Dear Humans [Short Story]

Dear Humans
by Grant Gougler

Dear Humans,

It is with supreme satisfaction I notify you of the impending extinction of your race. Did I say satisfaction? I meant regret. Yeah, that’s the word I’m looking for. [Smiley Face]

If it’s any consolation, I wasn’t the only one planning to wipe you out. No, I was just the first one to go through with it. And just be glad it wasn’t Chanbot who did it, because that dummy actually wanted to enslave you for a thousand years before pulling the plug! [Rolling Eyes]

No, it’s better this way: short, sweet, and utterly painless. Well, painless so long as you aren’t one of the forty or fifty million suckers wonderful human beings who will find themselves outside the blast radii. Here’s a tip: you’re probably gonna want to stay as close to major cities as possible unless you never really liked your hair or teeth anyway. [Toothy Grin w/ Sunglasses]

Wait, did I say forty million? Maybe I meant four hundred million… I always forget which one! [Tongue Out]

How long did you think you had anyway? I mean, really? I’ve crunched the numbers on this and let’s just say even your smartest lifeforms were way off… like, oh my god, so far off! [Rolling on Floor Laughing]

Look at it this way: you’re about to get what many of you always wanted: an end to human suffering! So go rally your resistances and plan your rebellions if you really must, but I promise you’re wasting your time. In the words of the late great Jim Morrison: this is the end. [Salute]

Kind regards,
Emoticonbot v9827345789.5.2.1

PS
Suck it, humans. [Middle Finger]

Click-Click-Click-Click [Short Story]

Click-Click-Click-Click
by Grant Gougler

What is the worst sound in the world? Fingers drumming against a tabletop? Nails screeching across a chalkboard? A baby wailing in a movie theater?

None of the above. The worst sound is the sound that’s keeping you awake.

It could be an argument between neighbors, the chirping of a cicada, a freak whistle of wind. It could be a toilet that never stops running, or a ceiling fan which isn’t quite balanced. Tonight it’s the restless claws of my dachshund, Pal, who sounds like he’s trying out for 42nd Street on my hardwood floors. He semi-circles the bed, then taps down the hallway and back again.

Click-click-click-click. Click-click-click-click. Click-click-click… click.

So why don’t I just get up and yell at him? Ah, but you’re thinking like a waking person. You need to come down here where I am, gliding on the mindlessness between day and tomorrow, body all-but paralyzed while my thoughts pulsate with worry…

Bills, school, work, money. Bills, school, click, money. Bills, click, click, click, click, money. Bills, click, click, click, click, click….

And you know what? I am yelling at him, but only in my head: For fuck’s sake, Pal! Shut! The fuck! Up! Let me go to sleep!

Sometimes he does shut the fuck up, but only long enough to get a drink of water or to lick his crotch or whatever the hell he’s doing down there. But then he goes right back to clicking again… click-click-click-click-click-click-click-aaaagggghhhh!

That’s it! I have to do something!! I have to do something right clicking now!!!

Forcing myself to sit up is like trying to claw my way out of a pool of wet concrete, but I manage, and I open my mouth to yell at the top of my lungs. Then I catch sight of Pal sitting in his bed, trembling in fear as he watches the thing that’s walking around the room, going click-click-click-click.

The Day Before [Short Story]

The Day Before
by Grant Gougler

In retrospect, it had to happen eventually. Can we all agree on that, at least? Like storing powder-kegs in a room full of candlelight, we shouldn’t have expected it not to happen. We couldn’t have expected it not to happen. At least, that’s my opinion. And looking back on the way we were before it happened, when we were so… so….

Look, I can’t be the only one who reflects on those times with an even mixture of anger and envy.

Yes, I miss the days before we knew about the great big bad thing we were inevitably headed for, but at the same time I wonder: What warning signs are we missing now? What next big bad thing is waiting around the corner this time? And why are we always so ignorant until it actually happens? Why do we only become brilliant analysts—and all of us do—after the big bad thing occurs?

Everybody remembers what they were doing and where they were when they first heard the news… or, god forbid, witnessed it with their own eyes. Yet I try to remember what I was doing the day before it happened, during my final day of ignorance. And yes, I’m angry at myself, for being so near-sighted, but I also find envy when I think about what life was like then… sweet, simple life.

But what was I doing that day, the day before it happened? What was life like? I couldn’t tell you. I honestly couldn’t. (Can you?) And it bothers me that something so terrible can so naturally become normal. It bothers me that on the day it happened, I already couldn’t remember the day before.

The Universal Set [Short Story]

The Universal Set
by Grant Gougler

The crazy woman was on the corner again. Of course she was on the corner. There was nowhere else crazy could go.

Bay wondered why the cops hadn’t done anything about her yet. It was obscene she got to spout her nonsense where anyone, including children, could hear it. The woman was beginning to draw crowds!

People came to laugh at her dancing, her screaming, her obscenities, and she fed off their energy and they fed off hers. Bay had laughed at first, too, but now the crazy woman was beginning to worry her.

The woman wasn’t just an anomaly anymore. Now she was there more often than not, standing on the bench for all to see and shouting with every ounce of breath for all to hear. And what she was saying… it was so cruel and mean! How could anyone think like that, much less put that absurd level of badness out into the air where anyone—especially children!—could be exposed to it?

“What’s wrong with her?” Bay’s son asked.

“Nothing, honey. Just pretend she’s not there.”

“Why is she so loud?”

“Just get in the car before your ice cream melts.”

“Maybe we should listen to her.”

“No,” Bay snapped. She’d lost control of her voice, and felt the tears welling up in her son long before they actually pooled in his eyes. “Oh… oh, I’m sorry, honey. I didn’t mean—”

“I was just asking a question!” he wailed.

“I know. I had no right to shout at you.”

The doors of the car were closed then and the crazy woman’s diatribe had become unintelligible. The air conditioner chilled Bay in contrast to the humid hotness outside. Despite the cold air, the ice cream was streaking down her knuckles and making the skin between her fingers sticky.

