Potato Chip Prompts ~~ Get Rich or Die Trying

At first, we thought the black liquid was oil, that we’d struck it rich and we’d be able to retire and live in leisure. We actually started writing down all the ways we’d spend the money. Our first choices were the usual, to buy a big house or a fast car. Jack decided to get a nice combination of both and go with a yacht. Then a strangled cry rose through the night from the direction of the oil, where we’d left Owen to guard the site.

Before we could do more than stand in response to the sudden noise, Owen burst through the treeline at the edge of the camp. He stumbled, fell, and rolled once down the small hill before coming to a halt, rocking back and forth on his back. His hands covered his face and he was keening, high and piteous, like a screaming rabbit. It sent goosebumps along my flesh, and raised the hairs all over my body. Our shadows were thrown large across him, making it difficult to see what was wrong. A couple of us moved, so the campfire light could illuminate him, and the bile rose in my throat at the sight.

His hands were burned, but not like that from a fire, but a steam-type burn. They were red and angry, like a lobster coming from the boiling pot still alive and thrashing. The skin and flesh were engorged and falling away from his hands. Between the trees rustling in the ominous wind and Owen’s moaning, we approached in trepidation. Rey got to him first, and with his hands trembling he reluctantly pulled Owen’s away from his face. It was something out of a nightmare.

His hands had only caught some of the damage, and he was missing the flesh over his right cheekbone. There was nothing left to save of his right eye, ear, and scalp, either, like they’d been blasted away.

He was babbling incoherently, and we leaned in close. We could only make out one word: run.

It was too late by then, we just didn’t know it yet. A roar echoed through the night like some slavering demon come up from the pits of hell, and my heart stopped. What broke through the treeline this time made Owen’s injuries look like sunshine, kittens, and happy thoughts.

NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge, First Round Story: Last Call

Artist Unknown
Round One
Genre: Horror
Subject: An Allergy
Character: A Bartender

“Last Call”

“No,” I whispered, as my throat tightened around the word, and my eyes widened to try and stop the sudden surge of tears. The box was empty, and that meant she was going to die.

“No!” I slammed the lid closed and clenched the banged up metal lunch box. My fingernails dug into the scratched but smiling animated cars on the front. I’d never wanted to throw something as much as I did then. Of course I couldn’t do that, not with the rows of glass bottles full of precious rotgut surrounding me.

“Something the matter, Zella?”

Something the matter? It was a stupid question, since something was always going wrong in these demon-accursed times. Accusations roiled in my gut like rotten food I needed to vomit out to make everything better.

Who can I trust? That was a better question.

My best bet was the man who’d worked for me as a server while I tended the bar. I turned that very person, and his usual calm and controlled nature was almost my undoing. My lip trembled as I opened the lid to show him the medicine was gone, and his gentle amber eyes widened.

“That’s not possible. We just got back from Shaky’s three days ago,” he said in disbelief, the deep timbre of his voice rumbling in his chest like thunder. He ran a hand over the dark molasses skin of his scalp, and his short, white hair. It was a concession we all made now that a single bathroom item cost more than five bottles of rotgut.

“It is possible if you consider the worst,” I choked on the words.

Something slammed against the doorway leading to the back alley and rattled some of the bottles on the wall closest to it. A crack like a bull whip echoed off the brick walls outside, followed by a screech that was anything but human. Then the same something scrabbled away, leaving the alley. It all happened in seconds, but such occurrences were commonplace and no longer fazed us.

However, it was a grim reminder neither of us needed: ghoul.

“Maybe someone got—”

“The wards and defenses are solid. It had to be someone here,” I interjected, and waved a hand toward the bar. He frowned as he turned a wary glance up the stairs, and his thin shoulders hunched over his lean, six foot frame. It had been years since anyone could eat for more than survival, which meant bulky guys like Cal had thinned out. His grey t-shirt and faded jeans were baggy, with his belt cinched down to new holes in the worn, brown leather.

“No one’s come into the group in over four years. Do you think it’s one of them?”

