Making Faces

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I was torn from my sleep by the sound of my daughter’s screams. I rushed across the hall and saw Jessie standing in front of her bedroom window. When I wrapped my arms around her, I noticed her pajamas were soaked with sweat. The screams tapered off and gasping sobs replaced them; her tiny body heaving as it attempted to take in more air than her lungs would allow.

I picked her up and carried her into my room. We sat on the bed and I held her until she’d calmed enough for me to ask what happened. She shook her head. Hot tears spilled down her cheeks.

“Please, sweetheart – I promise it’s okay. What happened?”

Jessie’s wide, blue eyes stared into mine, still leaking away the memory of whatever trauma she’d endured. She pulled my nightgown, beckoning me to come down to her level so she could whisper something in my ear. I obliged.

“There was a big girl in my window making faces at me.”

I lifted my head again to look at Jessie, still feeling the hot condensation from her breath in my ear.

“A big girl?,” I asked, puzzled. Jessie nodded and wiped her eyes on her sweaty pajamas.

“Come on,” I told her, forcing a smile. “Let’s get you in the tub. I’ll let you use my bath bomb.”

For the first time since the ordeal began, a smile flashed across her face. Finally.

As we waited for the tub to fill, Jessie held me around my waist. Her crying had stopped, but she still trembled. I stroked her hair and told her it was okay, over and over, while wondering what could have possibly scared her so badly. This type of episode was entirely unlike her. Quite the contrary; I’d always walk in on her sneaking peeks of scary movies on TV even though I’d told her, in no uncertain terms, that she wasn’t to watch them. But still, even though she’d seen some creepy monsters and murderers, they’d never given her nightmares.

When the tub was filled and the bath bomb was releasing bubbles and glitter and scents that delighted and relaxed Jessie, I helped her out of her pajamas and into the water. She sat there peacefully as her tiredness caught up with her again. Her eyes closed. I continued stroking her hair.

After a little while, knowing she needed to go back to bed, I shook her awake. She opened her eyes and saw me, prompting a smile. But then she stiffened, her eyes widening, and screamed again. I reached into the tub and grabbed her, trying to hold her close, but she pushed and clawed at me, trying to get away.

I cried out to her, “Jessie, what is hap –” and I stopped. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw something behind me. Something at the window.

I whirled around, yanking Jessie against my back as I shielded her from something I hadn’t even properly seen. But soon I had. And my own panicked shriek drowned out that of my daughter.

Peering in through the bathroom window was a round, wide face. Pale white with small, jaundiced eyes, it pushed against the window screen until it fell out and clattered on the floor. The face moved toward us on a dowel-thin, articulated neck connected directly to its chin.

“Get out!,” I shouted, mustering up as much violence in my voice as possible.

The neck was blocking our path to the door, and the hideous face turned and stared directly at me before opening its mouth and saying one word: “Jessie.”

A paralyzing wave of incomprehensible terror bloomed inside me. The voice was low and droning, like a normal woman’s voice slowed and pitched down an octave. I felt Jessie stiffen against my back and she pressed her face against my spine, as if trying to hide inside me.

More neck came through the window, the vertebrae bulging against its tight skin as it swayed in the space around us like a long finger with a hundred knuckles.

“Jess……ie.” The voice was even deeper now; I felt it in my chest and bowels.

The face moved toward me and I struck it with my fist. My hand thudded uselessly against its forehead. Before my eyes, the face began to change. Its features elongated, then contracted. Its mouth stretched to its earlobes, then shrank down to a pinhole. The entire topography of its cheekbones and chin and jaw shattered, then reformed. A second later, I was looking at a terribly deformed version of my daughter.

“Jessie.” It exhaled heavily. Hot, stinking breath filled my nostrils.

The strength in my arms vanished. The stability in my legs evaporated. I dropped to the floor, helpless. Jessie was exposed.

“Jess…ie.” The long neck wrapped around my daughter like an anaconda and pulled her toward the window. Jessie, no longer screaming, struggled to breathe against its constricting grasp. Her face reddened. The terrible thing drooled black fluid onto the top of her head. Jessie stopped struggling. She, and the creature, disappeared into the night.

My body regained its strength and I bolted to the window. In the dim light of the crescent moon, I watched the long legs of the thing carry my daughter away into the woods.

I called 911. The police came. They investigated for days. I was the only suspect in her disappearance, but as days turned into weeks and weeks stretched into months, the trail had gone cold. Even if I was still a suspect, they had nothing to even hint at me being the reason for her disappearance. And, in fact, there was evidence to the contrary.

During the initial investigation, when every nook and cranny of the house was looked at, when every piece of furniture was upended, and when every inch of the property was examined, there were only two pieces of evidence; neither of which had anything to do with me, other than to help corroborate my story.

The first morning of the investigation, officers noticed a trail of glitter from the bath bomb stretching from the bathroom window all the way through the yard and high into the trees at the mouth of the forest. When an officer scaled one of the trees, he found glitter stuck to leaves 25 feet up. It was strange, they admitted, but in their words “glitter gets everywhere.”

While they were quick to dismiss that as direct evidence, they couldn’t explain the other thing they found. Smeared across the window in Jessie’s room was the greasy, distorted shape of a woman’s enormous face. When the lab analyzed the cells that’d been left behind, the results were “inconclusive.” The samples were deemed “non-viable.” To me, that meant they wanted to hide what they’d discovered. After a long while, the active investigation was closed.

It’s been six years since Jessie was taken. I live alone in the same house, and every night, I go to bed wishing my daughter would come back to me. Recently, I noticed my bedroom windows had started getting dirty faster than they usually did. I washed them and didn’t think much of it. Not until this morning.

This morning, I woke up to find the outside-facing side of every window covered in grayish, translucent grease. For a while, I struggled to understand what had happened. Then I got to the picture window in the living room. It, too, was filthy. But there was something in that filth. Outlined against the wide piece of glass was the impression of a large face and a thin, articulated neck. The same face I’d seen that night. And next to it, clear as day, was the print of another, smaller face.

Jessie’s face.

Supported by the same, terrible neck.

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My only experience with ASMR

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I’ve been dealing with anxiety my entire life. Whether in social situations, work situations, or even at home by myself, feelings of panic rise to the surface and consume me. Medications don’t work. Therapy doesn’t work. Each day, I wake up knowing at some point before I go back to bed, I will feel like the world is about to collapse around me.

I heard about ASMR online. For those who don’t know, it’s short for Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response. Basically, it’s an induced euphoric response that supposedly causes deep relaxation and a sense of wellbeing. I’ve never been relaxed. I’ve never been well.

