Footprints

Trust in me and I will guide you. I will heal you.”

I feel the words spoken but no one is in the room. Sighing, I put my backpack on the table and walk into the kitchen. Opening the fridge, I groan, marveling at the lack of food. I grab one of the cheap beers, the only kind I can afford, and twist off the top, taking a swig.

“Give yourself to me and I will make it better. I will take the hurt from you.”

The words are a breath in my ear. I stopped looking for the being behind the voice long ago.

My movements are automatic. Grab the small pot from the stove, shake out two packets of ramen noodles, down the first beer as they cook, then crack open the second one while eating the sodium-laced soup straight from the pot.

I finish my dinner in the same place I started it then rinse the pot and fork, setting them back on the stove, ready for tomorrow night. The second beer comes with me to the bedroom. It’s a matter of ten steps between the two rooms.

“I am here. I will take the pain you feel.”

There is nothing to pull my attention away from the voice because I have nothing left. The things I used to own? All sold to try and get by. The cheap build-it-yourself dresser wobbles as I set the beer atop it next to the stack of unpaid bills.

Undressing, I toss my clothes on the pile in the corner. I need to do laundry but there isn’t enough money.  I walk into the bathroom and turn the shower on, stepping in after steam curls out from behind the curtain. At least I still have hot water to shower with.

The water stings my skin as it cascades over me. Reaching back, I crank the heat up further. My skin reddens and it stands out more where is it stretched taut from the burns. As I close my eyes, the vision comes back, like it always does. The mortar shells raining down around us, trying to avoid something unavoidable until it happens, a sound like the earth itself opening, then nothing but ringing as chaos ensues.

They said it wasn’t my fault but they didn’t live it. They can’t understand it. They didn’t watch their friends burn, trapped inside an overturned Humvee.

“So many have come before you. I await. Accept my invitation and I will make it better.”

The voice has been there since shortly after I got out of the hospital and back home. It happened the day I returned to my church. There was a hero’s welcome, but I didn’t deserve it. I let my friends down. They got a different hero’s welcome when they got home, and I couldn’t be there for any of them. I’ve done my best to make peace though. Maybe one day I’ll find out if I’ve been forgiven.

That night the voice spoke to me, I freaked out and couldn’t sleep for three days afterward. It didn’t happen much in the beginning—once or twice a week—but it’s become more frequent. It happens at least ten times a day now, it feels like. But I don’t count.

Opening my eyes, I shut the water off and dry myself, then close the bathroom door. I leave the light on; I need a little bit to help me fall asleep—that, plus a few pills. I grab my beer and shuffle to bed, picking up the orange bottle from the floor. I open it and tip three into my hand, gulping them with a shot of beer. My fingers fumble the lid closed and I finish the last dregs of my drink.

I lie down and reach to the floor, picking up the paper I know is there, a poem given to me by our church’s pastor: ‘Footprints.’ He told me that it was written for millions of people before they knew they needed it and that, one day, I would truly accept and understand the words. Only then would my life would be better.

I read the poem as I’ve done every night since I got it, the paper worn and ragged in my hands. I finish and gently set it on the floor, then flip the switch on my lamp. Only a sliver of light streams from the bathroom.

Before I shut my eyes, the voice is there one last time. “Accept me and you will be free. I am your savior.”

I drift as the pills take hold. “Maybe you are,” I mumble. “Maybe you are.”

I dream of those moments, but for the first time it really is a dream, not a nightmare. Their eyes tell me everything. It’s time.

My heart is hammering in my chest when I wake. I know what I must do. I roll out of bed onto my knees. The voice is there immediately. “I am your savior. Accept me and I will guide you from this pain.”

“Yes, yes. Please, yes. You are my savior, I accept.” Answering out loud to the voice only I can hear.

My body shivers as I feel movement behind me. I start to turn but it’s too late. Slender hands grip my head.

“Welcome home,” the all-too-familiar voice whispers. A skeletal finger touches each temple and a searing heat rips through me.

***

I burn inside the Humvee, my skin sloughing off until there is nothing left… and then the moments repeat. For the rest of eternity, my men will watch me.

It is hell, but it is my hell.

And I am saved.

∼Mark Steinwachs

© Copyright 2017 Mark Steinwachs. All Rights Reserved.

 

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A Walk with Grace

The moon stares down at my brittle frame with judgement. A curse suckles upon my flesh, a reflection of the mirrored world I was cast into by no choice of my own. I only follow the deeds of my other half—a witness, a bystander. The exhibitionist shows me her will while forcing my eyes to see. I am no more than myself, and that which binds my flesh together. It isn’t a madness. Else I’d writhe in bed, the horrors in my mind to torture me at their discretion. I’m but a shell, the exosuit of the power which earns the rewards of my actions.

She speaks my name, which is her own. The condescending nature of her tone forbids argument. I’m but a slave with no outer master—the plaything of my own wicked mind.

Grace… Walk dutifully into the night and the blood will flow…

My legs carry an unwilling frame. Decision has never been an option—free will, only a dream which never comes true.

“Why, Grace? Why?” I ask.

Just do as I say. You know there isn’t any other way.

