I’m infected. Chewed up by an army of secrets, I’ve felt a thousand sets of viral teeth feasting on me over the years. I shouldn’t have let it happen, but there really wasn’t much I could do.
The noise surrounding me is deafening. It’s a tremendous ringing in my ears that pushes the memories of the many things I’ve done first into, and then out of, focus. At times, it seems almost a blessing that remembering has become difficult.
From somewhere far away, a woman’s voice calls out.
The veil of clarity parts, and I realize who I am.
My name’s Gabriel Merchant — of Hastings, Nebraska. I was a small-town, farm boy who once played wide receiver for the Kenesaw High Blue Devils. On the outside, I was popular — at least for all those things I allowed people to see. But on the inside, I couldn’t have been any more alone.
“Gaaaaaabe! C’mon in! Supper’s on the table…”
I see Mama. She’s standing on the back porch. A grease-spattered apron tied around her waist covers the house dress she’s worn most days since Daddy’s departure. Her sad eyes search the yard and periodically gaze into the cornfields as she nervously dries her hands on the filthy dish towel she keeps by the sink.
At my feet, the body of the dying calf convulses, belching its fluids onto the dirt floor of the barn. The slit I’ve opened in its belly is a jagged line connecting groin to gullet. Blood, bile and bits of undigested food create a stew of filth on the ground, while layers of exposed flesh, splayed open, begs me. It will need to wait. Mama’s calling…
I drop the still-warm carcass into the hole I’ve dug. It lands with a heavy thud atop the pile of rotting animal skins and maggot-scavenged bones of the others. Anticipation stirs my groin, promising more pleasure than any unfulfilled romance I’ve contemplated. And my insides quiver with the knowledge of what’s to come, feeding my illness.
Mama’s urgent calls echo in my head as I drop the cover on my secret grave. Before the plywood slams shut, I reflexively avoid the empty gaze of the human skull that stares up at me.
With Rusty my Pointer at my side, his tail battering my leg, I leave the barn. The mare in the corner stall snorts her approval of our departure.
Mama’s face fades. Rusty’s no longer there. Instead, I’m lying in the mud. It’s dark. It’s still raining. I’m back on the island. And there’s so much blood on my hands…
The clouds have been open for hours. And a cold wind blows across the field. The frayed leather chinstrap on my helmet tickles my right ear as heavy droplets of rain fall from the sky. They slap at my face and bounce off my helmet – a tinny metal drum that beats inside my mind.
Bullets whiz past my head. Incoming artillery fire spits mud into the air. It splashes in great chunks around me as I listen to the roar of the propeller-driven engines on a squadron of planes flying overhead. The earth rumbles, shaken by the impact of the payload dropping through the night sky. In the distance, explosions draw a hellish orange line that stretches across the horizon as far as my good eye can see.
My situation’s clear. I remember who I am. I’m Private First Class Gabriel Merchant, 4th Marine Division. It’s Wednesday, March 7, 1945. I’m on Iwo Jima. And I’m dying.
Tap…tap…tap…goes the drumbeat of rain on my helmeted skull.
My left eye looks out into a hazy world of liquid red.
There’s so much blood on my face…
I know its blood — I’ve tasted it so many times. What most people don’t know is that’s quite different depending upon how it’s drawn. Mine is warm and oily on my tongue, laced with the familiar notes of fear. It streams into my throat, and I feel it dripping out again through the hole in the back of my skull.
My disease is killing me.
This isn’t how I’d imagined my end would come. Not that I ever gave it much thought. But it never crossed my mind that I’d die alone, lying in the mud, in a place I’d never heard of, somewhere in the middle of ocean I’d never seen, and with my right arm holding my stomach tight to keep my bowels from escaping their rightful place inside my gut.
I didn’t see him coming. His first strike entered my body just beneath my right eye and continued on until it shattered bone at the back of my head. As he withdrew his weapon, my spine shuddered, his blade scraping against bone much like fingernails on a chalkboard. He offered only a momentary pause, before plunging it in again, this time deep into my abdomen.
Slamming me onto my back, he drove me into the mud with a force that ripped the M1 from my shoulder, shearing its leather strap in two. Now, my only weapon lay somewhere off in the darkness out of reach.
