The fruits of our labour will not ripen in our lifetime. The Father teaches that we do not pray and work for ourselves but for our grandchildren. They will reap what we sow.
I am one of many assigned to work in the orchard, spending long pleasant days among rows of trees. It is more enjoyable work than the stables or the kitchen.
Every season the harvest is full, I pick buckets of rosy apples, sharp green pears, plump apricots. The garden beds grow abundant vegetables and our livestock provides us with meat, eggs, milk and wool.
I watch as the men load the boxes into the truck. They leave very early in the morning for markets in nearby towns to sell our produce. I stare after the truck nervously as it departs down the dusty road. Sometimes they are gone for days at a time. It is dangerous for them to travel amongst the Dead but I know they are strong. They will not be seduced by the evil that lurks beyond the gates of our home.
The first time I glimpsed the Father, I knew that he was what I had been searching for all my life. If you have not known real love I cannot explain it to you. Not emotional sentimentality, but love that nurtures and sustains.
The Father teaches that in a world of lies, we are keepers of the truth. The Father teaches that our faith is a jewel we must guard fiercely against corruption. The Father teaches that this sacred land has been passed down through the lineage since the very beginning. To protect the earth is to protect our faith. We have been drawn here because we are the chosen.
Far beyond the rolling hills of the valley lie the cities of the Dead, seething wastelands of decay and pollution. We call them the Dead because they are deaf to the truth and blind to the spark that governs all creation. With their incessant breeding they are constantly creeping forward, slowly taking more and more, encroaching on our sacred land. We must stand firm against the plague of greed that threatens our way of life. We will not throw the first stone but when the war begins we will fight. I haven’t seen the bunkers myself but the Father assures us we are armed and prepared. We know that one day they will come and we know that we will triumph for we are the chosen.
It began when I was folding the laundry with Catherine.
“Do you ever think of returning?” she asked casually.
A bed sheet floated between us as we held the ends. It rippled like a sail, thin and translucent. I remembered standing beneath a bed sheet as a little girl; my mother and father floated it above me like a parachute. Thin fabric drifted slowly down around me as I crouched, draping me gently, the world cloaked in white haze. I laughed as it was lifted again with a soft rush, ballooning around me. The memory sent a shiver through me. I frowned at Catherine.
“To your home.”
I was stunned. I couldn’t believe she was saying such things.
“This is my home Catherine. This is your home.”
“Well yes, it is now, of course,” she said quickly. “But I mean don’t you ever miss your old home?”
I couldn’t fathom what she meant. I ignored her and quickly finished the folding.
I stormed away in anger but as I glanced out over the beautiful valley I could see, far off in the distance, a dark shadow looming, and I was overcome by terrible fear. It was the army of the Dead, rows and rows of faceless men and women, waiting for the order to march.
I am stranded in the suburb of my childhood. Everything looks the same. Decades have passed but nothing has changed. Anxiety sets in and I begin running past endless identical houses, turning street after street, running deeper into a maze of grey. I am out of breath, I can’t run anymore, I pause to rest.
I jump in surprise and turn around. I have stopped before my parent’s house and there at the front gate stand my mother and father.
My father has his arm around my mother protectively, holding her up as she gazes at me, her eyes pleading with tears.
I woke up in a cold sweat. It was early morning, just before sunrise. I was worried I may have attracted attention but no one else was awake. Across from me lay Catherine, sleeping peacefully in her bed, a picture of innocence.
I got dressed and went for a walk to clear my mind. I walked to the orchard, my favourite place to steal a few minutes alone.
The ground was wet with dew, the air crisp with a thin mist. I stood beneath a large apple tree and looked out over the hills. Glancing down I noticed many apples had fallen from the tree. Over ripe and bruised, wrinkled and turning brown, worm ridden. The sight of it troubled me. We never let anything go to waste.
An orange glow began to fill the valley, a picturesque view, almost too beautiful to be true. On the periphery I caught a glimpse of the creeping shadow, growing stronger with each passing moment.
The bell rang suddenly and I fled in panic. Everyone would be rising and getting ready for breakfast. I hoped no one had noticed I slipped out.
