Race

My lungs burn as I round the corner, the damnable soles of my expensive shoes skidding on the concrete, driving me to my knees. The raking breaths burning in my lungs matches the burn on my palms when I stop my fall with my hands, a hot white bolt shooting up my arms.

I shoot a backward glance, down the dark stairs, suck in my breath and hold it against my pounding heart. Silence and night.

My vision smears the lights in their neat, white globes as I fight back to my feet. No time. No time!

I shoot back to my feet and pound forward, coattails flapping in my slipstream. The station isn’t bright enough, but it’s not dark either. I’ve been in Podunk towns where a single bare bulb swung from an exposed wire wearing a flattened stainless steel funnel hat. The fluorescent bars here offered some illumination at least.

It just doesn’t feel bright enough.

I glance back again, confronted now by the turnstiles and pay booths. They’re unmanned. I check the rest of the area.

No guard. My heart sinks.

I spring over the turnstiles and yank my straining body up the concrete stairs by the cold iron handrail beside me. It stings my scraped hands as I launch myself faster up the flight to a landing, a break in the climb before another set of steps taunts me.

I freeze for a split second.

Did I hear something? Something coming, from behind me?

My adrenalin jumps another notch and scorches my veins. My heart flutters and I dart up the second flight, trying to keep up the pace, but slowing. The platform is at the top, but the loading area is far from where passengers vomit out of the stairwell. Dimly, something far in the recesses of my mind realizes this isn’t ADA compliant as I push with my arms while racing with my leaden legs up the stairs.

Then I do hear it. Clear, definitive, something banging and grinding behind me.

No!

My feet skid on the corner of the stair riser and bark my shins. I scream out, no longer caring what hears me, and I push through the pain. I feel the warm trickle of blood down my shin, and know I’ll leave a trail behind me.

I can’t care.

The sound grows to a din now, and then there’s a scream, a wailing howl like metal dragging over metal, and I can smell the thing now. I can’t look back, I have to press on, move, move, dammit, move!

It’s on me, I can see it as I round the corner of the platform, my damn shoes betraying me again, and I hit one knee on the ground while my feet still scrabble for purchase. I launch myself up, but my equilibrium’s gone and I fall into the brick wall just under the schedule.

Too late! Too, too late!

The shriek sounds again, and the klaxon bangs a tattoo of hopelessness against my ears. In huff it’s moving, foul air rushing into my face and blowing back my hair. It gains speed in an instant, and I fall, helpless, to the cold floor of the platform as it rushes to me, and then past me.

I watch the train’s lights vanish into the night, down the dark tracks, and groan when I see the schedule above me.

Next one’s not due for an hour.


I misread the prompt, too. It said, “plane,” not “train.” *Sigh* Oh well.

Memory

I’m in a room, and it’s very dark.

Somewhere, nearby, I hear the sound of voices. They seem far away and faint, but familiar in a way. Something niggles at my mind. A teasing thing, a dream wiggling out of memory’s grasp even as the dreamer rises from the depths of sleep. I’m struggling to remember those voices, to hear them and put them with faces. The sounds don’t seem distinct enough.

The darkness of the room frightens me. I can’t see anything beyond just a short distance from my face, and everything feels cold and far away.

A light!

A light begins to grow, to bloom, a flower of glowing warmth which spreads to expand my view. Where the light grows, I see things — a grassy field, and trees surrounding a meadow. Deep, thick leaves on all the heavy, gnarled limbs. And yes! Yes, this place is familiar to me! I recall this…somewhere, far in my mind, this tickles…

It’s a park!

I hear Madeline! Yes, Madeline! I can hear her voice, and she’s there with me in the park! We’re running, and playing on the grassy field. I see us there, in the warm sunshine, with our wonderful dresses and shoes, and mother and father are there as well. Yes, I remember this, and I can hear Madeline’s voice, but not what she’s saying. And her face…her smile fades now, as she repeats the words, but…they don’t seem real. Like jumbled, baby-speak words, incomprehensible, unintelligible, babbles. And I can feel my mind fighting, fighting to understand her. I know understanding her is important — so important! — and I can’t. No matter how I try, I can’t.

