The Language of Ice by David North-Martino

The Language of Ice by David North-Martino ©2011, 2019 

The Language of Ice originally appeared in Extinct Doesn’t Mean Forever.

She wakes while the rest of the tribe is sleeping. Yet she knows she’s in a dream. Lucid dreaming? Is that what they call it? But the world she has entered is so real, 360 degrees of sight and sound, temperature and smell. She huddles with the group, their body heat providing most of the warmth, while a low-burning fire, sputtering at the lip of the entrance, provides the rest. There is muskiness to their presence, but it is not an unpleasant odor, and she feels comforted by the fact she is not alone. 

Carefully, so as not to waken the others, she rises and stands above them. She has seen them before, but the symmetry of their faces and the angles of their bodies are so much more beautiful, so much more robust, than a modern human could ever imagine. In the dream, she realizes she, too, is one of them. She pads across the frigid rock, every muscle fiber speaking of the latent power coiled within her limbs.

 When she reaches the fire, she feeds a few pieces of wood into the flames; they pop and crack as the fire sears off bark, searching for the pulp inside. She does not want to leave the warmth, but something compels her to move on. 

Outside the cave, the winter stillness greets her. The bloated moon sits atop the hills. She has never seen the moon so large. 

Another crack, another pop registers in her ears, but not from the fire this time. Something or someone moves in the darkness, watching her from somewhere out of sight.

~~~

There is a moment between sleep and wakefulness when an alarm clock creates a vacuum, a ripple in time as the alarm prepares to sound. 

 Cassie opened her eyes at that moment, just before 6 AM, caught in the confusion between her dreams and waking thoughts. Then the alarm rang out, clearing the muddle as she scrambled to shut it off. She buried her face in her pillow, resentful at how exhausted she always felt after a lucid dream. It was like she lived a full day in her dream world and now, without rest, had to pull another shift in this one. 

She forced herself to rise and face the morning chill. The old brownstone could be a brick oven in summer and a freezer during winter. During the two years she had lived in Boston, she had upgraded the appliances and even had the floors refinished, but for heat she still relied on cast iron radiators. Since the chinked walls and single-pane windows didn’t retain heat, she was left with a symphony of banging and clunking every time the hot water flowed through the radiators. 

Like every morning, she showered quickly and ate a soggy bowl of cereal. The TV droned in the background. The weather reporter made her usual prediction for cold, and what else could there be in January? Cassie was just happy the snow had held off. 

~~~

No one looks at you in the city. Eye contact has been banned by some unwritten rule. During the walk to the T-station, she kept her gaze to herself — watchful but not focusing on anything in particular. She had memorized this walk; it was the same repetitive journey she could have traversed in her sleep whether her dreams were lucid or not. 

The trick to riding the subway, she’d found, was to pick a spot, any spot, somewhere between her fellow passengers’ heads or somewhere above them and stare at that location for the remainder of the ride. Today, she chose a spot above and to the left of a guy who stood in the stairwell and just a little to the right of a sign advertising Harvard Extension School classes. She’d tried other tricks, like the business woman, diagonally to her left, absently paging through a newspaper, or the young guy with his eyes closed pretending to listen to an iPod. But no matter what she did, she could never lose the uncomfortable feeling of sitting with strangers and pretending not to look at them. 

In the small town in Vermont where she grew up, the winters were colder but the people warmer. Here, people advanced and receded silently, like glacial ice. 

Once the subway train reached its destination, Cassie exited. The routine was so ingrained in her now she no longer saw the sign for Science Park, only moved like an automaton into the throng of morning travelers. 

The nameless, faceless people of the street became the nameless, faceless patrons of the Boston Paleontology Museum. The only difference Cassie could see was that she had a special duty to serve the ones on the inside. 

“I brought coffee,” Jonathan Frost said by way of greeting. He was a twenty-one year-old graduate of Boston College whom she had accepted as an intern mostly because he was intelligent but also because he was cute. He handed her a large, clear cup with a straw.

“Iced?” She arched her eyebrows and swirled the cup to emphasize the clacking of the cubes. 

“Everyone likes iced coffee,” Jon said, deadpan serious. She could never tell when he was joking or if he ever got her sense of humor. Not unusual for an anthropology major. Depending on her mood, she thought it either annoying or charming.

Armed now with caffeine, she unhooked the rope that kept the general public from entering the exhibit area and ushered him in. 

The rest of the day was filled with the final preparation for the grand opening of the Neanderthal exhibit. Through collaboration with the Boston Museum of Science, the pieces came on loan from the American Museum of Natural History, the Chicago Field Museum and the Natural History Museum of London. Two weeks ago, the crème de le crème had arrived: a complete skeleton of a woman from the Ice Age. 

That’s when my dreams began, Cassie thought as she touched the glass case that held the remains of a simpler time. 

“Did I tell you I’ve been having strange dreams?” Cassie asked, staring into the brightly lit case that cast harsh shadows in the half-light of the exhibit area. 

“I don’t think so, Ms. Caldwell,” Jon said absently as he arranged plant fossils in another case.  

She hated when he didn’t call her by her first name; it made her feel old. Plus, at twenty-nine, she was only eight years older than him. 

“Since the remains arrived, I’ve been dreaming that … that I’m a Neanderthal woman.” Cassie felt her cheeks redden. She tried to laugh it off. “Sounds kind of silly saying it out loud.” 

“Your mind’s been on this for weeks,” Jon said as he carefully arranged a delicate fossil. “Seems normal to me.” 

“These dreams are different. I don’t know how to describe it. They feel real.”

“The human mind can’t differentiate between what’s real and imagined.” Jon unpacked another fossil. Cassie looked at him. The low light pulled at his flesh adding, in that moment, ten years to his face. Sometimes she wondered who was older, who was more experienced. 

“Sometimes they feel like another reality.” 

“Your brain’s just sifting through all your short-term memories, storing them, trying to make sense of them.”

“Okay, professor.” Cassie tried to smile. This was one of those times when Jon went from charming to annoying.

