Today begins an irregular feature on the blog called Fiction Friday. Mostly as an exercise for me to keep the pencils moving on short fiction that may or may not be tied to a larger project. I am thinking this may run once or twice a month to start.
Today’s story takes place in the Strangeverse and is a heavily revised piece that originally ran as an audio story on The Wicked Library. I hope you enjoy it.
A Story in the Strangeverse
By Tony Sarrecchia
“We cowered behind the cephalopod shaped stone. The plants on the wall pulsated a pale green light, unlike anything any of us had ever seen. Their roots, or vines, I couldn’t tell which, clung to the walls and a thick, oily liquid coursed through them. Yet for all we saw and smelled, it was the skittering of meat across the concrete floor that kept us from moving.”
“‘We shouldn’t have come here,’ Lil Jack said. ‘This is the way to Hades.’ From the foulness of a demonic wind that blew through the crypt, I thought Lil Jack might be right.”
“Why did you go down there, Pop-pop? Didn’t your mom tell you not to?”
The hiss of the oxygen machine fills the silence. The old man looks at his grandson; great-grandson, he reminds himself and shakes his head.
“My momma didn’t know that place was out there. Only mischievous fellas looking for adventuring who were foolish enough to go to the darkest part of the cemetery would find it. My momma would whip me good if she knew where I was. Are you sure your phone is recording this?”
Nicky shows his phone to his great-grandfather. “See those moving lines, Pop-pop—that’s us talking.”
“Unless you stick that to the end of my nose, I ain’t gonna see shit. Oops. Don’t tell your momma I said that. She’ll make me put a dollar in the jar.”
Nicky laughs, “You don’t have a dollar Pop-pop. You’re not wearing any pants, just that hospital thing.”
“Are you peaking under my blankets?”
“Okay. Let me finish my story before your mother comes back with that ice cream…You make sure you save this recording. I’ve told a couple of people during the years, but they’re either dead or didn’t believe me, so I’m gonna need you to keep the record straight.”
“Someday, someone will tell you something crazy—they saw a ghost or a dead relative, and you will think: ‘this person is a few nuts past a pound.’ I want you to remember this story and consider that there is more to this world than we understand. That record.”
Nicky nods. Mom told him that Pop-pop may say some crazy things, but we should agree with him unless he was about to hurt himself or someone else.
“Lil Jack suggested that we should head back. Then Mark says, ‘you bunch o’girls. What, you’re afraid of…plants? Because of their stench? Damn, Jacky, your momma stinks worse than this on a summer day.’
“‘I dunno, Mark,’ I said, ‘Lil Jack is right. Ain’t nothing here for us but death and whatever is making that sliding noise.’ In my head, I imagined it leaving bits of itself in the gouges and rough edges of the ground.”
“Pop-pop, why didn’t you call your mom?”
“On what? We didn’t even have a phone in our house until the 1950s, and the only things in our pockets were pocket knives, a slingshot, and a whole lotta lint.”
“How old are you, Pop-pop?”
The old man smiles. “Older than dirt, son. Got a birthday coming up soon, I think.”
Nicky returns the smile.
There are many calendar pages between them, the old man thinks, not a lot of common ground between generations. This story, he hopes, is their bond.
“Okay, now let me finish the story before I forget.”
“‘If you want to leave and take the sissy and the gin rummy with you—go ‘head,’ Mark said. ‘It took us half the afternoon to walk here. It’ll be dark before you get outside the crypt. Do you wanna be in the graveyard at night?’ We looked at each other. Mark had quite the self-satisfied grin on his face.
“‘Look at this, guys.’ Mark had turned his Scout flashlight behind us and found a door cut into the stone with an etching of long, wavy eels. In one carving, tentacles wrapped around a man, crushing him in their embrace.
“‘Uh-uh,’ Lil Jack said, ‘there is nothing good behind there.’ Mark was already putting his weight into pulling the door toward us. ‘Come on,’ he grunted, ‘it’s starting to move.’ I didn’t want to help Mark, and, to this day, I don’t know what made me go to him and add my weight to his. At first, the slab of rock budged a bit, and then it slowly slid. It made a horrible grinding racket as if a mouth full of teeth scraped against a headstone. At that same moment, a howl like the wails of a thousand souls trapped in the noxious poison of hell rose toward us. The howling stopped, and I almost cried with joy at the silence. Then the chorus of the damned began again. Closer now. We looked at each other for a moment, then jumped toward the opening that Mark and I had coaxed from the door.
