The demon stood in the snow.
Fergus saw it standing in the knee-deep powder through the small window of his front door.
“Don’t try to do too much out there,” his wife Nancy called from the kitchen. “Just take your time.”
“I won’t, don’t worry,” he answered distractedly.
“Amber might join you out there in a little bit if that’s okay.”
Fergus could hear his daughter playing upstairs and nodded.
With his winter jacket, boots and gloves already on, Fergus pulled his toque down over his ears and with a deep breath opened the front door.
It wasn’t very cold although the wind packed a sharp bite as Fergus grabbed the shovel leaning against the house. Ignoring the demon, he began tossing snow from the driveway onto his lawn.
Not much time had elapsed when a burning sensation erupted in his chest. Damn acid reflux.
The demon spoke. “It hurts, doesn’t it?”
“What hurts?” Fergus asked, keeping his back to it as he dug into the snow.
Fergus paused, acknowledging the comment. “It’s acid reflux,” he muttered. “That’s all it is. Acid reflux…”
After a few more minutes of shoveling, the pain grew worse. Grimacing, Fergus stopped and rubbed at his chest. “Is this your doing?”
The demon seemed closer yet remained motionless. Only its mouth moved. “Maybe. You don’t see surprised to see me.”
Shaking his head, Fergus said, “No. Somehow I knew you’d be back.”
“I saw you that day,” Fergus said.
“The day my father died.”
The demon’s mouth twitched ever-so-slightly, staring hard at Fergus with its emotionless, black eyes. “What did you see?”
“I was only five but remember watching from the living room window,” Fergus began. “It was similar to today. A storm had just dumped over a foot of snow on us and Dad went out to clear the driveway.”
Fergus dug the shovel into the snow and heaved the pile aside.
“You didn’t look real, almost like a reflection off the snow.” Fergus glanced at the demon who appeared even closer. “I remember him looking at you, like he was listening and then nodding. You reached out, touched his chest for a moment and he collapsed. The doctors said his heart gave out.”
The demon nodded. “They always do.”
Fergus rubbed his own chest again, “I had nightmares about you.”
“Worried that I would come for you?”
Fergus shook his head. “No, what scared me was wondering what you said to him.” He took a step toward the demon. “What did you say?” He glared into the demon’s eyes, noticing that they rippled in the wind.
“I explained your family’s unfortunate legacy. Would you like to hear it?” Not waiting for an answer, the demon continued. “Basically, thanks to a distant and sadistic ancestor of yours who made a deal with my master, your family has to forfeit a male soul to us every generation. We leave it up to you to determine whose soul we take.” In the blink of an eye the demon was face to face with Fergus. “Your father gave us his.”
The front door opened and Amber bounded from the house into the snow, drawing her father’s attention. “Hi Daddy,” she called out playfully.
“Hey there, sweetie,” Fergus replied. Turning his attention back to the demon, he asked, “So why go through all of this? Why not come and take the one you want?”
“As I said, you or a male from your family has to make the decision. That was the deal. Sadly, since you have no brothers, it will end up being you.”
“What if I say no?”
“If I’m the only male and I say no, then are you shit out of luck?”
The demon’s brow creased and its eyes narrowed. “Don’t.”
“Or else what?”
The demon blinked and time stopped, frozen in place. Snowflakes hung motionless in midair. All went deathly still. Fergus found he could turn his head but quickly grew concerned when he realized the demon was no longer in front of him. It was kneeling in front of Amber. Her eyes were wide, full of fear; her mouth open forming an ‘O’ shape. She’d never looked so fragile or terrified.
The demon had the tips of its fingers inside of her chest.
“Get the hell away from my daughter!” Fergus screamed trying to run but his feet would not move.
“This is your only warning,” the demon hissed. “You may hold the initial choice of whose soul we get but when complications arise, the rules change and the choice becomes ours. We can take any soul we want at that point. It would still be better if you made the decision to honor the original deal, but either way, a soul will be coming back with me.”
It twisted its hand slightly deeper into Amber’s chest.