“I took an undergrad psychology class,” Jon said as though that gave him all the authority he needed to render a diagnosis. 

“Well, you’re probably right,” Cassie said not wanting to talk about it any longer. “I’m going to head out a little early today. You mind finishing up?”

“That’s what you don’t pay me for.” 

She thought she caught a hint of a smile. 

“Hot date?”

“No. Unfortunately. I’m just tired.” She was tired, and distracted, and maybe it was more Jon than her dreams. She knew he got together with some of the other interns for drinks after work. She hadn’t been so lucky with her peers. It seemed when it came to working on a business level with colleagues things went pretty smoothly, but she had trouble bridging the gap between business and friendship. Her boss had told her she’d need to do that before she would ever be considered for a director position. 

On the way home she stopped into a Portuguese convenience store. Under the fluorescent lighting, the fruit looked darker, less appetizing, but she picked some apples and a bunch of grapes anyway. Experience had taught her they had some of the best fruit in the area despite the presentation. A box of ostrich jerky also went into her cart along with a package of trail mix. When work was busy, they could stand in for lunch — or even dinner. 

The Indian man behind the counter spoke to her as he rang her purchases. She smiled to feign understanding, even though his thick accent rendered his words unintelligible. 

~~~

Under leaden skies, she gnaws on meat from the bone of a freshly killed elk. The warm flesh tastes gamey but satisfies her hunger. Men, women and children squat with her, filling their bellies with life-giving nourishment. Some speak between mouthfuls or laugh in delight about the hunt. When she opens her mouth to speak only a shrill animal cry rings into the air. The others shuffle away from her, cocking their heads in confusion. Not knowing what else to do, she continues chewing and stares into the fire. 

She doesn’t remember beginning her meal but she does remember the hunt. The women who were not with child or had none to care for joined the men. They had trekked through the snow with spears at the ready, waiting for some creature to offer itself to them. 

A man they called Jimal had the gift of calling animals. He contorted his face and pursed his lips and made the sounds of prey. It was another language she couldn’t speak. She wished for the power of speech — not to call for food, only to call for a mate. She felt a terrible loneliness. Because she was not quite like them, her tribe kept her at a subtle distance, fearing what they did not understand.  

Jimal hunkered down pulling his furs closer to his skin and gave another call to the wind. Like magic, an elk appeared and snorted steam from its nostrils. They rushed it, impaling the animal with their sharpened spears. And they praised it as it wailed in its death throes, soaking the ground beneath in blood. 

Now, they treat the meat like the luxury it is and feel blessed that on this hunt no one has been injured. Many hunts ago, a man called Ugathar had been mortally wounded by a mammoth’s flailing tusk. They had buried him with all the items he loved in life to comfort him into the great sleep. 

Fresh meat is always welcome, but they have also mastered the art of smoking and salting so they can survive during times of least abundance. In milder temperatures, they pick berries and sometimes larger fruits, drying and curing them much like they do animal flesh so their skin does not turn yellow in the winter.

All her memories of the hunt flee when she hears the snapping of twigs and the rustle of something just beyond her vision. The others hear it too. The strong grab for their spears and prepare for whatever is about to come. 

~~~

Cassie opened her eyes. Not at the insistence of the jarring tone of the alarm clock, but to the sound of static buzzing over a talk radio personality, the white noise so overpowering it made his voice unintelligible. 

Impatiently, she shut off the radio alarm, thinking she must have hit the wrong button when she set it the night before. Looking around, she saw that drab walls had replaced the wide expanse of Neanderthal territory. But she was still cold.

Jon was right, it seemed. While the realization saddened her, it also left her relieved. Shopping for food yesterday had informed her dreams. No matter how real they seemed, that’s all they were — dreams. How long she would have them she didn’t know, but she could rest assured that her memory wasn’t regressing somewhere in time. She only had the real world and her real challenges and struggles to deal with. And wasn’t that enough? Did she really need more than her day-to-day life? 

Yet the emotional remnants of the dream, that feeling of icy loneliness, continued to haunt her. 

During the familiar bout with cold cereal, she tried to watch the morning news. Static whispered through the speakers. She flipped through every station — all the same. She couldn’t even listen; white noise captured all the sound. She worried about sunspots and mused to herself about Mercury going retrograde, but reasoned in the end that it was only the cable company messing up the signal again. 

The subway train shook and rattled, hummed and screeched, vibration communicating from the track into the passengers. This time Cassie found a spot above and to the left of a rider facing her. In her peripheral vision, his eyes appeared to be looking right at her even though they were not, yet she couldn’t seem to vanquish the feeling. 

At the exhibit, throngs of patrons entered while she watched from a dark corner. She buttoned her sweater; even all the body heat that radiated from the crowd couldn’t take the chill from her bones today. 

The cacophony of voices echoed off the walls and the ceiling. She couldn’t understand them; all she could do was watch. Children ran from mothers who scolded them, couples held hands and strolled through the bedlam trying to reach the brightly lit case, and all, no matter how bored some looked, marveled at the woman who had traveled from another age to be with them today. 

Jon walked over to her and gave her a knowing smile. 

“You were right,” Cassie tried to say over the din. 

Jon just motioned to his ears and shrugged his shoulders.

~~~

A group of five men more refined in their looks than the males in her tribe approach them cautiously. Like them, the strangers are similarly dressed in skins and furs tanned from animals that had provided them food and now provide them warmth. Their faces hold a regal symmetry and are painted with what her waking self would recognize as manganese dioxide — brownish-black streaks beneath each eye to catch the glare of the sun. They hold spears as agile as their bodies must be, and whether they are friend or foe, no one in her tribe can tell. 

They call out, but neither side can understand the other. That doesn’t matter to her, though, and for perhaps the first time in her life she isn’t afraid. 

One man stands out to her and his eyes compel her to approach. The others in her tribe call out to her. She hears them only dimly and can’t understand their words — but even if she could, she wouldn’t care. Dropping her spear, she trusts that simple act of supplication to convey the understanding that she means no harm. In acknowledgement, the men lower theirs as well.

The man with the compelling eyes watches her as she walks toward him, and she can’t tell if it is confusion or recognition that shows on his face. The same face with dark eyes; narrow nose; and thin, inviting lips that she, having now found, can’t imagine being without. And she finds the ability to say these words that mean nothing and yet mean everything that she has ever wanted to say and has ever wanted to express: 

“Unka sabo uv.” 

And all he can do is stare. 

