Had it been the sun that peeled skin from his neck or the sheer ferocity of his nightmare?
Blistering splendor poured onto him from the unrelenting orb. Fire singed his eyes, shriveled his tongue—the blackened, useless slug lolled from his lips. His speech now eradicated, rendered to meaningless gestures from his festered hands. The sun seared his flesh, melted his legs down to dripping strands; mere bubbling pools of tissue in the ruined soles of his boots.
Every night, each dream, the heat only intensified.
He had been walking down a pebbled road, a silvery-sparkled stream beyond a thicket to his left. He could hear it—the stream, forming words that he could not, murmuring soft melodies into his steaming ears. Disgusted, he spat futilely; gory mucous dribbled down his chin. He wiped at it with a skinless forearm.
Every night, each dream, the anguish only escalated.
He had never seen a sky so blue. Cloudless and pure. He gritted his teeth. Upon the wind ancient legends croaked, low and throaty, while to his right bunnies romped through manicured fields. The sun cooked him, made his eyes bleed, and from his core ruptured an awful sort of churn. The sort he might have gotten eating roofing nails or coals from the bottom of his dead father’s grill.
In tonight’s nightmare, he stood in the midst of beauty. It utterly sickened him.
A terrible mewling. From the fields: bunnies eviscerated in pink geysers and in the middle of it all, the most splendid serpent he had ever seen.
The sun threw rage from its golden loft in the sky.
He screamed himself awake.
Did his flesh itch from want or the ghastliness of his nightmare?
A tap at the window. His body jerked; the steering wheel caught him in the ribs. Another tap, more forceful. A shimmering ray of light penetrated his window and diffused across his lap. For one fear slickened moment, he believed the sun had returned.
“Drop the window.”
Clumsily he swung his head, caught the glare of the flashlight. He swatted at ghost mosquitoes, then rolled the window down.
“What are you doing out here tonight?”
Instantly, he knew he had made a terrible mistake and slowly raised his hands to the steering wheel. “Resting, sir. Been on the road awhile. Needed a bit of a break.”
The flashlight glare jumped to the side. “Out of the car. Keep your hands where I can see them.”
He jiggled the door handle and stepped out, the chilled night air a balm to his flesh—yes, flesh remained; he could see that much now under the flashlight’s glow. Relieved, he pushed his hands upward to the somber stain of the sky. The scent of bunny entrails tickled his nostrils.
He heard a serpent’s hiss.
“Have you been drinking tonight, son?”
“No sir, not at all.”
He whirled expertly and with a ruthless chop to the throat crumpled the patrolman. A spinning kick to the temple knocked the man out cold—movements so heartless, so practiced, the officer never stood a chance. He seized the cop by his hair, dragged him from the shoulder of the road and down a slight ravine. Slipped the trench knife from his jeans and plunged it into the base of the cop’s skull. He felt the body shudder, finally go limp. A serpent hissed again in his head, and its tail rattled somewhere off in dreamy meadows. He withdrew his knife from the skull and rejoiced.
In due time, he would become a deity.
He usually lived in his car; a nomad’s life, one to which he had grown accustomed. However, tonight he chose a run-down inn with what cash he had; now he slept, tangled in stale motel sheets and food stained newspapers. The nightmares, they discovered him, slithered and stalked through his mind. Beneath the flames of his sins, he sweat.
Deep in the throes of subconsciousness, his mind again succumbed to dreamscape’s dark veil. In this dream, he rose from his cheap bed, abandoning his yellowed outline across the sheets. A pebbled road stretched below his feet; a silvery-scarred stream gurgled like the death rattle of the officer he had slain days before. A tranquil panorama of pastel greens and blues yawned above his head and higher still loomed the sun, ripping at his skin yet again.
He screamed and suddenly found himself back in bed. Across his foot lay a newspaper, the headline drenched in moonlight filtering through the window:
OFFICER MURDERED: AUTHORITIES LINK SLAYING TO SERPENT KILLER
He smiled proudly, but then something scraped against the wall.
Laughter. You fear Ra.
He scanned the room, but the voice slipped undiscovered into the gloom. “I don’t fear anyone. Don’t you know they call me Serpent Killer now?”
Rattling. From the tail of a snake. You cower beneath Ra. Yet you dare emulate me.
