Ethel’s Addiction

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I didn’t meet Ethel until after the events I’m going to talk about here and no her name isn’t really Ethel. Thing is I know she’ll never read this but I it would be a sin to let her real name get out there. She’s not a freak and lord knows she’s suffered enough. I want however many days she has left to be peaceful ones.

But, I can’t not share her story. It haunts me.

No one ever intends to become an addict but all it takes is that first sip of wine at dinner or a sampling of an illicit pharmaceutical at a party for an unlucky individual to start down a path of self-destruction. Drugs and alcohol aren’t the only thing that can prey on the weak willed or unlucky, shopping, food and gambling have all made people miserable at one time or another. Whole industries have sprung up to help men and women from all walks of life take back control of their lives. But Ethel’s addiction was an unusual one, there were no recognized treatments or easy explanations.

Ethel, you see, was addicted to popping pimples. It began with a YouTube video that her friends shared amongst themselves. A woman with a cyst on her back the size of an apple. It was the kind of video that was sent with the header of, “Can you watch all the way through?” or “Super Gross Out!”

The woman in the video, Ethel never saw her face or heard her name, was in what looked like a doctor’s office. Hands in latex gloves covered the oversized blemish with antiseptic and made sure plenty of gauze was nearby. Then a sharp scalpel came into view. It cut the skin and white-yellow fluid all but burst from the wound. It went everywhere some even landing on the camera filming the event. The person using the scalpel kept working, rolling the tip of the instrument around, coaxing more and more of the noxious-looking fluid out until all the flowed from the wound was blood.

Ethel was riveted, she watched the video dozens of times.

That YouTube video led to others, link after link of squeezing fingers and lancing instruments. The videos led her to Reddits and forums, to exclusive Facebook and Pinterest pages.

Watching kept her up late at night, sometimes she never went to bed at all.

She remembered being a teenager, the occasional breakouts and her mother cautioning her not to pick at her face. Compared to the other girls she had been lucky; there were some that had hidden their faces behind the books they were caring, who had endured insults like ‘Pizza Face’ and worse. Everyone said Ethel was one of the prettiest girls in class.

But she was thirty years old now, bored with work and marriage, The next time Ethel got a blemish, it was on her shoulder, she stared at it a long time. She had drawers of special skin care products for this kind of thing, but she decided that this time she would take matters into her own hands.

pop

It took barely any pressure at all, certainly less than she expected. And it was so much better experienced than watched; the discomfort, the sudden pressure, the release, and the lingering soreness. On some level she couldn’t understand she both heard and felt the blemish give way.

Then Ethel took to giving her husband Floyd back rubs. He certainly didn’t protest, that hour or so was probably the most time they’d spent together in months. His law practice kept him busy, maddeningly so at times.

When she found some ingrown hair or neglected pustule he would ask her to not pick at it and she wouldn’t listen. She was relentless, it didn’t matter how much he squealed or if she drew blood. To keep him from shying away she made sure that her grooming sessions ended with sexual intercourse.

To Ethel it was a perfectly mature understanding, Floyd got what he wanted and she got what she wanted.

It went on like that for a time, Ethel sating herself with videos until a bump or blackhead appeared on herself or her husband. Those were moments she savored like fine wine. She probably could have gone on like for the rest of her life but Floyd had other ideas. One night at dinner he told her that he was in love with a coworker and he was leaving.
Ethel had wondered why he’d pulled the old suitcase out of the attic days earlier but never thought to ask. She’d never suspected she needed to.

Soon enough she was living alone for the first time in her life, alone and inconsolable. She had friends and family close by but it wasn’t enough, she had a busy work schedule and that wasn’t enough. Finishing off one bottle of Chablis a week wasn’t enough.

Even the pimple popping videos weren’t enough.

So, Ethel changed her diet, eating more and more fast food, more and more chocolate. She read articles with skin care advice and did the opposite of their recommendations.

Then she waited.

The first few blemishes were small, little pinpricks of red that almost looked like freckles. Ethel worked at them eagerly having grown her nails out and bought a new makeup mirror for just this occasion.

pop

Tiny but exhilarating, the discharge they expelled was thick and solid; she could roll it around on her fingertips.

pop

When the next few pimples began to show she left them be, let them fatten up;  whiteheads grew, blackheads darkened. The whiteheads almost always went painlessly but spectacularly, marking the surface of her mirror with speckles of yellow, white and green. Sometimes she would keep the pressure on until she added a spattering of red to the mix.

The blackheads could be more challenging, sometimes resisting her attentions for hours at a time until they were nothing so much as swollen nubs of pain that felt far larger than they actually were. When the surface of one finally broke it would exclude a thin streamer of puss. She would watch in fascination as the little filament of exudate twisted along her finger and then squeeze harder and harder until something would give way and a rivulet of blood veined with yellow and white shot from the wound.

She would celebrate each of her victories of those blemishes with a glass of wine and a dab of Sea Breeze.

Pop

Left cheek then right cheek, forehead then chin, she would let one part of her face fester and work at another. She learned how to cultivate razor bumps when she shaved her legs and was amazed at how resistant they could be but made them give up their secrets.

All it took was a sewing needle and persistence.

Occasionally she filmed herself but it was never the same on playback, no matter how close she got to the camera. And Ethel never ever considered posting them, this was for her and her alone. She could imagine no experience more intimate.

Late at night when was lying in bed, half drunk with her face and legs stinging with astringent, she would wonder how much she had drained from her body this way, drop by drop, spurt by spurt. A pint? Maybe a gallon. She tried to imagine it, a an empty carton or milk jug overflowing with thick, putrefying liquid. She thought of the skin cells she shed every day and the mucus that gathered in her nose, of the mites that lived on her eyelashes and the bacteria that made their homes in her gut.

In the end was that all a person was? A festering wound? A host for infections?

Pop

Ethel’s friends and relatives would try to broach the subject of her complexion with her, never directly though. They would ask if she was sick, if she had seen a doctor or what beauty products she was using. She would wave such concerns away and change the subject. What did they know about her and her interests? As she drifted from one party or family reunion to another she would see more and more pitying gazes thrown her way, Ethel accepted them with a grim amusement.

