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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
Each piece of fiction is the copyright of its respective author and may not be reproduced without prior consent. © Copyright 2019
It was the night before Christmas and all was still as he crunched through the thin snowfall on his way home from the bus stop. It was so cold that all the moisture seemed to have been frozen out of the atmosphere, the night was so clear that the bright stars seemed three dimensional. He hoped it wasn’t too cold for the occupant of the small box he was carrying.
He was no good at choosing presents. Mildred would always say that she liked them, and then, if it was an item of clothing or jewelry, she wouldn’t wear it. If it was a kitchen gadget, she wouldn’t use it. Pictures he’d chosen had never been hung. He’d found an ornamental bottle opener at the back of a drawer six months after he’d bought it for her birthday, and the incident of the cuckoo clock in the dustbin didn’t bear remembering.
This time he’d tried extra hard. He’d decided to buy her a pet, but as they both worked full-time a dog or a cat was out of the question. The man at the pet shop had told him that rats were very clean and intelligent, but he thought it a risky choice.
“What about a snake?” he’d asked. “They’re not at all slimy as most people think.”
And sure enough the small constrictor had been dry and smooth and well behaved. It seemed quite friendly and hadn’t tried to wrap itself around his neck and strangle him or anything, but he didn’t think it was quite the thing for Mildred. Mice and lizards were too small, and guinea pigs just too boring. No, the tarantula was the obvious choice. Quiet, clean, easy to feed, not too big, not too small, just the thing. He’d bought a plastic box, some sawdust and a pack of unfortunate mealworms to feed to it. He’d hidden them all in the garage. Tonight was Christmas Eve, and he’d picked up the spider at the pet shop as arranged. Did he have a moment of doubt as he looked into the cage and saw the strange array of unblinking eyes, tiny jewels of polished jet looking back at him? No, she’d love it, he was sure she would.
He arrived home, hung up his coat and left the arachnid in its box on the hall stand. Mildred came out of the kitchen and greeted him with a kiss. He knew she loved Christmas. They had a cheery meal of supermarket Moussaka, a generous helping of microwaved sticky toffee pudding, all enhanced by a nice bottle of sweet white wine. Then it was time for the exchange of presents.
“Me first, George, I can’t wait to give you yours.”
He tore open the wrapping paper, a lovely pair of string and leather driving gloves.
“Just the thing,” he said, “we’ve been talking about buying a car. Now it’s your turn.” He went out to the hall and brought in the box. “Close your eyes, put your hands together and hold them out.”
Very gently he tipped the new pet onto her outstretched palms.
“Alright,” he said, “you can open them now.”
Mildred opened her eyes, it took her a moment to focus on the hairy bundle as it slowly began to walk onto her right wrist and up her arm. Her eyes widened, she seemed frozen, speechless. Suddenly she found her voice.
“Oh, George, a Golden Knee Tarantula. How did you know? It’s just what I’ve always wanted.”
∼ Roger Ley
© Copyright Roger Ley. All Rights Reserved.
Her tears fall in gentle caress; the cacophony within grows. Metal screeches and groans as rivets strain; the contortion as abnormal as the abomination itself. Haunting echoes mimic her pain; the moan of a mother forced to witness a great affront. Torn from her body: distorted, punctured, malformed. Mother’s milk tries to soothe that which can never be unwrought.
Rusting steel, exhaust, and the roar of engines. That is the world of ancestors left us. The screams of the hopeless and the lingering smell of blood in our noses. Tonight, I stand sentinel atop this makeshift parapet, above tribal bones bleached by time and weather. Each skeleton nailed to the metal with reverence, a sacrifice to Death and warning to would-be enemies.
I wait for the hunters to ride out. Nomads have camped at the far river, and tonight, their blood runs red into the waters. Save for two. They are young and fresh, in the turning years between child and adult. They are ours.
Seven days the boy will hang from our rack until pain becomes his mistress and he is ready to join our ranks. To serve Death. We will sacrifice the girl, her flesh flayed from her bones and her flowing blood replenishing the soil. I will cherish her screams well after Death claims her. I shall hang her skeleton from the north tower, in homage to our god. I long to hear her bones rattle in the wind.
I smile. This is who we are. This is what we have made of our world.
Mercedes M. Yardley
It was a busy park full of people and picnic blankets patchworked together on the hill. When it was sunny, everyone jammed themselves together like boats crowding the dock. They flew kites. They lapped up the rare sunshine. They watched their little ones playing tag with strangers.
It would be joyful, but Cora could see more than others. She could see a person’s life span, could see the vitality draining from them, could see who had fifty more years or ten more days or five more minutes. The people were bags of would-be rotting flesh, smiles peeling back in decay.
There were so many faces, so many draining hour glasses, that it was impossible to focus on just one. So much better than home where one timeline caught her attention, her stares, her focus. He was a small boy with a gap-toothed smile, one precious second running out each time he called her “Mama.”
“Let that gorgeous sky be a reminder; Mother Nature never worried about you. Your kind barely blipped on her radar. You brought the end on yourselves. Not through her destruction but through your baseness. Humans,” Michael’s voice booms, dripping with loathing. “You eroded yourselves and your punishment is at hand.”
You look up, frantically searching for an escape. Your mind goes to when God unleashed his minions and within those first few moments you knew how wrong humans were… about everything. You’ve watched angels and demons, heroes, villains, and gods from across time and continents display what it means to kill in His name.
Your attempt to survive ends in this insignificant place. The last thing you’ll see; rust-covered metal. The color of human legacy. Boots on grated stairs announce your fate. You turn. Michael, wings spread in glory, arcs his gleaming sword down.
As Yet, Disquiet
Scarlett R. Algee
For as long as we’ve lived in this valley, contending with the things under the earth that would devour us, we’ve had the Machine, and the Machine produces the Sound.
We talk about it in capitals, the Sound, though we don’t hear it; we’ve known it years, decades, longer. Only if you leave the valley will you become aware of its absence, poking into your senses the way you’d prod at the gap from a missing tooth. And when you return, you’ll actually hear it for an instant: your eardrums vibrating with the great low hum, your teeth set on edge, before the Sound slots back into your brain where it belongs. It’s everything that’s safe, this hum we’ve stopped hearing.
Or it was until fifty-seven seconds ago, when the Machine failed.
And already, we can hear something greater than the Sound: the grinding of earth in great jaws, tremoring below our feet.
I listen closely. Raw petroleum, pumped fresh from the ground, rumbles through the great pipe overhead. But that sound is always present. I’m in an oil refinery, after all. This is something else, a hollow, echoing throb. My mind offers a descriptor for the sound, one that makes no sense. The descriptor is…ancient.
I shake my head. It’s been a long day. Lifting the wrench I carry, I tap it hard against the pipe. Metal tings on metal, ringing like a bell in a church for sinners. I don’t expect an answer.
I get one.
The pipe booms. Rust powders down. I leap back convulsively. Metal rivets pop. A spray of yellow-black crude whips me across the face. I smell hydrocarbons, organics. Petroleum comes from once living things, like dinosaurs. Everyone knows that. But it’s all extinct now. No life could survive the pressures under which petroleum forms. No normal life.
More rivets explode. A thick stream of sludge nails me where I stand. Something that’s supposed to be dead slips taloned fingers through the breach in the pipe and begins to peel it open. Looks like extinction isn’t quite what it seems.
I hope that’s true for humanity.
Eye to Socket
The metallic taste in my mouth was nothing compared to the aroma that surrounded me. The tacky, filth covered walls offered no help in the darkness as I sloshed and fumbled. Finally, I remembered the lighter hidden in my hip pocket; its tiny glow flickered amber. The rusted enclosure smothered my senses; russet liquid filled the chamber to mid-thigh. A loud rushing filled my ears as the fluid drained revealing small sepia mounds. I reached for one, brought it closer for inspection—breathless and alone, I stared eye to socket with my future.
All that Is
Lee A. Forman
All that is flows through bleeding steel, weathered like old bones left unburied. The drab shell holds fresh sustenance. Its purpose before, I do not know. Different stories, most untrue. I think it doesn’t matter. Only tomorrow, maybe today.
Over the heads in front I see the Waiters. They serve only the few. The many must leave their plates behind and be all that is.
Each piece of fiction is the copyright of its respective author and may not be reproduced without prior consent. © Copyright 2018
I watched the crazy bastard staggering across the shit-colored wasteland like some post-apocalyptic bindlestiff. He gestured wildly at Heaven and Hell, screaming in some dead language. But a bandana-wrapped poke dangled from the cane over his shoulder. Maybe it held food; I was starving.
A big boulder hid me. The dude walked past. I rose up behind him, cleared my throat. He spun around, and if he’d had a gun he would have shucked it. I had one—a cheap piece of blue-steel crap from before the world went to rot. But I didn’t shoot. The man was ugly as sin. On one side. The left side of his face…squirmed. I didn’t want to look too closely. But the right side was beautiful—uncomfortably beautiful. I looked away.
“I’ll take those goodies,” I told him, gesturing at his poke.
Suddenly calm, he pulled the cane off his shoulder and tapped the bandana-wrapped bindle. “You really don’t want to see inside this,” he said. “Let me offer a cigarette instead.”
I dealt him the nastiest smile in my set. “I’ll have the cigarettes too. But first the bag.”
He shook his head. “You’ve got no reason to believe me. But I’m not here by chance. I came seeking you. To make an end. I see now, though, you deserve more time. That heart’s not quite dead yet. In this bag, there isn’t anything to eat or sell. There’s only destruction.”
I hefted my pistol. “This is real destruction. Brought the world low. Give me the fuckin’ bag.”
“Please,” he said. “For your sake.”
Something about the guy creeped me out. My skin started jumping from more than just the fleas that made my rags their ghetto. But dammit! I was hungry, so hungry. I pressed the gun barrel against his forehead and cocked the hammer. The Devil laughed. Or maybe it was me.
The man sighed, dropped his cane, backed away. I knelt, pulled the knot loose on his bindle. For a moment, I looked in, then began to blubber like a baby. I put the gun in my mouth and pulled the trigger.
Click. Click. Click. Click. Click.
Sympathetic fingers stroked my greasy hair. He didn’t say, “I told you so,” but it was in his gaze when I looked up. That beauty! And that ugliness. I saw now why the left side of his face writhed; maggots crawled there, with human faces.
“Maybe just a little more time?” I asked.
“Sorry. Not now.”
He took my shoulders in his hands, folded and folded me until he dropped me into his bindle and retied the knot. I heard him groan through the walls as he lifted the immense burden on his back and staggered onward.
It wasn’t dark inside the bundle; I so wished it was dark. All the beauty of the world lay defiled before me. All the Love trashed by Hate. Hate looked at me and smiled.
I wanted to run but there was nowhere to go.
∼ Charles Gramlich
© Copyright Charles Gramlich. All Rights Reserved.
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