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Boxed

“The numbers tick, you know. When it is time.” Russell giggled and stared at the strangely carved box on the table. “Rows of numbers etched on nameless faces. All tucked away in the box.” He ran a finger along an edge of the container. “They are always there, standing on the edges of my dreams. Until…” Russell shivered and withdrew his hand, sliding it into his lap. “Then comes the ticking. Like a pocket watch or a clock. Counting down the minutes, the seconds. Waiting for me.” He giggled again, a manic sound, giving his hysteria voice.

“Don’t say things like that!” Across the room, Robert, Russell’s brother, could no longer contain his emotion. He fumbled for a cigarette in his pocket, adding, “Such talk is insanity. You must stop this odd obsession of yours. Rid yourself of the box and be done with it.”

Finding a cigarette, Russell lit it, the match lending a soft glow to his face before he blew out the flame. Smoke encircled his head as he puffed and continued. “The assertion is preposterous, there aren’t even numbers on the damned box.”

Russell sighed. “The numbers aren’t on the box. Haven’t you been listening? They’re in my mind.” He tapped his forehead.” And I can’t simply stop. Or rid myself of the box. I’ve come too far already. It’s too much a part of me.” Russell frowned and then shivered again. “Fear drives me now.”

He watched his brother’s reaction. Robert took a drag of his cigarette, pity flitting across his face. Russell placed his hand back on the tabletop, drumming his fingers lightly. “Perhaps that is true madness. Too much fear.”

Robert grunted. “Fear can be conquered. You always did lack a spine.” He sighed. “I’m only trying to help before Father makes good on his promise and commits you to an asylum.”

Russell suddenly scowled, his fingers curling into a fist. “Father? You put him up to that. You know you did.” Russell laughed at the surprised look on his brother’s face. “Yes, I knew it was you. You are not as clever as you think.” Then he smiled. “But I forgive you. Come and sit. Look at the box. Let me show you. If you still feel I need to rid myself of it after I explain, then I’ll agree.”

Robert shrugged, but joined Russell at the table, settling into a chair. “What do you want to show me?”

“That there’s a demon in the box.” Russell laughed again at Robert incredulous expression. “I know it sounds mad, but it’s true.”

“You need help, brother. Let me help you.” The smoke of Robert’s cigarette wafted between them. Russell smiled. He moved his hand to the lid of the box and carefully stroked part of the carving, a small horned figure. Then he withdrew his fingers.

“Yes, you can help me. I didn’t want it to come to this, and I could just let it end, let the demon take me. But I’m afraid to die. Afraid of what’s inside the box.” Russell took a breath, his eyes focusing on his brother’s glowing cigarette. “I’m so sorry, but it needs a name.” He paused, for a heartbeat.

“Robert.”

Inside Russell’s head the ticking stopped and the lid of the box opened wide on its own. Russell kept his eyes on Robert’s glowing cigarette as it fell, scorching a burn mark into the table. He ignored his brother’s screams until the lid of the box clicked shut.

Then he stared at the empty chair across from him. He reached over and stubbed the cigarette out on the wood tabletop. “It was you or me, brother. I chose me.” Russell rose and picked up the box.

“I’ll see you in my dreams.”

 

~ A. F. Stewart

© Copyright 2018 A. F. Stewart. All Rights Reserved.

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Spiritual Malady

Desperate for the pinch that would bring her escape, she sought refuge in a dilapidated house slightly hidden by an overgrown yard. Squeezing through a paint-chipped opening, she entered a once loved home; now a desolate shell. She tiptoed through the crumbling building; fitting, however ironic it may have been, to have found a location almost as decayed as her. A few rodents scurried past and a disillusioned smirk crossed her chapped lips. A wave of cold sweat coated her from head to toe and the cramps in her muscles became too strong to ignore. Illness coursed through her brittle body; the remedy within her grasp.

Empty glassines scatter amongst the debris; almost instantly her vacant eyes glazed over. Collapsing into her surroundings, her back slid against exposed drywall. She stared through the broken window before her. The skewed view of an unkempt backyard swirled with gray matter. A memory washed through sullen eyes as salty tears trickled down battle-scarred cheeks. The enormous oak tree cast shade upon the little ones as they giggled in the grass; a time almost entirely forgotten. In that second she could feel the sun’s gentle warming on her skin. Pigtails and lemonade seemed so far away, droplets of melted mascara and misery spilled onto her tattered shirt faster than they could be caught. A swift jolt of pain deep beneath the flesh followed by a surge of pure bliss wrenched her into the present.

Despondent and motionless, she slumped over, barely propped up against the wall. Truths that could never have been told, let alone forgiven, silenced without warning. If she called out, would anyone even care? The gruesome truth beneath the surface of burned bridges and voluntary exile were all around her. The only company to be expected now were the rats to clean up her mess.

That haunting memory grew stronger; a skinned knee and the scent of antibiotic ointment permeated the air. Her pain was gone, then and now. Ghosts of her past pranced through her brain and banged against her skull. The sun beamed upon her face a final time as she welcomed its familiar burn. Her deep inhales grew shorter and more shallow until a stillness resonated through not just the decrepit shelter, but her ever wasting body. The withered land she’d hidden in would swallow her whole before she could be found. Iced coffee and nicotine lingered in her mouth — the last flavor of a life willingly let go. An accepting smile rested on the corpse who had no other home. Her once beautiful pale face now a brilliant blue.

Tranquility filled the darkness as hours passed, followed by weeks, until the months began to pile on. A skeleton picked clean by vermin, intertwined for eternity with an abandoned home. The idea of redemption dissolved; though her tomb was secret more would surely come. They’d follow in her footsteps and dwell on their misguided past; lives just as lonely and hearts concealed by frost.

∼ Lydia Prime

© Copyright Lydia Prime. All Rights Reserved.

Dissections 4

DISSECTIONS 4

 

wolf_rule_full_sat

thievery

he lived to see another day
that poor prick’s heart
still beating within his chest
he’d stolen it with dull blade
a disloyal hand
devoured it;
consumed joyously all his own.

the last remnants not
the crimson dripping from chin
as some would have you believe
but the jackhammer thud
of stolen essence
screaming bloody murder
from between his ribs.

wolf_rule_full_sat

empty, still you try

my bones gleam
my eyes ache
as your unwavering light
searches across my pores.

you curse my resolve
while you continue your
bloodletting—
when will you learn my veins dried
a long time ago.

wolf_rule_full_sat

mercy killing

do you remember that day you shushed me?
silk finger on my lips stilling
my pulse
clouds fell and you
caught them, dabbed
tears from my eyes, stole the
sun’s rays, stabbed them
through my heart.
mercy killing, so was whispered
still i,
i could not talk, not
with your fist down my
windpipe, sweet charm tearing
me apart.
i should have thanked you, admitted
you were never
to blame
still i,
i was the quiet one
and you,
you so insane.

wolf_rule_full_sat

birth

there’s beauty in pain
a sublime blackening
that is incomprehensible to
others unless
it enters the world
with you.

wolf_rule_full_sat

your mother warned you about me

i rode in on the same
pale horse as the reaper
cowl blown from my skull
exposing more than intentions

exposing all you’d hidden within;
exposing all you hid throughout.