Sometimes she would see people staring at a particularly swollen blackhead or purposely neglected twin-headed pimple and see a flash of something familiar in their eyes. They wanted to get their fingers on those blemishes as much as she did, to feel the lump skin protest against the squeezing and then give way. She was never uncomfortable with these people. Let them stare, let them be jealous.

Other times she would see nothing but pure disgust in someone’s expression, someone with perfect skin and hair that judged her and saw her as somehow inferior. With those people Ethel wanted nothing more than to give a demonstration of her newly developed skills, to send an arc of pus sailing into their face with a single, simple gesture.

But she never did that, it would have been a waste.

POP

Then she had the accident.

It was a stupid thing really, Ethel had been driving back from the store when she’d become distracted by a previously unnoticed ingrown hair lurking just behind her earlobe. She knew better than to text and drive, or call and drive, she wasn’t even one to fiddle with the radio while in traffic but her attention kept returning to the blemish. One hand on the wheel she tried to get it to go by pinching it between the fingers of her free hand.

No luck. It was maddeningly resistant.

So, finally she gave in to temptation and used both hands to push at the ingrown hair. The pimple plopped open just as she clipped the front fender of the Nissan running the yellow light ahead of her.

She wasn’t in the wrong, that was obvious but the officers on the scene insisted on breathalyzer tests all around. They found Ethel’s blood alcohol level to be with the legal limit, but just barely.

It was all so embarrassing, and the Nissan’s driver only made things worse by suing anyone and everyone possible. They told a story that painted them as a victim of irresponsible drivers, poorly designed intersections and soft tissue damage.

Ethel was surprised when she saw her ex-husband Floyd among the attorneys involved in the deposition, she was even more surprised when he didn’t recognize her. When she finally approached him after the proceedings all his well trained lawyerly dispassion was gone in an instant. When he spoke his voice was loud enough that everyone in the room heard.

“What the Hell happened to you?”

Those words followed Ethel home from the courthouse. Every time she glimpsed herself in the rearview mirror or reflective surface she heard it again. “What the Hell happened to you?”

When she got home she cursed that there was no alcohol in the house but she had told herself she needed to cut down. The accident had been a close call and she had been frightened to realize later that she didn’t know how long it had been before her last drink and hitting the road that night.

But she would have loved a drink right then. She wanted her mind to be empty and spinning, she wanted her vision and senses blurred.

Once, not too long ago, he had looked upon her face with adoration, then, later on, resignation. In time Ethel had become used to both, but the expression of horror on his face. It had been too much to bear.

She cleaned off her makeup mirror and looked at herself, not the blemishes old and new, not the oily patches and deep, bruised-looking pockmarks. Ethel saw herself, saw the extent of her self mutilation.

Why had she done this? Why had she become so obsessed with act of whittling away at herself to the point that she had become unrecognizable to the man that had shared her bed for nine years? Remembering the tiny blooms of pleasure she had taken in the act suddenly left her feeling sick to her stomach.

Ethel ran her hands over her cheeks, they were ragged and eaten away, her forehead was a ruin of interconnected scars and her chin was a festering wound of pustules half gone to becoming cysts.

Someday, long from that moment, she would come to learn the terms Body-Focused Repetitive Behavior and Excoriation Disorder but that night, the night she wailed with self-disgust and self-realization and smashed her mirror, Ethel only know this it was more than she could take.

And after all, what was one more mutilation at this point?

She hooked each of her hands into claws and brought them forward, and, after a deep breath to steel her courage, drove them deep into her eye sockets with all her might.
Then she pinched.

POP POP

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Grovulché: a tale of the Night Blogger

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“This is the story of Roy Foster Jr and the summer he lost forever.”

Table of Contents

Prologue – A statement of intent (Free Preview)
Chapter One – Arrival
Chapter Two – The Yellow, the Green and the Blue
Chapter Three – The kids of cabin B-3
Chapter Four – Introducing Preston
Chapter Five – Caught Red Handed

_________________________________________________________

You know that Cousin Roy and Ashley Fowler went to the same summer camp, but you don’t know the whole truth.

The serial novel Grovulché tells the whole story but you have to be a subscriber to my Patreon’s $25 tier to read it.

New chapters will post every Saturday!

Other Tales Of The Night Blogger will be available to subscribers at this level as well as exclusive access to other fiction and Night Blogger Podcast Bonus Episodes.

Become a Patron!

Abaddon Ship

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December 11th- The annual Hudson River Booze and Boobs Cruise was something of a local institution, a three hour boat ride from the port of Albany to the city of Troy and back again. The cruise offered a buffet, a bar and more exotic dancers than you could shake a money clip at. Ostensibly this low grade bacchanalia was a way for local entrepreneur Edward Fingle to raise money for the Tri-city IBS Treatment Society or T.I.T.S. for short. It was the kind of event that brought greasy ‘philanthropists’ from all across the tri-city area.

It should be noted that Edward Fingle is more commonly known around these parts as ‘Goodtime Eddie Filth’ and he has been running four ‘adult novelty’ stores since the 1970s. Goodtime Eddie used to be raking in the cash but just like every other brick and mortar store he had been hit hard by the online revolution. Businessmen like him weren’t prepared for a world where you can get live nude girls on your smartphone and dildos delivered by Amazon drones.

Because of these changes Goodtime Eddie needed the Hudson River Booze and Boobs Cruise to help balance the books. It was like his Christmas, Christmas with herpes.

The MS Better Knot had always been the ship of choice for Goodtime Eddie’s oceanic adventures. It was a three level cruise ship ten years past its prime but the lower decks had tinted windows and central air to keep the sights and smells of the event from the landlubbers.

As you can imagine, after each of these cruises there was public outrage, municipal embarrassment and condoms washing up on shore for weeks. The forces of decency would rally and vow to put an end to the Hudson River Booze and Boobs Cruise, but no one really thought the party would ever stop. Not when there was more than enough money for bribes after the owners, the caterers, the dancers, and local mobsters had been paid off. The only people that got shut out in the end were the only people left hanging were T.I.T.S..

But when the party finally did stop, it stopped forever.

*

I was drunk, seasick and horny. It was almost ten thirty at night and I believed I was the only person on the open air upper deck of the MS Better Knot. It was thirty degrees, just cold enough to make me feel like I might either sober up or pass out. The party raged on beneath me.

