Why you shouldn’t eat a block of Wisconsin Cheddar as a snack

No one knows what happened after he disappeared behind that steel door, his knees knocking and his hands scrabbling desperately at his pain-wracked stomach. But when the door shut behind him, the deadbolt snapping into place with the grim finality of the snap of a crocodile’s jaws around a hapless reality show host, the sounds that emerged from that room were an unholy mix of man’s most diabolical inventions and God’s most twisted conceptions.

There was silence for a moment, then a loud metal scraping, as if the teeth of a chainsaw were being dragged across the blood and bile-stained linoleum, curling tiny strips of flooring under the rusted iron teeth. Then, whimpering, the sound dragged from that primal place where cavemen used to cower, gazing out over the flickering fire to the darkness, where tooth and claw waited to tear and rip. A voice spoke rapidly in German, the guttural syllables clawing their way up past years of tobacco and toilet wine. The whimpering became pleading, disjointed words promising a life of purity and repentance if the fate looming over them would only settle its terrible gaze on another.

Alas, the demons do not hear the pleas of men, and a mighty roar shook those of us forced to listen to our very bone.  An engine fueled by the blood of the damned and lubricated by the tears of grief-stricken mothers revved up to a high-pitched shriek, and we all wept as black exhaust billowed out from beneath the door, smelling of burned bones and rotting despair. A deep chanting mixed in with the terrible thunder, alien words that my ears recoiled to hear.  But as we all fell to our knees and prayed to an uncaring God for this abomination to come to a merciful end, the water began to flow.

But this was no gentle trickle. The thundering rush of white foam and pounding black riptides rose with all the other horrible sounds. His screams took on another quality, moving through agony and terror to the wails of madness, a mind broken by the sight of all that men are not meant to witness. A rush of liquid horror burst from the gap beneath the door, a bilious mixture of black pus and corrupted water, and we all clambered up onto whatever refuge we could find. One hapless sonar technician wasn’t quick enough, and we had to watch as his flesh foamed and spit, dissolving as he scrabbled at the side of the Pepsi machine I had sought salvation upon. He begged me to end his life quickly as he was dragged beneath the noxious waves, but I was helpless to intervene as a shadowy form moved sinuously in the roiling filth, snapped its terrible jaws, and dragged him screaming below.

Just as I felt my sanity fading into some dark corner of my subconscious, the sounds abruptly stopped. The waves subsided, draining away through the cracked and ruined floor. The door creaked open, and our beleaguered comrade stumbled out. His hair was now shock white, his clothes hung in shredded tatters about his now-skeletal frame. He fell to his knees, and collapsed into a ruined heap of despair and madness on the stinking tile, his bloodshot eyes staring into a future now tainted with hopeless futility.

As we trembled, wanting to help but unable to move, the doctor emerged. A tall, impossibly thin man, wearing an immaculate white suit. The bones seemed to shift beneath his nearly translucent skin, and he opened a mouth filled with broken and bloody teeth. His voice was the chorus of burning children’s screams, and I wept hot tears of blood as he hissed:

“Behold the power of cheese!”

International Incident

This is a bit of an experiment.  I want to try writing a serialized pulp story over four or five weeks.  I’ll be writing this as I go along, so it may prove to be a disastrous experiment, but I hope it will be fun.  Many thanks to the community over at Gamers With Jobs for providing some of the inspiration for this particular story.

The rain poured down, washing blood and sins into the black storm drain.

Jake Donnell stood above the body, listening to the thrum of the rain against the cheap gray tarp his people were hastily stretching over the scene.  His umbrella lay discarded by his car, the winds having snapped it inside out the moment it opened.  His black hair lay in damp clumps across his forehead, and he wiped the water from his eyes, and settled down into a position his father used to refer to as a “hunker”.

The eyes were wide, still staring up at the sky.  The rain had turned the long blonde hair that pooled beneath his head a dull soggy brown.  Beneath the carefully trimmed Van Dyke, the slash in the throat loomed wide.  Donnell could see the faint white of bone at the back where the blade had reached the spinal column.  There was little blood.  The downpour had seen to that.

“That’s a problem.”

Donnell didn’t look back at the speaker.  The ruined voice was barely a rasp, but it always managed to cut through the noise.  Donnell slowly nodded, not taking his eyes off the body, and said, “Is this the first one?”

