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Rick McQuiston
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doyouloveme.jpg
Art by Lee Kuruganti

Do You Love Me?
 
Rick McQuiston

When Austin woke up, his head felt as if someone had cut it off and used it to play basketball with.  A migraine would have been an improvement. He stood up and rubbed his eyes until the room came into focus, trying his best to ignore the throbbing in his skull.

Foggy but persistent memories from the night before filtered into his already confused mind. He remembered hanging out near the highway with his best friend Ray, waiting for their dates to show up.

Tammy was Ray’s girl. She was short and petite with a full head of blonde curls and a lively personality to match. They really got along well, so well in fact that they had even begun talking about marriage.

Angela was Austin’s date. She was thin and beautiful, with a silken mane of flowing jet-black hair, which perfectly framed her face.

He knew he was falling in love with her, though he hadn’t worked up the nerve to tell her yet. In his life, rejection was often a painful consequence of impatience and foolishness, which he had experienced before.

Ray had introduced Austin and Angela at a party at his house. Austin discovered she had two daughters, Eve and Kate, and they were the spitting image of their mother, sharing her gentle personality and sweet, enticing smile.

Normally he tried to stay away from women with children, but in Angela’s case, he made an exception.

As the room came into focus he began to understand his predicament, and it was as confusing as it was frightening.

He was in a large, empty room with walls made of some type of metal and painted a featureless gray, as was the ceiling and floor. He saw no windows, or source of light, though the room was well illuminated. He was alone, with nothing but cobwebs to keep him company.

  One thing did catch his attention . . . the doors. Or, more accurately, the outline of two doors on the far wall. But they didn’t appear to be doors. They were not made of wood, but of the same material as the walls.  The hinges and knobs were so faint, he had trouble seeing them. They were only thin, nearly imperceptible lines framing the curious openings.

He waited for his head to stop spinning, knowing his options were limited. Without thinking, he let loose several shouts for help. Then, hearing no response, he approached one of the doors.

They were identical in shape and size, about five feet apart from each other. He bent and examined one door closely. What he saw sent waves of confusion and fear through his body.

 The doorknob and hinges were made of cobwebs!

Too afraid to think, he reached out and touched the handle. It felt solid enough but in a surrealistic type of way.

It could be a way out. It could lead to freedom and safety.

He began to turn the knob.

But it could also lead to certain death . . .or worse.

He released the handle.

The dwindling options available to him danced in his head. Should he try to open the doors or simply wait for help? Neither choice was appealing, but he knew sooner or later he would have to do something.

Fear won out and he flopped to the floor with his eyes glued to the doors for any signs of danger. His head still ached and he could only pray he wouldn’t pass out, although sleep seemed more and more attractive by the minute.

Eventually he dozed off. 

In a dream, she came to him. Her piercing eyes entranced him as her silky jet-black hair swirled all around, wrapping him.

“Austin,” the dream voice asked. “Do you love me?”

 “Yes,” he heard himself say, as if his voice were separated from his body. “Yes, I do love you.”

A short pause was followed by a giggle.

 “Good. Very good,” the dream voice said. “I will see you very soon, my love. Very soon.”

Austin was jerked awake. He rubbed his swollen eyes. The strange dream had taken its toll on him, weakening his already frail condition. Waiting for help was fast becoming an option he couldn’t afford.

Gradually, the two doorknobs came into view. He stood up and stumbled over to one, ignoring the voice of reason in his head. He must try to escape or he would surely die.

A thick, dry creak echoed in the room as the door swung open, revealing a wall of darkness behind it.

“Hello? Is anybody in here?” he asked, anxiously. 

Silence.

He began to close the door when he heard an almost indecipherable sound in the darkness. It sounded like someone, or something, drinking.

Then he saw the eyes.

They shone with the reflection from the room behind him and were unblinking. Worst of all . . . they looked directly at him. Six more eyes joined the first two and immediately focused on him.

An outline of something the size of a basketball was lying on the ground about ten feet from him. His stomach convulsed when he realized it was a head, a human head…Ray’s head!  Actually, what was left of it.

 Stumbling backwards, Austin kicked the door shut with all the strength he had left.

Whatever was beyond the door pushed against it violently, making terrible sounds,  reverberating through the room.

Thinking quickly, he brushed away the cobwebs lining the doors, erasing them from existence.

He stood back and surveyed the now empty wall. It was as plain as it had been when he had awakened, but the thought of what might be trapped behind it terrified him. The crashing noises had subsided but their ghostly echoes still rang in his ears.

