The Manipulator

Nothingness, absolute and pure, was broken by a suggestion.


Slumber torn asunder. Twinges of tissue and cognition, and then he WAS.

~ ~

Tired. So tired… Confusion and disorientation numbed his mind like cotton wrapped hands. Thoughts felt like a jumble of dusty moths bumped plaintively against a dim light bulb. He couldn’t grasp where he was – what he was doing. His limbs felt stiff and unused.

The stony grip of anxiety seized his mind and burned in his lungs. A deep breath was impossible. Thin air pulled slowly through his nose, bringing with it the smell of fresh clothing and an acrid smell that reminded him of a dissected frog. His anxiety doubled when he realized his mouth wouldn’t open. A hand finally responded to his slow mind. It moved sluggishly, fumbled around haphazardly until it found his lips. Glue. Somebody had glued his lips shut while he slept. Anger and the inability to get a full breath drove his fingers to tear at his lips with a horrible frenzy.

Dry tissue tore without pain or blood. Thin air cascaded over his teeth and dry tongue. His lungs responded mechanically, filling, expelling. Fingers that slowly gained dexterity and feeling touched what should have been painful tears in his lips. He was grateful it didn’t hurt and started to relax slightly.

Another strange sensation penetrated the musky fog of his lethargic mind. His eyes felt like they had something in them. The total absence of light wouldn’t let him see what he was doing, so his hands touched their way past his torn lips, his cold nose, and found his eyes. Tufts of cotton had been stuffed between his eyelids and his eyes. ‘What the hell,’ he tried to scream, but it came out in a hoarse growl. “Wwuu du hehh!”

His hand shot out in an effort to throw away the cotton when it struck something solid. The loud ‘thunk’ reverberated around him as if he were in a closed space. The frantic movement of the severely claustrophobic possessed him as his legs kicked and struck out all around him. A cacophony of quick echoes filled the tight space. His fists pummeled the surface above him, to the side, underneath, and beyond his head. Wordless screams bounced off the smooth walls.

Animalistic fury filled his mind and fueled his raging muscles. His hand shot out in front of him, and struck the surface above his face. The welcome sound of a loud crack met his ears. Lungs pulled at the failing air in massive gulps, like a doomed fish flopping on the shore. A primal scream erupted from his bloodless lips as he struck out violently against his prison.

“Unnghh!” he screamed between breaths. The sounds of his attack morphed from groans and creaks to the splintering of broken wood. A fist erupted through the fissure; his dry flesh scratched, torn and shredded against the sharp edges of his prison. Small pieces of something cold fell onto his face. His hand and fingers vaguely recognized the material as he started to pull his hand back inside and tear at the prison. Realization of what was falling on him came along with the avalanche of freshly dug dirt.

Adrenaline, or its mystical counterpart, burst through his system. ‘Damn this place’ he thought as he struggled against the wood and dirt. ‘Damn whoever put me here’ he thought as he finally got to his knees. The weight of loose dirt above him pressed down on his shoulders and head. Arms tried to push through the soil and pull him up. Hands searched frantically for leverage, for anything. Nothing.

There was no point. Dirt pressed against his eyes, stuck against the dry orbs, preventing him from the tender mercy of a blink. Not even a blink. Small bits of soil worked into his nose. The smell of loam and old decay filled him. Gagged him. He thrashed his head. How long since he took a breath? Fighting to keep his mouth closed was in vain. The muscles in his jaw worked against him. ‘Don’t open’ he screamed in his head.

His head thrashed wildly when his mouth opened. Dirt, a few rocks, and who knows what else poured in. His movements slowed against his will. Hands stopped grasping. Arms stopped reaching. He was dead – or would be. The cold hand of eternity gripped him tightly. He would pass, and be finished with his awful fate. Soon. Please.

There was nothing. His mind still worked, toiled against being stuck in this cold between. Then there was something. From above. A presence. It waited, knowingly. It beckoned. Then it spoke in his head.


