Obedience to Authority

We’ve all, in some degree, been making decision lately about how low we bow to COVID-19 and the officially proclaimed responses to it. I, for example, have been going to work, as I’m essential (somehow), and can gad about freely in my off-time under local regs, as long as I’m not doing it with more than nine other people.

I have been sticking to the spirit of the rules and limiting my outings to “Gotta get some groceries.” My wife has asthma, after all, and we don’t really know what the long-term effects of SARS-CoV-2 are other than “probably not good.”

With that as context, I saw this wonderful image on a Folk Horror group on Facebook:

At Wiremill Dam, in the rural outskirts of Sheffield, Yorkshire, England.

“This sign has always freaked me out a little bit!” said the person sharing the image. In the right setting, and to the right set of mind, I completely understand that. It took about fifteen seconds for the basic story of “Self-Policing” to flash into my mind, and since I owe this site a story, I huffed my warm authorial air upon it until it had kindled into a proper item of flash fiction.

Extra BONUS Seasonal Joy

Still not a story announcement, although I am gestating something that may emerge from my brow tomorrow.

…although now that I reflect upon it, this is a story announcement, in that a story I wrote is openly available on the internet. It’s just not here.

So where, then? It’s in the current issue of Polar Borealis. For those who want to know what they’re getting into, it’s a quite short work which is like Steampunk, but instead of focusing on engineering marvels, the point of historical divergence is funeral practices.

Doesn’t that sound like fun?

Inktober 2019 – Ripe

Two days ago, it had just been a little itch. Blake had looked at the red spot on his left arm, declared it a spider bite and done his best to ignore it.

Yesterday morning, the itch was still there, but it was like the same amount of itch had been spread over his whole forearm, from wrist to elbow. It was hardly noticeable. If that same span of arm hadn’t been a sunburnt red, he could have ignored it. The colour, unlike the itch, had gotten deeper as it spread.

Yesterday afternoon, Simmonds, the line foreman, had come to him. Blake knew he’d attracted the man’s attention when he dropped the wrench, and he cursed. He’d been having trouble keeping up with the line, his left hand getting fumble-fingered as the itch became a tingle and ran out to the ends of his finger-tips, and he expected now to get a chewing out for slowing up production.

What he got was the spectacle of Simmonds stopping in his tracks, his eyes going wide. “The fuck you do with your arm, Blake?”

“Dunno.” This was true.

“You gotta get a doctor to look at that, man. That ain’t right.” Blake had a good look at his arm then, something he hadn’t really done since lunch. He saw Simmonds’s point. The redness was running toward purple, and the arm was definitely puffy, like part of an inflatable Popeye costume.

He nodded, and didn’t argue when Simmonds told him he was using some of his sick-time. “Go to your damn doctor,” the foreman had said, walking him to the locker room. Blake knew he was probably right, but he also knew that Simmonds was well aware of the complete bullshit that the company called “health coverage.” Instead of a doctor’s office, Blake went home. After a couple of hours spent with a succession of cool washcloths laid on the worrying appendage, he convinced himself that the swelling was going down, and that the tingle had disappeared entirely.

At three that morning, he woke up in the act of trying to turn onto his side. He couldn’t, and after a moment of sleepily wondering how a beachball had gotten into the bed, he screamed and scrabbled for the light.

His left forearm was three times the size of the right, and from the elbow down it was the colour of a plum. His hand had puffed as well, looking like a rubber glove someone had blown into, fingers splayed. He wept a little when he saw his fingers moving as he wanted them to, because he could not feel them at all. The swollen parts were not just numb, they were absent.

He pulled on his sweatpants one-handed, and after stuffing his feet into shoes he drove himself to the emergency room. He had to roll the car window down and let the puffed arm stick out, because otherwise he couldn’t see around it.

He was weeping again as he walked into the ER. Panic was chewing at him, as was awareness that he had left all his insurance papers behind, but also, there was pain at last. The jostling of running the first few steps had done something to his elbow, and he had slowed, cradling his huge arm as well as he could with other.

Part of him, an observing element that soared above the panic, commented on the strange weight of the arm. Ballooned up like that, there was an expectation of lightness, but it was not light. Nor was is as heavy as something so full of meat or water should be.

The nurse at the triage desk looked up when the doors opened. There was a moment before she registered any more than the fact of someone arriving, then she leapt up, her expression almost exactly the wide-eyed amazement worn by Simmonds the day before. She rushed to meet Blake, and reached to help support his bulging arm.

