Roses

In Japan, the story that inspired this is filed in the “Romance” section, which is far more disturbing than anything I could write.

Also, I should probably put some trigger warnings on this one.

Done.

 

He could feel water from the sodden grass of the cemetery soaking slowly into his shoes. Father Dunn, his soft voice almost drowned out by the patter of rain on umbrellas, was murmuring about the Lord’s mysterious choice to take Dolly to his bosom so early.

He twirled the flower idly in his hand. She’d been captain of the St. Mary’s Junior High Roses, the girls’ soccer team, and the local florist had donated several hundred of them for the mourners to place on her coffin. Moving his eyes upward from the polished wood casket suspended over the damp cut in the earth, his gaze met that of John Farr, the sheriff’s department’s sole detective. The deputy gave a tight smile by way of greeting, and resumed his slow scan, looking for any sign that that could reveal the identity of the person responsible for the mangled and violated corpse about to be interred.

While the adults in the crowd were wearing dark clothes and carrying black umbrellas, those of the students, in their school uniforms, were mostly of the cheap transparent variety. The Roses were easily identifiable by their blue jerseys, worn over their navy-blue blazers, and the scabbed knees which shown beneath their plaid skirts. Jenny, the assistant captain, all angles and elbows, took shelter beneath a garish yellow umbrella, incongruous. In her free hand she held another blue jersey, which she spread on the coffin as the priest neared the conclusion of the ceremony.

Hayes.
1

“May her soul and the souls of all the faithful departed through the mercy of God rest in peace.”

One by one, Dolly’s classmates filed past to lay their roses on the coffin. He felt a sudden pain in his thumb, and lifted his hand. A drop of blood, released by an unnoticed thorn, dripped onto the soft pink petals of the flower. Crossing himself, he set the stained blossom gently down on the jersey, next to her name. As those assembled headed slowly to the parking lot, he noticed a lone dandelion, somehow unscathed, in the grass next to the grave. It seemed out of place in the solemn scene, and he reached down, plucking it out of the ground.

“Coach H?” He hadn’t realized that he was the only one still standing there. “The girls and I are going to get some lunch. Would you join us? It’d be good for them.”

“Lunch?” His eyes moved from the bright yellow umbrella and its owner to Sister Charlotte’s concerned face. “Yes, lunch, that’s a good idea, thank you.”

His hands, of their own accord, ceased their toying, and dropped the dandelion into the grave.

The Girl in the Mirror

First time I’ve shown this to anyone, I hope you enjoy:

 

The little girl in the mirror was gone. Had been gone for quite a while now.

The first time I’d seen her, I was coming out of the shower. Out of habit, I’d pawed for my glasses on the stand beside the bathroom sink, but when I slipped them onto my face, I gave out an involuntary gasp. There was a little girl standing behind me, dark hair, pale face, hollow, empty eyes. Or so seemed my bathrobe on the hook on the wall behind me, reflected in the fogged bathroom mirror, seen through my likewise foggy lenses.

I felt silly, a grown man, scared of a towel. Good thing Shelly wasn’t around; she’d have given me no end of grief. Not that she’d ever seemed to lack excuses to do so, after all, I had no ambition, or I didn’t make enough money, or I didn’t help out with the housework enough, or I didn’t pay enough attention to her or… I shook my head, snapping myself out of the downward spiral. We hadn’t been good for each other, but that part of my life was over and done with, no need to dwell on it anymore.

Still, I tossed the robe into the hamper with a shiver, making my way, nude, to the living room, where my pajamas lay on the opened hide-a-bed sofa. Since the breakup, sleeping in the big bed just didn’t feel right.

A few days later, she was back. A casual attempt at cleaning earlier in the day had somehow left the impression of a face on the misty surface. Smaller than the reflection of the towel had been, but still somehow the same face, the same accusation in her shadowed eyes.

Wait, accusation? What had brought that word to mind?

The next night, she was a dark hand-towel, glimpsed out of the corner of my eye as I opened the medicine cabinet, looking for a fresh tube of toothpaste. Later that week, a random swirl in my shaving cream took on the familiar shape.

I was seeing faces where there weren’t any, like when NASA thought they saw a human face on Mars. A quick check of the internet put a name to my problem: pareidolia. Like the cheerful expression of a Volkswagen.