Sacrifice under Ra’s nose. Only then will you shed your flesh, become what you are meant to be. A threatening hiss, and then the moon retreated from the room, casting it into hellish darkness.
At last, he tore free from his latest nightmare. Flakes of skin dusted his pillow.
He dragged his newest kill deeper into the woods. Passed the makeshift grave he had dug for the cop. Remembrance churned through his head.
The nightmares had plagued him since childhood, severing the innocence from his heart and replacing it with a hollow angst. He knew not what to make of the visions that poisoned his reveries, only that they rendered him misplaced and abandoned. Soon, however, he came to relish the feeling.
Once just a greasy, awkward freshman, he first murdered in the bathroom of his school. It had been November; the sun long expired by late afternoon. He loitered in the library, thumbing through books about bygone legends, until his eyes finally met that of another solitary boy. Eventually, he followed the boy into the lavatory, snuck behind him while he pissed into the urinal and drove his head into the ceramic tile. There were no witnesses, and he certainly had never been suspected. The death tang still lingered upon his fingers later that evening. For a brief while, he had stemmed his anguish. But relief never lasted. So he killed again.
He snapped from his thoughts. Cut into his kill’s clothes with his knife, stripped them off. Then he flipped the headless body onto its back.
With each letting of blood, his nightmares had only worsened. With each letting of blood, the serpent had only spoken louder.
He plunged his knife into its breast and proceeded to engrave.
He worked his hand and wrist carefully; his art form more fluid now than in the past. Sweat dripped from his brow.
Do not fail me as others have before you. Ra’s rein must end.
The serpent, it never left him alone. When he closed his eyes, it coiled behind his lids. Secretly, he despised its embodiment of something far more unnatural than even himself. But he never lost the faith that if he could gain knowledge of the nightmares the serpent delivered, perhaps then he could pillage its power.
Claim it as his own.
We must cast this world into my glorious shadow.
He stepped back, studied his toil. Desecrated, the headless corpse lay strewn—a serpent dug into its flesh, twisting sternum to groin.
Sacrifice under Ra’s nose. Only then will you shed your flesh. The serpent’s words rattled through his skull and quite unexpectedly, he frowned.
He had pondered years over his dilemma: would liberation be granted under the sun, or would the moon ultimately conceal his damnation?
Under golden rays, he had feared for his safety, his very life. Yet did he not hide under the hem of night, seeking a coward’s comfort? Meticulously he had fashioned a secure existence, believing it would eventually lead to divinity. He ached to be worshiped, but how could he ever be glorified when the masses knew him only as Serpent Killer…and not the Serpent.
He had never slain in broad daylight. Only a god could be so brazen.
Tonight, he settled into the back seat of his car, behind an abandoned barn he knew to be undisturbed. By flashlight, he poured over the newspapers he had accumulated. The headlines swelled him with pride—the media’s copy dressed him as a rock star. Yes, the slayings had been linked, some twenty to thirty all told. Serpent Killer, they chanted his name. Serpent Killer. Still, it gnawed at the root of his soul.
Never the Serpent.
He gazed through the window at a sky black as the river Styx. After so many years, he had reached a decision. When he woke in the morning, he would shed his flesh.
The silvery-sparkled stream spoke; at least he thought it did. It gurgled over the rocks, over fallen limbs. Around the beaver’s dam it ebbed, and he loathed its song. The sun blew an inferno across the land. The thicket smoldered. Bunnies frolicked unaware.
Naked, he lay on a pebbled road and stared at the sun. It laughed at him, hurled boisterous flames that melted his toenails off. Nubs of white bone broke through his flesh. He screamed, but no one heard.
Butterflies swirled round his head, a myriad of colors, shapes. One landed upon the tip of his nose. He swatted at it but was too slow; it flitted back into its flock of comrades, their kaleidoscope of hues acid to his eyes. He realized he despised beauty, all beauty, and the nourishment its sun provided. Now he heard the fish in the stream laugh as well as the butterflies and the birds as they nestled in their boughs. The bunnies too, something of a high-pitched chortle—and the sun, its haughty giggling more than he could bear.
The serpent’s hiss hushed the land.
He tore free from the membranes of yet another nightmare, slick with fright. Golden fingers groped through the back window, scraping angry red welts across his legs. He recoiled from the sun and nearly scrambled into the front seat.
