*NOTE*: This is a short story submission I sent to a horror publication nearly four years ago. It made it to the final round of reviews before being denied. Maybe the closest I’ve ever been to having something fictional published?
Looking at it now I can see where the cracks are, and maybe why it failed to pass. You can always learn.
Felt like putting it out there, warts and all. I haven’t changed much, save a few typos and weak grammar spots I left in. If you enjoy stories about the indomitable, cracking human spirit and Eldritch horrors, keep your heart close and don’t think too hard about the one on the horizon, just out of sight…*
Serena picked the withered gray carrot out of the Earth. A small Thingling hung off the side, gnawing the soft, rotten innards of what was supposed to be a nutritious food source. It startled her, so she grabbed her chest to calm the out-of-sync beating of her old heart. Serena pinched the carrot’s end with two fingers and bent the rubbery vegetable in half. This knocked the screeching Thingling to the ground. Its thirteen tentacles whipped into a frenzy, while rows of miniature, serrated teeth made grinding sounds in Serena’s mind.
Always in her mind, but never in her ears.
Serena dropped another failed gardening attempt into the dirt, cursed an ousted God from a time so long ago, and stamped the remaining carrot tops into the dead soil. Polluted earth and water, as it turns out, are not suitable for a vegetable garden, so she’d need to make a trip into the city for this month’s food. Most likely she’d return with all the sauerkraut and pickled beets you could ever hate. She’d have to do everything possible to avoid the massive, tentacled abominations blocking the city’s horizon.
Always standing on the horizon.
Always coming, but never quite arriving.
Staying on the edges of shadow and light and–
Serena slapped herself and hoped the blistering welt the next day would be a decent reminder tomorrow and she would keep being safe. She picked up her satchel, can of aerosol hairspray, lighter, and trudged through her failed garden back indoors.
Inside wasn’t much. It was as gray as the outside world, devoid of light and warmth, a forest bleeding color. A small cabin stood as Serena’s makeshift fortress on the outer reaches of civilization near the banks of Lake Michigan. Dead, rancid forests surrounded her on all sides and created a macabre wall of protection. Boarded up windows and doors kept the Thinglings and the Hoardlings and the Devourlings out as a last resort.
Couldn’t keep out a Shatterling, though, and Serena prayed the day would never come to prove the point. Though, only one god heard any prayers nowadays, and it would never answer them.
Serena felt a gnawing and tugging on the back of her head. She snatched back to grab the writhing Thingling before it finished chewing her braid of gray hair. It appeared like most Thinglings do, with a wrinkly brown and purple body screeching and howling at her.
She pinched down again, crushing it.
The moment the Thingling perished in her grip, mind-bending visions filled her head and blocked out her sight. Awful, nightmarish visions of each soul this one Thingling took. Swarms, thousands, descended on a fleeing populace.
Burrowed into people’s ear canals.
Tore away at cords and veins.
Filled their now empty husk bodies with one command.
The one on the horizon.
Then, repeating this process a dozen, a hundred, a thousand more times to a thousand more people.
A cold shiver.
And Serena returned to normal, no visions, no creeping dread. Just the faint smell of old age, body odor, and the lingering gas from the crushed Thingling. “If that didn’t happen every time I killed one,” Serena thought, “I probably would have tried to kill more of the bastards instead of running away to the woods.”
Serena grabbed a water cantina from the rusted refrigerator. There was no power, but there was a padlock riveted on the front, just in case any wayward trespassers wandered in. She unfastened the cap and took a short, cool sip of clean water. Too long, and she’d run out faster, so each day she allotted herself a sip in the morning, a sip in the afternoon, and a sip at night before she attempted sleep. Since civilization rolled over and played dead, she had sleep paralysis. Dreams filled with brutal images of her world, suffocated under the grip of the new god, so she lingered in the space between.
Once again, she cursed the former-God for allowing this to happen.
Was there a God? A proper Judeo-Christian one, like she used to learn about in Sunday School? “If there was one,” Serena thought, “he’s doing a remarkably awful job.” Most of her pondering was done alone.
After her sip was done, Serena put the water bottle back, locked the padlock, and moved over to a slim, slightly loose floorboard. She jimmied her fingers in a space along the side to pry it up. Underneath was Serena’s stash of defensive weapons.