“Maddy…darling Maddy, I can’t understand you…”

I see her face, and she’s crestfallen. She shakes her head, and she turns away, but I can’t tell if she’s sad…or angry with me.

“Maddy? Maddy, wait, I just need a moment to understand you…”

But she’s moving away from me and only casts a glance backward over her shoulder, and the daylight glints on her golden hair as she moves away.

Then the warm bubble of light shrinks , very fast, and I’m in the darkness once again. Alone, in the dark, and afraid.

Those voices are echoing nearby. I can hear them, and in my dark solitude they feel so sinister, so frightening, threatening and hateful.

Faces! Faces come at me from out of the dark. They smile but the smiles seem mean, almost resentful and angry and bitter. More jeers than pleasant visages.

“What is it? What do you want with me?” My voice pleads with them for mercy.

But my question doesn’t garner mercy or kindness or understanding from them. It garners only more sneers and angry sounding voices, some of them raised. As if I’m deaf! I can hear fine, I want to shout, I’m not deaf, I just don’t understand!

But my fear freezes my voice.

And then another bubble of light grows in front of me, and the inside of the bubble is warm and happy and I can see…

…I see Stella! Oh, Stella, my dearest friend! I’m seventeen years old and a senior in high school, and I sit beside Stella in the school cafeteria. We’re admiring the athletic young boys, though we try to pretend to be studying. They see us! Oh, goodness, duck! Behind the books, Stella! Duck! And the giggles come — oh, how they come! So strong, so uncontrollably! What fun we have together.

Stella puts her face near to me, and I smile at her. She must have a secret to share. What tidbit of gossip has she gotten hold of now? I can hardly wait to learn it! I lean forward and turn my ear to Stella, but…

…she grips my chin and turns my face to hers. She’s smiling but her fingers are strong on my jaw, almost painful. I’m confused…I don’t understand what she wants. She speaks then. She speaks, and God in Heaven, I can’t understand her either. It’s the same babbling, baby-talk as Madeline’s words. The syllables are different, but…they’re just that, syllables, random and jumbled. The words are garbled and I can’t decipher what Stella wants from me.

“What is it, Stella? You’re hurting me! What is it? I don’t…I don’t understand!…”

Stella’s face falls, too. She’s hurt. I’ve hurt her feelings, and she looks away from me, toward the boys or the cafeteria crowd, and her expression — oh, God, her expression! She’s in such pain, and I don’t know why.

“Stella, please, I don’t…I can’t…”

But she’s leaving. She lets go of me but takes my hand for a fleeting moment, and squeezes it. And when she lets go and backs away the bubble of light collapses around her and she’s gone. Stella’s gone.

“St-Stella? Stella, don’t leave me, please! I’m so frightened!…”

But there’s no one there. I’m alone in my darkness again.

At last, the bubble opens again and I can see Stephen! Oh, thank God! Thank God! It’s Stephen, and he’ll help me. I know he’ll help me. He’s always been there for me. He’s such a dear, so wonderful when father died. Such a dear when mother passed later. He’s so handsome! Even after all these years, Stephen is the most handsome man I know. How lucky I am to be his wife for…for…

How long? I can’t remember!

Oh, but here he is to walk me out of the church as husband and wife, and he looks so dapper in his tuxedo, and my ring — my beautiful ring! — I…

My hands…my hands are old and wrinkled, speckled with liver spots. And Stephen’s not here, is he? No, Stephen died a long time ago. When? When did Stephen die?

I can’t remember.

And so I wait. Always I wait for the bubble to expand, for the light to open up and show me what I have forgotten.

~fin~

 

Copyright 2011 J. Dane Tyler, All rights reserved

#FridayFlash: The Crisp Man

He shifted on the soft, padded seat. It was very comfortable but he still felt … uncomfortable. He didn’t know why though.