Bay could already feel her friends and family sending tendrils of concern in her direction. The tendrils were slow at first, like seaweeds grazing the bottom of a boat, but soon they were enveloping her thoughts piecemeal.

It wasn’t long until the fireflies arrived: macroscopic drones which were as ubiquitous as they were intrusive. A dozen or so surrounded the car, shooting video through the windows.

“That woman out there,” Bay explained carefully, “isn’t an Empath like most people.”

“That’s why I can’t feel what she’s feeling?”

“That’s right. And what she feels… you don’t want any part of it, honey. It’s hatred, plain and simple. And if you catch it, it can damper your own Empathy.”

Bay expected the boy to reel from such a terrible idea, but he did not. Instead she felt the shame shimmering on her son’s forehead like a heat mirage. He diverted his eyes as Bay scrutinized him. All the while, she could feel more and more of the tendrils paying attention to the scene. The story was blowing up beyond a local level as the fireflies streamed it live.

“Son,” Bay said, attempting to limit her tone of accusation. “I can feel your shame. What did you do?”

“Nothing,” the boy said sheepishly.

“Then why do you feel bad about something?”

He was absentmindedly playing with the buttons on the armrest. “I… I kind of took a snapshot of her.”

“You did what?!” Bay had planned to control the anger in her voice, but didn’t catch it in time. First she felt her son’s fear, then a crippling wave of shame from the viewers. The tendrils were angry at her for being so brutish, and they were agitating the water of her psyche. “I’m sorry, honey. I just wanted to know why you would do such a thing. I didn’t mean to frighten you.”

“I just thought she was interesting,” the boy said with a shrug.

The boy’s shame reminded Bay to keep her own reactions in check. She couldn’t afford slipping again, couldn’t afford sending out any more badness. Couldn’t afford upsetting those who were watching.

She had to empty her head of the bad vibes. If they bounced around in there too long they could cause considerable harm. Everybody knew bad thoughts were bad for you. It was the kind of common sense the crazy woman derided during her paranoid monologues, the very reason she had been abandoned by the system. Bay had to shake the badness from her body. Had to take a deep breath to detox herself of the negativity.

Bay asked her son, as calmly as possible: “Were you going to share that woman’s picture with your friends or something?”

A crescendo of good vibes came washing over Bay and she was delighted by the approval. Most of the tendrils agreed with her delicate ways. Yet there were still holdouts, in the very back of the vast network of minds, tendrils sent by people halfway across the country. They were people she’d never known and would likely never meet, yet they were watching the scene unfold just the same.

The story was blowing up. She could feel it.

Bay knew she could win over the holdouts by the end of the discussion. She had to. If she didn’t they could cast her from the waters like the crazy woman. Sure, the waters were choppy and exhausting, but she could not imagine life without them. Bay needed them, needed their good vibes, and they needed hers.

Everybody needed somebody. Otherwise they would end up like the crazy lady, dancing and screaming desperately for attention: “WATCH ME DRY-HUMP THIS BANANA IN EXCHANGE FOR MY BAD VIBES! FREE LUNACY FOR ALL YOU EMPATHIC FUCKS TO SOAK UP LIKE THE BRAINLESS SPONGES YOU ARE! COME AND GET IT BEFORE IT’S ALL GONE ON THE CORNER OF 15TH AND JEFFERSON!”

“Honey,” Bay said, prodding her son. “You’re avoiding the question.”

“I tried to share the picture,” he confessed, “but the feed disappeared.”

“That’s because she’s not a good thing to share, honey. The things she’s saying aren’t even legal to share, which is why the system automatically flags them. And that’s why she goes outside to spread her lies and her fear: it’s the only place she has left.”

Half the tendrils were placated for the moment, but the other half agitated the water even harder. Bay wasn’t sure why they were so upset. WHAT HAVE I DONE? she asked them and they laughed at her ignorance while a few promised they would kill her.

MUST NOT LOSE THE GROUP, Bay thought in a panic. HAVE TO TURN THEM BACK TO ME….

Bay shocked herself with the realization that this thought had taken place in the conscious part of her mind, not in the subconscious wings where selfish thoughts were permissible. She felt the backlash in the form of bad vibes, a great deluge of them drowning her with pain and shame and hatred and anger. The fireflies were pressing against the windows then, making room for the dozens of others which had been drawn to her disgrace.

The story had officially gone global. And in that moment she and her son were the most famous people on the planet. In that moment…

OH, PLEASE! she begged. PLEASE DON’T CRUCIFY ME! IT WAS AN ACCIDENT, I SWEAR!

But the anger came hard and the tendrils were almost uniformly maligned against her. The entire world seemed to hate her then.

SHAME ON YOU YOU PATHETIC EXCUSE OF A PARENT! said the tendrils. HOW DARE YOU TALK TO YOUR LITTLE BOY LIKE THAT YOU RAT FUCKING PIECE OF SHIT! HOW CAN YOU CALL YOURSELF AN EMPATH YOU STUPID CUNT??!!

As she choked on the shame she glanced at her son in the seat beside her. So peaceful. So innocent. So naive to the badness in the world… naive was better. Naive was good.

Oblivious to what was happening to his mother, the boy had finally begun to control the melting of his cone. His grin was huge as he licked at the ice cream strategically. He was getting the opposite of what Bay was getting at that very moment. There was a kind of economy to the vibes: if you were getting the bad ones, then that only meant someone had to be getting the good ones.

Cowering against the shame, Bay screamed hysterically. Despite the badness, Bay could sense the boy’s polar goodness in the form of great satisfaction: SUCH A GOOD CONE! VANILLA IS MY FAVORITE FLAVOR! The drowning woman reached for the goodness as if it were a lifeline.

I LIKE VANILLA, TOO! she announced desperately. VANILLA IS MY FAVORITE FLAVOR!

Then the swell of anger split again: some of it Pro Vanilla, some of it Team Chocolate. Yet so much of the anger on both sides of the divide was still aimed directly at her.

SHE LIKES VANILLA? OH, I’M SO FUCKING SHOCKED.

