Thursday, June 18, 2015

On a hiatus

UPDATE: I am currently on a hiatus from writing while I raise my son Garion (he's just over 5 months old). I now go by "Jay Sturner," and spend much of my free time leading nature hikes in East Tennessee (mostly around Knoxville and in the Great Smoky Mountains). At this time I do not know when or if I'll return to writing. A few pieces still await publication.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Poem published in 2015 Rhysling Award Anthology

Earlier this year my poem "Intimate Universes" was nominated for a Rhysling Award in the Short Poem Category. Winners have not yet been announced, but an anthology containing all the nominated poems is currently for sale.

Paperback and PDF copies can be purchased through the Science Fiction Poetry Association website (you'll need to scroll to the bottom of the page). Paperback copies are also available at Amazon and CreateSpace. A few other places may also be selling it.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Post-Funeral Mission (to Mars)

This fantasy prose poem (or vignette) was first published in the Autumn 2014 issue of Tales of the Talisman, and is semiautobiographical.


Post-Funeral Mission (to Mars)

As the airplane enters the towering clouds, Billy spies wispy ghosts and shifting white valleys. What is turbulence to everyone else, to Billy is scratching fog-fingers and monstrous tongues.

His grandma snores beside him. Others resign to airport novels, electronics, and the anticipation of the cart. Humming engines and whooshing air vents backdrop the cries of a baby, of two teenage girls absorbed in gossip.

Billy peers out the cold, turbid window, sees Harryhausen beasts run amok through the floating landscape: dinosaurs gnawing on cars and bridges, a distant Cyclops ripping a train off its tracks.

A break in the clouds reveals a stretch of suburbia, baseball fields where an interest in sports fell short of home plate. All around, long thin roads blink with ant-cars: “More people die in car crashes than in planes, you know,” his parents once said, not long before the accident.

The edge of an approaching cirrus cloud swirls over the wings: here comes Conan through the smoke of battle, sword dripping with ruddy sunlight. He charges an army of angry skeletons—bones and skulls sailing through the fog.

Suburbia slides back into view, its rooftops the color of cigarette ash, a string of retention ponds like chicory weeds in a cracked parking lot. His father’s voice: “Earth to Billy, Earth to Billy—grab me another beer!”

A return to clouds, where Charles Knight mammoths [ding] struggle in [ding] tar pits [ding].

“Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. Please fasten your seatbelts and turn off all electronics. We’ll be landing shortly. Thank you, and good luck.”

Someone kicks the back of Billy’s seat. The baby shrieks. Others shut books, fumble with personal items. Grandma adds a wheeze to her snores.

Suddenly a woman’s voice blasts through the intercom static; the voice is distant, yet familiar: “Mars to Billy . . . —ars to Billy . . . —der alien attack! . . . You are des—rately needed . . . Please—ome at once!”

A space suit drops from an overhead compartment. The plane becomes a silver rocket. Billy squeezes past his grandma to the aisle, climbs into the suit, snaps on the helmet. The passengers dissolve as he heads for the cockpit. Outside, the clouds turn red.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Short story published in Electric Spec

"Potawatomi Island" is an old story that I finally got around to having published. It's about a botanist who gets more than he bargained for when he goes out to retrieve specimens on an island that may or may not be haunted by the spirit of a murdered shaman. Since I used to work in a herbarium, I decided it would be fun to name a few characters after people I actually knew in the botany field. 

The story is now available to read in the latest issue of Electric Spec, one of the most respected and longest lived spec fiction magazines on the internet. The story itself pays homage to the fun, good ol' fashioned horror stories that I used to read as a kid, particularly in the pulp magazine Weird Tales. 

Many thanks to the editors at Electric Spec for publishing my story. Give it a read if you're so inclined!

Click here to open the story.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Photos of author Jason Sturner (Jay Sturner)

At my grandmother's house in Park Forest, Illinois.

Ring bearer for my uncle's wedding, Park Forest, Illinois.


Author photo for Kairos, my first book of poetry.

Author photo for Selected Poems 2004-2007.

At the Cliffs of Moher, Ireland.

With poet Nikki Giovanni in Knoxville, TN.

Sitting at my computer in Knoxville.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Poem nominated for Best of the Net 2014

Thank you to Nastia Lenkova, editor of the webzine Work to a Calm, for nominating my poem "Poet" for this year's Best of the Net. The poem appeared in the October 2013 issue of the webzine.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Intimate Universes

I suppose it was bound to happen, that the sentimentalist in me would collaborate with the scientist. The result is the following poem, which was originally published in the Summer 2014 issue of Tales of the Talisman. Enjoy. UPDATE: This poem was nominated for a 2015 Rhysling Award.

Intimate Universes
Inspired by the theory that cosmic branes (of a multiverse) can touch and influence one another. 

