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MIDNIGHT
FROM BEYOND
THE STARS

MIDNIGHT
FROM BEYOND
THE STARS
Edited by Kenneth W. Cain

www.silvershamrockpublishing.com

Compilation Copyright © 2021 Silver Shamrock Publishing
Individual stories Copyright © 2021 to their authors
Front Cover Design by Kealan Patrick Burke
Internal Images by Bob Veon
Formatted by Kenneth W. Cain
Edited by Kenneth W. Cain
All rights reserved.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and
incidents are either the products of the authors’ imagination or used in a
fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or
actual events is purely coincidental.
No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system,
or transmitted in any form or by any means, without the prior permission in
writing of the publisher, nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding
or cover than that in which it is published and without a similar condition
including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.

Table of Contents
Introduction by Richard Chizmar
“Attack of the Killer Tumbleweed!” by Antonia Rachel Ward
“Abduction Annie” by Ronald Kelly
“Roadkill” by Samantha Kolesnik
“Embryo” by Tim Curran
“Scan for Life” by Jason Parent
“Unravelling” by Stephanie Ellis
“Snow Blind” by Kristopher Triana
“Death and Decay” by Shelly Campbell
“The Fear of Fallen Leaves” by James Newman
“The Bulge” by Rob E. Boley
“Phantom Limb” by Kay Hanifen
“Incident on Saddle Road” by Brian Moreland
“Skin-Wrapped Gift” by Chad Lutzke
“We Still Have Time” by Amanda Headlee
“I Will Meet You There” by Brennan LaFaro
“A Monstrous Hunger” by Simon Clark
“To Sing with the Choir Invisible” by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro
“Too Many to Count” by Jeremy Hepler
“A Cat Named Sue” by Jennifer Soucy
“The Bluehaul” by Lee Murray
“The Little Voice” by Gabino Iglesias
“The Sky and Above” by Patrick Lacey
“Count Backward From Ten” by Meghan Arcuri
“Midnight Dreary” by Owl Goingback
“Skin Tags” by Vivian Kasley
“Virescent Sky” by Tim Meyer
“Sometimes All of;  Our Thoughts are Misgiven” by Janine Pipe
“Whatever You Want Most” by Megan E. Hart
“Who Built the Moon?” by Tyler Jones
“Stasis” by John Lynch
“Fourteen Gallons” by Red Lagoe
“Broken Star” by Lucas Milliron

“Chittering” by Bob Pastorella

Introduction
by Richard Chizmar

I’m not going to comment on the individual stories in Midnight From
Beyond the Stars. I could do that—and with great enthusiasm—but then
you’d have a lengthy delay before you got to the stories themselves, and
that’s not a good thing. Trust me.
I will say this: the tales found within these pages are consistently well
crafted, entertaining, and thought provoking. They’re all good stories—a
rare feat these days—and there are even a handful of genuinely great ones.
But I’m looking at the bigger picture here.
I want to tell you why editors like Kenneth W. Cain and publishers like
Silver Shamrock are heroes of mine and always will be.
First, let’s step into our time machine and travel back in time a bit.
In the late 1980s and early ’90s, back when dinosaurs walked the earth,
the short horror fiction landscape looked very different than it does today.
There was a plethora of magazines—both professional and small press—not
to mention new release hardcover and paperback anthologies facing coverout on bookstore shelves each and every week. Magazines such as The
Twilight Zone, Night Cry, The Horror Show, and Weird Tales represented
the best of the best. More modest efforts like Deathrealm, Grue, and New

Blood published smaller numbers but no less quality fiction. Dozens of
other independently produced fanzines represented a sort of “minor league
system” for beginning writers and artists.
The anthologies of the day ran a wide range of themes—from quiet
horror to the more visceral splatterpunk, from creeping psychological terror
to chilling supernatural. Editors Charles Grant, Martin Greenberg, and Ed
Gorman became legendary figures, and we all hustled to appear within their
contents’ pages. Looking back after all these years, it sure was a helluva
time to be working in the trenches trying to earn your chops as a writer. Sit
down and write a scary story, pretty much any kind of scary story, and there
was a market out there somewhere just waiting for you to submit. As for
making the big bucks…well, that was another story entirely.
But then came the inevitable horror bust of the mid-90s, and to some
degree the short horror fiction market has never recovered. At least, not to
any extent that resembles the golden-hued glory days I just discussed.
Which is why I make it a point to champion folks like Kenneth Cain and
publishers like Silver Shamrock every chance I get. As a longtime editor
and publisher, I know firsthand how much energy and how many hours it
takes to release a decent anthology. As editor, you possess a specific vision
in mind for your book and you go to great lengths to properly capture that
vision. First, you spend countless days poring through either a slush pile or
an invite stack—sometimes both—looking for appropriate stories. Once
you find enough of them, you pick up the telephone or power up your
laptop and start spreading the good news to the accepted authors. Soon
after, you are forced to undergo the unenviable task of rejecting tales from
respected colleagues and oftentimes, personal friends. And then comes the
real work—editing the stories you’ve chosen. Some tales require a handful
of line edits, in and out surgery that can be performed in a matter of
minutes. Others take major and painstaking reconstruction, and weeks of
back and forth with the writer. It’s behind-the-scenes, foundation building
laboring of the first degree and not very glamorous. The satisfaction of a
job well done is most often the greatest reward for an anthology editor.
Reason #19 I admire and respect Kenneth Cain and many others like him.
Then, there is the publisher. First things first: anthologies aren’t cheap.
Not if done properly. Pay a fair word rate and an average-length anthology
of 80,000 words will run you at least four grand for just the stories. Add an

editor’s fee, professional artwork and cover design, and interior page
design, and you’re looking at quite a bit more. And we haven’t even
discussed printing and promotional costs.
Hopefully, you get the picture: giving the green-light for a quality horror
anthology takes a significant financial commitment, as well as an
abundance of faith and (no, I’m not being overly dramatic here) a great deal
of courage. It also takes a genuine love and passion for the genre. You can’t
fake that, folks.
Now I promise I’m not trying to bore you with the nuts and bolts of
twenty-first century publishing, and I’m not merely trying to shine a
spotlight on the unsung heroes of the horror genre (although that is and
always will be a worthy endeavor).
What I’m actually attempting to do here is pull back the curtain a bit to
explain why a book like Midnight Beyond the Stars is every bit of a modern
day miracle and cause for joyous celebration.
Because, quite simply, it shouldn’t exist.
The overall risk is too great, the reward too rare and fleeting. Most
readers nowadays want novels—the fatter the better—and the heck with
short stories. They’re an antiquated art form, they complain; their time has
come and gone.
But then someone like Kenneth W. Cain emerges from the crowd. He
finds an independent publisher like Silver Shamrock, works with them to
develop an idea—a vision—and despite the long odds, a horror anthology is
born. It takes faith and dedication and nurturing to bring it to fruition and
make it shine, but these folks have those things in spades, and it gets done.
The work gets done.
And, here in your hands, you hold the final result.
Thirty-two short stories.
More than 400 pages of high quality fiction.
Midnight From Beyond the Stars.
A miracle.
Perhaps a small one, but a miracle all the same.
Now turn the page and get busy celebrating.

Attack of the Killer Tumbleweed!
by Antonia Rachel Ward

They came!
They rolled!
They shredded!
Nothing can stop the killer tumbleweed when they descend on Las Vegas!
Starring Dean Valentine, and introducing Glitter, the most stunning
showgirl on the strip. You won’t want to miss ATTACK OF THE KILLER
TUMBLEWEED!
Showing in all good movie theaters now.
Glitter knew the newlywed was gonna cause trouble the moment she
walked through the dressing room door. Or rather, Dean Valentine was
gonna cause trouble. He shot the girl a white-toothed smile that reminded
Glitter of his song, “Jimmy the Shark.”
Crusin’ the bars
Lookin’ for someone to bite.
The newlywed—blonde, doe-eyed, stumbling like a new baby foal in
her wedge heels—well, she looked like she was just asking to be bit.

Glitter turned to her dressing table, pulling out the pins that attached her
feather headdress, and watched through the mirror as the husband shook
hands with Dean. The husband wasn’t much to write home about. Stocky
shouldered like an Iowa farm boy, with a doughy complexion and a buzz
cut. He didn’t stand a chance against Dean, who still had his Hollywood
glaze, even if it was a bit chipped at the edges these days.
“Buddy Hitchcock,” said the farm boy, although his accent sounded
more East Coast than Iowan. “And this is Cindy-Lou.”
“We just got married!” squeaked Cindy-Lou. “And I’m so gosh darn
excited to meet you, Mr. Valentine. Wasn’t my Buddy just the sweetest to
arrange this for our honeymoon? Do you know, I used to have your posters
on my wall when I was a girl?”
Glitter peered at Cindy-Lou’s reflection. Hell, she must only have been
talking about a year or two ago. She surely wasn’t much more than twenty,
now.
“It’s an honor, ma’am,” said Dean, his eyes twinkling. And then he went
ahead and winked. Actually goddamn winked, with her new husband right
there, looking all puffed-up and proud like a bird in full plumage.
Cindy-Lou started giggling uncontrollably.
“Don’t let him charm you.” Glitter put down her headdress and turned
to face them. “He’s a real heartbreaker.”
Cindy-Lou giggled some more. “Heartbreaker” was one of Dean’s most
popular hits. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em, was Glitter’s motto. She
couldn’t stop Dean from playing around, but she could make herself part of
the act.
“I saw you on stage!” Cindy-Lou said, suddenly turning her attention to
Glitter. “You’re a fine dancer, if you don’t mind my saying so.”
“I better be,” Glitter replied. “Been doing the same act for over a
decade. Name’s Glitter, by the way. Say, you folks want a drink?” She
headed for Dean’s drinks cabinet. “We got whiskey, vodka…”
“Oh, I don’t drink hard liquor,” Cindy-Lou said. “I’ll have a water, if
you don’t mind.”
Water. Glitter poured her a gin and tonic and popped a little umbrella in
it to soften the blow.
“This is Vegas, baby doll. We don’t do temperance.”

Cindy-Lou smiled politely, and took a dainty sip—so tiny it made
Glitter want to slap her. Instead, she turned her attention to Dean and Buddy
as she poured the rest of the drinks.
“…and then I got the job with NASA,” Buddy was saying.
Dean’s eyes had glazed over, and he accepted the whiskey Glitter put in
his hand without a word. “NASA? You’ll have to explain that one to me,
kid.”
“Well, sir, it was only established last year. July 1958.” Buddy glowed
with pride. “My team was one of the first to be transferred over.”
“Dean don’t read the newspapers,” Glitter said.
Dean knocked back his shot, chuckling. “Old man like me can’t be
expected to know all the latest developments.”
“Oh, but you’re not old!” Cindy-Lou effused.
Dean turned his gaze on her with a satiny smile. “Older than you,
popsicle. What are you, eighteen? Nineteen?”
“Twenty-two.” Cindy-Lou’s eyes shone. The way she looked at Dean,
you’d have thought he was some kind of saint, and not a washed-up fortysomething trying to sleaze his way through the tattered remains of his
career. Besides, under that red velvet lounge suit he was getting a bit of a
paunch. Unfortunately, there were always girls like Cindy-Lou to persuade
him he hadn’t quite lost his touch.
Glitter poured herself a generous martini and sucked on the olive,
catching Buddy’s eye as he stood in the corner, his opportunity to show off
about his job now long past.
“You staying in the hotel?” she asked him.
“Yeah,” said Buddy.
“Hey, Glitz, why don’t you take Buddy on the backstage tour?” Dean
said, as though the idea had only just occurred to him. “Sure he’d love to
meet the other girls, wouldn’t you, Bud?” He gave Buddy a wink.
“If it’s all right with you, sir, I’ll just stay here,” said Buddy.
Glitter knew her role. She downed her martini and sashayed forward,
the beads on her costume jingling.
“Come with me,” she said, taking Buddy’s arm. “The girls sure will be
thrilled to meet a man who works on the space program, won’t they, Dean?”
“They sure will.” Dean didn’t take his eyes off Cindy-Lou as Glitter
hustled her husband out the door.

