I Love Every Part of You

It begins, on a rainy Sunday two days after Olivia’s  funeral, with her left ring finger.

Melanie wakes to a weird little pressure under her ribs and sits up and there it is: nestled into a fold of the sheet, its magenta acrylic nail lying discarded to one side. Melanie picks it up with bile hiking acidly up the back of her throat, sees the smoothness at the base, and can’t help noticing that the rings are still snug. The gap between her fingers is silky and flawless, the skin above the barren knuckle dimples and is only slightly paler than the rest.

She should worry. A part of her knows it. But Melanie is still too numb from Olivia’s sudden passing—you should be grateful, her aunt had said at the graveside, that the cancer worked so fast and she wasn’t in too much pain—to regard it as anything more than a bodily quirk, a curiosity, so she gets dressed and wraps the finger in black crepe and drives to the cemetery, and buries that part of herself in the shallow hole she’s able to dig in the loose earth with two hands.

On Monday it’s half her blonde hair, loose on the pillow; on Tuesday she brushes the rest and it all just tugs loose with a painless not-quite-pop. No obvious flaws, no stubble, no bloody roots; she sits on the bed and vacantly runs her fingers through the strands, the way Olivia had done. I love every part of you, Olivia had said so many times, even at the end; so the hair gets bundled into a neat rubber-banded braid and buried beside the finger.

On Wednesday Melanie wakes minus three bloodless teeth, and her lower lip—the one Olivia had liked to bite when they were in a certain mood—feels oddly loose, so this time she wraps the teeth in a square of paper towel and goes to her doctor.

She gets stared at. Prodded—with the end of a pen, not with fingers. There are scribblings and murmurs: are you eating? do you feel well? are you sure you haven’t hurt yourself?—to which Melanie just bows her bare head and holds out her gapped hand and says, “Do you see wounds? do you see scars?”

Stress, is the uncertain verdict, and a prescription changes hands. Melanie’s staring at it in the car when the rest of her teeth shed in a rattling cascade that bounces off her knees, scattering into the floorboard below.

It takes her half an hour to collect them all, to account for every one. By then, she almost thinks she knows what’s going on.

I love every part of you.

The soil mounded over Olivia’s grave is rain-damp and fragrant. Melanie scoops out a hollow and deposits the teeth and says, “You know, you didn’t have to be so literal.”

Then her lower lip drops, jelly-like, into the hole.

It’s okay; Melanie hasn’t felt like eating in days. She just shrugs and smoothes it over, and goes home to see what will happen next.

What happens is Thursday.

Her left arm and hand below the elbow. Four toes across both feet. Her left eye too, the one Olivia had sworn held so much more sparkle than the other. She just gropes a plastic bag from the container in the kitchen, never before so grateful to be right-handed, and clumsily scoops everything inside except her eyelashes, which are fine enough to get lost in the high pile of the carpet.

Melanie waits until after dark. She has to, for this. The eye had been just a little much.

You always were a drama queen, Liv.

This time digging a proper hole is out of the question, so Melanie attacks the side of the heaped, drying soil with hand and feet, unsteadily carving out a place for herself. By the time she’s made a space to burrow into, by the time she’s clawing her earthen blanket down, the sky is growing light again, and she’s left two more fingers and an ear in the dirt.

The loosened earth crumbles over her, but Melanie just huddles in the hollow she’s made, curled into the fetal position and breathing hard. She coughs out a sudden blockage in her mouth and realizes it’s her tongue.

Her skin parts and opens. One by one, her drawn limbs begin to loosen and disarticulate. Something detaches inside her chest. Melanie sighs with what’s left of her breath, sagging wearily into the damp and dark. 

If she focuses, if she concentrates, she can almost feel Olivia reaching up for her, reaching for every beloved part.

~Scarlett R. Algee

© Copyright Scarlett R. Algee. All Rights Reserved.

Telling Stories

I’ve started dreading bedtime.

It’s Emily. Oh, it’s not her fault, for God’s sake, she’s only three, but lately every time I come to tuck her in she’s dragged out that book, and always with the same demand.

