There once was a woman named Andrea, O children, whose family kept four chickens in a small coop in their backyard. Andrea's wife Stephanie had convinced the family that keeping chickens was a good idea, and it had been good, by and large. The eggs were delicious, and the children loved watching the birds peck and scratch.
The family took turns feeding and watering the chickens, spreading diatomaceous earth to keep the smell down, and replacing the straw. Andrea hated taking her turn with the chickens, O children: their beady eyes, so vacant and yet so expectant; their sharp claws, ever scratching at the dirt; the pungent tang of their droppings. She always tried to trade chores with the other members of the family. Most of the time she was able to avoid chicken duty, but not always, and so it was that one morning her alarm clock went off before the sun came up and she had to rise for chicken-tending.
Andrea sighed and went out into the dewy dark backyard to feed and water the chickens and gather eggs. She put the eggs (only two this morning) into her little basket and squatted down to fill the chickens' water. As she was bent down, Doris-- a beautiful black-and-white Barred Plymouth Rock hen-- hopped up onto the shoulder of her purple robe.
"Bok buk bugok," said Doris.
"Agh shit," said Andrea, and quickly stood up. Doris came up with her, and shifted her head to look Andrea right in the eye.
"Bok," said the chicken.
"Uh, hello, Doris," said Andrea. She regarded the chicken on her shoulder, and Doris regarded her right back.
Slowly, Andrea reached into her robe pocket and pulled out her phone. She opened the camera and lifted it up, taking a few selfies in quick succession, while thinking about potential captions for the internet. Tough-guy face for the first one, maybe with the caption "Who you callin' chicken?" For the second, Doris looked kind of sad, so Andrea grinned big; "The Egg-ony and the Egg-stasy." For the third, Andrea licked her lips and stared wide-eyed at Doris. Caption: "My Dinner With Andrea." She could look at the selfies again inside, and post the best one. As she slipped the phone back into her robe pocket, Doris darted forward and buried her entire head in Andrea's ear.
Andrea screamed and fell backwards into the straw. Doris scrabbled for purchase and maintained a grip on the robe, but let out a startled "BUK BOK BUGOK!" The clucking echoed, unbearably loud, inside Andrea's head. Immediately, a horrible burning and itching started; Doris pecked around inside Andrea's cranium, and little neck feathers brushed maddeningly against Andrea's inner ear. Doris, in all the thrashing, yanked down the collar of the robe and buried a set of talons into Andrea's bare shoulder. Andrea screamed again and reached up and around, wrapping her hands around the bird's neck and midsection, lifting it away.
The head stayed put, and Doris' body stopped short. "BUK BUGOK," Doris hollered into Andrea's head, and shat all over the robe. Andrea closed her eyes and tried not to panic. If she freaked out and yanked too hard, she could kill the chicken, and then she'd have a dead hen wedged headfirst in her ear. Worst of all, if she pulled hard enough, the chicken head might actually detach, tick-like, and remain buried, dripping its own thick blood down Andrea's neck.
The other three birds watched calmly from the yard.
Andrea reached up with the arm closest to Doris and held the bird's body down tight against her shoulder, preventing further clawing and scrabbling. With the other hand, she reached up and followed the chicken's neck as far as she could, until she hit her own ear. The entire skull was inside her head. The clucking continued unabated. Andrea carefully folded her fingers over the top of the chicken's neck and pressed the meat of her thumb against her temple, applying gentle but steady pressure out and away.
After thirty seconds of itching and crowing, there was a loud popping sound, almost exactly like squeezed bubblewrap, and Doris' head came loose. Andrea threw the chicken onto the ground, where it looked at her with an expression as close to surprise as a chicken's face can muster. Doris' head was caked with viscous yellow earwax.
Immediately, Andrea decided that she could tell no one. She wiped Doris' head off with a paper towel as best she could and went about her business. She brought in the eggs. She put the robe, bloody and spattered with Doris droppings, into the washer. She showered, spending a lot of extra time with a Q-Tip, and pulled out three large feathers and five small ones. She deleted all of the chicken-selfies. She vomited and got dressed; got the children up, fed, and clothed; dropped them off at school, and went to work.
