Pumpkin Spice and Everything Nice

psl

I was 13 when I had my first pumpkin spice latte. Dad had taken me to Starbucks on the way to school, and as soon as we walked in, I saw their poster advertising the drink. Everything about the ad screamed “warmth.” The mug it showcased was a gentle beige, contrasting sweetly against the light-brown wood of the table on which it sat, surrounded by artistically-placed autumn leaves and festive gourds. The contents of the mug were centered in the image, showing off the perfect dollop of creamy foam with caramelly tints of espresso running through it. At the top, lovingly whispered by the deft hand of a skilled, caring barista, was a sprinkling of nutmeg.

It called to me.

I eschewed my normal caramel macchiato and requested a grande pumpkin spice latte. I waited anxiously with Dad by my side. He sipped his black coffee and suggested we sit for a little while. We were running early, for once.

I sat, shaking my leg with anticipatory excitement. The cafe smelled different that day. I’d grown accustomed to the thick, imposing aroma of dark-roasted coffee and the occasional hint of sweetness as a customer’s blueberry muffin was toasted. That day, though, gripping the reins of the dark roast and riding it to a new and alluring place, was something else. Something exotic. My head swam as I realized the exotic smell was, in fact, the spicy melange of ingredients within a pumpkin spice latte: the same pumpkin spice latte I’d soon taste.

After what felt like an eternity, my order was ready. Alexander, the barista, waved me over. I did my best to avoid sprinting, but my rush was obvious.

“Easy, princess,” Dad called. I slowed down a bit and giggled. I was his princess.

I reached the counter and accepted my drink. In the tiny mouth of the lid, I could see the sprinkled spices adorning the cap of warm foam. With my eyes closed, I inhaled the steam rising from the hole.

The scent was an embrace from a ghost; a non-corporeal expression of love and comfort. The first sip was transcendental. At that moment, I knew what it felt like to believe in something bigger than myself.

Each day before school, Dad would take me to Starbucks to get another pumpkin spice latte. Its effect on me didn’t dull, nor did it taste any less special. As early autumn reds decayed into late autumn browns, I found my mood better than it had ever been in my short life. I never knew it was so easy to be happy.

At 6:51am on December 1st, 2005, Dad and I walked into Starbucks.

At 6:52am on December 1st, 2005, my happiness was torn from my chest and dashed against the rocks.

The pumpkin spice latte was a limited-time product. Alexander told me it’d be back just in time for fall next year, then asked if I’d like to go back to my caramel macchiato. Entombed in disbelief and disappointment, I nodded.

The following days were a blur of grays. My vivacity had been strangled. Dad would ask, over and over, what he could do to make his princess happy. I didn’t need to tell him, though. He knew. And there was nothing he could do about it.

December slouched toward Christmas, a holiday I’d always loved. Not anymore, though. Now that I’d seen the world through a lens of happiness and warmth, nothing looked the same without it. Quite the contrary: it all looked fake. Vulgar. When I closed my eyes on Christmas Eve, I prayed for Santa to bring me blindness or death.

On Christmas morning, I woke up to Dad standing next to my bed. That was a little tradition he and I had. Before Mom passed away, they’d both come up and shake me awake and carry me downstairs to see what Santa had brought. Now that it was just the two of us, he wanted to keep the tradition going. Even in my despondence, I still appreciated it.

Dad held my hand and we headed down the steps. Tears had started to flow without my knowing. We reached the Christmas tree in the living room. Only one present stood underneath. It was small and wrapped with bright green paper. I looked at Dad with confusion. He just smiled and beckoned to the gift.

I sat, cross legged, under the tree, and tore away the paper. My soft weeping grew into pitiful bleating.

“Why would you do this?,” I whispered to Dad, my breath heaving with sobs. In my lap, beneath the shiny, torn paper, was a cheery, autumnal Starbucks mug. The same one from the poster I’d seen on that transformative day.

I was baffled and hurt, but Dad stood, still smiling.

“Come with me, princess.”

I obeyed and rose to my feet, following his long stride out of the living room, down the hallway, and into the kitchen.

Dad looked into my misty eyes and whispered, “Merry Christmas, sweetheart.” He opened the cellar door.

A faint, but familiar and exquisite aroma entered me. In my surprise, I nearly dropped my present.

“Why don’t you go see what Santa brought you?,” Dad suggested.

I ran down the 14 steps with the same enthusiasm I had when ran across Starbucks to receive my first pumpkin spice latte. This time, Dad didn’t tell me to slow down.

I reached the bottom, turned the corner, and there, on a makeshift bar, was a new espresso machine. I gasped. Behind the bar, manning the machine, was Alexander the barista. He smiled and stared, wide-eyed, as Dad reached the bottom of the stairs and placed himself by my side.

“Go ahead, princess, tell the nice man what you’d like.”

My voice quavered at first, but I finished my request with enthusiasm and strength. “May I please have a pumpkin spice latte?”

Alexander, still smiling, nodded. He began to work. The coffee was ground and thick espresso drooled out of the machine into the bottom of the mug. With a hiss of steam, the milk was frothed. Warm milk joined the espresso in the mug, followed by a generous dollop of ethereal foam.  Then Alexander picked up a large shaker. I knew what had to be inside.

With three expert shakes, a pixie dusting of pumpkin spice kissed the foamy head of the latte. He picked up my mug and held it out. I walked up to the bar, carefully took the mug from Alexander’s hand, and thanked him. I noticed, for the first time, he didn’t have any legs and was strapped to a rolling stool.

“I’m sorry about your accident, Alexander,” I said with sincerity. He didn’t say anything, but kept smiling. I saw a small cut in his neck and wondered if his accident had made it so he couldn’t talk anymore.

“Merry Christmas,” I told him. He stared at Dad.

I took a sip from the mug, and, for the first time in nearly a month, it seemed like I could see in color again. The world felt right and I was happy.

My tears were drying as I took Dad’s hand. We turned the corner and headed up the steps. We reached the landing and Dad switched off the basement light. He always hated to waste electricity.

“You can have one every morning now, princess,” Dad informed me. “As long as I’m around, I’ll make sure you get whatever you need.”

I hugged him, feeling the warmth of his body against mine. It was nearly as pleasant as the mug against my palm. He was right, too. Things have been wonderful ever since.

More.
Unsettling Stories is on Facebook.

 

Jim Jameson’s Pumpkins

pumpkin

Jim Jameson grew some of the biggest and most unique pumpkins you’d ever seen. You’ve probably noticed them online without knowing they were his. Every Halloween, when websites compete with one another to feature the spookiest content, you’d be hard-pressed not to see one of Jim’s mammoth pumpkins carved into some kind of jack-o’-lantern. He was a local celebrity around here before he died, which was a pretty sad day for the whole town.

The circumstances surrounding his death were well understood, but still bizarre and unfortunate. He’d been working on trying to grow bigger and bigger pumpkins for the shows and for his customers, and he’d been experimenting on the best ways to do it. The new method, which caused his death, was growing them in his greenhouse – suspended in the air by a series of cables. The pumpkins could grow and grow without having the ground to retard their progress. The method resulted in enormous, beautifully-symmetrical pumpkins.

Then, one day, as Jim was working in the greenhouse, a pumpkin the size of a small car fell from the ceiling when its cables snapped. Broke every bone he had above his hips. The rescue workers who extricated him from the mess of blood and pumpkin guts famously said they’d never be able to carve a pumpkin again.

