Day 43 Something Borrowed, Something Blue by Brianna Williams
He got her blue balloons for every one of her birthdays since the wedding. It was a reminder, a token. They had forgotten to bring something blue and one of the bridesmaids found them discarded in a random closet: a bag of blue balloons. Once, he made her a hat with tiny plastic balloons sitting on its brim. She fell in love with his hats. That’s how they met. He came to the ladies’ sanitarium with a cart full of them. For months she tried on hat after hat, but the one that she truly loved was his black, velvet cowboy hat that never left his head on days of business. To her, it was a symbol of true beauty. Once he let her stroke the soft brim, she knew that he trusted her. Soon, he began to come by night and give her promises to take her far away from this place. Among the other women, she became a rumor. If the others could help it, they’d get her in trouble, get her locked in a room all day. She grew scared whenever he was gone. Then, one day, he gave her the promise of a home, his love, and his life. He promised to marry her. In his home, some days she could even think clearly. It was calming to help him sew and decorate within the cozy wooden walls of the hat shop. For the first time in her life, she felt loved. She was ready for adventure. *** You’re standing on the beach. The waves are coming, faster and then slower. Seagulls cry, but you can’t seem to find them. You like to wander up and down, thinking, letting the water touch your feet. It is peaceful here, you wonder why anyone would ever want to leave. This is a colder seaside. When you try to remember a Florida beach, the memory is not there. You mustn’t have ever gone. It is harder to keep track these days, after all. Something is calling you, far away, and you respond without looking to say that you will return, in just a minute. The thought left you behind and you forgot it for the moment. You breathe in the salty air and it feels as though you have been wandering this beach for years, breathing that exact same air. You knew it all too well. The sand was soft, but sometimes a little coarse. The grains were mixed in with sparse pebbles and shell fragments. The ground beneath your feet was made up of so many things, broken. Somehow that felt right to you. As the sun sinks, you lay down at the line of the tide. They say the ocean is water. They say the ocean is too strange and cruel for us to understand. What did you know about the ocean? Not much. Not much until very recently. When you wake, you think it a miracle that you haven't drowned. A miniscule film of saltwater had begun to brush up over the hills and valleys of your face. Count yourself lucky that by some chance the water didn’t sting your eyes. It actually felt quite nice. As you try to tip the water out of your ears, you give up quickly; there is always more in there. With the dawn of morning, a few people trickled over the dunes, clad in swimsuits, sunhats, and brightly colored towels. Their sunny accoutrements didn’t suit this kind of beach at all. The lack of aesthetic harmony irritates you, but you welcome company. It’s lonely on this beach. You remember how you were supposed to go somewhere. It can wait. They see your sandy face and wave before moving towards their own patch of sand to claim for the duration of their stay. You are like a shadow: they notice you, but they don’t realize your presence completely. A lone man with a camera and cargo shorts sets up less than ten feet away from you. “You look like you belong here,” he pauses, then says, “would you mind being in a few shots?” He was clean-shaven, maybe forty or fifty, and short. His hands were stained with ink, but looked smooth and friendly. “Sure,” you say, stepping back. You need to be careful not to touch his camera, but you smile. This man was the type to notice the little things. He took a shot, furrowed his brow, and adjusted the camera on its stand. Another shot. He frowned. For a moment it seemed like he was glaring at you, but he said nothing. For the next few hours, he moved along the beach, taking pictures every which way, but from then on he avoided you. He was staring at a blank image of the beach. When he peered through his camera lens and saw nothing but sand, he assumed that it was a simple mishap, and you would reappear after he took the picture. An older woman in a striped swimsuit cried out. The wind had picked up, and it carried her sunhat away. It circled and landed out in the water. What must’ve been her son was the one she called out to. The boy pretended not to hear her. You wished you could help, unsure as to why you couldn't. She eventually gave up and stomped up to her knees in the water. After snatching her hat, she began to shake the water off of the wax-covered straw. You liked watching these people. When you noticed the man with the camera trying to leave, you began to walk after him. He passed a signpost that stood right on the line between paved gravel and sand. The signpost was difficult for you to read, but it had red words. You can’t go past the sign. You watch him get further and further away. What you want is to confront him. Frustrated, you stand there. You move to the beach’s next entrance and see the man enter the campgrounds. You want to call out to him. He won’t be able to hear you. The words stop in your throat. This time the line is separating grass from sand and the signpost is a big wooden thing, giving the beach some whimsical name that didn’t suit it at all. You turn away. Chin up, you tell yourself. There’s more fun to be had at the beach. It would be best to forget. You head back and sit down, stretching your legs out. If you flatten your toes, the water kisses them. It’s all too easy to feel as though it is already swallowing you up. The water’s mouth, so wide, could take you in a second if it wanted to. Out of the corner of your eye you catch movement. Someone is sitting just like you, not far down the stretch of sand. They look you in the eye. Something sad seeps into their smile, and as if they can’t stand to look at you longer than a few seconds, they tear their face away, and