The Orchard

The fruits of our labour will not ripen in our lifetime. The Father teaches that we do not pray and work for ourselves but for our grandchildren. They will reap what we sow.

I am one of many assigned to work in the orchard, spending long pleasant days among rows of trees. It is more enjoyable work than the stables or the kitchen.

Every season the harvest is full, I pick buckets of rosy apples, sharp green pears, plump apricots. The garden beds grow abundant vegetables and our livestock provides us with meat, eggs, milk and wool.

I watch as the men load the boxes into the truck. They leave very early in the morning for markets in nearby towns to sell our produce. I stare after the truck nervously as it departs down the dusty road. Sometimes they are gone for days at a time. It is dangerous for them to travel amongst the Dead but I know they are strong. They will not be seduced by the evil that lurks beyond the gates of our home.

The first time I glimpsed the Father, I knew that he was what I had been searching for all my life. If you have not known real love I cannot explain it to you. Not emotional sentimentality, but love that nurtures and sustains.

The Father teaches that in a world of lies, we are keepers of the truth. The Father teaches that our faith is a jewel we must guard fiercely against corruption. The Father teaches that this sacred land has been passed down through the lineage since the very beginning. To protect the earth is to protect our faith. We have been drawn here because we are the chosen.

Far beyond the rolling hills of the valley lie the cities of the Dead, seething wastelands of decay and pollution. We call them the Dead because they are deaf to the truth and blind to the spark that governs all creation. With their incessant breeding they are constantly creeping forward, slowly taking more and more, encroaching on our sacred land. We must stand firm against the plague of greed that threatens our way of life. We will not throw the first stone but when the war begins we will fight. I haven’t seen the bunkers myself but the Father assures us we are armed and prepared. We know that one day they will come and we know that we will triumph for we are the chosen.

It began when I was folding the laundry with Catherine.

“Do you ever think of returning?” she asked casually.

A bed sheet floated between us as we held the ends. It rippled like a sail, thin and translucent. I remembered standing beneath a bed sheet as a little girl; my mother and father floated it above me like a parachute. Thin fabric drifted slowly down around me as I crouched, draping me gently, the world cloaked in white haze. I laughed as it was lifted again with a soft rush, ballooning around me. The memory sent a shiver through me. I frowned at Catherine.

“Returning where?”

“To your home.”

I was stunned. I couldn’t believe she was saying such things.

“This is my home Catherine. This is your home.”

“Well yes, it is now, of course,” she said quickly. “But I mean don’t you ever miss your old home?”

I couldn’t fathom what she meant. I ignored her and quickly finished the folding.

I stormed away in anger but as I glanced out over the beautiful valley I could see, far off in the distance, a dark shadow looming, and I was overcome by terrible fear. It was the army of the Dead, rows and rows of faceless men and women, waiting for the order to march.

I am stranded in the suburb of my childhood. Everything looks the same. Decades have passed but nothing has changed. Anxiety sets in and I begin running past endless identical houses, turning street after street, running deeper into a maze of grey. I am out of breath, I can’t run anymore, I pause to rest.

“Elizabeth?”

I jump in surprise and turn around. I have stopped before my parent’s house and there at the front gate stand my mother and father.

My father has his arm around my mother protectively, holding her up as she gazes at me, her eyes pleading with tears.

I woke up in a cold sweat. It was early morning, just before sunrise. I was worried I may have attracted attention but no one else was awake. Across from me lay Catherine, sleeping peacefully in her bed, a picture of innocence.

I got dressed and went for a walk to clear my mind. I walked to the orchard, my favourite place to steal a few minutes alone.

The ground was wet with dew, the air crisp with a thin mist. I stood beneath a large apple tree and looked out over the hills. Glancing down I noticed many apples had fallen from the tree. Over ripe and bruised, wrinkled and turning brown, worm ridden. The sight of it troubled me. We never let anything go to waste.

An orange glow began to fill the valley, a picturesque view, almost too beautiful to be true. On the periphery I caught a glimpse of the creeping shadow, growing stronger with each passing moment.

The bell rang suddenly and I fled in panic. Everyone would be rising and getting ready for breakfast. I hoped no one had noticed I slipped out.

All day I watched Catherine, going about her duties as usual, pretending nothing was wrong. The Father teaches that the signs are there for those who have eyes to see. Walking through the courtyard, I notice weeds had pushed their way through the stones. They were not there the day before. In the library I sat with a closed book in my hands, disturbed by the thick layer of dust that lined the windowsills.

During dinner Catherine ate her soup quietly and avoided meeting my eye.

After the meal I saw her talking to Rebecca, one of the youngest Daughters. They chatted and laughed casually but I read Rebecca’s face when Catherine walked away. The blush of confusion, a fine line of doubt on her forehead; she was preoccupied as she stacked plates away on the shelf.

I understood completely then and knew what I had to do. Catherine could not be permitted to spread her toxic thoughts any longer. They were poisoning our community, creeping like a vine, slowly encompassing and choking everything.

Later that evening I approached the Mother. I found her sitting quietly on the porch. I told her I needed to speak to the Father. She told me that was not possible. I insisted, stressing that it was very important.

“You may discuss your concern with me Daughter,” she said without looking up from her knitting.

I told her everything. It all came tumbling out. She didn’t respond or seem at all interested. Her eyes were on a small group of men as they sat, chanting hymns by the fire. Then she got up and walked into her bedroom, closing the door gently behind her.

That night I couldn’t sleep, tossing and turning as I went over every detail. I was worried. Would the Mother accuse me of gossip?

When they came for her it was still dark outside, several hours before sunrise. I heard them enter the dormitory and I gasped under my sheets, curling up in terror. They walked toward my bed but they turned toward Catherine.

They scooped her up and began to drag her out. She mumbled in her sleep and then she began to shout. Her screams were muffled as they took her away.

Breakfast was had in silence. We knew Catherine was with the Father. We heard the bells that called us to gather. Calmly we tidied things away then filed into the courtyard.

We circled the platform, staring up in fear and awe. The Mother and the Father stood either side of Catherine, her head hung low in shame.

The Father’s face was creased with sadness, the burden of his task apparent, but a beautiful aura of light always surrounds him. I could see the bright blue of his gentle eyes.

“My children,” he began, his voice calm and strong. “Today I grieve. I grieve for the weakness of humankind that has led so many astray. We will be tested but our faith cannot be destroyed. Let your resolve be strengthened. By their own hand the weak and treacherous will perish.”

The Father stepped backward and bowed his head. The Mother was expressionless as she placed the heavy rope around Catherine’s neck. Catherine began to sob quietly, her shoulders shaking.

“This is my home!” a voice shouted, as it cut the tension in the air. A hand clamped my mouth and my brothers and sisters huddled around me. The voice was mine, I realised, and I began to cry, too.

I turned away as it was done, my face buried in my hands. I heard the shocked intake of breath that rippled through the gathering. I heard the creak of wood as Catherine’s body dropped, suspended by the strong beam above.

When I looked back, Catherine’s body hung limp and empty. I watched her feet twitch, then stop.

A perfect stillness permeated everything. The angry tears that rolled down my cheeks become tears of relief. I looked out towards the horizon, saw no sign of the shadow. Everything was as it should be. The shadow had been vanquished and we were safe again, at least for a while longer. Another beautiful day lay ahead, I walked to the orchard to begin my work.

