D. S. Ullery’s Blog With No Name

Book Review :

Alternative Truths III: Endgame

Published by B Cubed Press

Edited by Bob Brown and Jess Faraday

 

The new release Alternative Truths III: Endgame is the latest in a series of anthologies powered by the core premise of resistance through art. The stories and poems collected in these volumes are meant to speculate on any number of future outcomes of the Trump presidency and they operate in direct defiance and criticism of the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

As a rule, I like to keep politics out of things as often as I can, but it would be ridiculous to attempt that here. How well this tome works for the individual reader is absolutely going to come down to their political leanings. I personally have no love for our current administration, making me the target audience for this book.

For those of you with other things to do, here’s a “too long, didn’t read” cliff notes take on my review: I give it four stars. Though I have a few criticisms, which I will address in greater detail below, overall I thought it was a successful endeavor that hit far more frequently than it missed. The collected tales are-for the most part- well written, with a few (which I will single out in a bit) I found absolutely brilliant.

Okay, that’s the short take. For those of you interested in more detail , read on.

I’ve already established I enjoyed the book a lot, so I won’t rehash that or do a blow-by-blow break down of each story. Instead, I’m going to break this down into what doesn’t work and what does. Keep in mind, this is a subjective analysis. Those with different tastes may have a completely different response.

And allow me to clarify: I have no current affiliation with B Cubed Press . I was offered an Advance Reading Copy in favor of an honest review. As you will shortly discover, that’s precisely what I’ve delivered.

What I felt didn’t work:

As is usually the case with anthologies, some of the stories here didn’t quite get there for me. The most notable example was the very first offering, “Bathroom Breakdown” a quick flash piece set in a restroom. Reading this , I felt alarm bells going off: Was this going to be a series of low brow, lampoon-Trump-at- all-costs no matter how tasteless the material might be kind of anthology?

Fortunately , any apprehension I might have experienced was immediately dispelled upon reading the second story ( and first full length tale), the marvelous “The First Lady is Missing” by Louise Marley (you’ll be seeing that title again shortly) . I honestly felt that Marley’s work should have been the opening story. “Bathroom Breakdown” would be better placed mid way through the book, as a humorous break between some of the darker material.

Another criticism I have is repetition: There are at least three stories that use the convention of Trump’s’ misspelled tweets. It’s funny enough at first, but after a while I began to tire of the trope.The same goes for depictions of him behaving like a spoiled, overgrown child. After a while, it loses its impact. This is a man who has presumably spoken over 10,000 untruths during his time in office. Certainly there’s a veritable buffet of other topics to touch upon when satirizing/criticizing him him.

What I felt worked:

In the larger scheme of things, the criticisms I’ve listed above didn’t really detract from my ultimate enjoyment of the total package. I’m pleased to report that, when this book gets it right, it gets it very right.

The stories that did work for me – and more of them did than not- were top notch. The assembled talent here was impressive to behold and if I didn’t necessarily agree with where the authors took their narratives in some of these tales, I could at least appreciate the craft that went into them. Moreover, it does what it set out to do: Pulls back the veil, offering a peek into a range of potential futures arising from the current status quo while challenging us to do better.

In that spirit, let me list a few of the standouts I think readers should check out upon purchasing a copy:

“The First Lady is Missing”: Louise Marley’s excellent story, written from the perspective of the titular character. The ending is both compelling and evocative. This was a personal favorite, offering a take I hadn’t considered going in.

“Act III” – by David Gerrold. This isn’t actually a story, but a brilliantly written, fascinating essay offering a theory as to why Trump behaves the way he does. This one had me thinking and that’s always a welcome development.

“Hell’s Angel” – by Robert Walton. A darkly comic look at what might transpire as Trump makes his entrance into the afterlife. Of all the stories collected here, I felt this one captured the tone of Trump’s real world demeanor the best, even if it was in a purely supernatural setting.

“No Excuse” by Debora Godfrey. Though this one taps into the tweet thing, it’s in service to a really clever , frequently funny story told from the perspective of the AG and his executive assistant. I had a lot of fun with this and really enjoyed the banter between the main characters.

“The Nature of the Problem” – by Thomas A. Easton. A chilling account of an important scientific discovery and how ignorance in the face of this new knowledge destroys a man’s life. Conspiracy theorists like the Infowars crowd take a hard shot here and it’s simply wonderful.

The bottom line: Stumbling out of the gate, making a quick recovery and proceeding to be a remarkably entertaining and thought provoking anthology, Alternative Truths III: Endgame offers a fresh perspective on our current state of affairs , taking on politics and American culture with wit, wisdom and insight while sending a clear message: We have to change course or we’re in trouble.

**** out of ***** stars. Recommended reading.

D. S. Ullery’s Blog With No Name

New Short Fiction:

 

The Deliverer

 

by D. S. Ullery

 

With a scream of metal and roaring fire, the twin engine jet plummeted from the sky. The lightning strike had been precise and lethal, the loss of one engine sending the craft into a spin from which it could not recover.

The plane struck the earth like a black dart, the nose crumpling. The pilots were  crushed into pulp instantaneously as the metal and wiring of the cockpit meshed with their bodies beneath the unexpected onslaught of terrifying resistance.

A bounce and roll along the stretch of farmland tore the hull apart, sending the two on-board secret service agents guarding the special passenger hurtling out of the cabin. One –the senior staffer- was thrown to the ground with such velocity as to bisect his body upon impact. His upper torso flew to the left, his legs landing in a small, wet ditch a dozen feet to the right.

His younger counterpart lost most of his face when he collided with the unforgiving earth, spine shattering in three places as he flipped like a rag doll. This unfortunate soul landed in a heap over forty yards from the wreckage. He died within minutes.

When the band of locals arrived less than an hour later to search for survivors, they would discover the passenger the deceased agents had been safeguarding. Though unconscious and suffering deep cuts along with heavy bruising, the man was otherwise unharmed.

~~~

He was dreaming.

He knew it had to be a dream. There was no other way to explain what was happening.

He clutched the armrest as the cabin lurched to one side, throwing him into the corridor separating the seats. He managed to stagger to his feet and climb back into his chair, securing the safety belt with trembling hands. This was no ordinary turbulence. Something had gone horribly awry.

The world began to spin and he squeezed his eyes shut, praying –demanding- he survive this. It was his destiny to survive. Some men were born to greatness, meant to lead. Wasn’t that why he was the President? Men of his stature didn’t die in plane crashes over farmland in middle America. They walked away unharmed.

He opened his eyes. He was standing in a secure private hangar, discussing with the governor of this state (whose name he could never recall) how the town hall he’d held had been a tremendous success. The biggest. Huge.

Of course it had. He’d worn his best diplomatic smile as he shook the nameless politico’s hand. The rubes would buy a mountain of horse manure from him if he painted it gold and sold it the right way. All he needed to do was tell them what they wanted to hear -tap into their desperation- and the people would follow him over a waterfall without a barrel if he asked.

Everyone loved him. He’d whispered just the right sweet nothings into the ears of the people excoriated by the cultural and social changes of the past three decades. He’d been rewarded with their unwavering loyalty. They flocked to him like disciples. In a way, he supposed they were. He’d promised to light the way home, to return the country to a better time. An era when it was all about them.

He was the Messiah of Nostalgia and nostalgia was magic.

Now he was lying in a bed, nestled beneath a thick, warm blanket.

He had no idea when he had left the hanger. It didn’t matter. This was all a dream and he much preferred this place anyway. It was cozy and inviting, like something out of a Norman Rockwell painting. Light, frilly curtains spread across a window to his left, allowing golden squares of amber sun to pepper the walls and ceiling. The decor was wood paneling, the color of polished oak. It was soothing.

A large man -possibly the largest man he’d ever laid eyes on- towered at the foot of the bed, regarding him with a mix of affection and concern. The faded denim coveralls, splotched with splatters of soil, indicated the stranger was someone who worked outdoors. Perhaps he was a farmer. The man stroked an impressively thick beard thoughtfully with one massive hand.

Beside the giant, a short, plump, matronly woman also regarded him. Her expression seemed more pragmatic. Practical. He assumed her to be the farmer’s wife. It occurred to him this likely meant he was still in the heartland.

The crash. The jet must have come down somewhere nearby. Somehow he’d survived. These people must have brought him here.

It made perfect sense. The central states adored him. They’d had his back through every scandal. Both the fake ones and the ones that were real. And why not?

It was his destiny to lead them.

~~~

President Daniel Judas Trank awoke to find himself bundled beneath a soft, sky blue comforter atop the most comfortable bed he ever recalled sleeping in. Although he wasn’t aware of it, a week had elapsed following the crash of the small jet he’d been diverted to as a protective measure.

Trank took in his surroundings, wondering where he was and how he’d come to be here. His complexion -normally a burnt amber, following another session in a tanning bed– lacked color. It wasn’t just the fact he was recovering from the crash, either. He loathed not being in control of a situation. Always had. This definitely qualified as something he had no power over and it drained him mentally.

Get it together, he ordered himself, employing the same no-bullshit tone he directed at his subordinates. You’re the President of the United States. You’re the most powerful man on the planet, a leader of men. Don’t you dare show weakness.

Memories surfaced of the abrupt, startled conversation he’d had with the detail assigned to him for this trip. They’d shown up and hustled him out of the hangar, wanting him away from the tiny airport as quickly as possible.

The head of the team had explained some new intelligence had come to light. Their information indicated a fringe element – people who believed Trank had conspired with agencies representing another country to steal the election- planned to commandeer a small plane and fly it into Air Force One during take off.

The proximity of the airfield to civilian homes had ruled out any protective fire from the usual military aerial escort. The decision had been made to transport the President using another plane. Trank recalled the sick feeling he’d experienced en route to the hastily selected new rendezvous point, an undisclosed, private landing strip owned by a close family friend of the governor. The place was miles out of the way. The substitute aircraft had been flown in separately, as soon as the decision had been made.

No could have known what type of aircraft it was or where it was meeting them, including Trank. All he’d been able to focus on during the drive was the knowledge someone had leaked his purportedly top secret travel agenda. Whoever that was had almost gotten him killed.

And the fucking alternate plane crashed anyway, he thought angrily.

Well, look who’s awake!”

He was startled out of his bitter reverie not by the fact someone had spoken, but rather the quality of the voice. There was a deep love in that tone, an inherent kindness. His eyes stole to the foot of the bed and he found a plump, matronly woman regarding him from the now-open bedroom door. He hadn’t heard her enter.

Trank tilted his head to one side, trying to understand why he was so certain he knew this stranger. Though consciously he understood they had never met, a nagging recollection of having seen her prior to this moment was worrying his subconscious the way a hungry dog works a bone. Try as he might to remember, she remained elusive behind the fog of the past few days.

