Stop. Wait. Freeze. Take your time. Don’t rush. Don’t hurry. Don’t go too quickly. Have to be smart. Have to be careful. Don’t want to screw this up. Don’t want to make a mistake. It’s too important to be accurate. To be right. Don’t blow this. Don’t blow everyone up.
Tick. Tick. Tick. Time is wasting. You only have so long. Be careful but don’t be too slow. Being too slow is the end of things. Hurry. Hurry. Hurry! But with care and precision. Go fast but also go slow. Come on. You can do it. Don’t think about it too much. Just do it and be confused later. What’s wrong with you? Don’t stop to consider it. You don’t have that time. You don’t have any time to waste.
Feel that sweat? Try to stop sweating. It doesn’t help. It’s just going to make your fingers inaccurate. Wipe them off and keep going. You can’t stop. If you stop, everyone dies. Everyone dies and it’ll be your fault. Your fault. You don’t want that so you have to succeed. You have to get it right. Hurry! But not too fast!
You’re in charge but you’re to blame, no matter what happens. Better make sure it ends the way you need it to, of course. Better make sure you get it right and save the day. This is what you wanted, right? Power over life and death? The chance to be a hero? You certainly talked about it enough. It just so happens the wrong person heard you. Bad luck, I suppose. Bad luck but you can’t be unlucky with this. You have to do it right. You have all the information, so why not just do it the right way?
People are screaming now. That was close, wasn’t it? Too close for comfort. You have to keep going, though. You can’t pay attention to what everyone else is doing. They have their own lives to worry about, but you have everyone’s lives to worry about. You can’t slip up. You have to ignore the gunfire going on. You have to ignore the blood and the smoke. Those are distractions and you can’t afford a distraction. They can’t afford a distraction.
The clock is getting tighter now. I know you can see it. I know you can hear it. You feel that tickticktickticktick getting louder and louder in your ears. The situation is coming unraveled but you have to stay strong. You have to stay focused. Do not let yourself become part of the problem. This is your fault, yes, but you can fix it. Have to fix it. Don’t screw it up.
You’re through. Good. You’re close. Just one wire left. Oh no. Oh no. They didn’t know and you didn’t tell them, did you? They don’t know you’re colorblind. There’s a red wire and a green wire left and you can’t tell the difference. One is right. The other is death.
You have to guess. Just guess.
Runnin’ with the Devil
It’s my own damn fault. I won’t even deny it. I let my ego get the better of me. In my defense, though, it was a sure thing. I had won marathons. Not just competed in. Won. Seven of them over the last few years. I was making a name for myself on the running circuit and maybe I got a slightly bigger head than was deserved.
I should explain. I want to say it was the other day but I don’t really know anymore. I was warming up and stretching in preparation for my morning 5K when I felt someone come up next to me. It was this little old man. He couldn’t have been taller than five feet and was bent and twisted. He was dressed in a red tracksuit. I could have been nice, but I was just annoyed at an interruption.
I asked him if I could help him and he asked if he could run with me. I snorted and the hopeful look on his face crumbled into sadness and then a weird kind of anger. He asked again if he could join me on my run and I said something about him not being able to keep up with me. He asked if I wanted to make a bet about him being able to outpace me and I told him sure because, come on, it was a sure thing. He asked what I wanted and, jokingly, I told him I wanted the ability to run forever without getting tired. It was stupid and clearly kidding, but he nodded. So, then I asked him what he wanted and he just smiled and said that we can figure that out after. Whatever. It wasn’t going to matter.
We lined up at what we determined the starting line to be and finished stretching. Before we started, he asked if he could change. I assumed he meant clothes so I agreed. I remember my heart sinking when he stood up straight. This little old man grew two feet at least and his body swelled and expanded. The tracksuit melded to his body and became his skin, bright-red and crackling, and his thin white hair became a thick mane of pure black. Worst of all, the wrinkles disappeared, replaced by an otherworldly attractiveness. He turned to me and smiled and the strength in my muscles evaporated.
