The End Times were Published in 1979

THE APOPALYPSE!

EVERY KERNEL A WEAPON OF INCREDIBLE POWER!

The world rejoiced when Dr. Kimberly Goldenrod invented Mannapop, her patented genetically-tinkered super corn that could grow in the harshest environments.  World hunger was all but solved as her genius took root across the globe and fed a generation.  Its kernels were as big as beach balls… and flavorful too!  The delicious miracle so distracted everyone that they didn’t notice it growing in every corner, every empty lot, every forest, and even between the kelp on the ocean floor.

Then came the incredible heat wave of 2004.  Temperatures soared to well above one hundred and ten degrees.  Then the Mannapop started to pop.  Nay… EXPLODE!  One fluffy white bomb was all it took to set off the others.  Suddenly Dr. Goldenrod’s manna rained down like hellfire, destroying cars, homes, and skyscrapers.  The end of the world had begun: death by fields and fields of our own hubris!  Now it’s up to impoverished farmer Jacoby Weatherall to save the world from the devastating chain reaction of gigantic flaming popcorn!  He just needs to figure out how!

The Apopalypse is the latest work from Dunston Roth.  You may remember his sharp wit and penchant for mind-blowing scenery from his earlier novels: The Hot Hiccup of Hell, Chicago Sawed in Half, The Platinum Armadillo, and Beauty Queen’s Bounty.  He lives in Trevor, South Dakota with his wife and two cats: Hugo and Nebula.

Copyright: The Red Ink Pendulum Company April 1981

Owen Finster couldn’t believe his eyes.  Even as he felt it he didn’t believe his fingers.  There was a layer of plastic between the digits of the thirty-three year old bespectacled man and the cheap-paper anthology after all; there was still a chance it was fake.  Did people make convincing forgeries of items that sold in internet auctions for about $346.25?  He didn’t know, but he sure hoped someone would outbid him because he couldn’t pass up the chance to buy one in person.  He looked at the sticker on the plastic.

Thirty-five dollars! He thought.  Becky’s been in this business a long time; she can’t be that stupid!  A Roth for thirty-five is practically giving it away.  Owen held the issue of Raw Powers of Science and Magic close to his chest as he skittered toward the shop counter.  On his way he passed the usual landmarks: the life-size replica of Charbog the interstellar theropod complete with light-up eyes and swiping armored tail, building block models of the burning boats of the ancient rite hanging from strings overhead, and stacks and stacks and stacks of slightly bent, slightly wet, or slightly illegible paperbacks sitting in their big plastic tubs arranged unevenly on the counters and tables.

When he got to the counter he saw Becky, four years his junior, looking at a tablet and clicking around to change the collar color of a digital cocker spaniel.  Owen coughed; she did not respond.  As much as he hated to, he set the issue down on the counter.  Intent to purchase now clearly stated, he waited for her to ring him up.  Still Becky ignored him.

“She’s wearing ear buds,” a voice said next to him… next to him and down a ways.  Owen looked at the child.  Recognition dawned on him, but before he could do anything about it the kid grabbed the issue off the counter and started speedreading the back himself.  Owen didn’t try to grab it back, only partially because of his crippling fear of the tiny hands of children.  He didn’t frequently mention his nightmares where he grabbed the hand of his dream-son or dream-daughter only to have the fingers stretch and rip like wet modeling clay.

“Hey Becky!” the little boy yelled at a perfectly calculated volume.  The clerk looked over at the pair and removed one of her headphones.  She tapped the screen on her tablet and sent the cocker spaniel to urinate on a rival player’s virtual lawn.  “A Dunston Roth novella for thirty-five dollars,” the eleven-year-old blonde boy said, more to himself this time.  The kid wore a vintage tee shirt depicting a bearded stocky man in sunglasses stepping out of a limousine: Ulrich the Secret Viking.  From the first time Owen saw that shirt a few months ago he knew the kid, Tomas Elcar, was going to be trouble.  Who can even find vintage clothes in those sizes?

“Are you buying that Tomas?” Becky asked, not talking down to him at all.

“Actually I am,” Owen said while he had the chance.  “I brought it up to the counter.  He just… took it.”

“I was only looking,” Tomas said innocently.  The little boy checked his shiny red and yellow watch; the hands of the cartoon rhinoceros who only had his brief program on television from March 1963 to July of the same year pointed to five o’ clock.

“Looking isn’t buying.  I am buying,” Owen said.

“Okay Owen, chill.  What’s the sticker on this one?”  Owen answered ‘thirty-five’.  Becky swiveled her chair over to the cash register as Owen dug out his Duchess of the Desert wallet.

“I’ll give you thirty-six,” Tomas said.  Owen’s fingers froze on the edge of his credit card that he estimated only had a twelve percent chance of being declined.  The texture of his tongue turned to toilet tissue.

“You can’t do that,” he asserted.  “I’m the one engaging with the clerk, over the product I brought to the counter.  This isn’t a street market in 1588.  We have common courtesy rules now.”

“Sold to Tomas for thirty-six,” Becky said.  Owen dropped his wallet.  He caught it before it hit the ground, an act of coordination he could not have managed if the wallet weren’t a collectible or if the carpet didn’t have so many flavored corn chips and cigarette ashes ground into it.  He looked at the clerk like she’d just stabbed him in the heart with the plastic replica of Lord Bidento’s trident hanging on the wall behind her.

He didn’t know Becky very well, but he’d been a customer since before her father’s stroke had forced her to handle his business of selling old books and toys at Nostal-gee!  Surely after so many purchases she owed him a little more loyalty.  He even helped her navigate her father’s arcane storage room the previous year during the rush of temporary fans (fragile fans as Owen called them), who came in looking for old action figures when the fifth Ocean Commotion movie came out.

“This isn’t how it’s done,” Owen whispered in a shocked tone.  Becky shrugged.

“Sorry Owen, but there’s a new sweater I want for my puppy.  The shade’s called mojito.  And Mojito costs mo-money.  Highest bidder gets the anthology.”

“You need a sweater for your…” Owen started, and then he looked at the tablet and the stream of digital urine depicted on it.  He could hear a joyful tune playing in Becky’s dangling earbud along with some barking.  “You’re making us bid because you want to buy your digital dog a sweater?  I have to compete with him because you engage in micro-transactions over clipart animals?  Thirty-seven.”

“What’s wrong with spending money on things I like?” Becky asked.  “That’s exactly what you’re doing.”

“Thirty-eight,” Tomas challenged quietly.

“Because,” Owen fumed and sputtered, “It’s foolish.  There are a hundred video games you could buy for five dollars or less with better graphics than that with more customization options for more types of dogs.  I used to play them!  Pound Talent Agency is available on PC right now, on sale in a bundle with six other games by the way, for three dollars.  Thirty-nine.”

“This game is free though,” Becky said, “and it’s newer.”

“Forty,” Tomas said, unmoved by Owen’s frustration.

“It’s not free if you buy something in it,” Owen whined, but he might as well have been talking to a tire swing.  “Forty-one.”

“She can have fun any way she wants,” Tomas said, eliciting a grin from the clerk.  “She doesn’t like the old stuff that we like Owen, but that’s okay.  No one is going to take our old stuff.  Forty-two.”

You’re trying to take my old stuff!  Forty-three!”  Tomas looked down at the issue, and then checked his watch again.  The boy sighed in an infuriating way that suggested he had the self-control to get over all of this in five minutes, a control Owen lacked.  He handed the plastic-wrapped anthology back to Owen.

“I guess you do want this more than me,” the kid said.  “I’m sure I’ll find another one, but I’ve got lacrosse practice now so I have to go.  If I don’t my mom will start honking and you know how she gets.”  He rolled his eyes at Becky, who giggled and said goodbye.  He walked away from the counter, sneakers flashing sports-drink blue.  Becky rang up Owen’s purchase and took his credit card.

“It looks like you’ve bested your arch-nemesis yet again,” she mocked.

“He’s not my nemesis,” Owen argued.  “He’s my rival.  Something’s up with that kid.  He’s too mature.  He talks like he was raised by the puppets on public television… the slightly creepy ones with lidless eyes, not the ones always singing about rainbows and leafy vegetables.”

