SFReader 2008 Story Contest
Third Place Winner
I’m a sucker for stories where everyone but the main character(s) suddenly, mysteriously vanishes (think classic Twilight Zone episodes, Stephen King’s “The Langoliers,” John Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids). Look around, not a living soul. Quiet, echoing empty: Where did everybody go? That was the impetus—that and the desire to write a dreamland story, but one in which the bizarre events could not be explained away as a dream. The problem with dream narratives is there is usually little at stake. Tension and suspense cannot be generated, because the reader can dismiss the most twisted, unsettling, nightmarish events with “It’s only a dream.” That is why I took pains to remind the protagonist, occasionally, that this is all really happening. Nods to Lovecraft and Neil Gaiman, who have made the dream lands an actual place in their stories.
The sky grew overcast. A breeze blew dry leaves across the empty street and bit through Alex’s thin T-shirt. He shivered.
Then he heard something that jarred him — a sane sound ripping through the madness: a police siren.
Alex picked up his pace to meet it. The siren grew louder; it was definitely coming his way. Then he saw a figure, down at the end of the block, running headlong toward him.
It was a young man with wild locks of blonde hair. The man wore a tan trench coat that flapped out behind him as he sprinted up the street. He didn’t slow down as he ran past. His eyes fixed on Alex for only a moment, paying him no heed. But that look sent a chill to Alex’s core — it was a cold, malignant look. The eyes…
Alex recovered from the shock and stepped out into the street to call after the man. He noticed then the red blotch on the man’s back — it looked like he’d been shot square between his shoulder blades.
He’d have to be hopped-up on some strong drugs to keep going after taking a bullet like that.
Before Alex could think a second thought, his ears were assailed by the siren and screeching tires. He swung around just in time to see a police car careen around the corner and come straight at him.
The driver saw Alex in the same instant and cranked the steering wheel, which sent the car skidding across the street into a light-pole. The police officer burst through the windshield on impact. The siren stuttered, then moaned and trailed off into silence.
Alex’s heart thumped painfully in his chest; his stomach knotted up, threatening to disgorge whatever contents it held.
The cop lay sprawled on the hood, arms dangling, ankles hooked on the glass shards. His head faced Alex’s direction, eyes fixed in a blank stare.
Alex turned away from the sight, fighting back nausea. He spotted the other man crumpled facedown in the middle of the street about three houses up the block. They were both, pursuer and pursued, dead. He was sure of it.
His mind’s surety was shaken for the umpteenth time that day when he heard a voice behind him, a voice that came from the smashed car: “You know what the lesson here is?”
The cop still lay in the same position on the hood, but his eyes now tilted toward Alex.
Struck mute by this new surprise, Alex just stared.
The cop’s lips moved. The words gurgled from his throat, punctuated with a thin trickle of blood.
“Son, a police officer’s addressin’ you. Cat got yer tongue?”
Cat got your tongue. Funny, that’s what the cat had said, or almost said, to him this morning.
This all started with the cat.
When Alex had awoken that morning, it was curled up at the foot of his bed, staring at him with unnervingly intelligent, yellow eyes: a long-haired gray Himalayan, with its breed’s trademark smushed-in face that usually made Alex smirk when he saw one.
His reaction now was not to be amused; rather, he sat up in bed with a start.
He did not have a cat.
The cat did not budge as Alex slipped into his slippers and crossed to the bedroom window, thinking he must have left it open. It was shut. He wondered if Sara had come over to clear out some of her things and inadvertently left the front door unlatched.
“Hello?” he said through the bedroom door, quickly pulling on his robe.
“Is anyone there?”
No answer, and when he checked the front door, it was locked. When he went back into the bedroom, the cat was gone.
He took care of the first orders of business in his morning routine. After getting the coffee brewing and then visiting the bathroom, he went into the living room and flopped onto the couch.
When he aimed the remote at the television, someone spoke.
Alex leapt to his feet. The voice had come from down by the floor at the other end of the coffee table.