Like all “natural” products designed to elicit a positive biological response, the ASMR space on the Internet is full of bullshit. Countless fraudsters and faux-experts tout extraordinary claims, and while scientists have found no direct correlation between ASMR and health, mental or otherwise, those who sell ASMR-related products will tell you it’s the next big thing. The thing “doctors don’t want you to know about.” Needless to say, I was skeptical.

Skepticism, however, in the face of daily panic, can often upshift into something resembling hope. I did my research. I sifted through claims and medical information with my untrained, but nonetheless determined, mind.

Another problem with something like ASMR is that people claim they know what they’re doing, when, in fact, they’re just trying to get hits on their website. YouTube, for example, is full of kids talking seductively into their microphones while dull synthpop plays in the background. Those are the top hits for ASMR. You need to dig deep before you find something you think is legit.

And I did.

Last year, I found an ASMR site run by a university in Ukraine. The cursory listen I gave seemed relaxing enough; a soft voice over gentle electronic pulses and the certain sounds from nature, like running water. The associated imagery was abstract and colorful, reminding me of Easter palates and springtime flowers. The samples were only five minutes long. To access the rest, they needed credit card and shipping information. At least the subscription came with a free Blu-Ray copy 8-10 weeks later.

I plugged in my payment information, name, and address, knowing American Express would cancel any fraudulent charges in the event the Ukrainians wanted to scam me. I wasn’t particularly concerned about that, though. The payment went through, and I was greeted by a “Members Only” page and libraries filled with various ASMR videos. I put on my noise-cancelling headphones, clicked the first video, and set it to fullscreen.

The world melted away. For the first time in my life, I felt relaxation overtake the omnipresent anxiety. Peace washed through my mind and passed in a wave down to my chest and throughout my limbs. My sensation of self vanished. Whatever this university had developed, it was a miracle. Enraptured by the sights and sounds and sensations, I remained in my chair for two straight days.

I awoke to the feeling of my headphones being torn off and a rough hand shaking my shoulder. Panic bloomed within my chest, but agony quickly overtook it. My legs and lower back were searing with hideous pain and I screamed, only to have the same hand clasp over my mouth.

“Shut up,” came a voice with a thick accent. A Ukrainian accent. “Scream again and we’ll take even more. Do you have any money in the house? Any jewelry?”

I tried to shake my head, which was pinned back against the computer chair from the man’s brute strength. “No,” I grumbled behind his hand, tears streaming down my face from the overwhelming pain.

“Good. Now sleep for another hour or so.” He strapped the headphones back on my ears and straightened me up so I was facing the monitor again. Before slipping back beneath the waves of bliss, I realized I’d been strapped in my chair. I didn’t know why.

After an hour, the video ended. The audio cut out. The pain returned. I screamed again, this time alone in my apartment. I was still strapped to the chair. I looked down at my legs, certain they were broken or slashed by the intruders. But my legs were gone. My screaming stopped and everything blurred. I reached for the phone on my desk and managed to dial 911 before passing out, my hand groping at the pain in my back where my left kidney had been.

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Know It All

meat

The hospital I’ve called my home for the last 30 years can only be described as an asylum. While the word has fallen out of favor, the situation inside has remained consistent. Days stretch in interminable swaths of gray and white; gray from the medication in the mornings, white from the medication in the afternoons. Only the blackness of night frees me from the consuming palate of mid-winter rain clouds used to paint my days away.

I am here by my own volition. The fact I used the law to enact that volition is a mere technicality. The fact I stole the volition of someone else to gain use of the law is another. At the end of the bloodbath – at the end of the steaming orgy of crimson and savagery – I’d gotten my wish. I’d never need to harm another living thing for the rest of my life.  

The sights and sounds which etched themselves into my soul on that May morning in 1986 still flash through. Between timed doses, gray melts into red. Red bleeds into white. To any other man, those flashes would be the proof of his madness; the seeping of illness into medicated docility. But I know far more than any other man.

On May 3rd, 1986, I awoke to find my young son in the room with me. We stared at one another for a moment. Then I rolled out of bed and went to the garage. By lunchtime, I had chopped him into 400 pieces. On May 4th, the front page of the newspaper featured a picture of his blonde hair stuck to the blade of my axe.

To those who read the story or saw the news, I was labeled a monster. To those who served the courts and reviewed the evidence, I was labeled insane. To me, however, the person who conversed with the pieces as they were liberated from my son, I was not a monster. I was not insane. I was a man who needed knowledge. My boy held the secrets to it all.

I discussed what lay beyond our universe with Aaron’s left foot. The foot laughed. It was Aaron’s small voice. It told me to ask the shin. More blows of the axe brought the shin into our discussion. But it could tell me very little; only that the knee had much more information.

And so it went.

The leftmost quadrant of Aaron’s lower mandible informed me I was close, and his upper-right incisor screamed with delirious laughter while it spoke of the secrets I’d learn from the uvula and tonsils. When the axe would no longer suffice – its blunt brutality too clumsy to properly extricate the tiny pieces with whom I needed to converse – my pocket knife and its keen precision continued the work. Three hours later, with 400 pieces of child organized around me by order of their knowledge, we began our formal chat. And I learned everything.

I write this today as a prisoner. As a patient. As a father. In this unmedicated interstice between gray and white, I can reflect on the red. Not the red of blood, but the red of It All: the rich, vermillion expanse of flesh and organs on which this universe is a scab.

On the last night of his life, an emissary from It All visited Aaron as he slept. It whispered its secrets into every part of him, and my son, who was the most caring, generous person I’d ever met, knew he had to share it with me. So he waited, patiently, for me to wake.

On the morning of May 3rd, 1986, I lifted my sleep mask to see Aaron floating above my bed, watching me. Bright sunlight streamed across us. The dancing reflection of light against the shiny crimson of his sclera dazzled me. Enthralled me. He opened his mouth, but remained silent. He tried again, but it was no use; It All was inside him. His mouth contained no cavity – only solid red streaked with veins. He brought his pinky finger to my ear and placed it inside, and the fingertip told me what I needed to do. Four hours later, I’d brought It All out of Aaron and into my mind. And now into yours.

Daily fogs of grays and whites desaturate what I’ve seen, but they cannot hide the presence of what I know is there. I am not insane. The red which courses through the arterial network of multiversal organs and flesh is beyond sanity. Beyond mind. But not beyond body. At the end of my life, whenever that is, I know I’ll get to touch Aaron again.

Even now, through It All, I feel him pressing against the walls, reaching for me, and speaking to me; each part of him singing choruses of thanks and praise. It’s the praise which gives me the most comfort as I sit, day after day, year after year, and wait. I wait knowing I am loved and appreciated. That’s more than enough. It’s the dream of every father to give It All to his son.