Jim had no next of kin, so the property was sold off, along with everything on it. I was looking for a place in the area, and after a quick visit, I determined it was the best place for me. I moved in about a year ago.

Moving into the home of someone who’d died and seeing all their stuff sitting there more-or-less undisturbed, aside from the refrigerator being cleaned out and a few other maintenance-related things, was a strange experience. At first, it felt a little invasive going through Jim’s belongings. There didn’t appear to be anything too valuable; I figured whatever might’ve been there probably got taken by whoever cleaned the fridge. What I did find, though, were reams of paper and shelves of notebooks.

Jim was a meticulous note taker. Every possible pumpkin permutation was cataloged, diagramed, and explained in full. I learned about his cable system, his fertilizer combinations, and even his experimental work.

The experiments fascinated me.

Jim had seen pictures of fruits and vegetables that’d been coaxed to grow into particular shapes. Square watermelons. Star carrots. That kind of thing. But Jim’s ambitions were greater than simple shapes. He wanted something unique and memorable – something that would put him on the map for more than just big pumpkins.

One of the notebooks was filled with diagrams of a scarecrow-shaped mold in which a pumpkin could be grown. He detailed the various materials he’d need to use, the method of keeping the pumpkin properly watered, and even the various fertilizers he’d use at different stages of its growth.

Apparently he’d been working on this experiment since the late 1980s, but with little success. Molds were created and destroyed over the course of the years, with new materials being introduced or rejected depending on their efficacy. Same with irrigation methods. But fertilizer seemed to be the biggest problem for Jim. The plant wasn’t getting the right amount of nourishment as it grew to fill the mold, leading to parts of it dying off and rotting. For decades, he tried. For decades, he failed.

Whenever I had spare time, I read Jim’s notebooks. I was fascinated by his experimenting and the trials and errors he went through. I’d find myself wondering if his works could be published someday – I couldn’t imagine anyone being bored by the work he’d written about so passionately.

Early last October, when the farm was turning brown and the leaves were turning red, I cracked open a notebook of Jim’s from the year he died. I’d decided to skip a few because I was so anxious to learn if he’d had any success with his pumpkin experiment. At this point in his notes, he was writing about hybrid pumpkins: pumpkin/acorn squash hybrids, pumpkin/zucchini hybrids; all with the goal of solving the rot problem that’d plagued his work.

I flipped through the pages of the notebook, skimming the notes, until one word stood out from all the others as if it’d been written in red: radiation. I turned back a few pages and was blown away by what I saw. Jim had, over time, purchased and disassembled hundreds of smoke detectors. He was looking to collect the tiny amounts of americium-241 they had inside.

With wide eyes, I pored over the pages as Jim talked about incorporating the americium-241 into his fertilizer to induce mutations in the pumpkins. With each new entry, I saw that Jim began to have successes. He wrote about each complete, shaped pumpkin with unbridled enthusiasm. I started to notice a slight disconnect between the scientifically-meticulous Jim from before the success and the potentially-irradiated Jim after.

I finished that notebook and started the next one. The disconnect continued. More hypotheses about hybridization were detailed – including hybrids with ostriches and slugs and even dinosaurs. I groaned and dropped the notebook. The poor bastard had gone nuts. I felt pity for the old farmer and part of me wondered if his death in the greenhouse was purposely self-inflicted. If my mind was going, I might’ve done the same thing.

I didn’t read his notes for a couple weeks.

On Halloween, feeling bored and waiting for it to get dark so I could give the trick-or-treaters the full-size candy bars I’d bought to be the best neighbor ever, I picked up another one of Jim’s notebooks. It was the last one he’d ever made entries in. The handwriting was terrible and the sentences were fragmented. Still, I could get a decent idea about what he was talking about. More nonsense about hybrids. More trials with the americium-241 fertilizer. There were drawings, too. Not just diagrams, but artistically-rendered representations of his pumpkins and the imaginary hybrids. Some were actually pretty cool, like one of a scarecrow pumpkin riding an ostrich pumpkin. Silly, yes, but well drawn compared to his scrawled handwriting.

The drawings tapered off as I got to the end of the notebook. On the last page before a series of blanks, there was a diagram. I held it up and turned it around, trying to make out what it could be. Then it clicked: it was a map of the property. I saw the barn and the house and the greenhouse, but there was something there I didn’t recognize; something in the middle of the field by the three scarecrows that’d been there for what looked like decades.

Still bored and now curious, I brought the map with me to the field. Sure enough, at the center of the triangle formed by the scarecrows, was a slight mound in the dirt. Easy to miss if you weren’t looking for it.

I kicked the dust around for a minute and saw a rope connected to a wooden hatch. I pulled it open, revealing a passage and a ladder anchored into stone walls. I realized it had been a well at one point. I jogged back to the house and grabbed a flashlight. It was getting dark and I knew it’d be pitch black down there.

I took care in climbing down the steps and reached the bottom after about 10 feet. Shallower than I thought. There was a narrow, low hallway with a dirt ceiling covered in the veiny stalactites of roots from the plants above. I stooped down and walked forward, brushing the roots out of my face and trying to put out of my mind the thought of spiders as their webs stuck to my face.

My flashlight beam illuminated another wooden door with a rope handle. I reached out, grabbed, the handle, and pulled. It was stuck. I aimed the flashlight around the door and noticed a metal rod sticking out of the wall, blocking the door from opening. I yanked the rod out of the wall and tried the door again. It opened easily.

The flashlight showed a small room, about five feet by five feet. At first, I thought it was empty. When I stepped inside, however, there was something against the wall next to the doorway. It took me a minute to figure out what it was in the dim light of the flashlight, but when I finally understood what I was looking at, I gasped. The thing began to move.

I stifled a scream as a creature the size of a man stood and stared at me; its veiny, whitish-orange skin covered in dust. It moaned.

I made a move to run, but the thing blocked my path. Now, I did scream. I tried to strike it with my flashlight, but I was dealt a heavy blow that sent me reeling. The last thing I saw before I lost consciousness was the thing walking out the door and down the root-choked corridor.

My blackout lasted the entire night. When I came to, I rolled around in pain and confusion. I was seeing double and was unbearably dizzy. I knew I had to have a concussion, but for the first couple minutes, I couldn’t remember why. When it all came flooding back, a spell of panic pushed my dizziness aside and I ran out of the room, climbed out of the chamber, and hauled myself into the daylight.

The farm was filled with police and emergency vehicles. One of the officers saw me staggering toward them and called out to his partner. They approached me just in time for me to collapse into their arms.

I woke up in the hospital some time later. I was indeed concussed and my skull was home to a fracture that could’ve killed me. There was commotion outside the door and I pressed the button near the bed to alert a nurse. When one finally came, she looked haggard and upset. I asked what was going on, dismayed by the slur I heard in my speech.

She sat on my bed, and without breaking eye contact, told me what had happened and why the hospital was full. I didn’t believe her, so she turned on the local news. The anchor was talking about the deaths in our town. The dead trick-or-treaters. The dead parents who’d tried to protect them. The dead police officers who’d tried to intervene.

The view changed to a charred and fractured area in the middle of Main Street. It looked like a bomb had gone off. The nurse turned off the TV.

The nurse said no one knew how any of it happened and some people were even doubting what they’d seen less than 24 hours ago. It was too surreal. A man-shaped creature with skin like a pumpkin screaming “where is my father?,” while devastating any person it came near. But the evidence was there. Especially in the victims. The dead were lucky. The living, though, were traumatized beyond comprehension.

