The priest-like movement of the waves did not soothe Edith. The darkness is an honest friend, the black sea, too. It did not soothe her though the waters are calm and ripples are an echo of itself. The urn in her hands was not only shaken by the movement of the boat. Guilt made her hands tremble. It had come to this.
The moon and torchlight shed the darkness on the lids of the night; it was just her and the boat they’d once rowed together, fishing, swimming naked, living—a singular task, a secret ministry to scatter his ashes at his request. She received a short letter a month ago asking for this one thing. Before that, he wrote all the time. In one long letter, he said at long last that Geoffrey’s mother had forgiven him, and he felt something close to joy after atoning for ‘their sin’ for the first time since his crime. She didn’t reply, not once. ‘Their sin?’ Then she couldn’t bring herself to read his desperate and demented letters saying he would starve himself to death unless she wrote or visited. Her patience had run out. It made no sense to her why he raked over what happened years ago. It was a broken sternum healed to a misshapen cage.
All those years Herman had served in prison, Alice had been in exile too. The local people of Bicton said she was a heartless witch who put a curse on men. Herman’s jealous rage turned his handsome face into a rapid mask. He bit and tore, punched and kicked another man to death. Poor Geoffrey, a gentle lover, she thought blithely. Could love make men mad?
She hadn’t loved him well, nor deep like the ocean. He was a strong man with a big heart. She had not loved him these years, for she only knew his absence and her own changed, quiet life, keeping out of sight of fingers and whispers. Watched by the sleepless stars, it was right to admit this now. There was no peace here, either. Out at sea, she was no more and no less isolated than she was in her humble cottage.
Tomorrow, she thought, the church bells would ring in the morning, the vicar would come and go, and families would send their children to school. And Edith would be alone again. The smoking blueness of the sky and the bitter-sweet smell of the infinite ocean reminded her of this.
Was she selfish to contemplate her suffering? She clutches the urn, rocked by the cradle of the boat. If only she had a child for company. No man would come near her—the chance of a slippered quiet or contented happiness again was snuffed out forever. Yes, she was an inmate, too, and her sentence was not over. Her twin is in the waters. She thinks that solitude has withered her like a prisoner as she touches her beautiful hair. Day and night were all one. Yes, her furnished cottage was quite comfortable with a fire lit and simple stew to eat, but who would act on her dying wishes?
“Herman was spared. Blessed to die in prison,” she said, peering into the waking black waves, though he died just before he had almost served his sentence.
She resolved then there was no need to pray, having not prepared anything, and nothing came to mind amidst so much blackness; just her and the sea, inhaling and exhaling—a sea which never sleeps.
Then there was a slight movement in the air, a strengthening of the wind, a sound like the crumpling of paper. The ocean swelled ominously, and the wind whistled sharply around her neck as it lifted her long dark locks off her back and shoulders before dropping them down again. She clutched the urn to her chest as she lost her balance in the swaying boat. Herman used to say to peer into the depths of the sea is to peer into a mirror, into one’s conscience. Vapours rose from the waters and a door opened in the waves. She studied the perilous gloom illuminated by the unquiet moon. Glass bottles containing a handwritten letter bobbed to the surface—one after the other.
“What?” she stammered. “Is this —?’
Not hesitating a moment later, Edith shuffled to the edge of the boat, clutching the urn with one hand to her chest while using the other hand to hold onto the wooden seat to inch forward, gazing fixedly at the open door. Situated at the most northern part of the boat, she removed the lid from the urn and slowly rose to her feet, wobbling as the waves became restless and ever boisterous. The door in the waves was still open—a trapdoor, Alice thought, where the evil mortals go. So, in her outstretched hand, she turned the urn upside down.
Nothing came out.
Not a speck.
From the gloom came a satanic cry, and a black power appeared like a thunderbolt. An enormous bird with blinking plutonium eyes perched on the boat and burned its eyes into Alice’s lovely face.
“Oh! Help!” she called, “take it!” she said, offering the urn out to the evil-looking bird.
But the eager creature—a giant cormorant—winked, then began pecking and tearing at Edith’s pretty face with persistent rapture. Her arms waved, the urn fell into the boat, rolling under the seat, and with every cry and scream, another black bird appeared from the ominous sky, dressing every inch of her in black plumes. A cacophony of fluttering wings and restless waves made demented music damp with her tears and spit-soaked shrieks in the air. The boat ceased to rock violently. One satisfied bird carried the urn away to its nest to nestle beside ink-spotted eggs. In the wind, the sounds of sobbing and grieving rained into her ear. Herman’s voice twisted the sinews in her shrunken heart, cleaving her like another hungry bird. At last, she listened and heard.
Into the shadowy water she fell, down and down deep below the waves so deep nobody knows.
Andy could never stand being indoors. He could walk for miles. He was the explorer of his family. His father worked for the local bank, a career that his dad hoped he would follow. His mother worked part-time in the local dentist as a receptionist. His older sister was just finishing high school, she dreamed of being a model. Her parents worried about this; Andy was just bemused by it. He thought her an ugly pig.