Blake wondered, as the moment spun out, if she had been too gentle, or if the nitrile gloves had somehow been too slick, or if he had let go too soon. The pain in his elbow, never more than a dull ache, merely loud because there was no other sensation around it, reached a mild crescendo. It was the noise of the skin parting that made him shout when his engorged arm fell away.

He watched it drop, shying back from it as it went, and when it landed it seemed to balance for a moment on the splayed purple hand before slowly tipping over. A few drops of something far darker than blood fell from beside the bright knob of bone sticking out the end as it rolled to and fro, trying to find a place to settle in its asymmetry. It was the sight of that bone, the realization that it was his, that started him shouting, “No! No! No!” in a chant that soon became inarticulate howls.

Later, in a bed, his stump wrapped, Blake rode on the sedatives that had helped him stop screaming. It was all very far away and seemed to have happened to someone else, a sensation he was pleased with and hoped would persist. He hardly realized he was doing anything when he reached with his right hand to scratch his right leg, just above the knee. Just a little itch.

“Inktober 2019 – Ripe” ©2019 Dirck de Lint.

Inktober 2019 – Catch

It had been built up as one of the most dangerous jobs in the world, thanks to that damn TV show. Ray gripped a stanchion as the boat rode up another swell, watching the pile of recovered traps shifting nervously in their stowage, and nodded. It sure wasn’t easy.

The seas were calmer than they had been when the traps were being set. That had been… unpleasant. Ray smiled. You can get used to a lot, and he was used to walking around on what most people would think was a nightmare roller-coaster. Fair enough. His throat closed up at the thought of spending all his days in an office job, doing whatever the hell people did there day after endless day until they got fired a week before the pension. Different strokes, and that was fine with Ray.

The winch was lugging a little as the last of the traps came up. Ray glanced at the machine, saw that Sonny was right there, keeping an eye on it, no sign of worry on his craggy old face. That meant the winch wasn’t about to let go, it was just struggling to bring up the trap. Good news for the crew, delivered in an unknown language of chugs and screeches. It wasn’t as if this trip hadn’t already put a lot of crab in the hold, but one more trap stuffed with the things was a fine bonus.

“Here she comes,” said Jake, closest to the rail, and Ray moved a little closer to his station. Sonny would mind his business, and Ray had to pay attention to his own.

The winch gave one last grunt. The burden which had given it so much labour was atop the trap rather than in it, a thing shaped for life in the abyssal depths, all spikes and teeth. A single obsidian eye set high on its vast head swept across the men on deck, before a multitude of chitinous arms lashed out.

Ray dropped to the deck, felt his coat go the shreds as one arm passed over him. He saw Jake caught by two of them, snatching him into the air before he could start screaming. Sonny threw up his own arm to protect his face as he tried to shelter behind the winch controls, and howled when that limb was wrenched away.

A moment later, the rigging of the crane groaned as the thing rolled off the trap, the splash a sudden punctuation to Jake’s cries. As Ray crawled along the deck, desperate to keep below the side of the boat, the only sound was Sonny’s sobbing. Whatever it had been, that segmented awfulness that crouched on their fishing tackle, it had snatched up its victims and vanished into mystery.

“Inktober 2019 – Catch” ©2019 Dirck de Lint.

Inktober 2019 – Injured

When Dave saw the wound, his first question was the obvious one. “When was she outside the compound?”

Mike and Dorinda looked at each other. It was Dorinda that answered. “She wasn’t. Hasn’t been since she got here.”

Dave nodded. Jean had arrived at the gates alone, in such a blank-eyed state of despair that the guards had almost thought she was one of the lurching dead.  It had taken weeks to get her back into the society of people. She wasn’t the only one who had been a mess when they arrived, and some of the others had gone out on patrol avidly, enacting a kind of vengeance in the course of keeping the space around the community clear of the shambling menace, but Jean had hid in a closet for a day when the idea was suggested.

“She was okay when she left us last night,” Mike offered. “I finally had the makings for a nice quiche, and we asked her to join us.”

“Well, damn it, this is a problem. We can’t have a lurcher in here with us.” Dave crouched close to the bed, and spoke quietly into Jean’s ear.  “Jean, this is important. How’d that happen?”

She stirred, weakly. Her eyes turned toward Dave, and she smiled. “It was so beautiful. My Johnny. My Johnny.”