His confusion had to have been noticeable, for a moment later she smiled and released a warm laugh. There was no derision in the sound. It was the friendliest laugh he’d ever heard.

You look like you have a bee in your bonnet, sir,” she chuckled. “What’s on your mind?”

He tried to speak and scowled at the foul taste in his mouth. His tongue and lips felt thick and pasty, resulting in the worst case of dry mouth he’d experienced since he and his college roommate had smoked a quarter of an ounce of pot one night years earlier.

Ah,” she explained, picking up on his disgust, “that’d be the brew you drank. It works wonders for the healing body, but it does leave a nasty aftertaste.” She approached the bedside and clasped one of his hands in hers, patting it gently. “You’re lucky, y’know. When my Henry and the others found you, they thought you might be dead. If you hadn’t made it through that mess as well as you did- thus did God’s providence prevail (here she raised her hands above her head, palms turned up to the ceiling, closing her eyes for moment of silent silent prayer) – I don’t think you’d have responded as well to my little concoction.”

Trank barely heard the last part. He was thinking about that momentary pause, when the woman had closed her eyes and literally lifted her arms to God in praise. He kept his expression neutral, even though his heartbeat had begun to quicken.

I’m at the mercy of the original bible belt family, he thought, panicking. I hope to hell the entire military is out looking for me right now.

Something bothering you?” she probed, not unkindly.

I- I was just wondering where I knew you from,” he answered weakly, deliberately striving to sound frailer than he felt. She’d been correct about whatever it was they’d given him. He was beginning to feel better already. Still, until he knew exactly who he was dealing with, he didn’t plan to let on. “I know we’ve never met before, yet you seem so familiar.”

This prompted another gale of laughter, as welcoming as the first.

You woke up for a moment a few days ago,” she told him. “You actually spoke, asked where you were. My Henry was with me then. You didn’t seem to know what was going on and fell under again not soon after.”

A hazy memory of his fractured dreams arose and Trank realized this was the answer. He thought he’d been imagining things when he’d seen the couple standing at the foot of the bed.

He experienced an abrupt rush of awe as it occurred to him this meant the man he’d seen standing beside her was also real.

Is your husband a big man?”

She grinned. It was the most winning smile he’d ever seen. Trank found himself wishing this woman had raised him.

Oh my, yes. Six feet, ten inches. The other girls used to call him Bigfoot. Silly little things who’d throw themselves at any man with a flashy smile or fancy car.” She sighed, dreamily staring out the window at the bright afternoon. “Not me, though. I met him when I was of age. I knew from the moment I laid eyes on that big bear of man, he was the one.”

She turned her gaze on her patient, considering him thoughtfully. “And do you know in thirty five years of marriage, he has never given me a single reason to regret that decision? Yes sir, the Lord did me right when he sent Henry Allen Jacobs into my life.”

She was interrupted by the sound of someone entering the house, beyond the bedroom. The noise was followed in short order by heavy footsteps, approaching in the outer hall. The woman had left the door to this room open upon entering and now a tremendous shadow filled it. Trank reflexively drew a shocked breath.

It was indeed the bearded titan he’d believed he’d imagined. The hazy recollection had done the man no justice. Henry Jacobs towered at every bit of the six feet, ten inches his wife claimed. He wasn’t a skinny, rail thin man, either. His body was large, with broad shoulders and arms and legs the size of tree trunks. A soiled, red bandanna was wrapped about his scalp and sleeves of sweaty, rolled up flannel grew from beneath a pair of dusty, sun bleached coveralls.

If this man doesn’t already work on a farm, someone had damned well send him to one, Trank thought, astonished. He had never seen anyone so large in his life.

Well,” Jacobs said, voice boisterous to the point of cliche’, “I see our guest has finally come around.” He stepped around the side of the bed. From his vantage point, Trank thought the man stood roughly ten stories tall.

A warm grin split the beard as his host dropped into a crouch, gently taking the injured man’s hand in his own. Trank watched as his palm vanished, keenly aware of how stubby and pale his fingers really were. Compared to his host, his hands looked like those of a doll.

To his surprise, Jacobs carefully pumped his arm in a friendly shake.

It’s good to see you recuperating, Mr. President,” he said softly. “When we found you at the crash site, we knew we had to get you back here and make sure you were well taken care of. Fortunately, our town doctor is something of a miracle worker. Between him and my Mabel, we put a fright into old Death before he could get his clammy hands on you.”

So you recognized me.” It was a statement, not a question. A vague feeling of alarm began to swell somewhere inside of Trank. He knew that middle America was his country – the traditionally red states had flocked to him in the polls and driven the electorate in his favor by a substantial margin- but he could never forget he was the President of the United States. There was always someone who hated him. After all, hadn’t it been a plausible terror threat which had sent him on the alternate route in the first place?

I did,” Jacobs clarified. “Some of the others around here aren’t exactly what you would call political -”

Some of the others wouldn’t know their head from their backside,” Mabel interjected. Trank chuckled despite himself.

Uh, right,” her husband continued, giving her a disapproving look. “As I was saying, the Missus and I, we like to stay on top of what’s going on. Especially with the way the farming industry has taken a hit in the past year or so. But a lot of local folks don’t much go in for politics. I was the one who identified you. I was out in a field with some hands when your plane came down about a mile off.”

Have my people contacted you?” Trank asked. “I imagine this is all over the news. The secret service should have been able to track me.”

Oh, it’s all over the television,” Jacobs confirmed. “It’s all the talking heads have been on about.”

Now, now,” Mabel said in a reassuring tone, “we’ve gone ahead and tended to all of that. You’ll get to where you’re supposed to be.”

Before that, we’d like to host a celebration feast for you tonight,” Jacobs added. “It isn’t every day a true hero shows up in our midst.”

This last part caught Trank off guard. Eyebrows arched, he leveled a quizzical stare at his hosts.

Hero?”

Oh gosh yes,” Mabel answered, charming in her complete earnestness. “Henry and I knew the first time we saw you on the television a few years ago. You are our deliverer. You’re the one who’ll set God’s country back on the right course.”

Make America Grand Again,” Jacobs said. “When we heard that slogan, we knew you’d restore good old fashioned American values. Through you, we’ll get through this rough patch. Things are bound to get better.”

Unease had given way to outright discomfort now. Though on the surface they seemed perfectly friendly, the couple were giving off a creepily familiar vibe. Regarding them quietly, with a fake smile plastered on his face, Trank attempted to isolate what it was.

It came to him after a few moments. The Jacobs reminded him of the sort of blind followers he’d seen in the front pews at some of the churches he’d visited during his campaign stops. The ones who lifted their hands to the sky during every hymn, who uttered a solemn “Praise Jesus” no matter what declaration might emerge from the pastor’s mouth. They were the people who talked about Revelation and God’s supernatural judgment the way secular people might discuss the weekly shopping list. The ones who were fully devoted to their religion, yet stared at you with suddenly vacant eyes if you presented an argument contrary to what they believed. The ones who claimed to love everyone according to God’s law, yet sang aloud joyous praise at the idea of the sinners suffering torment for all eternity.

These people were zealots. Only this time, the object of their adoration was him.

Just ride it out, Trank warned himself. Accept their invite, attend whatever this is and then thank them when your people show up to get you out the hell out of here.

I’d be honored to join you,” he said, putting more effort into sounding cheerful. “I’m grateful for all you’ve done – I owe you my life- and it’s a genuine pleasure to meet good, down home Americans who understand the vision I have for our country. It’s your support that will make it work.”

Jacobs grinned, wrapping one of his long arms around his wife and giving her an affectionate squeeze.

We’re lucky people, Mabel. You know that?”

That we are Henry,” she agreed sweetly. Her tone took on a more practical edge as she turned her attention back to their guest. “You just rest up until we’ve prepared everything for tonight,” she said firmly. “You may be the President, but you’re still under my care and I won’t have you wearing yourself out beforehand.”

Best not to argue,” Jacobs advised Trank with a laugh. “When Mabel tells you to rest, you just go ahead and do it. Believe me, I know.”

It seemed sound as far as advice went. He lay his head back on the pillow and quickly drifted off into a deep, peaceful sleep.