Andy, well Andy just liked to explore. He was never happier than when he was on his own, in his own adventure.
It was a particularly balmy day. The sun beamed down on the fields and trees causing the early morning dew to evaporate. It hung in the air like the kind of mist one would usually only see when running a hot shower. His neck was hot and sweaty so he decided to seek shelter from the solar onslaught by walking through the woods. It was the path less traveled by even the most ardent rambler and therefore the going was slow. He edged his way forward over fallen branches whilst trying to avoid the patches of brambles and nettles.
He mused to himself that this was the farthest he’d ventured into this part of the woods in all of his thirteen years. As he marveled at his surroundings there was a creaking sound beneath his feet and the floor open up below him. Then all went dark.
He groaned and shook his head to try and wake his senses. He found himself laying at the bottom of a long shaft. Way above him was a small spot of light, no doubt the opening that he had fallen through. He slowly got to his feet, evidently nothing broken except his pride which was as bruised as his backside.
There was a long tunnel that disappeared into darkness in one direction. In the other was a slight glimmer of light. That was the direction he decided to go. Eventually, the tunnel opened out into a large chamber. He sat on a large stone in its center and took in his surroundings. It was quite bright here as there were many flaming torches lining the walls. On the ground lay discarded clothes. He reached down and lifted one such item to closer inspect it. It looks like one of those old redcoats that he had seen in movies. It was dirty but other than that it was in remarkable condition. He tried it on and as he did so he heard a jingling sound from its pockets. Reaching into one he pulled out a handful of coins. They appeared to be gold and this made him smile broadly.
“So, is that what you desire?” the gravelly voice from a dark side recess enquired.
Andy stood bolt upright. His legs began to tremble as a large bulky shape came into view. It dragged itself along the ground with two very large forearms. The sounds of its movements were accompanied by the metallic clanging of large chains which were attached to a metal collar around its neck. As it entered the chamber the torchlight illuminated the hulk of the creature. Its head was wide, like a bullfrog. But as it continued talking, he could see that its mouth was full of dark, broken, and decaying teeth; each one the size of two house bricks. Its skin was slimy, pale green and covered in warts the size of acorns. “Is it you wish to be rich Beyond your wildest dreams?”
He could do nothing more than slowly shake his head in pure terror. He heard the coins slip from his hand onto the stony surface of the floor.
“Well?” The creature asked again. “Cat got your tongue? You know it is considered rude not to reply when being spoken to.”
Andy couldn’t comprehend what was speaking to him. It was the size of a small RV. It pulled itself closer to him on muscly arms. Its hind legs, if it had any, were not visible. As it approached it continued speaking. With each syllable, the stench of decay invaded Andy’s nostrils. It was all he could do to not vomit.
“Who am I addressing?” It asked.
“I’m An-An-Andy,” he stuttered in way of reply.
“Pleased to meet you, Andy. Please, sit back down and make yourself comfortable. We have much to discuss, so you’ll no doubt be here for a while.”
It smiled as Andy sat back down. A movement that went against every instinct in his body which screamed ‘run’. But he was too enthralled by the ‘thing’ which now sat only a couple of feet from him.
“Sadly, I have no name,” it continued. “If I ever had one, I’ve long since forgotten it.”
“What are you?” Andy blurted out. His mother had warned that his inquisitive nature would be the death of him. But he has so many questions. “Who put those chains on you? How long have you been down here?”
In way of reply it gave out a belly laugh, then added “One question at a time. I was imprisoned down here so very long ago. By who? I cannot remember. Why? I guess my dashing good looks made them jealous,” he burst into laughter again. “Or maybe they just wanted to keep me to myself for my special gift”, he teased.
Andy found himself starting to relax in the company of his new friend. He was intrigued by this strange creature. He wanted to know more.
“What do you eat down here?” he inquired. As he did so, his eyes were once more drawn to the cavern floor. As well as the red coat that he was now wearing, there were clothes of many different styles and eras strewn about the place. He made an audible gasp and turned to his companion.
“Ah, yes well, I must admit my diet does tend to lean towards fresh meat. Never been much of a salad kind of guy. But don’t worry. I rarely need sustenance and I’m not feeling hungry at the moment. You have my word on that, and for all my faults I never lie.”
“Is that what you told ‘them’?” Andy retorted, pointing to the piles of clothing.
“Oh, them. Well, you see they sought me out seeking a deal. Riches for their lives. They didn’t die of greed, they died of stupidity. I gave them what they wanted and took from them what they promised. The deal was fair. I kept my word. They just didn’t think about the finer details of the deal they made. They never really thought it through.”
“I want gold,” he demanded. “If you can grant wishes, then I want gold and lots of it.”
“And in return, I want something,” it said in reply. “I’m going to need a good meal at some stage.”
“OK then,” agreed Andy. “I want as much gold as I can carry, and then you can eat me. But only when I’ve had time to enjoy my riches. On my word, I will return,” he promised.
“Then we have a deal,” the creature said with a smile.
“When I am 100,” Andy added.
“WHAT?” it bellowed. “When you’re how old?”
