Archive for: March, 2012

Stranger than Fiction by Jay Faulkner

Mar 31 2012 Published by under The WiFiles

“Wha …” I screamed as a sudden grip tightened on my shoulder and, as my shoes clattered across the concrete – giving little to no purchase – I was propelled towards the edge of the train station’s platform.

     I struggled, twisting back and forth, trying to grab at whoever was pushing, but couldn’t. One of the heels snagged, in a crack on the concrete floor, before my shoe was wrenched off. My bare foot scraped against the hard surface, skin ripping with a burst of pain but, suddenly, I had purchase. Ducking down, twisting around, I came face to chest with a grey suit. My brain, synapses firing faster than ever before, took in every detail of his form. Six foot tall. Average build. White shirt. Slender tie of a lighter grey. Dark hair. Clean-shaven. No anger, no malice, no emotion at all, on his face. The three-week self-defense course at the YMCA suddenly screamed out at me from the recess of my memory and I slapped out, as hard as I could. His head barely moved to the side. I brought my knee up – hard – into his groin. He didn’t even flinch. Slowly, impassively, he stared at me – through me – with grey eyes that barely seemed to register my existence.

* * *

“I’m sorry,” I faltered, in mid-recollection. “I just still can’t believe it happened to me!”

I winced at the sound of my voice. It made me sound weak. Unreliable. The positioning of the lights in the room meant that I couldn’t see their eyes, not clearly, but I knew what I would see there if I could. Doubt. I mean I felt it myself; I had been through it and even I couldn’t believe it. How could they?

“So you said, Ms. Maycock,” the older of the two men stated, impassively. His voice was calm. He must have sat there, so often, interviewing people just like me. Well maybe not ‘just’ like me; I was a journalist – I interviewed people too. I did it to sell their stories, though. He was a cop. He interviewed people to get the truth. I wasn’t even sure that I knew the meaning of the word anymore. If I couldn’t get a story I simply made the ‘news’ up. Any journalistic integrity I had had died the same day my dreams of writing for the major leagues did; the day I started writing for a dirt sheet that specialised in conspiracy theories, alien abduction and celebrity gossip.

‘The Truth’ was London’s answer to ‘The National Enquirer’ – but with fewer facts per square inch. Nick Flanagan, the owner of the rag, had come up with the name one night after knocking back a few pints. He had thought he was being clever when he dropped the ‘stranger than fiction’ part of the well-known phrase and used it for a monthly newssheet that had as much truth in it as a politician’s promises three days before election.

“Why don’t you start again?” The cop prompted. “From the beginning.” His younger colleague picked up a pen and waited, patiently, as I tried to recall what I wanted only to forget.

* * *

“Guys – and girl, of course” Nick said, with the quirk of his lips that passed for a smile, as he glanced my way, “I am pleased to tell you that we just had our best month on record … and that’s the truth.”

The belly laugh that erupted from him was echoed with lackluster noises from the other two staff reporters at ‘The Truth’, Colin Wright and Jamie Rogers. Nick Flanagan thought that it was the epitome of humour to work the title of his publication into at least one conversation per day; I had heard it too often to even pretend to find it funny. He didn’t notice that, nor that ‘his boys’ weren’t really laughing either. Had he cared for ‘the truth’, after all, he wouldn’t be where he was.

None of us would.

“Circulation is up by seventeen percent and the last issue peaked at thirteen hundred and four copies.” He beamed at the figures and I was reminded of a shark as his teeth flashed. A short, fat and balding shark but a shark nonetheless. It was the small, cold eyes that did it. Even when he laughed his eyes never lit up. Of course he hadn’t mentioned just why the figures had been so good last month, hadn’t mentioned that my story had been on the cover and that it was thanks to me that …

“Linda?”

“Yes?” I hated the smug look on Nick’s face as he realised – correctly – that I hadn’t been listening. “Sorry, Nick, I was miles away!”

“No need to apologise, love,” he glanced at the two men on either side of the table and winked. “Probably thinking of much more important things than our end of month wrap up, weren’t you? What was it then, shopping list?”

“No, I …”

“Don’t matter, love,” he cut me off. “Don’t need to know. What I was saying, while you were off wool-gathering, was that I’m going to take us all out tonight to celebrate. So, why don’t you go powder your nose – or whatever it is you do in the bogs – and let’s go get slaughtered!”

Jamie and Colin jumped to their feet, immediately. It wasn’t often that Nick put his hand in his pocket for anything, after all. We sometimes considered ourselves lucky just to get paid at the end of each month. Even that didn’t happen without the customary moaning about none of us being worth half of what he paid us. I had once looked up ‘tight’ in the dictionary but was disappointed when I didn’t find his photo there. They had their jackets on before Nick had even lumbered his bulk to a semi-vertical position; they wanted to take him up on the offer before his mood changed along with his mind.

“You guys go on,” I said, as I walked back to my desk. “I need to check a few emails first. I might have a lead on something for next month; Dave, the guy that tipped me off last time, says that he may be able to get more – something even bigger, he said …”

“Whatever,” Nick threw back over his shoulder as he led the other two out of the door and stood in front of the elevator. “You can tell me all about it at the pub. Don’t be long, though, or you’ll miss out on happy hour – and after that the next round is on you!”

The door to the office closed behind them as they waited at the elevator and, finally, their voices died out. Leaning back in my chair I quickly typed in the password and watched as the monitor flickered to life, then called up my email.

“Dammit …” I gave the mouse a shake, watching the cursor move contrary to my wishes. As the small arrow continued to dance, aimlessly, across the screen emails started to disappear, one by one. None of the guys were here to do the one thing they were good at – geek stuff – so I resorted to using my own, amazing, technical skills. When slapping the monitor, and shouting at it, didn’t work I bit off another frustrated curse and grabbed the phone. Nick’s number was quickly dialed before I realised that I was listening to silence. I looked into the receiver, as if I would be able to see why there was no dial tone, then was thankful I was alone; I would never have lived it down had any of the guys seen me looking helpless, like a damsel in distress, because I couldn’t get my email or phone to work.

“Oh shit …” The phone dropped from my hand, landing on the keyboard with a clatter, as my face was suddenly bathed in blue light. Even my limited technical knowledge was enough to know that a PC suddenly showing a blue screen, with the words ‘memory’ and ‘dump’ in the same sentence, wasn’t a ‘good thing’. I snatched my mobile phone, hitting the speed dial for Nick, as I hurried out of the office.

“Hi there, this is Nick …”

“Nick, you fuck!” I snarled into the silver Motorola as I hit the call button for the elevator. “It’s Linda …”

“I can’t get to the phone,” his voice intoned, “leave a message after the beep and I’ll get back to you.”

