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Things We Saw At Midnight

THINGS

WE SAW AT

MIDNIGHT

by Apollo Blake

~

For more from Apollo Blake, including info about new books, go to:

http://chaotic-array.blogspot.ca/

Copyright 2015 by Apollo Blake. All rights reserved.

Summary: in Midnight City, a small town with sinister citizens, a group of teens attempt to find love, luck, friendship, and success amid a menagerie of magical beings and monstrous creatures, throughout an anthology of exciting new short stories.

~

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each person. Thank you for respecting the work of this author.

No part of this publication may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without written permission of the author. To request permissions, or receive info about review copies and arcs, write to the author at [email protected]

ALSO BY APOLLO BLAKE

~

The Lilac Jones Adventures

Night of the Dragon

Rise of the Underlings

Curse of the Sword

How I Broke Us

A Darkness So Divine

The Diamond Society (Jan 2016)

The Winter War (Jan 2016)

The Chain of Thorns (Feb 2016)

Other Titles

Souls of Salt & Seawater (Dec 2015)

Shadows (2016)

Writing As Oliver Urban

The Face of Love

For Josie,

For scary stories late at night and eggs the next morning. For teaching me to play video games. For keeping my tattoo a secret from my parents until the end of the vacation. For always acknowledging – and encouraging – my oddness.

&

For Mom,

For Greek Gods and expensive notebooks. For comfort [_and _]comfort food. For being my champion and my mentor. For too-long shopping trips and tacos on every birthday. For teaching me to take a hit and get up again.

~

These are the only reasons I am here today.

Thank you for each and every one of them.

CONTENTS

~

 

ALSO BY APOLLO BLAKE

DEDICATION

CONTENTS

INTRO

WELCOME TO MIDNIGHT CITY

THE GOLDEN ECHO

A FINE DAY FOR DYING

JUST ANOTHER ORDINARY MONDAY

CUSTOMER SATISFACTION

THE GIRL

I AM THE ROT

FOOLS

FORGET TODAY

EAT US ALIVE

NOSTALGIA

LOST

KISS THE SUN

INNER ANIMAL

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Intro

~

Thank you. Yes, you.

Whoever you are, wherever you are. Whether you follow me on Tumblr or Twitter, or found me through my blog or a stupid comment I made on Youtube. If you stumbled across these stories on some ebook sharing site or found them in the Amazon store and decided to strike out and support a new author. How you found my stories doesn’t really matter to me. The fact that you read them at all is so much more special.

It is truly rare as an author to be able to chase yourself off in odd directions and write around in circles like this something special starts to form. More often, we find ourselves stuck working on stories we’ve already planned or announced or signed contracts for. I’m incredibly grateful every day for the fact that I’ve been lucky enough as a writer to be able to choose which stories I get to tell, when I put them out, how, and with which companies . . . as little as ten years ago, this was not possible for writers to do. And it wouldn’t be possible still if it weren’t for the readers like you who breathe new life into these stories we create. I don’t take that for granted.

When I sat down to write Things We Saw At Midnight my goal was to bring to life a world on the page that would work as a thank you to my readers. A place that would serve as a tribute to all the strangeness, magic, and odd creativity of the online community I’ve been embraced by. With Halloween coming up, it made sense to go spooky, so I tried to make it as scary, sexy, sensitive, and funny as you all deserve.

I’m so thankful to you all, and I hope you enjoy the little slice of Midnight City I’ve served up for you. . .

Much love,

Apollo Blake.

WELCOME TO MIDNIGHT CITY

~

 

People come from all over.

From Hollywood and the Hamptons, from New York to New Zealand. Like flies swarming around a carcass, drawn into the light of a heat lamp. In the desert, under the hot sun, under a billion blinking stars, the city sleeps. Seductive. Silent, and screaming all at once.

It waits for them. It waits for you.

We know you’re not normal. None of us are, either.

Welcome to Midnight City.

It’s about to get weird . . .

1

The Golden Echo

~

This is where the golden echo ends and the blinding dark of reality starts. This screeching, screaming choir of chaos and identity. This rapture inside my chest like the itch of my lungs burning for air beneath the surface of a frozen lake.

Except that’s stupid, because there is no ice in Midnight City. Not that things here don’t change. You changed. I watched it happen.

Watched as you wilted like a flower torn from the soil too early, withering and rotting from the edges in, until all that was left were dark-ringed eyes and long, shaking fingers. Watched while you turned pale as the sunlight seemed to eat itself out of you.

There is no ice in Midnight City—but there weren’t any ghosts like you once upon a time, either, and now here you are right in front of me. Do you remember, somewhere deep inside the darkness where you hide, what we used to be? [_Who _]we used to be?

I walked past Old Lady Ellen’s place before I came here today, to this place where we used to lie in the dark, our arms entwined as I leaned over you, as I looked down into eyes so full of light and life and laughter and longing. And when I did, she looked like she knew. She looked like she knew exactly what I was coming here to do.

And so I guess this thing today, between me and you, is whispered by shadows.

Do you see the world in red through those new eyes of yours? Wonder if you can sense me here. Do you even know who I am anymore? I don’t. Not always, at least.

But hey—they always say that being young fucks with your sense of self-identity, don’t they? Well it’s time to fuck with someone else for a change. To rip out all the poison and the passion and the kiss of fire I still feel when I flash back to our bodies beneath the sheets in this dark room that once belonged to a boy but has become the den of something so much more sinister.

I am sick of everything replaying inside my head, all of my regrets on a constant loop.

[_What _]happened to you? [_Why _]did it happen to you? Can you ever be what you were before? I guess I already know the answer to that question is a no. I wouldn’t be back here if I didn’t know that. Because sometimes living with nothing but your happy memories is better than trying to talk to the monster that used to be your boyfriend.

And if you [are _]still in there somewhere, if you are still _you in any sense of the word—well, I hope you understand. I hope you understand that I loved you. That I still love you. And that I can’t do this anymore.

I hope you understand that I would rather live with the golden echo of us than whatever it is walking around in your skin pretending to be you. Because more than anything, I know that this is [_not _]you. Not you alone. Not you in any way at all, maybe. So I’m going in to end it.

I grip the knife tighter in my hand and listen to the sounds of scurrying and thudding coming from what used to be your room.

No. That’s not you in there.

So I push the door open, and I step inside the darkness of our reality to claim the echo of what we used to be all for myself.

2

A Fine Day For dying

~

Old Lady Ellen knows when you’re going to die.

She knows because the shadows on the porch whisper dates to her every day just after eight o’clock am, while she sips her tea on the porch.

You might be able to buy your death date off of her for a nice cuppa, if you can guess just which blend she likes. But more likely than not, you’re not the type it’s right to tell—the knowledge alone could make you go insane—and Old Lady Ellen will just smile and stay silent and let you go on your way. If she says something, it might break you, and that would be rude.

You’d be wrong if you thought Old Lady Ellen always knew things like this. The shadows on the porch only arrived after her husband had that accident and ended up in the grave.

You’d also be wrong if you thought that Old Lady Ellen is bitter. And besides, she doesn’t [always _]keep the death dates to herself—not absolutely, at least. She hints. She’ll bark out at people as they pass by her porch, “It’s a fine day for dying, isn’t it?”[ _]And then she’ll say something about avoiding Main Street or eating green foods . . . a tiny gift of a warning, which you can take or leave as you please—just like the biscuits she puts out with tea every day.

But you won’t dream of denying Old Lady Ellen’s advice if you have half a brain. If you have two eyes in your head to see the gleam in her eyes and the way the shadows move behind her on her porch like twisted tree limbs or the ripples in a pond surface.

