Dark Soil

Plunging, scooping, the sound of dirt sliding off each shovel as it’s tossed to the side. Another plunge, another scoop, more shoosh – the pile grows larger, the hole surrounding their boots deeper, the men more weary. The scent of dry dirt giving way to the earthy aroma of moist, dark soil.

Removing his cap and scratching his head, he asks, “‘Ere, guv, don’t you think this looks more than a bit odd?”

The other spits, digs, then replies. “Blood well is, son.”

Digging deeper, the dirt turning firmer, becoming more dense. Each shovel still plunging; a foot braced on the back lending force to the spade as it slides into hardened ground. Loose dirt scooped upon the belly of the trowel tossed above as it slips off the metal edge – the hole growing with each effort.

Removing his cap, wiping sweat from his brow, he asks, “Take a butcher’s. Tell me that ain’t too wide.”

The other spits, digs, then replies. “Blood well is, son.”

Tree roots tangle and snag, yet dig further they’re told, so they do. No longer plunging, only scraping a hardened surface painted putrid with residue – ground now removed, the scent is strong, almost fetid; a pungent odor.

Removing his cap and squinting in the dim light, he says, “Weird innit? Strange that there ain’t nothin’ but wooden planks, eh, guv?”

The other spits, swings, then replies, “Blood well is, son.”

Hefting the crimson coated shovel over his shoulder, he glances at the body lying near his feet, takes in the breadth of the pit they’ve dug, then turns to the man standing above him.

He spits, stares, then says, “Ain’t fill in’ ‘er in, am I, guv?”

One pistol shot fires. “No, I believe not.”

∼ Nina D’Arcangela

© Copyright Nina D’Arcangela. All Rights Reserved.

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Almost Human

How tiresome it had become to watch them come and go with no regard for me or my kind. We stood all around and effortlessly represented what they could never be. The vast majority of us were expressionless, but if you cared to look closely, you would see the rage building on our faces. Just this morning, I saw the children of these pretentious brutes tear the limbs from one of our own and wave them around triumphantly; clashing the severed appendages together as they feigned a fight between each other, cackling madly all the while. Their mother smiled, as if there was no cause for concern for what her little monsters had done. She simply ushered them away, leaving the amputated extremities haphazardly on the ground. We all watched in horror, paralyzed and disgusted.

Night fell and the overstuffed room was dimly lit by only emergency lights. The horde had disbursed and we roamed freely – repairing our wounded. Upon further inspection of the carnage, I’d made my final decision. By tomorrow we would no longer be plastic pariahs. We had plucked one of the more pompous specimens from the crowds while no one paid attention and hid her between the racks. I strode behind a checkout counter and retrieved a box cutter while the others dragged our guest into the open. I held the blade out so the cowering woman could see what was walking towards her. While my friends circled around us, I crouched down to her level; the same woman who’d smiled at her children’s violence would understand agony, of that I was certain.

A bit unsure of what I was doing at first, I began making crude incisions, her yelps of pain were music to my ears. A copper fluid flowed from every wound. She cried, screamed for help, but no one would be coming. I plunged the box cutter into her neck and instantly became coated in the ruddy liquid. She went limp, there were no more screams. I cut into her scalp and beckoned to my friends for help cracking her skull. Her rose colored brain exposed, and slightly throbbing – I grabbed it. Everyone watched as I placed it atop my own head and ambled towards the display window.

With as much force as I could muster, I whipped her broken skull remnants through the glass. Blood spattered and wearing my new accessory, I returned to my regular position. The broken glass and twinkling alarm lights caused me to look even more glamorous than ever.

∼ Lydia Prime

© Copyright Lydia Prime. All Rights Reserved.

Reunion

A small shack in the Ozark Mountains. Through the pines that noose it, a hard wind rushes like frantic horses. It isn’t wind that wakes David Holcomb from a long sleep. A car door slams outside. David slips from bed, hugs himself against the chill air. Candles gutter; the fireplace gleams with coals, but not with warmth.

David peers out a window through dusty glass. The moon hangs like a melted Christmas ornament in the nylon shine of night. No clouds mar the star-seeded sky. A parked station wagon is visible. A shadow strides to the cabin’s front porch.

Hesitantly, David steps onto the porch. Wind plucks at him; the chill needles. The figure’s back is toward him. “Who are you?” David calls loudly. “What do you want?”

The figure turns; a coat with a hood hides the face. “We need to get inside,” a voice says. “It’s coming.”

