Bogleech.com's 2018 Horror Write-off:
Submitted by Joseph Hartman (email)
It began with love, as most disasters do.
Rachel lived on the run. Pilfered bus passes, dropped money, forgotten food fueled her passage across the USA, and decided where she could find shelter. All things considered, she did well enough for herself. It was preferable to what she used to be: An orphan in a home where self-expression was discouraged.
‘They’ll only love you if you’re good,’ they said. And that meant no daydreams, no books or music, and especially no drawings.
Those things were unpopular nowadays.
She was in Los Angeles now, one of the Mourning Cities. Rachel always seemed to end up at one of them eventually. They were cheap to take buses to, cheap to live in, especially along the Antioch Zones, where no one wanted to live.
But she always dreaded arriving in Mourning Cities. They were easy to get to, but hard to get out of. Unless, it seemed, she was traveling directly to another. It was like they held some sort of gravitational pull, leading her in an unwitting pilgrimage to each and every one. Like it was ‘fate’.
Rachel had run away from the orphanage. She was barely a teen, and she’d already decided that she didn’t believe in things like ‘love’. Rachel believed in one thing, and that was luck.
Luck, both good and bad, decided her life. She believed in that, instead of ‘fate’.
Because if fate was real, that would mean she was fated to get off the bus and look into the distance, into the Antioch Zones.
And god, the colors.
They were named for the lonely Nancy Antioch. A name that would live in infamy. She was poor, and ill-fated (unlucky), but her inheritance made her lonelier.
Exiled by financial necessity, she took up residence in her grandparents’ seaside estate. A view of the sunrise, a beautiful cove nearby, and absolutely no one to share it with.
Her neighbors, rich and reclusive.
Her friends and family, distant.
And so, she began to write. Her first novel, her magnum opus. Her scream into the void.
Her first goal was to put as much distance between her and the colors as possible. It was hard to not be unsettled by the Antioch Zones, but Rachel thought she was used to the idea of them by now. Why was she so singularly unsettled today?
She took solace in the grey and black. It was as if the city’s core was so colorful that the rest of it had to be drab by comparison.
Her stomach seized with hunger. She’d gone a few days without eating. Not a new experience, of course, but never a pleasant one. Most food places would have glasses of water or fountains to drink from, but never a bite to eat for a starving girl. What was up with that?
Walking the streets, letting luck guide her. She found a man sleeping in an alley, with ruddy clothes and deep pockets. She fished through them, and came away with her prize: a $20 bill.
She grinned, stuffing it into her pockets. That would feed her for a day or two at least. Luck never failed, when she needed it. No remorse, of course. Today, she was lucky, and that man was not. Wasn’t her fault he was such an easy target.
Besides, before long the tables would turn. She was never too comfortable.
Just comfortable enough. Always, just barely enough.
It’s almost like a fable at this point.
It’s said that Nancy wrote like a woman possessed. Or, perhaps excruciatingly slowly, agonizing over every word.
Some say she didn’t write it, and merely found it somewhere on that seaside estate.
One detail remains constant.
Before the copies were burned, it’s said that Fulmination was a masterpiece.
Utterly unintelligible, but a masterpiece.
The book, as far as anyone can tell, was about an eccentric painter.
The painter had incredible skill, but he was locked indoors, in a lavish building with no windows.
He was never satisfied. He pined for what he could not have.
He painted natural landscapes that he had never seen.
He painted portraits of someone he had never met.
And he came to life, in Nancy Antioch’s home
Rachel made a sharp right turn when she saw the plainclothes. The police never came for her in uniform. She could always tell it was them. Unless she made herself known, no one else ever paid attention to her.
Let alone walk directly towards her.
She didn’t change her speed. Acted casual, as if she meant to make this turn.
They followed. Of course.
An unassuming office building was nearby. She slipped inside, as if she belonged there. With luck and confidence, she would make it.
The receptionist desk was empty. She rifled a hand through it, came away with a set of keys.
She calmly left the desk and passed through a doorway. Behind her, out of the corner of her eye, the plainclothes.
Her heart leapt. Entirely on accident, she began walking faster.
There were cubicles here. The workers could tell she didn’t belong, but there were only mumbled words and hesitant standing. No one tried to stop her, except her pursuer.
The stairs. To the top floor, she climbed. The roof, that she could unlock and lock behind her.
Trapping herself on the roof? Maybe. It seemed like a good idea at the moment. She’d have time to think. Time for her luck to change.
Rachel reached the top, puffing. She still hadn’t eaten. No time to think about that now.
She pushed the key to the lock. Nothing. Another. Footsteps on the stairs below her.
Every single one.
None of them fit.
Nancy had never seen him before, never even imagined what he’d looked like in her mind’s eye.
Still, she recognized him. Her beloved painter, brought to life.
Filled with curiosity about the world. Naive, innocent, strange.
Theatrical and daring, but fiercely kind, as only a protagonist could be.
She led him to the door, and opened it.
The sheer blue of the sky. The boundless ocean.
The majesty of the world moved him to tears.
The painter’s curiosity was a hunger. She sated it, told him anything he asked.
He learned everything. And she loved it. She was whole, again.
Saw the world’s beauty once more, through his eyes.
His presence was a miracle to her. Inspired, she kept writing.
She could write anywhere.
She wrote with him, as they rowed out in the cove.
The waves came, and still she typed. The sunlight played in patterns on the rocks.
He was making it happen, somehow.
A romance formed. How could it not, when she so intimately knew his mind, and when he knew nothing but her care and affection?
That was the crisis.
For in her haste and her lonely, desperate love, Nancy had invited tragedy.
