Short Fiction

Chemical Smile

CONTENT WARNINGS: Suicide, brief mentions of sexual assault, violence involving children, very strong language, gore/body horror.

“She lost her focus yesterday,

She lost her focus in the sun,

She sits and stares at it for hours.”

The first time I told Amanda she was acting strange was in the last few days of spring. The days were getting longer, and the extra light was refreshing but a little unsettling at the same time. Amanda was in the front yard when I pulled in, sitting on her legs, craning her neck up and shielding her eyes. My instinct to get her to stop was so strong I actually started rolling down my window, but I thought better of it and parked the car first. I picked up the mail and made my way over to her, and I was confused (and already vaguely concerned) when none of this broke her concentration. I actually had to call her name before she snapped out of it and turned to face me, still shading her eyes. Only at my request did she pop up and follow me inside, but she wouldn’t answer any of my questions about what she was doing. I remember thinking that it was like she didn’t know. 

“Did I get any mail?” 

I let her change the subject. I looked down at the four envelopes in my hands. “Nope,” I lied. “Two bills, coupons, and junk mail.” 

“What’s the junk mail?” 

I made an action of shuffling the papers around, covering the third envelope up. “Somebody must be bugging us about car insurance. It’s trash.” 

I opened up the trash can to show her, turning the side that said “For Amanda” in scrawled pencil away from her and letting her watch me drop it in the bin. Take the trash out before you go to bed. Well best to just do it right away while it’s light out. I laid the rest of the mail on the counter and got to work tying the bag while Amanda bounced her way onto the couch and peeked at me from over the top of the cushions.

“Are you hungry?” 

This was her way of asking me to start on dinner. I sighed and preheated the oven as I passed it with the trash bag. “Yup,” I lied again. 

I walked around to the back, unlocked the fence gate, slipped through it, and hurled the trash bag as far as I could into the grass behind the house, where it landed in the pile of maybe five or six others. The smell is getting worse. Amanda is spending more time in the front yard—is this why? Doesn’t make sense—it’s got to smell worse in the front yard than in the house. Course none of the windows open anymore. I went inside and started on a couple of grilled cheeses.

Amanda was watching TV. The VCR obviously. I appreciated that she still pretended to be entertained by the one single two-episode “Scooby Doo” tape I owned. She had once very sweetly told me that one of them was her favorite episode: the robot that stalks Funland. I hate watching that episode—but it’s not for the robot, for Funland. The whole theme park is a couple of hand-painted old cartoon backgrounds depicting a landscape of lifeless darkened tents and booths cast against the blue-black night sky with no stars. Every time I look at that background, it gives me this awful shiver like I’m somewhere I’m not supposed to be. In the second act of the episode, where the entire carnival springs to life around them in the middle of the night… it sounds pathetic, but I have to look away. The lights are blinding, the music is roaring, but the whole place is still empty. There’s still no one on the boardwalk, but it’s screaming and blaring and flailing.

I used to have a nightmare like that. But these days in my nightmare, I’m underwater. I’m what feels like thousands of miles under the ocean and my eyes are closed, but they don’t open. When I try to open them, my muscles don’t respond, it feels like they’re already open and I’m trying to open them further, but they’re closed. The water churns thick and nauseating around me, responding to the movements of something massive in front of me. I can feel its immense bulk, I can register from the great cataclysmic shifts of the ocean around me that I am in the presence of a titanic creature. My eyes are sealed shut, and so I can’t tell what it looks like, how close it is to me, or what it’s doing. But the truly massive creature swims around me, sending massive vibrations through the water. Getting closer or moving away.

I glanced down and the sandwich was burnt to a crisp. Son of a bitch. I slid it straight off the pan into the trash, grimacing because I realized I hadn’t replaced the bag. Amanda hadn’t noticed anyway, so I just started on another. She was sitting too close to the TV, with her knees hugged up against her in a way I didn’t like. She looked… enthralled. It was the same episode she watched every day. I called out to her.

“Scoot back, Mandygirl. You’re not going to see anything new.” I tried to chuckle to make it sound like I was teasing. She obliged but protested.

“You have to look close to see the outline man.”

“The what?” 

You would think I had asked her a stupid question. “The man outline. Like… he’s really far away. You can only see his outline. In the back.” 

I rolled my eyes, turning the sandwich over in the pan. “You’re trying to see the silhouettes of the background characters?”

I wasn’t looking, but I could tell she was making that face. She has this face… I guess I would describe it as frustration with herself. She wants to use words she doesn’t know. She finally just said “Yes” and I let her have it. We ate grilled cheese at the kitchen counter on the bar stools like usual, sitting next to each other like a couple of drunks. I waited for as long as I could before I said something.

“What were you doing when I came home?” I gave her my best unconcerned routine.

She looked at me and just chewed for a while, and then spoke. “Looking for stars.” 

“Wow,” I laughed. “You must have pretty good eyesight.”


“I mean, seeing stars in the middle of the day. I thought they were all gone till night.”

She shook her head adamantly, taking no pleasure in correcting me. “No, you just can’t see them well on account of the sun.” 

I nodded with great interest, pretending to hear this for the first time. This, unlike my calmness, she bought. 

“I can’t look at the stars at night on account of I can’t go outside at night, so I started looking for them in the day.” 

“Did you find any?” 

“Nope.” She finished her sandwich and, still chewing, pointed at my untouched second half and looked at me. I slid the plate over to her and she devoured it. She’s really hungry. She’s too thin. Well anyway, we’re leaving in a month and she’ll be able to eat whatever she wants when we make it to Walker. We might not make it. Shut. Up. She noticed I was staring at her around the same time I did, and I sighed and looked away. She ate it all before she spoke again.     

