Fleming Storage Unit 26

[Author’s Note: This story was written for the Undercooked Analysis Fleming Storage Unit challenge in November 2017. Due to unfortunate recent circumstances, the future of this project is uncertain, so I have decided to post this here in order to preserve it in the public in case nothing ends up happening. Huge love to all.]

“You’re here about Unit 26 right? We opened it up a couple of days ago. This place seems to have been a magnet for crazies, so in all honesty what we found in there was a relief compared to that stuff.” The cop licked his lips, pink flesh running along the underside of his coarse-haired moustache. “But, I’m sure you’ll get to that in your own time, won’t you?”

I nodded, not saying anything. I’ve always been cautious around police officers, but had been more so in recent years. The news was too saturated with stories about the Trayvon Martins and Philando Castiles of the world for me to not consider the very real possibility that any cop could be a George Zimmerman waiting to strike.

Not that the man in front of me was particularly threatening. His green state police shirt bulged out with the force of his restrained gut. On his chest was a brass badge, reading SCHERKER, across an expanse of glutinous breast from the seven-pointed star of his office. When I’d walked into the small, cramped office that had, until recently, belonged to the custodian, he’d been absent-mindedly fiddling with a wedding ring that he’d set down on his desk.

The room was dimly lit by four fluorescent tubes on the plasterboard ceiling. One of them was flickering on and off with a soft plink. On the wall behind the broken swivel chair Scherker was slumped on was an old corkboard with a couple of plain business cards and a “Kittens and Puppies 2014” calendar, flipped to December and left there. To the left of me, a blandly motivational poster was tacked to the wall, hanging in a carefully quirky manner. There was a slight smell of old sweat in the room, masked ineffectually by the putridly sweet stench of Febreze.

“Here,” he murmured, handing me a labelled key without looking up at me, his attention fixed on the old cathode-ray Dell on the plywood desk. “Do you think you can find it yourself, or do you want me to come show you?”

His glassy eyes passed over the screen, set in pallid skin. He blinked, eyes closed for a second, and finally looked up at me.

“No, I think I’ll be alright,” I replied. There was a short, uncomfortable silence. “Hey, you got a wife?”

He looked surprised at me for a moment, before glancing back at the gold ring he was twisting around his finger. “Oh, this? Nah,” he chuckled. “You?”

“No,” I said. “I don’t like women.”

“Ha, neither”, he guffawed gracelessly. “Not that I’m a queer or whatever.”

I felt a flush of anger run up my neck, but steadied myself. What was I expecting? Montana was Red heartland, after all. I thanked the Deputy and left the office, back out into the chill afternoon air of Havre.

Though the snow hadn’t come yet, there had been a threatening chill in the October air when I’d stepped off the train. Though I was used to the cold autumns, having only migrated west to Oregon, I had forgotten the bleakness of the world I was returning to. The train was uninterrupted, save for a brief stop in Spokane, WA, at a platform with a broken vending machine, before the train started to wind its way through the night-shrouded majesty of the Rockies. As we crossed the mountains, the pine forests of home were replaced with the bare prairies and empty fields of my past. I was sleepless as dawn broke over the gridded countryside, kept awake by the vision of something with teeth in my dreams, and stared out of the dirty train windows at a world as hostile as my past there.

The tarmac of the path passed underfoot as I walked towards the block of storage units containing Number 26. Somewhere to my left, a mercury light flickered on in response to the setting sun and encroaching dark, lighting up the grey patches of discarded chewing gum on the floor beneath me. Someone on the other side of the lot was just closing up their own unit. I glanced at my watch, and saw the white minute hand crawl past half-five. Half an hour left.

The numbers beside me increased, sliding past as unstoppably as the years that had separated me from this place, and from what was inside the dark green metal door, stencilled with the white, painted characters “26”. I drew up to a stop beside it, and slotted the key into the old Yale padlock. I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, and turned it.

“Sir,” a voice interrupted, calling out from beside the office. I took the key back out. “You’ve got ten minutes to vacate the premises, are you going to be out in time.”

“I guess not,” I sighed, turning to face her. The policewoman walked towards me, her movements measured and masculine. She drew up close, and held her hand out.

“I’ll need the key back before you leave, sir.”

“Gilroy, I assume?” I queried as I dropped it into her palm. The keyring shone in the light of a speeding pickup truck.

Officer Gilroy,” she admonished, not unkindly, but with the tone of someone who had to make the correction too often.

“Sorry, yes. We spoke on the phone? Frank Hanlon.” I offered my hand.

She shook it once, her grip firm. “It’s nice to meet you, Mr Hanlon. You should get going now, though. The units are open for the next two days. You’ve found somewhere to stay?”

I nodded. “Yes officer, the Best Western on First Street.”

“A fair walk then,” she mused. “I’ll let you get on your way. Goodnight, sir.”

“Officer.”