She had brought something to life that did not know what it meant to live.
Through the window, on the floor just below the roof. The floor was unused, a storage space. No light except sunlight. And the colors.
She was staring straight into the Antioch Zone, and its maddening colors.
They burned the eye.
It was so close. Had she really covered so little ground?
Rachel could easily run through it. She didn’t want to, but she could. And she might not have a choice in the matter. It would be easy. There was even a dumpster below to cushion her fall.
In the Zone, she might not even notice the smell.
She opened the window. As if in sync, the door behind her opened. Plainclothes.
She leapt from the window.
Pillars of inky blackness sprang up from the world’s most populous cities.
Impenetrable. No communications from within. No explanation.
Until Nancy discovered the painter doing what he did best.
Above Rachel, the sky seemed to dim. It always did, in the Antioch Zones.
The colors were too bright. All else didn’t exist.
She felt like she was choking, ready to throw up, but it was all imaginary.
The Antioch Zones were safe.
A massive canvas. Where he’d gotten it, she had no idea.
It stretched over the walls of the room she’d given him.
In the fantastical colors she recognized landmarks.
Cities that had been swallowed up by the pillars.
The painting wasn’t finished yet. She asked him to stop.
The plainclothes followed still. Undaunted.
Rachel passed someone waltzing in the street.
No, that was wrong.
She felt sick.
He’d learned of real misery. The sheer gravity of reality.
And he knew that she had changed it. Just a tiny bit, by bringing him into it.
Why not him?
Most of them were still. That was better.
The buildings, once grey, were splattered with color.
Color that bled into the air.
The Antioch Zone was perfectly silent.
He saw people frowning. He could paint smiles over their faces.
He saw people standing still. He could make them dance.
Stiff motions. Gyrating like a dancer in a music box.
Over and over.
A spark of color.
A fulmination of joy.
Antioch Zones were brightly colored graveyards.
Festivals where only the dead were welcome
The sensible agreed they were dead, at least. For their sanity’s sake.
They had no pulse.
Yet they never rot.
They did not breathe.
Yet some could still move. And if they could, they never stopped.
People assembled on rooftops, arms splayed outward towards the sky.
Grinning their unbeating hearts out.
Millions of people.
Millions of thinking minds. Winked out in an instant.
Reduced to senseless ripples of color.
She confessed to the world. Begged that all copies of her book be destroyed.
In front of him, in front of the painting, she burned the master copy.
The painter fell apart in howling shreds of paper, scattered to the winds.
His painting was next.
Her house was next.
She waited outside the burning wreckage for the authorities.
The first person in history to be arrested for bringing a fictional character to life.
“I found my sister,” Plainclothes said. “Dancing like a puppet in a bank lobby. She wasn’t even smiling. Flat face. Just doing a little dance.”
He drubbed his fingers against the steel table in a steady rhythm.
“One-two, one-two, one-two, one-two. In a circle that didn’t even match up with her feet.”
He stopped. Put his hands into his lap.
“Long after I’m dead, she’ll still be there. Dancing.”
Rachel was still waking up. Handcuffed to the chair. She’d fallen unconscious somewhere in the Antioch Zone. What a nightmare.
“I’m sorry for your loss,” She mumbled sarcastically. “I’m very moved. Now would you let me go?”
He smiled. “What, so you can just run off on your own again?”
Rachel glared at him. Shook the handcuff. Glanced at it.
“No. We wanted to keep you safe, Rachel. Put you on the right path. Your struggle is important, but... this situation is very delicate. It needs to play out in just the right way, or all could be lost.”
Slightly loose. She could escape if she wanted. But he’d be expecting that. Best to wait.
“How did you find me, anyway?” She hissed. “I didn’t leave a trail.”
“But you did.”
Rachel perked up, blinking. She’d been so careful.
Plainclothes tossed a document over to her. With her free hand, she sifted through it. Anecdotes from people she’d met. Written descriptions, from people who’d seen her in passing. Analysis of troubles she’d ran into. Describing how she’d been pursued.
And how she’d escaped, survived by the skin of her teeth each time.
“Don’t you find it strange?” Plainclothes said. “How you can live on the road so skillfully, despite your young age? How your travels always lead you back to the Mourning Cities?”
Rachel snorted. “It’s cause I’m smart. And fast. And lucky.”
“True. But luck only goes so far, Rachel Antioch.”
She recoiled. Her mouth clamped shut, becoming a thin line.
“Because you can’t follow a trail of luck.”
He retrieved a thin package from the floor beside him, and placed it on the table.
“No. We followed a path of plot contrivance.”
She ignored his words. Stupid. Stupid words. Stupid name. It wasn’t her fault. She hadn’t even been born yet.
“What’s in the box?” She asked curtly.
Plainclothes opened it. A cut-out piece of a cardboard box.
On its surface was the impression of a haunted face, in twisted black ink. It curdled her blood to see it. She knew who it was, instantly.
In the corner of the piece was a small green symbol. And below it, words.
“Your destiny,” Plainclothes said, handing her a lighter. “Unfortunately.”
She took it, and flicked it on, staring into the flame.
“So, what,” Rachel murmured. “You want me to be the good guy?”
“Good, bad… that doesn’t really come into it,” Plainclothes said. “A protagonist is someone who wants something. An antagonist is the one who tries to stop them. Which one are you?”
She set the lighter down on the cardboard. It cast dancing shadows on the face.
“Screw it,” She said. “I’m the one that burns things.”
Rachel pushed it over.
The effigy burned, and the fulminating flames reached, mindlessly, towards unseen heavens.