~ Magenta Nero

© Copyright 2015 Magenta Nero. All Rights Reserved.

Chance

Carrie Ann woke when Chance’s wet nose nudged her shoulder.

“Go away, Chance.”

Chance nudged her again, harder this time.

“Go lay down!” Carrie Ann snatched the blanket up over her face.

Chance wasn’t taking no for an answer and hopped up onto the bed, rooting his face in the covers.

“Okay, alright. Let’s go, but don’t take forever.”

Chance hopped off the bed, bolting down the hallway and onto the porch. Carrie Ann followed and when she reached the door, Chance was walking in tight circles, panting in anticipation.

She unlocked the deadbolt, barely opening the door before Chance raced into the backyard, disappearing into the woods surrounding the mountainside home. Crisp winter air bit at her skin and she pulled the door closed. She grabbed a blanket from the basket alongside the tattered couch that was left by the back door for Chance. Carrie Ann bundled up and waited for Chance to come back to the door.

The full moon illuminated the backyard, long shadows from the towering pines stretching through the open spaces while Carrie Ann stared through the window watching for Chance’s return. After twenty minutes, Carrie Ann resigned herself to the fact that Chance must have caught scent of something in the woods, and he wasn’t returning any time soon.

Carrie Ann went back to her bedroom and climbed into bed. She fell asleep within minutes and settled into an unnerving dream. She dreamt that she’d went down to the river with Chance and while they were there, it started raining. Not just an ordinary rain, but the type of intense summer rain that rumbled through the south most afternoons. They tried to run home but the river swelled quickly, washing out the trail. Carrie Ann climbed into a tree and as she climbed, she realized that Chance had been swept away in the torrent. She called his name over and over with no answer; he never came into sight.

A whimpering sound pulled her from the nightmare and she sat up, flinching when a bang came from the window in her room, followed by a scratching on the screen. She cleared the sleep from her eyes with the palms of her hands and went to the back door, grabbing the flashlight she kept on the window ledge of the porch. The moon had slipped from the sky leaving the backyard eerily quiet, masked in inky darkness.

Carrie Ann opened the door and stepped onto the patio, the cold concrete sending shivers twisting up her spine. “Chance!”

The flashlight’s beam swept across the backyard while a brisk wind raked through the naked trees. Goosebumps blossomed on her skin when the light reflected off a pair of eyes at the far end of the house. She swallowed hard, her eyes focusing on what she hoped was Chance.

“Chance? Come on, it’s okay.”

Chance stepped into the light, squinting in the harshness of it, his head hung low. As he got closer, Carrie Ann noticed a glistening wetness around his mouth. Chance reluctantly made his way even closer and lowered his shameful gaze to the ground.

A rustling came from the darkness and Carrie Ann swung the beam of light towards the corner of the patio before looking back to Chance.

“Chance? Did you find something out there?”

Chance looked up to Carrie Ann’s disappointed face, a smirk sneaking through his sheepish expression.

“Oh no. Not again.” She took a deep breath and knew she would spend the rest of the night cleaning up whatever mess Chance had gotten into. “Come on. Let’s go see what you got.”

Chance followed Carrie Ann to the corner of the house, she gagged when her light revealed a bloodied mess lying in the dirt. Carrie Ann swallowed the bile rising in the back of her throat and leaned closer, her eyes squinting trying to determine what exactly she was seeing.

The mangled mess writhed on the ground and Carrie Ann stepped back. Chance became excited, dancing around, screeching and squealing like a banshee before Carrie Ann smacked him on the head. Chance cowered and backed away.

“Where’d you find her, Chance?”

Chance looked up and pointed to the lights twinkling in the valley below.

The naked woman coughed and sputtered on the ground, a feeble arm reaching out toward Carrie Ann’s leg. Carrie Ann snatched her foot away and walked toward the shed not far from the back of the house while Chance remained hovering over his prize, wringing his bloodied hands in his Batman shirt.

A few minutes later, Carrie Ann returned with a wheelbarrow full of supplies: a shovel, an axe, and a large roll of trash bags. She rested the tools next to where the girl continued to struggle for her last remaining breath.

Grabbing the shovel, she turned and stood over Chance’s latest kill and fixed her gaze on the confused eyes of her older brother. Though he was nearly ten years older than her, his mind had never developed much more than that of an eight year old. She’d learned that scolding him did no good; he had no concept of right or wrong and her energy would be wasted, energy she’d need to dispose of this body like she’d done with the others.

A forced, sloppy cough escaped the girl’s twisted mouth as Carrie Ann raised the shovel over her head. She hesitated for a moment; the woman’s face somewhat reminded her of her mother’s before Carrie Ann had to put her and her father out of their misery after one of Chance’s episodes. Carrie Ann shook the vision of her mother from her mind and smiled before smashing the shovel into the center of the girl’s forehead, gore splattering onto the ground and spraying up into Carrie Ann’s face. Chance, unable to contain himself, erupted in a series of high-pitched shrieks and howls, dancing around the area.

Carrie Ann smashed the shovel into the girl’s head over and over until it had nearly flattened out. She rested the shovel against the side of the house, swiped the back of her hand across her face and stood watching her brother dance around the yard. Chance was a fucking mess, no doubt, but he was her mess and she loved him no matter what.

Carrie Ann couldn’t let Chance celebrate alone so she joined her brother, dancing hand in hand under a moonless winter sky.

~ Craig McGray

© Copyright 2015 Craig McGray. All Rights Reserved.

Pathogen

Cleanliness is next to godliness.

So I was ordained.

I did not wish to realize what soon would become my mission – no, not at first. However, upon mahogany framed photographs, cabinetry and desktops and once brilliant sheens of glass, I glimpsed smudge laden impressions, shrilling so loudly in defiance, that no longer could I deny my calling.

When first I arrived, t’was the maid I suspected of carelessness.

The maid – the latex so snug round each of her delicate fingers; how I adored the brisk snap of glove at her wrist. The maid – whose pores emanated the addictive rich luster of lemon and pine. Yes, at first I suspected the maid of carelessness, of inattention to detail, but – forgive me – that notion occurred before God came to me, before He revealed the goodness of her aseptic heart. All too clearly then, I recognized the near futile nature of her fight.

Shoulder to shoulder, I thusly joined her.

She took to my camaraderie, the careful twinkle in her eye serving as unmistakable proof that she recognized the malignancy burrowed within my smile. I watched from afar as wraithlike she slipped room to room, wielding in elegant arcs her chosen duster of ostrich down, disrupting the meticulously crafted plans of the pathogens; alas, they still found a way to reconvene. Yet her fortitude never waned; a true warrior, my respect she earned unfalteringly.

I chastised myself then; how could it be the maid: her attention to detail so prudent, her keen mind strumming at a perfect pitch. Ah, brave soul, she had but one flaw.

She possessed not the heart of a killer.

As the weeks elapsed, I realized her innocence remained as laundered as her charm. Her loyalty steadfast, she rose daily alongside the cock from her unassuming quarters to enter into a tomb of opposition and filth. But her strain I soon glimpsed; not within her eyes, mind you, but the manner in which her veins twitched while smoothing the apron at her waist. No longer her cheeks blushed upon our stolen glances; my words, once soothing as only honey can soothe, now hastily ingested in a caustic bite. As acid dribbles to scour stone, so too did her very soul begin to erode. I had seen quite enough.