That made me laugh. “…Two and a half. And promise no guff when I say it’s time to go inside. I mean it.” 

“I promise!” 

This was apparently so exciting that she had to run to her room, leaving me to clean up dinner and get trapped in my own head again. I remember I was washing the dishes and I glanced over my shoulder, where the TV in the corner sat. Off. Been meaning to move that thing to my room. I know Mandy won’t be thrilled but it’s that or fill the sliding glass door in with cement, and if I could do that I would. Would feel a lot safer if she was spending all her time in my room where there’s just one window instead of here, thirty feet away from a giant glass wall that only has the blanket to cover it. She watches her tape at night sometimes and I can’t stand knowing that all that light and sound is coming from the house. The freaks eat it up. As soon as they figured out which house was ours, they started sending the letters. They didn’t start by knocking on the door or even staring in the windows. Sending fucking letters. Toying with me. Fuck.

Of course, after that, I forgot about moving the TV for the night, and anyway, I didn’t want to answer any more questions if I could avoid it, and any-anyway, I didn’t want her keeping me up all night with her Scooby-Doo tape. I went outside with her that evening for a few minutes but the excursion ended unhappily when she fought against me trying to take her back inside, staring up at the stars and describing for me a number of constellations that were very impressive and then became scary. She’s so smart. I hate it. That’s not what you want to be in the world today. Some of them I had never heard of.

That night I left the TV in the living room and just kept my door open, listening vaguely to the crackles and pops of staticy voices as I drifted in and out of consciousness until finally it shut off for good when my clock read 4:12 and I was fully asleep. 

I was back in the ocean with the creature that night. My senses give me nothing to go off, but the dream whispers to me that it’s observing me. Not content or perhaps simply unable to float passively in place, it writhes and wriggles to displace the water around it and keep itself stationary, producing great currents that throw me around in the water. The dream whispers to me that we’re not in the ocean. When I try to ask where we are, I only see visions of rust.

I woke up when the sun was just coming up, and since I knew Mandy wouldn’t be up for a while, I decided to run to the store, which was one of my least favorite things to do. I remembered to lock her into her room (her door is installed backwards), although I doubted she would wake up in time to notice. I pulled some money out of the jar and did a quick inventory of the cabinets and left. I decided I would walk. Annoying to have to carry everything the whole way, and it takes longer, but safer to leave the car in the driveway. Where it can be seen. 

The sky went from black to gray as I walked. I had to stop at a crosswalk, and this allowed the man who had been following me the entire mile to catch up. I felt a big, ugly, warty hand on my shoulder and I could tell without looking (though I did look) who it was. He smiles vacantly (they all do) in this way that makes my hair stand up. I sighed. Our conversation went not exactly like this.

“Good morning, Mr. Guevara. Haven’t seen you outside in a bit.” He stepped around to my front, his face pale and sunken and bloated. I shivered. I frowned at him. He didn’t seem to notice.

“Good morning Officer Dominic. I’m really in a hurry to get to the store if you don’t mind.” 

He reached up and automatically adjusted his blue cap. Something about it made me feel mocked. “Well, I don’t mind at all, but seeing as we’re both waiting for the same light to change, it doesn’t seem like I’m holding you up any. I’m headed that same way, you know.”

Of course you are, you prick. “I suppose.” I took my moment to dash out onto the crosswalk the second the light permitted me, but he kept pace easily. Don’t fucking ask me any questions. I could see it in those dried-out shrunken little eyes pushed into his face. They’ve shriveled into raisins and caused his entire face to collapse toward them like two craters. I swear to god I’ll kill you if you ask me how. 

“How’s Amanda, by the way? It seems like she never comes with you. She’s a big girl, she can run errands too.” 

“She’s fine.” I tried to ignore him as best I could, but he was walking beside me at this nasty, twisted angle, keeping me on the same side as his holster at all times. Yeah, I see it, prick. I can’t fucking wait to be out of here. I should shoot you myself before I—

“Well, that’s great. But really, it would be good if we got to see her again sometime.”

“She’s sick. She’s really, uh, sick, so… she can’t come outside. Any time soon. Sorry.”

This caught him off guard. He frowned. “That’s terrible. Why didn’t you say so earlier? Why, Doctor Lundegaard ought to—”

“Yeah, yeah, I’m gonna talk to him soon. I’ll see you another time, officer.” I ducked around him and made it into the gas station, and he decided not to follow me in, which was a relief, but I wasn’t excited about it. I was, as usual, alone except for an older woman with wavy white hair in her dark purple company polo (which was the only thing I had ever seen her wear, work or no work) who lifted her head excitedly and looked at me with a plastic sweetness that I had practiced not retching over. She greeted me in that shrill, rotten voice, delighting in the way I had to play nice with her to get what I needed.

“Hey Grant, how’s Mandy?” 

“Yeah, hey.” I moved all the way to the opposite side of the store and started pulling things out of the refrigerated cases but it didn’t stop her. She strained her old voice to reach me. 

“Beautiful day yesterday! I saw her playing outside!” 

