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Short Story: The Erebus Plant

~This story is part of my short horror story collection Dead Elise & Other Stories, which you can download an e-copy of for free ~


September 12

Midnight

Somwýr Estate, Study

I return from the excavation site empty-handed and disheartened. Where Mr. Wallace promised ancient secrets, we found only dusty ruins.

Empty ruins, after half a fortune wasted!

The only thing of note we found was one chamber, sealed despite the years, that held a curious thing: a living garden of immense plants, sustained because the room was somehow filled with moist, fresh air.

Mr. Wallace was intrigued to study how the ancients constructed such a chamber, but I couldn’t share his enthusiasm. In all the ruins we found nothing–not a single hint in our translations of the endless hieroglyphs carved into the walls–which touched upon my interests.

Forgive me, Emily. I’m close to surrendering.

Wallace will continue excavating and reporting back to me via telegraph, but I fear that all the myths of the ancients possessing power over death may prove, after all to be nothing but lies and the fabrications of a pre-industrial society steeped in ignorance and superstition.

Perhaps my colleagues were right.

I will continue my search regardless, of course–whatever the cost–even as I’m met by ceaseless disappointment. I only fear I may never find a way to bring you back.


September 14

Midday

Somwýr Estate, Study

The strangest thing happened. When I returned to the estate, but two nights past, the gardens were in as excellent a condition as they have ever been in Murray’s hands. This morning, however, he informed me that a plant had sprung up amidst the gardens, growing to a large size overnight.

Unsure of what to make of this, I went to inspect the plant, and to my shock I recognized it! It was the same species as the ones I’d seen inside the sealed chamber. What’s more, this one was significantly larger than those specimens, standing two men’s height and spreading its roots several meters out. It had sprouted near the fountain and nearly obliterated the structure with its expansion.

Murray tells me he’s never seen anything of its kind. Neither had I, before the ruins. Seeds must have travelled on my clothes, all the way back home to England. It’s incredible that they would bloom so quickly, and in so different a climate!

I’ve told Murray to cut off samples from it and gather seeds, and get rid of the rest. There are experiments to be made here, but they must be regulated carefully. I cannot simply allow the plant to spread unhindered at so fast a rate.

Still, I am invigorated. Perhaps the inner workings of this plant hold some key to my research. It’s undeniably worth study in its own right.

If I can discover the workings of how it can grow and reproduce so swiftly–even as the other plants are wilting for the coming winter–I might unlock some hitherto-unknown mechanism of nature that I might apply, somehow, to my greater work. A long shot, yes, but perhaps this is a sign.

I don’t yet know if this will help me, Emily, but I’m hopeful.


September 17

Morning

Somwýr Estate, Study

Perhaps I was hasty in my enthusiasm. I fear I lack the tools to properly investigate these plant samples, as my research has so far turned up no clues to their inner workings. I shall have to send to the University and ask to lend their apparatuses.

As for the plant itself, Murray’s endeavours to destroy it have had their own complications. The root system is more robust and deeper set than he’d first thought. The plant matter is very dense and hard to cut–It’s hardly more yielding than a rock!–and fire has little effect upon it.

To worsen matters, the plant continues to grow. If that continues, we risk having it devour the grounds.

I’ve paused my experiments to work on chemical acids to combat the plant. The last batch was able to eat through my samples, and I have set to work making a larger quantity for Murray’ use. It may scar the gardens, but I trust in the old boy’s ability to obscure the damage after the plant is dealt with.

I’ve also begun drafting designs for a smaller enclosure to better contain the plant.

Soon, this distraction will hopefully be dealt with, and I can return to my true work.


September 17

Late Evening

Somwýr Estate, Study

I oversawMurray’s workers in their initial acid attempts. These are dangerous chemicals, after all, which could badly injure men and ruin soil without close oversight.

It’s a good thing I was there, or this latest development might have gone unnoticed: the acid, whilst eating away at one of the more central sections of the plant, revealed strange fruit hidden within its innards. The vaguely globular samples we extracted vary between smaller, flesh-red things and near-black fruit the approximate size of a human skull.

My initial investigation of these suggest that the red samples are seed capsules, easily opened or destroyed. A few burst while we removed them, no doubt spreading more seeds around for Murray to combat.

The ones that didn’t rupture in transport did so after I cut into the skin of them, nearly blinding me with a squirt of seed-filled gel. Though I washed it out, my eyes continue to sting and my vision is a little blurred. Curse my carelessness!

In any case, I have discovered that a careful incision can be made along the capsules’ circumference without bursting them. This allowed me to peel away the skin, revealing inner gel-capsules with a much thinner, translucent film around them–like the inner film of a chicken’s egg. These capsules hold the seeds themselves; very unlike other plants I am familiar with.

The larger, darker fruit specimen have a harder skin, and an almost hair-like texture, not unlike coconuts. I’ve not yet determined if these are the mature version of the red fruit or an entirely separate part of the plant–nor have I opened one for fear of over-applying pressure and causing another uncontrolled rupture.

I shall be gradual in my attempts to crack the ‘shell’, as it were, all whilst I hope Murray can finally get the plant itself under control.

The fountain, which initially looked repairable, has been completely ruined by this thing. I know you were fond of it, Emily. After this is over, I promise to have it rebuilt.


September 18

Evening

Somwýr Estate, Study

Everything is falling apart.

A telegram came through today from Mr. Wallace, informing me there’s been a string of God-damned cave-ins since I left for England. The latest killed a man and blocked off a yet-unexplored wing. Many other chambers and rooms have collapsed as well, burying our research efforts.

I wonder if the cause is the plants within the ruins growing as their English cousin has, now that their chamber has been unsealed.

The excavation will have to be put on indefinite hold while they re-dig what has already taken weeks to dig. If anything, there’s less uncovered now than when they began, and Mr. Wallace tells me that several local diggers have quit or simply vanished, and he’s had poor luck finding replacements.

No doubt they think the site is cursed. I’m almost inclined to agree with them.

Here in Somwýr, Murray’s battle with the plant has ground to a stand-still. It’s spreading even faster now, requiring constant chopping and trimming to keep in check, even with the aid of the acid–which is steadily running out. It’s so overgrown now that he can’t even access the heart of the plant and kill it at the root.

At this point, I wonder if the hired-on workers are being deliberately slow to earn more of my money.

As for the dark fruit I found within the plant, I finally managed to cut it open with the aid of my mechanical saw, which broke in the process. The insides share the texture of the outer shell, only smoothed by the cut. The entire thing is comprised by the same useless, rock-like, black material. It seems this was nothing but a lengthy distraction from my research.

I need a drink.


September 22

Evening

Somwýr Estate, Master bedroom

Several interesting developments occurred, the night after my last entry.

Somewhat intoxicated, I took a glass of brandy to the laboratory, where I’ve been conducting my experiments with the fruit. In my state, I sloshed the glass slightly too hard and spilled some brandy next to the broken saw, where there still was some powder residue from when I cut through the dark fruit.

The instant the alcohol contacted the dust it began to froth, releasing acrid smoke. To my horror, the mixture tore through the marble floor at an incredible rate, forming a large, smouldering hole.

After ventilating the room, I gathered up the remaining dust into a glass canister, hoping that the glass would hold the mixture when I reproduced the incident.

It did, initially.

Eager to test this new acid on the damned plant in my garden, I put a lid over the canister and left the room to go outside. In my intoxicated state, I failed to notice whatever reaction must have taken place after the top was covered, for half-way through the manor it exploded.

I was hit with both glass and acid, which burned through my clothing and scarred my face and skin. I’m lucky to have avoided the bulk of it, or so my Londoner physician claims. They called him down while I was unconscious.

