The Visitor in the Light Beige Robes

By Chef JRHEvilInc/Joel R. Hunt

//Source.

It took three days for the visitor to reach our facility.

Sharon was the first to see him, while she was on entrance duty sometime after midday. Of course, she didn’t know he was a “he” at that point. All he was at first was a bright reflection, a spot of sun glinting at us from a scope far across the rubble. A sniper, she presumed. That wasn’t a worry. Sniper bullets were far too precious to waste on settlement guards, especially sublurks like us; at the first sign of trouble we could hunker down, disappear into the endless tunnels that wound away into the dark folds of the Earth.

He wasn’t a sniper, though. When he appeared the next day, a dark figure lurking against the rising sun, we saw from his movements that he was observing us through binoculars. Though any more than that, we couldn’t discern. He kept his distance and circled us, always keeping the sun behind himself, masking his features with its relentless glare. Bernard wanted to send a team out to track him down, but the Major refused. It was likely, he said, that the visitor was trying to lure out scouts; all the easier to butcher them for meat, far from the protection of the facility. Continue reading “The Visitor in the Light Beige Robes”

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The Mime – A Story from my Childhood

By Chef JDentLight

I’m not sure if anyone other than Doctor Patel is ever going to read this; hell, I don’t know if I’ll even ever read this after I finish getting it all out of my head and on paper. It’s been twenty-something years now and I was nine at the time, so I figure there’s about a one in ten shot the way I remember things is even how they happened. Even so, Doc says It’ll do a lot of good for me to confront all this, so I guess I’ll get on with it.

When I was a boy, I lived in Brooklyn with my mother. My loving father had been out of the picture since before I remembered so it was just the two of us in a small, one bedroom apartment. She worked in another part of the city, couldn’t tell you where to save my life, and my school was about half a mile from her job so everyday we’d take the subway to the stop right by her office and she’d walk me over to school before going to clock in.

Walking around New York, you see a lot of different things and people, most of which I probably didn’t fully appreciate at that age. Homeless people, businessmen, and every other kind of person you could imagine all sharing the same streets. Hell, that’s a kind of diversity you really just don’t see anywhere except one of those health class posters at the high school where I teach. Of all of the different types of people in New York though, some of the most interesting are the street performers.

Everyone’s seen the usual ones: the guy with a beat-up saxophone playing his heart out for a few quarters to get thrown into the case, the ones who make drums out of trash can lids and whatever else they can find, and even the asshole hippie playing an out of tune acoustic guitar. When my mother and I made our morning walks, though, we got to see one who really stood out.

Every morning, at the same street corner, there’d be a mime. Not like some guy just doing some bullshit interpretive dance either, like a real bona fide mime, down to the face paint and striped black-and-white shirt. He was always out there, no matter what the weather was like, and we always walked past him. My mother and I were in the same school & work routine for about two years, and for most of that time he just stood out in my mind as one of the few street performers who was any different from the rest.

He knew all the moves and seemed to be able to earn spare change from just about anyone who walked past. He would walk a very convincing invisible dog or put himself inside the box and really, truly make it seem like he was trapped inside an invisible container. Maybe a lot of it was just my young mind being easy to fool, but he always seemed to get more tips than the rest of the people who made a living on the sidewalk.

I enjoyed watching him as I was pulled past by my mother’s hand, but I don’t think I’d still remember him after all this time if he hadn’t changed his act a bit toward the end of our time in New York. It started very subtly; we’d be walking by, my eyes expectantly searching for the familiar black and white figure and then his stare would meet mine. He’d stop whatever invisible thing he was doing and start a new one just for me. At first, my naïve mind thought he just recognized me and was giving me a special show because he knew I liked him. Things started becoming more confusing as time went on, though. I remember pretty clearly one Tuesday morning, seeing him look at me without his normal smile, point right behind me, and continue to point with a somber expression even after I’d looked over my shoulder in confusion.

Things just got stranger from there. Every day he’d seem more intent on me, always dropping his ear-to-ear smile, staring at me, and acting out things that weren’t quite in the normal range of things you’d expect to see from a mime. He’d start out using both hands to make the standard invisible box, but then he’d pull his hands apart like he was opening a window and stare through it at me. He had several variations of this, sometimes breaking the window and reaching through to turn an imaginary doorknob or even climbing through, as if he was coming toward me on the other side. Even as an oblivious little kid, I knew something was wrong with these new changes to his routine. I told my mom that I was scared of the mime that we walked past and begged her to walk me a different way from now on. She wrote it off at first, and I can’t really blame her, looking back. A kid thinks a mime is going to kill him? Fat chance, but she was patient and I made a big enough deal out of the whole thing for her to give in and go an extra block out of the way so I could have some peace of mind.

