by Rami Ungar
Okay, this is weird. Where the fuck am I? I look around. I’m surrounded by a sea of vegetation: flowers and shrubs in hundreds of varieties, sitting in pots and trays atop a grid of workbenches. Surrounding the workbenches is a ring of trees that tower over everything, their upward growth halted by a glass ceiling. A literal glass ceiling, not the one taught in my classes. Past the trees I spy more glass, through which nothing can be glimpsed but total darkness. I’m in a greenhouse. Why am I waking up in a greenhouse? I try to think back but I can’t remember anything about how I fell asleep. In fact, I can’t remember how I got to the greenhouse in the first place, or where this greenhouse is located. Am I supposed to be here? If so, why? The questions make the pounding in head hurt worse. I force my thoughts to quiet long enough for the pain to subside to a dull throb. Able to think again, I try to remember what I was doing before I found myself here. Nothing comes to me. Okay, no problem. What’s the last thing I do remember? Walking home. Yeah, I was heading home after meeting with my advisor. I had my textbooks and lesson plan for the coming semester in my bag. I crossed the street, turned the corner at Potbelly’s, and approached my — What kind of home do I live in? I strain, but there’s a gray fog in my memories, obscuring everything. Not only that but the word for the kind of building I live in is missing. Why? I should know this. It’s a word thrown around in everyday speech! I push, but the gray fog doesn’t go away, and the word doesn’t come. I try skipping forward to when I got inside but that’s also a wash of gray. Concerned, I rewind instead and get as far as the building where my department is housed, but I can’t remember the name of the building. That can’t be! I’ve been taking classes there for — I can’t remember how long I’ve been taking classes there. At least four years, because I was accepted into the graduate program. The exact number eludes me. So does the building’s layout, the people in my program, my teachers, and my advisor. It’s all gone. I can’t even remember any of the classes or projects I’ve done past undergrad, though somehow, I remember the information I’ve learned since then. My breathing quickens, and I put a hand over my chest. Why can’t I remember anything? Okay, slow down. What do I remember? Let’s see, my name is Rose Taggert. Last I checked I was twenty-one years old and I’m a…sociology grad. Yeah, I’m a sociology grad, specializing in criminology. And I remember the stuff I’ve been learning in my classes, statistics, theories and social constructs, plus the work I was doing on gun violence. I’m a graduate at The Ohio State University, the second in my family to attend this university. I also have two sisters, Hope and Madeleine, and a brother, Brian. Brian and Hope are older than me and Maddy is younger. Hope is my other sibling to go to OSU, while Brian betrayed all that was holy and went up north to the University of Michigan. Maddy’s in middle school. My parents are Roger and Barbara Taggert. My dad is a — I can’t remember what my parents do, which is insane because it’s why I’ve had to work to attend college. Why can’t I remember any of this? What’s happened to me? I must find someone who can explain to me what’s going on. A doctor preferably, or the greenhouse caretaker. I slide off the table I’m lying on. As I do, two things come to my attention: I’m wearing a pink, strapless dress, which I can tell at a glance costs more than I’m used to spending on clothes. The other is the dress and table are covered in roses, red, pink and yellow ones with long, thorny stems, some of which fall to the ground as I swing my legs off the table. I bend to pick one up, careful not to prick myself on a thorn, rolling the blossom between my fingers, admiring the beautiful pink color and the soft velvet sensation of the petals. I normally don’t care for roses—too many people have made jokes about my name for me to like them — but right now I’m curious. Who sees a sleeping woman in a dress and thinks, sure, let’s put roses on her? Abruptly, the rose dies in my hand: the pink fleshy petals turn black and crinkly, while the stalk becomes brown and brittle. I drop the rose and stand, alarmed. On the workbench and on the ground, roses wilt and die before my very eyes. What the hell? As the flowers die, my eyes light on something lying at the foot of the workbench that’s not a rose. I lean forward to take a closer look, only to jump back in horror. Lying in a pool of its own blood is a large brown cat, its stomach slit down the middle, its intestines hanging out like the contents of some grotesque piñata. The cat’s face points in my direction, frozen in an eternal expression of surprise, as if it too can’t understand what has happened to it. My hands fly to my mouth, my heart pounds against my chest, and my stomach heaves. I step back, tripping on the hem of my dress, falling onto my back. I cry out, my stomach gives another tremendous heave. Dead roses crackle underneath me as I heave myself onto all fours, my red hair tumbling past my shoulders. I wait, feeling something moving up my esophagus. Oh God, I’m going to be sick. I’m so going to be sick. Something’s wrong. It doesn’t feel like normal nausea. It feels like…like snakes are moving through my chest and into my neck, around my esophagus rather than inside it. This isn’t vomit. It’s…things…creatures, long and round and snakelike, dancing underneath my skin. Images of thin black serpents moving around my trachea flash through my mind, and my panic rises. What if they try to bite and poison me with venom? Or strangle me from within? My hands dart to my neck, though I’m not sure if I’m figuring out what’s under my skin or trying to claw out whatever’s