Again he fell to the ground, exhausted and hungry, and passed into an uneasy sleep.

When he woke up all was quiet. He reached up to rub his eyes and realized he could hardly move his arms! Something bound them in place in his lap. He tried to break free but his weakened condition would not allow it. Then he saw what held him down . . . cobwebs!

“Austin, do you love me?” the familiar voice asked.

“Angela? Is that you?”

“Do you love me?” it repeated.

“Angela get me outta here!”

“DO . . . YOU . . . LOVE . . . ME!”

He was scared to answer; it might make his dire situation even worse.

Then he looked up.  Right before his eyes, cobwebs were gathering. He watched in horror as they drifted down into the room. Their descent was fluid and smooth but with purpose, and eventually they settled on the opposite wall, forming the outline of a huge door.

His stomach was in knots. He knew what was happening to some degree but not how, or more importantly, why. He also knew whatever was behind that “door” was  going to be very happy to see him . . . but in the wrong way.

He rolled over onto his side and frantically tore into his bonds, but they felt like steel cables.

Then he looked up again. Three more cobwebs were drifting down. Two thinned out and turned vertically, the other rolled up into a type of ball. He knew right away what they were . . . hinges and a doorknob. In seconds they had attached themselves to the door.

Further attempts to free himself only tightened the cobwebs more, and they were fastening to the floor, leaving him more vulnerable than ever.

The door creaked as it opened, filling the room with its threatening echo. Austin could only crane his neck to one side, not far enough to look away from the door.

“Austin, do you love me?” Angela’s voice asked from the black void.

His mouth was the only part of him free of cobwebs. “I…I can’t move. Please let me go,” he pleaded.

Something massive shifted in the darkness.

“It would be better if you told me you loved me,” Angela’s voice slurred. “So much better. You would taste so much better.”

“Angela, pleeeeaase! Let me go.”

He prayed for it to be quick, struggled to think of happier times. Like being a young boy, frolicking in his backyard. Hitting his first home run or sharing his first kiss. Hanging out with his friends . . . friends like Ray who was now undoubtedly in the belly of some inhuman thing behind a non-existent door made of cobwebs!

He could still hear those things violently slamming against the wall where the other doors had been. He surmised little Kate and Eve were still very hungry, even after they had finished with Ray and Tammy.

He focused on the square of darkness behind the large door. The face that began to materialize was growing larger by the second. Finally its visage was clear.

Angela.

In a way, Austin felt relieved to see her, though he knew this wasn’t the same girl he had been dating. She glared at him with four pairs of baby blue eyes. The

compassion in those eyes conflicted sharply with their real intent. Austin’s heart was in his throat when Angela scuttled out into the open room.

“Hello Austin,” she hissed through nine-inch fangs.

“An . . . Angela?”

“Yes, it’s me.” She straddled him with her eight hairy legs.             “Did you miss me?” The mockery in her words stung him like a needle. 

Despite his situation, despite what she really was, Austin could not deny to himself he had loved her, that he still loved her. Perhaps that was why she had kept him around for so long. Maybe her past boyfriends—her other meals—had never truly loved her. Maybe she had never experienced real love before and was having difficulty dealing with it.

He knew this was his only chance.

“Angela, I know you’re in there,” he moaned to the creature. “I can feel it. Tell me it’s really you.”

Angela paused for a moment, pondering Austin’s words. The inner conflict in its mind was reflected on its face.

“Austin, do you love me?” she asked.

A tear welled in Austin’s eye. His heart ached for this creature to be Angela again.

The sharp pain in his side was causing him to feel disoriented but he had to say the words before he blacked out. They just might save his life.

 “Yes, Angela, I love you,” he managed to whisper.

And then his world went black.

Angela squatted back on her bloated abdomen and gazed down at Austin. She knew she had truly loved him.

But she also knew that one needed more than love to survive. One also needed food.

She clicked her fangs together and waited for the venom to begin its work.

 

 

killer.jpg
Art by Gordon Purkis 2010

There’s a Killer in the House

 

Rick McQuiston

 

 

          Paige just couldn’t shake the feeling that she was being watched; it clung to her like a bad hairdo. The day had been a long one, peppered with a wide variety of problems and she was quite exhausted.

 

Jerry Fizzeral, the creepy guy stationed in the cubicle next to hers, had been fired that morning for using his computer to research how to make pipe bombs, of all things. The management staff zeroed in on it pretty quickly and when he was confronted, merely stated that it was a hobby he was interested in.