This time, he didn’t dream.

~~~

The sun had gone down by the time Jacobs appeared in the doorway to rouse Trank from his slumber. To his surprise, he’d awoken just before the giant had knocked on the door and felt completely rested. If it weren’t for his presence in this house and his own fragmented memories of the event, he might have thought the plane crash was merely a bad dream.

Jacobs seemed equally surprised to see the President sitting upright, having switched on an aging table lamp standing atop a night stand beside the bed. He flashed a pleased smiled.

Under the soft glow of the lamp, Trank could make out a clothes hanger with a garment bag wrapped around it, dangling from Jacobs right hand. Noticing the focus of his guest’s attention, the farmer nodded.

I see you’ve noticed the clothes. Mabel and I thought you’d like something clean to wear to supper tonight. One of our neighbors has about the same build as you and he was happy to donate the outfit.” Jacobs faltered here, seeming somewhat embarrassed. “It isn’t much -just a button up, collared shirt and some black dress slacks, hardly Presidential- but we–”

Trank brushed the rest of the comment off with the wave of hand.

It’ll be fine,” he said. “You’ve all been so kind. I can’t begin to tell you how much I appreciate it.” He realized as he spoke they weren’t merely empty words. He felt a deep sense of gratitude toward these people. They’d made seeing him through what should have been a fatal experience their top priority. That was kindness to a degree he had never quite experienced.

Just doing what any God-fearing patriotic American would do, Mr. President,” Jacobs answered, but his eyes had an extra sparkle as he spoke. Trank could see his words clearly meant a great deal and he was pleased he could at least afford that measure of happiness to this inherently kind man.

It was a strange experience, this presence of genuine emotion. Usually, people were a means to an end. He was familiar with board rooms and stockholders. In Trank’s world, you went after an opponent across the aisle like a shark and you sealed the deal while their blood was still in the water. Feelings were for people who aspired to the common, not for leaders like him.

Yet here, in this place, he’d caught a glimpse of how the other half lived. He was being granted a look at what it was like when people slowed things down and took the time to know one another on a more intimate, communal level. It occurred to him he may have been wrong all of this time. The possibility carried a certain degree of guilt.

The hairs on the back of his neck prickled as he rolled the thought over, aghast at the weakness he was indulging. What was he thinking, surrendering to such an ideology even for a second? That wasn’t how he’d become President.

Quiet now. Your way brought you here. Our ways will take us the rest of the way.

Excuse me?” he asked, bewildered.

Jacobs continued to stare at him from the foot of the bed, the outfit he’d brought still clutched in one hand. He didn’t answer.

“”Mr. Jacobs, what did you mean just now when you said “My way brought me here and your ways will take you the rest of the way?” Trank demanded. “And how dare you tell me to be quiet. I don’t care how hospitable you and your wife have been. I’m the President of the United States.”

I wasn’t the one who spoke.” Jacobs’ grin stretched as he answered, only now a cold intensity had replaced the good humor from earlier. It was the same sort of blank enthusiasm Trank had seen in the eyes of people protesting military funerals, the ones absolutely convinced God hates gay people and gay soldiers most of all. People who might seem sane from all outward appearances, but whose eyes opened a window to the soul of someone praying for the wicked to burn.

The first indications of genuine terror began to manifest deep in Trank’s stomach. He’d never felt so vulnerable and alone in his life and was keenly aware of how flabby and out of shape his seventy year old body was in comparison to this mountain of a man. If the farmer did decide to harm him in a religious craze, he had no means to prevent it.

Fortunately, he was an expert at spin.

I apologize for losing my temper,” Trank said quickly, struggling against panic as Jacobs continued to leer at him with that fanatical grin.” I thought I heard you – someone – say those things. I didn’t mean to accuse you.”

You did hear those things,” Jacobs replied calmly, smile intact. “I didn’t say otherwise. What I said was, I didn’t speak. That was someone else. When he addresses you again, you’d do well to listen. There is a path to follow. That’s why this was orchestrated in the first place. There is no terrorist threat, Mr. President. There never was. We needed to bring you to us, so you can fulfill your chosen destiny.”

Jacobs gently placed the clothes on the foot of the bed, looping the hook of the hanger around the uppermost knob of the ornately carved, oak bedpost closest to him. “I’m going to leave these here,” he said. “We’ll see you out in the sitting parlor in a few minutes. One way or the other.”

The giant crossed the room in two strides. When he reached the doorway he paused, turning his head to one side far enough to speak over his shoulder at the man in the bed.

We really did know you were the one, Mr. President. We were told by God himself. We’re all so glad you’re here.”

He exited the room without another word.

Trank sat motionless, staring quietly at the door as it closed behind Jacobs. He had absolutely no idea what he should do.

He didn’t know where he was, nor did he know how far this place was from the nearest actual town. Communities developed around an agricultural base comprised many of the stops during his campaign, so he was familiar with how they were laid out. The fact he had been brought to a seemingly nice house didn’t translate to being in close proximity to a city. He could well be in the sticks, far from any opportunity to directly contact his people.

The thought of communicating with someone triggered a spark of hope.

The tracking device.

In his daze, he’d forgotten all about it. A small radio transmitter (set to a private frequency only the defense department could pick up) was strapped to his upper, inner thigh. A contingency, in case a scenario like this arose and he needed to be found. It had been designed in the off chance he was abducted by hostiles.

Trank reached beneath the comforter draped across his body and felt around beneath the leg of his boxers. His brief flirtation with optimism quickly evaporated as his fingertips touched cool, bare skin and nothing more. The device had been removed.

Son of a bitch, he thought morosely. I’m completely at the mercy of these people. How the hell can this happen to the fucking President in this day and age?

You think too highly of yourself. You’re just a man. Not God.

Trank scanned the room frantically, looking for the source of the voice. He was unable to spot any external speakers or what looked like a microphone, but that meant nothing. For all he knew, these were foreign operatives and this was really a room in a bunker somewhere, decorated to give the appearance of a country farmhouse. The couple tending to him could be well trained actors. He’d seen several Soviet officers at least the same size as Jacobs on one of his trips to visit the Kremlin. Maybe the man originally came from their ranks.

If that were true, then how would it explain the plane crash, the mystery voice challenged. You didn’t dream that up, Daniel. That did happen.

I don’t know that for sure,” Trank shot back, speaking to the empty room. “Maybe it’s just a fever dream. Maybe they have me on some sort of hallucinogens. The woman said she’d given me something to drink she’d made herself.”

You’re trying to avoid the truth because it terrifies you so, it answered. It was no dream. The plane carrying you was brought down over middle America. Now you’re here. My people have assured you will not be found- not until after.

Your people? Who the hell are you?” Trank trembled with impotent rage. “Do you know how seriously you’ve fucked up? You’ll be hunted down and executed for this! Do you understand me!?”

There is no time for this, Daniel. Your threats are meaningless and I can see reasoning with you is an exercise in futility. Put on the clothes Henry brought.

To his complete horror, Trank watched his body do exactly that. Through no will of his own, his hand gripped the edge of the blanket and tossed it aside, his legs swerving over the edge of the bed. He rose, a prisoner in his own mind, able only to watch as he approached the bedpost where the clothes hung and took hold of the outfit.

Over the next few minutes as he dressed, he mentally screamed in protest a barrage of profanities which echoed back inside his own head. It made no difference. What – or who- ever the agency was commanding his body, it continued manipulating him as if Trank were no longer present.

As his fingers snapped the final button in place on the shirt, the other presence spoke.

You’re foul and you annoy me, it warned darkly. Keep your thoughts silent from now on. Disobey me and I’ll force you to bite your own tongue off. You’ll feel the pain. I will not.

Chills cascaded down Trank’s spine, sending goose-flesh rising in a wave across his arms. He felt his flaccid member withdraw into the folds of fat around his groin as terror took hold. He forced himself to imagine a blank sheet of white paper, clearing any thoughts out of his head which might unintentionally anger his captor. It was the only protection available to him.

His body was forced toward the bedroom door. The cool solidity of the bare, hardwood floor reminded him he had no shoes on, a thought which intruded despite his best efforts. Renewed fear gripped him as he waited for his teeth to clamp down on his tongue in retribution.

I’m aware these feet are unprotected, the other told him instead. You needn’t concern yourself with the state of this body anymore. It’s no longer your responsibility. Just remain quiet and see this through.

They passed through the door, stepping into a short hall beyond. A few feet to their left, Trank saw an archway, through which more soft lamplight shone. He turned and walked in that direction, finding himself staring into a spacious sitting parlor.

Several strangers were gathered here, some occupying the various chairs situated around a small coffee table in the center of the room. Others stood behind them. On the opposite side of the parlor was a bookshelf, adorned with rows of what appeared to be extremely old texts. Various standing lamps had been placed in the corners of the room.

To his right was a large color television, which looked to have been manufactured in the 1970’s. The occupants of the room – none of whom were Henry or Mabel Jacobs- had affixed their collective attention on the screen.

A few more steps brought the television into full view, revealing some local anchor Trank was unfamiliar with. The woman was speaking in the intense, quick tones the media employed when a news item of exceptional importance broke. A steady stream of white text scrolled across a red banner at the bottom of the screen. As he read it, Trank felt a sick rush of disbelief.

A week after deadly plane crash, President Trank still missing, presumed dead.

The anchorwoman went on to report about the twin engine jet crashing, breaking away to air clips of local authorities explaining Trank’s body had not been located and there was still a miles wide search and rescue operation underway involving every available government agency -plus a few local ones- attempting to locate the President.

The presence forced him away from the coverage. He found himself facing the room full of people. To his surprise and dismay, Trank immediately recognized one of the men standing only a few feet from where he was standing as the sheriff he’d just watched on T. V., telling the press the he was still missing.

No one had any idea where he was. No one even knew he was alive. It was enough to destroy what slender degree of hope he might have been clutching to.

If holding onto hope needlessly sets you up for an expectation that can never be fulfilled, it’s better to see it die quickly than prolong the delusion, the other told him.

Fuck you, Trank thought back angrily.

His own hand went rigid, with the palm wide open. It abruptly launched into the side of his face with a loud pop. Pain flared in his cheek, his eyes watering as the sting of the self inflicted blow spread along his jaw. He felt all of it.

I warned you to be civil, it reminded him.

One of the men occupying a chair a few feet away -a frail, wizened figure with shocks of stark white hair sprouting from the sides of a bare, liver spotted scalp – stared at the newcomer with a gleeful smile. Trank perceived a strong sense of familial love emanating from the force controlling him.

One of our tribe, the other explained without prompting. That’s Delmont Mulrooney. His father arrived here in 1899, right off a steam tramp from Ireland. The Mulrooneys have been tending a farm in this area for three generations, with Delmont taking over after his father passed and his own son stepping in after he retired. He married a Mexican woman named Isabella Garcia and established one of the first families to occupy this town. We’re bound by blood here, Daniel. By loyalty. The energy of the presence took on a dark edge. Something you failed to consider after you were elected. But I’m going to change all of that.

Mulrooney struggled to rise from his seat, his thin body visibly shaking from the exertion. Two of the others standing nearby each took an elbow and gently guided him all the way up. By now, the entire room had shifted their attention to Trank. The same expression of pleased recognition appeared on their faces. In any other scenario, such emotion might be a source of comfort. Right now, Trank found it deeply disturbing.

It worked…” the elderly man wheezed, reaching out with one hand as he staggered closer, one minimal step at a time. He placed the tips of his gnarled fingers on Trank’s cheek. Tears glistened in the corner of his eyes. “I can see you in there. Behind his eyes.”

