THE GLITTER OF BILE

Amanda M. Blake

From CHM #47 May 2024

Cosmic Horror Monthly Magazine May 2024 Cover Art Dagon

Mari supposed that the point of emergency sirens was to convince you to find a safe place in the interior of whatever building you happened to find yourself in—which was always her apartment these days. She didn’t know whether it was a Tornado Alley thing, a human thing, or just a fifty-seventh-catastrophe thing, but when the sirens went off, Mari joined the rest of her neighbors in watching the clouds go by.

She raised her glass of iced tea to Tammie, who sat on the balcony to the right. Tammie waved back. She still wore a mask for safety’s sake, even though the balconies were at least twelve feet away from each other. Yet you’re out here with the rest of us, Mari wanted to say, but no one really talked to each other anymore.

Mari wore her favorite sarong, a tank top without a bra, and one of the many lovely pairs of shoes that she couldn’t wear out anymore. Perfect for a nice day at the beach—except she was in a cheap lawn chair on her apartment balcony, with an expansive view of the apartment building on the other side of the street, where more people on their balconies stared up at the sky.

No one else could tell, but Mari also wore that perfume she’d bought seven months ago in anticipation of maybe dating again after the divorce. Across the way, a man and woman lounged in a tuxedo and wedding dress. People drank champagne, ate pizza and chocolate cake. They baked cookies. They swallowed Drano. Because in a dumpster fire, why the hell not?

The emergency sirens had gone off around two o’clock every afternoon since the constant cloud cover had started. Most of the time, the clouds were nothing special, a dreary shade of gray that gave way to drearier nights, but around two, the rumbling started and the gray darkened to almost twilight. They were guaranteed a downpour that ran rivers through their streets as soon as the emergency sirens finally went off. Then all these people would duck back into their dry homes and thank God for hot showers and air conditioning. But they weren’t lined up for rain; they were there for the light show that preceded it.

The darker clouds sometimes rolled like waves, sometimes boiled with a wicked blue or green glow. Sometimes there was a patch of white in the middle of the near-black, like a giant eye. But always, somewhere in the city was the one cloud moving at a different speed than the rest, hovering low, as though if Mari ran up to the roof like some people—barbecuing with family and friends, getting absolutely hammered, playing dance music to drown out the sirens—she might reach on her tiptoes and touch it. Not that anyone wanted to.

The two o’clock light show was always there, but no one knew where that little cloud would pop up, black and green like a neon bruise, a wisp of charcoal and sour apple cotton candy, although it smelled of gasoline.

There were all kinds of theories about the storms, but no one official had confirmed anything, not least because most major cities were blacked out by whatever storm had hit them. There were still some supply chains intact, or else shit would have gotten a lot more chaotic after that first week, but they weren’t as good as before. Everyone was just waiting for the last shreds of civilization to fray away, but they’d already been doing that for so long that they might as well have a block party, because at least it wasn’t as bad here as elsewhere. If they wanted to see bad, all they had to do was look south, where the clouds had gone pitch black and anyone who drove in never returned.

Mari considered adding a splash of rum to her tea, but if she got up, she might miss the colors.

The sky had been darkening for twenty minutes. Now the slow boil above them intensified, a brilliant indigo cradled in mammatus bubbles like paper lanterns.

No one knew how long these storms were going to last, but everyone had picture updates. Storms filled Mari’s feeds—inadequately captured, like trying to photograph the moon. If they were still blessed with sunny skies, some people still thought it was a worldwide AI hoax, some online flash mob, but Mari didn’t know why everyone else who knew better felt compelled to continue sharing. Maybe it was the new version wish you were here, watching a witch cauldron sky instead of getting sucked into one of the big-city black-hole storms.

At first, Mari confused all the raised hands with trying to get good camera angles, but too many of those hands didn’t have phones in them, so she set down her tea and bent forward to follow the pointed path of their fingers.

Oh, shit.

The black cloud trundled along at a diagonal, not following the direction of the tree-swaying storm winds but forging its own path straight for City Line.

Those who thought it was a UFO were technically right, in the sense that it was unidentified, flying (or at least hovering), and an object. People just assumed that meant extraterrestrial, and maybe it was, but it was no spaceship. Some brain trust had videoed himself shooting a T-shirt cannon at the cloud. Without anything impeding its arc, the T-shirt had come out the other side, albeit in worse shape than it had gone in.

Others thought it was divine providence—the rabid, foamy spittle of God. Proof of the End Times.

It didn’t really matter to Mari what had caused it if no one could figure out how to make it stop. She supposed some town or another must have tried witch-burning, and someone had probably written a think piece about the evils of blue cities versus red. But she lived in a red suburb, and the conversative neighborhoods got rained on just like the libs. From what Mari could tell, the apocalypse was still happening here, just not as fast, and she didn’t think virtue was the reason. Instead, the worst lottery in the world—a raffle, a racket—and maybe that’s what they were really an audience for.

