Archive for the Denver Category

Creepy Caves

Posted in Denver, horror, indie, urban fantasy with tags , , , , , , , , on August 6, 2014 by rachelcoles

Hi Indies,

It’s been a cool week. I got to spend a couple of days off of work with my Rosa before she goes back to school. I can’t believe she’s in fourth grade now. She can’t be in fourth grade, she just started third grade! Oh, that’s right, I forgot, time speeds up when you get older. That’s either physics or Murphy’s Law.

We got to go to the pool and swim, cook together, and just hang out. She’s completely into Master Chef, so that’s her new game. I learned that I am really terrible at impressions. My husband does a really great Gordon Ramsey impression, and Rosa does the most hilarious Joe Bastianich stare. As far as our actual cooking experiments together, we made homemade ravioli. It didn’t come out horrible, but I’m pretty sure I’d be sent home from the Master Chef kitchen for undercooking the pasta. Yes, I couldn’t boil pasta. In Chef Ramsey’s famous words, “Wha’ a shame!” Rosa, on the other hand, made the ravioli filling and sauce perfectly!

Getting to spend time with my kid made me think about how awesome it is to have people. I’m so surrounded by people all the time, that I take people for granted. I’ve been addicted to Orange Is The New Black, and they talk about solitary confinement on there, and some people who are introverts like me think ‘Oh, yes, to be by myself, how bad can that be?’ Except we don’t get how social animals are, even solitary animals, and being primates, we are anything but solitary, not really. So I don’t think most people get just how awful it is to be alone. When I read stories about immortal being and ancient beings I automatically think, ‘Wow how awesome would it be to be immortal and ancient like that!’ But then I wonder, because in the end, unless a being like that has another one to keep him/her/it company, eventually they wind up alone as the non-immortal world goes by. I guess if you’re a Greek god with a short attention span and can just snag any random human for a booty call then they manage to while away the time.

This next story is about an ancient being some unfortunate people found in a deserted mine.

The Lonely Miner

by Rachel Coles

Exhaust rose up through the windows, making Mark cough.

“Screw this!  Let’s kick on the air, roll up that window.”  Gunther hit the switch, and the windows glided up, as cool air blasted into the cabin.  Santa Fe Blvd was a parking lot.  Mark unrolled the window again and slid half his body out, balancing and peering into the wavery distance ahead of him to see what had caused the wait, as if it would help, with three 18-wheelers blocking the view around the curve.  He flopped into the seat discontentedly, reached back and popped off the lid of the cooler and grabbed a bottle.

“Hey, get me one!  Is that an IPA?”

“Yes it is, and no.  You’re driving.”

“It’s an IPA, like 4.5% alcohol, give me a damn bottle!  Besides, we’re only moving two miles an hour, when we’re going at all.”

“And if it’s a big accident, swarming with cops?  That’ll look great, you sucking down a beer behind the wheel.”

“I’ll be done with it by the time we get around the bend, which may not be until midnight.”

Mark rolled his eyes and uncapped it.  Hoppy vapors swirled at bottle lip and dissipated.  He handed it to Gunther, who got in half a swig as the SUV in front of him suddenly began moving, and picked up speed to about 20 miles an hour.  It kept going, slowly but steadily.

“Shit!”  Gunther took one more long guzzle and handed the bottle to Mark, who finished it and stashed the empty back in the cooler, and grabbed another.  In a couple of minutes, they drifted slowly past a workman in a bright orange vest and a big smiley face, holding up a SLOW sign, waving cars on.  A huge flashing arrow sign ushered cars to

a trickle of one lane, while a line of aggravated drivers waited for their turn on the other side of the bottleneck, detained by another vested workman holding up a STOP sign.

“That job would suck.”  Mark watched as the workman, or woman rather, stood bored and hot, uncaring as motorists glared.

“Amen.  So now you can stop bitching about yours.”

“I don’t bitch.  I vent.  And I never said that it was bad.  It’s just the bureaucratic stonewalling pisses me off sometimes.”

“And you work where?

Mark sighed.  “For the state.”

“Doing what?”

“Contract monitoring.”

“Sooooooo…”

“Right, right.”

“Like going to the tundra and complaining about the snow, and this big inconvenient glacier in your way.”

Mark scowled and watched the landscape flashing by.

Gunther kept talking.  “Me, I live in Office Space.  Milton Waddams is my cubicle mate.  I know it, everyone knows it, and I don’t fight it.  Because I do my job, make my money, and come the weekend, everyone can just fuck off!  I have a job, in this economy, HURRAY! Though who knows how much longer that’ll last.  My company sucks, but that’s something for now at least.  You know what your problem is?”

Mark swiveled his head and waited.

“You been in emergency management for so long you can’t even have a thought without writing a strategic plan about it, every step for the next five years.  How long did you plan for this day hike?”

“I didn’t.”

“Uh-huh.  That’s why you were packing a giant bag when I came to get you.”

“Emergency supplies.”

Gunther turned and glared at him.

“We need emergency supplies, we’re going to an old mining town and tunnel!”

“Not two week’s worth of food and water.  And what else do you have in that ginormous bag, a satellite dish, a parka and mukluks, a James Bond car, what, Captain Eagle Scout?”

“Radios.”

“To radio whom?  If they even work in the mountains. You’re not a ham radio operator, you never went through with the test, remember?  You just wanna look cool with your little nerdy radio.”  He grabbed Mark’s beer bottle and held it to his cheek,  “CHHKKK, BREAKER BREAKER, this is Nerd Patrol, we have a 10-24 at the 246.  OVER AND OUT!”

Mark snatched the bottle and drained the last swig before it could slosh out.  “That’s not what it’s like! Ham radio people are cool!  Have you ever seen those guys?”

“Yes, and you aren’t one.”  He grabbed another couple beers as the industrial buildings and shopping strips gave way to slow rolling foothills.

The air as they pulled onto the Alpine Tunnel 4WD was brisk, like a different climate zone from the unseasonal May heat near Denver.  The car jiggled and bumped as the gravel rattled in the undercarriage.  The parking area was littered with weeds in clumps.  There was one other car.  Pale silver-leaved stands of aspen interspersed with clumps of spiky brown beetle-killed Ponderosas.  Pine and fine beige dust from the parking area filled the air.  Mark pulled some of the food out of the pack, and stashed a few chilled beers in next to the bottles of water, wiping the ice drippings onto his fleece vest.  He pulled out his GPS, fiddled for a minute and pointed towards the left.  “Trail head’s over there.”

Gunther stood in front of the big gaping break in trees and gravel walk that was the obvious trail-head.

“No kidding, Magellan?  How could we have known without your New World gadget.”

Mark grinned and shoved the GPS in his cargo pocket.

The first ten minutes of the trail were mild, carpeted with sienna needles.  It gave way to brush as the trail steepened, surrounded by sage and splashes of bright spikes of columbine, dots of aster and delicate blue bells.  They skirted swaths of scree across the trail, refusing to seem out-of-breath or out-of-shape after less than an hour into the hike.  A gully wound near the path and Mark caved in first.  It’s a day off, dammit! I’m not here to impress anyone. I’m having a beer and sit-down.  He clambered off onto a boulder, and pulled out a sweating bottle and some buffalo jerky, offering some to Gunther.

“Wuss.”  He ambled over and took the jerky, and a beer.  “Good jerky.”  He grunted.

“This from a man whose favorite food is plain mashed potatoes and chicken-noodle concrete.”

The unapologetic Midwesterner flashed a white grin and gnawed at his meat leather.  They sat, drinking the beers and eating in amiable guy-silence, and then packed in the

bottles and started back on the path.  Mark stood a moment longer looking at the gully that had been a stream before the drought.  Desiccated grey-green algae, like the crusted blood of a naiad, clung to the face of the rocks in the center, and sun-bleached twigs and debris choked in a winding line up and down the mountain in either direction.  It looked like someone had dragged Jenny Greenteeth into the sun and baked her until she shriveled against the rocks.  A couple of papery minnows lay in the granite nooks, like those Japanese dried fish snacks.  As he started to turn back to the path, she moved, just enough out of the lee of a crag that he could see her diaphanous green hair.  Her hollow moss-colored eyes peered at him as she moved sluggishly back into the shadows, the detritus behind her visible, as her long black talons withdrew into the merciful shade.  He blinked, pulled out the beer bottle, sniffed the mouth, and put it back, and then turned on his heel and followed the dust motes to where Gunther had gone.

“Do you ever wonder what happens to the creeks up here?”  Mark caught up, panting.

“What do you mean?”

“When they dry out.”

“They always dry out in the winter, we’re a high sierra state.”

“But it’s May, and we’re in the mountains.”

“Yeah, but it only snowed early this year, not recently.  Dillon Reservoir was down by half since a couple years ago.  The boats were all clustered in the middle, with LOTS of beach that wasn’t there before.  It looked pretty wild.  Like a little kid pulled the plug out of the bathtub.”

“That’s exactly it.  What happens, I mean, don’t you think we’re in trouble?”

“Sure.  We’ve been in trouble for years.  That’s why we get all the cool rebates for putting in low water stuff in our houses.  I got two new toilets for 50 bucks, and got in great with my wife!”  He waggled his eyebrows.

“Glad to know the drought’s improved the frequency of your booty calls.”

“It doesn’t count as a booty call if she’s married to you.  But thank you!  Look, this happens every ten years or so.  Next year, we’ll probably get totally buried in a blizzard and the levels will be back to normal.  That’s the way it works.  You wanna change it, talk to the golfing snow birds in Arizona.  Get our water rights back.”

A crane fly floated by, and disappeared into the parched shadows of the woods.

“What the hell, did you see the size of that mosquito?!  How is it there’s no water, and there’s still mosquitos.  If that isn’t a sign the world’s gone to hell…”

“It’s not a mosquito, city boy.  It just looks like one.  They don’t bite.”

“Well, that’s good because it’d suck us dry in five minutes. Thing was huge!”

“Actually, they do that on purpose, fly around like mosquitoes to get all the whiny little girls to flee the outdoors.”

Mark kicked pebbles at him.  “Ok Ranger Sven, let me know when you’ve finished skinnin’ the bear and building the log cabin.”

Another crane fly whirred gently around them, dancing in the lazy bright light, and vanished in the dappling at the edge of a stand of trees.  Mark glanced back and they were bobbing a few feet back.  For a second, as they flitted through a patch of shade, the slender thoraxes expanded and the proboscises shrunk, and a pair of homunculi hovered, observing them.  Then a breeze exhaled their delicate forms into the distance, sticklike legs dangling.

“Uh…”

They hiked in silence for a while.  Every few hundred feet, Mark would look back, and the crane flies were there, weaving among the brush, coming sometimes closer, sometimes farther.  Finally, the entrance to the tunnel loomed. He glanced back.  The flies were gone.

The famous Alpine Tunnel had been completed in the late 1800s as a cheaper and shorter way to get supplies and mail to and from Hancock, by burrowing right under the Continental Divide.  Over two miles hewn through stone and earth, reinforced by timber, costing what in those days was a small fortune.  By the mid-fifties, the nearby mining operations and the traffic that had accompanied them dried up.  And the passage was empty, except for hikers and sightseers.  The lighted entrance bore a sign:  East Entrance.  Proceed with caution.  The mouth yawned, and the timbered braces receded into the dim lighting like the ribcage of Jonah’s whale.  They looked up at the structure and stepped into the frigid dark.  It took their eyes a minute to adjust to the tiny amount of light put out by the bulbs.  Their breathing and footsteps echoed slightly, as they padded deeper down the long hallway, veering slightly here and there.

After a while, the slight buzz of voices emerged from farther down the tunnel, the other car, other hikers.  They followed the murmurs around bends in the tunnel, but the acoustics bounced the sound so it was hard to tell how close they were.  They seemed to be the same distance away as they had been a while ago.  Then the voices died away. So did the lights, leaving them in oppressive Stygian blackness.  The weight of tons of granite pressed in from all directions.

“What the FUCK!”  Gunther exploded, feeling for the rough wall.

Mark knelt and rummaged in the pack and drew out a wind-up LED flashlight.  The whir of the torch filled the passage, along with a weak bluish light that grew stronger.  “Prepared.”

“Oh great, Mouseketeer, let’s get the fuck out of here before something else goes wrong.”

Mark rummaged again, drawing out the radio.  It spit back nothing but static.

Gunther rolled his eyes.

He pulled the GPS out and shot Gunther a smug look.  “Prepared.”

“Yeah, yeah!  I get it!  Why don’t we just go back the way we came.”

“Wanna make sure we are.”

He groaned in exasperation, and leaned back against the wall, arms crossed, waiting for Mark’s little experiment in technology.

Mark toyed with the controls, frowned, twirled a knob, turned towards the wall Gunther was leaning on, then stopped.