All day I watched Catherine, going about her duties as usual, pretending nothing was wrong. The Father teaches that the signs are there for those who have eyes to see. Walking through the courtyard, I notice weeds had pushed their way through the stones. They were not there the day before. In the library I sat with a closed book in my hands, disturbed by the thick layer of dust that lined the windowsills.
During dinner Catherine ate her soup quietly and avoided meeting my eye.
After the meal I saw her talking to Rebecca, one of the youngest Daughters. They chatted and laughed casually but I read Rebecca’s face when Catherine walked away. The blush of confusion, a fine line of doubt on her forehead; she was preoccupied as she stacked plates away on the shelf.
I understood completely then and knew what I had to do. Catherine could not be permitted to spread her toxic thoughts any longer. They were poisoning our community, creeping like a vine, slowly encompassing and choking everything.
Later that evening I approached the Mother. I found her sitting quietly on the porch. I told her I needed to speak to the Father. She told me that was not possible. I insisted, stressing that it was very important.
“You may discuss your concern with me Daughter,” she said without looking up from her knitting.
I told her everything. It all came tumbling out. She didn’t respond or seem at all interested. Her eyes were on a small group of men as they sat, chanting hymns by the fire. Then she got up and walked into her bedroom, closing the door gently behind her.
That night I couldn’t sleep, tossing and turning as I went over every detail. I was worried. Would the Mother accuse me of gossip?
When they came for her it was still dark outside, several hours before sunrise. I heard them enter the dormitory and I gasped under my sheets, curling up in terror. They walked toward my bed but they turned toward Catherine.
They scooped her up and began to drag her out. She mumbled in her sleep and then she began to shout. Her screams were muffled as they took her away.
Breakfast was had in silence. We knew Catherine was with the Father. We heard the bells that called us to gather. Calmly we tidied things away then filed into the courtyard.
We circled the platform, staring up in fear and awe. The Mother and the Father stood either side of Catherine, her head hung low in shame.
The Father’s face was creased with sadness, the burden of his task apparent, but a beautiful aura of light always surrounds him. I could see the bright blue of his gentle eyes.
“My children,” he began, his voice calm and strong. “Today I grieve. I grieve for the weakness of humankind that has led so many astray. We will be tested but our faith cannot be destroyed. Let your resolve be strengthened. By their own hand the weak and treacherous will perish.”
The Father stepped backward and bowed his head. The Mother was expressionless as she placed the heavy rope around Catherine’s neck. Catherine began to sob quietly, her shoulders shaking.
“This is my home!” a voice shouted, as it cut the tension in the air. A hand clamped my mouth and my brothers and sisters huddled around me. The voice was mine, I realised, and I began to cry, too.
I turned away as it was done, my face buried in my hands. I heard the shocked intake of breath that rippled through the gathering. I heard the creak of wood as Catherine’s body dropped, suspended by the strong beam above.
When I looked back, Catherine’s body hung limp and empty. I watched her feet twitch, then stop.
A perfect stillness permeated everything. The angry tears that rolled down my cheeks become tears of relief. I looked out towards the horizon, saw no sign of the shadow. Everything was as it should be. The shadow had been vanquished and we were safe again, at least for a while longer. Another beautiful day lay ahead, I walked to the orchard to begin my work.
~ Magenta Nero
© Copyright 2015 Magenta Nero. All Rights Reserved.
Carrie Ann woke when Chance’s wet nose nudged her shoulder.
“Go away, Chance.”
Chance nudged her again, harder this time.
“Go lay down!” Carrie Ann snatched the blanket up over her face.
Chance wasn’t taking no for an answer and hopped up onto the bed, rooting his face in the covers.
“Okay, alright. Let’s go, but don’t take forever.”
Chance hopped off the bed, bolting down the hallway and onto the porch. Carrie Ann followed and when she reached the door, Chance was walking in tight circles, panting in anticipation.
She unlocked the deadbolt, barely opening the door before Chance raced into the backyard, disappearing into the woods surrounding the mountainside home. Crisp winter air bit at her skin and she pulled the door closed. She grabbed a blanket from the basket alongside the tattered couch that was left by the back door for Chance. Carrie Ann bundled up and waited for Chance to come back to the door.
