Saturday, December 18, 2021

Advent Ghosts 2021: The Stories

Note: This post will be updated early and often throughout the day. Check back regularly for more stories! Additionally, you can find an intro of sorts to this text here if you’d like.

There was no possibility of taking a walk that day, Lady Penelope Hill knew. She had wandered in the leafless shrubbery an hour in the morning, but since dinner, the cold winter wind had brought with it clouds and a penetrating rain. And anyway, Lady Hill thought, who would want to stroll the estate this time of year alone? For though her maid technically remained in the manor, she knew that she truly was, for all intents and purposes, alone.

The realization had settled on her as slowly as the dusting of snow shifting down out of the slate-gray sky. Her letters to her mother, her sisters, her friends had all failed to draw replies by post. Indeed, she could not recall when the postman had last visited. Just yesterday, she had roamed the great hall, calling aloud for the butler, expecting his hunched, turtle shape to materialize from one of the gloomy passageways. Instead, her voice had drawn her maid. “He has left, my lady,” was all that Penelope had gotten out of her.

Perched tipsily at the head of the dining room table, Penelope lifted a third glass of wine to her lips, musing that I seem to be acquiring all of Billy’s trices. Spices. She hiccupped. Bad habits. But as the claret burned in her stomach, she realized that wasn’t precisely true. And so she found herself swaying before the bookcase in Billy’s study, her finger stroking one book’s spine after another, each in turn.

I suppose it’s preferable that he always wanted to touch these rather than me, she thought a tad drunkenly. Easier now without children. She let her fingers fold around a volume. Draw it down and open it. Let her eyes traipse over the archaic Latin. Let her lips form the strange syllables.

A crash jerked her upright, yanked her eyes to the doorway where her maid stood, a constellation of broken crockery at her feet. “Oh no, my Lady,” the girl moaned, “you mustn’t, no, you don’t under —”

The world shivered. Writhed. Tore.

Lady Penelope Hill blinked and shook her head against the ringing in her ears, the only thing she could hear besides the maid’s frantic mantra of “O Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Every candle in the room flickered and died.

They died, but not before she saw squamous skin and a mouth like a hole and magnesium-white eyes. Then, through the darkness, hands — too many hands — seized her arms, shoulders, throat.

The voice in her ear was wind-stirred ashes in a dead hearth. L̲͉̏ͨet ̏͆̾n͍͌ot̼̥̅̊hͮḭnğ ͨbuṯ̰͇ͥ̊̃ ̥̪b͓͉̰rë́ͅath ̹̺̪p̫̘̣ͫͫ͛aͪs̤̬͕͒ͮ̍s̥͑ ̇y͙̮ͫͣo̘̘͓ů̫͕͐r ͍̃ḹ̘̾ĭ͖͙̩͌̏p̽̓ͭs͚̾,̩̻́ͧ fo̤͒r͍̥ͧ̓ hë̖̫̀ is al͆r̘̋eaͮdy̜̔ ͌h́̑ͫe̼͚ȑ̯̞̟̌̚e̞͈̥ ̻̞ḁ̚n̎d͓͇̺̑ͧ̌ ͉̼̀̐h̲̣ͧ̌e ̮̘͇̄ͨͣis̮̝ͥ̆ ̳̒l̙is̖̍t̟̪e̮͑ň̪̖̩ͦ̇ing͈̫ͮ̐.̏̈

I do believe, some small, still-sane part of Lady Penelope’s mind thought, that it is trembling.

The voice was dead autumn leaves rasping together. I͂ mͫͫ̈́u̯͍ͬ̓s̲̅t̟͔̒̏ t̗ͮell͉̼̼ͮ̈́ͩ ̝̗̋̄ẙ͂̒o͖̽u̩͕ͩ̚ ̭͈͎a ͖̣ṣ͍̂̽to͙͍̙͆ͯͫr̫̪y̯ͪ ̯͓..͚.