~~~

She watches her life unfold from this moment as her tribe integrates with the early humans. Love blossoms in the spring and grows stronger in the summer. The birth of a new spring also brings the birth of her child — one, like so many others, that heralds the birth of the modern human race. For the first time, she is alive, so alive that the heartache intrinsic to a harsh existence is as fully realized as her new-found joy. She allows it all to wash over her; at least she isn’t cold anymore.  

~~~

Cassie sat, enjoying an iced latte in an outdoor café. Spring had arrived and today the weather was as idyllic as it had been in her childhood. She wasn’t cold or warm but in that perfect place between extremes. Looking out at the passers-by, she thought she caught a glimpse of someone familiar walking down the far sidewalk. But his features were obscured by distance, telephone poles and other walkers. 

Cassie left her cup on the grated metal table and walked past the partition that corralled the patrons who drank their drinks and continued their conversations. She hurried across the street, approaching the man at an angle. 

He dressed similar to her in a navy suit and dark shoes. In his face, she saw familiar dark eyes, narrow nose, and thin lips, although this face was slightly fuller and the beard had given way to a clean shave. And she found the ability to say these words that meant nothing and yet meant everything she had ever wanted to say and had ever wanted to express:

“Unka sabo uv.”

And the man in the suit could do nothing but stare.

–Fin–

 

 

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The Scribe’s Arcanum: Anatomy of a  Sale—The Language of Ice: Part 2

I need to make a retraction. I didn’t wait until 2011 to market my story The Language of Ice as previously stated. Looking back at my Fiction Submission Log, I discovered that I actually began sending the story out in 2009, not long after writing it, and racked up five rejections before finally selling it and receiving my acceptance letter on February 11, 2011. 

Anyway, I don’t have notes on how I found the publication. Maybe I stumbled upon it on Duotrope or Ralan.com. Either way, I noticed an open call from a new anthologist who had been a member of the Science Fiction Writer’s of America (SFWA). She’d had stories accepted professionally by Marion Zimmer Bradley (this was long before some allegations came out about Bradley and her husband. I’ll leave you to research it if you’re interested), before transitioning into a copywriting job. At the time she had just retired from her corporate career and was looking into what opportunities were available to continue her creative writing career from where she had left off. 

Extinct Cover2

Now going by the pseudonym Phoenix Sullivan, she decided to enlist a cadre of international authors to create a Science Fiction e-anthology titled Extinct Doesn’t Mean Forever to support her SF novel SECTOR C that she was looking at publishing through her own imprint, Dare to Dream Press. 

Sector C

Extinct Doesn’t Mean Forever, with its theme of returning from extinction, seemed like a good fit for The Language of Ice, but I figured it would just end up being another rejection on the long road to publication. 

I sent it out, like I always do, by first reading through the manuscript, fixing anything I may have missed, sometimes giving it back to Patty for a second read through, and then formatting the story per the guidelines (GLs). 

Once that was complete, I wrote out a cover letter. At the time, I was sending all stories through email. I’d included a targeted cover letter in the body of the email, and attach the manuscript as a Word document.

With everything in order, I sent it out and hoped for the best. There was nothing to do but continue to keep writing and submitting, and of course, wait. 

I received an acceptance letter in approximately 24 days! A few days later I electronically signed the contract for publication and was asked to write what amounts to a back cover blurb describing the story without giving anything away. 

Here’s the blurb:

When a Neanderthal skeleton arrives at her museum, Cassie learns a woman dead for thousands of years still has something to teach the living – THE LANGUAGE OF ICE by David North-Martino

Then I was asked to send a bio. A few days later I received something that would change the way I wrote forever—a line edit. A line edit by a pro author turned editor no less.  

In the interest of time, Phoenix had already made the revisions. That required me to take a copy of my original and read through with highlighter in hand. Before I worked on that task, I read the corrected proof she had sent me. I thought it read even better than I had remembered. 

Of course, it did! Phoenix had given me some masterful revisions. Now with that said, I think my voice may have been bled out a little, but I have to say I learned a lot from that line edit. It helped me to understand what I was doing right, and where I was falling short. How I could create more clarity for the reader, and how I could sand off the rough edges of my writing style. 

This is what writers need. They need mentorship. As the old saying goes, you don’t know what you don’t know. You need to have eyes before you can see. I am forever grateful for that line edit. It helped make me the writer I am today. 

The Language of Ice ended up being published in the Dare to Dream Press first edition of Extinct Doesn’t Mean Forever, the second edition from Steel Magnolia Press, and was also released as a short story in ebook format. 

Language of Ice

The anthology supported the Save a charity which gave me the impetus to send out press releases. I met some wonderful writers from around the world and learned a lot about the publishing business. 

For the first time ever, I began to receive royalty checks. They were small, but it was very cool to get money when the anthology sold. 

The anthology is now out of print and the rights to the story have reverted back to me. Should I post it here for all to read? Let me know in the comments. 

I’ll see you next time. 

***

For posterity I’ll include the Table of Contents with all the blurbs below: 

1. Jase was her ghost in the machine, a shaded memory captured in synthesized pixels. Near enough to see, too distant to touch. Could they still connect? – LAST SEEN by Amanda le Bas de Plumetot

2. She didn’t realize how deep her loss ran, until a saber-tooth cat helped heal the past and point her toward a future she didn’t know she needed – PAST SURVIVORS by Sarah Adams

3. Vesna discovers from an unexpected source just how old the dance of love truly is – FOOTPRINTS ON THE BEACH by Aleksandar Ziljak

4. John doted on the French touring car he’d lovingly restored. Can his dead wife teach him other things are worthy of his love too? – THE RESTORATION MAN by Simon John Cox