“That’s as much as we can get out of her,” Dorinda said. She gestured to Dave that he should follow, then walked out of the bedroom. He looked at the sledgehammer Mike held, nodded to the man, then went out to the living room.

“Dave, we’ve seen a lot of attacks since this whole thing began.” Dorinda spoke low, as if worried about being overheard. When Dave nodded, she went on. “Have you ever seen a bite like that? Because I haven’t?”

Dave wasn’t following her, and it showed on his face. “When one of those zombies bites you, it always takes a big chunk, right?” He nodded agreement. “And anyone with just one bite, it’s always on an arm or leg, and they were able to pull free. Right?”

“Yeah. I get it.” Dave kept his own voice down. “If one of them got in here, bit her on the neck, it would have kept going.”

“Yeah.” Dorinda’s voices dropped again. “And the bites never look like that. They’re always all gross, all full of pus and poison.”

Dave glanced toward the bedroom, as if he could see the bite from where he was. Memory, only minutes old, was clear enough. Jean’s neck showed the football-outline of a human bite, the skin only just broken, the skin underneath slightly livid but not the mess of corruption that even so slight a penetration by a zombie would leave. He squinted as a connection formed.

“Dor, did that look like a hickey to you?”

At first, she recoiled, a slight sneer suggesting offence, then she saw the earnestness on his face. He wasn’t kidding, and because he was serious she took the suggestion seriously. Her expression shifted to confusion as she said, “Yeah… it does.”

“Well, damn it,” Dave said, after a long digesting pause. “I wish Father Montalban was still with us.”

“Seriously?”

“Look, when the first dead started showing up, no one treated it seriously until it was too late. Now the world is full of them.” As he spoke, he showed a bleak smile. “With the world the way it is now, Ockham’s Razor might as well be ‘the worst thing is true even if it’s impossible’ so if zombies, then why not a vampire?” He sighed, as one with far too much on the plate already. “Let’s try rounding up some garlic, and we’ll see if anyone thinks they know how to bless some crosses.”

“Inktober 2019 – Injured” ©2019 Dirck de Lint.

Inktober 2019 – Ride

The irony here is that I got this bike to get into shape. About a month ago, I took the stairs at work instead of the elevator, and stood huffing like an old man after going from twelve to fourteen. Ridiculous at my age. So, the bike, and a resolve to get my wind back before the football season got properly started.

Well, I’m wheezing again. I sure wish I could stop. I wish I was more of a bastard. I could have headed toward that playground instead of away from it. Then maybe it would have started chasing someone else.

Jesus, doesn’t this dog ever get tired? That’s like, ten blocks now, both of us flat out. He’s showing no signs of slowing down. I guess rabies doesn’t affect endurance.

Light ahead. Please don’t change. Please don’t change.

Shit.

OK, dog. Chances are that one of us is going to get hit by a car in about ten seconds. No hard feelings, but I sort of hope it’s you.

“Inktober 2019 – Ride” ©2019 Dirck de Lint.

Inktober 2019 – Coat

Liz tapped Jason on the shoulder, then pointed. “I’ll bet you never thought you’d actually see that in real life.”

Jason barked laughter and stumbled back against the popcorn machine. Holding a hand over his mouth, he reeled back to Liz’s side. The object of their mirth was standing awkwardly in front of one of the automated ticket kiosks.

“Holy crap,” Jason said, getting his breath back. “No, I really thought a couple of kids wearing dad’s coat was a cartoons-only thing.”

“I almost want to let them through,” Liz said. “They’re doing really good.”

The apparition finished getting a ticket. It backed from the kiosk, turned slowly in place with the sort of exaggerated care no man doing the maneuver would apply unless drunk, then began an approach to the checkpoint that separated the snack foyer from the theatre entrances.

“Be kind to them,” Jason said as Liz headed for her post. She only glanced sideways at the trundling figure, not wanting to stare. In the comics, there were always three kids in the coat, but this affair was not much taller than she was. Two kids, then, and so obviously not one person. The hand holding the ticket had vanished as the end of the coat-sleeve dropped far past it. The shoulders were too narrow. The chest and back were… just wrong, the sort of thing that would have made Liz queasy if she hadn’t realized what she was looking at.

She was, though, honestly impressed. The long coat was, on the current occupants, about ankle length, and yet apart from the short, mincing strides there was no sense of that the fabric was a tripping hazard. The kid on the bottom had to be strong, too, because there was no wobbling from the burden of carrying his partner in the act. Or her partner, Liz thought. Could be either.