‘Can’t move,’ he thought in reply. ‘Can’t breathe.’

Dark laughter filled his head. It remained silent long enough that he decided he had gone mad. ‘Yes,’ he thought. ‘I’m mad.’ The voice filled his head again.

Mad like the Arab with his Kitab al-Azif? No. Forget who you were, that which was is no more. Stop struggling for air. You no longer need it. Rise!”

It seemed too much, but he couldn’t deny the voice. It knew. The voice was more than suggestive. It carried with it an air of command that left no room for questions or derision. As a marionette moves at the behest of the manipulator, so too was he compelled to move. He pushed deeper into the earthen barrier, inched upwards, and endured the agony of his impossible climb. He fought against the spasms of his lungs craving oxygen they no longer needed as he heeded the call.

Fingers clawed through dirt and grasped at moist air. Forearms broke through soon after, quickly pulling his head past charnel soil. His eyes worked to blink away the earthen mess they had gathered. He hung his head forward, disgorging a voluminous pile of graveyard dirt that had filled his mouth and esophagus. Once the dirt was gone, he pulled in air. Not for a breath, no, he cried out with a nightmarish mix of relief and malice.

He lifted his head up to find the voice. The manipulator. His eyes absorbed the tenebrous night with preternatural ability. A huge moon hung far overhead, shedding its gossamer rays over a small clearing. Spanish moss clung tenaciously to an old Cypress tree.

“Here,” rasped a gravelly voice. The voice spoke in his head as it sounded in his dirt-filled ears. He turned his head and saw the Manipulator standing underneath the Cypress tree. It was too dark under the ancient tree to see the owner of the voice, but he could see a figure of absolute darkness and haunting shape beneath the heavy limbs.

“You are reborn, freed from death’s hold through this necrotic birth. I have not given you life, but something utterly different and blasphemous. You have breached this unhallowed soil which is your second womb. You enter this world bloodless, severed from humanity and unbound by all law but mine.”

The Manipulator raised an arm, cloaked in dominion and despair. A withered hand moved in lesser shades of dark and prompted the reborn man to finish rising. Enthralled by his master, he pressed his now powerful hands against the ground he had crawled from. He pushed, struggled, and cried out with the effort. At long last he dragged himself from the loose soil and ambled towards the Manipulator with manic obsession. The filthy clothes, clean when the man had been buried two days ago, dropped clumps of dirt and soil as he made his way to the Stygian shadow under the Cypress tree.

He stood under the tree and shook with necrotic joy. Eyes bright with malicious zeal looked excitedly at the being that had given him all. “Come,” said the Manipulator. “You and I have work to do.”

~ Zack Kullis

© Copyright 2012 Zack Kullis. All Rights Reserved.

25 thoughts on “The Manipulator

  1. A metaphor for your birth into the ranks of the Damned, perhaps? Welcome, Zack, and congratulations on your first post. The story is compelling and quite exhausting, I could feel the ache in the corpse’s limbs and the weight of the soil above his head! My favourite line?

    “You are reborn, freed from death’s hold through this necrotic birth.”

    A wonderful introduction to your prose.


    1. Thank you so much Tom! \m/ My muse must have picked up on that metaphor because I didn’t even think of it that way. But I like it!

      Thanks Tom. That line was one of my favorites too. It was one of those that just flowed and felt wicked-amazing once it landed in the story.


  2. Welcome to the Damned Jungle, my twisted friend! This is a most sterling way for you to debut. I loved the entire story, but the ending is what called to me the most because it said, “Yes, Blaze, there will be more. There must be more.”

    Your fans are in for one hell-of-a ride. This delectable piece is just a teaser.

    Oh yeah, baby!



    1. Thanks Blaze! Such a stellar bunch of compliments. It really is an honor to write with all of you, and to read the feedback has been amazing.

      There will be more necrotic enjoyment to be had!


  3. And into darkness, we do welcome thee, Zack. Stripped free, the mortal awkwardness of flesh that once weighted you; enter into our domain, born again – Damned – much like your character in THE MANIPULATOR. Our wicked scribe Thomas said it best: “A metaphor for your birth into the ranks of the Damned, perhaps?”
    A great post bloated with Stygian wonder (as if anything other than Stygian wonder could compare, duh!) – sinister atmosphere as well an intriguing little plot; just what, or who, exactly is the Manipulator?
    It’s never easy to write a contained short story that actually remains open-ended, but you pulled it off Zack (Nina must surely be infecting us all lol). Kudo’s! THE MANIPULATOR was very enjoyable to read; a strong debut in the Damned. As if we ever had a doubt 😉


    1. For the Damned freedom and the release from this profane flesh, I thank you. Stripped of pretense I stand in the darkness of the night, bare skin beneath the hunter’s moon, my tenebrous mind and darksome muse are ready for this ride.

      Thank you Joe. I’m stoked that my debut in the Damned was well-received.



  4. It’s about time you were part of PEN Zack.
    Let the dark fun go into full throttle.
    Your descriptions were painfully exact.The reader feels the agonizing struggle as the dirt fills his lungs. And then there was the end… (or the beginning)
    Excellent Zack!!


    1. Thank you Leslie. It’s a rush and honor to be part of such a talented group.
      The devil is in the details, and sometimes I think the horror brews best in vivid description. “painfully exact,” I love that!

      Thanks again Leslie.


  5. Obviously you will continue to write for this esteemed group. I enjoy the reading, but I guess not damned enough for the writing.

    The Manipulator – a wonderful twist – and a unique pov

    Now excuse me. I must go and rid myself of all the fallen dirt.


    1. Ah, dear Sue, don’t remove all of the dirt. A little corrupt soil is good for the soul! 😉 Mix in a little blood and you have a recipe for a mud mask to die for.

      Thank you. I hope to continue writing for this group for as long as they’ll tolerate me.


  6. Zack, the honor of your Damnation is ours, excellent work as expected! Just like with Damned Words, our 100 word flash fiction posts, it was great to see the differences of thought between stories featuring similar elements as we have seen back to back here by mere chance. I loved your vivid description of his ascent. I too felt the need to rub the dirt from my eyes as I read. The rank grit was palpable! And the ending was fantastic with the mysterious Manipulator and their work yet to be done. Excellent offering you’ve given the Damned, Zack! It’s good to have you among us!


    1. Thank you Tyr!

      I agree. It’s great to see the way our individual muses strike us and results in entirely unique and fantastically varying stories.

      My intent was to have the reader participate in the ascent as much as possible. I’m ecstatic that it was palpable!

      Tyr, it’s great to be one of the Damned.


  7. I will never tire of reading your prose, Zack. The PEN prose–twisted, dark, yet literary and profound– are a (super)natural fit for your talents.

    I now understand why you didn’t give us advance notice on your entry into Pen of the Damned. I wouldn’t want to mess with these guys and gals, either.

    Play your twisted dark side here. Bring your twisted snark side to Blog Comments.

    I’ll be back.

    You know where to find me!


  8. I think we all have an inherent fear of being buried alive. Personally, it’s one of my deepest. You encapsulated the terror of it magnificently, and it sent chills up my spine more than once. Now I want to know what happens next!
    Craig Barnes


    1. Craig, thank you so much. That was a fantastic compliment – the kind that validates the time I spend on my writing.

      There WILL be a next for this.



  9. Zack, what a exquisitely written premier piece for Pen of the Damned! The emotion and dread you captured in the words is palpable. If you keep this up, we may have to kick you out so you don’t show the rest of us up 😉

    Honestly, the prose are extremely tight; the words chosen perfectly for effect; and the entire piece extremely effective. Excellent work!! Very happy to have you as our newest member of Pen of the Damned, very happy! 😀


    1. Thank you, my Dark Angel! This piece just begged to make the reader cringe and gasp for air. I’m glad you liked it!

      I couldn’t be more pleased with how it was received. Thank you!


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