The Clearing

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I don’t know how I came to find myself in that dreadful hollow. The events which preceded my arrival are a terrible blur, though I’m able to glimpse with my mind’s eye but a handful of moments with some clarity – Elise’s desperate wailing… The burning pyre… That… That thing. I can envision it so plainly, that undulating despicable horror that no one should ever have to look upon for even a second.
No more! I can’t bear the thought of it any longer! There I found myself, aching, splayed in the cold mud of this accursed place, beneath a sky so black it was if an illimitable pall had been cast over the firmament. Gasping, I struggled to my feet and, with trembling hand, removed my cell phone from my back pocket, hoping to avail myself of its flashlight lest I be left stumbling through the boundless dark and abandoned to the cruel whims of that thing.
An outburst of idiotic joy burst from my lips when I discovered that there was still life left in my phone’s battery. Not much, but – I hoped – enough. I activated the flashlight feature. Feverishly, I shone the light around me. Roughly twelve feet to my left was a rudimentary footpath, which I instinctively began to follow. My tread was neither measured nor straight, but rather a delirious, almost drunken stagger. I heard not a sound as I haphazardly wove about the path. Of the scenery, I could only discern what meager light my phone afforded me – the damp and ill-trod path which I followed and snatches of the overgrown vegetation which surrounded me. Mostly though, it was simply darkness. I bumbled along for what felt like nearly an hour, my glance darting all about in hopes that I would not encounter my pursuer. Occasionally, I fancied that I heard the terrible metallic screeching with which it would announce its presence. Fear welled up in my chest.
Suddenly, the disconcerting silence was punctuated by a brief yet shrill cry I instantly recognized as belonging to Elise. I couldn’t tell from which direction it came, so I continued hurrying along the footpath. I had to get to her before that thing did. Not caring whether or not I roused its attention, I called out Elise’s name. This elicited no response. My phone’s battery was nearing the end of its charge, and I agonized over the prospect of being left alone in that boundless black wilderness. Five minutes later, my fears were realized. My phone was dead.
I paused, unsure of what to do. By all accounts, I was fucked. Just fucked. Whether or not I pressed on, my demise at the hands of the thing seemed all but an inevitability. My breathing grew heavier as the anxiety mounted to a nerve rending crescendo. I nearly gave in right there. All was lost. I wasn’t coming out of this alive, or if I did somehow manage to survive, I doubted that my sanity would survive with me.
Just as I was about to collapse in defeat, I heard Elise’s horrified cries again. This time, I was able to place where they had originated. They seemed to be coming from several hundred feet in front of me, and I pushed through the darkness, calling her name repeatedly. After maybe ten minutes, I arrived at a small grove which was illuminated by a wholly unearthly glow, as neither moon nor stars punctured the screen of darkness around me. Something about the light was nauseating. In the center of the clearing was what appeared to be a crude fire pit, roughly six feet in diameter, containing piles of black ash, charred fragments of timber, and, to my horror, the charred and disfigured remains of a human being. I vomited. Directly in front of the fire pit loomed a ghoulish tree. Its gnarled branches meandered out from its contorted trunk with no apparent plan and teemed with a peculiar quivering black foliage. Upon closer inspection, I noticed that these leaves were not entirely herbaceous, and seemed to be somewhere between a plant and a fungus, and were coated in a transparent ooze.
As I studied this ghastly piece of flora, I beheld with utter terror an image carved right in the dead center of the grisly trunk. The image itself was crudely hewn, but I recognized it instantly – the vaguely simian visage, with lips curled into a hateful sneer revealing a mouth of craggy fangs, the skeletal indentation where a nose should have been, and the ludicrous bulging eyes whose lifeless stare seemed to bore straight through me. It was the thing.
I could only conjecture as to the nature of this grotesque shrine, but I assumed it had some sort of religious significance. I dared not ruminate any further. Elise was still missing and several minutes had elapsed since last I heard her anguished cries. I frantically scoured the area for any kind of path. I saw none – even the crude footpath that had led me to this place seemed to have been swallowed up by the forest. I rushed to and fro about the clearing calling for her, indifferent to whether or not I alerted that thing to my whereabouts. My calls went unanswered.
This time, I did collapse. I clawed wildly at the moist, squishy ground, gnashing my teeth and cursing the awful darkness around me. Suddenly, the earth began to tremble, and throughout the air, the appalling metallic screech of that thing resounded. It seemed to reverberate within the very walls of my skull. I clutched my ears and wailed in an attempt to drown it out. The sickening luster of the clearing grew until it nigh blinded me. I think I vomited, but I’m not certain. That’s when I saw it – towering above the tree line, was the thing. It’s bulky, writhing form was vaguely humanoid, though in composition it resembled something reptilian or amphibious perhaps, and appeared to be coated in the same viscous substance as the leaves of the tree which bore its image. Its limbs were aberrantly long, skeletal, and grossly disproportionate to its bulbous torso. Its neck extended far into the heights, a thick, fibrous, throbbing stalk which culminated immediately in that apelike visage. It released a gut-clenching shriek that seemed to rend the ochre skies asunder. I shut my eyes tighter than I had ever shut them, and flailed about the accursed ground before ultimately slipping out of consciousness.
When I awoke, I was laying in a hospital bed. I had no recollection of how I ended up there. The nurse informed me that I’d be unconscious for three days, and that when I had regained sufficient strength, the police needed to ask me some questions. I feebly asked where Elise was, but the nurse furrowed his brow and offered no other response.
After two days, I was feeling only marginally better, and I was visited on the afternoon of the second day by a detective Sneeringer. He was a middle-aged man, stocky, with beleaguered eyes and rough stubble covering the lower half of his grave face. After a cursory introduction, he informed me that I had been discovered by a group of hikers in a relatively secluded clearing just off one of the trails of a major state park, which housed a communal fire pit. The hikers had intended to make use of the aforementioned fire pit when they found me in my unconscious state.
I interrupted the detective to ask him where Elise was. He grew quiet, and his already grave expression grew darker. “Where is Elise?” I demanded again. He cleared his throat.
“Mr. Merrow…” he began, “The remains of your wife were found in the communal fire pit, burned nearly beyond recognition, though due to the efforts and ingenuity of our forensics team, we were able to make a positive identification.” I choked on a sob. The detective continued –
“An empty bottle of grain alcohol was found elsewhere in the clearing, and on your person, we found a book of matches. Obviously, you’re our only suspect in this investigation, Mr. Merrow. All that remains is to fit all the pieces together. You were also holding this….” and here the detective produced a scrap of weathered paper which had been hastily folded. With great care, he unfolded the paper and showed it to me.
“We aren’t sure what to make of this, Mr. Merrow, but I was hoping that you would be able to enlighten me. What the hell exactly is this drawing?” My vision was still a bit hazy, and I was not wearing my glasses. I moved my head closer and squinted my eyes. I swooned with seething horror when I realized what was depicted.

-r. miller

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A Certain Understated Tension

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This is a story about a girl and a boy. She’s about 24. A recent graduate of a local university with a degree in communications, she likes pop punk and indie comedies. She runs a lifestyle blog which shows some promise, but that is still gaining traction on the web. Her favorite food is chicken Tikka Masala. She has hazel eyes and cascading blonde hair, which falls in loose curls about her heart shaped face. She likes the boy, but she isn’t sure how he feels about her.
The boy is barely 20, muddling his way through his sophomore year at the same university towards a philosophy degree, which he has no ultimate plan for. He plays guitar and sings for a local hardcore band and fancies himself a poet. He has brown eyes and the beginnings of a receding hairline, which causes him great embarrassment. He likes the girl, but he isn’t sure how she feels about him.
Both boy and girl are spending the evening at a little spot off of some placid country lane. It’s edged by thick clumps of deciduous trees and overlooks a medium sized man-made lake, which serves as the focus of a state park. Locals consider it a necking spot. It’s a cool night in early October. There’s a full moon out, which casts its radiant gaze through the hazy azure of the sky. They’re leaning against the hood of his ’96 Pontiac, sharing a six pack of National Bohemian, both idly casting their own gazes at the body of water which rests below. Neither of them are saying anything.
He awkwardly inches closer to her, but not too close. He doesn’t want to give himself away. After all, he isn’t sure how she feels about him. He’s an insecure boy, and doesn’t want to cause any unnecessary awkwardness for her. Meanwhile, she’s ever so subtly moving her hand towards his where it lay on the hood of his car. She’s careful not to actually touch him, however. After all, she isn’t sure how he feels about her, and she doesn’t want to risk rejection.
He sips his beer. She sips hers. He slides a Pall Mall from its beaten pack, and, trying to conceal his slightly trembling hand, puts it between his lips and lights it. She pulls her jacket tighter around her to guard against the deepening chill in the air.
“Nice night,” he mumbles, afraid the silence is making her feel weird.
“Yeah,” she responds. She wonders if she should add anything, but isn’t quite sure what. She then asks if she can bum a cigarette.
“Sure thing,” he replies, offering her one of his Pall Malls. She places it between her lips. He lights it.
“A lady never lights her own cigarette,” he says, trying to sound suave. He realized that in fact he doesn’t sound suave, but rather corny and foolish. His gut clenches at the prospect of her seeing through his ruse. He clams up.
“Thanks,” she half-smiles. She wants to move closer to him.
“No problem,” He holds back a half-smile. He wants to move closer to her.
Suddenly, both boy and girl behold a blazing sickle of light slice across the night sky. A shooting star. She hasn’t seen one in fifteen years, she reckons. This is the first one he’s ever seen.
“Shit!” he exclaims, nearly spilling a mouthful of beer, “Make a wish!”
“Alright,” she laughs. They both shut their eyes tightly, focusing on the thing they want most at this particular moment.
I want him to kiss me, she thinks.
I want her to kiss me, he thinks. Both of them open their eyes and turn to face the other.
“So what did you wish for?” He asks, half-smiling.
“If I tell you, then it won’t come true.”
“Fair enough.”
He inches closer. She inches closer. They’re almost touching. They both feel a certain understated tension between them. He looks away. She looks away. He downs what remains of his beer. She takes a drag of her cigarette.
“Well…” he pauses, “It’s getting kinda late. I have class in the morning.”
“Yeah,” she sighs, “I have work. Should we get going then?”
“I suppose so.” Boy and girl climb into the ’96 Pontiac, him in the driver’s seat, her in the passenger’s. He turns the key in the ignition and flips through a book of CDs while she peers through the partially opened car door window. He puts Alkaline Trio in his CD player because he knows they’re her favorite band. She half smiles. He half smiles. He throws his car in reverse and backs up into the road.

-r. miller

I Want to Kiss You

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Bethany and I sat smoking in her parents’ backyard beneath a wet July half-moon. Aside from the occasional cloud passing languidly overhead, it was a clear night. Humid, though, if I remember right. Anyway, neither of us were saying much, just passing a joint back and forth, listening to the cicadas hum like engines in the trees. The weed tasted like orange peel. I was nursing a lukewarm beer and trying to think of something to say, because I felt like I had to say something. All that came to mind was “I want to kiss you.”

I couldn’t say that, though. If I did, she’d know that for the past several months, I’d been developing feelings for her. I’d ignored them at first. She’d had a boyfriend, Drew, up until two weeks ago, and to nurture any romantic attraction would have been in poor taste. I did an alright job of keeping them buried, though whenever we talked, I’d sense them stirring, like roots struggling to break through a seed.

I loved our talks. No bullshit, like with everyone else we knew. No idle gossip, no chatting about the weather or who’s been sleeping with whom, no rehashing old stories in some narcissistic effort to mythologize our lives. I remember we’d stay up all night at parties, long after everyone had left or passed out, feverishly discussing whether or not existence has any objective value in a godless universe, which Fugazi songs we thought were the best, and why John Ashbery is the greatest living American poet. She truly came alive then, during our talks. Her fierce intellect sparked behind her luscious blue eyes, cutting through me like a diamond cuts glass. And how musical her speech was, her words carried by the fluid rhythm of her thoughts. It was like a dance, both of us leading and following in our turn. I think that’s partly why she and Drew broke up, but I can’t confirm it.

Ironic that now I couldn’t think of one single thing to say to her other than “I want to kiss you.” As if someone had branded this phrase upon my mind with a hot iron. I wondered if she could tell, as if my present manner somehow betrayed this desire I was trying my damndest to conceal. Of course she couldn’t. I’m practically a virtuoso at keeping my feelings hidden from view. We were friends, after all. It would be imprudent to risk our friendship for romance.

“I should probably get to bed,” Bethany sighed, pressing the joint into the damp grass, “It’s like, 2 o’clock in the morning.”
“Yeah,” I muttered, “I have to work in six hours.”
We both rose, and I walked with her to the back door of her parents’ house, t he words “I want to kiss you” still smoldering.
“Text me tomorrow,” She said, “We can go get a drink or something.”
“Yeah… I will.” A meek smile passed over my face.
“Well…” She paused, anticipating something maybe, but unsure of what that something was, “Goodnight.” We hugged hastily. She went inside and I trudged out to the street, to my car. I opened the door and slumped into the driver’s seat.
“I want to kiss you,” I whispered to the empty space beside me, before turning the key in the ignition and driving away.

-r. miller

A Body In Motion

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On the morning of October 12th, Jeffrey Riggle stepped out into the clear day which smelled like mulled cider and dying foliage. He sucked the inviting air deeply into his nostrils and contentedly breathed it back out.

He felt alive today, though he wasn’t certain what this peculiar vim hinged on. It was simply there, and he wasn’t going to complain. The neighborhood was strangely deserted, and on a normal day, this would have saturated Jeffrey’s mind with dread and seeting paranoia, but, as he rightly observed, today was not a normal day. A tender breeze swept up fallen leaves and carried them down the empty street in gentle arabesques. Jeffrey smiled, feeling at ease with such a motherly presence.

He wasn’t quite sure where he was going. He had left his apartment guided only by his desire to be in motion, however leisurely. It was when he was in motion that he felt most at home. Motion meant that he didn’t have to focus on the drearier aspects of his life, and surely, if he were at rest, these are what would dominate his attention.

Were he to stop at this moment, stop walking and sit down on one of the benches gregariously placed along the sidewalk, he would immediately, without hesitation, begin thinking of his lousy job at the accounting firm, and how greatly it sapped his energy to perform such tedious, mind dulling drudgery.

He would begin thinking of his mounting debts and how profoundly these debts kept him from leading a fulfilling life. If he didn’t have to pay back his student loans, his car loans, his credit cards, he wouldn’t have to put such long hours in at the firm, and he’d have a little money to spend on himself and by God, some time to spend it.

He would begin thinking of his lackluster love life, how he had no one in whom to confide his deepest fears and longings, no one with whom to share this peculiar experience called life, and no one to hold close every night and be held by, thus affirming his existence as a human being.

Yes, Jeffrey did not want to be bothered by such things. Above all, at this moment, he wanted inner peace and freedom. Doesn’t everyone? So Jeffrey Riggle kept moving his feet along the deserted sidewalk, heedless of a destination. He quickened his pace and kept moving.

-r. miller

Darkness

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I awoke to the sound of screaming, coming, it seemed, from just beyond my window. I wasn’t afraid necessarily, but I was concerned that there would be somebody screaming so loudly at such an hour. Not knowing what to think, I groggily shuffled to the window. I saw nothing unusual, merely the darkness of night faintly illumined by the row of streetlights lined on the sidewalk. Nothing unusual whatsoever.

Still, I gazed out of that window for a full five minutes, contemplating the night, the mysteries of that grizzly black. I marveled at the very concept of darkness. Amazing how it transforms something like a quaint main street in a small town like mine into something sinister, how it thrusts open the castle gates of the imagination, allowing all manner of phantasms and specters and devils to storm the Keep, eager to feast on the sanity within. What a tremendous thing, darkness…

My reverie was broken by the sound of screaming. Startled, I realized that it wasn’t, in fact, coming from just beyond the window, but from within my own goddamned house. My heart surged. I crept to my nightstand, where in a locked drawer, I had stashed a 9mm handgun. A homeowner has the right to defend himself after all.

After loading the pistol and switching off the safety, I tiptoed into the hall. The screams had come from the crawlspace, I was sure of it. I slinked like a shadow down the stairs, and approached the entrance to the tiny room. I placed a damp hand on the knob, and slowly, ever so slowly, pulled the door open. The creak it made resonated through the entire house. My heart picked up speed as I flipped the light switch. What I saw shocked me.

There, amidst the dismembered corpses of my previous victims, was my latest prey, chained to the wall. She had somehow managed to loosen the gag I had so carefully (though not carefully enough, evidently) tied around her mouth.  It was apparent that her frantic wailing was an attempt to garner some attention to her plight. I shook my head, and promptly delivered a significant kick to her exposed stomach. She hollered at the impact. I retied the gag.

“Some of us are trying to get some fucking rest,” I growled as I kicked her again to drive the point home.

-r. miller

Rude Awakening

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When Trent awoke sometime after midnight and saw the jar which contained a human head, he stifled a scream and his eyes practically leaped from their sockets. Trent was certain that the jar had not been there when he had gone to bed, but then again, he had never placed much faith in his sense of certainty. The important thing now was to take this grisly trophy to the proper authorities. Or was it? Trent wrestled with his options for a solid ten minutes, and eventually concluded that it was not in his best interests to go to the police. He would inevitably have to answer questions for which he had no answers. He wasn’t prepared for that kind of hassle. With a sigh, Trent lay back down in his bed and shut his eyes, allowing the tender arms of sleep to enfold him once again.

-r. miller

Memorial Day

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“We aren’t even there yet and I’m already starting to panic.”

It’s true. My hands are trembling at the steering wheel like someone in the beginning stages of hypothermia. Amy asks me if I want to get high, concerned and caring girl that she is. I shake my head.
“No. I think I can handle it until we get there.”

The aforementioned there is a party at Max and Joy’s apartment. It’s Ashley’s birthday, and it also happens to be Memorial Day weekend. Two birds with one stone, as they say. It promises to be one of the more memorable gatherings for our group of friends, with virtually everybody that we see on a semi-regular basis planning to attend.

Large social gatherings are, as a rule, a major anxiety trigger for me. This one has me in an especially worried state. Combined with my inclinations toward introversion, this could yield disastrous results.

We arrive to find the gathering in full swing. Music straining from tiny speakers, people collected in small groups throughout the yard making small talk, sipping beers or mixed drinks, smoking cigarettes, enjoying the sunshine and the moist, warm air. Almost immediately, my throat clenches.

I know everybody here, but not to a point where I feel comfortable interacting with them for an extended length of time. Fuck, I never know what to say to anybody. Whenever I contribute to a conversation, I’m grasped by the lingering sense that everybody involved secretly thinks I’m an asshole. With enough alcohol, though, I find I no longer care. Alcohol – my in with the rest of humanity. And so, with nervous fervor, I drink one, two, three, four Angry Orchards within the first hour of being there.

I’m beginning to develop a decent buzz. I still stumble through a chat with Max’s father, who lives next door, so I start drinking faster. Max asks if anyone wants to go inside and smoke weed, and I accept the invitation with all the ardor of a grade school kid who knows the answer to a question asked by the teacher, and desperately wants to be called upon. Amy joins us, as well as some fellow whose name I don’t recall.

We pass a small bong around, as well as my personal vaporizer. We take turns sharing stories about going into work still intoxicated from the night before. I recall an instance where I drank half a bottle of Jagermeister before going in for a shift at a local book packing warehouse. As I’m telling the story, I get the suspicion that it sounded much better in my head, and the silence that follows my conclusion of the story only serves to confirm this suspicion. Now I feel as if I’ve just committed some unforgivable social faux-pas. Or worse – I feel as if I’m an intruder. I don’t speak for the remainder of the smoke session.

Outside, the groups have shifted slightly, and more people have arrived. I don’t know what to do, so I take a seat on the grass. I catch drifts of the latest gossip and news. I don’t say a word. What the hell do people normally talk about at parties and why the fuck am I not capable of this? I keep drinking in hopes of overcoming this crippling frustration. So much in fact, that by 6PM, I have to take a mid-party nap in the spare bedroom. I awake about an hour later, still drunk, but no longer stoned. Amy and I pass the vape back and forth before returning to the festivities.

It’s strange, feeling like an outsider among y our own group of friends. It’s a contradiction, one I’m still trying to get my head around. Fuck, I’ve known these people for many years, and I still feel like a pariah in their midst. I’m outside of a glass house in a swarming white blizzard, and none can see me. Inside the house are the people I’ve come to call friends, and the cold is growing all around me. I want more than anything to be inside that warm and well-lit place, to, to be out of this cold which is slowly blackening my hands with frostbite and working its way into my blood, but no matter how loud I shout, nobody hears me. No matter how hard I beat my fists against them, the walls of the glass house don’t break. Not a single one of them will ever know.

Why are you here? Can’t you see that they hate you? See how freely they all mingle with one another, and here you are alone in your own little corner being tossed scraps of interaction whenever one of them is kind enough to take pity on you. You don’t belong here. Face it – you’re an alien, a stranger, and you always will be.

So goeth the interior monologue. I’ve been trapped outside of that glass house for some time now, and there are times when I find that it’s easier to just give in and accept the cold as it breaks through my skin. The moments when I stop struggling.

Those are my happiest moments.

-r. miller