 

          A hobby? Pipe bombs? Who did he think he was kidding?

 

          In any event, he was let go immediately and received a stern warning not to come back onto the property, even to get his last check. They told him they would mail it to him.

 

          To say Paige was relieved he was gone, was a vast understatement. Knowing she wouldn’t have to see those beady little eyes or crooked smile again was cause for celebration.

 

          And that was just one of the interesting things that had happened during her day.

 

          On her way home, she’d stopped to get her dry cleaning and who of all people did she run into . . . her beloved ex-boyfriend, Sam.

 

He strolled into the store and sauntered right up next to her. He’d claimed he was just picking up his clothes but she knew the real story. He’d stalked her before. Fortunately, he didn’t follow her when she left.

 

          Then there was the weirdo who followed her car practically to her own driveway. In his big, black truck, he’d tailgated her while sporting a grin that gave her chills. She considered calling the police, but the guy hadn’t actually done anything.  At least, not yet. 

          When she walked in her front door, Paige felt she’d collapse. All she wanted was to flop in front of the fireplace with a hot cup of tea.

 

          There’s a killer in the house.

 

          The unsettling phrase crept into her mind.

 

          Was she being watched?

 

          She didn’t think so, but one could never be sure. She took her tea out of the microwave and settled down in front of the fireplace.

 

          There’s a killer in the house.

 

          It was no use. No matter how hard she tried to relax, she couldn’t ignore this feeling. She had to make sure there was no one in the house with her.

 

She set her tea down on the coffee table and pushed the afghan off  ofher lap.

 

          Then she hesitated.

                                                                                     

          Before she sat down, she’d neglected to turn on any lights and now the house was brimming with shadows, even though it was still fairly early.

 

          The irrationality of being so frightened in her own home weighed heavy on her mind. She was a grown woman: independent and intelligent. She owned her own house, drove a new car and had a moderately-sized investment portfolio. There was no reason to be afraid, none whatsoever.

 

          There’s a killer in the house.

 

          Except for that.

 

          That, and the movement she swore she saw in the guest bathroom, at the end of the hallway.

 

          Was it that creep, Fizzeral? Did he find out she was the one who told on him at work?

Maybe, before he left, he got her address from the computer and was waiting for her to get home. Who knows what terrible things he had planned for her? She could just picture those beady eyes and that crooked smile, sneering at her in the shadows.

 

          She picked up the fireplace poker and held it like a sword.

 

          “Who’s there?” she called out. “I’m armed and can defend myself.”

 

          No answer.

 

          Without thinking, she rushed straight to the bathroom and flicked on the light.

                                                                                     

          It was only a towel that was hanging in the path of the heat register. When the furnace kicked on, it blew air right on it, obviously causing the movement she’d seen.

 

Relieved, she settled back down with her tea, after leaving some lights on.

 

          The scratching noise jarred her. It sounded like someone was outside the kitchen window, trying to get in.

 

She jumped up, again wielding the poker.

 

          Could it be Sam?

 

She’d caught him outside her house twice before, after they’d broken up. Both times he’d said he only wanted to make sure she was all right and said he still cared for her. She hadn’t bought it, though. Sam was a louse, and a jealous, stalking louse, at that.

 

           She was afraid to go near the window, fearing that Sam was lurking outside, with a knife or gun. His jealousy only enhanced his temper. 

 

When she saw the small bird pecking at the bottom of the window, she nearly collapsed in relief. 

 

          Again Paige settled back down to her tea, which was cooling. She let her mind stray, delving into distant childhood memories.

 

          There’s a killer in the house.

 

          The words ruined her reverie, firmly implanted themselves in her mind. In the past, when she’d sensed things, she was usually right about them, so she was reluctant to ignore this.

 

          The doorbell made her jump. She scurried to the front door, peered cautiously out of the small window in the door, being sure not to be seen.

 

          Nobody was there.

 

          But across the street was a black truck.

 

Was that weird guy who followed her stalking her? Playing mind games with her?

 

Paige locked the deadbolt and gripped the poker tightly.

 

After she’d taken three steps towards the phone, the doorbell shattered the silence again. She rushed back to the door, this time fully prepared to defend herself.

 

The black truck was still there, but she realized it wasn’t the cause of her worry.