It’s been three days since the incident, and I’ve spent most of them asleep, courtesy of the draughts he offered me against the pain. I’ve been haunted by terrible fever dreams in that time but. . . since I awoke from the last, a few hours ago, I’ve felt better.

The pain is almost entirely gone. I’m forever scarred, but the pain itself has been reduced to a manageable itch.

And somehow, through my fever dreams, I’ve been given insight.

I awoke with new. . . ideas. I dare not write them down, for fear it will confirm my madness–surely I must be mad?

I need to perform some experiments; ones I cannot do with that damn physician hovering around, insisting I rest and take his mind-fogging medicaments. I need to be alone and unrestrained, so I may think.


September 23

Morning

Somwýr Estate, Study

Every so often, some esoteric theory will circle the publications, concerning the mystical nature of dreams. In the past, I’ve always seen them as unfounded drivel, thinly disguised as scientific study.

But after my efforts of this night, inspired by my recent sickbed dreams, I wonder if they weren’t on the right track. I recall papers speaking of dreams as portals, a subconscious gate into a higher realm–the human mind’s way of processing certain information that would be entirely impossible to the waking, lucid man.

I thought it populist nonsense. My recent dreams have changed that. Those dreams did hold information–information I could have gotten from no other source–ideas that have led me to what might just be the most significant discovery of the modern age.

My hand trembles so bad that I can hardly hold a pen. I am terrified of putting to paper what I’ve discovered, for surely, I must be deluded. And yet the evidence sits here, on this very table’s corner.

If I held onto common faith, I would fear that God may strike me down. Blasphemously, I have assumed his Creator’s throne.

I have created life where there was no life. Sentient, if not sapient, but life.

Life!

I know it sounds mad, but I am staring at the proof.

In the dreams, my Muse suggested that I make changes to the acid derived from the plant dust. Chemical alterations, yes, but also alchemical.

I was offered the idea that the old and ineffectual practices of the proto-chemists may do for me what they never did for those predecessors. What they lacked, and I do not, is this plant, which has repeatedly demonstrated properties thought impossible. And this dream idea was so strong, so vivid in my mind, that I could not resist it.

All night I worked, and an hour ago, the mixture was complete. Ambrosia, I think I’ll call it; the divine elixir of Greek myth.

I don’t know why–don’t yet know why–but the final ingredient was blood. My Muse made it clear it was important. There were other elements too–I will not divulge full the process here–but at the very core of the elixir is blood and the powder from the plant.

Did Odysseus not use sheep’s blood to commune with the dead?

When it was done, I knew it instantly. Of course, I am an empiricist, so I had to confirm that the elixir worked, the way my Muse had told me it would work.

Emily, I used the wooden boy: the little knee-high sailor puppet you once treasured so, for reasons I could never understand.

When poured over the wood, the thick, viscous elixir seemed to vanish into it. The wood absorbed it hungrily, at the very instant that they touched. The metal hinges of his arms and knees, however, hissed at the exposure to a single droplet, and a dark, acrid smoke arose from them, which made me light-headed and gave me something of a nosebleed.

Perhaps it’s the organic nature of the wood, in contrast to the mineral lifelessness of steel, that does it? Perhaps. I’ll have to study these things further, but they hardly matter now.

It had to be a simulacrum of a man, that much I knew from my dreams. That’s why I used a puppet. I don’t know why, or if a figure of an animal would work as well, or what might happen if one used the elixir on a shapeless block of wood. All of that remains to be seen.

But. . . Oh, Emily, perhaps I’m mad. Nothing happened at first, but then. . . Mere minutes after your puppet had absorbed the elixir, he rose, on his own impetus! He rose, and looked at me through wooden eyes. Had he real lips, he may have spoken!

Despite expecting it, I nearly fainted from the shock. I hadn’t truly thought that it would work, you see. All through the night, a part of me had screamed that I wasted my time chasing dreams, like the fools I’ve oft disdained.

But the puppet was alive. It is alive.

It can understand me, and follow my commands. It walks a strange gait, limited by what mobility the metal hinges offer, but it walks. He is alive.

And soon, under my Muse’s guidance, you shall live too, Emily.

Is this not why I financed Mr. Wallace in the first place? To find a means to bring you back? My peers would’ve laughed if I was frank about it, but this puppet would still their laughs.

Life itself, within my power to create!

I’m reminded of the Latin: Aut viam inveniam aut faciam. I shall find a way, or I shall make one.


September 25

Evening

Somwýr Estate, Study

I told Murray to cease his attempts at destroying the plant; after all, it holds the secret of life itself, and thus, perhaps, divinity.

Amazingly, he argued with me! Outright, he refused–a thing that angered me so badly that I could do naught but take my cane to his treacherous hide.

Murray, who’s been here since my father’s days! I had thought him wiser than to refuse the lord of the manor’s wishes.

I will admit to some regret for striking him. It feels perverse to punish your servants in such a primitive way–especially ones that have been with you for so long. For my part, I blame a lack of sleep, which has made me prone to easy agitation.

Ever since my discovery, sleep has been a thing difficult to obtain; a matter doubly irritating as it deprives me of my Muse. The laudanum that the physician gave me against my pain has run out; I’m considering the order of more, just to commune with her.

Perhaps I was hasty in sending him away. I’ve developed a bad cough; today it stained my handkerchief with blood.

On the other hand, I wouldn’t need sedatives were it not for these constant interruptions from my staff! Each time I am attended, I must hide the signs of my research–the wooden boy especially–until the distraction passes. Even here, in a supposedly enlightened land, old superstitions run deep, and I would not be surprised if these simple-minded fools tried to burn me at the stake if they discovered what I’d done.

The stress of it all must be what’s hindering my sleep. Already stress has whitened my hair before its time. I was appalled to find a large streak of it in the mirror this morning, after I recalled I hadn’t shaved since my injury.

It’s all the damn serving staff’s fault. If I did not have need for them, I would have sent them away already, like I did with Murray.

In fact, I’m sure the puppet could do most of their work, were he bigger in stature, and that thing has no wits at all!

I rather think I shall send for more puppets, and carving tools. And opiates.


September 27

Evening

Somwýr Estate, Study

Send a man for milk and you’ll be lucky if he manages to bring home butter. Despite my specific instructions to purchase puppets made as wood-pure as possible, some half of the dozen I was brought have disabling metal imperfections. How difficult can it be to find puppets with wooden ligaments, that don’t suffer from the metallic stiffness of my first subject?

I’ve rid myself of the man who purchased them for me. I’ve rid myself of all the estate staff; save for a few workers, who I have set to harvesting both wood and the fruit of the ever-growing plant outside. They’re paid sickening sums for the work.

Meanwhile I’ve set my puppets to attend me. The impure ones. Those finer, more flexible ones are at work carving their betters: wooden men, made according to my precise schematics–the design inspired by dissections of a few of the less able puppets.

I will need these mute, inhuman servants for what’s to come. Some of the tasks my Muse suggests would be detestable to a real man. It is detestable for me, who will only issue the order; yet it seems the only path forward.

Were it not for her intervention in my dreams–which continue to elude me, even as I ingest more of the insight-giving poppy-drug on which I have so quickly become reliant–I would be a blind child, grasping in the darkness.

I wonder, sometimes, if it might not be you, Emily, who are my faceless Muse. If you are–will you remember these actions of your ethereal spirit, after I return to you corporeal form?


September 30

Evening

Somwýr Estate, Parlour

My wooden laborers are complete. It seems these things are well-equipped to follow precise instructions–even of some complexity. Good.

This means, of course, that I have no more need for those over-paid laborers, who merely wrestle plants and expect fortunes for it.

