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The Echo Pipe

The echo pipe stuck straight out of solid bedrock. 3 ¾ inches of rusted iron, it was Hawley’s biggest mystery. Mrs. Strickland’s spontaneous combustion and the meteor shower that made the town smell like spent matches lagged behind in the dust. Those were one-time things. The pipe was ongoing.

The bit of road that curved before it went into a tunnel leading out of town, that was where you found the echo pipe. On the hottest day, you could still feel a cool underground breeze wafting out of the mouth of the pipe. That’s how folk knew it was real, not just a bit of leftover sewer pipe stuck in the mountain by some joker. Maybe once the pipe had been capped, or maybe it continued into the ground and that section had broken off, but now the end was a jagged mess. The legend went, if you put your ear (carefully, those shards were sharp) to the hole, you could hear an echo back before you even said anything.

Hawley kids have been using the pipe as entertainment for decades. It’s a telephone, planchette, almanac, and confessional all in one. Early days, the pipe would only give an echo out after you said something into it. Nowadays, all one has to do is wait and something will come out. Girls will have listening parties, collapsing into giggles the second they hear a man’s voice. Boys will ascribe terrible crimes to the sounds they hear, labeling every conversation as some sort of code. Once in awhile some loner will pretend the echoes coming from that rusted hole are part of a conversation being held with them and only them. They usually give it up after the strain of belief becomes too much, usually two-three days camping out by the pipe. It was one of these loners that was the unwitting instigator of the end, boy by the name of Ethan Madden.

As he described it to the rest of the town, Ethan’s experience went like this: he set up a camping chair by the pipe, intending hours of listening. He caught faint snatches of conversation. Nothing important, some couple arguing about who was to take a mysterious “her” up to the city. There was a flat silence for all of six seconds, and then the scream.

The scream was so loud that Notch Evans, the man with the house closest to the road, could hear it. Ethan swears he’s still deaf in the ear that was facing the pipe. The scream went on for hours. 3 hours 25 minutes to be exact. In the wake of such a noise, the silence seemed to ring. The whole town camped around that thing, even 93-year-old Mrs. Van der Waals struggled up the hill. All eyes trained on that pipe, waiting for the next sound.

What came next was a cacophony, decipherable to no one. Occasionally there were snatches of quiet, leaving orphan phrases to be interpreted. A man called Mark shouted for Melissa to bring the kids. Ten-year-old Mark Drisson blushed and looked at the ground, not at Melissa Eckhart. Men called to each other to patch the hole where Notch’s place stood with parts of the roof. Notch drained of all color. On and on it went like that. Some terrible catastrophe was befalling the town, one they could only partially discern. Was it a flood? Earthquake? On they listened, eager for any information that might help avoid the end.

At 2:14 pm on June 6th, amidst the roar of a crowd in turmoil, the pipe went silent. And silent it has remained ever since.

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Tender Resignation

Dear Michael,

I am writing to tell you I’ve decided to cease being your copywriter. Our relationship has spanned four years and three continents, but with this last batch of writing I must say enough is enough. I truly regret this step, but feel it necessary in light of your recent personal changes. Please do not take this resignation as an end to our friendship or a cessation of my warm feelings for you. I very much do care for your well being still. It is this concern that leads me to end our professional relationship.

I feel I must explain the change in my disposition, because it must seem very abrupt and frivolous from your end. Certainly, it is abrupt. Abrupt as the recent change in your writings, Michael. I was never given very much work in the way of simple errors. You have minded your grammar like a Latin scholar, and for that I was always grateful. But the sudden downturn in your language is quite frightening, Michael. It feels as though your mind has begun fraying at the seams. You must tell me, in all confidence as your friend, whether this is related to some foreign substance you’re abusing. When you go from writing phrases like this:

Purple grow the lilacs on the sweet down-wind of the river banks.

To

Yattering madly like a spindle(?) piercing the chattering brook[…] ripped, ripped apart from time and surface and all knowledge accrued by man…

You understand my concern, don’t you? It’s barely a sentence, much less a coherent thought. You did not detail your adventures in full, but I fear you may have run afoul of some less-than-savory types in your travels.

My concern lies also with your personal safety. I know it sounds ridiculous coming from a homebody such as myself, but trawling the Arabian desert for a nameless city that may never have existed seems too much risk for too little gain. You tell me of Iram of the pillars and lost Sarnath, but what I see is baseless superstition. Star charts and scraps of myth are no replacement for sturdy boots and a good company of men. I have no wish to scold you like a mother, but you do give me reason for grief. I believe your risk also bleeds over to me. You were the one who had me fetch that blasted Din of Cicadas or whatever they call it from the academic library. You had me translate passages and send them out to you. You were the one who got me removed from the dean’s list at the school library after decades of loyal service. You had to have known, Michael, the dreadful reputation of that book even if I did not.

And on the subject of dreadful, I must say my stomach can no longer take any of your bloody descriptions. The sacrifice and befoulment of a dog, the fate of your camel, the pilloried thief, all these are just too much. Your readers are interested in the grit and dust of the trail, do you think they need to hear how your guide’s feet split open with black cankers after walking unshod on the “parched ground”? Do you think men at their gentlemen’s clubs want to hear the bloodcurdling history of reptilian ur-men over their morning coffee? Why such focus on the ailment of your friend Mahmoud, who swole and split like a puff-ball in punishment for showing you a certain trail? They are truly terrible events, and my heart bleeds for you, but they are entirely inappropriate for your usual format and far more suited to the pulps.

And on that note, I must ask whether there is any truth to what you write. You tell me:

The blasted thing curled above Price’s men, yawning through so many wretched mouths like an abomination dredged up from the deepest depths of the sea. The men slept on unaware as the monster unfurled in the night wind, sending so many tendrils to tap and sup from their unconscious bodies until the men were drained into sacklike ruins. Oh but the true terror comes not from that night, but the next morning when Price returned to see his men and one by one the husks called out to him by name

Michael, I must ask this as your friend and editor—how do you know this if you were not there? You claim Price destroyed by the wraiths of his own men, how did you learn of this scene, then? And how can you so clearly envision the activity of the nameless city-dwellers, those reptilian beasts of such unkind intellect, how can you see them crawling about the city when they have been dead for eons? I worry for your health, my friend. Either you have become a prodigious liar in your travels or the heat has addled your brain. I do not believe a facetless ruby can show you such visions, that mystic humbug is something a fakir would sell for the price of a watch.

I really request that you entertain my concerns, Michael, even if only for a moment. Your mental state worries me, when you produce such scenes as this:

Corpse-down, gathered through many wretched midnight excursions, padded the altar made of brass feathers and noxious amber ornaments. The priest passed the lamp flame over his hand once, twice, and it was then I realized that his flesh was not bandaged but that his very flesh was swaddled. Nimbly as a factory girl, he reached out and plucked Burrows’ eyes from their sockets, replacing them with a shiny serpentine stone each.

