by JESSICA BOWERS
It was Cassie May of 34 Orchid Street who saw the lights first. Her teeth were filmy with fresh vomit and her throat ached with the sting of stomach acid as she peered out at the strange sight atop the hill, at those fever yellow lights turning on and off, on and off. It wasn’t the nervous flicker of shoddy electricity, but a steady pattern of light and dark, as though someone was inside playing with a switch. ‘Peculiar’, Cassie thought, for she knew the abandoned old house had been boarded up at the front door and condemned after the neighbourhood complained about what an eye sore it was. In fact, they were tearing it down tomorrow morning, tearing it down and flattening the hill to build a playground for the kids or something.
Cassie stood in silent contemplation, the ominous beacon periodically flushing her face in the pallid, sickly hues of perpetual nausea, her pupils shrinking and dilating in a spell of hypnosis. Behind her the television babbled of nonsense and burst out with occasional track laughter, bathing the room in kaleidoscopic flashes of blue and white. Her mother was sprawled over the couch like a beached sea cow, gurgling in her sleep as if she were drowning. Her slab of an arm dangled over the edge where she held the remote in a dimply, swollen hand; and when it slipped out and clattered to the floor, Cassie didn’t hear a thing.
She was impelled toward the light, impelled without knowing why, and suddenly she found herself outside in the sticky night air, thoughtless as she crossed the cool, slimy asphalt with bare feet, as thoughtless as she’d been the first time she’d stuck a pencil down her throat to spare herself all the sordidness she associated with digestion. In fact, not ten minutes earlier she’d been deep in the ritual of binge-barf-bed, or rather, the bulimic tendency that took her in a strangling hold after she’d accidentally seen her mother stark naked in all her gargantuan glory: a beluga whale shapeless and smothered in the flabby saddles of obesity. Cassie could never ever let herself turn into that; but she had to quell her hunger somehow. When the beast fell asleep, Cassie sat on the kitchen floor and gorged herself with all the salts and sweets and fats that were toxic during the day, then promptly purged it all in a gush of liquid heat and went to bed before the feeling of fullness wore off.
Tonight would have been no different, had she not seen that rhythmic flash of yellow when she went to turn off the TV. Her mouth rotten and sour and gasping for air, she clutched at the dry, shrubby grass and scrabbled up the hill, testing the limits of her atrophied muscles and brittle bones. She crested the hill with a final, strenuous effort and was distantly alarmed to see the front door of the house was ajar—shredded planks and rusty, twisted nails strewn across the threshold. On-off-on-off went the lights. Cassie stumbled over the rubble and went inside, thoughtless and languished.
Kurt Dailey of 38 Orchid Street caught a glimpse of the lights through the dirty slats of his blinds as he worked on his latest project: an intricate model of a Victorian-style mansion. The details were so fine that he worked under a magnifying glass with a lamp directly overhead. The glorious structure of plaster and wood was like a beloved child. It was white with green shutters that opened and closed over real glass windows. The lawn was made of felt carpet and the driveway of small brown pebbles he glued on one by one. He’d fashioned tree skeletons out of small wooden sticks and dressed them with thin metal flakes for leaves, then dotted them all about the house like sentries. It’d taken him two months to build what could be destroyed in two minutes by a careless hand.
It was arduous work, but Kurt loved it. He was so engrossed in it that the days passed around him in meaningless patterns, for his blinds were always shut to shun the outside. His entire home was a workshop coated in sawdust and smelling of paint, equipped with heavy machinery and hundreds of tools that were tacked to the walls. He paid no mind to the neighbours when he cranked up his screaming metal blades in the middle of the night, for this was his world; this was his world alone and away from all them.
In the centre of the workshop was his cluttered worktable, bathing in the lamp that to Kurt was a holy spotlight. Presently he was using a tiny, homemade hammer to nail the chains of a miniature white swing into the ceiling of the porch. His hands were deft machines that worked independently of his body, trained by years and years of precise, surgical movements. In a jiff he had the swing secure, and with his careful, almost femininely dainty hands he gave it a nudge and smiled to himself.
That was when he looked up and saw the lights, those obscenely flashing lights that’d been hindering his concentration all night. Who was out there doing that, pestering him during his work? Kurt shuffled over to the window in his slippers and filthy, splattered apron, separating the blinds with his dusty white hand. He peeked through the narrow slit into the world he so abhorred and saw there, in the house atop the hill, the lights blinking on and off, on and off. ‘Damn kids probably pulling a prank’, he thought, and returned to his work.