Luckily, I have found a much more beneficial use for them–or rather, for their fluids. After all, there is only so long I can continue to drain myself of blood to bring life to my creations. And I shall need a lot of the elixir to revive you.

A detestable undertaking, I know, but entirely necessary. I pray you do not judge me too harshly for it, Emily. I do it all for you.


October 2

Evening

Somwýr Estate, Study

There are flaws to having no human servants. For one, I have to receive visitors at my door in person, like a commoner, as I did around noon. I couldn’t exactly send a wooden man to the door, now could I?

The interruption came from a young lad inquiring into the whereabouts of one of my workers, who hasn’t returned home in two days or so.

I told him that I had sent those last few men away, as I had the rest of my staff, with a month’s severance pay and the instructions never to return. I said that I had no idea–nor took any responsibility for–what might have happened to them after they left the estate grounds, and told the lad to tell the others in the town the same (even though I seem to recall the other workers were travelling labourers, who should not be missed).

He seemed to take my word, though I’m sure suspicions will resurface against me soon. I must make haste in my work, so that it is completed before I flee, should I need do so.

Switzerland, I think, in that case–but if I leave the country, I do it with you, Emily, or not at all.

I must work fast, and send my wooden men out in the cover of darkness to collect supplies.

Tomorrow will be the time to conduct my experiment, according to my Muse’s instructions.


October 4

Midday

Somwýr Estate, Master bedroom

It seems that I overindulged in the substances I use to sleep. I took some laudanum (most of my remaining supply, I’m afraid–I was in pain) shortly after my last entry, and I’ve only just left the fugue it put me in.

I shall await with the final experiment until night-time, both for the weakened state my body is in, and for the spiritual properties of the so-called witching hour.

I don’t believe in such superstitions, as I have stated, yet I am willing to put forth that they may have been borne from observation of a real phenomenon; something that’s since been misconstrued by simple minds into faerie tales.

Indeed, I’d wait for the 31st if I could, just on the slim chance that Halloween is as significant a date as folktales claim. But I cannot wait. Since I’ve come out of my haze, I’ve worried more and more that I will be discovered if I linger. It may be unfounded paranoia, or it may be my dream-Muse warning me.

Also, I’m running out of time a different way: there was great pain when I just now visited the lavatory, and in my droppings, I found a great deal of blood. I think perhaps my continuous exposure to these plant substances (in their divinity) has ravaged my mortal body.

I care not. As you promised in this latest dream, you’ll bring me back alongside you, should I perish. We can join in immortality.

I only have to find the strength of conviction to go through with this first–to venture into the house of Hades and Persephone, and emerge with you.

Tonight is the night.


October 4

Midnight

Somwýr Estate, Laboratory

I have beside me a great amount of the elixir that shall bring you back to me, Emily. It shall grant you true life, I think–not the pitiful half-animation of those wooden constructs that stalk my halls.

The secret, as you told me in my dreams, lies in material. They are wooden, through and through, and limited thus. For you, on the other hand, I use more than merely wood. If I had access to your body, of course, still fresh, I could simply use that.

Instead, I have used clay, as Prometheus used clay to shape man, and I have mixed it with your essence; the very ashes of your body, and mixed it further with the dust of that divine plant that’s devoured my gardens.

I’ve shaped this clay into your shape, which beneath my loving fingers easily took on your form; a form which I have held so vividly within my memories for all these years.

You are perfect, I think, in every way, except your lack of breath. Certainly more perfect than I, in my degenerating body. I was ignoring it as symptoms of my recovery and stress, yet I can pretend no longer. My hair has gone shock white, though most of it has fallen out, as have several of my teeth. My body has run through its stores and now burns flesh to sustain me–and, of course, my throat and bowels seem full of blood.

Is it possible that I could have been so preoccupied as to have missed these symptoms before? Recalling the past month, these past few weeks especially, there is much I don’t remember–in such a state have I been. Yet it was worth it, for without my utmost dedication, I doubt my work would be done tonight.

I’ve left instructions for you, Emily, should I succumb before I can show them to you. Of course, much of them came from you, my beloved Muse, so they may serve you no purpose.

I only ask that you do for me what I now do for you–what I would have done for you, even in perfect health, if I stood nothing to gain but to hear your voice again.

I love you, Emily. I envy poets their ability to put love into words. I can assure you, mine is greater still than any they could dream to describe. After all, what other man in modern times has braved Erebus to rescue his beloved?

All that remains is for me to bathe you in the elixir, and you shall be mine again. Where Orpheus once failed to rescue his sweet Eurydice, I will succeed. 

As the witching hour strikes, my love, I swear that you shall live again.


I’ve made a horrible mistake. I see that now.

Perhaps now I see clearly for the first time in weeks, unhindered by the fugue of opium and the foul influence of whatever creature came to my dreams, dressed in my darling’s guise.

God, what have I done?

It only took a glimpse into her eyes to see my folly. Those eyes: not Emily’s at all, though they bore her same shape and colour. There’s something dark there, something that words alone cannot define.

If those superstitions I have so often scoffed at had one thing right, it is this: Evil exists. True, primordial, indescribable Evil–that is what I saw behind those eyes, even as she attempted to pull me into an embrace.

Had I not glimpsed that, just then, I fear what may have happened. I fear what’s happening right now.

I managed to pull away and flee, and I have locked myself inside my study, yet she is out there–the creature that bears Emily’s face–calling for me with Emily’s voice. Calling, and scratching at my door.

How long can a mere door hold it back? What earthly deterrent can there be for such a thing; such a vile, unnatural, blasphemous thing that I have made from a simulacrum and the ashes of my wife, in my attempt to make life from death? Whatever terrible un-life possesses that creation; it should never have been wakened.

I’m safe, for now. I despair over my failure, and I fear for my own life–for even if the door holds, where shall I find my rescue? I have no servants that may come to my aid, save those wooden abominations, made from the same desecration that conjured forth this creature. They, too, turned on me and tried to restrain my flight.

Even if rescue comes, it must come soon to be on time. I’m growing weaker by the hour. Perhaps my strength has been leeched by my unholy creations.

Already, I can barely walk, or breathe. I can feel blood cysts fill my insides–can taste them.

Yet there she is, with Emily’s voice and countenance, promising me that she can give me life again. Life eternal, whatever sort of cursed life that would be.

Through the door, unable to gaze into her eyes, I almost think that she is Emily, and my heart burns for her, as fiercely as my now-venomous blood burns my insides.

Perhaps I was wrong in what I saw; perhaps it is my Emily. Maybe I’m letting myself get caught up in silly superstition–after all, how can one see true Evil just by glancing into another’s eyes? Emily’s eyes, of all things.

I’m torn, and I am weakening. I may perish right here, and it would take weeks before they find my body.

Or I may open my door and accept Emily’s–that thing’s–embrace.

God, what have I done? What will I do? I’m losing the ability to reason, to see which path is right and which is. . . condemnation.

I have made terrible mistakes. Am I making a greater one by keeping the door locked?

She calls my name out there. In her voice, I hear only the voice of my beloved. The voice that’s haunted my dreams for three years. I hear it now with waking ears, and it is her. It must be her. It must be! My Emily. . .

art by lunalita
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Short Story: One Cup to the Dead Already

~If you haven’t already, consider downloading a free copy of my collection Dead Elise & Other Stories~

Jean-Charles’s palm was slick with sweat around the rapier hilt. He looked at Léandre, desperately hoping that his friend would step in and interrupt the duel before it started. He had always been able to get Jean-Charles out of trouble before.