And yes I do mean raged. The booze and the boobs had done their ugly work making some of the male attendees aggressive and demanding. The bouncers had their hands full and they had begun deputizing members of the ship’s crew to keep what was supposed to be a nice charitable orgy from degenerating into a series of manslaughter charges. The more I thought about the things going on down there, the more sick to my stomach I felt.

So why was I here? Because this event had hired my Cousin Roy as the DJ and he’d gotten me a free ticket. I said I wouldn’t go but loneliness and the lure of free drinks had weakened my will.

I stared woozily up at the sky, there were no clouds, just bright stars and a brighter moon. I found myself wishing it would snow, wishing a blanket of white would cover me, this boat, this city, everything. I wanted… I wanted to feel cleansed. I wanted to know what the fuck I was doing with my life.

Most of all wanted to forget about Sara Bishop.

There was a crash to my right, I turned around expecting to see another partier in search of fresh air or an original place to throw up.

What I saw was a partier all right, he staggered along the guardrail; his face, throat and gut had all been torn away. Air whistled through his ragged neck, a loosened eye rolled and jostled against an exposed cheekbone. Entrails, reeking and bloody, brimmed from his belly, slithering down to his feet.

He blubbered and reached for me

Then something brought him down, a lean, canine shape.

I heard the bites that killed the already dying man. The loud snaps of a powerful jaw followed by grunts that might have been from effort or from pleasure. My every muscle was locked in place, I was utterly terrified but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I was fascinated too.

The thing chomped and swallowed while I ever so slowly retrieved my smartphone and snapped a few pictures.

Click: A paw immersed in a shallow puddle of blood.

But the paw wasn’t right, it was clumped and gnarled like an old branch. Something about it made my skin crawl.

Click: A long arching back, a supine torso covered with hair but not thick with it. Its hindquarters were hunched, its shoulders were sagging, its blunt muzzle was buried deep in the torso of the dead man.

Like the paw, the entirety of the creature’s body was hard to look at. At one glance it brought to mind a sickly or deformed beast and with another it made you think of a child clumsily play-acting at being an animal.

Click: Closer now, zooming in. There were traces of what might be bruises or war paint along its throat. The jawline was distended and monstrous looking, the ear was pert and seashell like. With one eye it looked directly into the camera.

Without warning the thing loosed a long keening howl.

When it howled I screamed.

I don’t remember running. I don’t remember running at all. I do remember falling down the stairs and landing with a thud onto the main deck. The smallest of the seven bouncers on duty, a pair of guys named Adam and Phil, helped me to my feet. They ushered me over to a chair at an empty table and got me a glass of water. Cousin Roy’s fifteen minute ‘My Humps’ dance remix was throbbing from the speakers. No wonder no one had heard the nightmare going on upstairs. “Aren’t you Roy’s brother?” Adam asked, “What happened?”

“Someone is hurt.” I pointed, “Up on the deck. There’s blood.”

What else did you expect me to say? That I’d seen a monster? I know better than that and so should you.

Phil went upstairs to check, I looked around the room. That thing, that whatever it was, could be anywhere now. If it moved on all fours it could slink between the tables and be on me before I could so much as piss myself.

That made me concentrate on my surroundings all the more but I saw no monsters, just table after table of empty, lonely and broken men and the single mothers, runaways and other lost girls trying to feign interest in what they had to say.

And make no mistake dear readers, I was very much a part of this scene. Sure, I partook in lap dances and dry banter from women that would never tell me their real names. Women I was treating with no more thought than a handful of tissues.

Suddenly I was being manhandled to my feet and dragged up the stairs by the bouncers. They didn’t look amused at all.

It seemed darker now but that might have just been the beginnings of the alcohol poisoning I had been courting all night. The Patroon Island Bridge was looming up ahead. No one was more surprised than me when I suddenly threw up all over the bouncer’s shoes. “Aw God Damn it!” Adam hissed.

“Never mind that,” Phil pulled me over to the far railing.

Of course there was no body. There was plenty of blood but no body.

“Now,” Adam said, “what the Hell happened up here?”

As far as interrogations go, the one I got from the two bouncers wasn’t all that bad. I told them what they expected to hear and insisted we had to turn the boat around and call the police.

Phil looked at me like I’d just beamed down from the Starship Peckerhead, “Are you outta your mind?”

“Someone might have fallen overboard!” I said, “We gotta get help.”

“All that happened is someone fell and hit their head,” Phil glared, “head wounds bleed a lot. Poor sap probably wandered back downstairs.”

“That doesn’t even make sense! Think about what–” I stopped talking when I felt a meaty hand on my right buttock, “Hey that’s my wallet!”

“Mr. Fingle doesn’t need the police or any kind of trouble,” Adam rooted around until he found my driver’s license. He pocketed it, “So you keep your mouth shut or we’ll find you and make you sorry.”

“I’m already sorry” I snatched my wallet back, “you guys are making a big mistake.”

They crossed their arms in unison. Phil said, “We’re professionals, we don’t make mistakes.”

“Oh please,” I rolled my eyes, “this isn’t Roadhouse. Can’t you see we’re all in danger?”

“Danger? How?”

“Well… Well…” I self-consciously adjusted my straw fedora, “I haven’t been one hundred percent up front with you guys.”

“Oh?” Phil stepped closer.

“I saw something else… It attacked the guy… The guy that isn’t here now…”

“Something else?”

So I told them everything, the whole story and I cringed with every word. When I was finished Adam asked, “Are you saying you saw a werewolf?”

“Hey now!” I raised my hands, “I did not use the ‘W-word’.”

“But that’s what you mean right?” Adam continued, “You’re saying you saw a monster eat somebody.”

I snapped my fingers and reached in my jacket, “Hold on. I snapped a picture of it…”

Adam and Phil stared at the pictures for almost a minute; then they exchanged glances and Adam tossed my smartphone into the Hudson River.

“Hey!” I shouted, “What did you do that for?”

“The rules said no recording devices allowed on the boat.” Phil said, “You remember that?”

“I think we’re beyond such concerns now,” I tried to match him glare for glare but that isn’t easy when your line of sight is roughly equal to a guy’s pectoral muscles. “We should be worried about the werewolf!”

