Bags

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then the world ended.

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

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

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

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

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

It wasn’t okay.

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

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

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

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

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

Two motionless bags of flesh hung in the silent forest.

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

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

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

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

Exactly.

Everything blurred after this.

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

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

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

There was no warmth in her eyes.

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

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

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

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

I just stared at tiny black drops on the pavement.

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Bubbles

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I was getting my hand stitched up in the ER last night when a series of rapid beeps sounded on the intercom, followed by an announcement of “ABD, code A, bay 1.” Every doctor and nurse in the area stopped what they were doing and rushed to the main ER entrance. They got there just in time to meet the ambulances.

I couldn’t see anything, so I waited. I figured there had to have been a serious accident. My phone rang. It was Lucy, my wife. She asked how my hand was. I told her they were still stitching it up. I apologized for getting blood all over her bagel, and she laughed and said she told me not to cut it that way.

There was a pause while Lucy answered one of the kids’ questions in the background. Then she came back on the line and asked if I saw that really bright light about a half hour ago. I didn’t know what she was talking about, so she went on.

“It was crazy bright – the whole sky was this weird, pastel pink color. Then it turned white. It almost hurt to look at it was so bright.”

“Huh,” I replied. “Maybe it was a UFO.” I craned my neck to see over the mass of people still huddled by the ambulance bay. Still nothing.

Lucy laughed. “Yeah, must’ve been aliens.” She said something to one of the kids again, then came back on the line. “Ok, I’m gonna go. Joey said he’s about to throw up.”

I said goodbye and ended the call. The commotion on the other end of the ER was growing as more people from other parts of the hospital had gotten there. Something smelled terrible.

I covered my nose and mouth with my shirt and stood up. I walked over to the window so I could get a better look at what was happening. The crowd had thinned slightly. I saw a few nurses running off, probably to pick up supplies. At the end of the hall were two gurneys with medical personnel hovering over them.

The smell got worse and I gagged inside my shirt. One of the gurneys began to move as someone pushed it down the hall.

I stood in the doorway and watched. As the victim came into view, my eyes widened. It was a young woman, covered from head to toe in what I could only describe as bubbles. Some were as small as a pea, others were the size of a grapefruit. They all throbbed and pulsated from some pressure inside them, and every so often, one would tear open and weep yellow fluid onto the gurney. The smell was overwhelming.

They pushed her into the room next to mine. I could see everything from the window in the wall. They didn’t bother closing the curtains. I heard the other gurney being pushed by and glanced over at it. A girl, maybe 12 or 13. I shuddered.

I directed my gaze back at the person in the adjacent room. The doctors were popping bubbles to insert an IV. Fluid oozed onto the floor and I used every bit of self-control I could muster to avoid throwing up.

The woman’s eyes were wide and darting back and forth. It was an expression of terror. Terror and agony. As if sensing my stare, a thin stalk slid from the center of her left eye. The doctors shouted and backed up. The stalk elongated a little over a foot, and its tip grew a bubble of its own. The bubble expanded and the weight caused the stalk to droop. When it was the size of an orange, it stopped growing. It hung like an obscene fruit.

There was a yell from the room where they’d brought the other victim. I assumed it was for the same reason. On the other side of the window, more stalks emerged in a cluster from the woman’s other eye. All of them produced bubbles like a bunch of grapes.

My phone beeped. It was a text from Lucy. “Can you go look outside? It’s that light again!”

As if on cue, every light in the hospital went out. The emergency lights clicked on for half a second, then they went dead. There was nothing – nothing but the stream of pink light coming in from the open ambulance bay doors.

I stepped in the hall and asked, to no one in particular, what was happening. I doubt anyone heard me, because the light shifted from pink to white, accompanied by a blast of noise I can only describe as static. It caused me to clasp my hands to my ears and retreat backward into the room, where I cowered in the corner.