Then he saw them.
The little boy crossed the field, headed to the trees and the stream beyond. A fishing pole bounced along his shoulder. Close behind walked the boy’s father.
Shirtless, shoeless, he slipped from his car. Trench knife in hand. He stalked across the field, the grass beneath his feet uncomfortably sharp and hot, stewing his toes. Harder he pushed, springing smoothly from the ground the moment he touched down. With each predatory step, his confidence brimmed.
The scent of the father’s aftershave tickled his nose and the boy…he could already taste the boy’s blood.
Persistent in its melody, the stream disguised his footfall. A bunny bounded across the field, stopped and wiggled its nose. A butterfly fluttered about. The sun tattooed the top of his head; something flaked from his neck and between his shoulders. It spat its fury upon him, ignited a deep ache within the marrow of his bones. He ignored it all, fueled by the unknowing chatter between the father and his boy—and the dawning realization that soon he would be a deity.
Nothing would deny him.
Ten more yards. The father would then taste his blade. His eyes sparkled as he tightened his grip upon the knife.
Sacrifice under Ra’s nose. Only then will you shed your flesh.
A massive shadow shifted from under the canopy of trees ahead. His mind reeled, desperate to make sense of what had emerged. His legs buckled, and he tumbled forward. He managed to snare his prey’s foot and tripped the father to the ground.
He pounced upon the man and for a moment, he glimpsed his own bewildered reflection within his prey’s frightened eyes. One slash and his blade kissed the man’s throat.
He enjoyed the ghastly wheeze from the father’s gaping wound. Then he noticed the pus-bloated sores along his own arm, and a long shriek escaped his mouth.
From under the shadow of the trees, the boy halted and spun around. Staggering from the prone body of the father, he half ran, half limped toward the boy as the flesh separated from muscle in thin sheets from his limbs. He hissed even as glints of bone popped through the exposed areas.
Nothing would deny him. Not even the sun as it stripped free tissue and tendon.
He raised the trench knife above his head but it dropped from his grasp, fingers nothing more than charred bone. A numbness spread through his mind like morphine, yet the inferno within raged molten. His arms, twisted into jagged charcoaled spindles, burst into plumes of ash that clotted the air. The ruins of his legs littered the field, and he fell once more. He came to rest at the boy’s feet, a smoldering stump.
Behind the boy slithered a staggering mass. It rose and towered above them both—he thought it had existed only in the darkest cavities of his nightmares—but now realized how terribly wrong he had been. The serpent in all its glory: an enormous thing with unblinking elliptical eyes and a horrid, triangular head. It glowered, forked tongue flicking from its jaws.
His face slid off into the grass. His torso itched unbearably as scales erupted from beneath his exposed muscle.
He glanced upward, stared into the serpent’s morphing head. For a moment, he glimpsed his own features grotesquely bubbling under the serpent’s. Then the boy’s. The ancient abomination opened its mouth.
Sacrifice under Ra’s nose. Only then will you shed your flesh, become what you are meant to be.
The boy walked away and then returned with the trench knife in his young hand.
Only then did he comprehend that the god of his nightmares commanded not him but the boy. Finally did he realize he had been mislead. Abandoned once more. “Nooooo…”
Another child would be prepared as heir to Apep’s earthly throne and in turn suffer its depraved nightmares. Perhaps it would be this boy…this boy who possessed no fear of Ra.
The dawning complete; the only sure way to slay a serpent was to sever its head.
~ Joseph A. Pinto
© Copyright 2013 Joseph A. Pinto. All Rights Reserved.
A bowl filled with liquid; it had always been so.
The bowl looked as if it was heavy needing a substantial stand and yet it was suspended just feet above the foliage that caressed its underside.
It filled from an unknown spring, but how? My deductions and observations failed me.
I watched as creatures bounded to the bowl leaving refreshed and apparently younger.
A colorless butterfly dipped and as it rose it appeared as if the sun had painted each color filled line to perfection. It dripped feathery gold drops as it fluttered away.
The bowl filled instantly again with cool refreshing water.
A sweet voice would call to me.
“Drink”, it said. “Go ahead just one sip.”
Day after day as I took copious research notes, I heard it.
It was like a Siren beckoning me closer to the rocks of the unknown harbor.
I wore ear plugs that worked at first but slowly failed.
