My cellar door is breathing.


We’d been finding paint chips and broken bits of plaster on the carpet near the cellar door. I’d vacuum them up, but each morning they’d be back. At first, I thought it had to be from mice or termites burrowing into the wall. We’ve had mice in the basement since we moved in, but they’d never been seen anywhere else in the house. Despite that, I looked for evidence that they could’ve made the mess, but I couldn’t find any. There wasn’t anything out of sort whatsoever, aside from what we’d find in the mornings.

Larry didn’t think much of it. He mentioned something about a construction site a mile or so away where they’d been blasting out rock. Apparently the shockwaves they produce can form cracks on walls and ceilings. Just cosmetic issues, he assured me. Nothing structural. But neither of us could remember hearing any blasting – especially in the middle of the night.

My guess was whatever had been making our cellar warmer than usual over the last few weeks was to be blamed. Neither Larry nor I could figure out why that was happening, either, but we both assumed there was something with the furnace. The HVAC technician couldn’t find anything wrong, but even he admitted it was strange that the basement was a full 30 degrees warmer than the temperature set on the thermostat.

So, with the working belief that the paint and plaster chips were from the expansion and contraction of the doorway, we went on caring about more important things and hoped the heat issue would fix itself.

Last week, I was getting home late after a red-eye flight back from my sister’s. Larry was dead asleep when I walked in the house at 4:30am, and I was so sleep deprived I couldn’t believe I hadn’t killed myself driving home. After I put my stuff down and was getting ready to head upstairs, I saw something that, at the time, I was certain was the result of my exhaustion: the cellar door and the surrounding frame were moving in and out.

I shook my head to get my senses back, but the door and frame still moved in a slow, deliberate pattern. Tiny flecks of plaster fell with each contraction. I walked up to the door and put my hand on it. I still wasn’t trusting my eyes and knew that touch would confirm or deny what I was seeing. As I expected, the second I touched the door, the movement stopped. I went upstairs and slept for 10 hours.

Larry was at work when I woke up. He was pulling a double that day, and I likely wouldn’t see him again until the next morning. After I showered and went downstairs, I found quite a bit more plaster and paint on the floor than usual. The memory of what I thought I’d seen the night before came back, and I experienced an involuntary twinge of fear. It made me feel a bit silly – almost like how I’d felt when I was a little girl and still afraid of the dark.

I brought out the vacuum and started to clean up the mess. When I was running the vacuum over the carpet right next to the cellar, I felt hot air rushing out of the cracks on the sides and bottom of the door. Not warm. Hot. I shut off the vacuum and listened. Aside from the gentle rush of hot air, there was nothing.

I tentatively touched the doorknob, ready to pull back if it was too hot. It wasn’t. It was very warm, but not hot. The fear came again as I knew I was about to open the door and go downstairs. I didn’t want to. The child me wouldn’t have. But I’m 52 years old. This is our house, and we’ve lived here for 26 years. We know it inside and out. There was nothing to be afraid of.

The fear remained. I opened the door and was hit in the face with a rush of hot, wet air.

While the temperature wasn’t unendurable, it was entirely unpleasant. My plan was to rush downstairs to make sure nothing was on fire, then run back up and call the HVAC man for an emergency visit, no matter the cost. I tiptoed down the old, wooden steps and entered the basement.

The wind rushing up the stairs faded as I got closer to the bottom. All that remained was humid, oppressive air. I began sweating immediately, and I walked across the room toward the furnace. It wasn’t even on. I touched it, and while warm, it wasn’t close to the temperature of the room.

Condensation was covering the tiny windows at the top of the walls. And there was an odor. It was heavy and thick and reminded me of vomit. I felt my stomach churning as my mission now became finding the source of the smell. Whatever it was, it had to go.

It didn’t take long.

On the other side of the furnace, up against the wall, was a pile of dead mice. Tens of them. Maybe 50. They were hideously decayed and dripping with dark yellow slime. I gagged so hard I felt my eyes bulge and I pulled my shirt over my nose and mouth. I couldn’t believe we hadn’t noticed them before, and I was miserable about the prospect of cleaning them up. But it had to be done.

I ran upstairs, grabbed a bucket, some kitchen gloves, and a bottle of bleach. Back in the stifling basement, I grabbed the vermin as quickly as I could, threw them all in the bucket, threw the gloves on top, and poured bleach over the whole area. I’d come back later and scrub the remaining slime and bleach and sloughed fur off the floor. I just couldn’t take any more at the moment.

