“It starts with your first cry,” the white-haired gentleman sitting next to me says. “Moments after you are born your demon is as well, a microscopic creature that grows as you do.” He takes a sip from the tumbler of whiskey he got moments ago and sucks in a breath from the burn.
“Melvin, honey, stop scaring the nice young man,” Barb—I think the bartender said her name was Barb—says from the other end of the bar while cleaning glasses.
I look up from my rum and Coke, realizing the two of them are talking about me. “I’m sorry,” I say, looking around the cramped room again. There are two tables with people who look lost in their own worlds. I’m out of place here, a new person trespassing on the regulars’ sanctuary. “Were you talking to me?”
“Sometimes the truth is scary, Barbara, you know that.” Melvin points a crooked finger at her while still holding his drink. He winces after taking another sip. “He knows it, too. Look at him. You know what his world is.” He’s still facing straight ahead, watching me through the mirror that is the wall behind the bar. “The doctors haven’t helped you, have they, son?”
I shift in my seat, glancing sideways at him. For a moment I let the question sit. Demon, I hear Melvin’s voice in my head. I decide to play along. “No they can’t. They say there’s nothing wrong with me. Not physically, at least.”
Melvin lets out a sharp laugh that turns into a cough. “Physically wrong? Oh, no, I can tell that just by looking at you. You’re what, twenty-five, maybe six? I bet you haven’t been physically sick in years. We both know I’m not talking about that kind of doctor.”
“Melvin!” Barb says. “You stop that right now. Leave that poor boy alone. You’ll run off my new customer.”
He doesn’t move his body but tilts his eyes up to Barb and then returns his gaze to me, waiting. No one reacts to the scene playing out between us.
“You mean psychiatrists? Yeah, I’ve seen my fair share,” I say. “They send me back to a regular doctor, who then sends me to a different psychiatrist. But I gave up on that a while ago.”
He takes a long swig of his drink, finishes it, and swivels his stool to face me. Barb comes over and refills the glass. Melvin brings up his right hand between our chests, palm facing me with his fingers spread. He’s looking at me with his head cocked, like he’s searching for something. “You feel him, son. I know you do. You’ve felt him for years, inside you. He’s become more of you than you are yourself.”
My stomach churns and I put my hand on the edge of the bar to steady myself. Pain isn’t the right word. It’s not painful. It’s anguish. Emptiness. Working from my stomach out in all directions. Pushing through my veins, invading me.
“You’ve seen him,” Melvin says. “Behind your eyes when you look in the mirror. You aren’t crazy, son. You just weren’t meant for this world.”
I grip the edge of the bar. It’s there. I saw it the other night, behind my eyes, a creature made of black ink. A drip fell from it and a burning ache seeped through my body. I had felt that thousands of times and now I finally knew what it was.
Melvin leans in and points his finger at my heart, almost touching my chest. “He’s never been there. You’ve fought him off. No one knows what you’ve gone through. The internal battles you fight every day.”
He’s right. Every word. The old man saw me for who I am. My eyes fill with tears. My body feels heavy. I’m tired, so tired, from fighting, holding the thing at bay as it inches closer.
“There’s much more to this physical world than we know. They are waiting to be learned if you truly open yourself to them. Just because society says something is weak and cowardly doesn’t mean it’s true. Maybe they just don’t understand.”
“I… I… It doesn’t hurt but it never goes away. Everything I do.”
“I know, son,” Melvin says in a quiet voice. “It’s okay. I promise.” His finger touches my chest and the sensation plunges into my heart.
In one moment, years of defenses topple down. My body. My mind. My soul. Exquisite peace.
“Thank you.” I stand up and walk out of the bar.
A minute later the sound of a single gunshot from the alley fills the bar. Barb says to Melvin while washing a glass, “Don’t you dare tell me he’s in a better place.”
“He isn’t,” Melvin says. “But he’s in a place where he can fight. Where he can win, if he is strong enough.”
“I hope so.” Melvin winces as another sip of whiskey sears his throat.
∼ Mark Steinwachs
© Copyright 2017 Mark Steinwachs. All Rights Reserved.
Your grave is unmarked to all eyes but mine. The cobbled path is cool, almost sharp and so familiar against my bare feet, a track I am compelled to tread over and over. Harsh stones become damp grass becomes soft dirt the further from the house I walk, into the woods where the tension falls from my body and my gaze lifts, no longer fearful of being condemned.
The world has become my silent jury. When I must go into town, I walk with my head down to avoid the pity and suspicion on faces that watch me pass. The verdict is plain on tight silent lips, and hanging in the air around me—guilty. Let them have their gossip, their macabre fantasies, they will never know the truth of what took place.
The house we once shared is a vast empty space abandoned of meaning. I have packed away all sign of you. I scrub the house clean everyday, the windows sparkle, the floorboards gleam, but still sorrow hangs in the corners like cobwebs. I linger listlessly, roaming from room to room. At times your soft voice can be heard within the walls and I press my palms flat against them, trying to reach through. You sing the tune we often sung together as we sat on the swing in the garden, rocking slowly in afternoon sunshine.
I can no longer sleep, I feel ashamed of the warmth and comfort of my bed while your body lays cold and wet. The swing creaks throughout the night in the breeze, a grating squeak inside my skull. When I glance out the window I hope to see you there, your thin legs swinging up towards the night sky, but that never happens. The swing is as empty as all the other places you used to be.
All night I think of where you are hidden. If I dream it is of digging in ripe soil with a never ceasing rhythm, deep down into the bowels of the earth. Each cold morning, with only hot coffee to ease my clenching stomach, I set out to visit you. I am drawn to your body, searching for a place to belong.
In the forest all death is fair and equal, not divided into right and wrong. In the forest I am not a criminal or a monster.
It was not your life I took away but your pain. I snuffed it out, the malignant burning that was consuming you and turning your insides to ash. No struggle, no resistance, just a moment of tension then nothing, just your blue eyes wide, frightened, drawing you from the lull of disease for one last moment of stark awareness, and then falling back in to that nameless pit as your breath came to a halt.
The pine trees are tall and triangular, long low branches sway and close behind me as I pass, pulling me into thickening shadows. They emit a sharp, clean scent, which gels with the moist decay of the forest floor. The strong trunks are rippled grey bark but in some places amber resin has seeped into stagnant lumps, protecting a wound, fighting an infection that eats at the marrow of the tree. When I touch it the resin gives a little, and I remember your skin, newly dead, growing stiff, the dent of my fingertips remaining after I had pulled my hand away.
I keep walking, checking off the signs that mark the way to you—a tree stump, a large smooth stone, the rotting trunk I climb over. No one else can see the path; it is ours alone.
Far from the trail, in the rich brown dirt, within a large crevice in moss covered rocks, safe from scavenging paws and whiskers, and prying, unworthy eyes, lies my shrine and your tomb. I was reluctant to leave any personal sign of you, no photo or name engraved, no flowers to mark the spot; but in a deep crack in the stones I have tucked away the necklace you always wore, a string of colorful plastic hearts and flowers.
Gently I raise you piece by piece. I stroke your small fingers that once laced my own with pure trust; they are disjointed, white fragments. Your ribs curl out of the earth, a tiny cage not strong enough to hold a beating heart. I choke back inhuman sounds, a whimper, a growl. Your skull I cradle in my palm, precious and delicate as a bubble, the bone fine and translucent, eye sockets too big, too empty. And the curve of your sacrum quivers in my hands like a rare gem. Your remains still hum as if there is something you left unsaid and they are longing for words again. Thick tears squeeze from my eyes, hot and painful; I fear I am crying blood. For a while I nurse your pieces then I must reassemble you like a doll-shaped puzzle in the small pit, reassemble you like a precious and mysterious relic that holds a history yet to be understood. I sweep the earth over again, fill the hole and pat it flat.
Not long after I walk away the buckled growl in my throat escapes and explodes as a roar. The forest swallows my grief as readily as it swallows your bones, reducing us both to dust.
∼Veronica Magenta Nero
© Copyright 2017 Veronica Magenta Nero. All Rights Reserved.
It crept up his neck, colder than the cold.
He knew he should’ve done it sooner—take the Christmas lights down—but he wasn’t one for strenuous labor, especially not in the teeth of winter. He realized the first weekend after the holidays would’ve been a perfect time, but he opted for the couch instead; relaxation, beer, movies on Netflix. But the subsequent weekends bled one into the next; unpacking, painting, the arranging of furniture. Simply no extra time existed during the week, his wife and he being the professional couple they were. They never regretted their move from city to sleepy hamlet. They just didn’t anticipate the zeal with which their town celebrated the holidays.
Deep into winter, and still all lights remained aglow. Every block, every house, either framed in bulbs of classic steady white or pulsing in rhythmic green, blue, red. Residences blazing all at once to life, LED brilliance timed to explode just before the sun bid all farewell. Of course, they hadn’t noticed this, not at first, not since they had moved into their quaint Colonial home a mere week before Christmas.
They were as guilty as the rest of town. Or so he thought. He blamed it on the snow. A storm dumped nearly two feet right after the new year, surely no condition to take lights down from the awnings or trees. The cold never relented; the snow stretched, a seamless glacier across lawns. He lacked the patience, the energy, to dig bulbs out from the mini tundra. So like all the others, their house glowed.
He trudged across the front of his property, top surface of frozen snow cracking beneath his boots. There again he felt that creeping sensation, teasing the exposed flesh below his knit hat. He turned, caught a man next door watching him. Standing outside atop the stoop, no coat, no shoes, no hat, nothing to protect him from the gusting northeast wind; just standing, watching. “Hello there,” he said.
Everything had happened so quickly—the move, his promotion, the holiday rush—that he realized aside from the glitter of lights, he knew nothing of his new neighborhood. Or his neighbors.
The man did not respond.
“My name is Jon. Jon Terra. Just moved in before Christmas with my wife, Alli.” He punched a gloved fist through the snow, grabbing a strand of lights he had strung around the shrubs. “We’ve never had a chance to introduce ourselves.”
“What are yah doin?” The man’s breath escaped his lips in a panicked plume.
Jon smiled, tugged at the lights. “Picking a bad time to bring in these—”
But his neighbor had already launched from the stoop, bare feet plunging across the field of uninterrupted white. In front of Jon he halted, breathless not from the severe cold swallowing his toes, but from an extreme case of fright. “Can’t do that!”
Jon pushed himself upright, eyeing his own window, hoping Alli had witnessed this. Her face was nowhere to be found. The two men shared a pregnant silence. Finally Jon said, “Sir, the holidays ended nearly two months ago.”
Mouth agape, the man stared at the timer box Jon had dug from the snow, now free from the cords that had been plugged into it. He shook his head. Jon swore he could hear the skin along the man’s frosted neck crackle. “We don’t evah turn out these lights.”
Jon sighed, thinking of his couch. “My wife and I appreciate the holidays, sir, we do, but the realtor never told us this was Christmas town.”
“You never saw em? The lights?”
“Honestly, no. We only saw this house online, my wife fell in love immediately and—”
“We don’t evah turn out these lights.”
Jon’s parka suddenly failed against the elements; goosebumps raced along his spine, his arms. His neighbor, however, didn’t appear the least fazed. He lunged, seized Jon by the shoulders, teeth rattling so severely Jon thought they’d pop from his jaws. Again Jon realized this was caused not by cold but sheer terror. “You’re gonna anger the elves.”
It took all he had to stifle his laugh. But he did, partly out of respect for the older man, partly out of respect because he figured his neighbor might not be altogether sane. “Yes, well, my nephew has an elf on the shelf and—”
The old man fled, knobby knees slamming his chest as he bounded from the drift, back to the sanctuary of his stoop. A final glance over his shoulder; disdain, panic all mixed like slush in his eyes. The front door slammed and he disappeared.
“That went well,” Jon muttered.
His wife shook him into a dumbstruck daze.
He took a minute, staring at the television screen, the boxes along the floor. “What happened, what?” Jon rubbed the sleep from his eyes.
Alli said, “I thought you were taking the lights in?”
“Yeah, that. I had a curious afternoon. Where have you been?”
“I told you I’d be in the city all day shopping with Jennifer. You forgot. As usual.” She kissed his forehead.
“Course I did.” He roused finally from the couch. “So earlier I met our neighbor while I was outside.”
“Let me guess. He got in your ear.”
“Something like that. Let’s just say he expressed his displeasure about my lack of Christmas cheer.”
Alli set department store bags upon a table. “It’s February.”
“Well, it seems Christmas lasts forever in our little town. Not only that, it seems we might’ve pissed off some elves.”
From the kitchen came laughter, rustling through drawers. “Come to think of it, my elf was pissed off, too. Where’s that diamond necklace you promised?”
“Funny. I’m being serious. I think our neighbor is mentally ill. He came running out into the snow, nothing on his feet.”
“The poor man! So what happened?”
“He basically told me no one in town turns off their lights because it’ll get the elves cranky.”
Alli returned with two glasses of wine. “It is strange that everyone still has their lights on, but honestly, I thought it was because of the snow. Who wants to go out in the cold?”
“I certainly didn’t.” He scrunched his face in mock defiance. “But you made me.”
“Aww, poor baby.” Lips ripe with Merlot, she kissed him. “If you make love to me now, maybe I’ll help you finish tomorrow.”
Jon took a quick swig of wine, then fumbled with his wife’s blouse.
Either it was the sound or the lights that started him from bed; Jon wasn’t sure which.
Their room bathed in a palette of color as it had been every night since their move, this time the luminescence irritated his eyes. Harsher, more glaring, it filtered through the windows, sharp like diamond dust. He twisted from his tangle of sheets; Alli beside him, her breath gentle waves rolling from her chest. Retrieving his boxers from the heap of clothing on the floor, he slipped them on, moved to the window, lifted their temporary paper blinds. The town lay chilled, bright; alive. Jon caught movement across the twinkling glaciers, what he thought to be the shadow dance of old boughs in the wind.
Scuttling across the roof then…a pitter-patter of tiny claws.
He would have to check on that once winter passed, make a mental note: cut back the tree limbs from the house, prevent the squirrels from tasking unwanted homes inside their—
The pitter-patter turned in an ominous way, like bloated satchels dropped from a height. Jon flinched with every blow atop the roof, half expecting the ceiling to give way, realizing with cold despair that this was now the sound of weighted feet.
“Jon?” Alli mumbled, sheets slipping from her naked back.
The house shuddered around him as he took to the window again; he shielded his eyes. The front of his property blazed as if spotlights had been erected at every corner. Finally, his sight adjusted.
“Jon? What the hell is going on?”
His face flushed with alarm; the old man—his neighbor—stood in the winter wasteland, summoning the sky.
“Stay here, just stay here!” Jon rushed from the bedroom, footfalls above him like clots of hail clubbing the roof. Down the stairs, to the front door, fumbling with the lock. Outside, his breath instantly crystallized, his nipples tweaked by the cold.
The sleepy hamlet his wife and he had chosen shone under the stars—except no stars where to be found. Jon followed the old man’s gaze skyward, up, up until his eyes could go no farther, until his eyes could no longer comprehend what he saw. “You never saw em, did you? The lights?” the old man called out. “But you see em now, don’t you?”
Jon nodded dumbly, cognizance still lost.
“We don’t eva turn out these lights. When we do, they come. And when they come, they come angry. Told you, didn’t I, that you’re gonna have angry elves?”
Glass shattered; his wife screamed from within the house. Jon turned his back to his neighbor, to the cold, to the mad array of lights descending from the sky. He took the steps two at a time, mind numb as the sheets of snow outside. A draft bit his feet; he heard the wind whistling unbridled where his bedroom window had once been. And once he clambered across the still taped moving-boxes in the hall, once he burst into his room, reality hit home.
Jon glimpsed his wife’s perfectly manicured feet pinwheeling in the space the window once sealed, toes a ruby red; perfect for the holidays, she had said. Kicking and kicking till they kicked no more. Sucked into a vacuum, into space; sucked somewhere Jon knew his wife certainly didn’t belong.
He saw the last of her guided by small torsos and long, spindly limbs toward an enormous black moon above his roof. He saw lights, bright lights, some bulbs of classic steady white, some pulsing in rhythmic green, blue, red. Like the sun, they exploded, then disappeared.
Jon was left blinded, alone; alone in a town that never went dark. Alone in a town that knew better than to anger their elves.
~ Joseph A. Pinto
© Copyright 2017 Joseph A. Pinto. All Rights Reserved.
It was a beautiful night for July Fourth fireworks. Frank Manetti drank an ice-cold Bud as he sat with his wife, Kim, on a picnic blanket in the park. All around, over a hundred people had gathered on blanket islands, waiting for the big show in the sky. Giggling kids ran with sparklers. On a stage, the high school band performed ‘Stars and Stripes’.
Frank and Kim’s three-year-old daughter, Emmy, talked to a jar of lightning bugs that Daddy had caught with her earlier. His baby girl looked adorable with face-painted flowers blooming on her cheeks. Frank wished he could bottle up Emmy’s preciousness and keep it forever. His teenage kids had grown out of that stage.
Collin, his fourteen-year-old, sat off by himself under a tree, playing a damned video game on his tablet, oblivious to the festivities. Agitation gnawing his gut, Frank searched the crowd for his sixteen-year-old. Cassandra stood near the softball field bleachers, talking with her girlfriends and some older boys.
“Cass should be with us,” Frank muttered. “I’m going over there.”
“Leave her be,” Kim said. “You’ll just embarrass her and then she’ll hate us for a month.”
It pained Frank’s heart that his kids had grown distant. Whenever his family was all together, Cass was always texting and Collin rarely looked up from a digital screen. At least I have sweet Emmy a few more years. His youngest looked up, smiled at Daddy, then went back to talking to the jar of glowing bugs.
Frank fished out two more beers from the cooler and nuzzled next to his wife, handing her a cold one. He kept one eye on Cass and the boys. He wanted very much to enjoy the school’s orchestra, but a group of sketchy teens nearby were blaring god-damn rap music. Their cigarettes lit up the gloom like fireflies.
“Hey,” Frank shouted. “You wanna turn that down? We’re trying to hear the band.”
A punk in a sleeveless T-shirt and black bandana turned his head and blew out smoke. “Got a problem, dude?”
“Yeah, I got a problem. You’re upsetting the people who came for the show.”
“Here’s your show.” Bandana gave him the finger and turned the music up louder. His friends snickered and raised their beers.
A rash of heat spread across Frank’s face. Squeezing his fist, he started to get up, but Kim grabbed his arm. “Don’t.”
Back in his marine days, Frank would have pounded the shit out of these assholes. With his wife and daughter nearby, he refrained.
The band stopped and Mayor McKee stepped onto the stage. “Is everyone ready for our big fireworks extravaganza?”
Families cheered. The softball team raised their bats and gloves.
The mayor gave the signal and the band started playing ‘Ride of the Valkyries’. The first bottle rocket launched a flare into the air with a whistle. White dots sparkled the night sky, followed by crackles. Emmy clapped and giggled. Next came starbursts of red, white, and blue. The audience gave an applause.
As bright lights lit up everyone’s faces, Frank watched Cass standing too close to some jock. The pungent smell of weed wafted across the Manetti family’s blanket. Frank’s glare shifted to Bandana and his gang of lowlifes. A big guy with a shaved head inhaled smoke from a joint.
Frank was about to confiscate the damned thing, when the gang members pointed toward the sky. Kaleidoscopes of colors flashed over the park. Then a shrieking flare shot down and exploded on the band. The music stopped as shattered instruments cut through the crowd like shrapnel. A piece of trombone speared into the mayor’s chest.
“Jesus!” Frank straightened.
“My God! What’s happening?” Kim asked.
He shook his head, stunned by the carnage of dead and wounded people. The blast had been too big for a poorly-aimed firework. More like a mortar. He’d suffered plenty of them in Iraq. His first thought was terrorist attack.
Two more flares shot from the sky and struck the blankets of the softball team. Kim threw her arms over Emmy as fiery body parts and sports gear flew through the air. A spinning aluminum bat shattered Emmy’s firefly jar.
Frank shielded Kim and Emmy with his body as more explosions erupted across the park. Screams and crying sounded all around. People trampled over one another to find cover.
A dozen flying objects emerged from the smoke. Long, sweeping red lasers burned holes through people all across the field. A man’s head glowed orange before it vaporized.
A running kid in a band uniform burst into red mist.
Kim cried, “Our kids!”
“I’ll find them,” Frank handed his toddler off to Kim and pointed to the woods that bordered the park. “You and Emmy get to safety.”
She hesitated, her eyes pleading.
He pushed Kim. “Go!”
Three small UFOs flew over and barraged the scrambling crowd. A blast hit Bandana’s gang, splattering the shaved-head kid all over the others. A singed arm with tattoos landed on Frank’s blanket.
Covered in blood, Bandana and his friends joined a panicked mob that knocked Frank to the ground. Shoes stepped on his hand and back. Emmy cried. Kim screamed.
He watched helplessly as wife and daughter were caught up in a stampede that carried them away into a cloud of smoke. Two small UFOs zipped after them.
Frank scooped up an aluminum bat and ran into the haze searching for Cass and Collin. Scorched bodies lay scattered across the grass. Dodging blasts and debris, he scoured the ground, terrified of finding his kids among the dead. Bandana reached up, begging for help. Then a laser sliced the prone punk’s skull in half.
Six more UFOs whooshed overhead, shooting at anyone who moved. Frank ducked beneath a tree as lasers torched the branches. The treetop caught fire.
He ran toward the woods, screaming his older children’s names, “Cass! Collin!”
He spotted Cassandra running with a crowd through the forest. “Cass!”
“Daddy!” She made her way back and hugged her father.
Cass shook her head. “Mom and Emmy?”
“In the woods. Safe, I hope.”
Still gripping the metal bat, Frank led Cass along a creek. Their feet splashed through shallow water. Dazed survivors hid behind tree trunks. Others ran and took cover under a bridge. Frank and Cass joined them in the shadows. By the grace of God, he found Kim and Emmy among the crowd. They were badly cut and bruised, but okay. The four hugged, thankful to be alive.
“Collin?” Kim asked.
Frank’s heart sank, learning that his son was still out there. “Take care of the girls. I’ll try to find him.” He stepped out from beneath the bridge.
A metallic whoosh reverberated through the air. Red lights glowed. A small object flew low along the creek. Two robotic arms stretched out of its sides and turned into spinning blades. The UFO charged straight for the survivors under the bridge. Frank stood in front, wielding his bat. Just as the craft reached him, he swung, smacked the thing, and sent it rolling through the creek. Sparks skipped across the water. The spinning blades stopped and the red lights winked out.
Frank picked up the dead machine with both hands. Weighing less than fifty pounds, it looked like some kind of alien spacecraft with multiple weapons. He turned it over. “What the fuck?” Etched into its belly were the words, ‘Made in China’.
Frank returned to the crowd beneath the bridge, more confused than ever, and determined to protect his girls. As he watched several more machines fly off over the treetops, he feared for his son.
* * *
A few blocks away, Collin Manetti jogged down a sidewalk through the neighborhood. He could still hear distant laser blasts and screams as people sought shelter. Several houses had caught fire. A few smoking bodies lay on the road and front lawns.
One of the flying machines careened up the street and hovered straight above Collin. He admired the technology of blinking lights and arsenal of weapons that jutted from its sides like tentacles. The ASSASSYN-X9000 was the coolest drone he’d ever seen. He gave it a salute and typed a few commands on his tablet. The drone zipped away to create havoc somewhere else.
Whistling, Collin entered his best friend’s house. Matt and Toby sat in the living room with VR goggles on their heads. Both teens cheered as they rapidly thumbed their joystick buttons.
“Dude, this new video game is kick ass,” Matt said. “I feel like I’m flying a spacecraft.”
“The screams sound so real,” Toby said.
“That’s because they are, dipshit.” Collin dropped into a beanbag chair and put on a third set of goggles. He switched the controls from his tablet to the joystick console and resumed control of a handful of machines, sending them on a search and destroy mission through the neighborhood and into the woods.
“I gotta get me one of these,” Matt said. “Where’d you get it?”
“Bought it off a gaming website from China.” Collin felt the sensation of sitting in a moving cockpit, as he dive-bombed people running along the ground.
Toby yelled “Score!” when he obliterated another target. “How many drones did you say the game comes with?”
Collin grinned. “A dozen. And the box comes with plenty of fireworks.”
∼ Brian Moreland
© Copyright Brian Moreland. All Rights Reserved.