Coming soon: “The Mammoth Mountain Poltergeist”

My new book, a paranormal nonfiction account co-written with Tom Ross (the God of Hellfire himself) will be out soon! Here is the cover and blurb to whet the appetite…

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000038_00060]

“Our first instinct was just sheer disbelief. We were trying to tell ourselves that it couldn’t be real. It couldn’t be happening. But it was.”

In December of 1982, when Tom Ross was thirteen years old, he took a week’s vacation to Mammoth Lakes in California with his aunt, uncle, and cousin. Almost from the moment they arrived at their condo, they experienced a near-constant barrage of bizarre phenomena that escalated over their stay, and seemed to follow them after they left.

Items moved around by themselves, shades flew open when no one was near them, bloody tissues appeared out of nowhere, words appeared on windows in empty rooms, a blue haze seemed to hover near the ceiling, a door chain was broken from the inside by what appeared to be a clawed hand, and disembodied voices emerged from corners.

The family was simultaneously terrified and amazed. Thirty-two years later, the four witnesses decided to tell their story.

“Lepidoptera”

butterfly silence

Stephanie Guthrie stood in the center of the pile of blood-soaked bodies, her arms outstretched, her face a blank mask. Children pointed and screamed, animals paced in their cages. Zoo employees gaped like statues, unable to believe what they had just seen. Soon enough, the police came to quell the panic, and then an ambulance came, and bundled the woman inside.

****

“I haven’t been able to get a single word out of her,” said Theresa Hill, the police psychologist. “Looks like partial catatonia.”

Vic Unger, the lead investigator on what was sure to be the most bizarre case the city had ever seen, made a disgusted sound. “Typical. And wait ‘til you hear what we got back from the lab guys.”

“What’s that?” The halls were nearly empty in this ward, and Theresa’s voice echoed like a snatch of memory.

“Cause of death for all fifteen people at the zoo,” Vic said, “was evidently a mass poisoning. In other words, they were gassed.”

Theresa raised her eyebrows at him. “Terrorists?”

Vic shrugged. “That’s why we need to get a story out of the sole survivor in there.” He scratched distractedly at his three days’ growth of beard. “She doesn’t strike me as the terrorist type, I gotta say.”

“No. Maybe the poison came from somewhere else, and Miss Guthrie was the only one lucky enough to survive it?”

“Could be, although witnesses say the people around her dropped dead as soon as she raised her arms, like the two events were related. Have you done any scans on her or anything? Checked her for brain damage?”

“Yes. Looks like nothing out of the ordinary so far.”

“Damn.” Vic was a handsome man, only in his mid-thirties, but already cultivating a look of hangdog cynicism that Theresa found amusing. They had reached the end of the hall, and the locked room where Stephanie Guthrie was being held for observation. Theresa produced a set of keys from the pocket of her coat and opened the door.

Stephanie was sitting rigidly in the chamber’s only chair, her hands resting stiffly on her lap. She didn’t look up as Theresa and Vic entered, but kept her gaze fixed on a spot just below eye level. A very long moment passed before she even blinked.

“Hello there, Miss Guthrie.” Theresa stood before the woman, her arms crossed. “How are we doing today?”

Stephanie, of course, did not answer.

“The investigator is here, Miss Guthrie,” Theresa continued, gesturing to Vic, who was standing slightly behind and to the left of her. “He’d really like to get to the bottom of what happened at the zoo on Saturday. Do you think you’ll be able to cooperate?”

More silence in which Stephanie’s chest barely rose and fell with her breathing.

Vic stepped forward at Theresa’s urging. “I’m Vic Unger, Miss Guthrie,” he said. “I’d like to help you, but to do that I need to ask you some questions. Is that all right?”

Another blink, another breath.

Vic wasn’t in the mood for this; his impatience was one of his few negative attributes. “Can’t you just hypnotize her or something?” he asked.

Theresa stared down at the top of Stephanie’s head. “That may become necessary, although I have to tell you ahead of time that hypnosis is sometimes not a very effective psychiatric tool. We generally only use it as a last resort.”

“Well, can you get started on all the other resorts? I’d really like to figure out what the hell is going on here.”

“As would we all, Mr. Unger.” Theresa smiled at him. “But cases like this take time. I’m sure you understand.”

Vic nodded. He did understand, but he didn’t like it.

****

The next day, driving up the interstate, Vic ran the facts of the case through his mind again, hoping to stumble upon a detail he’d missed the first few times. Last Saturday at approximately two-fifteen p.m. at the Langford County Zoo, thirty-two-year-old Stephanie Guthrie had been strolling through the butterfly garden in the company of her thirty-six-year-old fiancé, Ray Framington. According to witnesses—the few who were left alive, that is—they had been holding hands, and Stephanie had been smiling. Then suddenly, things had taken a macabre turn. In an instant, the woman had gone white, tilting her head slightly upwards as if she had just heard something that shocked her beyond her capacity to reason. Her eyes apparently
glazed over, and even though Ray Framington had shaken her, trying to discern the problem, she had acted as though he wasn’t even there.

Then, witnesses agreed, she had slowly begun to raise her arms, until they were even with her shoulders. At the moment when she opened her hands, spreading her fingers to their farthest extremes, the fifteen people closest to her—including her fiancé—had simultaneously begun to bleed from every orifice, and after an agonizing moment of this horrifying spectacle, all fifteen had dropped dead to the concrete like sacks of grain. As this was happening, Stephanie Guthrie stood as still as marble in the center of the action, her outstretched hands like white wings, her expression as lifeless as that of a china doll.

When the police and then the ambulance had come, she had said nothing, reacted to nothing. The EMT’s who strapped her onto the gurney said that she was completely docile, but also entirely lacking in humanity, like an empty husk.

Since then, her condition had not changed.

Vic took a swig of black coffee from his thermos, settling it back into the fork of his crotch. His dark mood was getting darker by the minute.

He thought of Dr. Hill’s mention of terrorists. That had been his first thought too, but something about the situation didn’t sit right. Besides that, a search of Stephanie Guthrie’s person had turned up nothing resembling a container in which the toxin could have been carried, and even her skin had only shown trace amounts of the chemical that had killed the others. It was all very odd.

