Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Out of Stock

“Is there any left?”


“There’s none left?”


“Not even a little bit hiding in the back?”


“Are you kidding?!”


“You’re honestly telling me that we’re all out of humor? There isn’t a lick of humor left in the entire world now that our supply is gone?”


“That sucks.”


Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Mourning Run

The empty playground sent a shiver up and down my spine. Fog was blanketed over everything, giving the swings and jungle gym hazy outlines reminiscent of my childhood nightmares. Only the topmost stairs of the slide were above the blanket of mist that turned that joyful place of daytime into an early morning haunt. As I jogged past on the route I'd chosen, I tried to keep my eyes from the place. Something about the absence of laughter made turned the playground sinister. It didn't help that the playground belonged to a private school and the whole grounds were surrounded by a wrought-iron fence and twisted old trees that look grandfatherly in the afternoon. The trees and fence had stood together so long that many of the trees had grown around parts of the fence, the bars of the fence wrapped with the very bark of the tree. The roots of some of those ancient trunks stretched almost to the road on the opoosite side from the bulk of the tree. But the amiable daytime apearance of the trees was absent in the morning fog. Now they leaned over the fence, protective of the grounds behind them at the same time they leered ominously at me. I couldn't run fast enough to escape the invisible eyes of those trees.

The unfamiliar road I was on proved to be my enemy as surely as the trees were. I'd like to say I only stumbled, but it felt more like the pavement slithered up and held my foot fast, drawing me down face-first to the road. Time slowed as I fell, the grass of the nearby residential front yards passing by blade by blade, the road coming up to meet me at the same frightful leisurely pace that tarantulas walk-- the assured pace that states that no matter how hard you try to struggle or run away, you will be caught. Until that moment, I never knew what it was like to feel hunted.

My muscles refused to obey me as I tried to scramble to my feet. There was no pain save the wrenching of a slightly twisted ankle and the burning of numerous scrapes and cuts of my skin from the impact. No bones felt broken, no muscles burned or ached. My body simply would not respond as I wished it to. Against my will, I remained flat on the road, unable even to flip over onto my back. I could feel eyes on me, sense it approaching, growing closer with each hurried breath that escaped me.

The same moment I felt a cold finger brush the back of my arm, I heard the first giggle, high and soft, like a little boy hiding and watching his prank-trap sprung. The laugh itself lasted only a second, but the echo of it lingered, bouncing between my ears like a disturbed nest of mosquitoes in my head. The cold finger that brushed my arm became a freezing hand that gripped me above the elbow, making the blood from wrist to shoulder run frigid. A miniscule shriek escaped me. I felt my body giving in as the hand tried to flip me over. All I could do was think of resisting and hope my muscles would remember that it was me they were supposed to listen to.

My fingers dug into the road, looking for purchase, something to hold on to so I couldn't be flipped over. I could feel the skin on my fingertips tearing on the pavement, my fingernails chipping and breaking and tearing. Somehow, I got enough of a hold that I could resist being flipped by my attacker, though this sudden control of my hands was a strain to maintain. What energy reserves I had left were draining rapidly; my breathing was coming out laboriously-- like I'd just finished a mile at a dead run.

Only when my hands decided again to betray me and I felt myself flipping over did I realize my eyes had been clamped shut for the duration of this attack... since I'd first heard the giggle. It took all my will to reopen them and face whatever it was that was looming over me. The second I pried my eyelids apart and saw the first splinter of light, the giggling began again. It started with one, that same high but quiet giggle, the unmistakable sound of a mischievous boy anticipating his fun. That giggle was joined by a girl's overjoyed squeal, and another deeper young man's, the uncertain forced chuckle of a shy boy, the uncontrolled laughter of a girl who's heard a funny joke. It became a chorus of laughter, the deepest boys' voices cracking on occasion, suggesting to me that none of these voices I was hearing were any older than perhaps thirteen. They were all children.

My eyes took far too long to adjust to the early morning light. I could still feel the cold grip on my arm, but there was nothing above me, no person to explain what had just happened. Were I not still hearing the giggles and feeling the band of ice around my arm where I was still held, I would think I was imagining things.

