Bad Seed

Barbara Custer's horror fiction included City of Brotherly DeathI heard the fireworks blast through the air, punctuated by the crowd’s whistles and shouts. Their laughter drowned out the sound of my hushed sobbing. While the New Year’s celebration exploded into rainbow colors, lighting the midnight sky, the frosty air chilled me to the bone. Though a sea of humanity swirled around me, no one looked my way. I was facing this new year alone.

Slowly, I turned away from the celebration, shuddering at the night that felt as cold and empty as my life. How I envied the crowd and their joyous smiles. More to the point, I envied those with relatives and friends who cared about them.

The crowd’s gaiety had become more than I could bear. No matter how hard I’d tried to make friends, my thoughts remained my sole companions. The dark alley I wandered into provided a welcome silence. The gloom closed over me like a coffin lid.

I tried not to think about my poverty of friends. Sometimes I succeeded by keeping busy at my job as supervisor at Fairview Hospital’s respiratory therapy department. During work hours, the loneliness whispered so softly I hardly knew it was there. At home, it gnawed a hole in my heart, especially during holidays. Watching people hug each other speared the memories through my consciousness, reminding me of the tragedy which had ruined my life.

During my last talk with my father, his tiny, hard eyes glittered like tarnished silver under the faint light in his living room. The faces on the football trophies lining his cabinet gave off more warmth than his shadowed features. He was delivering a harsh lecture. Telling me to leave home. Disowning me because of a car accident that had caused my fiancé, David Wood, to die.

He called me a bad seed because I inherited my mother’s fondness for liquor. David died, he said, because I had too many beers before getting behind the wheel. Never mind that the car I broadsided had raced a red light. Never mind that David had refused to wear his seatbelt. Never mind that each day I relived the accident, watching David’s head plow through the windshield, hearing the tinkling glass. I made a mistake; I remembered telling my father. Couldn’t I have another chance?

My father’s face turned crimson, and dark lines creased his granite chin. Meeting my gaze with his cold eyes, he pulled an envelope from his blazer pocket. It made soft wisps as he shoved it across his coffee table. The words on its contents blurred in the salty tears that flooded my eyes. A massive ache, warm and smothering, swelled up inside my chest.

The envelope contained a letter from the Woods’ lawyer. They were suing my family for damages. According to David’s father, I’d shown up at their home drunk the day of the accident, but David had borne the consequences. Head injuries had rendered him comatose, dependent on a respirator, while I’d gotten off with minor lacerations.

While I read the letter, my last visit with David came to mind. His eyes, fixed and dilated, focused at the ceiling. He did not respond to my voice. I recalled listening with helpless horror as the doctor pronounced him brain-dead. I watched, eyes filled with tears, while the Woods had David disconnected from the respirator. Moments later, his heartbeat flickered to a stop.

David’s father had called that night, threatening a lawsuit, Dad said. When my dad pointed out that David should have recognized my condition and taken over the wheel, his father wouldn’t listen. Instead, he said two words before hanging up the phone: bad seed.

The sub-zero temperatures impinged on my consciousness, nudging me back to the present. The alley’s stone wall frosted my cheek, whispering a rumor of the chill lodging in my heart. I imagined a jagged ice splinter wedging through my chest, draining the love I felt, leaving only a dead feeling. Sometimes I drank to ease the pain. It never worked. My loneliness became worse.

David’s death had motivated my present calling, but mastering patient care skills wouldn’t do. I had to atone for my crimes. That meant taking assignments in Fairview Hospital’s long-term ventilator unit, where victims of car accidents languished for months. Not a muscle moved when I stuck these patients for blood. I never complained about working with these people. Instead, I thought about David, dead, his last breaths pumped by a machine.

Around my workers, I manufactured a brittle smile, and the stories I invented about my romantic escapades were limited only by my imagination. No one saw past my false front. No one cared to look, especially during my chart reviews. When I found errors, my harsh voice grated like fingernails on a blackboard. Sometimes my shouts drowned out the sound of my sorrow.

