There was an audible twang. Turning back, he wrinkled his brow in disgust. Four! Four perfectly placed stitches had torn loose so far. He was baffled and more than a bit annoyed. Peering at the remainder of the skein, he examined it for defects; it looked perfectly fine. He wrapped a short length around his fingers and gave a hard tug. He received nothing but resistance for his effort. A bit perplexed, his fingers slipped between her lips to remove the defective stitch; he inspected it thoroughly with a loop before discarding it with the others.
Making his way to the old apothecary cabinet his grandfather had used many years ago, he opened each draw until he finally found what he was looking for – catgut. Sometimes the old-fashioned way was the only way. Threading the much thicker needle with the coarse sinew, he finished the sutures. He stood and stared in consternation for a good ten minutes willing them to stay fast yet daring them to break free. Finally satisfied, he turned to reach for the clay and began the final stages of reconstruction.
Two hours later, after finishing the cosmetic details, he gazed down upon the face he had just rebuilt and was pleased with his efforts. He’d done a fine job of reconstructing her crushed bones and concealing the bruised tissue. She looked peaceful, almost angelic, but the sedative would soon wear off. After a brief wait, a slight murmur reached his ears; one eye began to tear open. As his grandfather used to say, ‘death was just around the corner, one should always be prepared,’ though he doubted his grandfather had meant it in quite the same manner.
With a deep sigh, he inserted a trocar into the femoral vein to drain the body, then moved to insert another into her brachial artery to introduce the chemical mixture. The art of embalming was one so few had the opportunity to experience, to appreciate. Apparently, she was not in an appreciative mood.
~ Nina D’Arcangela
© Copyright Nina D’Arcangela. All Rights Reserved.
“You have been dogged in your pursuit for an exclusive, so here it is—contrary to popular belief, I owe my new-found stardom to her. She, my biggest fan. But before all that, there are facts you need to understand about me, as well my recent rise to fame.
“I had to adapt a different persona, you see, one that would allow me reintegration back into society. I had grown stale, my message old, ineffective. I had lost my edge, and I admit now, for all your viewers, that I was too proud to see it. As an artist, I committed a grave mistake—I failed miserably in keeping with the changing times.
“So I went back underground. I played the small circuits and as I did so, I painstakingly recast myself. Gone was the haughtiness that once defined me. A humble thing, I developed a greater sense of self. Who I was. Who I was supposed to be. Slowly, dependent only upon word of mouth, I attracted a new following. One by one, they came to me. They came to see my performance.
“Excuse me, water? Ah, thank you. I was quite parched. Where was I? Yes. My performance…
“My act had grown dull, my song repetitious and as such, people had become blind and deaf to me. I realized I needed to restore their senses. So I worked diligently in those early days of my rebranding. How was my experience? Well, I very much cherished playing to the midnight crowds of those speakeasies in New York and LA and all their sordid elements. The sharpness of booze in the air, the apparitions the haze of nicotine induced, and the scores the martini shakers orchestrated in the background. It became a breeding ground for inspiration.
“I began gaining notice then, as you know. I became the new thing. I emerged from the underground. Reinvigorated. Restored. The decision was made for me to tour.
“Do I remember the first time I saw her? How could I not? New Zealand. The very first night of my tour, my very first tour. There she swayed…first row…the crush of a thousand bodies at her back. I found her easily. Her eyes spoke to me. Those wayward eyes, longing to be saved. She attended every show, I later discovered; all of them, worldwide. Wait, please, I will stop you right there—she was not among my groupies. That was beneath her.
“As time progressed, and my prominence flourished once more, her affinity for me became very public knowledge. Yes, yes, of course she cultivated it. She grew it into an unabashed thing, so much so that even I read about it in the tabloids long before we met. It was only a matter of time. Much like everything else about her, she hardly kept it secret. The money she had spent following me became a media sensation, partly due to individuals such as yourself who payed heed and partially embellished the reports to enliven them a bit, eh? Perhaps she had been irresponsibly flippant, the way she spent her inheritance, but mind you, she chose her cards from the deck, no one else. A socialite, a celebrity, she wanted for nothing. Nothing, save for what she craved. And what she craved was…well, that is where my story leads, does it not?
