Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Chapter 1 (Part 2): Hatchling

Every day at 5:30 am, the alarm clock function on Albert's cellphone burst into a little song that was more upbeat and perky than anything had the right to be at such an ungodly hour. He fumbled for it in the darkness, wanting nothing more than to smash it into bits of wire and circuitry but instead simply rolled out of bed with a yawn. Flipping the phone open allowed him to silence the annoying ditty and provided just enough light from the LCD for him to dig out his clothes for the day.

After dressing, he stumbled up the stairs and made his way toward the bathroom, taking care not to trip over the tubing that ran from the oxygen concentrator in the living room to his mother's bedroom. In the dim light, the tubing reminded him of a transparent serpent neatly camouflaged against the threadbare carpet; for a moment he clearly pictured it coiling around his legs, constricting tighter and tighter as it undulated up his body.

He had always been the type of man who allowed his imagination free reign, but lately it seemed as if the little movies that had once entertained his mind had taken on darker tones. There was a new director in town and gone were the days of screwball comedies and thirty second slapstick; no more did The Farce of Daily Life play to an audience of one in a sold out theater. Now the most mundane of objects seemed to don sinister masks and lurked in shadows with blades that gleamed in the moonlight; they clustered in darkness, breathing heavily as they peered through oval-shaped cutouts at the victim who glanced over his shoulder as if he sensed he were being watched, as if he could feel the contempt and hostility radiating against the back of his neck like the breath of some invisible fiend.

Albert shook his head as if he could somehow throw off these thoughts like drops of water from a wet dog. Things were just tight right now, that was all. Here in a couple months they would be on the other side of this financial mountain and everything would smooth out. The stress of the new house, of his mother's ailing health, and Melanie's depression . . . all of these things would just melt away and things would go back to the way they had been before. It was just a matter of time, that was all. Time and patience.

As if he had been moving through the hall on some sort of autopilot, Albert suddenly realized that he was standing in front of the bathroom sink and staring at his own reflection in the mirror. His face was still puffy and pale from sleep and the mop of strawberry blond hair looked as if birds had been making nests in it. He was only thirty-nine, but somehow the doppleganger staring back at him seemed so much older, as if the mirror were some sort of portal between dimensions that allowed him quick glances of things to come. The way the shadows fell across his face made it all to easy to picture the bags that would soon droop beneath his brown eyes and he could see creases at the corners of his mouth which would deepen into full blown wrinkles before long. No matter how hard his mind balked at the idea, it was irrefutable: he was getting old.

Reaching forward his fingers gripped the edge of the mirror and pulled, revealing the shelves of toothpaste, combs, Band Aids, and peroxide hidden within the wall. When the medicine cabinet was halfway open, he caught site of his mother's bedroom in the mirror's reflection. He could see her curled on her side in the bluish glow of the television, looking much smaller in the large bed than what she actually was; she was also as motionless as the porcelain dolls that cluttered her room and probably twice as fragile.

For a moment Albert was frozen in place as he studied her back, watching for the slight rise and fall that would indicate her lungs had lasted through another night. Was that a breath? Or had the ceiling fan simply rustled the thin sheet draped over her?

He listened to the lull of the infomercial that drifted from her television, to the steady hum of the oxygen concentrator in the living room . . . the steady plink, plink, plink of the tub's leaky faucet. And he listened the way a jungle predator would: body entirely motionless, head cocked slightly to the side, eyes peering into the shadows as he waited.

Did her foot just twitch? Or was it nothing more than a trick of light and shadow?

The Discovery Channel said a predator can sense the weak, can hone in on the sick and frail, and cut them away from the rest of the pack.

But that was ridiculous. Why was he thinking about nature documentaries when there was a good possibility that his mother was lying dead in the next room? And, if she truly had passed away during the night, what was the next thing to do? Should he call 911? It wouldn't really be an emergency though, so he couldn't imagine that would be an appropriate response. Who do you call when you wake up one morning to find you've slept through the night under the same roof as a corpse?

But then she yawned in her sleep, the sound a thin rattle from within a chest clogged with phlegm, and rolled over to face the opposite wall.

For a moment, Albert felt his as if his stomach were sinking and tears began to blur his vision as his shoulder's slumped.

“Son of a bitch . . .”

His hands immediately slapped over his mouth as if he could somehow push the words back down his throat and his eyes grew wide. His face felt hot and stomach acids churned in his belly, threatening to erupt through his esophagus like a volcano of guilt.

She was his mother, for God's sake. What kind of son wishes the woman who gave him life dead? She was another living being, a person with thoughts and feelings and hopes and dreams. Not some stray animal that had dragged its carcass off the streets in search of a dark place to die. What kind of monster looks at another and thinks that they would be so much happier, that their life would be so much easier, if that other person simply was no longer among the living?

Albert slammed the medicine cabinet shut a little more forcefully than he meant to and he heard things topple over from within. He tried to look at himself in the mirror so that he could brush his hair, but his reflection's eyes seemed to be hard and accusing. His gaze dropped again and again to the toothpaste spattered spigot on the sink, to the tips of his toes, to the tile floor . . . anything but what he saw in his own eyes.

The hairbrush clattered to the floor as he placed both hands on the sink and leaned forward. The room swam in and out of focus and his breath escaped in quick pants. His legs felt weak, as if they could no longer support the weight of his own body, and every muscle in his body seemed to tremble.

