Monday, March 26, 2012

The Machine by Ryan Gallagher

Eddie resisted the temptation to tell Jen he had a bad feeling. She would ask "why" and he didn't have an answer. His sixth sense had picked up something, but when he tried to figure it out the thought darted away from him. "Long line," he observed instead. He wasn't good at making conversation and this was all he could think to say. Jen gave him a look. "How long have you been working here? The line's always long."

He thought of saying it was a beautiful day, but he remembered that Jen had told him not to discuss the weather. Discussing the weather was what people talked about when they had nothing else to talk about. Besides, there had been a string of beautiful days. It was mid-June at the Saltflats amusement park. A heady, pleasant odor of fried dough, sausages, and salt air permeated the atmosphere.

The Cyclone, also known as the Orbiter, began as a rather straightforward amusement park ride. In the beginning, the park at Saltflats, a New England beach community, had installed a new attraction. It was a simple ride similar in operation to the Merry Go Round or other rides that traveled in a circular or elliptical fashion. It had one significant innovation, however. On this ride, axles projected from the center swinging the passenger in a circle. The innovation was allowing the passenger to choose how far out on the axle he or she wished to sit. Those who wanted a slower ride sat in a carousel closer to the center. Those who wanted to be whipped around at greater speeds could sit further away. The distance from the center was referred to as the carousel's orbit, therefore, "jumping to higher orbit" meant sitting further out on the axle.

It took a little while to catch on, but when it did, it spawned a revolution in the design of amusement park rides. At first, customers demanded the axle be lengthened to allow an even faster ride. This was done, at Saltflats, and at other parks around the country. However, the real driver of change had been allowing the passenger a choice; fast or slow. It allowed different types of people from small children to thrill seekers to enjoy the same ride. More improvements were made. It became a social sensation. Riders demanded more. Soon, carousels were designed so that riders could extend them higher in the air.

Eventually, the Orbiter's starting point was moved upwards so that customers had to ascend nearly eighty feet to a platform where attendants arranged their seat. By this time, each seat could move higher, lower, twist left or right, or, if it was caged, even flip upside down. Riders on the extreme end could go even faster by jacking up their carousel as high as it would allow and then dropping down as the Cyclone whipped them around. This technique was called “going vertical”.

The dream of Cyclone enthusiasts was realized when Saltflats installed the first Cyclone with individual axles for each carousel. The idea was once thought impossible. Cyclones with multiple axles were nothing new. They had become an economic necessity to allow more people access to the ride. However, this iteration of the Cyclone was far more complicated as dozens of different riders controlling their own axles required immense safety precautions. Interrupter gears, exchange apparatus, and collision prevention devices were necessary to keep carousels from careening into one another or axles jamming together. With so many different variables, dozens of riders making their own decisions, it seemed impossible to safely build a machine that could safely handle such freedom of action.

The breakthrough was the creation of the Strange Musik computer. Using quantum technology, this computer could calculate all the different possibilities allowing riders to safely move in or out, speed up or down, or change their angle of spin. It prevented the axles from becoming entangled or carousels from colliding. The operation was aided by the construction of the axles. The new axles were incredibly thin, constructed of a super strong material that could deform and somehow shape itself to both support it's carousel's weight and allow other axles to move over, around, or even through. Despite this innovation, the Strange Musik needed to compute incredibly complex calculations to account for all the variables.

Eddie had been working as an usher on the Cyclone for four months now. He was a gangly, bespectacled seventeen year old high school junior and not the most social of students. It was his first job. It afforded him the opportunity to interact with many of his classmates. He also liked working with Jen. Jen was a year older than him. A high school dropout, she was nonetheless quite adept at working with computers and machinery. She was now the chief usher.

Jen was even taller and thinner than Eddie with curly hair, multiple earrings, and a tongue stud. She had worked at the Cyclone for more than two years and had even been trained to do rudimentary work with the Strange Musik computer. In the beginning, an engineer and computer expert had been employed to look after the Cyclone's computer, but they were let go to save money. Now only Jen handled any of the computer work. Basic work was all that was necessary, of course, because Strange Musik was mostly automated, completely fool-proof. Jen treated Eddie better than most people.

For Eddie, the best part of working at the Cyclone was watching girls. A beautiful blonde named Sarah Stoner was a regular. Most of the speed freaks were men, but Sarah enjoyed pushing the Cyclone to the limit; using the controls to accelerate past slowpokes, then "jumping to higher orbit", that is, extending her seat's axle away from the center as far as possible. She liked moving the angle of spin as close to the vertical axis as possible; so that she shot into the air before hurtling towards the ground after cresting. She always gave Eddie a quick smile when he got her carousel ready. He doubted she knew his name though. She had come with her friend Danny, another speeder and popular Cyclone enthusiast.

Then there were the Milano sisters. They all went to Eddie’s school. Jill, the youngest, was a freshman. Stacy was a sophomore. She turned sixteen next month. Eddie was hoping she came when he was working so he could work up the courage to wish her happy birthday. He saw them in line on the stairs. They were with their older sister Tiffany. She had graduated the year before. Both Tiffany and Stacy had dark hair and skin tanned almost bronze while Jill was a bit fairer.

Kristen Dorset was another girl he knew from school. Curly blonde hair. Angel face. Unfortunately, she was an absolute bitch. Or she was to Eddie, when they were at school. Now she ignored him as he seated her.

Two kids with long, scruffy hair climbed the stair. Eddie recognized them as Travis and Kyle, two of the Dive Bombers. The Dive Bombers were one of the cliques that enjoyed pushing the envelope. They went for the fastest, most intense rides, pulling G's, they liked to say. They constantly accelerated and decelerated, shortened and lengthened their arc, flipped the carousel, anything to exert more force on the body. Eddie didn't like them. They constantly complained when the Strange Musik computer delayed their commands. Commands were queued when they couldn't be immediately obeyed for safety reasons. This happened quite often, especially when riders like the Dive Bombers were moving all over the place. This was the job of Strange Musik; prevent collision. But the Dive Bombers seemed to think the only reason their commands were ever delayed was to aggravate them. A part of Eddie imagined that the computer was aggravated by them.