I know, old friend,” a voice that wasn’t his own answered with Trank’s mouth. He regarded the entire assembly. “Hello my good and loyal family. Yes. It’s me. It did indeed work.”

There was a moment of hesitation as the group processed this. Then, with a loud whoop of joy from one of the men, the entire room exploded into cheers. They converged, touching Trank’s body, shaking his hands and clapping him on his back in a frenzy of congratulations and exultation.

I think it’s time we sat down to eat,” the presence said dryly, prompting a wave of laughter. “I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m famished. This body hopping business is hungry work. Shall we go enjoy the fine meal our hosts Henry and Mabel have prepared?”

Wrapping Trank’s arm around Mulrooneys shoulders, the other carefully guided the tiny man toward a sliding glass door on the other side of the room. Falling into a single file pattern, the others followed.

Trank was astonished at the spread which greeted him. A long dinner table – two rectangular sections of polished cedar, arranged side by side to a length of at least twenty five feet- had been placed in the center of what appeared to be a field several acres wide. Torches blazed atop wooden posts on either end and wooden benches of equal length ran along both sides.

What was really remarkable was the amount of food. There was one of every type of dish a person might imagine strewn across the table. Turkeys, chickens, steaks, a half a dozen variations on pork, salads, tortillas, chili and eight different types of bread in large baskets. Additionally, there was a variety of fruits so plentiful, Trank didn’t recognize them all. For dessert there were at least a dozen pies, cakes and plates of pastries covered in confectioners sugar. Jacobs had described it perfectly. This was a feast.

A dozen women of various ages were seated on the benches, separated by a space wide enough to accommodate an adult of average size. The assembly of men surged toward the table, each sliding into one of the vacant spots, until both sides were filled to capacity. It wasn’t until the men (whom, Trank guessed, were husbands to the women) had taken their places and everyone was together that the odd symmetry of their apparel became evident.

The men were all wearing white, long sleeved button up collared shirts. The women were dressed in identical gowns of deep burgundy. Though the hemlines and measurements varied from person to person according to body type, they were all dressed exactly the same.

A whoosh erupted behind him and suddenly the eyes of the gathered were twinkling in the glow of a light he could not see. His body turned, revealing behind him a fire pit in which dozens of small, thick logs had been placed in a concentric pattern. Atop the pyre lay an open coffin.

The last of the day was already dwindling in the sky, exposing brilliant pinpoints of diamond light scattered across a sea of deepening aqua. The heated, yellow blaze of the flames caused eerie shadows to dance across the placid features of the deceased, creating jagged nooks along a withered brow. Whoever the occupant was, his features were furrowed in intense concentration.

Trank stared hard at that body, trying to discern as much detail as possible before the invading presence forced him to look away. Though he’d seen bodies lying in state prior to tonight, the sight of this one filled him with an existential dread.

He found himself facing the assembled diners once more. While his back had been turned to the others, Jacobs and his wife had made their entrance, with Henry approaching Trank as Mabel watched from a spot nearer the house. Even under the flicker of firelight, he could tell the matronly woman was radiating joy. Her smile was too wide, too peaceful, for it to be otherwise.

We’re ready if you are,” Jacobs said, speaking softly, an element of awe in his voice.

His massive hands were clamped around a thick tome. The volume was encased in a worn leather binding, cracked from the relentless onslaught of time. Trank had no idea how old the book was, but he suspected it predated his own birth.

I am,” he heard the other speak in that alien voice. “I will take my place now, Henry. You know what to do.”

Jacobs nodded earnestly, his expression equal parts delight and attentiveness. It was the joyful visage of the thoroughly devoted. Whatever was about to transpire, this man truly believed in it.

Trank was utterly terrified.

Now he was circling the fire, sparks reflecting like errant embers off the rivers of sweat drenching his brow. Trank was not a fit man by any stretch and the combination of his weight, the button up and the heat from the fire had left him soaking.

With the breadth of the fire pit now between himself and the people seated at the table, Trank saw a short, wooden platform before him. It appeared sturdy enough to support a grown man. A single, squat wooden step escalated to a square, flat surface rising a foot off the ground.

He was marched up the step onto the platform. His arms were lifted above his head, palms stretched out to the heavens. He felt his lips curl in an unwilling smile, sensing the pride and pleasure of the entity inside him as it regarded the others.

Jacobs positioned himself directly across the fire pit, standing so he was staring up at Trank. He held the large book in his hands, carefully opening it midway. Finding the page he was searching for, he began to read in a clear, loud voice.

A ti te ofrecemos este alma en pago.”

To you we offer this soul in payment,” the other said with Trank’s tongue.

Amen.” the witnesses had all risen to their feet and spoke the word in unison.

De ti pedimos liberación.”

From you we ask deliverance.”

Amen.”

The night flared as a bolt of lighting crackled across the sky, generating a rumble which rolled into oblivion over the course of the next few seconds. Jacobs paused, staring in wonder for a moment before resuming the recitation.

Para ti, nos ofrecemos como pueblo.”

For you, we offer ourselves as a people.”

Amen.”

Jacobs closed the book, met by thunderous applause from those in attendance. Trank’s arms were lowered, the invasive force beaming from its place on the pedestal.

It is complete,” the other told them. This declaration was met with cheers, which were quieted by pantomiming a patting motion with Trank’s hands. “Now comes the most important aspect of the ritual. The sacrifice.”

Trank’s head was lifted skyward, his eyes focusing on the brilliant sea of stars surrounding a bright, full moon. In the silver glow of the lunar light, he could see no storm clouds, only a clear night. He had no idea where the lightning had come from.

The view shifted and skewed, the sky falling to one side as the world spun in wide circles around him. It was as if he’d been tossed into the air by some phenomenally powerful force, only to spin out like a rag doll as he plummeted back to earth.

The world righted itself. He was once again staring at the stars. Only now, he no longer felt like himself. His body was restricted. Confined. Cold. After a moment, it came to him. Trank hadn’t the slightest notion how he knew it, but he was absolutely certain it was true.

He was in the coffin.

Yes, Daniel, the presence told him. You’re in the coffin. The body you saw lying prone was mine. Now it’s yours. It was no random act of nature which felled your plane. Everything has unfolded according to a plan, which began the moment you took office.

Thoughts of the odd attire he’d noticed the guests wearing floated back to Trank.

A cult, he thought.

Believers, it countered. The gathered faithful, generations in. Every face you saw tonight comes from both Mexican and American bloodlines. Our people have worked the fields and grown the food. Our ways have made this land strong and the people here stronger. But men like you would destroy that because you fear and resent those who are different. So we called out to the eternal ones to strengthen our cause.

You said I was your deliverer. There was no panic in Trank’s mind as he thought this. He didn’t feel capable of panic. His coherency had begun to erode and he was finding it hard to do more than stare at the stars from inside this dead shell.

He was fading.

And you are, it answered. When we saw how easily you manipulated so many of our fellow countrymen, we knew you were the one. I was chosen from the flock because I am familiar with the ancient ways, passed down to me by my father. You are the vessel through which my knowledge will restore this country. Through you, we will be delivered. By you, we will use our very enemies to achieve that deliverance.

Silence.

It probed, feeling for Trank’s presence. The man was gone, leaving an emptiness where his spirit had once resided. The absence was freeing.

Friends,” he called to the others. “It is done. I’m alone in here.” He nodded at Jacobs. “Henry, would you do the honors?”

Jacobs bowed, snatching one of the logs comprising the base of the pyre. He lifted it so the flaming end was held away from his body, tossing it into the coffin with one well-aimed throw. The crackle of burning cloth and the smell of polyester smoldering filled the air as the corpse inside caught fire, sending tendrils of smoke into the moonlit sky.

Now friends,” the new Daniel Trank said warmly, “let us feast in celebration. As the fires take this sacrifice and we prepare for the journey ahead, let us celebrate this new beginning.”

With a roar of approval, the diners began to have at the massive spread, laughing and carrying on. Watching from the platform, Trank could feel the positive energy radiating from them. He was pleased.

Visions of what was to come filled his head and his heart raced with excitement. Wouldn’t all of those tycoons be shocked when their friend in the White House turned the tables on them. From here on, this country would live up to the promise of that great lady standing an eternal vigil in New York harbor. He would take in the tired, the poor, the huddled masses and give them shelter. He would restore this country to what made it grand.

They had a cover story prepared. A miraculous return, a President who survived being injured in the wilderness, overlooked during one of the initial sweeps. The fact he was alive and back in office alone would earn enough sympathy to write his own check on policy. With the forces they’d summoned also present, they would be unstoppable.

Joyous in their deliverance, he joined the others in celebration.

 

 

D.S. Ullery’s The Blog With No Name

New Flash Fiction:

Game Play

by D. S. Ullery

Author’s note: Due to the subject matter, this story – short though it is- may trigger some readers.  I want everyone to know up front this isn’t meant as exploitation. Like every writer worth their salt, I have my own views on a variety of social issues and this is one that strikes a deep chord. This is the natural way for me to write about it.  If I did my job as the author of this piece at all well, hopefully the larger point I’m attempting here  will come across .

I expect someone somewhere to dislike this, if only because its about this topic at all. Either way,  I stand by my work. My take on horror is that it should – at times – be uncompromising and disturbing.   Those who are already  familiar with my short fiction  will likely not be at all surprised I wrote this. Whether or not that’s a good thing, I leave to the individual to decide. 

 So there it is, my early warning. To those of you who elect to turn away now, I completely understand. Thank you for even clicking on this blog in the first place.  For those of you who have decided to push on- thank you as well. I hope the story works for you. 

 

Game Play

Tyler had waited a long time to play a game like this one. Years.

As he mentally prepared to begin, he reflected on his decades of game play. He’d been gifted his first console back when he was ten. He’d been hooked ever since. Every time a new release was available, he was the first to purchase it. He read all of the gaming magazines and followed industry news religiously, keeping an eye peeled for new games offering next level graphics and user interface. Over time, he’d mastered them all. On occasion, he’d even been selected to beta test a few prior to their release.

He took a moment, cradling the firearm he’d selected from the armory for this initial round. Eyes closed, he expelled a deep, satisfied breath, allowing the excitement to wash over him. With a smile, he opened his eyes and entered the first level.

Tyler drank in his surroundings, gripping the weapon. He enjoyed the feel of the trigger beneath his index finger as he lifted the gun and aimed. Across the street, one of the in-game characters immediately reacted, throwing her hands up as he spun on his heels and ran in the other direction.

He’d never seen graphics so detailed. The cracked pavement beneath his feet, the buildings with their dusty bricks and windows caked in residue from the exhaust of passing cars; In all the years he’d been playing, no system – no specific release- had ever boasted this degree of realism. Curious, he fired off a round. The bullet caught the back of the man’s head, producing billows of red mist. Tyler could actually hear the sound of blood splattering against the concrete, followed by the soft thump of his body as he fell.

He was impressed.

He glided forward, walking a city block in real time to a corner where the avenue connected with an alleyway. All around him, background characters screamed as they saw him. He leveled the rifle at one , who in this instance was a morbidly obese man. Tyler watched in awe as its mouth dropped open, its eyes red and watery as tears streamed down its cheeks. Tyler had to admit, the artificial intelligence programmed into this world was astonishing. These figures were a perfect simulation.

He fired a bullet into the rotund image, watching in fascination as it plopped onto the asphalt face first.

Tyler thought back to all of those other first person shooter games he’d played over the years. Within those, he’d been a soldier on the front lines in a foreign jungle, a Marine in a future science lab facing the armies of Hell, even a criminal on a spree, beating up prostitutes and shooting drug dealers. As vivid as they were, not one of those games had come anywhere close to this.