I gave one therapist, Gary, a written warning after I observed his Singer sewing machine method of drawing blood. He’d attempted the procedure without wearing gloves or swabbing the site with alcohol. The other therapists used to joke about Gary’s incompetence, but I shadowed him during rounds, watching and waiting for him to screw up. After reading my memo, Gary called me a witch. I threatened to get him suspended for insubordination. He challenged me to go ahead. Gary ended up getting fired, and my father’s voice whispered the words “bad seed” inside my head.

Brilliant red rouge covered up the memories. My grandfather clock ticked away like a time bomb while I stood before my mirror, sculpturing my face into that of a stranger’s. Layers of hairspray froze my chestnut curls into place. I manicured and polished each fingernail. My hair clips and jewelry glittered like shields of armor. Though I created a flawless appearance, I still heard my father’s voice calling me a bad seed. The memory faded.

Before I realized their intent, I felt my hands pulling at my leather gloves. The frosty air chilled my fingers as I yanked off my sapphire ring. David had given it to me as a pre-engagement gift. The gem glowed in the gloomy light afforded by the street lamps. At one time, that ring had meant everything to me. Now it had become nothing more than a hard stone, a symbol of everything that had gone wrong in my life. I tossed it into the snow-covered street. It made a faint plopping sound.

I turned away, ready to leave when out of the depths of gloom floated a man’s gravelly voice. “Susan,” he called. “Susan, where are you?”

Whirling around, I searched the alley for the source of that voice. My eyes squinted, trying to see, but they only saw icy patches glinting in the half-light. My breath curled up before my eyes. I stepped into the shadows, heart thudding inside my chest.

Something cold and knobby brushed my leg, and I started. I covered my mouth, trying to stifle the screams building inside my chest. Looking down, I saw a man sprawled at my feet. He wore tattered hospital scrubs. No coat. White scabs and dirt-crusted his bruised skin. Soon, he’d freeze to death.

I took off my overcoat and draped it over his inert form. My fingers felt ridges of bone beneath his scrubs. At first, I thought that he had already died and that I’d imagined the voice. Instead, the man sat up, wrapping the coat around him. His arms and legs appeared bruised and blistered.

A profound sadness rolled through me, bringing tears to my eyes. His cracked skin stretched over his pointed chin and stick-like limbs. Bare bone protruded through the tears in his skin. His hair hung to his shoulders, clumped together with frozen mud. His swollen lips twisted into a smile that didn’t touch his sunken eyes. For some reason, he looked familiar.

“Wait here,” I told him. “I’ll call an ambulance.”

“No ambulance, Susan.” His voice sounded like tearing parchment. “It’s too late.”

“Do I know you?”

Lame question, but I couldn’t think of anything better. How did he know my name? Something moved under his eyelids, but I couldn’t tell what.

He nodded. “We have unfinished business.”

“You’re hurting badly,” I said. “I can’t leave you here.”

“My pain and suffering have ended. Now I’m alone.” He paused. “Like you.”

His anguished voice pulled at my heart, tugging also at the corners of my mind. Something shiny flashed before my eyes. When I looked down, he was fingering my ring. He stared at the ring as its sapphire flickered in the dim light. A wistful look crossed his face, and then he pitched the ring back into the street. His lips tightened as if he’d tasted something sour.

“Alone,” he said again.

No treatment could save this man, but I still felt the need to help him. Perhaps this need had something to do with David’s death. Maybe I identified with another lonely soul. Whatever my reasons, I longed to do something for him.

To my surprise, the man rose to his feet without wobbling or moaning. I held him against my chest. Cold cobwebs of bone poked through the coat; he couldn’t have weighed more than eighty pounds. The chill from his body seeped through my clothes, turning my skin to goose-flesh. I shivered.

My heart hammered away, each beat quivering through my muscles like pinpricks of electricity. He stiffened in my arms. His body had a rancid odor. The stench of advanced disease, perhaps forthcoming death.