“I sought the grandeur of celebrity status too, don’t misunderstand me; coveted it actually. But after time, I realized it was not enough on its own. I required an additional outlet. A vessel. And so it happened that she became the one. My verse then was one of twisted tongues. I was still feeling my way through the obscurity, struggling in my acclimation as I climbed up fame’s ladder, and yet, she understood me, my language. She clung to my every word. Through my notes, I gave her meaning but through her, I found reason. Together, we adopted a purpose.
“As a result, I manipulated the lottery to choose a deserving fan. You seem so surprised, but what else was I to do? The time had come to expand my reach. The time had come to mainstream my call. She presented my quickest avenue, and she knew it as well. Rest assured, my management team frowned upon this exploit. ‘Twas bad enough I plucked followers from the crowd, they reasoned, but this? I took it all under consideration. I did my due diligence. Earlier in my existence, I had been too proud, but I learned my lesson well. This was a necessary thing.
“She knew the contest was hers alone to win, and she rejoiced. Soon after the formalities of the announcement, the photo opps were arranged, the talk show circuits scheduled. She was always one for smooth talking. In fact, I fondly recall her first press conference. Silently, I stood in the shadows at the back of the room, my disguise a masterful getup. And I admired her, the way she commanded the attention of all, the perfect tilt of her chin, the exquisite swivel of her hips. I admired her for all her casual simplicities, a facade so carefully constructed. One society had lionized. My decision had been the right one, I realized at that moment. I had played my cards equally as well, and my time of canonization had come.
“Pardon me? You mention it seeming far too orchestrated on my part? Please, allow me to clear up an inaccuracy — I may have skewed the winning result, I may have bankrolled the cable networks to further promotion, but it was she who picked the moment, the venue. It all came together, a perfect storm of elements. Timing is everything in show business, is it not? Sequenced and sparkling, she took her hometown stage to thunderous applause. The house lights dimmed. The stage lights rose, and she shone. For a fleeting moment, I must admit, a pang of jealousy struck my bones. Indeed, she commanded their attention.
“But I commandeered their souls.
“Even you must remember how I emerged to the hush of that crowd…I certainly do. The air carried a charge, crackling and alive. It reminded me of the days I honed my skills in the many speakeasies; those dark basement bars where the patrons employed fake names and no one would be missed. I looked out over the rows, those endless, churning rows. I raised my hand. I have come for you, I said. Then dropped it to a roar. I never lost the knack to work my flock over. I always worked them to a froth.
“She turned to me, lips moving, but from which came no sound. I love you. In all honesty, I loved her as well. But she was never to know that. She had become my vessel, nothing more. Yes, some still accuse me of seducing her. To that, I respond she had merely succumbed of her own accord.
“She nodded toward the paparazzi, cognizant of her perfect, final pose. Those eyes…those crypt-pallid eyes…they fluttered. And as the flashbulbs burst, I drew my forefinger across her throat and listened as she sang the most rapturous of songs.
“So my stardom I indeed owe to her. She has allowed me to take residence in every home in America, across the world. My popularity has soared. I have never been more in vogue. Revered, as it were. Death, a rock star at last.
“Oh, you are quite welcome. No, this has not been a bother in the least. I do not often grant interviews, but you have been quite diligent in securing time with me. Strange, how much of her I glimpse in you. Are we still live? Good. Good.
“I would greatly love to hear your song.”
~ Joseph A. Pinto
© Copyright 2016 Joseph A. Pinto. All Rights Reserved.
Her feet made no sound as they padded across the cold stone floor. She knew he was busy, but she had waited for such a long time. Besides, what father could resist his only daughter? He put down the tome as she approached and turned to face her.
“Father,” she said, “it’s time for a new book.”
He turned to his daughter and smiled. Their library was one of the biggest around, and as such, adding new material was not a simple task. She was too young to do it properly on her own, but he did enjoy helping her with it. Besides, it had been far too long since their last acquisition.
“Of course. Let me finish something here and I will be there shortly.”