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The Perils of Live TV

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One of the biggest misconceptions about live television is that it’s actually live. Let me tell you a secret: nothing is live. Everything has a built-in delay, just in case something unexpected happens. It’s not so much out of concern for the viewers, but for the advertisers. The last thing Pampers wants to deal with is some British actor saying “c**t” on a talk show or an NFL quarterback getting paralyzed after a big hit. It’s bad for the brand.

I work for the Food Network. Over the last ten years, we’ve moved from basic cooking instruction to a more “reality TV” style; lots of competitions, celebrity cameos, that whole thing. Lots of people didn’t like the change, but we got a big uptick in the younger demographics as a result.

One of the problems with capturing a younger demographic is holding onto them as they transition into an older one. Let’s say, for example, when we started with the reality TV shows, we got a viewer named Jenny. Jenny was 22 when she first saw Ace of Cakes and became a regular viewer of the network since then. She was fresh out of college, had few responsibilities, and was enjoying being a kid.

Fast-forward nine years. Jenny’s 31 and a stay-at-home mom. Her priorities are far different than they were when she was 22. She has two children, and, on weekdays, she babysits her brother’s twins as well. Instead of eating out all the time like she did at 22, Jenny’s responsible for feeding a household. She doesn’t have time for reality shows anymore and she wishes her cable company offered the Cooking Channel – the sister station to the Food Network that offers more how-to programming.

There are hundreds of thousands of Jennys across the country – first generation captures from the reality-TV era who yearn for more instructional programming. But it’s a balancing act. If the Food Network goes back to their original format, they lose the potential for new, younger viewers. If they stay with primarily reality-based programming, they lose all the Jennys out there.

Our goal, and by “our,” I mean: me and my team at the network, was to create a show to bridge that gap. After the success of The Kitchen, a Saturday morning program featuring four of the network’s biggest stars as they cook exciting recipes and give tips and techniques, we were tasked to make something for the weekday morning viewers.

We ended up creating a show that featured two of the network’s top chefs, a live studio audience, and Q&A from online viewers. It was going to be as interactive a show as we’d ever made, and the twist was, it would be “live.” Now, remember what I said about “live” TV. Sure, the audience would be there watching the chefs cook and asking them questions while they did, but the online questions would be from emails. The delay would be 30 minutes.

It was a huge success in the various test markets. We had one show to go with the stand-in chefs before the show went national, this time in Oklahoma, but there was a problem. There had been a tornado warning in the county. It had since expired, but the audience was about half of what it should’ve been. We decided to go with it anyway, since we figured a lot of the at-home audience would still be inside after the storms. They’d be watching.

Right away, there were technical issues. Even though the tornado warning had passed, there were still frequent lightning strikes and other atmospheric disturbances all around the station. Things still went on, however, and the chefs started cooking.

The first problem came when the cream wouldn’t whip. The chef made a show out of it, poking fun at the behind-the-scenes staff and trying it again with a new container of cream. Again, nothing. In my ear, one of the producers said it might have been because of the storm. He didn’t sound like he knew what he was talking about.

The chefs gave up on the whipped cream and decided to make a creme anglaise. Those require eggs. Two eggs were cracked into the mixing bowl without incident. The third, though, was bad. It was blood-red, clumpy, and smelled terrible. The odor permeated the studio quickly and I saw the audience members holding their noses. When I held my own, my fingers came back bloody. I hadn’t had a nosebleed since I was a kid. We cut to a commercial.

Neither chef was happy. They agreed to scrap the whole “dessert first” idea and just go directly to the entree. No one would complain about the basic steak-and-potatoes main course, especially in cow country. The kitchen was reset and the show resumed.

The downward spiral continued. As thunder boomed outside, loud enough to be picked up by studio microphones, the mixer for the potatoes started to smoke and emit sparks before the chef yanked the plug out of the wall and threw the whole thing in the sink. “Just goes to show you guys, disasters can happen in any kitchen,” he joked to the audience, still obviously irritated but trying to play it cool.

Potatoes got mixed and mashed by hand and the chefs fielded questions about whether or not milk or cream should be used. There was another thunderclap and the studio lights flickered. I’ve always hated working in these satellite studios – compared to the main studios in New York, these were like living in the dark ages.

The lights stayed on, thankfully, and the half-hour delay caught up to the beginning of the show. All over Oklahoma, people watching the Food Network were about to see the show for the first time.

Problems aside, the potatoes came out great. During a commercial, I had an intern get me a spoonful. I should’ve had him get me a bowl. Didn’t matter – after the broadcast, I’d be able to eat all I wanted.

The studio audience, to their credit, had taken all the technical problems in stride. I hoped the TV audience would do the same, and figured they would, as long as they didn’t turn the TV off in disgust at the sight of that egg.

The chefs moved on to the steak. Each discussed their favorite techniques; one preferring a sous-vide style followed by a blast in a hot pan, while the other advocated grilling it over hardwood charcoal. Both methods would be used and the lucky studio audience would get samples to taste and choose their favorite cooking method.

The cast-iron pan was hot and the grill, despite the powerful fans sucking away the smoke, filled the studio with the savory aroma of burning hardwood. I was starving.

Chef Bob cooked his steak first, then showed the audience the perfect edge-to-edge pinkness that only a sous-vide cooked steak can achieve. The crust on the outside was magnificent. Maillard would have been proud. Wind battered the studio walls and more thunder rolled by. The power went out.

Everyone in the studio groaned, but not as loud as the executive producer. We were in a time slot. Even with the delay, which we could shorten if we had to, there was a hard out a the top of the hour when Chopped! was scheduled to air. The last thing we wanted was to have the show just cut off entirely. If the power didn’t come back on before the delay was used up, it’d look awful. Plus, we’d have to issue refunds to the local advertisers who’d purchased that time.

We waited. And waited. And waited. We had less than a minute of delay left before the power went back on. The whole team was galvanized into action and, with only one second of delay left, we resumed filming.

For the first time in about 20 years, the broadcast was fully live. I thanked God we weren’t in front of a national audience, because if someone screwed up and said a bad word, the FCC fines we’d have to deal with would be crippling.

More thunder rumbled outside as the chef talked about how sous-vide was a nice novelty, but almost everyone, in reality, preferred a grilled steak. He seasoned as he talked, obviously comfortable with the cameras and the audience who hung on every word. The grill, which had to be refilled with more charcoal to bring it back up to temperature after the delay, was screaming hot again. The chef used his laser thermometer to take the temperature of the coals. 733 degrees. Perfect for the initial sear.

Another clap of thunder and the lights flickered again. I felt my stomach leap with panic, but the lights stayed on. We only had 11 minutes left before Chopped! came on.