Travis and Kyle went to school with Eddie, juniors like Eddie. They reached the platform together.

"You have to step back," Eddie told Kyle. "It's one at a time in the loading area." He said the same thing to them every time.

"But you didn't even ask if we're riding together," Travis gave Eddie a goofy grin. They smelled of weed.

"'re going together."

"Eddie, you dumb shit, you know we ride alone," laughed Travis. Neither one stepped down though. They talked quietly together. Eddie was sure they were making fun of him, but he pretended to be focused on the returning carousel. He was relieved when Travis boarded. He wasn't as uncomfortable with just one of them there.

As always, their were plenty of regulars in line. Shortly after Travis and Kyle got on, Eddie ushered Mr. and Mrs. Smith onto a carousel. They were a handsome older couple, very polite, the opposite of Travis and Kyle. They were also opposites in their riding preferences. They usually chose a slow ride on a short axle close to the center with a rotation almost completely horizontal. Such riders were called tourists. They enjoyed seeing the action around them. A tourist who made no variations would still rotate high above the amusement park cooled by gusts of salt air from the ocean . The carousels were quite comfortable and offered a beautiful view of the park and beach. It provided an opportunity for social interaction in a unique setting for twenty or thirty minutes. The Cyclone was a cultural phenomenon.

Eddie's boss was Frank, the Cyclone's operating manager. Jen said that Frank had arrived about year ago. His only job was to keep tabs on the Cyclone for its investors. Eddie remembered the old manager, Mr. Stanley, back when Eddie used to ride the Cyclone. A smiling, white haired old man, he had seemed to be involved deeply in every part of the Cyclone's operation. Frank, on the other hand, was only around a few hours a day, and seemed to do, well, nothing. But then again, the Strange Musik meant that it was all automated. Nonetheless, Jen said that Frank knew next to nothing about the Cyclone. Allegedly, the old manager had been fired for incompetence. Jen said that was bullshit.

"That guy knew everything about the Cyclone and could work with Strange Musik too," she had said. Jen gave a sardonic grin. "You want to know why he was really fired. He was taking young boys on free trips at night. On the Cyclone. But we're not supposed to repeat that. The Cyclone is supposed to have a perfect safety record. Not too good for business if Chester the Molester is operating the thing." Chester was actually the old guy's first name.

Riders spent a minimum of $7 or $1 per minute whatever was greater. They could spend up to an hour on the ride before their carousel returned to the safe zone where Eddie or another usher would seat the next person or party. Since there was always a line during peak hours, it was imperative for the usher to get the riders seated as quickly as possible. Ideally, the carousel would earn $60 per hour, except of course it took about a minute for the carousel to return to the safe zone, unseat the previous occupant, and seat the next one. The safe zone was the area off the ground and just underneath the center where carousels carrying riders got their start before moving off into the Cyclone. Strange Musik prevented any possible trajectories that took another carousel into the safe zone and it also made the safe zone secure so people could exit and enter.

When Eddie first arrived, it took him two minutes. Frank was furious. He took Eddie aside and scolded him away from the hearing of the customers. "It shouldn't take more than forty-five fucking seconds." Of course, Eddie had never seen Frank seat anybody. Jen was the only one who came close to that time; the other ushers took slightly over a minute. It was Jen who showed Eddie what safety steps to take, how to seat the riders and explain the controls to them. Frank had never bothered to show him.

It was just past 1 PM. Eddie thought the Cyclone was as lively as he had ever seen; a roiling mass of metal and people flying through the air in a harmony that only Strange Musik understood. The incredible activity triggered the worry he had never smoothed out. The red warning light.

The Strange Musik computer ensured complete safety, everyone knew that. Foolproof. Accidents could not happen. And yet, there existed a red warning light. Eddie could see it from his perch on the loading area, a large circular bulb not five feet away situated next to the computer terminal and a conspicuous red button. Eddie wondered why a warning light was necessary if the system was foolproof. He told himself not to think so much. He wasn't that smart after all. Everyone said so.

When he first started, Frank had not even mentioned it. After working up the courage to ask, Frank had said to ignore the light, the red button, and the adjacent computer terminal. The terminal, Eddie knew, gave access to the Strange Musik. The red button, however, gave him pause.

"Never touch that red button," Frank had said sharply. "Just ignore that stuff."

When he asked his coworker Josh about it though, he got a different answer. "I think you're supposed to hit the button if it lights up or starts flashing or something. I don't know, I think it's kinda important to do that though."

And when he asked Jen about it, he got another answer. "If it lights up, you're supposed to hit the button to shut down the ride. But if it starts flashing, you're not supposed to hit it."

He had waited awhile, then asked Frank again. He had been furious.

"The damn light has never gone off and will never go off. Stop trying to use your pathetic brain. Do you know what it means to hit that button? It stops the ride. So don't hit it." Stopping the Cyclone meant loss of revenue and lots of unwanted questions. The Cyclone had never been stopped in mid-operation.

The Cyclone was the only attraction to stay open after the rest of the Saltflats Park had closed. Operation ceased at 2 AM, but if you had the graveyard shift, work continued. As the new guy, Eddie was given the task of cleaning the carousels. At first, he had hoped it would be an opportunity to find some loose cash, but what he found instead was not a boon but a burden.

"I'm pulling rank," Jen had announced to him and another usher, Mikey. "You guys can clean the carousels." She had been flashing one of her sarcastic grins. He soon learned why. He expected to have to clean dirt or maybe bird crap. He didn't expect to find bodily fluids. It was distressing how many examples he found. Jen had names for them. Soup chunks, liquid gold, ruby stains, cream puffs, mystery juice, and, the dreaded hershey kisses, also called chocolate surprise. This was another factoid that wasn't shared with the public. Vomit was the most common; what Jen called soup chunks or sometimes Grandma’s Leftover Special.

Jen made fun of Frank when he wasn’t around. “Bodily fluids is Frank’s euphemism. He can’t deal with this part of the job. He just turns his body, says ‘take care of the..the..bodily fluids’, and walks away. That’s an improvement though. He used to call them ‘secretions’.”

