the horror zine
Julio X. Palomino

The January Featured Writer is

Julio X. Palomino

Please feel free to email Julio at:


by Julio X. Palomino

There were thoughts and there were nightmares, both equally hard to deal with when it came to living life has a hypochondriac like Grady. He hid that fact behind Facebook posts that showed him as a health-freak.

He always felt panicky, and when his emotions spiked up, so did his heart rate.

It didn’t help that every time he had a panic attack, which would come unwarranted, perhaps around six or seven times a day, his mind would remind him that he had been a pack-and-a-half smoker. Pall Mall, unfiltered, to be exact. Those cancerous, yet, delicious sticks of nicotine ecstasy he always craved after a cup of joe haunted him like a lingering phantom. He swore he could smell that odor at all times he was awake, and even while he slept—in his dreams he’d envision himself driving to his favorite store in downtown Everett, a quaint, little place called Midnight Grocery, handing over the cash and feeling anxious for that sound of cellophane…

It was all maddening. He hadn’t smoked in years, and yet, it felt like just yesterday.

To quiet these demons, Grady had begun biking (it didn’t matter whether it was mountain biking, cycling, or just riding his bike through town, he made it an obsession). Usually, he liked to do it for hours at a time, at his favorite bike trail near the Snohomish River, just a mile down the road from the house he lived in, alone. Once there—as early as 6 AM—he’d park, get out, open up the trunk, pull out the mountain bike, and start stretching. He never stretched for too long, though, because he figured the warm-up mile was enough.

Today he skipped stretching altogether because he was too anxious to get going. He wanted to feel the wind against his pallid face, the pleasure it gave was as calming as three cigarettes—if they were smoked back to back.

Oh, cigarettes, that looming demon that followed him wherever he went like a shadow.

Looking like he was ready to go on a triathlon with his skin-tight, red and black uniform, Grady buckled the straps of his neon-green helmet and whispered to himself, “On the road again.”

He turned right, and went down the trail that would eventually go left, and then right, and straight to a dead-end near a loading dock and the restrooms—the smell of piss encouraged him to turn around and really get going. Once he headed into the opposite direction, the river was on his right. The calm peacefulness of the water and the gray skies all Washingtonians loathed and loved—depending on who was asked—pumped serenity into his bloodstream. I’m fine…I’ll be fine…I’m fine, he reminded himself; the mantra was almost always so hypnotic. He disregarded the fact that his face and his hands were nearly frozen stiff, because in about fifteen minutes or so, his heart would begin pumping warmth all throughout his body.

His doctor swore that they would go away, the cravings, but sometimes, hardcore ex-smokers could still have them. But this far on without nicotine was a little crazy. But for Grady, it wasn’t farfetched, the idea that he’d suffer symptoms for the rest of his natural life was no longer a worry, it was a fucking grade-A certainty.

I made it this far, so there is no going back, he told himself. He peddled as hard as he could up the first hill; coming up, he veered slightly left onto a gravel bike trail, through a part of the woods that ran above and adjacent to the asphalt he had just been on. Loving the way the bike seat bumped up and down on his groin—he imagined others would have raised their eyebrows, but at this point, his weirdness was enough for him to love—and the way he’d have to grip his handlebars even tighter; he eventually turned a wicked-quick right, down an escape route, rejoining the main trail.

The sky was getting brighter; Washingtonians understood how bipolar the weather could be. Shit, if you were born here, then it was already inherited…engrained in your DNA, Grady thought and chuckled. His breathing was measured; he was completely under control of his motor functions. The only time he had complete control was when he was cycling. Nothing could replace this feeling of self-awareness, nothing, not even sex.

Up ahead he was coming up to a left turn, and that was where he’d come to a place in the trail where a newly-formed suburbia called, The Overlook Ridge, loomed in his peripheral vision. He was coming up to the end of the end of the trail, but this time he was met with three yellow stumps to ride through. After that he’d turn right onto a sidewalk, on his way up a steep incline to 41st street. This part was always the toughest, another challenge he couldn’t pass up every time he came to Lowell Park.


On the way down was when it happened.

Something small and acidic, and…repulsive. It was lodged inside his throat for a while, but then, when he swallowed, everything began to sway in an array of different colors, and when he flew past the roundabout towards the bottom of the hill, he turned a quick left onto another trail.

This one, too, was paved with asphalt. His dizziness would not subside, no matter how vigorously he shook his head left and right. In fact, it made it even worse. His vision went hazy, and then he lost complete control. He flew right over the handlebars and crash-landed in the bushes, into a wet ditch.

Before he could figure out that what he had swallowed was some kind of bug, he closed his eyes briefly, fighting the sudden urge to go to sleep.

This wasn’t the first time he had been in an accident. Grady remembered the time he went mountain biking on Mount Loopwith a group of friends. Grady had come tumbling down the side of the mountain like a sack of potatoes, mere inches away from a cliffside. He had taken a glance over the edge and seen certain death, even reached out with his fingers just to overcome his anxiety.

His friends had come to his aid, surprised at that he hadn’t fallen to his death.

This was different. When he gathered himself and took a few breaths, he looked around while splayed on the muddy ground, curled his fingers into the grass, into the earth, and, slowly, pushed with his hands to get himself up on his feet. He felt drunk; a throbbing headache ensued.

Oh, fuck, am I deaf now? He thought worriedly. The wind was making the grass move on the other side of the trail. But the normal sound of wildlife was gone. He could not hear a single cricket, frog, or bird, anywhere. He snapped his fingers to see if he could hear them. Nope.

He had had enough strength to climb the small embankment, through tall grass, and to check and see if his bike was somewhere nearby.

A sound finally erupted. It was the sound of an approaching bicycle.

He had a hand on his lower back—it felt like a thousand tiny knives were prodding his spine, sending pain up and down his legs. Great, now I got sciatica.

He turned. There was a woman coming straight towards him, on his bike. The woman was wearing a long-sleeved, white shirt, accompanied by what looked like leggings from where he stood. She was fast approaching, way too fast.

“Hey!” Grady yelled. “That’s my bike! Hey! Stop!”

She was about to blow right past him on the trail. He heard a hissing sound.

“Hey! Stop!” He screamed at the top of his lungs. He started waving his arms and jumping up and down, screaming like an angry child. “That’s my bike! Stop!”

But was it his bike? The woman was going so fast that it was hard to tell. She, too, was blurry. But that could have been from the fall. While he was waving his arms above his head, he realized that he was no longer wearing his helmet.

The woman was.

Mere seconds passed. Grady was on her tail, and speed-walking as fast as he could after the thief.

He placed a hand against his brow in a futile attempt to see better and caught a glimpse of the woman turning right into the woods.

Is there a trail there? he thought.

Panting, he briefly looked right: standing, haphazardly, like decaying monoliths, were dead trees in the middle of a field of tall grass. He figured the woman was some dope addict, explaining the weird behavior and the hiss he had heard when she had ridden past. She probably lives in the woods, in a pitched tent covered in shit, like all those people in Seattle.

He had to be careful. Grady guessed there were more like the woman in there, hiding in plain view of the public. Local residents in this area have always hated the homeless, but perhaps this time, those snobby, middle-class people were right about their judgments. Look at what just happened. With the bike, maybe a pawn shop could get her enough money to buy a month’s worth of her drug of choice.

Not this time, lady.

The path led into the woods. It was a thin path of mud with the vines of the bushes sticking out to cut sizeable holes on clothes and leave bloody trails on skin. He would have to walk carefully to avoid detection. They could be hiding in the bushes, ready to jump out and strike him. If they were ready to steal his bike, then they were prepared to take more off him, even though there was nothing on him but the tight uniform he had on.

His breathable running shoes would get soaked, he was sure, and the mud would cake his socks, but that wouldn’t stop him. This was the first time Grady had ever truly felt the urge to act all tough; that bike was the only thing stopping him from leading a life of addiction. Nicotine would lead to drinking, and drinking might lead to another old habit he had long been done with. That drug that he had blocked out from his mind would not tempt him for as long as he had control. I have control…I have control…I am not going to die.

He pushed the branches away from his face, and some of the thorns cut the palms of his handm making him wince. He pushed on. His red shoes were now completely covered with grime. The smell of rot was now tangible. It was so bad that he could almost taste it with the tip of his tongue.

He kept walking, going left and then right, through the woods like a commando. He had to side-step most of the way through because nobody had taken the time to machete the trail clear of sticker-bushes.

I hate this. I hate this. I can’t do this. Turn around, Grady, just go back home, where it’s safe. Just go into your room, sit down, and watch some Stephen Colbert. He’ll make you laugh, and once you hear that funny Trump impersonation, none of this will matter anymore, you will get another bike and forget about this one.

It wasn’t that easy. Not for Grady. Because once he loved something, he could not let it go. No, sir. If anything, this behavior was a good sign. It was a sign that he, Grady Anderson, was ready to fight for what was his. He was ready to stand up to the assholes who crossed him. Let’s be frank, this wasn’t the first time he had come face-to-face with a jerk at Lowell Park.

The trail was not wide enough for him to cross his arms. It was getting colder and colder as he went deeper and deeper into uncharted territory. He was hugging himself to keep warm, but shivering nonetheless. There was a cold draft coming in. Probably in the direction of the river that should have been where he is now. From what he could remember, Grady had seen the river in the distance. He could have misjudged the distance, however, and so he shrugged the thoughts away.

He paused. There were voices.

“You’re one of us now. You’ve always been one of us, Grady.”

The other voice he heard, accompanying the first one, said, in a raspy voice: “Nice bike, chum. I think I oughta sell it and buy some brown.”

Brown, is that what they call heroin? Grady asked himself.

The voices stopped.

Grady had stopped walking; his graying hair in disarray on top of his head. He saw clouds of vapor coming out of his mouth from the cold. There was a mist coming out from the woods further along the muddy path he was on. No sound escaped from these woods. Nothing except what he had heard earlier. Those voices were coming from some place nearby, but it was hard to tell exactly where. He shivered, and then continued walking.

The sky had gone gray again. But it had happened in such a way that Grady hadn’t even noticed. He just kept walking.

Eventually there was a clearing, this was where he found Tent City—not a totally original name, but it worked for him. There were rows and rows of mossy tents going on for miles down a stretch of muddy road. There were no footprints to be seen, and no other tracks. How long had these tents been here?

He assumed it was a long time, because when he examined the first one on the left, he noticed that there were a bunch of holes he could poke his finger through. When he peered inside, all he found was: empty cans, cigarette packs covered in dirt, beer bottles, and an old magazine that he picked up. He was hunched over inside the tent, dusting debris off of the front cover.

The magazine read in fading red and yellow: The Good Old Days! The date on the corner was March 8th, 1965.

This doesn’t make any sense, Grady thought, dropping the magazine back on the floor of the tent. In one corner was an old green sleeping bag. It hadn’t been used in ages. There was grass growing through it like curious fingers.

He heard movement from behind him. He quickly backed out of the tent and stood up straight, wincing at the pain in his lower back.

“Hello? Who’s there? Give me back my damn bike or I’ll call the cops!” he yelled.

Nothing. Not so much as the ruffling of a tent. If there were homeless people camping out here by the river, they weren’t here. Nor were they even remotely interested in returning his bike.

Grady started getting a feeling that something wasn’t quite right. But, like most other feelings, he ignored it and moved on, tip-toeing his way down the muddy road that ran through Tent City like an important artery. This place reminded him of the Vietnam stories his Dad had once talked about, but like a lot of things that he couldn’t relate to, they had been disregarded.

Grady felt like a soldier, stranded, and left to rot. His battalion was all dead or off somewhere else. They had left Grady behind because he was just an anchor, dead weight to the cause.

Suddenly, there were movements in the woods all around him. Rustling leaves scratching against each other, listlessly, and moving all on their own.

There is no wind, Grady, there isn’t anything here. It’s dead silent. This isn’t normal. Look above you, a voice in his head said.

Grady looked up and saw that the sky barely peered through the twists and turns of the branches acting as a canopy in this desolate place. There were no pine trees, and there was definitely no Snohomish River nearby. The woods were endless on either side. Tent City kept on going forever it seemed, into nothingness and absolution.

The question he feared loomed inside his head, the one that caused him to go on episodes of erratic exercises, mostly aerobic if he could muster the courage to get going. A panic attack was coming his way, Grady could feel it. His blood was boiling. He could feel his heart inside his chest like a stranger going berserk in a cage. It was rattling his ribcage, all throughout, screaming incessantly and pumping enough blood through his body to turn his cheeks apple-red.

I am not going to die, I am not going to die, I am not going to die, I am not going to die, I am not going to die. The mantra became the obsessive compulsion he had tried to use as a simple coping mechanism. It was now in control. And he had no idea what was going to happen or what it was going to do to him. His body was just a vessel. His soul just a prisoner inside crying for help, crying for someone on the outside to rescue it from the torment and the torture the mind was inflicting.

Eventually, he would die, and this certainty was the last thing to help, to calm him, to soothe him. It was like the embrace of a stranger.

And, so, he closed his eyes to feel those arms tightening. Those cold arms held him close. His face was up against a stranger’s chest. The stranger was soothing him, caressing his sweaty hair. The stranger didn’t talk, would not dare to talk. The stranger was there because it needed to be. It wanted to be there, of course, because what else was there to do in Tent City? The place of absolute dissolution. The place where all hope was lost, where hope was replaced with that soothing certainty: you are going to die like the rest of them, and there was nothing you could do. There was nothing you could do to stop your surroundings from embracing you inside its cold arms.

The stranger finally did talk, but it was shy above a whisper.

Grady looked up and screamed. He was met with a mouthful of fangs, but there were words coming out of the gaping, drooling mouth: “Everybody is like everyone else, and they are going to die.”


“Mister? Mister? Can you hear my voice?”—raspy voice pauses, and resumes, talking to another person nearby: “His eyes are kind of opened, I am sure he has to be seeing me.”

The other voice, a woman’s voice, responds: “He can probably hear you, give it a second.”

“Mister, if you can hear me, say somethin’ if you can, an ambulance is on its way.”


Grady did in fact hear the voices, but they seemed so far away. His vision was a blur. He could see two faces looking down at him. They both looked concerned. One of them, the one directly above him, had a lengthy beard and the breath to kill flowers on contact. It smelled rotten. Like a decaying corpse, a mixture of that and cigarettes, or rotting fungi. He was wearing something long and green, like a long overcoat. There were badges and all sorts of things on it.

“What, happened?”he whispered.

The bearded man’s face lit up as he heard that and called the woman over. Excitedly, he said, “He’s awake! He heard us!”

Grady kept repeating: “What happened? What happened? My bike. Where’s my bike?” He pointed at the bearded man and then at the woman, noticing her white shirt, “You took my bike!”

The woman looked at the bearded man, confused at first, and then chuckled. “No, sir, I saved your bike from falling into the river. It’s safe; don’t worry.”

Then the homeless man said, “Mister, you’re lucky.”

Grady raised his eyebrow and said, “What happened?!”

“You choked on something, and then fell on top of these boulders here. You banged your head pretty bad. You might have a broken arm, but your head looks pretty messed up, man. Don’t worry, though. You’re lucky I live close. I saw you take the tumble...I…used to be in the medical field, so I did some CPR on ya; ya know, to make sure you were all right. This lady is a photographer. She was in the middle of a photoshoot. She eventually saw me here huddled over ya. But once she saw that I wasn’t trying to hurt ya, but saving ya, she called 911.”

Julio X. Palomino graduated from Western Washington University with a BA in Arts. He is an avid, secular, humanist, a musician, and has finished writing a new novel titled Deception (which will be available soon). More of his short stories can be found online.