Bogleech.com's 2016 Horror Write-off:
Blessed Are Those With a Voice
Locating his exit, turning off the highway, finger hovering over the Seek button. Pausing for several seconds, listening to fragments of each station before moving on. Indie rock. Tejano. Radio pop. Right-wing hate blast. He stopped the longest on that last, wondering if the infection affected certain dispositions more than others. Nothing out of the ordinary, though; vilifying minorities, ranting against the "feds." Irony in that, with the federal government held in a deathgrip of far right hate groups these days. The station itself was probably federally funded. And still they don't change their narrative.
"Thank Christ for small miracles," he whispered, relieved for the first time in his life to be listening to an unhinged man shouting about Mexican criminals.
Oak Ridge. Sounds like a cheap wine or a subsidized housing project. The Cabinet would never think to look for him here. He could lay low, keep eyes and ears open. Monitor the radio, scour the web, watch TV, tweak his Mirror feed, even read the local paper. Oak Ridge seemed like such a quaint little backwater that they probably still had one. It might be fun. A holiday.
Sure, all this media soak meant increased risk of potential exposure, but isn't that his job? Doing this might help with the guilt. Maybe.
He pulled onto the pavement of the Twin Pines Motel, the fifth lodging establishment he'd seen since arriving in town. Five was a good number. Reliable, safe. Lucky. Powerful. The parking lot was empty aside from his vehicle, a rented Honda, and a rusting white Ford pickup. Some local company man. Irony in that, company men knowing just where to go whether local or...not.
"And how long will you be staying, Mr. Gutierrez?" Brunette, hazel eyes. Mocha skin. A little cute, maybe. Peach fuzz. Way too young for him, but then in a town like Oak Ridge, there couldn't be much in the way of competition. Poor kid's probably dying for some decent company. Perhaps his stay here might not be so bad. A holiday.
He cleared his throat. "Uh, I'm not entirely clear, yet. Here for work, doing some surveying. Probably about a week, unless the company calls in, tells me to stay on or get back." Not exactly a lie. That was good. Easier to remember.
Best to use cash in these circumstances. A place like Oak Ridge is backwards enough to still accept it instead of simply draining the monies from his account.
Pulling three bills from his wallet for the night. Freezing. The kid looking on expectantly, his face a mask of bland boredom. Good. Doesn't suspect. Looking closer, seeing the indistinct wrongness more and more clearly, like adjusting a microscope. A sinking feeling accompanying the knowledge that that growing clarity means the infection is affecting him more deeply.
Putting the bills back. Will need to dispose of them properly later. Soon. Now. Possible contagion. Now. Pulling them back out. Flicking a lighter from a pants pocket and burning them right in front of the amazed kid, hazel eyes growing with shock and confusion. "Changed my mind," he says by way of explanation, turning to walk out and trying to erase the memory of the bills.
A strange man's face on two of them. Unfamiliar lettering. Numbers a blend of familiar Arabic and something wholly unrecognizable. Third, what he assumed was the highest valued bill, didn't even have the face of a man. Something else. Beaked. Hard. Like a concrete bird, an amateur sculpture full of lumps and wrinkles. No eyes, ears, nothing distinct except for that razor maw. The 333rd President of the Disunited States. Trying to keep the thought down like sour bile.
Failing: That thing. Our future.
Retching now in the Twin Pines Motel parking lot as the image summoned impossible, incomplete, contradictory memories. Don't think of the name, don't think of the name.
ZIR ZIRDO. Hhlloo. Hheelloo.
He came to work at the Cabinet in what would have been late Autumn when he was a child. It was a strange feeling, nostalgia for a season that no longer existed in most of the world. Those younger than him would never understand that feeling. There was a very particular sadness in knowing that, and he wished he knew a word to describe it.
It was two years before it was even formally explained to him what the Cabinet really did. It was made clear to him then that he was on an accelerated arc into the agency; that, ordinarily, he would have been kept in the outer fringes longer, but a certain kind of nepotism tainted even an organization so hermetically pure as the Cabinet, and Charles was able to make some arrangements.
Charles. Better to leave that beginning buried. Even at the time, his promotion felt like a premonition of the end. Less and less of Charles, the farther he advanced his career. Another nameless sadness there. Is there a word for longing for a word to describe a very particular feeling?
The Cabinet studied things; concentrically. Its areas of inquiry were obfuscated such that it was often necessary for those who specialized in study to be themselves studied by others, and that was where he came in. He was told that he would never know many of the specifics. Those whose work brought them closer to the subjects of their study probably knew less about them than anyone else. Some necessary precaution due to the nature of the work. There were rumors that no one in the Cabinet had any clear idea of what it was the Cabinet had been set up to do, or by whom.