 

The big man who’d driven it earlier emerged from Paige’s neighbor’s house, carrying a large TV set. The neighbor, a woman she didn’t know  well, followed him, carrying an old VCR. They loaded the appliances into the back of the truck. The man then gave Paige’s neighbor some cash, and they shook hands before he drove off.

 

          A rustling in Paige’s bushes alerted her to why the doorbell had rung. Two small boys ran off, snickering, when they noticed she had spotted them.

                                                                  

She chuckled, realized just how ridiculous she had been. There was no killer in the house. She really was all alone.

 

There’s a killer in the house.

 

The ominous words tried to unnerve her, as they’d done before. But this time she wouldn’t listen.  Besides herself, there was nobody in the house. She’d checked it, thoroughly.

 

She made another cup of tea and sat back down to relax.

 

There’s a killer in the house.

 

Forget it. Sorry. Not this time. She was going to enjoy the rest of her night. Soon her favorite show would be on.

 

She set the tea down on the end table.  She reached for the remote, never seeing the black widow spider crouched next to it, ready to strike.

 

 

         


cupcakes.jpg
Art by Jack W. Savage 2014

CUPCAKES

 

by Rick McQuiston

 

            Faith brushed aside several loose strands of her auburn hair. She was frustrated with herself for not applying more hair spray before she left the house that morning.

          At times, she didn’t like being a girl. Boys had it so much easier. No time of the month, no having to put on makeup, no endless losing battles with their hair, or deciding which clothes to wear.

          The tapping on the door startled Faith from her thoughts.

          “Faith dear, are you almost done in there? We have a big order that just came in. I need you now.”

          Faith squeezed her eyes shut and took a deep breath. She reminded herself of her name and just why her parents had given it to her: because they knew she would be strong and never lose sight of her priorities no matter what the circumstances were.

          “Yes Mrs. Gladderton, I’ll be right out.”

          “Good. And don’t forget to wash your hands.”

          Forgetting about her hair Faith straightened her uniform and exited the bathroom.

          Mrs. Gladderton was finishing up with a customer when Faith walked into the room.    

                                                                                       

          “Thank you, and come again.”

          Faith approached her boss. She noted how the rail-thin, conservatively-dressed woman was obviously agitated and nervous. Hopefully it wasn’t because of her.

          “Ahh Faith, good, you’re here.” Her eyes narrowed, giving her a slightly ominous look. “We have a very special order that just came in. It’s for an order of cupcakes.”

          So what’s the big deal? People order cupcakes all the time.

          As I said, this is a special order. A very important one that must be filled without error or delay. Mr. Midnight will be here at eight o’clock sharp to pick it up.”

          Faith stifled a laugh. “Mr. Midnight? You have to be joking.”

          Mrs. Gladderton glared at her young employee, a hint of a smile sliding across her weathered face.

          “That’s just what I call him because he’s always dressed in black.”

          “Doesn’t he have a real name?”

          “Well, of course he does dear, but let’s just say it’s better not to speak it.”

          Faith had only worked for Mrs. Gladderton for a short time but she had already learned not to question her authority. Her boss, although fair and honest, was also prone to bouts of anger the likes of which Faith had never seen before, and did her best to avoid.

         


          “We’ll finish here with these last few customers…” she gestured towards a young woman with a small child latched onto her side and a middle-aged man waiting to pick up a birthday cake for his grandson, “then we’ll close the shop and get started on the order.”

          Faith raised her eyebrows. “Close the shop?”

          “Yes of course. We need time to prepare the cupcakes. We have to mix the ingredients, make the frosting, decorate…”

          Faith couldn’t help but notice that Mrs. Gladderton had grown pale. Her face took on an anxious, worried look and her hands jiggled at her sides nervously.

          “Mrs. Gladderton? Are you feeling okay?”

          “Why, heavens yes, dear. Anyway, as I was saying, we’ll close up the shop after these customers are gone.” She stopped and looked Faith in the eyes. “You have to understand,” she continued, “we MUST have this order ready on time.”

          Faith studied her boss for a minute, trying to locate any sense in her words. There was something there, but she couldn’t put her finger on it.

          Worry? Of course, but why?

          Fear? Definitely, but what was there to be afraid of?

          Pity? Yes, that was it, pity. Mrs. Gladderton felt sorry for her for some reason.

                             *                 *                 *                 *

          Faith wiped her forehead with a flour-streaked hand. A wisp of the white powder clung to her nose.

                                                                                               

          “Mrs. Gladderton, exactly how many cupcakes are we making?”

          “Don’t you worry about that, Dear. I’ll tell you when to stop.”