He tinkered for a moment with the wires sticking out from a slot in the back of his Victorian model, and then peered into his old bedroom at the glowing world he’d created there. It was a network of grand houses all interconnected by wire, and overlooking everything was a grey water tower that said Kurt’s Kingdom in bold blue letters. Nobody but Kurt lived in Kurt’s Kingdom, and that was just how he liked it. It was the place he began building after his beloved told him he was a worthless swine and moved to another man’s bed, leaving him to wither alone. The world had shut him out so many times that Kurt decided it was his turn to shut himself out. He made his own world, one empty of people and all their wretchedness. Here he was at peace; here he was King.
Soon this new model would have its place among the winding highways, stained glass lakes and plaster hills; soon it would be all lit up as if everyone in the world were home. Soon, yes, but for now Kurt could not help but shuffle back to the window and behold that unremitting pattern of yellow and black, his bloodshot eyes cast and recast in a glare of deepening irritation.
That was it, gods blast it! He parted with his sanctum and hobbled toward the hill, planning to beat those stupid kids with his cane when he found the foolish lot of them. Like Cassie, he struggled to the top, and once there he was faced with the same obscurity at the threshold. To Kurt, it looked as someone had torn the wood and nails from the door with his bare hands, but he was nonetheless unfazed. Damn those kids, he thought again, clearing a path with his cane. Without hesitation, he too went in.
Janie Sanders of 36 Orchid Street was flustered when she realized the yellow flash coming through the window did not signal the arrival of her date in his car. No, it was just that stupid ugly house atop the hill having some kind of electrical malfunction, and the longer Janie sat there waiting and filing her fingernails, the more she wondered when the hell someone was going to get over there and do something about it before the whole town started in. She glanced sporadically at the window just to make sure it wasn’t him this time, and then resumed her feverish filing while she smoked. As she filed, she sprinkled yellow dust over the table already littered with cigarette butts and smeared ashes. Everything had to be perfect, right down to the fingernail.
Luke Harris was The One, and this Janie knew for certain. Literally everyone she’d ever dated had been The One; but she would deny it if anyone ever said so, for there had been quite a lot of them. The young and attractive Miss Janie Sanders had more love interests than she did IQ points; in fact, The One was actually The Many. Luke Harris was The One today; Anthony Benjamin would be The One tomorrow, and perhaps Nick Carleton would be The One next week. She was a girl with simple compulsions and simple goals, marking up every tree with her gaudy red lipstick and musky perfume, notching her bedpost in the very midst of the act.
If asked why she had taken so many lovers, Janie would say it was because she had nothing else. She’d flunked out of school because her brain had the learning capability of a rotten banana, for which her affluent Catholic parents had cut her off in disgrace. She worked a mediocre job and lived in a mediocre house, and were it not for the endless slew of men whispering their sweet nothings, Janie Sanders would be in the corner with six gallons of ice cream and a shovel, bawling her eyes out and eating her feelings.
When Janie got bored with The One, she had no trouble in biting his head off and sending him away with what she thought was agony and wounded manhood. She really thought they all loved her, that she kneaded them all like putty beneath her thumb, and that she left their hearts in fractions when she said it was over. She never considered the horrible idea that she meant to them what they meant to her, and especially not now, now that Luke Harris was The One.
Mr. Harris was extremely late, and as the dust and butts and ashes continued to gather, Janie began to fret. Maybe he got into an accident or maybe he forgot or maybe he got lost! After three hours without a call or a show, it was obvious that Luke wasn’t coming, and as much as Janie hated him, she hated herself more. Her fingers grew hot under the friction of her frustration and the skin was buffed away, making her bleed. She surprised herself with a yell and threw the emery board, backlashed by all the pain she tried to inflict on The One. And those lights! Those maddening, mocking lights! To hell with it all; she’d shut them off herself!
Janie stomped toward the hill, her heels clacking fiercely and the hem of her candy red dress rippling about her thighs. She slipped on the slick road and skinned both of her knees. She crawled the rest of the way up to those lights that mocked her and blamed them for everything. At last she rose at the top of the hill, bloody and bedaubed with dirt, cheap mascara running down her cheeks like ink. She smeared it with her hands like war paint, snarling and feral, and went inside.
Eli Sykes of 32 Orchid Street was drenched in a cold sweat, recovering from the violent throes of a horrific nightmare when the lights illuminated the cosmic patterns of his bedroom curtains. In his dream he was chased by a polka-dotted clown with black beetle eyes and a serrated mouth dripping with liquid guts. Its laugh was like a wind-up toy and its big floppy red shoes squished as though they were full of water as it ran after Eli in fast forward, its crablike demon claws outstretched and clacking. Being mute since birth, Eli had been as unable to scream in the dream as he really was in real life, his throat squeaking like a clogged trumpet as the devil clown snatched him with its crab claws and lifted him face first into the jagged, acrid hole of its maw.