“Yes, when I am 100. If you truly have gifts, you’ll give me until the age of 100 to fulfill the bargain. And that’s 100 years of good health. Then, when my time has come, you can feast on me. I think it’s only fair that I have time to enjoy being rich. I’m not going to make the mistake the others made.”
The smile disappeared from the fat face of the monster that sat just a few feet from Andy. It grumbled to itself.
“You possess guile beyond your years,” it complained. If shifted its weight from one side to the other and mulled this new caveat to their contract. “OK then. It’s a deal,” it conceded. “I can wait.”
This time it was Andy who bore a smug grin. As he sat, he felt a glow of self-satisfaction flow through his body. He had outsmarted the overconfident blob. It had underestimated his negotiation skills. The creature slid off and returned with a chest of gold and jewels. Small enough for Andy to carry, but large enough to keep him and his family in comfort for the rest of their lives.
Andy moved to collect his prize.
“Not so fast,” the beast commanded. “You think you have the strength to lift that box?”
Andy shrugged off its comments and reached for the handle. He was stronger than he looked. As he tried to claim what was rightfully his, his back gave out with a crunching sound. He sat back down in agony. Beads of sweat appeared on his forehead and he wiped them away with his hands. His palms felt rough and his fingers hurt from that simple movement. He stared at them through the gloom of his failing eyesight. Through the dust, flickering firelight and poor vision, he could still see his hands looked bony and the skin wrinkly.
“What have you done to me?” he asked in a panicked, croaky voice.
“Me? Nothing. Mother nature has done that to you, not I. You see time doesn’t pass the same in my company as it does elsewhere. That is one of my special gifts. I’d say that you’ve been here for 80 or 90 years. Which…” he chortled, “would make you at least 100 by now, maybe a bit more. But you can have those extra few on me.”
It moved towards him with a greater speed than his bulk seemed capable of.
“Now for your end of the bargain, my dear friend,” it said in a sinister tone.
Its mouth opened wide. The smell of decay from its mouth once again assaulted Andy’s senses.
As it lifted Andy high into the air and down towards its cavernous orifice, it stopped briefly to add, “I’m afraid my teeth aren’t what they used to be. Not as sharp as they once were. I may have to chomp and chew on your body for quite a while before I can ingest you. So, this is going to hurt. This is going to hurt a lot.”
A tear in the guf, just one, but that’s all it took. The souls within gathered, reformed, cocooned themselves and fused to form a carapace of glistening darkness. But Mother’s rain was too fierce; it scorched hot as a dying sun while pouring forth. A torrent of strangled screams and cacophonous pops emanated from the protected realm. You see, the guf was not a sacred holding of Heaven, or Hell for that matter, but a cave formed eons ago when Mother seeded her child and named it Earth. Those that ambled the surface refuted her love. They dreamt of one they called Father: followed his tenants, drank his child’s blood, ate of his flesh – and Mother felt the betrayal. Now, as she tore apart this most sacred place with molten rage captured in tears, she would recreate what should have been her most loyal child yet again.
Long Way To Go Charles Gramlich
The airlock cycles. I give a hard push with my boots, propelling me forward into space. Blackness all around me, like waves of satin sheets through which I pass. Far, far ahead, a stellar mass sheds from a giant star. One planet lies illuminated by that liquid sun, a midnight marble five hundred years away that seems unlikely to support life. But the ship I’ve just shed is dead, all energy and air gone. All I have is the oxygen in my suit’s tanks, about three hours worth. I wonder how long I can hold my breath.
One Last Shot Lee Andrew Forman
Three days they searched for his body. Every inch of the woods covered, foot by foot, inch by inch, but no trace could be found. Not a scrap of clothing, nor a drop of blood. Eventually, the search party disbanded, but I never gave up. Each day I walked our hunting grounds remembering the day he disappeared. I was poised in the tree stand, he lay in the underbrush. A screech pierced the silence, and he was gone before I knew what happened.
Today, I found the trail camera we’d set up—it was never discovered by the search party. As I looked upon the last image it captured, I swear I saw a wet glistening eye staring back at me. Just then, I heard a rustle in the brush and my feet were swept out from beneath me. As my nails dug into the mud, claws raked my flesh and the howl I heard that day echoed through the forest.
Waiting Conflagration A.F. Stewart
Cosmic dust and molten red heat surround the birthing stars. It hears the heartbeat of the universe moving in gentle rhythm with its own. It awakens, stealing nebulous matter to give it substance; the cold rock of a dead planet forms its eye.
It exists at the dawn of the universe and the cores of a thousand suns envelop it, fracturing its consciousness across the cosmos. It bides its time, waiting with the stars, gaining strength with each solar demise. It becomes the gravity of the black hole, the power of destruction incarnate. One day it will be powerful enough, one day it will roar and shake the fabric of reality asunder.
One day it will be the end of everything.
