A while back I ran a program where I featured up and coming, as well as major, writers on my website in order to promote good examples of speculative/genre fiction writing. With one thing and another, I stopped running it – my time got filled up with others things – but over the past few weeks I’ve been working on bringing it back.
Today, I’d like to introduce you to the new featured writer, Tice Cin and her story Mind. I first encountered Tice at a Fantasy Symposium in London. We connected over our shared ideas about fantasy and horror fiction. Later, I encountered Tice’s work when she submitted to the Blackness Absolute short story competition, and though hers wasn’t the winning story, her entry nonetheless haunted and stayed with me. I knew she would be the perfect person to re-start the Featured Writer slot! So, I reached out and Tice has very kindly offered a new short story to be published here.
Mind is haunting, surreal, full of vivid imagery and a horror that slowly asphyxiates, exactly the kind of work I enjoy. I hope you will like it too. Let us know in the comments.
Please, give Mind a read, and, if it moves you, follow her on Twitter, Instagram, wherever. Any support goes a long way to boosting a writer and encouraging them to produce more cool stuff!
Anyway, without further ado, here’s the story. Enjoy.
By Tice Cin
My feet press onto the cold linoleum of my bathroom floor. Old bath-water seeps from the shower-mat as I brush my teeth. Fast circular motions. Get it out the way. Get it done. Go. Whenever I brush my teeth, I feel as though time is being vacuumed, time being sucked up into nothing.
The view from the window by the sink isn’t the most entertaining, the house is backed up onto the estate playground. I can hear the gurgling of the drain outside being filled with rainwater. As the rain falls, a black shadow sits on a swing set. Its back to me. Watching it, I feel a draft enter the bathroom. I reach out to close the window and catch my reflection in the mirror. Grinning. I touch my face and feel no smile. Just the wetness of my mouth from toothpaste racing for my chin. I spit and wait for the tap water to wash away blood. I keep forgetting to brush my teeth gently. Get it out the way. Get it done. Go. Bleed. The blood mixes with the toothpaste making a raspberry swirl. My hands shake as I put my toothbrush back into its pot. The pot falls.
The toothbrush bounces off my foot and lands in the puddle from the bathmat. The window has been open all day, and I can see dead flies floating in the water. I don’t want to clean the floor because it’s not my mess, not my problem. The only reason I need to care now is ’cause my toothbrush is infected. Contemplating whether it’s worth saving I look at the window again. I need to close it properly. Closing the window I simply see no mirror image this time. Nothing.
The toothbrush trembles in my hand. The mirror to my left reveals my face. This time I am not smiling. But I’m not holding a toothbrush, I’m holding a dead fly, it drips blood and toothpaste. Two seconds pass. Its wings fan out. I don’t know what to do other than scream and drop it. What can screaming do? Why do people scream? I’m home alone. The neighbours don’t care. I hear the clatter of my toothbrush as it falls back onto the floor. There’s no puddle. The flies are gone. No blood. I pick the toothbrush up and the bristles are buzzing, vibrating together, it becomes heavy in my hand. Into the bin. Stay in the bin. Please…
Leaving the bathroom I close the door behind me. The handle is rusty so it’s hard to close. My hand comes away from the handle with red rust flaked onto it. I wipe it on my pajamas but it doesn’t come off. I need water anyway so I fill my glass at the kitchen sink and let the water pour over onto my hands. The rust filters into the drain. By the dim light of the kitchen I don’t see that there is a film of dirt at the top of my water. I drink it in big gulps, hoping the coldness of it will sober my reality. I need to stop seeing things. The water tastes bitter. Spitting it out, blood splatters onto the steel basin of the sink. The rivulets of blood look to be blinking, like a cluster of small red eyes. Judging me. I pour my drink over it and the eyes join the rust. Liquid splashes from the sink, dripping off the counter onto my feet. Go. I need to go. I leave brown footprints behind me as the dirt takes refuge on my wet feet.
I feel dizzy. Stairs await me. I start climbing. I need to go to my room. The landing light is off so I don’t know if anyone is behind me. It’s the type of darkness that makes shapes out of nothing so I picture flies crawling all over my legs. By the third step I feel as though I am being chased. I’m scared to turn around in case my fear is true. There’s a whisper of wind at my back and I don’t know if it’s someone breathing on me. Who’s breathing on me? I can’t turn around because if I see it then it becomes real. It can’t be real. I don’t want it to be real.
