This is the most gruesome story I have ever written.
"You did this to yourself."
Tate looks up from hands on the bar countertop. Tate's hands. Lightly scratches at scab on puffy knuckle.
The woman is familiar to Tate. Wonder what she means, why she said it.
The words bulge through vocal cords, an unexpected deep rumbling. Tate coughs and massages throat.
She scoffs, rich dark eyes rolling, but Tate knows the expression masks sorrow. How?
Her dark skin stands in sharp counterpoint to this pale, freckled arm (Tate's arm) that she reaches toward. The woman pulls her hand away and Tate's arm itches furiously. She opens her mouth to reply.
"Hey there, boyo," chirps the bartender, a man who has harrassed Tate nonstop since the night began, with his cheeky grin pushing up delicately trimmed chops on his young face. Pulls Tate's attention. "Fancy another round, then?"
Tate glances back to the woman.
The hotel crowd has swallowed her, it seems, though the open bar area is not that full. Predominantely middle-aged business folk, a couple covertly kissing in the back corner; he pulls away with her lips on his. Where could the woman have gone?
A glance at the bar shows Tate's drink is empty. Surprising. Not even sure what it was. With a shrug, Tate nods, nails raking across bared arm. Employer footing the bill, and a little social lubricant couldn't hurt.
A stout glass slides, a bottle flips, some ice tumbles. Tate watches with fascination, and the young man notices. The bartender crouches down and comes up with a orange, grabs the paring knife to open it wide.
A smooth dark hand slides over the orange just before he cuts down, and Tate leaps up from the stool to cry out.
The blade, honed to a keen edge, passes through the skin of the fruit and Tate chokes as red pours over the cutting board, grips and pulls at wiry hair.
Tate's mouth splits as hormones react involuntarily to the man's advances. The swelling is... strange, and despite it, Tate, shifting uncomfortably and settling back into the seat, is disappointed. Not that Tate expected anything from the man, but for him to be interested in Tate like this...
"You can't blame them for your choices," the woman whispers in Tate's ear, prickling the skin.
Tate whips the stool around, but she is nowhere to be seen. All that remains is a crawling sensation in Tate's crotch. Try to make it look casual. Tate never realized how difficult it could be, digging in for relief around the extension. Warmth spreads across Tate's fingers.
Tate sighs, half frustration, half relief, and wipes fingernails across pant legs, painting archaic symbols in the old ways, wondering what it would mean if scryed.
"Oy, Red," the bartender says, leaning in a bit closer and indicating the older gentleman seating himself at a far table. "I'm s'posed to tell you that's your man." The boy dimples as he winks, his face slurring into that pit. "Must say I'm a bit jealous of him."
Tate blinks with Tate's eyes and grips the drink with Tate's hands. The bartender's smile falters, then slips entirely off his face. He shakes his head and turns away, leaving it on the bar.
Focus on breathing.
Tate must, for these lungs seem either unable or unwilling to recall the way.
It does not matter, as long as Tate has air enough to speak to the old man, now settling himself at the table with clenched, darting eyes and steepled hands before his lips.
Emerson. Tate flashes on a manila folder with the man's photograph, dossier, and mission directives.
Paperclipped to that folder had been a grainy surveillance photo of a lanky red-haired man meeting him in a dark corner of London Heathrow Airport.
Standing from the stool, Tate sways. Too much alcohol? What is Tate's limit? Not sure. Probably fine.
Finding footing on overlong legs, Tate approaches, and the man sees Tate.
Heart pounding an unfamiliar rhythm, Tate pauses to catch a breath, take a drink.
Not Tate's normal preference, but in this business, tastes change. Another sip, deeper, and the blood orange stains Tate's cheek with its dark juices.
Choking on the drink, Tate, over the rim of the glass, sees the woman pass behind Emerson, go to the couple making out in the corner. She glances over her shoulder, then somehow gets around them. The kissing girl has thankfully reacquired her lips.
Worrying lower lip with teeth, Tate steps between some merrymakers, contorting body to be well clear of them, and sets the drink down on the table, stony silent. Must wait, never the first to speak.
"Where are you?" the familiar woman calls. Tate glances around, does not see her, does not answer, but the question echoes in Tate's ears. Emerson does not seem to notice, finally speaks.
"It is darkest before dawn."
Tate's mind instantly clicked to the countersign. It had been drilled over and over, and Tate speaks it aloud with as much ease as can be mustered as Emerson's head bobs. "As dark as men's souls before the Light."
"It has been too long, old friend," Emerson murmurs, reaching into his jacket. His head still wobbles as if he is listening to fast paced music. Tate watches the hand, trying to ignore the perpetual motion. The sticky spot on Tate's cheek beckons, fingertips wipe at it. Tate is surprised to find stubble there and scratches at it.
An envelope hits the table. Emerson sighs as a soft blue glow catches beneath his palm, unlocking the contents within. With the non-scratching hand, Tate hesitantly inches the envelope closer.
The old man's hand remains still, but his fingertips trail along with the thin parcel, stretching as Tate pulls, elongating and popping, knuckles crackling and disjoining.
"Where am I?" The woman shrieks.
Finally, Emerson lifts his spindly fingers, tapping them across the table in a nervous gesture. Tate rushes to put the envelope into the shirt's neck, a roomy storage until Tate's jacket can be retrieved, and jumps to see the woman standing just beside, hands to her head, clutching rich, dark locks.
