Oliver Kerrigan thumbed the object in his pocket and watched the world go by.
Boarding trains paused the countryside like it rarely did in the city. He had shorted out the appeal of the pastoral in his youth, or had it shorted out for him, but tripped headlong over one of those funny curves of a joyless adulthood into a bout of nostalgia that caused him to long for its gentler pleasures only now that they were out of reach. He was spending proportionately more time on trains to make up for it on his weekends. These were often spur-of-the-moment trips, or so he’d gotten himself to think: while it was true that he never plotted his destinations and usually picked at random from the first available schedule, how spontaneous was a weekly habit?
After the fourth weekend in a row, he began to argue the value of an extended vacation with himself. God knew he had the PTO. But both halves of the argument had flaws. The city was better for him and work kept him busy, which was all he’d ever wanted to be, and returning to those languorous days of smoking in the shade of a tree was a fine daydream, but boredom would inevitably ruin the reality, and leave him with a stiff back and a headache for good measure. Then again, perhaps once he’d thoroughly disappointed himself, he wouldn’t dote so much on “wasted” youth and appreciate that being overworked was simply the cost of good living.
But even knowing this--even, a step further, understanding this--the idealist inside him that he thought he’d sated by moving to the city and starting a career insisted that this vacation was more than a sad salaryman’s retread of adolescence. The city had been great to him, was still great for him, but to forget where he’d started was a mistake and an existential danger to his wellness, which was in turn a danger to his finances. Wellness was the buzzword in business, and he had read all about what happened when it started to decline, and read more about what to do to prevent it. It came down to simple things, easy lifestyle tweaks he could make right away. Exercise more. Drink tea. Take spa days. Explore the countryside! Reconnect with the past! All he really needed was to go back and beat those broken-up streets, rediscover that inescapable stink of manure dyed into every brick and joint and chink of the place. He needed to go back and see where he’d been if he wanted to get a true handle on where he was going. And while he was at it, he could visit his brother. He ran his thumb along the object, squeezing it pensively before letting it, and his thoughts, go.
There had been the faintest whiff of manure when he’d stepped off the train a stop or two ago for coffee, and it had been stronger at the next stop when he’d snapped up a copy of the local paper for the rest of the ride (he had forgotten his headphones on the nightstand back at the apartment and hadn’t had time to read in months, so he was without even the diversion of literature). His inner idealist had been pleased; and in good spirits, he’d left the platform and wandered the area for a bit, perusing overpriced shops and engaging in brief conversation with fellow patrons before moving on to soak up the temperate day and those hints of his hometown’s olfactory signature carried in by the breeze. There was no doubt that it was partly a self-imposed illusion, the result of nostalgia and proximity to the place where he’d entered the world, but he enjoyed it all the same for the memories great and small that it drew out--until the one, of course. When that reared up, all the wanderlust abruptly drained out of him, and he wanted nothing more than to be back on the train, but his former good cheer had made certain that wouldn’t be possible for at least another half hour, until the next train came snorting by. In the time between, well….
He pulled his hand out of his pocket and downed the cold dregs of his coffee, scanning the horizon through the spotty window. There had been a smudge of farmland in the distance, and he was happy to see that it had resolved into a field, bare for now but probably already sown for harvest. Its sowers must be preparing for the weeks of work ahead even now, by Oliver’s estimation. Not that the work ever ended. He allowed himself a wry smile, then put it away as he remembered that it had seemed they were always preparing, always operating in anticipation of the next step, and the next was only ever in the service of the next….
There were bushes and fields closer to the tracks. Oliver watched them scribble by, hoping to lose his thoughts in the blur like trash in a river. Instead, they clung. He reached for his cup but remembered it was empty now. He resorted to studying the fingerprints on the window, but all at once, he and Maurice were eleven again, riding in the back of their father’s pick-up, peering through the dirty back window and pretending one of them was steering. His brother’s voice rang in Oliver’s ears, just out of the full reach of his memory, which was all clogged up with sales and strategies and wellness; but he remembered Maurice’s voice because it had served him so well with Sawhorse and Barb-and-the-Wires and Glory Dugout and who know how many others, now.
