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!”
He spotted Cassandra running with a crowd through the forest. “Cass!”
“Daddy!” She made her way back and hugged her father.
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.
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…
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
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
“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.
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.
Trapped within this bubble, I feel nothing of the arid landscape that surrounds me. I sit in subjugation, offered scraps to feed upon; amuse-bouche for the soul, or so I imagine. Apportioned morsels to sustain me, but never more than your callous ego will allow. Yes, I have licked the plate and the tang has seared my tongue, left a residue of shame that will forever taint my palate. I once soared with as much grace and majesty as the prey that circles overhead – a dangerous companion to adopt, folly perhaps, as I know what it awaits.
Freedom, such a simple thing, stolen from me by destiny’s choice; a truth mourned beyond measure. I was vibrant once, as vibrant as the now desiccated tree before me. I see its brittle limbs, its exposed bones; the crack that foretells of the next fractured moment. I live that moment with every breath, forever caught just before the fall, perpetually suspended in a state of flux. With bowed back, I am forced to genuflect, to stare into a shallow pool that lacks reflection; a me without identity, stripped of all dignity. With broken wings, I stagnate in this cage never to glide on lighter waves of air again.
~ Nina D’Arcangela
© Copyright Nina D’Arcangela. All Rights Reserved.
Rebecca’s toes curled in her boots when her feet touched the unholy earth. Ancient trees populated the forest ahead, pale fog twisting between their trunks with serpentine grace. Gnarled limbs formed an impenetrable canopy above, coloring all with a nocturnal hue. Tendrils of mist slithered around her legs, and her knees ached to buckle, but she forced herself on; she knew fear would bring demise.
She thought of Oliver. His shining face cast iron rods into her bones. It kept her from succumbing to the black moss which grabbed at her feet. His smile, the way he always wanted his sandwiches without the crust, his unending questions—memories that powered her will.
Movement in the brush clenched her jaw. But her eyes never averted the path; they stared forward, glazed with determination, intent only on reaching the end. After that it wouldn’t matter.
A clearing opened ahead. Rebecca stopped and stood tall.
A breath of evil wind sung the tune of damned souls; agonized wails filled the air. Her ears begged silence, pained by the despair in each note. But those countless voices didn’t cause her to stray. Ollie meant everything. She’d sacrifice all for him to live again.
“You’ve braved the darkness.” The words came from all directions, faint whispers carried by a quiet breeze. “But you aren’t without fear. How much can you endure?”
Visions of unspeakable torment invaded her mind—mutilated bodies writhing in ebon mud, eyes removed, mouths contorted by ineffable suffering; they sang together like Hell’s choir. She saw their lifeforce seep into the ground, feeding the roots of the forest as they sprouted and entwined themselves within the bare husks left behind. Worms crawled through the ground on which they decomposed; they fed in the tainted soil.
“You’re quite strong. Few have remained on their feet up to this point.”
A slight pride swelled in her gut but she immediately subdued it. She didn’t want them to see. But the quiver in her bowels alluded that it was already too late.
Malicious laughter echoed—the amusement of a thousand vicious creatures, their attention focused on her vulnerable position. Her shoulders twitched, tried to fold inward.
“You really are brave,” the voice said. “We could tear you apart. And keep you alive to endure it. This frightens you. But I see something which frightens you more. What do you desire?”
She wondered if it was a rhetorical question. They just want me to say it, she thought. “My son… I want Ollie back.”
Another laugh came from the woods. But unlike before, it was from a singular entity—a lone bellow among the din of ridicule previously voiced. She balled her fists with moistened palms.
“Don’t be angry. I can offer what you seek. But you must offer something in return.”
An enormous albino worm slithered toward her from the thick layer of mist. It raised its head and weaved in a hypnotic motion. Its repulsive, blank surface was nothing more than pulsating flesh with no discernable features. A suffocating odor wafted from the creature. Its very sight defiled her thoughts. Rebecca stared back at the ghastly being, unaware what resided inside. Its unearthly form negated reason; some things that shouldn’t exist do.
“What do you want?” she asked.
Purple veins bulged from the white worm’s glossy flesh. They pulsed in a sickening rhythm. Countless red eyes flickered in the darkness behind it, like demon stars in a vast and wicked universe.