The voice is female. It can’t be who it sounds like.

“What’s coming?” David asks.

The woman doesn’t answer but walks past him into the cabin. David looks off into the woods for a moment. Blowing leaves kite past. The air whips in circles. Trees bend before it while twigs and dead pine needles rake the cabin. Dragons could be crashing through this wind-torn forest and no one would know.

David hurries into the cabin himself, makes sure the wooden door-bar is engaged. The woman stands by the fireplace. She’s thrown back her hood. She’s young, maybe twenty—a couple years younger than he.

“No,” David says. “No!”

“Yes, David.”

David shakes his head violently. “I’m dreaming. I have to be. You can’t be here.”

“Why?”

“Because you’re dead, Shannon. Dead.”

Shannon smiles, shakes her head so that her short red hair gleams in the candlelight. “Don’t I look alive to you, David?”

“I know you’re dead.”

“Despite your own eyes? How do you know?”

“I killed you, Shannon. Ten years ago. The last time we were in this cabin. I killed you and buried you outside in the forest. Buried you deep.”

Shannon laughs. Her eyes twinkle. “Buried me deep? In the woods where the roots grow thick? What did you use to dig that hole? A bulldozer?”

“A shovel.”

Again, Shannon shakes her head. “It would take a year to dig deep with a shovel in that soil.”

“I dug it,” David says.

But Shannon isn’t listening. Not to him. She is looking outside, to the woods. “You hear it?” she asks. Her voice drops to a whisper. “It’s getting close.”

Terror stitches itself up David’s back. “What? What’s getting close?”

“You know.”

“No. I don’t.”

“The Darkling.”

“What’s that?”

“You know. You’ve always known.”

David glances nervously at the locked door—as if it will birth a monster at any moment. He looks back at Shannon. She has…altered. Her face is younger, thinner. She’s grown small and suddenly looks as she might have looked a decade before—like a sickly ten-year-old. Her hair is knotted. Her nose drips.

But she steps forward; her focus is all on David now. “It’s time,” she says in a child’s voice.

David backs away. “Time for what?”

“To put away your sins. To move on.”

He shakes his head. “I can’t!”

“You have to. Or the Darkling will make us pay.”

“Tell me what it is! This Darkling!”

“David….” Then another whisper: “It’s here.”

David spins toward the door. Something is on the porch. It isn’t the wind. David whimpers, then sidles toward the fireplace. Planks creak on the porch as some heavy body treads them. A black ribbon of shadow flickers beneath the crack at the bottom of the door. Through the crack bleeds a smell like mint and kerosene.

David feels near to death as the door-bar bulges inward. He grabs a poker from the fireplace, brandishes it like an axe. “What is it? What is it?” he shouts at Shannon.

“The past,” Shannon says. She drops to her knees.

“Tell me!” David screams.

He raises the poker, as if he will strike Shannon. His arm trembles. But he remembers. That’s not how it happened—ten years ago—when Shannon begged her older brother to kill her. He drops the poker. A forgotten brown paper bag rests on the fireplace mantel. David reaches in, draws out a nickel-plated revolver.

As David turns with the gun, not sure what he will do, Shannon says: “The future.”

That word! David cries out. His eyes flood with tears. He falls to his own knees. The pistol is huge in hands that are suddenly young, small, weak.

“I’m sorry, Shannon,” David says. “I should have been able to stop it sooner.”

Shannon doesn’t hear him. “The now!” she shouts.

The door-bar cracks wide. Splinters sleet the room. The door smashes open. The Darkling comes through.

David suddenly sees the shack as it is. The bed where he slept is rotted. No glass fills the windows. No embers flare in the barren fireplace. A boy and girl kneel on the trash-strewn floor. Twelve, and ten, and ephemeral. They recognize the form that slides into the room like an acid mist.

David makes a different decision than he did ten years before. He empties the gun into the mist. The bullets do no good.

A chuckle echoes off the walls.

“There you are,” their father says. “My loving children.”

He kicks the door closed behind him.

∼ Charles Gramlich

© Copyright Charles Gramlich. All Rights Reserved.

Loving the Lonely Girls

He supposed that some would consider him a saint. An intelligent, good-looking man, collecting the lonely and tossed and scavenged girls he found on the side of the road. He wore them on a chain around his neck. A chain of conquests. A chain of romances. A chain of broken loves and broken dreams and horrifically broken people.

