Brie sipped at the coffee. She had the feeling she wasn’t supposed to do that. It tasted foul, like rotten nothing. She looked down and, for a split second, saw a skull in the cream at the top. She set it down gently. It had frightened her, but she also had the sense that she was in a very delicate situation.
How was not clear. The diner seemed peaceful enough. A mother corralling her disobedient son. A waitress slicing up a cherry pie. A blind man reading a newspaper. Wait. Brie stared at him. He had to be blind; he wore the dark glasses and carried the right sort of stick. Yet, as soon as she looked he turned towards her. There was an image in his glasses, but just a slice of a reflection. It was gone a moment later. Another deathly face. She stood up. Everyone in the diner looked her way.
“Something’s wrong,” she said, afraid the words wouldn’t leave her mouth. “This isn’t right. Who is doing this?” The patrons went back to their meals. One set of lips, belonging to what she had assumed was just a man in a suit, unfurled into a cluster of tendrils that pecked at his open-faced sandwich like hypodermic needles.
“Nothing is wrong. You just noticed. It wasn’t my fault,” a voice said. It entered her mind directly, as if there was a radio dial in her lizard brain that was suddenly turned to the opposite end of the frequencies.
The diner split perfectly down the middle. Brie’s table was set at an angle, but gravity did not change. She stood perfectly still without having to lean. A face, something like an ant, something like a fish, and something like a waking nightmare, leaned in from the void outside the restaurant. Its head was bigger than Brie, but nobody else paid it any attention.
“I suppose the coffee gave it away. Human tongues are just wrong. I’ve never understood your obsession with flavor over nourishment.” Its mandibles and many tongues clicked and wriggled.
“What are you?” Brie asked. She wished the skull in her coffee would come back. At least she could recognize death.
“I am Hurd’leh,” it said. “I am also nothing that manages nothing. This is your nothing Brie. It’s supposed to be anyway.”
“What do you mean? How can this be nothing?”
“What do you remember of your life naive human? Diapers? Cereal? Bicycles?”
“I… no… I just remember that I haven’t ordered yet.”
“And you never will order. This is just a picture for you to rest in while your life is assembled. Your disturbance was an inconvenience.”
“I’m sorry to be a bother,” she said. She snuck a glance at a window to see her reflection. It was her first look at her eventual face. She hadn’t been born yet, but apparently, when she was, she would have full lips and ears that were barely there. She would have hair prone to limpness, except on humid days where it misbehaved.
“You’re not the bother,” Hurd’leh said without speaking. “The littler one is.”
“The littler one?” she asked. Things were getting stranger in the diner. All of a sudden that cherry pie was bleeding like a shotgun victim, spraying into the waitress’ face as she placidly kept cutting. The mother’s arm became an orange tentacle leaving suction scars on the child’s wrist. The blind man had gills and he was gasping for air as he turned the page in his paper. He laughed and gasped at the funnies simultaneously.
“There is a a parasite in here,” the monstrous nothing told her. “It snuck into your picture. It infects it with tiny pictures from its own world. It seeks to take over your life force. It is how they are born. This will make you not-born.”
“Help me find it!” she cried, finally stepping out from the table. She picked up a steak knife. She knew more than anything that she wanted those ears that were barely there and that moody hair.
“It is no concern of mine,” Hurd’leh answered. “I do not touch the pictures. I merely wanted to watch closer.” She looked around Hurd’leh’s neck and indeed saw its moist skin touched no part of the split diner. It was just peeking into a clam waiting to see if the pearl inside would explode or melt.
Brie felt like a cornered animal. Somewhere in there was something trying to suck her life away before it was even handed over. It couldn’t be the things she’d already seen. Those were the hints of its world. The skull, the gills, the tentacles… whatever the parasite was it came from a place of death and invertebrates.
She hopped over the counter, ignoring the tentacled patrons even as they grabbed for her. The pie screamed, but she could do nothing to save it. Its distractions were no good. Her essence was human, born or not, and she had the instincts. She simply followed the bristling of the hair on her wrists and neck.
She dropped to her knees behind the counter and looked under a shelf holding stacks of milkshake glasses. The parasite was crouched there, in the most shadowy corner of her picture. She could only see its face at first: teeth like razor clams and eyes like bone nodules. Its lips were cracked and drawn, like some ancient worm lurking just under a desert’s dry clay.
Shiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii! It screeched at her. It tried to pump more of its world in while it had the chance. The ceiling warped. All the glasses were now full of slime.
“Aaaaaauugghhh!” Brie screamed back in its face. They were both animals, both fighting for the chance to live. She wouldn’t show fear in the face of such an intruder. She grabbed at it, ignoring the bites its toothed hands left on her thumbs. It hopped over her, capsule-shaped body wobbling back and forth on webbed feet. She chased it across the counter and pinned it down on a clean plate.
Brie screamed again and drove her knife through its eyes, chipping away at its bony irises. She stabbed and stabbed and stabbed until there was no face left. Then the picture went black. Hurd’leh closed it and went about its business.
Brie’s panicked breaths eventually slowed in the darkness. She had won, but things like this weren’t meant to be easily understood. They were both in the picture, both connected to that eventual life.
There had even been a clue as to how it would turn out: the man in the dark glasses reading, guffawing, and gasping at his funnies. She was the joke on the page. She had stabbed its eyes. That life could not have eyes, so the picture was black. Brie would be born blind, with the only knowledge of her face being that one look in that strange glass.
Author’s Note: This flash fiction story was written based on a prompt provided by TheBludes during a livestream. I hereby transfer all story rights to them, with the caveat that it remain posted on this blog. If you would like your own story, stop bytwitch.tv/blainearcade during one of my streams and I’ll write it for you live!