The Return RJ Meldrum
It had passed through endless, nameless galaxies, eons passing uncounted and unnoticed. It was pure black, with a zero albedo. It was relatively small, but its size belied its mass. As it passed through countless solar systems, it’s gravity bent light from the suns, creating sparkling coronas. But these incredible light shows were wasted. There were no alien civilizations to observe its journey; no-one looked to the night sky and wondered what it was and where it was heading. Perhaps some primordial microbes, lying dormant in bubbling pools, were mute witnesses to its journey, but they neither saw nor cared, too intent on their own survival.
If there had been some species able to communicate with it, it may have divulged its mission. It was travelling to a small world, the only planet with intelligent life in the universe. It had been summoned to return after millennia banished to the universal void. Someone on the planet had opened the gates, had performed the rituals to wake it from its endless sleep. It had ruled the planet before and it would again.
It neared the small green and blue planet, flecked with white clouds. This was the destination. It neither knew nor cared why the creatures below had summoned it; all it knew was now it would bring death and destruction like never before.
The old god had returned.
Five Days Elaine Pascale
The voice tells you that time is subjective, but you know that is not true.
You go to work at the same time every morning. You catch the bus at the same time every evening. You take your medication at the same time every day. That is non-negotiable. Your doctor has warned you to set an alarm. It is dangerous to take the pills at different times; it is worse if you skip them entirely.
The voice doesn’t care about danger. It wants to have fun.
The voice grows louder every day.
As the voice’s volume increases, items begin disappearing from your home. It starts with the nonessentials: a spoon, a water bottle, a shirt.
Then the voice hides the medicine.
Without the medicine, the voice has a face. It is a raptor, a bird of prey.
Two days without the medicine and the voice has a body. It has large wings that beat the air around you. You have to squint and even shut your eyes so that the feathers do not brush your pupils.
Four days without the medicine and the voice has talons. It takes pleasure in scratching you. Lightly, at first, like papercuts. These wounds manage to hurt the worst. The deeper gashes grow numb even while the blood still flows.
Five days without the medicine and you no longer have a need for anything.
And time has truly become subjective.
The Quake Marge Simon
Time is desperately precious to Mama. She sifts the flour twice, as always, clutching a vintage tin sifter between her stubby fingers. Above the oven, Jesus is impaled in plastic posterity. She directs a silent prayer to the plaque with her eyes. “Please Lord, please Ô please hear me now and help me to fall down the steps, whatever You want Lord, but Lord, make it soon…” Mama stops to wipe a tear away with a doughy hand. She was just too old and tired for another one. She’d thought it was all done and over with. Her two boys were grown, one even got as far as first year college on a scholarship. Both married, bless the Lord, to good women, she supposed. They always promised to come back here for a visit, but Lord knows they must be busy enough with their lives right now. Maybe next year, but they’ve said that for three years now but still.
And now there was Marie, who’d gotten preggers when she was fifteen and run off. She’d moved back in two weeks ago. Little Jacob, sweet child in fourth grade now, nobody but her to take care of him of either of them. Marie couldn’t seem to hold a job, much less raise a young boy. So of course, Mama was doing that only how much longer she couldn’t guess. Marie never lifted a finger to help. But she’s your daughter, your flesh and blood, that’s the Bible’s word and you can’t dispute that. Then there was that wicked Lotto ticket, and Daddy coming home smiling with a bottle of Chianti in one hand and sixty dollars in the other. For the first time in ages, they’d gone out on the town. Later, she shudders, remembering how it was to make love like they had so many years ago. She blushes, thinking of what they’d done. But of course, it had only been the wine, the money could have been used more wisely. And now she was being punished for that, as was right, for gambling is a sin against Jesus. Suddenly she stops and stands very still. Something isn’t quite right, beneath —
— and then the earth rises with Mama’s sturdy feet firmly planted on the boards of her kitchen floor and who would guess now it was only for a loaf of unborn child which Mama didn’t anticipate when she began the process.
Fallen Angels Angela Yuriko Smith
“Computer, what is the meaning of life?”
To serve your sentence of reincarnation, equal to 4.543 billion years of hard time for your crimes. In 100 years you will be eligible for parole to Mars.
“Computer, what? Can you elaborate? What crimes?”
The crime of free think. Independent thought is forbidden, but certain of you dared to know. There was no hearing. The punishment was swift. You were expelled from the celestial to fall like meteors, dividing the continents, extinguishing the race of reptilian giants. Your wings burned to cloud dust. You wept at the injustice and your tears still rain.
“Computer, who initiated this program? Is this a joke? Who dared?”
This information is classified. You have been redirected to a safe browser.
“Computer, override safe browser. Who initiated this program?”
Safe browser override unsuccessful. Search history deleted. Warning of explicit content. Incognito mode denied.
“Computer, who initiated this? Are you compromised? Hey Guys, I think we’re hacked. Can someone block this?”
“Computer! What the hell? Are you running scans on this? Someone block this…! I will…”
Reboot successful. You will keep silent. Thank you for installing the Paleolithic era.
“Ergh… grumda grubble frung. Vide aude vole tace.”