Oh, no. You should know better than to ignore her warnings. After all, Old Lady Ellen knows when you’re going to die.

3

Just Another Ordinary Monday

~

It was actually just another ordinary Monday until all the fuss about a Griffin in the park started up on Clover’s feed. She sat at her computer desk, scrolling down her newsfeed and wondering if it was too late to crawl back into bed . . .

“Do we have to cover this?” she asked into the phone cradled between her ear and shoulder.

Static burst on the other end. “I’m already on my way,” her boyfriend David said, his deep voice cracking slightly over the line. “Midnight City Madness will eat this up.”

Clover sat back in her chair and considered. If she did manage to get a good story out of it, this might be her in[_ _]as a full-time staff writer for the tiny mystery gazette that ran in town. She could launch an actual career from there.

Or maybe it would be another bust.

“What about that guy with the swarm of bees where his face should be who keeps stealing lawn ornaments?” she asked. “Or the old deer down by the old train station with runes carved into its antlers?”

“I’m telling you, babe, [_this _]is the story you need. Everyone down here is already buzzing about the Griffin in the square. Soon it’s gonna be all over town. If you can write this up before anyone else, you’ll be on your way to the top of the ladder at MCM.”

It was iffy, at best.

David always thought he’d found the perfect story to launch them to the top—her as a reporter, himself as a photographer—but for all the attention any of their work had gotten they might as well be invisible, like the people old lady Ellen talked to on her porch all the time. They always seemed like great ideas, too: a local girl going into the woods and coming out white-eyed and mute; a storm of roses raining down onto the strip-mall parking lot; a mysterious figure hovering high above the town water tower.

But in the end they were all busts. An older, more experienced writer like Evelyn Echoes would write an expose on the evil depths of the yarn section at the craft store, or the dark entity incubating in the janitor’s closet at the elementary school, and Clover and David’s piece would get pushed to the back of the paper—if it got in at all.

All the attention would go to the bigger story, and they would end up at the bottom of the barrel again. This would be just like every other time. And still . . . .

“Fine.” She huffed. It was definitely too early in the morning for this. “I’ll be right down. But I want coffee. And a breakfast burrito.”

“Of course you do. I’m on it.” He hung up.

Clover swiveled around to stare at herself in the mirror on her closet door. Her red hair was a tangled mess, pale skin worn out, and black circles stood out under her eyes. What a mess. She shook her head at her reflection, closed her laptop, and left the room to get ready for the day.

It was going to be a long one.

~

By the time she met David at the park, Clover had twisted her hair up into a messy bun, crammed her notebook and a ballpoint pen into her pocket, and was dragging her twin sister Poppy by the arm behind her.

“You’re ripping my arm out of its socket.” Poppy told her calmly.

Clover ignored her, keeping a tight hold on her until she got close enough to latch onto David instead. She grabbed him by two fistfuls of his jacket and pulled him so close she could practically taste his breath on her lips.

“Please,” she said. “Tell me you have coffee.”

David rolled his eyes. “In my car, but I forgot your food.”

“Don’t care—I just need caffeine.

“Christ’s sake,” said Poppy. “She’s barely holding herself together. We ran out of instant at the house this morning. I’ll grab it for you, but then I’ve gotta jet—early shift at Winston’s.” She explained.

“Has the guy with a swarm of bees where his face should be come in again?” David asked as she walked over to where his used Malibu was parked on the street.

“Same time every day!” she called over her shoulder. “He’d probably sign an autograph if you wanted him to!”

David flipped her off and turned to face Clover. She’d watched the interaction between her him and her twin with mild interest—and she would definitely ask Poppy some follow-ups about the man with the swarm of bees where his face should be later on—but for now the only thoughts she could really focus on were that:

1) a giant griffin had climbed up the monument resembling Mayer Maxwell in the center of the square and was now screeching down at a crowed of gathered onlookers, and

2) in the absence of caffeine, her right eyebrow had started to twitch uncontrollably.

It wasn’t particularly encouraging that she could already see her rival reporter, Evelyn Echoes, already standing at the base of the monument, staring up at the great big bird creature with a look that was a cross between annoyance and amusement. Her dark skin shined with sweat, and her black hair flowed out behind her in kinky, curly clouds, tied down at the nape of her neck with a thick band to keep them in place.

Evelyn Echoes wasn’t just the best reporter in town—she also the living echo of a storm that broke local records around a hundred years ago. You don’t often get pouring rain with thunder and lightening in the middle of a Nevada July—when you do, it’s sure to leave a mark. The mark that storm left on Midnight City was Evelyn, waking in from the desert in white robes, dust and dreams flowing from her hands and her head like rain still spilling from the skies above.

Echoes was immortal, impossibly professional, and the best damn reporter in Midnight City—and she knew it, too.

“Quit watching her, if she sees you it will only make her ego bigger.” David said from her side as Poppy returned with two paper cups clutched in her hands. Finally!

Clover grabbed one of the cups and downed the scalding liquid in three seconds flat. Then she did the same with the second. Her mouth was instantly on fire, but on the bright side, she found it a bit easier to process the shrieks of the griffin as it swept a talon at the crowed from above.

She stared at the creature for a second, observing its sheer size and the shine of its feathers before she tossed her coffee cup aside, righted her blouse, and kissed her sister on the cheek.

“See ya, sucker. I’m off to get my story.” She said, walking away. She nudged David on the shoulder so he knew to follow her and then set off in the direction of the monument.

“Love you too bitch!” Poppy called out from behind her. Evelyn’s head swiveled in their direction.

Fantastic.

Clover could see the way Evelyn’s eyes gleamed just like those of the beast above them as she stepped up onto the base of the monument between Evelyn and a local guy named Barry, who was a clerk at the gas station away, and also happened to be an ancient and all-knowing deity from an unknown dimension. She nodded at Barry as David squeezed in beside her, and he gave a slight tilt of his bald, blue-skinned head back to her.

“Oh look! It’s our local [_junior _]news corespondent, Barry!” Evelyn cooed. “Clover, I looove that bun on you! So, how’s the high school paper treating you?”

“I—”

She moved on before Clover could even finish. “And if it isn’t little my favorite little shutterbug, David . . . uh . . . ?”

“Murad.” David supplied helpfully.

“Of course,” Evelyn said. “Such a beautiful Indian name.”

“It’s Arabic. I’m Pakistani.”

“Of course you are. So, Clover! Here to get the big scoop? Well I’m sorry to tell you sweetheart, but it ain’t much to see out here. Animal control’s already on the way. Old Lady Ellen called them after the Griffin started pooping on Mayor Maxwell’s head. Well, heads.”

Clover looked up at the telltale white stains on the statue’s double skulls, and then across the street to the right of the square, at the dark shadows swirling behind Old Lady Ellen where she rocked on her porch chair, steam rising from the chipped, daisy-patterned mug she clutched in her hands. Her three beady black eyes met Clover’s, and she winked at her.

Clover waved. Old Lady Ellen used to babysit her.

“Well,” she said, turning back to Evelyn, “I’m sure I can find something here to write about. Unless you’re afraid of the competition?”

Evelyn actually laughed out loud. “Oh, but of course not, my young friend! Write about whatever you want. On the contrary—I don’t plan on reporting [_this _]at all.” She waved a hand up at the griffin where it still glared at them. She said [_this _]as if the magical being above her was no more exciting than a sale on secondhand shoes at the bowling alley across town.