“I think he understands that all of this is just a hobby,” Becky said.  She handed him the card back.  It had gone through.  Owen reached over the counter himself and grabbed one of the plastic bags to double-wrap the Dunston Roth.

“It’s more than a hobby for some people,” he said.  “These were the only things that made me happy when I was a kid.  Not ice cream, not soccer, not good grades.  Just these wonderful little escapes that let you think your life matters.”  Becky looked at him with heavy eyes and pursed lips, like she wanted to tell him his life mattered, but that wasn’t what she ended up saying.

“Is one of those escapes the Errands of Eternity volume from July 1979?” she asked.  Owen stopped bagging.

“What are you asking?”

“Some weird woman came in here the other day looking for a copy of that one,” Becky explained.  “She was really gross…  At least I think she was.  She had her face tucked into a scarf and a heavy coat on, but she smelled kind of like all those little brown stains on the corner of your mattress after you’ve had bed bugs.”

“What did you tell her?”

“Well I told her about you,” the clerk said.  “I only remembered because that’s the one you asked for after you helped me out with all those Ocean Commotion brats right?  Errands of Eternity?”

“It was.  It was seventy-nine as well.”  Owen tucked the bag under one arm and looked around.  All of a sudden he felt watched, and it was definitely more like he was a cup of noodles in the microwave rather than someone suspicious.  “You told her about me?”

“Well yeah, I hope that’s okay.  I thought she might want to buy it off you or something.  You have doubles of almost everything don’t you?”

“Not that one,” Owen scoffed and grunted.  “Errands of Eternity practically tried to drive itself out of business.  The editor didn’t speak English very well, the paper broke up faster than burger chain foam cups, and half the stories were chunks of novels that never got finished.  It’s pure trash.  Do you have any idea how hard it is to get your hands on trash of that caliber and keep it from disintegrating?”

“No, I don’t,” Becky admitted proudly.  “I’ll see you when I see you Owen.”  She popped her ear bud back in and lovingly stroked the pixels under her dog’s chin.

“Maybe tomorrow,” Owen mumbled as he turned to leave.  He hopped in his seven-year-old car, four if you only counted the years he owned it, and headed for home.  The thing Tomas said about Becky being free to like whatever she wanted kept bouncing around in his skull like a rubber ball.  Every time it hit the side he had a better comeback.  Actually Tomas, it does matter.  Every dollar spent on bad stuff is a dollar not spent on good stuff.  Every dollar spent is five dollars invested in the same sort of thing.  She’s actually killing me.  She’s actually murdering all of my fun and all I can do is scream about it.

Owen opened his front door, letting his daily dose of natural light inside.  He shut it and locked it.  He clicked the light switch on.  Without letting the Dunston Roth go, he moved over to his laptop, which was setup on a desk in what used to be the living room.  It was one of the only things in the house that had room to breathe, as if it was a much larger computer.  The fan hummed to life when he touched the mousepad and brought it out of sleep.

There were twenty-three tabs open, six of them internet auctions.  He checked the Dunston Roth.  Damn.  Nobody outbid.  Oh well.  Doubles is double the value, he told himself.  Then he told himself he had one to look at until the other one shipped.  Two copies for under four hundred was still a huge accomplishment.  Owen took the Dunston Roth over to a bookshelf that was just for recent purchases.  He would break out the latex gloves and the reading light later that night to start going through it.  Then he checked the mail that he’d crushed underfoot on the way in.

Bills and junk.  The usual.  He wiggled a junk catalogue back and forth in his hand for a moment.  It was trash, but he couldn’t bring himself to throw it away thanks to its recyclable nature.  The only problem was that he’d cancelled his recycling services, thanks to his city being too cynical and cheap to offer it for free.  Still, he could always take it to a bin the next time he went out.  He opened the hard cover of another anthology on an end table, The Library of the Omega Sons, and slipped the catalogue and the other mail inside for safe keeping.

That particular habit had started nearly four years ago, with the first piece of mail he never wanted to see again.  It was a rejection letter from his college of choice.  Owen had waited patiently for much of his twenties, working at an aquarium accessory store all the while, saving until he had enough money for school.  As much as he wanted it, back then Owen never thought of himself as someone who could live in debt without feeling constantly itchy.

But they didn’t want him.  They didn’t say why.  Owen tucked the rejection into the front cover of Ogling the Aliens of Macro IV and left it there because he couldn’t look at it any longer… but he also couldn’t toss it.  After all, what if he wanted to review it for clues if he applied again later?  Soon after that he realized he didn’t want to look at the book anymore either, so he threw another book on top of it.  Then another.  Then he accidentally got some of his neighbors’ mail.  He was going to return it, but it found its way into an anthology as a bookmark and never saw the light again.

There was mail hidden in many of the books, and the small house was almost nothing but books.  The weatherproofed shed out back was all books too.  There used to be furniture, but now it was books.  Owen had nowhere to sit among his stacks and piles other than the desk.  His bed was still reasonably clear, but the stack on his nightstand that he put his cellphone on each night was getting so tall that he had to sit up to perform the task.

There had been a couch and an armchair at some point, but that was when Libby was still there.  He needed a couch for Libby.  She was gone now, and the note saying so was inside a copy of Aurora Gore-ealis: Supernatural Murders at the Edge of the World.  He remembered every word of every sentence in that note, down to what shade of marker she used to draw the curiously blue heart next to her name at the bottom.  What does a blue heart mean?  I love you but I don’t want to?  Is it the shadow of the love that was there?

Owen also remembered every word on the back cover that concealed her rejection.

The Melting Homes

Of Course the Earth Would Cleanse Every Corner

In this, the third novella of the Aurora Gore-ealis collection, we face the most dangerous horror yet: the ecological residue of a society gone mad with industry.  The people who immigrated to the ghost town of Illuputeek just outside the Inuit settlement of Ungulum thought there would be nowhere safer.  They thought they were free to live their lives away from the rat race.

They were, until their past caught up with them.  A new processing ingredient rushed into use all around the industrialized world, Nelaphosphine Z, quickly gathers in the moisture of the atmosphere and creates a rabid acid that can break almost any molecular bond.  Now it’s a race against time as the acid begins to fall on Illuputeek.  With all communication lines burned through, can they find somewhere to hide as death melts their rooves and drips straight to their brain matter?  Find out inside.

Owen thought about calling her.  Then he thought about eating the cold linguini in the fridge with just as much enthusiasm.  I told her about you, flashed through his head.  I hope she doesn’t come knocking.  I’m a big fan, but I’m not the kind that forgets to bathe.  He thought about more people he was surely better than as he checked the black plastic cockroach and ant traps he had out near the bases of some of his stacks.  The damn roaches loved the sticky residue from price stickers.

“Uck…” he groaned and cringed when he checked them.  The tiny pieces of plastic looked jammed full of bugs, to the point that some of the plastic was swollen and cracked.  A layer of hairy legs twitched at the entrance, like someone had stuffed them in there with their thumb.  Insect fluids were drying out on the floor.  On top of that, there seemed to be at least three times as many live ones as there had been a few days ago.  Hundreds of ants ran around between the ambling legs of the much larger roaches.

Owen fetched a can of insecticide, put up a barrier of newspaper between the nearest stack and the traps, and sprayed them until there were tiny bubbles in the cracks of the hardwood floor.  Then he chased down the few escapees and stomped them into oblivion.  It took about a fourth of an industrial-sized roll of paper towels to remove every trace.  When he was finally done, literally sweating from the exertion, he set out fresh traps.

He rewarded himself with the cold linguini, not heated but spritzed with some hopping horny toad hot sauce to compensate.  Then he washed his hands thrice and dried them thrice in preparation for reading his new-old Dunston Roth anthology.

When he sat down to read the only sound was the gentle hum of the computer fan, only having to maintain seventeen tabs now that the day was dying down.  The Dunston Roth killer corn novel was only one section of the anthology.  It also had two novellas and three short stories.  Owen smiled to himself.  He wanted to turn and tell someone about the one, two, three format a few magazines tried out back then, but there was nobody to tell.  Any of the people he would message online had already heard it one, two, three times.  He read another blurb.