He cut right into the alley and used it to cross to the next street over. Emerging on the other side, Tyler was surprised to find himself on a large boulevard. Pedestrians populated the sidewalks on either side of a road heavy with traffic. All along the street, patrons of various restaurants enjoyed their lunches beneath large sun deck umbrellas.

This game had all of the mundane details of everyday life down pat.

He cocked his gun, raising the barrel and centering on an elderly woman being led by a small, white poodle on a pink and turquoise leash. Smiling, he steadied the cross hairs, keeping them level. Around him, random characters began to scream and shout, having finally become aware of his presence.

The old woman unwittingly stepped into the cross hairs, the sounds of alarm catching her attention, prompting her to turn her head in his direction to see what was going on. This left Tyler with a direct shot right between her eyes.

Before he could pull the trigger, a loudspeaker crackled, an authoritative voice bellowing “Drop the gun! Get on your knees with your arms extended, palms out!”

Astonished by the richness and clarity of the voice , Tyler turned , greeted by the sight of two police vehicles blocking passage through the street. The officer who had addressed him was standing behind the driver’s side door of his car, the microphone still clenched in his hand. Directly to the policeman’s left, another uniformed officer had a powerful looking assault rifle raised and pointed at him.

Tyler couldn’t resist- he had to see how the A.I. would respond if he attacked under these circumstances. Smiling at the two officers, he raised his gun.

The response was instantaneous. Fire scorched his belly , arms and legs even as the echo of multiple gunshots rang out. His muscles surrendered beneath the onslaught, sending him crumpling to the ground.

Tyler wheezed, the breath knocked out of him. He rolled over onto his back, marveling at the hot, sticky sensation of his life drizzling out of the wounds. He barely managed to lift his head, catching a brief glimpse of his body before the effort became too much. Everything below his chest was bathed in a sea of deep crimson, spreading out from his body in strange, oblong patterns from the ruin of his stomach.

They were the best graphics he’d ever seen. Even the pain felt real.

A deep coldness penetrated his flesh and Tyler suddenly felt very, very tired. Despite this level being set during a sunny, cloudless day, the world was beginning to dim. It was as if the colors were bleaching out of reality.

The sound of people rushing to and fro surrounded him. The noise began to fade, as if he were suddenly moving a great distance from the street. The two officers and some other bystanders crowded in, hovering over him. They were losing all resolution, now no more than silhouettes without detail.

Faint voices cried out, demanding to know who he was and why he had done it. Another – the same he’d heard speaking over the microphone – explained to someone he could not see there was no need for an ambulance. A van from the morgue would suffice.

Game over, Tyler thought as the shadows swallowed him and he drifted away.

D. S. Ullery’s Blog With No Name 3/9/19

Free Fiction: The New Meat

Continuing my recent trend towards sharing older stories I have long since had published , here’s a twisted tale I originally sold to Alban Lake, who included it in an issue of their terrific publication Disturbed Digest about four years ago. It’s currently available as part of my first collection.

With “The New Meat”, I was attempting to turn the tables of the standard zombie cliches’. By the time I began working on this piece, zombies were flooding both the literary and cinematic markets. Things had reached a saturation point, with it becoming increasingly difficult to differentiate one story from the next. Not that many of those stories and movies weren’t well crafted – they were – but you can only see/read the same plot points so many times before craving something different.

With that in mind, I set out to turn things on their head. I think it came out fairly well (well enough for the good folks at Alban Lake to pay me for it, at least) , and in the process I was able to incorporate a bit of fun, B-movie level Sci-Fi.

So here for your reading pleasure is my one and only foray into the world of zombies.

Enjoy!

Catch you on the flip side.

-D. S.

 

The New Meat

At first glance, Benning thought the shack might just be a mirage.

That certainly would have been in keeping with their recent run of bad luck. Benning and his companions were being pursued through the heart of the Northwest forest (after being forced to hide for several hours in a tiny, aluminum tool shed not designed to house four bodies) , on the run from a horde of the Hungry who had picked up their scent.

Additionally, there was Jacobs misfortune with a hidden bear trap, said device having snapped onto his forearm while they’d been crawling through some brush earlier that day. The group had managed to free Jacobs and evade capture, only to discover they’d lost their bearings and had no idea how to get out of the woods.

After spending an unknown amount of time desperately looking for some sort of path out of the forest, the group had hidden themselves among the massive roots of an ancient Banyan , perched atop a gently sloping hill. On the other side of the tree, the ground dropped into a sharp incline.

With all they had been through, it was too easy for Benning to assume the tiny structure he had noticed at the bottom of the drop was the product of wishful thinking, not good fortune.

He raised his head over one of the thick roots and peered down. The sharp slope on the other side culminated in a hollow at the bottom. Years of summer rain had mixed dead leaves, pine needles and fallen branches into an organic soup, transforming the ground down there into a soggy bog of mulch.

The muddy quagmire stretched for about a dozen yards before being divided by a small, cloudy stream running east to west through the heart of the forest.

On the other side of the stream, the floor of the forest solidified into a dusty mat of sandy topsoil, broken only by the occasional weed. In the center of this open stretch, several yards from where the trees again converged, stood the small, wooden hovel.

Benning fixed his good eye on the dilapidated shack, reassuring himself that it was real.

The structure was in bad shape: The walls were composed of rotting planks that had been hastily nailed together, the roof was little more than two pieces of aluminum siding some industrious soul had bound with several rolls of duct tape and mounted atop the structure. Given the way it was listing slightly to one side, it seemed a foregone conclusion the next storm to blow through the area would tear the hovel apart.

As far as Benning was concerned, it might as well have been the penthouse of a four star hotel.

He lowered his head and looked at Jacobs. His companion was clutching the stump were his arm had been up until an hour ago. Benning nodded toward the ragged, empty sleeve. “That hurt?” he asked.

Jacobs shook his head. “No,” he said. “Damned bear trap.”

“They’re getting better at this.”

Benning and Jacobs glanced over at the source of the comment.

Sitting directly across from them, resting with his back against the trunk of the tree, was Daniels. His face was frozen in a permanent grin, yellowing molars visible above blackened gums in through a cheek torn open by the sharp end of an errant branch earlier that day.

“You think?” Benning asked.

“Yes.” Daniels answered. “Remember when it all began, in the first weeks after the solar flare soaked the planet with that unknown radiation? When we all started to come to?

“That’s about all I do remember,” Jacobs muttered sullenly.

“So?” Benning said, sounding unintentionally sour. Daniels had a tendency to come off as fairly pompous. That, combined with an itch that had begun to develop around Benning’s empty eye socket and was intensifying, put him in a foul mood.

So,” Daniels replied, “when people first became aware of what was happening, there was the requisite panic. It was like something out of the movies, with all of those PSA’s admonishing the public to destroy to the brain by means of bullets or blunt objects. None of it worked of course, but it was what it was.

“Then that incident involving those two drunken assholes and the transient in Jersey happened and suddenly there was a whole new variable added to the mix that no one had counted on.”

“What’s your point?” Jacobs demanded, more than a little testy. Benning suspected Jacobs wasn’t particularly keen on Daniels either.

Daniels issued an exasperated sigh. He shook his head and, in that moment, Benning (who had begun to scratch at his vacated eye socket vigorously) would gladly have knocked his head off. His only saving grace was that -of the four who remained- Daniels’ brain was the most functionally intact, allowing him thought processes more complex than basic communication and motor skills.

Put simply, he was the one whose ability to reason skewed closest to that of a normal human being. When he spoke, the others tended to listen.

“The point, Jacobs,” Daniels answered testily, “is that since it was discovered that the radiation alters the genetic structure of decaying human tissue, giving it nutritional value, the attacks on our kind have grown more sophisticated.”

Daniels leaned forward, jerking his head in the direction from which they had come. “In the early days of this debacle, that bunch out there would have been stomping through the woods, randomly spread out and following us armed with guns, knives and even torches. Scary, but limited and erratic in execution, ” he said, his eyes locking onto Jacobs. “Now they’re intelligent enough to know to lay traps for us as a precaution. They’re adapting to the effects, retaining more of their cognizant skills as the hunger overcomes them.”

“Bullshit,” Benning retorted. “What happened to Jacobs was just bad luck and you know it, Daniels. That trap had probably been lying there for weeks, months even, forgotten by the hunter who set it. Jacobs was just unlucky.”

There’s a term with a rapidly broadening meaning,” Jacobs snorted. “We’ve been unlucky since the moment our eyes opened and we realized we were somehow conscious again. Why don’t you ask Patti there what his take on luck is?”

Both Benning and Daniels exchanged a guilty look before staring down at the pitiful creature nestled in the crook between two of the larger roots.

Frightened eyes stared back at them from above a gaping cavity where his lower mandible had been. His tongue, purple with rot, spilled haphazardly from the exposed depth of his throat. Incomprehensible gurgling sounds drifted to their ears as Patti attempted in vain to articulate a thought.

He had no limbs, having been reduced to four stumps by the time they found him lying in a ditch while on the run. From the look of it, those arms and legs had been forcibly torn off at some point.

None of them knew his real name, but some anonymous wit had plastered a temporary name tag (the type one might see worn by a college student taking their first tour of a campus) to the breast pocket of his moldy, blue button-up shirt. The faded rectangle of sticky paper had been there so long it had melded with the decaying fabric. Written in washed out marker across the paper (in barely legible cursive) was the word “Patti”, the “i” adorned with petals so it looked like a flower. In the absence of a proper name, it had stuck.

“I’ve been meaning to address that,” Daniels answered, the usual degree of pomp in his voice replaced by uncertainty. “I think we need to consider leaving him behind.”

Patti lurched forward, pushing away from the tree with his back and toppling forward onto his chest. He wriggled toward Benning, attempting to push himself forward, but the four ragged stumps wouldn’t catch the ground and he flopped around.

Benning watched with pity, reminded of a hooked fish convulsing in a desperate struggle to breath. Patti’s yellowing eyes bulged in terror as he shook his head violently to and fro, the quick motion causing his tongue to whip back and forth.

“No way,” Benning snarled. “We don’t leave anyone behind.”

The itch in his eye had reached infuriating proportions and Benning, his patience spent, reached into the empty socket and began to scratch vigorously. He was surprised to feel something squirming around, fine hairs brushing against his fingertips.

Benning clasped his fingers around the mystery object and drew his hand away from his face. It took him a full second to realize he was holding a large, brown spider, one with a body the size of a quarter.

He grimaced, tossing the arachnid to the floor of the forest. The spider quickly found its bearings and scurried into the brush.

Jacobs moaned, staring after the spider with horrified fascination. “I can’t do this anymore,” he said softly. He lifted his eyes to Benning. “Daniels is right, Benning. The trap that took my arm looked new. It didn’t even have any bait in it. What would hunters think they could catch in a trap with no bait?”

“Maybe some…some…uh…some.. thing…took the bait….” Benning allowed the sentence to trail off, as he struggled to think of the word. He looked at Daniels and Jacobs and saw that they were staring back at him expectantly. Try as he might, he couldn’t remember. A flutter of panic shot through him.

“Just give me a second. I’ll get it,” Benning told them, but he didn’t think he would. These blank spots had been happening at random since that terrible morning he had come to inside an autopsy room. He was fairly certain they were the result of tissue damage caused by the brain cancer which had originally killed him. Basic concepts such as certain common nouns would arbitrarily slip beyond his grasp, at times leaving him less mentally capable than an infant.

“God, you’re having another one of your blank outs again, aren’t you?” Jacobs asked. “Jesus, this gets worse every minute!”

