Gods of the Dark Web Turns 3

Yesterday, my nasty, cosmic horror creepypasta turned 3 years old.

Weird timing, as I finished work on the sequel last week. If you haven’t picked up this one yet, you can grab it on paperback, digital, or audio right here. I wrote this book in a month, yet it remains one of my most popular titles. Go figure. I DO have a very limited number of signed copies on hand. 17 bucks, includes shipping. If you’re interested, hit up the contact form and let me know.

As much as I like this book, it barely scratches the surface of the mythos behind the narrative. It’s something I explore a little deeper in the sequel. More on that later.

The rest of the week will be spent on the Wesley Southard collab and editing new episodes of White Trash Occultism.

It’s Okay to Break New Year’s Resolutions

People beat up on themselves for breaking things like New Year’s resolutions. I think it’s dumb. Goals and approaches to reaching those goals are fluid things. With that in mind, you can expect a blog here every week, not every day. I will continue to serialize ONE AND ONLY and post an introductory blog before each entry. I think that’s the best way to use this space and my time.

I’d initially intended to release ONE AND ONLY in parts on Amazon in a desperate attempt to game the algorithms, but given the experimental nature of this project, I think I’d rather offer it here. There will be a new chapter here weekly and revised digital editions of each part (4 total) for pay-what-you-want every month or so.

Will there eventually be a physical book? Yes. Eventually. It’s a long-term goal, but not a huge priority. The explicit purpose of this project is for you to get a little insight into my process from beginning to end. Give you a chance to experience the metanarrative.

Besides, I have enough collaborations in the works to fill my release schedule for the next two years. No need to interfere with that.


I was going to blog about the allegations against my favorite artist, but frankly, my take doesn’t matter.


Anyway, today will be spent working on ONE AND ONLY’s next chapter. It will be ready by Monday, along with notes on the inspiration behind it.

Signed Books Available & Some Updates

I promised myself I wouldn’t turn this blog into a place where I just plug stuff all the time. That said, I did just get a stack of author copies this week. This book was cowritten by Ryan Harding and myself, and it embodies both the spirit of wrestling and Italian horror. A tribute to the DEMONS franchise, it boasts an on-page body count of 120 or so. As mentioned before, it’s the most fun I’ve had writing anything, and I think it shows in the writing. I’ve got ten copies here that I can part with. If you want a signed copy of PANDEMONIUM, PayPal 17 bucks to L[dot]Mangum[dot]Fiction[at]gmail[dot]com, and put your shipping address in the note. The cost includes shipping, and I’m happy to personalize the book anyway you’d like.


I’m sorry activity has been slow here. It may, unfortunately, get a little slower. While blogging daily is pretty great, it’s cut into my fiction writing time significantly. Because I’ve got some looming personal deadlines that I’d like to meet, daily posts are just not doable at the moment. While I still intend to post here regularly (3ish times a week), it may be a while before you see posts two days in a row. The flip side of this is that I’ll have more time to think about what I’ll post and it may result in longer, more developed pieces. In the end, we’ll both win.

As you may have seen on Monday, I finished the first section of ONE AND ONLY. We’ve still got a ways to go, but I’d say we’re definitely stepping into the meat of the story. We’re officially in the second act. Come next month, I’ll be releasing those first four chapters as a compiled e-book. I just got the cover, too!

I’m also working on THE FINAL GATE, which is a collaboration between myself and Wesley Southard. It’s a fun horror novella modeled after the films of Lucio Fulci. I guess you could say that between this and PANDEMONIUM, I’m in a bit of a tribute phase. We’re about halfway through the first draft and, as they say in wrestling, business is damn sure about to pick up!

Lastly, the second episode of WHITE TRASH OCCULTISM, a video podcast hosted by Kelby Losack, J. David Osborne and myself, is now live. You can check it out on YouTube. The show has really hit its stride. We’ve recorded four episodes and have gotten into some pretty heavy conversations about art, the occult, and the importance of free expression.

One and Only, Chapter 4 (the rest of it)

Okay. Here we are. The last of chapter 4 in my ongoing serial novel ONE AND ONLY. You can read previous chapters (and the other sections of chapter 4) right here. Getting chapter 4 right was a real bear! I think that’s because it’s a big turning point in the story. A moment where separate threads start to come together.

The clip above is from what, in my opinion, is the most explosive two minutes of television. Not just wrestling television, but ALL television. It’s a breaking point in one of my favorite slow-burn heel turns in wrestling. Bret Hart, after being screwed out of the championship multiple times, loses his mind on pretty much everyone, shoving promoter Vince McMahon and saying “shit” on network television in the process. It all ends with a brawl between four of the promotion’s top stars at the time. The goal was to build excitement for the pay-per-view for the following weekend, Wrestlemania 13.

That’s not what I’m doing here. I won’t end this chapter with a prompt to buy the rest of the book if you want to see what happens next, though I admit that I considered it. What I am thinking about is big buildups that lead to the next act. I think that’s where we are here.

Let’s do a quick recap. Mason (who’s scenes thus far are in the first person) has unknowingly brought his girlfriend back from the dead. It’s his fault she’s dead and though he performed a necromancy ritual, he’s still sure that he failed. His late girlfriend Marybeth has indeed come back from the dead, and she’s not alone. Something monstrous has overtaken her. Because dead girls make for bad hosts, this same monstrous thing has now jumped into the body of Caroline, a friend of Mason’s, after dispatching two police officers and three of Caroline’s friends. One of those murdered friends is Amber, sister to indie wrestler Aldous the Blade, who’s just won the championship and wants to know where his sister is. Things are about to come to a head, folks, and this big confrontation will lead us into the second part of the story. The underworld portion, if you’re following Dan Harmon’s story circle, I guess.