Not so now. Jean-Charles had assaulted the man who stood a few paces away, eyeing him distastefully. He did not even know the man’s name, only that he was some ten years older than Jean-Charles, and dressed in the clothing of low nobility. Anyone could have recognized the latter, and known to stay away.

Anyone except Jean-Charles, idiot that he was. The nobleman had gotten drunk and overly familiar with his—Jean-Charles’s—sister. In trying to defend her honour, Jean-Charles had quickly lost his head, and punched the man square in the nose.

He’d been swiftly overpowered then—as had Léandre, after coming to his aid—and as soon as the man’s nose ceased bleeding they had been dragged out of the tavern and into a nearby alley for a duel.

Jean-Charles was no fencer. He studied medicine at the University of Paris, and the deadliest weapons he’d held were scalpels and, infrequently, bone saws. The nobleman’s brother—his second—had provided Jean-Charles’s sword, along with a perfunctory description of how the duel was to proceed.

They saluted one another, followed by a touching of the blades. As soon as steel had met steel, the gentleman was on the offensive, twisting and swinging his rapier in an arc that Jean-Charles just barely managed to deflect.

He stumbled back, winning just enough time to wish that he had let Léandre take his place after all—a cowardly thought—before the man’s sword darted out again. By sheer instinct, Jean-Charles managed to step aside; the gentleman, apparently expecting the duel to be settled in two thrusts, overreached, and was momentarily put off balance.

Jean-Charles thrust out his weapon, sheer luck or providence guiding the tip into the man’s chest. It bored in by one inch, and then two, and then the man’s own weight lowered him further onto the blade. Shocked, Jean-Charles released the sword, and the man fell to the filthy ground, the sword snapping in half beneath him.

There was a moment when everything was still, and everyone just stared. Stared at the body, and the spreading puddle of blood, and at him; surprise plain on their faces.

Léandre grabbed Jean-Charles’s arm. Mechanically, his body followed the motion, and soon they were running through the streets of Paris, thinking only to get away before the gentleman’s brother came to his senses and demanded Jean-Charles’s head.

He would have to leave Paris, a numb part of his mind realized—would have to leave the country. He’d killed a man of noble blood—and if that wasn’t enough, he’d been the initial aggressor.

Léandre understood it too. When they stopped, he stared at Jean-Charles, wide-eyed. It took him several minutes to speak.

‘You realize—’ he started.

‘Yes,’ Jean-Charles said.

‘So, you understand—’

‘Yes!’

‘My uncle,’ Léandre said, ‘the merchant. His ship is headed for the West Indies tomorrow morning.’

Jean-Charles looked at him, his heart not daring to beat. ‘Would you—’

‘Of course. And I think he’ll take you if I ask.’

-1672-

Two decades had passed since the encounter in the alley—half his lifetime—and it still haunted Jean-Charles at times: in his dreams, or in his darkest drunken thoughts. A single blow, made in the heat of rage, and it had changed the full course of his life.

Once, he’d wished to be a medicus, a doctor; perhaps eventually physician to nobility. Maybe to the King of France himself. A silly dream, but he had dared to nurture it. Then that damnably satisfying punch.

He turned away from the sea, at which he had stared while contemplating the past, and looked over the ship. Her crew were gathered round the mainmast, while his men searched and plundered all the riches that she had to offer. They had surrendered at his first shot across her waist. Most people did.

His second-in-command, one Englishman by name of Peters, came to report the plunder: a meagre haul, mostly furs and a few silks; combined they’d hardly make the capture worthwhile. That wasn’t uncommon. His crew of buccaneers were not successful, in the scheme of things—not compared with Morgan and his like—but neither were they especially ambitious.

‘A decent haul, Captain,’ Peters concluded.

‘Yes.’

‘The Madame Royale—’ that was the name of their ship ‘—could use a resupply. What say you we take in at Tortuga? Off-load the booty, load up on vitals?’

‘Tortuga?’ Jean-Charles asked, his spine tingling with apprehension. He had, on the whole, tried to avoid French settlements—less for fear of being recognized and arrested, and more out of a general shame and personal respect for France—and had not so much as set foot on Tortuga since the King had issued the island to the French West India Company, and Governor d’Ogeron.

He wasn’t sure why his instincts always told him to avoid the place. Word was that this d’Ogeron had no qualms at all about letting it be a buccaneer haven, so long as the Company profited by it. He knew that he had very little to fear in going there, and yet. . .

He was being stupid, he chided himself. His concerns were little more than superstition, and there was no point to irritate the men by needlessly dragging out their voyage. They possessed, after all, the right to vote him off as captain if they grew displeased.

He decided to trust to his luck. Ever since that fateful night in Paris, it had mostly borne him well: he’d survived going from a medical student to a fugitive, to a half-trained ship’s surgeon, to being captured by buccaneers and becoming their surgeon—only to eventually be elevated to the rank of captain. All with life and limb intact. It was not a career path he would have chosen, perhaps, but it had not treated him so poorly.

‘Fine,’ he told Peters. ‘We’ll make for Tortuga.’

A day later, the Madame Royale had docked in Cayona—Tortuga’s only port—and Jean-Charles took a carriage to the governor’s mansion to meet d’Ogeron. He’d received a formal invitation only a few hours after mooring, in which the governor had even shown interest in purchasing his cargo—an arrangement which Jean-Charles soon learned was standard here.

A servant greeted Jean-Charles at the door and escorted him into the governor’s drawing room. He did not have to wait long until Bertrand d’Ogeron presented himself.

Jean-Charles’s heart nearly leapt out of his chest.

The man had grown fatter in the twenty years since they had met in Paris, and older, but for all of that it took Jean-Charles no time at all to recognize him as the brother of the dead duellist.

Their eyes met, and there was a brief pause. Though Jean-Charles had changed a great deal during his time in the New World—he was scarred and tanned now, and had grown a beard that the sun had long-since bleached—he was sure d’Ogeron recognized him.

But the governor just smiled; an expression of gentle puzzlement.

‘Are you all right, Captain?’ he asked, probably in reaction to Jean-Charles’s expression. ‘Is something not to your liking? If so, please tell, so I can better do my duty as your host.’

‘No,’ Jean-Charles said hoarsely. ‘I’m quite all right.’

‘Well then,’ d’Ogeron said, waving a hand that was rich with golden rings. ‘I would be most pleased to have you join me for dinner before we discuss business. Are you hungry?’

Forcing his body not to tremble, Jean-Charles shook his head. All was well, he told himself. The man did not know him. ‘I just ate,’ he said, and tried to smile apologetically.

‘Some brandy then.’ D’Ogeron waved at a servant. ‘Please sit, and we shall discuss your… merchandize.’

When Jean-Charles had gone, Bertrand d’Ogeron stood a long time in the window, watching his carriage recede into the night. Finally, when the man was far out of sight, he turned and called his valet.

‘Did you get his hair?’ he asked.

‘Yes, sir! I plucked it from his hat, just as you said.’ The man held up a small tuft of hairs.

‘It will have to do,’ d’Ogeron said. He wished there had been a way to contrive to get some of the man’s blood as well—but there was nothing for it. ‘Fetch his cup before those idiots in the kitchen have time to clean it out.’

The valet bowed and hurried off. D’Ogeron went up to his study.

In his three years as a representative of the French West India Company here on Tortuga, d’Ogeron had amassed quite a collection of interesting items. There were few valuables that passed through the New World without sooner or later falling into the hands of the buccaneers, and thanks to his role, he had first pickings at almost everything those buccaneers plundered. He had taken a special interest in some of the more unusual pieces, and had paid good money for them.

Slipping a key from around his neck, d’Ogeron slid it into the lock of the ornately bejewelled silver box which he kept inside his strongbox. Inside it was a smaller case, plated with gold. He slid it open, revealing a small book, bound in aged leather. Its pages were brown and fragile, but still highly legible.