I hate climbing the stairs in the dark. It makes me want to run to the top of the stairs, and turn on the light. Light will fix this all. I can outrun any shadow if I go. If I go now. Run. Each step resounds as I bound up the stairs. Something is tickling the hairs on my arms. Not a fly this time. No. It must be two spiders, dancing together. They map my arm and make blueprints of it, trying to find an entrance so they can swim in my arteries and walk over my bones. I rub my arms trying to squash the spiders. I reach the top of the stairs and jump free from what might be the grasp of the shadows. Light on. Get it done. Go. Breathe.
Under the light everything seems normal. Nothing crawling. It must’ve been phantom sensation. It’s not real. I turn around. It’s real, real, real. The shadow from the swing. Only it’s not a shadow, it’s me. Covered in flies. Putrefying. I hate everything I see. I want to rip that face off the shadow, it belongs to me and me only. It’s stolen me. I want to shrivel and hide, I want to cover my head and keep it all out. I rock back and forth on the balls of my feet as we look at each other.
This is the grinning version of me. Happy me. I wonder how it smiles when it looks like death. Something about its smile chills the very core of me. Cheeks widened, bottom and upper lip suspended to bear teeth. Mechanical. Behind the smile I imagine small flies tugging on gums, stretching flesh to create a ‘U’ shape, laying millions of eggs on the tongue to keep it from screaming. There’s nothing to keep me from screaming, and I scream. It’s a scream that’s just for me to hear, a feeble attempt at control. Power. Volume. I close my eyes. I open them. It’s gone, I’m gone.
I hit my head. Palming my forehead, trying to knead my brain back to a state of normality. My cold fingers press into my eyeballs so I see shapes when I reopen my eyes. Small pixels floating before my eyes. It’s so familiar that it’s a comfort to know. Physical functions aren’t failing me. If I pinch myself, I’ll feel pain. Pain makes itself known when it wants to. It dominates the brain, braying for attention, regardless of whatever is glaring back at you in the mirror. Pain is beyond self. Pinching myself I walk to my room and lock the door.
The door serves as a back rest. I slide down it and hold my hair. The wood of the door could be lined with woodlouse. It is. They crawl onto my back and around my neck, they become wound around my neck. A noose of living things growing tighter. Choking me and making me feel empty, head spinning. I drag myself away from the door and they go. I cry as I hear voices. Telling me I am useless, nothing, ruined. I’m lost in a myriad of words that hurt, words that kill.
My head feels like it’s being battered by thousands of bats. They’re shrill and hard to ignore. I rock myself and pray. I wish someone was home right now. Someone to hold me, and tell the bad things to go away. A clear voice that would drown out the wails of shadows and darkness. I climb into my desk chair and put music on, slow music. I pick a lullaby to soothe me. Following steady notes ringing out from the piano, the music creates a silence. The bats go. But it doesn’t last. The music starts to turn sour until sweet notes sound discordant. Clashing. Happy sounds mix into static noise and everything I hear starts to attack my ears. The briefest pleasure. All temporary. The bats return.
I turn my computer off from the main switch. Disinfect the scene. No more sound. The static just gets louder. My ears feel like they are going to pop. Cruel thuds batter against them as I feel my hands hitting and hitting. I want to stop hitting myself but maybe it’s working. Humans do it all time. They throw things away that are broken. They hit televisions when they don’t work properly. They throw stones to fix the baddies. Concentrated violence can fix things. I think. Pain ringing in my ears, my blows just blur with the battering of the bats in their thousands. The pain merges and increases but there’s nothing I can do.
I go to my bed, and hide. The soft covers of my bed sheets might fix me and fix this. I don’t know what to do. I imagine myself turning into a small black ball, bound into curves by endless seams of bat wings pulsating under the bed covers until I bounce free. I would roll out of the window and keep rolling till I am free of that house rolling over broken glass and rain water until I emerge onto a road full of lights.