While I thought my injury was bad, as more details of the event were relayed, I felt a wave of relief wash over me. But it was short-lived. Before she left to assist another patient, the nurse said one thing under her breath. It was quiet and almost sounded like she didn’t want to say it, but felt compelled to. I didn’t get all of it, but what I heard was enough.

“…shattered hips and jaws and orifices stuffed with pumpkin seeds.”

More.
Unsettling Stories is on Facebook.

 

The Episode of Nickelodeon’s “Double Dare” That Never Aired in the United States

dd

There’s an interesting history behind satellite dishes and satellite broadcasting in the early 1990s. Some broadcasters intentionally scrambled their signals to prevent unauthorized reception by viewers who didn’t pay to receive them. Others, though, after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the explosion of satellite dish use across the former Eastern Bloc, saw a great opportunity to reach a new audience. Whether or not they’d admit it today, Nickelodeon was one of the opportunistic broadcasters.

Viacom, Nickelodeon’s parent company, committed millions of dollars to research and develop better broadcasting technologies to saturate the new markets with children’s programming, hoping those kids would grow up and have a subconscious loyalty to the Nickelodeon brand and various programs. What this meant was the launch of new, highly experimental satellites and ground-based satellite dishes.

The hardware deployment was completed in December of 1991 – two weeks before the collapse of the Soviet Union. In September of 1992, the first and only broadcast using the new technology was conducted. On October 9th, 1992, the new broadcasting technology was made illegal in the United States.

I was a Viacom engineer working for Nickelodeon in September of 1992. I was excited about the new satellite capabilities – just like any tech nerd would’ve been. I remember the first time our crew read the signal power specifications and the range of EM bands the technology would exploit. Bill Jaynes, the guy working with me at the time, remarked, “what the fuck is this, Star Trek?” I didn’t even laugh – I just said something like, “yeah, seriously.” The stuff we’d be using seemed decades ahead of anything we’d ever seen.

Of course, like any technology, there were a lot of bugs to work out. Test receivers on Viacom-chartered ships thousands of miles out at sea were getting burned out by the signals coming down from the new satellite. To make matters worse, if the signal did make it to the receivers without damaging them, the video quality was poor. Blurring, static, and dropped frames interlaced with noise plagued the testing period before we could get a handle on them. Still, the picture wasn’t as good as we’d hoped. New cameras using some bizarre optical trick seemed to help get the test pattern to appear much more clearly, though. Not perfect, but good enough.

Once we received the new cameras, Engineering Central over at Viacom’s technology headquarters gave my crew at Nickelodeon Studios the go-ahead to start broadcasting with the new tech on September 22, 1992. It was going to be of a live, unedited taping of Double Dare. The Viacom brass figured a live taping was as good as a pre-recorded one; new viewers in Eastern Europe and Russia would get a chance to see Marc Summers’ personality and other behind-the-scenes things that marketing research claimed they’d be interested in.

We began the broadcast at 11:00am Pacific Time. Things were going well. There were a lot of dropped frames early on, but things smoothed out. Interestingly, one of Viacom’s sources in Bulgaria and one in Latvia said not only were there no reports of burned out dishes, but the signal strength was so high it bled into neighboring EM bands, forcing the Double Dare broadcast onto multiple channels on either side of the main one. At the start of the broadcast, it was estimated 60% of people with satellite dishes in Eastern Europe and Russia were tuned into Double Dare.

The show was nearing its end and the winner was announced. Now, this particular iteration of the show was Family Double Dare, so Marc Summers, the mother, the father, and their two sons were waiting for the prize to be unveiled. I knew it was going to be a car. It was always a car.

The studio lights dimmed, and the moment the car was unveiled, the multicolored strobe light effect was turned on. There was a flash of heat, a brief scream from one of the family members, and Marc Summers was standing alone next to the car. In the headphones, I heard panicked shouting from Engineering Central. There were lots of voices and a ton of background noise, but one clear voice came through, “TURN IT OFF!”

I had the crew kill the cameras and I cut the broadcast feed. Marc Summers looked at me and my crew, turned around, and headed toward his dressing room.

Lots of things happened at Viacom and Nickelodeon after that. Reports began trickling in from Eastern Europe about a devastating and inexplicable accident involving people with “illegal” satellite dish connections. Corporate circulated an internal briefing. I wasn’t supposed to see it, but I knew a guy over there who shared it with me. The report included photographs. 20 years of therapy have done little to erase what those pictures contained.

The moment the lights strobed, they triggered something in the the experimental optics in the cameras. Whatever that something was, the organic matter in front of the cameras flashed out of that point in space. We’ve never been able to figure out why or how it happened. Nor were we able to figure out why the four family members reappeared in each and every location the broadcast was received. Four people, copied tens of thousands of times, were beamed across the world.

But the worst part was how they came out. Once the family signal reached the dishes and came through the televisions connected to them, the merged with every single living thing that had their eyes focused on the screen; one cluster of four family members occupying the space of each viewer’s eye.

Those were the photographs I saw. And there were hundreds of them. Not just in Eastern Europe, either – but friends of mine from the control rooms at Viacom and Nickelodeon.

Viacom spent billions of dollars to keep this quiet. The Eastern European governments, desperate for cash to aid in their independence, agreed to bury the incident after receiving cargo planes full of cash. All the Viacom and Nickelodeon employees who witnessed or were associated with victims received large settlements to shut them up. We then had to sign something promising we’d never talk.

I signed it.

The thing is, I’m not going to be around much longer. Cancer’s got me pretty good. Viacom will come after me, but I’ve got nothing they can take away that hasn’t already been claimed by what’s eating me away. But I’m not telling you this because of what happened in 1992. What’s done is done – there’s nothing that can change it.

Here’s why I’m telling you this; it’s the one thing that’s been bothering me all these years: Marc Summers.

Summers was directly in the shot with the family when they disappeared. He didn’t go anywhere, though. He was perfectly fine. Just walked away.

I did my best to not let it bother me, and for a while, it just stuck with me as one of those “weird things.” Last weekend, though, when an orderly was helping me off the elevator and out of the hospital, I saw Marc Summers walking by. Everything flooded back at once, so I stopped him and asked, “Marc, so what really happened on that day in 1992? Pretty weird that you weren’t affected, huh?”

Marc just looked at me for a minute before a smirk appeared in the corner of his mouth.

“Not that weird, actually,” he replied. His left eye drooped and I saw lights and what appeared to be fiber optic cable tangled inside his skull.

“Not that weird at all.”

More.
Unsettling Stories is on Facebook.

I Dream of Names and Cancer

cancer-cell

When I was four, I killed my first ant. It didn’t have a name. Of that, I was absolutely certain.

My own name isn’t important to you right now, although it’s likely you’ll learn some version of it soon. I think you’ll end up learning a lot about me in the coming days; some will be true, most will be false. There is a crucial element that will be missed, simply because it’s unknowable to anyone else. Anyone but me.

But I’m going to share it with you.

At the age of 19, as a soldier, I killed my first person. He had a name. Of that, too, I was absolutely certain. And he changed me.

My act of violence led me to learn who he was and what he meant to others. And, at the same time, I learned something essential about myself. Something I was unprepared for. I recoiled in profound, uncomprehending terror.

Today, I work in a hospice. No one there knows what I’ve done. No one there knows who I really am. They think I’m there to work, which is technically true. But I have more tasks than those given to me by supervisors. One particular task – one I’ve prepared for and dreamed about – is to be done today.

Today is when I learn whether or not I’m going to die.