It took me a few seconds to realise that I was about to rant at an answer machine. In all the time I had worked for Nick I had never known him to turn his phone off; day or night he was always ready to take the call that would be, in his mind, a tip on the next big story. The fact that it never came, though, never stopped him. He never turned his phone off.

“Nick, it’s Linda.” I sighed, not really wanting to talk to a machine. “Your cheap-ass computer just ate my emails and then committed ritual suicide in front of my eyes. You had better get someone to get my shit back; I am not willing to lose everything on there! Also, you must have forgotten to pay the phone bill! We’ve been cut off – again – you idiot!”

A small tone rang out as the elevator doors began to open. I started to snap the phone closed but, with a smirk, I brought it close to my mouth again.

“… and make mine a double, you skinflint. If it wasn’t for my story you wouldn’t have the best numbers you have ever seen!” I grinned, stepping forwards. The phone fell from my hand, dropping into the darkness, as I scrabbled for balance. Grabbing the side of the doors I pulled myself backwards, staring down into the empty shaft where the elevator should have been. I heard my phone clatter of something further down in the darkness and then all went quiet. My heart, pounding, was the only sound that filled my ears.

“Stupid. Fucking. Building!” I staggered back from the abyss and watched, shaking, as the elevator doors closed – silently and slowly – as if nothing had happened. Twice, last month, the elevator had broken down but then it had simply got stuck between floors. This was the first time that it had nearly killed someone. Nearly killed me! “Nothing fucking works!”

Slamming open the doors to the fire escape I took the stairs down the three floors and walked out into the January night. My breath escaped in a cloud of vapour and I shivered; I told myself that it was from the cold but I knew – or at least the small part of me that I, big girl playing in a man’s World, normally ignored knew – that the near miss with the elevator had scared the shit out of me. Not literally, of course, but pretty damn close.

Turning left out of the building I hit the button on the pedestrian crossing, jabbing at it repeatedly as if that would make the lights change faster. I saw a lorry approaching but the crossing sign changed to green in my favour and so I stepped out into the road. The scream of tyres, and the blaring of a shrill horn, rent the silence of the night and, as I turned – eyes wide – towards the sound, I saw the grill of the lorry rushing towards me. Shoulders bunched, eyes closed in horror, and I held my hands out, Canute-like, as if by some miracle I could physically stop it from crushing me.

“Wha’ the Hell are ya playing at, ya stupid girl?”

Silence returned. My eyes opened. I was mere inches from the lorry; steam rising from the engine and the tyres. A face looked out from the side window, the most beautiful face that I had ever seen – simply because I was still alive.

“The man was green.”

“Wha’?”

“The man was green,” I repeated, this time with a voice above an inaudible murmur. “The little man on the crossing was green; that meant I could go.”

“Don’t be stupid, lass,” the driver spat down at the pavement. “My lights were green; they never changed. Ya nearly got yaself killed there!” Muttering curses he pulled his head back into the cab of the lorry and indicated that I should get out of his way. I didn’t need much encouragement and was across the road before he could change gear and start the lorry moving again. As the taillights faded into the distance I stood, alone, in the dark and felt my heart pumping harder than ever before. Twice in one night I had nearly been killed. I had nearly died! All I wanted to do was go home, wrap myself up with a hot water bottle, and go to sleep. I knew that, in the harsh light of morning, the guys would laugh at the silly little girl who let two accidents scare her so badly, though. I also knew that, in the morning, I would agree with them.

Looking down the street to the left I realised that I still had a fifteen minute walk to get to the pub. The drop of rain that hit me between the eyes made me turn, instead, to the right and scurry the three hundred feet to the entrance to the Tube station. I never liked taking the Tube at the best of times. Late at night, on my own, and having the sort of night that I was, was definitely not the ‘best of times’. Getting drenched was worse, though, and it was only two stops. I descended the steps, the sounds of rain fading behind me, and moved onto the deserted platform. The faint rumble in the dark tunnel, and the small rush of air that made my hair dance, let me know that I wouldn’t have long to wait for my train. I could almost taste the vodka and coke.

“Wha …” I screamed as a sudden grip tightened on my shoulder and, as my shoes clattered across the concrete – giving little to no purchase – I was propelled towards the edge of the train station’s platform.

I struggled, twisting back and forth, trying to grab at whoever was pushing, but couldn’t. One of the heels snagged, in a crack on the concrete floor, before my shoe was wrenched off. My bare foot scraped against the hard surface, skin ripping with a burst of pain but, suddenly, I had purchase. Ducking down, twisting around, I came face to chest with a grey suit. My brain, synapses firing faster than ever before, took in every detail of his form. Six foot tall. Average build. White shirt. Slender tie of a lighter grey. Dark hair. Clean-shaven. No anger, no malice, no emotion at all, on his face. The three-week self-defense course at the YMCA suddenly screamed out at me from the recess of my memory and I slapped out, as hard as I could. His head barely moved to the side. I brought my knee up – hard – into his groin. He didn’t even flinch. Slowly, impassively, he stared at me – through me – with grey eyes that barely seemed to register my existence.

The wind picked up behind me. The rumble of the approaching train grew louder. I squinted, dust and debris flying, hitting my face, and it was then – as he reached towards me once more – that I realised what was causing every fiber of my being, every nerve in my body, to scream in protest. It wasn’t the fear, it wasn’t the attack, it wasn’t even the knowledge I was about to die. I had hit him; I had kicked him where it should have hurt. The wind blew debris directly into his face, into his eyes, but he never reacted.

He never blinked!

Staring directly ahead, eyes fixed, he reached for me. I felt his fingers scrape across my nipple and, in an absurd moment, it hardened at his touch. Before he could grab me, though, I pulled at his wrist and – with a scream of terror and fury – dropped to the ground, hoping and praying that my momentum would move him.

Curled, foetal-like, face down on the platform, I watched his body collide with the incoming train. Like a meat balloon, he exploded. His blood and viscera drenched me.

* * *

     “… and then?”

I stared at the cop, as if seeing him for the first time, forgetting where I was – briefly – and taking a few seconds to free myself from the gripping fog of memory. I looked down at my hands, knuckles white, as I clenched them hard enough for the fingernails to draw thin lines of blood on my palms.

“And then?” Failing to choke back the laugh, that threatened to become a scream, I let it out in a gurgle of hysteria. “Then I came here so that you guys could have me repeat this over and over again while you look at me like I am mad!”

The door opened and a grey haired policeman peered in, nodding towards the other two. Standing up, lifting the file from the table, one of them walked over and listened as the older man whispered to him quickly before backing out of the room again. Indicating that his young colleague should follow him, the cop smiled.

“We’ll be back in a few moments, Ms. Maycock.”

* * *

“So, what do you think?” Richard Dawson, Detective Constable for all of four months, looked earnestly at his older colleague as the door to the interview room closed.