She walked off, her black hair moved slightly by the cold wind that blew through the gates and into the compound. My breath frosted in the air in front of me, and I turned the collar of my coat up as I walked back out and onto Pollock Street.

I found a curious kind of solitude walking along the road. The darkness and the cold had driven most people home and, though I did spot a couple of lonely souls drifting down the sidewalk, it did nothing to quell the sense of emptiness the town had.

Walking through Havre that evening was like walking through a memory. I hadn’t been in the town for fifteen years before that autumn night. I hadn’t even returned when my dad died, instead arranging by phone to have what he owned dumped into the storage unit and what couldn’t fit in there sold. It had been so long, though, and so much had changed.

I was roused from my reverie by a pang of hunger. Aside from an overpriced sandwich and a couple of chips on the train, I hadn’t eaten a proper meal since leaving Portland. Near to the storage units was a small plaza with a couple of decent looking restaurants and, remembering it opening just around the time I’d left, I walked over and opened up the cold metal door of the Lantern Buffet.

“Table for one, please?” I asked at the entrance and the waiter, a bored looking Asian guy of about 19, motioned me towards a seat over the back of the restaurant. The inside of the place looked like it hadn’t changed since it opened up in 2002. Overhead, ugly bright fluorescent bulbs shone glassily out of red lanterns which, though Made in China, were not at all traditional. On the wall, an oversized print of a Hokusai hung in a plastic frame, at a hideous angle to the dirty grouting lines on the tiled wall. The green vinyl creaked under me as I sat down.

“You want buffet?” a young woman asked, coming over to me with an iPhone in her hand, ready to take down my order. She was eager to get my choice, and her wide eyes stared at me while I examined the yellow laminated menu.

After a while I settled on an a la carte vegetarian katsu curry to keep it safe. With surprising speed, yet another waitress came out and delivered the meal to me. I deliberated over my noodles slowly, enjoying the surprisingly adequate taste. I heard a voice from the door.

“Frank? Frank Hanlon? That can not be you?”

I turned to face them. A short, plump, homely woman, blonde dye barely covering the grey, was striding purposefully towards my table, the door sliding shut behind her. Her arms were outstretched. I stood to hug her, still unsure of who she was.

“Oh, it’s great to see you,” I murmured. She pulled back and grinned at me.

“Audrey? Audrey Allen?”

“Audrey… Oh! Mrs Allen?”

She nodded and grinned, lips tight and broad across her lightly wrinkled face. “I taught you English in 7th Grade, remember? How are you?”

I shrugged. “Weird to be back.”

“Oh, you haven’t come home since your dad’s funeral?” she said, frowning sympathetically. I shook my head.

“No, I didn’t come back then.”

Her expression faltered, realising the faux-pas she’d made. “Well, tell me, anyway,” she said, brushing it off like snow from her shoulder. “What brings you back to little-old Havre? I hear you went off to the city.”

“Yeah, this storage unit business.”

“Oh, that poor man,” she exclaimed quietly, looking down at the waxy surface of the table. She knotted her hands together, and rested her chin on them. “Have the police said anything yet about what happened to him? There’s nothing in the Daily News about it.”

“The Havre Daily News,” I whispered to myself, mock-reverently. “God, I haven’t thought about that in over a decade. They still print it?”

She nodded and smiled. “Yup, every afternoon. There’s one over there on the desk if you wanted to take a look.”

I glanced at the folded paper and shrugged. “That’s alright.”

There was a moment’s quiet. The smell of chow mein wafted over as one of the staff slotted a new tray into the buffet.

“Why didn’t you come back?” Mrs Allen blurted. I glanced up at her, a flash of irritation passing briefly through me.

“I beg your pardon?” I asked.

“I’m sorry, I-“

“No, what did you ask?”

“Well, why didn’t you come home?”

“I’m back now,” I muttered.

“Yes, but when your father…” her eyes were staring intently at me, rheumy and prying.

I stood up, leaving half my food untouched. “It’s been nice to see you again,” I lied, finishing off my coke and leaving two twenties on the table. Without looking back at her, I strode out of the restaurant and into the cool night air.

On the way to the motel I stopped in at a liquor store. I’d not drunk since leaving Montana but, I reasoned, what the hell. When in Rome.

Back in the room, half a bottle of vodka down, I slumped against the side of the bed. Staring up at the single, slowly spinning fan on the undecorated ceiling, I let my mind wander. Through the open window I could see the blinking red lights of the old LORAN transmitter, beaming out signals into the nothingness. I relaxed into a sort of sleep.

My father loomed in my dreams. Half remembered memories and forgotten events drifted back.

Once, a few years ago, I flew into Salzburg, Austria at night. It was winter, and thick snow clouds hung in the air, pregnant with latent storms. Through the window, nothing could be seen save for the dark miasma of the weather and the flashes of the wingtips. Yet, somehow, there was some animal part of me that could feel the mountains beyond that, that could sense this colossal immutable mass in the black night.