Today is my 522nd birthday. Believe it, don’t believe it; it doesn’t matter to me. When I killed my first person the age of 19, I did more than take his life. I assumed parts of him. He was a left-handed blacksmith’s apprentice named Pierre Gaultier. The moment he breathed his final breath, my left hand lost its sinister clumsiness. I instantaneously understood the basics of metalworking. And I learned his name. I felt his name. It was as familiar to me as my own.

It was the most horrifying moment of my life. The most disorienting. And that night, using my newly dextrous left hand, I tried to cut my own throat. The blade passed over my skin as if it were iron. I later hanged myself from a beam in an abandoned abbey, only to dangle uselessly for three days before I was found and cut down by a local derelict. I begged him to help me take my life, but I didn’t have enough money to make it worth his while. When I killed him in a rage of frightened and confused desperation, I absorbed his alcoholism.

The following centuries were a haze of blood and drink. I’ve absorbed countless talents. Countless traits. Countless vices. But the names – the names aren’t countless. There are 7,339 names inside me now. 7,339 clusters of memories to haunt me.

This all leads to today. For 500 years, I’ve stayed under the radar. I’ve hidden in the shadows and killed and killed and killed, hoping to absorb any knowledge someone might have of another man like me. Another man who shares my curse. But I’m unique. No one is like me. Every open throat and subsequent transfer of name and ability has yielded nothing useful.

Nothing useful, that is, until last month. He was a man called Gustav Brennerson and along with his name, he transferred to me his influenza. It was the first time I’ve ever been sick.

The hospice here has 44 beds. 41 are filled.

41 opportunities.

I dream of names and cancer every night while I’m taunted by the false death of sleep. Tonight, wherever it is I lay my head as it seethes with 41 new names, I pray it seethes with something new. Something malignant. Something terminal. Something that will end these centuries of hideous wandering.

I dream of being eaten alive.

More.
Unsettling Stories is on Facebook.

The Day I Started Believing in Ghosts

ghost

Our family home is famously haunted. By famously, I mean it’s mentioned in the town’s historical records and kids under a certain age won’t ring the doorbell on Halloween. That kind of thing. I’m 24 and I’ve lived here all my life, aside from college. Over the course of those years, I’d never seen anything out of the ordinary. My mom lived here for almost 70, though, and Dad for 50, and they claimed they saw actual ghosts many times. Their parents, too. And so on.

The house was built in 1729. Like most houses nearing their 300th birthdays, it’s had its share of problems. Still does. Obviously, it’s undergone a ton of maintenance over the course of its life, but it was always patch ups rather than overhauls. Therefore, it’s drafty. Everything sags. The electrical system is awful. The plumbing system is even worse. To top it off, all those things make some type of noise: whistling, creaking, humming, groaning, etc. To a superstitious person, it would be easy for them to associate any number of those things with the paranormal. Members of my family, for example, simply think all those natural explanations aren’t good enough.

Unlike most hauntings, the “ghost” we have isn’t a single, recurring entity. The best Mom was able to explain from what she’d seen was this: she’d be doing stuff around the house and something would catch her eye. She’d turn and look, and there’d be the ghostly image of someone who used to live in the house. Sometimes she knew who it was, sometimes she didn’t. They’d be going about their daily routines, entirely oblivious to the fact Mom was watching. One time when Mom was getting out of the shower, she saw the ghost of her grandfather sitting on the toilet, reading the newspaper, while her grandmother brushed her teeth. The moment she yelped with surprise, they disappeared.

I was home during my summer break after my first year in college when Dad died. It was as devastating to Mom and me as anyone would expect. After I returned to school, I started getting emails from Mom talking about how she’d seen Dad around the house. All the sightings were in line with the kind of thing she’d told me about in the past, but I started to worry about the frequency of the reports from her. She was claiming to see him a couple times a week. Before his death, they’d only seen previous residents of the house once every few years. To make matters worse, it seemed like he was scaring her.

Over Christmas break, I convinced her to see a therapist. She began having weekly sessions, which did very little to help with her stress. Her sightings of Dad occurred as frequently as ever. This went on for years.

Following graduation, I moved back home. I got a job at a local accounting firm and started paying off my student loans. Living rent free with Mom was going to make that process go by much faster. I had another reason for living there, too. Mom’s health was in decline. She’d get sick often and spent most of her time wandering aimlessly around the house or sitting in Dad’s old recliner, watching television. I worried about her being alone, so when I wasn’t at work, I made it a point to stay at home. I figured it was the least I could do.

That said, I didn’t want to spend all my time sitting around. I figured since I’d be inheriting the house at some point, I could get some work done to make it feel a little less, well, ancient. There was plenty of old stuff in rooms no one visited that could be brought up to the attic and potentially sold, so I took my time after work and on weekends to deal with it. I hauled lamps and record players and shoeboxes filled with knickknacks up the narrow steps.

Ever since I was old enough to climb the stairs to reach the attic, I’d hated it. It was always hot and stuffy and incredibly dusty, and now that I was filling it with more and more junk, the stuffiness only intensified. I’d been claustrophobic for as long as I could remember. No one else in the family suffered from it, so it appeared to be my own special cross to bear. I did my best to ignore it during my frequent trips up there to drop stuff off, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t go as fast as I could to get back down those steps to the cool and spacious second floor.

On the morning of Mom’s 70th birthday, I got up early to make her breakfast in bed. French toast, fried eggs, and spicy sausage. I tiptoed up the stairs with the tray, carefully opened the door, and walked in. She was staring at the ceiling with a look of terror on her face. Her breathing was labored. I left the tray on the dresser and rushed over, asking her what was wrong.

She didn’t answer. Her wide eyes locked on mine. I reached in my pocket for my phone to call 911, but she grabbed my arm in a grip tighter than I thought her frail body could produce.

“Jeanette, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. Please.”

I had no idea what she was talking about. I stretched my other arm to get my phone from my jeans pocket, but Mom grabbed that one, too. I struggled to get loose while asking over and over what happened and what was wrong. She just kept talking over me.

“We needed money. He made me, Jeanette.”

The grip on my arms loosened and Mom’s labored breathing slowed. Then stopped. I finally dialled 911, but it was too late. I checked her pulse. Nothing. I performed what I knew was a useless attempt at CPR. I stared at her and cried until the ambulance arrived.

I went through the funeral preparations, service, and burial in a fog of misery and confusion. Months went by, and while my mourning period had tapered off, what Mom told me as she died hung like a low cloud over my day-to-day activities. Even though I’d started therapy to help cope with everything I was dealing with, those few sentences plagued me. I’d sit in the house alone while the words danced in my head. I realized I had to move away. I had to sell the house and go away if I wanted to get the closure I so desperately needed.

All the stuff I’d brought to the attic needed to go. When Mom was alive, I kept it because I thought we could have a tag sale at some point and she could tell me what to sell and what should be kept for sentimental purposes. Nothing had sentiment anymore. It all had to go. I rented a dumpster, had it delivered to the front yard, and I got to work bringing it all down.

It was an unbearably-hot August. The attic must have been 120 degrees and the process of moving all the junk was kicking up a lot of the dust. I cursed myself for not having a mask or anything, but I was on autopilot to get it all down and out as quickly as possible. I ignored my claustrophobia as best as I could, and in the space of three days, got the vast majority of the stuff from the attic into the dumpster.