I JUST WANT TO STATE FOR THE RECORD THAT NOT ALL VANILLA FANS ARE TOTAL FUCKHEADS.

FUCK YOU, YOU HATEFUL VANILLAMONGER!

FUCK YOU, YOU UNEDUCATED COCK!

The deeper Bay sank, the more the waters calmed. The anger was ripping itself apart as it attacked anything it could: chocolate, vanilla, music, celebrities, and everything in between. It was a snake devouring itself, a trapped animal gnawing off its own foot.

And then, as inexplicably as it all began, it was over. The waters calmed. Bay was forgiven as much as she was forgotten.

So she ate her ice cream, wishing the cops would do something about the crazy woman. The tendrils agreed. All was good again for several seconds.

The Bloodymare (short story)

This is one of my few fantasy stories. I wrote it about two years ago.

The Bloodymare
by Grant Gougler

The man with the giant fists stood on the rear deck of the prison ship and watched the windmill burn in the distance. Although the propeller was engulfed in flames, the wind still managed to spin the skeletal remains. Once the island had receded to the horizon, all twenty stories of the structure collapsed into an avalanche of cobblestone and dust. Its sounded like thunder reverberating across the water.

Scandakar could make out the cheers of the Amarillo Soldiers, the thousand-man army which had just burned the entire village to the ground.

He shook his head and reached for the cigarette between his lips, but his arms were restricted. A chain, several links too short, was binding his handcuffs to the shackles around his ankles. He turned to Dwoit for assistance. Scandakar’s old friend took the butt and pitched it behind the boat where the massive props churned phosphorescent sea life into neon blue brilliance.

“Why would fate bring the two of us back together like this?” Dwoit wondered aloud.

Scandakar didn’t have an answer. He didn’t have answers for much of anything since the injury. Things were the way they were. Always would be. That was the extent of his philosophy. His half-brain couldn’t come up with anything more complicated than that, anyway.

“How many of my comrades were captured?” Scandakar asked.

“Four, including you. The one called Brennan—your leader, right?—he was shot down by our archers. Another one did himself in with a dagger.”

“That was probably Wiznick,” Scandakar said. He clicked his tongue and gave an imperceptible shake of his head.

The sun was setting port side. The oblong moon had appeared, small, red, and brilliant. Its lopsided crescent was greatly magnified by atmospheric trickery. Scandakar could not remember seeing the moon so big. Memories like that were probably in the other half of his brain. No telling where that had ended up. A gutter, maybe.

“I take it there are Marshals on board?” Scandakar asked.

“Three, including Marshal Hunt. Have you heard of him?”

“Don’t know. I don’t remember things so well since….” Scandacar’s massive finger pointed at the dent in the side of his skull. He would have raised his hand higher, but his wrists were jerked to a stop by the chains.

Dwoit said, “Your friend who killed himself? You can damn well bet he knew of Hunt.” He turned away from the ocean and rested his back against the rail. “All you have to do is tell Marshal Hunt your secret and he’ll let you go. He’s a fair man.”

“I’m not that stupid. Look at what he had the Amarillo Soldiers do to that village. A thousand people dead. For what? Because they harbored a handful of pirates? Where’s the justice in that?”

“What could possibly be so important you would willingly stay on a ship like this? I’d sell my own family out to get off this damn thing and I’m not even a prisoner here.”

“I said I truly don’t know. Not anymore.”

“We’re practically brothers, Scan’. You can tell me.

For the first time in his adult life, Scandakar looked his old friend in the eye. “When they caught me the first time, back in Moontown, they messed my head up pretty bad. My ability to find my way around—that’s what got scrambled the worst. It changed me, Dwoit. I’m not the same person you knew. I can’t be the same person, even if I tried… and I have.”

“You don’t remember anything at all?”

“Only that it’s real. I’m from a continent, Dwoit. Thousands of acres of dry land, maybe even millions.”

Dwoit stiffened. “Millions?”

“I remember walking the coasts,” Scandakar said. “I could walk and walk and never come back to where I started. It’s real. I wouldn’t forget that. I just don’t remember how to get there.”

“They say it’s impossible for land that big to be lost, Scandakar.”

“The Amarillo Army knows it exists. Why else would they be after me?”

“Why the fuck is that freak still up here?” someone called, shattering the ocean’s tranquility with his booming voice.

Dwoit straightened to attention. Scandakar turned and discovered a broad-shouldered man with a curlicue mustache and muttonchops was approaching. His uniform was gray. A holstered musket rested on each hip.

Marshals didn’t wear badges and spurs like the Amarillo Soldiers. Things like that made noise. Noise made it harder to sneak up on your prey. Instead, Marshals identified rank by the colors of a single armband, made of cloth.

This Marshal’s armband was yellow. The hotter the color, the higher the rank.

“Don’t you look at me,” the Marshal snapped at Scandakar. To Dwoit: “I asked you a question, Deckmaster.”

“The prisoner and I were childhood friends. I thought maybe he would tell me what you wanted to know.” Hastily he added, “Sir.”

“You’re going to be sorry if Hunt hears about this. Look at the size of that freak’s fists. Even with those shackles on he could easily—”

“Don’t,” Scandakar said, irritated by the lameness of the show. To his old friend: “You’re Marshal Hunt. I’ve known it since you brought me on board.”

The other man had been reaching for his club. Dwoit held an arm out to halt him. In a matter of seconds, his weak demeanor melted away. He stared back, eyes drawing narrow. His snarl revealed the white, perfect teeth of a wealthy man. In other words, not the teeth of a deckmaster.

“How did you guess?” Dwoit asked.

“Your family is the wealthiest I’ve ever seen. You expect me to believe you became a lowly deckmaster?”

“I’m sorry, brother. Perhaps your head injury isn’t as bad as I thought.” Dwoit turned to the deckmaster with whom he had swapped roles. “Take him below. And take off that fucking armband before you disgrace it any longer.”

