Archive for: January, 2012

THE ONE THAT CRAWLED by Rodney J. Smith

Jan 29 2012 Published by under The WiFiles

The One that Crawls hugged his stomach. Fear and hunger battled therein. One told him to stay hidden; the other demanded he claim the discarded burger beckoning from the street beyond the alley.
The buzz of neon lights flickering in the large parking lot across the road had been the only sound for the last hour.

So he risked it. He struggled out of the dumpster, arms bearing the burden of his deadweight legs like rocks chained to his torso.

The half-eaten clump of oily meat was sludge as he chewed it. Like everything else he found, it made him sick to his stomach. It looked and smelled like food, but it wasn’t. Not really.

A strip of gold foil was all that remained of the burger’s wrapper. He turned it over and over in the muted streetlight, loving the way it shone when held at the certain angles. He folded it carefully and tucked it away.

The misted rain falling beyond the alley’s dilapidated fence was just as pretty. It never stopped: an endless sheet of glittering sprinkles falling from the black sky, their beauty swallowed by the dirty concrete below.

It beckoned him, as always, that soft mist. Its kisses echoed ones now so colorless in his memory they might have only ever been dreams.

He had to steal another moment in it — just a second or two, and then back to the alley.

His shoulders were even bigger now, he mused, as he struggled through the gap in the fence. That forced a smile to his lips. A warm flame flickered in his chest as he admired their shapeliness. But as he settled himself onto the curb, those broad shoulders only highlighted the miserable sight of his legs: two withered branches, twisting over each other like the roots of a dead tree.

He caught some of the falling raindrops on his tongue, and imagined he felt their light warming his insides.

“Hey!” a voice cried from beyond the mist. “It’s that one that crawls again!”

The One that Crawls nearly bit his tongue. Several figures rounded the corner of a nearby building, their upright postures making them giants. Angry red eyes burned in their dirty faces. Their heavy boots rapped the pavement in unison as they closed in.

The One that Crawls tried to pull himself along the sidewalk. He didn’t make it far before the first boot found his side. The spatter of someone’s spit on the back of his neck emphasized the point. The soft rain was replaced by a hail of kicks.

“Get away from here!” one roared. “You don’t belong here!”

Hands violated his pockets, stripping him of all the shiny things he’d collected since the last time they’d seen him.

“Look!” cried another, producing the golden foil.

Rough hands forced The One that Crawls onto his back. One of his attackers crouched over him. The wrinkles of the man’s pale skin were filled with grime, the thick clumps of his beard matted with filth.

“This isn’t for you,” he growled, licking at the dried sauce of the wrapper.

“Neither are these!” screeched a woman just as hard and filthy. She stripped The One that Crawls of the flimsy shirt he’d found only three nights before. The contents of its pockets were already in the hands of the gang. She moved to take the shreds of pants tied to his legs next, but hesitated over those buckled limbs like they were hazardous waste.

“I’m s-s-sorry,” The One that Crawls whimpered. “B-but, everywhere I go…”

“Eww, it’s disgusting,” a younger woman shrieked. “Just shut up! Shut up you…freak!”

This sparked another flurry of kicks.

The One that Crawls was all paddling arms and see-sawing knees as he tried to escape. The road received him as coldly as the mob raining blows upon him. The asphalt gave nothing, demanded the use of limbs he couldn’t employ. The pack’s rage escalated, as though he was just simply refusing to move any faster.

He grasped at the air itself as he was shunted across the road. And, as they launched him over the side of the parking lot’s lower level, he flew. For one breathless moment of wild flapping, he flew.

Before crash-landing on a row of rusted cars.

He rolled end over end and hit more concrete. He cowered in the shadows until the sounds of the pack faded in the street behind him.

Tears forced their way from his aching temples. The rows of rusted cars became a copper blur. He pressed a hand to his nose and mouth, lest the sobs rocking his chest draw the attention of anyone else.

Somewhere in that sea of copper was a wink of aquatic blue. He wiped his eyes with the back of his hand, blinking away tears as he tried to focus on the shimmering thing near his feet.

It was the lid from a soda bottle. He licked one finger and wiped the dirt from it to reveal its rich turquoise logo.

There were suddenly more voices, growing louder, somewhere on the level above. The One that Crawls scuttled awkwardly to the stairwell, hunkering in the blackness beneath the metal-grate stairs.

He held his breath. A procession of legs descended.

Only after the last pair of feet disappeared did he dare uncurl his fist and admire the soda pop lid. He held it up to the slivers of light penetrating the gaps between the steps. Twinkles of blue and green danced across its rim. His mind escaped on those glimmering shards, dreaming of a world filled with such brightness.

When his eyes refocused in the stairwell, they met another pair staring back. A small boy, frozen in half-step, had spied him through the cracks.

The faded baseball cap on the boy’s head looked as though it was once a similar color to the lid. The One that Crawls held the bottle cap out to demonstrate, offering a nervous smile.

The boy frowned at it, then at its owner. “That monster is down here!”

An army of feet shook the stairwell. The One that Crawls tumbled around the pointing child and began his desperate climb. Muscles like protruding rocks pumped in his arms as he hauled himself up, step by step, his tangled legs a pendulum banging against the stairs.

The stairwell trembled with the force of his pursuers.

Fire numbed the pain in his arms as he ascended. There was growing fluidity in the motion. He started to pull as much at the air as he did the stairs, clearing two at a time…then three…then four.

But for all his speed, he was still losing ground. The thin grates reverberated as the first pursuer closed in. A hand grasped at his legs, but The One that Crawls’ arms were stronger. With a final, terrified push he cleared the last six steps of the stairwell.

The top level was sparse, sprinkled with a few more cars as dusted and forgotten as the ones below. The One that Crawls tore away. His rippling arms cleared more and more ground with every lunge. Fear shot ice through his arms, however, as he found himself at the edge of the building.

Behind him, a wall of screaming men and women blocked the way back. He was trapped.

“Why does it keep hanging around?” someone cried.

“Why doesn’t it just it die?”

“What did you do to the kid?” roared one large man.

“Get away from us! Go away!”

The One that Crawls glanced from one repulsed face to another. Hate oozed from filthy pores no matter where he turned.

“Get rid of it, now! For good!”

“Stomp it…stomp it!”

The One that Crawls raised his burning arms in defense, but his determined attackers found every exposed inch. Walls of kicking legs denied every attempt to crawl away.

He grasped at the ledge behind him, tried to pull himself up out of the whirlwind of pain.

“There, the ledge!” someone yelled. “Send him over the ledge!” The blows shifted to a concerted, organized force.

The One that Crawls rolled with their blows. Some fire within him drove him to that ledge. He ached to swim out into the open air, dive away from the fear and the pain. The fatal conclusion to that leap was of little import compared to the blissful release he’d enjoy — if only for a moment.

He flung himself from the ledge as soon as he was on it, arms slicing the air like a swimmer breaking the surface of the water. Ecstatic cheers erupted behind him as he fell. He stroked the air again, relishing the absolute freedom of movement. His arms were ablaze, bearing him across the wind.

The weight below his waist disappeared.

The legs of The One that Crawled shattered on the concrete a dozen stories below. Thin slits of pain tore along his arms. The skin perforated from the tip of his little fingers to the base of his neck. Bright orange feathers with yellow tips burst from those fissures, paper-thin with a metallic sheen. Larger feathers of the same sprouted from the mess of his abdomen, unfurling into a tail almost twice as long as himself.

The air was a malleable thing, a thick atmosphere he could climb like solid stairs or cast aside like a thin curtain.

The faces below froze in caricatures of terror. He banked in their direction, his blood pumping electricity as they scattered for cover. He made several low swoops over their heads, the unwashed masses falling over each other in their rush to lower ground.

They meant little from up here, now. That entire land grew rapidly darker the higher he climbed.

A sudden urgency pulsed through him. He flew straight up now, pulling himself higher and higher into the misty rain. It thickened as he reached the ceiling of black cloud. The city was all but swallowed by shadow; few of the old buildings reached high enough to penetrate the black blanket of the sky.

There were fractures in that black ceiling. Sparkling water, illuminated by some brightness above, poured through these cracks, thinning to fine mist over the cold, dark city below.

He moved into the nearest waterfall. It was warm, and thick like treacle. He climbed higher still, right up through the crack…

…and found that the solid black cloud was just the crusted underside of the beauty above.