4

Mason’s father was having a very bad night. He was having a very bad week. Hell, it was more than that. He was having a very bad second act. While the little girl playing on the race track that he’d built on the living room floor earlier that night gave him plenty of reason to be grateful, the void left by the death of his wife made its presence known more times a day than he could count. On top of that, he now had to worry about Mason. That boy was losing his mind as far as Miles Bell was concerned. The worst part was he couldn’t exactly blame the poor guy.

Yes, losing Donna to cancer was a real gut punch. But he saw it coming. Something about adulthood helps you expect bad shit to happen. You learn that you’ll soon know more dead people than living. At Mason’s age, though, shit like what happened to Marybeth just wasn’t supposed to happen. Still, he wasn’t exactly crazy about how Mason had handled it. Digging up her corpse? Performing some half-assed ritual? What the hell was all that? He knew his boy was weird, but there was weird and there was… whatever Mason was. Bizarre? Unhinged? Sick? He didn’t care to think of his son in those terms at all.

Most days, he felt like completely falling apart, but then he looked down at little Sheila. Running her little Hot Wheels around the racetrack. Making all kinds of cute coos and sighs. Occasionally looking back at him with the most loving expression. A deep love embodied there that he just didn’t feel like he’d earned.

Life could be beautiful, even in spite of the pain. Even in spite of … he cast a glance at the stairwell. He shifted in his seat and fought the urge to check on Mason again.

5

I had to go on foot. It was a lot slower than driving and a hell of a lot slower than astral projection. But still, I could feel the earth under my feet, the vibrations of its resistance. The worst part was I didn’t even know exactly where I was going. I had to stick to side roads and dark wooded paths. When I found what I was looking for, I wished I hadn’t.

One corpse, blackened and still smoking, lay in the middle of the trail. It smelled like overcooked hamburger. Another lay beside it. It was a girl I recognized. One of the twins, Farrah or Felicity. Her neck was bent at an unnatural angle, all the way backwards, so that the back of her head was nearly flush with the skin between her shoulder blades. Her eyes were frozen open in an expression of agonized horror. Her hands were claws, clutching for a life that had long ago left.

I got the awful notion that this was all somehow my fault. I had no proof. It was just a feeling, but it was a strong feeling. It felt like knowledge. Was this what religious people meant when they talked about faith? A strange certainty contrary to evidence? It was this unproven certainty that kept me from calling police. I’d be in deep shit if they so much as suspected my hand in this. I wasn’t sure how they could, but I was sure they would.

I scanned my surroundings. My heartbeat accelerated like the fist of a frustrated door knocker. I saw nothing in the darkness save for gray outlines of trees, but I knew I wasn’t alone. Someone had killed these two poor girls. I glanced down at the still smoking body. Whatever did this couldn’t be too far away.

I checked my phone and saw I wasn’t too far from the road. Spooked out of my mind, I headed for it. At least beside the road, I wouldn’t have dense woods on all sides. Deep shadows from which anything could jump out at me. No room to run.

When I reached the road, my feet stuttered to a stop. The wreckage of Caroline’s car lay before me. It looked like someone had smashed it like a beer can on the head of a frat boy. My guts plummeted. My pulse throbbed between my ears, heavy and sounding so much larger than something that could possibly be contained inside me. I felt the sight of my friend’s crashed car in my neck and shoulders. It weighed me down so heavily that my legs buckled, and I could hardly breathe. My hands and knees pressed into the pavement. I hardly felt the pain.

The sounds of approaching footsteps broke through the numbing despair. They belonged to an imposing shape.

6

Aldous “The Blade” Armstrong approached the broken-looking kid kneeling beside the smashed-up car. He still wore the championship belt around his waist. He still stunk and his blood was still up from the match with Trashcan. The sight before him made him shake. He recognized the car but didn’t want to believe his instincts. It was Caroline’s car. Amber’s friend Caroline. Where the hell was Amber?

He thought he recognized the kid as he walked past but didn’t take time to look closer. More than anything, he wanted to check the car. Make sure no one was inside. The way it was all wrecked, he didn’t think anyone could’ve survived whatever had happened.

The kneeling kid was whispering something Aldous couldn’t make out. He tried to ignore it, but the sound of it skittered across his brain like so many spiders. He looked about the car, the repeated whispers never stopping. The frame was bent and twisted. All the glass was blown out. Across the mangled hood, something dark glistened in the moonlight.

“Jesus,” he muttered. He turned to the distraught kid. “What happened?”

The kid didn’t look up. He just kept whispering nonsense. Aldous used the toe of his boot to nudge the kid in the forearm.

“Hey, kid.”

The kid looked up. Aldous definitely recognized him. Went to Amber’s school. Miles or Manny or something. Or maybe Jason. Mason? His eyes were wide and jerky. His lips were moving, but he’d stopped speaking. After looking Aldous over, he frowned.

“What are you supposed to be?”

Aldous was taken aback by the comment at first, then remembered he was still wearing his gear.

“I’m a wrestler. I came from a show. What happened here?”

