“The words change,” she’d whisper to me at night in our bedroom, winter sleet against the windowpane. “They shift," she’d say, her eyes runny, terrorized, hidden in shadow.
I didn’t know what she meant.
My wife would come down to breakfast, not eat, just pick at her eggs, red-orange yolks. The kitchen air would crackle, an electrical charge in her presence. The smell of burnt wire. Her nails were chewed to the hub; tattered band-aids wrapped her fingers, blood seeped through. She'd left her senses by then; her face waxy, white, glistening. But her last words rising from her near catatonic state? “They change. The words change.” She would laugh, a naked grimace.
After she died, there was nothing the embalmer could do, or the mortician, who left the mortuary, mortified. They tried, but they closed her up. None of us could meet the other’s eyes, denying the haunting, the unexplained twists and deformities in the white, bloodless flesh.
The funeral fell on a wretched day; frozen, a hoar frost. The priest spoke of metaphors living after death. Gathered graveside was an umbrella line of somber black, a yellow backhoe standing by, idling, blue diesel in the winter gray. I chipped the first shovel of iced earth and the casket knocked hollow as the dirt fell on the carved oak top, an empty sound. We overlooked the thudding from within, a sure hallucination. But I knew my wife was in there. I remembered her face permanently affixed in a deranged scream.
As I left the funeral, a wall of curtained arctic storm blew through, a snow squall, thumb sized hail, oddly, thrashing the windshield, wiper blades smearing the glass. An unreasonable weather event.
With the services behind me, I went through my wife's places; cleaned out the closets, her clothes draped on hangers, her lavender face soap; her jewelry box on the top shelf, the pearl necklace from our thirtieth wedding anniversary; her makeup, rouge. And I knew she had a journal, but she never let me read it. And then I found her iPad, tucked in her desk, a hidden drawer, garlic occulted, coming loose when my thumb found a lever. It lifted, clicked. So I started reading, just as you are now.
You’re reading on your iPad, e-reader; at your desk at home, the place you sip coffee, tea, maybe write, reaching for the muse in your mind, inspiration, something that comes from outside your very self. Or maybe you’re reading off your phone as you commute on a train. Unaware of events around you. Or maybe you’re at work, your cubby, on your computer when you should be working. Your world is safe and unchanged.
So where's this headed? The prose infects. Not just a computer virus attached to the file, but something more, something new. As a virus, my words will bleed into yours, yours for the next reader, the next reader bleeding on others. But in some new decrepit way, horror. A horror virus, with a twist.
Not my horror. Yours. So now you are reading, scanning, skimming the words, assessing, all on your electronic media. But soon the text on one of your readings will blur, just a little, you’ll hardly notice. Something you’re reading will go off kilter. I didn’t notice at all, only on reflection did I think there must have been a changing.
You will try to disregard the media. And then you will choose to pass this virus on, if you can call it a virus, to other people, friends, loved ones. But preferably to other people you don’t care too much about. It's a transmitted disease.
So, why would this be a problem? I can hear you asking this question. It’s just a Reedsy Prompt. You’ve run across this posting in the #206: Phobias. But what you don’t know is I squirreled it in, placed it like an insidious land mine in the list. And now you’re thinking, hasn't this been done before, a virus that spreads?
But what if the words change as you’re reading? A new modernized twist. What if some evil presence (twenty-something sickoids) played with the AI and the prose re-writes the words on your electronic media just for you? On the fly, based on reading your inner most thoughts, your inner most hidden fears. What if the malicious intent of whatever this is molds the words, the sentences, the subject, theme, plot, and nails it, staking you to the ground, delivering you to the grips of your greatest fear? And then the fear engorges you, feasts on your vulnerability. What if what you're reading can find you?
But you know thoughts are things. The synapse connections make electrical impulses. Scientists measure these impulses. We all know this. But if your thoughts are measured, examined for weakness, pried out of your head like a wireless call, then can’t something we don’t really understand read your thoughts? And after this channeling, can’t this inventory of your emotions, your thoughts, form a customized pattern of words, a written prose, and send it back to crawl up the base of your spine in the form of what's written on your computer?