“So are you some kinda astronaut?” Glitter asked, as she led Buddy
through the back of the theater.
“No,” said Buddy. He seemed morose, and kept glancing over his
shoulder. “A propulsion engineer.”
“A what?”
“A rocket scientist. Say, can’t we just go back? I don’t like to leave
Cindy-Lou alone.”
“She’s not alone,” Glitter said. “I’m sure she and Dean are having a real
nice chat. Here,” she added, steering him towards a nearby fire exit, “why
don’t we step outside? The strip is real pretty at night.”
She opened the door, and the heat hit them, the air still dry as cinders
even after dark. Glitter led the way along the block to where a blinking light
show in shades of blue, green, and purple signaled the main entrance to the
Peacock Hotel. Her hip clicked now and then as she walked, an irritating
reminder that it was only a matter of time until her high-kicking days were
over, and she would be relegated to working the craps tables on the casino
floor.
“You got a cigarette?” she asked, stopping on the corner and ignoring
the tourists who tried to snap Polaroids of her in her costume.
“Sure.” Buddy patted his pockets until he found a pack of Marlboros
and lit one for her, followed by one for himself. For a while, they smoked in
silence, Buddy gazing at the lights glittering all down the strip. A stray
tumbleweed drifted past their feet.
“That’s Dean’s Cadillac.” Glitter indicated a sea-green convertible
parked close to the front door. “Nice, ain’t it?”
“Sure is.” Buddy barely glanced at the car. He took a drag of his
cigarette, then added, “I really ought to get back to Cindy-Lou. It’s late.”
Glitter slipped her arm through his and pressed up against his side.
“Stay a little. There’s no rush.”
“No, I— Hey, d’you see that?”

Glitter followed his pointed finger. There was something in the distance.
A fuzziness. A cloud obscuring the lights further down the strip.
“A dust storm,” she said. “We better get inside.”
A scream pierced the darkness.
“That ain’t no dust storm,” Buddy said, squinting. “It looks like…
tumbleweed.”
He was right. It was tumbleweed. Thousands upon thousands of the
puffy weeds, bouncing down the strip like balls dropped out of a giant
bucket. Ahead of them, people were running. Panicking. Falling. Glitter had
seen tumbleweeds pile up before, when the wind was strong—enough,
sometimes, to block entire roads in the desert—but nothing like this.
“There’s just…so many of them.” She backed away as the balls bore
down on them.
Up ahead, a tourist turned, trying to snap a photograph, only for the
wave to engulf him completely. Glitter heard him shout as he went down, a
howl of pain that sliced right through her. A tumbleweed flew past her head,
splattering blood.
“Come on! Move!” Buddy pulled her back along the sidewalk, heading
for the fire exit.
Glitter stumbled in her high heels. Tripped. Almost fell. A tumbleweed
latched onto her ankle, and she felt it…bite.
“Oww! It hurt me!”
“Inside! Come on!” Buddy pushed her through the fire exit and
slammed it behind him.
He stopped, panting, with his back pressed up against the door. There
was a scratching sound, like the clawing of a thousand fingernails, as the
weeds passed by. Then, silence.
Buddy stared at Glitter.
“That happen often?” he asked.
“No,” said Glitter. “That don’t happen often.”

They found Dean and Cindy-Lou out by the pool. When they’d arrived
at an empty dressing room, Buddy had gotten mad. He’d stormed his way
out of the theater and halfway across the casino floor before Glitter
persuaded him to look outside. The pool was Dean’s favorite place to take
prospective conquests. She knew, because that was where he’d taken her.
There was something about the stillness of the water at night—the dim
glow of the lights, the hum of the cicadas—that made it the most romantic
place in the hotel after dark.
Cindy-Lou perched on the edge of a sun-lounger, sipping a fruit cocktail
through a curly straw. Dean was opposite, close enough for his knees to
touch hers, smoking a Marlboro.
He looked up as they approached; took in Glitter’s bloodied ankle and
ripped fishnets.
“What happened to you?”
“Didn’t you see?” Glitter said. But aside from a couple of damp
tumbleweeds drifting in the pool, there was no sign of the invasion that had
swamped the strip. She sat down on a spare lounger and slipped off her
shoes, flexing her injured ankle.
“That looks nasty.” Buddy crouched down to examine her leg. “You
oughta see a doctor for that.” He picked up her foot—gently, but it still
made Glitter wince. Her skin hung off in shreds, as though she’d put it
through a snare of barbed wire.
“Looks like I’ll be on the craps tables sooner than I thought,” she
quipped, but nobody laughed.
Buddy, still holding her foot, looked up at her with his round, farm boy
eyes. In the dim light, Glitter thought, he was almost cute.
“What was that?” he said, as though she somehow held all the answers.
“That,” said Glitter, “was some crazy shit. Dean, you gotta come see.
Come upstairs to the suite and look out the window.”
So they went upstairs to the suite Glitter shared with Dean—when he
was in the mood. When he wasn’t, Glitter had her own room further down
the building, but she preferred Dean’s suite for its vast windows and
panoramic view of the strip. Tonight, though, that view was obliterated by
the tumbleweed, piled up storys high along the road, as far as the eye could
see.

“Damn,” was all Dean had to say about it. “Damn.” He shook his head
and went to pour a drink.
Cindy-Lou stood so close to the window her nose almost touched it.
“How’re they gonna clear it all up?” she wondered aloud. Then, turning
suddenly to Buddy with a wail in her voice, “We were gonna walk to
Fremont Street tomorrow!”
“Never mind that,” said Buddy. “We gotta get Glitter’s ankle seen to
first. Is there a doctor in the hotel?”
Glitter shook her head. “Not that I know of.”
“Then we better get to the hospital.”
“We can’t go out in that!” Cindy-Lou complained. “Look at it! It’s like a
jungle.”
“Well, I’m not leaving you here.” Buddy’s eyes strayed to Dean.
“Perhaps we should all go. Glitter’s gonna need help to walk.”
Dean knocked back his whiskey. “It’s too far to walk,” he said,
decisively. “We’ll take my car.”

They stepped out of the elevator and came to a complete stop. The
Peacock’s marble-floored reception hall was crammed with people, but for
once they weren’t haranguing the check-in staff. Instead, they sat or lay on
the floor—bleeding, injured, dying.
“It’s a disaster zone,” Cindy-Lou breathed.
Glitter looked at the glass front doors. Behind the gold “PH”
monogrammed push handles, tumbleweed was piled as high as the ceiling.
A few balls had even drifted into the reception. Buddy walked over to one
and crouched down to touch it. He drew his hand back hastily.
“It’s sharp as razor blades,” he said. “This isn’t tumbleweed—look.”
Glitter looked. Buddy was right. The plant was no plant at all. Beneath
the layer of desert dust that had gathered on its twisted tendrils, wire
glinted.
“It looks man made,” she said, peering closer. Then she jumped back
with a yelp.

It was moving. With a little screeching sound that put Glitter’s teeth on
edge, it rolled towards her. She backed away, coming up against Dean, who
stood behind her. The thing didn’t stop. It kept coming, until Dean stepped
around Glitter, put out his foot, and kicked it square across the room.
“High school soccer,” he said. “Knew it would come in handy one day.”
The razor-wire ball soared through the air and came to rest on the
reception desk. There, it paused, rolling this way and that for a moment,
before dropping off the desk and bouncing out of sight.
“Is it…alive?” Cindy-Lou wondered.
Everyone looked at Buddy. He stood from his crouch, at a loss for
words.
“Well?” said Dean.
“Well, what?” Buddy blinked at him.
“You’re the spaceman. What the heck’s going on here?”
“I don’t…” Buddy began, then cocked his head, frowning. Listening.
For a moment, Glitter wasn’t sure what had caught his attention. Then she
heard it. The scratching. Shrill. Incessant. And getting louder.
She turned to the doors just as they burst open. Tumbleweed flooded the
reception hall, balls bouncing everywhere, consuming the injured, flinging
themselves at those well enough to flee. One after another, the hotel
occupants were torn to shreds, howling, their skin hanging off them in
ribbons.
“Run!” Dean yelled.
They ran back into the hotel, across the casino floor. Glitter limped,
wincing with every step on her injured ankle. Tumbleweed spilled into the
room close behind them, upsetting slot machines that vented rivers of silver
coins across the carpet. Roulette tables toppled. Cards flew everywhere. A
panicked gambler desperately tried to scoop up his winnings, filling his
pockets with chips before the balls pummeled him to the ground.
“This way!” Buddy cried, making for the elevator, but before he could
reach it, the tumbleweed cut him off. He veered sharply to his left, and
Glitter tried to follow, but her ankle twisted and she fell.
Sprawled on the carpet, she glanced back to see the wire balls bearing
down on her.
Dean turned. “Glitter!”

“Dean, no!” Glitter shouted, but he was already on his way back to her.
He pulled her up, pushed her onward to where the others were heading for
the buffet restaurant. Cindy-Lou wobbled on her wedge heels. Glitter
limped to catch up, looking over her shoulder for Dean.
“Dean!” she screamed. “What are you doing? Are you insane?”
Dean had taken off his red suit jacket and was waving it around his head
like a matador’s cape.
“You stay away from my girl!” he yelled at the advancing wave of razor
wire. “You stay away from her, you motherfuckers, you hear me?”
“Dean!”
“Just run, Glitz! Run!”
Glitter gasped, tears springing to her eyes, then she turned and ran.
She tried not to hear Dean’s howls behind her. Tried not to imagine how
his matinée-idol face would be sliced up like he’d been attacked by a crazed
plastic surgeon. Tried not to think about the fact that he’d never sing again.
Skidding around the corner, she found herself in the deserted buffet
restaurant. Buddy and Cindy-Lou slammed the doors behind her, and
Buddy pushed a table up as a barricade. There was a cacophony of
scratches as the tumbleweed battered against the door. Then, silence.
Buddy and Cindy-Lou stared at Glitter.
“What happened to Dean?” Cindy-Lou said and, at the same moment,
Buddy asked, “Are you all right?”
“I’m all right.” Glitter glanced back at the door. “But Dean, he…” she
swallowed. “He didn’t make it.”
“I’m so sorry.” Cindy-Lou put her arm around Glitter’s shoulders.
“Come and sit down.”
She led Glitter to a table, already set for tomorrow’s breakfast. Glitter
slumped into a seat and put her head in her hands.
“Ouch!” Buddy’s voice made her look up, and she saw him wrestling
with a small tumbleweed, which was wrapped in his jacket. “Managed to
catch this as it went past my head,” he explained. “I’m gonna take a look at
it, see if I can learn anything about these things.”
“You do that, Bud,” Cindy-Lou said. Then, gently, “Glitter, can I get
you some water or something?”
“I’m fine,” Glitter said. “I’m…” But she couldn’t help herself. The tears
spilled over, and then she couldn’t stop.

