Sleep Tight

You wake beneath the glow of a urine-yellow nightlight shaped like a crescent moon. From the hall outside your bedroom comes a susurration of sound, a crippled shuffle, like rotted feet dragging themselves to bone on a sandpaper carpet.

Your heartbeat speeds. Sticky mouth dries. You sit up in vomit-clotted sheets. You’ve been sick, but you’re better now. Much, much better. Thanks to Momma.

But that sound. It’s almost midnight, the dregs of the day. Who is coming? Who is coming to your room in the hollow of the dark?

Something wet slaps against the old porcelain doorknob. It turns, scritches open on hinges that are more rust than iron. A bulk leans its head within, dressed in a pale wrapper of cloth under which odd shapes pulse and squirm. You’re reminded of a grubworm you once dug up in the garden—when there was still a garden. It’s just Momma.

A sigh possesses you as, from the doorway, your mother says, “Sorry I’m late tonight, Sweety. I fell asleep. Are you OK? Do you need anything?”

You’d begun to think she wasn’t coming this night. That maybe…. But you don’t complete that thought. It’s not a kind one and Momma does not like unkind thoughts. You only say, as mother’s clothes twitch and rustle, “I’m fine, Momma. Just fine. Thank you.”

She smiles. Her mouth is black because she’s forgotten her teeth again. But that’s all right. Her teeth are big and broad and so white they sometimes make you uncomfortable. She whispers that she loves you and turns to go.

You wait. She’ll turn back again. As she always does. She has one last piece of sweet advice to offer her only son. She gives it with a catch of emotion in her throat: “Good night. Sleep tight. Let the bed bugs bite.”

“I will, Momma,” you hear yourself say.

The door snicks shut. Momma’s feet move away. She sounds light as a thistle now. As if she’s able to dance on limbs shed of heavy flesh.

Quickly, you lie back on your bed again and let the wet pillow fold up around your face. You press it down tight over your eyes and mouth. From the door where Momma was standing, a swift flow of movement passes like a ripple over the floor. It climbs the bed posts, the trailing sheets. Like a wave of goosebumps it flows onto the bed to nestle all around you. They, nestle all around you.

You bite your teeth together and pull the pillow more tightly across your face. It’s not the right thing to do to deny them a part of your body. But you hate the way they slip beneath your lids and scrape at your eyes. And if they crawl up your nose and down your throat, you know the vomit will come again. It’s so unpleasant to lie in when it’s still liquid and hot.

The bedbugs—that’s what Momma calls them anyway—have tiny mandibles that catch at flesh and hold. It feels like ten thousand staples being tucked into your skin as they begin to suckle. But it’s a good thing. Momma has told you: they draw the illness out of you with your fluids. That’s why you’re feeling so much better, why you’ll soon be able to leave your room again. She has promised.

In the morning, of course, the bugs will return to Momma and clothe her anew. They’ll give her all the sickness they’ve drawn out of you. It’s a powerful display of the mother-child bond. How she takes your disease unto herself. You know she loves you very, very much.

“I love you, too,” you whimper into the pillow. As the bugs burrow in and the pain becomes like fireworks exploding through your body. “I love you, Momma. Love you, Momma! MOMMA!”

∼ Charles Gramlich

© Copyright Charles Gramlich. All Rights Reserved.

 

To Owe the Devil

Uncle Henry looked at me from his deathbed. Not much in his face was alive. Maybe the tip of his tongue behind his teeth when he told me a story of his youth.

“Growing up in Montana in the 1930s,” he said, “I had a friend named Jacob Hart. The winter we were eighteen, we were hunting in the mountains when the snows came. Couldn’t get out. Built ourselves a snug little cabin. We had food but barely enough. Figured we’d eat our burros if we had to. We never got the chance. Jacob, he got sick. Down with fever. Wanting to get him some fresh meat, I set a few traps. Caught a rabbit. Something got it first. Tore it to shreds. Tore up all the traps. There were no tracks in the snow. None except the rabbit’s. You understand?”

“An owl, maybe,” I said.