With the seasoning complete and the audience dying to see the steak get cooked, the chef picked up the rib eye with his tongs and carefully placed it on the searing grill.

The other chef began to scream. Everyone, including the production crew, jumped. With expertise honed by years in television, the camera operators instinctively turned the cameras toward the screaming man. 31 studio audience members and 14,000 households across Oklahoma watched as the chef’s skin blistered and charred.

“What the f**k is going on?,” the executive producer shouted, his voice clearly audible over the screams of pain and panic. Before the cameras could pan away, the chef’s eyes burst in an explosion of boiling lachrymal fluid and blood. The skin on his nose, forehead, and cheeks bubbled and blackened.

As EMTs rushed toward the man, one of them knocked over a carton of eggs and sent the contents splattering across the floor. Behind me, with a sound I will never forget for as long as I live, Dave, the sound engineer, crumpled to the floor with his body in knots of hideously broken bones; his skull caved in and leaking brain matter onto my shoes.

The loudest thunderclap yet drowned out even the panicked shouting and screams of pain. And that was it. When all was said and done – whatever it was that had been said and done – Dave was dead. The chef was dead. The cameras had never stopped rolling. Not until Chopped! came on.

The Food Network settled lawsuits for the better part of a year. Needless to say, our show wasn’t picked up. No one could ever figure out what had happened, but the funerals I attended and the trauma endured by the audiences, both studio and remote, are proof enough that I didn’t imagine it. If you know anyone in Oklahoma who was watching the Food Network on April 11th, 2015 between 10 and 11am, ask them what they saw. They’ll tell you. I’ll bet they haven’t watched a single live broadcast of anything ever since.

And yes, the network got an FCC fine from the producer saying “f**k” on air. They were okay with the burning skin, for some reason.

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Pebbles

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We thought we were having a hell of a hailstorm when we woke up in the middle of the night to a peal of thunder and the sound of our cabin being pelted. It went on for about a minute, then it stopped. There wasn’t any rain, which was strange. We went back to sleep, faintly aware of the smell of something burning. I figured it was probably from a lightning strike somewhere else.

In the morning, we realized how wrong we’d been. Jill was the first to get up, but her yelling ensured I was right on her heels.

Our property was a wreck. Baseball-sized burns covered the lawn as far as we could see, and when I went outside to assess the damage to our cabin, I was dismayed to find similar, albeit smaller, burns all over the roof.

“Had to have been meteorites,” Jill claimed. “I bet that thunder we heard was a big one breaking up.”

I didn’t know enough to disagree, but I thought it was pretty weird. She concurred.

We spent the day doing our best to rake up the marble-sized pieces of rock, which we hauled out and piled in the back of the property by the compost heap. Jill thought they might be worth something to someone, so we were going to bring a jar full back home at the end of the summer.

As she talked, I could tell she was uncomfortable. The work we’d been doing had aggravated the chapped skin around her mouth and under her arms. Something about the time of year always did it to her, and no matter how much she tried to keep the areas moist, they would still crack painfully. I told her I’d finish up for the night if she wanted to go inside. She did.

I made a vague plan to excise the ruined bits of lawn and reseed it, but I soon got frustrated. It was going to be a major project that would take days, if not weeks. There were still whole areas of the yard where we hadn’t picked up the meteorites, but they’d wreck the lawnmower if I tried to go over them just to make the area presentable in the meantime. Such a pain in the a*s.

The next day, to make matters worse, we noticed the well water had acquired a taste. It was briny and flat; almost coppery. Wholly unpleasant. We could drink bottled water for the rest of the vacation, which we’d been doing most of the time anyway, but we still showered and brushed our teeth with the stuff that came out of the well. And for a while, we kept doing it. On the bright side, my gums had stopped bleeding when I flossed. Must’ve been all the extra minerals from the well water that gets filtered out in municipal reservoirs.

After another long day of yard work, I was preparing dinner when I heard Jill shriek from the bathroom. She’d gone in to take a shower a few minutes earlier. When I rushed in to see what was wrong, she was coughing and swearing and working to wipe away clear, viscous something that had pooled on her face. I could see the shower head oozing the same stuff, clogging the drain and puddling like syrup on the bottom of the bathtub. If she hadn’t leapt out the second she felt it hit her face, she would’ve been covered from head to toe.

I helped Jill towel off as much of the stuff as I could, and a minute or two later, the shower head had started spitting out water again. It took a bit of coaxing, but she eventually held her head under its flow so she could wash her hair of the residue of whatever the hell had gotten on her.

Once Jill was as clean as she was going to get, I called the guy in charge of well maintenance for the county. The only guy in charge of well maintenance for the county. He answered right away, but gave the reply I knew was coming: I’d be at least three weeks before he could get out here and take a look. I pleaded with him to make some time to come earlier, and offered him way too much money, but the best he could do was move the appointment ahead by two days.

He told me that he’d seen algae blooms in a few of the local wells. The only suggestion he had was to run the water until it looked normal, which is what we’d done during our subsequent showers. I hated having to wait, but it was good to know he’d seen something like this before.

Over dinner, Jill and I tried to come to an agreement about what to do. I wanted to go home. There wasn’t any reason why we needed to keep putting up with the weird water and the yard work when we could go home, be comfortable, and hire people to take care of it all.

Jill wanted to stay. She’d been looking forward to this trip for months, and the chapped skin on her mouth was feeling much better. The cabin had belonged to her parents and she’d spent many summers here. No matter how unpleasant the circumstances might have gotten for us, they were still less stressful than all the work she had waiting for her when we were scheduled to return home in two months.

I caved.

Yesterday morning, we woke up to a remarkably pleasant surprise. In the parts of the yard where we hadn’t carted away the meteorites, the burned parts had disappeared. When I went outside to look, I saw the burns were covered in the same viscous stuff that would occasionally come from our pipes. Underneath the ooze was healthy, green grass. When I looked closer, I saw ants – ants almost too small to see – were crawling up and down the blades and carrying away dried pieces of the slime to bring back to their homes.

I headed back inside and told Jill. She acted happy to hear it, but I could tell she was deeply uncomfortable. The chapped skin around her mouth and nose had gotten bad again. I offered to take her to the clinic in town, but she didn’t want to sit in the car for four hours just to have the doctor give her the same cream she’d been using on herself for the last week. While she spoke, the left corner of her mouth cracked open and spilled a thin rivulet of blood down her chin.

Sighing with exasperation, she grabbed a paper towel, turned on the sink to wet it, and put the paper against her wound. When she sat back down, I saw the faucet was drooling the sticky algal slime that’d caused her the problem in the first place. But it was too late. She’d already pressed it to the crack in her skin.

Before I could mention this to her, Jill’s eyes had brightened. She pulled the paper towel away, a string of syrupy fluid still connecting the towel to her face. The cut was gone.