A boy’s head burst through the soil next to the worm, followed by its limp corpse.
Vines lifted her son’s body from the ground. Her eyes bled salty grief.
“You want him to live?”
“Then he will.”
Her Ollie’s pallid face lightened, eyes twitched. The vines withdrew and he stood on his own, staring with a disquiet gaze.
“He’s alive! Oliver, you’re here!”
The boy stood silent.
The veins on the worm’s body pulsated with vigor. “Now, come to me.”
She stepped forward, tremors shaking every muscle. Hot sweat leaked from her skin, soaked her clothes. She clenched her hands and breathed deep.
The holders of the crimson eyes came out from the shadows, sharp toothed grins spreading below. Remnants of humanity were carved into their knotty faces, eroded by the nefarious mist. Thin bodies crowded around her, skin like the bark of trees. Their clawed hands embraced her, took her into their communion of evil. She knew not what they were, only that she’d wither and become one of them.
As they carried her away, she watched Oliver. And although his stare held a ghostly atmosphere, he was alive.
~ Lee A. Forman
© Copyright 2017 Lee A. Forman. All Rights Reserved.
The buzzing invades your brain. Why is the alarm clock going off? You begin to open your eyes and realize it’s not the alarm, but the doorbell. Who the hell is at my door at— rolling over, the clock finishes your thought by flashing 3:10 a.m.
You slide out of bed. As your feet touch the floor, the buzzing stops. You get up anyway and walk through the empty house to the front door to see if someone is there. There’s no one on the porch when you look through the peephole. You unlock the door, open it. On the ground in front of you is a small cardboard box. Stepping over it, you look around the front yard and glance up and down the street. Everything is quiet. You scoop the package up and walk into the house, kicking the door shut behind you.
Something solid moves inside the box as you walk to the couch and set it on the coffee table. It’s a perfect square about a foot tall, and meticulously taped. You pick it up again. Whatever is inside shifts slightly, like there’s not quite enough packing material holding it in place. Turning the box over in your hands, you see no markings of any kind.
You set the box down not sure which side is up.
Well, the box will be there in the morning.
Getting up from the couch, you head to your bedroom for a few more hours of sleep. But it doesn’t come. Lying there with your eyes closed, the image of the box fills your thoughts. Your eyes open, and once again, you turn to the clock.
This is ridiculous. It’s a box. And it’s probably not even meant for me.
At this point there’s no falling asleep, so you get out of bed and return to the couch. You slide forward to the edge of the seat and lean over the box; your fingers reach for the tape. Using your nail, you pry up a tiny corner and pull it back. The tape comes off without effort and the two flaps open slightly.
You lift the box intent on opening it further to look inside, but instead, stop, and set it back down on the table. A moment’s hesitation, then you reach for the box again. Your left hand holds it as you cautiously reach in with your right. Your fingers grip the edges of something solid. There’s no packing material, and whatever it is, is almost the exact size of the box. The cardboard bulges and the back of your fingers scrape the inside of the box as you pull the contents free.
It’s a black leather-bound book and it feels light in your hands. Upon closer inspection, you realize it’s more than a book. There’s a latch, not holding the book itself closed, but a box held within it. The book consists of a few pages, then the box. Your eyes move back to the cover where you see your name etched in gold.
As your finger traces the letters, the hairs on your arm stand up. Opening the book to the first page you begin to read.
Your time on Earth is about to end; there is nothing you can do to stop it.
At 4:10 a.m. you will perish. This is the only definite you have left in the last few minutes of life.
You instinctively look up at the clock.
Then back to the book.
You have two choices. You can choose not to open the box. If you so choose, you will be trapped for eternity in an abyss, unable to escape, in which your body will slowly waste away until you no longer have the strength to move. Your mind, however, will remain intact; you will experience emptiness forever.
Turning the page, your hands tremble, and you continue on.
Your second choice is to open the box. In it you will find your afterlife. If you were a good person, then it will be everything you could ever want. If you were not a good person, then it will be filled with every fear you ever had.
The choice is yours, as was the life you led.
You turn the last page to find the box, with your name engraved on it. You run your fingers around the edge, stopping at the clasp that holds it shut. You look around the room, looking for something or someone—anything—to appear and announce that this is all a joke. A really fucked-up joke. Your eyes move to the clock.
