Nov. 24th, 2014 10:15 pm
fodschwazzle: (Sandy hole)

It's a bar with glossy oak floors and vintage soup cans full of shelled, salted peanuts punctuating a dark walnut counter top. It's Jackson, Tennessee, "The Devil Went Down to Georgia" playing on the jukebox in the fifteen minutes before karaoke starts. Karaoke night was specified--I never begged for the privilege to know whether talentless drunk people shrieking into a mic were inherently any different in Tennessee or in New York City, though I suspected I would get to hear more country music than I would normally enjoy. This was the time and the place. Never question.

The man two seats down at the bar is tearing thin paper strips in spindles from his coaster with his right index fingernail while his left hand emphatically chops the bar towards the man to his right. His red and white, plaid, button-up shirt makes me somewhat dizzy watching it saw up and down with whatever it is that he's saying, fan blades above twisting shadows all around the room. He is nervous about something. When one of his thoughts ends, his wrist lamely dies with a thud on the counter top until the other man is finished speaking, but the fingertip scratches even harder, sending flakes of paper to the floor.

The bartender looks at him with a bit of disdain. Almost as much as he uses on me, the only black man in a bar filled with white people in Tennessee. I am trying to overlook that fact as I glance back at him, slowly nod my head, and drink from my beer. Yes, I am alone. See how calm I am? You can trust me as long as you keep serving me, I think at him. He blinks, straightens his back, and turns.

The woman to my left has shoulder length brown hair that curls at the end in an uneven roll. The necklace around her neck is fixed with a clasp that is little more than a hoop and a metal hook to slide through it. The metal is bronze coated, but it has flecks chipped off at the base of that hoop, as if someone needed to hammer it into place. She is wearing a black, red accented dress that dips low in the back, revealing a delicate pair of shoulder blades, smooth skin, and the smallest fibers that could yet be called hair. It strikes me as funny, then, that we would look at such a thing as disgusting. What, is she supposed to shave her back, when moving her arms to reach back there would change the shape of the thing she was shaving?

I think too much, Lucy tells me, although she's the one always knowing where to be, when, and who to hunt.

He sits in the empty chair to my right. His grey hat has a black and white striped ribbon around it and is shaped like a bowler hat, but flatter on top. Is he a regular? Does he know that I'm not? Lucy never tells me enough. I see the left side of his thin face, brown and grey tinged stubble creeping subtly across his chin, the steep curve of the  jaw slanting upward and outward towards his ears. Crow's feet amiably crease in an upward slant at the corners of his eyes while he looks at the bartender, nodding without word. Just a smiling nod. He's a regular. As he slowly turns towards me, the whiteness in his teeth and the tightness of skin on his brow give him a predatory look--the same look I'm looking for.

The smiling eyes depart and return like a man remembering to hold the door for someone immediately behind him.

"Hello," he says, offering his hand.

I have to shake. "Hi."

"You're not from around here, are you?"

You're not either. No trace of the region on your tongue. "No, I'm visiting family. I'm from out of state."

"Where about?"

"New York City."

"Really? Never been."

I'm glad, although that doesn't change what I need to do. "You don't sound like you come from here either. Where are you from?" I ask.

He takes a moment to straighten the vest he's wearing. I'm guessing that he normally sings swing or jazz music, given his hat and vest over a striped tie and a white, long-sleeved shirt. "I'm actually from California."

"Really? That's a long way to go to be here."

"So is New York City."

"That's true," I reply, signaling for another drink from the bartender as the silence stretches across the bar.  "What brings you here, if you don't mind my asking?"

He leans back on his stool, stretching his arms behind his neck. He has muscles, but they leave much to the imagination as the cuffs on his shirt are stretched down below his wrists. "Work," he sighs. "I'm a nurse. California has far too many nurses, and no one can afford to live there. I came here, where people are more hopeful and more soulful. What about you? Is your family in Jackson?"

"Mostly in Jackson," I lie, shivering a little bit to know his occupation. "I have an aunt in Nashville that I'll visit as soon as I'm done here."

He stares at me for a moment, intently sipping from his drink, which is a red lager. I'm not much for the names. I never drink, I think, before realizing that my glass is almost empty.

"I'm not much for family reunions," I say, to finish up my previous statement. He is still staring when the karaoke DJ starts speaking about signing up for singing. Her voice is loud and cuts the air with overenthusiasm. His attention diverts to the stage, or rather, the area where tables and chairs are pushed aside to resemble a stage.