Eddie scanned the line. He wondered what they would think if he told them about the cream puffs and hershey kisses. He couldn't though. Frank would terminate him in a second.

"Pay attention," Frank called up to him. Eddie hadn't even notice Frank arrive.

The Milano sisters were next up. They wanted to be seated together. Eddie knew they would be more moderate in their choices. They were more of tourists than speed freaks. He was acquainted with all three of the girls. They each gave him a mild smile and Tiffany said hi. Today, Stacy wore brilliant white socks and white shorts that contrasted nicely with her tan. Her dark hair flowed past her shoulders and down her back. Eddie watched her ass perfectly outlined by her shorts. He could see almost all of her legs as he seated her. Jen would make fun of him if she caught him staring, but she was below speaking with Frank.

Eddie watched as Sarah Stoner shot by in an arc that took her below his perch before she rocketed skyward moving to a higher orbit simultaneously. That was the way to get to the best rush, Eddie knew. He could hear Travis swearing from his carousel. He was relatively horizontal about hundred feet off the ground, his attempt to move to higher orbit hindered by Strange Musik because of traffic.

"Fucking machine," he cursed before his command was obeyed and his axle extended him further from the center.

You would be dead without that machine, thought Eddie. The Milano sisters were laughing as they swung around. They stayed relatively even, but they were trying out extending the axle. They were still far from speed freaks.

Today, there were plenty of speed freaks to spare. Almost half the carousels were single occupants. Travis and Kyle continued to curse. Others like Sarah and Danny, picked their spots allowing a smoother transition to elevating, accelerating, or jumping to higher orbit. The action on the Cyclone was at all time high. The addition of three more carousels a few weeks ago brought the total to thirty-nine. There was always a line and more carousels meant more money. The Saltflats Cyclone contained among the highest number of carousels. The strain this load put on the Strange Musik computer was disregarded as Strange Musik was infallible.

Of course, people aren't infallible.

The first indication that something was wrong was a message that popped up on the computer terminal. This puzzled Eddie. The screen had always been blank. Jen would take care of it when she returned.

On the Cyclone, Eddie noticed that most carousels were moving quite fast. That had always been the trend, most riders eventually liked to increase the speed. But it was strange to see the Milano sisters jumping to higher and higher orbit. They were as extended out as far as he had ever seen them. Jill Milano was afraid of the higher orbits.


The red light was on. Eddie didn't know when it had come on, but it was certainly on now. When confronted with an unfamiliar situation where he didn't know what to do, Eddie always did the same thing. Ask someone else. Yet he was by himself; Jen was down on the ground, and Mikey was on the stairs watching the crowd. Frank was god knows where.

Eddie could hear a cacophony of voices. There was a lot of cursing and not just from Travis and Kyle. All the carousels were either accelerating, extending, or else wildly moving higher and lower. Even the Smiths were whipping around, still close to the center, but at the top speed that was allowed from that orbit. There was a lot more screaming too. It occurred to Eddie that the screaming wasn't for joy, but for fear.

Do I push the button? Frank's words to ignore it rang loud in his mind endlessly echoing off the inside of his skull. On the other hand, Jen had said to hit it and she had always helped him. The screaming got louder. People in line finally realized something was going on; he could see them murmuring to one another and pointing. Tiffany and Stacy Milano had contorted their faces into masks of fear. Beside them, Jill sobbed. For once, Travis and Kyle weren't swearing. The look on their faces was pure horror. The Cyclone had ceased to be fun. It had become a machine of terror.

There will be plenty of bodily fluids to clean up tonight.

Tentatively, he tried getting Mikey's attention. Far below, Mikey couldn't hear him above the roar of the crowd and Eddie was afraid to yell too loud. He didn't want to cause a scene after all. Frank wouldn't like that. He wanted to wave to him, but, frustratingly, Mikey had his back turned dealing with the crowd. The red light glared ominously. Eddie was frozen with indecision. For once, he wished Frank was there.

He glanced at the monitor next to the warning light. He tried reading the text but he was so unnerved that he only caught fragments of it: STRANGE MUSIK....INITIATE VARIABLE....INCONSISTENT REQUEST....REPAIR CODING DECAY. It meant nothing too him. Maybe Jen would know. Strange Musik was supposed to be completely automated. Completely safe, everyone said so. Just reading from the terminal made Eddie nervous, like he was breaking a sacred rule. Ignore it, Frank had said.

The screaming continued. The fear had become a living thing. I should hit the button. That's what Jen said to do.

He had made up his mind to hit it when he finally caught sight of Jen and Frank. They were on the ground below him over eighty feet down. Seeing Frank froze Eddie in place and tuned his insides to jelly. He had been expressly told not to hit the button. If he shut down the ride, Frank would fire him. Besides, what if he had misjudged the situation? What if everyone was having fun like usual and nothing at all was wrong?

The red warning light, however, was definitely lit.

He called down to Jen and Frank, but it was far too loud. He motioned toward the warning light. Jen called back to him, but her voice never reached his ears. Frank looked confused. Eddie saw them engage in a quick excited conversation. He could tell they at least understood the warning light was on. Jen looked up at him. He thought she said "hit the button", but then she kept talking and now it seemed she said "don't hit the button".

Sweat started pouring down Eddie's forehead. To hit or not to hit, that is the question. Once again, he started to reach out to push it. Just then, the warning light started to flash. Eddie literally jumped backwards. Below, Frank was waving wildly at him. Jen had taken off towards the staircase, but her progress was slowed by the mass of people in line and in the crowd beneath the Cyclone. On the Cyclone itself, the nightmare continued. The Smiths looked to be in shock. Most others were screaming.


Vaguely, as if a thousand years ago, Eddie remembered hearing something about the light flashing, something Jen had told him. Right now, he was panicking. Any instructions he had been given fled from his adrenaline filled brain. He was on his own. Jen was still below trying to force her way up. Mikey had finally turned around. He was further up than Jen, but he stood still with his mouth gaping, staring up at Eddie.


Somebody above vomited, soup chunks narrowly missing Eddie. It was the last straw. He hit the button.