"Grail" by R.S. Naifeh on Advent Ghosts: Short Theological Fictions for the Dead of Winter
"The Plantation" by James D. Witmer on James D. Witmer
• "Frosty the Disappointment" by Geoffrey Miller (see below)
• "Jetzt bringt Nik’laus was für mich" by David Llewellyn Dodds (see below)
"Shortcut" by Simon Kewin on Simon Kewin: Fantasy Author, Science Fictioneer, Writer of Worlds
• "World of Spirits" by Dale Nelson (see below)
• "His Wings" by Becky Rui (see below)
"Sozman Borkstapple’s Ghostly Adventure" by Brian Sexton on AN ROINN ULTRA: Brian Sexton's Stories From Outer Space
"The Yule Cat's Fury" by Paula Benson on Little Sources of Joy
"The Cracker" by Craig Scott on CS fantasy reviews
"The Dreaded Trip" by Phil Wade on Brandywine Books
"I'll Be Home for Christmas" by Rhonda Parrish on Rhonda Parrish: Author, Editor and Hydra-tamer
"Evergreen Altar, Coal Fire White" by Loren Eaton on I Saw Lightning Fall
"The Long Tail" by Ben Mann on Ben Mann
"Life" by Paul Liadis on Cyborg Menagerie
"Despair and Anguish" by Lester D. Crawford on Lester D. Crawford Blog
"The Season of Giving" by Linda Casper on Third Age Blogger
"Dirty Hands" by Dave Higgins on Dave Higgins: A Curious Mind
"Flying With the Angels by Kel Mansfield on Kel Mansfield: Write Stuff
"Presence" by Elizabeth Gaucher on Esse Diem
"Split" by Leanne Stowers on Leanne Stowers
• "Cookies for Santa" and "CONFIDENTIAL: Gates Foundation Project" by William Gregory (see below)
"Tired Eyes" by Michael Morse on by Michael Morse
"The Ghosts of Christmas" by Iseult Murphy on Iseult Murphy: Horror, Fantasy & Science Fiction Author
• "Out of the depths, it calls to me" by B. Nagel (see below)
"Who Comes This Night, This Wintry Night?" by John Norris on Pretty Sinister Books
"Untitled" by Ollwen Jones on GitHub Gist

* * *

"Frosty the Disappointment"
By Geoffrey Miller

Frosty was nearly perfect! Just like in the song, the snowman had a corn cob pipe, a button nose, and two eyes made of coal.

But despite Joanna's efforts, he would not dance. Not even Mr. Thompson's top hat did the trick. She wondered if Frosty looked too human. She packed on more snow. Better! But why wasn't the magic working yet? His arms were twiggy enough. That wasn't the problem.

Suddenly, Frosty sighed with life!

A smile lit Joanna's face but soon faded. Blood dribbled from the corn cob pipe. Frosty still wasn't living; Mr. Thompson was just dying.

("Frosty the Disappointment" copyright 2021 by Geoffrey Miller; used by permission)

* * *

"Jetzt bringt Nik’laus was für mich"
By David Llewellyn Dodds

Worse than corpses, what stench from No Man’s Land? Krampus loose! That claw stabbing his shoulder. Fangs nearing neck... Snapped away on shortened chain – by St. Nicholas, smiling gravely. Rudolf leapt awake, told me his dream. I lost track of him as we advanced... realized the Tommys had retreated!... charged after through trenches full of abandoned... everything! Rudolf outpaced me, avoided boobytraps, discovering first where they took their new stand by coming under fire...

Arms and gear cast away, he advanced toward me smiling, shoulder bandaged, flesh-wounded out of combat, good arm embracing a huge sack of pillaged British rations.

Note: Inspired by details of Carl Heller’s memoirs, De oorlogsbrieven van Unteroffizier Carl Heller, ed. J.H.J. Andriessen (Soesterberg: Aspekt, 2003), sadly not available in translation.

("Jetzt bringt Nik’laus was für mich" copyright 2021 by David Llewellyn Dodds; used by permission)

* * *

"World of Spirits"
By Dale Nelson

The first spirit showed him himself as a boy absorbed by Pac-Man. He didn’t want to go outside and play. The second spirit showed him his present-day self, hunched over in his cubicle. Olivia walked sadly past him. The third spirit showed mourners glancing at their smartphones as a coffin was lowered.

