Gifts

Based mostly on a true story. This is an Expressions of Madness and Nightmare Fuel crossover.

I’m not a paranoid sort of person. Sure, I joke sometimes about that kind of thing, or make exaggerated conspiracy claims for fun… but I’m not really paranoid. That first time I received an anonymous gift on my back step, I thought it was probably just the one neighbor I had talked to the other day across the street. We don’t talk much, but, every once in awhile we have an interaction about growing hops, or the one time I tried to rescue a juvenile grackle that had fallen and hurt itself in the driveway. That sort of thing.

I mean it was weird. After all, it had been days later and there was just this little mason jar on my back step, with some little flowers in it… bee balm, I think, but I don’t know much about flowers. I never went across the street to ask about it… they are across the street and one house down so it always seemed a little out of the way and awkward to ask. I just imagined myself, BANG BANG BANG on the door, “Hello! HELLO! DID YOU LEAVE THESE FLOWERS HERE?!” That’s not what people normally do, right? I’m pretty sure those are the neighbors that left the polite, anonymous, note complaining about my dog barking in the morning in the mailbox.

The neighbors on either side of me knew nothing. The rear neighbor, notoriously reclusive.

A year passed. Maybe two years. Hard to say for sure.

I was leaving for work, but as I was pulling out of the driveway I thought it would be a good idea to throw out some of the drink bottles and food wrappers from the car before they really started to accumulate. So, I stopped and opened the can. Someone had put a bunch of kitty litter pails in there. Since I moved in about 8 years ago I had noticed from time to time that someone was putting their garbage in my bin, but I never really caught them at it. Well, in any case, they are very neat and polite about it. If they had asked I wouldn’t have said no anyway.

Once, I saw an old man poking around in one of my neighbor’s garbages. It was years ago, back when I first moved in and didn’t know anyone or anything about the area. I didn’t take a particular note of it, but just enough to remember it. Not sure who the man was. I didn’t take note of his face, really. Maybe the man in the corner house, the one across from the one that collects old ambulances and plays horseshoes on the opposite side of the fence from his yard.

I don’t go out often. So I don’t see or speak to these people much.

The other day, I pulled out of my driveway and stopped because there was something I saw on my front step. I was already running late, but it was raining so I felt I needed to investigate what was on the porch. A little ceramic vase. The kind your grandmother might own, white with gold trim and red flowers. Full of the night’s rainwater, of course.

I wondered if perhaps it was a present from the old man using my garbage can. I usually fill up our can all the way to the top so he probably didn’t have much opportunity to use it lately. Maybe he leaves gifts and I never noticed before, never made the connection. But then, I can’t imagine he’s only used my garbage only twice?

The mysterious reclusive rear neighbor had since scolded me because, as it turns out, she enjoys staring out the window and our yards and my storage of old landscaping supplies behind the garage finally became unbearable. I became more reclusive myself… who wants to sit in their own backyard knowing that an angry old woman is staring at them at all hours of the day?

I had wanted to plant lilacs in the back, but a tall, unruly privacy hedge seems more and more attractive.

I wonder if I should bring the vase in. I never removed it from the step. Every day when I come home I make a note of it, scanning for any evidence that someone might have touched it. As if someone would just turn it this way or that. I fancied that it looks at me, too. That any day I would come home and it would be there, turned to face me. Eagerly awaiting me, like a doll in the leaves.

——

Nightmare Fuel 2016, Day 11

It’s Just That Simple

“That’s it?”

“Yup, that’s it.” Charles took a long drag of his cig. “Just don’t fuck up and put the wrong thing in there. Check everything first. It’s a one-way ticket what you stick in there. Usually.”

“What if I gotta deliver something real big then?”

“Don’t worry about it. Just leave it near the slot. They take care of it.”

She shuddered. “You don’t mean… one of them…?”

“Yup. Don’t worry, it’s all in the contract.” Fingers on a long, pale hand reached up, and smoothed back Charles’ glossy black hair, tucking it behind his ear. Kristen glanced at that third hand speculatively as it crawled back into the inner pocket of Charles’ short jacket. She’d only died such a short while ago, she didn’t know yet if it would be rude to ask…

“Well, you going to put ‘em in or not?”

Kristen blushed, “Yes, sorry sorry.” She kneeled in front of the little slot. Such a small little thing. The air breathing out of it was warm, but there were no fires emanating from it. No sounds. She pulled the stack of envelopes from under her arm, quickly flicking through them to check the addresses, just as Charles said. All good. After dropped them in, they walked back to the truck leaving the little lonely slot marked “Hell” behind.

Nightmare Fuel, Day 10

Valuable

I was just getting done feeding the last skink when I heard the door rattle. Years of honed retail instinct to straighten and greet the customer warred with my personal sense of dread. As a result, I raised my torso with a sudden jerk instead of a smooth professional glide. A stray cricket bounced to the floor and scurried under a nearby shelf. I sighed and put on my game face.

“How may I help you today?” I didn’t bother with sir or ma’am, I was too often wrong about that and not interested in another beating from the Master.

The customer grinned at me, shuffled closer and handed me a piece of paper. A servant sent out with a shopping list, I supposed. I gave it a glance. Great, Mortal Enochian… aka “Fauxnochian.” Guessed this thing’s master must’ve recently died, and hadn’t learned any better yet. “Sorry Bub, you’re going to have to tell your Master we only deal with professionals here…”

It frowned and glowered at me, pushing past me and beginning to crudely rummage through the wares, pushing aside ancient bottles and charms. I was barely in time to catch a vintage boxed kit as it tumbled to the floor. “Hey, hey now, I’m going to have to ask you to leave!”

It was then I noticed my hands were feeling warm, very very warm… hot… burning, even. I looked as the fauxnochian note discorporated along with my finger tips. The customer was also becoming faintly radiant as it frantically began shoving things into its pockets. Where it touched, product smoked and scorched.

“Shit!” I yelled, diving for the phone. I dialed the Master. “Sir, sir, we’ve got one of those Lifeys in here! No, no I didn’t call the cops yet… wait, what? ………Sure… No, I don’t think… alright.”

I followed the directions given to me, and pulled out a long bone staff from behind the counter. Normally I wouldn’t have touched a relic this old, beyond the occasional dusting but the Master deemed this a sufficient situation to warrant it. “Gigantopithecus blacki, don’t let me down.” I muttered. By now the Lifey had found what it was looking for, since it was chewing furiously on something I couldn’t identify anymore and chugging a quart of what I think was aqua vitae. The hot, living glow of it was fading and it was shuffling back to the door. I took a breath and stepped in front of it, holding out the staff. “I’m sorry but I’m going to have to ask you to stay.”

The customer snarled and lunged at me, and I smacked it hard with the bone. There was an unnaturally loud bang as the bone made contact. The thing in the store went down hard, smoke rising from the welt on its face. Blood, beautiful and warm and red sizzled on the floor. The bone itself was bleached where it had hit the creature. Its chest rose and fell, shuddering.

Just then, I heard the familiar clumping of my Master’s hooves as he raced down the stairs from the upper apartments and flung the back door open. He stood there, gnarled horns almost snagging in the door frame. He was an Ancient One, not as ancient as some, but enough that he didn’t look very human at all anymore.

“Damn it, you didn’t kill it did you, you worthless little puke!?”

“It’s still breathing, no worries.” I rolled my eyes. “That thing could have ended me, you know.”

“Good, good.” The Master stomped over to the counter, then tossed me a pair of heavy leather gloves. “Put these on, then take that to the basement. I’m going to grab the #17 shackles. Tell no one. No one. I invoke the geas on this command. You will tell no one of this Lifey here, beyond the merchandise we are going to extract from it, and only then to our special customers… do you understand?”

I sighed, for the millionth time that night it seemed. “Yes, Master.”

“Good. And when we’re done, clean this shit up. I’m going to be down there for awhile.”

As I hauled the repulsive thing downstairs, I’m pretty sure I heard it whisper, “Help…”

“It’s what you get for being a shitty customer.” I told it.

——

Nightmare Fuel, Day 8 and 9

They Won’t Stop Coming

“For fuck’s sake, here comes another one!” I stared at the murky shadow as it became larger, closer, and more distinct. Fleshy, living hands appeared and pressed against the thin glass. It was trying to come through. “Shoot it now, Will! Shoot it the fuck now!” I backed up and moved to the left of him. Shrugging, Will braced the gun, a Winchester ‘73 that was nearly as old as Will, on his shoulder and fired. The surface of the mirror rippled and splashed like water as it was sprayed with pellets.

I let out a shaky sigh as I saw the mirror darken with blood, then clear. The woman was gone. I felt Will’s hand on my shoulder.

“Easy Jack, you’re letting it get to ya too much.”

“I just want it to fucking end Will, you know that.”

“I reckon it will end soon enough. They’re trying to come here to live, not to die.”

“They damn well need to wait their damn turn, and they know it!” I huffed. “They’re as creepy as fuck, too. Just isn’t natural.” I turned and dug into my bag and pulled out my government-issued laptop. “You going to fill out the report this time, or me?”

“I’ll do it,” Will sighed, “I think you should tuck in early. I’ll let the ladies know we exterminated the problem and give them their leaflet and all that. Just relax and tuck in. Maybe you should file that vacation time you’ve been building up…”

“You know I can’t do that, Will.”

He raised his hands, “Fine fine, but just get going alright? I’ve got this.”

An hour later and I was home, staring at a candle I’d lit to relax. I never really got used to being here. I’m not sure anyone was. But like everyone else, I didn’t know what to make of the Invasion.

It had started soon after I died. I woke up spitting and choking mud, naked as the day I was born. I’d wandered for about half a day in an off-color, off-scented world… ignored by the cars I’d waved at, until I was finally picked up by Transitional Affairs. After a brief interview I was given everything I’d needed to become acclimated and start living my life in the Realm of the Dead. Finding a job didn’t take long— once the Invasion started, I and everyone else that had died near to the event was summoned and evaluated for recruitment for the Extermination Force.

It had started with a single man. At first, no one knew what to make of it. For weeks, there had been strange and unexplained phenomena in the back alleys of town. Seeing people in mirrors, objects moving, doors opening and closing on their own. And then the man. The bricks rippled and he simply stepped through. A 1520’s woman saw it from a nearby apartment. He placed a national flag, right there, jamming it into the cracks between the bricks.

It wasn’t until he walked out to the main street that there was a panic. See, there is a barrier between our worlds for a reason. That flag he planted? It began to burn. It was a familiar burn… the light of life and living. And it hurt. Where the man’s feet and hands touched, it dissolved. That poor woman almost didn’t escape as bricks began to glow and then dissolve. The people on the street, some of them weren’t as lucky. Anyone who bumped into this man on the busy street began to dissolve, unravel… discorporate. The man was glowing at this point. Looking more and more… more… everyone seemed to realize it at the same time: this man was alive. That’s when the riot started, the screaming and running. The police came, the national guard. They quarantined the area.

The official story was that they’d killed the man. Burned him and that section of the city with fire until it was cleansed. But I’d learned the real story as part of my briefing. The man… had simply walked into another wall and disappeared. Back to the living.

It had been hoped it was some kind of anomaly. But anomaly it was not. Only a few months passed before more unexplained phenomena began again. Fortunately, it seemed to take quite a bit of effort before anything or anyone could pass into our world. We learned how to kill them before they came through. But they also adapted, discovering ways to come through without drawing attention to themselves lighting fires with their steps. Disguising themselves and hiding until they slipped up and dissolved someone or, worse.

I am an Exterminator. It was my job to identify their access points to stop them from crossing over. Well, crossing over the wrong way, anyway. Will is a Hunter. He used to prowl the abandoned areas of town and wood, looking for anything that slipped through in uninhabited areas. He’d still be doing that, but currently he is the one assigned to train me.

I hear a sound, and I glance over. There’s a book, sliding across my counter.

__

Nightmare Fuel 2016, Day 7

Myself

I didn’t really think about death a whole lot. Well, that’s a lie. I guess what I mean to say is, I thought about death probably as much as anyone else and at the particular time of my death I wasn’t thinking about it. I mean sure, I had some ideas of it. The usual… that maybe nothing would happen, or there would be a tunnel of light, Heaven, Hell, Limbo… whatever. Maybe I’d get judged by some god or something.

What I didn’t expect, was to my judged by my own memories. Now I know what you’re thinking— you’re thinking, well of course you’re judged by what you did. No, what I am saying is, that I was— am— being judged by my own memories. I’m on a stage, right? And around me are lots of little mirrors. They turn to face me as I walk back and forth, pacing and trying to justify myself. Each mirror has a lot of different faces in it. Men, women, various degrees of androgynous and intersex individuals, babies, toddlers, teens, adults, the elderly…

Now, you’re thinking— oh, these are all people you met in your life, right? And now you’re dealing with how you acted around them?

Not even close. At first, that’s what I thought… but when I bent down and looked more closely, I saw strange costumes, piercings, tattoos, cuts… these were not people I had simply passed by or met on the street. I caught the eyes of one…

And suddenly I was there, in her life. I knew everything about her. All memories she ever had, all at once. I knew the names of all her children, her parents, her homes. Even the little bug she kept as a pet for a few days when she was practically a toddler.

Because she was me. They were all me. Past lives.

But, you say, that is interesting, but so what?

Well, let me tell you what thousands upon thousands of past lives staring at you when you die means. It means, that not only are you sad because you are dead, and are worried for and missing your family— you know, that little 5 year old you just left behind forever? The now-grieving spouse that will somehow have to find a way to support them? That sort of thing? Well— it also means, you get to remember all the other people you’ve left behind. All the other children you watched die, or you left behind. Remember that time you were standing outside your hut, fighting off an enemy tribesman, trying to protect your daughter and then you died? You don’t know what happened after that, but you’re pretty sure you let her down, seeing as you died and left her to those guys. Or remember that time your Daddy kissed you good night, and he told you you were going to have the best day in the world tomorrow… except you never woke up? All those people you loved, and loved you… you start to remember all of them.

The people in the mirror talk to you, too. They curse you for forgetting them. Curse you for forgetting your promises to your loved ones. You remember those you told you’d never be parted with— even in death. Countless “soul mates”, friends, lovers, traitors, victims. The differing perspectives become overwhelming— lives where pacifism was king and lives were life meant nothing stare coldly at each other. You watch lives where you sacrificed everything— then watch the lives that came after, where you learn the sacrifice was for nothing, or wrongheaded… or completely forgotten. Most lives… forgotten… Endless loves, lies, tortures, pleasures. Lives of luxury, lives of privation. Madness and sanity.

Eventually, nothing… because now I’m in the mirror as well.

And I’m looking at you.

___

Nightmare Fuel 2016, Day 6

Grass Is Greener

“… and one can only imagine the little creatures living their whole lives in the islands of shrub and weed throughout the city. What do they think of the asphalt, the cars, and the animals wandering to and fro? Do they see those others islands, just over there? Do they dream to cross the deadly rivers?”

“Imagine how different everything would be if Mars were green. If mankind were the bugs staring out across the wastelands towards another tiny paradise. And maybe, those other bugs were staring back at us, too…”

I woke every night with that voice in my mind, that voice that lectured to me, inflamed me… guided me. My logos. Every day I moved as an automaton towards the goals dictated by my personal god. And here I was.

The road stretched out before me, worn. The waking, the preparing— that had happened without my knowing it. Automatic. To my right, shrubs on a wall. To the left, old buildings with the paint peeling. Everything was similar but so very different. Colors seemed… strange. There was an atmosphere I couldn’t place. I felt, rather than saw, a curtain pushed aside by an invisible hand. Someone was watching me.