He’d had trouble keeping track as a kid, too, chasing the shadow of The Kid, that name his brother had picked up almost without his choosing. Sometimes, Maurice “The Kid” Kerrigan was greeted as such by folks who had never laid eyes on him. If the nickname had ever actually referred to the disproportion between his age and talents, it had eventually outgrown these things to signify more his youthfulness than his youth--his enthusiasm, his ever-radiating cool which itself was more than an aggregate of wit, athleticism, and amiability but his ability to form and keep lifelong bonds with friends, with lovers, and with Ollie Kerrigan, the younger brother who could be spotted not far from the Kid’s side in every picture, at every moment.
And then Summer Marsh. Summer fucking Marsh. Oliver turned his attention back to the window, but he could feel the train beginning to slow down, and his hand reached involuntarily for his pocket again, like an animal after warmth. Oliver stood up before the train came to a full stop, earning him the disapproving glances of some of the more elderly passengers, but he paid them no mind as he stepped out, alert again for the smell of home. It wasn’t there at first, but the breeze reminded him all at once that the purpose of this vacation was to enjoy himself. He slid through the crowd and tossed his empty coffee cup, bought the first magazine he saw and dropped a little more money for a fresh coffee; and having made good time, took a seat on the platform bench alongside a couple of passengers buried in their electronics. He thumbed through the magazine, the breeze whipping the steam from his lidless cup, and ended up absorbing very little of what he read.
Summer Marsh had ruined his brother. It hadn’t been a sudden fall; few are. But she had introduced him to the vices that ruptured the Kerrigan brothers’ relationship, the first and most important friendship either had ever had. Oliver had become estranged from his brother over time, but he’d been there to see the gears of Maurice’s downfall set in motion. He’d known that even then.
Maurice stopped being The Kid and withdrew into a cloud of drugs and louder and louder music. When he wasn’t slogging through his chores he was practicing his drums, but his practicing amounted to assaulting every inch of the kit until he had exhausted himself or broken some piece of it, until eventually, he had broken too much of it to tour with any of projects, and then until he simply had nothing to play. He didn’t have the money for replacements. But the drugs were still there, and the drink always, hardwired into the genes of the Kerrigan lineage; and they manifested swiftly and brutally, until, like their father and his father before them, Maurice truly fell.
Oliver--then Ollie, little Ollie, Maurice’s wide-eyed silent shadow--had been there the night he’d destroyed his crash cymbal. Ollie had heard his brother’s racket stop suddenly and had run down, heart in throat. The scene had never left him. He had walked into the barn area Maurice had sectioned off with rotting bales of hay, all the stuff they couldn’t feed the cattle, to find Maurice holding the cymbal, a black lightning bolt running through it, the stand lying crookedly against his knee. He had been perched on his stool, crimson-faced and rigid, mouth hiked up in a snarl. The broken cymbal rattled his hands, which were themselves rattling with fury he could hardly contain. He understood that Maurice must have had Summer on his mind when he went that night to find comfort in his music, and that it had been some thought, some memory of her, that had destroyed the cymbal. But to see his brother in this way, mired in that sloppiest of emotions, had punctured the esteem Ollie had for him, deflated the admiration--and even some of the love, truth be told--that he had had for him. Ollie had seen something he should not, but more than a decade later, he couldn’t say what.
