Apex Magazine’s “Holiday Horrors” flash fiction contest had 350 entries, but only one winner (and two runners-up). This story was not one of the latter–though it did make the final 20! Go read Charles Payseur’s, Clint Collins’s, and Inês Montenegro’s stories over at Apex. And if you’re still hungry for 250-word holiday horrors, read my story about an old year that refuses to yield to the new, below. I swear I wrote this before the election.
Do Not Go Gentle
by Rajiv Moté
Twisted and skeletal as a withered tree, the naked old man shuffled down the maternity ward hallway, sniffing the air like a starving wolf. Each exhalation was a wheeze. The satiny sash that only occasionally covered his unmentionables read “2020.”
Graveyard-shift workers and pacing fathers-to-be averted their eyes. They didn’t like to think of him. They could think of little else. They were resigned to waiting him out.
By the clock on the wall, they wouldn’t have much longer to wait—if the old man honored tradition. His bloodless lips twisted in a sneer.
Every time I drove past the Devil on a lonely stretch of Interstate 80, he popped up again, a few miles west, with his ratty crow-wings, pointy gray beard, and unforgiving stink-eye. I spied him perching on the knuckles of a dead tree, poking his head out of a haystack, peeking through the slats of a dilapidated barn — or hunkering over roadkill, because even the Devil needs to fuel up over the long haul.
He avoided cities, places where he found too much competition. It was the same reason I never lingered. But the road was no kinder. Once, outside Des Moines, a storm swept him into one of the gigantic turbines towering over the plains. But that old bastard always found his way back.
I thought about breaking the cord around my neck, tossing that gold tooth out the window, and just being done with it. That’s what he wanted: what I knocked out of his jaw the last time we tussled. But he would never call us square. If he wanted his tooth back, he’d have to make a deal. And he’s got nothing I want.
He finally caught me in a cornfield, answering nature’s call, and he made me an offer: one day out of my past as a re-do. Well, I thought that over for all of ten seconds.
“The day I whupped your ass!” I said.
So now I got two gold teeth around my neck. Don’t ask me how. I ain’t Stephen Hawking.
It is still hanging from the underside of the bed, yowling. I sit on the hardwood floor, streaked with claw marks and butter, staring into its yellow eyes. Were I inclined to anthropomorphism, I might read accusation. Certainly it is distressed. I consider putting it out of its misery, but as data, it is more compelling alive. And it will make me famous.
An experiment yields either a measurement, or a discovery. This holds even when forcing into opposition the immutable laws of nature. A cat always lands on its feet. Buttered bread always lands butter-down. In my first trials, no matter how tightly secured, the bread detached, or slipped from the cat’s back to its belly before landing. I’ll admit to being driven by frustration when I shaved the cat’s back and glued down the bread.
In the shadows I see the creature lower one limb to the floor before panicking and sinking its claws deeper into the fabric above. Hanging — a brilliant impromptu adaptation. I hear more yowling in the distance. I smile.
Hypothesis: when forcing two “immutable” natural laws into opposition, one will prevail, suggesting precedence — a relative degree of immutability. But instead my camera documented a transformation, legs twisting, cat to cat-prime: a creature landing simultaneously on its back and feet. From the yowling I hear in nearby apartments and the alley, the transformation was not isolated. Universal correction? So many questions and dangerous avenues of inquiry. And my discovery lies at the heart.
In the forlorn bloggy reaches of the internet are pages visited only by mindless things that crawl the Web. In this virtual twilight, where sadness hangs like mist, there are still voices. In brighter days, there were ears to listen. And those that remember, agree: nobody wailed online like Evie O’Grady.
Evie’s marriage endured three years. Hearing that relationships were mourned at least as long as they lasted, she made grief a habit to replace the habits Richie stuffed into a suitcase and took to Los Angeles with someone named Lana. Evie returned every evening to the apartment, declining happy hour invitations until they stopped. Some weekends she didn’t change out of pajamas or even leave the bed. Her phone became her world.
At three in the morning, she could post a digital howl, and online arms would comfort her. Souls she hadn’t met in the flesh would proffer virtual shoulders. Even seeing her words “Liked” comforted her. The tendons of her thumbs spasmed, but through the months of typing on the tiny keyboard, she mastered sculpting dirges into written art, her pain a bottomless well of inspiration.
But appreciation for her beautiful melancholy soon waned. “Friends” vanished with each lamentation, and Evie mourned them as she mourned all loss, wailing in the digital dusk. Some posted from their distant, sunny haze. Evie sometimes caught their eyes with a tag or mention. But after a few times they too would wink out, one by one, like stars behind a fog.
Harry awoke in the night and began deciding if it was worth it to use the restroom. His hand dropped from the recliner’s armrest and he was surprised to feel soft, warm fur. He shifted, turned his neck, and saw a big dog lying against the recliner, its legs stretching under the bed where Sabrina slept. Somehow, he wasn’t alarmed. Harry’s fingers scratched its shoulder. The dog pawed the air.
He hoisted himself into his walker, making it to the toilet and back. The dog lifted its head. Its eyes shone like moons. Its tail thumped, and Harry motioned for it to hush. He fell back to sleep stroking its fur.
In the morning, after Sabrina fed him with a funnel through the tube in his stomach, Harry wrote on his notepad, “WHEN GET DOG?”
Sabrina shook her head. “I don’t want a dog,” she said.
The black dog was rolling on the living room carpet, snorting happily. Harry shrugged.
In the evening, Harry sat with Sabrina on the sofa and they listened to Mozart, the black dog curled against his legs. Sabrina’s eyes closed. Suddenly, the dog rose to its feet, ears perked. It was tall enough to look Harry in the eyes with an unmistakable expression of eagerness.
“A walk? All right. I feel like stretching my legs too.” Harry rose from the sofa effortlessly, silent so not to wake Sabrina. “Let’s both of us have a cookie on the way out.”