5. When a single mum returns home to Tasmania with her young son, her efforts to settle back in take a strange twist – A DARK FOREST by Jen White

6. Keeping a baby dinosaur secret from prying TV people and scientists is no easy task, except when your family have been keeping sacred traditions secret for generations – MY OWN SECRET DINOSAUR by Jo Antareau

7. When a Neanderthal skeleton arrives at her museum, Cassie learns a woman dead for thousands of years still has something to teach the living – THE LANGUAGE OF ICE by David North-Martino

8. With human hunters closing in, Kerg concocts a desperate plan for survival. Just one problem: he isn’t the only one looking out for family – TWILIGHT OF THE CLAW by Adam Dunsby

9. Lucia doesn’t believe in angels — but she might believe in a little boy cloned from a forgotten race – THE ANGEL GENOME by Chrystalla Thoma

10. Geri’s father finds the remains of an alien culture, proof we’re not alone. But he leaves Geri feeling more alone than ever – IN RING by Scott Thomas Smith

11. Had it been left to protocols rather than human ingenuity, Commander West’s expedition might have overlooked one of Mars’ greatest treasures – BONES OF MARS by D Jason Cooper

12. Endless Power, Inc prepared Angel for the physical dangers of harnessing a new energy source. But no one prepared him for how to cope afterward – HUNTING THE MANTIS by Adam Knight

13. Bridges of meaning built through symbols alienate as much as connect. But the Virtual Bridge Sri plans could reconnect the lost hopes of a dying civilization – CONNECT by Kenneth Burstall

14. Fleeing with the last remnants of the Oshen race, Indigo has only one chance to ensure his people are never forgotten – INDIGO’S GAMBIT by Adam Israel

15. When his pampered world loses the technology it depends on, extinction looms faster than lonely survivor Levo could ever expect – BLOOD FRUIT by Shona Snowden

16. When a new bio-weapon in the wars on drugs and terror gets out of control, can the supplier really be held responsible? – A THORNY DILEMMA by Rory Steves

17. Capturing mammoths was all in a day’s work for Deke. The saber-tooth cat, though, was going to require something bigger than an elephant gun – INVOICE H10901: 3 WOOLY MAMMOTHS by Robert J. Sullivan

18. After George makes a momentous discovery, the distractions start piling up. His wife cooks up a surprise to remind him love is always worth sacrificing for – DISTRACTIONS by Peter Dudley

The Scribe’s Arcanum: Anatomy of a Sale—The Language of Ice: Part 1

The year 2011 was a great one for me. I finished my coursework and graduated magna cum laude from UMASS Lowell with a Liberal Arts Degree with concentrations in English and psychology. I also decided to ramp up my writing and submitting efforts and ended up landing another fiction sale with a story I had written but had never planned to publish.   

The story that would become The Language of Ice was originally inspired by an article in the April 1998 issue of Discover Magazine; Entitled: New Women of the Ice Age. The article purported to recast prehistoric women as more active than passive in roles that were believed to be traditionally held by males. 

Discover 1998

Originally, I imagined the story idea as a screenplay. In my mind’s eye, I saw a group of archeologists and anthropologists standing around a table, addressing a group of reporters, and making assumptions about a female skeleton. Then the camera slowly zooms into and through the bones.  When the camera emerges on the other side, we see this ancient woman when she was alive and how she may have actually lived her life. 

I imagined the story like it was a movie. I had the opening, but nothing else. 

The idea stayed with me, but I didn’t do anything with it. 

Then sometime in the mid-2000s, I watched a documentary that dramatized the theory of early humans interbreeding with Neanderthals. They showed a neanderthal female tenderly touching the face of an early human, and that’s when The language of Ice was truly born. 

With all my college coursework mounting, I didn’t have the time to explore the idea. Then I ended up taking an advanced creative writing class to satisfy part of the requirement for my English concentration. The class was geared toward publication, but interestingly enough, the professor didn’t have any publishing credits. My puny two published stories at the time dwarfed my teacher’s experience, along with everyone else in the class. 

One student balked when I said I only had two writing credits. It didn’t seem like much to me, I had been to writing conventions where I got to hang out with best-selling authors who had published on upwards of fifty professional books. 

The professor wanted us to write a literary story with an eye toward publication. I’m a genre writer and didn’t have any ideas that boarded on straight literary fiction. Then I thought about the woman of the ice age idea that I had been carrying around since the late 90s, and it collided with the neanderthal idea exploding into a full-fledged story. 

Since it had to be literary, I wanted to make the story somewhat ambiguous. I decided to create a narrative where the main character, a museum curator, begins to think she might have been a Neanderthal woman in another life. Is she imaging the whole thing or is she having a spiritual experience? The whole point was to let the readers decide. 

When I passed in my story homework, my teacher liked it, but she wanted me to make the story ending more concrete. If she had been a paying editor, I would have been happy to oblige, but I was doing so well in the class and disagreed so fervently with the direction she wanted to take my tale, I decided to pass in my homework sans those revisions. She wasn’t exactly happy about it, but I think I still got an A. 

With school still taking up so much of my time, I put the story away and didn’t even think about looking at it until 2011. 

IMG_0322-1

After graduation, I’d have the opportunity to submit my manuscript, created for an English class, to an anthology filled with the stories written by a cadre of international authors. 

And I was vindicated! I sold that story with the original ambiguous ending!

I’ll tell you more about how that happened next time. 

GRAVEN IMAGE by David North-Martino

Graven Image by David North-Martino ©2004, 2007, 2019 

Graven Image originally appeared in The Swamp, and Afterburn SF 

“Our clients all have a peculiar fear. They’re not convinced their loved ones will stay dead,” the Director of Sanguine Mortuary said.  

Hatch fought for control, he thought he might go from smirk, to grin, to all-out laughter.  

The Director, his face as dead as any of the clients entombed in Sanguine’s walls, stared at Hatch from behind an expensive looking oak desk. The dire need for the job forced Hatch’s expression to the same state as the director’s name.

“Mr. Stone, I——”

