"Balance" by Bethany Walker
A low mechanical hum filled the uninhabited room. Rhythmic clicking joined in as a red digital display scrolled to show a countdown, the seconds ticking down to oblivion. Shiny metal machines lined the room, operating untouched by human hands. Two screens flickered on, the collective glowing lights illuminating the mission control room. One showed a young brunette woman sleeping. Her hair tangled on the pillow as she rolled to her side and continued to dream. On the second screen, a mother panted in a hospital room as she stood beside a large bed, gripping the rail in the throes of her labor.
A switch slowly rotated as a scale rose from within the machine, each side balancing out the other for the moment. The control room had a single purpose: to keep the universe in balance. When one comes into the world, one must leave.
In the room where the brunette slept, clothes were thrown over a plush chair in the corner. On the desk, a stack of envelopes waited beside a roll of postage stamps, each address neatly written. A novel lay half read on the bedside table. It was overturned and splayed open to be easily picked up and completed.
The mother paced the hospital room, occasionally stopping to bend over and give a silent groan, her contractions making it impossible to stand. A nurse came in and had her lie on the bed, checking her progress. “Soon.” Her mouth formed the words, inaudible in the control room.
Cogs inside one of the large metal machines began to slowly turn, the metal teeth meeting and parting in perfect symmetry. The scale slowly tilted until the left pan rested on the base of the balance.
As the brunette slept, the bedroom door slowly opened. A male figure crawled into the room, moving to the side of the bed. His movements were erratic, unnerving, his head cocked jerkily and quickly to different sides, scanning erratically. He stood, looming over the woman, tall and lean. The gaunt angles on the man’s face cast shadows over his eyes, making them pools of black. His shoulder blades protruded sharply through his shirt. A glint of metal caught the light as he pulled a long knife from the waistband of his pants.
Under the fluorescent light of the hospital room, the laboring mother’s team rushed into the room, bringing an array of medical supplies and devices. The doctor positioned himself between the woman’s legs, indicating to her that it was time to push. Beaded sweat rolled down the mother’s face as she readied herself for the task ahead.
A red button blinked above the screens and then compressed itself down.
The brunette stirred in bed, rolled onto her back, and her eyes snapped open just in time to see the knife thrust downward toward her. Her mouth opened in a silent scream, and her back arched in pain as the metal disappeared into her body. Feverish movement ensued as she tried to sit up, to get out of the bed. The man pulled her back as her hands clawed at the edge of the bed. A puddle of blood quickly formed, soaking the bed sheets beneath her.
The mother’s mouth opened in a silent cry as her body contracted, pushing her child along. The nurses in the room hustled around her body, prepping blankets and the warming tray. The doctor slid her hands between the mother’s legs, ready to catch the infant. With the next contraction, the mother pushed, focusing all her energy on bringing her child into the world.
The cogs in the machine moved quicker, racing the countdown on the screen.
The man’s lips curled into a disturbingly wide smile as he straddled the woman, pushing his knife into her again. The woman’s face contorted in agony as she fell unconscious, head lolling to the side. His head tilted back in an inaudible cackle as he flung himself off the blood-soaked bed. The brunette’s eyes flickered half open, then glossed over as her body caved into immobility. The man left as quickly as he had come.
Sliding out of the birthing canal, the boy took his first breath. As the doctor placed the boy in his mother’s arms, he severed the umbilical cord, and the child became his own person. As the mother gazed at his face for the first time, the boy suddenly stilled. His body went limp as if he were nothing more than a rag doll. The mother patted his face, a look of desperation crossing her own. She let out an inaudible scream as the doctor hurried to pull the child from her arms and rushed out.
The countdown hit zero.
In the bedroom, there was the smallest movement. A finger twitched. The brunette’s lips parted slightly. Her eyelids opened to reveal the faintest spark of life.
Slowly, the scale moved back, balancing out once again. The machine’s gears suddenly stopped and screens winked out, returning the room to darkness. An eerie stillness settled in the quiet.
Seconds passed, and then the mechanical hum returned. Click. Click. Click. The digital display suddenly blinked back to life, casting a red glow on the machinery as the countdown began again.
Bethany Walker is a licensed social worker and trauma therapist. She currently resides in Longview, TX with her husband, daughter, and pets. In her free time, she binges horror movies, collects an absurd amount of books, and writes fiction in various forms. Her work is featured or forthcoming in Flash Fiction Magazine, Asylum Magazine, and more. Find her on Twitter @bookshelfofbeth.
"Patterns" by Alexander Hay
"No, you fool! Not that one with the ghastly, lurid pattern. Show me another!"
The young shopworker was taken aback by the scarred old man's burst of anger. He coughed a little to regain his composure (he was a professional, after all!) and hid his annoyance.
After all, this was his personal favourite out of all the mid-price range rugs they sold at Discount Carpet Galaxy. (“Five minutes off Junction 6 on the M25.”)
Those colours! Those wondrous, delicately rendered patterns! It was a big hit with older ladies, wannabe hipsters, and young families. On a certain level, the young man took this as a personal affront.
"Err, OK?" he grimaced. "What might Sir like instead?"
"Anything without a pattern. You heard me? No patterns. Not even subtle ones. A plain carpet, if you don’t mind! In fact," the old man frowned as he pointed, "that shag pile there."
It was plain, grey, and drab, the shopworker thought. The colour of wet Wednesdays and boring afternoons in Autumn. Still, the customer was always right, or whatever nonsense they kept droning on about during team meetings.
“I’ll have it,” the old man sniffed and glowered as the shopworker heaved up a rolled-up copy of the rug, balanced it upright and precarious in his trolley, and radioed for someone to help his customer get it in the car.
Money changed hands, and the transaction was complete. Over tea, other staff would later note how brusque their customer was, and how agitated he seemed when he went near anything with a pattern. Still, these were strange times. No one had got through them unscathed.
But as the old man rolled out the new rug on his floor back home, he sighed. That nice young man hadn't deserved that. He was only trying to help. There was a heavy throb of sadness in the old man’s chest; a reminder why he had been so alone all these years.
And yet... there was still that thing they sent to get him all those years ago. It hid in patterns, merging with them, only to rise, shimmering with malice, from the carpet it had lurked in.
The curves and floral swirls twisted and peaked into claws and fangs and spiked, lashing tails. A stench of burnt ozone, and the prickle of static in the air. And the eyes... Boiling scarlet balls of hate, as the thing utterly perverted the second and third dimensions by its very presence.
His wife died before he could kill it. He briefly remembers holding her as she faded, soaked in blood, even as the thing writhed nearby in its death throes. Never again.
The old man cautiously trod on the rug in his socks. It felt soft and comfortable. Almost soft enough to take the memories away.
Back at the warehouse, the shopworker pondered his customer. What had gotten into him?
But then he stopped. Had the pattern in that carpet over there... moved?
“No,” he thought. “That’s just my imagination!” It had been a long shift.
Behind him, the pattern moved again.
Alexander Hay is a writer, academic and researcher currently lurking in the shimmering carpet fibres of Northern England. His previous credits include the Sleep Podcast, Cosmic Horror Monthly, Nature's Futures and various dodgy music magazines. He can be found promoting himself shamelessly on Twitter: @Alexand40457338