Get Ready to BITE HARDER

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Some say he’s a serial killer. Others, a vigilante doing what police can’t or won’t do. What’s certain is that Dean Drayhart, a paraplegic, will soon sit on death row for killing hit-and-run drivers in Los Angeles. But not if the Mexican Mafia gets hold of him first. Somewhere, Dean’s trained companion monkey Sid and girlfriend Cinda are outrunning the law in a fast ’98 Trans Am. The Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department wants Sid, dead or alive. Dean may be broken in body but his fierce spirit is determined to protect Sid and Cinda in the most creative ways imaginable. Hardboiled, funny, relentless, and unexpectedly tender-hearted, Bite Harder delivers riotous action all the way to a bombshell climax that could only have been written by Anonymous-9, the self-declared mad scientist of crime fiction.

Anonymous 9

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October Rewind: EAT ME by Robert R. McCammon [Happy Halloween]

A question gnawed, day and night, at Jim Crisp. He pondered it as he walked the streets, while a dark rain fell and rats chattered at his feet; he mulled over it as he sat in his apartment, staring at the static on the television screen hour after hour. The question haunted him as he sat in the cemetery on Fourteenth Street, surrounded by empty graves. And this burning question was: when did love die?

Thinking took effort. It made his brain hurt, but it seemed to Jim that thinking was his last link with life. He used to be an accountant, a long time ago. He’d worked with a firm downtown for over twenty years, had never been married, hadn’t dated much either. Numbers, logic, the rituals of mathematics had been the center of his life; now logic itself had gone insane, and no one kept records anymore. He had a terrible sensation of not belonging in this world, of being suspended in a nightmare that would stretch to the boundaries of eternity. He had no need for sleep any longer; something inside him had burst a while back, and he’d lost the ten or twelve pounds of fat that had gathered around his middle over the years. His body was lean now, so light sometimes a strong wind knocked him off his feet. The smell came and went, but Jim had a caseload of English Leather in his apartment and he took baths in the stuff.

The open maw of time frightened him. Days without number lay ahead. What was there to do, when there was nothing to be done? No one called the roll, no one punched the time-clock, no one set the deadlines. This warped freedom gave a sense of power to others; to Jim it was the most confining of prisons, because all the symbols of order—stoplights, calendars, clocks—were still there, still working, yet they had no purpose or sense, and they reminded him too much of what had been before.

As he walked, aimlessly, through the city’s streets he saw others moving past, some as peaceful as sleepwalkers, some raging in the grip of private tortures. Jim came to a corner and stopped, instinctively obeying the DON’T WALK sign; a high squealing noise caught his attention, and he looked to his left.

Rats were scurrying wildly over one of the lowest forms of humanity, a half-decayed corpse that had recently awakened and pulled itself from the grave. The thing crawled on the wet pavement, struggling on one thin arm and two sticklike legs. The rats were chewing it to pieces, and as the thing reached Jim, its skeletal face lifted and the single dim coal of an eye found him. From its mouth came a rattling noise, stifled when several rats squeezed themselves between the gray lips in search of softer flesh. Jim hurried on, not waiting for the light to change. He thought the thing had said Whhhyyy? and for that question he had no answer.

He felt shame in the coil of his entrails. When did love die? Had it perished at the same time as this living death of human flesh had begun, or had it already died and decayed long before? He went on, through the somber streets where the buildings brooded like tombstones, and he felt crushed beneath the weight of loneliness.

Jim remembered beauty; a yellow flower, the scent of a woman’s perfume, the warm sheen of a woman’s hair. Remembering was another bar in the prison of bones; the power of memory taunted him unmercifully. He remembered walking on his lunch hour, sighting a pretty girl and following her for a block or two, enraptured by fantasies. He had always been searching for love, for someone to be joined with, and had never realized it so vitally before now, when the gray city was full of rats and the restless dead.

Someone with a cavity where its face had been stumbled past, arms waving blindly. What once had been a child ran by him, and left the scent of rot in its wake, Jim lowered his head, and when a gust of hot wind hit him he lost his balance and would have slammed into a concrete wall if he hadn’t grabbed hold of a bolted-down mailbox. He kept going, deeper into the city, on pavement he’d never walked when he was alive.

At the intersection of two unfamiliar streets he thought he heard music: the crackle of a guitar, the low grunting of a drumbeat. He turned against the wind, fighting the gusts that threatened to hurl him into the air, and followed the sound. Two blocks ahead a strobe light flashed in a cavernous entrance. A sign that read THE COURTYARD had been broken out, and across the front of the building was scrawled BONEYARD in black spray paint. Figures moved within the entrance: dancers, gyrating in the flash of the strobes.

The thunder of the music repulsed him—the soft grace of Brahms remained his lullaby, not the raucous crudity of Grave Rock—but the activity, the movement, the heat of energy drew him closer. He scratched a maddening itch on the dry flesh at the back of his neck and stood on the threshold while the music and the glare blew around him. The Courtyard, he thought, glancing at the old sign. It was the name of a place that might once have served white wine and polite jazz music—a singles bar, maybe, where the lonely went to meet the lonely. The Boneyard it was now, all right: a realm of dancing skeletons. This was not his kind of place, but still … the noise, lights, and gyrations spoke of another kind of loneliness. It was a singles bar for the living dead, and it beckoned him in.

Jim crossed the threshold, and with one desiccated hand he smoothed down his remaining bits of black hair.

And now he knew what hell must be like: a smoky, rot-smelling pandemonium. Some of the things writhing on the dance floor were missing arms and legs, and one thin figure in the midst of a whirl lost its hand; the withered flesh skidded across the linoleum, was crushed underfoot as its owner scrabbled after it, and then its owner was likewise pummeled down into a twitching mass. On the bandstand were two guitar players, a drummer, and a legless thing hammering at an electric organ. Jim avoided the dance floor, moving through the crowd toward the blue neon bar. The drum’s pounding offended him, in an obscene way; it reminded him too much of how his heartbeat used to feel before it clenched and ceased.

This was a place his mother—God rest her soul—would have warned him to avoid. He had never been one for nightlife, and looking into the decayed faces of some of these people was a preview of torments that lay ahead—but he didn’t want to leave. The drumbeat was so loud it destroyed all thinking, and for a while he could pretend it was indeed his own heart returned to scarlet life; and that, he realized, was why the Boneyard was full from wall to wall. This was a mockery of life, yes, but it was the best to be had.

The bar’s neon lit up the rotting faces like blue-shadowed Halloween masks. One of them, down to shreds of flesh clinging to yellow bone, shouted something unintelligible and drank from a bottle of beer; the liquid streamed through the fissure in his throat and down over his violet shirt and gold chains. Flies swarmed around the bar, drawn to the reek, and Jim watched as the customers pressed forward. They reached into their pockets and changepurses and offered freshly-killed rats, roaches, spiders, and centipedes to the bartender, who placed the objects in a large glass jar that had replaced the cash register. Such was the currency of the Dead World, and a particularly juicy rat bought two bottles of Miller Lite. Other people were laughing and hollering—gasping, brittle sounds that held no semblance of humanity. A fight broke out near the dance floor, and a twisted arm thunked to the linoleum to the delighted roar of the onlookers.

“I know you!” A woman’s face thrust forward into Jim’s. She had tatters of gray hair, and she wore heavy makeup over sunken cheeks, her forehead swollen and cracked by some horrible inner pressure. Her glittery dress danced with light, but smelled of grave dirt. “Buy me a drink!” she said, grasping his arm. A flap of flesh at her throat fluttered, and Jim realized her throat had been slashed. “Buy me a drink!” she insisted,

“No,” Jim said, trying to break free. “No, I’m sorry.”

“You’re the one who killed me!” she screamed. Her grip tightened, about to snap Jim’s forearm. “Yes you are! You killed me, didn’t you?” And she picked up an empty beer bottle off the bar, her face contorted with rage, and started to smash it against his skull.

But before the blow could fall a man lifted her off her feet and pulled her away from Jim; her fingernails flayed to the bones of Jim’s arm. She was still screaming, fighting to pull away, and the man, who wore a T-shirt with Boneyard painted across it, said, “She’s a fresh one. Sorry, mac,” before he hauled her toward the entrance. The woman’s scream got shriller, and Jim saw her forehead burst open and ooze like a stomped snail. He shuddered, backing into a dark corner—and there he bumped into another body.

“Excuse me,” he said. Started to move away. Glanced at whom he’d collided with.

And saw her.

She was trembling, her skinny arms wrapped around her chest. She still had most of her long brown hair, but in places it had diminished to the texture of spiderwebs and her scalp showed. Still, it was lovely hair. It looked almost healthy. Her pale blue eyes were liquid and terrified, and her face might have been pretty once. She had lost most of her nose, and gray-rimmed craters pitted her right cheek. She was wearing sensible clothes: a skirt and blouse and a sweater buttoned to the throat. Her clothes were dirty, but they matched. She looked like a librarian, he decided. She didn’t belong in the Boneyard—but, then, where did anyone belong anymore?

He was about to move away when he noticed something else that caught a glint of frenzied light.

Around her neck, just peeking over the collar of her sweater, was a silver chain, and on that chain hung a tiny cloisonné heart.

It was a fragile thing, like a bit of bone china, but it held the power to freeze Jim before he took another step.

“That’s . . . that’s very pretty,” he said. He nodded at the heart.

Instantly her hand covered it. Parts of her fingers had rotted off, like his own.

He looked into her eyes; she stared—or at least pretended to—right past him. She shook like a frightened deer. Jim paused, waiting for a break in the thunder, nervously casting his gaze to the floor. He caught a whiff of decay, and whether it was from himself or her he didn’t know; what did it matter? He shivered too, not knowing what else to say but wanting to say something, anything, to make a connection. He sensed that at any moment the girl—whose age might be anywhere from twenty to forty, since Death both tightened and wrinkled at the same time —might bolt past him and be lost in the crowd. He thrust his hands into his pockets, not wanting her to see the exposed fingerbones. “This is the first time I’ve been here,” he said. “I don’t go out much.”

She didn’t answer. Maybe her tongue is gone, he thought. Or her throat. Maybe she was insane, which could be a real possibility. She pressed back against the wall, and Jim saw how very thin she was, skin stretched over frail bones. Dried up on the inside, he thought. Just like me.

“My name is Jim,” he told her. “What’s yours?”

Again, no reply. I’m no good at this! he agonized. Singles bars had never been his “scene”, as the saying went. No, his world had always been his books, his job, his classical records, his cramped little apartment that now seemed like a four-walled crypt. There was no use in standing here, trying to make conversation with a dead girl. He had dared to eat the peach, as Eliot’s Prufrock lamented, and found it rotten,

“Brenda,” she said, so suddenly it almost startled him. She kept her hand over the heart, her other arm across her sagging breasts. Her head was lowered, her hair hanging over the cratered cheek.

“Brenda,” Jim repeated; he heard his voice tremble. “That’s a nice name.”

She shrugged, still pressed into the corner as if trying to squeeze through a chink in the bricks.

Another moment of decision presented itself. It was a moment in which Jim could turn and walk three paces away, into the howling mass at the bar, and release Brenda from her corner; or a moment in which Brenda could tell him to go away, or curse him to his face, or scream with haunted dementia and that would be the end of it. The moment passed, and none of those things happened. There was just the drumbeat, pounding across the club, pounding like a counterfeit heart, and the roaches ran their race on the bar and the dancers continued to fling bits of flesh off their bodies like autumn leaves.

He felt he had to say something. “I was just walking. I didn’t mean to come here.” Maybe she nodded. Maybe; he couldn’t tell for sure, and the light played tricks. “I didn’t have anywhere else to go,” he added.

She spoke, in a whispery voice that he had to strain to hear: “Me neither.”

Jim shifted his weight—what weight he had left. “Would you . . . like to dance?” he asked, for want of anything better.

“Oh, no!” She looked up quickly. “No, I can’t dance! I mean … I used to dance, sometimes, but … I can’t dance anymore.”

Jim understood what she meant; her bones were brittle, just as his own were. They were both as fragile as husks, and to get out on that dance floor would tear them both to pieces. “Good,” he said. “I can’t dance either.”

She nodded, with an expression of relief. There was an instant in which Jim saw how pretty she must have been before all this happened—not pretty in a flashy way, but pretty as homespun lace—and it made his brain ache. “This is a loud place,” he said. “Too loud.”

“I’ve . . . never been here before.” Brenda removed her hand from the necklace, and again both arms protected her chest. “I knew this place was here, but . . .” She shrugged her thin shoulders. “I don’t know.”

“You’re . . .” lonely, he almost said. As lonely as I am. “. . . alone?” he asked.

“I have friends,” she answered, too fast.

“I don’t,” he said, and her gaze lingered on his face for a few seconds before she looked away. “I mean, not in this place,” he amended. “I don’t know anybody here, except you.” He paused, and then he had to ask the question:

“Why did you come here tonight?”

She almost spoke, but she closed her mouth before the words got out. I know why, Jim thought. Because you’re searching. Just like I am. You went out walking, and maybe you came in here because you couldn’t stand to be alone another second. I can look at you, and hear you screaming. “Would you like to go out?” he asked. “Walking, I mean. Right now, so we can talk?”

“I don’t know you,” she said, uneasily.

“I don’t know you, either. But I’d like to.”

“I’m . . .” Her hand fluttered up to the cavity where her nose had been. “Ugly,” she finished.

“You’re not ugly. Anyway, I’m no handsome prince.” He smiled, which stretched the flesh on his face. Brenda might have smiled, a little bit; again, it was hard to tell. “I’m not a crazy,” Jim reassured her. “I’m not on drugs, and I’m not looking for somebody to hurt. I just thought . . . you might like to have some company.”

Brenda didn’t answer for a moment. Her fingers played with the cloisonné heart. “All right,” she said finally. “But not too far. Just around the block.”

“Just around the block,” he agreed, trying to keep his excitement from showing too much. He took her arm—she didn’t seem to mind his fleshless fingers—and carefully guided her through the crowd. She felt light, like a dry-rotted stick, and he thought that even he, with his shrunken muscles, might be able to lift her over his head.

Outside, they walked away from the blast of the Boneyard. The wind was getting stronger, and they soon were holding to each other to keep from being swept away. “A storm’s coming,” Brenda said, and Jim nodded. The storms were fast and ferocious, and their winds made the buildings shake. But Jim and Brenda kept walking, first around the block and then, at Brenda’s direction, southward. Their bodies were bent like question marks; overhead, clouds masked the moon and blue streaks of electricity began to lance across the sky.

Brenda was not a talker, but she was a good listener. Jim told her about himself, about the job he used to have, about how he’d always dreamed that someday he’d have his own firm. He told her about a trip he once took, as a young man, to Lake Michigan, and how cold he recalled the water to be. He told her about a park he visited once, and how he remembered the sound of happy laughter and the smell of flowers. “I miss how it used to be,” he said, before he could stop himself, because in the Dead World voicing such regrets was a punishable crime. “I miss beauty,” he went on. “I miss . . . love.”

She took his hand, bone against bone, and said, “This is where I live.”

It was a plain brownstone building, many of the windows broken out by the windstorms. Jim didn’t ask to go to Brenda’s apartment; he expected to be turned away on the front steps. But Brenda still had hold of his hand, and now she was leading him up those steps and through the glassless door.

Her apartment, on the fourth floor, was even smaller than Jim’s. The walls were a somber gray, but the lights revealed a treasure—pots of flowers set around the room and out on the fire escape. “They’re silk,” Brenda explained, before he could ask. “But they look real, don’t they?”

“They look . . . wonderful.” He saw a stereo and speakers on a table, and near the equipment was a collection of records. He bent down, his knees creaking, and began to examine her taste in music. Another shock greeted him: Beethoven . . . Chopin . . . Mozart . . . Vivaldi . . . Strauss. And, yes, even Brahms. “Oh!” he said, and that was all he could say.

“I found most of those,” she said. “Would you like to listen to them?”

“Yes. Please.”

She put on the Chopin, and as the piano chords swelled, so did the wind, whistling in the hall and making the windows tremble.

And then she began to talk about herself: She had been a secretary, in a refrigeration plant across the river. Had never married, though she’d been engaged once. Her hobby was making silk flowers, when she could find the material. She missed ice cream most of all, she said. And summer—what had happened to summer, like it used to be? All the days and nights seemed to bleed together now, and nothing made any of them different. Except the storms, of course, and those could be dangerous.

By the end of the third record, they were sitting side by side on her sofa. The wind had gotten very strong outside; the rain came and went, but the wind and lightning remained.

“I like talking to you,” she told him. “I feel like . . . I’ve known you for a long, long time.”

“I do too. I’m glad I came into that place tonight.” He watched the storm and heard the wind shriek. “I don’t know how I’m going to get home.”

“You . . . don’t have to go,” Brenda said, very quietly. “I’d like for you to stay.”

He stared at her, unbelieving. The back of his neck itched fiercely, and the itch was spreading to his shoulders and arms, but he couldn’t move.

“I don’t want to be alone,” she continued. “I’m always alone. It’s just that … I miss touching. Is that wrong, to miss touching?”

“No. I don’t think so.”

She leaned forward, her lips almost brushing his, her eyes almost pleading. “Eat me,” she whispered.

Jim sat very still. Eat me: the only way left to feel pleasure in the Dead World. He wanted it, too; he needed it, so badly. “Eat me,” he whispered back to her, and he began to unbutton her sweater.

Her nude body was riddled with craters, her breasts sunken into her chest. His own was sallow and emaciated, and between his thighs his penis was a gray, useless piece of flesh. She reached for him, he knelt beside her body, and as she urged “Eat me, eat me,” his tongue played circles on her cold skin; then his teeth went to work, and he bit away the first chunk. She moaned and shivered, lifted her head and tongued his arm. Her teeth took a piece of flesh from him, and the ecstasy arrowed along his spinal cord like an electric shock.

They clung to each other, shuddering, their teeth working on arms and legs, throat, chest, face. Faster and faster still, as the wind crashed and Beethoven thundered; gobbets of flesh fell to the carpet, and those gobbets were quickly snatched up and consumed. Jim felt himself shrinking, being transformed from one into two; the incandescent moment had enfolded him, and if there had been tears to cry, he might have wept with Joy. Here was love, and here was a lover who both claimed him and gave her all.

Brenda’s teeth closed on the back of Jim’s neck, crunching through the dry flesh. Her eyes closed in rapture as Jim ate the rest of the fingers on her left hand—and suddenly there was a new sensation, a scurrying around her lips. The love wound on Jim’s neck was erupting small yellow roaches, like gold coins spilling from a bag, and Jim’s itching subsided. He cried out, his face burrowing into Brenda’s abdominal cavity.

Their bodies entwined, the flesh being gnawed away, their shrunken stomachs bulging. Brenda bit off his ear, chewed, and swallowed it; fresh passion coursed through Jim, and he nibbled away her lips—they did taste like slightly overripe peaches—and ran his tongue across her teeth. They kissed deeply, biting pieces of their tongues off. Jim drew back and lowered his face to her thighs. He began to eat her, while she gripped his shoulders and screamed.

Brenda arched her body. Jim’s sexual organs were there, the testicles like dark, dried fruit. She opened her mouth wide, extended her chewed tongue and bared her teeth; her cheekless, chinless face strained upward—and Jim cried out over even the wail of the wind, his body convulsing.

They continued to feast on each other, tike knowing lovers. Jim’s body was hollowed out, most of the flesh gone from his face and chest. Brenda’s lungs and heart were gone, consumed, and the bones of her arms and legs were fully revealed. Their stomachs swelled. And when they were near explosion, Jim and Brenda lay on the carpet, cradling each other with skeletal arms, lying on bits of flesh like the petals of strange flowers. They were one now, each into the other—and what more could love be than this?

“I love you,” Jim said, with his mangled tongue. Brenda made a noise of assent, unable to speak, and took a last love bite from beneath his arm before she snuggled close.

The Beethoven record ended; the next one dropped onto the turntable, and a lilting Strauss waltz began.

Jim felt the building shake. He lifted his head, one eye remaining and that one sated with pleasure, and saw the fire escape trembling. One of the potted plants was suddenly picked up by the wind. “Brenda,” he said—and then the plant crashed through the glass and the stormwind came in, whipping around the walls. Another window blew in, and as the next hot wave of wind came, it got into the hollows of the two dried bodies and raised them off the floor like reed-ribbed kites. Brenda made a gasping noise, her arms locked around Jim’s spinal cord and his handless arms thrust into her ribcage. The wind hurled them against the wall, snapping bones like matchsticks as the waltz continued to play on for a few seconds before the stereo and table went over. There was no pain, though, and no reason to fear. They were together, in this Dead World where love was a curseword, and together they would face the storm.

The wind churned, threw them one way and then the other—and as it withdrew from Brenda’s apartment it took the two bodies with it, into the charged air over the city’s roofs.

They flew, buffeted higher and higher, bone locked to bone. The city disappeared beneath them, and they went up into the clouds where the blue lightning danced.

They knew great joy, and at the upper limits of the clouds where the lightning was hottest, they thought they could see the stars.

When the storm passed, a boy on the north side of the city found a strange object on the roof of his apartment building, near the pigeon roost. It looked like a charred-black construction of bones, melded together so you couldn’t tell where one bone ended and the other began. And in that mass of bones was a silver chain, with a small ornament. A heart, he saw it was. A white heart, hanging there in the tangle of someone’s bones,

He was old enough to realize that someone—two people, maybe—had escaped the Dead World last night. Lucky stiffs, he thought.

He reached in for the dangling heart, and it fell to ashes at his touch.

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Copyright © 1989 by Robert R. McCammon. All rights reserved. This story originally appeared in the anthology The Book of the Dead, first published in 1989. Reprinted without permission of the author.

Image: “85 lb Zombie” by Unique Nudes

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Rejoice, Children of the Golden Dawn: LOVE IS THE LAW!

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And it’s been a long time coming!

In 1989, punk-rock girl “Golden” Dawn has crafted an outsider’s life combining the philosophies of Communism and Aleister Crowley’s black magic. One fateful day she finds the dead body of her mentor in both politics and magick shot in the head, seemingly a suicide. But Dawn knows there’s more going on than the Long Island cops could ever hope to uncover. In setting out to find the murderer herself, she will encounter dark and twisted truths for which no book, study, or basement show could have prepared her. Award-winning prose author Nick Mamatas crafts a raw, hilarious, original mystery!

From a review on NPR: CROWLEY MEETS CRIME

But where Mamatas especially shines is in the integrity of his themes. What seems at first to be a random patchwork coalesces into a grand, mad pattern — nothing less than the secret history of the modern world, one that feels far less absurd given the vicissitudes of history over the past 25 years. Dozens of concepts are tossed into the mix — Satanism, Trotskyism, Objectivism, Women’s Liberation, Glasnost — but they’re viewed through the cold, cruel eyes of Dawn, who treats the whole of 20th century thought as a corpse to be dissected.

Accordingly, Mamatas makes a Frankenstein’s monster out of the detritus of the modern age, a shambolic free-for-all of esoterica — from sex magic to the films of Maya Deren — that recalls the comics of Alan Moore and Grant Morrison. Some of the scenes even take place in a comic shop. But Love Is the Law never dips into cartoonishness, even when the going gets outlandish — up to and including basement concerts by a ritualistic, avant-garde band called Abyssal Eyeballs. (The band members don’t dress up as giant, unblinking orbs, and the name is explained as a Nietzsche reference, but the allusion to The Residents doesn’t feel like an accident.)

— Jason Heller

Nick Mamatas at Worldcon — A Discussion of Sorts

Audio! Mamatas, Son of Greek Gods, Speaks in Real Sound Waves About About His New Book!

Here

DRAX SAYS:

I truly hope that this is the book that pushes Nick Mamatas through the infuriating roof that separates semi-obscure “cult writers” into the realm of popular recognition and success. He deserves it; he’s such a good writer.

In January of this year I was lucky enough to attend a reading of Nick’s. I asked him, Does Harlan Ellison know about you, does Harlan know about your work? I asked this because I believe Nick Mamatas is a “child” of Harlan Ellison, obviously influenced by him and possibly (probably) his successor. Nick seemed a little befuddled by my question; he didn’t need Harlan’s recognition. But that wasn’t the point of my question.

Nick Mamatas is easily, far and away, a better writer than Harlan Ellison.

Behold this excerpt from LOVE IS THE LAW:

Boris Yeltsin, a capitalist alcoholic, climbed one of the tanks and gave a stirring speech. Like magick, the troops change sides. The girls go wild, hooting and pumping their fists. They’re in fucking prison in capitalist America, and they still believe every stupid lie about freedom the television tells them. I give myself a gold star for my accurate forecast. Maybe later, when the CO turns the TV off for the night, they’ll go back to their gang formations and to their grand hobby of broomhandle sex to pass the time. That night, to the echo of someone’s orgasmic screaming, I look up in the ceiling and think about how useless it is to be correct sometimes. It’s so difficult to do the right thing, even when you can sense the spirit of the age, even when you believe you know where the waters of history will flow.

But then I think of my father’s face and realize that the red smear across the boiled bones of his skull was the last thing I was ever sure of.

Ladies, boys, and robots, LOVE IS THE LAW is available now.

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Dunsany’s “House of the Sphinx” Read by Seraphic Manta

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Lifted shamelessly from the excellent and weird Astronomic Blur. Hang out with him as Hypnagog.

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Nick Mamatas Reading His Short Story “Slice of Life” at KGB, NYC, 1/16/13

Look at that shot. Nick in Hell! The famous editor Ellen Datlow gives our hero a nice introduction. The KGB event was a blast. More to come at a later date.

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“The Fog Horn,” by Ray Bradbury

William W. Connors

THE FOG HORN

by Ray Bradbury

Out there in the cold water, far from land, we waited every night for the coming of the fog, and it came, and we oiled the brass machinery and lit the fog light up in the stone tower. Feeling like two birds in the grey sky, McDunn and I sent the light touching out, red, then white, then red again, to eye the lonely ships.  And if they did not see our light, then there was always our Voice, the great deep cry of our Fog Horn shuddering through the rags of mist to startle the gulls away like decks of scattered cards and make the waves turn high and foam.

“It’s a lonely life, but you’re used to it now, aren’t you?” asked McDunn.

“Yes,” I said.  You’re a good talker, thank the Lord.”

“Well, it’s your turn on land tomorrow,” he said, smiling, “to dance the ladies and drink gin.”

“What do you think McDunn, when I leave you out here alone?”

“On the mysteries of the sea.” McDunn lit his pipe. It was a quarter past seven of a cold November evening, the heat on, the light switching it’s tail in two hundred directions, the Fog Horn bumbling in the high throat of the tower.  There wasn’t a town for a hundred miles down the coast, just a road, which came lonely through the dead country to the sea, with few cars on it, a stretch of two miles of cold water out to our rock, and rare few ships.

 “The mysteries of the sea,” said McDunn thoughtfully. “You know, the ocean’s the biggest damned snowflake ever? It rolls and swells a thousand shapes and colors, no two alike. Strange. One night, years ago, I was here alone, when all of the fish of the sea surfaced out there.  Something made them swim in and lie in the bay, sort of trembling and staring up at the tower light going red, white, red, white across them so I could see their funny eyes. I turned cold.  They were like a big peacock’s tail, moving out there until midnight.  Then, without so much as a sound, they slipped away, the million of them was gone.  I kind of think maybe, in some sort of way, they came all those miles to worship,  Strange, But think how the tower must look to them, standing seventy feet above the water, the God-light flashing out from it, and the tower declaring itself with a monster voice.  They never came back, those fish, but don’t you think for a while they thought they were in the Presence?”

I shivered. I looked out at the long grey lawn of the sea stretching away into nothing and nowhere.

“Oh, the sea’s full.”  McDunn puffed his pipe nervously, blinking. He had been nervous all day and hadn’t said why. “For all our engines and so-called submarines, it’ll be ten thousand centuries before we set foot on the real bottom of the sunken lands, in the fairy kingdoms there, and know real terror. Think of it, it’s still the year 300,000 Before Christ down under there.  While we’ve paraded around with trumpets, lopping off each other’s countries and heads, they have been living beneath the sea twelve miles deep and cold in a time as old as the beard on a comet.

“Yes it’s an old world.”

“Come on. I got something special I’ve been saving up to tell you.”

We ascended the eighty steps, talking and taking our time.  At the top, McDunn switched off the room lights so there’d be no reflection in the plate glass. The great eye of the light was humming, turning easily in its oiled socket.  the Fog Horn was blowing steadily, once every fifteen seconds.

“Sounds like an animal, don’t it?” McDunn nodded to himself.  “A big lonely animal crying in the night.  Sitting here on the edge of ten million years calling out to the deeps. I’m here, I’m here, I’m here. And the Deeps do answer, yes, they do.  You been here now for three months Johnny, so I better prepare you.  About this time of year,” he said, studying the murk and fog, “something comes to visit the lighthouse.”

“The swarms of fish like you said?’

“No, this is something else.  I’ve put off telling you because you might think I’m daft.  But tonight’s the latest I can put it off, for if my calendar’s marked right from last year, tonight’s the night it comes. I won’t go into detail, you’ll have to see it for yourself.  Just sit down there. If you want, tomorrow you can pack your duffel and take the motorboat into land and get your car parked there at the dinghy pier on the cape and drive on back to some little inland town and keep your lights burning nights. I won’t question or blame you.  It’s happened three years now, and this is the only time anyone’s been here with me to verify it.  You wait and watch.”

Half an hour passed with only a few whispers between us.  When we grew tired waiting, McDunn began describing some of his ideas to me.  He had some theories about the Fog Horn itself.

“One day many years ago a man walked along and stood in the sound of the ocean on a cold sunless shore and said “We need a voice to call across the water, to warn ships; I’ll make one. I’ll make a voice that is like an empty bed beside you all night long, and like an empty house when you open the door, and like the trees in autumn with no leaves.  A sound like the birds flying south, crying, and a sound like November wind and the sea on the hard, cold shore.  I’ll make a sound that’s so alone that no one can miss it, that whoever hears it will weep in their souls, and to all who hear it in the distant towns.  I’ll make me a sound and an apparatus and they’ll call it a Fog Horn and whoever hears it will know the sadness of eternity and the briefness of life.”

The Fog Horn blew.

“I made up that story,” said McDunn quietly, “to try to explain why this thing keeps coming back to the lighthouse every year.  The fog horn calls, I think, it comes…”

“But—” I said.

“Sssst!”  said McDunn. “There!” He nodded out to the Deeps.

Something was swimming towards the lighthouse tower.

It was a cold night, as I said; the high tower was cold, the light coming and going, and the Fog Horn calling and calling through the raveling mist.  You couldn’t see far and you couldn’t see plain, but there was the deep sea moving on it’s way about the night earth, flat and quiet, to color of grey mud, and here were the two of us alone in the high tower, and there, far out at first, was a ripple, followed by a wave, a rising, a bubble, a bit of froth/ And then, from the surface of the cold sea came a head, a large head, dark-colored, with immense eyes, and then a neck And then-not a body-but more neck and more! The head rose a full forty feet above the water on a slender and beautiful neck.  Only then did the body, like a little island of black coral and shells and crayfish, drip up from the subterranean.  There was a flicker of tail.  In all, from head to tip of tail, I estimated the monster at ninety or a hundred feet.

I don’t know what I said. I said something.

“Steady, boy, steady,” whispered McDunn.

“It’s impossible!” I said.

“No, Johnny, we’re impossible. It’s like it always was ten million years ago. It hasn’t changed. It’s us and the land that’ve changed, become impossible. Us!”

It swam slowly and with a great majesty out in the icy waters, far away.  the fog came and went about it, momentarily erasing its shape.  One of the monster eyes caught and held and flashed back our immense light, red, white, red, white, like a disc held high and sending a message in primeval code.  It was as silent as the fog through which it swam.

“It’s a dinosaur of some sort!” I crouched down, holding to the stair rail.

“Yes, one of the tribe.”

“But they died out!”

“No, only hid away in the Deeps, Deep, deep down in the deepest Deeps. Isn’t that a word now, Johnny, a real word, it says so much: the Deeps.  There’s all the coldness and darkness and deepness in the world in a word like that.”

“What” we do?”

“Do? We got our job, we can’t leave. Besides, we’re safer here than in any boat trying to get to land.  That thing’s as big as a destroyer and almost as swift.”

“But here, why does it come here?”

The next moment I had my answer.

The Fog Horn blew.

And the monster answered.

A cry came across a million years of water and mist. A cry so anguished and alone it shuddered in my head and my body.  The monster cried out at the tower.  The Fog Horn blew.  The monster roared again.  The Fog Horn blew. The monster opened its great toothed mouth and the sound that came from it was the sound of the Fog Horn itself. Lonely and vast and far away.  The sound of isolation, a viewless sea, a cold night, apartness. That was the sound.

“Now,” whispered McDunn, “do you know why it comes here?”

I nodded.

“All year long, Johnny, that poor monster there lying far out, a thousand miles at sea, and twenty miles deep maybe, biding its time, perhaps a million years old, this one creature. Think of it, waiting a million years; could you wait that long? Maybe it’s the last of its kind.  I sort of think that’s true.  Anyway, here come men on land and build this lighthouse, five years ago.  And set up their Fog Horn and sound it and sound it out towards the place where you bury yourself in sleep and sea memories of a world where there were thousands like yourself, but now you’re alone, all alone in a world that’s not made for you, a world where you have to hide.

“But the sound of the Fog Horn comes and goes, comes and goes, and you stir from the muddy bottom of the Deeps, and your eyes open like the lenses of two-foot cameras and you move, slow, slow, for you have the ocean sea on your shoulders, heavy. But that Fog Horn comes through a thousand miles of water, faint and familiar, and the furnace in your belly stokes up, and you begin to rise, slow, slow.  You feed yourself on minnows, on rivers of jellyfish, and you rise slow through the autumn months, through September when the fogs started, through October with more fog and the horn still calling you on, and then, late in November, after pressurizing yourself day by day, a few feet higher every hour, you are near the surface and still alive. You’ve got to go slow; if you surfaced all at once you’d explode. So it takes you all of three months to surface, and then a number of days to swim through the cold waters to the lighthouse. And there you are, out there, in the night, Johnny, the biggest damned monster in creation. And here’s the lighthouse calling to you, with a long neck like your neck sticking way up out of the water, and a body like your body, and most important of all, a voice like your voice.  Do you understand now, Johnny, do you understand?”

The Fog Horn blew.

The monster answered.

I saw it all, I knew it all-the million years of waiting alone, for someone to come back who never came back. The million years of isolation at the bottom of the sea, the insanity of time there, while the skies cleared of reptile-birds, the swamps fried on the continental lands, the sloths and sabre-tooths had there day and sank in tar pits, and men ran like white ants upon the hills.

The Fog Horn Blew.

“Last year,” said McDunn, “that creature swam round and round, round and round, all night. Not coming too near, puzzled, I’d say.  Afraid, maybe. And a bit angry after coming all this way. But the next day, unexpectedly, the fog lifted, the sun came out fresh, the sky was as blue as a painting. And the monster swam off away from the heat and the silence and didn’t come back. I suppose it’s been brooding on it for a year now, thinking it over from every which way.”

The monster was only a hundred yards off now, it and the Fog Horn crying at each other. As the lights hit them, the monster’s eyes were fire and ice, fire and ice.

“That’s life for you,” said McDunn. “Someone always waiting for someone who never comes home. Always someone loving some thing more than that thing loves them. And after a while you want to destroy whatever that thing is, so it can hurt you no more.”

The monster was rushing at the lighthouse.

The Fog Horn blew.

“Let’s see what happens,” said McDunn.

He switched the Fog Horn off.

The ensuing minute of silence was so intense that we could hear our hearts pounding in the glassed area of the tower, could hear the slow greased turn of the light. The monster stopped and froze.  It’s great lantern eyes blinked. Its mouth gaped. It gave a sort of rumble, like a volcano. It twitched its head this way and that, as if to seek the sounds now dwindled off in the fog. It peered at the lighthouse. It rumbled again. Then its eyes caught fire. It reared up, threshed the water, and rushed at the tower, its eyes filled with angry torment.

“McDunn!” I cried. “Switch on the horn!”

McDunn fumbled with the switch.  But even as he switched it on, the monster was rearing up.  I had a glimpse of its gigantic paws, fish skin glittering in webs between the finger-like projections, clawing at the tower.  The huge eye on the right side of its anguished head glittered before me like a cauldron into which I might drop, screaming. The tower shook. The Fog Horn cried; the monster cried. It seized the tower and gnashed at the glass, which shattered in upon us.

McDunn seized my arm. “Downstairs!”

The tower rocked, trembled, and started to give. The Fog Horn and the monster roared. We stumbled and half fell down the stairs. “Quick!”

We reached the bottom as the tower buckled down towards us.  We ducked under the stairs in the small stone cellar.  There were a thousand concussions as the rocks rained down; the Fog Horn stopped abruptly. The monster crashed upon the tower. The tower fell. We knelt together, McDunn and I holding tight, while our world exploded.

Then it was over and there was nothing but darkness and the wash of the sea on the raw stones.

That and the other sound.

“Listen,” said McDunn quietly. “Listen.”

We waited a moment. And then I began to hear it. First a great vacuumed sucking of air, and then the lament, the bewilderment, the loneliness of the great monster, folded over upon us, above us, so that the sickening reek of its body filled the air, a stone’s thickness away from our cellar.  The monster gasped and cried.  The tower was gone. The light was gone. The thing that had called it across a million years was gone.  And the monster was opening its mouth and sending out great sounds.  the sounds of a Fog Horn, again and again. And ships far at sea, not finding the light, not seeing anything, but passing and hearing late that night must’ve thought: There it is, the lonely sound, the Lonesome Bay horn. All’s well. We’ve rounded the cape.

And so it went for the rest of that night.

|  |  |

The sun was hot and yellow the next afternoon when the rescuers came to dig us from our stoned-under cellar.

“It fell apart, is all,” said McDunn gravely.  “We had a few bad knocks from the waves and it just crumbled.” He pinched my arm.

There was nothing to see. The ocean was calm, the sky blue. The only thing was a great algaic stink from the green matter that covered the fallen tower stones and the shore rocks. Flies buzzed about.  The ocean washed empty on the shore.

The next year they built a new lighthouse, but by that time I had a job in the little town and a wife and a good small warm house that glowed yellow on autumn nights, the doors locked, the chimney puffing smoke. As for McDunn. he was master of the new lighthouse, built to his ownspecifications, out of steel-reinforced concrete. “Just in case,” he said.

The new lighthouse was ready in November.  I drove down alone one evening late and parked my car and looked across the grey waters and listened to the new horn sounding, once, twice, three, four times a minute far out there by itself.

The monster?

It never came back.

“It’s gone away,” said McDunn.  “It’s gone back to the Deeps.  It’s learned you can’t love anything too much in this world.  It’s gone into the deepest Deeps to wait another million years.  Ah, the poor thing!  Waiting out there, and waiting out there, while man comes and goes on this pitiful little planet.  Waiting and waiting.

I sat in my car, listening. I couldn’t see the lighthouse or the light standing out in Lonesome Bay. I could only hear the Horn, the Horn, the Horn. It sounded like the monster calling.

I sat there wishing there was something I could say.

|  |  |

Copyright © 1951 by The Curtis Publishing Company / © 2012 The Ray Bradbury Estate. Reprinted without permission

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Page 399 from number9dream by David Mitchell

from page 399 of number9dream by David Mitchell

I dream everyone in the world is asleep, dreaming. I dream frost patterns on a temple bell. I dream bright water dripping from the spear of Izanagi, and the alchemy that transforms these drips into the land we call Japan. I dream the Pleiades, and flying fish, and speckled eggs in nests. I dream of skin flakes in keyboard gullies. I dream cites and the ovaries they issue from. I dream lovers who glimpse each other long before they become lovers and dream the songs they fall in love to, and I dream the songwriters who find the songs. I dream a mind in eight parts, and a compass rose. I dream of a girl, drowning, resigned to her fate now that she knows there is no possibility of being saved by her brother. Her willowy body is passed from current to current, tide to tide, until it has dissolved into pure blue, and I am sorry, and she knows I am sorry, and she wants me to let her go because she does not want me to drown too, which I will if I spend the rest of my life looking for her. I dream of a stone whale, of barnacles on the whale, watching it all. When my dream falters, all the world questions its own substance, so it so no surprise that I also dream the message bubbling from the stone whale’s blowhole. “This is the National Seismology Bureau, interrupting this program to bring you an emergency news flash…”

•  •  •

Text © David Mitchell

Art created by unknown. Any info welcome

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“The Image of the Lost Soul” by Saki

There were a number of carved stone figures placed at intervals along the parapets of the old Cathedral; some of them represented angels, others kings and bishops, and nearly all were in attitudes of pious exaltation and composure. But one figure, low down on the cold north side of the building, had neither crown, mitre, not nimbus, and its face was hard and bitter and downcast; it must be a demon, declared the fat blue pigeons that roosted and sunned themselves all day on the ledges of the parapet; but the old belfry jackdaw, who was an authority on ecclesiastical architecture, said it was a lost soul. And there the matter rested.

One autumn day there fluttered on to the Cathedral roof a slender, sweet-voiced bird that had wandered away from the bare fields and thinning hedgerows in search of a winter roosting-place. It tried to rest its tired feet under the shade of a great angel-wing or to nestle in the sculptured folds of a kingly robe, but the fat pigeons hustled it away from wherever it settled, and the noisy sparrow-folk drove it off the ledges. No respectable bird sang with so much feeling, they cheeped one to another, and the wanderer had to move on.

Only the effigy of the Lost Soul offered a place of refuge. The pigeons did not consider it safe to perch on a projection that leaned so much out of the perpendicular, and was, besides, too much in the shadow. The figure did not cross its hands in the pious attitude of the other graven dignitaries, but its arms were folded as in defiance and their angle made a snug resting-place for the little bird. Every evening it crept trustfully into its corner against the stone breast of the image, and the darkling eyes seemed to keep watch over its slumbers. The lonely bird grew to love its lonely protector, and during the day it would sit from time to time on some rainshoot or other abutment and trill forth its sweetest music in grateful thanks for its nightly shelter. And, it may have been the work of wind and weather, or some other influence, but the wild drawn face seemed gradually to lose some of its hardness and unhappiness. Every day, through the long monotonous hours, the song of his little guest would come up in snatches to the lonely watcher, and at evening, when the vesper-bell was ringing and the great grey bats slid out of their hiding-places in the belfry roof, the bright eyed bird would return, twitter a few sleepy notes, and nestle into the arms that were waiting for him. Those were happy days for the Dark Image. Only the great bell of the Cathedral rang out daily its mocking message, “After joy . . . sorrow.”

The folk in the verger’s lodge noticed a little brown bird flitting about the Cathedral precincts, and admired its beautiful singing. “But it is a pity,” said they, “that all that warbling should be lost and wasted far out of hearing up on the parapet.” They were poor, but they understood the principles of political economy. So they caught the bird and put it in a little wicker cage outside the lodge door.

That night the little songster was missing from its accustomed haunt, and the Dark Image knew more than ever the bitterness of loneliness. Perhaps his little friend had been killed by a prowling cat or hurt by a stone. Perhaps . . . perhaps he had flown elsewhere. But when morning came there floated up to him, through the noise and bustle of the Cathedral world, a faint heart-aching message from the prisoner in the wicker cage far below. And every day, at high noon, when the fat pigeons were stupefied into silence after their midday meal and the sparrows were washing themselves in the street-puddles, the song of the little bird came up to the parapets — a song of hunger and longing and hopelessness, a cry that could never be answered. The pigeons remarked, between mealtimes, that the figure leaned forward more than ever out of the perpendicular.

One day no song came up from the little wicker cage. It was the coldest day of the winter, and the pigeons and sparrows on the Cathedral roof looked anxiously on all sides for the scraps of food which they were dependent on in hard weather.

“Have the lodge-folk thrown out anything on to the dust-heap?” inquired one pigeon of another which was peering over the edge of the north parapet.

“Only a little dead bird,” was the answer.

There was a crackling sound in the night on the Cathedral roof and a noise as of falling masonry. The belfry jackdaw said the frost was affecting the fabric, and as he had experienced many frosts it must have been so. In the morning it was seen that the Figure of the Lost Soul had toppled from its cornice and lay now in a broken mass on the dustheap outside the verger’s lodge.

“It is just as well,” cooed the fat pigeons, after they had peered at the matter for some minutes; “now we shall have a nice angel put up there. Certainly they will put an angel there.”

“After joy . . . sorrow,” rang out the great bell.

Story by Saki (H. H. Munro), 1889 • Original image by Hsien-Ku

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EAT ME by Robert R. McCammon

A question gnawed, day and night, at Jim Crisp. He pondered it as he walked the streets, while a dark rain fell and rats chattered at his feet; he mulled over it as he sat in his apartment, staring at the static on the television screen hour after hour. The question haunted him as he sat in the cemetery on Fourteenth Street, surrounded by empty graves. And this burning question was: when did love die?

Thinking took effort. It made his brain hurt, but it seemed to Jim that thinking was his last link with life. He used to be an accountant, a long time ago. He’d worked with a firm downtown for over twenty years, had never been married, hadn’t dated much either. Numbers, logic, the rituals of mathematics had been the center of his life; now logic itself had gone insane, and no one kept records anymore. He had a terrible sensation of not belonging in this world, of being suspended in a nightmare that would stretch to the boundaries of eternity. He had no need for sleep any longer; something inside him had burst a while back, and he’d lost the ten or twelve pounds of fat that had gathered around his middle over the years. His body was lean now, so light sometimes a strong wind knocked him off his feet. The smell came and went, but Jim had a caseload of English Leather in his apartment and he took baths in the stuff.

The open maw of time frightened him. Days without number lay ahead. What was there to do, when there was nothing to be done? No one called the roll, no one punched the time-clock, no one set the deadlines. This warped freedom gave a sense of power to others; to Jim it was the most confining of prisons, because all the symbols of order—stoplights, calendars, clocks—were still there, still working, yet they had no purpose or sense, and they reminded him too much of what had been before.

As he walked, aimlessly, through the city’s streets he saw others moving past, some as peaceful as sleepwalkers, some raging in the grip of private tortures. Jim came to a corner and stopped, instinctively obeying the DON’T WALK sign; a high squealing noise caught his attention, and he looked to his left.

Rats were scurrying wildly over one of the lowest forms of humanity, a half-decayed corpse that had recently awakened and pulled itself from the grave. The thing crawled on the wet pavement, struggling on one thin arm and two sticklike legs. The rats were chewing it to pieces, and as the thing reached Jim, its skeletal face lifted and the single dim coal of an eye found him. From its mouth came a rattling noise, stifled when several rats squeezed themselves between the gray lips in search of softer flesh. Jim hurried on, not waiting for the light to change. He thought the thing had said Whhhyyy? and for that question he had no answer.

He felt shame in the coil of his entrails. When did love die? Had it perished at the same time as this living death of human flesh had begun, or had it already died and decayed long before? He went on, through the somber streets where the buildings brooded like tombstones, and he felt crushed beneath the weight of loneliness.

Jim remembered beauty; a yellow flower, the scent of a woman’s perfume, the warm sheen of a woman’s hair. Remembering was another bar in the prison of bones; the power of memory taunted him unmercifully. He remembered walking on his lunch hour, sighting a pretty girl and following her for a block or two, enraptured by fantasies. He had always been searching for love, for someone to be joined with, and had never realized it so vitally before now, when the gray city was full of rats and the restless dead.

Someone with a cavity where its face had been stumbled past, arms waving blindly. What once had been a child ran by him, and left the scent of rot in its wake, Jim lowered his head, and when a gust of hot wind hit him he lost his balance and would have slammed into a concrete wall if he hadn’t grabbed hold of a bolted-down mailbox. He kept going, deeper into the city, on pavement he’d never walked when he was alive.

At the intersection of two unfamiliar streets he thought he heard music: the crackle of a guitar, the low grunting of a drumbeat. He turned against the wind, fighting the gusts that threatened to hurl him into the air, and followed the sound. Two blocks ahead a strobe light flashed in a cavernous entrance. A sign that read THE COURTYARD had been broken out, and across the front of the building was scrawled BONEYARD in black spray paint. Figures moved within the entrance: dancers, gyrating in the flash of the strobes.

The thunder of the music repulsed him—the soft grace of Brahms remained his lullaby, not the raucous crudity of Grave Rock—but the activity, the movement, the heat of energy drew him closer. He scratched a maddening itch on the dry flesh at the back of his neck and stood on the threshold while the music and the glare blew around him. The Courtyard, he thought, glancing at the old sign. It was the name of a place that might once have served white wine and polite jazz music—a singles bar, maybe, where the lonely went to meet the lonely. The Boneyard it was now, all right: a realm of dancing skeletons. This was not his kind of place, but still … the noise, lights, and gyrations spoke of another kind of loneliness. It was a singles bar for the living dead, and it beckoned him in.

Jim crossed the threshold, and with one desiccated hand he smoothed down his remaining bits of black hair.