“Don’t,” I told her.

Jill didn’t listen. She went back to the sink and turned it on. Sticky, clear stuff flowed. She filled her hands and brought the contents to her face. She rubbed for a moment, then turned back toward me.

Behind the sheen around her mouth and nose was new, healthy skin.

“Pretty cool!,” Jill exclaimed, and wiped the residue away. I didn’t know what to think, let alone say. I figured some homeopathic doctor who minored in algae studies would find it completely normal.

We went to bed and slept. In the morning, Jill’s mouth and nose, while much better than they’d been at their worst, were still not as perfect as they were right after she’d applied the slime. I told her I was going to go out in the yard and do some more work.

Before I could get out of bed, though, she kissed me. Now, we’re in our late 50s. We’re affectionate with one another, don’t get me wrong, but most of the time we just cuddle on the couch and share a pizza. It’s easier that way. Requires fewer blue pills, too. That’s not to say we don’t have a sex life, because we do, but it’s more of a once-every-two-months kind of thing.

Jill’s rapturous kiss was less like one from the woman to whom I’d been married for 35 years and more like that of the teenager she was when we first started dating. I didn’t bother concerning myself with that particular difference, though. I followed her lead and we did what apparently needed to be done. No blue pills required, thank you very much.

Afterward, while I got dressed, I told Jill I was going to start raking up the meteorites we’d left the other day. She didn’t pay attention. She wanted me back in bed. I laughed and reminded her that even when we were kids I still had the refractory period of a climate cycle. She nodded and told me to be safe outside, then made an obvious show of slipping her hands under the blankets. She looked amazing. To my surprise, I felt renewed stirring below my belt. Before I could say “f**k it” and jump back into bed, though, I shook my head. I really needed to get going on that yard work. It was starting to cloud up and I didn’t want to have to put it off because of rain. I told Jill to have fun, then went outside.

In the untouched area of the yard, the grass was ankle-high. All the burns were gone. Clumps of slime still sat in the grass. The ants that’d been going crazy for the stuff were nowhere to be found.

I raked and raked and raked. The pebbles piled up and I shoveled them into the wheelbarrow and brought them to the main pile by the compost heap. I was a little surprised there were no ants at all. I could see their anthills bored into the ground all over the place, but not a single one was out and about.

I’d been working for about two hours nonstop, so during a break, while I chugged from my bottle of water, I bent down to get a closer look at the spots where the ants had swarmed the other day. Something was there that I hadn’t noticed while I was raking. Something definitely not there when I looked the previous day.

There were infinitesimal white dots coating the same blades of grass that’d been crawling with ants less than 24 hours ago. I plucked a few blades from the ground and held them in front of my face, hoping to get a better view. The dots were slightly ovoid in shape. Something clicked. Eggs. The ants must’ve had such a massive meal of that slime stuff that it drove them to reproduce like crazy. Or something. I have no idea how they make ants.

I heard raindrops impacting the trees on the other side of the property, and ten seconds later, they reached me. A distant bolt of lightning streaked the sky, and thunder boomed a moment later. Sighing, I put the rake and shovel in the wheelbarrow and wheeled it all back to the shed. More lightning and thunder. I figured I wouldn’t be getting anything else done around the yard until the storm passed.

I headed back into the cabin, banged my boots against the doorway to get the mud off, and stepped inside.

“Charlie,” Jill called. I heard water running in the bathroom.

From the kitchen where I stood, spooning last night’s fruit salad into a bowl, I called back, “what’s up?”

“Come take a bath with me!”

I laughed to myself. That bathtub could barely fit 110 pound Jill, let alone 250 pound me. I brought my bowl of fruit salad with me down the hall and into the bedroom. Before I turned the corner to the bathroom, the water was turned off and Jill shouted out again, “Charlie, are you coming?” Her voice sounded a little different. Crisper, somehow.

I stepped into the candle-lit bathroom. Jill was in the tub, leaning back against its curved shape. She was resting her head on a folded towel. She glanced over at me and smiled. Her hands roamed up and down her body.

Even in the dim light, she looked incredible. I didn’t know whether it was the prospect of repeating our fun from that morning or just the sight of her touching herself, but it was remarkably enjoyable. I placed my bowl on the sink and started to undress.

A nearby bolt of lightning immediately followed by an explosion of thunder made me jump. As my surprise faded and I continued to take off my clothes, I realized I’d seen something different in the harsh illumination of the lightning.

On the other side of the bathroom, Jill continued her teasing. “Come here and touch me,” she whispered. Again, I noticed the unusual quality of her voice. Another clap of thunder shook the house, and that time, the associated burst of lightning showed me exactly what I had trouble identifying after the first strike.

With a gasp, I turned on the light. In the harsh, overhead fluorescence, everything was revealed.

The tub in which Jill bathed was filled to the brim with clear slime. As I watched, she slid beneath the surface, coating her face and head, and came back up. When she breached the surface, she spoke.

“Please, Charlie, I can’t even tell you how good this feels.”

Again, the different vocal quality. Now, though, in the harsh light, I saw another change. Her hair. Jill’s hair had been gray since her late 40s. It was light brown now.

Jill manipulated herself with her right hand and reached for me with her left. Clear fluid oozed from her hand and arm and puddled on the floor like heavy syrup. “Come feel this with me, Charlie.”

I didn’t move. Part of me wanted to pull her from the tub, but another part, as the rain pounded against the roof and thunder rattled the windowpanes, was too frightened to touch her. I moved closer, but stayed out of her reach. Standing at the foot of the tub, I stared at my wife as she bucked her hips against her hand and mouthed my name over and over. Ripples in the slime caused it to slosh against the sides of the tub.

“Jill, please get out. Please.” My voice trembled and was barely audible over the pouring rain.

She reached for me with both hands and smiled, then spoke. “Don’t you want to be young with me again? To start fresh? Don’t you remember how good it felt?”

Jill slid down, and I thought she was going to dip under the slime again. But she stopped at her mouth. She opened it and let the slime pool inside. She closed her lips and I saw her throat work as she swallowed the mouthful.

“It feels so right. So perfect. I want to share this with you, sweetheart.”

My mind reeled. I thought about every ache and pain I’d accumulated over my 56 years. Every pockmark and hemorrhoid and scaly patch that’d come along over those long decades throbbed, as if wanting to be noticed. Before me was a way to make it stop. I remembered how Jill and I were as teenagers. Full of life and energy and libido; all things that, over the years, had just started to evaporate. I stared at my wife, who looked exactly like she had when she was 25.

