Cloudland

A short story published by Cinnabar Moth Literary Collections – my first-ever paranormal romance. The original was over 7000 words, so cutting it down by 50% was a fun challenge. Cinnabar Moth will also be publishing my debut YA SciFi novel, “Beyond Tomorrow’s Sun” in December 2024. (I have a second story in this edition as well – “Dust and Memories”).

A Time to Dance

[Originally published on September 22, 2021 in HauntedMTL’s “Queer as Hell” horror anthology as “Transmigration of a Serial Killer.” This is a revised version with a new title that I think reads a little better. This was my first short story in a print anthology. It’s available on Amazon.]

My feet ached and my legs burned like fire. Hanging over the edge of a thousand foot drop really fucked with my senses. I suppose I should explain how I ended up hanging by my wrists so high up. If I’m being honest, it had to do with all the people I killed. They deserved it, but not everyone saw it that way. I don’t give a damn. Everywhere I went, somebody managed to get on my list. 

The voices started out as just voices. Then they showed up in my apartment. Thin fuzzy gray things that oozed out of the walls and did this funky dance, all twisty and gray-black foamy puffs of nothing gyrating away in front of me until I sat up and took notice. After that, every time they showed up I knew what they wanted. More people dead. 

I fought like hell the first few times, I think. I don’t remember. I know one night, it was morning actually, but still night, I just accepted they owned me. There was no reasoning with them. Then I killed whoever they told me to kill. That’s what they wanted me to do, so I did it. 

One day it was a crotchety old man who drove too slow and flipped off everyone who honked at him, including me. Big mistake. Another time, it was this suburban douchebag with his fat ass wrapped in skinny jeans he stole from his gay brother-in-law while they vacationed at their lake house. He couldn’t be bothered to make his kids shut up and settle down at the burger joint. He just let ‘em raise holy hell and drive everybody nuts. Those little turds sealed his fate when one of ‘em crashed into my table and spilled my beer.

Then there was this cute young princess who wouldn’t stop yammering away on their phone in the checkout line at the grocery store, so damn rude. They never held up a line again.

My favorite was the snot-nosed punk from the private school down the street. That dumbass took a job at my neighborhood liquor store and couldn’t be bothered to say ‘thank you’ when I paid for my case of vodka. I taught him some lessons. He reminded me of Tommy, if Tommy had clear skin and a pretty haircut.

It went on like that for years, maybe months. Time wasn’t much to me, just a slow drag from point a to point b with a bunch of shit to do in-between. I think they thought I could get rid of all the rude, mean, nasty, condescending, dismissive, arrogant people in the world. That’s a tall order for one guy. If Tommy hadn’t left he could have helped. Or maybe he would have ended up on the list. Hard to say.

They didn’t like it if I let anyone get away, so I got better at it and eventually the TV was talking about a serial killer, one of the worst ever, but the TV didn’t know it was me, it just knew it was somebody. Every channel had their own name for me, each of them tried corner the market on the story. It was on all the time until I got sick of hearing it.

I killed the TV, problem solved.

Then the cadre started to pay me visits. I knew what they were because they looked like those asshats from the military school the judge sent me to when I was a kid. Jail would have been better, at least there you can hit back. Want to make a horror movie? Follow a 12 year old around a military academy filled with psychopaths and pedophiles for a year, that shit will keep you up at night.

The cadre didn’t ooze out of the walls like the fuzzy gray things and they damn sure didn’t dance. I’d go to sleep and they would show up, all of them together, wearing their black and red regalia with their shiny gold face plates. They looked liked Hell’s Best Marching Band and when I said so they laughed and told me they didn’t have anything to do with the music, that was a different department. I never did see their faces. I could hear them just fine, even through all that metal, which was weird at first but like everything else I got used to it. 

They claimed me as their hero, said I had passed all the tests but one. I didn’t know I was taking tests but I was sure happy to learn I’d been passing them. Hadn’t passed a test since college, as far as I knew, not until the cadre showed up and told me I was their star pupil. 

I liked college. Drink, smoke dope, have sex, me and Tommy never got tired of it. Guess that’s why we dropped out, or they kicked us out, or maybe we just stopped going, I don’t know. That was a long time ago. 

Finding a job was a hell of a reality check. Tommy worked days, I worked nights, we never saw each other. I’m not even sure when he left. I came home after my overnight shift cleaning taxis and he was gone, along with almost everything in the apartment. Could have been a day, could have been a year, who gives a fuck? He was gone.

Cleaning taxis was a shit job, the lost wallets barely made up for the giz and bubblegum people smeared all over the back seat. You wouldn’t believe what people get up to in those cars. It would make your skin crawl, if you had to clean it up. I got used to it.

My grandad finally died and left me a little something. That wheezy old fart never liked me and I don’t know why he left me his money. Guess it was pity, or maybe I was the only one who would sit in a room with him. He stank of cheap cigars and piss and dirty diapers and never opened a window, not even on nice days. Maybe he wanted me to take care of all those cats he kept locked up with him. That was easy, I just left the door open. One more problem solved. I didn’t give a shit they ate his face off, but the EMTs didn’t take it well.

Anyway, I quit that job and focused on the task at hand. Guess that’s why I started passing the tests, all but the last one. I got real busy after that, my list grew like the trash piles in the alley between my building and the burned out warehouse next door.

The last test was the best test, the cadre said, and if I could pass it I could take things to the next level, wherever that was. They told me I’d be happy there, could live like a king or even a god, and I guess that was good enough for me. If I could pass this last one, they told me, I could be rid of their fuzzy gray intermediaries. That sounded nice too. 