And now he knew what hell must be like: a smoky, rot-smelling pandemonium. Some of the things writhing on the dance floor were missing arms and legs, and one thin figure in the midst of a whirl lost its hand; the withered flesh skidded across the linoleum, was crushed underfoot as its owner scrabbled after it, and then its owner was likewise pummeled down into a twitching mass. On the bandstand were two guitar players, a drummer, and a legless thing hammering at an electric organ. Jim avoided the dance floor, moving through the crowd toward the blue neon bar. The drum’s pounding offended him, in an obscene way; it reminded him too much of how his heartbeat used to feel before it clenched and ceased.

This was a place his mother—God rest her soul—would have warned him to avoid. He had never been one for nightlife, and looking into the decayed faces of some of these people was a preview of torments that lay ahead—but he didn’t want to leave. The drumbeat was so loud it destroyed all thinking, and for a while he could pretend it was indeed his own heart returned to scarlet life; and that, he realized, was why the Boneyard was full from wall to wall. This was a mockery of life, yes, but it was the best to be had.

The bar’s neon lit up the rotting faces like blue-shadowed Halloween masks. One of them, down to shreds of flesh clinging to yellow bone, shouted something unintelligible and drank from a bottle of beer; the liquid streamed through the fissure in his throat and down over his violet shirt and gold chains. Flies swarmed around the bar, drawn to the reek, and Jim watched as the customers pressed forward. They reached into their pockets and changepurses and offered freshly-killed rats, roaches, spiders, and centipedes to the bartender, who placed the objects in a large glass jar that had replaced the cash register. Such was the currency of the Dead World, and a particularly juicy rat bought two bottles of Miller Lite. Other people were laughing and hollering—gasping, brittle sounds that held no semblance of humanity. A fight broke out near the dance floor, and a twisted arm thunked to the linoleum to the delighted roar of the onlookers.

“I know you!” A woman’s face thrust forward into Jim’s. She had tatters of gray hair, and she wore heavy makeup over sunken cheeks, her forehead swollen and cracked by some horrible inner pressure. Her glittery dress danced with light, but smelled of grave dirt. “Buy me a drink!” she said, grasping his arm. A flap of flesh at her throat fluttered, and Jim realized her throat had been slashed. “Buy me a drink!” she insisted,

“No,” Jim said, trying to break free. “No, I’m sorry.”

“You’re the one who killed me!” she screamed. Her grip tightened, about to snap Jim’s forearm. “Yes you are! You killed me, didn’t you?” And she picked up an empty beer bottle off the bar, her face contorted with rage, and started to smash it against his skull.

But before the blow could fall a man lifted her off her feet and pulled her away from Jim; her fingernails flayed to the bones of Jim’s arm. She was still screaming, fighting to pull away, and the man, who wore a T-shirt with Boneyard painted across it, said, “She’s a fresh one. Sorry, mac,” before he hauled her toward the entrance. The woman’s scream got shriller, and Jim saw her forehead burst open and ooze like a stomped snail. He shuddered, backing into a dark corner—and there he bumped into another body.

“Excuse me,” he said. Started to move away. Glanced at whom he’d collided with.

And saw her.

She was trembling, her skinny arms wrapped around her chest. She still had most of her long brown hair, but in places it had diminished to the texture of spiderwebs and her scalp showed. Still, it was lovely hair. It looked almost healthy. Her pale blue eyes were liquid and terrified, and her face might have been pretty once. She had lost most of her nose, and gray-rimmed craters pitted her right cheek. She was wearing sensible clothes: a skirt and blouse and a sweater buttoned to the throat. Her clothes were dirty, but they matched. She looked like a librarian, he decided. She didn’t belong in the Boneyard—but, then, where did anyone belong anymore?

He was about to move away when he noticed something else that caught a glint of frenzied light.

Around her neck, just peeking over the collar of her sweater, was a silver chain, and on that chain hung a tiny cloisonné heart.

It was a fragile thing, like a bit of bone china, but it held the power to freeze Jim before he took another step.

“That’s . . . that’s very pretty,” he said. He nodded at the heart.

Instantly her hand covered it. Parts of her fingers had rotted off, like his own.

He looked into her eyes; she stared—or at least pretended to—right past him. She shook like a frightened deer. Jim paused, waiting for a break in the thunder, nervously casting his gaze to the floor. He caught a whiff of decay, and whether it was from himself or her he didn’t know; what did it matter? He shivered too, not knowing what else to say but wanting to say something, anything, to make a connection. He sensed that at any moment the girl—whose age might be anywhere from twenty to forty, since Death both tightened and wrinkled at the same time —might bolt past him and be lost in the crowd. He thrust his hands into his pockets, not wanting her to see the exposed fingerbones. “This is the first time I’ve been here,” he said. “I don’t go out much.”

She didn’t answer. Maybe her tongue is gone, he thought. Or her throat. Maybe she was insane, which could be a real possibility. She pressed back against the wall, and Jim saw how very thin she was, skin stretched over frail bones. Dried up on the inside, he thought. Just like me.

“My name is Jim,” he told her. “What’s yours?”

Again, no reply. I’m no good at this! he agonized. Singles bars had never been his “scene”, as the saying went. No, his world had always been his books, his job, his classical records, his cramped little apartment that now seemed like a four-walled crypt. There was no use in standing here, trying to make conversation with a dead girl. He had dared to eat the peach, as Eliot’s Prufrock lamented, and found it rotten,

“Brenda,” she said, so suddenly it almost startled him. She kept her hand over the heart, her other arm across her sagging breasts. Her head was lowered, her hair hanging over the cratered cheek.

“Brenda,” Jim repeated; he heard his voice tremble. “That’s a nice name.”

She shrugged, still pressed into the corner as if trying to squeeze through a chink in the bricks.

Another moment of decision presented itself. It was a moment in which Jim could turn and walk three paces away, into the howling mass at the bar, and release Brenda from her corner; or a moment in which Brenda could tell him to go away, or curse him to his face, or scream with haunted dementia and that would be the end of it. The moment passed, and none of those things happened. There was just the drumbeat, pounding across the club, pounding like a counterfeit heart, and the roaches ran their race on the bar and the dancers continued to fling bits of flesh off their bodies like autumn leaves.

He felt he had to say something. “I was just walking. I didn’t mean to come here.” Maybe she nodded. Maybe; he couldn’t tell for sure, and the light played tricks. “I didn’t have anywhere else to go,” he added.

She spoke, in a whispery voice that he had to strain to hear: “Me neither.”

Jim shifted his weight—what weight he had left. “Would you . . . like to dance?” he asked, for want of anything better.

“Oh, no!” She looked up quickly. “No, I can’t dance! I mean … I used to dance, sometimes, but … I can’t dance anymore.”

Jim understood what she meant; her bones were brittle, just as his own were. They were both as fragile as husks, and to get out on that dance floor would tear them both to pieces. “Good,” he said. “I can’t dance either.”

She nodded, with an expression of relief. There was an instant in which Jim saw how pretty she must have been before all this happened—not pretty in a flashy way, but pretty as homespun lace—and it made his brain ache. “This is a loud place,” he said. “Too loud.”

“I’ve . . . never been here before.” Brenda removed her hand from the necklace, and again both arms protected her chest. “I knew this place was here, but . . .” She shrugged her thin shoulders. “I don’t know.”

“You’re . . .” lonely, he almost said. As lonely as I am. “. . . alone?” he asked.

“I have friends,” she answered, too fast.

“I don’t,” he said, and her gaze lingered on his face for a few seconds before she looked away. “I mean, not in this place,” he amended. “I don’t know anybody here, except you.” He paused, and then he had to ask the question:

“Why did you come here tonight?”

She almost spoke, but she closed her mouth before the words got out. I know why, Jim thought. Because you’re searching. Just like I am. You went out walking, and maybe you came in here because you couldn’t stand to be alone another second. I can look at you, and hear you screaming. “Would you like to go out?” he asked. “Walking, I mean. Right now, so we can talk?”

“I don’t know you,” she said, uneasily.

“I don’t know you, either. But I’d like to.”

“I’m . . .” Her hand fluttered up to the cavity where her nose had been. “Ugly,” she finished.

“You’re not ugly. Anyway, I’m no handsome prince.” He smiled, which stretched the flesh on his face. Brenda might have smiled, a little bit; again, it was hard to tell. “I’m not a crazy,” Jim reassured her. “I’m not on drugs, and I’m not looking for somebody to hurt. I just thought . . . you might like to have some company.”