Despite my fear, a pang of desire shot through me. Desire and arousal. I wanted Jill. I wanted to be with her in every way imaginable. We could grow old together again – or never grow old at all. Our happiness could last forever if we wanted. All I had to do was join her in the bathtub.

I took a step forward and resumed taking off my clothes. Jill purred and lapped up more of the slime. Some she swallowed, some she drooled from the corners of her mouth. She absentmindedly played with herself while she watched me, apparently delighted I was going to join her in this new, impossible youth.

As I struggled to bend over and take off my socks, something that’d been a pain in my a*s since I passed the 225 mark on the scale, I noticed something that caused me to stop. Jill’s breasts were shrinking. Before my eyes, her hips slimmed and her pubic hair disappeared. Her feet no longer came to the edge of the tub, but instead barely touched it.

“Come bathe with me, honey.” Jill’s voice was high and childlike. I recoiled. Whatever was happening to her was going faster. She looked 4 or 5.

“It’s incredible,” she chirped, again reaching for me with one hand and rubbing herself with the other in an act so obscene in her new, young context, that I turned away, nauseated.

“Charlie,” came the tiny voice behind me. I didn’t turn around.

“Sweetheart?”

The last word was practically babbled, but still carried with it an element of inquisitiveness, and, no matter how much I try to tell myself otherwise, dejection. She didn’t speak again.

A moment later, I turned around. Floating in the tub was a red shape, approximately the size of of a lemon. Tears filled my eyes as it shrank to the size of a cherry, then a pea, then a grain of rice. When I blinked, it was gone. A ribbon of white fluid hung motionless in the slime.

“I’m so sorry, my love,” I whispered to it. Distant thunder rolled across the forest.

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Licks From a Bear

trepan

August 1, 2015, 9:00am

It’s been exactly one year since Jen left. That means it’s been one year and one day since I was fired. I haven’t worked since. I used to like the idea of being on disability; free money and all the time in the world to spend with her. I guess she didn’t think of it that way. She was always ambitious. I shouldn’t say “was.” Every day I see Facebook updates detailing her constant successes. The most recent one was her engagement. I’d never seen her look so happy.

I guess I knew things with us were going downhill when I looked forward to our fights. She’d always say something about how I’m so smart – that I was smarter than she, in fact – but that I had no ambition. It felt so good to hear that someone as brilliant as Jen thought I was smart, even though she yelled it at me in frustration. She claimed she understood my depression and my anxiety and how they were terrible roadblocks on the path to my happiness. I thought that meant she could empathize and still wanted to be with me anyway. Apparently I was wrong.

Getting disability benefits for my depression wasn’t too hard. The money isn’t great, but it pays the rent and keeps me fed. The only pain is that I have to go to therapy every week. I also need to go to monthly appointments to pick up prescriptions to help combat my depression, ADHD, and anxiety. It’s all so procedural and detached from anything resembling real care. So I’m a lonely, unemployable loser who apparently has this “great mind” that’s utterly useless. But I won’t stay like this forever. I’ve discovered a something new. Well, something old, actually.

Today begins my new life. The medication never worked, the therapy never worked, the behavior changes never worked. Medicine failed me. Or maybe I failed medicine. Either way, I’m taking control of myself again. I’m not going to be a victim of the barriers my body’s put up for me. No more attention problems. No more depression. No more anxiety. For the first time in what may be decades, I’m filled with hope.

August 1, 2015, 3:00pm

All my tools are cleaned and ready. In about an hour, I’ll start. I need to keep a pretty comprehensive journal of the procedure to make sure I’m not harming myself. I figure a running account of my experiences will give evidence of the positive (or negative) changes in both my mood and cognitive abilities.

August 1, 2015, 4:05pm

After I traced a dime-sized circle on the upper-right part of my forehead, I used an Exacto knife to carve through the skin. I wasn’t prepared for how much this was going to hurt. I stopped a couple times to wipe away the tears so I could see well enough to continue. The skin lifted off from the bone without too much trouble once I’d finished cutting. I flushed it down the toilet. Now I’m waiting for the bleeding to stop – it seems to be slowing already. It’s so weird to see my skull exposed like this.

I’m going to write a sentence or two before and after each of the next steps so I can get as good a description as possible if this all works as well as I’m hoping.

I opted to use a tiny drill bit over a single large one. A ring of tiny holes is going to take a hell of a lot longer, but I think the need for precision dwarfs time consumption in this case. I’m about to do the first hole.

The first hole is done. Imagine the feeling of biting down on a fist-sized piece of tinfoil as hard as you possibly can while your head hums like it’s filled with buzzing hornets. The vibration was so excruciating that I’m only now feeling the pain of the drill site itself. I’m going to do the next ten or so holes now before I lose my nerve.

The vibrations became less intense with each hole. The bone pain got much worse, though. I’ve never had migraines, but I assume they must feel something like this.

I’m shining a light at the ring of tiny bores and doing my best to inspect what’s behind them in the mirror. It’s not very useful. The remaining structural elements between the holes are extremely thin and brittle-looking. I’m going to cut them away with the wirecutters.

I just dropped a circle of my skull into the sink. Now I’m looking at the bright red membrane that’s covering my brain. I’m a little surprised by how many blood vessels are in there. I’m going to put out a couple more towels. Cutting away the membrane is the part I’m most scared of.

It’s done and the hole is bleeding a lot. I’m taking extra care to not put too much pressure on the organ itself when I’m working to soak up the blood. I’m feeling a little dizzy so while I hold the towel to the hole, I’m sitting and eating the piece of steak and drinking the orange juice I’d put out just in case this happened. The wound is slowly starting to clot while I wait here. The whole area hurts, but the pain is second to the strong pulsing sensation around the hole. It’s almost like I have a second heart beating there.

The blood stopped pouring out and I’m cleaning the area with water and rubbing alcohol. Now I can see my brain. It’s gray. It doesn’t look like it even belongs to me; I don’t know why it all feels so surreal. It’s almost like I’m watching all this happen to someone else. On the plus side, I’m not dizzy anymore, but I’m exhausted. I’m going to bandage everything and go to bed. I’ll clean up tomorrow.

August 2, 2015, 6:30am

I woke up this morning with more energy and drive than I’ve ever felt. Even sitting here writing this feels like a joy; I’m not struggling to find words, I’m not dreading how I’ll reread what I’ve written and think it’s stupid and pointless – everything just….works. The accounts I’d read about people who shared their experiences with trepanation made similar claims, but even as I drilled the holes I never allowed myself to truly believe it would work for me. Even now, I’m worried it’s all just a placebo effect. The pulsating feeling is real, though, and it’s as strong as ever. That was something else my fellow trepanned mentioned. They said it was because the body is letting the brain grow again; something the skull had prevented after it hardened following infancy. I don’t know if I buy the explanation, but I can’t deny what’s happening here.