Sarah Finch began pacing around the body, scribbling notes on her clipboard.  Her red hair was bundled behind her head, and she peered over the rims of her glasses as she asked, “Why are you here, Donnell?”

“Embassy request.”  He rose to his feet, pulled an envelope from inside his raincoat, and offered it to her.  She didn’t even look up, and a uniformed officer took it from him.  Nonplussed, he continued, “For whatever reason, the ambassador didn’t feel comfortable receiving all his information from local PD.  They wanted an independent perspective.”

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Moving Day

When I was eleven years old, my father announced that we were moving to a small town in Utah.  This was the fifth time we had pulled up stakes and moved on, as my father’s career as an airborne paratrooper had bounced us from base to base all over the southern United States.  This was the first time that we would live anywhere other than a military base, and to my perception, Utah was no different than Siberia.

This perception was reinforced when we finally arrived.  The trip was originally supposed to be five days of nonstop camping and driving, but by the third day, my mother’s eyes were beginning to take on a slightly deranged expression.  She was a good sport, and had initially embraced the idea of KOA campgrounds as an outstanding way to turn a cross country road trip with four children into an adventure.  But after three nights of sleeping in a tent which could only live up to its claim of sleeping four if they happened to be anorexic midgets who liked to cuddle had soured her disposition a bit.  Fortunately, my father spotted the danger before it reached critical mass, and we spent the last few nights in the comparative opulence of a Best Western.

On our final day of the trip, we entered into the broad plains at the foot of the Wasatch Mountains.  I knew that Logan was tucked up in a small valley in the Rockies, but this offshoot of the famous mountains was daunting to all of us.  It also didn’t help that the route my dad decided to take into the valley was a narrow, two-lane road that weaved its way for thirty miles through a rapidly climbing crack in the mountains called Sardine Canyon.  For an adult, the sight of the signs warning of elk, rock slides, and avalanches must have been disconcerting.  For an 11-year-old boy, this was confirmation that my parents had relocated us to a scene from a Tolkien novel, a prospect that was at the same time thrilling and terrifying.

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Stories

-  Author’s Note: My apologies for the missed week. I can now reveal that I missed that week because I was preparing to start a new job. It’s an excellent job, and will afford me much more time to write, so hopefully, this will be the only missed week for Project 52.  -

The gravel crunched under the tires as Andrew brought the car into the driveway.  He shifted into park, and simply sat for a moment, staring at the red door.  Finally, he lowered his head, blew out a long breath, and climbed out of the car.

He had barely made it ten feet towards the door when it opened.  Andrew Casper’s fiancee once remarked that his father’s home care nurse was built like a keg with fat rolls.  It was a cruel but apt comparison.  Delilah filled the door, the black buttons of her white shirt straining mightily against her heavy breasts.  He extended a hand, but she pushed it away and pulled him in for a suffocating hug.  She smelled like antiseptic and sweat, and for a brief panicked moment, her massive shoulder entombed Andrew’s face.  When she released him, he had to force himself not to suck in a gasping gulp of air.

“It’s good to see you again, Andy.”  Her voice was deep and rich like chocolate, flavored with the accent she had brought from New Orleans.

Inwardly, he sighed.  No one called him Andy.  It was a name he had always hated, associating it with hick sheriffs and effeminate comedians.  He had asked Delilah not to call him that, and she had nodded so quickly that her chins seemed in danger of shaking off her face.  But less than ten minutes later, she was calling him Andy again.

“How is he?”

She shrugged.  “No different, no worse.  Gotta be grateful for any day he doesn’t fall back into that hole.”

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An explanation

For those who follow this blog,thou may have noticed that there was no story this last Sunday. While I can’t say why just yet, it’s for a very positive reason, one I hope to be able to announce soon,  regardless, there will be a new story next week, and I thank everyone fortheir patience,

Five Seconds

Author’s note: While my intent for Project 52 is to release an original short story each week, this was a story that I’ve always liked, and after polishing it a bit more, I decided that I wanted to release it back into the wild. I would love to hear any thoughts or comments.

John Sperry’s heels clicked off the tile floor, echoing off the poured concrete walls.  The sergeant walking in front of him hadn’t spoken more than six words to him since he arrived.  The long underground hallway was lined with yellow light bulbs surrounded with wire cages, and the walls were completely bare except for some warning signs delineating the proper steps in the event of a power failure/bombing/hurricane.  Sperry paused to examine one of the signs, but before he could read more than a few lines, the sergeant spoke.