gaze into the blue glass covering their feet. You have this icy hot feeling in your lungs. You breathe it in. Without even thinking about it, you move over to sit directly next to him. It feels comfortable, for both of you. Usually you let them speak to you. “What brings you to the beach this morning?” The way you said it was anything but casual. It felt as though you had just requested that he tell you what he loved most in life. He sighed. His breath pushed a ripple into a small bit of the glass, a sliver of wind. “I suppose this is close to… where she would go.” “The beach?” You aren’t sure you want to ask who “she” is. He smiles at you. “This beach.” You smile back as the tension ebbs away. “Well, I’m here all the time. What does she look like?” Confusion muffles his expression. He raises a hand up, as if to gesture, and drops it. “I don’t think you would see her. She looks… looked a lot like you. Especially when you smile.” He trails off. Then he laughs. “I’m sorry, that must sound super creepy.” “No,” you reassure him. In other circumstances you might’ve been uncomfortable, but his warmth next to you felt so lonely, and you wished you could comfort him. It was obvious that all he intended to do on this beach was think. “I’ve been told that I am the creepy one, hanging around this beach all the time. It’s nice to have the roles reversed for a change.” A sudden raucous laugh erupts from him. He wanted to talk. He could talk to you. You notice that you have the confidence you need to ask. “Why would she come here?” He shrugged. “It’s close.” That made no sense. “I’m not sure what you mean,” you prod. After giving you a long, hard look, he declares, “It’s a long story. I’m not even sure what I’m doing here.” His ivory hair flickered in the wind, bare. “Is she coming?” “No.” He sounded almost angry. “No,” he said again, dropping his head. You move your hand to lightly touch his shoulder. He turns to look at you.There’s something inside of him, deep inside of him, and you recognize it. Just by looking you’re pulling it out of him. When a wave pulls up, you can see the urge to scream in his eyes, but he is silent. Deep breaths. He takes your hand and watches the horizon. It felt weird, like if you moved too much your hand might go straight through his. He was callused, warm almost to the point of being feverish. “This is the beach where she would end up,” he whispered. “She loved the beach. It would be only right.” You watch him closely. It isn’t odd to you that you feel like secrets are being given to you, freely, by him. He continued, “she was on a little fishing boat. This… Well, it wasn’t… not long ago. I didn’t go with her because I was very busy with our business. She wanted to explore, that was what she always wanted. Every little thing was a marvel to her. She… she could, um, say things, like no one else could.” He stopped again to look at you, “you really do look just like her,” and then back at the horizon. Laughing at himself, he added, “I used to imagine she would turn up someday, at the door, ask why I hadn’t come to find her.” “What do you mean?” What was hurting in him, you didn’t want to open wider, but you truly thought you could help. “The boat tipped over, for no reason,” he smiled, his hands balling up into fists. “The fisherman who lent her the boat said that when he came back he couldn’t see her. The boat tipped. Or at least that’s what they said.” He groaned. “The boat ended up here. Whole, not a dent.” That’s good, you thought, but nervous anticipation made you bite your tongue. “You know what was in the boat?” he asked. You shake your head. “A balloon.” “A balloon?” “Yes, a balloon,” he formed the shape with his hands, “a blue rubber balloon.” Was he messing with you? The torment swimming in his eyes quickly dismissed the thought. His hands were shaking. Dropping his head halfway to his lap, he confessed, “I don’t know where she is.” You remember this balloon from many years ago. It came with birthday cakes and Christmases. It was with your decorations in your bedroom and it was there at your wedding. Something blue. Yes, your blue balloon. You loved it. Every little reason to celebrate, you had one, from one small day, to each little achievement, and into the boat. You could finally celebrate adventure. You rushed out into the rain to borrow a boat with the money you had been saving. You wore your favorite sunhat with the yellow trim and rubber rain boots. He had made the hat for you, special. That’s why you’re on this beach. You knew he would come. If he would look for you anywhere, it would be this beach. You reach out for his face. You can’t touch him. After a while, he sighs, stands, and without looking at you, says, “I’m glad I got to see you one last time. I came here to let you go, but you’ll never really be gone.” He smiles at the sea. “I’ll wait.” He sighs. “If only I believed in ghosts, I might say something like Heathcliff, but I know how hard I’ve been wishing to see you. The mind is a funny thing.” With that, he starts to walk away, and you cry out for him to wait, but he doesn’t hear you. You run. You can’t get out. You kick at the line on the ground. You plead for him to come back. He is okay, he is happy. Please, please, you try to say, but then you wake up. Your eyes are burning. There is a stinging, salty pain. You scream. There’s no air. Blood is filling up your throat and your nostrils. It’s heady and thick. You kick against blue sheets that ripple across your legs, but there is nowhere to go. They wrap you up and carry you home. You start to blink out of the ripping, rippling waves of pain that tear you to shreds and you see nothing. Each torrent is another mile to sink. You have no control. You do not belong to you anymore. No one is ever going to find you, and there will be nothing to find when everything is through. You want to see him once more. You wake up. You’re standing on the beach. The waves are coming, faster and then slower. Seagulls cry, but you can’t seem to find them. You like to wander up and down, thinking, letting the water touch your feet. It is peaceful here, you wonder why anyone would ever want to leave.