Whatever direction the case was taking, the department was on his ass to put it to bed as quickly as possible, and to that end he was skipping lunch and driving up to Hastings to interview Miss Guthrie’s parents. He hoped they could give him some insight into her history, her personality; from long experience, though, he knew this wasn’t likely. He sighed and turned off the highway.

Vic parked in front of a modest brick townhouse and slid out of the car. He’d called the Guthries yesterday to set up the meeting, and now, as he walked up the driveway, he noticed the curtain twitching as someone peered out at him. He pretended he hadn’t seen.

His knock was answered by a rail-thin man in his mid-sixties, clean shaven with a slick bald head. His eyes were absinthe-green, sharp and wary. “Come in, Inspector…Unger, was it?”

“Call me Vic, Mr. Guthrie. Thanks.” Vic passed over the threshold and immediately spotted Mrs. Guthrie, who stood nervously at the end of the hall. She was also in her sixties, still fairly youthful and fit, though the few lines on her face appeared deep with worry.

At Mr. Guthrie’s invitation, Vic took a seat in the living room, choosing a worn upholstered chair near the unlit fireplace. He
noticed a framed photograph of Stephanie on the mantel, and for a moment he marveled at the difference between the cheerful girl in the picture and the sullen zombie he’d seen back at the hospital. Mrs. Guthrie offered tea, which Vic politely refused. He waited until the couple had settled themselves on the matching sofa across from him, and then he got straight to the point.

“Let me just say that I want nothing more than to see that Stephanie gets the help she needs, Mr. and Mrs. Guthrie,” he began. “As I’m sure you’re aware, the situation is very grave. Fifteen people are dead, and it appears that Stephanie may somehow be involved, as either a victim or a perpetrator. As I told you on the phone, she is refusing or unable to speak, so anything you can tell me would be greatly appreciated.” He pulled a tiny tape recorder from his jacket pocket. “May I?” The couple murmured assent, and he switched it on.

Mrs. Guthrie’s lower lip was trembling. “I just don’t understand how any of this could have happened,” she said. “Stephanie never hurt anyone. And she would never do anything to hurt Ray—she adored him.”

Mr. Guthrie was nodding in agreement. “Yes, there must be some mistake. I’m sure she was just the victim of a horrible attack, or perhaps a freak accident.”

“That’s what we’re hoping to find out,” Vic said with a tight smile. “Please forgive me, but I have to ask some of these questions. Now, about Ray, they were engaged, correct?”

“Yes.”

“Had they been having any problems, though? Arguments? Had her behavior seemed any different recently?”

Mr. Guthrie was shaking his head before Vic had even finished speaking. “We just saw the both of them on Friday night. They came over for dinner. Nothing was wrong; they were happy, laughing. Talking about the wedding plans.”

“I just can’t believe Stephanie would have anything to do with anything so horrible,” Mrs. Guthrie said. Her eyes were glistening, but she spoke firmly. “The poor dear. Especially after—”

“Yvonne!” Mr. Guthrie bellowed.

Vic fixed each of them with a hard stare. “Especially after what?”

“Nothing, Inspector,” said Mr. Guthrie. “My wife was just going to say, especially after we had just seen her the day before.” He shot Yvonne a warning look that he probably thought Vic didn’t notice.

“George…” She reached out and touched the back of his hand.

Vic’s impatience was beginning to flare up again. “It won’t help your daughter’s case if you keep information from me,” he said, trying to tone down the irritation in his voice.

“She’s not our daughter,” Mrs. Guthrie said with a defiant glance toward her husband. “I thought you might have found that out by now.”

“Yvonne, I told you…”

Vic put up his hand to silence Mr. Guthrie, who was clearly approaching a meltdown. “Let your wife talk, sir.”

“He doesn’t like to talk about it,” said Mrs. Guthrie, patting her husband’s hand again. “It was his brother and sister-in-law, you know.”

Mr. Guthrie looked ready to explode, but Vic preempted him with a calming gesture. “Go on, Mrs. Guthrie.”

“It was such a long time ago. Stephanie was only about ten at the time,” Yvonne said. “A very bright child, she was. We didn’t see her often back then, you understand. Her parents—that’s George’s brother and sister-in-law—lived in Rosemere, about ninety miles north of here. But we saw them on holidays, of course.”

Vic wondered if this story would be going anywhere relevant, but he leaned forward in his seat, silently encouraging her to continue.

“Well, it happened at Stephanie’s school,” Yvonne said. She glanced over at George, who had covered his face with his hands. “It was one of those open house nights, you know, where the parents come to meet the teachers and so on. Do you have any children, Inspector?”

Vic did, a baby son, but he shook his head no. He didn’t want Mrs. Guthrie getting sidetracked.

“Well, it was the funniest thing,” Yvonne continued, to Vic’s relief. “Not funny, of course, but strange. I don’t think anyone ever figured out exactly what happened. It was all so sudden. One minute, there were kids and parents milling around the classroom, looking at all the projects the children had made, and then the next minute…”

Mrs. Guthrie waved her hand vaguely in the air. Her bottom lip was trembling again. “I wasn’t there, you understand,” she said, her voice going hoarse. “But I heard all about it. The papers said there was blood everywhere, covering everything. And all those poor little children…” The tears finally came, and Yvonne pressed her hands to her lips, and indication that she could not continue.

Vic looked to Mr. Guthrie, who looked haggardly back at him. “What happened?” Vic asked.

“They all died, what do you think happened?” George rasped. “My brother and sister-in-law, some other parents, teachers, a bunch of kids. Almost everyone in the room, as a matter of fact. Stephanie and one other person were the only ones who survived.”

“But what killed them?” Vic urged, exasperated. “Was it a shooting?”

