I scrambled through the woods at break-neck speed. I had no idea which direction I ran, I only knew I had to escape the beast that attacked me. A clearing in the trees ahead revealed the flicker of a fire’s glow. As I stumbled into the mudded tract, I realized I’d come upon a gypsy encampment. Two men immediately rose in defense, but a hunched old woman shushed them away. She guided me to a rough-hewn bench. I sat in the brisk night air, chest heaving, lungs still gasping for breath as the crone examined my scratched torso, the gouges left upon my arm by the beast’s maw.
Heavy drapes at the rear of a nearby caravan parted. Concealed behind a voile sheath loomed a tourmaline eyed creature of exquisite beauty. She held my gaze for but a moment before her eyes crept down toward my bare chest and further still to the ruined forearm. The old gypsy woman tending my torn flesh immediately bowed her head and began to back away.
As the black veil unfurled, I saw the illusion for what it was; the alluring countenance of the creature’s face belied the grotesque malformation of its body. A withered arm snaked its way forward, grasping the rail along the stairs in its elongated hand. The exposed flesh covering it resembled nothing more than flaking mica. The body that followed was near indescribable. Multiple legs, in varying size and stage of abortion, dangled beneath the tattered rag it wore around its distorted midsection. One hip jutted upward and away from its body while its engorged abdomen bucked in sway with something yet unseen. I tried to avert my eyes, to look away from this aberration, but fear and revulsion would not allow it.
Moving in awkward jerks, it approached. Terror demanded I flee, but a wave of authority emanating from those rapturous eyes locked me in place. It lowered itself to the muddy earth at my feet. Its stare burned through me as it brought its mouth to my savaged arm. Crimson lips whispered an incantation that danced with the feather-light touch of its breath over my aching skin. It then clutched my arm in its claw-like grip, threw back its head and began to screech a banshee’s wail.
As its legs tore open, a gush of fluid sluiced from between them. The screech morphed to a guttural moan as something passed from its body and darted into the woods. The echoes of torment silenced; the only sounds left were labored breathing and what scurried in the dark underbrush.
The creature before me spasmed, struggled to right itself, to regain its knees in the slick afterbirth. Composed once more, it stared at me with fierce brutality. Once again, it grasped my wounded arm in its roughened talon and spoke a single command as it seared its mark into my flesh. I saw depths of rage, hate, regret, pain and sorrow in its release as the eyes dimmed and the body fell backward to lie unmoving.
The old gypsy woman approached. She looked upon the corpse from the caravan, the wound and brand on my arm. Compassion and terror colored her countenance as she dipped her fingers into the mingle of blood and amniotic fluid. While making a sign of sanctity to ward herself from evil, she spoke these words.
“The pup is born, the mantle passed. Protect it, and you may yet find your own salvation.”
~ Nina D’Arcangela
© Copyright 2017 Nina D’Arcangela. All Rights Reserved.
My body and soul—the feast on which it would satisfy its cold, unbiased nature. It would make me a brittle husk in no less than six months. I contemplated the Kevorkian way, but could never garnish the result with enough good reason to commit suicide. Besides, I didn’t want to die.
I received the news only three weeks ago. Considering the good doctor’s estimate, it was a significant portion of my remaining life. But not enough time to come to terms. Fantasies of futures never to come, crushed repeatedly by the forceful hammer of reality. The dreamer could dream, but ultimately his awakening was inevitable.
I wondered how I’d face the reaper alone. Would I possess the courage? Without Eileen’s warm touch, without her kind words, I was devoid of human nourishment. My inner-self was bad company.
Our marriage had once been a vibrant green leaf on a tree, swaying gently in the breeze, taking in the sun’s light. I played the parts of autumn and winter; the leaf fell, all color disappeared, and its surface became pockmarked with decay.
I was left with a shameful legacy—a divorcee with five hundred bucks in the bank, no offspring, no siblings, and my parents’ ashes on a shelf in my closet. I’d be mourned only for the loss of tips I gave Old Johnny at my preferred watering hole.