While listening to a PowerPoint presentation that morning, Andrea heard a single muted cluck. She yelped and shoved her chair back from the table, scuffling backwards and drawing glances. After coming to her senses, she played it off as an insect crawling up her ankle. She tried to resume learning about the benefits of a particular bookkeeping software, but her mind was elsewhere.
The clucks kept coming, each one slightly different; there were long pauses between them at first, but the intervals grew shorter and shorter until they rang through her head every few seconds. Andrea left work at noon. The closer she got to her home, the louder they became, until she found herself in the backyard staring at Doris.
"What did you do to me, Doris?"
The chicken looked at her, then pecked at the ground.
"How do I stop this, Doris?" asked Andrea.
"Bugok," said Doris, and the sound echoed like a fart in a cathedral, resonating and filling Andrea's entire awareness. She fell to her knees.
Something needed to be done. As soon as she could stand, Andrea got a hatchet out of the shed. She carried Doris, seemingly-unconcerned, over to a stump, and braced her with one hand. With the other, she quickly brought down the blade. Doris' head flopped onto the grass, and her thin little legs kicked and flailed in the air. The clucking in Andrea's head stopped immediately.
"Oh, thank goodness," said Andrea. She couldn't bring herself to pluck Doris-- just the thought of eating her caused an awful bout of heartburn-- so she gently placed the corpse in the garbage on the curb, and went inside for a bubble bath and two bottles of wine. She was pretty well recovered by the time Stephanie and the kids came home. No one had yet noticed Doris' absence.
Andrea couldn't even look at the beef in the fridge, and so she and Stephanie made vegetarian dinner: quinoa and lentils in spicy red sauce, with broccoli on the side. The family watched an animated movie, by the end of which Andrea felt almost normal (despite finding a feather in her hair). The kids went to bed. Shortly thereafter, Andrea and Stephanie did too.
Andrea half-woke in a sweat at two-thirty in the morning. The bottoms of her feet itched and burned red-hot, as though she'd walked through poison ivy barefoot. Under the covers, she reached down and scratched, her long nails digging at her soles, trying to find some relief but not wanting to enter full wakefulness. God, it felt good. She scratched and scratched, the relief intensely satisfying, until her fingers slid under the calloused flesh of her soles and touched the dozens of scaly chicken feet beneath.
Illustrations by the lovely and talented Bill Latham. Special thanks to Grace C. R. and DW Fitzgerald, and their bizarre dreams.
There once was a woman, O children, named Laquinda.
Laquinda lived in a small cabin, deep in the woods, with her three dogs. She meditated, and read, and enjoyed walks in the dappled sunlight shining through the forest canopy. She worked as an accountant at Brickenden National Bank, performing financial services for people and businesses; she was very good at her job, and found satisfaction in it every day.
In this way, she lived and worked and was happy.
At the end of every workday, Laquinda left the bank and began the long walk home through the woods. The woods were deep and deserted, and home to all manner of beasties: demons, ghosts, vértékties, vampires, and other creatures besides. Laquinda always made sure to go home while the sun still shone down and drove the dark things into the shadows.
One springtime, tax season enveloped Brickenden National like a dark cloud, and Laquinda found that she could not keep up with all the work that needed to be done. On the day of the deadline, the bank manager requested that Laquinda stay and work until all the tax documents had been filed. Laquinda worked hard, doing calculation upon calculation, but still found that the moon was full and heavy above the trees when she was finished. Laquinda quickly said a prayer and jogged down the path.
Laquinda was in the forest no further than ten yards before she found her path blocked by a vértéktie.
A vértéktie, if you have never seen one (and I hope for your sake that you have not), is a small creature the size and shape of a cat, with the head of a possum and the tail of an otter, and two sharp horns spiraling from its forehead. Vértéktie stand on their hind legs, and they are dressed all over in soft shaggy fur; their large velvety bat ears swivel to and fro so they can hear their prey from a great distance. Their tongues are half the length of their bodies, and they have two small hands, like the hands of a child.