“It isn’t important, just a forgotten word,” Benning snapped. Then his eyes brightened. “Animals!” he exclaimed, snapping his fingers excitedly. “Maybe some animals took the bait out of the trap without triggering it.”

“Animals?” Daniels sneered. “You had trouble remembering the word animals?”

“It doesn’t matter!” Benning shot back, scowling. “I know your brain works better than mine, Daniels, but I still say you’re reading too much into this. That trap was probably left by a hunter who forgot to look in on it. It wasn’t left for us.” He pointed into the woods. “And in any case, we are not leaving Patti behind to be served up as dinner by those nut jobs out there!”

“Okay,” Daniels answered, his voice calm. “Who gets to continue carrying him? Because, in case you haven’t been paying attention, Jacobs is down an arm.”

“What about you?” Jacobs asked, leveling Daniels with a look that was pure contempt. “Why don’t you step up and do something other than acting like a holier-than-thou ass for change?”

“Because I refuse to be a part of this travesty.” Daniels turned, pointing at Patti, who was now cowering behind Benning. “This is a creature with no reason to continue existing. Not only is he back from the dead, not only is he without limbs or even a lower jaw, but he’s also been transformed. Haven’t you noticed it yet? Look at his skin.”

Benning leaned down and took a closer look. A combination of regret and horror surged through him when he realized that Daniels was correct. Patti’s flesh had taken on the light olive shade and toughened texture which signaled the transformation.

He was fit for human consumption.

Jacobs, who had managed to get on his feet, walked over, sniffing the air. “I can smell it,” he informed them. He offered Patti a sympathetic smile. “Sorry Patti. Not trying to be rude, but the aroma is pretty pungent.” He glanced over at Benning. “I’m surprised we didn’t pick it up earlier.”

“We were being pursued through the forest and not all of us have the use of our senses. At least, not the way we did before,” Daniels pointed out. “Besides, I think he only recently finished changing over.”

Benning swore under his breath, never taking his eyes off Patti. He didn’t want the others, particularly Daniels, to know just how exhausted and out of ideas he was.

It had been Benning’s idea to flee town and head into the surrounding forest when those people had sighted them hiding in the shed. Since then, all he had been able to think of by way of a plan was to keep running from the mob currently scouring the woods.

Now there was this. Benning hated to admit it, but Daniels was right. Patti’s body was clearly in its post-transformation state. That meant it was emitting a scent which, when picked up by living human beings, would send them into a frenzy.

Discovery of this of this bizarre fact had come earlier in the year, when two drunken college students in Tom’s River, New Jersey had decided it would be the height of humor to make sport of a homeless man they had happened upon in an alley.

By the time this encounter took place, the solar flare (now known to be the source of the crisis) had already saturated the Earth with its radiation, causing the dead to rise.

Unlike the zombies of horror fiction, however, none of these walking corpses demonstrated a desire to feed on the flesh of the living. Neither did damaging the brain -so often the solution in zombie cinema- have the slightest effect.

With the theories of Hollywood now debunked, the recently resurrected became a nuisance, an inconvenience that had yet to be dealt with.

According to the story (as Benning had heard it), the homeless man had begged the fraternity brothers for something to eat. As it happened, one of the dead had been stumbling around at the opposite end of the same alley. By way of response to the man’s pleas, the students had managed to subdue the zombie.

As a sick joke, the college kids had set the walking corpse on fire. To their astonishment, immolation had proven successful in killing the reanimated dead man. Realizing the zombie wasn’t going to rise again, they’d offered the cooked remains to the transient as food.

By now the whole planet knew the story. Not merely because it was so hideous, but because of what had happened next.

Rather than shrinking away in disgust, the homeless man had grown ravenous, literally drooling as he ripped at the seared corpse. Even more incredible was the effect consuming the twice dead body had on the man. He seemed to grow stronger and healthier with each bite, as if devouring the body was curing any ailments he might have been suffering.

As it turned out, that’s precisely what had been happening. The two college students had reported the incident to the police, who had taken the man into custody. Eventually he was turned over to a team of biologists , funded by the government to study reanimated bodies.

Benning remembered clearly (one of the few things he could still recall with much clarity) the sinking feeling he had felt in the pit of his stomach when the scientists announced their discovery. They had discovered the mysterious radiation had not only raised the dead, it affected genetic change in their tissue, causing it to transform into a protein which promoted cellular reconstruction and vitamin production in living human bodies. It also boosted the human immune system.

In short, as long as the zombie in question had transformed, cooking and eating the dead healed the living and could add years to the average lifespan.

“Benning!”

Hearing Jacobs shout his name shook Benning out of his thoughts. He offered the others an apologetic look. “Sorry,” he offered sheepishly. “I was just thinking about John Lowe.”

“The homeless guy they call Diner Zero?” Jacobs asked. “Why?”

“Just thinking that if those stupid college kids hadn’t gotten drunk and found him that night….” Benning trailed off as a wave of despair overcame him. Maybe what Daniels had said regarding Patti applied to them all.

“Get over it,” Daniels snapped. “This is no time for daydreaming. We need to decide what we’re doing and I mean ten seconds ago.” He pointed toward the forest. “Listen.”

Benning listened carefully and a shiver ran down his spine as the sound of several bodies charging through the brush floated back to him, followed by voices calling out their positions to one another. The Hungry were almost upon them.

Without saying a word, Benning knelt down and wrapped his arms around Patti’s chest. Daniels stared at him incredulously, the remaining side of his face turned down in a tight frown.

“What the hell are you doing!?” Daniels cried. “We don’t have time for this, Benning!”

“You do what you want,” Benning spat back. “I’m dragging Patti down to that shack with me and locking us in until those people are gone. And hey, shout a little louder next time. In fact, just walk over and tell those guys where we are. It’ll be quicker.”

Daniels looked to Jacobs for support and was mortified to see Jacobs preparing to follow Benning’s lead. “Jacobs,” he seethed, “you can’t be thinking of going with them. That’s insane!”

“I guess you made your point a little too well, Daniels,” Jacobs said, the contempt returning to his eyes. “If trying to carry on is a dumb move for Patti, then it isn’t much smarter for any of us, is it?” He pushed his fresh stump toward Daniels to embellish the point. “I’m almost where Patti is now. If I’m going to end up as food anyway, then I’d like to spend the rest of this second, shittier life with people I at least like.”

They were interrupted by loud snaps as branches cracked and heavy footsteps stomped along the forest to the west. The predators were very close now. Soon they would be able to spot the foursome. Although bullets would not take the dead down, the men tracking them could still disable any one of their group by taking out a kneecap or hip with the rifles they carried.

Daniels took a step back, throwing his hands up in disgust. “Fine,” he snarled. “If you two idiots want to take the future buffet item and lock yourselves in that shithole, be my guest. I’ll pass.”

“Don’t be stupid.” Benning chided. “Just hide in there with us until they leave, then you go wherever you want. You’re dead. You can’t afford pride, Daniels.”

“It’s not pride, Benning,” Daniels said, his tone acidic. “Just common sense. They’re laying traps for us and they knew enough to follow us in this direction. Not to mention they can almost certainly smell Patti by now. That shack is a one way ticket to their gullet, nothing more.”

The sound of the hunters moving through the forest was closer now. Benning shot an alarmed look towards the trees , then back at Daniels. “Time to stop talking and start moving,” he said flatly. “Go on alone if you want, but we’ve got to move right now.”

Daniels stared at Benning and Jacobs silently for a moment, then sprang forward, the stiff muscles in his legs popping as he launched himself over the roots and down the embankment on the other side.

Benning watched Daniels tumble down the slope like a blonde rag doll, landing in the mud on their side of the stream. For a moment, it appeared that he wouldn’t be able to make it back onto his feet. Eventually he did, the aging sweater he wore now covered with thick, watery earth and rotting leaves.

Daniels stumbled across the stream and past the shack without even slowing down. Within moments he had disappeared into the flora on the other side of the hollow. That was the last they ever saw of him.

“Son of a bitch really left,” Jacobs muttered as Daniels was swallowed by the forest. He offered Benning a tight smile. “Ah well. Fuck him, right?” he said, then threw himself down the hill.

Benning tightened his hold on Patti’s waist then backed up to the root he had been taking cover behind, dragging the limbless creature with him. He had to turn his upper body slightly to the right to peer over his shoulder and down the hill with his remaining eye.

He saw Jacobs lying close to the spot where Daniels had landed, flailing about in the mud. Benning initially thought Jacobs was having difficulty getting to his feet because the ground was soft and he only had one arm. A sick feeling came over him as he realized that Jacobs was sinking.

Quicksand!

Fighting a surge of panic, Benning hugged Patti close to him and launched them both backwards. The world turned end over end, first trees, then Patti, then the ground filling his vision as the two of them plummeted down.

Propelled by Patti’s extra weight, both of them hit the base of the slope, the force of the impact launching them in opposite directions. Patti landed in the stream, rolling side over side until he came to a stop on the more solid topsoil, closer to the shack.

Benning spilled onto his back in roughly the same spot where Daniels had landed, mere yards way from where Jacobs was now chest deep in the quicksand pit. He flipped onto his stomach, feeling his ribs shift beneath his skin as he moved, realizing that at least half of them had broken in the fall. He crawled toward Jacobs, who by now was only visible from the neck up.

“Grab my hand!” Benning called, stretching out his arm.

Jacobs shook his head, his face the picture of calm as it hovered mere inches above the surface. “Forget it,” he said, the passive tone of his voice sending chills down Benning’s spine. “You tried, man. I appreciate it, but I think I’m just gonna let this happen.”

“That’s crazy, ” Benning said weakly, surprised to hear himself sob.

“Is it?” Jacobs returned. “It’s been one misery after another since I woke up, beginning with having to claw my way out of my own coffin. I never wanted to live again. I’d rather just stay down here and decompose under the ground like I was supposed to. Besides, this sure as hell beats going the only other way we can be destroyed, by fire. At least this is quiet.”

Jacobs sank a few more inches, until all but his eyes, nose and mouth were covered. Those eyes shifted in Benning ’s direction, the colorless dead lips crinkling in a small smile. Jacobs winked.

With a soft gurgling sound, he was gone.

Benning stared at the surface of the pit for a long moment, until the sound of the hunting party reaching the Banyan tree captured his full attention.

He staggered to his feet, hopped the stream and picked up Patti, lunging toward the shack.

As he cleared the distance to the ramshackle door of the structure, Benning could hear one of the Hungry shouting he could see something moving down in the hollow. That settled any doubts about holing up inside.

With only him left to carry Patti, the best he could hope for was to barricade the door and buy them some time to come up with an escape route. There was no way he could evade the men at the top of the incline if he continued to drag Patti through the forest.

Benning backed through the door of the shack, relieved to discover that it wasn’t locked. He scrambled inside, laying Patti on the ground, then turned and slammed the door shut.

There was no lock, but he noticed a large, metal gas can -the rusted lip stuffed with an oily cloth- resting in the corner to his left.

Benning leaned over, intending to grab the can and prop it against the door, when the smell hit him full on. Only one substance had that specific stench. Gasoline. Given the intensity of the odor, there had to be a lot of it.

Benning lifted the can off of the ground. Whatever hope he had been holding onto was extinguished when he felt how light it was.

A soft whine drifted to him and he turned around. Patti stared back at him with eyes that had taken on a haunting quality of resignation. The hapless creature jerked his head toward one of the walls.

Benning took a step closer, peering closely at the ragtag assemblage of boards. He could tell almost immediately the planks had recently been saturated with fuel.

As he realized this, Benning heard through the door the sounds of men closing in on the shack. A coarse voice shouted “They did it! They went for the shack! Shoot a flare in there and light it up!”

Benning knew it was all over. He locked his gaze with Patti’s and mouthed an apology. As the quick rush of air and accompanying whistle of the flare echoed through the forest, Benning saw in those eyes calm acceptance, but no more fear. Nor did he see accusation. Only gratitude. For that, at least, he was grateful.

Their world became fire.

