Cheshire Dark

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It was as if he continued to fall.  Even after the explosion of pain from when his head smacked into the roof of the car.  Falling, falling through a darkness that watched him.  He could feel something vile looking into his mind, its evil tenacity prying past his eyes and into his brain relentlessly crushing his will, peeking into his body and violating him. A sensation of spiders covered in oily hair that were crawling inside of his skin and skull.  Gnawing, scratching, nibbling, tickling.  Laughter erupted from the greasy arachnids, their mandibles quivering with devilish glee and dripping with saliva.  He fell into the black screaming, crying and clawing at his eyes scratchi —

A solitary heartbeat, thumping in the darkness.

Glasses clinked.  A toast.  Familiar music fuzzily found its way to his ears, that haunting tune:

“Stopped into a church
I passed along the way
Well, I got down on my knees (got down on my kneeees)
And I pretend to praaay…”

Robert’s eyelids were heavy, and he blinked away the sleep.  He sat up and looked at a darkened bar, men leaning against a wooden wall talking.  A dart thumped into a board amidst mixed cheers and groans, and R.J. wiped at his eyes.  He felt like he was drugged, or still drunk from the night before.  A nausea twinged in his gut as he smelled himself.  He looked down at the ragged suit he was wearing, tattered and stained.  He really smelled like something that had died and sat in the sun for too long.  Robert mused about the witty comments Linda would have made if she could see him now.  The faint smile disappeared from his face as his past experiences came rushing back to him.  The bloody mess in the forest, the vacuum of space, the post-apocalyptic hell all filled his mind’s eye.

Where is this? Seems… Normal enough.   

There was an empty glass on the table in front of him, sitting on top of a newspaper that read the date.  Robert’s heart skipped a beat and he stood up with a start, looking for the bartender.  He noticed that his cheeks itched as he strode across the dark wooden floor.  A thick beard has found its home where his clean-shaven face used to be.  Odd.

“Say, barkeep…” Robert said with a wave of his hand as he sat at the counter.  The man turned and hesitated before walking over.  Picking up a glass to clean, he looked at R.J. and nodded.

“What city is this?” Robert asked, barely able to hide his hope.

city 3

Laughter swelled in the tavern as the bartender told him, and Robert’s eyes lit up with joy.  He was home!  Well, almost home.

“Pour me a cold one, friend.” Putting a bill on the counter he smiled at the fellow, and the fellow could not help but smile back at Robert’s happy face.  R.J. had one of those types of smiles: rare, but when they came you HAD to smile back.  Perfect for a travelling salesman.  He had closed a few big deals with this talent before.  The man poured R.J. a nice cold beer with a modest head, and he took a sip.  It was impossibly refreshing to Robert, and he felt he could cry he was so happy.  Finally he was safe.  Suddenly, the bartender’s smile became stretched almost…  like a caricature.  His eyes narrowed and changed somehow.

Did it just get darker in here?   Or…

“You… do not belong.”  The barkeep said with an ominous monotone.  The voice was distorted and had undertones of static.  Invisible ice crept over Robert’s shoulders and shot down his legs as  the man leaned toward him threateningly. Now Robert could see that darkness was emanating from the space around the being.  The shadows were pulsing, bubbling out from nowhere, and R.J. felt like he was making eye contact with it.  As an elongated tongue curled from the being’s mouth Robert leaned back from the demon barkeeper in awkward horror, and he looked to his left at the man sitting two chairs away.  The jovial fellow did not seem to notice this petrifying thing pouring drinks!  Robert felt as if he was freezing solid, and leaping from his bar stool he made his way to the entrance, clumsily weaving past people as they enjoyed their night. Passing back frenzied glances at a thing of madness.

“YOU CANNOT ESCAPE.” A roar blew from the darkened space swirling behind the bar, framing the shadowy humanoid.  Robert noticed how unnaturally tall it was, and that everyone around him seemed to not notice anything.  Talking and laughing, blissfully unaware that something had consumed the…barkeeper?  With the blink of an eye the devil vanished from existence, the darkness resting for now.  Glasses clinked again and conversations blended into a chorus of humanity.  Maybe he was seeing things.

A bell chimed as he left the bar, twinkling in the doorway with warmth.

So much for not escaping.

 Considering where he woke up the last few times, Robert felt at ease despite what he saw.  He looked at this old city, one he had grown to hate, and saw a paradise.  It’s amazing what peering into hell can do to your world-view.  It was a nice day out, and Robert walked briskly through the crowd with ease.  Folks were avoiding him due to his odor and appearance, and a light laugh came from his chest.  There was a homeless man in the window pane next to him, smiling back and wearing the same tattered rags.  He couldn’t let his beautiful wife see him like this!  She would make him sleep on the couch and bathe in tomato soup for a WEEK!  Her smile, with those ridiculously perfect teeth, filled his head with feelings of longing.  The beard could wait, but he needed new clothes.  Luckily his wallet was still hanging in the clump of threads that used to be his back pocket.  A storekeepers eyes changed from suspicious to thrilled quickly with some clean green bills.

As he walked out, buttoning his black suit coat, he could feel the owner watching him.  Casting a glance over his left shoulder as he strode away, he caught shadows of darkness surrounding a figure wearing the smile of a Cheshire.  Robert’s blood ran cold in his veins despite the sun shining onto the city streets, and he picked up his pace.  He felt his paranoia was getting the better of him.  Thinking back as he walked, he thought that this really must have all been some strange drug induced amnesia.  Robert felt certain that all that had happened had been just dreams, and he felt braver because of this.  Finally he was on his way home, to his wife who must have had every cop in the state looking for him.  He turned down a block and he could see the park that he went to each morning and —

My car!! Yes!! 

city 1

He produced car keys from his coat pocket and trotted to his sedan.  Amazed that it could still be here after what seemed like forever, he stood and looked around at this day.  It really was a lovely one.  Birds sat lazily on a wire, watching people going about their lives.

“Hey, R.J.,! Is that you?” A voice shouted out over the hustle and bustle of the city.  Robert turned quickly to look at an old friend.  The doctor he met once during a sales call, and R.J. tried to get him to buy several vacuums.  Several!!  At the time, Dr. Charley was incredulous to the point of hilarity.  He instantly had a soft spot for this bold salesman, rattling on about how useful it would be to have several vacuums — one for the house, the practice, and back-ups just in case the others broke!  Ridiculous!  Yet there was logic in his rhetoric.  And the only reason Robert did this was so that he could negotiate down to just the two.  Start high, they always tell you, set a high benchmark to set the tone of a negotiation.  Robert smiled at him as he walked over through the crowd.

“Barely recognized you with that beard, R.J. Lowman!  What are you doing with one? Found a job that let you keep it?”

“No… Just…” Robert paused and looked up to the sky.  A crow was flying against the wind, struggling and getting nowhere.  But it was beautiful, he supposed.  Sighing, he looked back to his friend:

“I’ve taken some time off, I guess.  From the search.  I’ve been meaning to ask you about those sleeping pills you gave me, are you sure that they were OK?”

“What do you mean?” Dr. Charley tilted his head and crossed his arms.  He looked as if he was still in the office, wearing his lab coat and stethoscope.

“I had some very strange… dreams, and I don’t remember the last…”  Robert sheepishly looked to the ground, “… I don’t KNOW how long.”  A moment of silence passed.

“That’s just too bad.” Dr. Charley replied flatly.  Robert looked at him in surprise.

“What do you mean, ‘that’s too bad’?!  You’re a doctor!  Sort it out!” The doctor burst into  loud laughter at him, gregariously throwing his head back.  After a moment he calmed down and caught his breath, wiping the tears from his eyes.

“Robert, do you still think that I am Dr. Charley?”  He looked at the smiling doctor, who watched him with the gleeful curiosity of a child.  A bitter cold spread itself through R.J., tracing its path down his back to his feet.  He felt weak.

“We are everywhere, Robert.  You cannot escape us!”  At this, Robert backed up, reaching behind him for the door handle — eyes locked onto his friend.

“What are you talking about?  You’re Doc Charles!”  The doctor stared back at him in disbelief.  He chuckled and shook his head, looking down at the ground as if remembering some punchline to some joke.  Robert was horrified.  He knew now that what he looked at was not his friend.  There was no doubt.  He felt the tingling of fear again, surprised he was not desensitized to the feeling.  In one swift motion he swung himself into the car and shut the door, turning the engine on.  Dr. Cha — something leaned casually onto his car and stared into the window, looking right into Robert’s eyes with a knowing smile.  Like a friend would.

“Try as you might, but the cycle must continue, Robert.”

Robert slammed on the accelerator and peeled into traffic.  Glancing into the rearview mirror he could see the fake doctor, standing there waving at him with one hand while the other was tucked into his lab coat.  Robert whirled his car around the corner, tires squealing over the black asphalt.  Pedestrians threw themselves out of his way as he raced out of the city.  He had to get home.  He had to get to his wife before they did.

” We are everywhere.”

The city finally began to grow smaller in his rear-view mirror, and R.J. breathed a sigh of relief.  The radio quietly comforted him as did the dull roar of his engine.  He tapped his fingers on the steering wheel over-zealously to the rhythm of the song, the same evocative tune from the bar:

“You know the preacher like the cold (preacher like the coooold)
He knows I’m gonna stay (knows I’m gonna staa-aaay)

Caal-i-for-nia dreamin’
On such a winter’s daaay”

He drove for a while, and stopped for gas.  As he pumped he noticed a man sitting by his motorcycle in all black, watching him.  Dark sunglasses hid his gaze, but Robert could feel eyes on him.  R.J. cut the pump early, and got back into his car to leave.  The man kicked on his bike and sat on it as it rumbled, glancing at his watch.  Robert carefully turned back onto the main road, and got up to speed as fast as he could.  He felt uneasy after what happened in the city, despite attempts to calm himself down.  The rear-view mirror held no dark motorcyclist.  He breathed a sigh of relief, but still his heart pounded in his chest.  Thumping against his ribs.

The reflection off of the motorcycle’s chrome flashed in his mirrors.  The man in black was coming up on him.  Robert accelerated, pushing the gas down and shifting into gear.  There was no way that he could out run the bike, he knew, but maybe somehow he could cause him to wreck.  The man was barreling up the road, coming closer and closer.  Robert felt his heart in his throat beating mercilessly.  They were on a straightaway now, and the man in black flew up behind him, and passed him without effort.  Then he kept going.  Apparently, the only thing that man was looking for was the open road.  R.J. felt like a nervous fool.

But then the motorcycle stopped off in the distance, and turned around.  It looked like the exhaust was pumping out black smoke but he was surrounded by that darkness.  The same thing that consumed the others.  The motorcycle roared toward Robert, some kind of demon flying toward him with the throttle pulled back.  Robert pushed further on the accelerator as he wiped the sweat from his palms.

He had never played a game of chicken before.

But nothing was going to get between him and his wife.

Not even hell itself.

 

 road

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Sand

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Alone and writhing in the obsidian emptiness of space, Robert James strained to breathe. The vacuum of darkness pulled at his lungs with furious persistence. His lungs burned for oxygen and his mind screamed:

PLEASE GOD LET ME WAKE U–

night sky hanging with a moon bro

Eyes opened to what looked like some dark corridor with holes dotting the walls and ceiling, light poking through them all into the dusty gallery. Robert could hear whispers echoing from every direction, the languages twisting between each other like tangles of smoke. Forgotten tongues blended with the arcane, and they all reached into his mind with each opaque syllable. Inhuman laughter let loose, laughing at him. His hands clutched at his ears to stifle the sounds, but they crept from within his skull. Heart heavily thumping a primal rhythm to accompany the intoxicating multitude of forbidden sounds driving him unceasingly to madness and he felt a scream begin to erupt from his mouth –

 

He was staring at an old ceiling, a brown-green-black blotched work of shitty abstract art. Heat filled the dry air as an ancient ceiling fan lazily rotated above him with infuriating slowness, creaking.

This is not my house… This isn’t even the place where I fell asleep…

He sat up to look at an obviously abandoned and ancient hotel room, completely dilapidated and… plain nasty. There were some big black bugs on the rotting dresser, and a dirty grey rat sitting propped up in the corner… Relaxing?

Oh… The dream. Right. Time to wake up.

Robert pinched himself as hard as he could and twisted a large fold of flesh on his forearm with all of his might, digging his nails in with extra force he summoned with desperation.

A desperation that comes from fighting a descent into psychosis.

Well…

Blood spotted on his arm. It continued to ache as he waited to wake, and he noticed the amount of dust and sand covering the floor. The mattress he was on, more a pile of springs and cloth, creaked with his standing up. The corner-rat scampered off into some hole, leaving Robert alone with his confusion. Shoes gritting the sand he walked to the window, covered by blinds that seemed dozens of years his elder.

“Might as well see where I am…” R.J. whispered into the musty air. Droves of dust flecks that were dancing slowly in the strips of light became erratic with this sudden gust. The pane of the window was covered in grime and he wiped it away with the sleeve of his suit, a dry cough escaping his mouth.

Robert James looked out upon a desert scene, sand dunes reaching to the horizon, the area near the old hotel could only be recognized as a former parking lot by the tops of cars peeking out of the drifts. The place was apparently named “Hotel Kansas”, as the sign sticking out of a golden heap read.

Looks more like the Sahara than Kansas. What happened here?

Robert ripped the hotel room door open after it stuck for a moment and it flew open abruptly. Sand spilled into his shoes from the mound that had blown up against the remnants of the building.

“Great.” He stepped outside, crunched up a hill, and looked around with eyes reaching for the blurred horizon: there were no other ruins in sight. He strained his eyes to the distance where motion glimmered through waves of heat rising off of the sand. The sun was beating down on a mass exodus of people.

Where are these people going? Why are they here?

Robert’s curiosity suspended his disbelief, and questions flooded his mind. He slid-walked down the dune he was on, and hiked carefully up the next one. His feet slipping down with each step, laboring to climb what seemed to be a disintegrating hill. Reaching the top, he crouched to hide his profile from the crowd and looked on. Hundreds of dusty people with down-turned faces slunk in huddled masses, all lurching toward some unknown refuge off to the empty horizon to his right.

As R.J. looked closer, he could see that there were military personnel urging the people forward, his ears catching the echos of men speaking to the crowd in a mix of English, Spanish… Chinese? Further ahead of the crowd, Robert saw a small detachment of desert fatigues talking together on a crest of a dune, pointing farther to R.J.’s right. He followed their gaze, and saw a massive wall of sand hanging on the horizon. It was so colossal it seemed to be still, but they all knew it was moving. Quickly too.

The men slid back toward the main group in a tumbling rush, and met with the other soldiers. They all seemed skittish, pitching glances around. One pointed in Roberts direction, and he felt the icy hand of a chill brush down his back. They dispersed and herded the crowd slowly toward where R.J. was. The sandstorm was closer now, the people were moving along faster with the soldiers trotting beside them. A baby’s cry carried over the sand and through the shimmering heat, wailing forcefully.

Robert stood and looked up again to see the storm, now noticing flashes of lightning within, and in the blink of an eye it seemed to change the direction it was heading, turning now toward him. The icy hand cemented its grip around R.J.’s heart.

Why can’t I wake up Jesus God please let me wake up I want to go home to my wife an–

aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa

 

A hollow, mechanical drone violently filled the air, echoing into the expanse like a foghorn. It was distinctly artificial, and loud enough so that R.J. was forced to cover his ears, but the vibration was so low and loud that he could still hear it no matter how hard he pushed his hands against his head. Sand slipped in tiny avalanches on the dunes all around him. The bones in his body shook, and he couldn’t tell if it was from the sound or the fear. The horrible tone lasted for a full minute.

The people all stopped silently in a valley between dunes, for just a moment, and looked around. The soldiers frantically urged them to continue, each holding a gun in one hand while windmilling their other arm fervently. As they saw the sand storm crash over the hills around them, spilling over them, they broke into a frightened sprint.

Like… roaches…

The baby continued to cry, but was cut off by another drone. Robert felt that the sound sounded ancient, somehow. Primeval. The sandstorm ceased along with the hellish tone, and there was a second of false silence as his ears rang. The chilling screams of the forsaken filled the air, drowning out the cries of the child. Robert beheld something which defied logic, and his eyes locked with horror on something that should never be able to exist.

A silver serpentine behemoth looked down at the crowd, and towered above the landscape. Sand fell from it as the harsh sun reflected off of chrome and it made a series of sounds: Horrifying whirrs from unseen gears, disgusting clicks from a gaping maw where dozens of cold steel mandibles slammed together in hungry anticipation. Hundreds of bright red eyes covered what could only be its head, flashing and darting in all directions. Robert fell to his knees in terror, as he watched the extermination of his species.

We are… vermin…

The mechanical colossus curled, lowering itself to the sea of humans trying to escape. Arms appeared, like titanic scythes, and began to slice into the crowd with the quick, efficient strokes of a skilled surgeon. The dunes surrounding were painted with splatters of red, turning the sand dark like mud. Sparks erupted all over the monster’s body as the soldiers began to fight back in vain. Robert cowered as bodies were tossed like insects into the air, the air whooshing around him with each methodical pass. Blood flecked across his face as a lone officer shouldered a rocket launcher and looked up to fire, hands shaking. The fear forced his aim to land only a glancing blow off what must be the being’s torso. It turned to focus its ancient gaze on the mortal, and another drone echoed out, freezing the rest of the humans where they stood.

An all-too-brief moment passed, and with strange intelligence, the thing leaned down further. The baby had survived somehow and was crying again into the macabre silence. A tumultuous sound creaked from the silver horror and its body opened to allow mechanical tendrils to spread from within. They reached, spreading around the baby to cradle it carefully and bring it back inside. Its desperate mothers’ arms were outstretched instinctively as the steel mountain confirmed the child was tucked safely within the darkness of its frame. With stoic professionalism, the carnage began with a new sincerity. Robert turned down the dune he was on to run somewhere, anywhere but here.

Silence. A gunshot, a loud thump of a muffled blow against the sand which peppered the back of Robert’s neck. Overwhelming silence. His feet scrunched the ground. There was nowhere to escape, nowhere to go. He was not sure if he could die anymore, but if he could he did not want to go like this.

My wife has no idea what is happening to me. How long have I been out? Am I even alive anymore? I want to go home…

The ground rumbled and he looked back, against his better judgement. Through tears of fear he caught a glimpse of shining silver as it slithered back into the dunes, whispers of sand moving and becoming louder, taunting him. It was coming for him now. It knew.

He looked down at the roofs of cars just under the sand in this desert of a parking lot. Roberts mind sparked with some understanding now, he had to go to sleep, and fast. He had to get back home, back to his wife and his life – however bleak he thought his existence to be, it was worlds better than where he was now. Worlds. His mind filled with thoughts, images, feelings of his wife. Her long, black hair. Those big, dark eyes. The beach at night when he proposed. He forced his mind to fill with only thoughts of her.

Her.

Dream to escape. Escape to dream.

Robert James jumped as high as he could for the first time in over ten years. As he guided his body, a fraction of a second he wondered if he had died and this was his hell. His hands clasped behind him as he flew head first toward the roof of a rusted car. His wife’s face filled his mind’s eye.

To die, to sleep.

To sleep…

Sleep.

Perchance to dream.

wispy sand gif

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A Forest in the Appalachians

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R.J. was numb, laying there in the shade of the great oak. Keep Reading!