TWA #9 – Short Story “Pillow” by Hannah-Elizabeth Noelle Thompson

pillow image

In the beginning, the streets were still safe to drive on.

It was only an occasional storm, the rain was brown in color and a bit sticky as it dried. The air was thick with a humidity that smelled faintly of cocoa after each downpour.

Conspiracy theorists accused the government of infusing clouds with serotonergic chemicals, cult leaders took the opportunity to make their followers believe that it was evidence of their power, politicians tried to gain an edge by racing to be the first in funding initiatives to get clean water to homes relying on older wells for their supply. But most of us didn’t pay it more mind than it demanded.

The stuff had a small percentage of cane sugar and raw cacao – chocolate rain jokes popped up quickly in the news and online – but nothing inorganic. It hadn’t gotten in the way of us going to work, feeding our families and living our lives. It was never pleasant to deal with, but it wasn’t harmful or really intrusive. Meteorologists had their theories about cacao trees and extended jet streams, but ultimately the cause remained a mystery.

After a couple of months it started getting thicker, the color and smell varying depending on location and temperature. Sometimes it was a hazelnut shade and seemed to fall in droplets that smelled of caramel. Other times it was clear with a molasses texture and fell in thick drops. When the downpour stopped the air would be so thick with sweetness that if you took a deep breath you could taste the sugar. Those of us who had a lower tolerance than others ended up getting a bit sick if we lingered outside too long. Ametuer inventors all jumped on a specialized windshield wiper idea, hoping to develop a model and sell it at the highest price while they were still valuable.

The sugar storms began occurring more and more frequently. Lakes and rivers being used as water sources were covered with massive, tight tarps to prevent dangerous thickening. City filtration systems were being slowly clogged up by the syrup. Signs with small overhangs attached were placed at street corners everywhere announcing water restrictions.

The country hadn’t had a normal rainfall in over two months, and we were beginning to ask, louder and louder, why? No one had come out with anything official. There were the spiffy little men in suits on Fox News feeding the conspiracy theories, and the Weather Channel was having a giddy little time with the phenomenon, but elsewhere we found no answers.

The only thing they told us was that it wasn’t harmful. Just remember that, they said. Take a few anti-nausea pills, get to a cold place in your home, close your eyes and breathe slowly, meditate if that’s your thing. Ride it out. The disgustingly sweet substance building outside your home won’t kill you. We were told this just as we were being told that our president was being transported to a safe location outside the country. And we were being told that just as we were being told that all flights leaving and arriving in the US were cancelled indefinitely. All airports were left empty and useless overnight.

It began hitting every American city every day. Some towns experienced minute-long bursts several times a day. Less fortunate locations experienced hours-long downpours. The syrup became darker, thicker, stickier. The clouds turned nearly black and remained that way. They seemed to stay completely still, as though they were enormous inky creatures in the sky awaiting command from a greater force.

Lawns began dying from the excessive sucrose, Plants left outside were quickly weighed down and smothered, small birds caught mid-flight were drowned after being smacked down by sudden storms and then pulled under the growing puddles.

Sometimes after a long caramel drizzle you could step outside and, for a brief moment, you would still expect to smell fresh earth and feel a light humidity touch your skin. And then the wall smacked you. The thick, forceful wall of unfiltered sweetness. It’s suffocating. It touches everything, affects everything. It sinks into all there is to see and smell and want. It smothers all with slow, dominating, unstoppable hands like a pillow over a resting face.

And then the rain stopped altogether. The black clouds remained, but nothing fell from them.

We were holding our breaths as a country the first day it ended.

And the second.

And third.

And fourth.

By the fifth day sincere cleanup measures were put in place. We were nearing Winter, and  there was hope for a normal world by Christmas. We tried our best to clean up the syrup from our streets, but with the water restrictions just rinsing down every road and house was no longer an option. The lazier among us had taken to filling buckets with the stuff and tossing it into dumpsters or our neighbor’s yards when we were sure they weren’t looking. But there was only so much we could do, we had no choice overall but to sit still and deal with its existence until we were given a solution by our government.

