Layover

The explosion tore through the terminal like shattered glass through sinews and flesh.

Then gunshots came – shotgun blasts, I thought they were, though of course I wouldn’t know – and people screaming. Then it was just this rising wave of panic that I could absolutely just feel in the open air of the terminal, and more blasts, echoing down the glass-roofed atrium past the ‘D’ gates, and screaming, and people were running, and the din of the wheels of their luggage rolling on concrete was deafening.

I stood, frozen, like a stone in a stream with a raging river passing around me.

Farther down I saw two security guards running, the crisp white of their shirts beneath their bullet-proof vests soaked red with blood, and behind them a man giving chase. Two men. Then a whole horde came stampeding around the corner. They were all bearing down fast on me and I just stood there like a deer in the headlights.

Finally I found myself and joined the fleeing throngs around me, the wheels of my luggage joining the cacophonous chorus being played, and I tore down the floor of terminal.

The second blast came from the other side of the airport in front of me, and this time the screams of everyone around arose immediately and loudly and the palpable panic in the air grew even higher. I saw more people come running around the other side on the far end, rounding the corner near the Mexican restaurant. They were waving their arms and their mouths were open. They were making horrible noises. They were covered in blood.

I heard the loudspeakers all around come alive into too-loud static, then into the voice of a woman, trying to sound as calm as she urged everyone in the terminal to be: “Ladies and gentlemen, please remain calm… this is an Emergency. Proceed to the nearest exit as quickly as you can. Ladies and gentlemen, please remain calm, and proceed to the nearest exit. Emergency response personnel are on their way… please remain calm. This is an Emergency…”

They were closing in and I was going to be pinched in the middle. Something overcame me, something hard and sharp and tight in my chest and I ran, ran and turned sharply and before I knew what I was doing I ducked into a handicap bathroom and locked the door behind me.

There was something wrong with them. Something in their eyes. Their skin too, I saw, at just the last moment. The screams are so loud now, they’re everywhere, and gunshots. I can hear them, those people, those things – growling, and sounds, wet sounds.

They’re eating them. They’re… they’re monsters. What do I do?

Beasts

We burst through the upper atmosphere, our dead ship falling to earth like a steel stone, klaxons blaring loud and all the lights red and flashing inside, blinding all sensation. The hull glowed angry red and flames and smoke of rage trailed from the vessel. It must have been a beautiful sight from the ground.

Only McGrady, Whittle and I survived. The Captain took the joystick right through the ribcage like the spear of an angry native.

It was black, black as pitch, and the jungle of the planet we’d crashed into awaited outside the mangled steel door of the ship. Noises, from outside. Insects. And animals.

McGrady had the blaster. The only other thing we could scrounge up was a handful of flares. Everything else was gone, jettisoned with the cargo.

I lit the first flare and it exploded into an unreal red flame. I saw Whittle’s pudgy white face glow beneath it. We tramped through the humid underbrush, scarcely able to see anything, not knowing where we were going.

As we hiked the noises got worse, deep growls. Roars. Sounds that made us think of mouths full of sharp teeth and vicious hungry claws and scaly backs and eyes that saw us in the dark.

When the first flare went out I reached to light the second. That was all it took. Something pounced and I heard Whittle scream and all was blackness and fighting. I heard McGrady fire the blaster. When the red flame finally came alive I saw Whittle’s terrified face as he was dragged off into the brush. Then there was only his screams and wet, snapping sounds and growls and the sound of him being devoured.

McGrady’s blaster shook in his hand. They kept their distance from the flare. Until it ran out again and they got him. The soldier’s screams were even worse than those of Whittle’s had been. I heard the things tear him in half with a wet crackling snap and then all was silent. There was two of them now.

I’m crouched on a log now, huddled down. I think there’s a third, I can hear them all circling.

The flare is burning low. I know it will only last so long.

Canes

I walked out of the lobby and into the broad light of day. Far off, down the sidewalk, I saw an old man ambling toward me, a long black cane in his hand, tapping against the grey stone.

The light changed and I crossed. I rounded the corner and saw the street filled with people – old people, young people, businessmen in suits, middle-aged couples with young children.