It isn’t difficult for a lonely girl to love a tender man. He says, “I understand” and her eyes grow starry. Dewy. They light up from the inside like embers. He says, “Why has nobody appreciated you?” and she swoons. He tells her, “Nobody will ever love you like I love you. I belong to you like no man has ever belonged to a woman,” and she will give him everything.

There is so very much a lonely girl can give.

The first girl became his wife. She lasted longer than she should have, perhaps, but not as long as he originally expected. She became tired and tattered, and her eyes lost their shine. The next was a friend who became something more, until she abruptly became something less. The third was a broken little thing, all hair and eyes and fairly begging to be cherished. The fourth was a woman older than time, and perhaps a villain in this life or the next.

The others weren’t even memorable. But their finger joints and molars and locks of hair were treasures. Shiny, golden treasures. He held them, wept into them. Wrapped them in pieces of fabric torn from their dresses and work uniforms and kitchen aprons. He stuffed the fabric into a box and kept it at the foot of his bed.

One of his lonely girls eventually turned these scraps of fabric into a warm quilt. She had bent over her sewing machine, running the scraps under the needle with a tenderness that bound, bound, bound. He wrapped this blanket of trophies around himself at night. He thanked his girl with his mouth and his tongue and his blade. She had been useful and thoughtful until the end, and then she just became used.

He ate them. He ate their souls. He devoured their desires and dreams. He held their wants and their screams and trust in his mouth, in his lungs, and when he breathed out, he breathed out their sorrow. But he wanted more. More and more and more. Hungry boys love lonely girls. Love them to pieces. Love them to bits, and bits, and even smaller bits.

 Mercedes M. Yardley

© Copyright Mercedes M. Yardley. All Rights Reserved.

 

Damned Words 37

 

Fey
Charles Gramlich

Beneath an icicle sky on a wormwood day of wither, I glimpse her winged form nested in the branches of a tree. A nimbus plays around her hollowed cheeks while the wind spiders in her hair. A saber would be jealous of those desolation eyes. I am smitten.

Day after day I return to her barren temple, to confess my holy secrets, to reveal all my sacred mysteries. No one has ever listened to me the way she does—even to the words I don’t speak. No one else understands. I am besotted.

Late one evening, in a seizure of longing, I beg her to marry me. She unfolds from the tree’s branches like animated origami. Down the trunk she slithers, until she stands before me, sky-clad, shadow-feathered. I swear to be hers forever. She smiles at me with a mouth like a scream. I don’t think she’s an angel.

But neither am I.


Blood Oak
Scarlett R. Algee

There were two humans, once.

There were more, of course. Beneath my canopy I sheltered lovers, threw shadows over children at play, spread my branches for curious climbers. But one night when there was no moon, there were these two beneath me. Male, female, I could never tell. They argued, shouted, shoved. There was a noise and one fell, not rising, and leaked.

The soil around my roots caught the liquid. In it I tasted the richness of the earth: iron, copper, salt. My branches heaved and shivered, breaking out in buds and small, new red leaves. My bark cracked around sudden growth. My creeping, ponderous thoughts grew quick, and in the darkness I felt a warmth like the sun.

I crave that liquid, but no humans have approached me since. They turn away as if my soil has been cursed, as if my leaves bear some blight.

But tonight, there are two again.

They laugh, sway, stare at each other. Anticipation stirs my sap as they sit in the spread of my roots, and my rootlets twitch, reaching up for the surface.

It has been so long, and I am so hungry.


Dead
A.F. Stewart

They buried me here, under the tree. Dug a hole and shoved my body between the roots, stuffed me down like garbage and covered me with soil. I was dead, but I watched every clump of dirt they threw on my corpse. I heard their grunts, panicked whispers and jokes. I watched three boys I had known all my life bury me and prayed it was a nightmare. It wasn’t. I knew then I would make them pay.

I started with Johnny, the ringleader. His smirk was the last thing I saw before I died. The last thing he saw was the rotary blade before it sliced into his face. All it took was a good ghostly shove.

Blake and Ronnie came next, with Blake taking a tumble down some stairs thanks to me. Broke his neck. And one night Ronnie missed Dead Man’s Curve when I yanked the steering wheel nice and hard. They found his corpse in the twisted wreckage of his car two days later.

And the best thing? Those three boys are here with me by the tree for eternity. I can hear their souls screaming from my grave.