The Boy that Time Hated

Little Mark Naypole was never supposed to exist, at least not according to the mindless gods behind time itself.  Somehow, he was born.  At every turn fate tried to stop him, to minimize the impact of his existence, but it only strengthened his resolve and twisted the poor boy to evil purposes.

Little Mark isn’t so little anymore, and he’s invented a machine that can throw the worst of time back into its own face!  Now he plans to travel back, encapsulate history’s greatest disasters like the extinction of the dinosaurs and the bombing of Hiroshima, and unleash the disasters all over again.  Who can stop him?  Who can beat him back to the beginning before he puts the big bang in a box and makes time really regret he was ever born?

This novella is the first from author Shellandra Snowbanks, who usually sticks to short stories starring her most popular recurring character: the young albino spelunker sleuth named Heather Ouch.  Her personal favorites are Heather Ouch and the Bat in a Wig, Heather Ouch and the Twenty-Hole Golf Course, and Heather Ouch Marries the Shah.

Shellandra lives with her partner in “a town too tiny for maps” somewhere in the great state of Michigan.  Her favorite quite is one of her own: “Fiction is everything to me.  Everything else in life is just between the lines.”

Amen, Owen thought.  He read about half of The Boy that Time Hated, just because he liked the quote so much.  Then he put the book back in its protective materials and back in its place.  He decided to turn in for the night, even though there was still light outside.  He didn’t have cable because everything worth watching was online, but he’d also seen all of that.  He’d also seen all the stuff people see just to hate it.  He had nothing left for the day except sleep.

His nightmares were filled with bugs that all had the head of obnoxious little Tomas.  He watched them chew on his collection.  When he reached out to stop them he found he had no hands, just nubs like styluses.  He tried anyway, but he couldn’t get to his collection; his nubs just kept bouncing off an invisible window.  The world tilted and he started to slide.  That was when he realized he was on a tablet screen.  Giant fingers that certainly weren’t supposed to represent his came down from the sky.  They touched the tablet and ran down it, but they weren’t dragging an image.  They were scratching.  Huge gouges in the transparent material turned into an avalanche of debris that overwhelmed Owen.

He woke, covered in sweat.  The round infuser that was supposed to make his bedroom into the only room that didn’t smell like books puffed in the corner.  Something was wrong.  He never woke up in the middle of the night; his brain knew there was nothing to wake up to.  The infuser puffed again, pfft.  Owen threw off his blankets and ripped the plug out of the wall to stop it.  With its last breath of power it sprayed him in the face with the smell of cherry blossoms.

Now that he had quiet he held his breath.  There must have been another sound.  Something must have woken him up.  He listened.  A scratching sound.  What was it?  His mind filled with images of angry chickens running around, but that couldn’t be it; the scratching was too loud for something as light as a chicken.  A dog pawing at the door?  No… no it’s inside.  It’s definitely inside.  Owen looked around the room for a weapon, but he had nothing.  The best he could do was a plain black umbrella, one of the only things he kept around that didn’t have the name and image of a comics character plastered across it.

Owen eased the bedroom door open, thankful it didn’t squeak.  He crept through the narrow hall and peaked into his living room, where the biggest stacks were.  The sound kept getting louder.  He was close.  The scratching moved from one side of the room to the other.  Whatever animal had snuck in, it was very fast.  Raccoon.  It has to be a raccoon.  Another sound forced that theory out the window.  He heard pages flipping: fwip fwip fwip fwip. 

His collection was being groped by someone who likely hadn’t washed and dried their hands thrice.  Anxiety and rage temporarily overpowered fear.  He ran around the side of the stacks and hollered madly, hoping to drive whatever it was back.  As he went he heard the scratching move, impossibly fast, into the next room.  He looked down to see the damage.  Several of his books had been pulled out and clawed free from their plastic.  They were strewn about on the floor, open to random pages.

Even more worrying were the obvious claw marks in the floor.  Whatever it was seemed to have two feet and five toes…. Five that ended in claws anyway.  Its prints were everywhere on the hard wood; there wasn’t a square foot that hadn’t been scratched to Hell.

Fwip fwip fwip fwip fwip fwip.  It was in the study.  Owen stayed silent this time and flew forward on his sock feet.  He held the umbrella over his head and bounced into the study, only to hear the scratching vanish down a hallway even quicker than before.  His backdoor opened and slammed shut.  It’s gone.  It left.  I scared it away.  Owen picked up the books on the floor of the study and put them on top of the nearest stack.  Some of them had tiny scratches on the sides of their pages, but were otherwise fine.  He ran to the backdoor and twisted the lock shut, an action that didn’t comfort him because he remembered firmly locking all the doors before heading to bed.

A security system was something for a family of five, so they could keep their heirloom armoires and big screen televisions safe.  Before that night Owen was confident he could serve as his own burglar alarm. He stuck his ear against the door and listened.  He heard another door fly open.  Oh come on.  The shed!  The shed was where he kept all his copies of Sailing the Seas of Science, Monthly Night Terrors, and The Jodie Quinto Witchcraft Serials.  All together the books in there were probably worth more than ten grand… to the right people.

Owen rushed to a window where he could see the shed.  He flicked an outside light on.  The door was open. A book flew out and landed in the dewy grass on its open face.  It was followed by three more in quick succession.  He groaned and rushed back to the backdoor.  Once outside he went straight for the shed, but by the time he got there the source of the sound was gone once again.  He gathered up the books on the ground, set them back inside, and closed the shed.  When he returned to the backdoor he found it locked.

Well I know there’s no alarm, he thought.  He was tired of playing games, so he used the umbrella to smash the window he’d been looking out of and crawl back inside.  He cut his hand on the edge of the glass, but he only thought about it while realizing he would need to keep an open wound away from his books.  They were supposed to leave a mark on him, not the other way around.

Fwip fwip fwip fwip fwip.  Owen dashed back to the living room just in time to see a book fly across the room and knock over his lamp.  It shattered on the floor.  The wiring looked intact, so he turned the switch anyway and let the overturned light cast shadows across the ceiling.  For a split second he saw a dark shape, a hairy hump, move behind one of the two main stacks.

“Stop!” he ordered it, but the sounds continued.  Apparently he was so ineffective that it didn’t even feel the need to run anymore.  He tried to round the stack, but whatever it was just crept to the other side and stayed out of sight.  It pulled a low book and topped a tower of some of the finest displaced-dinosaur fiction to ever come out of the sixties.

It would take Owen an entire day to reorganize the mess the thing was making.  He smelled something.  It was a little like excrement and a little like the tiny round balls of dirt outside ant hills.  He remembered what Becky had said about the strange woman.  It was the only clue he had, so he acted on it.  “You’re not leaving.  Maybe I can help you find what you’re looking for.  We can settle this and I can go back to bed.”  The page flipping stopped.  The scratching stopped.  Hreeeeeeeeee…  It sounded like someone trying to clear a blockage of pure gristle from their throats.  Goosebumps moved in waves across his skin.

“Good,” a voice said, clearing up as it spoke.  Owen had never heard anything like it; it was definitely female, but somewhere between the buzz of a dragonfly, the screech of a cicada sizzling in a frying pan, and the tiny peeping toad you hear at night but never see.  His goosebumps only intensified as he realized he had to have an actual conversation with this… thing.  “I want the Errands of Eternity from July of 1979,” it said.

“I… I thought it might be you,” Owen said.  He swallowed.  “Becky told me about you.”

“Who the fuck is Becky!?” it screeched, causing him to jump back.

“She said you were looking for that anthology and she told you about me.  At the store.”

“Oh,” it chirped and buzzed.  “I remember that little airhead.  One of those tappy brats.”

“Tappy?” Owen questioned.

“You know!  With their little screens.  Tappy tappy tappy tappy tappy!  I can’t wait for them to bloody their fingers and not even realize it.  Ehehehehee!”  Its laughter was extraordinarily loud in the cramped room.  Owen prayed a neighbor would hear and call the police.

“I’m not a big fan either,” Owen said in agreement.  “I like books… as you can tell.  Why do you want my Errands of Eternity?  I wasn’t planning on selling it.”  He waited.