Eli sat upright, trembling with the aftershocks of his nightmare, dark hair sticking to his forehead in sweaty commas. The bubbly squishing sound reverberated in his mind as the little boy mopped his forehead with a pillowcase and breathed through his mouth, wishing a sound would come out, wishing he could cry for his mother. As usual nothing sounded but the ragged whisper of his breath. How he wished he could say just one word, any word! Even if that word was toilet, even if Eli was allowed to say it just once for his whole life, he would die the happiest person on Earth.
When he couldn’t answer with head or hand motions, Eli communicated with a whiteboard and marker. It was humiliating having to scribble out a response instead of speaking it, having to be afraid that the other person would get bored and leave after a few small exchanges, which they always did.
“Why can’t you talk?” kids at school would ask.
“I’m mute,” Eli would write.
“What’s that mean?”
“It means I can’t talk.”
“Why can’t you?”
“I just can’t.”
And that was always that. Eli couldn’t laugh with his friends—not that he had any—couldn’t sing along in music class, and couldn’t talk to the girl he thought was pretty without her abruptly turning away, whipping him with her long ponytail as she went. He grew to hate the other kids, and sometimes, he found himself wishing not that he could speak, but that all of them were mute like him.
When he lowered the pillow he saw the flashing lights with their steady tempo of on off, on off. The pattern calmed him from his fit, and watching them still, he put his feet on the floor, straightened his tiger-striped pajamas and went to the window. He peeled back the star curtains and climbed up onto the windowsill for a better look. Surprised in his silent way, he knelt there with his hands on the glass, his mouth half-parted in childlike wonder as he gazed at the bizarre activity atop the hill.
Eli didn’t even like to look at the house in the safety of full daylight, because he thought he could always sense some kind of grotesquely shaped shadow meandering past the grimy window, watching him. The house was, Eli felt with a certainty more acute than fact, the hiding place for the creatures of his nightmares; for the creatures of all the kids’ nightmares. When the kids of the neighbourhood had too many bad dreams, there wouldn’t be enough room for the monsters anymore, so they’d all come out and go into the kids’ houses instead. Eli’s throat tingled with the desire to whimper as he imagined the devil clown scraping its crab claws across his windowpane, laughing its dry, wind-up toy laugh and drooling shiny black blood.
So what did the lights mean? Was somebody in there, fighting all the monsters, killing them with light? Eli didn’t think so. The ichor yellow flashes painted and repainted sunsets on his rosy cheeks, dazzling his tentative eyes and dying his curly dark hair a queasy green. The sudden enlightenment was brighter than the light itself! The monsters were beckoning to him, to all the kids to come and face them once and for all. This too Eli felt with that eminent certainty, the certainty more concrete than the fact that he had no voice.
He took a deep breath and swallowed it down in a painful gulp. Eli had to do it, even if none of the other kids would ever be brave enough to come with him. More than anything, more than he wanted to have lots of friends and be a baseball star, Eli wanted to prove that being mute did not make him inept at everything he did, and this could be the only chance he ever got. He didn’t have to speak to the monsters; he just had to look at them with his eyes and hit them where it hurt. And even if he failed, he would fail knowing he’d been brave. Not your typical eight-year-old sentiment, but then again, Eli wasn’t your typical eight-year-old.
He got down from the windowsill and went to his closet, quickly locating his baseball bat and the umpire’s mask that’d belonged to his father: his weapon and armour. He slipped the mask over his face. It was too big for him and still reeked of chewing tobacco and old sweat, but these were the smells of his father and he felt safe behind the metal lattice. The bat itself was nearly as tall as he was, but he wielded it confidently with two hands and decided he’d better go before he lost his guts.
Eli left his room and hurriedly pattered to the front door in bare feet, for the narrow darkness of the hallway was scary enough and he didn’t want to get spooked already. He paused and held the doorknob, making sure he could hear his mother sleeping, and he very well could. Part of him almost wished that she wasn’t asleep and that she would catch him, but he forced the thought down with a fresh dose of courage and pushed himself out the door.
When he reached the top of the balding hill, Eli pulled the mask back halfway, cocking his head back to gaze at the house in full scope. The wood was warped and scarred, the white paint gone in patches and peeling away in long, moldy tendrils. The roof was mottled with rust and tangles of vines clung to it, shifting in the breeze like scraggly hair. These vines dominated the whole house like a malignant cancer. They held it in a net of thin, twisty fingers that were like black spider webs against the cloudy windows. A weathervane creaked and croaked somewhere high up, the severed caution tape billowed like yellow ribbons and the cattails whispered scratchily against the rough exterior. When Eli saw the door he thought the monsters had already escaped and were capering about the town, but he knew he should check for sure. His heart pounded like a crazed animal was trying to break out of his chest, but his face was stoic, docile, and silent. He went forward, one step at a time, his mask drawn and the bat firm against his chest.