Or the scary little girl hiding in my mirror.

Obviously, something was bothering me, but I was damned if I could figure out what it was.

So I gave her a name and made a point of greeting her when I came out of the shower. “Good evening, Miss Emily, and how are we doing tonight?”

“Oops, sorry Emmy, didn’t see you there, mind if I get my towel?”

She wouldn’t manifest for a few days, but then, there she’d be, a cobweb in the corner, a wisp of vapor coming out of the shower.

“Emily, you get to bed this instant. What would your mother say if she saw you spying on me?”

And then she was gone. I kept greeting her, carrying on conversations at times, as I shaved or toweled my hair dry, but one day I realized I hadn’t seen her for….

A week? Two?

I found myself trying to look around the edges of the mirror, pushing my cheek, my forehead, my chin right up to the glass as if I’d be able to see through, beyond the frame and past the silvered surface. Where was she?

It was useless.

One night, months after her first appearance, I grabbed a second mirror, one of my ex-wife’s old hand-helds that she’d left behind when she’d gone, trying to find the source of an itch between my shoulder blades, and, while unsuccessfully manipulating the doubled reflection, I saw her again, clearly this time, standing in the doorway, the front of her white dress soaked in blood. The mirror slipped from my hand and shattered on the floor below.

“Shit, Emily, what happened to you?” and I turned, but she was gone. Reaching down, I picked up the largest shard, a long, thin wedge the length of my hand, and looked again, just glimpsing the hem of her dress, disappearing in the direction of the bedroom. Stepping carefully, I backed out into the hallway, gaze directed firmly into the reflection of the world over my shoulder.

As I made my way into the bedroom, I began to hear her as well. It was a wet, gasping, bubbling noise. I momentarily lowered the fragment to my chest, and the sound diminished as I opened the door that had been closed since…

I tried not to look at the reflection of the bed, at the spreading stain, the glassy stare, but then a hand, fingers small and perfectly formed, reached over the top of the shard of silver. “Daddy, why?”

I raised the blade again.

II. The Morning After

This is part II, so be sure to check out I. Storm first

 

Morning. Got home, I guess. Queasy. Headache. So dry.

Six empty tall cans, scattered around the computer desk. Yup.

It’s still raining outside, but just a normal, gray rain, not like whatever that was last night.

Shit, what was that? I was hurt, but I when I check my scalp, all seems good. Hamper check, one sodden yellow linen shirt, no trace of blood.

Huh. Nightmare, I guess. There are crumpled up sheets of printer paper on the floor, and it seems I pulled the feed tray out. No idea where I decided to put it.

Crusty brown patch on the keyboard, on the desk. Blood. But from where?

The rain is really starting to pound down outside. I wonder how high the river’s gotten? About five years ago, after a night-long torrential downpour, what’s normally a meandering little ankle deep creek swelled and rose most of the way to the top of its concrete chute. Lonely Planet says that there are an estimated three rivers in the whole country that haven’t been locked in and channeled by a nation that, all protests to the contrary, hates and fears nature more than anything else. Take the train through the mountains and see the great concrete cliffs that have been installed in the midst of the monoculture forests, miles from any road or habitation, in the name of landslide prevention.

Out my window, however, the land is green with rice fields. Every May, the farmers scrape them flat, then close the exit sluices and let the waters in. The fields turn to shallow ponds over the next few days, and the farmers head out, booted up, with squeegee planers in hand, to make sure that the mud beneath the surface is perfectly flat. I think the eggs must wait below the dirt or something, because the season of frogs is next, ribbiting merrily away, seeking the perfect mate. Wonder what makes a sexy ribbit? Whose grunting little croak gets the girls all foamy and ready to squirt? Are there guys out there who nothing but game, stunted seed leading to the next failed generation?

I’m parched. Six tall cans, and probably didn’t have any water before I went to bed. Need breakfast.

Ice. Banana. Protein powder. Spinach. Peanut butter. The blender sounds like it’s running inside my skull, shards of ice ripping through my frontal lobes, shredding the cerebellum where the lizards never died.

Enough.