The full moon illuminated the backyard, long shadows from the towering pines stretching through the open spaces while Carrie Ann stared through the window watching for Chance’s return. After twenty minutes, Carrie Ann resigned herself to the fact that Chance must have caught scent of something in the woods, and he wasn’t returning any time soon.
Carrie Ann went back to her bedroom and climbed into bed. She fell asleep within minutes and settled into an unnerving dream. She dreamt that she’d went down to the river with Chance and while they were there, it started raining. Not just an ordinary rain, but the type of intense summer rain that rumbled through the south most afternoons. They tried to run home but the river swelled quickly, washing out the trail. Carrie Ann climbed into a tree and as she climbed, she realized that Chance had been swept away in the torrent. She called his name over and over with no answer; he never came into sight.
A whimpering sound pulled her from the nightmare and she sat up, flinching when a bang came from the window in her room, followed by a scratching on the screen. She cleared the sleep from her eyes with the palms of her hands and went to the back door, grabbing the flashlight she kept on the window ledge of the porch. The moon had slipped from the sky leaving the backyard eerily quiet, masked in inky darkness.
Carrie Ann opened the door and stepped onto the patio, the cold concrete sending shivers twisting up her spine. “Chance!”
The flashlight’s beam swept across the backyard while a brisk wind raked through the naked trees. Goosebumps blossomed on her skin when the light reflected off a pair of eyes at the far end of the house. She swallowed hard, her eyes focusing on what she hoped was Chance.
“Chance? Come on, it’s okay.”
Chance stepped into the light, squinting in the harshness of it, his head hung low. As he got closer, Carrie Ann noticed a glistening wetness around his mouth. Chance reluctantly made his way even closer and lowered his shameful gaze to the ground.
A rustling came from the darkness and Carrie Ann swung the beam of light towards the corner of the patio before looking back to Chance.
“Chance? Did you find something out there?”
Chance looked up to Carrie Ann’s disappointed face, a smirk sneaking through his sheepish expression.
“Oh no. Not again.” She took a deep breath and knew she would spend the rest of the night cleaning up whatever mess Chance had gotten into. “Come on. Let’s go see what you got.”
Chance followed Carrie Ann to the corner of the house, she gagged when her light revealed a bloodied mess lying in the dirt. Carrie Ann swallowed the bile rising in the back of her throat and leaned closer, her eyes squinting trying to determine what exactly she was seeing.
The mangled mess writhed on the ground and Carrie Ann stepped back. Chance became excited, dancing around, screeching and squealing like a banshee before Carrie Ann smacked him on the head. Chance cowered and backed away.
“Where’d you find her, Chance?”
Chance looked up and pointed to the lights twinkling in the valley below.
The naked woman coughed and sputtered on the ground, a feeble arm reaching out toward Carrie Ann’s leg. Carrie Ann snatched her foot away and walked toward the shed not far from the back of the house while Chance remained hovering over his prize, wringing his bloodied hands in his Batman shirt.
A few minutes later, Carrie Ann returned with a wheelbarrow full of supplies: a shovel, an axe, and a large roll of trash bags. She rested the tools next to where the girl continued to struggle for her last remaining breath.
Grabbing the shovel, she turned and stood over Chance’s latest kill and fixed her gaze on the confused eyes of her older brother. Though he was nearly ten years older than her, his mind had never developed much more than that of an eight year old. She’d learned that scolding him did no good; he had no concept of right or wrong and her energy would be wasted, energy she’d need to dispose of this body like she’d done with the others.
A forced, sloppy cough escaped the girl’s twisted mouth as Carrie Ann raised the shovel over her head. She hesitated for a moment; the woman’s face somewhat reminded her of her mother’s before Carrie Ann had to put her and her father out of their misery after one of Chance’s episodes. Carrie Ann shook the vision of her mother from her mind and smiled before smashing the shovel into the center of the girl’s forehead, gore splattering onto the ground and spraying up into Carrie Ann’s face. Chance, unable to contain himself, erupted in a series of high-pitched shrieks and howls, dancing around the area.
Carrie Ann smashed the shovel into the girl’s head over and over until it had nearly flattened out. She rested the shovel against the side of the house, swiped the back of her hand across her face and stood watching her brother dance around the yard. Chance was a fucking mess, no doubt, but he was her mess and she loved him no matter what.
