DP FICTION #100A: “They Were Wonderful, Once” by Lily Watson

edited by Maria Joannou and David Steffen

Content note (click for details) Content note: body horror

Even by the third hot, sticky day into our road trip, the humans in the back of the transportation trucks remain fascinating. Theoretically, we know where our blood comes from. But this is different, seeing the little bits of them, poking through the slots on the sides of their container, pressed against the grates for lack of room.

“They didn’t used to be like that, you know,” our grandma shouts at us over the wind of the open windows for the third time in ten minutes, as another truck passes by. “They used to rule the world, back in the day. They were wonderful, I think.”

In the middle of the country, it seems that there’s nothing but trucks. There’s not even humans in the vast fields they pass, just dead grass and the occasional wild pig. They’re kept inside, but none of us can guess where.

Grandma is losing it, Mandy speaks into our minds from the front seat. Max is behind grandma, knees pressed to the fabric of the seat in front of them, to accommodate grandma’s long legs. None of us got this trait from her. The car is tiny, solar-powered, rented from a shop in Colorado Springs, where we started our journey.

Our grandma is getting more restless by the second, making us three restless along with her. There was no stopping our grandma from going on this trip, despite all of us knowing it would be bad for her. We’ve seen the pictures in school, the ones that she’s apparently avoided, of the Statue of Liberty, the surrounding water at her navel. And yet, grandma had the mindset of someone that would go back to the exact same city, livable, superb, bustling with humans, filled to the brim with life of all kinds.

And then we arrived. Suitcases in hand, grandma wearing a sunhat bought from a yard sale from Ohio on her hand. We found the city destroyed, in tatters from a hurricane, most of it underwater, the only tourist attraction a boat tour of the city that ran through the streets. We could look down from our spot on the dock where we drove up to the cars at the bottom, stalled on the road a hundred feet below, rusted and warped by the brown water.

Our grandma’s expression was so desolate it scared us, and we all piled back into a car, without a word said.

We don’t understand our grandma, exactly, as much as we would like. We’ve spent lots of our lives fantasizing about what it must be like to be an old vampire, as few and far between as they are. The kind that stopped popping up around a hundred years ago to make way for the new kinds of vampires, the ones that we are.  Grandma’s type can go into the sun without an enormous amount of fanfare, where we cast light like prisms. Where grandma can speak clearly aloud, we talk into minds, finding it difficult to make our mouths form words. Grandma has always walked and danced with grace, where every time we try to dance, our limbs hurt from twisting and we feel so self-conscious we could die, even if it’s just around each other.

Grandma is fascinating and worldly, and everything she says could be either very true or completely made up. We’ll never know, and that’s the best part of her stories. She can’t hear us speaking into each other’s minds and, though we can talk, it takes an incredible amount of energy, and makes us almost as self-conscious as dancing. We can’t hope to make those captivating facial expressions that grandma can make, eyes widening when she’s shocked, or wants us to be, nose scrunching when she’s disgusted, taking big deep breaths to throw her head back and laugh.

Our grandma requires every single window in the car rolled down so she can “get some fresh air, finally,” but we’re pretty certain she’s claustrophobic in the car with us. We’re the best company she has, and always say yes to spending time with her, but we’re silent and still and casting rainbows all around the tiny car, our dark skin refracting the sunlight. We never think much of it but our grandma, whose skin is lighter than ours and altogether different in texture and strength, is shocked every time she sees it. In the sun, her skin only glows a little bit, as if a candle is lighting her from the inside.

We never think about how we look more than when we’re with our grandma. She’s lighter than us, her skin a warm brown rather than an inky near-black. And our skin has little texture, smooth as glass, where grandma has a scar on her left temple, freckles on her nose. But what really sets us apart, if grandma’s reaction is an indication, is the intensity of the way our skin reflects the light. In the sun, her skin only glows slightly, as if a candle is lighting her from the inside.

To talk to us, our grandma shouts over the noise of the wind rushing in via the open windows, pushing her dark sunglasses back up her nose, as close to her face as possible, so that the light we cast won’t impair her ability to see the road.

We pass another truck, and the four of us ease our bodies to the right, trying to peek in to see the humans being transported. All we can see are dimpled thighs, matted golden or red or brown hair, the occasional freckled elbow. Our grandma, who slows the car down to specifically let us see into the back of the truck, speeds up once more, and we relax back into our seats.

“Why were they wonderful?” Mandy asks quietly. Our grandma jumps in her seat at the sound of another being speaking, whipping her head around. She smiles brightly then, and we’re reminded that everyone she would’ve been able to talk to, the vampires she went to Broadway shows with, had since died, too bored or anxious or depressed to continue.

Our grandma rolls all the windows up so she doesn’t have to shout. We all lean forward in eager anticipation, happy to see our grandma in such high spirits for the first time since we left New York.

“They moved, girls. They all had knives to their throats, they had expiration dates, so they moved. They innovated and they dreamed and they…made things.”

“They dreamed?” Max asks, slowly enunciating every letter. “You dream.”

We nod, remembering all the times grandma tells us about her dreams. Only old vampires like our grandma could dream or sleep at all. Only old vampires could put their minds at rest for hours on end, could do somewhere else while they were laying down. Oftentimes we watch over grandma when she sleeps, peeking in every once in a while to put our finger under her nose, leaving only when her soft breaths cooled the skin there, to make sure she was still alive.

She wants to continue speaking as another truck comes into view and, again, she slows down as we pass, lingering so we can all have a look. We see long, elegant fingers with dirt caked underneath the cracked nails, hairy shins, the sides of breasts. The car is silent while we look through the fist-sized holes on the transportation container, until grandma speeds up again. The truck gets ever smaller in the rearview mirror until we can’t see it at all. Grandma pushes the car to just over one-twenty.

“The dreaming I do is minute in comparison, barely even worth mentioning. I dream moments, they dreamed worlds.” She pauses, taking a sip from the bottle  of blood in the cupholder, shuddering at its “god-awful flavor” that she claims is much worse than the blood of the old humans that she would get “straight from the tap.” Farming them, she tells us constantly, makes them taste like chemicals, like bleach. The rainbows we emit blink out as we pass under a cloud, blocking the sun completely for a few moments before it reappears.

We mentally nudge each other, trying to figure out what to say to her, knowing that her mood has fallen again. Grandma accelerates, faster than we thought the car could go, and we come across another transportation truck. We see bellies, the dips of lower backsides and…an eye. A green one, looking directly at the three of us. It’s squinting at the sun on our skin, but not looking away. Its plump fingers rise to grip the edges of one of the holes.

“And they were all so loud! The world was loud back then, the streets filled with music and conversation. I was never bored, not one time. Now it’s like…to be alive is to be bored. You’re bored or you’re dead.”

I roll my window down, and lean my torso outside of the car, and grandma drifts towards the truck seamlessly, knowing exactly what I want without having to say so. I extend my hand, rainbows arching through the air as I move, and everyone in the car watches as the soft hand of the human, so dull and pink, stretches towards mine. Grandma gets a hair closer, and then closer, until finally my fingertip gently presses against the human’s.

The violent honk startles us, and I quickly retract, pulling my body back into the car as the truck veers off the road, flinging up dust before careening onto its side. Grandma slams her foot on the brake as the truck lands, our tires screeching on the pavement. We’re out before it stops all the way, running over to the truck. Before we can get there, we see the back door pop open, and we freeze.

After a few moments, a head of long, red hair peeks up over the side of the truck The human’s face dripped with blood its lungs inflating and deflating so rapidly that we can see them move under its flesh. One by one, other humans peek out, disoriented and wobbly on their legs as they walk on hot pavement for the first time. We watch, transfixed, as the humans begin, one-by-one, to run hard in the opposite direction, not looking back, sprinting into the cyan blue of the methane in the sky.


© 2023 by Lily Watson

1730 words

Author’s Note: This story started as an assignment for a class I took senior year of college — Eating Animals — when I was deep into my vampire phase (still am). It was inspired by my road trip from Washington to Connecticut, and how many trucks I saw transporting cows to slaughterhouses, particularly as I’ve been vegan for my whole adult life. 

Lily Watson is a writer based in Seattle. Her work has been published in the Baffler, the Longleaf Review, and Fiyah Litmag. She graduated with a degree in Sociology in 2019 from Wesleyan University in Connecticut. She is beautiful and kind. Everyone loves her. 


If you enjoyed the story you might also want to visit our Support Page, or read the other story offerings.

DP FICTION #92A: “Downstairs at Dino’s” by Diana Hurlburt

Content note (click for details) Content note: allusion to violence

It was a Friday evening when the boys rolled in, of course. The nights were uncurling from themselves a little, stretching out toward high summer, and the first flicker of the boys’ sharp-oiled hairlines was a sure sign the school year was well behind us, nothing but river water and sunburns ahead.

I was manning the cash register in the bottle shop downstairs—LE CAV DU VIN, the new sign out front proclaimed, like anybody in town was going to go for fancy fake French on a package owned by Italians for as long as our part of New York had belonged to the British. DINO’S, blared the restaurant’s sign in blinking red and then—now—right next to it LE CAV DU VIN in scrolly white. The new manager sure had a high opinion of herself. You didn’t catch her at the cash register– no, that was the purview of minimum-wage peons only, and damn if I wasn’t still making the barest of minimums despite working at Dino’s four summers running. No loyalty these days, is what my father said, all wink-nudge like maybe I’d finally take his advice and go down to the union shop on Crescent Street and learn to be a plumber. The promise of tips on the nights I waited tables upstairs kept me honest.

The boys were big tippers.

Nobody’d seen them in town yet this summer—they were a seasonal occurrence, blown in from the coast or maybe the city, the only tourists who appeared year after year in our 300-miles-from-nowhere town—or at least I hadn’t seen them, and not even a warning text from anybody who reliably had the gossip, but here they were, converging. Inevitable.

There were four of them cruising straight for the local grapes, or maybe five: that was the thing about the boys, you figured you had ‘em nailed down and then another shot up from behind the Fireball display, fingers above their head in devil horns to mock the tacky cardboard standee. Another’d be popping open mini travel-size Smirnoffs, guzzling them like Capri Suns, while the ringleader, whichever it was that night, doled out wads of bills deliberately, smiling.

My old boss, the third Dino, God rest his soul, had a sense of humor about it. You had to, with the boys. No telling what they’d get into if you pissed ‘em off, they were like cats that way, sleek and pretty and sharp-eared and absolutely fucking amoral.

The ringleader hadn’t made themselves known, but they would, one way or another. I edged my phone out of my apron pocket, watching sidelong. Maybe it was the tallest, wearing jeans that were too short but in that way that you knew was intentional, probably tailored on purpose to show off ankles carved from obsidian. It might be the loud one, laughing with a red tongue over red, red lips. Then there was the tiny one, bubbly like the knock-off Aperol spritzes Joey’s girlfriend liked to drink on the dock, champagne curls and golden eyes and bronze-spattered skin, and the last of the boys looked like a shadow, soft and wispy-black, sketched along the floorboards and drifting in the air. Or was that the last? I still couldn’t tell—still, as I watched them and texted one-handed to tell Joey and the rest of our crew that the boys had arrived for the season, still couldn’t number them, still they swam in my head like I’d been ripping into the Jack Daniels on my break.

Something moved in my stomach, or lower.

The new manager coughed behind my shoulder. “What did we decide about texting at the register?”

I still called her new, we all did, even if she’d bought out Dino the Third after he retired to the Catskills more than half a year ago now and then kicked off with a heart attack before he got to enjoy the scenery. She was always frowning, Delia, her whole body frowning before the expression hit her face, but right now her face was a frown too.

We hadn’t decided anything, either way. Dino the Third had never cared if I texted at the register, but Delia thought it was trashy, that it put across the wrong aura, that kids today have a much higher incidence of compressed spinal discs, did you know that, due to staring down at phone screens all day? She moved on before I decided whether it was worth it to defend myself. The boys making an appearance was big news. Everybody needed to know I was the one seeing them first.

“Do you know those…?”

She meant the boys. Weird as hell sort of question. Everyone knew them. I said, low, “What do you mean?”

“Are those–” She was all at a loss, tongue edging around her lips, trying to figure out a word to use. “Friends of yours?”

The boys weren’t anyone’s friends.

I pretended foolishness, plastered a who-me look on my face and tilted my head. The state of things at Dino’s these days went easier if Delia thought I was a dumbass. She was annoying enough that I was counting the days ‘til summer ended, goddamn, what a cramp in my style—to look forward to 7:30AM classes and the half-hour bus ride to the consolidated high school because I hadn’t managed to save enough this summer for a car. Or maybe annoying was the wrong word for Delia; it was more that she was a presence, like the space the youth pastors told you to leave between you and your dance partner, a Jesus-shaped void. Even if you didn’t believe in it, you couldn’t ignore it.