“Alone,” he repeated.

“I’m taking you home with me,” I whispered into his scabbed ear. “I’ll do my best to make you comfortable. If you like, I’ll call someone from the clergy.”

My companion looked up at me intently. His black pupils had swollen, covering most of his eyes. Like David’s. He pressed closer to me, his elbow like a knife in my stomach. Alarms went off in my head.

“A lonely woman with a good heart,” he said quietly.

“You think so?” Before I could stop myself, I burst into tears. My mascara ran, stinging my eyes. My sobs reeked with bitterness, tears I should’ve shed over David, but didn’t. “Maybe you’re right. The question is, do I have a soul?”

My companion laid his skeletal hand on my shoulders and stared into my eyes. His haunted face spoke of festering nightmares and the tragedies that had created them.

“You and I came from the same place,” he said.

Without answering, I ushered him out of the alley and to a dimly lit lot, where I’d parked my Honda. The celebrants’ shouting faded behind us.

At my townhouse, I led him to my kitchen, where I kept my first aid supplies. I draped an old blanket over his shoulders. After drawing up a pan of hot water, I set it on the linoleum floor. Gently, I lifted his fragile feet into the basin.

I soaked a rag with water. As I knelt before him, I expected to feel his sour breath against my hair, but the air remained still as death. This sent chills up my spine.

The shivers settled around my neck when I proceeded to wash his legs. Tufts of skin and fascia fell away from his calves, leaving behind naked bones. Within minutes, the water turned deep red. When I looked up, he was removing his scrub shirt. I screamed when the glow from the overhead light fell on his sunken chest. For a moment, my surroundings blurred. I squeezed my eyes shut, waiting for the dizziness to pass, but the image burned into my mind. I opened my eyes again.

The skin on his chest had withered and blistered, with ribs poking between the open sores. A gaping hole near his sternum revealed splintered bone and flesh crusted with dried blood. Streaks of blue and red laced his skin around his upper torso. I probed under his bony chin, knowing that I wouldn’t find a pulse. The skin broke, oozing greenish pus.

“No, no,” I wept, drawing back my fingers. I stood up and backed toward the sink. My mind whirled, trying to decide if I was going crazy. Maybe I was asleep, having the granddaddy of nightmares. “You can’t be real.”

“You brought me here,” my companion said in a reasonable voice. “How can you deny my existence?”

“Dead people can’t—they aren’t supposed to come back to life.” My voice rose and fell, hitching with sobs. “Who are you? What are you?”

“I think you already know, Susan,” he said. “I’m not dead yet. I’m dying by inches.”

He reached toward me, with his shirt in hand. Flakes of skin fell from his mottled arms like grisly rain. I looked at his shirt. A faded tag under its collar said, “Property of Fairview Hospital.” I turned it over, imagining what the shirt looked like new, and …

The memory came back to me like a vision. The shirt had belonged to Gary, the therapist whom I’d gotten fired, the one who’d called me a witch. His savings had run out, and he ended up on the street, shot and beaten to death.

“No, Gary,” I stammered. “Who did this to you?”

His eyes narrowed, and a tremble flickered over his lips. “I pulled the trigger because I saw how hopeless my life had become. Like you, I’ve lost someone dear to me. Like you, I’ve had to pay for my mistakes.” His head tilted sideways. “Mistakes caused by liquor.”

Sudden fire burned in my chest, melting my frozen heart. The terror I’d felt fled, and utter longing took its place. Love. Whatever his body had become, I saw the pain of unrequited love on his face. For the moment, I forgot that my visitor was a dead man. I forgot everything except the love blooming afresh in my bitter soul.

“What?” I gasped. “How did you know …?”

“You’d be surprised at what a person learns after death. I never knew, until my passing, that loneliness wears many disguises. For example, your anger toward people. Do you remember the day?”

