To finish up this little series of posts that began here, I’ll let the 2017 revision of my 1994 horror short story “Piece Music” speak for itself . . .


Piece Music

It was a hectic music from a dark and cramped and dead place deep underground, a growling, hissing sound, and it came 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, anger, frustration—all the precursors to a violent and premature death—raged in her head along with stolen moments from 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 shivered and the blood flowing freely from the long gash on each forearm cooled against her skin, raising gooseflesh as if in a futile attempt to repel this thing coming at her.

And what came 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 approached her one stiff-legged step at a time. It drooled from lots of places and the smell hit her like the inside of a dumpster in which a dead body had been left to rot. She gagged and almost threw up. 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 this grey thing 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 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 than 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 superhero’s 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. No more than a quarter of the girl’s face survived. By the coroner’s best estimate her body was in thirty-seven 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. One of them puked in the hallway, the other 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. She had no 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. “Do you remember what . . . happened . . . to you?”

It screamed loud and shrill and Reyes screamed 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 hallway 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 where they listened, writhing in hideous pleasure, slick and grey and impossible and full of teeth.

Recording it.

Recording it all.


—Philip Athans




About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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  1. Jason J McCuiston says:

    Just awesome.

  2. Wow!! One of the best horror stories I’ve read in a long time! Excellent!

  3. Wordfyre says:

    Really enjoyed that story…thanks for digging it up from the dark and cramped and dead spaces of below. I hope Editor Phil survived and that you paid him well 🙂

  4. Pingback: Writing Links 5/29/17 – Where Genres Collide

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