There was also no heavy breathing to be heard as they finished their approach. The ticket-concealing sleeve came up, shaking a little to free the gloved hand within. The broad-brimmed hat, pulled so low that Liz could only see a walrus moustache and smooth pink chin, bobbed with a nod of greeting. Liz took the ticket.

One adult admission for screen Eight. The Bludgeoners. If it had been the frat-boy comedy in screen Five, Liz would have let them through, but something that even the kind critics were calling “a repulsive gore-fest, appealing only to fans of practical effects of the most disgusting sort” wasn’t something she was going to wave kids into.

“You’re over eighteen?” she said, looking them right in the hat brim.

The brim bobbed again.

“I’m going to have to see your ID, sir.”

There was a moment of silence. Liz looked behind her current customers, saw a family that had already reached Jason, who was pumping yellow onto popcorn, and sighed. She couldn’t play with them much longer.

“I… not English do.” Liz wanted to applaud. The upper kid wasn’t trying to lower his register, but had chosen to be raspy. They had made such a good effort; if only they had chosen the film more wisely.

“Sorry, kids. The game’s over.” Liz reached for the hat. The hand which had offered the ticket tried to intercept hers, but became entangled with the outsized sleeve. She pulled the hat away, ending the imperfect illusion.

It was not two of them, and it was not kids. There were lots of them, little dark shapes that poured out of the coat, leaving it to wither to the floor. They swarmed for the exit, each moving too fast to give the witnesses an impression of anything more than far too many legs. Over the screams of Liz, Jason and every member of the family at the popcorn counter came the sound of hard little bodies ticking against the glass doors until they had heaped up enough to reach the handle, draw it open just a crack, and pour out into the night.

“Inktober 2019 – Coat” ©2019 Dirck de Lint.

Inktober 2019 – Dark

I had only gone into the kitchen for two minutes, to get us both something to drink. Milk for him, orange juice for me. He was watching one of the age-appropriate shows which my wife and I could just tolerate, all earnest dialogue and songs with scansion that set adult teeth on edge. When I came back, the TV was making its noise into an empty room.

I did not panic, because there was nothing to panic about. He did not wander out the front door. That would be worth panicking about, because when my wife had left after supper, stepping out into the blowing ugliness of a January night, I had stood at the door and felt the cold lashing through my socks and through my shirt. But I had also thrown the deadbolt as I watched her walking to her car. Our son was a precocious two-year-old, but he had neither the reach nor the hand strength to undo the lock.

I checked anyway, after setting down our drinks. Part of not panicking is being methodical. It was still firmly closed, the deadbolt as it should be.

I did not worry about him pitching down the basement stairs, because I had been in front of them while getting the drinks. This limited his options to the bedrooms at the back of the house, and the bathroom.

He was not in the bathroom, I could tell at a glance as I passed along the hall. It was brilliantly lit, because I left the light on in the evening, and with the shower curtain pulled back there was nowhere to hide. I felt a small tremor which I would not let develop into panic, because the two bedrooms, his and ours, were open but unlit. He couldn’t really reach light switches, either.

I could, and I threw the one in his room as I stuck my head in. I had glanced into our room, saw the foot of the bed looming in the back-scatter from the bathroom and nothing else, but now that the light in his room revealed he was not there, I turned. The tremor was becoming insistent, to the point that I missed the switch in my own room.

It was unnecessary. With his room lit up, right across the hall, the dimness of the adults’ bedroom was somewhat relieved. Now that I was in it, I could make out the bed, the book-shelves to either side of it, and the smiling face of my son. He stood on my side of the bed, as far from the door as possible, grinning.

“Hey, Sam,” I said, the depressurization of relief sweeping away that tremor which had not quite been panic.

“Hi, Daddy.” As he spoke, I realized he was not looking at me, but at the closet door next to me. He was a smiley kid, a charmer commented on constantly by strangers, and he was at it now, looking as happy as clam as he stood in the darkness of the bedroom. I turned my head to look at the closet. The door was open all the way, its usual state. Beside it, I could see some indistinct items of clothing, my wife’s or mine, poking out, but not really into the closet.

“What’cha doin’?” I asked. He kept looking at the closet for a few seconds, then began giggling. Then, with the sort of lack of warning we had come to expect from him, he ran, still laughing in his delightful liquid way. He ran to the end of the bed, past the closet, past me, and into the living room.

I stayed where I was, wishing my heart wasn’t feeling so tight. I kept my eye on the closet as I reached, with deliberate care, for the light switch.

All was as it ought to be. The lad had slightly disarrayed the bed clothes in his passage, the closet was its usual jumble, and there was less order in the books on my side of the bed than on my wife’s. Perfectly normal. I went back to the living room myself.

I forgot to turn off the light. My wife commented on it when she got home.

That was six years ago now. I only remember it occasionally, as now, when I wake up in the small hours of a winter night, and the lights of the city bounce from snow-fat clouds to provide just enough light to let me see the familiar terrain of the room.

But only dimly. Six years, and I’ve yet to understand what was so funny.

“Inktober 2019 – Dark” ©2019 Dirck de Lint.

Inktober 2019 – Tasty

Essex Shipping News, 7 August 1893:

Lost in high seas: “Demeter” Russian flag sloop, last sailed from Varna, Bulgaria. Was observed by HMS “Trent” to be running without lights, rigging in poor order; gave no response to signals. “Demeter” broached to when cross-sea developed as “Trent” moved to offer assistance. Sank quickly, no sign of survivors. No debris of any consequence.

“I had a dream, Doctor.” The patient looks at me through the bars, the mild expression I had been used to returned, after days of rage. “It upset me greatly.”

I asked him to elaborate.

“I dreamed that I was servant to a great man,” he told me. “Not a good one, oh, no. But a powerful member of nobility. He promised to reward me, if I served him faithfully.”

I suggested to him that this did not seem upsetting. He tutted at me, in an interesting inversion of our relationship, then explained.

“Oh, Doctor, the services he required, and the awful inducements! I could not name them to you, for fear that you would think me irredeemable.” At this point, he looked about his cell, apparently quite sensible of the meaning of his surrounding. “A patient may hope to be cured one day, I should think.”

Knowing this ‘dream’ of his to be the recent period of mania, I asked him if he knew what brought on the state. He shrugged.

“I sleep, as all men must. Are not all men susceptible to dreams as they sleep?”

I then asked how the dream came to end.

“Oh, it was quite terrible, Doctor. The Master sat in a sumptuous bed, explaining his…” The patient gave a furtive glance around the cell, as if not certain we were alone. “His designs. His desires for my service.” He looked straight at me, then asked with great earnestness, “Your fiancée is quite well, I hope?”

I was somewhat taken aback. I do not discuss my personal life with the patients, of course, but he must have learned of my engagement from one of the attendants. I merely nodded as a response.

“I am so glad.” He nodded, apparently very relieved, then returned to his previous thought. “While the Master spoke, there was a sudden roar outside, and then he was tumbled from the bed, as if his apartments had been upended.” He smiled, and I could not decide if it was a quite wholesome expression. “I thought I saw a fish fly through the room, even as darkness filled it. The Master was silenced, and I awoke.”

I congratulated him on escaping from the unpleasant ‘dream’ but I was not entirely satisfied. I asked him about the request he had made the day previous, and he looked very blankly at me.

“A kitten? Oh, no. Oh, no.” He shuddered, without any appearance of putting on. “You are mistaking me for one of the other patients, Dr. Seward, my salvation depends upon it. I am a humble man, and I keep to my humble appetites.”

At this, he wet the end of his finger, dabbed up several ants from the line which runs perpetually from his window to the little pile of bait he restores out of his daily meals, then licked them up with every evidence of enjoyment. He dabbed up a few more, and extended the finger to me so I could see the creatures wriggling there. “Are you sure I cannot tempt you, Doctor? They’re ever so nutritious!”

What am I to make of my own hesitation before declining his offer?

“Inktober 2019 – Tasty” ©2019 Dirck de Lint.

Inktober 2019 – Dizzy

People pay to get this sensation. The fairground rides are mostly designed to give it to you. And here I am, getting it for free as part of the job.

There are limits, of course. Run the Tilt-A-Whirl too fast, leave the Zipper going too long, and all the kids would be begging for it to stop between spewing corn dogs. I’m sort of at that point, myself.

I could stop. I am an adult, I have it in my hands, almost literally, to get off the ride whenever I want. It’s my choice.

But I’m going to stay with it a little longer, not because this is fun, but because I’m not exactly sure what’s under me. They always say look before you leap, and the world outside is whirling around too fast to get a good look at.

I’d prefer to correct the spin instead of yanking on the ejector handle, leaving twenty tons of fighter jet to settle into the roof of a school.

“Inktober 2019 – Dizzy” ©2019 Dirck de Lint.