Nothing happened. It didn't stop or slow down. The red light continued to flash. The only thing Eddie noticed was the computer terminal. It reacted wildly. Meaningless letters, numbers, and symbols filled the screen all jumbled together.

Then something else happened. The carousel carrying the Milano sisters had dropped low and close, but now shot upwards and further out. At the same time, a rider that Eddie recognized as Billy, a well-known speed freak, was inverted and descending into the same orbit that the Milanos were about to enter. Both were operating at higher speeds than should have been possible. Eddie caught one last look of horror on Tiffany Milano's face before the carousels collided.

They seemed to explode. Flesh, metal, bone, blood, and plastic came together in a grotesque meld.

It was only the beginning.

Eddie saw a carousel at low orbit swing through the path of another carousel's axle. The rider, some kid he didn't recognize, was decapitated. Other axles made contact with each other sending their carousels out of control. There was more collisions. The riders no longer had Strange Musik protecting them. Eddie saw Julio who had once been an usher. His carousel had crashed into the ground. Julio was still alive, but his lower body was pinned beneath him; his legs appeared to be crushed and he looked to be demented with pain. Kristen Dorset and Sarah's friend Danny had also crashed. They and their carousels were locked together in mid-air still rotating around the center. They were both alive as well, but their bodies were broken. They wailed inhumanly as they spun through the air, blood leaking to the ground to trace their path.

Please be a dream. Please be a dream. No such luck. A sneaker with a foot still inside landed next to Eddie. Blood was on his hands. For a moment he thought he was injured, then he realized he had been gripping the rail which was covered in blood. He was standing well within the safe zone. Well, what had been the safe zone. He suddenly felt very exposed.

Some of the carousels were coming to a stop. But others were going even faster. Kyle's carousel was rotating at near vertical at incredible speed.

If the Strange Musik computer had any control left, perhaps it reserved a particularly nasty fate for Travis. His carousel had collapsed in on itself. Travis' arms and head were caught in the wreck, but his body hung loose beneath the axle. As he spun around, another stationary axle took his feet off, the next his ankles, the next his lower leg, then his knees, and finally his waist. Remarkably, the static axles had been perfectly aligned.

The almost vertical angle of Kyle's carousel brought him underneath the usher's platform, nearly scraping the ground before rocketing back into the air. It appeared to move faster and faster to the point that the eye couldn't follow it. Kyle's journey ended when the carousel broke loose from its axle just as it started to crest almost a hundred and fifty feet in the air. He catapulted through the air still attached to his seat traveling out of the park, over the beach, before crashing into the ocean beyond.

The spectacle was finally winding down. On the ground, Frank was uninjured Eddie noticed, but completely drenched with blood. Body parts were strewn around the park. Jen looked to be unhurt as well, but debris had struck Mikey and he lay on the stairs clutching his wounds.

Some of the riders made it. Sarah Stoner was sprawled on the ground splattered with blood and unconscious, but alive. The Smiths survived too. Their carousel was one of the few to stop and, with remarkable luck, nothing collided with them. They got off with some cuts and bruises. Psychological injury may have been another story. Survivors would recall their disturbed look and the fact that they seemed to have lost the ability to speak.

Saltflats was pandemonium. Some people fled while others stood transfixed by the carnage. A twisted ball of metal and gore was all that was left of Billy and the Milanos. It was impossible to distinguish anything in the red pulp. The foot that had ended up near Eddie belonged to Jill. It was the largest intact piece of any of the four remains. Travis' upper half continued to circle; innards occasionally dropping from his severed waist. One unlucky spectator, unable to clear the stairs in time, got a face full of intestines.

Jen approached the top of the landing. The remaining carousels had all stopped or slowed. The machine was shutting down.

"Am I going to be fired," Eddie asked. "Frank will fire me now, I'm sure of it."

Jen didn't seem to hear him. Wide-eyed, she surveyed the scene. Her mouth opened slowly.

"Ohhh.....shit," was all that came out.

Meanwhile, a new message had popped up on the Strange Musik terminal. Together, Eddie and Jen turned to read the message: EMERGENCY SHUT DOWN SUCCESSFUL. ADJUSTMENT TO SAFETY PRTOTOCOL RECOMMENDED. REFURBISHING AND MAINTENANCE MAY BE NECESSARY.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Hangman by David Frazier

You have committed the ultimate crime

Now you must pay the price

The judge has lowered his gavel

Awaiting the black day, it's off to jail and a holding cell

I am the Hangman

Climb the stairs with me

Mine is the last face that you will see

As I look into eyes filled with tears

I cover heads with a death shroud

So your loud plea I cannot hear

I slip the noose around your neck and make it tight

Pull the pin, drop the hatch, and say goodnight

You were here, and now you're knot

Coins were placed upon your eyes

Payment for the tiller-man

As he sets sail across the river of death with your immortal soul

Never to return.

Friday, March 23, 2012

The Cigarette's Breath by Nicholas Conley

     As he waited for his guest to arrive, Matt Duvall took another drag from his cigarette.  One year.”  That’s what the creep had written on the wall, exactly one year ago today.  One year.  One lousy year.  Yeah, like a year was enough time to get his act together and fix everything. 
What a load of crap.  Matt scoffed at the whole idea as he sucked in the rest of his cigarette.  He carefully placed the butt on the shelf, in the small pile of butts he’d created next to the stash of half-eaten apples.  He quickly lit another one.

     Looking back on it, it seemed like his life had only really started when he’d tried his first cig.  It’d been like losing his virginity.  He’d been 16 years old, another fidgety teenager trying to fit in with his friends; yeah, yeah, the same cliché story everyone’s heard a million times.  What set Matt’s story apart was that, well, it wasn’t the feeling of the smoke in his lungs that he loved.   Nah, that was just an added bonus.  Matt loved something else.  He loved the cigarette’s filter. 

Or, well…to be more exact, he loved the sensation of that soft filter pressing against his lips.   

There was something amazing about it that he couldn’t explain.  It wasn’t just a physical feeling; it was mental, emotional.   It was a sense of control he’d never had before.  Suddenly, he knew he had the power to put anything in his mouth that he wanted to, no matter what anyone told him.  Not only that, but he could keep anything he put in his mouth. 