I had to get out of my apartment. Out of my head. Just out.
The quiet streets tamed the circling vultures of self-awareness. The city streets can be peaceful if you know when to go for a walk. Summer nights—always the best.
The voice came from an alley.
Shit. Why did I stop? I should have fucking kept going.
“Listen here,” the raspy voice spoke with a lisp. “I can help you out.”
“Sorry man, not looking to cop anything.” I figured he was trying to sell me drugs.
“I’m not selling anything, you fool. I’m making an offer. For trade, I can cure your cancer.”
I stepped back, took my hands out of my pockets. “What?”
“You don’t have to die.”
I squinted, tried to see the man, but darkness hid him well.
My heart told me to run, to hightail it out of there—make myself a ghost. But curiosity, no matter how many animals it killed, kept me standing at the mouth of that dark recess between the two buildings.
“Who are you?” I asked.
“I like to make deals, and I have a lot to offer.”
“You didn’t answer my question.”
“Do you want your cancer cured or not?”
The voice wrenched my guts with instinctual warning. But the hook had been set. What did I have to lose? I was going to die anyway.
“Who the fuck wouldn’t? But there is no cure for cancer.”
“That’s what they want you to think.”
“What are you, a conspiracy nut?”
Mock laughter emanated from the inky tunnel. It had the tone of a man, but what disturbed me was that it was trying to sound human. “No. I really can stop your cancer. I know how.”
“I’m not just going to tell you. How do I know you’ll keep your part of the bargain?”
The bargain. I didn’t even think to ask what this mysterious voice wanted in return for the miracle it offered.
“What is it you want? I’m not rich or anything…”
“I don’t want money.”
My legs wanted to run. But the possibility of a cure enticed me to stay. “What is it you want?”
A heavy breath wafted from the shadows—musty, it reminded me of the damp cellar I’d claimed as my playroom in childhood. “I just need a favor.”
“How do I know you’re not some nutcase?”
“How did I know you had cancer, Marcus? And how do I know your name?”
“Well, Christ, that’s a good one…”
“So what’s your answer? You want the cure or not?”
Now he sounded like a drug dealer.
“Fuck it. Got nothing to lose. You gonna come outta that alley or what? Because I’m not going in there.”
“Don’t worry about that, Marcus. All you have to do is say the word and the contract is, how you say, signed.”
I questioned the choice. I never believed in God, but it sounded like striking a deal with the Devil. The thought of Hell seemed much worse than dying of cancer. I was never a church-goer but I’d read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
Another laugh echoed in the alley. No attempt to sound human was made; it came out coarse, like sandpaper against concrete.
“Your peers have misled you,” the voice said. “There is no Heaven. No Hell. Things are as they are. There is nothing more. Only things you don’t know.”
“Never mind, boy. Just perform the task I require, and you shall have your cure.”
“What do I have to do?”
“There’s a guy. I want you to deliver this package to him.”
A box wrapped in brown paper skidded from the shadows and stopped at my feet. A name and address were crudely scrawled on the top in black marker.
“You want me to deliver a package? That’s it? This is bullshit.”
“I promise you it’s not. Oh, there’s one more thing. There’s another guy. He hangs out in front of the building you’ll be delivering that to. Bump into him on your way in.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean what I said. Just bump into him. Like it was an accident.”
“I don’t get it. What for?”
“I don’t like him.”
Walking nine blocks to reach my destination didn’t feel like a chore, more a respite from the horrors of my diagnosis. A brief lull from the routine of life and the slope of oncoming oblivion, just beyond which lies a bottomless pit. With the hope of a cure, I had to avoid falling in.
I came to the address, and there he was, ‘the guy.’ He stood outside the door, leaning against the railing of the staircase, taking long drags from his cigarette. I watched him from the corner of my eye as I neared. He didn’t pay me any heed. At the last step, I pretended to trip—my shoulder brushed against his arm.