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Day 44 Technicolor Dream by Linn Woodard
It was the kind of cold that makes your bones ache. The kind of cold that settles in and makes you ache all over.....and the wind didn't help. She turned up the collar of her jeans jacket and pulled her baseball cap down as far as she could. She was tired. At 26 she was young, and physically active....but walking 18 hours straight was not a normal activity for her. Now her feet protested with every step, but she couldn't find a safe place to stop.....not yet. She looked at the red scratch on her hand. It didn't seem to be getting any worse, but it did look slightly infected so she would have to address that as soon as she could. Her nightmare began when she got home from work the night before to find Josh in a pool of blood, dead on the kitchen floor. Their cat, Samantha, was sitting on his back. Screaming she dropped her purse and ran toward him, and that's when Samantha, hackles raised, jumped up hissing. Their beloved cat scratched her, hard enough to draw blood. Stunned she stopped.....and as Samantha advanced, she turned and ran back out the kitchen door. It was here.....at their house.....and she had to get away. They'd felt secure in their small southwestern Wisconsin town. The terrifying headlines from cities all around the world seemed so distant. They were sure Summerville was protected by all the undeveloped farm acreage surrounding it in every direction. While there was still news coverage, reporters claimed that domestic cats were suddenly and savagely turning against their owners and feral cats seemed to actually be hunting humans. The talking heads, before all the networks went silent, began to call it Feline Hemmoragic Fever. FHF was sweeping the globe in a way that made the bird flu and Ebola virus of the 20th century seem small by comparison. And this was moving so fast that scientists were unable to develop a treatment or possible cure. Everyone was susceptible...young and old, rich or poor. It was almost as if, within a matter of hours, every house cat in the world experienced a sudden gene mutation that carried a deadly flaw. A switch flipped, and cats shared a fatal virus with their owners. FHF moved so quickly and so savagely no one could keep up with it. Suggestions that owners quickly kill their beloved pets fell on deaf ears. The big cities fell first. Newspapers, television and internet coverage just stopped. People shared rumors via social media....but then even those streams dried up as well. There seemed to be no one left to share any information. She fled the house at dusk. Passing their few neighbors she saw no signs of life, no lights on inside, no activity. She didn't turn up a familiar driveway, she just ran until she couldn't run any more and then she walked all night. Her night vision seemed particularly acute so she just kept going.....away from Summerville, away from Josh's body. It was now late-afternoon and she was exhausted, very hungry and so alone. She had no idea about her exact location but did see a few houses on the horizon. With the wind at her back she slowly approached the first house.....moving between rows of tall corn stalks to get closer. At the edge of the corn field she stood quietly....waiting and watching. Shivering, time moved slowly.....she saw no people, just one lighted window. Suddenly a door opened and three large dogs emerged. They ran around the yard for a few minutes until a whistle called them back. She stood and thought about it. The presence of dogs gave her hope......perhaps that meant there were no cats nearby. Gathering her courage, she moved toward the house and quietly up onto the porch. And then she knocked on the door. Loud barking greeted her knock and the door slowly opened. The dogs crowded forward, hackles raised but tails wagging. Just behind them stood an elderly man holding a gun. As the door opened wider she could see two younger men sitting at a kitchen table. "Who are you and what do you want?" The first question was followed by a second...."Do you have a cat with you?" Raising her hands she explained her situation. Promising she meant no harm, she begged for a drink of water and maybe something to eat. The older man turned to the others and, wordlessly, they seemed to reach an agreement. She was allowed inside. Thankfully, she fell onto a kitchen chair and accepted a large glass of water. Her thirst quenched, they gave her a plate of their evening meal. Dogs at her feet, she shared more details as she finished the meal. They all talked and shared what little information they had......new facts were few. As the sun began to set, she tearfully explained she had been awake and moving for almost 24 hours and was desperately tired. Again, wordlessly, the three men seemed to agree that she could stay for the night. The only source of heat was the wood stove in the kitchen.....and it was obvious that all the men were camped around it in sleeping bags or on make-shift mattresses. They found a few extra blankets and made her a semi-comfortable pad on the floor, close to the stove. Thankfully she took off her jacket and collapsed on top of it. Everyone seemed ready to turn off the light and settle in for the night. She curled up, warm and safe for now. Around her she heard the men and dogs settling under blankets.....moving and shifting to get comfortable. She closed her eyes, willing herself to relax. Within minutes the small room filled with the quiet sounds of sleep. She felt the tension leave her body for the first time in days. Drifting off she licked her hand where the cat's scratch still festered. With a slight smile playing across her lips......she began to purr.