“S-see, it’s j-j-just that m-my w-wife is the w-w-one who usually–”

“We understand, Joe.”

The tall man looked like a magazine ad. One for clothes maybe; those fine, fancy clothes from one of those shops where soft violin or piano music drips from the ceiling and walls. He wore crisp, dark, neat clothes. His tie had no flawed edges, no stray wrinkles. His hair was gray around the ears and jet black on top, and every strand, every piece, sat in its place, perfect, a plastic statue, movie star hair. The rugged lines in his face drew Joe’s eyes.

Joe swallowed hard. It was just spit but it went down like he’d swallowed a tire. He almost gagged. “Y-you … You do?”

The Crisp Man nodded. “Of course we do. We know all about you, Joe.”

Joe listened whenever the Crisp Man talked. He couldn’t help it. His smooth, rich voice was hot maple syrup on a cold winter morning. Joe felt better when he heard that voice. He wanted a voice like that.

Joe shifted again. He didn’t like the idea of someone he’d never seen before knowing all about him. He didn’t care for the thought of someone who knew all about him. It felt like someone went through his underwear drawer, or found his dad’s dirty magazines under his mattress.

“B-but I d-don’t know who y-you–”

“It’s all right, Joe. Really. We understand you can’t read the agreement.”

Joe’s blood chilled. They knew him all right. Knew that much, at least. He never told anyone, but they knew. He couldn’t go anyplace where he’d have to write his name, or his address. He couldn’t visit libraries and no one ever saw him with a newspaper in his hand. It’s a small town. People talk. Everyone probably knew. Still, an icy hand gripped his heart when the Crisp Man spoke his secret shame.

Joe shuddered and stared at the paper. The jumble of letters and words seemed alien and threatening. He glanced at the Crisp Man with narrowed eyes, and tried to muster all the fight he had into his words.

“And all I have t-to d-do is m-make my m-mark on this paper? And y-you’ll g-g-give m-me m-money?”

The Crisp Man smiled again and his perfect, TV-star teeth shined at Joe. “That’s all. And take the medicine, of course.”

“Right. The m-medicine. W-what’s it f-for again?”

“It’s for many things, Joe. It will make you everything you want to be. Strong. Smart. And it will take away your stutter.”

“All that?”

“And more.”

“J-just for t-taking the m-medicine?”

“And making a mark in your own hand on the paper, yes.”

Joe looked down again. The letters seemed to shift and crawl over the paper. He stared at the gold pen gleaming on the table, reflecting from the glossy varnish, and the paper next to it. Then he focused on his own reflection in the table. His wild hair, his ragged clothes, his scruffy beard, his hollow eyes, all stared back and urged him to pick up the pen, make the mark.

“We know you don’t have a wife, Joe. You lost her years ago in the fire.”

Joe shuddered again when a chill twisted up his spine. He wiped the sweat from his palms onto his dirty overall legs and put them back on the table. How could the Crisp Man know he was about to lie again, say his wife usually does all the reading and signing for him? But he knew. Somehow, the Crisp Man knew. He could read Joe’s mind, maybe. Like some folks read books and magazines, the Crisp Man saw into Joe’s skull and picked his thoughts out. He couldn’t hide anything from the Crisp Man.

Joe licked his lips. His heart pounded. The Crisp Man reached out and nudged the pen toward him with trimmed, clean nails which glinted under the recessed lights above. The room felt hidden to Joe, dark and mysterious beyond the circles of light from above. The warm carpet and rich table didn’t make the room cozy or friendly. Joe felt very alone, very defenseless, and very watched.

“N-nothin’ bad’ll happen to me from the m-medicine you said, right?”

“That’s right, Joe. Nothing bad.”

“And this p-paper s-says y-you gotta p-pay me t-t-to t-take the m-medicine, right?”

“That’s right. More money than you’ve ever made before. Just for making your mark on the agreement and taking the medicine.”

Joe drew a deep breath and seized the pen, found the line at the bottom of the paper and made a large, clear X on it. He dropped the pen and sat back in the embrace of the soft chair and folded his arms over his chest.