 

wolf_rule_full_sat

ashes

i praise you
but do not wear your mark
my soul is darkened; neither of us doubt it

can you appreciate the realness of me?

no amount of supplication will spare me these deeds
and we know it;

my sins not yours to bare.

wolf_rule_full_sat

hollow eyes

she has hollow eyes

she fills them with roses
to keep away the death

she lost her tongue
because the truth cut deep

she is suffering’s whore
but you can’t afford her

she has hollow eyes.

wolf_rule_full_sat

you

in a trick of light i found you
pouring venom from calloused hands
ripping faith from gibbous moon
i’ve loved you ever since.

your cruel grace matched by
even the coldest of gray Januaries and
as the sun died
you spoke to me the foulest nothings
whispered from your alligator snout.

you poured acid in my ears to
quell my methods of thinking when
you knew full well
i had no free will at all.

chant a new song of turpitude
blasphemous act;
i’ll love you ever more.

wolf_rule_full_sat

lone wolf

more than ever i am alone
worn
hungry
my only companion
the moon upon my back.

wolf_rule_full_sat

self-mutilation

i asked why he would sever his hands

one must suffer for the craft,
he explained.

i left him and
the wicker basket that held
the remains of all his digits
went home

and sliced my ears off.

at night i think of him sometimes
his missing hands
but i am in blissful silence
and i can write.

~ Joseph A. Pinto

© Copyright 2012, 2013, 2014, 2017 Joseph A. Pinto. All Rights Reserved.

Abby’s Best Role

When the front window shattered, Abby backed to the center of the den. Terror rattled her nerves. What creature was going to attack this time? A stale breath of January howled into the cabin. Her skin prickled from the frosty chill. Abby picked up the bloody axe and hugged it to her chest.

The broken window stared back at her, a black hole with jagged teeth.

“I’m not going out there!” she yelled. “You’ll have to come in and get me.”

Something ran past the window. A hairy, skeletal blur. She followed its silhouette in the windows as it rounded the cabin then disappeared behind the wall with the fireplace. Above the mantle a mounted buck head stared down at her with glassy eyes. She hated this dusty cabin. She cursed herself for coming out here. No, it’s not your fault, Abby. How could you have known what was waiting for you?

From a side window came hissing laughter. Her spine stiffened at the chinking of more glass. The beast was toying with her. It wanted her to come outside. Well, Abby wasn’t stupid like those bimbos in the movies. She knew not to reach for that rattling door, knew not to explore the woods at night to find what was howling. No. Better to stay put and wait for the monster to come to her.

From outside sounded a thunder of metal being ripped from its hinges. The cellar door. Now the thing was trying to get through the basement. It made a racket below the floor.

Abby gripped her axe and held steady. She didn’t back down from a fight. Mother had raised her to take on every challenge life threw at her. When Abby was a child, Mother had played horror movie after horror movie, teaching her the difference between strong movie heroines who survived and stupid girls who got slaughtered. Mother’s favorite movie, I Spit on Your Grave, played every Friday night in her old VHS player.

“You want make it in Hollywood, Abby? You’ve got to think like Jennifer Hills, who made those bastards pay. You’ve got to be tough like Ellen Ripley, and channel your inner Sarah Connor. No one messes my little star.” Mother had taught her how to defend herself in the cruel, cruel world.

Scraping echoed below Abby’s feet. Then electrical crackles like a pissed-off bug zapper. The lights flickered. Faded to black. Moonlight lanced gray beams through the windows.

Abby backed away from the basement door that concealed a crooked stairway. Her bare feet stepped through lukewarm puddles. Her back ankle brushed against a stiff, clawed hand. She kicked it away. Four mangled bodies lay in bloody heaps across the den floor. There was only one creature left alive. The stairs beyond the door creaked against heavy footfalls charging up the steps.

Abby tightened her grip on the axe.

A body plowed through the bolted door. Wood shards flung across the room in a splintered storm.

The thing, a black lumbering shadow in the moon’s glow, stood at the doorway, heaving. It hobbled towards her, arched like a hunchback. Its dark flesh bristled with spiky fur. Blood oozed from a gash in its thigh. Its head, with curved horns, entered a crossbeam of light, revealing a muzzle with sharp teeth. The beast stopped midway, scanning the lifeless hulks scattered about the room. “You killed my crew, you fucking bitch!”

“They got what was coming to them,” Abby said.

“Christ, we were just making a movie . . .” The creature crept closer, its brow bleeding neon-green blood. “You played along, bitch. You played along!”

“No. I wasn’t acting then. I told you all NO over and over, but you wouldn’t listen.” Her breasts still hurt from all the hands that had groped her. Her lower body ached from all the nasty, nasty things they did to her. She felt dirty inside, violated. Wielding the axe, Abby stood her ground. “Now back off, Beast! Or I’ll chop you up like the rest of ’em.”

Its face sprouted red flaming eyes. “We were only having fun with you. Then you went psycho on us. You got no clue how the movie business works.”

She spoke in her Academy Award winning voice, “I’m not like other actresses. I’ve got a brain. I’ve got talent. I told you I won’t do nasty scenes.”

The creature growled, “I’m going to kill you for this!” It shape-shifted into a six-foot-tall alien. Its skin bruised to a metallic black, sleek and silver-shiny in the nightglow. Drool dripped from four rows of teeth. It raised a long-fingered hand toward her. “I’m going to break your fucking ne―”

She swung the axe, lopped off its hand. Acid shot from its knobby wrist and melted a hole in the floor that opened into the basement. The alien hobbled back, screeching. A long spiny tail ripped out of its back, swooshed, whipping the air, knocking the mounted deer head off the wall.

Anger burning like Ellen Ripley’s in Aliens, Abby charged her assailant, axe held at twelve o’clock. The xenomorph swatted at her with its one remaining hand. Its spear-tipped tail swooped over its head, lashing at her. Air hissed past Abby’s ears as her head dodged the attacking tail. Its elongated head shook wildly, denying her the chance to strike it.

“Not me!” it shrieked. “You won’t get me.” The second set of teeth snapped outward.

Side-stepping its bite, Abby angled around its left, forcing the alien to back into the hall, where its tail had no room to whip at her. It stumbled back over a corpse that had a pumpkin-shaped head, and fell to the floor.

With a maniacal scream, Abby pounced. The axe blade bit into the alien’s chest, severing the breastbone. The creature screamed in agony as it shape-shifted into a man with bulging eyes. The movie director, Jimmy Glick.

In a flash, Abby remembered him taking her to the cabin in the woods where a film crew of four other men had been waiting. They were supposed to be filming a horror movie with her as the lead heroine among a cast of supporting actors. She had been shocked to discover that she was the only actress in the movie. They had given her a drink that made her head feel strange. Then the five men taunted her. They each put on monster masks and did horrible things to her as one man circled with a video camera. While the men tortured her for hours, Abby had closed her eyes and escaped into the movie world inside her mind, drawing strength from Jennifer Hills, Ms. 45, Laurie Strode, and all the heroines who had battled killers and monsters on the silver screen.

