's 2018 Horror Write-off:


Submitted by Rook Lankin

Back when I was still in school, I got a summer job tending the parking lot of a little farmer's market. The place had a desolate quality even when it was busy. At the front doors, a Mennonite family had a vegetable stand, the only business located outside. Their calls of "fresh veggies" echoed across the parking lot as if it were empty: no one made much conversation, or noise of any kind, on the way in. I saw very little of the inside, but it gave me an impression of general fatigue: everyone seemed eager to just go home.

The work was easy enough if you could tolerate the sun. I couldn't. I remember the queasy feeling the summer heat always gave me, like waking up from a turbulent dream and still not quite remembering who you are. I've always been prone to these sun-fugues. A lot of things would start to seem monstrous when they got bad. There was a van in the staff parking customized with a toothy grin on the front grill, and one day I was *convinced* that it intended to eat me alive. What I remember most from those sun-bleached days, however, is the cigarettes.

Sweeping up cigarette butts was a major part of the job. From what I could tell, it looked like some people would park there and dump their car ashtrays, that or they just stood around chain smoking after the market closed. Either way, I found big round piles of butts on the pavement pretty regularly. I wouldn't have taken much note of this, except that Nate was obsessed with them.

Nate drove the forklift for the market, but he ended up helping with a lot of cleaning. He was a lanky man in his 50s or 60s, friendly but definitely bizarre. He mostly just talked about work, but any time we came across a cigarette or a pile of them he'd give a little speech about it in that breathy, high-pitched voice of his.

It was Nate who first put the idea in my head than people would gather in the lot after hours just to smoke. "Some kind of social club?" I had asked. "No, no," Nate said, "They don't talk at all, see. They stand in circles, all facing each other, and they smoke. The thing is to get as many butts on the ground as possible. No distractions." I looked at the modest pile I had been about to sweep up. "You'd think they might do a little better than this then, eh?" Nate just smirked, rocking back and forth a bit like he always did when he got talking about cigarettes. "Well they don't all stick around the whole night, obviously. Some of them get away." He drove off on the forklift without explaining further. I went on with my sweeping.

I had assumed by that time that he wasn't serious, since it was a different story every time. Sometimes it was raccoons sneaking in to steal butts because they're addicted to nicotine, other times a mundane rant on the risk of lung cancer. Some other market in the next town over had apparently blown up when a leaky gas tank met a smoldering butt. He said all of this like he was teaching an important lesson. As far as I could tell, Nate himself never smoked. When the cashiers and the warehouse workers were out on their smoke breaks, though, he'd just stand and eye them the way you might watch a clown with a mediocre act.

None of it ever really fazed me until I finally asked him why he was so taken with these cigarette butts. I think it was just after the raccoon story. Nate stared straight ahead, taking his eyes off me for the first time I could remember during one of our interactions, and started rocking much more dramatically than usual. "Because," he said in a voice more distinctly falsetto than his usual hoarse mumble, "Because cigarettes are little white worms, with little smoldery heads to burn through the skin, and they want--" he swallowed hard and stopped rocking, "They wanna snuggle up in your muscles."

I stared at Nate with my mouth open as he stared at who-knows-what in the distance. It felt like an hour that I spent trying to think of something to say to that. Eventually he just got back on his forklift and drove away, same as ever. I wondered briefly if I had just hallucinated that, if it was just another sunny delusion, but I didn't feel dizzy at all. In fact, the sun had just disappeared behind a cloud, leaving everything suddenly clear and real. I set my mind to just working for the rest of the day.

Things changed on the walk home. The sidewalk was hotter than it had ever been, I could just about feel it through my shoes. The heat radiated from everything, almost something you could smell, like fire burning very faintly. At the edge of the sidewalk I came across a pink puddle baking in the sun, sending up a sticky sweetness mixed with sour rot. Someone had either spilled or thrown up a strawberry shake. Embedded in the goo were three small, solid chunks in garish shades of green, purple and bright blue. I knew I shouldn't have crouched to examine them

With some squinting (the scene had started to swim mirage-like before my eyes) I managed to identify the colourful objects as candied cigarette butts. That's how the description formed itself in my mind, "candied," inappropriate as it was. I would guess they might have been soaked in different flavours of soda, but their presence in the strawberry puddle was still a mystery. As I was staring at the scene, the sun beating down, my vision swimming, a sizzling, hissing sound started to creep into my awareness. Then, with a crack, the candied butts burst into flames.

Seeing this, smelling the acrid, tarry mix of burning ash with saccharine syrup, was too much for me. I threw up there on the street, already kneeling, and paled at what I saw. Not only was my vomit the same sticky pink as the puddle already on the pavement, it was scattered with the same colourful, crumpled shapes I had just seen ignite in the summer sun. And try as I might to believe it was only the wavering of the visible world under summer heat, I saw these bright stubs writhing in the fresh puddle. I stumbled home as quickly as I could.

The next day, the last day I would work at that market, Nate was nowhere to be seen. There wasn't much trash around either, so I ended up spending most of my shift admiring the thin margins of nature surrounding the parking lot. Somewhere behind the store I spied the decaying foot of some animal I couldn't identify. The white head of a maggot, or something like one, retracted into it as I laid down my broom and walked away from the almost deserted storefront.