His own mother . . . .

His teeth were clenched together so tightly that his jaw was beginning to throb in time with his racing pulse.

What kind of monster must he be?

Warm tears trickled down his face and he struggled to regain his composure, forcing himself to take long, slow breaths through a nose that was just beginning to clog with mucus.

Get a grip, Albert. Just pull yourself together, man.

After what seemed to be an eternity, he was able to slow his breathing and the world no longer felt as they it were spiraling into the vortex of a black hole. His neck and shoulders were so tight it felt as if the muscles may very well snap at any moment and pinpricks of pain shot through his temples, but - for the most part – Albert felt as if he were in control again. Opening his eyes, he found that he could hold his own bloodshot gaze without a moment's hesitation.

He looked at himself in the mirror for several minutes while the same thoughts continued to echo through his mind.

She's your mother.
But now the words didn't seem to carry the same power as they had before, as if the venom that had coursed through them had become diluted and impotent through his tears.

She gave you life . . . .

Albert slowly became aware that he was drumming his fingers subconsciously against the edge of the sink as he studied his own eyes. The rhythm, however, was far from random and seemed somehow strange and familiar all at the same time.

Three quick taps followed by three slow ones.

Three more quick ones.

What kind of monster are you?

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Chapter One: Part 1 - Hatchling

Albert Ross laid in bed while a boulder balancing on toothpicks loomed in the darkness overhead; he could feel its gravity tugging at him, tightening the muscles in his chest and arms, making the act of drawing a breath an act of will. He didn't really fear that the fragile supports would fail and send the boulder crashing down upon him. Somehow, he knew this wouldn't happen. No, it was much more likely he would no longer be able to resist it's pull, that he would cross some invisible event horizon and smash into the jagged surface like a meteor pummeling into a planet. He would shatter into a thousand tiny shards amid a plum of dust and debris; once settled, there would be no more trace of him. Everything that made him who he was would have disappeared into the crater and only a warm indentation on his pillow would remain to prove he'd ever existed . . . and even that would cool in time, the pillow slowly regaining its shape as it forgot the weight of his head.

He reached up into the darkness and stretched his fingers until he could feel the grainy surface of the boulder beneath them. Tracing along the bumps and valleys, he gradually began to realize that something was written upon this stone. No, not written really . . . more like carved or chiseled. He followed the contours of the individual letters like a blind man and soon they began to string together into words: responsibility, honor, commitment, duty, obligation.

With this realization, he also noticed something else. What he had originally mistook for a boulder actually seemed to a be a large, round egg. He could sense something moving inside, could feel the vibrations tingle through his fingertips as an unseen beak tapped away at the interior walls. Far from being random, however, the pecks seemed to follow a definite pattern: three quick raps followed by three slow ones and then three more quick ones. Almost as if the creature inside were testing the strength of the barrier that separated it from the outside world.

Images flashed in Albert's mind like snapshots from the dreams of a madman. He could see the beast within the egg: sparse, white feathers that glistened with slime jutted out from a body as shriveled and dark as mummified flesh; where its side should have been was only a jagged hole through which he caught glimpses of curved bone amid a sea of murky, green jelly that oozed and bubbled with the creature's movements; spindly legs were pulled beneath its body in a manner that seemed to suggest the thing was coiled tightly, waiting to pounce when a chink had been chipped away from the shell.

Albert's heart hammered within his chest, seeming to match the rhythm of the bird-like creature's pecking, and the sheets beneath him suddenly seemed moist and warm. He wanted to yank his hands away from the egg, to cover his eyes with his palms, to pull himself into fetal position and lay as still as the dead in the hopes that the monstrosity wouldn't sense his presence beyond the albumin. But it almost felt as if his flesh had fused with the shell, as if he could pull until his biceps quivered with exertion and still not separate his hands from the egg enough to even slide a piece of paper between the two.

Inside the sphere, it was almost as if the creature had been whipped into a frenzy by the drum-like pounding of Albert's heart. It still pecked out the same rhythm but it's head was nothing more than a white blur, the sickly yellow beak smashing again and again against the interior wall like a jackhammer.

A sheen of sweat now covered Albert's body and his mouth was flooded with the metallic tang of fear. He knew that if the creature managed to break through, it would launch itself directly at him. He could clearly picture its wings battering the sides of his face as webbed feet scrambled for purchase on his neck; the empty eye sockets would be so close to his own eyes that he would gag on the stench of rot and decay wafting through them, would feel the sticky plop of maggots raining down on his cheeks and lips as the beak stripped away ribbons of flesh.

“Please God, no, oh please, please, please . . . .”

He wanted to cry, to release the pent up pressure in his chest with hitching sobs, to scream his wife's name until Melanie bolted upright in bed and flicked on the lamp.

How could she not hear the pecking? How could she simply continue sleeping on and not, on some level, perceive the danger lurking just feet above their mattress?

The entire egg was shaking from the force of the attack and shock waves traveled along Albert's arms, tingled like an electrical current in his neck and shoulders; how much longer until he heard the first crack, until little bits began falling away like plaster from a crumbling wall? How much longer until the hatchling's head poked through hole and he heard a sound like the screech of a tortured demon erupt from its disgusting mouth?

Please . . . .

How could he defend himself against a creature that, by all laws of nature, simply should not exist?

Please, God, no . . . .

How much longer?