“A wind blew carrying the fetor of overripe meat and death. Mark, Lil Jack, and Petey bent, clutching their bellies and retching. I was the last through and, over my shoulder, I caught the briefest view of a monster in the hallway—a glimpse, mind you— but that was enough: It was a twisted root with a half dozen eyes running down the side of its body—and then it blinked at me. Despite my nausea, I stood, hunched, and pulled the door closed before that abomination could move toward us.
“When my stomach quit trying to crawl to my throat, I got a good look at the room. Those macabre plants were in here, except these bulbs were the size of a baby’s head, and green veins pumped some viscous ichor…”
The beeping of the machines continues for a few moments before Nicky looks at his grandfather. “Pop-pop?” Nicky asks. His grandfather’s eyes are closed.
“Pop-Pop!” Nicky says—his voice cracks.
The old man wakes, “Why the hell are you yelling at me, boy?”
“I’m sorry, Gramps.” This isn’t Nicky’s Pop-Pop; this is Gramps, the other side of Pop-Pop. His red and angry face has broken thin lines under the skin that remind Nicky of a spider’s web. Gramps’s eyes are bloodshot. The old man’s breath smells like onion and garlic.
“Where’s your mother?” Gramps snaps.
Nicky sighs. “She went for ice cream.”
“Because you said you wanted some.”
“And she listened to me?”
The oxygen machine’s swish fills the room. After a few minutes pass, Nicky asks in a small, hopeful voice, “So what happened then?”
“When?” The old man answers like a gunshot.
Nicky shakes his head and turns off the voice recorder app. “Never mind, Gramps, you rest.”
The nurse checking on Gramps’s vitals woke Nicky.
“How’s he doing?” Nicky shrugs. The nurse adjusts the old man’s pillow.
“Did I tell you about the hat we found?”
The ice cream cake melts on the tray at the foot of Pop-Pop’s bed, and the words ‘Happy Birthday’ are barely legible. Nicky’s head jerks backward from his micro-sleep.
“What are you talking about, Pop-pop?”
“Lil Jacky, Petey, Mark, and I had found this crypt in the center of Our Lady of Perpetual Sorrow Cemetery, and Mark had the bright idea to break in.”
“You guys hopped three fences, right? One of them had a lock that looked like a skull, you said.”
Pop-Pop looks confused. “When did I tell you that?”
“A little while ago.”
“Is that cake for me?”
“Yes. Mom brought it—Happy Birthday.”
“Not many more of those left.”
“Don’t say that, Pop-pop. You’ll move through this.”
Pop-Pop’s brown-spotted hand touches Nicky’s face. “Where is your mother, son?”
Nicky looks at the floor. “Outside smoking.”
“Okay, then I better tell you this part before she returns. I told you there was a monster waiting for us outside, right?”
“The abomination slid around out there, looking for a way in. Now and then, it would stop and poke at that stone. It knew where we were, but it couldn’t figure out how to get us. Its cry of frustration was a moan like a ravenous wolf.
“‘He’s coming for you, Jacky. He wants to eat the biggest sissy in the room.’ Mark said. Then his eyes narrowed to slits. ‘I have an idea. Let’s toss Jacky out there. And while the monster is eating him, we run away. Who agrees?’ Mark raised his hand. Petey seemed unsure but also raised his hand.
“Mark looked at me, ‘What’s it going to be, Steve-o?’
“Lil Jack backed away. He was about a foot from the wall, and those plants took to vibrating. It was as if a thousand rattlesnakes shook at once. One of the larger plants struggled until it was a few inches off the wall. I swear to God, it was reaching for Jacky. He didn’t notice it because he was too busy worrying if his friends were gonna throw him to the demonic malignancy sniffing outside.
“‘Jacky, stop!’ I yelled.
“‘Now you’re talking!’ Mark said. Jacky back-peddled faster and smashed into the wall. He landed on the plant, and a hissing reverberated through the room as his weight crushed its head. The plant burst, and green, thick mucilage engulfed Jacky’s back and shoulders. Before he could pull away, a vine from another plant snaked up and slammed into his wrist. He screamed, and the beast outside screeched like a cat on fire and threw itself against the door.
“The vine moved under Jacky’s skin like a snake under a blanket. Another root plunged into his opposite wrist and wormed its way through his arm—twisting and turning and, from the sound of it, obliterating bones. ‘Oh God, please…get it out of me…it’s burning’. His skin turned black, and smoke rolled from its surface. The plants glowed a brighter green—as if they were using Jacky to power themselves.