Things were fine after that, the mime probably stayed in the same spot he always had, and I didn’t see him again. My mother was happy that I’d calmed down and forgotten about the crazy killer mime and I was young enough to carry on my day-to-day business without a care in the world.

About a month later, I woke up to my mother crying and the sounds of police radios in our apartment. The living room window was broken and there was yellow tape around it and all over the fire escape just outside of it. I asked what had happened, but the officer pulled me away and made me stand with him in the hallway outside. From what the officers told her, they got a call from a neighbor about a couple people breaking in and had arrested one of them after he attacked the other. All of the officers acted really strange about the whole thing, not quite sure what to think of what had happened. Apparently the man they’d arrested was dressed as a mime and had come in behind the first burglar. The one dressed like a mime had cut the tongue out of the other one’s mouth so that he couldn’t talk and had thrown him off of the fire escape. While he was trying to make his escape, without stealing anything mind you, he’d run into the police as they came to investigate and let them take him away without a fight.

I was young, scared shitless, and didn’t have a clue about what to think of all this. The police left, my mother hugged me and kissed me like she’d been worried sick, and she put me to bed. The next morning is probably my clearest memory of this whole story. I woke up later than usual, guessing my mom hadn’t gone to work and I didn’t have to go to school because of what had happened last night. As I was getting out of bed, I noticed a note sitting on my bedside table.

“I tried to warn you every day about this, but you stopped coming to see me. You should have listened when I talked to you.”

My Sister is Chaos, and I Love her for That

By Chef NorthernLight92

//Source.

//Trigger Warning.

This is a story about my sister. What she did. How she did it and why. Here’s what you need to know before we begin.

There is no favorite child in my household – there is only me, Aria, and my older sister, Marisol. I think if either of us had been slightly more like the other, then a favorite would have been picked by our parents. But it worked out that my sister and I are two people, with the same blood, who are nearly complete opposites that balance out rather nicely.

Marisol is the wild child. Beautiful, tempestuous, a diagnosed manic depressive with a whirling mind, magnetism and an intelligence often forgotten. She is the whirling cyclone that causes my parents unparallelled joy along with insane levels of stress. She lies, she scams (to be fair, it was people outside the family she does this to), her grades rose and fell with moods, she leaves trails of broken hearts in her wake…but all of this is forgiveable because Marisol is just Good. She is kind, caring, protective and empathetic enough to cancel out her phases of chaos. My parents love her for it.

While she is the untamed ocean I am as calm and flat as a pond in the summer. People say I’m beautiful too, but I’m awkward and lack that fiery passion of my sister. While she would forget to do school work or blatantly blow it off, I meticulous research and hand in my assignments on time. I make consistent grades (A’s and B’s), played an instrument in high school and never give my parents cause to worry. I am sweet and reserved, loving and consistent. My parents love me for that.

And we love eachother. She always protected me from external forces. She’s the one who put a boy in the hospital for trying to fondle me when we were 17 and 15. She accepted the 2 week suspension without hesitation and a small smile. I protected her when a mood change would come through and throw her off the rails. I was the one who found her as she was shoving pills down her throat and stopped her before she washed them down with vodka when she was 12 years old.

“I have no control,” she cried to me as I stroked her hair and felt tears dripping down my own face, “it’s too high – I want to do everything, anything! Run, fuck, do whatever I want. I need to be adventurous and daring. Sometimes I just want to lie down and never get up. It’s exhausting being in my head all the time.” I wrapped the blanket around her more tightly and stayed silent. There was nothing I could say then.

Several hours later she hugged me, and said “thank you.”

I could only respond, “you’re my sister, my best friend, I’ll always do anything for you.”

Two years older than me, Marisol went off to college. She came back after her first year for some time off then went back and finished (or so we think…she declined going to graduation and we never received a degree in the mail) before becoming a Volkswagen salesgirl and making the amount of money only someone with her charisma can pull off.