I scowled at the question more than him, and I’d swung from distraught to livid as the answer formed on my lips.

“There’s no other explanation.” I crossed my arms over my chest, shifted my weight to my right foot, and jutted out a bony hip that was visible between my black tank top and ripped blue jeans. Alcohol had dried on my clothing from when I brewed, and wafted from me as though I’d taken a dip in one of the stills.

“Gather everyone up in the bar,” I said, and my eyes hardened at his hesitation.

“Even the padre?”

“Yes.”

With nothing left to say, Cal’s soft footfalls retreated. I never did understand how he did that; I tromped as loud as a horse on a wooden trestle bridge in my boots.

“Mommy?” The wobbly voice called down the stairs, and my heart clenched.

“Yeah, Haylie baby?” I asked, and moved so she could see me.

“Is everything okay?” Her voice was already wheezy, and she wavered on her tiny feet. “I don’t feel too good,” she said, and scratched at the hives on her arms. The light from the lamp mounted on the wall next to her glinted on the sheen of perspiration on her thin, sallow face. She had steel blue eyes like me, but when her hair was long it was like her father’s: curly and chocolate brown. God be damned, how I missed him. We’d lost him when the decimation tore across the land like a tornado and ripped our lives apart.

“Everything’s fine, baby. I know you don’t feel well, so why don’t you go lie down.” I did my best to keep the words soothing and unruffled, but what I wanted to do was break down and cradle her in my arms.

“Sing to me later?” she asked.

I smiled as best I could. “Of course, now go get some rest.” She turned and headed upstairs to the loft over the bar, and the smile dropped from my face like a weight. Before I followed Cal up the stairs, I grabbed a fixed blade karambit from the shelf next to me, and slid it into the back pocket of my jeans.

Time to get some answers.

<****>

As I expected, no one took the accusation well. What shocked me, though, was no one wanted to spend the rotgut to trade on more medicine.

“We’ve been talking about it,” Nick said, his tone and slate gray eyes harder than concrete, “and we think it’s time to stop her medication.”

My heart, which had sped up when the conversation began, stopped short as though I’d come to the edge of a cliff without warning.

“You know what will happen if we do that!” Cal exclaimed when I said nothing.

When the demons invaded the world, swarming over the earth like ants from a hill someone stepped on, everything turned to chaos. Millions died in the first wave, and once dead they rose as zombies to aid in the torment of the living. Some who died turned into zombies on steroids, or what we call ghouls. No one knew why a small percentage became ghouls, but most guessed it was something in their genes. As far as we knew it was an allergic reaction to the demonic aura pervading our world, and had all the symptoms of an anaphylactic response: hives, itching, feeling warm, nausea, dizziness, and a constriction of the airways. The difference was how the symptoms worsened over time instead of having a sudden onset.

“Yes, we do, but this has gone on long enough. The medicine isn’t working as well as it used to, and buying it is draining our resources,” Nick continued. The other four of our group shifted nervously behind him.

“Give the medicine back, Nick.” I was hoarse, and though my voice whispered through the room everyone tensed at my words.

The medicine, developed by backwater chemists, was like epinephrine. The downside was the medicine became ineffective after a few years. Those affected died a slow and painful death. Once they turned to ghouls they had to be exterminated by their families. Fire was the only way to kill a ghoul—even destroying the brain wouldn’t stop them.

“I don’t have it, and even if I did I wouldn’t give it to you,” he responded, and crossed arms over his chest. As Cal’s lean frame spoke of quiet, unyielding strength, Nick had always been more of a lanky wolf. His cheeks were gaunt with perpetual hunger, and his broad jaw clenched in stubborn opposition.

“I don’t believe you.”

“Like I give a shit. I don’t have it, and you’re not taking more rotgut to get it.”

The air crackled with tension and I curled my fingers, ready to grab the karambit.

“If you let my daughter die, I won’t brew for you or anyone else,” I countered, throwing down the biggest threat I had in my arsenal besides the knife.

“We can always join another group, or find another brewer,” Nick spat. He clenched his hands, prepared to take me down if I so much as twitched the wrong way.