A cigar cutter.
A box of long-stick, strike-anywhere matches.
A heavy-duty socket wrench.
A broken, jagged wine bottle.
A set of handcuffs.
A box of nails.
Serena grabbed the garden sheers and stuffed the box of matches in a side pouch on her rucksack before storing the aerosol can and lighter back under the boards.
Over the last few nights, it seemed the madness of the cities began unfolding in her forest. At night, Serena heard footsteps out in the woods. Sometimes fast, hurried, as if a stampede of small children were running at recess. Sometimes, they were slow, like a dozen soldiers marching in a haze to a war they had no heart in. Twigs cracked on the ground, branches snapped in half off trees, mad, heavy breathing, like a ravenous bear running on all fours wild through the perimeter around her lone cabin.
“That’s ridiculous,” Serena thought.
“All the bears were gone.”
Living in the forest was never the challenge. Serena had lots of experience surviving on the bare minimum when her daughters were in the girl scouts.
No, the hardships came from walking in the forest.
Bits of the moon peaked through the pine canopy overhead. Each tree shifted and tilted its base to observe Serena as she passed. Eyes, unseen, bearing down on her like a hundred fast-falling raindrops. Serena did her best to avoid any low branches on her walk, squeezing in between and keeping her arms as close to her body as possible. Any stray parts would be snatched and throttled by the living, warped limbs of the corrupted trees.
In front of her, Serena observed a few branches interlock and slowly form a net for her. She raised her garden sheers and swiftly, with two snaps, cut the branch tentacle off one tree. A low, horrific screech sounded from the amputated tree, and Serena reminisced on a simpler time when foliage didn’t try so hard to kill her. She wrapped a small, torn strip of cloth around the end of the branch, took out one of her strike anywhere matches, and lit the end on fire. The light shown and pierced the black. Each of the infected trees recoiled, fearing a similar fate.
Serena had fewer problems walking for the remainder of her night hike.
A loud crash to the side caused Serena to jump a bit. Her hand went to her chest, laid flat, telling her heart to calm itself. When she looked over, she saw it was a crazed cultist who set herself on fire and hurled herself off a small building, chanting incomprehensible nonsense, for the glory of the great one on the horizon.
No loss that early morning.
A deep, red light broke the horizon and lit the city. Sunrises used to have a myriad of colors, like oranges and yellows. Now the only thing burning orange and yellow was the cultist.
As the cultist burned in a heap of garbage cans, people wandering the city did their best to stay out of the way of their burning flesh friend. Most kept their heads up, some others kept them down, and many had their eyes sealed shut by willingly witnessing the aura of the great one on the horizon, so they couldn’t look at her regardless. Fleeting life with no sight was their gift, a badge to keep them safe from the voracious terrors ravaging the planet.
Serena stuck to her alleyways, away from the major streets and burning cars. If living in a time of war had taught her anything as a young girl, it was don’t be seen. This mindset had saved her since coming across the ocean decades ago, but she’s lived it more since the downfall. However, the parade could be hypnotizing at times.
Not a traditional parade, like the Macy’s Thanksgiving parades her and her daughters loved. One year, they even flew to New York to watch it live. Serena contrasted this with the Nothing Parade in front of her.
Every morning, at half past seven, those who gave in to the will and might of the great one on the horizon woke from wherever they slept, dressed up in their tattered and shredded business clothes, and left their homes. They congregated in the town’s central square, then walked outward like spiders weaving a web.
And they walked.
Back and forth, up and down the avenues. Never speaking, never acknowledging one another, and never stopping. Sometimes, Serena would find bloody footprints of those relentlessly marching in honor of their new god. Feet which soon became stubs, worn out from the demonstration. These parades meant all businesses and factories had ceased production, and man-made supplies became more and more limited with each passing day.
“The days are blessings,” Serena thought, “and never forget. I have a life measured in heartbeats.”
A week after what many called the Great Awakening, Serena tried to grab food and fruits from the nearest grocery store where she lived. Besides being her first encounter with Thinglings, swarming around now-rancid meats, flies and maggots had infected the fruit stands. Serena vomited upon witnessing it, but still managed to steal away small packets of vegetable seeds.
That was four months ago.
“Too long to go without fresh food,” Serena thought.
Long enough for the great one on the horizon to completely take over everywhere.