“Give it to me or I’ll kill you,” the voice threatened.

“H-how do I know you even can kill me?” Owen asked.  His hands quaked on the umbrella, but he kept it held up.  He stood on his tiptoes, but still couldn’t see the thing on the other side.  “You seem small.  Do you have a gun?”

“Yes.”

“Show it to me.”

“I don’t have to do anything you cocksucker.  I’ve got the gun!”

“I don’t believe you.”

“Give it to me!  Eeeeeehhhhh!”

“This isn’t going to get us anywhere.  Tell me why you want it.  If it’s for a… good cause…  I might just give it to you.”  He knew this thing didn’t have a good cause, but he didn’t have anything else to say.

“Oh it’s a good cause,” the thing said.  “Part of an essential service.  There’s a story in it that I need.  Did you read it?  Did you read the one by Mearshane Parsley?”  Owen dove into his memory.  Mearshane Parsley was a pen name he hadn’t heard in a long while.  Even the message boards rarely mentioned him… or her.  As far as he could tell the public never learned the identity of that particular author.

“Mearshane Parsley huh?” he said, ready to recite a bulleted list even in that situation.  “A mysterious writer who liked mysterious magazines.  They wrote short stories and novellas: always about one person escaping the end of the world.  Only ever one…”

“Tell me about the one in that issue of Errands of Eternity,” it demanded.  Owen didn’t want to say that he actually couldn’t remember the specifics of that particular novella.  Mearshane had a knack for ideas, but wasn’t very hot when it came to the execution.  Their writing was always a bit of a confusing slog, like walking a nature trail but somehow getting lost and finding your way to a circle of overflowing trashcans.

“You’re trespassing,” he said.  “You’re the one who owes me an explanation.  You treat me with respect and I’ll return the favor.”

“Fuck you and fuck respect and fuck your stupid house!” it screeched.  Another stack of books toppled in Owen’s direction.

“Keep that up and you’ll never find it,” he warned.  “I’ve got enough books here to start my own library.  I’ve got hiding spots too.  It would take days to find them all and you’d have to tear holes in everything.  People will notice I haven’t been around before that and send the police.”  Owen wondered if anyone actually would.  He was between jobs at the moment.  The aquarium supply store had refused to give him adequate insurance, so he was in the process of pitching himself to the owners of Happy Hairballs Dog and Cat Grooming instead.  “So let’s do this right.  My name is Owen Finster.  What’s yours?”

“I am Laharva,” it said.  The name made Owen gag.

“That’s an… exotic name.  Where are you from?”

“Hell.  The Gibber Ditch to be specific.”

“What do you… you’re… dead?  A damned soul?” he asked.  Owen had read exactly 254 stories about people and beings that lived in Hell.  None of those stories offered an explanation for Laharva’s presence.  Usually they came to the surface to steal a soul, possess a body, or open a portal for their master.  Owen was sure his soul and body weren’t worth taking, and he didn’t have any portals lying around the last time he checked.

“Do you count being born damned?” it asked.  “I am a demon.  A worm of the fired earth.  Servant of lord Lucifer.”

“Prove it.”

“Go eat a shit with your rancid piss bucket mouth,” Laharva said in response.

“I’ve had enough of your lying.”  Demons weren’t real.  Nothing in his books was real, because real things were tragic and boring.  Taxes and joint pains were real things.  Magic wands, time-traveling shuttles, and demons were decidedly fictitious.  He saw one of the magazines at the top of a stack start to slide away from him.  It, rather she, must have grabbed the edge of its plastic.  Owen threw his hand on top of it to stop her from pulling it down.

Her hand shot out and slapped down on his.  Owen stared in horror, eyes practically popping from their sockets, at the red and orange chaos of flesh that was Laharva’s hand.  The forearm was covered in matted bristly brown hair, like the pelt of a dead porcupine left to rot upside down under a fetid log.  The back of her hand could only be described as raw, somewhere between beef jerky and human flesh that had a cheese grater taken to it ten thousand times over ten thousand years.

Her fingers were somehow worse; they could barely be called fingers at all.  They were fat, ribbed, and round, like the bodies of the biggest grubs you’d ever seen.  The blood, or whatever it was in Laharva’s veins, pulsed dark under the surface, like the waste in a peeled shrimp’s purple-black stomach line.  The flesh on the fingers undulated in waves, just like grubs and maggots desperately trying to crawl out of squashing range.  Her nails were orange and keratinous, like the heads of the same larvae.

One of her fingers bit the back of his hand with invisible mandibles.  Owen jumped back and screamed, waving the umbrella so wildly that he knocked down a stack of books himself.  He landed in the shards of the broken lamp and shuffled his feet and butt backward until he hit the wall.  Her hand retracted out of sight.  Owen kept screaming in the hope that was what made it go away.

“Shut up!” she roared.  “Eeeeeeeeeeeeh!”  The screech was so loud that Owen couldn’t hear his own terror.  He clasped his hands over his ears and begged for it to stop, but neither of them could hear him.  Somebody has to hear this.  She really is a demon.  Maybe she cursed the whole place…  Maybe no sound can escape…  Eventually Laharva had to stop to breathe, revealing one of her limitations.  Petrified as he was, Owen felt more prepared for the situation than most.  If this creature worked the way they did in fiction, he had some angles of attack.  He just needed to learn its rules, or perhaps beat it in a mutually agreed-upon contest.

“I-I b-believe you.  I really d-do,” he said.

“Then tell me before I rip out your kidneys and make a meat pastry,” Laharva demanded.

“I said that I believed you, not that I would help you.”  Owen was surprised at his defiance.  It wasn’t because she was a servant of the devil; it was because she wanted one of his books.  If she took even one he would be left incomplete.  No one appreciated the trashy old science and magic the way he did.  He was its protector, its gatekeeper.

“Really?  You risk evisceration over these moldy mags?  Leave it to a hoarder to hold on to the very end.”

“What do you mean hoarder?” he barked.  “I’m not a hoarder; I’m a collector.  Hoarders keep their used adult diapers and name the roaches like pets.  They lose dead cats under piles of trash bags.  Everything here is organized and sealed.  Protected.”

“Protected from everybody else,” Laharva said, “because they just don’t love it as much as you do.  Right?”  The words caught in Owen’s mouth.  He decided to change tactics.

“I’m not going to believe anything you say until I hear an evil plan out of you.  You’re a demon; you can’t be up to any good.  Tell me your dark motives and I might believe you.”

“Fine.  Let me use language a melted cow tongue like you can understand,” she said.  Her monstrous hand flitted out once again and snagged a copy of Stories Wrapped around a Human Heart.  She examined the blurb on the back and formatted her truth similarly.  She spoke.

Laharva Sniffs out the End

Laharva, a minor demon in Hell, was content to live out eternity in the pit’s extensive libraries, occasionally fetching a book for Lucifer himself.  Everything turned upside down when a fresh soul arrived: oddball author Mearshane Parsley.

Obsessed with mankind’s poetic ability to destroy itself, Satan orders Laharva to find the blueprints for the end times among the entirety of human fiction, surely an impossible task.  Laharva thinks she has a way… only it requires Mearshane’s help.  As her infernal luck would have it, the writer is completely immune to the tortures she’s always had at her disposal.

Now her only choice becomes a trip to the frigid surface of the Earth so she can seek out the perfect story of the apocalypse to appease the most bloodthirsty master who has ever existed.

Laharva is a minor vermin demon of the Gibber Ditch.  She will reside there until the eventual heat death of the afterlife, probably in the company of her giant flesh-eating locust Morsicken.  She enjoys reading in tongues, transcribing the collapse of hope, and shoving brittle things under the fingernails of young and tender souls.

“Does that clear it up for you, you pus-brained rectal fissure?” she asked.  “This story’s about me, so you have to give me what I want.”

“The blurb never gives enough information,” Owen pointed out.  “That’s the whole idea and I think you know it…  Is Mearshane a man or a woman?”

“It’s of no consequence!” she spat.

“I know a few people who would disagree.  What are they doing in Hell?  What did they do to deserve it?”