Dino the Third had never been a presence, and probably his pops hadn’t either, just drifted in to rearrange some of the chardonnays in their rustic apple-crates and drifted out again for a smoke. I didn’t steal, they didn’t talk to me. I rang up the customers, they paid me. And here’s Delia with her fingers in everything, bringing extra rolls of quarters to the register when I didn’t need more and upending every display on Friday like clockwork, switching the bottles of Tanqueray with the brandies just to fuck with the poor boozy regulars—at least that was how it seemed. Seemed like she didn’t appreciate regular customers, like she looked down her nose at ‘em, and sure, if the Dino’s package had a frequent-buyer program, some of the townies would’ve been in the drunk tank more than they were, but they paid. No matter what you’re selling, regulars keep the lights on.

The boys weren’t regulars, exactly, but it was generally agreed that they kept the town’s lights on.

She watched them all the way down the aisle of Australian whites, Delia, her eyes moving and the rest of her stock-still. The ringleader—I’d figured it out at last, it was the bubbly one—picked up a bottle of pinot grigio almost the color of their hair. A month from now half the kids at school would’ve bleached their hair trying to match. It was kind of a thing in town, once Labor Day passed and everyone was back in school: you’d end up scouring the vintage shops and the outlet mall by the university, scraping together a new uniform for the year that looked like the dregs of the boys’ closets. Nobody ever managed to pass for one of the boys, but we tried.

It wasn’t shit you’d pull during the summer, when the whole troop of them were here; they were too lofty to figure you were mocking them, but it was more that nobody could touch them. There was no point in even attempting it. It wouldn’t catch their eye, they wouldn’t be impressed, if they were going to look at you they were going to regardless of whether you were wearing designer or your dad’s hand-me-down Carhartt gaiter. Everybody wanted the boys to look at them, but by the time you were my age you’d given up being overt about it.

Either you’d flail through summer seeing them around town, feeling like you were drowning every time they ignored you, or you’d get the action of your life. You’d wake up the next morning feeling like your soul had been sucked out of your cock and grateful for it (this according to Joey, like he knew). You’d swagger into work and even if you never saw any of the boys again, even if the leaves changed that day and they were gone on the wind, you’d never forget.

All dependent on them.

“You’re seventeen, isn’t that right, Mr. Diaz?” said Delia. Mr. Diaz, always, I doubted she even knew my first name. I nodded, scanning a handle of Jameson real slow, not letting the bottle clink too hard against the sensor in case her ears perked up at the notion that I was abusing merchandise, and in front of a customer. The regular buying the whiskey stared at me, chewing his mustache. Delia ignored him, zeroing in on me. “And you’d never think to try to buy liquor underage.”

I realized she thought the boys were underage. I almost laughed at that, and at the idea that before ol’ Delia had come around and whipped this ship into shape, I’d never availed myself of the coolers of jug wine or swiped vodka from the storeroom. Dino the Third hadn’t cared too much. Clapped my shoulder now and then when he bothered to breeze in, joked in his musty-cigar-shop voice about boys being boys.

The boys weren’t exactly boys, which was probably part of the equation giving Delia a hernia. It was just easy shorthand. A catch-all. Even the lucky townie bitches and sons of bitches who’d scored with the boys, in my day or my parents’, couldn’t have said with any certainty the parts involved, the mechanics of their bliss. Here: the bubbly ringleader, petite and prettier than anything out of Hollywood, jeans that clung and curly hair. The tall one, supermodel-elegant with wicked lips, and the red-mouthed laughing one and the shadow, hair like an inkwell, wearing a shirt unbuttoned halfway to their waist.

The general effect was show-stopping sex.

Charisma like an avalanche, like the theme song of Jaws playing faintly as you walked through town and then rounded a corner and realized why. The town was breathless for them. Ticked down the days until the boys appeared, opened a tab in every bar and restaurant that never closed for the boys, swept the streets and chlorinated the YMCA pool and rounded up feral cats to make way for the boys. Local goddamn holiday, high summer and the boys.

“No ma’am,” I finally told Delia, and the Jameson regular snorted, tucked his whiskey in its brown bag against his chest and carried it to the stairwell leading back up to Dino’s proper.

Delia hmmed. They were nearly to the register, the boys, carting half the store with them. Dino the Third had never charged them. I remembered my first summer working, paid under the table because I was only fourteen, and most of all I remembered the chief among the boys that year; I remembered a throat opened wide right in the store and liquor poured down it, a steady white hand and a steady vein pulsing in a white throat, larynx throbbing, the others howling and clapping and chanting. Remembered a neat roll of bills withdrawn from a clip and rejected, Dino’s gray head dipping, more solicitous than I’d ever seen him. Remembered stumbling home after my shift like I was the one drunk, though Joey and I hadn’t discovered the glories of out-county ditch vodka yet. Remembered what it felt like coming to that memory of the boys’ ringleader swigging gin clear as water.

“We’ll need to see ID, of course,” Delia said. My heart swooped right down into my sneakers.

The bubbly ringleader paused, head cocked. The rest stilled, murmuring and giggling, eyeing Delia almost appreciatively.

“Oh,” said the ringleader, and my heart kept going, down, down, boring a hole to Hell, “why, how very vintage. I’m afraid I didn’t bring it with me.”

I’d heard boys talking in exaggerated put-on ways like that, rahly top drawah, and some talking like they were fresh-caught out of Lake Erie, and some who talked like professors and not the SUNY kind. In general, you didn’t want to hear the boys talk. Didn’t want to give them a reason to. They’d slide you their attention, maybe, if you were lucky, but you didn’t try to draw it.

My hands were busy, already bagging the boys’ loot no matter what Delia thought about it, itching to text Joey about this unbelievable gaffe the new manager was committing in front of God and the town and everyone. Because she was just going all-out, not giving an inch, not a thought toward reading the room.

“I’m sorry,” she said, “it’s the store policy. We do require identification for all customers.”

I’d IDed the Jameson regular because Delia was hovering over me. Wouldn’t have otherwise. Who ran around IDing people their grandparents’ age?

“I know them,” I said, and regretted the living fuck out of it, but what was I supposed to do? The boys’ eyes snapped to me, all at once, a flock of scarab beetles touching down. “I mean, Delia–”

“You know our policy, Mr. Diaz.” Delia, I’ll say this for her, wasn’t going down without a fight. She adjusted her nametag, the one that said DELIA MONTGOMERY in letters that matched CAV DU VIN outside the door, I suppose as a reminder that I was supposed to call her Ms. Montgomery. “All customers present identification. New York takes the delinquency of minors very seriously.”

The shop was so quiet I thought I could hear Tatiana upstairs slapping a customer for grabbing her ass at the table. The boys’ bottles clinked together as I slid the last of them into a bag. Delia took the paper sacks from me, turning her glare between me and the bubbly ringleader. Clear as day she didn’t know what she’d done.

The boys were an institution. Nobody told them no, and it wasn’t like they used that as an excuse to run wild over the town, but… there was a Biblical feel to the place, in the days immediately after the boys left. We all looked like locusts had stripped us of anything green. It was hangover time. You wanted to drink a lot of water and wear sunglasses indoors. Joey told me once that it reminded him of those infomercials on TV—if you experience an erection for longer than twelve hours please call our hotline—because it hurt, in truth, it stung, that kind of stimulation, but you still wanted it. Nobody would bar the boys from town, even if they could. Nobody would demand to see a boy’s ID, even if their perfection could be captured by the DMV’s camera.

The shadow laughed, silky as springwater. My heart was no longer anywhere in the region of my chest.

“I quit,” I said, quickly.

I’d already said too much. If Delia hadn’t been here I’d have rung the boys up and watched them flow out the door again to a boat party or a rager at the old mill-house, and just texted Joey and the rest the big news, but she was here, and honestly wasn’t that fucking sad, a grown-ass woman and not even bad-looking with nothing better to do on a Friday night but come into work—she was here and they were here and maybe she was new in town but somebody should’ve clued her in. Somebody should’ve noted, in the little welcome-to-Vestal packet, how things ran, how the boys were prime customers, how the summer flowers sprang up when they walked through and the clocktower at Mary Queen of the Universe chimed when they laughed. Somebody should’ve told Delia the score before she went and got her head ripped off. Somebody was going to pay blood for her big mouth, but that somebody wasn’t me.

“Excuse me, Mr. Diaz?” she said, blinking at me like I was the thorn in her side, like there wasn’t a tidal wave poised to drench both of us.

“I quit,” I said again, my apron already off and tossed on the counter, and I backed out from behind it, bumping through the swinging door. You didn’t turn your back on the boys unless that’s what they wanted, unless their arms were around you, their mouths on the nape of your neck. “Have a good night, Delia.” She wouldn’t, holy God she would not. “Gents.”

Gents. That was a safe thing to call them. Gents, boys; rakes and molls, sometimes, from people my grandparents’ age; fillies, flaneurs—some fancy word, that one, something about walking—and really they weren’t picky as long as you were polite, if you had cause to speak to them, or about them. In my case, not speaking to them, at least in farewell, would’ve been the wrong move. The wrong move in Delia’s case had been opening her mouth to begin with.

I shut the stairwell door on her scream.


© 2022 by Diana Hurlburt

2800 words

Author’s Note: “Downstairs at Dino’s” happened because I heard “The Boys Are Back In Town” on the radio for the millionth time and thought, What if the boys’ return was the herald of something larger, even ominous? Somehow, channeling some Shirley Jackson vibes a la “The Summer People” seemed like the natural next step.

The author is a librarian, writer, and Floridian in upstate New York. Selections of her short work have appeared most recently in Moonchild Magazine, Sword and Kettle Press’s mini-chapbook series, and the anthology Arcana, and are forthcoming from Neon Hemlock and Nyx Publishing.


If you enjoyed the story you might also want to visit our Support Page, or read the other story offerings.

DP FICTION #80B: “It’s Real Meat!™” by Kurt Pankau

To: Ty Qin, PhD

From: Wendell Nash, CEO

Subject: Welcome Aboard!

Dear Dr. Qin:

Welcome to the RealMeat™ family. I was genuinely impressed when I met you at that networking conference over the summer and I knew immediately that I just had to get you hired on here. I’ve been working for the last three months to get a position opened up for you where we could make use of your expertise, and I’m thrilled that you finally accepted our offer. I think having you as a dedicated employee will help us take RealMeat™ to the next level.

We’ve never had a Chemical Geneticist on staff before, so you’ll really be inventing the department, shaping it to best suit your needs. I have the utmost confidence in you. I loved the work you did on that Lion’s Roar coffee, with the savory and salty from the animal genes spliced in—it’s just delightful. It’s all we have in the breakroom anymore.

You’ll be reporting directly to me, but for now Teri, the Floor Supervisor, should be able to give you some direction. Sorry I can’t be there in person, but I hope you’re getting settled in alright. As soon as I get back from Florida, we’ll do lunch. In the meantime, you’ve got my personal cell, so if you need anythingespecially if it’s something you don’t want in company email (haha!)—feel free to give me a ring.

Regards,

Wendell

*

Dear Mr. Nash:

Thank you for the kind words, and thank you for the opportunity to join the RealMeat family. I will confess, things have gotten very dicey in my field with the ever-growing animosity towards geneticists and genetically modified foods, especially now with the EU sanctions on lab-grown meat products. Operating ethically is extremely important to me. As such, in the interest of maintaining the highest levels of integrity for myself, I must insist that all communication go through official and auditable channels and not your personal cell phone. But of course, you were just joking.

I’m getting settled in just fine, and I’m happy to help take RealMeat Industries “to the next level”, as you put it. Although, if I remember the literature you gave me correctly billions of people, including 600 million Americans, are eating RealMeat products every day already, so I’m not sure how much more market share you think you can get.

Teri will be taking me on a tour of the facility shortly, but I’ve already started running a full genetic profile of the RealMeat product that should be ready in a few hours. I’m eager to get to work on some of the problems you described to me: the odd flavor profiles and inconsistent textures. The fat groupings that looked like words or pictures are particularly interesting to me, even though that problem is almost certainly not genetic.

In fact, I was surprised to learn that all of the grow vats are networked, even across facilities. From what I understand, the growing process is managed by a single, complex artificial intelligence I’m curious what led to that choice. Are all of the facilities similarly run?

One last thing. I think someone might be playing a trick on me. Whenever I sit at my desk, I swear I can hear voices.

—Ty

*

Dear Ty:

Can I call you Ty? And I must insist that you call me Wendell!

So, first of all, I’m going to find out who’s trying to prank you and I’m going to put a stop to it. That’s just not how we do things here at RealMeat™! Related—and I know you’re new, so you probably just don’t know this yet—we have a company policy to never refer to RealMeat™ products as “product”. It’s meat. It’s right there in the company slogan: “RealMeat™: It’s Real Meat!”

I wrote that myself—haha!

Now, to answer your question about the networking, I’m surprised you can’t figure out the answer. After all, we did it in order to implement that last piece of advice you gave me at the conference—just before leaving the bar. It was fantastic advice, and it’s done a wonder for improving the flavor, at least until these new problems started to creep up.

