's 2014 Horror Write-off:

" The First Twelve Letters "

Submitted by C. Lonnquist C. Lonnquist

The first letter exploded outward when opened, embedding shards of sharpened dimes in the face of the reader, chipping the plaster around her, taking out a stained-glass lamp, and obliterating a china collection. The letter said: ‘Ask for more.’

The second letter turned the reader’s skin to plastic, and when they found him sitting in his chair, it was starting to turn as well. They could hear him screaming from behind fused lips, eyes unblinking, but something shift behind them as if he was trying to move them in his sockets, and the rest of the eye was just pulling against the surface. The whole chair/person fusion shuddered in pain, or maybe ecstasy. It was impossible to tell, and when they cracked the plastic to save him, the contents of the shell spilled across the clean, white floor of the hospital. The letter said: ‘No luggage.’

They’re not sure what the third letter did, but when they found the apartment where it was delivered, the tenants were gone. They assumed that the obscene amount of silverfish had once been two whole people. The wingless insects shimmered in the slanting evening light that pulled through the Venetian blinds, their stainless steel bodies huffing dust into the air as they burrowed through the carpet like legged teardrops. The letter said: ‘Again, thank you.’

They stopped the fourth letter from being opened at first, and spirited it away from the old woman who had received it. She screamed and cried as they pried the unopened mail from her withered fingers, and she bit the men who hauled her away from the small, yellowing envelope. In the SUV, the letter carrier became an opener. To the survivors, it looked like he was crying as he slid a nail under the glued fold and slipped it apart. It looked like he couldn’t stop pulling at the paper. When they opened the doors, there was only one person left in the car; impossibly old, eyes blinded and white. They interrogated her before she turned to dust like the others; an image of mummification inside a sterile vehicle. The letter said: ‘Touch. Flee.’

It was my job to look at the photographs and listen to the recorded audio. To study the letters themselves. Whatever malice they had held was gone after they had been opened, their contents now nothing but a single line centered perfectly on an old-looking sheet of normal printer paper. The words were always written in Arial, 12 pt. They were always black. They were always the only contents of the envelopes. The envelopes always looked ancient; yellow, with little bits of red around the sealed edges. One of the studies we did said the red was traces of blood and particles of tongue, but the tests always said it wasn’t from a human. We have yet to identify the source.

The person who opened the fifth letter was traced in a line against the back of their entry way, like the shadow of a nuclear blast. The house was free of radiation, and throughout the building, they found little masses of meat, though they’re still working on why the masses were perfectly spheroid and covered in unbroken skin. The worst part was the fact that the burnt shadow had shadows of the person’s eyes and mouth inside the outline. The letter said: ‘It’s too loud.’

The thing they found at the trailer home must have been the sixth opener. They had to kill it. They wanted to take it alive, but it had shifted from the floral-print couch to the wall, its skin blending perfectly with the faux wood paneling, until it had sunk claws longer than an adult’s forearm into the neck of one of the men there. They could see it once the blood had hit it, mostly because it seemed to burn the creature, which chuckled and rasped and wheeze, its dome-like eyes wobbling back and forth. Milky white pupils suddenly appeared, scalded by the blood, and gazed at nothing as the thing’s chest collapsed amidst the stench of melting leather. The letter said: ‘Over green hills!’

There is no documentation on the sixth letter, aside from the letter itself. Even the envelope was lost. When the retrieval team had been released from suicide watch, only one of them had talked about it, and all she had said was, “We shouldn’t have done that.” The sixth letter said: ‘We added two.’

The seventh letter was found in a mailbox. It had been opened and put back. There was no sign of the opener, and strangely, no phenomena. The only thing we could connect to the letter was the fact that for the next three weeks, there were people who reported a voice far above the mailbox screaming from eleven pm to three am every night. Most reports said the screaming was wordless, but a few people said it was about being eaten. The letter said: ‘Run your fingers along it.’

Surprisingly, the eighth letter was difficult to retrieve because it seemed fused to the ground. They had to get a special excising blade to peel it from the metal floor of the refrigerator it was stuck to in the back of an Italian restaurant. The owner of the establishment—the opener—had to be removed the same way, though he had been fused with the ceiling, and his body was paper-thin. When they dissected him, they said that his organs had been fully intact and working, though they reassured the department that he had been dead when they started cutting. The letter said: ‘A few of these.’

The Dispensary has tracked the letters since 1981. We have a complete catalogue of the hundreds of letters on record. I think we work for the government. I think the letters were written by them, too, though no one at the Dispensary has an idea of when the next one will be opened. They’re always opened. Someone always dies, or stops being, depending on how we look at it. I’ve worked there since 2007, when the letters started coming nearly one a week and they needed more help. I don’t know any other employees’ names. We all have our own offices. They all seem to be attached to one hallway. I think I’ve been home since I started.

The ninth letter hung in the air, suspending by a radiating web of tiny strings, almost like floss. The opener was in four parts, and the things that had pulled him apart hunkered in the various corners of the rooms, their whip-scorpion-like forms covered in little mouths filled with human teeth. They chittered loudly and kept repeating the name of the opener, alongside another word the recovery team didn’t recognize. The letter said: ‘It looked sour.’

The tenth letter was actually torn when they found it; a tiny rift at the top of the plain paper. The radiation from the tear was blindingly intense, and three people died trying to contain it. The room the letter was in had begun to invert, or that’s at least the best way to describe it. Televisions, air conditioners, walls, and cabinets had begun to turn itself inside-out. The opener had already finished doing so, and was slowly expanding. What was left of organs were now nearly as large as people and pushing against the ceiling. The letter said: ‘A nest of spines.’

The eleventh letter was found in the woods. The pictures didn’t take, neither did the video, but there is audio of the retrieval team talking to something they would later call ‘the Blue Kin.’ It had spoken with them, and they responded. The audio recordings are mostly low, guttural, labored breathing punctuated by muffled grunting, and then the retrieval team replying with, “No, we haven’t seen him. No, we haven’t. No, we’re not doing what he asks. No, they’re still contained. Yes, they whispered for hours.” When the retrieval team has been asked what the Blue Kin’s questions were, they smile joyfully, get confused, and begin to sob. The letter said: ‘A mouthful of hair.’

The twelfth letter took a long time to bring back. Finally, the third retrieval team managed to have two members survive. The letter had lot of blood on it, but that hadn’t been there originally. The retrieval team had a great amount of video—some from all three teams—that showed little, four-legged things with eyes that shone like LEDs looking around low counter sides and between the slats of deck chairs before warbling and hooting and giggling and disappearing out of view. There are a few videos when they move out from their hiding places, and their faces were filled with little rotating knives instead of teeth; lamprey sucker-mouths that whined like dental equipment before being forcefully smashed against the people filming them, voices wracked with horror and pain immediately drowning out the now-packedmouths filled with glee. The letter said: ‘Take. Take!’

I looked at my shadow and it seems like there are too many when I walk down the hallways now. We are studying the letters, and I am keeping the stories straight and not smoking because of the flies. They tell us we are making it safer. They don’t say what ‘it’ is. They don’t say who we’re making it safer for. I feel like I only ever walk one way down the hall, but I always seem to find the bathroom and my office, with its table and light magnifying lens suspended in the air by a jointed metal arm. There are file cabinets around me, filled with letters. They say nothing, but they are so important? When they hired me, there had been one question at the interview that I remember:

Who will miss you?