Still Life with Chattering Teeth and People-Shaped Things (excerpt)

by
Daulton Dickey.

[This is an excerpt from the titular story in the new short story collection, Still Life with Chattering Teeth and People-Shaped Things & Other Stories, which is out now.]

1.

Humming fills the air, but it’s the humming of a brain filling gaps exposed by silence. The lights are out. Colors flicker in space—sometimes near the ceiling, sometimes near the floor.

The brain does the math, and this is another case of the brain creating something where something should be.

But listen: the silence. It’s unnerving somehow. Unnatural.

The ceiling throbs. Cracks spiderweb the walls. From these, insects emerge. They’re miniature heads, human heads, crawling on six scrotums. Sperm oozes in their wake. Sadie throws a shoe at the wall and the insects scream and scatter.

She climbs out of bed and peeks outside: a planet-sized eyeball drifts toward a planet-sized eyelid. Twilight. She throws on her robe and taps her skin. It’s still skin. Thank Cruelty. She hasn’t transformed, not like the others.

She opens her front door.

The hallway is empty.

She tiptoes across the hall and puts her ear below “3F” on Martin’s door. Silence. But that doesn’t mean anything. Those creatures are probably in there. Right now. Fucking each other with those tentacles—or whatever the hell you call them.

More humming.

Is it a lightbulb, or is it her brain doing the math, plugging holes?stilllifedaultondickey

She ties her robe and rubs her stomach and tiptoes down the hall, listening in on apartments 3D, 3C, 3B.

She puts her teeth together and hisses, just to make sure she hasn’t gone deaf.

Hiss.

She hasn’t gone deaf.

Door 3B flings open. A human-sized caterpillar pops its head into the hallway. Snot and cum drips from its mouth.

—Everything okay? it says.

—Fine.

—Why you in your robe? Locked out?

—Stop talking to me. Monster. Continue reading

The Hills of Zoar

by Daulton Dickey.

Jane Doe sits in a chair beside a window in a dimly lit room. A book in her lap is open to a chapter filled with blank pages. She turns the page and scans the textures. Her eyes bounce right to left, right to left, as if reading Hebrew. The textures, fine, almost imperceptible, are arrayed in scattershot patterns. Pulp dropped and compressed into pages. Random. But the textures say something. They mean something. Of that, she is certain.

The window to her right overlooks a brick wall. Someone at some point long ago, probably long before Jane was pushed into this world, had tagged the wall with paint. A cock with eyes and a mustache sitting on top of a scrotum. Above the cock, in perfect calligraphy, reads, “Beware, ye who enter here.”

Every now and then, Jane peels her eyes from the book and glances at the graffiti on the wall. She wonders what it means. She wonders if—exempting the eyes and mustache—it is a more or less realistic depiction of a cock. Or a scrotum. Then she wonders if “cock” is even a word people actually use to describe it, or if it’s a euphemism developed and propagated by middle- and upper-class novelists feigning street credentials.

Back to the book: those textures mean something. They spell out a message, a secret story. Why else had the authors included this chapter in the book? It’s some sort of ingenious new printing method: the textures of the page spell out some Voynich Manuscript-style esoterica.

Someone knocks on the door and Jane sets aside the book. She remains seated and stares at the door, stares at the crack beneath the door, as if she can discern the person from the shadow that he or she casts and spills into the crack.

Then there it is again, the knock. This time louder, more forceful.

Jane tip-toes across the room, never allowing the balls of her feet to touch the ground, trying to be as light, and as quiet, as possible.

She stops near the door and slows her breathing as she listens for sounds, for some sort of familiar cough or …

The doorknob shakes and jiggles. The door trembles. Feet scuffle, making sounds like tap dancers tearing up a stage—those gritty yet metallic staccato plops.

It’s times like this Jane wishes she had a peephole. Times like this, she’d be able to scan the outside world through a fish-eye lens and discern or identify whomever dared to harass her.

‘Mist Poe.’ The door muffles the voice, but the voice—nasally and low—obviously belongs to a man. ‘Mist Poe: cracker jack the sack around back. Arms and alms shout farewell.’

‘Crooked, crazy liar,’ she says, in what amounts to little more than a whisper.

‘The obvious doesn’t slow the noon.’

‘I’m comfortable here.’

‘Rape sore hills. Rape sore hills.’

‘No. No, you can’t make me.’

She shakes her head and backs away from the door, still refusing to marry the balls of her feet to the floor.

‘Rape sore hills.’ The man’s voice inflects, transmits authority.

‘No. I’m comfortable …’

The doorknob twists again. Jiggles again. The door trembles and the man speaks again: ‘Rape sore hills, mist Poe.’

Jane Doe spins and rushes to the chair. She drops into it and pulls the book to her lap. She flips the pages, studies them. Not a word in sight. Not a letter or even a speck of ink in sight.

Flipping the pages focuses her attention, and the man’s voice recedes and vanishes.

And she forgets about the man and the door altogether.

Phosphorescent lights bleed white. The room is so well lit that she’d be hard-pressed to find so much as a single shadow. After scrutinizing the book, Jane again sets it aside. She leaves the room to get a drink of water, and when she returns she notices a mural shimmering on the wall opposite the chair. A woman on a horse points to a vaguely Ancient Near Eastern city in flames. Cherubim hover over the woman and drape a cape–conspicuously shaped and textured like a vagina–over her.

The woman on the horse looks familiar, but Jane can’t place her. That likeness. She’s seen it somewhere.

She taps her cheeks with her fingertips and drags them down her chin and neck, stops them on her collar bone. She taps it. She taps it. It sounds hollow, hollow.

That mural, it … Is it new? She vaguely remembers a door. Somewhere. She vaguely remembers the door and somehow, for some reason, associates it with fear.

But then … She dismisses the thought. Her house is an impenetrable cube. No need for a door, she’d told the construction crew before they set out to build the cube around her. No need even for a window, she’d said. I can make both if I want to, she’d said, but I don’t really foresee a situation in which I’d want either a door or a window.

Then she remembers the construction crew. It hadn’t occurred to her then, but it occurs to her now: they weren’t wearing top hats or denim shirts or pants. They weren’t wearing belts or carrying tools. They were dressed in scrubs and white lab coats. And they were depositing and rearranging textures onto paper attached to clipboards while she spoke. And the foreman had a laughable combover. When he spoke, he sort of sung and spit out words and sentences in a nasally and low voice.

But then … But so who can trust memories, anyway? Jane Doe knows as well as anyone that memories can’t be trusted. Trust your memories and you might as well take a blade to the veins in your forearms.

Someone had told her that. But who? And is it even correct, and is it even verbatim—isn’t it more like, “trusting your memories is why you took a blade to your forearms”?

But then … But so who can trust memories, anyway?

She backs up and falls into the chair and pulls the book onto her lap. She flips through it, searches for patterns in the textures of the pulp compressed into, and forming, the paper. She searches. But she hasn’t yet discerned a pattern.

All patterns are discernible. She knows that. Chance isn’t responsible for anything. It’s not even an ontological concern. It’s only a product of the brain, that piece of untrustworthy meat lodged in everyone’s skulls. Of that, she’s certain.

Dislodging thoughts from the meat in her skull, Jane Doe sits in a chair beside a framed painting in a dimly lit room. A book in her lap is open to a chapter composed of photographs of aborted fetuses. She turns the page and scans the photographs. Her eyes bounce up and down, up and down, as if she’s reading Kenji and Kanji.

The framed painting to her right depicts a pregnant woman. She’s naked, the woman, and she appears no taller than a four year old child. Her stomach is bloated and corpse colored—green and purple, black and red. And she’s sitting on a man’s lap. The man is adult-sized. He’s wearing a suit and a tie, and a mustache obscures his upper lip. Motion lines, meant to depict movement, surround his leg, creating, or trying to create, the impression that the man is bouncing the pregnant, child-sized woman on his knee. On a banner above the man, in perfect calligraphy, reads, “Beware, the hills of Zoar.”

A Sample Story From My Short Story Collection

From A Peculiar Arrangement of Atoms: Stories. Out now via Kindle

Click here to buy it.

Click here to learn about how I’m donating proceeds to suicide prevention organizations.

On the Sidewalk, at Night, as Thunder Roared and the Clouds Threatened Rain, She Encountered a Possible Solution
by
Daulton Dickey.

The man at the counter focused on Alexis as she walked into the store, and as she walked through the store, picking up items and glancing at them, and sometimes seeming to study them, she had this feeling prickling the back of her skull, this feeling like being watched. Hyper agency detection, it’s called. The ability to sense the presence of other people. It was useful to her evolutionary forebears, and it was useful to Alexis as she sensed the man’s eyes penetrate her skull. But she didn’t glance at him to verify whether or not the sensation was a hit or a miss—sometimes people detected agents that weren’t there, a consequence of the evolutionary advantage, and a plausible component to the story of humankind’s invention of the concept of god.

The sense of becoming prey to a man’s eyes didn’t leave her, but she tried to soften it, to forget it, or, at the very least, to diminish its effects while she ambled from aisle to aisle and perused the shelves. And what was she searching for anyway? Why had she stopped at this store, this convenience store, at almost midnight on a Sunday-night-almost-Monday-morning?

Her arms itched, itched, that awful itch-and-sensation-of-not-belonging-in-ones-own-skin that diabetics claimed afflicted them—this sensation they usually noticed before receiving their diagnosis. She clutched them at her chest, her arms, and cupped her forearms, near her elbows. Every once in a while she’d start to scratch her arms, but then she’d catch herself and instead rub her arms, palms against flesh, the way parents do when consoling children.

And she drifted from aisle to aisle, glanced at item after item, as she wrestled with the instinct to scratch her arms. Worlds ballooned and dissolved inside her head. Some people called this daydreaming. Others recognized it as a symptom of various attention deficit-type disorders and wrote or asked for prescriptions for medication. But Alexis called it neither—it was simply a thing she did, something to pass the time, she supposed. It was something like a gimmick or a distraction, a way to silence the noises produced by the meat in her skull, meat intent on firing neurons and transmitting impulses in such as way as to bleed into her conscious state and to make her brain and her mind, and her entire body, feel the way her arms felt, feel like nothing belonged, like everything was attached by bristles and super glue, that nothing was certain or sacred or numinous or … Human. Yes, human.

When she reached the wall on the far side, the wall opposite the entrance, the wall replaced by refrigerators with glass doors, refrigerators lined with bottles of soda and frozen pizzas, chilled coffee and microwaveable lunches, she doubled back and, arms still clutched to her chest, made a beeline for the front door.

Hyper agency detection kicked in again, and she glanced at the man behind the counter as she opened the door: he focused on her, tracked her with his eyes and a slow motion panning head, and he sort of smiled this greasy smile, the type Alexis had encountered when men smiled at her with only one thing in mind.

She didn’t return the man’s smile, or even acknowledge it, as she glided through the door and flung it shut.

Clouds obscured the moon. She smelled moisture in the air but didn’t sense rain. Somewhere something was on fire. A house, maybe. She smelled it, too, and she wondered if it was a house, if maybe someone was inside the house, roasting alive and screaming and crying. A person’s mind shuts down in such a situation, she wagered. When you’re on the verge of death, of a death as awful as one by fire, she was pretty certain, your mind shut down. Instincts took over.

She was pretty certain instincts took over.

Her mind shut down the last time she glimpsed death. She was high and naked and lying on the carpet—she remembered it was wet, or was that a false memory, the wetness?—and she felt numb and floaty, as if her head had detached from her body and rolled into a closet, and she saw the world through the crack in a mostly-closed door. Or better yet: the world shrank as she slipped into a lens with an aperture slowly closing.

Her instincts didn’t take over then. That time, and on previous occasions when she’d glimpsed death, she rocked on her belly and closed her eyes and felt a sort of smile bend her lips—she didn’t remember smiling, she didn’t even remember consciously moving her lips, but she did remembered feeling her lips move; she remembered feeling them curl into a sort of smile as the aperture closed, closed, closed.

Clouds collided and merged and thunder rumbled to the east. Lightning flashed. Alexis floated down the sidewalk and glanced at her reflection in the window of a shuttered pet shop. Her face was droopy and her eyes were empty and dead looking. Fitting, those eyes, that face. Fitting because her external self had converged with her internal self, and, for once, for once, the external and the internal commingled in something like harmony.

Thunder rumbled again and lightning backlit the clouds. But it didn’t rain. It didn’t rain yet. Alexis knew rain would fill the streets soon enough, and she didn’t know where to go. Where would she go? Where would she go to stay warm and dry and itch or scratch free? And where would she go to escape that thing she did, that kind of daydreaming but not daydreaming thing where worlds ballooned and dissolved inside her head?

And where would she go to avoid the Bad Thing? That, for her, was the million dollar question. Her friends had succumbed to the Bad Thing and none had the desire, it seemed, to try to escape it. Not even Kara. Especially not Kara.

The last time Alexis had stayed with Kara, they spent three days locked inside the house, uncompromisingly high, and they wore these kind of old-lady-house-dress-looking pajamas, and the pajamas were dirty and smelled of urine and vomit, but neither Alexis nor Kara really cared about the stench, and they only rarely even noticed it, and then usually only when one plopped down on the bed and the air concussed and blasted the other in the face; and they were so high, so high they barely even spoke, and when they did speak, they spoke in that whispery drawl people speak after succumbing to the Bad Thing. And they stayed high for three days. Three days, and it felt like ten minutes. And then at one point during the three days, near the end, as Alexis recalled, Mario stopped by and promised Kara more of the Bad Stuff if she’d have sex with him, but Kara was so wrecked by the Bad Stuff that she couldn’t even feign excitement and she couldn’t convince Mario she was enjoying it—and she clearly wasn’t, but she tried, it seemed, to express excitement, at least for his sake. But he didn’t buy it, and the act of catching a woman feigning excitement did more to enrage him than probably anything else. Kara could probably have stolen a gram and it wouldn’t have enraged Mario as much as her whole faking an orgasm act had. And even after they had sex, which was the agreement, not an insistence on enjoyment, Mario refused to give Kara—and, by extension, Alexis—anything because she, Kara, was, Mario insisted, so strung out she was “worthless” and “about as useful” w/r/t sex as “a sock filled with sandpaper.”

Kara was so strung out, she didn’t care. She didn’t care that she’d had unprotected sex with a notorious—i.e. possible carrier of STDs—womanizer. She didn’t care that Mario’d had unprotected sex with her and then protested her lack of enthusiasm, she didn’t care that he’d ridiculed her and her best friend and then left without honoring his end of the bargain—she cared only about succumbing to the Bad Thing, and she was so taken by it that nothing else mattered.

If she returned to Kara’s house, Alexis knew she’d once again succumb to the Bad Thing, and she didn’t oh god want to succumb to the Bad Thing again, even though succumbing to it sounded so goddam good that her mouth, her brains, her bones screamed out for it. Please. God. Just one little taste. One. More. Taste. One little … To stop the burning, the sickness, the itching, the …

She clutched her belly and she fought it. She fought it. She wrestled every sensation tearing through her, the sensations practically demanding attention, the sensations threatening an insurrection, threatening to usurp her arms and legs and get the Bad Stuff and taste it one last time—with or without her consent. But then … Then she clutched her stomach again.

She couldn’t taste the Bad Stuff. Never again. Not now. Not …

She wasn’t certain she was pregnant—that is, she hadn’t verified it with a pregnancy test, but she knew. She could tell. Women knew these things. And she knew a baby was growing inside her, of that she was more certain than anything. And she knew she was going to have it, and she knew she wanted to keep it, and she knew keeping it entailed responsibility, the type of which she’d never really exercised before, and she knew the Bad Stuff would either kill the baby or deform it somehow—maybe not physically but definitely mentally—and she knew the Bad Stuff would splinter or destroy whatever neural processes governed the actions people referred to as “maternal instincts.” And so … No. She wouldn’t go to Kara’s. She wouldn’t fall back or rely on anyone she’d known or kind of befriended—though in those circles, you never really “befriended” anyone; friendship itself only remained strong when someone had access to the Bad Stuff. She could not even attempt to rely on Kara or anyone else now that a baby was blooming inside her.

Thunder rumbled again. It jolted her. She jumped, physically jumped, and her heart pounded. She glanced up and registered the sky, the clouds, and mentally inquired about the rain. Why hadn’t it started yet? It was almost certainly going to start. Any minute now. Any …

And that’s when she saw it. On the sidewalk, near the base of a building, an old barbershop: a one hundred dollar bill. It lay flat on the sidewalk. She stopped and stood over it and glanced down at it. Her fingers curled and closed into a fist—acting on their own; a prelude to insurrection? And she fought the impulse to bend over and scoop up the money.

This required consideration. This required tact.

Hyper agency detection kicked in and Alexis stepped forward and dropped her foot onto the hundred dollar bill, and she glanced around—left to right, forward and back—but she didn’t see anyone, no one, not a single person. Not anywhere. And so she stood, frozen, foot stamped on the money, and she considered what she’d discovered. An answer. A possible answer. Maybe she could use it to find a cheap hotel and regroup. Maybe she could use it to eat. Maybe she could use it to … Maybe just a little taste of it, the Bad Stuff. A small portion of the cash could buy enough Bad Stuff to maybe make her sickness go away or make the itching go away or … But no. No. She was desperate and she was tired and she was hungry, and she was also craving the Bad Stuff, and so while the money might be a blessing there was also an almost equal chance that it might be a curse. And so …

And so she’d just take it. She’d scoop it up and slip it into her pocket and find a cheap hotel and maybe—or maybe not, who knew?—call Mario or Kara and …

She lifted her foot and bent over and tried to scoop up the money, but something prevented her for picking it up. Something prevented her from grabbing it and lifting it and slipping it into her pocket.

She fell to her knees and tried to pick it up and then she tried to wedge her thumbnail under the corner to peel it away from the sidewalk and … This money would really help. It could help and … Maybe a hotel for the night. Or food. Or maybe it’d buy a taste, just a little taste of the Bad Stuff. Or maybe … And if only she could wedge her thumbnail under it. If she could only lift the corner, peel it from the sidewalk, she’d undoubtedly then peel the entire thing off and shove it into her pocket and … Maybe just a taste, you know? One little taste and … Just lift the corner. She only needed to lift the corner. But the corner wouldn’t rise. It wouldn’t break free. It …. Probably those assholes, those frat boys assholes … They probably used some adhesive to stick it to the ground. Those assholes pulled pranks like this all the time. They pulled pranks on the poor or homeless and filmed it and put it online so other frat boys assholes could watch it and laugh at the poor or homeless and … It was definitely glued. Definitely stuck there. Definitely affixed to the sidewalk. And … It was undoubtedly those assholes and … If only she could wedge her thumbnail under the corner. If she could only lift the corner … God, she was so fucking tired. A hotel room sounded great. It called to her. And food: she could feel her stomach jump into her throat, ready to devour anything, anything. And then maybe she would call Mario. But just for a taste. One last taste before she … And if only she could wedge her thumbnail under the corner.

Bertrand Russell—A Prose Poem

by
Daulton Dickey.

Soft tiled tissue of longing and regret shoot from the prism of circles folding inward from cackles distorting our eyes. Merry go rounds spurt with the juice of ten thousand angels martyred and hung and forced to spend the rest of eternity* spinning in endless circles. Through caves in the universe emerge miasmas of rock and salt, of thoughts brimming with annihilation, and through circles in time, through gaps, they slip in and devour the moment without expression.20140817-163629.jpg

Slurp slip sloop, the heavens cry as they distend and droop into the flowers and soil below. And the stench of honeydew permeates the air before flames disintegrate the spirit of neglect. The worlds in the silence of the motion of atoms hum and hem and haw and drum slowly the output of trillions of neurons and sketch flames into the canyons of organic machines too blind to notice the empty gazes in their reflections.

Where concrete and gold flow into the wombs of pregnant cultures, corruption creeps into the smiles of the machines, each of whom trade gold for reflections better suited to their images of hungry and explosive gazes. But nothing is ever complete, and grapes hang on vines and pop and bleed onto the ground; fire ants hatch from the cells of traipsing blood and scurry along the grass, trying to evade their inevitable rise. And sure enough: they do rise. Each ant shifts and evolves and transforms into musical notes and soars onto the tablature of the moment as it skips along the tremolo of the spinning planet.

And we’re left alone, deaf to the songs played by the wind and blind to the black holes devouring our reflections.
________

*’The rest of eternity’ is, of course, a pun: you cannot quantify that which does not end. Men have tried, and they’ve exalted in the fountains of their newly found neuroses.

[copyright 2014 Daulton Dickey]

The Dentist

by Daulton Dickey.

Dentistry isn’t what it used to be. In my younger and less vulnerable years, I’d service fifteen or twenty patients a day without incident. Scrape teeth, inject lidocaine and extract teeth, and then I’d go home and distract myself. Thoughts of work rarely assaulted me. But now I can’t go near a person’s mouth without an armed bodyguard and an exorcist, and the day haunts me well into night.

Just this morning, a scruffy-faced man ambled into my office, complaining of a toothache. My alarm bells sounded on seeing him. His greasy hair and unkempt beard alerted me to potential trouble. And those eyes, black and hollow, dug into my flesh and raised every hair on my body.

‘I got an awful pain,’ he said.

My nurse seated him and eyeballed me, telegraphing SOS by flickering her pupils. I returned the message and, with a flick of my wrist, called Sancho into the room. His name was—honest to god—Sancho Panza and he stood six foot eight inches without shoes. He sauntered into the room, clutching a crucifix, and hovered over me. I couldn’t see his face but I knew his routine: fire mad-looking eyes at the patient, a sort of pre-emptive warning shot, and grimace. Continue reading

Schlupp

by Daulton Dickey.

See, Jack, what’s in the shadows. That boy walking bowlegged: last week a scorpion crawled out his spine. Damn thing, about three foot long, at least, chased the boy’s mom. There she was screaming and swinging a pillowcase at it, like it’d do a damn bit of good. Well, so the thing cornered her, stuck its stinger in her eye and proceeded to suck out the vitreous gel. Sucked it out until her eyeball was hollow. Then it withdrew its stinger. Made a godawful sound. Schlupp. Like a toothless dog eating a bowl of snot. And so there she was, the mom, sitting in the corner, hand over her eye, jaw moving up and down, up and down, like she was on autopilot. And she sat there, jaw a-moving, and this like bloodcurdling moan spilled from her mouth. White jelly streamed from the husk of her eye. And she groaned. She groaned. Then the scorpion turned on the boy, chased him out the house and clear across the block. The boy screamed. But he couldn’t outrun the scorpion. Damn thing scurried like it was nobody’s business. Caught the boy near the crosswalk. It latched onto the kid and climbed through a wound in his lumbar area and like attached itself to the boy’s spine. Doctors say it’s in charge now, which goes a hell of a long way to explaining why the boy’s been bouncing around the neighborhood sucking on sweets and terrorizing the cats. Like what the hell would it even do with a cat? Dumb idiot. Just goes to show ain’t nothing know what it needs, even when it’s in charge.

I hear the Goofy-Footed Mafia started a pool, see what the scorpion-boy does when he finally catches a cat. Some think he’ll recite insect sonnets in a sort of scorpion whine. Nothing we humans could understand, just screeches and like metallic chirps. But don’t you worry, Jack. I’m in good with the Goofy-Footed Mafia and I tell you son: the fix is in. Soon as that boy catch a cat, they going to send in a strung-out Shaman dressed in a burlap sack to exorcise the scorpion, which will send it reeling out the boy’s spine and into the street. The Shaman will be hopped up on Kool-Aid and pixie dust and so if he aligns his chakras just right, he’ll be able to sort of mind meld with the scorpion, all puppet-master-like, and force it to tap dance and yodel an old Slim Whitman tune. Some crazy, syphilitic old bastard suggested this routine for the pool. Everyone thought he was a crazy old coot, submitting such a thing. But the odds on it are long—tree-fiddy to one—which sounds like lick-smacking goodness, those odds, to the Goofy-Footed Mafia. As I say, son: the fix is in. Oh now, look at that boy. Damn near caught that hairless feline. So goddamn close. I thought we was about to be treated to a Slim Whitman concert.