Heaven’s gilded light guided me through shadows of eve. Down halls I stalked, snaring the floorboard’s breath as in warning it exhaled. The initial quarters required minimal effort or care…for the pathogens squirmed little under the cases chosen to silence their hellish maws.

Into a larger chamber of grandeur I ascended, thereby viewing the host, slumbering in tangled, monstrous limbs under its canopied shelter. There I hovered, watching in frozen silence as the moon danced, leaving polish in untainted glitter across my eyes, until I could watch no longer. No more smudging, no more fouling in the wake of diligent servitude! I drew my eager blade across them both, hummed along to their wet whistles, their gurgle songs of release.

My calling complete, I withdrew back to her quarter’s door, softly rap-rap-rapping until it parted, revealing to me she – the maid – my rapturous mistress of purity. I offered my hand; she claimed it, yet not before slipping the nightgown from her sylphen shoulders. “So it is done, then. God has chosen to cleanse this domicile,” exhaling into my arms.

“Yes,” agreed I, “by the butler’s hand once more.”

~ Joseph A. Pinto

© Copyright 2015 Joseph A. Pinto. All Rights Reserved.

Not Quite Indian Summer

Tag, you’re it!”

“Ow, my mother said no one’s supposed to touch me there!” April rubbed her chest, frowning at Ben.

“Big deal. It’s not like you have boobs or anything.”

Before she could tell him she did so have boobs, Ben ran off, calling her ‘flatso’. He disappeared behind the Mowry’s house.

Probably hiding in their shed, April thought.

“Come on April, you have to start looking for us,” her friend Melody shouted, zipping past her, going across the street into her own backyard.

She smiled, momentarily forgetting the throbbing pain behind her left nipple. “Okay, I’m gonna count to ten!”

Her mother bought her a training bra just last night, right after dinner. It was a special mommy-daughter shopping night at Kohls. They got frozen yogurt afterwards. April wondered if the flimsy thing would have cushioned the blow. It was in her drawer now, waiting for school on Monday.

By the time she reached ten, everyone was gone. She didn’t have to find all five of them. All it took was one. There was no way she was going to make Melody it. That left Ben, Seth and Sean.

Just thirty seconds ago, they were standing around, wondering what to do. All of their parents had taken their iPods and game systems away, forcing them outside. It was a hot September Saturday, still summer according to the calendar. But, the kids all knew summer was long gone. The morning the bell rang to start the new school year, summer had been obliterated, left to memories of sleeping in, swimming and staying up late, watching TV.

Seth was suggesting they get their bikes and head over to the field to see if the Mr. Softee truck was around when Ben hit her in the chest, igniting a game of tag.

April sniffed the air. It still smelled like summer.

She thought she saw Seth’s Converse underneath Mr. Coleman’s pickup. Sean was most likely hiding behind his above ground pool. Either that or his father’s pigeon coop. The little shack stunk to high heaven. No way was she going in there looking for him.

It had to be Ben. Her dad liked to say ‘Payback’s a bitch’ a lot, especially when he watched sports. Her older cousin Tony told her what it meant last summer – that and a whole lot of other dirty phrases, most of them describing when a man put his thing down there in a woman.

“Ready or not, here I come!” April shouted. She made a beeline for the Mowry house. Mr. and Mrs. Mowry were at work now, but they never minded the kids using their yard for games. Sometimes old people could be cool. Most times, not.

The white and green aluminum shed sat in a corner of the yard, underneath a skinny elm tree. The door was partway open.

“Got you,” she whispered.

It was hot in the shed. She’d been inside it plenty of times. If you hid in there, you had to keep the door open a crack to breathe. Otherwise, you’d choke on gas and oil fumes, boiling in the tight space.

April threw the door open and lunged.

Ben was sitting on a big bag of potting soil. He squinted against the harsh shaft of light. “No fair,” he protested.

April’s teeth sunk into the flesh of his soft, exposed throat. She worked at the chewy bits of tendon while blood sluiced down her throat, spattering the pretty pink top she’d gotten at Kohls last night.

Ben’s body went into spasms. He gurgled, his arms flapping at April’s sides. She pulled away, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand.

While Ben struggled for breath, April pulled up her shirt, revealing two tiny mounds, no bigger than the rounded tops of cupcakes. Her chest was smeared with blood.

“I told you I have boobs now,” she said, giggling.

He slipped off the bag of soil with a wet plop.

“Ben’s it now!” April yelled.

Melody, Sean and Seth bounded into the yard, lured by her call.

“Oh man,” Sean said, pulling up short. Seth bumped into him. “Watch where you’re walking!”

“You’re in my way!” Seth blurted.

“Will you two stop it,” Melody barked.

Sean spun around, slapping Seth hard. As his friend tottered, he closed the gap between them, clamping down on his cheek and tearing his head back, spitting a chunk of flesh on the grass.

Seth covered the wound with his hand.

“You asstard!”

He dove headfirst into Sean, knocking the wind from him. They landed on the ground, a tangle of flailing limbs. Flecks of blood splattered everywhere like a sprinkler as they clawed the flesh from one another’s bones.

“Dog pile!” April screamed. She and Melody joined the melee. They were a dervish of gnashing teeth and scratching nails. Bones broke. Arteries ruptured. Seth ate Melody’s lower lip. April and Melody tore Sean’s stomach open, heads diving into his bowels like two dogs at a dish of fresh Alpo.

They felt something smash into their backs.

April yelped as Ben pulled a fistful of hair from her head. Bloody skin clung to the ragged ends.

“You’re it again!” he gurgled.

The children laughed, trailing Seth’s intestines all around the yard, wrapping it around the trunk of a cherry tree. Seth let out a series of wet guffaws, jaws snapping at their heels as they danced around him.

The Mowry’s verdant lawn soaked up the crimson manna until the sounds of urgent adult voices cut the revelry, urging the children home.

They slunk out of the yard, gathering the bits of themselves that had been scattered about.

“After dinner, you wanna come over and see my training bra?” April asked Melody, her tongue poking out of a hole in her cheek.

“Yeah,” Melody said, holding her lips in her hands. “See you later!”

“I’m sorry,” Ben said. April could see his windpipe working. “I shouldn’t have hit you in the boob.”

April rolled her remaining eye. “Whatever.”

~ Hunter Shea

© Copyright 2015 Hunter Shea. All Rights Reserved.

Monarch-Man

“I am a winged creature who is too rarely allowed to use its wings. Ecstasies do not occur often enough.” Anais Nin

It has gone midnight when I cross the park but he is quite visible by the street lamp. Stick limbs. Wild hair. The sickly-sweet scent of honey. He is filthy and beautiful, this Monarch-Man, my Emperor of Flies.

I have been following him for months now. Sometimes it feels like my whole life has been lost to his search. Rather, it has been lost to my search for him. He takes no part in my hunt. I would be surprised if he knew that I sought him at all. But I had, I have; from the first moment I set eyes on him, crawling from the tube station.

I alone watched him tumble through the turnstiles and into the street. He reached the curb on his side of the road at the same time that I did on mine. I could not have said what it was about him that made me stop and stare, but stare I did. For a second he lingered there, hovering on the spot between pavement and road. Lifting a bare foot, he seemed to test the air, as though tasting the city with his soles. Then his legs gave way beneath him and he fluttered to the gutter.