Leila turned and hurried out of her father’s study. She ran down the central hallway, slowing only as she approached the large doors that led to the library. Her eyes drifted upwards to the ageless brick in the barrel-vaulted ceiling, arched in ways that seemed to defy the laws of gravity. The walls were lined with bright sconces and perfectly carved busts of the ancient ones.
She stopped in front of the large doors and waited, letting her mind wander to the joy of what lay ahead. Leila felt his approach long before her father spoke.
“I trust you are ready to do this,” he questioned before attempting to open the door. “The story will not unfold the way you would like if everything has not been prepared correctly.”
Leila turned to her father and smiled lovingly. “Yes. Everything is ready.”
Without saying another word, Seth placed his hand on the heavy door and opened the library for his daughter. She stepped inside and walked down the aisle, her eyes lingered hungrily on dozens upon dozens of books. The outer edge of the library held the oldest books – ancient things that smelled of parchment, strange leather and age.
She reached her hand out and ran her fingers across the tomes as they walked through her part of the library. Leila had devoured every book in here, many of them multiple times. Simply touching one of these was enough to tease her mind with the emotions and characters captured within the pages. A particularly strong wave of feelings shot through her as she touched one of her favorite books. Leila stopped and ran a finger down the spine.
Seth stopped behind her and sighed audibly, knowing exactly how she felt.
“I remember helping you with that one. It was the first story for your portion of the library. I don’t think my first book was nearly that good.”
Leila closed her eyes and saw everything within those pages. The faces were crystal clear, the emotions every bit as raw and savage as they were when it was penned, if not more so, and she almost decided to stop and simply enjoy it. Almost.
Her hand fell from the book and she turned her face to the center of the library where the books were created. A series of shapes and patterns had been laid into the floor, each with corresponding glyphs and symbols handed down from the ancient ones. She stepped into the center of a group of markings and turned to her father.
Seth retrieved the book she had prepared and flipped through the pages, ensuring they were empty. He nodded his head to his daughter and recited the unholy incantation as she waved her hand over the glyphs around her and initiated the ceremony. The floor shimmered, the room darkened, and the realm of mankind opened before them.
She spoke the ancient command and the two worlds merged. Leila looked at the room where a lone man was bent over geometric patterns of his own and was busily drawing lines upon the ground.
“Eric,” Leila said, “I have come for you.”
The man jumped with fright, smearing the lines. He looked down, checked to be sure he was standing within his circle, then turned to face the demon he had been summoning for months. “How… But I…” he stammered as he tried to comprehend what happened. “But I didn’t summon you yet, I never game you my name!”
Seth grinned wickedly as symbols around his daughter began to glow and one-by-one drift off the floor as vapors to etch themselves onto the pages of the book he held.
“Stupid little man,” Leila smirked as she watched the mortal squirm. “Did you really think your preparations, chalk and lines of salt, could contain me?”
Leila stepped completely into the mortal world and stood within the man’s triangle of conjuring. The last of the glyphs from the library floor etched itself into the new book. The remainder would have to be done from the mortal realm.
The man faltered, knocking down his altar and candles as he pulled backward. Composure regained, Eric stood up with the ceremonial dagger in his hand and faced his demon. “Yes, I followed all of the steps. You are mine to command, mine to summon, and mine to banish!”
Eric moved cautiously to the edge of the triangle where Leila stood, his confidence growing with each step. He lifted the dagger and spoke with as much authority as he could muster.
“Through Alpha and Omega, and with Michael’s gate, I cast you to darkness where eternally you will wait.”
Leila waited for Eric’s hand to cross the line and grabbed him by the throat. She caught the dagger as it fell from his hand and took him to the floor. Eric watched in horror as the demon sat over him and pressed his own dagger to his neck. He started to scream but she waved a hand and his mouth clamped shut.
“I know you are confused,” Leila said as the sharp blade easily cut through the soft flesh of Eric’s throat, “so let me explain. The rites and rituals were never yours to command. We fed them to your kind ages ago so that we may do as we please. The words, the symbols, the incantations… all provided by us. The only thing humanity offered was enough self-important cockiness to think they could control something immortal.”