Mrs. Guthrie had recovered enough to speak again. “I told you, they didn’t know what it was. Everyone just dropped dead, near as I can figure from the news stories. No one was shot, they were sure of that, but…” She trailed off, shrugging. “I guess they didn’t have all the fancy forensic science they have nowadays. Anyway, it was in all the papers back then. The Rosemere Gazette, a couple of others.” She sniffed and wiped at her nose primly with a handkerchief she had produced from her pocket.

Vic made a mental note to check the archives for news stories about the deaths; he didn’t remember hearing about it at the time, but he hadn’t been much older than Stephanie then, and he doubted that any news story, no matter how bizarre, would have made its way into his teenage psyche all those years ago. “Was Stephanie questioned after all this happened?” he asked.

Mr. and Mrs. Guthrie looked at each other. There was a long pause, then Yvonne finally said, “She was never the same afterwards.” Her voice was so soft that Vic had to lean farther forward to hear her. “She just kind of…vanished into herself. Not surprising, I suppose, after such a trauma. George and I got custody—we were the closest relatives, you know, and we were happy to do it—but we couldn’t reach the girl. She had to be…hospitalized for a while.” Yvonne looked as though she might be on the verge of losing it again, but she clenched her jaw and held herself together.

“How long was she hospitalized, Mrs. Guthrie?” Vic had lowered his voice to match hers.

“Oh…almost two years, I think it was.” She sounded almost apologetic, as though the girl’s illness was a personal failing. “I hated to see her in there, I really did, but…well, what else could we do?”

“They did help her in that hospital, right enough,” Mr. Guthrie added. “Stephanie was never the same as before, but once she came out of there she was much better. Not like she was, but still okay.” Now it looked as though George might break down crying again.

Vic thought he had caused the couple enough anguish for one day, so he switched off the recorder, replaced it in his pocket, and stood to go. “Thanks very much, Mr. and Mrs. Guthrie,” he said, reaching out to shake their hands. “I’ll be in touch. And if you think of anything more, give me a call.”

“We certainly will.”

Vic left the pair to their heartbreak, and made his way back to his car, where he finished off the thermos of now lukewarm coffee. His earlier hesitancy, it seemed, had been wrong; he had obtained quite a bit of interesting information from Stephanie’s adoptive parents. And now it seemed like the reticent Miss Guthrie wasn’t quite as above suspicion as she had first appeared.

****

Theresa Hill locked her office door behind her, then retraced her well-worn steps down the hall to Stephanie Guthrie’s room. It had been four days since the incident, and very little progress had been made. The woman was easily the most difficult case she’d ever run across, and as such, was maddeningly intriguing.

Stephanie had not moved during Theresa’s absence. The doctor fetched a chair from an adjacent room and placed it a few feet from Stephanie, then closed the door.

Perhaps hypnosis was the only way to reach the patient, Dr. Hill mused. Certainly nothing else had worked—Theresa had tried cajoling and threatening, withholding food, appealing to Stephanie’s love for her family and her dead fiancé. The woman had sat there through it all, stoic, emotionless. She wasn’t completely out of it, Theresa knew—she had been eating a little, and could be counted upon to get up and use the bathroom when necessary, but beyond that she was a shell of a person, an automaton.

Theresa began today’s session as she had begun the others, talking to Stephanie in low tones, addressing her frequently by name in order to place focus on her core identity. As with all the other times, Stephanie did not react, not even to make fleeting eye contact with the doctor.

After about fifteen minutes of this, Theresa sighed and stopped talking. Clearly it was time for a different approach, one she had been putting off for days. She reached into the pocket of her coat and drew out the small metronome she had brought from her office; she got up and placed it on the seat of her chair. She turned it on, and its winking silver needle began to tick back and forth with a sound like a wooden cane tapping on pavement.

“I don’t know if you can hear me or understand me, Stephanie,” said Dr. Hill, standing off to the side with her hands clasped behind her back. “But if you can, I want you to look at the object in front of you. Concentrate on it very hard, and ignore everything else but it and the sound of my voice.”

Theresa had no idea whether Stephanie was complying or not, since her blank expression did not change. She pressed on. “Good. Just keep looking at it, focusing on the needle going back and forth, back and forth.”

Again, there was no discernible reaction, but Theresa continued on, allowing her voice to become softer and softer until it was a pleasant drone in the drab room. At last, she said, “Now, Stephanie, I want you to close your eyes.”

For a long moment nothing happened, and Theresa’s hopes began to fade. Perhaps they would never be able to reach the woman; perhaps the bizarre deaths at the zoo would remain forever unsolved.

Then Stephanie’s eyes fluttered closed.

Theresa almost leaped for joy, but managed to keep her voice level, even as her heart hammered against her ribcage. “Very good, Stephanie. Now I want you to go back to last Saturday, the day you and Ray went to the zoo. Do you remember?”

Stephanie didn’t answer, but her brow furrowed as though she’d just heard some troubling news. Theresa was so elated to see a change in expression that she immediately moved on to the next question. “What happened that day, Stephanie? Can you tell me?”

The patient’s frown deepened, and her eyelids began to twitch. Theresa thought she saw the woman shake her head, ever so slightly, but it might have been wishful thinking. “Can you tell me what happened, Stephanie?” Dr. Hill persisted, trying mightily to keep from badgering her. “You were walking along with Ray, weren’t you? There were some other people around. And then what?”

Two tears squeezed from beneath Stephanie’s closed lids and trickled down her cheeks. Her face was a mask of horror and sorrow, and Theresa considered waking her up right then, but at that moment Stephanie began to move.

Her arms, which had been dangling loosely by her sides, started to rise, almost as though they were attached to a puppeteer’s strings. Stephanie’s eyes remained closed, but her face contorted, seemingly fighting against the actions of the rest of her body.

Her arms were now outstretched, level with her shoulders, and as Theresa watched, the woman unfurled her fingers like flower petals and spread them wide. The doctor opened her mouth to ask what she was doing, but then Stephanie’s eyes flew open and her gaze fixed fully on Theresa, the zombie stare now replaced by a look of frightening, hyper-aware intensity. The doctor backed up a step.

“The voice,” said Stephanie, the words little more than a creak of muscles long unused.