He looked small at the roadside, smaller even than I was sure he was. His coat was much too large, and I was reminded of a child wearing his father’s clothes. In another life he might have been carved from marble; smooth lips, blonde hair, eyes vast and shadowed in the hollows of his face. But he was no classical beauty. His skin was pale and marred with fatigue. Hunger had made him lean, and in a darker street I might have mistaken him for a woman. A taxi braked beside him, its headlights in his face, and for one moment his eyes shone like gold. Then he recoiled, his hands flying to his face, and the taxi drove on.

I saw him many times after that first encounter. Perhaps it was chance. Perhaps it was that face. I can see it now, upturned to the street-lamp, bathed in the orange glow. I see his tight lips, his dusty skin. His eyes are like two orbs of polished stone. I see myself in them a thousand times over, growing larger as I approach through the park.

The third time we met was at rush hour. That day I had waited for him, and I thought my heart might burst when I saw him stagger from the station. A dozen men and women swept after him, throwing his face back at me from the polished toes of their black shoes. It was the evening commute, the streets busy, and his reflection was a hall of mirrors in their gleaming footwear. I am not sure that he saw himself, whether he can see at all, in fact, but I saw. Standing outside the large bank on the opposite side of the road, I listened to the drone of traffic and the chatter of conversation and the raw voice of the Lebanese singer on the street corner, and I saw his face a hundred times over.

When I think back to the dozens of times I have seen him, it is easy to imagine the world fast-forwarding around me. I see streets filled with blurred shapes as people speed home, streaming through the city in a black tide of business suits and smart shoes. Traffic becomes one long course of light and motion; a film strip racing on a reel. Everything stretches and grows, even the dying sun melting in the sky, except for the man on the pavement, my Monarch-Man, the Emperor of Fractured Faces.

The Lebanese singer frequents the station at least as much as me. I suspect she does well for herself there. On those occasions when we are both there at the same time, her songs carry clearly across the street, made stronger by a microphone, and I imagine her voice is the wind. Sometimes I turn to her while passion spills from her mouth. Her eyes are usually closed while she sings. Seeing this, I close my eyes too and allow myself to be carried away by her voice. The sound is heat and flowers and dry summer air. I can smell roses, taste honey on my tongue. When I open my eyes again, I am always staring at the man in the gutter.

I fancy that I can smell roses now. It is not an impossible notion, in the park, and yet I know rose-beds are not the source. In thirty seconds I will be standing underneath the street lamp beside him. It will be the closest we have ever been to each other, and I imagine it is honey making my throat stick. Outwardly he is no different to the dozens of other homeless men and women whom I have encountered throughout my life in the city. His clothes are soiled but well-cared for. This close, I can see that rips in his jeans have been neatly stitched. The jeans themselves are faded almost to death. As I marvel at the needlework at his kneecaps, I wonder if he stitched them himself, or if he knows someone who fixes them on his behalf. I wonder how much the jeans mean to him, and when the last time was that he took them off. I wonder if I have ever cared about anything as much as he must care about the denim on his legs. I know that I have, because I have found him.

He smiles as I swarm in his eyes, this Monarch-Man, my Emperor. I smile back. Slowly he turns from the street lamp to face me. His arms are thin, bare bones really, concealed inside the loose sleeves of his old coat. I do not know for sure that the coat is old but it looks it; beige and filthy and treasured. He shifts slightly and I think I glimpse colour; a vivid flash revealed by his collar. I glimpse other things, too, under the coat, under the flesh, too much for me to take in all at once: the flailing limbs of a drowning spider, an egg as it cracks and drips with bright yolk, the sound of the egg’s shell as it breaks open and the crunch of mandibles and a cloud of butterflies, swirling silently over a flowering field. In the face of him, and in the fractured surfaces of his eyes, I am annihilated a million times over.

I realise I am cowering on the floor. My heart rages against my aching ribs. The first I feel of his touch is his hand against my own. I know it’s not a hand in the true sense, any more than those are fingers clasping mine, but that is what I can liken it to most. His fingers slide up my arm, dry and smooth like velveteen laces, until they come to rest beneath my chin. They hover there briefly, stroking my neck, their featheriness soft against my skin, before gently lifting me upwards. Then he takes my hand again, and together we dance around the street lamp, and the night whispers with wing-beats.

~ Thomas Brown

© Copyright 2015 Thomas Brown. All Rights Reserved

Damned Words 11

lantern

A Reason
Joseph A. Pinto

I found a reason to walk tween the folds of winter’s shawl, so hand in hand go we along Perdition’s Road. Shall we burn, we burn as one; shall we suffer, then know love cores the depths of our wounds. Lace your trembling fingers round my neck and your burdens I shall carry. I’ve no need to burn this lantern’s oils for our demons come well-known. Let them swirl in the dark, guttering til gone. Death is tenant of our path, yet tonight she’ll know no coin. My life I mortgage for yours; take flight now against my sky.


Nightfall
Nina D’Arcangela

Torn and bloodied, she huddles against the lantern’s pedestal fighting for a life already lost. Broken in spirit, broken in heart, she watches as they circle, awaiting night’s fall. Not taken on the last, she knows this eve she’ll not be so lucky. Day is already beginning to dim; the heavens darken. Having sought solace in the flicker of a dying flame, the whispers in her mind reassure no salvation will be granted. Darker than the deepening hue of the foreboding sky, they watch. The lantern struggles to glow, then gutters out. Her hope vanquished, they descend. The feast begins.


Monarch-Man
Thomas Brown

It had gone midnight when I crossed the park but he was quite visible by the street lamp. Stick limbs. Wild hair. The sickly-sweet scent of honey. He was filthy and beautiful.

Upturned, his pale face bathed in the orange glow. I saw his tight lips, his dusty skin. His eyes were like two orbs of polished stone. I saw myself in them a thousand times over, growing larger as I approached.

He smiled as I swarmed in his eyes, this Monarch-Man, my Emperor. I smiled back. Together we danced around the street lamp, and the night whispered with wing-beats.


Welcome to New Orleans
Zack Kullis

James glanced at the last gas lantern as they followed the old Haitian woman. Its light seemed to warn of coming darkness, fluttering and pointing away from the famed priestess. They had asked her for a taste of local voodoo, thinking it was bullshit until the old woman turned in the darkness of an alley and blew powder into their faces.

“Coupe poudre,” she whispered with a grin.

He pawed at his face until his legs buckled. Unable to move, James gazed with unblinking eyes as the voodoo priestess stooped close to his face.

“Welcome to New Orleans, my pet.”


Color Me Gray
Blaze McRob

It’s another gray winter evening, bereft of color, even the moonlight not distinct. And the light at the end of the old rock wall? Colorless. The sky blind to its presence.

The leaf-less trees pass his word through their twitching branches. He is pissed. Revenge is on his mind. Those who would destroy what he created must pay the price.

A giant pallet, held between his enormous hands, continues to draw all colors other than gray to it.

Armageddon will be much easier now. The lack of color already depresses them.

Great moans come from everywhere as the beasts attack.


High Society
Hunter Shea

“It’s the one right there”
“Where? I can barely see.”
“The one with the old gas lamp.”
The crowbar made quick work of the rusty mausoleum door. Bitter fall wind knifed through the opening.
“Help me with this.”
They chipped away at the cement covering, dumping the coffin on the floor.
“Shhh, you’ll wake the dead!”
They both tittered.
The coffin lid opened with an eerie squeal. The corpse looked like jerky, smelled rancid.
“You first.”
“Don’t mind if I do.”
He lowered his open maw on the corpse’s face.
Eaters of the Dead Society was not for the squeamish.