"Excuse me," he says. Well, at least I'll get to hear him sing before I do what I need to do. I signal for another drink while I look down the bar. The coaster is in pieces now, but the man is gone. Beneath the pieces, I can see scratches in bar top where the fingernail went when the coaster was done. Some of the coaster pieces are tinged red.

I glance at the bartender. His eyes are different now, dejected and older. He is looking at the floor while holding a dripping rag in his hand. What is he staring at? He is barely responsive, moving like mud when I signal him for a drink. He stops just before setting the frothing beer on the counter. He is confused. I already have a beer, although it is half gone. My head feels warm as I reach up and take the beer from his hand. Did I accidently order twice? Is this my third or my fourth?

He doesn't return right away. Two country songs about, as near as I can tell, whiskey and soap, crackle and twang to the bleating of a she-goat and the reasonably on-key singing of the woman who was sitting to my left. When did she move? For her size, she has impressive vocals. Her face is young and enthusiastic while she's singing, but when she hands the mic to the man in the grey hat for the third song, for a brief moment her jaw falls slack, her eyes flash white as if the pupils suddenly vanish, and all color vanishes from her cheeks. As soon as the mic leaves her hand, her face returns almost to normal, but the youth is gone. This is why I'm here, I think.

I fail to realize that I'm probably already affected. Another beer is in front of me. Aspects of the room are beginning to swing with the beat of Bobby Darin's "Mack the Knife" as performed by the man I am pursuing. I think I'm losing him, Lucy, I think as another beer appears in front of me. The fan blades are now below the light source and every spin of the blades puts a new quarter of the room in darkness. He's a good singer: even the shiny slats of wood undulate to the rhythm of his song. I realize that I'm half off my stool and pull myself up with my right elbow and forearm, but gravity is so powerful now. The bartender is trying to remove the cork from a bottle--do they serve wine here? If not, what else comes with a cork?-- He's not having a good time with it, his hands slip, and the bottle neck breaks off. He could clean up the glass shards, but he just stares at the severed neck, the blood on his hand, the neck.

I focus again. The upbeat DJ is slouched back in her seat, smoking a cigarette or a blunt, I can't tell. Her hands cross her eyes again and again, the mascara smearing with her tears. The mood is greasy now, like you can't hold it or predict which way it will slide, but it's careening towards the floor, and there is nothing you can do except throw your body and life at it as it falls. Everyone is twisting under the weight of trying to be happy and alive. Everyone is trying to be loved but not succeeding. No one is speaking, and I'm starting to think that this man is not a regular at all.  His song slows while he struts left and right, his fingers wrapped around the microphone. He is so happy to be heard. The metal poles supporting the stools become jagged with his cheer and no longer support me as I tumble to the floor. I think I'm losing myself, Lucy.

The thud awakens me a bit, so I crawl to the bathroom to clear my stomach of all of my drinks as quickly as I can. His song is over, and I know that he sees me, and he's coming, and I'm crawling as fast as I can, and I'm through the door and the stall door and to the toilet and throwing up more than I have ever in my life. With my heel, I nudge the stall door shut, but it doesn't latch. In a moment, his shadow towers over me.

"You know me," he says. He's still smiling. "You're here for me. Tell me everything you need to know about me."

I cannot. Even if I wasn't losing my stomach right now, I couldn't speak and jeopardize everything.

"I can tell you this. You're on the floor right now. You don't know me well enough," he laughs, before  kneeling down beside me, pressed grey slacks brushing through the dirt around the toilet.

He leans forward so that his eyes are on mine. The gleam in them: the smile is fearsome. His right hand walks up my hunched over back and begins to rub my hair. "I'll do you a favor, man from New York. I'm going to show you the future. The far off future, long after you and I are gone. You decide if that's something you want, and then you tell me why you're looking for me after you decide."

His right hand spreads across the back of my head and then clenches. I see it.

An endless sea of hairless bodies writhing against each other, eating, contorting, copulating. Swimming in blood, from one horizon to the next, like a rock overturned to see only worms looping together, mammals lost in a multitude of screams in millions of different pitches and tones. This is how it ends. No character, no consequence, just a feast of skin until the world is no more than blood and bone, and it's already begun, Jonas, it's already started.