Gunther raised his eyebrows and started singing  “’I’m the map, I’m the map, I’m the map, I’m the map. I’M THE MAP!’” …So Dora the Explorer, what does Map say?”   He was grinning fiercely.

Mark grimaced. “It says the exit is here… this wall.”

“Awesome.  Do you have a magic ring or anything?  Maybe it can lead us to Mount Doom and an Eagle can fly us back.”

“Not helping!”  He resisted the urge to hurl the device against the wall, put it back in his bag, and stomped past Gunther.  “Alright. Seems like we came this way.”

“Sure you don’t want to consult your magic eight-ball some more?”

“Bite me.”

The unrelenting mountain sun sank towards the horizon, casting copper rays over the terrain, illuminating a wind-weathered sign at the mouth of the cave:  Tunnel Closed.  Danger of Collapse.  A rotten timber poked like a greenstick fracture from the edge of the darkness inside, a bare light socket peeking down from the craggy ceiling.

Back the way they had come was not opening up to the light at the end of the tunnel.  They hadn’t passed any other turnoffs, so they must get close soon.  At least, Mark thought, the flashlight doesn’t need batteries. That’s me, with the silver lining. Gunther’s face was grim as he paced a few steps back into the dark to peer at something he thought he’d seen.

Mark heard a slip, a short yelp, and Gunther was gone.  A thud came a moment later from far below.  And silence.  It took Mark a second to realize what had happened, and then he started yelling.

“Gunther!  Can you hear me?  Are you ok?  Yell if you can hear me!”

Heart thudding, limbs trembling, Mark shined the light in the direction Gunther had disappeared.  There was a slight pathway to the right that vanished into the dark.  How had they not seen this?!  The ground opened onto a gaping precipice.  The light didn’t reach the bottom.

He looked around trying to think about what to do next, maybe see if he could get down there, and abruptly stopped, adrenaline blazing through his veins.  Staring at him was a diminutive gray figure.  It was ancient and gnarled, with piercing dark eyes.  It wasn’t human.

“Who are you!”  Mark blazed.  “What do you want?  Wanna fight?!  Bring it!”

He fumbled a knife from his bag and realized it was a can opener.  He held the heavier end towards his assailant.  But the figure stood, silently regarding him.

Mark’s voice echoed in the corridor, tremulously.

“What do you want?  My friend just fell.  He’s hurt or dead.  Are you going to help me or not?”

The figure said nothing.  Mark edged toward the abyss.  He didn’t have a rope, and saw quickly that there was no way down without a rope.

“GUNTHER!”  He yelled one last time.

The creature glared at him and raised a knotty gray hand to its lips. “Shhhhh.”

There was nothing to do but go for help.  If he could even get out himself.  He stalked past the creature, who turned and followed him as he paced down the hall.  Finally he slowed, and then stopped.  He didn’t know which way was out.  The circumference of light bobbed to a halt, and Mark slid down to his butt in freezing dirt.  The creature

stopped just beyond the cone of illumination.  He looked up at it. It stared back at him.

“You going to help me get out?”

It didn’t answer.

“You don’t like the light?”

It shook its head.

“Don’t you talk?”

It stayed stock-still.  He moved the light against his leg so it wasn’t shining into the corridor, but there was no way he was turning it off.

“Three words, four syllables…sounds like…” he pantomimed Charades.  Its eyes looked puzzled.

Mark buried his face in his hands.

“Are you a ghost?” His voice came out muffled.

The figure glided swiftly to his side and a hand like the root of a bonsai tree grasped his arm.  Before Mark could leap out of his skin, there was a shock, images that weren’t from him, rushing into him.  That was how the creature talked.  He gazed at its grey eyes, flecked like opals.

“You’re not a ghost are you?”

Its eyes answered No.

“What are you?”

It felt confused for a moment.  Images came of blazing rock, congealing in swirls and crystals and heavy gravity.  Pressure cracked the great weight into fissures, ice cleaving through, water dripping.  The images were set in geologic time and thought like stone.  Then came the hammering and blasting, the chiseling, soft irritating people prying the veins of its home for metal, digging into

its fortress, and shattering the ponderous voices of the rock.  Miners, hats bobbing, women, traders, all passing through, leaving footprints that scuffed each other out for years, and then lingered when there were no more treads to replace them in the still close dust.  All it wanted was silence and solitude.  It thought, until they were gone.  The voice of the rock was all it had, until the harried frenetic intruders, who lived their lives so quickly and loudly.  Its knotted fingers clung to his arm, its eyes wistful.

“You didn’t mean to kill Gunther.”

It shook its head.

“You want me to stay with you for a little while?  I have to go.  But I’ll stay here for a few minutes longer.”  He shifted his weight on the dirt, where the cold was seeping through the seat of his pants.

Rescue operations continued for three days, until it was concluded that no one would be found, and the cars were towed.

End Story

 

If you’ve had any underground adventures that you want to share, please feel free to post!

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Trains Trains Trains

Posted in blogging, Denver, indie, science fiction, urban fantasy, writing, young adult fiction with tags , , , , , , , , , on July 25, 2014 by rachelcoles

Hi Indies,

I’ve been in a sci-fi mood lately. Loving Defiance and seriously jones’ing for the next episode. I’m considering going as a Casti for Comicon next year, though that’ll only be really cool if my husband does it too, that seems like more of a couples costume. If not, I’m going to try to get my lazy butt in gear to make a female Cenobite costume. That will be crazy, but cool costume, and not something all that common. This year was fun, and not very much work. I finally went in a Star Trek Federation costume, never actually done that before. But with a tweak: I went as a zombie red-shirt featuring four different Star Trek red shirt deaths from the original series. The second day I went, we all changed costumes, and I decided for something a bit less feminine, though still a bit zombie-like. I pulled out my old Halloween costume from a few years back, an Immortal from 300. I had forgotten that the second movie had come out because I didn’t see the second one. Apparently there had been a couple of Spartans around the day before, when I was a red shirt. We never connected, but that would have made some cool pictures.

The next story was from one of my sci-fi moods. I used to listen to trains go by at night, and thought about Ray Bradbury’s character’s point of view from Something Wicked This Way Comes, when he listened to the train came into town in the wee hours of night, with a whistle that sounded like souls. And then I remembered hearing that those trains that cross the country, like the coal trains are actually computerized now, and somehow that made it seem even more lonely.

Whistles

by Rachel Coles

Diana sat up in bed, rubbing her eyes. The train whistle screamed in the background, over the white noise whir of the bedside fan. It yanked her out of sleep with a jarring blare, in the middle of a dream that fled in drowsy tatters. The sound of the whistle was close and oddly alarmed. She reached her hands up to her face, and felt wet tracks on her cheeks. Her whole body was shaking as though she had just escaped something deadly.

When she moved into the house, she had been irritated at that first night discovery of the shrieking trains. Before renting the house, she had asked the owner about the nearby Union Pacific tracks paralleling Santa Fe.

But the woman had waved away her query. “They don’t sound much overnight. Nobody in the neighborhood ever mentions any problems,” she assured.

The house was perfect otherwise, and every other place had been too expensive or not right in some other way. “Always do your own research”, Diana remembered with chagrin. Her mother had told her that, but she had never found the time.

She padded to the bathroom, and took a drink of water, keeping the glass steady with both hands.

The receding train blared again in the distance. The sound winding back through the open windows with the deep morning breeze, almost reminded her of her mother continuing a conversation over her shoulder. Diana shook her head, and downed the rest of the water. Her phone clock read 3:02. She sighed and got back in bed, burrowing into the comforter until morning.

Waking up was like climbing up from a mud pit. She showered and brewed the coffee, and ran her fingers through her auburn mullet. She fingered tangles out as she put together her lunch. In her stupor, she filled the travel cup and then forgot and left it on the counter when she left for work.

She slunk into work late at Integrated Filter Solutions, ever grateful for the isolated corner in which her office was nestled. She dumped her bag on the client chair, smacked her coffee-less lips and flipped on her computer. After visiting the cafeteria for bad coffee while her computer booted up, she looked up Union Pacific on the internet. She already knew the night train schedule from being woken up repeatedly in the past week, but she wanted to double-check and gather more information. Something about gathering information on the internet from a remote keyboard was empowering, even if there wasn’t anything she could actually do about a situation.

A Google link led her to an old site from Arizona detailing a union uproar about the loss of jobs to automated trains, and numerous articles citing the danger of using remote control locomotives outside the rail yard. Most of them were dated from before 2006. Since then, the Federal Rail Administration had provided safety guidelines, and the use of experimental remote units across the railways began.

Remote control trains, she thought. So everything they did was controlled by computer, linked to an operator with a box at the stations and yards.

Her fingers tapped the desk in irritation. In the past weeks, as she listened to the wails in the early hours, she’d been able to imagine a lonely engineer trying to make contact with the sleeping towns from the long dark empty places in between. But according to these articles, that wasn’t likely. Even though the train was still connected to a person, that person flipped a switch, miles away: seeing nothing, hearing nothing. Now her late night vision of the trains just contained machines blurting feedback. Not nearly as romantic. She sighed and opened the report she had to finish that day.

***

UP-4531 rolled along, processing the incident near the Alameda Station in the early morning, and logging the images into memory.

A weight had been laying on the tracks. The weight distribution led it to identify the object on the tracks as a small car, with two bodies inside: a large one, approximately one hundred and eighty five pounds, and a small one, approximately fifty pounds. The car contained two moving creatures. The vehicle straddled the tracks that the train would traverse in three minutes and twelve seconds.

As it approached a mile and a half away, its reconfigured sensors gave it a visual. A small tan four-door sedan lay across the tracks. The wheels were spinning and smoking as the figure, a human male, in the driver seat revved the engine to clear the tracks. Two wheels were stuck in a rut which was slightly lower than the track, stranding the car by the undercarriage. A small human creature, a female child, peered from the back seat.

The computer blasted a long sharp note full of alarm. The man exited the car, pulled the little girl from the back, and frantically waved down a passing two-door sleek red car. The emblem on the hood read Porsche.

The red car, with another man behind the wheel, halted near the track. The two men argued, gesturing in the train’s direction. The red car turned toward the track. Its front bumper lined up with the tan car’s back bumper. The red car strained against the tan car, and pushed the tan car slowly off the track. The man in the red car waved at the owner of the car he had rescued, and drove away.

As UP-4531 rolled by minute later, the remaining man stood by the track with his head in his hands, as the child goggled up at its long metal sides. Its next whistle blast was full of relief.

***

In the wee hours of the next morning, Diana lay in insomniac frustration, counting acoustic ceiling holes. She lost count at fifty-six and started over. One o’clock passed. Then fifteen more minutes crawled by, and she sat up and looked at her phone clock.

Right on the change of the numeral, a plangent whistle screamed. It stopped and started again, near the Light Rail Crossover. It halted briefly and then blasted one more wail as its long coal-dark bulk snaked away into the LoDo District of Denver.

Exhausted from the disturbed sleep of several nights, she finally fell asleep, despite the fading echo of the whistle. As the lonely sound vibrated through her it seemed almost alive, accompanying half-formed images that she couldn’t quite identify.

***

‘Crazy Dog Lady’, a neighbor she’d seen from a distance, meandered past the front yard as Diana locked up the next morning. The woman’s six scotties and one chihuahua barked and scurried furiously around a matted patch of catmint that a neighborhood cat had claimed as his kingdom. Diana had jogged past this neighbor’s house once. Her yard was packed with crates, old newspapers, and knick-knacks, and it smelled like wet dog. She seemed nice enough though.

As soon as the pack saw Diana on her porch, they strained toward her on their leashes as their grey-haired owner fought to control them outside the gate.

“Sorry about that! They won’t always do that. They’re just not used to you yet.” The woman squinted up at her in the strong morning light.

Well, compared to the neighborhood from which she had moved, where gunshots were not uncommon, Diana supposed that a furry, yapping Neighborhood Watch was tolerable. “I’m Diana.”

“Hi, I’m Rhoda. I noticed you’ve got squirrels in your chimney.”

“What?”

“Squirrels. They’re coming in and out of that chimney in the back. Those buggers’ll get right in your house, eat right through the walls if you’re not careful.”

“Ok. Thanks! I’ll get right on it…” Diana picked the mail from the box to read at work.

“Say, you look pale. Are you alright?”

“Tough night sleeping. I get insomnia sometimes. Probably stress, and then I had weird dreams.” Why am I sharing? Diana chided herself. I’ll just get stuck in a protracted conversation that I don’t give a crap about. I need to get to work.

“Yeah, that’s kind of typical around here,” Rhoda replied.

“Huh?” Diana fumbled her coffee mug, and it sloshed dark pungent liquid onto the stoop. The dogs scrabbled towards it, tongues lolling. Maybe those dogs and I do have some kind of common ground, she stared at the spill wistfully.