Always standing on the horizon…
“Always coming, but never quite arriving,” a young woman said on the street, completing Serena’s thought. This snapped Serena out of her poetic recitation.
However, the young woman began to moan out the entire verse, a spiteful infiltration of the mind caused by the great one. Serena covered her ears and turned further down the alley, away from the chants and the songs.
A spoken invocation to ensnare you.
Serena watched loved ones and strangers alike recite the words, trance-like with a nightmarish tone of various gargles and coughs. They were fed the lines, forced out of their mouths, and vomited their allegiance.
It was gruesome.
From then on, Serena was alone.
And she had food to scrounge.
Twinkies were no way to survive the apocalypse, and Serena regretted ever giving them to her daughters, but so much of the real food had rotted or been taken by other scavengers so she was left with few other options, condemned to eat processed, sugary trash.
The grocery store she used in the city the few times he made the trip was in a safe enough spot. It was hidden behind much taller buildings, so it was less visited by other survivors who might still be out there. There was a front and rear exit, unlocked, so escape from either side was possible. Three main streets intersected in front, with a wide alleyway in back, which meant she was not going to be cornered in.
From aisle to aisle, she grabbed anything in a can or a box: rolled oats, cans of beans, vegetables, and fruit in a syrup which tasted like the slime the Thinglings secreted when squished.
While Serena would have loved to take all of it, escape was priority one, and her aged hip made carrying supplies back hard enough as it was. She didn’t want to test what running with twenty cans felt like. So, she gathered them up into a pile and would pick and choose based on her needs.
Just as she grabbed a small jar of salt to go along with her choices, something to liven up those canned veggies, a wave of cold and nausea passed over her. Her knees buckled, and she collapsed, her body cramped up from her calves all the way to her throat. Nothing worked the way it was supposed to.
“No,” Serena thought, “not one of those. They never go outside the massive ritual pyres in the middle of the city. That’s where they can sit and devour souls all day. Why would one of them come this far out?”
Her questions weren’t answered as low, piercing screeches tore into Serena’s mind. Her hands shot up to her mouth and the side of her head to ease the internal agony.
The great one on the horizon never left his post on the rocks of eternity, so in his stead he sent his offspring, the “-Lings,” to do the work of spreading his malevolent message.
Thinglings were small, annoying to kill, but easily managed.
Hoardlings looked like cats with inverted faces, and strands of long, crooked teeth. Again, easy enough to dispatch of if you knew what you were doing.
Devourlings? You run. That’s your best bet.
Shatterlings, however, were what toppled cities and converted them to gaping chasms when the takeover began. One or two were enough. Serena remembered the news reports. Swarms of the smaller brood, running along the sides of buildings, filling the air, legions of forsaken people already taken by the great one on the horizon, and behind them, against the burning night skies, the colossal Shatterlings toppled structures and flipped over cars and tanks with ease.
Serena released one hand from her mouth and held it to her breast. She’d been in enough crisis situations like this to keep herself from screaming but slowing her heart rate was a completely different challenge.
Her hand rested on her chest, thin skin covering old, calcium-depleted bones. Each bump of the heart served as a reminder of the precious seconds passing, and time was slipping by. “I am alive,” Serena thought, “and no being holds sway over my mind.”
Her heart rested, for a brief moment, and all the world seemed to return to normal.
A loud, deafening crash signaled the entrance of the Shatterling, and Serena cursed her damnable heart for starting up again. The brood wasn’t inside yet, and it already was making her shiver like a dying mouse in the harshest winter.
Serena heard each approaching step, breaking the laminated store tile and singeing the shelves. It caused all the cash registers to pop open and malfunction, just being in the mere presence of the Shatterling. Stands of already rotted fruit were liquefied and seeped out onto the ground. Cans of sealed food popped open, the sounds of a hundred raining gunshots.
How far back was it, Serena wondered. No garden sheers would be able to hold off a monstrosity such as this. What to do?
In Serena’s hand, the rhythm of her heart pulsed out of sync, and helped quell her mind back into her body. By her side, she saw the dropped Twinkie. Slowly, praying for her joints not to crack, Serena grabbed the wrapped confectionery, and lobbed it overhead to the other side of the store.
A low slap of the plastic hit the ground.