“Please keep up, Senator.”  His voice was low and gravelly, clawing up somewhere from the laces of his perfectly polished boots.  “The admiral asked me to bring you directly to him.”

“I know what your orders are, Sergeant.”  Sperry continued to read the sign.  He wasn’t interested, but had no intention of allowing the soldier to drag him around like a show dog.  “Admiral Ryland is ninety feet down this hallway.  A five second delay won’t kill him.”

The sergeant didn’t say anything, but his eyebrow climbed up his face further than should be physically possible.  After a few more moments, Sperry straightened up and nodded.  “We can go now.”

Spinning sharply on his heel, the uniformed soldier resumed his walk down the hallway.  Sperry fell into step next to him.  “Why are we meeting here instead of Ryland’s office?”

“I was ordered to take you directly to the admiral.  I don’t know the details, sir.”  They reached the end of the hallway.  In front of them was a solid metal door.  The sergeant stopped, turned and settled into a parade rest position.  “Go on in, Senator.”

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Community Service

Author’s note: This story features the two main characters from my novel 72 Hours. There are a few very minor spoilers regarding the book, but nothing major.

Thump.

How many was that?”

I don’t know, I wasn’t counting. Does the number matter?” I checked the rearview mirror out of habit, then shook my head, annoyed with myself. There wasn’t anyone else in the parking lot.

Well, do we know how many of these we’re going to do?” Lopez picked at something under his fingernail with the blade of a pocket knife.

Enough. Ooh, there’s a good one!” I pointed and swerved the car sharply. The vehicle lurched and Lopez cursed.

Son of a… I cut my damn cuticle.”

You know we’re swerving all over the place. Why the hell are you poking a knife blade under your nail?” I revved the engine, bringing the car up to fifty miles an hour. We both braced ourselves as we hit the speed bump. The tires came up off the ground for a second, and then the entire vehicle crashed down again.

Thump.

Still?!” Lopez shook his head. “I would have thought that last one would have done it.”

He’s a slow learner. Hang on, I’ll try it again.” I slammed the accelerator down to the floor, and the engine roared as the car leapt forward. We started approaching the end of the abandoned Best Buy parking lot, and I grinned. “I’ve always wanted to try this.”

I yanked on the emergency brake, pulling the wheel hard to the left. The tires shrieked as the back of the car whipped around in a tight curve. Punching the accelerator, I released the brake and straightened the wheel, and the car leapt forward as if fired from a cannon, now heading straight back the way we had come.

Thump thump thump.

That got his attention,” Lopez said, bracing one hand against the ceiling of the car and the other on the dashboard as we crossed eighty. “I don’t think he’s having fun.”

Yeah?” I dropped the gearshifter down and slammed the gas, my eyes flickering down to the speedometer as we crossed one hundred miles per hour. “Maybe we just need one more, with feeling.”

We hit the speed bump, and I learned firsthand why it’s considered a bad idea to drive over them that quickly. The car seemed to levitate for a few moments, and I could hear metal shrieking and something crunch as we came crashing back down to the pavement. Immediately, something in the engine started whining and the car began shaking horribly.

I think I bit my tongue.” Lopez was prodding at the tip of his tongue gently.

Jesus, you’re getting more beat up than he is.” I brought the car to a stop, putting it in park. “You okay, Priscilla?”

Fuck off. You finally done?”

I grinned. “Yeah, let’s see how our friend is doing.”

We got out of the car, and I glanced down at the front tires. They were both blown, and the right tire was canted at a sharp angle to the rest of the car. The sport trim on the BMW was gouged and pitted, and the strip under the driver’s side door curled back like burned meat.

Walking around to the trunk, I pulled my pistol and tapped the barrel on the metal. “Mr. Wallace? You ready to chat?”

There was no answer, and Lopez looked over at me. “Faking or unconscious?”

Unconscious. No way he made it through the last bump.”

Twenty bucks?”

Deal.” Lopez stepped back a few feet, and leveled his pistol at the trunk.