And that was fine.

It wouldn’t change why I was here. What I needed to do.

I wondered if every great explorer was guided as I was. If they heard the same lectures. Did those same whispers cross glaciers and oceans, mountains and plains? Was it there when the world was globalized? On the moon? Did it hold Man’s hand on Mars?

I couldn’t know that. But I knew what I was here for. The last frontier.

I planted my country’s flag while the ghosts watched.

Nightmare Fuel 2016, Day 5

Trick

I couldn’t believe the package was actually here. I’d scoured the darknet for ages, looking for the legit thing. Had more disappointments than I could count. I don’t want to say, “So much for honor among thieves,” but, I was definitely reaching the zone of cliches.

The box was a tad battered, but it looked like customs hadn’t touched it at all. However, that may have been intentional if they ran it through an x-ray machine. Customs was a bunch of bullies that would take your heroin or cigarettes, but they knew better than to touch what I had.

“What is it, what is it?!” One of the pumpkins poked out through the leaves. “Is it dinner, is it dinner?!” I heard the other fruits whine and wheedle. A few embers flashed through the leaves.

I gently kicked a few of the lumps hidden in the dry leaves. “Cut that out, you’ll start a fire and then where will you be?”

“Yes, mom…………” A few lumps moved, burrowing deeper down. The first one to call out to me simply stared quietly as I walked past and into the house, past another package I’d left out earlier for pickup. I set the box down on the butcher’s block I kept near the door. I heard the packing paper inside crinkle as the thing within smelled the old blood on the block. However, I wasn’t ready to open it. A full ritual circle was in order, and the first step: a good cleansing shower.

Meanwhile, a vine stretched across the yard, dragging leaves and detritus in its leaves. It covered the package I left, and snaked up to the latch of the door, quietly opening it a crack. While I was busy preparing the ritual, a certain pumpkin watched as a fresh-faced young and inexperienced delivery driver walked up to my first step, passing the package hidden in the leaves. Looking around, confused, for the package he was supposed to pick up he glanced inside and saw the box on the block. He lifted it, turning it this way and that, trying to read the foreign characters wrapped around it. He shrugged, assuming his more experienced coworkers would know what to do with a foreign package, and took it back to his truck under the watchful eye of a very jealous squash.

If I had to guess, I would assume that that pumpkin was the last to ever see that delivery man alive. But, I wouldn’t know. I wasn’t stupid enough to follow up on the situation. I did hang quite a few extra charms around the house for a few months afterward, just to be sure.


Nightmare Fuel 2016, Day 3 and Day 4

 

Birth

Then said Gangleri: “Much indeed they had accomplished then, methinks, when earth and heaven were made, and the sun and the constellations of heaven were fixed, and division was made of days; now whence come the men that people the world?” And Hárr answered: “When the sons of Borr were walking along the sea-strand, they found two trees, and took up the trees and shaped men of them: the first gave them spirit and life; the second, wit and feeling; the third, form, speech, hearing, and sight. They gave them clothing and names: the male was called Askr, and the female Embla, and of them was mankind begotten, which received a dwelling-place under Midgard.” – GYLFAGINNING

The chronometer whirred and clicked, its display settling as the finest processors, circuits, and sensors of the 23rd century calibrated and calculated through a dozen references. The date: CE3125.10.02.2200. Tidy, and coincidentally precise; not a perfect landing. Managing an exact landing date was like trying to dock just so in the midst of a raging river. As soon as the craft slipped into timestream it was buffeted by forces human technology couldn’t neutralize…yet.

The pilot flicked a few switches here and there, various lights dimming and others coming on. He checked a few readings on the panel. Satisfied, he removed his helmet and activated the outside displays.

He was silent and staring for a long moment.

He checked the panel displays again. Launched a few probes which flashed and bounced backwards a few hours in time. Examined the data when all the probes were connected and beaming data in the current time-loc.

There was nothing but forest, field, tundra, and desert. Everywhere.

