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.
Her eyes speak volumes, assuring him it will be as it was; it will be alright. He knows it won’t be—it can’t be.
Nothing escapes the scrutiny of the incandescent lighting above their heads. No dark space exists for him in which to hide. He scrubs the stubble along his chin. “It’s coming out amazing, honey.”
He watches the artist deliver life to his daughter with thoughtful strokes, imbuing pallid skin with a fresh blush. He pushes a smile to his lips, watching his little girl watch him. She knows his nuances; the flutter of his lashes gives him away every time. She is his blood, after all.
Statuesque, she sits quietly for her portrait. It crushes his heart. Her beautiful lips, once so full like those of her mother, stretch like crinkled strips of weathered jerky now, the music silenced from her dancing eyes. She is tired, so tired, draining slowly from the inside. He scrubs his chin, weary as well, weary and broken witnessing the erosion of his child.
The artist half speaks, half clears this throat. “Sir… Sir?”
“Yes, I’m sorry,” he croaks.
The artist nods politely, aware he has trespassed across guarded domain. Brush hovering atop the canvas, he motions to a specific area of the portrait, then repositions himself atop his stool, respectfully waiting.
“What is it, Daddy?” his little girl inquires; the harsh lighting does nothing to conceal the flutter of his lashes. Quickly, realization dawns; she is his blood, after all. “Daddy, he can paint me as I was that day, it’s okay.”
The artist reaches forward, pats her knee, resumes painting once again. Before long, the canvas depicts wavy locks where no hair has existed for some time. It flows in luxurious strokes; the toe of the artist’s brush a mere whisper in the sea of her chestnut mane. At long last, the final touch—soft pinpricks of white to lend the gleam back into her eyes. The artist lowers his arm. “I believe I am done, sir.”
His vision blurs; he cannot quite make out the deft details of the artist’s conception, not yet. He wipes at his tears. “Baby, you look…”
He wishes to say beautiful, but the word fails to find his lips. Instead, her portrait seizes his attention, unwelcome details pulling his eye. Flustered, he swings his gaze toward the artist.
The man has already packed his tools, cleaned his brush. With a dispassionate tone, the artist states, “The devil is in the details, sir.”
Open mouthed he stares, beyond the depiction of her soft countenance, beyond the eternal capture of her cherubic innocence, he gapes at the jarring angle of her neck; the angry bruises that ring it, marring what should be a masterpiece. “She was terminal,” he barely mutters. “The disease, it was taking her.”
The painter turns to him. “Yes it was, and had you left well enough alone, I would have no need to take you, too.”
His hands flutter about his neck. The incandescent lighting above reveals long slits along his forearms; nothing escapes its scrutiny. “This isn’t… It was a mercy, she was suffering,” he pleads.
“Daddy, no one understands it was an act of love,” her gentle, childish voice intones. By the time he faces her, she is gone. A ghost of her ghost.
He lunges for the painting, but the artist seizes him by the neck. “Take a long, last look at her. She finds her peace in the form I have painted. As for you, peace will be but a memory where we are going.”
Slowly, the painter drags him away, until the incandescent glow no longer reveals a thing, and the pitch is all he will ever know.
~ Joseph A. Pinto
© Copyright 2017 Joseph A. Pinto. All Rights Reserved.
In shards the morning broke, shattering high, high above the gunshot reports, the torches, the thick plumes of smoke.
She watched them fall like black drops of rain in the distance. First came a crack, echoing like faraway thunder, then their plummet. Crack, then plummet.
The plate slipped from her soapy fingers into the bubbly grave of the sink. Beyond the grimy pane, beyond the flaked paint of the porch, swaddled by butterfly weeds and Echinaceas, her daughter sat, ruddy cheeks tilted toward the sky. “Isabella,” she gasped, tossing the wet rag aside. “Isabella!”
Her little girl could not hear her. Crack, then plummet.
She turned, ran, bare heels squeaking like frightened mice atop the wood. Through the dining room, down the hall; sunlight traipsed from the front door, beckoning just paces away. Each gunshot shook her skull. She burst onto the porch, mid-July scathing inside her lungs.
Silos jutted, arthritic fingers against the horizon, from the flat expanse of land. She tracked the figures, so frantic in the sky, weaving and dipping like grand bats. Her mind raced as she crouched low in the meadow, summoning her daughter. “Isa, come.”
Her little girl paid no mind. Chubby fingers marked the descent of each black drop, tracing the sky. Crack! Her tender folds involuntarily shuddered.
A shrilling—high-pitched like that of a hawk, but full of desperation; human at some point in its life. Its violent death roll cut the air, spiraling, spiraling away from its pack. No further than fifty yards from the porch, it slammed the ground, mowing a swath through the meadow.
Rallying to it, the keen barking of a dog.
She hurried to her daughter. The toddler tilted her head, all smiles, all giggles. Too young still to comprehend. “You will stay here for Momma.” She spoke slow, measured. “Do you understand?” Without waiting for an answer, she crept away.
It bleated weakly, lost amidst the grass, the strangled mewls answered by the nearing bark in turn. She propelled forward, nearly upon all fours, the distressed utterances serving as her beacon call. Bees roused, lifting from the stalks and buds, seeking further riches from summer. Memories of childhood invaded her nose; so simple then, the pollen rich fragrance of sky, the honey glaze of sun. Her own parents had given her up much too early. Wisps of shadows they had become—their touch, their guiding voice mere ghosts. She wished no such thing for her Isabella, but knew now it was too late.
At last, she reached it. Gasping atop the matted butterfly weed, its blood soaked the ground. Upon its back it writhed, bald skull lifting up against the dome of summer, back down, laden with an agony it once doubted could exist.
A bloody bubble popped from the corner of its mouth. It sensed her presence. Upside down, slit eyes locked onto her own. She saw the wound, an angry hole straight through its sagging, bare breast. The perennials trembled; the retriever burst through the swath then, as was its inherent duty, clamped its jaws around the hag’s neck.
The retriever dug its hindquarters into soft earth, hauling its prey back to its master. She lunged, seized the snout, pried open its jaws, allowing it no fight. A savage twist; its muscles went limp. She pushed the heap of fur aside. “I cannot help you further, not now, not without jeopardizing us all. Lay still, and I will return for you.” She took its gnarled fingers within her own. “Forgive me, sister.”