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Day 45 The Komaba Crows by Ghiselle Camacho
It was a missed-the-last-bus kinda night. But one that came with a light mist and a slight chill in the air. I decided to take a cab rather than walk the usual 30 minute contemplative stroll from the station to my home. The balding bespectacled cab driver was the most jovial and engaging I’ve ever met in my cab riding experience. I think this was because we immediately and simultaneously encountered a near death experience that left us both in terror and in gratitude. He had failed to check his blind spot before pulling out into traffic and we had come inches from being demolished by an oncoming delivery truck. I laughed at the profusion of apologies and bows he offered once we realized we weren’t dead. “It’s okay! It’s okay! We’re still alive!” I laughed, hiding the fact that I may have peed my pants a little. He responded in kind and said, “Yes! YES! We’re still alive!” ”Shall I take the road past the Planetarium?,” he asked as we finally went on our way. “Sure!,” I answered. “It’s the shortcut.” “I’m from here so I know this place very well…I also know plenty of stories,” he continued, "...plenty of ghost stories about this place,” he laughed. Then followed by a sinister cackle. “Would you like to hear one?” “EEEEEEEEEH! I’m listening!” And this is the story.
“All this were rice fields,” he began, gesturing to the rows of concrete and steel houses we passed as he weaved with ease through the secret back streets only a true local cabbie could. “And this area here,” he pointed as we neared the Planetarium, “there was nothing. Just trees, fields, that temple and the crematorium next to it…” “Eeeeeeeh,” was really the only reply I could think of. “Yes, before it was a Planetarium, it was a crematorium. My father, grandparents and my sister were cremated there. But as people began to move out of Tokyo and started building around the station here, they got rid of the crematorium. No one would want to live near the smoke of the dead. So they tore it down and built a planetarium in it’s place." "Across from that, where the small forests and fields used to be, they built the stadium. And all around that, came the houses, the community centre, more houses, the kindergarten, the schools…. and pretty soon the existence of the crematorium was forgotten as more and more people from Tokyo moved in... "There’s only a few of us left from this neighbourhood that know the history… In the forest surrounding the crematorium, people used to hang themselves from the trees. It was the quickest and most convenient way for those people because the temple was right there and services could be done quickly without anyone knowing." But we always knew when someone died. Do you know how we found out?” “Because there would be smoke from the crematorium,” I answered. “No, that happened later on.” he replied. “We found out because as soon as they took the body down, they would also cut the tree down. We could hear the chainsaw echoing through the forest and down the valley. That’s how we knew”. “You know the park behind the Planetarium?”. “Yes. It’s the one with warning signs about the crows, right?” “Yes. That’s the last remaining forest from that time.” I’ve been to that place a couple of times, just passing through on the way to the community gym. It was a quiet place. I always thought it was empty because of the crows. And I remember seeing tree stumps here and there. "I just thought it was part of maintenance…” “No, those were suicide trees. But nobody knows about that. In fact, there was a hanging there quite recently. Maybe 3 or 4 years ago. It was right here,” he pointed as we passed a corner of the park. I remembered those trees! I saw them when they'd just been cut. I remember wondering what happened to them. They were big trees right at the corner of the park and you could see them as you went past. I thought maybe there were going to build something but nothing else happened after the trees were cut. “That so sad, “ I said. “Yes. There are a lot of sad spirits in that forest.” “Those crows," he continued, "they’re spirits of those who died there. They weren’t there before the crematorium was torn down. They started coming after that. Many people want to tear the park down and build but the crows are there guarding the forest and people are too afraid of what might happened to them if they anger the crows”. Pretty soon, we were stopped at my house. I thanked him for the story and wished him as safe ride home. Before he opened the door, he said, “If you go jogging or walking up there, don’t go between 3 and 5 in the morning. Not unless you want to see the crows hopping around the place or spirits walking between the planetarium and the stadium.”
So... who wants to come with me?
