On Your Life by Julia Wren
“Ready in 5…4…3…2…” a younger woman with a raspy voice in an all-black outfit says to a crew member above the curtain, “1.”
The curtains move to the side, and the lights turn on from above. My skin feels warm already from the glare. Fake clapping is played on the entire stereo system around the room before the tall man I saw before walks over to his chair. He smiles, flashing the white pearls behind his lips as he waves to me. The beat and clapping die down.
“Hello, everyone, and welcome to—“ he pauses, raising his left hand to his ear dramatically.
I look out beyond the stage, instead of people, I see a blank brick wall. A hunched over man just behind the camera clicks a button on a soundboard.
“On! Your! Life!” a crowd of people say, erupting into cheers before going silent once more.
“I’m here with—“ the man says, holding out his hand to me.
“J-James. James MacLean,” I say.
“Well, James, I’m assuming you know
how the game works?”
“Afraid not, coul—“
“Well, all you have to do is answer a series of questions. Get them right, and you can move on,” he clears his throat, turning towards me with an unbreaking smile, “But if you get one wrong… Well, just try not to get any wrong. Are you ready?”
“As ready as I’ll ev—“
“Terrific! James, did you pick your nose as a child?”
“I… What? I mean, of course. All children had to, right?”
“Hm…But did you eat the sweet rewards of a nose well cleaned?”
My eyes crinkle, pursing my lips as I shake my head, “I mean… as a young child, sure?”
His head turns towards the camera, suppressing a laugh, “Fair enough, but, James… Do you still fall into these habits?”
I shake my hands in front of me, “Of course not! What do I look like? A child?”
He smirks, holding out a small blue box towards the screen behind us. With a push of a button, a compilation of videos and pictures catching me in the act appear on the screen.
“That’s one strike, James! But we play for three. But you still must be punished!” his arm stretches towards me, pressing another button on the remote. Two cold, metallic bracelets clasp over my wrists on the table that separates us. I yank my body back, but the clamps keep my limbs in place.
Heavy footsteps settle behind me. I twist my head but can’t see the figure on the other side of my chair. I look to Neil who nods at me and smiles at the person just behind. His smile seems too smug. A click and buzzing can be heard. It’s like a mini chainsaw is being held to the nape of my neck. Suddenly the pitch changes to a low vrrrrr and before I realise, chunks of my dirty blonde hair fall from my shoulder to my lap.
Hair falls on me like a blanket or a freshly sheered sheep. Cold air touches places of my scalp that I hadn’t felt since I was a boy. The noises and falling particles cease. A glaring handheld mirror is presented in front of me as the clasps release my wrists. I take the mirror and reach to run my fingers through freshly cut hair. In place of my mop is now barren scalp. The remainder of hair feels like a dull cactus. My eyes flicker to Neil who shrugs.
“Two strikes left, MacLean!” he says.
I nod, folding my arms close to my body, “Go on then.”
“Have you ever watched something not suitable for you?”
“I watched R movies all the time?”
“Oh, no, James. Far worse,” he says turning towards the screen.
A clip of me biting my lip and shaking vigorously appears. It flashes to the screen my past-self was gazing at.
“Kiddies, huh, James?”
My face goes white. My left hand is pulled into the lock again. I look blankly at Neil who cringes at me.
“Kids, James? How sick. We’ll make sure you watch nothing like that again.”
A hole opens on the edge of the table. Two jagged ice cream scoopers sit just in front of my gaze. Neil taps his fingers on the wood as I back into the chair as far as I can. The man behind me grabs my shoulders, sitting me straight to look at the twisting utensils.
My vision is bloodshot and filled with shades of red and fall to black. My throat burns with screams as I feel the strings of my eyes being pulled form my skull. A whirring noise marks the retreat of the device. I reach up with my other hand. My face feels wet, but dry. It reeks of iron. I want to cry, but it burns as all that flows is my blood.
“Have you ever stolen something?”
“Y-yes,” I answer through my sobs
“Have you ever stolen from your family, James?”
“What about a friend?” he asks, creaking the chair as he leans forward.
“I don’t think so,” I say.
“Wrong again, James,” he says, tapping the
plastic button. I hear giggles of an old female friend fill the room. She’s
laughing. Suddenly, her laughter turns to struggled breaths and rustling.
Something is overcoming her. The screams and frantic gasps as I ripped away her
innocence on the living room floor echo around the room.
“I never said it had to be entirely tangible, James,” Neil says. He’s enjoying this torture porn.
I stand, almost leaping out of my chair to make a rush for the exit. My arms out, trying to feel my way around the table. Two weights sit on my shoulder, dragging me down to the chair once more. One of the giant hands pushes my right hand into one of the constraints. A metallic slicing sound rings in my right ear.
Julia Wren is an author, storyteller, and cat-enthusiast. She spends her spare time with her cat, Maya, and filling paint-by-numbers. If she’s not binge-watching Netflix movies or ordering pizza in her sweatpants, she’s traveling the world’s reaches with her inspiration, and father, James.
Sporespawn, a short story by Jennifer Weigel
Sporespawn was thriving. The Mars colony had become more efficient and better at finding and using native resources with the Martians’ influence. The native creatures were a dust-borne sort, essentially existing as microscopic eggs in stasis waiting for new hosts to infect until opportunity presented itself. These particles could exist in a state of torpor for centuries, millennia, perhaps even longer. It was unclear how ancient some of them were, and the alien humans had no way of calculating this. When the humans had first arrived on the planet they hadn’t even realized the dust they were breathing was alive, nor could they discern that it was infectious. Not until it was too late anyway.
The humans who had been involved in the Martian terraforming effort had all eventually become Incubators and succumbed to becoming a part of Sporespawn. Over several generations, the terror of the situation had subsided and the colonists had acclimated to their new role as host bodies for the Martian creatures. It wasn’t all bad, the Martians looked out for their Incubators and kept them safe until the Spawning, and the period before then was 40+ years long. So an infected person could live a relatively full life in that span, even including having children of their own. And since the humans were infected and became Incubators at a very young age, typically around 5 or 6, they never really questioned their roles, merely following along like sheep until the slaughter.
Plus, the native Martian creatures were much better equipped instinctively to handle all of the chaos that the hostile-to-humans environment threw at them. The alien humans had struggled just trying to survive in the settlement, let alone make much progress, until enough of them had become Incubators to make better sense of their circumstances. And it wasn’t as if they didn’t get to make any decisions in their lives at all, more like the guardian angel on their shoulder whispering in their ear (or that little voice in their heads that belonged to the Martian creatures inhabiting their body) was much more involved in their lives, its presence increasing the more mature the Martian beings residing within became.
Fetsch was thirty-nine. She had lived a full life in Sporespawn, working from when she was just 7-years old to plant and harvest potatoes in the still relatively harsh conditions of the roundhouse, an area designed specifically to grow food. The voices in her head had grown louder and more insistent in recent years, and as always she was persuaded to obey them. She could not remember a time before her guardian angels had whispered in her ear, protecting her from pending dust storms and helping her to survive the blackouts when they happened. They taught her how to get everything back online quickly and maintain tight control of all of the atmospheric conditions in the controlled habitat. She trusted them with her life, and they seemed to have her best interests at heart. And her Elders had always taught her to mind the guardian angels; she always did as she was taught.
Now that she was an Elder herself, she had retired from potato farming and was in charge of taking care of the younglings, including her own daughter, now 4 years old, and the baby. She was lactating and nursed those who needed it. As Fetsch had grown older, she began to work harder at taking care of the younger members of the society, helping them to master agriculture and teaching them the trade, just as her Elders had modeled when she was young. It was, after all, the natural order of things. At about six years of age, after becoming one with Sporespawn, the children would finally start learning how to survive in this difficult land by shadowing the adults and doing what they could to help out.
But at this point Fetsch couldn’t even remember which children were her own amongst the throng of infants and toddlers. In fact, she couldn’t remember much of anything, really; her existence was drowned out by her migraines. Recently the headaches had worsened considerably, and her visibly throbbing temples drowned out much of her memory and awareness. Her skin was stretched so thin as to appear transparent over her bulging forehead, which pulsed and convulsed of its own accord. Red tendrils wormed their way beneath the surface, edging towards the surface and causing it to swell further.
Fetsch remembered seeing other adults like this as they were nearing the Spawning. She knew that eventually their heads burst open, spewing forth a cloud of particulate among the children in their care. She knew that this was also her fate. And yet, she found it strangely comforting, knowing that her life would end as part of the ongoing cycle towards the continuation of Sporespawn. For this was also a part of the natural order of things, and her guardian angels ensured her that her Spawning would fulfill the needs of the colony and provide for generations to come. She could think about little else as she played amongst the children, her mind becoming more and more infantile as the pressure throbbing inside her brain grew. She looked forward to the end, when everything would go black and the headaches would finally subside. Hopefully it wouldn’t be too terribly much longer.
If you want to read another of my stories prominently featuring Mars dust, please follow these links to Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3 of Cozmik Debris (and it’s later conclusion here on Nightmarish Nature: Terrifying Tardigrades).
Nightmarish Nature: Zombie Snails
This time on Nightmarish Nature, we will look into zombie snails, because we were having so much with the Whore Snails recently. So this is a lot like the Freaky Fungus except that this time it’s a parasitic worm that is the cause of the horror… Leucochloridium paradoxum, the green-banded broodsac worm, forces snails to be a part of its nefarious plans to take over the world (well, really more just continue on keeping on in its strange and bizarre life cycle).
This Is What We Get for Eating Poop
The worm, which spends much of its life as a parasite in birds’ digestive systems, is part of a weird cycle that includes both birds and snails, though the snail end is much creepier. It starts when a snail ingests worm eggs in bird droppings. These eggs hatch into worm larvae that eventually turn the poor hosts into zombie snails! But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The worm larvae work their way up into the snails’ brains and take over, hijacking them on suicide missions to continue their own life cycle. These worm larvae eventually grow large and worm their way into the poor snail’s eye stalks, pulsing and throbbing therein to resemble maggots or other tasty treats.
The worms use the zombie snails to get into their bird hosts by mind-controlling them into climbing out of the shady undergrowth where they will be easily spotted by bird predators which will feed on them, ingesting the eye stalks and continuing the worm’s life cycle as it gets into the bird’s digestive tract. The huge, bulging eye stalks are irresistible to birds looking to snatch maggots and other delicious delicacies. Eventually, after the worms are well ensconced in its bird hosts, the bird poops out more worm eggs for unsuspecting snails to ingest, completing the cycle.
You can watch this in action on Nat Geo Wild: World’s Deadliest here, if you dare. Warning, it’s a little gross but not near so much as some of the other topics we’ve covered. If you enjoyed this slimy segment of Nightmarish Nature, please check out past segments:
Snails a Whorl Whirl Whore World…
So a friend and I made some artsy snails awhile back. Essentially this was in response to her granddaughter proclaiming that her favorite animals are whorl snails. My friend heard “whore snails” and was a bit perturbed that the child would use such a word so nonchalantly, whether or not she knew what it meant. But then again toddler-speak is like that sometimes… Anyway, it stuck.
So we made some whore snails, all glammed up and ready to go. We started with these flat metal snails and then painted and decorated them, to whore them up a bit. I figured this would be apropos after my recent Valentine’s Day posts and that the end results were horrifying enough to appear here.
This is my friend’s creation. I especially like the David Bowie star and cherry bling to match her cherry red lipstick. The purple shell is a great color on her too. I think my friend went back and decorated her shell more after the fact, but I didn’t see the snail after those changes.
And here’s my whore snail. She’s a bit more of an ice queen with her deceptively lovey-dovey eyes and mouth full of poison darts, like the underwater snails do. I believe I called her a Hoar Whore Whorl Snail as when the discussion first came up I heard “hoar” and thought of hoarfrost. Hence the ice queen take…
And another friend joined us via Zoom just to visit and have fun making art together.
This little Zoomed in snail is kinda cute, like she’s out on the beach in her bikini… Mixed media on paper.
So if that wasn’t disturbing enough, check out my inappropriate Shrinky Dinks posted here before, or maybe this Eye Candy Peeps Easter basket, both taking some innocuous thing(s) turning into something… else…