The Hunt
Roger Ley

She tried to move quickly through the winter wood but brambles tore at her clothes and legs, her bare feet sank into the wet, black mud, branches clawed down to entangle her. The excited yelping of the hounds spurred her on but the softening ground sucked at every footstep. She fought for breath and tried to muffle the sound of her gasps. Crossing a clearing, she sank calf deep, and could run no further. Looking back, she could see the dim light from the swinging lanterns of the huntsmen, soon they would release the dogs.

She raised her arms above her head in supplication and called to the sky. There was no answer, but her arms and splayed fingers began to stretch and lengthen. Her toes grew, reached into the dark wetness, and gripped the roots and rocks they found down there. She felt her limbs and body stiffen, skin ridged and cracked, thorns sprouted. Sight fading, she heard the dogs as they panted past, their masters slogging after them. Slowly sleep enfolded her, a deep sleep that would last until the spring, and bud burst on the blackthorn she had become.


Rebirth
Mark Steinwachs

The gray sky feels oddly fitting. I try to move again, any part of my body, but I fail, not even a twitch. I’m not sure what drug he injected into my veins but I’m thankful for it now. I think I yelled and begged for release. It’s hard to get a handle on reality.

“You must die to be reborn. Like this tree is born anew each year, you will flourish again,” he says from behind me.

I sense movement and feel a slight pressure against my neck. Warm water? It’s soothing and I start to get tired. My eyes close and I drift off.


When You Are Dead
Mercedes M. Yardley

When you are dead, everything is different.

You don’t cry so much, or perhaps not at all. When you speak, your words are swallowed into the ether without making a sound. When you are dead, the wind lifts you and you billow. Your feet are always at least three feet above the earth.

When you are dead, you are equal with everyone else. All spirits are stripped to their nakedness and their skins shine like stars. You are dead, simply dead, and no death is grander than any other. It does not matter if you were murdered, or slipped in the shower, or took too many pills, or there was a power surge and the machine keeping you alive malfunctioned. Your hands are empty. You don’t keep a hold of the knife or the baby blanket or the noose that hung around your neck. You let these things go.


Stifled
Lee A. Forman

All warned against it, but I could stall curiosity no longer. When I put my palm against its dry flesh the hum of life coursed through me. The air thickened. Not a bird sang in the sky, nor would one land upon the outstretched embrace of its bony fingers. Mystery took its dark form and raced my heart. Regret soaked my clothes.

I briefed understanding—something vile thrived there.

A cream-white vine rose from the soil. The slender, pulsating serpent wrapped itself around me. It squeezed with each sickening pulse of its veiny body. A warm sensation covered my groin. It tightened its hold. Others sprouted around the first and held my limbs. They brought me to the ground, pressing my back against the dirt; the soft earth gave easily. My eyes strained to witness the overcast sky one last time before darkness stifled my existence.


Vena Cava
Nina D’Arcangela

The suck and pull from below is brutal, yet he stands majestic while enduring imminent demise. The alveoli fail to deliver, the lesser bronchioles shed into the spongy gray that surrounds. A greedy bitch, she demands more; a humble supplicant, he offers all. The pulse dwindles: slower this minute than the last, more sluggish than the beat before. She grants no quarter regardless of age or stature. She will exsanguinate until pulmonary collapse, at which point the superior will no longer sustain, taking the inferior with it as a single fused husk.


Judgement
Lydia Prime

“Don’t judge me,” I scream in my drunken stupor. “You don’t know what I’ve been through!” I reach for my bottle of bourbon and start to dig again. Each place I plunge the spade, the ground resists.

“He hurt me in ways you can never know.” I slur my words as I nearly fall, stumbling from the booze and pain. Another swig and I hurl the bottle at the tree. “I left a mark on your trunk, like the marks he left on me!”

The earth below starts to shift, the dirt softening. “Now you understand.”

I finish the plot in no time, dragging his body into the hole. I look around knowing I have to retrieve the bottle before I go – it has my fingerprints on it. I find it near the base of the tree, bending to pick it up. As I do, I notice the ground is softer here, unsteady. I’ve drunk too much and am imagining the dirt moving. Shaking my head, I turn to leave and trip over a tangle of roots. I don’t remember seeing those before… then more sprout.

As I’m dragged under, I swear the tree stands satisfied and smug.