Their “kiss” lasted but one millionth of a second,
though truly timeless and spared of angels; a mere gleam
in the dreaming eye of Pan; the first quiver of life in primordial ooze.
A singularity popped off the tongue of a howling black hole,
expanded where nascent gods toss rose petals over looping,
cosmic currents, shot plasma-fire blue into the nothing of our universe—
a universe silent as an ash-covered opera—until the chaos of cooling atoms
induced space-time and spark, lending symphonic gravity
to the tenacity of evolution, to the intangibles of consciousness.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Poem published in 2014 Rhysling Award Anthology

Earlier this year my poem "Faerystruck Down" was nominated for a Rhysling Award in the Short Poem Category. Winners have not yet been announced, but an anthology containing all the nominated poems is currently for sale.

Paperback and PDF copies can be purchased through the Science Fiction Poetry Association website (you'll need to scroll down to the bottom of the page). Paperback copies are also available at CreateSpace. Amazon and a few other places will be selling the book soon.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Leaving the Old Us

It’s a perfect time to release our birds,
Caged for far too long and submerged in dark.
Constant fright has hurt their eyes,
Trembled the beak and silenced the song. 

It’s a suitable time to drain our home,
Flooded for years and unknown to breathe.
Rising water has wrinkled its design,
Drowned the art and soaked the dreams . . . 

Birds explode from waterfall windows,
Ignite their songs and fill up the trees.
Bloated sharks writhe in the sun,
Cough up the tar and spit out the bones. 

Today we sail in the wake of an albatross,
Colored by sunrise and bound for the sea.
It’s an auspicious time to leave ones past,
Desalt the eye and lift the anchor.
 
 
First published on July 20, 2013 at Dagda Publishing.
 

Girl with the Crooked Spine

Her skin is like leather. What remains of her reddish blond hair sits in a tuft beside her mummified head. She has no arms or legs, though both her feet and right hand lay alongside her torso. The eyes deteriorated almost two thousand years ago, long before her well-preserved body was dug out of the peat in the village of Yde in Bourtangermoor, Netherlands, and placed in this traveling exhibit. She was sixteen years old the day she died, and her spine, not unlike Patrick’s, was horribly twisted by scoliosis.

Archaeologists call her Yde Girl. Patrick calls her Edie.

Propped up next to the body’s display case is a reconstruction photo, a wax head that depicts what the teen might have looked like in life. Here she has long, wavy, reddish blonde hair, an oddly high forehead, and what some might consider an intelligent yet sad countenance.

Other attractions in the Bog Bodies of Europe exhibit include Lindow Man, Tollund Man, and the Girl of the Uchter Moor, among others, each fragmented body displayed in small, personalized exhibit rooms adjoined by dim corridors.

* * *

It is a late Sunday afternoon in January. Snow accumulates outside the Field Museum in Chicago, long drifts rising across the steps of the main entrance. In the distance, Snowy Owls, on winter leave from Canada, sit on elongated water breaks, their sleepy, golden eyes scanning for ducks on the gray surface of Lake Michigan. Few cars populate the streets, and despite the storm, Patrick has come to see Edie. It’s his fourth visit.

Patrick wiggles out of his backpack, letting it slide down his left shoulder, the side of him that is slightly higher than his right. Hiding behind red bangs, he glances at Edie’s reconstruction photo, the version of her he prefers (though he does address the fragmented body now and then, so as to not seem disrespectful). He unzips his backpack, retrieves a spiral notebook.

“How are you today?” Patrick asks her shyly. “Man, there’s a really n-nasty storm out there. We almost didn’t come, but I told my mom I had to take notes for a research paper on bog bodies, and that it’s due tomorrow.” He laughs. “She has no idea I made the whole thing up! Anyway, we came here on the bus today and walked around a bit. She’s over in the gift shop now.”

Though Edie’s hardships had undoubtedly been more profound than his own, Patrick did identify with how he imagined she must have felt. Surely she had been stared at, pointed at, laughed at—all by ignorant and superstitious people that did not, or would not, understand her deformity. This deformity had probably led to her death, as it was theorized she had been brutally beaten, choked, and stabbed in a sacrifice to the gods.

Now the ancient girl’s naked remains lay exposed in wizened, leathery fragments atop a sterile white slab—a static, lonely darkness curling tightly about her glass display case. Worst of all is the frayed rope, an instrument of her death, still wrapped loosely about her neck.

“You should’ve seen it, Edie,” Patrick says, shuffling closer to the photo. “There’s this gorgeous Cecropia Moth in the entomology exhibit. It’s huge!” He shifts his torso to the right in an attempt to gain comfort in his back brace. “You know, it’s the largest saturniid—I-I mean, giant silk moth—in North America. At night, in summer, you can find them by artificial lights.”

Realizing she may not understand “artificial lights,” Patrick gestures to the track lighting over her display case.

