Monday, November 30, 2020

Shared Storytelling: Advent Ghosts 2020

In the short amount of time that the experts had to argue — venting their spleen in press conferences, on 24-hour cable news, and in hastily published white papers —they proposed numerous conflicting rationales for the viral spillover. Some posited a natural mutation. Others pointed the finger at insect cell-derived influenza vaccines. A vocal minority condemned lax laboratory security, and while the specific facility to blame varied from account to account, most of the criticism centered around the NIH's Rocky Mountain Laboratories. A few quickly squelched voices muttered about intentional leaks, ancient conspiracies, and one-world governments.

None of it mattered. Quick disbursement of PPE equipment on a global scale might've helped, but it would've required swift worldwide adoption by a wary populace for an indefinite period. In the end, people didn't start to scramble for N95 and nitriles until they noticed that the mosquitoes and dragonflies hadn't arrived with high summer. And then they themselves started to fall ill.

The initial symptoms proved weak when compared to other forms of viral meningitis. A low-grade fever. A throbbing head. A brittle sensation around the neck. General malaise. Sure, it had almost a 100 percent transmission rate, but deaths remained about equal with the common cold. It hardly seemed worth all the furor it elicited in the newspapers and online.

At least at first. Because when patients recovered, they didn't sponge the stale sweat from their bodies. They didn't spoon soup into their mouths. They didn't do at all. Auto-Activation Deficit the doctors called it. Irrevocable damage to the basal ganglia. And people died in their homes, at their offices, on the street, malnourished and dehydrated, fouled by their own filth, full cognizant and unable to act without external impetus.

One day, the only butterflies left were in your chest as you marched out your front door and towards your death, driven by a bone-deep hunger. You found cans of Spam and bottled water in a boarded-up Jewel Osco. You siphoned a gallon of gasoline from a Sheetz, an attendant's body frozen in a chair behind the counter, eyes tracking you.

The first flush of fever hit just outside of Kewanee. You slipped in Bluetooth earbuds and prepared to ride it out, time contracting and dilating as you shivered, sun and moon chasing each other to the horizon. When the shuddering stopped and you tried to crack the window, you found that you couldn't. You arms simply refused to obey.

A burst of static in one ear and then the other. A voice, faint and tenebrous. "Listen, if you can hear me, make your way to Chicago. I'll talk you there. Start your car."

A shiver runs through your hand, and it slowly lifts toward the ignition …

Welcome, writerly friends, to Advent Ghosts 2020, the eleventh annual shared storytelling event at ISLF. Though few today combine creepiness with Christmas, telling uncanny stories around Advent has a long and distinguished pedigree. Consider a recent article by Nerdist, which discusses how the Cambridge scholar M.R. James terrified friends with his annual ghost stories.

For more than a decade, a likeminded group of writers have kept this peculiarly British tradition going — and we'd like you to join us. All are welcome, and our only rules for participating are ...
1) Email me at ISawLightningFall [at] gmail [dot] com.
2) Pen a scary story that’s exactly 100-words long — and I do mean exactly.
3) Post the story to your blog on Saturday, December 19 and email the link to me. Hosting on ISLF is available for those without blogs or anyone who wants to write under a pseudonym. (Don't worry, you’ll maintain copyright!)
4) While you should feel free to write whatever you want to, know that I reserve the right to put a content warning on any story that I think needs it.
What to know what previous years have looked like before you start scribbling away? Read last year's stories.

Friday, October 30, 2020

"Selachimorpha"

Note: The following was written as part of ISLF friend Eric Douglas’ Halloween-themed story challenge. Please visit Books By Eric for more tales.

The sky above the pool was the color of weathered coral. A gust of wind raised gooseflesh along Samantha's shoulders. She wrapped her arms around her swimsuited middle, shivering in Wonder Woman red and blue, the flesh dimpling about her elbows as she clutched herself against the chill.

"Go on," Daddy said, not lifting his eyes from his phone. "Get in."

Mottled Diamond Brite sloped from a safe depth of three feet to a precipitous ten. In the midday gloom, the pool's nadir looked almost purple.

"What are you waiting for?" Daddy said. It wasn't a question.

Chlorine stench stung Samantha's nose and a shudder slithered up her spine as she lowered herself in inch by inch. "It's cold."

Irritation eeled over Daddy's face as he glanced up. He bent, dipped his hand in, gave a grunt of disgust. He splashed a wave at her face and rose, muttering, "No, it's not. Get going. One lap for every year. Damn Dolphins." His gaze was back on the screen.

Samantha kicked off from the wall, ducking her head in the tepid water—and immediately thrusting it back up. Last Halloween, Peter had been able to pick the family movie. In it, there were people running and screaming on a beach, a man with bushy sideburns and a beard, and a shark big as a boat. Momma had made her leave near the end, but not before Stephanie had seen a man slipping down the splintered deck of a vessel the shark had crunched into, screaming as he slid into the giant fish's toothed maw.

The color of the water that the shark had hove itself out of was the same shade of indigo as the depths of pool's deep end. It was the perfect place for a shark to hide. It was where Stephanie would've hidden were she a shark.

Daddy didn't notice, didn't say anything until Stephanie was halfway through her second lap. "Head down, Chubs. You can't swim freestyle with your head above water."

Keeping her head in wasn't so bad when she faced toward the shallow end. But as she began her third lap, she thought she saw a gray flash in the murk, the outline of a fin against the pool's indigo bottom. She lifted her head straight up, inadvertently shifting into a doggy paddle. As she gripped the pool's lip and drew her knees up to her chin, she heard Daddy's snarl.

"Did you hear what I said?! Head down."

An easy thing, keeping her face down when she didn't have to look at that aquatic murk, wondering what alien thing might rise out of it, vicious and ravening. When Samantha touched the wall for the fourth time, she noticed the lowering sky, the cloudbank dark as a water-logged grotto. But it was her last lap, and she planted with both feet, kicking off with all of her nascent might.

She almost made it through the entirety of that fifth lap—almost. An arm's length from edge, she sucked in a breath, felt the kiss of water against her brow, nose, and chin, and opened her eyes to see pearlescent rows of receding razor teeth rising toward her. Stephanie faltered, flailed, started to shriek and gagged on an inadvertent gulp of water.

A hand encircled Stephanie's arm, a hard hauling dragging her to the pool's concrete lip and lifting until her shoulders, even her navel were above the water. Daddy's face was a cartilaginous gray against the slate sky, the enameled white of his grimace glimmering in the growing semidarkness.

"Again," he said, enunciating every syllable. "You. Will. Do. It. Right."

And Stephanie went again. She flailed at the yielding water with her limbs. She let her lungs begin to burn, to ache. She willed the wall to draw closer, but she didn't dare sneak a breath, unsure of what her eyes would see, wouldn't see—unsure of where the shark now was.

Saturday, December 21, 2019

Advent Ghosts 2019: The Stories

It's not at all what the small group you pried away from the paramountcy expected. You could tell that when you pounded up and pried away the ancient manhole cover, pulled them out into open, and felt the air, how it prickled the scalp, stung the lungs.

Cold. It was cold. No bleak desert. No merciless sun. No arid, choking dust.

You lead them as best you can for someone with no sense of where to go, scrambling through the ancient city's rubble, waiting for the invisible blight of radiation to bruise your skin and make your gums bleed. It doesn't. You wait for the monsters to fall upon you, the unnaturally formed abominations with their many fangs and mutated frames. They don't. You expect for thirst to grow unbearable not long after the last water skin is empty. You find the stream, find where it carved itself clean through a boulevard, an ice-lined channel of water flowing clean and clear.

You decide to stop when you discover the tree.

It rises straight up through the floor of some multi-story ruin, its needle-covered limbs dark and glossy green. Everyone gathers beneath it, staring up through its branches and the open, long-collapsed roof and, above that, the milky swirl of stars.

A sound out in the darkness. A clattering of rubble. Dimitri pops a flare, and Mikhail hefts his pneumatic gun, sighting this way and that in the gloom. The wind whips up, bitter as a goodbye kiss.

Then you feel a small hand in yours, look down to see liquid eyes in a place face. The child asks for the oldest thing of all, the thing that began when darkness was over the face of the deep.

She asks you for a story …

• "Cabinet Meeting" by William Gregory (see below)
• "Jemima and the Fell Beast" by David Llewellyn Dodds (see below)
• "Too Late" by Becky Rui (see below)
• "Wenceslas" and "Slice of Life" by Dan Dykstra (see below)
"Knotty" by Rhonda Parrish on Rhonda Parrish
"Christmas Miracle" by Linda Casper on Third Age
"The Deal" by Craig Scott on CS fantasy reviews
"Trueheart" by Loren Eaton on I Saw Lightning Fall
"Give a Dragon a Cookie" by Lester D. Crawford on Lester D. Crawford Blog
"Christmas Truce On The Western Front" by Kel Mansfield on Write Stuff
"Untitled" by Simon Kewin on Simon Kewin: Fantasy Author, Science Fictioneer, Writer of Worlds
"The Widow's Solstice" by Yvonne Osborne on The Organic Writer: Yvonne's Writing Blog
"Slide" by Elizabeth Gaucher on Esse Diem
"Town Square on a Midnight Clear" by Joseph D'Agnese on Joseph D'Agnese
"Return Visit" by Eric Douglas on Books By Eric Douglas
"And Since We Have No Place to Go..." by John Norris on Pretty Sinister Books
"Silver Belles" by Patrick Newman on Lefty Writes
"The Men in the Red Suits" by Michael Morse on Fire EMS Blogs
"Naughty or Nice" by Dave Higgins on Dave Higgins: A Curious Mind
"Peace on Earth" by R.S. Naifeh on Advent Ghosts: Short Theological Fictions for the Dead of Winter
"Just for Christmas" by Iseult Murphy on Iseult Murphy: Horror, Fantasy & Science Fiction Author

* * *

"Cabinet Meeting"
by William Gregory

“Sir, he knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake.”

Are we talking about Shifty Schiff?

“No Sir, it’s a reference to Santa Claus, but you get our meaning?”

Santa has screwed us for years! He can’t keep delivering presents without fair tariffs. And we don’t want his undocumented elf-workers coming across our northern border bringing drugs and crime. They’re rapists! Though some elves, I assume, are good people.

“Mr. President, it’s a metaphor. Santa isn’t real.”

You’re telling me Santa is a hoax? More fake news drummed up by the Democrats?

“Um, yes Sir.”

("Cabinet Meeting" copyright 2019 by William Gregory; used by permission)

* * *

"Jemima and the Fell Beast"
by David Llewellyn Dodds

Note: See this link for the historical background of the real Jemima.

Real dangers (including a Dragon) had only appeared when Jemima the hen fluttered through the mysterious Portal -top of her Cave-Tree (what had her Giant called it, when he spoke Chicken, Out There? – ‘Kiln’?). But now (trapped by her curiosity!), a huge, clawed Beast, white as the snow, snuffled to darken the low entrance, teeth glinting…

Then, over Its shoulder, the strangest Giant, slender, fur-chinned, blood-clad, eyes glistening –

“Don’t eat Jemima” (It spoke Chicken – In Here – and knew her name!). A snort: “I stick to the sweet, you thinuous…” “Karhu!” “Alright, Father Nicholas!” Plop! – a pouch of the sweetest corn!

("Jemima and the Fell Beast" copyright 2019 by David Llewellyn Dodds; used by permission)

* * *

"Too Late"
By Becky Rui

“Be quiet!”

“Why are you always bothering me?! Can’t you see I’m busy?”

“Don’t you ever listen?”

“GO AWAY!”

The angry words bounce around inside her head. But the room around her is quiet. Still. She shifts in her chair, the creaking of her bones louder than the ancient rocker she sits on.

She glances at the pictures of her children. Wonders if they look the same, it’s been so long since she saw them.

“I love you.”

The words evaporate, sucked into the void of the empty room. Quieter than the fistful of pills that rattle in her palm.

("Too Late" copyright 2019 by Becky Rui; used by permission)

* * *

"Wenceslas"
By Dan Dykstra

The frost was cruel, the rude wind’s wild lament dashing through the dark streets. With painful steps and slow, a poor man came in sight. A child shivers in the cold.

“C-c-c-could you h-h-h-hurry, sir? I can g-g-g-go no lon-g-g-g-ger ...”

The bitter sting of tears.

“Your hands, they’re just like ice!”

“S-s-s-sir, what am I g-g-going to d-d-do?”

Forth they went together; the gloomy clouds of night echoing the clanging chimes of doom.

“You can count on me. Stay by my side.”

Down to the village.

“Enter in.” An open fire.

...

Silent.

Death’s dark shadows.

Deep and dreamless sleep.

("Wenceslas" copyright 2019 by Dan Dykstra; used by permission)

* * *

"Slice of Life"
By Dan Dykstra

6:18am. Wednesday. He swings one leg out of bed, then the other. Goes and takes a shower. Brushes teeth, deodorizes, feeds the cats, brews some tea. Lows in the 20s. Yuck. Big coat again. Makes the short drive to the office, passing all the usual bullshit billboards. Shuffles some papers around. Hey coworker. Lunch is soup at his desk. A meeting. A phone call. Repeat. Bye boss. Out the door at 5:01. Picks up frozen DiGiornio. Hey cats. Eats the whole thing by accident while Netflixing. A self-medicinal shot of whiskey. Facebook in bed. Rubs one out. 6:18am. December 26.

("Slice of Life" copyright 2019 by Dan Dykstra; used by permission)

"Trueheart"

Sir Trueheart was mad, Cecil knew. Cracked by the strain of finding the Lady's blackened body, the search outside the castle for whatever cherufe or salamander was responsible.

Before, Cecil had obeyed Trueheart's enraged commands, ignored his habitual dalliances. But now, he simply couldn't drive the dagger into his bared breast.

"Lord," he stammered, "let us again search outside."

Trueheart seized Cecil's wrist. Thrust in the blade. Jerked down.

There was no arterial gush. Rather a gout of ash, a startled hiss, a flash of flame.

"If only," Trueheart breathed, "it was outside. Cecil, I'll need that dagger once more."

Saturday, November 30, 2019

Shared Storytelling: Advent Ghosts 2019

There's one in every camp. That has to be the most frightening part.

A single madman or cracked woman can be handled, managed, even forcibly silenced in the end. After all, no one knows exactly what roams in the echoing, long-abandoned subway tunnels above, but we do know that things are hungry. A little insanity is to be expected. When you measure the last time humanity saw the surface in generations, you don't find yourself surprised when psyches start to slip. The sight of yet another toddler's legs bowed by rickets. The sooty stench of perpetually burning perimeter fires. The scrabbling, squamous sounds of something with too many limbs skittering through an access shaft. (Or is it somethings?) It's enough to shake even the strongest minds.

But these aren't twitchy crazies, the kind poisoned by paranoia, twisted by the psilocybin they sneak into and out of the grow rooms, peeled back to skin and bones as the simple act of eating becomes increasingly effortful. No, they always seem calm, rational. Until they start to speak.

Male or female, eight or 80, high-town whore or paramountcy chief, they all start talking about the same thing: the hepteract. You'd never made it past basic sums, let alone any geometry. Neither had they, truth be told. Neither has anyone. But they describe it with such vividness that you can almost see its form taking shape in your mind's eye, boggling in its complexity, seeming to glow, to shimmer, to breathe. If you listen to them long enough, they'll begin to detail the hepteract's 128 vertices. Let them finish with that, and they'll start reeling off the coordinates of its configuration matrix as they sketch them in the dust or chip them into a length of depot concrete or (if they find no other materials at hand) scratch it into their own flesh. Always the same numbers. Always the same mandala-like polytope. Always the same words muttered in between the numbers.

"The light. We must return to the light."

The same pattern, and the same end. Down here, few make it to their fifth decade even with every effort bent toward survival. When the paramountcy sends you, none of these last much longer than 15 minutes.

Still, you suppress a shudder as you prod the latest still-warm body with your boot and watch it twitch as you crank the hand pump on your pneumatic pistol. The surface, with its swathes of irradiated rubble, the merciless sun scorching those dry and waterless places. Only horror waits up there — or is it hope? And in the end, which is more terrifying?

Greetings, reader, and welcome to Advent Ghosts 2019, the tenth annual shared storytelling event at ISLF. Does combining spooky stories with Christmas sound a little odd to you? Well, it shouldn't. As Smithsonian Magazine has noted, "It’s no coincidence that the most famous ghost story is a Christmas story — or, put another way, that the most famous Christmas story is a ghost story." For the past decade or so, a group of otherwise unconnected writers has been trying to keep alive the tradition established by Charles Dickens and M.R. James. Won't you join us? All are welcome, and our only rules for participating are ...
1) Email me at ISawLightningFall [at] gmail [dot] com.
2) Pen a scary story that’s exactly 100-words long—no more, no less.
3) Post the story to your blog on Saturday, December 21 and email the link to me. Hosting on ISLF is available for those without blogs or anyone who wants to write under a pseudonym. (You’ll maintain copyright, so don't worry about that.)
4) While you should feel free to write whatever you want to, know that I reserve the right to put a content warning on any story that I think needs it.
What to know what previous years have looked like before you start scribbling away? Read last year's collection of stories.

(Picture: CC 2016 by Matt Perron)

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Advent Ghosts 2018: The Stories

Fat snowflakes falling in a shifting sheet by the window. The scent of wood smoke as the fire crackles in the hearth. The goodhearted bickering of the twins as the shake and prod the presents beneath the tree. The warm weight of your spouse's arm around your shoulder, the coolness of the wine flute in your hand, the tang of Prosecco on your tongue. The perfect Christmas Eve.

Then the lights start to go. It begins with the fire, the flames stuttering green and purple. Lost in their squabbling, the twins begin to strobe, their outlines sharpening and derezzing in irregular pulsing patterns. You whirl toward your spouse, mouth opening in a query, but your beloved's face is a blur acrawl with writhing glitches. The bedecked pine simply vanishes, its lights and ornaments dangling in the air. The aroma of burning pine swiftly cycles through the stink of spoiled tuna, nutmeg, talc powder, and leaf mold. And the whole simulation seizes and crashes.

A tumble of synesthesia as you slide out the neural spike, the taste of crash blue, the smell of vertigo, and you surface into the clammy wash of humid air. Another brown out. Outside you hear the arcology's inhabitants stir, the sound of mingled exclamations, curses, sobs. You tilt the rainwater catcher, splashing tepid liquid into a mug, and spoon in instant coffee crystals. Then you mount the stationary bike, begin to pedal. The ham radio's lights begin to flicker, the attached generator converting the pumping of your legs into voltage.

And from its speaker the stories begin to pour ...
"The Tramp" by James D. Witmer on James D. Witmer
"Dust" by Dale Nelson (see below)
• "Robert Herrick's Inspiration for His 'Ceremony upon Candlemas Eve'" by David Llewellyn Dodds (see below)
• "Trust" by Becky Rui (see below)
• "L’hadlik Ner" by William Gregory (see below)
"Homecoming" and "Naughty or Nice?"by Patrick Newman on Lefty Writes
"And the Dog Smiled" by Rhonda Parrish on Rhonda Parrish
"Huldufólk" by Loren Eaton on I Saw Lightning Fall
"Bring Me Flesh & Bring Me Wine" by John Norris on Pretty Sinister Books
"Rattle" by Elizabeth Damewood Gaucher on Esse Diem
"The Choirboy" by Kel Mansfield on Kel Mansfield: Write Stuff
"Schroedinger’s Gift" by Paul Liadis on The Struggling Writer
"The Little Toy Soldier" by R.S. Naifeh on Advent Ghosts: Short Theological Fictions for the Dead of Winter
"The Gift" by Linda Casper on Third Age
"Roasting Over an Open Fire" and "Costume?" by Eric Douglas on Books by Eric Douglas
"Protected Speech" by David Higgins on Davetopia: Fragments of a Curious Mind
"Again" by Ken B. on KenBLogic
"Karma" by Lester D. Crawford on Lester D. Crawford Blog
"The Last Christmas" by Michael Morse on Rescuing Providence
"Redcaps" by Ken Leonard on Ken Leonard: Homepage of the Writer
* * *

"Dust"
By Dale Nelson

“Mommy, come see what the funny old lady wrote.”

“Where, Katie?”

“Here in the dust on the windowsill.”

“Can’t right now. What’s it say?”

“….Never mind – the wind is blowing it away.”

Katie was nine. Her mother worked from home.

Each day, Katie found a new message, such as:

“What’s your name?”

(Katie secretly wrote it.)

She never saw the old lady writing, but she saw her peeking and smiling behind the lace curtains across the way.

“Are you happy?”

(No.)

“Come to my house when everyone’s asleep.”

(OK.)

Katie entered the uninhabited house and she’s been gone ever since.

Note: Dale Nelson is the author of Lady Stanhope’s Manuscript and Other Stories, chosen as John J. Miller’s favorite new book of the year in the Claremont Review of Books, Dec. 2018.

("Dust" copyright 2018 by Dale Nelson; used by permission)

* * *

"Robert Herrick's Inspiration for His 'Ceremony upon Candlemas Eve'"
By David Llewellyn Dodds

All day Their gathering grew, glee and malice mounting — unseen, yet sensed — distracting pressure told: Prew broke a bowl and best cream fed only cats, Tom laid the fire amiss, with bounding ember intercepted just in time.

What a vain, shallow priest! — They squirmed, exulting.

‘Master, I’m afeared.’ ‘Prew, a Holly-sprig’s lurking, there. Tom, start hanging the Box.’ He thought of the morrow ‘…a swift witness against the sorcerers…’, softly prayed the evening collect ‘…from all perils and dangers of this night…’. Terrific blaze of light invisible – and headlong scurry to tangled underwood. He toyed with verse ‘So many Goblins…’

("Robert Herrick's Inspiration for His 'Ceremony upon Candlemas Eve'" copyright 2018 by David Llewellyn Dodds; used by permission)

* * *

"Trust"
By Becky Rui

The shower turned on. This was her chance. Reaching for his phone on the nightstand, she tapped out the passcode she’d spied in a reflection.

Privacy, late-night meetings, work, these were his reasons—excuses—for the distance between them.

His text menu was empty. Odd. Guilty.

She thumbed open his photos, found an album labeled “B.”

Probably for bimbo.

She expected provocative selfies, braced for them. What she saw was much worse.

Anger disappeared as shock cut through her. Fear made her hands tremble.

She didn’t hear him until he stood behind her. And then she heard nothing at all.

("Trust" copyright 2018 by Becky Rui; used by permission)

* * *

"L’hadlik Ner"

by William Gregory

I love the flickering glow. The way light and shadow dance across the room.

The urge to hold my fingers in the flame until the heat becomes unbearable. Singed, but never charred like the lizard mom found in my room.

Or the fourteen lizards, curled up like crispy strips of bacon in the basement.

Dr. Warren said adolescent boys are curious. Experimental. But this was unusual.

Asshole! Mom took away my matches and Swiss Army knife.

Whatever… I’ve still got my lighter (and razor blades).

“David, honey, come downstairs. It’s time to light the menorah.”

“Okay mom, be right there…”

("L’hadlik Ner" copyright 2018 by William Gregory; used by permission)

"Huldufólk"

Tanya tawny hair. "So they're, like, elves?"

"Yeah," Steve smirked. Even his jaw seemed to have muscles.

Titus cleared his throat. "They really only share the name."

"Pointy ears and pretty robes and all that?" Tawny asked.

Steve shrugged. "I guess so."

"No," Titus said. "They live in Iceland. In rocks. They're just ordinary people."

"Kid me wanted ears like that," Tawny said.

"Yeah?" Steve said.

"But they're invisible," Titus said, "Utterly invisible."

"So let's catch a movie," Steve said.

Tawny rested a hand on his arm. "Let's."

"Guys?" Titus said. But the air itself seemed to swallow his words.