Rhoda continued, “We all have odd dreams, really vivid. Places we’ve never been.”

“We?” The term put Diana in mind of steaming apple pies and manicured lawns…hiding dark-cloaked meetings in someone’s basement.

“Yeah, I talk with Ron and Flora down the street, and Lily, and the crippled boy Jimmy on the corner. And I noticed that everyone on the block has those kinds of dreams. No one really talks about it much now because it’s kind of normal here. Just something I noticed about a year ago. I don’t know if it’s different other places. I’ve lived here since my husband died ten years ago. The dreams’ve gotten more interesting lately too. All these different places go by, like I’m on a train.”

Diana stared at Rhoda. “Oh.” She suppressed the urge to ask if there was a funny little weed growing somewhere under the crates of stuff in her yard. But Diana remembered the strangeness of her own dreams. What had been even stranger was that while she hadn’t been able to make out images clearly, they had not seemed dreamlike, not the one she’d had as the whistle screamed. It had seemed like a voice. She shivered in the strong sun.

“I gotta go to work. It was nice meeting you, Rhoda.”

“Sure thing, neighbor. Let me know if you need anything. Ron is going on a squirrel rampage tomorrow with his Daisy air rifle. He’s taking off work to hunt. They ate every single one of his strawberries this year. So he’ll probably ask if he can come into your yard to kill ’em.”

“Tell him ‘happy hunting’, as long as he doesn’t leave the bodies here.” She tossed her bag in the car and escaped to work.

***

At 3:00AM, Diana rolled over, surfacing momentarily from a dream as the whistle howled in from the dark. She lay waiting for the blast to end.

It didn’t. Like an opera note that went on past any possibility of air, the whistle exhaled all along Santa Fe Boulevard. It finally ebbed when it was past her neighborhood, near Osage, and rolled silently on with no further toots. This pattern and the one from the other night were different. She didn’t really know if they were supposed to be the same each time, but she had imagined robot trains repeating themselves, even if controlled by an operator. The computer commands should have been the same.

She drifted back to sleep. Her dreams wandered through empty scrub-land, occupied only by ghostly tumbleweed and an occasional set of shining eyes in the darkness, lit for a few seconds by a passing beam.

***

UP-3578 called to the next train on the line a long distance ahead: UP-3574.

Its whistle vibrated across the tracks and across the air. What have you seen?

An answer came back. Dark sky, empty sky, small creatures.

Data came over the remote signal transmitter that never originated with any of the station operators. The signals translated into an image of the desert, open except for the lumpy cacti, scurrying night-life and flashes of golden eyes. The receivers picked up a bout of squeals and grunts, and then clattering of the tracks.

The images were nothing UP-3578 hadn’t also seen.

It approached an oasis of soft light pocked by islands of darkness, the city of Denver. It knew the people lived there, the intelligent-animals-that-were-not-trains. They were interesting.

What have you seen? it called to them.

The slumbering town didn’t answer. No one was about on the roads it passed. They never answered. The operators never answered either, those not-train animals who controlled it and told it where to go.

***

The image of a jewel-studded darkness filled her view. It held the promise of crowds, of a multitude of voices and motion. But as she approached, the twinkles resolved into populations of street lamps, lighting empty circles of night. A magazine page twirled in the breeze of her wake, near the tracks.

Diana flopped out of bed and turned on the light, listening to the fading train horn. She glanced at the clock: 3:03AM. She padded downstairs, powered on the computer, and put on a pot of coffee. She entered her password for Facebook. No better place to find another group of insomniacs. She could at least catch up on gossip.

It was ten minutes before the page loaded.

Probably a new Facebook ‘improvement’, she thought acidly, just like the last security ‘improvement’ that had blasted her information across the internet. She hit keys over and over in impatient annoyance, and clicked the mouse on every icon she could find, one of the cardinal sins of the IT world.

Reliably, her computer froze, just to give her the satisfaction of cursing at it. She hit CTRL-ALT-DELETE. The task list came up. There was a program running that wasn’t the internet engine. It had a number UP-2741. She clicked on it, just before realizing that it was probably a virus.

The screen that came up baffled any notion she had ever had of viruses. It was a series of images, one after another, about ten seconds apart. Spyware, she thought. Maybe it’s Homeland Security… Though she couldn’t imagine what they’d want with her, or why they’d be flashing images at her.

The images were disjointed and time-delayed, but they raised the hairs on her neck. Scenes of the desert flickered by, the same images she’d been dreaming, the street lights of a sleeping town and deserted station. There were other images after the scrub-land, crackling dry branches and wide-open star-filled sky, followed by dim concrete as empty coal-loading yards passed. Hundreds of frames of bad lands cycled through and then the terrain shifted. The low succulents and brush stretched taller to saplings and spiky pines. What was this? It was as though she were seeing camera shots in near real time. Was someone transmitting from a camera? If so, why this? She sat there and watched for an hour as picture after picture scrolled by across a range of terrains, all night views. She sat and watched as the sky outside the window lightened, her coffee long-cold. The sky in the pictures lightened too. Finally, she shut down the computer. She resolved to call Asus tech support at a decent hour, and got ready for work, wondering what someone could be trying to transmit and why they were using her computer to do it.

Rhoda was scooping poop as she came out the door.

“Howdy neighbor! How are you?’

“Umph.” Diana muttered.

“Not a morning person, eh?”

“If by ‘morning person’ you mean ‘three o’clock’, then no.”

“Jeez, couldn’t sleep again?” Rhoda clucked in sympathy.

“Woke up. What did you say those dreams people have are about again?”

“Oh, different places, desert, sierra, coast, forest. All over the place. Mostly desert. You been having them?”

“Yeah. Do you know if anyone else on the block has been having weird computer issues?” Diana asked, trying to keep the early morning irritation from her voice. Rhoda seemed like the fountain of gossip for the neighborhood.

“I’m a low-tech person, but I could ask around. What kind of issues?”

“Like an embedded camera flashing photos of landscapes.”

“Huh. Never heard of that. Maybe you have a virus.”

“Yeah. Thanks.” Great, Diana tossed her bag haphazardly on the car seat. “On that cheerful note, I’ll see ya later.”

Rhoda gave her a perky wave, reminding Diana of the wagging doggy tails.

***

“Hey neighbor!” Her next door neighbor Dave’s military brush-top bobbed above the top of the fence as he hoisted himself onto the cross-support to look over, when Diana returned from work. “I heard your computer’s been going a bit whacky-doo.”

“Whacky-doo? It flashed photos at me for about an hour. I don’t have any programs that I know of that can do that. They weren’t any pictures I’d taken. And I don’t recall downloading anything from the internet. Weird thing is, I dreamed about some of those pictures, before I saw them.”

“Do you have any cavity fillings? Maybe your teeth are connecting to the internet and picking up signals.”

“Cute. Maybe I should wrap my computer in tin foil.”

“Actually, I had a similar thing happen last week, that’s why I thought I’d let you know. I sent the computer in. Haven’t gotten it back yet. I never really thought about it, because I don’t always remember what I dream. But now that you mention it, it did feel like deja vu when I saw the pictures. I just thought it was a virus. Wanna beer?”

“I could use one, thanks!”

“Everything’s better with beer.” He handed a cold bottle over.

“Hear, hear.” She popped the top and went over to his yard for the evening.

***

By the end of the week, two other people had come to her, calling across the yards about their computers having the same ‘virus’. Rhoda had told them. Or Dave.

Jimmy, the young man with cerebral palsy, who lived on the corner nearest the Santa Fe tracks, wheeled up to her in his chair while she was weeding. His sandy bangs drifted into his eyes. “I been watching the pictures, on my computer. Some of them are from around here. I don’t think it’s an internet virus or anything.”

“If we all have it on our computers, it seems like a virus.”

“But I haven’t seen anything on the internet or heard of a new virus. And I’m on the internet all the time.” He motioned to his atrophied legs. “I seen a few strings in blogs, of the same thing, actually, the pictures on people’s computers. But they all started months ago. Viruses move faster than that. And it looks like they’re all neighbors too.”

“Maybe they’re connected to certain wireless ports.”

He shook his head. “Maybe, but all the pictures look like they’re along tracks. Why?”

She shrugged, stuffing weeds into the trash can. “The trains are run on computers now, some of them anyway. Since like four years ago. Maybe it’s a train virus.”

“Then why aren’t the computers going all funny about other things. Viruses are meant to screw things up in computers. Are the trains crashing? Or our computers? Can you still use your computer?”

She slowly paused and nodded. “What is it then?”

“Something else. I’m leaving my computer on and storing all the program files.” He turned and his voice retreated down the street over the motorized buzz of the chair.

“Let me know what you find,” she called after him.

“I’ll let everyone know.”

***

Diana’s dreams that night were as vivid in tone as in scenery. The types of scenes hadn’t changed from the American landscapes at night. But the loneliness was more pervasive. It was a wash over every image, investing the smallest details with importance. It felt like her soul was drowning in the vast empty spaces and the wide starry sky. As the images flashed by, she passed another still town nestled into the darkness. A street intersection she passed looked familiar. Green and flowered verges languished at the edge of the lamplight, their blossoms ghostly. She reached out to the people in their beds, begging them to stir and talk to her.

Diana gasped and woke as the whistle ebbed. The town she’d seen had been their little neighborhood. The images were of the scenery near her street.

***

When she came home from work, a small gaggle of neighbors was gathered at the end of the block, under the sour cherry tree in Jimmy’s yard. He was gesturing animatedly. She moseyed over and waved at the gathering: Rhoda and all her dogs, Jimmy, Dave and his wife Rose, and Ron and Flora, the chain-smoking, retired couple from two houses down.

Jimmy nodded at her. “Those recordings, they’re all trains,” he declared. “And all those blog strings from the past year look like their pictures all come from trains too. They posted some of the pictures. I looked at them all night. And the IP addresses I could follow are all from around train tracks. I geocoded everything.”

She stared at him. “You did all this last night? Where do you find the time? Don’t you sleep?”

He shook his head. “Not much. I get restless. It’s not like I can get up for work. I’ll lose my disability, and the IT jobs in this town are in the crapper.”

Rhoda snorted and shook her head. “With things the way they are, I told Jimmy here to whack me in the kneecaps if I lose my job.”

Dave, off-shift from active duty at Fort Carson, grinned.

Diana glanced around, hesitant to sound crazy, and then realized that this company wouldn’t care. “I had a wild dream last night. I was passing the bridge over Alameda Street in the dream. The ‘me’ on the tracks tried to talk to the ‘me’ in bed. I woke myself up. It was at the same time as the whistle.”

“Freaky-deaky!” Dave exclaimed.

Rose spoke up, “Yeah, I did too. It was kind of a sad dream.”

“So… what?” Ron flicked a cap of ash to the sidewalk. “We’re dreaming of trains and maybe seeing computer shots from trains. Does that sound as crazy to anyone else as it does to me?”

Dave snickered and shuffled his feet, “Cool. Maybe they’re artificially intelligent trains. Hey, I’d be ok with crazy, if it’s AI.”

Rose shrugged, “Me too. I just re-read ‘I, Robot’. As long as they’re not going to destroy the world, why not?”

Diana rubbed her hand over her face, Wow, these people are in the Twilight Zone. “I doubt they’re AI trains. I mean they are pictures on a computer, and they’re all of scenes from around tracks, but that doesn’t mean it’s the trains.”

“But it would be awfully neat,” Rose, I-Robot-fan extraordinaire interjected.

“It does seem weird, but you got a better explanation? Jimmy asked.

“Someone on the train broadcasting images and tapping into wireless networks,” Diana insisted.

“Why?” Rhoda looked up from scratching the dogs’ ears.

“Why do people post half the stuff they do on You Tube or Twitter? To make contact. To show people something from their point of view in case someone give a crap.” Diana snorted.

“They’re posting images of what they see, yeah, but you said there’s no one on those trains. They’re computerized, Jimmy added.

“That doesn’t mean that someone can’t hitch a ride.” Diana put her hands on her hips.

Jimmy shook his head. “Have you seen the number of pictures there are? From everywhere. The frames are coming too fast, and the resolution of these pictures is impossible without a digital camera that would be thousands of dollars. If it was a person, or people hitching for some kind of project, it’d have to be one with lots of money, like multimillion dollar. And then, don’t you think we’d hear about it?”

“What if it’s for national security?” Rose asked and looked at Dave.

Dave shrugged, “But no one would be wiring it to our computers.”

“And what about the dreams? Everyone’s been having dreams too. I don’t think the government has gone as far as mind control yet.” Flora’s gentle Southern voice cut across the group chatter. Everyone looked at her.

“There isn’t any kind of camera that can wire images into people’s brains, that I know of.” Jimmy said.

“So then how does AI explain it? They would have to be telepathic. AI by itself is kind of a stretch. But telepathic trains?” Diana interjected.