“Most people aren’t even aware those types of moths exist. It’s kinda sad, actually.” He drops his eyes, follows a swirl in the floor pattern, then quietly adds, “Before my dad died, he used to show me all the best places to find them. That’s when I really got interested in science and stuff.”

Frowning, he bites his lower lip. “I keep trying to get my mom to go find them with me, but besides butterflies, she pretty much hates insects. She thinks they’re all going to bite her. My friend Andrew, though, he used to help me catch them all the time. He even had his own net. That was awhile ago though, before he got hooked on video games n’ stuff. So . . . I usually just go out by myself now. Kinda lame, huh?”

Edie lays silent in her display case. All is quiet but for the subdued howling of the wind over the museum.

With growing acceptance, Patrick has imagined that Edie’s presence now lingers inside the tight space of the exhibit. The presence grows stronger, more feminine—more intimate it seems—with each of his visits. And today, perhaps because the museum is virtually empty, he welcomes the feeling that she has leaned up against his crooked body and under his arm for comfort, the snowstorm blowing forcefully across the high roof. In such an atmosphere, mixed with the quietude of the museum’s closing hour, Patrick thinks he can hear her breathing within the persistent drone of the heating vents, occasionally feeling a slight flinch from her asymmetrical shoulders when a far-off door slams or a noisy child disturbs the tranquility. Her hair gives off the scent of heather, or so he imagines, and this makes him feel as if they are together in a lush, boundless moor.

“I wrote you something,” Patrick confesses, opening his notebook. “It’s nothing special, just—”

He flips to the desired page, freckled face turning a light shade of red. “Well, it’s . . . it’s sort of a poem.”

He begins to read quietly, so as to not be heard outside the thin, temporary walls of the exhibit. He struggles a bit with the title: “To a Girl from Bourt-a-an-ger-moor.”

The track lighting flickers, its low, electric hum filling the boxed-in exhibit space. Yde Girl’s reconstruction photo stares across the room as Patrick begins to read.

“For Edie, from Patrick.”

Shadows pulsate across the off-white walls, stretch and retract as the display lights continue to flicker. Patrick twists his torso, presses a free hand over his back brace. His voice grows soft.

“I am here, as a friend
a kindred soul from tomorrow
to offer my heart and mind
to a girl who knows much sorrow”

The storm howls and whips across the sky. And though the massive building seems impenetrable, a rogue wind finds its way in and wanders sharply down the marmoreal, columned halls. Floor by floor it brushes against glass cases and interpretive signs of myriad exhibits, past the Charles Knight murals, in and out of gift shop and café, through the angry skeleton of Sue the T. rex.

“Oh my gawd, Brian, this one is really gross!” A woman in her early twenties, holding hands with a guy who looks visibly exhausted by the museum, comes bounding into Yde Girl’s exhibit from the corridor. Patrick back steps into the darkness. The woman snaps a few quick, thoughtless pictures of the bog body with her cell phone and the couple giggles their way out.

Patrick sighs, shakes his head as he eases back into the weak light of the display case. “I’m so sick of people like that. Stupid, self-centered idiots—I hate them!”

For several minutes he stares into a corner, lost in thought. He turns back to Yde Girl’s reconstruction photo, admires her through the curtain of his dangling hair then says, “I’m sorry, Edie. I just get so mad sometimes. I don’t get why people have to act like that. It’s beyond rude!” He regards Edie’s fragmented remains. “And you know what else? I wouldn’t care if I never saw another human being again for as long as I live. I’m serious. There isn’t anyone else besides you that I—” He turns away, blushing. “Never mind. I’m sure you’re sick of me by now, anyway. I’ll just . . . I’ll just finish reading this stupid thing and go.”

He lifts the notebook, angles it into the light. Dust falls from the edge of the display case as a large mote floats into the darkness. He finds his place in the poem.

“I give you these words
that arose from our meeting
to help end the loneliness
that the both of us are feeling

An announcement comes over the loudspeaker, indicating that the museum will be closing in ten minutes.

“Patrick, the museum’s going to close in ten minutes.” It’s Patrick’s mother. She’s sticking her head into the exhibit.

“I know, mom. Everyone hears that announcement. I’ll be out in a minute.”

“Just letting you know. We need to get going or we’ll miss the next bus.”

Her head retreats into the corridor and Patrick follows her footsteps as they move along the walls of the exhibit, going a short distance until they reach a nearby bench. He hears her sit down and rummage through her purse.

Patrick rolls his eyes. “Parents,” he says in a low voice. In the photo, Yde Girl stares off to Patrick’s left. The eye sockets of her partially collapsed head are set directly on him.

A bit unsteady on his feet, and grimacing in pain from having stood too long in one spot, Patrick supports the bulk of his weight against the display case as he recites the final lines of the poem.

“Let’s break the barrier
let’s walk hand in hand
across the moors of time & space
to a city of our own land”

A security guard approaches the exhibit as he goes about his route.

“My son’s in there,” Patrick’s mother says, pointing with one hand and snapping shut her compact with the other. “He’s taking notes for a school paper. He’ll be out in just a minute.” She smiles at the man, who responds with a lazy yawn. Outside, the blizzard presses up against the museum.

And then—pop!

Shards of broken glass crackle to the floor and echo across the museum.

The guard spins on his heel, tears a flashlight from his belt, scrambles into the exhibit. Patrick’s mother follows, slams into the man as they dead stop at the other end of the corridor. A low, rolling fog drifts past their legs. The odor of rotten peat permeates the air.

The fog, having floated out of Yde Girl’s demolished display case, starts to dissipate. Now visible on the white slab, and wobbling to a stop, is Patrick’s back brace, the rope from the bog body underneath it. Neither the boy nor Yde Girl are anywhere in sight.

Patrick’s mother screams. The security guard throws a meaty arm across her lunging body as he yells into his radio. She falls back, shouts her son’s name from the wall. The guard steps forward cautiously, shines his flashlight into each corner of the room.

Nothing.

Worried about the broken glass, and troubled by the realization that the display case blew apart from the inside out, he grabs the woman by the arm and pulls her out of the exhibit. No further trace of Patrick or Yde Girl was ever found.
 
 
THE END
 
 
First published in Volume 9, Issue 2 of Electric Spec.
 

Not for Mortal Eyes

Jen entered the lab holding two large cups of coffee. Her coworker, Edwin Aserinsky, gently set down a beaker of blue liquid and straightened his posture. “Good morning, Dr. Bensen,” he said, tapping his foot to the jazz tune “Something’s Coming” by Dave Grusin. “Ready to capture a few dreams today?” 

“Edwin, we’ve been working together for five years now. If you don’t quit with all that ‘Doctor’ nonsense, I’m going to stop bringing these fancy lattes you love so much.” She smiled and offered him one of the steaming cups. 

“Hold on,” Edwin said, “give me a moment to rewire my brain.” He took a step back, shut his eyes, and slowly repeated the word “Jen” to himself. After a few seconds he nodded and said, “There, done.” He winked and took the coffee. “Why thank you—Jen.” 

“No, thank you.” 

Jen set her cup down and reached for a lab coat hanging on the wall, wrapping it around her petite frame. She paused to wipe her thick-rimmed glasses on the stiff fabric, and Edwin glanced sideways at her, appreciating not for the first time that although she was young, she conducted herself with maturity and efficiency beyond her twenty-nine years. Her devotion to science had often evoked in him thoughts of a daughter he never had. 

“Looks like you came in early this fine Saturday morning,” Jen said, still poking fun at him for having added Saturdays to their schedule, not that she had any kind of social life she was missing out on. She paused to appreciate the lab’s flurry of activity: microscope illuminators, clunky computers, the sleep lab surveillance monitor, and of course, Edwin’s tiny radio tuned to his favorite jazz station. Coffee, jazz and science, he often said, were the only things that kept his “old butt” going. Not even marriage could compete with his unwavering goal to digitally photograph a human dream. With Jen’s help, he was almost there. 

The two had already devised a serum capable of amplifying the electrochemical pathways in a dreaming, mammalian brain. In conjunction with a prescribed dose of the blue liquid, receptors on a tiny scanner implanted near the test subject’s secondary visual cortex (the imagination center of the brain) recorded and digitized the amplified brain activity and relayed it back to the central computer; there, data were filtered through a complex program and assembled into static images. 

After nearly five years of calibrating various components, including an array of electrodes and other devices, the scientists had neared their goal of producing crisp, detailed images from a human dream, the implications of which would ultimately help unravel the mysteries of consciousness. 

“So how’s the serum shaping up?” Jen asked, clipping on her University of Chicago badge. 

“Oh, quite nicely. I think there’s a chance for optimal results by late morning.” The elder scientist handed Jen some papers scribbled with formulas and notes. “Just modify the serum as indicated here—see, at the bottom there—then we’ll run some tests before Jim gets in.” 

“Jim’s in today?” Jen sighed. “Sometimes he makes me miss the rats.” 

“We’ve come a long way from testing on rats,” Edwin said. “I for one was getting tired of endless dream captures of fuzzy maze walls and cheese.” 

“I know, I know. I was only kidding. Really. I’m glad you found him after all. It’s just . . . well, never mind.” Sensing a slight flush in her cheeks, Jen scrunched her forehead and quickly flipped through the pages of the revised serum. “Wow, this could be the one we’ve been waiting for. This could work!” And although she secretly despised jazz, her fingers snapped along with the music as she approached her work station at the other end of the lab. 