Blood ran freely across the floor, flowed over the symbols, and opened a portal back to the demonic realm. The ablated symbols etched themselves into the book still held by Seth. With each mark that was transferred to the pages, Eric’s spirit became further embedded in the book, ensuring his damned soul would be eternally bound within.
Leila laughed as Eric released his last breath. “You never even questioned what use a dagger would have when dealing with immortal beings. Silly man,” Leila said as she patted his cooling cheeks. “The dagger was always meant for you.”
~ Zack Kullis
© Copyright 2015 Zack Kullis. All Rights Reserved.
I had been single for nine years when I met Spider. The sky was overcast. I smelled fried onions, heard the sizzle of hot oil from the kebab van by the side of the road as I made my way to the park. My watch still sat on the bedside table; it could have been any time between five and seven. The last nine years could have passed between these hours; that halfway time after the evening but before nightfall, when clouds and shadow obscure the sky like muddied waters and the streetlights seem premature. As I approached the van, I found myself wondering if there was such a thing as any other time. It didn’t feel that way to me.
I visited the park often in the evenings, but rarely this van. It was the same park where I used to play with my friends as a small boy. I liked to watch for dragonflies in the spring, and pond skaters, and the fat worms that emerged from the soil when summer turned and it began to rain.
There was no rain that night. Three silhouettes huddled around the light from the counter. Stronger than the streetlights and nearer, the glow reminded me of a lamp, the people like fat moths in their vast overcoats. Two of them stood slightly apart, mouths close to their food, chewing slowly behind their collars. I can still remember the sound of their chewing, the gradual motion of their jaws, the grinding of pitta or grey doner meat between their teeth; a ceaseless mastication.
The third man stood by the serving hatch while the van’s occupants prepared his order. He didn’t turn, but stepped slightly to one side as I came up behind him. This close to the van, the aroma of vinegar, cheap aftershave, and hot Middle Eastern spices was almost overpowering. I ordered quickly, my mouth watering, eyes burning slightly from the onion and the cold.
I didn’t realise the man had spoken to me until I felt his hand on my shoulder. My flinch startled him, but his hand had startled me first. After nine years, the loneliness had become a part of me, and it wasn’t used to being touched.
“You dropped this.”
He wasn’t tall, but he had a couple of inches on me. He looked older, maybe mid-thirties to my twenty-nine. A thick crop of blonde hair gave him a youthful aspect, as did his smile, but his eyes were honest. I wondered if he was doing the same to me; reading my face, my mouth, my mother’s brown eyes. Still teary, cheeks flushed from the chill, I thought I must have looked one-hundred and nine.
He extended his hand again, and I realised he was holding a tenner. The note was crumpled between his finger and thumb. I took it quickly, careful not to brush his fingers with my own. Behind us, in one of the many tiny gardens squashed between the rows of terraced houses, a dog began howling.
We spoke while we waited for our food. Mostly it was he who spoke, but I replied when it was polite and, afterwards, when I wanted to. I learned he was Swedish, that he had moved here for work eight months ago and was missing his homeland dearly. The dog did not stop howling, but it was not unusual for dogs trapped in the small gardens here to sound off. I realised it was night. Even without my watch, we must have been speaking for hours. I had said very little, but the time had flown. I couldn’t have begun to imagine where it had gone.
We continued speaking at the park, and the week after in a coffee shop. One evening we visited the cinema where we caught a late showing of an indie film from his homeland. I didn’t – I don’t – understand the language. There were subtitles, but these paled in comparison to the sweeping panoramic shots of black lakes shining with starlight, and black cities lit up with little lights of their own; Stockholm, Malmö, Gothenburg, cities and the streets that made them up shivering like bright nests in the dark. I had not lived anywhere else than home, except for three brief years at university in Nottingham, and certainly not abroad. When the film was finished, he asked me whether I had enjoyed it. I told him I didn’t know what it had meant, but it was beautiful. He smiled.
I will never forget the day he met my parents. I think they had grown lonely in their own way from lack of any significant other in my life. It is a parent’s job to worry. Then they met him, and they seemed better. Though they had met him only briefly, that made me feel better, too.