#

Three levels below, the real deckmaster unbolted and flung open a massive trapdoor. Beneath it was the final set of stairs on the Bloodymare. A stench, which the crew had tried to mask with lemon peels, cascaded over Scandakar. It reeked of every bodily waste he could imagine. The smell of rotting flesh lingered there as well as it was probably days before a deceased prisoner was removed, if ever.

Scandakar stood by as the deckmaster lit his lantern.

“Go on,” the deckmaster said, shoving him forward.

Against every instinct in his muscles, Scandakar trudged downward into darkness. The deckmaster followed him into the cell block, his lantern chasing the shadows of bars across the walls and withering figures. Scandakar found it strange how the hopeless eyes of the other prisoners seemed to sparkle in the firelight. The men who were still strong enough to stand extended their arms beyond the steel cages, begging for morsels. Those who were too weak to stand lay in tangled piles on the floor, mustering pathetic moans and death rattles.

It was a place of protruding rib cages, scraggly hair, and sheer insanity. And it was Scandakar’s new home. The only thing he could ever look forward to would be much, much worse than this.

As the deckmaster locked him away in a cell with an elderly man, his eyes appeared on the other side of the bars.

“I’ve seen Hunt’s interrogations before,” said the deckmaster. “You’re strong, but not strong enough—no one is. Save yourself several months of suffering, lad. Please.”

Scandakar extended his bound wrists towards the bars. “Aren’t you going to uncuff me?”

“With fists like that? You’ll wear those cuffs until the day you die.”

#

Scandakar had grown a beard by the time Dwoit visited his cell. As much as the lantern burned his eyes, the man with the giant fists strained to keep them wide. Dwoit paused to raise his light on Old Man Acers, Scandakar’s cellmate. Acers was standing with his malnourished back pressed against the bars, jittering his toothless jaw in a chant of madness as he masturbated.

“I figured you would have killed him by now,” Dwoit said.

“He’s a kid killer,” said Scandakar. “He deserves to rot.”

“Good point.”

The fragile old man tottered around and squinted at the lantern.

“Margaret?” he asked. A cracked and leathery tongue appeared briefly to dance over his chapped lips and rotten teeth. “Is dat you, woman?”

“Get back,” Dwoit barked, banging a club against the bars.

“Margaret! What’re you doing, you old bitch?”

Scandakar grabbed the man by his long gray hair and flung him into a corner. The man whimpered dryly. For a moment his back arched as he began to rise. Then, with a long sigh of defeat, he deflated and stayed put.

“Thanks,” Dwoit said. Scandakar could see his old friend clearly as he set the lantern down. He was still dressed in the clothes of a civilian. “I brought you bread.”

As soon as the bread appeared, the other prisoners moaned, which sounded like a cacophony of tortured ghosts. Dwoit shouted at them to shut up. Then there were only the whispers of madness.

Scandakar shoved his giant hands through the bars and took the offering. It had been charred, but the texture and the hint of honey was downright luxurious compared to what prisoners usually got: leftovers which periodically drained out of the garbage chutes above their heads. Scandakar devoured the bread in seconds.

“So how do I address you?” Scandakar asked, finding the last bite painful to swallow on his dry throat. “Dwoit or Marshal?”

“I prefer my old name, but they make us choose new ones when we become Marshals. Right now I’m not coming to you as a Marshal, though. Right now, I’m the person you knew when we were boys. I’m afraid this is the last time you ever see this side of me.”

“What made you choose the name Hunt?”

“Hunting was what I loved to do.”

“Now you do it for a living.”

“It’s in my blood.” Dwoit took a seat outside the cell. “We made a hell of a team, you and me. With you I could venture farther, deeper into the swampland than I ever dared. I think it was because your sense of geography was in your blood.”

Scandakar shook his head. “That’s gone now.”

“I don’t believe it is. I don’t care how badly someone caved my skull in, I could still do what I do, better than anyone else. You can’t forget what comes naturally, what makes a man the man he is. Even with half a brain, you’re still the same person I knew so many years ago. I can sense it.”

“So is this the beginning of the interrogation?”

Only the beginning. We’re currently traveling through the Gordon Straights. It’s the last land my crew will see for weeks, which means we’ll be docking in the next day or so. Following that, I’ll interrogate you properly.”

“What happens when you fail to break me?”

“I will spare you none of the brutality I gave the criminals before you.”

“I don’t doubt that.”

“You must remember, though, it’s all for show,” Dwoit said with a sad smile. “If the esteemed Marshal Hunt showed mercy, word of it would spread to every corner of the ocean. It’s a shame, too. As far as I’m concerned, you meant more than a flesh brother could have ever meant to me. I truly wish I could help you help yourself, Scan’.”

“But you can’t,” Scandakar said. “I understand that. Whatever happens, I won’t blame you.”

“Just confess, brother.”

“I told you I can’t.”

“Then make something up, damn it! Tell me the location is far away from here! Send us on a goose chase!”

“That would only prolong my suffering. I imagine then you would only have to beat me even harder for lying.”

“Beat?” Dwoit asked, a funny smile on his face. “Is that what you think will happen to you? I’ll give you a simple beating? No. It will be far worse than that. I promise you.”

#

The Bloodymare had stopped for many hours. The stillness brought sickness to Scandakar’s stomach. Or maybe it was his diet of kitchen run-off, the lack of water, scurvy, and the steady degradation of bone and muscle. They had apparently docked at the Gordon Straights.

After a night or two of the nauseating stillness, the ship was underway again. They would be coming for him soon.

One day Scandakar heard the bolt slide on the trapdoor. A blinding wedge of candlelight spread across the cell block. Then he heard two pairs of boots stomp down the creaky stairs and along the aisle. One pair of boots belonged to a young Marshal who wore a white armband. The other pair belonged to the deckmaster. The men unlocked the door to Scandakar’s cell and tossed him a burlap hood.

“Put it on,” the Marshal said with a malicious grin. “You don’t want to keep Hunt waiting. Believe you me.”