The love I felt burned into my very heart, melting my thoughts and feelings. Images rose from the smoke, memories of the days I’d worked with Gary. Worked on Gary. His eyes held a blank look, like someone who’d wandered into a black hole. Did Gary drink because I’d broken his spirit? “I came down hard on you,” I said at last, “because your work had gotten sloppy. What did liquor have to do with that?”

“I’d gotten wasted the night before, and a nurse complained that she smelled whiskey on my breath. I failed a breathalyzer test. Human Resources offered counseling, and I refused because I didn’t want people at work knowing my business. So they fired me, and no other hospital would hire me.” Gary affected a deep sigh. “My wife told me to get lost. My mother refused to help because I reminded her of my father, who’d lost jobs because of his drinking. She called me a bad seed.”

From deep within the darkness of my closed eyes, I felt Gary’s hand on my shoulder. I wept noiseless sobs, tears for Gary and myself. When I opened my eyes again, I gazed at his drawn face. I recognized his heartache, having seen it in my mirror enough times.

“After my marriage went sour, it was like I went to a dark place, where no one could get to me.”

“I’ve lived in that place,” I said quietly.

“I know you have,” he said. “I want to thank you for your honesty. Harsh as you were, you told me the truth when no one else would. I owe you for that.”

Gary rose to his feet. “I must go now and rest.”

“Don’t leave,” I begged tearfully. “We’ve left so much unsaid.”

“No, we haven’t,” he said. “I couldn’t rest until I made my peace with you. You’ve made every aching step worth it.”

I had nothing more to say. Silence could describe my feelings; words could not. He turned and crossed the kitchen. After opening the door, he melted into the shadows on my porch. A heartbeat later, he was gone. His clacking footsteps became a memory.

I tried to picture Gary. I wanted his face to be etched forever in my mind. His papery skin and ragged hair. The bottomless pupils on a withered face. The self-inflicted wound on his chest, where the bullet had left an open hole as if he’d sliced something from his body. I tried to imagine angel wings where only rotting flesh remained.

After some time, I got up and headed to the window, hoping to see Gary one last time. Outside, a full moon cast silver shadows on the snow-covered streets. Scattered stars surrounded the moon, glittering like jagged diamonds. Or like my shattered heart of ice. Somewhere the shouts of celebration drifted from the streets. The end of the old year. The start of the new.

Only this year, I loved.

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To give you a flavor of my brand of horror, I took “Bad Seed” from my City of Brotherly Death Collection. Hope you enjoyed it. 🙂

Commenters are eligible to win a copy of When Blood Reigns.

Darkness Whispers …

Darkness Whispers delivers deliciously chilling horror fiction by Richard Chizmar.Darkness Whispers will introduce you to the town of Windbrook, a sleepy little community nestled deep in the secluded Skullkin Valley of western Pennsylvania.

All is well in Windbrook, just like usual, just like always. Nothing changes here, nothing is different.

Except… except today something is different.

An old man with piercing gray eyes will arrive in town this morning. This man isn’t human. Not even close. And he isn’t coming alone. Death travels with him.

Richard Chizmar, award-winning author of A Long December, and Brian James Freeman, acclaimed author of The Painted Darkness, have combined forces to create an old-fashioned tale of horror, full of good and evil, with a breathtaking ending that will leave you wondering when this peculiar old man might be coming for you…

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Reviews and Praise:

“Anthology editors Chizmar (the Shivers series) and Freeman (the Dark Screams series) build tension and hook readers… with this svelte tale of modern small-town life gone wrong. The characters are instantly engaging, and the story moves at such a satisfying clip…” — Publishers Weekly

“Filled with enough plot, characterization and metaphorical heft to stuff a full-length novel, Darkness Whispers brilliantly depicts the supernatural exploitation of a small town’s moral failings. Subtly shifting from Bradbury-esque whimsy to badass horror worthy of the King himself, the novella is a major achievement by Richard Chizmar and Brian James Freeman.” — Bentley Little, author of The Consultant and The Influence

Darkness Whispers begins as a visit to a golden-hued, idyllic town that soon gets dark. Very dark. I quickly gave up trying to second-guess the formidable authors and simply surrendered to their lead all the way to the shattering conclusion. Chizmar and Freeman know that horror doesn’t work without humanity, and with this story they succeed in chilling our blood and breaking our hearts.” — Ray Garton, author of Live Girls and Night Life

Darkness Whispers offers chilling horror fiction by Richard Chizmar.