Dr. Hill was so shocked that the patient had spoken that she stumbled over the next question and had to repeat it. “Whose voice, Stephanie?” she asked, trying to maintain contact with that unsettling stare. “What did it say?”

Stephanie’s eyes widened, becoming round black holes in the midst of her ghostly visage. There was a sound from behind, but Theresa ignored it, intent upon her patient’s words.

“Lepidoptera,” Stephanie said, and then her entire body seemed to collapse in on itself, her arms dropping back to her sides, her head falling forward until her chin rested on her chest. Blood came, first in a trickle and then in a torrent. Frantically, Theresa clapped her hands, attempting to wake the patient from the hypnotic trance, but the sharp sounds of her palms smacking together had no effect other than producing a flat echo against the gray concrete walls.

****

Vic stomped on the gas, urging the car to go faster, even though he was already exceeding the speed limit by a considerable margin. He hoped to Christ his hunch was wrong, but a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach suggested it wasn’t. In fact, if Dr. Hill had gone ahead with the planned hypnosis, then it was probably already too late.

After leaving the Guthries’ the day before yesterday, Vic had gone straight to the Rosemere library and spent the better part of the afternoon examining the newspaper archives on microfilm. And there, just as Mrs. Guthrie had stated, was the entire unbelievable story, laid out in all its puzzling detail, though Stephanie, being a minor, was not mentioned by name. Police at the time had been mystified, and even though Vic had scoured the later records, hoping for some follow-up, he had found nothing further, other than a short article a few months after the event which speculated that the deaths had been caused by some freak chemical seepage into the classroom, since the victims had apparently all succumbed to some unknown poisonous fumes. Just like the fifteen people at the zoo, Vic had thought grimly.

Only one other person had survived the accident twelve years before, and that was a young teacher by the name of Bill Travers. Vic had spent the previous day tracking the man down, only to find out that he had died in an institution, having been in a near comatose state for nearly ten years following the occurrence at the school open house. And after speaking to one of the older nurses who still worked at the hospital where Travers had died, Vic discovered something else—that when a doctor had attempted hypnosis in order to reach the poor man, Travers had ended up dead, the doctor catatonic. Post-mortem examination of Mr. Travers had revealed that his death was caused by the same mysterious chemical that had killed
the parents and children in the classroom, and the same one, Vic knew, that had killed the fifteen people at the zoo last week. He’d had a report back from the lab boys on that, too—they had no idea what the substance was, other than that it was sort of like a pheromone, but deadly poisonous. Yeah, tell me something I don’t know, Vic had said sardonically.

But there was a minor detail that nagged at Vic. The nurse at the institution where Travers had breathed his last had supplied him with a grainy, black and white videotape of the hypnosis session where Travers had died. The similarity with Stephanie’s case was chilling, as the man sat very still in his chair, seemingly insensate, as the doctor stood over him, intoning a list of questions that was meant to draw him out of his traumatized state. But suddenly, the man’s eyes had opened, his face had wrenched apart in a silent scream, and he had uttered a single word: Lepidoptera. The tape stopped just as his lifeless body slithered to the floor.

Vic blew through a yellow light that turned red the second he passed under it. He didn’t understand exactly what the mechanisms behind all this were, but the outcomes seemed abundantly clear. Something was causing these people to transform from normal, functioning human beings into…what? Was it some kind of killer virus triggered by environmental factors? Or even by some internal apparatus that lay dormant in the body until a particular moment caused it to flower?

Vic didn’t know, but he did know that both Stephanie Guthrie and Theresa Hill were in horrible danger. Even though he had abandoned the idea of God long ago, he began reciting a litany in his head, something like a prayer, though to who or what he was praying he couldn’t have said. Please let it not be too late, please let it not be too late…

After what seemed like hours of driving, the unobtrusive sign identifying the Mayflower Psychiatric Hospital loomed through his windshield. He turned the car without slowing down, feeling two tires leave the ground, and then tore down the long, tree-lined road that led to the parking lot. He pulled abruptly to the curb and leaped from the car, leaving the door wide open and the keys dangling in the ignition.

Doctors and nurses turned to stare at him as he belted down the halls, flashing his badge at anyone who looked as though they may try to stop him, squeezing through the digitally locked doors the second the shocked guards had opened them. His shoes squeaked on the linoleum, and his lungs were filled with the mingled odors of urine and sweat and formaldehyde.

He headed first for Dr. Hill’s office, but saw immediately that she was not there. His heart sinking, he continued running, down the endless corridors, deeper into the bowels of the hospital.

At last he arrived at Stephanie Guthrie’s room. He turned the knob and found it unlocked, which made his hopes dim even further. He was almost afraid of what he would see as he pushed open the door.

For a split second it appeared that everything was fine. Dr. Hill was standing in the middle of the room, leaning toward Stephanie, who sat in the chair she had barely moved from for several days, her eyes closed, her arms outstretched. An echo hung in the air, as though Dr. Hill had just asked a question that awaited an answer.

Just as Vic was about to speak and announce his presence, Stephanie’s eyes opened and fixed on the doctor’s. Her lips parted with a soft plip. Vic darted into the room, knowing what she was about to say, but for some reason time seemed to have slowed, the way it does in dreams. Stephanie seemed very far away, her mouth opening like a tiny black O. “Lepidoptera,” she said, and then her entire frame collapsed, and blood began to ooze from her nose and mouth. As Vic watched, she crumpled to the floor, her eyes already beginning to glaze over, the single word she had spoken humming around the enclosed space like a hellbent mosquito.

Dr. Hill was clapping her hands, obviously trying to awaken a patient that would wake no more. She still had not noticed Vic at all. She moved toward Stephanie.

And then Vic felt it, that word the woman had whispered, tunneling into his brain like an earthworm through the loam, lodging in the deepest part of him. He could feel it radiating outward from this command center, infecting his flesh, his entire molecular structure. He could feel it squirming within him, using him for its own devilish purposes, waiting for the moment when it would unleash itself upon the unwary, making of him an unwitting carrier, accomplice, slaughterer.