Carrie Ann couldn’t let Chance celebrate alone so she joined her brother, dancing hand in hand under a moonless winter sky.
~ Craig McGray
© Copyright 2015 Craig McGray. All Rights Reserved.
Cleanliness is next to godliness.
So I was ordained.
I did not wish to realize what soon would become my mission – no, not at first. However, upon mahogany framed photographs, cabinetry and desktops and once brilliant sheens of glass, I glimpsed smudge laden impressions, shrilling so loudly in defiance, that no longer could I deny my calling.
When first I arrived, t’was the maid I suspected of carelessness.
The maid – the latex so snug round each of her delicate fingers; how I adored the brisk snap of glove at her wrist. The maid – whose pores emanated the addictive rich luster of lemon and pine. Yes, at first I suspected the maid of carelessness, of inattention to detail, but – forgive me – that notion occurred before God came to me, before He revealed the goodness of her aseptic heart. All too clearly then, I recognized the near futile nature of her fight.
Shoulder to shoulder, I thusly joined her.
She took to my camaraderie, the careful twinkle in her eye serving as unmistakable proof that she recognized the malignancy burrowed within my smile. I watched from afar as wraithlike she slipped room to room, wielding in elegant arcs her chosen duster of ostrich down, disrupting the meticulously crafted plans of the pathogens; alas, they still found a way to reconvene. Yet her fortitude never waned; a true warrior, my respect she earned unfalteringly.
I chastised myself then; how could it be the maid: her attention to detail so prudent, her keen mind strumming at a perfect pitch. Ah, brave soul, she had but one flaw.
She possessed not the heart of a killer.
As the weeks elapsed, I realized her innocence remained as laundered as her charm. Her loyalty steadfast, she rose daily alongside the cock from her unassuming quarters to enter into a tomb of opposition and filth. But her strain I soon glimpsed; not within her eyes, mind you, but the manner in which her veins twitched while smoothing the apron at her waist. No longer her cheeks blushed upon our stolen glances; my words, once soothing as only honey can soothe, now hastily ingested in a caustic bite. As acid dribbles to scour stone, so too did her very soul begin to erode. I had seen quite enough.
Heaven’s gilded light guided me through shadows of eve. Down halls I stalked, snaring the floorboard’s breath as in warning it exhaled. The initial quarters required minimal effort or care…for the pathogens squirmed little under the cases chosen to silence their hellish maws.
Into a larger chamber of grandeur I ascended, thereby viewing the host, slumbering in tangled, monstrous limbs under its canopied shelter. There I hovered, watching in frozen silence as the moon danced, leaving polish in untainted glitter across my eyes, until I could watch no longer. No more smudging, no more fouling in the wake of diligent servitude! I drew my eager blade across them both, hummed along to their wet whistles, their gurgle songs of release.
My calling complete, I withdrew back to her quarter’s door, softly rap-rap-rapping until it parted, revealing to me she – the maid – my rapturous mistress of purity. I offered my hand; she claimed it, yet not before slipping the nightgown from her sylphen shoulders. “So it is done, then. God has chosen to cleanse this domicile,” exhaling into my arms.
“Yes,” agreed I, “by the butler’s hand once more.”
~ Joseph A. Pinto
© Copyright 2015 Joseph A. Pinto. All Rights Reserved.
“Tag, you’re it!”
“Ow, my mother said no one’s supposed to touch me there!” April rubbed her chest, frowning at Ben.
“Big deal. It’s not like you have boobs or anything.”
Before she could tell him she did so have boobs, Ben ran off, calling her ‘flatso’. He disappeared behind the Mowry’s house.
Probably hiding in their shed, April thought.
“Come on April, you have to start looking for us,” her friend Melody shouted, zipping past her, going across the street into her own backyard.
She smiled, momentarily forgetting the throbbing pain behind her left nipple. “Okay, I’m gonna count to ten!”
Her mother bought her a training bra just last night, right after dinner. It was a special mommy-daughter shopping night at Kohls. They got frozen yogurt afterwards. April wondered if the flimsy thing would have cushioned the blow. It was in her drawer now, waiting for school on Monday.
By the time she reached ten, everyone was gone. She didn’t have to find all five of them. All it took was one. There was no way she was going to make Melody it. That left Ben, Seth and Sean.