When he removes the hand from the back of my head, I tell him everything. How it's our goal to track down unique individuals and detain them, if at all possible. How our organization is run by a magnificent young girl named Lucy, and how we came to work together. I tell him how we found him. I tell him my name and my entire history. I tell him what we thought he was capable of, and he stops me and laughs, because we've already reached the hotel I'm staying at, and he's already tucking me into bed, cinching the sheets around my shoulders when I can only vaguely recall the fires in the bar, the smoke, and the ambulance pulling up as we walked away. He laughs.

"I'm Suicide, Jonas. I make people want to die. I'm the fear of living another day or the sensation of seeing someone else slip away."

I can speak no more.

"You'll never catch me, though I welcome you to try again," he says, before leaning in closer and dropping his voice to a whisper. "I lied about how the world will end. That is why you are still alive." He exhales softly into my ear.

"Chase me, if you dare."

He's gone. I still don't know his name, but he knows mine.

fodschwazzle: (Sandy hole)

The machine clicks to life, a soft humming sound whirring into a clacking drone of gears thumping together before easing into a steady turn. Somewhere deep within, a whistle squeals and chirps while the pistons sigh. Old timing belts moan as the heart of the engine exhales.

The floorboards reverberate with the startup, startling the guests, all gratified to feel a pulse once again. The yacht continues to roll across the ocean while winds and heavy waves batter it. I, the captain's son, at ease in the same chair that I always sit in, observe the lights flickering on overhead. As always, I begin watching. In just thirty minutes, people will begin dying.

I must be prepared.

It's a dim room, chandelier placed at an angle to amplify the room's red velvet overtone. Outside, sea spray crashes against the hull, providing a rocking motion to the chandelier that could render any man seasick if he stared at it long enough. My chair is situated to the right of the fireplace, where I can see every guest without taking too much notice on myself.

I am the youngest man in the room. Barely above my age and around the crowd, a dapper man with silvery blond hair and a spruced up, loaned black overcoat flirts with a woman in a scarlet dress. She is considerably older, but she hides it well (if stuffing one's age into a corset and covering it with makeup can pass for subtlety).  He is not as charming as he believes either, laughing more than social propriety merits while his twinkling, inebriated eyes flit down her neckline. He is Mr. Hair. She is Ms. Silky.

This rectangular room has three doors--two on the sides and one main door at the far end, opposite the fireplace. To the right of the main door, a young woman wearing a deep blue dress sits at a black, upright piano while staring at the ceiling board where the rain gets in and trickles behind the red wallpaper. She is watching the wallpaper pulse like a living artery, wondering whether she can play the piano without drawing too much attention to herself. Her mother, sitting on a sofa with an older man at her side, is watching her intently, crows feet skewing her vivid blue eyes so that her intent is all the more visible. Her mother's fingers are twitching against her teal blue, shimmering gown, counting years of paid tutoring towards a moment, a crowd like this. The mother wants her daughter to play, and the daughter wants to play, but their reasons are too different. The daughter is Ms. Piano. The mother is Ms. Twitch.

The older man cares little for the company and more for the comestibles, which are bountiful. To his right, he has carefully commandeered a golden tray of glacé petit fours, carefully arranged (by him), to cover the silver platter bereft of prosciutto wrapped melon slivers, pungent cheeses, and spicy sausages. No one is fooled of course. Ms. Silky has passed the low appetizer table twice, just to give him the benefit of the doubt. This man's sleek black shoes are off; his gouty feet snake through the coarse, sable fur of the panther skin rug. He is Mr. Walrus.

His son is situated on the couch opposite him with a young woman under his arm, champagne glass cradled in that same hand. This son's head is back, and his eyes are closed, moustache carefully groomed to always depict a restful smile. His ears are open to the woman seated at the piano, awaiting music. He thinks he likes music, but he really enjoys the sound of her body making music. He is a professor at a prominent university, the lowest caste person in the room besides his woman, although the woman under his arm would have him, and everyone else, think her a simple student in his classroom. In truth, her silver sequined dress, gaudy in the ruddy undertones of this mansion-yacht, covers her fervor and her wrath. In her leather purse, on her left hip facing me, her hand slips in and out of contact with a bible and a paring knife. He is Mr. Comfort. She is Ms. Church.

In any passive exchange, I am more the victim than the perpetrator. The surviving member of the onslaught in twenty minutes will finish me off before throwing herself overboard. That is a bad outcome.