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Day 46 Hellhound by Tejaswinee Roychowdhury
I woke up, shivering, breathing heavily, and looked around. Nothing; just my cosy, comfortable bedroom. A nightmare, not real... it's not real; I thought to myself, and heaved a sigh of relief. It was a cold winter night and I did my best to make a human burrito out of myself, trying to find comfort between the memory foam and the quilt. Despite my best efforts to stay put, I decided to inevitably step out onto the cold floor because I was parched. I read somewhere that our subconscious has the power to induce bodily feeling; thirst, in this case, since in my nightmare, I was running… running for my life. It made perfect sense. But then again, there could be no subtext to it at all. I was thirsty because I was thirsty, somewhat like an example of a Münchhausen trilemma. Effortlessly, I made my way into the kitchen. I knew my way around my own apartment, even in the dark. Besides, I couldn't hog all the credit; faint strips of the street light crept in through the one frosty glass window panes I had forgotten to drape for the night. I chugged a litre of the cool nectar of life and closed my eyes. I couldn't help but recall the nightmare. It was a recurring one, to be honest, and each time it tended to become more vivid. No matter how many times I promised myself that I had gotten used to it, the truth is, there was no getting used to something like this. It was always the same... I would get off an empty bus, on an empty street, in the dead of the night. The street looked somewhat familiar to the area where I actually lived. I would have to take the lane two houses after where I got off; that lane would take me home. I would walk past one house and see my dad, on his motorcycle, standing and talking to a man. I would talk to him. He would ask me why I was late. I would give him the same reason every time, “I was working, dad.” I would wait, thinking he would ask me to hop on the pillion anytime and we would go home. But he would have an emergency and would kick start his motorcycle and disappear into the night. I would stand there, disappointed. All alone, I would then turn left and take the lane to my house. My sandals would start to feel odd and the tall trees on both sides of the lane would start to grow taller and become darker. I would feel fear, like the lane would jump to life and engulf me, and I would start running. I would stumble on occasion as my feet outgrew my sandals, or my sandals shrank; I was never quite sure, but I would never fall. The lane would keep stretching, refusing to end, and I would keep running. But I would eventually make it to the end, and run across the street. I would see a big black dog sleeping on the ground, jump over him, onto the path on the field, still running. I would look up ahead and see the path leading up to a mansion, my house, nothing like the two bedroom apartment I called home. And that's when I would hear it… the low growls. I would look back, sunk neck-deep in fear and see the dog, the monster, chasing me, snarling and a red gleam in his eyes. I would scream for help, but no help ever came. I would keep screaming and I would keep running until the dog would catch up and tear into my flesh... And, I would wake up, shivering and breathing heavily. The dream never made any sense to me, of course. I loved dogs. I didn't have one but I loved them. And from what I could tell, they loved me too. I have never needed any prior introduction to any dog; I would instinctively smile and they would wag their tails in return, be it a dog on the street or in someone's house. I remember doing an internet search for the monster dog that chased me in my nightmares. I was curious because I had never seen anything like it. The internet spewed out one word every single time - ‘hellhound’, a mythological creature that guards the gates of hell, drags souls into hell. Now, I'm no believer, but reading about it certainly creeped me out. And I wished I would never encounter anything like it. Only, wishes rarely come true. As I walked out of the kitchen and headed for my bedroom, I heard an unmistakable growl. I knew that growl. I turned around, ever so quietly, and stared straight into the pair of red bloodthirsty eyes. The last thing I remember was letting out a scream but if my nightmares are any indication, I'm quite certain no one heard me.
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Day 47 Lepidopterophobia by Sam Kaufman
Viviane plucks another weed flower. She really doesn’t see why Katherine’s mom needs them to get rid of flowers just so she can plant different flowers, but at least her own kitchen table will have a center piece for the next few days. Viviane sees Katherine wipe a bead of sweat from her forehead. Suddenly Katherine’s hand smacks a small, fluttering butterfly to the ground. Viviane watches as its pure white wings twitch in the grass. “Tell me again why you’re afraid of butterflies?” Katherine turns to her, eyebrows sliding down her face. “I told you, my mom says they can lay eggs in your ears.” “No, she said that about moths.” “They’re the same thing.” Viviane slinks her eyebrows down too. Katherine rolls her eyes. “I’m getting a drink of water, you want one?” Viviane shakes her head. Katherine sighs before lifting herself up and wandering into the house. She rests her head on her knees and gazes at the flower she has yet to add to her pile. It’s rather big for a wildflower, still in peek bloom. If she’s picked up anything from Katherine’s mom about flowers, this should be a clover. Yet, there are no three leaved buds still in the ground. She grips the stem and feels the light pluck as it breaks. Viviane turns to the door hearing Katherine clatter through the cabinet for a bottle she can take outside. The slightest pressure twists between Viviane’s fingers as the flower get ever-so-slightly heavier. Viviane swivels, gazing at the butterfly tapping each petal of the flower. Its wings are a stunning blue. The kind of blue that no pigment can create, fading to darkness and back with each flap. Small veins of black branch apart, separating the ocean wings into smaller ponds. And strangely, at the tip of each wing is a small burst of red, bleeding down as if the butterfly had darted under a painter’s brush. Its feet keep tapping as its long spindly tongue unfurls to join. Viviane hears the water from the kitchen. Viviane gazes to the now still creator engulfed by the uncut blades around her. It’s probably not the best time to test Katherine’s fear. Viviane gives a gentle blow to the creature’s wings. With two quick flaps the butterfly takes off and up onto Viviane’s arm. She jerks her wrist just a bit but this time the insect stays put. Viviane gazes back at the screen door. She has maybe twenty seconds before Katherine comes out and tries to kill it. Viviane stands, her feet taking her to the woods lining the small back yard. She only needs to go a few feet in, get the butterfly off her arm gently, before heading back to tell Katherine how she saved the sanctity of their ears. Her first foot is barely past the line of dead leaves when she hears Katherine. “Viv, where are you going?!” Viviane continues in under the dimmed light of the woods. She takes long strides hoping to get far enough away that Katherine won’t have time to follow. Viviane looks down at her arm to the butterfly still mulling about scenting her flesh. Her feet stop, just as she hears Katherine yell out to her again. “You know we’re not supposed to go in there!” Another small gust of wind pushes past Viviane lips and into the butterfly’s sails, sending it to freedom. A slight curl of her lips is all Viviane manages as it disappears into the shadows above her. She turns back, barely seeing the house through the tangled branches. “I’m comi-” The wind in her throat snaps in half. Not a whisper of air flows into her lungs as a cord tightens around her neck. Viviane squirms and writhes, using her nails to try to pry it off. She fights harder as she feels sticks starting to close around her, three on each side. Her lungs seethe as she claws and punches. Her vision begins to darken, not just from within but from something closing in around her. She digs her nails in hard with one hand and tries breaking a stick with the other. Her muscles pause as she spots the glimpse of scarlet sliding down the folds of unnatural night folding in around her. Sealing her in. In a chrysalis that only opens to the heat of hell.