Cindy-Lou rubbed her back.
“It’s okay,” she kept saying. “It’s okay.”
“It’s not okay!” Glitter wailed. “Dean…” She sniffled, trying to get
herself under control. “Dean…”
“You guys were pretty close, huh?”
“I know he was…an asshole, but…” Glitter sniffled again. “He was all I
had. What am I gonna do now?”
Without Dean, the show was over. Without Dean, there was nowhere for
Glitter and her busted ankle to go but to the craps tables, for the rest of her
goddamn life. That was, if she got out of this nightmare alive in the first
place.
“It’s gonna be okay,” Cindy-Lou just kept saying.
Glitter rounded on her.
“Didn’t you hear me? It’s not okay! I’m thirty-five years old. I’m all
washed up. Nobody hires thirty-five-year-old chorus girls. Nobody marries
’em, either. Now I’ve got nothing. I’ve got nobody. I’m all on my own.”
“It’s not over!” Cindy-Lou smiled her sweet little doe-eyed smile.
“Thirty-five’s not old. You’ve still got a future.”
“Working the casino floor until my back gives out? That’s not a future.”
“Then do something else. What do you want to do?”
Glitter glared at her. “How the hell should I know? Nobody cares what I
want to do.”
“C’mon. There must be something. When you were a kid, what did you
dream of doing?”
Something about Cindy-Lou’s earnest expression made Glitter bite back
the sarcastic response that rose to the tip of her tongue.
“I used to… I used to want to choreograph,” she admitted.
“Well, then!” Cindy-Lou clapped her hands as though it were all settled.
“Do that.”
“I couldn’t…”
“Why not? You said it yourself—you’ve been doing the shows for over
a decade. You must know all there is to know about them, right? So just
why couldn’t you choreograph them?”
“D-Dean used to say I was too clever for my own good,” Glitter said,
faintly. “So maybe… Maybe…”
“There you go. That’s the spirit.”

“I knew Dean since I was a kid,” Glitter said, wiping her tears.
“Everybody was always sure he was gonna be a star. He just had this…aura
about him, you know? Charisma. I don’t know why he picked me.”
“I’m sure he loved you, in his way,” Cindy-Lou said.
“It’s funny: there’s this old song of his,” said Glitter. “Maybe you heard
it? It goes, You and me, girl / We’re just tumbleweed drifting in the breeze.”
Cindy-Lou laughed. “I know it! Yeah, I remember that one. Say, what’s
your real name? You can’t’ve been born Glitter, surely?”
“Margaret,” said Glitter.
“Margaret.” Cindy-Lou held out her hand. “It’s a pleasure to meet you,
Margaret.”
Laughing and crying, Glitter shook her hand, just as Buddy called,
“Hey, come check this out!”
They hurried over to find him with his lighter out, teasing a tiny ball of
wire around the table. Every time he put the flame close to it, the miniature
tumbleweed shrank back as if flinching, allowing him to herd it this way
and that, just like how Glitter had seen cowboys herding bulls at a rodeo.
“It rolled up of its own accord,” he said, without glancing up. “And
when the fire gets near it…”
“It’s afraid,” Cindy-Lou finished.
“Sure seems that way.” Buddy frowned, making the ball roll across the
table again. “I don’t think this is man-made at all.”
“You don’t?” Glitter slipped into the seat opposite him.
Buddy shook his head. “This may sound crazy but… I-I think it’s an
alien life form.”
Glitter exhaled a weary sigh. “Ain’t nothing sounds crazy to me
tonight.”
Cindy-Lou looked up sharply. “What’s that?”
Glitter listened hard. Scratching. The restaurant door quivered with the
force of an endless stream of blows. The table holding it closed began to
creep forward.
“We gotta get out of here,” she said, getting to her feet. “Come on.
There’s another way out through the kitchen.”
“And then what?” Cindy-Lou asked, breathlessly, as Glitter led them
out. “How long can we keep running?”

“We don’t have to,” Buddy said. “Not now. They’re scared of fire—we
can cut a path through them. All we need is a steady source of fuel to burn.
Gasoline.”
“Dean’s Cadillac,” said Glitter.
“You got the keys?”
“In the dressing room.”
“Right.” Buddy wove his way around a clutter of serving carts. “I just
need someplace I can work on it for a while. Is there an underground
garage?”
“Sure is.” Glitter pushed open the kitchen door a crack, peering out into
the empty corridor. “But we’ll have to get the car down there first.”
“Keep moving, girls.” Buddy started rooting around the kitchen. “I just
need to pick up a few things.”
Cindy-Lou hesitated, so Glitter grabbed her arm, and the two of them
raced down the corridor, footsteps echoing off the walls, not looking back.
Glitter led the way, limping, through the rabbit warren of hallways and into
the theater’s backstage area. She dove into Dean’s dressing room and by the
time she’d retrieved the keys, Buddy caught them up, his arms laden with
cooking utensils, dish towels, and a bottle of kerosene.
“What the—?” Glitter began.
“Torches.” Buddy threw the tea towels on the floor, doused them with
kerosene, then wrapped them around the utensils. Glitter got a serving ladle,
Cindy-Lou a potato masher. Buddy took a long-handled whisk for himself,
lit it with his cigarette lighter, then passed the flame around to the others.
Glitter held her ladle as far down the handle as she could manage, feeling
the heat radiating towards her hand.
“We can’t hold these for long,” she pointed out.
“We don’t have to.” Buddy was on the move again. “Just long enough to
get to the car.”
They made for the fire exit. Buddy headed outside first. The street was
piled high with tumbleweed, but the balls shuffled away from the heat of
the flames. The space they made was just enough to allow Buddy and the
others to cut a path down the sidewalk to the hotel’s entrance.
Glitter glanced back, and saw that as soon as they moved on with their
torches, the wire balls fell back into the space behind them, leaving them
fenced in by razor-sharp mesh.

“These torches better hold out,” she called, wincing at the heat on her
hand.
“Not much further.” Buddy pushed onward, forcing the girls to hurry to
keep pace with him.
“I can’t hold it anymore!” Cindy-Lou yelped, and her torch fell to the
ground with a clatter.
As they left it behind, their glowing circle of safety shrank, and the wall
of tumbleweed pressed in closer around them. Glitter’s heart hammered; a
picture of Dean flashed through her mind. Dean, torn to ribbons, half his
face hanging off. Fear closed in on her from all sides, turning her limbs
numb.
She almost froze, but then they were at the corner of the block, and
Buddy hurried them across the parking lot. The Cadillac was in sight. They
clambered in, and Glitter tossed Cindy-Lou the keys while she and Buddy
held their torches high against the coming onslaught of tumbleweed. CindyLou gunned the engine, and they veered along the side street, down into the
parking garage, where she screeched to a halt.
“I’ll get the gates.” Buddy leaped from the car and ran to close the gate.
Cindy-Lou leaned back in the driver’s seat, breathing hard. She looked as
though she might cry. “What if they get down here?” she wailed. “What if
we’re stuck in here?”
Buddy jogged back over. He reached into the backseat and tossed her
the half-empty bottle of kerosene. “Create a line of fire in front of the door.
Make sure you keep it burning. That should hold ’em for a while.”
Cindy-Lou headed for the gates and drew a line with the kerosene.
Buddy went around to open the Cadillac’s hood and bent over it, muttering.
“What’re you gonna do?” Glitter asked him, as flames sprang up in
front of the garage door.
Buddy glanced up at her; wiped a hand across his brow. “I’m gonna
rocket power the car.”

Some time later, Glitter woke to the roar of an engine. She jerked awake
from where she’d dozed off in the backseat of the Cadillac, opened her
eyes, and saw nothing but black smoke belching from the car’s exhaust,
and, beyond it, the lick of orange flames. The car lurched forward with a
jolt. Glitter could just make out Cindy-Lou in the driver’s seat and Buddy
alongside her. Up ahead, the garage gates loomed, the wall of fire still
blazing in front of them.
“We’ve gotta open the gates!” she screamed.
“No time!” Buddy shouted. “Can’t stop now that we’re moving. Just
brace yourself!”
Glitter curled up small and put her hands over her head just as they hit
the wall of flames. Cindy-Lou screamed. The car smashed through the
doors, fire blazing from the exhaust. Ahead of them, tumbleweed scattered
crazily in all directions, veering out of their way, bouncing over the hood of
the car. Then the Cadillac was flying down the strip, faster than Glitter had
ever moved in her life.
“I can’t hold it straight!” Cindy-Lou cried, battling with the steering
wheel.
Buddy reached over and grabbed it for her.
“Just keep your foot on the gas.”
“I don’t know if you’ve thought of this,” Glitter yelled, as they shot out
of town, “but how are we gonna slow down?”

In the end, though, the fuel simply burnt itself out. Out in the Nevada
desert, the balls of tumbleweed became fewer and further between, and by
the time the Cadillac rolled to a halt, there were barely any in view.
Cindy-Lou lifted her hands from the steering wheel. She was shaking.
“I never want to do that again, Bud.”
Buddy reached over and pulled her into an embrace. “You did great,
Cindy. Real great.”
Glitter got out of the car and wobbled along a few steps on trembling
legs. In the distance, the sun was rising over the mountains, turning the sky

into a technicolor haze of purples and reds. A gentle breeze swept over the
desert, making her shiver.
“Hey,” she said, spotting a glimmer in the distance. “What’s that?”
Buddy joined her, and they made their way over to the shining object. It
was circular, like a dinner plate, and about the size of the Cadillac. It was
wedged into a crater in the desert sand, sunlight glinting off its silvery
surface.
“This must be their craft,” Buddy whispered.
“An alien spaceship?” Glitter stared. “Do you really think? It’s so small!
How could all those tumbleweeds fit in there?”
Something brushed against her leg, and she screamed. But it was only a
tumbleweed—a real, ordinary tangle-of-branches one. It drifted by, on its
way to nowhere.
“Perhaps…” mused Buddy. “Perhaps they self-replicate. Perhaps the
tumbleweed was the first thing they found here on Earth, and they simply
copied its molecular structure. I wonder—”
“Hey!” It was Cindy-Lou, jumping around, waving her arms. “Hey, over
here!”
Glitter looked to the horizon. A cavalcade of army vehicles was making
its way along the road, speeding towards Las Vegas. Spotting Cindy-Lou,
one of them slowed down.

A week later, Glitter was back in Dean’s suite at the top of the Peacock
Hotel. Armed with flamethrowers, the National Guard had cleared Vegas of
the tumbleweed invasion, and the spacecraft she and Buddy had found had
simply vanished. Buddy and Cindy-Lou had gone back to Virginia on the
next plane out, although Cindy-Lou had promised to call, once things
settled down. The front pages of the newspapers were calling the attack a
“freak weather event.” That was okay with Glitter. She was just happy to
look out the windows and see the strip all lit up in the darkness, exactly as it
should be.

She poured herself a martini and went to thumb through Dean’s record
collection until a familiar sleeve caught her eye. She pulled it out, ran her
fingers over its surface. Dean Valentine Sings the Hits. He looked so young
in the photograph. Tanned and alive, with that twinkle in his eye. Glitter
wiped away a tear and put the record on the player, letting the needle drop
at random. There was a crackle as it got into its groove, and a song rang out
through the darkened hotel room.
“You and me, girl / We’re just tumbleweed drifting in the breeze.”
Glitter smiled and took a sip of her martini. From somewhere buried
deep in her mind, a few dance steps emerged, and she began to sway. Then,
putting down her glass, she started to move in earnest, repeating the steps
over and over until she’d invented a whole phrase. She rushed over to the
mini-bar, grabbed a napkin, and scribbled down what she’d done.
The show would go on.