A short time later Jim Coal, their test subject, lay asleep in a dimly lit room down the hall, dozens of multi-colored electrodes webbed over his head. 

“Dr.—er, Jen, come take a look at this.” It was Edwin calling from the computer table. Jen came up behind him and leaned over his shoulder, arms folded across her chest. “What is it?” 

“That last batch of serum . . . well, here—just look.” He pointed to a slightly blurry, colorized image on the computer screen; a digital capture from Jim’s dream. “See that? Doesn’t that sort of look like—?” 

“Jim’s father!” Jen gasped. “That looks a hell of a lot like Jim Sr.” 

Edwin held up a black & white photograph from Jim’s file. It showed Jim in a Little League uniform, his father standing to his right, a possessive hand on the boy’s slumped shoulder. The man had a military presence about him. 

Jen bit her bottom lip to contain her excitement. “I can’t believe it,” she said. “This is without a doubt the best image we’ve ever gotten!” 

“The serum’s much improved,” Edwin said. “But I think we can do better.” He tapped the desk with his fingers and scrutinized the image. “Another hour or so of tweaking should do the trick.” 

Jen grabbed his hand and squeezed it. “I’ll go see if Jim’s willing to stay a bit longer.” She turned and rushed out the door. 

Edwin sat and further compared the man in the photograph to the one onscreen. The two images clearly showed the same person—a tall, imposing figure with broad shoulders, low cheekbones, square jaw, and close-set eyes. 

He was physically and emotionally abusive, Jim had said of his father. His mother had been too afraid to leave, and the whole town feared him; even the police kept their distance. Then one morning, as if by answered prayers, the man’s smoking corpse was discovered in the dark woods near the family home. Although the police had initially suspected foul play, a final report concluded that Jim Sr. had died of self-immolation. The cause: financial-related stress. Case closed. Things might have turned out okay for Jim had it not been for the nightmares, nightmares in which his charred father stalked him in every conceivable setting, nightmares that had grown more realistic and threatening over time. 

These same dreams had been the source of Jim’s depression and sporadic employment as an adult. When Edwin first encountered him during a late night walk about town, the man was curled up on a heap of garbage in the yellow spray of an alley light, writhing in the clutches of a nightmare. Edwin shook the man awake and consoled him, then handed him his number. Jim called a few days later, and that led to his becoming a test subject for Edwin’s project, though Edwin did fudge facts a bit in the paperwork, choosing not to reveal the man’s occasional lack of dependability and frequent benders. But it was Edwin’s inclination that Jim’s participation would not only help alleviate his vivid, ever-worsening nightmares—in conjunction with weekly therapy, of course—but that it would also offer the best possible results for the experiments because his dreams were so vivid. In light of these factors, occasional tardiness and hangovers were tolerated. 

Now, after several months of trial and error, Edwin found himself staring at a distinct image captured from the hidden realm of dream—the image of a man, standing in a sort of mist or smoke, his eyes aglow. 

* * * 

Edwin appeared at the doorway of Jen’s office around one o’clock, holding a bottle of cheap champagne and two disposable cups. Jen looked up and swallowed a bite of her sandwich. 

“Edwin! Where’d you go, man?” She shoved a romance novel beneath a messy pile of papers. A few breadcrumbs tumbled from her lower lip. “Don’t you realize how creepy it is around here when no one’s around? I thought you were going to run another test before lunch.” 

“I did, but this time I wanted to surprise you.” 

Jen put her sandwich down and glanced at the champagne. “What’s that, the secret ingredient for perfecting the serum?” 

Edwin released two quick grunts that more or less qualified as his laugh. “No, not exactly.” 

“Good news then! Well pop that sucker and tell me all about it.” 

The cap was popped, the champagne poured. Jen took her cup, and Edwin lifted his own, saying, “Well, it’s been five long years, but today—” 

“So the serum’s at optimal performance? And you got a focused image in proper color?” Jen’s face lit up like a cat watching sparrows at a birdfeeder. 

“Yes. Coupled with a larger injection, the upgraded serum worked perfectly. An image from Jim’s most recent dream came through crystal clear: his father again, though a bit monstrous this time.” He paused. “Hmm. It’s unfortunate he hasn’t been able to shake off these nightmares about his father. They’re getting worse, I believe.” 

Jen nodded sympathetically. 

“At any rate, everything syncs up now: the serum, the scanner implant, Jim’s electrochemical activity. The latest calculations are the magic formula, and we’re getting an image every three and a half seconds. When Jim returns from lunch we’ll do a full run, capture an entire dream cycle without interruption.” 

“That’s wonderful, Edwin. We’ll get hundreds of successive images!” 

And, the first usable dataset for our big paper.” Edwin raised his cup and nodded. “We’ve done it, Jen. Here’s to us. Here’s to dreams.” 

“Cliché, Dr. Aserinsky, cliché,” Jen said, clipping his cup, “but I’ll play along.” 