“Sorry, man. Missed that last step there.”
He didn’t say a word. Only took another puff and blew smoke in my face.
As I opened the door and entered the filthy apartment building something tugged at my memory. Synapses fired, but shot blanks. Something irked me about bumping into the guy on the stairs. Something familiar.
I went to the third floor, found the apartment, and knocked.
A muffled voice answered. “Who is it?”
Footsteps came to the door and stopped. Self-conscious discomfort traveled along the back of my neck knowing he could see me through the peephole. The lock clicked and the door opened.
The look on his face told me he wasn’t expecting a delivery.
“What is it?” he asked.
“How the hell should I know? I just deliver them.”
He took the box, looked it over, and slammed the door.
Mission complete. What came next, I was unsure. My throat tightened as I neared the exit, wondering if the smoking man was still outside. Be pretty fucking awkward running into him again. But he wasn’t there.
Relieved, I headed back to the alley where the stranger offered a cure. It was only during my walk back that I questioned the situation. What the hell was I doing? Was some fucking guy in an alley going to cure my cancer? When I thought about it, I couldn’t understand why I went with it in the first place. What compelled me? Was it hope? Desperation? Either way, I was already into it, might as well see it through.
When I got to the alley a hissing came from the darkness. “I see you’ve completed your task.”
“Yeah. Bumped into that guy and everything. Who was he, anyway?”
“You’ll find out soon enough.”
The slithering monstrosity reached out and wrapped its snake-like tentacles around my body. It drew me toward its gaping, ebon maw filled with rows of fleshy suction cups. The orifice closed behind me as foul smelling enzymes coated my body. As my flesh dissolved, my consciousness drifted from my mind. The creature assimilated my being; I became part of it, and it part of me. All of us. Together. As one.
And soon, I’d get to know the guy I bumped into very well. He would also develop terminal cancer. No doubt he’d take the deal, just as I had, same as the man who bumped into me…
~ Lee A. Forman
© Copyright 2017 Lee A. Forman. All Rights Reserved
The demon stood in the snow.
Fergus saw it standing in the knee-deep powder through the small window of his front door.
“Don’t try to do too much out there,” his wife Nancy called from the kitchen. “Just take your time.”
“I won’t, don’t worry,” he answered distractedly.
“Amber might join you out there in a little bit if that’s okay.”
Fergus could hear his daughter playing upstairs and nodded.
With his winter jacket, boots and gloves already on, Fergus pulled his toque down over his ears and with a deep breath opened the front door.
It wasn’t very cold although the wind packed a sharp bite as Fergus grabbed the shovel leaning against the house. Ignoring the demon, he began tossing snow from the driveway onto his lawn.
Not much time had elapsed when a burning sensation erupted in his chest. Damn acid reflux.
The demon spoke. “It hurts, doesn’t it?”
“What hurts?” Fergus asked, keeping his back to it as he dug into the snow.
Fergus paused, acknowledging the comment. “It’s acid reflux,” he muttered. “That’s all it is. Acid reflux…”
After a few more minutes of shoveling, the pain grew worse. Grimacing, Fergus stopped and rubbed at his chest. “Is this your doing?”
The demon seemed closer yet remained motionless. Only its mouth moved. “Maybe. You don’t see surprised to see me.”
Shaking his head, Fergus said, “No. Somehow I knew you’d be back.”
“I saw you that day,” Fergus said.
“The day my father died.”
The demon’s mouth twitched ever-so-slightly, staring hard at Fergus with its emotionless, black eyes. “What did you see?”
“I was only five but remember watching from the living room window,” Fergus began. “It was similar to today. A storm had just dumped over a foot of snow on us and Dad went out to clear the driveway.”
Fergus dug the shovel into the snow and heaved the pile aside.
“You didn’t look real, almost like a reflection off the snow.” Fergus glanced at the demon who appeared even closer. “I remember him looking at you, like he was listening and then nodding. You reached out, touched his chest for a moment and he collapsed. The doctors said his heart gave out.”