It started out as a small, silly habit.  Matt never threw away a single cigarette butt, and he kept them in a small drawer.   Soon, it turned into several drawers.   A closet.   By his senior year of high school, it wasn’t just cigarette butts anymore.   Matt Duvall desperately tried to keep a small piece of every single object that his mouth touched, whether it was a popsicle stick, a beer bottle, a coin--the touch of cold metal against his lower lip was very calming--a spoon, a plastic cup or a straw.   When he finally got his own trailer to live in, the layout began as a neatly-organized library of items and rapidly evolved into a cluttered garbage dump.   That was fine by him, though.  Totally fine.  Well, except for the fact that his eccentric collecting habits had a bad way of making him forget that somewhere along the way, he’d fathered an infant son named Eddie.

     Ah, Eddie. 

Eddie, Eddie, Eddie.  That kid was the reason all this crap was so complicated now.  Matt finished off another cig as he continued waiting for the guest.  By now, he was shaking in anticipation; even the nicotine couldn’t take the edge off.  The guest was getting close.  He could feel it.  He wasn’t normally one to believe in any kind of supernatural claptrap, but when it came to the guest…

     Eddie stood up in his playpen across the room and waved his arms in the air.  The baby learned this trick last week, and he loved doing it.  Eddie looked over at his dad, his chubby little face gleaming with a giant, malevolent grin.  He was a quiet baby, but his amazingly emotive expressions were loud enough to make up for it.

While the baby was smiling, though, Matt shuddered at the way his son’s lips pressed up against the side of the playpen.   Like father, like son.  Ugh, it wasn’t fair that little Eddie was stuck with a father like him.  Matt Duvall’s life was a miserable, unfulfilled existence, no matter how big his collection became.  What if Eddie followed the same path?

The very idea of it drove Matt crazy with guilt; way to set an example, man.  Kid’s going to grow up being the same screw-up you are, chewing on pencils and then keeping the remains in a specially labeled box.  He couldn’t help it, though!  Could he?

     There was a loud knock on the door. 

No, not a knock.  Something was beating the hell out of the door, like a wild animal trying to break in.  A wild animal; a vicious beast. Then again, calling the guest a “wild animal” wasn’t too far off, now was it? 

The beating continued, louder.   Matt shuddered again.  He was here.  No.  It was here.

     Matt desperately tried to refocus his attention.  He pressed a rusty quarter up to his lips.   Maybe if he ignored the guest, maybe if he kept quiet, he’d go away?  After all, he’d done better this year, hadn’t he?  He’d promised the guest that he’d do better, and that’s what he’d done.  He’d thrown away nearly 1/8 of his collection, for Christ’s sake!  He couldn’t be perfect all of the time…or well, not even most of the time.   But dammit, he was trying.   Didn’t that count?

Apparently not.

     The door flew open.  The guest stood in the doorway.   Slowly, the demonic personage crept inside. 

All of Matt’s illusions about hiding disappeared immediately.  The guest stepped closer.  Matt nearly fell from his chair; he’d forgotten just how appalling the guest truly was.  He’d forgotten how intense the animal’s glowing red eyes were.  He’d forgotten how they burrowed a deep hole into the darkest pit of his soul.

     Those eyes.  Those damn red eyes.  Since the creature was headless, those red eyes were set right in its chest.  Its shiny black body resembled a giant, humanoid moth, its enormous insect wings currently folded behind it like a cape.  It glared at Matt and slowly extended one arm forward, as if beckoning him to the gates of hell.    

     Matt shook tensely.  There was nowhere to run.  This was real.  This was happening.  This was real.  He threw the quarter away from his mouth and quickly lit up another cig.     As he inhaled, he desperately squashed both lips against the filter for comfort.  The guest continued advancing toward him.  It clenched its hand into a fist.

Immediately, Matt’s throat erupted into a rough coughing fit.  His lungs burned as if they’d been set on fire; as if the horrific beings’ red eyes were melting his internal organs.   As he closed his eyes, he found that all he could picture was his lungs.  They were charred and yellowish, resembling a crumpled old newspaper.  Residing inside the chest of a 23-year-old were the lungs of a withered corpse.

He opened his eyes.  The pain subsided, momentarily.  The guest gestured toward him in an eerily human manner.

“So did I do good enough for ya?” Matt asked, panting.

The answer was no.

The guest opened its wings, blasting the room with frosty, bitter air.  Every shelf in the room toppled simultaneously, sending a lifetime of collections to the floor.   The guest reached one clawed hand forward again and twisted its wrist; Matt’s chest tightened, completely at the guest’s mercy.

     He coughed again.  There was thick mucus in his throat.  Cold, phlegmatic blood.  There was blood in his chest.  In his nostrils.  On his lips.  There was invisible blood on the cigarette’s filter. 

I’ll quit, he said to himself.  I’ll quit all of it.  Right here, right now.  I’ll throw everything away.  I can change. 

How many times had he told himself that silly joke before, though?  How could he ever hope to accomplish it?  His unique form of self-destruction was the only thing that’d ever been constant in his life.  When his mother died, it was there.  When his girlfriend cheated on him, tore his heart out of his chest and trampled on it, it was there.  It’d always been there, like the most faithful woman in the world.  The kind of woman that he’d never get in real life.  The kind he didn’t deserve. 

The coughing subsided momentarily.  Matt spat at the guest’s feet angrily.  Out of spite, he relit his cigarette.  Go to hell, insect.  Go to hell.  He breathed in the nicotine and let it become a part of him. 

Like an enormous bat, the guest opened its wings again and shrieked.

Matt’s chest seized up completely.  He couldn’t breathe.  He collapsed to the floor, instantly dropping the still-burning cigarette.  He gasped for air.  He cried out for help from the lungs he’d been abusing all these years. 

Eddie collapsed in the playpen.  Legs crossed, the baby stared out at his dying father with terrified eyes.  He started crying.

At this, the guest turned to face the child.  No!  Matt tried to crawl forward and do something, but his body was too weak.  The guest stared down at the dropped cigarette and reached for it.  Smoke drifted out of its cherry, into the air, and it twisted upward into the creature’s palm. 