 

Horror, Balloons, and Chekhov’s Gun

One of the most frequent questions I get from people is, “How can an innocent person who loves balloons write such graphic horror?” I’ve heard it from other writers, my buddies, and sometimes reviewers. So how can I write graphic horror? Balloons and horror fiction go together like spaghetti and meatballs.

Think of Pennywise the clown in Stephen King’s It. It had a lot of balloon scenes and King wasn’t trying to be cute. Pennywise lured his victims by popping through the gutter, brandishing a bouquet of balloons. “C’mon, Bucko. Don’t you want a balloon?” he’d ask his victim Georgie in a leering voice. “When you’re down here with me, Georgie, you’ll float, too.”

Jonathan Maberry’s book, Fire & Ash, features a scene where a character was getting bored blowing up balloons. I remember smiling until I found out the purpose of those balloons. They had a darn good reason being in the story. I don’t want to say more lest I give away spoilers.

Steel Rose has a balloon scene…or two. The balloons enable us to know Yeron better and how helium will affect people like him. I guarantee you that the helium from a balloon will poison someone later in the story. Ditto for “Echoes of a Distant World” in the Alien World anthology Tom Johnson and I cooked up. Why? Because the helium in the balloons are deadly to the alien attackers. You can also find balloon scenes in City of Brotherly Death (“Darkness Rising”). The balloons symbolized the protag Brianna’s humanity. Much as I like balloons, I would not use them in my tales without a reason.

Why? Because of Chekhov’s gun. I learned about Chekhov’s gun at the first writer’s conference I attended, and that information has stayed with me. Chekhov suggests that if you introduce a loaded gun on stage during the first act of your play, the gun should be fired during a later act. Otherwise, the gun shouldn’t be shown at all. Basically, he’s warning the writer not to put too much emphasis on unnecessary details. You can have guns, knives, balloons, or any other object, but they had better go into action before the story ends.

I’d also like to mention the MacGuffin. The MacGuffin is a goal, object, or person that motivates the protagonist in the beginning of the story, but becomes less important as the struggles play out. In It, Bill Denbrough decides to battle the monster that killed his brother Georgie, but as the battles continue, and the characters mature, Georgie’s death starts to fade into the background. If you’re not sure of your ending, you can use the MacGuffin to create a delightful story. But the Chekhov’s gun can be tricky. After you’ve finished your draft, go through it for any Chekhov’s guns, in case something you focused on turns out to be unimportant. Ask yourself, will the details advance your plot or tell us something about your characters?

Do you use the Chekhov’s gun and MacGuffin in your writing? How has these techniques influenced your tales?

Barbara Custer loves her Mylar balloons and zombie fiction.

Critique Groups: Debra Dunbar, Author of Eleven Blood

Elven Blood is Debra Dunbar's answer to fantasy fiction.I’ve never been in a traditional critique group, but last year I signed up for a short-term one at our local college. The class met for four session, one each week, and we discussed the first twenty pages of each student’s novel of their choice. We wound up with 2 critiques per week, so there was a bit of work involved.

The appeal was that the class gave me feedback from a broad swath of readers – all ages, both male and female, writers of fiction and non-fiction. I was finished with the draft of my second book in the Imp series and hoped this would be a great opportunity to have fresh eyes give the novel a review. My hope was that other writers would be articulate enough to let me know any issues they had with the early part of the novel.