Dr. Hill finally turned and saw him standing there, and just before his brain began its inevitable withdrawal into its cocoon, he managed to lock gazes with her. She had fallen to her knees next to the corpse of her patient, clearly suffering the same appalling fate as he. Vic tried to smile at her, if only to show that they were now joined in their shared contagion, but he couldn’t quite do it.

At last he felt his body falling, and his thin veneer of rationality dissolved completely, his thumping heart keeping time with the ticking beat of the metronome.

Excerpt From an Untitled and As-Yet-Uncompleted Erotic Horror Story

Hi again, kids. This right here is a story I started working on a few months ago, but for some reason haven’t got around to finishing yet. I probably will finish it at some point, and eventually I’d like to feature it in another short story collection I want to have put together this year, but in the meantime, read the excerpt and tell me what you think! Suggestions for plot twists and titles are also welcome.

Also, kindly remember I have an ongoing Patreon campaign to raise funds for this writing thang I do. Even pledging just a couple bucks a month will be a big help, so if you like what I do, then consider contributing! Please and thank you. And now, the main feature.

Flyaway hair? Stand Head and Shoulders above the rest. (Sorry.)

Flyaway hair? Stand Head and Shoulders above the rest. (Sorry.)

It all came out through the holes, wet and glistening silver like strands of spider silk. It’s her again. How could that be? James began to pull more quickly, his heartbeat accelerating. In moments the palm of his hand was crisscrossed with the stuff, metallic yet somehow soft at the same time, its shafts clotted with black. James brought his hand up to his nose and took a heady sniff. He could smell the secretive tang of the below, that organic stench. He closed his eyes.

He didn’t know how long he sat that way, hunched over the bathtub, but he was suddenly brought out of his reverie by a banging on the door. “Hey, are you all right in there?”

He turned toward the voice. Shit. He’d almost forgotten. “I’m almost done. Be out in a minute.” He fumbled a plastic baggie out of the pocket of his sport coat and gently slipped a handful of the hair into it, giving it a final caress as he did so. He kept back a few fine strands that he rubbed between his fingers, relishing the feel of the drain-slime sloughing off in his hands. He then pursed his lips and drew the strands slowly into his mouth, using his tongue to swirl them around his teeth. Angel hair. He smiled.

With another glance at the bathroom door, he swallowed and stepped to the sink to wash his hands. His face in the mirror looked mostly normal to him, with just a hint of a devilish curl at the corner of his lips. He wiped his hands and opened the door. “Sorry about that,” he said.

“Oh, that’s all right.” The woman by the bathroom door was short and rotund, not at all the way he imagined the possessor of the hair would look. “I just got a little worried. Thought you were sick or something.”

“No, no. Just a little…something I ate. Would you like to see the upstairs now? I think you’ll really like the layout up there. Lots of natural light.”

The woman nodded and followed him as he mounted the steps and continued his seller’s spiel. As he spoke, his mind wandered to the hair in the drain, to the sensuous, glimmering impossibility of it. He patted his pocket to make sure the baggie was still there, the bag that he would add to the two other identical ones he had stashed away in the drawer of his bedside table at home. He asked himself again, How was it possible? Three different houses in different parts of town, and yet he had pulled the same woman’s hair from the three drains: same unusual silver-silk color and texture, same loamy scent of promise lurking beneath the pungent sewer-odor. Extraordinary.

****

That evening, he sat in his dim, cramped office, his sport coat hung over the back of his chair, a forgotten cup of coffee beside him. Plastic baggies made a milky-slick grid before him on the faux wood desktop, and his hands trembled slightly as he held them there, inches above the expanse, quivering in anticipation of the first touch.

The bags were ordered along a spectrum, with the palest blondes at the upper left positions gradually shading toward the severest blacks at the lower right. The three strange silvers occupied their own place at the very top of the grid, and it was these that James gravitated toward with his shaking fingers, prolonging his delicious agony by stroking the plastic of the baggie briefly, so briefly, then pulling away.

At last he could stand it no longer, and snatched up the baggie containing today’s acquisition. He pulled apart the seal and plunged his hand greedily inside. The hair had dried since this afternoon, and its texture was so delicate that he could barely feel it on the skin of his palm. He brought it out and held the strands under the desk lamp, watching the light play across the shaft of the hair like a prism, like fiber optics. He held it there for a long time, staring, transfixed. He itched to bring it toward his lips, to feel it coiling its way down his throat to nest in his stomach, but…

Something was wrong. He forced his gaze away from the silver hair and scanned the plastic grid, the neat squares containing their multi-hued filaments. There was still that charge, that longing, but it was different than before, less intense. He frowned. Carefully, he placed the silver hair back into its bag and placed it at the top of the grid. It wouldn’t do. This was something special, something that couldn’t be treated with the same ritual. The three baggies lay there, taunting him deliciously, marriageable women amidst a sea of cheap whores.

He shook his head, both aroused and disturbed. He snatched up one of the other baggies from the center of the grid without really looking at it. What did it matter? He drew the mouse-brown strands from the bag and let them hang between his fingers. With his other hand, he unzipped his jeans. His erection was tentative, his confusion over having to settle for a cheap whore for tonight stymieing the usual hard throb. He took his cock in his hand and stroked, the fingers of his other hand caressing the substandard hair. His thoughts raced. The silver hair, there on the desk. Perhaps he should look at that, think of that while he dallied with the inferior specimen. His cock immediately responded as his eyes focused on those three baggies, and he groaned as the motions of his hand grew faster. As the inevitable explosion drew near, he stuffed the brown hair in his mouth and barely even bothered to move it around with his tongue before swallowing it just as he released his seed across his pants, the desktop, the array of baggies. The hair tickled as it made its way down his esophagus, and he sat back in his chair, breathing hard, watching his erection wilt, feeling the pleasant tinge of the air conditioning on his damp flesh.

****

The house had been empty for several months, and James had shown it to four prospective buyers so far. None had made an offer. James wasn’t sure exactly why; he didn’t see anything particularly wrong with the place that a little elbow grease couldn’t fix. The plumbing was old, and gave the rooms a vaguely dank odor, but James found the smell strangely comforting, and was always bothered when his clients wrinkled their noses at it as they toured around. It was a perfectly lovely house otherwise, small but pleasantly secretive, painted in cool watery hues.