It didn't matter. His assignment was specific: to observe and record certain symptoms related to a neurological condition in cooperation with a team of linguists. Or rather, he was to observe the linguists from a remove and intervene, if necessary, with specially designed quarantine procedures. The rest he put together from rumors and contextual fragments. Even with the blinders off, everything was still delivered in the vaguest possible language. Initially, he'd had to ask what he was looking for in his behavioral reports. He was told he'd know it when he saw it. Then he was given a short list of symptoms with no acknowledgement of the previous dismissive statement.
Over the course of the next two years, he came to some impartial understanding of what it was that was being studied. Some degenerative brain disease primarily affecting Broca's and Wernicke's resulting in some sort of aphasia. Affected patients forgot actual words and began speaking nonsense. There was no syntax, no grammar. Signal lost in noise.
The hours weren't demanding, the range of symptoms he was to watch for so narrow that the documentation was never overwhelming. For a promotion, it felt almost like a step back. Busywork. He spent most of his time wondering what Charles was doing, as Charles gradually faded from existence.
Or so he thought of it, then. Near the end of his second year at the Cabinet, he would witness such an existential fade as to make him understand that that was altogether the incorrect metaphor for his relationship.
Somewhere else. Some other time. He has encountered a wall. Others pass through; an older couple, holding hands. Unable to control the vague embarrassment any more than he can stop his curiosity, he reaches out and--before him, in empty space, is something solid. Smooth. Cold. Almost metallic. He doesn't want to think of a cage, and so immediately does.
A blonde teenager approaches him, steps aside reflexively, walking around the invisible obstruction. Ponytail swinging back and forth to the horizon, free. He tries to do the same, but nearly falls backward from the force of impact. Cautiously exploring the space around him, he feels it again. And steps to the side. Feeling it move with him. Looks around, hoping no one saw his little mime.
Hair rising on the back of his neck, understanding that it's a symptom of the illness, an irrational impulse that will only worsen with each incantation, he has the sudden urge to speak nonsense. "Zimii?" he whispers; and the gates swing open. Taking a tentative step past the space where the obstruction was, he has a mounting certainty of being watched. Observed. Of having attracted the attention of something. An indefinable presence.
Then it is as if feathered eels are swimming in and out of his body, a sensation all the more disconcerting for how pleasant it is. All around him, unseen fingers caress him, and he cannot help but laugh, attracting more mundane attention now, for all the world a madman, without care.
Charles vanished just before the incident. No goodbye, no note. No word for over a month. Finally, frantic, afraid of what he might find, he'd convinced the landlord to unlock Charles' apartment. Spotless. Like nobody had ever lived there. The landlord's fury at a month's rent left unpaid was all the evidence he had that Charles had ever existed.
He still treasured the memory of it.
He's spent the past week in the same motel. Just to be safe, he'd rented a different car, driven three states over. Three is a sacred number. Something to ward off evil. In his week here, nothing especially abnormal has occurred. Some of the stories that pop up on his Mirror feed sound like hallucinations (he could have sworn he saw something about a woman in Siberia being lifted into the sky by an invisible force, but it was gone when he scrolled back). Aside from that, he's been blessedly bored. Maybe, without reinforcement, the symptoms fade. Maybe this self-imposed quarantine is actually working.
Maybe he's just spread the infection across four state lines. What is the world doing, while he hides here? Why didn't Charles say anything? Why did Charles ever set him up with his position in the Cabinet? Where--where, exactly--is the linguist, now? Why is it that humans have such a persistent itch to know. About each other, about the world. We draw borders, invent categories, because we think the universe something solid. A collective delusion brought on by the brevity of your lives. If you lived long enough, you would see with perfect clarity that the universe is liquid. Always changing. Always flowing. Nothing held together for long. Insubstantial as a dream.
There is an electric hum in the air. A sound like distant insects swarming closer. A subtle smokiness surrounds his fingertips. As he watches them, they begin to shimmer in a way that reminds him of a mirage, wavering back and forth like fronds of seaweed caught in drift. Things are happening again. He should step outside.
Talk to someone.
A pleasant moment now. A brief respite. Warm sun and the smell of freshly cut grass. "What do you think dreams are, John?" He'd laughed, then, at the seriousness of the question. Charles would often ask these naive questions with utmost sincerity. He missed that.
"I don't know," he said. "Just your brain cycling through memories, I suppose."