“Jonathan, I know what I’m telling you might be hard to accept, but we provide a valuable service to our clientele.” Stone wrinkled his face into his best mortician’s smile. 

“Mr. Stone,” Hatch said. “I really need this job. Whether I believe or not, I can watch your building and everything in it.”

“You seem like a good fellow. Pity, companies will throw away employees after a decade of service.” Mr. Stone gently placed Hatch’s resume on the desk. “I’ll give you a chance, just keep your wanderlust to a minimum. The last guard couldn’t contain his curiosity. If he hadn’t up and disappeared, I would have had to fire him.”

Elation! At this point, any job was a good job. He made a mental note to pick up a bottle of wine on the way home. He and his wife would, at last, have something to celebrate. But behind the euphoria and relief, something nagged at him. Later, when he gave it some thought, after half a bottle of wine and with his wife in a satisfied sleep beside him, questions arose, questions he couldn’t answer. They chattered through his mind, lulling him into a troubled sleep.  

#

“Uh——what’s on the monitors?” Hatch asked. The surreal images were better than caffeine, no way he would drift off with those things staring at him. 

“Those? Oh go on, take a good look.” Michael Evans, the Second-Shift Sergeant, said. “What do they look like to you?” 

“Looks like dead people.”

“Those are our charges, three-hundred, and thirty-eight of ‘em.”  Evans seemed proud with the knowledge. “Oh, don’t worry, they ain’t gonna bother you much or entertain you for that matter.”

“Then why are we monitoring them?”  

“Just in case they wake up,” Evans said. Hatch felt a chill shoot into his groin. Soon he would be here alone——alone with them. 

Then Evans broke into a fit of heaving laughter. “Naw, they ain’t gonna wake up. I’ve been working here for five years, since I retired from the military, and I ain’t never seen a-one so much as wrinkle a nose.”

Hatch stared at the monitors again.   

“See, we have some very superstitious rich people around the world, and Sanguine helps alleviate their fear——and a good amount of their cash.” Evans shook his head back and forth in mock disbelief. “Got to show the client something right? Show the client that us security types are watching their loved ones twenty-four-by-seven. Kinda makes me chuckle. But it’s a good gig, especially on off shifts.  

“We don’t get no visitors, grieving family members or anything like that. We let the dead lay, play a little poker——you’ll have to play solitaire——and walk around a couple times. Make sure things are safe and secure——for the world outside I guess.” 

He laughed again as if the whole thing were ludicrous.

Evans showed Hatch around for the rest of the hour. He saved one piece of trivia for last.

“This is what I call the Bat-Phone,” Evans said, and Hatch understood why. The phone looked like an old model from the 1960s, rotary dial and all, and it was colored red like on the TV show. “In the unlikely chance that——something unusual happens——you pick up this phone and——well, after that I don’t know, but I’m sure you won’t find out. Damn thing probably don’t even have service.”

Evans had a pitying look on his face, like he was about to leave his favorite cat at the Vet to be euthanized. Hatch wondered if he could handle staying at Sanguine Mortuary alone for fifteen minutes, never mind eight hours.

“What happened to the last officer who worked the third shift?”

“Harold Drendle? Shoot——he’d worked here long as I did.  We used to talk a little at shift change, and he confessed to me he was having marital problems, problems caused by money, which by the way is how they always start, and then one day, I guess he was sick of it. He up and abandoned post sometime before shift change and he hasn’t been seen since. 

“He told me in confidence he was planning to go to Hawaii, had been socking away a little here and there. So, don’t you be letting your mind wander and go thinking nonsense. You’ll get used to this place soon enough.”  

#

Soon enough just wasn’t soon enough. Evans hadn’t been gone ten minutes, and Hatch was ready to abandon post. The ghoulish images only provided unwelcome company.  

Hatch turned his attention to the phone. He reached over, touched the receiver’s smooth plastic. Who was on the other end?

What was on the other end? 

The thought made him shudder. He withdrew his hand.  

He couldn’t just sit there with the monitors tuned to Dead-TV. He grabbed the Mag light, the weight comforting in his hand, and headed out for the first round of the evening.

Hatch’s footfalls echoed through the empty mausoleum. Every fifteen feet the wall receded to reveal a cluster of grave nooks. Accent lights reflected dimly off metal plates, revealing the names of the departed. They surrounded him. Outnumbered him. 

He rounded a bend and found the first key-point next to the chapel door. 

How long had it been since he had last attended church? He couldn’t remember. He touched the tour recorder to the plastic key, listened for the chirp, and then looked at the LCD screen. 

ChapHell, next key point inside.

Hatch shook his head, maybe when he got back to the command center he would fix the typo.  

Hatch flicked on the lights. The antiseptic nondenominational room radiated comfort, as if something from beyond could reach out and protect all those who entered.  

A feral cat’s mew? A crying child? A vocalized rush of wind raging through the hall toward him? 

Hatch crossed the threshold, pulled at the cherry-wood door and held it shut. The chapel shook and the doors threatened to pull from his grasp. Then the pounding shrill scream stopped, and Hatch stood in silence. 

“Damn trains,” Hatch said under his breath.  Then he remembered he was standing in a chapel. He looked up. “Sorry.”

Hatch continued with the tour. He came to a short stairwell that led down to the basement level. Cautiously, he descended. 

Hatch switched on the flashlight and adjusted the beam to full width. The key-point waited at the end of the hall surrounded by darkness. Hatch felt around for a light switch but found nothing. His pulse pounded in his temples.  

Making quick time, he passed closed doors on either side of the hall. He touched the tour reader to the key and waited impatiently for the chirp. 

A red door to his right caught his attention. He tried the handle. 

Locked. 

He glanced back toward the stairs, then back to the door. His curiosity got the better of him, and he tried his keys until one fit the lock. 

Match stepped inside a room filled with black metal file cabinets. The beam of light illuminated a unique cabinet——a red cabinet. 

He found a jagged hole where the lock should have been, as if someone had cut the mechanism out of the frame. Hatch opened the top drawer and then rifled through musty folders and yellowed papers. Most seemed to be nothing more than death records. Every soul buried at Sanguine must have been stored in that room. But then he found something else. 

A letter, age stained and watermarked, written on parchment with what appeared to be a quill pen, ignited Hatch’s curiosity. His eyes widened as he scanned strange sections:

Thank you again for taking this burden from me.  I am getting much too old to act as custodian any longer… 

The families absolutely insist on having guards. I know it sounds ridiculous, as if flesh and blood could really protect anyone from what is now in your possession… 

Feeding time is distasteful, but it lasts a relatively short time. I was lucky to only witness it for two full cycles in the twenty years since I acquired the collection. The dead must feed before they sleep… 

The dead must feed? 

What the hell did that mean?

A booming metallic reverberation made him jump. The sound had come from the hall. His mouth went dry and his throat tightened, but he had to check it out. That’s what he was being paid to do. 

Hatch cautiously stepped out into the hall. 

The reflection of his flashlight beam caught movement through a window in one of the doors. 

Anybody Home?

Hatch inched closer, shined the light inside——recoiled.   

A man stood, if that’s what you could call the thing that stood before him, dressed in a moth-eaten suit, bending over what looked like a metal cadaver table. 

The terrible thing that looked like a man chomped and smacked his lips as he devoured what remained of a body on the table. The head and chest were all that remained of the corpse ——everything else had been consumed. 

Hatch hacked and heaved, but nothing came up, as if his insides had turned to dust. He looked back at the window. 

The ghoul turned its head and looked at him, still stuffing flesh in-between the stitches that held his lips together. 

The ghoul grinned at him. 

Then came the screams.

Hatch raced through the halls double-time, the shrieks of the dead nipping at his ears. 

Which way out? 

He couldn’t remember. 

He passed the chapel. Sanctuary wouldn’t do, he needed the command center. 

He needed the phone!

Hatch slammed shut the command center door. 

No lock. 

The irony sent him into hysterics. 

Hatch turned around. The monitors were still trained on the coffins——some were empty. 

The cadavers that remained opened their eyes. 

Shit! 

Hatch reached for the phone——hesitated——picked it up. 

The phone automatically dialed. 

The ringing scratched in his left ear, the dead wailed in his right. 

“Pick up——damn it! pick up!”

The ringing stopped. 

A moment of hesitation on the other end of the line.

“I told you to curb your curiosity, Jonathan.”

The door buckled. Glass shattered. All went black.

***

Even with his eyes closed, Hatch could sense that Sergeant Evans stared at him, stared at the monitors. Curiosity could be a terrible thing, recognition worse.  

 The high-pitched chatter from the others Hatch only heard in a sanguine whisper, but he could understand what they wanted, what he also wanted. One last time before the sleep.  

The hunger rose in him—-in them——and in unison——and to the terror of Michael Evans——they all opened their eyes. 

-FIN-

The Scribe’s Arcanum: Anatomy of a Sale—Graven Image: Part 2

In 2007, marketing my short fiction had taken a back seat to everything else going on in my life. I was still planning on opening a small business, and I was working toward earning my bachelor’s degree. 

I continued to plug away on a novel, along with writing and submitting short fiction as time allowed. 

It had been about three years since my short horror story, “Graven Image,” had been published at The Swamp, and the year before, I had made my first paid sale by winning a contest at Dark Recesses Press.  I decided to try to sell “Graven Image” as a reprint to a webzine called Afterburn SF. 

Graven Image ended up  rejected by Afterburn. I put the story aside to await another viable market, and for a time it was out of sight, out of mind. 

Not long after, I received an email from Afterburn SF asking if the story was still available.  Turns out, the owner sold the webzine and the new publisher/editor, having found a copy of Graven Image among the paperwork he had acquired, read the story, like it,  and decided he wanted to publish it! 

What an amazing surprise!  I just felt happy it wasn’t sitting in some other magazine’s slush pile (that’s an old term for unsolicited manuscripts that used to litter the floor of publishing houses in the days before email and submission websites). 

Even more surprising, he paid me six times as much as I would have received from the previous editor. I agreed, of course, and not long after had my third publishing credit and my second paid story. 

After selling Graven Image, my focus went back to my studies. I wouldn’t make my next sale for another four years. Graven image would later be adapted for audio. I’ll get you a link soon. 

After graduation, I’d take a story I wrote for an advanced creative writing class, and turn it into my next writing credit. 

I’ll tell you more about it next time. 

The Scribe’s Arcanum: Anatomy of a Sale—Graven Image: Part 1

Despite my best efforts to the contrary, I made my second fiction sale in 2007. I hadn’t been focusing on my writing. Instead, I had spent most of my time pursuing a business opportunity, and earning a long overdue bachelor’s degree. The sale itself came as a surprise. You see, the same paying market that rejected my story would accept it not long after. Here’s how it happened: 

One morning, I awoke from a nightmare. In the dream I had been staring at a monitor bank, and on each screen was a live video feed of of a corpse in repose. The image remained with me, and I ended up building  the story Graven Image around it. 

Having worked for many years in the security industry, working my way up from a security officer to a manager at a nine building Fortune 500 corporation, before being promoted into the HR department at the district office, I decided I would write about a character who had been downsized from a job in corporate America and ended up needing to take a security job to make ends meet. 

Although it’s never mentioned, to round out the setting, I decided to set the mortuary in the story in my fictional town of Wellington, Massachussets. My first novel WOLVES OF VENGEANCE also takes place in the same fictional location. A forthcoming thriller novel, YEAR OF THE ASSASSIN, has characters connected to that town, but there is no supernatural element in the story.  

Much like my previous story sale, Despair, this tale is pure horror. Some of my later works tend to mix the horror genre with crime fiction or science fiction. 

After finishing the story, I began the process of sending out Graven Image to market, starting with the top markets and then working my way down from highest paying to lowest. 

Although, this is a tried and true method, it’s not always the most efficient way to make a sale. More on that in another post. 

 Close to four years had gone by with only rejection letters to show for my efforts. I was active on a horror fiction message board at that time and noticed that some novelists, with mass market paperback deals, were submitting to a webzine called The Swamp. The  Swamp didn’t offer payment, but just like with Dark Recesses Press, I liked the people who ran it, and felt it would get my work some exposure. 

The joke is that people die of exposure. But I needed an acceptance of some sort to keep pushing on. There was no guarantee that I’d get an acceptance, even in a non-paying market. I figured it was worth a shot, and if I got in, the acceptance would place my story next to some successful writers.  

Finally, I received an email acceptance. I’d have my first publication credit, and a sample of my work that could be read for free online. I was stoked! 

 I received great feedback on that story. Readers liked the creepy atmosphere, and two family members refused to read any more of my horror stories because they said it gave them nightmares! That’s high praise when you write horror.  I had transfered my nightmare to at least two other people. Mission accomplished! 

Three years later I would attempt to sell Graven Image as a reprint to a paying market. Like I mentioned above, it would be rejected by a paying webzine before later being accepted by that same webzine. I’ll tell you all about how that happened, and how I made my second paid story sale next time. Since, like Despair, Graven Image is out of print, I just might post it here on my blog after posting Part II.

Stay tuned! 

DESPAIR by David North-Martino

DESPAIR by David North-Martino ©2006, 2019 

1st place winner in the 2nd annual Déjà vu Horror Contest at Dark Recesses Press. Originally published in their 4th issue. 

I awoke naked and in pain, pulling my share of covers off of Norman who had stolen them during the night. The cool cotton soothed my bare skin, especially where the diffused light, searing between the Venetian blinds, had touched my flesh. 

He didn’t know how fortunate he was to be with me. So many men longed to see the woman behind the voice. And they should, for even though I use many, my true name means desire. And it was in sleepy desire that I nuzzled against his nakedness. Ice.

Instinctively I recoiled—leapt off the bed—felt the wrath of the sun—and thrust the blinds shut. 

My eyes adjusting to the semi-darkness, I crept over the threadbare rug to the foot of the bed. Knuckles white, I grasped the end of the covers and whipped them to the floor. Norman’s naked body illuminated the darkness. 

Where had I seen that glow before? It brought on memories of paste-on glow-in-the-dark stars and oddly my parents and their untimely deaths.

The puncture wounds on his neck suggested what had caused his untimely death. Vampire!

Laughter threatened to escape my lips. An asylum of thought invaded my mind, straightjackets and Thorazine. My photo-toxic youth had been filled with vampire romanticism and blood wine eroticism, but I had never considered myself so foolish as to believe in the legend of the undead.

#

 

I don’t like to travel during the day, when the Sun spreads its wicked light throughout the world. Even though mid-September slowly crept toward October, the day wasn’t cool enough for my brim hat, opaque scarf, and trench coat.

The cabdriver didn’t give me a second glance; he called into dispatch, mumbling too close to the microphone.  An equally incomprehensible voice squealed back high pitched pain and I wondered how the driver could translate the squawk into speech.

We rolled lazily down route 119 passing the Entering Massachusetts sign. The driver didn’t speak and I didn’t encourage him. I needed time to think, time to decide if the coldness of my heart could mourn my dead lover.

The woods rolled by, a blur of green and bramble, as the meter clicked off the miles. 

Then, as the woods receded I saw it, the mansion, enshrouded by an emerald fog, superimposed on a hilly clearing.  The structure, a collage of gothic architecture, stood among homes of modern design. 

“Do you see that?” I asked the driver.  

He glanced to the right, where I had pointed, and then brought his attention back to the road. 

“See what?” 

“Right there—that mansion?” I was so sure I had never seen it before.  

“They all look like mansions to me Miss. You should see where I live.” 

We passed by in silence. The mist that encircled the manor radiated an electric white that mirrored the color of Norman’s corpse. I knew I would have to return, until then I would remain haunted.

#

 

When the sun fled the horizon, I awoke. Loneliness bled back into my reality. Norman’s passing brought more than the residual depression I always felt after a night of unemotional sex, it left me with a numbing emptiness.

I called Susan and let her know I wouldn’t be available for work. Usually when the men call me for phone sex I find it a great distraction, even a release. But tonight I couldn’t bear to talk dirty or fake orgasm. Tonight I needed to go hunting.

Leaving my apartment I walked through the sleepy darkness, the unnatural quiet of the quaint downtown.  Instinctively I knew I would see him—Norman’s killer—but I had no plan as to what to do when I found him.

#

 

St. Augustine’s church bell tolled out the hour.  

Midnight. 

I saw him. 

A beautiful man, he exuded glamour as much as the same haze that enshrouded the manor. I swooned, like a foolish schoolgirl enamored by a first crush, and I had no choice but to follow him. 

He darted into an alleyway. Fear followed me as I approached the darkness. His phosphorescent glow lit the passage a lighter shade of dark. I followed him to a fire escape. He lifted his arm, a stiff gesture, and the stairs descended. He climbed effortlessly. Unable to escape his thrall I followed him and found my ascent pure labor. 

He gestured again and a window opened. 

My foot slipped from the stair. I looked down to secure my footing and when I looked up again, the landing by the window stood empty.

When I reached the window I looked inside. His glow revealed a woman sleeping in the nude, the covers helter-skelter, and her body twisting as if caught in a lurid dream.

He savored her the same way I had once savored wine, taking a sniff of her scent before plunging his fangs deep into the soft tissue of her throat. Her unseeing eyes shot open. Her mouth bowed in either terror or ecstasy, perhaps both. Her pupils clouded, her lids slackened, the rosy hue of her mouth and nipples frosted white. 

He looked up at me, his mouth frighteningly attached to her ecstatic body. His lips drew up into a half smile, restricted as they were by the flesh of her neck. Laughter filled his eyes. He was not satiated, could not be even by a harem of blood slaves, and he wanted me next, I felt his need deep in my veins. 