Ollie had left not long after that. The rest of The Kid’s sad decline he’d pieced together from his gradually more infrequent communications with their mother. Maurice had left at one point, stood up and walked out by the way his mother recounted it, and there had been no word for nearly two years. The widow Kerrigan decided to sell the land she and her husband had tended all their adult lives. Ollie had gotten a call about this and given her his blessing. It was time to move on for all of them. Oliver had certainly had no intention of returning, not really, and not then, but Maurice seemed to think differently: he returned just as their mother was finalizing the sale. But Maurice and his mother’s relationship had so deteriorated by this time that even the firstborn Kerrigan’s miraculous return couldn’t hold her to the land. She ended up selling the entire estate to Maurice at full price, but whether it was a final act of maternal compassion or a petty little vengeance, Oliver had never decided. Somehow, Maurice had paid, and now lived there alone. Oliver had no clue what he might do for money. Their mother lived elsewhere, far away now, and the only person to whom she spoke less than Ollie was Maurice.
Oliver set down the magazine and sipped his coffee, hardly minding when he burned his tongue. Again his hand crept toward his pocket, but he wasn’t foolish enough to pull the little baggie out even here in the countryside; there were still plenty of disapproving eyes lying in wait, and he was beginning to feel as foolish as the decision to seek out, and then accept, this parcel from the smiling girl warranted, all from a bad mood. And with Maurice on his mind now he felt doubly as stupid, but here came the idealist, his inner hedonist under an innocent mask, with a salve for his doubts: he was in the countryside, after all, and the more space he had, the freer he was. Freedom, in large enough quantities, dilutes vice into whim, and whim very nearly into a right. He would be a bigger fool not to use it.
With an excusatory nod to no one, but ostensibly toward his benchmates, he took his coffee and wandered off the platform. He’d miss his train again, but that hadn’t been a problem before and it wasn’t now as he toured the shops, notably shabbier than the last town’s, and struck up conversation with an affable jeweler. To keep his mind off the baggie, a thought that was inexplicably causing him enough anxiety to sweat, he haggled with the old gentleman over earrings for a girlfriend he didn’t have, promoting her to fiance with a well-pretended glance away in embarrassment for not having admitted it sooner. The gentleman was fooled; he congratulated Oliver and instantly began to lather him with discounts, superficial deals, and appeals to grand notions of romance and opportunity, and Oliver did his part to seem at first dubious, then gradually more persuaded, until, on the precipice of appearing to be convinced, he assured the man he needed just be a minute to check his finances at the closest ATM. The man set the earrings aside. Oliver went on his way. He breezed past the ATM. The jeweler slid the earrings back into the display.
The avenue went on. Oliver followed it until he’d left the shops behind and the town’s face of relative poverty began to show. Eventually, the woods that had flickered in the train window slunk into view, and he strolled into their shade, taking his time to let the hush of growing things settle over and sink into him. When the manmade was behind him and he was alone with the edifices of the natural, he extracted the little baggie from his pocket and held it to the light, feeling some of that sense of foolishness creep back in. His suit wasn’t high-end, but it was finer than the jeweler’s, and his shoes were more expensive than at least a third of the trifles he’d seen on display in the old man’s shop; but now here he stood with a crumpled ziplock baggie of weed, a strain he didn’t recognize, purchased from a twig of a girl for whom a crooked smile seemed a resting expression. He hadn’t asked what it was, either. Was he twelve?
Oliver opened the baggie and sniffed. There was nothing unusual about its smell, but he couldn’t shake his misgivings. He’d never trusted smiley people, and his career had taught him his instincts were good, but his hedonist-idealist reached into his other pocket for him to produce the little stack of papers he carried everywhere for these usually sweet occasions. This wasn’t the first time he’d plunged headlong into the unknown, and it was only weed, after all. He felt silly being so dithery and suspicious over a little pot. As the breeze urged the trees into quiet conversation overhead, he sifted the contents of the baggie out onto a paper and tucked the baggie and the extra papers into his pocket. Oliver stared, a little disappointed at the joint-to-be. The twig girl had hardly given him enough for a roll. It had looked like more. But perhaps this was best. He rolled up the joint, practically one-handed--certain habits never die--and sealed it with a practiced lick. He plucked out his lighter from the same pocket he’d kept the baggie, brought the joint to his lips, the flame to its end, closed his eyes, let himself brim with the silence of the woods, and sucked smoke.
The joint lasted him far longer than expected, and got him much higher than imagined. What little the twig girl had given him was potent enough to stretch each tick of his wristwatch out, opening vast and comfortable spaces for him to muse and meander freely backwards to the days of The Kid and Summer Marsh; to those afternoons in the shade with a fat spliff, in the glorious absence of responsibility; to reflect on the first joint he’d ever tried, a singular experience facilitated by Summer Marsh herself in the woods of their hometown. Maurice hadn’t known about this, and that fact had been as much a source of anxiety for Ollie as it had been the very thrill that got him to try. She might have been his brother’s girlfriend, but that didn’t diminish the fact that Ollie, little Ollie, was doing drugs with a beautiful woman in the woods. It still set Oliver’s chest to fluttering. He took another drag; held; puffed out his cheeks as if he was still that nervous, happy child; and exhaled. The smoke drifted toward a canopy of light and ropey shadow overhead.
He had long known about the place in the woods where Summer and her friends disappeared to smoke and drink, a clearing secreted away from even the local police, who wouldn’t bother hiking all that way to nab a teenager or two at best. Sometimes Ollie went out there alone to pretend he was really part of their circle instead of the sentient bauble attached to The Kid’s ankle. He kicked their empties around, crushed out the roaches they strewed about in the dirt. He had set out to repeat this routine one day only to stumble across Summer and her friends already there. Normally, he would have turned back at the sound of their voices, but had brazenly approached them in the clearing, emerging from the trees to a delighted squeal from Summer’s friend, whose name was lost to the passage of time. Oliver, present-day, took another drag and wondered why. Summer’s other friend, Melena, had taken him by the shoulders and steered him into their midst, plunking him down at the foot of the junker.
Oliver snorted, remembering that ancient rust-heap of a car that had lain so long in that place among the trees that its chassis had fused to the earth. The junker. Mount Greenpeace, they had nicknamed it. Nothing budged it. He wondered if it was still there. He remembered its interior, black and foul but scrubbed scentless by decades of weathering, and the way Melena’s split ends had wriggled in a sunbeam, and how that same sunbeam illuminate a galaxy of dustmotes above the corroded seats of the junker, and how that sunbeam had flashed on the little baggie of weed Melena pulled out of her back pocket.
Summer and her friends had already been smoking when Ollie showed up. Oliver remembered that tang in the air, forbidding and sweet. He remembered that Summer hadn’t taken her eyes off of Ollie, not for a second. Perhaps she had been puzzling out the implication of his appearance, wondering how he had found them, wondering how she could take advantage of the moment. Perhaps she had only been high, and Oliver was reading too far into a blank slate decades later. It didn’t matter. What did was that she offered offered him the very joint she was smoking, right from her lips, kissed end first; and it was the weird intimacy of that fact that must have spurred Ollie to take the joint without a second thought, surprising even himself. Melena had raised the lighter to his face. Summer’s other friend grinned and cooed. He plugged the joint into his mouth. The lighter flashed.
Oliver smiled. He had made a rookie mistake and swallowed too much smoke at once, and in short order, descended into a coughing fit that went on until he had feared for his life, and then subsided, leaving a shaken Ollie standing there in the sunlight, trying to save face he’d already lost. He must have been a sight, but he didn’t remember the girls laughing. Maybe Summer’s nameless friend had cooed a little more, but they hadn’t laughed. He was still grateful for that, and for the fact that whatever Summer had been burning, it had given him a clear high, one that didn’t leave him drowsy and inarticulate like later and less fortunate experiences.
These memories were less pleasant, especially once The Kid found out that little Ollie was smoking weed, but Oliver shook those thoughts free. They fell away like leaves, thanks in large part to the twig girl’s gift, which was now over three-quarters gone but lingering sweetly in the back of his throat. The breeze cooled him. He reclined further into the tree against which he’d crouched, no longer concerned about damaging his suit. He closed his eyes. Breathed. When he opened them, he saw crimson in the sky and realized that it was about time he meandered back to the platform. He riffled through his wallet, and satisfied that he had enough to purchase himself another ticket and a fresh coffee, climbed to his feet.