This made me freeze with my hand in the case, but I took a deep breath and quickly moved back to pulling plastic bottles of weakly flavored water off the shelf because I wanted to give the impression that I hadn’t heard her. You were staring into my yard again, you festering piece of shit. I should’ve known. You probably left this place in the middle of the day, wandering stupidly, absently through the streets, ignoring sidewalks and traffic, just to press your melting face against our fence and stare at her, exactly as I have found you doing before. With God as my witness, if I find out you said a single word to her, I’ll come over there and reach for that gun behind the counter and I’ll fucking—

I tried to raise my shoulder and my forearm sent water bottles clattering all over the floor. I was starting to get a shiver from standing in front of the open refrigerator for so long. I realized I had grabbed too many. I was just grabbing them. 

“Is everything okay over there, Mr. Guevara?” I ignored her and tried to put everything back onto the shelves, focusing only on getting the door shut, snatching up microwavable whatevers, delaying my trip to the register. Under my feet, something rocked the whole building, only slightly – barely perceptible, as if I was on a mostly stable boat.

“Is this all, Mr. Guevara? You know, Doctor Lundegaard’s been asking when your little girl is going to come in for—”

“Yeah, this is everything. Can I have a bag please?” I was digging through my wallet as I spoke, and I cursed myself as soon as I found what I was looking for. Son of a bitch. Three fucking dollars. I laid them out on the counter and continued to dig through my wallet to no avail. The woman, whose name tag said Nancy, noticed my problem. 

“Short, Mr. Guevara? I can hold onto all this while you run back to the house if you need.” 

I bit my lip and looked at the door, considering it. There was a little more at the house. I wasn’t sure if it was enough. I didn’t want this trip to take any longer than it had to. Could I use the car? No. Needs to stay in the driveway, where people can see it.

My thought was interrupted when I looked back at her, realizing she had gone quiet, to find that the old woman was staring at my open wallet in amazement. I automatically moved my hand to cover what she was looking at, and this reanimated her, and she spoke with an enthusiasm that I found pathetic.

“Well, uh, Mr. Guevara, I think we can work something out, you know.” She had melted all the way down to begging. I wanted to spit. I knew what she was going to ask me to do instead of pay. It disgusted me. I hope the government drops a fucking bomb on all you freaks the day we leave.

I sighed and reached into my wallet, taking out the photograph. Mandy is ten in this one. She’s in her pajamas and she’s on her little rocking horse her grandfather gave her. The sun is rising but the blinds are drawn and everything is gold. It’s a beautiful photograph. I swore I could see the woman drool as I pressed the picture onto the counter in front of her (face down) and then took my things in the bag she had packed and left. She said something but I didn’t fucking listen. I was humiliated. Someone followed me home but I never looked back and it seemed like they stopped on the other side of the street from the house. The street was sloshing and seizing when I slammed the door behind me.

That morning, I moved the TV into my room. I’d thought about it and decided that, while it would annoy me, it was a lot safer. I don’t get much sleep anyway. Most of the night I lay there and I listen for things outside and I just think. The living room has that stupid sliding glass door broadcasting her marathon of the same videotape to the entire world. Someone could come right up to it. She’d be terrified, I hope, but what if she’s not? What if they tap on the glass, and instead of shouting or running, she stays real quiet; what if instead of getting me, she gets up and walks over it; what if she’s happy to see them; what if she slowly reaches up and unclicks the lock on the sliding glass door without fear but instead with excitement and anticipation and—

I tripped over the rug, crashing shoulder-first into the wall and thankfully remaining on my feet. This made Mandy come out of her room, planting her hands disapprovingly on her waist and looking me over. 

“What are you doing?” 

“I’m moving it to my room.” I strained for a moment to regain my upright stance. “Get the door, please.” 

She didn’t budge. “…Why? Am I in trouble?” 

I frowned. “Why do you think you would be in trouble?” She frowned back and didn’t answer me, just opening the door.

The whole affair was over in about ten minutes, which meant I would have to find something else to do with the rest of my day. By noon I was staring at my phone. Pete had left me on read because I was pestering him again about calling his lawyer back, but what else was I supposed to do? Pete had promised me one night that the $15,000 in back-pay he was about to receive was my and Mandy’s way out of here and over to Walker. I’d never met him in person, but we had been texting for months at this point, and he seemed serious, and to be honest it was the only plan I had. I believed, and I still do, that in real life, lucky breaks like that happen more than in fiction. I figured there was a chance Pete could get bored with me and abandon our plan for escape, but that it was the type of misfortune that doesn’t usually occur when there’s no one observing to appreciate it. In real life, there is no Chekov’s gun. There is no third act set aside for the special purpose of ripping all your hopes away. There are no acts. It’s just one day and then another, and then the last one. I waited for a text back that didn’t come and I picked up a book and I put it back down and I watched Mandy go outside and stare at the sun and I didn’t do much else. In a way, I guess I was always hoping that if my life wasn’t entertaining, entertaining things wouldn’t happen in it. Suffering is entertaining. 

Mandy stared at the sun and I stared at Mandy and people hiding in shaded parts of the surrounding few blocks stared at her too and the monster in the ocean stared at me and the days wore on and on. I let her watch her tape in my room although she seemed less interested now, watched it only occasionally. Pete did text me back; he played phone tag with the lawyer over the next few days and even sent a little money to my bank card, which let us stock up, and I was able to spend more time at home with Mandy, watching her color and sitting quietly together and answering her questions about the world or, more often, not answering them. I went to take out the trash one morning and I saw that there was a giant hole torn in one of the trash bags—fucking trash everywhere—disgusting, rotten smell, and I vomited but not from the smell. I vomited because when I went back around to the front of the house, I realized someone had dug up the letter I threw out and put it back in our mailbox. And also the smell, it was because of that too. In another week, the summer was finally rolling and the heat was building and for a little while things were good. The extra money made everything less nerve-racking. I cooked more than usual and I could’ve sworn she was gaining weight. With full bellies all the time, we were both on edge a little less. I thought it would be harder to sleep with her watching the TV in my room, but it was actually a lot easier, knowing she was there with me. The road outside occasionally gurgled, usually during the day. I observed this phenomenon with great interest and concluded that there must be something terrible building up and rushing by in the sewer line beneath the pavement. I was doubtful that anyone was down there cleaning it or diverting the flow or whatever they do.