          Faith rolled her eyes. She was getting tired, both of making cupcakes and of her boss. She glanced over at the stainless-steel oven in the corner of the room. A series of muffin tins, each holding a dozen cupcakes, were stacked one on top of the other in the machine. A smooth flow of sweet-smelling heat radiated out into the room.

          “Faith?”

          Faith swung around to be confronted by Mrs. Gladderton.

          “Yes? I… I’ll get started on a new batch right away. We’re running a little low on sugar and…”

          “No need, my dear. The cakes already in the oven will be the last ones.”

          Faith felt so relieved. She glanced over at the puppy-dog clock hanging on the wall and was startled to see how the time had flown by.

          “That’s right Faith,” Mrs. Gladderton said quietly as if reading her young employee’s mind. “Nearly seven o’clock. Mr. Midnight should be here shortly.”

          “Should I get the orders ready?”

          Mrs. Gladderton smiled. It was a nervous grin, one of forced sincerity.

          “Yes, please do.”

          As Faith turned around she suddenly felt a sharp jab in the back of her neck. Instinctively she reached back and was shocked when she looked at her hand.

          Her fingers were smeared with blood.

                                                                                      

          Mrs. Gladderton tilted her head to one side as if studying her victim. A large syringe dangled from her hand, a thick, clear liquid dripping from its tip.

          “Mrs. Gladderton, I don’t understand. I…”

          And then Faith’s world went black.

                             *                 *                 *                 *

          When she came to the first thing Faith heard was a dripping sound. And it was coming from below her. She blinked her eyes several times as she tried to orient herself.

          Mrs. Gladderton’s smiling face came into focus.

          But the face was upside down.

          “Well, hello there, sleepyhead. I’d thought you’d never wake up.”

          “W…what happened? Where am I?” It was then that Faith realized that it was she and not her boss who was upside down. She felt the painful pressure on her ankles as the ropes suspending her threaded into her skin.

          “I’m sorry dear, really I am. But you must understand that this has to be done.”

          Faith was feeling weak. She found it increasingly difficult to remain conscious, let alone understand what her captor was saying.

          “Please, let me go. Please…”

          “It’ll all be over soon, dear,” Mrs. Gladderton assured, her face a picture of worry. “Mr. Midnight will be here…oh dear! It’s nearly eight o’clock! We’ll have to hurry this up a bit.”

                                                                                              

          Faith felt her body being squeezed and prodded; Mrs. Gladderton was quickening the draining of her blood. She knew all too well that Mr. Midnight would not tolerate his order being late; the consequences would be dire if it were.

          “There, that’s better,” she said with a smile. “Now we’re back on schedule.”

          Knowing her life was slipping away Faith lifted her head as much as she could. She wanted, she needed to see just where her precious blood was going. If nothing else it might at least allow her to leave the world knowing why.

          The muffin tins were laid out below, every four inches there was a depression filled with a colorful cake. Some had sprinkles scattered across their tops, others sugar candy, and several were simply coated in different shades of frosting. A few were plain. And they all had a thin plastic tube inserted into their center.

          And the tube was filled with blood. Her blood.

          “That’s right dear,” Mrs. Gladderton’s soft voice echoed in the room. “He wants your blood. The blood of an innocent, or something like that. I never really bothered with all that religious stuff. Not really my cup of tea so to speak.” She leaned in close to Faith, her eyes reflecting a deep-seated regret. “But you must understand that I have to do this. If I don’t…” her voice trailed off into silence.

          The noise sliced through the room, startling Mrs. Gladderton and causing Faith to temporarily drift out of her death throes.

          “Oh my! He’s here!”

                                                                                  

          A small brass bell jingled as the front door to the store was pushed open. A slender man dressed entirely in black stepped inside, a dull black cowl obscuring his face. Mrs. Gladderton scurried into the room.

          “Mr. Midnight. How good to see you.”

          “Dispense with the pleasantries,” the hooded figure snarled. “I am here for my order. I assume it is prepared.” The words were laced with threat.

          “Oh yes, of course it’s ready,” Mrs. Gladderton said nervously.

          “Good!” Mr. Midnight snapped as he began to tap cloven hooves on the white-tiled floor. “See to it that I am satisfied or I’ll unleash my wrath upon this foul world.”

          Mrs. Gladderton cupped her hands to her face. “No, no, Mr. Midnight. Your order is all set. I’ll go get it right away.”