~~~

By the time the shack had been reduced to glowing embers, day had given way to night and a crescent moon hung like a silver dagger in the clear night sky. Nearby, a pit fire blazed, casting an eerie glow over the faces of the hunters as they greedily devoured their servings.

Stationed at his makeshift serving post, the company cook turned the hand crank, slowly rotating the spit so as to evenly roast the mounted body. He paused, catching motion among the shadows beyond the reach of the flames. Moments later, two figures emerged from the outer perimeter of the camp. It was a man he recognized as one of the hunters, accompanied by his young son.

As the new arrivals approached the serving post, the father prompted his son to step forward. The boy did so, holding his plate out. He trembled as he stood before the cook, who eyed him warily for a moment before breaking into an inviting grin.

“Ready for some new meat, boy?” the cook asked, adopting a tone which suggested this was a matter of utmost gravity. He offered a sidelong wink at the father, who covered his smile.

“Answer the man, son.”

“Yes sir,” the boy told the cook, nodding.  The grizzled old man’s smile widened as he picked up a large serving fork and a fillet knife from the station.

The cook jabbed the tines of the fork into the side of the body, puncturing the roasted muscle running along the ribs , slicing through it with the thin, razor-edged blade. He made quick work of it, carefully dropping a slab of meat onto the boy’s plate. This was accompanied by a high-pitched sizzling as drops of juice fell from the cut into the flames.

“Thank the man, son,” the hunter instructed. The boy mumbled a solemn “Thank you”, staring at his father and then the cook with questioning eyes. The two men exchanged an amused glance.

“What’s wrong, son?” the cook asked. “You never tasted the new meat before?”

“No sir, I haven’t,” the boy answered softly. The cook let out a belly laugh at this. Several of the men encamped around the fire joined in, raising their beers in his direction.

The boy looked up at his father timidly. “Is it safe, Papa?”

The man smiled, clasping his hand on the boy’s shoulder. He was proud of him. This had been his son’s first hunt using live ammunition and the boy had acquitted himself wonderfully. “Not only is it safe,” he explained, “it’s your right, son.”

“Why, Papa?”

“Well, you helped to track the new meat down, so you have an equal right to it.” He glanced over at the cook, who was nodding in agreement.

“He’s speaking the truth, son,” the cook added. “You did a damned fine job out there today. Any party would be lucky to have you help ‘em track game. You earned that meat. Now eat up.”

The boy stared at his plate for a long time, lost in thought. Then he looked to his father again. “Is it true what they say, Papa? T hat it tastes like chicken?”

The entire company laughed uproariously at this and the boy’s face brightened. “It surely does, son,” he was assured. “It surely does.”

The boy shrugged. If Papa said it was okay, then he believed it. Papa was smart about this sort of stuff. Besides, his stomach was growling, he hadn’t eaten all day and chasing the game through the woods had been hard work. The food smelled delicious.

Smiling, he picked up his portion of the new meat, taking a bite.

D.S. Ullery’s Blog With No Name 3/1/2019

Fiction Flashback: The Basement

Spring is just about here again and with it comes a time of renewal and re-birth. It’s also a time when even creepy crawlies give birth to a new generation. In that spirit, I’m sharing a story that originally appeared in the anthology Creature Stew some years back and currently exists as part of my first published collection, Beyond Where the Sky Ends.

So enjoy this nasty little creature feature, designed to give you the willies and have you pulling your feet up off the floor.

Catch you on the flip side.

 

The Basement

by D.S. Ullery

 

 

“It’s about damned time.”

Crawford scowled at Jenkins as he slid the pack from his back, setting it on the ground between them, targeting the pudgy little man with an annoyed glare. “Couldn’t be helped,” the elderly custodian muttered.

Crawford opened the pack and rummaged through it. Jenkins watched in silence, shivering miserably. It was unseasonably cold that morning and the interior of the machine shop was retaining the chill. It served to exacerbate his anger.

He was only here because a shop employee had been bitten by something the day before while down in the basement to retrieve a case of machine oil. The entire crew had been startled when the man had emerged mere minutes after going down, clenching his arm and screaming something had bitten him.

The injured employee hadn’t seen what had attacked him. Jenkins had no idea what the offending creature might be. Judging by the way that hand had swollen up like a purple grapefruit, he didn’t care to find out. He’d been content to just order the men to stay away from the basement until further notice.

Contrarily, Mr. Molgaard – the site manager –  had been unequivocal in his opinion Jenkins should handle the task of cleaning out the basement personally. He was the floor supervisor, after all, and maintaining a safe work environment was really his responsibility. He’d need to attend to his duties outside of operating hours, of course. That was part of being on salary.

“Hell of a way to spend a Saturday, huh?” Crawford asked.

“Just come on,” Jenkins grumbled. Crawford shrugged and grabbed the pack, following across the room to a large, metal plate set into the floor.

“Well,” Jenkins snapped, “don’t just stand there. Open it.”

Crawford knelt down and gripped a small handle at the edge of the plate. He pulled, lifting the metal slab out of its groove and dropping it on the floor, a loud clatter echoing across the cold pavement . Underneath, an exposed opening revealed a flight of narrow, metal stairs.

“Let’s go,” Jenkins said. Crawford nodded. He withdrew two small, plastic flashlights from the pack, handing one to the other man. They turned the lights on and, with Jenkins in the lead, headed down.

As they descended, the shadows took over and the beams from their lights became more distinct in the surrounding darkness. Jenkins paused on the last step. He hadn’t been down here in years, but thought he remembered where the light switch was. He moved the light in that direction, relieved to see the old plastic panel on the other side of the room.

They crossed the space and Jenkins hit the switch. Nothing happened. He tried it again, but knew with a sinking feeling the lights weren’t working. He was grateful, at least, for the combination of their flashlights and the glare of the shop lamps shining down on the exposed stairway through the portal above. They could see well enough to move around safely. More importantly, they could plant the pesticide bombs Crawford had in his pack and get out of there quickly, without stumbling around.

“Look,” Crawford said, pointing towards something large and bulky on the floor. Whatever the object was, it was cloaked by shadow in one of the corners. Both men trained their beams on it as they approached. It was revealed to be a large cardboard storage box. The box had been dropped onto its side. Several rusted cans marked “oil” lay strewn about the mouth, one of them having shattered open and spilled its long degraded contents onto the concrete.

“This must be the box Garcia was handling when he was bitten,” Jenkins said.

“Don’t know why anyone came down here anyway,” Crawford chided. “No one’s been down here in years. Should tent the building and kill everything in here.”

“He came down because we ran out of oil and thought there might be some left down here we could use,” Jenkins said testily. He was about to add something sarcastic when he was interrupted by a loud skittering, coming from behind the mess. Something was moving around back there.

Jenkins kicked the box to one side, shining his light on the newly exposed section of wall. “Crawford, move your light over here!” he ordered. Crawford did as he was told.

Something large and misshapen was fastened to a baseboard. The surface of the thing throbbed and pulsed beneath a translucent substance which appeared to be some type of silky, organic adhesive. The men exchanged looks of burning curiosity and peered closer, bringing their flashlights right up on it. Jenkins reflexively issued a disgusted gasp. Beside him, Crawford’s face transformed into a mask of revulsion .

Dozens of large, hairy spiders were swarming across the surface, scurrying onto the walls and floors. One or two – each easily measuring three to four inches – charged across the concrete directly toward Jenkins. He frantically stomped them to pieces, shuddering as their bodies exploded in a sickly expulsion of fluid beneath his heel.

“Wait a minute”, Crawford spoke. There was an alarmed edge to his voice Jenkins didn’t like at all. “Good god, Mr, Jenkins… those bugs are coming out of that thing.”

Steeling himself despite his flesh actively trying to crawl off of his bones, Jenkins stepped closer and had another look. The custodian was correct.. The spiders were breaking out from beneath the webbed surface. Crawford met Jenkins’ gaze and whispered in a thick voice “It’s an egg sac.”

“But they’re so big!” Jenkins cried, pointing. “That can’t be an egg sac! Look at how huge those spiders are!” When Crawford didn’t answer, Jenkins turned on him. “Did you hear what I-”

Jenkins lapsed into silence the moment he laid eyes on Crawford. The older man had frozen. He was staring past his employer, his eyes locked onto the ceiling. His face had contorted into a visage of terror and disbelief so extreme as to border on caricature. With a sense of mounting dread, Jenkins followed his companion’s gaze. He immediately found himself wishing with every fiber of his being they hadn’t left the pack with the bug bombs upstairs.

Something enormous crawled down the wall, the sheer size of it sending vibrations running through the entire room, causing the metal stairs to rattle. The hairy expanse of the massive body momentarily blocked the light cast from the shop above as it scurried toward them. It dropped onto the stairs, finding purchase for a brief second before lunging at them.

Crawford was right, Jenkins had just enough time to think. It is an egg sac.

And now it was time for Mother to feed.

D.S. Ullery’s Blog With No Name

New Flash fiction: “Byron”

Hello, one and all, and welcome to the latest entry in my blog. This week, I participated in another writing prompt, courtesy of Stitched Smile Publications. The following story is a brand new piece of flash fiction which emerged from that challenge.

So here for your reading pleasure is my all new horror tale, “Byron”.

Enjoy the story!

 

Catch you on the flip side.

 

Byron

by D. S. Ullery

“Okay Byron. You have a good night.”

Mother planted a soft kiss on her son’s forehead as she lay him down. Byron cooed, his infant mouth curling in a smile. He was in a warm bed and his mother was watching over him. All was well in his world.

She regarded the boy for a moment longer, then glided to the bedroom door. With the flip of a light switch, the warm, amber glow of the night light installed near the baseboards lit the room. Though the shine didn’t completely dispel the shadows, it allowed her to see the crib from the doorway should the need arise.

Satisfied he would be secure with or without her presence in the nursery, Mother stepped out into the adjacent hall. Closing the door quietly behind her, she considered drawing a bath. It had been a long day and a good, hot soak would be welcome.

The sound of Father moving about in the den downstairs changed her mind. It had been forever since the two of them had enjoyed some quality alone time. She’d instead go down and join him in a nightcap.

Smiling, she headed down the stairs.

* * *

It watched from its hiding place, perched high in the corner of the room, talons gripping the walls as an anchor. It had caught the scent of the human child several miles out, while in flight above the desert to the south. Past experience had taught it to wait until the more mature creature was gone. The species were a potent source of nutrition at any age, but the adults fought . They used tools. Their young put up no struggle. Plus, the meat was sweeter.

It had slipped into the nursery earlier that evening, having tracked the scent of the infant through a then-open window. It had watched in silence, keeping perfectly still as the adult entered and placed its pup in what appeared to be a human nest below. It had done this many, may times across a span of years of which it kept no account.

The night was the only world it knew. Daylight rendered the thing practically blind. Once the sun went down, it could perceive the movement of even the tiniest insect from over a mile away.

It’s other senses were equally keen- its olfactory and aural capabilities were unrivaled in the fossil record, as was its speed and strength. It was a perfect predator, able to soar on huge, leathery flaps. The razor sharp claws topping its feet more than compensated for the limited range of the crooked digits protruding from the tips of those wings.

A natural dexterity allowed the thing to contort itself into as tight a ball as necessary, a gift beneficial for both defense and feeding. With a snout full of needle-like teeth, it was a lethal beast, able to grip its still writhing prey while tearing chunks of hot, bloody flesh from the bones. Better still was its physical similarity to the primates on which it fed. Graced with a humanoid frame, its prey would often mistake it for another of their kind cloaked in the dark , not realizing their error until it was too late.

Now alone with the human child, it felt its hunger rise. The smell of this one was particularly sweet, the aroma of succulent meat more enticing than on any previous occasion. Being this close – less than a meter above the crib- the desire to feed had increased to a white hot intensity, overriding all other instincts.

Salivating, it spread its wings and released its grip on the wall, plummeting on top of the baby. It spread its feet as it fell, not wishing to pulverize the meal by landing directly on it. Steadying itself on the soft material of the mattress, it rose to its full height, wings completely spread. It’s mouth stretched, now a chasm lined with ivory daggers.

An unearthly hiss issued from its throat as it went in for the kill.

There was a flash of motion. It abruptly found itself frozen, unable to breathe. Something impossibly strong had wound itself around its neck and was throttling it.

Panicked, it made a furious attempt to flap its wings. It was to no avail. They were pinned to its sides. The beast pulled with its considerable strength, thrashing to and fro, but found itself unable to escape.

Save for a single morning eons ago when it had evaded the torment of daytime by mere minutes, the thing had never known fear. It was becoming intimately familiar with it now, the scarlet orbs of its eyes bulging in terror as it was held fast.

It stared down , unable to comprehend what was happening.

The child was gone. In his place lay a squirming, foul demon. Colorless black eyes sunken in reptilian, slime-slicked flesh glared back. Wriggling tentacles stretched from the creature’s body, winding around the flying beast’s neck and torso, holding it suspended in air above the bed.

Beneath those soulless eyes , the putrid flesh split apart, revealing a pointed beak. This protrusion clacked repeatedly, snapping at air as it slowly pulled its captive ever closer.

It took a bite. Then another. Then another. It happened so quickly, the beast had no time to scream.

One bloody piece at a time, it sliced up the bat-like intruder, until only tattered remnants of its wings and a single, broken talon remained. Noting this, it slid its slithering appendages across the gore-soaked pile, absorbing the blood through its suckers and shoving the last pieces into that deadly beak.

It fell still, sitting quietly in the crib, stomach bloated as it digested the meal.

The feast was appreciated. What seemed like ages had elapsed since it had sensed another night creature in such close proximity. It hadn’t wanted to miss the opportunity for a fresh meal. The demon noted – with some regret – this would be the last kill it would make using this boy. As the host it had entered matured, so did the young mind within begin to challenge the demon’s presence for control. Eventually, the natural consciousness would win out. It knew it would have to leave, to find another.

After a time, the low growl of expelled gas drifted out of it as it finished with the food. This was followed by a high pitched giggle. The ebony marbles it used for eyes rolled back, revealing the bright blue Mother held so dear. The slimy green skin peeled away, rolling over and wrapping his bones with the traditional soft pink as Byron’s human appearance reasserted itself. Tentacles dwindled into chubby arms, culminating in five tiny digits.

From behind the boy’s eyes, it assessed the body one last time. Even the beige pajamas he was clothed in had been restored.

Not a hair out of place, it thought wistfully. Despite being a thing of the pit, the demon felt a twinge of regret. It had grown to like Byron. Ah, well. Such was the fate of the damned.

It slipped out, for now content as it fled into the night, searching for the next vessel.

Back in his crib, Byron curled up on his pillow and fell into a deep, contented sleep.

Later that night, when Mother looked in on him, she saw her son sleeping peacefully in the comforting glow of the night light.

Such a happy baby.

D. S Ullery’s Blog With No Name

Book Review: Reaper by Briana Robertson.

 

In my inaugural blog last week, I mentioned that – from time to time- reviews of both written and visual media would be part of the content readers will find here. I also pointed out that horror would be a fairly persistent thread winding through this blog.

In that spirit, I’ve written a review of a book I finished earlier this week. So without further adieu, here we go:

The Target: Reaper

The Creative: Briana Robertson

The collective responsible for anyone being able to read this: Stitched Smile Publications

The year it was unleashed upon the populace: 2017

Briana Robertson’s single author collection Reaper gathers five dark tales offering a variety of perspectives on humanity’s greatest fear – death- from a distinctly feminine perspective.

Powered by the author’s remarkable gift for prose, the stories are engaging and the book was a breeze to devour.  One of the very real pleasures in reading this tome was witnessing how Robertson uses her technical skills, painting a vivid emotional portrait of what’s happening on the page as well as a physical one. The stories are populated with characters possessed of immediately recognizable human weaknesses – and strengths- making them easy to relate to.

However, not all narratives are created equal and , as is usually the case with collections, not every story worked to the same degree for me. I’ll be touching on that in more detail below.

 

So here’s my  breakdown by story, in order of their sequence in the book:

 

Reaper: The titular tale and the one definitively supernatural selection of the bunch. The cliff notes version is this is a look at a day in the life of the Grim Reaper, here presented as a woman who isn’t particularly fond of her job. I thought this got off to a somewhat rocky start, but quickly found its bearings and delivered a fascinating  take on how workplace sexual politics might manifest on the other side of death. This one produces some unexpectedly heart-wrenching moments , leading to  a starkly effecting conclusion. It’s a good note on which to begin the collection.

Capitulation: Both chilling and sad, this is a devastating story, told from the perspective of a woman who has given up hope.  The writing here is so rich and descriptive, it really puts the reader inside her head. Robertson consistently demonstrates an uncanny knack for making us feel what her characters are experiencing throughout the entire collection and that gift is on full display in this story. This is a tale that’s meant to leave bruises. Mission accomplished.

Prey: A woman is violated and then seeks revenge on her tormentor. That’s about all the plot I can give, because Robertson does some interesting things here . The story – which I believe is the longest in the collection- is extremely well written. The subject matter is uncomfortable and the author dives headlong into it , never holding back nor apologizing as she masterfully exposes the physical and psychological horrors of rape, as well as the often callous response to such crimes by men. What makes this tale terrifying – and all the more effective- is the plausibility of the plot for the majority of the work.

And that’s also why this was the only selection I ultimately had criticisms of. In the latter part of “Prey” , the plot swerves into the matter of  revenge .  I don’t want to divulge spoilers, but what the protagonist comes up with requires the human monster who’s the focus of her rage to believe her on a level I wasn’t able to accept. In the earlier part of the story, he’s definitely fleshed out as a psychopath, but how he goes about committing his crimes in these early passages suggests someone too intelligent to just accept what she says to him on face value later on. This in turn sets up the ending, which I also had issues with. Again, avoiding spoilers, there is a decision made by a character that closes out the tale, indicating a dark, new direction for their life. I was uncertain if readers were supposed to accept this individual as an avenger or a lunatic. If I’m being completely honest,  while I really wanted to think the first, it felt more like the latter.  Consequently, I walked away from this story unsatisfied with how it concluded.

Now, having made those points, it’s a distinct possibility other readers will be a lot more taken with “Prey” than I was. It is powerful stuff and the prose is top notch.   This isn’t by any stretch a bad story. I just didn’t think it came together as well as the others. Particularly the next in line…..

Lucy.

 Holy shit. This is a fucking masterpiece. With “Lucy”, Briana Robertson has accomplished something no author has been able to do in roughly a decade. For the first time in years, I actually cried while reading a story.

I absolutely refuse to divulge any substantial details; Going in as blind as possible is the best way to experience this one. All you’ll get from me is that it’s about a mother who faces a parent’s worst nightmare. Robertson pulls you in , holds you at rapt attention, rips your heart out of your chest and then hits you with a grand slam whammy of a conclusion that had this reader’s jaw scraping the floor. This was such an exquisitely crafted piece, I would favorably compare it to the best works of Shirley Jackson. Not only does this stand as the high watermark  of the collection, this is one of the best short stories I’ve ever read, period. End of discussion. “Lucy” absolutely blindsided me.

 

 Phobia: I had a huge, twisted grin stretched across my face by the time I finished this final tale. For the closing story, Robertson delivers a shocker designed to terrify readers and send goose-flesh rippling across every inch of skin on their bones. About two thirds of the way through this, I recognized this as a clear instance of an author having an absolute blast in creeping out her audience. Easily the most frightening story in the book and guaranteed to make even the most stoic readers squirm, I won’t soon forget this nasty little gem.

 

The Bottom Line: Crafted in gorgeous prose by an artist exceptionally skilled at populating her stories with three dimensional  characters, Reaper was an intense, incredibly entertaining read. My comments regarding the latter part of “Prey” aside,  I highly recommend this one to fans of dark fiction. Briana Robertson is an author you should be reading.

****1/2 out of ***** stars. A must read.

Thanks for reading!

Catch you on the flip side.

D.S. Ullery  2/9/19