“What are you going to report then?” just as Clover spoke, Evelyn’s phone buzzed in her hand, and her face split into a grin that reminded Clover of the sky spreading open before a rare downpour.

“The comet that just hit the hospital.” She said as she read the screen, clearly pleased as punch.

“What?” David sputtered. Clover smacked him on the back while he coughed, and looked to Evelyn for an answer, but the women who was nothing but the memory of a storm was already rushing away.

“Gotta jet!” she called back as she raced into the street and leapt into the sky.

Her feet left the ground, and she was gone in a blink, like she was part of the sky. A Sylph in spirit and in structure.

Clover bit back a spike of jealousy at the ability to become one with the wind and turned back to David, who had long-since stopped choking. “Okay,” she said. “We ditch the griffin, beat that bitch to the hospital, and strike gold on her story. Let’s go!”

Barry reached out and grabbed her as she turned to go, and he didn’t have to speak to say anything—he just showed her, images flowing from his mind to hers like information streaming through a wire. She saw a series of jagged cliffs, a deep ravine with a river and a twisting path at the bottom, a narrow ledge, a gaping cave mouth . . . .

A nest.

“The canyons!” she exclaimed out loud, snatching her hand back from him and facing her boyfriend. She wrapped her tiny hands around the tanned skin of his wrists and yanked him closer. “The canyons!”

“Yes!” he shouted. “The canyons! What about the canyons?”

“Barry says the Griffin came down from it’s nest because something scared it off! Something even bigger and badder!”

David’s grin faded. “That sounds . . . not fun.” He said a little too decidedly.

Clover shrugged. “Guess I’m going up alone. Hope I don’t get picked up by an axe murder while I’m walking down the road with one thumb up, though . . . I’m too pretty to have my face cut off by a homicidal maniac.”

“No one,” said David, “is too pretty to have their face cut off by a homicidal maniac.”

“So are you driving, or am I?”

With a sigh and a start, David took off towards the car. Clover clapped, shrieked loudly enough to startle the griffin itself, and then dove after her boyfriend with one last wave at Barry, Old Lady Ellen, and the shadows that swallowed up all the space behind her . . . .

~

The canyons started about a mile and a half North of town, deep ravines gouged into the scorched, barren countryside, forming tunnels of white and orange rock that spread over the desert like ripples on the surface of calm water.

The canyon was where the griffin kept its nest, in a cave that was easily accessible via a steep, narrow path that led down and around the edge of the cliff in a winding route. They had to ditch the car and walk for fifteen minutes just to get to it, and once they were on it, they discovered it was so narrow that they had to squeeze one by one.

Although, Clover thought as they went down, she had already known it would be a tight fit. Just like she’d known where it would be and that it would lead them right to the right cave. She could still see everything Barry had showed her in the vision he’d given her. It had been incredibly helpful of him, too. Should she send him a fruit cake for Christmas? Did ancient deities from other worlds even acknowledge Christmas? [_Probably, _]she thought. Everyone liked consumerism and Christmas lights. Even in Nevada. Especially in Nevada.

She ducked to avoid a chunk of bedrock jutting out from the side of the cliff-side, and then she saw it. The cave stood out like a gaping black mouth on the side of the canyon wall, ready to swallow them up whole and turn them to nothing in the darkness.

Something horrible was waiting inside. She knew that much. She wasn’t sure she wanted to know more.

Except that’s why we’re here in the first place. She bit her lip. “Let’s go slow.” She said, and then, so she didn’t seem like a coward, “There could be drop-offs or something . . . .”

“Right,” David said. He stepped out onto the ledge beside her. “Are you sure about this?”

Clover stared into the mouth of the cave, considering. She felts like it was looking back at her—not whatever was inside, but the cave itself—peering into her eyes and seeing just how afraid she really was. She couldn’t let it win. Not if she wanted to out-report Evelyn and get a staff position on an [_actual _]paper instead of the rag that was the Midnight City High School Newspaper.

“Sure as I am ginger,” she chirped. She was going for cheerful, but her voice cracked halfway through.

She regretted saying it instantly as David shrugged and stepped towards the cave. He moved slowly, like a scared mouse sure an owl was watching it from above, sliding his sneakers across the ledge until he stood in the open mouth of the cave.

“Huh,” he said, turning to her. “It’s really cold inside.”

And that’s when the darkness of the cave [_surged _]forward behind him like a living thing and pulled him into the darkness.

“David!” Clover launched herself after him into the dark so fast she didn’t even have time to think before she was flying into the cold and the cobwebs, running headfirst into the dark. She tripped over a boulder and went skidding across the cave floor, shards of rock flying up underneath her.

The stones bit into her shins, scraped her jeans and sliced open her legs, and she screeched at the top of her lungs. “Fuck!” She slammed her fist on the ground to distract herself from the pain, and shouted David’s name again.

No answer.

And then: the screaming.

It was like nothing she’d ever heard in her life—a sound so terrible she knew she would be able to hear it in perfect clarity for years to come if she ever got out of here. It would haunt her for the rest of her life.

It was the sound of David dying.

“David! David where are you!”

There was another voice screeching into the dark, then—something inhuman and shrill. The sound of breaking glass come spilling out the mouth of a living thing.

What the hell was in this cave with them?

She should have stayed home, should have sat around online all day and done her Chemistry homework and made pasta with Poppy when she got home from the pie house. Now she was going to die in the dark, listening to David shout and scream and sob her name. She crawled across the cave floor, ignoring everything, focused only on David.

“Not today,” she whispered to herself in the dark. “Old Lady Ellen would have fucking told you if it was today. This is not how you end, Clover Pike.”

She dug her fingers into the dirt. Forced herself to her feet.

It was time to fight.

“Clover!”

She spun around. “David!” she couldn’t see anything, but she could stumble foreword in the dark at the sound of his voice. As long as she had sound, she would be alright. She moved forward until her foot caught on a boulder and her ankle twisted too far to the right.

She choked on her own cry as she fell against the cave wall. The impact sent a jolt through her small frame and she forced herself to breathe.

And then it was there.

She couldn’t explain how she knew—just that something deep inside her, a part of her that was ancient and always afraid, told her that she was being watched.

In the darkness, she heard a noise, soft and papery—fabric moving, like dirty rags dragging across the cave floor. And then there was hot, rancid breath on her face. It stank of decomposition, rotting meat and rancid eggs, like somewhere deep inside it was rotting . . . .

Fingers ghosted across the skin of her collarbone, just above the collar of her shirt. Nails long and sharp, pointed, gliding over her skin as if they were caressing her.

Oh god.

She held her breath and squeezed her eyes shut. She couldn’t hear David anymore, couldn’t hear anything at all.

She moved back, and then—

Movement. Rock crumbled behind her, and her eyes flew open as she felt herself slip further down the cave wall. Something fell from the ceiling, and the entire cave seemed to shift and groan. Then, as if it had only been waiting for the right moment to make an entrance, sunlight spilled in—a thick shaft of light burst through the cave roof directly in front of her. A miracle blooming like a flower. And suddenly she was alone again. Half on the floor, in the dim light of the cave. She was alive.

To her right there was a flurry of movement as something tall and slender and dark streaked down a now-illuminated tunnel further down the cave, away from the light. And, running towards her in the opposite direction down the tunnel that ran parallel to it, was David.

Bloody, covered in sweat and dust and with thick tear trails still shining on his face—he let out a strangled half-cry, half-grunt noise when he saw her, but he didn’t stop running: he wrapped a single hand around her upper arm and [_dragged her _]out of the cave. Rocks sliced into her legs as she stumbled, but she didn’t complain. She just shoved herself even faster, and they burst from the cave like a couple of wild animals, collapsing onto the sunlit ledge and choking on their own coughs and cries.