I break out of my trance. Clutching the covers and pulling them around my ears like a shell. Go away.
‘Knock knock, knock knock!’
I can’t do this. Go away. Go away. I am in my bed. I am safe. Nothing is here. Nothing can touch me. I’m in my bed. I’m safe. Nothing’s here. Nothing’ll touch me. There’s no insects. This is all in my head. I can’t hear anything. This is all in my head. I hear a knocking to my left. Dull thumps hit the wooden frame of my bed, knock knock.
‘Who’s there? Please go, please.’
‘You should look up.’
I battle with myself. Ignorance. Bliss. Ignorance. Ignorance. Every single night. Ignorance. Tonight. I will look up. Just tonight. Up. My bedroom light flickers on and off. On. I see it. Off. All darkness. On. One shadow. It hangs like a puppet from the ceiling light. An adult mobil. I’m entranced by it as it spins swaying in the air.
‘Who are you?’
‘Do you mean who’s there?’
‘It’s me who?’
‘It’s me who is you.’
The shadow just grins at me. It projects its mirror image onto the floor, arms dangling by its sides. A smiling imp. It seems perverse that this dark shadow could look happier than me. I know it must hold a secret that I’ll never know. It is not me. No matter what it says. A joke. Humour. It unsettles me. A weapon being used to throw me off. Still it swings and spins. Spindly black tendrils of legs that reach to caress the bedroom floor. I almost feel jealous. Watching it hang there without a care in the world.
The noise builds up again. Pure static as though insects are whining in my ears. They pop as woodlice crawl into them and pain sears through me. I can’t hear myself screaming. My uvula vibrating and buzzing becomes a host for flies, sharing the space as they hover wing to wing in my mouth. I cough and what looks like a hairball flies onto my bed cover. It opens up to reveal more blood that stains the white sheets a dark rust. I try to talk and can’t. I feel so alone. The mantra that plays in my head gets louder, I am useless, nothing, ruined. I will never feel the same again. Nobody knows. I am alone. They won’t go away. I can’t escape the pain. It dominates everything.
‘I know.’ It says again.
‘You see, I know, the way you are, the way you could be, and the way you should be’. I don’t answer.
‘I know that things here will never change. But somewhere else they can. Those bugs can get annoying can’t they? I know how you can fix that, and fix you.’ It laughs.
‘I am you. I know you. I know the way you feel. I used to anyway. Right now, I know how I feel, how you could feel.’
Its hands run over its neck. They grip onto it and tighten. It strangles itself. It laughs and gurgles at the same time as it chokes itself. Wisps of shadows peek through its black hands as it rips away its neck. The dangling body falls to the floor as nothing but the head is left manically laughing and hanging from the light.
‘You could never feel pain again.’
The body on the floor flickers and fades. Lights off. Lights on. It swings from the light again. The laughter stops. Lights off. Lights on. It’s me. I look happy again. Serene. I float in the air with my eyes closed. My body sways left and right. A sleeping slow dance. Soft moving. But it’s not me. It could be. No pain. My face looks up at me, eyes opening. They peer straight into me.
‘Do you want to dance?’
I feel the moistness on my bedsheets where my blood coughed up on the sheets. I fumble the covers between my fingers, thumb and forefingers rubbing the linen. Something real. Unavoidably true. I need to focus on the material. The texture of it. The colour of white linen and rust. This is real. Not a dance. Pain is the truth. Not a dance. It can never be me. No pain? Doesn’t exist. My mirror image holds out its hand. Reaching for me.
‘Join me. It’s better here. It’s better.’
Anything would be better than this. I don’t need to stay here and be useless, nothing, ruined. All that lies before me is a kingdom of choice. I am just a body rootless, and flying.
Tice Cin is a writer and academic with work that focuses on the way that fantastical intervention opens the doors of perception. She’s currently writing a dark fantasy novel alongside poetry and short stories that use graphic detailing and sensuality to create a distinct atmospheric bubble for her readers. Her work is inspired by the everflowing tap of human emotions that she just picks up on throughout the day. She loves reading people, and writing about people. Sometimes she might place those people in a cockroach infested derelict store or two. Often found under trees, cooing over nature.
Image courtesy of MorgueFiles