He unlocked the door and went inside, setting his phone and all his papers on the kitchen bar just off the living room. He was meeting a new client today who had seemed intensely interested in buying, and he was determined to get at least an offer, even if he had to force the woman to sign on the dotted line.

He made a quick survey of the place, dusting off surfaces with his hand and picking up dead bugs and stray leaves. He paused on the threshold of the master bathroom, where the wet smell was the strongest, and breathed deeply. He could go in and check the drain, it would only take a moment…he had been in this house before and collected specimens, but there were always a few strands he’d missed. His memory drifted back to the silver hair in the baggies at home, and his fingers twitched. Only a moment…

There was a gentle knock on the front door. James straightened his back. His cock was stirring against his thigh, straining against the front of his khakis, and James quickly tried to calm himself, glancing down to ensure that the bulge was not as obvious as it felt. The knock came again, and James waited another few beats before heading purposefully down the hall, hoping he looked presentable.

“Ms. Dell?” he said as he opened the door. It occurred to him much later that he had known, seconds before he saw who was standing on the doorstep, that it would be her.

“James,” she said, immediately familiar. She was framed like a portrait against a late autumn landscape, the black tree branches in the yard seeming to spread out behind her like the clawed hands of a giant, presenting her to him. The afternoon sun on her silvery hair made it ripple like liquid fire.

He stared. She seemed content to stand and be stared at.

After an age, he wordlessly stepped aside and let her enter the house. She brought the silver glow of the outside in with her, and she also brought a scent that seemed to mesh with the clammy tang of the house, and the two scents combined into a dark perfume of dirt and sweat and marshland that made James dizzy.

Ms. Dell smiled at him, a deceptively distracted smile that nonetheless made him feel as though he had been penetrated by a laser. She began to amble about the living room, looking idly up and down, her black silk dress clinging to her flesh as she moved. He wanted to speak to her, but he was afraid of breaking the spell.

She disappeared into the shadows of the hallway, and James stood there stupidly watching the place where she had been, as if her aura and underground scent had left a ghost of her behind, and then came her throaty voice thrumming from the very walls. “Are you coming?” she asked.

He stumbled down the hall, his heart clenching. He didn’t see her at first; there was only the shifting diffused light from the windows making dancing patterns on the water-blue walls, but then there was a hint of movement off to his right, and of course there she was, standing before the bathroom sink and gazing intently at her reflection. She turned her head slightly as he entered. His mouth was dry. She was so very close, and the smell of her was heady, mingling with the stench from the plumbing, the stench that always clung to the hair she had left for him to find in the drains.

She placed her bone-pale hands on her hips and slid the fabric of her dress upwards, bending over the sink as she did so that the twin moons of her ass were just visible. James moved behind her, feeling as though his body was no longer anchored to the earth. Ms. Dell was still looking into the mirror, and now her eyes raised to meet his in the silver reflection of the two of them. Her eyes were black and bottomless, pipelines into the eternal. She waited.

James fumbled for a moment, and in the eerie silence the sound of his zipper freeing him was like a rip in spacetime. Then he was inside of her, and as he watched her face in the mirror he saw her lips part and emit a high, gurgling sigh, though her gaze never faltered, her unblinking eyes boring into him as he bore into her with heightening intensity.

As he neared climax, she arched her ass and pushed against him with terrible force. He clenched his teeth, trying to hold on as long as he could. She threw her head back so that her glorious silver hair flew out in a fan, and James snatched fistfuls of it as it cascaded toward him, curling his fingers and pulling her toward him with it, until he felt as though he would rend her in half. She made that startling cry again, that liquid burble, and then he lost it, howling in pleasurable agony, ripping twin skeins of hair from her head with his clenched fists as he came.

He withdrew from her and collapsed against the bathroom door, lowering his head so that he no longer had to stare into those reflected black eyes, which were still unwaveringly watching him even now. He glanced down at his hands, at the knotted silver strands like fine wire festooning his fingers. He longed to taste them one by one, to savor them on his lips and tongue, but he would not do it while she was watching, despite the strange intimacy they had just shared.

Ms. Dell straightened and smoothed her dress. James noticed a single pearl of semen on her inner thigh, and the sight made his head swim.

She turned toward him, and in James’s vision she almost seemed to waver, all blacks and whites like a projection from an old film. Then she spoke, and became solid again. “May I have a minute?”

James looked dumbly at her until she cut her eyes ever so slightly toward the door. Realization dawned, and he ducked his head in embarrassment. “Yes. Please,” he said hoarsely. He shuffled into the hall, chastened, and she closed the door gently after him.

Should he stand there and wait? What would happen now? Everything was surreal and dreamlike, though he was certain he was wide awake. He leaned slightly toward the bathroom door, but couldn’t hear anything at all. Then, suddenly aware that she could open the door at any moment and see him lurking there like a vulture, he wandered back down the hall and went into the kitchen to wait for her.

The light coming through the windows shifted further to the west and took on the sparkling cast of honey as the afternoon went lazily on. James had heard no sound from the bathroom for a long while, and at last he stole into the shadows of the hallway and pecked meekly at the door. “Ms. Dell?” He felt vaguely ridiculous that he did not know her first name.

Silence greeted him, and his skin prickled with cold. He called again, his voice blasphemy-loud. Very faintly, he thought he heard an aqueous echo, a bubble in a drain, but when he turned the knob and entered, the bathroom was empty.

The succulent wet smell of her still remained, and James leaned over the sink, mimicking the posture of Ms. Dell as he had fucked her. He stared into the mirror, almost expecting to see her black eyes looking back at him. But no, it was just his own haggard, bearded face, its blue eyes ringed with red.

Feeling another stirring in his loins, he pressed his face to the bottom of the sink, drawing all the below-stench up into his nostrils like a greedy eater. Frenzied, her pulled the drain stopper up and out into the sink basin, and saw that the shaft of the stopper was wrapped in a shining cocoon of silken silver hair.