The air became thicker still after the rain stopped, anti-nausea medication was flying off the shelves. Anxiety was running high due to the air essentially forcing a stimulant onto our skin and into our lungs. We were afraid, sick, exhausted and high-strung.

Eight days after the end of the sugar storms the fungus appeared anywhere the syrup had been able to rest. It was thick, yellow and spongy with a thin white layer eventually appearing as a cortex. It covered in equal thickness everywhere the drizzle lay. When the tarps were lifted from the lakes they discovered the fungus had formed on the surface of the water.

And then the fungus took its first direct victim. A starving homeless man in Fort Worth.

He was found by a city maintenance worker scraping the fungus from under an overpass. His skin was completely covered, streaks of red stained the spongy material where his veins rested close to the surface. The autopsy was a disturbing experience for the examiner, the victim’s organs had been completely altered.

His lungs had dried up and collapsed in on themselves after becoming a white powder, his cerebrospinal fluid turned into a milky substance, his diaphragm had morphed into a dark brown, moist material with blackish chips embedded in it. His heart became light brown and flakey with a creamy filling expanding into his atria. His pancreas had a hard yellow shell and a gooey center.

Unable to find any family or identity, he was given the name (at least among those working on him) ‘Hungry John’. Pieces of him were sliced and diced and sent off to various labs. They knew a few things immediately: a parasite lived in Sugar Storm, and it needed heat, sucrose and a water base. It was harmless to the touch, but completely consumed its host when ingested.

This earned the parasite the name histosuavis procurro, essentially meaning, ‘Tissue domination with sweetness.’

Hungry John was the first of many.

It began with the starving on our streets, the people and small animals. And then a few painfully curious individuals without much instinct for self-preservation took a taste of histosuavis. For some they were overtaken by the fungus within minutes, for the younger and stronger it took a few hours. Warnings were posted and blared loudly and urgently in every city.

But we saw it happening in spite of the billboards, posters, news programs and radio broadcasts, we saw the growing body count. The unbearable disgust for all things sweet began to twinge to something different in all of us. A curiosity, you might call it. A deep wondering as to the texture, the smell, the taste. The thickness in the air didn’t seem so harsh as it began to feel soft and…pleasant.

We began waking up feeling cold in our bones with a desire for heat. Suddenly the oven of the atmosphere we had avoided seemed like an ever-present blanket keeping us warm. We opened our windows and breathed deeply. We tasted the sweetness and felt grateful for it.

What a lovely thing, what a convenient thing, to step outside and to taste the sweetness. To be wrapped in the sweetness and to feel the sweetness begin to wrap itself in you. To feel wanted by it and to want something that much. And to have it within reach.

The curiosity turned to a craving, a longing that no sweet thing was enough satisfy. Home kitchens and restaurants were pumping out as many desserts as supplies allowed. Fudge on everything, cream in everything, sugar-coated and mixed and baked. Powders and flours and extracts lying out and being folded in on themselves. They covered the counters and filled our stomachs.

We were as children in a gingerbread cabin filling ourselves for the witch. But even full to the brim, to the point of sickness or internal rupture, the craving remained and full force became a hunger. A hunger that caused our bellies to ache and contract and moan as though we were starving creatures. Stuffed as we were our stomachs still quivered, it was at once the pain of hunger and fullness. Slowly what was subconscious became conscious, what would cause the end of the hunger.

The weakest and more impulsive among us were gone quickly. Just a taste, just a bite, a lick, they said to themselves. Sometimes they didn’t say anything to themselves at all, it was just a smooth movement. Kneeling down, picking up, tasting. Those of us remaining were silently jealous, and we felt twisted for feeling jealous. We fantasized, while working and shopping and going about our lives, of just going for it. A thought sitting lightly in the back of our minds wondered if dying might be worth it.

And then we wondered, who knows for certain that everyone who has tasted it has died? What if there are people surviving and not telling anyone? Until the next Sugar Storm – if there is another Sugar Storm – there’s a limited amount of the yellow sweetness. Maybe there are people naturally immune to histosuavis eating it all themselves, remaining silent to ensure it remains free and the supply remains large.

But what a chance to take. What dice to roll. Most of us with present attachments to this world – family, love, friendship or ambition – kept the idea in the back of our minds. A fantasy sometimes, but we decided on only that. Everyone knew well enough by this point what the fungus almost certainly promised, and so deaths due to ingesting histosuavis were ruled suicides by default. Surely there were a few homicides here and there, but nothing could be proven.

They began finding bodies with torsos and arms cracked open. The skin was breaking and tearing on its own to release spores which clung to anything wet and began to grow new fungus.

This was a pleasant thing to hear. It meant that even without another Sugar Storm the fungus could spread. There could always be more. Suppose they discovered a way to keep all the bodies they find cool and dry in an attempt to prevent further growth, it would be easy enough to slip someone the fungus and just keep the corpse hidden and warm long enough for the dermal layer to break and spread the sweetness again.

We woke up one morning to a mist. A thick mist of clear, raw sweetness. It felt like the clouds were lowering themselves to touch the earth and embrace it. It became a fog that filled everything it could slip or rush into. The heat rose thirty or more degrees everywhere. No one was in the habit of turning on their A/C any longer, we loved the heat, the stickiness, the wetness in the air. Our pillow closing in on us.

The mist became thicker still, and thicker yet again. You could no longer see your neighbor across the street and hardly your own cat sitting on the edge of your front lawn – or whatever might be left of your lawn not covered in histosuavis. The third morning of the mist, if you stepped outside you flinched about four steps out. It felt like walking straight into an enormous web.

Goodness, it looked like an enormous web. And it tasted- no, it shouldn’t be tasted.

This was Sugar Storm again but in a new form, this was a new manifestation of the fungus. And histosuavis, it was…evil, yes? It was evil. Histosuavis meant death, because we were told it meant death. We had families and we were in love and we held dear our friendships and ambition. It must mean the sweetness is evil if it stopped us from loving and pursuing what we loved.

But what was there to truly pursue any longer? What was there to desire any longer? We were all drunk out of our minds on the rush and exhaustion. Our thoughts consisted of fantasies about dying by the fruit of Sugar Storm. So many were still under the delusion that staying alive is the ultimate goal. Staying alive and continuing your species. The goal of bugs and animals and man and fungus.

What was life here, surrounded by intoxicating sweetness, if we were denying ourselves this happiness? This one greatest satisfaction? Because of the inherent goal? Should our goal be to survive and simply exist, simply not die? Has anyone sane or insane ever found satisfaction from simply existing – from doing nothing but not dying?

This thing, the pillow, the sweetness. It felt like the only satisfaction left to experience. Hungry, hungry, always we were hungry. We were dying anyway, we would all die anyway. We died by own our hands or others or things beyond our control, but always we died hungry now. Why die hungry when you know what could fill you? This thing, the pillow, the sweetness.

We felt drained at the thought of tearing down the sugar web, we felt drained imagining leaving home. When you breathed in, deeply, your stomach roared. Your muscles were so weak. And eventually, for each one of us, something fell into place. We never truly fought histosuavis; we didn’t want to fight it. We wanted to be deceived and comforted by it, we wanted to be overtaken. We wanted to be given no choice but to finally consume it. Trapped, cornered, suffocated. A slow, sweet, mass assisted suicide of the grandest scale.

And so we gave in. Some chose the web, others the fungus. If you were strong enough and had enough time you got a bit of both. The cake…it was soft. The white layer was as gooey as frosting. It smelled of sugar crystals and cream. Real, almost foamy, creamy cream. It was perfectly moist and full and nearly melted in your mouth. The fullness of everything it advertised. It delivered everything it has been promising this whole time.

The web vanished so quickly as soon as it hit your tongue. You ran with wide open arms, mouth wide, your arms wrapped around and your hands grabbed onto the stuff to shove every bit of it around you in. So quickly it felt like the sweetness was fading, your senses weren’t allowing all of it you could possibly experience inside of you, and there was almost an animal part of you that rose up and you furiously attacked and consumed any of it you saw. It seemed like only seconds after that you felt full.

Gosh, feeling full. How long has it been since…my, the numbness. There was quite the headache hitting you but the tsunami of numbness was chasing right behind it. You were aware that you were dying. A muffled voice somewhere in your mind screamed for a moment with panic, with a will to live. A desire to go on and fight and simply exist. But it was silenced before it could reach the surface. And as your mind became slow with rapid atrophy you felt a sadness. And you asked yourself why you desired the mental myopia which led to your death. Why did you want so badly to trap yourself into giving into the sweetness?

You were laying down suddenly, perhaps you collapsed. You tried to look up at the sky or the web or anything, but you were blind. There was a throbbing in your chest and lower back. You knew there was supposed to be pain but it was all so muffled. You were so numb. You felt your pores expanding, tearing, stretching to allow new growth. Your chest cavity felt so cold, your stomach felt so heavy. So many systems were experiencing atrophy and reconstruction. No meaning and new meaning. But it didn’t matter, nothing mattered, you were so numb, and heavy, and warm.

And sweet.

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  1. Pingback: TWA #9 Dessert Island Battle Thread - The Writer's Arena

  2. I’m not sure what I expected when I made “dessert” the theme this week…in hindsight I should have known better than to throw something as beautiful as pie into the arena. I got back some utterly Frankenstein’s monster stuff.
    This is excellent. It’s excellent writing, excellent build. The complete in media res at the beginning where you just nonchalantly start with the fact that it just started raining chocolate and sugar one day…you had a control and confidence with this story that drew me in and put me right there with the narrator. They say in fiction that you should try and tell your biggest lies first, and I think this was a wonderful example of that concept.
    In my prompt I asked for a story that would still have me thinking about dessert for a few days after reading. This has done that in spades. Granted, I don’t think what I had in mind was the haunting image of a homeless man’s spleen cracking open and having a gooey caramel center be exposed as we learn that that he has been killed by being converted into candy by an attacking parasite. Then again who cares what I had in mind, you made this prompt your own and that’s what you’re supposed to do…it’s just that some part of me is astounded that you made me feel the feelings I did while reading about dessert, the greatest and most wonderful thing in the world. :p

    My only real criticism is that I think I wanted more from the ending than just a general collapse into malaise and acceptance of one’s fate. I have no obvious solutions, but letting the world end seemed like a bit of a let down after so much time had been spent introducing me to the wonderful details of the candypocalypse. I guess I wanted some freedom fighters of some sort to make a stand somewhere? I don’t know. A final turning point as an ending would have been sweet (there, have a pun).
    Overall, great work, amazing detail and world-building, and a wonderful, if not disturbing, story.

  3. That was…

    Can I get the little stuff out of the way first? Cool. You did some stuff with tenses that I wasn’t sure was deliberate. If it was, nice. If not, when I read the story it was kind of disorienting because there seemed to be parts that were present, then past tense. I wasn’t sure whether it was happening now, or whether I was remembering it. So if it wasn’t deliberate, and you ever want to create that effect again, you did it here!

    I feel like I drowned, reading this. It was a very affecting read and I’m impressed that you managed to convey the slow and inevitable horror of the situation. I liked the tiny sparks of humour, which released just enough tension along the way.

    I’d like to compare this with “Blood Music” by Greg Bear, because the end of that novel and the end of this story left me feeling as odd as the novel did. Odd in a good way. In a contemplative way. And in a “I will scream and run away if someone mentions caramelisation” way.

    Excellent work.

  4. Some people have a tendency to “overthink” things, and when applied to general life circumstance this can become a seedbed of distracting anxiety. But when it is applied to creative storytelling, as it is here, it can become a rich and complex journey of wonderment. In the case of Ms. Thompson’s apocalyptic narrative, a rich and complex, celebratory and tragic, colorfully entertaining, all things great and terrible, chocolate dipped sugar coated journey of wonderment.

    I was COMPLETELY pulled into this story on two levels:

    1.) The wording was perfect. It was just simply perfect. It started off so mundane with the first sentence about “safe streets”, and then jumped headlong into such ridiculousness upon ridiculousness, ever pushing forward with the staight-foward, detailed, unflinching language of a clinician – in my mind the ONLY way that such a tale could be sustained so thoroughly as it is here. Admittedly much of what is presented in this story is so, “WTF”, and conveyed so matter-of-factly, that the reader may not be fully prepared for the surprisingly delightful description of a pancreas having a “gooey center”. (I laughed out loud during that whole paragraph, and felt cruel for doing so.)

    Which leads into…

    2.) What Joseph Devon refers to as “world-building”, (something of which he is something of a master). This world-building is cleverly detailed and expansive here in Ms. Thompson’s work. It is so very well thought out, and I loved every bit of it. Keep in mind that such an endeavor can sometimes bog down a story, making the reader get lost in the details. But that doesn’t happen here. The story moves forward at a fitting pace, even while covering details like anti-nausea pills, increasingly thick and syrupy humidity, impeded travel, clogged filtration systems, water restrictions and corresponding cleanup challenges, etc. all thoroughly thought through, yet not to dwell upon.

    And finally I’d like to note something about the underlying truth in this story. “Truth” doesn’t necessarily mean that the details are factual. In stepping away from the oddity of “chocolate rain” and the corresponding full-throttle sucrose invasion, what is left is a truth that permeates this story, and speaks of the psychology of tragic descent into substance addiction – or really any addiction for that matter – the condition of becoming fully consumed with consumption: starting at first with revulsion, then on to exposure, followed in due course by tolerance, fixation, and finally surrender.

    I found it especially striking then, that the more dire the situation was becoming, the greater the essence of “sweetness” infused through the experience. It was a strange inverse duopoly that served the story well, making the sense of tragedy all the harder to “stomach”.

    I loved this story. Very, very well done.

  5. I loved this. There is something about keeping a “hard” science fiction tone while describing chocolate rain that turns people into desserts that really tickles my fancy, and if that wasn’t enough you sealed the deal with a nice dollop of second-person perspective at the end.
    The only critique I can give is that the story might have been better through the context of character. The chocolate apocalypse is awesome; the chocolate apocalypse as seen by a woman who suspects she is falling out of love (just as an example) could have been darn-near perfect.

  6. Hannah has such a talent for potent lines and a really awesome world. I love how it just keeps building up. The homeless man getting candied was my favorite part, and one of the best terrible deaths I’ve read in a long while.

    What it comes down to is this: stories are like soylent green, they are made of people. I feel like this world is perfect. That the setting is so spot on, but the stakes aren’t quite so terrifying because you aren’t connecting with a protagonist.

    Also, Jon’s idea that this is almost like a metaphor for drugs is awesome. I could totally see it being that even if it was unintentional. The way people eventually succumb to it… man, it’s just good.

    I wouldn’t last long in this world. I am unable to resist the white stuff. If it had rained peanut M&Ms I would have been frosted in an instant.

    • In a very dark place in my mind that I try to keep hidden…I know very well that I want go taste the homeless man’s candied pancreas filling.

      I’m pretty sure I’d succumb way sooner than you, Tony.

  7. I must admit I was eager to see what you would come up with when we were given the prompt, and you did not disappoint. The stories I like the most are the ones that work deeply on the thematic level, and this story is so loaded with such thematically-rich ideas and images that it too feels like a sugar-virus that gets into the bloodstream and leaves you thinking about it for days. As others have pointed out, it’s an excellent allegory for addiction, but I think you hit on even deeper layers of hunger and human nature that are conveyed wonderfully.

    I also like the tense shift there at the end–pulling off something like that is no easy task, but it works here. Others have mentioned how having a character to latch onto would have enhanced the story; while it’s true that characters are the most effective way at drawing a reader in, it’s also not the only game in town, so I like that you went a different route in portraying your story as sort of an oral history. Such approaches usually work best when kept short and sweet (heh), so the story probably could have stood to lose a few hundred words, but that’s just me being super-nitpicky.

    Fantastic story. I do hope you continue writing–you’re too good at it not to!

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