Vitals

Carla had been watching the monitors, so she was already dashing toward her patient’s room when the code blue announcement came on overhead. Aurelio was coming from the opposite direction with the crash cart, but she was the first to reach the room. What she found was a panicked tech alongside a very awake and alert patient. What she couldn’t find however, and what none of the other doctors, nurses, or other clinicans could find were any vital signs. No pulse, no respiration, no blood pressure, and a temp slightly above room temperature.

“Is something wrong?” the elderly man would ask.

Carla would look to whichever practioner was fumbling to assess the patient, and when they avoided eye contact, she would answer, “Just some trouble with our equipment.”

He was still apparently fine the next day, though his appetite had vanished with his heartbeat. Security was posted outside the room to keep away the curious, leaving Carla even more uncertain what to tell the visitor who had shown up asking about him.

“Are you family?” Carla asked.

“Not quite,” the old woman answered. “He broke a promise, see? And he doesn’t get to die until I get what I’m owed.”

* * *

Story by Gregory M. Fox

Underneath

“What are you doing?” I cried. I had seen my ex-, Trevor, ahead of me on the sidewalk carrying a baseball bat and, curious, had followed him down the alley.

Trevor barely glanced at me before answering, “Hitting this wall.”

I tried to say something else, but was cut off by the loud clang of aluminum striking against cinder block.

“Right” I replied, still jarred by the sound. “But why?”

Another swing of the bat. “I’m trying to see what’s underneath.”

“Under— it’s a wall. Underneath is the inside of the building. Maybe some plumbing or some insulation.”

He shook his head matter-of-factly. “It’s not a real building.”

“Trevor, I’m getting a bit worried. Maybe I should call someone for you.”

“It’s okay,” he replied. “I’m almost through.” Then he adjusted his grip on the bat and took another swing. The bat rang sharply, but there was another sound underneath: a crumbling sigh. At the point of impact, bits of the wall flaked away like eggshell revealing a core of shimmering light.

“What . . .” I began. But as we stood there in the alley, a spiderweb of cracks spread out from the point of impact. Light began spilling into the alley.

Darkling

It was dark. He heard strange, chittering voices close by. What happened? He remembered rain, headlights, a guardrail, and then . . .

He was still in the car. He wasn’t alone. Shapes moving, and those voices . . . words he couldn’t understand. Then a head loomed over him, eyes giving off a pale reflection in the night.

“You awake?” a reedy voice asked. “You come?”

Something was odd about the shape of that head, the shape of those words, the shape of his windshield. In his mental fog, all he could mutter was a hoarse, “Where?”

It seemed to suffice as an answer. A flash of steel in the night, and his seat belt fell away. He found himself outside a twisted heap of metal. Behind him, the low drone of highway traffic. Ahead, starlit darkness into which those small, strange figures were retreating. The last one stopped short, looked back. “You come,” they repeated. He wasn’t sure if it was a question or a command.

He followed anyway. Grass gave way to trees, the sounds of civilization faded. Occasionally, trees parted, allowing moonlight to revealed his companion plainly. Green skin, pointed ears, sharp smiles.

Thrilled and terrified, he continued into the darkling unknown.

* * *

Story by Gregory M. Fox

Thirty-Seven

“Thirty-seven?” Conrad asked peeking at the illuminated button. “Do I need to worry about a nosebleed up there?” The lips of the man in the gray suit curled into a tight smile, but he remained silent. Conrad leaned against the wall of the elevator, perching his butt on the railing of the small metal box. “You know, I’ve never been higher than twenty-two.”

“Hm.”

A mellow bell chimed with each floor they ascended. After passing half a dozen, Conrad asked, “Do you usually work up here in the rafters?”

“No, not me,” answered the man in the gray suit. “My office is on thirteen.”

“Oh yeah?” Conrad was strangely relieved to learn that this stranger was only five floors more important than him instead of twenty-nine. “Thirteen, pretty unlucky, huh?”

“Perhaps,” the man answered flatly.

“That’s what . . . Marketing?”

“Special projects.”

It was said so casually that Conrad almost missed the significance. Then he remembered the rumors he had heard the people who worked on the thirteenth floor and what made their projects so special.

“Who . . . who’s on thirty-seven?”

“Not ‘who.’ What.”

One final chime as the elevator stopped. The doors opened to blackness, moist air, and the sound of breathing.

* * *

Story by Gregory M. Fox
Photo by Bruno Kelzer on Unsplash

Shadows

The shadows shifted in the corner of Cal’s eye. It was back.

It never left.

“Leave me alone,” Cal barked.

“You’re always alone,” a grating voice replied. Darkness emerged from the shadows, a hulking form, long twisted limbs, a featureless head. “Worthless,” it croaked.

“No.”

“Pathetic.”

“No more.”

“Unlovable.”

“Enough! I’m done letting you control my life.” The thing cocked its head, curious. But Cal was already moving, knife in his hand. “Now die!”

A half stifled moan of surprise. The blade sank deep into the being’s chest and it crumbled to the floor. Cal was shaking, panting, giddy and terrified and sick. He watched the thing’s skin turn grey and brittle as cracks spread from the knife wound.

“I did it,” he whispered. “I’m finally free.”

“You’re a fool,” the thing announced. It’s skin had gone grey and dry. The cracks spread to its mouth as it spoke, then the skin began to crumble. “You can’t kill me.” The figure began to rise, large chunks of it’s flesh flaking away. “You don’t even know what I am.”

Cal staggered back, his features twisted into an expression of horror as he saw those same features emerge from the crumbling shadows.

* * *

Story by Gregory M. Fox
Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

Popcorn

“What do you think this smells like?”

He recoils initially, then leans forward and sniffs. “Popcorn.”

She shakes her head, grinning slyly and takes back the paper. “No, it doesn’t.”

A shrug. “Well of course it doesn’t. It’s a sticker. How’s it supposed to smell like butter and salt and all that?  It just smells like popcorn ‘cuz that’s the best they can do.”

“No,” she says again.

“No?”

She leans forward conspiratorially, eyes bright. “You just think it smells like popcorn because there’s a picture of popcorn on the sticker, so you smell what you’re expecting. But it really smells like something else entirely. Try again.”

“It’s a scratch-n-sniff.”

“Close your eyes.”

He blinks.

A smack on the arm. “Just do it. Close your eyes.” He sighs, but does as instructed. “Clear your mind. Inhale.”

With a roll of his closed eyes, he breathes in, expecting nothing. He smells smoke. Wood smoke. Dirt and pine needles. Bug spray and sunscreen. Fish roasting over a campfire. Then he hears wind. Rustling branches and creaking trees. He feels mottled sunlight flickering over his eyes. There are footsteps approaching from behind.

He opens his eyes. She’s staring expectantly.

“What did you smell?”

     *     *     *

Photo by Mockup Graphics on Unsplash

Story by Gregory M. Fox