Physically, you feel fine, but on edge.
This isn’t real. There’s no way this could be real, but…
You lean back on the couch, the book-box in your lap. Closing your eyes, you see flashes of your life’s moments and fragments of memories. Some are good, some are bad; some last a split second, others linger.
The clarity of these memories fade as you drill down deeper into your mind. There are no images here, but colors; soft hues that entwine with each other. When you focus on certain colors, your body feels lighter, while other colors make you feel heavier. They all weave in and out amongst each other, mixing and blending, then splitting away, then coming together once again.
You open your eyes as you start to quiver. The book-box shakes in your hands. You look up at the clock.
You feel like you’re moving in slow motion. Images begin to flood your mind, overload your brain. You cry out in pain.
Now your whole body is trembling. Your fingers go for the latch, but they slip off, your life crashing down around you.
You try again, this time your fingers grasp the latch. The box bursts open, releasing a brilliant flash of searing light as you take your last breath.
~ Mark Steinwachs
© Copyright 2017 Mark Steinwachs. All Rights Reserved.
The blinds were shut, and that meant it was Thursday.
It was the only day of the week when Brent would remove himself from the floor. He’d lock his door, turn off the fluorescent lights, and play seventies rock; usually Zeppelin or Sabbath. This was his office time, the time he dedicated to monotonous managerial duties that ate away at him, bit by bit, and Brent would eventually get to them before he went home. But he’d first lean back in his chair, close his eyes, and spend hours daydreaming. He never cast lustful strings of fantasies nor did he muse over troves of impossible wealth. What Brent wanted was simple, and at the very least, fair.
In his haze was Jimmy Nelson, tall and amiable, complimenting the residents of his sober living home while he passed their medication, and he’d notice Selma Ashton, who finally forced a smile, playing checkers or interacting with the residents with anything but her nasty, resentful glare. Even Marco pitched in. Instead of sneaking off to the bathroom to rail stimulants, Marco was cooking dinner and preaching the steps of sobriety like the recovering addict he claimed to be.
“Not like it used to be. I remember when it was okay to send someone home for loafing around more than a few minutes. Shit, I can’t even have a stern conversation to the lazy pricks without H.R.’s approval, you know that?”
He’d tell himself this once a week, and when his morale cowered like a tail-tucked beast, Brent would fold and vent to his subordinates.
“Sorry you’re stressed, Brent. Anything else you need?”
Crystal would try her best not to shift in the dilapidated office chair that occupied the corner of Brent’s cluttered office; close to squalor, distant from orderly. She was promoted months back under the guise of a confident go-getter at Corner Stone Sober Community. “I’ll get the job down, trust me Brent,” she claimed.
Since then, Crystal’s proven to be as useless as the rest, and this morning, he caught her stealing from the petty cash. He tried to fire her on the spot, and it appeared a small victory, but a phone call from human resources squashed his morale like a kid crunching a beetle underfoot, and he knew just what to do.
“Well if we have to investigate the situation, let me at least put her to work and demote. Okay, good. Tell her dress to scrub,” he stated to the H.R. director over the phone. She scoffed and allowed Brent to explain. “She’ll do some deep-cleaning and I’ll cover the floor, okay? I can at least do that, right? Okay, great, thank you. What’s that? No, I haven’t seen her cellphone.”
He opened the blinds and cracked the door, waiting for her while watching his oblivious staff with a seething eye. The three of them sat on the couch, lost into an electronic paradise emitting from their phones.
Someone shooting-up right in front of them, and they’d never know.
A pronounced thud grew slowly. It was Crystal’s nervous footfalls as she approached, and Brent wasn’t surprised or shocked to see that no one cared to look and see who or what it was.
“Come in, close the door,” he said. “Thanks for coming back and I am glad H.R. is going to sort this out with us.”
Crystal stood with her back between a scratched filing cabinet and the door. Her face was pale and her stomach quivered when her chest heaved. Brent could smell the trepidation oozing from her pores like rotted fruit-bits squeezed from a rank sponge.
“I can explain everything Brent—I want to make this right, I do,” she stammered.