Each piece of fiction is the copyright of its respective author and may not be reproduced without prior consent. © Copyright 2019

 

Present Problems

It was the night before Christmas and all was still as he crunched through the thin snowfall on his way home from the bus stop. It was so cold that all the moisture seemed to have been frozen out of the atmosphere, the night was so clear that the bright stars seemed three dimensional. He hoped it wasn’t too cold for the occupant of the small box he was carrying.

He was no good at choosing presents. Mildred would always say that she liked them, and then, if it was an item of clothing or jewelry, she wouldn’t wear it. If it was a kitchen gadget, she wouldn’t use it. Pictures he’d chosen had never been hung. He’d found an ornamental bottle opener at the back of a drawer six months after he’d bought it for her birthday, and the incident of the cuckoo clock in the dustbin didn’t bear remembering.

This time he’d tried extra hard. He’d decided to buy her a pet, but as they both worked full-time a dog or a cat was out of the question. The man at the pet shop had told him that rats were very clean and intelligent, but he thought it a risky choice.

“What about a snake?” he’d asked. “They’re not at all slimy as most people think.”

And sure enough the small constrictor had been dry and smooth and well behaved. It seemed quite friendly and hadn’t tried to wrap itself around his neck and strangle him or anything, but he didn’t think it was quite the thing for Mildred. Mice and lizards were too small, and guinea pigs just too boring. No, the tarantula was the obvious choice. Quiet, clean, easy to feed, not too big, not too small, just the thing. He’d bought a plastic box, some sawdust and a pack of unfortunate mealworms to feed to it. He’d hidden them all in the garage. Tonight was Christmas Eve, and he’d picked up the spider at the pet shop as arranged. Did he have a moment of doubt as he looked into the cage and saw the strange array of unblinking eyes, tiny jewels of polished jet looking back at him? No, she’d love it, he was sure she would.

He arrived home, hung up his coat and left the arachnid in its box on the hall stand. Mildred came out of the kitchen and greeted him with a kiss. He knew she loved Christmas. They had a cheery meal of supermarket Moussaka, a generous helping of microwaved sticky toffee pudding, all enhanced by a nice bottle of sweet white wine. Then it was time for the exchange of presents.

“Me first, George, I can’t wait to give you yours.”

He tore open the wrapping paper, a lovely pair of string and leather driving gloves.

“Just the thing,” he said, “we’ve been talking about buying a car. Now it’s your turn.” He went out to the hall and brought in the box. “Close your eyes, put your hands together and hold them out.”

Very gently he tipped the new pet onto her outstretched palms.

“Alright,” he said, “you can open them now.”

Mildred opened her eyes, it took her a moment to focus on the hairy bundle as it slowly began to walk onto her right wrist and up her arm. Her eyes widened, she seemed frozen, speechless. Suddenly she found her voice.

“Oh, George, a Golden Knee Tarantula. How did you know? It’s just what I’ve always wanted.”

∼ Roger Ley

© Copyright Roger Ley. All Rights Reserved.

 

The Living Body

His abdomen split down the middle and opened wide. But still, he held my eyes without expression. No pain, no surprise, no suffering could be read. I stared back, waiting to see what would happen next.

His sweaty frame shuddered and limbs bent at unnatural angles. I could hear bones snap. Organs began to leave his abdominal cavity of their own volition. They spread around the body, stretching, morphing, becoming more than they were intended by nature. My eyes strained to witness the full detail of the event. Strange to watch a man turn inside-out, even stranger to see him alive and unflinching.

His body stopped seizing and he continued to stare. Something in his eyes I couldn’t explain… I only hoped the restraints would hold against his growing mass.

I began to step back. Tendrils of meaty innards began to emerge from the mess that used to be his healthy insides. They extended, wavered in the air as if reaching for me. His neck bent at an odd angle, but his hard eyes kept a fix on me, followed me if I moved.

Regret began to form in the pit of my bowels. Not due to mercy or guilt, but because I might be its first victim. That wasn’t what I had intended.

One of the grotesque appendages evolved a mouth at its end. It opened and sprayed me with a bodily fluid I could not identify. My gut heaved until its contents expelled—it was the most vile smelling thing I’d ever experienced.

The pain in my stomach grew, at first I thought from vomiting, but muscles contracted so hard it felt as though they’d rip apart. Heat spread through me as though I’d caught fire from the inside. The final pull on my tender muscles tore them free of each other, spreading the outer flesh open with them.

A moment of vicious agony, then one of the most serene nature. No pain, no fear, just content.