August 2, 2015, 2:00pm

My day’s been spent cleaning the apartment. Over the last year, I’d let things pile up and grow increasingly filthy as my depression festered. Today, it’s like a veil has been lifted and light is pouring over everything I lay my eyes on. The place needed to be cleaned, so I just set to work and cleaned it. It looks better now than it did when Jen and I moved in. My therapist recommended that I clean quite a while ago, suggesting that a nice, open area would really help me see my home as a place for potential, rather than stagnation. Now I know what he meant. This is what potential feels like.

The hole in my head still hurts and it looks terrible, but I expected as much. If I go out, I can wear a hat and no one will notice anything amiss. I’m not ready to do that, though. I’m mildly concerned about how badly the site is beginning to itch as it heals. I’m being extremely assiduous in cleaning and caring for the wound as it heals, but I guess part of that process is that damn itch. I’m doing my best not to think about it.

August 2, 2015, 11:30pm

The first full day of my experiment is about to end. I’m about to go to sleep, and I feel like I’ve accomplished a lot today. My home is spotless, I’ve finished a short story I’d been working on for the last couple months, I’ve gotten up to date with my internet and utility bills, and I even did a couple sets of push-ups. I had to remind myself to eat, though. For whatever reason, I wasn’t hungry at all until I realized it was nearly 9pm and I hadn’t eaten all day. I’m chalking it up to my excitement. It’s been hard to contain. But, now I’m all showered and pajamaed and ready to end my day. I can’t wait for tomorrow.

August 3, 2015, 5:45am

I was up before my alarm this morning to watch the sun rise from the roof of the apartment. Last night I slept like a log and didn’t wake up once. I noticed some blood on my pillow and under my fingernails, though, and I think I may have scratched underneath the bandage while I slept. I made a beeline to the bathroom to inspect the hole and, thankfully, I didn’t seem to do any damage. Everything appears to be healing well.

August 3, 2015, 1:15pm

I don’t know if it’s endorphins wearing off or just an artefact of my depression, but my euphoric feeling has diminished quite a bit since this morning. I’m thinking it might be both; maybe I need to have a good meal. There should be something in the fridge.

August 3, 2015, 9:00pm

Whatever I felt this afternoon doesn’t seem to have been a fluke. While my mood elevated for a little while after lunch, I was back to near-baseline for the rest of the day and evening. The pulsing in the hole waxes and wanes with my mood, interestingly enough. When I’m happy and ambitious, it pulses a lot. When I’m depressed, it may pulse once every ten seconds. It may have something to do with my blood pressure, so I’ll keep an eye on that. Before bed, I’ll do some jumping-jacks and see if the pulsing returns. I’m fairly certain a higher pulse rate correlates with a better mindset.

Just did the exercise. The pulsing is the same. My heartrate is up, but my mood is still low. I’m going to bed.

August 4, 2015, 11:00am

I just woke up and I feel terrible. I was scratching the hole again. The pillow is soaked with blood and there are remnants of scabs under my fingernails. Tonight I’ll wear gloves. That aside, my mood is still right near where it was before I started this process. I’m worried the surface area of my brain that’s exposed isn’t large enough to allow long-lasting effects. I don’t trust myself to widen the hole that’s already there, but I’m prepared to do another one an inch or so away.

August 4, 2015, 12:30pm

There was a problem with the second hole. I did everything just like the last time, but on the last tiny borehole a crack formed in the skull between the original hole and the new site. I had to peel back the skin I’d left to make sure, but it was definitely there. I was forced to decide whether or not I should leave the broken piece, and I opted against it. Now I have an oval that’s about 3 inches long and 1 inch wide. Removing the membrane from this part was difficult and I had a minor issue with the blade slipping deeper than I’d wanted. Thankfully, the brain has no pain receptors. It couldn’t have gone more than half an inch inside and nothing weird happened to my body so I lucked out and hit part of the 90% they say we don’t use. I know people are saying that’s a myth, but with what just happened to me there must be some truth to it.

August 5, 2015, 8:00am

No scratching overnight. The pulsing is there but it’s nowhere near as strong as it was the first time. My mood is still low. I have to be honest with myself here: I feel like a failure. This whole experiment is another example of me setting out to do something with good intentions and having it all blow up in my face. But, but, I’m not going to be defeated by it. In the past, I would’ve stopped, Jen would’ve started a fight with me, and I’d just add it to the never ending cascade of fuckups that form my identity. Not this time, though. The increase in my ambition from this treatment must still be going strong, because I’m determined to see it all through.

August 5, 2015, 8:00pm

There are four more holes in my head. I didn’t think I’d be able to do it. Toward the end of the last one, I almost passed out. I’m glad I had the foresight to keep a few sugar packets nearby so I could regain the strength to finish up.

Besides the issue with my dizziness, these four went better than the prior two. I used the left and right sides of my head this time, right above my ears. The skull was far thinner than on my forehead, so the vibration of the drill wasn’t as excruciating. The blood-loss was significantly greater, though, which explains the desire to pass out. I have hand towels wrapped around my head so I won’t get blood all over the place. Lucky for me, I’m a pretty quick clotter. That’s a funny word. Clotter.

August 6, 2015, 6:10am

I slept sitting up and awoke to major pulsing not just in the new holes, but in the old ones as well. A small problem’s developed with the second hole, though. I think it might be getting infected. The itching is unbearable and I think it might be starting to smell. I poured rubbing alcohol on all the sides and pressed it in with clean towels, so hopefully that’ll stop whatever’s breeding in there.

My mood was pretty high. Still not as good as the first day, but much better than the days after. I’ve been thinking about Jen a lot. We had so many things in common. We loved talking about animals and used to go off on tangents where we’d discuss all the exotic ones we’d have when we were rich. Her favorite ones were rhinos. Mine were hippos. I used to tell her about the lake we’d have in our backyard where my pygmy hippo would play with her baby rhino. After they’d gotten tired out, we’d invite them up to the patio where they’d curl up next to one another while we gazed adoringly at them and at each other. I wonder how she’d feel knowing I’ve been doing all this work to better myself. She’d probably tell me to do more.

August 7, 2015, 12:35pm

I did more. All day yesterday, I drilled. I drilled and cut and pulled and peeled. I feel like I can take on the world; it’s almost like that one time I did cocaine in college, but the effect has lasted far longer. I’ll update again today if I have to, but for now, I’m going to work on some of my stories.

August 9, 2015, 9:00am

Where have I been? Writing. Since the other day, I’ve gotten down 100 pages of a story I never even knew I had in me. Reading it over is like I’m looking at the work of someone else. Someone far, far better. A stranger, I guess.

