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Sibling Rivalry in a Zombie Apocalypse: Fiction by Jon Park
Dead is Dead: Fiction by Roy Dorman
Rooms: Fiction by Harris Coverley
Do You Know the Pizza Man?: Fiction by Beverle Graves Myers
Testing the Waters: Fiction by Rick McQuiston
Unclaimed Property!: Fiction by Pamela Ebel
The Causeway: Fiction by Kenneth James Crist
Witchy: Fiction by Cindy Rosmus
An Assembly of Assassins: Flash Fiction by Hillary Lyon
The White Nothing: Flash Fiction by Phil Temples
Carmelita: Flash Fiction by Zvi A. Sesling
The Horror of Hidden Pond: Flash Fiction by M. L. Fortier
Kim Philby: Flash Fiction by Henry Simpson
Fear: Flash Fiction by Cheryl Snell
Homecoming: Flash Fiction by Kurt Hohmann
Castle: Flash Fiction by Ron Capshaw
Head: Flash Fiction by Ron Capshaw
Something Wicked This Way Thumbs: Flash Fiction by K. A. Williams
The Charcoal Man: Flash Fiction by Fred Zackel
Tarot Tara: Flash Fiction by Steve Cartwright
Mr. Bunny and $88.01: Flash Fiction by William Kitcher
Don't Think Twice: Flash Fiction by Elizabeth Zelvin
Teasing in the Light: Flash Fiction by Bradford Middleton
Spider: Flash Fiction by Mark Jabaut
Infirmities: Poem by David Galef
Dreaming a Little: Poem by Juan Mobili
The Dead Mingle with the Living: Poem by John Tustin
The Flower in Your Lapel: Poem by John Tustin
May Day: Poem by Partha Sarkar
Procession: Poem by Partha Sarkar
At the Funeral Lunch: Poem by Joan Leotta
Dreaming My Way Home: Poem by Joan Leotta
The Silence: Poem by John Grey
Pacing: Poem by John Grey
Elementary Classes: Poem by John C. Mannone
Rage: Poem by John C. Mannone
Comfort Zone: Poem by John C. Mannone
Serpentine Line: Poem by Charles Weld
William Calley's Apology: Poem by Charles Weld
Steve J: Poem by Charles Weld
Thief: Poem by Michael Keshigian
Sweet Pleasure: Poem by Michael Keshigian
Courtship: Poem by Michael Keshigian
Again, A Bike Left: Poem by Rp Verlaine
Short Cuts to Madness: Poem by Rp Verlaine
Ingrid Leaves Vegas: Poem by Rp Verlaine
A Necessary Poem: Poem by Rob Plath
Last Gesture: Poem by Rob Plath
Carpe Sanguinem: Poem by Rob Plath
The Antitesis: Poem by Rob Plath
Cartoons by Cartwright
Hail, Tiger!
Strange Gardens
ALAT
Dark Tales from Gent's Pens

Rick McQuiston: Testing the Waters

100_ym_testingthewaters_jelliott.jpg
Art by J. Elliott 2023

Testing the Waters

Rick McQuiston

          Preston switched on the radio. Normally he didn't like distractions while he was driving, but given the present circumstances, he just couldn't resist the primal urge, like everybody else had, to hear any update on the pandemic.

          He fumbled with the radio for a few seconds before settling on a generic news station. A few gentle twists on the volume knob and the monotone droning of a man's voice quickly became coherent through the car's speakers.

          “The latest study suggests that the Pro1967D Pandemic has been spreading at an alarming rate. The pathogen, being both air and water-borne, has thus far eluded virtually every effort to curb its spread. The CDC has recently announced that the virus, a derivative of the flesh-eating strain Heights-02Sterling, named after its supposed point of origin, is now capable of infecting animals as well. Dogs, cats, and any other domesticated breeds should be handled with care and caution and probably tested if any symptoms like clouded-over eyes or nervous twitching of the extremities, such as the hands, occur.

          In addition, the president held a press conference...”

          Preston sighed with disgust and switched the radio off. As the pandemic increased its lethal grip on the world, he found himself becoming more or less desensitized to all around him. As each day passed, he cared less and less for other people, for animals, and even for himself.

          Coming to a gradual stop, he rested his arm on the armrest and cupped his chin in a sweaty hand. His mind was a tempest, a swirling maelstrom that was barely contained within his skull.

          “Pro-1967D,” he mumbled under his breath. “Sounds like some sort of vitamin supplement.”