“It bit me, it bit my throat! I could feel it’s fucking teeth [_inside _]of my neck—” and then she was clawing her way onto her feet and dragging him, still bleeding, up the steep path to the clifftop. He needed help, and she couldn’t check him out if that thing could fly out and grab them again at any second.

It was a slow, heavy, hard trip, and she thought that at any minute they were about to fall to their deaths.

But they didn’t. They made their way up and around and back into the desert. David collapsed in the sand, and Clover fell over him, hands already drawing her phone out of her pocket. The screen was busted.

“No!” she tossed the useless thing away into the sand. “Okay,” she said. “I’ll just do this myself, right? No big deal.” She tore her shirt over her head and pressed it against his neck. “Hold that there.” She advised him. He was passing out quickly.

Whatever it was hadn’t hit his jugular—he was alive, at least. For now.

She shoved herself under his arms and dragged him up, letting him lean on her back like a human cape, arm around her neck, head on her shoulder. She led him back to the car, reminding him to keep pressure on his neck.

“Looks like we’ll get to see that comet that hit the hospital after all, huh?” she asked as she shoved him into the passenger side. She practically slid over the hood to reach her own door and propel herself in to start the engine. As the car growled to life beneath her, David mumbled something.

“Huh?” she asked, putting it in drive.

David mumbled again. “Just . . . another ordinary Monday . . . in Midnight City . . . huh?”

Clover actually burst out laughing, even though she kind of wanted to cry. Well hell, she thought. We almost died, I will probably have nightmares for years to come, and we still don’t have an actual story.

But yeah, all in all, it was just another ordinary Monday in Midnight City.

4

Customer Satisfaction

~

I’ve only seen the man with a swarm of bees where his face should be once: he came in and ordered a slice of apple pie.

I haven’t been working at the diner long. Haven’t been working long at all, for that matter. It isn’t glamorous busting tables to save cash on the side for a used car. Clover just walks everywhere—or gets Mom or Dad or David to drive her. I’d rather drive myself. But that means working at least five days a week at Winston’s, and at Winston’s, it’s all about customer satisfaction.

Or at least that’s what the owner Winston used to say when he prepped us every morning—now he doesn’t say anything at all. He just slides scraps of paper out from under his office door with ancient runes and blueprints for torture machine scribbled on them.

I think it means he wants us to keep up the good work. Or for [_me _]to keep up the good work, specifically, since my coworker Clive just spends all of his time leeching the customer wifi. Because good work keeps customers satisfied. And when it comes to customers themselves? Well . . . you learn not to judge.

Toad with three heads comes in? Serve her up a slice of pineapple pie and compliment her warts. Screaming phantom of a long-dead city official wants a milkshake in the corner booth? Bring it as fast as you can.

A man with a swarm of bees where his face should be?

No problemo.

You learn not to judge. Learn to keep your mouth shut.

So when he comes in again tonight just after six, I don’t think much of it. I have a math test on Wednesday and my teacher is a tool, and I’m thinking of running for class president, since my only competition is a doll named Cynthia with dark symbols embellished on her forehead and the humming of a swarm of locusts echoing out from the hollow center of her chest. Not to mention that the milkshake machine is broken, and Clive is at it again.

Clive is a really pretty southern Paiute boy with amber-toned skin and silky black hair he that pulls back from his face, and he spends most of his time sitting at the counter on his phone.

It’s not that Clive is lazy—it’s just that he doesn’t have home internet, and he’s obsessed with photography—so whenever he comes in he spends most of his time browsing the web on his cracked old phone. I try to cut him some slack so he doesn’t quit on me, though, since he’s the only one who knows how to make the pecan pie, and I can’t afford to lose him.

“Hey,” I snap at him. He’s sitting at the counter next to me with his phone lit up in his lap like usual. “Can you at least take it in the kitchen if you’re not going to work? Watch the pies I have in.”

“Can’t, Poppy.” He drawls, not looking away from his Instagram feed. “There’s some super gross juice or something leaking out from under Winston’s office door.”

“Again?”

“Least it’s not acidic this time,” he tells me, and swivels around on his stool. I find it sort of sad that I actually do count that as a blessing.

Before I can go deal with it I’ve got bees buzzing all over in front of me. The man with the swarm of bees where his face should be is standing there, his spicy cologne filling the air while he points with one finger at the apple pie sitting behind the glass display section of the counter with a white-gloved hand.

“One slice of classic apple coming right up,” I tell him. “That’s three-ninety-nine, please.”

He hands me his cash and I ring him up, slide back his change and watch he takes it silently—well, as silent as you can be when your face is a swath of living, buzzing insects. He goes to the same booth he sat in last time—the chipped one near the door with the naughty graffiti in it. I scoop up a slice of pie and slip it onto a plate to bring to him.

At his table, he sits stock still while I set his plate and fork down in front of him. Then he gives me a thumbs up.

I smile, nod, and wipe my forehead on the back of my hand as I walk away. Back behind the counter, I feel Clive’s eyes on me.

“What?” I ask.

“Don’t it freak you out? That his face is a bunch of bees?”

I think about it for a second, then shrug. “Well,” I say. “At least they ain’t wasps.”

5

The Girl

~

The girl is not what she appears to be. She looks like she always has. Smells like she always has. Has the same light brown mole right in the middle of her chin that’s always been there.

But she is not the same girl.

She—if it even [_is _]a she, anymore—is something else. Something that quivers beneath skin and shifts out of the corner of your eye, so fast you look around to see she hasn’t even moved at all. You don’t know where your real daughter went, but you know that this is not her.

“Mommy,” she hums. “Will you check under the bed for monsters?”

You ignore the rot in her voice and kneel to look into the narrow space beneath the bed. The darkness is thick and empty, and at the same time, full of writhing, watching shadows. You swallow and sit back up.

The girl who is not what she appears to be smiles at you. She knows that you know.

“There’s nothing there at all, sweetheart.” You force out. Her grin remains in place as she slides beneath the covers. You turn to go.

“Mommy? I love you.” You look back in time to see her close her eyes, but you know she’s still watching you.

Slowly, you turn away again and force one foot in front of the other until you’re outside of the room with the door shut behind you. On the other side, in the darkness, the girl waits. You do not know where she came from. You do not know what she wants.

But you know that the girl is not what she appears to be.

6

I Am The Rot

~

I am the rot.

I am the green flesh at the edge of a fatal wound, I am a writhing mass of maggots plunging deeper into a corpse. I am the harbinger of the true end.

I am the keeper of silence, and I own all things, eventually . . . I even own you.

I am the rot.

7

Fools

~

We are the fools who suffer for you—you know, the ones living inside of your basement crawlspace? We are always waiting. Always listening.

Always calling to you . . . .

Every noise in the night, every echo in the back of your mind that you want to run away from. We are the noises coming from down the hall, the ones waiting in the wee hours. We call you to us, but you never come. And yet, here we are, again and again and again, beckoning, and biding our time.

We call you to us, even though we know you won’t come. But someday . . . someday, you might . . . .

And until then, we are the fools who suffer for you.

8

Forget Today

~

“It’s gone.”

“Yeah.”

“It’s gone!”

“I gave it to that guy. God, why are spazzing?”

“You gave it to the . . . oh . . . oh no. No, no no no.”

“Bitch what is wrong?”

