The magazine Aberrations: adult science fiction, fantasy & horror ran for forty issues between 1991 and 1997, publishing a variety of authors including Jeff VanderMeer, Kevin J. Anderson, Tim Waggoner, and Lois Tilton. The March, 1994 issue (Issue #18) featured an 1100-word short story by unknown author Philip Athans entitled “Piece Music.”
I remember getting a very encouraging letter from editor Richard Blair, who really liked the story. I was delighted to see it in print. And there it sat, in this long-forgotten (even if someone has a copy up for sale on Amazon!) but really fine small press magazine for twenty-three years or so. I pulled my old copy of it out a couple weeks ago with the intent of throwing the text up on Amazon as a 99¢ short story, but a quick scan through had me wondering if that was such a good idea.
Though I stand behind this grim little bit of post-Lovecraftian mayhem, I’ve done an awful lot of writing, and a whole lot more editing, in the couple decades and change since it was first published. How would I have done this differently now? What would Editor Phil fix? How many of the items in my Common Comments file can I attach to this early example of my own work?
Well, let’s find out.
But first, this week, the text of the story exactly as it ran, typos and all, in Aberrations #18:
It was a hectic music from a dark and cramped and dead place deep underground. It was a growling, hissing sound and it was coming up fast behind her. She turned, unable to go any farther. The fence across the end of the alley was thirteen feet high and she wasn’t in any condition to climb it now. Fear and anger and frustration, all the precursors to a violent and premature death raged in her head. Adjacent to that was her whole life. The time she pissed her dress in her third grade classroom. The time her Aunt Lilly touched her there. The boys, the men, the needles like vampires taking out more than they put in. Her mind went to parties and laughter and humiliation and death and fucking.
She was shivering, the blood flowing freely from the long gash on each forearm was cooling against her skin, which raised gooseflesh in a futile attempt to repel this thing coming at her. This thing coming at her was impossible. Impossibly grey and glossy like a brain. Like something from inside you. It had eyes and holes everywhere. Were those teeth? More than anything she didn’t want them to be teeth. Not that many teeth. Not teeth moving like that. Moving all by themselves, each alive and hungry and impossible. She had no idea what this thing was that was about to kill her.
It stopped running and was approaching her one stiff-legged step at a time. It was drooling from lots of places and she could smell it. She gagged and almost threw up, and a bizarre sense of embarrassment slid across her face and she could have sworn it smiled thirteen, fourteen, fifteen times.
It went onto her all at once and she cried as it ripped her apart, but she never screamed. She had always resented her mother, but she begged for her now. She wanted somebody to hug her and just make it go away. The pain was beyond anything. She wanted it to go away and leave her alone. She even told it, out loud, “Leave me alone,” but it wouldn’t. It just wouldn’t.
In the morning they found just enough of her to identify her by dental records. Her face was pretty much intact from the bridge of her nose down to about the middle of her neck. The shredded thing that was her shoulders held bits of gravel, asphalt, the impotent bites of alley rats and the beginnings of a dry crackling around the jagged edges and flaps. She had one eye left, hanging limply out of its socket. It was crystal blue and the contact lens had popped out.
The medical examiner told Detective Reyes he hadn’t seen anyone torn apart like that since Vietnam. Reyes was eight when the Vietnam war ended, so all he could do was shrug. Reyes had given up hope of not puking. He could still taste it in his mouth and wanted nothing more then a tube of toothpaste. The coroner guys thought it was pretty funny when he ran out of the room, but those guys have a very sick sense of humor. When he came back he saw them all crowded around the table that held parts of the girl’s face. According to the computer downtown she was a hooker. A nobody really, some drifter that came in from San Francisco or some place like that. Seattle attracted those types of people. Reyes never understood that. She was twenty, HIV positive and still working. It was a complex world.
When Reyes got to the table he heard it and immediately puked again. One of the coroner guys ran out of the room, his pressed white lab coat rustling behind him like a cape. One of the other guys said, “Holy shit,” and Reyes heard the voice again, guttural, throat full of something. Spit? Blood?
“Where,” it whispered, then more loudly, “am I?”
It was the girl, the face, the pieces. Reyes remembered prayers and recited them around the foam of watery puke coating his lips. There was no more than a quarter of the girl’s face left, her body was in (by the coroner’s best estimate) thirty-seven distinctive pieces in two separate laboratories. They figured that nearly seventy percent of her body mass was missing, taken away or eaten by one or more extraordinarily sick individuals. She rolled her hanging eyeball up at Reyes and sputtered, “Am I in the hospital?”
Two more of the coroner guys took off. Reyes heard one of them puke in the hallway, the other one just kept repeating, “Sweet Jesus,” over and over again. That left only the chief medical examiner, Tillis, and one of his assistants, a pretty young doctor named Sarah something, and Reyes, and the piece of face.
“Am I?” the face asked again, impatient.
“Yes,” Tillis answered. “Can you hear me?”
“Yes,” she whispered.
Sarah mouthed “Oh my god,” but nothing came out. She turned her face away. She was crying, and then suddenly she stopped having any idea what was going on. It was better that way. She had dinner with Jeff last night and almost went to bed with him. During lunch today, she bought a CD and was going to listen to it in her office. The parts of a woman’s face were talking. She forgot to buy coffee and tampons.
“Do you,” Tillis started, then seemed to be fishing for something and he couldn’t stop it in time to disbelieve. It was just happening. “Do you remember what. . . happened . . . to you?”
It screamed loud and shrill and Reyes found himself screaming back. They did that for a full thirty seconds, they did it for a long time.
“Are you in pain?” Tillis asked, louder, his voice shaking along with his body. Sarah slipped on her way out and sobbed into the hallways where people were starting to congregate. She couldn’t remember the name of the CD she bought during lunch.
“I’m like this,” the pieces screamed, her voice an insane thing, a wild animal thing, “I’m like this. I’m like this.”
“Like what?” Reyes shouted back at it, his voice a little girl’s voice. “Like what? What are you like?”
“I’m in pieces!” she shrieked. “I’m ripped into pieces! I’m ripped into pieces. I’m ripped into pieces!”
She established a rhythm they followed, their questions taking on a melody, “What did this?”
“I’m ripped into pieces!”
“Where did it come from?”
“I’m ripped into pieces!”
“How can you be alive?”
“I’m ripped into pieces!”
“WHAT ATE YOU?”
“I’M RIPPED INTO PIECES!”
Their questions and her screaming and the echoes of the screaming and the muttering in the hallway was like hectic music from a dark and cramped and dead place deep underground. What did it was the rest of them, slick and grey and impossible and full of teeth. Recording it. Recording it all.