He asked if I was ready and I had to nod. On the count of three, we began to run and I went as fast as I could. He kept up, but he wasn’t outpacing me. I could tell he was surprised but we continued.
That was, I don’t know, weeks ago. All I know is that we’re still running. I’m getting tired, though, and I don’t want to stop. I think that if I do stop, there’s no end to the bad that’s coming my way.
I don’t want to look over at him.
I’m scared of what happens if I do.
If one were so inclined to say something nice about Jimmy, and that was often difficult to do, it could at least be said that he was good at using his words. He never thought of himself as a dealer. Rather, he was a procurer of and merchant of pharmaceutical products. He was also very good at it. Whatever a person wanted, Jimmy would be able to get it. Maybe not right away, but sooner than most.
If he were asked about how he managed to lay his annoyingly-manicured hands on the rarest of medicinal supplements, he would laugh and demure and never reveal a single thing about his distribution network. If asked about how he managed to escape arrest and prosecution, he would simply change the subject, since it was fairly common knowledge that his hands were so deep in the pockets of the local law enforcement that he could tell them to turn their heads and cough.
All of that changed, however, when he came into possession of a certain batch of fentanyl. See, this batch had experimental properties and had been designed to help curb drug abuse by any means necessary. This set of the drug, in particular, had been chemically altered to induce vomiting, with the intended effect being a sort of conditioning to avoid drugs. In theory, it was a brilliant move.
The reality was more dire than intended, however. What those in the lab did not take into consideration was the effect that other consumed drugs could have in conjunction with the tainted material. As a result, the expected side effect shifted from unpleasant to deadly as the effect was amplified. In other words, those who took it did throw up. They just happened to do so with the entirety of their organs.
Jimmy went on the run, as he had several furious families hunting for his head after their afflicted loved ones deposited lungs and kidneys and intestines on the floor. He hid where he could and never stayed in the same place for long. Without intending to do so, the authorities had managed to destroy his business, an irony given that they had been trying for years with no success.
Nowhere seemed to be safe for him until he came across a former customer. She had been his lover once and they had shared some hazy times together before she decided to get clean and disappear. He never found out why, but she offered him a safe haven for the night, which he took willingly.
That night, he ate a real meal with gusto. Finally things were turning around for him! It was when his stomach started to rumble that he looked at her in panic. She stared at him, coldness etched on her face, as she told him that she needed to ensure their daughter’s future would be safe. Without him.
On hearing that, he felt his heart leap in his chest.
And then it leapt out of it.
It was never supposed to be found. At least, not the way it was. The dead air between radio stations was usually just a safe haven for pirate radio and government communications or so we’d been led to believe. In any case, it was something to be ignored at best and used to break the law at worst. Nothing like what it ended up being used for.
It started simply. A few people flipping between stations on their drives to work noticed that one of the dead channels had noise on it. It wasn’t loud. It wasn’t grating. It was quiet, soft, almost soothing in a way. They had to turn the volume up considerably in order to make anything out but, even then, the only sound that could be heard was a consistent whispering. Any possible words were lost in the quiet, insistent pulse of the sound, but it didn’t seem to matter. Everyone who listened didn’t want to change the channel.
In fact, they told everyone they could about it. Sure, they were laughed at to begin with. Why would anyone want to listen to creepy whispering on a dead station? Curiosity, though, continues to kill cats and eventually more and more people flipped to the channel to hear what all the fuss was about. As they did, the whispering slowly increased in volume. Words were still impossible to make out, by and large, although some reported hearing occasional clear sounds. Most often, a ‘wuh’ was reported, though nobody knew what it meant.
As these things do, the strange whispering became a phenomenon that exploded in population. Teens and young adults started challenges in which they would listen to the station for as long as they could, which led to a few hospitalizations. Every one of them swore up and down that they heard actual voices, all of which were telling them dark secrets. It was just exhaustion, they were told. It had to be. Otherwise, the lingering fear of what it could mean would simply grow.
The volume increased as even more people tuned in to experience things for themselves. Experts tried to record the whispers, now closer to simply speaking, in order to decipher the message being sent, but every attempt ended in destroyed equipment. Something violent would rip through the speakers and damage electronics. It was baffling.
One day, though, a breakthrough came. One damned scientist determined that the sound was made up of layered phrases repeated over and over. When he isolated them and played them to his colleagues, hearts sank into the ground. There were two phrases in the mix.
We’re coming. You die.
People were urged not to panic. It was just a prank being pulled by some smart little sociopaths. They would be found and punished accordingly. The important thing was not to freak out.
That message ended, though, when the phrases changed. Now, the whisper was clear and understandable for everyone and there was no mistaking the meaning.
The front desk clerk looks at you strangely and why wouldn’t she? You look a sight. Long black hair that’s clearly a wig, big sunglasses covering your tired eyes, wrapped up in a big, shapeless sweater that hides the symbols carved into your body. You’re closer to a formless mass than you are to a person right now. Suspicious, she asks you how you’d like to pay for the room and you push a wad of cash at her. It may be enough. You can’t be sure. You grabbed what you could in the brief time you had. She takes pity on you, though, and accepts it before handing you a key. You have one night in an actual bed again.
In the room, which is small and dark and slightly dirty, you flop down on the mattress and feel just a tiny bit of your anxiety leak out of your body. This isn’t safe, such as it is, but certainly safer. You know you need to think of the next step, the next stop, the next run, but for the moment, all you want to do is rest and do something normal. Maybe watch some TV.
You grab the remote and press the power button. The screen blares to life, but it’s not the usual hotel informational channel. It’s the news and your stomach knots as you see them, standing in front of what has been your house, tears on their lying faces. The people that call themselves Mom and Dad are begging you to come home. They say you’re not well and that you need your medication. They say they just want you to be safe.
The gall of these animals! Their crocodile tears make you physically ill as you watch them lie to the world. They don’t want you back to keep you safe. They never have. No, they need you for what sits below the house. Of course, the country will never see that. They keep it so well-hidden that even repair workers don’t find it.
You’ve seen it, though. Experienced it. The chains and the table and the red candles. The knives and the brands and the profane chants. You have the marks on your arms and your legs and your stomach and chest to remind you. No, not marks.
You feel yourself trace the biggest cut on your arm as you feel the tiniest surge of victory enter your heart. They are on national TV, begging and sobbing, because you did the unthinkable. You escaped and have thus far denied them their victory. They need you to come back because they cannot complete the ritual without you. Until you return, they have lost.
What’s that? A knock at the door. Your blood freezes. Banging now.
They demand that you come out so you can go home.
The cold steel against your stomach weighs heavy in your hand as you pull it out, finger stroking the trigger.
Go home? Over your dead body.
Time After Time
Unless I press the button, that is.
It’s 6:26 AM. The forecast on the radio is a cloudy day with scattered rain showers. The next song to play is some Top 40 crap. Downstairs, my wife is making eggs and bacon to surprise me. In eight hours, she’s going to be dead and I can’t do a thing to stop it.
I see myself from behind but can’t stop myself from pushing the button, no matter how much I scream. I feel a moment of pure regret before everything goes white and I wake up at home.
I burst in the door and start pounding on the glass. Maybe this time I’ll get through to me. Maybe this time I can break the cycle. Turn around. Turn around, damn you! Please, just this once. Turn around and listen to me. Please.
I’m running now, as fast as I can, trying to keep up with myself. I remember the exact order of turns, which helps. Left, right, right, left, left, left, right, right, straight ahead. 49264#. Turn the handle clockwise and push. Maybe I can be fast enough this time. Maybe I can catch up and stop myself from ruining reality. I just have to be faster. I have to run, even though my lungs are burning with exertion. I have to do this.
I’m entering the building and I feel the frantic pulsing in my veins as I look for myself. It shouldn’t be hard. I know what I look like. There! Rounding that corner. Oh no, there’s gunfire. Those men – three of them – are dying again. Over and over. I want to say I can’t imagine a worse fate, but I kinda can. Ignore it. Move past them. Catch up.
I’m driving like a maniac through the streets, hoping beyond all hope that I can catch myself before I do the stupid thing I am going to be doing. I know I have the gun. I just pray I haven’t used it yet, but I know I have. I always do.
The car peels out of the driveway and I helplessly watch myself drive away. I wasn’t fast enough. There’s the other car, though. Thank goodness.
I see my wife on the floor, blood everywhere, and I almost kneel in grief before it dawns on me that I’m not there. I realize what I’m headed to do. I have to stop myself before I start this nightmare.
I’m outside my home now, listening to the gunfire going on. I know what’s happening but I can’t stop it. I can’t.
Get out of there, I scream to myself. Break this cycle. Don’t be home when they come. It’s too late. The SUV slams to a halt and they exit, guns in hand.
There’s a button at work, I hear myself tell her, that can fix all our problems forever. And I have a key to the room. I think I’m going to press it.
I messed up. I didn’t intervene.
I Want a New Drug
Revolutionary. Life-changing. A modern-day miracle. When Zenilif came on the market, it was mostly ignored at first. Yet another weird name for another obscure pill designed to lower blood pressure or reduce the side effects of sodium or something like that? Who cared? It was just another lab-grown combination of chemicals in a market full of snake oil, so even the effectiveness went largely under the radar. People took it and it worked and the world went on without noticing.
It was the first death of someone taking the drug that made people sit up and pay attention. Rather, it was when she was dead and then, somehow, wasn’t dead.
Doctors and scientists were stunned. A person doesn’t just recover from a fatal stroke. It doesn’t happen. And yet, when nurses went into her room to move her to the morgue, she was sitting up and looking around the room. Even more shocking, she was speaking normally and asking questions. This was particularly surprising as the stroke that had killed her had not been her first. She had been unable to speak for about seven months at the point of her death, so she had not just come back to life, but had come back and was thriving.
The second death, a man in Indiana, was the one that set the world ablaze with interest. He had been deathly ill for several weeks and started taking Zenilif because he figured that being a guinea pig in his last days would serve the world. When he passed, his family was around him and wept as he breathed his last. It was only a couple minutes later when he gasped, sat up, and said hello.
The media went wild over Zenilif. The drug was lauded as the cure for death and demand skyrocketed. Everyone wanted to stave off the cold embrace of the grave. Production went into overdrive to meet the needs of the masses howling for their salvation. The company’s stock soared and everyone was happy. Everyone’s life was improved by the existence of Zenilif.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, was the lack of interest paid when the first resurrection started to experience issues. Nothing glaring at first. While walking around her house, she felt a presence behind her. That feeling soon escalated, however, into feeling hot and dizzy. She began to grow paranoid and experience phantom pain in the back of her head. Doctors were, again, confused because they had nothing to base her experiences on. When she started screaming about seeing him behind every person, confusion morphed quickly into concern and then fear when the Indiana Miracle Man, as he had been dubbed, swore that something was lurking right over the shoulder of everyone around him. His head bursting into flames shifted the fear into outright panicking terror.
The makers of Zenilif were confused. They had never intended this to happen. Still, they did not understand a universal truth.
When you bring someone back from the dead, they don’t return alone.
Ring of Fire
I’m surrounded. I’ve been surrounded for I don’t know how long now. Days? Weeks? Years? I can’t remember. All I know is that there is a wall of flame as far as I can see in every direction. I’ve tried to walk through, but the heat seared my clothes. I’ve tried to find the circumference but got exhausted and passed out, only waking up back at the little home I’ve made for myself in what I can only assume is the middle. It feels like futility is hunting to see if there’s a way to escape and, honestly, I’ve stopped trying. I don’t know why I’m here or how I’m here but there’s no way out.
It’s not been fun, but it’s less bad than you may expect. I’m not cooking or baking or boiling or anything like that, unless I get too close to the flame. The temperature is moderated, somehow, so I’m at least sort of comfortable. There’s food and even water, although how that still exists is beyond my understanding. It feels like I’m being taken care of and that makes me both sad and confused.
Eventually, I learned to just roll with things and carved out some semblance of a life here. I don’t think that was a good idea, though. I think it made whoever in charge mad. See, lately I’ve noticed that the fire, which had just been a nice, unmoving wall, is starting to change.
It crackles and hisses as it begins to ascend. Something about that twists my heart. It had been static for so long, too long. Longer than I can remember. Now it’s changing and fear spins off of it like the smoke that curls into the sky. It’s getting taller and angrier and I could swear that a disapproving face is lurking in the yellow and orange and red.
I tried to sleep last night – or whatever counts for night here – and that was a mistake too. When I woke up, the fire had changed more. It was closer now. However far the edges had been apart, they had moved. Condensed. I can see the wall all around me now and it keeps getting higher and hotter. I’m sweating now. Not pouring sweat, but there’s that annoying thin sheen on my forehead.
Wait. No, it’s getting closer for sure. It definitely is hotter than it had been and is so tall I can’t see what passed for the sky anymore. It’s collapsing on me. I’m starting to cook. I can feel myself getting crispy and it hurts and it hurts and it hurts.
It’s closer now and every nerve in my body is screaming at me. I can’t move. I’m curled up in a ball, hoping for some sort of relief, but it’s not coming. It’s too hot. I can’t move. It’s too hot. It’s too –
I wake up. I’m confused. I’m surrounded. I’ve been surrounded for I don’t know how long now. Days? Weeks? Years?
I can’t remember.
They call her Bella. It’s appropriate, you think. ‘Beautiful’ in Italian and, goodness, she certainly is both of those. She’s tall and curvy and has long, black hair with little streaks of purple in it. Every time you see her, even your eyelids start to sweat. You’ve always been reasonably confident. You can usually introduce yourself to people and flirt until the sun comes up the next morning, but this time is different. Something deep inside you aches and twitches and you turn into that anxious little kid again. You remember the awkwardness you felt trying to impress that person you liked and are brought back to being that puddle of nerves electrified by desire.
One day, you finally work up the guts to introduce yourself. She seems surprised but that initial astonishment turns quickly into smoldering heat. Her eyes glimmer and she smiles and your heart does a twist in your chest that you could almost swear should be fatal. She asks you your name and you tell her, even though you aren’t really sure of what it is yourself anymore. She says you’re cute and you can actually feel your blood pumping through your veins. She wants to know if you want to go on a date on Friday and you nearly break the sound barrier with the speed with which you say yes.
You’ve heard the rumors, naturally. She’s dangerous. She’s psycho. Her partners disappear. And on and on. You always chalk them up to jealousy. Everyone who mentions those nasty bits of slander is probably someone who couldn’t get her attention. How sad!
Date night comes and your stomach does flips. You put on your best clothes, do your hair perfectly, and even go purchase a bottle of wine for after dinner. You’re ready. Well, as ready as you can be while going out with a goddess.
The night is perfect. You go out dancing and take over the floor. You get an incredible dinner at her favorite place. You walk, hand-in-hand, back to her apartment and there you stand, nerves on fire, unsure of what happens next. You need not worry, though. She takes your face in her hands, leans in, and kisses you. Her lips are soft and smooth and your knees nearly buckle. You feel your heart begin to race and you assume it’s from excitement.
She takes your hand and leads you inside, your heart still thudding in your chest. She sits you down on her couch and watches you. Excitement turns to worry when your heart won’t slow down. It won’t slow down. Worry slides quickly into fear as you see the world begin to melt around you. Colors change and morph into shadowy creatures lurking in the corner. You look at her and she’s smiling, though now with dark joy. She says she lied to you and you feel your vision start to blur. As the world fades away, you hear her last confession.
Her name isn’t Bella. It’s Donna.
Here is where I''ll post random stories that aren't, as of yet, in a larger book. Call it a free ride into the mouth of madness, yo.