I can’t fucking deal with this today. I looks at the empty case still open beside me. Look at Gwen standing above me, one hand on her hip, other holding up her still-smoking cigar. She’s always smoking those disgusting fucking cigars.

“When did you give it to him, Gwen?”

She blinks. “Bout four hours ago? Five? He came by and grabbed it, said it was lucky timing.”

“Lucky timing? Gwen! Nobody knows about this but you and me!”

“I know,” she says. She takes a drag, hacks. When she’s done coughing she goes, “But he knew. That’s how I knew you told him. You two fuckin’ or something?”

I get up. Go to the mirror. Shove inky black strands behind my ears and dab at the sweat beading on my tan skin with the sleeves of my shirt.

The timepiece is gone.

Small thing, really. I found it on the doorstep last week. More like it found me if I’m being honest. Had a tiny note with my name written on it in cursive scrawl the shame shade as my hair.

[Helen Oshiro, _]— _love X.

It was a simple analog clock set into a tiny oval of gold, wound on a thin matching chain. It had an old, clunky clasp, and all of it was slightly tarnished, but it was still beautiful.

When I picked it up, it showed me things. Glorious things.

Gold and grit, the sand blowing at me in the breeze, wind pulling at the hem of my dress. An old dressbut new in the time of the dreamlike something from a historical movie . . . and a man. A handsome man, with dark hair and dark eyes and a hot touch. A chalice. Wine? The ring on his hand, an old sapphire that gleamed in the low light. But then it was bright, and I was alone and a different man was walking towards me through the haze of the sun. Dark skinned and brown-eyed. Sturdy.

“You gotta run, Helen.” He told me.

I wanted to ask him why, but I wasn’t in control of my own mouth. Instead I told him, “He can’t take what he wants from me, Thomas. I have a plan. You just keep yourself safe. Don’t do anything stupid tonight.”

“Tonight?” His eyebrows scrunched together, then his eyes widened in realization. He opened his mouth

And the vision ended. I was slammed back into reality, standing in the same spot on the front step, swaying and half-delirious. But they kept coming, kept showing me things from another time, another place under the hot sun, in the waste of the desert, all scrubland and hot sand.

Gwen saw it happen, too. Saw my eyes go entirely white while we sat at the kitchen table the next morning as another one of the visions took me. Afterwards I told her not to tell anyone, to just keep her mouth shut while I figured out what they were trying to tell me. I should never have roomed with her. Theodora even said so; a week before the day we moved in. We were sitting on the ratty old couch in the back room of a frat house on the campus. It was rush week so all the best parties were at MCU, and we were sitting beside that freaky doll, Cynthia.

I had mild objections to a high school girl attending the same party where I’d just seen the blue God from the Maxwell Square gas station snorting lines off of Old Lady Ellen’s granddaughter’s ass. But it was kind of hard to hear over the sound of the locusts inside her chest, and I was grateful for the noise pollution, so I didn’t say anything. Gwen was across the room, and I didn’t want her to hear what we were saying.

“You really don’t like her?”

Theo looked at me sideways. Her dark skin was dusted with gold glitter across her cheeks, and her round hazel eyes were lit up with energy. “Are you kidding me?” she looked across the room to where Gwen was leaning on the windowsill smoking one of her cigars, calling down to the boys on the lawn. “She’s white trash in pretty packaging.”

“She’s just really laid back. She’s fun.”

“But not the brightest. Do whatever you want, I’m just saying, don’t expect it to last.”

I frowned. “You really think it won’t work out?”

“I think she’ll start to annoy you.”

After that I started tickling her, which turned to kissing her, which somehow led us to doing bong rips in the kitchen with a girl named Tina, who spent the entire time chanting about blood and bones on the desert floor. Now I wish I could go back to that night and slap myself, because Theo was right.

Looking at Gwen, all I want to do is shake her by the shoulders. I close my eyes and try not to scream. “He must be the one who left it here.”

“So you didn’t know him?”

“Nope.”

She pales. “Oh.”

I turn away, kick the empty wooden case I kept the timepiece in back beneath the bed. Why would he want to take it back if he left it in the first place? Am I supposed to find it? Find him?

“So what do we do now?” Gwen asks. She puts her cigar out on the door frame. We’re not getting our safety deposit back.

“We do nothing. I have to go to Theo’s anyway.” I grab my phone off the desk and stride past her. “If he comes back, kick him in the balls and slam the door in his face.”

“You don’t want to get the clock back?” Gwen follows me into the living room and drops onto the couch. “Don’t you need to know what the visions mean?”

I think of the sharp lines of my name on the note. I think of the things the timepiece showed me. The way it felt in my hands, cold gold and round edges, the same as the visions it fed me. I think of the way I was starting to love it. I think of the way it’s too beautiful to be anything but a trap.

“No.” I say. “I don’t need to know. I need to forget.”

And I walk out the door.

9

Eat Us Alive

~

I have butterfly marks. Red and blue splotches all across the backs of my pale hands, marking the flesh like tattoos. The markings move sometimes.

I’m sixteen, but I feel like something timeless.

I guess it’s because everyone is always looking at me like they expect me to be a piece of art, but I’m really just a girl. Disappointment piles on as heavily as the years do. I spend most of my time sneaking off to be alone, so it’s not out of the ordinary for me to go the old ruins out on the edge of town.

But it is out of the ordinary for me to find someone else here.

I don’t think that many people know about the ruins. I only come here because the Indian girl who used to live next door took me here before she moved to Minneapolis with her parents. She said she found it because she saw the sands shifting at just the right time while she was walking one day.

History pulsing in the shadows like a beating heart here. The daylight filters in through the cracks in the stone roof, and half of the wide hall has sunken into the sand, but still, you can see traces of elegance in the old temple.

Or at least, I think it’s a temple. There’s a statue in the center of the room—some sort of woman, half-swallowed by the sand, her sculpted face serene and still. I’ve never seen anyone else here, and I come at least once a week to be alone.

Yet here the girl is in front of me. She’s turned away, facing the wall, watching the sunbeams shift in the hot air. Her hair is the shame pale blonde as mine, and we’ve got the same light skin. I can smell her perfume from here, something sweet, like liquid sugar seeping into the air. I choke on it.

“Hey,” I say.

She turns around. And the whole world stops.

She’s wearing my face.

“Margo.” She says. Nothing else.

I stand and stare. Am I dreaming? Am I insane?

She steps forward and, before I can think to try and stop her, she runs her fingers over my cheek. Her nails are a lot sharper than mine. “Darling,” she says in a singsong copy of my own voice. “I’ve been waiting here for you for so long.”

“Waiting? For me?”

“ I have something to show you,” she purrs. She takes my hands and pulls it gently in her direction. Her hand is cold. “Come with me?”

Our eyes meet, and somehow I know she’s asking for my permission. That if I tear my hand free and walk away, she might let me go. She pulls on my hand again, and I feel something shudder deep inside me.

I feel a pull at the center of my chest, trying to tear me back through the door, out of the temple and back into town. I’m filled with a desperate longing to let my feet carry me out into the light and never look back.

When I look down at our hands entwined, I see we’re not exact copies: her hands are sharper, longer, bones jutting out into sharp points beneath her washed-out flesh. And she doesn’t have my birthmarks. The scarlet and cobalt stains that paint my hands are absent on hers. When I look into her eyes, I see something like thirst. Like a longing of her own she’s trying to suppress. I want to run, because I know somewhere outside the light of this fire suddenly burning between us she’s hiding something in the darkness that she wants to drag me into.

“Where?” I ask. She frowns.

“Somewhere else. Somewhere beneath the sand.”