And this:

The moonlight took on an infections quality. I could feel my skin roil beneath it, as if the very touch of the light itself were changing me. The hole in the sky seemed to laugh at my eye’s feeble attempts to make sense of the where and how of it. Now that the priest had shed his robes I could see his true form was that of the hideous things that crawled endlessly from low doorways and stairs at impossible angles. From my bound position I could only watch as Price’s life fluid formed a river that flowed upwards from the basin, up into the Stygian depths of that hole which was no longer a hole but a kind of un-moon…

I worry as your friend and as a fellow professional. Such graphic scenes flow from only the most perverse of imagination. You, from a good family and solid education, should not be penning these scenes. I do not need to hear about the flensing of your left foot, the removal of your ears, nor the grueling attempt at tattooing your back. I do not appreciate being told you are at death’s door, saying you leave these pages as your last will and testament as you are too weak to hike back to the nearest outpost. It is a cruel fiction to spin, Michael, as you must have survived long enough to post these pages to me. A note is all I ask, an inclusion in your thoughts however dark they may be, telling me you are well.

I must close with a complaint that seems minor in the face of other worries, and it is this: the figure you had shipped to me is disturbing. I set it on the piano and now the cat refuses to go near it. I have looked the figure up in Makepiece’s Guide to Egyptology, and no such creature exists in their pantheon. The green stone it is fashioned from must be some lead derivative, for being too near it gives me dreadful headaches.

Please return, Michael, to civilization and me. Cease these fancies and collect your artifact. I will no longer entertain your follies, but I will provide a bed and a hot cup of tea should you ever be in my city.

Yrs,

Terrence Q. Chase

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A Series of Museum Samples, Labeled Accordingly

Box #: 2376

Contains: Homo interstella

Description:  Species adapted to life in the vacuum of space.

Distinguishing features: Relatively fragile skeleton. Expanded ribcage for increased lung capacity. Skull capacity of 1600cc. Abdominal implants to aid in the voiding of waste.

Added notes: Only intact specimen, the rest lost after orbit decay.

 

Box #: 8446

Contains: Homo proelius

Description: Species specifically engineered to serve as soldiers of war. Possessing an unusually dense skeleton, fast-twitch muscles, and a metabolism 4.8X higher that of Homo erectus.

Distinguishing features: Abnormally enlarged canines. Rapid maturation rate. Sagittal crest, indicating jaw strength equal to a common Pan troglodytes. Vestigial genitalia.

Added notes: Average lifespan of 6-8 years.

 

Box #: 5610000

Contains: Homo radiensis

Description: The skeleton of a species that chose to inhabit the surface contaminated with nuclear fallout.

Distinguishing features: Degraded skeletal structure due to the metabolism of radioactive agents. Jawbone has dissolved from  body processing Strontium-90 as calcium. Skin covered with carcinomas and sunless “Chernobyl” tan.

Added notes: Specimen emits 2.6 Sv of radiation at all times, box must be lead-lined.

 

Box#: 100078684

Contains: Homo cardifferi

Description: Specimen taken from a failed colony at Cardiff.

Distinguishing features: Due to a genetic bottleneck, specimen is possessed of several recessive genetic traits as well as an enlarged heart and other physical ailments. Skeletal structure indicates the specimen was unable to walk or sit upright due to crippling arthritis.

Added notes: Specimen was four years of age.

 

Box #: 42X1034

Contains: Homo bovinus

Description: Species specifically designed to serve as supplemental food source.

Distinguishing features: Shortened limb growth. Abundance of fatty glands and outsize sexual organs. Implanted rumen to aid in the digestion of a vegetation-heavy diet. C-curve of the spine, indicating the specimen was quadrupedal.

Added notes: Brain shows signs of heavy protein starvation, limiting neural activity.

 

Box #: 86X1090

Contains: Homo kelvinus

Description: an attempt by scientist Homer Kelvin to repopulate the earth through genetic manipulation.

Distinguishing features: none.

Added notes: All specimens genetically identical to Dr. Kelvin.

 

Box #: [number is scratched out]

Contains: Homo aeturnus

Description: The last, the ultimate human being. Man, so warped by his own hand, sought to engineer the architect of the end. A specimen that would live a span of indeterminate longevity, created for the sole task of categorizing his fallen brethren.

Distinguishing features: Lack of genital structure. Cells infinitely capable of producing telomerase, escaping the Hayflick limit. A skull capacity of 2800cc.

Added notes: The box is empty.

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Scenes from an Unaired TV Show

The reality television show Roughin’ It was meant to follow a typical fish-out-of-water format, as various c-list celebrities attempted to live on a ranch according to frontier restrictions. 1200 hours of raw footage, roughly equating to 10 episodes, was shot before the network pulled the plug. Due to the near-total death of the cast, the footage was shelved indefinitely following criminal proceedings. Repeated viewing of the footage has allowed investigators to construct a rough timeline from the inciting incident to the final episode.

 

Incident #1

[exterior. The cast had gathered for the day’s challenge: assemble an ancient wash-mangle and do laundry. Celebrity chef A_____ and actress J_____ are conversing as they sort through machine parts. P_____, contestant from a previous year’s reality show, is sitting on an overturned trough attempting to roll his own cigarette.]

A:—and I mean, it’s not that I, like, hate it—

J: —no, you don’t really know enough to hate it—

A: —right. It’s just that I haven’t had a good experience so far and I need, like, a manual or something—

[P_____ drops his rolling papers and swears.]

A: *laughs* gonna have to bleep that one.

J: *joins in the laughter.

[K___, a transplant from a reality show about vintage cars, approaches the two women]

K: Okay, so we’ve got, like, thirteen moving parts, and then we’ve got this gizmo—

J: Oh. Hey. [She is looking somewhere off camera.]

[K stands up and follows her line of vision. He appears to follow the approach of another person with his gaze. K nods affably.]

K: Oh, hey [inaudible].

 

This footage is notable as containing the first appearance of what is most likely a shared delusion of another contestant. The cast would continually refer to a figure that did not appear on camera as if it had been part of the cast from the beginning. No microphone, whether it be worn by a cast member or fixed to a tripod, was able to pick up a name. The figure’s appearance marked a dramatic and ultimately violent turn to events, as cast members began acting upon orders not issued by the network but by said figure.

 

Incident #2

[The “cow pie toss.” Actors were encouraged to toss “cow pies” fashioned from wet clay as far as they could. The winner, predetermined by the network, would win a phone call home and a sports drink. Y___, a runner-up in a national singing contest, was the predesignated winner. The event director was coaching her on her performance in the contest.]

Director: Okay, now I really want you to play up the smell of these things, okay?

[Y___ makes a noncommittal noise and tosses some hair behind her shoulder.]

Director: Like, really—pretend it’s doggy doo.

Y: So are cow pies, like, poop? I never knew *director speaks, rendering the rest of her sentence inaudible.*

Director: Look, honey, I just want a lot of “yucks” from you, okay?

Y: Should I take off my heels?

Director: No, leave ‘em on. It’s better—it’s good for the show, okay?

[the director turns to instruct P_____ on something. Y___ relaxes slightly, shifting in her stance. Y___ stays in neutral position for 23 seconds before appearing to notice the approach of an unseen figure. She mouths “hi” and holds an inaudible conversation with her back turned to the camera. The Director calls for all cast to take up their positions. Y___ appears to finish her conversation, smiling and nodding. As soon as “action” is called, Y___ trips P_____ and presses his head into the mud.]

Director: Stop! Stop! Are you crazy?

Y: I know what I’m doing, jeez.

Director: Let him up, he’s—man are you okay?

P: *coughing* What the fuck, Y___?

[Y___ shrugs.]

Director: Look, sweetie, improv is not your strong suit. So just stick to the outline, okay?

[Y___ shrugs again.]

Director: okay, are we all on the same page? Action!

[Y___ promptly repeats her previous actions, this time crawling on P_____’s back to press his face into the mud.]

Director: Cut! Cut!

 

The cast began to deviate from studio-issued orders on events. Due to the hectic nature of the shooting season, the bulk of the footage was shot by stationary cameras hidden in various points around the ranch while live crews were called in only for supervised events. Behaviors that might have called for an early end to the show went undetected, perhaps facilitating the breakdown of order within the group.

 

Incident #4

[“Campfire” segments were shot as a sort of break between scripted activities. Cast were allowed to set up the camera as long as they made sure they were all visible in-frame. Cast members T___ and R__ were seen to have a budding relationship spark and encouraged to play it up during shooting hours. During this campfire segment, T___ and R__ sat off to one side, sharing a blanket.]

P: *holding a stick and digging into the fire* …and I just wonder if it’s all worth it, sometimes.

K: You can’t think that, man. Like, if everyone thought like that, like, no one would get anything done, ever, you know?

[T___ and R__  simultaneously look to a point off camera. They hold their gazes for ten seconds. The couple then turn back to one another, blank of all expression. They hold a rapid-fire conversation that does not slow or stop once for the entire segment. Their body microphones pick up no audio.]

A: So, what, I have to just keep chugging along, just because I need to?

K: Well, yeah. You have to think of it like—

[K___ suddenly undergoes what appears to be a seizure. He drops his ams to his sides and makes a buzzing intonation in his throat. Drool can be seen escaping his open mouth. His face is tilted roughly up to the night sky. During this period, A_____ and P_____ behave as if nothing remarkable is happening. The entire event lasts three minutes.]

K:—holistically, like, we’re all connected, you know?

[Conversation resumes as if the pause did not happen. In the background, T___ and R__ sit facing one another, mouths hung open, for the rest of the footage.]

 

Incident #5

[The cast was instructed to milk a cow. Instead, after conferring with the unseen figure, they slaughtered the cow and skinned the body. The cast continued to act as if nothing was out of the ordinary, assuming the playful nature they used for scripted events. J_____ picked up a femur and pretended to play it like a flute. T___ and R__  began a splash fight with cow viscera. Once the cowhide was completely removed and put into a barrel to tan, the cast stood still and faced the open doorway of the barn, uttering the same low intonation. This went on for an hour.]

 

The cast’s behavior became increasingly erratic. However, because they did not shed their on-camera personas, they largely escaped detection by the live crews. One noticeable shift was that P_____ became a whipping boy of sorts. Everything that went wrong was jokingly blamed on him. Other cast members would frequently point to him and make a throat-slashing gesture, which he would return with a thumbs-up. The filming crew did not think this odd. P_____ had been set up as a martyr from the planning stage: his departure in the mid-season finale was meant to be a ratings boost. However, crew found the cast’s increasingly sadistic treatment of P_____ disturbing.

 

Incident #6

[A simple relay race, played with lumps of coal. Y___ can be seen horsing around with T___ as  R__, confined to another team, looks on with a slight frown. P_____, back to them, turns around and accidentally knocks a piece of coal out of Y___’s hand.]

P: Whoops! *chuckles*

Y: Boy, looks like you better eat what you spill, P_____!

[P_____ laughs as he gets to his hands and knees. The director can be heard shouting as P_____ cracks the lump of coal with his teeth. The cameraman zooms in long enough to catch a small amount of blood trickling from his mouth before the director calls cut.]

 

Incident #7

[The cast’s assignment is to draw a map of the surrounding area. Instead, they gather at a granite formation and hold an extended conversation with the unseen figure. Having discarded their body microphones, the only evidence of this occurrence is a camera set up on the barn roof to capture establishing shots. The cast returns after three hours. The paper that was suppose to be marked with the map instead holds a 27-point star. The cast insists that it is a map of the area.]

 

Incident #8

[A gaffer is setting up for a scene. K___ is lounging off to the side, holding an idle conversation. The gaffer is apparently only half-listening during this exchange.]

K: …and it’s just like, it’s always been there, you know?

Gaffer: Mmm.

K: Like, east and west, those are just human determinations, you know? The only real direction is inside.

[The gaffer puts a length of tape down and scatters straw over it.]

K: I could die tomorrow and I wouldn’t really be dead. Just shed another layer. I want to eat the dead skin from the outside of me, give me life for my new rebirth.

[The gaffer checks off points from a clipboard.]

K: P_____’s the one. He will open the way for the rest of us. I’d like to sup his misery and call it wine. The only way out is inside. The only way inside is through. Like [inaudible] said. Got to cut, cut, cut away the fat.

Gaffer: *finally appears to tune back into the conversation* Wait, what?I

 

The cast’s erratic behavior finally began garnering attention. The director called a meeting and informed the cast that they must behave in line with the contracts they signed with the studio. The cast greeted this with puzzlement, claiming they had been. P_____, despite having to get medical attention for injuries sustained during the coal-eating incident, denied any wrongdoing.

 

Incident #9

[R__ and J_____ are preparing a dinner of shoo-fly pie and boiled potatoes. R__ is kneading dough. J_____ peels potatoes while speaking at great length in a monotone.]

J: They lived here 12,000 years ago, when man was still sucking at the teat of summer. Slipped their skins every solstice and made wild. Descartes was wrong. There is no sun, there is only the illusion of light reflected in the moon. Man is a peach in the eye of god. God is a leaf in the eye of [inaudible]. 12,000 years is nothing to the stone. Man is carved from his own excrement. Life is a face laughing at the mirror. When I die it shall be to plant my own future. I will slip my own skin and slither into eternity. *she drops her peeler into the boiling pot and reaches in to grab it without hesitating or flinching. After retrieving it, she shows no sign of pain despite her skin visibly reddening on camera.*

R: I want to be sliced like a pear. My blood a gown. My entrails the crown.

J: *puts a hand on her shoulder* Time is the flight of a dead sparrow.

[the two women finish dinner without further comment.]

 

Due to increasing disquiet with the cast, network handlers were dispatched to supervise the remainder of the shoot. They arrived to find the ranch empty.

 

Investigating the surrounding area, they found the cast at the nearby granite formation. The cow hide they had tanned had been cut into a single strip of rawhide, which was then used to mark a 27-point star over the whole formaton. After setting up a stationary camera, the cast then ritualistically sacrificed P_____, who continued to smile and laugh during the entire process. The footage past the point where they began flensing his torso distorts almost irretrievably, repeated viewings have only been able to pick out several images. R__ stabbing J_____. K___and T___ painting an intricate symbol on the granite in blood. Y___, bare breasted and seizing in what appears to be religious ecstasy. P_____’s skin, hung up on a crude framework, flapping in a sudden breeze.The entirety of the cast staring at a single spot in the camera lens.

 

The cast was found dead, having attempted to flense their own skin off. The only survivor, oddly enough, was  P_____. The actor was flown to a nearby hospital where he was put into a medically-induced coma. His body lingers on, despite repeated rejection of tissue donations. His family is currently fighting a legal battle to withdraw life support.

 

This footage was compiled as evidence and promptly shelved after the trial. Do not reproduce.

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The Plutonian Shell

It was a shell. She got one for every birthday. It was a bit of a family joke at this point, “Michelle loves shells.” Truthfully, at this point she did not love shells any more than the next person did. It had simply become so entrenched in their family that she didn’t know how to stop it without kicking up too much of a fuss.

The shell was oddly shaped, looking more like a bit of volcanic glass than the regular calcium structure she’d become used to. When she found the opening, instead of being blush pink on the inside like most other shells in her collection, it was a cobalt hue.

“What do we say to aunt Maria?” Michelle’s mother said.

Maria looked over her cup of punch. “I didn’t bring that.”

“Oh. Well then, uncle Hubie?”

Her father’s brother was too far across the room to confirm or deny, so Michelle shouted thanks and he waved deferentially.

Long after the other presents found homes, the shell fascinated her. It did not look like something that came from any normal beach. She turned it over in her hands, thumbing the jet black exterior, wiping her finger across the jagged blue lip of it. They said you were supposed to hear the ocean inside a shell. Michelle put her present up to her ear and listened. Rationally, she knew what she was hearing wasn’t really the ocean but some internal sound she couldn’t detect unless she blocked out everything else. But it was still one of her favorite things to do.

With the shape cupped snugly over her ear, she heard nothing at first. Then, as if from a distance, she could hear the cries of some creature. Michelle cocked her head. Was it really…yes, she could hear the buzz of life.

Michelle took the shell away from her ear and curved her finger through the opening as much as it would allow. She felt nothing, not even some hitchhiking crab. She put the shell up to her ear again.

Silence. Then, again, the cries of something. They were almost metallic, and she could not place them to bird or beast. The whispering sweep of something scuttling over sand. Then—

Michelle pulled her ear away from the shell as the crash of a wave almost deafened her. She dropped the shell in her lap and stared at it, ready to throw it from her at the first sign of movement.

Eventually her mother poked her head in through the door. “Lights out, sweetie.”

Michelle looked up the shell everywhere, even the book encyclopedia her father doggedly insisted on retaining. Nothing. It wasn’t a cone, it wasn’t a cowrie, it wasn’t even a crab shell.

Michelle turned it over and over in her hands. The shell did not look like it had come from a regular beach. No, it looked like it had come from a Plutonian shore. That was something she’d read in an Edgar Allen Poe story and had troubled her ever since. What did a Plutonian shore look like? Well, Pluto was cold and dark. So the beach was probably black sand. So black it shone blue under the light of the moon. No sun, not ever. Just a moon, maybe even two, providing cold light to an even colder shore.

“Where did this come from?” Michelle asked her mother, “could I call them and ask them something?”

Her mother was eyeing the flour heaped in a measuring cup. “It was uncle Hubie, we settled that.”

Michelle didn’t think it settled, not at all, but she said, “so can I call him?”

“About your present? Don’t be rude.”

“I’m not being rude. I want to thank him,” Michelle lied.

Her mother rolled her eyes and dialed the phone. Michelle knew he answered when mom’s fake hospitality smile contorted her face.

“Hubie? Hi, it’s Lonnie. Listen, Michelle just loves your present and—” she started pacing. “Yes. She’s already got it up in her window. And the shell—” she stopped, nodding. “Yes, the shell you got her. Really? Well then, I guess we were wrong.” She took the receiver away from her face and mouthed, ‘it wasn’t him’ at Michelle. Michelle nodded, though she’d long guessed that. She dutifully received the phone and thanked her uncle for his present.

“Now can we call the person who gave this to me?” she asked, holding the shell aloft.

Her mother frowned, first down at the shell, then at the batter half-formed in the bowl.

“That will take a while, sweetie.”

It took one and a half hours. Nana had been away from her house on a walk, Michelle had to play musical phones until she found her. Aunt Trisha was away at lunch with her cell turned off. Her father’s friend Josh worked at an office with at least two other Joshes. As Michelle made calls, her mother stirred her batter and a tiny frown line formed between her brows.

“Sweetie, why are you so concerned about the shell?” she asked.

“I just can’t figure out what kind it is,” Michelle said, “I can’t find it anywhere online.”

Michelle’s mother said, “oh, sweetie,” like she’d done something wrong.

Michelle looked over her present in the privacy of her own room. The shell stuck out like a sore thumb in her collection, dwarfing the tiger cowrie that sat beside it. Only the conch beat it for size, as well as weight. Michelle hefted it in her hand and realized how light it was for a shell that size. Maybe it wasn’t a real shell at all, but some kind of sculpture?

Hesitating, she lifted the shell up to her ear again. Yes, the sounds of a beach were present. The metallic cries of a bird or beast. The dry scrape of something heaving itself across sand. A thousand and one unidentifiable noises. She tried to imagine the shore that generated those sounds, a dark beach full of squirming, writhing life. Sea birds with dinosaur eyes that lived on sheer cliffsides. Crabs the size of a man, venomous blue and foaming at the mandible. Large, white worms that bored into rocks, waiting for the unsuspecting to pass by so they could strike.

On a whim, Michelle put the shell up to her eye. She knew that it was just a shell, a cast-off home for an invertebrate. She’d done her fifth grade science report on them, after all.

Peering into the blue depths of the shell, something moved.