Abduction Annie
by Ronald Kelly

“Hey, sugar! Come on over here! We’re needing some service real bad!”
Annie Newman looked up from filling the salt and pepper shakers. It
was those jerks from the manufacturing plant across the railroad tracks
again; Mike Pugh and his bunch. And there was one with him she didn’t
recognize. A big, burly fellow with a bushy red beard and an oily green
John Deere cap who looked like a bigger, dumber version of Mike…maybe
a brother or a cousin.
“Come on, Annie!” called Tim Johnson, Mike’s best friend. “We need
some nourishment. Why don’t you hop in that flying saucer of yours and
hover on down here?”
The waitress—twenty-nine, lean, with honey blonde hair dyed blue at
the tips—tensed and simply stood there, trying to ignore them. But Chuck
wouldn’t let her. She looked over when the truck stop owner cleared his
throat.
“Annie… Customers need you down yonder,” he told her with that little
asshole of a grin on his stubbled face.
She wanted to snap back at him, but she bit her tongue instead. She
couldn’t afford to mouth off and lose this job. God knew she’s lost enough

of them already.
Annie abandoned the shakers and started down the counter, fishing her
order pad out of her apron pocket. As she walked, she saw them grinning at
each other and elbowing each other in the ribs. Insufferable rednecks
fishing for a little entertainment to go with their burgers and buffalo wings.
When she reached them, Mike didn’t hesitate to launch right in. “Hey
there, Annie,” he said loudly. “How’s my girl doing tonight?”
Annie couldn’t help herself. “Your girl is at home with your three
young’uns. This woman is standing here, waiting to find out what you want
to eat.”
The blue-collar workers burst out laughing. Mike’s grin faltered for a
second, then broadened. “This is her, Keith. Ol’ Abduction Annie in the
flesh.”
“And who’s Keith?” she asked, even though she didn’t give a rat’s ass.
“He’s my cousin, down here visiting from Knoxville. I thought I’d give
him the grand tour… You know, show him some of the local attractions and
oddities.”
Which, of course, meant her. “So, what do y’all want to eat?”
“Not so fast, darling,” said Cousin Keith. “I gotta know if it’s true.”
Annie said nothing, just looked down at her tattooed hand poised above
the order pad, pencil at the ready.
“Were you really hijacked by a bunch of little, green men?”
Gray, she almost said, but didn’t dare.
“Yeah,” said Tim Johnson. “They beamed her up Scotty-style and
everything. I heard they stripped her nekkid and did things to her. Scientific
things.”
“Oh, really?” asked Keith. A grin crawled across his whiskered face,
from ear to ear, like a tobacco-stained snake. “Like what?”
“You know,” said Mike. “Sexual things. Probes and such. Stuck them
outer space instruments into every hole she owned.”
Big Keith snickered. “Oh, that’s just awful! Just plain awful. Little
Annie, did those alien guys take a long, hard trip to Uranus?”
As the men fell over each other laughing and guffawing, Annie rolled
her eyes. It wasn’t like she hadn’t heard that one before. She glanced down
the counter to where Chuck was cooking. He had his eyes glued to the grill,

but his grin was every bit as greasy and lecherous as those of her unruly
customers.
“Come on, guys,” she said, straightening her backbone. “Quit clowning
around and give me your orders.”
They finally curbed their ribbing and told her what she needed to know.
She returned midway down the counter and pinned the order slip on one of
the clips above Chuck’s grill. “You could’ve stepped in and stopped that,”
she said, miffed.
“Uh-uh,” he said as he lifted a basket of fries and dumped the oily
contents onto paper plates. “I’d say you deserved what you got, coming up
with that cockamamie story the way you did.”
“Dammit, Chuck… That was nearly seven years ago. How long are
folks gonna hold this over my head?”
Chuck shrugged his beefy shoulders. “Annie, this is a small Tennessee
town with little to amuse it. When you throw them a bone the way you did,
they’re gonna grab it and hold on as long as they can.”

It was a little after ten o’clock that night when Annie showed up at her
mother-in-law’s house on the respectable side of town. She knocked several
times before the front porch light came on and Stella Newman opened the
door.
“Lord have mercy, Annie!” she scowled. “You’re gonna wake up the
whole neighborhood!”
The waitress tried to ignore her attitude, but it was hard. “Is Jimmy
asleep?”
“No, he’s still up…playing on the living room floor with Spencer,” the
short woman with the raven black hair told her. “Why should I put him to
bed, just so you can come pounding on the door to wake him out of a sound
sleep?”
Annie stepped inside the house and followed Stella into the living room.
Jimmy, all red hair and freckles, sat on the floor, playing with Mr. Potato
Heads with Stella’s oldest son. Spencer Newman was thirty-three years old

but mentally challenged. He was a perpetual mama’s boy and did anything
Stella suggested or commanded. Spencer was content to spend his life
pleasing his mom, watching cartoons on Netflix, and playing with his toys,
his favorite being a tub of Mr. Potato Heads he’d had since he was four.
“Hey, Mama,” said the six-year-old, sticking a plastic nose where an ear
should have gone.
“Hey, baby. Are you ready to head home?”
Jimmy hung his head. “Awww! Can’t I stay all night with Grandma
tonight?”
“Sure you can, sweetheart,” said Stella, cutting sly eyes toward his
mother. “Your grandma would be happy to have you stay.”
“Not tonight, Jimmy.” Annie’s voice was as stern and parental as she
could muster. “We’ve talked about this before, haven’t we? When I get
here, you be ready to go. Mommy’s worked hard for ten straight hours…
She doesn’t want to hear you whine and throw a fit.”
“Please, Annie?” Spencer pleaded, pooching his lip out. “Please let
Jimmy stay! We haven’t even finished building all the Tater Heads!”
“I’m sorry, Spencer, but it’s way past Jimmy’s bedtime. And you should
be in bed, too, shouldn’t you?”
“I decide who goes to bed and when!” Stella snapped hatefully. She
turned to the two in the floor. “Y’all go on and finished those Tater Heads.
I’m gonna have a talk with Annie here.” The middle-aged woman slipped
her hand under the waitress’s elbow, as if intending to usher her to the
kitchen.
Annie pulled away defiantly, but followed her out of the room. Once
they were in the kitchen, Stella whirled at her, dark eyes flashing. “I’ve
made a decision, Annie. I’m seeing an attorney first thing in the morning.”
“An attorney? Whatever for?”
Stella smirked with fire engine red lips. “To file for custody of Jimmy,
of course.”
Annie couldn’t help but laugh. “You’ve got to be kidding! You’re only
his grandmother. They’re not going to take him away from me.”
“They will if his mother can’t provide for him sufficiently.”
Annie felt that familiar heat of anger creep into her face again.
“Sufficiently? I bust my ass every day to give Jimmy everything he needs.
And I think I’ve done a pretty damn good job since…”

“Since you drove my son to suicide?” countered Stella, eyes flashing.
That struck Annie like a slap in the face. She had always known Stella
blamed her for Jake walking out to the garage that night last September and
putting a 9mm round through the roof of his mouth…but this was the first
time she had actually had the gall to say it out loud.
“You remember the note they found in his shirt pocket, don’t you?”
Stella continued. “You remember what it said.”
Annie did. It had simply read I CAN’T TAKE THIS CRAZY SHIT
ANYMORE.
“Just what kind of crazy shit did you put my son through that made him
do such a horrible thing?”
“Jake had problems,” Annie told her.
“Yeah, like a laughingstock of a wife who made him feel foolish and
stupid! Spreading that awful story around town about being abducted by
aliens! Aliens for God’s sake! Is it any wonder he couldn’t take it for one
more minute and killed himself?”
Annie’s stomach sank, and she looked behind her to see if Jimmy had
heard. He hadn’t, though. He was still building an army of Mr. Potato
Heads on the living room carpet with his uncle.
“Can we shut the door?” she asked. “I don’t want…”
“Jimmy to hear?” Stella laughed harshly. “I’m sure he’s heard
everything there is to hear from the kids at school. Everything about how
his precious mommy was flown away in a spaceship and tortured and
molested by aliens!”
Annie opened her mouth, but couldn’t figure out what to say.
“How did it happen again?” Stella continued mercilessly. “You had that
flat tire out on Highway 70 near the rock quarry, and you were walking
back to town when a green light hit you and you were paralyzed. Couldn’t
move a damn muscle! And then that beam of light lifted you off your feet,
and you found yourself on a round table that revolved on its base. They’d
stripped you and clamped your wrists and ankles down and were doing the
most godawful things imaginable to you. And you had to go out and tell
everyone about it! Spreading lies and filth, shaming my poor son until he
could bear it no longer.”
That wasn’t how it had happened at all, but it was useless to tell Stella
that. She already had her mind set. Annie hadn’t remembered anything

about that night…not until the hypnotist at the mental hospital had brought
it all to the surface. She had felt ashamed and in shock afterward; hadn’t
wanted a word of it to get around. But folks loved to laugh and gossip.
Before the end of the week, her so-called “alien encounter” had been spread
from one end of the county to the other.
Stella wasn’t finished, though. “Yeah, and what happened nine months
after that? Jimmy was born. And my Jake as sterile as a cotton ball, unable
to have children!”
“You, bitch! You know Jimmy was Jake’s.” Folks in town had always
alluded, none too subtly, that she had concocted the whole alien story to
cover up an illicit affair.
Her mother-in-law kept laying it on thick. “I’m taking my precious
Jimmy away from you because you’re unstable as hell. Won’t let him go
outside to play, won’t let him play pee-wee football with the other boys his
age. Always taking his temperature and babying him, when he should be
out riding bikes or climbing trees. You’re stunting him, Annie! Turning him
into less than what he ought to be!”
“He’s… He’s a sickly child!” Annie protested lamely. “I’m just trying to
protect him… Trying to keep him safe.”
“A boy needs a little dirt under his fingernails!” Stella told her. “He
deserves a few skinned knees and black eyes. That’s why I’m going to do
my best to gain custody and take care of him myself…to give him a chance
to live life like he should!”
“I’ve heard enough!” Annie stormed out of the kitchen and crossed the
living room to where her son sat. “Come on, Jimmy! We’re going home!”
As Annie lifted him into her arms and carried him to the front door,
Stella followed closely, only a few steps behind. “Don’t worry, Jimmy!
Grandma is gonna make things right. She’s going to give you everything
you need and deserve.”
Jimmy began to pout, on the verge of crying. “What’s wrong, Mommy?
Why is Grandma yelling at us?”
“Don’t pay her any attention, sweetie,” his mother told him. “We’ll be
home in a few minutes.” Then both of them were out the door and heading
across the yard to Annie’s beat-up Chevy Impala.
“See you in court, you sorry whore!” Stella screamed, loud enough to
not only wake up the whole neighborhood, but half the county.

The dark-haired woman stood on the porch and watched as Annie
backed the car out of the driveway and headed for the east side of town. She
waited until the taillights disappeared from sight, then turned and went back
into the house.
Stella walked to the kitchen and brewed herself a pot of coffee. She sat
at the kitchen table for a long time, then nodded to herself and got up.
Walked to the living room where Spencer still sat cross-legged on the floor
playing with his toys.
“Spencer?” she said. “Sweetheart?”
The big man looked up. “Yeah, Mama?”
“You love Jimmy, don’t you?”
Spencer nodded furiously. “Yes, ma’am! You know I do! Love him, love
him, love him! Really, really love that boy!”
Stella’s face was sad and grievous, although inside she was smiling like
a serpent in Eden. “Then you’re the one who’s going to have to do
something about it.”
“Huh? Do something about what?”
“About poor Jimmy being mistreated.”
Spencer’s broad face grew pale with shock. “Who’s mistreating my
Jimmy?”
“I hate to even say it, but his mother is.”
“Annie?” Spencer shook his head. “I can’t believe that. Annie’s a good
mom. I like Annie!”
“But that’s just for show…around us,” Stella told him. “Things are
different when she gets him home. She lets Jimmy go hungry and spanks
him so hard he can hardly walk. He cries in his bed at night, so lonely,
wishing you were there to protect him.”
“No!” protested Spencer wildly. “No, no, no!”
“Yes, Spencer. It’s true. And we’ve got to do something…something to
save Jimmy and keep him safe.”
“Well, what, Mama? What can we do?”

