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  Table of contents Issue Thirteen SOFT HANDS

by
TYLER TRISTAO
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hat shape do your demons imitate? How do you feed those hideous, flickering forms? Do you think you’re special because they live inside you? Don’t. They choose any paltry means of existence. Demons are not special and neither are we.



How hungry are these demons of yours? Mine is famished; insatiable. The demon is larger than I am. I know that now. My infinitesimal existence is at an end and for this I am grateful. Things moved all too quickly, in a slow trudge during this life. It has been lonely and long, fitting that it ends at my own soft hands-



Lorne blew out a sigh. The suicide note was terrible. He balled it up and tossed it into the bent wire trashcan below his desk and tried scribbling out another.



Do I have any regrets? Many. Too many to write here, too many for your eyes to read.



I look out of my cubicle, into the busy office and wonder who will miss me. None of them. They will discard me like garbage in this throw-away culture. Another piece of trash in the landfill.



Family dead, friends never made. The touch of a woman all but missed.



In forty-eight years I’ve only managed to be a Watcher, a man in shadows that only had the vicarious thrill of movies and stories to drag him through meaningless, gray days. I can’t watch anymore.



I have to close my eyes. This place seems so unreal.



This too he threw away. Forcing his eyes back onto the computer screen, he studied the picture of the woman wearing nothing but fake nails and a smile.



Was it normal to look at a picture of a stranger and feel ashamed of yourself? Could the woman look back and judge what he had not amounted to? He knew she could see the absence, what it was that didn’t exist. He thought the women in the pictures were the only ones who could see what was missing inside of him. He felt hot guilt and cold timidity crawl the length of his slouched spine as his eyes connected with something larger than two megabytes of pornography. His boss stood behind him, breathing through his mouth.



“Checking out her tits there, Lorne? I thought you were some sort of Asexual or maybe you were in love with your computer like one of those weird guys on TV.”



“Sorry. Just deleting her account now, sir.”



“Hey hey hey – hold on. I didn’t say to delete the whole shebang did I? Just take the naughty pictures off and leave the sweetheart to do her thing. Do your job Lorne and stop making mine so fucking hard.”



“Yes sir.” Lorne forced himself to keep looking at his boss, a squat man with a gut, a bald head and a small, sneaky smile. His name was Spencer and he seemed to have been disappointed with Lorne since the day he had met him.



“Why don’t you, uh, send me the intimate pictures of our lady friend here to my personal email? You know it, right?” Lorne nodded. Spencer made him send the inappropriate photos to his personal email every time a dating profile was flagged for pornography. “Lorne? You still with me here or are you in La La Land writing your little notes?” Spencer snapped his chubby finger in front of his face. “Pick up the pace or I’ll tell Barbara you’re looking at porn again.”



Lorne nodded and returned to his work. He deleted the nude photos from the woman’s profile, glad to clean them from the slate. He didn’t bother sending his manager the naked pictures.



By this time tomorrow, he would be dead.



If there was a God, he would be dead.



endmark





Lorne left the Capitol Hill MingleTown offices after having stayed as long as possible, like any other night. Finally, the old janitor had ushered him out, muttering about the time of night and his back and something about alimony.



People on the clock didn’t even have the time for him.



Lorne didn’t want to go home to his small apartment with its white walls and cheap furniture. He wished someone was there waiting for him. He wished someone cared.



He got to his car, threw his briefcase into the passenger seat (which was mostly empty except for some Suicide Self-Help pamphlets and a bunch of useless MingleTown memos) and sat there for a while before starting the vehicle, looking ahead and thinking about nothing in particular.



Rain fell without mercy, slicking the dark, cracked asphalt in the sloped neighborhoods of North Seattle. Tall brooding pines reached shadow limbs across the skinny, mossy homes.



Where was he going? He wasn’t driving home, that was on the other side of the city through the dense gauntlet of rush hour traffic. No, he was going somewhere else altogether, passing countless homes and lives, staring blankly out his windshield, staring through the weeping rain. Anything to avoid the long columns of cars filled with strangers going home to strange places. Who are the manifold people that surround us? Where do they go? Where do they live?