I couldn’t help the manic laughter that burbled out of me. “What, you’d join Shaky and his lot of med heads? Or maybe you’ll swear to the priesthood?” I mocked, gesturing toward the priest. The man’s short-cropped hair was pumpkin orange, and his green eyes were the shade of spring grass. He wore traditional Catholic garb, an angelic expression on his freckled face, and he was the nicest person you’d ever hate. He was too good to be real, even for a priest.

I resented his presence as surely as I resented his God, but we needed him. He put the wards in place that helped keep us safe, and we were one of the few lucky establishments to warrant a full-time priest on site. Rotgut was major currency.

“Plus,” I added, “the few brewers around wouldn’t know proper brewing procedure if it jumped on a table and danced naked in front of them.”

Nick shook his head. “We’re not doing it.”

“Why?” I begged, needing to understand. “What has changed so much that you need to let my daughter die? You’re like an uncle to her—you’ve read her bedtime stories and helped take care of her.” I was pleading now, willing him to reconsider.

A shadow passed over his features, and he drew back like I’d struck him. He wavered on his feet, along with his resolve.

“Now Zella, don’t you think your daughter has suffered enough?” The priest’s soothing voice rolled over the group like a fog bank. Nick’s face clouded with a scowl, and he was steady on his feet again.

“This doesn’t involve you, Father Cormac.” My words were scathing, but his unperturbed smile never wavered.

“You always were too willful for your own good,” he said, his words like poisoned honey. He lifted his right hand, palm facing him, and closed it in a tight fist. The double front doors we thought were barred and warded slammed open. Zombies, with a smattering of ghouls, flooded through the doorway like a tsunami.

The people standing behind Nick were the first taken down, their screams wet with their own blood as the undead tore into their bodies, and ate them hand over fist. Nick had just enough time to grab one of the chairs from a nearby table and bash it over the head of the nearest zombie.

Cal dashed over to the bar, grabbed two machetes, then rushed over to hand one to Nick. The two of them waded through the walking bags of rotted flesh, cutting them down with ruthless efficiency.

I wasn’t an offensive fighter, but I could keep myself alive until someone more capable came along. All my value came from the ability to brew a mean batch of rotgut. As the guys handled the minions, I scanned the room for Father Cormac, but he’d disappeared.

Once they’d managed to shred or beat back the monsters, I helped them bar the doors once more.

“Demon bastard must have taken down the wards on the front door months ago, after the other priest was killed,” Nick said, out of breath and leaning against the door. The undead were still trying to get in.

“But how? I thought the wards repelled demons, too?” Cal panted. They were both covered in rotten guts from head to toe, and the smell was almost unbearable.

“I had the other priest remove them before I fed him to my horde,” the priest said from the doorway next to the long, dark wooden bar.

Nick’s and Cal’s eyes widened, and I turned in a slow circle on the spot, holding out hope the worst wasn’t still happening.

“Then I made sure the ghouls and zombies attacked anywhere but the front door, to perpetuate the illusion you were safe.”

“Mommy,” Haylie choked out.

Father Cormac, or rather the demon, had my daughter’s collar in the grip of one hand, and her medicine in the other.

“It was so easy getting these pathetic animals to obey me, and it took almost no effort to convince one of them to swipe the medicine. I could have done this years ago, but watching you all scurry to eke out a living in this wasteland is the only amusement I have.” The demon cackled, his eyes glowing like jewels as his face contorted into something ghastly. His bones elongated and contorted, his teeth turned to translucent needles, his tongue lengthened and forked, and his back burst from his black robes and hunched in on itself.

“All good things must come to an end, though, and this game has played itself out,” he lamented in a mocking tone, then dropped the vials from his fingers, which had grown spindly–like spider legs, the nails long and deadly. When the vials clinked to the floor he ground them beneath his boot heel.

“No!” I screamed my fury at the demon. As I ran toward him I pulled the karambit from my back pocket and lunged at his midsection, where his belly bulged like a bloated corpse.

The demon shrieked with glee, and yanked my daughter to shield him from the blow. The knife plunged into her body just below her sternum, and her eyes widened. I froze, the shock washing over me like an icy tide.

“Ah, delicious misery,” the demon hissed, and pushed her body into mine. He laughed, the sound echoing in my skull, and then vanished.

I collapsed and turned Haylie over in my lap, tears streaming down my face.

“Mommy,” she whispered, “sing to me, please?”

My smile was half-hearted, and I reached down to stroke her face, though I couldn’t see it through the tears. The pounding of the ghouls and zombies on the door, as well as the shouts from Nick and Cal faded in the background. I could smell nothing but the sweet scent that was hers alone, like lilies and spring water.

“Of course, baby,” I said, my voice hoarse from unshed tears. “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine…” I sang until she stopped breathing and her skin turned gray. Her eyes changed to burning red, like the fires of hell, and her teeth sharpened.

The doors finally gave way behind me to the panicked shouts of Cal and Nick, but nothing turned my gaze from Haylie’s. A feral awareness flooded her face, and she growled at me, like a rabid dog.

“I love you,” I said, my voice soft, right before she lunged for my throat. The pain was sharp, and would have drawn a gasp from my lips if I’d been capable. Haylie pulled back, teeth and mouth red with blood as she chewed my trachea. My vision wavered at the edges, and it was a race to see if I died first from blood loss or lack of oxygen. Everything faded, and as I slipped away I hoped we’d all be together soon.

I love you, baby.

Writing Prompt: (Graphic) Sometimes, the Low Road is More Satisfying

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Her hair was stringy and greasy, an unwashed, tangled mess of brown hair that was probably once a rich dark chocolate, but was now lackluster. The rope only allowed enough slack for her to stand on the balls of her feet, and the muscles in her calves twitched and jumped. Her face contorted and a small whimper escaped her throat, like a rabbit flushed from a bush, and she lifted her legs up enough to flex her feet.

“Cramps,” she said, breathless from the agony.

“Wh-where am I?” he asked, surveying the small, metal box of a room. The dark gray walls ran with some kind of green mold intermixed with rust stains, like someone threw water on a particularly drab watercolor painting. A slow, steady trickle of water ran from the ceiling down toward a drain in the center of the room. Patches of dark red were splattered here and there, as though someone had taken a can of paint and tossed it about to add color.

There was a quivering spot, just below his sternum, that whispered, ‘That’s not paint.’ He resolutely turned his head, straining his neck to watch her, and waited for her response.

She shrugged, an interesting movement given her position. “I don’t know. I’ve been here a while,” she said, her voice raspy from disuse and thirst.

The end of her sentence echoed eerily against the walls, and should not have been possible in the tiny space. Her words thrummed through his mind, familiar in their cadence, and he tried to dig the memory out from the haze of his mind like a particularly obstinate rock from the dirt.

He turned his eyes away, not wanting to see his horror reflected in the muted despair and surrender of her dull hazel eyes.

“Don’t like it much, do you?” she asked, her voice changing from the consistency of gravel to the purr of a high-end sports car.

It snapped his head around like someone in a movie breaking a neck.

She was changed. No longer bound, she walked over to him, swaying her full hips. Jeans with artful rips in all the right places, and a v-neck, sleeveless coral shirt that shimmered in the low light that came from nowhere, yet everywhere, clung to her. She also wore a white, half-sleeve cardigan, and her hair was in in a messy carousel braid, hanging over her left shoulder and ample breast. Her strappy, caramel brown sandals had beads over the top of her foot, and revealed feet tanned to the color of Kahlua and Cream, just like the rest of her smooth skin.

His mouth went dry, and his heartrate picked up, beating against his rib cage like a man desperate to be released. He clenched his fists against the painful tightening in his jeans, and he licked his lips.

“Untie me, and you’ll find out just how much I like it,” he fairly growled.

She laughed, low and cruel, running her hands mockingly over her breasts and hips. “What, you don’t remember me?” Then she paused. “Or this?” she asked, and ran her finger over the tip of her tongue, and slowly pulled her lower lip down.

Then she pouted, and moved closer, until her breath was hot on his skin, even through the thin material of his blue cotton shirt; the one he’d picked because it matched his baby blue eyes.

“I thought I’d made more of an impression on you…” she trailed off, looking away.

His mind raced, still trying to place her, but it eluded him in the same way a nightmare dissipated upon waking. In fact, it gave him an uneasy sensation in his gut, much in the same way greasy food sat uneasily on a bottle of his favorite rum.

“I mean, a girl doesn’t get much closer to someone than being killed by him,” she whispered, and her eyes turned back to his, no longer hazel, but eyeless with the angry yellowish-red of lava in the center of the pits, and surrounded by the black of volcanic sand. Blood mixed with her mascara and ran in crooked lines down her cadaverous skin.

He jerked back. “What the fuck?!”

She tsk’d. “Such language. Though what did I expect from you? Certainly not this,” she said, and stepped back. Like magic, blood ran like a river from the corners of her mouth, and she opened it wide to reveal no teeth and her tongue cut out. She held it in a hand devoid of fingers from the second knuckle onward, replaced from that point on with sickly green, scaly fingers tipped with razor sharp obsidian nails. It was as though her human hands were merely fingerless gloves for something far worse hiding beneath. All her hair had been clumsily shorn, leaving clumps as an insult to her former beauty.

Her shirt sat oddly flat against her chest, as both of her breasts had been cut off, and blood soaked through the shirt. It fell from the hem in a slow, steady drip, and splattered on the floor in the softest of patters. The crotch of jeans was soaked through, too, and all down the inseam of her pants.

Recognition slammed through him like a bullet through the gut, and his breath caught.

She hadn’t been his first, or even his tenth. Not for him or his knife. He’d kept her chained in that box for weeks, prolonging the torture for as long as possible. First he’d taken her hair, removing the braid she’d played with coyly on their date, her tears of shame and humiliation making her makeup run almost as fast as she had when he’d taken her. After raping her more times than even he kept track of, and breaking her spirit to pieces smaller than eye could see, he’d stabbed her where all women were filthy and tried to control men. But not him. After that, there was no more amusement for him, so he’d untied her and made sure the police couldn’t identify her remains; his final act of control over all of them.

How was he to know the road to his favorite dumping ground had been washed out in the heavy rains, as his windshield wipers labored to keep up with the downpour? When the water swept across the road and took him into the river, it forced him to be the one to feel the fear he’d inflicted on others, as a force beyond his control took his life.

He choked on the remembrance of the river, and his eyes widened as he couldn’t look away from her gaze.

“Good, you do remember.” Then she smiled, her mouth full of brand-new, needle-like teeth, and a longer, prehensile tongue grew from the stub of the old, like watching a vine lengthen in fast-motion. When she ran it hard over his cheek, it tore flesh away as though it were made of shark’s skin, and she laughed as he screamed in pain.

“Stop!” he demanded, his emotions a maelstrom of fear and anger.

“But you didn’t, did you?” she asked, and pouted again, though this time it didn’t have the same effect on him. “You know, when I died they offered me a nice place for the rest of eternity, or I could join you here, and wallow in this miserable pit, but I would have my revenge.” She paused, as her smile grew even wider. “Taking the high road is overrated.” Then she straightened her fingers and stabbed her nails into his crotch, closing her fist and ripping everything away, flesh and clothing alike.

He howled like the winds of a tornado bearing down on a town, and thrashed against his bonds. She shoved her severed human tongue in his mouth, cutting him off, and he gagged against the cold, slimy flesh. Vomit hitting the back of his throat like a jab. But when the first icy touch of water met the flesh of his feet, he cracked open a tear-filled eye. The room was filling with murky water, fast, and pooled around his ankles. His panic spiked higher as the water level increased, and all she could do was laugh.

She grabbed his handsome face, her nails now stabbing the flesh of his cheeks, and pulling his chin down to look in her eyes again.