“I would not do that if I were you,” the voice had said.
The Himalayan jumped up onto the other end of the couch and stretched.
“Who’s there? Are you looking for your cat?” Alex called out, thinking it must have been a trick of acoustics that made the voice sound like it came from where the cat had been.
“Only if it is female and in heat,” the cat said. It had a slightly British accent.
The remote dropped from Alex’s hand. Mouth agape, he stared at the cat on the couch.
“What is the matter? Cat got your — no, that one is too obvious. I must be feeling lackadaisical.”
Alex finally got his mouth to work. “I’m — I must be dreaming.”
“Oddly enough,” the cat said, “you are not. Normally, I am not one for coming right out and telling it straight, but this one time I will make an exception. You are wide awake. Keep it in mind. Otherwise you are liable to get yourself killed around here. And you will be certifiably dead.”
“But then I must have gone crazy, because cats don’t talk.”
“They have no need to, where you come from.”
“Where I come from?” Alex gestured around the living room to emphasize that he was in his own home.
“Appearances can be deceiving,” the Himalayan muttered in his cool, slightly bored tone.
“Why did you say you wouldn’t turn on the television if you were me?” Alex asked as he tried to think of something more intelligent to ask.
“Programming is a nightmare around here. It will suck you in. Getting hypnotized by the glass teat can be the death of you.”
Convinced he was hallucinating, Alex went to the kitchen and picked up the phone. He was going to call in sick to work.
It was not a dial tone that met his ear, but a high-pitched scream. He slammed the phone back on the receiver.
He marched into the bedroom and threw on sweats, sneakers, and a t-shirt. He hoped a brisk walk in the autumn air would work out whatever had gotten into his system.
The street outside was quiet, unnaturally so.
Not a soul in sight anywhere — no one jogging, watering a lawn, walking a dog. There were no sounds of street traffic — none of the background noise suburbanites learn to shut out. Conspicuous in its absence. It was like he’d stepped into an episode of The Twilight Zone.
He decided to go back inside and check the morning news, cryptic warnings from a cat be damned. His mind raced through logical scenarios: maybe there had been a gas leak or a chemical spill in the area; everyone else had been evacuated. The gas could explain his hallucinations.
The door wouldn’t budge. He’d locked himself out.
The word seemed to reverberate in the silence.
No keys — his sweats didn’t even have pockets. So he headed across the lawn to his neighbor’s house, his sneakers leaving tracks in the morning dew.
No one answered when he rapped on the door of the Stewartsons’ olive-green, stucco home.
“What’s going on around here?” he muttered, pressing the doorbell two or three times for good measure.
On a whim he tried the door, and it opened.
Poking his head in, he called out, “Hello? Anyone home? It’s Alex from next door!”
He stepped inside. A faintly fetid odor crept into his nostrils.
The television set in the living room was on. Two motionless heads jutted above the sofa, facing the large plasma screen.
Relieved that he had found somebody, he started to open his mouth — but something restrained him, a creepy feeling that all was not right here. Then he noticed what they were watching.
An extreme close-up of a large breast filled the entire screen. The camera filming the breast was stationary. The only thing to indicate the station wasn’t just projecting a still-image was that the breast would occasionally jiggle. Just the slightest bit. No more than if the model had yawned or shifted slightly.
Alex stared at the image for at least a minute, feeling a growing sense of unease, waiting for something, anything, to happen.
Every twenty seconds or so, hysterical laughter erupted from the TV. The laughter was brief and had the same inflections every time — a laugh track. No other sound accompanied the monotonous footage.
The silent viewers sitting rapt on the couch did not budge. Alex couldn’t even hear them breathe.
“Not much of a party,” a scratchy voice spoke behind him.
Alex spun around, but saw no one there. Then he noticed the cat, curled up by a coat-rack next to the door. The Himalayan regarded him with its big, yellow eyes. It looked smug.
“This scene is dead,” the cat said. “They just sit in front of the boob tube, rotting their brains away.”
“Is that supposed to be some kind of joke?”