“It’s you who’s going to have to do it,” his mother insisted. “You’re the
one who’s going to have to be the superhero and save that little boy.”
Stella’s words hit a nerve. “A superhero? You mean like Batman or
Captain America or Green Arrow?”
“Yes, son. You’re going to have to be the man of the family, like your
daddy was, and do what needs to be done. You’re going to have to deal with
Annie.”
Spencer stared at the woman for a long moment, then his eyes widened.
“No. Oh, no, no, no! I could never do that. Not to Annie.”
“Yes, you could. She’s small and weak. You’re big and strong. You
could do it quick and then Jimmy would be safe and happy. And he could
play Potato Heads with you whenever you want. Wouldn’t that be
wonderful? To have a little brother to play with and love and take care of?”
Spencer thought about it for a moment, then began to nod. “How,
Mama? How am I going to do it?”
Stella Newman smiled sweetly, crossed the living room, and sat directly
in front of her oldest son. And, softly and patiently, told him everything he
needed to know.

It was eleven-thirty when Spencer stood on the little wooden porch of
the single-wide trailer. The outside light was off and he could hear crickets
and toads singing in the darkness around him. It scared him, and all he
wanted in the world was to leave and go home.
But, he couldn’t. He looked over his shoulder at the Ford Fusion parked
in the driveway…silent, headlights dark. Stella stared at him through the
windshield. It was that stern expression she had when he missed the toilet
and peed on the bathroom floor.
Spencer swallowed. His throat was bone dry. His right hand was heavy.
Every time he looked down at it, he wanted to cry.
He looked back at his mother. Her fingers drummed impatiently on the
curve of the steering wheel.

Spencer lifted his left hand and knocked on the door. He could hear a
TV inside…an old rerun of Gunsmoke, he thought. He knocked again and
heard the squeak of couch springs, then someone walking toward the door.
Abruptly, the outside light came on, making him squint. The door opened
and Annie stood there, looking surprised.
She unlatched the screen door and pushed it open. “Spencer? What are
you doing here?”
“To rescue Jimmy,” he said. His voice was half-moan, half-sob. He
brought the claw hammer up and over his shoulder, forcefully striking her
in the forehead just below the hairline.
Annie blinked three times and stumbled backward. She still had that
surprised look on her pretty face as blood began to trickle down. “What?”
He lumbered inside, swinging the hammer from the side. It glanced off
her left check, likely shattering it in a dozen places, and nearly ripping her
nose away as the claw end went past.
Annie tripped over her own feet, landing on her butt on the floor. She
raised a hand, attempting to ward him off. “Wait.”
He struck again, hitting her fingers, breaking them at the knuckles. “I’m
sorry, Annie,” he blubbered, crying now. He looked behind him. Stella
stood outside now, on the little porch. Her eyes said, Don’t disappoint me.
Spencer wailed and hit Annie again and again. The hammer, which had
been pretty and clean thirty seconds before, became wet and mired with
things from inside Annie’s head. Finally, she fell backward and just lay
there. Stared straight up at the ceiling fan and didn’t move.
He leaned down and patted her head tenderly. “I’m sorry, Annie. I’m so
sorry. But we had to save him. Had to save Jimmy.”
Stella was inside the trailer now. “We’ve got to be quick, sweetheart,”
she told him. “Wrap her in that afghan there and put her on the couch.”
Dropping the bloody hammer, Spencer did as he was told. He rolled
Annie in the crocheted throw and, with little effort at all, laid her on the
couch. On the TV, Festus was telling Matt Dillon to look out for those
outlaws behind the rocks.
“Grandma?”
The voice startled them. They both looked over at the little hallway
between the kitchen and the bedrooms. Jimmy stood there in Minecraft
pajamas with a green Creeper on the front.

“Grandma? What are you doing here?” He looked over at the bundle on
the couch. “What’s wrong with Mommy?”
“She’s had such a hard day at work, Jimmy, she’s plumb worn out,”
Stella explained. She just fell asleep while watching TV.”
Jimmy nodded. “But why are you here?”
“We’re going on a surprise trip, baby. Just you and me and your uncle.
Now let’s go to your bedroom and pack some clothes.”
Jimmy looked at the big man next to the couch. “Why is Spencer
crying? And why is he bleeding? Did he hurt himself?”
Spencer’s wet eyes bulged when he looked down and saw Annie’s
brains and hair on his hand. With a sob, he wiped it on the cream-colored
couch, leaving a smeared handprint.
“Oh, you know your Uncle Spencer,” Stella said as she ushered the boy
down the hallway. “Always having accidents. He cut his hand on the porch
railing when he was coming up the steps.”

The hallway was dark as they made their way to Jimmy’s bedroom at
the very end. Stella suddenly realized she had never been this far into the
trailer before…that she had never actually seen her grandson’s room. As
they reached the door, her nostrils flared at the strong odor of rubbing
alcohol and bleach.
She opened the door and fumbled along the inside wall for the light
switch. When she found it, she turned it on.
Jimmy’s room wasn’t a little boy’s room at all. It was more like an
operating room. The walls were white and sterile, and banks of monitors
stood in the corners. And there was a long, stainless steel chamber with a
clear plastic dome running along the top.
Stella couldn’t comprehend what she was seeing. “What…what is that
thing?”
“That’s my bed,” he told her.
“Your…your bed?”
“Mommy calls it an oxy…oxy…oxy-shun chamber.”

Stella shook her head, feeling her pulse quicken with rage. What the hell
has that crazy bitch been doing to you?
“Mommy takes good care of me,” he told her. “She makes sure I’m
healthy and don’t get sick. I hate all the vitamins, though. They’re yucky
tasting!”
“Let’s get those clothes, sweetheart,” Stella said, pulling her eyes away
from the steel chamber. They went to Jimmy’s closet and, after finding an
old backpack, filled it with shirts, pants, underwear, socks, and a couple of
pairs of sneakers.
When they got back to the living room, Spencer was sitting on the edge
of the couch, crying and slowly stroking the mound beneath the afghan.
“Aren’t we going to tell Mommy goodbye?” Jimmy asked.
“Oh, no, baby. Mommy’s sleeping so soundly, we don’t want to wake
her up. We’ll give her a call on the way to the surprise.”
Jimmy jumped up and down. “What’s the surprise, Grandma? Please tell
me!”
“I will when we get in the car,” she promised. Stella looked over at
Spencer. “Well, come on, son… We’ve got to be going.”
Spencer looked up with frightened eyes. “But…but shouldn’t we wait
for the poli—?”
“Get in the damn car!” Stella shouted. She closed her eyes and took a
deep breath. “Please, honey… We really need to go.”
Spencer nodded, patted Annie’s motionless body one last time, and
joined his mother and nephew. They locked the door behind them and went
to the car.
Stella buckled Jimmy into his car seat, then jumped into the front and
started the Fusion. Spencer sat in the passenger seat without his seatbelt on,
crying and rubbing his hands together furiously with hand sanitizer he had
found in the glove compartment.
As they backed out of the drive and started down the highway, Jimmy
asked her again. “What’s the surprise, Grandma?”
“Why, we’re driving to California, baby,” she said, mustering the most
cheerful tone she could manage. “We’re taking you to Disneyland!”
“But that’s a long, long way to drive,” said the boy. “The one in Florida
is a lot closer.”
“Yes, but Disneyland has more magic. Walt built it himself.”

Spencer’s face bloomed with hope. “Are we, Mama? Are we really
going?”
Stella lowered her voice, so the boy wouldn’t here. “No, not really!
We’re driving to Denver. I’ve rented us a house there.”
Appearing confused, Spencer asked, “Denver? Why are we going to
—?”
“Listen!” She steered with one hand and grabbed his left forearm firmly
with the other. “We can’t stay here. We’ve got to find a safe place to take
Jimmy…a safe place to hide. We can’t stay, do you understand? Not after
what you did to Annie.”
Spencer looked mortified. He peered through the side window into the
darkness as fleeting glimpses of familiar places rushed by. “But…but what
about our house and my bed?” His eyes widened. “What about my Tater
Heads?”
“We’ll go to Walmart and buy you some more!” she hissed between
clenched teeth.
They drove in darkness down the lonesome stretch of rural highway.
The interstate heading west toward Memphis was still fifteen miles away.
“Grandma?” the boy asked after a few minutes.
“Yes, sweetie?”
“Can we call Mommy now?”
“No, not now,” she told him. “Mommy was very, very tired. She’ll sleep
all night long. We’ll call her in the morning. I promise.”
The boy grew silent and, at first, Stella was sure he had fallen asleep.
“I shouldn’t have,” Spencer mumbled next to her. “I shouldn’t have…
shouldn’t have done it… No sir, shouldn’t have hit Annie with that…”
“Shut up!” snapped his mother. “Do you want to upset Jimmy? Make
him cry? We’ll talk about it when we get to Denver.”
Spencer lowered his head and cried bitterly into his hands.
Onward they drove. They were a half mile past the county line when
they heard a sound come from the back seat. It sounded like wrapping paper
tearing on Christmas morning. Moist, soggy wrapping paper.
“What the hell —?” Stella felt along the dashboard, found a knob, and
clicked on the overhead light. “Spencer, look back there and see what that
was.”

Spencer nodded, wiped his eyes with the sleeve of his shirt, and craned
his neck, looking between the front seats. The back of the vehicle was
illuminated with pale yellow light.
Spencer screamed.
“What is it, boy?” Stella demanded, easing on the brake. “What do you
see?”
“Oh God!” Spencer shrieked. “Oh no... Dear Jesus…no, no, NO!” Then
he turned, opened the passenger door, and, without hesitation, rolled out.
“Spencer!” Stella screamed. She slammed on the brakes, bringing the
Fusion to a skidding halt onto the gravel strip along the side of the highway.
She sat there for a moment, then looked in her sideview mirror. Spencer
had landed on the gator-back border at the side of the road. His body was
jack-knifed, and his head had somehow melded with the pavement. In fact,
most of his head had spread clear to the center line and beyond.
Stella closed her eyes and breathed deeply. Opened them again and
looked in the mirror. Spencer was still there, ass in the air, as dead as he had
been ten seconds ago.
Something behind her moved… or slithered.
Oh God! Oh God… Please, dear God… Please…”
She didn’t want to look. Her body rebelled against motion, wanted to
stay frozen exactly where it was…but her mind was a traitor. It just had to
know.
Stella’s heart pounded wildly as she turned her head and stared into the
back of the car.
Her grandson’s Jimmy suit was still buckled into the car seat, as flaccid
and empty as a glove without a hand.
Stella’s neck felt rusty and hard to move as she turned her head and
stared straight through the windshield. She simply sat there for a long
moment, allowing the Fusion’s engine to idle…listening for sounds. They
came a second later. Something covered the dome light overhead, plunging
the vehicle’s interior into darkness.
She raised her eyes to the rearview mirror. Even in the gloom, she could
see slow, sluggish movement as it traveled across the ceiling of the car…
and stopped directly above her head.
“Grandma?” The voice sounded hollow and wet…almost seemed to
echo in her ears and her mind at the same time.

“Yes, dear?” Her voice was flat, emotionless. It was as numb as her
hands clutching the steering wheel. Hands so firmly anchored that her
arthritic bones threatened to fissure and crack.
Something dangled down from above. Long and pliant…chillingly
moist…as it tenderly caressed her cheek. “Can we have ice cream,
Grandma?”
“Yes,” Stella told him. She glanced into the sideview mirror again at
Spencer’s body…wishing it were her instead. “Anything you want,
sweetheart.”
She dropped her right hand to the gearshift and put it into drive. Before
she pressed the gas, Jimmy slid down from the ceiling and spread across the
passenger seat beside her.
Stella eased the car back onto the highway. She found it difficult to
focus…to collect her thoughts. Now, what…what was I doing?
“Ice cream,” said the thing beside her.
“Yes…right.” Stella sent the car speeding down the dark country road,
away from town. Exactly where, for what reason, and with what…she had
no earthly idea.