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Day 48 The Murder of Crows by Michael Rhys
“Guess what I did today?” asked John as he took the plate of peas from his wife. “I dunno, what?” “I killed a crow.” “A what,…a crow?” “Yeah, there was a bunch of them on the roof making all sorts of noise. I Chucked some stones at them.” “You hit one, then?” asked his son. “Yeah, right on the head, it fell on the roof, up here,” John pointed to the ceiling. His wife pulled a face, “What, here, on the extension? you cleared it off, I hope.” “No, couldn’t. Charlie’s got me ladder. Anyway, best to leave it for a bit, I reckon, you know, as a warning to the others. Might keep them away.” “Well, yeah, but it’s a bit weird though, innit, a dead bird up here,” She looked at the ceiling. “It’s horrible, I mean, c’mon, John, we’re eating.” “Things die all the time, Linda. It’s nature innit? Nothing to get upset about.” He passed the peas back to his wife. Their son scooped up a spoonful of mashed potato,“Mr. Adams at school told us that a flock of crows is called a Murder”. “That’s right,” said his father, laughing. “That’s creepy.” Linda pulled another face. “Don’t like crows. So, when you gonna clear it off?” “Tuesday, I reckon. I’m on late shift, so I can do it in the morning if I get me ladder back.” “Tuesday? But that’s two days away. You can’t leave it that long.” “You’re welcome to do it yourself, if you want.” Linda pulled yet another face, and, with a glance at the ceiling, picked up her fork and stabbed at the chicken on her plate.
Early the next morning, John went out to the shed at the bottom of the garden to look for an old screwdriver. He stopped by the extension. The dead crow was still there. He could see the tip of the black wing, the feathers moving in the wind. Above, on the roof of the house were other crows, very much alive. Seven them he counted, some on the aerial, others high on the tiles. They were quiet. Four more crows perched along the fence at the bottom of the garden. He watched them as he walked across the grass to the shed. They watched him as he lifted the latch and slipped inside. It was dark and musty. He began to search through piles of old boxes and plastic bags. Outside, the crows began to call to each other. John heard the scratching of sharp claws on the shed roof as other crows arrived. The screwdriver was in an old, rusty toolbox under some tarps. He slipped it into his pocket then looked out through the small dirty window of the shed. Some of the crows had collected on the extension near the dead bird. John picked up a hammer and went back out into the garden. He waved the hammer around, shouted, and tried to look angry. Most of the crows flew off, but one remained. As John reached the back door, it flew over him and landed on the gutter above. They stared at each other for a while before John waved the hammer around again. “Watch yourself,” he said “or you’ll end up like your dead friend up there.” The crow didn’t move. John walked into the house.
Charlie brought the ladder around the next morning. “I’d stay and help, but I’ve got to run Alison into town,” he said. “The doctors again is it,” “Yeah, she’s OK, but you know how she worries. Anyway, I’ll pop in again on my way back.”
John carried the ladder around the side of the house and placed it up against the wall of the extension by the large glass patio doors. He looked up, but couldn’t see the black wing of the dead crow. “Wind must have moved it,” he thought. He looked around. There were no birds. He picked up a roll of bin bags he’d put down earlier and tore one off. He then put on some heavy work gloves and stepped onto the first rung of the ladder. He heard the caw of a crow. It landed on the shed. Another flew down and settled on the fence. Then, another. “Come to watch, have we?” said John. He climbed the second step. A crow passed close over him then flew up and landed on the aerial. John watched as it hopped along the narrow metal. It had something in its mouth. It lowered its head and opened its beak. A small stone fell and clattered down the roof, it bounced over the gutter and landed on the concrete paving near the ladder. Several other crows flew over the roof and landed on the fence and the shed. “Bloody crows,” said John, and continued climbing. Halfway up, he was able to see over the flat roof. The dead crow was gone. In its place was a small pile of rounded stones. John climbed the last few rungs and clambered onto the roof. He stood looking at the stones. Some of the crows from the shed flew onto the far end of the extension, and the crow on the aerial, the one that had dropped the stone, flew down and landed a short distance from John. Its head slightly cocked as it observed him through its black eyes. John opened the bin bag and reached down for the stones. “I wouldn’t do that,” said the crow. John stopped, his hand halfway to the roof. He turned his head to look at the bird. “Back away,” it said. John stood slowly. “Charlie? Is that you?” he said. The crow hopped forward, “Charlie. You must be mistaking me for another crow. I guess we all look the same to you, right?” “What the fuck?” John stepped back, close to the edge. “What’s the matter John?” said the crow, “Is this fucking with your head?” “You’re a crow,” said John, confused. “So?” “You--you can’t speak. Crows can’t speak.” “Oh, come on, John, even budgies can speak.” It hopped forward, “but it’s not about being able to speak, is it, John? It’s about being able to think, and that’s the difference between us, between you and me, John, being able to think, to join the dots, to see how everything fits together, to understand the balance, John, to know not to fuck things up.”