D’Ogeron smiled wickedly. After twenty odd years, he would have his revenge.

The Madame Royale stayed in Tortuga just long enough to unload her plunder and collect the governor’s payment for it, plus a night ashore for the men to spend their shares. By the time the officers had herded the forty-odd buccaneers back aboard, it was already afternoon.

A few hours after they set off, the sky began to darken. They were out of sight of Tortuga by now—a good way out from any nearby settlement. Nor was there a ship in sight, except the one that appeared on the horizon just after sunset.

She was a white-sailed thing with twin masts, not any more ferocious than the Madame Royale. Doubting that she would risk engagement, Jean-Charles ignored her.

He had other things to consider. He’d left Tortuga without going to meet d’Ogeron again. Almost he had gone back—a wild instinct urging him to throw himself at the man’s knees and apologize—but he’d decided against it. Nothing good could come of listening to thoughts of honour over sense.

As the moon rose, the other ship caught his eye again, her sails luminous in the silver light. Even her hull seemed to glow. Now that she had come closer—a lot closer, he realized—he could see that it, too, had been painted white, or at least some very pale shade of green. It was an unusual choice; a day of sailing would leave it filthy in a way that would be all the more apparent against the light colour. Yet this ship’s hull appeared pristine.

He put his spyglass to his eye and stared at the ship. He had meant to look at for her guns, and then at any flags she bore, but what drew his attention instead was the ship’s wake. Or, rather, the absence of one.

As it drifted through the water, the white ship disturbed the waves not at all.

His hand trembling, Jean-Charles lowered the spyglass. His left hand began to sting, and he glanced down at it. He had earlier noticed a rash there, but dismissed it. By the moonlight, however, it was a disturbing splotch of darkly miscoloured skin. It had swollen slightly, and was throbbing, as if the white ship’s mere proximity had agitated it.

The other buccaneers were beginning to take notice of the ship now. It was nearing them at an unusual speed, and they began to shout and curse. A few men spotted the way she didn’t touch the water and announced it to the rest, which caused their din to rise until they were near-panic.

‘Enough!’ Jean-Charles screamed, swinging around. The crew fell silent. They stared at him.

After a slight hesitation, his instincts kicked in.

‘Full sail!’ he ordered. ‘I want every inch of canvas on this ship unfurled!’ He gave further orders that made plain his intent to flee. The buccaneers did not object. Their superstitious hearts were in accord with his: they’d rather turn and run than fight a ship that had no wake.

As the sails were unfurled, he swung the Madame Royale around once to set off a volley of cannon shot against the white ship, which was already in range of her heaviest guns. Several cannon balls struck her side, and simply passed right through her. Somewhere on the other side of her hull, he heard them splash into the sea.

If there were any who still doubted that they were dealing with the supernatural, those doubts were now extinguished. The buccaneers fell into a fervour, working harder and with more discipline than they ever had before.

Despite their efforts, the white ship continued to gain on them. Her crew made no attempt to fire back at the Madame Royale, nor did they pay the slightest heed to the whims of the wind, but made a perfect straight line toward their prey. Already, they were near enough that Jean-Charles could make out their faces. All heads, whether on a man working or simply waiting by her railing, were turned to stare at him.

They were the faces of the dead, half-decayed and horrible to see. In places, all flesh had sloughed off the skull beneath; in others, it hung in strips off of the bone. What tufts of hair they had danced around their heads like underwater seaweed. As they drew nearer, Jean-Charles saw that their eyes were nothing but hollow sockets, which nevertheless managed to stare straight at him.

If only we could keep away until dawn, Jean-Charles thought. He wasn’t sure why he thought they would be safe then. Perhaps it was because the ship had only appeared at sunset. Perhaps because it gleamed as if it was moonlight made physical. Probably, it was just his desperate mind, reduced to childhood instinct, that wanted to believe the sun would drive away the horrors of the night.

But there were hours left until the sun rose, and the white ship was already gliding up beside the Madame Royale. The ship of the dead bore no name that he could see, nor the colours of any nation.

Only one thing identified its origins: standing on the waist opposite Jean-Charles was the man he’d killed in Paris all those years ago; the d’Ogeron brother whose first name Jean-Charles would never know.

He appeared exactly like he had then: the same clothes, the same pale skin and harsh grey eyes. He’d never even put his waistcoat back on after stripping it for the duel.

As Jean-Charles watched, however, the image changed. The clothes rotted to rags and fell away, revealing dark bone and decayed flesh beneath. The man’s face, too, slipped off, lips grinning malice even as they turned to slimy mulch and dribbled down his chest.

The undead crew had hooks on rusty chains and used them now to grapple with the Madame Royale. Rather than pass through the ship as Jean-Charles dared to hope, the hooks found her spars and rails, and soon the dead were clambering across the water.

A few buccaneers—too few—rushed forward to dislodge the hooks. Jean-Charles heard more of them leap into the water on the other side of the Madame Royale, electing to swim and drown rather than fall to the rusted cutlasses of the undead.

Perhaps someone had thought to lower the boats, and they might escape that way. Jean-Charles couldn’t bring himself to look. He couldn’t bring himself to move an inch, frozen as he was with terror. He could only stare at the man he’d killed—the first to throw a grapple—now closing the distance between them.

The dark spot on Jean-Charles’s palm burned stronger with each foot of chain the dead man crossed in his approach.

Only when his skeletal feet touched the deck did Jean-Charles finally turn and flee. In his blind panic, he could think only to make for his cabin, hoping to barricade it until sunrise.

He shouldered the door open and staggered inside, turning to slam it shut—but the undead d’Ogeron stuck the blade of his rapier into the gap before he could. It snapped, but was enough to stop the door from closing. He elbowed it open, advancing on Jean-Charles even as the living man retreated to the far wall of the cabin.

Outside, the screams of his buccaneers rose and were silenced. The stench of fresh blood filled the air.

Pinned by d’Ogeron, Jean-Charles pulled his pistol from his belt and fired it wildly. His hands trembled so badly that the shot went wide by several feet, boring into the cabin ceiling.

He dropped the spent pistol and pulled out his cutlass. D’Ogeron’s skull seemed to grin.

‘Is this what you want?’ Jean-Charles said, mustering as much courage into his voice as he could. ‘Another duel? Come on then!’

To his surprise, d’Ogeron made a salute with his broken sword, the same motion he had used to initiate their last duel. Jean-Charles did not match it. The laws of courtesy were neither for the dead nor buccaneers.

An animal howl rising in his throat, he ran at d’Ogeron, burying his weapon deep into the man’s chest.

D’Ogeron did not so much as flinch. Instead, he completed the introduction, swinging the stump of his sword in a half-circle; it was meant to be the first touch of the blades. Jean-Charles stumbled back, avoiding it even as he dragged free his own sword.

All along the cabin walls, the rest of the undead crew had gathered, standing back to watch the duel, and to cut off any hope of escape. Several of his own buccaneers were among them, their mouths slack, their eyes rolled back in their skulls. Their bloody wounds displayed the gruesome ways that they had died; Peters, for one, was near-unrecognizable with half his skull somehow smashed in.

D’Ogeron advanced, swinging his rapier. Jean-Charles avoided it easily, keeping away. He thought he could continue to avoid its diminished length easily enough—but to what end? He couldn’t flee, and his own attacks seemed useless against the dead man. Nor could he hope to continue this duel until the sun rose—even if that dispelled the dead. Sooner or later, his body would give, and he’d be too exhausted to resist the man.