I raised my voice. “Mr. Wallace? I don’t think you’re hearing this right now, but my associate thinks that you’re playing possum. If you had any thoughts about popping out of there when I open up and trying to play rough, you should know you’ll be dead before your feet hit the pavement.”

There was no response, and I grinned triumphantly at Lopez. “See, I told you he was out.”

He still could be faking.”

Shaking my head, I punched the trunk release and the lid rose slowly up. We were underneath a light pole with a cracked glass shell, and the yellow glow bathed the trunk. Peering inside, I frowned. “Okay, I’m not sure who won the bet.”

Coming over to stand next to me, Lopez looked in the trunk. The man inside was fairly big, and didn’t fit inside the trunk particularly well. He was in the fetal position, his head tucked tightly in the space above a wheel well. He had rolled partially onto his back, and was trying to talk, but his jaw was bleeding and swollen, and only mumbles came out.

Orson Wallace was a 45-year-old insurance adjuster who worked for State Farm. He was married with four beautiful girls, the oldest of whom was about to graduate high school. Orson enjoyed playing pool, caring for his impressive collection of tropical fish, and the occasional round of golf with his direct supervisor. Orson also enjoyed having the occasional drink with his direct supervisor. After downing a half dozen beers, Orson would come home, place his coat neatly in the closet, check to make sure his fish tank was at the proper temperature, and then knock his wife and kids around for a while.

This routine occurred about once a month for the last ten years, and probably would have continued for much longer. Not happy with his glacially slow career progress, he was becoming more enthusiastic about venting his frustrations on the ladies of the house. Two days ago, he struck his 13-year-old daughter Kylie a closed-fist blow across the face in the parking lot of a Kroger because she dropped his case of beer. A kindly older man in a wheelchair rolled up and inquired as to whether that was the best parenting technique. Orson suggested the man, and I quote, “mind his own fucking business” and that he didn’t need parenting advice from “some crippled faggot.”

The older man in question happens to be our employer. His name is Andrei Golovko. I’m still not sure all of the things in the Nashville area that he’s involved in, but very few of them are on his tax returns. He wrote down Orson’s license plate number, and passed it on to us, asking us to have a friendly chat with him.

When Orson stumbled out of the bar, he was already in a bad mood. Finding us waiting in his back seat probably didn’t help. We suggested that he drive us to an abandoned Best Buy parking lot, and then we stuffed him in the trunk at gunpoint, and spent ten minutes testing the shocks on his luxury sedan.

Lopez reached in and hauled Orson out of the trunk. He weaved drunkenly, clearly disoriented. I watched him for a moment.

Wow, he’s really fucked up. He’s barely able to stand.”

Lopez shook his head. “No, that doesn’t count. Unconscious is unconscious. He’s still awake.”

Damn. Well, he wasn’t faking it either.” As I said this, Orson leaned forward and vomited onto the pavement. He started to wobble, and Lopez stood him back up, leaning him against the trunk. Blood and vomit stuck in his graying beard.

Okay, neither of us won the bet.” I stepped forward, and put the barrel of my pistol under his chin, bringing his eyes up to meet mine. “Mr. Wallace? You still with us?”

He shuddered for a moment, closing his eyes. When he opened them, he seemed to be thinking more clearly. His eyes met mine, and he started shaking.

Please…” His words were barely understandable.

Don’t try to talk, Mr. Wallace. I think you may have a broken jaw.” I patted him on the shoulder, but kept my pistol pressed against the fleshy jowls of his throat. I glanced past him into the trunk, and saw a bloody tooth lying on the floor where his head had been. Dismissing this, I brought my attention back to Orson.

All right, Mr. Wallace, here’s the deal. We’ve been asked to provide family counseling for you. Word has drifted to our ears that you’re having some difficulties communicating with your dear and beloved family, and my friend and I were very sad to hear that.”

Broke our hearts,” Lopez piped up.

I nodded. “And we just didn’t think that leaving your family to suffer the pains of poor communication was the Christian thing to do. So we decided to offer our assistance.”

Orson mumbled something, and then winced, spitting a clump of bloody material onto the pavement.

I’m going to assume that meant thank you and continue.” I draped my arm around Orson’s shoulders as I continued to talk. “You see, we’re big believers in positive reinforcement. None of that negative stuff that Republicans are always blathering about. You do the right thing, you get rewarded by keeping the majority of your blood inside your body, rather than all over the floor of some isolated warehouse.”