****

The following day James had no pressing obligations, and as soon as his eyes opened he was out of bed and hurrying toward his office down the hall.

He would have believed that the entire experience with Ms. Dell had been a dream, if he didn’t have the twisted locks of her hair in a large baggie in his hand. He had slept with it under his pillow, stroking it with one hand while his other played frantically about inside his boxer shorts. Sometime during these pleasurable activities, he had hit upon a brilliant idea with what to do with Ms. Dell’s hair, something that he hoped would be worthy of her magnificence.

“The Expulsion”

PriestDevil

“Thanks for calling CastOutCo, we’re steamin’ mad at demons. How can I help you?”

“I’m not sure whether I should be calling or not.”

Father Buck rolled his eyes, aiming another pencil at the ceiling tiles. “What seems to be the problem?”

“It’s my son. I don’t know where to turn…”

The woman started talking, and Buck made some peremptory notes, and then began doodling on the edges of his legal pad. The symptoms she was describing were fairly typical; Buck already had all the information he was likely to need, but it made the clients feel better if they were allowed to vent.

When the woman paused to take a breath, Buck jumped in. “We’re awfully swamped, but I think I can squeeze you in this afternoon at two-thirty, if that’s okay.” He glanced up at the wrestling calendar tacked to the wall of his cubicle; there was nothing written there.

“Thank you. Yes, as soon as possible.” Her voice was forceful and harsh through the phone, as though she really wanted to say, You’d better get your ass here yesterday, buster.

“See you then,” Buck said, and almost hung up, but then remembered to tack on, “Thanks for calling CastOutCo.” The woman had already rung off. Buck put the phone back in its cradle, hoping the manager hadn’t been listening in.

With a sigh, he buttoned up the shirt of his uniform, which looked like something a priest would wear if he moonlighted as a motorcycle mechanic; it was black, with a faux white collar and an embroidered name badge with a little orange cross stitched on it. Buck slid his feet off the desk and crammed his black cowboy hat onto his balding pate. He couldn’t hear a peep in the office; the other associates were probably sleeping or cruising the Internet for underage girls. Business had been tanking, and it was all thanks to Big Pharma—parents were generally unwilling to fork over obscene amounts of cash to an exorcist when they could just stuff their kid full of Ritalin.

Buck got up from his chair, causing the chair and his back to squeak in protest. He hoped this tinpot operation could stay afloat until he retired; he was too old to go pounding the pavement for work, and besides, banishing demons wasn’t really an in-demand skill in the job market these days. He sighed again, heavily, and glanced at his watch. If he left now, he’d probably have time to stop and get a beer.

At two-thirty-eight, after three beers and a bowl of nachos, Buck pulled his rickety Ford to the curb in front of the client’s house, which was a typical faceless suburban confection painted in trendy Mediterranean hues. There was a dark green minivan in the driveway, with a sticker on the back proclaiming that their kid was an Honor Student at Insufferable Brat Middle School, or some such crap. Buck scowled.

The woman had the door open before he’d even got all the way out of the car, and she looked exactly as he had expected her to: Pinched, too skinny, with meticulously styled brownish hair and high-waisted jeans. Buck smiled and raised a hand in greeting, but she just looked at him with a steely expression. He muttered under his breath as he retrieved his box of supplies from the back seat.

Once inside, the woman didn’t even offer a drink or so much as a how-do-you-do; she just marched through the maze of cream-colored hallways, leaving Buck to scuttle along behind her. She stopped on the threshold of what looked like a sitting room, and thrust her finger forward.

The boy sat stoutly in a red recliner, his feet dangling an inch or two from the floor. Behind him were the tangled wires and controls of a forgotten video game, and clutched in his hand was a half-eaten Ho-Ho. He considered his mother and the stranger with flat-lidded eyes.

“What’s the kid’s name?” Buck hissed out of the corner of his mouth.

“Logan,” the woman hissed back. Then she moved aside and let Buck into the room.

“What’s up, Logan?” Buck put his box casually on the floor at his feet. The boy glanced down at it, and then looked back at him. “Something going on I should know about?”

The kid burped, and Buck got a cloudy snootful of root beer and Ho-Ho filling and brimstone. “Who are you?” Logan asked.

I’m Spartacus, kid, who do you think? Buck smiled. “Just someone who wants to help you. My name’s Father Buck.” He wasn’t really a father to anyone or anything; he’d never even done that cheapo ordaining deal on the Internet. The titles were company policy.

Logan’s face puffed up like an egg sac and turned a livid shade of green. The exorcist ducked in case the kid was going to spew, but all that came out were words. “He doesn’t need any help, wretched human,” the kid croaked, in a voice rather reminiscent of intestinal gas. “I am in…um…complete control now.”

Buck pulled up a nearby chair and sat facing the boy. It looked like it might be a long afternoon. “And who, pray tell, might you be?”

Logan’s face deflated in an instant, and he was again a normal, contemptuous pre-teen. “You already know my name is Logan. Are you retarded or something?”

Buck sighed inwardly. The beer and nachos seemed to be having a neighborly dispute in his digestive system. “I know you’re Logan. I’m talking to the other person inside of you.”

Logan just looked at him quizzically, but then the swollen green face returned. “You’ll never free the child from our crutches…I mean clutches!” The shining red eyes glanced to the left, as though consulting an invisible someone standing just behind the recliner. Then they fixed on Buck again. “Try anything you want! Dunk me in a tank of holy water! Read me boring bits of the Bible! Stick a silver crucifix up my nose and…uh…call me Sally!” Another small burp escaped the demonic maw. “Oh! And…um…your mother wears army boots?”

On top of the indigestion, Buck’s head had begun to pound. This was exactly what he needed today; this demon was only a damn trainee. He had dealt with a few of them in his time; trainees were usually a bigger pain in the ass to exorcise than fully accredited demons. Buck reckoned it had to do with the trainees’ inexperience, their desperation to succeed at their first big possession. Trying to ignore his throbbing temples, Buck said, “Junior demon third class, I want to talk to your supervisor.”