This is where we start. With me in my senior year at small college in the South and Marisol several states over, living her chaotic life.

I was in my senior year, majoring in public relations and psychology. I’d never had a serious boyfriend. Sure I flirted but not the type of flirting that would lead to something more. I had lots of friends, that’s all I needed. I wanted a career, not a boyfriend so, therefore, I needed to work hard and not spend my time longing for boys. Marisol often joked with me about it – she had guys chasing her whether she wanted them to or not – and encouraged me to at least give serious dating a try.

“It’s fun!” She said on a phone call one afternoon, “plus you get free dinner and drinks most of the time.”

“I can pay for my dinner and drinks, Mari, so I’m good.”

She laughed over the phone, “alright Ari, whatever you say.”

I’m social and go to parties. I drink and dance and have fun when I’m not studying. I’m much less awkward than I used to be. At a party is where it happened.

It seems you hear these stories all the time these days. Girl had too much to drink and gets taken advantage of. One second, I was in a dark room dancing with my friends. The next, I was outside getting some fresh air. The next, I was on my back in the grass behind a dumpster with someone on top of me.

I lay there, weakly trying to push him off me. “No,” I said softly. He either didn’t hear or didn’t care. “Stop!” I said more forcefully, scratching at his face.

He slapped me, “shut up,” he hissed through gritted teeth. And it was only then that I realized it was a boy in my communications class I rarely talked to. I remembered he was a star member of the basketball team, rich kid who had a brand new Audi.

Afterwards, as my hand hovered above the phone to call the police I remember thinking it was hopeless. I remembered all he girls who reported their rapes and were dragged through the media. I remembered that I was drunk that night and wearing a short dress. He was a star and rich and I was a drunk girl in a short dress who was going to have every aspect of her life poked into if I reported him.

So I didn’t tell anyone.

Except my sister.

It took me 2 months. 2 months of self loathing, feeling dirty and ashamed. I could barely function. It felt like my body wasn’t my own anymore. He had taken something from me, something I didn’t think I could get back.

I finally broke down and told Marisol everything. She didn’t seem surprised. Well, she seemed surprised that this exact thing had happened, but she had known something major going on. She can read me like a book.

Marisol drove 13 hours through the night and got there the next day. I told her everything. I cried and she held me just like that day when she was 12 and I had stopped her from taking the pills.

She let me sob and sob and we sat there in silence for over an hour. Then:

“What’s his name?” She questioned

I told her.

I looked up at her.

“Does anyone else know?” She asked.

“I didn’t tell anyone, and I don’t think he did either. No ones been giving me funny looks or anything.”

“Okay,” She had that look in her eye I knew so well. That one that showed there was a storm coming. It was the look she got before something happened.

“Mari, please don’t do anything. Just stay here with me, okay?” I saw her try and get her emotions under control. I saw her fighting away the mania that was creeping in. Stressful situations tend to exasterbate it, and I suddenly realized that my telling her could push her over the edge regardless if she’s been taking her meds. I saw when she calmed down and smiled a sad little smile at me.

“Okay Ari, let me make you some tea and we’ll watch some silly little show. We can regroup in the morning and decide what to do.”

She got up and tucked me into the couch. I watched her long, wavy brown hair swish from side to side as she made me tea in my little kitchen. It took a while. She was clicking through her phone and had to do something in my bedroom.

I watched as she watched me drink the tea. Her expression unreadable. Within minutes the chamomile was putting me to sleep. She tucked me in more tightly and said she’d see me in the morning.

Around 10pm I woke up, groggy and disoriented. Barely able to keep my eyes open. I looked into the kitchen where I saw Marisol, dressed in a short, bright pink dress and my killer black heels. Her hair glimmering and falling perfectly straight, and blonde, down her back. I saw her stuff several black trash bags into her purse and examine the Kbar knife her marine boyfriend had given her for protection.

I tried to speak. I tried to move. But I was already drifting back into a dark oblivion.

When I woke up. She was making pancakes.

She stayed for the next several days. She was there when he was reported missing. She was there as the media caught onto the story and made it a national headline.

“Star college basketball player missing.”

She was there when a friend of his described the last moment he’d seen him. “We were talking at the party and then he suddenly stopped. He told me ‘I’ll catch up with you later’ and took off to talk to some girl I didn’t know. I never saw him again after that.”

She was there when the police asked the public for any information on this girl. Long blonde hair, pink dress, blue eyes was the only description they had of her.

She had left when they discovered the body at a nearby construction sight. Only a few minutes walking distance from the party. He had been ferociously stabbed to death then wrapped in trash bags and pushed to the bottom of a deep hole that was due to be filled with cement. The only reason they found him was because the guy who was supposed to pour the cement was sick for a couple days and the body had attracted animals into the hole.

She wasn’t there when it came to light that he has raped serval girls and the university had covered it up. These girls were now suspects in the investigation.

She was at my graduation. She arrived with my parents looking beautiful.

After I walked the stage I hugged her with tears in my eyes and simply said: “thank you.”

She responded , “you’re my sister, my best friend, I’ll always do anything for you.”

Marisol is chaos. She killed someone and I’m the only one who knows it. But she is kind, caring, protective and empathetic. She is Good. And I love her for that.

The Light from Another Room

By Chef Xenocentric

I can’t imagine how I got the goddamn thing. I first time I remember laying eyes on it was the day I pulled a box from the garage and found it lying at the bottom with rest of emergency candles. That evening a blackout hit, like I’d expected, and it was only reason I ever touched a flame to any of its four wicks in the first place.

Storms don’t do this town any favors. The saying goes that there are only two seasons in the desert — hot and cold. Get a little bit of weather beyond that, a smidge of precipitation, a fine layer of clouds overhead, and you’re just asking for trouble. Hell, the inch of snow that graces us every half a decade panics the town into a complete shutdown.

It was too early in the season for snow, but I knew the deal just heading home after a second shift at the meat packing plant that evening. There had been a lot of wind gusting down from the north since half-past-five, and the lights at the plant had started flickering at about quarter-past-eight. Once I pulled into the garage and clamped the door down against the wind, I checked the Mag-Lite I keep in my glove compartment for batteries and fished out a box of matches I keep in there, too. Before I entered the house, I went to the shelf along the wall and hauled out that box of candles.

Inside, I set it on the kitchen table and lifted off the lid. There were about a dozen candles of all sizes rolling around the bottom. The biggest was block of wax, maybe 7×7 inches wide and about ten inches tall. Four wicks stood out at the top, off-center at each corner of the block. Each looked like they had been lighted at one time for a brief period. Their slightly charred nubs poked up in a shallow bowl of melted wax, but the top of the candle was otherwise flat. No dried rivulets ran down the sides.

I carried the block to the living room, figuring it would give the most light and burn the longest. At the very least, if it burned faster than I estimated is ought to, I could douse three of the wicks and just burn one at a time as a conservation measure. It was quite heavy, as I expected a big hunk of wax would be, but it had a strange sort of heft to it. I got the impression as I handled it that its center of gravity was somewhat wonky, as if there was an air pocket hollowing one corner, just under the surface. I gave it a couple of firm raps after I set it on the paper plate I’d placed on the coffee table to catch rivulets of melting was, but detected no weaknesses in any of its four sides.

Standing back from it, I noticed for the first time the shifting colors of the candle. From one angle, its hue appeared to be a dark, not quite heavy violent or deep magenta; from another it shifted to a sort of black mossy-green.

It was a weird effect, the way the wax caught the light, certainly, but barely a curiosity all the same, so there was no reason to pay the candle any more attention than I had already before I took to setting up the rest of the candles around the house, checking the batteries in my alarm clock on my nightstand, switching off the two power cords for the computer and the TV. Set for the impending blackout, I pulled out a book, sat on the couch and forgot about the candle sitting on the table before me.

I listened to the wind get worse over the next hour, just as I knew it would. Deep howls rattled the window panes and sudden gusts pummeled the slope of the roof, loud as boulder-sized fists. The house lights flickered at the high point of each volley.

Around ten, the cat started to yowl outside. I rose and went to the foyer to let her in. The second I opened the door, out went the lights. I hadn’t thought to bring the flashlight with me, so I had to bump my way back to the couch, blind, stepping high to avoid the cat as she tried to rub up against my calves. Then it took me long, ridiculous seconds of patting around the cushions before I finally found the matches.

I lighted the big candle first, touching a flame to each of the four wicks crowning the top, then immediately grabbed the flashlight and flicked the beam on — which I probably why I didn’t notice anything … off in the reach of the candle’s glow at first.

Once I’d gotten the other candles I’d planted around the house lit, I sat back down on the couch and tried to read some more, but the guttering illumination started to give me a headache. I put the book down and turned on a battery-powered radio. It was an old transistor deal, and since reading was out of the option, I figured I’d try the local station for new on the storm. The frequency was pure fuzz, though, and if I got anything more than static anywhere else across the dial, it was country music or a Mexican station. Naturally. But I continued to tap the dial across the band and see if I could catch a smidge of a signal. It was something to do.

You see, an old radio is a much more subtle device than the newer decks you get today. Anymore, you can only press the scan button that will only find relatively clear stations, which is nice to have while you’re driving. But with a transistor, you have to manually to find a station. It’s not as reliable, but I like them better, because there might be something hidden in the fuzz that would be ignored by the scanner on a new model, something a steady hand and capable can pinpoint. Sometimes you can stumble across conversations from a mobile phone or even police scanners. Those are a treat. I once discovered a “numbers station” — those radio stations that broadcast the voice, emotionally hollow and machine-like, of a woman reciting a series of double-digit numbers. They are, I guess, the covert communications from government agencies to spies, domestic and foreign, although no one’s really sure. There’s certainly a prosaic reason for the existence of numbers stations, but, trust me, your hackles will rise if you ever chance upon one out of the blue.

At one point I thought heard a piece of something, a voice, startlingly clear for a second, then gone the next. This got me interested, but the cat was rubbing up against me, stretching out a paw and meowing for attention. I hadn’t seen her in a couple of days, so I set the radio on the table, picked her up and put her in my lap and gave her a good, solid rub-down.

I call her “the cat” because she’s a stray who started coming around the yard about three years ago. She was skinny and ragged-looking, so I started putting out bowls of cat food and water for her. Wasn’t long before she started coming indoors when it was cold or wet, or when she simply wanted attention. I never named her, because I figured that one day she’d never show up again, and I didn’t want to feel any attachment to her after she was gone. All the attention I gave her when she was around probably wasn’t helping me to achieve that goal. Didn’t help, either, that I was the only person in the world she seemed to like. When I had guest, the cat would hiss and run and hide, or start pawing at the door to go outside. I have a friend who considers herself a “cat-whisperer.” All cats love her, she used to insist, and “the cat” would love her, too. She left that day disabused of the notion, glowering, and nursing a fresh line of four claw-marks, superficial but no-nonsense, from elbow to wrist. I understand why this behavior convinced my acquaintances that the cat was an asshole, but it made me feel special.

The cat submitted to my favors until something caught her attention. Without preamble, she leapt from my lap and slinked over to a corner of the house, sniffing at the baseboards.

The wind continued to steadily batter the house without let-up. Since my eyes had grown used to the dimness, I stood up and strolled around the room, blowing out every other candle. Waste not, want not. When I snuffed one I’d place on the sill of a window looking out onto the backyard, I noticed a crack in the pane.

I swore to myself. The wind must have picked up something solid and smacked against the glass. I hadn’t heard the impact or the breach, but there it was, like a frozen streak of silver lightning, bisecting the pane from the upper corner of the frame on one side all the way down to the lower corner on the other. I shook my head. The glass was finished, I supposed, though I ought to consider myself lucky the broken half hadn’t fallen out and shattered on the floor.

And yet, the more I looked at the damage, the more it seemed I should be hearing the crack of broken glass under my boots. It seemed I was looking at a thoroughly broken window pane, ragged bottom half of the glass still set in the frame, the upper half gone, the window half-open to the night and the gales of wind.

I raised my hand and traced two fingertips along the glass, from the lower, dirty part of the pane upward toward the crack. I expected to find the upper part of the pane slightly dislodged in the frame, and tilted at an angle so that the light hitting the two sections refracted at different angles. That would, I supposed, account illusion that the upper half of the pane was gone.

But a cracked, but unbroken pane of glass is not what I found.

I jumped and took two involuntary steps backward, rubbing the tips with my thumb, glaring at the window.

There was no crack — and yet, at the same time, there was, just above the image of the crack, a sharp, shear cut that brushed along the whorls of my fingertips. And it was the edge of broken glass. It was a gap in the pane. And a hairsbreadth above that, I felt a hot, a very hot, a side-of-the-oven-hot breeze sting the tips of my fingers.

That was impossible, of course — the gales outside would be howling in my ears and smacking me around the face and neck if I were gazing through only one-half a broken windowpane.

I rubbed the tips of my fingers, feeling the tingle of that oven-hot burn cooling to a steel wool scrub and finally settling to the sensation of pins-and-needles. My mind wrestled with both sensations. As if trying to make sense a double-image on a warped film loop — each condition, broken/not-broken, superimposed upon the other, one rising to clarity while the other softened, then again in reverse — my mind seemed to be trying to find the focus that would allow me to understand both at the same time, but I simply could not find the balance between the two.

Nausea overtook me. I felt pulled in opposite directions, as if I were in the middle of a centrifuge and was being gathered into two distinct realities.

I think I might have passed out except for a sudden thump from behind that shook me from my trance. I almost wish I had fallen to the floor unconscious, right then. But if I had, I wouldn’t have the choice — the chance — I now have. Good or bad, I wouldn’t have it, and it may make all the difference.

I wheeled around to face the room, settled now in the glow of the heavy, quadruple-wicked candle atop of the coffee table. The cat was on the opposite side, at the far wall by the foyer, where she had crept off after leaping to the floor from my lap. She’d found something under a small side table there.

Her tale was straight up in the air, the tip twitching. Her back legs and shoulders strained as she struggled with something in her jaws. I stood watching a moment, still dazed from the whirring unreality of a broken/not-broken window, waiting — hoping — to feel myself coalesce back into one. I watched her blankly, without comprehension; her actions blunt movements that had no meaning.

The glow of the of candle, the four-point crown between the two of us, dazzled my vision; so when the cat finally managed, with one uncompromising tug, to wrench her prize from the shadows and into the light, knocking the leg of the side table and rocking the top edge against the wall — repeating the hollow thump that had first snapped me out of my trace at the window– I doubted what I saw. Only when the single slim candle atop side table finally toppled onto its side, dousing the flame in a splash of hot wax, did, strangely, the sight of the cat’s prize become clear to me.

On the radio, a blast of clarity broke through the static. It was the clear voice a woman speaking in the emotionless, no-nonsense tones of a newscaster. It was probably the bland officiousness that made me, at first, take no notice of her words.

I grabbed the Mag-Lite from the coffee table, aimed it at the cat, and snapped on the beam. The moment the light illuminated the floor beneath the side table, the cat skittered backward onto her rump. She gave a yowl of surprise and frustration, but was immediately back on her feet and sniffing around for her prize.

She couldn’t find it. I couldn’t, either. It was gone. How it could have vanished in the Mag-Lite beam, I couldn’t understand. I swept the beam back and forth across the length of the baseboards. Nothing. But for the moment, the mystery of its disappearance took second place to the mystery of what it had been — or what I thought it had been — as the cat wrestled it out into the open.

It had looked like a hunk of meat, of freshly cut pork hock, the kind of thing I prepare and the plant myself. Red and raw at one end, white bone cleanly severed at the center, wrapped in pale, loose sack of pigskin.

I know what you’re thinking, but trust me, I am not the kind of guy who brings his work home with him. And even if I were, I wouldn’t let hunk of raw meat lie around my living room.

Something else caught my attention from the corner of my eye. Something on the wall. Flat and rectangular, like a medium-sized painting of a landscape or family portrait. I hung nothing anywhere on any wall in my house. But here was something hanging now. It was neither a landscape nor a portrait. It was a sign. White background with plain black lettering. It read:

Official LP Provider

Local 151

I didn’t have to raise the Mag-Lite to read it; I could see it well enough, along with the simple calendar hung on the wall beneath it. It was open to the current month. The day’s date had been circled in red ink. I couldn’t have thought at the time to look at the year.

I might have thought that someone was playing a prank on me — and even if I had, the joke made no sense, anyway; I mean, what the hell was an “LP Provider”? — but I knew that sign was not hanging on that wall when I’d come home. The first time I’d seen it, and the calendar that accompanied it, was by the glow of that four-pointed candle in the middle of my coffee table.

The wind was still battering the house. Spoken words were seeping into my consciousness. It was the voice of the woman on the radio, still droning her news report.

“On the tale of unconfirmed reports of hostiles southeast of Bakersfield, local militia plans to create a ‘buffer zone’ from the northern Kern County to southern Orange County–“

And by the off-kilter, guttering glow of that candle, I saw more. My living room had … distended. Normally, two people might be able to lay head-to-toe across the width of the floor. Now, instead of a south wall, against which my television usually sat, stretched a length of concrete flooring, mottled and untidy as foundation laid bare in a demolished house after the carpet had been ripped up.

“–might soon march to the mayor’s office with the intent to burn it down. The news contained in this dispatch has been re–“

It was as if the south wall had been knocked down and I was looking directly into the dining room and kitchen beyond. In fact, it was perfectly like that. The dimensions were the same, but there were boards nailed to the wall on the far side that would have covered the exact spot where the dining room window would — should — be. Instead of tables and chairs stood what looked like a pair of pushcarts, the same sort you see in hotels that the housekeeping uses to transfer loads of laundry from room to room in hotels. In this case, the bags of the carts seemed to be made from a heavy and rough material, like burlap. Dark stains spotted the sides and drenched the bottoms.

To the right of the carts, in place of the off-white ceramic tiles that made up the surfaces of the counters in the kitchen, stood stainless-steel cutting tables. Where the kitchen sink used to be was a freestanding, wide-basin industrial job; stainless steel, like the cutting tables. A faucet poked out from the wall above it, attached to one end of a neatly looped gray hose gleaming on the floor. And, finally, instead of the door to the porch, stood two tall, wide stainless-steel doors of what could only be a pair of refrigeration units.

“–clouds of chlorine gas continue to blow in from the southwest. Citizens are instructed to keep gas masks close at–“

These images seemed to be melting into my awareness, as if I were only seeing them after I discovered the absence of what I expected to find. As the images began to solidify, sounds began to accompany them. And with these sounds, sensations.

The wind blowing outside grew louder, as though I were hearing it not through a buffer of walls and glass but as it howled inside and invaded the interior of the house — through broken windows, say. The wind had a sizzle riding its gusts, which I both heard and felt against my skin, tingling my arms and the side of my face. I felt it pulling at my clothes and tossing my hair. The two pushcarts squeaked as the wind rocked them gently on their wheels. The boards across the kitchen window rattled.

“–estimated thirty-six dead before the riot was brought under control–“

But above all this, I heard another sound, a sound that was frightening for the very reason that it was so familiar. At first, I couldn’t accept I was hearing it at all. It was heavy, rhythmic* … thump … thump … thump ….* I had just left that sound behind, only a few hours earlier. In fact, I had been participating the making of that sound.

And as that rhythmic thumping began to push away nearly everything else in my awareness, I began to perceive a figure in the kitchen area, among the cutting tables.

The figure’s back was to me. Broad shoulders and thickly muscled arms told me it was a man. His head was bald, probably shaven. His arms were bare through the sleeveless straps and buckles of a heavy leather smock. As I watched, his right hand raised to shoulder height. The hand wore a thick rubber glove. It clutched a meat cleaver whose sides glistened from the process of his work. In a moment, the figure brought the cleaver down, quickly and expertly, upon his work on the table before him, hidden from me behind his bulk.

Thump …

At the sound of sharp, splintering crack of rent bone and sinew, he pulled slick hock of meat — exactly like the hock the cat had wrestled with — from its place on the carcass, and slid it to one side of the table.

“…in direct violation of Tri-County processing and consumption laws…”

At my side, the cat sprung forward, so startling me, I dropped the Mag-Lite, which I had completely forgotten I held. She made a beeline for the figure — the butcher, for that’s what he was — and sprung up onto one of the cutting tables.

“…a mass grave containing no less than two dozen heads accompanied by stripped bones baring the marks of systematic dismemberment and defleshing, along with burn patterns indicative of exposure to flame while still covered with flesh…”

Cat …,” I tried to call, but my voice rasped out on a dry whisper. I had an image of the cat striking at the figure, and the figure wheeling around with that cleaver to —

But, instead, she meowed and reached her paw out to bat at the figure’s back.

On the radio, the newswoman’s voice was replaced by a man’s voice. The tones were slightly more pleasant, if as strict and no-nonsense as the woman’s.

“This is a public notice. LP foodstuff is available legally only from licensed providers.”

The butcher stopped his work, placed the cleaver on the table, and turned around. His movements were slow, deliberate. The dim light of the room brought the striated flesh of his right cheek and arm into relief.

