For the first time in weeks, I’m alone in the house. Gran’s out talking over the garden wall with one of the neighbors; Mam’s hanging out the wash. Me, I’m sitting on my bed with our best kitchen knife, running the edge over the hard points sticking out beneath my fingernails. It should hurt, but it doesn’t; the skin parts just a bit, bloodlessly, and there’s the grating sound of metal scraping bone.
I press harder.
It started six weeks ago last Sunday, the day after I turned fifteen. When I went to bed that night, it was insidious, a little niggling almost-itch behind my kneecaps and in my wrists. But my knees swelled under my skirt when I trudged dutifully to school the next morning, and writing notes in my lectures just made fire blaze down my right hand in waves. The next day, it was both hands. Within a week, I was sneaking aspirin from the kitchen cabinet in handfuls, stuffing them in my skirt pockets, biting down on the bitter discs so I wouldn’t sob from the searing ache twisting me inside out. I did that at home, at night, into my pillow.
It took Mam a full ten days to notice: “Ellie, you’ve shot up like a poplar.”
She didn’t smile. She grimaced instead, and backed me up against the edge of the half-wall between the kitchen and dining room, plopping the family Bible against the top of my head and marking the paint with a pencil before fetching the measuring tape. “Five feet and eight,” she pronounced, wide-eyed, when she pulled the tape away. “Are you taller than me?” Mam demanded, and crowded so close my nose touched between her eyes. “Jesus, you’re taller than me. And since the first of the month, too.” She turned to look over her shoulder at Gran. “Is this normal?”
Gran shrugged, mouth tight around her cigarette. “Some girls get their height early, all at once. I did.” She stood five foot four in bare feet.
It was Gran who sat at my bedside that night, patting my aching hands and balancing ice packs on my oversized knees. “Growing pains,” she said, though her gaze narrowed as she eyed the length of my legs. “Best to get it out of the way now. Don’t worry, it’ll be over soon.”
But in the night I woke screaming, my nightgown spotted with blood. My ribs had expanded and grown sharp-edged, tearing my skin from the inside. Mam yanked the fabric up and stared at me while Gran sponged me off with stinging alcohol, and this time there wasn’t puzzlement in my mother’s eyes. There was fear.
The doctor they took me to the next morning glanced at my knees and hands and ribs, took some measurements and jotted notes, muttered to himself and gave Mam a prescription for something with codeine in it. He never said a word directly to me. Growth spurt, he called it, and mumbled something about long bones and inflammation of the growth plates. It would pass, he said. That was the end of it.
That afternoon the pain in my knees came back, jabbing and twisting so bad I could almost see my shins bowing inward. So I begged Mam for one of the pills, but she only said, “Not yet. Let’s see how you are after school tomorrow.”
I woke up next morning with my mouth throbbing. My cheekbones strained the contours of my face; I could see fissures forming in the skin. My teeth had become longer; my lips stretched when I formed a bite. Mam measured me again. I was another three inches taller. Gran looked up at me and whispered, “Swear to God, her bones are growing out of her.”
I could barely get out of bed that day, despite hanging over it. There was no school. There was no school ever again.
The next week kept me changing, growing. My neck stretched with crackling noises. My jaw and elbows locked and loosened at odd times. Going through the doorways in the house meant bending nearly double, sleeping on my bed took folding myself in half, and the biggest shoes Mam could buy only fit on my feet a few hours. Gran crossed herself and swore and fed me aspirin, codeine, whiskey. None of it touched the pain. I lay on the floor and howled till the neighbors’ dogs barked.
This morning, Mam needed a stepladder to measure me, and her tape wouldn’t reach in one stretch. Six feet. Seven inches. I watched tears roll down her face as I tried to steady my too-long, agonized legs, and felt the ceiling against the top of my head.
Now I sit on the end of my bed, legs mostly on the floor, and I draw the knife over my fingertips again. They split entirely, and it’s relief enough to make my eyes water. Tentatively I press the knife point into my thigh, where the outline of my femur is broad and plain, and push in. My skin rips with a noise like tearing tape, and there’s no pain, no blood, only a release of pressure that makes me stuff my bulging knuckles into my too-wide mouth. Only a great glistening white expanse beneath the stretched crepe of my skin.
Gran was right. My bones are growing out of me. I take a few breaths and stick the knife in again.
If they want to escape, I’m setting them free.
~ Scarlett R. Algee
© Copyright Scarlett R. Algee. All Rights Reserved.
I slam the shovel into the mound of dirt. Sweat drips into the hole I’ve spent the last few hours digging. There’s no turning back. I’m not filling it in like before.
The chill of autumn cascades over my exposed shoulders. While I was digging the breeze did nothing to cool me, so off came my shirt. How many times had I worked shirtless in the yard while Claudia was home next door? That doesn’t matter anymore.
She had talked me out of this plan so many times, told me to give it time, that they would figure out how to stop them. But they can’t; their creation is out of control, the disease mutated, spread too fast. I’ve never been one to delude myself.
Her body hangs out the bedroom window. My shot was true, but instead of knocking her back into her room, it spun her and she flopped forward. Her dripping blood called to them, speeding up the inevitable. The creatures drank all that spilled from her and now circle my fence, drawn by my scent. They would have ended up here anyway. It just happened sooner than expected. I spared Claudia the agonizing pain of the end of days, just like I did…
I shiver once more, but not from the cold. Guttural groans, a cross between human and canine, surround me. Scratching sounds reverberate like gunshots as their sharp claws work on the barricade.
Shick. Shick. Shick.
“Fuck you!” I yell to no one. It’s all I have left in me, nothing grandiose, only four-letter expletives. The world is coming to an end, and mine… mine’s already gone.
I grab my rifle and march to the stepladder, climbing to peer over the fence at the half-human monstrosities. Clawed hands scrape relentlessly. Then one of the things looks up at me with glazed eyes and bloodied teeth. I pull the trigger. Its face explodes in red mist. Others dive over to feed. The rest jostle for the meal.
“Fuck you!” I spit.
I throw the gun over the side, not that they can use it. I don’t need it anymore. It was just a distraction to buy me enough time to finish the task at hand. After climbing down the ladder, I walk to my patio. I wipe my face, pretending it’s sweat and not tears.
But by the time I reach the table, I can no longer lie to myself. Tears stream down my face. I slide my hands under the sheet and gently lift him, the last time I ever will. Three years, three years is all I got. It’s not remotely fair. My vision blurs as I cross my back yard. I lay the sheet in the hole and slide in next.
Shick. Shick. Shick.
The sound of clawing replaces the sound of their fighting. Not long now.
I sweep my arms wide and beckon a cascade of dirt into the hole. I start by covering my legs and soon am up to my hips. I keep pulling dirt over me. Covering myself.
I lay my head back, reaching up like I’ve practiced. I take a deep breath as the dirt falls over my face, but this time I won’t stop. They won’t take us. I won’t let them. I swore to protect him forever and I will.
I can’t hold my breath any longer and pull my hands down. I gasp and dirt fills me, takes me to him.
∼ Mark Steinwachs
© Copyright Mark Steinwachs. All Rights Reserved.
Hope for the Chosen
Lee A. Forman
Within the ancient holder of feed, bodies writhe against one another like worms without purpose. We wait, huddled together, watching. Late deciders add to the pile, releasing their last cries before they join the rest in their naked, fleshy nest.
The earth beneath us trembles. It will soon arrive. My senses hum with anticipation. I have never missed a feeding, yet the vigor of my heart always retains its strength.
It comes on two massive legs, its full height towering above us. Cheers erupt from both the crowd and the meal. Its single eye scans the audience; it looks directly at me. I feel its power, a raw energy which blesses my existence. Its arm reaches in and brings living meat into its enormous circular mouth. Screams of joy from the lucky chosen can still be heard even after disappearing into its blood-soaked maw.
The divine being sated, it departs until next feast. I only hope I’ll be chosen.
Mercedes M. Yardley
She had always been a collector. As a child, she had collected stickers in pretty notebooks, and cute erasers shaped like ice cream cones. Then it was stray animals she brought home to her parents. Abandoned kittens on desert roads and birds with broken wings. In high school and college she collected boyfriends, holding each one aloft and examining the shiny, beautiful parts. Even the most stony and broken among them shone like tiny suns in her careful hands.
Now she collected refuse and precious things thrown away. Abandoned dolls. Sad souls in tattered blankets. She wandered the city and found lost little girls, shattered boys, and those set aside as trash. After their eyes closed for the last time, she spirited them away to a dilapidated train car where they would be gathered together, and treasured, forever.
I was unsure of how long I’d been walking, nothing looked familiar. The trees had strange markings on them, each increasingly concerning; monstrous creatures eating each other, fighting – some even appeared to be staring. What are these? I questioned and pressed on.
Though alone, I could not escape the feeling of being watched. I quickly moved through the clearing only to happen upon tracks that sat seemingly forgotten. The entire scape was blanketed in dust, as if untouched by the elements. Peering at the rusted train cars, only then did I notice how silent the area had been. The stillness was unnerving to say the least; nevertheless, I was drawn to the enigmatic scene.
I hesitated, but my desire to know forced my feet forward. I stepped into a paint chipped car and immediately felt the gravity of my mistake. A horned creature materialized in front of me, its stench and putrid flesh were utterly repulsive. Every instinct was screaming ‘RUN’, I could not move. As it drove yellowed claws through my chest, my final thought was of the trees. A guttural voice scoffed in my mind, ‘You shouldn’t have dismissed them.’
Did I Even Hear It?
Come on, hurry up. Just grab what we need and let’s go. Our luck has held out so far, but I don’t want to push it. It’s deceptively calm up here today. Number Six isn’t the first railcar we’ve come across during our excursions but it is the first one that’s completely intact. What are they doing in there? It shouldn’t be taking this long. I feel naked and exposed out here. It’s almost enough to make one lose it completely. The radio silence makes it worse. I can’t break it but I’ll knock on the door to tell them to hurry it up. They might just be distracted. It happens sometimes. People will get lost in their own minds during these excursions imagining a life not confined to underground bunkers. The metal stairs emit an almost guttural groan. Was that even the stairs? Reaching for the door a burst of static suddenly rings throughout my gas mask. Before it is swallowed up by the white noise I think I hear a single word. Run. The silence returns but I don’t look back. Did I even hear it?
Death in Color. My award-winning photograph. A true artist leaves his mark without fanfare, talent only recognized after he’s gone. My piece works on many levels, can be analyzed by ‘scholars’ and laypeople alike. Do the worn blue hues invoke childhood toys and the tragedy of growing up? Or maybe it’s about society abandoning the outdated. Or the stark beauty of decay. I’ve heard those theories and more. Not one got it right, though. They didn’t plumb deeper, didn’t see beyond the top layer of paint.
Someone will. I’m certain. Their fingers will touch the cold metal as mine have. They will enter the number six train and find my victims. Six people; dried blood and corroded metal commingling in a perfect color palette. When the detectives begin their search, my masterpiece will be unveiled. Rust and Blood—a series.
Underneath the Rust
I watch the boy climb the ladder and walk inside the old circus train car. His movement stirs a faint metallic odour into the air. He scrunches his face and complains about the rusting metal. I shake my head. I know better. It isn’t rust he smells, but the lingering scent of the blood. I sigh and follow the boy.
He’s kicking debris across the floor and swearing. Shouting he wasn’t afraid of some old ghost story. So I whisper, loud enough so he can hear, “Come out, come out. Time to play.”
The boy whirls, fear in his eyes. He can’t see me, not yet, and he doesn’t see my friend, the clown, materialize at the far end of the car. He’s so sad, my clown. You can hear the misery drip from his words as he speaks.
“Please don’t make me do this again.”
The boy turns toward the sound of my clown’s voice and screams. The sight of a damned soul will do that to a human. Everyone is afraid of my clown. Too bad he’s not the true threat. It’s me the boy should fear. I laugh as I move in for the kill.
Broken and Maimed
Scarlett R. Algee
I pat the bundle tucked into my jacket for reassurance, and shoulder my way into the old train car. It’s mid-afternoon, but the interior’s still dark enough to need my flashlight. I skim my beam over glass shards, scattering cockroaches, twisted bolts from torn-out seats…and him. He’s right where I left him: waterproofing tape across his mouth keeping him quiet, fourteen feet of logging chain keeping him still, especially after I’d wound it around his neck. He squirms and muffles a curse out as I walk up beside him, but a boot to the ribs makes him moan and go breathless, eyes rolling wildly. That’s the look I saw on my sister’s face in the ER after what he’d done to her face and her teeth, but it suits him better. Makes me glad I picked this old rustbucket. Nobody’ll look for him here.
I take the bundle out of my jacket and squat. As he watches me unroll it on the floor, he whimpers. When I shove his head back and sink the first knife into the soft flesh beneath his eye, he starts to scream.
Number six, the envy of all. She carried only refined coke; her insides never having tasted the dust of coal. Years she served faithfully until the day she didn’t. A fluke, many said; not her fault, others blustered. But the engineer… he knew. He’d felt every tick and wheeze, heard every tale told; recognized her deliberate intent. The next cars’ worth, just as poor, and the one after. Her shine began to diminish, the bright blue pride of the forge peeled as she revealed an undercoat of rust and pock marks. A young smelter, brave but unaware of the lore, climbed her rear, leaned in to check the bricks and slipped landing inside the car. Her gaping maw slammed closed. The engineer listened as she slurped and ground bone until the boy was fully consumed. The mill owners turned a blind eye as number six began to glisten in the sun once more, her loads again of the highest quality. Every now and then, a young man failed to return home after his shift; but the coke, it was the purest, and the mills’ steel, the most sought after.
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and may not be reproduced without prior consent. © Copyright 2018
I crouch cowering in the shadows of the barn. I should not be here, I was asked to stay away yet I could not.
The unnatural sound of bone snapping, sinew tearing, and skin stretching is a thing so foreign that it rends my soul to shreds. Yet for all the breath left in me, I cannot turn away from this creature I see.
I should have respected his wishes and not intruded upon his privacy – one so warily guarded till this day. Trust is what I offered blindly for so long; now I see that my trust was both justly placed and unspeakably abused.
The depth of sorrow that emanates from eyes I have so often peered into is more than one should have to bear. I now know why he asked to own this anguish in solitude, I now know why he felt a need to protect me from the torture of his full nature; I now know the extent to which he wished to guard my innocence.
He suffers in pain; my heart weeps. I reach out to touch him, he begs me stay away with his gaze; so longing, so loving, so final.
Struck by a rising terror I’ve not felt before, my soul screams that he is no longer mine but belongs solely to the night. If only I had not violated our trust, we would have been as one forever.
Fully morphed, yet still I see him. He turns one final time – his eyes saying all his misshapen mouth is no longer capable of speaking. A blink; he is gone.
Rushing forward I see all that remains, rough hair twisted upon a nail, while I listen to his baleful cry carried upon the night’s savage wind.
~ Nina D’Arcangela
© Copyright Nina D’Arcangela. All Rights Reserved.