Loud music was drowned out by the sweet, melodic voice “DRINK.”
Then one day a promise carried over the hush.
A fawn dragged her lifeless, bloodied leg. She was almost spent. She left healed.
The flora clapped as the fawn departed.
“You will be more. Just ask one thing. It must give it to you.”
This bowl of unquenchable water was the fountain of youth, it was the healing pool of Bethesda, it dripped the gold and silver of Midas’ valued touch.
“I’m a scientist.” I growled. “I ‘m here for observation only.”
I heard a low laugh that withered with the night.
And then one day it happened, I fell. As I picked myself up, I noticed a thorn in my leg. Absentmindedly I removed the thorn. It was nothing.
Later that day, my leg began throbbing. I set down my notepad. My leg was three-times its normal size.
“Now you must use the waters.”
The once sweet voice was cruel.
“I cannot!” I struggled to project resolve.
“Then you will die.”
Stubbornly, I dragged my leg about.
I don’t know how many days I did this.
I held my head that was growing fuzzy in hands I could not feel.
I knew I would never get out alive.
“What must I do?” I wailed.
I hobbled closer to the bowl than I had ever dared.
A hush covered the forest. It was as if nature waited.
I looked about it and then I looked in the waters.
A face stared back at me.
It was death loosely hanging over bones that once resembled a face.
“Is that me?” I trembled at the thought.
I dipped my head into the bowl.
“Heal me from this poisonous death,” I begged
I looked at the bowl as it refilled.
Moisture dripped from my face.
I put out my hand to catch the drops.
It was blood – my blood.
“I now have what I have needed for eons.”
“Human blood – fool!”
It ran freely. I could not stop my life dripping from my pores.
“Now you see what you can do with this curse.” The once sweet voice had a different tone. Strong, more than human and then it was gone.
I felt cold and alone.
I could no longer feel my legs or my arms. I felt so heavy.
I looked up into a concave reality.
I had become the bowl.
Cursed to quench but never have my thirst quenched.
To heal and never be healed unless it was at the sake of another poor fool.
~ Leslie Moon
© Copyright 2014 Leslie Moon. All Rights Reserved.
“It is during our darkest moments that we must focus to see the light.”
Cars stream past the service station. From his seat at the window, Richard has a clear view of the car park and the road beyond. It is not much of a view but it is still preferable to the sight that greets him on his plate: a limp, Full English fry-up swimming in ketchup and grease. He is not an enthusiastic diner, unless he counts his evening cigarette as some sort of nourishment, but he can’t remember when he last ate, so he forces the food down. There is coffee, at least. Black, without sugar. Mopping up some of the ketchup with a slice of toast he returns his attention to the road.
Dusk burns in the distance, illuminating every smear on the restaurant window. Staring through the dust into the horizon, he entertains the thought of stepping into its fire and being consumed; a blazing end to an unremarkable life.
He has not always felt this way. For years the portraits in his studio kept him sane; friends, family, company in the night when it grew dark and he had no one to talk to, or dream of, except those whom he had brought to life with watercolour. Fondly he remembers Friedrich and his expecting wife, little Felix who dreamed of one day flying with the birds, old Joseph, who gazed back at him so openly from his canvas. When he smiled, he fancied the portraits smiled back at him. If he joked, they laughed, their faces swimming like disturbed water. Looking into their eyes, he felt they knew him, or at least understood who he was.
His heart pounds as he relives the moment that he realised they were flawed. He had loved his portraits desperately, but that love had blinded him to their dishonesty. He had only to walk down the street, to sit on a bench and watch the people passing by, to see that his paintings were nothing like those people. It was a love affair with art, with life; the greatest there could be. Then the affair was over and he was alone; the kind of aloneness that came with being surrounded by faces he no longer knew or loved. With his new perspective he had painted other things. Pictures that better reflected the world as he saw it. Wives became wolves, their female snouts shining wet in the moonlight. Schoolboys grew beaks, black marble eyes and feathered wings. Joseph transformed; smudged mouth screaming silently while cavernous holes where eyes should have been watched him from under their brow. Skeletal things crawled through thin alleys drowned in darkness. Sometimes stars filled the sky; tiny lights like bullet holes bleeding in the night.