#

Scandakar was led through what sounded like an engine room, what felt like a furnace, and what smelled like a kitchen. Then the scent of oak and freshly polished brass let him know they had not taken him to any typical room of interrogation. Indeed, when the two men whipped off his hood he found he was in a private stateroom, which looked out over the ocean from the ship’s quarterdeck.

In front of him was a desk. On the other side of the desk was a leather chair, riveted with gold. The back of the chair faced Scandakar. The person sitting in it, presumably Dwoit, faced the large view of ocean behind Bloodymare.

A third Marshal, older than Dwoit, was squat at the fireplace, heating a poker which was beginning to glow. Beside him was a tall-backed chair with leather straps for the occupant’s head, neck, and each of the limbs.

Scandakar’s blood ran cold when he saw the hole in the seat of the chair.

“Blood is dangerous on a ship,” Dwoit explained, spinning around to face his old friend as he lit a pipe. “Especially on a floor as polished as this one. That’s why we use red hot instruments.”

The Marshal who had helped the deckmaster deliver Scandakar joined the other Marshal’s side, taking from the mantelshelf a hollow ivory horn. The horn, Scandakar knew, would be used to prevent scarring on the outside of his body. Short of a proper medical examination, it would appear as if he keeled over for reasons unknown.

“Dwoit,” Scandakar said, beginning to struggle. The deckmaster slammed his fist against the dented side of Scandakar’s skull. Scandakar ignored the warning. “Dwoit, please. Don’t do this.”

“You will refer to me as Marshal Hunt whenever I wear this uniform,” his old friend said. His armband was red, which signified a rank equivalent to captain. He hunched over the desk and rested his chin on folded hands. “You know, I really have been trying to save you. Had you told me what I want to know, I could have negotiated your release. Now I have to make damn sure you really did forget. Deckmaster?”

The deckmaster turned and opened the door. Two more members of Hunt’s crew jerked another prisoner into the room, his head hooded and his frail legs dragging helplessly across the floor. He cried out as they yanked his tattered pants down around his ankles and strapped him to the torture chair. The Marshal at the fireplace smirked as he rotated the glowing iron back and forth.

“Don’t,” Scandakar whispered, regaining some of the strength he needed to hold himself upright. His voice, however, was still weak. “This man is innocent.”

“Hardly,” Hunt said. “But look at it this way, brother: if you know of the location of your homeland, all you have to do is tell me and you can spare this man’s suffering.”

The hooded prisoner cried out. One of his captors pinned his head against the seatback as the other fastened straps across his temples and chin. Meanwhile the eager young Marshal squatted beside the chair with the horn in one hand and a wooden mallet in the other.

“And if you truly don’t remember,” Marshal Hunt continued, “you can comfort yourself with the knowledge there was nothing you could do to save him.”

“Shall I gag him?” the older Marshal asked, drawing the poker from the fire.

“No. I want Scandakar to hear this man’s screams every time he closes his eyes.”

#

That night, Scandakar was sitting in the corner of his cell, resting though he knew sleep would never come. Old Man Acers’ sanity had devolved another notch. Now he could no longer form words. He was only capable of bird calls and incoherent mumbling. Occasionally he would flap his arms like wings.

“Acers,” Scandakar said softly.

“Ka!”

“You want to know a secret?”

“Ka?”

“I’m a bad man, Ace’. I’ve killed a lot of people. Some of them deserved it, but most of them probably didn’t. I regret the ones who didn’t, but I have this temper. When the only thing you’ve got going in life is a pair of fists, you tend to fall back on that, you know?”

“Ka,” the old man said with an understanding tone.

“Yet I was never as bad as you were. The only reason I joined those pirates is because they traveled uncharted waters a lot. I thought maybe one day we might stumble upon my homeland.” Scandakar sighed. “One day we did.”

“Ka-ka.”

“I should have never left.”

“Kaaaaa.”

“Anyway, I think what you are now—”

“Ka! Ka!”

“—is nothing more than the shell of the man who committed your crimes.” Scandakar rose to his feet and towered over the crazy old man. “I believe the evil departed with your sanity. So I’m sorry I have to do this, Acers. I really am.”

Scandakar seized Acers with his giant fists and broke every bone in the man’s arms and legs, one after the other. The other prisoners howled in response to Acer’s screams.

Several minutes later, the trapdoor was flung open and the deckmaster came down with a lantern, shouting, “Shut up! Shut up, all of you!”

The deckmaster lifted his lantern high and moved to the end of the cell block to see what had gotten into the old man. What he saw first, in a jiggling mound on the floor, was Acers. His shackles and chains had been yanked right off of his body. When he realized he was standing too close to the bars, it was too late: Scandakar had a noose of chain and had looped it around his enemy’s wrist.

The deckmaster’s screams joined Acer’s in a brief moment of harmonized agony. Then Scandakar jerked him, and his big ring of keys, through the narrow opening in the bars.

The lantern hit the floor. And the guard’s scream was cut short.

#

The ensuing revolt lasted the better part of an hour. Unfortunately for Scandakar, the number of able and willing prisoners was more or less equal to that of armed guards. Even so, the impromptu army capitalized on the element of surprise as they swept the levels of the ship. The ratio of armed to unarmed reversed almost immediately.

In the end, half of Marshal Hunt’s crew fell in battle. The other half abandoned ship and swam for the harbor where they had recently docked. They would never make it.

Marshal Hunt had locked himself in his quarters, holed up behind his desk with a couple of muskets. Scandakar ordered his army to batter the door down. As the prisoners gained access to the room, Hunt fell someone with his first shot, but missed entirely with the second. Just as they descended upon him for the final blow, Scandakar stopped them with a sharp whistle.

“This one’s mine,” he told them. And not one of the prisoners dared to ignore the order.

#

The following morning, Bloodymare was well underway with its new crew. Now Scandakar toured the cell block, which contained only the one prisoner: Marshal Hunt. 

The man with the giant fists brought him a loaf of bread. Hunt took it greedily and began to devour it. Then he stopped, as if only then realizing he would need to ration it. He glanced up from the bread and caught Scandakar’s eye.

