Archive by Author | Joseph Pinto

Shambler Club

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

Fuckers.

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.

No.

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.

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Silence

Beneath the shovel, the earth turned easily; he could taste its peaty grittiness along his tongue. The groping fingers of a rainstorm lightly stroked his neck.

He had found the shovel deep in the yard, down near the corner of the shed, at the end of the trail that led him where now he stood. He had followed that trail; it matted the grass down, bent the grass blades, beckoning him forward; there, like an x marking the spot, the shovel, driven into the ground. The top of the handle muddied a shade darker than the rest of the wood; well used.

From their home, his wife cried, cleaving the lulling silence much as the shovel cleaved the lawn.

Together, they had chosen this idyllic neighborhood, his wife and he, for its rolling hills, colonial houses, for its grocery store where the butcher memorized names, memorized meat cuts for those names, for the church where its worshippers flocked as one, smart in their deep-blue suits, unruffled mauve dresses, for its coffee shop where the scent of dark roast served as opiate for the mind.

Mostly, however, they had chosen this idyllic neighborhood for its silence.

He had never realized how quiet it truly was until they moved into their home, until they unpacked, sorted through their moving boxes, until they made love on wooden floors in empty rooms that did not carry an echo. He had never realized that the open windows delivered only summer’s hot breeze, not the birdcalls from the long limbs of the elms, so pregnant with foliage.

From their home, his wife cried, cleaving the lulling silence much as the shovel cleaved the lawn.

He had never heard the buzz of passing cars in the street, nor the crickets serenade the night. He had felt the eyes upon his back, however, as he carried the bassinet through the front door, eyes trickling over him as the sweat trickled along his spine, trickling, trickling as he carried the changing table, the dresser then its drawers, the rocker through the front door. He had felt the eyes, saw nothing when he turned. Nothing but sashaying curtains, quivering blinds.

He had never heard the mowers, had never given a second thought how practiced the lush landscapes could remain. Though thoughts and thinking were often difficult when sleep deprived, when thoughts and thinking were disrupted by needy cries of a newborn child.

From their home, his wife cried, cleaving the lulling silence much as the shovel cleaved the lawn.

He had followed that trail, from the front door to where the grass matted down, found the shovel deep in the yard, driven into the ground. He had felt the eyes upon his back as he stood gaping, felt the eyes along his spine, trickling, trickling.

From their home, his wife cried.

Beneath the shovel, the earth turned easily. He tasted dirt. Smelled rain. He called to his wife, stay inside, stay inside, called out above the silence for all in the idyllic neighborhood to hear. He turned, saw nothing. Nothing but sashaying curtains, quivering blinds.

He dug his hole without a further word.

~ Joseph A. Pinto

© Copyright 2015 Joseph A. Pinto. All Rights Reserved.

Pathogen

Cleanliness is next to godliness.

So I was ordained.

I did not wish to realize what soon would become my mission – no, not at first. However, upon mahogany framed photographs, cabinetry and desktops and once brilliant sheens of glass, I glimpsed smudge laden impressions, shrilling so loudly in defiance, that no longer could I deny my calling.

When first I arrived, t’was the maid I suspected of carelessness.

The maid – the latex so snug round each of her delicate fingers; how I adored the brisk snap of glove at her wrist. The maid – whose pores emanated the addictive rich luster of lemon and pine. Yes, at first I suspected the maid of carelessness, of inattention to detail, but – forgive me – that notion occurred before God came to me, before He revealed the goodness of her aseptic heart. All too clearly then, I recognized the near futile nature of her fight.

Shoulder to shoulder, I thusly joined her.

She took to my camaraderie, the careful twinkle in her eye serving as unmistakable proof that she recognized the malignancy burrowed within my smile. I watched from afar as wraithlike she slipped room to room, wielding in elegant arcs her chosen duster of ostrich down, disrupting the meticulously crafted plans of the pathogens; alas, they still found a way to reconvene. Yet her fortitude never waned; a true warrior, my respect she earned unfalteringly.

I chastised myself then; how could it be the maid: her attention to detail so prudent, her keen mind strumming at a perfect pitch. Ah, brave soul, she had but one flaw.

She possessed not the heart of a killer.

As the weeks elapsed, I realized her innocence remained as laundered as her charm. Her loyalty steadfast, she rose daily alongside the cock from her unassuming quarters to enter into a tomb of opposition and filth. But her strain I soon glimpsed; not within her eyes, mind you, but the manner in which her veins twitched while smoothing the apron at her waist. No longer her cheeks blushed upon our stolen glances; my words, once soothing as only honey can soothe, now hastily ingested in a caustic bite. As acid dribbles to scour stone, so too did her very soul begin to erode. I had seen quite enough.

Heaven’s gilded light guided me through shadows of eve. Down halls I stalked, snaring the floorboard’s breath as in warning it exhaled. The initial quarters required minimal effort or care…for the pathogens squirmed little under the cases chosen to silence their hellish maws.

Into a larger chamber of grandeur I ascended, thereby viewing the host, slumbering in tangled, monstrous limbs under its canopied shelter. There I hovered, watching in frozen silence as the moon danced, leaving polish in untainted glitter across my eyes, until I could watch no longer. No more smudging, no more fouling in the wake of diligent servitude! I drew my eager blade across them both, hummed along to their wet whistles, their gurgle songs of release.

My calling complete, I withdrew back to her quarter’s door, softly rap-rap-rapping until it parted, revealing to me she – the maid – my rapturous mistress of purity. I offered my hand; she claimed it, yet not before slipping the nightgown from her sylphen shoulders. “So it is done, then. God has chosen to cleanse this domicile,” exhaling into my arms.

“Yes,” agreed I, “by the butler’s hand once more.”

~ Joseph A. Pinto

© Copyright 2015 Joseph A. Pinto. All Rights Reserved.

Ward

Worse still than the muffled oppression of the hallway was the medicinal bouquet that squeezed her throat. If she walked much further, she feared she might not draw a breath at all.

The clamminess of their grasp grew uncomfortable. Glancing downward, she caught the shimmer in her daughter’s wide eyes. “It’s okay. I brought you here so you can get better.”

Around them, activity bustled. Behind closed doors nurses vanished, while doctors, studious fresh faces half concealed by clipboards, sauntered by. A shriek sang out – then snipped – suppressed from somewhere down the never-ending hallway. Her eyes darted downward again, but if her daughter had heard, she never let on. The child stared quietly ahead. “Sometimes people here hurt.” Lying would accomplish nothing at this junction. People here did hurt. “But only for a little.”

The hallway widened, allowing for the girth of a large, horseshoe shaped desk. Hand raised high, a guard approached. “What do we have here?”

“A walk-in”

“Is that all?”

“Yes.” She felt the squeeze of small fingers. “We’re hoping.”

Behind the desk, a rosy-cheeked nurse lifted her head. She scrutinized them, then nodded toward the guard. “I’ll call ahead,” she said.

“Okay,” the guard nodded in turn, attention now seized by his crooked badge. Fingers fiddled across his chest. “Walk to the end. Double doors on the right.”

They continued along. Her throat began to burn, and it became quite hard to breathe; the air spiced with blooms of Lysol, the ghosts of cleaning agents. She prayed she would forget that scent once they arrived back home. Home – what remained of it, anyway. Fresh baked brownies once served as a shawl there; cut flowers from the garden once enveloped them both. “We’ll be done and home before you know it.”

Another cry resonated; soon it died. Cut off. No doubt, her daughter had heard it this time; no doubt, it came from beyond the double doors. Sweat pooled between their palms but neither mother nor daughter released their grasp. “Sometimes people here hurt,” she reminded.

They walked until they could walk no longer. She glanced backward. Endlessly, the hallway stretched behind. The guard watched them, fingers still dabbling with his badge. Defiantly, she flipped strands of hair from her face, then followed her daughter into the ward.

Immediately silence consumed them, betrayed only by their hastened breaths. Partitions lined the walls. She lingered before one, sweeping aside the fabric drape liner that sealed its interior from view. An empty medical bed, sheets crisp and stark; a stainless steel table. Various monitoring equipment; a Dinamap loitering in the far corner. It all appeared so cold, so impersonal. Any trace of caring had long since been sterilized. The drape liner fell back. “Come.”

Mother and daughter moved along. They moved from the partitions and entered the main hub of the ward. At last, someone sauntered to their assistance – a nurse, frayed pigtails protruding from either side of her head. “Sorry, busy, busy. Now, what’s our emergency?”

She pressed hard against the small fingers. “Verbal abuse.”

“Eighth one today. Are we fixing this for good?”

Her fingers squirmed, intensifying the heat between them. “Yes.”

“I hope so for your sake. We have your consent, then?”

She broke free from their clasp.

“Your consent?” the nurse demanded, pigtails spinning in clumsy circles.