He stays sitting by the restaurant window until the sun dies. When it hovers on the horizon, he slides from his seat. Service-station chatter fills his ears, then the automatic doors sweep apart to let him pass and he is outside, with nothing but the roar of traffic and the cool breeze against his face. He swallows the lump that is settling in his throat. Bitter grinds linger in his mouth.
It is not a real horizon. Just a road filled with cars capturing the last of the day’s light in their windscreens and on their metallic hulls. He can’t remember the last time he saw a horizon that was not a tower block, a building roof, a stretch of road just like this one. Like the amphitheatres of old, the ancient myths, the worldly heritage he had studied as a young man, those horizons are lost now. Like the paintings in his studio, they mean nothing.
At the roadside he feels the rush of speeding cars against his face. He might be standing at a precipice; an abyss made of shining metal, glass and stinking rubber beyond which lies nothing except the empty sky. He has but to step forward and it will all end.
He thinks about several things, in that moment. He remembers what it means to love the world, and to hate it. He remembers sitting on a bench, the day everything changed, and watching as a homeless man and his dog begged for food. More than anything else, he remembers his last painting.
In the painting, beige skies stretched above dark soil scattered with sketchy ruins; the remains of a nameless city reduced to matchsticks. There were shapes in the ruins, which might have been toppled columns, or the black charcoal bones of a world burned. A number of thin figures picked their way through the gutters. Dozens more lay like rag-dolls in the ruins and underneath them. Their faces were grinning bovine skulls.
A single figure stood in the foreground. It was pale, the watery shadow of a classical statue, except for the dark mass of serpents on its head. Slender limbs stretched into the sky, entangled in the blur of black snakes so that the figure seemed to be falling. Its mouth was a silent circle sunk into its face above which two eyes stared without seeing into the sky.
When the painting was finished, he slept. On waking, he drank; vodka over some ice. Then he set fire to the studio. The flames took to the artwork quickly. He remained watching for as long as possible, petrified, while the firelight gave life, movement, light to the darkness he had captured in watercolour. In those last seconds, the painted city had really burned. Medusa herself moved in death, swaying but never falling as the canvas around her crinkled, became black. He can still hear her roar with the voice of fire. Then he had left and driven here.
He has waited all day at the service station for dusk, and a glimpse of the abyss beyond. He would have waited a lifetime, if he had to. He walks over to the easel, set up in the car park when he arrived this morning.
The world is dark and full of fear. A thousand times a thousand people live and breathe pain each day. This is their legacy; this is what it means to be alive now, the ugly truth revealed in a dozen watercolours. But as his studio burned, he had watched that pain burn away, and as it burned, it sang. It shone. It danced with life, even as the canvasses on which it was shown shrivelled and died. Ugliness had been made into ash, but before it was ash he saw beauty, and from those ashes he will see beauty again, the world resurrected in the exact moment it dies each day; dusk blazing in windscreens and on car bonnets.
He begins to paint.
~ Thomas Brown
© Copyright 2014 Thomas Brown. All Rights Reserved.
“Do you want to see what I found?”
Marybeth was about to grab the laundry out of the washing machine – it had just turned off with a hard thunk – when the plumber called out to her.
No, not really, she thought, rolling her eyes and sauntering to the master bath. All I want to do is take a shower without being calf-deep in water. The skinny man was on his knees, chest pressed against the edge of the tub. She was grateful there was no sign of the infamous plumber’s crack. He smelled like grease and damp towels.
“It’s no wonder the water wouldn’t flow,” he said, turning to face her. Elvis would have been proud of the man’s mutton chops. One of his front teeth was gold, the one next to it silver. She jumped back a step when she saw the dead animal dangling from his fingers.
“Oh my God! How the hell did a rat get in the drain?” she shouted, cringing as the body spun lazily.
The plumber smiled. “That’s no rat. Nothing to be afraid of. It’s just a clump of hair and soap and shampoo. Kinda looks like a rat, though, doesn’t it? I pull them out all the time, but this one is especially big. You have daughters?”
She stared at him quizzically. “Yes, I do. How would you know?”
“House full of girls means a lot of long hair going down the drain. It builds up over time until you get something like this.” He tossed the hair-rat into the small plastic waste pail by the toilet. It made a squishing noise when it hit the bottom. Oh crap, that’s disgusting. Just keep cool. It’s not a rat. It’s just hair. Rats were high on her weakness list.