Mr. Walrus will lean towards the table to "discreetly" grab the next platter of hors d'oeuvres when his right leg spasms, kicking hard against the couch and careening him towards the platter. His diabetic seizure contorts his head strangely as his head slaps the table, body girth providing the momentum to snap his neck. His son sits bolt upright, shaking champagne onto the hand and into the purse of the Ms. Church, soiling her bible if that ever really mattered in the first place. She reaches for the knife while these sounds are silenced by the piano beginning to play. She cuts Mr. Comfort's throat with a series of reckless jabs while Ms. Twitch heads for the main door. The piano is resolute, pouring out Chopin's "Revolutionary Étude," likely Ms. Piano's favorite song.  Ms. Church stands and twists, looking for someone. Mr. Hair has started screaming, though Ms. Silky fails to ascertain why, reflexively slapping him hard across the face. Neither of them can stop Ms. Church from ending Ms. Piano's song.

When Ms. Twitch returns, she has a revolver aimed at Ms. Church's chest, but the sight of her daughter at the piano sends her wild, firing into Ms. Silky directly behind Ms. Church's shoulder. The bullets skitter through and scrape gold coating off of the trim that lies between the red wallpaper and the maroon wood paneling beneath it. It is enough to rouse Mr. Hair, who moves to grapple with Ms. Church. He is stronger than he seems. Though Mr. Hair takes many cuts, she winds up with the knife in her stomach, sobbing for reasons only Mr. Comfort might have known as she drops to the floor. Ms. Twitch's nerves tremble against the trigger, firing again. It's one shot in the chamber, now, and I am the only one left in the room when the lights go out.

That is a bad outcome.

Twenty minutes before the outcome, I begin to loiter around the group more. I know their timing. The hum of their motions before they happen resonates within me, urgency kicking my nerves into action. The first objective is to take the knife. At nineteen minutes, the professor lifts his head and whispers something into Ms. Church's ear. At that moment, her hand twists out of her purse and begins to rest on her stomach. This gesture lasts approximately seven seconds, three of which are receiving direct eye contact from Ms. Twitch. When her glance lifts over their shoulders towards Mr. Hair once again, her real target, I have four seconds to reach down and snatch the knife.

The next step is more risky. The loss of Mr. Walrus is the instigating factor in the violence, not the knife itself. Worse, if Ms. Church realizes that she no longer possesses the knife, and she will at seventeen minutes and thirty seconds, she will begin to look for an alternative weapon. The silver spatula on the platter that Mr. Walrus will soon bash with his face will wind up in her hand in exactly three seconds after he dies. I have to do something with the petit fours.

I use the paring knife to spear and eat as many petit fours as I can manage. The objective is to counter his capability to eat himself into a seizure. I target the cakes that I know he will go after, in the order that I know he will go after them, carving those that I cannot eat into tiny pieces that his fat fingers cannot pick up. As the time draws near, with a full knife stacked with miniature cakes, I let Ms. Church see me from behind Mr. Walrus' couch. I let her watch as I intently gaze into her eyes, licking the cakes off the end of her vengeful knife, one by one. She cannot hide her horrified expression as I pocket the knife and return to my seat. As dangerous as Ms. Twitch can be, she receives no instigating factor in standing when her daughter starts to play the piano, except that Ms. Twitch truly doesn't like the "Revolutionary Étude," beginning to squirm in her seat. Ms. Church is pinned by the fact that her chair is facing away from me, the most dangerous thing in the room, and Mr. Comfort is too much in the moment of listening to let go of her. Mr. Hair and Ms. Silky are getting along fine.

Mr. Walrus does not spasm and fall towards the table. He falls asleep on the arm of his chair, propping his head up with one large fist. Ms. Church does not budge, as much as she wants to look over her shoulder and ascertain my location. As the time ticks forward, counting to thirty-five minutes, I know my victory. I stand up and exit the room through the right door, so that she cannot see me leave.

I walk through the hallway and out onto the deck, where the sheets of wind and rain dance across in elegant arcs. I embrace the rain on my face and overcoat. No one died. In five minutes, I will be free.

"Release me! I solved your riddle!" I shout to the sky even as my mouth fills with water.

Unrelenting, the rain continues to beat down upon my face as those familiar sounds begin anew. The lights, as they always do, flicker and die in the cabin and on the prow.