Rose replied, scratching her head, “It does seem unlikely.”

Rhoda sniffed. “Well, I like the idea. You said you’re dreams happened at the same time as the whistle. Maybe that’s how they talk, and we hear them as dreams. Sometimes it feels like they’re talking anyway, during that whistle. It sounds so…”

“So alive?” Flora said quietly.

Rhoda knelt and scratched behind several fuzzy ears. “I think they were talking to us. Through pictures.”

Jimmy shrugged. “Well as far as the computer images. If they did talk, that would probably be how. Computer commands. I’m not really an expert, but it feels right. All the incidents in the posts started about a year ago.”

“The automated trains started being used more about three years ago,” Diana frowned.

“Two years difference,” Jimmy said.

Ron flicked his cigarette again. “That’s nuts. Trains coming alive.”

Flora smiled at him. “Oh come on, you have to admit it would be neat! Maybe we can talk back somehow.”

They all looked at each other.

Ron shook his head.

Jimmy conceded, “I don’t know how to access their program…assuming it’s the trains.”

“Well, for Heaven’s sake’s, just because they’re computers…Why not do things the old fashioned way,” Flora exclaimed. “If we can get these images on the computer from them, then they’re seeing something. We could just flash signs by the tracks, where they could see us.” She gave an excited smile.

Ron stared at her. “I’m not getting up in the middle of the night to stand by train tracks, waving signs at unmanned trains.” He wandered back towards his house.

Dave grinned, “Sounds like fun actually. Even if it’s a long shot.”

“And say what, ‘Greetings, do you come in peace?” Diana laughed.

“Sure. Track party! I’ll bring beer and chairs. We’ll find a safe spot out of the way but visible.” Dave volunteered.

“Oh, I’ll do some signs and bring art supplies,” Flora clapped her hands.

“I’ll bring some snacks,” Rhoda volunteered.

They spent about five more minutes deciding on a time and place. Flora agreed to make flyers for the neighborhood mailboxes, just as she had for the Fourth of July party. At least there’d be beer and food, Diana thought. So the Baker Neighborhood AI Train-Spotting Party was born.

***

That Saturday, a small crowd gathered at eleven at night, in a parking lot visible from the Santa Fe Union Pacific tracks. Cases of micro-brews arrived, little portable card tables with a variety of foodstuffs, even a small hibachi grill were set up. There were two hours for drinking and socializing before the next train was due. The crowd grew, as folks walking by from other blocks learned of the party. More food and beer tables were set up. Flora brought her art supplies and poster-board for makeshift signs, complete with glitter paint pens and florescent glow sticks from the Dollar Tree nearby.

At about one o’clock, Diana had downed her fourth lager and her third bratwurst. She realized after two hours, that regardless of what happened, she knew more about her new neighbors than she ever would have otherwise. One of the neighbors across the alley was diabetic and had had problems getting out of his house for medication in last year’s blizzard. His next-door neighbor brought him to the party now. The young twenty-something guys renting the house next door to her house had engaged her in a thirty-minute philosophical discussion about Star Wars versus Star Trek.

Even Ron showed up. He made a sign, and smiled at her when she raised her eyebrow at him. “Well, if you can’t be a kook when you’re retired, what’s the point!”

At 1:10AM, a wail blasted across the night. Conversation died, as the loneliness of the fading horn echoed and settled over them like the whisper of midnight snow in the cool September air. A moving dot of light was visible a couple miles away. In silence, Rhoda picked up her sign and held it up facing the tracks. It said, “Hello, from the Baker Neighborhood! We hear you! Honk if you can see us!” There were bright orange and pink flowers and smiley faces next to the words. A couple more people retrieved their signs, laughing and resuming their chat, and then more people in twos and threes. As the train approached, twelve people hoisted similar signs up at the locomotive.

***

UP-3562 barreled across the tracks toward Denver. What have you seen? Is anyone there? As residential neighborhoods began to edge the tracks, there was motion in a lot it would pass in one minute and two seconds. There was a crowd of smart-animals-that-were-not-trains. People! They held up white placards with letters in bright colors. “Hello,” they said. “We hear you!,” they said. The people were jumping and waving the signs. “Honk,” they said. UP-3562 sounded a jubilant bellow for sixty seconds as it passed, mixing with the sound of whoops and cheers. It rattled away to signal the other units on its way through towns that didn’t seem so empty anymore.

The End

If anyone has any AI stories kicking around in their heads, feel free to share the link, whether they’re happy, or Matrix-y!

Posted in blogging, Denver, horror, indie, indie authors, urban fantasy, writing, young adult fiction with tags , , , , , , on July 15, 2014 by rachelcoles

Hi fellow indies,

It’s been a fun week. I took my daughter, Rosa, to see her grandparents, auntie and cousin. It’s going to be her birthday soon, so she basically ate sugar all weekend, sprinkled with a few pieces of macaroni and cheese. I can’t believe she’s going to be nine. Where did eight go? She looks so tiny, until she gets next to really young kids, then she looks so grown up. And the way she speaks, man, it’s like listening to another language. ‘Tots cray-cray’. I don’t know whether to sigh in resignation and mourn the English language, or laugh. I think it’s because it’s my own kid that it sounds cute when she says it, with her little eye-roll. I imagine that it won’t be as cute when she’s a teenager and referring to me. I have to ask my mom if we sounded as alien when we were kids.

But i don’t know when this all happened. I blinked and the world was different. Neil de Grasse Tyson must be right about time being relative and related to speed. Maybe time is speeding up as the universe expands. And I’m going to be…older too, in a few weeks, a lot faster than I’d like. I think since I turned 40, my warrantied parts are expiring…just the small annoying things, like knees. I’m going to be like a Toyota. The body paint might get dinged with hail and start pitting, the inner lining of the ceiling fabric might get holes and start hanging down, the stereo might start sounding tinny, but the engine’ll keep turning over, I hope…maybe I should start thinking about cutting down on the Big Macs and Twinkies.

Speaking of physical changes, my next story is about transformation. You might not look at that those stuffed mushrooms the same again.

 

Mushrooms

by Rachel Coles

Kallie Sangiovi tossed a few packets of mushrooms in her cart and lumbered along. She loved mushrooms, of all kinds: thick meaty portabellas, delicate shiitake, plain white. She ate them on everything from salads to sandwiches, in sauces on steaks, raw or cooked. They were good for her diet. She patted absent-mindedly at her cushioned belly.

Mark made his usual face and comment. “Fungus.” As they approached the checkout line, Kallie felt a tickle and then a sharp pain on her arm.

Then Mark yelped and slapped his leg. “Ow! What the hell?”

There was a crushed ant under her hand. They looked down at a cluster of several ants running helter-skelter over Mark’s leg and over Kallie’s shirt.

“Yipe!” She shrieked and swiped at them as Mark frantically brushed at the ones on his leg.

“Agh!” He wiggled and jiggled and ran for the bathroom as a daring ant made it into his pants.

After every last ant she could see was dead and Mark returned, they inspected the food. “Must have come from the veggies,” she remarked, handing them to the concerned cashier who had come running.

“See, veggies are hazardous to your health. That’s why I never eat them,” Mark quipped. Kallie rolled her eyes.

“I’ll see to the problem in Produce,” the girl inspected the veggies. “And I’ll get the manager.”

After profuse apologies by the paunchy manager, and a ten dollar gift certificate for groceries, they checked out and wheeled to the car. A gust of wind almost blew the cart over, and Kallie’s sun hat flew across a few parking spaces while she shoved the groceries at Mark and caught up with it.

“Holy Moly!,” she exclaimed, peering into the navy bruised sky. “Summer storm coming.”

Mark finished loading the groceries, hopped in the car, and popped open the passenger door for her.

“Maybe it’ll be a tornado,” she said, peering at the sky hopefully.

He rolled his eyes. “We don’t get tornadoes in Denver.”

“Oh, like the tornado we didn’t get last year. That funnel I saw in the sky was just God scratching his ass?”

He grinned, “Look, if it was a major storm, we wouldn’t be over-run with bugs, would we? Don’t animals go into hiding before a storm? Unless we’re dealing with the morons of the ant world.”

“Could be they’re running ahead of the storm,” she reasoned.

He grimaced and brushed another ant from his shirt. “Dammit! Piss off! I’m not food!” He scowled and put the car back into park. Then he flicked an ant into the windshield and did an anti-ant dance, shaking his head back and forth, swinging his arms and stomping his feet on the floor mat.

“I can’t tell whether you’re head-banging or having a seizure.” She remarked and cranked the stereo on the heavy metal station. “Ok, go ahead now, you’ve got theme music.”

He grinned, threw a bag of rice at her, and resumed the drive.

***

The next day, as Kallie pulled pots out to start dinner, and edged around Mark who was emptying the dishwasher, he sneezed suddenly and caught Kallie with the spray.

“Jeez, Mark!” She wiped her arm, making a face.

He choked a laugh. “Sorry, Honey. It came on quick. Allergies.” He wiped his Romanesque nose on his wrist.

She wiped his spray on his shirt, “Don’t infect me with your allergies, bastard!”

He dropped the silverware in a drawer and chased her around the house, trying to lick her. “Come here, I wanna give you asthma too.”

She squealed and ran into the basement, giggling and slamming the door behind her.

He held up his hands. “Ok, you can just stay down there with all the spiders.”

The door burst open and she ran out, squirming and brushing away webs and crawly things. “Ants. Ants too, dammit! We’ll have to go get a bug bomb.”

***

Mark coughed and blew his nose next to her. He threw the covers off and wandered to the fridge. She followed him and felt his forehead. It was cool and clammy.

He muttered and brushed her hand away and tossed her a tiny bottle of hand sanitizer.

“Probably a reaction to the bug bomb,” He muttered. “I think we were supposed to be out of the house for that. But just in case it’s a summer cold…”

“What, you can’t handle a few chemicals? Wuss. What did the can say? You were the one who read it, Mr. Asthmatic.”

He looked sheepish.

“You didn’t read it.”

“Not precisely, no.”

“Good job. Are you ok?”

He nodded, “Yeah, I think actually that it is just a summer cold. I don’t think the bomb would make me feel tired like this. So you should probably keep your distance. Otherwise, I’ll have to hear you bitch and moan for the next few days, and blame me for giving you the plague.”

“I think it’s too late, I’ve already kissed you, and a number of other things that I think qualify as person to person contact,” she smiled languorously.

He waggled his eyebrows. He’d been frisky enough only four hours ago, but now his Mediterranean complexion looked washed out. She sidled close to him and drew her finger down his cheek. He breathed in long and slow, grasped her fingers and stroked them and then tried to muffle a cough as he sagged back against the fridge in fatigue. His eyes roamed her body.

“You’re sick, how can you think about sex?” she marveled.

“I’m a hot Italian. I always think about sex. It’s a cultural thing. Just like wanting my women with some meat.”

“Yeah, well, you got a whole deli,” she slapped her thigh.

“That’s what I’m talking about!” He grabbed her around the waist, and then wobbled.

She frowned and tugged him by the hand into the bedroom and pushed him onto the bed.

“Ooh, Baby!”

“Shut up and go back to sleep. You’re sick. Don’t make me worry about you.” She got him a water bottle and made him drink. He laid his head back on the pillows gratefully, and was asleep within minutes.

***

When she woke it was morning, and every muscle ached. She squeezed her eyes shut again. Summer colds, ick. But this had emerged too fast to have caught it from him, so it must have been brewing in her already. She glanced at her phone, and realized with a small shock that they had been asleep for over a day. She shook Mark and went to turn on the television to the news. The morning sun lit the room, and brightened the putty-colored walls.

The newscaster for Channel 4 News looked tired and her eyes were red. “No word has come yet from the CDC on the nature of the illness that appears to have over a third of the workforce home today. Reports indicate that hospitals and medical offices have experienced a surge in patients complaining of a respiratory infection, with more serious symptoms among those with chronic illnesses such as asthma. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment has issued the following message from James Miller, the department’s Chief Medical Officer:”

The screen switched to a view of an older physician with mouse brown hair in a plain suit. “We want to assure citizens of Colorado that we are working with the CDC and local health departments to gather more information about this health event. Investigations are being conducted to learn more about the cause to determine appropriate treatment.

“In the meantime, we urge people who are sick to please stay home from work to avoid exposing others. We also urge people to wash hands frequently with soap and water. And we want to encourage people to call the following number if you or your family members experience flu-like symptoms, high fever, muscle aches, fatigue, or nausea and vomiting. The Colorado Health Hotline number is 1-800-445-4325. People with more severe symptoms or who are in high risk groups like persons with asthma or heart disease should seek medical help if the symptoms worsen.”