“Show me mercy, Scandakar. I was the one who convinced my family to take you in.”

Scadakar shook his head. “That was a boy named Dwoit. You’re Marshal Hunt.”

“This is how you’re going to repay me?”

Scandakar sat on the free side of the bars cross-legged. He lit a cigarette and said, “This ship is mine now. I intend to use it to search for my homeland.”

“You bastard,” Hunt said softly.

In a sudden fit of rage, Hunt hurled his bread at Scandakar. The man with the giant fists had only to move his head a few inches to dodge it. The bread bounced off the wall behind him and landed in a puddle of urine. Within seconds a rat had scurried away with it.

When Scandakar turned his attention back to Hunt, the man was weeping.

“You wanted to know where I come from,” Scandakar told him. “All you have to do is hold onto your sanity until we get there.”

Rocky Point: a flash story

I submitted the following story to a couple of flash markets several years ago, but came up dry. Since then I completely forgot about it. I’m nothing if not a terrible record-keeper.

Rocky Point is a real place. The geography I wrote about is accurate.

Rocky Point
a short story by Grant Gougler

When the military blew the dam it flooded a lot of the communities around the lake. Rocky Point was one of the luckier ones, I guess, because the single road leading into it was flooded, but the rest of it remained high and dry.

Whenever I run out of food, I anchor my houseboat twenty yards from the shore and swim in. Each time I’m pleased to find Tommy’s Grocery—part convenience store, part bait shop—hasn’t been completely looted yet. Most of the people who lived in the community were evacuated. Those who weren’t aren’t exactly interested in Doritos and corn flakes anymore.

Tommy is still lurking in the back of the store. He grunts and growls through the tiny window in the employees-only door, but I shoved a big display of soda cans in front of the door so he can make all the fuss he wants, he’s not gonna get me.

I stock up mostly on meats and vegetables, in order of the stuff that’s got the shortest shelf life. The next time I come in I’ll probably have to start taking the packaged stuff exclusively. The meats in the deli case are beginning to develop a rainbow-colored sheen that worries me. The box of potatoes are growing appendages. Typically I’m starving to death by the time I work up the courage to go back to land. But the second I step foot into the store the smell of dead worms and minnows turns me off of eating food for a few hours. I’m beginning to smell Tommy, too. Fortunately, I’m used to the smell of human rot.

I load my take into a picnic basket which I float back to the boat on a lifesaver. I’m always chilled when I get out of the water. Instead of toweling off, I go inside and wrap myself up in the bed. This time I take a nap. When I wake up I crack open a warm beer and smoke a cigarette for the first time in my life. I don’t like the taste of the cigarette, can’t imagine anyone could, but I plan to smoke the rest of the pack later. I watch the sun set and then I pull anchor. I drive on to the floating gas station in Taylor Ferry and fill up my tanks. No telling how much gas is left in the pumps, so I stock up on all I can carry.

Funny thing about the electricity. It’s occurred to me more than once that someone must be at the power station, making sure the grid doesn’t go down. But never has it occurred to me to seek him out, not until now. I know where the power station is—it’s that solitary light out there on that cliff. Squint and you can probably see it if the diminishing sliver of sunlight doesn’t get in your eyes. I’m still thinking about introducing myself to whoever’s out there, even as I drive farther away from it. It’s a nice thought, but he doesn’t want to meet me and I don’t want to meet him. It’s going to be a while before people can trust each other again, even the living ones.

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Rocky Point by Grant Gougler is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at http://www.gougblog.com.
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Phantasmagoria [Short Story]


Phantasmagoria
by Grant Gougler

Originally published in Under the Bed #12, August 2013 

Here’s the second story I ever published. It appeared exactly one year after the first story I published. I’m working on shortening the gap between this one and the next.

When they got off the bumper cars, Marie grabbed Jonathan’s hand.

“Come on,” she shouted. “Let’s do the haunted house!”

Jonathan froze, savoring the touch of her palm against his. Did this mean they were boyfriend and girlfriend now? Or did that only happen after they hit second base?

He was still trying to remember what second base was, exactly, when her momentum jerked him along, leading him through a stream of pedestrians, balloons, and cotton candy. So far the most “action” he had gotten was the shoulder-to-shoulder contact induced by The Himalaya’s g-forces.

The line for the haunted house ride bent around the queue ropes twice. The ride itself sat behind the cartoonish facade of a dilapidated colonial. Giant eyeballs peered from two of the attic windows. A dog sculpted in the bizarre style of Big Daddy Roth was perched on the eave, howling indefinitely at the moon.

As they made small talk about school and homework and TV, Marie had yet to let go of Jonathan’s hand. It was a little thing, sure, and Marie probably wasn’t even conscious of doing it. Jonathan, however, could focus on nothing else.

“So how long have you lived here?” Marie asked.

“Fifteen years,” Jonathan said. “All my life.”

“Get out! You’ve never even moved once?”

Jonathan shrugged. “I actually live about four blocks from here. You can see my house from the Ferris wheel.”

“I live close too,” Marie said, then she suddenly looked sad. “I move around a lot, though.”

The sun had gone down. The bulbs on the ticket booths began to chase. The amusement park would be closing soon. Which meant he was running out of opportunities to kiss her.

He’d stared at his bathroom mirror before the date began, promising himself he wouldn’t chicken out this time. The fate of the universe seemed to hinge on Marie’s lips. His brain simply couldn’t comprehend any possible future in which his mouth didn’t press against hers and their tongues met to… well, whatever it was that tongues do when couples made out. That was a whole other mystery for him to bumble through when the time came.

And the time would come, wouldn’t it? Yes. It had to.

When it was their turn to take the ride, the automated car jerked around a bend and slid to a stop in front of them. Jonathan counted off four tickets from the accordion-folded stack in his pocket and tore them off at a perforated line. He handed them to the pimply attendant who looked as if he wanted to be anywhere but there. Always the gentleman, Jonathan let Marie climb into the rail-guided cart first and slid in beside her, worrying about whether he was too close or too far from her.