The demon nodded. “They always do.”
Fergus rubbed his own chest again, “I had nightmares about you.”
“Worried that I would come for you?”
Fergus shook his head. “No, what scared me was wondering what you said to him.” He took a step toward the demon. “What did you say?” He glared into the demon’s eyes, noticing that they rippled in the wind.
“I explained your family’s unfortunate legacy. Would you like to hear it?” Not waiting for an answer, the demon continued. “Basically, thanks to a distant and sadistic ancestor of yours who made a deal with my master, your family has to forfeit a male soul to us every generation. We leave it up to you to determine whose soul we take.” In the blink of an eye the demon was face to face with Fergus. “Your father gave us his.”
The front door opened and Amber bounded from the house into the snow, drawing her father’s attention. “Hi Daddy,” she called out playfully.
“Hey there, sweetie,” Fergus replied. Turning his attention back to the demon, he asked, “So why go through all of this? Why not come and take the one you want?”
“As I said, you or a male from your family has to make the decision. That was the deal. Sadly, since you have no brothers, it will end up being you.”
“What if I say no?”
“If I’m the only male and I say no, then are you shit out of luck?”
The demon’s brow creased and its eyes narrowed. “Don’t.”
“Or else what?”
The demon blinked and time stopped, frozen in place. Snowflakes hung motionless in midair. All went deathly still. Fergus found he could turn his head but quickly grew concerned when he realized the demon was no longer in front of him. It was kneeling in front of Amber. Her eyes were wide, full of fear; her mouth open forming an ‘O’ shape. She’d never looked so fragile or terrified.
The demon had the tips of its fingers inside of her chest.
“Get the hell away from my daughter!” Fergus screamed trying to run but his feet would not move.
“This is your only warning,” the demon hissed. “You may hold the initial choice of whose soul we get but when complications arise, the rules change and the choice becomes ours. We can take any soul we want at that point. It would still be better if you made the decision to honor the original deal, but either way, a soul will be coming back with me.”
It twisted its hand slightly deeper into Amber’s chest.
Tears streamed down Fergus’s face. “Get the fuck away from her!”
“Then make the choice.”
Fergus screamed, “Take mine, damn you!”
In a flash the demon was back in front of him. “You made the right call,” the demon grinned.
Time resumed as Amber shook her head, slightly dazed. She looked at her dad and smiled as the demon plunged its hand into Fergus’s chest. The cold, demonic fingers wrapped around his heart, slowly constricting it.
With his legs growing weak, Fergus sat back in the snow. A tingling spread through his body but after a few seconds it began to subside. Fergus then felt nothing as the demon pulled its hand out.
“Are you okay, Daddy?” Amber asked.
The demon disappeared and Fergus’s world went dark as he replied, “I’m fine… sweetie…”
~ Jon Olson
© Copyright 2017 Jon Olson. All Rights Reserved.
There was a girl. She sat at a white desk in a white room with her hands folded neatly in her lap.
Peter stood before her with his pockets turned out.
“I don’t have anything to give you,” he said. He spoke very quietly. Shame does that.
She didn’t move, but he thought she shook her head.
“I don’t need anything like that,” she told him. “I do not desire your buttons or baubles, although I am sure that they are quite lovely.”
He thought she smiled, but she did not actually do that, either.
“I don’t understand,” he confessed. He shifted from foot to foot. She really did smile then, but only in her eyes. He bit his lip and continued. “I thought…that you wanted something from me. In exchange for your help.”
“Oh, but I do.” Her skin was white, and her hair even whiter, but only just. When she smiled—if she smiled—her lips were disconcertingly red. The rest of the time they were only the palest of pink. He had the impression that something parasitic sucked the breath from those lips while she slept, but what could he do about it?
“Please tell me what you desire.”
“I want to be happy.”
“Then I will help you.”