Vértéktie smile constantly, showing all of their tiny sharp teeth.
"Clear my path, beastie, or I shall make you move," said Laquinda, pretending to be brave even though she was very scared.
"Oh, I think not," said the vértéktie, slowly padding toward Laquinda and licking its thin pink lips. "You look plump and nourishing. I think I shall take my fill of you."
Laquinda let out a bellowing shriek and ran at the vértéktie, which startled and froze; she raised her foot as she ran, and attempted to boot the creature into the trees, but the vértéktie was too fast for her. It clung fast to her leg with its small hands and scampered up her body. Then it perched on her back, where she could not reach it, and began whispering an eerie incantation.
Laquinda knew that it was too late, but the damage could be managed; she broke off the branch of a nearby rowan tree and began to flail away behind her, whipping the vértéktie, so that it could not continue its disgusting spell.
Vértéktie, you see, do not feed the way monsters normally do. Most fearsome critters want to eat the flesh or drink the blood of their victims. A vértéktie, forgoing this physical sustenance, grabs hold of a person and slowly consumes their ability to experience joy. Once they have encountered a vértéktie in the light of the silvery moon, even a person who smiles easily and has found inner peace can find themselves staring into the carpet as if into a wishing well, unable to find even the smallest measure of happiness.
Laquinda ran as fast as her feet would take her, flogging the vértéktie with the rowan branch. She could hear the whisper of dark words, and could feel herself begin to despair. She began to shout over the vértéktie, singing prayers, calling out Our Fathers and Hail Marys at the top of her voice. She took her silver necklace and pressed it into the monster's leg, making the fur singe and burn; she did every thing she could think of to make the critter pause or start over or halt.
Before too long, she saw her house through the trees, and called her dogs.
The dogs came running up the path and circled Laquinda and the vértéktie, barking and growling. It is well-known that vértéktie are terrified of dogs, and the beast clambered its way up to the very top of Laquinda's head, where it turned round and round, spitting and squealing. Spying her chance, Laquinda grabbed its bony thorax and wrestled it to the ground, where she wrapped the necklace around its neck like a choker, and clutched the devil close to her.
She ran the rest of the way to the cabin, shooing the dogs inside before her as she went. Once they were all inside, she slammed and locked the door behind her and threw the vértéktie to the floor.
Now that the physical connection had been broken and the panic had begun to subside, Laquinda could tell that the vértéktie had badly diminished her capacity for merriment. Before the encounter, she could laugh at any joke, no matter how badly constructed or poorly told. Now she found that when she tried to smile, the corners of her mouth twitched halfheartedly and lay still. She knew that unless something was done, she would be unable to enjoy her walks, or her books, or her dogs, or her work, and she would soon begin to wither away.
"Vile beast," she hissed at the vértéktie. "Undo this damage! Restore me, or I shall kill you, and throw you in the fire, and let my dogs chew your bones!"
"Anything, please," said the vértéktie, "just let me go."
Laquinda grabbed the devil by the scruff of its neck, and attached bells to the silver necklace it wore, so that other people would know if it came near. She squeezed the vértéktie hard between her hands, and felt satisfaction rise within her.
Once this was done, and she was made her old self again, she opened the door to allow the demon to escape. Instead of running into the darkness, however, it looked at her plaintively.
"Please," it said, "with this bell around my neck, I shall never be able to feed. Soon, I will die of starvation."
Now that her gaiety had returned to her, Laquinda felt some small sympathy for this pathetic monster. "I shall place a saucer of milk on the front step every night," she said.
The vértéktie cocked its head and squinted at her. "On the first cold night I will freeze to death without the stolen joy of others to keep me warm."
Laquinda sighed. "All right," she said. "On very cold nights you may visit me indoors, and keep warm by the fire."
The vértéktie nodded once and was gone.
This is how Laquinda came to have a pet vértéktie. If you visit her in the woods on a snowy night, you may see it curled up by the fire, caressing its necklace of bells and smiling sweetly at you with all its tiny sharp teeth. Look at it, but do not touch; for deep down, the vértéktie is always hungry, and will not hesitate.