Charles' face grew thoughtful, his eyebrows wrinkling slightly as he pondered a reply. "No," he said finally. "I don't think that's correct."
And he'd laughed again. "I didn't know I was being quizzed on it!"
That at least prompted a small smile on Charles' earnest face. "We're always being tested, John." Then, in a slightly more confident voice. "No, maybe you are right... About dreams, I mean... But memory is a strange thing. We think of our memories like files stored in a computer, but it's a poor metaphor.
"Memory is active. When we remember, we're recreating the data we think we're retrieving... And if just one aspect of the data is fudged, then the entire memory is a false thing. We can never remember things accurately, as they really were. Only as we recall them imperfectly now."
He didn't know what to say. He never knew what to say to these reveries. His mind was a large part of why he fell in love with Charles, but he never saw much point to this kind of free-association philosophizing. After a moment, Charles broke the silence himself.
"Sometimes I think the whole world works that way. Continuously recreating itself...and getting everything wrong. The universe appears causal from the rear view mirror, but maybe that's just a story we tell ourselves to keep from looking ahead."
A cool breeze wafted over them. For a moment, it almost felt like Autumn again. Then the hot, dry summer winds returned.
It was night now. He couldn't remember the name of the town he was staying in. Sandy Dunes? No, that's stupid. What kind of name is (Saint Dunnes)? He caught himself before wandering blindly into traffic. Felt feverish. Breath increasing.
There wasn't much nightlife in Sandy Dunes. Still, it hadn't been long since sunset. He found a convenience store with a few people milling about. A group of teenagers stood beside a pickup truck, laughing. They looked like nice kids. He'd find someone else. There.
A man had emerged from the wan greenish light of the store, walking back to a semi-truck parked against the side of the building.
"Excuse me," he called out, half-trotting to catch up with the man at the exact point where light became dark. "My name is John. I have a question. It's... It might seem strange, but humor me."
The man turned around. "All right."
He realized he'd given the man his name. Well, too late. It's a forgettable name, anyway. Half the time, he forgot it himself. Besides, this man was clearly a trucker. He'd be gone by morning. That's why he was the perfect person to ask.
He put on his most disarming grin. Something that said, I know this is silly, but bear with me, okay? "How many fingers am I holding up?" he asked.
"Octil," the trucker said again, without a single moment's hesitation. "Listen, were you in... Are you all right? Do you need me to call someone?"
"How many is...octil?" he asked before he could stop himself.
"Is this a joke?" The trucker looked around him in confusion. "If it is, it's not funny."
"Fuck," he whispered. His hand was gone. In its place was a webbed paw with something resembling a fuzzy tongue or a red leech undulating in between two clawed, vaguely avian digits. Thick white hair-like fibers twitched in a haphazard ring around each digit. He once saw a video of a ribbon worm everting its proboscis, and can only watch with utter revulsion as something similar begins to happen to the writhing "tongue finger"--a pale dart abruptly emerges from its tip, branching along random points until part of it pierces the trucker's neck below the carotid, lodging itself deep.
They stand like that for one awkward moment, the white branches filling the space between them, pulsing as what used to be his own hand pumps some kind of venom into the trucker's neck. Then the stranger sways, reacts violently, slapping at the branching proboscis dart. "What the hell?" he demands, a sleepy slur to his voice. "Why'd you hit me?"
The dart falls limp, retracts into its place within his "worm finger," each branch coiling back in on itself along the way. He stares, stunned.
"You crazy bastard," the man mumbles almost inaudibly. "Get away from me." He yawns and stumbles away, climbing into his semi-truck and driving away.
He still stares blankly ahead of him. The remnants of his hand continue to undulate in darkness.
The checklist of symptoms the Cabinet had given him to watch for in his charges:
· Glossolalia: speaking nonsense
· An irresistible compulsion to converse with others
· Mania, elevated mood, depression, etc.
· Signs or symptoms of visual or auditory hallucinations
· Etymania: a rough neologism in progress; the persistent compulsion to invent new words
From this and his brief conversations with the other watch staff, he had gathered that the linguists were part of a larger team studying a neurological condition and/or mental illness affecting language centers, and/or manifesting primarily in unusual patterns of speech. This was all hearsay; neither he nor the others were allowed contact with the linguists conducting further study on patients another ring deeper in the concentric labyrinth that comprised the Cabinet. None of them were even allowed to know the names of the linguists they observed. There was some vague, unsatisfactory explanation about "potential cross-contamination."