The two bouncers started laughing. Adam gave me a shove, “Werewolf? All I saw was some naked hippie chick.”

“Hippie chick?”

“Yeah, you know all hairy and shit.”

I facepalmed, “Oh sweet lord.”

“All I gotta say is you better stay out of trouble for the rest of this trip or you’re gonna get a tasering.”

With that I was alone on the upper deck again. A hippie chick? I thought to myself, Was he for real?

He probably was, when faced with the preternatural most people default back to their most comfortable frame of reference. I guess Adam had a thing for hirsute ladies.

Part of me wanted to leave these idiots to their fate. What would happen if I literally jumped ship? Could I make it to shore? I could probably make it, I’d dealt with worse than hypothermia in my life.

But that would mean leaving Cousin Roy, and other semi-innocent people to a fate they didn’t deserve. I had to do something, so I decided to present my case to the captain of the MS Better Knot. He might take me seriously.

Sure, and daisies might grow out of my ears.

Sighing with resignation I headed up the stairs to the bridge. I rehearsed the lie I was going to tell in my head, editing out any details that might arouse suspicion or laughter. I was so focused on this that I almost didn’t notice when my hand came up from the railing wet and red.

Oh no. Oh no…

I froze in place and thought about turning back but after a moment of self-hatred I started up the stairs again. But a little more slowly and quietly this time. There was a small fire extinguisher in a case on the wall. I grabbed it.

The engines of the boat thrummed, the waves lapped and splashed against the hull. I could hear the sounds of laughter and pounding of the music down below me. The stars began to pale as the lights of the patroon island bridge grew larger and the flash of headlights passing across it became brighter and brighter.

The door at the top of the stairs was a sliding metal affair, it looked very secure, too bad it was wide open. There was blood on the walls and the instrument panels, there were bits of the bridge crew smeared around the floor. A bit of the captain here, a bit of the first mate there, a bit of something unrecognizable in the corner.

I walked into the room; I wasn’t hoping to find survivors, I was hoping to find the radio so I could call for help. I could hear hissing static nearby, the handset had been ripped out and the controls had been smashed.

There was a roar. Then a flash of pain as I was thrown forward. A sharp ache bloomed up the right side of my back, the kind of ache that always precedes an unhealthy amount of blood loss.

Terror and adrenaline kept me on my feet. I spun around swinging the fire extinguisher. Metal struck bone. Teeth clattered to the floor.

I brought the fire extinguisher back around again for another swing. Another ugly crunch of bone, my attacker- the creature- the werewolf went down.

And thank God for that because the torn skin and muscle of my back was screaming now.

No time to rest, I thought, Finish this. Could I really crush the thing’s skull? If it really was a werewolf shouldn’t I be looking for something made of silver? I stood over it, saw it thrashing half-heartedly.

Finish this! It was more than a thought now, it was a primal instinct. Grunting at the pain I raised the fire extinguisher above my head.

And that was when the MS Better Knot crashed into the Patroon Island Bridge.

*

You must know the rest, it was the news story of the year. The MS Better Knot striking the Patroon Island Bridge and capsizing. The five dead, including the captain and bridge crew, and two missing. The millions of dollars in structural damage done to one of the main routes from Albany to Rensselaer. The full-fledged boat rescue in the middle of the night that was made the more insane because Cousin Roy had decided to leave Gordon Lightfoot’s Summertime Dream playing at full volume before abandoning the DJ’s booth in favor of a life raft.

The wound on my back was a deep one, stitches couldn’t close it, they had to use surgical staples. I see an epic scar in my future. I also see a long wait at the DMV to get my driver’s license back since bouncer Adam was among the dead.

When I consider what happened that night I think about Tyke the elephant.

Stay with me on this, I’m going somewhere.

In 1994 during a performance of the Circus International in Honolulu, Hawaii Tyke went berserk, killed her trainer and ran wild through the streets. Twelve people were injured and eventually Tyke was brought down in a hail of gunfire.

I think about that poor creature, snatched away from anything remotely resembling a normal life and forced to perform for the amusement of others. I think I can understand why that elephant did what she did and I bet you can too.

Item: Among the injured was a dancer named Zora. Investigations revealed that she was a fifteen year old illegal immigrant that had been smuggled into the country from Armenia and forced to work as a dancer and a prostitute by Edward Fingle’s adult entertainment company.

Item: Further investigations revealed that several girls on the Fingle payroll were in the same situation as Zora.

Item: Goodtime Eddie Flith is in a lot of trouble and it couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.

Item: Despite having a broken jaw, dislocated shoulder and shattered clavicle Zora disappeared from the hospital shortly after her identity was discovered and hasn’t been seen since. The authorities suspect Goodtime Eddie’s associates had something to do with it but I’m not so sure.

I don’t think I’ll ever know who, or what, the girl named Zora was but I think I can understand why she did what she did and I bet you can too.

Screams From Valhalla

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The following story is dedicated with awe and inspiration to George C. Chesbro

November 3rd, 9:51 PM;

Martin ‘Marty’ Biddle got home from visiting his parents to find the front door of the apartment he shared with his two roommates wide open. Since he didn’t live in the best of neighborhoods the wisest course of action would have been to call the police, but Marty didn’t do that. Instead he grabbed his phone and started filming. He would explain later that he had only wanted to make a video record for insurance purposes, but let’s all be honest here, Marty went in there trying to catch what we all want these days- an image so amazing or amusing or awful that it will set the internet buzzing and tweeting. A post modern money shot.

The only light in the parlor was the pale blue illumination from an overturned TV. Everything that could have been smashed had been smashed, everything that could have been torn apart had been torn apart. Marty called out for his roommates but there was no answer.

He made his way past the kitchen to find the bathroom door had been pulled off its hinges. The toilet had been shattered and the sink pulled from the wall. All the chips and shards of porcelain had been heaped together and every single grooming supply had been reverently emptied onto them. It should be noted that Marty’s roommate Brett was a model, his other roommate Sergio was a hairdresser and between them there had been enough gel, shampoo, body wash and mousse to cover the entire pile debris. The smell was more powerful than you could imagine. Sweet and cloying it took Marty’s breath away, it made his head swim. It kept him from noticing the shaggy figure slouching out of the shadows towards him until it was too late.