The hag nodded.
She dashed back toward her Isa, aware that the exerted breath of man would soon be chasing behind. Her little girl waited diligently, as instructed. In seamless fashion, she scooped the child into her arms, ran full out without breaking stride. Gunshots, screams; mid-July succumbed all around her. Ahead, the porch; thirty yards, twenty. A husky command echoed; a taunt. Crack! The air whistled above her shoulder. The top step of the porch exploded, slivers of wood and paint.
The front door waited, still ajar. She took the steps, then up onto the porch, splinters pricking her toes. Across her threshold, as the door jamb disintegrated loudly beside her. Instinctively, she pulled Isabella against her chest. “My precious little bean, you must know that we are condemned by man.” She ran through the house, the rooms, the hall, straight toward the back door. “They see us as abominations.”
She threw the door open to a green expanse. There, twisting skyward in the middle of the glade, a solitary tree. “But all things of nature have their place of beauty, my love.” She traveled the distance, rounding the far side of the tree. From within her home carried the ransacking fury of the hunter.
The trunk rose, thick and noble, bark twining in cords around a darkened hollow. Within this, she placed her child, but not before kissing each cheek. “The Ancients will raise you now,” lips lingered upon tender flesh, “then you will emerge stronger than even me, my Isa.” Away the tree swallowed her, and the child was gone.
From the trunk protruded a long, slender knob, identical to a spear, driven at its end to a sharpened point. She retrieved the offering from the tree. As the hunter closed the expanse, she sidestepped into view, driving the pike through his throat, clearing the body of head. The torso ran several paces, then dropped.
Propping the spear against the tree, she slipped free from her clothes. The safety of her coven compromised, her sisters needed her now. Someday soon, her daughter as well. Again she took the spear, straddled it, relishing the power upon her sex. Then she commanded the sky; the still gaping head lay impotently upon the ground.
Mid-July bled until no man shared the whispers of the High Priestess. Or her slaughter.
~ Joseph A. Pinto
© Copyright 2017 Joseph A. Pinto. All Rights Reserved.
I led the life once.
“Excuse me. I was hoping we could talk a minute. Something about what your daughter said to mine.”
It felt another lifetime ago. For all intents and purposes, it was.
“You know how kids can be. So I was hoping you could find out what was said?”
I was born into the life. Into the family. And when you’re born into the family, you’re expected to act a certain way. There’s a creed that’s followed, one that’s not ever questioned. Not ever.
“See, my little girl came home yesterday. She told me your daughter told her that she can’t be on safety patrol.”
You lead two lives. The person you are, and the person the family needs you to be. You’re molded without ever feeling the hands. It starts early, when you’re still too young to understand. But you’re molded. You’re taught there’s only one way, the family way. No right, no wrong.
“She told me that your daughter told her that she’s too awkward to be on safety patrol. That she’s not normal. That she’s got issues. My little girl cried all night. It tore me up inside, you know?”
But times change. Families change. Values, the way of going about yourself. Conducting business. This new age took over and old school thinking got pushed further and further from the mind. It went the way of the dinosaurs. Extinct.
“Children shouldn’t have to deal with hurtful words, not at this age. So I was hoping you could find out. And if it’s true what she said, then maybe you could…you know…just talk to your daughter.”
Some things don’t ever die out, though. Some things adapt, learn to survive. Respect is one them. It’s all in the way the family molds you. My pop, for instance. He did his thing, day in, day out, setting an example. Simply by emulating him, I earned his respect. Day in, day out. The family way. The only way he knew.
“There’s nothing got to be talked about.” This father I had never met before, this father who I wanted to believe was as protective of his own daughter as I was of mine, waved his hand in front of my face. I took note of his rail thin arms, his mismatched tattoos. He leaned close to my face; a little too close. “My woman raised our kid right, so your girl, she’s lying. My kid ain’t done nothing wrong.”
“How can you say that if you haven’t even asked—”
There was this one time my pop and I sat eating lunch. Respect, he blurted while we both chewed my Nonna’s tripe, is the most important thing in this world. More important than money. It shows up on the job long before you do. You don’t have respect, you got nothing. Nothing. He chewed and chewed on that tripe and then smiled, a rubbery piece of cow intestines caught in his teeth. But sometimes, you need to teach it.
“Ain’t nothing got to be talked about! Your girl is lying and that’s that.” This father I never met before, this father who I still wanted to believe was as protective of his own daughter as I was of mine, still leaned close to my face; a little too close. “Maybe there’s a reason your girl can’t make safety patrol. Maybe you and your girl should figure it out yourselves.”
Sometimes you need to send them a message.
The father I had never met before smirked and stepped away. A young woman in skin-tight jeggings wearing a PINK hoodie two sizes too small sashayed over to him. She stared, cracked her gum as he whispered in her ear, then they laughed. Laughed, all shits and giggles; the barbell through her tongue shiny under the sun. They shared a sloppy kiss.
Stunods, real stunods, both of them. The school doors opened, and again, for another day, my little girl was mine.
I led the life once.
But the life can’t always be what it was. It can’t be. Upbringings change, morals change. The hands that once molded you disappear. Disappear, and eventually you realize your own hands are meant to mold a new life.
I lay beside my daughter reading her a bedtime story. Lightly, she touched my arm. “Daddy, will I ever be on safety patrol?”
I closed the book.
“Daddy, I don’t want to be not normal.”
“It’s okay though, Daddy, because I don’t need a lot of friends. But I really want to be on safety patrol. I can be really good at it, Daddy.” Her hands flapped in front of her, limbs so rigid in her excitement. “I can be really good. Really good.”
Silently I seethed, cursing the unfairness of my daughter’s disabilities and for the first time in my life, I suddenly felt those hands upon me, the ones that had molded the life I once knew. The life I thought was done.
Sometimes you need to teach it. Sometimes you need to send them a message.
I took my little girl and hugged her, hugged and kissed her, reassuring her that all her life was going to be really good, really, really good. I sang her a song about sunshine until she slipped into dreamland’s arms. Then I locked myself in my room and wept before making the decision to step back into the life again.
It took a few days to learn his pattern. It wasn’t hard.
I found him alone on a Tuesday night, the bar a quiet place right on the fringe of town. I knew the bartender there. Quite well.
A tiny bell sounded above the door as I stepped inside, but the father I had never met before didn’t turn around. The bartender nodded toward me, then offered his only customer a shot that was greedily knocked back by a wobbly hand.
“I think there’s been a misunderstanding.”
He didn’t acknowledge me, not at first, his eyes bleary with liquor. I took the stool beside him. “See, I said I was hoping you could find out if it’s true, what your daughter said to mine, but you never bothered. You never took the time. You never took the effort.”
Recognition finally creased the face of the father I had never met before. Before he could get in a slurred word, I leaned close to his face. A little too close. “Respect, my friend, is the most important thing in this world. But you, you showed me none.”
He listened hard, my words whispered between my lips the way they were. “You don’t have someone’s respect, then you have nothing. You said your woman raised your kid right. Your woman…”
His eyes followed the small box I placed between us atop the bar. “I’m going to teach you something now.” My fingers lingered, then drew from the box. I patted his shoulder. Hard. I put my lips to his ear. “Respect starts at home,” then I turned and left.
I was in no hurry. My daughter would be home, sound asleep. Tomorrow, I’d help her with her homework as I always did, then we’d talk about her joining safety patrol. Tomorrow, I’d go back to being her dad.
But not tonight.
I rolled down the truck window and waited, waited until I heard the screams from the father I had never met before penetrate the bar walls. Waited until I knew he had opened the box and found his woman’s pierced tongue inside.
Finally, I started my truck and headed home. I had an irresistible urge to teach my wife Nonna’s old recipe for tripe once I got there.
~ Joseph A. Pinto
© Copyright 2016 Joseph A. Pinto. All Rights Reserved.
They unfurled from the sky, glistening against the hatching sun, glistening with their own secretions; glistening with newly absorbed blood.
At first, Boston thought them to be a series of banners trailing behind prop planes high above the city’s stretching fingers, marketing genius promoting a new brand. Down, down, curling down in slow motion, cleaving with surgical precision the clouds. Boston sipped his bitter coffee, wincing as it singed his tongue, noting how odd the greenish-gray hue of those tentacles appeared towering over his head.
He spit caffeine from his mouth.
Gathering beneath the common din of the city, the marching feet, the impatient idling of cars, Boston heard it at last. Suction, similar to that from a vacuum; felt it, the popping inside his ears.
A final tentacle unfurled.
The woman ahead of Boston seized his attention. Slowly, her long, ebony hair lifted until taut at the roots. Beginning at the hem, her sundress flipped upside down, rising up, up, exposing an hourglass figure, thong, strapless bra. Rising up, up as her arms jut crooked over her head, mere tree branches; rising up, up, tearing free from her body, along with her hair.
With morbid curiosity, Boston stared at the bloody scalp, drifting skyward, a lost balloon.
A man clutched Boston’s forearm. Boston met his panicked eyes, two bloodshot orbs overcome with stress, a long night of gin. Like grapes, they popped from the man’s skull, claimed by the mounting suction. Sightless, the man staggered; his arms as well snapped above his head, the sky snatching his suit clean; his jacket, the pants. His tie a noose around his throat, the man gasped until his head parted from his shoulders.
Boston walked into the scalpless woman, outstretched hands sticky against her tissue exposed back. Yelping, he pulled away, pulled away from the muscle parting her bones.
High, high above, the tentacles undulated; the blood, the gristle rose.
The city reacted the way a city would react; a breakdown of cohesion; a canyon of screams. People scrambled; people shoved. Boston shoved with them, elbowing his way without direction, pumping his limbs without momentum. The morning crashed, an ocean rippled by pulpy waves of red.
A bus jumped the curb, slamming into a newspaper stand. Headlines fluttered, black and white confetti telling of a world gone mad. Frantic hands beat upon glass; Boston watched skin flutter from open windows of the bus like toilet paper spun from its reel. He looked away.
From baby strollers burst small fountains of pink spray.
Lower, lower the tentacles rolled, revealing serrated suckers, awful, greedy mouths absorbing human existence, its inherent disease. Boston struggled against the tide of commuters; the surge swept him away. Ahead, he spied a bodega.
Feverishly, Boston pushed against fleshless mannequins, shoving aside bones. Seconds thundered in his ears. He battled across the street until breathlessly grabbing the door; a pair of liver spotted hands resisted opposite the glass. Boston tugged, felt the tug matched in turn. “Open the door,” Boston hissed, wrenching the handle from the hands. The old man jerked forward; utilizing the momentum against him, Boston flung him into the frenzy of the crowd. Boston slammed the door shut as the suction teased the top of his head.
“Poppa,” the choked voice of a clerk from behind the register. Boston ignored her. Death, dust; Boston inhaled it all. His eyes darted about the store, spying shelves pockmarked with emptiness, crumbling walls.
Crumbling walls. Boston exhaled; he would survive this. “Lock the door.”
“Mi esposo se ha ido!”
“Lady, lock the door.”
“Mi esposo, mi esposo!”
Chaos splattered the windows; the glass blew inward. Boston fell, toppling a display case of Goya beans. He kicked them from beneath his feet, propelling his body forward toward the crumbling walls. Boston sunk his hands into a hole of deteriorating drywall, yanking frantically. Dust caught in his throat; he kept pulling, widening the hole, exposing the crumbling lath behind the wall, the electrical wires running along a wooden stud. Just enough space existed between the lath, the drywall, for him to squeeze between.
The clerk’s hysterical shouts for her husband transformed into something far worse. Boston refused to turn; he heard the tear of fabric, the wet pluck of teeth from the jaw. He tore free another section of drywall then hauled himself face first inside the space. Boston whimpered as a nail dug into his back. Inch by inch, he wiggled deeper along the interior of the wall, nose scraping the lath.
Boston held his breath a long, long time.
He held his breath even as his flesh slathered the lath. Craning his skinless neck, Boston glimpsed a tentacular club molesting the wall studs. His eyes ruptured; the world turned dark save the sound, the sound of vacuumed suckling, a newborn at the breast.
The sloppy sound of marrow drawn straight from Boston’s bones.
~ Joseph A. Pinto
© Copyright 2016 Joseph A. Pinto. All Rights Reserved.
It drives me mad.
That wet smack.
It is all I ever hear.
I watch them in my shower. Wispy bodies through beaded glass.
He is a strong man. Muscle fibers twitch, bounce within his thighs. The fog does not hide everything; not yet.
I see his face, his head thrown back, eyes clenched as if he is in pain. But I know he is not in pain.
That wet smack drives me mad.
It used to be me in the shower. My wife clings to him now. Legs wrapped around his hips, her perfect feet locked together. Locking her; locking them. He holds her, supports her effortlessly the way I once did; the way I want to.
That wet smack intensifies. His urgent groans fill the stall; my wife remains silent. Fog steals them from me. I am allowed the occasional glimpse of her breast pressed against his chest, the way she used to press against mine.
I am not jealous. I cannot be. This is our lifestyle. We share then come back to one another. But I can no longer come back. I cannot have my wife anymore. Not that way, no longer.
I watch them. Wispy bodies within the billowy fog; within the concealing vapor.
That wet smack.
That wet smack.
Then a thud.
The shower stall erupts in a geyser of red. The glass trickles red; all is red. Now that wet smack turns into a moist suckling.
I turn away.
The doorbell rings.
I am prepared; I am always prepared.
I greet him, make eye contact as always. It excites them. The eye contact. Knowing you offer your wife so willingly; knowing you offer your wife with such confidence. I lead him upstairs. I lead him to the shower. I watch him undress; he knows the rules. They all know the rules. I watch—I must always watch.
She waits for him in the shower. Perfect body glistening, hair dripping along her back; expectant Goddess. How I once loved to pull that hair; how I once loved to ball it within my fist.
She cracks the stall door open for him, beckoning. Her knowing smile arouses him; her knowing smile cuts me at the knees. He steps inside. The fog claims him; claims them. Water splattering the door as I watch. Beaded bodies through beaded glass. That smack.
That wet smack.
The man is anxious, too anxious. My wife is not pleased.
She ends him.
It has been months since my wife has been mine.
I have lost much sleep wondering how; I have lost much sleep wondering why.
I hear her, the same way I hear her every night; night after night. Her voice echoing down the hall; her voice echoing down my spine. Sweet as ever; suggestive as ever. She does not come out of the shower anymore.
Tonight as she turns the water on, I imagine her perfect body moving through it. I imagine the water sluicing over her skin. She likes the water hot; she always did. Hot water; hot flesh. It disguises the cold, clammy death she has become.
I hear her calling.
But she is not my wife. Not anymore.
I pull the covers over my head; she croons to me.
I no longer trust who she is; I no longer trust what she has become. I know that if I enter the shower, I am lost.
I will get through this night, somehow. I will get through.
When the doorbell rings tomorrow, I will feed her again.
Even as that wet smack drives me mad.
~ Joseph A. Pinto
© Copyright 2016 Joseph A. Pinto. All Rights Reserved.
They preferred the angry gnash of the storm over the silence.
Like nervous teeth, the panes chattered. The rafters creaked; dust floated down upon their heads.
The man—the man who had been taken in—spoke in a hoarse whisper. “I’ll go. I’ll do it. If it wasn’t for your family, I’d still be out there. Or worse.”
No one answered. No one argued his point, either. Finally, the father spoke. “The shed is about twenty yards back. It’s unlocked.”
The man massaged his crooked chin. “Door swing in or out?”
The father believed it was a good question to ask; this man was sharp. Pride swelled within him. It had been harrowing, but his family had done good, risking their wellbeing to drag the man in from the outside. But a pit burned the father’s stomach. The man had gotten lucky once. Luck would not prevail a second time. “In.”
“Long as the wind didn’t bang it open, I’m good.”
The father pressed his hand against the pane, its surface cooling his fever within. He could see nothing beyond the glass, however. “The generator is in the back, set on blocks. It should be deep enough into the shed to be protected. When you stand in front of it, look down to your right. The gas can will be there.”
The father felt his family press behind him. Mother’s face stooped lower than the boughs of the snow-laden trees. What remained of them, anyway. She clutched their children—son and daughter—under breasts that hadn’t been touched in years. “Yes.”
“Mm-hmm.” The man knew what that meant. The generator would power the house for another full day, at most. “I won’t allow your family to grow cold. I’ll fill it. When it runs out, we’ll figure out what’s next. Together.”
The man shrugged into his coat, careful not to worsen the tear along the shoulder seam. He tugged his wool hat until it hung low over his brow. He looked at the children, the souls-sucked-dry children. “Together,” the man repeated, not sure for whose benefit he’d said it, and cradled his rifle in his arm.
He reached for the door, but the father seized his hand. “Keep low. Don’t stop.”
The man grunted and was ready. The father twisted the knob. The wind shoved the door aside, and immediately the shrieking swallowed the man as well the snow, the blinding snow. The father threw his back into the door, snaring the blizzard’s icy tendrils in the jam. The storm howled; the panes rattled like tormented bones. “He’ll make it,” the father said, talking to the walls. “He’ll make it.”
The father watched as the man sunk thigh deep into the drift, watched and lost him to the white. The blizzard erased his footprints in one exhale. Then he waited. The minutes passed. “We needed him,” he said to the mother. “It could’ve been me instead.”
“It should have been you instead.”
He exhaled icy smoke, then chewed the inside of his mouth. He slowly turned around, keeping vigil at the pane. Snowflakes clung, mounting and growing ever deeper, white locusts of a great plague. Minutes. Minutes. Minutes passed.
“Gas can’s emptied by now.” The father visualized the man’s progress, the man’s steps. “Priming it…cranking it over…he knows what he’s doing…he knows…”
The children sniffled on the hardened snot clotting their noses. And their mother hugged them close to a heart that had long grown cold.
The father clutched the knob. Waiting. It vibrated in his hand. “Any minute.”
A gust charged the house, a mighty bull outside the walls. The rafters groaned; dust danced upon their heads; small, ghostly marionettes. “Any time now…”
He heard a distant crack. Another trunk snapping. Another tree succumbing to the storm. He thought of his neighbors, the elderly neighbors, for whom he’d once mowed their lawns. “Any…time…now…”
A spirit beckoned from the nether; the man emerged, white, spectral white, coat and hat and legs white, face and brow crusted in wind-driven snow. The rifle slung like a long ice shard over his shoulder. “I told you,” the father said, voice rising like the wind, “I told you!”
The man, mere feet from the door, polluted the drift with a crimson spray. The father jerked from the window as if struck. But his eyes stuck to the pane.
They swirled round the man, the needle teeth, the razor claws, unnatural piranhas of winter’s blight, tearing and cutting as the gale disguised their intentions. The wind kept the man upright, and the drift kept him mired. And they swirled, swirled till the man was no more.
The crimson spray disappeared, the drift a new blank canvas from which to paint. The man’s entrails clung briefly to the pane before slipping away.
He shuddered, the father did, but he would not cry. He covered his mouth. “We lost a good man.”
Then a loud click in the father’s ear. “We lost a good man,” the mother said, “and now we have none.”
The father felt the cold metal against the back of his head. It pushed forward, forcing him toward the door. “We have power now. When it runs out, we’ll figure out what’s next. Together,” the mother said to her children.
“You won’t survive without me.”
“Maybe not. But I sure as hell won’t die with you.”
The rifle burrowed into the base of his skull. He clutched the knob. He would freeze to death without a coat, without the proper clothes. He prayed that would be the best thing to come.
The father stumbled into the maw of the blizzard. It chewed him alive.
“There, there, my babies,” the mother cooed to her children, watching as their father filled the pane. “There, there.”
~ Joseph A. Pinto
© Copyright 2016 Joseph A. Pinto. All Rights Reserved.
“You have been dogged in your pursuit for an exclusive, so here it is—contrary to popular belief, I owe my new-found stardom to her. She, my biggest fan. But before all that, there are facts you need to understand about me, as well my recent rise to fame.
“I had to adapt a different persona, you see, one that would allow me reintegration back into society. I had grown stale, my message old, ineffective. I had lost my edge, and I admit now, for all your viewers, that I was too proud to see it. As an artist, I committed a grave mistake—I failed miserably in keeping with the changing times.
“So I went back underground. I played the small circuits and as I did so, I painstakingly recast myself. Gone was the haughtiness that once defined me. A humble thing, I developed a greater sense of self. Who I was. Who I was supposed to be. Slowly, dependent only upon word of mouth, I attracted a new following. One by one, they came to me. They came to see my performance.
“Excuse me, water? Ah, thank you. I was quite parched. Where was I? Yes. My performance…
“My act had grown dull, my song repetitious and as such, people had become blind and deaf to me. I realized I needed to restore their senses. So I worked diligently in those early days of my rebranding. How was my experience? Well, I very much cherished playing to the midnight crowds of those speakeasies in New York and LA and all their sordid elements. The sharpness of booze in the air, the apparitions the haze of nicotine induced, and the scores the martini shakers orchestrated in the background. It became a breeding ground for inspiration.
“I began gaining notice then, as you know. I became the new thing. I emerged from the underground. Reinvigorated. Restored. The decision was made for me to tour.
“Do I remember the first time I saw her? How could I not? New Zealand. The very first night of my tour, my very first tour. There she swayed…first row…the crush of a thousand bodies at her back. I found her easily. Her eyes spoke to me. Those wayward eyes, longing to be saved. She attended every show, I later discovered; all of them, worldwide. Wait, please, I will stop you right there—she was not among my groupies. That was beneath her.
“As time progressed, and my prominence flourished once more, her affinity for me became very public knowledge. Yes, yes, of course she cultivated it. She grew it into an unabashed thing, so much so that even I read about it in the tabloids long before we met. It was only a matter of time. Much like everything else about her, she hardly kept it secret. The money she had spent following me became a media sensation, partly due to individuals such as yourself who payed heed and partially embellished the reports to enliven them a bit, eh? Perhaps she had been irresponsibly flippant, the way she spent her inheritance, but mind you, she chose her cards from the deck, no one else. A socialite, a celebrity, she wanted for nothing. Nothing, save for what she craved. And what she craved was…well, that is where my story leads, does it not?
“I sought the grandeur of celebrity status too, don’t misunderstand me; coveted it actually. But after time, I realized it was not enough on its own. I required an additional outlet. A vessel. And so it happened that she became the one. My verse then was one of twisted tongues. I was still feeling my way through the obscurity, struggling in my acclimation as I climbed up fame’s ladder, and yet, she understood me, my language. She clung to my every word. Through my notes, I gave her meaning but through her, I found reason. Together, we adopted a purpose.
“As a result, I manipulated the lottery to choose a deserving fan. You seem so surprised, but what else was I to do? The time had come to expand my reach. The time had come to mainstream my call. She presented my quickest avenue, and she knew it as well. Rest assured, my management team frowned upon this exploit. ‘Twas bad enough I plucked followers from the crowd, they reasoned, but this? I took it all under consideration. I did my due diligence. Earlier in my existence, I had been too proud, but I learned my lesson well. This was a necessary thing.
“She knew the contest was hers alone to win, and she rejoiced. Soon after the formalities of the announcement, the photo opps were arranged, the talk show circuits scheduled. She was always one for smooth talking. In fact, I fondly recall her first press conference. Silently, I stood in the shadows at the back of the room, my disguise a masterful getup. And I admired her, the way she commanded the attention of all, the perfect tilt of her chin, the exquisite swivel of her hips. I admired her for all her casual simplicities, a facade so carefully constructed. One society had lionized. My decision had been the right one, I realized at that moment. I had played my cards equally as well, and my time of canonization had come.
“Pardon me? You mention it seeming far too orchestrated on my part? Please, allow me to clear up an inaccuracy — I may have skewed the winning result, I may have bankrolled the cable networks to further promotion, but it was she who picked the moment, the venue. It all came together, a perfect storm of elements. Timing is everything in show business, is it not? Sequenced and sparkling, she took her hometown stage to thunderous applause. The house lights dimmed. The stage lights rose, and she shone. For a fleeting moment, I must admit, a pang of jealousy struck my bones. Indeed, she commanded their attention.
“But I commandeered their souls.
“Even you must remember how I emerged to the hush of that crowd…I certainly do. The air carried a charge, crackling and alive. It reminded me of the days I honed my skills in the many speakeasies; those dark basement bars where the patrons employed fake names and no one would be missed. I looked out over the rows, those endless, churning rows. I raised my hand. I have come for you, I said. Then dropped it to a roar. I never lost the knack to work my flock over. I always worked them to a froth.
“She turned to me, lips moving, but from which came no sound. I love you. In all honesty, I loved her as well. But she was never to know that. She had become my vessel, nothing more. Yes, some still accuse me of seducing her. To that, I respond she had merely succumbed of her own accord.
“She nodded toward the paparazzi, cognizant of her perfect, final pose. Those eyes…those crypt-pallid eyes…they fluttered. And as the flashbulbs burst, I drew my forefinger across her throat and listened as she sang the most rapturous of songs.
“So my stardom I indeed owe to her. She has allowed me to take residence in every home in America, across the world. My popularity has soared. I have never been more in vogue. Revered, as it were. Death, a rock star at last.
“Oh, you are quite welcome. No, this has not been a bother in the least. I do not often grant interviews, but you have been quite diligent in securing time with me. Strange, how much of her I glimpse in you. Are we still live? Good. Good.
“I would greatly love to hear your song.”
~ Joseph A. Pinto
© Copyright 2016 Joseph A. Pinto. All Rights Reserved.
He didn’t much like his new job. He liked working with the old man even less.
Not because the old man’s pores leaked bourbon and unfulfilled aspirations each morning; he could tolerate that. No, it was because he was the low man on the totem pole, and the old man was a downright hard-ass about it.
The old man blurted, “Got another one,” then resumed whistling the tune he’d started a mile back down the road.
He didn’t know how the old man did it, how he could spot the strays so quickly. He tried and tried but just couldn’t. All he could see was the pitted road that bumped them along, an endless stretch exiled from the interstate; lonely fields, crusty with frost. Grey clouds smothered both of them, greedy in their need to devour the sky. The kid wrung his hands. In spite of himself, he asked, “How do you know?”
“Know? I don’t, kid. I feel.”
The kid glanced at Orleans. The yard called him that, Orleans; the old man loved himself his blues. “Feel what?”
From Orleans’ mouth popped a half-strangled burp. It stunk of last night’s bottle. “Once you get to doin’ what I been doin’ for so long, you just feel it.” Eyes pulled from the road, he stared hard at the kid. Just stared, his gospel fiery in his eyes.
The kid nodded, squinting through the dust-streaked windshield, searching again for what only Orleans seemed to feel; he rubbed the skin atop his hands raw. Over divots and forgotten stone, Orleans guided the pickup. He eased off the gas.
The kid bit down on his tongue, the question where on the tip of it. But as Orleans steered through the curve, he finally saw what the other man felt and wished he hadn’t.
The kid only viewed one of them. The rest of the strays, they were somewhere, somewhere off in the village that was part of the township, but not. The township no longer recognized the village; the township no longer claimed the village as its own.
The township only dealt with the strays along the road.
Orleans pulled to a stop. They sat, the blues oozing from Orleans’ skin. Expectation thickened the air between them. “Well?”
The kid turned. “Well what?”
“Well are you goin’ to get the fuck out and take care of it?”
“Me? Why does it need to be me?”
The kid chewed his bottom lip. “Look, Orleans -”
“Look my ass, you’re takin’ care of this. It’s the way it goes, kid. I drive, you do the dirty work. My days of scapin’ roadkill are long, long over.”
A sigh, then: “I know that, Orleans, it’s just that I’m not as good as you.”
“Sweet Jesus, Mary and motherfuckin’ Moses! Bein’ good has nothin’ to do with it, kid. You do it. And the more you do it, the better you get. Practice, kid. It’s called practice.”
Practice…but no one in the yard ever mentioned anything about practice. When his pop got him the job at the department of public works, he thought his days would consist of honest work, barrels of trash and recyclables heaved into the hopper of a garbage truck. Picking litter up from curbside, maybe; filling potholes under a blazing summer sun. But the strays? No, he never thought for a moment he’d be out handling the strays duty with Orleans. Truth was, he’d never exactly known who disposed of the strays.
Once hired, he knew.
“Still don’t understand why the troopers don’t take care of this. Why they -”
“Cause they don’t, kid. Once the troopers acknowledge the strays, then they acknowledge a problem. We don’t want that. You see what I’m sayin’?”
“So it’s us.”
Orleans pursed his lips. “It’s us, kid.”
Another sigh, this one dredging the bottom of his lungs. The kid leaned, retrieving the work gloves lying by his boots. He pulled them on, face wrinkled with unbearable worry. A chimney smoke laced breeze whistled in as he opened the door. Orleans grabbed his arm before he left.
“Practice, kid. That’s all it is. I was no different from you once. Wide eyed, a little scared. But I got used to it. No different from wipin’ your ass. Strays ain’t goin’ nowhere, kid, get used to that. Meantime, we got to figure out who can do my job. I can’t do it forever.”
“Why not leave them to rot along the road? No one comes out here. Just the northerners if they make a wrong turn.”
“It’s the order of things, kid. It’s the way it’s done. We’re civil folk.” Orleans jerked a thumb towards the tree line. “But they’re animals. They don’t think like we do. Just fuck and multiply, that’s it. Now there’s too many, and if a few get hit crossin’ the road, well, we need to play our part. Now get out there, kid. Get out and scrape up that mess. You ask too many questions, anyhow.”
The kid did as he was told; he took the shovel from the pickup bed. Through his gloves, the cold of the shovel seeped into his hands. He crossed the front of the pickup, eyes jumping in his head. From behind the wheel, Orleans nodded, prodding him forward.
The sky collapsed upon him, laden with snow, at most a few hours off. It bit into his bones. He drew the collar of his flannel coat to his neck. He imagined his bed, the warmth of his thick quilt. But those thoughts were of little use now. So the kid walked, gravel crunching under the soles of his boots.
After paces, many paces, the kid saw it – shadowed, immobile – the stray, no more a pall heap along the road. He wanted to stop, to run back, but he could feel Orleans boring holes into the back of his head. Slowly, he pressed on.
When he was much younger, his mom and pop warned him about the strays, warned him about their ways, their village of twine and straw. Now here he was.
And the stray, it lay mere feet away.
The kid approached, pushed his shovel under it, the harsh grate of metal on rock making his asshole clench. But he was unable to scoop it. He tried again; the prone body just flopped to its side. “Shit.” The kid fought back tears. He glanced back at Orleans; the old man grew agitated, waved his hands. The kid took a breath. “Practice. That’s all I have to do.”
He got his back into it this time, but the weight of the stray within the shovel’s pan startled him; it was deceivingly heavy. The body tumbled.
With the back of his glove, the kid wiped his mouth. Practice, dammit. He looked to Orleans again, seeking approval for his determination. The old man remained a flurry of hands. Strange. The kid didn’t understand. Then he turned.
They emerged from the tree line, skin slick with the frost that coated the grass. Even from the distance, the kid could see their limbs shivering, the shudder of muscle beneath their vitiligo-spotted flesh. Set low upon their haunches, they fanned out in groups of three; groups of three here, groups of three there.
It came out as a hoarse whisper. The kid could barely talk. He watched while, indifferent to the grey canopy of morning, the strays advanced without trepidation, a trait so wrong from anything he’d ever been told.
A melody now, trancelike in its progression. The kid opened his mouth, still unable to articulate words. Movement distracting his attention from the strays; the body at his feet was not so prone anymore. It pushed itself to its side, rearing its head back, an oblong aberration set upon a thick stalk. It peered through tearing, membrane sheeted eyes. A needled tongue lolled as it sang. “Orleansss…you tell Missstaaa Orleansss…he take oursss from oursss all the time…yeah he take oursss from oursss all the time…now we take yoursss from yoursss oh yeah… take yoursss from yoursss we gonna dine…”
The kid should’ve slammed the shovel atop the stray’s head. Should’ve…but lack of experience left him ill prepared. Instead, he dropped it and turned on his heel. But Orleans had already thrown the pickup into reverse, a gravel infused cloud erupting from the rear tires like a bomb blast. The kid understood.
He understood why the old man’s love of the blues preceded him. Understood why Orleans couldn’t do the dirty work forever.
“Yoursss from yoursss, we gonna dine and dine…”
Orleans was a speck down the road. The kid’s boots still hammered the broken pavement, though. His feet ached under the morning half-light, but the strays squeezed the road from both sides, their needy gait worse than their appearance. The kid thought he heard some blues whistled from another tongue mutated a longtime before. The kid laughed, wondering who Orleans might choose next to do his job.
The kid laughed and laughed; he laughed until he cried.
~ Joseph A. Pinto
© Copyright 2015 Joseph A. Pinto. All Rights Reserved.
Strangely, I felt no pain. Stars exploded before my eyes, and all went black.
I should’ve known better. I’d heard the stories, but dismissed them as fancy. Urban legend. I’d taken the garbage out, then for a walk with the dog. Together we enjoyed the quiet of a birthing night. Muffin sniffed around a pole while I admired the pink sky. I never got many of those moments; the ones of solitude, that was. My home was a frantic hub, three teenage girls and an angry wife. I escaped as often as I could, even if it meant something as simple as watching Muffin piss atop a neighbor’s lawn.
The lab reared her head, nose attacking the air, hackles raised. She backed her ass against me, a deep growl caught in her throat. I scanned the lawns expecting to see another animal, a raccoon, maybe; worst still, a skunk. I saw nothing. Only a white car humming down the street. “Easy girl,” I cooed, her snout swinging in confusion.
That’s all I remembered.
I woke in the black. Shirtless. Legs folded under me. Shoeless, too. Dog leash still in hand. My body jostled about. I threw my hands out, struck metal. A trunk. Fuck, it was all true then.
My back ached. I thought of all the good work performed by my chiropractor now gone to shit. And my head, well that ached like a motherfucker as well; my fingers traced the egg protruding under my hair. I inhaled the stale air of my confinement, felt the sweat dance along my balls.
I waited. I thought. I thought hard. The stories…one had to abide by certain rules. I fumbled with Muffin’s leash, passing it hand to hand. It finally came to me. Rule one. You don’t talk about Shambler Club. Rule two. You most definitely don’t talk about Shambler Club.
How many rules were there?
The jostling stopped. All grew still. My senses screamed. But I kept remembering.
Rule three. If someone gets bit, you’re next in line.
Only two bodies to a fight. One fight at a time.
I should’ve been thinking of my kids, but doing so would only dull any edge I might hope to have. I realized I needed to be ready. I needed to fight.
No shirts, no shoes.
I heard a key click in the lock.
The trunk lid rose.
Fights go as long as they need. If this is your first night at Shambler Club, you have to fight. Because it will be your last if you don’t.
Artificial light blinded me. A crowd’s roar filled my ears.
I pulled myself up. Slowly at first, eyes gradually adjusting to the spotlights set above my head. I willed the soreness from my body. No, not really; it didn’t work. Wincing, I flipped a leg out from the bowel of the trunk. Then another. I saw a cracked sticker upon a faded bumper: HONK IF YOU’RE HAPPY
I saw them, four deep. Maybe five. Man. Woman. Even child. They cheered wildly; money exchanged hands. I wondered how much was wagered in my favor. I wondered how many even cared. Sand filled the gaps between my toes; it sure as hell felt better than the bottom of the trunk.
“Suburbanite dad, are you ready?”
The announcement echoed from the speakers set up around the pit. And it was a pit, filled with a loose sand that claimed the tops of my feet; pitted railroad ties stacked three high, serving as some rudimentary border. Barbed wire, strung from aluminum poles driven every ten feet or so into the ground accompanied them. Warehouse, arena or otherwise, the arrangement was impressive. No one was getting into the pit. More importantly, no one was getting out.
“I said, suburbanite dad, are you ready?”
Unsure, I raised my hand. Outside the pit, the savages went wild. The cheers, the heckling, resonated inside my head making that egg feel watermelon sized. No doubt about it now, that urban legend was all too real. I thought of a dark place, any I might have. Recollections of bedtime lullabies for my daughters weren’t helping me now. I needed to get pissed off: thoughts of my brother-in-law who disrupted every goddamn thing I ever had planned; my wife, who always left the recycling bin full for me to dump on stormy nights; a life filled with frustration…
Bring it on.
At the far end of the pit sat a trailer; its aluminum door began to rise. I couldn’t see it emerge at first, hidden as it was in the gloom. But by inches it revealed itself; stained jeans hanging from an emaciated waist, grey-pasty fingers clacking along its sides. The Shambler saw me. Correct that – smelled me, the way dear Muffin used to inhale the fragrance of the hydrants in town. Locked onto whatever scent I gave off (the shit smell of fear, maybe?), the Shambler lurched from the trailer, gaining uncanny speed across the makeshift sand bed.
The crowd rocked with delirium. I’m sure they sensed an easy kill. My first impulse? I ran away, looking every bit like Costello in those old flicks I used to watch with dad. But this was my ass on the line, and I didn’t give a flying fuck exactly how manly I appeared.
It didn’t think strategy; it didn’t craft a plan. The Shambler knew only hunger, and it saw meat dead ahead. Oddly, I found myself laughing as I ran for my life. If I’d believed the Shambler Club a thing of legend, then surely Shamblers themselves were the rainbows ringing my hairy ass. Pallid faced, milky eyed, it came after me.
I was a dad; hell, the very suburbanite dad I was introduced as. I knew nothing of the rules of the pit, nothing about fighting the undead. My feet churned clumsily through the sand. I stumbled, fell. Gashed my palm on barbed wire as I reached out going down. The crowd was right there, in my face, screaming bloody terror in support of their wagers, separated only by the barb and a healthy fear of the Shambler.
The Shambler, well, it was right in my face, stalking me down with uncanny speed for something that, scientifically, shouldn’t have been able to move; shouldn’t have even existed. It straddled me, so cold, feeling so rubbery. From its mouth wafted the rank scent of flesh worked over by the sun. Its teeth, those gnashing, crooked teeth, worried me most.
It lunged for my neck, but I’d been hiding my face behind my hands and somehow pushed its chin away. There I lay, in the pit, in the sand, my entire existence narrowed down to a hellish moment in some undisclosed location; undisclosed to me, at least. My mind went back to rules one and two: you never, ever talk about Shambler Club.
Because you can’t.
The Shambler’s jaws snapped: open, shut, open, shut, but still I shoved its chin aside. Sideways, it glared at me, those dead pupils seeing something of this realm I simply could not. The crowd chanted. My mind began to drift. I thought of Brianna, my oldest. Interested boys were already lining up outside my door; she kept her iPhone concealed from me all the time.
My strength ebbed; the jaws drew closer.
Madison, my middle girl. She aspired to be a baker. Her cupcakes had packed unwanted pounds around my midsection.
Snap, snap, those yellowed teeth.
Then there was Bailey. My little Bailey. She’d always be my baby. All my girls would be, of course, but her especially. She still wanted my goodnight kiss upon her forehead at night, still hugged me like I was Santa Claus every day before leaving the house for work.
In long strands, the saliva spilled from the Shambler’s lips, mere inches from taking my life.
I thought of the endless grief my wife gave me when buying a book from Amazon while her purses formed an endless caravan outside our closet. I thought of the many times she extinguished the bedroom light without ever giving me a second glance, let alone saying goodnight.
The Shambler’s chin halted. Began moving away.
I thought of her many criticisms, the way she mocked me for my lack of grace under pressure.
Slowly, its head tilted upward.
Yes, I needed to bring myself to a dark place.
My hand, it continued to bleed from the wound; rivulets crisscrossed my forearm, my elbow. But I wouldn’t stop pushing back against the Shambler, would not stop –
I still held tight to Muffin’s leash.
With my free hand, I reached out, tossing the leash round the Shambler’s neck. It swung up, over and around. I shifted my bodyweight beneath the Shambler; the sand served as my ally. I clutched the dangling leash and, hands now crossed under its chin, flipped atop the undead thing. Summoning all the strength I could muster from my middle-aged core, I reared back on the leash.
I pulled and didn’t stop. It might’ve been due in part to the rage I felt over mowing the lawn time after time without appreciation; maybe it was the simple desire to keep giving my Bailey those goodnight kisses. Either way, I pulled on that fucking leash, screamed above the crowd as the nylon tore further through the wound on my palm. The Shambler shuddered as its head gradually separated from its shoulders.
I pulled. The crowd cheered me on (some still heckled as well). I thought of Muffin, not knowing where she was, and thanked her for the blessing that was her leash. Rage spewed from my mouth; with a hefty tug, the nylon cord cleaved dead flesh and its brittle spinal cord. Its head plopped atop the sand.
My hand throbbed like hell, but it was better than the alternative. I fist pumped the air, playing to my supporters’ adulation. As I turned to leave the pit, I realized there was nowhere for me to go.
“Ladies and gentlemen, the suburbanite dad scores the upset victory!”
The ring announcer’s voice was nowhere, yet everywhere. I spun round and round in the sand, recalling the days I spent playing on the beach as a boy. But this was no beach.
“Can he do it again?”
And I am no longer a boy.
“I said, can he do it again?”
The car that delivered me into the pit didn’t offer further protection. And it’s not like I expected to find the keys inside. Even if they were, I’m wasn’t about to lock myself in and hide. What would’ve been the point? Of the many stories I’d heard, Shambler Club still remained a champion short worth remembering.
As the trailer door clanked open again, the crowd grew hush. I stood. I waited. I saw toenails, perfectly manicured, brushed with a blue stolen from summer’s sky. Skin so tan, so fresh – so unlike the thing rotting down at my feet. Shapely legs sprouting from designer shorts…my eyes continued their upward journey. I knew every inch of that dead flesh, of course. What I didn’t know was how they’d managed to turn my wife so fast.
I thought of all her sideways glances, tightened my grip on Muffin’s leash and charged.
~ Joseph A. Pinto
© Copyright 2015 Joseph A. Pinto. All Rights Reserved.