She pulled a ceramic jar out of nowhere. It was the color of sky and looked cool to the touch. He flexed his fingers.
“This is the Container of Sorrows, Peter. Do you understand?”
“Yes.” He didn’t.
Her lips barely twitched but it was as if the snow melted and he tasted spring.
“This is how you will be happy. Tell me one of your sorrows. I will keep it here for you, and the burden from that particular sorrow will be no more.”
He felt stupid and stared at his shoes. They had holes in the toes.
“Do you…not wish happiness?”
Her voice was strangely brittle, as if she were trying not to cry. He was hurting her somehow, he decided, but that didn’t make any sense. He took a deep breath.
“I miss my mother,” he said, and the words fell from his mouth like vapor. The girl opened the jar, and the mist zipped inside. She closed the lid with a satisfying click.
“There,” she said, and her smile was real this time, genuine. “Don’t you feel better?”
He thought about his mother. Her warm brown hair, the apron that she used when she baked cupcakes. He thought about her more aggressively. The police telling his father that they had discovered a broken body. The funeral in a town without rain.
“I don’t feel sad,” he said in wonder, and the girl looked pleased. She kissed him, and he woke up.
Peter’s lips burned where she had touched him, and he kept his fingers pressed there for most of the day. When the boys razzed him about his poorly trimmed hair, he didn’t mind so much. When they taunted him about his mother being a whore who got what was coming to her, he was surprised to find that he didn’t care at all. He ate dinner silently and changed into his worn pajamas without being asked. He brushed his teeth and climbed into bed with an eagerness that would have been pitifully endearing if anyone had seen it.
Sleep came instantly, and there she was. She was wearing white flowers in her hair.
“Did you have those flowers yesterday?” he asked her.
Her cheeks flushed delicately. “No.”
Peter didn’t know what to say. “I had a better day at school than usual. Thank you.”
The girl again produced the smooth blue container out of thin air. “Tell me another sorrow, Peter. Tomorrow will be even better.”
“I’m tired of being called poor.”
The mist of words spiraled into the Container of Sorrows. He nodded his head once, and she nodded back in a very serious manner.
And thus it went. His sorrows disappeared. “I hate seeing dead birds. I wish that I had a friend. My father doesn’t notice me.”
The jar devoured his sorrows with an agreeable hunger. The pale girl’s lips turned up all of the time and her eyes began to sparkle. Peter grew more confident at school. He stood up straight. He looked people in the eye. He made friends.
He was almost happy.
On the last night that he went to her, something in the air had shifted. The atmosphere was holding its breath, and it was undeniable.
“Hey,” Peter said, leaning casually on the white desk. “There’s only one sorrow that I have left.”
“Only one?” asked the girl with something that sounded exquisitely close to hope. Her eyes shone. Her white hair and pink lips were glossed with fragile expectation. She produced the Container of Sorrows and carefully removed its lid. Peter’s sorrows ghosted around inside, smelling of lavender and brokenness.
“Natalia Bench never looks at me at school.”
The vaporous sorrow swirled from his lips and settled into the jar. The girl’s white fingers didn’t move, so Peter put the lid back on for her.
He smiled. “Now I’ll be brave enough to talk to her tomorrow. Thank you very much, Girl of Sorrows. I am happy.”
The girl held the jar very close, and she looked up at Peter. Her lips were pale, strawberries buried under layers of ice. He was reminded of that feeling that he had once, long ago, where he thought that something supped from her lips at night. How frightened she must be. How alone.
“Goodbye,” he said, and kissed her cheek. Had her touch once burned? She was ice under his skin. She was a corpse. Peter turned and walked away without looking back.
There was a girl. She sat at a white desk in a white room where she wept, clutching a container full of somebody else’s sorrows.
~ Mercedes M. Yardley
© Copyright 2017 Mercedes M. Yardley. All Rights Reserved.