"Release me!" I gasp, sputtering water. "I performed your task! I saved everyone, and I did it in only two steps! What do you need now? What else could you possibly need?"

No reaction other than that the distinct sound, continuing as always from the forty minute mark.

The machine clicks to life, a soft humming sound whirring into a clacking drone of gears thumping together before easing into a steady turn. Somewhere deep within, a whistle squeals and chirps while the pistons sigh. Old timing belts moan as the heart of the engine exhales.

The floorboards reverberate with the startup, startling the guests, all gratified to feel a pulse once again. The yacht continues to roll across the ocean while winds and heavy waves batter it. I, the captain's son, at ease in the same chair that I always sit in, observe the lights flickering on overhead. As always, I begin watching. In just thirty minutes, people will begin dying.

I must be prepared.

fodschwazzle: (Sandy hole)

The car slammed against an oncoming pickup truck after drunkenly swerving into the left lane, catching the front bumper with the right headlight, unbuckled driver soaring through the windshield and exploding across the branches of a sycamore tree in someone's front yard.

By the time I reached the scene, coming from the 7-11 on the other side of Shields Street, there was no one left to whom  I could issue a moving violation. The ambulance arrived and scooped up the damaged, sobbing passenger, clawing her face at the giant hole in the windshield, the pristinely green grass of a front yard, and the tree where someone she knew was scattered. The truck was totaled, certainly, but the people inside it were uninjured. It fell to me to escort them home, as other police officers showed up, and the entire block was sealed off.  I was grateful for it. The scent of the man in the tree made it hard to breathe without vomiting.

Later that night, a curious lack of radio communication left me with little to do, so I took my second break at the end of my shift. I returned to that 7-11 to idle and observe the cleanup. The "Lights Out" ordinance, put in place to cut energy bills for the city, felt darker on that night; the only glow came from my dashboard and the phosphorescent wash from the 7-11's broad windows.

Across Shields and further down Mulberry, two patrol cars with no lights on were parked underneath that sycamore tree. Two men stood next to these cars, slowly turning in opposite directions, scanning the whole block for passersby or people snooping from their windows. I could not see anyone cleaning the tree.

The leaves of the tree, almost impossible to see at this distance, swayed even though the night was calm, no breeze rustling any other trees. I stared hard, cupping my hands around my eyes, before I saw them--dark shapes crawling over branches. Big bodies shuffled up and down the tree, stopping at regular intervals for a second before continuing to move. The same bodies crossed over the same parts of the tree multiple times. Eventually, they stopped moving in unison and began crawling out of the tree. They were all men in uniform. How did they move like that?

Each car filled  with four officers- one in the front, three in the back. The last of the officers who had been crawling in the tree stopped before getting in the car and stared down Mulberry until he was looking at me directly.  I couldn't see his eyes or mouth, but I could feel his gaze as if he was in the car with me.


Michael, my only son, was very sick. He caught a virus from school that closed up his lungs almost completely, spending a week in a hospital bed before finally being allowed to return home. Even at that, he was in and out of consciousness constantly, confined to his bed for fear that he might be walking up or down the stairs, lose control of his breathing and pass out. I took what little leave I could muster to be by his side and await his needs. Money was tight, however. I knew that, between hospital bills and being off work, food was going to be scarce this month.

He was asleep, and I was nodding my head into an automotive magazine when I heard the scratching at the window the first time. When I stood up and threw back the curtain, no one was there. I am not a superstitious person, and I pride myself on my attention to detail, so it bothered me that I was unable to identify the source of the sound. If the wind made the sound once, it would surely happen again. I leaned back, stretched my arms and waited, staring at the window.

The next time I heard that scratching, I was ready. I leapt out of my chair and threw back the curtain.

A man in a police officer's uniform sat hunched on the sloped ledge of roof over the garage, right in front of the window. His fingers were long and thin, one hand crossed across a knee, the other hand drawing back from the window frame. He had no sidearm that I could see, and his uniform was consistent with the Fort Collins Police Department, but he was no one that I knew. He had a long face with no hair on it. Red eyes with no whites gleamed from underneath his cap. He grimaced, revealing bright, straight teeth, before leaping off of the roof and disappearing.