You scoff; I hear you. But what if you’re wrong in your dismissal? Can you sense I am begging you to believe this is more? Do you really think you know there is no bitter intent from some source, some governmental agency mucking about? Sure, I know. It’s a story, you’re thinking, not even that well written, no winner certainly. Nothing more. But isn’t there the tinniest percentage likelihood it’s more; the infinitesimal chance that you will meet the horror of your imaginings, and a fear so great you will not come back? I mean, not come back, as in looking in the mirror at 3:12 AM tomorrow morning, and the person you see has a face shredded, tightly twisted skin beyond repair, dissolved in terror. We don’t know everything. This is possible.
Everyone has a greatest fear. We know this. And all of us have read passages where our skin crawled, something in our brain chilled, we shuddered. Sometimes this was so nerve twitching, so unsettling, we set the book aside. We took a break from maybe Edgar Allan Poe. We set aside our Stephen King, our Silence of the Lambs, our fava beans with dry merlot. Others. Maybe we took a shot of scotch to shake it off.
Greatest fear? What a trite phrase. What I mean is real fear. Fear where you lose yourself in white static, roaring in your brain, taking over, a losing of who you are. Not losing your memory. I don’t mean that. I mean recognizing it’s yourself, but something’s missing. Your soul has left, and the replacement is horror, a terrified shell of who you were staring back in your mirror. Combined with a searing pain in the entirety of your body. This is beyond grinning and bearing. A pain you can’t come back from. A pain where you gobble OxyContin like M&M’s. A pain you would sell your soul to stop. But your soul is already gone. Stolen.
So what’s your greatest fear? What would cause the screaming white static in your brain to take over?
There. Right there. You took a peek in your mind, didn’t you? Just a crack, but you looked in. You had a thought. I saw you do it. A synapse sent a message.
Oh, maybe it’s water? You fear you will die a watery death, desperately holding your last breath, flailing your arms to the surface, kicking in leadened leather boots as carbon dioxide builds, burning into your lungs as you hold, hold, hold more. Your lungs are searing, begging release of CO2. Then, with the shimmering surface in sight, you gasp your last breath, icy saltwater passes your throat, sucks into your lungs, rushing. Your eyes go dead. You drift, then settle down in a cold green seaweed muck, your hair drifting, an Ophelian weightlessness as you descend into the waiting black.
Is it water? No, it’s not water, is it?
No, not water. But you took another peek, didn’t you? Your fear, the one you don’t really tell other people, the one you're hiding from me now, flashed in your mind. It was just for a second, but it was there, wasn’t it? And then you dismissed it. I won’t go there, you thought. But you will. You really will.
Is it death on an airliner? It starts with a bump, a little turbulence. The nerdy suit next to you says not to worry. Statistics. Greater chance of death on the drive to the airport, he says. This doesn’t help. Then another series of bumps shudders through the cabin. Your knuckles go white grabbing the arm rest. And then the jet hits a gorge in the sky. A ditch. Baggage tumbles out of the overheads. The jet banks hard, pitches to the right, oxygen masks tumble down, a serving cart careens down the aisle. And then you don’t hear your own scream as the jet angles straight down. But you are screaming. You are. The suit next to you stares into space, starts crying, then pukes yellow globules weightless in the air, covering your left sleeve, the side of your face. You press your eyes closed. Tears stream off your face sideways. And you are alone, and you have time to wonder if you’ll feel the awful heat from the jet fuel engorging your body, the pain ripping.
Not an airliner? But you took another look inside yourself, didn’t you? What did you see? Feel? You dismissed it again, didn’t you? This is just a story, words on your screen, a dumb Reedsy prompt, you tell yourself. The words don’t have a consciousness, a reading of your thinking. A truly sick evil intent. An awareness.
A horror recipe written just for you. I know you think it’s unlikely the words will change, just for you. Impossible. But what if you’re wrong and the fear you think about creeps onto the page of what you’re reading, re-writing the zeros and ones? The journal reads your synapse thoughts perfectly, fine tunes, and infects whatever you read on your electronic media, and spits back to you a prose that takes you to a place where you are reading about your own personal worst horror, and nails it. The media manipulates you emotionally, sadistically; you become a terrorized puppet on a string.
And what is your worst horror? Your synapse connections just sparked, didn’t they? The journal noticed. It listened deep within the media. And the prose will change on what you’ll be reading. Just for you. Sucking you in. You won’t be able to stop.
For my wife, her terror lay in her grave, her casket. She feared being buried alive. Pleaded with me before her death, in the kitchen, her knees on the blue patterned linoleum, her arms gripping my legs. “Promise me you’ll cremate me,” she wailed. “Promise!”
“Of course,” I said. “I’ll honor your last wishes.” She died peacefully, welcomed it. Something about family legacies, though. People like a place where they can visit their loved ones, talk to them, ask the advice of the dead. Her family had a plot with at least ten graves, her mother, great grandmother from the 1880s, a whole gang. The plot has a Victorian wrought-iron fence around it, black, and people admired the fence. “Who’s buried here?” they’d ask. “Who puts out the plastic flowers?” So I really had no control over the burial procedures, her family being matriarchal. And for no reason anyone could explain, somehow her catatonic demeanor twisted up after she died at the mortuary. Rigor mortis, I guess. Her legs and torso bound up on themselves, but in her case, her face also did some binding. Lying in the mortuary, on the slab, somehow her face muscles contorted into the distinct appearance of a scream; an Edvard Munch painting, her mouth expanded impossibly open, her skin stretched, her eyes protruded, her white skin clammy, wet. Can you be in terror after you die? I used to think not, we’re dead after all. The mortician agreed, but he couldn’t change my wife’s face.
If you’re not willing to forward this, I know what happens. I know this because I chose not to forward it. For a while. Until now, that is. I posted it on Reedsy and that’s why you’re reading it now. I’m convinced there is something evil entwined in the words, spreading to whatever you read. Maybe artificial intelligence, and for all I know, a living intelligence.
My worst fear came to me reading my wife's iPad. A burning rush; wolves chasing me down, snapping, biting, ripping the tendons in my heels, bleeding strips of flesh, crippling me on the ice. It’s a sunless day on a snowfield, a horizon of pine forest beyond, like Siberia. The pack of six, it’s always six, circle me slowly, growling, lips snarling, their eyes red, a red almost black. This was my worst fear. I presume my wife’s iPad spelled it out in a twisting prose after reading my thoughts. I know this sounds unbalanced as I write this. Please forgive me. But the wolves were only in my dreams until I found them in the iPad. But the words. The words in the iPad entwined in my head perfectly. A prose where every word, comma, conjunction, eclipses, and simile, raised a terror in my heart, unfathomable. The other wolves backed off at the end. The largest wolf, the leader, sniffed at my throat, smelled of dead carrion, had heated breath, moist, then licked my carotid artery with his purple tongue. You know what comes next. The wolves became all I could think about. I couldn't sleep. I began biting my nails. I went back again and again to the iPad, compelled. I slept with my wife’s iPad while whimpering into the night.
I realized there was one way, and only one way to prevent this. There was never an ethical question considered. I needed to destroy the journal, delete it, burn the iPad, my computer, my phone, get rid of them all. I tried. I promise you I tried. I deleted, burned, studied the black arts, everything. But the journal would always come back, there on my iPad, my phone, my new computer, like a lost copy infecting everything I read. And then I knew the answer. I needed to pass the journal, and only by passing it on would I beat the terror. The infection insisted I forward it. It knew if I did. So I passed it. To you, that is. There’s a lot of guilt associated with this decision, but for me, the wolves have gone. My only advice is to pass it unread if you can. The terror of your worst imaginings will come quickly, merciless, and soon.
Even now, I can sense you thinking of where your personal terror lies. There. Right then. You thought about your specific thing, didn’t you? The thing you told no one, the thing that drives shame in your mind when you give it a little poke. If words on a page can dictate a slight flash of your thinking about your worst fear, the one you tuck in the closet you dare not open, what else can words do, can prose do? How far can a story on a page take your imagination? And what if something writing those words knew what they were doing and had special intent? An unhuman intent. Evil. And then takes you to a place you aren’t coming back from, a place where terror lives in your worst nightmare, a non-ceasing agony, a place waiting for each of us, waiting for you.