Matt beat on his chest until his arms were exhausted.  He couldn’t stop coughing.  Grey drool dribbled down his chin.  His vision darkened.  His lungs felt like water balloons, just waiting for a needle to puncture them.

The guest manipulated the smoke in its hand like clay.  The demonic creature then let go of it; the smoke crawled through the air like a snake, right in the baby’s direction.  Eddie sobbed even louder as the smoke coiled around his head.

“Ed…E…Eddie…I’m trying, I’m…” Matt sputtered out, between coughs.

He reached out in agony, but he couldn’t move.  He couldn’t speak clearly.  His lungs wouldn’t stop coughing.  He’d realized, too late, that he could’ve done this year differently.  He’d been warned.  God, he’d been warned!  He could’ve lived.  He’d always told himself, “tomorrow,” but tomorrow had finally come.  Procrastination finally caught up to him.  It was too late, it was too…

The coughing stopped.  Suddenly, the guest was gone.

Air flow returned to Matt’s lungs.  He could breathe again.  He pulled himself off the ground; the air had felt never felt so crisp.  He’d never felt so alive.

He looked around worriedly.  He couldn’t believe that the guest had actually let him live, a second time.  The monstrous animal had disappeared from thin air…but not without a reminder.  There was a new message burned into Matt’s brain, echoing through it repeatedly; the guest’s lingering voice.

Six months.  This is your last chance.

Matt took the crying baby into his arms and rocked him back and forth.  He’d survived another ordeal.  Both he and his son had survived it, together…but only because they were lucky.  Matt knew that.  Next time, he wouldn’t be so lucky.  He had to change.  This wasn’t about him anymore; it was about his son.  He had a child that needed his father.  This time, he was done.  This time, everything was going to change. 

But as he told himself this, he couldn’t help but realize that even with his newfound resolve, he didn’t feel any relief.  There was no sense of salvation, no sense of redemption.  Instead, he felt as if he’d cut off his right hand and was never getting it back.

Matt looked out the open front door that the guest had been standing in moments ago.  He examined the enormous garbage dump around him.  Remembering those terrifying red eyes, he wondered if six months would really be long enough. 

There's Nothing Under the Stairs by A.A. Garrison

The Barclay home made many noises, but the one that awoke Sarah that night was a scratching.

     The child's eyes winked open then half-closed, and she slithered spryly from bed, creaking the morning-cold floor as she entered the hall.

     Scratch, scratch, scratch.

     It came beneath snorings and the odd report of turning bodies. Sarah thought it originated from the stairs.

     Scratch. Scratch-scratch, scratch.

     She padded down the balcony hallway and then the stairwell, navigating the dark with the cautious of the blind. The scratching started up again and she gave pause, frozen on the third riser. Her chest moved in and out.

     She fumbled on a light and the darkness shocked away. Sarah rounded the newel post and stood studying the stairwell's underbelly, an angular wedge with a child-size door in the middle. The door was locked.

     She'd scarcely noticed it in her eleven years, and never its lock, a bulbous metal knot in a black iron hasp. It said no, by presence alone. The upstairs snored as she stood contemplating.

     Then: scratch-scratch, THUD!

     Sarah gasped backward, then scratched off the light and scrambled back to bed. When the noise returned, she muffed her hands over her ears.


The home's morning noises were radio and scuffing chairs, and the dynamite sizzle of bacon and sausage. Sarah awoke late, but not because it was Sunday. After the scratching, sleep had returned reluctantly.

     Sarah descended the culprit stairs as she had the night before, with calculated steps and peeks over the railing. The little door was still closed and locked. When it didn't scratch, she made for the kitchen.

     Mom, Dad, and Sarah's twin brothers awaited her there, their eyes coming up then sucking back down. Mom was fussing with various foods simultaneously. Invasive sun shot through a window to white the table. Sarah said hello, and received a sleepy acclamation of greeting.

     She took her usual spot, opposing the twins and her father. The twins were nineteen, strapping young men full of winks and advice and overbearing. Father was lost behind a newspaper, the pages periodically crackling down for a gulp of coffee. Mom moved for the four of them.

     "Something's under the stairs," Sarah said, when it felt right.

     Mom paused in her work, her back to the room. Dad seemed to change behind the paper. The twins took sudden interest in the table. Only the radio spoke.

     Sarah searched the room, pausing at her brothers, who now offered no winks. She waited, all the sudden feeling smaller. "Well? What's under the stairs?"

     The paper lowered to Dad looking a way Sarah didn't like. "Why do you say that, dear?" His words thawed Mom, some toast at last receiving its butter.

     "I. I heard scratching last night. From under the stairs, and ..." Sarah shrunk smaller, smaller. How will she reach the table?

     Dad, still with that unheimlich face, said, "Is that so?"

     "Yeah. It woke me up. I came down and it kept on."

     Dad made no immediate reply. Mom's work continued, but her back was listening. The radio switched songs, and for a second the silence was enormous.

     "Mice," Barry said, from Sarah's right. "Must've been mice." Mitchell, beside him, agreed.

     Sarah squirmed like there was an itch; the three big men were staring at her. "Well, maybe ..." she said. Half of her insisted it was too loud for mice, but the other said mice, definitely definitely mice. "Yeah, I guess it was mice," she added, capitulating to the stares.

     Dad at once normalized, his face lifting. "Well, then," he smiled. He sipped his coffee and looked to enjoy it. "Well."

     Before Sarah could decide something was wrong, Mom was distributing crowded, steaming plates. The Barclays ate.


That Sunday was spent with Betty Hollers from next door, where the stairs didn't scratch. Sarah only remembered her stairs at bedtime, when it came time to scale them.

     She stood at the first riser, a questioning to her. Just moments ago she was exhausted; no longer. The home's evening noises played out from unseen rooms, Mom humming blithely as she performed some chore. Sarah's eyes kept sinking to the little door, its forbidding lock.

     She was still there when her mother appeared from a hallway, the humming ceasing with her steps. Janice Barclay was a tall, curvy version of her daughter, perhaps some future incarnation stumbled into the past. She stopped upon finding Sarah at the little door.