Edwin raised an eyebrow, hesitant to drink. “Hmm, we should probably keep our heads clear,” he said, setting his cup on a nearby shelf crammed with scientific journals. Jen raised her cup even higher. “Ah, to hell with it, we deserve it.” She winked at Edwin and gulped down the champagne. 

A deep, scratchy voice came from the doorway. “What do we have here, a celebration?” 

Jen quickly wiped her mouth. 

“Ah, Jim. Come in, come in,” Edwin said, gesturing with his arm. 

A lanky man of thirty, with dark stubble and a prematurely aged face, staggered in through the doorway. His masculine presence filled the cluttered office. 

Edwin clasped his hands together. “Glad to see you back. How was lunch?” 

“Not par-tic-u-lar-ly interesting,” Jim said, glancing at Jen. He always looked at Jen, even when answering Edwin’s questions. “My headache didn’t take much of a break.” 

“Hold on, I’ve got some aspirin,” Jen said, her voice more feminine. She bent to the lowest drawer of her desk, exposing cleavage. A glint came to Jim’s eye, one that gave the impression he was imagining her in fewer clothes. 

“Nah, I’ll be fine,” he said, still watching Jen as she returned the aspirin to the drawer. “This is what I get for sitting at the bar all night.” 

“Jim,” Edwin said, coming between them, “we’ve had an incredible breakthrough. We’re finally getting the results we’ve been hoping for! Just a few more sessions and we’ll talk about extracting that device from your secondary visual cortex. We—” 

“My what?” Jim’s eyes and mouth slid down together, as if connected. 

Edwin put a hairy-knuckled finger to the back of his own head. “Your secondary visual cortex, remember?” 

Jim rolled his eyes. “Oh yea, that. Gotcha.” 

“I know we’ve kept you in the dark for a long time now,” Edwin went on, “so as to not influence the experiments, of course, but very soon we’re going to let you in on all the details. We’ve made a magnificent breakthrough, and its implications are going to greatly impact the scientific community, if not the world.” He paused for effect. “Don’t be surprised if you find yourself quite the celebrity.” 

“Celebrity?” Jim cracked his jaw, pointing at his head. “Visual cortex, the golden fucking egg, right?” He glared at the ceiling, “Hey dad, you catchin’ this? These scientists here are gonna make me rich and famous. Did you hear that? And you never thought I’d amount to a hill of snake shit, did ya.” He snorted to himself. 

“You’re more than welcome to attend the conferences with us, too,” Jen said. “You know, to tell everyone how we forced you to be our guinea pig.” She looked at Edwin and then at Jim, a smile on her face. 

“Ah, guinea pig,” Jim said. “I like that. Much cuter than an ol’ ugly lab rat, right?” He inflated his cheeks, widened his eyes, and scratched the stubble on his chin. Jen laughed over her hand to hide one of her bottom teeth, which was crooked. 

Edwin stepped up to Jim and held out the sleeping pills he’d produced from his lab coat. The young man raised his arms in mock surrender. “Alright, alright! Jeez, you scientists—all work and no play.” He popped the pills into his mouth and swallowed them without water, then wriggled out of his black leather jacket and dumped it on a nearby chair. “I’m all yours,” he said, winking at Jen. 

* * * 

“Wake him up, wake him up!” 

Edwin was pointing and shouting as he and Jen burst into the sleep lab. Electrodes popped off Jim’s head in all directions as he thrashed around the bed. Jen ran up to his side, only to be knocked away by a wild arm, her glasses slipping off and hitting the floor. “Stay the hell away from me!” 

Edwin pushed down on Jim’s shoulders. 

“You’re burning in hell, goddammit!” Jim raged on. “You can’t hurt us any—” 

His eyes flew open. “What the hell!” 

Sweat darkened his wavy hair. 

“You were having a nightmare,” Edwin said, catching his breath. He let go Jim’s shoulders. “We’ve never seen you so upset.” 

Jen retrieved her glasses and assessed the damage. There was a small vertical crack in one of the lenses. 

“Are you okay?” Edwin asked her. 

“Yes, you?” 

“Fine, fine.” He tugged nervously at the side of his beard. “That must’ve been some dream, Jim. You’ve never reacted like that during REM sleep before.” 

Jen put her glasses back on. “I think we should call it a day.” 

Edwin rested his hands on the back of a nearby chair. “Could this have been a side effect of the serum?” 

“I don’t think so,” Jen said, “but I’ll look into it.” 

Jim labored to sit up, his eyes furtive and glossed over. He shook his head, pursing his lips to release a loud exhale. “He’s coming for me. The fucker’s coming for me, and he ain’t gonna stop. I need to get the hell out of here. I need a drink.” 

“That’s not a good idea, Jim,” Edwin said. “You need to take it easy for a few minutes. And who? Who’s coming for you? Your father?” 