He was nearly knocked back down by a thunderclap of vertigo. It was so strong he had to grab the tree and stand there a full minute before he was able to collect his wits to look around, open-mouthed and dazed. She he was certain it had passed, he took a step and was slapped with an even more powerful wave before he’d quite set his foot down. He screwed his eyes shut. Mistake. In the personal night behind his eyelids, the vertigo took on shape and dimension, cavorting from his gut straight to his brainstem. It sundered every thought and ignited an awful nightmare synesthesia: his fingers reported a purple sweetness that beat in time with his convulsing throat. It sailed up his arms and down the neural freeway of his spine in a festering wail, crumpling among his ribs, silvering brittly outwards until, with a mute cry, his eyes shot back open and he clutched at himself, feeling tears burn the corners of his eyes. His stomach flipped, his gorge rose, and with hardly enough time to turn his head and lean toward the nearest bush, the vomit came, an acid expulsion that relieved nothing and left him rawer and more vulnerable.
The weed. It had been laced after all. This was the first thought to surf intact out of the next roll of vertigo. He held onto the thought, beat the wave, and opened his eyes, unaware that he had shut them again. This happened twice more, until finally he was able to focus on the bush now dripping with the aftermath of his coffee and the bagel he’d breakfasted on. He searched the drippings for signs of contamination, but of course there was nothing to find.
The westering sun popped a vessel, further reddening the sky as Oliver made his slow journey back, pausing to catch his breath and to gag, fighting off tremors. Shadows wriggled out of the grass, from behind the trees, and hung down from their boughs before the retreating sun, but the pain that settled into his skull, a migraine born of exertion and what was probably some low-grade poison, pricked them with stars that wouldn’t go away. The further ahead he looked the more of them there were, a brilliant, sizzling cloud of them all he could see beyond a certain distance. He tucked his head down and tried to take control of his breathing.
He could see the street ahead. He tried to hurry toward it, but his legs spasmed as if something had taken hold of a bundle of nerves in his calves and squeezed. He staggered, crying out, and fell against a tree. Then he crumpled, his head lolling back. The pain in his legs came in excruciating oscillations he could neither predict nor defend against, and so he was forced to lie there, bursting sweat from his pores, until it began to subside. He wouldn’t risk moving for a while, afraid of triggering another bout, and so lay there panting until he peeled his eyes open with the intent of checking his watch.
But he found he could not look at his watch. He was overcome, all at once, with an altogether different vertigo, the like of which he had never imagined or experienced before. It reached deep inside of him, found and took hold of his most vital essence, and held it transfixed with the terrible promise that the unutterable strangeness he was witnessing in the sky at that instant was no drugged hallucination, but a reality from which he had, unwittingly and unfairly, shucked a layer of insulation. That he was seeing something that is not ever to be seen.
His vision trembled in the tremblingly aqueous way it did when he was deep into a well-administered acid trip; as if the face of the world was about to trickle away; but what he saw through the haze were the innumerable strands weaving together the sky, immeasurably long and infinitely delicate, blazing; vibrating as if he had just missed the final strum on the instrument of creation. The stars he had thought to be a manifestation of pain picked up by his retinas were, in fact, grains of sugar rising in steady white streams toward the webbing of the sky. He knew it was sugar as coldly he knew that he was lying against a tree, that the shape in his back pocket was his scuffed genuine-leather wallet, that he would not be seeing his brother or his mother or his apartment ever again. He watched the sugar pour skywards, out of the very tree he lay against, out of the grass and the earth, and felt how each breath he took drew a few of these particles into himself, where they were broken and disseminated into the mysteries of his biology. The rest rose up and collected like moisture in the woven sky, slipping along its blazing strands as if drawn by some infernal gravity toward a sun of poolwater blue, which was not a body in space but a hole in it, leading to a world of matter whose properties he couldn’t comprehend, not with all the knowledge in the world, and whose light was not light but even finer skeins of white thread braided into the sky, skeins that lay upon him and wherever light touched, piling invisibly upon his upturned face; and wriggling, half- or entirely-sentient for all he knew, into each pore of his flesh. Invading him. Nourishing him. Sustaining him as he sustained it.