          His words slipped from his mouth and hung in the stuffy air of the car. Somehow he remembered saying something just like it seven years earlier. Back then, and it was still fresh in his mind, another disease had spread across the continent. Dubbed Secul-CV85, it was similar to malaria, but with a dash of cancer-like venom tossed in for good measure. It resisted the best efforts from the top minds in the country to stop it for nearly 12 months, and by the time it relinquished its hold on the US it had killed more than 15 million people.

          And before that, 14 years ago by his recollection, another scourge had had its way with the people of his home state of Michigan. Originating in the dank suburbs of Detroit, apparently from an abandoned house used by drug dealers, the disease escaped its dire confines and wreaked havoc with frightening speed. Ovid Flu, as it was dubbed by the media, in reference to the street the house was located on, became something of an icon in the annals of pathogens. It killed indiscriminately, slicing through racial, gender, and age barriers with relative impunity. No one was safe, regardless of their social or financial status in life.

          The disease did, however, seem to remain within the state. Not one case of Ovid Flu was reported outside of Michigan. In fact, there were even reports about people who were infected with the disease, and after traveling to another state for one reason or another (different treatment options, family or job obligations, etc.), became healthy again. No trace of the pathogen was detected in their bodies. The doctors could not explain it, which led some (most notably religious zealots and the like) to explain it was an act from God Himself.

          The streetlight switched from red to green, momentarily pulling Preston away from his thoughts. He removed his foot from the brake and slid it over to the gas pedal, firmly pressing it down. The custom-designed, gold-plated Rolls-Royce Phantom immediately responded then by lurching forward, the 12-cylinder 6.75-liter motor filling his ears with its smooth, perfectly-honed roar.

          Preston loved his new toy. Even in the midst of a global crisis where people were dying from a disease that resisted attempts to treat it with seemingly-supernatural ability he still loved driving his Rolls-Royce.

          Supernatural. The word stuck in his head after all other thoughts had left.

          Supernatural.

          Preston felt a trace of sorrow creep into his conscience. When he had accidentally summoned the creature, a result of foolish tampering with the talisman he found while on a hike in the mountains, he had no idea what he had unleashed. One minute he was simply minding his own business, taking in all Nature had to offer, and the next he was facing the diminutive figure that swirled with a collage of nauseating colors and sported a visage that alternated between blinding evil and warm empathy, the latter heavily underlined by the former. Its tiny arms, no longer than a man's finger, swayed at its sides like a pair of wet noodles, and its clawed feet clicked on the sun-baked stone, creating a disturbing sound reminiscent of a chorus of drunk tap dancers.

          “Greetings, young gentleman,” the creature said in a polite tone. “I bid you a gracious welcome.”

          Preston found himself rooted to where he stood. Any fear he felt was diluted substantially by simple fascination and curiosity. He was standing before a supernatural phenomenon.

          The creature then started rambling on and on about how mankind had ruined the world, all the while black spittle spiraling out of the corners of its oversized mouth.

          Preston caught glimpses of green-stained serrated teeth, too many to fit comfortably within the maw.

          Its words, however, struck a nerve in him. He couldn't deny it. Mankind was ruining the world, there was no doubt about it, and this stark revelation, having hardened his heart to his fellow man, cushioned what the creature said next.

          It was a proposition. It offered Preston anything he wanted, except for wishes that would interfere with its main goal, if he would do one thing: simply wish for the end of the world. It then went on to explain that it was not a demon, that demons in fact did not exist except in man's own mind, but was a harbinger of sorts, an entity who had watched mankind since the first Homo Sapiens had entertained a reasonably coherent thought, and from that first thought it had waited, tallying up the number of dark impulses, however inconsequential, until the one that tipped the scales, so to speak, in its favor.

          Preston had to admit that the notion of ending mankind did appeal to him to a small degree. As long as he remained alive and unharmed he could do anything he wanted, have anything he wanted, be anybody he wanted. He had no family, no friends, no interests in anyone's well-being outside of his own, so his conscience really didn't factor into the situation.

Plus, there was the chance that the creature was pulling his leg. It couldn't have been more than a foot tall and probably weighed less than a plump rat, so he did doubt it was capable of a display of such power.

          But then before he could answer, the creature waived a sinuous hand above its head, displacing the air as if it radiated intense heat. Its eyes bulged outward, nearly splitting open, and tiny wisps of green smoke streamed from its tensed fingertips.

          It had readily agreed to Preston's condition, having probed his mind for the answer it so hungrily sought.

          And then it was gone, vanishing in the blink of an eye.

          Deciding that he had imagined the whole thing, Preston simply went on his way. And since he couldn't do anything about it, he called out a wish.