Marty Biddle was about to go viral.

*

Luckily for Marty someone nearby heard the sound of his near-disemboweling and called 911.

The authorities immediately started downplaying the attack, calling it an ‘isolated incident of drug-related violence’. That explanation seemed plausible enough, so long as you didn’t look too closely or think too hard about it. I don’t know how things are in your town but in Albany drug related crimes aren’t nearly as ‘bitey’ as what had happened that night. The poor guy had been gnawed on in dozens of places.

Then the video from Marty’s phone, the video the authorities had been trying so hard to keep under wraps, leaked. Those few minutes of footage started flying around the Deep Web like an ear infection moving through a daycare. The two sites that really fixated on the video were 4Chan and the ‘Fear and Truth’ message board. All the gang at 4Chan did with the video was add cartoon sound effects and racism but my friends and conspirators on ‘Fear and Truth’ enhanced the Sweet Holy Hell out of that footage and broke it down frame by frame.

What that revealed provoked a long and ugly online argument, with some forum users insisting that Marty Biddle had been attacked by a Sasquatch and others declaring that they damn well knew a rabid hippie when they saw one. My opinion was firmly in the rabid hippie category and I decided to prove it.

*

The best way to skulk around a hospital unchallenged is to dress in scrubs and look like you know what you’re doing. So at the very least I dressed in scrubs and showed up at Albany Med during evening shift changeover.

There were two uniformed police officers stationed in front of room 357; both were older men, desk jockeys working overtime. They seemed more interested in bullshitting with each other than their surroundings, which was fine by me. I kept watch on the room for almost an hour, the doctors and nurses that entered the room all wore surgical masks and latex gloves. The two police officers stepped far away from the door whenever they passed.

It was around quarter to eight when I put on a surgical mask of my own and started walking towards the room.

I punctuated my every footstep with the thought I’m supposed to be here. I’m supposed to be here. and prayed that the middle aged boys in blue caught the vibe. The officers barely acknowledged me as I approached

Nailed it.

Then the radios on their shoulders crackled to life. They had a brief confused conversation with their superiors and then walked away from the door they had been so lackadaisically guarding. They brushed past me as they headed for the elevators.

Still nailing it. I thought as I entered Marty Biddle’s room.

And immediately thought I was in the wrong place.

The man strapped to the hospital bed didn’t look anything like the pictures I’d dug up online. His arms, face and neck were covered with tufts of hair, his eyes were crazed with inhuman fury and his jaw was distended. He had been chewing at his upper lip and his teeth were smeared with blood. This was no rabid hippie.

“Marty?” I whispered, “Marty Biddle?”

His only answer was a growl. So much for the interview section of my story. I whipped out my smartphone and started taking pictures- HIPPA be damned.

The door clicked open behind me. Moving with the speed of a true coward I dove into the darkened bathroom and closed the door almost but not quite all the way shut.

A trio of figures walked into the room, one woman, two men. They wore whimsical cat masks and serious gray suits.

Not something I expected to see but there are precedents.

They surrounded the bed. “Great scott!” the man in the white cat mask said.

“I thought you’d remember,” the woman in the black cat mask said.

The man in the orange cat mask spluttered “How is this possible?”

“Nobody is sure yet.” the white cat shook his head, “It can’t be Valhalla all over again. It just can’t.”

The orange cat asked, “Has anyone reached out to Dr. Fredrickson?”

“Isn’t he dead?”

“No,” the black cat said with a sigh, “just in France.”

I was texting all this information back to myself when I heard the hospital windows shatter.

That sound was followed by the crash of toppling furniture, animalistic grunts and all-too human cries. It sounded like a war had broken out in a monkey house. There was no mistaking the voice of the man in the black cat mask and the serious suit, his outraged cry dwindling to a death rattle.

Part of me wanted to get out there and see what was going on but the rational part of me, the part that mostly knows better, convinced me to close the bathroom door and put my shoulder against it.

I listened as the two cops burst into the hospital room. They were shouting orders but it only took a heartbeat for those bellowed orders to become high-pitched screams.

*

The authorities took my statement into evidence, then my iPhone and then finally my scrubs and clothes. They sent me home from a long night of interrogations with nothing more than a preposterous story and a second hand tracksuit.

I was never so glad to have left my hat at home.

I stopped by Cousin Roy’s place to have a drink and unwind. He didn’t even ask why I was dressed like a low rung mobster, he was too excited. He told me his new plan to become financially secure. It involved him getting declared mentally incompetent and then waiting for the public assistance to roll in.

Maybe I should have reacted with outrage or at least told him to not have Fox News playing in the background but I had too many questions and too little bourbon sloshing around in my head.

Who where those people in cat masks? What did they mean by “Valhalla all over again?” What had come crashing through the sixth floor hospital window to liberate Marty Biddle after reducing those cat mask wearing individuals into something bloody and unrecognizable?

I knew my first step to finding an answer would be to track down that Dr. Fredrickson they mentioned.

*

After the events of the hospital things moved quickly. Albany’s Chief of Police went on TV and declared a city-wide manhunt for the ‘drug crazed hooligans’ that had killed at least five people. I am sure that little soundbite was a great comfort to the citizenry as was the show of force that took place the next day. At high noon on November 5th the forces of law and order went marching through the poorer neighborhoods of Albany in all their army surplus enhanced glory. The whole scene was the very model of a post 9/11 dystopia. The final results of the brouhaha in body armor was twelve arrests on unrelated charges and outstanding warrants, a neighborhood dog being shot and not one ‘drug crazed hooligan’ being taken into custody.

While all this was going on I was busy learning all I could about Dr. Fredrickson. I assumed the good doctor was some kind of mad scientist but it turns out that this doctor had a degree in criminology. He taught for a while at a downstate college before opening up his own private detective agency. That was when Dr. Fredrickson’s story got weird- I mean really weird.

I’m talking Swan Lake being performed by mimes with Tourette’s syndrome in a running car wash weird. You see Dr. Fredrickson’s cases weren’t of the standard ‘act as a bodyguard’ or ‘find out of my spouse is cheating’ variety. His life was spent investigating all kinds of grisly murders, as well mysterious disappearances and the occasional ninja.