By Friday, I was feeling a lot less stressed. I woke up and had energy and thought little of the ocean. I even cooked breakfast, just ham and eggs. I remember the way she hung around and watched me clean up, the way kids do. She wouldn’t say anything but she kept hovering. I caught on and asked her if there was something she wanted to talk about while I was doing the dishes. 

“Am I gonna go back to school?” 

I splashed myself when I turned around a little too hard to look at her. I thought for a second. 

“Uh… do you want to go back to school?”

She answered automatically. She didn’t even consider it. “No, I don’t.” 

I focused on finishing the dishes. “Uh, but don’t you miss having friends and stuff? When we get to Walker, I could try and enroll you in—”

“I don’t miss having friends.” 

That gave me a start. I admit I froze up a little bit. She said it almost boredly. I was more bothered by this than I should’ve been. I didn’t even realize that I was squeezing my eyes shut when I responded. 

“Uh… why not?” 

I was cringing. I felt such fear. Such pity. Such hopelessness. I couldn’t understand why. I felt like some kind of drug was taking hold. The moment kept getting longer. I could feel the inhaling and exhaling of the pipes under our feet. Something swam around in my head, something huge.

She didn’t respond. She walked away. 

I went on a walk that night after sundown, which was obviously a very fucking stupid idea, and this fact did not escape or even really bother me. I waited for Mandy to retire to her room with her favorite “Where’s Waldo” book, which I assume she’s finished a dozen times by now, and I snuck out. I thought for a while about whether I should take the gun or leave it, about which one of us would need it more, but she doesn’t have any idea how to use it, so it doesn’t matter anyway. Just take it. 

But I didn’t. I went into my office to get it but I was overwhelmed with fear when I felt how heavy it was in my hands. Mandy’s mom shot herself when she was three. It’s not a secret. I didn’t even hide it from her. It doesn’t hurt to talk about it anymore. Sometimes people shoot themselves. It didn’t have anything to do with what’s going on now, it wasn’t for any of the reasons that people do it these days. It was before the CSCE, back when squids had ten arms and beaks instead of a thousand arms and enormous jawless yawning mouths with hundreds of rows of teeth. It was even before people knew about Warsaw or the Jellyfish Man story or any of that crap. Back when the Andy Baumeister show was about the fucking human genome project, and I could stomach to listen to it. No, a lot of people kill themselves these days because society’s collapsing, because there are fucking demons crawling down the street every night, because people are puking up seawater from oceans they’ve never been to and digging each other’s eyes out and screaming the blood out of their lungs about a squid monster from another planet and because the entire city seems to contract sometimes to accommodate the size and shape of something foreign slithering through its arteries. Jennifer was just… sick, I think. She felt like a failure. She had money, but she was hurting inside over it and nobody really ever bothered to notice (I admit, I didn’t). She fell through the cracks. Nobody was checking on her. I don’t specifically remember walking outside, but at this point, I’m on Third Street and the sunset is orange and black and nobody’s around. I keep stopping and looking both ways on streets that probably haven’t been driven on in months. I question if I’m wandering, as is my intent, or if I’m going somewhere and not noticing.

I’ve never been somebody who could live in the moment. When was the last time I even thought about what kind of person I am? I’m on Main Street now. Or, rather, I noticed I was being taken to Main Street around this time. This late, nobody is ever out. The zombies mill around in the open during the day, and at night, they mostly just stand in their houses and stare at the wall, unless they’re busy stalking my house. But not stalking me. That’s why I can go wherever in this town at any time of night. That’s the reason I left the gun at home. I would never need it. I have exactly zero stalkers. They want her.

But they avoid me. They don’t want to be seen by me at night, and during the day, they play nice. They smile and wave and whatever is wrapped around them will squeeze the lungs and larynx to say my name (but usually hers). When this all started, I thought they were mocking me. I thought shaking my hand, acting like I know them, asking about her with fake concern—I thought they did it because it was funny to them. But sometimes they hide from me. They’re hiding from me right now. I just realized I’m lying in the middle of the street. I’m thinking about what happened in Warsaw. When I was young, it was an urban legend. A town besieged by creatures from another planet that could easily tear its residents to shreds, almost effortlessly, with no apparent physical weakness… but they ran away when they saw cameras and microphones. Recording equipment was their fear. The road is hot even though it’s cool outside. It’s not hot – it’s warm. 

Like any good campfire story, the story of what happened in Warsaw has a twist ending. You’ve heard it before. We all thought the creatures feared cameras because they didn’t want humans to find out about their existence. But we were wrong. They didn’t care for a second about hiding from us. We were insects to them. 

They were hiding from something else.

Is that what’s happening in this town? 

I watched the sky turn pitch black. The streetlights never came on. The lights in the houses around me never came on either. The road seemed to get hotter the more I lay on it. I almost stopped thinking about Mandy for a whole five minutes, but then I saw the stars coming out and I thought of her again. I touched the left side of my coat and felt the hard shape that was there. Staring up from the pavement, I dug into my jacket and held the thing I found in front of my face. 