He began shaking at this point, and a dark stain began to spread over his expensive slacks.  Ignoring this, I continued.

You’re going to leave here tonight, and go to a hospital. You’ve been in an awful car accident, and they’re going to patch you right up. Once you’re discharged, you’re going to go to the local police station and turn yourself in for assault. You’re going to tell them about every single time you smacked around your wife or one of those lovely daughters of yours. You’ll be arrested, charged with multiple counts of aggravated assault, and sent to the county jail.” At this, Orson started to say something.

Reaching up, I jabbed the barrel of my pistol into the point on his jaw that was the most bruised, twisting and grinding it in hard. He tried to scream, but only a weak whine escaped, and he fell to his knees.

Squatting down next to him, I said, “Your wife gets to decide whether to press charges. If she doesn’t, you’ll be released, and then you’ll ask her what she wants you to do. If your wife wants to leave you, you’re going to let her go without a word. If she wants you to stay, you stay. If she wants you to move to China, I suggest you start working on your Mandarin.” Grabbing his jaw, I pulled him around to face me. His muffled screams sounded like they were coming from underwater.

If we find out that you haven’t done precisely what we’ve said, or if we find out you’ve ever so much as raised your voice to any of them again, we’ll have a second counseling session.” I kept his terrified eyes locked on mine. “There won’t be a third. Do I make myself clear?”

He whimpered, and I backhanded him in the jaw. Falling back to the pavement, his eyes rolled back in his head as he passed out. I looked over at Lopez. “He’s unconscious now. Does that count toward the bet?”

“Nope.”  Lopez pulled a ziploc bag out of his pocket, and pulled out a white washcloth smelling strongly of rubbing alcohol.  He began methodically working his way over the exterior and interior of the vehicle, wiping off any trace of fingerprints.  As he worked, I pulled out my cellphone and punched in a number.  The phone rang four times before he answered.

“Micheal, I’m becoming convinced you exist to keep me from seeing the end of various television shows.  Why do you always call five minutes from the end of Cheers?”  Golovko’s voice was precise and educated, with only a trace of a Russian accent.

“Sorry about that.  Do you want me to call back?”

“No, of course not.  What can I do for you?”

“Well, I have some bad news.  Your new friend from the grocery store parking lot was apparently driving while intoxicated, and suffered a serious car accident.  It doesn’t look like he’ll be participating in any contact sports for a while.”

Golovko made a clucking sound over the phone.  “Terrible, just terrible.  Alcohol does awful things to people.  Well, thank you for telling me.  Oh, and Micheal?”

I glanced over at Lopez, who was finishing up in the front of the car.  “Yes, sir?”

There was a pause, and Golovko said, “Do tell him that the crippled faggot sends his regards.”  The connection ended with a click.

Shoving the phone back in my pocket, I called out, “Did you get the trunk?”

He nodded as he walked over.  “He lost a couple of teeth.  I tossed them in the storm drain over there.  What did Golovko say?”

“To send his regards.”

“Shit.”  Lopez looked down at Orson, who was beginning to stir and moan.  “How do you want to do this?”

“If we kill him, the first person they’re going to look at is his wife.  I don’t think that’s good for anyone.”  I thought for a moment.  “What did you find in the car?”

“A tire iron, spare tire, some old fast food wrappers, and a half empty vodka bottle under the front seat.  Nothing that I think we could…”  Lopez trailed off, and a wicked grin spread across his face.  “Oh, I have an idea.  I have a good idea.”

I raised an eyebrow.  “Are we talking the same kind of good idea you had in Tijuana about that unlabeled bottle of tequila?”

“Almost as good, but no tattoos this time.”  He explained it to me.

“Jesus.  That’s fucked up.”  I considered it, and said, “Do you think Golovko will be satisfied with that?”

“It’ll send a message, and there’s no fucking way he’s going to be using his girls and wife as a punching bag afterwards.”

I nodded.  “Okay, let’s wake him up.”

Lopez jogged back over to the car, and came back with the bottle of vodka.  Opening it, he poured the clear liquid over Orson’s face, who began to sputter, then gasped as his eyes flew open.

“Rise and shine, asshole.”  I crouched down next to him.  “We’re almost done.  Do you understand what you have to do to stay alive?”

He nodded slowly, his eyes wide and red.

“Wonderful.  One more thing to do, and we’ll be on our way.”  I hooked my hands under his armpits, and stood up, hauling him to his feet.  He weaved drunkenly, but stayed upright.  I walked him back over to his car, pausing every few feet to make sure he didn’t fall.  Lopez walked ahead, past his vehicle and across the parking lot.  At the other end was my black Ford F-150 pickup truck, right where we had left it earlier that night.  Lopez climbed in, and I heard the big engine turn over with a rumble.

Orson and I finally reached his car.  I reached down and opened the door.  “Get in.”

Gingerly, he lowered himself to the seat, wincing as he settled into place.  He looked up at me, and spoke, his words barely a mumble through his jaw.  “I know what I have to do.  I promise, I won’t hit them again.”

“I know you won’t, Orson.”  I patted him on the shoulder, and he shrank away from my touch.  Smiling at him, I said, “You just need to remember one thing.  My friend over there got a look at everything in your wallet.  It’s all still there, but he saw everything, front and back.  He doesn’t forget things.  That means that we know your address, your place of business, your credit card numbers.  We know where you live, where you go to the gym, and where you rent your porn.  We will be watching.”  I leaned in close, and snarled, “If we see a single hair out of place on your wife or daughter’s head, I will fucking ruin you before I open your throat and let you see your blood spill all over a cheap concrete floor.  Am I clear?”

He nodded, eyes wide and wild.

“Good.”  I rolled down his window, and leveled my pistol at him.  “I’m going to tape your hands before we leave so you don’t have any bright ideas about following us.  Not tightly, just enough to delay you about ten minutes.  Are you going to cause trouble?”

Shaking his head, he mumbled, “No.”

“Put your hands through the steering wheel.  I’ll tape them to the dashboard.”

He slid his hands through the gap between the rim of the steering wheel and the center.  It was an awkward angle, and he had to hunch forward to be able to place his hands on the dash, his elbows forced against the rim.  “Like this?” he asked.

“Just like that.  Hold that pose while I grab the tape.”  I turned, took four steps, and turned back.  “Hey Orson?”

It was difficult for him to turn his head to look at me with his arms bent and extended, but he managed.  He looked at me, and I said, “The crippled faggot says to say hello.”

His brow furrowed in confusion, and he began to speak, but his words were cut off by the roar of my truck’s engine, the white glare of the reverse taillights shining on his bloody face.  The tow hitch slammed into the BMW’s bumper at nearly 25 miles per hour, jolting the sedan back nearly a foot.  The front bumper crumpled slightly under the impact, but the louder sound was the flat whump of the car’s forward airbags deploying. The white bag inflated in an eyeblink, exploding out from the center of the steering wheel.  Orson’s arms were shoved sharply upward against the rim of the wheel, and the bag slammed directly into the side of his face, which was less than six inches from the steering wheel.  His scream was cut short in a spray of blood and a sickening crunch.

Pulling forward about three yards, Lopez left the engine running as I stepped forward to inspect our results.  The bag had already deflated, sagging limply against the bottom of the steering column, streaks of red marring the white fabric.  Orson was slumped forward.  I could only see the left side of his face, but it was enough to see his jaw protruding about two inches to the side of his head, the broken row of his bottom teeth clearly visible to the side of his mouth.  His arms had fallen to rest on top of the deflated airbag.  The soft red glow of the instrument panel gave the shards of bone jutting from his forearms a pinkish hue, and blood pumped weakly from the rips in his skin.  For a moment, I though he was dead, but his body shivered slightly, and a bloody bubble formed on his nostrils and popped as he began breathing, his breaths hitching and shallow.  I wiped down the vodka bottle and tossed it through the window, where it fell to the floor, clinking against the chair rails.  I wiped down the door handle, and jogged over to the passenger door of the truck.

Climbing in, I nodded at Lopez, who pulled out of the parking lot onto a back road.  I pulled out my cell phone and sent a quick text.  The reply came less than a minute later, and I slid my phone back into my pocket, saying, “We’re good.  Someone else is calling 911 to report the accident in about twenty minutes.”

“Plenty of time.”  He reached out and switched on the radio, and I leaned back and shut my eyes as the Beach Boys began to croon about good vibrations.


The Sting

 Sondra was very nearly asleep when she first felt the bite about an inch above her left heel, on the back of her leg.

The pain was immediate, a fiery needle burrowing into her skin. Crying out, she jerked in her sleeping bag, throwing the upper layer off and hauling herself into a seated position. She pulled her legs up tightly against her chest, the night air cold against her skin. She could hear something slither inside her sleeping bag, and she wadded up the bag and threw it against the far wall of the tent. She watched carefully, but there was no more movement, and a renewed spike of agony drew her attention back to her leg.

There was a large purple welt on her skin, about the size of a quarter. The sensation was a sharp burning, as if someone had poured boiling wax over her flesh, and it was slowly spreading over her naked skin as it hardened. She reached out and gently prodded the bite.

Her entire body spasmed with the surge of agony that shot up her leg, and she had to stuff her fist in her mouth to keep from screaming. Tears leaked from the corner of her green eyes, and a few muffled sobs choked past her hand. She couldn’t make noise, at least not yet. She was still naked from the all-too-quick encounter with Steve less than fifteen minutes ago, and the campsite they were in was filled with her co-workers, all suffering through this weekend team-building exercise in the Everglades. The last thing she wanted to deal with was explanations as to why she was naked, sweaty, and laying less than five feet away from a discarded condom, curled up in the corner of the tent like a soggy snakeskin.

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The Fading Blue

Sam’s first memory is the blue dress.  It twirled around his mother’s ankles as she stepped back and forth between the oven and the dishwasher in the small kitchen.  She couldn’t open them both at the same time, so she had to be cautious not to start emptying the dishwasher when the oven timer was close to zero.  Sam would sit on the floor, the silverware tray in front of him, and work.  He didn’t know why it needed to be done, only that it needed to be done.  She would pull the tray out of the drawer, pour the silverware onto the floor in a glittering cascade of metal, and set the tray next to the pile.  Carefully, he would select a piece, wipe it down with a disinfectant cloth, and neatly stack them back in their home.  Knives, then forks, then spoons, all while she hummed and twirled blue spirals across the faded linoleum.  When they all found their place, he would hum along with her.

The dress faded, but in Sam’s memory, it’s just as bright and new as his first recollection.  The kitchen changed, and she twirled less and less, until her dancing and humming turned into plodding silence, the heavy footsteps of someone who has looked for music in her life and found only silence.  He remembers a slamming door and her wet cheeks as he disassembled and reassembled an antique telephone. When her voice would spike and bellow, her hot breath pounding on his ears and washing over him, he would seek refuge among the scattered pieces. When she cried, he would rock and count, the bells and wires unraveling beneath his chubby fingers as he drowned out her hitching sobs with Fibonacci and primes.  He didn’t know the names for the numbers then, but he knew they were warm and bright, and drowned out the world.

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Pritchard’s Plant

The rain was pounding against the roof of the Humvee.  Every few moments, the dark road was illuminated by a brief flash bulb of lightning, immediately followed by a whip crack of thunder that seemed to jar the fillings in Pritchard’s head.  The driver made no concessions to the muddy road or the weak visibility as the vehicle barreled down the packed dirt road.

Pritchard leaned forward, pushing his long black hair out of his face.  “How much further?”

“Should be almost there, sir,” the young private answered,  yelling back over his shoulder as he jerked the wheel to avoid a deep pit of water in the road.  “It’s a little difficult to tell exactly, but they marked the turnoff with flares so we’d be able to find it again.”

“Can’t you just use that?” Pritchard asked, gesturing towards the GPS screen mounted on the dashboard.

“No, sir,” his driver said, shaking his head.  “They stop working when we get within a kilometer of the site.”

As he spoke, the bright glowing screen flickered twice, then went an odd grey, flickering weakly.  Pritchard’s eyebrow climbed half an inch, and he pulled out a small digital camera from his pocket to take a photo.

“That’s not going to work either, sir.”  The private peered forward at a bright red flickering to the right, and slowed the Humvee as they approached.  “You’ll be able to take the picture, but when you try to look at it afterwards, there won’t be anything there.”  The vehicle bumped over something in the road as they turned between two burning flares.  Lightning flashed again, and Pritchard caught a glimpse of four soldiers standing next to the turn, their faces obscured by bulky night vision goggles and their figures hidden under bulky ponchos.  The lightning faded, and they returned to invisibility.

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