As we sally forth into the heated months while still lurching from the shadow of Memorial Day - summer's unofficial launch party - we now look forward to the next holiday on the docket, which has always been one of my favorites. Independence Day. The 4th of July. The Night of Lost Fingers.
Hot on the heels of my acceptance into Dead But Dreaming 2 for Miskatonic River Press, renowned editor and writer Scott David Aniolowski put out the call for submissions for MRP's follow up anthology, titled Horror for the Holidays.
I batted around a few ideas like a brainless kitten sparring with a semi-sentient ball of string, until I struck upon a setting in a near future world that reflected much of the horrors that are currently loosed upon this tired planet, while adding in a healthy dose of what could happen if the stars align just right (which, in turn, would be so very wrong). The result was the story "Free Fireworks," which I am excerpting below. What I've provided gives nothing away, but also might foster the impression that this is just a war story. I've set it up to be a bit more than that, but to say anything further would spoil the fun.
Please note that contrary to the understandable misconceptions of some, Horror for the Holidays is NOT just Christmas/Chanukah/Kwanzaa stories, but covers a full raft of those special days created to bring us such comfort and joy, as the ToC shows:
Horror for the Holidays
Table of Contents
Introduction by Scott David Aniolowski
TALES OF ROSH CHODESH
The Tomb of Oscar Wilde by W.H. Pugmire
TALES OF VALENTINE’S DAY
Love and Darkness by Oscar Rios
Be Mine by Brian Sammons
TALES OF PASSOVER
Cthulhu Mhy’os by Lois H. Gresh
TALES OF EASTER
And the Angels Sing by Cody Goodfellow
The Last Communion of Allyn Hill by Pete Rawlik
Mrs. Spriggs’ Easter Attire by Joseph S. Pulver Sr. and Tara VanFlower
Seasons of Sacrifice and Resurrection by Adrian Tchaikovsky
TALES OF MOTHER’S DAY
Mother’s Night by Ann K. Schwader
TALES OF THE FOURTH OF JULY
Free Fireworks by T.E. Grau
Doc Corman’s Haunted Palace One Fourth of July by Don Webb
TALES OF VJ DAY
Translator by James Robert Smith
TALES OF HALLOWEEN
Hallowe’en in a Suburb by H.P. Lovecraft
Moonday by Will Murray
The Trick by Ramsey Campbell
TALES OF THE DAY OF THE DEAD
El Dia De Los Muertos by Kevin Ross
TALES OF GUY FAWKES NIGHT
Treason and Plot by William Meikle
TALES OF REMEMBERANCE DAY
The Dreaming Dead by Joshua Reynolds
TALES OF THANKSGIVING
Entrée by Donald R. Burleson
TALES OF YULE
Keeping Festival by Mollie Burleson
Wassail by Tom Lynch
TALES OF CHRISTMAS
Krampusnacht by Joshua Reynolds
The Christmas Eves of Aunt Elise by Thomas Ligotti
Letters to Santa by Scott David Aniolowski
Keeping Christmas by Michael G. Szymanski
The Nativity of the Avatar by Robert M. Price
There are some BIG names in there, folks. And it isn't often that you can pick up an anthology that lines up Ligotti with Campbell, Lovecraft with Price, Pugmire with Goodfellow. This is a rich, deep, varied collection of horror and Mythos tales that truly belongs on the shelf of any full realized Weird Fictionista.
Give the excerpt a read if you're keen, and if you enjoy it just a bit more than a kick in shorts, please pick up the complete version of the story in Horror for the Holidays, available directly through the Miskatonic River Press mothership, or via the industry-consuming creeps at Amazon.com.
by T.E. Grau
The sun was setting, finally, and the cicadas took up their song. The daylight hours of July 4th seem to last an eternity, adding anticipation to that moment when the night sky first goes from dead to alive, thrilling and frightening in equal measure.
From the rooftop of their apartment building, William took a deep breath, and caught a waft of countryside air, blowing in from the west, pushed on by the sunset. For a brief moment, he could smell the honeysuckle, flavored with fresh tilled loam of the farm where he grew up, where he used to run through the wooded creek beds and crawl through culverts, playing war. It was mid summer now, and the crops would have been growing so quickly you could hear the corn stalks creaking and popping in the fields as they thickened and reached up toward the hazy sun. The beans needed to be walked, and the hogs were fattening in the mud, looking for a low spot in the fence. The bailers would be out, scooping up the first cutting of fragrant alfalfa drying in the fields, exposing a hidden civilization of earwigs and clicking beetles that gathered under the hot wetness beneath. William closed his eyes and took another breath, hoping to uncover more memories, but this time only smelled smoke. A neighbor had just lit up one of those ridiculous cone fountains on the far side of the roof. Children danced around the guttering sparks like wild Indians; like the heathens we all once were. Jacob got up from his contemplation of a late-lingering Junebug and joined in.