“You tell me,” the cat replied. “I have never appreciated the humor in puns. Humans use the same sound for two different objects, then laugh when they have the opportunity to switch them around. It seems like the sort of game only humans and dogs could find amusing.”
“But who would go to the trouble, of — that?” Alex’s words trailed off as he gestured at the breast filling the screen.
“In this land, it is often just as accurate to ask ‘what’ — what would go to the trouble,” the cat replied.
This failed to answer Alex’s question but raised a new one.
“Wait — this land — what do you mean by that? Where am I?”
“You have fallen down the rabbit hole. You are in a dream land, but you are not dreaming. This paradoxical fact promotes you into a rather small handful of individuals.”
“But what am I doing here?”
“For one thing, you are talking to me. But I grow tired of talking.”
“How do I get back? I obviously can’t just wake up, if I’m not dreaming.”
In reply, the cat drooped its eyelids and gazed absently at the wall. Apparently, it really was tired of talking.
The occupants of the couch had not moved. Nor had the breast on the television. The odor had grown stronger, a smell of waste and spoiling meat.
He suddenly wanted to get far away from these . . . these couch corpses as quickly as he could. He yanked open the door.
As Alex stepped outside, the cat said, “I would not linger in this neighborhood long. It is not too safe. The eyes are coming.”
Alex stood deliberating on the Stewartsons’ brown lawn.
The eyes are coming?
He turned left and started walking. Four blocks down was the local police station — he didn’t expect to find anything more sensible there than what he had already seen, but at least it was a goal.
He’d gone about a block and was passing a little park with a swing-set and some monkey bars. For just a moment, in his peripheral vision, he thought he saw living people. Children. But when he looked directly at them, he discovered the small figures on the swings and perched halfway up the bars were sculptures. They were outfitted with children’s clothes, but they were molded of some porous clay, something like Silly Putty. And it was melting. Their faces had twisted into a semblance of Munch’s Scream.
He grimaced, clenched his fists, and kept going.
When he came to the next intersection, the cat was perched on a blue postal box.
“Are you disconcerted?” the cat asked as he walked by it.
Alex stopped. “Disconcerted by what?”
“That I am talking to you, for one.”
Alex shook his head. “No, oddly enough. I’m surprised that I’m not more hysterical. I mean, obviously I’m dreaming, and you can’t get too surprised by anything in a dream, can you?”
The cat stretched, arching its back.
“You lost me there,” it said. “I think I already mentioned you are not dreaming. Keep it up and I will scratch you. You can tell me if it feels like a dream scratch.”
A low, garbled voice from inside the postal box said, “Your mind, when confronted with things it cannot reconcile, may lie to itself to maintain its sanity. But if it is deceiving itself, then is it really sane? The sanest thing may be to accept, to embrace the insanity. Because if you know you are insane, then you are not insane. Isn’t that how the saying goes?”
Alex backed away from the mailbox. “If I’m not dreaming and I am standing here talking to the neighbor’s cat and a mailbox, then I know I am certifiably fucking nuts.”
The cat, if it is possible for a cat to grin, grinned. “We are all certifiably fucking nuts here. You must be too, or else you would never have come here.”
“That’s from Alice in Wonderland,” Alex said, pointing an accusing finger at the cat.
“Most of it,” the cat said. “I do not think the Victorians used such language, though.”
The voice from the mailbox said, “You have not fallen into Wonderland, which is of course a fairy tale. You are in one of the Dreamlands, and everything here has a reason. It may appear chaos. But appearances can be deceiving.”
“The mailbox makes an intriguing point,” the cat said. “Oh, and I am not your neighbor’s cat.”
Alex huffed and kept on walking.
Another block on, as he passed a two-story house with yellow vinyl siding, he heard a baby cry. It came from an open upstairs window of the house. This made him hesitate, his thoughts redirected to something other than himself and his own confusion and fear. A baby trapped in this godforsaken nightmare? Having found a purpose, Alex jogged up to the front door.
He pounded on it, not expecting to get a response and not getting one. After a brief wait, he threw open the door and quickly surveyed a typical late-twentieth-century, suburban living room, the furniture strategically arranged around a dominating home-entertainment center. The big-screen TV was shut off, and there were no apparent occupants, dead or alive.
Alex ran up the stairs, bounding them two at a time as the baby’s peals spurred him on.
At the top of the stairs he came to a hallway, a door on the left and two on the right. At the far end of the hall was a large bay window, hung with sky-blue curtains. Following the baby’s cries, Alex went to the last door on the right. He opened it and stepped into the room.
Very little light filtered in through the curtains drawn across the room’s single window, which had been left ajar. The curtains had a pattern of clown faces that grinned and swayed in the slight breeze.
A crib sat underneath this window, pressed up against the wall.
“No wonder you’re upset, little fellow,” Alex mumbled, crossing the room. “You’re likely to catch cold with that breeze blowing over you.” His throat was dry and his voice came out raspy. He coughed and looked into the crib.
A small quilt, with elephants sewn on, completely covered the baby. At least he’s wrapped up tight . . . maybe that’s the problem, he’s just about suffocating under there. Alex reached down to pull back the blanket.
Something under the blanket with big, sharp teeth snapped at his hand. He gasped and yanked his hand back. Not waiting to see what the thing was, he ran across the room and stumbled into the hall.
Hands clenched on the stair railing, he tried to calm down. Once the sheer panic had passed, he wondered if the thing with sharp teeth was what had been making the crying noise … or if the thing with sharp teeth was in there with a baby.
He had to be sure.
Fighting a primal urge to flee, he resolved to go back into the room. But not unprepared.
First he ran downstairs to the kitchen, jerked open drawers until he found a good-sized carving knife. Then he went back up.
Entering the room, he scanned every shadow, every nook and cranny. Steeled for another confrontation, he approached the crib.
Nothing stirred behind the vertical bars. He peered in — at an empty mattress. He prodded the clumped-up elephant-pattern quilt with the knife. Nothing.
“sh*t,” he muttered and started to leave.
As he stepped back out into the hall, a baby squealed behind him.
He rushed back in to throw open the closet door, but there was no question the crying came from inside the crib. Something sat in the crib, something with mottled gray skin, grinning through the bars, baring its fangs as it mimicked a baby’s cry.
Alex dropped the knife and fled the room, and nearly plunged headlong down the stairs.
When he got to the bottom, he saw the cat.
The Himalayan sat on its haunches by the front door. It regarded Alex with its penetrating eyes.
“The baby up there is a monster!” Alex said.
“He looks like a typical human whelp to me,” the cat replied.
Alex glanced back up the stairs to where the cat was looking.
At the top of the staircase sat a child of about twelve months, its short, chubby legs dangling over the top stair.
The cat added, “However, it probably should not be allowed to play with knives.”
The baby held the knife Alex had dropped.
In a purring, sing-song voice, the cat recited:
That the kid is a brat
Should come as no surprise.
Take it from a cat:
That brat is born of Evil Eyes.
Then the cat disappeared through the pet door — though Alex did not recall having seen a pet door there before.
When he looked back up the stairs, the child was gone, and in its place the mottled-gray thing sat grasping the steak knife. Only, it now sat halfway down the stairs, mere feet from him.
Alex threw open the door and darted from the house.
The cat was curled up on a tree-limb by the edge of the driveway.
“Where are you going?” it inquired as Alex slowed to a walk, panting.
“I — I have to — get away, away from that madhouse,” he stammered.
“That tells me where you came from. Which I already knew. I am curious where you might go now. Out of the frying pan. You have left the madhouse and leapt back into the madworld.”
Alex said nothing, just kept walking.
He’d gone about ten yards past the tree when the cat said, “I would not recommend that way though. That is the direction from which the eyes are coming.”
Alex stopped dead in his tracks, then spun around to demand what the eyes were. The cat was gone.