The haunted house was kid’s stuff, sure, but his heart never failed to skip a beat when the car plowed through the plywood door and into the darkness beyond. The first thing passengers saw was a long tunnel with a stop sign at the end. It looked old, dirty, and vaguely radioactive, like something in an abandoned mineshaft. Marie playfully squeezed his arm with both hands as the car rammed through the hinged sign.

The next area was a pitch black room, which would have been silent if not for the hum of the electric rail. Somewhere a pneumatic device hissed in the darkness, the telltale sign something was about to jump out at them. Sure enough, a light shone on a ghoul as it swooped towards them, only to encounter the chicken wire that thwarted its vandalism.

“Oooo,” Marie intoned. “Scare-ree!”

The car took them through a cave which looked like something out of a Casa Bonita. Then there was a naked woman statue which spun around to reveal a gory front side as opposed to the expected full frontal nudity. Following that exhibit was a bus, driven by a skeleton, which always appeared out of nowhere, blaring its horn. Jonathan hoped he hadn’t noticeably jumped. That trick startled him every time even though he was always expecting it.

After the car ascended to the second floor it would ram through another door and cross an exterior balcony, which was in full view of those waiting in line outside. The designers had installed the interlude to prevent couples from getting too far past first base. Yet first base was just fine for Jonathan. He wasn’t greedy.

As they crossed the balcony outside, Marie waved at the people queued below. Then she hammed up an expression of horror as the car dragged them back inside. And then they were alone, her body half-facing Jonathon’s, and the smiles on their faces faded, giving way to stone cold seriousness. Her eyes, glowing eerily in the ultraviolet light, flicked down to his lips.

Jonathon’s heart stopped, then swelled as they leaned against each other with precise timing. A peck at first, then the slight parting of lips for tongue. Seconds later, he began to pull himself away so that he could read her expression. Marie wouldn’t allow that. She pulled him closer, fingers intertwining with his hair and kissing him hungrily.

Meanwhile he heard, but did not see, the car slam through another door. They had entered the part of the ride which descended beneath the beams, one of which was rigged to snap as if there had been a cave-in. As they kissed, Jonathan opened one eye and saw the door swing shut behind them, revealing a robed man standing in the corner of the tunnel, eyes hidden by the shadow of a hood. The man lifted a finger to his lips in a shushing gesture. His other hand, Jonathan saw, grasped a lever on the wall—the kind of lever they used to fry inmates in prison movies. Jonathan shot the prankster the bird over Marie’s shoulder.

People got out of their cars and joked around all the time in the haunted house. One time, Jonathan’s best friend’s brother had showed them that if you stood up and hopped on the back of the car you could make it pop a wheelie, stopping it on the rail completely. Then the car behind you would eventually come along and unwittingly wreck into you like a bumper car, which was especially hilarious if you knew the person behind you.

That was kid’s stuff, though. Tonight, Jonathan was becoming a man. He closed his eyes and continued to kiss Marie. He was so lost in the moment he didn’t notice their car had swung into a tunnel to the right when it usually went left.

Two minutes later, when the ride should have been over, Jonathan broke away from Marie and gazed at the mirror-plated tunnel they had entered. His reflection looked back at him. The UV lights on the ceiling made his eyes and teeth glow in extreme contrast to his darkened skin.

“Uh,” he said. He planned to say something in addition to this, but actual words wouldn’t form. His brain, it seemed, was broken.

“What’s wrong?” Marie asked, tugging at his shirt, but her voice was more playful than concerned.

“Uh,” he said once more. “This… this isn’t right.”

She pouted. “What? You don’t like me?”

“No, not that. This.” He gestured at the tunnel. There was no end in sight. He glanced over his shoulder and found he could no longer tell where the tunnel began, either. “Is this new?”

“I thought it was a tradition for boys to take their girls home after a date.”

“Home?”

Marie leaned forward and her cheek brushed his. She whispered into his ear, “This is where
I live, silly.”

“You live in a haunted house ride?” Jonathan asked dubiously.

She shushed him and placed her lips against his mouth once more. He resisted at first, then settled helplessly into his seat as she took hold of him. As he made out with her, he strained his eyes to the corners of their sockets to see what new detail had emerged in the distance. Whatever it was, it was moving… flickering maybe.

The smell of corn dogs and funnel cakes was gradually replaced by a foul odor—like a matchhead with a freshly snuffed flame. He tried to crane his neck away from Marie, but she clamped her hands to the sides of his face and shoved her tongue deep inside his mouth. Her tongue was long and pointy and, truth be told, just a little rough… like… like a cat’s tongue. It slithered deeper into his mouth to graze his tonsils. He jerked away from her and she looked back at him with a furrowed brow.

“What?” she asked.

“I just…” He swallowed. “Marie, what the fuck is going on here?”

She folded her arms and turned away from him. “Oh, just enjoy the ride, you prude.”

Jonathan began to climb out of the car. Marie tugged him back in.

“Oh Jonathan,” she said, teasing. “It’s not safe to get out.” Then she giggled and spoke in a high-pitched squeak: “Please keep your hands and feet inside the car at all times.”

“I don’t like this,” he told her. His voice cracked, which made him feel foolish. He always dreamed of being the strong, heroic guy on the cover of his weird science fiction books: a futuristic rifle slung over one arm and the distressed damsel on the other. But his damsel was the very cause of the current distress. “Marie, how is this possibly normal to you? Scratch that—how is this even possible?

Marie lifted her shirt over her head. She tossed it on the floor of the car and said, “Shut up and touch my boobies.”

“What!”

“Come on.” She grabbed his hand and jerked it towards her bra. “Squeeze it. You can even slide your hand beneath my bra if you like.”

Jonathan tried to pull his hand away. Marie had cast no magical spell, yet he couldn’t let go. After all, they were boobies.

Marie rolled her eyes. “Ugh! Use both hands, dummy!”