Yes, you read that right. Actual ninjas!

While I did my research things kept getting more and more complicated. There were almost a dozen sightings of what I will ironically describe as ‘man-animals’ in Troy but they were all dismissed as hysteria and lies by the powers that be. Some unlucky citizens were attacked but those attacks were blamed on rabid dogs. By the third chewed up jogger the local newspapers began to get suspicious but their investigations went nowhere because both the survivors and the dead were kept under a strict quarantine.

It took some doing but on the Novemeber sixth I struck pay dirt.

My investigations revealed that in 2006 Dr. Fredrickson moved to France to act as a consultant for Interpol and never came back. In fact he moved his whole damn family across the ocean with him. I found his Interpol email address and sent him a guarded message.

I got an answer almost immediately. God bless you social media.

*

The place: Troy, New York.

The time: high noon.

Going to secluded locations at the behest of people you’ve met on the Internet is only slightly dumber than climbing into the back of a van offering free vasectomies. But I went anyway.

To the secluded location, not the vasectomy.

I parked my car across the street from a flower shop and made my way to a long-abandoned textile mill. Abandoned buildings are nothing new in Troy; the town is an urban explorer’s dream but the mill was unique in that after the Volsung Company shut down operations and moved production to Taiwan they held on to the property- and let it rot.

At least until the Volsung Corporation went belly up in 1985. The city took the property over and came up with one idea after another of what to do with it. None were ever acted on.

The mill was an ugly rectangle of red brick with tiny windows and a pair of chimneys. It looked like an orphanage out of a Dickens novel. Dr. Fredrickson had told me he was booking a flight to New York right away and planned to meet me there. Personally I would have preferred to meet the man at the airport or a nice restaurant but if this was how he wanted to play it I didn’t have much choice.

I wanted answers.

Like most creepy, long-abandoned buildings the mill was surrounded by a chain link fence that was crawling with tetanus. There is no way to casually climb a chain link fence in broad daylight so I just got it over with as quickly as I could. My bum knee screamed in protest when I landed.

There was a brief, angry moment when realize there had been a man-sized hole in the fence just a few yards to my right but I got over it. Trash and weeds ringed the building, one of the loading dock doors was wide open, it gaped hungrily, waiting for me to enter.

And enter I did, my iPhone filming every second. The loading dock looked like… well, a loading dock. Truck bays, ramps and offices. A double door led to the interior of the building, I nudged it open with my foot. The mill was empty, no walls, no machines. The afternoon sun was level with glassless windows, I passed from shadow to light to shadow. Somewhere an owl hooted and flew away.

The only thing worse than the stink of a building gone to rot is the odor of death and lucky me, I was smelling both. I hated myself for not asking for more answers from Dr. Fredrickson but he’d insisted that he no longer trusted the security of any email system.

The message had told me to come with an open mind and a length of rope.

Just in case this whole thing was a trap I decided against bringing a rope. I had no intention of being trussed up by someone as deadly as they were thrifty.

The light from smartphone found footprints on the dirty floor; dozens of them, all barefoot and all walking on the balls of their feet. I followed the trail deeper into the building. Half-eaten animal corpses were strewn everywhere. I’m not 100% sure what kind they were but I imagined there were a lot of folks in Troy missing their cats and dogs.

“Stop right there!” a voice called from the shadows. It was soft, heavily accented in French, and deadly serious.

I stopped.

“Look down,” the voice said.

There was a hole in the floor right in front of me. I exhaled heavily, “I should have brought that rope.”

“Nice to finally meet you,” A trench coated woman stepped into view. She was beautiful with refined features and ghostly white skin. She was an albino. “I like the hat.”

The stranger was wearing a chapeau of her own, a dark blue trilby that anchored down her white dreadlocks. “Back at ya” I said, “And you are?”

“My name is Chloe Tree, you’ve been emailing my Uncle.” There was a rucksack over her shoulder, she pulled a slender object from it. There was a muffled crack followed by a hiss, the road flare she was holding burst to life.

“He sent you?”

Chloe Tree walked over to the edge of the hole and dropped the flare. The stick of reddish flame fell for eight seconds before hitting bottom. She nodded sagely and shouldered out of her rucksack. “Good, I brought enough,” she handed me one end of the rope, “please tie it around something solid.”

There was a free-standing support column about six feet to our left. “So,” I started looping rope around it, “Dr. Fredrickson is your Uncle?”

“When I was four years old my parents were killed by a man that thought my skin and organs could give him great power. The Fredrickson brothers rescued me.”

“And then Dr. Fredrickson’s brother adopted you?”

“His brother Garth and his wife Mary.”

I stared at the knot I had tied for a moment or two. I’d never been a Boy Scout and I couldn’t be sure the ugly tangle of rope would hold, but it would have to do. “Ready!”

She dropped the rope down into the pit, “The Volsung Company presented itself to the world as an agricultural research company but they had other interests.”

“Bio-weapons?” I asked.

She flashed me a smile, “How did you know?”

“What can I say?” I shrugged, “I’m a good guesser.”

“Indeed.” After one last look around she hefted the rucksack and began lowering herself into the hole in the floor, “Climb carefully now.”

Climb down into a pit in an abandoned factory? That’s how I roll.

This was my first time rappelling so I took it slowly. How far down were we going? I thought eighty feet was a good estimate but that begged the question- what the Hell was down here? What had this company been doing on the side? “So,” I panted, “I guess Volsung was making some kind of killer virus…”

“Worse, a morphic impacting pathogen.”

“I have no idea what that means but it makes me want to wash my hands.”

She gave a little laugh and she dropped from the rope to land on the floor below, “You’ve seen the results of it on Martin Biddle, a complete re-writing of DNA to the point where a physical transformation is triggered. The transformation is mental too, millions of years of evolution are wiped away. Their minds become primitive and malleable.”

“Are you telling me,” I dropped down after her, “that this thing turns people into cavemen?”

“To put it simply yes. But the damage done is so profound that the children of any surviving victims will be pseudo-neanderthals.”

What she was saying was impossible, it was insane, it was the beginning of 2001: A Space Odyssey in reverse but I’d seen it. I’d seen what that poor bastard Marty Biddle had become.