“Huh.” She listened to the rest of the report. At the resumption of the talk show, she switched off. She coughed into the crook of her arm the way the swine flu posters all said, then wiped the slime from the inside of her elbow with a tissue. Her appetite was shot, so nothing in the kitchen was really appealing. Now she knew she was sick for sure. But at least she could get a kick start on her diet, which she kept renewing every day that she screwed up. Her phone rang and her mother’s voice echoed across the room, always a decibel louder on the phone than it needed to be.

“Hi, Dear! How are you? I was just calling to see how you were. I’ve been hearing on the news about your outbreak there.  We’re having some of that here. I said that it wasn’t any use getting the flu shot. See, everyone I know who’s gotten the flu shot is sick now. I didn’t, and I’m healthy as a horse. It’s that mercury they put in it. I don’t care what they say about it being safe. Whoever heard of safe mercury? Just you see. So how are you and Mark?”

Kallie coughed into her arm again. “Mom, it’s not the flu. And the flu shots don’t make you sick. Neither of us got flu shots and Mark is sick, Mom. Me too. But we’ll be fine. Is Dad ok?”

“Well, he’s sick too. See, flu shot!”

Kallie pressed her fingers into her eyes. “Ok Mom.  Well, I hope he feels better.”

“You want to talk to him? He’s right here.”

“Actually, I need to see to Mark. I’ll call back in a little bit.”

She trudged back into the bedroom and flopped back onto the bed. Mark didn’t move. He lay face down on the bed and groaned as she wrapped her arm around his back. He turned over, raised his head slightly and opened his eyes. She gasped in shock. The whites of his eyes were bright yellow. “Oh God, Mark! We need to get you to a doctor!”

“Why?” he mumbled. “They’re only going to tell me to go home, get rest, and drink fluids. Oh, and gimme fifty bucks. Next!”

“No. Most people don’t have day-glow eyes.” She grabbed a mirror from the bathroom and held it in front of him.

“Huh,” was his remark. He rolled over to go back to sleep.

She tugged on his shoulder, “No, no, no. You are not going back to sleep until we get you in the car. You’re going to the doctor.”

“The doctor’s offices are full up, I heard the report from the other room.”

“But this is worse, Mark! Besides, you have asthma, you’re in one of those susceptible groups.”

He sighed into his pillow. “You aren’t going to leave me alone about this, are you.”

“No.”

He dragged his legs up under him and slowly put his clothes on. He moved so slowly and stiffly that the chore took ten minutes even with Kallie helping him. “I feel like crap.” He doubled over on the side of the bed, his arm across his stomach.

Kallie shouldered some of his weight and got him into the car.

***

The parking lot of the hospital was a zoo, if all the zoo animals had eaten ipecac laced with tuberculosis. People trudged from their cars, towards the emergency department, about half of them drooling the remains of vomit, or laboring to breathe. Some lay in their cars, too sick to move.

The parking lot had already filled up and some cars even blocked the ambulance entrance. So Kallie pulled the car up along the street in a No Parking zone, which was also quickly filling. Damn the ticket, she thought, though it looked like the police might be a little too busy to issue them.

People were coming from the residential streets by foot. Masked ambulance attendants yelled and pointed at cars. Staff in N95 masks ran around trying to corral the obviously sick. There were a few police around trying to direct sick people to the triage and isolation area that had been completely overwhelmed. But there weren’t enough officers either, since the police force itself had been reduced by sickness.

A holler caught Kallie’s attention. A police officer was pounding at the head of a man who had his teeth latched onto the officer’s arm. Kallie sat up, alert. The man was still hanging on with his teeth. Other officers rushed to the scene and were pulling at the biting man trying to get the two separated. The man’s face was a bloody mess, as was his victim’s arm. The biter had gone limp, all but his teeth. Finally, they were separated as a patch of the officer’s uniform and skin came loose. He covered the raw hole with his hand and screamed. Kallie, finally tore her eyes away from the bizarre scene with a shiver of alarm. She glanced over at Mark. His eyes were closed. He had missed the whole thing.

She turned off the car and left him in his seat. She headed for the emergency entrance to find out whether there was any use in bringing him in. There was not likely to be any help in this surge. And while the biter could have been an isolated incident, it could mean that people were starting to lose their sanity.  The guy attacked and bit a police officer! The alarm blossomed into fear as she peered at the people around her.

She didn’t even get as far as the door of the ED. It was blocked by clusters of people. The police and other hospital staff were trying to disperse them to allow for movement in and out.

The people in the crowd muttered incoherently at the attendants, or completely ignored them. She’d last seen a dead gaze like that in drunks who were so sloshed they couldn’t even form sentences. But all of these people were varying shades of yellow. Some were hunched over. One man urinated on the sidewalk before sinking to his knees. A few of them had patches of blotchy and fuzzy skin. Whatever this illness was, if it was what Mark had, he was going to get much worse.

She coughed and doubled over as sharp pains lanced through her gut. Oh God, not me too? What the hell is this? She was jostled by the crowd into a woman with patches all over her face and arms. Kallie saw what they were, up close. There were tiny tendrils, like little shoots less than a millimeter in length covering these patches. She backed away as fast as she could, bumping into an adolescent girl sitting behind her. The girl stared at her dumbly with yellowed eyes, then went into a hacking fit. Dark blood spattered down the girl’s shirt.  Without warning, she lunged at Kallie, grabbing Kallie’s leg and snapping at her with bloody teeth.

Kallie screamed and kicked at her before teeth met skin. The girl landed on her back, her watery yellow eyes blinking up at the cement overhang high above. Kallie ran back to the car.

There was more commotion at the scene of the police biter. Kallie overheard the situation as she skirted the circle of officers, their isolation area forgotten.

“He’s not breathing.”

“I didn’t hit him hard! Bastard was biting me!”

“You did what you had to do. I think he was just too sick. Hey, look at this? What the fuck is that?”

“What is that sticking out of his head? Is that bone?”

“Augh, it just came off in my hand. No it’s not bone, unless bone is all spongy and wet. Those of you that don’t have your PPE on, get it on now! Get Hazmat over here!”

“They might not have any units free.”

“We have to try.”

Kallie got into the car, started it with a rev, and swung the car down the street, narrowly missing clots of the wandering sick.

***

She dragged Mark back inside. He was constantly hunched now. When she led him through the garage he threw up dark bile all over the cement floor. Well, it complements the garbage smell perfectly, she thought, chasing away panic. Her voice shook, “God, Baby–”

“I’ll be ok. Just need some rest.” He waved her away and finished lugging one foot in front of another into the house by himself. He grabbed a roll of paper towels from the holder, stumbled and unrolled half of them. He wiped his mouth and flopped onto the bed. Kallie took off his shoes and pulled the blanket over him. He was shivering violently now. As she tucked him in, she saw the patches on his skin. She scrutinized them. They were smaller, but there were the same tiny shoots she had seen on the girl at the ED. He was getting sicker.

So was she. Another sharp pain lanced across her belly. She staggered to the bathroom and nearly missed the toilet as the contents of her stomach splashed into the bowl, laced with dark liquid. Her red-rimmed eyes were now jaundiced. She limped to the television and clicked it on. Channel 4 and three other channels she flicked to in the Denver area were full of snow. They’d lost signal. She cast a quick prayer to the satellite gods that she remembered to pay them their sixty-dollar monthly tribute, and switched to a national news channel.

This newswoman looked none too healthy either. She had the telltale red-rimmed eyes and her voice was dull through the congestion.

“What began as a flu-like epidemic has shifted into a pandemic of unknown character. Symptoms begin with a flu-like illness, what the World Health Organization calls a prodrome, and the symptoms progress to hepatitis-like illness. In addition to these symptoms, there is sometimes disorientation and behavior change. Severe cases become agitated, and have on some occasions attacked other people. Anyone who experiences symptoms should not go in to your medical provider, but should shelter at home. Assistance can be given by calling the hotline 1-800-445-4325. Press 2 for interpretation services if English is not your primary language.

“Public health agencies have said unofficially that there may be a link between the widespread ant infestations and illness. There is speculation that the illness may be caused by a mutated form of Cordyceps, a fungus that affects brain function in ants. In ants, the fungus can be passed by biting. In humans, other means may be possible, such as transmission of body fluids. Ants can be eliminated by common pesticides from the supermarket, though stocks have been limited due to employee illness. The World Health Organization and public health agencies continue to work on isolating the organism, and creating vaccine and treatment. Once again the help line number is 1-800-445-4325. Press 2 for interpretation services. Para Español…”

Kallie flipped the set off and crept into the bedroom.

Mark hadn’t moved from where he lay, in fact she couldn’t see him breathe. Her heart started lurching as she hurried to his side and gently laid her hand on his arm. He inhaled deeply and opened his eyes to her. “Stomach feels better,” he murmured and extended his muscled arm. His skin in the sliver of sunlight had a more olive tint than usual and the patches had spread to over one quarter of his skin that she could see. “Lay with me,” he whispered. There was a brief flash of fear in his eyes, that he covered quickly by closing his eyes. When he opened them again, his stoicism was firmly set in his face.

Tears flowed down her face as she looked at him. She flinched and backed up for an instant, remembering what had been said about biting.

“Hey hey, Baby, don’t do that. Don’t cry. We’ll get through this. This ain’t gonna take me down. I’m from the Roman Empire, I’m too sexy to go yet. I haven’t had had my orgies and vomitoriums yet,” he grinned.

She barked a laugh. Whatever was happening, he was still clearly his usual self. “Ok, Caesar, I think we got the vomitoriums covered in the last day.” She laid down and put her arm across his chest. He shifted onto his side and flipped her onto her back with surprising strength. Instead of mounting her, he lunged at her face with his teeth.

She dodged her head to the side and screamed, struggling to get out from under him. She kneed him in the orgy-maker and slid under his torso and off the bed. He turned over and bared his teeth, and then fell back to the sweaty sheets. The look on his face as she fled the room, sobbing, was bestial.

***

She collapsed on the kitchen floor, after grabbing a knife. Has it come to this?, she thought. Am I going to stab my Honey?   What the hell is this? What the hell is happening to us? She dropped the knife and wailed into her hands. After the spasms subsided, she examined the whitish itchy patches that were beginning on her arms and belly, and silently wiped tears away. How long is it going to be before I’m turned into a human pit bull? Why aren’t there hordes of people looting and attacking, like in the movies?

All had been quiet, for which she was grateful. Until she thought about how sick she felt. Even if she turned into a crazy biter, she wasn’t going to be chasing anyone. Her relief turned to ugly realization. The silence from outside no longer seemed calm, but sepulchral. This epidemic had come and conquered with almost no resistance from its victims. She swallowed down the remaining lump in her throat and laid there for a long time as the light faded.

Finally, as the light grew again, she crawled into the TV room. All of the channels were snow now. She tried her mom on her cell phone, but the voicemail answered. She crawled into the bedroom.

Mark lay face up on the bed. His breathing was shallow and he just stared at her. His dark eyes were like holes surrounded by glowing yellow of jaundice in the dawn light. From the top of his head sprouted a thin whitish stalk with a greenish bulb. The tendrils emerging from his arms and legs had lengthened into a network that looked like roots or rhizomes. His voice was thick and furry, deep in his throat as he spoke, “I love you, Kallie. I’m sorry.”

She covered her mouth to muffle more sobs, and sat down at the edge of the bed, not caring now whether he rushed at her. He didn’t. She laid down, as more stomach pains wracked her frame. His hand in a shroud of web touched her back, “The pain’ll go away.”

“Why aren’t you freaking out at all this? Do you want to die like this?”

He smiled gently. “I don’t feel like I’m dying now. Something’s happening, something else besides dying. Besides, since when have I ever boo-hooed about something I couldn’t change. No sense in worrying about it. That’s a chick thing,” he wheezed a laugh. But she felt to weak to swat him.

***

When she woke as Kallie Coleman for the last time, two days later, she noticed that he had been right. The pain was gone. In its place, there was a rooted feeling in her belly, and a fluid coursed through her veins that sensed every particle in the air around her, the warmth, the sunlight in the room, the moisture.  And she could feel Mark too. Not just his hand covering hers, but the fluid in his veins and the cells of his body feeding, multiplying, creating energy like lightning. Light itself was a cascade of brilliant spectrums that blanketed and seeped into her. And she drank it. Her eyes wouldn’t open. The tendrils had sewn them shut, but she was seeing anyway, patterns of surging energy everywhere, especially in the mass of growth that had been Mark. She could feel him in her.

Sun. Feel the sun, he said into her mind somehow. Feel the city. And she could. Her snaking rhizomes were everywhere. Her stalk extended high above, having pushed through the ceiling to meet the outside air. The city and its network of roots and stalks that had been people were alive and awash with energy and hunger. They devoured the damp organic matter in every body and corner and drank the sunlight.

***

Across the city, country, and world a silent forest stood. The greenish caps reached for the sky, and the lower rhizomes wove through anything they touched. In what had been Denver, two of the stalks stood entwined, sharing the sun.