Miles of white cloud stretched to the horizon. On the peaks of the buildings tall enough to poke through, perched on ledges and busts, were others like him. Rippling arms held them in place, their torsos ending in illustrious tails tapering behind them. The sky was full with them. They moved from perch to perch, pitched and rolled in impressive formations. The largest groups, though, were those gathered around the shiniest windows and decals.

The One that Crawled spread his arms, considered his own form. When the radiant orange of his feathers caught the light, his arms looked like they were filled with shimmering gold. It was so striking that a couple of men polishing a faded statue on a nearby building had noticed.

And they were impressed.

A woman with feathers of dazzling purples and pinks whooshed by, disappearing nose-first into the clouds. She emerged seconds later, arcing into flight. Rivulets of sparkling water streamed from her feathers. As she banked overhead, he could only stare.

Her feathers glistened like purple gunmetal. Streaks of silver shimmered in the long pink hair cascading over her small, silken frame. When his eyes reached her face, hers were locked on him. She smiled, shyly, before diving back into the cloud.

Pausing just long enough to admire the sunlight blazing inside his own wings again, he pitched down after her.

END

Rodney J. Smith is originally from Melbourne, Australia. Most of his stories are dark or surreal, filled with people and places that aren’t quite right. For more of his work, visit rodneyjsmith.com

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In Passing by Clarity Bast

Jan 22 2012 Published by under The WiFiles

When William Asher looked back fondly upon his own death, he couldn’t help feeling the slightest shadow of dissatisfaction. This feeling concerned him to a rather considerable extent, as he had progressed quite steadily toward a state of what some would call enlightenment in the time since his passing on from living in a bag of meat. Before he’d stopped being a person, William vaguely remembered being worried about what happened after the big “The End,” but he knew now that being thrust out of flesh-bound life and heading toward enlightenment meant that you didn’t have to worry about the onset of male pattern baldness and nothing bothered you in the least, not even all that money lost on taxes. Best of all, if you thought you were happiest eating ice cream all your time in eternity, then you damn well believed you were eating ice cream all your time in eternity, regardless of whether ice cream actually existed outside of the mortal realm or not–William had seen as much when Juliette had finally achieved it. Juliette who had come as the a shade of her former self, settled on the star at the far left of Orion’s belt, and with very little visible effort gone on to become her own floating ball of light. Enlightenment was decidedly a Good Thing, and William was in the very vicinity of the Good Thing, and the odd fact of his own personal dissatisfaction was such a nuisance and so out of place that it made Linny frown and it even bothered Edith. Though he only knew as much about Edith because she said so.

It was difficult for William to read Edith without verbal expression because while her essence bore the imprint of her face–that of a thirty-year-old who’d married rich–it never actually seemed to physically represent any sentiment and Edith seemed to have actually fallen out of her body after at least one hundred years of inhabiting it. “The Botox,” she’d introduced herself when William had arrived, “That shit sticks with you, but I look like a goddess. Don’t I? Pardon my French.” Sometimes it seemed as if the star on which she perched was working to feed her energy, rather than the other way around. Initially, William had difficulty acclimating to the fact that he’d been consigned to inhabit the same district of the Orion constellation as Edith, mostly because he’d never in life had the nerve to breathe the same air as such a person. Much less attempt to guess their mood by voice alone for the sake of intellectual, if one could call it that, exchange. But there was always Linny to turn to. Just to look at the girl, really, since she wouldn’t actually speak.

“I don’t think you’re supposed to do that,” Edith said when she first heard of William’s dissatisfaction.

Linny nodded along, her brown pigtails bouncing high on her head.

“No shit,” William had replied.

Linny nodded again.

The conversation continued on that way for what seemed eternity–mostly because there were no days to speak of once one left the realm of standard earth time. There were variations in divergence, of course. But the potential for topics were truly limited when the same two people were picking them up time and again, and another person was nodding in the background.

“Well,” Edith replied sometimes, “Why are you doing it?”

“Thinking about my death?” William would ask.

Linny would shrug with open hands.

“You can think on that all you like,” Edith would say. “Why are you being dissatisfied? It’s over.”

William often mulled over this. The end itself had been a fairly spectacular one for someone of his former mortal position, though it may not have been as painless and peaceful as he would’ve once preferred. He could never recall all of the details perfectly, but he knew enough from his own experience that death by massive ball of flame was not the expected end of life for a man who sat around all day waiting for that one burnt flake of bran cereal to appear on a conveyer belt so that he might flick it away from the path of consumer packaging with his spoon. No, the actual death itself had rather surpassed the expectations of the man divested of the duties of Quality Assurance. It had to be what came before that worried him. Which was odd, because there wasn’t so much that actually did come before. Life for William had been his work, his television, and the occasional walk around the duck pond. Sometimes, contrary to the wishes of the local authority, he even fed the ducks. It was a rather risky thing to do, he knew, because citizens were watched like small, squirming prey by the large-engined black-and-whites. He’d seen a jaywalker chased down by three of the massive uniformed-filled creatures once and had resigned himself to never walking faster than the safe, steady pace of two miles per hour. All of these factors–his speed, his propensity to walking around the duck pond, his lack of will to do anything else with his life–had led to him meet the turtle in the park.

###

The creature had not seemed unordinary upon first glance. The shell was about the size of William’s palm. Orange streaks on the sides of the turtle’s head marked the organs for hearing. Otherwise the pattern on its skin alternated between stripes of mute, brownish green and pale yellow. Had it not been placed on its back in the tight dirt between the walking path and the pond, it might never have caught William’s attention. But the short, clawed limbs that waved wildly out of the overturned shell had given William pause, and against his typical unobtrusive nature, he had strayed from his usual path and crouched down to help the creature.

“Poor thing,” William had said.

“Little bastards,” the turtle had replied in a gravelly voice.

With his hand upon the shell, William froze and stared down at the creature.

The turtle stopped flailing for a moment. “Are you going to help me?”

“I,” William said.

“This is,” the turtle said after a huff, “precisely why I was against bestowing your kind the faculty for speech. Flip me.”

“You’re a turtle?” William said, unsure.

“Flip me, would you?”

William righted the creature. Then he slipped down to a kneeling position and placed his palms over his thighs. “I almost flicked a good bran flake,” he paused to breathe as he reasoned aloud, “I was ready to sweep it off the belt today. I thought it was burnt, but it wasn’t. Maybe I am losing my mind.”

The turtle took several stiff steps on its four legs before retracting them so only his head remained. “Don’t get me started on opposable thumbs,” it said, its beak clicking a little as it spoke. “We give you opposable thumbs, and you use spoons! To waste bran flakes. Bran flakes??” It shook his head. “You have teeth.”

“Wait,” William said suddenly. “Why are you talking that way?”

“What way?”

“As if you’ve given me something?”

The turtle stared unblinkingly at the man. “This is what you ask me when you’re afraid you’ve lost your mind?”

“Point,” William said. He pressed his lips together, biting gently on them with his teeth. “I’m going to go now.” He pushed up to his feet.

“Wait,” the turtle said grudgingly. “Wait,” this time annoyed.

William gulped and remained standing, listening to the voice that was much quieter now that his head was at his full height.

“What? Does it look like I’m going to eat you?” the turtle said. “Come here.”

William leaned down. “Why am I interacting with you?” he asked himself distantly.

“Listen, you did me some good, so I’ll do you one right.” The turtle swung his head around to confirm the security of their surroundings before he continued. “Anything you want, I’ll give it to you. Just one thing–a wish, whatever you want to call it. But I’m not a genie and if you try to rub me, or anything, limbs will be lost to the cause. Straight?”

William blinked.

“Straight?” the turtle said again. “You got it? You understand?”

“I think,” William said.

“You’re thinking now!” the turtle said. “Excellent. Let’s have it then.”

“What?”

“The thing you want. Tell me so I can give it to you.”

“R… right now?” William stuttered.

“No, in fifty years you’ll totter out with a cane to the duck pond and I’ll be waiting right here, rolling around on my back again,” the turtle said.

“Really?”

“No!” The turtle lowered its head to the ground. “Come on already.”

“I,” William started. “Don’t want anything.”

“What?”

William wondered if it was too late to change his mind. He didn’t want to push the turtle any further in mood. He shrugged. “I just want to be happy in life, I guess.”

The turtle turned its head to watch William clearly with one eye. “You contradict yourself.”