And, of course, there is the dreaded “series” conundrum. Is the recap too much? Does it read like an info-dump of what happened in the first novel? Is it too little? Are readers thrown unprepared into a new world and characters, drowning in references they don’t understand? What is critical to bring readers up to speed in the first few pages, and what can be sprinkled in throughout the latter parts of the novel?

I went into the critique group thinking to learn more about my own novel, but it was reading and giving feedback on everyone else’s work that really brought me the most value. I tend to be a rather forgiving reader, skimming over the rough spots and concentrating on what works well. Having to comment on these other works helped me to look closer, to realize that each word, each sentence provides a sense of unity to the flow and tone of the book.

Among the many novel excerpts I read a funny memoir, a promising quirky thriller, a rather convoluted dark drama, and a stream-of-consciousness psychological fiction. And I got feedback on Satan’s Sword– feedback that helped me tighten up the beginning, give my characters more emotion, and balance action with a slower paced descriptive scene. Not bad for a four-week class and a twenty page review!

I’m again taking the class, this time with many new authors participating. Personally, I like this type of critique group far more than the dedicated participant model. I love that each time I get a whole new perspective on my writing, and I love exploring and learning from another author’s work.

Others may work better with a set group that sees their novels and writing style as they evolve, but, for me, this was the best model. Maybe your local college has one, too. If not, perhaps you’re just the person to set one up!

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Author’s Biography and Links:

Debra Dunbar lives on a farm in the northeast United States with her husband, three boys, and a Noah’s ark of four legged family members.  Her urban fantasy novels feature supernatural elements in local settings. In addition to A Demon Bound, Satan’s Sword, and Elven Blood, she has also published a short story erotica series titled Naughty Mom. Connect with her on Twitter @debra_dunbar, on Facebook at debradunbarauthor, and on her website at http://debradunbar.com.

A Demon Bound:  http://amzn.to/MK6nxD

Satan’s Sword: http://amzn.to/Tsi1Wr

Debra will be awarding an e-book copy of A DEMON BOUND (book 1 in the Imp Series) to a randomly drawn commenter at every stop, and a grand prize of a Kindle Fire with an ELVEN BLOOD book cover skin to one randomly drawn commenter during the tour (US ONLY). E-book copies of A Demon Bound and Satan’s Sword and a basket of awesome swag will be awarded to a randomly drawn host.

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Elven Blood is Debra Dunbar's answer to fantasy fiction.

BLURB:

Sam may be the Iblis, but she is also an imp with a price on her head.  The powerful demon Haagenti won’t rest until she’s dragged back to Hel for “punishment”.  Sam knows she can’t face Haagenti and win, so when an Elf Lord offers to eliminate the demon in return for her help, Sam accepts.  It’s a simple job – find and retrieve a half-breed monster dead or alive.  But finding this demon/elf hybrid isn’t proving easy and time is running out.

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EXCERPT:

The hiss of Wyatt’s shower penetrated through the fog of my pre-caffeinated brain.  I was still sprawled on the bed, hidden under a heap of covers, wondering whether I could sneak in a few more minutes of sleep. It was rent day, and I was already late in making my collection rounds.  Stretching, I poked my head from under the blanket and watched a small lizard cross the floor.  It had a scorpion tail, pointed ears and crimson eyes that darted intelligently across the room.  Those red eyes locked onto the bed just as I realized this wasn’t a lizard.  It was a demon—and not the usual Low one either.

There was a flash, and I rolled across the bed and onto the floor just before the mattress sliced into two smoking sections.  Unfortunately I was trapped in a tangle of sheets.  Instinctively I converted my form, deconstructing my usual human one into basic atoms and re-assembling into a creature that was small and hard to kill.

I heard a muffled curse, and I felt the sheets snatched from above me.  The demon was no longer a lizard; he was bipedal with furry, clawed legs and a scaled torso.  Arms hung down past his knees, ending in sharp hooks.  His head twisted and turned, forked tongue tasting the air as he searched for me.

Elven Blood is Debra Dunbar's answer to fantasy fiction.

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