On a slightly less pleasant note, there’s definitely an infection in a few holes. One of them is weeping a gray liquid that smells terrible and all of them itch. When I rub them with the towel to try to scratch, they break open and start either bleeding or leaking clear fluid. I figure it’s like a cold that has to run its course, but I’ll be damned if it isn’t becoming a problem nearly as bad as the depression was.

August 10, 2015, 7:40am

I scratched in my sleep. I don’t know what else to say other than it was bad. It’s hard to tell from what I see in the mirror, but I might have damaged some of my brain in the holes of my forehead and left side. A small piece is hanging by a thread that looks like a tiny blood vessel. I tried to tuck it back under the lip of skull, but I had to press pretty hard to do it and I’m worried I messed it up even worse.

At least I saw a bear today.

August 15, 2015, 4:15pm

More holes for me. Shaved my head. No more hair, lots more holes. Remember those wiffle balls from when we were kids? One day I’ll tell Jen how I thought my head looked like a wiffle ball. She always liked baseball and playing with my hair. My head infection was getting real bad before the bear came. Now he licks my head while I sleep and keeps the gross stuff out. Jen loves bears. Bears and rhinos.

Every morning I have to clean under my fingernails a lot. Petting the bear gets them real dirty. It’s nice the bear shaved when I did so I didn’t have to feel like the odd man out. Those pulses in my head are nice and strong all the time. It feels good. The bear licks me a lot when I sleep.

Augs 16, 2015 5000

Scratch the bear by his ears andhe licks lots and lots. Lots of licks means a lot less itching. Jen would scratch my back when it was itchy. One time she saw me triing to scratch between my shoulders using the door frame. She called me a bear because that’s what bears do when there back itches. 60 holes, going to cut out the spaces in between. Make my bear proud if Jen cant be.

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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 b*****d 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.”

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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.

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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.

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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 f**k 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.

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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.

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Ouroboros

ouroboros

Calories in, calories out.

I used the dremel saw I stole from work to cut off the first knuckle of my left pinky. The bosses had to know I took the thing but I doubt they even cared. What’s a $100 tool to a company that’s worth millions? Besides, they were getting rid of me, and that’s what their priority was. Maybe they’ll take it out of the last check they said they’d mail.

Despite what I thought, it wasn’t easy to pull the bone out of the finger chunk. So, I peeled off the nail and then cut the remainder of the piece open with the dremel and took the bone out the messy way. I didn’t think much as I popped the fingertip in my mouth and chewed for what felt like an hour before the meat broke down enough for me to comfortably swallow. I tried to figure out how many calories were in the finger segment while also working to determine how my caloric needs have changed now that my body mass had decreased by that little bit. I don’t know why I wasted so many years cutting when I could’ve done the smart thing by cutting off.

My adrenaline was off the chart for the rest of the day and I could barely sleep. I was brimming with excitement; I’d actually found a way to beat the system. Why do we need food when we are food? This elation was crushed when I stepped on the scale the following morning and saw the familiar, disgusting number: 82 pounds. I punched myself and clawed at my face as I stared at the scarred, bloated atrocity that smirked at me in the mirror. Much too much of me. Far too much.

I bent the remainder of my left pinky backward and twisted. The mirror-me kept smiling. I twisted and twisted the finger until it was connected to my hand by a tiny, tight rope of skin before pulling the broken digit completely off. I walked into the kitchen and turned on the stove’s electric burner and pressed the stump onto the coils. No more bleeding. Back in the bathroom, I took an antibiotic and an Oxy I had left over from my back surgery last year. I didn’t want to get too sick to continue or be in too much pain and lose my nerve. I gazed in the mirror while I chewed the cooling flesh off the bone.

Did you know it’s surprisingly easy to find someone on Craigslist who will perform surgery for the promise of cash? We met in my garage. He inspected the place for cameras, closed the garage door, and slammed the hatchet into my left wrist. I fingered my collarbones and traced the craggy topography of my ribcage as he swore, realizing he’d only broken the bones without severing my hand. All the while I’d retreated into my head, watching the scene unfold from above. I felt the thud as the blade hit me and the dull popping as he carved away. The Oxy did a really good job masking most of the pain. To be honest, I was a little disappointed.

My Craigslist surgeon looked mildly haunted by what he’d done, so as soon as he seared the wound shut with the torch, he ran out. He’d be back soon enough, though. I sat in the garage and stared at the stump where my hand used to be. It smelled like the time mom burned pork chops and almost set the kitchen on fire. My severed hand sat on the table like a flaccid relative of Thing from The Addams Family. Picking it up, I was a little surprised by how heavy it felt. You never really think about the individual parts of your body having weight. Still, I was encouraged. This was an immediate loss of at least a pound or two.

I gnawed at the sinewy knuckle areas and fought through a dizzy spell. Orange juice helped get my head to stop spinning. Whether it was blood loss or excitement didn’t matter much. Things were finally going in the right direction.

A week later, I contacted my Craigslist surgeon again. I didn’t have any more cash, but he agreed to do what I wanted in exchange for a couple of the Oxy pills. I had at least 20 more in one bottle and an unopened bottle of 30 stashed in my bedroom, so he’d be happy for a while. Besides, we were almost done. I was almost done.

My surgeon said the next part would probably kill me. I agreed. He got to work. The pills didn’t do much to dull the pain this time. The feeling of a saw going through a femur right near the hipbone is a hard thing to describe. Even harder is the sensation one experiences the moment one’s femoral artery is severed. It’s like the world starts melting and going gray at the same time. Luckily, my surgeon had the torch ready and seared the gushing artery shut before finishing the amputation. When dropped the saw, the first thing I did was try to wiggle my toes. It felt like I was wiggling them just fine. Strange. I threw down another few antibiotics and painkillers.

Before the surgeon left, I demanded that he help me to the bathroom scale. It was hard to balance on one leg and get a proper reading on the scale, but when it finally registered, I was triumphant. 68lbs. The dizziness came back quickly and I yelled to the surgeon who was about to leave. We were going to finish this. It didn’t take long for him to agree to take off my other leg in exchange for more pills. Cut cut, burn burn. He carried me back to the scale where I teetered on my lopsided stumps. 59lbs. Then he brought me to my bed.

So here I am. My right arm works fine; I don’t think I want to get rid of that. It’s probably the only part of me I find useful these days. I figure I have another couple weeks of antibiotics left. They’re next to me under the pillow. I tucked my severed legs under the comforter. Over the next few days, I’ll nip at them whenever I’m hungry. My guess is the hunger pains will become less intense once my body realizes it doesn’t have as much to fuel. Until then, I’ll just keep taking little bites. Minimal intake, just like I’m used to. Just like what keeps me comfortably in control.

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