Around noon on the fourth day, sweat was pouring down my dusty, filthy body as I worked to take the last few boxes out. I’d gotten into old stuff that’d been there for as long as I could remember. Lots of Dad’s winter clothes and high school yearbooks and stuff. It was by far the dustiest part of the attic. My chest burned and clumps of fuzz floated through the air like volcanic ash. I became acutely aware of my breathing and started to feel dizzy. I felt consumed by the dry heat and could swear the room was getting smaller as I stumbled toward the last of the boxes.

I lost my footing and fell face-first into a pile of boxes in the corner. They crashed to the floor and one split open, spilling its contents. My head hit the ground and I gasped, gulping dust into my throat. I coughed and hacked up gobs of dust-loaded snot. The walls felt like they were squeezing my shoulders and I felt the ceiling, despite being six feet above my head, pushing me into the dusty floor.

Something flashed in the corner of my eye. I whirled around, the thick string of saliva hanging from my lips whipping around and slapping the side of my face. The ghostly figure of a woman stood in the middle of the room with a camcorder on her shoulder. It looked like she was crying. I shrieked and scrambled like a crab to get away.

The figure didn’t respond to my noise and movements. It just kept sobbing and pointing the camcorder. I realized it was my young mother. While the walls and ceiling spun ever closer to me and dust furred my tongue and the back of my throat, I turned around and looked in the direction the camera was recording.

My young father was lying on his belly on the filthy floor. Pinned underneath him, open-mouthed, struggling with all her might, and gasping in lungful after lungful of dust, was a girl no older than four. I blinked three times in rapid succession as disbelief, horror, and revulsion swept through me. The images disappeared. In their place were the contents of the box that had split open. VHS tapes and a broken camcorder.

More.
Unsettling Stories is on Facebook.

Recycling

When Danielle was growing up, Ron and I knew she was plagued by depression. It was the same demon both my husband and I had to face daily, so we had no trouble recognizing the signs. As her condition worsened, she wouldn’t bother hiding the cuts on her arms. Once she graduated high school, we couldn’t force her to see a psychologist or get any type of positive intervention. She just sat in her room with the door closed and ate no more than five meals a week. If she ever went out, it was long after her father and I had gone to bed.

She’d been picked up by the police a number of times for trespassing in graveyards or standing on the rooftops of local businesses. She never stood close enough to the edge to make the police think it was a suicide attempt, though, so she wasn’t held for psychological observation. They chalked it up to her being a rebellious kid and sent her home.

Danielle’s behavior took a significant toll on the relationship between Ron and me. Like I said, we both knew depression. We also dealt with its manifestations in different ways. I was a yeller and a crier, Ron was taciturn and brooding. But I knew his silence could be broken by occasional fits of rage.

One night, Danielle was brought home by the police for the third time in as many months. After the officer left, I began screaming at Danielle for being so reckless. She stared at me, muttering obscenities under her breath like she usually did in those situations. Ron, who’d been observing and glowering as I shouted, strode across the room and slapped Danielle across her face. Hard. She fell sideways, her head denting the sheetrock of the wall beside her. She lept to her feet but he hit her again. That time, she stayed down. As I rushed over to see if she was okay, Ron stormed out of the house.

Aside from a nasty handprint on the side of her face, Danielle was fine. Once she’d gotten over the shock of being struck, she bolted out of the kitchen, up the stairs, and slammed the door of her bedroom. Neither of us saw her for a couple days after that, but we heard her walking around. She didn’t leave at night, either; Ron stayed up to make sure of that. As much as I hated him for striking her, I hated myself even more for hoping he’d actually knocked some sense into her.

A year passed. I drifted away from Ron and he drifted away from me. We were strangers in the cavernous wreckage of the home we’d built together. I wouldn’t sleep in the same room as him, so he slept in the basement. I moved all my paints and canvases upstairs so I’d never have to see his face. That July, Danielle tried to kill herself. Had she not puked up the pills and wine before the paramedics arrived, she would’ve been dead. She was hospitalized until September. When she was released, she was no different. No better. And she returned to a home where resentfulness had undergone unchecked growth since she left.

On her 19th birthday, Danielle disappeared. We figured it was another one of her rooftop or graveyard romps, but she didn’t come back. After four days, we called the police. Two days later, they found her car on the side of a wooded road 20 miles away. Three days after that, they told us they’d found an empty bottle of pills and backpack in the woods, torn to shreds and covered with blood. We identified the pack as the one we got for Danielle a couple years earlier. 12 days after finding the backpack, the police called off the search. We were told if she’d attempted suicide and gotten dragged off by wolves or a bear, her remains might never be found. And they weren’t. We buried an empty coffin a week later.

Months went by. Ron lost his job not long after the funeral because he just wouldn’t show up to work anymore. I still had mine, and my salary was more than enough for the both of us. Still, I despised myself for continuing to support the man. I spent more and more time in the office, desperately trying to avoid going home. The few coworkers who knew about everything that was going on tried to get me to leave him. I always refused. He was the man I married. Things had to get better someday.

I came home from work on a Friday evening in early October. As always, I made my way to the kitchen to start dinner for myself and Ron. He knew to come get his food after he heard me going up the stairs to eat in my bedroom, so I was surprised to hear his footsteps as I diced onions, carrots, and celery for the stew. I bristled with anger and wouldn’t turn around. I didn’t want to see him before I ate.

“Danielle and I have a surprise for you,” he announced. Just hearing the name of my daughter made me wince. I turned around with a grimace etched into my face, ready to scream at him for invoking her memory. The grimace turned into a look of desperate, uncomprehending horror.

Standing next to Ron was Danielle – bound by the wrists and gagged. Her spindly arms and gaunt face had horrible, scarred ligature marks from the constant friction of the rope holding the bindings in place. Her hair had grown down to her naked, bloody thighs. In my delirious state of shock, I’d failed to notice the little bundle in my husband’s arms. He unwrapped a small towel from around it and presented it to me. My knees weakened and the room around me desaturated and blurred. I reached out and instinctively clutched the infant to my chest as it began to scream.

“I was hoping we could start over,” Ron whispered, tears filling his eyes. He pulled Danielle and me and the baby into an embrace. “Can we start over? Please?”

More.
Unsettling Stories is on Facebook.

This is why I will NEVER wear a condom again!

con

Show of hands: who actually likes wearing condoms? Exactly. They’re the worst. They’re uncomfortable, they destroy all feeling, and if you actually manage to complete the act without deflating like one of Tom Brady’s footballs, you have to waddle over to the bathroom to throw the thing away while it hangs off you like an eating-disordered grub. But you know what? We still wear them. Because we’re civilized people.

Here’s the thing: fuck being civilized. I’m never wearing one of those latex pieces of shit for as long as I live. As if everything I said above wasn’t enough, I had to deal with what happened last night. God knows if I’ll ever be able to have sex again.

I’d only been on one date with Aimee before yesterday, but it was obvious there was a lot of chemistry between us. So, after we had dinner last night, things went their natural way. That’s a nice way of saying we were grunting and sweating all over one another in the cab on the way back to my apartment. I tipped the driver extra.

We made it back to my place and continued the various biological manipulations we’d started in the taxi. Added bonus to being at home: less clothing. Anyway, things progressed as we’d both anticipated, and a little while later, she was asking me to get a condom. Who was I to deny the lovely woman what she’d asked? I reached over and grabbed one from the nightstand. Aimee took it from me and tore off the wrapper. She looked like she was considering the options for a moment, then she leaned over and put the condom back on the nightstand and did something else to me for a little while. Something quite nice, I might add.