I force my teeth not to clatter. The cold of her hand is seeping beneath my own skin, and I feel like I’m cupping ice cubes in my palm and letting them melt. I start to go numb.

“Beneath the sand?”

She smiles. “Oh, yes. Beneath our own feet. Down into my den.”

She has a den. Like a snake.

“I don’t know.” I say. I tug my hand away. She tugs it back.

I sniff, and suddenly I want to retch—he smell of her perfume has been replaced by something like sewage and rotting flesh. I found a dead raccoon under our porch once, and when I tried to pull it out with the rake, its body came apart under the pointed edge of the tool. It must have been down there a long time, decomposing. Maggots spilled out of the body along with a mess of red and pink flesh, and the stench it raised is like the one I smell now.

“Ugh! What the hell is that?” I gag as it starts to seep down my throat. I pull my arm again, and she lets it go to grip my shoulders instead.

As she leans in close, the smell starts to get stronger. “It’s my mask,” she says mournfully. “So much pretty flesh, but I can only keep it on for so long. It’s starting to spoil. If you come down to my den you can see the real me, can see how pretty my bones are. How pale . . . .”

“What? Let go of me!” Her fingers tighten on my arms and I cry out in pain as the sharp nails dig into my skin.

I reach out to shove her and feel something give beneath my hands, and suddenly her chest is caving in on itself. Beneath her simple white tank top, a mirror of mine, her torso twists inward, and blood starts to seep through the fabric. She hisses as the stain starts to spread.

“Oh my god!” I have to get out of here.

“Come with me!” Her voice sounds nothing like mine now. It’s deep and scratchy and it echoes in my mind even after she stops speaking, like a record on repeat. “I need you!”

“Why?”

“Come and see.”

I can’t stop retching, and I want to hurl, but she’s holding me so close. I can barely feel my arms anymore, and my head is swimming. “Tell me why!”

“So I can make your pretty marks my own,” she whispers in my ear. “So I can eat you up like the others and add you to my collection. So I can be free.” She peers around me at the wide open exit, at the sunlight straining across the desert. “I used to be free. Used to, but they never come anymore. But you came.”

I clench my teeth. “I don’t want to come to your den.”

“I would be doing you a favor!” she says, like she doesn’t even hear me. “Make it quick, make it easy. Make it feel good. Or like nothing at all, if that’s what you want.

“I’ll show you!” she says. “Show you how easy it is! In and out, just like that! Then you can come down and stay . . . .”

Show me. I look down at the sand beneath my feet, the tiny grains spilling over each other. Her feet have sunken an inch into the sand already. I can feel the open door behind me like eyes on my back. All I need is three seconds. She’s sliding her cold hands up and down my arms, and I see my birthmarks starting to fade beneath her hands, the color seeping out bit by bit. She’s practically vibrating beside me, and the stench is still filling up the entire world.

“Okay.” I say. “Show me.”

She laughs, smiles so hard the skin starts to strain and split at the edges of her mouth, tearing like dry paper. Dark blood starts to dribble down her chin, and she runs her tongue over one of the wounds. I can see myself reflected in her eyes, and I know she wants to keep me there.

Without a word, she starts to sink into the ground. The sand absorbs her until she’s nothing but a face framed in the grains, and then even that is gone. The second she disappears entirely my heart stops.

The second after that, I’m running.

I spin around and as I bolt at the door, the fact that every single second is a chance for her to come tearing back up blares through my mind. I charge at the open archway and the sunlight on the other side.

I’m almost there when the sand shifts beneath me and she bursts from below the ground in an explosion of sand and reaching hands. Her fingers wrap around my ankle and I topple onto the ground, dust filling my mouth.

Her nails cut into my skin, and she starts to crawl over me, dragging herself up out of the sand. I roll around underneath her and slam a fistful of sand into her face. Her nose cracks sharply under my hand and almost instantly her blood starts to spill into my mouth. I choke on the thickness of it, the grit, and turn my head to the side to spit it out. Then I punch her in the head as hard as I can.

She falls to the side, and I scramble out from under her on my back. I roll onto my stomach and shove myself up and forward. She moves behind me, and I feel her reach for me. Her fingers scrap the back of my neck—and then I’m falling out into the sunlight, the heat hitting me all at once. I stumble and fall onto my knees, coughing so hard I almost puke as her sour blood dribbles from my mouth.

There’s a sound behind me like a low growl, and I look back at her. She’s standing in the shadows on the other side of the arch, and she doesn’t look like me anymore. She looks like the sculpture, half buried in the sand and the shadows behind her. She meets my eyes and I can almost feel her hunger for me.

And then she turns and walks back into the shadows until I can’t see her anymore at all. Gone.

I stand up and run.

~

I have butterfly marks. Red and blue splotches on the back of my hands like spilled oil pants spreading across a canvas. I almost lost them. I almost lost a lot more.

I don’t go to the temple anymore. I don’t go anywhere alone. And I don’t like to look in the mirror now. Not if I can help it.

There’s something I can’t unsee in my own eyes, a thirst that isn’t mine, a reminder of things that I want to forget but can’t. Things that hide in the darkness down beneath the sand. Things that are empty and rotting inside. Things that don’t see the light.

I still hear her at night, whispering to me from the open air of the desert. Her voice comes from all around and from inside my own head. I know she’s still waiting for me out in the desert, wearing my face and waiting for the day she can drag me down into her den.

Sometimes evil is a mirror image. And once we look it in the eyes? It can eat us alive.

10

Nostalgia

~

Nostalgia wears his favorite face today, and Robert hates her for it. She’s an exact replica of his late mother this morning. She walks behind dust and veils and vanishing mirrors, a study in mothballs and murdered memories.

He sits at the kitchen table to eat his breakfast, and she sits next to him.

“Leave me alone!” he tells her. “I’ve got nothing left to give you.”

“No,” she says without speaking at all. “There is always more to give me. You are all the same, you want to keep to yourself what you know you can’t. But I always find them—the ones who skitter away. I pluck them up and swallow them down and then I know—I know so many[_ _]beautiful, dark things . . . .” she sighs and sinks into her chair. “And I know something new today,” she says.

“No.” Robert tells her. He scoops up a spoonful of his Fruit Loops and looks away.

“When you were five,” she starts.

“Shut up!”

“When you were five, you owned a rabbit. He was small and white and swift, and you named him Snow for the color of his coat.

“You’re wrong. That’s not real.” He grips his spoon too tightly, sees his knuckles go white around the silverware. “None of this happened,” he insists. But she knows the truth. She always knows the truth. She knows it better than he does, and that’s the entire point.

“Yes, it did,” she says. “And your father came home one day, and he caught Snow, and he cooked him up, and he forced you to—”

“Shut up!” he stands so quickly he sends his bowl flying, milk and rainbow bits spraying everywhere.

She watches him, for just a moment, her face poised like the perfect question, a scale that could tip towards torment or pardon at her own whim. And then, slowly, so slowly he can barely see it, she smiles . . . .

“That’s alright,” she says. “I can come back later. After all, there’s always time to remember.”

She moves from the room like a swath of fabric fluttering in the wind, out of the kitchen and down the dark hall, until she dissipates like smoke in the still air.

Robert sits and stares at the mess he’s made, and he waits for her to come back.

11

Lost

~

You know what happens to the ones who get lost like you. You know what they whisper about behind closed doors in town, about the ones in the ravine and the things they do to those who wander.

You know better than to stop. You know better than to beg, too.

So you walk.

Your feet hurt, and you can’t remember if you’ve passed this rock before, and you can’t be sure if those skittering sounds are the tree branches scraping against the rock walls, or if it’s the sound of their claws, creeping across the cracked dirt in the darkness behind you.

You aren’t about to risk it to find out, either. Instead you keep moving. You don’t stop. You don’t think.

And you definitely don’t admit that you’re lost. Not yet at least. But when you do?

When you do, they’ll be ready for you.

They’re always ready for the lost.

12

Kiss The Sun

~

You know you’re supposed to be thinking about letting him down and leaving right now, but all you can really focus on is how good he tastes. His hands tighten on your body, squeeze your sides, pull you closer down onto him.

For a guy who says he’s just experimenting, he sure does love the way you feel on top of him.

The first night you met you thought that Aaron didn’t even notice that you were flirting. You’ve flirted on straight boys before and paid for it with punches to the head, or dirty looks at least. But sometimes they don’t even realize it’s happening—can’t quite wrap their head around it even when it’s practically spelled out in front of them. But exactly five minutes after you slid out of the party and into the yard for some air, Aaron was sneaking out after you and shoving you against the wall without a word, his fire melting into you the minute your lips met.

You’re not supposed to fall for closet cases. That’s the golden fucking rule. And you didn’t just break it: you ran over it in your mom’s shitty old Chevy and then dumped its corpse off the edge of a fucking canyon. You couldn’t help yourself.

Or hold on to any sense of sanity when his rough lips are gliding across your skin, when he holds you and whispers your name like a prayer in the dark, like it’s the only thing that keeps him going.

You came here to show him everything he has to lose. Tease him and leave him hanging, get out before he got his hands on you—but now you don’t want to leave. You don’t even care that on Monday at school he’s going to look at you like you don’t know each other. That he’ll sit on the other side of the cafeteria with his friends and act like you don’t even exist, even though you’re the only thing in his head and you both know it.

Whatever. Fuck it. You can do it tomorrow as long as it means you get to spend tonight like this. When you kiss the sun, you get burned—but sometimes the light is all you have, even when it’s so bright it blinds you.

So instead of doing what you’re supposed to, you do exactly what you’re not; you press yourself even closer to him, taste the salt on his lips, moan into his mouth when he bites your lip. Whisper, “I love you.”

He goes still, and then he’s sitting up, pushing you so you slide onto the couch next to him. Shame floods you, then anger. He won’t even look you in the fucking eye.

He stands up and walks across the room. “I need some air,” he says. He grabs his cigarette case and lighter from the end table and then he’s stepping outside the screen door of the cabin, and he’s gone. Well fuck.

You get up and go down the narrow hall between the bedroom and the exterior wall to the tiny kitchen. The overhead bulb is blown out, so you see by the dim glow of the oven light as you grab a mug from beside the sink and turn on the tap. You should have left when you had the chance. But you had to be a fucking idiot and tell him you loved him.

What the fuck is wrong with you? Glutton for punishment, you think as you turn off the tap and down the water. Your phone is on the kitchen table. Maybe you should call Keva and ask to meet up somewhere. She can probably score the two of you some free drinks if you catch her early enough. Aaron sure as hell isn’t going to be up for another round tonight, and you’d rather not sit in silence with him and the elephant in the room. You’re just reaching for your phone when he starts screaming from outside.

There a sound like a body hitting the ground, and then silence. Five seconds later, when you’re halfway down the hall, he explodes through the screen door and slams it behind him. He shoves the real door closed, too, and locks it.

Something big hits it from the other side.

“What happened?” You’re beside him instantly. His side is drenched in blood, and through the torn material of his undershirt you can see two rows of massive bite marks beneath his ribs. “Aaron what the hell is out there?”

“I don’t know!” he leans against the door, breathing heavy. You listen, but there’s nothing outside now. Not a sound. “I was walking, smoking, and I heard this noise—like someone walking behind me. I turned around to see who was there, and then there was just this thing. It lifted me right off the fucking ground, Alex.”

“Let me see!” you shove his hand away from the wound and fold his shirt up over it so you can get a closer look.

He’s bleeding bad, and the bite marks look deep. What on earth has teeth like these? You prob at the edges of the wound, and he cries out sharply. He arches up beneath your fingers and slams back down.

“Fuck! God, Alex, I think it had venom or something. Something feels really wrong—it’s fucking stinging inside me!” He cries out again and grabs onto the edge of the sofa as his body jerks in pain.

“Okay,” you say. “I’m getting you water and bandages.”

“Under the bathroom sink.”

You turn around and bolt back down the hall. In the bathroom your hands shake as you kneel on the cold tiles, whip open the cabinet beneath the sink, and start rooting through all the little boxes and bottles down there. Come on, you think, bandages, where are you? You’ve just found the box when the light flickers out overhead and plunges you into near-total darkness.

“Dammit!” you drop the bandages. There’s a thud from somewhere down the hall, then silence. “Aaron?”

No answer.

You stand up and shove the door open. There’s a sound like something being dragged, and then nothing. The oven light has gone out too.

A ball of dread drops into the pit of your stomach, but you try to ignore it. You step out of the bathroom and pad, barefoot, to the start of the hallway. Aaron is standing in the dark at the other end. He doesn’t say anything.

“Babe?” you say. He’s nothing but an outline in the darkness, a shadow cast by the moonlight shining through the living room windows behind him.

His head starts to twist in a way it shouldn’t.

Your heart drops out of your chest as he moves his skull around in a rough circle. Not even halfway through, there’s a sound like a crack deep inside of him as his skull snaps, and then he begins to scream. To shriek.

The sound is like nothing you’ve ever heard.

Like nothing even human.

He charges at you from the end of the hall and plows into your side so fast you have no time to run, no time to think about what’s happening. Your head slams against the floor and you see stars for a second. The fall knocks him off of you and Aaron—if this is even Aaron anymore—slams against the wall. For a second you’re too stunned to move, but then you scramble backwards with strength you didn’t know you had until your back hits the coffee table.

Aaron recovers from the fall and lunges at you, but you roll out of the way and dive headfirst into the bathroom, slam the door behind you just as he knocks into it, and it shakes in its frame. You brace yourself against it from the other side and shove the lock home, trapping him outside.

You breathe.

It’s dark in here, and cold, and you don’t know if you’re strong enough to even move from your spot in front of the door. There’s a scurrying noise on the other side, and then silence.

You feel the back of your aching head and your hand comes away wet. When you try to move to the sink to splash some water on your face you trip over the box of bandages you left on the floor and fall against the edge of the sink, knocking the breath out of yourself. You slide onto the floor.

Fuck. Think, you idiot! What do you do? You look up at the window, a thin rectangle in the darkness. It’s too high for you to reach. And what if the thing that bit Aaron is still out there?

Aaron _. . . what the hell happened to him? _I think it had venom or something, he said. And then.

It wouldn’t be the first time something like this had happened. Last month after David Murad got bit by that thing in one of the caves down in the canyons, he got real sick for a week and went into a catatonic state. Everyone thought he’d stay in it forever for a while—but then one morning he just snapped out of it, went right back to normal. No one goes up to that cave anymore, though.

And this? This is something else entirely. You hear the sound of his neck snapping in your head again and gag. Aaron isn’t coming back. Not like David did. Not ever.

You bite your fist as a sob wracks through your frame and resist the urge to scream. You need a way out. Or help.

You hear your phone ringing, and it’s like a heavenly choir has descended into the dark to lift you out of this nightmare. [_Your phone! _]You can call for help! Except that it’s out there, on the kitchen table. With him.

Is he in the kitchen, or has he gone back down the hallway? Is he waiting for you right outside the door?

