By David Michael Newstead.
To watch it move was a waking nightmare. The creature could alternate between great speed and an unnatural alien slowness. Yet once it attacked, there was no escaping its grotesque jaws. In a matter of days, I had seen dozens suffer profoundly then perish. Now as the creature approached me, I feared the same fate – the gruesome death I’d witnessed so many times before.
Worse though was the way it selected its victims. I discovered the beast hid itself in the form of a decrepit old man – so kindly and frail as to disarm any suspicion. Because of that, it existed in plain sight, watching people without appearing to look at them at all. Each morning for months, it had arrived in front of me. It ordered a small cup of coffee, then shuffled off to a corner in the fast food shithole where I worked. There it remained for the entire day indistinguishable from other patrons: retirees, homeless people, hopeless passersby.
In retrospect, perhaps I shouldn’t have been so surprised. The restaurant was practically an intersection of death and despair. The neighborhood was bad. The addicts outside were plentiful. Staff turnover was constant. The creature had simply fixed its hollow gaze onto us and waited for an opportunity to strike. And if in that time a gang member died on the corner, if another drug user overdosed, or if a mentally ill person passed away in the alley, what great investigation really took place? I just didn’t notice it at first, but the creature must have been among us for some time.
I had worked at the Jiffy Burger for five years, long enough to see multiple generations of food service employees come and go: fry cooks, cashiers, managers. They would get fired or quit or stop showing up. No one cared. When Diego disappeared, for example, we all quietly assumed it was immigration enforcement. When Keisha stopped coming to work, we blamed the unseen boyfriend on the other end of her phone. And all those impatient looking customers in line registered even less to me. Most blurred together. A few were fixtures, using our Wi-Fi or our restrooms all day long. They were around for hours until they weren’t anymore. Then, of course, there were the old people with nothing better to do than to sit in a Jiffy Burger. Free coffee refills abounded despite the fact that our coffee was terrible. And if that geriatric hadn’t spilled her decaf one afternoon, I might not have ever suspected the truth.
“Clean up that mess,” Ronald the manager told me as he looked up from his clipboard.
For a moment, I just stared blankly at the growing puddle on the floor. The woman had ordered an extra-large, far too heavy for her arthritic hands. The whole episode was like watching a traffic accident in slow motion and I was the clean-up crew.
“Marcus!” Ronald said to me, breaking my concentration.
“Sure, Mr. Davis. I’ll get right on it,” I replied to that fat son of a bitch.
Seconds later, I was rummaging through the storage closet, pulling out a mop and bucket on wheels. It was the noises coming from the bathroom that day that first caught my attention. When I investigated, I found a shopping cart abandoned by its owner and some dirty clothes on the sink. One stall was occupied by two feeble legs in slacks with no one else around. Meanwhile, piles of cans and plastic bags filled every inch of that cart.
“Everything okay in here?” I called out, searching for a homeless person who was nowhere to be seen.
“Oh, sure,” said the elderly man in the stall.
Perplexed, I closed the door behind me. I could hear Mr. Davis yelling again, so I grabbed the mop and went back to work.
At the time, this event was no great revelation, but once you see something unusual, a person’s senses become heightened to what else might be out of place. Later that night by the dumpsters, for instance, I assumed it was my imagination playing tricks on me. For a second, I swore I saw a shadowy mass of tentacles moving across the parking lot. But when I stopped to rub my eyes, it had vanished. Must be tired, I thought. Two bus transfers lay ahead of me that evening. Then, the whole ordeal would repeat itself again tomorrow at sunrise. I meditated on that fact for a minute with a Marlboro clutched between my fingers. Then, I resigned myself to finishing my shift.
Before I’d gone to take out the trash though, I’m sure there’d been one or two more customers still in Jiffy Burger. I hadn’t seen them leave, but they must have gone on their own, right? Some high school students left a complete mess in their booth and I went to wipe down the table as we were closing. Then in the corner of the restaurant, I saw those same rail-thin legs from earlier and the old man they belonged to.
“We’re locking up in ten minutes, sir,” I told him, trying to be both polite and forceful.
He nodded, gradually getting up from his chair and making his way to the exit.
“Have a good night,” I said before locking the door and continuing with my checklist of duties.
All cash must be properly counted, amounts recorded, and locked up for safe keeping at the end of the day’s shift. Check. All surfaces must be wiped down with disinfectant before closing for the night. Check. Be sure to thoroughly mop Jiffy Burger and have a Jiffy day! Check. But when I went to collect the coffee cup lingering where the man had been seated, I noticed that it was full and by then ice cold. Throughout the day, he hadn’t sipped any of it. Stranger still, after he went outside he walked past each window pane of the restaurant in slow motion until he disappeared into the darkness like an apparition.
That was the first time I became aware of him. Every morning after that, I realized he returned like clockwork, ordering his coffee and sitting there aimlessly. He barely moved throughout the day, had no visible emotions, drank nothing, and ate nothing. When I went outside to smoke, I sometimes worried that he was looking at me and I became anxious. What happened to this place, I wondered. Across the street were empty lots and abandoned homes, a wretched gas station, and a highway exit that no one ever took. How had five years gone by flipping fucking burgers? This was my daily ritual of self-loathing – the times I almost wished the old man was some kind of vampire. At least that would explain what had happened to this town that was slowly dying. Then again, maybe I was just being paranoid, I thought. Maybe my suspicions were unfounded.
Even still, I tried to keep my distance from him, it, the creature. One by one though this monstrosity came for everybody. It was increasingly brazen with each murder, showing more of itself. Out of the corner of my eye, I would see a dark pair of fangs or a pulsing thorax. Then when I turned around in panic, there was nothing – just shadows and discarded burger wrappers. And this made me ask myself – if I were somehow able to replay the last few years, would I recognize the beast’s handiwork this time? Would I see it tear people limb from limb right behind me? And would I be willing to acknowledge the bloodshed in my midst? Unfortunately, that question came too late and not just for me. In a matter of weeks, it ate Mr. Davis and the teenager who worked the drive-thru. It ate the morning shift and the night shift. It devoured all the customers and the loiterers and even the skateboarders in the parking lot. Then, it feasted on nearby pensioners and all the bus drivers making their stops. And by then, the last of the town was gone.
Not long after that, I woke up for work. I dressed. I waited for a bus that never came, then biked across a desolate expressway. There was no one on the sidewalk or in any store. I unlocked the Jiffy Burger and went through the opening checklist, unaware of the full extent of the slaughter. I was standing at the cash register as the old man appeared. Instinctively, I went to get him his morning cup of coffee, but he wouldn’t take it. That day, he stared through me, not at me, for several minutes. His body began to tremble in frightful spasms. The coffee spilled across the counter and I was paralyzed with terror. In shock, I watched the creature change into its natural form, while my senses betrayed me. The metamorphosis defied all reason. Its eyes were not its eyes! Its mouth was not its mouth! Its elderly face was just a façade. Completely vacant. Instead, all the meaningful parts of the beast resided in its human hands. Soon the old man’s paper thin skin ripped apart from the wrists to the fingertips, multiplying into a million outstretched spider’s legs. I screamed, but there was no one left to hear me. Soon, its true eyes revealed themselves from beneath what had once been its knuckles. Black and ravenous, those eyes glared at me. Its legs enveloped me and the creature’s fangs finally closed in.
By David Michael Newstead.
A short story based on the art of M.C. Escher.
The asylum had no bars, no guards, no gates or locks. But its confines were inescapable – a maze of staircases and corridors that never ended. One dimly lit hallway just led to another and another after that and so on. It was maddening. Damon had spent days climbing up and down the concrete steps, trying to find a way out. Yet whenever he got close to an exit it was like the architecture contorted and he would get lost again. Before long, the basement, the top floor, and everything in-between practically merged into one continuous labyrinth. Had he been going in circles this whole time, he wondered. Which way was up?
Around him, the other inmates were too far gone. They’d become catatonic. Most would wander aimlessly. One man huddled on the floor in a fetal position, tears rolling down his face. Meanwhile, a hospital orderly roamed the halls distributing multi-colored pills in small paper cups.
If only Damon could find a window, he thought, he’d throw the orderly out of it. He’d jettison all that medication and every stupefied prisoner would start thinking clearly again. Then, to break free, everyone would smash through the walls if they had to and leave the building burning behind them! Instead, Damon watched each patient swallow their doses, further turning their brains to mush. He had successfully evaded hospital staff for the time being, but it was impossible to do that forever. He knew he had to escape and soon.
Dealing with the orderlies was one thing, but the giant millipedes that stalked the facility were another problem entirely. They would slither and crawl along the ceilings and floors and walls at night, devouring whoever they found. He was sure of it! Damon had once seen three of the creatures rip a man to pieces, while he hid in a passageway looking on. Their legs would clatter against the tiles as they went by. Their jaws snapped open and closed. And their eyes were fat, glossy orbs that seemed to gaze in every direction at once. Where these eight foot long monsters crept out from, he didn’t know. In the daytime, they disappeared only to resurface again in the dark like cockroaches.
Because of that, he hadn’t slept in days. Paranoid and desperate, Damon raced through the halls, passing the same rooms innumerable times. It was as if he could go down a stairwell forever without reaching the bottom. Then, it dawned on him. The asylum had no entrance and no exit, no fixed layout. And how he got there in the first place became harder to recall.
When Damon finally collapsed, he’d been awake for two weeks straight. He sat with his back against a stone column. By then, he was exhausted and confused. And although he didn’t notice at first, a cup of assorted capsules somehow materialized in the palm of his hand. Their bright colors stood out against the dull gray prison all around him, stood out against his own pale skin. A dozen of the tablets stared up at him for more than an hour. As the minutes dragged on, Damon slipped in and out of consciousness. He didn’t remember taking the medication. He’d just rubbed his eyes and ran a hand through his hair. Then, he realized the pills were slowly dissolving underneath his tongue. Damon panicked, but it was too late. The pharmaceuticals were already taking hold and he could feel his mind start to go numb.
Ascending and Descending (1960)
Convex and Concave (1955)
House of Stairs (1951)
By David Michael Newstead.
In movies, depictions of the future range from the utopian to the post-apocalyptic, but they usually have one thing in common. It’s never really addressed, but it’s there. In the future, there are no ties. Oh, there are plenty of Nehru jackets in the future. Or you might see someone wearing a stylish full body jumpsuit, for instance. But you won’t find a person in a tie. Depending on what sci-fi film you’re watching, this usually goes in two directions. Either the future is so shitty and dystopian that everyone should consider themselves lucky to have a few tattered rags. Or the future is so sleek and efficient and advanced that we’ve apparently evolved beyond superfluous things like ties. Either way, the subtext is the same. Ties don’t have a practical function anymore and they are kind of old-fashioned like fedoras. Once a required article of clothing a century ago, many prominent businessmen no longer wear them a la Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, and so on. But while ties have become increasingly rare in daily life, we’ve yet to embrace all those futuristic fashion options depicted on screen: the unisex jumpsuits, the robes, etc. So instead of Star Trek uniforms, the future might end up being way more casual. Then again, nothing says hopeless dystopia quite like an entire population in t-shirts.