William frowned. He had grown to hate the smell of smoke, of burning things, which now filled him with horror when it was such a pleasant experience in his youth. He hated that he was an expert in smoke, noticing the nuanced differences of chemicals and wood, rubber and flesh. He hated the things he had done while other things burned. He missed the smell of burning trash on the farm, when the sharp pungence of combusting plastic was just a Kool Whip container dripping into the coals, when the odor of burning hair and muscle was just the calcine remains of a bird shot squirrel.
Down below, a muffled hush swept the Square, nudging William from his reverie, as the mournful strains of “Taps” began. This was the lament of the widows and the heartbroken left behind. William looked back at the door leading to the roof. He fetched Jacob and brought him close, listening to the song begat during the Civil War – the first Civil War – but made so common the last few years that it became an Independence Day hymn. It was written by a youth from the North, who ran away from his family to attend music school in the South. There, he wrote a simple, mournful tune. That young man died on the field of battle, fighting for the Confederacy, and the song was discovered in the pocket of the bloodied corpse by his shocked father, who was an officer in the Union Army. The officer asked his superiors if the Union band could play it for his dead son. They refused his request, as they’d be damned if their band would play a tribute to the enemy. He pleaded, and was finally offered a single bugle. The grieving father gave the song to the bugler, who played the funeral dirge to the lone body who had written it. “Taps.”
William looked down at Jacob, who was watching the veterans’ parade with right hand raised to brow in a stiff salute practiced for so many hours in front of the mirror. His grandfather, who fought, killed, and died a little in the haunted jungles of Vietnam, would have been proud. William smiled sadly, wishing that Jacob would run away to music school, to leave this city and this war and this grim and uncertain future behind, but Jacob would have nowhere to run. Music schools were the stuff of fairy tales these days. Music was the drum beat of battle and schools were now campuses of war.
The battalion band took over, playing John Phillips Sousa as the parade proceeded through the Square. A shout went up, and grew. Men saluted. Women threw flowers and blew kisses. Children watched with wide eyes. It was a celebration of those who survived and sacrificed so much to keep this country free.
As the sun dipped below the horizon, bathing the world in that sweet hue of magic hour blue, the first volley of organized fireworks launched into the air, exploding in bellowing showers of multicolored sparks taking on fantastical shapes… Flowers, sunbursts, fiery spirals like the flash of galaxies. Jacob jumped up and down, clapping his hands and trying to whistle through his fingers like his father taught him. Somewhere in their apartment, William could almost hear the dissonant sax music rising in volume. Abigail needed to be up here, but she just couldn’t. William understood that, as best he could.
The fireworks continued, unleashing burning glory in the sky. Brief, fiery sketches thrilled the crowd. The Square cheered each glimmering salvo. Bellowed like Vikings. People were drunk now, forgetting their fear in the haze of liquid hope. William watched the burning patterns branding the darkness reflected in Jacob’s eyes. He picked up his son, so he could get a better look.
William heard a sound behind him, and turned. Abigail stood in the roof access doorway, holding a lit sparkler in her hand, a tired, bleary smile on her face. He set Jacob down and went to her; took her pale face in his hands and kissed her deeply, like they used to kiss when every second mattered before the porch light came on. He looked into her bloodshot eyes, and pressed his forehead against hers. “Thank you,” he said. Her soft hand against his face told him everything he needed to know. She held up the sparkler as it fizzled to a red, glowing stick, then frowned, pouting like a little girl. William laughed and kissed her again, sometimes feeling as much her father as her husband. He took her by the hand and walked her to the edge of the building to their son. Jacob’s eyes lit up, but he said nothing as he hugged her tight around the waist. William put an arm around his wife, and brought his son in close between them. For the first time in a long time, it all felt right. The way it was supposed to be. The way it once was. The All-American family, enjoying the 4th of July under a dying sunset, with fire in the sky and without a thought for tomorrow.
Just then, a boom much lower and louder than the others shook the cobblestones. The parade stopped abruptly, the band’s trumpeter trailing off like a deflating balloon. Fireworks continued to fly, as the fuses were already lit, but no one was watching anymore. Murmuring silence choked the Square. Abigail looked at William, whose face told her everything she needed to know. Another muffled blast sounded, and another. Triangulation. The citywide PA system croaked to life. Orders chattered into the night. Sirens wailed. Abigail fell to her knees and wept. William looked down at her, as if it was happening in slow motion.
A plume of black smoke billowed up from the Old City marketplace, four blocks over from the Square. The throaty belch of a heavy machine gun fire chewed through the din. Screams littered the Square, as the crowd scattered, grouped, rallied.
God damn them… On our holiday. Just like last time.
Jacob looked down for Abigail, but she was gone. His stomach turned. He didn’t want to gear up and head out like this. William took a deep breath and turned to the roof door. A hand stopped him. It was Abigail, holding Jacob in front of her. She blinked away tears and smiled, laughing in spite of herself. He walked to her and she kissed him, whispering into his ear. William smiled, gripping the small of her back, re-etching the familiar curve into his memory. He then hugged Jacob and looked into his son’s eyes. William wanted to say that he loved him, but he did it so rarely, that he was worried that the boy would take it as a final goodbye. So he just nodded. Jacob nodded back.
And then, only two stood on the rooftop, and William was gone. White smoke drifted over the Square. Black smoke rose beyond. Abigail closed her eyes.
William strode quickly onto the street, wearing starchy fatigues, a modified M-240 in his hand and a heavy pack slung over his shoulder. He blinked a few times, trying to orient himself to the frantic commotion of the Square after dressing in the silent apartment. All around him, fellow soldiers, male and female, young and old, kissed their loved ones goodbye, while others emerged grim faced from apartment blocks still littered with bottles and trappings of the party that hid them from the outside world just hours before. A banner of red, white and blue dangled limply from the awning of a shuttered storefront. Under it, an old man leaned on a cane and looked up for the stars of his youth. He didn’t move, only stared. William looked up at the roof, where he knew Abigail and Jacob were watching, and waved.
Another explosion two neighborhoods over shook the ground and shot red-gutted smoke into the sky. Infiltrators. Spies gone active. Peace had made security soft. Made all of them soft, William thought, adjusting the tight Kevlar vest under his jacket that always fit him so loosely before. He was adding inches, while the city was giving them away. Give them an inch, they’ll blow up a mile. Gunfire ripped into the night, sending everyone but the soldiers scurrying for doorways. The man under the striped banner was gone.
William jammed a receiver into his ear and a walkie talkie to his mouth, as he jogged toward the outer wall ringing Old City, receiving intel and barking orders. He had to man his post.
The walkway cresting the wall was crowded with crouching troopers, weapons bristling outward like deadly whiskers, just like the days of castles and keeps that thrilled William’s childhood. A teenage private, still a bit woozy after fear burned off most of his drunk, lit up a cigarette. William shot a glare in his direction. The kid blanched and quickly stamped out the smoke under heavy boot tread. William shook his head. A glowing cherry earned you a sniper’s bullet exiting the back of your mouth. Some of these guys need more training, more time. There was never enough time anymore.
William returned his gaze down his scope, scanning the frustrating darkness below. He knew they were out there. Knew they were watching, praying to the empty sky. He could smell them. Smell their smoke. Exhaust, campfires, dank Turkish cigarettes… What were they waiting for?
It had been hours since the last of the suicide attacks rattled the city and dawn was on the creep. Insurgent recon was lacking, as they leveled a recently emptied ammo dump and part of the Old City prison, freeing two spies awaiting trial just long enough for proper justice to be rendered with the gavel fall of hollow points. Their slapdash Trojan horse failed to open up the enemy from the inside. Terrorists didn’t win many battles. They just wore you down until you gave up and lowered your head. But tonight, there would be no ‘wearing down’. This would be to the death, and whatever waited beyond.
William’s earpiece crackled to life. Air support was on its way, but they were coming in from the nearest base in the Rockies, a good thousand miles away. William tested the breeze, hoping to find a westerly tailwind. Nothing. Everything was still. Quiet, within and without. The holiday was over. The Air Force would be late.
He looked up to the queer stars arranged in new constellations that knew not nor cared not what was happening below. He didn’t think he’d ever get used to them, even after all he’d seen. A shooting star carved through a patch of grayish black with a dim trail of stratospheric sparks. Free fireworks.
A commotion went up from the troops manning the west section of the wall. Dots of light appeared on the hilltop about a mile outside Old City, on the grounds of what used to be a high school. William looked through his scope as the sun groaned through the pre-dawn, dimly lightening the sky and giving the first glimpse of what was waiting in the dark.