Instead of names, the Cabinet designated each linguist with a number, but rather than Arabic or Roman numerals, each linguist's number was indicated by a series of dots. · for Linguist One, ·· for Linguist Two and so forth. Every three months, the designations were shuffled and reassigned, so that ····, for instance, never consistently referred to any one particular individual, but was merely a temporary placeholder. Further along his particular ring in the Cabinet, there was another team whose jobs consisted solely of sorting out which individual was being referred to with which set of dots during each rotation.
It wasn't his job to understand. It wasn't anyone's job within the Cabinet to understand. It was only theirs to study, sort, classify, observe and document. Teams were typically made up of five individuals working in tandem with other sets of teams that they had no direct contact with. His team worked in 12 hour shifts, alternating days so that there were never more than two of them reporting in at the same time. Like most teams, they were discouraged from getting to know one another personally, and he became almost accustomed to thinking even of himself in a nameless third person.
Charles' disappearance only made the job that much more lonely. The guilt would always haunt him. Was it his fault? It opened an infinite pit inside him whenever the question occurred to him, because he genuinely couldn't say whether it was asked in reference to ordinary relationship challenges or something else. A part of him would always believe that the incident in some way caused Charles' disappearance, retroactively. It didn't matter that that made no sense. The incident, and his life since, made no sense.
That might have been his fault, too; the incident. He'd been wallowing. Charles had gone without a word, without a note, without any kind of message even to say he was alive. He wasn't convinced Charles had left; even if they hadn't been getting on as they did before, it wasn't just strange that he'd vanish so suddenly, so thoroughly. It was suspicious. The Cabinet could be a sinister place, and Charles had moved deeper and deeper through its rings. Maybe he had enemies. Maybe he learned something. It wasn't their place to know things. Only to watch.
The incident taught him why. He hadn't been paying attention. Nothing interesting ever happened within the linguists' chambers. They watched a feed he couldn't see, made notes, discussed theories, drank coffee, fell asleep at their desks, held meetings. Presumably they were talking about diphthongs and fricatives all the time. When he began working at the Cabinet, he'd hoped that they'd have affairs or get into fights or do something interesting. Something forbidden. All they ever seemed to do were their jobs.
One of them did something forbidden. Once. It would only take once. Once, his attention wandered. He stopped watching. Feeling sorry for himself or some stupid thing. When he glanced back at his monitor, ··· was lying on the floor, convulsing. Dark stain spreading. Not blood. Something else. · was curled in a ball under her desk, rocking back and forth. He watched her shadow grow. Elongate, change. He watched it eat her. Saw it taking enormous bites with hazily indistinct maw shapes, whole sections of her body disappearing until only her horrified, knowing face remained. Then that was swallowed up, too. ···· and ·· were missing. Just gone. Never found out what happened to them.
It was ····· that was doing something genuinely interesting. He was standing on his desk, arms spread in lunatic embrace. Grinning. Looked like he was singing. Speaking, at least, his mouth going a mile a minute. Invoking, evoking, whatever. Glossolalia. Speaking nonsense.
No. He wasn't standing on anything. He was levitating half a foot from his desk. Papers whirled around him in a bureaucratic tornado. Dark fluid trickling from his mouth. Not blood.
He could almost hear the words. They hurt, somehow. Scraped around in his skull. Incessant insect droning, whine like a bad motor winding down. He began to feel strange, disoriented. No one warned him that this thing might be contagious, that he could get sick like this just by watching a video feed.
The feed. He didn't understand what he was watching. None of it made sense before, it was all impossible, but he almost had words to describe it. As he watched ····· continue his hovering hymn, a profound and primal terror slipped its hooks into him. ····· was...expanding. He didn't look like a person anymore. It was as if a photograph of ····· had been soaked in some dark fluid, then pulled on, very gently, from each edge, so that the two dimensional representation would stretch without tearing. He had no idea how long it took. He simply watched, entranced, as ····· continued ululating into the unknown, his body thinning as it engulfed the entire room. He could see ·····'s left hand adhering itself to a corner of the ceiling and just...sinking into the wall. ····· gradually faded as he expanded, seeming to vanish into the very fabric of the scene.
How would he report this? What did he witness? He just watched a man seizing to death, a woman devoured by her own shadow and... ·····, he realized, was still there. If he unfocused his gaze, he could see the edges of eyes rotating wildly, lips that extended beyond his perspective still calling, speaking, summoning.
He threw up on his console. Shaking, he took a few unsteady steps toward the door. Telling himself to be calm, he walked out of the building without drawing attention. Crossed the parking lot. He got into his car. He drove. Not home. Not anywhere.
As the sun was falling past the darkening horizon, he realized he never initiated quarantine.