Too Close to the Ground

Cassie finds the remnants of the angel strewn across the sidewalk.

She’s too late. For a second she hugs her kit for gathering specimens to her chest; then  lets the strap sag through her fingers, the leather bag coming to rest gently on the spiderwebbed concrete. Someday, someday, she’ll get to one of these things fast enough.

There isn’t much left: a string of glassy vertebrae, and an elongated skull with no lower jaw and too many eye sockets, already translucent. No flesh—there’s never any flesh. No meat, no decay, not even the signs of scavenging insects. Just this fading, delicate wreckage that’ll be gone by noon. Cassie glances skyward briefly; the otherworldly corpses dissipate quickly under a high sun, and her stomach knots in protest at missing out once again.

Only one portion seems to have retained more substance than the rest: a single outstretched feathered wing, accordioned into the pavement. Jagged shards of glistening, porous bone protrude from amongst the plumage, and Cassie squats to pluck out a fragment with an attached pinion. But the feather flares up in her grasp like white phosphorus, and when she opens her hand, there’s nothing on her palm but an oily white smear.

“Third one this month, an’ it ain’t the fifteenth yet.”

Cassie whirls, kicking over her kit bag, internally swearing at the sound of vials jostling inside. The speaker’s an elderly man wearing a red baseball cap and overalls; he’s chewing a toothpick tucked in the corner of his mouth. He’s vaguely familiar, and she realizes she’s seen him in her apartment building: Stan, or Steve. Steve sounds right.

“You’ve seen the others?”

“Yep.” The toothpick hitches; Steve picks at the front of his plaid shirt, and there’s a certain preoccupied vacancy in his gaze. “People ate part o’ the first ‘un.”

Cassie pushes her glasses up and stares at him. “You just said people ate an angel.”

“Yep.” His boots scuff on the sidewalk. “People got curious, see, when they realized it wasn’t lastin’.” Before she can get in another question, he adds quickly, “It ain’t really meat. Nothin’ like that. Breaks off dry, like chalk.” The words are wet and soft. “It’s like nothin’. Flossy. Sweet. Like cotton candy, just melts in your mouth an’ don’t get to your gut, an’ you don’t remember how it tasted.”

“Unbelievable.” She rakes both hands through her hair and notices he’s drooling a little around the toothpick. A glance back tells her the angel is a film of greasy powder. “What happened?”

“I ain’t growed wings yet, if that’s what you’re askin’.” For a moment Steve’s gaze is hard and crystalline; then his whole face grows slack again. “Better question is, what’s happenin’ up there that they’re throwin’ themselves down?”

But when he looks up toward the sun, there’s a light shining from between his teeth. He squints, and the lines across his face suggest a multitude of eyes.

Cassie carefully reaches down and feels for her bag.

Maybe she won’t have to wait for another specimen after all.

∼ Scarlett R. Algee

© Copyright Scarlett R. Algee. All Rights Reserved.

The Night Before

They were parked on Main Street.  Williams seemed nervous, unusual for such a seasoned officer.

“What’s up?” asked Thompson.

The older man glanced at him.

“I hate this night.”

“Christmas Eve?”

“Yup.  I do my best to avoid this shift.  Every cop in town does.”

“I guess you want to be home with the kids.”

“No, it’s not that.  Tell me, have you noticed how quiet the town is?”

“Yes, it’s weird.  I expected it to be buzzing.”

“It’s been like this every year for twenty years.”

“Why?”

“I’ll tell you.  You have a right to know.”

Williams took a sip of coffee.

“It happened on Christmas Eve, 1996.  I’d been here for about six months.  The bars in town were full and the streets were busy.  I was on patrol with John Williams.  We got the call.  Crash on the main road heading into town.  It was a mess.  A car had t-boned a pick-up, forcing the truck into the ditch.  The driver of the car was a young man; he was sitting on the verge when we arrived.  The driver of the pick-up was trapped in his vehicle.  We saw straight away that it was Peter Ellis.  Every cop in town knew Ellis; he wasn’t a bad man, just a bit rough.  Eccentric.  Angry.  He lived by himself in a shack up in the hills, came down into town once in a while for supplies.  Drove a ratty old pick-up, rusty as hell.  The muffler was shot and you could hear him coming a mile away.  I could smell smoke.  Before we could do anything, the pick-up erupted in flames.  The heat was too intense, we couldn’t get close.  Our extinguishers made no impact and the fire department was still five minutes out.  By the time they arrived, the fire was raging.  Ellis was dead.  I can still see him, sitting in the driver’s seat as the flames consumed him.”

“Horrible.”

“We charged the kid with DUI.  His name was James Peterson.  Local guy, son of a teacher.  He went to jail for six months.  Lost his license.”

“Is that why you hate this shift?  Because of that crash?”

Williams ignored the question.

“I was assigned the same shift the year after.  I was sitting in this very spot.  There was a knock on my window.  It was Peterson, the kid that’d caused the crash.  He was sober and wanted to apologize.  We shook hands and he walked down main street.  It was then I heard it.  The noise was so unique.  It was Ellis’s truck.”

“But…”

“I know, but I heard it.  Everyone else on Main Street did too.  I stepped out the car and stood in the snow, waiting.  Ellis’s truck turned the corner of Fifth and Main and headed slowly down the street.  As it passed me I made eye contact with the driver.  Is was Peter Ellis himself.  He looked the same as the night he died; burnt up, with his skin mostly gone.  For a second I thought I’d lost my mind.”

“Very funny.”

“No joke.  Peterson glanced back and saw it.  I think he knew what was about to happen, he started to run.  Ellis must have spotted him because he gunned the engine and sped up.  The truck mounted the sidewalk.  James didn’t have a chance, he was hit and went under.   Ellis’s truck turned the corner on Seventh Street and disappeared.  No trace was ever found.”

“But Ellis was dead.”

“Yup.  I told you, he was an angry man.  Maybe he couldn’t rest, knowing the kid who’d killed him was free to live the rest of his life, so he came back to set things straight.  But Peterson’s death wasn’t enough for him.”

“What do you mean?”

“Every year on this night, Ellis comes back, seeking vengeance.  His truck drives up and down Main Street, looking for his next victim.  The first year after Peterson was killed, Ellis killed four.  Since then the town has been deserted every Christmas Eve.  No-one dare leave their houses, no-one except us.”

“Great tale, you should be a writer.  I need a cigarette.”

“I wouldn’t leave the car.  Can’t you hear it?”

Thompson heard a faint noise in the distance.

“Just a car back-firing.”

Thompson shook his head.

“It’s Ellis.”

“Crap!”

Thompson opened the door, feeling the rush of cold air.  He stepped out, reaching for his cigarettes.  He was the newest addition to the town’s police force and expected a certain amount of leg-pulling, but he didn’t see why he should listen to such bullshit.  The vehicle noise got louder, the engine farting and blowing.  A vehicle turned the corner onto Main Street, heading towards him.  Thompson couldn’t see what it was, the headlights were on full beam.  It wasn’t until it drew next to him that he saw it was an ancient pick-up.  He glanced at the driver and saw a vision of hell.  The driver was hideously burnt, the skin and hair almost totally gone.  It grinned insanely at him.  Dropping his cigarettes, all reason gone, Thompson started to run, ignoring the shout of alarm from within the patrol car.  The last sound he heard was an engine roaring behind him.

∼ R.J. Meldrum

© Copyright R.J. Meldrum. All Rights Reserved.

Pain

I follow the men over the trench wall, shells explode around us as the Germans return fire. I see their men—boys really—charging at me. Bullets take out the soldiers around me as I return fire.

A German is repeatedly kicking one of my men, but everyone rushes past the two, absorbed in their own fight to survive. I get to him as his boot strikes the man on the ground again. I fire my rifle at close range, knowing my shot will end his life. My foot slips in the blood-soaked ground and my shot isn’t true. The bullet explodes in his knee, shattering it. He falls to the ground and over the cacophony of battle I hear him scream. Regaining my balance I take the last few strides and swing the butt of my rifle up, catching him in the jaw. He topples over backwards and I stand over him.

I raise my rifle and his gurgled moans fill my ears. He opens his mouth once more. No sound comes out, but instead a smoky black cloud. The world stands still as the cloud takes shape, a dark mass begins to form as I watch, a featureless being that reaches for me. I’m unable to move, waiting for the end to take me, my final day in the trenches. Its hand touches my chest and I feel a jolt surge through me. I look down expecting to see blood, instead I watch as his hand disappears and I feel him begin to fill me.

The world roars back to life and the German looks up at me, his eyes wide. I slam the butt of my rifle into his ribs, hearing them crack. He wails in pain as formless black tendrils of smoke escape his body and enter into mine. A rush unlike anything I have ever felt courses through me. I rear back and hit him again. He cries out louder, more smoke fills me, feeds me.

This time I smash it down into his face. The two of us are engulfed in a black cloud. His last moments are my first.

Pain.

The smoke clears as I stand in front of a Japanese soldier tied to a chair. Sweat is pouring off him from the oppressive heat of Guadalcanal.

“Sir, the Nip won’t speak,” my sergeant says.

“Leave us. He’ll talk.”

The young Marine leaves and I walk behind the soldier tied to the chair. “You will tell me everything I want to know,” I say in perfect Japanese. Before he can move, I slam my fist down into his shoulder, dislocating it.

He grits his teeth, stifling his anguish. His body betrays him as the wisps of smoke snake from his dislocated shoulder and into me. Closing my eyes, I savor the taste of his pain.

“Your kind are so much more fun than the Germans,” I say as I pull his injured arm straight, then snap it at the elbow. “Now start talking.”

Words tumble from him as black smoke envelopes me.

Pain.

Opening my eyes, I see my wife splayed on the floor in a broken heap. I slowly lift my head. My son stands in front of me.

“I knew this day would come,” I say. “I’m no longer strong enough to control the being inside me.” I close my eyes, waiting for the end.

My eyes open, my world shifted.  Now I’m looking at my father tied to the chair. “I’m no longer strong enough to control the being inside me,” he says and closes his eyes.

Slipping the brass knuckles on my hand, I know it is time to take my rightful place. My fist arcs forward connecting with his jaw and I watch teeth fly from his mouth. His head jerks sideways and his body goes slack.

A dark cloudy hand emerges from his mouth as it pushes free of its vessel of over twenty years. I stand rooted in my spot. I feel it watch me even though it has no eyes. Its hand extends to my chest. I feel a spike of electricity fill me.

My father’s eyes open, whiter than I have ever seen them. I begin to pummel him, smoke erupts and covering us.

Pain.

I’m in front of a V.C. soldier, just like my dad stood before his enemies over two decades ago. This is my life, one I learned from him.

He is strapped into what we have dubbed the Electric Chair for its resemblance to its namesake. Turning from him I walk over to the table and pick up a large needle. His eyes are on mine as I step close to him. His body is broken in too many places to count, but I had left his face untouched.

“Now start talking,” I say in perfect Vietnamese.

I slowly push the needle into his eye. He wails, spittle hitting my face. I keep pushing. My heart is pounding. I’ve never tasted anything this visceral before. Thick black smoke covers my body and enters me. In the back of my mind I hear a jumble of words. I step back, the needle still in his eye.

Pain.

I open the door to my dad’s bedroom. The medals from his time in the Marines are displayed proudly on the wall. His stories about our family play in my mind. The framed picture of his men standing around the Electric Chair, the one thing he never spoke of. But now I know the story. A pain so perfect. I look down at him sleeping and raise my baseball bat.

My eyes pop open and I sit up in bed, covered in a cold sweat. I look at my calendar tacked to the wall. Today’s date circled in red—leave for Boot Camp.

I get out of bed and grab my bat. Ready for my legacy to begin.

Pain.

∼ Mark Steinwachs

© Copyright Mark Steinwachs. All Rights Reserved.