Story time.

I don’t know where she found it. I certainly didn’t buy it, and it wasn’t in the house when we moved in. Trying to ask the neighbors about it has only gotten me evil looks and muttered curses and a lot of disinvitations, and I can’t say I blame them—the damned thing just looks so odd, bound in patchwork leather with some kind of crude embroidery that I guess is meant to look like stitches. And the pictures are awful: all fangs and teeth and multiplicities of limbs, sometimes blurry and seeming to slide off the page, sometimes so detailed I wake up screaming.

But Emily always sleeps soundly, and I can never find the same picture twice.

The words, though. The words are worst. Some of the text is black and some is red, like an old Bible, but none of it is in English. I’m not even sure the words are actually words. They’re crooked, wriggling shapes, shifting and writhing on the page; the first time Emily asked me to read something, I decided to play along, make something up as I went, but the shapes turned to words as I struggled over them. Not in front of my eyes, but out of my mouth. English words. Suddenly I was telling my daughter monstrous stories, stories of slaughter and gore, of dead gods rising from the sea, rising to blot out the sun.

And Emily laughed and laughed.

I said the words were worst. No. That’s not true. The changes are worst. Tuesday morning when I mowed the yard, the grass twisted and bled. That night I walked out onto the porch for a smoke and the moon looked down at me, huge and red, pockmarked with yellow eyes. Last night while I was reading, something slammed into the bedroom window, something far too large to be any kind of bird, and Emily clapped and laughed while I shrieked.

This morning there was nothing on the window but a scorch mark that stretched down the wall.

I’ve tried throwing the book away. Tried giving it to the library. Every time, it was back on Emily’s bedroom shelf that night, and now the disapproving note I got from the librarian is a soot-edged bookmark.

And Emily knows something’s happening. She knows, and she’s changing too. Sometimes I catch her watching me like she’s sizing me up, waiting; sometimes her eyes seem a little yellow, and her mouth full of too many teeth.

I should burn the book. Tear out the pages. But it makes her so happy, I can never quite bring myself to tell her no when she says, Story time.

Still, just once, I wish she’d ask for Where the Wild Things Are.

~ Scarlett R. Algee

© Copyright Scarlett R. Algee. All Rights Reserved.
Where the Wild Things Are © copyright Maurice Sendak, 1963

 

 

Countdown

Harry wakes to heat, and to silence.

He opens his eyes to a leak-stained ceiling, but everything feels too bright and he closes them again, trying to push past the cotton-wool thickness in his head to sort out exactly why the quiet is wrong. There’s a small stinging ache at the back of his neck and a sour iron taste in his throat, like he’s held a mouthful of old coins.

There’s no background noise.

That’s it. Harry opens his eyes another fraction. He’s lying on a bed in an unfamiliar room—in the Bonneheure Hotel, if the fleurs-du-lys stamped on the center ceiling tiles are any indication—but there’s no hotel ambiance, no voices or footsteps or air-conditioning hum. No air’s circulating at all: the room has a stifling musty smell that makes his nostrils burn. There’s just the rasp of his own breathing, and the corner of his smartphone digging into his hip inside his pocket.

And the weight of another body on the bed.

Harry turns his head, dizzy, frowning. The woman lying beside him, covered by a sheet pulled above her breasts, is bottle blonde, immaculately made up, her mouth a candyfloss shade of red and her eyelashes crisp with mascara.

Is she a hooker? He’s never seen her before.

Harry doesn’t remember coming here. Or bringing a woman, or anything that can tell him why he’s lying in his clothes on a bed in a silent hotel room with someone he doesn’t recognize; his last memory is of standing in front of his boss’ office door and feeling a sudden cold sting in his neck.

So that’s the pain above his collar; it’s starting to itch. He’s been…drugged? Kidnapped? But why—

This place closed last year, he thinks, and belated understanding brings him fully awake. Harry sits up and his right shoulder is jerked painfully: there’s a cable tie snugged around his wrist, attached to another, and another, a chain of cable ties that leads somewhere under the bed. He shifts on the mattress, heart picking up, sweat breaking out hot on his face; something shifts with him and rolls against his thigh.

The woman hasn’t stirred. Harry glances at her, then at the object, and pulls it into his lap with his left hand. It’s a roll of leather, and he fumbles it open to find a set of steak knives, gleaming blades of various widths, their serrated edges like broken sharks’ smiles.

“I don’t understand,” he says hoarsely. Harry looks back to the woman—his sitting up should have woken her, but she still hasn’t moved. Has she been drugged too? He reaches out with his free hand to shake her, clumsily.

She’s cold.

She’s not breathing.

His phone rings.

Harry shrieks, almost voiceless, and starts to his feet. His cable-tie tether jerks him down, and his knees bang painfully on the worn gray carpet, his head just missing the edge of the bedside table. He shuts his eyes again and exhales a ragged breath, heart stumbling against his ribs, sweat pouring beneath his shirt. The smartphone trills again, breaking a tiny sob from his parched lips, and with effort he wrests enough slack in his plastic restraint to pull the phone loose and thumb the screen. “H-hello.”

“Harry.” He knows the voice. It’s Conrad from work; Conrad, right hand of their boss, Kurtz, though Harry can never remember what the man actually does for the company. “I take it you found our present.”

“Conrad, God, Conrad, you have to help me—” Harry has almost no saliva, and when the words register, even that dries up. “…Present?”

“Do you like her, Harry?” Conrad is smiling, Harry can hear it in his voice. Can picture it, in fact: the perfect teeth, perfect tan, perfectly parted hair. “Lola. You wouldn’t have known her, she was down in HR,” Conrad purrs. “Shame, really, she’s a hell of a looker, but she was convenient.”

He sounds like a cat licking cream from its whiskers. Harry swallows, looking back over his shoulder at…Lola. “Conrad. What’s going on? Why’s this happening?”

“Oh, Harry, honey. You know.”

There’s a hint of laughter in Conrad’s voice, one that becomes more than a hint when Harry whimpers. “Look. Okay, look. If this is about the money, I—”

“Of course it’s about the money.” Conrad’s friendliness gives abrupt way to a hard edge. “You don’t skim off the top, Harry, not with Kurtz. You knew better. You may be swimming in the accounting pool, but you’re not one of the sharks yet.” The laugh comes out, a short sharp bark. “It’s the assumption that hurts, you know? Mr. Kurtz doesn’t appreciate people thinking he’s stupid.”

“I—” Harry’s heart is tapping painful double-time against his sternum. He’d assumed just that thing, had assumed his wide-bodied, pig-eyed boss was the idiot he resembled; it had been a correct assumption before, with some of the others. He works his jaws, trying to think fast as whatever he’d been doped with burns off. “So what happens now? The cops show up, they find me, they find…Lola”—he chokes on her name—”and they assume the worst?”

“That’s a neat convenient package,” Conrad muses. “And Mr. Kurtz wants to make an example of you. Only…not like that.” He sucks his teeth audibly. “Nobody’s going to look for you there, Harry. That hotel’s been closed fifteen months. It’s scheduled for demolition tomorrow.”

Harry’s chest constricts.

“And there’s Lola.” Conrad must be grinning. “Isn’t she a beauty? Kurtz got a clever idea. There’s a bomb in her.”

The blood drains from Harry’s face with a palpable loss of heat. “…What.”

“A bomb, Harry. Goes boom? One of the IT guys rigged it.” Conrad’s friendliness is back. “That’s why you have the knives, Harry. Nice knives. Japanese carbon steel. Got ’em at Sears. You cut her open and find it, you might have a chance. Kurtz believes in fairness, Harry, even if you don’t.”

The façade drops again. “You have five minutes. Goodbye, Harry.”

The call disconnects. Harry stares at his phone, aghast, but slowly gets to his feet, sits on the bed.

Stiffly, he pulls the sheet from Lola’s cold body.

She’s naked, flawless. Aside from a tiny blue pinprick wound on her throat, there’s not a mark on her. How many times had he passed this woman in the hallway and never picked her out from the others?

It’s a joke, right? It’s a sick joke, it has to be, he can’t—

Within the dead woman’s abdomen, something begins to beep.

∼ Scarlett R. Algee

© Copyright Scarlett R. Algee. All Rights Reserved.

Too Close to the Ground

Cassie finds the remnants of the angel strewn across the sidewalk.

She’s too late. For a second she hugs her kit for gathering specimens to her chest; then  lets the strap sag through her fingers, the leather bag coming to rest gently on the spiderwebbed concrete. Someday, someday, she’ll get to one of these things fast enough.

There isn’t much left: a string of glassy vertebrae, and an elongated skull with no lower jaw and too many eye sockets, already translucent. No flesh—there’s never any flesh. No meat, no decay, not even the signs of scavenging insects. Just this fading, delicate wreckage that’ll be gone by noon. Cassie glances skyward briefly; the otherworldly corpses dissipate quickly under a high sun, and her stomach knots in protest at missing out once again.

Only one portion seems to have retained more substance than the rest: a single outstretched feathered wing, accordioned into the pavement. Jagged shards of glistening, porous bone protrude from amongst the plumage, and Cassie squats to pluck out a fragment with an attached pinion. But the feather flares up in her grasp like white phosphorus, and when she opens her hand, there’s nothing on her palm but an oily white smear.

“Third one this month, an’ it ain’t the fifteenth yet.”

Cassie whirls, kicking over her kit bag, internally swearing at the sound of vials jostling inside. The speaker’s an elderly man wearing a red baseball cap and overalls; he’s chewing a toothpick tucked in the corner of his mouth. He’s vaguely familiar, and she realizes she’s seen him in her apartment building: Stan, or Steve. Steve sounds right.

“You’ve seen the others?”

“Yep.” The toothpick hitches; Steve picks at the front of his plaid shirt, and there’s a certain preoccupied vacancy in his gaze. “People ate part o’ the first ‘un.”

Cassie pushes her glasses up and stares at him. “You just said people ate an angel.”

“Yep.” His boots scuff on the sidewalk. “People got curious, see, when they realized it wasn’t lastin’.” Before she can get in another question, he adds quickly, “It ain’t really meat. Nothin’ like that. Breaks off dry, like chalk.” The words are wet and soft. “It’s like nothin’. Flossy. Sweet. Like cotton candy, just melts in your mouth an’ don’t get to your gut, an’ you don’t remember how it tasted.”

“Unbelievable.” She rakes both hands through her hair and notices he’s drooling a little around the toothpick. A glance back tells her the angel is a film of greasy powder. “What happened?”

“I ain’t growed wings yet, if that’s what you’re askin’.” For a moment Steve’s gaze is hard and crystalline; then his whole face grows slack again. “Better question is, what’s happenin’ up there that they’re throwin’ themselves down?”

But when he looks up toward the sun, there’s a light shining from between his teeth. He squints, and the lines across his face suggest a multitude of eyes.

Cassie carefully reaches down and feels for her bag.

Maybe she won’t have to wait for another specimen after all.

∼ Scarlett R. Algee

© Copyright Scarlett R. Algee. All Rights Reserved.

Patient Zero

The first thing you do when you wake up is peel your eyelids open with your fingers.

Your lashes are gummy, and almost stick together again when you squint against the too-bright light. Your tongue feels parched and furry, clinging to the roof of your mouth. When you work your jaws there’s the distinct sting of flesh parting. You taste something metallic, like blood, but thick and rancid. Sweat slicks your forehead, oily and cold.

Cold. You fumble the back of your hand across your forehead and yes, your skin is cool. Your fever must have broken.

Annalise had been sick at the office party last night, or at least she’d complained of feeling unwell. So had Brian and Tamsin, separately; Brian had said his kids had come home from school aching. Some sort of crud, you’d all agreed, something going around. They’d decided to go home early. You’d felt fine at the time, but talking to them had left a psychosomatic scratchiness in your throat.

Or at least you’d thought it was psychosomatic. By the time you’d pulled into your own driveway, you could feel the swell of your tonsils every time you swallowed, and your skin had felt like parchment paper left in an oven too long; brittle and scorched around the edges. You’d choked down water and ibuprofen in the kitchen, then stumbled out of your stilettos and staggered to the bedroom where, vision blurring and hands beginning to shake, you’d read your temperature on the digital thermometer as a hundred and four.

I’ll go to the ER, you’d told yourself dizzily. Right after I just lie here a few minutes.

But that had been last night, or so you think. You’re still in the cocktail dress you’d worn to the party, and as you struggle upright, limbs heavy and joints crackling in protest, you catch sight of the bruises in the creases of both your elbows, large and slate-blue. The skin around them is grey, and panic twists heavily in your chest as you scrabble the thermometer from the bedside table and shove it beneath your stiff tongue. In a few seconds the thermometer’s alarm shrills, and you pull it free, squinting harder; the skin of your forehead creases and splits with the effort.

Eighty-five degrees.

You can’t feel your heartbeat.

Something is very, very wrong.

Standing is difficult; your knees have locked almost completely, nearly pitching you straight forward onto the floor. But you catch yourself against the nightstand and totter into the bathroom, holding onto the fixtures, the furniture, the walls. You grip the edges of the sink and haul yourself in front of the mirror and scream, except you don’t. The noise that comes out as you stare at yourself is airless and soft.

The skin of your face is ash grey. Your eyes are sunken and semi-opaque, surrounded by deep purple lids. You pull back your lips and see blackened gums shriveling away from your teeth. Shuddering, you hug yourself and rub your icy forearms, and a flap of skin drops away from one limb like a discarded glove.

Whatever this is, you don’t think the ER can help you now.

~ Scarlett R. Algee

© Copyright 2019 Scarlett R. Algee. All Rights Reserved.

Flycatcher

Jolene can’t stop staring at Sissy’s scars.

At least, she assumes they’re scars: four pink half-circle indents in the middle of Sissy’s forehead, like the marks left by dug-in fingernails. And Jolene knows she’s being rude, that it’s horrible of her, but she can’t stop, no matter how bad she feels or how much she tells herself to look away.

When she’d come back to town yesterday, ten years after high school, Jolene had expected something different for her one-time friend. A little house with a neat yard and a white picket fence, maybe. A job as a teacher, or editor of the town paper; Sissy had always been smart that way. A husband somewhere at the very least, since Sissy had easily been the most reserved girl in school, the one who blushed brick-red at the dirty jokes told in the lunch line. But not this. Not a seat in a beat-up rocking chair in a saggy rusting trailer on the outskirts of town, with grimy windows and pressboard walls, sweltering under a lazy ceiling fan. Not Sissy herself, now thin and wan and blushless as if she’s been bled. And certainly not Sissy’s one-year-old son Jimmy, crab-creeping strangely across the dirty floor on all fours, who’s been the subject of Jolene’s gaze almost as much as his mother’s marred forehead.

And if Sissy notices the stare, she doesn’t let on. Just drones on about her ex Tyler, Jimmy’s daddy, whom Jolene barely remembers except as a skinny wispy-bearded boy who’d sucked at playing baseball. About Tyler’s meth habit and how she thinks it’s the cause of Jimmy’s condition, and how the doctors at Vanderbilt think so too, though Sissy’s granny always claims it’s from that brown recluse that bit Sissy in her second trimester, and really, Tyler could’ve been a good daddy if he hadn’t blown himself to hell shake-and-baking crank in his mama’s toolshed, and—

Jolene’s broken out of her daze by little limbs clamping around her neck; Jimmy is so light she hadn’t even noticed him clambering into her lap. But his laugh is gurgling and bright, and it makes Sissy stop talking and smile, the first real emotion that’s touched her bloodless face in an hour.

“How ‘bout that,” she says, pulling up out of her worn recliner and clapping her hands. “He’s awful shy of strangers, but I shoulda known he’d take to you, Jo. You just hold him an’ let me find my phone.”

Jimmy crows as Sissy leaves the room, and nuzzles wetly into Jolene’s neck. His little body is stiff and Jolene embraces him awkwardly, dragging her fingers over his thick blond hair. He smells of sour milk and rot, and Jolene finds herself wondering if this trailer had been Tyler’s meth lab. If he’d worn some kind of rings that would account for Sissy’s scars.

Then Jimmy sinks his teeth into her neck.

Jolene’s shout is strangled. The baby’s grip is strong, and she can feel her skin parting for his teeth, for the deep burn of the bite. Then the pain passes, and she realizes something’s leaking into her from his mouth, something that stings and leaves numbness behind. Spots waver in her vision, but she can’t blink them away. She can’t blink at all.

“That’s enough, now.” Sissy lifts Jimmy from Jolene’s lap and sets him back on the floor. Jolene tries to look up at her, tries to speak, but her eyes won’t move and words won’t come, not even when Sissy puts too many hands under her chin and jerks her head up hard enough to make her neck crack.

“I’m sorry it’s you, Jo.” The curved lines on Sissy’s forehead flare more deeply red and then blink open, staring back, one after the other. “But I am glad you came by. We ain’t had a visitor in a while, an’ Jimmy was gettin’ awful hungry.”

∼ Scarlett R. Algee

© Copyright Scarlett R. Algee. All Rights Reserved.

Say

Say something.

Say I’m dreaming. Say I’m hallucinating. Say this isn’t really happening.

Say it’s not really you splayed here on the kitchen floor, limbs curled loose like a broken spider’s, your hair powdered white from its pillow of flour spilling from the bag tipped half off the counter. You always make a mess in here, always such a goddamn mess. What were you thinking? Say it. Say what you were thinking.

Say the drop of blood on the linoleum didn’t leak from the crook of your elbow. Say the tourniquet’s not still on your arm, the needle’s not still in the vein. Say your skin isn’t ashen and your lips aren’t gaping blue beneath the foam. Say your eyes aren’t open, aren’t fixed, aren’t glazed.

Say you’ll wake up if I jostle your shoulder or tug my fingers through your hair just so, like always. Say you’ll wake up, or I will. Say it’s just another of my nightmares and you’re fine. We’re both fine. Warm. Pink. Breathing.

Say you’re breathing. Please say you’re breathing. Say the pulse I feel when I press my fingertips to your carotid isn’t just my own. Say, as I kiss your cheek and stroke your hair back and snag a few strands on your earring, that it’s me who’s feverish and not you who’s cold.

Say I don’t have to do what I know comes next. 911. Ambulance. Sirens. You, carried away. Me, left behind. Say my last sight of you won’t be with a shroud over your face.

Say it was a mistake. Say it was an accident. Say you didn’t choose this.

Say it wasn’t supposed to be like this. Say it’s nothing I did. Say it’s not my fault. Say that loudest of all.

But say something, damn you.

Say something.

Anything.

Please.

∼ Scarlett R. Algee

© Copyright Scarlett R. Algee. All Rights Reserved.

A Spot of Blood

I’ve just reached for the bleach bottle, my fingers tight on the cap, when she closes her hand around my wrist.

“Hold up, baby girl. What’s this here?”

She shifts her grip to under my arms and pulls me upright. I’m myopic enough from my time bent over the half-butchered corpse in the bathtub that the blot on the floor wobbles in my vision for a second before it resolves, and I feel the press of her covered boots against the outsides of my own.

A single spot of blood between my feet, between hers. She takes the back of my neck and squeezes hard, forces my head down and holds me there. “Now, baby girl, we’ve talked about this.”

And we have, but never about the things I’ve done right: how small-caliber rounds rattle around in the skull and don’t come out; how to accommodate the way the carotids can hide when the head’s pulled back; how to unfold plastic sheeting so it doesn’t even crinkle. For Christ’s sake, I’m wearing three pairs of nitrile gloves right now.

No, it’s always the other things: the cut that isn’t deep enough, the noise that isn’t muffled properly, this single drop of blood on a bathroom floor.

I reach blindly for the bleach. “I’ll take care of it.”

“Honey, I don’t think you realize how serious this is.” She presses on my neck. “We don’t leave traces. You know what I say about mistakes.”

“Mistakes get you caught,” I mumble.

“Damn right. And how many is this?”

She shakes me like a dog shakes a stuffed toy. I can feel my own carotids pulsing as I try to think. “Two…no…three.”

“And one I can forgive. Maybe two. You’ve been learning,” she says. “But not this one, missy, oh no.”

She lets go of my neck and grabs my hair, plastic cap and all, and yanks me to full height, spinning me around. The movement is dizzying. My vision swims.

When it clears, I’m looking out the open bathroom doorway down the hall, toward the kitchen. Two drops. Three. Dozens. Maybe hundreds.

I’ve left a blood trail.

She rips the surgical mask from my face. The elastic snaps. I whimper.

“You do the crime, chickadee, you’re damn sure gonna do the cleanup. And this time, you’re doing it the hard way.”

When she shoves me, I fold, topple straight down on my knees. She plants the toe of one boot in my side. “I warned you how it would be. Now get started.”

Knees burning, eyes watering into my safety goggles, I bend my face to the floor and start to lick.

~Scarlett R. Algee

© Copyright Scarlett R. Algee. All Rights Reserved.

Unto Us a Son Is Given

I wish to say I do not remember clearly, because I am an old man and more than thirty years have passed. But it is sin to lie and I cannot forget, so I will say: I remember, though the memory slay me.

When we saw the flare of light we were in the hills above Bethlehem, Micah and Ishmael and I; it was early autumn, the air just becoming crisp, and the ewes we tended were fat and tempting. Micah had killed a wolf with a stone from his sling; I stood watch while he and Ishmael skinned it.

And the sky caught fire.

I can call it nothing else. A great curtain of green light, bright as the sun, licked up from horizon to zenith in an instant; and in the same instant it coalesced to a single point, sickly and flickering, hovering over the mouth of a cave. We stared, bloody wolf forgotten. Ishmael was young then, and trembled. I trembled; I will not lie.

Then we heard the wings.

There were hundreds of them, perhaps thousands, lanky black things with great tattered bat-like wings that blotted out the stars and the strange green light. They hovered over us, and spoke; and their speech was not the speech of men, but a low evil buzz that twisted up words in my mind.

The one you were promised has come. Come. See. We take you.

One of the creatures snatched me up in thin cold hands; it had claws that pierced my robe and pricked my flesh. Then I was lifted; and if others seized Micah and Ishmael I did not see. I saw the ground rush under me, and closed my eyes against the nausea of movement, against the sight of my bearer’s shallow, featureless face.

Then I was set down.

I opened my eyes. I was at the mouth of the cave. The pale green light streamed down, hanging over the opening like a door, made my skin appear leprous in its wake. Then the creature shoved my shoulder with one clawed freezing hand and pushed me through.

Passing through that green glow was like passing through stagnant water: I gagged and retched at its stinking viscosity, and stumbled beyond feeling coated with contagion. Inside was dark except for a far dimmer light; my eyes took a long moment to adjust to the simple oil lamps. I smelled copper, sweat, decay.

And I saw the woman and her child.

She was a young thing, at a closer look, and panting still; the straw between her feet was clotted with copious blood, as though her labor had been precipitous and difficult. An older man, perhaps her husband or father, stood well back from her and raised wild eyes to me, his chin dripping saliva beneath his slack, working mouth. She had the glazed look of the exhausted unto death, and in the whiteness of her face I saw the clean stark lines of the skull beneath, yet through some strength she held the child to her.

Then the woman took the child and laid it in the manger: but the stone trough was lined with raw meat instead of clean straw, and flies buzzed over a butchered lamb in an empty stall. I saw then that the skin of her breast was flayed into fine strands, showing glistening red flesh underneath, and the liquid that dripped from her suckled nipple was not milk but blood.

She spoke in a croaky, breathless whisper: “Behold the son of God.”

Then the child moved: and for the first time I saw its slick black skin, tiny claw-tipped limbs, thin bat wings beginning to unfurl and fan. It gurgled, and its infant mouth showed needle teeth, ringed with tendrils like the barbels of a catfish. They spread out, twisting, tasting the air, perhaps sensing me, and I knew this was not my promised one.

Someone else came into the cave then, slipping effortlessly through the barrier of sick green light and wearing the shape of a man, if a man could be soot black and spider-thin. He was arrayed in tawny silks and bedecked in gold, his face covered below onyx eyes, and he trailed the fragrance of myrrh from the tips of long writhing fingers. He knelt: and as he knelt, his yellow silk veil slipped, and when I saw what lay beneath I ran from the cave screaming.

I screamed until I reached the top of the hill, and there I fell, breathing the sweet cool air, clutching fistfuls of long wholesome grass. Only when I came to myself did I see that the flock had scattered, and that of Ishmael and Micah and the dead wolf there was no sign, save a few tufts of gray fur and a patch of sticky crimson across the grass.

I left the hill country that night, and have not returned. In the thirty years since I have heard that the peculiar babe grew to manhood of a sort, gathered followers and wandered the countryside, preaching a new kingdom and performing strange miracles: giving the lame to walk on ropy tentacle legs, restoring sight to the blind to show them things no man should bear, raising men from the grave to show them crueler forms of death.

I was glad when I heard he had been crucified in Jerusalem. Such a blasphemy should only be put to death. But then I heard the tomb had been found empty three days later, its Roman guards devoured, and I could not be glad for that.

Those who followed him walk still, and they are much changed from men. One I met yesterday, on the road to Beersheba: he said his master had gone to his kingdom, under stone, under sea, to dream a new world and wait for stars to turn. The madman said his king will return to bring his glory.

May it be a glory I do not live to see.

~ Scarlett R. Algee

© Copyright Scarlett R. Algee. All Rights Reserved.

 

Inhale, Exhale

Over the wind’s howl, you hear yourself breathing.

Your shoulders ache dimly from the strain of your arms pulled behind your back and bound to your stake, but you lost feeling in your hands an hour ago. Your legs are numb up to your knees. The pain in your face has become a mask you wear, dull and stiff; your head is fixed in place, held by your hair, the braid nailed into wood.

You cried when you were lashed here in the twilight, when everyone hurried away, when your mother stroked your hair but wouldn’t look you in the eyes. You stopped crying when you realized the sting down your cheeks was the wind-torn tracks of your tears, freezing to your skin.

There was no fanfare. There never is. Now all you do is blink, and breathe, and wait.

When the first breath of winter skirts across the land, someone has to be sacrificed. It’s the way. Flesh and blood must be traded for a few more weeks of strong sun and clear skies, for a safe end to the late harvest, for a peaceable season bereft of storms. When the gift isn’t given, the crops shatter on the vine, the cattle freeze beneath mounds of snow. It’s always been the way.

You cried at the thought that anyone else could have been chosen. You stopped when you realized there was no reason it shouldn’t be you.

Nothing moves when you try to flex your rope-bound limbs. You drag in a deep breath and something breaks within your nostrils, spilling down your face. You feel nothing, taste nothing; only the slowness of the ooze tells you it’s blood. You open your mouth to breathe out, and there’s merely a muted tingle when your wetted lips rip apart from one another.

Whatever plume your exhalation makes, it’s swallowed by darkness. The gale shifts, tearing at the tatters it’s made of your clothes, curling around and into you like a living thing with breath of its own. The knifing pain frigid air made in your chest at sunset is now only a distant twinge.

You blink. You breathe. It’s becoming difficult. You have the slow cold-glazed thought that you’ll be buried at sunrise, and you’re surprised to find you still have a few tears left.

It had to be you. It always had to be you.

You breathe in.

You breathe out.

You wait.

~ Scarlett R. Algee

© Copyright Scarlett R. Algee. All Rights Reserved.