Artwork by the fabulously talented and wonderful Jes Seamans.
In the wake of gerrymandering and Crosscheck voter invalidation, the United States government has finally become a full-on evangelical theocracy, enacting biblical punishments for all transgressions. They've also adopted the non-evangelical notion of "purgatory" out of a sense of expediency and necessity.
When you're arrested for any non-mortal sin-- or even if you give confession for those sins-- you can be put into suspended animation to serve your "purgatory time" immediately. This helps alleviate overpopulation, and there's a political component, in that those in suspended animation are unable to vote. Those offenders with views opposing the government / church face a much higher rate of purgatorial punishment.
I'm a freedom fighter, looking to illegally resurrect a purgatory-dweller. I drive a small hovercraft / antigravity ship-- it's car-sized, more like a skiff or a convertible. It can fly up, down, sideways, upside down-- the floorboards are always "down," gravitationally. There isn't a top on it, but a top would be unnecessary, as global warming has forced all the cities into massive walled-off domes. I continue my search, deep into the archives full of glass coffins packed with those who are suspended in purgatory. They go on and on and on, for miles.
Also I have the unique ability to travel back in time, exactly one year from whenever I choose to exercise the ability. Once I've done so, I have to live forward in real-time, and cannot skip ahead.
If I fuck things up too much and change or damage the timeline too drastically, the shadows will come for me.
I'm in love with the purgatory-dweller for whom I search. She's a fierce political activist, and can rally dissent magnificently.
I keep searching.
I'm walking through a wooded area, but the trees are all in neat rows. Looking to my left, I see a serpentine, floating beam of light, roiling through two rows of pines. It moves, but not in a straight line like a flashlight beam: It drifts and carries the light with it, like luminescent smoke. Illuminated smoke. Only I can see it. It disappears or dissipates quickly.
I keep walking. There are people walking near me, but we are not together. Periodically, looking left, I can see the luminescent smoke, and I finally understand that it functions like a fiber-optic cable-- if I were to catch the end, I could look through it and see what's on the other end. It never stays long enough for me to catch it.
The group of people grows. We do not speak. We do not interact.
At last, the beam appears and lingers. I can see it. I run to it and stare down it.
A man at the other end slowly turns. He's wearing a shabby green-brown shirt and a faded red baseball cap. His face is darkened by shadows. He is unshaven. He has very bad teeth. Instead of eyes, he has small white suns in his head. They're almost too bright to look at.
Now he knows who I am, and he will come, and he will find me.
I woke up shivering with the most intense goosebumps.
My car has been in the body shop for so long that the insurance company doesn't want to keep paying for a rental, and I'm forced to return the one I have and figure out other arrangements. An acquaintance loans me a beater-- an old white '80s four-door sedan, long and chunkity. It runs okay until I'm driving toward an underpass and all four wheels come off at the same time.
I get out of the car, and hold up my hand to stop the oncoming traffic, which stops impatiently. "Shit," I think, and I sigh. I put one hand under the front bumper and one through the passenger side window, where I can grab the handle, and then hoist up the car with my bare hands and carry it to the side of the road. I gather all the tires and throw them in the trunk.
It's too late to get four new tires at CostCo, so I pick the car back up and carry it through some wide double doors into a Mexican restaurant and put it up on a tall planter while I use the restroom.
What a pain in the ass!
When I come out of the restroom, there is a small crowd gathered around the car, which is now sitting, tireless, on top of a tall planter. "Oh shit, I'm sorry," I say. "Let me get that out of here. I guess I'll just carry it home." I grab the bumper and the oh-shit handle and pick up the car again.
"Hey, if you need a car for a couple days, I can loan you one," says the woman running the place. "It won't be good, but loaners aren't supposed to be good. It'll get you where you need to go."
"Really?" I say. "That would be a lifesaver."
It isn't until I wake up that I realize that everyone in the dream was flabbergasted that I could just pick up an entire car and carry it around.