Flicker
Jon Olson

This city stands tall, desolate, and lifeless like the trees against the sunless sky. More empty concrete; more of the same. Nothing. Perched atop the corner on a forgotten wall, a lamp. Encased and protected by a small cage. The glass bulb intact, untouched by history. I imagine it glowing; a beacon of hope in dark and despair. Wait! What was that? Did it just… my God, it did! The filament lit up! I swear it flickered. Do it again! The bulb had blinked once… teasing me. Flicker again! Please do it again! Damn it, I need this. God, please…


The Game
Craig McGray

Once a beacon of hope, the lanterns go unlit now. In a new world, where few things are guaranteed and only death is certain, he scours what remains of the charred earth for the precious few that have somehow survived the scorching heat, famine, and disease that has spread across the globe. They think they’re surviving, fools every one of them, but he’ll track them down; the ultimate hunter. When the demon and his ebony stallion finds them, they’ll wish they’d perished like the others. For the game has only one survivor and he rides atop a fleshless black beast.


Raven
Magenta Nero

I pace in the street light, my heels click a numbing tune. Many drive past, slowing down, hungry eyes gawking, but it’s just not their time.

The chosen one rolls up, engine humming. I get a blank stare when I smile and say “My service is free.”

His face drains of colour as it dawns. The irrevocable darkness is a rising tide within, a slow choking. I shriek excitedly as he passes over. My wings burst open, eager to deliver him. The judgement is always a feast of pain. Few are redeemed. Snatching his soul in my beak, I soar.


Ne’er To Be Seen Again
Tyr Kieran

Under this post, he lay slumped against the cold stone wall; bleeding, appropriately ripped open. I watch the pain swell in his eyes and it widens my smile. I had not reason to smile in weeks—not since the woman I loved had been murdered in a savage manner. Despite her being of ill repute, I planned to marry. But on a night like tonight, with ring waiting in my pocket, I happened upon her torn body in the street. He took her from me. And now, I’ve taken him away from Whitechapel, ne’er to be seen in London again.


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.

Sypheun

 Her feet traveled up the roughly hewn steps with quiet ease. Ageless, she moved with immortal agility and timeless grace. The ethereal shimmer of her gown accentuated her femininity as she climbed. Beautiful from before time was first counted, Sypheun was gifted beyond most. That is why she went.

The steps rose from far below and stretched into the darkness above. Occasional flashes of light touched her form with their fiery embrace. A myriad of eyes watched from the eager masses below, knowing that only she was capable of performing this rite.

Sypheun glanced over her shoulder and watched the wretched thing that followed her. A flash of anger darkened the bright color of her eyes. “Your kind is never strong enough.” She yanked on the chain with perfectly bridled strength – hard enough to cause pain to the derelict being, but not hard enough to knock it down and cause more work for herself.

She shook her head in disgust. “Worthless creature,” she hissed. Nearly silent wails and breathless moans fell from torn lips as the frail man was forced to keep pace. His almost lifeless eyes held nothing but resignation. The man was spent, aware of nothing but his own pain and anguish.

Sypheun saw the door carved out of the granite above her. “It’s almost time,” she called over her shoulder. “We are in need of another sacrifice.”

The man’s fatigued breathing and vacant stare annoyed her. She jerked the chain again. Anticipating the task at hand, she rushed up the narrowing flight of granite steps nearly dragging her victim behind her. Once at the door, Sypheun pulled a key from her bosom and unlocked it. Only she could enter that other place; do what needed to be done.

A stale gust of cold air pushed through the door as Sypheun slowly opened it. Debris moved with the old stone as she pushed it inward. The pungent aroma of decay teased her nose. “How lovely,” she whispered as she yanked the man into the small room. She loved this part of the ritual. “Do you remember this place?” His eyes began to register something beyond the nothing they had held for so long.

“Maybe once you see a little more, then you will remember. It’s been years since you’ve been here.”

With a slight smirk, she ran her fingers across a stone slab centered in the chamber they now crossed; dust stirred where her hand traced. She looked back at the man and her grin broadened. His eyes were more clear as he seemed to take in his surroundings. Sypheun laughed. “Do you remember that night, so long ago?”

She reached the outer door, unlocked it, and flung it open. The night beyond filled the room. Its dim glow nearly blinded the man who had been kept in utter darkness for so long. Sypheun stepped beyond the door and yanked the chain violently. Her captive fell through the doorway and landed on his hands and knees. He opened his eyes and began to remember.

The rush of memories induced a mental hell of unbearable depth. A full moon cast her cold light upon the miserable soul as he wept bitterly at the entrance of the tomb. Sypheun grabbed the chain and pulled him to his feet.

“Time for a new sacrifice,” she whispered. “You do remember how this works, don’t you?”

He nodded his head in horror. Once vacant eyes looked down at his withered and discolored skin. He had changed more drastically than his fragile mind was ready to accept. Nearly all of his humanity had been drained by the throngs of hungry succubi in the depths below. He was now a ghoul.

The walk through the cemetery all those years ago surfaced through the jumbled mess of memories. He had come on a cold night to find the old tomb that was the subject of so many stories. There were tales of a beautiful specter that haunted the tomb. He had found her. He had also found his damnation.

Sypheun smiled as she saw the flood of memories haunt the creature’s eyes. Her attention drawn away, she heard the sound of nervous footsteps echo across the stones around them. As always, a new fool roamed the grounds and sought to satisfy his curiosity.

The frail ghoul watched with sick aversion as a young man walked towards the tomb. He couldn’t have been much more than fifteen. The young man stopped abruptly when he saw them waiting for him.

Sypheun’s beauty held the boy captive. He didn’t even see the wretch by her side. Her sweet voice filled his ears as she sang an arcane song of blood and death. It lulled him, pulled him to within a few feet of her. Her beauty seduced him; he never saw her remove the chains from the ghoul. Enthralled, he noticed nothing beyond her allure until the strange metal clamped securely around his neck.

He woke from her spell as if seeing for the first time, noticed the ghoul, and cried out in fright. Sypheun jerked the chain and brought him to his knees. The boy fought like a savage beast, but she only smiled in response. “Such energy, such life and vitality. You will serve us well.”

“What the hell are you doing to me,” screamed the boy as he fought against the impossibly strong woman. “You can’t do this!”

Sypheun grabbed the boy’s face. He was immobilized the instant her hand touched him. Her smile broadened as she began to pull at his energy. “Let me teach you a hard lesson. You are about to realize that humanity is not at the top of the evolutionary ladder.”

She began to walk backward towards the dark recesses of the crypt as she talked, the boy helplessly in tow. “All sentient beings evolve through violent exploitation. The acts of seizing, conquering and subjugating are inextricably linked to life as a higher form. It is through sacrifice and death that all things advance and become. This is as true for your kind as it is for mine.”

Sypheun was just inside the door of the crypt when she spoke again. “Ghoul. The crypts are now your home and haunt. By day you will sleep in the rot, then rise and roam by night. Feed on the flesh of the race to which you once belonged. You have returned to this world as a spoiled sacrifice, a harvester of decay. As for you,” she said as she pulled the young man into the darkness, “it’s fitting that you leave your world through the crypt. But you shall find no death here, only the depths where we are eternally hungry.”