My lips curl into a frown of disdain.

Don’t be so spiteful. If it weren’t for me, you’d be nothing.

“I’d be me.”

You’re already you. But you’re also me.

That’s the problem, always has been. Ever since Mother and Father took their place in eternity, I’ve been nothing more than the hand of another entity. I’ve imagined ways to purge its vile existence, but none that wouldn’t take me with it.

You shouldn’t think such thoughts, Grace. Remember what happened last time?

“How could I forget?” I look down at the scars on my wrists.

I’m glad we have an understanding.

“I wouldn’t call it an understanding. More of a forced arrangement.”

Just keep walking.

She says it as if I have a choice.

“You’re going to hurt him, aren’t you?”

What do you think?

“I don’t know why I bother asking.”

I stare forward, eyes blank and disconnected from reality. The man I plan to meet, so nice, so innocent, undeserving of what awaits him. I don’t want to take his life—nothing disgusts me more. But it’s out of my control. His blood will be spilled and consumed, and there’s nothing I can do to stop it.

I see him on the corner down the street, both hands in his pockets, foot tapping the sidewalk. His stance gives away his anxiety, his shy nature. I pity his innocence while simultaneously adoring it.

“Always praying on the weak, Grace.”

Their blood tastes better.

“Can’t we just leave him be? Can’t we just find someone else?”

No. I’m starving.

I sigh as his eyes light up and an awkward smile brightens his face. Such a handsome man…

“Hi Grace,” he says. “Nice to meet you again. I know it’s only our second date but I got you these.” He reaches behind his jacket and brings out a bouquet of carnations.

If I could cry, tears would fall from my eyes. But the Grace inside me dried up any show of emotion long ago. “Thank you. They’re wonderful.”

“So what would you like to do?” he asks. “Dinner? A movie?”

“I thought we’d take a walk in the park.”

“After dark? Isn’t that a bit risky?”

“No, it’ll be okay. I do it all the time.”

His face reddens and he scratches the back of his neck. “Okay, let’s go.”

As we walk down a lonely path he reaches out to hold my hand. I allow him. Might as well enjoy the brief moments my dreams speak of each night, if only to experience a few seconds of intimate joy I’ll never fully know.

I look into his eyes, see a warm glow. There’s a connection, a communication without words, a palpable tether which might have bound us as one… But I am not whole.

My head splits down the middle with a crack of bone and tearing of flesh. Tentacles of bloody carnage stretch and reach out from the opening, forming bone-like blades at their ends. A multitude of eyes open on each tendril of the beast within my head; they stare at the man’s petrified expression with nihilistic calm. The sharp ends slice through his flesh and I watch, unable to control them, forced to witness the terrible feeding of my other half. Once his head falls to the ground, they drive into the stump of his neck and gorge on his blood.

Once Grace has her fill, she returns to her inner-sanctum, the place where my mind once rested in solitude. But ever since she took Mother and Father, and burrowed deep inside me, I’ve never been alone…

∼Lee A. Forman

© Copyright 2017 Lee A. Forman. All Rights Reserved.

Like A Puppet

Earl was two hours into his shift and already pissed off.

It was bad enough that management stuck him out at the East Gate Security Checkpoint but they also put him with the new guy, Geoff. Not only that but his guts rumbled too, threatening to spill out his hind quarters at any moment.

No one really used the East Gate anymore as it had been turned into an exit-only checkpoint. The road was poorly maintained with crumbling asphalt and the gate itself was rusted chain link. Their guard shack was roughly the size of a large recreational vehicle and sat just off the road surrounded by weeds.

Inside was a large desk with two computer monitors, each of them linked to a CCTV camera. Fluorescent lights hummed above, giving the trailer a slight hint of green making Earl think of a hospital. There was a single phone hooked to the wall and even it had seen better days. In Earl’s view, the only good thing about the shack was the air conditioning.

“I’m going to have a smoke,” Earl grunted.

He stepped outside and a lit a cigarette.

It was a humid evening, evident from the sweat already running down his back. The sky was streaked with crimson as the sun slowly dropped toward the horizon. He glanced up at the lone street light standing next to the shack and watched as the moths were drawn to its glow.

A mosquito buzzed by Earl’s ear and he swatted aimlessly at it. Nearing fifty with a gut starting to hang over his belt, Earl had been with Dragon Security for almost fifteen of those years.

Despite that experience, they decide to screw me and stuck me the East Gate.

“No,” Earl said, sighing heavily. “You got yourself stuck here.”

The door opened behind him.

“Did you say something, Earl?” Geoff asked.

Earl shook his head and waved the new guy away.

He didn’t dislike Geoff as a person, but rather disliked him for reminding Earl of what he once was: young, in shape and working the job solely to pay his way through school.

Not earning a living off a security guard’s shitty wages.

The air conditioning felt great, although it also gave him the chills thanks to his sweat. He sat down on one of the hard plastic chairs and looked at the grainy black and white images on the monitors.

“What do you think they do up there?” Geoff asked, sitting down next to him.

“Up where?” Earl asked.

“At the Institute.”

Earl glared at him and said, “It doesn’t fucking matter what they do up there. The less you ask, the better.”