Amid the barrage of gunfire and the shouts of the others in my platoon frantically barking orders back and forth, a familiar odor assaults my nostrils. It’s the smell of cinnamon, or what I know to be the scent of death.
For the first time in my life, I realize how they must have felt.
There’s so much blood on my hands.
Back home, I was always the predator. Without much else to do, hunting was my life. I never tired of the comfort of a trigger or the satisfying kick into my shoulder as the bullet left its chamber. Maybe the only thing better was the heft of a knife and the satisfaction as it cut life short, shearing off the fingers that, inevitably, tried to fight back.
He stabbed at me with a fury I hadn’t thought possible. The speed and precision of his attacks were almost painless as he stabbed through layers of my flesh and into bone. The missing fingers on my left hand ache, having been sliced off, reducing my arm to a leaking stub that now spilled blood onto my chest.
Even through the din on the battlefield, I hear him breathing. While I haven’t seen his face, I imagine the look in his eyes. I sense his accomplishment as it oozes from his pores and slickens the skin beneath his clothing. Oh, the satisfaction. I know it all too well.
I became infected at the age of 10. It all began, innocently enough, with a rabbit in a trap. While only a few months old, it had so much zest for life that it nearly chewed through its own leg to escape. And, once released, it was barely able to move. But I followed it for nearly an hour as it dragged itself around the pasture. I’ll never forget the brightness in its eyes as I lowered my axe on its neck. I watched, intently, until its lights went out.
Afterwards, my disease quickly spread — my actions growing worse as each day passed. If Daddy had been basic training, the Marine Corps was my proving ground.
The bringer of my own death stands quiet. As he moves to my side, I see the outline of his body for the first time.
A criss-crossing pattern of tracer bullets strafe the night sky, cutting through the smoke from anti-aircraft fire. The shape of Death strobes in and out of focus. I find it hard to believe what I’m seeing. He’s much larger than expected. And he smells of shit.
The odor fouls the air. It takes a moment, but I realize it’s the smell of my own bowels as they evacuate my body for the last time.
In his left hand, Death carries multiple blades. They glisten with a mixture of blood, viscera and rain that courses off their impossibly sharp points.
Funny, I think, I’m left-handed too.
Thump… Thump… Thump…
My heart slows.
The rain falls harder. The bombers continue past.
How long has it been? Two minutes? Five?
Time no longer has meaning, but it’s the only thing left.
Breathing heavily, Death closes in, lowering his head toward whatever is left of mine. I can barely see him, but I smell his diseased breath. It’s sour with the same infection that feeds on me.
Thump……. Thump……. Thump…….
As my lungs drown in blood, Death kneels at my side. Rainwater streams off his contorted head and batters my face as he brings his nose close to mine. I see his eyes for the first time. They’re blue, like mine.
Thump……………… Thump……………. Thump……………..
Blood rushes into my throat. I spit it from my mouth. It splashes onto Death’s chin. An impossibly long tongue slithers from between his thick lips and licks it away.
His jaws open, revealing a maw of sharp, yellowed teeth. Their tips glitter in the darkness as long tendrils of saliva slip from his gums. The face of Death isn’t at all what I’d expected. Death wasn’t a man at all…
My heart stops. The final beat ends the symphony of rain, gunfire and battlefield shouts. Now there is only silence; and the blue eyes of Death staring into mine.
Then come the screams. They were the anguished howls and the cries of all the souls whose lives I’d ended. They pummeled me. Daddy’s was the loudest.
I’m no longer inside my body, but instead somewhere above, peering down at the wreckage of the life I’ve created.
Death calls me. I go.
Drawn into him, I’m instantly no longer alone. His eyes became mine. The talons on his hands move as my own. And he shares all of his memories with me, and I with him. There was a sense of communion unlike anything I had felt before.
Death had been the source of my disease. He was also my cure.
Looking down at my old self now, I watch as filthy raindrops baptize my broken body in the mud. I lean in closer, inspecting my farm-boy face. And with a new set of razors in my mouth, I strip the skin that was my mask from my one-time skull.
Bombs explode in the distance, ending uncounted lives and sending the fires of my new Heaven mushrooming into the night sky. With the flames dancing around me, I place upon my head the last remnants of the old me. And from behind my new, contorted features of shaved flesh and pure hatred, I howl at the rising moon.
I’d always thought I’d been infected. But after a lifetime of searching for a cure for my disease, I now realize I was always as I should have been.