Park benches are the domain of lovers. They sit cuddled together, giggling as they etch their names in the wood, their pride palpable as if no one else has ever vandalised public property before. I’ve lost count of the number of times a park bench has been the site for my aim. It is apt that I found him there, a new kind of saviour for these loveless days.
I had one arrow left.
I clutched it with both hands and pointed it at my own chest. The shaft was dull and rusted but the tip was razor sharp, imbued with magic, ready to transform the flesh it pierces.
It is not that I longed for love, not that I wanted to be blinded to the reality around me by romance. Rather, I hoped the arrow would kill me and put an end to this game I have been sentenced to play since time immemorial.
I realised I had done this world a great disservice, leading them astray into the folds of daydreams. If they had gained any wisdom it was not because of my arrows but through the pain of surviving them. My arrows had not been able to hold at bay the rising deluge of suffering in this world.
By a large fountain in the remains of a city park, I readied myself for the plunge of the arrow’s tip. The early morning was clear and quiet. A cool stinging mist from the splashing water was in the air, like blessings from heaven. But the blessings were bitter and twisted, the water green and acidic.
I glanced around, hoping I would soon be free of this wretched place. That’s when I spotted the man, through dead tree trunks, asleep on a park bench, swathed in grimy rags, his bare feet blue and swollen with cold.
An idea occurred to me, a better idea. The arrow lowered, my grasp softened. I would not use it on myself.
Once more I resolved do what was expected of me, one final arrow fired to spark and flame hope.
It has been said that love conquers all and indeed over millennia there has been nothing I could not infiltrate, no darkness or terror that could stop my arrow. When Vesuvius erupted I was there, piercing the hearts of those destined to fall in love even as they tried to outrun rivers of lava, huddling together in dark corners, their eyes meeting in sudden realisation, my arrow melting their hearts as liquid fire melted their flesh. Amidst the blistered pus of the sick and the rotting corpses abandoned by the Plague, my arrows did not hesitate on their course, bringing lovers together despite poverty and disease. During world wars and terrorist bombings, in small overflowing boats of refugees that rocked and sank on high seas, through chemical spills that wiped out species of birds and fish, I was there, eternal and invincible in the face of life’s horrors. Giving them hope, giving them joy, always driving them forward, with the focus and strength of Love’s arrow.
I have kept the final arrow for months, uncertain of how or when to use it. They stopped appearing in my quiver a long while ago. They replenished themselves in the past; my holder was always full with golden arrows, clean and freshly forged. My prayers and pleas to the gods for guidance went unanswered, smothered and silenced by the grey layer of pollution and debris that now surrounds this world. I have not had any contact with the other immortals for years, I don’t know if they have perished or escaped.
Left to my own devices I may have become a little too careless in the last few years. I was shooting arrows like an addict, without any dignity at all.
Love has always been reckless and impulsive, the oddest of couples have been drawn together by my work. Divorced from divine inspiration I lost focus and direction. Perhaps that is why the arrows dried up. But I am simply a messenger, delivering Love where it wishes to go. Love, it seemed, was almost completely extinct in this world, like so many other living things.
So I was down to one. One single arrow. One last shot. The weight of my task seemed unbearable. I wondered who would be worthy of this final arrow. I had to find a heart noble and righteous enough to receive it, to do it justice. It would be a final strike of life in a dying world, a catalyst for revival and change.
I roamed the rubble of cities around the globe searching for such a heart. I searched everywhere from shifting plains of ice to encroaching deserts to tumbledown ghetto towns. Nothing but terrified hearts bolted shut against any more intrusion and burden; not one single heart emitted a tiny spark, necessary to deserve the arrow.
When I saw the man on the bench I realised a different kind of Love was needed in this world. The Earth is blistered, once great cities are piles of smoking black rocks, the oceans are oily sludge. The Love that thrived before has no place here anymore. This final arrow would need a new magic. So I dipped the arrow in lakes of toxic waste, I sharpened it on bones in mass open graves, I rolled it in the shit and vomit of flooding gutters, I laced it with the culture of super viruses bred in clandestine labs, I bathed it in pools of blood from human abattoirs.