It was a VHS tape. I grabbed it this morning out of the player. “Foul Play in Funland.” I’m not sure why I did it… I wasn’t sure why I did it. Something had told me to do it. Probably something that I know but am compartmentalizing. I dropped it onto the road and stepped on it hard, feeling it crack once and then twice and then many times simultaneously, and then I slowly started to pick myself up (difficult because the road now swayed gently as if carrying the last vibrations of distant waves) to make my way home. Good walk. I guess.

The main thought: Why don’t they kill me? Are they afraid I’ll kill her first? Is she my hostage? I think maybe they’re afraid of me for reasons entirely separate from their obsession with her. I called 911 the first night I realized what had happened to the town… the woman on the other end didn’t ask what my emergency was. She picked up the phone and said “Hello? Mandy?” and I hung up on her. I tried to coax Pete into revealing he knew her but he didn’t, so there are at least three humans left on Earth. It is about now that I realize I just circled the nearest block instead of getting closer to home. I’m compartmentalizing something. I have to go there. I have to figure out why I don’t want to go there. I have to figure out why the distant groaning and bubbling under the road is getting less distant.

I stumbled my way home, my head pounding. I realized halfway up the road that I was sweating a lot. Now it was directly under my feet that the enormous parasite, which I was now sure had been living in the town’s bloodstream, was bending and breaking the foundation to force its bloated body somewhere unknowable. Walking was like having a seizure in slow motion. I was hiding something from myself, but with every step I took, it became obvious what it was, but I would hide it again and then it would become obvious again, my mind constricting around itself over and over and over, approaching a single, infinitely-dense thought.

“Don’t go in the front door. Go around to the back. Look in the window.” 

This wasn’t the infinitely-dense thought, but I did have this one and I exactly as it told me, lurching forward like the living dead. Once I got off the road, it moaned so loudly that everything shook and I saw the asphalt crack, and then it grew more distant again, moving off in another direction as the thing swam by. Circling me. In the darkness that had settled, the light from my bedroom window radiated brightly and I was genuinely very unsettled by how much I realized I would be able to see as I approached it. That’s too much light. I stopped in front of the window and saw exactly what I was afraid of. 

I just stared. My legs had turned to slime. It was like every ounce of blood in my body was gone. I was floating in the ocean again, but with my eyes open.

For whatever reason, I felt in my jacket, but of course, there was nothing there. The TV shone brightly, and my Amanda sat dumbly in front of it. I need you to fucking understand this. I destroyed that fucking VHS tape. There should have been no fucking VHS tapes in that house. She hadn’t even fucking missed it.

This was what I had been hiding from myself. I had stolen the tape days or maybe weeks ago. She had never had it to begin with. 

I thought about rushing inside – I thought maybe she was in danger. But I never sold myself on that one. Instead, I went around and I opened the door very lightly and I crept in, I guess like I was the one in danger. I took my shoes off before going in and stepped on the carpet, hoping I could see what she was watching from the angle of the open door. 

I did see what she was watching, and if I hadn’t, we would probably be in Walker right now. I probably wouldn’t have written anything. I might even still be living on Earlinger Street with very little knowledge of the hideous mucusy thing under my feet, in my dreams, and behind my eyes. Things might even have gone okay. But what happened was that I wasn’t paying attention and my foot kicked the door and she leaped up, diving forward to shut the TV off and turning around to stare at me like I was some kind of intruder. I tried to sound calm (what a joke).

“Mandy, I need you to tell me what you were just watching. I know it wasn’t your cartoons. So just tell me, please.” 

I thought for a second, studying the fear on her face, and added (weakly), “I’m not mad.”

She stared at the ground and was quiet for a long time, but when she looked up her eyes were wide. Where I expected maybe guilt I saw fear. “The outline man.” 

I blinked. “What is the outline man? Where did you get this tape? Give it to me.” 

She ejected it from the tape player and gave it to me, and it was unmarked. Her voice was low. I felt like she was pleading no contest with me, which in hindsight was exactly what was happening.

“They’re in my dresser.” 


There were stacks of them. Probably twenty-five or more tapes. They all looked identical. I had so many questions even though I knew I would never get answers. I wondered if they were all copies of the same episode of Scooby-Doo, with something vile on the end or in the middle. I would never find out. I dumped them all into a trash can and took the bag outside into the pitch dark (took the gun this time), out into the back where the trash pile facing the old football field was. With no one picking trash up anymore, I had been dumping piles of the stuff out here, in the long grass of the field past my fence gate, and letting it rot. Smells great. I opened the bag up and dumped them all onto the ground in front of a pile of trash bags and right there in the light of the only just-risen moon I stomped on them and listened to the plastic crack and crumble and drove my foot into the dirt over and over and over and over and I could feel my rage animating me, begging to escape me, and the grass around me puked up big uneven heaps of soil as the thing under our feet came squelching by again, threatening to uproot the dead street lights, and I vaguely understood that the contractile sickness of the earth which had been coming only every few days was now coming every few minutes, and tapes became pieces, which became shards, which became dust, and I jumped so hard that I almost fell over when I heard the voice from out in the field. 

“Hey, whatcha doin’ there, Grant?” 

I looked up and he was right in front of me, and everything was more or less still again as the quakes and vibrations of the awful sloshing thing receded into the distance towards the main road. Lean, hunched, pale, dressed like the picture of a salaryman. His long brown suit jacket was open and his tie was loosened, and his eyes were sunken and the skin on his mouth appeared to be too loose as he stretched back and revealed his rows of yellow teeth. Ratty short hair. He had liver spots on his face even though he wasn’t even 40. I thought, perhaps intrusively, that he was the type of guy you would draw given the prompt ‘molester.’ My next-door neighbor, but not on this side of the house. 

He spoke again. 

“Yeah, I was just coming home from work and I heard you out here, uh, breaking something it sounded like. What is all this, huh? Is everything okay?” 

His eyes were glazed over, even though his smile was so tight it appeared to strain him. I took a step back, feeling my jacket for something. Everything that had happened had made me brave, or else delirious.

“Well, I just found these tapes with fucking squids on them in Amanda’s room. You wouldn’t happen to know anything about that, would you, Jerry?” 

I stared at him straight in the eyes, but it didn’t make me feel better like I was hoping it would. I felt like I was looking into the fake eyes some insects have in patterns on their skin. His eyebrows raised mechanically, perhaps meant to convey surprise, but his grin never moved and so he just looked perversely excited. 

“Jeez, no, I don’t know a thing about that there, Grant. You think she got them from someone in town? Mandy’s such a precious girl, I can’t imagine what would—”

“Shut the fuck up and stay back, Jerry.” He had taken a step towards me while talking. As soon as he had said her name, he wanted to get to me (to get to the house). “Don’t move again.” 

He froze, and once again his face tried to work around the frozen smile to convey something like fear or maybe sympathy, but to me, it just looked like lechery. “Well now, just calm down, Grant. I think if Mandy’s been watching this stuff, we should talk to her about it, right?” 

He stopped talking and he took another step forward. There was an explosion that seemed to shatter the air around me. My arm flew back and tried to smash its way out of its socket, and I realized I had shot him directly in the chest but this realization was soaked in horror from the very first second it occurred to me because he hadn’t fallen over. Jerry stumbled back but he remained on his feet, his suit jacket now stuck to him by way of the massive leaking wound on his chest nearly the size of a baseball. The throbbing red mass appeared to me like some kind of alien sphincter that was trying to escape his body, and his blood leaked out of it, but still, he was standing. 

We stared at each other in silence for a long time. He wasn’t grinning now, but staring at me in bewilderment. Whatever I was talking to, for the first time, I had given it a good scare. We just looked at each other. My arm felt like it was broken and I was just barely holding onto the weapon with a trembling hand. At this caliber, they sometimes call it a hand cannon. I felt like if I pulled the trigger again, it would blow MY arm clean off before it got him.

He kept looking at me. Gore leaked out of him. I don’t know if it was normal human gore or if it was wrong. 

He suddenly seized up and started to hold himself, and I started to run, but I stopped after a few steps. Transfixed in horror, I watched as my neighbor coughed and hacked and then heaved and spat and doubled over and all at once, in a wet, slimy sound of his tissues being stretched and torn, his mouth opened past his jaw, and onto the grass in front of me, he vomited a large white mass of what looked like… barnacles. All adhered to each other in a clump that to me resembled a fetus. All still alive. 

I started running right then and to my frustration (and disappointment and fear), I heard him lurching after me. He was hacking and coughing and gagging the whole way, not moving terribly fast I guess because I got in the sliding door and locked it and wedged a stool from the kitchen into it. He reached the door and started pounding on the glass with his fist, trying to talk to me but still hacking and puking (what I would discover the next day were more little globs of barnacles that would eventually die on my lawn), and so I covered it with the blanket and bolted and grabbed Mandy by the arm and locked her in the bathroom with me, planning to wait him out. I sat against the door with the gun in my lap and she leaned against the tub. I racked my brain for what to tell her when she asked what was going on, but she never did ask.

In fact, we didn’t say anything at all for what felt like hours. The floor sputtered and coughed as the horrible thing from my dreams squeezed its way through waterways it had outgrown. It must have been circling us. I think it probably knew what was going to happen. I could still hear him pounding on the door, and I was ready for it to break at any moment, but I guess in his state he wasn’t able to hit it hard enough. My watch said it was about two in the morning when the pounding started to really lighten up and eventually, within the hour, it had trailed off entirely. This put me much more on edge than hearing it at the door because when he was at the door, I knew where it was and what it was doing. Mandy was scared. She had drawn her legs up to her chest and was staring at them, occasionally sniffling. I remember thinking she looked a lot like her mother in that moment. Isn’t that sad? She stayed deadly still, even when the awful wormlike thing behind my eyes circled us again with such boldness that I could hear things falling off the shelf in the living room.

“…Amanda?” She looked up at me. I took a deep breath. 

“I need you to tell me what was on all those tapes you watched.” She immediately went back to staring at her legs. I sighed. 

“You’re not in trouble. I know you didn’t know what was—” 

“I learned about how animals evolved on the Earth.” 

I blinked. “From… the outline man?” 

She nodded, but she wouldn’t look at me. “From cells, you know. Before there were animals made of cells, there were just cells. They all lived separately.”

“No… I didn’t know that.” I gave her a puzzled look. I tried to keep her talking. “What changed?” 

This seemed to work. She spoke with what I now understand was a very precious bedside manner. “The cells figured out how to share resources, and then they started dividing up jobs and some got food and some protected them and some did other things.”

“That sounds kind of like people.” 

She nodded. She was so smart. It crushed me. You could’ve been a scientist, I bet. I’m sorry we failed you. “But if a cell is gonna spend its whole life following orders, it doesn’t need its own brain. One cell can just control all the cells instead of letting them think for themselves. It saves energy.”

I grimaced. “It doesn’t sound like people anymore.” 

She looked up at me, very seriously. “That’s how animals came around. Eventually, the cells couldn’t live separate anymore.” 

“Yeah… I got that. What else did you learn?”

She looked away from me again. “Well… he talked about squids.” I had seen that coming. I know it’s irresponsible and stupid, but I let her keep talking. I knew I was probably going to die if I listened, but I didn’t care. I was the only person who ever got to know how incredibly bright she was. So I treasured her explanation, marveling at the way she understood these awful things better than most infected adults.

“When the squids come to Earth, they don’t want there to be a million tiny animals.”

My stomach was tight. I sighed. “So we’re like cells, then? They’re going to turn us all into one animal?” 

She nodded and tried to hide her face by pushing it into her legs. 

I thought about it for a moment. If this is it, if I’m fucked for knowing anything at all, I might as well satisfy my curiosity. I asked her another question.

“What do you mean when they come to Earth? They’re not here yet…?” 

I saw her weakly shrug. “Something came to Earth. Not a squid. A fish. A fish that taught people about the squid and how to come together to become cells of a new type of animal. He said I could meet it if I wanted to.”

“How did he say you could do that?” 

“I have to wait for it to come find me first.”

I felt nauseous. I never asked her the question I really wanted to ask, but in the end, it didn’t matter. I tried to think of what I could say to her to make her feel better, but I mostly just wish she would say something to make me feel better (sad, right?). We stayed like that for a while and eventually, the great retching fits underneath us tapered off, and when I noticed she was dozing, I reached up and turned off the light. I had a lot of time to think, but I didn’t think about anything. When my watch said the sun was bound to be up, I quietly let myself out into the living room, gripping the gun in my trembling hands, and approached the glass door where the blanket was blocking my view. I held my breath and pulled it back so hard I actually pulled it off the wall, which ended up working out because I immediately doubled over and vomited at what I saw, and the blanket caught most of it. 

His face and body were still pressed up against my door – from the look of it, he had continued pounding on the door even as gore was leaking out of his chest, dripping and slickly sliding down my door, forming a soft pile at his feet, resembling feces. Eventually, at some point in the night, he must have succumbed to his injuries – he was still bent up against the glass, bugging eyes open, arms now limply dangling at his sides. He seemed to be adhered to the door entirely by his own blood, which had formed a kind of seal between his wound and the glass before it soaked its way to the drive and waterlogged his displaced organs, none of which I could decisively confirm were normal human innards. I knew at that moment that we had to leave – I obviously wasn’t going to let Mandy see this, and I knew there was no chance I could dispose of it myself, so the answer was simple: Leave. Now. Throw another blanket over it, get in the truck, and go to Pete’s. I stuffed the oversized weapon clumsily back under my belt and grabbed the keys, but when I got out there and went to start up the truck, I heard somebody shouting.

“Mr. Guevara! Mr. Guevara! Oh my god, is someone hurt? Hey, are you okay?!” 

The officer was rushing up my driveway. He grabbed the corpse of my neighbor by the shoulders and turned it towards him, dropping it when he realized what it was, recognizing, probably, the way it looked at him. Stumbling back. 

“It’s Mr. Walters! H-He’s been shot! We have to call 911, Mr. Guevara, how did this happen?!” 

This time it wasn’t the easygoing, condescending Officer Dominic with the predator’s smile. It was his rookie, whose name I didn’t know. I had only met him after everything in this town changed. For a second I ignored him and kept trying to get the door to the truck open but it was sticking and this confirmed his suspicions. I looked up and watched as the kid backed away a few steps, looking down at himself – at this gun or his radio, I guess. 

“Mr. Guevara, did you shoot him? What happened? I need you to tell me what happened right now.” 

Fuck you. You fucking disgusting piece of shit. Fuck all of you and fuck this town that scared off God. You’re a fucking insect and I can’t believe you fucking think you can talk to me in my fucking language. I have stood here for months now and listened to you disgusting little worms and your snickering, mocking, asking about my daughter with fucking hunger and arousal in your voice. I’ve seen you stalking her. Now I know you’ve been sending her videotapes. Your fucking disgusting chittering little insect pincers slipping under her door while I sleep, caressing her, whispering things to her, teaching her about your ideas. I knew what I was doing this time. I didn’t surprise myself. I drew faster than the arthropod in front of me and I blew its fucking head clean off. I didn’t say a single word to it. I don’t have a single word to say to any of you fucking things you are pathetic and sad and smug and I’m done giving you exactly what you fucking want. Hold this, you piece of shit. 

The explosion from the gun almost launched it out of my hand again. I’m pretty sure my arm was broken somewhere but I could still sort of move it. I fell onto my knees against the truck and I just sobbed. My shoulders shook so hard it shuddered my entire body and I drove my weak fist into the side of the truck and it dented. The creature lay on the ground with its head fucking vaporized from a high-caliber round. When I was 19, Amanda was born and two weeks later her mother asked me to promise that if anything happened to her, I would take Amanda and make sure she was smart, and she was happy, and she was free to become whatever it was that God wanted her to become. 

I sometimes think I should have said no. I should have said no, Jenn, you and that little girl are bound forever by the misery and senseless cruelty of this world that you were forced to bring her into (that she was forced to come into) and if you ever fucking dare ask me again to absolve you of the responsibility of that act of tremendous, entropic evil, you will live to regret it. I should have said no, Jennifer, I will not take your baby when you kill yourself, you fucking coward piece of shit. There’s something horrible coming for all of us, something worse than you could possibly fucking imagine. You were raped, and you experienced the darkest chasm of human cruelty, but you have no fucking idea what’s coming next. There exists a malice vaster than anything that has ever been witnessed on this planet. It’s up there, you narrow, selfish bitch. It’s in the fucking stars. It’s between the fucking pages. It’s in the constellations, it’s behind our eyes, but it has never, ever been in our hearts, and that is why it will bring ruin to us, no matter what. Because it laughs when we say we’re capable of real evil. Keep your fucking baby. I can’t protect her. 

I can’t protect her. 

I sobbed like this for a while, maybe from the indescribably intense pain in my arm but probably not from that, until I shifted the wrong way and the gun came clattering off of my belt and (thankfully less than a foot) onto the drive. I stared at it as I sniffled childishly, stared at it as if it were thousands of miles away. It hit me right then. 

I can protect her. 

I can protect both of us.

I hope you’ll forgive me if you’re reading this. This terrible thing I planned to do sounded a lot better when I thought I was only going to experience the guilt of it for a few minutes. When I stood up, they were everywhere. It was like they knew. They were standing on the street, some still shambling up. Staring at me stupidly, all looking at me. Zombies, I guess. Insects, arthropods, whatever. A lot of people I knew and some I didn’t. They moved slowly, drunkenly. I was frozen for a second, but a girl I went to high school with started coming up my driveway and I guess that was the encouragement they needed because they all started coming up, and I cut for the door and jammed it again. Inside I tried to think, to think of something else I could do, but the entire town was outside my house now and I could hear them knocking on windows, jiggling locks, pressing their faces up against windows, staring staring STARING and not saying anything and starting to break things, so I made for the bathroom. Under my feet, the ground was squelching and burping and gurgling and moaning. Now it simply shrieked. 

I’m sorry Amanda. I’m sorry you never had a chance. I don’t think I did, either. 

She was still sleeping on the floor and now curled up against the tub when I came in. I had to use my other hand to hold the gun, I was losing sensation in my dominant arm. It’s not fucking fair. She didn’t get a say in being born and now she doesn’t get a say in dying. She certainly never got a say in the end of the world. She never got any say in becoming this creature’s obsession. It was decided that she would live and it was decided she would suffer and it was decided she would die and nobody ever asked her. We’re all born into a meat grinder, and we have a very short amount of time in which to accept it. I blinded myself and I put that lovely intelligent girl with the deep green eyes to sleep. I protected her from the misery and the hatred and the violence and the fear but I also took from her the hills and the sea and the sky and the twinkling stars at night. I loved you for every second of your life. Good night. 

It was messy. I left the bathroom and I went back into the living room and I saw them finally force the front door in and I laughed because it was funny. I laughed because I was thinking come on in, you fucking idiots. Right this way. Come see. She’s right over there. You took everything from me, but I fucking got you back. You took away my reason for living and so I took away yours. Now we all die, together, as failures, and be forgotten. I saw the woman from the gas station crawling through my now broken window and I went over to her, gun still in my hand, and I hugged her. She squirmed dumbly, didn’t speak, writhed like an animal, but I held her tight. Let’s dance, you fucking insect. We don’t have to worry about anything anymore. Forget Pete, forget Amanda, forget the cold and lonely fate of the little girl who was supposed to be her big sister. It’s all gone now. No one will ever know that we loved, and better yet, no one will ever know that we lost. Let’s become dust together. 

But we didn’t become dust. Outside there was what felt like an explosion, it cracked the foundation and sunk the entire house in at an angle, and I hit the ground right on my bad arm and screamed in pain. I looked up and realized that they had all stopped. A crowd of the creatures was gathered around the bathroom door, peering into it. They were all silent. They hadn’t seized upon her like hungry animals or turned on me with a wild rage or done any of the things I had expected. They just stared at the scene, the light still off. I couldn’t see in. I slowly pushed myself up into a sitting position and watched them watch her. They seemed unsure. 

And then she came walking out. 

I’m crying now as I recall it. Amanda walked out of that bathroom and stood in the center of the room. 

Her head was completely destroyed. Skin hung from her neck but there wasn’t even residue of her skull – it was almost as if the bullet had decapitated her. She stood in the center of the room and they all looked at her and I looked at her but she couldn’t look at anything. In a way, it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. She stood there for a moment, and then she turned so the front of her body was facing me, tears streaming down my face in thick gross sludge rivers. Then she turned for the door and walked out, and they all followed her. I forced myself up to my feet and stumbled out onto the lawn and watched.

Outside, it was finally here. I figure it just had to see this for itself. The bloated, pale, sagging monster from my dreams had given up swimming around the sewers underneath us and had driven its massive body up with such force that it had formed a crater in the street, where its body stretched down into an unknown infinity of size. Its six dead fish eyes blinked at me, and its long, sickly, slimy catfish whiskers writhed in interest as it observed Amanda’s journey. I wanted to talk to it but I didn’t. Together we watched her, the fish and I.

She led them all away, first down the driveway, then down the street, then further, and further, and then she disappeared over the horizon. 

After that, the monster receded back into the hole and it never bothered me again. I left for Pete’s and that’s where I am now. So if you see a little girl without a head, leading an exodus of people that look more alive than her but aren’t, tell her I love her, and I miss her, and I’m sorry I can’t come with her, but that I’m proud I was able to keep her mother’s promise and help her become whatever it is God intends for her to be.

N.S. Castle

N.S. Castle is an author with particular interest in horror and science fiction. You can find his work for free at

More From Author

Our Ideals Without Corruption

All is Fair

A Refutation

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *