Over the next two weeks, in celebration of Halloween and the new anthology The Cutting Room: Dark Reflections of the Silver Screen, Tachyon and editor Ellen Datlow present excerpts from a selection of the volume’s horrifying tales.
Today’s selection comes from “Ardor” by Laird Barron.
—Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, February 9, 1975
What is it Pilot John says right before we drop from the sky?
Where is Molly’s body? No, that’s my own voice haunting me on account of someone else’s ghost, someone else’s guilt.
The pilot’s head inclines to the left, slick as any disco floor pro. He gasps and takes the good Lord’s name in vain. There’s a quality of terror in the sharp inhalation that precedes this utterance. There’s rapture in the utterance itself. His words are distorted by electronic interference through the headset. The snarl of a lynx wanting its fill of guts.
Obligingly, the world rolls over and shows its belly—
—I come to after the crash and call Conway’s name the way I sometimes do upon surfacing from a nightmare. In this nightmare he is kissing me, but his left eye is gone and I can see daylight shining all the way through his skull. He says hot into my mouth, This wound won’t close.
Now, I’m awake and alive. Hell of a surprise, the being alive part.
Snow trickles down through a hole in the fuselage and crystallizes in my lashes and beard. The last of the daylight trickles through the hole too and the world around me resolves into soft focus. Buckets of white light saturate everything until it’s all ghostly and delicate. I’m strapped into the far back seat of the Beaver. I close my eyes again and recall low mountains rising on our left and the shadow of the plane descending toward an ice sheet that seems to stretch unto the end of creation.
Our particular jag of beach lies south of Quinhagak, not that that helps. In the summer, this is a vast circulatory system of bogs and streams on the edge of the Bering Sea. Ptarmigan and wolves, bears and fish dwell here, feast upon one another here. In the winter, it’s one of God’s abandoned drawing slates. The temperature is around negative thirty Fahrenheit. That’s cold, my babies. The mercury will only keep dropping.
“Conway’s in Seattle,” Parker says. “He’s safe. You’re safe. Who’s your favorite football team?” His breath is minty. He thinks I’m slipping away when I’m actually slipping back into the world. Sweet kid. Handsome, too. Life is gonna wreck him. That’s funny and I chuckle. He grips my shoulder. His mittens are blue and white to match the stripes on the plane. “C’mon Sam, stay with me. Who’d you root for in the Super Bowl? The Vikings? I bet you’re a Vikings man. My cousin met Fran Tarkenton, says he’s a gem. Can’t throw a spiral, but a hell of a quarterback anyhow.”
“Cowboys fan.” I’m remarkably calm, despite this instinctive urge to smack the condescension from him. He means well. His eyes are so blue. Conway’s are green and green is my favorite color, so I’m safe as Parker keeps saying.
“The Cowboys! No kidding? Seattle doesn’t have a club. One more year, right?”
“Dad is from Galveston.” I haven’t thought about my father in an age, much less acknowledged him aloud. Could be a concussion.
“Where’s your accent? You don’t have an accent.”
“Dad does. Classic drawl.” I hesitate. My tongue is dry. Goddamned climate. “How are the other guys?” The other guys being Pilot John, regional historian Maddox, and our wilderness guide extraordinaire Moses.
“Don’t worry about them. Everybody’s A-OK. Let’s see if we can get you outta here. Gonna be dark any minute now. Moses thinks we need to be somewhere else before then.”
His voice is too cheerful. I’m convinced he’s lying about everyone being all right. Then I catch a glimpse of Pilot John slumped at the controls, his anorak splashed red. His posture is awkward, inanimate—he’s a goner for certain. The engine has to be sitting on his legs. Snapped matchsticks, most definitely. The windshield blasted inward to cover him in rhinestones. I lack the strength to utter recriminations. Abrupt stabs of pain in my lower back suggest my body is coming out of shock. It isn’t happy.
For information on The Cutting Room: Dark Reflections of the Silver Screen, visit the Tachyon page.
Cover by Josh Beatman.