It was with this same sense of untouchable magnitude that my father was present in my sleep. Glimpsed images of things from my childhood- the empty, open fields, the exclusion from school, worship at the Pentecostal Church.

And something else. Something in the living room, teeth and claws, ugly, patched fur. Stitches.

I woke up, gasping with fear and still in my clothes from the previous day. I looked with disgust at the bottle in my hand, and tossed it away, watching the vodka spill out and onto the dirty carpet. Crawling into bed, I slept again.

Although the sun was bright the next day, the night’s chill still clung to the morning air. I winced at the sunlight walking along the street before turning and entering the office at the Fleming Storage Units. Scherker was at the desk already, playing with his wedding ring while reading a story about the Blue Ponies on the Daily News’ website. He glanced up at me, a tired look in his eyes.

“26?”

I nodded tersely.

“Here you go,” he said, passing me the key. He glanced at my rumpled clothes and dishevelled appearance. “Fun night?”

“No.”

He laughed once, a quiet bark. “Not much of that around here. You know your way?”

I nodded, and left the room, pacing quickly to the locker. Without stopping to let myself chicken out again, I slotted the key into the padlock and pulled it off. The door slid easily up into the ceiling, and I flicked the fluorescent light on.

I don’t know what I was expecting. The unit was full of what you’d expect- dusty boxes, old Christmas decorations, a couple of damp old chairs. I picked up the closest item to me. It was a green box with draws, and I pulled one open, taking a cursory glance at the glass baubles inside. I carefully placed it back on the shelving unit it had been placed upon.

There was really only one thing I was looking for as I opened up box after box, glancing over the entirety of my father’s life up until he was moved into the nursing home four years ago, two years before his death. Even then I hadn’t been able to come back and face him, instead arranging by phone for his worldly goods to be packed into boxes and stored here. I knew that what I was looking for must’ve been here though, the movers had called me about it.

Photo albums, tools, ceramic ornaments, I passed them all. I knew my family history. My grandad had been born in Brooklyn but settled down on a farm out West when he came back from the war. The discrimination he had suffered had been awful here. Jim Crow was still in place to say nothing of the… extrajudicial punishment inflicted on him for his skin colour.

In the last box, I found it. It was filthy, covered in cobwebs and poorly preserved, but in it’s yellow glass eyes I could still see the anger of my father and his father before him. The claws were smaller than I remembered, the teeth frozen in a less angry sneer than in my nightmares, but the thing was still there, and still horrifying in its materialism. I physically backed up from it when I saw it.

Around the neck of the dog was a collar, with a dirty brass badge which still read “Poppy”.

I lost count of the number of times my dad told me the story of how he found her on the front lawn. He told me about the still potent smell of petrol from the long burnt-out cross driven into the earth (later showing me the hole in the ground where it had been staked). He narrated, too, the stench of death, the noise of the frantic, feasting flies, and, finally, finding Poppy on her back, her skin torn off of her and laid neatly on the ground beside her.

My grandad had had a strange sense of how to educate his son. Rather than consoling him when he found him doubled over by Poppy, chest spattered with vomit, face streaked with tears, he made my ten-year-old dad help dig the grave where they dumped the skinless corpse. Then, over the course of a couple of days, he had Poppy stuffed as a reminder to my dad of the hate and evil of the world but, more importantly, to fight it and be proud of his identity.

It was, then, an unforgivable betrayal to me when my dad flipped it around and showed the ugly side of his prejudice to me. It had taken all the courage I could muster to accept my sexuality, and even more to tell my father who had, all his life, been a Pentecostal Christian.

I had grown up with ways to deal with the racism, taught to me by my father, my grandad, and the leering nightmarish face of Poppy, who stood by the fire in the lounge. I had no defence against homophobia, though, and when I told my dad and he denied it, shouted at me, called me “faggot” and “queer” and sought advice from the pastor about gay conversion therapy and how to “get the devil out of me”, I did the only thing I could do- I fled. As soon as I was out of school, I went to college in Portland and made a life there, a new life where I could be whatever I wanted.

Still, though, the spectre of my father’s betrayal and the yellow-eyed threat of home haunted me. I ignored his calls, his letters, his urgent pleas that he could help me. All I wanted was an apology, but he couldn’t see it. Even as the dementia worsened, and he was taken into permanent care, I refused to come home. He died two years ago.

Shaking my head, I closed up the box and stepped outside for a breather, shutting the door behind me and letting the tears flow down my face, unashamed. The police could have it all. I didn’t need the past any more.

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Devourer

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She was alone and beautiful.

The thin rays of the coal-red sun slanted through the oblivious pines. Her coat was bright, the colour of warnings. Her breath misted in a frosty veil in the air in front of her, breaking apart as she walked on through the deep dark woods. Needles crunched beneath her feet, the only sound in the forest.

I lifted my head and sniffed. Her aroma was intoxicating. The smell of fresh hay, pastoral and warm, clutched to her, so separate and clean, too much for the world of stench she inhabited. Fresh bread invaded my nostrils, still hot inside the basket she carried..

My ears flattened back against the fur of my neck. My tongue flicked out, ran across the ivory mountain range of my teeth, blood-heralds.

Somewhere in the forest, an owl cried out, a long, plaintive sound. The sun was down now, pink-death in the far east, beyond the village the girl came from, beyond the valley and the mountains and the sea, born down across the world by unknowable time. The girl took her path westwards and knew not what night she walked into. The bulbous, blind moon rose up ahead of her and took its place in the sky.

Pale moths skittered around in the deepening dusk, never settling for long, their bright eyes seeing only danger and fear. There were other smells in the forest now, beyond the usual detritus and rot of these ancient, sun-starved woodlands. Foxes  through the brush, badgers crawled and hedgehogs snuffled. All fled at my silent approach, rightly afraid of me, an animal unlike any other.

Without sound, I padded out onto the path. The trees above us were dense and let little light through. Gradual as approaching winter, I closed the gap between us, not needing the chase, enjoying my private approach to the defenceless girl in the red coat who didn’t listen to her parents’ warnings. My tongue lolled free outside of my mouth now, diamond-dew sliding out and onto the packed earth of the dangerous path.

At last, as if sensing her destination, the girl stepped out into a clearing through which the moonlight poured. Her world was monochrome now, even the brilliant crimson of her coat dulled into the deepest, inky black. She lowered her hood, let the dark locks of her hair spill out. Placing the basket of now-cold bread on the floor, she removed the coat, standing now in just her underclothes, exposed and naked before all the eyes of the night. The girl turned and saw the one splash of colour the world had to offer. My eyes, fire-bright, yellow and ethereal, shone into the darkness ahead of me as I closed the distance. It was cold now, and I could see the beads of her nipples beneath the muslin.

She let out no cry as I approached, stepping out into the moonlight forest-bed with her, revealing the muscular slope of my back, my upright ears, my questing, starving snout. Nor as I drew up with her, took in a great waft of that smell, fresh-hay and fear, and something deeper, something musky and intense. The girl reached out her hand.

She let out nothing but a whimper as my teeth crunched through her bones. Her hot blood spilling out of my mouth and falling onto the grass, breaking the wildflowers beneath her trembling feet. She gave no tear as I swallowed her flesh, moved up the arm, sunk my teeth deep, penetrating into her muscle, tearing the tendons from her. When, gorged with her pain, I clenched my mouth around her neck and squeezed until blood jetted out and her body went slack, she went with a look of ecstasy on her face.

I ate until my stomach was full of girl and my breath rancid with the metallic odour of fresh meat. What I left behind was barely a girl, her ribs exposed and broken, heart eaten out, abdomen a cavity for my desires. I bathed in the river, and her blood ran from my skin and darkened the waters.

I woke up in my house in the village the next day to the sound of wailing. There was an old lady outside, decrepit and near death, screaming and holding a red hood.

Grease

[Pretend there’s an illustration here- I don’t wanna put anything this gross on my blog]

The internet is a really weird place. Of course we all know, thanks to a dozen conscientious-Christian exposes, about the Dark Web- the drugs, the porn, the gore- but even right here on the surface, there’s enough crazy shit to fill up a thousand mental health journals.

Even on YouTube, the horrors don’t end, and, despite the impending adpocalypse that’s the nightmare of so many whingy “content creators”, it still does pretty well. Of course, a lot of the really hardcore stuff, like deaths, gore, strange erotica, gets hidden or taken down within a couple of hours. There is, however, one particular area which seems impervious to any attempts at disposal.

The video “FLYING PIMPLES IN EARS (POPPING PIMPLE IN EAR)”, from the channel “All Pimples Of The World”, has 6.2 million views. The video “POPPING ZITS & PIMPPLE & CYST | YOUTUBE 2017 | Pimple Popping” from “iPimple Popping” has 2.5 million. “Bot Fly Removal” from “joespc” has 7.7 million. Whether it’s low quality shaky iPhone footage or big, flashy productions like Monsters Inside of Me, videos about gross stuff like this is popular. Popular- and profitable.

Now, it seemed simple enough to me to try and get a foothold in this industry. Keep an eye on LiveLeak, download any videos like this that catch my eye, reupload them on YouTube, and hope to god that I don’t get demonetised. Unfortunately, it wasn’t that easy. The rate at which the internet churns up videos like “Huge Botfly Maggot Removed from Head” is surprisingly slow. So, I decided to do what any good businessman would- cut out the middleman.

Problem was, I’ve always had a pretty good complexion. Even as a teen, I never got zits larger than maybe a couple of millimeters, a quarter of an inch at most. I took a look online but couldn’t find any good suggestions as to how to block pores, so I had to figure it out myself.

Oil. That was the answer, oil. I took great care mixing my preparation in an old metal bathtub in my room. 20 sticks of molten butter, a bottle of engine oil, and, ordered in specially, just a splash of raw, crude oil. The master stroke, though, was a pinch of brake dust- an engineer friend clued me in on it and, I have to say, it worked wonders. I grabbed a wire brush, and, stripping naked, applied a thick, even coating across as much of my body as I could manage. I took a couple of sleeping pills and spread a tarp on my bed, and went to bed.

A full fourteen hours later, I woke back up. The dark, sludgy brown mixture had dried on my skin and I had to use a butter knife to reveal a patch of skin on my arm. Like the freshly-laid eggs of some loathsome creature, tiny bumps of pearlescent pus were already there, developing. I felt filthy, but knew that I couldn’t shower without losing all the progress I was making. I jumped out of bed and covered myself again with the gunk, and took a few more pills before going back to sleep.

I woke up in the dead of night, and angrily swatted at a fly. Hitting a light switch and taking a look at my watch, fastened to my wrist- the only un-painted strip of skin on my body- I saw that I’d been asleep for longer this time, about seventeen hours. I was hungry, and took a look at my skin as I prepared a sandwich to choke down.

Things had progressed. I scraped off a different layer of muck on my leg, and revealed a mottled patch of angry flesh. Wide areolas of reddened skin surrounded the yellow volcanic mounds, centimetre-wide bumps that raised up from my skin in painful mountain ranges. I gently prodded at one and winced as I felt the ooze within get pushed deeper into myself, before it popped back up with latent force. When they went, I knew that it would be glorious. When I clambered back into bed, I took five sleeping pills- well above the safe limit, but I was settling in for the long stretch- when I woke back up, I’d need to deal with them.

The last thing I remember before I slipped off was swatting at a fat, lazy fly as it settled on my leg, landing right on a spot.

I slept for over twenty-four hours. When I got up, streaming sunshine came through the dirty window of my flat. I felt absolutely filthy, and immediately went to the shower, rinsing off the black goop and watching as it disappeared down the porcelain and into the gaping sinkhole.

I was careful not to damage any of the precious, festering bulges that were all over my skin. I examined myself in a mirror, admiring my work. There were at least three dozen huge, quivering masses on my front alone, pregnant with creamy, precious filth. There’d be so many videos to make on this, on my masterpiece, but before I got footage, I wanted to do one just for myself, a private show if you will.

I sat down on a stool in the kitchen, feeling the pressure build slightly in the zits on my rear. I made a mental note, knowing now to use cushions to guard against premature popping. I opened up a disposable scalpel and searched for a likely candidate.

I chose one on my arm, a fairly midsized one. The actual spot itself was fully an inch across, although the necrotic, purple flesh around it spread out further. I was surprised, and a little concerned to note how little pain I felt prodding it- if I had to go to the doctor about this, I don’t know how I’d explain.

Suddenly, I saw something move. I thought I’d imagined it, or maybe hallucinated it given the dangerous amount of medication I’d consumed, but nope, there was that same twitching motion. It was in there, under the thin layer of greasy, stretched skin, somewhere in the translucent milky depths of my own skin. I had to get in there.

I placed the tip of the blade on the taught flesh and gently applied pressure. It didn’t take long. A sudden rush of thin, watery pus came out and flowed along the metal, trickling down the handle and almost making me lose my grip on the tool. I kept going though, and opened up a slit in the spot.

It had deflated a little, but, surprisingly, not that much. I put the scalpel down and put my finger and thumb either side, resting them on the purple skin. I began to apply pressure, slowly forcing the cheesy pulp inside out of the hole. It slid out and fell onto the linoleum floor with a gentle “plop”.

Crimson blood welled up in the hole, and I held my arm out and watched the blood spread down towards my hand. It wasn’t enough, though. Using the tip of the scalpel, I teased the slack skin up and away from the hole, and, to get it out of the way, leaned over and used my incisors to neatly snip off the gristly, dead flesh.

It wasn’t enough, though. Something was in there, and remembering the flies, I began to suspect what it was. Using tweezers, I prodded down into the spot, submerging the tip nearly a centimetre beneath the blood, searching for something foreign and wriggling. It came away easily.

I smiled as I examined the squirming, waxy white maggot which I pulled out of my arm. I was about to get so internet famous.

Cyber Punks!

“I thought the view would be better than this, ya know?”

Ahead, the Vandenberg Spaceport spread out across the horizon, grey tarmac merging seamlessly with the imperceptible horizon. Weak sun, seeping through the toxic Californian smog, glinted off the distant skyscraper of a Transport. Nothing moved in the dirty expanse beneath them, save the neon flickering of the sharp red lights of a landing pad.

The girl pressed her cheek against the harsh black fabric of the boy’s hoody. Fuel pipelines and boarding walkways hung slack from the underside of the launch gantry they sat on, like the bowels of a freshly butchered animal.

“You’re really going then?” she asked, ignoring his complaint about the view. They’d spent hours getting there, bypassing security and hiking across the featureless cement desert of the launch complex. The climb up the launch tower had been long- 1400 steps, she’d counted.

“Yeah,” he sighed apathetically. He took a final drag on the cigarette and tossed it into the mist below them. He watched the orange-glowing tip recede until he could no longer see it. The ground itself was only just visible, 130 stories below them. The whole structure creaked just a little in a wind that blew in off the sea.

“You don’t sound happy about it,” she replied. He looked at her.

“Would you be happy if your parents were dragging you to some fuck-off rock in the middle of nowhere?”

She scoffed, “It’s hardly a rock, moron- you’re moving to Mars!”

“Oh yay,” he spat. “Another planet for us all to screw up, hooray for me!”

She frowned. “You’re sounding like one of those dickhead anti-colonial terrorists.”

“Whatever,” he sulked half-heartedly, looking off at the invisible horizon. A pause hung in the air, as heavy as the polluted clouds. They could hear the sounds of the distant surf as the wind picked up a little, rolling in off the dead Pacific coast.

“Look at the lights,” she said, changing the topic. A concentric snowflake pattern had started to play on the landing pad, spiralling inwards.

“The 17:34, back from Venus station, right on fuckin time,” he said. “Hold on to something, it’s gonna be quite something.”

She tightened her grip on his arm, wrapping both around him and squeezing in close. He sighed.

“Fine, but if you fall, don’t blame me in the couple of seconds you get before you hit the sidewalk.”

He sidled over slightly, hooking his arm through the triangular support struts beside him. They both glanced skywards as the roar approached.

Suddenly, like the whales of old, a leviathan breached the heavens. Sides scorched with re-entry heat, the rocket rode down through the sky, a pillar of bright fire supporting it as it descended. Flashes of bright control jets flickering on and off, making automated course corrections. Other thrusters came on and off ten times a second, adjusting the orientation as the ship’s speed slowed, eventually sliding effortlessly towards the flashing beacon. With a last thunderous crash, the engines flared up and seared a mark onto the pad. Then it was quiet, save for the final creaks of the vessel settling on its sturdy legs, and the Pacific waves.

The girl let out a silent wow. Once the sonic booms had finished reverberating off the ground, the boy shrugged her off.

“We should get going soon. They’ll let the passengers off at the ground level, but later this evening they’ll roll this gantry out and get the cargo off.”

She narrowed her eyes at him.

“You really don’t give a shit, do you?”

“Thanks,” he smirked.

“No, not that,” she sighed. “Look, you’re just… dull. Do you have no sense of wonder left?”

“Wonder?” he laughed. “Take a look around you? What’s wonderful about this?”

Her mouth dropped open. “What do you mean. This is sorta amazing, don’t you think? Fuck, 50, no, 30 years ago, no one could have believed that this would happen. It was god-damn science fiction for them.”

“Yeah, dystopia more like.”

He looked at her, and she turned away. Her pink, half-shaved hair stretched into the wind, a rare speck of colour in the Californian miasma. He looked beneath that, though- the sallow skin, stretched thin across her bones. He could see the bumps of her spine as it went down into her violet sweatshirt.

He’d watched a documentary the other day, some Martian production, and they’d talked about that- the “Terran Rot”, they’d called it. Average life expectancy had been shrinking for the last three decades.

“Look, you said something about it being like sci-fi, right?”

She nodded, quiet.

“Yes, fifty years ago they didn’t have the rockets, or the spaceports, or even VR, but… ah, fuck it.”

“What?” she asked.

“It sounds stupid, but you realise California was pretty much a nature reserve back then? There were millions of animals on earth in the ‘tens. Now, we’re living in a wasteland and we fucking built it.”

She slumped, resting her pointed chin on her hand. “I thought you didn’t give a shit?”

“You know why we’re moving there, don’t you?” he asked.

“Schiaparelli?”

He nodded. “They’re covering up the whole crater. Don’t listen to what the company says, they haven’t done a full survey of the area. They don’t know any more than you or I do that there’s nothing native there.”

She gazed at him quizzically. “You mean you’re being this much of a sulky jackass just ‘cuz of a few alien bacteria?”

“It’s not just there,” he said. “It’s terraforming writ small. Once they dome over Schiaparelli, there’ll be nothing to stop them from filling up Hellas Planitia, the whole Southern Basin. All it takes is just one of their test-bed projects to be successful, and they’re gonna take that whole planet and turn it into as much of a shithole as this place is. Mars may be the red planet right now, but don’t worry, it’ll be grey and corporate within a few years.”

She stood up and stretched. The boy noticed goosebumps on her bare calves, and shivered himself.

“Well, as you said, I better get going. You gonna come?”

He shrugged. “Nah, I’ll wait here a little while. See ya.”

She walked off a little way along the gantry, back to the staircase. There were heavy clouds coming in, and she briefly worried about thunder striking the gantry. She looked over at the boy, but he was already staring off at the recently-landed Transport.

“Hey, look on the plus side,” she laughed. “Keep this up, and you might be the first punk on Mars!”

She heard a brief chuckle from the boy and, without turning, he raised his fist and flicked up a middle finger at her in response.

As she started down the stairs, she gazed back at the boy sitting on the end of the gantry, his legs dangling over the drop. A cloud engulfed the top of the tower, and he disappeared into the grey.

Devil’s Laughter

[Author’s note: This was an entry in the UCA Ghost Story Challenge. Deamhaich is pronounced Deem-Hake.]

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Growing up in the town of Deamhaich, Cornwall, there always were stories told. The one that frightened me the most as a kid was that of the Devil’s Laughter.

The United Kingdom is a honeycomb of mines, and nowhere is this warren of tunnels denser than under the Cornish peninsula. Occasionally, this makes local or national news when a tunnel implodes and sucks down cars, houses, or entire streets.

The story went that the mines of Deamhaich were abandoned quickly, a little before the end of the 19th century. I still remember my grandfather telling me about the miners. He said that they dug too deep, compelled onwards by greed and a few ancient rumours that, beneath the tin there was something rarer, older. This quest ended in horror, though. The miners dug through the earth to the gates of Hell itself, causing them to flee the tunnels at once and never return.

It’s said that, still, you can hear the screaming laughter of the Devil at the gates. He howls after the souls of the townsfolk and the miners who disturbed his lair.

Jumping forwards a few years, I was in a dangerous position. Intoxicated by a mix of teenage arrogance and the desire for a girl, I agreed to go into the mines, alone. Her name was Suzanne. She was a couple of years older than me, out of my league and at the forefront of Deamhaich’s burgeoning emo community. She’d dared me to descend into the mine and go to the edge of hell, and to bring back a pick-axe with me to prove it.

I didn’t believe the legends any more. There were other dangers though.

These excavations were old, and I was on my own. I genuinely, foolishly thought I’d prepared well before going down there. I’d packed a bag with two torches, a bottle of water, three chocolate bars. One of my friends, a Greek mythology fan, suggested that I take some twine down and leave one end at the surface. The plan was that I’d spool it out behind me to find my way back. If I got into trouble, I would tug on the twine three times to signal to Suzanne, who would be on the other end, that I needed help.

The entrance was barred with wooden panels, emblazoned with warning signs against exactly my kind of idiotic, hormone-infused bravado. A friend of a friend had a mechanics shop in town, and through them I had been able to find the crowbar that I used to pry the boards away.

As the wood sloughed off, a gust of stale, dead air flowed out of the now gaping tunnel entrance. There were marks in the wood that looked similar to the ones I was making. Whereas the scratches I left were fresh, these had clearly been there for a while. Someone else had gone down there, but whoever they were they’d done it many years ago.

I was only a little way into the tunnel before everything went wrong. I should have stepped back as soon as I noticed that the first few yards of the tunnel had a wooden floor, not stone. I didn’t, though, and I strode onwards, careless, and put my whole weight on some rotten floorboards.

I fell through two layers of wood before finally coming down hard on the gravelly floor of the mine. I swore once, loud, and lay there for a second trying to take stock of my situation as I got my breath back. Careful about harming myself further, I sat up.

I’m lucky that the fall deposited me on my chest. If it had been my legs, I would have been crippled, and a fall on my back or neck might have even killed me. Still, I was in a bad way. Prodding my chest, I winced as I encountered tender, shattered rib. I’d later find out that I’d been fortunate too that none of the shards had penetrated my lungs or heart. My limbs were functional, asides from a blazing pain in my left ankle. I tried to put weight on it, but it hurt too bad and I had to collapse back down. Later, I’d learn that the fall had snapped two tendons.

It only then occurred to me that I was in complete darkness. The torch was shattered, and I thanked my lucky stars that I’d brought another. At least until I tried to turn it on. The batteries weren’t quite dead, but the dim light was flickering, so I decided to save it in case I needed it.

I was in trouble so I pulled on the string, which I’d somehow managed to keep a hold of. When the other end came falling through the hole above me, though, I couldn’t help but let out a sob of fear. It repeated, then, and grew into full screams of fear.

I couldn’t help but think about how alone I was. The only person who’d known about my expedition had abandoned me. I could only assume that she thought the collapse had killed me, and that I had no way to get back to the surface. I was far from the entrance, now, and there were no maps of the tunnels. If there even was a rescue operation, there was no guarantee they’d find me. I knew it was illogical, that no one would hear me and that I was only wasting the precious few breaths I had left. I just couldn’t stop screaming.

I eventually did when I realised that there was another scream alongside mine.

A shiver of fear ran over me as I recognised that laughter, distorted and screaming. The tunnel walls and the demented energy with which the noise was produced warped it. Disregarding my inflamed ankle, I leapt up and, steadying myself against the wall, picked up my backpack.

I don’t know how far I’d limped when I heard it again. To my surprise, the noise was clearer. A high, keening wail now, it sounded less like laughter and more like screaming. I cursed the labyrinthine nature of the mine, reasoning that either it was following me or I’d been all turned around and walked closer to the source. Tears flowing down my face, I turned around, and walked faster.

I tripped on something, ruining my ankle more, and the screams began again, louder, as if I were in the same room with them. I was too scared to flee now, and I crawled to a corner and into a foetal position. It just kept going, not laughter now, not screams, but something worse- the crying of a baby. I pulled out the chocolate bars I’d brought with me, and accepted it as my last meal. I turned on the torch and laid it down, pointing it at the granite wall of the tunnel, simply to give me something to look at. After an hour or so, it blinked out.

After seventy-two hours in the dark, the fire brigade found me. They had been drawn by the crying. Suzanne had, of course, called them immediately. In the tunnel with me was what I’d tripped over- the tiny, shrivelled skeleton of a child, wrapped in a silk shroud. Pinned to the fabric was a handwritten note, yellowed and ancient.

“11-08-1908

My darling Emily, I’m so sorry. You were brought into this world too early, and remind me of forbidden love. May you find peace here, buried deep within the earth. Always love from your mother, LW.”

After some forensic analysis, the child’s body was buried in the local churchyard. People still claim to hear the Devil’s Laughter even now, but I believe that’s an urban legend. I think Emily has finally found peace.

Gold

The story of the “Nazi Gold Train” is an enduring one. According to the legend, a German train loaded with gold confiscated from Polish civilians and Jewish prisoners was buried in the woods near the Polish city of Walbrzych, formerly the German city of Waldenburg. Some sources quote the train as containing up to three hundred tonnes of gold, as well as jewels and several lost masterpieces.

The most recent attempt at finding the treasure was undertaken by two Polish men, Piotr Koper and Andreas Richter, in 2015-16. Though they initially claimed to have been told by the death bed confession of a concentration camp guard, they caused a media storm when they changed their story to claim that a government official had leaked the information. Although a minister from the Polish government claimed that ground penetrating radar had shown the presence of a 100-meter long train buried under the surface, this evidence was later shown to be false, the data instead suggesting the presence of a collapsed tunnel. After a seven-day dig, no train was found.

This excavation, though, was preceded by another attempt in the early 1990s that received less attention from the worldwide media. The exploration, attempted by another Polish national, was bankrolled by two Swiss bankers. Having studied as many documents possible relating to the Russian advancement through the area, the team placed the train’s location roughly ten kilometres north of the city, underneath an embankment near a long disused section of railway.

The exploration lasted two weeks, beginning on the 3rd of August, 1991. For the first five days, the area was swept for unexploded munitions and booby traps. When this initial exploration turned up a couple of dozen German land-mines that were mostly defused by the rust and time, the archaeologists and treasure-hunters assembled began to become confident of success. For the next two days, the clearing in the forest around the railway tracks was scanned with radar and, when the presence of a seventy-metre long mass was discovered, the go ahead was given to start digging.

It was as the excavators started to bore down that the issues started. Electrical equipment present started going wrong, usually nothing major. A large setback occurred when the discs containing the radar data were wiped, as if with a magnet, and the scanning had to take place again to confirm where the supposed train was located. Rumours started spreading around the hired workers that something was trying to disrupt the expedition, that something was trying to stop them from reaching the train.

The most major mishap happened on the night of the 15th. The workers had been living in a large tent in the forest. When one of the men fell asleep smoking, a large fire broke out and a dozen workers were hospitalised for smoke inhalation, and a few more with serious burns. Some of those present claimed to see figures in the smoke, gaunt men all in some sort of uniform, with a badge on their chests. The rumours of these “ghosts” spread quickly through word of mouth and local media. Many of those who weren’t injured quit, believing that the ghosts of German soldiers were jealously guarding their riches.

Still, the dig went on, with the few archaeologists ventured deeper. While some were still a little scared of what was dubbed the “curse”, they were lured onwards by the call of treasure and imminent renown for finding the storied vehicle. The JCBs worked through the night of the sixteenth, and as dawn broke on August 17th the expedition finally struck the metal hull of the train.

It was only when they opened up the crates inside and found ashes, charred bones, a few small children’s teeth, that they realised that the ghosts weren’t those of the soldiers.