Brenda didn’t answer for a moment. Her fingers played with the cloisonné heart. “All right,” she said finally. “But not too far. Just around the block.”

“Just around the block,” he agreed, trying to keep his excitement from showing too much. He took her arm—she didn’t seem to mind his fleshless fingers—and carefully guided her through the crowd. She felt light, like a dry-rotted stick, and he thought that even he, with his shrunken muscles, might be able to lift her over his head.

Outside, they walked away from the blast of the Boneyard. The wind was getting stronger, and they soon were holding to each other to keep from being swept away. “A storm’s coming,” Brenda said, and Jim nodded. The storms were fast and ferocious, and their winds made the buildings shake. But Jim and Brenda kept walking, first around the block and then, at Brenda’s direction, southward. Their bodies were bent like question marks; overhead, clouds masked the moon and blue streaks of electricity began to lance across the sky.

Brenda was not a talker, but she was a good listener. Jim told her about himself, about the job he used to have, about how he’d always dreamed that someday he’d have his own firm. He told her about a trip he once took, as a young man, to Lake Michigan, and how cold he recalled the water to be. He told her about a park he visited once, and how he remembered the sound of happy laughter and the smell of flowers. “I miss how it used to be,” he said, before he could stop himself, because in the Dead World voicing such regrets was a punishable crime. “I miss beauty,” he went on. “I miss . . . love.”

She took his hand, bone against bone, and said, “This is where I live.”

It was a plain brownstone building, many of the windows broken out by the windstorms. Jim didn’t ask to go to Brenda’s apartment; he expected to be turned away on the front steps. But Brenda still had hold of his hand, and now she was leading him up those steps and through the glassless door.

Her apartment, on the fourth floor, was even smaller than Jim’s. The walls were a somber gray, but the lights revealed a treasure—pots of flowers set around the room and out on the fire escape. “They’re silk,” Brenda explained, before he could ask. “But they look real, don’t they?”

“They look . . . wonderful.” He saw a stereo and speakers on a table, and near the equipment was a collection of records. He bent down, his knees creaking, and began to examine her taste in music. Another shock greeted him: Beethoven . . . Chopin . . . Mozart . . . Vivaldi . . . Strauss. And, yes, even Brahms. “Oh!” he said, and that was all he could say.

“I found most of those,” she said. “Would you like to listen to them?”

“Yes. Please.”

She put on the Chopin, and as the piano chords swelled, so did the wind, whistling in the hall and making the windows tremble.

And then she began to talk about herself: She had been a secretary, in a refrigeration plant across the river. Had never married, though she’d been engaged once. Her hobby was making silk flowers, when she could find the material. She missed ice cream most of all, she said. And summer—what had happened to summer, like it used to be? All the days and nights seemed to bleed together now, and nothing made any of them different. Except the storms, of course, and those could be dangerous.

By the end of the third record, they were sitting side by side on her sofa. The wind had gotten very strong outside; the rain came and went, but the wind and lightning remained.

“I like talking to you,” she told him. “I feel like . . . I’ve known you for a long, long time.”

“I do too. I’m glad I came into that place tonight.” He watched the storm and heard the wind shriek. “I don’t know how I’m going to get home.”

“You . . . don’t have to go,” Brenda said, very quietly. “I’d like for you to stay.”

He stared at her, unbelieving. The back of his neck itched fiercely, and the itch was spreading to his shoulders and arms, but he couldn’t move.

“I don’t want to be alone,” she continued. “I’m always alone. It’s just that … I miss touching. Is that wrong, to miss touching?”

“No. I don’t think so.”

She leaned forward, her lips almost brushing his, her eyes almost pleading. “Eat me,” she whispered.

Jim sat very still. Eat me: the only way left to feel pleasure in the Dead World. He wanted it, too; he needed it, so badly. “Eat me,” he whispered back to her, and he began to unbutton her sweater.

Her nude body was riddled with craters, her breasts sunken into her chest. His own was sallow and emaciated, and between his thighs his penis was a gray, useless piece of flesh. She reached for him, he knelt beside her body, and as she urged “Eat me, eat me,” his tongue played circles on her cold skin; then his teeth went to work, and he bit away the first chunk. She moaned and shivered, lifted her head and tongued his arm. Her teeth took a piece of flesh from him, and the ecstasy arrowed along his spinal cord like an electric shock.

They clung to each other, shuddering, their teeth working on arms and legs, throat, chest, face. Faster and faster still, as the wind crashed and Beethoven thundered; gobbets of flesh fell to the carpet, and those gobbets were quickly snatched up and consumed. Jim felt himself shrinking, being transformed from one into two; the incandescent moment had enfolded him, and if there had been tears to cry, he might have wept with Joy. Here was love, and here was a lover who both claimed him and gave her all.

Brenda’s teeth closed on the back of Jim’s neck, crunching through the dry flesh. Her eyes closed in rapture as Jim ate the rest of the fingers on her left hand—and suddenly there was a new sensation, a scurrying around her lips. The love wound on Jim’s neck was erupting small yellow roaches, like gold coins spilling from a bag, and Jim’s itching subsided. He cried out, his face burrowing into Brenda’s abdominal cavity.

Their bodies entwined, the flesh being gnawed away, their shrunken stomachs bulging. Brenda bit off his ear, chewed, and swallowed it; fresh passion coursed through Jim, and he nibbled away her lips—they did taste like slightly overripe peaches—and ran his tongue across her teeth. They kissed deeply, biting pieces of their tongues off. Jim drew back and lowered his face to her thighs. He began to eat her, while she gripped his shoulders and screamed.

Brenda arched her body. Jim’s sexual organs were there, the testicles like dark, dried fruit. She opened her mouth wide, extended her chewed tongue and bared her teeth; her cheekless, chinless face strained upward—and Jim cried out over even the wail of the wind, his body convulsing.

They continued to feast on each other, tike knowing lovers. Jim’s body was hollowed out, most of the flesh gone from his face and chest. Brenda’s lungs and heart were gone, consumed, and the bones of her arms and legs were fully revealed. Their stomachs swelled. And when they were near explosion, Jim and Brenda lay on the carpet, cradling each other with skeletal arms, lying on bits of flesh like the petals of strange flowers. They were one now, each into the other—and what more could love be than this?

“I love you,” Jim said, with his mangled tongue. Brenda made a noise of assent, unable to speak, and took a last love bite from beneath his arm before she snuggled close.

The Beethoven record ended; the next one dropped onto the turntable, and a lilting Strauss waltz began.

Jim felt the building shake. He lifted his head, one eye remaining and that one sated with pleasure, and saw the fire escape trembling. One of the potted plants was suddenly picked up by the wind. “Brenda,” he said—and then the plant crashed through the glass and the stormwind came in, whipping around the walls. Another window blew in, and as the next hot wave of wind came, it got into the hollows of the two dried bodies and raised them off the floor like reed-ribbed kites. Brenda made a gasping noise, her arms locked around Jim’s spinal cord and his handless arms thrust into her ribcage. The wind hurled them against the wall, snapping bones like matchsticks as the waltz continued to play on for a few seconds before the stereo and table went over. There was no pain, though, and no reason to fear. They were together, in this Dead World where love was a curseword, and together they would face the storm.

The wind churned, threw them one way and then the other—and as it withdrew from Brenda’s apartment it took the two bodies with it, into the charged air over the city’s roofs.

They flew, buffeted higher and higher, bone locked to bone. The city disappeared beneath them, and they went up into the clouds where the blue lightning danced.

They knew great joy, and at the upper limits of the clouds where the lightning was hottest, they thought they could see the stars.

When the storm passed, a boy on the north side of the city found a strange object on the roof of his apartment building, near the pigeon roost. It looked like a charred-black construction of bones, melded together so you couldn’t tell where one bone ended and the other began. And in that mass of bones was a silver chain, with a small ornament. A heart, he saw it was. A white heart, hanging there in the tangle of someone’s bones,

He was old enough to realize that someone—two people, maybe—had escaped the Dead World last night. Lucky stiffs, he thought.

He reached in for the dangling heart, and it fell to ashes at his touch.

________________________

Copyright © 1989 by Robert R. McCammon. All rights reserved. This story originally appeared in the anthology The Book of the Dead, first published in 1989. Reprinted without permission of the author.

Image: “85 lb Zombie” by Unique Nudes

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