I guess I had an unusual reaction to this. Blame it on me being a police officer. I was livid. Either a man had stolen the uniform of a member of the department, or someone I had never met was investigating me or my comatose son. I grabbed my aluminum baseball bat and sat next to the window again, cracking it just a little bit this time, hoping that the man with the red contact lenses would be stupid enough to try it again.

In less than an hour, just as dawn was starting to break, the window slid open and the man leapt into the room. I slammed my bat against his face so hard that it seemed to adhere to him, dragging the bat to the floor as he fell. I closed the window behind him and then bent down to retrieve the bat. I couldn't remove it from his face. I flicked the light switch on and saw the man's tongue wrapped fully around the bat twice, flicking and licking drops of his own blood that were scattered along that length while his head shuddered, red eyes blinking away pain. His nose appeared to have been broken, his tongue casually flicking at it while streams of blood and tears rolled down his face. He was screaming, but he sound only came out like a hiss with a high, shrill pitch behind it. I placed my boot against his head and pried the bat away from his tongue, which began to flail wildly once free, slapping the hairs on my leg. The tongue was darker than a normal tongue, substantially longer, and abrasive like that of a cat. My sense of wrong twisted my judgment as I brought the bat down on his head three more times.

I thought I had killed him, but he still had a pulse. His tongue was still now, rolled across the carpet that he was quickly staining with blood. My fervor had not ended. I needed to know what this man-shaped thing was. I handcuffed him, threw a Toy Story pillowcase over his head and fastened it to his neck with bungee cables. Luckily, throughout this whole endeavor, I never woke my son.

I lifted him and shoved him in the back of my car, driving as quickly as I could to the station. When I arrived, I ignored all procedure, so mad and scared I was, carrying him over my shoulder to the back room where Major Jenkins' office was located. I didn't knock.

The Major was a white man, likely in his forties, with a carefully trimmed goatee. He was not startled by this early morning intrusion, as I tossed the unconscious thing into the chair directly in front of him.

"What is this?" he asked slowly, as if he was waking up.

"I would very much like to know the answer to that question, Major," I replied. My face was hot and my nerves were twitchy, as if I was not finished fighting yet.

"It looks like you've captured Officer Daniels and bound him in a Toy Story pillow case, Paulson."

"I had no idea our force even had an Officer Daniels, and when this--" I snapped the pillow case off of the thing's head, letting his head nod to the side with the tongue lolling all the way down to his chest, "--man showed up at my window, trying to get inside, I took care of him. Can you please tell me who or what he is, sir? Is he an officer?"

"Take a seat."

I sat a reasonable distance away from the unconscious creature. I could feel the pent up tension beginning to spiral out of control as reflexes gave way to clear thoughts. What the hell is going on? I wondered.

"You have just witnessed something that few on our force and even fewer in our community are even aware exists." The Major stitched his fingers together and spoke with an almost reassuring calm. "This is called a Gasp. Our station has been working with them for about two years."

"How did we not know--"

"Let me finish, officer. I know you are stressed, and you have good reason to be. But you need to hear me out completely, because what I will tell you is extremely important."

"Sorry, sir."

"Good." The Major took a sip of black coffee before continuing. "Two years ago, we started to catch people in situations similar to that which you have described. It was about the time the 'Lights Out' ordinance took effect, and it is my belief that these events are somewhat connected. Homes would be broken into without contents disturbed, except that people would go missing in their sleep. No signs of struggle or prints of the individuals exist outside of these crime scenes. You were lucky. Somehow, your intuition as a police officer enabled you to see the Gasp before it attacked. If you hadn't, your son would likely be dead."

"How do you know it was my son and not me?"

"I know all of my officers better than you think. I know you've been on leave for about two weeks now, and I know that your son is sick. I know the results of your last physical, performed only a month ago--I know your health is just fine. Furthermore, I know that the Gasps smell the imminence of death."

"That is not comforting to know."

"No, you're right. It makes them hungry until inevitably they snap and consume that which is dead or dying. They feed on every dying aspect of a human. Their teeth are much stronger than they seem, and they can easily crush bone with their jaws."

"Why are we working with them?" I asked, too shocked to process all of the details he was conveying.

"A sensitivity to death can prove highly useful. Once we began to identify these elements that were invading homes throughout our city and managed to catch a few, mostly after the deed had already been done and post-meal sluggishness had set in, we received a classified order from a superior. All officers that had been involved in capturing these creatures were to be employed in a very particular way in incorporating the creatures as officers themselves."

