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Horror American

This story contains themes or mentions of physical violence, gore, or abuse.

Lucky Shot may have been the sleaziest bar in Cocoa Beach, but Riley liked it. Bartenders poured drinks with a heavy hand, and on Friday nights, it was filled with Space Force cadets.

Riley had been making eyes at one before a tall, clean-shaven man sat down alongside her.

“You alone?” he asked.

“I am now.”

“I saw you earlier on the dance floor—with your friends.”

“My friends have class tomorrow. I don’t,” she replied. 

“Are you in college?”

“Yeah. Second year of nursing school.”

“You want another drink?” 

“I do. And then I'll probably want another."

“I’m Harrington."

“Riley.”

Harrington placed his hand on the small of her back before turning to the bartender to order. Their drinks appeared in an instant. 

“What’s this?” she asked. “It smells like Dunkin' Donuts.” 

“Coffee liqueur, vodka, club soda.” 

She sipped it and smiled. “I could drink these all night!”

“I wouldn’t recommend it,” Harrington replied. “They’re called Mind Erasers for a reason, but it might be fun to disappear.”

“You’re drinking like an NCO,” Riley said.

Harrington laughed.

“Are you a general?” she asked, sotto voce. 

“I’m not a general. Not yet, anyway.” 

“What’s in your satchel?” 

“A blueprint.”

“For a building?”

“No, for a brain.” Harrington downed several shots in rapid succession. “Let’s get out of here.”

“Do you live on base?” she asked. 

“I do.” 

“Can we get a pizza?”

He laughed again. 

It was pitch dark when they drove past the main gate. 

“You missed the turn. Do you know where you’re going?” 

Though inebriated, he gave her a look that made her sit back and be quiet. He turned onto an unmarked road that led to a windowless warehouse.

“Do you want to see where I work?” he asked. 

She grinned. He had a workplace kink. 

He kept his satchel under his arm.

At the warehouse’s entrance, he swiped his keycard. She watched him punch in a code. 

“110565?” she asked.

“It’s my mother’s birthday.”

“Do you like your job?”

He gave a bitter laugh. “Honestly? I’d like to burn this place down.”

She entered behind him, eyeing the cameras in the ceiling, red lights blinking like a heartbeat.

Harrington got handsy with her inside the elevator, kissing her mouth, kissing her neck. His fingers snaked around to the base of her skull.

“Good, good,” he mumbled.

“I have a good head.”

“It’s perfect.” He nuzzled her hair.

“Perfect for what?” 

“For a universal port. It’s something we’ll all have one day. Let me show you.” Harrington took out the blueprint.

“I have a good body, too.” She pressed into him to prove her point.

“Bodies aren’t as useful as heads,” he replied. “It’s all about decreasing payload.”

“How can I decrease your payload?” Her fingers traced his crotch.

“If I told you, I’d have to kill you.”

Now she laughed. 

“When I do it, it’ll be quick,” Harrington promised, slurring his words. “Otherwise, you’ll end up like them.”

“Like who?”

He pulled her into a tight embrace. She felt a gun strapped under his armpit. 

“You have a gun? I’ve never held a gun before.” 

To her surprise, Harrington took a step back, removed the weapon from his holster, and handed it to her. She felt the heft of it.  

“Ooo,” she cooed. “This is a big gun.”

“Careful with that. It’s—”

A whip-like crack exploded in the elevator. His hands momentarily clawed at his face, most of it missing. The man collapsed on the elevator floor. 

Riley gasped, eyes brimming with horror.

“No…” she whispered, backing away from the gore at her feet. 

The elevator’s doors chimed open. 

Her heart jackhammering, Riley exited the elevator with her head lowered. She scuttled down the corridor, holding the gun, feeling the wet chunks on her clothing, her neck, and her face. 

She looked up for the red lights in the ceiling and saw none. 

No security cameras on this floor? 

As footsteps approached, she slid inside a utility closet, latching it behind her. She listened by the door as klaxons sounded. Angry voices yelled into staticky two-way radios. 

