by Paul Wilson

From CHM #45 March 2024

Walter felt a sudden lurch. He gripped the steering wheel and instinctively applied the brakes. The Monkees continued singing “No Time” but the radio’s sound warped to a tinny, thin buzzing. Vision narrowed to a bright pinpoint, like a floor-model television suddenly snapped off. Walter opened his mouth to protest, but no sound emerged. His voice was gone, the Monkees were gone, the world was gone.

My God, an accident?

Then, a sizzling, both in sound and feeling and his vision returned; the television powered on. Walter was no longer sitting in his car. He was standing. His legs wobbled. He took a few shuffling steps to steady himself. He moaned, produced a peculiar whistle, and found his throat dry, like when he slept with a fan on and his mouth open.

Where’s my Ford?

He was surrounded by a weird red landscape instead of the rain‑shined pavement he had been following just a moment before. He had been creeping along, telling himself there was no need to speed. If he had an accident, he would never get to his granddaughter’s graduation, and she was counting on him.

Where am I?

The teenager behind him hadn’t appreciated his caution. The boy had been honking his horn and flashing his brights, yelling out the window for him to go—for Christ’s sake, move! Walter had ignored the profanity and gestures. They had been traveling a skinny single lane road, the rain making percussion on his roof, and then—

Darkness. Had he lost control of his car despite his precautions? 

Am I dead?

Walter turned, trying to look everywhere at once. The alien crimson stretched in all directions. Rocks and shadow varied the desert plane. Corrugated dunes crested in the distance, maybe the fins of some great buried beast. Deep cracks traced the ground, making map squiggles. The horizon met a sky so deeply blue it was practically purple.

“Hello,” someone said behind him.

Walter jumped, squeaked, and nearly fell. The young woman reached out and steadied him. He grabbed her arm in a panic.

“It’s okay.  Well—it’s not okay, but you’re safe.” The young woman smiled. It was thin, but it was an attempt. She wore a cloth harness. A baby wiggled in the folds. Walter righted himself. His heart jackhammered his ribs.

“I’m sure you want to know what’s going on.”

Walter nodded, then forced words past the sandpaper in his throat. “Where am I?  Am I dead?”

She laughed. It was a beautiful sound, a first-date kind of sound. She played with her wedding band. Her baby cooed from its confinement. She patted its bottom. Walter noticed her hand looked thick and misshapen, as if she were wearing a glove filled with old meat.

“That’s what I thought when he got me. No, you’re not dead, but it may feel like it for the first few months.”

“Months? What is this months talk? Where am I? I have to get to my granddaughter’s graduation.”

Her smile disappeared. Tears spilled down her cheeks. She wiped them, and Walter saw her hand was a claw. The fingers had fused together and ended in a single, jagged nail.

“I’m sorry. You’ll never get there.”

“Never get there? What do you mean?”

“Come. Sit with me on those rocks. We don’t have much in the way of furniture here, but—”

“I want to go home!”

“We all do,” a new voice said. A man rushed to join them from the indicated rocks.  He floated in a baggy suit that looked two sizes too big. He wore glasses. Walter thought an arm was missing from the black frames until he saw that the man’s scalp had grown grey mottled skin over the plastic piece.

“Will this one flip out, Melinda?”

“He’s scared,” she said. “Don’t you remember how it was waking up here?”

“I just want to know what’s happening,” Walter said. He let Melinda guide him to the rocks. There were several good-sized ones perfect for sitting. They reminded Walter of sitting by campfires at Folly Beach.

The new man hitched up his pants before sitting. The end of his belt flapped.  Melinda rearranged the baby across her chest, cooed to it, then addressed Walter.

“We’ve all gone through what you’re feeling. I was on my way to pick up my husband from work. Two years ago. I was in the mall, talking to a friend I hadn’t seen since college, telling her to call me later because I had to pick up Dale. I turned and smacked into this kid who was running down the aisle. He called me a stupid bitch, told me I should look where I was going. He said all of this before we got ourselves untangled. You know how it is when you’re trying to move out of someone’s way. You go to the right, so of course they do, too. You go left, they follow. The boy and I were like that. Then . . . There was darkness. I couldn’t hear or see, and then I was here.”

“What do you mean?”

“He sent me away.”

“But where are we?” Walter hated the shaking in his voice. It was much more prevalent these days. It made him feel like the old man he didn’t want to admit he had become. That’s why he had insisted on driving himself to the graduation.

“We don’t know exactly,” the man said. He put on his own smile-without-humor.  “The Lord appeared to Isaac and said ‘Do not go down to Egypt, live in the land where I tell you to live.’” His smile evaporated. “We should have stayed out of Egypt.”

