Ponies, or Death Rides a Pale Horse

This week’s flash fiction challenge is “Somethingpunk.” You make up some genre subverting a status quo (in the vein of cyberpunk, steampunk, dieselpunk, but not those ones) or choose from a list, and pump out 1,000 words. This is actually 1,128. I chose “ghostpunk” from the list, and I actually got to finish it this week. 🙂

They said we’d never do it, that no matter what we did the dead wouldn’t come back for a corporeal pony ride. They were dead wrong, as we joked to ourselves. We learned how to draw them from the ether, and the system always worked flawlessly.

Until that one time it didn’t.

##

We started with easy ones. Lindsay strapped the target on her back and wired the crown of thorns over her flame red hair. The mechanism wasn’t really a target, but acted as a focus and entryway into the living subject. The crown of thorns was more of a summoning circle, the thorns actually protrusions designed to increase its surface area. To these she added a heavy overcoat, fingerless gloves and a scarf.

“Not sure how long I can handle this outfit,” she said. “I’m already starting to sweat.”

“Don’t worry,” replied Bernie. “Once he mounts you the temperature will be the last thing on your mind.” Lindsay grinned.

“Once he mounts me? Maybe I should strap the target on a little lower!”

Bernie shushed her. “Don’t get yourself all het up. We need calm for this to work.” Lindsay settled onto the piano bench. Bernie placed the final focus, a plate of scrambled eggs, onto the piano bench next to her. The rest of us backed out of range, Treece tapped the remote to start the recording and Bernie activated the target.

For a solid five minutes the only sound in the room was our breath, and maybe the occasional droplet of sweat falling from Lindsay’s face, then with a sharp intake of breath she stood up straighter and looked around. Her eyes settled on the baby grand piano in front of her and fingers reached for the keys. She started slowly, sometimes curved over the ivories like a hungry buzzard, sometimes swaying her body in a circle in time to the music , Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Her fingers danced nimble patterns on the keys and we could hear her humming along with what she was playing. She was casual and playful, sometimes playing one-handed, but building in frantic intensity until the final crescendo, at which point she lifted one hand to punctuate the end of the piece, stood up and collapsed on the floor.

We were gobsmacked. Lindsay was tone deaf and couldn’t play her way out of a paper bag.

Glenn Gould, on the other hand, could.

##

We all took our turns. Not all that day, as gathering focal props and setting up the scene took most of a morning, but every weekend at least. Playing pony for a ghost was a weird but not uncomfortable feeling. Your rider ran the show, but you never felt trapped, or unable to buck them off if needed. We documented all the rides, improved our technique and gradually our incorporeal visitors stayed for longer periods. One week I borrowed a lute and Thomas Campion made it almost through A Book of Ayres before dismounting. The spirits could sing, but they didn’t seem able to speak through us, so Lee Harvey Oswald couldn’t tell us whether he was the lone gunman and Laura Secord couldn’t tell us whether she really had brought a cow on her twenty mile walk. But musicians and dancers from all points in history couldn’t wait to ride the pony and practice their art one more time.

We had our technique and our protocols down to an exact sequence, and we all would be present for each event. That’s how it was until Lindsay, Treece and I showed up at Bernie’s house Saturday morning and found the door ajar and the camera still recording. We searched the house but the only thing we found was—

“Oh shit! What the hell is this?” Treece shouted. “Linz? Tim? Is this a kidney? A human frickin’ kidney?” Lindsay, who’d taken pre-med courses before switching to philosophy, confirmed that it was a fresh human kidney, with a bite out of it.

“Is it Bernie’s?” I asked, but Treece was already plugging the camera into Bernie’s iMac. We watched as Bernie set up a scene, then shaky handheld footage as he zoomed into the focal artifacts: a leather apron, surgical tools laid out on a red cloth, and the kidney, whole and unbitten. Then back to the wide shot as he strapped on the target and donned the crown. He tied the leather apron on, then sat in a straight-backed chair, with the kidney in one hand and the target switch in the other. He sat erect and leaning slightly forward, activated the target, and took a bite of kidney. I puked in my mouth a little. Treece and Linz looked pretty green too.

We could tell when the rider mounted Bernie. He dropped the switch, and his outline on the screen became blurred and staticky. His posture changed, became more closed off. He cocked his head this way and that, looking around while chewing thoughtfully on the bite of kidney. Then he swallowed, picked up the surgical tools, and walked out of frame. I mouthed ohshitohshitohshit under my breath. This was bad. Lindsay had more presence of mind.

“Check the timestamp!” she yelled. I jumped and did so. Bernie and his passenger had left the room minutes before we’d arrived.

“He doesn’t know where he is, or what’s around,” Treece said. “He can’t have gone far. We stick together and comb the neighbourhood and we should find him.” She picked the discarded switch off the floor. “And then we’ll turn him off.”

We ran out the front door and chose a direction randomly. It was a residential neighbourhood, so if they hadn’t gone that way we’d find out quickly. We did find out. Around the next corner was a school, and there, staring through the chainlink fence at a crowded playground, was Bernie the Ripper.

“Bernie!” Lindsay shouted. “You in there?” Bernie turned toward us, looked back at the playing children, then headed toward us, scalpel in hand. Treece tapped the switch and he collapsed like his strings had been cut. I got close enough to kick the scalpel out of reach, and the girls got the crown and the target off him. Bernie woke up and puked kidney across the sidewalk. It was him, with no-one sharing the space.

It turned out he’d wanted to solve the mystery of Jack the Ripper’s identity. The organ was a beef kidney. Lindsay explained she’d failed gross anatomy. We thought it high time to retire the apparatus, so I took it away to destroy it, leaving restless spirits on their own side of the ether.

Perhaps one day I’ll take it down from its hiding space in the cupboard in my garage.

There’s so much left to explore.

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “Ponies, or Death Rides a Pale Horse

  1. I enjoyed this! The setup was neat, and of course the ending.

    • Thank you. I wasn’t actually thrilled with the ending. I realized I was well over the word target and wanted to post it before going to bed, but I’m glad it works.

  2. Interesting mood- the gathering of friends, the experiment taking a creepy turn- very nice indeed!

  3. Dean, this begs for a longer story. I hope you have time and inclination to turn give it the chance to expand. And I have to say, the title is pure brilliance.

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