He kept on talking, oblivious to the shade of green she’d turned. “The best way to avoid this happening in the future is by using a few ounces of prevention.” He opened his massive toolbox, rooting around, making rough grunts and sighs.
“Here it is.” He held a brown bottle of liquid drain cleaner. The plumber shook it and unscrewed the cap.
“We tried that but it wouldn’t work,” Marybeth said.
“That’s because you waited too long. This stuff wasn’t going to get past that,” he said, tilting his head toward the garbage. Marybeth felt her bile start to resurface. “You gotta get to it earlier, clean it out at the source.”
Marybeth leaned against the doorframe. “Is there any brand you recommend?” Plumbers don’t come cheap. If all it takes is a few bottles of that stuff to avoid overpaying old mutton chops, she was in.
He repositioned himself so he was now sitting on the edge of the tub. The armpits of his blue shirt were dark with crescent moons of sweat. “Just make sure you get the name brand stuff. The knock-offs don’t eat the hair away near as well.”
She nodded. “Got it. Name brands. Don’t wait for the drain to get bad before I use it. You don’t need to pour that now, do you? I mean, since you just cleared everything out.”
The plumber nodded. “It’s best I show you how to use it.”
Great. I’m sure he’ll charge me ten times what that bottle is worth in the friggin’ supermarket. Does he think I’m an idiot? Open bottle, pour down drain, don’t get any on your skin. Jesus.
He waved her closer. “Come on, I don’t bite. There’s a trick to pouring so you don’t get any splashback.”
Marybeth resigned herself to his demonstration. Hemming and hawing would only keep him in her bathroom longer. She stood next to him, smelling his coffee and cigarette breath.
“Like I said, you gotta get it at the source.”
With whip-like speed, he lashed out and wrapped his fingers in her hair. “Ouch! What the hell are you doing?” Marybeth screamed.
The plumber smiled with uneven, jaundiced teeth. “Gotta burn it at the source.”
She tried to scream but he clamped a greasy hand over her mouth. With the other, he tipped the bottle over her head. At first, the gelatinous goop felt cold, like chilled pudding.
And then the fires began. Shocked with white-hot agony, she kicked him in the balls and pushed him in the chest with both hands. The man tipped over the tub, the back of his head ripping the water spout from the wall. “You goddamn bitch!” he shouted, cradling his head with his hand, his palm coming back slick and red.
Marybeth ran to the sink, spinning the cold water handle, splashing as much as she could onto her head, careful not to get any of the fluid in her eyes or face. It felt like battery acid eating away at her scalp. The stench of her disintegrating hair and scalp made her stomach lurch.
Something heavy smashed against the back of her legs, dropping her to her knees, her chin clanging on the sink’s edge. The plumber held the lid to the toilet tank. His legs were wobbly from the blow to his head.
“You fucker!” Marybeth shrieked. She grabbed her husband’s toothbrush, leaping to her feet and driving it into his eye. The man staggered against the shower wall, the wet gore of his eye leaking over the brush.
Marybeth’s cheek sizzled as the drain cleaner dripped past her hairline. The plumber fell into the tub, yowling like a deaf cat. “Is this the source?” she snarled, prying the heavy ceramic lid from his hands. He couldn’t hear a word, the pain was so excruciating.
With a mad grunt, Marybeth crashed the lid into and through the base of his nose. The plumbers extremities shuddered for a few seconds, then went still.
The lid keranged against the tile floor. Marybeth fumbled in the medicine cabinet until she found the shears. Working through searing pain, she shaved the hair from her head. When that was done, she ran water over her scalded flesh, crying. She dried her head carefully, then applied and entire tube of bacitracin to her head and face. She looked like a carnival freak. Behold, the Lizard Woman, even fire couldn’t kill her!
She looked at the plumber’s body, heard the trickle of his blood going down the now-clear drain. His hair would do.
After a quick trip to the basement for her special toolbox, she removed his scalp with practiced ease. She placed the wet flap of flesh and hair in the sealed container she used for all of her trophies.
“Have to be more proactive with the drains,” she said, staring at the plumber’s scalp. She’d leave the body for her husband when he came home. Disposal was his specialty. She was just a trophy hunter.
~ Hunter Shea
© Copyright 2014 Hunter Shea. All Rights Reserved.