The cloud was the size of a modest Target. As it swam under the storm clouds, rain poured from the center to its edges like a train of jellyfish tentacles, dyed slightly green by whatever glittered within, or maybe the rain itself was green. People on her side of the street leaned over their balconies to watch its progress and try to guess which direction it would go.

Already, screams carried on the wind, like the terror of trees. A defense contractor’s new headquarters had been right in its path. Since working from home was optional rather than mandatory, there would have been casualties. Not that working from home would have been safer, since the cloud seemed to have set its eyeless sights upon City Line—unless it decided to swerve at the last minute. Even if there was intention to its direction, there never seemed to be any sense.

Rather than the subject of alien or divine intervention, their little suburb felt more like a body on the table, slowly being eaten away by acid poured on them in thin lines by a psychopathic teenager giggling behind his cloud mask.

Mari sincerely hoped that wasn’t God.

The cloud continued its radioactive rain of terror toward City Line. Her heart seemed to beat extra between her pulse when the cloud shifted its path. She wasn’t the only one who prepared to flee as the cold breeze in what had been a muggy day brought chill-bumps to her bare arms. Some across the street had already run inside, peering through their sliding doors and windows at the promise of death approaching without pause or thought, just a merry black cloud doing what clouds do—finding a head to rain upon.

Mari clutched the wrought-iron railing.

Go over there, over there, not here.

No, just come over here and get it over with. Not this slow agonizing death where we pretend everything is fine.

Just spread and get it over with.

But that would be too easy, wouldn’t it? Too easy to widen its green eye and pass indifferent judgment upon everyone at once. It was worse, wasn’t it, to hope that tomorrow would finally clear the sky for sun, that the dying would stop and everything could go back to normal, because things were practically normal already, no need to worry, no need to run. Here, you could still have your tea and watch the clouds pour on someone else—or walk right up to the heavy little cloud and turn your face to the fall.

The cloud remained angled to cross the street and hit their neighbors straight on. Shaking, Mari lowered herself into her chair again as the bride and groom fought her ballgown skirt to get back into their apartment and find a safe place to hide, as though the cloud were a tornado hurtling toward them. A tornado would be kinder; eventually a tornado died. The cloud merely slept in whatever corner of the higher cloud cover it called home, like a bunny in a blanket.

And a tornado, monster though it was, didn’t do that.

As the cloud shrouded the street and the building across from her in its darker, viridescent shadow, those who’d thought that the cloud would just miss them received the worst of it.

Mari wrinkled her nose. She could only imagine how much worse it smelled when the gasoline-leak, sour-stomach bilious liquid surrounded you, coated your skin. Steam billowed from the concrete, the brick, the glass windows and doors, the wrought-iron balcony railings, and cars, leaving pockmarks on all these inanimate objects more thoroughly than the most violent hailstorm.

But people’s skin didn’t dissolve so much as bubble—first like soap foam, but for each successive raindrop, the blisters grew and grew until they burst and the flesh beneath began the same boil. Blood, lymph, and yellow liquid—which looked like pus but was more likely liquified fat, hell of a way to get free lipo—mingled with the greenish rain on balconies and sidewalks as people screamed and screamed and screamed.

Even if they managed to get to the building’s center, even if the caustic material didn’t burn through and burrow tunnels to lower levels, even if those running into their homes without closing doors behind them to get away from what destroyed and deformed managed to find some shelter, they might not survive, and many wouldn’t want to. The hospitals, morgues, and funeral homes were stretched thin these days, with a guaranteed influx of clients once the cloud disappeared and a more natural rain drained the green-tinged liquid and what it broke down into the gutters and beneath the sod to do God knew what to the groundwater.

Would sewers and waste treatment plants be the next to collapse in this juddering society? When would drinking water no longer be safe, no matter that natural gas was still working—for now? Regardless of the stockpile, everything ran out eventually.

Mari sipped her tea while the wind swept tiny aerosolized droplets from the black cloud toward their balconies. In the corner of her eye, she noticed Tammie getting up to hide behind pitted but holding sliding doors. However, most of her neighbors, like Mari, stayed in their seats, watching the rain of destruction and pain across the street.

She idly scratched little boils in the crook of her elbow while she finished her tea, condensation from the cold glass in the humid air dripping onto her chest.

End.

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A mass of tentacles and rose vines masquerading as a person, Amanda M. Blake is the author of such horror titles as QUESTION NOT MY SALT, DEEP DOWN, and OUT OF CURIOSITY AND HUNGER, dark poetry collection DEAD ENDS, and the Thorns fairy tale mash-up series. For more, visit amandamblake.com.

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