Master of Macabre Story: Fresh Air

While I’m waiting for enough people to download and read Bob Moore: Desperate Times so that I can post the behind the scenes stuff without spoiling it for too many, I thought I’d give you something else to read. Some of you (not enough for me to win, apparently) are aware that I entered a story into the Master of the Macabre competition over at horroraddicts.net. I was tasked with writing a story including a phobia (osmophobia – fear of smells), a telescope, and a picnic. I came up with a little story I’ve included below. You can also hear me read the story here (#6). I’m not one for my own voice, so I’d rather read it. Enjoy.

Fresh Air

I took a steadying breath, the plastic cup held just in front of my mouth, my finger extended just under my nose. My head pounded in time with Dr. Kim’s chewing, the overcooked hamburger bouncing around inside his mouth like a tire in the maw of a Great White. I watched the gray meat roll across his tongue, the smell of melted fat and char trailing moments behind his voice.

“I lost money on you, you know,” the rotund astrophysicist continued as I attempted to circle upwind of the man, the gentle breeze making it all but impossible. “No one thought you’d show.”

I nodded, sipped my water, and used the opportunity to transfer a bit more of the mint-scented cream from my finger to my nose. I breathed in deeply, savoring the fresh scent. I looked past the fat man and over the shrub-lined fence at the far side of the grassy meeting area. The sun was setting over a vast expanse of sand lightly dotted with vegetation, the sky a radiant blend of oranges and reds that pierced my skull, intensifying the pounding behind my eyes.

“I’m not one for gatherings.”

His laughter was explosive, sending shrapnel of meat arcing toward me, “That’s an understatement.”

I frantically pulled a napkin from the stash in my pocket and started wiping the meat off of myself as quickly as I could, acid burning the back of my throat and nose. I gulped down another swallow of water, fighting to maintain my focus on the scientist as I felt the ground momentarily lurch in time with my stomach.

“So,” I continued, looking around for a trashcan, “I hear you’ve been making progress.”

The fat man puffed, “So you heard, huh? Who was it? Robinson? I bet it was him. Man talks incessantly.” He winked at me conspiratorially, “Tell you what, you tell me yours and I’ll tell you mine.”

“Mine?”

“Yeah, yours. We never see you. Look at this place,” as he spoke he waved his hamburger around, my hand rushing to my nose and mouth to smother the odor of dead animal. “This is the first time we’ve been above ground since they brought us here in those black helicopters. We’re surrounded by the largest telescopic array on the planet, in the middle of nowhere, and you’re always in your office. We work all the time and we have no one to socialize with but each other. I’ve been pushing for more social events. Meet ‘n’ greets. And this is the first one you’ve attended. Hell, some around here didn’t even think you existed. Or they thought you came with the facility.” He took another huge bite of his burger and I looked away, “What’s your deal?” his words came out muffled through the food.

I glanced behind me at the hedgerow lining the fence that marked the perimeter of the makeshift meeting area. The green landscaping looked out of place among all the sand dunes, the grass still exhibiting the faint rectangular outlines of freshly laid sod. The only structures that looked more incongruous were the large white satellite dishes, all facing in the same direction, placed evenly as far as the eye could see. “Deal? Nothing. I just work a lot.”

He waved, launching a fresh wave of burnt muscle toward me, “That’s just it. What do you do?”

Dr. Kim had me backed up to the hedge. The bushes had enough of a fragrance to block the worst of the barbeque aroma that was wafting from the other end of the grassy area. Scientists and researchers were sprinkled around like maggots on a rotting carcass, straws like probosci pierced their cups as they noisily slurped water and other beverages to combat the dry air. Most were standing, but a few had brought blankets and were taking advantage of this rare downtime to lounge in the open air. I’d seen the memo – the petition – circulating. A team-building event. A picnic. A chance for fresh air. Most of the staff were too focused on their work and careers to have families, and the rest had been forced to leave them behind. None of them knew where we were.

None here but me.

I swallowed, trying not to look at his mouth, “Alignment. I’m a specialist. I test and ensure that the array is working properly.”

His brow furrowed, glancing at the dishes all around us, “And that keeps you busy all the time?”

I nodded weakly. I needed an escape. He was pressing closer, trying to catch my eye. I could see the sweat collecting on his brow, the large man unused to a non-air-conditioned environment. This was a man who sat behind a desk and had one fan on him in the winter, two in the summer. He used the excuse that his computer needed it cold to run at optimum efficiency, but his colleagues knew it was because of his bulk. He ordered new keyboards, cases of diet cola, and potato chips monthly.

“And other duties, yes.”

A slow smile spread across his face, particles of bread and ketchup squeezing out of the corner of his mouth, “Now we’re getting somewhere. What are your ‘other’ duties?”