~ Zack Kullis

© Copyright 2015 Zack Kullis. All Rights Reserved.

Snipe Hunt

Austin gave a nervous chuckle as he looked back and forth between his fellow Scouts’ faces, searching for a sign that this was just a stupid joke. The two older kids held his stare, unblinking.

“You’re kidding, right?” Austin finally said.

“No way. They’re real,” Eddy replied. “Nasty little things too.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. You never heard the tale about the slaughtered troop in these very woods, thirty years ago? A kid by the name of George or Gerald was the only survivor. They found him covered in blood and ranting about wild animals. His hand was ripped off. They chalked it all up to wolves, but we know better.”

“So… if they’re dangerous, why are we going to hunt for one?”

“It’s a test of courage that all Newbies have to take,” Eddy answered.

Austin’s stomach fluttered. Again, he waited for a punch line.

Eddy shook his head. “The Newbie’s too scared.”

Things haven’t been easy for Austin. His poor eyesight forced him into a comically large set of glasses since the start of grade school. Friends were hard to come by and becoming a welcomed member of any group was a pipe-dream. But here, with the Boy Scouts, he might have a chance. Eddy and Kyle were the alphas of the troop and if he could gain their acceptance, he’d be in. Austin ignored the usual warning signs that flashed in his brain, come on nerd, man up for once.

“No way,” he said firmly. “Count me in.”

“Good.” Eddy’s smile widened to Grinch-like proportions, and then he laid out the plan. “Alright, grab your flashlight and your tent bag. We’re going to head out past the latrine and away from the main trail. Kyle will take lead and I’ll watch our backs. You be ready with the bag. Got it?”

“We’re going to follow the tracks. If we find a Snipe, be quick and quiet. Sneak up behind it and get the bag over ‘em fast.”

Austin nodded, leaning harder on his false front of courage.

“So,” he asked in an overly casual tone. “What are we looking for exactly?”

“Um, they’re… small, up to your waist, maybe.” Kyle said.

“But, if they see you, they turn strong and angry. Watch out for their claws.” Eddy said. “If you see a pair of glowing eyes in the dark, it’s already too late. Got it?”

Austin nodded, worried his voice would betray his fading confidence.

“Good. Go get your gear and meet us behind the shitter.”

***

The forest floor lay hidden beneath three-inches of snowfall. The wet, dense snow made for prime animal tracking conditions, recording any goings-on with the sensitivity of a Richter scale. Solid cloud cover, however—a residual of the morning’s storm—offered little light for searching. Visibility was restricted to the sweep of their Walmart issue flashlights.

They walked for nearly half an hour before Kyle pointed out the first set of prints. He whispered back to the other boys to come look. Austin knelt down, pulled off his mittens, and inspected the imprint, following the shallow indents with his fingers. It was almost avian in shape with two toes and an elongated heel.

They’re real! The alarms blared against his senses again, too loud to ignore this time.

Austin looked over his shoulder, hoping he’d see fear in their faces as well, but Eddy just gave a calm nod. “Keep moving.”

They followed the prints, marching through the forest, weaving around barren trees. The distance between the three boys grew. Austin’s heart pounded; he could feel the thumping in his throat. Each print they passed heightened his desperation; he couldn’t think of a way to end this without seeming like a coward.

Austin clumped along, with no other sound but the soft crunching of snow under their feet. This is stupid! Why did I let them talk me into this?

An unexpected object entered his vision. Austin stared down at a glove resting on the snow. He crouched to pick it up but stopped when he noticed the dark circles. Despite the haze of his weak flashlight, Austin was convinced it was blood.

He jolted to his feet and whipped his light around, searching for the other two Scouts. He saw nothing but the cold skeletal remains of a once lush forest. Listening, he only heard his own panicked breathing.

“Guys?” Austin called out. “Kyle? Eddy?”

No answer.

Fear took over. He jerked the light erratically, searching the surrounding trees for a blood-thirsty creature. He felt eyes on him, watching his every move.

He looked down at the tracks and started to run. His feet churned, cold air burned in his lungs and the cloud of his exhalation puffed in his face. He didn’t get far before something caught his foot and he hit the ground hard.

Austin flailed in the snow, turned quickly expecting to see a Snipe leaping toward his face, but he was alone. A tree root poked up out of the snow near his boot, offering a brief moment of relief, but his sense of danger still urged him onward. He turned back, preparing to push himself up into a run when he noticed a reflection in his periphery. Terrified it was the eyes of a beast, he jerked the flashlight back. The beam illuminated a small pile of torn ketchup packets partially uncovered by his scrambling movements in the snow.

It took a few seconds for Austin to comprehend what they were and only a few seconds more to figure out their significance. His fear burned away to nothing in the growing blaze of his anger.

Austin jumped to his feet, shouting, “It’s not funny, you… you… Assholes! Get out here. Eddy! Kyle!”

The two scouts stepped out from behind their trees, laughing. Kyle held out a gloveless hand with three fingers extended to show how the animal prints were made. “Oh, man, we got you good!”

“You turned whiter than the snow when you saw that glove,” Eddy added.

“I bet you pissed in your tighty-whities, huh?”

The hot pressure of anger and embarrassment exploded from Austin in a loud battle cry. He used the only weapon he had, packed snow. Austin launched snowballs at them as hard and as fast as he could. Eddy and Kyle ducked out of harm’s way, still chuckling.

After several attempts, Austin stopped to catch his breath. All projectiles had sailed uselessly to the ground except for one close call that struck the tree behind Kyle’s head. The boys laughed, pointing at the snowballs in the frost behind them, and slapping the tree where the lone hit still powdered the bark. They reenacted all the missed throws in a dancing mimicry that heightened their humor and sent them gasping for air.

Austin seethed as they made a fool of him. He clenched his fists and shifted his weight to take a run at them, but the sudden appearance of two lights stole his motivation.

They flickered into being like a dying lamp but in reverse. Then Austin realized the lights were too high off the ground and too steady for approaching flashlights in the hands of other Scouts. Austin glanced at Eddy and Kyle to see if this was somehow part of their plan, but the boys were still calming down from their hysterics, completely self-absorbed.

The lights began to move and blink in unison. Austin wanted to run, to choose flight over fight, but fear rooted him to the spot. The glowing orbs moved down the tree like neon sap while the surrounding bark unfurled into wiry limbs. A high-pitched whine, like tree tops rubbing in the breeze, finally caught the older boys’ attention. They turned around, eyes wide, as the creature landed in a puff of snow behind them.

Its back was dark, covered in coarse bark-like skin. The two lights Austin had seen were a pair of glowing eyes set into the shoulder blades of its lissome form. White crystals from the snowball still glistened between those glaring eyes. Four clawed hands flexed as the creature turned to face its attackers.

It stood on two feet that matched their pretend pattern in the snow. The front flesh of the skeletal creature was smooth and stark white, like the scales of an albino snake, but the boys couldn’t see anything beyond the gnarled head. Four more glowing eyes stared up at them from a heavy brow, and below that, a snarling mouth of jagged teeth waited impatiently for something or someone to gnaw. The noise it produced—a growl that clicked more than it rumbled—broke the silence of their held breaths.

Austin’s hands trembled violently, and despite the strobe effect this had on the scene’s illumination, he could see the snow beneath his fellow scouts steam and melt. The creature looked to be sniffing the air with the pink fleshy appendages ringing its snout—quivering, identifying.