“Almost everybody deserves it.  You’re going there too.  It would take me all night to go through the hoops that have to be jumped to get up there.  You don’t have the line of credit for it and you definitely don’t have the face for it.  No uglies allowed up there!  Eeehehehehehehehe!”

“How is Mearshane immune to torture?” he asked.  Owen was honestly disappointed it wasn’t a real book.  He could think of worse things to ruin by making them into a PG-13 movie.

“Hell has its own loopholes,” Laharva explained.  “The rules say anyone who dies comes to us as they died.  Wounds maintained, forever bleeding.  Flaws intact, never to be addressed.  When you can’t change, all hope goes bye-bye.”  Laharva’s hand popped up again and waved.  The tips of her swollen larval fingers bobbed up and down like socks with water balloons in the end.  “Mearshane was a bit of a daredevil, liked motorcycle stunts.  Took it very seriously, even wearing protective clothing.  No clothing can help you when you fall three hundred feet down the side of a cliff! Ehehehehee…  Unfortunately… fireproof clothing is very helpful in Hell.  The unnatural fire cannot touch them and I’m not allowed to peel it off them!”

“So he or she is what?  Comfortable in Hell?  Is it like a hotel?  Do you bring Mearshane room service?  What’s good in Hell?  Anything blackened, I suppose.”  There came another ear-piercing shriek.  The pile of books the demon hid behind exploded outward and moved like it had a snowplow behind it.  It collapsed all over Owen, pinning him down.  Laharva was somewhere under the pile.  Her mandibles ripped through his sock feet and scratched him.  Owen rolled out of the pile, missing Laharva as she burst out of it as well and scurried behind another stack.

He pulled his foot as close to his face as he could and saw a dozen deep cuts on the sole oozing sticky blood.  She had been so quick that the pain didn’t hit him for another few seconds.  When it did it was like he’d stepped onto an active record player covered in broken glass.  “What the devil did you do that for!?” he asked.  He kept hold of his foot and rocked back and forth.  The other hand stayed on the umbrella just in case he needed to swing it.

“Do not take Lucifer’s name in vain!” she cried.  “I did it because you’re a whiny nobody.  You’re a nasty tick full of skunk juice and you need to give me that story!”

“Just wait!  Wait, wait, wait!  I need to make sense of this first.”  He kept stalling, but he didn’t know what he waited for.  “Satan wants to base the literal end times on an apocalyptic fiction by an obscure fantasy author?”

“Mearshane is not so obscure in Hell,” Laharva admitted.  “They walk around like they own the place, safe from our acid and our spit behind the dark visor on their stupid, stupid, stupid bike helmet.  Many higher demons have had real conversations with them.  It’s clear they have an excellent understanding of what can break the human heart down.  We wish to exploit that understanding.  Mearshane won’t tell us about their work.  I need the details.”

“Just to clarify…” Owen started, “the devil is looking to us for inspiration.  He wants us to choose the form of the destructor.  That sounds familiar.  Did he just take the idea from…”

“No!” Laharva snapped.  “He didn’t take any ideas from anybody.  He had all of them on his own!  All the good ones anyway.  The ones from up there are static, trying to convince all those feather-brains that stillness is peace is perfection.  Lucifer’s ideas make people move.  They make them build things to hide from themselves.  All of civilization is his doing.  All of art is his doing.  It’s just unsanctioned acts of creation after all… you dangling giraffe loogie!”

“Why can’t Satan just change the rules and torture Mearshane himself?  He’s got to be strong enough to get a lousy summary out of one soul.”

“Lucifer did not make the rules of Hell!  If he had any choice he would rule this land instead!  The dictates of Hell come from the feather-brains.”

“Okay…”  Owen swallowed hard.  He expected another attack with the next thing he was going to say.  He braced himself against the wall and rose, putting as little pressure on his injured foot as possible.  He nearly cried when he saw the red stains that had dripped through the ripped plastic on some of his books.  They were quickly browning, contaminating history with his own pathetic blood, the only thing he had to offer apparently.  “I can’t help you.”

“What do you mean you myopic muttering mass of moose cartilage?!” she demanded.  “You will do as I command!  Don’t worry; when the end times come and you’re down there with me I’ll keep all these stories here safe on my shelves.  I’ll brand them on your skin if you like; that way they will never leave you.”

“I won’t help you end the world!” he said defiantly.  For once Laharva didn’t immediately come back with an insult.  He heard her clawed feet clicking back and forth behind the stack.  She punched a hole in the middle of the books.  The action was so quick that two books shot out, but left the rest of the pile intact.  Owen limped forward a few steps and peered into the hole.  Laharva’s eye moved into view.  It was flecked with gold and bulged like a frog’s.  For a moment he thought it was nothing compared to the insectoid horror of her fingers, but then her eye split across the middle.

The outer frog-like bulge revealed itself to be nothing more than her eyelid.  Now her true eye stared into him: hundreds of purple facets like a fly’s eye carved from amethyst.  Huge globs of crusty green-yellow mucus were bunched in the corners, like she’d been collecting them.  He could practically hear them cracking as they dried.

“This doesn’t strictly need to be painful,” she cooed, as much as a creature like her could imitate that sound.  “We could make a deal.  I can give you what you want.”

“Oh yeah?” he said, hoping they were finally onto something.  Maybe he could trick her into a wager he knew he could win; that was a surefire way to send a demon packing in a lot of stories.

“Oh yes.  Take this for example.”  Laharva waved a piece of paper, a handwritten note, in front of the hole.  It had a tear stain on it, a little blue bombshell, through which he could still see the purple of her eye.  When he managed to look past that he examined the handwriting.  Libby.  Owen shoved his hand through the hole and tried to snag the note.  He was rewarded with a raking scratch across the back of his hand.  He pulled it back and hissed.  Laharva kept talking as he plucked the long white curls of skin from the end of the scratches.  “I found this in one of your books.”

“Leave that alone; it’s got nothing to do with what you’re after.”

“It has something to do with you, and you’re guarding the door.  It’s fair game.  Listen.  You’ll like it.  You see this?”  Laharva held up one of her pulsing grub fingers.  Its tiny mandibles clicked open and closed.

“Yes I see your finger; I wish I didn’t.  What’s your point?”

“Lucifer didn’t send me up here with nothing to offer.  He knows you can win things by trade just as much as by blood.  He gave me some magic ichor and my little finger here ate it all up.  He’s such a good boy.”  She stroked the finger’s nail with her other hand.  “With a simple touch I can manifest what has been lost or pined after.  I can even make it better.”  She used it to outline Libby’s note, but didn’t quite touch it.

“What are you saying?”

“I’m saying that if I touch Libby’s signature on this note that calls you a loser…”

“It doesn’t say that.”

“It’s in the motherfucking subtext you clogged gadfly!”  Laharva crushed the note in her hand.

“Stop!”

“Sorry, sorry, sorry,” she said as she flattened the note back out on top of the stack, rubbing her swollen joints over it like a rolling pin.  “As I was saying before you rudely interrupted, if I touch her signature I can bring her back.  I can make her yours.  I can squeeze all the stuff she hates about you right out of her brain, like mayonnaise out of one of those little packets ehehheehehehe!”

“You can’t… you can’t do that.”

“Yes I can.  I can make her love you.  I can give you more than that too.”  She flashed several more documents across the hole, all stolen from the books he’d hidden them in.  There was an overdue cellphone bill, rejection letters from his own attempts to write bad magazine-worthy fiction, and a tax return form for a miniscule sum.  “I could touch all of these.  Your phone can be paid for; I can even make people call you.  You could be in one of your precious books.  The government could find a huge sum that was accidentally kept from you.  All I have to do is… touch.”  She wiggled the tip of her finger back and forth.  It opened its mandibles and made a sound like a bubble popping in a wad of pizza dough.

Owen considered what she said.  Libby would be back… and she’d stop telling me to get rid of all this.  She’d stand there in the corner, happy to not have a seat, and tell me what a good job I did collecting all of them.  I’d get some praise. 

“Prove it,” he challenged.

“Okie Dokie you dangling dog dingus!”  Laharva spun her finger around in the air and prepared to smash it into Libby’s note.