Walter scowled in confusion. Melinda introduced the prophet as Curt. Walter gave his name in return, offering a numb handshake. The pleasantries in this bizarre landscape doubled his sense of out-of-joint-ness. Curt continued.

“We all ended up here after running into a snot‑nosed kid who we impeded. At least he saw it that way. He sent me here after I slowed to make a turn on the highway while he was trying to get by me. I heard him scream out the window of his Mustang for me to ‘fucking move’—sorry Melinda.”

Melinda waved away the apology.

“This kid has the ability to banish people, to move folks who get in his way. I think he . . . well, it sounds strange. Even ridiculous.”

“Try me,” Walter said.

“Okay. Okay.” Curt rubbed his hands together. He was excited to sermonize. “I was a science fiction writer before he got me. But this isn’t so much sci-fi as fantasy. That is, I mean to say, there is no science that I can understand. But I suppose that doesn’t exclude the theory that his ability could be technology based. In fact, I have a theory—”

“Rabbit trails, Curt.”

“Ahh yes, of course. Sorry Melinda. That’s a fault of mine, my new friend. My mind races, multiplies, then divides. Anyway, I believe this boy gets mad and opens a sort of black hole that inhales us, then deposits us here. We call this place Mars because of the red landscape.”

“For all we know, it may actually be Mars,” Melinda said.

“No, no” Curt said.  “Not possible. The atmosphere on Mars is about 100 times thinner than Earth. We couldn’t breathe if we were on Mars. Yet, as you can see, we all breathe quite easily. There are plentiful berries and game. We have found many small streams. No, I think we’re somewhere else, perhaps somewhere the boy created.” Curt stared into the sky. “I think it’s more likely we’re in a holding area. A waiting room.  Something like a cosmic closet.” He looked back to Walter. “As I said, this is far more fantasy than science fiction.”

“For how long?” Walter asked.

“I’ve been here for eight months. One bloke has been here for five years. I would say our captor means for us to be here forever. In fact, it’s my theory that he has forgotten about us all together. I base that on his callousness in our initial meetings. He was so selfish, so rude to each of us, you see.” Curt wrinkled his lips in disgust. “There has certainly been no communication since our deposit. Any cell phones that arrive become smooth, blank bricks.”

Walter began to cry. He couldn’t help it. “How can he do this? Doesn’t anyone come looking for us?”

“We don’t know how he does it,” Melinda said. “Some of the people here think he’s a demon, but I agree with Curt, I think he’s just a brat who has a special talent, like ESP or something.”

“I’m sure our friends and family do look for us,” Curt said. “I’m sure all of us here adorn missing person flyers. Some are just yellowed and curled by now.”

Walter put his head down and sobbed. “I’m trapped here.  Because I wasn’t moving fast enough for some punk kid.” He sniffed. “My God, I should have just moved out of his way.”

“No!” Melinda said. “Why should you have conceded? Why does this kid get what he wants? Everyone has to wait sometime. Everyone deals with inconveniences. No matter what he can do, this little bastard isn’t special!”

Walter wiped his nose. “What the hell do I do now?”

“We think we know a way out,” Curt said.

Walter looked up. “You do? Then why are you still here?”

“Whatever this place is, however this punk transports us here, he must open a door to push people through. The door must exist whether you call our situation science fiction, fantasy, or horror. To travel anywhere there must be an entrance.”

“Yes, I see,” Walter said.

“I believe that if we can get to one of those doors before he finishes pushing a new person through, we can jump back to our world.”

Melinda continued.

“But it only takes a few seconds for him to push someone through. When that little shit black‑holes someone, it’s quick.”

“What would one of you do if you did get through?” Walter asked. “What about everyone else trapped here?”

From the shadows, a third man joined them, unfolding like a black umbrella. He was tall, thin, and wearing an over-sized hoodie. He raised his right arm. Walter gasped. There was no clean pink appendage at the end, but rather a gleaming curved blade of bone.  Pulsing purple veins clung to its base. The man sawed the air.

“This place changes you,” Melinda said. “Maybe its radiation or something. Who knows? The point is that every day it changes you a little more.”

“I see that,” Walter said. 

  “The first one of us who gets through is going to grab that kid and force him to open his door so the rest of us can escape.”

The third man spoke. His voice was a low rasp. Walter saw rows of crooked fangs as if nails had burst from his jaw.

“And once we’re free, there will be a reckoning.” The man produced a grin that promised dark things. “A slow reckoning.”

* * *

Avery Ames was ten when he discovered that he could make people go away. He was sitting on the sidewalk and moping because his mom wouldn’t let him stay up to watch a scary movie on cable that night, when he saw the neighborhood bully, Fat Charlie, coming.  Avery wanted to run. Fat Charlie always ragged him about his skinny size and usually administered a series of sharp punches for daring to be puny. But the bully was too close. If Avery moved, Fat Charlie would see him. Avery was frozen between fear and anger, but that day Avery closed his eyes and wished the bully away. Go away, go away, goawaygoawaygoaway!! And then Avery heard tearing. More, he felt the tearing, and then the bully’s screech of terror echoed over the sidewalk. Avery opened his eyes in time to see the fat boy disappear into a black hole that had appeared over his head. Avery got a single flash of Charlie’s terrified face, then he was gone, outstretched hands reaching for help. The hole stitched itself up, a few leaves rattled down the sidewalk, and that was it.

A grin spread slowly over Avery’s face. He understood that he had made the hole appear. He had sent Fat Charlie away.

That night Avery didn’t care about missing the scary movie.

Avery began to hone his ability, and by the time he was a teen, he could black‑hole someone in the blink of an eye. How many people had he sent away? He didn’t know, but the number was in the hundreds. He didn’t keep count. That was their problem and penalty for getting in his way. People should be more careful—and faster!

He didn’t know where the black hole went, but some deep instinct told Avery that the people didn’t die. For all he knew they were going to a much better place, maybe the Garden of Eden. They might be happy, even grateful! Either way, it wasn’t his problem.

* * *

June 23, 1:53 in the afternoon, Avery entered a McDonald’s. There were half a dozen people in line. Having no patience, his ability having trained him that he didn’t have to wait on anything, Avery decided to black‑hole all the people ahead of him. He had never tried to do so many at one time, but he was young and foolish and full of himself. He concentrated, feeling that much‑worn part of himself flex. Everyone looked up as the air tore open above them. They all felt it at once, that curious lurching. The hole that he had used so many times appeared, but this time it rolled out of Avery’s control. There were too many people to push through, and the hole quickly grew. It wobbled like a warped lp.  Then Avery saw a figure peering down at him from his hole.

The figure’s name was John Henry. The people of Mars called him Snake Eyes because his eyeballs had morphed into thick and scaled vipers that constantly bit John’s cheeks, creating the illusion of never-ending bloody tears. Avery began to scream. John Henry grinned. Those screams were the most beautiful thing he had ever heard. 

The customers ran. The staff ran. Humans shoved each other out the doors. A skinny employee dove through the drive-through window, losing her shoes and not caring. The back door banged open with management’s exodus.

John flipped through the hole and grabbed Avery. Avery squirmed in the big man’s grip. He tried to scream but no sound emerged, only saliva. The black hole above them fizzled and closed as Avery wet himself. Debris, mostly napkins, see-sawed through the settling atmosphere.

“Well, boy, we meet again.” John laughed. He was feeling fine now. He made sure the vipers couldn’t reach the boy. No good for him to die before he could get to work.

“You’re gonna open up that portal of yours and let everyone out, or I’m gonna dunk your face into one of those fry cookers back there. But before I do, I’ll tape your eyes open, filling those baby blues with hot, frying grease.”

“I.  I.  I—”

John shook him.

“Focus! And get started. I’m gonna hold on to you until everyone is free. Get used to my smell, boy, there are a lot of us in there. This could take a while.

And it did.

* * *

Melinda, Curt, and Walter let the waitress collect their plates. They sipped coffee. A week later and it still tasted like ambrosia. Their mutations had faded before Avery freed the last person. They all felt human again.

“I still wonder if we shouldn’t have killed him,” Curt said.

“If he could get out, he would have immediately,” Melinda replied. “I believe he’s trapped. Gone.” In the highchair, her daughter played with her eggs and laughed.

After the last person came through (ironically, it had been Fat Charlie), John Henry had tossed Avery into the black hole as it was closing. The boy had screamed going in. 

“I think,” Curt said, “that he can’t open the door from inside. I think he’s stuck there unless there is another like him.

The trio grew silent, each thinking about that possibility, and each hoping that Avery Ames was one-of-a-kind.


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Paul Wilson lives in a suburban neighborhood much like the one he turned into a horror playground in his novel Hostage.  He lives with his wife, kids, and a moody cat.  He has worked a spectacular list of jobs including retail district manager, a 911 operator, and the head of a college security department. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram at Storydweller102.

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