moving around inside of me. The things in my neck zoom past my hands , twisting around my windpipe, cutting off the flow of oxygen to my lungs. I open my mouth to scream, but nothing comes out except a reedy whisper. The things in my neck are pushing outwards at the skin of my neck, sharp tips boring through like tiny drills. There’s eight in total, the points where they push form a ring around the circumference of my neck, like a deep-tissue choker of pain. My chest burns. My brain screams. My strength is fading. Darkness creeps into my vision. I’m not going to make it; I’m not going to survive. I won’t find out what’s happened to me — The things in my neck burst free, long and green and snakelike, each about two or three feet long. They swish whip-like through the air, blood flying off them, splattering plants and tables. The pressure on my windpipe vanishes, and I suck in a deep breath before exhaling a pained scream. God, it feels like I’ve been stabbed eight times in the neck, only whatever stabbed me came from inside. Words like ‘freaky’ and ‘unreal’ don’t even begin to cover this situation. The whips stop swishing and hang still in the air, furnishing me a moment to think of a real name for them. Tentacles, I decide. They are tentacles. Like an octopus or a squid. Though why are they coming out of me? Before I can find an answer, a pair of tentacles lash out and wrap around the leg of a workbench. Another pair wrap around the leg of the workbench opposite, and the last two pairs grab the ground below and the top of the workbenches above me. Then the first pair unwrap themselves from the workbench, and lunge for the leg belonging to the one in front of me, wrapping around the leg and dragging me forward. The second pair do the same thing with the workbenches on their side, pulling me forward like a ragdoll. I cry out as the tentacles work in unison, moving forward like some strange insect and taking me along with them. I futilely try to grab something to hold onto, but each time I try my frantic fingers can’t get a grip. After the third attempt leaves my hands raw, I stop and allow myself to be pulled along, sobbing with pain and terror. The tentacles clear the workbenches and climb up a short stone wall onto the soil bed where the trees bask. The tentacles stop and I lay half on, half off the soil bed, while they hover in the air. I have the impression they are smelling the air, like dogs. Before I can wonder what they are sniffing for, the tentacles crash into the soil, plunging deep until only a few inches close to my neck remains visible. The tentacles begin pulsing, spasms wracking them from deep within the earth, up their length, and into me. I shudder trying to pull away, but the tentacles drag me back and burrow deeper, pinning me against the dirt. I can’t escape. Tears make rivers down my cheeks. I’m scared and bewildered. My neck thrums in agony. “What’s happening to me?” I whisper aloud to the greenhouse. “What the hell?” a voice replies. “Rose! What happened?”
Rami Ungar knew he wanted to be a writer from the age of five, when he first became exposed to the world of Harry Potter and wanted to create imaginative worlds like Harry’s. As a tween, he fell in love with the works of Anne Rice and Stephen King and, as he was getting too old to sneak up on people and shout “Boo!’ (not that that ever stopped him), he decided to merge his two loves and become a horror writer.
My Calling Cards
Every author has those little elements or quirks that they love to include in their stories. Their calling cards, so to speak. For Stephen King, he often sets his story in Maine, his heroes are often writers or law enforcement types, there’s usually a number of rednecks, drunks and bullies who have horrible things happen to them at some point in their story, and there’s a twenty-five percent chance one character will end up being psychic or otherwise paranormally gifted. You put these elements in a story, and you’re either King himself or you’re doing a pastiche of him.
Authors love their calling cards; they make the story more fun to write. Readers love them too; they spend time trying to find each one as the story unfolds, trying to see how the author uses them this time around in the story. In a way, the author is like a crook leaving a crime scene with tell-tale signs of their modus operandi, and the reader is a detective looking for those signs.
I have my own cards, though my body of work is not very large. My protagonists tend to be teenage or young women who don’t fit into the protagonist mold and must be forced to be heroes. If you ask me, those sorts of characters are perfect for leads in the horror genre. When I use male protagonists, they are often teenagers and have some quirk or talent that makes them unique—great driver, overly quiet, able to learn advanced skills like getting away with crimes or doing amateur surgery just from reading or watching a movie about it—and have a girl interested in them (if they’re straight).
My stories also lean into the supernatural more often than not, with a dash of weird for extra fun. What is this element of weird? Well, in my novel Rose, the protagonist turns into a plant-woman in the first chapter. That’s what I mean by weird.
Oh, and I like to add ballet to my stories when I can. I’ve become a huge fan of ballet in the past few years, and naturally it’s crept into my writing. Characters could be dancers and ballerinas, or I’ll find some way to reference ballet in the course of the story.
Those are my calling cards. I’m still early in my career, so there’s still plenty to incorporate in future years. Still, if any of the above interests you, you and I might get along fine. Or should I say, you and my stories should get along fine.
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