The odor of human urine hit the animal’s senses and it reeled back, shaking its head, swatting at the offensive pheromones.

Eddy, trying to make sense of the nightmare he saw before him, could only manage a single, stuttered word. “Sn-sn-ssniiipe.”

With a roar, the creature pounced on him. Kyle, close to the action, fell backward into the snow. He crab crawled a few feet away from the feeding frenzy, before he scrambled to his feet and took off through the woods.

Austin watched in horror as the creature tore his fellow scout apart. Blood, gore, and down feathers splattered the pristine snow like a grotesque angel. Austin’s mind screamed for his body to flee but he couldn’t. The flashlight felt heavy and his hands had gone numb. He thought about what might happen if he let it fall – then he noticed the other lights.

All the surrounding trees were now adorned with their own set of white-glowing eyes. The tree bark all around them began to crawl. The forest came alive with slithering Snipes and clicking growls. Austin squeezed his eyes shut as dozens of creatures sped past him in pursuit of the escaping prey.

Moments passed and distant screams told of more victims. Austin knew they had found the campsite. There were too many screams followed by too much silence. He wondered if he was the only one left.

With no recent sign or sound of them, Austin decided to find a way out. Pivoting on his heel, he turned slowly—his held breath burning cold in his chest and his eyes darting around for movement in the trees.

A soft clicking noise in his ear seized everything. He couldn’t stop trembling. He couldn’t blink. With a blast of warm breath on his neck, the creature exhaled and stepped around him, all the while sniffing the air as it moved into view.

Austin stood face to face with the Snipe. It tilted its head as the star-shaped nose worked to confirm what its ineffective eyes could not comprehend. Then, more appeared—wandering in for a closer view. The first one spoke to the others in a series of shrills and clicks.

It was clear what Austin had to do.

He remembered the story his Uncle Gerard told the kids several years back after too many drinks on Halloween. He claimed his mutilated hand was the only reason he was still alive. He said it was a message. He also rattled on about little demons, and how he was the last one, but it never made sense until now. Uncle Gerard was the messenger and his left hand was the warning. The Snipes had ripped off the index finger and pinky, leaving behind their virtual footprint as a symbol of territory—a warning for others to see and fear.

Austin removed his mittens and held out his left hand.

~ Tyr Kieran

© Copyright 2015 Tyr Kieran. All Rights Reserved.

A Foul Day

It moved! I swear on my mother’s grave I saw it move! Glancing up, I scan the faces surrounding the table trying to determine if anyone else saw the jerking motion. No one seems to have noticed; they’re all laughing and drinking, chattering away happily while waiting to be fed.

I blink a few times to clear my eyes. I’ve been working too hard lately, putting in too many hours, that’s all. I raise the carving knife and fork once more, preparing to plunge them into the bird trussed before me. It fucking moves again! This time with an accompanying slopping sound. A bead of sweat breaks out on my upper lip; my wife is staring at me hesitantly. With both hands now resting on either side of the beast, I take a few slow, deep breaths to calm my overwrought nerves. A slight nudge comes from my right. It’s my wife, a strained smile on her face; she nods toward the foul creature. I nod back.

Bringing the arm with the fork up, I dab at the dew above my lip and make an off-hand comment about it being roasting in here. Everyone laughs. A small shake of my head, I exhale and raise the knife once again to begin slicing the meat. As the gleaming instruments near the platter, I hear a voice in my head. ‘Go on ya piss-ant piece of shit – cut me open. Show everyone what a big man you are and gut me. Gut me like you gutted your wife when the doctor told her there was no physical reason you couldn’t get it up. Ya don’t have the balls to stick it to her, and you don’t have the balls to stick it to me either!

What the fuck? My knees nearly buckle and my wife reaches out to steady me. I jerk my arm away. The room grows quiet, the tension nearly palpable. I toss out another remark meant as a joke; the responding chortle is terse, fraught with unease. My wife is no longer smiling; she looks worried. I try to reassure her with a smile of my own, but a bare shake of her head lets me know she’s not buying it. ‘Ya know, she doesn’t have any faith in you anymore, right? She was expecting to marry a man, and look what she got – you! She knows about Terry, too.’ I almost utter a response but choke on my own spittle instead. ‘Yeah, that’s right. She knows you’re sticking it to that bitch from work. She knows you been doin’ it for the past month when all you’re bringin’ home is that limp fish in your pants, she just doesn’t wanna ruin this family get-together-thing. Your ass is outta here as soon as their gone, buddy!

Sure that I’m pale as a ghost, I lean on the table for support once more. My head hanging, limbs trembling; the nervous tick of the fork tapping against a glass the only sound in the nearly silent room. My wife reaches over again and lays a hand on my forearm. I lash out to shove her away, forgetting that I’m holding the carving knife. We stare at one another in shock for a heartbeat before her body crashes forward into the china, her throat sliced ever so neatly from side to side. As the crimson of her blood mixes with the pumpkin colored hue of her favorite tablecloth, a slight gurgling is all that resounds. I look on in horrified disbelief, then one of the children lets out an ear-piercing screech. The demon starts again, ‘Ha! Look what you…

I begin stabbing it with the fork, maniacally chopping it to bits while screaming incoherently. Everyone in the room is staring at me like I’ve gone insane. I try to explain about the turkey… about not realizing I was still holding the knife… about the pressure I’ve been under… but there isn’t a sympathetic eye to be found. ‘You know what you have to do, don’t ya? If you don’t, they’ll lock you up in the loony bin again.’ An icy cold sheet of acceptance washes over me as I move to the doorway, blocking my teenage brother-in-law from escaping.

I was really hoping this family would be different, not like the last…

~ Nina D’Arcangela

© Copyright 2014/2015 Nina D’Arcangela. All Rights Reserved.

Nine Lives

The edges of the jungle dance to the tune played by the vibrant colors of the burning village, twisting, cavorting shadows interspersed with the unknown entities hiding beyond where no light will go.

I know what lurks within the boundaries of the dense undergrowth. Most of what resides there is not good. Death lives and thrives at its core and spreads out to capture ever more territory when the veil of darkness works in its favor.

For now, at least, the fire is saving those of us still alive from being entombed within the snare of annihilation. I wonder if that’s a good thing, though. Sure, we’re saved for now, but at what cost? Capture later on? Torture?

Some fucking life! Yet, some of us can’t condone rolling over and accepting a fate of doom. Better to resist and fight ’til the end than to subjugate yourself to the wishes of the tormentors.

Fuck! I don’t make the rules. This is war. One side wins; one side loses. It’s as simple as that.

Most of the villagers waste no time in leaving their former homes. No sense in staying now. All that remains is burned rubble and ash. We help those who will accept it to get on their way. Their stares tell me what I already know without a word having been spoken: the burning of their village, the forced evacuation from their meager existence, it’s our fault. Yeah, in their minds, the ‘Cong were after us and they are paying the penalty for this retaliatory strike.

How the hell are we supposed to fight and win a war where no one respects us or what we are trying to do for them? They would rather roll over and capitulate to the commie bastards than fight on their own behalves. Not all of them; but a great many feel that way.

It appears that twenty or so of us grunts are left. No sense in leaving now. As long as the fires are raging, we’re safer where we’re at. We better dig in, though. Once the air around us loses the brilliance of the fires and the all-encompassing darkness takes over, we’re sitting ducks.