“I was the first one to reach him. Petey sat on the floor crying, and Mark watched but didn’t move. I grabbed the roots, and a shock ran through my body. My hands burned, and I let go. Jacky looked at me and mouthed the words ‘help me.’ I took my pocket-knife and cut into the roots above his wrist. More puke smelling phlegm spilled onto Jacky. I looked back and yelled, ‘help me, you pirates!'”
Pop-pop laughs, “I don’t know what made me call them pirates. I was gagging, but I kept cutting. Petey was on the other side doing the same. More vines from the wall grabbed at us. ‘Mark, damn it! Help us!’
“Mark moved into action and grabbed Jacky around the waist. With the three of us working together, we pulled Jacky free.
“His arm hung limply below his elbow, and he cradled it with his other arm. ‘I wanna go home, guys.’ He cried and sat in the middle of the room, as far as possible from any wall.
“‘Not the way we came in,’ Mark said. ‘That thing in the hall has our scent and won’t leave but is too stupid to figure out how to get us.’
“‘I guess it doesn’t know it’s a pull door.’ I said. We looked at each other and laughed. Hard, out of control, laughing. Petey coughed and then cried. We were all crying by the end.
“I looked to see if there was another way out of this room. The plants on the back wall shook as Mark and I approached as if they were ready for fresh meat. Mark shined his light into an alcove we hadn’t seen earlier.
“‘What’s that?’ Mark asked as he stepped toward a brown fedora sitting on the floor.
“‘Wait,’ I said. ‘What if it’s a trap—what if the plant things are using the hat as bait?’
Mark looked doubtful and stepped into the room, holding the flashlight at an arm’s length in front of him. He took the fedora. On the inside band, someone had written the word ‘strange’ in capital letters. Strange indeed, I thought. This room had the same damp earth odor as the rest of the crypt, plus a pungent odor of rotting fish. I gagged twice.
“‘This place is evil, Mark. Why did you bring us here?’
“You guys followed me like baby ducks–maybe that’s a lesson for you to learn, Steve-O. Sh—what’s that sound?’
“Mark shined the light toward the squishing… it was like someone crushing a slug under their fingers.
“There was another room off the side of this one. The bulbous-headed monstrosities were still on the wall, but they were smaller here, and brighter.
“This room was like a church, though none of the symbols etched into the wall were Christian. A squid-thing writhed on the altar; its tentacles wrapped around the arms of a man wearing a raincoat. He looked at us, but his eyes were vacant—as if his mind were elsewhere. I opened my knife.
“‘What are you going to do, Steve-o?’
“I’m gonna kill that squid and help that guy.’
“‘With that little knife? You’re going to piss it off, and it will eat us.’
“‘What do you suggest we do? Watch it eat him?’
“‘No. We came here looking for a door. Look there.’
“A small door, only 4 feet tall with an arched top and about 6 feet between the sides was at the corner of the back wall. There was a black oil surrounding the floor and walls.
“‘What would use something like that?’ I whispered.
“‘Who cares—it’s our way out.’
“‘Or a way deeper into this pit.”
“‘You take your chances here with the squid monster and whatever is banging at the door. I’m going through.’
“‘What about Lil Jacky and Petey?'”
“You’re such a wet nurse. You worried about ’em? You take care of them.’
“The guy on the table yelled—Mark jumped, looked at me, and said, ‘I’m getting out of here. If you’re smart, you will too.’
“Up close, the door looked like a sewage cover. Brown sludge oozed around the sides, and my throat squeezed shut from the smell. Mark held his nose. There wasn’t a doorknob or hinges…it was a giant mouse hole. Whatever came through there filled it like a snake through a tunnel. I had a sense of other worlds beyond, worlds that would not be friendly to humans, worlds whose inhabitants would eat humans.
“Mark shouted obscenities, and fire seared my body. Tiny suckers lined with sharp teeth adorned the squid’s tentacles. One grabbed Mark and another bit into my shoulder. My vision wavered out of focus.
“In my head, I saw the man on the table and Mark. This Mark was an adult and had a hunch on his back and horns on his head. He charged the man, Strange, who wore robes like the kind in Bible pictures. The explosion of light when they collided burned my brain. They were fighting as hard as any two roustabouts: Strange grabbed Mark and Mark bit his ear and spit out the flesh. From inside his robes, Strange pulled a dagger and slashed Mark. He cut his cheek, and brown blood flowed out of him.
“I ran to help Mark, but—and I promise you, Nicky, I’m as lucid as ever, an Angel appeared in front of me, blocking my path. All I wanted to do was hold her—I felt a pure, intense love that blinded me from anything else. In my mind, I heard her say, ‘my friend and her favorite needed this lesson.’ She smiled, and all I could do was nod in the radiance of her presence.
“That guy could have been gutting Mark like a fish, and I wouldn’t have been able to tear myself from the Angel’s gaze. Then, before I could finish my blink, she was gone. The man raised his dagger and smashed it into Mark’s chest. I yelled Mark’s name and ran to him.
“Around us, the air changed. I blinked and shook my head.
“I was on the dirt road outside the cemetery. I scrambled around and found Petey lying off in the woods.
“‘Stop shaking me, Steven.’ His breath smelled like puke.
“‘What’s wrong with you?’ I asked, ‘How are we here?’
“‘You’re drunk. Go bother someone else.'”
“I staggered across the road and found Lil Jack bent near the creek. He had his right hand holding his left wrist. I ran. ‘Jacky! Jacky! Are you okay?’ I grabbed his hand, pulled it off his wrist; there were the puncture wounds from the leprous vines. I blinked—and the holes disappeared—instead, a small frog, no larger than a quarter, croaked and hopped out of his hands.
“‘That was our breakfast.’ Lil Jack frowned. I had to laugh at the ridiculous idea of that minuscule frog feeding the four of us—’where is Mark?’ I asked. Lil Jack shrugged. I looked around, and Lil Jack went back to scouring the ground. I snatched a bottle near Lil Jack’s foot.
“‘What is this?'”
“‘What’s wrong with you, man—you have the ‘shine deliriums? Leave me alone. I’ve got to find food for us.’
“I walked along the fence to the cemetery. I remembered someone Petey or Mark, had shown up at the empty lot where we played; with two bottles of their granddad’s hooch. Someone suggested we go to Cemetery Hill and have a party. After that, everything was a blur until we came out here. Jacky was talking about breakfast. Had we been out all night? All week? I didn’t know.
Nicky waited for Pop-pop to continue. After the second hand on the wall clock made two revolutions, he spoke.
Nicky jumped when Pop-pop spoke again.
“I found Mark hunched by the fence. His hair was white, his eyes red, and his dirty face tear-stained. We hugged…”
Pop-pop coughs; it’s harsh and rips through the old man like a band-saw. Nicky thought it would rupture Pop-pop’s throat.
“Pop-pop, are you okay?”
The old man recoils, “What? Who are you? Want do you want?” The beep-beep of the heart monitor races to a staccato beat.
Nicky stands next to his mother in the hallway by the nurse’s station. The on-call doctor tells Nicky’s mother, in a hushed voice, that Pop-pop’s behavior is typical at this point in his illness. From the corner of his eye, Nicky spots a man wearing a raincoat and hat walking through the hall.
While his mother and the doctor talk, Nicky watches the man looking at the room numbers. He stops outside Pop-pop’s room, removes his hat, a fedora, and opens the door. Nicky pulls away from his mother and slips into the room, behind the man, and ducks into the bathroom.
“It’s you, isn’t it?” His Pop-pop asks.
The man nods.
Pop-pop motions for Raincoat-man to come closer. From Nicky’s perspective, it looks as if the two men will kiss.
“You haven’t aged.”
“Not on the outside,” the man says. His voice sounds like he gargled gravel.
“Where have you been? I’ve been waiting for years to see you and to hear your tales. What a life you must have had.”
The Raincoat-man shakes his head. “My life does not compare to your accomplishments.”
Pop-pop scoffs. “Who am I? A sick old man with a meaningless life that I barely remember.”
Raincoat-man looks at the bathroom, and Nicky pulls back behind the door.
“You have a family—people who love you. Your great-grandson will share stories you told him, and you will live for generations. What you’ve accomplished is far more than I can ever hope to achieve.” Raincoat-man pauses. “The one who I fought; how did he do?”
“He became a Navy Chaplain–dedicated his life to doing the right thing. We tried to be our best selves after that day. Can’t say we always succeeded.”
Nicky hears wings flapping, and a painfully bright light forces him to shield his eyes.
“Steven, you remember my friend, Gabriella? She will guide you through the next part of your journey.”
“Yes, of course,” Pop-pop said.
When the light fades, Nicky walks to the bed. Pop-pop’s body is there, but he is not. Nick kisses Pop-pop’s forehead one last time. On Pop-pop’s lap is a fedora. Nick looks inside the hat and sees a faded word: ‘Strange.’
That’s it! What did you think? Let me know in the comments below. If you’d like to learn more about Harry Strange, please visit the Harry Strange Radio Drama.