Unlike the others, Eli could not bring himself to walk through the crooked door so easily. To Eli, this was more than just an old house with flashing lights. To Eli it was an entity as ancient as the ages, a vessel for all the dark charms and wicked phantasms that tarnished gold, corrupted righteousness and made people seize up with fear. The way its giant shadow loomed over him and made him shiver on a hot summer night was a portent beyond what his fledgling mind could process. He just knew that when they tore the house down tomorrow, the malevolent power it possessed would be released upon all the people in some inexplicably awful way. Now he knew for sure that he had to do something about it; he had to go in and find the black heart of the evil and destroy it, whatever it was. He knew that when he walked inside he would never be the same again, and the poignant little boy was right, only in a way he never would have imagined even in his most vivid, violent nightmares. He went inside.
When Cassie May stepped inside, everything went pitch black. The lights were no longer flashing, and the only signs of existence coming from anywhere were the low hum of insects from outside and Cassie’s ragged, tinny breathing. To Cassie the whole world had gone dark, and she stood at the threshold in a daze, forgetting for almost a whole minute where she was. Then, out of the black, a light from a single room began to flash in the same pattern as the entire house had been flashing a moment prior. Shocked back to life by this, Cassie began to walk straight toward the light, letting the house swallow her whole, her skeletal feet barely sounding on the dusty planks of the floor.
As she drew nearer the light flashed faster, the harsh palpitations bashing her eyes like solid objects. The musty air scraped across her weak lungs like sandpaper as she advanced more swiftly toward the psychotic light, advancing because she was possessed by the unknown force that’d brought her here, that same force that made her throw out her internal organs night after night. When she was inches away from the open door, the light was flickering so intensely that she could no longer tell the difference between light and dark. Hardly wondering what would happen when she did it, Cassie May of 34 Orchid Street stepped inside; stepped under the fever yellow glare of the Uglylights.
When Kurt Dailey hobbled inside a few minutes later, the house greeted him in an identical fashion. The lights went out all at once, marinating him in thick, almost solid darkness for a whole minute. Damn kids trying to scare him now. It seemed as if no light at all penetrated from the outside, like the house was surrounded by an invisible barrier. This struck Kurt as odd, but he dismissed it as soon as he saw new light coming from the room to his left.
He bolted toward it in his graceless, crippled gait, knowing he had the culprits now. The floorboards creaked in protest under his weight and his cane pounded them back in a series of dull, irregular thuds. The frantic lights cut right through his bitter old skull and exploded in his head like hot stars and comets, so he shielded his face with his arm and ambled blindly on, hitting the walls with his cane, disturbing ancient cobwebs and scolding imaginary delinquents.
The door locked behind him. He turned clumsily and twisted the knob a dozen times to no avail.
“Hey now, you kids just knock it off, ya hear?” he shouted in the dark.
Nobody heard him, not even Cassie who stood twenty feet away, trying to stifle a scream.
Janie Sanders charged into the house like a burglar, and then decided she wasn’t so tough when the lights went out once again and stayed that way for too long. Well, that solves that, she thought. She would have walked out had she not seen from the tail of her eye the light begin to flash on her right side. She considered her options for a moment. If she went home right now, no doubt she would spend hours and hours crying herself to sleep. If she stayed here to investigate, she could distract herself for a while at least; she could take all her anger at being stood up out on whoever was screwing with these lights. Janie Sanders may have had a rotten fruit for a brain, but she still made the right choices for herself. Or at least, so she thought.
Janie took off toward the light with her heels thundering in the dank space, her eyes fluttering against the helter-skelter on-off, her hair dishevelled and her makeup smeared all over a face that quivered on the brink of lunacy. Nobody stood up Janie Sanders. Nobody.
When at last Eli Sykes passed over the threshold, the door swung shut behind him in a rush of cool dusty air, triggering the steady darkness yet once more. Frozen in place, Eli clutched the baseball bat in a sweaty grip, hopelessly clinging to the courage that’d fled him at the very last instant and finding there was nothing left of it, not even the tiniest dreg. The darkness seemed infinite, and the silence was so dense that he felt it squeezing all around him, making his ears thrum like swollen veins. The air was peppered with dust particles that felt gritty in his open, wheezing mouth and tasted like stale crumbs. It was so utterly still that he felt the whole rigid structure around him was not a house at all, but a living creature holding its breath. He loathed himself for not bringing a flashlight. His pajamas were already saturated with the sweat of sheer terror and his eyes were bulging from the sockets, desperate for just a pinprick of light.
Like divine revelation, his prayers were answered. He could see a beam of light splashing and fading over the wall in front of him, the source of which he projected to be in the far right corner of the house. Eli spun the bat slowly in his hands, watching through his mask the diseased light as it danced and flirted with him upon the wall, scores of unspeakably large black bugs scuttling away in its glaring wake. The heart, whatever it may be, was there in that light, waiting for him. There was no turning back now. Armed with nothing but a wooden bat, Eli Sykes of 32 Orchid Street stumbled momentarily over the foot of a staircase, regained his balance and marched onward into the Uglylights.
The lights went out when Cassie May entered, to prevent her from seeing the room, and when they came back on she was presented with a carnival funhouse. The room was full of concave and convex mirrors that distorted her body into obscenely hilarious shapes. Here she was wider than a semi-truck; there she was but a sliver of white skin, thinner than a sheet of paper. Cassie spun round and round in a daze, for all the mirrors reflected upon each other into infinity, and in every direction she looked there was the disgusting dichotomy of fat Cassie and skinny Cassie, repeating and repeating forever. The whole paranoid obsession over her self-image was wrapped around her, and just when she thought it would pierce right through her, the lights went out again with a sound like a bowling ball hitting a concrete floor.
They came on with a whine of energy so high that Cassie could hardly hear it, and the lights were so unnaturally bright that she was temporarily blinded. Agony lanced through every square inch of her body as if she’d been ripped right out of her skin, and when the blue splotches faded from her eyes she saw that she really had been. The Uglylights had snatched her skin right off as if she could be unzipped, and what Cassie saw portrayed in the single mirror was the revelation of what’d been hiding underneath.
She was no longer Cassie May of 34 Orchid Street, but the free and exposed essence of that human being, the essence liberated by the Uglylights. She hadn’t been this aware of anything since she’d put her head in the toilet earlier that evening, and when the world snapped back to her in stunning clarity she was overwhelmed with the need to scream, stopping short only because she realized she was looking at herself.
Her hands were level with her abdomen but they were hidden, thrust inside the red, viscous tangle of entrails that’d been gouged out of her body but were still connected to the inside. They were boiling hot in her hands and she could feel them still thrumming with life, could feel something like tiny rodents squirming inside the slimy tubes of her intestines. She was slathered up to the shoulders in her own warm blood and there were speckles of it on her chest and cheeks. Her skin was but wrinkly parchment stretched over a wire frame, her face was puckered like an aged corpse and a dark, acrid fluid leaked from her rheumy eyes. Her hair fell out in brittle pieces like dried leaves.
What was almost worse was that she could see the empty sack of her old skin hanging on a hook like a coat, a ghoulish and hairless thing that gaped with black holes where her eyes and mouth and nose had been. A moment later the elastic suit crumbled into black dust as if it were a thousand years old.
This was the real Cassie May: a skeleton offering up her innards to anything that would relieve her of them and all their sordidness; a blighted victim of the Ultimate purge.
The room lit up with a sound like thunder, and the cantankerous old Kurt Dailey was flailing his cane like mad, so livid that he really thought the hard objects he was smiting were the misbehaved knees and skulls of Those Damn Kids. When he realized the responses he was getting were not pleas for mercy but breaking glass, he froze with the cane over his head as if it were as powerful as Thor’s hammer, wheezing as fat beads of sweat glimmered in his bushy white brows. He lowered the cane in the midst of his stupefaction and saw that he was standing in a pile of broken ivory hands and legs and faces, namely, the shattered remains of a million little porcelain dolls.
The dolls littered the floor in an ocean, rising up to the ceiling in an eerily identical wall of frilly pink dresses, white bonnets and marble eyes. These were his disciples; they were the perfect hollow, lifeless shells to inhabit his perfect hollow, lifeless world. The motionless eyes stared at him from every direction, never asking to be loved and never betraying him in wickedness; all of them just staring, staring.
As Kurt watched, backing up against the locked door in his small recess of clear space, the dolls amassed together as if they were but one living thing, forming a sheer wall before him of tinkling porcelain, a wall of people that couldn’t feel and couldn’t love, a wall of people that were only good for sitting there and staring at their owners while they slept. The wall broke and the dolls toppled over their King, drowning him in a sea of icy hands, flaxen hair and hard, ruby red lips. Surely he would die here encompassed by this army of dolls alive in their enormity, and as he wallowed beneath the unyielding pressure of their cold hard weight, their eyes still staring, staring, he wished he’d never been a King at all.
The lights went out and his lungs were relieved; he could feel nothing pressed against him now but the darkness. He scrambled over the floor and came clumsily to his feet, ready to fight the next wave of the supernatural, certain he would win this time. He was prepared for anything, anything but what he was about to see in the mirror.
The Uglylights invaded him with an explosion of white-hot agony, tearing the layers between truth and lie as if they were as feeble as paper. Kurt Dailey crumpled to the floor, dazzled and blinded, and when at last he rose, he rose redefined; he rose as a piece of matter warped by an immutable action. He too was powerfully impelled to scream, but when he opened his plaster mouth his dry throat could do nothing but choke on its own dust.
He was cocaine white from head to foot, his face blanched and lineless like a solid ghost. He was cloaked in moth-eaten green and gold robes that fit him like window curtains, and when he tore them open he saw that his pale body had no shape at all; it was a smooth, chalky mannequin with arms and legs attached at sharp, unnatural seams that cracked open and spilled plaster chunks and powder when he moved. Kurt was completely hollow on the inside; he could hear in his empty head the air whistling through his body. He tried again to scream but there were no lungs and no vocal cords, just an artificial mold full of black, empty space, a mold that was crumbling to nothing all the time. On his hairless head was a tarnished silver crown encrusted with plastic jewels, and in his hand his cane had become a scepter shaped like a half-burnt matchstick.
Statuesque he stood: the Hollow Man, the Leper, anything but Kurt Dailey. When he saw his molted skin dangling above him like a plastic bag, he reached up for it as if he could somehow slip back inside, only for his arm to snap off at the fissured shoulder and land in fractions. But the Hollow Man did not bleed; he did not feel a thing. The Hollow Man simply stood there, crooked and asymmetrical, empty of all the human things he hated so much.
Statuesque he stood: the King of Nothing.
When the lights went out on Janie Sanders, she huffed impatiently and kicked the locked door with her vinyl heel, regretting it immediately. She nursed her big toe with her thumb, her tongue lashing out indecencies made even more vulgar by her raspy cigarette voice. Her rotten banana brain had not at all grasped that something strange was happening to her; Janie just knew that she was all fired up and someone was going to pay.
And she would.
Suddenly Janie was presented with a row of young men dressed to the nines, their palms outstretched and beckoning for a dance. It would be wrong to assume that any of them were handsome, for they had no faces at all, just canvases of blank skin from forehead to chin. Already dressed for the occasion, Janie found it impossible to deny these strapping, anonymous suitors, so she picked the fellow in the middle and let him take the lead.
Janie waltzed with The One, turning and dipping and swooning round and round the austere room as the others watched, clapping daintily at the grace they blindly witnessed. Janie’s chest swelled with egomania and she caressed her partner’s featureless face, indifferent that there was nothing actually there because The One never really had a face; The One was insignificant. The world was full of faceless, insignificant things that yielded before the grandiose Janie Sanders, better known as the centre of gravity and centripetal force and tides and seasons and all the other things that made the universe go on existing in perfect harmony. Nothing had a real face when it was compared to Janie Sanders, better known as God.
God giveth and God taketh away, and without warning Janie found herself alone in the dark once more, no longer twirling in the masquerade. The Uglylights smote her down with a hand of thunder and lightning, severing hideous lie from an even more hideous truth and replacing false divinity with genuine depravity. The flouncing God had been swatted from her self-inflated throne, never to return.
When Janie came to her senses, she was no longer seeing the world through a sane, undivided angle. Her vision was scrambled two dozen different ways, like she was looking through the geometrical facets of a diamond. She blinked fervently to right herself, and what closed over her brand new eyes were not human eyelids but a translucent yellow film viscous with slime. She saw through two kaleidoscopes, tripping over her cheap heels and flailing her arms for balance, the world swimming around her in phantasmagorical patterns.
Her exoskeleton smashed into the wall with a grotesque crunch that was like stepping on a bag of aluminum cans, and without her control a bright red chemical spilled from two small holes in her face; a signal to let her brethren know she was in distress. The gas diffused throughout the room, dying the air in a rosy pink haze that looked like the colour of asphyxia. As she reeled back and reached up to inspect the damage, Janie knew, without any prior knowledge of how insects communicated, that she was seeing smells on top of everything else. Her manicured hands fluttered on the surface of her head in a spasm of panic, and when a bent, injured antenna brushed over the back of her hand, the truth was obvious to even an idiot of her caliber.
She whirled on her legs, faint and delirious, and as she turned she brought herself to face the mirror by chance. Thrown off equilibrium by her damaged feeler, Janie crawled toward it on her hands and bloody knees, and reflected in her eyes, two dozen Janies crawled back at her, Janies only human from the neck down, Janies reborn with the green, alien head of a praying mantis.