As soon as it touches my tongue, I retch, spewing yellow green bile all over the wood-grain linoleum. What the hell? This shit has gone seriously off. I want to rinse my mouth, but the thought of anything in there brings on another set of spasms to my stomach.

So dry.

Best go for a walk. Cell phone has a really good camera, maybe I’ll go check the river. Last year, there was a landslide upstream, a hillside broke lose and covered the river pathway in about four inches of stinking muck. The rain hit even harder up in Kyoto, when I followed the creek down to the main river in town a day later, I could see that it had completely jumped its banks and risen two thirds of the way up the levee. What a sight that must have been, five hundred yards wide, sweeping away everything. The fence behind home plate was bent flat.

The disaster warning app on the phone has gone gray. Inoperative. Antenna icon Xed out.

Desktop internet down.

Must have been more than some ugly rain last night, but the green outside the window looks nice, and something tells me the rain would feel good on my skin. I grab my phone. My umbrella stays behind.

Still thirsty, but I was right, the rain feels good, seemingly soaking into my skin. The path through the fields is quieter; rain can be so loud smacking down on the griddle-pan landscape of asphalt and cement that the city secretes like a protective chitinous shell. Out here, the rain rustles on the rice, whispers on the water, caresses my skin like a mother her child.

Stones? Nuts? Black oblongs, making their way slowly out of the flooded paddies, hundreds of them, some sort of walnut sized snails. They weren’t here yesterday, I walk this path every morning, never seen anything like them. A neat line of them, on the concrete wall. I squat down, they’re moving, but every so slowly, heads sliding smoothly back and forth over the lip, leaving it polished and reduced where they’ve passed.

Grazing.

I reach down, cup my hand, drink from the pure natural water of the paddy. Sting of fertilizers and pesticides, but mostly washed away by the rain, I can feel the liquid soaking through my tissues, filling the parched matrix of muscle where the young await, melting their encysted eggs. Something in me wonders that I’m not alone, but the old man next to me has gone to his hands and knees, drinking the nectar directly from the pool below us.

The concrete wall of the paddy is almost gone now, we’re not needed here.

Our brothers within urge us on, antennae stroking the nerves, sliding, questing, out of the skin into the cool, humid air. The river, imprisoned in its concrete slot, lies waiting.

I. Storm

Somewhat of a true story, at least at first. I was in Japan for the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, and last year a typhoon came through. Not much damage locally, but nothing like any storm I’d ever experienced before. I hope you enjoy this, and come back for II. The Morning After

 

When the elevator doors opened, a gust of hot, oily wind whipped out of the shaft. The whole building was thrumming with the winds from the approaching typhoon, but from the open landing, the night skies still looked clear. Stepping into the carpet lined box, I pushed the button for the first floor, then the “close door” icon. The elevator bounced slightly as the doors slid shut.

And then opened again. The gusts coming down from the roof were getting stronger, I could hear the cables rattling against each other. Suddenly the stairs didn’t sound like such a bad option, but before I could do anything, the doors shut themselves again.

And then opened.

“Right, fuck this,” I muttered, stepping smartly back out to the landing. “Don’t need to sleep in here tonight.”

The stairs were really more of a concrete fire escape molded to the side of the building, with steel doors that would have served well for security had they had locks. Don’t know much about fluid dynamics, but what I do know is that the shape of the stairs and the angle of the wind was sending things all kinds of crazy. The air seemed to be battling with itself, nitrogen and oxygen and all those trace gases in a war of all against all, howling up and down the stairwell, and beyond that I could hear it starting to whistle through the power lines, now at eye level over the rail.

I’ve heard tornadoes before. They’re supposed to sound like freight trains, but never quite did to me. There’s something so much… more…about them than a mere few hundred tons of steel rolling through the countryside. This isn’t like that. There are a lot of treble notes coming off of things at ground level, a flute played by a madman whistling against the buildings and power poles. That’s normal here, the place may be called “Top of the Mountain”, but it should be “Top of the Windy Mountain”. The midrange, higher up in the atmosphere, is pretty common around here too. That’s what I had thought a strong wind sounded like. The local grocery store’s sign, three stories up on a pole, is visibly twisting, and I’m starting to wonder if being out here is such a good idea, but if this thing settles in and fucks us up, I don’t want to be out of beer. Priorities.