Henry nodded. “What I thought. At first. Then something came sniffing around the cabin that night. Something big. I figured it was a bear. Jacob was sound asleep in his fever. Next morning, I found tracks. But they were…wrong. I’d seen bear sign. This wasn’t it. And there was a dead rabbit with a broken neck lying right on our doorstep. Never one to look a gift horse in the mouth, I dressed the rabbit, cooked it in a stew, fed Jacob on it. He ate heartily. Ate almost the whole thing. Started feeling better immediately.

“Two days later Jacob was up and around. I told him about the traps I’d set, about the bear that didn’t leave bear tracks, about finding the rabbit like a gift. Jacob turned ashen. He began to shake. I thought his fever was returning but he told me I’d accepted a gift from the Devil and would have to give something back or the Devil would come take whatever he wanted. And since he’d eaten most of the gift, even without realizing it, his payment would have to be the larger. I laughed at him.”

I shivered. Maybe the bleak January sky outside the hospital had chilled me. Or maybe it was the strangeness of Henry’s story, a kind of tale I’d never heard him recite before. “So?” I asked finally. “Most people would laugh at something like that.”

“Could be,” Henry agreed, then continued. “Jacob told me I needed to leave out a gift for the Devil. Some salt or coffee. My timepiece. He did; I didn’t. One morning when it was still dark, we heard a monstrous racket. We’d built a shed for our burros, backed up against the cabin. The noise came from there. I ran outside with my gun. Jacob too. The shed was smashed in, the burros torn open, their innards spread around like jelly. Their heads were gone. There were the same odd tracks again. I followed ‘em. Jacob refused to. I trailed ‘em for miles. Came to a cave.…”

“And?” I prompted.

“Nothing. The tracks led to the cave’s mouth. But inside, it was empty. No bones of anything that might have been eaten there. No sticks dragged in for a nest. It looked like nothing living had ever touched that place.”

“And no Devil?” I said.

“No,” Henry said. “No Devil.”

“You must have felt pretty foolish.”

“A little. At the time,” Henry said. “Then I went home.”

“What did Jacob say?”

“Nothing. The cabin door hung open. There was a horrible stench. I ran inside to find one of the burros’ heads in the fireplace. The singed hair smelled like…nothing I can describe.”

“What about Jacob?”

“Hanging upside down from the ceiling. So naked that even his skin had been taken off.”

I winced, though by now I doubted the whole story. I figured it was made up, though why Henry would do such a thing on his deathbed, I couldn’t imagine. Maybe he was just losing his mind. “A horrible way to die,” I managed.

“Oh, he wasn’t dead. He lived several more days. Screaming most of the time.”

I wasn’t sure what was expected of me. Humor the dying man, I guessed. I squeezed his wrist gently. The skin was paper thin and felt cold and unreal. “I’m sorry.”

“No reason to be. I put Jacob’s body in the snow. Left him until spring thaw. Then I burned him in the cabin until nothing was left.”

“What about the…whatever it was that had attacked your burros and killed Jacob?”

“It left me alone the rest of the winter.”

“Any idea why?”

A humorless smile twisted Henry’s lips. “I left it an offering. Like Jacob told me too.”

A chill goosebumped my arms despite my disbelief. “What offering?”

“Blood for one,” Henry said. “I cut my arm deep.”

I remembered the scar on my uncle’s forearm. From a motorcycle accident, I’d heard.

“For one?” I asked. “What else?”

“My soul, of course. What does one use to buy off the Devil?”

I shook my head. “Heckuva story, Uncle Henry. But you know I don’t believe a bit of it.”

Henry smiled and patted my arm with long pale fingers. “Didn’t figure you would, Charlie. Never figured you would.”

I checked my phone. “I gotta go, Uncle Henry. Anything I can get you?”

“No,” he said, “but I have something for you.”

“What?”

“Open the drawer on the bedside table there.”

I did so, drew out a small present in pretty wrapping paper.

“What’s this?” I asked.

Henry smiled again, and a little sliver of pink tongue protruded from behind his teeth. “Just a gift, Charlie boy. Just a little gift for you.”

∼ Charles Gramlich

© Copyright Charles Gramlich. All Rights Reserved.

 

 

 

Goodies

Stark and black, the oaks rose through the morning’s ghostly fog, Spanish moss dripping from their limbs like the hair of drowned corpses. Beneath the oaks, twelve-year-old Emmy stopped as a sound whispered along the trail before her.

“That you, Mom?”

It was just like her mom to scare her.

“Mom?”

There wasn’t any answer and Emmy doubted it had been her mother anyway. The breeze would have brought Mom’s scent. She hitched her heavy bag higher on one thin shoulder and walked on. Nothing jumped her.

Then she was free of the oaks and stalking through a meadow toward her grandmother’s cabin. It was brighter here, the fog lifting. Her feet swished in thick, wet grass. A spider web fingered her face. She brushed it away as she knocked on Grandmother’s door.

“Come in,” a guttural voice called.

The door creaked open. Night lingered within and Emmy flicked on the flashlight that she carried in one pocket of her red parka.

Grandma’s house was an abattoir.

Emmy’s eyes widened. There were more bodies than last time. Some were alive, or semi-alive.

“Well come on, Dear,” the voice called again, impatiently.

Emmy started forward between two chained rows of drooling forms. Hungry moans roiled the air. She ignored them. Broken fingered hands grasped at her. She ducked them, her feet kicking tibias and ribs from her path, some cracked and bleached white, some…meaty.

Just past the zombies, Grandmother’s door stood open.  Grandma lay on the bed amid quilts and pillows. She was still in wolf form.

“You brought the stuff?” Grandma demanded.

“I brought it,” Emmy said.

She sat her bag on the bed and Grandma jerked it away with taloned hands and ripped it open. Livers and hearts and links of intestines spilled out like a miser’s hoard, but Grandma had eyes for only one thing, a jar of rare delicacies. She grabbed it, tore off the lid and dipped within to pull out a pinkish, cauliflower-sized lump.

“Ah,” she sighed, popping the thing between her teeth. “Melts in your mouth.”  She reached for another.

Emmy frowned. “I thought you liked hearts best, Grandma. Mom only sent four baby brains.”

Grandma chuckled, stroked Emmy’s head with clawed fingers.

“Tastes change,” she said, grabbing another tidbit.

Emmy frowned again, and a sudden gasp spilled from her lips.

Grandma heard the gasp and turned bloodshot eyes accusingly upon her granddaughter. The last brain was chewed mush in her mouth.

“What, child?”

“That bite on your shoulder, Grandma!  Where did you get it?”

Grandma smiled, with teeth that could crush spines.

“Just a scratch, Dearie. Come give Grandma a hug.”

Shaking back her hood, Emmy drew the nickel-plated .357 from her other pocket. She knew where Grandma’s bite had come from. Grandma had gotten careless with a zombie.

With a howl, Grandma leaped from the bed, her eyes screaming, “Brains, brains!”

Emmy pulled the trigger. There was only one cure for what ailed Grandma.

A silver bullet.

Through the head.

∼ Charles Gramlich

© Copyright Charles Gramlich. All Rights Reserved.

 

With Eyes Like Fangs

In the holy forest, they hunt their prey by the scent of weakness that bleeds from its pores. With icicle eyes, prism eyes, eyes like cicatrixes, they find the cavern where the weakness lies. Scaled hands and furred ones work spasmodically on weapons. Claws click on steel while in the wet mouths fangs ache with hatred. In a darkling mist, they gather for the kill.

***

In the cavern, the prey stirs awake and lifts her head. A sudden light burns inside her. Through her skin, she sees, and weakness she sheds like a husk. Her mind centers on the forces arrayed against her outside. Her mouth begins a smile; the smile widens until the lips split at the corners and black blood runs.

“Let it begin,” she murmurs.

***

The hunters in the woods see the light flare within the cavern. They stir, restless in rage. And when the prey strides free of its hiding place into the rain, they fall upon her with taloned feet and leathery wings, their throats filled with howls and shrieks.

But the prey is not what they thought. They have been tricked.  Instead of weakness, strength meets their strengths.  Their bodies shatter upon it.  In moments, the clearing before the cave writhes with the dead and the dying.

“Mother!” the bloody ones cry. “Mother!  Do not forsake us!”

***

The ‘she’ looks upon her dying children, and starts to feed while they are fresh. Out in the distant forest, the males begin to call. She hears them even over the crunch of bones. In a moment she will release her own mating cry, will invite the males to join with her at this feast.

Perhaps her next brood will be stronger.

Naughty Or Nice

Lydi’s heart beat as fast as a hummingbird’s wings as she crept down the stairs from her room. She wasn’t supposed to be up this late, but just before bedtime she’d seen Mawmaw come out of Pawpaw’s study and forget to lock the door. Pawpaw’s snow globes were in there, collected from all over the world on his frequent trips. She wasn’t supposed to mess with them but they were the most beautiful things she’d ever seen. And Pawpaw was gone, as he often was during Christmas week.

Lydi had feared—but almost hoped—that Mawmaw would have remembered and come back to lock the study door. She hadn’t. Lydi’s hand trembled as she pushed down on the latch and slipped secretively into the big room.

The study’s lights were off but Pawpaw’s personal Christmas tree was up. Its gold and silver sheen lit the room enough for her to see. Snow globes rested everywhere, hundreds of them, with tiny colorful scenes and tiny people inside. They turned the whole room into a treasure chest. She hardly knew where to look first.

One particular globe over the mantle caught her attention and held it rapt. She dragged over a stool and clambered up for a closer look. Resting her elbows on the mantle, she dropped her head into her small hands and stared. This globe was larger than any of the others, with three miniature, old-timey, cottages built inside. In front of one home stood a horse-drawn carriage with a laughing family aboard. A gang of young carolers held up hymn books in front of another home. Lydi sighed. She’d always wanted to go caroling but she’d lived with her grandparents since she was very small and their place was a long way away from other people.

Lydi hadn’t intended to touch any of the globes but the snow inside this one was so delicate and fluffy, and it glistened so beautifully. It was nothing like the cold, wet, heavy stuff she saw so often in real life.

Would it hurt to watch it snow inside the globe? Just once!

She reached out. The globe was heavier than she’d expected. It slipped from her grip, tumbled free, spinning and winking like a gemstone with reflected light. Lydi’s stomach threatened to come out of her mouth as the globe hit the floor. But the glittering object bounced on the carpet, then careened wildly around the room.

Lydi leaped from her stool, raced to the globe, dropped to her knees.

“Please, please, please! Don’t be broken!”

Her plea was answered. Sort of. The glass sphere of the globe was intact. But inside? Inside, the carriage and horses were smashed, the laughing family and the singing carolers scattered and broken like matchstick toys. Inside, the snow was no longer white; blood had smeared everywhere.

A sound rose from around the room. It commanded Lydi’s attention. She looked up, her whole body quivering. Inside every other snow globe, tiny faces pressed against glass. She saw eyes that were blackly evil, and mouths formed into “O’s” as they hissed her.

A scream started to build in Lydi. Before it could erupt, a soft whoosh from behind froze it in her throat. She spun. Pawpaw stood in front of the fireplace in his black boots and red traveling suit. He could see what she’d done. His bearded face was angry, disappointed, full of immense sadness.

“Lydi, Lydi, Lydi,” he whispered. “I never thought I’d have to put my own granddaughter on the naughty list.”

Reluctantly, he opened the big bag over his shoulder and took out a new snow globe. It was empty.

So far.

∼ Charles Gramlich

© Copyright Charles Gramlich. All Rights Reserved.

Venom Messiah

Within his castle of dark hearts, the Devil seated himself on a rosewood throne. Two rotted angels entered, a Sinner clutched between them. They forced the Sinner to kneel, then stepped back and folded their tattered wings tightly across their faces so that they could neither see nor hear what passed.

Alone with the Sinner, the Devil took a deep breath. “Give me your plea,” he demanded.

“Guilty,” the Sinner replied.

The Devil nodded his head vigorously. “Yes! Guilty! As no one before you has ever been.”

The Sinner showed no movement, made no sound.

“And yet,” the Devil sighed after a long moment. “Perhaps there are circumstances that might explain your actions, that might…justify your sin. Tell me.”

“There are none,” the Sinner said.

The Devil’s teeth ground together. He leaned forward, taloned hands closing on the armrests of his chair, squeezing the wood so hard that it splintered and blood began to run from beneath his nails like black pearls. He spat words like sleet at the Sinner.

“Give me something, some reason to grant you mercy.”

“If there is a reason, it’s already inside of you.”

“I do not wish to punish you,” the Devil said. “Not you!”

For the first time, the Sinner looked up. Her eyes danced with the shine of bullets and sabers.

“What would you have me say?”

“Why?”

“Do you want a lie? Or the truth?”

“Are they any different?”

“Perhaps. Perhaps not.”

“Give me one or the other. I must have something.”

The Sinner nodded. She rose to her feet, and did not look away from the Devil as she spoke.

“I hated you from the first moment I saw you. Your arrogance. And yes, your terrible beauty. But also, I sensed your weakness, your desire for me. I toyed with you. I manipulated you. How I laughed as you danced to my strings. The Devil. Such a grand fool!”

The Sinner shrugged then, before continuing. “But such games become tiring. My last bit of joy from you came when I pushed you away, to milk your confusion and hurt. Though, to see you now, so desperate to find a reason to forgive me, some reason to believe that I felt more than I did…well, that is perhaps worth a final and fatal chuckle.”

The Devil listened, and nodded. He leaned back and made a gesture. The rotted angels lowered their wings, took hold of the Sinner and pulled her from the room. The Devil remained alone in his fortress of broken souls, on a throne wet with blood and tears.

∼ Charles Gramlich

© Copyright Charles Gramlich. All Rights Reserved.

 

Reunion

A small shack in the Ozark Mountains. Through the pines that noose it, a hard wind rushes like frantic horses. It isn’t wind that wakes David Holcomb from a long sleep. A car door slams outside. David slips from bed, hugs himself against the chill air. Candles gutter; the fireplace gleams with coals, but not with warmth.

David peers out a window through dusty glass. The moon hangs like a melted Christmas ornament in the nylon shine of night. No clouds mar the star-seeded sky. A parked station wagon is visible. A shadow strides to the cabin’s front porch.

Hesitantly, David steps onto the porch. Wind plucks at him; the chill needles. The figure’s back is toward him. “Who are you?” David calls loudly. “What do you want?”

The figure turns; a coat with a hood hides the face. “We need to get inside,” a voice says. “It’s coming.”

The voice is female. It can’t be who it sounds like.

“What’s coming?” David asks.

The woman doesn’t answer but walks past him into the cabin. David looks off into the woods for a moment. Blowing leaves kite past. The air whips in circles. Trees bend before it while twigs and dead pine needles rake the cabin. Dragons could be crashing through this wind-torn forest and no one would know.

David hurries into the cabin himself, makes sure the wooden door-bar is engaged. The woman stands by the fireplace. She’s thrown back her hood. She’s young, maybe twenty—a couple years younger than he.

“No,” David says. “No!”

“Yes, David.”

David shakes his head violently. “I’m dreaming. I have to be. You can’t be here.”

“Why?”

“Because you’re dead, Shannon. Dead.”

Shannon smiles, shakes her head so that her short red hair gleams in the candlelight. “Don’t I look alive to you, David?”

“I know you’re dead.”

“Despite your own eyes? How do you know?”

“I killed you, Shannon. Ten years ago. The last time we were in this cabin. I killed you and buried you outside in the forest. Buried you deep.”

Shannon laughs. Her eyes twinkle. “Buried me deep? In the woods where the roots grow thick? What did you use to dig that hole? A bulldozer?”

“A shovel.”

Again, Shannon shakes her head. “It would take a year to dig deep with a shovel in that soil.”

“I dug it,” David says.

But Shannon isn’t listening. Not to him. She is looking outside, to the woods. “You hear it?” she asks. Her voice drops to a whisper. “It’s getting close.”

Terror stitches itself up David’s back. “What? What’s getting close?”

“You know.”

“No. I don’t.”

“The Darkling.”

“What’s that?”

“You know. You’ve always known.”

David glances nervously at the locked door—as if it will birth a monster at any moment. He looks back at Shannon. She has…altered. Her face is younger, thinner. She’s grown small and suddenly looks as she might have looked a decade before—like a sickly ten-year-old. Her hair is knotted. Her nose drips.

But she steps forward; her focus is all on David now. “It’s time,” she says in a child’s voice.

David backs away. “Time for what?”

“To put away your sins. To move on.”

He shakes his head. “I can’t!”

“You have to. Or the Darkling will make us pay.”

“Tell me what it is! This Darkling!”

“David….” Then another whisper: “It’s here.”

David spins toward the door. Something is on the porch. It isn’t the wind. David whimpers, then sidles toward the fireplace. Planks creak on the porch as some heavy body treads them. A black ribbon of shadow flickers beneath the crack at the bottom of the door. Through the crack bleeds a smell like mint and kerosene.

David feels near to death as the door-bar bulges inward. He grabs a poker from the fireplace, brandishes it like an axe. “What is it? What is it?” he shouts at Shannon.

“The past,” Shannon says. She drops to her knees.

“Tell me!” David screams.

He raises the poker, as if he will strike Shannon. His arm trembles. But he remembers. That’s not how it happened—ten years ago—when Shannon begged her older brother to kill her. He drops the poker. A forgotten brown paper bag rests on the fireplace mantel. David reaches in, draws out a nickel-plated revolver.

As David turns with the gun, not sure what he will do, Shannon says: “The future.”

That word! David cries out. His eyes flood with tears. He falls to his own knees. The pistol is huge in hands that are suddenly young, small, weak.

“I’m sorry, Shannon,” David says. “I should have been able to stop it sooner.”

Shannon doesn’t hear him. “The now!” she shouts.

The door-bar cracks wide. Splinters sleet the room. The door smashes open. The Darkling comes through.

David suddenly sees the shack as it is. The bed where he slept is rotted. No glass fills the windows. No embers flare in the barren fireplace. A boy and girl kneel on the trash-strewn floor. Twelve, and ten, and ephemeral. They recognize the form that slides into the room like an acid mist.

David makes a different decision than he did ten years before. He empties the gun into the mist. The bullets do no good.

A chuckle echoes off the walls.

“There you are,” their father says. “My loving children.”

He kicks the door closed behind him.

∼ Charles Gramlich

© Copyright Charles Gramlich. All Rights Reserved.

When You’re Howling

I watched the crazy bastard staggering across the shit-colored wasteland like some post-apocalyptic bindlestiff. He gestured wildly at Heaven and Hell, screaming in some dead language. But a bandana-wrapped poke dangled from the cane over his shoulder. Maybe it held food; I was starving.

A big boulder hid me. The dude walked past. I rose up behind him, cleared my throat. He spun around, and if he’d had a gun he would have shucked it. I had one—a cheap piece of blue-steel crap from before the world went to rot. But I didn’t shoot. The man was ugly as sin. On one side. The left side of his face…squirmed. I didn’t want to look too closely. But the right side was beautiful—uncomfortably beautiful. I looked away.

“I’ll take those goodies,” I told him, gesturing at his poke.

Suddenly calm, he pulled the cane off his shoulder and tapped the bandana-wrapped bindle. “You really don’t want to see inside this,” he said. “Let me offer a cigarette instead.”

I dealt him the nastiest smile in my set. “I’ll have the cigarettes too. But first the bag.”

He shook his head. “You’ve got no reason to believe me. But I’m not here by chance. I came seeking you. To make an end. I see now, though, you deserve more time. That heart’s not quite dead yet. In this bag, there isn’t anything to eat or sell. There’s only destruction.”

I hefted my pistol. “This is real destruction. Brought the world low. Give me the fuckin’ bag.”

“Please,” he said. “For your sake.”

Something about the guy creeped me out. My skin started jumping from more than just the fleas that made my rags their ghetto. But dammit! I was hungry, so hungry. I pressed the gun barrel against his forehead and cocked the hammer. The Devil laughed. Or maybe it was me.

The man sighed, dropped his cane, backed away. I knelt, pulled the knot loose on his bindle. For a moment, I looked in, then began to blubber like a baby. I put the gun in my mouth and pulled the trigger.

Click.

Nothing.

Click. Click. Click. Click. Click.

Sympathetic fingers stroked my greasy hair. He didn’t say, “I told you so,” but it was in his gaze when I looked up. That beauty! And that ugliness. I saw now why the left side of his face writhed; maggots crawled there, with human faces.

“Maybe just a little more time?” I asked.

“Sorry. Not now.”

He took my shoulders in his hands, folded and folded me until he dropped me into his bindle and retied the knot. I heard him groan through the walls as he lifted the immense burden on his back and staggered onward.

It wasn’t dark inside the bundle; I so wished it was dark. All the beauty of the world lay defiled before me. All the Love trashed by Hate. Hate looked at me and smiled.

I wanted to run but there was nowhere to go.

∼ Charles Gramlich

© Copyright Charles Gramlich. All Rights Reserved.