Tears streamed down Fergus’s face. “Get the fuck away from her!”
“Then make the choice.”
Fergus screamed, “Take mine, damn you!”
In a flash the demon was back in front of him. “You made the right call,” the demon grinned.
Time resumed as Amber shook her head, slightly dazed. She looked at her dad and smiled as the demon plunged its hand into Fergus’s chest. The cold, demonic fingers wrapped around his heart, slowly constricting it.
With his legs growing weak, Fergus sat back in the snow. A tingling spread through his body but after a few seconds it began to subside. Fergus then felt nothing as the demon pulled its hand out.
“Are you okay, Daddy?” Amber asked.
The demon disappeared and Fergus’s world went dark as he replied, “I’m fine… sweetie…”
~ Jon Olson
© Copyright 2017 Jon Olson. All Rights Reserved.
There was a girl. She sat at a white desk in a white room with her hands folded neatly in her lap.
Peter stood before her with his pockets turned out.
“I don’t have anything to give you,” he said. He spoke very quietly. Shame does that.
She didn’t move, but he thought she shook her head.
“I don’t need anything like that,” she told him. “I do not desire your buttons or baubles, although I am sure that they are quite lovely.”
He thought she smiled, but she did not actually do that, either.
“I don’t understand,” he confessed. He shifted from foot to foot. She really did smile then, but only in her eyes. He bit his lip and continued. “I thought…that you wanted something from me. In exchange for your help.”
“Oh, but I do.” Her skin was white, and her hair even whiter, but only just. When she smiled—if she smiled—her lips were disconcertingly red. The rest of the time they were only the palest of pink. He had the impression that something parasitic sucked the breath from those lips while she slept, but what could he do about it?
“Please tell me what you desire.”
“I want to be happy.”
“Then I will help you.”
She pulled a ceramic jar out of nowhere. It was the color of sky and looked cool to the touch. He flexed his fingers.
“This is the Container of Sorrows, Peter. Do you understand?”
“Yes.” He didn’t.
Her lips barely twitched but it was as if the snow melted and he tasted spring.
“This is how you will be happy. Tell me one of your sorrows. I will keep it here for you, and the burden from that particular sorrow will be no more.”
He felt stupid and stared at his shoes. They had holes in the toes.
“Do you…not wish happiness?”
Her voice was strangely brittle, as if she were trying not to cry. He was hurting her somehow, he decided, but that didn’t make any sense. He took a deep breath.
“I miss my mother,” he said, and the words fell from his mouth like vapor. The girl opened the jar, and the mist zipped inside. She closed the lid with a satisfying click.
“There,” she said, and her smile was real this time, genuine. “Don’t you feel better?”
He thought about his mother. Her warm brown hair, the apron that she used when she baked cupcakes. He thought about her more aggressively. The police telling his father that they had discovered a broken body. The funeral in a town without rain.
“I don’t feel sad,” he said in wonder, and the girl looked pleased. She kissed him, and he woke up.
Peter’s lips burned where she had touched him, and he kept his fingers pressed there for most of the day. When the boys razzed him about his poorly trimmed hair, he didn’t mind so much. When they taunted him about his mother being a whore who got what was coming to her, he was surprised to find that he didn’t care at all. He ate dinner silently and changed into his worn pajamas without being asked. He brushed his teeth and climbed into bed with an eagerness that would have been pitifully endearing if anyone had seen it.
Sleep came instantly, and there she was. She was wearing white flowers in her hair.
“Did you have those flowers yesterday?” he asked her.
Her cheeks flushed delicately. “No.”
Peter didn’t know what to say. “I had a better day at school than usual. Thank you.”
The girl again produced the smooth blue container out of thin air. “Tell me another sorrow, Peter. Tomorrow will be even better.”
“I’m tired of being called poor.”
The mist of words spiraled into the Container of Sorrows. He nodded his head once, and she nodded back in a very serious manner.
And thus it went. His sorrows disappeared. “I hate seeing dead birds. I wish that I had a friend. My father doesn’t notice me.”
The jar devoured his sorrows with an agreeable hunger. The pale girl’s lips turned up all of the time and her eyes began to sparkle. Peter grew more confident at school. He stood up straight. He looked people in the eye. He made friends.
He was almost happy.
On the last night that he went to her, something in the air had shifted. The atmosphere was holding its breath, and it was undeniable.
“Hey,” Peter said, leaning casually on the white desk. “There’s only one sorrow that I have left.”
“Only one?” asked the girl with something that sounded exquisitely close to hope. Her eyes shone. Her white hair and pink lips were glossed with fragile expectation. She produced the Container of Sorrows and carefully removed its lid. Peter’s sorrows ghosted around inside, smelling of lavender and brokenness.
“Natalia Bench never looks at me at school.”
The vaporous sorrow swirled from his lips and settled into the jar. The girl’s white fingers didn’t move, so Peter put the lid back on for her.
He smiled. “Now I’ll be brave enough to talk to her tomorrow. Thank you very much, Girl of Sorrows. I am happy.”
The girl held the jar very close, and she looked up at Peter. Her lips were pale, strawberries buried under layers of ice. He was reminded of that feeling that he had once, long ago, where he thought that something supped from her lips at night. How frightened she must be. How alone.
“Goodbye,” he said, and kissed her cheek. Had her touch once burned? She was ice under his skin. She was a corpse. Peter turned and walked away without looking back.
There was a girl. She sat at a white desk in a white room where she wept, clutching a container full of somebody else’s sorrows.
~ Mercedes M. Yardley
© Copyright 2017 Mercedes M. Yardley. All Rights Reserved.
Park benches are the domain of lovers. They sit cuddled together, giggling as they etch their names in the wood, their pride palpable as if no one else has ever vandalised public property before. I’ve lost count of the number of times a park bench has been the site for my aim. It is apt that I found him there, a new kind of saviour for these loveless days.
I had one arrow left.
I clutched it with both hands and pointed it at my own chest. The shaft was dull and rusted but the tip was razor sharp, imbued with magic, ready to transform the flesh it pierces.
It is not that I longed for love, not that I wanted to be blinded to the reality around me by romance. Rather, I hoped the arrow would kill me and put an end to this game I have been sentenced to play since time immemorial.
I realised I had done this world a great disservice, leading them astray into the folds of daydreams. If they had gained any wisdom it was not because of my arrows but through the pain of surviving them. My arrows had not been able to hold at bay the rising deluge of suffering in this world.
By a large fountain in the remains of a city park, I readied myself for the plunge of the arrow’s tip. The early morning was clear and quiet. A cool stinging mist from the splashing water was in the air, like blessings from heaven. But the blessings were bitter and twisted, the water green and acidic.
I glanced around, hoping I would soon be free of this wretched place. That’s when I spotted the man, through dead tree trunks, asleep on a park bench, swathed in grimy rags, his bare feet blue and swollen with cold.
An idea occurred to me, a better idea. The arrow lowered, my grasp softened. I would not use it on myself.
Once more I resolved do what was expected of me, one final arrow fired to spark and flame hope.
It has been said that love conquers all and indeed over millennia there has been nothing I could not infiltrate, no darkness or terror that could stop my arrow. When Vesuvius erupted I was there, piercing the hearts of those destined to fall in love even as they tried to outrun rivers of lava, huddling together in dark corners, their eyes meeting in sudden realisation, my arrow melting their hearts as liquid fire melted their flesh. Amidst the blistered pus of the sick and the rotting corpses abandoned by the Plague, my arrows did not hesitate on their course, bringing lovers together despite poverty and disease. During world wars and terrorist bombings, in small overflowing boats of refugees that rocked and sank on high seas, through chemical spills that wiped out species of birds and fish, I was there, eternal and invincible in the face of life’s horrors. Giving them hope, giving them joy, always driving them forward, with the focus and strength of Love’s arrow.
I have kept the final arrow for months, uncertain of how or when to use it. They stopped appearing in my quiver a long while ago. They replenished themselves in the past; my holder was always full with golden arrows, clean and freshly forged. My prayers and pleas to the gods for guidance went unanswered, smothered and silenced by the grey layer of pollution and debris that now surrounds this world. I have not had any contact with the other immortals for years, I don’t know if they have perished or escaped.
Left to my own devices I may have become a little too careless in the last few years. I was shooting arrows like an addict, without any dignity at all.
Love has always been reckless and impulsive, the oddest of couples have been drawn together by my work. Divorced from divine inspiration I lost focus and direction. Perhaps that is why the arrows dried up. But I am simply a messenger, delivering Love where it wishes to go. Love, it seemed, was almost completely extinct in this world, like so many other living things.
So I was down to one. One single arrow. One last shot. The weight of my task seemed unbearable. I wondered who would be worthy of this final arrow. I had to find a heart noble and righteous enough to receive it, to do it justice. It would be a final strike of life in a dying world, a catalyst for revival and change.
I roamed the rubble of cities around the globe searching for such a heart. I searched everywhere from shifting plains of ice to encroaching deserts to tumbledown ghetto towns. Nothing but terrified hearts bolted shut against any more intrusion and burden; not one single heart emitted a tiny spark, necessary to deserve the arrow.
When I saw the man on the bench I realised a different kind of Love was needed in this world. The Earth is blistered, once great cities are piles of smoking black rocks, the oceans are oily sludge. The Love that thrived before has no place here anymore. This final arrow would need a new magic. So I dipped the arrow in lakes of toxic waste, I sharpened it on bones in mass open graves, I rolled it in the shit and vomit of flooding gutters, I laced it with the culture of super viruses bred in clandestine labs, I bathed it in pools of blood from human abattoirs.
I returned to the park after many days and nights preparing my arrow and found the man was still there, sitting in his disease, a large empty paper cup in his hand.
I cradled the cursed arrow; it throbbed with a deadly romance.
I could hear his weak beating heart from across the park, slow and sluggish, weary and broken. He was nothing special, no great man. He was a human shell, already emptied out, a perfect receptacle for a new strain of love.
He raised his blackened eyes to me, glaring, unflinching, as I approached him. His face was coated with grey dust, his mouth a dry purple line.
I aimed the arrow at him, he gave no response. I didn’t hesitate, as is my way, I didn’t think twice. I drove it through his frail chest, deep into the cavity, and the tip touched the beating organ. Still his expression didn’t change, he felt nothing.
I drove it deeper, sliding it through until the tip popped out the other side, his heart pierced and committed. I saw it flash in his eyes, the recognition and desire. Was it love at first sight? No. It was something else. The beast within awakened and it wanted to survive.
~ Veronica Magenta Nero
© Copyright 2017 Veronica Magenta Nero. All Rights Reserved.
In shards the morning broke, shattering high, high above the gunshot reports, the torches, the thick plumes of smoke.
She watched them fall like black drops of rain in the distance. First came a crack, echoing like faraway thunder, then their plummet. Crack, then plummet.
The plate slipped from her soapy fingers into the bubbly grave of the sink. Beyond the grimy pane, beyond the flaked paint of the porch, swaddled by butterfly weeds and Echinaceas, her daughter sat, ruddy cheeks tilted toward the sky. “Island,” she gasped, tossing the wet rag aside. “Island!”
Her little girl could not hear her. Crack, then plummet.
She turned, ran, bare heels squeaking like frightened mice atop the wood. Through the dining room, down the hall; sunlight traipsed from the front door, beckoning just paces away. Each gunshot shook her skull. She burst onto the porch, mid-July scathing inside her lungs.
Silos jutted, arthritic fingers against the horizon, from the flat expanse of land. She tracked the figures, so frantic in the sky, weaving and dipping like grand bats. Her mind raced as she crouched low in the meadow, summoning her daughter. “Isla, come.”
Her little girl paid no mind. Chubby fingers marked the descent of each black drop, tracing the sky. Crack! Her tender folds involuntarily shuddered.
A shrilling—high-pitched like that of a hawk, but full of desperation; human at some point in its life. Its violent death roll cut the air, spiraling, spiraling away from its pack. No further than fifty yards from the porch, it slammed the ground, mowing a swath through the meadow.
Rallying to it, the keen barking of a dog.
She hurried to her daughter. The toddler tilted her head, all smiles, all giggles. Too young still to comprehend. “You will stay here for Momma.” She spoke slow, measured. “Do you understand?” Without waiting for an answer, she crept away.
It bleated weakly, lost amidst the grass, the strangled mewls answered by the nearing bark in turn. She propelled forward, nearly upon all fours, the distressed utterances serving as her beacon call. Bees roused, lifting from the stalks and buds, seeking further riches from summer. Memories of childhood invaded her nose; so simple then, the pollen rich fragrance of sky, the honey glaze of sun. Her own parents had given her up much too early. Wisps of shadows they had become—their touch, their guiding voice mere ghosts. She wished no such thing for her Island, but knew now it was too late.
At last, she reached it. Gasping atop the matted butterfly weed, its blood soaked the ground. Upon its back it writhed, bald skull lifting up against the dome of summer, back down, laden with an agony it once doubted could exist.
A bloody bubble popped from the corner of its mouth. It sensed her presence. Upside down, slit eyes locked onto her own. She saw the wound, an angry hole straight through its sagging, bare breast. The perennials trembled; the retriever burst through the swath then, as was its inherent duty, clamped its jaws around the hag’s neck.
The retriever dug its hindquarters into soft earth, hauling its prey back to its master. She lunged, seized the snout, pried open its jaws, allowing it no fight. A savage twist; its muscles went limp. She pushed the heap of fur aside. “I cannot help you further, not now, not without jeopardizing us all. Lay still, and I will return for you.” She took its gnarled fingers within her own. “Forgive me, sister.”
The hag nodded.
She dashed back toward her Island, aware that the exerted breath of man would soon be chasing behind. Her little girl waited diligently, as instructed. In seamless fashion, she scooped the child into her arms, ran full out without breaking stride. Gunshots, screams; mid-July succumbed all around her. Ahead, the porch; thirty yards, twenty. A husky command echoed; a taunt. Crack! The air whistled above her shoulder. The top step of the porch exploded, slivers of wood and paint.
The front door waited, still ajar. She took the steps, then up onto the porch, splinters pricking her toes. Across her threshold, as the door jamb disintegrated loudly beside her. Instinctively, she pulled Island against her chest. “My precious little bean, you must know that we are condemned by man.” She ran through the house, the rooms, the hall, straight toward the back door. “They see us as abominations.”
She threw the door open to a green expanse. There, twisting skyward in the middle of the glade, a solitary tree. “But all things of nature have their place of beauty, my love.” She traveled the distance, rounding the far side of the tree. From within her home carried the ransacking fury of the hunter.
The trunk rose, thick and noble, bark twining in cords around a darkened hollow. Within this, she placed her child, but not before kissing each cheek. “The Ancients will raise you now,” lips lingered upon tender flesh, “then you will emerge stronger than even me, my Isla.” Away the tree swallowed her, and the child was gone.
From the trunk protruded a long, slender knob, identical to a spear, driven at its end to a sharpened point. She retrieved the offering from the tree. As the hunter closed the expanse, she sidestepped into view, driving the pike through his throat, clearing the body of head. The torso ran several paces, then dropped.
Propping the spear against the tree, she slipped free from her clothes. The safety of her coven compromised, her sisters needed her now. Someday soon, her daughter as well. Again she took the spear, straddled it, relishing the power upon her sex. Then she commanded the sky; the still gaping head lay impotently upon the ground.
Mid-July bled until no man shared the whispers of the High Priestess. Or her slaughter.
~ Joseph A. Pinto
© Copyright 2017 Joseph A. Pinto. All Rights Reserved.