He had no wish to go back to the madness from which he had come. There were no answers there. Maybe the eyes held the answer. So he ignored the cat’s warning and kept going.
And now he was talking to a dead police officer.
What is the lesson here? The dead cop wanted to know.
“Son, a police officer’s addressin’ you. Cat got yer tongue?”
Alex wanted to scream. But, responding to the authority in the dead man’s voice, he muttered, “I don’t know, sir.”
“Well, I’ll tell you what the lesson is. Always wear yer god-damned seat belt.”
Then the cop began to move. He pushed himself up jerkily, shaking off bits of glass that tinkled on the bashed-up hood. He slowly extracted himself from the wreckage, pulling his legs free of the flesh-ripping glass. He tumbled onto the street. He stood up and began to limp away from the car, like a rag doll on invisible strings, seemingly unaware that his body was a bloody mess of ruptured vessels and broken bones.
Adding a new terror to the gruesome scene, the cop’s right hand went to his gun-holster and drew a large-caliber six-shooter.
He did not point it at Alex. Instead, the cop motioned with the barrel to the other man’s corpse further up the street.
“C’mon,” the cop said, “help me git ’em before they git away. I hereby deputize you! Now shake a leg!”
Alex stared bewildered at the cop, who continued his pursuit, limping up the street towards the corpse.
Perhaps he’s in complete shock, and he’s playing out his last motivation before he expires, Alex thought. But Alex fell in beside him, walking up the street with the bloody cop like they were two western heroes swaggering to a showdown. High noon on Third and Elm.
The cop was an inch or two shorter than Alex, who stood just shy of six feet. He looked pretty old to be still working the street — Alex could see deep wrinkles where his face was not mangled and bloody. His hair and thick, bushy mustache were gray. Alex fancied that before the accident he might have looked a bit like Mark Twain. But Alex tried not to look at the cop’s face. He expected the cop to fall over at any moment, but the cop kept marching purposefully toward his dead quarry.
As they drew near the body, some movement around the corpse’s head caught Alex’s attention. He watched in horror as the eyes — those wild eyes that had looked at him for the barest moment and left a cold, dread feeling in his soul — extricated themselves from the man’s head. They pulled free, trailing vessels or tentacles, and began to scurry away, like jellyfish that could somehow propel themselves on land.
“Step on ’em, god dammit!” the cop yelled. “Crush ’em quick, before they git away!!”
But Alex just stood there, a few feet from the corpse, gaping in shock and revulsion as the two eyeballs scurried off.
“Aw hell, get back then, ‘n hope to God I can still aim this thing with a shattered arm.”
The cop drew a bead on one of the eye-creatures and fired. The shot echoed up and down the street. The eye vaporized in a pulpy burst.
The other one scampered underneath a parked car, a second and third shot following close behind it. One shot ricocheted off the asphalt; the next one punctured the car door.
“Son of a bitch got away,” the cop muttered, holstering his gun. “Well, least there’s only one now o’ that pair. Only be able to half-take over some poor bastard.”
“You mean, those things, they…”
“Eat out peoples’ eyes, is what they do,” the cop finished Alex’s sentence. “Burrow right into yer skull while you’re sleepin’. You can see through ’em just like they was yer eyes. ‘Cept once they get in you, you only see things their way.”
Alex stared at the last spot he had seen the eye. He felt numb, past feeling much of anything.
“What’s yer name, son?” the cop asked.
“I don’t remember,” Alex said. “Um, Alex, sir.”
The cop squinted at him. “I’m Officer Knight. Guess this is the end of the line fer me.”
As the cop said this, he seemed to recede, as if a gulf was opening up between them. The street, the houses, the sky, all began to dim, grow insubstantial, swirl together. The cop said a few more words to Alex, barely comprehensible, just before he vanished into the vanishing world.
“Your extractions went fine.”
“Where am I?” Alex’s mouth felt like it was full of cotton.
“In the recovery room. Your wisdom teeth are out and you’re all set. The anesthesia is wearing off now. Just lie here for a bit.”
The anesthesiologist swept out of the room, leaving Alex alone with his cloudy thoughts. A while later, a dental assistant came in and helped Alex off the wheel-bed. He felt groggy.
He was here to get his wisdom teeth removed… They’d become impacted; he should’ve had ’em out years ago… He’d wanted just a local anesthetic, but the orthodontist had elected to put him under…
“How long have I been out?” Alex asked the assistant, finding it somewhat difficult to talk without slurring.
“About an hour since the operation. Your wife stopped in just after we wheeled you back here, for about five minutes, and said she couldn’t stay.”
“Shara? No one elshe hash been back here shince then?”
“No, except for me peeking in on you every few minutes. Now you can come this way. Do you feel up to signing some paperwork? Your wife took care of most of it.”
“She’s not my wife, anymore,” Alex said absently. “I mean, technically. But we’re sheparated.”
The dental assistant bit her lower lip, then said, “You’d have to see a counselor about that, not a dentist.”
After signing a couple release forms and pretending to listen as the dental assistant reviewed the list of what he could and could not eat, Alex headed with relief for the door.
“Mr. Dyson,” the assistant protested. “Do you have someone to pick you up? You’re still recovering from the anesthesia.”
Alex pulled out his cell phone and wagged it. “I’ll call a cab.”
As he walked across the waiting room, he happened to glance back at the receptionist. Her left eye swiveled in its socket, its gaze tracking him to the door — completely independent of her other eye.
Alex just shook his head and stepped outside. The door swung shut behind him, and the sun shone down, dispelling nightmares.
But as he stood there, the last words of the mangled cop came back to him. “If’n you ever see that Evil Eye, you crush it. Like as not it’ll be rooted, but don’t you concern yerself about the head it’s in; that poor soul’s already good as dead. If you care about anything at all, you smash it, kill it, destroy it. Utterly destroy it.”
Alex clenched his hands into fists and went back in.
His gaze swept over three people flipping through magazines, one woman trying with little success to keep her three-year-old son out of a potted plant. He fixed on the receptionist. She looked up at him, startled by the intensity of his gaze.
“Yes, Mr. Dyson, did you forget something?”
Alex didn’t reply. The receptionist looked fine now; both her eyes seemed normal. Yet something was telling him to walk across the room, reach across the counter, and wrap his hands around her neck. His left eye twitched.
He realized with horror that it was in him. He had the evil eye.
“If you care about anything at all, you smash it, kill it, destroy it…”
Alex woke up in the Marysville Institution for the Clinically Insane. There was a patch over his left eye.
An old man sat in a chair next to his bed. His white coat indicated he was one of the doctors. He looked a bit like Mark Twain. Alex glanced at the nametag on the doctor’s coat: Knight.
“Landed yerself in the loony bin, son,” Dr. Knight said. “I hear you put on a perty good Oedipus impression at the dentist’s.”
Alex said nothing.
Dr. Knight nodded. “It’s about time for me to pass along my badge, anyhow. That patch on yer eye tells me you got what it takes. Reckon you’re the new hunter. You’ll have to do your rounds someplace between here and beyond the fields we know. You were there. Takes a while gettin’ used to it, though, don’t it?” Knight chuckled.
Finally Alex spoke.
“How do I get out of here?” He feebly raised one hand and gestured at the bars on the window.
Doctor Knight winked. “Just follow him.”
Alex looked across the room to where the Doctor pointed. A cat was curled up on the linoleum. A familiar gray Himalayan.
In the wall next to the cat was a pet door.
This time, it looked just big enough for a man to squeeze through.
Nicholas Ozment lives in MN with his wife and, maybe by the time you read this, their daughter. He teaches college English and writes a bit of everything—stories, poetry, essays, literary criticism, film reviews. His work has won awards and been anthologized, podcast, and mentioned in Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror. He is currently working on a story cycle, Knight Terrors: The (Mis)Adventures of Smoke the Dragon, which will be collected into a book and published by Cyberwizard Productions this summer.Share