The kid’s confusion faded. Even in the darkness, Aldous see the color drain from the kid’s face.

“I don’t know. They’re all dead.”

Something squeezed the Blade’s heart.

“Who? Who’s dead?”

The kid pointed behind him.

“Two girls. Back in the woods.”

“Who? Do you know them?”

“Twins. Farrah and Felicia or something. And this car … it belongs to my friend Caroline.”

“Jesus fuck. Was there another girl with them? Amber?”

“I don’t know,” the kid said, sounding like he had glass in his throat.

“Fuuuuck,” Aldous said. He ran for the woods, leaving the kid, broken by the road.

7

I didn’t have the will to follow the wrestler into the woods. I hardly had the will to rise to my feet. What a coward. What a fucking joke. I had it in me to shove my girlfriend off Sunset Cliffs. I had it in me to try bringing her back from the dead. And I couldn’t bring myself to do anything now. Something was very wrong here and it went beyond a bad car wreck. The inkling that this was somehow my fault had become an absolute certainty by this point.

I shifted and slumped. Faced the woods. There was nothing there to see, but it beat staring at the wreckage of Caroline’s car. I didn’t like the way the blood shimmered on the ruined hood. I didn’t like how fucked up the car was despite no sign of impact. Maybe it was a hit and run, but all sorts of alarm bells were going off in my head telling me this was something so much more. Something big and monstrous.

I peered into the darkness. The trees stood like towering, gray skeletons, their branches like witch’s claws. I could no longer hear the wrestler’s footsteps leading away from me. I wondered if he’d reached the bodies yet.

That was Amber’s older brother. I’d heard a little about him. Amber was kind of a bitch most of the time, but I didn’t want her to get hurt. I didn’t want anyone to get hurt. If only I’d been able to bring Marybeth back… maybe I could bring back everyone who’d died tonight. Maybe … maybe … maybe …

From deep in the woods, I heard a scream. It seemed to go on forever. It grew louder and louder. Whoever was screaming was headed my way. And fast.

The body flew by me. It flew like a projectile of hard flesh. It crashed into Caroline’s car and plopped to the pavement beside me. It was the wrestler. He lay there twitching and bleeding from the mouth.

“Oh God, oh God, oh God…”

I faced the woods, unable to look at the dead wrestler. Even though I was afraid to see whatever had done that to him, I couldn’t tear my eyes away. I had to see. This was why people in horror movies didn’t run right away: they didn’t really believe what was coming. They didn’t even really know what was coming. I sure as fuck didn’t and I couldn’t move because I had to see it. I had to see it to believe and I hoped that I’d believe in time to run.

When it came for me, it wasn’t what I expected.

It was Caroline. She was levitating, her feet three inches from the ground. Her eyes were glowing electric blue and her hair was blowing back though there was no breeze. I spoke her name. Her features twisted and she cocked her head.

“Oh,” she said. “You must mean this body. Why don’t you try looking closer?”

“What?”

“You never were a smart one, were you?”

The levitating fiend groaned and then something happened which I can’t possibly explain but I fucking swear to you it happened. Caroline split into two. From the top of her head to her genitals, she tore herself apart, but before I knew it, after much bulging and twisting and churning, she reformed herself into two women. Caroline stood on the right and a half-liquified corpse stood on the left. When the girls spoke, they spoke as one.

“It’s me,” they said. “Your one and only.”

Turned out I was a necromancer after all.

Revisions

The new episode of White Trash Occultism will go up late. Last week got away from me, and it required some additional edits. I’d initially wanted to stick to a weekly schedule, with a new episode every Tuesday, but I think bi-weekly is more realistic, even if we record weekly. That said, I’m eager to get it up there because I think we hit our stride this episode. It feels like it’s found its tone. That’s not to say it won’t evolve further as we continue to record new episodes (we’re recording episode 3 tonight). I think art is a perpetually a work in progress. Even completed works are really just part of a larger work, even if that larger work is the artist him/her/them self.

That philosophy is a huge part of why I’m releasing ONE AND ONLY on my blog a little bit at a time. To show that progress in real time. This book is a distillation of my interests into a singular work. It’s horror, it’s a tragic love story, it’s littered with occult themes, and one of the characters is a pro wrestler working for an indie promotion. Of course, I have other interests beyond these things, but I don’t know, I’m having a moment right now. Not so much an identity crisis as it is a strong desire to give my small audience a statement of purpose.

I don’t think it’s possible for artists just starting out to do this. None of us emerge fully formed. It involves self-exploration, failure, living, and practice. And even after you’ve found the thing you do, that doesn’t mean the discovery process is over. Your inspiration, your ability, will ebb and flow. It’s not something we want to admit. We want to believe we can become an art factory, an operational flesh facility generating a perfect product over and over until the grave eats us. It’s just not the way it is. There is no perfect product, first of all, and machines break down, they get rusty, they need maintenance and repairs. Sometimes, the standard of quality slips (remember Windows Vista). Even that is part of the process. All of it is.

Or maybe it’s just me.

I ended a collaboration over the weekend. The person in question is a bit of a perfectionist. I am not. Their way isn’t wrong. It just isn’t how I do things. Besides, with a new baby on the way in less than a month, I just don’t trust myself to keep up with them. Sure, it was an opportunity I closed the door on. Sure, I probably could have addressed my concerns with this person sooner. But I am imperfect.