I saw shadows passing in front of the white light reflecting off the floor. Bizarrely-shaped shadows. They moved in a way that was both jerky and fluid, like jelly suspended on bone. The shadows darkened as whatever was making them got closer. Doctors and nurses in the next room shrieked, and there was a flash which silenced them. Then, two feet away in the hall, harshly illuminated from the back by the piercing, white light, I saw it.

My initial thought of jelly suspended on bone wasn’t very far off. Six ossified tubes carried heavy, segmented portions of sloshing, semi-transparent sacks. The first thing that came to mind was the body of a jellyfish. Bubbles and waving stalks decorated the entirety of its trunk and it walked by, either not noticing me or not caring about my presence. It reached the room of the other victim. Just like before, there was a scream, a flash of light, and then silence.

The light outside went dark. The sound stopped. The emergency lights in the hospital clicked on.

I scrambled to my feet and looked through the window at the room next to me. The doctors were writhing on the ground with burns on their exposed skin. The burns didn’t look life threatening. But the woman on the gurney was gone. Nothing was left but the sticky, yellow fluid on the floor.

“What the f**k was that?!,” I yelled, and banged on the window. The person who’d been stitching me up got off the floor, came back into the room, and asked me to sit down so he could finish. A nasty burn on the bridge of his nose wept tears of lymphatic fluid down his mouth and chin.

“ABD code,” he said. “Abduction. We’ve trained for them, but it was the first one I ever saw. They’re not supposed to come back for the abductees, though. I wonder why they did that.”

I sputtered and asked, “You..you people have dealt with this? How isn’t this going to be on the front page of every paper?”

“Well, you’ll forget about it in a couple hours. Everyone will. Better write down what you remember so you can tell your friends. You’ll recall something happening, but you won’t remember what it was.”

I looked at him, stupefied. “So how could you train for something like that? And how do you know it was your first one if you can’t remember?”

He shrugged. “It’s just what I was told. And good point about that other thing.” He paused and I saw a series of nearly invisible, faded scars around his hairline. He smiled and nodded. “Very good point.”

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Shadows on the Wall

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Growing up, I was convinced I’d be abducted by aliens. I lived in constant, sleep-deprived fear as every strange shadow and every reflection of light on the wall signified the beginning of what I knew would be my end. Logic told me the shadows were just piles of dirty clothes or my coat rack; that the reflections were just from passing cars on the street below. But logic fails in the face of terror. If it weren’t for my older brother, Jason, with whom I shared the bedroom, there was a very real chance I would’ve lost my mind.

I remember my 13th birthday with the same detached sense of helpless violation as a victim of sexual assault. The day itself had been fine. Pleasant, even. My parents, who were always caring and supportive, did their best to make sure my birthday was enjoyable. They knew I was stressed. They knew I was anxious. I’d never told them why, though. Only Jason knew, and he promised to keep it a secret.

After the festivities, I went up to my room to play video games. I had two hours to play before lights-out. Jason sat on his immaculately-made bed, which was in stark contrast to my messy one, and watched, offering pointers as I died over and over.

Two hours went by quickly, and Dad came in to say it was time to go to sleep. He sat next to Jason on the bed and let me know he was proud of me; how I’d been brave despite having a hard time and that things would get better. He wished me a happy birthday and kissed me goodnight, switching off the light on his way out of the room.

For a little while, I felt pretty good. Like I said, I never told my parents exactly what had been bothering me. They’d ask every so often, but they wouldn’t pry. They could tell I was struggling. I heard them cleaning up downstairs, comforted by the fact they were still awake and alert. With a sense of security I hadn’t felt in a long time, I drifted off to sleep.

After a couple hours, I woke up and glanced at the clock. 11:26. I closed my eyes again. Before I could drift off to sleep, though, I noticed something. The room smelled bad. It wasn’t a scent I could identify in the slightest – it was heavy and medicinal, but organic, too. Strange. Alien.

My eyelids lifted to the sight something shuffling toward my bed. I tried to shout and bolt away, but nothing worked. No movement, no sound. Only my eyes could receive my commands, and they stared, bulging out of my skull, as thing stood over my supine body.

I knew it’d finally come to me; this was the day I’d anticipated and dreaded for years. I tried to make out the features on its face. All I could pick up on was hideousness. Deformity. A head with its upper-left quadrant missing. A mouth with no lower mandible and a shriveled tongue lolling down to its skinny neck.

“Robbie,” it gurgled.

It knew my name. It had been studying me and it knew my name.

“No more me, Robbie. No more me. Time to grow up.”

Its head came down and touched my forehead with the remains of its upper lip. As it tilted, maggots tumbled out of the cratered skull and landed on my face. They squirmed and tumbled onto my pillow. I felt them writhing against my ears and the sides of my neck.

“I’ll miss you.”

It turned and walked toward Jason’s bed. I tried over and over to scream as panic suffused the entirety of my being; the dark world around me blurred and I knew I was going to pass out. I knew I was going to fail my brother and not be able to warn him before the creature reached him. Before I lost consciousness – before I passed into a dreamless morass of black – I hated myself for being so useless. For being so weak.

My mother’s shrill, panicked shriek catapulted me back into reality. The room was bright. It was morning. Mom stood over Jason’s bed wailing and sobbing and I heard Dad thundering across the hall from their bedroom. He burst into the room and immediately saw what Mom did. I watched his knees tremble, as if he were about to fall.

I didn’t move. Everything from the night was coming back and I knew – I was certain – Jason was dead. My big brother was gone. The certainty was overwhelming and searing tears of leaked down my cheeks onto the pillow. Something wriggled against my neck. I gasped and leapt to my feet.

Everything went slowly for the next few minutes.

I turned and saw the ring of maggots around my head print on the pillow. Dad was crossing the room to take me in his arms when he saw the bugs on my pillow and in my hair and whispered, “oh my God.” He picked me up. He hadn’t done that in years.

I rode out of the room in his strong arms. “Don’t look at your brother’s bed,” he ordered. I couldn’t help myself. I looked as we exited. One glance was all I needed.

Jason’s body was on the bed. He was wearing a stained and dirt-encrusted blue suit. “Oh no,” I thought to myself, as I took in his injuries: the torn lower mandible. The caved-in skull. The desiccated, green-gray skin that was mostly gone.

Mom’s wracking sobs had escalated to hysterical screaming. As Dad and I rounded the corner and headed downstairs, we heard her shouting, “how did you come back? Why are you here? Who did this?”

Dad whispered in my ear as we walked. “It’s okay sweetheart. It’s okay. We don’t know who did it, but it’s going to be all right. It’s not your brother anymore. It’s just the body he doesn’t need. He’s still in heaven, okay? He’s still in heaven.”

I started to shake and Dad’s voice cracked with emotion as he spoke those last words. “He’s in heaven.” It sounded horribly, horribly familiar. I closed my eyes and saw a coffin. I saw my parents standing next to it, sobbing. I saw a large, framed picture of Jason and a room full of friends and family.

But I also saw the toys I was playing with. And I saw Jason sitting next to me. We played while everyone else cried. He grinned and said, “Don’t be upset, Robbie. I’ll be here to help while you grow up. You don’t have to feel sad.”

My aunt, Lindsay, came up to me and stood in the exact same spot where Jason was sitting. I remember thinking it was strange she could do that, and then she knelt down and said, “he’s in heaven” before walking back to my cousins and uncle. Jason winked at my confused face, then we kept playing with our toys.

“Jason died,” I whispered to Dad.

He nodded and I watched as he eyed the muddy footprints from the back door which led up the down the hall and up the stairs to my room.

“You were probably too young to remember, but he loved you so, so much.”

I thought back to all the fun we’d had in our room over the years, all leading up to the video games on my 13th birthday the night before.

“You’re the same age he was now,” Dad said, and tears freely flowed down into his beard. “You’re all grown up.”

Something from the previous night buzzed in my ear. “No more me, Robbie. No more me. Time to grow up.”

And then it clicked. And my screams joined those of my mother in a terrible, dissonant chorus.

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