About nine seconds later, I had her stop. I knew the date would end pretty damn early if I let her continue. Aimee obliged, then she repositioned herself to the edge of the bed. Even I could figure out what that meant. I got up, grabbed the condom from the nightstand, rolled the thing over my stupid dick, and we went to work. This time, it was for about four seconds.

In that fourth second, something pinched the tip of my penis. Hard. I withdrew faster than the Republican Guard after the fall of Baghdad. I yelped as I pulled out. I heard Aimee mutter, “oh my fucking God, really?” I wasn’t particularly concerned with her annoyance, though. There was an intensely sharp pain directly at the entrance to my urethra. Something hard was inside the condom, no pun intended, and, I realized with growing horror, it was moving. My yelps turned into a sustained shriek as I peeled the condom off while pinching the tip and feeling something wriggling under my fingertips.

Whatever I was pinching crunched between my thumb and forefinger. Once I’d been freed from the condom, I saw what it was: one of the house centipedes the apartment would get whenever it rained outside. Do you know what house centipedes are? They’re these things. And there was one up my dick. And I’d broken it in half. The other piece, which still moved, was lodged firmly inside my urethra. I screamed and screamed and when Aimee turned around and saw what the commotion was, she made a sound I was certain would wake up the entire apartment complex.

I pinched the halved insect and tried to pull it out of me. Again, its crunchy body broke off in my fingers. I wanted to die. The piece that was still stuck in me – the piece that was STILL MOVING – was getting further inside my penis the longer I stood there.

And then something happened. It’s something I never expected and it’s something I still don’t believe could ever occur in real life. But it did. And the world has to know. Still, before I mention it, I need to say that the ordeal ended about 15 seconds later. Aimee left and I went to the hospital to get checked out. The nurses laughed and the doctors looked disapprovingly at the nurses before turning around and shaking with laughter themselves. I was given a clean bill of health and told to make sure nothing crawls into my condom the next time I have sex. It was nice of them to give their medical opinion.

The part I left out, though, was when Aimee demonstrated the true nature of her character. Even though I never expect to see her again, I will be forever in love with that woman. It’s because in a time of great stress – in a time when a man is suffering and there’s only the act of a great person that can save him – someone will step up and do what needs to be done. Aimee was that person last night.

In the throes of my misery and pain as I flailed with terror and confusion to get the remaining fraction of the centipede out of my dick, Aimee put her hands on my shoulders. She stared at me; the light of Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives from the television casting an angelic glow on her dark skin. Then she uttered words that will both haunt and enrich my memories for the remaining years of my life:

“Stop moving around so much.” She let out a long sigh of abject resignation.

“I can probably suck it out.”

More.
Unsettling Stories is on Facebook.

Allison’s Loss

bridge

I am a nurse at the elementary school where my daughter, Allison, was a student. The route to school would take us over a wide river which bisects the town. By necessity, we must use one of two bridges. The main bridge is part of the highway, while the other is a smaller, narrower one for local traffic. We used to take the highway, but constant construction had narrowed the lanes by quite a bit which resulted in awful backups. The timetable for completion was another couple years, so we were stuck taking the local one until that whole mess got taken care of.

Allison was terrified of that bridge. The guardrails are quite low; maybe three feet. Also, there’s no physical divider between the inbound and outbound lanes. Years ago, there was a terrible accident involving a drunk driver who crossed into the other lane, struck another vehicle, and sent them both careening into the river below. Five people died – one of whom was May Dougherty – Allie’s best friend.

There was a bit of an uproar when the bridge was repaired and no new safety measures were implemented. The cost for upgrades, we were told, was simply too high for the town to bear. We were assured the bridge was safe and the accident, while tragic, didn’t indicate an inherent problem with that particular crossing. Basically, we were told to suck it up and take the highway if we didn’t like it.

Following the death of May, Allie changed. Her bubbly, outgoing attitude became sullen and brooding. We did everything we could to help her cope with the devastating loss, but little was accomplished. Her therapist said it would take time. We’d have to be patient and allow Allie to grieve on her own terms. Even Allie’s habit of talking to May over the course of the day was to be seen as a coping mechanism; a child’s way of saying goodbye.

Allie resumed school soon after her May’s funeral, and that was when the trouble started. To drive over that bridge with Allie in the car was to learn what it is like to be a torturer. My heart would break as she sobbed and pleaded with me not to take the bridge. If we were stopped at the light before the crossing, she’d fumble with the door handle and try to get out, only to be stopped by the safety locks. Each day she’d arrive at school a red-eyed, dishevelled mess. No one, especially an innocent and kind nine-year old, should have to start their days like that.

My indignation and dismay didn’t change anything. Those rides to school were some of the worst moments of my life. Allie would sob in the backseat and call out to May, begging her to come back and keep the bridge safe for us and everyone else. When we’d reach the other side, Allie would weep and mumble to May about what was going on at school and how everyone else in their class missed her. The only saving grace was that we could take the highway bridge on the way home; traffic was usually light at that time. I couldn’t imagine having to subject Allie to the local bridge more than once a day. I doubt she’d ever get anything done at school if she had that to look forward to when she left.

On March 12th, 2014, Allie came to the breakfast table with a smile on her face. I almost dropped my coffee mug when I saw her; it was as if the daughter I’d lost had finally come home. She was chipper and talkative. She mentioned a spelling test her class was going to have and how her teacher promised a cupcake to the student with the highest grade. Her friend, Christina, was the best speller in the class and Allie was so excited for her to win the cupcake.

Allie talked and talked while she ate her eggs and I got ready for work. I could scarcely believe the improvement she was exhibiting. We finished up our morning routines and got in the car. Allie always insisted on sitting in the back after May’s accident, but that day she got up front with me. We pulled out of the driveway and headed for the school.

There were no signs of concern on Allie’s face as we got closer to the bridge. She chatted with me most of the time, but began informing May about the spelling test/cupcake event that she’d told me earlier. May had also been close with Christina, so apparently it was very important that Allie fill her in on their friend’s impending good fortune.

We stopped at the light at the intersection ahead of the bridge. The light turned green and I drove forward, waiting for Allie to realize where we were and start crying. The opposite happened. She began to giggle – the gleeful, musical sound I’d missed so much. As she laughed, she talked to May.

“May, look how blue the water is! I’m so glad it’s almost Spring and it feels a lot warmer now, doesn’t it? I bet the water’s still cold though. Is it cold? Does it bother you?”

I glanced over at Allie and saw her staring at the water on the other side of the guardrail. She kept talking.

“I don’t mind the cold too much as long as there’s no ice but I don’t see any ice. There’s no ice right?”

“No, there’s no ice.”

The reply came from the backseat. I whipped my head around and saw a figure in the seat behind Allie. It was gray and dripping, with a hideous indentation in its skull and a Y-incision in its chest. Green-blonde hair cascaded over its bruised, bony shoulders. May.

I gasped and turned back toward the road only to see a car stopped dead in front of me. I slammed on the brakes and swerved. Our car hit the guardrail and the vehicle in front of us, pushing the front of our car up onto the rail. Allie was still smiling, apparently unhurt, and whatever I’d seen in the back seat was gone. I reached out for Allie to make sure she was okay, but an impossibly powerful jolt slammed through the car as another vehicle hit us from behind at full speed.

The jarring sensation of the collision was replaced by a sickening, slow lurch as our position shifted from being half on the guardrail, half on the low sports car that’d been in front of us, to a gradual, helpless topple over the rail into a freefall. I couldn’t scream. I saw the water below rushing toward the windshield in a surreal, sunlit haze, and the moment before we hit the river, I glanced sideways at Allie.