I looked around his bulbous face at the others. A few were stealing glances at us. Apparently Dr. Kim was speaking the truth when he said they didn’t expect me to show. When my eyes passed over them, they looked away. I coughed back a gag as one of the scientists bit into his hamburger, liquid streaming down his chin. His companions laughed as they noted the numerous stains on his tie.

I managed a weak smile, trying to keep my voice steady, “I also maintain the facility: specifically, the server rooms. You know how electronics react to heat.”

He nodded vigorously, the bead of sweat finally dislodging and rolling down his face. It stopped on his cheek, perched like a man on the side of a bridge, thinking about whether or not he wanted to jump. Dr. Kim must have noticed it too because he reached up and smeared it across his cheek, rubbing his forehead at the same time. His arm lowered and he wiped the back of his hand on his slacks in a spot where the fabric was slightly more faded and threadbare than the rest.

“Sure, sure,” he sipped his diet soda, “tell me something, are the servers really submerged in water?”

I forced a smile. He was right, there weren’t many secrets around here. I supposed it wouldn’t hurt to tell him a bit more, “A silicone-based oil actually. As I’m sure you’ve suspected, we have some of the most advanced computers on the planet and they generate extraordinary amounts of heat. I make sure the system doesn’t break down.”

He nodded absently, though it was clear that he’d stopped listening, “That’s why no one is allowed down there.”

I shrugged, “Among other reasons, yes. It isn’t exactly safe.”

I sidestepped the large man and started toward the path through the bushes that led to the hatch that would allow me back down into the facility. The secluded location of the array and the underground location of the installation protected us from unwanted eyes, the hostile environment discouraged prospective visitors, and the military hackers defended the site’s anonymity from other governments’ attempts to discover our location with their satellites. But none of these measures could protect me from Dr. Kim. My hand shot back to my nose as Dr. Kim turned quickly, too quickly for his bulk, following my movement and draping his arm over my shoulder.

I almost lost it. Everything I’d consumed earlier fought for space in my throat. I gagged under my hand, my eyes clouded by tears, Dr. Kim too busy shoving the last bite of his hamburger into his mouth to notice. My headache blossomed like a mushroom cloud under the assault, my eyes threatening to explode from their sockets. It was all I could do to keep from screaming under the relentless onslaught. I needed to flee, to return to my office. I knew just what I’d do. I’d find a pillow and lie on the cold floor in the dark. I’d slather my nose with more peppermint cream and close my eyes. Eventually it would work. Eventually I’d win out. But I needed to get away from these abhorrent Ph.D.s and their repulsive food.

“So, I suppose you heard about the reason for all this?” he waved his now food-free hand in a circle, as if to encompass the picnic. “I’ve done it.”

“It?” was all I could manage as I tried to wriggle out from under the weight of his arm, hoping his sweat hadn’t rubbed off on my clothes.

“Yep, I’ve found it. Proof positive.”

I stumbled, my feet tangled in a loose swatch of grass, “Really?” My hand dropped slowly, for once the pounding in my head forgotten. Removing my hand was a mistake. This close to the man, his sweat was a toxic cloud. It was a wonder I didn’t see fumes rippling the air around him. It hit me like a slap, causing me to open my mouth to breathe to relieve my nose and my pounding head. But that just made it worse. It was like I could taste his food through his sweat, feel the desecrated animal in my mouth, taste the coppery juices. The pain in my head spiked and I lost the battle with my stomach. I turned, retching violently into the bushes.

“What the…” Dr. Kim jumped back, eyes wide.

Behind him I could see many of the scientists either turning their heads and trying to ignore me, or openly staring. I retched again, bile and acid emptying through my nose and mouth, the smell of the half-digested foodstuffs somehow less nauseating than the odor of the fat doctor. Eventually I regained control and wiped my mouth with a quickly produced napkin.

“S-sorry,” I stammered lamely, Dr. Kim’s expression worried. I swirled a bit of water in my mouth and spit it into the bush, “You were saying?”

“I was saying…” Dr. Kim sputtered, “Damn it man, are you okay?”

“Fine, fine,” I reached down into my pocket, dipping my finger into the clear, mint cream I kept in a small jar. I smeared more onto the underside of my nose, feigning wiping my mouth, “I’ve got…a condition, that’s all. It sneaks up on me. I’ll be fine.”

“Are you sure?” Dr. Kim looked concerned, but thankfully, concerned from a distance.

I took a deep breath of the peppermint fragrance and put on a smile, “Of course. But what did you mean when you said that you’d done it?”

Dr. Kim wiped the back of his hand across his forehead removing a fresh sheen of perspiration, “Ah…yes…um,” he swallowed, trying not to look behind me at whatever I’d left in the bushes.

The other researchers and scientists behind him had mostly gone back to their conversations, though quite a few had pushed their food aside.

He cleared his throat, “Well, there will be an announcement in a day or so, and apparently we’re still deciding on the name,” he spat the word like he already had a name but the others were fighting him, “but it’s a previously undetected exoplanet orbiting Kepler 10.”

I gulped in another whiff of mint, trying to ignore the continued pounding of my head.

He laughed, wiping his hand again on his trousers, “Those assholes at SETI would never have found them listening to their static.”

My hand shook slightly, “Them?”

Dr. Kim’s eyes narrowed, “Yep. Them. We found proof positive.”

“Aliens?”

He nodded, his expression grave, “We’re not alone.”

My eyes closed slowly, “Thank God.” I took another steadying breath, “How do you know?” I quickly sipped a bit more from my cup. “How can you be sure?”

Dr. Kim blinked rapidly, his eyes unfocused, “Uh…light, actually. We detected some sort of light emanating from the exoplanet that wasn’t a reflection. We think it may be pulsing, but we can’t be sure yet.”

I nodded, glancing down at my watch, “And that means…”

Dr. Kim’s voice was distant, distracted, “Intelligent life. At least, that’s what it suggests.” He interrupted himself, “Why did you say that? Thank God?”

I pressed a few buttons on the front of my watch, drawing Dr. Kim’s eye.

“Whoa,” he exclaimed, “that watch is so retro. Is that a full calculator?”

“No,” I pressed the final digit of the code and the front display changed from green to red. “I can’t tell you how happy you’ve made me.”

“Uh…okay. So you’re feeling better?”

“I will be, soon.” I swallowed the last of my water and shoved the dirty napkins into the empty cup. I took a fresh napkin from my pocket and covered my mouth. My watch vibrated on my wrist and my smile deepened, my headache momentarily forgotten. I lifted the watch to my napkin-covered mouth and spoke into the face, “It’s time, they’ll be here soon.”

Dr. Kim swayed slightly. Behind him the scientists and researchers were starting to sink to the ground slowly. “Um…I feel weird,” he said dreamily, the toxins taking hold, “your condition isn’t contagious is it?”

I stepped back slowly, watching his eyes roll back into his head as he collapsed to the ground, his breathing shallow and uneven. I glanced around the grassy area making sure the other scientists were experiencing similar reactions. I continued to move back, away from the hedge hiding the hatch to the facility. The bushes rustled as a creature, multi-legged and chitinous, pushed through, liquid dripping from its soft body. It rotated, eyeless and alien, orienting itself in this new, arid environment. Finally, it turned to me and seemed to nod, a spasmodic action that made it seem all the more otherworldly.

It turned and from the bushes came more of the creatures. They were not unlike flabby crabs, but they were the size of small dogs. They had no visible eyes or mouths, their exoskeletons soft and dripping with silicone-based oil. They came by the score, the last of them dragging large, fleshy bags. Distended and bulbous, the organic bags were light gray and heavily veined, something writhing just under the surface of each sack.

The creatures mounted the prone scientists two at a time. Three covered the larger staff. Dr. Kim required four. While I could see no visible movement from the creatures, the humans beneath them started to sag, deflate. I held my breath, appalled that anything, alien or otherwise, might consider something so foul a meal. First, the skins of my former coworkers loosened and sagged, slowly outlining the bones underneath. Soon, the bones were gone as well, leaving nothing but distorted, two-dimensional images of some of the greatest minds on the planet.

Simultaneously, the creatures above them grew, their bodies becoming bloated and their exoskeletons’ color deepening slightly. Some of the creatures, unable to find room to feed, collected the empty skins. A few tended the sacks, attaching them to the flattened faces of the humans. The creatures that had fed convulsed over and over, their slowly hardening shells cracking under the pressure. From the fissures, eggs pushed through, attached by some sort of biological cord to the creature beneath the shell.

A tap on my shoulder caused me to turn. Dr. Kim, the new Dr. Kim, his skin hanging off him like a poorly tailored suit, attempted a smile. Behind him, the crab-like creatures scuttled toward the bushes, the newly enlarged ones moving unsteadily under the weight of the baseball-sized eggs. They squeezed through the hatch, their quickly-hardening shells deforming grotesquely. A few of the newly produced eggs were dislodged from their backs under the strain. One rolled toward me and stopped inches from my foot. I reached down and picked it up, a small speck of a creature swimming freely behind the translucent membrane, crab-like legs already forming. I took the napkin from my mouth, inhaling deeply.

I locked eyes with the man in front of me as he continued pulling his skin into place. “Dr. Kim,” I smiled, handing him the egg, “you smell so much better now.”