I watched with calm as my innards transformed, given life of their own, expanding and changing and becoming more than just parts a biological machine. They had life, as if I gave birth to them. They were with me, and I them. I had to care for them, bring them what they needed.

I left the man who gave me this gift strapped down, his children screaming, as I ventured to do what all life is meant to do—procreate.

∼ Lee Andrew Forman

© Copyright Lee Andrew Forman. All Rights Reserved.

 

Sacrifice to the Gods

In the tomb of the gods, the dark soul stirred, the long-dormant bones staring through shadows with hollowed eyes. Someone called its name, spilled blood from a fresh kill upon the stone. In the inky black it waited, as red fluid slowly dripped through the earth. Soon its skull would stain red and it would rise again.

Above ground, shaking in the moonlight, Doug stared at the woman he killed. He watched her blood pool on the ancient carved stone and flow over the edge into the soil. The name he whispered still echoed in his ears.

How did I know that name?

He dropped the knife that slit her throat and it landed with a thud on the dirt. He fell to his knees, tears in his eyes.

Why did I come here? Bring her here? Why did I do it? Adelaide, I’m so sorry.

The blood twisted a path deep into the earth, descending far enough to slither along its bone. It welcomed the sensation, the warm fluid against its skull, human essence giving it life once more. Its bones twitched, a finger moving in spasms. If it still had flesh it would have smiled. The rebirth had begun.

Doug reached out a hand, touching Adelaide’s blood-stained sleeve. He noticed her blood on his clothing as well and withdrew his hand as if it had been burned. His gut churned and he turned away, vomiting on the grass.

“Such a pitiful reaction to death.”

Doug twisted back around, horrified and strangely relieved at the sound of Adelaide’s voice. Her body sat upright, staring at him with bright orange eyes. Her throat no longer gaped with an open wound where he sliced it, but her blouse was still soaked in her blood. Doug shook his head, as if to clear the strange image, but she only sat there staring at him.

He pulled his knees up to his chest and wrapped his arms around them. “Is this a dream? A nightmare? Oh, baby, tell me you’re still alive.”

“No.” Adelaide’s mouth coiled into a wide grin. “She is dead. Dead so I may be reborn. She is my vessel now. It is an honour for her.”

Doug rocked back and forth, whimpering. “I don’t understand any of this. What’s happening?”

Adelaide’s eyes showed pity. “Of course you don’t understand, human. You are just a pawn, born to achieve my resurrection. It is not your place to understand, only serve. Which you did beautifully.” Adelaide’s hand stroked Doug’s cheek and he sighed at her cold touch. Adelaide’s voice murmured, “You are special. You are mine.”

Doug suddenly pulled away. “I don’t want to be yours! You’re not her! I want my Adelaide!”

“Don’t worry, you will see her again. When I said you were mine, I meant this.”

Adelaide’s mouth stretched wide, into a grotesque maw with three rows of razor-sharp teeth, dripping green ooze. Her hands sprouted claws that slashed Doug’s shoulders before she threw him on his back, pinning him to the ground. He screamed and kept screaming as the beast that inhabited Adelaide ripped into his flesh and began to devour him. He survived her shredding teeth and tearing claws for ten minutes before death took him. Only his bones remained when she finished her meal. She wiped the blood from her mouth with the back of her hand and looked out at the world.

She whispered, “I’m still hungry.”

~ A. F. Stewart

© Copyright 2018 A. F. Stewart. All Rights Reserved.

Unto Us a Son Is Given

I wish to say I do not remember clearly, because I am an old man and more than thirty years have passed. But it is sin to lie and I cannot forget, so I will say: I remember, though the memory slay me.

When we saw the flare of light we were in the hills above Bethlehem, Micah and Ishmael and I; it was early autumn, the air just becoming crisp, and the ewes we tended were fat and tempting. Micah had killed a wolf with a stone from his sling; I stood watch while he and Ishmael skinned it.

And the sky caught fire.

I can call it nothing else. A great curtain of green light, bright as the sun, licked up from horizon to zenith in an instant; and in the same instant it coalesced to a single point, sickly and flickering, hovering over the mouth of a cave. We stared, bloody wolf forgotten. Ishmael was young then, and trembled. I trembled; I will not lie.

Then we heard the wings.

There were hundreds of them, perhaps thousands, lanky black things with great tattered bat-like wings that blotted out the stars and the strange green light. They hovered over us, and spoke; and their speech was not the speech of men, but a low evil buzz that twisted up words in my mind.

