Friday, February 22, 2013
Trouble always stems from living in a small town. The main dilemma is that your life, your business–personal or otherwise–is on display for the world to see. It’s not that everyone means to pry or be nosy. They just can’t help but witness the drama that unfolds. And some can’t wait to share it with others.
These people are your friends and neighbors; they’re your colleagues or classmates. You see them all the time. They often judge you or gossip behind your back. And you promptly return the favor in their absence.
All small towns are the same at heart. Everyone wears a smile, even when it’s just for show. Because you wouldn’t want to let anyone know you have issues in your personal life. You wouldn’t want to give the gossipers a few more rounds of ammunition. So you wear that plastic smile, grinning from ear-to-ear like some mindless jack-o’-lantern.
Tyler Reese never had to deal with the discomfort of small town life. He was born and raised in the big city. He grew up surrounded by towers and skyscrapers that appeared to stretch as high as the clouds. He spent his life encompassed by packed highways and congested freeways.
Reese grew accustomed to the sounds of car horns blaring, ambulance sirens wailing, strangers exchanging vulgar obscenities. This was background noise to him. What he hated was absolute silence. That’s when he knew trouble was brewing.
To a man like Reese, small towns just mean less work for him. Reese is a member of the Census Bureau. When people neglect to fill out and return their census forms, it’s his duty to track them down.
That particular day, his assignment was Eden Harbor; a sleepy little town in the center of Long Island. A place that Tyler had no sincere desire to be… and for good reason.
Ten years ago–when Tyler was still in school–it was Bobby Sudrow who made the trek to Eden Harbor. The bureau never heard from him again.
The early morning fog crept in from the bay, slowly enveloping the roads. Tyler drove at his own leisure. No rush, no hurry. One hand on the wheel of his rental car, the other hand gripping his morning caffeine fix. The coffee was boiling hot and singed his tongue with every sip. But it was also the only thing keeping his eyes focused on the hazy road.
The car the bureau had reserved for Reese was a ’07 Honda Accord. The interior was worn and beaten. The upholstery riddled with cigarette burns. But the Honda still had that “new car” smell that Reese found nauseating.
Reese listened to the radio to keep his mind occupied. He tried his best not to think about Bobby Sudrow.
Bobby Sudrow was a nice guy by all accounts. A family man. Everything he did, he did for his wife and two daughters. Every penny he saved went to their college funds. Every free moment he had, he spent with them. He liked barbeques, cold beer, those summer days at the beach. It was the little things in life that put a smile on his face. And it was no plastic smile he sported. It was the real thing.
His last assignment was Eden Harbor. According to the reports, he never made it. His red Camry was found abandoned in the town of Dorchester, some two hundred miles away. The police search turned up nil. They couldn’t find a shred of evidence that said Bobby Sudrow ever existed. Even his insurance card was removed from the glove box. The interior of the Camry had been wiped clean with the skill and patience of a professional, and not a single useful fingerprint or trace of DNA was discovered.
The joke among colleagues is that fear or trepidation of visiting small towns alone is commonly referred to as Sudrow Syndrome.
It was eight o’clock when Reese pulled into the only gas station in town. At least that’s what the hand-painted sign strung above the gas pumps claimed.
He got out, yawning, his arms stretched above his head. In the distance, he heard the chiming of bells. Church-like bells that tolled precisely once every four to ten seconds. Ominous, yet strangely soothing.
A man stepped out from the mechanics garage, his hands caked in oil and black residue. Around his long neck was a chain connected to a diamond shaped locket, which for all Reese knew was stolen. It seemed out of place amongst his oil stained jumpsuit and canvas shoes.
“What can I do for you?” the man asked, wiping his greasy hands with a yellow cloth.
“You can start by filling me up,” Reese answered. “And if you’re familiar with the area, you can give me directions to the Henderson’s place."
The man cackled annoyingly, a loud boisterous laugh that made Tyler’s ears sore. “In the golden age of technology, who stops to ask for directions?”
“Someone who’s too cheap to splurge for a GPS,” Reese replied. “Now you know where it is?”
“What do you want with that old dump?"
“The name’s Tyler Reese. I’m with the census bureau. The Henderson’s never returned their census forms, so the bureau sent me.”
“They sent you all the way here for that?”
“We’re very thorough.
The man fingered his diamond locket with one hand and brushed the other through his wavy brown hair. Avoiding eye contact, he motioned down the road with his head.
“Half a mile down the road if you’re heading east,” the man said, opening the gas tank. He unscrewed the cap and jammed the nozzle into the tank. Then he started fueling. “It’s an old cedar house, green with mold on the outside. Their front yard is littered with pink flamingos and gaudy patio furniture. It’s something out of a trailer park.”
“So you’re saying it’s hard to miss?” Reese joked, if only to ease his screaming nerves.
“I’d be surprised if you passed it by without looking twice.”
Reese glared to the east. It was then he noticed the green smoke. He couldn’t pinpoint the exact location. It was rising up through a series of tall oak trees.
“What’s your name?” Reese inquired.
“Alexis,” the attendant responded. “But everyone calls me Lex.”
“Well, Lex, you mind if I ask you what’s the deal with that?” He motioned to the green smoke filtering into the sky.
“Oh, that,” Lex started, as if he was used to this routine. He continued to avoid eye contact. “That’s the forbidden zone.”
“The forbidden zone?” Reese repeated, almost mockingly.
“Yeah, you might want to steer clear of that whole area.”
“No one can trespass there. It’s been forbidden by the local authorities ever since the incident.”
“The incident?” Reese mumbled, taken aback.
“Your tanks full,” Lex said, disregarding his bewilderment. “That’ll be sixty dollars.”
Reese paid his debt and got in his car in a hurry. Lex watched as Tyler drove out, heading east toward the old Henderson place. If his intention was to stir Reese, mission accomplished.
As Reese left the station, those two words shot up from the back of his mind, ricocheting around in his head. Sudrow Syndrome. If there was such a thing, Tyler had a serious case.
Reese passed the harbor. All the boats remained tied down in their spaces. The docks were deserted on such an ideal fishing day. And all local stores and businesses were seemingly abandoned.
The green smoke curled up from the invisible chimney and ascended to the clouds above.
Five minutes down the road, Reese found what he was looking for. It was just how Lex described it. Pink flamingos and purple longue chairs strewn about the lawn. A bird feeder in the shape of a beer car. He was staring at a white trash portrait with a pulse. On the front porch sat a rotting pumpkin, probably a leftover from last year’s Halloween.
The door was slightly ajar, so Reese nudged it forward and peeked inside. A pungent odor from inside the house floored Reese and he gagged. He took a deep breath and entered, holding the collar of his shirt over his nose to stifle the unbearable stench.
“Mr. Henderson?” he called out. “Mrs. Henderson? Anybody?”
The smell grew overpowering as he moved past the foyer and started down the narrow hallway.
In the kitchen, Reese saw a man slumped over at the kitchen table. The back wall was stained with blood that had coagulated and dried to a hard red crust. As he moved through the kitchen, still holding his nose, he spotted the entry wound below the man’s forehead. A single shell casing lay near his feet, alongside the splinters of his skull. Reese flinched when he felt the cold sting of metal as a gun barrel was jabbed in his neck.
“I’ve been waiting for you,” a voice said. Reese felt the steam of their breath on his ear. The man’s thumb cocked back the hammer of the gun. Reese didn’t see it, but he heard the unmistakable click. “Mr. Henderson’s been waiting too. Three days now. I apologize for the smell, but you do get used to it after a day or two.”
“Who are you and how do you know about me?”
“You’re from the census bureau, right? Henderson never filled out his form, so they would send somebody down here. You were the next offering.”
“Is this whole town backwards or is it just a handful of you?”
“Listen carefully. What I’m about to tell you might seem ludicrous, but it will save your life. I have no intention of hurting you.”
“Hard to believe when you’ve got a gun jammed in my neck.”
The man drew his gun back and released Tyler from his grip. He spun around and locked eyes with Frank Cornell, a man not much older than himself. The only unusual thing about him was the absence of the middle and index finger on his left hand. Frank wiggled his nubs in the air, acknowledging his missing digits.
“A little chemistry accident,” Frank admitted, almost embarrassed to do so. “They couldn’t reattach them.”
“That’s the last question I had on my mind at this moment. You better explain this from the beginning. And try to make sense."
Eden Harbor is controlled by the Minions. Servants who worship and appease something beyond natural description. This thing appeared many years ago, back when I was just a kid.
It appeared from a smoking crater in the town junkyard. I’d like to believe it fell from space. Or who knows, maybe it rose up from the depths of hell. But that’s not what the Minions chose to believe.
They thought it was a gift from above. They believed it was sent here to guard us and protect us. To shield us from outside evils, and to bring us good fortune. And they assumed it wouldn’t leave its place of origin so long as we appeased it from time to time. Truth be told, it hasn’t.
Reese felt as though he had been assaulted. It was too much to digest. “What is this thing you refer to?”
“It’s an abomination. That’s the best way I can paint you a picture of it.”
“How many people know about this?”
“Everyone in town knows about it.”
“Then why don’t you just leave town? Pack up your shit and bail.”
“That’s why I can’t leave town. Everyone knows. The Minions won’t give anyone the chance to spill their guts to the world. They watch the roads constantly. Those that have tried to flee never make it past the gas station. Did you hear the bells? See the green smoke? They knew the second you got in to town.”
“What was the green smoke really about?”
“The bells and smoke are how the Minions notify the townspeople that a new sacrifice has arrived or been chosen. To create the smoke, potassium chlorate is added to a fire. It’s this white crystalline substance. I should know, I showed them how to do it. It’s probably the only reason they’ve spared me.”
Reese let out a long, exasperated sigh. “Say I honestly believe you, what can be done?”
“You can help me destroy it. Without it, they’re powerless. We can blow the thing back to hell and then we’ll be free.”
“We could do that. Or I could get in my car, turn around and get the fuck out of here.”
“They’ll never let you escape. They’ll hand-feed you to this beast. If you don’t believe me, try it. See how far you get. Think of it as a game. You can even time yourself.”
Reese weighed the options. He didn’t seem to have many. He knew what Frank was saying could, on some level, be true. He felt a presence the instant he arrived. Lex seemed to be eyeing him up at the gas station. Maybe he was being watched.
“This is going to be a long day,” Reese sighed. “They better be paying me overtime for this shit.”
“I’ve spent three years cooped up in this house,” Frank shared. Reese had driven Frank back to his one-story house with his rental car. Not like he had much of a choice. Frank had a gun, he did not. “I’ve been waiting for the Minions to come knocking one day and sacrifice me to their false deity.”
“If this thing is how you describe it, how do you intend to kill it? It doesn’t sound the least bit human. It’s not like shooting someone in the head.”
“I said we were going to blow this thing to hell. It wasn’t a figure of speech. Gather around the chemistry set. I’ll teach the shit they don’t show you in school.”
“What are we making?”
“Fulminated mercury,” Frank said. “Used in a wide variety of explosives.”
To create fulminated mercury, Frank explained, we need to dissolve mercury in a beaker.
He cracked the stem of a thermometer with a hammer and carefully drained the poisonous mercury into a beaker. To dissolve the mercury, you use nitric acid.
Frank gently twisted the cap off a two liter bottle of clear liquid. He poured until the beaker was half full.
Once the mercury is dissolved, ethanol is added to the mix. The final process involves pouring the liquid into molding trays and freezing it. It takes a total of three hours.
When it freezes, it forms a crystal-like structure. Fulminated mercury is extremely delicate to friction and shock. A slight jolt can easily set it off. The radius of the explosion depends on the quantity of fulminated mercury.
For this occasion, Frank made three pounds worth. Enough to detonate a shopping mall.
They waited for nightfall. The fulminated mercury was secured in the bed of Frank’s silver pickup truck. Reese climbed into the passenger seat. Moment of truth, he thought. Either this guy is a crackpot or he’s telling the truth. Let’s hope he’s a crackpot.
Frank drove at a constant speed of thirty miles per hour. He didn’t want to draw attention to himself, and didn’t want to speed because of the delicate explosives in back.
Reese kept his eyes peeled for any looming dangers on the road. But every so often his eyes would inadvertently drift to the pistol jammed in Frank’s waistband. If this is all bullshit, Tyler thought, you better hope you can wrestle that gun away from him.
“Pothole!” Reese exclaimed before Frank jerked the wheel to avoid the huge dip in the road.
“That was a close one,” Frank sighed. Moments later, Frank veered to the right and stopped in front of a gate that was chained and padlocked. The chain-link fence was eight feet high and wrapped and lined with razor-sharp barbed wire at the top.
“A shortcut,” Frank said. “Welcome to the origin of the green smoke. This is the junkyard, where they stash the cars of their sacrifices. There’s a shack with a small chimney attached. You meet the guy from the gas station?”
“This is his place.”
They exited the truck and Frank gingerly slid the box of mercury from the back. He gave Tyler a flashlight to lead the way. He rested the box on the ground and pulled out a set of keys. He unlocked the gate and pushed the chain-link doors open.
“Should I ask why you have the key?”
“Many people do. This is a place of worship to them. And like I said, I showed Lex that little trick with the green smoke. Membership has its privileges I guess.”
Frank picked up the box and they moved quietly through the junkyard. Police cruisers and BMWs were buried under UPS trucks and dismantled eighteen-wheelers.
“Do all the vehicles get dumped here?”
“Not all of them,” Frank answered. “Some get dropped out of town, so we don’t raise suspicion. How many people can disappear in one small town before everyone else takes notice?”
More and more, Tyler was starting to think Frank was being sincere. You read about cults all over the world, Tyler thought. It’s not that far-fetched to believe the whole town has been coerced into worshipping a false idol. That some terrible, unspeakable secret is hidden in the center of this heap.
“How far do we go?”
“You’ll know when you’re there,” Frank assured him.
A red mist spurted across his face as the back of Frank’s head exploded with a single deafening blast. The box tumbled to the ground and Tyler gasped, squeezing his eyes closed. He expected the blast to throw him a good two hundred feet. But the mercury had endured the damage of the fall and had not been triggered.
Then, there was absolute silence. Bobby Sudrow. Bobby Sudrow. The name flashed in his head repeatedly. Unarmed and unable to detect where the shot came from, Tyler was helpless. Until he remembered Frank’s gun tucked in his waistband. Flashlight in hand, he made a move.
“Don’t even think about it,” a familiar voice shouted and Tyler froze at their call.
Reese heard the rustling of fallen leaves, a chain jangling. As the shadowy figure took form, the diamond shaped locket around their neck came into focus.
Lex marched from the darkness, rifle in hand. He approached Reese, opening the locket for him to see a young woman with curly dark hair. She looked to be anywhere from twenty to twenty-five.
“My wife, Natasha,” Lex said. He coldly snapped the locket shut. “We all have to make sacrifices here. I want you to meet someone. He was a man who understood sacrifice. The sacrifices he made for his family alone proved that. And so we embraced him as one of our own.”
“Hello, Tyler,” a voice called from the darkness. Reese shined his light on a man who looked twice his age. His hair was snow white and thin, his skin pale and weathered. He looked closer to death than Tyler did. But there was something vaguely familiar about him. He had seen his picture before.
“No,” Tyler shook his head in defiance. “It can’t be you. You disappeared ten years ago.”
“I didn’t disappear,” Sudrow explained. “I started a new life, with a new family. This is where I belong. I wish you could stick around.”
“I’d probably overstay my welcome,” Reese quipped. Even in the face of certain danger, his dry humor seemed to ease the tension, if only for him.
“No more chitchat,” Lex shouted, the rifle still grasped in his hands. “This has gone on long enough.”
The townspeople, torches in hand, flocked in droves. It was a scene straight out of Frankenstein. There were men, women, and their children were all by their side. Their eyes all told the same story. Let’s just get this over with. This sadistic mob formed a ring around him, trapping him in the center.
From this wreckage, something had emerged. It appeared as a small blotch at first, like a stain on the sidewalk. But this seemingly inanimate blob was growing bigger as it moved towards them. When it reached the outside circle of the mob, its shadow eclipsed the glowing beam of the torches. It was as Frank Cornell had described it, truly an abomination.
They broke the circle to open a path to Reese. One of the townsfolk grew startled just at the sight of it and dropped their torch in the dirt.
It was unlike anything he had ever laid eyes on. Devoid of any normal human qualities. A long oval-shaped torso. Its texture was grey and lifeless, like that of a slug. No nose or ears were visible. It had no legs and took to moving like a snake, slithering along on its ample belly. Wherever it moved, a slimy trail was left in its path. Its mouth was comprised of two hideous rows of jagged fangs that could snap through a parking meter. Three red glowing eyes the size of baseballs rested upon what Tyler only assumed was its forehead. Its backside was curved, taking the shape of a monstrous barbed stinger.
Bobby Sudrow extended his arms in welcome. “Please accept this sacrifice we have presented you here today. We hope this will satisfy you and satisfy those that have blessed us with your presence.”
Tyler had fallen to his knees, accepting his twisted face. His eyes were aimed steady at the ground, as he did not wish to see it devour him. And so he missed it when the creature curled back his stinger and pierced through Bobby Sudrow’s chest.
The townspeople gasped, moaned. Some screamed. Its stinger retracted and continued to move at a lightning pace, tearing a gaping hole in the flesh of anyone that stood in its way.
Tyler looked soon enough to see it wrap its teeth around a dying Bobby Sudrow. It bit him in two, severing the waist from the torso and then swallowed the top half in one motion.
The fire of the fallen torch was starting to spread, forming a straight path to the box that Frank had released.
The explosion wasn’t quite what Tyler imagined, but it was enough to send the townspeople–those that survived the blast–scattering like cockroaches for their homes. And it wasn’t enough to stop this beast from its rampage. The explosion didn’t seem to slow it down, or even leave a mark on it.
The rifle that Lex had been toting was mere inches away. It was still attached to his right arm that had been severed from the blast. He rolled through the dirt, his legs brushing past the flames that had spread throughout the junkyard.
He literally had to pry it from Lex’s dead fingers. When the rifle was in his hands, the creature was already too close for comfort. Its red eyes were staring him right in the face.
You couldn’t call it a change of a heart. Because inside that grotesque mass, Tyler shuddered at the thought of a beating heart resting amongst its entrails. It showed its true colors when it ravaged a town that had been so rewarding to it. This… thing, it didn’t have a heart. That’s what Reese chose to believe. However, it did spare his life. Perhaps so he could live to tell its tale. Or perhaps it was just full at the moment.
Changing its direction, it crawled its way through the fiery wreckage. It was seemingly impervious to the fire around it, the flames barely scorching its exterior. It slithered through the gates, past the Forbidden Zone. It was loose.
The bureau has their work cut out for them, Tyler thought. The population of Long Island is about to be drastically altered.
Monday, February 4, 2013
Daniel Skye A.K.A. Randy Benivegna
One crucial fact they neglect to inform you of when you sign up for law school: In order to do this job, you have to be willing to abandon your soul in the process. That’s what they really should be teaching you.
They should be teaching you how to digest the lies. How to live with the guilt, the secrets. How to silence that annoying voice in your head. You know, the voice of reason. Your conscience.
And over the years you’ll have to do plenty of things that disagree with your conscience. Basically, you need to forget you have a conscience.
In the courtroom, the truth is secondary to victory for a lawyer. Win your case, earn a huge payday. Lose your case, and you’re one step closer to losing your cushy position at the firm. Lose the firm and no other firm will want to hire you. Then your only career option from there is the dreaded public defender.
Nobody warned Adam Keller. No one told him this career would peck and gnaw away at his spirit. The impact it would have on his health, the toll it would take on his body. They let him pay the tuition and learn the hard way.
At the age of thirty-two, Keller’s hair was already falling out. Each year his hair grew thinner. His bald spot grew wider, forming that horseshoe-like pattern. In the pit of his stomach, a gastric ulcer had developed. The searing pain was often debilitating, and left Adam dependent on heavy duty painkillers.
The pain became so intense that Keller’s doctor opted to try a new drug that just hit the market: Ex-Algos. Top of the line stuff, two hundred dollars a bottle. Since the drug was fairly new, they were not aware what, if any, long term side effects the drug carried. And due to its strong potency, the doctor recommended use in moderation.
Once Adam was made aware of the basic side effects, his doctor alerted him of the two-percent factor. Two percent of patients who have taken the drug experienced seizures, strokes, blood clots, or abnormal changes in vision.
Keller was a gambling man, and he liked the odds. And it sounded no worse than anything else available on the market. Go figure, the cure is potentially worse than the affliction.
Adam’s home was a high-rise apartment in the downtown section of Ocean City. It’s a fifty-story storage facility for widows, divorcees, singles, and lunatics of all varieties. The walls were disappointingly thin and provided Keller with little solitude from his surrounding neighbors.
It was around eight o’clock when Keller strolled into the lobby with his briefcase in hand. He greeted the doorman with a twenty dollar tip and strutted to the elevator like he owned the place.
Adam bumped into his neighbor, Milton Snodgrass, on the way up. Milton was a cartoonist for the Daily Buzz, and a total dweeb in Keller’s eyes. He had a penchant for gaudy neckties and cheap aftershave lotion. And he sported horn-rimmed glasses that only served to reinforce his nerdy status.
“What’s the difference between a lawyer and a prostitute?” Milton quipped. He didn’t wait for Adam to guess. “A prostitute only screws one person at a time.”
Adam sighed. “That joke was a lot funnier when you told it last week… and the week before that.”
He found himself counting the floors, silently cursing the elevator for not moving faster. Fifty floors and they had to stick him on the same one as Milton Snodgrass. Talk about the harsh luck of the draw.
The elevator buzzed and the doors parted. Adam said his farewell to Milton and bolted. He had his key in hand when he got to the door.
Adam entered his spacious two-bedroom apartment, tossing his briefcase and thick wallet aside on the Formica countertop. He changed from his two-piece Armani suit to his basic attire. Then he fixed himself a stiff glass of whiskey.
Sitting on his suede couch, Adam massaged his throbbing temples with his middle and index fingers. His skull was pounding like a drum, which made him head for the medicine cabinet. There, he swallowed two aspirin with a swig of Jameson to alleviate his headache.
He was aware that aspirin can actually cause or worsen an ulcer. But Adam was a risk taker. And aspirin was the only thing that helped with the migraines. He also knew it was not good to mix alcohol with his medications. Another risk he was perfectly willing to take.
Though, it was a dangerous game to play with the ulcer. The alcohol often exacerbated the pain. He returned to the couch, sipped his Jameson, flipped through the channels of his forty-inch flat screen.
The sharp pain in his gut flared up, which sent him scrambling frantically for his pain pills. He twisted the cap off the bottle and shook two small oval pills into his hand. He downed both and prayed for them to kick in soon.
Half an hour and one awful sitcom later, the pain was still there. In fact, it was getting worse. He decided to throw caution to the wind and take another pill. He placed it on his tongue and swallowed it dry, no alcohol or water.
The third time is usually the charm, and this was no exception. This one seemed to do the trick as the burning sensation in his stomach quickly subsided.
It put Adam in a tranquil state. His eyelids fluttered and he couldn’t stop himself from yawning. Next thing he knew, he was sprawled out on the couch, eyes ready to close. He drifted off to sleep in moments.
Adam awoke around midnight to find himself in a cold sweat. He was nauseous, dizzy. His skin was beet red and itchy. The inside of his body felt like it was set ablaze. He tried to pull himself up, but in his disoriented state, collapsed back on the couch.
Then he heard the noises. The faint skittering sounds across his hardwood floors. He rolled to the left side of the couch, where the end table was placed. Atop the end table was a lamp.
Adam reached out and yanked the chain dangling from under the lampshade. The light popped on and Adam twitched at the sight. He let out a loud wail and proceeded to scream at the top of his lungs, “Spiders!”
An entire horde of them crawled through his living room. Each one was easily the size of a fist. Hideous black pear-shaped bodies with a tint of red in certain spots. Long angular legs like flexible needles.
“Oh God,” he exclaimed. “They’re everywhere! Spiders everywhere!”
The spiders were crawling up the walls. On the ceiling. Coming up from the sink drain. Bursting through from the fixtures. They really were everywhere.
They were crawling up his shirt. They were inside the legs of his pants. He even felt a few crawling around on his head.
Writhing in terror, he swatted away as many as he could. Brushed the eight legged beasts from his hair. Then he undid his belt and shook off his pants. He smacked away the little monstrosities that were creeping up his thighs.
Stomping through the living room in his briefs like a madman, he killed as many as he could with the soles of his loafers. But the more he snuffed, the more would appear. His whole floor was a canvas of black and red. He couldn’t take a step without hearing that nasty crunching sound under his feet.
He wailed again as the pain shot up his leg. Out of this mass of spiders, one of them had managed to sink its fangs deep into Keller’s ankle.
Adam collapsed in seconds as the toxic venom went coursing through his veins. He watched helplessly as the light fixture in the ceiling gave way, releasing a cascade of spiders that flooded his open mouth. He choked, gagged as they crawled down his throat, filled up his belly.
His stomach stung and swelled like an air balloon. The pain was relentless. The pressure was unbearable. His body twitched, convulsed involuntarily. He was too weak, his throat too hoarse to scream. But if he had the capacity, all fifty floors would’ve heard his final screams echoing throughout the halls.
His belly swelled and stretched to such a degree that it could no longer endure the pressure. He burst from the inside, and the horde came pouring out just as they had entered.
A fist pounded against the outside of his door, and a familiarly unpleasant voice chimed through. “Adam, it’s me, Milton. Are you all right in there? I thought I heard screaming.”
Adam tried to respond. Tried not to focus on all the blood, the pile of entrails below his feet. Tried to keep his eyes from closing. But sleep was too big a temptation to ignore. His eyes shut and all he could see was black. He embraced it, and slipped deep into a world of darkness.
Milton Snodgrass spent the next several hours chatting with the police. Once they managed to bust the door in, the cops found Keller sprawled out on the living room floor. A large kitchen knife was grasped tightly in one hand. His body was split open from the sternum to the waistline.
“You’re positive you heard screams?” one of the officers asked.
“I’m sure,” Snodgrass replied. “He was ranting and raving about spiders.”
“We’ve searched every inch of this apartment and we haven’t found evidence of a single spider.”
“I don’t know what to tell you,” Milton shrugged. “I know he was under a lot of stress and he was on some heavy duty meds.”
“What kind of meds?”
“Painkillers. You think that might have factored in?”
“Could be,” the officer responded. “We’ll know more when we get the toxicology and autopsy reports back. In the meantime, it looks like this is a clear case of suicide."
“Shame,” Milton sighed. “He was so young. Am I free to go?” The officer gave him a dismissive nod and sent him on his way.
As he walked to the door, Milton felt something squish under his shoe and heard a dull crunching sound. He suddenly felt itchy, and had this strange sensation shooting up his spine, like something was crawling up his back.
THE LAST FARE
Daniel Skye A.K.A. Randy Benivegna
Eddie Callihan was a natural born outsider. But this fact caused him no distress. He was more than content with his solitary existence.
Eddie was trapped inside his own world. It was a particularly small world he occupied, but it belonged to him and him alone. Nobody else.
He wasn’t an introvert; more of a misanthrope. Shyness wasn’t one of his qualities. He just despised people as if it was his sole function in life. And he was never afraid to let it show. His hatred was palpable. If it were any more apparent, it would’ve been scripted on his forehead.
That’s why many questioned his career choice. Though, the answer was simple for Eddie. Driving a taxi can be the ideal job for a loner.
Twenty minutes after the ride is over, most passengers can’t recall what the drivers face looked like. The truth–as harsh as it may sound–is that most people don’t really care about the life of a cabbie. It’s simply not that interesting. They don’t want to hear any boring stories or corny jokes. They just want you to drive.
And Eddie was perfectly satisfied with that aspect. The majority of his fares sat peacefully in the back, texting on their cell phones. Reading newspapers or magazines. He rarely had to put up with any of that “how about this weather?” nonsense.
Occasionally he’d pick up a fare that was blessed with the gift of gab. That’s when he’d tap on the glass partition that separates driver from passenger. Then he’d direct their eyes to the sign mounted above the glove compartment. The sign clearly read “Don’t Disturb the Driver” and was Eddie’s personal touch.
Or if that didn’t work, he’d turn up the radio and let the music drown out the mindless chatter. That usually gave his passengers the hint. Although this trick did end up costing him in the tip department.
Despite his vile attitude and loathsome personality, Eddie was an obvious candidate for the job. Having been born and raised in Greenville, Eddie knew all the streets, all the routes. It was common knowledge to him.
February 14th, A.K.A. Valentine’s Day. For countless years, it was a day that Eddie spent without companionship. And that year was no different for him. No girlfriend, no date, no plans for after work.
Eddie was parked along the curb on Main Street, wrapping up the end of a twelve-hour shift. The winter frost was falling from the sky, accumulating rapidly on his windshield. The temperature was dropping with each passing hour. Soon the snow would turn to sleet and ice. Eddie almost pitied the next driver that had to take over his shift. Almost.
Even with the heat turned up, there was a dull chill surrounding him. Outside the wind rose fiercely, sending discarded trash and other debris scattering in every direction. Eddie clicked on his wiper blades and checked the digital clock on his radio. Two minutes to nine o’clock. Two minutes and he could head back to the station, call it a night.
Eddie peered out at the dark, empty street. Main Street was virtually deserted, which surprised Eddie considering it was a hallmark holiday. He expected to see couples strolling down the block, their hands clasped together in unison. He expected to see people carting around bouquets of flowers and boxes of chocolates.
But the impending blizzard certainly didn’t make for a romantic evening. So most people seemed to use their best judgment and opted to stay indoors. That’s why Eddie’s car was the only one on the street. He peeked at the clock again. One minute to go, he thought.
He checked his side view mirrors, making sure the snow hadn’t covered them completely. Adjusting his rearview mirror, he became startled when he spotted the shadowy figure approaching his cab.
The backdoor opened, and a man hopped in the backseat. His grey hoodie was wet, clad in snow. He was young, only a teenager. Average weight, average height. Nothing really stood out about him.
Eddie didn’t care enough to ask aloud. But if he had, he would’ve questioned the young man’s choice of winter attire. No hat, no gloves, no heavy jacket. Not even a scarf. That last part Eddie couldn’t blame him for. He wouldn’t have been caught dead wearing a scarf.
“I need to get to Paradise Avenue,” the young man said. His tone was a mix of urgency and desperation.
“I’m off duty,” Eddie dismissed him.
“This is very important,” the young man said, sounding more desperate. “There’s someone waiting for me and I can’t disappoint them.”
“I’m off duty,” Eddie repeated with the patience of a DMV clerk.
“I’ll give you everything I have in my wallet,” the young man said bluntly. That snagged Eddie’s attention.
“How much is in your wallet?”
“There’s one hundred and twenty dollars in here. It’s yours if you take me the whole way.” Eddie considered it for a moment. That was all the time he needed.
“I’ve never heard of Paradise Avenue,” he said. “It’s not in Greenville. If it was, I’d know.”
“It’s not far from here,” the young man assured him. “I could lead the way. Start out by going west down Main Street. When you get to Sycamore Avenue, make a left.”
“It’s your money,” Eddie shrugged. He put the car in drive and started off cautiously down the snow-coated street.
He kept trying to get a glimpse of his passenger in the backseat. But the streetlamps were dim and the rearview mirror revealed nothing more than a dark silhouette. He couldn’t even make out the color of the kids eyes or hair.
The lack of light gave this young man a featureless, almost shapeless appearance. He was the shape of darkness. Eddie was tempted to click on the dome light just to get a better look.
There was an unnerving vibe this man gave off. Not necessarily threatening, but it was enough to put Eddie on his guard. It was times like these Eddie wished he’d carried a gun.
His coworkers urged him on numerous occasions to purchase a pistol. But he refused to join the club. There are enough crazy cabbies out there with guns, he thought. You don’t need one more.
The young man’s voice seemed familiar. Although he didn’t get a good first look at him, Eddie was positive he knew him from somewhere.
He wasn’t anybody famous. Eddie was certain of that. He had a knack for picking out celebrities. Mainly because he spent a fair amount of free time writing hate mail to various actors and musicians.
It was the newspapers. Eddie was always browsing the help wanted ads of local papers. He liked to have options.
Out of boredom, he would occasionally skim through the articles. He loved the local crime reports, where they would list the recent DWI or possession charges.
This kid–grey hoodie and all–was featured in one of the articles. He couldn’t recall what section of the paper he had seen him in. He wasn’t even totally sure if this was the same kid. Should I ask him about it? Eddie wondered silently. Nah, probably best to leave it alone.
He clicked his left blinker and turned on Sycamore. “Where from here?” Eddie asked.
“Keep driving,” the young man advised him. “I’ll let you know when to turn again.”
“What’s your name, kid?” Eddie inquired. This marked the first time he had ever bothered to ask one of his passengers.
“Sam Shaw,” he replied. The name struck a bitter chord with Eddie. He recalled a Danny Shaw from his high school days. He was a drug dealer that ratted on all the other local dealers to avoid charges. And wouldn’t you know it, one of those dealers happened to be Eddie.
“You got a brother named Danny?” Eddie couldn’t help but ask.
“I used to,” Sam said.
“What do you mean, used to?”
“I haven’t talked to my brother in years,” Sam said. Eddie couldn’t tell if he lying or being sincere.
“Gotcha,” Eddie shook his head, pretending to believe him. “I know him from high school.”
“Lots of people do.”
“He was a nice guy,” Eddie said through gritted teeth. The kid was lucky Eddie didn’t carry a gun. He would’ve scared the daylights out of this punk.
Sam didn’t respond to his comment. He seemed to have genuinely forgotten about his brother. Or at least he wanted to forget.
The tires dragged through the snow, the icy conditions occasionally forcing the cab to slide from one side of the road to the other. Eddie had to keep a firm grip on the wheel at all times.
Sam was rigid, stiff. He barely moved a muscle. Quieter than a mouse, Eddie nearly forgot his presence until a voice told him to bear right.
Eddie turned the wheel gingerly but the tires still skidded across the icy pavement. Driving down Fairview Street, they passed a sign stating they were now leaving Greenville.
The next town over is Eden Harbor. An area Eddie was also familiar with. However, he wasn’t aware of any Paradise Avenue. He was starting to ponder if it even existed.
You idiot, Eddie thought. This kid could just be some junkie looking to rob you. He probably doesn’t even have the money he promised you.
“You sure we’re going the right way?” Eddie asked, trying to mask his anxiety. He was so tense his fingers were grinding against the steering wheel.
The windshield wipers worked at their maximum capacity, but the snow was falling fast and heavy. The heat was cranked as high as it could go, yet the cab was still freezing. The heater seemed to be blowing only cold air. Shivering, Eddie gave up on the heat and turned it off.
He took another peak in the rearview mirror. Nothing but a silent, motionless shadow in the backseat. He didn’t move, he didn’t shiver, he didn’t even appear to be breathing. It was like driving with an eerie mannequin crammed in the backseat.
Eddie felt uneasy for the first time in his miserable career. He turned on the radio to put his mind at rest. But his favorite rock station wouldn’t play.
All the radio picked up was static and undistinguishable noise. He switched stations, only to find that every channel was dead. The speaker’s hissed static with every switch of the dial until Eddie finally got fed up of trying.
“Looks like we’re in for a hell of a storm,” Eddie said. His nerves were squeezing the bland conversation out of him.
But no response came from the backseat. Eddie tapped on the glass partition, but all was quiet.
“You all right back there?” he asked, the cold leaving his breath like a cloud of smoke.
“We’re close,” was all Sam said.
When instructed, Eddie made a left onto Orange Street, heading toward the drawbridge that overlooks the bay.
They drove on in silence for ten minutes. One straight direction. Eddie was at his limit. He wanted nothing more than for this ride to be over. But this kid seemed intent on taking him on some wild goose chase.
What if there is no Paradise Avenue? What if this kid yanks out a knife as soon as you pull over? What if he’s got a gun?
“Who’s waiting for you at Paradise Avenue?” Eddie was trying to gather as much information as he could.
“My girlfriend, Nora.”
That’s when it hit Eddie like a slap to the face. Sam Shaw’s name was plastered in the local newspapers for a week straight. Back when Walter Hudson was still in office.
Hudson was a county executive, a very well-liked and respected individual. His only black cloud was his daughter Nora’s engagement to a drug addict named Shaw. When it came time for reelection, Hudson urged his daughter to break it off for the sake of his career and his family’s future.
Nora returned his engagement ring, told Sam it was off. She crushed his heart with a single blow, leaving Sam in a depressed, disoriented state. The fact that he had a brother as a steady drug supplier didn’t help matters either. She promised it was temporary, that they would see each other again.
Election Day came and went and Hudson got his second run in office. Sam waited day and night for that call. When it never came, Sam made calls of his own. He wrote letters, sent emails. Finally, Nora caved and agreed to meet him again.
Valentine’s Day. That was the day the lovebirds were set to reunite. But when Valentine’s Day came, Nora stood Sam up. After a night of heavy drinking and drug binging, Sam got behind the wheel of his pickup truck and…
“No,” Eddie said, his entire body quivering at the thought. “It’s not possible. You–” Eddie fell silent when he glanced in the rearview mirror. The dark silhouette had faded like a puff of smoke.
He turned back just to confirm what his mind couldn’t begin to process. The backseat was completely deserted.
All that was left was the cold air circulating around him. It surrounded Eddie, almost engulfing him. His chest was tight, his breath was thin. The air in his lungs had vacated. He could feel the icy grip around his neck. Some invisible force was choking the life out of him.
His grip started to loosen. Eddie lost the wheel and the taxi spun across the slick pavement. The side of the cab struck the safety rail and bounced off like a pinball.
Spinning out of control, Eddie struggled to grab hold of the wheel. The grip on his throat was tighter. He could feel the pressure against his windpipe. The lack of oxygen distorted him, it made his vision fuzzy. But he could see the cab was heading straight for the drawbridge, which was now raised.
Slamming the brakes in a panic, the car struck the safety rail again. This time it could not sustain the impact. The cab careened off the road, rolling down a steep embankment. It flipped seven times before it smacked the ground and came to a halt on its side.
Suddenly, he was free. Not from the cab, but from the grip of that invisible force. The air rushed back to his lungs. His vision returned. He breathed a sigh of relief, and couldn’t help but chuckle a little. It’s not every day you cheat death.
With his sight clear, he could confirm once again the backseat had been abandoned. It was as if Sam Shaw had evaporated through the seat. He vanished just as swiftly as the cold force that caused the accident had vacated.
He didn’t ask how or why. His brain didn’t want to know the answers. As far as he was concerned, the accident was nobody’s fault but his own. And he would never share the tale of Sam Shaw, for fear that they’d want to ship him off to the loony bin. No, this was not a story that you tell at dinner parties. And it’s certainly not something you list on an insurance claim.
Eddie spent four hours caught in the wreckage, constantly flashing his high beams in an attempt to draw someone’s attention. By the time the paramedics arrived, his fingertips had turned blue from the cold. Any longer and they would’ve had to amputate.
He spent two days in the hospital, and then took a trip to the auto shop to work out the final details with the claims adjuster the insurance company had shipped over.
“The damage is beyond repair,” the adjuster explained. “The insurance company will be cutting you a check. What did you say caused the accident?”
“It was the ice,” Eddie said, excluding any details about Sam Shaw.
“It’s not all bad. You got one hell of a tip out of the ordeal.”
“Beg your pardon?”
“Someone left a hundred and twenty dollars in the backseat. We saved it for you.”
“Mind if I take a look back there?”
“Help yourself,” the adjuster shrugged.
Eddie managed to pry open the smashed up backdoor. In the backseat, a dull grey hoodie was rolled up and discarded on the floor. Eddie gasped as he ran his fingers across the upholstery and his hand brushed the unmistakable name that had been carved deeply into the seat: NORA.