I also found out that soon we’ll have to put down Jack, a cat who was our first baby and who we had to rehome with my father-in-law. I wrote about him here. I hate that we had to rehome him. I hate that shit got here. But life is imperfect.

Life is full of moments we wish we could revise. An artist’s backlist is full of works they wish they could fix with their newly refined skills.

But you can’t go back. You can only move forward, refining as you go.

One and Only, Chapter 4

I’ve been posting a new chapter of my book-in-progress ONE AND ONLY each Monday. It’s a genre I’m jokingly calling Splatter Romance. Though I coined the term, there are precedents. RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD 3. FRANKENHOOKER. HELLO MARY LOU: PROM NIGHT 2. DEAD ALIVE (aka BRAINDEAD). I think horror with a strong romantic element makes for a compelling narrative. We’ve all been in love and we’ve all been scared. It’s something we can all relate to.

However, I want to emphasize the irreverent splatter of the aforementioned films. While some good movies have come out of the so-called “elevated” horror movement, I do sometimes worry that the genre has lost its sense of fun.* Cartoonish gore and dark humor were, for a long time, staples of the genre. So much so that I spent most of my teens not watching comedy because, frankly, I was getting it from horror films.

Now, despite this, I don’t think this book has found its humor yet. Maybe it has and I’m missing it. Maybe it hasn’t and I’ll find ways to bring it out in its second draft.

Then again, a teen who’s bad at magic bringing his girlfriend back from the dead despite her wishes and only to yield disastrous consequences is situationally funny. At least I think so.

Anyway, here’s part of chapter 4. Due to a truly hellish couple of days (notice I didn’t blog yesterday), it’s not ALL of chapter 4. I will post it little by little throughout the week. After all of chapter 4 is posted, I will edit the first four chapters, collect it into an e-book, and release it on Amazon next month. I’m following the comics model with this book. An 8-12,000 word “issue” every month until the novel is done. Expect this to be a 10-issue miniseries. 2020 the squeak-quel is shaping up to be just as nasty as its predecessor, but I still maintain that this will be a year of me trying new things.

If you are not caught up on the story of ONE AND ONLY so far, you can see the archived, preceding chapters that here.

*There are obvious exceptions to the rule. Shoutout to movies like BLOOD QUANTUM, FINGERS, CRAWL, and THE POOL for keeping horror fun.


FOUR: UNTITLED

1

Dad hid my keys and started driving me to school again. He picked me up as soon as classes let out and drove me straight home. He set a curfew and checked in on me every hour throughout the night like he was a tech on the psych ward, I his unsafe patient. Worst of all, he kept Sheila from me. If I were unstable enough to try bringing my girlfriend back from the dead, I couldn’t be trusted alone with my little sister. I’ve never been so miserable.

After three days of it, I called Caroline. She’d always been a friend, and even though talking to her again had caused the fight which led to the end of Marybeth’s life, I thought if I could reach her that she might make me feel better. The call went straight to voicemail. I tried again.

Her phone must be off, I thought. Unless she’s ignoring me. I pushed the thought away. There was no reason she would be. She’d even told me after Marybeth’s fall that I could call her if I needed anything. Perhaps I should’ve called her sooner. Maybe then, I wouldn’t be in the predicament I was in. No botched necromancy ritual, and I don’t get grounded for life.

Not to mention the Curry family would still have their fucking Pomeranian. I’m lucky I didn’t get E. Coli or something from eating that damn thing. I got up and paced my room for the fourth time that night and probably the twentieth time that week.

“I need to get out of here,” I said to no one. But my ass wasn’t going anywhere. Of course, maybe my ass, my corporeal form, didn’t need to leave. I hadn’t pulled off astral projection before, and God only knew how badly I’d fucked up at necromancy, but maybe I could get this shit to work this time. Maybe I could get out, see Caroline. Maybe I wouldn’t be able to communicate with her or anyone, but at least I’d be out of my fucking room.

2

The first time I tried it, I lay in my bed, the very same bed I lay in now. I tried to relax without falling asleep. I focused on her. Where I thought she might be at that time. I imagined leaving my body, watching it from above as my true self drifted across the room. I imagined these things, but I could not make these imaginings manifest. They remained neutered and numb like unclear images behind glass or beneath water. Rippling and unsteady. Blurry.

I was much younger then. Young and dumb. Woefully inexperienced.

I approached my bed now, a failure again, but disallowing myself to think of these failings. This was a new experience, initiated by a new me. The me that failed to project years ago and the me that failed to bring Marybeth back from the dead were gone now. I could do this. I just had to concentrate and believe that I could.

I lay on my back and closed my eyes. I breathed, but only through my nose.

I didn’t think about why I wanted to see Caroline. Doing so would conjure my failures. A failure could not do what I aimed to do, and therefore, the failure had no place in this moment. Instead, I focused on Caroline. Where I thought she might be. I imagined leaving my body, watching it from above as my true self drifted across the room. I tried to relax without falling asleep.

When I began to sink, I thought I was losing consciousness and nearly broke my concentration to tell myself to wake up. Some primal instinct kept me from doing this. Something I was dialed into. It was the same thing I thought I’d been dialed into the other night by Marybeth’s grave. I didn’t pray that it was for real this time or allow myself to wonder. I simply told myself that it was.

I sank into the bed, and then I was ascending.

Some Updates

Yesterday, I was messed up on allergy medication, and I recorded this embarrassing video. I’m slurring bad and rambling, but at least I practiced talking in front of a camera? Yeah, there’s the bright spot. You have to find those positives.

I went to see my buddy Shane McKenzie last night. He laid some very exciting news on me about a film he wrote. I can’t divulge everything, so all I’ll say is it’s about to go into production with one of my favorite character actors attached. I’m happy for him. Dude works harder than anyone I know, myself included.

I’m almost finished reading Kenzie Jennings’ RED STATION. It’s part of Death’s Head Press’ popular Splatter Western line and a ton of fun. Kenzie has a lean style and doesn’t shy away from the nasty stuff. You can grab that book here.

Writing has been slow this week due to the aforementioned side effects of allergy meds. I started to hit my stride again last night, so hopefully that trend continues today. I’d like to get a new chapter of ONE AND ONLY up on Monday. Plus, I’ll be jumping back on the Wesley Southard collaboration soon.

White Trash Occultism, the new video podcast with friends Kelby Losack and J. David Osborne has been getting some nice traction. You can watch the first episode here. Episode 2 will be up Tuesday morning.

This weekend will be spent finishing up the new chapter of ONE AND ONLY and commencing my next section on the Wesley Southard collab. Like a shark, I must keep swimming, and speaking of Wes and sharks, he’s got a new book out called CRUEL SUMMER that looks like a wild ride. You can grab it here.

That’s it for today, gang. As always, thanks for reading.

White Trash Occultism, Episode 1

The premiere of my new show with Kelby Losack and J. David Osborne is up.

We don’t own shit, just our thoughts. In the show’s premiere episode, authors Kelby Losack, Lucas Mangum, and J. David Osborne discuss Jay-Z’s “Onto the Next One,” leveling up, the films of Ari Aster, LSD, Donald Trump and New Thought, the occult nature of cancel culture, chronic lying, stolen valor, the many faces of John Cena, and the indie writing scene. If you enjoy this show, please like, share & subscribe. You can also check out Kelby’s books (https://www.amazon.com/Kelby-Losack/e…​), Lucas’s books (https://www.amazon.com/Lucas-Mangum/e…​), and David’s books (https://www.amazon.com/J-David-Osborn…​). White Trash Occultism is a brand new show with new episodes every Tuesday. Up next, we examine BTS’s “On.” Be sure to tune in!

ONE AND ONLY, Chapter 3

THREE: THE BLADE

1

Aldous Armstrong put the finishing touches on the black, curved blade painted across his eyes and took a step back to examine himself. His eyes were intense. His hair blond and gelled into a sharp point. His torso looked cut to shreds, nearly unrecognizable from the flabby, pale body he used to see in the mirror. After spending hours a day in the gym and eating a diet consisting strictly of fish, eggs, and fruit, he’d sculpted himself into a new form, erasing the malleable weakling he could hardly stand to look at. He was Aldous “The Blade” now. Tonight, he was supposed to win the belt. Everything had led to this.

He checked his phone one last time. The message from his sister said Caroline had just picked her up. They were going to get some beer, then come check out his show. He didn’t like them breaking the law and wished she would just let him pick up beer for her. She never listened. An hour had passed since the message, and she hadn’t sent him a follow up to let him know they’d arrived safely.

His thumb hovered over the screen to type a reply, ask her if she was here. Someone knocked on the bathroom door.

“Hey, Blade,” the guy on the other side said. He didn’t recognize the voice, but Sal the promoter had new volunteers every show. “You’re up.”

“All right,” Aldous said. “Coming.”

He set down the phone and opened the door.

2

“What are you doing, Caroline?” Amber called from the road. “We’re gonna be late.”

Caroline ignored her, walking deeper into the woods, though the apparition had long disappeared. It was no apparition, she told herself. It’s Marybeth.

She pushed aside a flimsy branch and ducked under a sturdier one. Every step down the rocky path sent painful vibrations up her legs. She took out her phone and switched on the flashlight app. Newly illuminated, the dark woods didn’t look real. It was as if the trees themselves were ghosts, too, and not just the girl she was following.

A bird took off overhead, its wings moving with heavy grace. It sounded like an owl. Her footsteps made heavy, lonely sounds. The girls on the road, still calling after her, but not daring to give chase, sounded far away. To see how far she’d wandered, she risked a look over her shoulder. She could still see the outline of her car. Its headlights. The three dark shapes of her friends on that lonely country road.

“Caroline,” someone said.

Their voice was a whisper. Caroline shined her phone in its direction. The light reflected off of two dark eyes, looking almost like distant stars. It showed a gaunt form, hunched over in the woods. She peered into the shadows for a better look.

“Marybeth?”

“It’s me,” she said, holding out her arms. “Please help.”

3

“And action,” the kid behind the camera said, a slight tremor in his voice.

Aldous didn’t recognize him either. Another new face. He hoped the kid knew what he was doing. Aldous was about to cut a legendary promo. He couldn’t have the footage all shaky. He paced while the camera rolled to stay in character. The interviewer, longtime friend Julie Blazer began.

“Aldous ‘The Blade’ Armstrong. Tonight’s the night. You finally get your shot at the Broken River Wrestling championship. What’s going through your mind?”

“I’ll tell you what’s going through my mind!” he hollered. “Tonight’s the night, yeah, just like you said. I’ve waited my whole life for this. The dreaming. The training. The fighting. It’s all led to this: the Blade, one on one with Trashcan Tommy for the Broken River World Title. What’s going through my mind? I’m hearing Trashcan’s words as he stood over me a month ago while I was handcuffed to the ring post, kneeling in a puddle of my own blood. He said I’ll never get a chance at his belt. He said even if I did I’d never beat him. Well, Trashcan Tommy, I’ve got my chance tonight, and you may think I can never beat you. You may think that because Black Metal Steve and Doom Dog Harris will be in your corner, but I’ve always had the odds against me. I like having the odds against me. I’m gonna take on Black Metal Steve. I’m gonna take on Doom Dog Harris. And then, what then, Trashcan Tommy? It’s gonna be just you and me, and you know that, one on one, you ain’t got a chance of holding onto your championship. It’s coming home with the Blade, yeah!”

“And, Blade, you said last week you wanted to dedicate this match to someone special. Do you want to say who it is? Are they here tonight?”

He thought of the message from Amber and how long it had been. He hoped she was in the audience tonight with her friends. If the young cameraman had everything set up correctly, this interview would be on a live feed for people in attendance.

“This match is dedicated to my sister, Amber. She’s here tonight, and she’s gonna watch me win, yeah!”

4

Caroline approached Marybeth with her arms outstretched. In the shadows, the other girl’s features were difficult to make out, but Caroline could tell there was something terribly wrong. Had she been buried alive? Had she been embalmed alive? No way could she have lived through the fall off the cliff, yet here she was, very much alive. She glistened with a thick liquid.

“Marybeth, what happened to you?” Caroline asked.

She almost asked if the other girl was okay, but she knew better. The reaching hands of Marybeth looked gnarled and bony, like skeletal claws. But Caroline kept approaching her. If her classmate and friend was sick or hurt, she wanted to help.

As she drew closer, an offensive odor wafted toward her. It stung her nose and made her eyes water. It reminded her of stagnant water and bad food. She realized, too late, that the smell was coming from Marybeth. The girl who’d been the love of Mason’s life was decaying at an incredibly fast rate. Clumps of skin turning into hot honey and falling like wet rags around her feet. Caroline’s bottom lip quivered. Her bladder threatened to let go. Her feet locked into place against the advice of every voice in her head.

“Please, no,” she said in a quavering whimper.

Marybeth’s melting hands grabbed fistfuls of Caroline’s hair, pulling her into a noxious kiss.

5

The Blade tromped to the ring, fists balled at his sides, head lowered like a bull ready to charge. Cheers filled the audience. He was old school, born in the wrong era. The wrestling business had gotten away from itself in the last few decades, becoming less and less serious, more and more winking at the camera. When he walked down the aisle, he aimed to project believability. He was an artist and as tough as a five-dollar steak.

He stopped at the bottom of the ramp and surveyed the scene. An audience of a few hundred, standing room only. They were packed into Heathenish Brewery, known for its IPA and grimy, underground hip hop shows. The wrestling fit in perfectly because the promotion treated itself like a shoot, keeping kayfabe like one of God’s commandments. It wasn’t WWE because it was real as fuck.

He looked for Amber’s face among the crowd. Tried to spot her friends, too. He didn’t see them, but maybe he’d missed them. He didn’t take more time to look. It was time to hit the ring. He leapt onto the apron and grabbed the ropes. He reared back his head and screamed his trademarked war cry. People yelled along with him. He was the babyface. People were ready to watch him win.

The lights went down. A grimy dubstep song played over the PA. Trashcan Tommy sauntered out with Black Metal Steve and Doom Dog Harris in tow. They made for an intimidating sight, like the Road Warriors of old with a twenty-first century facelift. Spiky helmets topped their heads. Their cut torsos glistened with water and sweat. As they approached, the Blade paced the ring, never taking his eyes off his opponents.

Mikey Clegg was the referee for the bout. He was a wiry kid, but Blade thought he was super-cool. Knew a lot about the business. His house was full of memorabilia from the old days. Bills from defunct promotions like Mid-South and Stampede Wrestling covered the walls of his room. He even had a replica of WCW’s big gold belt hanging above his bed. Blade liked shooting the shit with him. Now, though, it was all business. All theater. Each actor playing their part.

The trio of heels climbed onto the ring apron. Mikey stepped forward waving his hands and pointing to the back. He was yelling that he wanted Black Metal and Doom Dog to head backstage, so they wouldn’t interfere in the match.

The Blade stepped forward, putting his hand on Mikey’s shoulder.

“Let them stay,” he said. He pointed to the bejeweled belt around Trashcan’s waist. “For that, I’ll take all three of em on if I have to.”

Right on cue, Black Metal and Doom Dog slipped through the ropes, coming at Blade full steam ahead. The Blade put out both his arms for a double clothesline, dropping both heels to the canvas. Black Metal got up first. The Blade hugged him for a belly-to-belly suplex, slamming him to the mat. While he rolled out, Doom Dog swung for him. The Blade ducked the blow and grabbed Doom Dog by the nape of his neck, aiming to throw him out of the ring. Before he could, Trashcan attacked from behind, clipping the Blade’s knee.

The bell rang. Shit was on.

6

“Caroline, what the fuck?” Amber said. She was now standing on the edge of the woods. “You better not make me go in there after you.”

“I think you’re gonna have to,” Farrah said.

“Hey, fuck it,” Felicity said. “She wants to go exploring the woods at night, that’s her prerogative. Let’s go watch some pro ‘rasslin’!”

Amber and Farrah flashed her angry glares.

“What?” she asked. “I’m just sayin.”

“I’m not going in there unless you two come with me,” Amber said.

“Or if you’re crazy like Caroline?” Felicity said.

“What the fuck, bitch?” Farrah said. “That’s our friend.”

“And I’m your sister, so?”

“Are you two coming with me or not?” Amber asked.

The twins exchanged glances. They nodded and followed Amber into the woods.

“Caroline,” Amber called out, switching on her cell phone light.

No one answered. The others called her name, too.

“Where do you think she is?” Farrah asked.

“I wonder if a bear got her,” Felicity said.

Farrah backhanded her on the upper arm.

“There aren’t any bears around here, dipshit.”

Something crashed in the nearby shrubbery. It sounded like an old, dead tree fell over with a series of splintering cracks.

“What was that?” Farrah said.

“I’m betting a bear.”

“Shut up about the bears,” Amber said. “Caroline! Where the fuck are you? This better not be some fucked up joke.”

The woods settled in the wake of the fallen tree. The silence made Amber want to turn and run back to the car. It was the sort of calm that only preceded a storm.

“I think we should go back to the car,” she said.

“What? Why?” Farrah asked.

Felicity was already on her way back.

“Just … this doesn’t feel right,” Amber said, brushing past Farrah.

“But what about Caroline?” Farrah pleaded. “What if she’s in trouble?”

“We’ll call somebody,” Amber said. “We’ll wait by the—”

Before she could finish, Felicity’s feet lifted off the ground.

7

The uppercut lifted The Blade into the corner. Trashcan was a snug worker, but the Blade hardly felt a thing. He made it look good though, buckling against the corner and kicking his legs into the air. Trashcan grabbed the Blade’s throat in a mock chokehold. Mikey yelled in mock outrage, counting toward a disqualification loud enough for the jeering crowd to hear. Trashcan released the hold at nine and walked away to work the crowd while the Blade collapsed to his knees in mock weariness.

It was an Oscar-worthy performance, and he hoped Amber was there to see it.

Trashcan stomped back to the corner to resume doling out punishment, but the Blade surprised him with a single-leg takedown. The small crowd erupted as the Blade tried to transition into a leg-bar. When Trashcan squirmed to the ropes, allowing for a break, the crowd booed. They were buying in, Blade thought. They were true believers already, but him and Trashcan were just getting started.

The Blade let his opponent stand. Trashcan threw a roundhouse. Blade blocked it and countered with one of his own, spilling Trashcan to the outside. Blade hit the ropes once, twice, then went for a dive. Trashcan moved. Blade caught himself and spun back into the ring. He made a beckoning gesture at Trashcan Tommy. Trashcan gave him the finger. He went to leave the ring in pursuit, but Mikey grabbed him and yelled for him to stop. The Blade feigned outrage, gesturing at the retreating Trashcan and yelling.

The Blade backed away as Mikey began to count Trashcan out. As planned, Black Metal and Doom Dog hit the ring. Doom Dog kicked Blade in the gut. Black Metal lifted him in a fireman’s carry and dropped him for a Death Valley Driver. They subsequently rolled out of the ring, leaving Blade laying.

Outside the ropes, Trashcan spread his hands and conveniently agreed to come back inside. He slipped through the ropes and onto Blade for a quick cover. One. Two. Blade kicked out. Trashcan pulled him into a sitting position and clamped on a painful-looking, but safe headlock. It was time to build heat.

8

At first, no one knew what the light around the levitating Felicity was. When it began to crackle, when her screams of surprise and fear became cries of agony, Amber could tell her friend was on fire. Suspended in the air and burning like an effigy.  Felicity’s screams were soon joined by her sister’s and by Amber’s, too. The woods seemed then to fill with screams. A chorus of pain and terror, far too loud and layered for three voices. Soon, Felicity stopped screaming and dropped, smoldering, to the rocky path. This brought fresh screams from her friends.

Amber backed away from the crispy corpse while Farrah drew closer.

“Don’t,” she managed to mumble.

Farrah had no reply. She just kept approaching her dead sister. Her screams had turned to whimpers. Mumbled words of grief that Amber couldn’t make out, but she imagined their meaning. She had no sisters, only her brother Aldous the Blade. She remembered the time he’d been in an awful car accident. He was sixteen and had just gotten his first car, a red Audi. Someone t-boned him at the intersection of Beacon Hill and Swamp Rd. The Audi was totaled. Aldous was almost lost, too. She remembered how scared she’d been, watching her big brother in the hospital bed, wondering when the machines would flatline to indicate the end of his life. That pain she’d imagined could not compare to what Farrah felt now. Amber’s had been imagined, her fears never realized as Aldous made a miraculous recovery, mounting a comeback like the wrestler he’d soon become. Farrah’s agony was all too real.

Amber took another step back and bumped into something. It felt human, soft and feminine. She spun.

“Caroline?” Her friend was standing there, saying nothing, wearing a blank stare. Amber’s tone sharpened with worry. “Caroline?”

Behind her, Farrah commenced pathetic wails of grief. The remains of Felicity smoked like hamburger left too long on a hot pan.

Caroline’s lips twitched. She still hadn’t spoken. Her eyes were hard and expressionless.

“Caroline, what’s going on? Where’s that girl? We have to get the fuck out of here.”

All of this spilled out of her mouth like loose M & M’s from candy machine. In response, Caroline touched Amber’s chest with two fingers. It looked like a light touch. It was a light touch. But somehow, Amber was now barreling backwards. She crashed into Farrah and the cremated remains of Felicity crunched beneath them. The girls screamed, flailing and smacking each other as they scrambled to their feet.

Farrah reached hers first and sprang for the car. Something yanked her back onto the corpse of her twin. Amber got up and ran, her friend’s screams dying behind her. She hated herself for doing this, leaving her friend to die, but she wasn’t a goddamn superhero. No way she could fight the … whatever the fuck in control of Caroline’s body.

By the time she got out of the woods, they had fallen silent. All she heard was her own ragged, rushing breath as she piled into the car and shut the door behind her.

Fuck. Caroline had the keys.

Amber looked back toward the woods. The killer in the guise of her friend stood on the edge of the road. She held the keys and jangled them tauntingly.

NO!” she screamed. “GODDAMN IT!

She considered leaving and running, but maybe if she kept the doors locked, she could be safe. Maybe… Caroline dropped the keys and raised her other hand. She looked as though she meant to clap.

“Oh my God, what the fuck, what the fuck?” Amber whined.

When Caroline’s hands came together, incredible crushing pain enveloped Amber.

She died before she could realize the car had collapsed on her.

9

It was time for the Blade to make his comeback. Trashcan Tommy whipped him into the ropes, setting up a pop-up powerbomb. Blade telegraphed the move, diving over Tommy’s head and hooking his legs under his opponent’s arms. The sunset flip drove Tommy back-first to the mat. Tommy rolled back to his feet. Blade was there to meet him with a clothesline. Tommy jumped up and met another clothesline. When Tommy got up a third time, Blade kicked him in the gut to set up the Blade Runner, which was a variation on the old Stone Cold stunner.

Before he could apply the move, Doom Dog slid into the ring. Took a swing at Blade, who ducked it and gave Doom Dog the Blade Runner meant for Trashcan. Black Metal Steve was next, attempting a tackle, which Blade sidestepped, sending Black Metal sailing out of the ring.

Trashcan had regained his bearings and wrapped his right hand in what looked like brass knuckles but was actually made of foam. Trashcan swung. Blade blocked it. Kicked Tommy in the gut and successfully hit the Blade Runner. He covered Trashcan Tommy for the one-two-three. The bell rang. New champion.

As the Blade raised the belt in the air, he scanned the audience once again and wondered where Amber was.

Galaxies Within Us

I spent this morning catching up on newsletters from authors I follow. If you’re not sure I’m subscribed to yours, feel free to drop a link in the comments. I promise to at least check it out. Developed, long-form thoughts are so much more appealing to me than bite-sized hot takes. While I’ve felt increasingly alienated from the scene to which I’ve belonged for ten years now, there are some folks who I know are intelligent, interesting and kind. I’d like to keep up with them.

My newsletter is more or less dead in the water. Maybe fixing that’s a 2022 resolution. I’ve made enough for 2021. Sure, we’re scared still and 2020’s aftershocks are still being felt, but as I stated yesterday, I’m onto the next one. All about leveling up. Bearing my torch through all darkness and lighting little fires along the way.

This past week, I did a few things that were outside my comfort zone and (in some cases) outside my normal realm of interests. I started learning how to code at Free Code Camp. New skills are important, especially in the gig economy we’re increasingly moving toward. Sure, it doesn’t have anything to do with writing and that’s okay, or maybe it does and I don’t see it yet. Still, I’m growing. Leveling up. Evolving.

I also started studying & investing in the stock market. Dry stuff, from my outsider perspective, BUT I will say there is a feeling I get watching my money grow. A feeling I used to get from likes on social media, but so much more beneficial, in my opinion. Something that means having the means to take care of my own.

I also recorded a vidcast (is that a word? a video podcast) with Kelby Losack and J David Osborne. While chatting with those two is not outside my comfort zone at all (in fact, I feel like I can be my genuine self around them), recording that conversation and putting it up for the world to see is another matter entirely. I pride myself on being real as fuck, but I’ve always been hesitant to do ALL my thinking in public because I worry about sounding crazy or insensitive half the time. The show will go up on Tuesday morning. It’s called White Trash Occultism. Links will follow once it’s posted.

Progress on ONE AND ONLY is moving along nicely. Chapter 3 will be up here tomorrow morning. You can read Chapter 1 here and Chapter 2 here. I kind of know where it’s all going, at least the part of it that I’m calling ONE AND ONLY. See, I didn’t show my hand before, but it’s 5 am on a Sunday and I’m feeling froggy. I’m working on three novellas that will actually be one novel. ONE AND ONLY will probably conclude around Valentine’s Day. It’s sequel will commence the following week and wrap up around June. The third part will wrap around Halloween. This is intended as a year long, public project. A chance to work out loud, offer early access, and think on a larger scale. Once it concludes, I’ll edit and collect them into a physical edition you can purchase.

I used to think of writing as THE thing I do. It’s time to think of it as A thing I do. We’re complicated, and I think limiting ourselves to one vocation can be mentally and economically harmful. I am Lucas Mangum. I am not one thing. YOU are not one thing. Whole galaxies swirl within us.

Good morning.