"Must these things be?" he cried to the mute and terrible form.

He woke. Snow-light shone up into his bedroom. He leaped out of bed and flung up his window.

"Merry Christmas!" he cried to the street where no one passed. They were all inside with their devices.

("World of Spirits" copyright 2021 by Dale Nelson; used by permission)

* * *

"His Wings"
By Becky Rui

Every time…

The snow crunches underfoot. The railing is icy under his grip. Cars speed by, blowing frigid wind against the back of his thin coat.

a bell rings…

Arm muscles quiver under the strain of pulling, stretching, reaching.

an angel…

The water below seems to rush with the beats of his heart, its dark surface foamy with ice. Numbing.

gets…

His loafer slips and he grabs for the metal. Almost fell. He unclenches his fingers. One by one.

his…

He thinks of what the doctor said. His ex-wife. His estranged children.

wings.

No bells ring. But he does fly.

("His Wings" copyright 2021 by Becky Rui; used by permission)

* * *

"Cookies for Santa"
By William Gregory

My name is Amanda. I’m seven and the smartest kid in school.

My parents tell me not to be average. I’m better than that.

My mom says I hold a grudge too long. I haven’t spoken to Billy Wilson since he pushed me two years ago.

I’m mad at Santa too. Last year he didn’t bring me AirPods. I’m going to sprinkle rat poison on Santa’s cookies to teach him a lesson. I’m a good baker.

… My daddy died Christmas morning. Daddy ate Santa’s cookies. Why would daddy do that? That makes me angry.

Santa got lucky. This time…

("Cookies for Santa" copyright 2021 by William Gregory; used by permission)

* * *

"CONFIDENTIAL: Gates Foundation Project"
By William Gregory

Code Name: Project Jabberwocky
Status Report: 12/25/21

Vaccination Rates: Global 50.75%. US 74.35%. UK 85.25%. China 92.88%.
Micro-Implant OS Version: Windows 11 ServicePack 25RFID3
Global Satellite Receivers: Online | Ready
Global RFID Status: Ready
Projected Transponder Efficiency: 98.5325%

MissionOps: “We’ve crossed the 50% Global-VR threshold. Global satellites are online and ready. Shall we proceed with the activation sequence?”
Mr. Gates: “Make it so.”
MissionOps: “Microchip activation sequence in T-minus 6:24:52:01…”
Mr. Gates: “We are on the cusp of a historic new frontier in big data. Kudos to our Project Pangolin team in Wuhan, we couldn’t have done it without you.”

("CONFIDENTIAL: Gates Foundation Project" copyright 2021 by William Gregory; used by permission)

* * *

"Out of the depths, it calls to me"
by B. Nagel

The voice from the closet said to bring them or else. Midnight, new moon nearest Christmas. Terrence found wet ditch sludge in his empty closet.

Terrence set the saran-wrapped plate on the curb by the storm drain. A whining laugh rose from the catch basin. The voice thanked Terrence as his sneakers slapped back down the street. A boy crawled from the missing grate and crouched, unwrapping the cookies.

Something wrapped around the boy’s leg and jerked him below the street, head cracking on street, then curb. Another dark tendril crept up for the cookies. ‘Mine,’ said a different voice.

("Out of the depths, it calls to me" copyright 2021 by B. Nagel; used by permission)

"Evergreen Altar, Coal Fire White"

The doctors of the arcane stopped short of calling it omniscience. But William cared little for scholastic debates. He sees you when you’re sleeping, knows when you’re awake — and judges.

And still so many had escaped his wrath.

On this question of theodicy, the doctors remained silent. William cared even less. Any esoteric being could be bound if you knew the shape of the world. Had the will.

Evergreen altar, coal fire white, horn and hoof and yew berry bright.

William had made his list. He would be a Lord in more than name — a Potheride worthy of the title.