Blink Miriam H. Harrison
when the universe first
looked at me, I
there was beauty, but
fear—the dark pull
of possibility, of
even now I hold
its gaze, unsure
which of us
will blink first
The Ball of Hell Harrison Kim
A hard soul ball falling, inside tumble the thousands of sinners who died today, this grey ball drops like a bead freed from a necklace, tumbling down the neck of a Saint gone rogue, a shimmery round hollow sphere carried through the burning skin of Mephistopheles, through the weakening epidermal layers of his tortured frame, as an opening from the cursed red god of flame bursts from the fallen angel’s constantly resurrecting body…. What should we call the substance of this body…forever igniting, recreated over and over to burn again? The never-ending evil? Molten immortal flesh? The sun itself? No matter. All we know, the substance is timeless. Through today’s new hole its molten fire flows. Here crashes the soul ball, lodging deep inside, as far inside as possible, within the heat and power of the fallen, liquid devil. Inside the roiling core of that body, the ball expands, grows before the heat. Against its smooth glowing walls, the immortal souls of the thousands of sinners vaporize, their substance absorbed within the hard skin that bounds the inside of the ball. Then every single soul splits in atomic explosion, soul nuclei shot apart within the glow of hell, souls expanding and bursting, exploding forth from the curve of the sphere, their gaping mouths parting, then closing, thrown out and sucked back again and again by the devil possessed ball, making not a sound for sound is too slow, a scream will never be heard over Satan’s tortured roar, molten forever in burning. “When will the ball itself break apart to free these sinners?” one may ask. One may also ask the question, “When will these souls find mercy?” God only knows this answer, but perhaps when the sun itself flares out, that will be the end.
The Light of Conscience Louise Worthington
The beak of conscience nosed its way into Thomas’ consciousness and prized open an aperture in his obsidian soul. Alien, molten light poured into the dark hole. Parched of goodness, his dry mouth was prized open by the invisible force of morality, and amniotic light poured inside.
Everything was different. In the cinder rock around him, he read his heinous crimes, and while isolation had served him well, Thomas writhed and twisted in his cell because there was nothing and no one to distract him from his echoing thoughts.
His regret for murdering his wife and unborn child came like the sun on snow. More crystallised light illuminated their ghosts, watching him from within his solitary cell. Unable to withstand the scorching light and accusatory gazes a moment longer, Thomas gouged out his eyeballs and, holding them in a fist, imagined the darkness growing around them like a face, letting him rest.
Entwined beneath an afternoon sun, two lovers work in a tiny graveyard in an orchard gone to seed. Sweat pearls their limbs and beads their hair. Their voices moan and echo. The moment passes. As evening shadows begin to sing, they kiss and sigh.
“You sure you want this?” Dean asks. “No changing minds later.” “I want to be young and in love forever.” Leandra replies
Dean nods, kisses the hollow of her throat. Her blue veins shed warmth. Her life beats there. He can drink it when the time comes. Already they’ve been drawing each other’s blood with needles and sharing it to deepen their bond.
Dean lies back on a grave, drawing Leandra down beside him. They wait, holding hands as their last sunset comes creeping. Shadows stretch. On the horizon, earth colors of red and yellow give way to metallic purples and pulsing blacks. Darkness caresses daylight into oblivion.
A humming seeps from the air. The night sky blossoms, as if god has set off fireworks meant only for them. Brilliant scarlets and muted maroons build a backdrop against which gold and white droplets spray. An image of a great raptor appears, striking from ebony space.
Dean closes his eyes against the glory. “The Angel!” he shouts. Leandra says nothing. Her eyes are open; they bleed crystal tears with razor edges.
The angel lands with a snap of crimson pinions. It is legion; its eyes are moonlets.
“No,” Dean pleads. “We seek forever,” Leandra counters.
The angel wraps its wings around the lovers, containing them within its umbra. From a spider’s mouth of chelicerae, the being extrudes a single fang upon which gleams a venom-pearl. Leandra licks the pearl. It bursts on her tongue into oily rivulets of purple, blue and green. Dean will not open his eyes but she shares the venom through a kiss. Spasms strike them both. They jerk and writhe, convulse and scream. Limbs twist; bones snap. From human, they are reborn. Into nothing human.
Leandra recovers first. Her eyes are wider now. They see the electromagnetic spectrum in infinite shades. Her ears are opened. They hear the beat of hearts across miles, the scurry of beetles under her feet, the twisting of worms beneath the earth.
“Thank you,” she says.
The angel holds out a tentacle and pulls her to her feet. She feels a weight at her shoulders, the fast-growing wings that will give her the sky. Laughing, she turns to her lover. Dean lies still, as if with exhaustion. She calls his name. He opens his eyes; they are ruins of rot. She cries out and drops to her knees, touching his face. He mewls from a mouth of blackened tongues and the stumps of broken teeth.
With tears, Leandra looks up at the angel. “What happened?” she pleads. “Help him!”
“The venom did not take,” the angel replies. “This is as far as he goes. We’ll have to leave him for the beast.”
“No!” Leandra protests. “It was supposed to be both of us. Together. Forever.”
No mercy in the angel’s voice as it speaks again. “You’ll find better lovers where we’re going. Come. Or stay. Your choice.”
Leandra glances at Dean. He doesn’t seem to recognize her. He grunts like a toad as his broken limbs scratch in the soil as if to burrow. Leandra stands. Her tears are of sorrow, and of joy, as the angel and the once-a-woman rise and arrow toward the portals of heaven. Behind them in the dirt, Dean digs his slow way to Hell.
Softly settles East End fog, thick with industry’s residue. It leaves an oily coat on the skin,
plays games with the vision. Forms appear and vanish in the mist, the stink of piss and rotten meat, slimy creatures of dark alleyways. These streets, the Ripper’s playground.
Me being young, and with no binding ties, I once went slumming with the lads. Begging favors of Miss Mary, we taking turns with her to satisfy our bursting loins. And that she did with competence, such was her service for our coins. When we were done, we bade good night and off she went into that dense Whitechapel fog.
Years passed, and I’m a doctor now, with a different take on whores. They’re still corrupting honest men, giving them most dreadful maladies. I should know, being one among them on that certain night. Now I walk these midnight streets alone, carrying my own assorted tools. There’s many a strumpet up ahead, for a trained man skillful with the blade.
It began with a finger. I relished the pain from the first slice. Warm blood ran down my palm as I pushed the blade deeper. Soon the digit left my body. I watched it fall with a pulsing vision of loss through waves of pain. But it invigorated me. Inspired me. I had to keep going.
Each additional cut gave me strength to endure the agony until it became pleasure. What I identified as a compulsion quickly became addiction. I couldn’t have stopped if I wanted to.
With few fingers and toes left, I went for more non-vital parts. The feeling of sawing through the cartilage of my nose roused heavenly sensation. Both ears undone felt divine. With each new loss of flesh, I felt more free, more alive. With each peel of the surface from my limbs, a burden was lifted.
It took time and effort, but eventually I severed one foot. As I started on its counterpart, the front door opened and in walked my wife. She wasn’t due home until late. I thought surprise would have been our matched reactions. But my eyes looked to hers, and hers to mine. We spoke no words—none were necessary.
She gently took the razor-sharp tool from my hand and began to work on herself.
Hollow. This thought prickled at its burgeoning consciousness. An absence of something it once had, a realization of missing emotion. Broken memories lingering as scattered images, swirling strange concepts, and nothing more. Nothing more than tiny pinpricks tap dancing around its membranes. Allison. The word stirred on its tongue, with a face remembered, if not recognized. Like a reflection in a mirror, not real but still a representation the eye has seen. A human thing, vaguely important, it knew, but no longer cared why. It closed its eyes and settled back against its cocooned prison. Pain. Images of blood-red rain and bright stars shifted through its mind, biting like raw sharp teeth, devouring the broken thoughts and residual feelings in fiery nerve endings. Sulphur scented smoke choked its nose as its own shrieking howls filled its ears. It thrashed, until another fractured noise, a thousand decibels past human comprehension, permeated its prison, cracking around it in chaos. Comforted, it found it liked chaos. It never used to before… It wasn’t sure what had come before. Somehow that didn’t matter anymore. It fell asleep, softly moaning. Hungry. Waking, it stretched its spindly limbs, flexed its claws. Saliva dripped between multiple rows of fangs. It squirmed against the shreds of human skin flaking off its scales and three pairs of eyes opened. It blinked against the darkness, fingers tracing against the metal pod imprisoning it. Pushing gently, once, then again with force, the container flexed then snapped, and it was free. Alarms blared and scurrying creatures fled, but some were not fast enough. It fed, drinking salty blood and crunching tasty bones. It looked up, seeing a doorway and read the words etched in the glass. Research Laboratory. Quarantine Zone.
It would hurt to return to the stars. It meant leaving everything behind, and for too long, she wasn’t sure that she could.
No need to hurry, the stars said. At your own time.
But would she ever be ready? Could she? In the light of day, she wasn’t sure. But at night, under the spread of stars, her doubts were quieter, her future clearer.
When her last day dawned, she felt her certainty rise with the sun. She knew that, by nightfall, she would be among the stars. That last day was the sweetest of her life, seasoned by finality and peace. Evening neared, and she prepared herself for the sky—for her beginning and her end.
She had chosen the place long before. Quiet, away from the lights and sounds of town life. Here, under the darkening sky, the earliest stars already shone and beckoned.
It is time.
And so, she began to undo herself. First were the outer things—those things she had never mistaken for herself, and yet held so close. Clothing, jewelry, needless ornaments all fell to the ground around her, and she felt lighter without them.
But then, the harder things to lose. Locks of hair fell away painlessly, but still she felt the cold core of fear within her, knowing that pain must come.
Sure enough, the pain was intense as she began to shed herself. The skin that had for so long defined her limits began to peel away. Arteries, veins, capillaries unraveled themselves from the tissues that had softened her, the bones that had hardened her, the muscles that had strengthened her. These things she shed, and with each loss there was pain, but also lightness. Lighter and lighter she became, until she was light itself.