She produced a flashlight from her backpack of tricks and swept a beam of light around the chamber. The place was at least three hundred feet across in every direction. It was populated with long, flat buildings,  obelisks and statues rose up to brush the roof of the chamber. It was positively cathedral-like, “Why would anyone do this?”

“They called it the Valhalla Project,” she walked over to one of the statues, it was covered with an ugly, foul smelling fungus that grew in streaks and lumps along what must have once been a seventy foot tall effigy of some saint or wise man. The coating of fungus left the face and inscription impossible to make sense of, “The plan was to let the virus do its work while a chosen few survivors waited in a dozen places like this around the globe. Then once the human race had been fully regressed they would emerge and guide mankind into a less warlike state of being. A kinder, gentler human race.”

“That’s… that’s…” I boggled, “You’re not kidding are you?”

“No,” she started walking then paused and glanced back at me before continuing on. It seemed like her too-pale face lingered in the shadows after her. Chesire-like.

I used my phone to snap a few pictures along the way but I knew I would never post them, not when everything looked like a seventies album cover. “It would be nice if you could tell me what we’re looking for.”

“Some clue as to who blasted that hole up above. Everyone that experienced the Valhalla Project firsthand should be dead.”

“Everyone?”

“Everyone except for my father and those curious cats,” the entrance to one of the buildings was open, we took a moment to peer inside. There were four rows of TRS-80 era looking computers, a skeleton was slumped over one of the keyboards. It was covered with fungus, everything was.

“What is this… gunk?” I ran my fingers along the wall, scooping up a handful of the stuff, it was moist and clammy.

“It was supposed to be a food source, I guess after the place was abandoned it got ambitious.”

“Ichhhhh!” Now I really wanted to wash my hands.

Up ahead was something that must have been a town square, a gathering place for discussions of great importance and possibly the occasional biome hoedown. There was a gathering taking place there, or maybe ceremony is a better way to describe what I saw.

There was a toppled obelisk nearby, Chloe and I took cover behind it and observed the ugly troglodyte figures as they danced about a flaming pile of bones.

Somewhere an amplifier was playing a speech that sounded like it had been recorded long ago, “Let every man remind their descendants that they also are soldiers who must not desert the ranks of their ancestors, or from cowardice fall behind…”

It boomed and echoed, the acoustics of the place were amazing.

“There are more than I expected,” Chloe said.

“…strive to be the bravest of men. And I think that I ought now to repeat what your fathers desired to have said to you who are their survivors…”

I have never been so out of my depth in my life. I asked, “What do we do now?”

“We retreat,” Chloe said, “We contact the authorities and we hope.”

“Love it.” I said, “Best plan ever.”

There was a pause in the recording. We turned to go. I stepped on a bone. The sound of it snapping resounded like a gunshot.

Of course the man-animals heard it.

Of course we ran.

Of course they caught up with us easily.

The moment one reached us, Chloe clocked it with her rucksack. Then her hand was in the rucksack, grabbing two more flares.

There was a crack and a hiss. The road flare burned to life. The man-animals backed away in panic but surrounded us just the same.

We weren’t going anywhere.

“How long do those things last?” I asked her.

“Here,” she threw the other one to me and I almost caught it.

When I bent down to retrieve it one of the man-animals pounced. We tumbled along the slimy, moldy ground. Teeth brushed my throat. I fought to push it away but only managed to keep the creature from biting into my neck.

My scream was half-pain, half-terror. Chloe was shouting something in French. I begged the creature nuzzling into the meat of my clavicle for mercy.

The man-animals would have killed us both then and there if not for the timely arrival of a robed, red-haired man. He ordered them to stop in a voice that was patient and gentle. The man-animals immediately forgot about us, they fawned and groveled at the man’s feet.

“Chloe…” I panted. “Are you Ok?”

Dirt and bruises contrasted with her pale, albino skin, “Morceau de merde stole my bag…”

I was clutching at the wound on my shoulder. There was so much blood. My hand looked like I was wearing a single red glove. Direct pressure. I told myself, Apply direct pressure.

The stranger sent the man-animals scurrying with a snap of his fingers. He had a tall forehead, frizzy hair and an almost nonexistent chin, “We meet again Ms. Tree.”

“Mr. Volsung,” Chloe said his name like a curse.

“‘We meet again?’” I said woozily, “Who the Hell says that in real life?”

He glared at me, “I just did.”

It was at that moment I realized I was on my knees, I tried to stand up but my legs weren’t having it, “Are you really going to release a killer virus and destroy the world?”

Mr. Volsung turned his attention back to Chloe, “Who is this idiot?”

“He’s a fellow investigator.”

“Is this fellow investigator aware that he will soon be reborn as a Beast of Valhalla?”

“Is that bad?” I asked, “Because it sounds bad.”

Mr. Volsung’s reaction was a roll of the eyes, Chloe’s expression became pained. In other words it wasn’t as bad as it sounded, it was worse. I was infected, I was on a one way trip to Troglodyte Town.

“Come,” Mr. Volsung gestured to Chloe Tree, “we have matters to discuss that are not for lesser ears.”

“Oh no.” I said, “I’m a part of this, I want some answers.”

Mr. Volsung snapped his fingers and the man-animals swarmed me. They lifted me up and carried me away…

*

My name is Chloe Tree and it has fallen upon me to tell this part of the story. Please understand that this is not the whole story, there are facts that must be obscured for the sake of humanity but I respect Brian Foster and what he has tried to accomplish.

Know then that the man called Volsung is the last and least of a bloodline as arrogant as it is ugly. Let it be known however that Volsung labors alone like in the financial and scientific ruins of his betters. The mighty had fallen, I just didn’t know how far.

“Come,” he said to me, “we have matters to discuss that are not for lesser ears.”

“Oh no.” Brian’s voice was desperate, “I’m a part of this, I want some answers.”

All it took was a snap of Volsung’s fingers for the pseudo-neanderthals, the creatures some called the Beasts of Valhalla, to fall upon Brian. There was a moment of terror when I was certain they would tear him limb from limb, but why would the beasts do that when he would be one of them soon enough?