Though there was no wind, the fog was drifing up out of the playground, coming up across the street and curling around my toes. Even through my shoes I could feel the slight chill damp of the mist clashing with the warm sweaty wetness from my running. Beneath that layer of wet, I cold feel my skin was clammy and breaking into patches of goosebumps. My arm was suddenly freed from the cold clutches of whatever was holding me. Just as if I had been held by something solid and visible, the abruptly-released skin took an even deeper chill in the new exposure to air. Not even half a breath later, both my ankles were seized in frosty hands. I call them hands... tendrils would be more accurate.

This attacker I could see. The curling fog itself wrapped around my feet and ankles and tightened like a pair of translucent nooses. Like a bungee cord, the tendrils seemed to stretch before the pull on them turned into a drag on me. My muscles still ignoring me, I was slowly pulled toward the fence that enclosed the playground. I had no more choice in the matter than a stuffed bear has being dragged around by the toddler who takes it everywhere. Over the pavement, across a grassy ditch and the semi-dried mud at the bottom, more grass. Even though I couldn't control my muscles, I could feel the friction, the texture of each different surface I was unwillingly pulled deeper into the giggles. The sound washed over me, scalding me one moment and freezing me the next.

As I came closer to the bars of the iron fence, I braced myself for the impact, fully expecting to wind up with at least one fractured-- if not broken-- bone. It's not that it was pulling me fast, but it was insistent, using a strength far more than I would have expected from a weather occurance.

But the impact didn't come. My legs first went through the bars, then my hips, chest, and head. And when I say through the bars, I mean through them. Not through the narrow space between a few bars, but between the bars themselves. Once I was through the fence, I felt my ankles were released.

In a warm rush that made me feel nauseous, I became aware again of my muscles. My fingers wiggled. My shoulders rolled. I swallowed. I screamed. Frantically, I got to my feet, using tendons and muscles that were stiff and resistant. The laughter came to me, flowing on a newly-risen wind that traveled over the empty playground. In the haze, the indistinct outlines of the seesaws and slides were joined by darkening shapes of small people. The jungle gym was teeming with them-- ants crawling all over a drop of melted ice cream. Shapes dangled from the monkey bars and sat on the balance beam, hung upside-down from a suspended bar and went back and forth on the swings.

Like flicking a switch, all heads were turned towards me where I stood, and out of each head-shape, two pinpricks of light appeared, shining yellow through the haze. Silence fell, broken only by the thudding of my heart. Then came yet another giggle, a soft chuckle that stabbed me like an icicle. I turned and fled.

The eyes and the laughter followed and surrounded me, pressing down on me from all sides like a pile of blankets too heavy to shift off myself. I forced my way back toward the fence, straining to make my way through air thick as cream. My legs were stiff; I wasn't even sure I was bending my knees anymore.

When my first finger touched the icy iron of the fence, the giggle became screams, shrill and agonizing. My ears felt like they were bleeding. I forced one heavy, resisting leg over the top of the fence. And stopped moving altogether. My legs had both fused together and gone soft around the fence, molding to the iron bars and then again coming solid around them. My bones went rigid, my knuckles white with the strain of my grip on the top of the fence. I couldn't release them. My mouth was frozen open in a scream, but even my vocal cords had gone too solid to move. I couldn't budge.

I felt rather than saw the changes happening in my skin. It was growing rough and hard, textured to be the perfect climbing surface for squirrels and a desirable perching place for birds. The hairs on my head meshed together into wide, flat bits and strained toward the rising sun. The light faded from my eyes. I took my last breath as the screaming turned back into laughter and then faded with the rest of the outdoor sounds of morning. I couldn't hear anything, or see, or breathe. I felt the wind pick up and rustle my leaves. The other trees did not speak, but I understood them. The children needed shade and protection. The day children needed shade, and the night children needed our protection. They could never have enough. In a few hours, the school buses would arrive.

I got the idea for this short story during, of all things, a morning run. There's a private school not far from the apartment with these very trees. At 5:48 am, it's pretty creepy there. Glad this didn't actually happen.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Lucid Dreaming

Right away I could tell it was a dream, one of those dreams where you know you’re dreaming. Even as I slumbered I knew I was asleep, and part of my consciousness surmised that this might even be a lucid dream– one of those dreams in which you have such a profound awareness of self and surroundings that you can control the dream.

I’d never had a lucid dream before, but I’d heard and read stories of what they’re like, and I’ve always wanted to have one. I even bought a book about learning how to become a lucid dreamer. Somehow, I had the presence of mind to do what the book said to do: look at my hands.

I looked down at my hands. I wiggled my fingers. I stamped my feet, grinned, and spun in a circle. This was a lucid dream! I had complete control of it! I could fly if I wanted to!

Once I got over the thrill that I was actually having a lucid dream, I was at a loss for what to do. Here I was, with unlimited possibilities before me, the ability and freedom to do anything, and all I could think to do was stand in place, my arms dangling by my sides, and idly look around.

My surroundings were familiar, so familiar it was boring. This was quite possibly one of the most unimaginative places my subconscious mind could have chosen to have a dream-adventure in. It was the corner of the street I grew up on, where it intersected with another subdivision road. I had moved out of the house after college, and my parents had sold the house and left the town a matter of months later. It had been years since I’d seen that corner or even the town. But in this dream, everything was as I remembered it, right down to the hopelessly neglected hydrangeas in the Wilkinsons’ front yard.

Rather abruptly I realized that I was alone on the corner. What few dreams I remember after waking usually include other people: friends, coworkers, family... But here, in this dream, on this intersection of my old hometown, I was completely and utterly alone. There wasn’t even a dog trotting through front yards or a bird singing on a limb of one of the many trees that dotted the property of my childhood neighbors. Never in my youth had I recalled ever seeing the neighborhood so void of life. I suddenly wished for my lucid dream to be over.

Only then did I realize what I could do with my dream. I could control this dream– or should be able to control it, anyway. I could make anyone, anything fill this empty canvas of my old home. If I so chose, I could make Frankie and Lucy Martin appear in their driveway, drawing dozens of chalk pictures of ponies and unicorns and butterflies; I could have the Warren twins run down in the cul-de-sac, playing freeze tag or hide-and-seek with Bobby Lobowski and Junior Craft.

I could bring Amy back, I realized.

Amy, my best friend and the crush of my early years. She’d gone missing when we were in sixth grade; one day she didn’t get on the school bus, and she became one of those tragic cases where hundreds of searchers yielded not even a single clue to her fate. Even as I got through high school and into college, I held out hope that I might see some new report, hear some rumor that she had been found, somehow safe and sound. I’m really not sure when I gave up that hope, but in thinking that I could bring her back, I realized I now fully assumed her dead.

But how was I supposed to bring someone into my lucid dream? I closed my eyes, forming the image of Amy in my mind, both as I remembered her in sixth grade and how I imagined she would look at my age now, nearly twenty years later.

When I opened my eyes, she was there. Far down the road, almost so far I couldn’t tell it was her, there she was. Finding something to do in this dream was all too easy now. I dashed toward her, my friend, gone so long.

She was somewhere between eleven and thirty, but putting an exact age to her was near impossible. Her face was more like I remembered, but her body was sized and formed more like a teen’s. A charcoal grey business suit accented her shape all too well, the knee-length skirt of it showing pale legs that were far too thin. Chocolate-brown hair tumbled down over her face, obstructing my view of my friend. But I knew it was her, even with her looking down.

She was within arm’s reach when her head came up. I practically stumbled to a halt as a half-human face looked back at me. Lizard’s eyes, bright red-orange with strangely-slitted pupils stared me down above a human nose and a mouth too wide for a human face. That mouth grinned at me, smiling wide and showing rows of razor teeth like a shark’s, taking up far too much of the cheeks and chin. It couldn’t close, that mouth. Her tongue flicked out, thick and dark red, before disappearing back in that too-large gaping hole of a mouth.

The smile grew wider as her hand shot out and grabbed me by the throat. Strength of a dozen men went into that grip, crushing my windpipe as I was lifted off the ground, those unsettling, unblinking lizard eyes following me as I was lifted up, up, up. The sounds that came out of her mouth weren’t like any speech I’ve ever heard, more like a rasping clicking hiss. I knew she was saying my name.

Dangling more than a foot off the ground, my air cut off by the human hand of this half-human monster, I stared down into Amy’s contorted face. This isn’t my Amy, I told myself over and over, willing her away. The arm bent, drawing me closer to that ever-widening shark-like mouth, ready to devour me. I clawed at the hand that held me, I kicked and struggled, I tried to scream.

This is a dream, I suddenly remembered. This is my dream, and I control it.

Amy disappeared, and I fell to the ground, gasping for air. She was gone.

I hadn’t even had time to get my bearings before she dived at me from nowhere, appearing out of thin air off to one side, open jaws aimed for my throat. Fingers grabbed at me, tugged at my clothes for purchase, for a grip. Hair brushed my shoulder as I rolled out of the way at the last second, but not quickly enough to get completely free. Sharp nails dug into my calf, followed by the sickening feeling of teeth in the muscle of my leg. My bones wanted to snap as I cried out, trying to wrench my leg from her. I begged myself to wake up as I twisted around, only to see those eyes staring at me as her teeth tore at my leg. I pounded at her head with my fists, kicked at her with my other leg until she caught it in that too-strong grip.

The feeling of a mouthful of calf muscle tearing away from the rest of my leg was like fire, unbearable and nauseating. Even in a dream, I could feel every fiber of flesh pulling taut and shredding or snapping,

Wake up! WAKE UP!

Desperately, I wanted to run away now that I was free of her grip. Half or more of my calf was now in her mouth, separated from the rest of me. The closes I could manage to running was a rather pitiful scramble on a mangled leg.

So I scrambled.

When her hand grabbed my leg, I swear she grabbed it by the exposed bone. I howled; the noise that reached my ears was one I never thought I could make and never want to make again. Freezing fire seized every last nerve in my body as I was pulled back to the monstrous distorted creature that pretended to be Amy. I gave up the struggle for escape, instead clawing at my own throat in hopes that I might kill myself rather than endure being torn apart by this... thing.

The teeth sank in again, this time into my side just above my hips, sending wave after wave of blazing agony through me. Somehow, even with a mouthful of my flesh, Amy let out that hissing language, again saying my name.

I woke up to see the sun streaming in through the window and dancing on my bed sheets. My heart pounded, I was sweating, and I didn’t want to think about whether or not I had actually wet myself. I wouldn’t have been surprised if I had.

A hand came out of the blind spot beyond my peripheral vision and seized my throat. So swiftly did the contorted face of Amy appear before me that I couldn’t even manage a gasp. Those unlidded bright red-orange eyes bored into me as the too-side shark’s mouth whispered my name.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011


"For a long time they said we didn't need one, but then something changed and they said that we did."

"What are you talking about?" Adraen asked, shaking his head. Sometimes Vaery, his younger-by-seventeen-and-a-half-minutes twin brother, could come out of the middle of nowhere with what he said. All too often, Vaery had conversations going on in his head, and when he suddenly broke a silence, he was in the middle of one of those conversations and expected everyone to know exactly what he was talking about.

Sometimes, Adraen couldn't help but wonder if Vaery was a little bit mental.

"A guardpost at the gate," Vaery explained, looking a little irritated-- as he always did-- at the lack of immediate understanding from those around him. He shook his head, taking in all the others around him; every one of them looked as confused as Adraen felt. "For as long as I can remember-- as long as many of the Elders remember, they say-- we've been told that we don't need a guardpost at the gates to the city. But now, something's happened. I know it. Why else would we suddenly need a gate?"

"You don't think it might be... one of those... things, do you?" Rual was two years younger than the rest of those that were gathered, and he was still fervent in his beliefs that all the stories his mother told him were true. But the older boys: Adraen and Vaery, Tory and Gat and Faybrick, knew the stories to be nothing more than tales to frighten the young into behaving. But Rual seemed to cling to those stories, all about how the Otirah were hideous monsters and stole bad little boys from their beds and ate them. Even as much as the younger boy held onto his belief that Otirah were real, he refused to say the name aloud. Maybe he really did believe in them.

Adraen glanced to where the guard tower was being built. Already, the construction was higher than the city wall. Once it was finished, it would be easily visible from anywhere in the city. "It's probably for something else," he said. "Everyone knows the Otirah are just stories." The others chimed in, Tory and Gat even tossing in a few teasing words to embarrass Rual.

"I was just saying," the younger boy blushed. "I saw one once..."

That was enough for Faybrick. "If I have to listen to him insist on that story of his again, I swear..." He strode off, Tory and Gat close on his heels. Adraen looked after them, part of him wanting to join them in whatever time-wasting endeavor they would find, the other part of him not wanting to just leave Rual looking as abashed as their departure had made him look. Vaery gave him a shrug. "I'll stay with him. You go on."
Without another glance, he dashed off after the other three, grateful for the reprieve. Vaery would stay with Rual and listen to the story again. Fine.

The rest of the day found the four of them causing the general trouble expected of boys their age. It was enough to make younger sisters tattle and then spy and giggle when they were scolded by their mothers, and there was plenty of cause for older sisters to pick up right where mothers left off, adding scoldings of their own. Adraen really didn't see the draw of deliberately causing trouble-- not the way Gat in particular did-- or even the draw of filching pastries-- the way Tory did-- when he would get them just as easily after dinner from his mother and without the scolding or the fear of getting caught. More than once, they skirted wide when they saw Vaery and Rual wandering the streets nearby; neither Faybrick nor the others wanted to deal with Rual any more than necessary, and even though none of them said it-- not with Adraen around-- they didn't want to deal with Vaery either.

Evening came, and dinner, and the dessert pastries he really didn't deserve but ate anyway. Vaery didn't say a word about being left behind with Rual, and he even seemed less distracted than usual. He didn't make any of his out-of-the-blue comments at dinner or afterward. He hardly spoke at all, as a matter of fact. Adraen was content not to say anything.

After the lights had all gone out and Adraen was halfway to being asleep, a low growl broke the silence. Adraen's eyes shot open. In the moonlight filtering in through the unshuttered window, he could just make out his brother, sitting up in bed and staring out into the night. Vaery's face looked pale and strange in the shadowy night light, his eyes glowing strangely with the reflected moon.

"Something moved out there," he said simply, not even looking to see if Adraen was awake. "Shaped like a man, I thought, but it didn't move like one."

Adraen strained to look out the window.

"It didn't sound like one, either."

He dared to climb out of bed and creep to the window. Vaery's eyes followed him, shooting warning looks at him while at the same time daring him to keep going. He peered out into the street. There was nothing. No sign of any man or dog or anything that could have explained the growl. it had certainly been too big, too rumbling for it to have been even a large dog. Wind tossed a few stray leaves and a clump of dead grass down the cobbled road. There was nothing else outside.

Adraen suddenly realized how foolish he was being. It had to have been a dog. There was nothing else it could be. Wolves didn't come into the city, nor did any other wild animal, and if it wasn't a dog, well... Otirah were just stories. "Let's go back to sleep, Vaery. It was nothing." Even with his bravado, it took effort not to creep back to his bed, to just walk normally. He crawled under the covers and slept.

When he woke, the sun was still not up, and Vaery was gone. Rumors were flying around the town, about intruders that had gotten in and skulked about, growling like animals, or maybe they were animals, and maybe... the word Otirah was floating around like a leaf on the breeze; Adraen couldn't turn a corner without hearing someone whisper it. Once, as he walked past an lot between a shoe repair shop and an herbalist's-- there had once been an inn there, but it had burned down and no one had rebuilt there-- he almost swore he saw a big black shape moving in the rubble. He attributed it to his nervousness over last night and his uncertainty about where his brother was.

It was Tory who confirmed in his mind that Otirah had come. He went looking for his friends to talk to them, and Tory and Gat were huddled in Tory's house, both looking terrified. They had snuck out of their houses last night-- as they often did-- and had actually seen the Otirah with their own eyes, a hulking figure more animal than man, wearing a tattered cloak and nothing else but fur, growling low and deep and sometimes walking on all fours instead of two feet. They refused to leave the house. "Tell Rual we're sorry," Gat called after Adraen as he left, trying to hide his shaking. With them in that state, he hadn't had the heart to scare them further by telling them Vaery was missing.

After nearly an hour of looking, he realized Rual was missing, too. Fear ate at him, making him nauseous.

Night fell onto the town quickly, and neither Adraen nor anyone else had seen any sign of Vaery or Rual. The two of them seemed to be the only ones missing. Part of him was relieved that there was no sign of them. The more time that passed without seeing either of them, the more he began believing that he wouldn't find his brother alive. If there was no sign of him at all, it meant he might still be living... somewhere.
It was long after dark that he was finally forced to give up his search, when his father came and found him. His father's eyes were red-rimmed and puffy, as if he had been crying. When he got home, his mother looked even worse. Adraen gladly accepted their hugs, assuring them he was fine. He went to bed without supper; none of them were in any state to cook, and he wasn't hungry anyway. He slept in Vaery's bed, next to the window, fighting sleep in hope that his brother would return. But sleep took him against his will.

A low growl woke him, and he jumped to look out the window, his eyes straining to see in the darkness. Nothing was outside, just as it had been the night before. But he knew he had heard it.

There! He squinted. Clambering on the side of the street, heading in his direction, was a hunched-over figure that looked to be wearing a cloak. His blood ran cold. He wanted to pull his head back in the window, to hide, but he was frozen, staring as the figure awkwardly approached.

It was another movement and a short shout that made Adraen topple backwards onto Vaery's bed. He kept tumbling in a backwards somersault, finally winding up on his back on the cold floor. His heart pounding, he scrambled back to look at the window. Vaery's head was peering over the windowsill, a big grin on his face.


His brother chuckled, but then the smile disappeared.

"Vaery, there's something out there! I saw it! Get in here!"

His twin shook his head. "It's okay. Look, I can't stay."

"What's going on?"

"I'm going with them. Rual, too. Tell Mom and Dad I love them. And tell Rual's parents I'll take care of him."

"What are you talking about? Going with them? Who? Where?"

"The Otirah. I'm going to..." he licked his lips. "I'm going to be one of them."


Vaery shook his head and then looked to his left. The hood of the cloak appeared next to him. He cocked his head to the side, as if listening. "She said I can tell you a little, but that's all."


Vaery shook his head dismissively, as if to say there was no time. "They're not monsters. They... they're people. Sort of. they used to be. Anyway, Rual and I both have the gift. There's worse out there, Adraen. Real monsters. Not Otirah." The cloaked figure gave a little start and what almost sounded like an abrupt purr. Vaery nodded at it-- at her. "It's a power. Magic, I guess you could call it. But not. When I learn, I'll protect you, like she does."


"I can't stay, Adraen. Please, trust me. Tell Mom and Dad I love them." He paused, a sad look creeping into his eyes. "I'll be different, then, but... I will protect you. I promise."

Adraen stood shocked for a moment after his twin and the hooded-- woman?-- disappeared from his window. Finally, he leaped onto the bed and stuck his head back out into the night.

Seven years passed, but Adraen never forgot his twin brother even when most of the townspeople had. As a hardy man, he took his turns at the guardhouse that stood at the wall. He always took night watches, and alone. Should something happen, he would raise a cry. Others rang the alarm bell for any of the normal night shadows that were out there, but not Adraen. There were more false alarms than anything else, but even when he did see a definite man-shape moving out in the wilderness that lay outside the city walls, he did nothing. Most often, he thought he knew who it was.


"Sometimes the price is too high for most people, but there's always someone willing to pay."

"What are you talking about?" Michelle asked, shaking her head. Sometimes Paul, her older brother, could come out of the middle of nowhere with what he said. All too often, Paul had conversations and ideas going on in his head, and when he suddenly broke a silence, he was in the middle of one of those conversations and expected everyone to know exactly what he was talking about.

Sometimes Michelle couldn't help but wonder if Paul was a little bit mental.