“Very good, Joe. You won’t regret this. Now I’ll have someone drive you home and your first pills will arrive later. We’ll call you and let you know when you need to come back for tests. We’ll send a car when it’s time. Do you understand, Joe?”

Joe nodded. He couldn’t speak. He felt bad, like he’d done something wrong.

“Don’t worry, Joe,” the Crisp Man soothed. “We know all about you, and we’re going to take care of you.”

He watched the Crisp Man get up from his seat and vanish through a door he couldn’t see somewhere beyond the ring of lights. Joe thought, no matter what the Crisp Man said, he might’ve made a big mistake.

A big one.

~fin~

All original content © J. Dane Tyler 2010
All rights reserved

#FridayFlash: Work in the Daylight

Gotta get as much done in daylight as possible.

Most folks take to cellars at night, or underground vaults if they got ‘em. If they don’t they hole up best they can and try to wait it out. But wooden shutters ain’t much.

In the morning we come out and take stock. Did we lose livestock? We hope so, otherwise we might’ve lost people. How many? Anyone lose a door? Window? God forbid, a wall? Gotta get that fixed quick. While some of us do that others get to work, try and conduct business, like we’re normal. Still need money, food, supplies. When traders come through we might make serious money on the rocks. Other times we just do what we can.

Getting supplies is tricky. We tell ‘em to make their delivery drivers stay outside town until sun-up. We only do business during daylight. No, there’s no inn to stay at. No, there ain’t a hotel. No, the saloon don’t rent rooms. All drivers have to stay over in Creigsville for the night and get here quick as they can at first light. We do all we can during the day, then they need to get back to Creigsville by sundown.

Sometimes they listen, sometimes they don’t. When they don’t, well….

Some comp’nies won’t do business with us anymore. Their drivers get spooked or don’t come back, horse teams get lost … it just ain’t worth it to ‘em. So we only work with a handful of comp’nies for supplies.

Some raw materials we can bring in. We got some woods just outside town a bit. Send a couple men out to cut down a few trees, or drag back deadfalls. During the day, of course. We mill those ourselves, no need to send that out.

We raise livestock like I said. It’s just not easy keeping all of them alive through the night.

Some farms produce. It’s just hard to farm under these conditions.

Other stuff we need. Like clothes or textiles, flour, sugar.

Winters are hard.

First thing a traveler might notice is how heavy we build things here. Barns are strong. Thicker than normal. Houses too. We need the strength, but wood ain’t the best barrier. Way back, some folks dug cellars and vaults. Lined ‘em with concrete, when you could still get it. Those are best. Folks can snug up safe and sound in concrete, and if it’s built right, they don’t even hear what happens after dark.

You can tell the ones who do hear by their eyes. Haunted. Gaunt, drawn faces. Paler than others. Yeah, those are the ones that heard. Sleep’s a demon for them. It’s not pleasant when it comes.

Evenings are spent stocking up. Making sure everything and everyone’s where it oughta be. Inside, locked down, by sundown. Everyone.

Sometimes I shudder when I remember times someone didn’t make it, or had one last thing to do. I try not to remember their faces, their screams.

I’m haunted by their screams.

Copyright J. Dane Tyler 2010, All rights reserved

#FridayFlash: The future’s not bright

The Future’s not Bright

Sometimes I wonder what it was like before.

I sit and stare, and my mind will drift. I can paint greenery over the skeletal trees, fill them in with leaves. My mind’s canvas plasters a rich jade color over the dry yellow straw in the fields. The sky’s the hardest. There are so many different pictures to choose from. Some are cerulean, others a more cadet blue. Wispy clouds drifting on gentle zephyrs cast shadows over children on their backs forming imaginary animals and shapes from their amorphous forms.

Sometimes I wonder.

For the most part though, I don’t participate in those flights of fancy. Instead I pace along the transparent wall, and watch them when they come. I know the pus-buckets can’t see through the mirrored surface outside — and I wonder how many lives it took to install — but it’s still unnerving when they put their faces so close.