Roadkill
by Samantha Kolesnik

When I was thirteen, my father was on the sheriff’s list for roadkill cleanup.
It was a good deal for Dad, who got to keep the meat and butcher it, put
it in the freezer, and then serve us venison styled eight ways to Monday in
various stews, sauces, and sausages.
Some families were blessed with matching Christmas pajamas and nice
cars.
We were blessed with death.
And the sheriff’s office appreciated the work, too. My father’s name
was a welcome word around their office. His willingness to clean up the
roads meant the cops didn’t need to send their guys out. All they had to do
was provide the coordinates and they had their willing servant.
A man would go far if it meant feeding his family.
Sometimes the deer were still alive when Dad and Paul arrived on
location. And conversely, sometimes they were a little too far gone, the rot
already set in.
Other times, they were just too dismembered—too scattered across the
roadway to be of use. But more often than not, the carcass was fresh and

was brought home to be skinned, chopped, vacuum sealed, and frozen—
then eventually thawed, cooked, and consumed.
We lived in a suburban town with thick swathes of woods surrounding
two-story lookalike homes. Ours was the oldest and smallest home on the
street, and we were the only renters there. This was a distinction the kids at
school never let Paul and me forget. It was the nicest home we’d ever lived
in, but what I realized at thirteen was, “a nice neighborhood,” as they called
it, didn’t actually mean nice people lived there.
I missed our old home, and I missed Mom.

“The cool thing about living out here,” Paul said, while holding one of
Dad’s cigarettes in his hand, “is you can see the stars real good.” Paul had
curly red hair like Mom had. I resented him for getting to carry so much of
her in his appearance when I didn’t look like her at all.
I looked up at the sky and saw what Paul meant. The stars were crystal
clear in Crescent Hills.
“Do you remember what the sky looked like in Simpson?” I asked.
Paul twirled the unlit cigarette in his fingers. He didn’t know how to
smoke it.
“I remember it was dirty all the time,” he shrugged.
“I think it’s what killed Mom.”
Paul shot me an angry look then glanced down at the ground, his profile
only half illuminated by the porchlight. “It was cancer. There’s no one to
blame for that,” he finally said.
I thought of Mom leaning against her car, a cigarette in hand, while she
watched Paul and me playing roughhouse, tag, pirates, and whatever other
pretend play in the yard. She always had bright red lipstick on, and it bled
out from the rim of her top lip, blurring the border. “One of these days I’m
gonna learn how to do this right,” she’d laugh while laying the color on
thick.

I was with her the first time she coughed. People just didn’t get cancer
out of nowhere. It came like an intruder, by stealth. The one that took Mom
snuck in when Hurricane Ivan rolled through Simpson. The storm killed
thirty-four people and displaced about two hundred more, but I’m also
convinced it brought the cancer that killed my mom.
When the hurricane came, Mom, Paul, and I huddled in the bathroom
with pots of water, books, and snacks. Hurricane winds didn’t treat homes
like ours too kindly, so we tried to be as insulated as possible. The winds
whipped and howled outside until all at once, there was a calm.
“It’s the eye of the storm,” Mom said, an excited gleam in her eye. She
had worn her red lipstick even for this occasion. She stood up and craned
her head outside the bathroom doorway. “Come on, let’s have a look, Paul,”
but Paul was too scared.
So I went.
The front door to our house had already been flung open by the winds
and flapped intermittently outside, creating a seductive rhythm against the
siding. A circle of haze and small flying debris blew softly beyond the
doorway, all but begging in its spectacle.
Mom held my hand in hers, tightly enough that I knew she was nervous,
and pulled me to the doorway. When we got there, I remember her
whispering, “On the count of three, Mary,” and we both murmured, in
synchrony, “One…two…three.”
The step outside into the open air was a free-fall tumble of adrenaline in
my belly as I opened my eyes.
There, in the midst of destruction, was the prettiest rainbow I’d ever
seen in my life, a beguiling arch of color that promised a peace it couldn’t
deliver. The beautiful colors were so out of place that they seemed miragelike in the impoverished wasteland around us. I was sure nothing that
beautiful could be real in Simpson.
“That’s how you know God is real,” Mom said.
I looked at her, and saw tears streaming down her face, one of them
landing on her trademarked red lip.

The wind started to pick up again, and I had to pull her back into the
house, almost by force. She hadn’t wanted to leave the porch. The promise
on the horizon had been too seductive, too hopeful. It had seemed to avow a
greater dominion over earth than man, and it looked like it was coming in
peace. Because nothing bright and beautiful could ever be bad.
Soon as Mom was back inside the house, the first coughing fit came.
There was a cancer in that hurricane eye, and we had let it in.

Dad came home extra tired that evening. His face was grimy with dust
from the mill, and there was a strange scent of metal and sweat in the air.
“Paul!” he yelled.
Dad shot a look at me, “Why aren’t the dishes clean, Mary? I told you I
don’t want to see dishes in the sink when I come home anymore.”
“Sorry, I’ll do them now,” I said, and I scurried over to begin washing
them.
“Paul!” he yelled again. His voice held a threat he’d never act on, but it
still intimidated.
My brother ran in from the hallway.
“Get your coat on, we got a deer to pick up.”
My brother groaned, “I don’t want to go.”
My hands were sudsy with soap. I turned the water faucet a little lower
to hear their conversation more clearly.
“You don’t have a choice,” Dad said.
I watched Paul go toward the closet to get his coat and gloves.
“Can I go, Dad?” I asked.
My father hesitated. He seemed to mull this over in his mind, the
conflict between his saying women were equal and how he gendered our
chores.
“Yeah, take Mary,” Paul said. My brother had gotten tired of the endless
nightly trips, of spending his prime video game time skinning and
butchering in the garage.
“Are you sure you can handle it?” Dad asked.

I nodded, even though I wasn’t so sure.
“If you come with me, once you’re in the truck, there’s no chickening
out.”
“I won’t chicken out.”
Paul looked elated as I ran past him to get a coat. I grabbed it from our
overstuffed closet. It was a red puffer jacket Mom used to wear, but now it
fit me. I slid on cotton gloves and grabbed a warm hat.
“You’re going to need different gloves than those. Here, take your
brother’s.” Dad handed me work gloves. I didn’t like how they felt on my
hands—bulky, loose.
“Paul, since your sister is coming with me, that means you got dish
duty.”
I smiled. I liked this role reversal.
I followed my dad out to his pickup truck and slid in next to him. It was
so cold outside I could see my breath.
“This is the third time this winter the sheriff’s called me to pick up from
this location.” Dad said. The truck sped along the road out of our suburban
development. He kept the windows cracked because he was hot, he said, but
I was shivering under Mom’s puffer.
“Where are we going?”
“It’s Hennepick Road, which is up past the middle school, about ten
miles beyond the pond you and your brother fed the ducks at last year. I’m
just glad it’s not snowing because they don’t plow that area very well.”
“There must be a lot of deer up that way.”
“A lot of deer, maybe, but not a lot of cars. Got me wondering if
someone’s killing them for sport.”
“Dad, no one would just kill a deer and not take the meat. That doesn’t
make sense.”
My dad shot me a sad kind of smile. “Not everyone kills for the same
reasons, Mary.”
“Yeah, but what other reason would there be?”
Dad turned on the radio and we listened to classical Christmas music for
most of the way there, until we got just a little beyond the duck pond, now
frozen over. That’s when the radio devolved to static and Dad switched it
off.
“Should be almost there,” he said.

The road grew less sure as we went along, and the trees closed in on us
—leafless oak trees, born way before we were. I had the grim notion that
bugs which feasted on all sorts of dead things had been in and out of those
oaks over the years. The forest was a kind of writhing graveyard. In the
warmer months, it could be deceptively pretty. In the winter, it presented its
true nature.
Dad turned on his high beams just as flurries began falling from the sky.
They looked like flakes of ash against the windshield.
“Let me know if you see anything,” he said.
Just as he said it, something on the side of the road caught my eye, but
we passed it too quickly. When I turned around, the darkness obscured my
view.
“Hey Dad, turn around. I think I saw it.”
Dad put the truck in reverse, his head craned back. “Are you sure?”
“I saw something.”
We backed up far enough that in the light of Dad’s high beams, we saw
the fallen deer. Its neck was twisted unnaturally, head blanketed in shadow.
Its rigid contortion was hard to look away from, even though I wanted to.
“Well there she is,” my dad said. “That’s a doe. Usually is.”
Dad turned on the cab light and started gathering his things.
Meanwhile, I thought about the doe’s children. I wondered if she had
any, and if they’d be safe out there in the forest alone. My own nose was
cold enough to start aching.
I followed Dad out of the truck.
“We gotta be quick because I don’t wanna waste the battery.” He jerked
his head back at the high beams which were still on. I’d left the door to the
passenger seat open. The flurries intensified and speckled our hats and coats
with white before they melted into small wet spots. I kept touching the tip
of my nose to try to warm it.
Dad reached the deer before I did. I stood back a few feet from it and
waited for him to signal what I should do. He knelt over the animal and
followed its neck up to where its head was. I couldn’t see the head because
it was blocked by the animal’s body, bent backwards almost a full hundredeighty degrees.
“Goddamnit!” Dad said. He gestured for me to come over.
I took a deep breath and walked closer to where my dad knelt.

“Look at this,” he said. I didn’t at first understand what he meant.
“No, come around here, look at the head,” he urged.
I angled myself to where he was kneeling and bent over his shoulder. He
held the doe’s head in his gloved hands. The poor animal’s nose was busted
and there was a streak of dried blood down the slope of its skull, but what
startled me were its eyes. The doe’s eyes were wholly white, like marble
orbs.
Dad let the head slip out of his hands and patted his knees. “This is what
the others were like out here, too. I hauled ’em out to the woods, but fuck if
I’m coming out here again. Sheriff’s got me chasing bad meat.”
“Why are its eyes like that?” I asked.
A strong wind blew from the woods to our right. My fingers were
chilled through my gloves.
“Disease, maybe,” he said.
My dad stood up and looked beyond me, into the woods. “…or poison,”
he mumbled, and he took a couple steps toward the tree line.
“Hey! Who’s out there?” he yelled.
I heard the crackle of branches—distant but not too distant. I followed
my dad’s gaze and saw roving beams of light strobe in the darkness. They
pierced the black night and revealed the oaken skeleton of the woods.
My dad took a few steps closer until he was at the border of where the
woods started.
“Dad! Let’s go. Let’s go home!” I looked back at the pickup truck, and
then at my father again. He seemed transfixed by the roving lights in the
woods. They were different colors, like a rainbow.
Another gust of wind blew past me, carrying a breeze of stench off the
deer carcass. I remembered my mother’s tears, and I looked at the bright red
and pink streaming through the trees and wondered what new God could
this be.
“Dad, let’s go,” I said again, though my voice felt stifled by the wind
and cold. I watched my father pull out his skinning knife as he slipped into
the shadows of the forest.
“Dad!” I screamed, but there was no answer except the crackling of
branch and wind. Everything was drowned out by the collective decay of
the forest, while snow steadily came down.

I left the doe and scurried back into the pickup truck. Half of my seat
was wet from snowfall. I slammed the door shut and hit the locks. I decided
to leave the high beams on so that my father could find his way back. With
exception to the illuminated deer carcass, I couldn’t see anything. The
rainbow-colored lights in the forest had disappeared, taking their secrets
with them.
Was it children out playing? There was nothing out here for miles,
though. Teenagers drinking? It was too cold to be out partying. Dad had
said he’d been out here before; maybe someone was watching him all this
time?
The wind whipped at the side of the truck and I looked out through the
windshield. The deer carcass began to look uncannily human in the
headlights’ illumination, just a crumpled mess of flesh. I slid down in my
seat so I wouldn’t have to see it anymore. I thought of Mom, and how much
I missed her. I could smell her scent on the air and wondered what she
would say during a time like this.
She’d say it was God. That He worked in mysterious ways.
But what if it wasn’t, I wondered? What if all the mysteries we
attributed to God were just strangers in the night, leaving presents for us
only they could understand? I shivered against the seat leather and looked
up through the windshield at the falling snow. It was hypnotic as it landed
against the glass.
I reached out for the heat knob, cranked it up, and it blew lukewarm air
through the vents. Dad would be back soon. He’d climb into the seat and
mutter about work the next morning, how this was a wasted trip, how he
should’ve taken Paul, and how the dishes had better be done by the time we
got home…
I thought all these words I imagined him saying, in his voice as I
remembered it, while I drifted asleep, despite my better intentions.

A plow came the next morning, the sheriff’s car trailing it, as it cleared a
path through the snow to Dad’s pickup. The gas had run out and I was

shivering beyond my own control, an automatic impulse that wouldn’t stop
jerking my body no matter how much I willed to be still.
The sheriff had to pry the door open. His face was covered in human
grief and I worried I might be on the brink of crossing over, of feeding oaks
and other ancient things.
“Now keep your eyes on me, young lady.” The sheriff grabbed my arms
and jerked me upright. He had a hard time holding onto me because I
couldn’t keep still. A wool blanket was wrapped around my shoulders, and I
did my best to get my body to cooperate exiting the truck.
I stumbled out and would’ve fallen if not for the sheriff’s grip.
“Where’s my Dad?” I managed to get out.
The plowman was out of his vehicle, as well, and looked shaken. I
couldn’t tell if it was because of the cold or the sight of me.
“Eyes on me, come on now,” the sheriff prodded. He held me close,
kept my arms flat against my sides, as if he didn’t want me to turn around
or escape his hold.
Then, I remembered.
The deer carcass.
He probably didn’t want me to see it.
I jerked out of the sheriff’s grip to turn around and verify my suspicion.
Only—the deer carcass was gone.
What laid in its place, contorted with early decay, was the corpse of my
father, his head hanging lopsided from a snapped neck, with eyes as white
as the snow around us.
“Only God knows what happened,” my mom would’ve said.
My father would’ve said the same, that only God could cure the cancer
that took my mother. People came up with all sorts of spiritual explanations
for things science couldn’t explain—heck, oftentimes for things science
could. Who’s to say why it’s decided to leave blessings for some families,
and grotesque presents for others?
I stared at my father, his contorted flesh inhumanly posed. I was too
cold to cry and too weak to scream. I just knew someone—something—was
watching for my reaction.
And I knew better than to call it God.

Embryo
by Tim Curran

Megulon was the fifth planet in the Procyon A system, and the Antares had
been orbiting it for three going on four weeks. Circling round and round
that ugly blue-black ball that was like a stripped skull drifting in space.
Leeden hated it. He hated looking at it, seeing it, knowing it was there.
What had first been a sort of inexplicable apprehension at the sight of it
had now ramped up to pure terror.
When he was on duty at the comm module like tonight, his eyes were
drawn to it on the view screen. Much as he tried to look away, he couldn’t.
It held him hypnotized, the way it was once thought a snake could
hypnotize a bird it wanted to eat.
It had him. It owned him. And deep down where the real fear dwelled,
he knew it.
And that’s it, he thought with a shiver. It knows I’m here, and it’s
watching me as I watch it because it has plans for me.
God, he couldn’t keep going on this way. The others were starting to
notice there was something off about him. Last thing he wanted was a psych
discharge when they got back home. He needed the big pay that came with

manning a deep space rig. He had to think of Kassidy and Taylor. He had to
take care of them.
“You awake, Ly?” a voice said, and he jumped.
“Sure,” Leeden said. His voice was dry and shrill. “Just zoning out, I
guess.”
Moxton stood there, looking from the planet to Leeden. “You know me,
Ly, I don’t butt in. But…well, is something bothering you lately? Man, you
just don’t seem to be yourself.”
Leeden pressed a hand to his mouth and faked a yawn. He had to do it
so he didn’t scream or start ranting about how he thought that goddamn
planet was haunted, that it was an immense serous eyeball staring into the
depths of his soul.
“No, I’m fine.”
“You sure?”
“Yeah.”
“Hmm.” Moxton didn’t sound convinced. “We’ve been out a long time.
You need a couple days’ rest, you let me know.”
Good old Mox. He was second in command of the Antares, and he was
like everyone’s big brother. He had a caring eye and a sympathetic ear.
“I’ll let you know.”
From the board there was a droning sound like wind blowing through a
deserted house. Rising and falling, blowing, moaning.
“Why don’t you turn that shit off?”
It was the stellar and planetary noise of Megulon, the emissions from its
magnetic field. It got under your skin after a while.
“I guess I didn’t realize I had it on.”
Moxton gave him a hard look. “Well, it’s spooky. Don’t sit up here and
listen to it. It’ll make your head funny. Sounds like the goddamn planet is
breathing.”
When he left, Leeden turned it back on. It was eerie and it wasn’t
helping his state of mind any, but when he was alone like this and he found

himself staring at the dead world of Megulon, he automatically listened to
the noise. It did not comfort him: it scared him…yet, he listened to it for
hours.
Right now, it sounded like heavy static with a distant, regular ping
buried in it that reminded him of the cleats on a flagpole rope banging in the
breeze. Ding, Ding, ding, ding. Hollow, reverberating. It made him think of
empty schoolyards and the wind whipping through playgrounds by night.
It was very windy down there on Megulon, its rocky surface blown by
clouds of toxic methane, hydrogen, and helium. Dark, misty, the sky marred
by clouds the color of bruises. There was nothing else down there. The
planet had been Earth-like at one time, but now it was on the way to
becoming a gas sub-giant through a process of planetary evolution that had
the geoscience boys scratching their heads. That was the primary reason
that the Antares was making an extended survey of the planet and launching
probes every couple of days.
Now the music of Megulon was a roaring, whooshing sound like
thunder or old-style jet engines. That died away and the droning static
returned. The pinging was gone, but there was an odd metallic tapping
noise that repeated over and over: tap-tap-tap, tap-tap-tap. It was like
Morse code. Leeden pressed his hands over his ears.
“I won’t listen,” he said. “I won’t.”
I know you’re just a planet. I know it. I know it.
As if in response to that, there was a continual fleshy, throbbing noise
coming in now. It sounded the way Taylor’s heart had during the ultrasound
when she was six months along in Kassidy’s belly—shish-shish, shishshish. My God, he was losing his mind.

When his shift at the comm was over, his nerves were frayed like old
wires. He knew he wouldn’t be able to sleep because the planet would

invade his dreams, so he went down to the galley and punched up breakfast
from the food synth unit. Cheese omelet, bacon, toast with marmalade.
Black coffee. Orange juice. It was a nice spread, but as he sat down, the
smell of it made his stomach roll over like a pill bug.
He pushed it away, then thought better of it.
If anybody had squawked to Captain Creed about him acting strange,
the old man might be watching him right now. Goddamn Antares had more
fly-eye cameras in its walls than a federal lockup. They could watch your
every move if they wanted to.
He sipped his coffee, trying not to think about Megulon. Even when he
wasn’t topside, it could look through the walls and see him like an eyeball
peering through a mouse hole.
Doc Sharma came in, nodded to him, and sat across the room studying
the display of her lenticular holo-tablet that hung suspended in the air
before her eyes.
Don’t look at her. Don’t meet her eyes, a voice in the back of his head
told him. It’ll look paranoid.
Knowing there was a very good possibility the old man had alerted her
to watch him, Leeden tried to act very casual. Though his appetite had
crashed along with his sense of well-being, he forced himself to eat. He
wanted her to see how good his appetite was.
See, Doc? See? I’m a big healthy boy with a big healthy appetite. No
worries.
But she was smart, and he knew it. She could spot a good case of space
rapture (or the “spookies” as it was colloquially known) from a mile away.
He had to be careful not to overplay his hand. If she thought some kind of
mental fatigue was setting in, she’d confine him to bed for forty-eight hours
and load him with droxamine until fantasy and reality would blur together
in his head like an abstract painting.
I can’t afford that. If the planet thinks I’m defenseless, hell knows what
it’ll do to me. Gotta keep vigilant.
He cleaned his plate and gulped down his orange juice. When Doc
Sharma passed by to put in an order, he smiled and said, “Hey, Doc. I
recommend the eggs. Taste like the real thing. Nobody would ever know it
was the scrambled atoms from Tuesday’s meatloaf leftovers.”
There. How’s that? More like the old Leeden?

She laughed. “You should’ve been with us at Titan One in the old days,
my boy. Our synth never worked right. You’d get blue cheese dressing on
your oatmeal and fish sticks in your pizza.”
“Ouch,” he said.
She went back to her table, but she was still watching him and he knew
it. Danny Chee came in and ordered nachos, sat down across from him.
Leeden was glad for the company. Chee was an EST, Engineering Systems
Tech, who mothered the cooling processor. Couldn’t have the fusion core of
the ship getting too warm. The Procyon system already had two suns—Pro
A, the main sequence star, and Pro B, a dead white dwarf—it didn’t need a
third.
“What’s new, Chee?”
He crunched nachos, washed them down with root beer. He looked
around conspiratorially. “You know that smoking hot pharm tech on four?
The one with the long black hair and the legs up to her neck?”
“Iramani. Sure.”
He looked around again. “I was balls deep in that girl last night while
you were stroking the comm.”
“Then what happened?”
“Ah, you know. Then I woke up.”
Leeden laughed and made sure Doc Sharma heard him. Encouraged,
Chee went into detail about who he was lusting over this week, claiming—
and not too quietly—that he would get laid about the same time the captain
got a personality.
“How’s things up in the comm?”
Leeden swallowed back deserts. “Ah, boring. Nothing much to do
during orbital. Mox stops by to make sure I’m not sleeping, and the old man
comes in now and again to tell me what an exemplary job I’m doing, how
proud of the crew he is.”
“And you listen without throwing up? Damn, I admire your fortitude.”
Chee chomped away, sucked down more root beer. “Glad I’m not up there
watching that damned planet on the view. Goddamn thing gives me the
creeps.”
Leeden swallowed again. “Why’s that?”
“I don’t know. It just does. Better you than me. There’s something
spooky about big old Meggy. Maybe I’ve been listening to too many

stories.” He lowered his voice to a whisper. “Agency lost two geo sats here
back in the old days. You know that? And a Zulu class warship called the
Scorpius crashed on the surface twenty years ago. Last call they got from
her was her captain putting out a distress that they were being called down
by something that lives there.”
Although he was trembling, Leeden said, “Nothing could survive in that
shitstorm down there.”
“I’ve seen life in worse places and so have you.” Chee pushed aside his
food. “The Scorpius had a crew of fifty. When an Agency SAR ship did a
flyover, they couldn’t find any trace of the ship. And that’s the truth.”
With that, Chee went on his way, dumping the remains of his nachos
into the recycler. Leeden sat there, wound tight as a spring, thinking,
thinking. He could feel the planet watching him as intently as Doc Sharma,
but only Megulon had penetrated into his soul.

Procyon A looked like a fuzzy yellow disk from the orbit of Megulon. It
was nearly 500 million miles away and Leeden envied its distance. He
refused to look at the viewscreen. Nothing could make him do it. He would
have turned it off, but it was against regs. If Captain Creed popped in as he
liked to do and it was off, Leeden would have been in for the mother of all
ass chewings.
But even when he didn’t look at it, it was looking at him. He could feel
its eyes on him, feel it trying to get into his mind and make him do things.
Although he didn’t remember turning on the audio that monitored the sound
of the planet’s magnetic field, he could hear it—the sound of Megulon, like
wind blowing through rows of Nebraska corn, a sound of respiration, the
sound of something alive.
Shaking his head, he clasped his hands to his ears so he didn’t have to
hear it.
You can’t shut us out, Ly, a sibilant voice said, and he nearly screamed.
“No no, no,” he said.

You’re part of us, and we’re part of you. Tonight, we will take a life as a
blood offering. Then you’ll know. Then you’ll understand.
But he didn’t want to understand.
He didn’t want to know.
He wanted blissful ignorance.
But they wouldn’t allow it.
He doubled over with pain, nauseated, with a mindless horror that he
had been invaded. That they were inside him, crawling through him,
gestating in him like an evil fetus. And his mind was drawn down, down,
down and then not only were they in him, but he was in them. He was down
there in that screaming wind tunnel of seething methane and hydrogen mist.
The air was filled with blowing flakes of ice and spinning dust devils,
whirlwinds of it…and yet, he could look up, peer through the bruised blackpurple clouds to a ship that orbited high above. And what he felt…what he
felt was—
Hunger.
All those energetic, dreaming minds and the tender, sweet gray matter
that powered them. He wanted to stuff himself with it.
Then, whatever it was—a delusion, vision, a psychic impression, a
mind-swap—it was over and he was standing there, staring at the planet on
the viewscreen, his lips moving, his voice saying, “Yes…oh yes.”
He might have screamed, but the door slid open and someone stepped
in. It was Lucy Klyman, one of the geologists from three. Leeden wiped
sweat from his face. He was both happy and disturbed to see her.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
“Just trying to kill the time.” He swallowed. “Why are you up so late? I
thought you geo people were morning types.”
She walked right past him and stood before the viewscreen.
“We’ll never get away from it,” she said.
“What do you mean?”
She kept staring, her lips moving but no words coming out. Finally, she
said, “It’s in my dreams. Every time I close my eyes, I see Megulon. I’m
not sure if I’m dreaming of it or it’s dreaming of me.”
His throat was so dry, he could barely speak. “Lucy…Lucy, are you all
right?”

“No, I’m not all right. Not as long as it’s down there…watching us,
thinking about us, dreaming about us.”
“Lucy…”
She looked at him and her eyes were lifeless, as if her soul had been
sucked away.
“It’s not a planet, Ly. It’s an entity.”
With that, she turned and left the comm module.
Tonight, we will take a life.
Yes, he knew it was true. Tonight, they would take Lucy.
“That’s crazy,” he said under his breath.
But he knew it wasn’t crazy at all.

As the Antares moved across the face of the planet, Leeden stared down
into the uneasy firmament of its dark, boiling atmosphere which was like a
black funeral veil pulled over the grinning death mask of a corpse. Behind
it, it leered at him, mocked him, dared him to get closer. It flaunted its
nameless primordial secrets and in his fevered mind, he could see it smiling
with huge white teeth.
He had to turn away from it because its baleful influence was beginning
to fill his mind. Sooner or later it would make him do something awful,
demand sacrifice of him.
Yes, it will ask you to stand in one of the airlocks and open it, so it can
pull you down to the surface.
He stood there, thinking how easy such a thing would be, and he began
to shake uncontrollably.
Turn around, Ly. Turn around and look upon me as I truly am.
But he would not. He did not want to see its evil, grinning face, the
tenebrous holes of its eyes, or the leeching blackness of its mouth.
“You’re nothing but a hunk of rock,” he said in a low, wounded voice.
“You can’t hurt me.”
Then, over the comm, he heard the emissions from the planet—the
howling tornadic winds scouring its rocky surface and wailing through

ancient dry ravines and Stygian canyons where all the shadows of the
galaxy were born. It sounded like pure elemental wrath, shrieking and
hissing, crackling with the primal electricity of creation and pulsating with
sinister life.
He could flee a hundred light years and he’d still never escape it. The
knowledge of this was like a straight razor across his throat. What terrified
him the most was the inevitability of it all. It had him. That dirty black,
shadow-crawling planet had him and there was nothing he could do about
it.
He turned and faced the viewscreen.
Up close like that, the reflection of his face was superimposed against
the image of the planet. He stared at it. He looked deep into it. The
emissions coming over the comm were not simple atmospheric bounce and
magnetic noise. They sounded like millions of locusts shrilling and droning.
“Go ahead,” he said, because he was tired of it all, tired of feeling like a
bug on a pin. “Take me now. Do whatever you want. Kill me. Destroy me.”
The planet irised open like an immense bloodshot eye, showing him a
rapidly pulsing gelatinous orb with red swollen veins that wriggled like the
tentacles of a squid and a titanic slime-green pupil.
A surge of horror overwhelmed him, something partly physical but
mostly spiritual. He fell back and landed on his ass. He had to clasp his
hands over his mouth so he did not scream. The eye grew larger and larger,
the pupil filling the screen. It was coming for him. He had invited it, and
now it was coming to claim him.
You’ll sit at my table and sup upon horror beyond anything your simple
little simian brain can imagine.
And he could see it, really see it. See himself dying on the frozen rocky
surface of Megulon. Eyes boiling from his skull. Toxic gases making his
lungs rupture and his skin split open like dry leather. His body freezing,
then exploding into a rain of ice chips.
He crawled across the floor, turning his gaze from the eye. The sounds
coming in over the comm were deafening. He had to get away, had to hide,
to flee before he screamed his mind away.
Then everything went silent.
Save for a voice in his head, the silky seductive voice of a woman.
When the time comes, we will come for you. And you will be ready.

There was a death on the Antares.
The details were carefully guarded and not for general dissemination
amongst the crew. It happened on three, the Planetary Sciences wing.
Rumors were flying and people were demanding to know what was going
on, but Captain Creed and his officers kept a tight lid on things. Still, bits
and pieces got out. One of the geophysics people, a woman named Klyman,
had been acting odd and withdrawn for some time. She confided to a friend
of hers, a BioMed nurse, that a voice from Megulon was calling to her in
her sleep, that it wanted her to do awful things to herself and to the others.
The scuttlebutt claimed she had committed suicide on the observation
deck.
“But don’t believe that,” Chee told Leeden in his cabin over a few shots
of bourbon. He had gotten the true story from his friends in mapping who’d
found her. “Whatever happened, it was like nothing you can imagine. Her
insides were spread all over ob deck. It looked like she’d been dipped in
liquid nitrogen, frozen solid, then shattered with a hammer. Real nasty.”
According to Chee, Doc Sharma was one of the first responders. She
said Klyman looked pretty much how someone would if they stepped out
onto the surface of the planet without a protective pressure suit.
When Leeden heard all this, it was like a frozen needle slid into his
heart. He could barely keep it together. It meant whatever was down there
could come up to the ship anytime it wanted…or it could bring you down to
it.
Lucy.
Oh, Jesus, Lucy…I’m so sorry.

It invaded his dreams.

He saw its eyes yellow as poisoned puss, felt its icy ammoniated breath
against his throat.
He was on the surface of Megulon, hiding amongst towering cairns of
wind-polished stones. He wore no pressure suit. He breathed the toxic air. A
dirty amber light created shadows that slithered like snakes. The voice of
the planet called to him. It reverberated weirdly in the gaseous atmosphere,
discordant and piercing, a scratching dead voice like a thousand forks
scraped over a thousand blackboards. Now and again, he would catch a
glimpse of the planet’s avatar rising from a seething mist of methane—a
fluttering, coiling collection of fragmenting tendrils and appendages and
wormy feelers eroding into a storm of dust, a living shroud with a single
translucent eye like an egg sac threaded with blood.
You came because I called you. You are here because I wished it. I
summoned you to my side as I will summon them all, one by one by one,
their soft pink skins crystallizing, their lungs rupturing, their mouths filled
with ice shards of blood, their eyes popping like bubbles. I will have them,
Ly, all of them. And be made fertile.
He ran even though there was no escape. Then he was back in his
cramped little bed in his equally cramped little cabin on the ship…and the
monstrous avatar of the planet covered him like a great writhing, vermininfested winding sheet, pressing its hot repulsive body against him and
exhaling noxious vapors into his mouth until he suffocated.
When he woke, he knew he had been visited.
In his mind, there was a single thought, but it wasn’t his own: Tonight,
we’ll take everyone, Ly. Everyone. But not you. You have a special purpose.

It was his nerves.
That’s what Leeden told himself.
He was in denial and this was the self-deluding bullshit he came up
with. He spoon-fed himself with it like a baby. Bad nerves. Not enough
sleep. Too many damn long hours at the comm combined with fatigue and a

runaway imagination. He went to see Doc Sharma and laid it out for her.
She understood and gave him some tablets to calm him down.
“We all get it out here,” she told him. “Nothing to be ashamed of.”
She warned him to only take the pills before bed. He thanked her and
went on his way.
When he got up to the comm that night, he swallowed two of them.
Within ten minutes, he felt mellow.
Real mellow.
For three hours there was nothing. He began to feel like he’d licked it,
straightened out all the bad vibes in his head. He wasn’t the first one to get
a good case of space rapture. It happened. To prove to himself how much
better he was feeling, he opened the channel on the comm and listened to
the noise coming up from the planet. Nothing but static, a few stray hollow
echoes, now and again a thrumming noise like a generator warming up.
“Shit,” he said, feeling stoned and perfectly easy with it all. “Noise.
That’s all. That’s all it ever was.”
As he reached out to turn it off, a voice said, Are you scared?
He threw himself back, nearly falling out of his seat. It was the same
silky/seductive/throaty voice from before.
You didn’t think it was over between us, did you? It won’t be over until
my arms are around you, and you are inside me.
In his mind, Leeden screamed hysterically. He slapped a hand down on
the comm board and shut off the noise from the planet. He would not listen
anymore. Shaking, his flesh gone cold, hot fever sweat rolling down his
brow, he sat there for some time thinking about fate and how you could not
avoid what it had in store for you.
Ten minutes later, Moxton came in. “How’s it going?” he asked.
Leeden forced himself to breathe deep and even. “Just fine. Another
night.”
Moxton simply nodded. There was something on his mind, something
he wanted to say. But he talked around it. He talked about other missions,
his first EVA. Anything but what was on his mind. Finally, almost painfully,
he said, “You ever have any trouble up here?”
He tensed. “What kind of trouble?”
Moxton kept stroking his beard. “I don’t know…you listen to the
emissions from the planet. Do you ever hear…um…voices?”

“What do you mean, Mox?”
“We’ve been having trouble with some people. I’m not naming names,
so don’t ask me. They claim they hear sounds or voices from the planet.”
Leeden knew this was his chance. He could spill it all to a sympathetic
ear. Which he started to do, but his voice betrayed him. It said, “No,
nothing.”
Which was exactly what Moxton wanted to hear. It relieved him. He
thanked Leeden and went on his way.

It was later. Much, much later.
He was dreaming or maybe he wasn’t dreaming at all. The Antares
shook. A concussive force made it lurch and shudder as if it were grabbed
by a giant fist and shaken. There was the sound of thunder, the groan of
metal fatigue. Vibrations rolled through the deck plating, and it spun like a
top. He heard screams of agony and terror rising up and up and then—
Then his eyes were open and he was on the floor. Alarms were ringing,
lights flickering. The displays on the comm board were dead. A droning
automated voice was declaring ship-wide: WARNING! WARNING!
WARNING! LIFE SUPPORT FAILURE! REPEAT: LIFE SUPPORT
FAILURE! INTIATE EMERGENCY PROCEDURES! LIFE SUPPORT
FAILURE!
Oh Jesus, oh Christ.
Leeden crawled across the floor. The hull had been breached. They were
losing pressure, atmosphere, everything. He needed to get to the emergency
locker down the corridor. He had minutes, possibly seconds. There was a
cracking sound in the bulkheads. The ship rolled again, and he was thrown
across the room. As he crawled toward the door, he could feel gravity
beginning to cancel out. His movements were sluggish and exaggerated as
if he was underwater.
The hatch wouldn’t open.
Shit!

He opened the box and worked it manually. It took nearly a minute that
he did not have. When it was halfway open, he pushed himself through the
aperture and a wind hit him, forcing him up against the ceiling. The air was
already getting bad. The temperature was dropping. He slithered along the
ceiling until he reached the locker. Thankfully, the door slid open.
Okay. Move. Hurry. Don’t panic.
At half gravity, he flew acr