I grabbed the bucket and headed back upstairs. I could’ve sworn I saw the cellar doorway widening and narrowing as I went, accompanied by waxing and waning gusts of hot air on my skin. My fear and disgust were bordering on terror as I burst through the doorway into the cheery living room.

I stood in the center of the living room, watching the doorway. It wasn’t moving. The bucket of dead vermin smelled incomprehensibly putrid. I went out the back door and was ready to throw the whole thing way out back where the property met the woods, when I stopped. There was smoke coming from the gloves on top of the mice. Another smell joined that of the putrefying rodents: burning rubber. I upended the bucket into the brush. I saw that the parts of the gloves that had touched the mice were bubbling and burning away.

As soon as I got back inside, I called the HVAC guy. He said he was booked solid all day and any work after 6pm would be at double the usual rate. I told him I didn’t care. I needed the furnace fixed. I needed whatever it was leaking removed. I couldn’t have our home in the shape it was in anymore.

The HVAC guy arrived around 7. I felt bad to be pulling him away from dinner with his family, so I made him a sandwich and some macaroni and cheese. He appreciated it, and brought the plate downstairs with him so he could eat while he worked. I wasn’t exactly sure how anyone could eat under conditions like I’d seen that afternoon, but I didn’t bother arguing. I left him to his work and went next door to see my elderly neighbor.

We got to talking, and it was almost 10 by the time I realized the HVAC technician was still working. I wished Gladys a good night and went home. The tech’s van was still in the driveway.

I walked inside and headed to the cellar door. Plaster and dried paint chips littered the carpet and were being blown across the room by the steady breeze coming up the staircase. Three deep cracks in the door frame and ceiling had appeared.

I called down to the technician and asked how it was going. He didn’t reply. I called again, louder. Nothing. That same fear welled up in me again. I looked around. This time, the cheery living room was dark. The windows showed nothing but blackness and the distorted reflection of diffuse kitchen light and the harsh illumination from the tech’s lamps in the basement.

I called a third time. He didn’t respond, but I jumped when a loud, splintering crack rang out right next to me as another fissure appeared in the door frame. I could’ve sworn I saw the frame move right before it happened.

My fourth and final call went unanswered. For the second time that day, I knew I’d go down the stairs. My 52 year-old body carried my frightened, 8 year-old mind down the steps. I felt hot, sticky air on my face.

The moment I reached the bottom, the smell hit me. It was just like it’d been with the mice, only heavier. I spoke the tech’s name, rather than calling it. My voice was small and weak and I realized, as I walked toward where he’d been working, I was shaking.

I reached the furnace and headed around to the other side. The smell was so strong, my eyes had started to water. But even through my bleary, tear-filled eyes, I could see the technician’s clothes and shoes. They were covered in the same yellow slime and smoked weakly as whatever was burning them ate its way through. The man who owned the clothes was nowhere to be found.

I ran upstairs and called the police, fully aware that the doorway was moving in and out as I ascended the staircase, feeling cool air against my face, followed by hot air against my back. I left the house and waited with Gladys for them to arrive.

It’s been five days and the technician has not been recovered. There’s been a town-wide search for him, and his wife and daughters have appeared on television begging for him to come home. Larry and I have allowed the police to search the house while we stay at a hotel. I’ve refused to go back until everything is resolved.

It wasn’t the terrifying strangeness of the cellar that has kept me out of our house. It wasn’t the still-missing man who came to fix our furnace. It was something else. It was the result of the chemical analysis of the substance on the HVAC man’s clothes and the mice I’d taken from the basement. Normally, we wouldn’t have been given that information, but Larry’s brother is a cop. He told us what it was, and now I know I’ll never set foot in that house again as long as I live.

Stomach acid.

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Just Swell


“It’s just an ingrown hair!,” my sister insisted. Then it encysted. Three weeks later, she was in the hospital having a pint of sludge sucked out of her armpit. If she’d lanced it early and not left it alone, she could’ve saved herself a lot of pain and suffering.

It was that memory from a decade ago that made me pay very close attention to the swelling right where the corner of my lower jaw met my neck. It’d always been a sensitive spot for me. Whenever I shaved, that one area invariably ended up being a swollen mess of ingrown hairs. It was miserable.

I had a system that helped a bit: cleansing the area before and after shaving, shaving with brand-new blades, and making sure to shave in the direction the hair grew. It brought my outbreaks down from every time to every other time; not much, but better than nothing. When the most recent swelling showed up, I didn’t think much of it and treated it like any other ingrown hair. But it got worse.