Her eyes were closed and a smile was etched across her face. Nothing but the impossibility of the situation registered with me, so when I saw a gray hand reaching from the backseat and unlocking my daughter’s seat belt, I felt little more than acknowledgement.

Then we impacted. I felt my collar bone splinter behind my seat belt. Pain and shock blinked white in my vision and the breath was torn from my lungs. The car righted itself in the water and began to sink.

Allie was embedded up to her neck in the windshield and was dangling over the dashboard and the useless, flaccid airbag. A pile of skin and hair had been pushed down to her shoulders and the water rushing in around her was tinged with red. I have no words for what I felt upon seeing her like that.

I struggled to get out of the sinking car but knew I’d have to wait for it to fill before I could open the door. I wasn’t strong enough to break the window and my shattered collarbone made it impossible to try. We sank.

The car hit the river bottom right when it had filled enough to let me open the door. I gulped in the last bit of air, unlocked my seat belt, and swam out and around to Allie’s side. The devastation to her face and head, despite being blurred by the water, still haunts me to this day. When I reached her side and tried opening the locked door, I knew there was no way I could go back around, unlock it, and try to extricate her. My lungs burned. I felt hot tears leaking out of my eyes and I began to swim up, knowing if I didn’t move fast I’d succumb to hypothermia and die with my daughter. Part of me wished I had the courage to do so.

As I swam, I stared down at the wreck. Then I saw something that made me stop kicking. Another person was standing next to the car. I could see greenish-blonde hair floating in a cloud around her gray head. It was May. She wrenched open the door and with one powerful pull, removed Allie from the windshield. Blood bloomed from her head like the spores of a decapitated mushroom.

The girls looked up. My vision blurred and my feet automatically started kicking again as my body fought to bring me to the surface. I kept watching. My head breached a moment later, but not before I saw the something; something I’ve told my husband, my doctors, my minister, and everyone else who might listen: May and Allie joined hands and began to walk across the muddy bottom of the river in the direction of the lake it fed into. While they walked, Allie turned around to face me, and with her skull grinning, waved goodbye.

More.
Unsettling Stories is on Facebook.

 

The Blissful Insensate

zmachine

There’s a reason we don’t know about the things sharing the same space we do. The most obvious one is we can’t see them. Nor can we hear, smell, touch, or taste them. But they exist. They float in and through us; in and through each other. Space, to them, is an infinite series of fields in what we’d consider single positions. If it sounds like nonsense, then you’re showing you can think. You’re showing you have an epistemology based in logic and reason. The problem for us, a group of great thinkers by anyone’s standards, was it meant we were utterly unprepared.

I worked at the Sandia National Laboratories on a project called the Z-Machine. We made the news back in 2006 when we were able to produce the highest temperature ever detected, at around 6.6 billion degrees Fahrenheit. Since then, the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland has produced a higher temperature and gleaned loads more information than we were able to. That didn’t mean we decommissioned our Z-Machine and terminated the associated research. Far from it.

After 2006, we began to implement a series of upgrades to our power and containment infrastructure. The goal was to leapfrog the LHC temperature record and reach one quadrillion degrees Fahrenheit; a number nearly every scientist on the team believed would be unattainable for at least another 50 years. New computational models combined with advances in materials science and capacitor discharge timing, however, caused them to reconsider their doubts. Under a cover of secrecy, we continued our upgrades – and in late August of 2016, we were ready to test.

I should give a little background before continuing. In the interest of full disclosure, I need to tell you a little something about myself: I was born blind. I endured my share of hardships, which, when compared to some less-privileged children, were paltry, but still unpleasant. Despite my disability, my love of learning was obvious. It became clear fairly early in my life that I was unusually good at mathematics, and thanks to the resources of my parents and a few generous people in my school, I was allowed to continually test and hone my mathematical abilities over the course of my educational career. I ended up at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and, eventually, at the Sandia National Laboratories. Whether or not this will help lend credence to my story is entirely up to the reader, but I think it is important to include.

Now, at the end of this past August, the days leading up to the test were fraught with difficulty. Small parts were breaking down, simple things that’d worked perfectly for the last test were failing in the models, and our capacitor banks kept refusing to synchronize. Some of us were reminded of the hardships prior to the first test of the LHC, when conspiracy theorists were claiming visitors from the future were sabotaging the components to prevent a catastrophe from occurring when the machine was activated.

Thankfully for our project and the stress levels of the engineers and physicists I worked with, the problems were ironed out. On August 29th, Dr. Wang Lin and Dr. Alasdair Greenberg were alongside me in the control room as countless people in all branches of the military and scientific establishment watched remotely.

We’d begun charging the capacitors a few hours prior to the test. Our onsite nuclear plant was chugging along and providing the power we needed, despite redlining once or twice as the capacitors absorbed every electron they were fed. I felt out the various readouts on my braille terminal and listened for any audio cues that were programmed to indicate any anomalies. There were none. We were ready to test.

At 11:10am, we started the countdown. The smell of ozone from all the nearby electricity was pervasive and mildly intoxicating. Dr. Lin’s voice was steady and tinged with controlled excitement as he read the last numbers: 4…3…2…1.

I heard a loud, clapping sound as the power was shunted from the capacitors into Marx generators, followed by a pop as the generators fed the Z-Machine. The test was over. All we needed to do was wait for the flood of data.

Before any data could pour in, though, I heard some commotion behind me. Drs. Lin and Greenberg were talking, but not to one another nor anyone observing remotely. It was as if they were talking to themselves, under their breath, but not in words I could understand. Then Dr. Lin said, “hello there,” as if speaking to a cat or other small animal. Similarly, Dr. Greenberg muttered, “what in the world are you, little guy?”

I asked them who they were talking to, but they wouldn’t reply. I felt some pressure in my chest and against my skin that reminded me of blankets rich with static electricity were being pressed and rubbed all over me.

“What are all these things?,” asked Dr. Greenberg. Someone viewing remotely asked him to clarify; they weren’t seeing anything on the monitors.

“Jerry,” said Dr. Lin, speaking to me, “do you feel them?”

“Feel who?,” I asked. “Feel what?”

“They’re all over us,” Dr. Greenberg told me. “Floating in and out and around like little squid or jellyfish.”

“What the hell is that?,” Dr. Lin asked.

“Jesus, what is…,” started Dr. Greenberg.

The two doctors gasped and shouted. I felt them pushing up against the control panel next to me, which was the furthest spot from the observation deck overlooking the Z-Machine.

“Guys, what’s going on?” I felt moderate fear starting to nibble at my spine, growing in severity as the doctors refused to answer me and only kept gasping and shouting.

I clicked my headset over to the observation channel and tried to get one of the remote parties to fill me in on what was happening. They were equally in the dark and wanted me to tell them what was wrong with the doctors. Other members of the labs were banging on the door of our control room, trying to get it open. It was locked.

“It’s huge…,” choked out Dr. Greenberg.

“Why is it here?,” whispered Dr. Lin. He was sobbing.

“I can’t look at it anymore,” Dr. Greenberg announced, matter-of-factly.

I heard something metallic, then the sound of Dr. Greenberg screaming. “I can feel it in my head – I can taste it – it’s in every part of me.”

Dr. Lin called out, “let me help you.” There were wet noises mixed in with the pounding on the door and the commotion on the radio as the remote observers saw what the doctors were doing in the control room.