The End

Post and share if you have any wild transformation stories!

Back for VD Day!

Posted in blogging, Denver, horror, indie, mythology, urban fantasy, young adult fiction with tags , , , , , , on February 14, 2014 by rachelcoles

Hi Indies,

I’ve been away for a while, failing to manage the work-life balance…Never been good at juggling. But I’m back! And while I used to scorn VD Day (yes, pun intended, from someone who used to do infectious disease surveillance) as syrupy Hallmark yuck, I’ve at least come to appreciate that it is a great excuse for a date with my husband at great restaurants. All holidays are all about food sooner or later. Food=love. Restaurants pull out all the stops on VD Day, with new menus etc. And my husband and I are both foodies. So yay! I can appreciate that level of capitalism at least, if it includes Second Breakfast, Elevensies, Luncheon, Afternoon Tea, Dinner, and Supper…

And I have a VD Day story to share, full of kisses. Always beware when a horror writer tries to cover a Valentine romance story…

Kisses

by Rachel Coles

 

Terry tried hard not to kick the side of the automatic door as it opened on an explosion of scarlet and bubble-gum satin and lace. The menagerie of heart bedecked stuffed animals crowded the aisles like a cupid-struck taxidermist’s fantasy, and Terry’s worst nightmare. The stacks of chocolate boxes waited, like Gretel’s witch in her candy house, to tempt her into a sugar feeding frenzy that would use up every drop of insulin in her diabetic body for the rest of her life. Valentine’s Day sucks! Fuck Valentine’s Day! she thought, as she savagely shoved the grocery cart ahead of her. It nearly careened into a stand of skimpy thong underwear with curly “I Love You” script littering the tiny triangle of fabric.

She tossed packets of lettuce and other veggies in her cart haphazardly, and then buried them under bags of chips and other snack food. Two minutes and counting, she thought as she reached for the rice cakes around a portly woman blocking the entire aisle with her cart. If I don’t get out of here soon, I’m going to shoot these people, she vowed. Two days until Venereal Day. I’m not going to survive this time without multiple homicide.

The woman giggled and grabbed a third box of frosty angelic white Valentine’s Day Little Debbie cakes. “Oh, I just love these things! I buy out a whole shelf every Valentine’s Day to decorate for everyone I know. I put messages on the top. They taste so much better than those chalky candy hearts, don’t you think?”

“I’m diabetic.”

“Oh, well, no cakes for you, then!” She waggled a puffy finger at Terry. “I bet those rice patties would decorate up nice. Lots of room to write, ‘I wuv you’ on those! You can whip up a batch of sugar free frosting in a jiffy with that Splenda now.”

But I don’t love you, I hate you, and your little teddy bear too. “Thanks.” Terry grimaced, pulled a box of angel cakes into her cart and ran.

***

Her one-bedroom apartment smelled like stale cigarette smoke again, and her lungs tightened a little as she entered. She left yet another message with the landlord about changing out the ratty carpet that seemed to emit a growing smorgasbord of nasty scents every week.  She took a puff of her nearly empty inhaler and opened her lap top and email. There was a message from her mother. When she opened it an e-card popped up and waited for her click. I’m a masochist, she realized as she clicked on it. It literally exploded in a shower of animated hearts and dancing bunnies singing something that she didn’t catch because she slammed the computer lid closed. Now it was probably broken. Another expense she couldn’t afford, but she didn’t care, as she sat, shaking in anger and staring at the empty space above the computer. That’s it, I’ve had it.

She stormed into the bedroom and grabbed the picture of George, her late husband, by her bed and went into the kitchen where the grocery bags were still sitting in the middle of the floor. She grabbed the angel cakes and opened a package and stuffed one of the treacle-sweet cakes in her mouth. She nearly gagged as she inhaled sugar glaze and crumbs, but she swallowed a giant gulp as she flung open one of the kitchen drawers and grabbed a lighter. It still had fluid, thankfully. She put the rest of the box of Valentine’s Day cakes in the sink, poured lighter fluid on the box and then lit them up. As she watched them burn, she put the picture of George next to the blaze, propped against a soap bottle. It was three years to the day that he had died in the car accident. He stared at the blaze with his playful blue eyes.

“I curse Valentine’s Day. To all the gods of Heaven or Hell, I offer this sacrifice of Little Debbies. May it and everyone who chases love and smothers people with kisses and hearts on that day be damned. May they be followed and haunted like I am, every time they look at one more stupid card or one more stupid fluffy bear with a stupid message on it that doesn’t mean anything except ‘Give me money.’  Fuck all you people! I’m done with you!” She swallowed the last dregs of cake, and looked at George. A tear rolled down her face and she swiped at it and flicked it into the fire. “You were the only one for me. You never gave me a card, and I never needed one with you. Fuck you too for dying on me.”

The smoke alarm blared, and she jumped. She grabbed the fire extinguisher and doused the flames and half the counter in foam. She put it down just as there was a pounding at the door. She went to the door and opened it a crack.

The landlord’s squinting eyes peeked through above the chain. “What’s going on in there?”

“Nothing,” she said as smoke drifted around her head and through the crack.

He sniffed. “Like hell. What you been smoking in there?”

“Nothing illegal. You going to replace the carpet?”

“Not if you’re smoking in there!”

“Then bye.” She shut the door almost on his nose.

He called her name outside the door for a minute, threatened to evict her, which she knew he couldn’t do, and then there was silence.

***

Sweat leaked onto the sheets in rivulets as she sat up with a start. The bedroom was dark, but she could see a shadow at the foot of the bed. She grabbed the baseball bat from under the bed and leaped at the form. Then she tumbled over the edge and fell to the floor, as she swung the bat. The momentum twisted her body in the air and she landed on her back with a thud. She stared up into empty space, expecting a gunshot or the slice of a knife from the intruder, but none came. She sat up, trembling with adrenaline, and looked around in the darkness. No one was there. She stood up shakily and climbed back into bed. She left the bat beside her near her pillow. What a horrible dream, she closed her eyes and willed her heart to stop racing. After an hour, she drifted back into dreams. They were filled with shadowy images and talking teddy bears.

At dawn, she woke up to pee. In the faint light, the tall shadow was back at the foot of her bed. She leapt up again with a shriek, bat in hand, but this time, the growing dawn illuminated the figure. It was a man. She got the impression of maturity, if not advanced age. His eyes were dark in his gaunt scar-pocked face, and his hair was long, black, and tied back. He wore a thigh-length tunic and leggings. She couldn’t tell the color of his clothes in the gloom. And then he vanished.

“What the hell!” She jumped off the bed and ran to where the figure had been, but no one was in the room. She ran into the hallway, and living room. Her door was still chained and locked, and the windows closed from the inside.

She sank down onto the worn mustard yellow couch and put the heels of her hands in her eyes. Then she got up and went into the bathroom to look at the side effects listed for the Celexa she’d been taking. They didn’t include hallucinations. She popped two pills and got ready for work.

***

“You look like shit.” Donna swung her head around the door of the stinky core room refrigerator.

The smell of something rotten wafted past her and almost made Terry gag. “Is anyone ever going to clean that?”

“It’s the exec department’s turn, according to the chart. We filled in for them last time. I’m not doing it again.” Donna wrinkled her nose. “I ain’t their mama. And stop changing the subject. Why you look like shit?”

“Bad dreams.” She edged around the stocky African American woman and wedged her lunchbag in on top of the mound of other bags.

Donna put her hand on her hips, displaying her elaborately painted nails. “Are you still going on about Valentine’s Day? You do this every year! Girl, you got to stop with that! Find yourself a friend with benefits, if you have to. You goin’ to drive yourself nuts. It’s just a national excuse to get candy and diamonds from your boyfriend. Work it! Or what about a girlfriend?”

Terry scowled at her.

Donna held up her hands. “Hey, I’m not biased. Whatever gets the job done.”

Terry glared around the room at the shiny foil hearts the ‘Cheer Committee’ had hung from the ceiling. She couldn’t even tear these ones down, let alone light them on fire, or she’d be branded a spoil sport at work, which translated into ‘not a team player’. She left the core room to go back to her cubicle.

Donna caught her look and followed her. “Hey, I thought you were seeing somebody about that, about you know, anxiety. You okay?”

Terry didn’t say anything for a few minutes, just stared at her computer screen. “It’s not that.”

Donna plopped onto the floor, pulled the cardboard divider across the entrance to the cubicle and whispered. “Well what is it?”

Terry looked up over the top of the divider and sat back down. She sighed, “I just had a bad dream. About a guy in my house. Nothing big.”

Donna’s eyes widened, “Shit, you check to make sure it wasn’t real? What if someone’s casing you out. That’s creepy.”

“To steal what, my million year old laptop?”

“No, your skinny White ass! What if he’s a rapist?”

“Thanks, I feel much better now.”

“You got to be careful in that neighborhood, woman!”

“It wasn’t like that. I—I could see, he wasn’t…real, and he wasn’t, like, from now. There was something about him, like he was dressed for another time.”

“So maybe you got a Ren Fair rapist.”

Terry rolled her eyes, and cracked a smile.

Donna grinned. “Feel a little less crotchety now? Why don’t you call the police about this guy? I got a date on V night, maybe he could bring a friend. He’s got some hot friends too. Once you go Black, you never go back, that’s what I’m sayin’. And I don’t like you sitting in that crappy apartment when you could be out eatin’ lobster and steak! The restaurants all have great deals on V Day!”

Terry nodded. “I’ll think about it.”

Instead of getting to her day’s debt collection cases, she stared at the screen and ruminated. How long before I get a call from someone like me? Her bills were piling up, the growing medical bills, and the funeral still had payments left, and interest. She’d footed the cost of that, since George’s parents were dead, and he’d been an only child. Every time she looked up on the screen, she could almost see her name, though her accounts weren’t for a lush department store.

Her thoughts strayed from her bills to the mysterious man. He wasn’t a rapist. He’d had no sexual intent in his face. Instead, his eyes had bored into her as though he wanted to talk to her. She shivered and picked up the stack of files for the day.

***

When she opened her eyes in the middle of the night, the dark figure was there, in the light cast by the closet bulb. She drew breath to scream and grab her bat, but he spoke first. His voice shivered through the air, a vibration of something harder than human vocal chords. He did not speak in English. She realized with a shock that the speech sounded faintly like Latin. Before she could wonder any more, the man advanced and touched her arm. She swung the bat, but it went through the man’s image. The pressure on her arm had been no more than a static electric buzz. When he spoke again, she understood his speech.

“You summoned me.”

She backed against the wall behind her bed, grabbed the blanket and pulled it up to her chest.. “Who are you? What are you? I didn’t summon anyone!”

“You called a curse. I exact the curse.”

She stared at him in horror. You mean yesterday? That was just, I was pissed. It didn’t mean anything!”

He gazed into her eyes. His own eyes were dark rheumy wells from which a nightmare peeked. “The curse had intent. You did mean it. All things that are meant persist. I will show you.”

She fell into those eyes and a scene unfolded in her mind.

George laughed and shoved her into a pile of crackling leaves as she swung the rake at his ruddy face.

“Look what you did, bozo! Now I have to rake it all up again.”

This only made him laugh harder. “Aw, I’ll help you babe! If you can dig yourself out!” He buried her under the two bags of leaves she’d set aside for the trash.

“Aghhh!” She burst out of the pile and chased him around the back of the small stucco house, grabbed the back of his shirt and yanked.

He whirled around and pulled her down with him into the pile of leaves she had collected in the back . And then his mouth was on hers, his hands sliding into her jeans. “Screw the leaves.”

“You mean ‘in’ the leaves.” She grinned and rolled him under her.

Terry relaxed into the memory and sagged against the wall, but the memory changed.

George stared up past her. His crystal blue eyes were blank. The tubes sticking out from under the white sterile sheets didn’t shift with movement. The lines on the monitors showed her that there was no one home in his head. He looked like a man-sized doll. She sunk down beside his bed, tears dripping onto the chrome bar, and realized that no matter what she said to this body, it wasn’t him. And unless there really was a beyond, he would never hear her.

“Fuck you! Who the fuck are you!” She hurled the pillow at the phantom, followed by the bat. A brief image appeared in her head of a gaunt prisoner kneeling before a burly man dressed in a tunic with a gold border. They stood in sand as the prisoner was bent to the man’s sandals in a Roman-style coliseum. The prisoner spat at the man’s feet, before he was yanked back by a soldier holding his long dark hair. The soldier swung his sword and opened the neck of the prisoner. Blood spurted across the sand as the prisoner collapsed. The soldier swung one more time and the head separated from the body.

Terry gasped and stared around the empty room. The man was gone.

***

Terry tried to keep the coffee from spilling all over the counter as she poured it into her travel mug. Her wrist shook, even when she braced it with her other hand. There had been no more sleep after her nocturnal visitor. She tossed her Metformin in her mouth, grabbed her coat and headed out to the car.

It was 9:00 before she made it to work. She slunk to her cubicle. As she pulled her chair out to sit down, a cascade of perforated mini-cards slid to the floor onto her computer mat, with the penned names of most of her office mates. On her keyboard was a mini box of chocolates. Everyone in the office knew she was diabetic. She growled and pulled the wrapping off the box, and opened it. There were four filled chocolates inside. One of them leaked nuclear pink fluff. She sighed and tossed the box in the trash can, gathered up the cards and displayed them carefully around the desk so that the senders’ feelings weren’t hurt seeing those in the trash can too. The folded paper notes took up most of her work space. One note was from Donna. In her neat curly cursive it said, “7:00 tonight, my place. We’ll go from there. Leron’s got a friend. Javeed, he’s yours. Dress to the nines.” Terry put her head down on the keyboard and closed her eyes.

She was interrupted a moment later by her annoying neighbor, Kendall, in the next cubicle.

“Happy Valentines Day, Terry! You got a hot date tonight?” His snaggle-toothed grin appeared around the wall of her cubicle, while he teetered on the edge of his chair. “I do!”

“I think Freud would have something to say about that kind of relationship with your mom,” she replied, not in the mood.

“Oh, Haha. It’s not my mom! I’m just helping her out with the mortgage, that’s why I moved back! I told you already!” His fair face flushed pink. “Boy, you’re in a shitty mood. You get dumped?” he shot back.

Terry opened her mouth to reply and then noticed a motion behind his head, a tiny shape that flitted from view as she stared at it.

“What?” Kendall ran his hands over his greasy thinning brown hair. He looked down at his shirt for stains.

Terry realized she’d been staring with her mouth open. “Sorry, just thought I saw something behind you.

He swiveled around to look behind him, and then turned back to peck at Terry again.

“You’re a grump, you’re like the scrooge of Valentine’s Day. Have a chocolate! It’ll make you feel better.” He flipped her a chocolate coin,

The coin he threw her fell to the floor after bouncing off her shirt. “I’m diabetic, asshole.”

He popped one in his mouth. As his mouth closed on the chocolate, a finger of gray reached up from under his clothes and tried to snake between his lips, but withdrew as he bit down on the sweet morsel. “It’s okay, they’re sugar free. I remembered you.”

She blinked, astonished first, that he had thought of her, and second, that he clearly hadn’t noticed the creature that had just tried to enter his mouth. “Uh, thanks!”

She turned back to her screen and put her head back down. I’m losing my mind, I’m seeing things now. I gotta get back to work before the boss comes by too.

A minute later, a string of drool seeped from the corner of her mouth onto the gel pad as she slept.

It had been a year now, since George had been buried. She sprawled face-down in the queen-sized bed that she’d wrestled into the tiny room. It was one of the only things she hadn’t sold with the house. It smelled like him. Her arm lay across the dip on his side, worn down by his butt. She crawled into his spot, curled up, and cried.

When she looked up from the mattress, the sheet beneath her was covered in filth and blood, and looked like stone. She scrambled to her feet. A soldier stood beside her. Chains in his hands clinked as he finished removing them from her wrists. He addressed her in a desperate tone. “Can you help her? She will never find a husband to look after her if you don’t cure her.” She blinked at him, trying to get her bearings in the strange dream. She felt herself say, “Bring her to me. If it is the will of God, her sight and hearing will be restored.”

The soldier went around the dark corner behind them and pushed a mousy teenage girl forward. He guided her so she would not stumble. Her eyes stared before her. She didn’t acknowledge anything around her. But her pupils were wide and dark. The girl saw.

“Leave us, jailer. I must speak with her alone.”

The rough man nodded and left.

When the sound of his feet faded, Terry-in-this-other-body spoke quickly. “I know you see, girl. And I know you hear me. Why do you trouble your parents so with this false sickness?”

The girl scowled and said nothing, only stared ahead.

“Do you wish to stay in your father’s house forever? And what will become of you when he dies? How will you earn a living? If you remain ‘sick’ your father may yet find you a husband, but it will not be a man of quality. Is this the life you wish? Think on it, the next time he brings home a match.”

The girl frowned, and was silent. Her father’s footfalls began around the corner at the far end of the hall. She screwed her eyes shut and then opened them wide, looking around her. She yelled, “Father! Father, your prisoner’s god has given me my sight back, and I can hear you coming too! I am cured!” She ran to him and threw her arms around him as he rushed around the corner.

He stared wide-eyed at her, and then at Terry in the dream. “Valentine!” he exclaimed.  He stalked to her and put his hand on her neck and leaned to her ear, as he gazed toward the entrance. The roar of the crowd in the coliseum filtered in through the heavy iron and wooden doors. “I cannot save you from Claudius. But when the time comes, I will be quick, and I will see to your family, if you have any.”

The coliseum faded, and the voice of the jailer resolved into the voice of her boss, Thomas, as he stood in her cubicle. “Long night? I can’t really have you sleeping on your keyboard, so if you need to go home, just take a sick day.”

Her eyes flew open. “Oh crap, I’m so sorry, Thomas! I’ve just been having trouble sleeping.” She swiveled to face him, overshot in the spin and almost threw herself off the chair. And then she stared at him. There were a few gray blurry forms crawling on his cheeks. He just nodded, and walked to his office, calling over his shoulder, “Sick day is fine.” She kept staring after him. Before he got in, the department slut, Brenda, sauntered up to him, dressed head-to-toe in hearts and wearing a pink feathered tiara with red plastic heart rhinestones. She wore a red shirt that said ‘Mighty Aphrodite’ across the front. Terry wouldn’t have been surprised if the same words were plastered on her red pants across her ass. Dagmar Department Store’s own Holy Whore wrapped her arms around him and planted a loud sloppy kiss in the middle of his cheek.

Terry blinked and her mouth dropped open. As Aphrodite’s pink pearly lips left Thomas’s cheek, gray matter oozed from her lips and slid across his face to his mouth as Terry watched. The gray shapes. They came from the kisses. Did they only come from Venereal Girl, or was it anyone’s kiss? Then she shook her head and rubbed her face. This is insane. None of this is real. Kisses do not come to life as little gray life forms. I’m still dreaming. Oh, who cares! At least it’s something to think about other than the dreams. And well, good! Creepy things running around on V-Day. How damn appropriate. And not less creepy than some people on V-Day! She pointedly stared at  Brenda from around the corner.

As Thomas detached himself and walked into his office, she meandered after Brenda, waiting for the floozy to give her another opportunity to observe the kissy creatures. She only had to wait about three seconds until another co-worker encountered Brenda in the hall between the cubicles. Terry watched as Brenda plastered a wet one on the man’s cheek. As before, a gray amoebic shape seeped out from between their lips and oozed across the man’s face and probed around his mouth. She watched Brenda a couple more times before veering into another hallway toward the water fountain, to avoid looking like a voyeur.

As she sipped the water, a young man and woman, interns, wandered by to the snack machine. Gray shapes teemed across their faces and upper bodies, like moving plaques of mucus. She stared at their backs while water dribbled down her chin. If they were the embodiment of kisses, she was going to be celibate for the rest of her life. But what were they, and what were they doing? They seemed to be reaching toward people’s noses and mouths as though they would crawl inside. If so, what happened when they got there? She shook her head and returned to her desk.

***

At about one-thirty, just after the Oh-God-I-Ate-Too-Many-Carbs-For-Lunch hour, a commotion began on the other end of the floor. Terry heard a siren’s blare come closer and then die just downstairs. She saw flashing rotating lights reflecting off the ceiling and went to the window. An ambulance was parking outside. She wandered down the hall as EMTs came up.

She didn’t want to disturb them in their mission, so she asked a fellow gawker, “Do you know what’s going on?”

The woman shook her head, “Not really. Guy stopped breathing, I heard.”

“What, like a heart attack?”

She shrugged, her pale blue silk shirt shimmering with the motion. “I don’t know. I hope he’s okay.”

“Who was it?”

“Jim Fenton, from financial. Do you know him?” She spared a glance for Terry. “Finally, someone else not decked out in red or pink.”

Terry shook her head. “No, don’t know him. Kind of chunky, tall guy with the kinky red hair? I’ve passed him in the hall a lot. Hope he’s ok.”

“Me too. He’s got three kids! My husband went college with him a long time ago.”

Terry opened the door back into the cubicle jungle, and indicated the woman’s clothes, “By the way, welcome, fellow hater.”

As she passed Kendall’s desk, his Space Invaders screen saver was pinging, and the soft buzz of his snore fluttered past his nostrils. A soft finger of gray seeped into his open mouth. As she stared, horrified, the rest of the small mass followed and disappeared into his mouth. She thought about shaking him awake. Even if this weren’t strange and wrong, the boss could walk by, and as irritating as Kendall was, he’d done that favor for her enough times.

But she stood, transfixed. Nothing more happened for a few moments. But then his chest started hitching, as if he were having trouble breathing. His brow creased, and his eyes flew open as he clutched his throat and began coughing. He whooped and sucked air as though he’d been choking.

Terry grabbed his water bottle and handed it to him. “Kendall! Are you all right? What the hell was that?”

He shook his head, his hands trembling as he took a frantic swig and then gulped more air. “I think maybe my sleep apnea’s gotten worse. It’s never gotten me like that during a nap though.” His eyes betrayed fear.

“I thought sleep apnea was only when you’re lying down?”

“Guess not.”

She stared at him while he downed the rest of the bottle.

“I gotta get back to work. Thanks, Terry.”

“For what?”

“Being there.”

“Uh.” She backed around the corner into her cubicle and just sat for a minute. She shivered and rubbed her arms. A freezing chill slid down her spine as she thought of the gray shape slipping between his teeth. It had been the kiss. She knew that as certainly as she knew that Jim Fenton hadn’t stopped breathing because of a heart attack. She stood and peered over the sea of cubicles. Some of them clicked with the sound of keyboards, or rustled with papers moving. But what about the ones that were silent? How many innocent after-lunch snoozes would turn into the quiet choking she had just seen?

This is the curse, my curse. She sat down. It’s real. What the hell do I do? How can I tell people that they’re being choked by kisses?

She rolled her chair to the edge of the wall and poked her head around. “Hey, Kendall!”

Kendall looked at her, a swizzle-stick poking from his mouth.

“I know this is going to sound weird, but don’t let anyone kiss you, got it?”

“Right. Hot date, remember?”

“Tell her you’re a gentleman, pretend. That hot date will turn into many hot dates, trust me. It’s the new thing, for men to be chaste for the first few dates.”

He squinted at her. “Yeah, what makes you think that it’s supposed to be more than a fling?”

Terry looked him up and down and raised her eyebrows. “Do you ever want to move out of your mama’s house?”

“Ouch.”

“Listen to what I’m telling you then.”

He rolled his eyes and sighed.

“And Kendall? Be careful. Don’t fall asleep again with your mouth open.”

“I get it. I snore.”

“Damn right. Women hate that.”

She rose again, and went all the way out to her car. She got in, though no one was in the lot to see her talking to something invisible. “Whatever the hell you are, call off the curse. I never meant for people to get killed. I don’t want people to die. Call it off!”

A breath of air blew her hair, and a figure appeared in her rear view mirror on the back seat. She whirled around. A man sat. His neck dripped with blood, though his head remained on his shoulders. It was the man from her dream.

“Valentine. You’re Saint Valentine, aren’t you? You were killed by Rome for marrying people in the first church. I heard of you.”

His hollow dark eyes drilled into her. “No. I am merely a Christian. I did not refuse my God at Claudius’ feet, or show loyalty to the Roman gods. Some people thought I could heal them.”

“Did you?”

“Perhaps I healed some people of foolishness, or anger, or other kinds of pain than that of disease. The disease of the soul.”

“Why did you come to me? Will you take back the curse?”

“I cannot. Only you can.”

“I don’t know how!”

A sharp rap at the window jolted Terry around to stare out of her driver side window. Donna stood there.

She cupped her hands and peered in. “Hey Girl, what are you doing?”

Terry turned back around. The back seat was empty. Damn!

She opened the car door. Donna backed up and let her out.

“Donna, listen. You have to help me. I screwed up. You’re not going to believe this, but I think I started something really bad, and it’s going to get a lot worse before the day is over.”

Donna’s eyes widened. “What are you talking about?”

“I…I made some kind of a curse, a Valentine’s Day curse. I was really pissed, and thinking about George, and I think I called something here that isn’t supposed to be here. Well, I know this sounds crazy, but kisses have been coming to life, and choking people when they fall asleep!”

Donna’s black eyes stared at her, flat. “Okay, girlfriend. I think you better check up on that medication of yours.”

“No! The guy in my apartment last night was a ghost, a really old one. It was Valentine, the Roman Christian saint guy. He said I summoned him with the curse. What do I need to do to get you to believe me?”

“I’m not sure. Are you listening to yourself?”

“Kendall, he almost choked while I watched him. I saw what slid into his mouth! You can ask him about the choking at least.”

“That oily guy next to you…choked on kisses. Whose kisses, Miss Thing? He lives with his momma.”

“Hers! I saw Brenda kiss Thomas and this gray thing came out of her mouth when she did it. And the same kind of thing crawled into Kendall’s mouth when he choked.”

Donna sighed and leaned back against the car behind her. “You nuts, woman. But I think, I guess it’s possible. My crazy grandma would believe you anyway. She always believed in weird things down in that Florida swamp.”

“What does she believe?”

“That thoughts you speak can come to life. If you speak bad thoughts, bad wishes, you make ’em real. That’s sorcery.”

“I didn’t mean it. How do I take it back?”

Donna shrugged. “I didn’t talk with her much about that stuff.”

Terry sagged against her own car.

“You really think you made a curse, huh? Okay, well, what you want me to do?”

“You believe me? You’ll help me?” Terry gazed at her.

“I believe that you believe, and I guess anything you come up with isn’t much crazier than she used to have me do. But I ain’t slitting the neck of no chickens!”

“Do I need chickens?”

“What do I look like, a voodoo priestess? How the hell should I know?”

“Well, can you think of anything your grandma used to do?”

Donna sighed, “You owe me for this, girl. I’ll get some info from her. But I got to call her, crazy bat! That’s why you owe me! I’ll come to your house after work.”

***

Terry spent the rest of the day roaming the cubicle halls and socializing wherever she saw a drowsy person. She generally made a pain in the ass of herself asking inane questions and speaking loudly to jar everyone out of any chance of sleepiness. She introduced herself formally to about ten different people in other sections. Since she was a classic introvert, it was exhausting. But there were no more calls to 911 that afternoon.

A half hour before quitting time, Thomas strode to her cubicle, just before she zipped off on another round of Wake Up.

“Oh, nice to see you at your desk. Decided to do a little work today?” he cleared his throat.

His face and head were swarming with kisses. Either Brenda or some other employee had been very busy, or he was having an affair. None of my business! She reminded herself. “You don’t have to be snide. I’m just trying a new program.”

He leaned against her wall and crossed his arms, and then almost toppled onto the floor as the flimsy wall moved back from his weight. “New program?”

“After Jim Fenton had his incident earlier, it occurred to me that not enough of us know each other. So I was introducing myself. Business might flow better if we all knew each other. You know, synergy.”

He stared at her. She tried to keep her attention focused on his eyes and not on the gray moving blobs. “Nice buzz word. Are you on something? You seem to be having trouble concentrating.”

“Nope.”

“You’ll have to work on Saturday to make up for the time you spent on your new program.”

“Okay. Give your wife a big smooch for me. Happy Valentine’s Day!” Dickhead!

He turned around and headed back to his office with a wave.

***

On the way home, the radio news reported that there were strange incidents of respiratory failure during sleep, throughout Phoenix. Especially affected had been hospitals, day care centers, kindergartens during the nap periods, and adult day cares. The Maricopa County Department of Public Health had been notified and engaged in the investigation. The public service message urged anyone with sleep apnea or other sleep disturbances or disorders, to call the health hotline.

As she passed pedestrians, or stopped at lighst and peered into other cars, the kisses teemed everywhere. They crawled through people’s hair, probed gray wisps of matter into people’s ears, and danced tentatively around people’s noses, and mouths as they spoke or inhaled. One afflicted man sitting on a bus bench, scattered kisses across the pavement and garbage can near him, as he sneezed. But they swiftly slithered back to congregate around the holes in his face, shadows waiting for an unguarded moment to sneak in.

Donna waited in the parking lot of her complex when she pulled up. Her face was clear of the creatures.

Terry asked through the window, as she parked the car, “Why don’t you have any kisses on your face? Mostly everyone else does.”

Donna’s eyebrows rose in surprise, then she recovered. “Because I don’t want no one else’s nasty-ass mouth all over me, unless they plannin’ on going all the way. And then you better give me a nice dinner and chocolate! Otherwise, stay the hell away from me and keep those germy lips to yourself. I don’t know where they been.” She stared at Terry. “You really can see that shit, huh?”

“Yup. So do we have everything we need?”

“Yeah, everything that you’d want to do in an apartment with a deposit, anyway.”

They went up to the apartment. Terry closed the door behind Donna and followed her into the center of the living room.

Donna she pulled out pink valentine cards from her red leather handbag and pinned them around the walls of the room. In the blank center spaces of the cards, she drew a symbol with the strawberry stinky marker Terry had seen on the whiteboard at work. The symbol was an elaborate crowned heart with a staff and curlicues coming from the sides.

“Oh V-Day cards, really? Come on!”

“Shut up and let me work!”

Once Donna was done with her drawing, she pulled three silver rings off her fingers and gave them to Terry. “Put those on. But I get those back after, bitch, those are mine! And go get a piece of your jewelry that’s nice.”

Terry went and got a bracelet that George had gotten her.

Then she laid a pink cloth in front of the television. On it she put a couple of packages of Little Debbies, unwrapped.

“God, those things are everywhere,” Terry moaned.

Donna gave her an irritated look and pulled a long bottle of Irish Cream out of her bag, laid Terry’s bracelet on the cloth next to the cakes, and poured the cream on the cakes. Finally, at the head of the cloth, she laid a picture of a Madonna.

“What is all this?’

Donna nodded to all the symbols. “Grandma says you might have offended Erzulie. You’re just pissin everyone off today. She’s sort of like our version of a love saint. You’re a lot like her, actually.”

“No, I’m not. I’m the opposite of a love spirit, I hate this shit.”

“Yeah, but Erzulie is said to never get her heart’s desire: love and regret. You two will get along just fine.”

“Bite me!”

“You want my help or not! I should be gettin’ ready for my date, but I called that fine African man and put off my own shit, for you.”

“You’re right. Sorry. What now?”

“Well, I ain’t no voodoo priestess, so don’t expect results. Maybe you should ask Erzulie for help. And no whinin’. It’s called prayin’ respectfully. How long’s it been since you prayed?”

Terry thought for a second. “Long time. Every time I pray, I’m in my own head, someplace I really don’t want to be anymore. I just…went round and round.” She sighed, kneeled and gazed at the picture of the Madonna.  Her face must have betrayed her dismay.

Donna interrupted, her voice gentle now, “Well, now there are other things in there with you, so you ain’t alone. Look, I know you had a rough time. Maybe this is what you need anyway. Just focus on what you want. What you want most? What’s in your heart?”

A tear slid down Terry’s face. “I want George to be alive.”

“Ain’t nobody but Jesus can help you with that, girl. Not until the end time. What do you want that somebody listenin’ can give you?”

“I don’t know.” She looked at the picture of Erzulie/Madonna. Tears streamed down her face now. She closed her eyes.

“Yes, you do.”

A scent of delicate perfume wafted through the room. It smelled familiar, but she didn’t think she had smelled it in a long time. Her own voice sounded strange, as though it came from a long way away. And the tone was different, a husky contralto that came out once when she had met George and was three sheets past the wind. “I wanted to say goodbye.”

The last evening light in the city faded into night. As dark fell, emergency response sirens blared to life in multiple places in the city. Terry didn’t hear them.

Valentine stood in the dim hospital room. The florescent light from the medical displays cast a washed-out light across his ghastly figure, making him look even more corpse-like. Next to him lay George, unmoving and white against the sheets. His flaxen hair silky against the pillow. “Why do you keep showing me this?” she screamed at the gory phantom.

“You wanted to say goodbye.”

“Not like this, he can’t hear me!”

“Not if you don’t talk.”

She sunk down to her haunches by the bed, sobbing. Then she slowly rose and stared into his face. His eyes were closed, and his face unlined by everyday cares, the cares of normal life. She wiped her face, leaned over and kissed his cheek, not caring what weird creatures came out of it. “I love you. I miss you.”

Something was behind her. She whirled around. It was George. He was smiling and his blue eyes were as mischevious as ever. Her jaw dropped open, and she swiveled back to the bed. The figure on the bed was gone.

“What—How did you…Oh God, George!”

He grinned. “Hi.”

“Are you real?”

“Real enough.”

“Are you in Heaven?”

“No, I’m here with you.”

“You know what I mean!”

“I know. There’s not much time, Babe. Only a moment.”

She put her hands on either side of his face and kissed him deeply on the lips. He kissed her back, and then pulled away, his eyes sad. “I’m sorry I had to leave. I have to go again. But I love you too, always will.”

She swallowed hard. “I know. See you next time around, maybe?”

He faded into the darkness, and his teeth flashed in a wide smile. “I’d chase your ass through the universe.”

The room was empty, except for the dark solemn figure in the corner.

“What about the curse? What do I do about that?”

“You lifted it.” Valentine said as the wall became visible through him. “Thank you.” Then he too was gone.

The room was dark, and Donna sat next to Terry, shaking her head. “Do you want me to get you some insulin or something?”

Terry felt something moist. She looked down on a pile of sticky crumbs in her lap. She’d eaten all the cakes covered in liquor. The bracelet twinkled on her wrist. She held her picture of George in her hands. “What the fuck?”

“Do you remember anything? Grandma says that when people are ridden, they don’t remember it. Erzulie likes sweets.”

“Well, I remember everything. Besides manging on enough sugar for a year, did I do anything weird?”

“You had a conversation. It sounded like there were a couple people in the room, and one of ’em was George. For a second it looked like there was a couple people in the room too, scared the shit out of me. One of them was right next to you. I almost grabbed a knife from the kitchen, but one, I was too scared to move, and two, for a second, it looked like it might be George, and I didn’t want to interrupt.”

“Thanks.”

“So, is the craziness over now? No more kisses running around killin’ people? Can we get on with our lives?”

Terry nodded. “I think so.”

“Good, maybe we can still catch a V-Day burger at the diner. You coming?”

Terry shook her head.

“Oh no, Miss Thing, you are not gonna start that moping again. That’s what got us into this mess in the first place!”

“No. I’m not. I’m okay now. I just need to clean up.”

“All right, well, you meet us there then?” Donna grabbed the bottle of Irish Cream, stashed it back in her bag, pulled the rings off Terry’s fingers, and propped open the front door.

Terry nodded. “Give me an hour.”

Donna tapped her nails on the lintel and left. Terry returned to the altar, picked up the picture of George and sat for a while, smiling.

***

The diner was bright with florescent 50s colors as Terry found the table and sat down in the booth with Donna and Leron, and a tall muscular man. He spoke with an African accent that rolled off his tongue like music.

“I’m Javeed.” He extended his hand, politely.

“I’m Terry. Wow, Donna was right. You’re really hot.”

He grinned. “And you are also as lovely as she said.” His smile had a mischevious glint that reminded her of George.

End

Comment and link to your page if you have a VD story you want to share!

Zombies and The Meaning of Life

Posted in Denver, urban fantasy, zombies with tags , , , , on October 24, 2011 by rachelcoles

This weekend was the Zombie Crawl along 16th Street Mall in Denver. Probably about 7000 people showed up. It was packed. Young folks, old folks, dogs, even toddlers and infants were dressed up as zombies. There were zombies of all stripes, Romero-style, 28 Days-style, Jesus zombies, Elvis zombies, Snow White zombies, Zombies vs. Plants. There were zombies hunters out in numbers to rival deer season in Pennsylvania. And all along the Mall was the sweet sound of groans, moans, and dragging feet. We were even treated to afternoon soaps as a couple of chases and intestine-pulling matches ensued between the hunters and the hunted as one became the other. It was glorious! And the police sent to monitor the event looked on in amusement. We even had zombie crossing signs, for traffic. At the starting place was a hearse show complete with tricked out vehicles for zombie warfare, and a sign up for a foam pop-gun battle after the walk.

I didn’t remember the event was going to happen until the night before, so Rosa and I decided that next year, we will not be spectators. She will be Princess Mononoke Zombie and I will be an Imhotep zombie, complete with tissue paper and latex boils, and spirit-glued locusts and flies. Rosa spent the ride home on the train pretending to eat my brains. She makes a terrific zombie, even without a costume.

These are the times when I most love Denver, when a collection of otherwise normal folks band together for a massive off-the-wall march for no other reason, in the midst of all this societal seriousness and chaos, than to have a great weird time.

I’ve been under a lot of stress, and getting sucked back into that  list of tasks in my head again. And being there surrounded by all the fake gashes and plastic limbs reminded me to take time off and enjoy the scare. What is the world coming to when it takes being surrounded by zombies to remember to stop and enjoy life, and eat the brain molded jello?

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