     "Sarah, honey?" Janice said, her basket of laundry flagging below her waist.

     Sarah looked up. "Huh?"

     Mom's eyes sliced to the stairwell; back to her daughter. "Everything all right? You look unwell."

     "Was just ..." Sarah looked at the disastrous stairs. "Just thinking of the mice. Under the stairs."

     It made Janice tense, her hands torturing the poor laundry basket. "Don't you worry about under the stairs," she snapped. "You get on to bed. It's late."

     Mom's tone brought a feeling like sick and crying mixed. Sarah slunk away from her mother's eyes, up one riser then the rest. She felt the eyes all the way upstairs, and still as she closed the bathroom door.


That night, Sarah thought the scratching was just a dream, or the home's night noises, or something else. But it was none of those things and she knew it.

     The sound sent her deep under the covers, but this helped little.


Monday was a school day, Mom's hand shaking Sarah awake.

     "Come on, hon. Don't wanna be late," Mom said, mistaking Sarah's groans for resistance. Footsteps.

     Sarah dressed, then stood not quite at the stairhead, awkward with fear. The stairs had gained thorns and traps, and heads with vulgar faces. She managed down them by closing her eyes and thinking of rainbows.

     Her plate was already set when she arrived at the table, for the first time. Mom had preceded her, too. It was wrong, somehow. Like the scratching.

     "Come on, hon," Mom said over a mouthful. "Gonna be late." No one else seemed to notice Sarah.

     She hoicked into her seat but didn't eat, her eyes circling the table. Her fork played with her food, seemingly on its own.

     Mom was looking at her. "You okay, hon?"

     She met her mother's gaze. "Why's there a lock under the stairs?"

     The room stopped, just like Saturday. Sarah felt, as much as saw, her mother's face close. Dad's coffee mug lowered without being sipped, and he said, "No reason, dear." The twins were still eating, though without their previous zeal.

     "But why?" Sarah said. "What's in there?"

     Dad: "There's nothing in there."

     "Then why lock it?"

     Mom: "Everyone has locks under their stairs."

     "Betty's stairs don't."

     It made Mom straighten in her seat, her eyes jumping to Dad.

     When no one spoke, Sarah said, "There's scratching in there. Something in there -- and not mice. Too big for mice." Pause. "Why not just open it up?"

     The twins' chewing degraded. Something passed between Sarah's parents, and Dad said, "There's nothing under the stairs." He looked at her heavily. "Now, eat."

     Sarah's fork had never stopped dowsing her plate. It at last chose a puff of eggs, and Sarah ate, if only to relieve herself of those faces. For the first time ever, she found herself looking forward to school.


The school day was worrisome. Sarah couldn't forget the stairs, and how Mom and Dad said there was nothing under them when there was. Teacher called on her once, and Sarah couldn't answer the man's question. The other kids laughed.

     Betty Hollers wasn't in Sarah's class, but they did share the bus. Sarah waited until just before their stop.

     "Do your stairs scratch?"

     Betty was drawing. "Stairs scratch?"

     "Yeah," Sarah said. "Like at night, like? From the underneath?"

     Betty said no, without much interest. Her picture was of a unicorn and trees.

     "Do your stairs have a lock on it?" Sarah asked.

     Betty thought visibly, her eyes rolling about. "Nope. I hide in there during hide-and-go-seek." She smiled.

     Sarah said, "Yeah, thought so," and withdrew out the window. When her house crawled up, she felt sick.


Earlier in life, the twins were fond of terrorizing their young sister with a particularly grotesque Halloween mask. That was how it felt to hear the scratching that night, like seeing the mask except real.

     Sarah arose screaming from bed, and only got louder. At once, the snoring cut out and her parents appeared. They stood over her, reduced to columns of leg and waist because Sarah had sat or fallen. Barry and Mitchell darkened the doorway, not nearing.

     Sarah wouldn't calm, her parents consoling perfunctorily. They looked a way they never had before, like strangers Sarah wasn't supposed to talk to. Her father put a hand on her shoulder, and it offered no comfort whatsoever.

     Movies had taught her that bad noises never happen in others' presence, but the scratching defied this, playing out in full presence of Mom and Dad and the twins. "See? See?" Sarah said, looking between them.

     She'd hoped to find defeat or surprise in her family's faces, but there was neither. "Sounds like mice," one of the twins suggested, and it was all anyone said.


The scratching awoke her that morning, and continued throughout breakfast. She several times asked if they heard, don't you hear it? But no one would answer.

     School was a relief and too short, and when Sarah got home, the scratching had not ceased. She heard it from outside, a muffled scratch, scratch, scratch. Her legs locked up and she had to persuade them.

     Sarah opened the door and lingered there. The stairwell was again a circus of harmful things, the Halloween mask plus worse. She had begun to call out hello, when she noticed the liquid.

     The maroon substance started at the little door and ended in a shallow pool in the floor's declivity, resembling a stream-fed lake. It froze Sarah all over again. She told herself it was not blood, was not blood.

     Her steps had never been more careful, then she was squatting by the pool, her dress touching her Mary Janes. The pool had some depth, with little floating chunks she couldn't identify. "It's not blood," she said aloud, just heard over the incessant scratching. Her eyes traced the pool to the little door, which suddenly appeared very weak. "Not blood."

     Then her mother was nearby, scolding: "Sarah Barclay. What've you spilled?"

     Sarah backed guardedly toward the door. "I didn't spill it," was all she said. She felt to be talking to a bully, maybe.

     As her mother went for a mop, Sarah retreated to her room and stayed there. After mopping up the blood, Janice Barclay squeezed it into a jar and stored it away.


Sarah spent the evening in her room, without dinner or TV. Her winter earmuffs dulled the scratching; with some added tissue paper, she could barely hear it at all. She didn't remember falling asleep, only the scratching waking her up, the next morning.

     The noises had started Sunday, and it was now Wednesday. Sarah anguished downstairs and then stopped at the little door: more not-blood had sprung forth, collecting into a greater pool. Sarah cleared it with a berth.