Serena whispered from deep within her out-of-sync heart a prayer to anyone who would listen.
Silence. A calm in the chaos.
Then, the Shatterling changed course, and the horrendous smell sulked away. Serena couldn’t see it but heard the splintering of wood as the foul being investigated the sound.
Serena pinched her knees to reestablish feeling and slowly rose from the ground, prepared to flee. Loud crashing sounds arose from the far side. She used this noise concealment as a mask and began to scramble as fast as she could. Once the noise stopped, she’d be forced to slow her pace, possibly leading to her evisceration at best, or devouring and mental obliteration at worst.
She was an arm’s length from the front door handle, her fingertips on the grip, when all the sounds stopped.
From the corner of her eye, she could see the broken, exposed hole the Shatterling must have barged through and she cursed God, Buddha, and every other false deity who failed her and everyone else on this planet. So close, but unable to make it through the exit.
Slowly, like a mist engulfing a bay side town, a low hum-clicking began. First, small, then all at once, repeated in her mind. Antagonizing her sense of being. Serena ground her teeth to stop the torment as the Shatterling scanned the area for potential prey.
Her jaw clicked. Old bones betrayed their host.
Stomps, once more, signaled Serena’s own condemnation.
In a moment of pure, fearful survival, Serena flung open the door and ran into the dull, color drained streets.
From behind, the Shatterling exploded out of the grocery store onto the street. Serena dared not look back and scurried. Her hand never left her heart, keeping it in check, and she trudged down an alley to cut across to another street. “Maybe the paraders marching will distract it,” Serena thought.
A pile of waste and garbage provided the cover needed, so she dove in with the hope of not retching to keep her cover secure.
Everything tightened, and once more, her heart and head throbbed so badly she covered her mouth with two hands. The Shatterling brought its sour essence down the alleyway, drowning out the smell of garbage.
Nothing mattered to Serena anymore. She didn’t care if she went back to the store to grab nothing but Twinkies, she’d happily starve that night if it meant walking away from this encounter.
Her knees slid up to her chest, and she hummed a small nursery rhyme she used to sing to her daughters before putting them down to sleep.
Before the great one on the horizon.
Always standing on the horizon.
Always coming but never quite arriving.
Staying on the edges of shadow and light and thought.
Serena’s eyes opened.
From within, she felt a small tendril pierce her heart and stand her up. She rose from the trash heap and brushed it off herself. Slowly, she stepped out and ignored the foul-stenched monstrosity standing directly behind her. Its ethereal tendrils slithered along the ground but found no fear to feed on. Each piece of its course had been given over to the great one, the master.
Inside, Serena felt at peace, welcomed by the unmistakable truth free will is a burden and insanity can only help you cope with the madness. If you’re freezing to death, bury yourself in the snow. Serena’s papa used to tell her this back home, and she would tell it to her daughters on winter vacation in Pennsylvania.
Her daughters. Alice. Lucy.
They’re gone now. Madness swallowed them like it’s done almost everyone.
Serena’s vision slowly came back into view as the Great One on the Horizon appeared in her mind. It revealed itself in its full glory. Serena observed the similarities between it and the brood it let loose on the planet. For a brief moment, she was in awe at the hundreds of limbs making up its lower half, color shifting and merging with the setting sun, as if the rays bled into the body itself. The entire upper half was thick, muscular, almost human, but alive enough she felt nauseous in the back of her mind, a vomit in her brain. Sharp bones and protrusions pierced through the pale skin. And its face? Too sinister for words.
Though logically, Serena remembered there were people all around her on the street, for this moment out of time, a dismembered fragment of reality, it was her and the Great One, in the city, at sunrise.
To her credit he never broke eye contact, not once. Those who lived today recalled seeing her open up her arms, wide, as if to embrace the coming storm of madness.
Then, Serena collapsed.
Her weak, fragile, human heart, a vessel to pump blood at its most primitive, that had been broken a thousand times since the Great One arrived, finally gave out.
People on the street wandered over to investigate. Another one of their own had succumbed, many thought. Those whose minds weren’t lost, however, knew this was different.
Serena had a small, almost hidden smile on her face.
Her daughters in a Pennsylvania winter, building snowmen, had been Serena’s last dreams.
In the end of Serena, her small heart won.
Thanks for reading,