Wednesday, November 17, 2021

Shared Storytelling: Advent Ghosts 2021

It is a truth universally acknowledged, thought Lady Penelope Hill, the Baroness Hill of Potheride, that a widowed lady in possession of no fortune must have been in want of a husband adverse to speculating. Or gambling. Or drink. Or wenching. Or in the case of the late Baron Hill, who had gone on to his eternal reward while tipsily attempting to mount a stallion he’d won in a card game, all four.

Lady Hill, formerly Miss Penelople Smith, merchant’s daughter — lover of unladylike pursuits such as playing cricket, riding on the hunt, and laughing at ear-ringing volume over her father’s notorious limericks — passionately hoped that what her deceased husband would receive for his deeds done in the flesh would include sulfur and brimstone and fire. Lots and lots of fire. Even before the funeral, tales had tortuously wound their way to her about his many mistresses, more than she could count on both hands. The whispers and pointed looks had not exactly vexed Penelope, who’d not remained entirely ignorant of Billy’s dalliances.

The resignations from the household staff, though, that had caught her off guard. So had the balances (or lack thereof) in Billy’s bank accounts. And so had the news from a grim-faced solicitor that the proverbial vultures were circling and her days in the estate were numbered unless the Almighty shed a special dispensation of his grace upon her, a grace denominated in pounds and with a great many zeroes at the end of the sum. So far, the much-needed miracle had failed to materialize, and Penelope was down to a pair of servants: a bowed-backed butler who pulled double duty as a cook and a Bulgarian lady’s maid with a wen-marred cheek.

And for all that, Lady Penelope Hill (who knew any paper on which her title was inscribed would soon be worth more than the honorific itself) suspected that she knew only the outermost edges of her husband’s transgressions.

There were hints, clues, traces of something … something … Penelope didn’t know what. Something other. Something worse. The collection of books in indecipherable languages secreted away in a clandestine compartment in Billy’s desk. How the maid would twister her hands into foreign warding gestures whenever she passed by Billy’s old chamber. The way the flames in the hearth seemed to take on bizarre colors in the wee hours that Penelope couldn’t describe. The old blood stains she’d discovered beneath a scattering of straw in the stables, stains upon stains upon stains.

Those stains told stories, and she was afraid what she would hear if she listened ...

* * *

Dear writerly friends, welcome to Advent Ghosts 2021, the twelfth annual shared storytelling event at ISLF. For more than a decade, a group of us have kept alive the peculiarly British tradition of sharing spooky stories around Christmas time. Think of Neil Gaiman’s "Nicholas Was ..." or Jeanette Winterson’s "Dark Christmas" or anything by M.R. James, the best-known figure for spooky Christmas stories. (A couple of my personal favorites are "The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral" and "The Malice of Inanimate Objects.") That’s what we do — except in a very, very short form. Like, 100 words exactly. Anyone can participate, and the rules are simple:
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 18, 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 retain 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.
If you’re new to the group and would like to see some examples, give last year’s stories a gander.

Saturday, December 19, 2020

Advent Ghosts 2020: The Stories

Note: You can find an intro of a sort to this post here if you'd like.

Automatic reflex takes over for most of the drive, and when the earbuds start to fail, you obey the voice's instructions, switching on the radio to an AM band. The Windy City rises like a tsunami, bit by bit and then all at once. The fever swells and recedes, a tidal push and pull, nausea riding the crests.

The voice guides you down I-55 and north, Chinatown sliding by on your left, Motor Row District on your right. It gives you simple instructions: Drive up Michigan as far as you can, leave your vehicle where you stop, and walk through Grant Park until you reach Buckingham Fountain.

That's what you do, the door of your rusty Focus snapping shut with a sound like the calving of a wave-battered cliff. Twilit December has cast the car-choked avenue a frigid, submarine blue, bare oaks frozen like brittle fan corals, rimed drifts matching the chilly shades of Lake Michigan. And the people flit through the tree-lined green, a frenetic school flitting this way and that, tending camp fires, fixing tents, stirring cook pots, a confused mass of humanity — and a mass moving without any external impetus.

They come to a halt when they see you.