All I could focus on was the feeling of static and pressure on my skin. It was suffocating and terrible, like those blankets were sliding in and out of my lungs and mouth and leaving little arcs of electricity with every move.

I heard the door slam open and the feeling dissipated. I sat slumped in my chair, trying to catch my breath, as security and other scientists rushed into the control room.

“What the fuck is going on?,” I yelled, and felt someone pushing me and my chair out of the room, down the long hallway, and into another lab.

And that was it.

I was sedated against my will and woke up in the hospital three days later. I was forced to sign documents making me promise, under penalty of treason, that I wouldn’t divulge what happened during that test. But I didn’t know what happened. I still don’t. Regardless, I need to tell you that something happened. Something monstrous.

As I waited in the hospital, a friend of mine from the labs, Dr. Marie Lenzetti, sat with me and said what happened to Drs. Lin and Greenberg. Both were dead. Dr. Lin had killed Dr. Greenberg and inflicted terrible injuries on himself. But Dr. Lin spoke to the other scientists before he died. He told them what it was he saw; what he saw, then as a consequence heard and felt and heard and smelled and tasted. It was something entirely beyond his comprehension; something entirely beyond anything he could have dreamt.

The doctors got a glimpse of what occupied the space we thought was our own. The Z-Machine experiment created conditions that allowed them to see how wrong we were. That moment, he said, lasted an eternity. As soon as its shape registered in his eyes, he experienced it in all his senses. Every sense was dominated. Cutting away Dr. Greenberg’s eyes, tongue, nose, ears, and as much skin as possible was the only act of mercy and relief he could give his friend. And when he was done, he tried to do the same to himself, only to be stopped before he could excise his own tongue and skin. He died of a massive stroke an hour later.

I’m writing this to let you know there are things outside the realm of our senses which pervade everything we do. Everything we are. Things that can prove, and in fact have now proven, that we are not the dominant actors in the space we occupy. The Z-Machine experiment last month showed my friends the atrocious nature of true reality: something too hideous for our senses to endure. I will never consider my blindness to be anything other than a gift for as long as I continue to live.

More.
Unsettling Stories is on Facebook.

The Face in the Clouds

sky

Our observatory received word about a meteorological anomaly in Himachal Pradesh, India. While our satellites didn’t pick up anything out of the ordinary, the frequency and diversity of the reports suggested something was, indeed, amiss. Further, the crowdsourced pictures and video of the area, all taken and sent by cellular phones, were all corrupted beyond recognition. Whatever it was these people were seeing, you had to be there to get a glimpse.

As I was stationed on a military base in Afghanistan and about three hours away by jet, I was chosen to investigate. One quick flight to a local airport and a short helicopter ride later, I was on the ground at the site of the anomaly.

The meteorological disturbance was gone. The sky was clear and the late afternoon sun cast a warm orange glow on the orchards and farms at the foot of the mountains. That glow was the only warmth to be found.

The locals who’d seen the anomaly were uncharacteristically quiet. I’d heard from folks familiar with the area that the people here were normally gregarious and outgoing. These people were the opposite. They were taciturn and skittish. Moreover, they were unwilling to discuss what they’d seen that morning. They spoke about the incident as if it’d been a trauma; more often than not, their eyes teared up when my translator mentioned it.

I did my best to glean any bits of information that I could, but my success rate was low. The most I was able to learn came from a little girl, who, in the course of recalling the incident, burst into tears as she mentioned a face in the clouds. She would give us no more information after that.

The translator and I decided to call it a night and checked into our hotel. It was small but pleasant enough; the meal that was included was sumptuous, albeit a bit spicier than I’d been expecting. As we ate, it was hard not to notice the quietness of the dining room. Despite all eight tables being filled with diners, few words were spoken. Many tears, however, were shed. It felt like a great tragedy had occurred, yet no one was willing to admit what, exactly, had happened.

At my suggestion, the translator was able to eavesdrop on a few commonalities in the brief, quiet conversations going on around us. They all talked about having intense discomfort with having to wait for so long. There were nods of resignation and more tears. Still unable to put anything into a coherent, let alone meteorological, context, we decided it would be best to retire to our room and try again the next day.

Our sleep was taken from us in the early hours of this morning. It was still dark, but there was a buzz of activity in the streets. We left our room and went outside. We recognized people from dinner and from the businesses we’d stopped in the previous day. In the glow of the streetlights, I could see their faces were all wet with tears. They wept and moaned and the translator, with some alarm in his voice, told me they were conducting a slow, disorganized countdown. They had just reached ten seconds.

I stared at the translator for a moment, trying to put it all together, but there just wasn’t enough. Nothing made sense. Then, as the first sliver of sunlight crested the mountains, the screaming started. Women, children, and men, in unison, shrieked with sorrow and pain and desperation and clasped their hands to their eyes. My panic, already growing in my chest, began to bloom as blood trickled down their screaming faces.

As more sunlight filled the street, the intensity of the hideous wailing grew. When it reached a point when voices were beginning to give out and people were falling to their knees, a cloud passed in front of the sun. Every scream was silenced. Faces drenched with tears and blood began to smile. Hands were lowered to sides. Now it was I who shouted. Their eyes were destroyed. It looked as if they had burst. From what, I had no idea.

The translator, who’d been looking at the sky, gasped. I started to turn my gaze in the direction he was looking, but he grabbed my head with great force and pushed it down toward the ground and the faces of the terribly-disfigured people who still smiled with their faces turned skyward.

“Don’t!,” he shouted. He inhaled a lungful of air and exclaimed, “Now I know what they saw!”

The panic and concern in his voice was combined with something else. Something far more disturbing. It was ecstasy.

“Oh my God,” he cried, over and over and over, still holding my head in a vicegrip to prevent me from looking up. I’d lost my desire to do so. In fact, something else had claimed my attention. The gaping holes in the faces of the townsfolk had started projecting strings. Fleshy, red filaments slinked down their faces, but then perked upward and became erect. More and more length poured out and stretched outward and up. I couldn’t see where, but I had a feeling.

“They’re getting to touch him,” whispered the translator. “He is letting them inside.” His voice cracked and his next words were punctuated by sobs. “They’re tasting him with their eyes.”

I scanned the faces of the people in front of me. Their smiles were rapturous and the thin tendrils pulsed and quivered and gently pulled their heads forward.

The sky brightened. All at once, the ropes fell from the sky. They draped over me and the translator and the townsfolk fell on their faces into the street. The sun broke through the clouds. None of the fallen people moved.

The translator released my head and I spun around and looked into the cloudless sky. I directed my gaze down and saw what had to be miles of red, meaty tendrils stretched across the roads and rooftops all the way to the mountain. Finally, I looked at the translator. He was weeping. I asked him to tell me what he saw.

“The face in the clouds,” he told me. “The face that lets eyes taste him.”

He wept for a minute without interruption before speaking up. “There is so much more I wanted to see with my old eyes. So many more sights. But my new eyes will allow to taste so much more than I’ve ever been able to see. All I have to do is wait.”

Flies began to investigate the bodies in the dirt, landing on the gaping eye sockets and extruded filaments. My thoughts wandered to what I should do next. The translator sobbed next to me and began counting down from 85,000. The number of seconds until the next sunrise, I realized. More and more flies descended on the corpses and tasted the townsfolk with their feet. As the translator counted down with breathless anticipation, my fear grew into something monstrous and unexpected: curiosity.

Curiosity and desire.

More.
Unsettling Stories is on Facebook.