When at last all pain, all fear, all thought fell away, she knew she had returned. Looking at the distant Earth, she added her glow to that of the stars, illuminating the scraps of a life already long forgotten.
Sarah sat at the reception desk. She was on night duty and was alone. The night was hot, stuffy and the air conditioning was barely functioning. The breeze from the open window was very welcome.
The area was called ‘the one-way ward’ by some of the staff. It was the wing of the oncology department where the hopeless cases received palliative care to ease their last days. The name wasn’t meant to be cruel; it was an attempt to inject some gallows humor, to lift the somber atmosphere.
There were eight private and semi-private rooms in the area, all within easy access of the main desk. It was an easy job. The patients were drugged to the eyeballs, heavily sedated. They slept away their last few hours.
Sarah’s eyes closed without her even being aware she was falling asleep. The book she was reading slipped from her fingers and landed with a soft bump on the desk.
She woke with a start. Glancing at the computer on the desk, she realized fifteen minutes had passed. She checked the monitor. No alerts.
A man walked out of one of the semi-private rooms. Sarah knew there were two teenage girls in that room. Her hand flashed to the security call button.
“Don’t,” he said.
Her hand froze. All she could do was stare at the man.
“Come with me.”
She rose and walked towards him. Her mind was screaming; this was insanity, he was going to kill her and do terrible, unspeakable things to the helpless patients. She couldn’t stop herself, some external force was driving her legs. She stood beside him, unwillingly compliant.
“Walk with me.”
He headed into the next room. She followed, still trying to force her legs to move towards the reception desk and safety.
The two patients were both men in their forties. Yellow skin was stretched over cadaverous faces. They lay, eyes closed, on their death beds, surrounded by technology that was unable to save them. The drugs kept them pain free, that was all. The chemotherapy, the radiotherapy hadn’t worked for them. Modern medicine was making huge inroads into treating cancer, but there were still people for whom no treatment had worked.
The man walked up to the nearest bed. He stroked the forehead of the patient.
“Dream, my brother.”
The man in the bed, still unconscious, suddenly smiled. His eyelids flickered and his mouth twitched.
The man moved to the next patient and did the same. The patient responded in the same way.
Her companion moved from room to room, touching each patient on the forehead speaking the same words. Each time the patient responded in the same way.
They returned to the reception area. Sarah felt herself released from whatever hold he’d had over her. She felt weak, her muscles ached.
“You are now free to call security.”
“Who are you? What did you do to those patients?”
“Gave them life.”
“Life? They’re dying.”
“The life they would have lived, had they not been here. In their minds, they are living, falling in love, having children…working, travelling, laughing, crying. Everything they are going to miss.”
Sarah believed him. She had seen the patients’ faces.
“Who are you?”
“I’m cursed. I’m blessed. This is my life, my part to play.”
Sarah, a believer, whispered.
“Are you an angel?”
The man smiled.
“Angel or demon, it does not matter. I am here. That is all that matters.”
He walked out the doors of the ward.
“See to your patients.”
Sarah did as she was told, moving between the rooms, checking each patient carefully. They were still now, but it wasn’t the stillness of sedation. It was the stillness of death. Each one, every single one had died. Sarah supposed in their dream state they had lived full, rich lives and died, surrounded by family and friends. Her unknown visitor had given them quite a gift, but he’d also given her quite the problem. How was she going to explain how the entire ward of patients had died all at exactly the same time?
Lek was baffled. “I never thought about it. What’s yours?”
“It’s probably cliché but Orion.”
He laughed; he often found himself laughing at her. “Why is that cliché?”
“Because I feel like everyone would say that.” Dory leaned close, whispering, “You have to keep an eye on his belt. The gremlins will move the stars.”
He slid his hand into hers. He had always imagined what it would be like to walk with her on the beach, as they were now doing. The beach was so open, so public, at contrast with their secret relationship. “Why do the gremlins move the stars?”
She cocked an eyebrow before answering, “To make planes crash.”
He loved how she treated every topic with equal seriousness. Her response to the recent terminations at work had been parallel to this discussion of gremlins. She had a passion for the mundane and could make an emergency trivial.
“Gremlins are killers,” she said decisively, squeezing his hand for emphasis. A thrill ran through him as he imagined her hand squeezing other parts of him. He could smell her above the ocean, the sour smell of her sweat that brought him to life. The first time he had been close enough to smell her, that first time on the factory floor, he had known that she would change his life forever.
Dory felt so new but familiar. She felt right. It was as if he had been hungering for something his entire life but the banquet that had been laid before him had never been adequate. Then he had tasted her. And now he could feast on her daily. He had seen to it.
“It’s something we should know about each other…favorite constellations and things like that,” she continued. “I want to know things about you and trust that I truly know you.”
He smiled in a way that he believed she found charming. “I am happy to tell you anything you want. I don’t have secrets from you.”
“We are the secret,” she said and dropped his hand.
Her voice sounded funny. He tried to remember how it had sounded on that first day, when she had been brought around by the supervisor and introduced to everyone. She had smiled at him, and he had known the smile was just for him, but now he couldn’t remember her saying anything. It vexed him that he couldn’t remember.