I returned to the park after many days and nights preparing my arrow and found the man was still there, sitting in his disease, a large empty paper cup in his hand.
I cradled the cursed arrow; it throbbed with a deadly romance.
I could hear his weak beating heart from across the park, slow and sluggish, weary and broken. He was nothing special, no great man. He was a human shell, already emptied out, a perfect receptacle for a new strain of love.
He raised his blackened eyes to me, glaring, unflinching, as I approached him. His face was coated with grey dust, his mouth a dry purple line.
I aimed the arrow at him, he gave no response. I didn’t hesitate, as is my way, I didn’t think twice. I drove it through his frail chest, deep into the cavity, and the tip touched the beating organ. Still his expression didn’t change, he felt nothing.
I drove it deeper, sliding it through until the tip popped out the other side, his heart pierced and committed. I saw it flash in his eyes, the recognition and desire. Was it love at first sight? No. It was something else. The beast within awakened and it wanted to survive.
~ Veronica Magenta Nero
© Copyright 2017 Veronica Magenta Nero. All Rights Reserved.
In shards the morning broke, shattering high, high above the gunshot reports, the torches, the thick plumes of smoke.
She watched them fall like black drops of rain in the distance. First came a crack, echoing like faraway thunder, then their plummet. Crack, then plummet.
The plate slipped from her soapy fingers into the bubbly grave of the sink. Beyond the grimy pane, beyond the flaked paint of the porch, swaddled by butterfly weeds and Echinaceas, her daughter sat, ruddy cheeks tilted toward the sky. “Isabella,” she gasped, tossing the wet rag aside. “Isabella!”
Her little girl could not hear her. Crack, then plummet.
She turned, ran, bare heels squeaking like frightened mice atop the wood. Through the dining room, down the hall; sunlight traipsed from the front door, beckoning just paces away. Each gunshot shook her skull. She burst onto the porch, mid-July scathing inside her lungs.
Silos jutted, arthritic fingers against the horizon, from the flat expanse of land. She tracked the figures, so frantic in the sky, weaving and dipping like grand bats. Her mind raced as she crouched low in the meadow, summoning her daughter. “Isa, come.”
Her little girl paid no mind. Chubby fingers marked the descent of each black drop, tracing the sky. Crack! Her tender folds involuntarily shuddered.
A shrilling—high-pitched like that of a hawk, but full of desperation; human at some point in its life. Its violent death roll cut the air, spiraling, spiraling away from its pack. No further than fifty yards from the porch, it slammed the ground, mowing a swath through the meadow.
Rallying to it, the keen barking of a dog.
She hurried to her daughter. The toddler tilted her head, all smiles, all giggles. Too young still to comprehend. “You will stay here for Momma.” She spoke slow, measured. “Do you understand?” Without waiting for an answer, she crept away.
It bleated weakly, lost amidst the grass, the strangled mewls answered by the nearing bark in turn. She propelled forward, nearly upon all fours, the distressed utterances serving as her beacon call. Bees roused, lifting from the stalks and buds, seeking further riches from summer. Memories of childhood invaded her nose; so simple then, the pollen rich fragrance of sky, the honey glaze of sun. Her own parents had given her up much too early. Wisps of shadows they had become—their touch, their guiding voice mere ghosts. She wished no such thing for her Isabella, but knew now it was too late.
At last, she reached it. Gasping atop the matted butterfly weed, its blood soaked the ground. Upon its back it writhed, bald skull lifting up against the dome of summer, back down, laden with an agony it once doubted could exist.
A bloody bubble popped from the corner of its mouth. It sensed her presence. Upside down, slit eyes locked onto her own. She saw the wound, an angry hole straight through its sagging, bare breast. The perennials trembled; the retriever burst through the swath then, as was its inherent duty, clamped its jaws around the hag’s neck.