The green face registered childlike surprise, and then quickly reverted to a grimace that was apparently supposed to be terrifying. “What are you talking about, pitiful human? I’m an all-powerful…what? No, I can do it… Oh, all right!” In an instant the petulant green visage dissolved into a much less human countenance, reddish and reptilian. Yellow eyes with cat-slit pupils regarded Buck with impatience. “Yes?” its deep, gargling-drain voice said.

Buck reached into his supply box and produced the standard-issue silver crucifix, then held it at arm’s length in front of him. “I command you and your acolyte, in the name of all that is holy, to leave the body of this boy in peace, amen, et cetera.”

The supervising demon blinked. “Yeah. Well, look, can you do me a big favor and not bust my chops here? I mean, the trainee’s gotta learn this possession jazz, right? You understand.”

Buck had expected this, so he put down the cross and retrieved a vial of holy water from the box, which he proceeded to open and sprinkle liberally onto Logan’s pudgy shins. The flesh sizzled a little, but remained unblemished. The demon rolled its eyes. “Hey, didn’t the kid just tell you that none of that stuff was going to work? You been watching too many Hammer movies or something?”

Buck pulled his worn Bible from the box and began reading from it, but he’d only got through one paragraph before the demon waved its hands for silence. “Okay, put a sock in it. I’ll make you a deal,” the supervisor growled. “Let the trainee do his possession thing, pass his test, get his certification, and then I promise we’ll leave the kid alone and go possess someone else. Would that make you happy?”

Before Buck could answer he realized that Logan’s mother had breezed into the room and was standing so close behind him that he could feel her breath riffling his hair. “Yes, Mr. Demon! Please leave Logan alone. In fact, why don’t you go possess that Taylor slut down the street? She’d probably enjoy it.”

Buck closed his eyes. The headache was starting to make him see stars. “Ma’am, if you’ll please let me handle this…”

The woman cast a furious glance down at Buck. “The demon offered a deal, and if you’re too pigheaded to take it, then I will.”

Buck was trying to explain to the woman that demons were actually not renowned for their honesty and their stringent keeping of promises, but she had already marched past him and planted herself directly in front of the demon, hands on hips, ass muscles clenched. “I agree to your compromise,” Logan’s mother intoned grandly.

“Well, hallelujah,” said the supervisor, and in a flash Logan’s face lost its lizardly appearance and reverted back to being puffy and green. “Hail Satan!” the trainee demon shouted exuberantly, then opened its froggy mouth wide and released a massive column of fire straight at Logan’s mother.

Buck instinctively shielded his eyes, but he could still feel the searing heat of the infernal flames as they consumed the woman utterly. She hadn’t even had time to scream.

When at last the heat had dissipated, leaving only a thick greasy stench like overdone pork, Buck reluctantly took his hands from his face and stared at the human-shaped tower of ash that teetered before him. When he exhaled, the tower collapsed into a cascade of papery black flakes that came to rest in a neat pile on the ecru carpet.

“Oops,” said the trainee demon.

The lizard face was back again, yellow eyes seeming to blaze like exploding suns. “Oops? Oops? Is that all you have to say for yourself? All you had to do was levitate the chair with the kid in it, maybe do a bit of freaky writing across his pasty midsection, but no! You had to go torch an innocent woman who’ll be going to heaven now, her soul lost to us forever! Junior demon third class, you fail!

The green face returned blubbering. “But sir, it was just an accident…let me try again…”

“Try again? You’ll be lucky if I let you scrape old hoof shavings off the bottom of the Styx. Now come on!” Logan’s face went through one more horrible transformation, from reddish rage-filled lizard to sobbing greenish egg sac, and then he was just a regular boy again, his cheeks pink from exertion. His stomach rumbled and he looked down at it.

Buck was still sitting in his chair, unable to process what had just happened. A strange wind, perhaps caused by the departure of the demons, stirred the pile of ashes and scattered them in a pattern that looked sort of like an angel, if you squinted hard. Buck stuck his toe into the pile. Well, there goes my commission, he thought glumly.

Logan, who had been watching Buck’s actions with an elaborate lack of interest, took one last look at the blackened cinders that had once been his mother. Then he turned his chair toward the television, stuffed the rest of the Ho-Ho into his mouth, and picked up his video game controller.

The Goddess Extends Her Tin Cup Like a Dickens Orphan

Please, sir, may I have…more?

Please, sir, may I have…more?

I know that somewhere deep in their black little hearts, the readers of this humble little blog (all three of them) have lain awake nights, wondering, “What can I, as a debased fan of a relatively unknown horror writer, do to contribute to the cause of evil in the world?” (or words to that effect). Well, I’m pleased to announce that, for less than the price of a vanilla bean frappuccino per month, you can give something to the horror community that might, one day, get you something vile and wonderful and meaningful to your interests. What that something is, I’m not entirely sure, but just roll with me here.

That’s right, like many other money-grubbing denizens of the internets, I have put up a Patreon campaign to scare up funds for my illustrious writing career. There are five tiers you may participate in to subsidize my terrible activities, and there are lots of little rewards you can collect on depending on the amount pledged, so you won’t feel like you’re gettin’ nothin’ for your contributions.

So please help, if you can. Any amount, however small, can make a difference. It’s just like the saying goes: Be the change you want to see in the world, or it’s better to light a candle than curse the darkness, or nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public, or something. Now join me in a chorus of “Kumbaya” and throw a couple bucks my way. Thank you, and good day, sirs and ma’ams.

Horror Selfies!

The Horror Writer’s Association is doing a “Horror Selfies” campaign to promote reading in general and the horror genre in particular. If you write horror, and I know I do, get on over there and upload your selfie! Read the rules first about what you can upload, though—the pic has to have some kind of promotional wording on it. You can’t promote your own work, but you can promote other horror writers or the genre as a whole. And there is a space to put in the title of one of your works. So toddle on over there and slap your pretty mugs on the internets! Here’s mine.

JennyPoeSelfie