The one you were promised has come. Come. See. We take you.

One of the creatures snatched me up in thin cold hands; it had claws that pierced my robe and pricked my flesh. Then I was lifted; and if others seized Micah and Ishmael I did not see. I saw the ground rush under me, and closed my eyes against the nausea of movement, against the sight of my bearer’s shallow, featureless face.

Then I was set down.

I opened my eyes. I was at the mouth of the cave. The pale green light streamed down, hanging over the opening like a door, made my skin appear leprous in its wake. Then the creature shoved my shoulder with one clawed freezing hand and pushed me through.

Passing through that green glow was like passing through stagnant water: I gagged and retched at its stinking viscosity, and stumbled beyond feeling coated with contagion. Inside was dark except for a far dimmer light; my eyes took a long moment to adjust to the simple oil lamps. I smelled copper, sweat, decay.

And I saw the woman and her child.

She was a young thing, at a closer look, and panting still; the straw between her feet was clotted with copious blood, as though her labor had been precipitous and difficult. An older man, perhaps her husband or father, stood well back from her and raised wild eyes to me, his chin dripping saliva beneath his slack, working mouth. She had the glazed look of the exhausted unto death, and in the whiteness of her face I saw the clean stark lines of the skull beneath, yet through some strength she held the child to her.

Then the woman took the child and laid it in the manger: but the stone trough was lined with raw meat instead of clean straw, and flies buzzed over a butchered lamb in an empty stall. I saw then that the skin of her breast was flayed into fine strands, showing glistening red flesh underneath, and the liquid that dripped from her suckled nipple was not milk but blood.

She spoke in a croaky, breathless whisper: “Behold the son of God.”

Then the child moved: and for the first time I saw its slick black skin, tiny claw-tipped limbs, thin bat wings beginning to unfurl and fan. It gurgled, and its infant mouth showed needle teeth, ringed with tendrils like the barbels of a catfish. They spread out, twisting, tasting the air, perhaps sensing me, and I knew this was not my promised one.

Someone else came into the cave then, slipping effortlessly through the barrier of sick green light and wearing the shape of a man, if a man could be soot black and spider-thin. He was arrayed in tawny silks and bedecked in gold, his face covered below onyx eyes, and he trailed the fragrance of myrrh from the tips of long writhing fingers. He knelt: and as he knelt, his yellow silk veil slipped, and when I saw what lay beneath I ran from the cave screaming.

I screamed until I reached the top of the hill, and there I fell, breathing the sweet cool air, clutching fistfuls of long wholesome grass. Only when I came to myself did I see that the flock had scattered, and that of Ishmael and Micah and the dead wolf there was no sign, save a few tufts of gray fur and a patch of sticky crimson across the grass.

I left the hill country that night, and have not returned. In the thirty years since I have heard that the peculiar babe grew to manhood of a sort, gathered followers and wandered the countryside, preaching a new kingdom and performing strange miracles: giving the lame to walk on ropy tentacle legs, restoring sight to the blind to show them things no man should bear, raising men from the grave to show them crueler forms of death.

I was glad when I heard he had been crucified in Jerusalem. Such a blasphemy should only be put to death. But then I heard the tomb had been found empty three days later, its Roman guards devoured, and I could not be glad for that.

Those who followed him walk still, and they are much changed from men. One I met yesterday, on the road to Beersheba: he said his master had gone to his kingdom, under stone, under sea, to dream a new world and wait for stars to turn. The madman said his king will return to bring his glory.

May it be a glory I do not live to see.

~ Scarlett R. Algee

© Copyright Scarlett R. Algee. All Rights Reserved.

 

Fear

Tilting my head back I undo the clasp of the invisible collar around my neck. I feel two sets of long, sharp nails remove themselves from the skin of my shoulders and upper back. Bringing my arm over my head I clasp the collar shut and hang it on my bedpost as I do every night.

I run my hands along my neck. There are no physical marks on me. Nothing my friends or family would ever see, but I know they’re there. Twenty nail marks etched into my skin that will not heal for another night, and bruises from the weight of the creatures tugging at my collar.

I turn around and face them. They stand side by side, ebony beings who stare down at me. They look emaciated, their rib cages protruding. They have long, sinewy arms and legs; I shudder knowing I will feel the creatures pierce me again when I wake up. Their faces are dominated by sets of razor sharp teeth that drip with inky saliva whenever they open their mouths. I’ve yet to feel their bite, though I often wonder what would happen if I did.