Geoff blinked, not expecting Earl to snap.

Earl sighed. “Look, I’m not trying to be a dick. I made the mistake of asking a similar question and now I’m getting punished.”

Geoff opened his mouth to speak but thought better of it and turned back to the monitors.

About a week ago when Earl was still in Dragon Security’s good graces, he was working at the Main Entrance. He had gotten to know some of the people who actually worked inside the McFarlane Institute, one of whom was Dr. Richards. They shot the shit daily until Earl made the mistake of asking what they were doing up there.

A harmless question.

Dr. Richards didn’t speak to him after that and shortly thereafter he got assigned to the East Gate. It still pissed him off thinking back to it.

The ground shuddered, followed immediately by a deep, heart pounding thud.

The lights flickered twice before going out, along with the monitors and air conditioner.

They had lost power.

“What the hell was that?” Geoff asked as he jumped to his feet, knocking the chair over in the process.

“Relax,” Earl replied. “Just give it a sec. Sometimes there are power bumps.”

While it was true, Earl had never experienced a power bump like that before. He looked out the window toward the institute and saw that the lights were still on.

Why hadn’t they gone out?

The power returned and everything went back to normal.

“You see,” Earl said, rubbing at his stomach. “There’s nothing to it. If you’re here long enough you’ll get used to them.”

“I won’t lie,” Geoff said picking his chair off of the floor. “It gave me a start.”

Earl’s guts rumbled again and he knew better than to tempt fate.

“I’m going to take a shit,” Earl said making his way toward the bathroom. “Are you okay out here?”

“I should be,” Geoff nodded.

“You remember what to do if a car comes?”

“Check their documents of entitlement and identification. If everything looks good let them out.”

As he reached the bathroom, Earl turned around and said, “If you have any issues let me know.”

Earl shut the door, dropped his pants and closed his eyes as he sat down on the toilet, enjoying the relief it brought. For some reason, the trailer’s designer felt it necessary to put in a small window in the bathroom. It was the size of the Kleenex box and up high so they left it alone, usually leaving it open to air out the shitter.

As much as he wanted to believe that it had just been a power bump, Earl couldn’t shake the feeling that it was something else. Every other power bump had knocked out the exterior lights to the McFarlane Institute.

This time it hadn’t.

“Hey Earl,” Geoff called through the door. “There’s a car coming.”

“So handle it!” Earl yelled back.

He heard Geoff open the shack door and step outside. As Earl went ahead with his business, he listened as Geoff’s voice carried in through the open window.

“Good evening,” Geoff said.

There was a pause and then a voice said, “Good… evening… it… is…” Earl recognized the voice as Dr. Richards’. Why did he sound weird?

“I need to see your ID and document of entitlement.” There was the sound of movement, then shuffling of paper. “It’ll just be a quick second while I validate these.”

“Going… home… for… night…”

“What was that?” Geoff asked.

“Going… home… for… night…”

“Quitting time is always a good feeling.”

The phone began ringing out by the desk.

“Fuck sakes,” Earl muttered.

After a quick wipe he walked toward the desk, stealing a glance outside at Dr. Richards’ car. Geoff was handing his paperwork back through the passenger side window. Earl saw the good doctor and stopped, as there was something off about him.

His motions were jerky and delayed as if he were reacting. It reminded Earl of the old ventriloquist puppets when their heads would turn followed by their eyes. That combined with his bizarre speech pattern rubbed Earl the wrong way but he couldn’t figure out why.

The phone continued to ring.

Earl heard the familiar buzzing indicating that the gate was opening and saw Geoff with his hand on the control switch. The gate was almost completely open when Earl picked up the receiver.

“East Gate, Earl speaking.”

The gate creaked to a stop.

This is McNeil!

Geoff waved Dr. Richards’s car through.

“How’s it—?”

Don’t let anyone through the gate! We’ve had a breach! I repeat, we’ve had a breach!

Earl dropped the receiver and bolted outside just as Geoff hit the switch to close the gate. Dr. Richards’ car was already outside the gate, a few meters beyond the fence where it had stopped.

“That guy sure seemed fucked up,” Geoff said, then looked at Earl. “Hey, who was that on the phone?”

Dr. Richards began convulsing uncontrollably.

“It was McNeil from the institute,” Earl began. “He said there’d been a breach.” His voice trailed off.

Dr. Richards rose from his seat and hung out the passenger side window by what looked like a cross between a snake and tentacle.

“Uh… Earl,” Geoff whispered. “What the hell is that?”

Earl said nothing as a larger shape materialized from the backseat and slithered through the window.

The creature had what looked like five appendages, including the one holding the good doctor. Its moist body glistened in the light of the street lamp now that the sun dropped completely below the horizon. It emitted a sound similar to that of someone smacking their tongue against their lips.

Dropping Dr. Richards’ body onto the ground, it disappeared into the encroaching darkness.

“My God…” Geoff muttered. “Earl… did it… did it use his body like… like…”

“Like a puppet,” Earl managed to say.

 

© Copyright 2017 John Olson. All Rights Reserved.

 

 

The Within

It starts with your first cry,” the white-haired gentleman sitting next to me says. “Moments after you are born your demon is as well, a microscopic creature that grows as you do.” He takes a sip from the tumbler of whiskey he got moments ago and sucks in a breath from the burn.

“Melvin, honey, stop scaring the nice young man,” Barb—I think the bartender said her name was Barb—says from the other end of the bar while cleaning glasses.

I look up from my rum and Coke, realizing the two of them are talking about me. “I’m sorry,” I say, looking around the cramped room again. There are two tables with people who look lost in their own worlds. I’m out of place here, a new person trespassing on the regulars’ sanctuary. “Were you talking to me?”

“Sometimes the truth is scary, Barbara, you know that.” Melvin points a crooked finger at her while still holding his drink. He winces after taking another sip. “He knows it, too. Look at him. You know what his world is.” He’s still facing straight ahead, watching me through the mirror that is the wall behind the bar. “The doctors haven’t helped you, have they, son?”

I shift in my seat, glancing sideways at him. For a moment I let the question sit. Demon, I hear Melvin’s voice in my head. I decide to play along. “No they can’t. They say there’s nothing wrong with me. Not physically, at least.”

Melvin lets out a sharp laugh that turns into a cough. “Physically wrong? Oh, no, I can tell that just by looking at you. You’re what, twenty-five, maybe six? I bet you haven’t been physically sick in years. We both know I’m not talking about that kind of doctor.”

“Melvin!” Barb says. “You stop that right now. Leave that poor boy alone. You’ll run off my new customer.”

He doesn’t move his body but tilts his eyes up to Barb and then returns his gaze to me, waiting. No one reacts to the scene playing out between us.

“You mean psychiatrists? Yeah, I’ve seen my fair share,” I say. “They send me back to a regular doctor, who then sends me to a different psychiatrist. But I gave up on that a while ago.”

He takes a long swig of his drink, finishes it, and swivels his stool to face me. Barb comes over and refills the glass. Melvin brings up his right hand between our chests, palm facing me with his fingers spread. He’s looking at me with his head cocked, like he’s searching for something. “You feel him, son. I know you do. You’ve felt him for years, inside you. He’s become more of you than you are yourself.”

My stomach churns and I put my hand on the edge of the bar to steady myself. Pain isn’t the right word. It’s not painful. It’s anguish. Emptiness. Working from my stomach out in all directions. Pushing through my veins, invading me.

“You’ve seen him,” Melvin says. “Behind your eyes when you look in the mirror. You aren’t crazy, son. You just weren’t meant for this world.”

I grip the edge of the bar. It’s there. I saw it the other night, behind my eyes, a creature made of black ink. A drip fell from it and a burning ache seeped through my body. I had felt that thousands of times and now I finally knew what it was.

Melvin leans in and points his finger at my heart, almost touching my chest. “He’s never been there. You’ve fought him off. No one knows what you’ve gone through. The internal battles you fight every day.”

He’s right. Every word. The old man saw me for who I am. My eyes fill with tears. My body feels heavy. I’m tired, so tired, from fighting, holding the thing at bay as it inches closer.

“There’s much more to this physical world than we know. They are waiting to be learned if you truly open yourself to them. Just because society says something is weak and cowardly doesn’t mean it’s true. Maybe they just don’t understand.”

“I… I… It doesn’t hurt but it never goes away. Everything I do.”

“I know, son,” Melvin says in a quiet voice. “It’s okay. I promise.” His finger touches my chest and the sensation plunges into my heart.

In one moment, years of defenses topple down. My body. My mind. My soul. Exquisite peace.

“Thank you.” I stand up and walk out of the bar.

***

A minute later the sound of a single gunshot from the alley fills the bar. Barb says to Melvin while washing a glass, “Don’t you dare tell me he’s in a better place.”

“He isn’t,” Melvin says. “But he’s in a place where he can fight. Where he can win, if he is strong enough.”

“Is he?”

“I hope so.” Melvin winces as another sip of whiskey sears his throat.

∼ Mark Steinwachs

© Copyright 2017 Mark Steinwachs. All Rights Reserved.

Tiny Cages

Your grave is unmarked to all eyes but mine. The cobbled path is cool, almost sharp and so familiar against my bare feet, a track I am compelled to tread over and over. Harsh stones become damp grass becomes soft dirt the further from the house I walk, into the woods where the tension falls from my body and my gaze lifts, no longer fearful of being condemned.

The world has become my silent jury. When I must go into town, I walk with my head down to avoid the pity and suspicion on faces that watch me pass. The verdict is plain on tight silent lips, and hanging in the air around me—guilty. Let them have their gossip, their macabre fantasies, they will never know the truth of what took place.

The house we once shared is a vast empty space abandoned of meaning. I have packed away all sign of you. I scrub the house clean everyday, the windows sparkle, the floorboards gleam, but still sorrow hangs in the corners like cobwebs. I linger listlessly, roaming from room to room. At times your soft voice can be heard within the walls and I press my palms flat against them, trying to reach through. You sing the tune we often sung together as we sat on the swing in the garden, rocking slowly in afternoon sunshine.

I can no longer sleep, I feel ashamed of the warmth and comfort of my bed while your body lays cold and wet. The swing creaks throughout the night in the breeze, a grating squeak inside my skull. When I glance out the window I hope to see you there, your thin legs swinging up towards the night sky, but that never happens. The swing is as empty as all the other places you used to be.

All night I think of where you are hidden. If I dream it is of digging in ripe soil with a never ceasing rhythm, deep down into the bowels of the earth. Each cold morning, with only hot coffee to ease my clenching stomach, I set out to visit you. I am drawn to your body, searching for a place to belong.

In the forest all death is fair and equal, not divided into right and wrong. In the forest I am not a criminal or a monster.

It was not your life I took away but your pain. I snuffed it out, the malignant burning that was consuming you and turning your insides to ash. No struggle, no resistance, just a moment of tension then nothing, just your blue eyes wide, frightened, drawing you from the lull of disease for one last moment of stark awareness, and then falling back in to that nameless pit as your breath came to a halt.

The pine trees are tall and triangular, long low branches sway and close behind me as I pass, pulling me into thickening shadows. They emit a sharp, clean scent, which gels with the moist decay of the forest floor. The strong trunks are rippled grey bark but in some places amber resin has seeped into stagnant lumps, protecting a wound, fighting an infection that eats at the marrow of the tree. When I touch it the resin gives a little, and I remember your skin, newly dead, growing stiff, the dent of my fingertips remaining after I had pulled my hand away.

I keep walking, checking off the signs that mark the way to you—a tree stump, a large smooth stone, the rotting trunk I climb over. No one else can see the path; it is ours alone.

Far from the trail, in the rich brown dirt, within a large crevice in moss covered rocks, safe from scavenging paws and whiskers, and prying, unworthy eyes, lies my shrine and your tomb. I was reluctant to leave any personal sign of you, no photo or name engraved, no flowers to mark the spot; but in a deep crack in the stones I have tucked away the necklace you always wore, a string of colorful plastic hearts and flowers.

Gently I raise you piece by piece. I stroke your small fingers that once laced my own with pure trust; they are disjointed, white fragments. Your ribs curl out of the earth, a tiny cage not strong enough to hold a beating heart. I choke back inhuman sounds, a whimper, a growl. Your skull I cradle in my palm, precious and delicate as a bubble, the bone fine and translucent, eye sockets too big, too empty. And the curve of your sacrum quivers in my hands like a rare gem. Your remains still hum as if there is something you left unsaid and they are longing for words again. Thick tears squeeze from my eyes, hot and painful; I fear I am crying blood. For a while I nurse your pieces then I must reassemble you like a doll-shaped puzzle in the small pit, reassemble you like a precious and mysterious relic that holds a history yet to be understood. I sweep the earth over again, fill the hole and pat it flat.

Not long after I walk away the buckled growl in my throat escapes and explodes as a roar. The forest swallows my grief as readily as it swallows your bones, reducing us both to dust.

∼Veronica Magenta Nero

© Copyright 2017 Veronica Magenta Nero. 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.

Damned Words 22

The Forever Burden
Lee A. Forman

Only at night could the tower be seen—a spectral fortress alive in darkness. Under the sun the site was an open field, but when the moon rose from its resting place, the stone went up as far as any lantern could illuminate. It seemed to touch the stars. They gathered there each midnight to offer their sorrows to the Lord. He who would cast vengeful death upon them from above. One living soul for one living day. The bargain had been set for as long as any could remember. An unending deal with an unseen God. Their forever burden…


Torches
Veronica Magenta Nero

I silence my jagged breath and press myself flat against the cold stones. They chant my name as they jostle flaming torches in the night, boots stomping, their malicious song churns in my stomach. When I close my eyes I see your throat, split open and seeping black red, your fingers trembling at the wound as your life leaked away and soaked into the earth.

They are close, they will soon capture me, a mad woman unwed, a murderous whore. I will gladly confess my crime, without guilt or regret, and for that they will torture me all the more.


A Letter from Captain William Brumley, 47th Border Guard
Brian Moreland

General McHenry,

A new enemy has invaded our territory. Each night campfires appear outside our post. Growls echo from the woods. Twelve of my recon soldiers failed to return. During the day, all we’ve found is an abandoned camp with bloody bones, skulls on pikes. Last night, I ventured close enough to see our tormentors are feral savages cloaked in fur. Formidable beasts with snouts and tusks, archaic weapons. They greatly outnumber us. We are down to four men. We fear for our lives. Please send an army to Fort Danebury, before the Boar People eat the rest of us.


Awoken Me
Jon Olson

Something has changed. It is not time. My metamorphosis is not yet complete. So what has awoken me? My dark world is no longer silent or still. Echoes bounce off the ancient walls as the sounds of the living harass the dead. My joints are stiff as I emerge from my cocoon, creeping along brick foundations built by those from long ago. Up ahead I see a tiny flicker of flame dancing seductively within the confines of a lantern. Pausing, I lick the air and immediately become ravenous for the sweet yet bitter taste of humans. Let the feast begin…


The Mob Laments
John Potts Jr

“What have we done?”

The farmer collapsed. His splintered pitchfork drops and he whimpered a dull, throaty wallop. The priest lowered with lantern and blood-stained cross. “It needed to be done, for it was the will of the—”

“Damn you,” a gargantuan sort of man reached down and snatched the priest off the ground with ease. “No God would demand the death of children.”

A wiry woman pressed forward. Her eyes burned like the woeful flames set before.

“The only monster here is you,” she spat.

Her dagger glistened by moonlight above and the mob circled, still hungry for more.


Penance
Mark Steinwachs

Chained against the wall, the moonlight bathed me. I watched them set up camp then closed my eyes. There was nothing I could have done for my son. His neck was ripped open before I could knock the beast from him. My silver combat knife sunk in, but its teeth and claws inflicted irreversible damage to me. We all knew my final outcome. My eyes popped open and I cried out. It had begun. Vomit spewed from me as I watched my body begin to change. They’re going to sacrifice me for my meat and fur. Penance for my failure.


Offerings in the Dark
A.F. Stewart

A scattering of flower petals covered the ground outside the entrance and etched symbols of protection decorated its stone archway. The people of the town considered the edifice a shrine.
A place of the dead.
Others considered it a pilgrimage.
A few steps inside, tucked in an alcove, the lanterns burned, their flickering light a monument. The faithful came each year; the fortunate said prayers and left. The rest, well…
A few more feet into the shadows and you’d find their bones. The strewn remnants of pilgrims sacrificed to the dark.
You’d also find the creature that ate those fools.


Vivisepulture
Joseph A. Pinto

Spade kisses earth; it begins.

No rites, no rituals. That privilege is lost, stripped like the clothes from your back. No box, no shroud. Nothing but a crude, dank hole.

The melody of cloven earth lulls you; your muscles grow slack against your binds. The chasm claims you; dirt now cast, one with your skin. No use in struggling, you retreat within your mind; you are a master at escape. Ignorant, they are, to the knowledge you have buried yourself within yourself so many, many times before.

How little they know you were born only to die, to rise again.


Cortege
Hunter Shea

I stood beside the crypt, quivering. The crisp autumn air numbed my toes.
“See, I told you,” Rebecca hissed.
I clamped a hand over her mouth.
The procession of glowing orbs marched in front of us, making nary a sound. These were not fairies. Fairies didn’t smell of fruiting bodies. Pain and rancor emanated from the flickering lights, not magic and wonder.
I wanted to run home, but I daren’t alert them to our presence.
The burning dead went on and on, seemingly without end.
Rebecca sniffled heavily against my wet palm.
The cortege stopped.
Turned our way.
God, no!


Twelve Chalices
Nina D’Arcangela

Light flickers in darkest woods, twelve flames do bob and weave. Silent as bare breath trees stand, necropolis whispers her fury. Hidden thou must remain, dangers warned ye did not heed. Voices lift on autumn breeze, and to vain ears do carry. They sing of love, they sing of life, they croon of lust and need. A rustle sounds behind squirreled niche, flesh quivers with fear profound. Claws rasp along age’ed stone, all stills on stroke of three. Ritual fulfilled as hot blood flows, twelve chalices drench in greed. Of this night I do profess, birthed to no other deed.


Custom
Christopher A. Liccardi

The merlin radiated the heat with spite. It was this place, these people it resented. The land passed that hatred on to the stone. It wanted nothing more than to drink, soak up the liquid that would flow like wine.

The revelers were dancing around the fire, as was their custom. The guests were tied to the ground by the necks, as was theirs. The axes sharpened with the bones of the previous gathering.

It was time to do what they came here for. Feed the land on the blood of the unwilling, unwitting and refresh the spirit once again.


Each piece of fiction is the copyright of its respective author
and may not be reproduced without prior consent. © Copyright 2017
Image © Copyright Dark Angel Photography. All Rights Reserved.

Crone

That crazy bitch said seven.

Seven of them, but she didn’t say which seven. She didn’t say where they were or how to find them!

Fuck!

Why did everything have to be so damn cryptic? He hated all the mysticism and bullshit.

Peter recalled that conversation, the last normal conversation he’d had. “Seven Devils, boy. You have to kill them all at once, or they come back.” She laughed, sticking her bony finger in his face.

“What the hell are you pointing at?” He slapped at the finger, but she was too quick. Old age had taken nothing but her looks away from her.

“I can see them,” she cackled. The last three teeth in her head were black. The urge to strangle the life out of her was overwhelming.

“I can’t see them. How can I kill what I can’t see?” he spat back at her.

“No, you choose not to see them, but they see you.” Her laughter became hysterics, her eyes watered as she cawed. She pushed back from the table trying to stand. Her back arched with decades of arthritis and rough living.

“We’re not done here!” Peter slammed his fist on the table. The crystal in the center bounced out of its holder and rolled to the edge, but it didn’t fall. The damned thing stopped itself as if out of pure defiance.

The old woman whirled around so fast, Peter saw nothing but a blur of black fabric. She pointed her gnarled finger at him again. “Don’t upset the glass, boy. There are worse things in there than your ill-tempered petulance.” She waddled back and picked up the ball, caressing its smooth surface like a lover.

“You want to rid yourself of them, you need to start from within,” she squawked, leaving the tent from the back.

Peter’s rage took hold and he stood, tossing the table aside as if it were made of balsa. He stormed after her; he was going to have another victim!

The old woman whipped around the flap where she’d left and made contact with his skull, using only that damned finger. Peter fell on his ass. His teeth smacked down on his lip, and he tasted blood.

The old woman hovered into view as Peter’s vision cleared.

“I didn’t say we were finished, boy. Didn’t anyone ever tell you it’s impolite to wander through someone’s tent smashing their things?” She was an inch from his face now and he could smell the stench of those three rotting teeth.

“Take this box and hold it until midnight. Open it on the stroke of twelve and not a second before or you’ll regret it.” The old woman dropped the box into his lap. The pain was immediate. The box was ironwood and whatever was inside felt like it weighed a ton.

“Midnight and not a second before, if you know what’s good for you, now get out!” She cradled the ball in her arms and waddled back out of the tent mumbling something. He didn’t know what it was; he couldn’t speak the language but he had an idea it was derogatory.

Peter picked himself up and took hold of the box. For a moment, he had a strong urge to leave it on the floor and take off, but it passed and he walked out to his motorcycle. The bike was a used piece of shit he’d bartered for when he arrived. He needed a fast getaway; if all else failed, he’d ride all night.

He left the Wanderer’s encampment the way he’d come in; with no answers and the urge to kill seething from his fingertips.

Peter glanced at the horizon. It was well past noon, heading into dusk, and he needed to lock himself in somewhere or there wouldn’t be anything left of this old bitch or her family by sun up. The urge to kill rippled through him as he mounted the bike. This had to stop.

Peter kicked the old bike into life. Smoke billowed from the tailpipe. He hoped the bike would make it the hundred miles to his rented place before dark.

As the desert tore past him, he let his mind wander. How many had he killed so far? More than he wanted to count, but he forced himself to. He needed to stay in control of whatever this was long enough to lock himself in before he convinced himself to ride back to the camp site and…

The sound around him faded to quiet and the wind buffeting his face didn’t seem as strong. When he looked at the gauges, he broke into a cold sweat. He’d only gone twenty miles when the bike’s engine stalled. He’d never make it back in time.

All the killings played on in his head. At first, they were like a slide show; pictures without sounds, but then the images started to quicken. The slide show gave way to a stilted projection film; a shitty 8mm movie.

He watched as each successive murder got more brutal, more imaginative. Peter screamed and slammed his hands over his eyes waiting for the horror reel to stop. It didn’t stop. Hundreds of organs were ripped out, necks broken, faces torn off. Peter fell onto the desert hardpan, writhing and screaming at the horror. He blacked out.

***

Peter came to, slowly. His eyes opened and he could taste desert in his throat. Grit coated his face and hair. It took a minute to realize his eyes were open. Stars began to appear slowly as his eyes adjusted. He hadn’t made it to the cage in the rented house.

Peter tensed, remembering the horror film that had played over and over in his head and waited for the terrible images to start up.

No images came but the old woman’s words did. The memory of the box did.

Peter found the bike and the box and began to walk. The urge to kill was still there.

The night crept forward and he walked with his head down, waiting for the moment when he couldn’t control his impulse anymore, his devils.

The last conversation he had echoed back in his head. “…all Seven Devils, all at once.”

He’d have to find and kill them quickly but he hadn’t even figured out what they were. Something was tormenting him, pushing him to take another person’s life with no excuses and no apologies. He hated himself every minute of every day for it and he was powerless to stop.

As Peter walked deeper into the desert he felt  control slipping. He decided that if the sun peaked over the horizon and he hadn’t figured out where these seven devils were, he’d kill himself. He’d use the ironwood box and smash himself over the head or leap off a mesa. He’d run straight at the edge, close his eyes and let go.

Hours passed and Peter walked. The images returned but they were low compared to the bloodlust he felt. His legs hurt but he kept on walking, head down. He started to mumble to himself but he didn’t know when.

His sanity slipped away with each passing step. The urge to find someone to kill and the need for this to be over pulled in equal measure.

The end was coming, one way or the other. He looked out at the dark background for a place to jump and saw nothing. He didn’t know what time it was.

He stopped walking and held the box out. Something in him screamed to drop it, run for the encampment, but he held onto it as if his life depended on it.

The old crone’s voice spoke up over the babble, “Open it boy, and see what’s inside.” She cackled, echoing across the desert.

Peter opened the box and stared. It held a gun and a single bullet. What the fuck was he supposed to do with one bullet?

“You said seven, you bitch!”

“Seven indeed, boy. It’ll come to you if you want it to,” she said, not unkindly.

Peter looked at the gun in the box and then at the bullet. It wasn’t silver and appeared normal, but the math didn’t work. He had to kill seven of something with one bullet.

He plucked the bullet out of the box and then the gun. He threw the box to the ground and glared at the solution, not seeing it yet.

How the hell was he supposed to… His thought trailed off. The voices all stopped and so did the images. The emptiness was staggering and he took a step back.

Peter laughed.

“You said seven, you old bitch.” Peter laughed again. He laughed until his eyes watered.

“It starts from within,” he said and looked for the moon. It was time.

A single gunshot echoed across the flat desert land as seven devils died, all at once, altogether.

~ Christopher A. Liccardi

© Copyright Christopher A. Liccardi. All Rights Reserved.

Sweet Ophelia

Daddy, Daddy! Look! It’s snowing. Can we go out and play?”

Ophelia giggled and pressed her face close to the windowpane, staring at the flakes descending from the sky. She traced her chubby finger along the frost touched glass, waiting for an answer.

It never came.

Her silent father only sat in his high-backed chair and gulped another mouthful of Scotch. He stared into the flames crackling in the fireplace, ignoring anything else. When he drained the glass, he poured himself another drink.

Impatient, Ophelia sighed and climbed down from her window ledge perch. She glided out of the room in search of her mother. She found her in the kitchen washing dishes.

“It’s snowing, Mummy. Can we go play in the snow?”

Her mother never looked at her, simply kept at her task, and Ophelia sighed again. “No one pays attention to me anymore.” She tried stamping her foot. It did no good. She pouted and yelled at the top of her lungs, “I want to play in the snow!”

Still no response. Her mother stood at the sink, washing a teacup, oblivious to her daughter’s tantrum. Dejected, Ophelia gave up and wandered upstairs to her room. She didn’t like going there anymore, but it had the best view of the back yard.

Entering, she gave a little sighing whisper. “It’s so empty now. I wish Mummy hadn’t taken all my things away.”

Then she smiled. At least her own small chair still stood by the window. Ophelia walked past the crisply made bed and curled up in its seat. She laid her hand on the frosty glass and watched the snow fall. She loved the soft quiet of it, its gentle flutter as it blanketed the ground; remembered the crisp, cold touch of it on her tongue.

She gazed at the snow until the edges of night crept past the sun.

Voices from downstairs finally pulled her attention away. Her parents were arguing. Again. She slipped from the chair and ventured to the top of the stairs. Below her, in the hallway, the pair were screaming at each other.

“God, you’re drunk again! That’s all you ever do now! Sit in that damn room and drink! You smell like a goddamn distillery! What happened to you?”

“You know what happened! I’m sorry I didn’t handle it as well as you! Prancing about, like our fucking life didn’t fall apart! I’m not as cold-hearted as you I guess!”

“At least I’m not running away and jumping head first into a bottle!”

“Stop it!” An anguished cry rose from Ophelia’s throat. “Why are you always fighting? Why can’t it be like before?” She practically flew down the stairs and sped past her parents into her father’s sanctuary. She curled into a ball in the corner and waited until the angry voices stopped.

She looked up as her father entered and flopped in his chair. He poured himself a drink, as her mother trailed him to the doorway, hesitating to come all the way in.

“Another drink? Predictable.” The mother’s face scrunched into a look of contempt. “I don’t understand, when did you turn into such a coward? What do you get out of it? Why do you sit here, night after night, drinking yourself into oblivion? It isn’t healthy.” She took a step closer, her voice softening. “She’s gone. Ophelia’s gone. You need to face it.”

From across the room, Ophelia gasped, her little form shaking. “Shush, Mummy, shush! Don’t say such things!”

The man in the chair looked up, and stared. His grip on the glass of Scotch tightened.

Ophelia’s mother continued, “Wake up! Our daughter’s been dead a year, and brooding here won’t bring her back.”

Ophelia whined, her face suddenly pale, and translucent. She whispered. “No. No! I’m not, Mummy, I’m not! I’m right here.”

Her father turned his head slightly, looking away from Ophelia’s mother.

That enraged the woman and she screamed, “Did you hear me? I said wake up! Our daughter’s dead! Time to face it!”

For a moment the air in the room seemed to slow, and every breath sounded large and lingering. Then Ophelia screeched, “I won’t listen anymore! I’m not dead!” The child rushed to her father’s side. “You’re upsetting Daddy!”

Her father’s face seemed to pale at her words, and Ophelia rested her head against his chair, so close she could smell the whiskey. “Don’t listen to her, Daddy. I’m here. I’ll always be here. I promised.”

Her father took a gulp of liquor and stared at Ophelia’s mother. She stared back, words tumbling from her mouth, “Why? Why are you torturing yourself? I don’t think I can take this much longer.”

“I don’t know why.” His voice barely sounded above a murmur. “I understand she’s dead. I was there in the hospital same as you. It’s just… sometimes I can feel her. Feel her in this room with me, like she’s talking to me.”

Ophelia laid her little hand on his arm. Her father shivered. “It’s all right, Daddy. I’m still here. I didn’t go. Don’t listen to Mummy. I promised I’d stay. You remember, that night in the hospital. I promised not to go. And I didn’t. I’ll stay with you forever and ever. Right here with you. For always.”

Her father took another drink, and closed his eyes. “I think I’m losing my mind. I swear sometimes I can hear her voice calling to me. Calling to her Daddy.”

Ophelia smiled, and kissed him on the cheek.

“Forever and always, Daddy.”

 

~ A. F. Stewart

© Copyright 2017 A. F. Stewart. All Rights Reserved.

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