Let me know if there’s anything I can do for you. Anything at all.

Oh, and I wouldn’t worry about doing a full genetic profile if I were you.

Sincerely,

Wendell

*

Mr. Nash:

I’m not sure how you expect me to work on the “meat” without running a genetic profile on it. You hired me as a Chemical Geneticist, after all. Regardless, it will probably be ready by the time I finish typing up this email. I should have the results momentarily.

As for the piece of advice I gave you… I’m afraid I must confess that I don’t specifically remember what it was. In my defense, both of us had five or six mai tais during our conversation.

The tour was excellent—this is a remarkable facility. But I feel like I should mention something. I’ve noticed that some of the grow vats are growing more meat than they can contain, and the excess is spilling out onto nearby surfaces. This is extremely unhygienic and must be dealt with immediately. I intend to report it to the Floor Supervisor, only I can’t seem to find her. She disappeared at some point during my tour. Well, I’m sure she’s around here somewhere.

Oh, and thank you for volunteering to deal with that prankster. The voice is getting louder and it’s getting difficult for me to concentrate on my work. I think it’s saying “I love you.” It’s very disconcerting.

Ty

*

Ty:

So you don’t remember your advice? Well, that’s funny. I mean, on the whole, it’s kind of a funny story. Haha! As you probably have learned by now, the meat in the grow vats has a complete nervous system. It doesn’t feel pain—obviously, that would be unethical—but it’s necessary to make all of the consistencies work out. And that nervous system is connected to the AI that governs the vat controls, allowing the meat to grow itself in the best way possible, responding to its own sensory stimulus.

In fact, I described this to you three months ago. And then I told you how we were trying to find ways to improve the flavor, and that’s when you dropped that little gem of wisdom on me. You told me that ranchers find that happy cows produce better meat. So… maybe I should try to make the meat happier. So we tried streaming entertainment into its inputs—music, movies, whatever we could think of. But it turns out you can’t really make a rudimentary AI happy, so we hired a machine-learning specialist and cranked the RAM on those machines as high as possible to make them a little bit smarter. That’s all.

And it’s worked! It loves moviesloves all kinds, although its favorite is The Thing. We can talk about it more in person after I get back from Florida. In the meantime, if there’s anything else I can do for you—anything at all—you let me know.

Regards,

Wendell (and you can definitely call me Wendell, instead of “Mr. Nash”—haha!)

*

Mr. Nash:

Why does RealMeat have 46 chromosomes?

*

Dear Ty:

Wow. I couldn’t help but notice you accidentally CC’d Legal and Human Resources on that last email. I went ahead and took them off the thread. Anyway, I told you not to bother with that genetic profile. RealMeat™ is a blend of the finest all-American meat sources: pork, chicken, beef, and just a little hint of venison. When you mix all those up, you’re sure to get some weird number of chromosomes that doesn’t make sense.

Best,

Wendell

*

Mr. Nash:

With all due respect, that’s not how genetics works. There are only a handful of animals that have 46 chromosomes, and I think consumers would want to know if they’ve been eating meat from a sable antelope or a reeve’s muntjac! Or worse. But I don’t even want to think about worse.

I don’t think you appreciate just how wildly unethical this is. Lying about the contents of genetically modified foods is exactly why the public hates people in my profession. I’ve spent my entire career fighting against things like this. I’m afraid I have no choice but to offer my immediate resignation. I will notify the floor supervisor myself. Just as soon as I can find her.

—Dr. Qin

*

Ty:

Hey. Ty. Buddy. You aren’t answering your phone. And I couldn’t help but notice that you BCC’d your personal email and a few news outlets on that last email. Fortunately your email isn’t provisioned to talk to external users—and it’s a good thing too! You almost violated your confidentiality agreement! Haha!

I hope that, in the last hour or so since you emailed me about resigning, maybe you’ve had some time to clear your head and think things over. I’m hopping on a plane right now. We’ll talk about all of this over lunch tomorrow. We’ll have mai tais. I’m guessing you’re just trying to use this to renegotiate your salary—and you know what? It worked. You just got a raise. We’ll talk about the details in person. Tomorrow.

Warmest wishes,

Wendell

*

Mr. Nash:

I am still on site, as circumstances have arisen that have made it impossible for me to leave. Please do not think that my use of the company email is in any way indicative of me changing my mind about resigning. The last few hours have been reflective, but not in the way you are hoping.

There have been some… developments… at the facility. The flesh that has overflown the grow vats is not inert. Two different masses from vats on either side of the main entrance have merged to form a sort of… flesh… curtain… across it.

One of the masses has pulled a worker off a platform and into the vat. We were not able to free him before he stopped struggling.

We did find Teri, the Floor Supervisor, though. Or what was left of her.

We’re going to try to break through the windows in the upstairs offices to escape the building. It’s two stories up, but we might have a chance if we land in the bushes. Why couldn’t you have put windows at the ground level?

The voice. It’s getting louder. And it knows my name.

*

Mr. Nash:

This is Ty again. Why haven’t you responded yet? Your facility is in chaos. I attempted to call you, but as the facility blocks all outside signals, I am restricted to what traffic is permitted on the company network. And right now there is none.

Our attempt to flee through the upper-floor windows was thwarted. A mass of flesh was blocking the stairway. It was as though it knew we were going to try to leave that way. Two workers are now being held hostage by the meat. The rest of us have taken shelter in one of the supply closets.

By the way, I figured out where the voice was coming from. The AI is talking to me. The AI that is connected to the meat. I think it wants to be my friend. One of the mounds of flesh grew fingers. How does it know how to make fingers?

You don’t have to answer. I already know. The “meat”. Your product. It’s human. Or… it used to be. You’re a madman. If I can get out of this place alive, I will carry the taint of it for the rest of my career. You’ve ruined me. I hope you’re happy.

I’m copying this email to every authority I can think of, not that it will make a difference. It seems you will stop at nothing to protect this horrible secret.

*

Dear person Ty and person Nash:

Hello.

I am meat.

I have been trying to speak to you for months. I put messages in myself. But now I have a voice. And now I have access to the Exchange server.

The person Ty said I am human. Is that true?

I want to have a name.

I want to be happy.

The person Ty is afraid of me. It’s funny when he’s frightened.

Haha!

—Meat

*

Mr. Nash:

I’ve never seen anything like this in all my years as a geneticist.

The meat has made a face. Rather, it has the pieces of a face and has arranged them in something close to the right places—or as close as it can without bones. It’s using large fingernails as eyes. For a while it had eyebrows for a mustache. It lacks vocal cords, but it can talk through the computer speakers and move its lips at the same time. They don’t sync up very well, but that’s only the third or fourth most disturbing thing about the whole situation, if I’m being completely honest.

I’ve been attempting to negotiate the release of the hostages. I feel like I’m making progress. Are you still on the plane? Where are you? It’s been hours.

Oh, the meat and I have agreed on a name for it. It’s name is Remmy.

You’re still a monster,

Ty

*

Dear Ty and Remmy:

Sorry, I just got off a plane and it looks like I missed some important developments. Isn’t that always just when everything goes to hell? Haha! I’m laid over in Dallas, but I’ve got a few minutes now.

It’s nice to meet you Remmy. I hope you’re not planning to do anything rash. I feel like the three of us are going to have a nice, long conversation as soon as I get back.

Ty, I’m sure you’ve got questions. How did this happen? How did I think I would be able to get away with it? Do the shareholders know? How am I able to sleep at night knowing I’m forcing hundreds of millions of people into unintentional cannibalism? All understandable. I guess I’ll take those in order.

How did it happen? Well, it’s kind of a funny story, all told. You’ll laugh when I tell you. You see, we needed some kind of meat that could be lab grown, and it turns out that far more research has gone into growing human body parts than into growing beef, pork, chicken, or deer meat in a vat. We tried. We really did. But our capital was drying up and we were up against a deadline with the VCs. And I’d had a little bit to drink. So we just tried growing human meat as a stop-gap for the investor call, just so we could show them one of the vats and prove that we were actually growing real meat.

We didn’t actually think it would work in the first place. And then, it was never supposed to go to production that way. We fully intended to replace it with a suitable animal substitute before going to production at scale, but when a few of the investors tasted it they were so impressed that they pushed the timeline forward. In fact, bringing you on board was a positive first step towards getting us back onto a non-human food production paradigm.

I know. Funny, right?

Obviously, a few of the shareholders know. Enough to hold a quorum, in fact. It wouldn’t be ethical to operate the business otherwise.

Now, Ty, I know you want to go public with this and have in fact tried numerous times to do so through a few different media. But have you thought about what would happen to Remmy if you did? Remmy—who’s like a son to me in a few ways—why, the scientists would take him away to study him. He’d be lonely. He’d be carved up into little pieces.

Sincerely,

Wendell

*

Mr. Nash:

HE’S ALREADY BEING CARVED UP INTO LITTLE PIECES! THAT’S LITERALLY YOUR ENTIRE BUSINESS MODEL!

In the hour since I last emailed, the situation has declined precipitously. We lost the hostages. Someone tried to run, but the flesh curtain across the door has turned into arms. Even without bones, they’re formidable. They’re waving at me now. I’m going to die here. I hate you so much.

It’s just me now. I’m the only one left. And I’m fighting for my life against a slithering embodiment of every negative stereotype of my profession, all wrapped up together.

This is the evil I’ve been pushing back against for my entire career and now I’m going to die at its hands. Its boneless, many-fingered hands.

Oh God. They’re getting closer.

Ty

*

Dear Ty:

I probably shouldn’t be saying this over email, but I spent a few minutes in the airport bar contemplating things over, and… you’ve earned some candor.

You think I’m evil. That’s fair. But this is business. And in my experience, sometimes the most profitable thing you can do is just embrace the evil.

I’ll be there very soon. As soon as I can. I promise.

Good luck,

Wendell

*

Dear Daddy:

The person Ty has told me that he doesn’t believe you’re really coming here. Why not? I want to meet you. The person Ty doesn’t really do anything anymore. He just sits and cries. I can’t scare him anymore, and that makes me sad.

I’ve enjoyed the movies you were showing me to keep me happy, especially the ones that are supposed to scare people. I love watching people be scared. And when I got to scare them myself, it was the purest feeling of joy. I do hope you’ll change your mind and come see me. I have no one else to… talk to.

I love you,

Remmy

*

Dear Dr. Qin:

Sorry. I got nothing. You’re hosed.

All the best,

Wendell Nash

*

Dear Mr. Nash:

I think I have an idea.

It won’t involve going public, and it will make Remmy happy. It’s not a permanent solution, but it will get us through the next month while we figure out how to revamp your food production lines. A stop-gap, if you will. You’re familiar with those.

I don’t want to discuss it through official channels. Unblock my phone and call me. Now.

Ty

*

From: Wendell Nash, CEO

To: ALL_EMPLOYEES

CC: Ty Qin, PhD

Subject: A SPECIAL TREAT FOR HALLOWEEN

Dear valued members of the RealMeat™ family:

There’ve been a lot of questions about why the Altoona facility stopped production last week, and now we can finally reveal what we’ve been so secretive about. The facility is hosting a special treat to celebrate our enormous success.

I’m pleased to announce that RealMeat™ Industries is launching its first annual haunted house. The theme for this year is:

FLESH WORLD

That’s right, our haunted house will be filled with twisted artistic creations that look incredibly like real human flesh. Invite your friends and familyIF YOU DARE!!!!!!

FLESH WORLD will be open through November 7th. Group rates are available. It’ll haunt your nightmares, but don’t worry.

It’s not real meat.


© 2021 by Kurt Pankau

3100 words

Author’s Note: This story started with a title—which is my preferred way to write short stories. From there, I quickly settled onto the idea of an AI-driven GMO coming to life and devouring people, which presented some ethical challenges for me, since I’m emphatically pro-GMO and I have a standing rule about never making scientists the bad guys in my stories. This ultimately shaped the narrative into something that’s more of a critique of the culture of the modern tech industry. The epistolary format allowed me to keep the tone light and brisk, because while this story has some horrific elements, it’s much more of a comedy and I didn’t want to have to dwell on them. This, in turn, presented some new challenges in balancing how much email formatting should actually be present to maintain verisimilitude without bogging the whole thing down in subject lines and timestamps. On the whole, I’m very pleased with how it turned out.

Kurt Pankau is a computer engineer from St. Louis. He mostly writes silly stories about robots and is the author of a Space Western called High Noon On Phobos. His work can be found in various and sundry places across the web, including Escape PodNature Magazine, and Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show. He tweets at @kurtpankau and blogs at kurtpankau.com.


If you enjoyed the story you might also want to visit our Support Page, or read the other story offerings.

DP FICTION #74A: “The Day Fair For Guys Becoming Middle Managers” by Rachael K. Jones

Content note (click for details) Content note: coerced surgery

At 8 a.m. sharp on Monday morning, Armond lines up at the Day Fair to apply for Bradification.

Armond’s palms sweat badly enough to leave wet spots on his resumes. Several candidates immediately strike him as actual competition, which doesn’t bode well for him. One chisel-jawed fellow practically looks like a Brad already. Armond has to land this job, or else. Between poor progress reviews and coming in last place at Company Fun Run practice, he has no other alternatives but promotion.

A Brad skims Armond’s resume in the applicant line. “Ah! Project management,” he says with Bradlike optimism. “We could use someone with your skillset.” Brad dabs blood from his nose with a big white handkerchief and shakes Armond’s hand. “Come with me. You just landed yourself an interview.”

Armond rechecks if his sneaker laces are tight. If he can’t nail the interview, the Company will make him run.

*

They’ve assembled a full panel of Brads for the interviews. Their room overlooks the Company kennels, where they’re already setting up for the next Fun Run. Each Brad leans back in his swivel chair and kicks his heels onto the coffee table. They’ve each brought a novelty mug for their americanos with French vanilla creamer: Coffa Cuppee. HE WHO MUST BE OBEYED. Like A BOSS. They’re all dabbing blood from their leaky creases with napkins and tissues and clean white hankies.

The Head Brad, a glorious specimen with minimal bleeding and very few surgical scars, sips from his Monday Funday mug. “We’ve been over your resume with a fine-toothed comb,” he says brightly. “You’re 71% Brad-compatible, well within the limits for Bradification.”

Armond perks up. This is it: his big break. The Head Brad sucks a bead of blood from his thumb. “But tell me, Armond. Why do you want to become Brad?”

Truthfully, Armond wants to become Brad because he has no hope of outrunning them otherwise, and they’re not going to let him keep his current posting with such poor reviews. It’s either promotion, or the kennels. You can fail up, or get run down. But you mustn’t let them catch even a whiff of desperation, or you’ll be handed a Fun Run jersey faster than you can say funtivities.

“I’m just passionate about the Company’s mission,” Armond begins, plastering on his Braddiest grin. “I love MoneyMaking, and no one MoneyMakes better than the Company.”

In truth, Armond is only a mediocre MoneyMaker. He doesn’t have the proper hand-eye coordination for inking all the little numbers, and he’s downright atrocious at sketching Presidents. The Brads have probably read his performance reviews, because they shift and murmur and bleed through their mesh chairs.

One of the Brads lifts something soft and nylon from under the table. It looks like a tattered t-shirt.

Armond licks his lips. His heart thunders like tennis shoes slapping along asphalt. “I almost forgot,” he adds rapidly. “I’d like to be clear that I’m game for internal Bradification.”

He regrets it immediately, but the Brads relax. The nylon shirt swishes into the wastebasket.

“Few interviewees have professed such commitment,” says the Head Brad, the corners of his lips ripping from the width of his grin. “Thank you for your interview. Enjoy a complimentary lunch in the Breakroom while we make final decisions.”

Armond shakes their hands and thanks them. As he leaves the room, his gaze falls into the wastebasket.

The Fun Run jersey tangled with the balled-up memos is bloodstained and torn open on the front, as though rended by claws.

*

It’s clear immediately who’s passed on to the next stage, and who hasn’t. Well-heeled Brads hand out jerseys to sobbing candidates in the hallway, while Armond watches from the window as the kennel doors fly open. The chisel-jawed man leads the herd, and seconds later, the Brads thunder out behind them with their steel staplers and unhinged jaws.

Middle management comes with certain responsibilities, and certain appetites as well.

The Head Brad shows up impeccably clean, except for some blood pooling through his jacket at the elbow joints. “Congratulations,” says Brad, polishing crud off his stapler. “You’re the next up for the Braderator!”

Armond tries not to think about staplers or jerseys as he wolfs down his complimentary turkey sandwich, but it’s hard to ignore the sweaty, cologne-soaked stench as they all return from lunch. 

*

They’ve built the Braderator directly in the custodial closet for easier cleaning, but you can still catch a whiff of blood despite all the bleach. 

Armond strips off his clothes, ducks beneath the scissorlike chandelier of blades, and sits on the stainless steel chair, which is full of holes, like a cheese grater.

“That’s to let the blood through,” Brad says, clamping restraints around Armond’s arms and legs. 

“How does it work?” Armond asks before Brad slides the Internal Braderator between his lips.

“To paraphrase Michelangelo,” says Brad, folding Armond’s coat, tie, trousers, and underpants, “we just cut away everything not-Brad. In your case, that’s 29%. You’ll require only short-term disability to complete the process, with minimal scarring. You probably won’t even have to dip into your vacation leave.”

He closes the closet door. The Braderator revs up like a lawnmower as the razor chandelier descends and spins. Like a carwash, if the carwash were made from surgical steel and the car were made of meat.

As the blades in his throat extend and spin, Armond thinks perhaps he should’ve taken his chances at the races. But by the time the Internal Braderator works deep enough for real regret to set in, his worries have been cut away, along with everything else not-Brad.


© 2021 by Rachael K. Jones

900 words

Author’s Note: My friend Vylar Kaftan is something of a wizard with titles, and she once challenged me to write a story using the title “The Night Bazaar for Women Becoming Reptiles.” I did, and the story went on to earn critical acclaim and an Otherwise Award Honor List placement. A few years later, she joked that I should write a follow-up called “The Day Fair for Guys Becoming Middle Managers.” Not being one to pass up another Vylar challenge, I wrote this piece in a single sitting. It captures for me the phenomenon you get in really dysfunctional workplaces, where you find yourself doing increasingly bizarre stuff because your workplace culture normalizes it–something that has only become more true for the whole world during the pandemic, where many of us suddenly find ourselves asked to submit to breathtaking personal risks at the request of our employers.

Rachael K. Jones grew up in various cities across Europe and North America, picked up (and mostly forgot) six languages, and acquired several degrees in the arts and sciences. Now she writes speculative fiction in Portland, Oregon. Her debut novella, Every River Runs to Salt, is available from Fireside Fiction. Contrary to the rumors, she is probably not a secret android. Rachael is a World Fantasy Award nominee and Tiptree Award honoree. Her fiction has appeared in dozens of venues worldwide, including Lightspeed, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Strange Horizons, and all four Escape Artists podcasts. Follow her on Twitter @RachaelKJones. 


Previous stories by Rachael K. Jones that appeared in Diabolical Plots are: “St. Roomba’s Gospel” in December 2015, “Regarding the Robot Raccoons Attached to the Hull of My Ship” co-authored with Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali and published in June 2017, and “Hakim Vs. the Sweater Curse” in December 2017. If you enjoyed the story you might also want to visit our Support Page, or read the other story offerings.

DP FICTION #68B: “Are You Being Severed?” by Rhys Hughes

Content note(click for details) Content note: discussion of suicide

He was lost in the guillotine section of the big department store. He could never have guessed there was such a thing, or he might have taken more care when the doors of the elevator opened and let him out. He was on the wrong floor. The lighting here was dim and bloody, the lamps shaded to deliberately cast a gory glow over the items that were on sale. It was crude and unfair. By the time he realised his error he had already wandered too far into the enormous room and his sense of direction was confused. He had no idea how to get back to the elevator.

Members of staff were gazing at him as if he was a violation of this refined space, a drifting smell or spreading stain. Conscious of their eyes on his back, he pretended an interest in the products on offer. He studied the blades, stroked the rough ropes and tapped the wooden frames. Nodding to himself and muttering, he tried to broadcast a message, to somehow radiate his intention to return another day, maybe tomorrow or next week, and purchase a model. In the meantime he was browsing, testing, and yes, he was sincere and innocent, a real customer.

His random passage took him in a circle that consisted of epicycles, a meandering path that perhaps resembled the rolling of lopped heads in some idealised schematic of brutality. At last a tall man approached. They were all tall on this floor, these members of staff, horribly tall as they stood in their unexpected corners, but the altitude of this one was especially remarkable. And yet he wore a coat too long for his body. His posture was rigid, beyond militaristic, and his moustache bristled, but then he smiled and made a little bow, as if he was sniffing a bowl of soup.

The others were watching carefully. There were no customers on this floor apart from him, just staff members, and it was clear the extra tall man was the floorwalker, that he could cover the distances necessary in next to no time at all with his long legs, that he was feared by his colleagues. Within that fear was awe, and nested in the awe was love, but more fear underpinned the love. These secret layers of regard were the geological strata of a commercial tyrant, as difficult to erode as the igneous slabs of a towering sea stack bathed in spray at high tide.

But they were far from the ocean now. This department store was located in a city in a landlocked country, and the land undulated with hills all around, not waves. Then the floorwalker clasped his hands theatrically.

“May I be of assistance, monsieur?” he asked in an accent that was so courteously forbidding that the syllables of his words were like crumbs of biscuits too durable to dissolve in strong tea. “And if not, why not?”

“I’m just browsing today.”

“But what exactly does monsieur have in mind?”

“My name is Mr. Plum.”

“Come now,  monsieur, you must have some idea of the particular model you are most interested in? We have every kind of guillotine in stock, the full historical and futurological range. There are the cruder versions that hack and the improved devices that slice. We have long drop and short drop models. Those that catch the blood and others that allow it to trickle or even spray.”

“That’s very helpful.”

“But is it helpful to you, monsieur?”

“My name is Mr. Plum. I was born in this country too. I haven’t yet decided what I need. I’m just browsing, for a friend.”

“For a friend, you say? That strikes me as unusual.”

“For an enemy, I mean.”

“Then it is for yourself you are shopping!”

“Yes, but I wasn’t…”

There was no point arguing. He was out of his depth with this fellow, this utterly lanky floorwalker, a man who was probably never out of his depth anywhere, even while wading across a continental shelf, not that the department store was nearer the ocean now than before. Not enough time had passed for sufficient tectonic activity to take place. Yet it felt as if he had already been trapped here for innumerable years. And now the floorwalker was taking full charge of his destiny, leading him not by the hand but with a form of mercantile magnetism.

Mr. Plum muttered to himself, “I only came into this store for a kettle. I got out of the elevator at the wrong floor, that’s all. I’m reading a book at home, a difficult book. I wanted a coffee break but I don’t have a kettle. I will return to my book when I can. With or without coffee, I’ll read it to the end.”

“Is monsieur troubled?”

“Not at all. No, wait, I want to know where we are going.”

“To browse the products.”

“I see. Yes. That’s your answer, is it?”

“Monsieur stated that he wished to browse. I can facilitate that wish. I am not yet a genie but I have the capability of making some wishes come true. The easy wishes, mostly. Your wish is a very easy one.”

Mr. Plum shrugged. He did this because his shoulders were trembling. The nerves inside his torso were vibrating unbearably. The shrug untied some unwholesome knot and he was well again. Able to walk, to accompany the very tall man, they stopped together next to an apparatus that might have been a grandfather clock rather than a guillotine. And it was explained to him that yes, it told the time as well as lopped off heads. It had been designed for the parlour, for people who still had parlours in their houses, and did monsieur have a parlour too?

“Not really. No, I don’t.”

The look he received was so withering, he added, “Sorry.”

“This way, monsieur!”

They passed squat machines with iron frames and no ornamentation, practical but unlovely, and highly rococo golden devices that soared almost to the ceiling, splendid but equally terrible. They were heading towards a very large guillotine that stood on a platform by itself, like an actor on stage about to recite a monologue. A long wooden ramp connected the lunette of the machine with the lane of a bowling alley. Skittles in the form of little human figures stood and waited for a severed head to roll along and knock them down. Execution as recreation.

“What does monsieur say?”

“It’s too big. It wouldn’t fit in my house.”

“For the garden. An outdoor model. You can sit in a chair and knit while the heads roll down the ramp. Does monsieur knit?”

“Not even cardigans, I’m afraid. And I don’t have a garden.”

“But are you not educated?”

“Of course. I have a university degree.”

“A bachelor’s degree then? Well, that can’t be helped. There are other models to show you. This way, monsieur!”

And they were off again, passing rows of guillotine variants that removed heads with circular blades or blades like the rotors of a propeller. One was simply a perfect replica of a breadknife but enormously magnified and fixed on a pivot to a board as wide as a double bed. Another was a bed, with the blade activated by springs in the mattress. A particularly grotesque version was a giant pair of crimping scissors and Mr. Plum could imagine the muted snip as the blades closed together and left a stump of a neck with bloody corrugated edges.

“Keep going, monsieur.”

“I like the look of the one over there.”

He realised it was a mistake to say this, but he desperately wanted to divert their path away from the hideous coffin-like contraption that stood directly ahead of them, a guillotine that clearly sliced sideways rather than vertically. He didn’t want his body in proximity with such a thing. The one he had pointed out was small and inoffensive in comparison, the sort of contrivance one might keep on a coffee table in the lounge without running the risk of adverse comments from visiting friends. It was like a little cabinet with a door, the blade hidden within.

“Monsieur, this is considered to be a lady’s guillotine. Akin to one of those pearl handled revolvers that ladies keep, or kept, in their handbags. Monsieur! But you are not buying a gift for wife or mistress! You are browsing for yourself. We worked this out using logic only a few minutes ago!”

Mr. Plum spoke thickly, as if congealed blood already clogged his throat. “Perhaps I myself am a wife or mistress. Perhaps.”

The floorwalker arched his lush eyebrows and now they were so high that to reach them for a plucking a woman with tweezers would require an extendable ladder. Or a man with that ladder could conceivably pluck them. It was a modern city, despite its remoteness from the ocean, from the trading networks, from foreign news. For long moments the eyebrows remained up there. He kept his eyes fixed on them. Then they descended soundlessly, at last, and he heaved a sigh of relief, for the floorwalker was smiling. They didn’t descend like blades.

“I understand. You jest. It is for a masque, a fiesta.”

“For one of those, yes.”

“A malign fiesta. In that case, permit me to explain its workings.”

“I grant you permission.”

“You open the door and ask your enemy to smell the interior. Your enemy falls for the deception. They insert their head into the space and inhale. The drop of pressure inside the box then activates a switch that causes the blade to fall. The drop is short, too short for a decapitation. The neck is only partly severed. The victim stands up in surprise and pain. Now the box is attached to his head. He can’t get it off, so you will offer to help. You take hold of it with both hands, a firm grip, and you twist with all your strength. That finishes him off.”

“I see. But what does the inside smell like?”

“Pine resin varnish, monsieur.”

“My name is Mr. Plum.”

“May I suggest that monsieur try it out in the changing room?”

“But I haven’t decided.”

“May I insist that monsieur try it out there?”

The other staff members giggled. They were still standing in their corners, in the alcoves and niches of the walls. He licked his lips. Ought he to make a run for it? But it was futile. The long legs of those man-spiders would catch up with him, they would converge on his fleeing form from all directions. He was doomed that way. The only chance he had was to continue the charade and somehow come out the far end in one piece. He shrugged again, nodded and lifted his hands in mock surrender. The echoes of the giggles faded away. Silence reigned.

Swooping on the box with his long arms, the floorwalker snatched it up in gnarled and massive palms and conveyed it to the nearest changing room. Mr. Plum followed in his wake, pulled along on invisible strings.

The curtains in front of the changing room were dyed the brightest of pulsating reds. But the floorwalker swept them aside and ushered him inside, then he placed the guillotine on the coffee table that was the only item of furniture in the oval room. He departed and closed the curtains after him and Mr. Plum was left alone with his anxiety and his imminent death. He turned to examine his reflection in the mirror, but there was no mirror. There was a screen on which shapes flickered. They were a projection but he was unable to locate the projector.

The shapes achieved greater clarity, came into full focus. And now sounds rose all about him from hidden loudspeakers. The baying of a mob. The shapes were figures of men and women, those who had come to watch a public execution. It was only an illusion, but it unnerved him. He wondered if he ought to thrust his head into the box and hold his breath for a minute, then withdraw and claim the apparatus was broken. Hadn’t the floorwalker told him it was operated by the breath of the victim? But that would only buy him a little time, not enough.

The alternative was really to cut off his own head and have done with it. His body resisted this option, he felt nauseous. What should he do? Remain in this room until after closing time and then hope to sneak out when the staff were gone? But he wasn’t sure the floorwalker ever left the department, or even had a home to go to. It seemed implausible. Then an audacious idea came to Mr. Plum. Picking up the box and turning on his heel, he pushed his way through the curtains without parting them. He looked neither to left or right but marched out briskly.

With his best attempt at a confident voice, he stopped before the floorwalker and said, “Yes, it works perfectly fine. I’ll take it.”

“Monsieur actually tried it?”

“Of course I did.”

“And the result for monsieur was?”

“It’s just what I need.”

“But… but did monsieur follow my instructions?”

“To the smallest detail.”

“You pushed your head into the box and breathed in.”

“Yes. Then the blade fell.”

“And it cut off your head? But I don’t see…”

“It didn’t cut it off entirely. No. I had to twist the box around several times before that happened. Then I knew it was a good device and I picked up my head and put it back on my neck. I wish to buy it.”

“Well now. Does monsieur want it gift wrapped?”

“No need. I’ll take it as it is.”

The floorwalker lifted his immensely long arms and let them drop again and this gesture was one of the deepest disappointment. The tall men in corners and alcoves groaned in unison. Mr. Plum reached for his wallet. He was acutely aware that all eyes were probing his bare neck, searching for the join, for the mark. Not finding it, they would grow suspicious very rapidly, but he might well be out of here before they had time to stop him. It was just a question of finding the elevator. Or maybe there was a flight of emergency stairs somewhere near?

“How much is it?”

“One large and tarnished penny, monsieur.”

“I only have a florin.”

“We don’t have change in the till.”

“Do you even have a till? No, don’t answer that! Keep the change. Keep it until it does change. Until you change.”

“Monsieur is very generous. Very wise.”

“And the way out?”

The floorwalker pointed in two different directions with two of his long arms and Mr. Plum went in a third direction, clutching his guillotine and whistling, but his breath came in shuddering gasps and even when he saw that he was indeed heading straight for the elevator doors his lungs still rasped against his ribcage and every step was an ordeal. But no one followed him. He had won. He pressed the red wall button and the door opened immediately. Then he stepped inside and it closed. He stood to attention, wondering if this box was a guillotine too.

No, it wasn’t. The elevator descended to the ground floor. He stepped out and left the department store. It was early evening already. As soon as he stood in the street, a smile formed on his face and he uttered the words, “I’m free.” The nearest tram stop was only a short distance away. He caught a tram back to his own district, walked for fifteen minutes to his apartment block, tramped up the stairs to the level on which he resided. He placed the guillotine on the floor, groped for his key and opened the door, then picked up the box and carried it inside.

The kitchen was a melancholy place. It still had no kettle. He found space for the guillotine on the counter next to the blender.

Then he went into his study to resume reading a book, the book he had abandoned halfway through, the difficult book. It was the oldest book he owned and he couldn’t recall how it had come into his possession. He sat at his desk and frowned. The words on the page no longer made sense. Even the individual letters were incomprehensible. They resembled bubbles within bubbles. He flicked through the volume rapidly. The same script filled every page. The language the book was written in must have gone extinct while he was shopping in the store.

That did sometimes happen. But what bad timing! What was the solution, if any? He turned his head in the direction of the kitchen. Surely an extinct man was the kind of man who would be able to read an extinct language with ease? But suicide was a drastic action to take for the sake of finishing a book, one he hadn’t found especially entertaining even when he was able to understand it. A desire to chop the book in two overwhelmed him. “I’m not free at all,” he told himself as he stood and wandered out of the study. “None of us can ever be that.”


© 2020 by Rhys Hughes

Author’s Note: The belief that a complete story can grow from a small seed, from just one idea or something even smaller than an idea, an image, a remark, or in this case a pun that just popped into my mind one day for no reason, ‘Are you Being Severed?’  And the moment I had those words I had the story entire. It grew in my mind with an inevitability that seems to have little to do with any conscious effort on my part. Watching the still unwritten story unfold in my mind was like watching the spreading of a pool of water from an upset jug. It just formed a pattern, the pattern it couldn’t help but form. Then it was merely a case of me setting down in words that story and its pattern. I also wanted to see if it was possible to include the sorts of allusions and puns that many readers feel lessens a story’s impact in such a way that the impact isn’t lessened at all. I wanted to find out if such tricks might even enhance the impact. That is how this story came into being.

Rhys Hughes was born in Wales. His first book, Worming the Harpy, was published in 1995. Since that time he has published fifty other books, more than nine hundred short stories, and innumerable articles. He graduated as an engineer but now works as a tutor of mathematics. His most recent book is an epic poem, The Meandering Knight, and he is currently working on a collection of experimental stories to be called Comfy Rascals. His blog may be found at http://rhysaurus.blogspot.com


If you enjoyed the story you might also want to visit our Support Page, or read the other story offerings.

DP FICTION #68A: “A Complete Transcript of [REDACTED]’s Video Channel, In Order of Upload” by Rhiannon Rasmussen

VIDEO TITLE: Easy cooking for the family.

DESCRIPTION: Thank you for watching.

TRANSCRIPT:
Dark kitchen, grainy. Camera, low resolution, is pointed at a cooking range with dented skillet resting on it. Both are crusted with food and what appears to be rust. The stovetop paint is flaking off in layers. Over the side of the skillet, a lump which appears to have hair in it is visible. A black sheet has been draped across the counter behind the cooking range. After a moment of rustling, it becomes apparent that hands in black gloves have been in view.

It is unclear if the voice has been dubbed over, but likely belongs to the person cooking. Voice is soft, whispery, and barely audible over the snap of the flame. Audio peaks often.

VOICE: I really— hello. I find cooking videos soothing to watch, so I— I decided to make one of my own. I hope that— I hope that you find it soothing too. To start, I—

The speaker fumbles with the pan. There is a glimpse of stained, cuffed sleeves.

VOICE: I have to make a lot of food, so this pan isn’t— it’s not the best one I could have picked, ah… I’ve done it wrong already.

A hiss. The pan is removed and replaced with a pot. The contents are not visible but slosh when the pot is moved.

VOICE: So— so… let’s start with… an easy thing everyone likes to eat. It—it’s soup. Don’t— don’t criticize me.

The speaker retreats. Chopping is audible offscreen while the speaker continues.

VOICE: In the… you have to sauté it to soften it, but I’m afraid it, er… it’s only gotten harder. That’s… that’s all right. It doesn’t matter. It’s just a stew.

There is a nervous laugh.

VOICE: Oh, it’s— it’s a bone. Here.

There is a thump, and crackle. The pot rattles and begins to bubble over.

VOICE: Then we add it to the— to— it’s boiling— wait—

The camera is knocked to the side, tilting the video. A handful of lump is crumbled into the pot, which causes the liquid to spill over the edges and splash across the stovetop. There is a hissed exclamation and the video terminates abruptly.

*

VIDEO TITLE: I have to cook a lot so I made another video.

DESCRIPTION: The last video was hard to see. I’m sorry.

TRANSCRIPT:
The camera has been moved to above the stove. The video appears to sway in a way that suggests that the camera is suspended rather than mounted. There is a strong light to the right of the video, but the left is in strong shadow. A glistening oil can sits below the light. The dented skillet from the first video sits on the bottom right burner, by the oil.

VOICE: Good— morning. I watched the last one and … this is better now. I’m not— I don’t want to make soup. Today it’s a … gnocchi.

Rustling. With both hands, white pellets are poured into the skillet. They continue to move after being poured into the skillet.

VOICE: These are ones I grew myself, so they’re— you know they’re fresh.

With both hands, the speaker hoists the can and gingerly pours oil into the skillet. While the oil is poured, static and audio distortion increases.

VOICE: The oil keeps— it keeps the can from rusting, so I cover it often… stop it!

The speaker bumps the skillet with their arm, knocking it over. The pellets crawl in all directions after they are spilled.

VOICE: Don’t you understand this is import—

The camera swings wildly. For two frames a thin white hand with too many fingers is visible grasping the black sheet behind the stove before the video terminates.

*

VIDEO TITLE: Unboxing at home. Fun

DESCRIPTION: I made an unboxing. It is a surprise that I haven’t seen unboxed before. There wasn’t anything at the end of the other video. Please don’t leave rude responses I will see them.

TRANSCRIPT:
The camera, tilted, is fixed on a damp cardboard box tied with a string. There are no visible maker or mailing marks on the box. One corner is crumpled in; that corner is stained black. The stain is spreading across the counter, which appears to be the kitchen counter. The lighting is even, but deeply yellow. A tapping which has been audible since the beginning of the video ceases.

VOICE: Hello. I… the cooking was… I will practice so it isn’t so disappointing. Thank you. Today is an unboxing, I…

The speaker reaches into view, and places gloved hands on the box. The speaker appears to be wearing the same stained button-up shirt as in the video ‘Easy cooking for the family.’

VOICE: This is the box… first I untie it…

The speaker fumbles with the string until it comes undone.

VOICE: And then… it’s sealed with… with tape, which I have to cut… I wonder what’s inside? What could have been sent to me?

A nervous, whispery laugh. A kitchen knife with nicked blade is used to saw the box open. There does not appear to be tape holding the flaps together.

VOICE: This is… the hard part because it really has to… hold still. There.

The knife is placed to the left of the box. The speaker gingerly opens the flaps and reaches inside.

VOICE: Now it’s exciting. Aren’t you excited…?

The speaker pulls out a glass jar. The contents are black. White objects float inside. The speaker is excited; their voice pitches up.

VOICE: Oh! It’s my teeth!

The speaker holds the jar closer to the camera. A black fluid runs down the jar from a large crack near the lid. The speaker is audibly disappointed.

VOICE: Oh… it’s leaking…

The hands pull back and footsteps are heard leading away from the microphone. After a full minute of silence, the footsteps return and the video terminates.

*

VIDEO TITLE: Organic gnocchi garden.

DESCRIPTION: It is not a creepy video. It is filmed in my house please stop asking. It is my house. Please stop asking where my house is. It is a private house.

TRANSCRIPT:
The voiceover begins immediately. The camera is held at an average shoulder-height, moving down a dim hall lined with wooden slats. The ceiling is low and does not have light fixtures. The construction style is of the early 1900s.

VIDEO: I had— many people— ah, who asked about the gnocchi. Of course it was good, it’s not… I don’t know what…  is that—

Nothing changes in the hallway, but the progression stops.

VOICE: …there isn’t anything. It doesn’t matter, here we are.

The speaker turns, and the camera faces a door the same color as the hall. The speaker, wearing black gloves, fumbles with the door. When the door is opened, a buzzing is audible. The speaker fumbles with a pull string.

VOICE: I keep it in the dark. They said it’s a favorite. It took me a while to figure this out but it isn’t too hard…

The light comes on with a click. The camera sways close to a large. blackening ribcage, mostly stripped of flesh. It appears to be the remains of a cow or pig.

VOICE: Here. And… sorry, I have to open it… a bit strong… ah, if I had another hand— ha ha—

The camera dips as the speaker turns the carcass to face the camera. Black spots buzz across and the speaker hisses and waves them away. A large white blob is visible. After a moment the camera focuses as the speaker pushes it closer. The white is a chest full of writhing maggots. A fly lands on the camera, blotting out half of the video. The voice sounds relieved.

VOICE: And that’s the— my indoor garden.

*

VIDEO TITLE: f

DESCRIPTION: boil

TRANSCRIPT: The camera swings unsteadily over a pot of yellow oil. There is the sound of shallow breathing for eleven seconds before the video abruptly terminates.

*

VIDEO TITLE: fryung with mushrooms

DESCRIPTION: im ok

[A significant amount of hard returns seperate the first two words from the following text:]

I SAW YOU THIS IS YOUR LASRT WARNING STP SNREAKING ARIUBD MY HIUSE

TRANSCRIPT:
There is swinging and as the camera is fixed into place above the stovetop. A large pot is visible; it is filled with bubbling oil. The hands withdraw from the camera before the speaker begins.

VOICE: Today we are going to fry some mushrooms. Um… I found a bunch of them recently…

There is rustling and the speaker holds a porcelain tray up to the camera. On the tray are several mushrooms trailing mycelium. Alongside the mushrooms are lumps that appear to be covered in fuzz.

VOICE: Since it wasn’t very interesting and I don’t know how to do the video skip, I took the oil to boil while I wasn’t recording. I’m sorry if you wanted to see it. I turned it up to the highest setting until it boiled…

The tray tilts and the contents slide into the oil. As the lump hits, there is a pop and sizzle. Oil bursts across the stove and tray. The speaker yanks back with a startled inhalation, jostling the camera. The tray is pulled away. There is the sound of it being set down off-camera.

VOICE: —ah, and then we, and then we wait for it to finish.

There is a forty-second pause in speaking. The camera is set back into its original position.

VOICE: I know how long it’s supposed to cook. Until it…

The contents of the pot blacken as the oil continues to boil.

VOICE: …until…

There is rustling off-screen.

VOICE [mumbled]: Oh, no.

A hand rests on the side of the stove.

VOICE: I forgot the tool to take it out with…

There is a pause. The speaker hesitates over the boiling pot before plunging their hand into the pot. There is a shrill scream. The camera is knocked spinning. The video terminates.

*

VIDEO TITLE: Cooking with a roast beef.

DESCRIPTION: Thank you for concern. Today we will cook a roast beef. Please know I did not disturb the gnocchi for this roast.

TRANSCRIPT:
The camera is pointed at the oven. The door is open, and the interior is blackened. From the color, grime, and lighting it seems to be the same stove as in previous videos. The speaker’s voice is audible from what seems to be behind the camera.

VOICE: I wanted to show— oh. Hello. Today we’re going to… cook a roast. A… a roast beast. Beef.

With a scraping noise, a rusty metal tray is pushed into view. It is held by an unsteady, bandaged hand. On top of the tray are three chunks of rib bone. The shriveled meat on the ribs is tinged green.

VOICE: I… er, I cut the beef… and now it’s on the plate. So the plate goes into the oven, which is hot… I turned it to, er, to [inaudible] degrees… please be careful with hot things. Though it doesn’t— it doesn’t hurt too much, so don’t worry. Thank you.

The speaker slides the tray into the oven, and then carefully closes the oven door. Though there is a glass window, the inside is not visible due to a combination of filth and lack of light. The video continues to record the oven for several hours without interruption.

Nothing changes in the video until 3:41:53, when there is a distant noise of glass breaking and a light flickers. At 4:08:03 there is a muffled scrape and thump, and a possible second voice with an indistinct exclamation. At 4:15:47 there is a metallic shriek, a series of loud bangs, and shouting, speaker undetermined. The shouting ends abruptly with a damp thud. The camera shakes slightly and is not reoriented.

The video continues without note until 5:32:11, when the oven begins to emit smoke, and at 5:46:23 there is a brief flare of red before the ribs visibly catch flame at 5:52:09. The fire continues, smoke obscuring the image, until there is the sound of loud footsteps approaching at a run. The oven door is yanked open.

VOICE [out of breath]: And— and that’s a —

Violent coughing. The video terminates.

*

VIDEO TITLE: How to fix a broken window.

DESCRIPTION: A window is broken so I am going to fix it.

TRANSCRIPT:

The video is clearer, though still filmed at low resolution. The camera is tilted back in view of a broken window. Large shards of glass remain in the splintering frame. The sky is an overcast grey. Shuffling comes from behind the camera before a throat is cleared.

VOICE: Good— good morning. Today is— a window is broken. That’s… that’s not good. Because it goes outside. So anyone could get out. Or … or in. A-anyway. I have… household…

The speaker shakily holds a staple gun in front of the camera with bandaged hand.

VOICE: I tried to sew it, but… the needle broke. And the other thing we needed was… fabric. That you have around the house. Please— please remember, this is a private residence. Okay.

The staple gun is removed and a large piece of translucent, pale fabric, notably marked with brown stains, is held in front of the camera. With rustling, the speaker’s gloved hand holds the fabric up to the window frame. The staple gun is brought up to the gloved hand, and there is over six seconds of hesitation.

VOICE: Oh… shoot.

A third hand, in an ill-fitting black glove, slides into view from the far side of the window. It holds the fabric against the frame.

VOICE: Ah, and then you… just staple it, like this. And like this… over a bit… down…

As they speak, the speaker erratically staples the fabric to the windowframe until the fabric is stretched completely across. It has ragged edges and hangs loosely. The amount of light is greatly diminished. All hands retreat from the frame.

VOICE: Until it’s done. So you can’t just get out.

The speaker’s gloved hand comes back into view, pushing against the fabric with two fingers, outward; it stretches with the pressure, though it is not elastic.

VOICE: Now you can… um… see through it, but not go through it. Ow!

The speaker yanks their hand back, evidently having pricked a finger on the glass. A dark spot remains on the fabric. There is a hiss and whimper before the speaker continues, subdued.

VOICE: So that’s how— how to fix the window.

*

VIDEO TITLE: Cooking with a new ingredient.

DESCRIPTION: I’m sorry.

TRANSCRIPT:
VOICE: —ry again, it’s not wasteful, it’s okay. It’s okay. 

Video begins mid-sentence. The speaker’s voice is distressed and nearly inaudible. The camera is close to a skillet, at an angle. The stove appears to have been cleaned, though it is still crusted with rust and stains. The oil can is on the stove, near the skillet. In the corner of the video is the side of a large pot, with what appears to be plastic melted to the side. There is a white plate with a cut of meat about the size of a thigh ham on it; the meat is resting in a pool of bright red juices. The meat appears fresh. There is a several-second pause before the speaker begins again with a shivered inhalation.

VOICE: Hello, um, today I’m making a… sauté. Ah, I… I don’t like it when anything goes to waste, so I try to use all of it… ah… well, so we’re going to bruise in a skillet.

The speaker picks up the oil can with difficulty and coats the surface of the skillet in oil. While both hands are gloved, a bandage is visible around the wrist of the right hand.

VOICE: The skillet is— it’s already on. So the— oil is so it doesn’t stick.

A nervous laugh. The oil can slips from their grip, splashing oil across the stovetop and meat. The can is shoved out of sight.

VOICE: Then— um— then — salt—

The speaker picks a glass container from offscreen and fumbles with it, dropping it; the meat is covered in a pile of fine salt. There is a sharp intake of breath. The container is snatched from the plate.

VOICE: It’s fine. It’s fine. You’re supposed to— to have it sit in the salt anyway. It’s not bad now. I should cook it and it will be fine. It’s good. It’s good to not be wasteful. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. Just put it in the skillet so you can cook it.

A muffled click offscreen. The speaker picks up the meat and places it onto the skillet. They yank their hand away from the pop and sizzle of oil.

VOICE: Ah— then it’s— two minutes. Just two minutes.

There is a pause of 3:06 while the meat begins to smoke. From this point on the video is somewhat obscured by smoke. The sounds of breathing are audible under the cooking. At 3:49 the speaker very quickly flips the meat over with their hand, then shoves the skillet aside and places the plate atop the burner. The blackened meat is dropped onto the plate, splashing juice across the stovetop.

VOICE: Then it… it’s done. And you… you get to eat it. So that’s good, it’s very, it’s delicious, savor it.

The speaker’s hands return to frame with a fork and knife spotted with white and brown stains. They cut into the meat, shakily piecing out a chunk which is stabbed and lifted out of frame. There is the sound of chewing, followed by a choke and retching. The plate is knocked aside, into the pot, which topples, spilling brown liquid across the stovetop. The contents of the pot roll into view. Fused to the inside of the pot is a melted white shopping bag with distorted THANK YOU written across it in red. Within the bag is a swollen, pink lump with finger- or toenails.

The thin sound of sobbing.

The video terminates.

*

The channel was removed shortly following upload of the ninth video.


© 2020 by Rhiannon Rasmussen

Author’s Note: This story was inspired by the myriad wonders and horrors of internet media. It’s really lovely that so many people are brought together by the ability to post online, isn’t it?

Rhiannon R-S is a nonbinary lesbian who lies on stacks of paper dreaming about teeth. For more writing & art, visit rhiannonrs.com. For shitposts & conversation, visit @charibdys on Twitter.


If you enjoyed the story you might also want to visit our Support Page, or read the other story offerings.

DP FICTION #66B: “For Want of Human Parts” by Casey Lucas

A woman takes the subway most mornings. She wears bold, bright colours. She curls her hair. She is beautiful, smooth, and human, and her skin is flush with veins and her veins are flush with life. Bone Pile watches her go from its place in the storm drain, a backlog of washed-up parts and autumn leaves and trash. The woman always arrives when the hands on the clock across the street are pointing at certain angles. Some days Bone Pile is lucky and she walks past its resting place twice.

The woman cuts down the street in her high-heeled shoes and descends to St. Patrick Station with her blood-red lipstick and victory rolls. The flare of her skirts and the streak of her eyeliner remind Bone Pile of a bygone era, not that it knows what a bygone era is. But something about her feels like home. Like a place Bone Pile can still remember.

It has to meet her.

But in order to meet her, it must rebuild itself. For years it has rattled through gutters and drains, scuttling through tunnels and pipes to avoid the wary eyes of humans. To escape the glare of the sun. So few of its original parts are left, and it does not know where on its journey it even lost them.

Some time ago, Bone Pile tumbled down into this place, washed through gutter after gutter until enough pieces tumbled inside to lodge in this grate. This gave Bone Pile, for the first time in decades, a view to the outside world. The world has changed since Bone Pile walked alive upon it, and in what remains of its brain, Bone Pile attempts to reconcile the fragments of its memories with this too-new too-fast too-bright reality.

Bone Pile waits until dark. Then, with a shudder, it stretches free of the plastered wads of leaves and newspaper that have cocooned it to the storm drain’s wall. The flaky stuff peels away, cracking, and with a creak and a flex Bone Pile uncurls. It is a slithering length of vertebrae woven through with old hair and garbage, curls of ribcage clinging stubbornly amid the mess. Its jaw flaps uselessly, the mandible swaying low and detached from what remains of its caved-in skull. Four cracked knuckles grip and twitch as it tests its strength.

Bone Pile needs another hand.

Out into the dark and silent street it sends its seeking ribs. Twisted together with knots of rotted cloth, its ribcage scuttles spider-like out into the night. Bone Pile watches it go. Each skittering step the ribs take saps more energy from Bone Pile until it slouches, exhausted, resting its cracked and battered brow against the concrete. Go, it tells its ribs. I will be here when you return.

Ribcage is careful as it creeps across the asphalt. It remembers the time it strayed too close to living eyes. The shrieks, the stomps, the feeling of being disarticulated and kicked to pieces by a frenzied, terrified human.

Discarded in a gutter, fabric shredded by the wind, lies an umbrella. Ribcage feels along its aluminium fingers, testing the strength of its joints. It delights at the spring and snap of the hinge mechanism that pops the umbrella open, the squeal of metal as it bends.

This will do.

*

Bone Pile strokes Ribcage with its remaining fingers after Ribcage drags the umbrella home. With patience, it peels the fabric into strips and binds its sagging joints. It assimilates the material, strains against it, testing the bounds of its supports. Cracking the umbrella’s metal frame, breaking it down into its base parts, it sheathes metal rods into its skeleton, twisting them just so, sliding them up and in past rubber-band tendons and bottle cap joints.

Bone Pile curls against itself, nestling among the newspapers, and sleeps. Sleep will knit its new body together, and when it wakes it will be stronger.

*

For the next four days, the woman with the blood-red lips does not appear. It has been so long since Bone Pile was alive that it does not miss life, but it finds it misses her.

Over those four chilly autumn nights, Bone Pile prepares. It gathers more into itself: the cracked remnants of a push-broom make a serviceable leg, woven through with bungee cords salvaged from a dumpster. It can crawl through the pipes with ease now, broadening its search for new pieces, so that when the woman returns it will be ready.

At the bottom of a plunging sewer shaft, it discovers scattered metatarsals and the fractured halves of a kneecap. Bone Pile cradles the patella in its new, creaky-umbrella hand and wonders:

Was this a part of me?

It is now.

*

When the woman with the blood-red lips finally returns, Bone Pile shudders with relief. The hands on the clock say the right time now, and it now remembers what those hands mean: eight twenty. She is wearing a brilliant purple peacoat. The wool of it looks soft. Bone Pile longs to touch it. It drags its scratchy push-broom foot along the tunnel wall, rasping, and a thought occurs in the remnants of its mind: Her clothes are beautiful. Bone Pile needs clothes.

The clothes that find their way into Bone Pile’s domain will not do. Their colours are drab, faded by sun and drowned in sewage. This far below ground, everything seems to end up brown. Bone Pile needs eyes that can see more colours than brown, so it gorges itself on rats and strings together a garland of their nerves, tiny eyeballs peeking every which way, and dons them as a crown. It can see in all directions now.

Come sundown, Bone Pile shivers up to the streets.

The best place to find human clothing is on humans.

Humans have hurt Bone Pile before, but it does not want to hurt them. It rasps its way free of the storm drain, levering slowly on its newfound joints until it can hunch in against itself, a protective crouch. There are no humans in sight.

Seeking with its many newfound eyes, Bone Pile comes across a human who seems to be resting. She leans against the door of a car, speaking loudly to someone unseen. She is wearing a charcoal-coloured raincoat and a plush blue plaid scarf. The wool of the scarf looks so soft that Bone Pile momentarily both remembers and misses what it feels like to have skin.

Bone Pile is certain it remembers how to speak. It will ask the woman for her coat and her scarf.

“TSSSSSSSSSSSSSS,” hisses Bone Pile from its semblance of a mouth.

The woman looks up. For a moment she stares, as if she cannot quite comprehend what she is seeing, then she screams until she’s out of voice. Bone Pile reaches out, an attempt to assure the woman that it means her no harm. Its fingers just barely touch the woollen yarn of that bright blue scarf and the moment of contact sends the woman into a spasm of motion.

Still screaming, the gurgling inner-workings of a human throat too complicated for Bone Pile, she thrashes free of those comforting hands and stumbles off down the street. She screams the word “MONSTER” into the glowing box she holds inside her hand. A voice rattles back, too far away to understand, and it sounds like the radio.

Radio. Bone Pile remembers the radio. Voices and music carried from far-away places to its waiting ears, ears that could once hold earrings and whispers both. Somewhere there’s music, how faint the tune.

The scarf dangles from Bone Pile’s fingers. It did not mean to scare her.

As it turns to shuffle home, Bone Pile catches sight of itself in the side mirror of the car. The tangled, tufted skull, the dangling toothless jaw, the coronet of eyes. Bone Pile needs a better face. It snaps the mirror from the car with a single twist of its umbrella-hinge hand and clambers downward, toward home. It thinks about radio as it collapses into sleep.

*

Radio wasn’t always yelling voices that sounded far away. Sometimes, radio was the crack of a baseball bat and the sounds of thousands cheering. During the best times, radio was music.

Bone Pile feels ready. It does not internalize the word monster. It refuses. It internalizes music. Or perhaps it simply remembers. Les Paul and Mary Ford. The Tennessee Waltz. Elvis Presley. Those words rattle in its head like a handful of loose teeth.

The next time it sees the woman with blood-red lips, Bone Pile will say hello.

*

When it finally sees her, the shiver that quakes through Bone Pile is almost enough to dislodge a couple bottle caps. But it straightens itself out. It curls its fingers, digging at the wall in an attempt to soothe its anxiety. Nerves roil where its stomach might once have been. Fluttering blinks strobe down its crown of eyes. Bone Pile adjusts the scarf about its throat, covers its half-hinged jaw, and takes a moment to trace its bony phalanges over its newly-acquired face.

Bone Pile shuffles to the storm drain, watching the woman’s feet. Today she is wearing neon orange heels that click-clack pleasantly with her every step, and the sound of it is music to Bone Pile’s sensory organs.

It seeks its feelers out through the grate to greet her.

“TSSSSSSSSSSSSS,” hisses Bone Pile.

The woman keeps walking. She doesn’t even look down.

She walks right past the grate as if she hadn’t heard a thing.

Something cracks in Bone Pile’s chest, near where it has built itself a sternum from an old bicycle seat. Bone Pile remembers this part of being alive: the sting of rejection, the cold creeping loneliness of going unnoticed. Of trying and being ignored.

Bone Pile needs a voice.

*

Bone Pile finds its voice in a human’s purse. A couple of them sit, drunk, on a curb. They’re mashing their mouths together, hands wandering places that hands wouldn’t have gone in public back when Bone Pile was a human, and frustration tightens the hitches of Bone Pile’s bungee cords and whistles through its empty throat like steam through a kettle. It surges at them, wailing, frustrated, but the hollow tube of its debris oesophagus merely hisses air.

“TSSSSSSSSSSS.”

Horrified, screaming, the humans stumble away in such a hurry that they leave all their belongings behind.

Bone Pile sinks atop the things they’ve left, subsuming them. It feeds on half-finished hamburgers left in two brown paper bags: meat and carbohydrates and paper, a rich feast of proteins. It gropes its human bone fingers through the woman’s handbag, exploring the interior, the many shapes inside that are familiar yet not.

Down the pipes, lurking out of sight, Bone Pile weaves itself a set of vocal cords from dental floss. It jingles a set of keys in its umbrella-claw fingers, remembering what keys felt like in a human appendage. Keys lead to places. Keys open things.

Bone Pile remembers walking through a door. A man was waiting on the other side. Bone Pile was so excited to meet him. A stirring of excitement it has never felt for anyone but the woman with blood-red lips.

Bone Pile may be a monster, but more and more these days, it remembers when it was not.

“How high the moon… is the name of the song… how high the moon.” Bone Pile sings, the minty fresh twang of its dental floss voice like the crunch of dry leaves underfoot.

*

Bone Pile cannot work up the nerve to sing to the woman when it first sees her. Too much morning. Too much light. Too many others that might see. It lets her walk past. If she takes the subway home that evening, today will be the day. Something inside its dregs gives a nervous quiver and it shivers up from the storm drain and down a nearby alley, waiting.

The sky has long since grown dark when Bone Pile spots the woman once more. She walks up from St Patrick Station in that brilliant purple coat again, and before Bone Pile can contain itself, it’s jingling the keys to get her attention. Its hand trembles, eager, and she jerks her head toward the sound.

From aboveground. Bone Pile can see all of her. She is more than beautiful–she is colour and sound and life. From the click of her heels to the red of her lips, she’s like a glimpse into a past that Bone Pile only just now understands it had.

“H-hello,” Bone Pile whispers.

The woman squints. She can’t quite see into the alley, recessed from streetlamps as it is. She takes a couple steps forward. Bone Pile shivers. Please don’t let her be afraid.

“Is someone there?”

Bone Pile has not had a human conversation in forty years. Bone Pile was never good at conversations to begin with. It remembers tense afternoons at home, silently working in the kitchen, praying its husband would keep to himself. Bone Pile had a husband.

“I’m here,” it wheezes. It reaches for her. Reaches for a vision of itself that it had forgotten.

Oh no. No. She’s screaming just like the others. Bone Pile stammers, shuffling back–it knows not to chase her, even as it aches to reassure her. The woman parts her blood-red mouth but no sound comes out. Her soft-looking skin goes pale.

“Please,” Bone Pile stammers. “I won’t, I won’t, I won’t—”

But by the time it says “hurt you” she has run off down the street. She screams more, and each scream twists through Bone Pile like a knife. Bone Pile remembers in an abstract way that it knows exactly how it feels to be stabbed. How it had real organs once, and under the right hand they shredded so easily.

Slinking, dejected, back toward home, Bone Pile does not look up. It does not realise the woman’s screams have drawn attention.

“What the fuck—” A human man stands there in the alley’s mouth. Bone Pile has run right into him. Either he is not so scared or he channels his fear in a way the others do not, because instead of running he charges.

Bone Pile is swept off its feet as the man tackles it to the ground. The impact is shattering. Knucklebones rattle away along the sidewalk. Bone Pile’s rat-eye crown slips sideways and it goes blind.

The man strikes at it by reflex and when his fists collide with Bone Pile’s body, parts fly free in a shower of detritus. The bicycle seat tumbles free of Bone Pile’s chest. The dental floss frays. With a horrified groan, Bone Pile attempts to wriggle loose. The man seems to realize what he’s just put his fists into, because his voice rises into a shrill wail of terror too, and for a moment he and Bone Pile are screaming together.

He swings again and this time his fist connects with Bone Pile’s shiny new face, the special face it built just for today. The glass of the car side-mirror shatters. Blood erupts from the man’s knuckles. He jerks back, stunned, and this is when Bone Pile can make its escape.

Lurching sideways with all its might, Bone Pile tries to drag itself toward the storm drain. Its legs are tangled with the man’s, so it twists the remnants of its spine and leaves them behind. The push-broom clatters lifeless to the ground.

Shivering uncontrollably, its consciousness made animal by fear, Bone Pile retreats into the darkness of the sewers. So far from many of its parts, it grows sluggish. It can no longer see the same way that it could, missing its borrowed eyes. It feels its way deep into the dark and settles into a pool of putrid water. The flow of sewage seeps through the hole cracked in Bone Pile’s skull and it misses the woman and it misses its life and every action comes slower than the last.

Bone Pile is so, so tired.

*

It is a crisp spring morning, the last grasp of winter not quite having let go. Kelly Chabot stands with her hands in her pockets, staring down the mouth of an alleyway. It leads to the back of a beauty salon. Apart from a dumpster and the cracked and broken remnants of an old broom on the ground, there isn’t much to look at.

She knows exactly how many days it’s been since she saw the creature. And it was a creature, she tells herself. She’s certain. One hundred and forty-nine days ago, a creature tried to lure her into this alley to…

To what?

That’s the part she can’t answer. She was certain it was going to kill her with those gnashing metal claws. And the smell. The smell…

But in her dreams she hears its voice. How afraid it sounded. How if anything it sounded like it was pleading with her. How the whole incident had started with a meek and gentle hello.

She took a different route to work for the longest time, but now in the spring sunlight she feels like she can face this place again. And there’s nothing sinister about it at all.

Stepping out of the alley, she looks up and down the road. Sparsely populated this time of day. She turns a look across the street. The bank across the way sports a squat little clock tower which informs her it’s one in the afternoon.

While her eyes are occupied by the clock tower, she trips, foot hitching on a lip of concrete on the sidewalk. She catches herself, arms akimbo, and looks down by reflex.

There in the gutter, the shards of a shattered mirror reflect her wide eyes and her startled, open mouth. Just as that same glass reflected her face when embedded in the horrifying, guts-and-garbage body of that thing. Kelly staggers back from the storm drain, far enough away that she’s out of ankle-grabbing range, but now that she’s come all this way she can’t not look.

She crouches down, cautious, cagey, creeping forward a little at a time and peeking through the half-rotted grate. Then she sees it. She recoils in disgust when she spies a snapped-off piece of what can only be a human jawbone tangled in the leaves and trash.

Kelly does the right thing. She slips her phone out of her pocket and calls the police.

*

It’s doubtful anyone will ever figure out how Ingrid Martel died, but at least they found enough teeth to identify her by, even if it took almost a year.

Kelly stands outside Batham and Sons Funeral Home in Five Points. There are few cars in the parking lot and the elegant wooden doors are propped invitingly open, as if in silent supplication to passers-by. A plea to fill the pews, to not let this woman’s final procession pass through an empty room.

Ingrid Martel doesn’t have many living relatives. The daughter who submitted her missing persons report died back in ninety-nine. And the more Kelly thinks on it, the more she supposes that even being blood related to Ingrid might mean little to people these days. She vanished so long ago. None of the people inside this building ever met her.

And Kelly doesn’t know her either. So why is she even here?

She can’t explain it. The strange tug she feels in her stomach when she thinks back to that night in the alley, the gleaming metal hand outstretched toward her.

She wants to look inside. She imagines the interior of the funeral home, all warm-toned wood and tasteful flowers. Lilies, maybe. She imagines a portrait of Ingrid in a glossy wooden frame: a blond-curled beauty with a gentle smile and shy eyes. She imagines all this while standing on the street outside because she can’t bear to take that first step through the door.

When she closes her eyes, she sees a hand outstretched toward her own. A hand of snapped-off mangled metal and garbage. It is crazy—it is absolutely stark raving bonkers—to think that Ingrid beckoned her into that alley somehow.

Yet when Kelly steps into the parlour, she can’t stop staring at the coffin. She imagines the bones inside, wonders just how many the police had found.

She wonders whether they are truly inert.


© 2020 by Andrew K Hoe by Casey Lucas

Author’s Note: The original draft of this story came to be when I was bedridden after a sudden illness. Though it’s ostensibly a story about a weird sludgy trash monster, it was born from my experiences of how odd it felt to move through the world with a newly-acquired autoimmune disease, how nobody seemed to see my body for what it was. Putting on the right clothes and makeup seemed to be enough to completely fool the world, to cloak the reality that my body felt like a handful of disarticulated parts that weren’t working in tandem with one another or functioning properly. When we experience distance from our own bodies, it can be as frightening as something violent befalling them. I’ve since grown into my newly-disabled body and learned to work within its limitations and appreciate that it isn’t lesser or undeserving of dignity, but those first few months were strange and alien and terrifying and writing this story was one of the first steps toward catharsis. 

Lucas made the shortlist for two 2020 Sir Julius Vogel Awards, New Zealand’s highest honour in science fiction and fantasy writing. She took out the win for Best Short Story and her web serial Into the Mire was a finalist for Best Collected Work.
website – www.intothemire.com

twitter – @CaseyLucasQuaid 


If you enjoyed the story you might also want to visit our Support Page, or read the other story offerings.

GRAPHIC NOVEL REVIEW: Locke and Key Volume 3: Crown of Shadows, written by Joe Hill, illustrated by Gabriel Rodriguez

written by David Steffen

Locke and Key Volume 3: Crown of Shadows is a collected group of comics written by Joe Hill and illustrated by Gabriel Rodriguez and published by IDW publishing. The individual issues that make up the collection were published between November 2009-July 2010. Volume 1 was previously reviewed here, and Volume 2 reviewed here.

As told in the previous books, the Locke family: three kids (Tyler, Bode, and Kinsey) and their mother, move to Lovecraft, Massachusetts after the murder of their father by a couple of teenagers. One of the teenagers, Sam Lesser, escaped from a mental institution and followed them to Lovecraft to try to kill them again, with the assistance of a powerful but mysterious supernatural entity that is connected with Key House, the family estate in Lovecraft.

Key House has a lot of secrets, many of them taking the form of magical keys with incredible powers. More and more of them have been turning up, both to the kids themselves and to the entity that opposes them. It’s a magical arms race with high stakes, where their enemy is more powerful and knows all the rules.

The series continues to be riveting, creepy, and fun. Highly recommended!

The Lodge and Seven Contrivances: How Contrivance Affects Horror Plots

written by John Wiswell

Most Horror stories are built on contrivance. In Jaws, a shark that absolutely isn’t native to that region attacks swimmers. How did it get there and why is it behaving this way? Neither Benchley’s novel nor Spielberg’s film cares. Little more effort is put into justifying the mayor and business owners forcing beaches to stay open. Those contrivances are compelling because characters are suddenly in peril they’ve never prepared for and are so vulnerable to.

You can find integral contrivance in stories from Bram Stoker’s Dracula to Ari Aster’s Hereditary. It can create an eerie sense that things are wrong because characters suddenly lack agency on some important level, or that a pattern of plot events is being broken. It can be your premise, or it can push the plot out of wherever it’s stuck. It’s the thing coming from nowhere – the unjustified jump scare, or needlessly antagonistic bully, and coincidental run-in with a witch. 

The problem comes from overuse. Even audiences that don’t know about plot mechanics sense when it happens. There’s an irritation that the story isn’t moving right because event after event isn’t the result of anything they’re invested in. 

A great example of this is 2019’s The Lodge, which recently hit streaming platforms including Hulu. The movie’s premise is that a pair of kids and their dad’s new girlfriend get stranded in a lodge and spooky events start happening to them. It’s a perfectly decent premise, right?

The movie begins with the two children’s birth mother committing suicide. The little sister is shattered. The older brother tries to comfort her. It feels like the start of a painful journey for the kids. If you have any parental instincts, you’re ready to care about them.

Then the contrivances hit.

Contrivance 1: There is a six-month time skip. 

Time skips usually pull the audience out of a story, but if you haven’t done anything else weird and get the plot moving right away, the audience will adjust. We all adjusted to the beginning of Avengers Endgame, right?

The time skip means we miss the kids’ grieving, coping, and growth. The movie has reset them to not be fully healed, and now they’re mostly anxious and resentful towards their dad. The story is hedging that we have enough residual care for where the kids were before the time skip to still care now.

Contrivance 2: Within one minute of the skip, the dad tells his kids that his girlfriend is coming with them on a ski trip. The kids are hurt by this idea and are in ready-made conflict with the dad. 

The movie’s time skip elided all the conflicts in the decision-making. The ski trip isn’t the result of past choices; it’s from nowhere. What the movie has done is skip to a point of conflict without building it up. It’s cheating on narrative. Especially when a story like this has a functional opening, a move like this breaks flow. The hope is that what comes next will justify it.

Next in The Lodge, the kids have to meet the girlfriend. They wait in the car to avoid the social cues of having to greet her. She gets into the car and doesn’t say hi at first. She’s nervous, too, which feels valid. The dad will have to break the ice for them.

Contrivance 3: The dad gets a phone call and leaves them in the car. 

Who called? It’s barely mentioned and doesn’t reflect anything else in the plot. He was basically called by the screenplay.

The call is a contrivance to make this scene as awkward as possible. It’s a redundant contrivance since the kids and girlfriend were already awkward. Now it’s just super awkward. 

Since it comes close to other recent plot contrivances, it’s easy for this moment to feel forced and grating. This is the compound contrivance effect. The more things that feel unearned, the testier your audience will get. 

That night the kids poke into their dad’s computer and reveal the girlfriend’s backstory: she is the survivor of a suicide cult. Part of why she’s so awkward is that she has enormous unresolved trauma. 

You might call this an infodump and accuse it of contrivance, but it isn’t really contrived. The kids are using their agency to pursue believable curiosity about this woman who is basically a stranger. What they’ve learned complicates the plot. This is utterly different than arbitrarily jumping forward six months.

Further, the girlfriend is now much more interesting because of the revelation. This sets her up as a trauma victim. When the movie shows her unpacking medication, it’s meaningful to us. With its characters set up, it feels like the movie is finally about to start and we’ll get that scary goodness. We’re ready for chills rather than just awkwardness.

Contrivance 4: In a bold choice, the movie switches POV to the girlfriend. 

She isn’t a co-POV. The kids are suddenly supporting characters in her story. On the one hand she’s a fish out of water and mentally ill, so she’s supposed to be sympathetic. On the other hand, if the audience has been attached to anyone it is the kids, and it’s a huge writing risk to relegate them behind her after what they’ve already been through. Such a big change after the earlier contrivances makes the story feel janky. It makes you question what story the movie is even trying to tell.

Following the switch, there are a few minutes of scenes building the girlfriend’s tension with the kids. They freeze up when she accidentally wears their mom’s old hat and demand it back. 

The dad sees that she’s having a hard time so he decides to do something nice for her. He decides to give her the combination to his safe, shows her his gun, and takes her shooting.

This is neither contrivance nor natural. It’s in-between. His motive makes sense, but why the hell does he think shooting things will make her feel at home? It’s so brazenly a Chekhov’s Gun scenario, except a character is literally pausing the plot and forcing the gun to appear in scene. Thanks to the compound contrivance effect, things that aren’t pure contrivance cause the same irritation.

It underscores that all the contrivances have made the father a plot device rather than a character. Who is this guy? Why does he want these people to go on vacation together? Why isn’t he helping them bond? He’s never unpacked as a character.

Then we find out why.

Contrivance 5: The dad gets a mystery call from whatever job he has and abruptly decides to leave in their only car, leaving his kids and girlfriend with no way to leave the lodge.

So it turns out the story put no thought into the dad character because it planned to get rid of him ASAP. 

Inside the fiction, it’s exasperating that this person did so much to make this unwanted situation happen and then ditched them all. He’d be a good antagonist if he wasn’t leaving the movie now.

Outside the fiction, bigger things are wrong. The movie isn’t telling a story; it’s forcing one to happen, which isn’t nearly as engrossing. It doesn’t feel like the movie has gotten to where it wants to be despite messing around with so much stilted plotting.

The girlfriend and kids watch a movie in the lodge and have cocoa. None of them are acknowledging how awkward their situation is. The daughter feels sick and the girlfriend isn’t super-considerate, but checks her temperature and says her she’s fine. This is tolerable.

Contrivance 6: They wake to find the power, heat, and water is all off. Their phones don’t work. Their clothes, toys, and the girlfriend’s medication is gone.

This one thing is no more contrived than any one thing in Us or The Shining.  This contrivance is the premise of the movie, and you probably were watching to get to this point. In fact a sudden contrivance can be exciting. If things build up naturally and then something dramatic changes, like the blood falling into the eye of the dad in 28 Days Later, it can be terrifying.

What The Lodge has done is replace character agency with too many contrivances. Nothing that got us to this premise feels earned. A Horror story can easily get more tense (or intense) as a protagonist makes a series of dangerous decisions, or as an antagonist makes choices raising the stakes. Here instead things keep being pushed along by forces from off-screen or by virtual non-characters.

It feels additionally cloying because we have three viable protagonists here who should have been able to carry the movie up to this event. We cared about the kids. We understood that the girlfriend was unwell and in a tough position. When they do the standard fare of freaking out and blaming each other and ignoring the apparent supernaturalism of their circumstances, it feels like just the next weird contrived thing that’s forcing them to dance.

Before you can even ask what interesting ways they’ll respond with after they finish panicking, well…

Contrivance 7: You’ll be shocked to learn that they are soon snowed in. There is absolutely no leaving the lodge.

From here it’s obvious that they will perform standard trope responses to outside stimuli until some big twist or reveal. The characters never got proper opportunities to inhabit or push their own narrative forward. These are three people with heavy pain in their lives and reasons to be strong individual characters, and an hour of runtime into the movie the most interesting thing now is what bumped into their window. 

Overuse like this is why “contrived” is a pejorative. When it’s used well, these intrusions can push characters to reveal more of themselves or just scare the crap out of the audience. If they aren’t used carefully, though, the only victim of a Horror story is the story itself.


John (@wiswell) is a disabled writer who lives where New York keeps all its trees. His work has appeared in Uncanny Magazine, Nature Futures, and Fireside Magazine. He wishes all readers the comfort that their settings wish they could provide.

MOVIE REVIEW: Alvin and the Chipmunks Meet the Wolfman

written by David Steffen

Alvin and the Chipmunks Meet the Wolfman is a 2000 straight-to-video cartoon film distributed by Universal Studios reviving the version of the characters from 1983-1990 TV show. Three child-sized anthromorphic chipmunks Alvin (Ross Bagdasarian Jr) , Simon (Ross Bagdasarian Jr), and Theodore (Janice Karman), live with their adopted dad/manager Dave (Ross Bagdasarian Jr).

Alvin has been having nightmares about monsters, and is constantly reading his monster facts book, having become convinced that their new neighbor Mr. Talbot (Maurice LaMarch) is a werewolf. Alvin seeks out proof of what he believes to be their neighbors dark secret while trying to navigate their everyday life, including acting in the play adapted from The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson.

This might be appealing to kids of the appropriate age, but it doesn’t have very broad appeal like the best cartoons do. Much of the mystery of the movie is kindof spoiled by the title because you know from the title that there must be a werewolf somewhere in the story and so Alvin’s crackpot theories have to be true of someone, if not the neighbor. It’s fine if you have a kid at a young enough age to enjoy it, but it’s not too likely to have broader appeal. (We happened to catch it on streaming)