Just thirty seconds ago, they were standing around, wondering what to do. All of their parents had taken their iPods and game systems away, forcing them outside. It was a hot September Saturday, still summer according to the calendar. But, the kids all knew summer was long gone. The morning the bell rang to start the new school year, summer had been obliterated, left to memories of sleeping in, swimming and staying up late, watching TV.
Seth was suggesting they get their bikes and head over to the field to see if the Mr. Softee truck was around when Ben hit her in the chest, igniting a game of tag.
April sniffed the air. It still smelled like summer.
She thought she saw Seth’s Converse underneath Mr. Coleman’s pickup. Sean was most likely hiding behind his above ground pool. Either that or his father’s pigeon coop. The little shack stunk to high heaven. No way was she going in there looking for him.
It had to be Ben. Her dad liked to say ‘Payback’s a bitch’ a lot, especially when he watched sports. Her older cousin Tony told her what it meant last summer – that and a whole lot of other dirty phrases, most of them describing when a man put his thing down there in a woman.
“Ready or not, here I come!” April shouted. She made a beeline for the Mowry house. Mr. and Mrs. Mowry were at work now, but they never minded the kids using their yard for games. Sometimes old people could be cool. Most times, not.
The white and green aluminum shed sat in a corner of the yard, underneath a skinny elm tree. The door was partway open.
“Got you,” she whispered.
It was hot in the shed. She’d been inside it plenty of times. If you hid in there, you had to keep the door open a crack to breathe. Otherwise, you’d choke on gas and oil fumes, boiling in the tight space.
April threw the door open and lunged.
Ben was sitting on a big bag of potting soil. He squinted against the harsh shaft of light. “No fair,” he protested.
April’s teeth sunk into the flesh of his soft, exposed throat. She worked at the chewy bits of tendon while blood sluiced down her throat, spattering the pretty pink top she’d gotten at Kohls last night.
Ben’s body went into spasms. He gurgled, his arms flapping at April’s sides. She pulled away, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand.
While Ben struggled for breath, April pulled up her shirt, revealing two tiny mounds, no bigger than the rounded tops of cupcakes. Her chest was smeared with blood.
“I told you I have boobs now,” she said, giggling.
He slipped off the bag of soil with a wet plop.
“Ben’s it now!” April yelled.
Melody, Sean and Seth bounded into the yard, lured by her call.
“Oh man,” Sean said, pulling up short. Seth bumped into him. “Watch where you’re walking!”
“You’re in my way!” Seth blurted.
“Will you two stop it,” Melody barked.
Sean spun around, slapping Seth hard. As his friend tottered, he closed the gap between them, clamping down on his cheek and tearing his head back, spitting a chunk of flesh on the grass.
Seth covered the wound with his hand.
He dove headfirst into Sean, knocking the wind from him. They landed on the ground, a tangle of flailing limbs. Flecks of blood splattered everywhere like a sprinkler as they clawed the flesh from one another’s bones.
“Dog pile!” April screamed. She and Melody joined the melee. They were a dervish of gnashing teeth and scratching nails. Bones broke. Arteries ruptured. Seth ate Melody’s lower lip. April and Melody tore Sean’s stomach open, heads diving into his bowels like two dogs at a dish of fresh Alpo.
They felt something smash into their backs.
April yelped as Ben pulled a fistful of hair from her head. Bloody skin clung to the ragged ends.
“You’re it again!” he gurgled.
The children laughed, trailing Seth’s intestines all around the yard, wrapping it around the trunk of a cherry tree. Seth let out a series of wet guffaws, jaws snapping at their heels as they danced around him.
The Mowry’s verdant lawn soaked up the crimson manna until the sounds of urgent adult voices cut the revelry, urging the children home.
They slunk out of the yard, gathering the bits of themselves that had been scattered about.
“After dinner, you wanna come over and see my training bra?” April asked Melody, her tongue poking out of a hole in her cheek.
“Yeah,” Melody said, holding her lips in her hands. “See you later!”
“I’m sorry,” Ben said. April could see his windpipe working. “I shouldn’t have hit you in the boob.”
April rolled her remaining eye. “Whatever.”
~ Hunter Shea
© Copyright 2015 Hunter Shea. All Rights Reserved.