     She came to the kitchen, and breakfast was wrong. Dad was without his paper or coffee, the twins sitting board-straight, Mom too. Eight eyes glued to Sarah and stayed there. Instead of radio and skrinking forks, there was only the foyer's far scratching.

     Feeling pressed to speak, Sarah said, "The stairs are bleeding."

     Her family did not answer.

     "And the scratching. There's still scratching ..." She trailed off upon realizing there was no food, on the table or stove or anywhere, the kitchen empty like her family's eyes.

     A countertop dish held apples and bananas. Sarah grabbed one of each, and her family's gaze did not falter. They were still at the table when she left.

     Sarah ate disinterestedly while awaiting the bus.


Thursday and Friday were bad; the weekend, worse. The stairs continued scratching and hemorrhaging, and Sarah's family sunk into a sort of psychosis. Dad wandered the house and muttered of rabbits, drinking stinky liquor from the bottle. Mom and the twins stayed together, spending long periods of time in the twins' bedroom. Mom stopped cooking and cleaning, like Dad and the twins stopped working. The home's noises were no longer, the scratching having replaced them all.

     After the weekend, Sarah went to her school's guidance counselor, on the grounds of a problem at home. However, when the time came, Sarah couldn't say a word. Next was Betty Hollers, and this resulted in a similar silence. The police said that her family acting funny wasn't a crime, nor was a noisy staircase. Sarah spent her days in her room, the earmuffs seeing perpetual use.

     She eventually stopped going to school, thinking it would snap her parents out of it; but it didn't. Dad kept drinking, and grumbling about "the rabbits." Other than pal around with her twin sons, the only thing Janice Barclay did was mop up the blood.

     The hammering started Tuesday afternoon, and Sarah traced it to her parents' bedroom, where her father was busy nailing dead rabbits to the walls. Furry cruciform shapes hung like pictures or shelves, a box of them on the bed, obtained from God knows where. Toiling over his latest crucifixion, Sarah's father didn't notice her.

     Sarah screamed and ran, and again phoned the police. The dispatcher was the same as before, and said that pranking 911 could get you in jail. The shock sent Sarah to the twins' room, for Mom, but she found Mom and the twins unclothed on the floor, in a three-person train, their hips and mouths working at one another. They too seemed immune to Sarah's presence.

     Sarah shut herself in her room, propping a chair to the door like she'd seen on TV.


The time following was filled with hammerings and incestuous commotion and the unending scratching, these the new sounds of the Barclay home. Sarah's day was interrupted by brief, involuntary bouts of sleep, in which dreams of the stairs played star.

     Sarah barely noticed when the hammering stopped. The other noises did also, by consequence or coincidence, she wasn't sure. It lured her from her room, with the same minefield steps reserved for the stairs. She looked left and right, and the other bedrooms were open, one decorated with dead rabbits, the other shed clothing. She could hear a new noise, out here, one she couldn't immediately place. It was coming from the foyer, like the scratching.

     She crept along the balcony hallway, just cresting the ledge. Her family was huddled around the floor's reservoir of gore, doglike, their rear ends raised high, Dad's the only one clothed. Mom's was facing Sarah, seeming to stare. The noise was their lapping the blood, strawlike suckings intermixed. Clownish red smears surrounded their lips, the chins dripping liberally.

     It shocked Sarah, but she was already shocked. She only retreated to her room, the chair going back under the knob.


It felt like night when Sarah ventured to the garage, but only because the others were back in their rooms, with hammerings and fuck-noises instead of snores. The scratching had gained intensity, great purposeful strokes that made the door jump.

     The garage was outfitted with a wall of hung tools, including her pick of screwdrivers. She chose one and took it down, gingerly, with only a vague knowledge of her intent.

     Then she was at the stairs' little door, the screwdriver in the hasp and prying. Her knees slipped in the ooze of blood, sweat weeping from her. She put her weight into the screwdriver, grunting, but the hasp was strong. She collapsed backward and the screwdriver fell from her, spattering the blood.

     She then went away again, becoming a detached sprawl in the floor, time stripped of all meaning. She returned to herself some time later, with the slow silence of a ghost, her eyes flickering sharp. She noticed, vacantly, how the screws in the hasp were the X kind. The screwdriver was the X kind.

     The scratching resumed as if in answer, the door stuttering as to jingle the lock.

     The screws were in tight, but she honed her technique and again put her scant weight into it, and the first screw budged. She fought with it, struggling because the door wouldn't stay still, and soon a screw clinked the floor, sticking in the blood there.

     Sarah toiled bodily at the remaining screws, growling and moaning like her mother and brothers lately. So involved was Sarah that she didn't see her family assemble along the balcony, bloodstained and zombie-faced, standing abreast as if about to bow. They watched, unspeaking.

     The four remained so as Sarah freed the hasp's last screw, loosing that which dwelt under the stairs.


Betty was worried when her best friend Sarah wasn't in school for three days. Worse, Betty and her parents had been hearing things from their next-door neighbors, and the Barclays' cars hadn't left the driveway. When another day passed, Betty decided to visit.

     As it turned out, however, Sarah was waiting for her, on Betty's front step as she disembarked the bus.

     Betty was happy; then alarmed. Sarah looked terrible, covered in red as if she'd spilled jam, her face filthy and her hair all over the place. "Sarah?" Betty said, at distance.

     "Come here," Sarah said, moving only her mouth.

     Betty was a long time joining Sarah on the stoop. Up close, Sarah looked even worse, her eyes all starey and wild, head lowered so her chin touched her chest. The redness continued up to her mouth and cheeks, like she'd been eating whatever she'd spilled.

     "What happened, Sarah?"

     Sarah answered by raising a small mason jar, a dark, sultry liquid inside. She extended the jar as if it explained everything.

     Betty took it tentatively, holding it away from her. "What is it?"

     Sarah nodded to the jar, only slightly, due to her lowered head. "Grape juice. Try it."

     Betty undid the jar and sniffed. Her head jumped a little. "It don't smell like grape juice."

     Sarah stared. "Try it."

     Betty didn't want the juice ... but Sarah's appearance brooked no argument. She put the jar to her lips and threw it back, at once tasting copper.