“Purchase, production and possession of LP foodstuff not approved by established local authorities will result in penalties.”

He gazed down at the small animal before him. Then he raised his arm toward the animal, absently stripping the heavy glove from his hand. The cat pawed playfully at his fingers. The butcher cupped his hand around the back of the cat’s head, and then …

… began to stroke her behind the ears. The cat — the same cat who ran and hid from strangers, who hissed at and clawed and hated everyone in the world but me — lovingly arched her back and rubbed her cheek up inside of the figure’s arm.

“These penalties may include fines, loss of all meal rights, loss of property, corporeal punishment and community expulsion, and summary execution.”

The butcher stroked the cat a few more times, then froze, as though a thought had occurred to him. He raised his head, and looked directly at me. It was impossible to tell how old he was; those striations, those scars criss-crossing is skin hid any crow’s-feet he might have had at the corners of his eyes, or and sags at his jowls. The light in the room — or, rather, the light in the rooms perhaps? I don’t know — smothered everything else about his features except for the scars and the gleam of sharp, intelligent, maybe somewhat wild, eyes.

Eyes that neither blinked nor twitched before the butcher sprang …

“Public militia, local and county authorities thank you for your compliance and trustworthy citizenship.”

The hand that had a moment ago stroked the cat, that had moments earlier clenched a cleaver to butcher meat, now stretched out toward me. He was heavier than I am, but there must have been tight muscles under that mass, because I heard the clop of his work boots in quick succession across the concrete floor. He closed the distance between us quickly, barking words at me in a gravelly voice that only understood later. What happened next must have totaled less than a second.

I stepped backward, my calf bucking the coffee table. I somehow tore my eyes from the advancing figure — hurtling at me now with both arms upraised — to try and steady my balance as the table upended. The candle atop it, and the radio at its side, was toppling off. I got a good look at the candle as it tumbled to the floor. What I saw was a repeat of the broken/unbroken window in the living room: the fresh candle I’d pulled from the garage, it four wicks shining crown, was superimposed over another candle. This other was shorter by half, and only one wick was alight, the others having had burned down the base. I saw it just as liquid wax splashed from the melted divots and extinguished all the flames — of both the fresh and burned candles — at once.

After that, there’s really not much else to tell. I found myself scrambling in the dark, dreading the feel of a pair of strong hands gripping my throat. My arms akimbo, I struggled against nothing until I came to my senses and realized I was on the couch, peering back and forth in the gloom of a single candle perched on an end table to my left for a threat that was not there.

I’ll tell you that I scrambled for the Mag-Lite and played its beam across every angle I could find. But in the end, all I did find was my small tidy house, spilled candles, dried splashes of candle wax on the carpet, an upturned coffee table, and a wall separating a familiar and commonplace dining room and kitchen with hard wood floors from a familiar and commonplace living room with plain carpeting. No sign of cutting tables, no stray cuts of meat, no push cart heavy with an unthinkable load, and no freezers to preserve it. And no cat.

She hasn’t come home for months. Within the first few weeks of her disappearance, I challenged myself to light the four wicks of that block of wax. I can’t bring myself to do it.

I miss her. The cat. Stupid, yet I do. But then I guess we’ll be seeing each other again, eventually.

I’ve thought long and hard about ditching that candle. Dumping it in a lake, burying it in the desert. Anything other than setting light to it again — I don’t know what will happen if enough fire is applied to it. Yet, I can’t know if ridding myself of it will change anything.

I am certain things will go poorly in this world. I think humanity will transform the planet to our own determent. I think the conditions we live in will vie against us. I think we will continue to hate and slaughter each other until our wit’s end.

So that’s why I’ve decided to hang onto the candle. I don’t think I can reverse what’s ahead. But maybe I can find a way to rescue myself from what’s to come. You see, after all, the cat crossed over. She did, so I figure that if there’s going, then maybe, with presence of mind and lucky timing, there’s a chance of coming back. At least for me.

It’s become a litany to myself, and I chant it over and again: When the time’s is at hand, I will need the presence of mind; I will need to fight against panic and desperation; I must remember the month and the day; I must remember the butcher, and the words he yelled as he lunged wildly at me, arms outstretched, hands clutching toward me —not against me, I now understand, but beseechingly to me; and I must let his words echo in my head every day until say those words myself:

Please … the candle … don’t let it … go out!