She took stock of her surroundings, glancing at medical and cleaning supplies. In the back of the closet were cartons of coveralls, bouffant caps, and sterile boot covers. Without hesitation, she kicked off her heels and changed out of her filthy clothes.

Newly outfitted in white, she faced a choice. Should she turn herself in, run, or hide? 

She weighed her options as the chaos outside of the utility closet grew. 

Overwhelmed and drunk, she burrowed into an oversized carton, her small frame curled up beneath plastic bags of filament polyester. 

Hours later, Riley awoke, smelling like a pool of Dunkin' Donuts vomit. 

She crawled out of the cardboard carton, pocketed the gun, then walked to the farthest corner of the utility closet. There was a service door with a keypad entry. 

Out of curiosity, she tapped in 110565. 

To her surprise, the door opened. Checking for red lights and seeing none, Riley proceeded, looking for an exit sign, praying for a stairwell. 

The maintenance hallway led to an interior room with no windows. Its door had another keypad. Again, she entered 110565. 

The door opened.

When Riley peered in, she saw the disembodied heads first—men, women, children—with eyes bulging, noses dripping green phlegm, mouths agape in a soundless shriek. Schematics were pinned to innocuous corkboards. 

Cold rivulets running down her back, she saw the sentient heads immersed in a biocompatible goo, plugged into a mainframe by their universal ports. 

Her stomach lurched. 

Harrington had been working on decreasing payload for space travel. His blueprint was for an 11-pound astronaut.

Above the tormented heads, Riley noticed bottles of isopropyl alcohol lining the shelves.

 In nursing school, Riley had first been taught to do no harm. 

But she was also instructed on how to be compassionate and how to handle hazardous materials—especially highly flammable ones. 

Raising the gun toward the bottles, Riley got off a lucky shot. 

The first bottle shattered, igniting the others, one by one. 

July 09, 2023 22:36

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40 comments

Zelda C. Thorne
12:44 Jul 13, 2023

Good one, Deidra. I enjoyed how Riley just misses all the enormous warning signs! Lol Maybe I'm missing the joke, but this dialogue didn't make sense to me. “You alone?” he asked. “I am now.” Shouldn't it have been sth like "Are you sitting with anyone?" "I am now."

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13:34 Jul 13, 2023

Oooo. 100% better. Zelda for the win :)

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Stevie Burges
06:02 Jul 11, 2023

Great storytelling, Deidra. Well described, and you kept up a good pace. Thoroughly enjoyed it despite it being so gruesome!

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17:33 Jul 12, 2023

Horror isn't my genre, but thought I'd give it a whirl (of a bloody chainsaw) haha

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Michał Przywara
23:00 Jul 10, 2023

Very fun :) Secret government experiments on unwilling subjects is an endless goldmine of horror. Riley had no idea what she stepped in, until the happy accident. (I seem to recall a similar elevator scene, but circumstances around it were a different story.) What sells this piece is how totally absorbed Riley is in something completely different. This sets the reveal up to be a good twist, even though the reader has some idea that things aren't quite what they seem due to Harrongton's preoccupation. That she gets his password is convenien...

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17:38 Jul 12, 2023

Yep. I cannibalized the Cassidy Story into a Riley one. It's always fun to run old stories through the chop shop. Highly recommend. Harrington was looking for connection, in all forms, since his soulless (and bodyless) occupation taxed his conscience like Macbeth's floating dagger. Having bad cybersecurity is a feature, not a bug, of the Federal Government. :) I am hoping Elon Musk doesn't read this story. I can just imagine what kind of head shop he'd set up to moderate Twitter feeds. ***Big Laugh at "for one generation." You are clever...

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Sherry Bazley
13:22 Jul 10, 2023

I generally don't read/watch horror and you eased into this story the way your others have read to me, so I was genuinely shocked when Riley blew Harrington's head off. After that, her moment-by-moment escape kept me at Riley's side up until the second her lucky bullet hit the rubbing alcohol. Thank Gawd for the little things we learn in nursing school. IMO, Riley did a good job. Mission accomplished.

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17:44 Jul 12, 2023

I don't generally write horror, but now I can see how people do. Kinda fun to dive into the (bloody) muck. Thanks for the read :)

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Sherry Bazley
21:12 Jul 12, 2023

You're more than welcome. I thoroughly enjoy reading your work. Have you been writing a long time? Do you practice every day? Any tips you'd be willing to share would be most welcome.

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22:18 Jul 12, 2023

During COVID, I promised myself to submit a Reedsy story every week. I did for over two years and definitely got better. Contests really help to find your characters. After developing some discipline, I'm able to write much longer works. I'm an English teacher, so the grammar/mechanics stuff wasn't a problem. Working in relatable themes and using archetypes (instead of stereotypes) and showing (not telling) is an art form, and will take a lifetime to master :)

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Sherry Bazley
02:44 Jul 13, 2023

Deidra, thank you! It's great you focused on your writing during the pandemic. I did a similar with artwork, making one small image a day for about a year. At the end of that time, how gratifying to see what I'd done and the changes that came about because of practice. I intend to investigate the use of archetypes in writing. Am familiar with them from a psychological standpoint, but never really thought about how that applies to story-telling. How do the contests help you find characters?!

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19:22 Jul 13, 2023

The contests force me to try to things and write new characters...some of who I am happy to jettison at the end of the short story. But I've found a half dozen or so that I'll write novels about. I am on my third installment of The Medicine Girl trilogy, a character that sprang to life from no where. I had no idea she was in my skull; a short story forced her out.

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Delbert Griffith
09:14 Jul 10, 2023

Wow, this took a dark turn! There were clues, though. Harrington feeling her head and muttering "good, good." Many other clues as well. That was nicely done. Riley's "lucky shot" in the elevator was key. Like all good horror stories, we're suddenly snapped out of something innocuous and transported into something terrible and frightening. The final lucky shot gives us as much resolution as you're willing to give. We don't know if Riley lives or dies, if she's caught and punished. What we get is that Riley did what she felt like she had to d...

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17:47 Jul 12, 2023

You're sweet, Del. Worst hook up ever, huh? I was channeling the end of Aliens 3 at the end (when the franchise should have ended.) Riley as Christ-figure, saving by self-sacrificing. Why not? That's not a bad way to go out. Better than just being known as a Floridian barfly :) Onward :)

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Lily Finch
04:54 Jul 10, 2023

Deidra, thanks for the story---it is great! Subtleties are bang on and the double entendres I enjoyed. The horror and sci-fi were delightful to. LF6

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17:47 Jul 12, 2023

Thanks, Lily! You are always so wonderfully supportive. :)

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Lily Finch
18:11 Jul 12, 2023

NP Deidra! LF6

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03:03 Jul 10, 2023

Some hilarious banter before this turns into a black mirror episode. Fast moving and fun, really enjoyed it. Riley is being flirty, and he's feeling body parts and saying “Good, good,” a chilling cue for horror to come.

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17:49 Jul 12, 2023

Thanks for the read. Nothing like trying to have a weekend fling and then having to blast your way out of a warehouse...reminds me of the '80s. haha

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Mary Bendickson
01:54 Jul 10, 2023

She went with him way too easily. Haven't girls learned better by now? Thanks for reading and liking my tacos

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19:26 Jul 12, 2023

I hope so. However, it was kinda fun looking for Mr. Right (and Mr. Right Now)...hahaha

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Michelle Oliver
00:15 Jul 10, 2023

Well this is just… chills down my spine! I’m not a great horror reader and I hesitate to read many stories this week, but I just had to read yours! It reads well, and easy for a novice in the genre to follow. I like the link with the title. Starting at a bar called the Lucky Shot and finishing with one lucky, compassionate shot. Nice complete circle here. I do wonder at her understanding of Harrington’s project. It seemed to come out of nowhere. How did she get so much information from just a blueprint? I would like to see something of what ...

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19:27 Jul 12, 2023

I'm not a great horror writer. Just trying something new to spice things up :) Thanks for the commentary. I should go back and fix up some of the holes in the plot.... And writing drunk banter is my specialty :)

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Mike Panasitti
14:33 Jul 15, 2023

It'd be entertaining to see a follow up to this about an experiment to decrease "brain-load" by creating headless bodies (rather than bodiless heads). I do love the recycling of the Cassidy elevator scene. It's too good to be based entirely on fiction, perhaps it's grounded in fantasy? Keep your lips sealed on that one, oh, Lady of Letters!

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15:31 Jul 15, 2023

We don't talk about Bruno (or elevators in the 1980's for that matter - haha). That elevator scene will be recycled for a few more of my femme fatales. I think it would be interesting to have one iconic moment -- and play around with a variety of characters, genres, locations. (See what happens when I get bored?) Thanks for the read, Mike. I always love to see your intelligent comments.

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Mike Panasitti
00:04 Jul 16, 2023

Deidra, a title for your collection of stories just struck me - The Elevator Shafts.

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00:13 Jul 16, 2023

"The Elevator Shafts" -- could be a romance?

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Mike Panasitti
00:14 Jul 16, 2023

Is "Elevator Shafts: Collected Stories" a better title? Romance, horror (as you've already written with this one), science fiction, historical fiction, you name it...as long as an elevator is involved.

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Amanda Lieser
18:52 Aug 08, 2023

Hey Deidra, Oh I loved this piece immediately. It was haunting from that very first line. Your characters had a bunch of depth-especially impressive given our word count limit. I felt like this story needed a sequel, to give us a bit more to this exciting series. There’s a fantastic amount of ethical questions in this one. Nice work!!

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19:03 Aug 08, 2023

Thanks Amanda! Woo ho!

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Ken Cartisano
03:37 Jul 19, 2023

Cool story. Graphic novelesque. (no-vel-es-kyoo). Non-stop action, solid ending. Sex in an elevator, and then, oooh, I did not see that -- coming, then the booties go on, it's a numbers game and she's got a good memory. Lots of very clever, and believable 'turns of fortune' for our anti-hero. I like the name Riley. I'd give it a 9.6, oh that's not how we do it here.

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16:14 Jul 19, 2023

Cue Aerosmith :)

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Ellen Neuborne
21:44 Jul 17, 2023

Great pacing. It kept me wondering what the next line would be the whole time. Well done.

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16:14 Jul 19, 2023

That's a great compliment, Ellen. Always fun to have the reader come along for the ride :)

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Michael Martin
21:40 Jul 17, 2023

I always love a good "oh shit" moment. That moment when, even though its written almost casually as if its just part of the same story, the reader has to reread it to make sure they read it correctly the first time. Thats what happened here... we were heading down a very different path, then out of nowhere, we get blindsided. I love it, and its something I try to emulate. There were two spots that it felt a bit odd, though, just to give you my perspective. I loved the conversation before they left, it flowed very naturally. When they d...

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16:18 Jul 19, 2023

Hahhaah - I'm going to use that: "a good 'Oh Shit' moment" - and I've had a few of those IRL. I do like an objective narrator just spitting facts, nonjudgmental -- "And then their heads exploded" as if they were talking about the stock market. The coolness makes the crazy all the crazier. Yeah, I should have make her drunkiness even drunkier. I assume everyone who came of age in the 1980's would understand. (And they do.) As for the Lucky Shot(s) -- why not all of them? The bar, the blast, the smash. Not a bad way to go out :)

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J. D. Lair
15:55 Jul 17, 2023

Wonderfully creepy! A horrifying solution to ‘decreasing the payload’, but not one too far out of reach. Some people will go to great lengths and I hope this isn’t an article we read someday. 😳

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16:18 Jul 19, 2023

I'm sure Elon Musk is working on something like this in Eastern Europe...(haha)

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J. D. Lair
16:42 Jul 19, 2023

I wouldn’t be surprised if either him or Bezos went that far in competing with each other. 😬

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