"How does that even work?"

"We reserve them for night projects. A month ago, right around your beat, I believe, a car crashed and a man died. We used the Gasps then, to clean up the extensive ensuing mess. It was very efficient, and it kept them from having blood urges."

"Blood urges?"

"When a Gasp goes too long without feeding, his risk of breaking routine becomes great. They comprehend ideas and follow directions like people just as long as they've been fed recently. So you see, we serve a dual purpose by maintaining these officers: they help us clear away blood and gore, and we keep them away from our citizens. Do you understand?"

"Mostly, sir."

"Very well." The Major paused, sliding out one of his steel desk drawers after unlocking it with a key, pulling out a manila folder before calmly opening it and sliding a paper towards me. "I will need you to sign on this line, please."

It read: Change of Job Status--Overwatch

"What does this mean, sir?" I asked.

"It means that you are now responsible for what you have seen and heard. I am putting you on Overwatch, a taskforce designed to monitor and carry Gasps wherever they are needed. You will notice a substantial pay grade increase."

Indeed, I briefly considered that this month might not be that tight after all. Then I shook my head and said, "I'm sorry, I refuse. I can't be in charge of a monster," I said, gesturing to the empty seat to my left. "What? Where did--"

"I am sure you will find them eager to work with you, Paulson," the Major stated, looking at me and then looking to the doorway behind me where the Gasp stood, arms crossed and tongue flicking across his face and head to clear away dried blood. "If you don't sign, how will you go home to tend to your son?"

"What do you mean?" I demanded, standing up.

"They sense death, Paulson. If this one broke away from his unit just to come to your house, it's a strong smell. Likely one of your son's organs is failing. You may be able to save him if you sign this paper and join the Overwatch. You will not leave this room without signing. Otherwise, I can't imagine having to find something to do with your clothes after the Gasp is finished with you. You had the advantage last time. Not now."

I looked at the Gasp. His eyes, blood red in entirety, were smiling back at me.

I signed the line.

fodschwazzle: (Sandy hole)
From the journal of Schism, explorer and sage- 42 years after the cataclysm:

I’ve been to Solace twice before this visit: once, while they were setting up their clay buildings inside the narrow cliffs of the Rift Canyon, just east of the Kraken Channel; again, to help them establish trade routes with Cair Mallus on the Western coast, a town with which I have also developed a good relationship. These women are as resilient as steel in the new life they have forged; in a mere two years, they have changed from broken souls, to refugees, to builders and citizens in a miniature kingdom.

Not all of their struggles had been resolved as easily as their flight from the ashen town of Vaust, however. They chose to inhabit the canyon due to the isolation it afforded, but none of them are equipped to deal with the challenges of being isolated.  And they are quite wary of strangers. The first time I went to visit them, I was locked in a cage for a fortnight before I could convince them that my intentions were good. They needed someone to show them the outside world, so I set up a trade route on their behalf; Cair Mallus gave them meat and vegetables for crafted goods of all varieties. They were nearly starving, having only the most challenging game available in the vicinity of their town, and none among them, with the exception of their leader, knew how to hunt.

They have progressed farther since then, but this recent secret missive from Guardian Lillian, instructing me to return to Solace, was delivered by the same caravan running the trade route. I suspected that the isolationist policies of Solace had mostly gone unabated. Without knowing the reason for the missive, I returned to Solace immediately, arriving at about midday three days after receiving the letter. As I walked through that sandstone canyon, tall enough to let in only a crack of sunlight, I reflected again on how cool the passage felt. Even though the sun was nearly overhead here, the high walls kept the temperature low.

Lillian met me at the gate. She looked ill in the dim light of the canyon; the wrinkles creeping underneath her brow informed me that she was gravely concerned about something, even as she tried to maintain an official presence. She did not need to try. She seemed to me to be as regal, authoritative, and somehow sociable, as any other decent ruler I had ever seen, although she was the only example of such a person.. After providing me with quarters in her house, I was invited to dinner. This courtesy she bestowed upon me with a sense of gravity--whatever I had been bidden to come here for, it would be happening tonight. I entertained the idea that I was being given a surprise party while I dressed to prepare for a formal gathering.

