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Reunion

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s coming?” David asks.

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

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

“No,” David says. “No!”

“Yes, David.”

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

“Why?”

“Because you’re dead, Shannon. Dead.”

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

“I know you’re dead.”

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

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

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

“A shovel.”

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

“I dug it,” David says.

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

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

“You know.”

“No. I don’t.”

“The Darkling.”

“What’s that?”

“You know. You’ve always known.”

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

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

David backs away. “Time for what?”

“To put away your sins. To move on.”

He shakes his head. “I can’t!”

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

“Tell me what it is! This Darkling!”

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

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

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

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

“Tell me!” David screams.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A chuckle echoes off the walls.

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

He kicks the door closed behind him.

∼ Charles Gramlich

© Copyright Charles Gramlich. All Rights Reserved.

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Damned Words 37

 

Fey
Charles Gramlich

Beneath an icicle sky on a wormwood day of wither, I glimpse her winged form nested in the branches of a tree. A nimbus plays around her hollowed cheeks while the wind spiders in her hair. A saber would be jealous of those desolation eyes. I am smitten.

Day after day I return to her barren temple, to confess my holy secrets, to reveal all my sacred mysteries. No one has ever listened to me the way she does—even to the words I don’t speak. No one else understands. I am besotted.

Late one evening, in a seizure of longing, I beg her to marry me. She unfolds from the tree’s branches like animated origami. Down the trunk she slithers, until she stands before me, sky-clad, shadow-feathered. I swear to be hers forever. She smiles at me with a mouth like a scream. I don’t think she’s an angel.

But neither am I.


Blood Oak
Scarlett R. Algee

There were two humans, once.

There were more, of course. Beneath my canopy I sheltered lovers, threw shadows over children at play, spread my branches for curious climbers. But one night when there was no moon, there were these two beneath me. Male, female, I could never tell. They argued, shouted, shoved. There was a noise and one fell, not rising, and leaked.

The soil around my roots caught the liquid. In it I tasted the richness of the earth: iron, copper, salt. My branches heaved and shivered, breaking out in buds and small, new red leaves. My bark cracked around sudden growth. My creeping, ponderous thoughts grew quick, and in the darkness I felt a warmth like the sun.

I crave that liquid, but no humans have approached me since. They turn away as if my soil has been cursed, as if my leaves bear some blight.

But tonight, there are two again.

They laugh, sway, stare at each other. Anticipation stirs my sap as they sit in the spread of my roots, and my rootlets twitch, reaching up for the surface.

It has been so long, and I am so hungry.


Dead
A.F. Stewart

They buried me here, under the tree. Dug a hole and shoved my body between the roots, stuffed me down like garbage and covered me with soil. I was dead, but I watched every clump of dirt they threw on my corpse. I heard their grunts, panicked whispers and jokes. I watched three boys I had known all my life bury me and prayed it was a nightmare. It wasn’t. I knew then I would make them pay.

I started with Johnny, the ringleader. His smirk was the last thing I saw before I died. The last thing he saw was the rotary blade before it sliced into his face. All it took was a good ghostly shove.

Blake and Ronnie came next, with Blake taking a tumble down some stairs thanks to me. Broke his neck. And one night Ronnie missed Dead Man’s Curve when I yanked the steering wheel nice and hard. They found his corpse in the twisted wreckage of his car two days later.

And the best thing? Those three boys are here with me by the tree for eternity. I can hear their souls screaming from my grave.


The Hunt
Roger Ley

She tried to move quickly through the winter wood but brambles tore at her clothes and legs, her bare feet sank into the wet, black mud, branches clawed down to entangle her. The excited yelping of the hounds spurred her on but the softening ground sucked at every footstep. She fought for breath and tried to muffle the sound of her gasps. Crossing a clearing, she sank calf deep, and could run no further. Looking back, she could see the dim light from the swinging lanterns of the huntsmen, soon they would release the dogs.

She raised her arms above her head in supplication and called to the sky. There was no answer, but her arms and splayed fingers began to stretch and lengthen. Her toes grew, reached into the dark wetness, and gripped the roots and rocks they found down there. She felt her limbs and body stiffen, skin ridged and cracked, thorns sprouted. Sight fading, she heard the dogs as they panted past, their masters slogging after them. Slowly sleep enfolded her, a deep sleep that would last until the spring, and bud burst on the blackthorn she had become.


Rebirth
Mark Steinwachs

The gray sky feels oddly fitting. I try to move again, any part of my body, but I fail, not even a twitch. I’m not sure what drug he injected into my veins but I’m thankful for it now. I think I yelled and begged for release. It’s hard to get a handle on reality.

“You must die to be reborn. Like this tree is born anew each year, you will flourish again,” he says from behind me.

I sense movement and feel a slight pressure against my neck. Warm water? It’s soothing and I start to get tired. My eyes close and I drift off.


When You Are Dead
Mercedes M. Yardley

When you are dead, everything is different.

You don’t cry so much, or perhaps not at all. When you speak, your words are swallowed into the ether without making a sound. When you are dead, the wind lifts you and you billow. Your feet are always at least three feet above the earth.

When you are dead, you are equal with everyone else. All spirits are stripped to their nakedness and their skins shine like stars. You are dead, simply dead, and no death is grander than any other. It does not matter if you were murdered, or slipped in the shower, or took too many pills, or there was a power surge and the machine keeping you alive malfunctioned. Your hands are empty. You don’t keep a hold of the knife or the baby blanket or the noose that hung around your neck. You let these things go.


Stifled
Lee A. Forman

All warned against it, but I could stall curiosity no longer. When I put my palm against its dry flesh the hum of life coursed through me. The air thickened. Not a bird sang in the sky, nor would one land upon the outstretched embrace of its bony fingers. Mystery took its dark form and raced my heart. Regret soaked my clothes.

I briefed understanding—something vile thrived there.

A cream-white vine rose from the soil. The slender, pulsating serpent wrapped itself around me. It squeezed with each sickening pulse of its veiny body. A warm sensation covered my groin. It tightened its hold. Others sprouted around the first and held my limbs. They brought me to the ground, pressing my back against the dirt; the soft earth gave easily. My eyes strained to witness the overcast sky one last time before darkness stifled my existence.


Vena Cava
Nina D’Arcangela

The suck and pull from below is brutal, yet he stands majestic while enduring imminent demise. The alveoli fail to deliver, the lesser bronchioles shed into the spongy gray that surrounds. A greedy bitch, she demands more; a humble supplicant, he offers all. The pulse dwindles: slower this minute than the last, more sluggish than the beat before. She grants no quarter regardless of age or stature. She will exsanguinate until pulmonary collapse, at which point the superior will no longer sustain, taking the inferior with it as a single fused husk.


Judgement
Lydia Prime

“Don’t judge me,” I scream in my drunken stupor. “You don’t know what I’ve been through!” I reach for my bottle of bourbon and start to dig again. Each place I plunge the spade, the ground resists.

“He hurt me in ways you can never know.” I slur my words as I nearly fall, stumbling from the booze and pain. Another swig and I hurl the bottle at the tree. “I left a mark on your trunk, like the marks he left on me!”

The earth below starts to shift, the dirt softening. “Now you understand.”

I finish the plot in no time, dragging his body into the hole. I look around knowing I have to retrieve the bottle before I go – it has my fingerprints on it. I find it near the base of the tree, bending to pick it up. As I do, I notice the ground is softer here, unsteady. I’ve drunk too much and am imagining the dirt moving. Shaking my head, I turn to leave and trip over a tangle of roots. I don’t remember seeing those before… then more sprout.

As I’m dragged under, I swear the tree stands satisfied and smug.

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