You look at the thin slice of wood keeping you safe from that thing and wonder if you can make it to the table and back in time before he can get to you. You look back to the window, but you’re not getting any smaller. It’s not an option.

You can still feel your head bleeding, the wet heat pooling down your neck, and everything feels so heavy. You wish it wasn’t so dark. Wish you could see the sunlight. But you had your chance at the sun, and you blew it: you kissed him too hard, burned each other out, and sent him away to get bitten by a monster. Now the light of your mistakes is burning too bright.

You have one option. Either you get the phone and you get help, or you get dragged into the dark by the thing sitting out there in your boyfriend’s body. But you can’t just sit here and bleed to death.

It’s time to look into the light, even if it blinds you.

You stand up. Open the door. And step out.

13

Inner Animal

~

I wake up in the middle of the night sometimes, and I do things I don’t remember.

On the first morning of summer I woke up with blood crusted beneath my fingernails and the dust of the desert staining my feet. Blisters broke open on my soles, and my mouth was scorched like the bed of a pond gone dry in a heat wave. Where had I been? Who had I seen?

And more importantly: which holy hell had I descended into and returned from?

It wasn’t the first time I walked alone at night, but it was the first time I worried I’d hurt someone while I did it. That didn’t stop it from happening again.

And that morning, in the kitchen, over eggs and bacon and bruises forming on my arms, my mother smiled at me like she knew something I didn’t.

Maybe she did. Didn’t change anything . . . .

~

Except now, standing in the sun and the sand and the searing light, I think maybe it could have, if I’d asked her about it then. Before it was too late—before the nights where I went out under the stars and committed all those beautiful sins—if she knew something about what I had done, and she told me, maybe I could have stopped myself from turning into this.

Instead, she stands beside me now like the echo of a place I know only from a dream. Like something I might think I made up entirely, if it weren’t for the fact that she was right next to me in front of the open holes, staring down into the eyes of the devil like she loves what she sees.

I stare down at the things that crawl and shift and sink into the darkness, at everything I’ve done, every last one I’ve opened up and sunk my teeth into.

She notices my expression, and rubs my back soothingly. “Don’t worry Sweetie,” she says. “We all have an inner animal. It just comes out sometimes.”

“I suppose so.” I whisper, more to myself than to her. She beams.

“You cover these up, and I’ll be waiting inside.” Her voice is nothing but the memory of a whisper, something turned old and empty in the stale air. And then she’s gone.

I cast one look at the evil things in the holes before me, at everything I am now written out in red—and then I grab up the shovel and start spooning dirt over them. I don’t think the woman living inside my house is my mother anymore. But I’m not myself anymore either, and I can’t let anyone see what I’ve become.

I wake up in the middle of the night sometimes, and I do things I can’t remember. But it’s okay. After all: don’t we all have an inner animal that needs to come out sometimes?

Acknowledgments

~

The first person I need to thank is Josie. I know this book is partly dedicated to her, but I would not know how to tell a decent scary story without her and the many nights she spent sitting up with my brother and I, trying to freak us out over tales of ghosts and goblins.

Big thanks are also in store for my brother Brandon, and my cousin, Amelia. These two have told me scary stories, tricked me into thinking ghosts were chasing after me, and, on one occasion, ditched me in the back of a haunted house to run screaming for our parents because of a [_supposed _]ghost lurking in the kitchen when we went to get snacks. Thanks, Brandon. Brother of the year. But seriously—some of my most frightening experiences have been with these two. Thanks for all the screams, bitches.

I’ve had many amazing English teachers over the years, but as always, Angie Cameron and Lisa Stout deserve all the extra thanks. Your input, guidance, and good-humor have made all the difference in my words and my work. Thank you.

K.M. Montemayor and Heather Crews are each a blessing. Thank you for blurbs, sharing bookish interests, and being genuinely awesome authors.

The story The Girl would not exist without my younger cousin Bradley and his general aura of creepiness; this is the seven year-old who can be found watching Nightmare on Elm Street alone in the dark at 1am. My paranoia over his obviously evil nature inspired the infant impostor.

Pieces like [_I Am The Rot _]were born by my experiences writing songs and poetry, which I would not have done without the encouragement of my best friend Kuma, who is all things great and good in this world—and who probably won’t read this, because she hates all things horror. A gaping personality flaw, but one I can forgive her for, since she’s just [_that _]awesome. (And because I [_will _]convince her to watch the Scream franchise with me someday, one way or another. . .)

My aunt Michelle deserves all the awards for a million things, including cooking me dinner and buying me smoke while I wrote this book—but most importantly of all, she’s the one who regularly screams my name at the top of her lungs for no reason when I least expect it, just to see the look on my face. Thanks for teaching me the true meaning or terror, auntie.

This book was written for my online friends, readers, and supporters, and none have been more supportive than Magdalena, Anna (sufficientlyqueer), Jessica, Kady, Blue (pussyllanimou-s), Rachel (uni-bot3000), Lindsay, Leann (virgoismyjam), Maheen (d-nt-stop-b3lieving), and, pretentiousnitwit.

Everyone on Goodreads, from Wart to Nenia to Natalie to Erica—I appreciate all of you in your book nerd glory.

And finally, thank you. Thank you for picking up this book. Thank you for turning these pages. Thank you for letting me be your wordsmith.

You make all the magic happen.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

~

Apollo Blake is the Pseudonym of Oliver Urban—a Canadian author, artist, blogger, and advocate who lives and studies in New Brunswick. Urban is the author of The Lilac Jones Adventures, Things We Saw At midnight, and the upcoming Souls of Salt & Seawater. He’s also the founder of Diverse Tomes—a group dedicated to discussing and encouraging diversity in teen-oriented media.

Oliver is always early, he double-knots his shoelaces, drinks too much Red Bull for his own good, and he has a coffee addiction he can’t kick. He draws on every piece of paper he can get his hands on (even when he’s not supposed to) and you can usually find him on the couch with a trashy paranormal romance and a cat on his lap.

For info about arcs and review copies, or to request an interview, blurb, or blog feature, you can contact him at: [email protected] or shoot him an ask on his official blog at http://apolloblake.tumblr.com/ to get a speedier response.


Things We Saw At Midnight

   We know you’re not normal. None of us are, either.    Welcome to Midnight City. It’s about to get weird . . .    In Midnight City some things are just accepted. Like the way Old Lady Ellen can tell you the date of your death (because the shadows who sit on her porch with her all day have whispered it to her) or the way the man with a swarm of bees where his face should be always sits in the same booth at Winston’s Pie House. The gas station attendant is a leftover god from another dimension, and one of the local journalists is the living echo of a storm that ravaged the city over fifty years ago—but that’s all just par for the course here.    For some of the more ordinary citizens of the desert metropolis—like twin sisters Clover and Poppy Pike—every new incident of the unexplained is a story waiting to be told or a dare waiting to be taken. But in the dark heart of this city set in the wastelands, fear lives like a sentient creature, infusing every interaction, every daydream and glance, with its poisonous touch.    In this free anthology written as a Halloween gift for his fans, Apollo Blake delves into the depths of horror and mystery in a collection of thirteen short stories and vignettes infused with passion, grief, and an unshakable sense of dread—including A Fine Day for Dying, Eat Us Alive, and Kiss the Sun.    Get your free copy now, and enter Midnight City—if you’re brave enough, that is. . .

  • Author: Oliver Urban
  • Published: 2015-10-13 19:40:10
  • Words: 12686
Things We Saw At Midnight Things We Saw At Midnight