“I’ve just been told that there have been no reports of any incidents on the Tube tonight, Rich,” Detective Sergeant Andrew Magwood sighed quietly. “I sent someone to check out the address she gave us for the so-called ‘Truth’ of hers …”

“And?”

“There’s nothing there. The building is there, of course, but it’s disused and empty – looks like it has been for years,” Andrew continued. “No trace of the people that she supposedly works with, either. No social security numbers, no birth certificates. Nothing. They just don’t exist.”

“What about the blood?” Richard asked, confused. “She’s covered in it!”

“I don’t know, Rich. It may be an animal’s, it may be fake, I just don’t know,” Andrew admitted. “The initial tests show it definitely isn’t human, though, so we don’t have to worry about her being an insane serial killer!”

“Is that what you think, then?”

“What, that she’s a serial killer?”

“No,” Richard returned, quietly. “That she’s insane?”

“Maybe.”

“So, what now?” Richard asked, obviously concerned. “She needs help, doesn’t she?”

“Now, my son?” Andrew smiled, glancing over Richard’s shoulder towards the older policeman at the front desk. “Now you go and get me a coffee. And don’t worry – we will look after Ms. Maycock.”

As Richard disappeared further into the police station Andrew watched as two men – both six foot tall, both with dark hair, both clean-shaven, both dressed in grey suits with white shirts – entered the station.

Walking to the front desk he glanced at the newspaper they held out towards him. Linda Maycock’s by-line graced the front page beside the headline: “They walk amongst us! Who – or what – really runs the Country?” He handed them his file and, without a single word, pointed towards the interview room.

As they made their way towards the room, moving in silent symmetry, Detective Sergeant Andrew Magwood stared after them.

Unblinking.

– – – – –

Bio:

Jay Faulkner resides in Northern Ireland with his wife, Carole, and their two boys, Mackenzie and Nathaniel. He says that while he is a writer, martial artist, sketcher, and dreamer he’s mostly just a husband and father.

His work has been published widely, both online and in print anthologies, and was short-listed in the 2010 Penguin Ireland Short Story Competition. He is currently working on his first novel.

Jay founded, and edits, ‘With Painted Words’ – www.withpaintedwords.com – a creative writing site with inspiration from monthly image prompts, and ‘The WiFiles’ – www.thewifiles.com – an online speculative fiction magazine, published weekly.

He is a co-host, and contributor to, Following The Nerd – www.followingthenerd.com – for all the latest news, reviews, articles & information across all mediums on nerd culture.

For more information visit – www.jayfaulkner.com

 

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If You Weren’t Murdering My Wife by Jamie Lackey

Mar 25 2012 Published by under The WiFiles

Glacial Avalanche’s head felt like it was filled with cotton balls. Where was he? He’d been called in to fight his nemesis du jour, so he suited up and then–had something hit him? He didn’t remember. He was lying on a cold concrete floor, and as he picked himself up, his limbs felt shaky and feeble. At least he was still in costume. His pale gray mask and deep blue suit hugged the muscular curves of his body.
Harsh fluorescent lights filled the empty room with an annoying buzz. All four walls and the ceiling matched the unornamented floor.
He flexed his fists. Concrete was no match for his super strength. He threw himself at the wall, winding up in midair, and punched it as hard as he could.
His fist bounced off and he fell on the floor. His knuckles were bleeding. “Impossible,” he hissed through clenched teeth. It had been a long time since he’d really felt pain. He picked himself up and stumbled to the wall, pressing his palm against it and willing it to freeze beneath his fingers. If he froze the wall, maybe whatever strange material it was made out of would weaken.
Nothing happened.
What was happening to him?
The low, familiar chuckle seemed to come from all around. “This room nullifies your powers, Avalanche. No super strength, no invulnerability, no ice control. I thought about telling you that before you hit the wall, but that was comedy gold.”
“Ominous.”
“Indeed,” Lord Ominous said. “But the room is the least of your worries.”
The wall in front of Glacial Avalanche opened up, revealing a laboratory. An unconscious woman lay strapped to a steel table with an IV dripping into her arm.
“No!” Glacial Avalanche shouted, running forward. He slammed into the wall. It still felt like concrete–the image must have been a projection. “What are you doing with my wife?”
“You killed my wife. I’m returning the favor.”
“But Molly doesn’t have anything to do with this! Your wife was working with you–she was your assistant–she was trying to kill me! Molly’s never tried to kill you.”
“You keep calling me your nemesis. I decided that it was time I act like one.”
“You’re evil! And mad!” Glacial Avalanche pounded on the wall. Molly’s face was so pale. Wisps of her short auburn hair clung to the sweat that glistened on her face.
“Yes, you often say that as well. Again, I decided to make you an honest man,” Lord Ominous said.
“Please, let her go.” Glacial Avalanche stopped hitting the wall. His hands ached. So did his throat–it felt like he had something stuck in it.
“Oh, my. I didn’t expect begging quite so quickly. You must really love her.”
“Of course I do,” Glacial Avalanche said.
“I loved my wife, too, you bastard.”
Glacial Avalanche didn’t know what to say to that. He stared at Molly. He thought he could see her chest rising and falling slowly. Finally, he asked, “What is happening to her?”
“I’m poisoning her. It will be slow, but relatively painless. This is meant as torture for you, not for her.” Lord Ominous’ voice had lost its angry edge. Now he sounded sad. “You will watch her die and be powerless to help her. You’ll be able to hear anything she says–she should be waking soon–but she won’t hear anything you say. No words of comfort from you will reach her ears.” Lord Ominous paused, then asked, “Does she know who you really are?”
Glacial Avalanche shook his head.
Lord Ominous snorted. “You still subscribe to that ‘secret means secret means secret’ bullshit they taught us in school?”
“Ignoring the rules is a slippery slope, Ominous. Look where it’s landed you.”
“And look where following them has gotten you.”
“Scott?” Molly’s voice trembled.
“Molly!”
“She can’t hear you,” Lord Ominous said.
“Hello? Is anyone there? Can anyone hear me?” Molly pulled against her restraints. “What’s going on?”
“Hello, Molly. I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news,” Lord Ominous rumbled, and Molly jumped.
“Who are you?” she asked.
“You can call me Lord Ominous.”
“The super villain?”
Lord Ominous sighed. “Some people insist on calling me that, yes. Anyway. Your husband did something incredibly stupid, and you’re here as his punishment.”
“Scott would never have anything to do with you.”
“Scott and I go way back, Molly.”
“You’re lying!” she shouted.
“Well, you’ll be dead long before you can ask your husband about the details of our relationship, so you can believe whatever you’d like.”
“Dead?” Molly asked.
“It will be relatively painless,” Lord Ominous said.
“Ominous, please,” Glacial Avalanche cried, “Let her go! I’ll do anything!”
“No, Avalanche, you won’t do anything, except watch the woman you love die. At least when I watched my wife die, she knew why.”
“Damn you, Ominous!” He could hear Molly sobbing. Every once in a while she whimpered his name. Her breathing gradually grew more and more labored.
He’d always meant to tell her, eventually. After he’d retired. He’d say, Honey, remember Glacial Avalanche? That was me. And she would laugh and roll her eyes and say, Sure Honey. Then he’d walk over to her and pick her up by the waist and lift her over his head. She’d laugh and insist on seeing him in his suit, then she’d take it off of him, piece by piece.
Tears soaked his mask, slipped down his cheeks, and dripped onto the bright blue material of his super suit.
“You know, whatever it is that you think Scott did to you, I wasn’t involved.” Molly’s voice was tiny and rough.
“He killed my wife,” Ominous said.
Molly laughed. “So you’re murdering his? How poetically barbaric.”
“It’s justice,” Ominous snapped.
“You can’t honestly believe that,” Molly said.
Ominous was silent for a while. “Avalanche, do you even know what we were working on when you murdered my wife?” Lord Ominous asked.
He remembered Ominous’ wife–the way she’d spun around, holding a shiny silver gun. She’d looked angry. At least he’d thought it was anger. Maybe it had been fear. He hadn’t meant for her to die. He was a hero. A good guy. It was an accident. “I didn’t murder your wife.”
“Don’t argue semantics with me,” Lord Ominous snapped. “Answer the question. Did they tell you what we were doing?”
“No. Dispatch said you were a threat, that’s all.”
“I’d retired from the super business. I was tired of all of the regulations. Lacy wanted to make chocolate. We were working on a strawberry infused dark chocolate. Nothing sinister. I didn’t leave the super society to become a villain. I left to help my wife make chocolate.”
Their lab had smelled like chocolate. But that didn’t mean anything. Ominous was great at chemistry. The chocolate could have been poisonous, or filled with some sort of mind controlling agent. “That’s impossible,” Glacial Avalanche said. “Dispatch doesn’t send us off to get rid of retirees–they couldn’t get away with it.”
“I was always a rebel, Avalanche, but I was never evil. You know that. And you know I had enemies on the council even when I was in action. I asked too many questions.”
“Too many questions?” Maybe he could distract Ominous–get him to monologue. Though Glacial Avalanche wasn’t sure what good that might do him. But it was the only strategy he could think of.
“Like, ‘Where do all the super villains come from?'” Ominous snorted. The council keeps you so busy fighting the enemy that you don’t think about where they come from. I think that the council makes them.”
“You’re insane.”
“If heroes weren’t constantly proving their usefulness by fighting villains, people would start fearing them again. Remember the dark days? Society has never been kind to people who are different. So the council has to make sure that we don’t run out of villains.”
Glacial Avalanche barely remembered the dark days before the formation of the council. Normal people had hated people with super powers. His mother had been afraid to leave their house. He still remembered the strain in his father’s voice, the fear in his mother’s eyes. “Even if the council is making villains, it’s better than going back to the way things were.”
“Do you remember Noah Parkins?”
He shook his head. “Doesn’t ring a bell.”
“He had the ability to bring people back to life. Problem is, after a week or so their minds eroded away, leaving the bodies as mindless husks that obeyed his every command.”
“So he had an army of zombies?”
“He discovered his power when he brought his girlfriend back to life. She got hit by a bus as she was crossing the street toward him. He ran to her, held her to his chest, and she came back. He was so happy with his power. So proud that he’d be able to help people. Then, after a week, the girl he loved was gone. And in her place she’d left an empty, functioning body.
“He tried to kill himself. I was part of the team that saved him. He was a sweet kid. Confused and sad, but not evil. The council took him away for counseling, and the next time I saw him, he was wearing spandex and cackling about his plans to rule the world.
“That’s when I knew that I had to get out. I knew I didn’t have the power to stop them, but I couldn’t play along anymore. So when Lacy suggested the chocolate shop, I retired.”
Could it be true? He thought about the look on Ominous’ wife’s face. Had it even been a gun in her hand? What if it had been some sort of chocolate nozzle? Had she been angry or afraid? Or both? “Maybe I’d believe you if you weren’t murdering my wife.”
Lord Ominous didn’t reply. The sound of Molly’s breathing filled the room. A gasping breath in, a hissing sigh out, then a pause. He pressed his palms onto the concrete view screen his teeth grinding, his throat tight. He felt ill. “Breathe, honey,” he whispered, “please, breathe.”
Molly inhaled a rasping breath. “What was your wife like?” she asked Ominous.
“She was wonderful. Patient and kind and beautiful.”
“Do you really think that this is what she’d want? That she’d be pleased with your revenge?”
Ominous didn’t answer.
Molly laughed. The sound made Glacial Avalanche wince. It was so weak.
“You’re bluffing!” Molly said, between laughs broken by her ragged breathing. “Scott, can you hear me? Don’t worry, honey. I’m going to be fine. He’s bluffing.”
Molly’s breathing grew even more uneven. Every pause tightened the fist of nausea in his belly. He wanted to vomit. He wanted to hold her. Each pause stretched a little longer than the last, and he sagged with relief with every strained inhalation.
“Scott.” Her voice was barely audible.
He waited for Molly’s next breath. Five seconds. Ten. Twenty. His knees gave out beneath him. “Molly.” He should have told her. Maybe, if he’d begged, Ominous would have let him talk to her one last time. He should have begged.
His chest tightened, and he waited for the tears to come. They didn’t. He felt hollow inside. Molly was dead, and it was his fault. He’d never hold her again, or laugh at one of her terrible puns. “I’m sorry, Molly,” he whispered.
A fissure appeared in the featureless cement wall, and a door hissed open. He moved into a battle stance by pure instinct. Was this some kind of trick? Was Ominous going to finish him off?
He wanted Ominous to finish him off. He lowered his fists and waited.
Nothing happened.
Glacial Avalanche picked himself up. There was no way to know if Molly’s body was really in the next room, but he hoped it was. He wanted to hold her one last time.
The hallway was as plain as his cell had been, but there was a door a few yards away.
There was something taped to it–a note and a syringe filled with a pale pink liquid. Glacial Avalanche’s fingers shook as he unfolded the note.
Inject her with this. It’s the antidote. She’ll be fine in a few minutes. Glacial Avalanche ran to his wife’s side. Was it really an antidote, or was Ominous playing a cruel trick? Could he trust a villain?
Molly had believed that Ominous was bluffing.
He slid the needle into Molly’s upper arm and injected her. He pulled her limp body to his chest and stroked her silky hair.
There was another note on the pillow, crumpled from the weight of Molly’s head. I want to be left alone. If I’m not, there won’t be an antidote next time. You can believe what I told you or not–you can investigate the corruption in the council or not. It doesn’t matter to me. Someone was responsible for my wife’s death, but revenge won’t bring her back. I don’t expect to see you again. Goodbye, Avalanche.
Breath rasped back into Molly’s lungs. She’d been right about Ominous.
But why, Glacial Avalanche wondered. Had Ominous been playing with him, or was his story true? Had Glacial Avalanche been an unwitting accomplice to murder? To multiple murders?
Belief hit Glacial Avalanche like an ocean wave. He’d killed an innocent woman. Lacy’s eyes haunted him. How could he have been such a blind naïve fool?
Color slowly returned to Molly’s cheeks, and her eyes fluttered open. “Glacial Avalanche?”
He took her cold hands between his. “Molly, I have something to tell you.” He pulled off his mask. “I love you.”

END

Jamie Lackey earned her BA in Creative Writing from the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford. Her fiction has appeared in over a dozen different venues, including The Living Dead 2, Bards and Sages Quarterly, and The Drabblecast. She has appeared on the Best Horror of the Year Honorable Mention and Tangent Online Recommended Reading Lists. She reads slush for Clarkesworld Magazine, and she’s worked on the Triangulation Annual Anthology since 2008. Find her online at www.jamielackey.com.

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Jack by Brenda Ramos

Mar 18 2012 Published by under The WiFiles

On the day Frankie left, Tricia Lee sat in my driveway blaring the horn of her fancy, blue Camaro. I stood stony-faced and watched Frankie throw his measly belongings into a shopping bag.

“You just don’t turn me on anymore, Angel,” Frankie said. “You’re downright boring compared to Tricia Lee, and besides, look at the difference between the two of you. She’s a big star, and you flip burgers for a living”

“At least I have a job, Frankie,” I replied, feeling the first hint of rage creeping in. “You sit on the couch and drink beer all day.”

He gave me a pitying smile as I followed him to the door. “You were stupid enough to let me sit on the couch drinking beer all day. Maybe you should get yourself a dog, Angel.” With this parting shot, he was gone in the blur of the blue Camaro and Tricia Lee’s bleached, blonde hair blowing in the wind.

I didn’t feel sad. Instead, I felt a red rage so strong that my head pounded, and my heart raced. I chased the blue Camaro down the driveway with a big rock in my hand, but I stopped short of throwing it. After a while, I calmed down. My head told me I would be better off without Frankie.

Three days later, I found Jack by the side of the road. He was unconscious, barely breathing and bleeding profusely from his empty eye socket. I wrapped him in my old flannel shirt and took him to the veterinarian’s office to have him put out of his obvious misery. At the time, I felt sure he would never survive his injuries. I didn’t know all the circumstances on the day I found him, and I had never seen him before. I knew for certain only a vile and evil person could do such a thing to a dog.

For the next few weeks, I threw myself into my job and worked myself to death pulling double shifts at the diner. I brooded about the dog, and I brooded angrily about Frankie’s rejection. My boss, Joe, answered the telephone the day the veterinarian’s office called.

“Hey Angel,” He yelled out to me. “That little dog you took to the vet is ready to go home. They want to know if you can adopt him.”

“How can he possibly be alive?” I asked in amazement. And I remembered Frankie’s parting words about my getting a dog. I guess fate had listened to him even if I didn’t.

Joe and I stood in the waiting room at the vet’s office later that day talking to Shirley, the office receptionist.

Shirley shook her head, “It’s a miracle, for sure. I overheard the sheriff talking to the vet about it. Apparently, they got a tip from someone that saw Tricia Lee and one of her crazy boyfriends parked by the side of the road late one night in the area where you found the dog.”

I felt a wave of nausea wash over me, and Joe put his arm around me. “It was Frankie, wasn’t it?” I asked Shirley. “He and Tricia Lee did this horrible thing to that little dog.”

“The sheriff is launching an investigation,” Shirley replied. “He doesn’t have enough evidence yet to arrest Frankie and Tricia Lee. The best we can do is to make sure the doggie gets a good home.” I nodded numbly, feeling my head pound with rage. It seemed that uncontrollable anger was fast becoming a big part of my life.

The little dog was skinny, but he gave a feeble wag of his tail and licked my hand when I picked him up, and I fell madly in love with him. Joe called the little guy “One-Eyed Jack”, but I shortened it to plain “Jack”.

I carried Jack to work with me every day in a basket, which I placed next to the huge restaurant stove. Joe and I cook together on the day shift, and we watched over the dog together, although Joe blustered about it in the beginning. Joe is old enough to be my father and he treats me like the daughter he never had. I secretly enjoy the attention, because I have no family of my own.

“The Health Department will close us down if they find out we have a dog in here,” he groused every morning. But time passed, and Jack began to gain weight and run around a little. Most of the time, he gnawed on soup bones in his basked, happy to have the diner for a home. The sutures over his empty eye socket healed fast, and he reminded me of a teddy bear missing a button eye.

Joe and I continued caring for Jack, and he grew to a healthy ten pounds, with a shiny coat and lots of energy. He couldn’t give us enough love to thank us for saving him. However, I soon got a chance to observe his true feelings for Tricia Lee and Frankie.

I had Jack on a leash when I got off work, and I didn’t see Frankie and Tricia Lee until I heard the growl. It was not a normal little dog sound, but the kind of growl where a dog curls back his lip and sounds like a hound from hell. I stopped dead in my tracks. I looked up, and that’s when I saw the fur on Jack’s back standing on end. Frankie and Tricia Lee were standing a few feet up the sidewalk, and they were laughing at me.

“Lookie here, Tricia Lee,” Frankie said, sarcastically. “Angel adopted that little retarded dog of yours. Ain’t that the cutest thing?” Tricia Lee looked startled when she saw jack, but she laughed and I swear to God she sounded like a mule braying into the wind.

“I took her man, so she got my ugly, little dog,” Tricia Lee screeched. For the first time I noticed an ugly gap between her two front teeth. Sweat ran down her cleavage.

By now, Jack was lunging on his leash trying to fling his ten-pound body at them with all his might. I scooped him up and held him close, feeling his little heart beating like a trapped bird.

“You’d better keep that mutt under control,” Frankie called out as he swaggered away. “Or I might finish the job I started on him.”

Tricia Lee flipped her hair and turned to stare at me. She wore a smug smile and she said, “I have a brand new hot tub at my place, and Frankie and I are going to break it in tonight. Just think of that, Angel, when you are home alone with my hand-me-down dog.”

I ran furiously after Tricia Lee, with poor Jack clutched to my side. He whimpered with fear and tried to hide his face against me. “What sort of a sorry whore are you, Tricia Lee?” I hollered after her. “How could you let anyone hurt a little dog?” My head pounded unmercifully, and I felt blinded by the pain.

Tricia Lee shot me the bird with her middle finger, and ran to catch up with Frankie, wobbling unsteadily on her ultra-high heels. I hugged Jack close, and he trembled violently as we watched them walk away. It would be a dark night, and I would be in a dark place emotionally, but with Jack, at least I would not be alone.

Later that night, I paced restlessly through the house trying to calm my pounding head, while Jack looked hopefully at me with the leash in his mouth, begging for a walk. We started down the dirt road near my house under the cover of darkness. Jack was happy and full of energy, and I was lost in my own gloomy thoughts. I didn’t realize how far we had walked until too late. I looked around and saw we were in sight of Tricia Lee’s place. I could see lights blazing around the outdoor patio area. Honky-tonk music blared, and I heard laughter. Jack pricked up his ears, growling low in his throat, and pulled me toward the house.

I allowed him to pull me along like a sequence from a bad dream in which you can’t wake up. We crossed the barren fields and when we got closer to the house, I scooped up the little dog in my arms and ducked behind some bushes. The night had taken on a surreal feeling I didn’t like.

“Shhh,” I cautioned Jack. “Stay quiet.” Jack’s ears were pointed and alert, but he stayed still. I could see the patio and the hot tub. Frankie and Tricia Lee sat submerged to their necks, drinking out of champagne glasses. A big boom box sat perched on the edge of the hot tub. An old fashioned, country singer sang loudly about her lying, cheating man, and I felt a surge of sympathy for her sad words.

Suddenly, Jack saw Frankie, and he set up a racket of furious barking and growling. He leapt from my arms and ran toward the hot tub. Frankie and Tricia Lee looked up in surprise. Reluctantly, and thoroughly humiliated, I left my hiding place to catch Jack.

“Well look who’s here,” Tricia Lee called, with a sly smile. “Are you trying to bring that damn dog back to me?’

I had no time to reply because Frankie started in on me. “You and I are through, Angel!
Take that ugly, retarded little mutt, and get the hell out of here before I call the cops on you!” He rose from the water and took a step forward.

Before I could grab him, Jack charged at Frankie with a vicious snarl. He jumped up on the side of the hot tub and to my horror, he knocked the boom box in the water. I yelled and hid my face in my hands at what followed. For the rest of my life I’ll hear the sounds of the screams in my head, and I’ll remember the thrashing of the water. I knew Frankie and Tricia Lee were goners, but I was afraid to look. I was terrified Jack had fallen in the water, and I couldn’t bear to lose him.

After what seemed an eternity, I heard an uneasy whimper and looked down to see Jack at my feet with a definite “I’ve been a really bad dog” expression on his face. I reached down and scooped him up, and he nuzzled my neck. I buried my face in his silky fur and turned to head for home. My head stopped pounding and the rage was gone.

“You really are a very good dog,” I whispered, and he licked the tip of my nose, as we walked away.

Author Bio Page

Brenda Ramos resides in Alamogordo, New Mexico, and is employed in the field of educational finance. Her previously published works are children’s stories. She is currently working on a fantasy novel.

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The Message by Denise Kelly LeBlanc

Mar 11 2012 Published by under The WiFiles

Papers were strewn everywhere, tiny squares unfolded and wiped clean. Kate was desperate for any granule she could scrape onto the table. She craved the noise, the rushing swirl of energy that left her without a chance to think. WIthout a chance to see.

She slumped behind the coffee table, pulled her knees to her chest and pushed back at her hair with trembling hands. No money, no drugs. No way to avoid what was in front of her, no matter how often she looked away.

“What the hell, Kate!” Startled, she looked up to see her roommate, Johah, standing in the doorway with his hands on his hips. “Look at yourself; this is pathetic.” He grabbed a handful of the small papers and tossed them at Kate. They fell like confetti, and though she knew they were clean she instinctively grabbed at them. Like a child grabbing at candy falling from a pinata.

“I can’t do it, Jonah. I try not to look at him, try to ignore him but he just stands there looking at me. He’s there all the time. And his eyes, I can’t stand his eyes.”

She buried her face in her small, boney hands, refusing to look up, determined not to know if the specter was looming. Hiding held the added benefit that she didn’t have to see the distrust on Jonah’s face. He was the only person she’d told and as great a friend as he was, she could tell he dismissed her stalker as a drug-related delusion. He didn’t understand that the man was the cause, not the result of her drug use.

“Kate, you were doing so well,” he said as he sat across from her, on the other side of the coffee table. His voice was softer, had lost the edge of his previous words. “Stop the drugs and this man will go away. I swear.”

There was desperation in Jonah’s voice, a need to be her saviour.

When she finally replied her voice was small, the words falling heavily from her lips, weighted by exhaustion. “You don’t understand, and I’m too tired to explain again. I just need some sleep.” She pushed herself to standing and swayed slightly from the incredible effort it was to remain upright. Every muscle in her limbs trembled.

“Will Michael be coming over later,” she asked before making her exit, hoping for a negative reply. Michael was Jonah’s new boyfriend. They’d been together just a few weeks. He seemed inoffensive enough though she’d met him only briefly, but the last thing she wanted was more people around. Unfortunately when you share living space, you don’t always have the right to make that rule.

“He will be. Don’t worry, I’ll clean up. Just go to bed.”

She lifted her blue-eyed gaze and could see the disappointment in his eyes. There was nothing she hated more than the idea that she had let him down. Her best friend. He’d been there through her initial recovery, and she felt she owed him some sanity. But he just could not and would not believe what she said when she tried to explain the man.

Even now she could see him hovering in her peripheral vision. Looming like a shadow on the corner of her life. He didn’t ever speak, just looked at her with those eyes, those awful eyes.

Squeezing her own eyes almost shut she turned away, and shuffled off with halting steps towards her room. Kicking off her torn jeans, she fell into the bed, not bothering with the covers. Behind the closed door of her room, she buried her head in her pillows and tried to slow her breathing to normal. Calm herself, because no matter how deeply she buried her face, she could not ignore that the man was here in the room. His eyes bore a hole through her back until she could do nothing but turn to face him.

She clutched the pillow in her shaking fist and, taking a deep breath, turned her face.

The man was no longer standing. He was crouched down, his eyes mere inches away from her own.

She jerked away and whimpered in fear, cowering into the corner of the bed. If only she had some coke, some speed, she could create a world in her mind that he couldn’t penetrate. Without, she had to face her fear in the image of his dark eyes.

Was he even real? No one could see him, but to Kate he was as solid as Jonah or Michael. And why did he not speak?

“Who are you,” she asked, hating the quiver she heard in her own voice. “What do you want?” Her desperation was mounting in her tone.

The man said nothing, but stood to his full height. Over six feet tall as he hovered over Kate. She’d never looked so directly at him, and the longer she did, the more she cowered into her corner. His eyes, so dark and so full of hate. The muscles in his face worked beneath his tanned skin, his jaw clenching and unclenching. He made no move to approach, just stood over her staring, always staring.

“Are you here to hurt me?” Even as she asked, her words tentative, she knew it was a futile inquiry. Would he really admit if it were his plan to hurt her in some way?

She hadn’t expected the vehemence of his response. No words were spoken, but he shook his head from side to side and paced as though he had a purpose. His eyes kept shooting to the door. His posture was the perfect image of frustration.

Kate unfolded her legs and leaned slightly out of her corner. A thought occurred for the first time. “Are you trying to help me,” she said softly, barely daring to hope that she could have been wrong this entire time.

His nodding was as strong an affirmation as she could have asked for. To say that this put Kate at ease would be overstating, but she relaxed a little. Her breathing was back to normal, but the physical need for the drug was ever-present. She wiped the sweat from her forehead as she considered how she could communicate with the man.

Again his eyes shot to her door. Michael had arrived and she could hear the clinking of glassware. Conversation and laughter. All of the sounds of a normal life. It was what she managed to have for herself until she’d turned back to the drugs.

“What is it you need to tell me,” she said haltingly. Her voice caught, weak with need.

The man never said a word, but his pacing sped up and his tension was clear. Never had he been anything but stoic, an unmoving presence in her line of vision, staring her down and igniting her fear. This constant motion was less unnerving, but his eyes were as insistent as ever, trying to convey an unspoken message. A message of fear, anger. Evil.

The pounding at the door caused her to jump, a small cry escaped from her lips. She imagined it was Jonah, checking to see how she might be doing. When the door swung open she was shocked to see Michael standing there. His presence filled the doorway, but he made no initial move to enter the room. Suddenly conscious that she wore only a tank and her underwear, she grabbed a corner of a sheet to cover herself.

The man tensed from head to toe, his hands clasped in fists at his side as he glared directly to where Michael stood.

“Hey there, Kate. I heard you were feeling off today. How’re you doing?”

The words were kind, but there was an edge to the tone that caused Kate’s hackles to rise. She was covered in gooseflesh, but had no idea where withdrawal ended and instinct began.

“I’m fine. Where’s Jonah?”

The man turned to Kate, and it was the first time she’d seen desperation in those eyes.

Michael took two steps into the room. “Jonah is sleeping,” he answered, a gravelly note she’d never noticed thick in his voice. “He’ll be sleeping for awhile.”

He took two more steps. The man looked to Kate and shook his head.

She sat tensely against the wall.

Michael reached the edge of her bed, and a glimmer caught Kate’s eye as he pulled a knife from behind his back. When she looked in his eye she knew that his was what evil looked like.

And as the knife sliced across her throat, she looked over Michael’s shoulder and watched the man fade away.

Denise Kelly LeBlanc currently spends her days working in the ever-creative field of banking, and her nights dreaming of escape to the country and life as a full-time writer. After some early success in print and ezines, including Zygote Magazine and Bewildering Stories, she is working hard to re-enter the world of regular writing.

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NONFICTION by Stephanie Kraner

Mar 04 2012 Published by under The WiFiles

In a room full to the brim of old and rare books, Professor Artemis J. Perkins searched for one book in particular. Though he knew that it lay within these walls, unfortunately, the previous owner of the hoard wasn’t very good at organization.
For weeks, he’d shut himself up in the dusty library where he’d pore over endless stacks of ancient books. The problem—aside from the lack of order—was that the old professor didn’t know exactly what the book he was looking for even looked like.
His recently deceased colleague, who had owned this impressive collection, had only mentioned the book in the letter Artemis received after the man’s death. The letter said only that he must never read the book, or allow anyone else to so much as open the cover. Not a sentence was to be read. By anyone. Ever.
The man had been explicit on that much about the book at least, but as for his description of the forbidden book, the letter said only that it had neither title nor author. Presumably, this meant that the cover would be mostly, if not completely, unadorned.
Needless to say, Artemis found these instructions more than a little odd. First of all, how could he truly prevent anyone from reading the book if he couldn’t identify it? Of course, he hadn’t yet seen the library in all its chaos when he’d originally wondered about that little detail. But even now, having seen how unlikely it would be for someone to find the book in this mess, there was still the chance that someone could happen upon it, and how then could he prevent them from reading it if he didn’t know what it looked like?
Secondly—and admittedly, to him more importantly—why not read it? What was so bad about this book that such caution was merited? The letter didn’t say. This, of course, only increased the professor’s curiosity and desire to find it in this mess.
His days spent cooped up inside had gotten him through most of the books in the library, as he’d merely checked for a title or an author on the cover. So far, he’d found two books with blank covers. They appeared to be journals, but he hadn’t opened them. Not yet anyways.
It was late in the evening, and Artemis was getting tired. He resolved that after he’d searched this last stack, he’d go home for the night.
Thomas Aquinas. Super quarto libro sententiarum.
Thomas Cogan. Haven of Health.
Nicolas Monardes. Joyfull Newes out of the New-Founde Worlde.
On the very bottom of the pile, however, he came across a book without a title or an author. It was quite old, older even than most of the other books in this library. The leather binding was worn and cracked, and a strange, embossed tree was the cover’s only decoration. Not a normal tree, either. It seemed to lack the suppleness and pride that trees have inherent in their branches. Instead of reaching towards the sky, the limbs appeared to be reaching for…something else. For a moment, Artemis got the distinct impression that those branches could reach out of the cover and ensnare him.
He shook his head to clear it. That was preposterous. He knew then that he’d been spending too much time inside this claustrophobic room. Tomorrow he’d take a break from it and do something outdoors. He could use some fresh air.
He looked again at the embossed tree, expecting it to be just a normal tree now that he’d become more clear-headed. And yet, there was something distinctly odd about it. At first glance, the tree appeared to have been painted silver, but upon closer examination of it, rather than glimmering and reflecting light as it should, it gave the impression of actually draining the light from its surroundings.
It was then that he noticed the smell, like something rotten, coming from the book. But then again, all old books had their smells, especially when stored in poor conditions. He was letting his imagination get the better of him again.
It surprised him how easily such flights of fantasy and fear were taking hold of him. Artemis had always prided himself on being such a level-headed person. “When others lose their composure, I pick it up and keep it for myself,” he used to joke. It was how he’d survived the war—by not letting his fears get the best of him.
He closed his eyes and ran his hand over the roughness of the cover. He wasn’t sure why, but touching the book sent a slight stinging sensation through his hand. He figured he was imagining it.
He’d been warned not to read this book, but he just couldn’t resist. Something, some deep raging curiosity burned past his caution, and in one fluid motion, Artemis opened the cover and looked down at the page.
It was blank.
Disappointed, he started flipping through the pages. All of them were empty. When he got to the end of the book, he ruffled backwards through the pages again. Upon reaching the beginning, he shut the cover slowly, despondently. For reasons he couldn’t explain, he felt crestfallen. He thought at first that perhaps it simply wasn’t the right book, but he shook that idea off almost immediately. It could be no other book than this one.
Without really expecting to see anything, he opened the book once more to the middle. Saddened that his expectations for empty pages were met, he looked away. When he did so, however, he thought he saw something. A mark on the page. Just out of the corner of his eye.
Glancing back, he saw it again—a faint sort of discoloration, going down the length of the page. Upon closer examination, he saw the letters. There was text!
In order to read, he had to put to book so close to his face that the dank smell of its pages made his eyes water. He whispered softly as he read from the book:

Ye stand upon a precipice
Gazing down into the gloom
Fear not the road before you
Though it leads you to your doom

Stare deep into the valley
Where poison flowers bloom
Behold the flowers’ petals
They shall adorn your tomb

The words on the page wavered in front of him and dissolved while the shadows in the room began to expand, sucking everything they reached into their blackened void. When the first shadow touched the professor’s foot, it sent an icy jolt up his spine and into his skull. A cold, burning pain rippled throughout his head consuming everything. He couldn’t breathe, couldn’t scream. He forgot his own name.
He didn’t know how long it lasted, but quite suddenly, everything stopped and he found himself in a dead forest. Barren trees and plants spread out in all directions. The pungent smell of decay assailed his nostrils. Before he could get his bearings, he heard something coming towards him. A large animal—a large something at least—was crashing through the brush.
When it came into sight, he couldn’t tell what it was at first. His vision was still blurry. The crashing sound grew louder as the thing moved closer. Artemis still couldn’t tell what it was, but he was beginning to think he didn’t want to know. He took a shaky step backwards but his knees buckled and he fell to the ground.
He fumbled around as he tried to get back on his feet. His pulse raced, his breath came in ragged gasps. He knew he was letting his fear run wild, but he didn’t care. He just wanted to get up and run away.
And still the roaring grew louder. Artemis knew he was too slow. Whatever was coming was going to get him before his shaky legs would respond.
Just as he got his feet under him, he looked up, and immediately fell back down to the ground in shock. What he saw defied all natural order. It couldn’t exist. It was as simple as that. It just could not exist.
But it did.
It stood before him. It stood. On legs. On hideous, grotesque legs, the tree that could not really be a tree stood and glared down at him. Could a tree glare? This one was doing a good job of it. And it had a face. Rugged features in the wood. Oblong holes for eye sockets, a slit of a mouth. It was something out of another world, a Tolkien-esque monster far beyond the boundaries of Middle Earth where it belonged.
Artemis was so numb with fright that he couldn’t even scream when the gangly hand encircled his waist and lifted him into the air. The disgusting tree creature was covered with a sheen of the foulest smelling slime the old professor had ever encountered. Worse yet, when he touched it with his bare skin, the slime burned his flesh like a strong acid.
All at once, the tree creature stalked off into the forest again with Artemis held firm in its grasp.
“Oh my God…” the professor whispered.
“God is of little use to you right now, I’m afraid.” The tree’s voice was stiff and grating. “Surely you were warned not to read from our book,” it said, lifting him up close to its horrible face. The stench from its mouth nearly made him pass out. “You should have heeded that warning.”
“What are you going to do?” Artemis asked while trying to wrench himself free of the acerbic grip of the tree.
“Why, take you home, naturally! Not to your home of course,” the tree said with a laugh, like the sound of trunks creaking in the wind.
On and on they traveled through the dead, murky forest. The professor could soon not hold back his moans of pain, for the acidic slime had soaked his clothes and was now burning him all over.
There was no point in trying to reason with his captor. Every one of Artemis’ attempts to find out where they were going and why only resulted in caustic remarks while the tree cackled.
After awhile, they came to the top a ravine. “Ye stand upon a precipice,” the tree quoted with obvious humor. “You remember the rest, don’t you?”
Artemis chose not to respond, which only made the tree creature shake with more laughter.
As they made their way down into the ravine, the old professor noted his surroundings. At the bottom, there was a small lake, which flowed into a cave. He thought he saw more of the repulsive trees by the shore.
Upon reaching the lake, the tree creature waded out into it without hesitation. The professor, on the other hand, cried out in pain when the liquid soaked into his shoes. More acid.
“Don’t worry,” said the tree. “You’ll soon pass out from the fumes. But before you do, feast your eyes on my home, won’t you? Few get to see it, and as for those that do… Well, you’ll find out.”
The weak, old professor looked around him in silent fear and wonder as they entered the watery cave. More of the repugnant, living trees waited inside the cave. For a moment, the professor thought he’d gone color-blind. Everything existed in a dismal state of grayish green.
There was other vegetation to be seen, some with leaves and fruits, some without. One thing was certain, however. The old man was certain he didn’t want to taste any fruit that could grow under these conditions.
There were flowers too. Lots of them, growing out of the lake bed the way lilies do. Despite his pain, Artemis couldn’t help but admire the flowers, all white and faintly green. They stank, but their petals seemed to glow dimly in the professor’s burning eyes.
His vision was getting blurry. He was so cold, so tired. He knew now, even if the tree would let him down, there’d be no escape. He wouldn’t be able to stand, let alone walk. Right now just breathing, which once seemed so easy, so effortless, took all of his concentration to continue.
In… Out… In… Out…
“It’s almost over,” the tree whispered.
He thought he saw shapes moving out of the corners of his eyes, but he couldn’t be sure. All he could focus on now was the grotesque tree that held him in its corrosive grip.
“I—We owe you our gratitude. With your untimely end, we’ll thrive for awhile.” He gestured to the flowers growing in the lake. “They need human flesh to feast on, so that the waste they give off creates and maintains this acidy atmosphere of ours. If they die, we die. It’s a horrible existence, but… well, never mind. You needn’t be bothered with details at such a time as this.”
In… Out…
“Good bye, human. I don’t envy you your last moments.”
In… In… In…
It wouldn’t come, the next raspy breath of the dank air. Just as well, he was tired of its stench. Shadows moved in his vision, but he couldn’t discern them. He didn’t care. It simply wouldn’t do to have his last thoughts wasted on the disgusting creatures down here. And yet, all that came to mind was an image of the strange, iridescent flowers. Well, they were beautiful…

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