Jim squinted and slowly rolled his eyes up at Edwin. “You know what? Maybe you could do me the honor of leaving me the hell alone for awhile. Seriously, I don’t need a fucking therapy session right now.” 

Edwin backed off. “Alright Jim, we’re going. Take as much time as you need. But come find us as soon as you’re ready. I’d like to conduct another test or two while we’ve still got you here. Okay?” 

Jen shot Edwin a look, but the scientist had already turned to leave. 

“We’re going to help you through this,” Jen added, putting her hand on Jim’s shoulder. “We’re going to help you get better.” The man shook his head and stared down at the floor. 

* * * 

Back in the main lab, the scientists prepared to scroll through a series of incoming images, each a digitized slice of Jim’s recent nightmare. Jen opened her notebook. 

The first image revealed a woman bathing inside what appeared to be a very large, horizontally-severed cactus. “Oh my god, is that me?” Jen squinted at the screen. “Shit. How embarrassing.” 

Edwin didn’t know what to say, so he remained silent on the matter. 

Jen focused on the oversized breasts. “Well, at least he compliments me.” Her face reddened as she took notes: 

IMG-5800: Dr. Jen Benson bathing nude inside top of large, horizontally-severed cactus in desert landscape. 

IMG-5801: Water in cactus has turned red. Is this blood? 

IMG-5802: Hundreds of fissures shooting out from base of cactus in all directions. 

IMG-5803: Entire image appears to be engulfed in flame. 

IMG-5804 to 5806: Dark box suspended in space. 

IMG-5807: Inside a black room (inside box?), stars and galaxies visible through transparent floor, walls, and ceiling. 

IMG-5808: Blurry, human-like figure curled up in far corner, heart and veins visible through skin, fire spread across bottom of transparent floor. 

Jen pointed at the figure. “That looks like a child.” 

Edwin pulled at his beard as he waited for the next image. 

IMG-5809: Entire image has the appearance of fire again. 

IMG-5810 & 5811: Bluebird on charred wooden floor in an odd “courtship dance”—its wings extended forward. 

“This dream is much more vivid than his recent ones,” Edwin said, “and the symbolic imagery quite chaotic and random. Something very interesting is going on with Jim today.” He glanced at the video monitor. Jim still had his head drooped between his shoulders. 

IMG-5812: Bluebird lifeless, its body twisted in two directions as if mutilated by invisible hands. 

“Ew, that’s not nice.” Jen grabbed a can of soda off the table and cracked it open. 

IMG-5813: Inside black room again, figure now standing in center, appears to be an adult, flames still visible beneath transparent floor. 

IMG-5814: Figure closer, resembles a young Jim Coal, looks frightened, small gun in right hand, red gasoline can in left. 

IMG-5815: Jim standing at edge of woodland with items from previous image. 

IMG-5816: Entire shot composed of flames. 

IMG-5817 to 5819: Jim smiling (maybe crying), floating in space with hundreds of white butterflies spiraling around him. 

Edwin touched Jen’s arm. “Look at this one,” he said. “See the time here? This is when he got upset.” IMG-5820: Jim’s mouth open as if screaming, butterflies on fire, trees burning in background. 

IMG-5821: Close-up of Jim Coal Sr. (Jim’s deceased father) taking up entire frame, eyes bright yellow with red pupils. 

“This is turning horrific!” Jen said. 

Edwin’s eyebrows shot up. “I know, it’s fascinating!” 

IMG-5822 & 5823: Image blurry and unrecognizable. 

IMG-5824: Another close-up of Jim Sr.’s face, seemingly angry. 

IMG-5825: Image blurry and unrecognizable. 

The images continued to switch between the blurry and angry close-ups of Jim Sr., representing nearly fifteen seconds of dreamtime. 

IMG-5830 (last image before test subject woke up): Another close-up of Jim Sr.’s face, bordered by fire, mouth wide open and full of sharp teeth. 

Jen dropped her pencil. The computer started beeping. 

“Edwin, a new set of images is coming through!” 

They both turned to the video monitor. Jim was thrashing around on the bed again. “Dammit! He must’ve dozed off.” Edwin jumped to his feet. “Jen, you stay here and get this data saved to the external hard drive, and keep recording the sleep lab. I’ll go help him.” 

“Edwin, be careful!” 

The scientist nodded and took off down the hall. Jen wheeled herself in front of the computer and clicked on the window of incoming images. The first revealed a dark, broad-shouldered figure in an ember-colored haze. The figure materialized as she clicked ahead, its close-set, red and yellow eyes seeming to glare through the receptors of the tiny scanner in Jim’s brain. The figure broke forward with each successive image, by degrees becoming the distorted physiognomy of Jim’s father. Then, without warning, it took on the gruesome aspect of an archetypal demon. 

Jen gasped and knocked over her soda. 

Trembling, she continued to click through the images, watching in horror as the creature lurched out of frame, then reappeared a few frames later dragging a person, dragging Jim, toward a now visible pit of fire. It raised the man high over its head, then tossed him carelessly into the pit with an image-by-image eruption of flame. 

A long, terrible scream echoed from down the hall. 

Jen jumped up. “What the—!” 

Movement in the sleep lab caught her eye: there, in pulsating laboratory light on a blood-soaked bed, lay Jim’s contorted, lifeless body, a frayed hole where his face used to be. At his side, covered in sizzling chunks of gore, stood the hairless, seven-foot tall demon from his dream, wisps of steam rising off a naked, bluish gray body. Seething red and yellow eyes danced in their sockets, while black, human-faced worms slithered maggot-like around its limbs. A grotesquely oversized mouth, with lips rolled back to expose an overabundance of sharp teeth, snapped at the air. By the time it turned to the camera and spoke, Jen had already left her chair. 

“Not for mortal eyes!” it snarled. And then, with a swipe of its hand, the video feed went to static. 

“Oh my god—Edwin!” Jen ran to the door, peered sharply down the hall. There the demon burst through the swinging doors like a rogue tank, its muscular, bluish gray arms spread to the walls, fingers setting them ablaze. Edwin stumbled out behind it and fell to the floor as smoke billowed from the laboratory. Not seeing Jen, the demon entered another lab and could be heard destroying it. Jen bolted from the doorway and ran up to Edwin, who got to his feet and fell against her, clutching at her lab coat. “Our data!” he whispered harshly, balancing himself. “I’ve got to save our data!” 

They sprinted back to the main lab, their voices hushed. 

“Edwin, we need to get out of here! That thing’ll kill us!” 

“No, Jim’s the one it came for. It didn’t touch me!” 

“What the hell is it?” 

“Jim’s father. Something. I don’t know. It just burst out of him and grew. From where, I don’t know. But we’ve seen too much, Jen. We’ve seen too much and it’s going to destroy everything!” He peered down the hall, his eyes frantic. “You get out of the building, call for help! I’ll grab the hard drive and catch up. Go!” He turned and ran into the lab. 

Jen followed. 

The demon came up behind her. 

As she spun around in defense, Jen lost her balance and fell against the computer table. The demon charged her like an angry hog, only to be blasted across the face with the expellant from a fire extinguisher. It was Edwin, flames rising up his arm from having brushed against the creature. Jen shot to the right and maneuvered along the wall, holding her breath as waves of heat assaulted her from the doorway. There she paused beneath the billowing smoke as sprinklers rained over the roaring flames. 

Edwin ripped off his lab coat and made a second dash for the computers. The demon, now a few steps ahead, pulled the human-faced worms off its body and flung them at the equipment. Wriggling, they burst through the hardware with their grotesque heads and slithered inside, sending out sparks and smoke from the holes. 

Edwin cursed. 

The demon spun around, sneered, got down in the man’s face. “Not for mortal eyes,” it hissed, inhaling hot saliva through its blue-gray teeth. Then, with a sharp crack of its jaw, the voice turned into that of Jim Sr.: “Tell anyone what you saw today, and I’ll haunt you and that fucking whore for the rest of your lives. Got that?” 

Edwin turned from its sulfuric breath and coughed. The demon laughed repulsively, then stepped past him and slogged its way back through the smoke-filled hallway to Jim’s body. There it shrank and climbed into what remained of the man’s splattered head. 

Meanwhile, Jen groped her way back to Edwin, locked arms with him as they sped toward the back exit. Moments later they stumbled from the building into the flashing lights of emergency vehicles. When the paramedics came running, she pulled Edwin close. 

“Only keep the data prior to this afternoon,” she said quickly, her voice trembling. “Okay? Destroy the rest!” Coughing, she pulled the hard drive out of her lab coat and pushed it into Edwin’s hands. He stared at it blankly. 

“Promise me!” Jen snapped. 

Edwin flinched, his fingers gripping the device. “You did it, Jen! You saved our data!” His face and beard were covered in soot. 

“Promise me,” Jen repeated, still coughing. She locked onto his bloodshot eyes, tears in her own as she thought about Jim. “Because what if next time, that awful thing comes for us?” 

Edwin watched as long arcs of water disappeared into the glowing inferno of the research building, smoke rising into the passing clouds. He managed a tired but affirmative nod. “I promise,” he said, placing a hand on Jen’s shoulder. She smiled weakly, and they embraced. 

As the paramedics pulled them apart and helped them onto the ambulance, Edwin grew silent and clutched the hard drive tightly against his chest. At no point did he feel the black worm coiled around his left shin. 

THE END
 

First published in Issue 5 (June 2014) of Disturbed Digest.