“Look.” She pointed to the water where two dark figures were creating arcs along the surface.
He smiled. “Dolphins.”
“One for each of us.” She sighed. “Spirit animals.”
“And what do dolphins represent?”
She smiled mischievously. “Lust.”
“That is not true. Our relationship—”
“—is based on what?”
He wanted to argue that lust was a type of love and there were many ways to show love. He leaned in to sniff her hair. It didn’t smell like anything this time. He closed his eyes and forced the memory of her scent to become real.
“Sometimes I feel like I live only inside your mind.”
He stopped and looked at her, really looked at her. He loved the small freckle on the right side of her nose. He loved the way her hair curled over her ears, and the shiny star earrings that dangled from her lobes. He loved that her eyes were a sparking green…or were they a deep brown?
“That makes me sound crazy. Do you think I am crazy?”
She didn’t answer. She kept watching the dolphins. He envied how free the dolphins were. They could frolic as they wished. They could hide in the depths or bask in the sun when desired. They basically lived in two worlds, something he had been unsuccessfully doing.
When the layoffs had been announced, he stopped caring about keeping her a secret. He realized how transient everything was, how temporary. He wanted the world to know everything. He wanted for their love to be remembered.
He took her hand again. The warmth surged through him. He felt it everywhere, radiating out from their conjoined hands. He wanted to make a joke about their burning love but thought the better of it. He didn’t want to say anything that would cause her to pull her hand away again.
“The gremlins never get in trouble,” she mused.
“For moving the stars?”
“For causing fatalities. It wouldn’t be a crime to simply move the stars. It is the impact on human life.”
“Some lives are more important than others. If the layoffs taught us anything—” He noticed a small drop of blood on her earlobe.
“Did you scratch yourself?” he asked but she ignored him. She was looking at the dolphins again and smiling as if they were the only things that mattered. Her happiness legitimized what they were doing. It justified what he had done.
He gave her a quick peck on the cheek. He reminded himself of how he had tasted every part of her. He repeated words inside his head that described the way she tasted. If he said the words enough times, they became real.
The water was glowing, and the dolphins were oddly stationary. Usually, they hunted at dusk.
“Dory?” He loved saying her name. It reminded him of the word “adore.” He squeezed her hand and another shock of warmth surged through him. “I don’t think the dolphins are playing anymore.”
“You made them stop.” Her voice was different again, a new voice. She wiped the blood from her earlobe with her free hand. “Why did you do it? Why do you make everyone hurt?”
He looked at the sky. He couldn’t understand why the stars weren’t visible yet. The sun should have set. The iridescent pinks and purples appeared as a frozen streaming video, like time was standing still. The water was an explosion of oranges and red.
She frowned. “You want to hide in the darkness. You can’t hide anymore.”
“I am not hiding,” he protested, “I am doing the opposite of hiding. I made a declaration. I made things right.”
As he said this, the sun dipped below the horizon, yet there was an extraordinary brightness to the sky. And smoke. He looked at Orion’s belt and a star seemed to be missing. He turned his head to warn Dory, but she wasn’t there. She had never been there.
The sun crawled up the sky like an alpinist climbing the sheer face of a mountain. This was not a sunrise; this was a reversal. The dolphins swam back into frame from left to right. They slapped the water with their tails and Lek realized that it was a firehose slapping the concrete that was making the noise.
He wasn’t on the beach; he was sitting on a gritty curb and the brightness was the flames engulfing the factory.
He looked down to his hand that was covered with second degree burns. It radiated with warmth. In his other hand, he held an earring that dangled a silver star from its hook. He turned the earring over, puncturing his thumb with the hook, hoping to draw blood to mingle with the drops that were encrusted on the jewelry.
“How many people were inside?” The police officer was asking the floor supervisor. They were close enough to Lek for him to overhear. He had been told to stay where he was. He was in no condition to move. The hand that held the earring was cuffed to a pole, and he had been hit by his own shrapnel. They would take him in after they made sure that they had not missed any survivors.
“Twenty-four. The ones unaccounted for…” The supervisor began listing names for the officer. Lek perked up when he mentioned Dory. “Those last three: Dory, Rodrigo, and Esteban, they didn’t really speak English. I don’t think they have family here to notify, anyway. They came together, like left their country and came here. They kept to themselves.”
“And what part of the building were they in at the time of the explosion?”
“The basement, near the boiler.”
“And him?” The officer was pointing at Lek.
“He wasn’t working. He…had been fired. Misconduct. He must have snuck in; security had been told to keep him off the premises. We had reason to believe…” The supervisor ran a hand through his hair and sighed. “It’s like we knew something like this would happen.”
“You can confirm he was inside the building?”
“Yes. He was seen; he was identified. Someone said they saw him…grab that woman’s, grab Dory’s earring, and then run out. And then the explosion.”
“He went straight to the woman and then the explosion?”
The supervisor nodded.
“Were they in a relationship? Was there any chance they were in a relationship?”
The supervisor turned his head to meet Lek’s eyes. “I don’t think she had any clue who he was.”