Fear opens his mouth and his pointed tongue snakes out. I shiver but meet his gaze. I know he is Fear by the only color on his body, amber orbs that are his eyes. I’ve stared him down many a night.

I look to Doubt, his gold eyes glow in the darkened room. He brings his hands up and sneers. He dug deep into me all day and is gloating about it.

Neither emit a sound, the silent monsters who haunt me. They have been with me for years. Gnawing at my being every day, growing inside me until they forced themselves out. Everyone has these creatures in them, but mine reign over me. Control me.

I am not alone. There are others whose demons are just as powerful. There are no support groups, no doctors who can heal us. We are broken. What I’ve learned about mine, I’ve learned on my own.

They look down at me, watching. They are weaker at night when I am alone with my door closed to the world. But they know I cannot leave these four walls without them. They grow stronger each day. They rule in the outside world, but in mine, my room, I can stand up to them. Keep them at bay while I sleep. Dreams are my only safe place.

I walk to the side of my bed, their eyes never leaving my body. They turn in unison, standing guard as I slip under the covers. I turn off the lamp and my last vision is of their bedside vigil.

***

My eyes open to a new day. Fear and Doubt stand exactly as I left them. I push myself out of bed and they flex their taut muscles, their claws extending. I know what must be done. My body trembles inside. Each day I lose more of myself, but I cannot stop it. I reach for my collar and put it around my neck. I turn away, offering myself to them as I clasp it shut.

Closing my eyes I wait to feel them. Ten nails pierce my skin, what little healing happened overnight is erased.

Fear.

He pushes in deeper, tendrils snaking inside my body. As more of him enters me his body shrinks. He is no longer standing over me but now attached to me. Feeding from me. I inhale sharply, choking, as my collar is pulled to one side from his weight.

Waiting. One breath. Two breaths.

Doubt.

He stabs at me. Ten wounds at once. He is swift. Brutal. Taking hold. I gasp and grab the corner of my dresser so I don’t fall over. His tongue flicks my ear as I straighten myself.

They settle in as I open my bedroom door, ready to face the world.

***

Shutting the door to my bedroom I lean against it. I can’t face another day of school, the humiliation, the bullying. I’m done. I can’t fight anymore. I realize there is only one thing left for me. I finally understand what to do. No longer doubting myself, I will give in. I smile, it will all be over soon.

Pushing myself away from the door, my heart races. The weight shifts along my neck as my collar pulls against me when Doubt’s feet hit the ground. His body comes free and I feel his presence behind me.

I turn to face him. He is losing substance, shimmering in my vision.

“I’m sorry,” I whisper through clenched teeth, tears streaming down my face. I slide my hand under my shirt, feeling along my shoulder blade. Once again I smile. Just as I thought, his wounds are gone.

He steps forward and gently lays his hands over mine. Our eyes stay locked. He has been a part of me for so long. His tongue slips out and he kisses my tears away. Then he is gone.

My heart thumps against my chest. Unclasping my collar, I pull it around in front of me. I wait. His finger traces my body as he steps in front of me.

Fear.

My body is shaking but I don’t move. I am no longer crying. My hands quiver, fumbling with the clasp that binds Fear to the collar. Patiently he stands in front of me. I release the clasp and drop the collar to the floor. Fear smiles. It is grotesque and beautiful.

His hands roam over my body, feeling flesh he never has before. He grows as we stand together. Every inch of me is now his. There is only one thing left.

He opens his mouth.

My heart races as I close my eyes. A hundred spikes of pain shoot through me. I scream out in agony and fall to the floor, instinctively curling into the fetal position, rocking.

The door bursts open behind me. I hear my mom yelling asking if I’m all right. I know she is only a few feet from me, but she sounds so far away.

***

I’ve lost count of days, maybe it’s been years. I hear everything that is being said, but my body never responds. I’m trapped. My only reaction is to sob when they give me medication to relax. No one knows why I cry. They don’t understand they are tears of joy for being free.

Inevitably I feel my body slowly twisting into position as the drugs wear off. My tears stop. Those few hours of peace are gone. Once again I return to the hell in which I reside.

Fear is waiting for me.

My body enters his.

I am home.

~ Mark Steinwachs

© Copyright Mark Steinwachs. All Rights Reserved.

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