Jimmy Glick looked up at her helplessly. Red drool spouted from his lips.

Abby pulled the axe blade out of the bloody furrow. “Never underestimate a woman with talent.”

The director screamed as she brought down the blade again and again and again . . .

When Jimmy was nothing but severed parts, she dropped the axe, her arms shaking with adrenaline. She walked over to a mirror on the wall. Resembling the actress in the movie Carrie, Abby’s blood-soaked reflection smiled back at her and said, You’re going to be a famous movie star, Abby Albright. No matter how much people try to take advantage of you, no matter how much they put you down, YOU are a star. She began clapping and tearing up. “If only the cameras had been rolling on my best performance.”

She hummed as she lined the mantle above the fireplace with severed hands, feet, and various limbs that stood propped up like anatomical sculptures.

Abby stepped back and admired her trophies. “They aren’t Oscars yet, but they’re a start.”

∼ Brian Moreland

© Copyright Brian Moreland. All Rights Reserved.

Know Not The Dark

It crept up his neck, colder than the cold.

He knew he should’ve done it sooner—take the Christmas lights down—but he wasn’t one for strenuous labor, especially not in the teeth of winter. He realized the first weekend after the holidays would’ve been a perfect time, but he opted for the couch instead; relaxation, beer, movies on Netflix. But the subsequent weekends bled one into the next; unpacking, painting, the arranging of furniture. Simply no extra time existed during the week, his wife and he being the professional couple they were. They never regretted their move from city to sleepy hamlet. They just didn’t anticipate the zeal with which their town celebrated the holidays.

Deep into winter, and still all lights remained aglow. Every block, every house, either framed in bulbs of classic steady white or pulsing in rhythmic green, blue, red. Residences blazing all at once to life, LED brilliance timed to explode just before the sun bid all farewell. Of course, they hadn’t noticed this, not at first, not since they had moved into their quaint Colonial home a mere week before Christmas.

They were as guilty as the rest of town. Or so he thought. He blamed it on the snow. A storm dumped nearly two feet right after the new year, surely no condition to take lights down from the awnings or trees. The cold never relented; the snow stretched, a seamless glacier across lawns. He lacked the patience, the energy, to dig bulbs out from the mini tundra. So like all the others, their house glowed.

And glowed.

He trudged across the front of his property, top surface of frozen snow cracking beneath his boots. There again he felt that creeping sensation, teasing the exposed flesh below his knit hat. He turned, caught a man next door watching him. Standing outside atop the stoop, no coat, no shoes, no hat, nothing to protect him from the gusting northeast wind; just standing, watching. “Hello there,” he said.

Everything had happened so quickly—the move, his promotion, the holiday rush—that he realized aside from the glitter of lights, he knew nothing of his new neighborhood. Or his neighbors.

The man did not respond.

“My name is Jon. Jon Terra. Just moved in before Christmas with my wife, Alli.” He punched a gloved fist through the snow, grabbing a strand of lights he had strung around the shrubs. “We’ve never had a chance to introduce ourselves.”

“What are yah doin?” The man’s breath escaped his lips in a panicked plume.

Jon smiled, tugged at the lights. “Picking a bad time to bring in these—”

But his neighbor had already launched from the stoop, bare feet plunging across the field of uninterrupted white. In front of Jon he halted, breathless not from the severe cold swallowing his toes, but from an extreme case of fright. “Can’t do that!”

Jon pushed himself upright, eyeing his own window, hoping Alli had witnessed this. Her face was nowhere to be found. The two men shared a pregnant silence. Finally Jon said, “Sir, the holidays ended nearly two months ago.”

Mouth agape, the man stared at the timer box Jon had dug from the snow, now free from the cords that had been plugged into it. He shook his head. Jon swore he could hear the skin along the man’s frosted neck crackle. “We don’t evah turn out these lights.”

Jon sighed, thinking of his couch. “My wife and I appreciate the holidays, sir, we do, but the realtor never told us this was Christmas town.”

“You never saw em? The lights?”

“Honestly, no. We only saw this house online, my wife fell in love immediately and—”

“We don’t evah turn out these lights.”

Jon’s parka suddenly failed against the elements; goosebumps raced along his spine, his arms. His neighbor, however, didn’t appear the least fazed. He lunged, seized Jon by the shoulders, teeth rattling so severely Jon thought they’d pop from his jaws. Again Jon realized this was caused not by cold but sheer terror. “You’re gonna anger the elves.”

It took all he had to stifle his laugh. But he did, partly out of respect for the older man, partly out of respect because he figured his neighbor might not be altogether sane. “Yes, well, my nephew has an elf on the shelf and—”

The old man fled, knobby knees slamming his chest as he bounded from the drift, back to the sanctuary of his stoop. A final glance over his shoulder; disdain, panic all mixed like slush in his eyes. The front door slammed and he disappeared.

“That went well,” Jon muttered.

***

His wife shook him into a dumbstruck daze.

“What happened?”

He took a minute, staring at the television screen, the boxes along the floor. “What happened, what?” Jon rubbed the sleep from his eyes.

Alli said, “I thought you were taking the lights in?”

“Yeah, that. I had a curious afternoon. Where have you been?”

“I told you I’d be in the city all day shopping with Jennifer. You forgot. As usual.” She kissed his forehead.

“Course I did.” He roused finally from the couch. “So earlier I met our neighbor while I was outside.”

“Let me guess. He got in your ear.”

“Something like that. Let’s just say he expressed his displeasure about my lack of Christmas cheer.”

Alli set department store bags upon a table. “It’s February.”

“Well, it seems Christmas lasts forever in our little town. Not only that, it seems we might’ve pissed off some elves.”

From the kitchen came laughter, rustling through drawers. “Come to think of it, my elf was pissed off, too. Where’s that diamond necklace you promised?”

“Funny. I’m being serious. I think our neighbor is mentally ill. He came running out into the snow, nothing on his feet.”

“The poor man! So what happened?”

“He basically told me no one in town turns off their lights because it’ll get the elves cranky.”

Alli returned with two glasses of wine. “It is strange that everyone still has their lights on, but honestly, I thought it was because of the snow. Who wants to go out in the cold?”

“I certainly didn’t.” He scrunched his face in mock defiance. “But you made me.”

“Aww, poor baby.” Lips ripe with Merlot, she kissed him. “If you make love to me now, maybe I’ll help you finish tomorrow.”

“Maybe?”

“Maybe.”

Jon took a quick swig of wine, then fumbled with his wife’s blouse.

***

Either it was the sound or the lights that started him from bed; Jon wasn’t sure which.

Their room bathed in a palette of color as it had been every night since their move, this time the luminescence irritated his eyes. Harsher, more glaring, it filtered through the windows, sharp like diamond dust. He twisted from his tangle of sheets; Alli beside him, her breath gentle waves rolling from her chest. Retrieving his boxers from the heap of clothing on the floor, he slipped them on, moved to the window, lifted their temporary paper blinds. The town lay chilled, bright; alive. Jon caught movement across the twinkling glaciers, what he thought to be the shadow dance of old boughs in the wind.

Scuttling across the roof then…a pitter-patter of tiny claws.

He would have to check on that once winter passed, make a mental note: cut back the tree limbs from the house, prevent the squirrels from tasking unwanted homes inside their—

The pitter-patter turned in an ominous way, like bloated satchels dropped from a height. Jon flinched with every blow atop the roof, half expecting the ceiling to give way, realizing with cold despair that this was now the sound of weighted feet.

“Jon?” Alli mumbled, sheets slipping from her naked back.

The house shuddered around him as he took to the window again; he shielded his eyes. The front of his property blazed as if spotlights had been erected at every corner. Finally, his sight adjusted.

“Jon? What the hell is going on?”

His face flushed with alarm; the old man—his neighbor—stood in the winter wasteland, summoning the sky.

“Stay here, just stay here!” Jon rushed from the bedroom, footfalls above him like clots of hail clubbing the roof. Down the stairs, to the front door, fumbling with the lock. Outside, his breath instantly crystallized, his nipples tweaked by the cold.

The sleepy hamlet his wife and he had chosen shone under the stars—except no stars where to be found. Jon followed the old man’s gaze skyward, up, up until his eyes could go no farther, until his eyes could no longer comprehend what he saw. “You never saw em, did you? The lights?” the old man called out. “But you see em now, don’t you?”

Jon nodded dumbly, cognizance still lost.

“We don’t eva turn out these lights. When we do, they come. And when they come, they come angry. Told you, didn’t I, that you’re gonna have angry elves?”

Glass shattered; his wife screamed from within the house. Jon turned his back to his neighbor, to the cold, to the mad array of lights descending from the sky. He took the steps two at a time, mind numb as the sheets of snow outside. A draft bit his feet; he heard the wind whistling unbridled where his bedroom window had once been. And once he clambered across the still taped moving-boxes in the hall, once he burst into his room, reality hit home.

Jon glimpsed his wife’s perfectly manicured feet pinwheeling in the space the window once sealed, toes a ruby red; perfect for the holidays, she had said. Kicking and kicking till they kicked no more. Sucked into a vacuum, into space; sucked somewhere Jon knew his wife certainly didn’t belong.

He saw the last of her guided by small torsos and long, spindly limbs toward an enormous black moon above his roof. He saw lights, bright lights, some bulbs of classic steady white, some pulsing in rhythmic green, blue, red. Like the sun, they exploded, then disappeared.

Jon was left blinded, alone; alone in a town that never went dark. Alone in a town that knew better than to anger their elves.

~ Joseph A. Pinto

© Copyright 2017 Joseph A. Pinto. All Rights Reserved.

wolf_rule_full_sat

Fireworks

It was a beautiful night for July Fourth fireworks. Frank Manetti drank an ice-cold Bud as he sat with his wife, Kim, on a picnic blanket in the park. All around, over a hundred people had gathered on blanket islands, waiting for the big show in the sky. Giggling kids ran with sparklers. On a stage, the high school band performed ‘Stars and Stripes’.

Frank and Kim’s three-year-old daughter, Emmy, talked to a jar of lightning bugs that Daddy had caught with her earlier. His baby girl looked adorable with face-painted flowers blooming on her cheeks. Frank wished he could bottle up Emmy’s preciousness and keep it forever. His teenage kids had grown out of that stage.

Collin, his fourteen-year-old, sat off by himself under a tree, playing a damned video game on his tablet, oblivious to the festivities. Agitation gnawing his gut, Frank searched the crowd for his sixteen-year-old. Cassandra stood near the softball field bleachers, talking with her girlfriends and some older boys.

“Cass should be with us,” Frank muttered. “I’m going over there.”

“Leave her be,” Kim said. “You’ll just embarrass her and then she’ll hate us for a month.”

It pained Frank’s heart that his kids had grown distant. Whenever his family was all together, Cass was always texting and Collin rarely looked up from a digital screen. At least I have sweet Emmy a few more years. His youngest looked up, smiled at Daddy, then went back to talking to the jar of glowing bugs.

Frank fished out two more beers from the cooler and nuzzled next to his wife, handing her a cold one. He kept one eye on Cass and the boys. He wanted very much to enjoy the school’s orchestra, but a group of sketchy teens nearby were blaring god-damn rap music. Their cigarettes lit up the gloom like fireflies.

“Hey,” Frank shouted. “You wanna turn that down? We’re trying to hear the band.”

A punk in a sleeveless T-shirt and black bandana turned his head and blew out smoke. “Got a problem, dude?”

“Yeah, I got a problem. You’re upsetting the people who came for the show.”

“Here’s your show.” Bandana gave him the finger and turned the music up louder. His friends snickered and raised their beers.

A rash of heat spread across Frank’s face. Squeezing his fist, he started to get up, but Kim grabbed his arm. “Don’t.”

Back in his marine days, Frank would have pounded the shit out of these assholes. With his wife and daughter nearby, he refrained.

The band stopped and Mayor McKee stepped onto the stage. “Is everyone ready for our big fireworks extravaganza?”

Families cheered. The softball team raised their bats and gloves.

The mayor gave the signal and the band started playing ‘Ride of the Valkyries’. The first bottle rocket launched a flare into the air with a whistle. White dots sparkled the night sky, followed by crackles. Emmy clapped and giggled. Next came starbursts of red, white, and blue. The audience gave an applause.

As bright lights lit up everyone’s faces, Frank watched Cass standing too close to some jock. The pungent smell of weed wafted across the Manetti family’s blanket. Frank’s glare shifted to Bandana and his gang of lowlifes. A big guy with a shaved head inhaled smoke from a joint.

Frank was about to confiscate the damned thing, when the gang members pointed toward the sky. Kaleidoscopes of colors flashed over the park. Then a shrieking flare shot down and exploded on the band. The music stopped as shattered instruments cut through the crowd like shrapnel. A piece of trombone speared into the mayor’s chest.

“Jesus!” Frank straightened.

“My God! What’s happening?” Kim asked.

He shook his head, stunned by the carnage of dead and wounded people. The blast had been too big for a poorly-aimed firework. More like a mortar. He’d suffered plenty of them in Iraq. His first thought was terrorist attack.

Two more flares shot from the sky and struck the blankets of the softball team. Kim threw her arms over Emmy as fiery body parts and sports gear flew through the air. A spinning aluminum bat shattered Emmy’s firefly jar.

Frank shielded Kim and Emmy with his body as more explosions erupted across the park. Screams and crying sounded all around. People trampled over one another to find cover.

A dozen flying objects emerged from the smoke. Long, sweeping red lasers burned holes through people all across the field. A man’s head glowed orange before it vaporized.

A running kid in a band uniform burst into red mist.

Kim cried, “Our kids!”

“I’ll find them,” Frank handed his toddler off to Kim and pointed to the woods that bordered the park. “You and Emmy get to safety.”

She hesitated, her eyes pleading.

He pushed Kim. “Go!”

Three small UFOs flew over and barraged the scrambling crowd. A blast hit Bandana’s gang, splattering the shaved-head kid all over the others. A singed arm with tattoos landed on Frank’s blanket.

Covered in blood, Bandana and his friends joined a panicked mob that knocked Frank to the ground. Shoes stepped on his hand and back. Emmy cried. Kim screamed.

He watched helplessly as wife and daughter were caught up in a stampede that carried them away into a cloud of smoke. Two small UFOs zipped after them.

Frank scooped up an aluminum bat and ran into the haze searching for Cass and Collin. Scorched bodies lay scattered across the grass. Dodging blasts and debris, he scoured the ground, terrified of finding his kids among the dead. Bandana reached up, begging for help. Then a laser sliced the prone punk’s skull in half.

Six more UFOs whooshed overhead, shooting at anyone who moved. Frank ducked beneath a tree as lasers torched the branches. The treetop caught fire.

He ran toward the woods, screaming his older children’s names, “Cass! Collin!”

“Dad!”

He spotted Cassandra running with a crowd through the forest. “Cass!”

“Daddy!” She made her way back and hugged her father.

“Where’s Collin?”

Cass shook her head. “Mom and Emmy?”

“In the woods. Safe, I hope.”

Still gripping the metal bat, Frank led Cass along a creek. Their feet splashed through shallow water. Dazed survivors hid behind tree trunks. Others ran and took cover under a bridge. Frank and Cass joined them in the shadows. By the grace of God, he found Kim and Emmy among the crowd. They were badly cut and bruised, but okay. The four hugged, thankful to be alive.

“Collin?” Kim asked.

Frank’s heart sank, learning that his son was still out there. “Take care of the girls. I’ll try to find him.” He stepped out from beneath the bridge.

A metallic whoosh reverberated through the air. Red lights glowed. A small object flew low along the creek. Two robotic arms stretched out of its sides and turned into spinning blades. The UFO charged straight for the survivors under the bridge. Frank stood in front, wielding his bat. Just as the craft reached him, he swung, smacked the thing, and sent it rolling through the creek. Sparks skipped across the water. The spinning blades stopped and the red lights winked out.

Frank picked up the dead machine with both hands. Weighing less than fifty pounds, it looked like some kind of alien spacecraft with multiple weapons. He turned it over. “What the fuck?” Etched into its belly were the words, ‘Made in China’.

Frank returned to the crowd beneath the bridge, more confused than ever, and determined to protect his girls. As he watched several more machines fly off over the treetops, he feared for his son.

*   *   *

A few blocks away, Collin Manetti jogged down a sidewalk through the neighborhood. He could still hear distant laser blasts and screams as people sought shelter. Several houses had caught fire. A few smoking bodies lay on the road and front lawns.

One of the flying machines careened up the street and hovered straight above Collin. He admired the technology of blinking lights and arsenal of weapons that jutted from its sides like tentacles. The ASSASSYN-X9000 was the coolest drone he’d ever seen. He gave it a salute and typed a few commands on his tablet. The drone zipped away to create havoc somewhere else.

Whistling, Collin entered his best friend’s house. Matt and Toby sat in the living room with VR goggles on their heads. Both teens cheered as they rapidly thumbed their joystick buttons.

“Dude, this new video game is kick ass,” Matt said. “I feel like I’m flying a spacecraft.”

“The screams sound so real,” Toby said.

“That’s because they are, dipshit.” Collin dropped into a beanbag chair and put on a third set of goggles. He switched the controls from his tablet to the joystick console and resumed control of a handful of machines, sending them on a search and destroy mission through the neighborhood and into the woods.

“I gotta get me one of these,” Matt said. “Where’d you get it?”

“Bought it off a gaming website from China.” Collin felt the sensation of sitting in a moving cockpit, as he dive-bombed people running along the ground.

Toby yelled “Score!” when he obliterated another target. “How many drones did you say the game comes with?”

Collin grinned. “A dozen. And the box comes with plenty of fireworks.”

∼ Brian Moreland

© Copyright Brian Moreland. All Rights Reserved.

Devil Is In The Details

Her eyes speak volumes, assuring him it will be as it was; it will be alright. He knows it won’t be—it can’t be.

Nothing escapes the scrutiny of the incandescent lighting above their heads. No dark space exists for him in which to hide. He scrubs the stubble along his chin. “It’s coming out amazing, honey.”

He watches the artist deliver life to his daughter with thoughtful strokes, imbuing pallid skin with a fresh blush. He pushes a smile to his lips, watching his little girl watch him. She knows his nuances; the flutter of his lashes gives him away every time. She is his blood, after all.

Statuesque, she sits quietly for her portrait. It crushes his heart. Her beautiful lips, once so full like those of her mother, stretch like crinkled strips of weathered jerky now, the music silenced from her dancing eyes. She is tired, so tired, draining slowly from the inside. He scrubs his chin, weary as well, weary and broken witnessing the erosion of his child.

The artist half speaks, half clears this throat. “Sir… Sir?”

“Yes, I’m sorry,” he croaks.

The artist nods politely, aware he has trespassed across guarded domain. Brush hovering atop the canvas, he motions to a specific area of the portrait, then repositions himself atop his stool, respectfully waiting.

“What is it, Daddy?” his little girl inquires; the harsh lighting does nothing to conceal the flutter of his lashes. Quickly, realization dawns; she is his blood, after all. “Daddy, he can paint me as I was that day, it’s okay.”

The artist reaches forward, pats her knee, resumes painting once again. Before long, the canvas depicts wavy locks where no hair has existed for some time. It flows in luxurious strokes; the toe of the artist’s brush a mere whisper in the sea of her chestnut mane. At long last, the final touch—soft pinpricks of white to lend the gleam back into her eyes. The artist lowers his arm. “I believe I am done, sir.”

His vision blurs; he cannot quite make out the deft details of the artist’s conception, not yet. He wipes at his tears. “Baby, you look…”

“Yes, Daddy?”

He wishes to say beautiful, but the word fails to find his lips. Instead, her portrait seizes his attention, unwelcome details pulling his eye. Flustered, he swings his gaze toward the artist.

The man has already packed his tools, cleaned his brush. With a dispassionate tone, the artist states, “The devil is in the details, sir.”

Open mouthed he stares, beyond the depiction of her soft countenance, beyond the eternal capture of her cherubic innocence, he gapes at the jarring angle of her neck; the angry bruises that ring it, marring what should be a masterpiece. “She was terminal,” he barely mutters. “The disease, it was taking her.”

The painter turns to him. “Yes it was, and had you left well enough alone, I would have no need to take you, too.”

His hands flutter about his neck. The incandescent lighting above reveals long slits along his forearms; nothing escapes its scrutiny. “This isn’t… It was a mercy, she was suffering,” he pleads.