More crows arrived, settling on the roof, the shed, the fence and the extension. All silently staring at John with black, glassy eyes. John looked from one to another. He turned quickly and made a run for the ladder. Instantly, the crows took flight, throwing up a cloud of dust. John stumbled down the first few rungs before the birds struck him in the chest and the head, knocking him backwards. He reached out frantically for support, but his foot slipped and his leg dropped down between the rungs. He grabbed the sides of the ladder, but it twisted beneath him rolling him hard against the glass patio doors which cracked and splintered and gave way. He tore through the shattered glass and landed on his back on the carpet in the extension, stunned and in pain, one leg impaled on the fragments of glass that remained in the frame like broken teeth. His arms were cut and bleeding, with tiny spikes of glass embedded like jewels in his skin. The crows flew in through the shattered doors and formed a circle around him. The crow from the roof landed on John’s chest. It looked down at him with black marble eyes. “Don’t move, John,” it said. “Don’t move.” Another bird hopped up to his head, a stone in its mouth. “What….what…” “Shhh, John, don't speak,” said the crow. Black beaks began to peck at the bloody, sliced flesh of his leg. John screamed, and the crow by his head dropped the stone into his open mouth. He tried spit out the stone, but his leg dug deeper into the glass teeth of the door and he screamed again. The crow pecked down into his open mouth, pushing at the stone, pushing it deeper. In agony and confusion, his lungs empty, John took a desperate, ragged breath— and sucked the stone down into the soft folds of his throat, where it stuck fast. His eyes widened as he fell silent, unable to breathe, unable to scream. The crow on his chest hopped a little closer. “An eye for an eye, isn’t that what you humans say? Well, I guess you won’t be needing them now, John. I might as well take both.”
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Day 49 The Party Downstairs by John Shea
Artie Laersen woke with a start and looked at the alarm clock on the nightstand beside his bed. Who the hell would be playing jazz at this time of night? He turned to the other side of him. Gabrielle was still fast asleep, oblivious to what he was hearing. Grumbling, he tossed aside the covers and stepped on to the cold wooden floor. He shivered as his mind raced. Was he actually hearing this or was he having aural hallucinations? He walked to the bathroom and while sitting on the toilet, listened more carefully. Yes, it was jazz. Dave Brubeck’s Take Five. At least it wasn’t the more vibrant John Coltrane or Miles Davis. He appreciated both, but 11:45 p.m. was not the time to play it so the whole neighborhood could hear. He sighed, flushed and made his rounds of the house. First to the east side. No, it wasn’t the Lindts; even their techno rap playing teenagers were asleep. Next, he went to the front door. It was too cold to open it just now but from what he could see under the streetlamp light there were no other cars parked on the street. On the west side, the Saltburns were not having a party either. They usually did have pool parties with loud noise but not in January. Finally, to the back door. The neighbors across the fence had taken down their Christmas tree beacon a week ago. They, too, were prone to pool parties but there was no other noise except the highway beyond the creek bordering their property on the southern side. Traffic was minimum right now. Only the occasional hum of an 18-wheeler barreling down the Sam Rayburn. He stepped aside as Tucker, their German Shepherd, came through the doggie door. The dog looked up him as if to say the coyotes were not out tonight. He had seen to that, warning them earlier in the evening with his barking to let them know he was listening, on continuous patrol while Danny, their elder dog, a Blue Heeler mix, slept prone on the couch in his retirement of making backyard rounds. Artie sighed. Maybe it was the heating, ventilation and air conditioning system with its fans humming as heat flowed through the air vents. He went to the refrigerator and filled a tumbler with water half-way up. He drank it hoping it might calm his nerves. Except it didn’t. He still heard the music, only now it was accompanied by the clinking of glasses and murmurs of conversation. He tried to make out the words but could not do so. He was tired. Actually, he was frazzled. His mind, while asleep, was still racing on autopilot trying to come up with a satisfactory ending to the story he had written that evening before he was woken by the music. Or maybe it was the side effects of his medication withdrawal. The third stent placed in November was supposed to be the charm. But over the last week, he had sudden dizziness that continued despite a clean bill of health with the blood enzymes from the cardiac department. The CT scans of his head and neck also were negative. The doctors at the hospital thought it might have something to do with his inner ear. So now he had vestibular testing the next afternoon, something called videonystagmography-he had to look that one up. Thank goodness for internet search engines these days. The test would measure the organ in his inner ear that controlled his balance. He’d get to wear infra-red goggles that would trace his eye movement during visual stimulation and changes in position. Apparently, there were rocks or crystals there that controlled his dizziness, otoconia something or other. Gabrielle was milking this by telling friends Artie was off his rocks or needed to have his crystals realigned. Well, at least someone got a laugh. He was getting tired of his sinusoidal afternoon walks as he navigated the neighborhood, hugging the edge of the sidewalk with a very measured stride. He felt like the Weeble toy: In short, he wobbled, but didn’t fall down. At least not yet. The testing facility’s very specific instructions were to refrain from all the anti-anxietants and muscle relaxers he relied on to help him sleep because of his cervical dystonia and the stenosis in his neck. The last thirty-six hours, with twelve more to go, had been interesting with the side effects of withdrawal, to say the least. No need to dwell on them; it only made them worse. Back to his ideas for the story ending. He knew that if he went back to sleep, he would forget it all, so he climbed the stairs to his study. He fired up his desktop, tapped the space bar and Enter key, and waited for the display to light up. He found the story and tapped away at the keyboard with the additions he had in mind. If the music was going to keep him up, he might as well make the most of it and add to his fiction. Four hundred words and ninety minutes later he pushed back from his desk, relieved he had gotten the words out so quickly in this draft. He’d do a proof and rewrite the next night after all the vestibular testing was over. He took a deep breath and sighed with relief after having got those words out of his system and onto the page. He sniffed the air again. Was that cigarette smoke he smelled now? Worried, he went to the security panel they had on the second floor. No, there was no smoke detected. He took another sniff. No, instead of nicotine, this was broiled meat. Somebody was cooking a steak now. He could even hear the sizzle. He hurried downstairs to the kitchen, checked the knobs of the stove top and found there were no burners on. The oven was definitely off. “I’m losing my mind,” he said to the night. Tucker was immediately by his side, expecting a treat at this late hour. He relented and gave the dog some of the blackberries he had in the fridge, taking a few for himself. “It’s got to be those ghosts again,” he told Tucker. Every now and then Artie would hear the music, but Gabrielle would not and vice versa. Sometimes it was rock and roll; other times it was Christmas carols but in July. Sometimes even he heard the banging of pots and pans and no one was in the kitchen when he went to look. There was no logical explanation. The previous owners of the house supposedly had held seances in the living room, or so the neighbors said. Perhaps some of their spectral visitors had stayed on when they sold the house to Artie and Gabrielle some ten years ago. Satisfied that all was well, he returned to his study, saved the copy and headed back to the bedroom. As he walked through the family room, he stubbed his toe on what he thought might be one of Tucker’s yet unstuffed dog toys. He reached down, leaned against the coffee table, and found an empty martini glass next to the table leg. The glass, still cold to touch, had a hint of vermouth on the bottom. Then he heard the rattle of ice clattering in other glasses. He looked around but still saw nothing. No shimmering images, just the darkness in the room. He drummed his fingers on the tabletop in thought for a moment, then laughed to himself. He returned to the bedroom, surrendering to his active imagination as he settled under the blankets. Maybe there was some sort of trans-dimensional portal that only allowed sound through. And maybe not. Either way, he’d try to get some more sleep before Tucker licked his face at dawn to get his attention and breakfast of morning kibble. He started his relaxation meditation, telling his toes to relax, then the balls of his feet, then the arches, then the instep, and all up the chain of his body parts. He was out like a light when he got to the thighs.
* * *
As they were going out the door at 1:30 that night, their guests said that Kevin and Irene Browermint could really throw one hell of a dinner party. Back inside, Kevin helped load the dishwasher as Irene rinsed and scraped off the dinner plates and cutlery. “Do you think Chip and Gloria liked Madame Hebert’s reading of their palms tonight?” Irene asked. “I think they like their seances like they like their steaks,” Kevin surmised. “And what would that be? “Medium rare,” Kevin smirked as he let that sink in for a moment then dodged the wet sponge Irene threw at him. “They’ll come around to what might lie on the other side,” Kevin said, coming back to the sink. Then he suddenly shouted, “Stop!” They both stopped talking. “Do you hear that?” he asked his wife. “What?” Irene asked. Kevin reached over and turned off the running faucet and cocked his head, cupping his hand to his ear. “There it is again.” “What?” Irene asked again. “That tapping sound. It’s coming from upstairs.” “Oh, that. It’s probably our ghost.” “Ghost?” Kevin’s eyes went wide. “We have one of our own?” “Yes,” Irene told him. “The neighbors said there was a writer who lived here who would be up all hours of the night, working on his stories. He would get his best inspiration while sleeping and would wake up to write. They could see the light in the study from the street if you walked by. I think they said he died one night while working.” “Hmmm,” Kevin said, as he dumped the ashtrays into the rubbish bin. “And here I thought I was going crazy. Have you seen the other martini glass?”