And if he died—what then? Would he, too, be reanimated; forced to serve aboard the white ship of the damned?

He struck out again, this time aiming his swing for d’Ogeron’s neck. The decades-old bone was easy enough to cut through, and with a single motion, he managed to cleave the head off cleanly.

The undead man paused for a moment, turning his body to “stare” at Jean-Charles. Then he continued his mechanical attacks, swinging again and again at the living man, apparently having no need for sight.

In avoiding him, Jean-Charles backed into the rows of dead spectators. Their slimy, skeletal hands closed around his arms and shoved him back into the centre of the room. He nearly stumbled straight onto d’Ogeron’s stump of a blade, and had to throw himself flat to the ground to avoid it.

He dropped his cutlass as he fell, and rolled away in the instant before d’Ogeron’s blade dug into the wooden floorboards where he had lain.

Even with fear and desperation to fuel his limbs, Jean-Charles was beginning to feel fatigue creep over him. He couldn’t continue this much longer.

The dark spot on his palm shot agonies through his arm when he pushed himself off of the floor. A mad thought struck him, and, not stopping to think, he dove for his cutlass, barely avoiding another swing from d’Ogeron.

He grasped the hilt and brought the sword up in an awkward swing, slamming the edge back down on his own wrist. Pain unlike any he’d previously felt shot through him, but he ignored it, dragging the blade out. It had caught in the bone, and as he yanked at it, he nearly fainted from the agony.

D’Ogeron was maybe three or four steps away; time enough for one more hack.

Jean-Charles didn’t hesitate. He swung again, hearing wood and bone alike splinter beneath the steel, feeling his own flesh sliced asunder.

His hand fell away from his wrist and his vision went dark.

When he opened his eyes again, he was lying in a puddle of his own blood. It was lukewarm. His body was ice-cold and shivering.

I’m in shock, he thought, and tried to rise. He only managed to turn his head. Morning sunlight was filtering in through the open cabin door.

He had escaped, it seemed, though he might die of shock and blood-loss yet.

Mustering his last vestiges of strength, he managed to push himself onto his feet and stagger outside. His stump was still leaking blood; he was surprised he had so much inside himself.

He had to cauterize it fast; could only pray that it was not too late already.

He found a lantern, still weakly burning, and pressed his stump against the hot glass. There was pain, but he could barely register it.

When the task was done, he collapsed again, and all was dark.

When he awoke the next time, it was because the sun had set. He managed to sit up, every inch of him hurting, and stare around at the blood-soaked deck.

His eyes caught a flash of white across the water. The moon, he thought, please be the moon. But the moon was in the east, and this white speck was to the north. Slowly, Jean-Charles raised his remaining hand. There was a black spot on the flesh of the palm, throbbing in the moonlight.

art by yozart
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Short Story: Polaroid

~If you haven’t already, consider downloading a free copy of my collection Dead Elise & Other Stories~

‘What the hell is all this?’ Jack asked.

He had come home late again, doing overtime for the third night that week. Through the whole car ride home, he’d looked forward to sneaking inside—so as to not wake up Rose and the kid—and making himself a sandwich.

Cold cuts and mayonnaise on rye and a beer in a dark kitchen. It wasn’t much of a dream, but it was far too late—and he far too tired—to set ambitions higher. He just wanted to eat, relax, and go to bed, to catch however many hours’ sleep he could before he had to drag himself back out to the car and start yet another day of the same shit. Was that too much to ask?

Instead, he had come home to an entry full of dusty cardboard boxes, and Jackie Jr. still awake and rooting through them. Jack’s hopes of a quiet, stress-free night had died instantly.

It wasn’t that he didn’t want to see his family; he loved both of them more than anything. He just couldn’t deal with them right now, and he certainly didn’t want them to have to see him in his current mood.

‘What the hell is this?’ he asked again. ‘What’s going on here?’

Rose stuck her head out of the kitchen and smiled at him. For a moment, Jack almost resented her ability to smile while he himself was too beaten down to do the same.

‘Your old things,’ she said. ‘Your mother’s cleaning out the attic.’

Jack stared at the boxes. One of them was full of his old school notebooks; another held old painting supplies, no doubt worthless after 20 years inside a box. He peered inside another open one—the one Junior was rifling through—and saw that it held even more junk.

‘What does she think we’re supposed to do with all this crap? Why’d you let her unload it all on us?’

Rose’s smile faded. ‘I didn’t let her,’ she said, a note of hurt in her voice. ‘I thought we might find some things you’d want to keep. Whatever we don’t want, we can just take to the dump.’

Great. Now his weekend would be eaten up rifling through old garbage that nobody wanted and then driving it out to the dump. So much for his other plans.

He looked at Rose and found he couldn’t blame her for it. She had probably succumbed to Jack’s mother’s relentless nagging like everyone did in the end. He wished he’d never introduced the two, but Jackie’s birth had made it hard to exclude his mother from their life. She had a right to know her grandson.

‘Thanks,’ he told Rose. ‘I’m sure there’s something I want in there. Sorry for snapping at you.’ He knelt down and addressed his sitting son. ‘You, on the other hand, have no excuse to be up this late.’

‘Mom said I could!’

Jack looked at Rose and saw her blush apologetically. ‘I guess I did,’ she said. ‘But your father’s right, it’s getting very late. Go brush your teeth.’

‘I’m not tired,’ Jackie protested.

‘You’ve got school tomorrow,’ Jack said. ‘No excuses.’

‘My math teacher’s sick or something. I don’t have class until ten.’

Jack checked his watch. ‘You’ve already stayed up longer than I would have let you. Get moving.’

The kid sighed and dragged himself to his feet, making a show of his reluctance. Then he said, ‘By the way, Dad, you’ve got some sick VHS tapes. You should digitize them or something.’

‘What?’

‘VHS tapes. You know, old movies? Come on, you’re the one who lived in the ’90s, you should know what they are. How come you stopped collecting them?’

Jack stared at him. The boy’s voice echoed in his head; the same three letters repeated:

V-H-S.

A cold shiver ran down Jack’s spine, and he felt his vision darken as the sudden memories crept back into his mind. How had he ever forgotten them?

‘Just go to your room,’ he mumbled.

‘Yeah, yeah.’

‘Now!’

Jackie startled at his voice, then went off into the bathroom. Jack stared after him, his eyes slightly unfocused, unwanted memories crawling at the edges of his mind.

‘Is everything all right, honey?’ Rose asked.

He blinked. ‘Huh? Yeah. I’m just. . . tired. And, you know. Teenagers.’ He shook his head. ‘Why don’t you go to bed as well? I’m just going to make a sandwich and head off myself.’

‘All right then,’ she said, but lingered. ‘Listen, I was thinking. We should do something over the weekend. Just the two of us. You could use a break.’

‘That sounds nice,’ Jack said, distantly. ‘Good night.’

‘Night, Jack.’

She left him, then. After a while, Jack heard his son finish in the bathroom and slink into his room, and then his wife went into theirs. Jack waited for another couple of minutes, then stood quickly and began to open the boxes, searching for the tapes. His old tapes.

As he searched, the memories grew stronger, probably amplified by the presence of his old things. He began to see double: his eyes aware of the apartment he had lived in for the last three years, while his mind recalled his childhood home. Hell, half these boxes carried its smell. Any time he had been back there after moving out, he had smelled it: lake water mingled with the indefinable scent made by old houses—and in more recent years, with his mother’s so-called essential oils and health supplements. He’d never liked that latter smell.

He found the three boxes of VHS cassettes at last and began to frantically rummage through them. It wasn’t the cassettes themselves he was looking for. It was one of the plastic cases. The one in which he’d hidden the Polaroid photo.

Half of them were missing a cover, or had a paper cover drawn and written on by a young Jack, who had been bored on one or two occasions and decided that a simple name tag wasn’t enough for these movies.

As he looked through the titles, he could almost see the films play out. Here was Terminator 2, Groundhog Day, Star Wars, and quite a few that had no place associating with those sorts of titles. He had watched them all, again and again, wearing out the tapes through endless repetition and rewinding. Some of them were older flicks that had once belonged to Jack’s dad or his uncle—he couldn’t remember who now. Assorted Hitchcock, most of the older Bonds, and far too many Westerns.

But the tape—the tape of Highlander, with a plastic case and with its cover still intact—wasn’t there.

Jack breathed a sigh of relief, then hesitated. If it wasn’t with the rest of the movies, where had it ended up? Destroyed, he hoped, though he’d always been afraid of what might happen if it was destroyed.

Wherever it was, it wasn’t in these boxes. Or. . .

‘Maybe you’re hiding in one of the other boxes,’ Jack muttered. He wanted to go to sleep, knew that he would not get enough of it as is. But he had to be sure before the others got a chance to look through everything and find it. If he went to sleep now and one of them found the Polaroid while he was away at work. . . Hell, he didn’t know what would happen if they looked at it. Maybe it was only him that it worked on.

Or maybe he had only dreamt the whole thing, as he’d spent half his life convincing himself that he had. Was there even a Polaroid?

Jack felt a little queasy. His head spun. He closed his eyes and breathed deeply, then cursed, and reached for the other boxes.

The memories were back now, as strong as if he hadn’t forgotten them in the first place. He remembered first finding the Polaroid while rooting through other, much older boxes in the attic of his childhood home.

It had been black and white, grainy, and decades old, and the boy in the picture had only looked like a grey smudge—to begin with.

Jack had been younger than Junior then, no more than nine or ten. And he had found the photo, turned face-down beneath a hidden panel at the bottom of an old chest with broken hinges, and stared at it for a minute, trying to make out the picture in the dark.

And then, he had gone downstairs to get a flashlight, and he had ended up forgetting all about the damned thing. But the boy in the Polaroid had not forgotten about him.

A few days later, Jack had gone up there again and even thought to bring a light. The picture had been where he’d left it, on the floor in front of the chest. But it had changed.

As he held it under his light, he had been able to make out the lake outside the house and the old tree, which had been much smaller when the picture was taken. . . and the boy.

Young Jack had thought the clarity of the picture was just due to the added light. After all, it was still grainy and blurry, the boy’s face indistinguishable.

But he had begun to take shape.

That night, Jack had been haunted by feverish nightmares. He had woken up soaked in sweat and urine—the first time he had wet his bed in years.

If his mother’s admonition, ‘I thought you were a big boy, Jackie. Do you need to start wearing diapers again?’ hadn’t been embarrassing enough, Jack had just about thought he would die when she hung the sheets to air in the front yard, in plain view for all their neighbours to see. More than half of them were families with kids who had gone to school with Jack. In his mind, it had been as bad as if he’d pissed himself in class.

Unable to sink into the ground, he’d retreated into the attic once again. This time, he’d stayed up there for half an hour before remembering the Polaroid, and then an inexplainable instinct had driven him to dig it back out of the chest and look at it.

Even in the darkness, the boy had been much more distinct than he had been the day before. He now stood out against the rest of the picture, which remained smudgy—a sharp, high-contrast anomaly. The words ‘like a bad Photoshop’ came to that distant part of Jack’s brain that was the adult, his tether to the present day.

Even in the dark, Jack had now been able to see the boy’s face. It was Jack’s face—his own features, unmistakable despite being black and grey and a mirrored version of how he was used to seeing them—the dark eyes fixed on Jack’s.

The boy had been smiling. Smiling, because he was becoming Jack. He was transforming into a perfect replica of Jack. And when the metamorphosis was done—What then? What would happen to the real Jack?

A wave of nausea washed away the memories, and the apartment once again became reality. Jack stared down at the object in his hands. It was Highlander.

The VHS case had somehow been separated from its peers and wedged beneath some old torn canvases. Now, hands trembling, he slipped two fingers inside the cover under its protective plastic sheeting. After only a moment’s fumbling, he found the Polaroid.

He’d never expected not to find it.

He slipped it out. It was folded. He thought about putting it back without glancing at it—or better yet, burning it. But he had to see.

His vision spinning and prickling, he unfolded the Polaroid and stared at the boy—the other Jack, whom he had trapped inside the picture all those years ago.

But the boy had changed. Perhaps the change had started the moment that these old boxes came into the apartment; perhaps it had only begun when Jack himself had entered its presence, or when he’d first started to remember.

The boy in the picture was no longer a nine-year-old Jack. He was taller, in his early teens—Jackie’s age. He even looked like Jackie Jr. For one sickening, shameful moment, it led him to believe that maybe it was Jackie, and he felt a flutter of relief.

But it wasn’t Jackie, and after that first moment of pure selfishness, Jack was glad that he’d been mistaken. He loved that kid more than anything.

The boy in the picture met Jack’s gaze, his expression calm. He wore an unfortunate mullet, identical to the one Jack had thought was so cool back in. . . what year could it have been?

Before his eyes, the boy continued to change. The picture itself remained perfectly still, a snapshot of some long-ago time at the lake, but the boy managed to change without Jack seeing it, always transforming in a different spot from where his eyes were focusing.

The transformation was much faster than it had been in his childhood. The boy grew taller, skinnier, his hair shortening while a ratty stubble began to appear on his upper lip. Only his clothes remained the same; they were from some time far before Jack had ever found the Polaroid. Where they had once been a size too large, they soon became several sizes too small.

Jack was transfixed by the situation, frozen by his terror. Frantically, he tried to remember how he had stopped the boy the first time. Something had happened, but what? All his memories went hazy right after that first discovery.

The boy was in his early twenties now. He had that scar across the right eyebrow, the one created by Mike’s high school ring when they had gotten into a brawl.

He was getting close, and still, Jack could not recall beyond the moment when he’d first noticed the boy’s transformation some twenty-five ago.

Not knowing what else to do, he pulled out his lighter—he hadn’t smoked for two years now, but he’d never lost the habit of carrying it around.

He didn’t know what would happen if he burned the picture. Something bad maybe, but what other choice did he have? The boy—the man—in the Polaroid meant to possess him, meant to steal his body and his life, just like he. . . just as he had tried before. But Jack had stopped him. If he could only remember how.

He clicked the lighter twice—three times—before the little flame appeared. At least it wasn’t out of gas. He didn’t care what happened when he burned it, so long as he stopped the Polaroid-Jack. For Jackie’s sake And Rose’s. God, what would Rose say if this creature suddenly took his place? Would she even notice? How well could the Polaroid-thing mimic you? How many memories would it steal?

He didn’t care to find out. He held the flame up to the corner of the picture. It resisted the fire, refusing to burn.

‘Come on,’ he whispered, ‘please.’

Finally, wisps of grey smoke began to rise from the photograph. Slowly, the fire spread, swallowing more and more of the picture.

Jack looked at his doppelganger. He was in his mid-thirties now. Jack’s age. An expression like fear had come over his face. Fear and. . . excitement. It mirrored Jack’s own mindset.

The cards were on the table now. Win or lose, it was out of their hands.

He closed his eyes and tried to think of Jackie Jr. Instead, another image appeared upon his eyelids. The memory, in full this time.

He had watched the boy in the picture change. He had panicked, had tried to run outside, tried to escape its circle of influence. He had. . . He had been too late. Too unprepared. He’d tried to run, but it was no longer a question of distance. The metamorphosis was in motion, the pact was sealed, and never mind that he’d never agreed to it.

He’d only made it halfway across the street.

Jack opened his eyes. He smelled smoke. Not just picture-smoke now, but singed flesh. His flesh.

He looked down at his hands and saw that they were turning ashen, crumbling from the fingertips down, the still-burning Polaroid drifting to the ground in slow motion. It was surprisingly painless.

‘Please,’ he told Jack—the real Jack, the boy that he had trapped inside his Polaroid prison for two and a half decades. ‘Please.’

He tried to say more but found he couldn’t. He stared down the corridor, at Jackie’s door. Whether he was the original Jack or not, Jackie was his son, and he loved the kid more than anything. This was his family and his apartment. His life! He had had it more than twice as long as the other Jack had, and what did it matter if that one had had it first?

It wasn’t fair.

Tears formed in his eyes, the only part of him that hadn’t started to disintegrate. The Polaroid had almost burned completely.

He looked up at the other Jack—the ‘real’ Jack. There was so much he wanted to say and do.

The ash fell onto the entry mat. It would probably never fully come out no matter how thoroughly it was vacuumed, but at least it only looked like dust and dirt.

A door opened at the end of the hallway, startling Jack. He stared at it.

A woman came out. Rose. She was pretty.

‘Are you still up?’ she asked. ‘What are you doing?’ ‘Sorry,’ he said, his voice hoarse. He hadn’t used it in a long time. He cleared his throat. ‘I was just. . . looking at some old photos.’

art by rauljorem

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A poem about summer

She stands upon a summer meadow,

The blossoms swaying in her shadow.

A happy, care-free, barefoot lass,

Her toes dig in the dew-wet grass,

Grasping at life and fertile earth.

The very air whispers rebirth,

And promises of sunny days, and memories that never fully fade,

And fleeting, loving moments in the shade;

Or ‘neath the clear night sky, twinkling with a million brilliant lights,

A blanket at her back and someone cuddled at her side;

That special love that never goes away.

It stays, lingering despite the passing of the days,

Deep in her heart, a memory that never parts,

And in another chest its loving, beating counterpart.

And all those days are still ahead

They spread before her, stretching threads,

And possibilities that seem like they will never end,

Surprises waiting just ’round each of the road’s bends.

Perhaps, one day, she will look back,

And wonder how the summer passed so fast.

Perhaps she’ll wish she’d had more time,

Had done more then, before the passing of her prime.

Perhaps she’ll weep over the summer days of youth gone by.

Thinking of the loves and dreams that were and went, perhaps she’ll sit and sigh.

But even as she nears her grave,

She will recall herself, youthful and brave

A girl within her memory sealed,

Standing barefoot on a summer field.

New Story Out: His Embrace

“Though he had made no sound in coming, she knew he had appeared. His very scent enveloped her, musky and warm like an intoxicating drink. She shut her eyes, surrendering herself to his embrace.”

Dear all,

Go read my gothic flash fiction story ‘His Embrace’ over on Love Letters to Poe. It’s a quick, free read, and it might just be my favorite of the stories I’ve had published so far.

– T.E.S.

art by rauljorem

NaNoWriMo – Week 4

November has passed, and that means it’s time for my final NaNoWriMo Post. (Actually I had intended to post it yesterday, but my internet was down.)

My novel didn’t quite hit 50’000 words, simply because I ran out of story on November 26th, giving it a final word count of 43’488. There are some scenes that I shortened at the time of writing them, and one I couldn’t figure out where to slot in, so the word count will most likely grow in the second draft.

For now, however, I just need to take a break from the book; in part because I need to shift focus onto my studies, and in part because it’s too recent for me to be able to judge fairly. I’ll read through it and begin work on revisions sometime in January.

So, yeah. It’s not quite the 100k words that my last novel turned out at, but it’s not bad either. Overall I’d say NaNoWriMo 2020 was a success.

-T.E.S.

Addendum:

My short horror(~ish) story ‘A Murder of Crows’ released today, so if you’re interested you can read it at: http://www.dreadimaginings.com/a-murder-of-crows-by-tim-sturk.html

New Story Out: A Murder of Crows

“Everywhere she went, she saw another omen, or another sign of something that did not fully congeal with reality as she had always understood it. Simple things, like the way crows were always staring at her, or the cockroach that crawled out of a frozen microwave meal packet, or the violent thunder that began one night, after a sweltering summer that had seen next to no rain.”

Check out my short (and very weird) horror story ‘A Murder of Crows’. It’s available FOR FREE on Dread Imaginings. So click that link and give it a read!

art by rauljorem

NaNoWriMo – Week 3

Three weeks later and my story is resting at 40’335 words. I’ve reached the climax and there are perhaps a few thousand more words left at most. There are also some earlier scenes I should expand a bit more but skipped over at the time—but on the whole it’ll be a short book.

I do have some ideas for a continuation, but it would be set after enough of a jump in time that I’d have to sit down and do a lot more historical research, so it’s not something I would be able to start on right away after I finish this book.

The important thing, of course, is that the book I am writing is going well. And it is. I haven’t fallen behind the par NaNo word count a single time so far, which I’m pretty proud of. And the book itself is… not terrible (or won’t be, after a few important revisions).

To anyone else doing NaNoWriMo this year: I hope it’s going well. Hang in there for the final stretch.

-T.E.S.

Addendum:

On an unrelated note, I have a short story titled A Murder of Crows coming out December 1st on dreadimaginings.com, and a piece of gothic fan fiction coming out with Love Letters to Poe in January, so be on the look-out if you’re interested in those. Both will be free to read on their respective publication sites.

NaNoWriMo – Week 2

Here we are, then. Half-way through November and my word count is just over the half-way mark. 25’000 words that feel, for the moment, like a complete and utter mess. Hopefully I’ll be able to fix it in revisions, though.

Judging by my very vague outline, I’m nearing the half-way point of that, as well, so this novel might not turn out to be much longer than 50’000 words, at least not on its first draft. I think I’m all right with that.

This week was definitely tougher than the last, but I’m proud of myself for staying above the daily goal.

-T.E.S.

NaNoWriMo – Week 1

After about a full week, the word count of my NaNoWriMo project is resting at 16’095, well ahead of the projected 13’336-word average for 8 days in. If you follow me on Twitter (@SturkTim), you may have seen that I’ve been tweeting daily word count updates.

Despite the relatively high count, the novel itself still feels a bit. . . uncertain. Tonally, for one; where I intended it to be Adult, it feels a bit more like a New Adult book (if you believe in the value of that age category; I’m aware that there has been some debate).

Also, it feels at once faster and slower pace than my last novel, which is weird. I think it has to do in part with the fact that (this first part, at least) is spaced over a longer time period, and in part with the fact that there is so far much less urgency. So far many of the chapters are built around character, rather than plot.

In future revisions I may go back and look for ways to raise the stakes even in these early sections, though I’m hard-pressed to think how I might do that. That’s a concern for the future, though; the beauty of NaNoWriMo is such that you can leave worrying about issues like these for the second draft, focusing for now only on getting words down on the page. Indeed, I’ve already made some notes for lesser changes I would like to make, and then rather than make them right away, I’ve pushed through and continued writing as if they had been made already.

I think that’s a valuable method, and my main advice for anyone who’s also doing NaNoWriMo–or even writing a novel outside of November. I think in many cases, especially for early authors, it is best to finish a project even if it feels like it is broken or just not working for whatever reason.

In short, week 1 of NaNoWriMo has gone pretty well. It helps that I haven’t had any major university exams or assignments, of course; we’ll see how well I do once they start ramping up over the following month.

-T.E.S.