Faces … ha! That’s a laugh. Those pus-riddled, worm-infested compost piles they stare out of make me sick. It’s even more disgusting when they open their mouths and show those white pustules oozing yellow slime and filled with rotted, broken brown teeth and black flesh when they bite at their reflections. Nauseating. I remember eating in here once, leaning on the glass, when one of them slammed into the window, saw its reflection, and tried to bite. I got a good look at the inside of the mouth and vomited, right on the rich, hunter green carpet.

It’s not bad here. Pretty nice, really. The building is a squat dome connected to identical domes by arched causeways. It’s concrete and steel, but spacious and airy inside. The sleeping quarters … well, they’re for sleeping. An eight by five cubby hole situated with lots of other cubicles at the western end of the hive. You have about four feet of head room. You don’t spend time there unless you’re lying down. It always surprises me when someone leaves the hatch open and reads in there, or has a bunch of pictures hung over the bunk with gum tack. The piss-poor lights buzz and flicker too much for anything but finding the bunk. If I want to read or write a letter or stare at pictures, I’ll find a sitting area or a privacy booth.

Communication with other hives is sporadic at best. Most broadcasts run on a closed loop and play the same things until the machinery transmitting it fails. As fewer and fewer people know how to take care of these things, as fewer and fewer people are educated, learn how things work … well, the future’s not a bright place.

The smoke-choked sky gets to people after a while. Fires smoldering everywhere make the sky black and orange at night, a shade of dingy gray in the day. We’re too close to the ruins of a city for clean air, so it’s either wear SCOBA or stay inside. The suits are good for about three hours of air. Nobody knows how long it keeps the rads off. But that’s long enough to clear the zone and breathe air if you want. Of course, it’s a one-way trip if you do that. Once you’re past the desolation zone, the DZ, vegetation and maybe even some wildlife begin to appear, but you’d have no air left to make it back to the compound.

And who knows how many pus-buckets have found their way beyond the DZ.

Pus-buckets aren’t fast enough to catch animals. They might get an occasional rat or something, but that’s not their primary food source. We think — and it’s only a theory — they stick close to compounds like ours or to urban areas, where survivors might hide. They don’t have enough brains left to make traps or plan ambushes. Still, sheer numbers play in their favor. And they eat frickin’ anything — garbage, mostly, but stragglers too.

Nobody knew when the satellites started firing lasers the consequences would be so catastrophic. Anyone near a target could kiss it goodbye. The radiation cooked surface brain parts and left anyone not disintegrated a twitching blob of flesh.

Until the biologicals launched.

Microbes from the biologicals mutated. Laser radiation did something. Before anyone knew it we had a mess. A walking mess, made of those blobs of flesh reanimated and infecting people as they attacked.

That’s what Stella says anyway. She says her mom was there. I think it was more like her grandmother, but what do I know?

Water’s precious, and not easy to come by. We have a pump system connected to a big reservoir not far from here. It’s covered and underground so there’s no danger of contaminants, but the supply has to last … well, forever, I guess. We could filter water from a lake or something but it’d have to be a damned big one. Oh, and people would have to know how to connect our pump system to that lake, and how to operate and maintain the system. Good luck with that.

Not to mention going outside, in the DZ, to do the work. Amid the hiding, starving pus-buckets.

But last I heard water’s low. Real low. That reservoir’s been our only supply for … well, ever. Since Stella’s mom and that original crew managed to finish construction and come inside, seal the pus-buckets out. I guess they started the compound when they saw it coming, before the lasers went off. They didn’t know the compound would be in a hot bed for pus-buckets later. I guess they thought they were far enough from the city. Damned lasers, stronger than anyone guessed. Even the guys who built them.

Anyway, someone has to figure out how to get more water soon. We figure we have a year — maybe less — left.

No, the future’s not a bright place. Not a bright place at all.

-end-

 

All original content copyright 2010 J. Dane Tyler
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED