Broken Banquet

I

The forest is starving. Overhead the sun dies, bathing the branches in the pink glow of dusk. Walkers do well to avoid these parts but John knows them like the lines of his own face. His trade depends on them. Allerwood Jam sells as far as Netley, so it seemed only natural that his wife and he should move close to the forest’s borders, when they finally decided to settle down. They first met picking raspberries in the bracken behind what is now McCready’s farm. Grace loves natural produce at least as much as he does. Out here, on the outskirts of the village, they are free to live a quiet life, largely separate from the rest of Lynnwood. Almost twenty years later, they have not looked back.

The ground crunches beneath his boots as a wind sighs through the trees, rustling the few leaves and testing the branches. Their creaks carry on the air, a hundred groans bringing the forest to uneasy life. Knotted faces with deep grooves stare at him from the hollows of trunks and on more than one occasion he fancies he sees movement through the black glassy trees. The trees are weary of the winter and he is no different. He can hear it in their creaks as surely as he feels it in his own bones. Stepping around a bend in the path, he emerges into a small clearing.

This is one of his private places. There are several, in the vicinity, from where he harvests fruits and berries the year round: rhubarb in the spring, blueberries and raspberries when summer is high and blackberries in autumn. Sometimes, if the winter is mild or he gets to them early, he finds apples too, but not often, and not this year. This year there is only cold, and death.

He found the rabbit not far from here, almost two weeks ago. Ribs had pressed visibly against its thin underbelly, its black eyes trapped behind a layer of frost. One of its paws had snapped clean off. This in itself was not shocking; he has grown used to such sights over the years. It was the sudden similarities between this dead thing and his daughter that had weighed heavily on him.

The ground is sparse, save a carpet of thin roots, winding their way into the earth. Moving to the edge of the clearing, where the barren undergrowth makes something of a return, he begins his hunt. He cultivates beetroot here, where the shade is weak in the day. The root is hardy, even against the bitter frost. He slips a knife from his long overcoat pocket and begins to scrape at the soil. His fingers are white, or blue. It is hard to tell in the fading light.

He will find the beetroot and return home, before the coldness truly sets in. He left the house first thing this morning and hasn’t seen Bianca since last night, when he tucked her in for bed. He thinks of the rabbit again, and shivers.

Bianca loves beetroot and he won’t disappoint his little one so close to Christmas. Boiled, pickled, in sandwiches and on salads. He would bring her an armful, if he could find it, to keep her strength and her weight up. For several minutes he goes on, his efforts fruitless. The leaves are here but he cannot break through the earth to the taproots. Determined, he takes to stabbing the soil with the knife-blade.

A flash of purple leaps from the earth. His hopes leap with it, only to be dashed when the thing squirms violently from his touch. The fat worm lingers for a moment before burrowing away. The encroaching cold nips at his flesh as, wrapping his overcoat tight around him, he rises from the ground. It is too late now. He will have to return tomorrow, with daylight and a spade, and dig properly.

His teeth chatter, his breath white on the air, as he turns and strides from the clearing, alone except for thin trees and thinner shadows stretching from their trunks.

II

Grace’s breath clings to the window; a delicate whiteness that turns the glass pane foggy. Her eyes crease then soften as a shadow at the forest’s edge steps out towards her cottage. Its confident stride bears it purposefully closer and she fancies she can see John’s face; the warmth of his brown eyes, his sleek black hair and delicate lips, offset against that proud jaw.

The wind howls, the trees shiver and the man is but a shadow again.

“Mum?”

She turns from the window as Bianca’s bedroom door swings open. The cottage is old, its layout mostly confined to the ground floor. There is an attic, where they store furniture, and a small basement filled with their jams. When Bianca is older they might have to address the issue of space but, for now, the build suits them well.

“And what are you doing up, young lady?”

“I had a dream.”

Her daughter stumbles sleepily into her arms. Her pajamas are deceptive but, pressed against her, she is as hard as ice. Bones protrude where there should be soft flesh as she trembles in Grace’s arms. Kneeling down slowly, she reaches out to sweep the hair from the girl’s eyes.

“Let’s get you some blankets to warm you with.”

“No, I’m not cold!”

“Well let’s find some blankets anyway, for me, then. You can tell me about your dream.”

“I was lost in the forest.”

“And what were you doing out in the forest on your own?” she asks, carefully pulling the throw from the sofa. Bianca stands unmoving while she drapes the throw around her daughter’s shoulders.

“I was looking for Dad. It was dark but I could see everything below me clearly. I felt like I was flying.”

“Did you find him?”

“No, but I saw other things, moving between the trees. Swarming like ants, or the spiders you sweep from under my bed. All arms and legs and they were covered in blood –”

“Bianca –”

“But they were, and when they looked up their eyes were wide and white, so white –”

“Nightmares aren’t real,” she comforts, leading the child over to the glowing fireplace. “And besides, your father will be back soon.” The fire smolders in the hearth. Chunks of charcoal bake in its embers. Already the girl is starting to feel warmer in her arms. “Forget it all, it was just a bad dream.”

“It wasn’t bad.”

“What?”

“It wasn’t a bad dream. I could feel everything, like it was all me. I was in the trees and the ice and the blood of the things below –”

“Bianca –”

“Cold but hungry –”

“Stop, Bianca. That’s quite enough of that.”

They sit together by the fire for a while longer, toasting their hands and feet, before she sends the girl back to bed. Not until the bedroom door clicks shut does she move, returning from the crackling fireplace to her previous post at the window. Snow has started falling, blanketing the night-time forest in a crisp white cape. Although she has stood at the window a hundred times before now, she decides the forest looks different tonight. She sends a thought to John, wandering somewhere beneath the old aller trees. She wishes he would hurry up. The beet doesn’t matter anymore. There are other days to forage. It will do more harm than good for him to linger in the dark.

III

He will be home soon, if he picks up his pace. In a matter of minutes he could find himself looking across a steaming casserole and a generous pint into Grace’s face. Even after twenty-two years, she is no less beautiful than the first day they had met.

He has always felt different to other people. The world is moving faster than he can keep up with. Their traditional ways are almost dead, but the village offers some respite. Here, between the trees, they are free to be themselves. Grace understands this. Tired, hungry and alone in the cold, he has never missed her more.

The wind whines through the treetops, carrying with it a flurry of snow and ice and something else that Midwinter’s evening. He turns in time to see an owl as it soars overhead.

The bird is beautiful. It glides silently, like a ghost, its creamy feathers stark against the blackness of the night sky. There are not many left, now, here or anywhere; ghosts in more than just appearance. Perhaps the cold has driven it here. Perhaps its business is not so different to his own. The night-time forest is full of hunters and their prey.

He is about to resume walking when another shape catches his eyes. Pale against the black night and thin enough that he had taken it for outstretched branches, the silhouette springs from a tree onto the passing bird. The owl’s scream pierces the woods as it is snatched from the sky.

“What –”

A mass of shadows erupts from the undergrowth around him. Limbs flail like leafless branches, skeletal and pale in the moonlight. Moans of relief rise over desperate gasps. He turns to run, but makes no more than a few steps before long fingers find his neck. They are a woman’s hands, stained red, reminding him of Grace’s fingers, all those years ago, their tips coloured bright with raspberries. Then other hands grasp his arms and the softness of his stomach and he crumples to the earth, blanketed by a frenzy of feverish activity.

IV

Grace has just set a saucepan of water to boil when something scuttles overhead. She shouts as she jumps, knocking the pan to the floor. Warm water spills out, running quickly into the wooden cracks, but her attention is fixed on the ceiling. There is movement in the attic; a definite scrabbling, as though something small is seeking entry to the house. If the squirrels are back, there will be blood on her hands this evening.

Bianca does not seem to have woken, at least. She offers a silent prayer of thanks. It would do the girl’s childish imagination no good to hear the noises petering down from the above.

After a minute of silence she stirs, and in ten steps has retrieved a broom from the utilities cupboard. The broom feels reassuring in her grasp, like it belongs with her, and she it. There isn’t much in the world she can’t shift with this broom, she reminds herself, or else beat senseless. Moving to stand beneath the attic trapdoor, she brings her weapon of choice to bear on the old wood.

Three thuds reverberate throughout the cottage before the trapdoor falls open and a thin ladder slides out. Peering upwards, she places a foot on the first rung.

With a splintered crash the cottage door blows inwards. The window shatters and her world with it, shards of ice and glass scattering across the room. The ceiling spins as she tumbles from the ladder to the floor, her heart hammering in her chest. The cold rushes inside and, with it, a dozen figures.

She guesses a dozen, but there might be more, the room seeming to blur around her. She does see thin arms, long-fingered hands and pale skin made pink and blue from the cold. The icy air fills her eyes and mouth, and with it the sweet tang of spoiled meat. She has smelled it once before, when their dog had crawled beneath the cottage to die three years ago.

One of them hovers by the doorway, neck stretching as it seems to scent the air. Eyes flutter as its mouth opens and in a moment of sickness she feels its hunger inside herself. The room is still spinning, her surroundings stretching, the open mouth gaping wider and wider until there is nothing else but the blackness of its throat, impossibly black, an abyssal blackness with no end.

She has heard tales of the Gluttons, had been warned about them when she was a young girl, but she had never taken them seriously. Perhaps it is the nature of the hungry, to forget. She had heard that before, too, at the Christmas market one year. Witnessing the stark truth of these bony limbs, these wasted arms and mouths dark with old blood, she knows she will never forget again.

She seems to feel their hands on her all once. The famished throw themselves over her, claiming her for their own; joined by every thumbprint, ever finger, every palm wrapped tightly around her skin. She burns with their cold touch. Light flickers overhead as faces swim before it, and she imagines the winter sun, speeding low through the sky, its dappled light fractured by the treetops. In this moment she is one with these ghouls, made whole by their beating hearts, their desperate breaths; their endless hunger on this, the longest night, when the stomachs of every man, woman and child roar in anticipation of the coming festivities.

It is their human hunger, and it is the hunger of the trees around her. Branches bite her arms, and the back of her neck as she tumbles into the cold outside. It is the ravening winter, gnawing at her eyes and hands and the soles of her feet, and the insatiable night, stripping her of sight, of self, of any awareness save that of appetite. She screams, and her voice is voracious. She howls and her song is hunger. She moans and the swarm moans with her; a chorus at once nourished by the abyss and obliterated by it. She lives and dies and feeds in the darkness.

~ Thomas Brown

© Copyright 2014 Thomas Brown. All Rights Reserved

Damned Words 10

door

Misery
Thomas Brown

Misery rolled with the dogs in the shadows of Tompkin’s shed.

On August 25th, 1968, Mike Callahan hung himself from a cross-beam in the ceiling. The wood was old and riddled with rot but it held his weight well enough.

On July 13th, 1985, Sarah Paulson was stabbed in the neck while tending to the potted bulbs on the windowsill. She died instantly. The bulbs never sprouted.

1989, fire. 1997, rape.

In 2001, the Tompkins moved in. The shed became a doghouse. Two-year old Muttley howled perpetually. Three coats of paint couldn’t hide the stains seeping through the skirting board.


Inner Sanctum
Jon Olson

Don’t open it! Leave it shut! You must not let them in. I know you’re tired. You spent years building this place; this hideout; this inner sanctum. Yes, although you can’t see them, your victims are in here too. They coax you to open it; to reveal yourself to the real world. It would be so easy, so relieving, to turn the knob and walk out. No more hiding or pretending. But then what? What will you be out there? Condemned. In here, you rule; you are god. That’s right, step back and let’s go find us a new victim.


Home, Never Sweet, Home
Tyr Kieran

Standing in this place again, after all these years, makes my scars tingle. I swear I can still taste the fear, the spilled blood, the unnatural appetites. Just by looking around, you can see that it was a house of torment; that the structure itself acquiesced to the display of wicked sins. And yet, despite the hatred I bear for my family and this past, I’ve always felt the need to return—a subconscious compulsion to revisit and relive. So, I’ve come back and brought with me this nice trembling family to whom I will gladly pass on the tradition.


Mind Palace
Zack Kullis

In prison I walked the only halls I could – those of my mind.  Once luxurious, they now sit in rot and degradation.  Twenty years ago this palace was filled with vivid splendor.  But memory without input is like a sail without wind – damned to stagnation.

I created this entire place, with the exception of a troublesome door in the darkest recess.  No longer able to resist, I open it.  A loathsome horde escapes and fills me with their cries of lunacy.  The open door shows my cell, its inhabitant raving.  My hoarse cackle echos that of the imprisoned maniac.


Portal
Magenta Nero

The force shredded the meat from her bones, flesh flaying like curls of thin paper. She felt herself as a trembling skeleton, the frame that once held her image, her story. Then that too disintegrated in the searing heat. You need to be on the brink to make a choice like that, to challenge the very fabric of the universe, to bend time to your will. The portal opens, a swirling whirlpool of unstable energy, threatening to fold in on itself and disappear. Time at her fingertips and no time to hesitate. She approached the blinding light, she stepped through.


Shadow World
Blaze McRob

One lousy layer of wood is all that separates me from what waits on the other side. Yet, I have fared better than the rest of the town. I am still alive.

I tried warning them, but they laughed at me the way they always did. When they came, it was too late. I should have just fucking gone and not worried about them. I did try. The fault is theirs.

I walk to the door, open it, and embrace the Dark. They are out there, shadows begetting shadows. No more waiting. I am ready.

I am one of them…


ZAP
Leslie Moon

Dusty are those memories: HORSE, the gas scooter we built, the telegraph system…

What is it that two tom-boys saw in that old shack? We imagined a spark could give us a glimpse into history. You held the wire while I hosed the area. You vanished with the last of the sparks; I kept the ashes.

Every year, I go back to find me and see you. I get one question – you always evade the Edison one. This year something is different instead of you answering a question about another century you’re holding a sparking wire and that same dripping hose.


Click
Nina D’Arcangela

Cowering in the corner, I muffle the ceaseless pounding upon my psyche with useless hands that cover my ears. The thunderous clamor from the other side continues night into day, day into night. I watch the walls quiver with each new assault upon my senses; the crack in the floor creeps closer and closer with each quake of the jam. Cold and alone, this huddling in dank misery seems endless. I crawl forward; the battering stills in pregnant pause. I reach for the key in the old lock; listen to its bare click as it disengages. The door swings open…


One-Third
Craig McGray

The world is different now, so fucking different. At first, things seemed random; pockets of disease spreading slightly before being contained, angry mobs destroying their own communities, financial crises. We were too arrogant to see the bigger picture, a picture that didn’t include more than two-thirds of the planet’s population. And now, I’m the one-third of my family still alive. I know what atrocities wait beyond that door because I’ve survived the horrors on this side of that same door. I step over the severed heads and gnashing jaws of my wife and son as I reach for the handle.


Part
Joseph A. Pinto

The chandelier hung here once; your eyes caught in its crystal, cast into a thousand shards, yet I could not see who you were. It is gone now. So are the tools that spurred us, tore all down. I have kept to my menial task of rebuilding; oh, the drudgery of my clumsy fingers through dust clotted hours of toil. Our palace razed, I recall the promise you once glimpsed through these slatted boards. I hold fast to that vision. Our walls crumbled; this foundation strong. You are part of it now. Each pass of my trowel layers your smile.


Each piece of fiction is the copyright of its respective author
and may not be reproduced without prior consent.
Image © Copyright Dark Angel Photography. All Rights Reserved.

Enough

The moonless night embraced Chris as he stood in the foothills high above the small town. He cowered underneath the empty sky and swallowed the bile that was his self-loathing.

Disgust paraded across his wounded soul like an ugly Mardi Gras procession, its movements suggestive of cutting, its rhythm a macabre lurching. Chris covered his ears in the quiet. Even when he was alone, he heard the ceaseless badgering that spewed out from the world. It berated his every move and word.

Work, school and seemingly every moment of his existence were filled with ridicule and scowls that screamed he wasn’t good enough. A few years ago he had reached out to somebody at the suicide prevention center, but the volunteer told him he was being a selfish kid that was just looking for attention. Even killing himself wasn’t enough. He screamed to the night until his throat hurt.

With the exception of his mother, he had never been good enough. She loved him and cherished him regardless of what happened, until dementia robbed her mind and callused her heart. His loneliness and aching consumed him after she was gone. It was all too much. A second guttural cry erupted from his quivering lips as Chris cursed the great emptiness above him.

He looked up at the sky, made blurry by wet eyes, and wondered why darkness couldn’t be darker, why the blade never cut deep enough. The blood was never enough to carry him away, and the darkness of the night was never enough to hide him.

“It’s never enough,” he whispered.

The words bounced around in his mind with awful familiarity until Chris saw them for what they were. It was the same shit he had heard for years, and now those hateful seeds had sprung unwanted in his mind. He couldn’t allow himself to go down that path. His mind fought feverishly to come up with an answer.

He wiped the tears off his cheeks as he realized that he had been going about this all wrong. The night had always held him close, and it had given him comfort and listened to his cries. For years, it had whispered ideas of impossible freedom in his dreams. Why had he never listened to what the voices in the darkness said? No, the darkness of the night was right. It had always been enough.

What about the blade? Wasn’t it always enough for a release? It was the only thing that married pleasure and pain into a meaningful emotion that wasn’t riddled with hate.

The epiphany was sweet and impossible to ignore. He heard those same whispers that came to him in his sleep, and he knew he could do it – should do it. His desire to become closer to the darkness quickly turned into a raw urge. Chris slid out from the jacket he wore and took off his shirt. Cool air surrounded him, hugged him, and carried away his negative emotions. The whispers became clearer.

He quickly took the rest of his clothes off and gave himself completely to the night. The wind hardened his nipples, tickled the hair of his body, and buffeted his flaccid length like an ethereal lover. This was all he needed.

The night had taken his self-loathing and carried it away on its cool breath. He had only to give himself to the darkness and it would consume the bad. Chris ran some fingers over the scars on his arms and he longed for the blade and the pleasure of the wet cutting. Part of him wondered if he would need the blade anymore, or its accompanying blood, but he also knew it was his only access to pleasure. The wind brought the night’s whispering to him clearly and he smiled.

“Yes, there’s only one way to find out.” He took the knife out of his clothes and pressed the tip into his arm as he started down the mountainside.

The black night clung tenaciously to the early morning sky as his bare feet crunched across the dry grass in the yard. Chris still wondered about what he was going to do, but the darkness couldn’t be wrong. He stopped in the middle of the yard and looked at the fresh cut on his arm. It hadn’t given him the same release that it normally did. There was still the intoxicating mix of pain and pleasure, but something had changed. He had changed. Opening himself to the darkness had fundamentally altered him.

“Ergo,” whispered Chris as he pulled the knife out of the sheath, “the release must change.”

He used the edge of the Benchmade dagger to spread his drying blood across his arm. It was as dark as the deepest night. Chris looked up into the barren sky and spoke in reverent tones. “Under your potent gaze my blood is dark, just as you’ve made me.”

He slipped the dagger back into the sheath tied around his bare thigh and walked across the rest of the yard. His dirty feet stepped onto the smooth concrete of the patio. The basement door was unlocked. Chris stepped into the warm air and the smell of a home that was foreign to him. He walked into a game room and plucked two billiard balls off the table.

The ability and freedom to control his destiny was like a drug. He knew what he was going to do, and it made him feel like a god. Once he had accepted the empowering darkness of the night, he had become something more than he had ever imagined. He was enough.

Chris rummaged through three rooms before he found what he was looking for. His new fate had blessed him with a nearly empty home. The only person in the house was a guy that he had known in school years ago. This guy hadn’t been more antagonistic than the others, although he had beaten the shit out of him a few times, but that didn’t matter. What mattered now was the release. He had cut and shed enough – now it was time for others to provide him with what he needed and deserved.

The billiard balls knocked against each other as they fell into the toes of the sock. He grabbed the sock by the end and let the balls swing slightly as he walked over to the bed. The sound of snoring masked his approach. He swung the sock over his head as he watched the sleeping form. The guy’s name came to mind just as he woke up. Jason’s eyes fluttered briefly until he noticed the movement. He jerked in his bed, his face a picture of shock and horror, and started to cry out. The billiard balls picked up speed and Chris slammed them into Jason’s jaw.

The oddly quiet crunch of the broken jaw muffled much of the scream. Chris started to reach for the dagger when he saw that Jason was completely unconscious. He looked around and found a few ties in the closet and quickly tied Jason’s wrists and ankles to the bedposts. Once that was done, he walked back around to the head of the bed and pulled one of the billiard balls out of the sock.

He looked down at the unconscious form and was in awe over how easy it was. There was no fear. There was no remorse. It was just as the night had whispered it would be. He felt calm and at ease. If this was the price to live free and finally be enough, then it was something he should have done a long time ago.

Chris reached down and pushed the mangled jaw open. Jason’s eyes shot open and a scream erupted from his swollen face. Chris quickly shoved the billiard ball into Jason’s mouth, busting many of his teeth in the process. His victim thrashed frantically on the bed until he pulled the dagger out and flashed it before Jason’s eyes.

“Stop moving or things will get ugly.”

Jason kept jerking his legs and had almost ripped himself free from the ties. Chris shrugged his shoulders and picked up the sock with the other ball still inside. He swung it over his head a few times and brought it crashing down onto Jason’s leg. He had been aiming for the knee but hit the large bone just below it, breaking it with a dull crack. Jason screamed and he started to swing the sock and ball again. He smashed one kneecap and then swung the ball even harder, pulverizing Jason’s other knee.

Chris glanced at Jason’s face and saw that he had passed out again. “That won’t work,” he said as he dropped the sock. He slapped Jason across the face as he pulled his dagger out. Jason woke with a start and looked imploringly at him. He slowly moved his head side-to-side; his eyes spelled out the pleas his mouth couldn’t form.

“Your begging and crying won’t work, Jason. I’m not here for something as petty as vengeance. This is about the release, although you probably wouldn’t understand that. A guy like you would never appreciate it.”

Chris took the tip of the dagger and pressed it lightly against the flesh of Jason’s thigh. Jason went completely still, his eyes wide with terror. He sobbed and breathed heavily through his nose. Chris smiled as he spoke. “No, Jason, this hasn’t been enough yet.”

He watched with bated breath as he put a little more pressure on the dagger. Jason’s skin dipped slightly with the point, but couldn’t resist the sharp blade. The dagger sunk a few inches into the fatty tissue of Jason’s thigh. Chris ignored the thrashing and pushed the blade deeper before he started to cut down towards the ruined knee.

The blood ran freely. It coursed down Jason’s leg and mingled with the shocking white fragments of his shattered knee. Ecstasy filled Chris as he reveled in how bright the blood and bone were. He looked down at his naked body and realized just how excited he had become. This was what he had always wanted and needed. But there was one piece that was missing.

Chris pulled the knife out and felt the sudden urge to lick the blade. Was that it? The darkness within him intensified with the anticipation. He lifted the dagger to his lips. The blood smelled like a wet penny. Chris slid his quivering tongue down the flat portion of the dagger. The salty metallic flavor was at once both sweet and familiar. It was like Sangria with salt and iron.

“Still not quite enough,” Chris sighed.

He pushed the blade into Jason’s thigh again and started to cut back and forth like his mother used to do with rolls of liverwurst. Jason bucked and shook in the bed, and his eyes rolled into the back of his head as he fought to stay conscious. Chris reached down, grabbed a warm slippery chunk of flesh and pulled. The morsel was almost free. It was hard to see where it was still connected because of the massive pool of blood, but Chris felt around inside the wound and finished cutting the pieces of muscle that were still connected. The mass of tissue felt warm in his hand.

“Will you hold this for me?” Chris asked as he held the dagger out to Jason. He drove the dagger down into Jason’s gut and then held up the bloody chunk. Chris peeled the skin away from the fatty layer and smelled it. His excitement grew exponentially; his body responded in quivers. He opened his mouth and dropped it in. It tasted like nothing he had ever tried. His excitement reached a climax and he cried out through a mouthful of thigh.

Chris swallowed the tidbit and wiped the blood on his hands across his mouth, face and chest. Relief and pleasure rolled over him in waves. He looked into Jason’s face and saw no sign of disdain, no sign of ridicule or scorn. Jason’s agony and fear had replaced the hatred and judging. Only the night could tell him if he was enough or not. Never again would it be in the hands of another person.

“I’m almost done here,” Chris said as he reached for his dagger. “There is only one more thing to do.”

He grabbed the dagger and pulled it towards him. Jason’s gut split and leaked organs like a mass of thick worms. Chris scooped his other hand into the opening, pulling out more of Jason’s entrails until the abdominal cavity served as a bowl. He cupped his hand, filling it with the smelly ichor in Jason’s open wound and smeared it all over his body.

Chris finished covering himself and glanced back at Jason’s face. He was nearly gone. He took his bloody hand and caressed Jason’s face as a mother would a child.

“Thank you,” he said as he put the dagger back in the sheath. He stood back from the bed and relished the feeling of being enough. Chris knew this satisfaction was temporary, as it had been with the self-harm. But the night would fill both him and the sky again and give him the ability to be a god. He would be ready because he was finally enough.

~ Zack Kullis

© Copyright 2014 Zack Kullis. All Rights Reserved

Life In The Pit

I stood among chaos.

Bodies swarmed in all directions, screaming. My heart thumped, pounding erratically as if desperately trying to catch its breath. The mêlée—a whirlwind of life and death—churned around me. My clothes were spattered in mingled sweat and grime. The pit was terrifying.

I fought against the swell of sanity-breaking panic every single time I stepped into the pit and faced the sea of aggressors. It always felt like one against a thousand. It was hell. It was my job.

I enriched or ruined lives on a daily basis, my own included. As a floor trader for the New York Stock Exchange, I battled the greedy horde for a greater share of the same pool of wealth. Think of it as planned chaos brought forth by a den of thieves who were jockeyed by self-made Gods. No good would come from it and failure was never an option.

Life in the pit was intense. It was a constant physical and mental brawl. There were a few times where I felt like I was drowning in the crowd of jostling bodies, but I kept my head above water—for six years now—by moving, staying fluid, and working hard. Any moment not spent in the rough bump-and-grind of the fray, I would frantically scour through reports, analytics, predictions, news; praying for a tip that would offer the upper hand.

I can’t remember a day without barbed wired stress raking through my veins. I fear soon, either the thread clinging to my sanity will snap or a swollen blood vessel in my brain will rupture and drop me like a sack of wet concrete; just one more failed investment, one missed booming trend, or one more raw deal would be enough.

My last backfired barter came from Bryce ‘Midas’ Wentworth. You can guess why people called him that. He’d only worked the floor for eight months and was already the Trader of the Year frontrunner, earning the status through blind luck in cheap investments or twisted facts to saddle other traders with collapsing deals. He sabotaged my success on multiple occasions, each time punctuating the stolen deal with a toothy grin through the throng.

Just this morning, as I stood at the edge of the pit waiting for the bell to ring, he bumped past me, spilling coffee all over my shirt, flashing that grin.

“Pardon me,” he said, smiling. “But, I’m a busy man.”

The sight of him chilled my blood to a slow-moving slush. The hot beverage sizzled against my flesh; my pulse rising like hot mercury.

When the bell rang, it snapped my attention back to the pit.

Traders swarmed the floor, shouting and waiving paper slips at each other, and I relaxed my white-knuckle grip on the pen in my pocket.

Watching the pandemonium for a moment, I enjoyed a deep breath. For the first time, I felt calm and in control—comfortable in the chaos. Who knew that an old method, a simple decision, would set me free. I brandished a smile of my own and joined the dense crowd, weaving my way to the middle.

Wentworth doesn’t know that I served time in lock down before serving time in the pit. On the inside, we handled blatant disrespect a little differently. He’s gonna learn all about it. And, this time, I won’t even have to carve up a perfectly good toothbrush.

~ Tyr Kieran

© Copyright 2014 Tyr Kieran. All Rights Reserved.

Tid Bits

He sits in the bell tower: watching, waiting; scenting the air.

It has been far too long since his last meal, not because he hungers, but because he craves. So many years of eating spoiled meat, the rotted flesh of the dead; so much time held in subjugation, fearing the wrath of a god that does not exist – these things no longer shackle him, he no longer recognizes a master other than his own desire. However, the invasion of his privacy, his sanctuary, after the last frenzy came to light has forced him to stay his hand, to crawl back into the warren beneath the ground to avoid unwanted attention; as well as forced an unnatural silent abandonment of his home. This is his true birthplace – the place he shed the bonds of superstition and started living for himself; he is loath to leave it.

So he sits in the bell tower of the old church that boarders his domicile and he waits.

A fog sits heavy upon the ground this night, cloaking all but the nearest object, masking all but the loudest sound – but not to his senses. He sees and hears with a sharpness the pathetic human rabble can’t even comprehend. Frustration and anger setting in, he is about to descend from his perch when he hears it…

***

“Come on! I know you’re scared, but do you want to go back and let him beat you again?” The boy’s hushed voice asks, “I’m not gonna let him hurt me again, and I don’t wanna let him hurt you.”

Her small hand trembling in his, one only slightly larger than the other, she looks to her older brother through the mist with tears running over her chubby, flushed cheeks. “No… I don’ wanna let Uncle hurt you or me no more. But Mommy and Daddy said we should stay there. That man read it from the special paper. The paper that said Uncle was s’posed to take care of us until they came back.” Tucking her head into the dirty teddy bear she clutches in the crook of her arm, she begins to sob – small feet trying to keep pace with her brother.

“Look, Mom and Dad aren’t coming back. That man with the paper said they are dead – do you know what that means? Dead!” Hearing her wail even louder, he stops for a moment to kneel in front of her. “Look, I’m sorry I yelled at you, and I’m sorry I said mom and dad are dead so mean like that, but it’s the truth – I know you don’t want it to be true, I don’t want it to be true, but it is. So now it’s just you and me, and we gotta protect ourselves.”

“Uncle is s’posed to protect us…” she shouts, spittle flying from her swollen pink lips.

Jumping up and clamping a hand over her mouth, he tells her to hush. Tells her that if anyone hears them, they’ll be sent back to Uncle’s house and he’ll beat them for trying to run away. He tells her he’s bringing her to say goodbye to their mom and dad before finding them a new safe home where they don’t have to worry about being afraid of a backhand that will tear her cheek open, or a strap that will leave him too sore to sit for days. Gently rubbing his thumb over her injured face, he sees it begin to bleed again. “C’mon,” he yanks her small arm out of anger; anger at himself, anger at their parents for dying and leaving them on their own. “We’re doing this and you had better stop crying about it or I won’t let you say goodbye to Mom and Dad. Do you understand?” This last statement hushes her bawling, and she nods her head as hiccups and quiet shudders escape with her heaving chest and still watering eyes.

Feeling ashamed of scaring her into silence, he puts his head down and starts walking once more.

Listening all the while, the Ghoul’s quills vibrate with the stuttering rhythm of her nearly imperceptible weeping. They are headed his way; where else would dear old Mom and Dad be if not in his burial ground? One clawed nail rap-tap-taps on the exterior metal of the bell before scratching its way down the surface, sending out an eerie wail of protest from the bronze. He begins making his way to the ground.

***

“I can’t go no more,” she protests as she plunks herself down upon the sidewalk.

“We’re almost there,” he replies as he pulls on her arm trying to get her to stand. “I told you to put on sneakers not those silly shoes. Now, come on, get up.”

“I like my pretty shoes, momma gave them to me! She said they were my princess shoes!” The bear is thrown; her arms cross her chest in protest. Looking into her face, he can see he’s made another mistake; her lips are curling, cheeks puffing up, and eyes beginning to squint for yet another outburst.

“Shh.” Finger to his lips, he bends down. “I’ll carry you and you don’t have to worry about walking. Okay?” he pleads, hoping she won’t start screaming this close to their destination.

From the fog, another voice answers, “Let me. I’m much stronger and I believe where you are headed is just over to the left.” Both children freeze in terror, trying to peer through the dense fog to see who is addressing them.

Slowly, walking with a paced gate, a hunched figure begins to emerge. Holding the teddy bear out in front of it, it speaks to them once again. “I have your toy animal, would you like it back? And if you are tired, I can easily carry the both of you.” He comes into partial view – the boy pisses himself, the girl begins to giggle.

“Are you a giant talking puppy?”

The hair along his spine bristles in protest, “No child, I am not a giant puppy. I am something entirely other. But I can pretend to be a puppy if you’d like?” Sensing the boy’s need to flee, the creature reaches out a hand and lays it heavily on his shoulder. Addressing the little girl once more, he inquires, “Would you like to ride on me the rest of the way so that your pretty shoes don’t hurt your feet? You can pretend I’m a puppy, I don’t mind.” He grins, being sure to keep his lips sealed, hiding his teeth.

The girl leaps from the ground, and after reclaiming her teddy bear, climbs upon him. Gritting his teeth at the indignity, he allows the grin to slip as he stares the boy in the eye.

“Okay puppy, let’s go,” she kicks his flanks with her wooden orthopedic shoes and clutches tiny fistfuls of his highly sensitive hair. Bearing the humiliation, he nearly drags the boy along as they proceed to the graveyard.

Reaching the field-stone wall, he bounds over with the one child holding firmly to his back while tossing the boy onto the grass. Retrieving him once more, the Ghoul asks for the name of their parents.

The little girl pipes up that her mommy’s name is Rose as she pulls and stretches his skin with tiny digging fingers. Finding his humor for this game fading fast, he draws the boy close to his face and, with much malice in his tone, asks again for their parents name. The boy replies that it is Rose – their last name is Rose. Their mother is Chistina and their father is Benjamin.

Breathing fetid breath into the boy’s face, he mocks, “I guess that makes you little Bennjie then, doesn’t it?”

“His name is Christopher… he was named after mommy. Do you want to know my name? Do ya? Do ya, puppy?” The growl that issues from his throat is not intended, but he does not bother to cut it short, either. The small girl stops laughing and becomes still. With his free hand, he reaches around and plucks her from his back. Lifting the boy with in his other hand, he begins to bound toward the portion of the cemetery where they may be interred.

Reaching the proper area, he slows and asks the boy where their marker is. There is no response. He glances down and sees the boy’s vacant stare. “Well, point then if you are too much a dullard to speak in my grasp.” The boy motions slightly with his head; the creature nods as he recalls the planting of the Roses’ and their elegant yet modest gravestone. Striding to where they rest, he tosses both children to the ground.

“Here you are children, reunited with Mommy and Daddy once again. I believe I overheard you discussing saying goodbye to them before moving on, is that correct, Bennjie?”

Rushing to her bother to clasp her arms around his neck, the little girl defiantly states, “I told you his name is not Bennjie! His name is Christopher!” Her face is red once more, in anger this time. “You’re just a big meanie – a monster that no one likes!”

A full grin splits the Ghoul’s face this time, his teeth glinting with saliva. The girl stares, not comprehending.

“I beg your pardon, my sweet one. I’ll ask again. Christopher, is this or is this not the grave of your parents?” He takes one knee before the children, placid, calm. Christopher nods once.

With lighting speed, the demon whirls and punches a fist through the packed earth, through the lid of the uppermost casket and rips dear mommy from the grave. Her putrescent corpse drips a trail of pealing tissue and carries a noxious fume as he holds it before them. Both stare in terror.

“Well go on, give mommy a kiss goodbye. That’s what you came here for, isn’t it? To say goodbye… here is your chance. You don’t want it? Don’t you think Mommy would like a hug and a kiss before you ungrateful little shits disobey her and your father’s wishes? Hmm?” He growls, “No takers,” and flashed his fangs in full display.

“Fine, I’ll just give your Mommy a goodbye kiss for you.” And with that, he turns and bites clean through the front portion of her skull, ripping the still clinging sinew and tissue away with a horrendous sucking sound amid the crunching of bone.

Turning back, he leers at both children before spitting their mother’s face onto the ground at their side.

The little girl begins to screech hysterically while clutching her brother. With a flick of his forefinger, he silences her by sending her tiny body tumbling several graves away. The boy has still not moved; he sits frozen, gaping at his decaying mother.

“Damn!” the Ghoul declares as he tosses the corpse at the boy’s feet. He stares at the small girl, hoping he hasn’t killed her. He detests eating dead flesh. After a moment or two, he sees slight movement and hears the beginnings of a groan. As the faint groan develops to a moan, adrenaline courses through him. In a leap, he is upon the child. He lifts her by her head and with two strides is back at her brother’s side.

She screams hysterically for Christopher to help her while clutching her auburn capped head. Growing tired of her ceaseless kicking and the cacophony emitting from such a small mouth, the creature starts to squeeze her cranium until she can no longer screech. The kicking – now only a spastic jerking motion. Easing his grip, her body relaxes but her feet continue their odd peddling.

Holding the child before his gruesome, viscera covered face, the Ghoul asks the little girl to tell him her name. Her blank stare gives him the answer he seeks – the child is no longer capable of comprehension, the pressure on her skull too great; it has deadened her brain. Wide eyed like a porcelain doll, she stares back at him, drool puddling in her gaping mouth, and overflowing her lower lip.

Without removing his eyes from the little girl, he asks Christopher to tell him her name. Listlessly Christopher replies, “Deborah. Her name is Deborah, but everyone calls her Orie.” The monster lets out a resounding cackle, leans forward and delicately pinches Orie’s pink tongue between his front teeth. Once he has a firm hold on it, he slowly pulls backward until it, and a portion of her esophagus, tears free from her tiny body. With a slapping sound, it strikes his chest. Slowly, sucking bite by sucking bite, he consumes the delicate morsel. The drool now runs red with blood.

Bending down in front of Christopher, the creature asks if the boy would like to say goodbye to his sister. Christopher turns his head away.

The Ghoul bites into Orie’s face as though it were a ripe tomato. Juice spurts in all directions. Holding the small body to his mouth, he sucks it dry until there is no more fluid to take. Wanting to get to the organs before they cool, he rips the stomach cavity open and begins plucking them out one by one; the smallest he grabs in handfuls like raisins. After finally sucking the bones clean of their marrow, he tosses them to the side and turns his attention back to Christopher once more.

Sounds echo in the distance, Uncle must have discovered them missing and assumed they’d run to the cemetery.

The blood smeared visage before Christopher speaks to him again. “You know your legs are useless. You know they, and your spine, were shattered on the grave markers as we traveled to this place, yet you didn’t tell your sister even when she begged you to save her. Why? Why let her die thinking you didn’t care?”

“Does it matter?”

Considering the boy, the Ghoul reaches out and rips off his left leg, then the right. He laps the blood pouring from the arteries, then just as with the girl, he slices the stomach and chest cavity open. The child’s heart beats at an alarming rate, his breath rapid and shallow, his lungs gasping for air as his mind tries to process what his body can no longer feel. Looking the demon in the eyes, he speaks his final words.

“At least I won’t go to waste, huh?”

With his hand wrapped around the boy’s heart, the beast replies, “No, you certainly will not. The trouble you children have brought me will force me back into the warrens once again. But you and your sister made for a scrumptious snack.” Leering in pleasure, he rips the heart from the boy’s chest, devours it whole, then fades back into the fog.

~ Nina D’Arcangela

© Copyright 2014 Nina D’Arcangela. All Rights Reserved

Dark Lust

Droplets of water, impure at best, having been defiled by the pollutants above my present sanctuary, drip annoyingly around me. I bounce around like a child trying to avoid becoming ‘it’ in a game of tag. What is this annoying sport I am forced to play? Me, the Dark Angel, ruler of the sky above.

A ruler – that was yesterday, one so seemingly far back that mere remnants of recollection scratch at my mind. We live in the present, no better off for what once was. The future means naught either. The now; the manifestation of what is… that is what we are left with.

Listen to me, pandering on like a pathetic whiner instead of the glorious creature I am. Control! I need to take control of what surrounds me: seize it from the one who is depriving me of my birthright.

The ceiling of my inglorious cave refuses to cease its watery supplication to one who could be ruler of the sky above and of the land below. Yes, I could have ruled alongside him, but that would have meant a denigration of my status. I would have been a mere titular ornament.

Truth be known, I would have been nothing more than a slut at his beck and call. A woman of my superior stature, a Dark Angel born to rule, need not accept that.

Fresh air blows in through the cave opening, carrying with it the scent of love in the making, an aroma I have waited for far too long. If nothing else, I need to leave this place and get ready for my new now. I need to find this sensation for myself and carve out my kingdom.

Walking towards the opening of my cave, I find the sky to be dark when I venture outside. Ah, the perfect time of day for me. I stand bare naked. When I escaped his arms, I was left with nothing, forced to retreat with none of my former entourage either. How I long for their groveling at my feet, hoping to please me and curry my favor.

Pain strikes me as I unfold my wings. Too many years of not being used have relegated them to the arthritic state that the miscreant humans suffer as they age.

This is my time of rebirth – the pain means nothing.

One by one, my Dark feathers unfurl, telling me of their desire to fulfill their obligation to my wants and needs. Yes, individually they remember, and collectively they rejoice at my decision to take back what is mine. Like a tiger stretching in anticipation of the hunt, they become one force and ready themselves for what I expect of them.

My wings spread far as a smile crosses my face. Power… the power is being restored to me once more. My mind has wakened from its dormancy and is fully aware, and with it my body, that of a Queen preparing to ascend her throne once again. I shake off the inactivity of the past years.

Walking to the edge of the abyss wherein the valley lies before me, I jump out over the edge, feeling the rush as I fall, before allowing my wings to take flight. I soar, reveling in the slowly building majesty of the power my physicality adds to the ever-increasing strength of my mind, one that mere mortals could never hope to achieve.

I fly for hours, gaining strength and wisdom with each passing moment. The now. I exist for the moment. I have discarded the tarnished memories that would cling to me. Yesterday is slop for the sow; today is freedom.

Daybreak is approaching and with it, I will now be visible to the rabble below. It matters not to me – clothed or bare – I wish to bathe and remove the repugnant desecration coating my body.

A bubbling spring presents itself to me. Upon reaching it, I dip my right wing in and then my left, allowing the ebony appendages to warm the water to a soothing level. Ah, the majestic rising bubbles act like cleansing sponges, working their magic on every inch of my body.

Feelings and desires long forgotten rush back to me. They tug from every direction. My thighs twitch in anticipation of being satisfied by a playmate of my choice. My breasts rise to the top of the water; nipples harden and scream out in supplication. Yes, a lover is needed, one who will do as I wish by want for the sheer delight of pleasing me. A lust born of devotion; one devoid of all control.

But, there is much to do before the moment comes for me to sate my desires.

Foot falls approach as I am enjoying my prolonged bath to the fullest. Every step and pause relayed to my hyper-senses; my wing tips bristle in anticipation of what is to come. Another approaches from the opposite direction. Tsk, tsk…stupid vermin. A trick such as this will gain them nothing.

I wait until they have almost approached my position before I open my eyes. Both of them have a look of evil intent, a look not hidden from me as I see through to their souls.

“I did not invite you two to share my bath,” I say, making sure my lips are luscious and full as I leer at them mischievously.

One of them disrobes, steps into the spring. Faster than either of them can comprehend, my wing reaches him and slices his torso from the lower extremities of his body. A parody of the jester, both halves acting independently of each other, arms and legs working to achieve escape: a wish not to be granted. Before his worthless soul departs his body, I reach out as my right wing plucks out an eyeball. Popping it into my mouth, I enjoy the luscious tidbit as his other eye watches in horror.

His companion defecates his pants as he reaches the brush to add a coating of vile vomit to them.

“Would you like to join your friend?” I ask. “Or perhaps you might like to leave.”

Nodding up and down like the coward he is, he begins to run away. I land in his path and hand him the useless arm of his dead co-conspirator. He stutter-steps to a complete halt, shaking as if he were caught in a freezing blizzard.

“Don’t lose this,” I intone. “Deliver it to the one who dares usurp my power. Tell him the Dark Angel is back.”

Stepping aside, I allow him to scuttle by, relishing the lopsided motion of his movements caused by his self-defecation.

I return to the spring and stare at the remaining eye in the bobbing head. “See what my soul is like,” I say as I pluck it out and hold it before my face, then I place it in my mouth and chew it as if it were a grape.

Thirsty, I tear his head from his neck and sate my needs from the trickling blood. When I have finished, I toss the remnants of his body out of the blood bath and seek a fresh area of the spring in which to cleanse myself.

This magical valley has many springs, and it is only a matter of time before I find another one, one I remember well.

My adversary will not allow my mere return to his fiefdom. As much as he desires me for the pleasure I could reward him, my homecoming will show him I have no desire to keep the status quo as is. For all his faults, he is not stupid.

Patience, unlike before, is now a virtue of mine. I know he will come. My guess is it will not be long.

From all sides, they peasants gather. Yes, they stare, wanting to see who dares attempt to usurp the power of Kirsten. Their fear of him dictates that they come to display their support. I laugh at them, not feeling threatened in the least by the cowardly rabble. As for my nudity, what does it matter? The men and women both will lust after me once having seen me in my total splendor. I am not ashamed of who or what I am.

When a worthy garment can be sewn for me, then I will clothe myself, not before. I refuse to wear the rags of peasants.

An old woman, one whose ancestor I remember well, stands there, bearing a gold embroidered gown. She kneels and presents it to me as though it were a crown. I smile. Yes, this garment I will wear, but not before Kirsten and I settle things. I will allow no droplet of blood to taint it.

As I knew he would, he arrives in his usual grand manner. His wings, if anything, are even darker than mine, and they shine like precious stones in the light. But that smile, and his overly plump red lips give him a near feminine appearance. He circles, clad entirely in black, and any misconceptions about his sex are gone. The huge bulge in his trousers assures me of that. I provocatively move around under the water, displaying my charms to their best advantage.

He lands next to me, the audience around us waiting with bated breath. Kirsten may appear to be calm at the moment, but that could rapidly change. Many of the residents in the valley have fallen prey to his vicious mood swings. Perhaps I am not exactly a benevolent being myself, but my demands of obedience are not repaid with the sway of a child’s tantrum.

“Ah, my Dark Angel, I see you have returned,” he says. “You look the same as when you left, maybe even more of a spark in your eyes. And your charms are still lovely.”

“Not that you’ll ever get to take advantage of them, Kirsten. I pick and choose my lovers carefully. You don’t pass the test.”

One of those nasty mood swings is about to happen. My wings are like sensors, probing my surroundings at all times, warning me when I should take greater care. This is one of those times.

Or is it?

Throwing caution to the wind, my feathers reach out to him in an instant, wrapping themselves around his head and pulling him into the water. He struggles, but the advantage is mine. I tease him, allowing him to come up every now and again for a gulp of air. I want to stare into those eyes of his when he realizes what I have in store for him.

He reaches for me but is dragged backward. Confusion colors his face; chaos colors his world. Both of them evident in those black orbs as he stares at me in fright. I laugh as he is pulled around the spring; the water marks his bloodied trail. His blood…yes, the blood of a Dark Angel. We do bleed.

He returns to where I wait for him, a remnant of what he once was; pieces of jagged flesh jut down from his once haughty features. Hardly any skin is left on his desecrated body.

Ah… my lovelies. They cling to him yet, even above the surface of the water: trusted fish with teeth so sharp they could cut a metal rod in half. His shaking is not enough to disengage them. But those eyes, they must remain as I do what I need to do. My soul must be seen by my would be assailant.

Through what remains of his chest, I plunge my hand, using my nails when I must to part the sinew, and pull out his heart. I hold it high in the sky for the audience to view before I calmly take bite after bite out of it, teasing him with it; at one point even allowing the still beating life force to graze against his destroyed lips. When the last bite is taken and swallowed, what is left of him falls back into the water.

“Eat your fill,” I tell my pets, as they cleanse even the water of blood, and I wash one last time before standing up and motioning for the woman with my gown to come forward.

She smiles as she proudly carries it over to me and helps me put it on. I smile back. Not my usual style, but loyalty must be rewarded.

The rest of the onlookers watch me in fear, not knowing what to expect. They can find out another day. I need to go back to my old home. Kirsten has no use for it now.

When I arrive, the castle is ready for me. Servants are already there. And, when I walk into my bedroom, I find a young, muscular man, as well a petite woman with a sparkle in her eyes that says she will please me in whatever way I wish.

It is good to be back…

~ Blaze McRob

© Copyright 2014 Blaze McRob. All Rights Reserved

Sightseers

Becky Dunsworth could not believe her eyes when she and her boyfriend, Thomas Woods, emerged through the thick wall of spruce trees. Just as news agencies around the world had broadcast, Becky saw for herself that the town of Hume, Nova Scotia was dead. Some buildings remained intact; some were just shells surrounded by piles of rubble, and others had been completely demolished. She looked down at her feet and saw the paved street that they now stood on was badly damaged and showed years of neglect.

“I told you it was still here,” Thomas said, smiling.

“So that means their explanation all those years ago was just…” she trailed away.

“It was just a cover story to hide the truth.”

Thomas slid his backpack down off his shoulder, unzipped it and began rummaging around until he found what he was looking for – a digital camera. He took the lens cap off and turned it on, the LCD screen illuminating his face. It was only three o’clock in the afternoon but the sky was so overcast and grey that it made it seem closer to dusk.

“This is going to be great, Becky. We can finally prove that what’s his name, that Douglas guy, wasn’t off his rockers when he submitted his manuscript about what really happened here.”

Becky grinned, feeling excitement brewing inside of her but at the same time feeling a sense of dread. It was a small feeling and she quickly put it on the backburner so they could get down to business.

They started walking down what was once the main street in Hume – Williams Avenue. Every few steps, Thomas stopped and snapped off some pictures of the buildings. There were a few burnt-out cars scattered along the street but other than that, there was nothing obstructing their path. A Canada Post mailbox lay face down on the street, its slot wide open; a few yellow and weathered envelopes stuck out.

“Thomas, do you think what Michael Douglas wrote about was true?” Becky asked.

He lowered the camera and looked at her. “What, that strange creatures came out of doorways in our so-called reality that were made by flying discs?” He raised the camera again and took a picture of her. “I can tell you that I don’t believe that this place was destroyed by a tsunami, like the official reports said.”

“I suppose.”

They continued to walking with their footsteps echoing throughout the ruins. They soon came to the only junction on Williams Avenue and knew that they had reached the center of the town. Hume only had a population of three hundred when it was suddenly wiped off the map.

Only it wasn’t wiped off, Becky thought. Something had happened that the government felt the need to cover up.

A rustling of paper caught her attention and she looked toward the origin of the noise. In another fallen mailbox to her left, an old newspaper lay inside. She walked over to it, reached inside and pulled it out.

It was an issue of the Hume Daily News, dated July 3rd, 1990. The main headline was about Hume’s mayor stepping down, but the bottom right of the paper displayed a small story about reported UFO sightings.

“Hey Thomas, check this out.” She walked over to him. “It’s a paper from the day Hume was destroyed! I can’t believe it survived over twenty years inside that mailbox.”

Excitedly, Thomas took it from her and pulled a file folder from his backpack. “We have to keep this and put it somewhere in our book exposing the cover up.”

The wind had picked up and as they were about to continue on, a loud flapping noise made them both look around.

It sounded like heavy curtains molested by a strong wind through an open window. Puzzled, they started looking around for the source of the flapping.

“Up there,” Thomas said. He pointed up a street from the junction. He could barely make out the words Ferguson Road on the street sign. “Come on, let’s go check it out.”

Becky’s feeling of dread returned, stronger than before, but she again dismissed it as the excitement in Thomas’ eyes was infectious. They started up Ferguson Road but then stopped, mouths agape.

The sound originated from the edges of a large tear flapping in the wind. A fence encircled the tear, the base of which was roughly eight feet tall and made of solid concrete. Large steel rods poked straight out, reaching the top of the tear. Chain-linked fencing, as well razor and barbed wire, were strung up from pole to pole, coming together at the very top like a roof. The fence looked well maintained, which worried Becky.

“Holy shit, can you believe it?” Thomas said. “It’s just like he said it was.” A grin was starting to poke at the corners of his mouth. “The tears were… are real.” He raised the camera and started taking pictures. “Help me find something that I can climb to actually get a look inside that hole.”

“I don’t think that’s such a good idea, Thomas,” Becky said.

“Not a good idea? Are you crazy? I need to photograph it to get the evidence we need.” He looked around and saw a bench a few yards away. “Help me move that over.”

Before she could protest, Thomas was already sprinting over to the bench. She sighed and followed. The bench, at one time, had been bolted into the sidewalk but the bolts had long since rusted out. They each grabbed an end and began to carry it towards the fence. Becky glanced down and saw the initials “I.R. + L.E” carved into one of the boards, wondering who they were and what had happened to them.

“Set it here,” Thomas said. The bench was placed against the concrete base. “Pass me the camera once I climb up there.”

Becky nodded but her eyes protested. “I don’t like this.”

“I’m just going to snap a few pictures and then we can be on our way out of here. Okay?”

She nodded again.

Thomas stood on top of the bench and with a grunt, pulled himself up onto the top of the concrete base, careful not to cut himself on the barb or razor wire. He found a section of chain-link fencing and grabbed a hold, peering through it. His face gave an expression of utter disbelief.

“What is it?” Becky asked.

“Just like he had written in the manuscript,” Thomas replied. “It’s making my fillings tingle! There’s a bluish-grey light coming through this rip. I can almost make out some features on the other side!”

“Here, just take the camera and hurry up!” Becky thrust the camera towards Thomas and he squatted down to reach it. His fingers clasped around the camera’s body and pulled it up. Using one hand to keep his balance, Thomas stood, raising the camera to his face.

He got off two pictures before it happened.

A creature jumped up through the tear onto the fence. It was the size of a large dog and had what Becky could only describe as four spidery legs. Its head was level with Thomas’ and before he could react, a stinger shot from the creature’s face, piercing his eyeball. The stinger retracted quickly and the creature jumped down.

Thomas screamed and fell back to the ground, just missing the bench.

His face already started to swell; the pressure pushed the remainder of his eye from its socket. Becky put her hands to her mouth and was about to scream when three gunshots rang out. Thomas’ body jerked three times as bullets penetrated his chest, putting him out of his misery.

Becky realized that there were masked men on either side of her.

One held a flamethrower and shot a thick stream of flame onto Thomas’ body. There was a sickening crackling, like logs burning in a campfire, as the flames engulfed his corpse. The swelling along his face burst open and smaller versions of the creature that stung Thomas’ eye came crawling out; in high-pitched squeals, they met their death within the flames.

“Holy shit that was close,” one of the soldiers said.

Becky turned to look at them, counting six soldiers in all. They were all wearing some sort of metal body armor that she had not seen before. The armor completely covered their bodies, appearing bulky yet light enough as to not impede the soldier’s speed or agility. Their helmets connected to the shoulders, the lenses covering their eyes giving off a faint green glow, and their breathing sounded like it was going through a respirator.

All were heavily armed.

Three of them, including the one with the flamethrower, moved towards Thomas’ body to dispose of it while the rest remained with her.

One moved to lift his helmet. There was a hiss of air escaping as he did so.

“Is there anyone else here besides the two of you?” he asked. He had a handsome yet hard stereotypical soldier face.

Sobbing, Becky shook her head no.

He raised a finger to his ear, activating a radio.

“General, the situation has been neutralized,” he said. “Only two of them, one casualty.”

Becky could not hear the reply but she could tell by his expression that he was being told something.

“Understood, sir.” He switched the radio off.

“My name is Corporal Bollea. We’re going to escort you to a safe location and make sure you’re alright before we get you out of here.”

He pulled the helmet back down and started walking. Two soldiers, on either side of her, gave a gentle push to encourage her to follow their presumed leader.

They didn’t walk very far before they stopped in front of one of the buildings that was still intact. A faded and partially burnt sign read Jerome’s Bakery. Corporal Bollea pushed through a boarded up door. Becky stepped through and stopped when she saw what was in front of her.

In the middle of the room was a giant pit and in the bottom were piles of bodies. There were human and animal corpses, and even some that she couldn’t identify. Horror dawned on her as she realized it was a mass grave.

She heard a click behind her as Corporal Bollea held a pistol up to the back of her head and fired a single shot. Her body fell forward and landed on top of the heap of bodies with a heavy thud.

“That’s a shame,” one of the soldiers said in a deep voice. “She was a pretty girl.”

“The general wants us to make alterations to the perimeter so that we won’t be having any more visitors,” Corporal Bollea said. “These fucking kids. Why do they think this town is a playground?”

“They don’t believe the bullshit cover story they were given so they want to find out for themselves,” another soldier said. “Hell, I didn’t believe it when they told me.”

Corporal Bollea ushered the two soldiers out of the way and stepped from the building, pulling the door closed.

“The general wants us from this moment on to neutralize any intruder the minute they step foot in Hume. Is that understood? No more sightseers.”

~ Jon Olson

© Copyright 2014 Jon Olson. All Rights Reserved

Black Widow

The street is alive with festivities but my house is sombre and silent. The neighbourhood knows I am a widow in mourning, that I want to be left in peace, but that doesn’t prevent those roaming little brats from ringing my bell.

“Trick or Treat!” they shout, over and over again until I finally come to the door. In my black hooded cloak I look the part. No harm in playing along. I let out a deep evil laugh, throw handfuls of candy at them then slam the door as they plunge into a frenzy. I hope that is the last of them; it is close to midnight and I have work to do. The veil is thin.

I almost nodded off as I sat through your funeral; the monotonous voice of the priest was like a soothing lullaby. It is typical that you choose to be buried in an obscure, old cemetery on top of a hill. I’m sure you were delighted that we had to trek uphill through wet grass, as if we were on a pilgrimage to your holy grave. However, there were more important things on my mind than your egocentricities. My gaze was lowered but not with false humility. I was watching the lake. At the bottom of the hillside, the dark body of water lay silent. Surrounded by thick, long grass and shrouded in early morning mist, it was a festering pit of smoky gloom. I wrung my fingers eagerly as my plan fell into place. I don’t mind getting my hands dirty but some dirty work is below me; I would need allies.

I let you lie in peace for a while before I returned. Enough time for the worms to have feasted sufficiently, reducing you to rotting scraps. In the cold night, I stalked the bank of the lake, summoning the Fae. What kind of fairies frequent cemeteries? The ugliest kind, both in nature and appearance. They pretended they couldn’t hear me as they played in the fog. They provoked me with their foolish fire, bright sparks of blue and orange fizzed on the water’s surface. Their deceptive lights have lured many unsuspecting souls to misfortune. They are stubborn, petulant things but I made them an offer they couldn’t refuse and reluctantly they came forth. Their deformed little faces emerged from the shadows, wicked eyes glinting like polished emeralds at the promise of a feast.

I paced impatiently as they shovelled dirt with sharp little claws, grunting as they worked frantically. They squealed and scattered as I hacked open the coffin with an axe, then flocked around eagerly to see your corpse. Your suit remained immaculate, the blue satin tie and handkerchief straight and neat. You were still a little bloated, chest puffed, as indignant in death as your were in life.

I commanded the Fae to deliver me your head, which they did with glee. It made a pleasant sound as it was torn from your shoulders like the peeling of thick bark from an old tree. I held your head gently in my hands surprised by the lightness of it. Your face had sunken upon itself, black leathery flesh clinging to an empty cavity, your brains long dissolved into a festering mush. The remaining flesh was streaked with the meandering tracks of larvae; deep within the empty eye sockets tiny writhing creatures slumbered, breeding.

I wrapped your head in my cloak and left, not looking back as the orgy erupted. As promised, the Fae were free to do with your remains as they wished. Descending the hill, I noticed they were dragging you back with them, limb by limb, down into the murky depths of the lake.

Samhain. Day of the Dead. All Hallows Eve. All Souls Day. It matters not. The old ways are dead; they have merged and morphed into meaningless pageantry. People parade happily in elaborate costumes, a parody of darker times. They have not seen what I have seen. They have not survived the curse of incurable disease or the plague of devils in robes, travelling from village to village, burning, burning. They have not seen Nature stretching her jaws, unleashing her motley minions to charm and confound. Once the Fae, Pixies and Elves occupied their rightful place in the scheme of things; now they have faded from our eyes and I can hear their ghostly wails. The sacred thread of truth, carried through generations, is strained and weak but it cannot be distinguished completely. The old ways are dead. New ways will rise.

I can hear the faint rumble of music and laughter outside as I kneel within the circle. I recall the hush of the ancient forest, the collective intake of all breath, a pregnant pause. I long for an eternal night, deep, dark and silent. The pact is black. The veil is thin. I begin to draw the sigil; my own innermost blood is the medium. The blood drips and sprinkles and runs lines down the walls, glistening in dim candlelight.

Your head is where I have always wanted it, on my altar. I am not ready to let you go. An acidic hate burns within me; it spurs me on and fuels my ritual. An ancient tongue writhes in my throat and spits in a long lost language. I am shaking as the voice rises and terrified as I watch. Your dead skin changes colour, from rotting tones of black and green to fresh shades of pink. Slowly your face begins to grow plump, cheeks and chin fashioned from living clay. Glutinous grey balls form in your eye sockets, streaks of slime seep from the corners like tears of joy at your rebirth. A black sphere darkens in the centre, your iris. A thin translucent film of skin collects around the milky globes, forming eyelids. Your fresh eyes stare at me with the wild madness of a newborn.

I’m not sure if it is complete but then your eyes blink. They roll side to side like the mechanical eyes of a toy. I let out a small gasp of surprise. They say the eyes are the mirror to the soul and I have claimed yours. I have snatched it out of the ether and brought it home.

Your jaw falls open, the joint grinding loose. A black sludge is coagulating in your mouth, creating your tongue. Perhaps I will grant you a voice but for now, the thick muffled grunts that emerge from the hollow will suffice. Such a peculiar expression on your new face, much like the stiff grimace of carved pumpkins that decorate windowsills this time of year. You will be my lantern, glowing throughout the night, shadows cast by the play of light.

~ Magenta Nero

© Copyright 2014 Magenta Nero. All Rights Reserved

Kept Secrets

Darkness devoured every ounce of light.

Opening her eyes, Beth’s mind spun, groping for traction as to where she was and how she’d gotten there. The air, musty and thick, made breathing difficult and she wheezed with each panting breath. Her hands and feet were bound, her sense of balance distorted.

She screamed, but the words caught in her throat, trapped behind a wad of fabric shoved into her mouth. Beth scanned the void for a hint of anything that might bring details to her surroundings.

Somewhere in the distance, a door creaked open, ushering in a sliver of light, only to slam shut seconds later. Her chest heaved and rivulets of tears streamed down her cheeks when a familiar sound came to her. The clacking of boot heels on wooden floors echoed like cannons as they made their way closer.

Beth’s pulse echoed in her ears. An orange light flickered in the inky blackness and a figure approached from the other end of the space. Shadows morphed on the walls and ceiling as the naked flame danced its way closer.

She tried to push herself backwards but couldn’t; her body was useless. An ominous silhouette strode closer and the girl recognized Gloria’s sharp features – her stepmother’s features. Her mind’s eye flashed a scene of Gloria bringing her a glass of wine at the dinner party; her last memory before waking up in the void.

Beth cowered as her father’s wife leaned closer and spoke in a raspy, malevolent tone. “You’ll not speak of my secret in life nor death. Of this, I’m sure.”

Gloria rested the candle on the ground and Beth shuddered as the old witch’s bony hands came into view. In one hand, a large needle with wire tailing from the eyelet; in the other, a small vial of liquid gleaned in the glowing candlelight.

Beth strained against her bindings, but she was too weak to break free. Gloria removed the cloth from Beth’s mouth and grabbed her chin before tilting her head back, forcing the potion down her throat.

Beth’s head swum in confusion as the concoction took effect and she slipped in and out of consciousness.

Intermittent flashes of reality only offered hints as to Gloria’s purpose; the biting pain as her stepmother forced the wire through Beth’s lips made those intentions all too clear.

Darkness devoured every ounce of light.

~ Craig McGray

© Copyright 2014 Craig McGray. All Rights Reserved

Crunch Time

Jeff Montgomery wanted to go home.

His temples throbbed like a bitch, and the spreadsheets beneath his face shimmered like a watery mess. God, he hated tax time. Jeff glanced at his watch. Ten o’clock. Another half-hour, that was it. Work would still be here come dawn.

Removing his glasses, he gave his temples and brow an invigorating rub, eventually reining in his frustration with a deep breath and a sip of cool water. Jeff nearly jumped from his skin when a door slammed from across the hall.

It sounded like a cannon shot – so ferocious the pens inside the mug atop his desk rattled. “Dammit,” he hissed, rolling backward in his chair. His co-workers mentioned something like this one day over lunch. The infamous law office of Matheson and Keene. Whispered speculation persisted about the firm, for their doors were always locked and clientele were never seen; oft-hushed rumors that the partners didn’t even exist. “You actually think the firm is a front for something else?” Jeff remembered asking, face scrupulously wrinkled; he wasn’t sure if the uneasy silence that met him was because he was the new guy or for something else.

He rolled to the desk, pushed his glasses back along his nose and reached for his water. Another bang now, harder than the last. Water breached the rim of the cup, splashing across his sleeve. “Sonofabitch!” Jeff quickly dabbed at the drops atop his paperwork. A different sound filtered to his ears, very faint; barely perceptible. He held his breath, listening intently – soft knocks against the ceiling. Only the heat kicking through the HVAC he surmised, realizing the culmination of nearly fifteen hours of numbers and spreadsheets had finally worked his nerves.

There were other stories, secondhand tales Harold Rivers derived from the cleaning crew. Dark shadows shifting along walls. A palpable heaviness to the air. Sudden door slams and unseen, booted feet pacing nowhere. It all sounded like some cheesy script from a horror movie, but now he sat reminding himself it was only hearsay. A child might hide under the covers at the telling of such yarns, but he was a grown man. Jeff took pen in hand, refocused on his work. Twenty more minutes, he conceded. Twenty more minutes and I’m home.

But the blur of numbers caused his mind to race. What was it that Harold said again? The cleaning crew flat out refused to service the fourth floor at night; in fact, their contract stated that they’d only clean the fourth floor during the day. Jeff gnawed his pen cap. Come to think of it, the cleaning crew always seemed to be finishing the bathrooms when he arrived in the morning. Harold mentioned something else, too. No employee ever worked late on the fourth floor. Jeff put his pen down and slowly turned around.

He was alone in the office. The tax deadline loomed, and yet not a single soul put in extra hours; no one stayed past dusk.

Only him.

A door slammed for a third time; Jeff’s teeth rattled inside his head. He sprang to his feet, grabbing his suit jacket and briefcase, cursing Harold and his goddamn ghost stories as he hurried out the door. Just great; he might as well pull the sheets over his own head once he got home.

He cursed Harold again and everyone else in the office for good measure; how could he have fallen for such shit? He’d never experienced the heebie-jeebies before, and it sure as hell wouldn’t happen now. Jeff stood clutching the doorknob in the near dark of the hall, quickly rationalizing the situation. The knocks from the ceiling were caused by heat blowing through the vents, but the door slams… cleaning crew doesn’t work the fourth floor my ass, they’re obviously up here doing something. It suddenly clicked. Not only were they here, but they were playing practical jokes just to keep those stories alive. Sonofabitches. And the moving shadows could be explained by the eyes adjusting from the harsh incandescent radiance of an office to the admittedly poorly illuminated hall. Jeff released the doorknob, squared his shoulders. He felt better already. Not only would he call out Harold on his absurdity, but he’d make him pick up the tab next time they ate Kung Po chicken, too.

Jeff thought he heard the faint scuff of feet dragging across carpet and spun around. Only the door to the law offices of Matheson and Keene loomed behind him; it seemed to emanate its own soft glow, distinguishing itself from the wall. Yet no light radiated from beneath. He warily approached the door.

It was cool to the touch, as if chilled by the night air. Jeff leaned into it, but the door didn’t budge. Then a gasp came as though someone had been standing behind the door the entire while. He turned on his heel and fled like a startled bird. This time he didn’t give a shit. Fuck tax time. He’d take his coworker’s cue; this would be the last he’d stay late at the office.

He stumbled down the hall – Christ, it’s so damn murky – using the glowing exit sign at the end as his guide. He stopped in front of the elevator, stabbing the down button with his thumb. “I want you to know I’ll be contacting the landlord in the morning. Have your fun hiding now because I’ll be having my fun tomorrow,” he addressed the invisible cleaning crew as firmly as he could, but the sound of his voice rang hollow in the hall. “Friggin’ floors are never mopped right, anyway!” He stabbed at the down button again.

A bell dinged weakly as the elevator door slid open. Light escaped, offering relief from the cloying gloom. Jeff stepped inside, placing his briefcase at his feet as he tapped another button for the first floor. Immediately, he felt better… and more than a bit foolish. He chided himself for acting like a scared child; had his father still been alive he’d have called Jeff a baby. The very thought made him cringe. Just the pressures of working at a new firm, trying to make a favorable impression, he tried to convince himself. Jeff leaned against the polished stainless steel wrapping the interior of the elevator. He eyed his distorted reflection and then loosened his tie as the doors slid shut, thinking of a quick snack at home, and his pillow.

The doors shuddered. Four spindly, pale fingers wiggled between them, pushing and squirming their way through, forefinger curling like a lead scout before the doors jerked open. A bowed man entered the elevator, head hung low as to conceal any features. He wore an impeccable suit as shadowy as the hall and his hair – compactly slicked beyond his ears and glistening like morning dew, nearly touching his slumped shoulders. Somehow, the curvature of his form made his appearance all the more daunting. Like a tendril of smoke, he eased into the corner across from Jeff. “Done burning the midnight oil?” the man inquired, voice rich in cadence.

“Umm, yes.” Jeff stood frozen. How the man had slipped so stealthily down the hall, Jeff hadn’t a clue but here he stood, spine curled and head stooped like some demented butler awaiting his next command.

The man clasped his hands, entwining his snake-like fingers in mesmerizing consideration. “Diligence. There is scarce amount left in this world. A sad thing.”

Jeff said nothing. But the man hardly seemed to notice. “It used to be commonplace for an individual to work dusk till dawn, but no more. There are other priorities, or should I say, other distractions, to misplace one from their tasks.” He shifted his head slightly, face still cast in obscurity. “Forgive my absent-mindedness. It is late, and here I stand rambling on. I am sure you long for home.” A bony finger swept across the elevator panel. “The first floor, yes?”

“Yes, thank you,” Jeff answered, hoping his relief remained hidden. As the doors hissed shut, he leaned toward his briefcase and noticed the man’s shoes. Quite unlike his faultless suit, angry scuffs marred their surface; dirt caked their soles. What an odd thing, Jeff thought, like wearing a tuxedo with a cheap pair of Converse. He lifted his briefcase, hesitant of what to say next. Jeff finally offered a frail chuckle. “Well, I’ll be the first to admit I don’t work late all the time. You do what you must during tax time.”

“Aah, you must work for them,” the man said tersely. Jeff instantly made the connection when the elevator halted with a horrible lurch. He stumbled from the jolt, throwing an arm against the wall for support. “Tsk, tsk,” the man scolded as he tapped a long finger against the elevator panel. “This old box tends to stick a bit between the third and second floor. No worries, my friend. It will free itself in a matter of minutes. I’ve unfortunately experienced this inconvenience numerous times. Still, it is maddening. I’ve phoned the landlord plenty, but as you can see, little has been done. The recurring answer is that the maintenance crew has been on it and found nothing wrong. But they’ve addressed the problem only during the day, when the annoyance hardly occurs. No one is willing to come after hours, it seems.” The man tilted his head at last, revealing slits for eyes, as if the admittance of further light would sear them for eternity. Sallow flesh hung from his bony cheekbones. He offered Jeff his hand. “Allow me to use this untimely interruption to introduce myself. Mr. Keene… and you, sir?”

“Jeff Montgomery, a pleasure to meet you,” he said, barely suppressing a smile. That stupid shit Harold. Jeff would make sure he’d be eating free Kung Po chicken for a week. “With all due respect, I’m quite relieved I’ve met you.” Mr. Keene’s uncommonly silky fingers enveloped his hand; the longer they shook, the icier they became.

“Relieved? Do tell why, Mr. Montgomery.”

“I’ve heard a lot of… things.”

Mr. Keene’s brow furrowed; it appeared the skin might slide from his skull. “Things?”

“Rumors.”

“Go on.”

The stainless steel panel behind Mr. Keene suddenly arrested Jeff’s attention, but he quickly averted his gaze as the bowed man squeezed tight upon his hand. Impossible… only a trick of the light; only fatigue, plaguing him once more. “Understand, I’ve just been recently hired, but popular word is that neither you nor your partner even exists.”

“Such horrible rumors. And what do you think now, Mr. Montgomery?”

He glanced again over Mr. Keene’s shoulder, his stomach dropping at the vision captured within the stainless steel. “I think crunch time has gotten to me.”

Mr. Keene relinquished his grip. A smile creased his lips, now razor slashes across his face. “I would like you to join our firm, Mr. Montgomery. Money is of no consequence; name your price and it is yours. In return, I name only mine.”

***

Nerves frayed beyond repair, Harold shuddered as his chair popped under his weight.

Once the office had emptied at five, he’d been in and out of the men’s room four times, his hysteria pissing out in trickles. The sun hadn’t dipped pass the horizon yet and still his heart beat wildly. He slapped at the sweat dotting his brow; there wasn’t much more he could take.

He blamed his shitty luck – he did come up with the shortest straw drawn in the office, after all. But mostly Harold blamed Jeff Montgomery. Barely three weeks into the job and already he became a no-show. No call, no note, no nothing. Some in the office hadn’t batted a eyelash; Jeff was considered something of a flake. Harold knew the truth however, even if no one dared to admit it. Jeff Montgomery’s last day was the first night he worked late on the fourth floor. Case closed.

That was nearly a week ago. Now Harold sat behind his desk, spreadsheets a sweat-blotted clutter, the sun agonizingly melting into the sky. His mind raced. Sure, the tax deadline loomed and the work needed to be done, but the drawing of the straws had been a ridiculous idea. Maybe it had been the only diplomatic way to choose someone, but who in their right mind would actually be expected to work into the night. No one, that’s who. The clock struck five and the office scattered, frenzied little mice chattering out the door. Not a single person gave Harold a second look. Wait, that wasn’t entirely true. Heather Taylor did. But her eyes were so mournful Harold wished she never had.

A door slammed from down the hall, and Harold nearly crapped his pants.

He catapulted from his chair, papers a whirlwind into the air. Although he accomplished absolutely nothing, he didn’t care. Harold wanted out of the office, off the fourth floor. He wanted home.

The walls erupted with fury, as if a dozen angry fists raged against them in unison. Harold backpedaled, a whimper on his lips as he crashed into the cubicle behind him. He scrambled on the floor like a crab, finally pushing to his feet. Harold dashed from the office.

He entered a pitch-black abyss. The dark disoriented him, and quickly he panicked. He groped blindly for purchase. It seemed a step in either direction and he’d plummet over the side of a depth-less ravine.

The glowing exit sign at the end of the hall served as Harold’s only beacon; snapping his malaise, he ran on jellied legs until finally skidding to a halt before the elevator. He slammed the down button, teeth grinding furiously. Metal pulleys echoed through the elevator shaft; at last, its doors parted. Harold fell into its sweet light.

The uneasy laughing he heard was his own. When the morning came, he had quite the tale to share and only hoped no one would think he embellished it. He didn’t think so. They knew the stories; the drawing of the straws proved their conviction in them. Harold tapped the button for the first floor and leaned against the elevator wall.

A dirt smudged briefcase rested in the opposite corner.

Pale fingers shoved through the elevator doors, and Harold nearly collapsed to his knees. None other than Jeff Montgomery slowly emerged.

“Did I startle you?”

“Yeah, you fucking startled me!” The first thing Harold noticed was the hair; Montgomery never kept it slicked back like that.

“I didn’t mean to. I realized I’d forgotten my briefcase. I’ve been so hectic as of late, Harold. I think I’d forget to eat if I didn’t have food in front of me.”

The second thing Harold noticed was how gaunt Montgomery’s face had become. His cheekbones practically ripped through his flesh and his eyes were slits, empty and unblinking. “I want to apologize to you, Harold, for not saying goodbye. There was no good time to catch you, until now.”

“What the hell are you doing here, Jeff? You just up and went. Quit. Not great resume fodder.”

The elevator began its descent. “I was offered a position at Matheson and Keene, and I took it.” Harold’s jaw nearly touched the floor. “They offered me everything and anything I could desire, Harold. Money. Power. Life. There was one catch, though. I had to pay their price. And now I pass that on to others.”

The third thing Harold noticed, no matter how hard he tried to pry his horrified gaze away, was that Jeff Montgomery cast no reflection in the polished stainless steel panel behind him.

“You shouldn’t feel a thing, Harold,” Jeff said through a wide and gleaming mouth as the elevator came to a jarring halt.

~ Joseph A. Pinto

© Copyright 2010, 2014 Joseph A. Pinto. All Rights Reserved.

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