In each and every one of their hands was a black cane, tapping against the sidewalk. The din was like roar of a thousand sea monsters, pulling doomed viking ships down into dark stormy waters.

A young boy looked up to me, his eyes sharp and cutting.

“You!” he said, and pointed with his cane. Everyone in the street stopped and turned to face me. The din ceased as all the walking sticks were held just aloft of the pavement beneath.

Then they all rushed me, black wooden sticks flying in the area as they ran.

They encircled me and rained blow after blow down upon me with the hardness of the canes. I screamed out for them to stop, not understanding what was happening, where I was, what this was. I felt the stinging blows exploding into pain over and over in my leg. I felt my shin bone shatter. I screamed again and the flurry of black wood increased until everything turned black.

I awoke in my hotel room, and turned to rise out of bed. My leg ached again, as it always did when the weather was wet. I grabbed the black cane from my bedside, and hobbled over toward the bathroom to shower.

The Dark Stranger

I entered the bar and its tender turned from beneath the neon glow of beer signs above his domain to face me. The place was dank and cold, open and empty; it was just him, his grizzled face and balding head reflecting the amber light toward me, and only few others dotting the tables here and there in the place. Besides them there was only one lone man sat at the bar, drinking beer from a glass. He wore a dark overcoat and had not turned to face me when I entered as the other patrons had.

The bartender walked over toward my end and looked me in the eye: “What’ll it be?” he said, his stubbled-covered jowls flapping as he spoke.

“Whiskey,” I said. “On ice.” “You got it,” he said, and disappeared back toward the bottles of precious spirit, lining the shelf behind the bar like soldiers standing at attention.

I watched him pour a glass of the amber liquid and cubes embrace it as they shifted in the glass. He replaced the bottle and returned to me.

“Thanks,” I said, taking a first sip of the warm liquid. It burned in my mouth pleasantly. “No problem, bud.” He wiped his hairy arm against his sweaty forehead and grunted.

As I drank the warm spirit from the tumbler, I took in my surroundings and looked longer at the other patrons. There was a couple in the back corner, huddled deep down into a booth of red leather, arms around each other and eyes locked together, oblivious to everything, save for each other and their glasses of poison.

A large biker sat a table in the center of the place. He drank a cheap beer – a PBR it looked like – in long, slow drags, and laughed occasionally at the commercials on the TV. His giant gut shook when he did so, beneath a filthy shirt and a vest made of leather.

Finally my eyes turned toward the man sitting at the bar alone. There was something strange about him, something not quite right, that I couldn’t put my finger on. I could feel it, even from far away. He didn’t look up to watch the televisions right in front of him. He didn’t look up at the bartender when the man walked by. He just sat there with his head down into his drink, black shoulder-length hair hiding his face, and this strange darkness, this strange atmosphere, seeming to exude from him and cut him off from everything around.

The bar felt colder as I watched the strange pale man sip his beer.

“Shitty night they’re having, ain’t it?” The bartender was back in front of me again. “Yeah, real shame it is,” I said. I drained the last of my drink. “Another?” “Yeah, please.” He disappeared to the rows of soliders standing at attention again.

The stranger rose from his seat, and still I could not see his face. I watched him reach deep into the dark folds of his overcoat, reaching for something, and I saw the expressions of the other patrons in the bar begin to match my own: falling, long and languid, into shock, terror, uncertainty, as if in slow motion.

From the dark folds of his coat, the man pulled something, something shiny and silver. A butterknife. No, that wasn’t it. It was hard to see in the dimness of the place. I watched him bring it to his throat and it was then I realized what it was.

A straight razor.

The bartender made as if to speak, but the stranger beat him to it.

He turned to face me and looked me square in the eyes and his eyes were blacker than midnight, blacker than the burned flesh of all the souls suffering in Hell, and he spoke:

“We all die alone,” he said coldly. “And you will too.”

And then in an instant he sliced the blade across his throat in one sudden jerk, and the other patrons in the bar screamed and I felt my blood grow cold and my legs turn to jelly, and my eyes suddenly feel like they were one too many sizes big enough for their sockets. The blood spurted everywhere, shooting out in long red geysers, painting the black overcoat of the dying man, painting in red the bar and all the bottles behind it, and all I could see was the blood, the blood and the darkness and the sweat on the bartender’s cue-ball forehead glistening beneath the amber radiance of the Amstel Light sign above him.

The man collapsed to his knees and the woman in the booth screamed. Blood pooled around his crumpled body and finally I found myself and stood, but no words came. I acted as if a man possessed. I ran over to the body, not thinking, moving without a mind, and took his blood-soaked form into my arms. His head lolled back on his neck sickeningly and his eyes were blank and empty and face smeared with blood.

“Call 9-11!” I heard the girl scream.

In one hand I held him, and the other escaped from beneath the weight of his body. That hand shook above the pool of blood I knelt in, and found its way down to the filthy hardwood of the floor. To the handle of the implement that had fallen from the stranger’s hand once it had finished its dirty work. Mother of Pearl.

I held up the blade before my face and it shook in my hand, and as I read the words engraved into the luminescent handle I felt every hair on my body rise:

YOU’RE NEXT

The Collections Men

No one knows who first started saying it, but now we all say it. We all say it because it’s the best thing you can say to let them know that something’s different, that something’s fundamentally changed, and for them to stop a take a beat. Which, of course, is exactly what they need to do.

You see, they’re always surprised to see us when we turn up. To learn that there is no Grim Reaper; just us suits, us mortals working our day jobs, day-in, day-out. I guess it all really is kind of strange, when I stop to think about it. But in the short time we’re talking I don’t really have time to get into how I became a suit, or about Hell Inc., or why He decided they should outsource their collections back to our mortal plane, and insisted on such secrecy around it.

Derek had to explain to me my first week on the job, you see, that they don’t remember. Even if they die in some horrific fashion, like getting crushed by a falling scaffold or blown away by a policeman’s shotgun or even doing the job themselves with a bathtub and razor blade, they never remember. They just wake up, confused and unharmed, with us suits staring back at them and then we say it. It’s the worst for the ones who die in their sleep, when they wake up and think it’s just a regular morning, and we’re there to tell them they’re going to Hell. And that there is no Heaven. But we don’t really have time to get into that either.

“I’m beat,” I said to Derek, “I’m going to call it a night.”

“Sure man,” he said, watching a cop car scream by with sirens flashing. “I’ll get the last one. Cya tomorrow.”

“Cya.” I went home and collapsed into bed. I didn’t even bother take off my suit.

When I woke up Derek was there in the house waiting for me, sitting in the chair in the living room, cigarette in hand, its long plume rising toward the ceiling.

“What’s up?” I said. “Another early start, or some fire to put out?”

Derek turned toward me with a look in his eyes I’d never seen before.

“Please, just take a moment.”

Showdown

The pale white moon hung bright and full in the dark sky of night. Sheriff Michaels back up slowly, back towards the center of the street, his revolver held out in front of him, his hand steady and firm, and joined the circle of the other men doing the same. They stood in a cross, backs pressed against each others’, weapons held outward, on high alert.

“It’s madness,” said Fricks, the town doctor. “Madness! This cannot be real.” The shotgun he cradled atop his forearm shook violently.

“It’s as real as the nose on your face,” Stevens replied from next to him, not turning his head, eyes sharp and scanning the dusty deserted street and town buildings. “Though wish to God it weren’t. Fightin’ braves ‘ll be easier than falling off a horse after this.”

“Is it just us left?” the last one chimed in, Patterson, who kept the general store. He had a six-shooter in either hand, one from his own holster, the other a rusted, blood-smeared affair he’d pilfered from a fallen corpse.

“Quiet everyone,” Michaels said, waving his downturned hand. The wind howled and kicked up dust against the boots of the four men. “Quiet.”

Then the noise came, the one for which they’d all been waiting. It began as a low groaning, a growling, then rose, many voices together as one. Ten voices. Twenty. More. The sound rose in pitch and volume into a frantic kind of screaming, coming from all around.

“They’re everywhere!” Fricks shouted. “We’re doomed!”

“Quiet!” Michaels scolded him. “Stand ready, men.”

Doors of the town’s buildings swung open, fell open, were knocked off their hinges, as townspeople exploded out of them, screaming their inhuman cries and running toward the group of terrified survivors. In the darkness they could see the horrible distorted bodies, covered in blood, chunks of flesh missing, bones showing through.

The dead swarmed the circle of men.

“Fire!” Michaels said. Gunshots rang out into the cold sky of the desert.

They were doomed.

The Demons in the Fortress

The air in the room was cold and dusty, and as the particles swirled around me and danced in the light, I took a deep breath and sighed. I looked down to the floor, down to her crumpled body and the blood staining the concrete and sighed again.

Oh Jeanine.

I saw her face, on that bright summer’s day we were out in the field in the warm sunlight. I saw her mouth moving and her hair dancing around her in the mild breeze and her laughing and taking my hand and her summer dress swishing around her.

“I love you, Michael,” she said, and giggled. She kissed me on the cheek and then stuck out her tongue. “Even though you’re a big loser.”

And then she ran. She ran through the swishing blades of tall, tall grass going to hay and they rocked back and forth around her and I followed after her, my hands reaching for the flesh around her hips, to grab her with my fingers and squeeze more laughter out of her smiling face.

That had only been a week ago.

I saw her face, last night, in the dimness of the living room, the sky outside the sliding glass of the patio doors black as midnight, though it was only seven. All the joy and laughter was gone and there were only the long, sagging lines of exhaustion. Of disappointment. Of the weariness she felt and the things taking hold of her mind. Those things that had been hiding in the bright sunlight but had now reared their ugly heads again in the darkness.

“I hate you, Michael,” she said, and her words were colder than ice and burrowed into my soul. Her eyes were black and empty and she was a different person, one I didn’t even recognize her anymore. “I hate you.”

I tried to fight the things off, tried to chip through the wall of stone they’d erected around her. Assault after assault I launched against the dark black bricks beneath the ramparts, but to no avail. The demons laughed in their towers, invulnerable, God-like, knowing they’d already won.

“Please,” I said. “Please Jeanine.”

“No!” she screamed, and hit me, and her voice wasn’t hers, it was someone else’s. It was a tortured twisted sound like an animal. “No!” She hit me, over and over again and I just wished those brights beams of sunlight would break through the blackness of the night to heal her once more, just for a moment.

“Why are you doing this?” I said. “Baby, it’s me! It’s me! What’s the matter!”

But all that came in response were the blows and the laughter of the demons from above the portcullis.

I tried to stop her but she knocked me to the floor. She grabbed the poker from next to the fireplace and swung it and the sharp tong on its end dug into the hardwood next to me, splintering it. I kicked her and she she screamed again and I remember thinking at that moment that she was finally really gone. Really, truly gone.

She chased me into the basement, swinging the iron tool like an sword and I stumbled, rolling down the stairs, my back hitting every step and shooting electric fire into me. At the base of the landing I stopped and she swung the poker again and I ducked. The metal sunk deep into the drywall and dry powder flew everywhere. She was screaming now, like a madwoman. But it wasn’t her. It wasn’t the woman I loved. The demons had her.

I ran toward the shelves of the basement workshop, those cheap metal shelves she’d always so hated. Stumbling I fell into pile of old paint cans. As she ran toward me I reached for something behind me and my body belonged to someone else.

Blood came out of her mouth, in long, slow, choking spurts. The handle of the screwdriver bobbled back and forth from the one end of the blade, the other stuck into the side of her neck. She sputtered out wet red gasps. I took her in my arms and fell to the floor and she stared into my eyes and we both knew that she was dying.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m so sorry.”

The rage never left her eyes. She spat in my face and her saliva was hot on my cheek. Blood poured from her neck onto the cold grey concrete of the shop floor.

Slowly, she closed her eyes, and in them I saw her last words: I know. I’m sorry too.

Oh Jeanine.

I walked back up the stairs, holding the fire poker in the bloodied hand, its end powdery and white.

The demons will be back for me, I know. All I can do is wait.

A Student of Magic

Clarence Sproultocket lifted the heavy tome from the coarse dusty wood of the desk and opened it in his palms. The book was old and the spine weak, the pages brown and wrinkled and smelling of age. He found the one he was looking for and brushed centuries-old dust from it.

It had cost him a fortune. But it would be worth it, to show that other bastard, that right ribblegostler, who was going to be the star pupil. Who was going to impress The Master and become the greatest of the greatest wizards of arcane magic to ever come out of the academy.

He was going to kill him. Summon a demon to drag him to hell and the swirling black mists of the netherworld in the night.

The young magician turned up the flame on the burner and set the flask of green liquid atop the desk to boiling. He crushed the powdered gecko bones and owl’s feathers in the mortar with the stone pestle and hummed a happy tune to himself. As steam escaped from the top of flask and began to whistle, he dropped the powder in with the other ingredients and dumped the hot vile-smelling fluid from the glass vessel over it all.

He picked up his wand from the desk and raised his arms in the air, chanting:

“Al-shagoth, sep-subbarah, with this detritus before me I summon you from the depths of the netherworld! Al-sagoth, seb-supparah, take my sacrifice and enter this realm, to strike down my hated enemy and mortal nemesis, Aruito Trate! Traze, traze-kel-kay! Kel-kay as-duruath al-nost el zabique! Come onto me, bringer of hatred and suffering!”

The air in the young sorcerer’s cottage grew cold. The fire in the hearth seemed to burn lower and dimmer. And then there was a sensation in the body of Clarence Sproultocket, a horrible itching, a terrible burning. Like a thousand termites were writhing beneath his skin and burrowing in his flesh, turning him into a porous mass of bloody sand. He felt his skin stretching and his bones expanding and his viscera rising up into his throat.

He screamed and vomited blood in red geysers of pain. His porous flesh fell away and revealed something beneath, something giant and black and covered in scales. The skin of his childish visage fell away from a spiny face too large for it, one with a giant grinning mouth full of pointed teeth. The thing screamed and laughed and the sound echoed out of the windows of the tiny cottage into the darkness of the surrounding forest.

Far away, up in his tower, The Master sat reading a book by candlelight, and felt a chill.

Mother

It was dark all around me and smelled of death.

I stumbled through the blackness, clumsy, lost, disoriented, reaching out in front of me for something, anything, to support me in my fumbling through the void. The cold of the stone walls around me greeted my reaching hands, and I continued forward, feeling my way along them.

My eyes adjusted to the dimness, and I saw the lumpy gray rock sheets enclosing me, and between them ahead, a black hole leading into the nothingness, beckoning me. From the hole a figure emerged, a small silhouette. As it came closer I saw it was that of an old woman in a dress.

As she drew nearer I saw that there was something wrong – just wrong – with her. Even in the blackness I could see her face was discolored and bloated. Red blood showed through in places where the skin was torn away, and her eyes were gone: there were only vacant black pits staring out at me.

It was my mother.

“You left me son,” she said in her feeble voice. I smelled the cigarette smoke on her breath, just like I had when I was child. “You left me to die in that home. Why didn’t you take care of me? Why didn’t you tell me you loved me before I turned into this? Before it was too late?”

“I’m sorry!” I called out to her, but my words were broken somehow, muffled like I was underwater, like I was smothered beneath a thick blanket. I called out again and again, but I knew she could not hear me.

“Why son? Why…?” Her voice grew more and more feeble. She began to fade into the blackness just as she’d emerged from it. “Now I’m doomed to wander here forever. Forever. Just as you are.”

“No! No!” I screamed, but my words were even more distorted than before. And then I felt myself falling, and the blackness closing in, heavy and thick and full of malice, and mother was gone.

I awoke covered in sweat, and rose from bed and put on my black suit. I gathered the crumpled pages I’d written the night before from the bedside table, from their place next to the empty glass.

The funeral was at 11. I couldn’t be late. Mother would have disapproved.