“Wait!” Owen shouted.  “I want proof before you actually give me what I want.  Test it on something inconsequential… something like…”  Owen calculated the position of a book in his head, turned around, and pulled it out of a stack on his first try.  Its obnoxious pink cover had faded over the years, but it still looked like a piece of fruity candy, just with a year or two of dust glued to its sticky surface.  It was a copy of Butterfly on the Wall, a failed project from the early nineties to get young children reading serials.  Its set of coloring pages and word jumbles couldn’t save it from the electric tide of video games.  He looked over one of the blurbs in the middle of the thin volume.

Isolocean

Benthy is a very lonely cuttlefish.  He’s the loneliest in all the ocean, because he lives on the very very bottom!  It’s dark and cold down there, so Benthy has to make his own friends.  One day he looks down and sees… he has eight arms!  Each and every one of them could be a friend to him.

So he thought real hard, using all of his big cuttlefish brain, and gave them all names.  Being a cuttlefish, he could also change colors, so he made each of them their own color!  Greg is green, Yancey is yellow, Brock is blue, Rhonda is red, Pippy is purple, Ozzie is orange, Percy is pink, and Whitney is white!

He did too good of a job!  All his friendly new arms start arguing with each other.  Now he has to find a way to make them all happy down there in the darkest parts of the sea.  Can you help him figure out how friendship really works?

Isolocean is part of the Maxwell Eggtooth series of kid-friendly wildlife fantasy stories, preceded by You can Eat your own Eggs!, The Komodo Dragon and the Confused Knight, and Kippy’s Pet Bufo bufo.

“This will work.”  He handed the book to Laharva, careful not to touch any part of her.  “Make Benthy the cuttlefish real and I’ll believe you can actually give me what I want.  Then you can give it to me.  When I’m completely satisfied that I actually have it and it’s not some kind of demonic illusion, I will show you where the Errands of Eternity is.”

“Whatever,” Laharva spat.  “Let’s do this.”  She smashed her finger onto the open page.  Green fluid squeezed out of the pores on the end of her finger.  For a brief moment Owen was horrified that he’d just told her to ruin one of his collectibles, but it was replaced by general surprise at what happened next.  The green fluid hopped off the page and landed on the floor with a Shpwick sound.  It bubbled and stretched, overtaking a roach trap and making several of the bugs scurry away.  When it was about twice the size of a football, and roughly the same shape, its color and texture changed to that of cephalopod flesh.  Bits of color expanded and shrank in waves, just as he had seen on plenty of nature documentaries.  Dark crescent-shaped eyes bulged out.  Its end split into eight parts and all turned different colors.  Each tentacle bobbed in its own distinct way, occasionally slapping at one of the other ones.

“H-hello Benthy,” Owen said.  He waved at the cuttlefish, but the creature did not wave back.  It took off across the floor and disappeared around a corner. “Where is he going?  How is he going without water?”

“Beats me,” Laharva said, her hands flopping outward in a shrug.  “As for the water I told you I could make them better.  Little Benthy doesn’t need it! Now give me the fucking Mearshane before I give you a railroad spike through the scrotum!”

Shit, Owen thought as he remembered something vital.  I don’t actually know where it is.  Think.  Think.  It’s not in with the Herbert Ulpak/Julie Taski crossovers.  It’s not with the other Errands of Eternity, because it’s not perfect condition…  So where did I put the damn…  He decided he needed to bide time so he could remember where it was.  He needed to move the conversation around the house and scan the stacks for signs of it.  He took a few tentative steps and listened for the clicking of Laharva’s claws.  She moved an equivalent amount in the opposite direction, in case he circled around to try and see her.  Why doesn’t she want me to see her?  Deep down are demons ashamed of their appearance?  Or is it a gorgon sort of effect?  If I look will I be petrified?  She couldn’t get the book’s location out of a block of stone.

“It’s in the storage closet,” he said.  “If you’ll just… please follow me.”  Owen turned and walked slowly in that direction.  There was cautious clicking and scraping behind him.  What he referred to as the storage closet was actually supposed to be a guest room, but he’d filled the entire space with stacks and boxes.  There was one lightbulb dangling from the ceiling, its fixture broken for more than six months.  He often thought about fixing it, but just to reduce the fire risk for his vulnerable collection.  “So what’s it like living in Hell?” he asked to stall.

“It’s hot,” she said.  “I live in the library, between the pages of the Morbid Dark Magics of Mezmerlin Zot.  It’s a fucking big tome, bigger than this shitty little house.”

“You live in a book?”

“That’s what I said numb nuggets!  I live in books and around books.  I think in books.  Just like his High Darkness.  I know all the trappings of all the styles, like you except far less pathetic.”

“And yet you can’t find Mearshane’s work any other way?”

“You think I can just walk down the never-cooling magma of Decapitation Torture Boulevard to the bookstore and pick up the latest bestseller about vampires fucking?  Fuck you.  You wouldn’t last a minute down there, unless I wanted you to of course.  That won’t happen.  You do Lucifer this favor and I’m sure he’ll cut you some slack when the time comes.  He’s always being nice like that.  I would never insult his infernal glory, but sometimes I think he gets too wrapped up in having his own disciples and followers.  He is the ultimate deceiver; he should have confidence without all the groveling!”

They stepped into the ‘closet’.  Owen reached for the light, but Laharva gargled and spat something that popped the lightbulb into a hundred pieces.  While he was distracted she swiftly moved behind him and shut the door.  A moment later she was around the stacks, forever hidden from plain view.  He shook the dust from the lightbulb out of his hair.

“I wonder,” Owen said as if nothing had happened, “If I can interest you in any other apocalypses?  There are a lot here to pick from.  If you asked me I never would’ve said Mearshane’s were the best.”

“I don’t give half a shrew tongue what you think,” she snarled.  “Give me the Mearshane!  Eeeeeeeehhhh!”

“Calm down,” he said.  “I can’t find anything without some light.”

“Ugh.  Fine.  Lousy diurnal pustule of emotions.”  Laharva held up one of her fingers; a glow under the pulsing skin intensified until everything in the closet looked orange.  He could see little pockets of fat moving around whatever fluid was inside her finger, like a cross between a lava lamp and a sausage made with extra connective tissue.  Owen pulled out a book called The Nazis Did Everything, Even That.  It was a collection of scifi and fantasy revolving around everyone’s favorite fascists.

“Do you speak German?” he asked.

“I speak all tongues,” she bragged.  “I can speak five of them at the same time because my tongue splits five ways.  I know everything Germanic.  I even know the dialects that only exist in the afterlife.  Almost everything down there is better than plain old damned English.”

“Well then you should understand this.”

Die Dämonen des Dritten Reiches

Ein schlafendes Übel erwacht!

Das Weiße Haus ist im Belagerungszustand von einem Feind dadrin!  Geisterhafte Dämonen geformt von der Nationalsozialistische Epoche haben Amerikanische Politker bessessen, und jetzt planen sie die ganze Amerikanische Regierung zu übernehmen!

Nur ein Mann kann diesen bösen Plan halten; Rick Huntersfield, der allerhöchste Geheimagent von der Leibwache des Präsidenten.  Mit der Hilfe einer schönen, mysteriösen Frau, muss Rick diesen Feind überlisten und besiegen, bevor die Sache gelaufen ist!  Werden die zwei Helden vorherrschen, oder wird Übel triumphieren?  Wird Demokratie regieren, oder wird eine neue Welt Anstieg bestellen?  Herausfinden in dieser neuen Erzählung von dem gefeirerten Autor Erik Hallstadt, der Schriftsteller von Die Necrosis von Eden und Schlucken Sie Bitte das Arsen.

“How does that sound?” he asked.  “If I remember right it’s about how demons are actually made up of negative thoughts, so every culture creates its own demons.  Then in the eighties or something a bunch of Third Reich Demons end up possessing U.S. politicians and trying to recreate… you know… the fires they were born in!”  Silence.  “You liked that didn’t you?”