Strong hands on your arms guide you to a tent that smells of antiseptic and human waste, iodine and soiled linen. You're guided to folding chair that perilously creaks as it receives your weight. You stare at the blighted grass and soft soil beneath your feet, locked into the sudden loss of momentum by your damaged basal ganglia.

"There you are," the voice says. "Look at me, please."

White coat. Shoulder-length, dun-colored hair streaked with gray. A face that would look kind if fatigue and calorie deficit hadn't carved lines of care into it.

"I see you made it. Not many do. Look, I could explain, but I think you'd prefer if I showed you. This—" She holds up an unlabeled pharmacy vial. "—is a dopamine agonist. Turns out it works wonders. Production and distribution may be a problem, but it seems that the world isn't quite ready to end. Would you like to open your mouth?"

You require no further prompting.

"Good. Now, let's hear your story …"

• "Minutes of the Weekly Meeting of the Operation Believe Planning Committee, 12/19/1978, 1900 hours North Pole Time" and "Twelve" by Dan Dykstra (see below)
• "I Saw Three Ships" by David Llewellyn Dodds (see below)
• "Echoes" by Becky Rui (see below)
• "Rudolph123!" by William Gregory
"Stay" by Phil Wade on Brandywine Books
"And the Enfolding Arms Shall Cradle 'Til Your Last Breath and Beyond" by Loren Eaton on I Saw Lightning Fall
"The Poison Garden" by Linda Casper on Third Age Blogger
"Christmas Lights" by Craig Scott on CS fantasy reviews
• "Adventus" by B. Nagel (see below)
"Tribute" by Paula Gail Benson on Little Sources of Joy
"Swan Song" by Rhonda Parrish on Rhonda Parrish
"Ghosts" by Paul Liadis on Cyborg Menagerie
"2022" by Kel Mansfield on Write Stuff
"If Only in My Dreams" and "Mark Ye Well the Song We Sing" by John Norris on Pretty Sinister Books
"Uncountable Sorrow" by Dave Higgins on Dave Higgins: A Curious Mind
"My Digital Assistant" and "Stumpy's Viewpoint" by Patrick Newman on Lefty Writes
"Moaning Stones" by Simon Kewin on Simon Kewin: Fantasy Author, Science Fictioneer, Writer of Worlds
"Listen" by Elizabeth Gaucher on Esse Diem
"False Creation" by Michael Morse on By Michael Morse
"Last Christmas" by Iseult Murphy on Iseult Murphy: Horror, Fantasy & Science Fiction Author
"Dragon Ornaments" by Lester D. Crawford on Lester D. Crawford Blog

* * *

"Minutes of the Weekly Meeting of the Operation Believe Planning Committee, 12/19/1978, 1900 hours North Pole Time"
by Dan Dykstra

Commander Blitzen presiding.

1. MISSION – Reaffirmed something must be done about people saying there’s no such thing as Santa.

2. TARGET – Identified as Mrs. Mildred Brooks of Lexington, Ky.

3. RECON – Agent Comet reported treacherous riparian and arboreal conditions at target’s residence. Motioned that action be carried out Sunday evening when target is anticipated to be in transit. Motion seconded and passed.

4. CONTINGENCIES – Private Prancer reported that elimination of potentially incriminating marks on target’s back is “uh, like, totally under control, guys.”

5. RESOLUTION – Action, though drastic, will provide convincing evidence of Santa to a boy and his grandfather

("Minutes of the Weekly Meeting of the Operation Believe Planning Committee, 12/19/1978, 1900 hours North Pole Time" copyright 2020 by Dan Dykstra; used by permission)

* * *

"Twelve"
by Dan Dykstra

January 5. Christina awoke with a sense of dread.

The app had promised “true love”, and just a week ago Christina was ready to declare Nick the fulfillment of that promise.

Then came the birds.

And the cows.

And the pompous people trampling her well-manicured lawn.

And don’t get me started on those woodwinds.

Nick said it was his way of showing what was in his heart, but all Christina wanted was a new yoga mat and a nice bottle of wine and some damn peace and quiet.

She carefully went downstairs to get coffee.

RAT-A-TAT-TAT-A-TAT-TAT-A-TAT-CRASH-BOOM!

Seriously?!?!?!?!?!?!?

“Nick? It’s over.”

("Twelve" copyright 2020 by Dan Dykstra; used by permission)

* * *

"I Saw Three Ships"
by David Llewellyn Dodds

Christmas morning, 1715. St. Nicholas was cheerfully sailing south along the Florida coast. By boat “From Amsterdam to Hispanje” as the Dutch sing? No: the mail boat, San Nicholas de Vari y San Joseph, Pedro de la Vega, master, that is. When… Pirates – again! ‘Sancte Nicolaë, ora pro nobis!’ Two bigger ships, this time! – and the hour of death? Could he show them where the treasure fleet wrecked? Sure – like he did the pirates who looted him yesterday… Looted again, two gold pieces – and when they got there? Death? No, and 1,200 pieces of eight well hidden all the while!

Post Script: This story was inspired by Colin Woodard's The Republic of Pirates (2007), pages 108-109.

("I Saw Three Ships" copyright 2020 by David Llewellyn Dodds; used by permission)

* * *

"Echoes"
by Becky Rui

Pounding feet. Panting breaths.

Every morning, the same route. She loved the quiet, empty park. The pre-dawn shadows that danced under her sneakers.

Measured pace. Even breathing.

Glancing left at the rustle of dry leaves. Just an echo of her own noisy feet.

Slight uphill. Faster breathing. Slower strides.

Echoes of feet on pavement. Faster, not slower.

Her stride further slowed, all effort focused on hearing alone.

Faster, louder.

Not hers.

The push sent her sprawling. The body atop her heavy. The fingers on her throat tight.

Feet jerking. Body struggling. Breath panting.

Her gasps echo, but no one hears.

("Echoes" copyright 2020 by Becky Rui; used by permission)

* * *

"Rudolph123!"
by William Gregory

The elves seemed resistant to COVID-23, but Santa was struggling grievously. (His weight problems didn’t help.)

To buoy Santa’s spirits, we reminisced about how Rudolph’s face mask used shine so bright, but Santa only crinkled his eyes with a pained smile.

We lost Rudolph to COVID-19. Dasher and Blitzen to COVID-20. Mrs. Claus to COVID-22.

Doc said we can do no more. The end is near …

How could we save Christmas? What were we to do?

In his dying breath, Santa whispered, “Use my Amazon Prime account …”

But Santa, we don’t know your password!

And then he was gone…

BREAKING NEWS: Kristopher Kringle has passed from complications arising from COVID-23. In other news, AMZN is up nearly 80% in pre-market trading as they are reporting unusually large orders from the North Pole.

("Rudolph123!" copyright 2020 by William Gregory; used by permission)

* * *

"Adventus"
by B. Nagel

Nissy knelt beside the gunwales, wreathed in spray, watching the foam and snow swallowed beneath the weight of the ship’s advance. Every swell, a reminder of her home. Every slap, her future. The sails stood out in the frigid wind and the brittle sun behind her cast shadows on the waves, destined for sublimation. A piece of her disappeared beneath the ship and her soul rose up.

“[name], come away from the railing. Your husband will be waiting. He didn’t pay for a frozen, salty herring.”

Nissy leapt for the waves and thought of flashing fish, but the irons held.

("Adventus" copyright 2020 by B. Nagel; used by permission)

"And the Enfolding Arms Shall Cradle 'Til Your Last Breath and Beyond"

Warren saw the news alerts. Everyone did. Still, no family rang. No friends pinged his socials. No fleeing neighbors knocked.

He played PS4 until the grid failed. He ate jerky and G FUEL, rationing the battery on his silent phone.

Midday. The phone dead. Shuffling. Growling. An elderly scream quickly stifled. Sound of splintering bone.

Warren walked to his apartment's door. Unlocked it. Sat. Waited.

Creak of hinges. Staggering steps. Outside the window, fat flakes had started drifting down. A white Christmas after all.

As undead arms encircled his shoulders, tears welled in Warren's eyes.

Finally. Someone who wanted him.

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.