Although he was dismayed that his home city had long since vanished in the 700 or so years since his departure, the pilot reasoned that there was nothing particularly unusual about the possibility of changing cities or civilizations. But for the entirety of human civilization to disappear without a trace?

Grabbing his flashlight, popped the hatch and hopped down onto the springy forest floor. It was dark, the kind of broad leafy dark that the moon could barely penetrate. In his time, this was the edge of the city with tall narrow apartment complexes. In his mind’s eye he compared the buildings with the enormous tree trunks around him. How many years did it take for trees to get that large?

He strode forward, stumbling a little in his bulky suit, lost in his thoughts. It takes about 500 years for a city to disappear, he thought. There were trees of all sizes around him, some living, and some old and dead and rotting on the forest floor. He noticed the flashing of lights dimly in the canopy above. A meteor shower? There were muffled booms in the distance, like thunder.

It was only once the noise had faded that he realized just how quiet it was in the forest. He heard no sounds. Not of insects nor birds. Even the sound of branches creaking and cracking in the distance was absent. The voice of the forest was held as if in anticipation.

To the pilot, this realization made the trees seem more alive and more menacing. In the shadows he thought he saw movement, and he began to swing his light this way and that amongst the leaves. The leaves, he realized, were hands. The branches were claws. There was a whisper of voices as the alien vegetation reached for him, clutching at the folds of his space-age fabrics. He turned and ran back towards the ship.

Branches blocked his way. Hands pushed and stroked and guided him. There were… whispers. Savior, savior, savior…

And then suddenly, he stopped. The tree ahead was groaning, a human figure writhed from the flesh of the tree. She is smiling at me. Behind and around him other figures pulled from the trunks. You’ll come home with us soon. Thank you, thank you. There was a woody scent, memories of another trip in the ship. Memories of darkness, comets, and fire, earth and loam, of alien vines burned and dying even as they sprouted. The shouts of men. Lasers, bacteria, microscopic machines… and himself.

He stumbled back, not knowing where he was going. The smell was still in his nostrils. The chrononaut felt faint, weak, and confused… drugged. He felt a firm but gentle grip on his arm, supporting him. Dad… help me…

The familiar gentle figure buckled him into his seat, latched his helmet back into place and began typing instructions into the control panel and setting the destination date to mid-2374 CE.

“Dad… don’t go.” The figure turned and smiled. The pilot looked into his own face, which grinned back at him wistfully, before the hatch closed and the ship disappeared in a flash of light, carrying the pilot, and a cargo of tiny yellow seeds stuck to the soles of his boots.
——

Nightmare Fuel 2016, Day 2

Exhale

So I’m standing there, just looking at this thing. I can never remember if it’s called a mausoleum or a tomb, or if they are just synonyms… but you know what I mean. It’s place, with an ingress, that is creepy as fuck because maybe there is a corpse in it.

It’s staring at me.

Someone left the door open.

It’s… staring… at me.

I could see the earth behind it, humped and raised although not enough for one to simply walk through the door and expect to be in a room. The darkness is a descending darkness, the kind that pulls you down, ever down… into…?

I step inside.

It’s calling me.

I can hear a heartbeat, in the dark.

The light disappears behind me.

It exhales.

Nightmare Fuel 2016, Day 1

Selective Burn

I decided that today is a stuffed jalapeño day. While scraping out their innards, a prodigious amount of juice arched over my glasses and went into my eyes. In terror, I willed my eyes to water and cry to flush out the invading liquid to no avail. I waited for the burning to start. And waited.

And waited.

Nothing.

I was confused. Should I be upset that my jalapeños were not sufficiently spicy or relieved that I have been spared an eye burning fate? I pondered this question while I continued to prep food.

A cut near my fingernail started to sting.

By the time I was done with the food and dishes both hands were aflame. Washing dishes became unbearable. I mentally whipped myself to finish as much as I could. One question was resolved… I did not have to be upset that I got “bum” peppers.

However, my eyes have yet to burn.