“C’mon guys!” I holler out. “You know what we have to do. Let’s do it.”

“But, Sarge . . .”

“No buts, soldier! Just do. That’s an order!”

The Captain and Lieutenant both were killed in the battle. Lucky me. I’m in charge now. These guys are my responsibility until I get them back to the base.

My eyes scan the horizon looking for signs of the enemy when it comes into view, rushing around in some sort of haphazard circle, completely on fire, howling in pain, the stench of its burning fur filling the air. I run out from my point of shelter behind a mixture of unburned wood planks and a few sand bags with a blanket and a couple of canteens in my hands. Reaching the distraught animal, I can now see it’s a cat: a rather large, strangely shaped animal perhaps, but a black cat none-the-less. I douse it with the contents of the canteens, and as gently as I can, smother the rest of the fire out while cradling it in my arms. There is no resistance from the animal, almost as if it is entrusting me with its care.

“Geez, Sarge, what are we going to do with that critter? It’s just going to die anyway.”

Staring into its eyes, I see a sign of intelligence I wouldn’t expect from a mere cat, but I see more as well. I see an animal on the mend, rapidly morphing back into what it was before the fire tried to consume it. I’m puzzled. How can this be? It should be merely existing at best, not thriving as it appears to be doing.

“Doesn’t look like it’s dying to me, Corporal,” I say.

He takes another look, stares back at me, and shakes his head. “You know, Sarge, this ain’t normal. It ain’t right.”

Sweat pours from my brow, a mixture of confusion, anxious bewilderment, and just plain heat. “Maybe so, but it’s not bad anyway.”

The big tom cat purrs in my arms, getting stronger by the moment – and seemingly larger. Even after this short amount of time, I feel as if I can barely hold it any longer.

Shit… shit, things start spinning around me, standing no longer an option. The big cat jumps out of my arms as I slide down onto the ground, using a tree to slow my descent.

“Oh, my God! You’ve been hit, Sarge! There’s blood all over the back of your shirt,” one of the men says.

That explains the sudden weakness; I’m coming down from my endorphin rush. The battle is over for the moment. My body is returning to normal. But in this case, normal isn’t good. The bleeding; I have to stop it now before I bleed out or go in to shock.

The sight of my blood creates panic in my men. They don’t know what to do. They’re inexperienced as it is, let alone with this sort of thing.

“You have to cut my shirt off and press down around the wound. Once I’m stabilized, you’ll have to remove the bullet; maybe more than one – I don’t know.”

“But… but how will we know when it’s okay?”

“I’ll tell you, that’s how. If I pass out, you’re on your own.”

Trembling more than I am, even with shock already starting to move in on me, the Corporal slices my shirt open with his knife and calls a couple of the others over to help him. They gently remove the worst of the blood with what’s left of my shirt and apply pressure to the multiple wounds.

I feel myself slipping away, the pain not even able to keep me awake any longer, but if I drift off and don’t fight it, I’m done for.

A hiss cuts through the air and all the hands are gone from my back. Instead, I feel the moistness of a rough tongue licking away at the torn skin, saliva digging in to the cuts, stinging horribly at first before a sort of calming comes over me, and I fall off to sleep.

The fire is no longer burning when I come to. Everything around me is calm: too calm. I feel the presence of something, something close, but there is no noise, no movement, no odors, and nothing to be seen.

Yet, it’s out there. Something. More than one; yes, they are patient, waiting for the perfect time to attack. But when, I don’t know.

My men have laid me in a secure, partially dug out area. If something comes up, I’m in as protected a place as there is. But, my strength is returning fast. As with everything else that’s happened since the arrival of my burning black friend, this makes no sense. I’m recovering as fast as the cat did. It’s almost as if he gave me some sort of life transference. The nine lives are growing.

They’re growing fast.

My furry friend is next to me, purring contentedly, my arms around him. I notice that no sentries have been posted; not the wisest of moves, but I’m not concerned. Somehow, I know I’ll be ready when the time for action comes.

I drift off to sleep again, but it’s not a deep sleep; it’s refreshing rest, but I’m still alert, aware of everything around me, my senses super sharp.

My friend wakes and stares at me, his yellow eyes telling me we can no longer stay where we are. The time has come.

“Corporal!” I say, shaking him, waking him from his sleep. “The ‘Cong are coming. Let’s get ready for them. I’ll go out and flush them in to you from behind.”

He wipes the sleep from his eyes and gives me an incredulous stare. “Don’t worry,” I say. “I know what I’m doing.”

I grab my M-16 and swing to the left, somehow knowing where I’m going, what I’m doing. My vision is sharp, even though the night is dark as coal. I mow the enemy down and push the others towards my compadres.

My ammo runs out! However, the enemy is still here. There are many of them and only one of me. But wait. The cat, my ebony pal is here, and he has grown in size. He is about the size of a small tiger, showing his long teeth to the ‘Cong, spittle dripping down from the edges of his mouth, and his eyes… his yellow eyes are seemingly the size of saucers, and they exude not only ferocity, but cunning as well.

All eyes are off me for now and on the cat. Surely there is plenty of firepower for all of them to dispatch this unexpected nemesis easily enough. But wherever they shoot, the agile animal is one step ahead of them, appearing to know exactly where the bullets will land. Closer and closer he gets to them, his claws no longer retracted, ready for action.

Deep inside me, gut feelings talk to my soul, tell me what to do, alert me of what I can do. My friend needs help; he gave me this power I now possess; the least I can do is help him out.

So fast I don’t believe it myself, my body grows thick, black fur everywhere. The pain in my mouth is excruciating as huge canines form, dropping down into sight before my mouth has completely adjusted to the new me, tearing through my human jaw, blood pouring everywhere. My screams travel on the moist, still air, and cause terror in the eyes of the ‘Cong; they can’t believe the change coming over me.

What’s left of my clothing tears apart from my huge change in size, and I bat the useless garments away with my fully-formed front legs; my razor-sharp claws finish the destruction of the fabric.

My friend advances from one side, and I do the same from the other. I still retain my human brain and reasoning, but my senses are super enhanced inside my cat persona. From the instant of my reformation, I was able to dodge the bullets and perform other miracles of agility totally hidden from me until now.

My friend’s saliva! It saved my life once before, and it is doing so again. I sense we are the same now. We are brothers.

We slash and tear without abandon, bringing our antagonists to their knees, and then their deaths. Once we are sure there are no more of them left to usher into the next world, he changes his size down to a large tabby, and my body morphs back to human form. Yet, my soul, my brain, my senses, belong to both parts of me.

I bask in the glory of what I have become and the powers I possess. But with these powers come responsibility. I must use my strengths wisely.

We return to my men, still waiting for the enemy to be flushed out to them. They can’t help but notice the blood on my jaw, and the fact that I’m stark naked is causing them to wonder what happened.

“Don’t ask,” I say, waving my hand to the side. “The battle was short but brutal. The enemy are all dead.”

The corporal looks at me and shakes his head. “Looks like you and that cat friend of yours are a lot alike. You both have nine lives.”

I laugh. “We have less than that right now.”

The Corporal is right in one respect: he has no idea how much alike we really are.

My yellow eyes capture everything around me. They always will…

~ Blaze McRob

© Copyright 2015 Blaze McRob. All Rights Reserved.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 3,221 other followers

%d bloggers like this: