Drop Off

Janice turned the wheel hard. Tires squealed over Freddy Mercury’s soaring vocals from the car stereo as the vehicle shuddered down a two-lane road leading into suburbia.

“I’m on Crescent. There’s a small horde behind me, but I should be safely back to you guys before they catch up,” Janice said.

Her voice, mixed with Queen, sounded in Tim’s earbuds. Tim stood on the balcony of their apartment with their fifteen-year-old son, Steven. Both of them scanned the area for zombies as the summer sun beat down, intensifying the stench of rotted flesh. “You’re clear all the way to the drop-off. Then we’ll cover you the rest of the way to us. Can you turn off that music? It’s not—”

“It’s the only time I get to listen to anything,” Janice interrupted her husband. “Do you really think it’s any more likely to draw out our friends than a car engine?” Janice pushed on the gas pedal and cranked up the volume, drowning out her husband.

The rev of the engine echoed in the air. Tim spared a glance at his son as he surveyed their surroundings. “Your mother can be dangerous sometimes. It’s unnecessary. That’s the sort of stuff that will get you killed.”

“Dad, give her a break. We’ve been doing this a while now and it’s fine. I’m heading down.” Steven set his rifle on the table and grabbed the pistol lying there.

“Be careful, Son.”

“Love you too, Dad.”

The door clicked shut after he slipped out.

“Steven’s standing by. You’re both clear.” They’d been doing this for over a year. The school parking lot a block away was littered with vehicles they had discarded. Survival of the fittest, that was what Tim had been telling his wife and son since the outbreak occurred.

Tim went on the first couple of supply runs but as a strong, able-bodied male, he was given a wide berth. Janice was petite and cute with eyes that sucked you in. People were drawn to help her. But the minute they got close, she would shoot them and put their bodies in the backseat of whatever car she had grabbed that day. Then take any supplies and head back. The fresh corpses left in the cars kept the zombies from sniffing the family out in their apartment. The fetid scent of death was like a drop of blood in water to a shark.

Janice had cried after her first time. Tim kept reminding her—and Steven—it was  survival of the fittest. It became his mantra. Kill or be killed. That was what their life would be from now on.

The white Azera Janice had acquired for this run crested the little hill on Crescent. It caught a split second of air before slamming back to the road. Janice gave a delighted whoop.

A commotion in the trees lining the road to the right of Crescent drew Tim’s gaze. Five zombies rushed from the wooded area and stopped in the middle of the lane. A couple looked left toward the noise of the engine. The other three looked straight at Tim and Steven. The smell. Damn it.

“Janice!”

“Shiiitttttt.”

Tires screeched. The Azera slammed into the first zombie, sending it into the windshield then up over the car. Janice gunned it and plowed through another one. This time the zombie managed to latch onto the vehicle; it snarled at Janice through the cracked windshield.

Janice pumped the brakes and turned the wheel left, trying to throw the zombie free. She started to lose control and turned back to the right, flooring the gas pedal. Another slurping thud resonated and rotted zombie organs sprayed up the passenger side of the car.

Thump thump thump thump. The front passenger tire exploded, jolting the zombie from the vehicle. Janice’s vision cleared just in time to see the drop-off at the side of the road past her turn to the apartment. Once more she slammed the brakes and jerked the wheel to the left, but she stood no chance. The car swung sideways and slid down a couple of feet before wedging itself against a tree. The impact rattled Janice’s insides and sent a shock of pain from her right ankle up her leg.

“Janice!” Tim said, bringing his rifle up.

Two of the five zombies remained standing. One bolted toward the apartment, but Steven was already on his way back up, or at least he was supposed to be. The second zombie started toward the car.

“I’m here, Tim,” Janice said over a Brian May guitar riff. “I think I’m okay.”

Tim lined up the shot and pulled the trigger. A single retort scattered the few birds perched on the roof. The zombie’s chest opened wide as the bullet hit home, knocking the creature to the ground.

“Go, Janice. You’re clear.”

Janice grabbed the pistol that had managed to stay in the seat next to her and opened the door, swinging out. She stood up and promptly crumpled to the ground, pain exploding in her right ankle. She pushed herself up and limp-ran two more steps before faceplanting in the middle of the road.

Tim watched his wife fall to the ground. “Fuck, fuck, fuck.” He looked down for the zombie that had made for the apartment but couldn’t find it. And where the hell was Steven? A pistol shot sounded below. Followed by another. And another.

Tim took aim at the zombie he’d shot in the chest. It was struggling to right itself. He fired one more round and got a clean head shot, dropping it.

The apartment door opened. “Dad, where’s Mom?” Steven kicked the door closed behind him then beelined for the balcony. “Oh, shit,” he said when he saw the chaos below.

Janice stood and got another few steps before she hit the pavement again. Gritting her teeth, she got to her hands and knees and started crawling in the direction of the apartment.

A half dozen zombies burst through the same trees as the others had, then came to a stop as their brains processed the information around them.

Tim fired and missed his target. “Run, Janice! Go!”

The shot snapped the zombies to attention. They ran toward both Janice and the two men on the balcony. Tim couldn’t tell which was heading where and he pulled the trigger again and again. One shot spun a zombie down but not out. Steven joined in and took three quick shots, two of them taking down one more of the six.

Blood dripped from various scrapes and cuts on Janice’s body and her ankle throbbed, but she ignored the pain and got herself up, running as fast as she could, crying out each time her right foot hit the ground.

Two more zombies emerged from across the street, followed by another three from the trees. A couple lunged at the car with the corpse in the backseat, but most were heading for Janice.

Tim fired as fast as he could, barely aiming now. “Janice, you can do it, honey. Keep going. You’re almost there.”

Steven took aim and pulled the trigger.

“Janice!” Tim screamed.

Her head snapped back. Her body dropped for the final time.

Tim dropped his rifle and wailed, “What did you do?” He wheeled on his son, grabbing him. “What did you do? Fuck, fuck. She was going to make it. What…”

More zombies crashed through the trees, a horde forming. “Dad, we have to g—” Steven didn’t finish the last word as Tim punched him in the jaw. The boy staggered to his knees. More punches rained down. “Dad! Stop! Please, we need to go.”

Tim missed a punch and instead hit the table on the balcony, knocking the pistol to the floor. Steven grabbed it and pulled the trigger. The bullet ripped through his dad’s thigh.

Tim yelped in pain and grabbed the balcony railing. The pain reset the synapses firing in his body. Sobbing, he said, “I’m so sorry. Fucking hell. We need to get out of here.”

Zombies littered the ground, most of them distracted by Janice’s body. The two men didn’t have long. The blood dripping from Tim’s leg would slip through the slots in the balcony floor and draw their attention.

“We need to go, Son. Right now. You’ll need to drive.”

Steven looked at his dad and the scene behind him. We’ll never make it, Steven thought. For a moment the world stopped except for Freddy singing about that “crazy little thing.” Steven swung his fist out as hard as he could and caught his dad in the temple. The butt of the pistol struck his dad first. Tim groaned and flopped over the railing. Out cold.

They were never going to make it, but Steven could. His dad taught him well. Survival of the fittest. He put the gun to the back of his father’s head and pulled the trigger, then shoved the corpse over the balcony.

That should give him enough time to get to the car and get away.

∼ Mark Steinwachs

© Copyright Mark Steinwachs. All Rights Reserved.

 

Breathless

His wide eyes shadow my every move, veins throb in his neck. A look I’ve seen numerous times. Lying stomach-down, each limb bound to the table I bolted in place. He shakes, sweat plastering cropped hair to his skull. The acrid smell of urine and sweat fills my soundproofed basement. An odor I’ve learned to ignore. Can he? I’ve never asked them, not even the ones who lasted a while.

He struggled at first, like they all do, but the bonds are too tight. Any background noise will ruin what I need. The ball gag is slick with saliva but muffles the sounds. Situations like this remind me that humans are animals—base, instinctual creatures. We’ve grown arrogant because we have thumbs and big brains.

He started with questions. Like a dentist talking to a patient, I understood every word—and ignored him. Then he begged, pleaded. Cried. Screamed.

They’re all the same. Except for one thing. Everyone’s sound is unique. Pitch and timbre, guttural groan and rasping breath, final gasp and last exhalation.

I caress his salty hair. His body slouches. “Almost over,” I say. “I’m going to make you famous. Promise. I know talent when I hear it.”

With two more steps, I’m hunched over my laptop. It’s a simple workstation, but it does the job. A few keystrokes later, and I’m ready. I hit the record button. My thumb taps the mic mounted to the short boom base and levels jump to yellow. I set it on the ground, tilt the mic toward his face. I unstrap the ball gag and pull it free. A strand of spittle connects his lips to the ball in my fist, then falls. The carpeted floor darkens under each drop.

He chokes. Levels jump on my screen. They touch red. There will be some distortion, but I’m fine with that.

“Please.” It’s between a whisper and a rasp, his throat long ago rubbed raw. “Please.”  He’s said it countless times, at first a plea for freedom. Now that he’s accepted his fate, this solitary word is still a plea for freedom—just a different kind.

I glance at the mic. Still in position. I climb onto the table, planting one knee on either side of his rib cage. His shortened breaths register on the screen, levels in the yellow, dropping closer to green where they need to be.

I’ve taken almost everything I can from him These final moments are ones I can never go back and capture again. I let out a long breath. I wrap my hands around his neck. My fingers search, finding their targets. My muscles tense, all my attention on the screen. My grip tightens, squeezing. Little bursts of color in the levels mirror the sounds under me. My languid breaths contradict the staccato rhythm of his gasps. My body stills, except my fingers.

A meter on the screen measures time. Approaching one minute. Not long now. I hold my breath as he lets out his last exhalation.

Perfect.

I slide to the floor and return to the computer. I press the space bar to stop recording. I transfer the file to my flash drive. A smile twists my lips as I head upstairs, drive in hand.

In my studio, I make quick work of loading the files, manipulating them so they’re ready for use. I swivel and face my keyboard. Pressing the key, his last breath spills from the speakers. I hold the note, bending the pitch up then down, layering it into the nearly finished song.

Almost there. A few more tries and I have it.

To my left, three phonograph statues proclaim “Best New Age Album.”

This will give me number four.

∼ Mark Steinwachs

© Copyright Mark Steinwachs. All Rights Reserved.

 

Pain

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

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

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

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

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

Pain.

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

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

“Leave us. He’ll talk.”

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

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

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

Words tumble from him as black smoke envelopes me.

Pain.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pain.

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

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

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

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

Pain.

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

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

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

Pain.

∼ Mark Steinwachs

© Copyright Mark Steinwachs. All Rights Reserved.

 

The End

“They did this to themselves. They brought us back and now is the time for them to feel the consequences.”

I look from Beleth to the house next door and give a friendly wave. Pastor Tom, sitting on his front porch, pretends not to see it and turns his head from our direction.

“That’s not very Christian of him now, is it?” I say.

Beleth continues, ignoring my comment. “Nothing can be in moderation anymore. Everything is to the extreme,” the last bit spoken like a commercial announcer. “So, here we are. And soon it will be time to right the ship.”

A group of children and parents round the corner to our house. Beleth stops talking and waits. The kids gasp as the motion sensors kick on and our yard comes alive. Fog rolls out from the machines tucked behind our bushes, the lights on our porch flicker on and off, and Beleth cackles as eerie music emanates from unseen places. A couple of children approach unaffected while others hesitantly come up holding their parents’ hands.

“Trick or treat!”

Beleth stands up and opens his arms wide. Halloween is the one night he can be most like himself, his feline features muted but not totally hidden. “Wonderful children, just wonderful! Now, before you get a treat, you all must answer a tricky question from me. Are you ready?”

The children nod and some of the parents take pictures. Beleth gets down on one knee. “Who will be brave and step forward to answer my question?”

His grin is like the Cheshire Cat and I can’t help but smile and shake my head, taking one more glance across the yard at Pastor Tom, who is scowling at the scene.

A boy, about ten, dressed as a soldier, steps up to Beleth. “Ah, a brave warrior!” Jeeze, he’s laying it on thick this year. “Now, to get your treat, answer me this: What is … twenty times ten?”

Beleth’s grin never faltered. You write one book on mathematics and you think you are God’s gift. The boy looks around for a second, the question seemingly catching him off guard. “Uhh, two hundred, sir.”

“Very good!” he says, and touches the boy on the shoulder. “You can get your treat from my friend Adra right there.”

I hand out the full-size candy bars, yeah, I’m showing off, what about it? as each child answers their math-related question.

As the last one comes to me, Beleth stands back up. “Gene, is that you? I didn’t even recognize Timmy in his costume! We have enough for the parents too, don’t be shy.” He bares his fangs and his cat eyes light up. Gene comes up and introduces us to the other parents. Beleth shakes each one’s hand. “Thank you so much for bringing your kids and letting them have some fun on this wonderful night.”

I know how his touch marks them and I’m not sure if they will thank him or curse him for it later.

The group heads next door to Pastor Tom’s. He waits on his porch and hands each kid a pamphlet. I’ve read it, and it’s not very good, all about the evils of Halloween and how you should have Jesus as your lord and savior and whatnot. Really not my style. Don’t get me wrong, I like Jesus. He’s a good guy and he’s a big part of the reason for what’s about to happen.

The kids take their “treat” from Pastor Tom and move on to the next house on our block. Beleth’s cackle pulls me back to the task at hand as he gets up from his chair.

“Wonderful, children, just wonderful!” And the scene from moments ago plays out numerous times throughout the next couple of hours.

***

“Adra, it’s ten fifty, you ready to do this?” Beleth asks from the other room.

“You know, it’s been a few minutes since I’ve been myself. I’ve got a bit more to contend with than you do. One minute.” I run my hands down my six-packed torso. It’s been much too long since I was my real self and, damn, I look good. Yeah, still showing off. Deal with it. “Besides, he lives next door. Not like we have far to go.”

Stepping back, I take in the image staring back at me from the full-length mirror. I twist my neck, stretching the muscles. I smile at the sight, but it isn’t as … well, charming as Beleth’s. In my true form I have the head and body of a donkey. I walk upright on hooves, but I need hands, so while they match the rest of my fur, they are still human form. I flick my long tail and unfurl the peacock feathering behind me. Each of the green feathers has a blue eye in it that I can use to see my warriors across the world. I snap the feathers closed and let my tail drag behind me as I walk out of the bedroom.

Beleth is waiting in the living room. “Marvelous,” he says. “Adramelech, you are a sight.” He is in full black cat form, and like me, he still walks upright and chooses to keep his human hands too. “What music shall we dance to? Maybe the Valkyries?” From his body the song begins to play quietly in the room.

I shake my head, rolling my eyes, and walk out the front door. “Now who are we waiting on?”

The street is quiet at this time of night and there is a subtle hint of sulfur in the air. I unfurl my train and before I can open myself to the eyes of my soldiers, I hear Beleth’s, “Mmmmm.” Told you I looked good.

Everyone is in place waiting on our signal.

On the road, the two of us walk next door, ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ playing every step of the way. I look across the street at Gene’s house. They are marked and will be safe, through this round. Beyond that, I’m not sure. All the powers-that-be want is the world to get back to a balance. And once we start, we won’t stop until the bosses are happy with their creation.

We look like two well-costumed humans, as do the rest of us all over the world. If anyone is watching, there’s no cause for alarm. At least not until it’s too late. The motion sensor detects us and Pastor Tom’s porch light pops on as we step up to his door.

This is where it begins, with a horribly misinformed ‘servant’ of God, in charge of a nothing little church in a suburb of St. Louis.

No one could envision it starting this way.

I close my tail, pull my leg up, and am about to kick the door in when…

“Wait a second,” Beleth harshly whispers. “I have it.” ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ turns into one of Beleth’s favorite songs, ‘Superbeast’. The aggressive drums and guitar swell around us and off into the night air.

“Really?” I say. “Little on the nose, don’t you think? And there is no way he is going to know this.”

“Who cares about him? I think it’s great. It’s fucking Rob Zombie, over-the-top rock and roll about monsters and sex and violence. Plus, have you seen his movies? It’s everything they hate. This is the perfect music.” He nods at the door, teeth bared. “Go for it.”

I kick my leg out and the door bursts inward. We rush in, heading up the stairs to Pastor Tom’s room. The growling vocals and crunching guitar fill the house, ‘devil’ music announcing our arrival.

Pastor Tom’s eyes are wide as he scrambles out of bed. “Wha … what are you? What’s going on?”

Beleth steps out from behind me. “We’ve come for your daughter, Chuck.” And he laughs at his own joke.

Pastor Tom screams and pisses himself, then quickly regains some form of composure. “My daughter? I … I don’t have a—”

“Really? It’s from a movie. It’s when—oh hell. Never mind. No respect for the classics.” Beleth glances up at me and is about to say more when he’s interrupted by an outburst from Pastor Tom.

“Get out of here! The power of Christ compels you! The power of Christ compels you!”

I let my tail free once more, each eye begins moving as I watch through them. Across the world my men are attacking. They fight side by side with the angels. Our time is now, the Vetting has begun.

“The power of Christ compels you! The power of—”

“Give it a rest, man!” Beleth barks at him. “This isn’t The Exorcist or something. And to be fair, Christ is sick of your shit. You and your kind.”

The man of God before us once again tries to control the situation. “Kill me, foul demon, and I will be in heaven with my creator.”

“Care to explain things to him, Adra?”

His eyes widen even more at the mention of my name, as it all sinks in, the whole demons living right next door and whatnot.

“You see, Pastor Tom, the world is about to change. We are going to kill you, but you aren’t going to heaven to be with God. Oh no. People like you are why God sent us back. You have perverted his word. Twisting everything to make it an evil or a sin. That isn’t life. That isn’t the way.”

“No! No, this is a test. This is my test. You are false prophets. Demons meant to tempt me. You…”

I step forward and slap him across his face, shutting him up.

“And it’s not just your religion, so you aren’t even special there. It’s all of them. All the extremists in the world. Things have gotten a little too out of control here for God’s liking. He let you pathetic creatures think for yourselves and you fucked it up. Frankly, I’m surprised he waited this long, but I digress. So, he has sent down the angels from heaven and called the warriors from the underworld to fight together and regain control.”

Pastor Tom stares at me in silence.

Beleth rejoins the conversation. “Look, man, it’s irony.” He turns to me. “Irony, right?”

I shrug my shoulders, and he continues. “Irony. God, the good guy, is going to have demons, the bad guys, work with his warriors to reset this mess of a planet. Those that survive will be a part of his new plan. And all you overzealous, everything bashing, every other religion hating, everything is evil people, are not part of it.”

Beleth lunges forward, cat-like claws slash at Pastor Tom’s neck and blood explodes from it. I see him scream, but hear no sound as music blares forth from my partner, shattering the windows throughout the house.

Beleth quiets the music and Pastor Tom gurgles in the corner struggling to survive. “Where to next?” My partner says.

“Are you kidding me?” I say as I receive our next order. “Topeka, Kansas.”

“I have just the song.” Beleth blinks out of existence and I swear off in the distance I hear, ‘It’s Raining Men.’

“I’ve been wanting a shot at those guys. This is going to be fun.” I say to Pastor Tom, and disappear from the room.

∼ Mark Steinwachs

© Copyright Mark Steinwachs. All Rights Reserved.

Terror

Ephialte materializes.

Standing at the foot of the bed, the elongated, alabaster-skinned creature with dilated black eyes licks his lips. The young man sleeps soundly, a rosary laced between his fingers. A timeworn Bible rests on the nightstand, highlighters and pens arranged next to it. If anyone else stood here they would see a man surrounded by peace granted by the faith in his god. Ephialte savors the misperceived sight, one he has seen thousands of times over the centuries.

He slowly walks to the side of the bed and opens the book to Psalm 91:5. The highlighted, circled passage written because of him, “You will not fear the terror of the night…” Ephialte silently laughs. Words are just pretty things unless you truly believe…

Years, which feel like a single day to Ephialte, culminate in this moment. His hand traces a quilt square, lingers on a loose thread, closes, and pulls. Slow. Deliberate. The comforter slides to the floor. The man, dressed only in boxers, shivers but remains on his back. Ephialte crawls onto the bed. His weight is no more than that of an insect. His fingers trail along the human flesh as he positions his knees astride the man’s waist. His hands move from the stomach to the hollows below his ribs, deft fingers finding the invisible holes created over time.

The man groans.

Ephialte presses hard, pierces skin. The man’s eyes pop open and he shrieks. Ephialte sneers, long sharp teeth sprout from his gums. He burrows for the last bit of his victim. The man’s body locks up. Ephialte probes deeper until… There it is.

A microscopic battle rages inside the man. One he can’t win. Behind his heart resides the last vestige of his soul. His screams melt into wracked sobs. Ephialte’s tendrils encase the frantically beating muscle. The hammering against his hands sloughs off the final shreds of humanity. The man is now nothing more than flesh and bone.

Ephialte makes no sound as he withdraws, his work finished. He keeps at least one digit touching the man as he slips to the floor and Ephialte tucks the man back in. The man makes no sound beyond a sob. The Terror removes his finger. The man sits up. A hoarse scream fills the room. Ephialte slips into the shadows, disappearing from human eyes. The man climbs out of bed, looking directly at Ephialte but not seeing him. He urgently searches the room for a minute, then sits on the edge of the bed, head low. He grabs the Bible and hurls it across the room then opens the nightstand drawer. The safety clicks off as he removes the pistol. Putting it to his mouth, he pulls the trigger.

Ephialte vanishes.

∼ Mark Steinwachs

© Copyright Mark Steinwachs. All Rights Reserved.

 

Freedom

I stare at my wrist, watching life push through my veins. I know I’m imagining the ripples of cells straining their thin walls, but it’s become real to me. It is me.

The small, sharpened knife grows warm in my other hand. “Blood for freedom,” I breathe out.

Perched on the chair in my living room, with nothing to look at save the eggshell walls, I feel a far-too-familiar pressure beginning its assault. “Blood for freedom” echoes in the room. Maybe it’s only in my head.

Thin scars, both fresh and faded, wrap around my arm. I touch the knife to my skin. The merest pressure opens a red line beside a previous wound. Dark liquid seeps from the new stripe. I stare. Waiting. Hoping.

Blood for freedom.

“Fuck you,” I hiss and draw the knife deeper, longer. There is no fear, no pain. Nothing. Blood comes faster, but I don’t bother to hope.

Blood for freedom.

I’ve avoided this as long as I could, but it is inevitable. If people knew what I did to those poor creatures, they would call me a sadist. My lovers thought I was kinky. In the end it wasn’t enough.

Standing, I grab my keys and head into the spring night, knife in hand. My car revs to life, the engine purring like a big cat. I roll down the window and pop on some music for the short drive downtown. Crunching guitar riffs and the sound of rushing wind fill the sleek car but, like in my plain apartment, the call finds me.

Blood for freedom.

“I’m going!” I snap. I slice my arm again, hoping for a moment of peace. “I’m not a fucking miracle worker. I can’t just magically be there. Fuck fuck fuck!” I stab the knife into the passenger seat and turn the music up louder.

When I reach the parking lot of the abandoned office building, I flip off the music and drive around back like always. It took awhile, but once I found this place, I knew it would happen here. There could only ever be one outcome. I turn off the car and leave the knife in my seat. I’ll be using the one in my pocket instead.

Blood for freedom!

I gasp as the air is knocked from me and black dots dance across my vision. I steady myself before opening the car door and slide out.

“You win,” I say.

I slip past the broken door and into the dark corridor. I wait, my senses adjusting. It slips into the background to give me space to work. Light flickers from under a couple of the closed doors. Creaks and groans of a building in disrepair mix with murmured voices as I start down the hall. I don’t bother checking the doors; those people have lived on the streets the longest. They’ve learned to survive. In this world they have far more power than I do.

A handful of living areas, denoted by old sleeping bags and cardboard boxes with meager possessions, are in the lobby. A couple people are asleep, a few bags are empty. One kid, maybe twenty years old, gives me a long look. I smile and nod.

Blood for freedom!

If I weren’t already taking a step to the left to enter the bathroom, my stumble would have been far more noticeable. My bloody palm hits the wall to steady myself as my other hand presses open the door and I go in. I pull out my battery night-light and tap it on, sliding it onto the counter, and weird shadows pop up in the room. It doesn’t take long for the kid to join me.

“I was wondering if I would ever get a turn,” he says. “Twenty bucks, right?”

I produce the bill from my pocket, palming my switchblade at the same time.

BLOOD FOR FREEDOM!

I choke out a breath that I play off as a cough as I stagger back. I grab the counter and double over. It feels like fire inside my veins. I close my hand tighter on my knife, hoping it gets the idea.

“You okay, man?” The kid’s voice wavers.

“Yeah,” is all I can manage. I take a deep breath, and the burning retreats enough to let me refocus. I let the twenty slip from my hand and fall to the floor. “Sorry about that.”

“No worries. I need to be down there anyway.”

He kneels as I straighten. He’s looking at the floor when I press the button and the blade shoots out. He looks up, unwittingly exposing his neck. My arm is already coming down. My knife pierces his soft flesh and sinks down to the hilt. Blood spurts around the edges. I let the weight of my body topple onto him. His screams are muffled against me. I slide the knife side to side as best I can, widening the wound. Warm liquid soaks through my clothes.

Blood for freedom.

The words calm me now.

Blood for freedom.

Fading to silence.

Blood for freedom.

As the light fades in the kid’s eyes.

I stand, my clothes sodden with blood. I pick up the twenty and leave it on the counter, tucking my knife and light back in my pocket. I look back at the kid sprawled on the floor. I did the rest of them here a favor, one less person to compete with.

This is my life now. I only wonder how long it will be until I have to kill again.

∼ Mark Steinwachs

© Copyright Mark Steinwachs. All Rights Reserved.

 

The Scourge

Sitting on the floor, with my back against the counter of Pauline’s Coffee Co., I look over my left shoulder at Emily’s body crumpled on the floor. The last frappe that she’d ever make spills over her, mixing with blood from the bullet wound just below her left shoulder and the gash in her head from where it slammed into the counter before she dropped.

Her coworker, Austin, has his legs pulled up to his chest, rocking, unharmed, while tucked in the corner where the wall and the register area meet.

“Sit tight,” I half yell to him. “It’s going to be okay.”

“It’s not going to be okay!” Jacob responds to my comment. Austin just trembles and whimpers. I’m not sure who Jacob has the gun pointed at since I can’t see him. I really hope it isn’t himself.

“Jacob, this isn’t you,” my partner says. “I know what’s going on. There’s a creature inside you telling you what to do. My name is Teris, and I have the power to help you.”

Teris has taken cover behind an overturned table off to my right and his attention is on a mother crouched in the corner shielding her crying toddler with her body.

For a brief second, the child hushes, and the only sound heard is the soft sobbing from a woman lying on the floor in front of the register.

I reposition myself so I’m on my knees and poke my head out enough to see Jacob and reassess the situation. Blood flows from the chest of the man who Jacob shot first. He slid down the condiment bar leaving a dark red trail of blood and I can’t tell if he is still breathing or not. His second shot took down Emily, and then his third left a lady sprawled over a table up against the front window of the shop.

There is a middle-aged man behind two tables flipped on their side forming a barricade, texting someone, probably telling his wife to call the cops, which is the last thing we need right now.

Jacob stands rock still, ready to fire, his gun pointed at the table Teris is behind. Over the course of the last few minutes he has gone from shaking with a quiver in his voice to strong and confident. Teris is spot on, Jacob isn’t in control of himself anymore, the Scourge has almost consumed him.

“Jacob, listen to me,” Teris starts talking again. “We can help you, I promise. There’s a monster inside you. It’s been tormenting you your whole life. I’ll bet it told you everything would be better if you did this.”

Jacob takes a step closer to Teris. “Shut up! Just shut up! What do you know?” Jacob’s words erupt in the room. I’m not sure if they’re meant for Teris or the entity inside him.

Teris continues, “I know quite a lot actually.” His steady, soothing voice breathes a calm in the air. “My partner, Nikias and I are two of thousands of angels on Earth fighting against the hordes of the underworld. One of their demons has infected you.”

As Jacob lowers his gun slightly and relaxes his body, I tense mine. If he would drop the weapon a little more, it would be safe to go for him.

The man Jacob left for dead at the condiment counter wheezes, shattering the calm. Jacob straightens up, points his gun at him, then fires without breaking eye contact with Teris. The bullet rips into the man’s face, shattering his cheek and eye socket before lodging in his brain, bits of flesh smatter the table shielding the texting man.

The woman by the register screams and pushes herself up, knocking over the coffee display as she bolts for the door. Jacob spins on his heel and fires off two quick shots. The deafening retorts linger in the air mixed with the crash of display shelves as the woman is propelled into them. She falls to the ground as bags of coffee tumble down around her dead body.

I catch Teris’ eye. With a flick of my head, I motion behind the counter and he nods in return. We not only have to get the gun away from Jacob so he can’t kill any more innocent people, but also so he can’t turn it on himself. Then get him out of here before …

“The police are on the way,” the texting man announces as if on cue.

Jacob takes a measured step beyond the table barrier, his eyes give away that he is gone, the Scourge has dominion over him. Jacob sneers, firing off another round at close range.

The bullet explodes the texting man’s chest, pushing his body tight to the table. His phone clatters across the tile floor. Jacob smiles, blood christening his body. He puts the barrel of the gun near the man’s temple and pulls the trigger. Bone and mucus-like bits of brain cover the area, resembling a demented Jackson Pollock painting.

Austin starts crying and Jacob snaps his head around, focused on the sound. Before he can move, I rise and take a step, giving myself a clear path to him.

“Jacob, enough of this,” I command, in an attempt to draw his attention.

Teris follows my lead and stands. “Jacob, I know you’re still in there,” he says, as sirens call out in the distance.

We stand a few body lengths apart facing Jacob. He points the gun at Teris, then at me, his attention focused on us. His eyes are inky black and wild. If there’s any chance that he’s still in there, we have to do something fast. We’re losing him.

The sirens get louder.

“Jacob, come back to me,” coaxes Teris as he steps from behind the table. “I can see you, a sliver of you. Put the gun down. We can help. The beast is inside you and it’s going to get out. We know how to cure you.”

Jacob tilts his head. “What? What’s inside?” he questions.

Teris inches closer. “A Scourge. A creature that lives in a human, feeding off the pain of life until it grows too powerful. It needs to destroy your body to reproduce.”

Jacob shudders and blinks, a bit of white appears at the edge of his sclera, and his eyes are tame. The sirens wail and I see flashing lights in the street.

“Put the gun down and come with us,” Teris says.

The police cars screech to a halt in the parking lot. Jacob glances over his shoulder, his body going taut.

“Shit,” I bark, and lunge toward him.

He turns and looks at us, his eyes midnight ebony. Bringing the gun up to his mouth, he pulls the trigger.  His head snaps back as I tackle him, droplets of warm, sticky blood splatter my face and an explosion of blood gray mist that was once Jacob fills the air. We tumble to the ground and his body goes slack.

Two lithe humanoid footlong creatures with taloned hands and feet burst from his chest leaving otherworldy wounds only Teris and I can see. They sink their clawed feet into me and I scream feeling an acidic burn before they push off.

Visible only to us, we watch as they pass through the window in search of new hosts. I wince, looking down at the claw marks through my torn shirt. It doesn’t take long for the poison to react to my angelic blood, the edges of the wounds are already an ugly shade of green and thick puss begins to drip from them.

“We need to get you to Michael,” Teris says, and hooks his arm around me. I close my eyes and my body lurches inside as Teris shifts us from the mortal world where our presence will be dismissed as trauma-induced hallucinations.

∼ Mark Steinwachs

© Copyright Mark Steinwachs. All Rights Reserved.

Fear

Tilting my head back I undo the clasp of the invisible collar around my neck. I feel two sets of long, sharp nails remove themselves from the skin of my shoulders and upper back. Bringing my arm over my head I clasp the collar shut and hang it on my bedpost as I do every night.

I run my hands along my neck. There are no physical marks on me. Nothing my friends or family would ever see, but I know they’re there. Twenty nail marks etched into my skin that will not heal for another night, and bruises from the weight of the creatures tugging at my collar.

I turn around and face them. They stand side by side, ebony beings who stare down at me. They look emaciated, their rib cages protruding. They have long, sinewy arms and legs; I shudder knowing I will feel the creatures pierce me again when I wake up. Their faces are dominated by sets of razor sharp teeth that drip with inky saliva whenever they open their mouths. I’ve yet to feel their bite, though I often wonder what would happen if I did.

Fear opens his mouth and his pointed tongue snakes out. I shiver but meet his gaze. I know he is Fear by the only color on his body, amber orbs that are his eyes. I’ve stared him down many a night.

I look to Doubt, his gold eyes glow in the darkened room. He brings his hands up and sneers. He dug deep into me all day and is gloating about it.

Neither emit a sound, the silent monsters who haunt me. They have been with me for years. Gnawing at my being every day, growing inside me until they forced themselves out. Everyone has these creatures in them, but mine reign over me. Control me.

I am not alone. There are others whose demons are just as powerful. There are no support groups, no doctors who can heal us. We are broken. What I’ve learned about mine, I’ve learned on my own.

They look down at me, watching. They are weaker at night when I am alone with my door closed to the world. But they know I cannot leave these four walls without them. They grow stronger each day. They rule in the outside world, but in mine, my room, I can stand up to them. Keep them at bay while I sleep. Dreams are my only safe place.

I walk to the side of my bed, their eyes never leaving my body. They turn in unison, standing guard as I slip under the covers. I turn off the lamp and my last vision is of their bedside vigil.

***

My eyes open to a new day. Fear and Doubt stand exactly as I left them. I push myself out of bed and they flex their taut muscles, their claws extending. I know what must be done. My body trembles inside. Each day I lose more of myself, but I cannot stop it. I reach for my collar and put it around my neck. I turn away, offering myself to them as I clasp it shut.

Closing my eyes I wait to feel them. Ten nails pierce my skin, what little healing happened overnight is erased.

Fear.

He pushes in deeper, tendrils snaking inside my body. As more of him enters me his body shrinks. He is no longer standing over me but now attached to me. Feeding from me. I inhale sharply, choking, as my collar is pulled to one side from his weight.

Waiting. One breath. Two breaths.

Doubt.

He stabs at me. Ten wounds at once. He is swift. Brutal. Taking hold. I gasp and grab the corner of my dresser so I don’t fall over. His tongue flicks my ear as I straighten myself.

They settle in as I open my bedroom door, ready to face the world.

***

Shutting the door to my bedroom I lean against it. I can’t face another day of school, the humiliation, the bullying. I’m done. I can’t fight anymore. I realize there is only one thing left for me. I finally understand what to do. No longer doubting myself, I will give in. I smile, it will all be over soon.

Pushing myself away from the door, my heart races. The weight shifts along my neck as my collar pulls against me when Doubt’s feet hit the ground. His body comes free and I feel his presence behind me.

I turn to face him. He is losing substance, shimmering in my vision.

“I’m sorry,” I whisper through clenched teeth, tears streaming down my face. I slide my hand under my shirt, feeling along my shoulder blade. Once again I smile. Just as I thought, his wounds are gone.

He steps forward and gently lays his hands over mine. Our eyes stay locked. He has been a part of me for so long. His tongue slips out and he kisses my tears away. Then he is gone.

My heart thumps against my chest. Unclasping my collar, I pull it around in front of me. I wait. His finger traces my body as he steps in front of me.

Fear.

My body is shaking but I don’t move. I am no longer crying. My hands quiver, fumbling with the clasp that binds Fear to the collar. Patiently he stands in front of me. I release the clasp and drop the collar to the floor. Fear smiles. It is grotesque and beautiful.

His hands roam over my body, feeling flesh he never has before. He grows as we stand together. Every inch of me is now his. There is only one thing left.

He opens his mouth.

My heart races as I close my eyes. A hundred spikes of pain shoot through me. I scream out in agony and fall to the floor, instinctively curling into the fetal position, rocking.

The door bursts open behind me. I hear my mom yelling asking if I’m all right. I know she is only a few feet from me, but she sounds so far away.

***

I’ve lost count of days, maybe it’s been years. I hear everything that is being said, but my body never responds. I’m trapped. My only reaction is to sob when they give me medication to relax. No one knows why I cry. They don’t understand they are tears of joy for being free.

Inevitably I feel my body slowly twisting into position as the drugs wear off. My tears stop. Those few hours of peace are gone. Once again I return to the hell in which I reside.

Fear is waiting for me.

My body enters his.

I am home.

~ Mark Steinwachs

© Copyright Mark Steinwachs. All Rights Reserved.

Suffering

The chittering awakens me and I open my eyes. My body is prone on the comfortable bed, one of few luxuries I am afforded. I wince when the first set of tiny hands touch me, sharp claws testing the flesh of my legs. Laying here, waiting for it to begin.

Each of us live this, session after session. It’s not the physical anguish that will break us, it’s the emotional torment. Feeling the tingling in our bodies as the connection builds. The unseen part of us that stretches through the chasm to them as our gift begins to merge with theirs—knowing we will soon be back for another round. There is nothing we can do to stop it. It is our life. Our life to complete theirs.

We are the Muse.

A sharp burst of pain shoots through me, my body arching as synapses explode inside. I slam back on the bed, the room disappears and a glowing white screen surrounds me. A cursor blinks, then it begins. Letters becoming words becoming sentences. Tiny nails dig into my flesh. More words flow as blood trickles down my legs. My face twitches with each pin prick from the small claws. The letters in black, forming on the screen in front of me. Every muscle fights the slow grinding ache as viscous red seeps from me. I give myself to him, so he may become great.

The creatures move up my legs, nipping my torso and arms. I don’t need to see the sightless ones, the Deliverers, as dark as the night itself with pointed teeth that click and tick as they speak to each other in a language only they and Oizys know. She controls them and they feed her from our sessions. We are pawns, Muse and Deliverers, in the games the gods play.

A flash of golden light blinds me, pulling me from my thoughts. I wince but never close my eyes. If I look away, or even blink, the connection will break. I can’t read the words but I know they are perfect. Only perfection can be this intense and with it brings … I bite my bottom lip as a talon slashes my calf, reopening my barely healed wound from last night. A moan escapes me, tears stream down my face. I want it to be over. With each word he types my eyes are assaulted. That, mixed with the physical attacks, overwhelms me. I begin to blink but I can’t let myself, I won’t. He is on fire and I am his victim.

The words flow from him. I don’t know how long it lasts, my time and his never mix. I am becoming weaker as blood continues to seep from the cuts all over me. My body is begging me to end the session, to close my eyes and rest before there is no coming back. I groan through clenched teeth, spasms wrack my body. I feel a Deliverer on my chest. Suddenly all the others stop but the words continue. My body involuntarily tenses, unknowing, the pause in their attack confusing me. Agonizing seconds tick by until another sentence crosses my vision.

Vivid colors erupt in front of my eyes, unlike anything I have ever seen before. A sharp claw pierces my flesh and bores into me. Its talon extends deep inside me and punctures my heart, filling itself straight from me. I scream in anguish and close my eyes. The colors vanish and my world is an abyss.

My breath is shallow and ragged. The claw in my heart retracts and the Deliverers start to slip away. My body struggles to repair itself, starting with the most serious injuries. After those, the hundreds of little nicks mark my flesh, scars of another round of torment. The room is quiet and I am at peace. I made it through once more. I begin to drift off to sleep, my last thoughts always the same.

I am a Muse. I must suffer for my artist.

∼ Mark Steinwachs

© Copyright Mark Steinwachs. All Rights Reserved.

Dirt

I slam the shovel into the mound of dirt. Sweat drips into the hole I’ve spent the last few hours digging. There’s no turning back. I’m not filling it in like before.

The chill of autumn cascades over my exposed shoulders. While I was digging the breeze did nothing to cool me, so off came my shirt. How many times had I worked shirtless in the yard while Claudia was home next door? That doesn’t matter anymore.

She had talked me out of this plan so many times, told me to give it time, that they would figure out how to stop them. But they can’t; their creation is out of control, the disease mutated, spread too fast. I’ve never been one to delude myself.

Her body hangs out the bedroom window. My shot was true, but instead of knocking her back into her room, it spun her and she flopped forward. Her dripping blood called to them, speeding up the inevitable. The creatures drank all that spilled from her and now circle my fence, drawn by my scent. They would have ended up here anyway. It just happened sooner than expected. I spared Claudia the agonizing pain of the end of days, just like I did…
I shiver once more, but not from the cold. Guttural groans, a cross between human and canine, surround me. Scratching sounds reverberate like gunshots as their sharp claws work on the barricade.

Shick. Shick. Shick.

“Fuck you!” I yell to no one. It’s all I have left in me, nothing grandiose, only four-letter expletives. The world is coming to an end, and mine… mine’s already gone.

I grab my rifle and march to the stepladder, climbing to peer over the fence at the half-human monstrosities. Clawed hands scrape relentlessly. Then one of the things looks up at me with glazed eyes and bloodied teeth. I pull the trigger. Its face explodes in red mist. Others dive over to feed. The rest jostle for the meal.

“Fuck you!” I spit.

I throw the gun over the side, not that they can use it. I don’t need it anymore. It was just a distraction to buy me enough time to finish the task at hand. After climbing down the ladder, I walk to my patio. I wipe my face, pretending it’s sweat and not tears.

But by the time I reach the table, I can no longer lie to myself. Tears stream down my face. I slide my hands under the sheet and gently lift him, the last time I ever will. Three years, three years is all I got. It’s not remotely fair. My vision blurs as I cross my back yard. I lay the sheet in the hole and slide in next.

Shick. Shick. Shick.

The sound of clawing replaces the sound of their fighting. Not long now.
I sweep my arms wide and beckon a cascade of dirt into the hole. I start by covering my legs and soon am up to my hips. I keep pulling dirt over me. Covering myself.

Covering us.

I lay my head back, reaching up like I’ve practiced. I take a deep breath as the dirt falls over my face, but this time I won’t stop. They won’t take us. I won’t let them. I swore to protect him forever and I will.
I can’t hold my breath any longer and pull my hands down. I gasp and dirt fills me, takes me to him.

∼ Mark Steinwachs

© Copyright Mark Steinwachs. All Rights Reserved.