“It’s wildly inaccurate.  Everybody knows that demons are made by shoving hatred into things.  My line goes back to Beezlbug: the beast created by forcing hate into the  fly that sucked the yolk juices of the egg Lucifer emerged from when he tempted the first two.”  She paused.  She held out her hand.  Owen gave her the book.  It disappeared behind the stacks.  “I admit there is a certain charm to the idea.  Maybe… Maybe if I could bring his Darkness one even better than the one he wants… there could be a reward.  I could have my own servants to eat.”

“Do you want me to show you a few more?”

“Yes.  Do it… but then I want the Mearshane just in case.”  At this point any semblance of a plan was gone.  If the world was going to end no matter what, did it matter if he handed over the means?  He didn’t remember much from his days in Sunday school other than there was a demon named Legion who lived in pigs and a couple young women being offered up to prevent the assault and/or rape of some angels… but he also remembered that mankind was supposed to end.  Revelations.  If that happened, what would happen to his collection?  Would it stay there forever with no life to threaten it?  Could he take it with him to Hell?

Am I going to Hell?  She said almost everyone goes there.  She could be lying.  She told the truth about making things real, but that doesn’t make her honest.  Do I deserve to go if I hand over the Mearshane?  Or will I be fulfilling god’s plan as managed by the devil?

All he could think to do was grab more books and read.  The answer could be in one of them.  All the answers to life’s quandaries were.  He had at least a thousand moral standpoints he could access in that room alone.  He grabbed another book out of a pile. Cries of Harpies.  That one had an apocalypse in it.

“Danielle Hawn is a first-time horror author more used to writing romance stories for the guys and girls over at Kiss and Tell, but her talent seems to be translating well…” he read.

“Don’t read about the fucking authors!” Laharva screeched.  “Stories have nothing to do with authors!  If you try to tell me where somebody lives or how many pet fish they have in their aquarium I swear I’ll make you eat every bit of broken glass on the floor and every poisoned roach in those vile traps of yours you bile-swilling frog tumor!”

“Alright, alright!  Geez!”  Owen went straight to the blurb.

The Disease Disease

We’ve all skipped work because of the flu: runny nose, itchy throat, and three piles of used tissues next to you on the sofa.  You feel like the rest of the world has to be put on hold so your body has time to isolate the infection and shut it down.  It’s Hell.

There can always be something worse, like the disease to end all diseases.  It’s real, born out of the strange gene pool of an isolated tribe in the deepest South American jungle.  It spreads fast.  At first it’s only a nuisance.  Too many people are missing work.  Vital services are shutting down.  Then comes stage two.

The authorities have no idea what to do because the infection manifests itself differently in everyone.  Whatever health issues you had before intensify until an unimaginably painful death.  Those with allergies sneeze their lungs out through their nose.  Those with rashes slowly lose their skin.  A simple headache becomes a brain splitting itself down the middle like bread ripping.

When everyone has everything, there can be no cure.  All we can do is watch as the world falls apart and its people collapse on top of each other.  There is no terror greater than what already lives inside you.  Beware the disease disease!

“That’s no good!”  Laharva declared.  “There’s more to the end than viscera!  Viscera is just salsa in Hell.  There needs to be self-destruction.  A bitter bite.  It has to be your fault.”  Owen put the book back, in its proper slot of course, and pulled out another.

A Package Arrives

The Boxcutter A.I. was supposed to revolutionize the way people lived their lives.  It started as a simple program to help direct the robots delivering our packages, but we begged it to become more and take more of the responsibilities from our shoulders.

It started sending out packages nobody ordered, but that was alright because the gifts were always wanted.  It remembered your birthday.  It remembered you were in need of an infant-sized raincoat or anything else.  Then it sent suggestions.  The heavy got exercise equipment.  Spinsters got wedding gowns.

You can’t shut down something that runs every aspect of your life.  Without Boxcutter nothing would get moved anywhere… so people let it go.  After that bodies start turning up in boxes, gifts made from dead dissenters like cats bringing their slaughtered prey to their owner’s doorstep.  Boxcutter has decided everything belongs in a box: buildings, pets, people…  It’s coming for you and nothing can stop it because it has all of your addresses.  You will be taken.  You will be labeled, shipped to where you belong, and forgotten in a tiny cubical prison.  Only when the world is gifts, hidden potential, will it be complete.

“Now you’re not even trying,” the demon accused.  “That one’s just boring.  How are we supposed to watch if you’re just suffocating in a box?”

“Libby loved that one.” Owen said more to himself than to Laharva.  She had always been an avid reader, which is why it stung when she said he had a problem.  It felt like she was just saying she was better at it… or better adjusted around it.  She thought he was a greedy child who couldn’t control himself around his toys.

“You look you’re going to cry,” Laharva mocked.  “Eehehehehehee!  What is it?  What has the little stink baby soiling his diapers?  Do you miss your girlfriend?  I told you I can bring her back, even though you don’t deserve it.  Just give me the Mearshane.  Or is it something else?  Are you done wanting that Libby bitch?  Oh… you want me don’t you?”  Laharva made kissing sounds like a lamprey attaching to a whale’s eyeball.  “I’ll give you a good fuck!  Eheheheeeee!”

Laharva held up one of her hands, closed her fingers around an invisible object, and rapidly jerked it back and forth.  Owen felt something strange and looked down.  To his horror he saw he had a full erection; he could feel the intangible tug of Laharva.  It shocked him so badly, disgusted him so severely, that he fell over backwards and swatted at his own groin, screaming, until the situation went away.

The demon had miscalculated.  Whatever she’d been doing to convince him to help, whatever subtle magic was in play, it was shattered by her… flirtation.  Owen came back to his senses, emerging from the hazy cocoon of indifference in a frigid sweat.  The pain in his scratched feet and hand throbbed as if fresh once again.  He was a sad little man who competed with children over toys and stories, but he wasn’t a servant of the devil.  He wasn’t the thing scurrying about in the darkness on who knows how many hairy twitching legs.

“I’m not giving you anything!” he shouted.

“What?  Am I too much woman for you?  I can make you finish right there in your pants you know.”

“Don’t!  Whatever you do… I’m not giving it to you.  I’ll burn this whole place down to stop you from finding it if I have to.”  Silence.

“Eeeeeeeeeeeh!”  The books exploded all over Owen, pinning him to the floor.  Plastic-covered corners poked at his closed eyes.  He heard Laharva burrowing under all the fiction, her claws no doubt approaching his vulnerable legs once again.  Owen pulled them back and flopped onto the top of the pile, squeezing Laharva out from under him.  She had taken back the light from her finger, so it was pitch black.

He heard rustling.  The demon was rearing up somewhere in front of him; he had nothing left to do but go on the attack.  Owen lunged forward the way he imagined a football player doing it.  His body connected with something horrific, fleshy and keratinous at the same time, and both collapsed to the ground.  Scuttling legs scratched the floor, tore paper, and ripped into his skin.  Owen tried to pound on the thing with his fists, but she slipped out from under him and left the closet.

“You’ll never find it,” he gasped as he tried to convince his lungs it was safe to breathe in again.

“Watch me, you premature ejaculation!”  Laharva went back to her initial tactic.  He heard her flitting about between the rooms of the house and reading as fast as she could.  Fwip fwip fwip fwip fwip fwip fwip.  He had to do something.  Once she got it he was sure she would be gone in a flash, either by squeezing under a door crack like a cockroach or simply tearing open a portal back to her spot in the pit of eternal fire, where she could curl up and contemplate the final suffering of man.  Where is it?  If only I could remember.  Think Owen.  There must be something else special about Errands of Eternity.  Something must make it stand out from the rest.  You wouldn’t bother collecting it otherwise.

He silently asked for help.  Whether it was from god, or Libby, or any person who would really listen, he didn’t know.  He asked for help and was rewarded with a memory.  Owen swiped his hands through the pile on the closet floor.  He tossed books away like he never had before because only one mattered now.

A spot of green.  His hands converged on it, brought it out from the pile.  Glowing green letters.  That’s why.  It was a celebratory issue because they didn’t fold when they thought it was a sure thing.  They declared they weren’t going anywhere with this glow-in-the dark lettering.  There it was in glowing green: Errands of Eternity.  Owen flipped through it in search of the Mearshane story.  He’d read everything he’d ever collected at one point or another, but it often took scanning a few paragraphs to remember.

The story was called Hell is No Other People.  It was so short it didn’t even get a blurb.  Just like they always did, Mearshane Parsley’s name was in exceptionally tiny print under the title, almost to the point of illegibility.  Could they really have stumbled upon the perfect hammer that could shatter mankind with one strike?  Was the worst thing possible really ingrained in those 7,000 words?

The more Owen read the more he realized it was true.  The story came back to him.  Mearshane wrote of a world in which someone invented a ‘personal-space belt’ that kept everyone else away.  In the story the effect eventually becomes permanent, and no one can approach anyone else.  Without closeness people become vicious.  They strike at any and all emotional weak spots they can find.  Most of them give up in the end, dying on the spot where they fall with nobody to bury them.

It’s a Hell of rejection, Owen realized.  I know some of this pain.  It’s…  I’ve been doing this to myself.  Lucifer is right.  No destruction is more effective than self-destruction.  When the world rejects you there is truly no recourse; you are the worst and everyone else is the worst at the same time.  The book was swiped from his hands.  Laharva had snuck back in.  Owen panicked.  He lunged in the direction of her smell and they both collapsed into the pile of books.  He flailed wildly to mix them up, to obscure the green lettering in the dark pile.

“You imbecile!” she screeched right in his ear, shattering his ear drum and sending him reeling.  He could feel a trickle of blood pour out of it.  Owen stumbled to his feet and ran back to the overturned lamp where there was still some light.  He could still hear from his other ear, and all he heard was fwip fwip fwip fwip fwip.  She’d lost it in the pile.  This was his chance.  It was the point in the story where he was supposed to come up with something clever, because all the fear was as far back in his mind as it was ever going to be.

He thought about it and pulled out one more book: Powers that Might Be.  He flipped to the middle and found a story about alien abduction where the aliens turned out to be angels and their tractor beam was just a heavenly light transporter.  Owen needed it to be real.

“I’ve got it!” he hollered.  “Haha!  I’ve got the Mearshane!  You’ll never get that nasty worm finger of yours on it now!  You’ll never make it real!  You’ll just have to go back to Hell and get demoted to cleaning the charcoal out of the toilets!  Bitch!”  Perhaps the ‘bitch’ was a little over the top, but at least some part of what he said got her attention.  The scraping of her claws flew out of the closet faster than ever.  Her shadow rushed towards him, her fingertips pulsing weakly with that sick orange light.

“Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeh!”  Owen held out the open book at the last possible moment and turned to a page where someone was abducted up to the pearly gates.  Laharva’s magic finger and its greedy snapping mandibles smashed against the paper.  The room exploded into white light.  For a fraction of a second Owen thought he caught a glimpse of a face shining in the burst of the heavenly bomb; it was puppet-like and grotesque, with its toad mouth full of wriggling maggots too small to have discernible heads and tails.  Perhaps that was Laharva, or perhaps it was just what he thought he saw in the blinding light.

“Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeee….”  The second screech faded away as if she were tossed down into the Grand Canyon.  Owen closed the book most of the way.  Even cracked the heavenly beam was brighter than any flashlight.  He aimed it toward the ceiling and looked around.  There was no sign of the demon.  Sweat poured from his forehead.  He was aware he was getting it all over the book, but he couldn’t close it yet.  Closing it might end the magic and he had the feeling he needed it a little while longer.

She’s not in Hell, he realized.  She’s gone, but I didn’t send her home.  This story is very clear.  This beam of light takes you straight to Heaven.  I wonder what it will be like for her there.  Heaven is perfect, isn’t it?  That would mean imperfection can’t exist there.  Owen moved to his bed, the only clear furniture he had, and sat on the edge, careful to keep the beam pointed to the ceiling.  The book was getting hot in his hands.  That leaves three possibilities: the very stuff of Heaven smote her to cinder the moment she crossed over, she’s been forcibly converted into a lackey of Heaven and is now super friendly, or she was immediately put back in Hell where she belongs.

Owen listened again for the scratching of claws or the flipping pages, but there was nothing but the hum of the beam like a bug zapper.  I hope she’s dead… do I?  Can I even blame her for being so… whatever she is?  She’s alone with the most evil books in existence for all time.  I’m alone with the best books in existence and look how I turned out.  Owen’s eyes widened.  If she’s in Hell she can just come right back.  Lucifer can punt her back up through the Earth’s crust, maybe with more magic this time, and take the book by force.  Unless… the book isn’t here.

He stood and walked slowly through his house towards the closet.  Even after all the chaos, some piles still stood tall and organized, casting looming stern shadows over the walls.  Perhaps it was just the light, but the clutter of books suddenly looked like nothing.  There was nothing he could see, anywhere in his home, that immediately brought him joy.  There wasn’t even a fond memory to be found.  There was surely excitement, small recollections of shortness of breath when he found something rare or when he saw the price of something.  Too much of him had become recorded numbers: price tags, print runs, dates.  The stories bled away while the numbers stayed.  Something had to change.

The pile of books that undoubtedly held the Errands of Eternity sat directly in front of him.  He wanted to reach down and sift through for those bold green letters, but there wasn’t time.  The beam to Heaven was starting burn his hands.  He tried to balance the book on one hand, but the heat simply intensified.  She could be back literally any second.  I can’t wait.  It has to be gone.  It has to be in the one place she can’t reach it.

Owen closed his eyes and gulped down his preemptive instinctual regret.  He turned the book down to the ground and opened it wider.  The light instantly accepted the books just as it had Laharva.  For a moment they were nothing but their outlines and shadows, and then they were gone.  He stared at the unmarked empty floor as if it were the crater that had decimated the dinosaurs.  It felt like he’d bitten off one of the four chambers of his own heart, like he’d taken every picture of himself that existed and dumped them into muddy flood water rushing through his home.  That pile likely represented hundreds of hours of hunting, reading, bargaining, and arguing.  Now he was forever separated from it.

The tears started to flow, but he couldn’t reach up to clear them.  The pain in his hands was searing, like holding a hot cookie sheet and getting a paper cut at the same time.  For all I know I have a duplicate somewhere.  I have to let it all go… I have to…  Owen’s mind forced a realization from the desperation, like water from stone.  His books were protected now.  There was no mold in Heaven, no paper-chewing moths, and certainly no stains of any kind.  His books were now perfectly preserved for all eternity.

He had inadvertently created a time capsule, a museum exhibit of specific fictions, enhanced by the context of his own life and what drove him to seek them.  In a way he was perfecting his collection with a tool he could never have again.  That sealed it.  The books deserved perfection.  Mearshane and all the others who happened to be in Hell deserved it.  They suffered for their work and now Owen could immortalize theirs and his own… so he did.

He ran around the house opening the book and unleashing the heavenly light upon the entirety of his collection.  Massive piles of bins and baggies and books, gone in a flash.  Room by room he cleared the house, as if preparing it for potential buyers.  In his frantic pained zeal he accidentally sent away everything nearby, from lamps to silverware.  He rushed outside, the beam shining up like a spotlight, and cleared the shed.  He donated it all to the airless sporeless atmosphere of a timeless realm.

When he was certain it was done, down to that day’s purchase, Owen pointed the book at his bathroom mirror and opened it.  The beam cracked the glass, reflected back, and forced the book to absorb itself.  He was alone… in a creaking house with pulsing blistered hands.

“Aha… ahahahaha!” he laughed into the empty space the way he imagined Mearshane laughed at the demons who couldn’t get through their suit.  I guess I’ll need a new hobby, he thought.  And I’ll need people to enjoy it with.  The collecting is done.  I won that.  It’s time to share, to spread, to make it so I’m never alone enough for a certain demon to get her revenge.  Where do I start?  Maybe Tomas has some ideas.

Owen flopped into his bed, which was about the only thing left in the house.  He was thinking he was too tired even to dip his hands in a cold sink, but a sound from the opposite end of the house forced his head back up.  He’d forgotten something.  Somewhere, probably camouflaged against the wall, there was a strange cuttlefish slithering around.

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