Trapped within this bubble, I feel nothing of the arid landscape that surrounds me. I sit in subjugation, offered scraps to feed upon; amuse-bouche for the soul, or so I imagine. Apportioned morsels to sustain me, but never more than your callous ego will allow. Yes, I have licked the plate and the tang has seared my tongue, left a residue of shame that will forever taint my palate. I once soared with as much grace and majesty as the prey that circles overhead – a dangerous companion to adopt, folly perhaps, as I know what it awaits.
Freedom, such a simple thing, stolen from me by destiny’s choice; a truth mourned beyond measure. I was vibrant once, as vibrant as the now desiccated tree before me. I see its brittle limbs, its exposed bones; the crack that foretells of the next fractured moment. I live that moment with every breath, forever caught just before the fall, perpetually suspended in a state of flux. With bowed back, I am forced to genuflect, to stare into a shallow pool that lacks reflection; a me without identity, stripped of all dignity. With broken wings, I stagnate in this cage never to glide on lighter waves of air again.
~ Nina D’Arcangela
© Copyright Nina D’Arcangela. All Rights Reserved.
Rebecca’s toes curled in her boots when her feet touched the unholy earth. Ancient trees populated the forest ahead, pale fog twisting between their trunks with serpentine grace. Gnarled limbs formed an impenetrable canopy above, coloring all with a nocturnal hue. Tendrils of mist slithered around her legs, and her knees ached to buckle, but she forced herself on; she knew fear would bring demise.
She thought of Oliver. His shining face cast iron rods into her bones. It kept her from succumbing to the black moss which grabbed at her feet. His smile, the way he always wanted his sandwiches without the crust, his unending questions—memories that powered her will.
Movement in the brush clenched her jaw. But her eyes never averted the path; they stared forward, glazed with determination, intent only on reaching the end. After that it wouldn’t matter.
A clearing opened ahead. Rebecca stopped and stood tall.
A breath of evil wind sung the tune of damned souls; agonized wails filled the air. Her ears begged silence, pained by the despair in each note. But those countless voices didn’t cause her to stray. Ollie meant everything. She’d sacrifice all for him to live again.
“You’ve braved the darkness.” The words came from all directions, faint whispers carried by a quiet breeze. “But you aren’t without fear. How much can you endure?”
Visions of unspeakable torment invaded her mind—mutilated bodies writhing in ebon mud, eyes removed, mouths contorted by ineffable suffering; they sang together like Hell’s choir. She saw their lifeforce seep into the ground, feeding the roots of the forest as they sprouted and entwined themselves within the bare husks left behind. Worms crawled through the ground on which they decomposed; they fed in the tainted soil.
“You’re quite strong. Few have remained on their feet up to this point.”
A slight pride swelled in her gut but she immediately subdued it. She didn’t want them to see. But the quiver in her bowels alluded that it was already too late.
Malicious laughter echoed—the amusement of a thousand vicious creatures, their attention focused on her vulnerable position. Her shoulders twitched, tried to fold inward.
“You really are brave,” the voice said. “We could tear you apart. And keep you alive to endure it. This frightens you. But I see something which frightens you more. What do you desire?”
She wondered if it was a rhetorical question. They just want me to say it, she thought. “My son… I want Ollie back.”
Another laugh came from the woods. But unlike before, it was from a singular entity—a lone bellow among the din of ridicule previously voiced. She balled her fists with moistened palms.
“Don’t be angry. I can offer what you seek. But you must offer something in return.”
An enormous albino worm slithered toward her from the thick layer of mist. It raised its head and weaved in a hypnotic motion. Its repulsive, blank surface was nothing more than pulsating flesh with no discernable features. A suffocating odor wafted from the creature. Its very sight defiled her thoughts. Rebecca stared back at the ghastly being, unaware what resided inside. Its unearthly form negated reason; some things that shouldn’t exist do.
“What do you want?” she asked.
Purple veins bulged from the white worm’s glossy flesh. They pulsed in a sickening rhythm. Countless red eyes flickered in the darkness behind it, like demon stars in a vast and wicked universe.
A boy’s head burst through the soil next to the worm, followed by its limp corpse.
Vines lifted her son’s body from the ground. Her eyes bled salty grief.
“You want him to live?”
“Then he will.”
Her Ollie’s pallid face lightened, eyes twitched. The vines withdrew and he stood on his own, staring with a disquiet gaze.
“He’s alive! Oliver, you’re here!”
The boy stood silent.
The veins on the worm’s body pulsated with vigor. “Now, come to me.”
She stepped forward, tremors shaking every muscle. Hot sweat leaked from her skin, soaked her clothes. She clenched her hands and breathed deep.
The holders of the crimson eyes came out from the shadows, sharp toothed grins spreading below. Remnants of humanity were carved into their knotty faces, eroded by the nefarious mist. Thin bodies crowded around her, skin like the bark of trees. Their clawed hands embraced her, took her into their communion of evil. She knew not what they were, only that she’d wither and become one of them.
As they carried her away, she watched Oliver. And although his stare held a ghostly atmosphere, he was alive.
~ Lee A. Forman
© Copyright 2017 Lee A. Forman. All Rights Reserved.
The buzzing invades your brain. Why is the alarm clock going off? You begin to open your eyes and realize it’s not the alarm, but the doorbell. Who the hell is at my door at— rolling over, the clock finishes your thought by flashing 3:10 a.m.
You slide out of bed. As your feet touch the floor, the buzzing stops. You get up anyway and walk through the empty house to the front door to see if someone is there. There’s no one on the porch when you look through the peephole. You unlock the door, open it. On the ground in front of you is a small cardboard box. Stepping over it, you look around the front yard and glance up and down the street. Everything is quiet. You scoop the package up and walk into the house, kicking the door shut behind you.
Something solid moves inside the box as you walk to the couch and set it on the coffee table. It’s a perfect square about a foot tall, and meticulously taped. You pick it up again. Whatever is inside shifts slightly, like there’s not quite enough packing material holding it in place. Turning the box over in your hands, you see no markings of any kind.
You set the box down not sure which side is up.
Well, the box will be there in the morning.
Getting up from the couch, you head to your bedroom for a few more hours of sleep. But it doesn’t come. Lying there with your eyes closed, the image of the box fills your thoughts. Your eyes open, and once again, you turn to the clock.
This is ridiculous. It’s a box. And it’s probably not even meant for me.
At this point there’s no falling asleep, so you get out of bed and return to the couch. You slide forward to the edge of the seat and lean over the box; your fingers reach for the tape. Using your nail, you pry up a tiny corner and pull it back. The tape comes off without effort and the two flaps open slightly.
You lift the box intent on opening it further to look inside, but instead, stop, and set it back down on the table. A moment’s hesitation, then you reach for the box again. Your left hand holds it as you cautiously reach in with your right. Your fingers grip the edges of something solid. There’s no packing material, and whatever it is, is almost the exact size of the box. The cardboard bulges and the back of your fingers scrape the inside of the box as you pull the contents free.
It’s a black leather-bound book and it feels light in your hands. Upon closer inspection, you realize it’s more than a book. There’s a latch, not holding the book itself closed, but a box held within it. The book consists of a few pages, then the box. Your eyes move back to the cover where you see your name etched in gold.
As your finger traces the letters, the hairs on your arm stand up. Opening the book to the first page you begin to read.
Your time on Earth is about to end; there is nothing you can do to stop it.
At 4:10 a.m. you will perish. This is the only definite you have left in the last few minutes of life.
You instinctively look up at the clock.
Then back to the book.
You have two choices. You can choose not to open the box. If you so choose, you will be trapped for eternity in an abyss, unable to escape, in which your body will slowly waste away until you no longer have the strength to move. Your mind, however, will remain intact; you will experience emptiness forever.
Turning the page, your hands tremble, and you continue on.
Your second choice is to open the box. In it you will find your afterlife. If you were a good person, then it will be everything you could ever want. If you were not a good person, then it will be filled with every fear you ever had.
The choice is yours, as was the life you led.
You turn the last page to find the box, with your name engraved on it. You run your fingers around the edge, stopping at the clasp that holds it shut. You look around the room, looking for something or someone—anything—to appear and announce that this is all a joke. A really fucked-up joke. Your eyes move to the clock.
Physically, you feel fine, but on edge.
This isn’t real. There’s no way this could be real, but…
You lean back on the couch, the book-box in your lap. Closing your eyes, you see flashes of your life’s moments and fragments of memories. Some are good, some are bad; some last a split second, others linger.
The clarity of these memories fade as you drill down deeper into your mind. There are no images here, but colors; soft hues that entwine with each other. When you focus on certain colors, your body feels lighter, while other colors make you feel heavier. They all weave in and out amongst each other, mixing and blending, then splitting away, then coming together once again.
You open your eyes as you start to quiver. The book-box shakes in your hands. You look up at the clock.
You feel like you’re moving in slow motion. Images begin to flood your mind, overload your brain. You cry out in pain.
Now your whole body is trembling. Your fingers go for the latch, but they slip off, your life crashing down around you.
You try again, this time your fingers grasp the latch. The box bursts open, releasing a brilliant flash of searing light as you take your last breath.
~ Mark Steinwachs
© Copyright 2017 Mark Steinwachs. All Rights Reserved.
The blinds were shut, and that meant it was Thursday.
It was the only day of the week when Brent would remove himself from the floor. He’d lock his door, turn off the fluorescent lights, and play seventies rock; usually Zeppelin or Sabbath. This was his office time, the time he dedicated to monotonous managerial duties that ate away at him, bit by bit, and Brent would eventually get to them before he went home. But he’d first lean back in his chair, close his eyes, and spend hours daydreaming. He never cast lustful strings of fantasies nor did he muse over troves of impossible wealth. What Brent wanted was simple, and at the very least, fair.
In his haze was Jimmy Nelson, tall and amiable, complimenting the residents of his sober living home while he passed their medication, and he’d notice Selma Ashton, who finally forced a smile, playing checkers or interacting with the residents with anything but her nasty, resentful glare. Even Marco pitched in. Instead of sneaking off to the bathroom to rail stimulants, Marco was cooking dinner and preaching the steps of sobriety like the recovering addict he claimed to be.
“Not like it used to be. I remember when it was okay to send someone home for loafing around more than a few minutes. Shit, I can’t even have a stern conversation to the lazy pricks without H.R.’s approval, you know that?”
He’d tell himself this once a week, and when his morale cowered like a tail-tucked beast, Brent would fold and vent to his subordinates.
“Sorry you’re stressed, Brent. Anything else you need?”
Crystal would try her best not to shift in the dilapidated office chair that occupied the corner of Brent’s cluttered office; close to squalor, distant from orderly. She was promoted months back under the guise of a confident go-getter at Corner Stone Sober Community. “I’ll get the job down, trust me Brent,” she claimed.
Since then, Crystal’s proven to be as useless as the rest, and this morning, he caught her stealing from the petty cash. He tried to fire her on the spot, and it appeared a small victory, but a phone call from human resources squashed his morale like a kid crunching a beetle underfoot, and he knew just what to do.
“Well if we have to investigate the situation, let me at least put her to work and demote. Okay, good. Tell her dress to scrub,” he stated to the H.R. director over the phone. She scoffed and allowed Brent to explain. “She’ll do some deep-cleaning and I’ll cover the floor, okay? I can at least do that, right? Okay, great, thank you. What’s that? No, I haven’t seen her cellphone.”
He opened the blinds and cracked the door, waiting for her while watching his oblivious staff with a seething eye. The three of them sat on the couch, lost into an electronic paradise emitting from their phones.
Someone shooting-up right in front of them, and they’d never know.
A pronounced thud grew slowly. It was Crystal’s nervous footfalls as she approached, and Brent wasn’t surprised or shocked to see that no one cared to look and see who or what it was.
“Come in, close the door,” he said. “Thanks for coming back and I am glad H.R. is going to sort this out with us.”
Crystal stood with her back between a scratched filing cabinet and the door. Her face was pale and her stomach quivered when her chest heaved. Brent could smell the trepidation oozing from her pores like rotted fruit-bits squeezed from a rank sponge.
“I can explain everything Brent—I want to make this right, I do,” she stammered.
He kept his eyes on the box of cleaning supplies at his feet. “Sorry, I just had to make sure everything we need is here. Now like I said, we will get to the bottom of it, but right now we have bigger tasks at hand. I brought on some Agency Staffers for the day to do the AA and NA runs later this afternoon, and I want you to take these,” he pushed the box across the floor to her feet, “and everyone else sitting out there to clean room twelve. We have a new admission coming tomorrow and I want to start getting ready.”
Crystal squatted and hoisted the box up, resting it on her stomach as she nudged the door open with her thick hips, and Brent leaned forward.
“Hey, all of you: get that room clean and take off for the day; my treat, you deserve it,” he yelled behind her and chuckled when they hopped from the couch, finally motivated. “And Crystal, please make sure you use the stuff in the spray bottles first. It’s a mix I made for the new admission. She has allergies and we can only use a thick-alcohol solution; no fragrances type deal.”
“Yes sir,” she huffed.
Brent waited until the creaks of the backstairs quieted to a dull hum before he opened the bottom drawer of the filing cabinet. In the darkness, two white jugs of industrial-strength bleach waited alongside a plastic bag containing metal hardware and a touch-screen phone that he slid into his shirt pocket. Brent then left his office, a hitch in his step as he followed.
“Why so happy, boss?” asked a thick European accent as Brent sauntered by.
“It’s going to be a great day, Mr. Rimski, a great day indeed.”
“If you say so, boss.”
He heard them, his staff. How he soured to refer to them as such. It was an echo of insufferable bickering and boisterous disdain from atop the stairwell.
“Man, I hate this job,” Marco bleated. “I can’t wait to get out of here ya know? And that lazy douche put something like vinegar in this… it reeks.”
“Aren’t you going to do anything more than dick around on your phone, Jimmy?” Selma scorned.
“You’re not my boss, Selma, so shut the hell up.”
Brent appreciated Jimmy’s uncontrollable inflection today, and the fact that they left the mop buckets outside the hall. He unscrewed the caps, and began to pour the bleach in.
“Will you guys just stop it already?” Crystal barked. “Let’s get this done so we can get out of here.”
Isopropyl alcohol and vinegar streamed from room twelve as he pushed the door open. The scent was concentrated, enough to make a buffalo sway, and he knew to be quick. He aimed for the bucket and flung bleach in an awful arch, showering his workers. He kicked the empty bottles inside, dropped the bucket, and pulled the door shut. He made sure to install brackets on the lock this morning. Brent had even pondered at painting them brown, but he knew deep down, it was irrelevant. The thick iron slipped through the plate and the iron bar clicked.
Can’t forget to give this back, he thought to himself as he loaded the playlist on Crystal’s phone. He set it outside the door of room twelve, and sifted beyond the toxin and lyrics to the wet coughs and gasping moans within.
“Seasons don’t fear the reaper. Nor do the wind, the sun or the rain, we can be like they are,”
Mr. Rimski hollered from below, “Is that Blue Oyster Cult?”
Brent returned, “Yeah, it is. A little rock-n-roll to help them clean.”
“Sounds good, boss.”
He stuffed the plastic bag down his pocket and grasped the railing, bracing himself down the stairs. Mr. Rimski complained of a foul odor and Brent advised that he may want to close his door or open a window, probably both.
“Actually, how about you and I get some fresh air? Maybe go out for lunch, how does that sound?”
“Really? Let me find my wallet.”
“It’s on me, least I can do.”
Brent daydreamed one last time while they walked to his car. Bodies crumbled, asphyxiating on the floor of room twelve. Lungs drowned by fluids with suffocating viscosity, cruel like sharp molasses. Eyes simmered, rendered to goop. Kidneys shut down for good, brain cells snuffed-out, and nerve fibers disintegrated like petrified bones on a scorched dessert. Skin blistered, stained in deep granite, and all life, absent. He could explain the lock easy enough; cast blame on a temp staff who thought the door needed to be closed while exploiting the extinction of commonsense in today’s workforce, and maybe, he’d even be able to shed a tear to feign sincerity.
He smiled, and cherished the fact that his staff suffered much in room twelve.
“This is real treat, boss. Usually the help doesn’t give us much mind. But not you, boss.”
“Well, I think things are going to change quite a bit around here. Hey, how does barbecue sound? I’m famished.”
~ John Potts Jr
© Copyright 2017 John Potts Jr. All Rights Reserved.