Michelle’s heart skipped a beat. Without thinking, she clicked off her desk lamp and plunged the room into darkness.

Yes, she could see movement. She could see dark waves licking an even darker shore. Birds flying out from a cliffside home and kiting higher and higher on sea drafts. The sickly fingernail of a moon illuminating something churning the sea just beyond her range of vision.

“…it’s not like it came with a card,” her mother was saying as Michelle crept to her parent’s room. “No note, no wrapping paper, it was just there.”

Good, they were talking about the shell.

Her father sighed. “She’s alone too much. Too much time to obsess over that damn thing.”

Ire sparked in her chest.

“She didn’t even have school friends over for her party. What kind of girl has a birthday without any kids her age?”

Michelle wanted to scream, ‘you’re the ones who invited all your friends!’ But no. That would net her a punishment for eavesdropping.

Michelle crept back down the hall as her father started in on her supposed antisocial nature.

The shell was where she’d left it, sitting between a sand dollar and a turban snail. Michelle picked it up and cradled it in her hands. Reluctantly, she brought it back up to her eye.

The beach was very vivid. It was like she was peering through a window, not a shell. If she stretched out far enough, she could touch the bronze dune grass that grew nearest to her.

Michelle found she was reaching out her hand and stopped herself. The shell remained glued to her eye.

The dance of life on the beach was revolting as it was entrancing. A lopsided crab fed on some kind of carcass until one of the birds descended, hammering at the shell until it broke. Some creature she couldn’t see clearly dragged itself along the sand until a worm slithered out from the rocks and speared it with a set of tusk-like bristles. A seabird dove to the water, overtaken at the last second by something that lunged up and swallowed it.

It was coldly fascinating. Michelle found goosebumps raised on her arms and legs. She wanted to stop watching, but she couldn’t. What was this shell, really? Maybe it wasn’t the shell of anything at all. Maybe it was the container for this beach, this cold world lit only by moonlight. Maybe it was a key she’d inadvertently turned, and now the doorway was swinging wider and wider. The line of thought was like a stretch of freezing water she couldn’t stop herself from wading deeper and deeper into. The seabirds screamed their metallic din and the waves crashes deafeningly and she was turned like a piece of driftwood or sea glass and made smaller and smaller and smaller…

 

Her mother knocked on her open door. “Michelle? Baby, it’s morning.”

The bed was empty, rumpled sheets cast haphazardly over the mattress. Michelle’s mother frowned and pulled the sheets back.

“Todd?” she called.

Michelle’s father, tie half-knotted, came trotting up.

Michelle’s mother gestured to the bed. “Look at this! She left black sand everywhere! Where is she? You go find that girl and tell her this is not how we leave our beds in the morning. Where is she?  Don’t tell me she’s off with that stupid shell again.”

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The Automatic Writings of Lydia Hai Huang

I have only ever known one automatic writer, and that was Lydia Hai Huang. She was a public servant for thirty-six years before a stroke downed her, three more took her speech and mobility. I can still see her clearly if I think hard: lying in bed with her immaculate blue cardigan, hair trimmed into a pageboy bob, skin wrinkled as ancient parchment.

Lydia resided in the same hospice where my great-aunt came to rest after a car accident. The stroke had left Lydia with limited mobility. The thing she could move the most was her left hand, and boy could she use that hand. I would watch her write, no pauses, no hesitations, while her dead left eye drifted mindlessly in its socket.

Lydia’s convoy to the material world was the executor of her will, a woman named Helen Mears. Lydia had no children, and her siblings were either dead or back in China. I don’t know if they were lovers or acquaintances, but Helen doted on her like a sibyl at a temple. Helen was the one who introduced me to the writing. She had overheard me speaking Polish to my aunt and assumed I could read Cyrillic characters. My curiosity turned to fascination when I examined page after page of dense scribble, all coming from a woman who could not lift her own head.

Lydia had not received much in the way of education. Struggling with the language barrier, she barely managed an associate degree in accounting. Yet foreign languages would pour from her pen without cease. Helen said that Lydia always wrote. When she took the writing utensil away for the day, Lydia’s hand would remain twitching and jerking on the covers, inscribing invisible characters on the air itself.

Yes, Lydia was in an article or two. Fortean Times. Nexus. Small publications of dubious reputation. All these articles helped to do was further push away the skeptics who accused Lydia of faking the severity of her disability. I heard it all. Lydia was a closeted eidetic learner who absorbed books when supposedly on her own. Helen was the one who really did all the writing. The supposed writing was just gibberish.

I will tell you(and you don’t have to believe me) that I watched her carefully inscribe line after line of Greek letters and then took those pages to a linguist, who dated them as mid-sixteenth century.

I don’t know how Lydia felt about her gift. She was non-verbal, due to the stoma in her windpipe. Half her face was perpetually slack. Sometimes I wondered if Lydia was even present in her body, if she wasn’t just a conduit, a hollow tube for spirits to whisper through.

I don’t know what was on a few of the papers. Most were translated as best we could manage. I was a poor college student at the time. Helen had only a little money from the estate, as well as a small stipend from caring for Lydia. Some papers must still be moldering in Helen’s storage, awaiting a knowing eye.

I do remember one of the rare English writings. It was a woman from Maine on her way to an arranged marriage. It was a babble of her day-to-day thoughts, musing on her life and her future husband and the world around her. It ended abruptly when her ship crashed, the writing turned into a panic loop about the rocks—the boat—the rocks—the boat. It’s my understanding that most of the writings were like that: simple, stream-of-consciousness narratives.

Not the last ones.

I came in one day, bearing my customary tupperware of soup for Helen. By this time we had formed a sort of team with a few others: a linguist from the college, an old acquaintance of Lydia who was an amateur polyglot, a semi-professional historian. Lydia was wearing a thick mohair sweater and three blankets. I remember she was breathing erratically, and sweat was spotting her face. I remember asking if she wasn’t uncomfortable under so many heavy layers. As a response, Helen put the back of my hand against Lydia’s cheek. It was clammy.

Lydia wrote in a sharp, angular alphabet that looked like viking runes. Almost as soon as her writing neared the bottom of the page, Helen would swap that paper out for a fresh one. She had been writing nonstop for three hours, they told me, in a flurry that they had never seen before. Her temperature was slowly dropping with every letter.

I took the few pages they gave me to the university, in what had become routine for me. I learned it was in old Turkic script long before I even knew what was on the paper. While I was waiting for translation, Lydia died.

The pages I handed over were from the point of view of a fisherman on the shores of the Aral sea. He spoke of men who had arisen from the sea, lead by a golden madman, of a new religion that spread like a sickness among his fellows. His increasingly frantic words described the clouds boiling, hot rain that smelled of dead fish filling the lake. He pled the end of the world on the very last page.

When I went to retrieve the other pages, that was when I learned of Lydia’s death. Helen was investigated by APS for her role in the demise, how she waited until the bitter end before fetching a doctor.

Was she culpable? She cared for Lydia much, in her own way. I, like everyone else, can’t speak much for Lydia’s quality of life. Perhaps she wanted this, wished for this every day she was stuck inside tabulating other people’s finances. Perhaps she begged for something mystical and special to strike her, even if it came in her last days. Perhaps the skeptics were right, and death was merely an end to Helen’s manipulations. All that we have is on those pages, that question that is her parting gift to the world.

The last few pages were almost nonsense. They were like the beginnings of hieroglyphics, pictographic symbols whose context had long since become extinct. When Helen went to trial, the papers disappeared forever. Maybe they are in a safe. Maybe they have been destroyed by something ignorant.

Lydia was pronounced dead at 6:08pm. Her lungs were full of salt water.

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The Borges Enigma

Torque, Or the Kingdom of Luceria and the Search for the Absolute Center, does not exist. Purported to be a lost work of the Argentinian author Jorge Luis Borges, it is not cited in any catalogue and has never been beheld firsthand by any living source. The sole reference to this work comes from a review by one Chandler Robert Means, who left the typed review on his desk and then promptly disappeared. Means was the book reviewer for Damned Yankee, a now-defunct New York publication. The review spans over two thousand words, nearly four times the allotted wordspace for Means’ column. Why he chose to review the book so expansively, and the nature behind the review’s subject, are lost to time. His coworkers did not observe Means entering or exiting the building, and took the overlong review of a fictitious book as a creative resignation letter.

The contents of the review are thus: Means summarizes the career of Borges, noting a fondness of his earlier works but chastising the wordiness of this book. Torque is written as being nearly 2500 pages. Borges, it should be noted, was primarily a writer of short fiction. Means spares a few words for the cover design, chiding the “low-rent Aubrey Beardsley” that covered the book with an irritating floral scroll.

The summary of the book runs thusly:

Torque, or the main narrative of the book, follows Sigmund Frey on a voyage aboard the fastest known ship in the universe. He is undertaking a journey to Torque, a planet supposedly in the exact center of the universe. Sigmund takes time out to muse on the meaning and origin of his own name in Nordic myth as well as the concept of the hero’s journey, both recurring subjects of Borges. After an altercation with a meteor that appears to bear the face of an old man, Sigmund takes up a novel he found on the ship. Thus begins the second plot of the novel:

The book Sigmund reads concerns the kingdom of Luceria, and the exploits of a knight also named Sigmund. The kingdom has entered into an era of unprecedented peace, and so there has been little room for spiritual growth. The minstrels of the court run dry of material. Historians are reduced to re-recording accounts that have already been committed to print. The king of Luceria charges Sigmund with finding the exact center of the kingdom, alleging that this will bring the glory so lacking in his reign. Sigmund is ambivalent, but relents after he meets with the king’s daughter, a woman so beautiful she must remain veiled at all times. She promises Sigmund her hand if he completes the task, and so he agrees. The next day he rides along the beam of his compass, ignoring roads and thoroughfares to travel in a straight line. After changing horses twice, he reaches a crumbling ruin occupied by an old man. The old man claims the ruins were the first castle of Luceria, and he the first king of Luceria. The princess is not the king’s daughter, but the old man’s, stolen during his defeat. When Sigmund asks after the center of the kingdom, the old man leads him to an iron door which he unlocks with a key that is shaped like a sword.

Through the door he finds yet another country, this one shining brighter than Luceria. Sigmund examines the portal and finds that things that should rightly exist on the other side of the door, such as the wall of the castle, do not. The old man tells him that the country is the “inner” Luceria, and that if he is to find the center, he must ride through. Seeing little other choice, Sigmund does. He follows his compass in a straight line until he comes to another door, which opens to reveal another impossible country. He does this innumerable times, and slowly comes to realize two things: that Luceria bears the same root as the name Lucifer, and that he is in fact in hell, dispatched by Satan in the guise of the king’s beautiful daughter.

Sigmund Frey reflects on the book’s parallel to his own situation, realizing that his own quest is likewise doomed to failure. For if the universe is truly infinite, consisting of an infinite number of circles, then every point is the center of the universe. He also muses on the possibility that the book was included as an act of sabotage, intended to demoralize him from his journey’s goal.

The nesting of narratives, the meta-narrative, and the geometry of infinity are all favorite subjects of Borges. But no record of the novel exists anywhere but in the review.

Means ends the unusually lengthy review with a complaint that the book ends abruptly, without so much as a philosophical conclusion, let alone a satisfying narrative climax.

The existence of the review as a fond tribute to the author is ponderable. Borges himself was known to review books that did not exist, and his use of the meta-narrative to show fiction’s effect on real life and vice-versa is well observed. The plot appears to borrow heavily from several of his more well-known short stories, the most glaring of which is The Library of Babylon and its description of infinity as a circle. But the question remains why Means would choose such a subject for his last review. What was his intent? Where did he go? And what was his ultimate fate?

Means was never seen again. The review currently rests in the collection of one Reginald Lucero, the former owner of the Damned Yankee. Never appearing in print, the review serves only as Means’ epitaph, one last enigma for an enigmatic man.

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The Last Recording of Ian Statler

What follows is a transcript of a recording made by Ian Statler, 35, who went missing after a scheduled appraisal on July 12th, 2006. Statler parked his car at 3206 Santa Viera court at 3:00pm and was last seen entering the house at that address. The hallway described by Statler does not appear on the house schematics, and following his directions leads to a bookshelf with no further opening behind it. The recorder with tape inside was found in the 5th and Main subway station. Statler presumably took it along to report details of the house, as evidenced by the first minute and a half of tape. The ‘Gomez’ mentioned by Statler would appear to be the legal owner of the house, one Adam Gomez. However, the address and social security number written on the paperwork are both fake, and the phone number was disconnected shortly after Statler’s disappearance. There were no witnesses to the drop-off of the recorder, and the tape was found rewound to the beginning. Statler is missing presumed dead.

 

**begin transcript**

STATLER: Check one-two. *sound of air blowing into receiving microphone* July 12th, Wednesday. House is in a nice neighborhood. No HOAC, that could be a plus. Nice little yard out back that could turn into a basketball court or a pool. Roof needs some work. *sound of door opening*

STATLER: oooh boy. Hardwood floors, show wear and tear. Needs refinishing. The windows aren’t—

[at this point, the audio cuts smoothly into a separate recording. Presumably, Statler meant to rewind the tape to the beginning and stopped too soon.]

STATLER: Okay, Jesus. Good. Gather my thoughts.

STATLER: it’s July 12, Wednesday. I think. I’ve been down here for hours. I don’t know if i’ll ever see daylight again. *long, drawn-out sigh*

STATLER: I’ve only spoken to my client over the phone. That’s not unusual. There’s plenty out-of-staters who own in California. Hell, half the block belongs to Chinese investors who never even set foot in the country—

STATLER: I’m sorry, I’m getting off track. Whoever’s listening…okay, me? Erase this part if you chose to show someone else, okay?

STATLER: *miscellaneous noises* Gomez wanted me to appraise his place. Not unusual. He asked me to check up on some things, see if they’d ding the resale value. The house—

[thirty seconds of dead air. Statler presumably listening for something.]

STATLER: Okay, the house did not look lived in. Like, it had some stuff in there, but not like it had ever been used. I mean, that’s kinda normal. There’s plenty of flipped houses in the valley. But there were a lot of things that didn’t make sense. The halls had brand-new light fixtures, but the floors were rotting. New drapes on the windows that had moldy sills.

STATLER: I should’ve left. Fuck, I should have walked right out. Fishy as hell. I’m an idiot.

[ten seconds of dead air]

STATLER: He told me to check out the storage closet in the basement. It’s sort of left by the water heater, kind of squeezed down this little passage. If you’re listening, don’t go down there, don’t even go near the house. *voice builds up to an emotional plea* For the love of God don’t let anybody else get lost down here.

[Statler stops to breathe, regaining control of his voice]

STATLER: Of course it opened up, and I went right inside. I’m an idiot. It looked like someone had taken a sledgehammer to the wall. I walked into the hole. And I found…I found the hallway.

STATLER: *gulps* It’s really fucking weird to look at but if you go in there and see it, stay back. I know it looks like a normal hallway, but it just goes on and on and on. Those lamps? Don’t plug into anything. *bitter laughter* I have this little novelty keychain thing, it’s barely better than a glowstick. That’s all. I have my keys, I have my phone—which gets no signal down here—I have that business card in my pocket—I didn’t even bring a snack in the car—

[Statler breaks off, presumably to calm himself again]

STATLER: So it looked like  hallway from a regular old tract house. Like my gramma’s. It even had that wallpaper, that pink-on-pink that looked like a rash? God, I don’t miss her. She used to…anyway, it had lamps and white wicker tables and doors every so often. I opened a couple. They were always the same room. White wicker chairs, blond pine coffee table, white rug. Always the same.

STATLER: By the time I realized how far I’d gone, I turned back.

[eight seconds of dead air]

STATLER: I went in a straight line. I know I did. But the hall ended in another door. And when I opened it, there was another hall, identical to the one I was in. So I-I went back the other way. Walked way too long. There was another door, this one just opened up on the rooms. I wasn’t even panicking then, I was just kind of confused and I think I just got myself more lost, like, you know how they tell you to stay where you are when you’re lost in the woods? So when they come to rescue you—*breaks off into laughter*

STATLER: Shit. Like anyone’s coming for me. I don’t even know why the fuck I’m doing this. *sounds on the verge of tears* I don’t want to die. I don’t want to stay down here anymore. I hate houses. I hate rooms. I want to live in the woods from now on.

[Statler takes a few breaths to calm himself]

STATLER: Fuck. Forget it. So I’m lost, and then an hour ago I saw something moving. I’ve been sparing on the keychain, it’s only a watch battery. I saw something moving down the hall right before I clicked off the light. It was a long ways off. By the time I hit the button again, i-it was way closer. *laughter* I thought, “people!” I was so fucking happy. I thought it was a homeless guy who snuck down here, m-maybe he could show me out? I’d do that if I were homeless, move into a suburban maze. I mean, it’s gotta be better than living on the streets, right?

[ten seconds of dead air]

STATLER: It wasn’t a man.

[a shuffling noise starts up at this point. Statler appears unaware of the sound, his voice shows no overt reaction]

STATLER: From a distance—okay, sure, it could be an old guy with natty white-boy dreads. But it got closer–um, close to me, and he didn’t look–like, the nose was wrong. The nostrils were almost sideways. And the biggest–the weirdest thing was that his eyes reflected the light. Like a cougar or a wolf. Human’s eyes don’t do that, I remember my dad said once.

[twenty seconds of dead air. Statler may have been listening but did not seem to detect the noise]

STATLER: It started shuffling towards me, and it moved—it was wrong, okay? The whole thing was wrong. So I cut the light and I took the first door I found—thank God it was another hallway—and then immediately took another door. I could hear it following me. It went past me down the hall. I waited until I heard another door shut before I came out. I haven’t—I’ve been fumbling around in the dark, because I’m afraid if I can see it, it can see me.

[another sound layers over the shuffling noise. Audio analysis shows it has a match in the tymbal sound generated by cicadas, however at a much deeper pitch]

STATLER: So I’m sitting in one of those stupid wicker chairs. I’ve been walking for hours. I don’t know if I’ll be able to sleep in a place like this. I don’t want to sleep. What if they find me in the dark? Those lights in the eyes, I think they’re supposed to help animals hunt better at night, aren’t they?

STATLER: I’ve heard others moving around. Sometimes in the same hall. Mostly I just curl up into myself and hope they don’t come near but I can’t—I’m going to die down here, I know it. I just wish it wasn’t so fucking dark. I can’t stand not knowing what’s in front of me.

[at this point a third noise is detectable in the audio, a rising and falling tone that resembles no known audio, man or animal. Audio analysis showed that the origin of the noise was something attempting to mimic Statler’s speech]

STATLER: So I figured fuck it, watch battery or not, I’m going to—*begins screaming* Fuck! Fuck! Get the fuck [unintelligible] no, no, no, oh God no *hyperventilated breath* I [unintelligible] fucking can’t I just [unintelligible] no, get away!

[a loud click, presumably the recorder hitting the ground as Statler’s cries fade away. Sixty-five more minutes of dead air before the tape runs out]

**end transcript**

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The Other Town

We’d heard of Hamelin of course.

We watched the piper come down the only road into town, watched for miles as he grew from a sliver to a splinter from the city walls.

His walk was uneven as if his feet pained him. As he drew near we could see where famine had pecked at him, rending his many-colored cloak in tatters. He begged us for work. If we didn’t renege, we had no need to fear his wrath.

We refused of course. Stoppered our ears and tied our children to us and drove him away with rocks and threats.

Our relief only lasted so long. I’m sure news of the rodent plague has gotten around. They got so bold they hunted the cats, bit the terriers until they collapsed. At night you couldn’t sleep for the sound of gnawing. The rye didn’t even get a chance to ripen. As we grew hungry, we grew desperate. As they grew hungry, they grew bolder. They seemed to multiply without aid of food, suckling pups by the hundreds. They ate the granaries empty. They drank the wells dry. A famine like none before or since descended on us.

And in the midst of all this, the piper came back.

He walked even slower now, for he had no shoes. He seemed humbled, by hunger or some other means. He said he would play for us for a single night’s supper. He bore no ill will to us, we had only to feed him and he would do whatever we asked.

We flung the gates wide and took hold of him. We had no blackthorne, for we had burned it all for fuel, and no rope that hadn’t been chewed through. So we took him to the edge of our barren fields and stoned him to death. His heathen songs had already been the downfall of one town, and obviously he had been the arbiter of our own plague.

A plague which did not lift with his death. In the end, it would have been just as well if he had piped the children away. They were bitten, scratched, plagued to death. We were a town without a future, and so we scuttled the town itself. We burned the buildings and in the flames we could hear the shrieking of a thousand mouths, a thousand worm-tails singeing like candle wicks. Come morning we stood in the ashes of our home, free and yet not.

In the end, who was better off? Was it Hamelin, who was left standing but without joy? Or was it we, who are masters of our own loss?

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Clean Living

The note taped to the mirror read

you are not sick. live clean, live long

He was examining himself, studying eyes threaded with seven weeks of solitude, poor sleep and stale air.

He had stocked up on antibacterial soap. The papers had warned against using it, saying improper use would just lead to stronger bacteria without affecting the real cause of the infection, which was a virus. He used it anyway. They hadn’t been able to do shit about containing the infection, what did they really know? The virus could probably hitch a ride on bacteria, they were related or something. Anyway, how the hell could you use soap improperly? It was soap.

His face was free from spots. Free from infection. He was like a fish in a tank while the sea washed at the doorstep. Safe. Safe. A sealed membrane. He could stay this was for weeks, months at a time.

Breakfast was spam and powdered eggs. The external door was in the kitchen. Bits of Harry’s scalp and a trace of his blond hairs still clung to the latch because he didn’t want to bother cleaning it. Stupid bastard. Harry had been too slow, always one more thing to go back for.

The den had been a compromise between the two of them. Harry’s exercise bike was pushed up against the wall, already half-cannibalized for parts.

There were movies, movies and tv shows. He had already watched them in English, French and Spanish, with director’s commentaries and every ‘making of’ documentary.’ He popped in an 80’s comedy and cracked a mineral water. That had been one of Harry’s complaints: no booze. Booze was too much of a risk.

After scrubbing his dishes, he stuck his mouth beneath the stream. Clear and cold, it came from a cistern deep in the ground. No pollution.

 

He put up another note. It said

smile. you’re alive.

He had to check his teeth in the mirror. He had heard that a bad tooth could get into your bloodstream, so he flossed a lot. His gums bled. He washed the lacerated flesh with listerine.

There were two entrances. He had wanted one, but bargained it down from three. The door in the kitchen which he would never, ever open again and the hatch in the ceiling he had sealed  before moving in.

The shelter was a deluxe model. It had a game room where he played the wall at ping-pong and a kitchen and a shower that used the runoff for the septic system. The air system was ionically filtered, no changing screens. Quick. Efficient. It could have supported a family of five. Hell, it could’ve supported him and Harry, but one was enough. One could live well, provided one took care.

He took care of himself and ate right. Some canned food, mostly dry. Dry didn’t go bad. Jars could get air in and go bad. He’d had enough bad air.

Sometimes he wished he could get the news in here. Just to see how much better he had it. No matter how bored he was, at least he didn’t have to step over bodies every day.

He made a pyramid of food cans and rolled Harry’s houseplants down the side until the pots broke. The ferns and orchids were long since crispy. He didn’t waste water on them.

In the game room he made another go at the rubix cube before he threw it at the wall. The puzzles were mostly Harry’s idea. Most of the games were two-person affairs. He unpacked the chess set and made it act out Reservoir Dogs.

Dinner was protein powder mixed in with peanut flour. He longed for a steak.

 

The next note said

wash hands

in big block caps. And he did, every time he saw it. Had to. Sores had opened up on the backs of his hands. It hurt, but he had to keep the infection out.

He bandaged his hands with rolls of gauze smeared liberally with antibiotic ointment. It must have been the cheap stuff, because he didn’t heal any faster.

There was a spot on his back. It was probably a zit, but it itched. Did that mean it was infected? He washed it with antibacterial soap every hour, but it just got bigger and redder. His hands were too bandaged to properly examine it, so he got a kitchen knife. Just a little nick, shorter than a dime, but it gushed like a geyser. He swore and scrambled to blot it with toilet paper.

It had probably been fine and now he’d let the germs in.

He hopped in the shower and washed until the water at his feet turned pink.

He got dizzy. Shit. Was that a symptom?

He got out of the shower and took a mega-dose of vitamins and antibiotics. He must have passed out at some point because he woke up with the towel sticking to his back. He itched.

The new bandage sat on the dried blood because he didn’t want to risk opening it up again. His stomach screamed with emptiness.

The dehydrated tofu wouldn’t absorb water, so he ate the cubes out of the box and drank Hi-C. His stomach swelled and ached, so he brought the cubes up in the toilet. Could tofu go bad? He dumped it just to be safe.

 

The mirror said

don’t scratch

because he’d been unable to manage the tape and paper with his hands. They looked like white boxing gloves.

Since the gauze was flammable, he ate right out of cans. Cold spam. Cold beets. He dumped the egg and milk powders right in his mouth. It started a coughing fit that made him puke.

Food was no good. He ate granola off the counter because he couldn’t use his hands. Itchy.

The water tasted stale. It was tainted. The air was bad. So itchy.

He could taste blood on his gums. Harry sabotaged the food. Had to. Probably coughed on everything. Bastard.

The granola went down the drain. The spam went down the drain. The milk powder went down the drain. The water chuckled as it ran down. The veggies went down the drain. The protein powder went down the drain. The drain clogged, bad water backed up into the stall. He fell trying to get away. Back made contact with the dirty floor. Go to the sink and scrub, scrub, scrub.

Back itched. Probably sick. He taped his hands together to keep from picking at it. Behind, so it’d be harder to undo. Live clean, live long. He slept and woke in shifts. No night or morning. No windows. Itchy. He stuck to the couch. Hunger shred his stomach, but the food was bad. No steak. No meat. He slept. Still hungry. Itchy.

 

The mirror said something. Couldn’t read. Too stale. Air bad. Had to grab the door, but hands behind back. Keep trying.

 

“Anything to report, private?”

The young man came back at a slow jog. “We cracked the hood, sir. It’s a shelter. Mostly empty.”

“Mostly?”

“Well, there’s a shambler in there, but he’s pretty well harmless. I think the guy saw it coming, tried to save other people.”

“By locking himself in?”

“And his hands are taped together. Should we fry it, sir?”

He peered past the younger man down at the hole. “Nah. Let’s not waste the ordinance. Pull out, let’s keep moving.”

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