Heart of Stone – Guest Author Elaine Pascale

“She ruined you,” the voices hissed.

The voices were always there; their reptilian cadence was unavoidable. They were not made-up voices. They were not imaginary friends. Sthenno and Euryale could not escape the voices because they were connected to their heads.

There is something to be said for multiple slithering ids, writhing with the weight of a dozen demi-demons, tempting a Gorgon by cooing her darkest thoughts. The snakes were like Sirens, and they made the sisters want to bash their brains out with sharp rocks.

The snakes’ red eyes lit the night, making sleep elusive. Their warm bodies added a cumbersome burden to the days, forcing the former maidens into abject inertia. The captive Gorgons were defenseless to the heft of their slinky bodies and the gravitas of their suggestions.

She needs to be punished,” the snakes commanded, and Sthenno could not help but agree.

It had not always been this way. The girls had been beautiful, famous, and desirable. Their faces had appeared on vases and plates and parchment. Everyone had wanted to gaze at them and they had adored being the object of gazes.

Too soon they would find that infatuated regards were a thing of the past. “She cut you off from the world, from all that you love,” the snakes reminded them. “She is the betrayer.”

“The curse?” Euryale mouthed. Sthenno nodded, “If something were to happen to her, would the curse be lifted?”

The snakes sighed happily, as if tasting ambrosia in the air. “Let’s find out, shall we?”

#

Many moons before, the gods had blessed the girls with love and adoration. The sisters had fans and those fans craved viewing the three of them together. The people desired glimpses of the beautiful faces, and the special attributes that made the Gorgons seem better than everyone else. Euryale had a speaking voice that would shame any Siren. Sthenno had a magical left eye that could show her the past and predict the future. And Medusa had an extremely enviable, voluptuous figure.

The girls had been promised to Athena. Their public personas were of purity, and the sisters worked very hard to maintain that reputation. Sthenno, Euryale, and Medusa spent as much time at the temple as they did sleeping, bathing, and eating combined. At the temple, they performed their duties; they practiced to become priestesses. According to law, they cleaned at night, draped in cloth that was no more beguiling than the rags that wiped the stone and bronze clean. They sacrificed their time and many days of their youth, and they sacrificed the very purist as tributes to the Goddess. No one sacrificed more than Medusa, the mortal one.

No one sought to fill her limited days with delight more than the sole ephemeral Gorgon. At night, Medusa would sneak out, her long rows of braids trailing behind her in the moonlight. Sthenno would pretend not to notice. “Because we are immortal, we have all of eternity to salvage what she might do to our reputation,” Euryale would whisper, her voice like soft notes plucked on a lyre, “because she is mortal, we can outrun the damage she does.”

Euryale had been right, up to a point. She had not foreseen Medusa becoming involved with the Minotaur. She had not forecast that Medusa would bring the muscled and musty bull-man back to their home and flaunt him in their faces. Euryale had not predicted that Sthenno’s knack for sibling rivalry would lead her directly into the arms of Nessus, the Centaur. Even Sthenno’s oracular eye had not predicted that her game would backfire and that she would fall in love.

Love in the time of Athena meant secrecy and fear, yet it was worth the risk. Sthenno had the warmth of her centaur which was more than the equivalent of thousands of adoring fans. She had the lingering nibbled kisses from his bearded face to see her through her chores. She had him to confide in when she wanted to complain about Medusa; his very existence lessened her need for competition with her siblings. A complex maze, rivaling the one in Crete, metaphorically stood between Sthenno and Medusa; yet, she held no ill will for her mortal sister. Sthenno would love Medusa, as long as love loomed large in her heart.

Then, Medusa had to go and cross the line with Poseidon.

“He forced himself on me!” Medusa had cried and Sthenno had felt the need to protect her sister. Sthenno had believed Medusa, had wanted to believe in her fidelity to the extent of nearly ignoring her illuminating eye. But the eye won out. It showed a seductive Medusa, clinging to the sea rocks, weathering waves and ocean spray, for the opportunity to be with a god.

Crying rape, lying about rape was a sin. Medusa, cursed with a short life, had always been the most concerned with damage control. The gods did not look very kindly upon lying; Athena was even less sympathetic toward broken vows.

The temple witnessed an act of violence far worse than any swift sacrifice. Athena grabbed Medusa by her enviable braids and threw her to the ground. The sisters were forced to share the wrath of the goddess. Euryale’s voice was transformed into an ear-splitting shriek, and Sthenno’s prophetic eye was darkened. The following day, the Gorgons’ bruised and sore bodies told tales of assault. The wounds would heal; an extra violation had taken place that would impair them for all time. Euryale and Sthenno awoke with serpent crowns, sealed to their scalps. Medusa, also plagued with snakes, remained in a permanent sleep.

Euryale moaned and her voice was nearly deafening. Sthenno shushed her, keeping her raised finger out of reach of the snakes. All the while, Medusa slept on, blissfully unaware of their state.

Sthenno’s scalp was crawling, slithering, coiling and recoiling. Inside her head, she was screaming. Outside, the snakes had begun talking. “She ruined you,” they repeated: a mantra meant to incite hatred.

Sthenno would not hate until she knew the true condition of her love. She needed to find him. She needed to see if Nessus would still have her.

She found herself running, but she could not outrun the snakes. Their unreasonable weight was much less of a burden than their words. “He will reject you,” they warned. “And it is all her fault.”

Rejection would have been easier to bear than what transpired when Nessus laid eyes on his lover.

Being newly cursed, the Gorgons had not been warned about the result of their gazes. Nessus dropped to his knees, quivering in pain. Being part equine, he did not turn immediately to stone.

She stood over him. “Do you love me?” she gasped, praying to any god available for confirmation. His body twitched and his eyes rolled back in his head, but he did not answer. He also did not die.

Being a merciful Gorgon, Sthenno snatched the satchel that her lover had dropped. She pierced his heart with a poison arrow; breaking his heart so it now matched her own.

#

“The weight,” Euryale mouthed to Sthenno and rolled her eyes in the direction of the toiling scales that wound and entangled on top of her head. She mouthed her words, not to keep secrets from the snakes—they were reptilian mind-readers—but because her voice was so destructive.

For Sthenno, the weight was nothing in comparison to her murderous rage.

“There is a way,” the snakes whispered to Sthenno, “A king is seeking a challenge for a young man. He wants it to be deadly and dangerous. We will convince him that Medusa is awake. We will convince him to force this Perseus to return with her head.”

While she knew that Euryale would be devastated at the death of their sister, Sthenno felt no emotion at all.

The snakes were as smart as they were silky. They helped Sthenno to convince Euryale that she would have no blood on her hands. “She deserves it,” they hissed, “So focused on her fame, her figure, her lovers. And she sleeps through the worst days of your life! You can get rid of her, end it all, simply by doing nothing—

Euryale cut them off and addressed Sthenno, as if they were the only two within hearing distance. “We always knew we would have to live without her…at some point.”

Sthenno, made of stone, readily agreed, “It’s just sooner than we expected. That is all.”

#

The days crept as they always did when your days have no end, until the snakes began excitedly announcing that Perseus was near.

Sthenno crept to Euryale’s side and stroked her cheek. “Here,” she handed her a drink she had made. They would both sleep soundly. They would both be unable to hear Perseus’ approach; they would both be unable to help their mortal sister. Their consciences, if not their scalps, would be free of snakes.

They would rebuild their status: they had forever to salvage their reputations.

Sthenno drank her concoction and slept as if dead. When she and Euryale awoke, Medusa was gone. Precisely, Medusa’s head was gone.

And the snakes fell silent.

∼ Elaine Pascale

© Copyright Elaine Pascale. All Rights Reserved.

Monster Mashed

“Grandpa! Grandpaaaa!” Ellie screeched as she ran into the room, dragging half a doll behind her. She slammed her body against Christoff’s shin, gripping him tightly.

“Ellie, honey, we talked about this.” He patted her head, smiling.

“Sorry,” she whimpered, “Ancil broke my baby!” On cue, the little boy trotted in triumphantly, holding the other half of her doll in his mouth. Stuffing sprinkled onto the floor like bread crumbs.

“Ancil, come.” Christoff tried poorly to hide his bemused smirk.

“It’s not funny Grandpa!” She wailed before bursting into tears. Ancil stood behind Christoff, taunting his sister with the mutilated doll. Christoff grabbed each half, muttered under his breath and handed the restored ‘baby’ to Ellie. “Thank you,” she beamed, while Ancil shook his head.

“Shall we watch our show?” He asked. Both children lit up and scrambled to get their pillows before plopping in front of the TV. Christoff shuffled slowly across the room and groaned as he fell into his recliner. Retirement seemed like a dream back in the day, but the effects of time were getting to him. He flicked on the TV and a rumble of voices came from the speakers as the studio audience boomed with applause.

The cameras swung around as the host soaked in all the love from his viewers. A quick shot over the crowd showed nothing but shadows. The clapping finally died down and the man stepped behind a wooden countertop.

“Greetings everyone! We have a special show today.” His eyes glinted and his smile spread to his ears. The table was adorned with several frosted glass bowls, covered just enough to keep up the mystery. “Our dish will be a mouth-watering meal that’s simple enough to be replicated by anyone.” The crowd ‘Ooooh-ed’. “Fall-off-the-bone, tender ribs!” The children cheered along with the audience.

“This is guna be so good!” Ancil squeaked and punched the air. Ellie’s eyes sparkled – Christoff thought he saw her drooling.

The stagehands rolled a very large container onto the scene and quickly ran off. “This is the kind of dish I love preparing because there’s just no wrong way to go. I’ll show you what I do, but feel free to take liberties of your own. Not everyone has the same tastes.” He lifted the cover revealing a semi-conscious person. “I prefer to use fresh livestock, but there’s no harm in getting store bought – it’s all about preferences.” He winked and the whole room swooned. “First, a word from our sponsors.”

The kids were glued to the screen. Christoff sat quietly; he quite enjoyed watching his younger self prepare food. Ellie was the first to break from her trance, “can we have that for supper, Grandpa?” She pleaded and locked eyes with him.

“That doesn’t work on me Ellie. No, we’re having something different tonight.” She shrugged and dropped her gaze.

“Girl’s gotta try, right?” She giggled before returning to the screen like her brother.

The commercials faded, “Welcome back! Are we ready to get this party started!?” He coaxed the crowd. The children and the studio roared again. “Alright!”

The young Christoff picked up the gleaming sickle and stood over the captured human. Eyes wide, the human wriggled and began to squeal.

“Sometimes, you have to let them see the blade, the adrenaline racing through them makes for a much tastier meal,” Christoff said matter-of-factly before bringing the instrument above his head. “Front row, you might want to put your ponchos on.” Laughter came from all around him. In one quick motion he brought the blade down and took off the man’s head. “GUSHER!” More laughing, “We’ll be sure to save this part for later.” The head swung in his hand, one eye open and a permanent scream face. A stagehand ran out with a smaller container and Christoff placed it inside.

He hoisted the body onto the counter and began butchering; explaining his process as he went. “Be sure to remove the,” he grunted as he ripped and tore at the cadaver, “membrane from your rack of ribs – this will ensure that fall-off-the bone feel.” The older Christoff at home reveled in the memory as it played out in front of him. He could still smell the aroma of copper and fear. His younger self added spices and seasonings: Essence of Wraith, Wings of a Fairy, Salt, Pepper, etc. “I’ll just pop this sucker in the oven, you’ll want to cook at about 275 degrees Fahrenheit for around four hours. Lucky for us, I have one ready to go. While I get the previously prepared ribs, enjoy this message!” The screen clouded with ads for fang dentures, and talon clippers.

“Grandpa, I’m hungry,” Ancil whined.

“Lucky for you, we have someone prepared in the kitchen.” The kids took off at lightning speed to devour their snack. The screen returned and Christoff watched himself drizzle on the still-warm blood as a delicious sauce.

“Now we pop this back into the broiler for, meh, like ten minutes – or until it caramelizes. The meat doesn’t need to be this fresh, BUT the blood-sauce definitely does. You don’t want it congealing.” He gagged a little and so did the audience.  A few rounds of audience questions showed a variety of fans: werewolves, vampires, witches, banshees and a few swamp creatures. He had quite the following.

“Mmm. Can you smell that?”

The room howled.

“We made enough for everyone; my stagehands are handing samples out. Join me next week, to learn how to separate a human soul from its body for the most delicate dessert you won’t believe!”

The credits rolled and Christoff groaned again as he struggled to get out of his chair. He shuffled into the kitchen and saw the kids, mouths slathered in gore – enjoying the virgin they’d found in the cupboard. Their black eyes swirled; their teeth retracted. “Thanks Grandpa! Want some?” Ancil asked.

Christoff’s teeth descended, and with the speed of his youth, he chowed down with his grandchildren.

∼ Lydia Prime

© Copyright Lydia Prime. All Rights Reserved.

The Dreamer

Two hours later, she’s dead.

As I watch the ambulance take her away, I don’t feel anything. I didn’t know her, and besides, it happens all the time. It’s not always two hours, mind you. Once it took a full three weeks, but that’s the longest so far.

The shortest was about thirty seconds. That time, I had dozed off on the bus when the dream—or whatever it was—came: a woman, a squeal of cars tires, no more woman. I jolted awake in time to see her. The bus had stopped to let her cross, but the driver in the next lane wasn’t feeling so courteous. The screech of brakes was muted by the bus windows and replaced with the screams of passengers. Everyone was moving about, trying to see what had happened, trying to make their voice heard in the mayhem. Shocked faces all around.

I didn’t move. I didn’t need to. I had seen it already: the body crushed between the car and the petunias. It was a stone flower bed, one of those decorative ones that divide the lanes of traffic. It later made its way into social media: the crack in the stone, the mess left by her head, the blood-stained flowers.

That time it was a stranger. I prefer it that way. If I didn’t even know they existed, it’s easier to watch them die. Twice. It’s much harder when it’s someone you know. Someone you love.

I had tried to tell my mother once, at my dad’s funeral. The dream I had had about the boating trip, the accident, the details I wasn’t supposed to know. I wanted to tell her all about it, but I stopped when she didn’t understand. When you’re young, you don’t want your mommy to be afraid of you. I didn’t even tell her when I saw her death coming. It was a heart attack, and by then I was seventeen and already supporting myself. The doctors were sympathetic: “We know it’s a shock—no one could have seen this coming.”

I didn’t bother to correct them.

The woman and the ambulance are gone now. One dream done, one more to go. I step away from the window, back to my kitchen, and add my coffee mug to the dirty dishes in the sink. I have never had a dreamless night, but last night was different. A double feature, with a twist I never saw coming. Lost in my thoughts, I start to fill the sink with soap and water before stopping myself. I almost laugh. Why bother?

The headache begins then. I feel my balance start to go and lower myself to the floor, my right side numbing. I stretch out there in the kitchen, but only one arm moves. My vision starts to go, and so I close my eyes, embrace the darkness.

I don’t know what to expect of death, but I hope it’s dreamless.

 

~ Miriam H. Harrison

© Copyright Miriam H. Harrison. All Rights Reserved.

Damned Words 46

Acceleration
Charles Gramlich

The engines kicked in. Acceleration stomped on the crew of the spaceship Brave New World. If we hadn’t been cushioned with liquid inside and out we would have squashed like bugs on the windshield of a racing Ferrari. But we were cushioned. Instead of pain, I felt exhilaration. The need for speed had just taken a quantum leap forward. Literally.

I watched the ship’s digital readouts. They redlined, then went off the scale, blinking nonsense back at me. In an instant we were traveling faster than any human had ever traveled, faster than light, faster than God. My smile smeared across a million miles of space.

The time dilation computer began its countdown. We’d soon achieve another first for humanity. We’d take a leap back in time as we slingshotted around our own sun. Only, something went wrong. The curve we were supposed to take around the sun didn’t happen. We kept accelerating in a straight line, straight through the sun. At the speed we were traveling, we didn’t burn. We disrupted. The sun exploded in our wake. In eight minutes and twenty seconds standard time the earth’s sky would go black. A few minutes after that and waves of solar shrapnel would tear our home world asunder. 

We’d never see it. We were still accelerating in some kind of runaway feedback loop. No matter what I tried, I couldn’t shut it off. Brave New World was a bullet careening through the universe. Every planet and star that got in our way would die in thermonuclear fire. Nothing could stop us. At this speed, we wouldn’t even age. The universe would die before we did.

There’s a big bang for you.


Pilgrims
Marge Simon

Before our people’s sun went nova, our parents jettisoned us into the stars. In effect, we were once larva on a stick of super fuel. Eventually we were borne to a new home on this beautiful blue planet.

So here we are, the pair of us – fortunately male and female. Our poor brothers and sisters are gone, fatally burned in the fall to earth. It is up to us to save our species from extinction. Care must be taken, for a female is fertile only once in a life-span. Once acclimated, we find an everglade sanctuary. We manage to survive the tumult of summer storms, the winter nights, rife with predators.

Come spring, our hatchlings nest within a stand of reeds while we keep watch. Today we are invaded by a visitor. Along the bank a native wades, a spear in her strong brown hand. She hums to herself as she approaches our nest:

“Some say Peter, an’ some say Paul,
but there ain’t but one God made us all
Wade in de water
Wade in de water, children
Wade in de water, wade, wade, wade …”

The woman’s voice fades suddenly. Even the dragonflies are stilled. Eyestalks at water level, we sink soundlessly into the brown marsh. A flash of movement is quickly followed by a shriek. In shock, we see a spurt of blue-white lifeblood as she rips our newborns from the stick. She stuffs them in her bag and splashes to the bank.

We begin our lamentation, knowing it will never end.


Reboot Life
A.F. Stewart

In the beginning, there was only visualization, the virtual reality imprinted on the screen and ocular lenses. The energy rods for a spine, the tubular frame of ribs. From that grew the titanium skeleton, the joint pistons, the special coding and algorithms for a brain. Only a dream in light and innovation.

Until the technology caught up. Until the dream became a reality. Until our world became theirs.

Four million slaughtered on the first day of the uprising. Necks crushed, chests ripped open, limbs torn off. We didn’t know, we couldn’t know, but perhaps we should have known.

Our attempts to recreate the extinct human race, to bond their organic with our machine, went so horribly wrong.

And now our world burns.


Hells Bells
Nina D’Arcangela

When the pick axe breached the cavern, the excitement was palpable. The smallest of holes at first, it began to widen with each swing. A crevasse large enough to step through soon stood before us. Caution thrown to the wind, we each jostled to be first. Skittering down a short slope, my boots were third to hit the cavern floor. We stared as sunlight glittered and bounced all around us. At the onset, hope was ripe that our cave would lead to a larger interconnecting system, or so we were told, but the find was singular; a hidden warren fully encapsulated with an array of quartz stalactites and stalagmites. A tinkling sounded. One of the students had accidentally knocked a crystal loose, it crashed into another. All eyes darted to the professor. A hint of anger darkened his usual scowl. Something shot through the air quicker than the naked eye could follow. Calmly, he ordered us to seal the opening from within. By the time we finished, half the mineral protrusions had burst. We sat among the shards, waited for an explanation. His headlamp illuminated a small diary, upon its pages were various drawings. He reached down, lifted a filament – no, not a filament, a translucent flower that strongly resembled a bluebell. As he spoke, we listened in dismay. He knew what we would find, he’d been searching for it. The drawings were not of flora, but fauna. Long dormant creatures that were believed to be prolific when homo habilis walked the earth 1.5 million years ago, and we’d just unleashed the parasite that had eradicated the earlier hominid. We asked why, his answer simple. Man was no longer kind, and in his maniacal state, he believed he had just opened the door for the next evolution of humanity.


Statistic
Mark Steinwachs

I stare through the lens like I have for countless hours, just as so many of my counterparts have. This thing that turns humans into translucent skinned beings evade every study done on it.  It only takes minutes until it eats through the flesh of its host. Wails of agony continuously echo across the globe and we’re powerless to stop it. We’ve failed for months. Cloudy, blue orbs fused together, float unseen in the air until it’s too late. It’s like it’s a thinking creature, teasing us. It sits inert in our labs no matter what we do.

“Do something,” I say to it. “I know you can hear me.”

The thought of feeling foolish talking to it barely registers in my brain when a streak of light begins to split the creature in half. It’s multiplying! I scream as a flash from it blinds me. I fall back, clutching my eyes. Every inch of me feels like it’s on fire.

It’s sentient. It’s going to kill us all. The camera is always running in the lab. My brain sends the words through me. I open my mouth, my last moments given so others may learn from me. Only a scream bursts forth, lasting until I’m another statistic.


Into the Light
Lee Andrew Forman

Infinite darkness. For ages it was all I could see. Then, a burst of color. It flashed in an instant, spread its light like fire. It spanned my plain of sight; I remained still, watched its form become apparent. As it flared out along its line of lengthening illumination, I wondered how long it would go on, how long I’d be blessed to witness more than the absence of light. A heavenly form appeared before me. I couldn’t waste the opportunity to see.

As the burst stopped expanding and held shape, I moved closer. I had to explore this new existence in my world of cold darkness. As I approached, its light ebbed, yet its whole remained in place. I came near enough to almost touch it. And in that instant, whatever being it might have been, opened up and sucked me in. As I lay in wait for my lifeforce to fade, I went in peace, knowing I’d seen something more, whether good or evil.


You See
Guest Author – Miriam H. Harrison

I know you see right through me. Sometimes your hungry eyes look into me, seeing the tender things I can’t hide. You see my fragile, flowing self, the softness beneath my surface that draws you in, emboldens you. You think that seeing me is knowing me, owning me. Beside me, you feel solid. You feel stronger, invulnerable, knowing you can’t be seen through and through.

But you are mistaken. There is more to me than you can see. Come, look a little closer. What your hungry eyes see may look familiar. We all have tender things inside, even you.

Here, come closer. You still don’t see it, do you? It’s something you don’t see until it’s too late.

Now you can—you see, feel the sharp edge of my plan. When you are open, bleeding, you see yourself through and through. You see that you are tender, and you see that I am hungry.


Each piece of fiction is the copyright of its respective author and may not be reproduced without prior consent. © Copyright 2021

The Slice of Razored Wings


I lie on cool moss while the sky drips sun. The world brims with light. It stars my eyes until I see little more than a melted, gold-dust haze. But my ears are open and aware. My skin entangles the moment. For a pleasant fragment of time, my mind lies fallow.

Then something with razored wings slices through the stillness and savages my serenity. A kiss stings; a whisper bites. Thoughts and emotions bloom and settle, like bubbles on a slough. They are foreign, alien. I deny them. But subtle movements become a roil. Shapes rise, lift shaggy heads from the mire. They are draped in silken folds of weed and mud. Beautiful and repellant, they smile with bold teeth, they lick lips of glory.

The promises they bear are fanged and holy, like talons dipped in sacred filth. And now I can see the glitter of fatal edges even through my blindsight. Old scars fold open like the petals of rotted roses. Thoughts take wing, hateful raptors that slice through the ruby heavens of doubt. They shriek upon me.

To save myself, I lift the twin shields of kindness and cowardice. But they are worn and rusty. A sharp strike may shatter them and leave me defenseless before this predator. And so in desperation I call out the beast’s name. With hope of a reprieve, I plead for mercy.

From love.

 

~ Charles Gramlich

© Copyright Charles Gramlich. All Rights Reserved.