          “Make haste, woman, for I am hungry.”

          Faith was teetering on unconsciness when she heard her boss shuffle into the room.

          “L…let me go. I…”

          “Oh, you shush now, dear. You’re doing the world a great favor. You’re sacrificing yourself for mankind. Don’t you see? If he doesn’t get his order the world will end.”

          “Y…you’re crazy. You’re…”

          “I’m sorry you think so Faith, really I am, but that doesn’t change a thing.”

                    She then proceeded to remove the tubes from Faith’s cooling body. Despite being pressed for time she took a moment to look at her latest victim, his latest victim.

          No matter how many sacrifices she did she never could get used to it. She was certain the girl had a family somewhere, people who loved her and cared about her, and even though Mr. Midnight made sure that no one remembered them (it was part of the bargain they’d made) it still clung to her conscience like a wet blanket.

          So young. So innocent. So helpless. She had liked Faith, much more than all the others, but it needed to be done. She shuddered to think about what would happen to mankind if she didn’t meet her end of the bargain. And thank goodness Mr. Midnight liked her cupcakes.



spidersv2.jpg
Art by W. Jack Savage 2015

Spiders

Rick McQuiston

 

 

          As I sit on my musty couch with a half-empty beer in my hand, I see a spider scurry across the room.

          Normally, I'd jump out of my skin. I'm terrified of those creepy little eight-legged things. Have been ever since I was a kid. I saw one (a dirty-yellow thing the size of a nickel) crawl onto my plate of food, and from then on they frightened me. I was only about eight or nine years old at the time so you could imagine how traumatized I was.

          And to think that I almost ate it!

          But the reason the spider in my living room doesn't startle me is simple:

          I know it.

          Yes, I know it well. I've seen it before. I recognize it.

          Most people would think I'm crazy. They'd say I've lost my mind, lost my touch with reality, flipped my lid.

          I suppose in a way, they'd be right.

          But then again, maybe not.

          The spider suddenly stops. It gracefully turns around and faces me. Leaning up on its pencil-thin back legs, it flashes half-inch long fangs in my direction. I can see drops of milky-white venom trickle from the tips.

          I have this instinctive feeling that it knows me as well. It recognizes me, as I do it.

          After a few seconds of displaying its weapons, the spider returns to its normal stance and scuttles into my bedroom.

          I shudder at the implications.

As I look at my cell phone encased in a thick blanket of silk, I can only smile. They're very thorough, I muse to myself.

I glance at the front door. It's covered in a sheet of web so dense I can hardly see it. Several dozen spiders of varying size ramble through the silky mess, obviously to make sure I can't escape.

"Richard, come to me now."

I toss my beer to the floor and stand up. I can't control my legs, but it doesn't matter. I would heed her call regardless.

I obey and stumble into the bedroom. A small spider doesn't get out of the way in time and is crushed beneath my foot. I grimace as I feel its gooey innards squeeze up between my toes.

"I'm sorry," I mumble as my heart tears. I hardly knew the bug, but it still hurts.

"Richard...come to me now!"

I obey the command from my wife and stumble into the bedroom.

She is splayed out on our bed. A cushion of silk supports all eight of her legs, as well as her heavy abdomen. Her fangs curve inward toward her delicate but deadly mouth. Fine hairs bristle across her body.

I try not to look at the hundreds of spiders that are scrambling around the room. They vary in size from no bigger than a fingernail to up to two feet across.

 I catch a glimpse of one (my first) that's as big as a fully grown dog. It glares at me from just inside the closet door.

"Richard," my wife whispers through her fangs. "Come to me now."

I make my way over to our bed, and slipping off most of my clothes, climb in next to her.

My wife immediately sinks her fangs into my neck. I feel the potent venom course through my veins, as I have so many times before. I know it's what she uses to control me, to coax from me what she wants (more children), but I don't care. I also know that she needs love.

"I love you," I moan as I feel my manhood rise.

"And I love you," she hisses. "Now let's make love."





                                   

clusters.jpg
Art by Noelle Richardson 2016

Clusters

 

Rick McQuiston

 

         "So you're saying that these things, these worms can actually imitate a person?" The words came out of Jerry's mouth like water, spilling into the damp, cool air of the supply closet.

Alex felt irritated at his friend's doubt. After all they'd been through he was still having trouble believing his own eyes.

"Jerry shook his head. "I just can't believe it."