“Daddy, no one understands it was an act of love,” her gentle, childish voice intones. By the time he faces her, she is gone. A ghost of her ghost.

He lunges for the painting, but the artist seizes him by the neck. “Take a long, last look at her. She finds her peace in the form I have painted. As for you, peace will be but a memory where we are going.”

Slowly, the painter drags him away, until the incandescent glow no longer reveals a thing, and the pitch is all he will ever know.

~ Joseph A. Pinto

© Copyright 2017 Joseph A. Pinto. All Rights Reserved.

wolf_rule_full_sat

Holomorphs

Eager with excitement, I downloaded the new app. It asked to connect with my friends and followers on social media, and I accepted. I filled out the detailed profile, answered a questionnaire that recorded my voice, and linked my Facebook and Instagram accounts.

Within minutes of completing my profile, my first holomorph friend appeared! I stood speechless in my living room as light beamed from the ceiling. Swirling particles formed into my best friend, Dane, from Seattle. Not the real him, but a vivid, life-sized hologram. He was partially transparent, like a Technicolor ghost, but somehow the illusion felt real.

“Oh, my God, this is incredible!” I said.

“I know, right? Like the Starship Enterprise beamed me here.”

We half-embraced, bro-style. There was actually a supple texture to his three-dimensional form, like hugging someone made of thin rubber. Dane was shorter than expected. I’d never actually seen him in person. We’d met on Facebook and became instant friends in a group that discussed sci-fi horror movies. For years, I’d only known Dane through typed-word conversations on a screen, along with his stagnant profile photo—a plump face with a beard.

“The hologram you looks different from your photo,” I said.

“I kinda lied about my weight on my profile,” he chuckled. “I like the holo-me better.”

I didn’t care. I had a 3D friend to cure my loneliness. Dane hung out with me all weekend. We watched a marathon of Netflix horror movies, played video games, and had the best time getting to know each other. Sometimes Dane’s responses were off. It didn’t take long to realize I wasn’t talking to a live version of him, but a software recreation based on his profile. Eventually, we ran out of things to talk about. So I downloaded three more holomorph friends—Raquel from Chicago, Jon from Tallahassee, and Niles, transported all the way from London.

Our eclectic group played poker at the dinner table and chatted about our favorite books, music, and politics. Raquel and Jon debated over whether Democrats or Republicans should be running the country. They were such extreme opposites that trying to convince one another to switch viewpoints was futile. Pretty soon the poker chips started flying. Niles ducked to stay out of the line of fire. “This is better than watching Hulu!” he said and we all busted up laughing.

We played cards for hours. I was the only one eating and drinking, since my holomorph friends didn’t require food or drinks. Cheap entertainment.

My first week using the new social media was a whirlwind of crazy fun. I downloaded friends from all over the world. I threw holomorph parties. Holograms of people filled my den, kitchen, and backyard.

I’ll never be lonely again, I’d thought.

Some of the parties got rowdy. A few friends started fights and trashed the place, so I unfriended them. The friends I wanted to keep, like Dane, Raquel, Jon, and Niles, I couldn’t figure out how to get them to leave without unfriending them. The app’s settings seemed to be missing a ‘go home’ button, so I let my favorite friends stay and hang out. I couldn’t bear the alternative of living in an empty house again.

One evening my friends became glitchy—their bodies flickered and their voices cut in and out.

I contacted the app’s tech support and a holographic man in a blue repairman’s jumpsuit and ball cap appeared in my living room. “Hi, I’m Felix the Fixer. What seems to be the problem, Mr. Bradley?”

“My holomorph friends aren’t projecting fully.”

“That’s due to a technical issue with our satellite. We’re fixing the problem.” Felix winked. “Until then, enjoy some of our premium packages for free.” He gave me the codes and disappeared.

On my iPad, I scanned through all the app’s newest features. Hundreds of choices boggled my mind. I could hang out with holomorphs of famous celebrities, dead historical figures, or adopt a holodog or holocat. I could project scenes from my favorite movies right into my home. There seemed no end to the pleasurable escapes I could experience.

Curious, I ordered from the app’s most popular feature—holoporn! My bedroom filled with a harem of horny holowomen. It took a while, but eventually I grew tired of shallow sex. I felt ready to settle down with a holomorph girlfriend.

I swiped through countless screens of profiles until I found my ideal match. When I downloaded Simone, it was love at first sight. Long auburn hair, cute face, a girl-next-door personality, she matched every trait that turned me on. We had loads in common too. The only downside was she looked like she’d been molded into glowing Jell-O, but the sex was good.

The first three weeks with Simone were heavenly. She made me feel whole again. After a month, I reached the limit of her varied responses and she began to sound repetitive. I longed to touch and hold and have meaningful conversations with the real Simone. Her profile said she lived in Boston. I messaged her on Facebook and asked if she’d like to visit me in Dallas. A strange thing, though. The real Simone had no idea who I was. I told her we met on HoloMatch and I was her holomorph boyfriend. She wrote back that she already had a boyfriend. A real one. She threatened to call the police if I ever bothered her again.

I continued to date the holoSimone until I came home from work one day and found her in bed with Dane. Furious, I ran to my iPad and unfriended them both. Their holograms vaporized.

Raquel and Jon yelled at me for sending their friends away, so I obliterated them too. Niles and my other holofriends kept their distance from me. I began to resent them all. None of them had anything new to say. They talked about the weather, TV shows, current events, but it was all surface stuff. When I probed deeper, I kept hitting the limits of their programming. I longed to connect on a soul-to-soul level. I felt alone in a house full of ghosts.

When each holomorph became boring or got on my nerves, I ended the friendship with a push of a button. I had millions more friends I could download. I went through dozens of them. I learned that not all friends match their profiles. Their photos looked friendly, but their holograms projected their true natures. At my birthday party, one weirdo said he saw everything as a video game. Then he went bat-shit and started stabbing my other friends with a kitchen knife. I grabbed my tablet and vaporized him just before he stabbed me.

While my friends moved through the house around me, their names and faces blurring together, I sat on the couch and sifted through the app’s unlimited features on my TV. In bed, I swiped through profile after profile, seeking a woman to be my soul mate. At work, I mostly stared at my computer screen. Around me, in a maze of lonely cubicles, a mix of real people and holoworkers interfaced with their computers and tablets. Wherever I went out in public, I kept my eyes glued to my cell phone. I kept delving deeper and deeper into the app, searching for happiness.

Today I noticed my body turning transparent. My bathroom mirror reflected a ghostly version of myself that flickered.

I summoned Felix again. “What’s happening to me?”

“You’re very popular, Mr. Bradley,” Felix said with a grin. “You’ve had multiple friends download your holomorph into their homes. On HoloMatch, you are currently boyfriend to over twelve hundred women. That’s a lot of downloads, my friend. The drawback is you’re beginning to atomize.”

My body flickered faster. “What do you mean . . . atomize?”

“After awhile the holomorph versions of you begin to disintegrate your body into thousands, and eventually millions, of atoms that live in co-existing realities. It’s a limitation when combining our software with human biology.”

“Why didn’t you warn me before I downloaded the app?” I yelled.

“It’s all there in the fine print of our contract. Once you agreed to Holomorph Corp’s terms, you gave them the right to download your atoms to their millions of subscribers.”

My skin began to pixilate and lose cohesion. Tiny holes speckled my arms. I grabbed his shoulders. “You have to fix me.”

“I’m afraid atomization is a permanent glitch for lower grade subscribers.”

My hands disintegrated. My pixilated flesh and bones flew up toward the ceiling like a swarm of insects. Holding up the stumps of my eroding arms, I howled and began to cry.

Felix tapped his iPad. “Not to worry, Mr. Bradley. We still have time to save you. Now that you’ve surpassed five thousand friends, you’re eligible to upgrade to our Holosphere.”

“Wha-what’s that?” I asked.

“Oh, it’s our most exciting new feature. As the Holomorphs founder predicted, people no longer need the physical world. So our engineers developed the next evolution in reality.” He pushed a button on his tablet and a neon red door opened in the center of my living room.

“Follow me. I’ll take you to a place where you’ll always be happy and have plenty of friends.”

Desperate to feel whole again, I followed Felix through the holodoor.

~ Brian Moreland

© Copyright 2017 Brian Moreland. All Rights Reserved

Double Feature

The moment he stepped through the door, Diana’s guts went sub-zero. His hair was matted down and wet and he smelled like pencil lead laced with a badly wiped ass.

Today he wore his stupidest grin, the one where he looked mentally challenged (though Diana knew full well he wasn’t), along with dirty jeans that could probably stand up on their own and a Texas Chainsaw Massacre T-shirt.

“Big night tonight,” he said, breathing heavily. Something was wrong with his lungs. He always sounded as if he’d run a mile, even if he’d just been sitting around for hours staring at the TV. She kept hoping it was something fatal, yet here he still was, labored breath expelling tuna and gingivitis in her face.

Diana eyed him coolly.

He lifted a plastic yellow shopping bag.

“It’s double feature night,” he said, chest puffing up.

God, he loved double feature nights.

“I even got popcorn and Mild Duds.”

Diana stared hard into his stupid, anxious face, wishing she could be like one of those people in that movie he loved. She thought it was called Scanners. The one where they could blow your fucking head up with just a thought. Now that was a super power she’d give both legs for. She might even thrown in one of her arms just to know she could splatter his greasy, bowling ball head all over the wall.

His shoulders sagged, the bag dropping onto the coffee table that had more rings than twenty Saturns.

“Don’t you even want to know what they are?”

Diana took a deep breath. “Not particularly.”

“Come on, take a guess.”

“Is it Howard the Cum Stain Kills Himself?”

The smile faltered and his right hand balled into a fist. He hated when she said his name. That she called him a cum stain, not so much. She guessed he was pretty comfortable with his pathetic station in life.

He rushed her, ripping off her panties. She tried to squirm away when he stuck his rough finger inside her, but the duct tape held her down like Satan’s flypaper.

First, he brought his finger close to his eyes, and then he sniffed it, finally popping it in his mouth.

“No, you’re not getting a visit from Aunt Flow,” he said. “So why are you so mean today?”

“Go to hell…Howard.”

Spinning on his heels, he walked to the steel plated door and smashed it with his fists, the new dents pounding over the old. Grunting with each punch, he wore himself out after a spell, collapsing on the ratty couch.

“Milk Duds are your favorite,” he said, huffing and puffing, his face red as a monkey’s ass.

“My favorite is not being tied to this chair and being forced to watch sick movies with you.”

He reached into the bag, took out the box of Milk Duds and tossed them on her lap. His knuckles were bloody and swollen.

“I can’t help that we were made for each other,” he said, looking down at the floor. “I…I found you for a reason.”

Found was stretching things. It was more like stalked and kidnapped. Diana was in no mood to resurrect that argument.

“And since you grew up in the ’80s, I ordered these movies just for you. They came in the mail today.”

Recovering from his anger, Howard took the movies out to show her. They were battered VHS copies of Pieces and The Funhouse.

Diana shivered.

Not Pieces. No, of all the goddamn movies.

“I even got a kind of waterbed,” he said, running outside like a kid heading under the Christmas tree.

He came back with a red kiddie pool, cute animals shapes plastered all over it.

“I’ll just fill it with some water and throw some plastic bags over it. I know it’s not a real waterbed, but it’ll do just fine.”

Diana was too sick, too tired to speak.

Pieces was the first movie Howard had made her watch. She didn’t know how truly sick his needs were then. They’d only gotten worse over the year she’d been held captive.

He loved the scene with the waterbed.

Diana stared at the pool, barely registering Howard bringing in jugs of water. He’d donned a black trench coat, leather gloves and a fedora.

Howard didn’t just like to watch horror movies.

No, for Howard, they weren’t complete unless he could act out his favorite parts.

Act them out on her.

She’d given up willing herself to die. Her body was in perpetual pain thanks to Howard’s ministrations. All she was to him was a meat puppet, a means to exorcising the twisted compulsions that overtook him when he watched horror movies.

We were made for each other.

If that were true, Diana wanted to meet the bastard that had made her and show him or her a thing or two she learned from Howard and his movies.

He popped the movie into the VCR, the auto tracker working hard against the static image. The tape was in real bad shape. She hoped it was too bad for Howard to see. If he couldn’t see it, he couldn’t replicate it.

“I paid thirty dollars for this piece of shit,” he said, more to himself. The music warbled and the horrible dialogue was hard to make out. Howard got on his knees before the TV and fiddled with the tracking buttons. Unfortunately, he managed to get things better.

“There,” he said, proud of himself. “Milk Dud?”

When she didn’t reply, he popped one in his mouth, along with a heaping handful of popcorn. He chewed with his mouth open, dripping chocolate and popcorn shards on his lap and floor.

“Did you see this in the theater when it came out?” he asked, eyes never leaving the screen. He practically bounced in his chair as the gory movie played on.

She knew what was coming. The cells in her body cried out, a billion tears of anguish.

And there was nothing she could do about it.

The waterbed scene. It was coming.

Her heart raced. It was so hard to swallow. Her vision wavered.

“Almost time,” Howard said.

He grabbed her roughly, cutting the duct tape from around her wrists and ankles. It would be the perfect moment to escape or hit him with something heavy, but her feet and hands were completely numb. He had to hold her up before securing her face down onto the makeshift waterbed.

“You don’t have to do this,” she whispered, mad at herself for letting him see fear.

He patted the back of her head. “You know I do.”

She watched in horror as the woman on the screen was chased by a man wielding a butcher knife. He threw her onto a waterbed and began stabbing. Howard straddled her. She could smell the funk coming off him, hear his wheezing breaths.

The knife felt hot as a poker as it slid into her back.

Diana snapped her jaw shut, refusing to show pain. The scream boiled in her throat.

She braced herself, because she knew what was about to happen.

Howard silently grabbed her hair and jammed the knife in the back of her skull. Diana’s world went white, her ears buzzing as if filled with a thousand bees.

The sharp blade pushed through her mouth, bisecting her tongue, scraping her teeth as it exited her mouth.

Howard grunted and groaned, his hardness grinding against her back. Her blood spilled into the crimson pool. Her mouth was jammed wide open as she choked on the blade.

Die, you bitch, die!

Her body was just like Howard the cum stain. It never listened to her.

“Oh, sorry,” Howard said.

She heard as much as felt the knife slide out of her mouth, squishing as it exited her skull.

Her body went limp, her skewered brain seeking retreat.

So much blood.

The pain was excruciating.

Still, she hadn’t made a sound.

She’d tell him to fuck himself if her mouth hadn’t been split in half. The hinges of her jaw had splintered. She saw chips of her teeth in the pool’s soupy mess.

Diana’s view shifted as Harold lifted her back into the chair and taped her back down.

“You’ll like The Funhouse,” he said, balling the bloody trench coat. “The monster looks really cool. You ever go to a funhouse? I did, once, with my friend Kal. It was kind of corny.”

He blathered on and on until Pieces ended. Twenty minutes into The Funhouse, he fell asleep, snoring loud enough to rattle her bones.

Diana wept only when she knew he couldn’t see her tears.

She could already feel her tongue stitching itself back together. Her head throbbed, tickling as bone started to grow back.

By the morning, she’d be as good as new, only the pain never quite went away. It was just another layer of torment.

Howard would leave her alone for a week. This ‘kill’ always wore him out.

But he’d be back. Maybe with a knife. Or a chainsaw. Or a branding iron. Or just plain gas and fire.

Whatever death scene thrilled him the most, he’d bring it to her.

Diana would suffer it, and be there for the next time.

Because they were made for each other.

~ Hunter Shea

© Copyright 2017 Hunter Shea. All Rights Reserved.

Place of Beauty

In shards the morning broke, shattering high, high above the gunshot reports, the torches, the thick plumes of smoke.

She watched them fall like black drops of rain in the distance. First came a crack, echoing like faraway thunder, then their plummet. Crack, then plummet.

The plate slipped from her soapy fingers into the bubbly grave of the sink. Beyond the grimy pane, beyond the flaked paint of the porch, swaddled by butterfly weeds and Echinaceas, her daughter sat, ruddy cheeks tilted toward the sky. “Isabella,” she gasped, tossing the wet rag aside. “Isabella!”

Her little girl could not hear her. Crack, then plummet.

Crack!

She turned, ran, bare heels squeaking like frightened mice atop the wood. Through the dining room, down the hall; sunlight traipsed from the front door, beckoning just paces away. Each gunshot shook her skull. She burst onto the porch, mid-July scathing inside her lungs.

Silos jutted, arthritic fingers against the horizon, from the flat expanse of land. She tracked the figures, so frantic in the sky, weaving and dipping like grand bats. Her mind raced as she crouched low in the meadow, summoning her daughter. “Isa, come.”

Her little girl paid no mind. Chubby fingers marked the descent of each black drop, tracing the sky. Crack! Her tender folds involuntarily shuddered.

A shrilling—high-pitched like that of a hawk, but full of desperation; human at some point in its life.  Its violent death roll cut the air, spiraling, spiraling away from its pack. No further than fifty yards from the porch, it slammed the ground, mowing a swath through the meadow.

Rallying to it, the keen barking of a dog.

She hurried to her daughter. The toddler tilted her head, all smiles, all giggles. Too young still to comprehend. “You will stay here for Momma.” She spoke slow, measured. “Do you understand?” Without waiting for an answer, she crept away.

It bleated weakly, lost amidst the grass, the strangled mewls answered by the nearing bark in turn.  She propelled forward, nearly upon all fours, the distressed utterances serving as her beacon call. Bees roused, lifting from the stalks and buds, seeking further riches from summer. Memories of childhood invaded her nose; so simple then, the pollen rich fragrance of sky, the honey glaze of sun. Her own parents had given her up much too early. Wisps of shadows they had become—their touch, their guiding voice mere ghosts. She wished no such thing for her Isabella, but knew now it was too late.

At last, she reached it. Gasping atop the matted butterfly weed, its blood soaked the ground. Upon its back it writhed, bald skull lifting up against the dome of summer, back down, laden with an agony it once doubted could exist.

A bloody bubble popped from the corner of its mouth. It sensed her presence. Upside down, slit eyes locked onto her own. She saw the wound, an angry hole straight through its sagging, bare breast. The perennials trembled; the retriever burst through the swath then, as was its inherent duty, clamped its jaws around the hag’s neck.

The retriever dug its hindquarters into soft earth, hauling its prey back to its master. She lunged, seized the snout, pried open its jaws, allowing it no fight. A savage twist; its muscles went limp. She pushed the heap of fur aside. “I cannot help you further, not now, not without jeopardizing us all. Lay still, and I will return for you.” She took its gnarled fingers within her own. “Forgive me, sister.”

The hag nodded.

She dashed back toward her Isa, aware that the exerted breath of man would soon be chasing behind. Her little girl waited diligently, as instructed. In seamless fashion, she scooped the child into her arms, ran full out without breaking stride. Gunshots, screams; mid-July succumbed all around her. Ahead, the porch; thirty yards, twenty. A husky command echoed; a taunt. Crack! The air whistled above her shoulder. The top step of the porch exploded, slivers of wood and paint.

The front door waited, still ajar. She took the steps, then up onto the porch, splinters pricking her toes. Across her threshold, as the door jamb disintegrated loudly beside her. Instinctively, she pulled Isabella against her chest. “My precious little bean, you must know that we are condemned by man.” She ran through the house, the rooms, the hall, straight toward the back door. “They see us as abominations.”

She threw the door open to a green expanse. There, twisting skyward in the middle of the glade, a solitary tree. “But all things of nature have their place of beauty, my love.” She traveled the distance, rounding the far side of the tree. From within her home carried the ransacking fury of the hunter.

The trunk rose, thick and noble, bark twining in cords around a darkened hollow. Within this, she placed her child, but not before kissing each cheek. “The Ancients will raise you now,” lips lingered upon tender flesh, “then you will emerge stronger than even me, my Isa.” Away the tree swallowed her, and the child was gone.

From the trunk protruded a long, slender knob, identical to a spear, driven at its end to a sharpened point. She retrieved the offering from the tree. As the hunter closed the expanse, she sidestepped into view, driving the pike through his throat, clearing the body of head. The torso ran several paces, then dropped.

Propping the spear against the tree, she slipped free from her clothes. The safety of her coven compromised, her sisters needed her now. Someday soon, her daughter as well. Again she took the spear, straddled it, relishing the power upon her sex. Then she commanded the sky; the still gaping head lay impotently upon the ground.

Mid-July bled until no man shared the whispers of the High Priestess. Or her slaughter.

~ Joseph A. Pinto

© Copyright 2017 Joseph A. Pinto. All Rights Reserved.

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