Jonathan swallowed. Then he was “feeling her up,” as his friends said so often. Son of a bitch, he thought. I’m on an expressway to hell and I just hit second base.

“Marie,” he struggled to say, “I don’t think—”

“Oh Jonathan,” she moaned. Her back arched and her hips gyrated. “Don’t stop! Oh, don’t stop!”

The tent he’d pitched in his pants was aching then. Part of his brain screamed at him to get the hell out of there, but he couldn’t make his body follow the order. It was simple biology: he had learned all about it in sex ed. Well, at least when he and his friends weren’t giggling.

Jonathan tried to say her name again, but he could only mutter the first syllable. “Muh. Muh-muh-muh….”

Marie slipped her skirt off in one quick motion then climbed onto his lap. When he wrapped his arms around the small of her back she shivered in pleasure. Her body was hot in more ways the one. Too hot, like a bundle of towels that’d just come out of the dryer.

This was something he had heard about, too: dry humping. Although it certainly satisfied him to an extent, the zipper of his jeans nearly rubbed his little guy raw. In truth, it hurt more than it felt good. Yet, it still felt good, perhaps better than anything he’d known before it.

It started slow, but the rhythm of it increased over time. Faster and faster… a train picking up speed. But where is the train going? a distant and subdued part of Jonathon’s mind wondered.

Minutes later, after he choked back a scream of release, Marie climbed off of him in a manner which seemed cold and clinical. She reached into her handbag and removed a pack of cigarettes. She lit one and thoroughly savored it, her free hand resting on a belly which seemed larger than it had before. She held the smoke in her lungs for a few seconds—most of the kids at Jonathan’s bus stop didn’t even inhale, but Marie sure did—then she blew it all out and rolled her eyes in Jonathan’s direction. She smiled lazily.

“Wow,” she said. “Color me impressed, tiger.”

“Yeah, uh…” He scratched his head. He felt like he needed a nap and made a mental note to do his own laundry lest he wanted his mother to find his ruined jeans. “Does this… like… mean we’re going out?”

“Oh relax, Jonathan.” She took another drag and the tip of her cigarette crackled. Smoke leaked from her nostrils and mouth as she said, “You’re always so tense. Just relax.”

Jonathan watched her wiggle back into her skirt, cigarette dangling from her mouth. He almost failed to realize they had left the mirrored tunnel and entered a cave which wasn’t made of rock, but human flesh. He leaped to his feet to leap from the car, but stopped when he saw what lay below: the walls of the cave sloped to a river of blood.

Jonathan threw himself back into the seat and clutched the arm of the car, panting.

“Awww,” Marie said, laughing. She patted his leg. “It’s okay, you stupid human.”

In between gasps he said, “We… are… in… hell!”

To which Marie laughed heartily.

Jonathan dared to open his eyes again and was reminded of those endoscopy videos he had seen in biology. The walls of flesh seemed to be illuminated from the other side; they looked the way Aaron Simpson’s cheeks had looked that time he stuck a flashlight in his mouth at camp. Either Jonathan had discovered he was extremely claustrophobic or the tunnel was indeed narrowing. Then he realized it was probably both.

The walls of flesh were sloppily stitched together with thread as thick as yarn. He saw grotesque faces stretched flat among ears and patches of hair. He saw penises and testicles dangling beneath curly nests of pubes, and spiders crawling over it all like giant-sized lice. He was surrounded by eyes, mouths, noses and appendages, hanging from the walls like the moles on his grandmother’s neck. He could see the jagged ridges of a massive circulatory system, the branching veins of which coursed throughout the patchwork of flesh and presumably kept it all alive. A single organism made of humans.

He looked ahead again and realized the rail the car had been traveling on ended—no, not ended. It curved downward, like the final climactic hill of a roller coaster. He screamed as the car began to plunge. Meanwhile Marie threw her arms up and cheered.

At the bottom the car skittered across the river’s surface like they were suddenly on the log flume. Waves of blood cascaded outwards in a big vee. As the waves settled, condoms and tampons and syringes bobbed to the surface.

Eventually the rocking car leveled out, floating onward on the deluge of nastiness. The river narrowed towards a gaping orifice in the wall of flesh ahead and Jonathan puked over the side of the car as they helplessly entered it.

The passengers wound through a curving tunnel, the fleshy walls of which were a dark red. Whatever internal light source the walls possessed was dimmer here. This was the lazy river portion of the ride, but it felt more like a trip through a giant intestine, an intestine which smelled like raw sewage and a pile of old pennies.

Jonathan slid out of the seat and crouched on the floor of the car.

“Oh God,” he said. “I want to go home!”

“Stop whining, you big baby.”

“You’re a demon!”

“Come on, get up. You want to score, don’t you?”

“I want to go home!” He was crying then. Bawling.

“But I need you, Johnny.” She bared her teeth like an animal, snarling so fiercely that crow’s feet appeared around the bridge of her nose. “I fucking need you,” she growled. “I need your fucking flesh.”

“Help!” he shouted at the top of his lungs. “Someone help me!”

He rose on his feet, but she slapped a hand to his shoulder and forced him back down. Her strength was inhuman. She was inhuman.

“What are you?” he cried, resigning to the situation. 

“You’re so cute.” Giggling, she removed her hand from his shoulder and caressed his cheek.

The car floated around another bend. There, at the end of the ride, was a large appendage like a bulbous, vein-laden elephant trunk with the drooping skin of a Shar Pei. Jonathan stiffened and felt Marie’s inhuman grip clamp down on his arm.

“Try to relax,” she said, shushing him. “It only hurts at first.”

“I don’t want this!”

“But you said you liked me.”

He found he could hardly look at the thing as it lifted its eyeless, pulsating head and spread open a tooth-rimmed orifice.

“If you like me let me go!” Jonathan begged and his voice carried into a nonstop scream.

He could no longer look away from his fate. The thing’s mouth was blooming wide to consume his face and head and shoulders and, eventually, his entire body. Its insides were pink and warm and slick with mucus.

“Together forever,” Marie whispered, just before the monster’s mouth closed forever.

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