Alex sighed so loudly, it echoed in the closet. "You saw the same thing I did," he mumbled. He found himself keeping his voice down for fear of Elise hearing him. "It wasn't her. It was those things imitating her. Or maybe they took over her body. I don't know, and frankly I don't care. All I do care about is getting out of this closet, this building, in one piece." He put his ear to the door. "I don't hear anything. I think she's gone. We should make a run for it." He reached over and snatched a pair of scissors from a shelf. "We'll split up. You go one way and I'll go the other way. We'll meet up outside and get some help."

"What about your cell phone? Did you leave it in your office?"

Alex nodded. "Yeah, but the battery is dead. I didn't have a chance to charge it. How about yours?"

"Left it at home."

"Great. Just great."

"What about the office phones?"

Alex took a deep breath. "If you get a chance, try one. If not, just get out of this place."

The thin strip of light that shone through at the bottom of the door was the only light in the closet. The space was dry and would start to run short on air if the door wasn't opened soon. Various office supplies littered the shelves, but didn't offer any help for the situation.

Jerry agreed to Alex's plan.

"Okay," Alex said. He held the scissors in his hand like a sword. "On the count of three. I'll go to the left and through the lobby. You cut right and head for the back door."

Jerry nodded.

"One…

two…

three!"

Alex pushed the door open. Instantly the closet was flooded with florescent light. The stillness of the hallway felt worse than if Elise herself was standing in the doorway.

"Let's move!" Alex commanded. He shuffled to the left, glancing in every direction for any signs of movement.

The office was terrifying in its stillness. Alex knew that Elise was lurking somewhere, not to mention Frank, Angie, and Mr. Frol (his dreaded boss who was frightening enough when he was human). Alex didn't know if any of them had been compromised like Elise, but he had to assume they were.

The kitchen was just around the corner from the supply closet. The light was on, revealing an aged refrigerator and sink cluttered with stained coffee cups and plastic bowls.

Alex peered into the room, and satisfied it was clear, stepped past it.

He stopped in his tracks when he heard the fridge door open. The scissors shook in his sweaty hand. His heart skipped a beat. His head grew light.

Two steps back allowed him of view of the fridge. The door was indeed open, but that isn't what froze the blood in Alex's veins.

Mr. Frol's body, or more accurately: parts of his body, were neatly stacked inside. Arms, legs, and a torso all lay atop the lower shelves. Orange juice and milk containers had been pushed toward the back to make room for the grisly stock. And the head, severed just below the stubbled chin, stared at nothing from the top shelf, right next to the brown paper bag that contained Alex's lunch for that day.

Alex felt numb. He eyed the phone on the kitchen table (a surefire guarantee that Angie would have to take calls during her lunch break), but resisted the urge to use it. He didn't want to go anywhere near the refrigerator.

Then he heard the back door open and shut. A wave of relief washed over him when he realized that Jerry had made it out.

Without giving it much thought, Alex turned and bolted to the back door.

The doors that lined either side of the hallway were closed, but he didn't dare open them to see if there were any other survivors. All that mattered was getting out of the building in one piece.

Just as Alex approached the door, Elise stepped out of one of the rooms. She blocked his path, forcing him back the way he came.

The image of her face, writhing with impossible life, and her undulating arms, swinging above her head, burned into his sanity as he stumbled along the hallway.

The scissors fell from his hand but he didn't stop to retrieve them.

He ran past closed doors, the supply closet, and the kitchen. The lights went out then, causing the office to be submerged in near total darkness. Only the emergency and exit lights provided any illumination.

Alex held his breath. He only had one option left: go out the front door.

Again, silence settled over the office, and in conjunction with the sparse lighting, created a terrifying scene.

Up ahead, on the left, was Mr. Frol's office. The door was open, but the room was dark.

Alex never thought he'd miss seeing the old guy sitting behind his expansive desk.

He entered the front office. Even with only an exit sign for light, he could see the outline of someone sitting behind one of the desks.

It was Angie. Her head was tipped back, giving her the appearance of looking at the ceiling.

But Alex knew she wasn't looking at anything. She was dead, no doubt killed by Elise.

Alex bumped into a file cabinet, and then an office chair. He was fumbling his way to the front lobby, and hopefully to safety, and he had to be careful. There was a reason why Elise wasn't coming after him, and until he found help, he didn't know what to expect.

He caught his foot on something and went down hard.

Right away Alex knew it was a body.

"Frank?"

Frank didn't reply. He couldn't, his face and been completely torn off, leaving nothing but a ragged slab of raw meat. Only two clouded-over eyes and a set of blood- streaked teeth gave clue that it had once been a face.