Like the others before her, like anyone in the whole wide world would do, Janie Sanders opened her flytrap mouth and screamed. Out of the dry, cavernous hole came the rattling hiss of locusts and the noxious malodour of black licorice mixed with cigarettes. Brooding, Janie let her feelers flit across the mirror, feeling with her whole body the cool, perfect smoothness of the glass. She blinked over and over, hoping it was all just a mirage, coating her alien black eyes with a fresh layer of slime that could have been tears.
Even though she’d never been better than anybody, Janie had all her life thought her every minute action an expression of fine art. When things turned against her, she decided it was only because she was too good for them. She was too good for school and too good for her parents, but above all Janie was too good for The One. Now she could truly show The One mercy; now she could truly bite his head off and spare him the mortal anguish of living without her, for Janie Sanders was too good to live without.
But nothing, not even Janie Sanders, was too good for the Uglylights. Nothing was good at all.
Eli Sykes stood in the dark room with the bat drawn and his teeth bared, terrified beyond comprehension of how long he actually stood there in wait. He measured the seconds with his heartbeats, comforted only by the simple knowledge that they meant he was still alive. He was waiting for the lights, and when they came on he would find the black heart, the black heart with a rotten apple core, the black heart thrumming with the arrhythmia of disease. He would find it and he would kill it. He would squeeze it in his hands until it burst like confetti; he would tear through the sinewy pericardium with his teeth and gnaw through atria and ventricles and bicuspids until he held but a wasted sac. He would do it and he would fight every monster that tried to protect the heart, for the life force of the heart was the life force of all the monsters, of all the nightmares and of all the evil. Eli would destroy them all.
He waited until his own querulous heart felt like the only thing in the world that could make a sound, until it felt like the only thing that existed at all. His ears crackled as the pressure mounted in his head, the veins tightening under his skin like rigid tree branches and his lungs fluttering in his chest like spastic wings. The darkness was alive and it was watching him suffer, watching and waiting just like him, waiting for him to explode. Eli felt he really would; he felt as if he was being crushed and so he wilted to the floor and threw off the mask, clutching his damp dark curls with both hands, wishing he could split his skull right down the middle and let the terror burst from his brain, his sweet baby face contorted at the pinnacle of a silent scream.
When Eli opened his eyes again the lights were on, and he could see for himself that the black hearts and monsters that’d tortured his mind were all just childish delusions. He was surrounded by four walls that were dark and grimy as if scorched by flame. There was nothing in the room but a wooden pedestal. On top of it sat an old telephone with a curly cord and a turning dial with finger holes. The instant Eli laid eyes on it, the phone began to ring so violently it did a tap dance on its hook, braying so urgently that Eli knew it wouldn’t quit until he picked it up.
He stood up cautiously, his face blotched with heat and running with sweat, his hair sticking out at odds and ends like wild antennae. Slowly he approached, the shrill, piercing wail making his wide eyes rattle in their sockets. As his trembling hand hovered over the phone, he saw it wasn’t plugged in anywhere; the mysterious call was being transmitted through bare space. He laid his hand on the cool plastic, endured one more of those ear-splitting shrieks, and whipped the phone up to his ear before he decided to chicken out.
Nothing but the sandy crackle of static greeted his ear and so he waited, his heavy breath condensing into hot fog on the receiver. Hello? Hello? HELLO? His throat fought for the word but it was like trying to catch air.
“Eli? Ain’t ya gonna say hello?”
It was a choked, guttural voice, like one of a drain clogged with mold, and it was chased through Eli’s ear canal, all around his body and into the innermost crevice of his soul by the dry wind-up toy laugh of the devil clown. Eli crippled up with a feeling like frostbite and threw the phone as hard as he could, watching the cradle slingshot forward and explode with a final jingle upon the wall. Then the lights went out.
In the brevity of a blink the Uglylights were upon him and glaring brighter than a supernova. The little clairvoyant felt them in ways the others could not, felt the Uglylights penetrate the soft shell of his soul and fill it not with the darkness that was the mere absence of light, but the tacky, putrid darkness that was tar and sludge. He felt his spirit drowning in the mire like a little bird, but what could he do except let it? The brightness was a nuclear fever that radiated in waves, illuminating every corner of his mind with the keenest dread. The Uglylights lingered inside with their omnipotent intensity until Eli just wanted to lie there and quit, until he just wanted to lie there and let them take everything they wanted. He did exactly that. Eli let the Uglylights soak up the pretense and leave him withered. Eli wasn’t a hero; he was a meek little mute boy stuck in the rusted armour of dead chivalry. Heroes didn’t exist, they told him. Nothing was good. Nothing at all.
The pain ebbed away in slow layers and Eli sat up. His eyes spun like pinwheels behind their lids, fizzling with blue stars, and his head pounded with an agony that harpooned to the very core of his thoughts. The world around him felt muddled, its edges blurred and tinted like Eli was looking through lenses made of dirty water. Nothing was clean anymore, not even the air; everything hung suspended and heavy in the sticky perfume of a virulent haze. Everything was ugly.
Eli stood up, his muscles aching with permanent fever, his arms tattooed and scarred with the dark hieroglyphics of an ancient curse. He regarded these in silent awe, his bare, callused feet subconsciously stepping toward the mirror. Unlike the others, the thought of screaming did not so much as flit across his mind because he knew with the collected poignancy of all the frustration he’d ever felt that he would have been unable.
He was dressed in the silken white tunic of an ancient Greek. It was held together by a golden ring that hung on his right shoulder, a golden ring that Eli saw as worthless, tarnished metal. This wasn’t the first thing he noticed. The devil himself sat on Eli’s shoulders, a hairy, matted beast with two crescent-shaped, fleshy wings that twitched almost lifelessly in its filthy fur. It perched on him using two thin, misshapen legs that ended in scaly talons that danced for new ground whenever the boy moved. Its other two legs were stubby, hoofed limbs that dangled uselessly on the creature’s left side. In a small hairy arm that budded from its body without rhyme or reason, the beast held a curved metal horn that was mottled by age. Its mouth was a giant, serrated vacuole that held fast onto the back of Eli’s curly head like a leech, its teeth embedded in his skull so that his brain felt trapped in a razor snare. The thing was faceless, but scattered in the tangled mess of its fur were dozens of beady black eyes that blinked in disarray.
The thing sat on his shoulders weightless and poised, settling into a position that was almost completely painless; as if it wanted to make sure its host was as comfortable as possible. As far as Eli could tell, it was benign; and despite its appearance, it seemed to cling to him not as a parasite but as an eternal companion.
It was Eli’s creature; it was Eli’s friend. He felt it could hear him despite his silence; he felt they were both entities beyond the sphere of spoken language. Eli did not need to speak to know that he and his creature were the same, that they were unorthodox and misunderstood, that they needed the solace they’d found in one another. He reached up and patted its mangled mane, its wormy muscles coiling up against his touch, then slowly unravelling and beginning to relax.
Eli gently stroked the thing that’d once haunted the dark skies of some netherworld.
His mouth came open as if to laugh with excitement, and as it did, a harsh, warbling note came braying from the creature’s rusty horn. Eli’s jaw locked tightly in surprise; but in a glorious moment, he understood in jubilant, undeniable clarity. He opened his mouth, his lungs crushing up in all his effort. The horn blared acrimony, bleating like a wounded sheep. Sounds! He was making sounds!
“Hello,” he mouthed, to which the creature issued a brassy dissonance. To Eli it sounded like a golden hymn. “HELLO! HELLO! HELLO!”
Eli’s face was plum purple, his tongue flapping with the energy behind his open mouth, his eyes rolled back in ecstasy and his branded arms flung out and clenched at the fists. In them he held the fervor of quintessential passion; in them he held his utmost gratefulness for the Uglylights. He thanked them for delivering him from the opaque veil that keeps us all so blissfully unaware. He thanked them because the Uglylights had made him beautiful.
The living siren sang its sour song and reached a fever-pitch; the woolly creature’s hellish wings all aflutter with the maelstrom of sheer sound. Fissures shot up the walls like lightning bolts but Eli did not relent; he yelled and yelled until his lungs were shriveled butterflies inside his chest. Yielding to his power, the door to the room burst open; all of the doors burst open and they were free.
Eli emerged into the misty night air and realized that he’d never been alone at all as he looked at the three next door neighbours he didn’t even recognize. Instead, he beheld three more companions to join him in his new diversion. He accepted them not because they were transformed like him but because they were the truth: the raw, exposed truth.
Lost and finally found, they all just wanted to go home now. Home to where, they weren’t sure, but Eli Sykes of 32 Orchid Street bravely led the way, marching and bleating his noble creed to worlds beyond worlds.
The demolition crew arrived the next day and found that there was nothing left of the house, not even the tiniest dreg.
Jessica Bowers is a high school senior living in Claxton, Georgia. She plans to start college in the fall, majoring in biology and minoring in creative writing. Her inspirations are Mary Shelley, Aldous Huxley, and of course, Stephen King. Writing has become a big part of her and she wishes to keep it alive in her adult life. Jessica’s story, “The UglyLights”, appears in the June 2013 issue of HelloHorror.
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