They lifted him up and carried him away deep into the heart of this fungus choked monument to one man’s hubris. “How?” I asked, “How do you make them obey you like that?”

“All in good time,” there was a tremor in his voice that seemed to spread through his entire body. He began to walk away knowing I would follow.

Brian’s straw fedora had fallen to the ground, I tossed my own hat off my head and put his on in its stead. Even now I am not sure what my motivation was for doing so. You might think it was so he could be with me in spirit,  but I don’t believe in spirits, or monsters or gods. There are only mysteries that have yet to be solved.

It was sentiment I suppose.

“Does your adoptive father know you’re here?” Volsung asked.

“He’s none of your business.”

The path he led me along sloped downward. The white fungus became thicker and thicker as we progressed, it popped and hissed underfoot like a carpet of bubble paper. The air it released was foul and choked with spores.

“What is this?” I asked.

“It was the only thing to survive when the facility descended into chaos. It spread from  hydroponics to contaminate everything.” He ran a hand along the veins of soft, whiteness, “From foodstuff to conquerer in less than a generation. Impressive no?”

This was getting nowhere, I changed the subject, “What about Brian?”

“What about him?”

“There must be some kind of cure, some way to help him.”

“No. The infection is incurable and for all but 2% of the population.”

“2%? Which 2%?”

“For some reason it does not impact individuals with a mutation of the MC1R protein. Speaking of mutations,” Volsung paused in mid stride and glanced back at me, “I was sorry to hear about your ‘uncle’ but I suppose he lived longer than someone with his genetic setbacks should have.”

I said nothing.

“Did he ever consider,” he began walking again, “That perhaps his encounter with the Valhalla virus was the source of his prolonged lifespan?”

“He…” I took a moment to compose myself. This is the curse of an atheist; a religious person finds solace in the knowledge they will be reunited with their loved ones in an afterlife. Atheists know better, dead is dead and gone is gone- we only live on in memory and even that is fleeting. “He would have wanted me to try and appeal to your sense of reason.”

Volsung chuckled, “My sense of reason doesn’t come into it.”

“This strain of the virus is flawed, it could never do what you want because it is only passed through bodily fluids. All you’re going to do is create human misery.”

“Look around you Ms. Tree, we’re already in a world of human misery. Better to begin again or never to have been at all.” The door to hydroponics had fallen from it’s hinges, the ultraviolet lights dangled by half rotted fixtures and wires. The fungus was everywhere, it surrounded us on all sides, a thick mound of it festered in the center of the room. “If it is to survive Humanity must stop warring with itself. It must become one mind, one soul.”

That brought a question to mind, “Is that how are you able to control the beasts?”

“One mind,” His robes and voice trembled again. He approached the mound and caressed it, “One soul.”

An ugly suspicion took hold of my thoughts, “Whose mind?” I asked, “Whose soul?”

His expression became sly, he undid the belt of his robe and let it fall open to reveal corruption. The same fungus that had run riot over the complex had grown fat on his flesh. It pulsed in time with his heartbeat. “It has such tranquility to share,” he said, “It will forgive your trespasses.”

I dropped to my knees, he liked that. I asked, “What does this have to do with saving humanity?”

“Livestock survives. Livestock endures.”

“You’re insane!” I reached down “Think what you’re saying.”

“Don’t you see?” Volsung spread his arms wide in a gesture of welcome, “Every flock needs shepherds. We. Have. Been. Chosen.”

One of my father’s old friends had given me the pistol and the ankle holster I drew it from. I fired twice, both shots hitting him in the face. There was less blood than I expected. Thick tendrils quivered and lashed at the air before becoming still. He didn’t fall, he just stood there like a toy with batteries that had run down.

The mound of fungus in the center of the room began to quiver, I imagined it erupting like a boil and filling the room with spores and tendrils. It was time to get away, but first I had to find Brian.

*

Aside from a few disconnected images I can’t really remember what happened.

I know the man-animals carried me away to what might have an auditorium. There were TV screens on every wall, some hissed static others played old newsreel footage from World War II. The man-animals sat me down in the first row of seats. Just before I blacked out I realized one of the man-animals had stolen my pants.

Then gunfire. Chloe Tree came charging into the room like, if you’ll pardon a bit of alliteration, an albino avenging angel. She dragged me to my feet and pulled me out of the room. The man-animals started to give chase but a few shots over their heads scattered them.

She practically carried me through the complex. All around us the white fungus was pulsing angrily.

Somehow we got back to where we had come in. How the Hell did she get me back up that rope? Men and women in cat masks and Brooks Brothers suits waited for us at the top of the shaft. They must have had something to do with it. There was construction equipment everywhere, cement mixers mostly. They had knocked out the east wall of the mill to get them in there.

A man in a calico cat mask approached Chloe. It didn’t take long for them to start arguing about me, something about me not leaving here alive. I wish I could remember exactly.

At that point I wanted to say something but I was too busy blacking out again.

Days later I woke up in the most sterile-looking hospital room I had ever seen. There were no windows, the bed was standard prison issue; the door was locked and there was no TV. My shoulder had been patched up and there were needle and IV tracks up and down my arms. Either I was being held prisoner by a shadowy government agency, or Albany Med had a terrifying new way of dealing with uninsured patients.

Thankfully it was the former and after a few more days of observation and tests they let me go with a warning never to tell my story to anyone.

But come on, what did they think I was gonna do?

By the time I got out Chloe Tree had already gone back to France but she had kindly emailed me the file I posted above so you could know what I missed.

Item: If you recall Volsung mentioned that people with a mutation of the MC1R protein are immune to the virus. The protein in question is the one that makes you a ginger. You don’t actually have to be a ginger to have that genetic marker, it’s recessive but just having it is enough to save you.

Item: I only have one picture of my absentee grandpa but if you haven’t guessed already he had bright red hair.

Item: In the two weeks I was gone Mrs. Vinchenzo and Cousin Roy went out of their minds with worry, now that I’m back they’re out of their minds with anger.

Item: At least I got my straw fedora back.

Item: You won’t find anything beneath the textile mill anymore, nothing but eighty-plus feet of fresh concrete, and pretty soon you won’t even find the mill itself. The city of Troy has decided to knock it all down and build a community playground.

I wonder if there’ll be monkey bars.