“You shouldn’t give it all up on the first date,” she crooned, throwing his words from their first ‘date’ back at him, like hot oil from a frying pan. “We’re going to have so much fun.” Then she rent the flesh of his face as he cried out around the tongue, blood, and water choking him.

The last thing he heard was her chuckling, the sound falling like heavy stones in his mind and against his flesh, and then all went black. He couldn’t breath, and his lungs burned with the water and blood that made its way past his constricted throat.

Again, her voice echoed in the dark, and it was then, for the first time, he knew their fear. The fear of the never ending. Of an eternity of pain.

Good, she whispered. There were times her dance with his pain was fast, like a quickstep, while others were slower, like a samba. Even though she’d given up the chance to be in a better place, sometimes revenge was enough.

Writing Prompt: Lesson Learned

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The hilt of the knife was slick in Sarah’s sweaty palm, and the lantern rattled softly in her other, trembling hand. The sound of it was swallowed by the trees, crowding over her, as though they were waiting for her to do something.

Watching.

It wasn’t quite dusk, yet this deep in the woods the darkness was rising from the forest floor, swallowing her pale white light. Her knees ground into the damp foliage and scattered sticks beside the hole that was too small to have swallowed Jeremy. But it had. No matter what any of those stupid grown-ups said, he hadn’t run away.

She dropped a rock into the hole. Maybe not the best thing to do with something that had eaten a person, but what else should she have done? As she dropped it, everything went quiet in the forest, like a switch had been flipped to off. No birds calling their end of day songs, or the critters that were snuffling and running around nearby.

Dead silence.

The rock never touched the bottom. At least not that she could hear. The air was heavy with the scents of rotting, Autumn vegetation, and folded around her like a wet blanket. Her heart tripped along at the continued silence, and she held her breath.

Then, something rumbled from deep below her. She gasped, and went to to stand and flee, but the shaking of the earth made her fall on her butt. As she fell, the knife flew from her hands into the foliage of nearby ferns, and the lantern fell to the ground, the plastic cracking on a rock. Then the tremors stopped, as her blood thundered in her ears, and her breathing was a ragged pant.

Maybe it was nothing, she thought, as the forest slowly resumed its usual chatter around her. There are mines everywhere around here. Maybe one of them collapsed.

Maybe I imagined the hand.

It had been blue, like a person caught in a blizzard and frozen to death, with blackened, broken nails. But she’d been so shocked when Jeremy…fell? Perhaps that was it. He’d fallen in, and now he was passed out at the bottom of a forgotten mine shaft, dying, because she was scared of an imaginary hand.

She crawled forward toward the hole. They’d been silly to come here, chasing ghost stories of miners trapped in the shaft during a freak blizzard. Her parents had been furious that she’d come here, after being told her entire life to avoid the area. It wasn’t safe. She thought her father’s head would explode when he found out she’d been out here with her boyfriend–someone her father strongly disapproved of.

“J-Jeremy?” she whispered, cringing back quickly as the name tumbled from her lips, ready to be dragged down, too.

“Ssssaaaraaah…” The voice was faraway, but definitely coming from the hole.

She gasped. “Jeremy!” She scrambled forward, unafraid now that her worst fears–yet greatest hope–had been confirmed. “Are you okay? I’m going to go get help!”

Then the same blue hand shot from the hole and grabbed her wrist. Except this one had the same freckle on the first knuckle of its thumb that Jeremy did. She tried to wrench her hand from its grasp, or reach for the knife to stab at it, but the weapon was too far away. She was reaching for the lantern to bash the thing, when a face floated up from the darkness, freezing her in mid-motion.

“That won’t be necessary. I missed you so much, Sarah,” he said, his voice raspy as dead leaves scratching across the pavement. “Now we can be together…forever.”

She screamed as he dragged her down, just as he’d been dragged down. No one heard her, though, as the forest muffled the sound as surely as a murderer suffocating someone with a pillow. Not long after, the forest went about it’s usual business of life, but the creatures had long ago learned to avoid the business of the dead. Something the humans never seemed to figure out. Jeremy and Sarah weren’t the first, and they wouldn’t be the last.