The light hurt and his head swam. He wanted to cover his eyes.
A hand floated in the corner of his view; it belonged to a woman.
“Nobody ever hears about us, the quiet ones; the little ones. The slight ones.” The owner of the voice caressed his neck. He shivered and tried to crawl back into the darkness that kept all the bright pain away. The voice and the hand moved off to his right.
The blackness crept up, this time without much of a fight. He faded away to the sound of her voice going on about being invisible in society.
“Awake again? I’m pleased to see you’re back. Can I get you something, water perhaps?” The voice purred with conviviality that wasn’t quite real.
He heard a sound so distinct that it couldn’t be anything other than what it was; a set of high heels walking across wood. She kept talking to him but it was nothing more than background noise.
“You’re going to be groggy for a bit longer I’m afraid.” The voice was close now. Something cold caressed his lips. She rubbed it around his mouth, and when he opened she slid the ice chip in. Too numb to miss the bitter cold on his tongue, his thirst was as painful as the ache that was developing around his chest and gut.
He was fading again, spittle drooled out of his mouth and into his lap.
“Oops.” She said.
“You’re back for a bit longer this time, I think. We’ll see I guess.” She tittered with laughter that wasn’t genuine. His eyes opened slowly, no sharp pain this time. He focused on the woman in red standing to his right. His first thought was ‘tiny’. She was short and thin. Beautiful in an extraordinary way. She touched his head and felt for his pulse.
“Just as it should be. Glad you’re coming around. I’m quite excited to talk to you, Mr. Thorn.” She made her way around a large dining room table until she was across from him. There was food on the plate in front of her.
“Rich,” he blurted out. The word wasn’t meant to be harsh, but she winced as if stung.
“No, Mr. Thorn, not rich, but well off at least.” She smiled awkwardly and scooped a fork from the plate in front of her.
She did not sit down.
Raising it to her mouth, he watched blood drip from the tines of the steel fork. She licked her middle finger from the knuckle straight to the tip of her fingernail. It was seductive, erotic. Thorn noticed movement on her right.
“You’re my honored guest.” She said. Her lips were red like a fresh coat of shiny lipstick you see in porn movies and noir films. He winced and shook his head.
“Still trying to make sense of things? I’d give it another fifteen minutes or so. It took a lot to calm you down. More than most men.” She winked, circling the table slowly; a predator marking her prey.
“What’s happening?” Thorn croaked. His throat felt like sandpaper. His tongue was gritty as if he licked concrete. The other man twitched violently once, then again, and settled. Thorn looked and saw the spasm had dislodged the cap he’d been wearing. It looked like one of those light blue things a doctor puts on before surgery. The other man’s head lulled forward. Thorn couldn’t process what he saw.
He knew what it was in an instant, although he’d never seen the inside of someone’s head before. The cavity that should be holding a brain was mostly empty. Only fragments of gray matter remained.
Thorn vomited down the front of himself. His gut tightened, and his chest screamed with agony.
“That’s okay Mr. Thorn, the girls will clean you up in a moment. For now, just listen. You’re here because you haven’t been very nice.” She didn’t smile this time.
“What, I…” another contraction from his stomach and that rocketing pain in his gut again. Nothing came out but bile and strings of yellowish spit. He was empty.
“Don’t talk, Mr. Thorn. The sight of my previous guest has upset you. I can understand that. Can you just sit and listen? If I get the girls to clean you up, will you listen?” She asked the question but he didn’t dare answer.
“We, the collective of women I help, have decided that a lesson is in order. Not as severe as this young man’s.” She reached over and placed a hand on the brainless man’s shoulder. He jumped again and blood flew from the open cavity. Red droplets splashed on the bone-white china and the rimmed crystal goblets in front of him.
“He didn’t take our advice the first time we had him over to dinner so this time, we’re having him for dinner. We could never resist the opportunity to get together and exchange ideas and empower each other, Mr. Thorn.”
He tried to process what this crazy bitch said to him, but something didn’t click. He tried to focus, to replay it in his head but it slipped away. The pain in his chest was so intense he couldn’t think.
“What’s wrong, Mr. Thorn?”
“Jesse…” he blurted out with no conviction. His stomach flipped, and he tightened his muscles against another round of puking, but nothing came. He panted, his head starting to sag with the weight of his exertions.
“Yes, your name is Jesse Thorn, and you’re an inconsiderate, heartless bastard to most of the women you meet. We believe in what we like to think of as positive reinforcement, and your lesson began several hours ago on a table. It continues now.” She nodded toward the other man, “This unfortunate soul was also bad to a woman. It was clear he hadn’t learned his lesson when she showed up in the morgue last week. It was time to eliminate this particular problem.”
“What did you do to me?” he croaked. Between the acidic taste in his mouth and the dry throat, it sounded inhuman.
“First we need to get you cleaned up. The ladies are already here. I wouldn’t want to embarrass you when they come in.”
The woman in red walked over to a small table on the far side of the room. She picked up an old fashioned telephone receiver and spoke softly into it.
Four women walked into the dining room from that door dressed in scrubs. One of them was rolling a cart full of cleaning supplies while the other three carried clothes, a few leather straps, and a needle.
“They are going to get you undressed and cleaned up before dinner, Mr. Thorn. We will give you something for the pain. It will keep you calm enough through dinner but not so much as you would black out on us again. You’re the honored guest tonight and we can’t have you asleep at your plate.” She smiled and nodded to the women standing near him.
A hand went over his mouth and he felt a needle prick his arm. Within seconds, he lost any urge to move. The pain was dull, but not gone.
He was hoisted out of his chair and stripped down to his skin. His hostess watched them work with avid interest as they cleaned him up. It was then he noticed the wide bandage over his chest and stomach. He was redressed in clean scrubs and placed back in his chair. One of the women cleaned his place at the table. The smell of disinfectant burned his nostrils.
As the girls finished with him they walked around the table to the brainless man. One of them covered his place setting with a red cloth as the other three lifted him from his chair. A sheet covered his limp body. He was thrown onto the center of the table without remorse.
That sound of clacking heels echoed, this time from behind him. The room suddenly filled with chatter and tinkling laughter. Perfume replaced the smell of disinfectant, and the mixture was somehow intoxicating.
A woman filed in behind each chair and grew silent. All eyes weren’t on him, but the man in the center of the table.
“Ladies, it is my pleasure to introduce tonight’s honored guest, Mr. Jesse Thorn.” A wave of applause assaulted his ears as the woman all turned to face him and clap.
“Ladies, once again I call your attention. Tonight is another lesson and another chance to come together as one. For that, I would like to present to you our main course.” She spoke with a flourish to her voice as she pulled the sheet off the man on the table.
No applause this time, just the sounds of oohing and aahing. Without warning, the ladies slid into their chairs and began to prepare to eat. The only woman still standing was the lady in red. She looked directly at Jesse with a sardonic smile.
“Mr. Thorn, it’s time to answer your question. You asked what I had done, but it wasn’t me exactly. It was us.” She smiled and looked around the room.
“We don’t take kindly to being mistreated and we’ve given up on society correcting the problem. We’ve decided to take matters into our own hands.” Applause rolled across the room.
“We’ve been tracking down and teaching men who mistreat women ‘lessons’ for nearly twenty years. While the history of our sisterhood isn’t newsworthy, the results are. As you can see, the price for failing to learn your lesson is this.” She picked up the steel fork again and tossed it, brain and all, unceremoniously toward his plate. Her aim was perfect.
“This failure here,” she pointed to the man on the table, “had several parts removed and became our honored guest a few years ago. He didn’t learn, though. You have been lucky enough to only have the parts of your body removed that you weren’t using to their full potential but you will live and have another chance to make things right if you choose. If not, you’re going to be in the center of our table like this one.” She pointed to the man who was as dead as a Thanksgiving turkey ready for carving.
“We took out your heart, Mr. Thorn, as you seem to be less inclined to use it and we’re serving it as an appetizer tonight. You’ll be returned to your life once you recover and we will watch you—closely. My only hope for you is that you are a much better student than this man was.” She smiled and sat down at the table.
Jesse’s head lolled from side to side, feeling drunk and stupid as he tried to process her words. They were sinking in slowly. When he focused again on the man in the center of the table, he noticed that his brain wasn’t the only thing missing.
He began to scream as the women began to eat.
~ Christopher A. Liccardi
© Copyright 2017 Christpher A. Liccardi. All Rights Reserved
When I arrived, the gate to the graveyard was open, wrought iron swinging on its hinges. I hesitated. I didn’t like company when I visited. I preferred to be alone, to stand at the headstones in the silence.
Should I go in?
I looked over my shoulder, back down the road.
I could go home. Come back another day.
No. I needed this. Needed to remember death, relive what happened, hear the screams again. It would help ease the pressure until…
Yeah. Take a chance. Could be someone just forgot to fasten the latch properly. You can always lie if you meet someone.
I passed through the gate, shutting it behind me. I decided to visit Patricia today. Her family buried her in a secluded spot on the east side of the graveyard.
Less chance of being seen.
A silence settled on the place, and the crunch of my feet on the gravel roadway sound like the crack of bone. A familiar sound, but I shivered. It unnerved me for some reason and I was glad when I turned off onto the dirt path. Nothing but the crunch of the occasional leaf there. Not even the chirping of the birds, or the swish of the wind.
I made it to Patricia’s headstone without seeing a soul. I noticed fresh flowers on the grave, a bouquet of carnations.
Patricia’s favourite. I guess her mother made her weekly visit.
I bent over and plucked a posy from the bunch. “Here’s to you Patricia.” I twirled the flower. “I enjoyed our time together, however brief. Though I doubt you found it as pleasurable.” I smiled, the sweet blood-spattered memories making me tingle. I stood a while, reminiscing, then tossed the flower and walked back down the lane.
Halfway along, I spotted a figure. Someone on the path. I pulled up short.
Must have been behind me. Shit.
I took a deep breath.
Just act cool.
I kept walking, until I got close. Then I stopped again. I couldn’t help it. It wasn’t every day you saw a woman sitting on a moss-covered rock, dressed like a southern belle in mourning complete with a parasol.
She twirled that lace covered sunshade and giggled. “I’ve been waiting for you, mon cher.”
“Have you now?” Her voice stirred things in me. I smiled, and gave her the once over.
Despite the strange, old-fashioned attire, I liked her look. A pretty blonde with a slight French accent. I enjoyed blondes. Blondes always screamed the best. I stared at her, that familiar itch creeping through me. I never planned on indulging so soon, but when opportunity knocks…
I licked my lips. I never killed a French lady before.
Oh yeah, this one will do.
I reached for my knife.
“That won’t do you no good, chéri. Little pig sticker like that won’t kill me.”
My hand froze. How did she know?
“Oh, I know all about you. You put too many women in this graveyard, mon chéri. Time to stop. Past time.”
I laughed. “Not going to happen. But you’re welcome to try. A little slip like you, could be fun.”
“Thank you, for the invitation.”
“Invitation, what—” I stumbled, suddenly dizzy, and… she vanished. Nothing left but her parasol.
No way! She was there. It’s not— Where did she go?
“Behind you, chéri.”
A whispered breath tickled my neck. I whirled.
No. No, it can’t be!
“Time to die.” Her rotting, maggoty face flashed me a smile, and pain sliced through my gut.
The smell, I know that smell.
I looked down. Her bloody, clawed hand ripped out part of my intestines. Same place where I sliced my victims.
No! No, No, No!
I tried to scream, but only a sad, dreadful gurgling noise slipped past my lips. I grabbed my abdomen, stuffing my torn organs back inside as blood gushed through my fingers. Agony shuddered through my body.
I’m going to die.
I fell to my knees and let it all go, watched my entrails slosh about on the ground. I clawed at her skirts, my blood leaking onto her shoes, her voice echoing in my ears.
“Don’t worry, mon ami. I’ll be sure to visit your grave. To always remember this moment.”
~ A. F. Stewart
© Copyright 2017 A. F. Stewart. All Rights Reserved.
I scrambled through the woods at break-neck speed. I had no idea which direction I ran, I only knew I had to escape the beast that attacked me. A clearing in the trees ahead revealed the flicker of a fire’s glow. As I stumbled into the mudded tract, I realized I’d come upon a gypsy encampment. Two men immediately rose in defense, but a hunched old woman shushed them away. She guided me to a rough-hewn bench. I sat in the brisk night air, chest heaving, lungs still gasping for breath as the crone examined my scratched torso, the gouges left upon my arm by the beast’s maw.
Heavy drapes at the rear of a nearby caravan parted. Concealed behind a voile sheath loomed a tourmaline eyed creature of exquisite beauty. She held my gaze for but a moment before her eyes crept down toward my bare chest and further still to the ruined forearm. The old gypsy woman tending my torn flesh immediately bowed her head and began to back away.
As the black veil unfurled, I saw the illusion for what it was; the alluring countenance of the creature’s face belied the grotesque malformation of its body. A withered arm snaked its way forward, grasping the rail along the stairs in its elongated hand. The exposed flesh covering it resembled nothing more than flaking mica. The body that followed was near indescribable. Multiple legs, in varying size and stage of abortion, dangled beneath the tattered rag it wore around its distorted midsection. One hip jutted upward and away from its body while its engorged abdomen bucked in sway with something yet unseen. I tried to avert my eyes, to look away from this aberration, but fear and revulsion would not allow it.
Moving in awkward jerks, it approached. Terror demanded I flee, but a wave of authority emanating from those rapturous eyes locked me in place. It lowered itself to the muddy earth at my feet. Its stare burned through me as it brought its mouth to my savaged arm. Crimson lips whispered an incantation that danced with the feather-light touch of its breath over my aching skin. It then clutched my arm in its claw-like grip, threw back its head and began to screech a banshee’s wail.
As its legs tore open, a gush of fluid sluiced from between them. The screech morphed to a guttural moan as something passed from its body and darted into the woods. The echoes of torment silenced; the only sounds left were labored breathing and what scurried in the dark underbrush.
The creature before me spasmed, struggled to right itself, to regain its knees in the slick afterbirth. Composed once more, it stared at me with fierce brutality. Once again, it grasped my wounded arm in its roughened talon and spoke a single command as it seared its mark into my flesh. I saw depths of rage, hate, regret, pain and sorrow in its release as the eyes dimmed and the body fell backward to lie unmoving.
The old gypsy woman approached. She looked upon the corpse from the caravan, the wound and brand on my arm. Compassion and terror colored her countenance as she dipped her fingers into the mingle of blood and amniotic fluid. While making a sign of sanctity to ward herself from evil, she spoke these words.
“The pup is born, the mantle passed. Protect it, and you may yet find your own salvation.”
~ Nina D’Arcangela
© Copyright 2017 Nina D’Arcangela. All Rights Reserved.
My body and soul—the feast on which it would satisfy its cold, unbiased nature. It would make me a brittle husk in no less than six months. I contemplated the Kevorkian way, but could never garnish the result with enough good reason to commit suicide. Besides, I didn’t want to die.
I received the news only three weeks ago. Considering the good doctor’s estimate, it was a significant portion of my remaining life. But not enough time to come to terms. Fantasies of futures never to come, crushed repeatedly by the forceful hammer of reality. The dreamer could dream, but ultimately his awakening was inevitable.
I wondered how I’d face the reaper alone. Would I possess the courage? Without Eileen’s warm touch, without her kind words, I was devoid of human nourishment. My inner-self was bad company.
Our marriage had once been a vibrant green leaf on a tree, swaying gently in the breeze, taking in the sun’s light. I played the parts of autumn and winter; the leaf fell, all color disappeared, and its surface became pockmarked with decay.
I was left with a shameful legacy—a divorcee with five hundred bucks in the bank, no offspring, no siblings, and my parents’ ashes on a shelf in my closet. I’d be mourned only for the loss of tips I gave Old Johnny at my preferred watering hole.
I had to get out of my apartment. Out of my head. Just out.
The quiet streets tamed the circling vultures of self-awareness. The city streets can be peaceful if you know when to go for a walk. Summer nights—always the best.
The voice came from an alley.
Shit. Why did I stop? I should have fucking kept going.
“Listen here,” the raspy voice spoke with a lisp. “I can help you out.”
“Sorry man, not looking to cop anything.” I figured he was trying to sell me drugs.
“I’m not selling anything, you fool. I’m making an offer. For trade, I can cure your cancer.”
I stepped back, took my hands out of my pockets. “What?”
“You don’t have to die.”
I squinted, tried to see the man, but darkness hid him well.
My heart told me to run, to hightail it out of there—make myself a ghost. But curiosity, no matter how many animals it killed, kept me standing at the mouth of that dark recess between the two buildings.
“Who are you?” I asked.
“I like to make deals, and I have a lot to offer.”
“You didn’t answer my question.”
“Do you want your cancer cured or not?”
The voice wrenched my guts with instinctual warning. But the hook had been set. What did I have to lose? I was going to die anyway.
“Who the fuck wouldn’t? But there is no cure for cancer.”
“That’s what they want you to think.”
“What are you, a conspiracy nut?”
Mock laughter emanated from the inky tunnel. It had the tone of a man, but what disturbed me was that it was trying to sound human. “No. I really can stop your cancer. I know how.”
“I’m not just going to tell you. How do I know you’ll keep your part of the bargain?”
The bargain. I didn’t even think to ask what this mysterious voice wanted in return for the miracle it offered.
“What is it you want? I’m not rich or anything…”
“I don’t want money.”
My legs wanted to run. But the possibility of a cure enticed me to stay. “What is it you want?”
A heavy breath wafted from the shadows—musty, it reminded me of the damp cellar I’d claimed as my playroom in childhood. “I just need a favor.”
“How do I know you’re not some nutcase?”
“How did I know you had cancer, Marcus? And how do I know your name?”
“Well, Christ, that’s a good one…”
“So what’s your answer? You want the cure or not?”
Now he sounded like a drug dealer.
“Fuck it. Got nothing to lose. You gonna come outta that alley or what? Because I’m not going in there.”
“Don’t worry about that, Marcus. All you have to do is say the word and the contract is, how you say, signed.”
I questioned the choice. I never believed in God, but it sounded like striking a deal with the Devil. The thought of Hell seemed much worse than dying of cancer. I was never a church-goer but I’d read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
Another laugh echoed in the alley. No attempt to sound human was made; it came out coarse, like sandpaper against concrete.
“Your peers have misled you,” the voice said. “There is no Heaven. No Hell. Things are as they are. There is nothing more. Only things you don’t know.”
“Never mind, boy. Just perform the task I require, and you shall have your cure.”
“What do I have to do?”
“There’s a guy. I want you to deliver this package to him.”
A box wrapped in brown paper skidded from the shadows and stopped at my feet. A name and address were crudely scrawled on the top in black marker.
“You want me to deliver a package? That’s it? This is bullshit.”
“I promise you it’s not. Oh, there’s one more thing. There’s another guy. He hangs out in front of the building you’ll be delivering that to. Bump into him on your way in.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean what I said. Just bump into him. Like it was an accident.”
“I don’t get it. What for?”
“I don’t like him.”
Walking nine blocks to reach my destination didn’t feel like a chore, more a respite from the horrors of my diagnosis. A brief lull from the routine of life and the slope of oncoming oblivion, just beyond which lies a bottomless pit. With the hope of a cure, I had to avoid falling in.
I came to the address, and there he was, ‘the guy.’ He stood outside the door, leaning against the railing of the staircase, taking long drags from his cigarette. I watched him from the corner of my eye as I neared. He didn’t pay me any heed. At the last step, I pretended to trip—my shoulder brushed against his arm.
“Sorry, man. Missed that last step there.”
He didn’t say a word. Only took another puff and blew smoke in my face.
As I opened the door and entered the filthy apartment building something tugged at my memory. Synapses fired, but shot blanks. Something irked me about bumping into the guy on the stairs. Something familiar.
I went to the third floor, found the apartment, and knocked.
A muffled voice answered. “Who is it?”
Footsteps came to the door and stopped. Self-conscious discomfort traveled along the back of my neck knowing he could see me through the peephole. The lock clicked and the door opened.
The look on his face told me he wasn’t expecting a delivery.
“What is it?” he asked.
“How the hell should I know? I just deliver them.”
He took the box, looked it over, and slammed the door.
Mission complete. What came next, I was unsure. My throat tightened as I neared the exit, wondering if the smoking man was still outside. Be pretty fucking awkward running into him again. But he wasn’t there.
Relieved, I headed back to the alley where the stranger offered a cure. It was only during my walk back that I questioned the situation. What the hell was I doing? Was some fucking guy in an alley going to cure my cancer? When I thought about it, I couldn’t understand why I went with it in the first place. What compelled me? Was it hope? Desperation? Either way, I was already into it, might as well see it through.
When I got to the alley a hissing came from the darkness. “I see you’ve completed your task.”
“Yeah. Bumped into that guy and everything. Who was he, anyway?”
“You’ll find out soon enough.”
The slithering monstrosity reached out and wrapped its snake-like tentacles around my body. It drew me toward its gaping, ebon maw filled with rows of fleshy suction cups. The orifice closed behind me as foul smelling enzymes coated my body. As my flesh dissolved, my consciousness drifted from my mind. The creature assimilated my being; I became part of it, and it part of me. All of us. Together. As one.
And soon, I’d get to know the guy I bumped into very well. He would also develop terminal cancer. No doubt he’d take the deal, just as I had, same as the man who bumped into me…
~ Lee A. Forman
© Copyright 2017 Lee A. Forman. All Rights Reserved