“Really? Sorry, I–”

“But you’re smart,” the turtle went on. “We’ll see what happens.” The turtle withdrew its head into its shell, and all softness seemed to melt from it as if it had always been merely a stone.

“Hello?” William said.

He stepped forward to touch the rock. It was cold, rough, and heavy in his hand. There was no trace of the shell pattern. Curious, he began to turn the rock over to look at its underside, but he decided against it.

So he left the rock there beside the pond where the brown-spotted ducks were flipping their beaks down one at a time, and he went back to his life. He lived. Then he died, a good deal earlier than expected. And now he was dissatisfied.

###

When Linny finally opened her mouth it was because her smile deepened. She turned to William to show her raised cheeks and her teeth and William began to suspect she was that sort of girl who would rather smile than talk to people because she was hiding something.

“You’re dead like the rest of us,” he said, leaning toward her. “You can talk, you know.”

Linny giggled.

“Leave the dear alone,” Edith said, “She’s a bit blue. I think she’s about to become a star.”

“How’d she manage that when we haven’t gotten anywhere?” William wondered.

“Likely,” Edith said, “it helped that she didn’t talk about her feelings all the time.”

William watched Linny carefully. “How do you feel about your death?” he asked.

Linny’s shoulders jerked up in a shrug.

“What about,” William said, “What about your life?”

Linny shrugged again.

“So you’re just happy?” William asked. “That’s all? You don’t care?”

Linny smiled.

“This is worse,” William said, “Than trying to infer your emotions, Edith.”

“I will have you know,” Edith retorted, “I have kept you well-apprised of my emotions since Donnell took up on Betelgeuse.”

“Do you ever feel like that?” William asked suddenly.

“Like what?” Edith said.

“Like you don’t care about what happened before?”

Edith reached up to touch her face with her fingers. She pressed them against the area where wrinkles would have fanned out from her eyes. “Doesn’t it show?”

Linny grew brighter. She began to look less like a shape that had once been some part of a person. Light was reflecting off of her, showing fluffy edges of a dust cloud.

A woman’s voice called from the nebula behind the girl: “Linny? Honey?”

Linny turned and waved at what only she could see.

###

For some reason, William felt he gained more insight on his life by looking at what happened afterward rather than before. The before was a reflection pool of monotony now that he wasn’t in it anymore. It had taken him a good portion of timeless existence to come to this conclusion, but now that he had, he realized what his life was like; he could know no better than through the eyes of people who’d watched live it.

The fire had not left much. The fire sparked by an exposed wire burned the bran flakes William needed to fulfill his duties had been hungry, and in the search for oxygen, had charged through the tunnel of the machine and into the area of William’s line of vision. Having sniffed something burnt, the young man had leaned forward, readily brandishing his spoon.

His mother had been relieved that she did not have to buy a cemetery plot. She went to several discount websites online to compare prices on flights out to Hawaii and used the insurance money to fund her one-way trip. George, his old roommate from university had asked after the service, but the viewing, according to his mother, was sufficient even if there wasn’t anything to view. His coworkers were all redistributed to assure quality in other capacities of the cereal plant. They left a pile of spoons out near the area that was closed off. Twin cousins, Valentine and Hunter, had stopped by to go through his collection of robot models.

The only other person in the world William could have cared about was his father, but his father had already passed on. Only once had William wondered where his father could be among the stars. If perhaps he were sitting on what once was the man in charge of his life. William often thought this was when he started to feel dissatisfied.

###

“I don’t think I was happy,” William said suddenly.

“No one’s ever really happy down there, darling,” Edith said, “Why do you think we all died?”

“No, I,” William murmured, “I was supposed to be happy.”

“Well you’re happy now, aren’t you? Or, you’re close enough.”

“No,” William countered. “I’m dissatisfied.”

“Well if you’d stop being dissatisfied, maybe you’d get a chance to enjoy enlightenment a little. Come on. You can even have ice cream if you want.”

“No,” William said, “Not really.” He looked at Edith. He looked through her. Down, somewhere past her, was a sort of bluish dot that represented Earth. “Linny’s getting what she wants,” he told that blue dot, “But I don’t have anything to want.”

“Actually,” a gravelly voice said behind him, “Earth is over this way.”

“William,” Edith said slowly, “There is turtle here. Speaking to you.”

“Turtle!” William said, turning to face the turtle. It was perched on a rock the size of a two-hand fist. “What are you doing here?”

“I’m a god,” the turtle said without opening its beak, “as it happens.”

“You’re still a turtle,” William said. “Up here.”

“Yes,” the turtle said. “I was wondering when you would notice something was wrong.”

“I’m dissatisfied,” William admitted with a nod.

“You don’t think that an existence without unhappiness,” the turtle jerked its head toward the other stars, “all that, is going to be enough for you?”

“I think it’s all fine,” William said. “But I won’t care.”

“Won’t you?”

“I think I want to miss something,” William said. “And I don’t.”

“You’d rather have that?” the turtle asked.

“Yes.” William thought a moment. “Is that selfish?”

“Utterly,” the turtle replied, “and completely. But that only means you get to be human again.”

“What?” Edith said suddenly. “No, William, you mustn’t–”

“You can’t just drop happiness into a life,” the turtle went on, “No one’s going to give it to you. It’s up to you to find it. This is your chance. Then we’re done. We’re even.”

“How’ll I know?” William asked.

“You told me,” the turtle said. Before William could express further concerns, the turtle stretched his head forward and he tapped William’s essence with its beak. What had been William became the hazy atmosphere around the rock that leaped away after being nudged by the turtle. It started on a path steadily away from Orion.

“Well,” Edith said. “Suppose I’ll miss him.”

“He’ll be back soon enough,” the turtle said. “May not remember you, though.”

“Will he find his happiness?” Edith asked.

“He knows that happiness lies in no material thing,” the turtle said. “That should be enough to set him right. And what about you, Edith?”

“What about me? I look like a goddess, don’t I?” Edith gave her hair a pat.

“Wouldn’t you rather feel like one?” the turtle asked.

Edith shook her head. “Not just yet.”

“All right,” the turtle said. “Linny, let’s go make you a star.”

When everyone else had gone, Edith looked at the star on her right, then the star on her left. The two extra seats on Orion’s belt were vacated yet again. In want of energy, they flickered. Edith, not certain of the source of it, glowed.

Bio:

Clarity is currently a graduate student pursuing her MFA in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts at the University of California, Riverside. When she’s not writing her butt off, she enjoys books at the snail’s pace that is her reading speed. Sometimes she gets caught doing that when she’s supposed to be shelving books at a library in Orange County. (But it’s okay. Her co-workers are awesome.) Her ultimate dream is to become a librarian and have to find her own books for a patron.

Clarity’s first favorite book was a medical encyclopedia.

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Proximus 6598, Bethal Quadrant: Countdown to Extinction By Christian Riley

Jan 15 2012 Published by under The WiFiles

Forty-two inches of layered titanium all blown to hell, and we knew we were dealing with something pretty fucking serious! Our information first came from a tethered feed, by way of a temporary remote satellite, and then through a minor worm portal used primarily for data-conveyance–Proximus 6598 lies in the Bethal Quadrant of the galaxy, which is way the fuck out there. We were safe for the mean time, but half of us crapped our pants when we watched on our monitors the horror which had taken place for Master Chief Kenny Wallis, and the rest of his men of Zulu Seven; not to mention the command ship in which those poor bastards had been attached to. Kenny, along with all of those under his command were outfitted with a carbon-based, hyper-sensitive digital transmitter grafted into their corneal nerve cells. Not only did we see and hear what those guys went through, but the intensity of those recordings were such that…well, you couldn’t help but feel it.
Their unit belonged to a deep space reconnaissance regiment, Rover 2180, which was more like a gigantic, floating resort that bounced around the outer rim of the galaxy, checking in on various colonies within those star systems out there. Nothing about that ship lent itself to the grim finale it would soon encounter. Just a reconnaissance vessel.
With twenty soldiers in all, Kenny was charged with surveying the current conditions on the small planet of Proximus 6598, a celestial body similar to our original home-planet of Earth, only much smaller. Since the planet’s sole interstellar export was a conglomeration of agriculture products, it was common for months at a time to slip by before ships would pass in or out of its solar system. But to lose all forms of communication from that place entirely?
Naturally, our first assumption was that the planet had suffered from some type of catastrophic event; a freak asteroid, or even SAR (Sudden Axis Rotation) as brought on by the passing of a swarm of miniature black holes–it’s happened before. Either of those two events could conceivably render a planet extinct of all life within hours. The only other thing within our galaxy which could do that was a supernova, but the closest candidate to Proximus 6598 was the white dwarf, Tarlon, and we knew that it hadn’t erupted yet. But when Rover 2180 entered into the solar system and found those satellites surrounding Proximus 6598 each electronically disabled–found them all just hanging there, dead in space–even a lunatic would’ve told you something was amiss.
The Planetary Advisement Facility for Proximus 6598 was an old command bunker located within the planet’s tallest mountain range locally referred to as the Silver Peaks. The assortment of buildings within that facility were remnants of a thousand years; left-over structures used during our galactic war with the Peresians. And because of this, the walls of those buildings were constructed out of forty-two inches of titanium, the alloy itself being layered and folded under extreme heat for added durability. Those walls were tough enough to take on even the nastiest of our former enemy’s conventional products; which brings us right back to the command of Master Chief Kenny Wallis.
“What the fuck happened here?” Kenny said, as he stared over the shoulders of Lieutenant Avrie, the pilot of their armored space transport. There was a hole the size of their ship gaping from the outer walls of the building in which they had been approaching.
“Get your shit ready, losers!” he hollered back to his men. “And keep it hot!” Kenny looked down, eyes on the Lieutenant’s shaking hands as their ship came to a rumbled landing upon the packed dirt before the blown-out building. “With any luck, we might get some action down here.”
A mixture of twenty raised weapons came pouring off the ramp of that ship once it opened up. “Meeks! Salvatore!” Kenny hollered. “Take four and cover six!” A cloud of angry dust swarmed over them, kicked up by the effusion of their transport’s seven turbine engines. Kenny took a knee, eyes squinting into the direction of the giant hole in the side of the building while his men each scattered into prone positions around him. When the transport’s engines finally shut down, and its turbines slowly came to a whistling end, the ensuing silence which then lingered upon the pine-laden hills, and granite boulders surrounding the men of Zulu Seven was eerie to say the least.
“Davis! Deploy Screamers at rear-perimeter.” Specialist Henry Davis and three other men took off running in response to Kenny’s command. One of them had a large black duffel bag strapped to his shoulders.
“Six secured, over” buzzed Meeks, into Kenny’s transmission helmet.
“Copy that.” There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, so when the dust finally settled, Kenny was able to see that the hole within that titanium wall had somehow been “fluxed” into ruin; like a colossal plasma cutter had gone crazy over it.
Seven minutes of frozen silence passed before Specialist Davis then announced over the intercom, “Rear hot!” and then he and those other three men came running back after deploying their bag full of HEMPS (High-frequency Electromagnetic Pulse Screamers–or “Screamers” for short). Since no one was sure if any civilians were still about–despite the results from an initial bio-reading aboard Rover 2180–a deployed Screamer made the best sense for securing their egression site. If a Screamer went off, it would destroy any electronic component within its blast radius, yet merely stun that of a biological entity–all the while alerting everyone within five miles with its high-pitched shrill sound. Little did anyone know, those Screamers would soon be rendered useless to what those men were about to encounter, save for acting as a meager, early warning device. And perhaps as a cruel foreshadow of those horrific creatures lying in wait.
“My lead!” shouted Kenny, as he stood up, weapon raised, and slowly began to walk toward the ruined building. His men fell in formation behind him, all eyes scanning the horizon. They approached the seared-out hole, and we were then able to see that those massive titanium walls had definitely been melted right through, like a hot knife driven through a stick of butter.
Not but ten feet into that building, and it became quite clear that a fierce battle had taken place in there. Ammo casings of different sizes littered the floor, furniture had been upturned and cast to the side, and in some places even stacked upon each other in what looked like an effort to create protective barriers. Books, papers, computers and monitors, pens, pictures…everything scattered about in every direction. The place was a total mess, and that was just the first room.
Three doors led from that room to other areas of the complex, and after completing a brief inspection, examining some of the weapons found on the ground, as well as the dried blood stains in various corners, Kenny broke his men into four teams of five, where they each then passed through those doors and spread out to search the remaining rooms of the facility.
Shadow-lit hallways greeted the men of Zulu Seven as they walked through a maze of department offices, cafeteria halls, storage rooms, and sleeping quarters, all bearing the same results of what they had discovered in that first room. Except for one particular detail.
“Not a damn thing, sir,” said Meeks through the intercom twenty minutes later, after he and his team had reached the end of the north wing of the Facility.
“Are you fucking kidding me.” Kenny observed, him and his own men finding little clues as to what had actually happened down there, other than the obvious.
“No sir.”
“Well where the hell did everybody go?” Despite the battle-torn condition of the Planetary Advisement Facility, and the numerous blood stains found on the walls and floors of that place, not a single body had been discovered. There was nobody there, dead or alive.
“Copy that, Meeks. Fall-in on our six…we’re coming up to the backside of this shit-hole.” Kenny then switched transmission channels, connecting him to the command bridge of Rover 2180.
“Rover Command, this is Zulu Command, over.”
“Copy that Zulu Command, this is Rover.”
“Can you guys run another bio-screen down here..? We got nothing.”
A few seconds passed before Kenny’s helmet crackled again with a response from Rover Command. “Ah…we’ve been running a continuous read-out on Proximus 6598, sir…it’s still coming up negative–except of course for you guys.”
Kenny stared out the window of the room he had been in, and then to the exit sign above the door that led to the outside-rear of the Facility. It was obvious by the few seconds of silence which had passed, that the Master Chief was perplexed as to what had happened to everyone down there. Hell, we were all perplexed for that matter. After a few minutes, we then heard the slight shuffle of the other men from Zulu Seven as they came creeping down the halls that led into the room Kenny was in.
“Rover Command…” continued Kenny, “…we’re gonna make a final sweep of this facility, then board up and head to the nearest town…” He made a few hand signals to his guys, before one of them kicked open the exit door of that room. “…over.”
“Copy that, Zulu Command…”
And then suddenly, just like that, everything went to shit.
***
“Ah….Zulu Command, this is Rover Command, over.”
“Copy Rover Command” replied Kenny.
“Not sure what the deal is, but we’re now getting a massive read-out down there… Hundreds…no, maybe thousands of bio-readings…”
Kenny followed his men outside and stared up into the hills that surrounded the facility. A dark green line marked the edge of a pine forest which began a few hundred yards from their position, but there was nothing else to see other than a stir amongst the trees from a cool breeze.
“Rover Command, what’s the position of these readings?”
“Locking that in right now, sir.”
And then the Screamers went off.
“Fall-in!” shouted Kenny. He didn’t have to give any more commands after that. Half of his men took off running on one side of the building, while him and the others ran along the opposite side, all heading back toward their ship.
Lieutenant Avrie hadn’t been outfitted with a corneal transmitter, so we weren’t able to see the realities of his fate. But once those Screamers went off, and shortly after that, while his body was getting devoured, right about then was when that horrific space fog materialized all around Rover 2180. The reconnaissance command ship suddenly became mechanically paralyzed upon being engulfed by a thick green cloud, which we know now is the result of a massive, collective formation of those horrendous beings we call, The Eaters. Seals were quickly broken, and the vacuum of space, along with a swarm of Eaters filed into the command ship, sucking up the already dying personnel within. And just like that, it was the end for Rover 2180.
***
Our first visual of a creature who has successfully managed to practically eliminate the entirety of our species, came from the eyes of Specialist Myron Meeks. Rounding the corner of the Planetary Advisement Facility and casting a glance toward the armored space transport, Specialist Meeks looked on as several Eaters each danced about gaily on their twelve tentacle-shaped legs, while they reached up and greedily tore apart and consumed pieces from Lieutenant Avrie’s body, which was being paraded about above them.
The culminating description of these creatures, these Eaters, is baffling if you think about it, yet horrific at the same time. Spawned from nothing short of a nightmare, fully erect they stand almost ten feet high. The lower half of their body is a splay of a dozen blue, tentacle-like limbs–from which they travel by–each ending in a “hand” with six fingers. However, the upper half of these monstrosities is the torso, arms, and wailing head of a previous victim. While their tentacles hop about, or dance, sway and skitter as they chase down their prey, it’s often likely that the upper half of this creature will be seen pulling at its hair, screaming in agony and protest.
Meeks fired his weapon upon the crowd of Eaters and witnessed just this type of response. They all jumped and turned around. We could see the canister of his grenade soar through the sky, almost in slow motion as the faces of those Eaters, a mixture of men, women, and children, all stared back at Meeks. And then they howled in fear, or perhaps pain, with primal screams that sent shivers up and down our spines.
When the grenade struck home, right in the center of those wailing creatures, it blew several of them into an array of chunky, green mist. But as the pieces of their bodies hit the dirt, the men of Zulu Seven, including Master Chief Kenny Wallis and the others with him who had now rounded the opposite corner of the building, all watched in revolting shock as the remaining Eaters frantically ran about, picking up the remnants of their disintegrated kind, and shoveling them into their screaming mouths.
“What the hell…?” muttered Kenny.
There was a small hill roughly fifty-yards behind their space transport, and from the rise of that mound, a small army of Eaters, perhaps a few thousand in number, then came pouring over it. We heard the sound of more Screamers going off, but those devices were nothing compared to the agonizing shrieks of the Eaters themselves.
“Get inside!” shouted Kenny.
Everyone ran around to the front of that building and right back through that hole they had first entered. Some of the guys let loose more grenades, and a few rounds of bullets before Kenny yelled for them to hold fire. “You’re gonna hit our ship, assholes!”
The team split up and filed through the first three doors, making a stand in the halls behind that initial room. Seconds later, we heard the screams of terror from hundreds of Eaters as they swarmed around the entire Planetary Advisement Facility, surrounding it completely. But they had yet to come into the place.
“This is fucking nuts!” shouted Salvatore to no one in particular.
“Keep your cool guys…” replied Kenny. “Davis? Try and get Rover Command on your telecom…mine’s bugging out.”
Davis’ desperate attempts to reach Rover 2180 fell short under the ensuing concert of a dreadfully loud, squalling madness, as those Eaters had finished surrounding the facility and began their signature chorus; a distinct, melodic screech we now refer to as, The Wailing of Ten-Thousand Dying Humans.
That’s how one soldier had dubbed it anyways, months later on the battlefield of an already forgotten planet. The Eaters had an uncanny way of sending paralyzing fear into the hearts and minds of their enemies (or victims more likely), by delivering the sounds of their own terror in the form of an organized, undulating wail, just prior to making their all out assault.
“Nothing sir!” we barely heard Davis over the incessant howling outside.
“Well what the fuck?” Kenny looked at the men around him, positions held in the hallway, ready to unleash a firestorm of bullets and grenades into that first room.
Over years of trial and error from our war with the Peresians, the corneal transmitter had been tweaked enough to filter out (or at least tame down) the heavy breathing and panting, even jitters as associated from high-levels of adrenaline, and other endorphins our bodies will emit under the belief of impending death. But we could still see the terrified faces of those men of Zulu Seven, as Kenny surveyed them, and as they themselves looked at each other while those Eaters bawled endlessly outside.
“First one of them bitches through that hole is mine!” laughed Meeks. And that’s the effect we would eventually come to see from our soldiers all too often as well; panic. The Eaters were a collective intelligence. They preyed upon all living creatures with a brain larger than a peanut. Every animal capable of thought was on their menu–humans being their prime delicacy of course. And whatever creature they would consume, they would then seemingly acquire the knowledge, the feelings and emotions, the life-time experiences of that creature as well. The Eaters were impossible to keep secrets from because of this. Furthermore, they had learned that if they could send us humans into fits of panic prior to engaging us in combat, we would then be much easier to conquer. Who knows, maybe we even taste better after being scared shitless.
But the Eaters had other games they liked to play as well.
All of a sudden the howling stopped. Nothing but absolute silence.
“Oh shit, here it comes,” cried Salvatore.
“Hold tight men,” replied Kenny. “We can whip these fuckers. And once we blow them a new asshole, we’re getting back on that ship, and the fuck out of here!”
“Ohhh…….” came a soft, crying sound from outside. All eyes of Zulu Seven stared into that room, and at the sun-lit hole beyond. From around the edge of the melted wall popped the head of Lieutenant Avrie. His face was grief-stricken, tears careening down his eyes. “Not possss…ible…Kenny-boy…I’m afraid, not,” he stuttered. “He” was actually an “It.” An Eater.
That said, “Lieutenant Avrie” then waddled into the room, crouching low so as not to hit his head on the ceiling above. “I just…just…I just rendered my MK-T29 inoperable, Master Chief!” His voice squealed with sorrow.
“Get the fu…” Kenny responded, gaped eyes matching those of his men.
“It will never…fly again,” cried Avrie. The creature then placed his hands over his eyes and began to stretch his face downward, pulling on his cheeks. “Ohhh…weee shall never fly again…Kenny-boy…the all of us…”
“Blast the mother-fucker!” hollered Meeks, as he let loose his machine gun and blew Lieutenant Avrie’s Eater form into a corner of that room.
Avrie’s alien body fell into a crumpled heap behind a desk, but the men of Zulu Seven watched as his hand, now coated with a green ooze, stretched out upon the floor, his last gesture before he then said, “Yours will be mine…Meeks. Yours will be mine….”
And then more silence.
“You can go home now,” whimpered another voice through the unstirred, lingering calmness of the room. Again, from outside the melted walls of the facility, another Eater peeked inside. “We just…sniff, sniff…we just want you to go away, and leave us be.” She had the body of a homely woman, with long grey hair streaming past her sagged breasts, leathery eyes, and wrinkled hands that held a piece of cloth to her noise while she wept quietly. “We promise not to hurt anymore of you. We promise, we do… If you want…we can love you,” she began to cry hysterically. “Oh please, let us love you… We need to love you, and hold you like the babies we once held…please kind men…do this for us…”
Kenny looked at the faces of his men, then back into the room, “I don’t think so, bitch!”
“Whaahaaahaaa…” she screeched, as she then skittered in and over to Avrie’s corpse, where she at once began stuffing her face with body parts.
This time Master Chief Kenny Wallis fired his weapon and blew that Eater dead into another corner. Of course, the concept of those creatures ever “dying” is nothing but a lost notion to us now. It seems Eaters can never really die. We’ve torched them hundreds of times in the past, with blazing fire, but for whatever reason, they don’t seem to burn very well. And once the others of their kind get their hands on those charred remains, thus gobbling them up, it would only be a matter of a few minutes before those previously cooked monsters can then be seen climbing out of those huge, gelatinous sacks, which are never too far from a horde of Eaters.
Those huge, gelatinous sacks. We heard a “sizzling” sound coming from outside a wall behind some of the men from Zulu Seven. They had been huddled in a hallway, overlooking that first room when suddenly, from their rear came a rippling wave of heat, and then the soft glow of yellow fire. The hallway behind them began to fall away, like candle wax dripping to the ground, exposing the yellowish belly of an Infernal Spawn Sack. And that’s how we’ve come to name those terrible, gigantic blobs of putrid stink which carom around in the midst of the Eaters.
The men from Zulu Seven unleashed a hail of bullets into the sack with nary effect. One of them even shot a grenade into it, causing a sickening crunch similar to that of a hammer crashing through a watermelon. Still, nothing.
The Infernal Spawn Sack just sat there for a minute, even as the men stopped firing their weapons, staring at it as they did with baffled looks, while they backpedaled their way up the hallway. But then suddenly, without warning, the sack then burst open, and a cloud of yellowish-green slime, along with a crowd of Eaters came pouring out, arms raised in screaming terror as they skittered their way toward those panicked men of Zulu Seven.
“We’re eating you…” shouted another Eater from outside. Gunfire and cries from the men in the adjacent hall quickly subsided as one by one, they were overcome by the reaching tentacles of those ghastly fiends. We watched in horror, listened with primordial fear, and gagged on our own tongues as those men fought with guns, knives, and hands, only to be jerked apart under their terrifying cries of pain.
“We’re eating you…we’re eating you…we’re eating you…” It became a chant now. And for those remaining men of Zulu Seven, I’m sure a point of near insanity as well. The Eaters sang these words, and from beyond the hole, as Master Chief Kenny Wallis stole a peek outside, we could see that they were also dancing and swaying to the rhythm of their own voices.
“This is fucking crazy,” shouted Meeks.
“I say we run out there and let ‘em have it!” replied another man.
“Just cool it, everyone!” shouted Kenny.
“But they’re getting in here Chief!”
“I said cool it!” Kenny took another look outside. “If we can regroup, maybe head to the rear of this place and then …well, there’s some rocky hills out there. Maybe a cave. Davis, any luck with the com?”
“No sir, not ye…” He was then interrupted by another abrupt silence from the Eaters. They had stopped their chilling song, and the men of Zulu Seven now stared quietly at each other. Stared listening. Waiting.
“My fellow humans…” came a raspy voice from outside. “It pains me to have to tell you this…but there’s a certain feature…” The Eater broke off into a dull wail, followed by short sniffs, and a brief sob before continuing. “A feature of yours that…that tastes wonderful when eaten whole…ohhh…and while traveling down the gullet…the tingling sensation…it is like…well, for your kind, I suppose…sniff, sniff…warm apple pie…a dollop of vanilla ice cream…perhaps a dash of cinnamon…”
“I can’t take this shit anymore!” shouted Meeks.
Kenny looked around frantically. We could tell he was perhaps near his breaking point as well. He stole another peek outside, and we then saw the Eater that had been talking. It had the torso of a short, stocky man with a bald head and a big, hard belly. It’s hands were hanging limp at its side, and it seemed to be hunched over with grief.
“This feature I’m talking about,” continued the Eater, “is located just below your esophagus, and to the side of your stomach. When nobody looks…well, there have been times, I am ashamed to admit…where I have squeezed a gall bladder or two over that wiggly liver I’m talking about… Ohhh…the aroma of such delicacy is just…”
“Fuck you!!” Meeks burst into the room in a storm of fury, bullets, and screaming anger. The bald Eater fell to the ground, and so did the next three which came racing into the room, but only seconds later, despite the mountain of lead that poured through there, now by all of the men from Zulu Seven, Meeks still got wrapped up by a few tentacles, and dragged outside. His eyes must’ve gotten ripped out, or covered with blood, because we were no longer able to see what had happened to him. But we heard his screams nonetheless.
“Let’s get the fuck out of here!” shouted Kenny. “Men, fall-in and head to the rear. We’ll meet up in that last room, then blow us a hole through these fuckers on our way into those hills.” He threw the switch on a smoke grenade, tossed it into the room of carnage, then turned and ran down the hall, three men at his side. “Run for the hills, men!”
***
Master Chief Kenny Wallis, Specialist Henry Davis, Specialist Ramone Salvatore, and Ensign Jerry Fletcher were the only men who made it to the rear side of the facility. The other men of Zulu Seven got cut off by more Infernal Spawn Sacks, then taken over by the Eaters. I’d like to say that they fought well, blasting away hundreds of those things before dying themselves, but I can’t. Those men were quickly swarmed over by an army of tentacles, and they each suffered a most horrible death of being pulled apart, and eaten alive.
“Look Chief, there’s a fucking million of them out there!” cried Salvatore.
“Davis, try the com again!” shouted Kenny.
“Been trying, sir. Those things must be jamming us.”
From outside a window we saw hundreds of Eaters, swaying and wailing, hands tearing at their hair or covering the faces. A sea of sorrow.
“What are we gonna do, Chief?!”
And then we heard a searing sound from behind, as the hallway in which those men had just ran down was slowly but surely becoming liquefied by a massive Spawn Sack, as it rolled it way toward them. Ensign Fletcher looked around the corner and into the hall to confirm this.
“Shit Chief! There’s a yellow blob coming at us, burning the walls,” Fletcher yelled.
More Infernal Spawn Sacks were seen outside, jiggling a path through Eaters as they approached the room those men huddled in.
“We’re fucking trapped, Chief!”
Kenny’s head darted back and forth, to the hallway, outside, at his men, to his weapon.
“We’re gonna die in here!” shouted Fletcher. And then the Eaters all began their infamous dirge once again–The Wailing of Ten-Thousand Dying Humans.
“I can’t take this shit anymore!” screamed Salvatore. “We’re gonna end up like them! We’re gonna turn into those damn things, eating ourselves…fucking insane!”
“Just shut-up!” hollered Kenny.
“Shut-up?! What the fuck are we gonna do then, Chief?”
The bawling from outside, the spitting and crackling of the melting hallway, the chaos now ensuing amongst the men–all atrociously loud, that we barely even heard those last few words as spoken by the Master Chief.
Just as the Infernal Spawn Sacks came within ten feet of that room, and those last men of Zulu Seven broke windows and fired their weapons into the crowd of Eaters outside, Master Chief Kenny Wallis flipped the switches on two grenades, then muttered to himself, “Come and eat this, you sons-of-bitches.” And then our transmission feeds went dead.
***
Forty years on the run now, through this galaxy we call a home, and with the Eaters never too far behind. From the culmination of every intelligent life form in this galaxy, as well as unknown galaxies beyond, these Eaters have figured out how to group together in space, disappear at will, find and traverse through our many worm holes, and render those ships of ours that they sneak up on as lifeless hunks of floating space debris. They’ve figured out how to tap into our worst nightmares, as they engage in their systematic extinction of our race, one planet at a time. And from the acquisition of all that we know, through the eating of our bodies, they are never more than a few hundred light years behind us, as we frantically race between star systems in pursuit of our increasingly limited existence.
Ironically enough, our next destination is the planet of Proximus 6598. There’s bound to be an ample supply of dried food down there, which we can definitely use. But as we travel there through this compressed extortion of space, through this infinite tunnel of blackened time–this worm hole–my thoughts persistently show for me the face of Master Chief Kenny Wallis. Something about him made an impression with those Eaters. Perhaps it was his last call of judgment, where he decided to blow him and his men away, thus sparing them from the grueling horror of being eaten alive. Or maybe they just like his personality. Anyways, he’s been their main voice on the battlefields of almost every colonized planet within our galaxy now. On numerous occasions, our soldiers and civilians–our people–have witnessed Kenny’s Eater form skitter up to them, sobbing in seemingly agonizing pain, before then crying out, “We’re coming to eat you, you sons-of-bitches!”

The End

Beginning at 5:00 a.m., Chris spends the only available lot of solitary time he gets in a day feeding his addiction to writing. If he’s lucky, he’ll get two hours in before “they” wake up, after which he lives a wonderful life as a family man. His stories have been accepted at a number of publishers including The Horror Zine, Short Story.Me, Bete Noire, The Absent Willow Review, and Underground Voices. He can be reached at chakalives@gmail.com.

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ME AND PINEY BROWN By David Perlmutter

Jan 08 2012 Published by under The WiFiles

Son, I’m not surprised that you wouldn’t have heard of Piney Brown, even if he did happen to be the best boogie woogie piano player east of the Mississippi during the late 1920s. And I should know- seeing as I was there at what I thought would be his last gig, ever.
But, like I said, I ain’t surprised you never heard of him, even if you does happen to be one of them university types who think they know everything about everything. See, Piney never got his due ‘cause nobody outside of the cartoon community ever heard of him…..
No, I ain’t been hittin’ the bottle- as you seem to think! This stuff all happened to me natural back in the day, so if you’re gonna be doubtin’ my veracity, you can just go to….
Right, right. Forgot you were recordin’ me on that fancy tape-playing equipment there, I did. Well, I guess I owe you a bit of explanation regardin’ what I just said, don’t I? Here goes….
*
See, what people don’t know about them cartoons is that the people and animals and what have you they got cavortin’ around in them movies ain’t just movin’ pitcher images. Those suckers are REAL! Or at least they was when I was down in Los Angeles trying to get a job, back in 1927. I haven’t been back there since, so I don’t know if that’s still the case, but you can bet for sure that in the case of the ones that was made before sound came in in ’28, that was the case. That was how come Piney Brown ended up in Hollywood, and how I chanced to meet him there one afternoon.
I’d taken the bus out west trying to get a job, like I told you before, and I ended up out in Burbank, near the Warner studios. It happened that it was just around the time when the studios were shutting down for the day, and all them cartoon characters was coming out of the studios just like the rest of ‘em what was working there. Back in them days, they weren’t nothing but oddly rearranged and reassembled pieces of black and white paint, seeing as the cameras weren’t equipped for taking no color images then. I learned later on that some of ‘em had originally come out of this here place called Faerie, and some others had their roots in a strange little place in Africa called Wackyland (although, seeing as I have African roots myself, they didn’t look like no Africans to me). They was just like me-looking for work. And it turned out we had more in common that.
In any event, it was there that I met Piney Brown for the first time. He was a small, chubby fellow, in a cheap sweater and pants, vest, and derby hat. All black and white, naturally. Plus, he smoked the nastay-est cigars ever imaginable! It was fortunate for them that the audience couldn’t smell that stuff when he was on the screen, but, unfortunately, they couldn’t hear him when he sang and played piano, either. A loss, man. A tragic loss, that was. But to keep going with the story….
I had barely been able to escape out of the Burbank train station with my life, owing to the fact that I had ridden the rods out from my home in Kansas City rather than paying the legitimate money the people who ran the railroad requested of me. The railroad dicks came out and began chasing me down the street, and I would have been caught and beaten up soundly by them, were it not for the fact that Piney Brown stepped in.
He waited until I had passed, and then he stepped right in the path of them dicks and worked some of his cartoon magic on them. He started blowing up his hand like it was a balloon, and put that thing right in their path.
“Halt!” he shouted. And they did just that.
“Man,” he said to them, “what you mean, chasin’ this kid ‘round?”
“You know this guy, Mr. Brown?” one of the dicks asked him.
“No, I don’t know him. But it don’t make no difference whether I know him or not. What makes a difference is you’re gonna quit chasing him- and now!” He got out his wallet and tossed a couple of greenbacks- real American money, not any thing them animators just drew and called “money”- at them, and they backed off, saying “yes, Mr. Brown” all polite and stuff as they disappeared down the alley.
Piney deflated his hand and walked back towards me.
“You all right, son?” he asked.
“M’Gawd!” I said. (I weren’t as learned and thoughtful as I am now in those days, as you’ll soon find out.) “You a HAUNT!”
“I ain’t no haunt, honest!” he said in a very friendly way. “I’m a ‘toon, and proud of it! There’s some people who can’t tell the difference ‘tween us, but that’s their problem, not ours. It’s a big difference. Main thing is us ‘toons is more friendly than any of them old haunts is.”
“So you ain’t gonna hurt me or nothin’?” I asked.
“What you think?” he responded.
I thought about it for a minute, and then responded.
“You ain’t gonna hurt me,” I said affirmatively. “But you gotta answer me this one, Mr…..”
“Piney Brown. And you are?”
“Jimmy Ellison, suh.”
“No saying suh or ma’am or nothin’ like that around us ‘toons, son. No need for formalities among us. Only people who use formalities is the bankers and the rent men- and that’s why we always got problems with ‘em!” He laughed in a very boisterous and vociferous manner. “So, you was wantin’ to ask me somethin’?”
“Yeah. Why is it you talk and act like my people, when you is so obviously not a part of our group, what with you being a ‘toon and all?”
“Because,” Piney answered, “your people is the hippest in the world! Man, we been keepin’ tabs on the likes of you for YEARS! How else we gonna stay on the cuttin’ edge of culture?”
“Yeah,” I responded. “We is pretty hip, ain’t we?”
“So,” Piney continued, “I am assuming that you are requiring employment of some sort?”
“How did you figure that?” I responded.
“Well, given the fact that you was bein’ pursued by the railroad police when I intervened on your behalf, I naturally assumed that you were in need of some sound employment. And I happen to be in need of a valet, on account of the fact that I am very much in demand for motion picture and club dates and so forth. Do you think you could perform those duties?”
“I….think so,” I answered.
“Then the job is yours,” he answered. “Come on.”
He walked down the street, oblivious to everything and everybody around him, and I meekly followed. And that was how I came to be in the employ of Piney Brown.
*
The next couple of months passed like one of them tornadoes- really fast like. I spent all my time with Piney Brown, from sunup to sundown, accompanying him to his motion picture gigs, his club dates, and any and all other personal engagements, if you get my meaning. Some of them I had to sit outside while he took care of his business, but most of the time I was live and in person when he was around. And, let me tell you, he was always alive and always on FIRE!
First of all, the dude was a natural performer, like all them ‘toons are. He just had a natural presence that lit up a room. There were a lot of speakeasies that year on account of Prohibition and all, and so I ended up seeing the insides of all of them, as he played them all. This was on top of the fact that he was using up most of his daylight hours filming cartoon films at the Warner studio. Now, if you have a chance to see some of those old films- if they’ve survived to this day, that is- you’ll see him for sure, sitting at the piano, grinning, belting some sort of odd tune out of the corner of his mouth. You can’t hear nothin’, thankfully, since this was before sound came in. I say thankfully ‘cause them tunes he would belt out in front of the cameras was FILTHY, man! I was glad my Momma couldn’t hear none of them, that was for sure!
But, even though he was a charismatic figure in those animated cartoons, the only place you could see him really in his element was live. Man, the dude was out of sight at the keys there! Even on those nights when I was having difficulty keeping up with him, having to down so much damn coffee I’d be shaking and then follow it up with some bootleg liquor at the clubs just to be sociable, he’d just be killing them people dead. And he didn’t need a backing band, neither- he’d kill them just by playing that damn piano of his, man!
His arms and hands were just the craziest. Somehow or another, he’d be able to make them play the piano independently of him while he stood at a microphone and crooned. Then, sometimes, he’d play on the piano with one hand while removing his head from his body with the other! I couldn’t believe it any more than anyone else who was there on those nights, and I barely believe it myself sometimes. Of course, most of the patrons at those clubs was ‘toons themselves, and I was probably the human being type person who was there on many of those nights. That’s why Piney never got his due- he was playing to his own people most of the time, and, back in those days, anything that didn’t appeal to the white man didn’t get any action in the media. He’d get more than his fair share of attention if he was still in his prime like that today, though- that’s for sure.
That was exactly what he was doing on the night we got separated. I thought it would be for good, but it turned out not to be, though.
*
That night started out as something that was typical of how Piney operated. He was playing a club out in the Toontown district of Los Angeles, where he lived and did most of his work when he weren’t making moving pictures on account of the fact that nobody else wanted him otherwise. Naturally, I was there, making sure he was paid right and all them other duties he insisted a good valet ought to know, and which he had personally instructed me in. Also naturally, the club was packed wall to wall with ‘toons. They was doing the Charleston, the Black Bottom and all them other dances, while Piney was pounding a boogie woogie beat on the piano, first with his left hand, then his right hand, then both, then with his feet, and then with his hands and feet together! Man, I marvel still at how he could do that stuff without killing himself or something. Something those ‘toons got inside them we humans will never know about, I guess.
But, anyway, that was when the trouble started. We all heard, loud and clear, the one thing party people in the 1920s did not want to hear:
“POLICE! Open the door! This is a raid!”
Before we could do anything else, a swarm of cops came in through the door of the small shack that constituted the “club”. They was hollering something or other about all of us violatin’ the Volstead Act, which is what that there legislation that brought Prohibition in was called, but you knew that already, didn’t you? However, why the ‘toons were being arrested, Piney told me as I made my way to the stage to help him off, had nothing to do with illegal booze or anything like that. The cops was racist towards the ‘toons. I knew that already. Most of the people in town was racist towards the ‘toons, and me myself for that matter, and in an ugly way, at that. So I decided to pay Piney back for rescuing me from the railroad dicks by rescuing him and his friends from the cops. Or at least, I tried to, by inserting myself between the two groups the same way Piney had got between me and the dicks.
“Hey, now!” I said to the highest ranking policeman I could see. “We didn’t do nothin’, man!”
“Out of our way, nigger!” he spat at me. (Yes, man! White people did utter that word and get away with it in those days.) “These ‘toons have been making too much goddamn noise, and we’re here to bring ‘em in!”
“You ain’t gettin’ NOBODY so long as I’M here!” I shouted. “These people is my friends, hear? And I won’t let NOTHIN’ happen to them!”
“I told you to get OUT of the WAY, NIGGER!”
Whereupon I told the policeman what he could do with his orders. And then he told his buddies to torch the shack! Big mistake on my part!
See, cartoon characters is made of equal parts ink, paint, cellulose and nitrate, then as now. And nitrate is a bitch when it gets on fire, man! Soon as it catches fire, the stock burns up like a lit pile of sticks. No way in hell any self-respecting ‘toon wants to be in the vicinity of anything that burns, man! And, as soon as the policeman said he was going to do a burn-up of the shack, they panicked and started riotin’, man!
Well, to make a long story short, I got pulled out of there by the cops on account of disturbin’ the peace- so they said!- and when I told ‘em I was from Kansas City originally, they kicked me right on the next train going back. But before then, them suckers went and took rags, dipped them in oil, set ‘em on fire, and then set them down on top of that shack- with all the ‘toons still aside!
Most of ‘em, anyhow….
*
So I was sent back to K.C., and I was told never to come back to California if I wanted to stay alive. That was fine by me. I’d had enough of the place anyhow. I only wish I could’ve met some of them Okies and Arkies who came out there same as I did wanting work a couple years after that- things might’ve been different for them as it ended up being for me.
But then I got the shock of my life. Walking along 18th and Vine, who did I meet but PINEY BROWN! Somehow or another, he’d survived the fire, though he’d gotten driven out of Hollywood same as I had. We resumed our old acquaintance, and both of us got good paying jobs around the city, seeing as ‘cause of the Pendergast machine there was now more than enough to go around, entertainment wise. We were just friends now, and I wasn’t his valet, but we kept in touch, naturally.
What the hell do you mean, “when did he die?” He ain’t dead! That’s the dumbest thing I ever heard! Who the hell do you think has been playing piano behind us all this time?

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Targets By Kaye Branch

Jan 01 2012 Published by under The WiFiles

Eric threw his left arm over his patched eye as Russ, his martial arts and court-appointed father, threw a punch aimed half a foot from Eric.
“Whoa,” Russ said. “This is just practice. You’re not
going to get hurt.”
“My father,” Eric sputtered. It was the best explanation
he could think of. He’d seen his biological father punch more times than he could count and he never aimed for air. That was why Eric wore an eye-patch and his father deserved prison.
The patch was temporary the team of supposed experts
charged with helping him in his father’s absence told him. Usually they elaborated and said it covered everything else. He wouldn’t get adopted, but he’d get used to foster care and his classmates would forget that he wore an eye-patch, while in reality, their pirate jokes were the only part of his life that felt normal. His eye never seemed to get better and he couldn’t call Russ a father.
**
Every Saturday, Russ and Dannah took Eric to a coffee
shop. It was another adjustment, one with a few unpleasant consequences, including a hot chocolate-induced stomachache and a sip of coffee so acrid the taste remained in Eric’s mouth for days. But once Eric discovered peppermint tea, he began to adjust to the ritual until a boy, surrounded by his family, pointed at him.
“Is that boy koia?” the boy asked his mother.
“Don’t judge,” the woman Eric presumed was his mother
replied.
Don’t point, his mother should have said. It’s rude.
She said nothing while his finger stayed up although Eric
had been identified.
“Is he?” the boy asked again. “He’s got something on his
eye.”
“That’s because he hurt it and he’s kaien. Koia can’t
get into this city, but kaien are just as breakable as koia.”
That wasn’t how she should have described it. Koia were
the uninitiated, those who knew nothing of magic while Kaien knew and coexisted with them.
“Aren’t you glad you’re not koia?” his older sister- or
Eric thought she was- asked.
The boy nodded vigorously.
Russ turned to Eric. “Eltriani think they know
everything because they know how to fight. But they’re wrong.”
Eric looked back at the family. According to the people
appointed to care for him by the state, everyone in power was wrong. Eric wanted strength and wondered if all Eltriani were oblivious to pain and out of his reach.
**
Eight years later, Eric learned that he didn’t want to
see weakness reflected in an Eltrian.
“This is the sixth month I’ve stayed completely sober,”
Kira Ross said. “First time in years.”
“Micah’s known you for years,” Eric said. “You must have
had it pretty controlled if he never mentioned alcohol.”
“I could get down to once a week most of the time. It
didn’t look enough like a problem for anyone to say anything.”
Kira sat down on the flatbed of Eric’s truck. She was
rich but Eric’s pick-up truck never seemed to bother her. She just accepted it. Her acceptance only pushed Eric harder.
“Why?” Eric asked. “You’re-.”
“-The sister of a domestic abuse victim. But I’m not a
victim and I’m not even sure why. I just- sometimes I had to do something besides watch.”
“But it was Kristen, right? She got out.”
So had Kyle but only Kristen’s whereabouts were
confirmed. She was completely irresponsible yet self-sufficient and there was nothing to worry about. Kyle had disappeared. His outdated photos had taken up residence on television, but it didn’t bring him back.
Kira shook her head. “The only son.”
Like Eric.
**
After the fifth honk on the eighth day, Kira opened the
door and strutted down the stairs in a revealing shirt and pajama bottoms.
“Where were you?” Micah asked, leaning casually out of
the window of his Mercedes. If Kira changed into a khaki skirt and a polo shirt, they could have served as an advertisement for a resort.
Kira pointed at the mansion behind her. “Inside. The
entire time. Where are we headed?”
“Your choice?”
“I’d go anywhere and now I get to choose?”
“Hop in.”
Kira reached for the handle to the front seat when she
saw Eric, her neglected boyfriend through the window. Kira smiled and took the seat behind Micah.
“Take a left,” Kira said as Micah keyed the ignition.
“I thought it didn’t matter,” Micah said.
“Wherever we’re going, a left is most efficient.”
When they heard the bullet shot right, Eric realized
that location, not time was what mattered.
**
Adam, Clowes, MBA stared at the ceiling when he opened
his eyes. Eric understood. Five years had passed since the bullet. All of their lives had taken a few unexpected turns.
“Where am I?” Mr. Clowes asked once he looked sideways
and realized he wasn’t alone, but with an employee.
“My old bedroom,” Eric replied.
“You lived in Terenax?”
“Yep. Back when I was a foster kid. Years ago.”
“I only discovered this city a few months ago.”
Eric shrugged and decided not to explain. Terenax was
different than the outside world but resembled mainstream society better than the mage districts or the kaien district that embraced egalitarianism but eschewed technology.
“What happened at the bar?” Mr. Clowes asked.
“It’s complicated.”
Adam knew that much.
“They wanted to kill us, didn’t they?”
Eric shook his head. “They’re a political group. Every
attack has an objective, but their overall goal is the elimination of currency. No one can understand their strategies. They hurt whoever they say they’re trying to help.”
People who had hurt Eric claiming they wanted to help him
had shaped his life. His father had tried to motivate him and had succeeded to some degree, or so they told Eric when he was awarded a full scholarship to an exclusive prep school, where he was greeted by students who ended up coming after him with a gun. So he retreated to relative safety, where he slept only with the aid of prescription drugs.
Mr. Clowes sat up and examined the bedroom. He was
probably looking for his shoes. Dannah had taken them off and placed them in the hallway as Mr. Clowes slept. Shoes weren’t allowed in bedrooms.
“Is Kyle Ross at all involved in this mess?” Mr. Clowes
asked. He rested his feet, covered in well-crafted socks on Dannah’s abused carpet.
“He was but only slightly. He’s your godson, right?”
“I’m Kira’s godfather, not Kyle’s. Don’t use that verb
tense. Only corpses stay missing this long.”
“He’s still alive. Or at least that’s according to his
kidnappers. They took him to make a point to his father. Under the right circumstances he can go free. The right circumstances might never occur.”
Mr. Clowes coughed. Eric reached for a tissue box until
he realized it was unnecessary.
“I’m fine,” Mr. Clowes said. “What did the group want
from Anthony?”
“Compassion, I think. Directed towards Kyle and the rest
of the world.”
“There’s a fine line between compassion and abuse with
children. My father crossed it constantly. I waited with Micah.”
“My father got me here.”
There was a pause. Fathers were almost always silent.
Working mothers had taken Eric away from his father and reassigned him, turning his childhood into a tour of service. They told him to cut his losses, to stop searching. They never offered a second father, but other men had intuited his pain in the past, before they left and told him to search elsewhere.
“I knew Micah in prep school,” Eric said. “He had it
made.”
“What about Kyle? Did you ever meet him?”
“Once. Briefly.”
“Kira and Kyle have a biracial half-brother who Kyle only
met once.”
“It’s not me.”
“Might as well be.”
Eric smiled.

Biography: Kaye Branch lives in Massachusetts. Her work has been published in Troubadour 21; Children, Churches and Daddies; Fear of Monkey; The Legendary; Danse Macabre; Fear of Monkeys; Della Donna; All Things Girl; The Fringe; Pens on Fire and Conceit.

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