          “I want ten million dollars!”

          Instantly, an enormous stack of fresh $100 bills, all tied with bands that had $50,000 stamped on their front, materialized a few feet in front of him.

          Snapping out of his thoughts, Preston drove along the mostly deserted road. He noticed a few people here and there, but they were either in the terrible death throes of the virus or were dead already, their lifeless bodies bloated from the disease.

          He felt sick with himself. He had caused this, he was responsible. He had unleashed the creature to destroy the world.

          And all so he could be rich, and have the fancy car he wanted, and worst of all: remain healthy and alive.

          That was the toughest part for him to deal with, the fact that he would live while everyone else died.

          He came to a stop on the side of the road and shut the engine off. The Military hadn't reached his part of the state yet, so he wasn't worried about it. They only occupied the densely populated areas first instead of bothering with the smaller locales, such as where he was.

          Preston closed his eyes and let his mind wander, the cries of the stricken fading as he drifted into a troubled daydream. But no sooner had it started when it was shattered by something slamming into his car. The jolt was powerful, like a starved lion tearing into a bloody carcass.

          With shock dictating his reaction Preston flung his disoriented gaze to the passenger side of his beloved car and immediately saw the diseased face of a woman, who when healthy would no doubt have been very pretty, smeared against the glass. She looked dead but her violent twitching and rotating clouded-over eyes said otherwise.

          Preston felt sick to his stomach. He had never been this close to someone with Pro1967D before.

          He instinctively pushed himself into his seat in an attempt to put as much distance between himself and the poor woman as he could.

          The woman slid to the ground, her mouth and nose leaving greasy trails on the glass.

          The creature was perched on a large stone next to the shoulder of the road. It looked as it had when he first encountered it, except for some added weight. Despite maintaining its same height it was now undoubtedly heavier, perhaps by as much as 50%. It also wore the same expression as it did before, although now the evil seemed to be in the minority.

          “Greetings, young gentleman. It's good to see you again.”

          Preston found himself staring at the diminutive abomination; words eluded him.

          The creature sensed his hesitancy so it continued.

          “I must say that I finally think I got it right this time.” It hopped off the stone and strode toward Preston's car. “Don't you think? The virus is quite effective, you must admit.” It gestured toward its surroundings with wiry arms. “At this rate mankind will be wiped out within a week, perhaps two. The first batch, I believe they called it the Ovid Flu, was not much more than an experiment. I was testing the waters, so to speak. The second batch, however, proved much more effective. Secul-CV85 was a big improvement over its predecessor. It was much better quality.”

          Preston was pushing himself into his seat so much his back began to hurt.

          The creature reached the car. Standing up to the door, its short stature prevented it from being seen by its lackey so with a slight twist of a finger it raised itself up to Preston's eye level.

          Preston could hardly look at the swirling colors of mankind's destroyer.

          “Not to worry though, young gentleman,” the creature slurred, its pointed nose scraping against the window. You are wealthy in a world of poverty. You are enlightened in a world of ignorance. You are strong in a world of weakness. You are alive and well in a world of sickness and death. Surely you are a lucky man.”

          And with those cryptic words the creature lowered itself. Then with a flick of its sinuous finger dispelled its foul form into sheer nothingness, leaving Preston alone with his tormented thoughts.

          “Alive and well in a world of sickness and death,” he muttered to himself over and over again. “Everyone is dying but I'm alive and well.”

           He started the car, momentarily losing himself in the finely-crafted hum of the motor. He slipped it into gear and the Rolls Royce crept forward, the loose gravel on the  shoulder crunching under its weight.

          “Alive and well. I'm alive and well.”

          The Rolls gained traction on the pitted and cracked asphalt.

          And when Preston looked into the glare of the rear-view mirror and noticed, at the same time his hands began to twitch on the custom-made steering wheel, that his eyes had become clouded over, foggy windows into a damned soul.

 

Rick McQuiston is a horror fan who has over 400 publications to his credit. He has written seven novels (three published), and read at various schools and libraries in Michigan. Currently, he is working on his eighth novel.

J. Elliott is an author and artist living in a small patch of old, rural Florida. Think Spanish moss, live oak trees, snakes, armadillos, mosquitoes. She has published (and illustrated) three collections of ghost stories and three books in a funny, cozy series. She's currently writing (and illustrating) a ghost story novel, Jiko Bukken, set in Kyoto, Japan in the winter of '92-'93. Episodes on Amazon's Kindle Vella. Paperback and eBook coming late this summer (2023). 

In Association with Black Petals & Fossil Publications 2023