Jagged panic cut the strings of his glamour.

Rusty rails burnt my flesh as I slid to my escape. The pavement came up fast, shocking the soles of my feet with an electric pain. Glancing back in horror I saw him smiling from the window, fresh blood giving him the countenance of a clown. 

The coldness of death chilled the air behind me. I didn’t look back, couldn’t bear to see his evanescent form, smell the sickly sweet odor of his recent meal.

The keys jangled their warning as I stabbed at the entry-way lock. Any moment he would be upon me. The bolt unbarred. I pushed inside, shut the door, and ran up the stairs. My apartment lock fought me for entrance, a battle I won out of sheer tenacity and will. 

Inside, I ran through the apartment, checked the window locks, and drew the blinds. His spiteful laughter echoed into my home as if no walls barred his entrance. 

“Come to me. You will come to me.” 

His voice, disembodied and ephemeral, ravished my soul that night, sent me into fits of hair pulling and maniacal laughter. For the first time I could recall, I welcomed the return of daylight. 

#

 

The next night I did return to him. He made it easy. Back on route 119 I let the twilight mist be my beacon and suffered the citrus face of an old cabby, once, when he saw I was carrying a wooden stake I had used as a prop one forgotten Halloween, and then a second time when I asked him to let me out on the side of the road with nothing around but the darkness and the music of crickets. 

After handing him a wad of cash, gleaned from my dead lover’s wallet above and beyond services rendered, his face turned alkaline and he made quick work of squealing the tires on the old converted station wagon. With fear betraying my footing I ascended the hill toward the mansion.

#

 

The manor door opened of its own accord the same way they always did in black and white horror movies. My trepidation was tempered only by my curiosity and desire to see this creature destroyed. 

“I told you, you’d come back to me.” He descended a fog enshrouded staircase, same out of date attire, same highbred bone; a handsome structure in which to hang the pale flesh of his face. With a twitch of his fingers the door, now behind me, slammed shut. Claustrophobia set in. The foyer in which I stood was enclosed by walls constructed of thought in a space that I instinctively knew was transcendental to time. 

I raised the stake, my mouth dry, my mind numb. A wave of his hand and the staircase evaporated. He stood what could have been no more than five feet from me, the walls shifting and swirling around us as if we had taken up residence in a cloud. 

“I see you have come to run me through with that splinter. Go on little girl tell me why.”

“Because you killed my lover.” For the first time I could recall, tears stained my cheeks.

“I don’t know that you can call it love when it’s paid for. But it was not I who killed your, as you say, lover. Let me show you something.”

I didn’t let him do anything. My hand slackened and the stake clattered to the floor. My spirit tossed and turned but my body wouldn’t obey.           

Frightening speed. An eye blink and he had bridged the distance between us. His mouth hovered agape, a mere inch from my vulnerable throat. I closed my eyes, anticipating the pain, the sweet release. I longed for him to take me then, to flow into his veins, to flood into oblivion.  A rage overcame my craving for him, for death, pulling my musculature, restructuring my bones. That part of me unbound, limbic, Precambrian, I pushed free of his will and tossed him into cumulous. 

The walls shifted again and he stood by a four poster bed which held last night’s victim, chained and helpless, enough blood left in her apparently for another night’s feed but now it was me who craved the blood that throbbed so close to the surface of her skin. A mirror faded into form over the bed, not for any Bathory pleasure but to show me what I had become.

A face stared back in that mirror, my face, hideous, sunken, fangs protruding over lip, the flesh wrapped tight around bone. 

“What have you done to me?”

“Nothing,” he said. “You’re a Defensive, a latent vampire. The legends speak about the Defensive’s ability to blend in with their prey, the necessity to kill only when provoked. That is, until they learn of their true selves.”

“I don’t understand.” I didn’t want to understand, I only wanted to run then, run and never stop.

“Remember when your parents punished you, and you killed them, drank their blood?” 

I didn’t need to remember, the image of them, of me, so young, so evil, projected now where the mirror had been. My tears continued to flow, every repressed memory breaking through the gates of my subconscious. 

“When you’re lover struck you in his drunken stupor…oh, but I see you’re remembering that too now. His blood allowed you to see the mansion, allowed you to see me. Oh, but I’m being rude, my attack has awakened your thirst. Maddening isn’t it? You need the blood of the living, yet I have none to give. No matter, I left enough in her for you.”

The woman screamed, her nails raking at my flesh, jangling the slack in the chains, but once I had wrapped my hands around her midnight curls and exposed her lovely throat she found it quite difficult to struggle.

#

 

He waits for me at a cheap motel in upstate New York. We’ve only spoken over the phone, if you call our conversations speaking. He wants to meet me, they all do.

I knock on the door to room 9. I listen as he hesitantly leaves the comfort of the bed and pads over to the door. The padlock clicks, he hesitates again, then with what I’m sure is all his courage he opens the door.

He’s not much to look at but I can see by the relief that floods his face he is quite pleased by my appearance. You never can tell what you’re going to get when you’ve only talked to the woman on the phone. 

He steps back to let me into the dim, dirty room. Inside I have no patience for words, I unbutton my blouse. His legs seem to give out and he quickly lowers himself to a seat on the bed.

He looks around the room, uncomfortable.

“What’s your name?” he asks.

“What name do I always use with you, you know it don’t you?”

“Tell me your real name, just your first name. I need to hear it, I’ll pay you more.” His nails-raking-on-chalkboard voice makes me want to shut him up.

Instead I smile bitterly at this poor wretch of a man. His facial expression seems to reflect some displeasure in what he sees in my smile. 

I will the change before his horrified eyes and now I’m sure he doesn’t like what he sees in my smile. He scrambles backward on the bed, hyperventilating, probably soiling his pants.

“My name is Desiree,” I say to him. “But all my lovers call me Despair.”

 

-FIN-