Do they have sex? Will they die this night, some by their own soft hands? Are they happy? Regretful? Could they ever understand another alien trapped in human skin?



Lorne came to a five-way stop, braking late so that he stuck out a bit beyond the white line. He watched as a teenage girl ran across a couple of streets, navigating the crippled star where the roads met. She was smoking a cigarette in the rain, the cherry glowing, transfixing Lorne.



The other people paid no attention to her, speeding past after she passed their cars. No one even bothered to honk or yell or flash their brights. It was as if only Lorne noticed her.



When apathy is shattered, the resulting concussion can remove one’s foot from the brake pedal. His car rolled forward, nearly bumping her as she strode past in a half-jog. Lorne’s heart jumped in his chest, skipping a beat or two.



“Wake up and open your eyes will you?” she yelled. She had stopped on the crosswalk, glaring at him. She wasn’t moving. Did she want a response?



Someone honked.



Lorne fumbled with the controls to his window, managing to open it. “Sorry. I couldn’t- I mean I didn’t see you-“ That was a lie. Was it? How can you not see something while you are looking right at it?



Wake. Up. You could have killed me, you know.” She was standing next to the open window. Another horn sounded through the heavy patter of rain.



Lorne saw that her fingernails were painted. The young woman was wearing thick fuzzy boots, black spandex pants and a large black Victoria’s Secret sweatshirt that read LOVE PINK in glittering letters. He couldn’t take his eyes off of her; he had never been more awake.



“Look, I can forget about the traffic incident if you can help me with a ride. I gotta get out of this weather. Deal?”



“Get in,” he heard himself say. What was it she had said in return? It didn’t matter. She walked around his car, got in and slammed the door shut.



Lorne sped through the five-way stop.



endmark





They passed empty lots and derelict remains of what were once motels. Graffiti screamed across plywood and boarded doors. Much of the chain link fences were eaten through with rust. Was anyone living in these shambles? It sure felt like eyes were watching them drive by.



“Stop at this motel up here,” she said, breaking the awkward silence in the car.



“Why?”



“I can give you a head-and-tail deal for fifty bucks. Just stop at that motel.” Lorne pulled the car into the lot, noticing the motel was called The Runaway.



It was the kind of place that you never think you will step foot in as a child and for a moment you are that youth again, driving past the filthy place and seeing it from another’s eyes as if it is unreal, made of wax for your viewing pleasure because such a slum does not exist in your sphere until that moment when things have changed undesirably.



Then that moment is abandoned, your sphere violated, and you are there, seeing the sodden trash in a long, dark alley and you can smell piss mingling with mildew and cigarettes. It’s real.



“I already have a room,” the girl said and got out of his car. “Follow me.” He did so.



As they walked in silence he realized the place didn’t bother him that much. What innocence is left when one has prepared themselves for suicide? Without his realizing it, the girl had stopped to unlock her room and he bumped into her.



“Easy there, stud. Wait until we get inside.”



“Yeah. Sorry.” It was room number 32 and inside it felt damp. When she turned on the weak white light beside the door he could see blossoms of mold on the ceiling, crawling down the old wallpaper.



“Not the best décor, but it’s all I have,” the girl said. “I hope you don’t have any allergies to the plant life on the ceiling.”



She threw her purse onto the cheap carpet. Lorne noticed nothing was inside of it. The purse was completely empty. “Where’s all your stuff?” he asked, looking at it like the thing might lurch at him any moment.



“I don’t have anything yet. Soon, though.” She began pulling off her boots, then her sweatshirt. “Gotta make some money first.”



“Wait. You don’t have to- I mean, just hold on a second.”



“What?” she said, gazing at him. She was naked now. Gorgeous. “Don’t you want to? Isn’t this why you picked me up?”



He did want to. God, he wanted to feel pleasure and drown in a sea of his own ecstasy. Lorne cleared his throat. “Fifty dollars, you said?”



endmark





A night had never been so warm. For the first time since he could remember, Lorne felt the manacles on his heart soften, if only for an hour, a minute, a moment.



It had all happened so fast, in a tangle of sweaty, smooth flesh.



Then it was over more quickly than it had begun. He hoped the memory would last and that he would remember the way she smelled and the way her skin had been beneath his fingers; it had been so warm beneath her flesh.



But Lorne knew the truth: the best days of our lives are the most forgettable.



“This moment too will be erased with time. Like all things,” he whispered, tracing his finger along the girl’s bare shoulder. He hadn’t learned her name and in a way that was easier, more appropriate.



But he had asked at one point during the night, hadn’t he? It was hard to recall but he seemed to remember her laughing at the question of her name. I can’t pronounce it with this tongue.



She had said that. He was sure of it.



Sleep eventually came. It was a sleep infected with nightmares. Lorne was brought to a deep, abyssal place of stygian horrorscapes. The labyrinth in which he found himself was inescapable, the walls adorned with the skin and entrails of creatures he had no way of fathoming even in the most basic form of perceptions.



The black pits he explored opened into other dreams and places. He dreamt that he had awoken in the motel bed to find the young girl’s face had been annihilated to the point where it couldn’t be recognized as human or alien or anything other than the very face of mutilation and madness. Yes, seeing that had caused his mind to recoil harshly, throwing him into a state of utter panic.



That dream bled away.



Lorne could see that he was inside of a large sphere and simply knew it as his own, something weaved into his existence like a mind or soul. And yet there were others nearby that he could sense with crushing dread. That sensation was akin to being bacteria on a olossus host. It was the coldest feeling he had ever experienced and once it had begun to freeze his blood he knew it to be delirium. Sheer lunacy that existed from diseased logic.



The thing that he recognized as human went numb at the glimpse he was afforded past his own periphery, into a vista of black arcane knowledge that he had no way of understanding. Maybe the madness he felt had made it so.



But the bizarre, unrecognizable beings he saw through the glass-like walls knew. The beings were talking to him without moving a mouth or orifice. They spoke with hatred tempered over eons, using thousands of gaping mouths on their slender, worm-like bodies. They wore faces like that of the girl in his dream: an ill-conceived failure in some savage creation. Maybe they weren’t faces at all. Looking at them evoked stunning disgust. If only he could close his eyes…



In a blink Lorne was in the employee lounge of MingleTown, crouching in a slice of shadow that was weakening in the dawn light. He felt naked, torn away from clothes, yes, but naked and stripped of something more primal inside him. He was wearing different skin in this dream.



Barbara walked in without seeing Lorne. He leapt out. Nightmare shapes scratched across Barbara’s face and eyes and neck like claws. After her humanity had been raked away and her body spun into what he could only recognize as webbing, Lorne awoke bolt upright, sweating, coughing, glad to have been wrested from the eldritch place he’d sunken into.



Wake up,” the girl said and Lorne realized he had been hearing her voice in the dream too and it had pulled him away from that place.



“I am. I’m awake. Thank God.”



“Good. I don’t need that fifty bucks. I need something else. Can you do me a favor?”



“What kind of favor?” he asked, rubbing the patch of sweaty hair off his forehead. Weak light filtered into the room through tightly shut blinds. “To be honest I’d rather give you the fifty-“



“I need you to kill someone. Have you ever done that kinda thing before?” the girl was standing by the door, her fuzzy boots on and the LOVE PINK sweatshirt hiding her lithe form.



“No, I’ve never killed anyone. Jesus. I’m not gonna start tonight – I mean today- either. Sorry.”



“Oh you’ve never tried to kill anyone, huh? What about yourself? Weren’t you planning on killing him?” She showed him in the palm of her hand a small crumple of paper. “That’s right. I read all about it and just so you know, suicide is for cowards. You’re not alone, even if you think you are.”



“How did you get that?” Lorne said. He’d left it at the office in the wastebasket. Suddenly he felt his bowels turn to water. An eel of panic squeezed through his stomach. You were at MingleTown. Remember the dream? He felt nauseous, almost seasick thinking about the nightmare.



“We were there. Me and you. Just think for a moment.



“And wake. Up.”



endmark





Lorne opened his eyes to see something he knew existed. How he knew it existed, he would never know because the fabric of his mind was frayed and tattered now. But seeing Spencer sprawled below him, bleeding from grievous wounds and inhaling sharp, jagged breaths, it all made sense within a tight paradox. An eclipse had been lifted from his eye.



“Hello. Spencer.” It looked like he had done the girl her murderous favor. In the name of lust, nothing is sacred. Of all people, Spencer should be able to understand that.



Thill… thill thlease… thlease thod,” he stammered through a broken jaw and half a tongue. It was gibberish, the ranting of the tortured and broken.



Shhhhhhhhhhhh,” Lorne hissed, looking at the ruined pictures on the ground. Had he printed dozens of nude photographs at MingleTown after killing Barbara? Something inside him seemed to remember that, something now detached and infinitesimal to the presence so awake in his mind.



“I killed her too. Barbara,” Lorne said, staring at the bloodied writhing mess below him and how his prey was entangled in the pornographic pictures. “Barbara. What a strange name. I laid eggs inside of her afterwards. She was so, so warm. A breeding ground for us. Like you. Like Lorne here.”



Spencer gagged and choked and cried, beyond words. “This is a boon –a birth, not a death, human.” Lorne’s fingers twitched on his right hand; something stirred beneath his skin, tautly encased in flesh. He placed the twitching hand on the sobbing, ruined face of his prey.



“You should be so lucky to serve our purposes.” The lining of his fingernails swelled and split under the trembling force of what emerged along his wrist and through the breaking bones. A sinuous form crawled from Lorne’s bloodstream, attaching itself to Spencer’s face with uneven rows of crablike feet.



Slowly, surely, the entity wound itself around his head and into every orifice, burrowing deeply into its host.



Lorne saw one last image as he felt the tendrils of another being wind around his brain and heart and nerves. It was the girl, wearing yoga pants and a baggy sweatshirt.



“Thank you Lorne. Without you we would have never cultivated this world.”



He was able to finally close his eyes.



endmark





Calloway scratched his thin scruff of beard, which had grown overnight. “Hey, Matthews, can you grab me another cup of coffee? I want to look this over one more time – then we can leave.” His partner lifted his head from his hands long enough to roll his eyes. “And don’t give me that look you prick. All our years together and you’re gonna leave me thirsty?”



“I’m gonna leave. This shit doesn’t make any sense, Calloway. It’s four in the morning. What do you want me to do, huh? Go down to the lab, toss on a white coat and a pair of fuckin’ glasses and hop into the research of the worms or whatever it is they’re calling them now. The unknown species.”



“You’re right, Marty. Get yourself a cup while you’re at it.” It will do him some good to get away from these pictures for five minutes. It’s his nerves, that’s all. God knew it would have done him some good to walk away for a while or even a lifetime.



The first victim, Lorne Welles, was found beside the second, Spencer Blent. Both had been mutilated by what the lab rats were calling circumstantial exit wounds. They looked like some sort of evisceration or stabbing to Calloway – hell, like they had been stabbed everywhere and twice for good measure and just for the effect of flair, it had all taken place over a bed of bloodied porn photos.



Then there were the things – the unknown species. Though Marty had been right, worms was more like it. Long, freaky things that were on, in and around the found bodies. The creatures had been dead by the time the station had gotten the call and responded. Maybe the forensics crew or the specialists they’d brought it would know where they came from and why each and every damn one was unmoving.



After a night with the pictures and baffled nerds, they were having a great deal of trouble distinguishing their asses from a hole in the ground.



Not the most common MO for a lust homicide, he told himself again as he shuffled the pictures. Because, generally speaking, murder committed for lust isn’t finished and then completed by wrapping the victims in plastic netting. It had taken the lab rats two hours to find the chemical concoction that would eat through the tight webbing. They had never seen anything like it – the freaks were having a heyday downstairs right now, testing the material, make, molecules, blah, blah, blah.



So what was he supposed to do about all this? Calloway wanted to get home for some morning sex and hopefully more than two hours of shut-eye. Shit in one hand…



He shuffled through the photographs again. There was Barbara Billings. She had it the worst because she had been cocooned in whatever the hell it was that they had all been cocooned in, but it looked like the perp had shoved objects under her skin. She bulged in places as if she was a sack full of jagged rocks.



It disgusted him, the whole thing; not to mention the mess they’d found at the roach motel on Aurora. An Earl Wallace, cut up so bad Calloway was surprised the perp hadn’t torn him clean in two. It was what his old partner would have called a maggot factory – the corpse had so many wiggling around it was a miracle the body hadn’t been moved. Then again, no evidence gave them nothing and so he could thank Fuck All for that.



Jesus where was that cup of joe when you needed it?



It’s not the joe you’re worried about. It’s the note, Calloway. Go on. Open it. He eyed the door for another few moments, hoping to whatever God was out there that Matthews would stroll in and interrupt him. But that didn’t happen, so Calloway squeezed into some nitrile gloves and gingerly opened the evidence bag that was the last left to examine.



It was a note found in an empty room at The Runaway Motel; the door to room 32 had been open, the paper left on the floor. Calloway had never seen a note on a crime scene other than notes written to and from the victim or killer. Never had a killer spoken to them – it didn’t happen in real life unless you think of the Zodiac Killer, BTK, The Unabomber, Jack the Ripper, The Hillside Strangler, whatever.



Is another man adding himself to that list? Calloway carefully, slowly unraveled the crumpled note and read it. It started: What shape do your demons imitate? How do you feed those hideous, flickering forms?



A suicide note. Not the most uncommon thing to be associated with a crime, but a triple-homicide suicide that leaves a note completely free of vindication or rapture?



He flipped it over and his heart stopped. Someone had written something on the back in thin, slanting lines that were hard to read. It was as if someone who had never written before tried and was successful. It read:



HeLLo



Im A Parasite



Like tHE humans



Like you



And I’m ALIVE



And I LoVE it



A thin chill rolled up Calloway’s spine. A parasite? Images of the bizarre litany of worms found at their strange crime scenes burrowed into his head.



“What the fuck?” he said to the piece of paper. He nearly jumped out of his chair when Matthews responded.



His partner was standing in the doorway without a cup of coffee. “This is not a death. This is a birth.” Calloway noticed something thick pressing against the skin on Matthew’s forehead. Something was inside his flesh, pulsing and bulging. It wanted out.



Calloway drew his gun, too afraid to even realize why he was doing it and why his 9mm was aimed squarely at his partner that he had known and loved like a brother for decades. “Stay back. I’m warning you Matthews, stay back.”



Matthews shambled forward, retching up a spatter of blood that wriggled with long, skinny bugs. Even after the bullets had torn through his mortal body and shredded the flesh and bone inside him, the man continued forward, whispering in a language Calloway had never heard. The voice wasn’t even coming from Matthews.



It was in his head.



Wake. Up.



The broken, hideous jaw of what had once been his partner spoke before he took a step. “By the next moon this planet will be ours. It will be a fine place to breed tenfold the population of your small species.”



The white wall of his office met Calloway’s back, freezing him into place. The gun clattered onto the floor, having fallen from his terror-stricken hands. He felt something lithe and prickly inside the leg of his pants but was unable to move, transfixed on the young woman walking toward him with her soft hands held out.



Unspeakable creatures had pried away her painted fingernails, unknown pupae that grasped for their eventual existence. Each step she took removed another layer of her humanity. By the time she placed a hand on his face, she was not a woman at all. She – it – was –



“N-no. LEAVE ME ALONE!



“You will never be alone.”



   
   

 

endmark



Tyler Tristao writes short stories and novels in the Pacific Northwest where he dislikes small talk about the weather but thoroughly enjoys the rain. His favorite authors, to name a few, are: Stephen King, Thomas Ligotti, and George R.R. Martin. With a novel in one hand and a cold pit in his stomach, he awaits rainy days and is provided for amply.



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