All the killing was wearing me out, I almost never slept, which is why the cadre showed up whenever I did mange to catch some shuteye. They said they had to strike while the iron was hot, which made sense to me. 

We went together up to the roof of my building. I didn’t know where the roof was before then, I thought it was a lot lower. My building must have kept growing after I moved in, which is an odd thing to consider but it must have happened because it took a long time to get there and it was a long way down when I stepped to the edge. 

“This is it,” all of them said, “third time’s the charm.” I didn’t recall a first or second time, but that didn’t surprise me. My head was filled with gaps and dark spaces I’d given up trying to fathom. I didn’t know what day it was most of the time, and I didn’t much care. All of them laughed together when I had that thought. I sometimes forgot they could read my mind. I didn’t think it was funny, but that didn’t stop them from laughing.

I looked down and my city street had turned into a canyon, a dark black ribbon of river flowing through the middle and a big patch of sandy shore directly below me. Strange I could see so clearly so far down, but there it was.

Then they hung me out over the edge. 

My feet ached and my legs burned. I never liked heights because my body didn’t like heights. I couldn’t even look at a picture of a height without that throbbing pain and burning sensation clawing at me, pulsing up through the soles of my feet and wrapping itself around my calves, squeezing and squeezing like it was trying to push my legs away from danger, all the blood jamming up at me all at once, burning all the way. People sitting on ledges, construction workers on skyscrapers, some dude about to jump out of an airplane. I couldn’t look at any of it without that pain, that burning. 

If you said height was the only thing I was afraid of you’d be spot on. I guess that’s why they chose the roof for the final test. 

I was dangling over a canyon 1000 feet deep. How it got there, I’ll never know. The street was gone, the buildings were gone, everything was grey stone cliffs, burnt umber sky, yellow sand, black river. 

My feet ached and my legs burned and I knew this was my last chance to pass the test.

“I can do it,” I said, not entirely certain I could. 

They laughed together again, and how they managed to all laugh the exact same way at the exact same time, well that’s yet another mystery I’m not gonna solve, “You say that every time,” all of them replied.

  “I can do it, I swear!” 

“You better hope so, this is your last chance.” 

Last chance. Last chance or what? 

Then it hit me. 

I had to pass this test or things were never gonna change. I would go on forever, a ghost haunting the city. I would have to keep killing until I died of old age. It wasn’t an entirely unappealing option. I was good at it. But I was getting tired of the fuzzy gray things always showing up like that, giving me orders, and the cadre, never letting me sleep.

This was my chance. I could move on, start some new phase of this little operation they’d spun up for me. I knew what had to happen next. I knew how to pass the test. The cadre always loved it when I swore at them, so I tried that little trick again.

“Fuck you, let me go!”

“Look at your hands. You’re holding onto us.”

They were right. 

That was the trick. They didn’t have to let go, I did. I could feel their flesh beneath mine, like rough stone scraping at my skin. I could see my fingernails bleeding from the white-knuckle grip, my palms shredding against their rough stony bones. Behind those shiny metal masks I was sure they were all smiling at me, certain I was about to fail again.

Not this time. 

I smiled back at them.

“Fuck you,” I said again, just for fun, then I let go. 

My feet ached and my legs burned and my heart pounded like the drum they used in an orchestra, the one that sounds like thunder, or bombs, or a cannon.

I fell some more until I wasn’t falling, then stopped so quick I hardly noticed. Everything was quiet and dark for a while. Then it wasn’t. Someone was laughing. Not the cadre’s laughter, this was different. A softer sound, with the hint of a hiss and a bit of crackle, with a resonant rumble running beneath it. 

I didn’t open my eyes right away. I felt the gritty grains beneath my back, a hot breeze wafted over my face. I gripped the sandy soil with my fists, like a toddler squeezing a big fat finger just for the feel of it.

The laughter again, closer, not approaching but drifting somewhere behind me, pulling me into the place I’d landed. I sat up. I opened my eyes.

The canyon walls were gone. The fuzzy grays were gone. The cadre were gone. Everything was burnt umber sky boiling over the horizon and rolling above the sand and the river and me, so close I tried to touch it.

I felt a rapturous blast of heat at my back, turned to look and saw the black ribbon of river carrying a tall spinning spire of fire twisting away over the middle of the current. The fire danced and twirled and laughed, maybe at me, maybe not. Maybe it liked being fire and laughed at everything. 

My head itched and my feet tingled and my legs began to twist and crack and shape into something bizarre yet familiar, like something from a book I’d read back when I still cared about books. It was a thick one bound in leather and one time my mother slammed it against my wrist to crush what she called a preacher’s wart. I think it worked, the lump went away and my hand still managed to do what it was meant to do.

I smiled when I felt the horns growing from my skull, then marveled at their beauty and symmetry as they curved and twisted up and the pointy tips curled in toward each other. I couldn’t help but laugh.

The fire heard me. It reached out a flickering red-orange appendage and whipped its tip a few times, seducing me with light and heat and motion, a tongue begging for a kiss, or possibly something else.

I rose and stood on black cloven hooves where once my feet had been. Ankles, knees and hips clad in oily fur and bending in directions I didn’t know they could go, all opposite of where they’d once been. 

I stumbled at first, then found my balance and stepped onto the river, walked over the flow and danced with the fire, laughing and laughing and laughing, until all the world was fire and motion and deep rumbling throat noises wrapped up in crackles and hisses and pops. 

My feet didn’t ache and my legs didn’t burn. I’d never danced before, but now found I couldn’t stop. I spun and leapt and burned in the fire and laughed in the scorching heat’s embrace.

My time had come, my time to dance, and there would never again be any height to fear.