Aphelion Issue 252, Volume 24
July 2020
 
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This Story is Entirely in Black and White

by Joe Jablonski




North Carolina 1925



An empty whiskey bottle shattered against the side of the barn. The force of the throw had Melvin stumbling. He pulled out another from a wooden case, popped the cork with his teeth, and spit it. The liquid was a dull fire in his throat.

It was late. Maybe two. Maybe Sunday. Melvin had been drinking for days, ever since his last surviving son left after a fight over his son’s side gig as a bootlegger had come to blows.

A buzzing came from the darkness. It was low pitched and monotone.

Melvin put down the bottle and crept toward the door, his shotgun tucked tightly under one arm. He asked the buzz if it was Ronald through slurs. The buzz didn’t respond. Melvin grabbed the lantern off the door of an empty horse stall and stepped into the darkness.

The buzzing got louder in the direction of his field. Melvin turned up his lamp when he hit the edge. Orange light flickered off the side of something large hovering just beyond the first row of dying corn stocks. It was around ten feet tall, egg-shaped, the color of brass, held up by four needle thin legs with solid, metal balls for joints. It scuttled in slow motion through Melvin’s crops, not disturbing any of them. A cluster of gears spun slowly off the left side of the head. On the right was a network of pipes that led into a single leather arm ending in a metal cone that hung limp in the darkness.

Melvin screamed and dropped the lantern. He raised his shotgun. He fired.

The machine flickered as the slug passed though. It became static - a glitch - then solid once again.

Steam hissed from a pipe on the top. The machine turned toward Melvin and ducked down, the smooth flat finish of the its front coming inches from his face.

The buzz grew louder.

Melvin fainted.

It wasn’t Ronald.



*****



Melvin was sixteen when his mom left the farm with his uncle. They didn’t say a word. Three days later he found his dads body with a chunk blown from the top of his head. He was an only child. It was the first time he had ever been alone. He started drinking and talking to himself to pass the time. The shotgun his father had used never left his side from that day on...

Melvin woke at dawn. The sky was soft pastels. Birds chipped. The shattered remnants of the lantern had long gone out. The buzzing was still there but quieter now, a distant echo.

Melvin got up. His head pounded. His surroundings were out of focus.

A horn sounded. Melvin fell to the ground holding his ears. It only lasted a moment.

Melvin stood. His legs shook. There were two machines now, just edge of forest just past his field. The back of both their heads opened in unison. Bellows appears. They opened and closed. Slow at first, then increasingly faster. The limp leather arms hanging from the right side of each came to life, drifting slowing in the air as if floating within an invisible current. The metal cone ends began to shake violently. A mini-singularity formed at each.

The bellows moved faster.

The green of the leaves and grass turned to particles, forming floating streams of static in midair that were slowly sucked into the singularities in swirling cascades.

It was beautiful. It was over in minutes. The machines flickered and were gone.

Melvin never saw the color green again.


*****



Melvin was eighteen when he met his future wife at a hootenanny. Afterwards, he took her home and played songs for her on the guitar his dad had taught him. He couldn’t ever afford to replace the two missing strings but still was able to strum magic without them…

His alarm went off, duel rusted bells jackhammering through both dream and hangover. He grabbed it, threw it across to the room, and reached for another bottle. The clock shattered. Melvin sat up and took a chug.

Outside was the sound of metal scraping on wood. A rooster. A train whistled. The buzz was always quieter when he first woke up.

He had attempted to drink away all thought of the machines, the same way he had with Ronald for days. He failed the same as had been failing.

“Yer a stubborn old bastard. I done trying,” Ronald had told him. He spit a tooth, jumped on his horse, and sped away.

“You’ll be back you little shit,” was what Melvin had yelled after him.

He stared down the road to town long after his son was out of sight with fingers crosses and heart breaking.

“Please come back, you’re all I got left,” was what he wished he had said if he wasn’t such a stubborn old bastard.


He later found a case of whiskey Ronald had left behind and took the first sip he had had in years. Real men don’t cry. Real men drink. Thus, began one of history’s great binges.

Melvin crawled to the window and checked the road from town. Sunlight smoked through dust onto his skin. The time was somewhere between 9 in the morning and 9 at night. Two more empty bottles of whiskey were between him and his shotgun. He couldn’t remember if it was loaded. The room spun. He saw only in blurs. Everything thought was smothered by the anticipation of something he knew was never going to come.

He made it to the bathroom by way of ricochet. His shoulders left dents on either side of the hall. He closed the bathroom door mid sway. It slammed. Four more of the machines were just outside, all bellows and micro-singularities.

Melvin opened the window and screamed incoherent nothings at them. Both barrels of his shotgun screamed. His ears rang.

It meant nothing to the machines. They ignored him just like he ignored the warm puddle on the floor steadily growing between the toilet and bathtub.

Though he never saw it, his piss was a lovely shade of clear-grey. There was no such thing as yellow.


*****



Melvin was nineteen when he got married. The farm was small and hard to work but they had two sons and managed just fine. Her name was Jessica. She was spirited. Melvin was happy. For a long time, he no longer drank or talked to himself…

Robots multiplied. Singularities sucked.

Blue was the next to go.

Ronald didn’t come back while he slept once again. It was morning. There were holes in the walls. A torn-up notice of foreclosure was at Melvin’s feet in a hundred pieces. A bird outside said tweet. A man on the radio said 23 skidoo. Saxophones and trap kits and static followed.

At some point Melvin had thrown his shotgun in a ditch outside lest he take the easy way out. He had a knife now though. His arm bled. He also had no idea what happened to his pants. The buzzing was inside his head. It vibrated against his skull forming loops over loops of incoherent words that merged with laugher.

He watched as the purple stripes on his shirt turned into particle streams and drifted slowly out the window. The milkman stood in front of one of the brass monstrosities just outside. He gave an awkward wave and a pitied smile when he noticed Melvin staring just as the singularity began to suck the color orange from a logo on his hat. It took the milkman next.

The world was ending. Melvin was glad for it. He had always hated the thought that the party would go on after he was gone. So, he drank, and he smiled, and he cut himself.

The buzz laughed harder.


*****



Melvin was forty when his oldest son died of tuberculosis. Melvin drank and talked to himself again. He’d wake after binges to a mess he didn’t remember making. There were a lot of naps and messes in those days. One day he woke without a wife. The more he drank, the more himself talked back. What himself seemed to want the most was for Melvin to hurt himself.

On one particularly bloody night, his last remaining son hogtied him and placed him on his bed. He refused to untie him until the urge to drink stopped. When it finally did, he lied and said the voices went with it.

Even though he couldn’t remember anything, Melvin knew exactly how Ronald had gotten that black eye.

He wasn’t the good guy in anyone’s story…

One of the machines was in the house. Its egg-shaped dome half-phased through the wooden roof. It was raining. Puddles were forming all around. Red was gone. As was the whiskey. Melvin had switched to moonshine he had gotten from a very old stash from a very old hiding place in the cellar.

All that was left were sepia tones and they were leaving fast. Large rivers of particles in every shade of brown drifted towards the machines. They were everywhere now. Hundreds of them.

His crops were dead. The walls to his house had rotten to dust. Blood was everywhere. It was sticky and grey. His surroundings were wet. Melvin tried to lick the inside of his last bottle in a desperate attempt for one final drop. He screamed. The buzz got louder. The laughs got louder.

The closest machine turned towards him and slowly dropped the singularity in his direction. Melvin could feel its pull with every molecule of his being. The buzzing was overwhelming now. The first few particles began to drip from his face. Then his arms. Then his chest. It tickled. He closed his eyes and went completely numb.

All that was left inside the singularity was light and the absences of light. No buzz. No voices. No machines. For a few perfect moments he no longer had to pretend they weren’t there. This was everything the voices had always told him he wanted.

For the first time in his life, Melvin agreed with them completely.



THE END


2020 Joe Jablonski

Bio: Rekha Valliappan is a multi-genre writer of short fiction and poetry. Her horror, fantasy, scifi, clifi short stories have featured in international magazines including Lackington’s Magazine, Thrice Fiction Magazine, Across The Margin, Third Flatiron, Eastern Iowa Review, Theme of Absence, Intellectual Refuge, ColdNoon Journal, The Punch Magazine, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, Rabid Oak, Friday Flash Fiction, Mercurial Stories, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, Five:2:One Magazine, Coffin Bell Journal, Boston Accent Lit where she won the Accent Prize, and elsewhere. She is a Pushcart Prize nominee 2018.

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