I, Gabriel Merchant, am home. And along with all those who came before me, I’ve become Death. And together, we are the destroyer of worlds.
© Copyright 2012 DaemonwulfTM. All Rights Reserved.
34 thoughts on “Diseased”
Excellent story, but most of all, I love your so descriptive style of writing. Such wonderful images it invokes in the reader’s mind.
Thank you very much Rob for your kind words and for taking the time to leave them. Your comments are greatly appreciated. I know that both writers and readers aim and/or look for different things in the pieces they write and read, respectively. I’ve always been one who’d rather be transported by the words I read on a page. So as a writer I attempt to do the same, preferring to take the reader on journey into another place and time. Thank you for letting me know that my descriptive passages are coming through loud and clear. *highly-appreciative smile*
Oh Daemonwulf, how you never fail to impress. You have shared yet another fantastic story with us. I loved the overall mood of the piece. Your descriptions of setting are so vivid and work to create such a strong sensory experience for your reader. There is such skill in the way you slowly build the dread by revealing more and more of who Gabriel is through his memories of the past and his descriptions of the present. How evil can be born so innocently. The story is so complex, has such depth and nuance, I am sure I will find some new element with every reading. You leave it to the reader to come up with his own interpretation of the story, which I think is a hallmark of any great writer. You truly have an incredible gift for storytelling, and I thank you for sharing it with us.
Thank you very much Sharon. Your continued support serves to drive me to try to do better with each post. I very much appreciate your attention to detail in your critiques here on PEN. There is not a single comment that you have left for one of my pieces that doesn’t make me pause while also realizing that whatever intention that flows from my mind as I compose these pieces is actually coming across as intended. I only hope I can continue to entertain you as well as the other members of the PEN family with my work. It’s comments like yours that encourage and challenge a writer to keep going, and I thank you, again, for sharing them.
Excellent story, very engaging. There is anthology book collection currently looking for war-horror stories. If I run across the info again, I’ll let you know. You should definitely submit this.
Thank you Horror lovers. And, if you do find the name of that anthology and/or the publisher, feel free to send me an email at lordofwulves(at)sbcglobal.net Much appreciated! – D.
*cries* I left you this really long, detailed response, but the Cyber Gods seem to have lost it! *shakes fist and curses them to eternal Damnation*
What can I say that I haven’t already said a hundred times before? Your writing is stunning. It is always so all encompassing, making me feel as I live and breathe along side your characters. Here, I felt the ground shake, smelled the putrid air, and tasted the warmth of blood on my tongue as the sky exploded overhead. Your prose always wrests the reader away on a savage journey…a true testament to your skill.
I loved the turn this story took. I never imagined it would end on some forsaken shore, propelling us into the horrors of war. Yet, this was the perfect setting for Gabriel. Here, I sensed his delight as he relished in the abundance of suffering and death splayed around him. What a chilling end, too…leaving us to ponder what will happen now that he’s fused with such raw power and become the embodiment of all that is tormented and final.
Thank you so much for sharing your powerful and brilliant words. I always look forward to your posts, Sir Wulf, and this week was no exception. Well done!
DAMN GODS! This is precisely why SOME of us (*looking-at-self grin*) take the other path… *wide-and-winding grin* Well, even though they conspired to steal your words, you’ve done quite an exceptional job overcoming, only to offer up one of the most eloquent, fantastic and appreciated comments I have ever received. For that, Adriana, I thank you very much. I am honestly humbled by your words. *hugely-appreciative face*
I’m delighted that my attempts to take you (and the other PEN readers) on, what you refer to as ‘a savage journey,’ is actually working. There are so many thoughts that pour out of my mind and I do so enjoy trying to create a visually compelling prose around which those vile imaginations can be painted. I sometimes wonder if the intent doesn’t sometimes suffer with all the description, and its only through comments such as yours that I’m aware what I am trying to accomplish might actually be working.
For me, this was a complex piece, as one commentator stated. So complex that I was unsure I would be able to make it come across as intended. Thank you again for helping me realize that I have been able to do so. *humbled face*
Wulf, I was eagerly anticipating your next tale and it certainly did not disappoint! I just can’t get enough of your prose and style. I’m blown away by how much detail and information you routinely glean out of so little words. I loved the gritty bleakness in the tone and the way you structured the story. Very well done, my brother! I am dying to hear more from this newly born Destroyer of Worlds! And now, once again, I have the very difficult task of following your art!
Thank you, Tyr. Thank you very much. And, to be quite honest with you, this piece was originally about 900 words longer than what was posted. As you may already be aware, I can sometimes babble on endlessly about next to nothing… (*toothy grin*)…but am using my PEN posts to try to reign both my thoughts and my words, editing the pieces down to include only those necessary to convey whatever I intended to say. It’s proving to be a challenge, for one as verbose as me, but each new offering is effectively…er…’sharpening’ my…uh…pen. At least I hope that’s the case. But, that being said, I am thankful for your thoughtful words of critique. They are greatly appreciated. And I TOO look forward to next week with ‘quivering anticipation…’ *sharp smile*
Not only are you skilled at tracing your tale with blood but you handle it with accuracy. Those two elements in my estimation make a great writer.
My blood is curdling as a result – bravo!
Why thank you Moondust Spreader. The fact that I have been able to curdle your blood makes me realize my work here is done. Let Chaos Reign! But, seriously (which, as you will come to learn, is a difficult thing for me at times… *grin*), thank you very much for noticing that little bit of detail. I am quite the obsessive one (something else you’ll probably come to realize *smile*) especially when it comes to my attempts to depict events, real or fictional. And, I very much appreciate your supportive words. *gracious smile*
What can I say, my friend, other than ‘Diseased’ works brilliantly on all levels: tone, mood, visual, emotional, narration and of course the horror of it all. The pacing is excellent – flashbacks to Gabriele’s youth, the dysfunction of his own being, the sprinkling of battlefield aura to keep the reader immersed… Just a well thought out story written superbly. You should be very proud of this, as I am for you writing it!
Thank you, sir. Your commentary is more helpful than you know. And, you are right, I am immensely proud of this particular piece. I think (and I may have already said this way too much…) but I feel ‘Diseased’ is much more complex, with numerous different layers, than anything I have yet done for your ‘Damned’ PEN. It’s my goal to keep challenging myself, and with PEN there to stick a hot poker into my backside, I’m finding the challenge quite enjoyable. *S&M laugh* And, sir/brother-wolf/weaver-of-tales, I thank you for the opportunity to be a member of this wonderfully creative community. Your kindness does not go unnoticed. *appreciative face*
No need to thank me; we should all thank each other for continually striving to better a shared vision…and thank our slowly growing readership 🙂
THANK YOU PEN READERS!! *sincere smile*
Daemonwulf – this is an excellent piece! You are beyond masterful at moving the reader through time while keeping them fully engaged in all aspects of the story at once. As always, I am never left unsatisfied by one of your works. The foot-stomping brat in the back of my head always screams for another, and yet another tale to read. This is beautifully spun, dark, yet other at the same time. And like many who have commented before me – what else can I say – fantastic! ;}
Thank you Nina of clan D’arc. Your continued support and thoughtful comments are always appreciated. Perhaps we can put that ‘foot-stomping brat’ who lives in the back of your head to work for PEN and get him to influence that despotic Weaver of Tales to permit us to post more frequently. However, that would just be more work… *and-who-wants-that face* But, seriously, thank you kindly for your kind (yet D’arc) words. They continue to encourage me to the bottom of demented soul. *seriously grin*
Such a wonderful tale of who or what death really is, Daemonwulf. Your visuals are spot on, as I can vouch for the emptying of one’s bowels when the final moment comes, having seen it so much myself. The absorption of the soldier into Death is one such glimpse into what might be more than fiction. We need more of this great prose from you, young master of the Damned!
Hey Blaze, thanks much for your comments. Your thoughts and praise are humbling, to say the least. I appreciate your words and take each and every one to heart. And, incidentally, You are correct in your assumption, I have my own concepts of what Death (and Life, for that matter) are, or may be. But I’ll refrain from sharing them, if not merely to be elusive (*smile*), allowing me to, one day, return to this universe and potentially expand upon it. I appreciate your ongoing encouragement and the ideas they spark in my twisted mind. *grin*
An excellent representation of the soldier as both a bringer of death and a victim of it. You have drawn a strong parallel between the reality of war and the symbolism of war, but also death on the battlefield and death in the farmyard. As a previous poster says, ‘the story is so complex, has such depth and nuance.’ These are things I especially enjoy when reading so you have hit home with this reader.
Keep howling at that moon!
Why thank you Mr. Brown. Those words, coming from one such as you that I consider to be quite a talent, are greatly appreciated. I especially appreciate you having picked up on the symbolism to which I was referring. I often wonder if the sometimes cryptic attempts at meaning in my work fail. And it is encouraging to hear from you that these things are coming through. Thank you very much for sharing your thoughts.
Great story! I like your choice of Iwo Jima. You build the intrigue very well. I enjoyed it!
Why, thank you, Oh Copious One of the Dead. *toothy grin* Glad you enjoyed the piece!
I’ve asked myself many times since finishing my last short, “Where did that come from?” I didn’t really think “I’m going to write about X in X setting.” I just started writing. Your reply reminded me of my recent read of “Diseased” and I think I may have found some influence there, though the WW II setting of Hunger Pains is on the European Axis/Russian front. Whatever the case, be it specific, or as general as the shorts I’ve found on Pen of the Damned have inspired me to write more short stories myself, I thank you.
To be very honest with you, I think that if the work I post here on PEN (along with the other members of the ‘Damned’) actually inspires someone to continue their own art, that is actually the greatest compliment that can be shared. I’m happy that PEN and its writers can inspire you as much as they also inspire me.
And, to your point about how your stories evolve, I’m often surprised as to where the pieces I write actually end up. They generally start with a hint of something, including time and place, but they usually take on a life of their own pretty quickly. And, once complete, they often bear little resemblance to the original idea, and I too end up asking myself ‘where the HELL did THAT come from?’ *grin* I think that’s one of the things I enjoy most about writing, how the words, characters and settings often take on a life of their own.
I could sit here and tell you how much of an impact reading this had on me, I could wax poetic about how excellent a writer I believe you are. I could tell you that whilst reading this, I found myself holding my breath in eager anticipation and going back a line or two every now and then when I read too fast and didn’t want to miss a thing. I could explain that it has been a long time since I’ve read something and felt my heart start to beat that little bit faster and think to myself, ‘Oh this is going to be a good one’ and to not be disappointed because it was, or I could tell you how wonderfully I thought you described scenes that painted intensely vivid pictures in my mind, but I think perhaps, that has already been covered by the majority of the comments above and what I have already said to you in the past.
Mr Daemonwulf, all I will say is that if you ever wrote a novel, or published an anthology with a collection of your stories, it would fly off the literary shelves. I for one would eagerly pay to have a copy and would happily go around, proclaiming myself as your #1 fan.
Wow, Bernadette. I don’t think I have the words to explain how wonderful your comment has made me feel. I am sincerely humbled. And I am even more grateful that you continue to take the time to read my PEN posts, taking the time to offer such warm and emotional commentary that provides such a high level of encouragement of me and my work. You leave me speechless, something that is quite rare for me. I appreciate your continued support. AND, thanks for the re-blogging of this piece on your site.
You are more than welcome my friend. I meant every single word and I wish you could know just how much I do enjoy your posts. My words above still don’t feel as if they adequately explain how much. As for reblogging, I am the honoured one to be able to feature you on mine, and thank you very much for allowing me to do so.
Damn…. SUCH a great story. I really liked how you showed Gabriel’s tormented progression with ending life, his flashes to the present, and how you tied the tap – tap – tap of the falling rain to the thump – thump – thump of his dying heart.
You wrote about this “disease” with such intensity and clarity that some readers might wonder at the source of your powerful writing. I think you have an amazing abilityto empathize with your characters and create such vivid personas that we readers are left at your mercy.
I thank you very much for those kind and encouraging words, Zack. And, I believe you raise an interesting point. I will admit that I suffer from a trait that tends to annoy everyone around me. That being that I strive to answer the question ‘Why?’ Sometimes I feel it may be this desire to comprehend the motivations of others, whether good or bad, that allows me to explore both the positive and negative reasons for any given action. Personally, I feel that not every action by a particular individual is inherently intended to be either ‘bad’ or ‘good’ but instead have roots in both. I think this may explain how, as you say, I can ’empathize’ with my characters. Now, you have given me something to ponder over the long holiday weekend. *appreciative smile*
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