But.

My ears pop.

There’s another sound, not deep, not the blast of the klaxon from War of the Worlds, but… My mind flashes back to 2011, burning houses ripped from their foundations being swept miles inland across roads and fields and rice paddies. After the first hit, the tsunami that destroyed northeast Japan wasn’t violent, it

Just

Wouldn’t

Stop

The power of the whole Pacific Ocean brought to bear on one stretch of coast.

And the air tonight is the same, the depth of it, miles and miles to the edge of space, thousands of kilometers, passing Guam and the Marshalls and Hawaii and all the way to California and Oregon, the winds far above are scraping at the girders of the sky itself and what’s happening on the ground is just little breezes, toying with the litter on the streets, but the sound from above, like the punch in the gut of high explosives at a distance, this cannot be the mere movement of air on air, to stand in it wouldn’t be like getting hit by a truck, or a train, rather trying to force continental drift to reverse itself, subducted plates ratcheting backwards and re-emerging from their fiery graves. The sky rips its own belly open with nothing but a blade of air, spewing guts of hot rain, giant drops, drops that don’t splatter but crunch, something wrong, the liquid is sharp, in the glow of the streetlight I wipe my face and there’s blood on my hands, but it can’t be, it’s only rain, only rain. Rain, hot rain, slithering through my hair, the pain sets in, I can feel them crawling over my scalp, the raindrops, droplets that move down, and up, and in, tentacles burrowing into the skin, but never at my fingertips, never there, nor there, always just to the side, phantom stretches of scalp under attack while the blood streams down, down, thick and red it should be washed out and pink by the downpour but my shirt, save the sticky collar, is dry, like the streets are dry, like the world being blasted by the roaring winds from above is dry, dry, so dry.

I can feel droplets massing on my eyebrows. Soon, they’ll break free.

 

Continued next week in II. The Morning After

Love Bite

The first story I ever had accepted for publication, on the now-defunct Microhorror.com. I hope you enjoy it, and as always, thanks for reading.

 

Jen had soon found out that living and working downtown wasn’t the endless parade of designer shoes and smorgasbord of attractive men that the Sex and the City reruns had made it out to be. Life as a paralegal was an endless loop of long hours and high stress; her salary, after the bills had been paid, usually left just enough money for her to head to Fifth Avenue for a day of window shopping.

Her social life was limited; her love life was non-existent. Dating coworkers was dangerous, not to mention against company policy, and her limited budget and wardrobe made the idea of clubbing seem foolish. As for her, well… She’d had to make compromises. Even before she’d heard about phthalates, the idea of trying to satisfy herself with one of those awful ‘toys,’ which always somehow reminded her of giant, mutant pacifiers, had turned her stomach.

The first time she’d gone shopping at the supermarket, she’d been so sure her purpose was obvious that she’d put two kinds of lettuce, dressing, even croutons in her shopping basket before choosing a cucumber, and still ended up blushing furiously at the checkout. Once she’d realized that no one noticed or cared what she bought, she’d become the produce section’s best customer, stopping in every few days for cucumbers, carrots, even a squash once. That hadn’t gone well. You just haven’t had a man in way too long, girly, she’d said to herself, and blushed.

And so earlier today she’d found herself in a cafe, one of two dozen singles looking for love at a speed dating event. What a way to spend a Saturday afternoon, she’d thought ruefully. It hadn’t started off well, either, the room was full of people in whose eyes she could see a certain desperation, hoping that the look wasn’t mirrored in her own eyes, knowing that it probably was. The event was a string of blandly anonymous faces and strained small talk, punctuated every five minutes by the bell, and a new face. Halfway through, however, he had sat down in front of her, darkly confident, stunningly handsome, and before she knew what she was doing, she’d scrawled her cell number on the scorecard and slid it across the table to him.

“Um, miss?” It was one of the hostesses, “You aren’t supposed to provide your information directly…”

“Jen,” she’d told him, standing, oblivious to the woman’s consternation, “Call me. Soon.” It wasn’t until she got home that she realized she hadn’t even gotten his name.

His call, an hour later, had asked, no, had summoned her to dinner, and she’d found herself dressing to be undressed. Down, girl! Had it been that long? Just the sight of a nice face and the sound of a deep, masculine… Stoppit!!

At dinner, however, she’d found herself mesmerized again, with no idea what she was talking about with him, just a sensation of warmth flowing from her core every time he spoke. You, girly, are practically drooling for this guy, and you know what I mean. She never noticed the food, never seemed to see him eat but somehow, the check had arrived and been paid. In a cab together then, thighs touching, lips touching, walking up the steps to her apartment. Magically, it seemed, their clothes were on the floor, her marveling at his rigid perfection. Much better than a cucumber, she thought, and pushed him back onto the bed, straddled him, oh god it has been soo long…

She gasped when she felt his teeth graze her neck, and a chuckle rose from deep in his chest, a chuckle that rapidly changed to a high-pitched scream of terror and pain as he felt her teeth, the teeth of her ravenous nether mouth, biting down, and beginning to chew…

So much better than a cucumber.

Amy’s Lace

This is an edited and improved version of the first story I ever submitted for publication. The original was rejected, and with good reason. Rejection sucks, but it forced me to take a closer look at the story, and I think it’s a much stronger piece now. Thanks for looking.

 

Itadakimasu!

“Yeah, right. ‘I take your life,’ my ass,” I muttered to myself. Local good manners, it basically meant “Let’s eat!,” but literally the phrase gave thanks for the life that had become the meal. And the noisy group of businessmen, palms pressed together as if in prayer, were about to eat…noodles. Finishing my own ramen, I paid and headed to the station, mood sour.

Admit it, I thought, you’re just cranky because you’re lonely. I’d been in Japan for nearly a year now, and things weren’t turning out the way I’d expected. Japanese girls were supposed to be crazy for foreign guys, but I hadn’t found a girlfriend, or even a date, since leaving the States.

As I got on the train, I thought back to Amy. She’d been my first girlfriend, back when I was only fifteen. Her parents wouldn’t let her date, but one night, while they were out, she’d let me into her house. It was the first time for both of us, but despite my inexperience, she’d been pretty vocal. Nevertheless, I’d heard the car door and hurried footsteps outside and slipped out her bedroom window, her old man in the dark as to my identity. All these years later, the memory still made me smile.

It was near nine, the second rush hour, but the train, surprisingly, wasn’t very crowded. I even managed to get a seat, second to last in the car, but the empty seat beside me was soon occupied by a young Japanese woman in some sort of office uniform who gave me a shy smile and a brief bow as she sat down. Somehow she looked familiar. According to her name tag, she was E. Tanaka. I wondered what the “E” stood for. Eri?

I’d also been on a train the night I met my first college girlfriend, who had proceeded to wreck my only suit. We’d met on the “L” near Belmont when she’d plunked herself down, purple mohawk and all, into the seat directly next to mine, headphones blaring, the music pulling me into her rhythm. She’d smiled at that, then pulled me back to her apartment. Oddly enough, her name had been Amy too.

Etsuko? Didn’t look like an Etsuko. She sure smelled nice though. Alluring. I wondered what it would be like, with a Japanese girl. They were so small, you’d have to be extremely gentle. Cuddle; when I was younger, I hadn’t understood how important cuddling was to women.

I’d never cuddled with Punk Amy. The relationship hadn’t lasted long.

The next stop was a transfer point, and the carriage got a lot emptier. E. Tanaka stayed, however. From here, the line left the city, passing through mostly darkened suburbs.

Punk Amy had been a squirter. All over my suit. Ruined. She’d given me one of her bootlaces as an apology though. Strange girl.

I finally figured it out. “E” was for Emi. Had to be. She was another goddamn Amy. When she got off, a few stops later, I followed.

After Punk Amy, I’d stopped using a knife. I still had her bootlace; it was in my pocket, with a loop tied in either end, softened by time and the necks of the seven other Amys I’d dated since that night in Chicago.

Trailing behind her, not too close, I could see how tiny Japanese Amy really was. When she turned the corner, down into a darkened alley, I quickened my pace to catch up. My heart pounding with excitement, I pulled her bootlace out of my pocket and then, minding my manners, pressed my palms together briefly, as if in prayer.

Itadakimasu.”

copyright 2016 Iain Aschendale