Alex shot to his feet. The inner office door, the one separating the front lobby and the main office, was speckled with Frank's blood. A crimson sheen coated the handle, causing him to hesitate. The sanctuary of the outside world was close, but could still prove dangerous to reach.

The handle felt cold and slick in his hand. He turned it, grimacing at the squeak, and as quietly as he could, pushed the door open.

The window in the lobby was dark. No light whatsoever shone through the pane, making Alex think that it was evening.

He closed the inner door behind him and approached the window.

Something was covering it, something that moved in excruciatingly-slow gyrations, so slow in fact that it appeared to be solid.

"What in God's name is that?" he asked with the tone of a child seeing its first sunrise.

The worms on the other side of the glass began to coalesce, sliding this way and that, forming one central cluster of nauseating life. They worked together like a swarm of bees tending to its queen.

In five seconds they were the size of a basketball, contrasting ever so slightly with the surrounding worms.

In fifteen seconds they formed a distinct oval shape.

In half a minute the front of the mass shifted yet again, revealing two hollowed-out orifices near its top, one directly below them, and a horizontal slit that stretched across the bottom.

The face broke into a caricature of a grin.

Alex nearly fell to the floor. He recognized the face. It was Jerry, or at least the worms imitating him.

"I understand how you are feeling," the face said with a cold indifference.

Alex could practically feel the rancid breath coming through the glass.

"Come, open the door and join with us, then you will understand."

Alex felt a surge of defiance well up inside. He would not allow himself to die like some lamb waiting for slaughter. He would fight.

"No!" he shouted. "I won't join you!"

He waited for a response.

The face shifted again, this time more gradually, as if it was thinking over Alex's answer to its offer.  Worms twisted across the face. Dozens of the sinewy creatures made trails up to the eyes and nose. They slithered into and back out of the mouth, dripping out of the orifice like so much soup.

"Very well," the face said, "then be aware of what your world has become."

The worms then began to separate. Clusters moved away from the face, taking chunks of the bizarre visage with them. Thousands of the beasts squirmed with a single purpose, each and every one driven by some horrible and unknown force that commanded them. And as the face dissipated, a narrow clearing opened up where it had been.

Alex leaned forward to look into that clearing.

At first, all he could see was a darkened channel with squirming things on either side, but, as the worms began to recede into his peripheral vision, he recognized more familiar shapes.

He saw the parking lot light poles jutting out from a writhing sea of worms. Only about half their length remained visible, telling Alex that the worms were at least six feet deep.

He also saw tops of vehicles. The worms undulated, being thicker in some areas and thinner in others, leaving a few cars and trucks partially uncovered.

And that was all Alex saw. There was no movement other than the constant gyrations of the worms, no birds flying by overhead, no droning of car's engines, no life whatsoever.

The parking lot had been transformed into a veritable ocean of worms.

Alex gasped for breath. The enormity of the situation (presumably of the world's situation) weighed down on him like a load of bricks. His options were between slim and none. He obviously couldn't go outside, and staying in the office would surely mean his death, either from Elise or eventually: starvation.

Alex chose the latter option. He decided he'd rather die in the office, hopefully on his own terms, instead of facing the horrors outside.

But as he turned, he was greeted by a sight every bit as terrifying and unbelievable as the worms themselves.

Backing up, he struggled to remain on his feet. He felt an entirely new fear grip his body, one that efficiently snuffed out any remaining hope he clung to.

Elise stood in the doorway. Her face alternated between being somewhat normal and something so far removed from human it was right out of a horror movie.

Clusters of worms poked out from her pallid flesh, only to disappear back into the skin after a second or two. Her hair swayed on top of her head like crazy, blind snakes. And horrible groans escaped her shuddering lips, painful growls that filled the room.

Behind her loomed others: Frank, Angie, even Mr. Frol, whose body parts were propped up against a wall like a broken mannequin.

All were crawling with life, but not their own.

Alex fell to the floor, exhausted, defeated, ready to accept his fate, only then realizing that it wasn't the floor he had been standing on, it was worms.

His coworkers rushed forward.





Rick McQuiston is a forty-eight year old father of two who loves anything horror-related. He’s had nearly 400 publications so far, and written five novels, nine anthologies, one book of novellas, and edited an anthology of Michigan authors. He’s also a guest author each year at Memphis Junior High School.  Currently, he’s working on his sixth novel.  

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