His legs throbbed and the pain overwhelmed him to the brink of unconsciousness, where this revelation reached its most terrible dimensions. There, in near-darkness, he could feel all the strands of the sun, the threads of existence and the matter of life itself, a thing that ate and fed itself in perpetuation, inside of him, and knew they could not be removed. The pain brought him back just as abruptly as it had forced him away, but it had metastasized into his arms and trunk, and with a shock of horror, realized that he had both lost feeling in his legs and control of his arms: they were twitching like beheaded snakes at his sides, grasping nonsensically at the air and the earth. He saw his foot twitch left, twice, but did not feel it.
He felt a scream evolving in his throat, knew the words he wanted to make his last whether they held meaning or not outside of the ruptured cocoon of the reality he had thought he shared with the world, but when the scream came, it met sealed lips. He worked his jaw until it ached, but something was wrong. Something was terribly wrong. He pushed his tongue against his lips and found the resistance, a thick and alien secretion. His tongue stuck to it. He couldn’t pull it back, though he nearly sprained the muscle in his jaw in his desperate attempts to do so.
A shadow fell over his eye, following by a revoltingly gentle pressure. He was able to blink it away once, twice, and then no more--his eye welded shut and the pressure grew until it was like a soft finger holding the lid. Something had dropped from Oliver’s eye when he blinked the first time, and he searched for it: a single gray drop, there on his leg. It had the consistency of glue from what he could see--
The same shadow fell over his remaining eye. He thrashed as ferociously as he could without the use of his limbs, opened and shut the eye as rapidly as he could, but the pressure followed and the shadow fell again, gray and heavy, and a premature night fell as his lid closed and the finger secured it. In this darkness, Oliver was no more than the rasps of hyperventilation and the hammerblows of his heart pounding blood and adrenaline where it did him no good.
He continued to buck and twist, and felt himself keel over in the dirt, gouging his temple against some protrusion from the earth, a rock or a root. A plan to wriggle in the direction of the street, to crawl until someone happened upon him, was thwarted when he suddenly realized he didn’t know where he was in relation to the street. He thought he had fallen to the right, but he had jumped so much that he might wind up crawling deeper into the woods. But what choice did he have? What more could he hope for?
His legs went first. They shriveled as he crawled, and he felt their husks slithering and knocking about behind him for a while, like a pair of heavy sacks, until they began to wither and deteriorate. When they finally sloughed off, he felt a momentary discomfort as of defecation, and then he was lighter.
His left arm followed in the same manner. Then the right.
By this time, the secretion sealing his eyes and mouth had also clogged his ears. He lost his mind in the dark and shrinking prison of his body, as well as his sense of direction and purpose. He forgot why he crawled, and simply went on crawling. But even in madness, that last protection the human mind offers against such improbable ends, the cognitive ability to understand that he was suffering like no human should remained to him, and he suffered all the more by this damned awareness.
In the darkest part of the night, when the light was furthest from that spot on the earth where the insane thing that had been Oliver Kerrigan came to the end of its futile and arduous travels, the gray secretion that had taken more than half of his senses at last crusted over its nostrils: first the left, then the right. It struggled for life, the moment meaninglessly tracked by the ticking of an expensive wristwatch dropped in the brush nearly a mile back, and then died without further ceremony.
In the morning, a nameless new plant bloomed in the countryside.
FEAR: Short Horror Tales From The Team
FEAR is a new column from the ML team that brings new short fictional horror stories to our readers, enjoy at your own risk