He kept his eyes on the box of cleaning supplies at his feet. “Sorry, I just had to make sure everything we need is here. Now like I said, we will get to the bottom of it, but right now we have bigger tasks at hand. I brought on some Agency Staffers for the day to do the AA and NA runs later this afternoon, and I want you to take these,” he pushed the box across the floor to her feet, “and everyone else sitting out there to clean room twelve. We have a new admission coming tomorrow and I want to start getting ready.”
Crystal squatted and hoisted the box up, resting it on her stomach as she nudged the door open with her thick hips, and Brent leaned forward.
“Hey, all of you: get that room clean and take off for the day; my treat, you deserve it,” he yelled behind her and chuckled when they hopped from the couch, finally motivated. “And Crystal, please make sure you use the stuff in the spray bottles first. It’s a mix I made for the new admission. She has allergies and we can only use a thick-alcohol solution; no fragrances type deal.”
“Yes sir,” she huffed.
Brent waited until the creaks of the backstairs quieted to a dull hum before he opened the bottom drawer of the filing cabinet. In the darkness, two white jugs of industrial-strength bleach waited alongside a plastic bag containing metal hardware and a touch-screen phone that he slid into his shirt pocket. Brent then left his office, a hitch in his step as he followed.
“Why so happy, boss?” asked a thick European accent as Brent sauntered by.
“It’s going to be a great day, Mr. Rimski, a great day indeed.”
“If you say so, boss.”
He heard them, his staff. How he soured to refer to them as such. It was an echo of insufferable bickering and boisterous disdain from atop the stairwell.
“Man, I hate this job,” Marco bleated. “I can’t wait to get out of here ya know? And that lazy douche put something like vinegar in this… it reeks.”
“Aren’t you going to do anything more than dick around on your phone, Jimmy?” Selma scorned.
“You’re not my boss, Selma, so shut the hell up.”
Brent appreciated Jimmy’s uncontrollable inflection today, and the fact that they left the mop buckets outside the hall. He unscrewed the caps, and began to pour the bleach in.
“Will you guys just stop it already?” Crystal barked. “Let’s get this done so we can get out of here.”
Isopropyl alcohol and vinegar streamed from room twelve as he pushed the door open. The scent was concentrated, enough to make a buffalo sway, and he knew to be quick. He aimed for the bucket and flung bleach in an awful arch, showering his workers. He kicked the empty bottles inside, dropped the bucket, and pulled the door shut. He made sure to install brackets on the lock this morning. Brent had even pondered at painting them brown, but he knew deep down, it was irrelevant. The thick iron slipped through the plate and the iron bar clicked.
Can’t forget to give this back, he thought to himself as he loaded the playlist on Crystal’s phone. He set it outside the door of room twelve, and sifted beyond the toxin and lyrics to the wet coughs and gasping moans within.
“Seasons don’t fear the reaper. Nor do the wind, the sun or the rain, we can be like they are,”
Mr. Rimski hollered from below, “Is that Blue Oyster Cult?”
Brent returned, “Yeah, it is. A little rock-n-roll to help them clean.”
“Sounds good, boss.”
He stuffed the plastic bag down his pocket and grasped the railing, bracing himself down the stairs. Mr. Rimski complained of a foul odor and Brent advised that he may want to close his door or open a window, probably both.
“Actually, how about you and I get some fresh air? Maybe go out for lunch, how does that sound?”
“Really? Let me find my wallet.”
“It’s on me, least I can do.”
Brent daydreamed one last time while they walked to his car. Bodies crumbled, asphyxiating on the floor of room twelve. Lungs drowned by fluids with suffocating viscosity, cruel like sharp molasses. Eyes simmered, rendered to goop. Kidneys shut down for good, brain cells snuffed-out, and nerve fibers disintegrated like petrified bones on a scorched dessert. Skin blistered, stained in deep granite, and all life, absent. He could explain the lock easy enough; cast blame on a temp staff who thought the door needed to be closed while exploiting the extinction of commonsense in today’s workforce, and maybe, he’d even be able to shed a tear to feign sincerity.
He smiled, and cherished the fact that his staff suffered much in room twelve.
“This is real treat, boss. Usually the help doesn’t give us much mind. But not you, boss.”
“Well, I think things are going to change quite a bit around here. Hey, how does barbecue sound? I’m famished.”
~ John Potts Jr
© Copyright 2017 John Potts Jr. All Rights Reserved.
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…”
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.