It was summer when he asked me if I would visit Malmö with him. We were drinking red wine on the stained patio that amounted for my back garden. The paving slabs were cracked and hot. Weeds tickled the soles of my feet. He had not said how much he missed home, not since the first time we had met, but I caught him looking in the mirror sometimes. His was a pale face. I recognised guilt, and an emptiness that could have been my own. My Spider. Of course I said yes.
We flew that autumn, before the trees bared their branches and cobwebs glittered with more than flies. I had never flown before, but I was not afraid. I slept most of the way; the flight passed in the blink of an eye. The last six months had been a blur. After nine years of struggling like one of those flies trapped in silk, my life was speeding around me, and I was happy.
I couldn’t wait to explore the city; from what I could see as we navigated the roads, it actually shone. The night was black, the streetlamps tall, the buildings of a different sort to any I had ever seen before. I have never given much thought to heaven, or imagined what it might look like, but after last night, I would imagine it looks like this.
It did not take long to explore his apartment. One of the rooms was locked. The other two I surveyed in minutes: a main room, and a bathroom that doubled up as a storage cupboard. The main room featured a stove and several bare shelves. Dust coated the solitary windowsill like a second layer of paint. Looking back, he had seemed anxious, although I couldn’t tell why. We shared a futon and a heavy duvet to keep the draught at bay. Spiders fought over dust balls by the skirting boards. I fell asleep in his arms.
In the morning – this morning – I woke up to find myself gagged. The pain at my wrists told me they were bound, although I couldn’t see them from where I lay. I felt for Spider; his weight, his aftershave, the tap of his boots on the floor, anything to let me know he was still here. The house made sounds of its own, but none I could attribute to him. When I realised he had gone, I thought I was going to be sick. The back of my neck prickled, and my chest closed around my lungs so that every breath was small and tight. I felt a crushing sense of hollowness, like someone had reached inside of me and scooped everything out.
Outside was still black, but brightening, growing lighter with every passing hour. I am still lying here now, my face in the futon, knees tucked under my chest. I am on my side. The door that had yesterday been locked swings slightly ajar. A mattress spring buries uncomfortably into my naked hip.
I can’t hear the tap of Spider’s boots, but I can hear other things, moving behind the unlocked door. I have been listening to them for what feels like hours, scratching in the darkness, testing the stairs. The first I see of them is a white hand, fingers curling around the doorframe. The digits are long, skeletal. I think that whoever the hand belongs to must be very Nordic, or very ill.
The figures slink cautiously into the light. From where I lie, I can count three of them; I don’t know if they are his family, but there is a likeness in their arms, their slender legs, the long curvature of their necks as they scuttle closer. They too are naked. I don’t recognise their bald heads, or their mouths, except maybe to liken them to the mouthparts of newly-hatched dragonflies.
They move cautiously but with an eagerness that bears them quickly across the floor. Behind them, on the other side of the room, I can see the apartment’s sole window. Outside, the sky is grey, muddied with swirls of darker cloud, like gutter water run through with grime. I don’t know what time it is, or where my watch is, but I know that it is sometime between five and seven. I wonder if time ever sped up, if I ever escaped the spider’s web, or if that was just another illusion; the distorted perception of a thing struggling its last, trapped for months, years, almost a decade in a life from which there is no escape.
I am not struggling now. Somewhere outside, a dog begins barking. Perhaps it senses my fear, but I don’t think so. More likely it hears the wet chewing sounds that are filling the room; sucking, crunching, the roaring of blood in my ears. I think of two men, huddled around a van, nuzzling strips of grey meat, then a city doing likewise, then the world; for one moment billions of men, women, and children bent prostrate, heads bowed, mouths quick as they devour their hands.
I am not struggling, and I am not afraid. The mattress sinks around me as they shift, biting harder, bringing me to tears. My vision blurs. I think about last night, about the city streaming past me, and my place in it, tiny and awestruck. I remember the magnitude of the blackness, and the lights below, like golden pinpricks. I think about that first conversation with Spider, and the ensuing six months; the first and only time when I have ever been happy. It seems a small price to pay. As I drift away, I remind myself I am in heaven, foodstuff for angels with black eyes and butterfly’s skin.
~ Thomas Brown
© Copyright 2015 Thomas Brown. All Rights Reserved.