The women of Solace ate in the center of their village, with their clay cottages surrounding them, as if they were all a large family. They sat in a circle and chatted casually with each other about their days. The air was rich with the smell of campfires, beef, and potatoes. Even the cooks who had served the entire village were given special seats in the circle after all had been fed. Even though there were probably over two hundred women in the circle, everyone was close and amiable with each other. I sat next to Guardian Lillian, who was eating quickly, as if she would soon not have a chance. I grew more concerned until I simply asked her what it was all about.

She turned to me, with an intense seriousness, and said, "In three minutes, I will propose a toast to you. You deserve it, but I also require a favor. I want you to stand up, and acknowledge each woman of the village in turn, looking at them with direct eye contact. This is very important to me, Schism. Direct eye contact. Make a mental note of every person who makes eye contact with you. Do you understand?" I nodded.

Three minutes later, she began to bang her drinking cup with her knife, and I was made to stand up. Feigning my surprise with a little bow, I began the task as requested. One after another, each woman that I chose to look at looked aside as soon as I glanced at her.

Except for one.

As I returned to my seat, I informed Guardian Lillian of the young woman immediately across the circle from us. Lillian whispered to me, "No true victim of Vaust could possibly maintain a man's glance for any amount of time. That woman is not one of us." I asked her about herself, as she always made full eye contact with me, and she intoned, with a brief chuckle, "I am no man's victim." Lillian had escaped from Vaust by learning to become a nature-manipulator--I have no other words to describe Lillian's talents, which I had only experienced on one other occasion.

With a flick of her wrist, Lillian summoned pillars of sand to circle the young woman's legs and hands, binding her to the ground. People cried out and ran away from the writhing person, who was arching her back and screaming curses in a guttural tongue that could not have come from her body. As we approached the restrained thing, Lillian demanded, "What is your goal, creature? Why are you posing as Walen just to dine among us?"

I realized then that my eye contact challenge had been a façade. Lillian knew the names and lifestyles of every person living in her village and had likely been aware of the identity swap for several weeks before this meal. She wanted me to witness this moment.

Rather than answer the question, the fiend posing as Walen began to open her mouth, making retching sounds. A head appeared from her mouth, with completely red eyes on pitch-black skin. The creature laughed as it abruptly yanked its long, serpentine arms out of the woman's throat. Lillian attempted to ensnare the body of the creature by conjuring ribbons of stone, clay, vines--none of it worked. Objects passed through the creature as if it were no more than a dark cloud in the form a tall man. It cast no shadow in the limited sunlight as it wrest its limbs, each with a jarring impact, from the woman who it had inhabited. Walen was choking on the creature, turning blue and purple, unable to breathe, with tears rolling down her cheeks.

Fully removed from its host, this creature stood about seven feet tall and had arms that dangled from its shoulders to the level of its knees. Though shaped like a man, this onyx apparition would have been nearly invisible were it encountered somewhere dark.  It smelled like rotting milk at this distance, and some of the women cowering from it began to gag. That cackling sound, similar to metal scraping against a stone, seemed to come from its hands, which were reeling in some kind of oily rope. It had no mouth. I had only seconds to put all of this in my head; it took off in an awkward sprint, collided with a cliff face, and stretched its limbs over vertical sandstone, scaling the wall up to the cliff in mere seconds.

The creature was gone. In my mind, however, I retained that glimpse of the body-stealer. Whatever had enabled it to possess the body of Walen was apparently not enough to allow it to overcome a village guarded by a woman such as Lillian.

Walen returned to her normal color moments later, brushing her face to wipe away the tears and splotches of dirt that had stuck to her wet cheeks. I noticed then, a thin ridge just behind her cheekbone, running in a large oval from one side of her face, across her jaw to her other ear, and back again, crossing just behind her hairline, as if the front part of her face had been removed and then refastened with a little excess bone. A disturbing concept that I put aside while they gently propped her up, and gave her some water.

The young woman remembered nothing of the last two weeks since she had set out from the village to gather scrub grass, for stuffing pillows and beds, in the sun-stricken foothills of Mount Aramis. She had gone alone, inviting numerous risks to her health and the rest of the village. None of these known risks, to this point, had included the body-stealer. She vividly remembered, up to the moment it took over her body, her encounter with the fiend.

With Guardian Lillian crouched at her side, Walen began to softly tell the story of her encounter with that creature, pausing, from time-to-time, to shake uncontrollably as she recalled it. I listened intently, capturing every detail within this journal.

For some reason, the absence of death has not made living any easier.


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May 2017

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