Remembering Lynn’s nightmarish experience in the hospital, I wanted to take action quickly. I went to the drugstore and bought a package of lancing needles. Back at home, I swabbed the area with rubbing alcohol and poked the needle into the area of the swelling. It bled quite a bit, but the swelling didn’t diminish. I squeezed hard and pushed the needle a little deeper. More blood, and a little bit of other fluid.

When I let go, it hurt more than it had, but the swelling appeared to have gone down a little bit. When I shone my bright desk lamp against the skin, I could see a few thick, black hairs trapped under the surface. I imagined how they were growing in backwards; twisting and weaving their way along the underside of my neck as my immune system attacked them. The thought turned my stomach. I took a few Advil and went to bed.

I woke up in pain. The swelling had gotten significantly worse and my throat had started to hurt on that side. I ran my fingertips over the bulge and felt the swollen follicles. I turned on the shower and brought a couple lancing needles with me.

I poked and squeezed and expelled what had to have been a cup of blood and yellowish-orange fluid. I looked at the mess on the shower floor and told myself that if it didn’t get better in a couple days, I’d have to go to the hospital. Just like Lynn. She’d never let me live it down after the way I’d teased her after her own issue.

The thought of Lynn’s smirk compelled me to do two things: one, I promised myself I wouldn’t tell her about what happened, and two, I’d do everything in my power to make sure I fixed the problem before I needed to go to the hospital. My neck throbbed as if it were agreeing with me.

Feeling the hairs still lurking under my skin, I wiped the fog off the mirror and examined myself. The swelling was the size of a baseball. Swallowing was intensely painful. I was determined to get this fixed.

I remembered Lynn had told me that when she went to the hospital, they had to do more than just stick the thing with a needle and drain it. The cyst had been too deep for that. They needed to make an incision and hold it open for all the muck to come out.

I checked my needle supply. There were a ton left. Knowing they were the only sterile things in the house, I decided they’d have to do. I doused the area in rubbing alcohol, then began dragging the needle across the swollen lump.

It bled, but not a crazy amount. When I felt the needle getting dull, I opened a fresh one and continued. The discomfort was significant, but not agonizing. Having relief from the pressure was almost enough to overcome the pain.

When I was about three-quarters of an inch in, the pain became severe. I gritted my teeth as I pulled the needle across the flesh, waiting for the rush of gray-white pus from the cyst created by that horrible ingrown hair. After another few millimeters, the needle struck something firm. Finally. I poked and prodded at it, and that same yellowish-orange fluid started to leak out.

With a rush of confidence brought on by the intense desire to get this all over with, I reached in with my thumb and forefinger, pulled, and squeezed. An explosion of agony made the world grow white, then gray. I felt something dangling against the skin of my neck, and I passed out for a minute. Fleeting lucidity returned and I used it to dial 911 before passing out again. I woke up in the hospital.

It turned out I did, indeed, have some seriously-ingrown hairs. My doctor said they were some of the worst he’d ever seen; he even recommended that I grow a beard so I wouldn’t have to deal with them so frequently. But the ingrown hair wasn’t why I was in the hospital.

The good Lord saw it fit to give me a throat infection right around the same time that ingrown hair had gotten inflamed. The lump, while partly from the hair, was a swollen gland. In my search for the infected root of the ingrown hair, I’d carved the lymph node out of my neck and squeezed it until it ruptured.

No way I’m telling Lynn about this. No way in hell.

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Soft Teeth

soft teeth

I remember the man with the soft teeth. He’d come into my room at night and bite me over and over. The bites didn’t hurt and they left no marks. All I felt was pressure.

The first time I saw his face, I was terrified. His eyes were different. Instead of two eye sockets, he had nine. They were clustered in front of his face and up his forehead like a honeycomb. Two on top, four in the middle, three on the bottom. The sockets didn’t house eyeballs. There was a single, thin eyestalk growing from the center of each hole. Each stalk swayed in front of his face like long grass in the breeze.

When he’d visit me, I’d lose the ability to move or scream. All I could do was watch. After a week of visits and my parents not believing a word that came out of my mouth, I thought sleeping with the light on might keep him away. That was the night he started biting my face.

The man would always move slowly and with great care. Every motion seemed calculated and precise; I didn’t know what he was doing, but I had no doubt he did.

The first time he got close, I saw the inside of his mouth. Like his eyes, his teeth were unlike any I’d seen. There were three rows of bulbous growths pushing from an array of holes in his gum line. They looked as soft as they felt. Each one was covered in fine, downy hairs. They reminded me of the fat bodies of moths.

He’d open my mouth with his index finger and thumb. Then he’d close in. I felt his eyestalks brushing against my face and forehead and eyes as he pressed his upper teeth against my lower ones. He’d close his mouth around my chin, locking my lower jaw in his mouth.

It was uncomfortable, but it didn’t hurt. He would stay there for ten minutes at a time, gradually modulating the pressure of his jaw against mine.

On the last night he visited me, he performed the same steps. Once my jaw was in his mouth, though, he applied more pressure than he’d used in the past. His eyestalks straightened out and felt like firm cables against my face. As the pressure increased, I felt his teeth start to burst against my own. One by one, the thick, insectile bodies inside his mouth succumbed to the pressure and coated my tongue and gums with thick, bitter paste. I felt his tongue, which had never been involved in our interactions before, extending over my teeth and massaging the paste into my gums. I tried to retch, but even that had been taken from me.

The man did the same with my upper teeth and palate. When he left and I could move again, I rushed to the bathroom, threw up, and brushed my teeth more times than I could count. I never saw the man again.

It’s been 25 years. I’ve been plagued by dental issues my entire adult life. Every visit brings worse news; it’s gotten to the point where I’m dealing with irreversible bone loss. Eventually, my teeth will fall out. The foundation to which they’re attached is simply deteriorating. It’s not uncommon, but it’s rare for someone my age who is otherwise in perfect health.

As if on cue, the day after my most recent trip to the dentist, I lost my first tooth. I’d felt it loosening and the dentist said it was only a matter of time. And more will follow. I scheduled an appointment to see him in three months. It was as frequently as my insurance would allow. More of my teeth started to wiggle when I poked at them with my tongue. I started to accept their fate.

Recently, my resignation has developed flickers of fear and disbelief. The tooth that fell out started to grow back. I’d never heard of such a thing. But I can see something grayish-white pushing through the raw socket. When I touch it with my tongue, it’s soft. And I can feel my tongue brushing against it, almost as if it has nerves of its own.

I’m trying not to think back to the memories of the man in my room, but it’s impossible not to. Not when more of my teeth grow looser by the day. And especially not when I have seven painful spots near my eyes and forehead that feel softer than they should.


The Quarry


I can’t remember the last time we’d had such a hot summer. All the beaches were packed. You couldn’t find a shoreline that wasn’t teeming with people. Most summers, we would’ve been right there with them. This last school year, though, had been rough. We’d had an inordinate number of encounters with bullies, and the last thing we wanted to do was put ourselves in a place where they’d almost certainly be.

That caution came with a price, of course. We were sweltering. Fans did nothing. Every time we opened the freezer to grab a chunk of ice, we’d get yelled at for letting all the cold air out. It seemed like everything we did, it only served to make us hotter and more miserable.

My brother had an idea that sounded pretty great to me. There’d been construction going on near the old quarry that was on hold for some reason. Donny said he’d been snooping around there the week before and he noticed there was still a lot of water from the spring floods that’d gotten trapped and hadn’t dried up yet. Plus, the quarry was deep enough to be in its own shadow; the walls went up at least 30 feet. It’d be a climb to get down and back up, but it was worth the risk if it meant getting a break from the heat.

We hopped the fence and stared down at the water. It looked pretty damn refreshing. The way down was steep and rocky, but Donny and I were both pretty agile at the time. We went slowly, despite dripping with sweat and coating ourselves with dust and bits of gravel. When we got to the bottom, it was already a relief. The air was ten degrees cooler and the shade provided a welcome reprieve from the mid-day sun.

There was a long branch near the edge of the pool. Since the water was murky, we didn’t want to take a chance and dive in. Both of us remembered how Leon Hollis broke his neck back in 3rd grade. Neither of us were going to make that same mistake. I reached in with the stick and pushed down and around. It felt about two or three feet deep. I let out more and more of the branch into the water and felt the soft, muddy ground underneath. We couldn’t do a proper dive, but we sure as hell could jump in. That was all Donny needed to hear.

In the blink of an eye, Donny had stripped out of his clothes. I hadn’t even finished saying, “Jesus Christ, Don, don’t take your fucking underpants off too!” before he was stark naked and mid-air in a bellyflop position. He crashed into the still water, sending out a massive wave to soak the muddy shore. I was untying my shoes when Donny spluttered to the surface. He looked different.

Donny’s pale body was covered in a mosaic of black and brown shapes. I mean covered. He was more brown and black than he was white, and as he staggered toward me with his arms out so they wouldn’t touch his sides and his legs bowed so they wouldn’t rub together, I realized what they were. Leeches. Hundreds – maybe even a thousand – leeches.

He began to scream. It was a shrill, high-pitched shriek that I’d only heard from girls on the playground at school, but with them, it was only while they were playing. The sound coming from my brother was one of abject terror. As he screamed, he formed the words, “help me” and moved closer and closer to the shore, away from the water. By the time I’d gotten over to him, he fell on his back into the soft mud, his head inches from the shore.

I stood over him, unsure of what I should do. He began rubbing his hands over his trunk, trying to unlatch the things from his belly and chest. Blood smeared as their bodies burst under his touch. My horror stunned me for a moment, and as I stared with shock at my brother’s body, I noticed details for the first time.

There was a leech stuck to his left eyeball. It hung down about 3 inches, its body fat with blood. The eye was red and angry looking and Donny was blinking furiously, and probably unconsciously, to get the thing off. One leech was attached to the head of his penis and there were seven on his scrotum and perineum. Under his arms were the remains of at least six that had been smashed as Donny rubbed and pulled at the ones on his torso.

Finally, I snapped out of it and began raking my nails across the creatures that covered my brother. He was a red mess. I tried to pick up my pace, noticing how, even under the shroud of blood, I could tell Donny was getting increasingly pale and weak. His arms didn’t move much anymore and his screams had devolved into wheezes.

I ran back to where we’d left our clothes and returned with a large beach towel. I wadded it up and scrubbed Donny up and down, not caring if I crushed the things instead of just removing them. They needed to die, and quickly, or else I was certain my brother would be exsanguinated. I rubbed his face and chest and legs and feet until there was nothing left pulp from their devastated bodies and the smeared blood they’d stolen from Donny.

I knelt next to Donny and tried to get him to focus. I told him I was going to run for help and he was going to be okay. His good eye moved to meet my face. “Back,” he muttered.

“Yes, I’ll be back as soon as I can,” I assured him, and got up to run home.

Donny grabbed my ankle in his weak fist. I stopped and looked at him impatiently, not understanding how he didn’t see how time was a factor here.

“Back,” he said again. “My back.” He exhaled a long, low breath. He didn’t move or say anything after that.

A column of frost coalesced along my spinal cord. With great care, not wanting Donny’s face to sink into the mud, I turned my brother over and screamed. On his back were two leeches, each the size of a watermelon. No longer trapped between the mud and Donny, they detached their proboscises, each of which were as long as my middle finger. Then, with their bodies full and their appetites sated, they began the slow crawl back into the water.

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I think I’m having some kind of medical issue.

Maybe one of you can offer me some advice? I don’t have insurance and I can’t afford a trip to the ER. It doesn’t seem life threatening, though, so I might wait it out. I’ve always been a bit of a hypochondriac and I bet I’m just overreacting. Still, if anyone is interested in coming over and checking me out, just send me a message. I’d really appreciate it.

I was walking through the wooded area behind my home and I found this weird gray stuff oozing out of a rock. It was shiny and made me think of jellied lead. I’d never seen anything quite like it before. Since I moved out of the city ten years ago, I frequently walked around the many acres of woods near the house and never saw anything weirder than a squirrel eating a dead hawk. So this was new to me.

I took a branch and poked at the stuff. It resisted a little before it broke open, causing a more liquidy version to flow out from inside. I grabbed a smaller stick and scooped up a tiny bit of the stuff and walked back to the house. Part of me was worried that it fell from a plane or something and might be a toxic threat to the environment.

When I got home, I scraped the goo onto a dish I never used and threw the stick in the garbage. I shone some light on the plate, and I swear, the stuff moved a little. It’s not like it jumped up and made scary tentacles or anything like that; no, it just kind of spread out in a weird way. Almost like how jellyfish try to hide in the sand when they feel threatened. After I killed the light, it gradually reassumed its original shape. My guess was that the heat from the lamp made it melt.

I decided to wait until tomorrow morning and bring it to the local university just to be on the safe side. I don’t know what it was about the stuff, but I was really, really uneasy around it. When I left for an hour or two and went to the store to get groceries, I returned to find the plate empty and a streak of gray grease going off the plate, across the counter, and onto the floor. There wasn’t a trail indicating where it went after that.

Honestly, I was a little freaked out. I bent down and looked all over the place and never found the stuff. But it found me.

At first, I thought the sensation on my bare ankle was just a mosquito, so I slapped at it without thinking. Obviously, looking back, that was the wrong idea. The gray stuff spread out all over my palm, then the rest of my hand, then my arm, side, chest, back, and the rest of me. Long story short, I’m completely covered in the gray substance. But here’s the thing, and it’s why I’m not particularly worried: it feels amazing.

I know, I know, it sounds weird. But in all honesty, I’ve never felt anything like it. In fact, I was so taken by the sensation that I went back outside, over to the rock where the stuff was, and pulled as much of it off as I could and brought it into the house. Now, like I said in the beginning, I do think I’m having some sort of medical issue. It’s definitely not something I’ve ever experienced before or even heard of, so I think it’s important to get checked out. But still, I can’t get over how great the experience is. The stuff smells wonderful, too. And right now, as it spreads over my tongue, it tastes better than anything I’ve ever put in my mouth. Please, anyone who might be interested in investigating either for their own curiosity or as a medical precaution, just leave a message right here and I’ll give you directions to my home. I’d be so happy if someone came over.

Please. Come visit me. Come visit us.

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I’ve lived in the same house for 40 years. After Ralph passed and I was left alone for the first time in three decades, I turned to my neighbors for comfort. They provided it in spades. I was honored and brought to tears by their kindness. Not too many places would make sure a lonely old man was taken care of. I’m surrounded by wonderful, beautiful people.

I took on the role of a grandfather to some of the neighborhood children. I was more than happy to babysit; Ralph and I always wanted to adopt but it wasn’t permitted in our state. So, having the opportunity to be a formative figure in the lives of these children was a great privilege. It made me feel like I was getting another chance to do everything that had been denied to me. I wish Ralph could’ve been here to take part. Still, I know he’s watching with the same love and pride he expressed every day he was alive.

One girl, Madison, formed a particularly strong connection to me. Her father was out of the picture. Her mom, Helen, who was forced to work full time, was rarely home during the day. Helen had always been the most supportive and loving of the neighbors after Ralph’s death, so when I had the opportunity to help with Madison and watch her during the work day, I was more than willing.

I started looking after Madison soon after her 10th birthday. She fell in love with the collection of toy kangaroos all over the house. Ralph was born in Australia and I always used to call him my little roo – especially when he got excited and his accent became more pronounced. On his birthdays, I’d give him some type of kangaroo toy. They’d been gathering dust after his passing and I was glad Madison could give them some life again.

Years passed and Madison started to grow up. I worried she was becoming depressed. She never had very many friends in school. She’d come straight over when her day was done and do her homework while waiting for her mom. Her mood was less bubbly than I’d remembered. Part of it, I’m sure, was her age. Adolescence is tough for everyone, let alone someone with a difficult family life like Madison. Still, I worried about her. She was perfectly nice to me and was never rude or disrespectful, but she’d withdrawn. She didn’t watch television with me anymore after her homework, either. She’d just sit on the floor in her kangaroo pajamas, which were far too small for her at that point, playing with Ralph’s figurines. Just like she did when she was little.

When Madison was 16, she got a boyfriend. Her first one, as far as I knew. I didn’t like him. At all. He was your typical teenage tough-guy type; a chain-smoking, foul-mouthed loser. There wasn’t anything I could do about it, though. Madison wouldn’t bring him over and I think she sensed I didn’t approve. But it wasn’t my business. I told myself years before that such situations were purely between Madison and her mother. Only if I felt like Madison was in danger would I interfere.

Madison spent more and more time with the boyfriend and less and less with me. The house grew quiet again. The other children I’d taken care of had grown old enough to watch themselves. Their parents stopped by every so often for coffee, but my general person-to-person interaction was far less than I’d previously enjoyed. I was lonely.

One night, Helen came to me in a panic. Apparently, Madison had admitted to using drugs. Helen had no idea what kind or anything like that, but she was terrified for her daughter’s safety. I tried to reassure her that there had to be something the school could do, but that was when she told me the other half of the story: Madison was pregnant.

This floored me. I’d seen Madison around town over the last few months and I’d noticed she’d gained some weight, but it never occurred to me she might be pregnant. Now her drug use was even more worrying. We tried to figure out a plan together and the only thing we could agree on was that the school had to know. Even though the local school system wasn’t the best, they had to have some resources dedicated to problems like these.

The school did nothing. Madison’s reckless behavior continued. Helen was too terrified to notify the police because she feared she’d be put in a foster home. I, too, was clueless. Time went by and the rare times I’d see Madison in town, she’d be stumbling around drunkenly with her idiot boyfriend, her protrusive belly an obscenity against the background of her intoxication.

On a late afternoon in February, I was leaving the supermarket when Madison spotted me from across the parking lot. She wasn’t with her boyfriend, thankfully. She rushed up to me and gave me a big hug. She didn’t seem drunk, but she had to have been on something. Her pupils were dilated and her words were slurred as she said how much she missed me. Then she asked if she could come over later to see the kangaroos. I told her that would be wonderful and that I missed her.

At some point around 7, Madison came over. I ushered her in quickly; it was way below freezing outside and she looked ill. I could tell she was high. She shuffled in without saying hello and went to the mantle where the kangaroos stood. In a singsong, childish voice, she talked to them. When she was 11, I thought that type of thing was cute. Now, though, knowing she was under the influence of something that was poisoning not only her, but the baby as well, it was far less adorable.

I walked up to her and asked if I could take her coat and if she’d like some tea and chocolate cake. She didn’t reply. She just kept talking to the kangaroos. I sighed and sat down on the couch, waiting for her to either snap out of it and talk to me or leave and hopefully go home to her mom.

Madison went down the line of the kangaroo toys on the mantle, saying “I love you” to each one. Then she walked back, doing the same thing in reverse order. Then she faced me. “I love you too, Michael,” she cooed, a thin smile cracking her pale face. “But you know what? I love Roo most of all!”

Madison dropped her heavy coat to the floor and I screamed. A gaping wound had been carved across the top of her belly. The blue head and chest and right arm of her baby stuck out from the opening. “Look at little Roo,” she said weakly. “Such a good little Roo.” Madison tried to hop toward me, mimicking a kangaroo. The limp head and arm of the child flopped back and forth with the movement.

“Sweet little Roo. All warm and safe in his pouch.”

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I was ten when it happened. My tenth birthday. I was in the woods with my uncle and father and they were making sure I knew how to shoot. Before I could hunt deer, I had to show them I could hunt bottles. By that, I mean I had to hit ten bottles from ten feet away, using ten bullets. It wasn’t much a test. I could’ve done that when I was seven. My guess was they just wanted to do something special with the number ten. I would’ve preferred ten cakes.

Thanks to my well-placed shots, the first three bottles exploded in glittering, green shards. Against the sullen backdrop of the sun-punctured gray sky and the forest still recovering from last year’s fire, it looked hauntingly pretty.

Even though I’d worn my ear protection, I felt discomfort in both my ears. It wasn’t the normal ringing I’d encountered before, though. It was a painful buzzing, like flies were trapped by my eardrums.

I looked over and saw my dad and uncle both rubbing the area around their ears. They’d taken out their plugs and looked uncomfortable and confused. I pulled off my own and asked what was going on. Dad shook his head and said he didn’t know.

“Mother of fuck!,” my uncle exclaimed, prompting a burst of giggles from me and a slap upside his head from my dad. But then we saw what had caused his outburst.

The seven remaining bottles were floating. They stood, motionless, three feet above the rocks where they’d been placed. The buzzing intensified and the three of us cringed. It was like a colony of bees had descended on the quiet forest.

“Let’s go,” Dad said, grabbing my hand, and we started walking back the way we came.

Then the world ended.

My father and uncle were hoisted into the air. I shrieked. Their eyes grew wide with fright and they held their rifles in deathgrips while pointing them in every direction in a futile attempt to threaten whatever was assailing them. I remember how my dad looked right before it happened. The instant before.

A one of the levitating bottles flew with impossible speed. It struck my dad in his open mouth and shattered. Glass stuck inside his devastated gums, tongue, and cheeks. My uncle, now screaming, was met with the same hideous assault. Both wailed around the glass impaling the soft tissue of their mouths while I tugged at my dad’s leg, trying to pull him back to Earth.

30 years later, their screams haunt me more than the sight of their blood. But blood poured. Blood gushed. In a haze of uncomprehending horror, I watched as the shards extracted themselves from the mouths of the men and began to carve. Lips were amputated. Cheeks were excised. Flesh dropped to the forest floor. The buzzing in my ears reached an unbearable level, and with a sharp cracking sound, everything went silent.

Deaf, I huddled against a large tree and sobbed. I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the violence. In a noiseless, surreal nightmare, I saw the glass carve their gums down to the roots of their teeth. Their heads jerked forward in a powerful movement and teeth exploded out of their skulls and into the sky. I followed their trajectory and saw, for the first time, a patch of dull, green light behind the gathering clouds.

I looked back at my father and uncle. They’d stopped moving their arms and legs and trunks. The violent forward motion had to have broken their necks. My uncle’s eyes gaped and darted in every direction, but Dad’s were on me. They expressed pain, but something else, too. It was comfort. Even in the bloodbath, he wanted me to know it would be okay.

It wasn’t okay.

The green light intensified and I saw the outline of something – that’s still the only word I can use – something – in the sky. The first thing that came to mind was Medusa’s head. It had a spherical center and countless, serpentine spires jutting from it at every conceivable angle. Liquid patches of light traveled between the spires, and as it descended, I felt the buzz which had deafened me vibrating my hair and fat.

It reached the treeline. It was the size of a house. My dad and uncle had their eyes on it as their ruined mouths wept. The spires stopped mere feet away from the three of us. A sliver of green shone on the two men, and they began to shake wildly.

If they hadn’t been paralyzed from the tooth extraction, the shaking would’ve ensured it. They flopped like electrocuted ragdolls pinned to a corkboard; arms, legs, hips, backs – all contorting in ways that would splinter and pulverize their bones. My father’s knees bent forward, hyperextending until his toes were touching his hips. My uncle’s lower jaw swept back and forth. There was no conceivable way they were still alive.

With a sense of resignation, I realized I couldn’t move. I was pinned in my position, helpless to do anything but stare at the carnage. I assumed I would be next.

The green light flashed red. The tattered clothing on my relatives split and fell to the ground. The glass, which had dropped to the ground after finishing with their mouths, took to the air again. It sliced through their bodies in long, deep incisions. The red light intensified, and I watched as their splintered, fragmented bones were hurled from their bodies toward the liquid light on the spire-studded object. In a final, hideous act, their eyes dropped from their boneless sockets and pulped brain matter followed them.

Two motionless bags of flesh hung in the silent forest.

If I passed out at that point, it wasn’t for long.

My eyes opened to the sight of the husks of my uncle and father being prodded by one spire each. Skin flopped back and forth. Any remaining blood rained onto the floor of the abattoir nouveau below them. The light had shifted from red to something else I’d never seen before. It was as if they were trapped in a beam of shadow; it wasn’t perfectly black, but dark gray.

Black fluid began to drip out of their skin. It puddled in the mess of blood and organs on the ground. Their flesh wounds began to close. The dripping slowed, then stopped. The bodies started to regain their original shape.

My despondent resignation grew teeth as fresh fear suffused my small body. The skins were full again. The arms and legs moved, as if they were being tested. Eyes sprouted from the empty sockets and teeth filled their mouths. After a couple minutes, they looked exactly like they had before they’d been murdered.


Everything blurred after this.

I remember them slowly descending to the ground. I remember their mouths moving as if they were talking to me, but in my deafness, I heard nothing. I remember trying to run, but being stopped; stopped and held against the chest of the thing who looked like my father. The twinkle of concern in his eyes was gone.

I was carried through the forest to our house. I remember Mom starting at the sight of my nude father and uncle entering, but then I lost consciousness. When I woke up, I was in my bed. It was the day after my birthday.

As I said above, it’s been 30 years. I am still deaf. Everything continued as if nothing had happened, other than a freak accident due to a combination of a misfiring shell and my shrugging off of my hearing protection right beforehand. I even told Mom about it all, and she just stroked my hair and told me it must’ve been a terrible nightmare.

There was no warmth in her eyes.

My mother, my father, and my uncle still live on the same street. I live across town. I don’t see them very often. They express great sadness at this and message frequently, but I can’t forget what I know happened – what I know wasn’t a dream.

Over the years, there have been clues. Every so often there’d be a newspaper article about strange lights in the sky or messes of blood and organs found in the forest. They’re things that are always explained away by auroras or animal attacks. Weird stuff, but not anything that’ll make people think more than twice.

Five years ago, I was on my way to the supermarket on my bicycle when my chain fell off. I pulled over onto the sidewalk to fix it. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw another cyclist crossing the street. Then a car made an illegal turn and the cyclist had to swerve out of the way. He fell onto the ground. I looked up and realized it was Dad. He was picking himself up. A small gash had appeared on his elbow. Greasy, black liquid trickled down his arm.

He saw me and smiled. Then he looked at his arm and sighed. He lifted the bike back onto its wheels, walked up to me, and signed, “your mother and I miss you.” He hopped on the bike and rode away.

I just stared at tiny black drops on the pavement.

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