Fingernails bite into tender flesh below the jaw as Tate pushes harder and the warmth seeps down Tate's fingers. Still, the itching burns. Deeper.
Looking back at Emerson, Tate sits back with a start. Tate had not noticed until now how disfigured he is, jaw pushed in, skin on half his face burned and eyelid gone to show one ever staring blue eye beneath his shock of bone white hair. His lips peel back in a terrible scowl, skeletal teeth clenching tight and clack together almost comically as Emerson speaks.
"Are you quite all right?" Tate bites back a laugh, bites Tate's lip instead.
Emerson shudders visibly, somehow returned to a normal visage, just like the dossier photo. "Look, I don't have much time. Where is my-- good gracious, you're bleeding!"
"Where are we?" Tate and the woman scream. Tate's fingers burrow deeper, searching for an answer. The other hand lifts the drink, gives Tate one last gulp, then smashes the glass across the table.
Holding his legs across his face as a shield, Emerson blinks his five eyes at Tate only once before fleeing. A snarling face whips its tongues at Tate from Emerson's backside, taunting, but Tate does not care.
The remains of the glass slice into Tate's leg.
Flashes of the training sear Tate's mind.
Corpus nihil est.
The body is nothing.
Tate cares nothing for the body. Blood flows freely as Tate burrows deeper.
Mens est omnia.
The mind is everything.
But where is the mind?
It has to be here somewhere.
The glass shard is Tate's shovel, and Tate's body the dig site.
Hotel guests skitter about on their legs bent back at impossible angles, eyes flying wild. The kissing couple, man's head in girl's hands, flee overtop of Tate, who now flounders on the floor, carving away. A mad rush, tik-tik-tik of insectoid legs carrying inverted bodies with flailing entrails away from Tate's earnest search.
A strong grip pulls at Tate's arm, struggles for the glass shard.
Tate fights back, but blood loss leaves Tate cold and weak. Still, as the bartender comes into view, hardly recognizable with the antennae wrapped round his head, Tate protests.
"I must find myself!"
Cutting his hands at the end of tentacular arms, the bartender finally gets the improvised knife away from Tate.
"Not like this, you won't," he says. "We'll find you some help, we will."
As the man holds Tate's wrists against the ground, Tate spies the woman crouched, wide-eyed, beside him. She lays next to Tate.
There is no help for Tate, except for Tate, but this seems a good sign.
The blackness closes in around Tate.
* - * - * - * - * - * - *
When I thought about stretching my bounds in the realms of writing fiction, I figured I would do something nice and cushy like paranormal romance. That is not to say that it does not take some skill to accomplish this, obviously, but it's still within my general realm of awareness.
Then, like the mad man I am, I decided to try this flash fiction challenge over at terribleminds. It involves choosing three random, possibly somewhat disparate aspects and crafting a story from then.
My element to include is a hotel bar. I've been to one: the bar at the hotel which hosted Worldcon. Not a lot of experience, but I did my best.
The conflict / theme / motif selected by RNG: addiction. Again, I have my own experiences with this, though nothing so overt as to have a history with substance abuse (or even with substances at all, really, which could make some characters difficult to write someday).
The subgenre rolled for me, however, threw me off entirely: body horror. Umm... say again? I wasn't even sure what that meant. I have little time for horror movies in general because I just don't care. They don't move me, and the squick moments, when they finally happen to my poor desensitized brain, simply turn me off further, because I don't see a message, can't see the point. I've read a couple horror novels that I didn't totally hate, I guess, but I couldn't list them off the top of my head.
With the research I did (because I had to look it up), I learned that body horror is basically horror in which the human body is gorily dismembered with blood and guts splattering everywhere, or disfigured and rearranged in such a way that nature never intended until a horrifying monster is created from human pieces.
Definitely a stretch for one Stoffel who has recently been writing light-hearted time-travel adventures...
Let's get one thing straight: I accept there are masters at just about every craft. This can be done right. Even so, it still feels like a cheap trick to go about dumping buckets of blood everywhere for audience oohs and ahhs. Therefore, I lean toward body disfigurement, because it's something that actually terrifies me.
When a body is not in the right configuration, it can throw me for a loop. Not just people, though being one myself I have a pretty clear expectation of 'what should be.' I know this sounds pretty terrible in a way, but it's a split-second, unconscious reaction. I choose to overcome this pretty easily in real life, because in real life, people are humans with consciousness and I can relate with them.
But in movies? Yeesh...
I decided that 'addiction + hotel bar' seemed a bit contrived, so I went for 'addiction + body horror' instead. This got me a bit of the bloodiness to scoot me further into the subgenre. Tate is addicted to scratching at skin, hair, etc., and it gets worse as the story goes on. I don't know if I communicated that well, but I tried.
This was not an easy piece for me to write, but I actually kind of like it. A backstory loosely formed up as I typed, and a hazy idea of what I might do as a further plot. I'm not sure if I could keep it as this type of horror for a longer work, however. I just don't think it would have the same impact spread over tens of thousands of words.
I noticed I was leaning toward psychological horror, which I feel is probably more my gig. I if were to pursue the story further, a mix of the two might keep it going.
Thanks to Chuck Wendig (@ChuckWendig) for giving such an intriguing flash fiction challenge, and for Blackbirds, which I am currently reading. I'm quite certain it fueled the seething, creeping darkness in my soul and helped me write this.
Next time, though, it's totally going to be Erotica / Furry / Noir.