A pained expression corkscrewed her face as small fingers gripped her wrist. “Yes.”

The nurse snatched her away. It happened with frightening speed; how could such a small thing move so quickly? She struggled, grasped at empty air, but the rope binding her hands restricted her movement and the nurse – the nurse well practiced at preventing one’s escape. She twisted her head; behind her, small fingers fluttered.

Waving goodbye.

Dragged along her heels, doors sprung open to either side. The commotion assaulted her ears; the shouts, the commands for preparation. Hands, soft yet so strong in their urgency, held her down atop a gurney. She saw them all then, scurrying about – the children, the damned children of a world turned upside down, doling out their judicial punishments as they saw fit. A freckled face boy of ten stood over her, scalpel in one hand, forceps in the other. “Your tongue, please,” he smiled and tore at the duct tape, freeing the lips her daughter had sealed. She screamed, but the doors slipped shut, her cries taken prisoner within the ward.

Then she understood why people here hurt.

~ Joseph A. Pinto

© Copyright 2012, 2013, 2014 Joseph A. Pinto. All Rights Reserved.

Crunch Time

Jeff Montgomery wanted to go home.

His temples throbbed like a bitch, and the spreadsheets beneath his face shimmered like a watery mess. God, he hated tax time. Jeff glanced at his watch. Ten o’clock. Another half-hour, that was it. Work would still be here come dawn.

Removing his glasses, he gave his temples and brow an invigorating rub, eventually reining in his frustration with a deep breath and a sip of cool water. Jeff nearly jumped from his skin when a door slammed from across the hall.

It sounded like a cannon shot – so ferocious the pens inside the mug atop his desk rattled. “Dammit,” he hissed, rolling backward in his chair. His co-workers mentioned something like this one day over lunch. The infamous law office of Matheson and Keene. Whispered speculation persisted about the firm, for their doors were always locked and clientele were never seen; oft-hushed rumors that the partners didn’t even exist. “You actually think the firm is a front for something else?” Jeff remembered asking, face scrupulously wrinkled; he wasn’t sure if the uneasy silence that met him was because he was the new guy or for something else.

He rolled to the desk, pushed his glasses back along his nose and reached for his water. Another bang now, harder than the last. Water breached the rim of the cup, splashing across his sleeve. “Sonofabitch!” Jeff quickly dabbed at the drops atop his paperwork. A different sound filtered to his ears, very faint; barely perceptible. He held his breath, listening intently – soft knocks against the ceiling. Only the heat kicking through the HVAC he surmised, realizing the culmination of nearly fifteen hours of numbers and spreadsheets had finally worked his nerves.

There were other stories, secondhand tales Harold Rivers derived from the cleaning crew. Dark shadows shifting along walls. A palpable heaviness to the air. Sudden door slams and unseen, booted feet pacing nowhere. It all sounded like some cheesy script from a horror movie, but now he sat reminding himself it was only hearsay. A child might hide under the covers at the telling of such yarns, but he was a grown man. Jeff took pen in hand, refocused on his work. Twenty more minutes, he conceded. Twenty more minutes and I’m home.

But the blur of numbers caused his mind to race. What was it that Harold said again? The cleaning crew flat out refused to service the fourth floor at night; in fact, their contract stated that they’d only clean the fourth floor during the day. Jeff gnawed his pen cap. Come to think of it, the cleaning crew always seemed to be finishing the bathrooms when he arrived in the morning. Harold mentioned something else, too. No employee ever worked late on the fourth floor. Jeff put his pen down and slowly turned around.

He was alone in the office. The tax deadline loomed, and yet not a single soul put in extra hours; no one stayed past dusk.

Only him.

A door slammed for a third time; Jeff’s teeth rattled inside his head. He sprang to his feet, grabbing his suit jacket and briefcase, cursing Harold and his goddamn ghost stories as he hurried out the door. Just great; he might as well pull the sheets over his own head once he got home.

He cursed Harold again and everyone else in the office for good measure; how could he have fallen for such shit? He’d never experienced the heebie-jeebies before, and it sure as hell wouldn’t happen now. Jeff stood clutching the doorknob in the near dark of the hall, quickly rationalizing the situation. The knocks from the ceiling were caused by heat blowing through the vents, but the door slams… cleaning crew doesn’t work the fourth floor my ass, they’re obviously up here doing something. It suddenly clicked. Not only were they here, but they were playing practical jokes just to keep those stories alive. Sonofabitches. And the moving shadows could be explained by the eyes adjusting from the harsh incandescent radiance of an office to the admittedly poorly illuminated hall. Jeff released the doorknob, squared his shoulders. He felt better already. Not only would he call out Harold on his absurdity, but he’d make him pick up the tab next time they ate Kung Po chicken, too.

Jeff thought he heard the faint scuff of feet dragging across carpet and spun around. Only the door to the law offices of Matheson and Keene loomed behind him; it seemed to emanate its own soft glow, distinguishing itself from the wall. Yet no light radiated from beneath. He warily approached the door.

It was cool to the touch, as if chilled by the night air. Jeff leaned into it, but the door didn’t budge. Then a gasp came as though someone had been standing behind the door the entire while. He turned on his heel and fled like a startled bird. This time he didn’t give a shit. Fuck tax time. He’d take his coworker’s cue; this would be the last he’d stay late at the office.

He stumbled down the hall – Christ, it’s so damn murky – using the glowing exit sign at the end as his guide. He stopped in front of the elevator, stabbing the down button with his thumb. “I want you to know I’ll be contacting the landlord in the morning. Have your fun hiding now because I’ll be having my fun tomorrow,” he addressed the invisible cleaning crew as firmly as he could, but the sound of his voice rang hollow in the hall. “Friggin’ floors are never mopped right, anyway!” He stabbed at the down button again.

A bell dinged weakly as the elevator door slid open. Light escaped, offering relief from the cloying gloom. Jeff stepped inside, placing his briefcase at his feet as he tapped another button for the first floor. Immediately, he felt better… and more than a bit foolish. He chided himself for acting like a scared child; had his father still been alive he’d have called Jeff a baby. The very thought made him cringe. Just the pressures of working at a new firm, trying to make a favorable impression, he tried to convince himself. Jeff leaned against the polished stainless steel wrapping the interior of the elevator. He eyed his distorted reflection and then loosened his tie as the doors slid shut, thinking of a quick snack at home, and his pillow.

The doors shuddered. Four spindly, pale fingers wiggled between them, pushing and squirming their way through, forefinger curling like a lead scout before the doors jerked open. A bowed man entered the elevator, head hung low as to conceal any features. He wore an impeccable suit as shadowy as the hall and his hair – compactly slicked beyond his ears and glistening like morning dew, nearly touching his slumped shoulders. Somehow, the curvature of his form made his appearance all the more daunting. Like a tendril of smoke, he eased into the corner across from Jeff. “Done burning the midnight oil?” the man inquired, voice rich in cadence.

“Umm, yes.” Jeff stood frozen. How the man had slipped so stealthily down the hall, Jeff hadn’t a clue but here he stood, spine curled and head stooped like some demented butler awaiting his next command.

The man clasped his hands, entwining his snake-like fingers in mesmerizing consideration. “Diligence. There is scarce amount left in this world. A sad thing.”

Jeff said nothing. But the man hardly seemed to notice. “It used to be commonplace for an individual to work dusk till dawn, but no more. There are other priorities, or should I say, other distractions, to misplace one from their tasks.” He shifted his head slightly, face still cast in obscurity. “Forgive my absent-mindedness. It is late, and here I stand rambling on. I am sure you long for home.” A bony finger swept across the elevator panel. “The first floor, yes?”

“Yes, thank you,” Jeff answered, hoping his relief remained hidden. As the doors hissed shut, he leaned toward his briefcase and noticed the man’s shoes. Quite unlike his faultless suit, angry scuffs marred their surface; dirt caked their soles. What an odd thing, Jeff thought, like wearing a tuxedo with a cheap pair of Converse. He lifted his briefcase, hesitant of what to say next. Jeff finally offered a frail chuckle. “Well, I’ll be the first to admit I don’t work late all the time. You do what you must during tax time.”

“Aah, you must work for them,” the man said tersely. Jeff instantly made the connection when the elevator halted with a horrible lurch. He stumbled from the jolt, throwing an arm against the wall for support. “Tsk, tsk,” the man scolded as he tapped a long finger against the elevator panel. “This old box tends to stick a bit between the third and second floor. No worries, my friend. It will free itself in a matter of minutes. I’ve unfortunately experienced this inconvenience numerous times. Still, it is maddening. I’ve phoned the landlord plenty, but as you can see, little has been done. The recurring answer is that the maintenance crew has been on it and found nothing wrong. But they’ve addressed the problem only during the day, when the annoyance hardly occurs. No one is willing to come after hours, it seems.” The man tilted his head at last, revealing slits for eyes, as if the admittance of further light would sear them for eternity. Sallow flesh hung from his bony cheekbones. He offered Jeff his hand. “Allow me to use this untimely interruption to introduce myself. Mr. Keene… and you, sir?”

“Jeff Montgomery, a pleasure to meet you,” he said, barely suppressing a smile. That stupid shit Harold. Jeff would make sure he’d be eating free Kung Po chicken for a week. “With all due respect, I’m quite relieved I’ve met you.” Mr. Keene’s uncommonly silky fingers enveloped his hand; the longer they shook, the icier they became.

“Relieved? Do tell why, Mr. Montgomery.”

“I’ve heard a lot of… things.”

Mr. Keene’s brow furrowed; it appeared the skin might slide from his skull. “Things?”

“Rumors.”

“Go on.”

The stainless steel panel behind Mr. Keene suddenly arrested Jeff’s attention, but he quickly averted his gaze as the bowed man squeezed tight upon his hand. Impossible… only a trick of the light; only fatigue, plaguing him once more. “Understand, I’ve just been recently hired, but popular word is that neither you nor your partner even exists.”

“Such horrible rumors. And what do you think now, Mr. Montgomery?”

He glanced again over Mr. Keene’s shoulder, his stomach dropping at the vision captured within the stainless steel. “I think crunch time has gotten to me.”

Mr. Keene relinquished his grip. A smile creased his lips, now razor slashes across his face. “I would like you to join our firm, Mr. Montgomery. Money is of no consequence; name your price and it is yours. In return, I name only mine.”

***

Nerves frayed beyond repair, Harold shuddered as his chair popped under his weight.

Once the office had emptied at five, he’d been in and out of the men’s room four times, his hysteria pissing out in trickles. The sun hadn’t dipped pass the horizon yet and still his heart beat wildly. He slapped at the sweat dotting his brow; there wasn’t much more he could take.

He blamed his shitty luck – he did come up with the shortest straw drawn in the office, after all. But mostly Harold blamed Jeff Montgomery. Barely three weeks into the job and already he became a no-show. No call, no note, no nothing. Some in the office hadn’t batted a eyelash; Jeff was considered something of a flake. Harold knew the truth however, even if no one dared to admit it. Jeff Montgomery’s last day was the first night he worked late on the fourth floor. Case closed.

That was nearly a week ago. Now Harold sat behind his desk, spreadsheets a sweat-blotted clutter, the sun agonizingly melting into the sky. His mind raced. Sure, the tax deadline loomed and the work needed to be done, but the drawing of the straws had been a ridiculous idea. Maybe it had been the only diplomatic way to choose someone, but who in their right mind would actually be expected to work into the night. No one, that’s who. The clock struck five and the office scattered, frenzied little mice chattering out the door. Not a single person gave Harold a second look. Wait, that wasn’t entirely true. Heather Taylor did. But her eyes were so mournful Harold wished she never had.

A door slammed from down the hall, and Harold nearly crapped his pants.

He catapulted from his chair, papers a whirlwind into the air. Although he accomplished absolutely nothing, he didn’t care. Harold wanted out of the office, off the fourth floor. He wanted home.

The walls erupted with fury, as if a dozen angry fists raged against them in unison. Harold backpedaled, a whimper on his lips as he crashed into the cubicle behind him. He scrambled on the floor like a crab, finally pushing to his feet. Harold dashed from the office.

He entered a pitch-black abyss. The dark disoriented him, and quickly he panicked. He groped blindly for purchase. It seemed a step in either direction and he’d plummet over the side of a depth-less ravine.

The glowing exit sign at the end of the hall served as Harold’s only beacon; snapping his malaise, he ran on jellied legs until finally skidding to a halt before the elevator. He slammed the down button, teeth grinding furiously. Metal pulleys echoed through the elevator shaft; at last, its doors parted. Harold fell into its sweet light.

The uneasy laughing he heard was his own. When the morning came, he had quite the tale to share and only hoped no one would think he embellished it. He didn’t think so. They knew the stories; the drawing of the straws proved their conviction in them. Harold tapped the button for the first floor and leaned against the elevator wall.

A dirt smudged briefcase rested in the opposite corner.

Pale fingers shoved through the elevator doors, and Harold nearly collapsed to his knees. None other than Jeff Montgomery slowly emerged.

“Did I startle you?”

“Yeah, you fucking startled me!” The first thing Harold noticed was the hair; Montgomery never kept it slicked back like that.

“I didn’t mean to. I realized I’d forgotten my briefcase. I’ve been so hectic as of late, Harold. I think I’d forget to eat if I didn’t have food in front of me.”

The second thing Harold noticed was how gaunt Montgomery’s face had become. His cheekbones practically ripped through his flesh and his eyes were slits, empty and unblinking. “I want to apologize to you, Harold, for not saying goodbye. There was no good time to catch you, until now.”

“What the hell are you doing here, Jeff? You just up and went. Quit. Not great resume fodder.”

The elevator began its descent. “I was offered a position at Matheson and Keene, and I took it.” Harold’s jaw nearly touched the floor. “They offered me everything and anything I could desire, Harold. Money. Power. Life. There was one catch, though. I had to pay their price. And now I pass that on to others.”

The third thing Harold noticed, no matter how hard he tried to pry his horrified gaze away, was that Jeff Montgomery cast no reflection in the polished stainless steel panel behind him.

“You shouldn’t feel a thing, Harold,” Jeff said through a wide and gleaming mouth as the elevator came to a jarring halt.

~ Joseph A. Pinto

© Copyright 2010, 2014 Joseph A. Pinto. All Rights Reserved.

Dissections 3

DISSECTIONS 3

wolf_rule_full_sat

Dried Glue

Your frown seems longer in the shadows
and your eyes flutter like the autumn leaves
that seek solace at my feet
between us the empty shell of something once we’d born
my fingers so clumsy
trying to glue it back.
Laughter fades in the rearview
a ghost of broken promise all that remains in the street
seemingly typical when you wish to be lost in a crowd
and closed signs stop you at doors.
It’s okay, we’ll talk, won’t we?
Of times when the air rushed through our hair
the open road a cherished child.
We played favorites, didn’t we?
Always the same marker until we reached a place our own
but today your eyes signal a storm on the horizon
and your lips flutter like the autumn leaves
that seek compassion at my feet.
We held that empty shell of something once, didn’t we?
My fingers ever so clumsy
trying to glue it back.

wolf_rule_full_sat

Loose Lips

I‘m appreciative of your compassion;
ice cube cold but not quite as clean as
the Scotch waiting before me

which, incidentally, will serve to warm my
belly just fine—thanks for nothing, though
that is hard for you to understand

a concept foreign to you. Not the understanding
part, mind you, but the simple thanks. Perhaps
you should resort to drinking the hard stuff.

It will make you say things I’m sure you would never mean.

wolf_rule_full_sat

To Take What You Don’t Want To Own

This box no longer yours
becomes a useful place
for all the things
that once remained of me
eviscerated
stripped clean to bone
once corporeal
now just memory
upon another’s exhale.
The compartments you govern
belong in potter’s field
frivolous as the things
that still burden you with need.
If only my soul a warehouse
you could store
all your needless needless boxes
and rid yourself of its waste.
If only I could free you
of your needless needless boxes
make them mine
this box no longer yours.

wolf_rule_full_sat

Vinyl

Still waiting on that sign
You got shit on instead
Still can’t ruin that sweet music in your head
No one told you, baby, that vinyl is long dead
You remain sheltered, surrounded by your flock
Ignoring this stray vulture dishing you advice
You never turn your back on me though
My deception the sugar you crave
Think you’re so squeaky clean
Darling, the shit dried on me long ago
And you’re not so used to that new smell
You…still waiting on your sign
What could be worse anyway?
Taint I peddle you
Or the lies in my veins?

wolf_rule_full_sat

Mouth

And your mouth
forever wordless
still rends a hole
I can drown in.

wolf_rule_full_sat

These Words

Like these words I write
I go unseen
Strained imploring from my lips equally ignored
You’ve flattened me
Compressed me enough to fit into your one-dimensional world
Not even worthy of your rose-colored glasses
The grey wash you’ve stained me slowly fading
A hurricane once could not stir me
Now the slightest breeze leads me astray
You still haven’t the sense to figure
The smile taped to my face this morning
Is the crumpled one from yesterday
Staring into this candle, I wish you knew
I dream of flickering. If only to flicker.
My flame long dead.

wolf_rule_full_sat

What I Should Not Know

First date
Don’t be so coy
You know you’ve been blowing him out in the parking lot
Leaving your half eaten panini beside me
Leaving me sick in the mouth
Remembering
How he stroked that fleshy thigh of yours
It’s none of my business, of course
But you’ve intruded all the same
With that yuppie glass of Pinot Grigio of yours
Beside my sterile snifter of Scotch
Tell me
Don’t be so shy
Did you let him cum in your mouth the first time out?
The residue of days old coleslaw beside me
Leaving me sick on the tongue
Stupid girl
He’ll only admire another next week
Muck like the half eaten panini beside me
You’ll grow cold and forgotten.

wolf_rule_full_sat

Just Not Here

On this darkened night I hold you
Arms empty. Your memory my solitary light
Wind raps at the pane, sneaks under door
The only thing ever to cross this threshold again
Sandwich on the counter grows old with mold
Milk sour. Spoiled.
None of it matters; this candle flickers
And ghosts, they creep along the floor
Sounding so much the way your footfalls once did
When you’d kiss my cheek standing in the hall.
I’d walk somewhere if it wasn’t raining so hard
These clothes already stuck to my skin
The weight of everything
The wait for anything…
I’ll sit here then
Because somewhere, you are there
Somewhere. Just not here.
On this darkened night I hold you
Somewhere. Just not here.

wolf_rule_full_sat

Gentleman Johnnie

Johnnie
You’re back in black
And isn’t it fitting that we sit here again
Conversation smooth as ever
A welcome reprieve.
The longer we sit
The more I’ll indulge
Ever stoic
You never judge
You never turn away
Listening
As I share silent heartbreak
Choices hindered
Dreams asunder.
But you won’t stray far
Will you, dear Johnnie?
For you bring calm to the storm
Still the fire in my veins
Until these burdens
Fade into blurry edges
The pain a bit dulled
A welcome reprieve.
Thank you, Johnnie
Together we are back in black
Selfless gentleman.

wolf_rule_full_sat

A Final Toast With Death

I await you
My bravado more resolute than ever
This snifter in my hand unwavering
These drops of Scotch delivered faithfully to my lips.
So come to me, Sir Reaper
You whose work never done
You’ve stolen a good man from this world
Left behind his only son.
I have no fear of you this day
Not while my veins run hot
Coward!
A good man seeks retribution
His weapon his only son.
I await you
Be a gentleman and share this final Scotch
Drink with me, Sir Reaper
I have work not nearly done.

wolf_rule_full_sat

Skin and Bones

And all this time I thought I’d hidden the cancer from my skin
Never realizing it had eaten me throughout
But you noticed I was much emptier than I’d ever been
And still you loved me in my metastasized state.

wolf_rule_full_sat

Clueless

The shepherd of the Damned
I’ll lead you astray
I’ll lead you to ruin
Be sure to praise me
Even as I taint you.
You have no direction
I’ll lead you astray
I’ll lead you to ruin
Be sure to curse me
Even as I raise you.
Without me you are free
Without me you are bound
An endless contradiction
A meaningless benediction
Admit it
You’ve never been so alive
With me pulling your strings
That subtle jerk of thread
That soft imploring in your ear.
The shepherd of the Lost
I’ll lead you astray
I’ll lead you to ruin.

wolf_rule_full_sat

Monstrosities

Come
don your spider silk trousseau, indulge me
a jig—
funeral hymn and devil’s perfume—
Blackened, our matrimony
Miasma, our vows
Ever faithful I’ll be to
rust-mouthed promises
while you cherish my slack penis
against your thigh.
In honey light our shadows creep
as we fuck in this church van
spawn a slit-eyed bastard
meant to rule gravy train slugs
Leave it steaming—
glistening under dashboard’s light—
saw-toothed smile crooked and pure
And murder cherubs with our rubber gloves on.

wolf_rule_full_sat

Warning

I wish I’d warn you that the Reaper rode in
but the cowl blew from my head
exposing more than just my intent
and all the evil things your momma warned you of
and all the things that scratched beneath your bed
were merely me on a better day
warning you that soon an ill wind shall blow
exposing all you hoped to hide from
exposing all you hid throughout.

wolf_rule_full_sat

Need

You believed me gone, did you not?
Gone
Relic; forlorn by Lords of Depravity
Keepsake plucked from dregs of gutter whores and
impoverished mimes
Gone
Raped; whisper of promise
Possession, tarnished and forgotten atop
your bureau
Fool—
I have bred within you all the while
Gratifying your need
sucking you dry
You sang of me maggot’s lament
begged of me torturer’s divine
So I tell you now
I am your Molester of Truths
I—
Your Addict of Lies

wolf_rule_full_sat

You

In a trick of light I found you
pouring venom from callous hands
ripping faith from gibbous moon
I loved you ever since.
Your cruel grace dampens
even the coldest of grey Januaries and
even as the sun goes to die
you speak to me the foulest nothings
whispered from your alligator snout.
You poured acid in my ears to
quell my methods of thinking when
you knew full well
I hardly think at all.
Oh, chant me a new birth song of
turpitude
Blasphemous act
I loved you ever since.

wolf_rule_full_sat

Pseudo Cerulean Queen

Pseudo Cerulean Queen, I can see the storm come loping across your eyes,
your darkness a dead giveaway that the only thing blue about you is your soul.
Drench me in sorrow;
open the deluge of your being.
I wish to reach out, cup your pain,
feel it dribble from between my fingers.
As the puddle at my feet grows,
I’ll watch your reflection shimmer,
the lightning above dividing us always.

~ Joseph A. Pinto

© Copyright 2012, 2013, 2014 Joseph A. Pinto. All Rights Reserved.

Sin Eater

Face stark crazed, she hurried him inside.

Fingers dug into his arms. Behind him, the door slammed; a rush of damp air scurried across his neck. Standing in the cramped foyer, he listened as she manhandled the security chains of the door. She squeezed past, breathless.

“Autumn employs a particularly nasty bite this evening, does it not?” He spoke softly, removing the knit cap from his head, the trench coat from his wiry frame.

Window to window she bounded, balling drapes into shaking fists, drawing them shut. He noted her white, swollen knuckles. Candlelight flickered from atop a mantle, yet a state of melancholic gloom smothered the parlor. “Excuse me. Your appearance is other than what one might expect.”

“I am a mere man, nothing more. For some, perhaps, much less,” he draped the coat over his arm.

“You are a Sin Eater.”

He hoped his client would find relief in the plastic twist of his lips. “I am at that. May I?”

“Of course,” she nodded an invitation into the parlor.

The house frowned upon his presence; bare floorboards protested each of his steps. From the fireplace, a draft moaned. “Forgive my nerves,” her lips twitched. “We require our privacy. If the Church were to ever—”

“If this were the nineteenth century then surely we would have need to conceal our identities. Execution would no doubt be favored if my practice was to be learned and as for you…things would be difficult indeed. Be thankful the Church no longer functions in such barbaric fashion.”

“Yet privacy must still be maintained.” Her posture remained stiff. Orange light remolded her face.

He bowed slightly. “Privacy? Or secrecy? I said the Church no longer functions in such a way. Their belief, however, is another matter entirely. Per our contract, your identity shall remain guarded. As will mine.”

Murmurs drifted through the house. She followed the shift of his intense though starry gaze. “The deceased is in the bedroom.”

She led him down a hallway; leering faces stared out from faded, crooked photographs. Dust littered the floor. A sour pungency wafted under his nose; death’s perfume, so unmistakable. She paused before an open door. Nodding politely, he stepped through.

Surrounding the bed, three men lifted their gazes as one, faces waxed yellow beneath an uncovered bulb. He ignored them, attention focused upon the deceased. Lips parted in a last, eternal gasp, the corpse waited. Clots of sheets remained within its stiffened fingers. “He suffered until the very end,” the Sin Eater said matter-of-factly.

“What difference does it make?” Across the bed leaned a man with a bulbous skull; his jowls quivered as he spoke: “My brother didn’t suffer enough.”

The Sin Eater looked upon him. “Are you responsible for contacting me?”

“Yes,” again spoke Bulbous Skull.

“So who are the others?”

“Also my brothers.”

“You said you would be alone in your house, save your wife.”

“Listen, they all stay. And shame on you if you think this hell hole is my house. Remember the money I’m paying you!”

The Sin Eater turned away, mindful his eyes churned a stormier grey when agitated. “As you wish.”

“Hurry it up. I need to call the coroner when you’re done.”

He touched a blue tinged arm. Practiced fingers slid upward, stroking the corpse’s neck, then face, like an affectionate lover. The Sin Eater froze. “You lied to me.”

Bulbous Skull stole a nervous glance at his brothers. “I don’t know what—”

“You told me he raped four women, and still you and your family harbored him from the law. Yet more remains untold. You will tell me the truth.” The brothers saw his eyes now, witnessed their wrathful leadenness.

Sweat beaded across Bulbous Skull’s brow, appearing like droplets of piss under the light. “Three. Three kids…” his voice faded.

The Sin Eater understood the implication at once.  He straightened himself beside the corpse. “Extra sins…extra compensation.”

“You sonofabitch!”

“Extra sins, extra compensation. It is quite simple. You have breached our agreement, not the other way around.”

“How much?”

“Ten thousand. If you argue, I walk away. Be mindful that your brother’s sins will never be absolved from you then. Nor your families. You all have children of your own, do you not?”

Bulbous Skull’s mouth opened in argument; eventually his lips sealed. His shoulders slumped. “Ten thousand.”

“Excellent. A new agreement. A better understanding,” the Sin Eater smiled. “I have done this long enough to realize my clients will never admit all sins the first time around. Likewise, if you are in position to afford my services, then surely you will be in position to hold an abundance of cash.”

From under the deceased’s bed, Bulbous Skull pulled a briefcase and popped it open. He promptly passed two wrapped bundles of hundred dollar bills. “You’re a prick.”

“Yes. I know.” The Sin Eater took the bundle, nestled it into the folds of his trench coat. Then placed it atop an empty chair in the corner of the room, his hat as well. “Shall I begin?”

Bulbous Skull called to his wife. She appeared in the doorway, chipped platter in hands. Trembling, she stared intently upon its holdings—a heaping of salt, loaf of thickly crusted bread. A smudged pint of ale. Once the Sin Eater retrieved her burden, she fled back down the hall.

He placed the platter atop the floor, knelt beside the bed. Immediately, he pinched the salt, sprinkled it liberally across the corpse’s chest. “Thy burden, I offer thee salt.” He bowed his head in supplication. Retrieved the loaf from the floor, placed it atop the salt. Several minutes ticked away.

The Sin Eater rose, loomed over the corpse. “Thy burden, I devour thee.” He snatched the loaf like some bird of prey, delivered it to his lips, but the crusted bread seemed impossibly large to accept. Eyes rolling, the Sin Eater opened his mouth.

The brothers jerked in their chairs; the Sin Eater’s jaw dropped to an unnatural depth, skin along his cheek yielding like some thin sheet of cellophane. Lower and lower—saliva breached his lips, lids fluttering atop the whites of his eyes. Lower and lower—the jaw hung slack, swaying like a pendulum. Into that black yawning cavern, the Sin Eater pushed the loaf, upper teeth digging into the crust while his lower mandible shifted side to side. Inch by inch—the loaf disappeared, throat, neck bulging grotesquely, laden with its pardoned meal. Finally, the jaw retracted; his skin drew back to form. With a single finger, the Sin Eater flicked the loaf’s last crumb from his lip. He bent, took his ale, gulped until only froth clung to the bottom of the glass.

“Lord fucking Christ,” Bulbous Skull gasped. “You can’t be human.”

The Sin Eater smirked. “Our business is done.” He returned the pint alongside the platter, retrieved his trench and hat.

He strode back down the listless hallway, into the pool of trembling light. He found his client’s wife waiting in the foyer, door ajar. “God gave him his cancer,” she spat. “We were right to shelter him, no matter his sins. We knew God would provide the balance, sooner or later. And He did.”

“I am not your confessional booth, dear lady.” He dressed in silence, felt the bulge of cash against his ribs. Then in the shimmering candlelight, he took her into his arms, his sudden kiss upon her lips a long but gentle one. She yielded in surprise. When bits of bread clotted her mouth, however, her knees buckled and she shoved him away.

“For your peace, I pawn my own soul,” the Sin Eater grinned from the corner of his mouth. Eventually, this family would contact him again. Extra sins, extra compensation. He slipped out the door, back into the angry gnash of autumn’s bite.

~ Joseph A. Pinto

© Copyright 2014 Joseph A. Pinto. All Rights Reserved.

Apep

Had it been the sun that peeled skin from his neck or the sheer ferocity of his nightmare?

Blistering splendor poured onto him from the unrelenting orb. Fire singed his eyes, shriveled his tongue—the blackened, useless slug lolled from his lips. His speech now eradicated, rendered to meaningless gestures from his festered hands. The sun seared his flesh, melted his legs down to dripping strands; mere bubbling pools of tissue in the ruined soles of his boots.

Every night, each dream, the heat only intensified.

He had been walking down a pebbled road, a silvery-sparkled stream beyond a thicket to his left. He could hear it—the stream, forming words that he could not, murmuring soft melodies into his steaming ears. Disgusted, he spat futilely; gory mucous dribbled down his chin. He wiped at it with a skinless forearm.

Every night, each dream, the anguish only escalated.

He had never seen a sky so blue. Cloudless and pure. He gritted his teeth. Upon the wind ancient legends croaked, low and throaty, while to his right bunnies romped through manicured fields. The sun cooked him, made his eyes bleed, and from his core ruptured an awful sort of churn. The sort he might have gotten eating roofing nails or coals from the bottom of his dead father’s grill.

In tonight’s nightmare, he stood in the midst of beauty. It utterly sickened him.

A terrible mewling. From the fields: bunnies eviscerated in pink geysers and in the middle of it all, the most splendid serpent he had ever seen.
The sun threw rage from its golden loft in the sky.

He screamed himself awake.

***

Did his flesh itch from want or the ghastliness of his nightmare?

A tap at the window. His body jerked; the steering wheel caught him in the ribs. Another tap, more forceful. A shimmering ray of light penetrated his window and diffused across his lap. For one fear slickened moment, he believed the sun had returned.

“Drop the window.”

Clumsily he swung his head, caught the glare of the flashlight. He swatted at ghost mosquitoes, then rolled the window down.

“What are you doing out here tonight?”

Instantly, he knew he had made a terrible mistake and slowly raised his hands to the steering wheel. “Resting, sir. Been on the road awhile. Needed a bit of a break.”

The flashlight glare jumped to the side. “Out of the car. Keep your hands where I can see them.”

He jiggled the door handle and stepped out, the chilled night air a balm to his flesh—yes, flesh remained; he could see that much now under the flashlight’s glow. Relieved, he pushed his hands upward to the somber stain of the sky. The scent of bunny entrails tickled his nostrils.

He heard a serpent’s hiss.

“Have you been drinking tonight, son?”

“No sir, not at all.”

He whirled expertly and with a ruthless chop to the throat crumpled the patrolman. A spinning kick to the temple knocked the man out cold—movements so heartless, so practiced, the officer never stood a chance. He seized the cop by his hair, dragged him from the shoulder of the road and down a slight ravine. Slipped the trench knife from his jeans and plunged it into the base of the cop’s skull. He felt the body shudder, finally go limp. A serpent hissed again in his head, and its tail rattled somewhere off in dreamy meadows. He withdrew his knife from the skull and rejoiced.

In due time, he would become a deity.

***

He usually lived in his car; a nomad’s life, one to which he had grown accustomed. However, tonight he chose a run-down inn with what cash he had; now he slept, tangled in stale motel sheets and food stained newspapers. The nightmares, they discovered him, slithered and stalked through his mind. Beneath the flames of his sins, he sweat.

Deep in the throes of subconsciousness, his mind again succumbed to dreamscape’s dark veil. In this dream, he rose from his cheap bed, abandoning his yellowed outline across the sheets. A pebbled road stretched below his feet; a silvery-scarred stream gurgled like the death rattle of the officer he had slain days before. A tranquil panorama of pastel greens and blues yawned above his head and higher still loomed the sun, ripping at his skin yet again.

Reject Ra.

He screamed and suddenly found himself back in bed. Across his foot lay a newspaper, the headline drenched in moonlight filtering through the window:

OFFICER MURDERED: AUTHORITIES LINK SLAYING TO SERPENT KILLER

He smiled proudly, but then something scraped against the wall.

Laughter. You fear Ra.

He scanned the room, but the voice slipped undiscovered into the gloom. “I don’t fear anyone. Don’t you know they call me Serpent Killer now?”

Rattling. From the tail of a snake. You cower beneath Ra. Yet you dare emulate me.

“I don’t—”

Sacrifice under Ra’s nose. Only then will you shed your flesh, become what you are meant to be. A threatening hiss, and then the moon retreated from the room, casting it into hellish darkness.

At last, he tore free from his latest nightmare. Flakes of skin dusted his pillow.

***

He dragged his newest kill deeper into the woods. Passed the makeshift grave he had dug for the cop. Remembrance churned through his head.

The nightmares had plagued him since childhood, severing the innocence from his heart and replacing it with a hollow angst. He knew not what to make of the visions that poisoned his reveries, only that they rendered him misplaced and abandoned. Soon, however, he came to relish the feeling.

Once just a greasy, awkward freshman, he first murdered in the bathroom of his school. It had been November; the sun long expired by late afternoon. He loitered in the library, thumbing through books about bygone legends, until his eyes finally met that of another solitary boy. Eventually, he followed the boy into the lavatory, snuck behind him while he pissed into the urinal and drove his head into the ceramic tile. There were no witnesses, and he certainly had never been suspected. The death tang still lingered upon his fingers later that evening. For a brief while, he had stemmed his anguish. But relief never lasted. So he killed again.

He snapped from his thoughts.  Cut into his kill’s clothes with his knife, stripped them off.  Then he flipped the headless body onto its back.

With each letting of blood, his nightmares had only worsened. With each letting of blood, the serpent had only spoken louder.

He plunged his knife into its breast and proceeded to engrave.

He worked his hand and wrist carefully; his art form more fluid now than in the past. Sweat dripped from his brow.

Do not fail me as others have before you. Ra’s rein must end.

The serpent, it never left him alone. When he closed his eyes, it coiled behind his lids. Secretly, he despised its embodiment of something far more unnatural than even himself. But he never lost the faith that if he could gain knowledge of the nightmares the serpent delivered, perhaps then he could pillage its power.

Claim it as his own.

We must cast this world into my glorious shadow.

He stepped back, studied his toil. Desecrated, the headless corpse lay strewn—a serpent dug into its flesh, twisting sternum to groin.

Sacrifice under Ra’s nose. Only then will you shed your flesh. The serpent’s words rattled through his skull and quite unexpectedly, he frowned.

***

He had pondered years over his dilemma: would liberation be granted under the sun, or would the moon ultimately conceal his damnation?

Under golden rays, he had feared for his safety, his very life. Yet did he not hide under the hem of night, seeking a coward’s comfort? Meticulously he had fashioned a secure existence, believing it would eventually lead to divinity. He ached to be worshiped, but how could he ever be glorified when the masses knew him only as Serpent Killer…and not the Serpent.

He had never slain in broad daylight. Only a god could be so brazen.

Tonight, he settled into the back seat of his car, behind an abandoned barn he knew to be undisturbed. By flashlight, he poured over the newspapers he had accumulated. The headlines swelled him with pride—the media’s copy dressed him as a rock star. Yes, the slayings had been linked, some twenty to thirty all told. Serpent Killer, they chanted his name. Serpent Killer.  Still, it gnawed at the root of his soul.

Never the Serpent.

He gazed through the window at a sky black as the river Styx. After so many years, he had reached a decision. When he woke in the morning, he would shed his flesh.

***

The silvery-sparkled stream spoke; at least he thought it did. It gurgled over the rocks, over fallen limbs. Around the beaver’s dam it ebbed, and he loathed its song. The sun blew an inferno across the land. The thicket smoldered. Bunnies frolicked unaware.

Naked, he lay on a pebbled road and stared at the sun. It laughed at him, hurled boisterous flames that melted his toenails off. Nubs of white bone broke through his flesh. He screamed, but no one heard.

Butterflies swirled round his head, a myriad of colors, shapes. One landed upon the tip of his nose. He swatted at it but was too slow; it flitted back into its flock of comrades, their kaleidoscope of hues acid to his eyes. He realized he despised beauty, all beauty, and the nourishment its sun provided. Now he heard the fish in the stream laugh as well as the butterflies and the birds as they nestled in their boughs. The bunnies too, something of a high-pitched chortle—and the sun, its haughty giggling more than he could bear.

The serpent’s hiss hushed the land.

He tore free from the membranes of yet another nightmare, slick with fright. Golden fingers groped through the back window, scraping angry red welts across his legs. He recoiled from the sun and nearly scrambled into the front seat.

Then he saw them.

The little boy crossed the field, headed to the trees and the stream beyond. A fishing pole bounced along his shoulder. Close behind walked the boy’s father.

Shirtless, shoeless, he slipped from his car. Trench knife in hand. He stalked across the field, the grass beneath his feet uncomfortably sharp and hot, stewing his toes. Harder he pushed, springing smoothly from the ground the moment he touched down. With each predatory step, his confidence brimmed.

The scent of the father’s aftershave tickled his nose and the boy…he could already taste the boy’s blood.

Persistent in its melody, the stream disguised his footfall. A bunny bounded across the field, stopped and wiggled its nose. A butterfly fluttered about. The sun tattooed the top of his head; something flaked from his neck and between his shoulders. It spat its fury upon him, ignited a deep ache within the marrow of his bones. He ignored it all, fueled by the unknowing chatter between the father and his boy—and the dawning realization that soon he would be a deity.

Nothing would deny him.

Ten more yards. The father would then taste his blade. His eyes sparkled as he tightened his grip upon the knife.

Sacrifice under Ra’s nose. Only then will you shed your flesh.

Five yards.

Two.

A massive shadow shifted from under the canopy of trees ahead. His mind reeled, desperate to make sense of what had emerged. His legs buckled, and he tumbled forward. He managed to snare his prey’s foot and tripped the father to the ground.

He pounced upon the man and for a moment, he glimpsed his own bewildered reflection within his prey’s frightened eyes. One slash and his blade kissed the man’s throat.

He enjoyed the ghastly wheeze from the father’s gaping wound. Then he noticed the pus-bloated sores along his own arm, and a long shriek escaped his mouth.

From under the shadow of the trees, the boy halted and spun around. Staggering from the prone body of the father, he half ran, half limped toward the boy as the flesh separated from muscle in thin sheets from his limbs. He hissed even as glints of bone popped through the exposed areas.

Nothing would deny him. Not even the sun as it stripped free tissue and tendon.

He raised the trench knife above his head but it dropped from his grasp, fingers nothing more than charred bone. A numbness spread through his mind like morphine, yet the inferno within raged molten. His arms, twisted into jagged charcoaled spindles, burst into plumes of ash that clotted the air. The ruins of his legs littered the field, and he fell once more. He came to rest at the boy’s feet, a smoldering stump.

Behind the boy slithered a staggering mass. It rose and towered above them both—he thought it had existed only in the darkest cavities of his nightmares—but now realized how terribly wrong he had been. The serpent in all its glory: an enormous thing with unblinking elliptical eyes and a horrid, triangular head. It glowered, forked tongue flicking from its jaws.

His face slid off into the grass. His torso itched unbearably as scales erupted from beneath his exposed muscle.

He glanced upward, stared into the serpent’s morphing head. For a moment, he glimpsed his own features grotesquely bubbling under the serpent’s. Then the boy’s. The ancient abomination opened its mouth.

Sacrifice under Ra’s nose. Only then will you shed your flesh, become what you are meant to be.

The boy walked away and then returned with the trench knife in his young hand.

Only then did he comprehend that the god of his nightmares commanded not him but the boy. Finally did he realize he had been mislead. Abandoned once more. “Nooooo…”

Another child would be prepared as heir to Apep’s earthly throne and in turn suffer its depraved nightmares. Perhaps it would be this boy…this boy who possessed no fear of Ra.

The dawning complete; the only sure way to slay a serpent was to sever its head.

~ Joseph A. Pinto

© Copyright 2013 Joseph A. Pinto. All Rights Reserved.

Memento Mori

Within Mr. Vanitas’ snifter, fine Scotch swirled; it clung in languorous beads along the rim. At length, he admired its legs. Then he spoke. “And so friends, yet another month we commence together. The floor is now open.”

Nine in total shared the silence of the café. But Mr. Vanitas, he did not quite call them friends. Aficionados, perhaps. Chairs creaked anxiously. Larkish shadows, spit from the occasional candle, canvassed the walls.

“May I?” Eyes wide and far too dazzling, a middle-aged woman inquired of the room.

“Of course, Rita.” Mr. Vanitas smiled between sips of Scotch; an oaken subtleness teased the plastic smoothness of his lips. He knew the café owner forbade drinking on its premises, but fistfuls of hundreds turned the cheek of many a steely individual. Besides, no one possessed the nerve to rebuff him. Of that, Mr. Vanitas always remained quite confident.

“Thank you.” Her smile infected the gathering, eyes so very, very bright, but gourmet finger sandwiches soon passed through the room; her giddiness discarded for poached shrimp and alfalfa sprout delectability. “I died last week.”

A smattering of polite applause. “Excellent, Rita.” Mr. Vanitas, enthusiasm sincere, placed his glass down and brought his hands together. Only four meetings under her belt, and already she absorbed his teachings without question. “So very wonderful. Do you wish to share further with us?”

“Yes, Mr. Vanitas, I would. It was so much easier than I could ever have imagined, really. Completely impulsive. A car accident. The road had been very slick, and I took the turn—”

“How fast were you going?” interrupted a pudgy man jammed into a tweed coat.

Mr. Vanitas glowered at Jenson; the vibe of the café quavered. Even Rita’s eyes dimmed—just a tad. Scotch eventually moistened Mr. Vanitas’ lips back to a reassuring smile. “As you were, Rita.”

“I took the turn rather fast,” daring a curt glance toward Jenson, “and then skidded. My husband has told me countless times what to do if such a thing occurred. Of course, I ignored it all. The ravine came up quickly. The tree quicker still. I never stood a chance. Beyond that, however, I’ve sadly nothing more to recount.”

From the gathering, disappointed sighs.

“Everyone, it’s okay.” Mr. Vanitas raised a bandaged hand. “What is important is that Rita took her first step. I am so very, very proud of her. Now the next time, Rita, you must focus on the retention of your sensations. What did you smell, taste…this is most important for your development.”

She withdrew a compact mirror from her purse, dabbed makeup around the concave dent in her brow. “I will certainly strive to do my best, Mr. Vanitas.”

He nodded appreciatively. “Anyone else?” His fingers worked between his shirt buttons, scratching atop ribbons of gauze.

“Yeah.” Jenson’s meaty face shimmered—a prancing goblin—within the flickering café. “I got something.” He rose from his chair, shook the coat from his arms with a chuff. Then he yanked hard on his sweater collar, revealing a welt that ringed his neck. “Hung myself,” altogether cool and matter-of-factly, “while I had my dick in my hand.”

“Jesus, Mary and Joseph,” gasped Mrs. Delancy from across the room.

“I’m not shitting any of you. Rigged the noose from my attic rafter.”

Alexander Green balled his sandwich to the other side of his cheek. “I’m surprised it held.”

From the gathering, sly chuckles. “You assholes want to hear or not?”

“Now, now, Jenson,” Mr. Vanitas scolded. “We’ll have none of that.”

“Well, we’re always talking about pushing the envelope,” Jenson snorted. “I figured, why not off myself while choking my chicken, you know?”

“Autoerotic asphyxiation is what you mean.” Glancing at the disgust creasing the pruned ruins of Mrs. Delancy’s face, Mr. Vanitas silently amused himself. “And while some within our group may be somewhat…put off…by the visuals your death may induce, I will admit, it was another admirable effort on your part.”

Jenson settled back into his chair. “Yeah, well, that ain’t the best of it. My wife tried getting me down. Dumb fuck, who would’ve figured she’d stand below me? Crushed her on my way down.”

“Cheese and crackers!” Stanley Henderson covered his mouth.

Jenson chuckled, spittle spraying his jolly cheeks. “Never even had a viewing. Her family disowned her before we met, and you know we had no kids. My own kin died awhile back, and fuck knows I never needed friends. Only ones there were the funeral director and his partner.”

Mr. Vanitas eyed Jenson carefully from above the rim of his snifter. “I was not aware of that.” He pulled his gaze away, slowly scanning the group, fixating finally on a man seated in the corner of the café. “Robert.”

The gathering froze; Alexander Green shoved shrimp back into his mouth while keeping entrails from escaping the cavity of his torso; Ms. Bernadette fingered the bubbling hole in her throat. Even Jenson stiffened, jowls blue tinged.

“Robert?”

“Yes, Mr. Vanitas?” squeaked a shaky reply.

“What do you wish to share with us tonight?”

The man absently fumbled with his shirtsleeves. “I slit my wrists right after last month’s meeting, Mr. Vanitas.”

“Yes, of course you did, Robert. As well the meeting before that. And the one before that. Where is your sense of adventure?” He shook his head sadly. “I believe you’ve strayed from the intent of our group.”

From the gathering, a strained hush.

“I haven’t, Mr. Vanitas.”

Mr. Vanitas knocked back the remainder of his Scotch, then shattered the snifter upon the floor. “Memento mori! Do you know what that means, Robert?”

“No, Mr. Vanitas.”

“It means, remember that you will die. But do you understand what it means, Robert?”

A pitiful shake of his head.

Mr. Vanitas rose, lurched through the small arrangement toward the man. The gathering shrunk in their chairs. “Death is our inevitability, Robert. Born we are only so that we may die. Raised as children so that we may one day fit the black jeweled crown of death upon our skulls. Only the chosen may come to revel in its splendor, lather its sweet decay across perpetually damned flesh. We live only to die, and die only to die again. A fortunate lot, are we not?”

A resounding yes reverberated through the café. “And so we indulge ourselves, over and over again. But it’s never enough, Robert. In our deaths, we live out our agonies, our ecstasies, our artistic splendors. But it’s never enough…” his voice trailing away.

“So then we never die, do we, Mr. Vanitas? Not now…not ever?”

Mr. Vanitas paused in the middle of the room—deftly unbuttoned his shirt, bandaged fingers moving with fluid grace. It dropped to the floor, besides Jenson’s tweed coat. Exposed, the expanse of bloody bandages wrapping his torso; a fine mesh network. He picked at it, laboring meticulously, unsheathing ribbon by ribbon, layer by layer, until ruinous, smoking flesh peeked through; a glint of bared rib. Then lastly, with a wet rip, the veil of gauze that surrounded his head came unwound. Before them, Mr. Vanitas preened—bandages clutched tightly within each hand, a figure of charred wickedness. “Perhaps Jenson is better suited to answer your question.”

Jenson winced, the stench of broiled muscle full in his nose. “What are you talking about?”

“No one remained to see you off, is that not what you claimed, Jenson?”

The fat man’s eyes widened as Mr. Vanitas wrapped his dressings tightly around Jenson’s neck. “You see, Robert, we do not truly die until the very last person we know in life dies. Not until then.” He jerked mercilessly until Jenson’s final death wheezed from his throat. “I do expect you to die in the best interest of our group from this moment forward, Robert.”

~ Joseph A. Pinto

© Copyright 2013 Joseph A. Pinto. All Rights Reserved.

Lullaby

It became my ghost, that lullaby—its virulent strain infecting not only the cloaked woods that surrounded us, but also the ears upon which it fell.  It haunted us all, wormed its way into our brains and cored our frightened eyes to hollowed orbs.  Unlike the other girls, who mewled in dread as those tinny chords crackled out from the absolute darkness, I sought to discover its origin.

I was as terrified as the rest; perhaps more so, for I managed to keep my mind threaded to reality while preventing the lullaby from wholly poisoning my thoughts.  I needed to if any of us were to survive.

The other girls shoved into a uniform mass of shuddering limbs against the bars of our cage whenever the lullaby serenaded us, yet I remained apart, prone and flattened atop the floor, face pressed against the cold, slickened bars, focusing on its source.  At first, tracking it eluded me, my emaciated stomach becoming its own troublesome din.  Eventually I learned to ignore my hunger growls, as well the sobs from our band of captives.  Soon, I gained a morsel of information; useful as it was.  Somewhere—from an old phonograph, perhaps—the lullaby popped and hissed its chords away into the night.  This had to mean the old woman lived in a dwelling close by.

As for the creature, that remained another mystery altogether.

By my measure, captivity had defined me for nearly five months.  Abducted in spring as I took my morning stroll through the park—a chemical soaked rag ripped me from my normal life.  I had since stopped wondering if my husband and children believed I was still alive.  Even if by some miracle I managed to escape, I knew I would return home a husk of the woman they once knew.  During this past week, a chill threaded our nights of imprisonment under the stars; autumn made herself known, and my gut instinct whispered that I would not come to feel winter’s grasp.

Within the cage, I remained the only grown woman; the others ranged in ages from seven to sixteen, their body development my only means of guessing.  Fear had worn our faces down to indistinguishable masks.  I used to glow whenever my husband told me that I looked much younger than my years.  I always smiled when mistaken for my oldest daughter’s sister.  Such cruel irony that my youthful appearance served to bring this misfortune upon me.

Tonight, a breeze rose again from the sentient woods and while our sunburnt, naked bodies trembled under its touch, a scent of something fetid clogged my throat.  Though dirt and feces caked us, this horrible stench was not that.  It had soured my stomach on many occasions before; ultimately, the precession to the lullaby. And so I steeled myself.

I stretched flat atop the cage floor, and peered between the bars out into the nothingness and waited.

“What are you doing?”  A whisper from behind.

Katie—perhaps only sixteen.  She reminded me so much of my oldest daughter that my soul ached.  “Listening.”

“For what?”

The woods then crackled, releasing a static charge into the air.  Behind me, the girls scuttled like manic bugs.

Baby mine, don’t you cry

Unreasonable terror descended upon us all.  The girls’ high-pitched shrieks pierced the night, but my gaze remained unwavering through the bars.

Baby mine, dry your eyes

Katie threw herself down beside me; she was shivering like a leaf.  I gripped her hand.  “Let me concentrate,” I said.  She nodded, teeth chattering inside her skull.

Rest your head close to my heart

The girls screamed as one.

Never to part, baby of mine

Soon thereafter, the footfall of the creature pounded through my chest.  Katie must have felt it too, for her breath drew ragged in my ear.  “What do we do?”

“Pray that neither of us is taken.”

Little one when you play

Indifferent to the hysteria within our cage, the lullaby wafted in its heavenly timbre.  It betrayed us every time.

Don’t you mind what they say

A lantern’s glow floated to us from the darkness, its purpose one we knew all too well.

Let those eyes sparkle and shine

The creature’s footfalls resonated stronger through the floor.  Desperation suddenly gripped me—the lullaby, the constant and promised threat of death.  I turned toward the girls, the churning mass of desperate bodies, those agonized faces cast under pale moonlight, and sobbed against the bars.  But Katie squeezed hard upon my hand and snapped me back into focus.

Never a tear, baby of mine

An apricot radiance fell upon us.  The girls’ shadows swayed all about, and I did my best to hide within their shallow pools; I hoped it would be enough to detract attention from Katie and myself.  The old woman emerged from the thicket, face shimmering at the door of the cage.  Much like us, she wore no clothing; her skin affected, however, not by the elements, but by age.  A ragged sack hung from her hip.  Her puckered mouth moved to the tune of the lullaby.

If they knew sweet little you,
They’d end up loving you too

She placed the lantern at her feet.  The keys to our prison jangled within her fingers.  “Who’s my lucky one tonight?”

The hysteria resumed.  The old woman stared through the bars, oblivious of it all.  Oblivious of us.  Now unlocked, the cage door squeaked open and she shuffled in, the lantern behind her silhouetting her hunched form.  From her sack, she withdrew a tattered, old nightgown as well as a six-inch bladed knife.  I pressed myself down hard onto the floor of the cage.  Beneath us, the ground tremored, and I could hear the snap of tree boughs as something advanced.

“You,” the old lady spat, her gnarled finger jabbing toward a girl whose knees were drawn to her chest as she rocked back and forth upon the floor.  “Put it on.”

She was no more than seven.  I am confident those crippled eyes of hers once carried the warmth of the sun, but not anymore.  The little one wet herself in distress.  With a deftness that always astounded me, the old woman lunged and seized her by the wrist.  In wide arcs, she swung the knife with her free hand, keeping any would-be rescuers at bay.  In one motion, the old woman draped the nightgown over the girl’s soiled head and then dragged her from the cage.  Aside from the desperate gouges her fingers dug through the loose dirt upon the floor, the girl offered no resistance.

They never did.

All of those people who scold you
what they’d give just for the right to hold you

The creature’s roar shattered the night.  Girls bayed; cries for their momma went unanswered.  Worse still, the cackle from the old woman’s lips, and the glint of lantern light captured within her beady glare.  She slammed and locked the cage door behind her once more.  Off she lurched, the point of her blade at the young girl’s back, the lantern’s glow bobbing along.  Together, they disappeared into the woods.  They left us alone with the chill gnawing our bare shoulders, the metallic resonance of the lullaby failing to soothe our ears.  From somewhere out in the coagulated canopy of darkness came a deep-bellied roar.

Then awful, earsplitting silence.

***

The following morning, Katie pulled me to the far side of the cage.  Sometime during the night, after we had fallen asleep from sheer exhaustion, the old woman had returned and thrown ladles of porridge through the bars.  At least, I assumed it had been the old woman.  The girls ate, scooping breakfast from the churned dirt with their hands.  “You said you were listening.  For what?  Maybe we could have saved Monica and the others before her.  Maybe we could still save ourselves.  We can’t let the old woman take us away like she does.”

“Please, keep your voice down.”  I surveyed the cage.  While some of the girls shoveled dirt and porridge into their mouths, most sat with empty gazes.  “Something is out in those woods, we know that.  The old woman must summon it with that lullaby.  And whatever is out there obviously hasn’t harmed her.”

“There must be more people helping her.”

“One would tend to believe, but there is no certainty.  All the times I’ve listened, I’ve yet to hear anyone else.”

“The girls who’ve been taken.  Do you think they might still be…?”

“No,” I said, far more curtly than I wished.  “It’s time to stop dwelling on the maybe’s and the why’s.  We need to focus on finally getting out.  And I may have an answer.”

A glimmer of hope flashed within Katie’s eyes.  She must have been a beautiful girl once; I wondered if she ever had the opportunity to kiss a boy.  “The old woman’s peripheral vision is nonexistent,” I continued.  “She’s never noticed me lying on the floor.  It unfortunately took me some time to realize.  But as the oldest one here, I’ve still some wits left about me.”

“Oldest?  You’re no older than I am.”

For the first time since my abduction, I smiled.  “Katie, I’m old enough to be your mother.  It’s what got me into this.  It’s what might get us out.”

***

Six days had passed since my conversation with Katie.  On the third day, the skies opened and so we drank from putrid shallows of mud.  My strength had ebbed considerably.  I paced the corners of the cage, keeping my limbs as agile as possible.  No one spoke; we huddled in cold discomfort.  Six days…and on the sixth night, the lullaby crooned anew.

From your head down to your toes,
you’re not much, goodness knows

A cacophony of turmoil gripped the cage.  The girls were beyond reason.  I grabbed Katie by the shoulders, and pulled her face to mine.  “It’s time,” I said.  With that, my desperate plan was set into motion.

I crawled along the floor, Katie beside me, and then pressed my face against the bars.  Like a clone of my panicked heartbeat, the creature’s heavy footfall assaulted the ground.

But you’re so precious to me,
sweet as can be,
baby of mine

The lantern approached, the knotted woods sputtering in its glow.  Beneath the melodic beckoning of the lullaby, I thought I heard the creature snort.  “It’ll be alright,” I soothed Katie, wondering if I lied only to appease myself.

A rattle of keys—the crinkled face appeared at the door of the cage, once more wearing a crooked smile.  “Who’s my lucky one tonight?”

Katie waited until the old woman entered, and then rose from her position beside me.  Cautiously, she entered the fringes of our jailer’s vision exactly as I had instructed.

The old woman’s misshaped head snapped toward her.  She scrutinized Katie for a moment, and then drew the nightgown and knife from her sack.  Katie glanced at me nervously as I held my breath, praying she would not reveal my position.  The old woman tossed the nightgown at Katie’s blackened feet, and I exhaled.  “You.  Put it on.”

Side to side the blade swung as Katie placed the nightgown over her head.  I sprang from the ground then, pushing my withered body to its limit; the sheer action of launching from my bare feet ignited agony in my joints.  Whether or not the old woman saw me attack from the side, her blade still managed to slice my brow; now my own vision was compromised by blood.

I tackled her, clumsily wrapping my thin arms around her leathery body.  Far stronger than I deemed natural, the old woman stood her ground, and I screamed my throat raw as her knife pierced my shoulder.

I collapsed—the whinnies of the girls surrounded me, and a growl sounded from the creature in the woods.  Above it all, my ghost, that lullaby, sang to me.

If they knew sweet little you,
they’d end up loving you too

I staggered to my feet.  The old woman suddenly yelped—Katie had done as told.  Through the scarlet mask covering my eyes, I glimpsed Katie yanking the nightgown over the old woman’s head, which caused her to drop her knife and keys in surprise.  I scooped both from the floor, spun her around and jabbed the tip of the blade into her back.  “Walk,” I demanded and shoved her from the cage.  By the lantern’s glow, I quickly shut the cage door, locking the girls in behind me.  I tossed the keys between the bars.  “Keep yourselves locked inside until daybreak,” I ordered Katie.  “If I don’t return by then, free yourselves.”

I grabbed the lantern, then pushed the old woman forward.  She howled, understanding her predicament—if she removed the nightgown from her body, I would kill her in cold blood.  Like an obedient calf, I prodded her along; she babbled uncontrollably, but the lullaby and the snorts of the creature smothered her pitiful sounds from my ears.

We trudged deeper into the woods.  The brush tore at my feet but still I pressed on; to where, I did not know.  The lullaby seduced me as the lantern flame flickered and gradually went cold.  The dark suffocated my senses; only then did I question whether my surmises held merit.

Then it emerged, a blackjack oak snapping at its feet, something so huge it threw the very pitch of night aside.  Its foul stench rolled from its mass as it stooped over us both.   “There, there,” the old woman whispered.

The creature sniffed my body.  I gagged upon its putrid breath.  Its moist snout moved slowly along my neck as a sharp talon grazed the top of my shoulder.  Feeling.  Touching.  Pinpricks of white twinkled in one eye—the starlight reflected back from within its inky, remorseless orb.  It peered upward, measuring my response.  Urine trickled along my legs and I dropped the knife to the ground.

All those same people who scold you,
what they’d give just for the right to hold you

“That’s right,” the old woman cooed.

The shadowy outline of a thick, knobby arm touched my bare skin.  It hesitated, and then reached for the old woman, tugging at the nightgown.  “There, there, baby,” her voice suddenly becoming strained.

A horrendous growl burst from the creature’s jaws, then it knocked me aside.  In an instant, all faded—the old woman’s cries for mercy, the thump of the creature’s footfalls as it dragged her deep into the woods.  I lay there shivering atop the moss and lichen.  Eventually I rose, praying I could find my way back to the girls, the chords of my ghost, that lullaby, keeping company at my side.

~ Joseph A. Pinto

© Copyright 2013 Joseph A. Pinto. All Rights Reserved.

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