

“What are we being charged with?” I ask.

Brooks shakes his head. “You haven’t figured out how big of a deal this is yet? We’re not here to arrest you, Mr. Carroll, but we do need to have a talk, and our time is short.”

“We’re talking now.”

“Get on the ground, Mr. Carroll.”

“Don’t make me bust out my kung-fu,” Will warms, striking a pose. He raises his hands above his head and stands on one foot in the crane stance.

Brooks sighs. He reaches into his coat pocket and removes a device. It’s small, sleek, and silver, about the size of an IPod Shuffle.

You remember what those are, right?

There’s a blinking blue light at the top, and he points it towards Will, clicking a button with his thumb. There’s no sound. No beam. No nothing, but Will tenses up and goes rigid. He stands up straight then goes stiff as a board and falls forward, expression frozen on his face.

I open my mouth to protest when Brooks cuts me off. “He’s fine,” he says. “Just temporary. Now are you going to lay on the ground or do you it to happen to you too?”

Have what happen to me? This mysterious covert government bullshit is a exact type of sci-fi scenario my own mind would cook up, and I consider the prospect that I’m living in some virtual reality world spawned from my own imagination.

Is it really so improbable at this point?

I look to Will, notice there really is a branch sticking out of his ass like a flag planted on a new colony, and then back to Brooks. He’s got the device bared on me.

“Don’t hurt him,” I say. “And keep my family out of this.”

“They’ll be staying here, I assure you,” Brooks says.

“This is no way to treat The Keybearer, or whoever I am,” I mutter, getting to my knees before laying face down on the ground.

“Oh, we’ll be treating you just fine, Keybearer,” Brooks says with part salesman, mostly shark before he approaches with handcuffs. “Just fine.”