The retriever dug its hindquarters into soft earth, hauling its prey back to its master. She lunged, seized the snout, pried open its jaws, allowing it no fight. A savage twist; its muscles went limp. She pushed the heap of fur aside. “I cannot help you further, not now, not without jeopardizing us all. Lay still, and I will return for you.” She took its gnarled fingers within her own. “Forgive me, sister.”
The hag nodded.
She dashed back toward her Isa, aware that the exerted breath of man would soon be chasing behind. Her little girl waited diligently, as instructed. In seamless fashion, she scooped the child into her arms, ran full out without breaking stride. Gunshots, screams; mid-July succumbed all around her. Ahead, the porch; thirty yards, twenty. A husky command echoed; a taunt. Crack! The air whistled above her shoulder. The top step of the porch exploded, slivers of wood and paint.
The front door waited, still ajar. She took the steps, then up onto the porch, splinters pricking her toes. Across her threshold, as the door jamb disintegrated loudly beside her. Instinctively, she pulled Isabella against her chest. “My precious little bean, you must know that we are condemned by man.” She ran through the house, the rooms, the hall, straight toward the back door. “They see us as abominations.”
She threw the door open to a green expanse. There, twisting skyward in the middle of the glade, a solitary tree. “But all things of nature have their place of beauty, my love.” She traveled the distance, rounding the far side of the tree. From within her home carried the ransacking fury of the hunter.
The trunk rose, thick and noble, bark twining in cords around a darkened hollow. Within this, she placed her child, but not before kissing each cheek. “The Ancients will raise you now,” lips lingered upon tender flesh, “then you will emerge stronger than even me, my Isa.” Away the tree swallowed her, and the child was gone.
From the trunk protruded a long, slender knob, identical to a spear, driven at its end to a sharpened point. She retrieved the offering from the tree. As the hunter closed the expanse, she sidestepped into view, driving the pike through his throat, clearing the body of head. The torso ran several paces, then dropped.
Propping the spear against the tree, she slipped free from her clothes. The safety of her coven compromised, her sisters needed her now. Someday soon, her daughter as well. Again she took the spear, straddled it, relishing the power upon her sex. Then she commanded the sky; the still gaping head lay impotently upon the ground.
Mid-July bled until no man shared the whispers of the High Priestess. Or her slaughter.
~ Joseph A. Pinto
© Copyright 2017 Joseph A. Pinto. All Rights Reserved.
Manitou Forest, Manitoba, Canada
A damn good day of hunting, Angus Kujak mused as his bloodied hands steered the truck between snow-covered pines. The antlers of his most recent kill rattled against the hood. Kujak rubbed his mutton-chop sideburns, feeling proud. Through the rearview mirror he glimpsed the pile of carcasses strapped to the flatbed. Atop two elk bulls lay his prize trophy—a grizzly bear. Took five bullets, but he’d finally brought her down with a dead zinger through the eye. Definitely a story for the boys at the chophouse.
“Hunting’s been better than usual, eh Jeb?” Snoring came from the passenger seat. Kujak reached over and knocked his cousin’s forehead. “I’m not paying you to sleep.”
Jeb, dressed in blood-stained camouflage and a winter hat with earflaps, sat up rubbing his forehead. “Sorry. Shelby kept me up half the night.”
“What’s she moaning about?”
“Usual. I spend too much time at the pub, not enough with her and the kids.” Jeb unscrewed his thermos cap. The smell of coffee and whiskey filled the truck.
“Man’s gotta have time with his friends. Pass that over.” Kujak took a swig from the thermos. The coffee was cold, but the whiskey went down with a fiery burn.
Up ahead, a white squall was devouring the pines. Snow pelted the windshield, threatening to bury the truck with the rest of the forest. He turned the wipers on full speed.
Jeb said, “Angus, I need to tell you something…you aren’t gonna like it.”
“What is it?”
“Shelby wants me to quit working for you and take a job building that pipeline.”
Kujak got a vile taste in his mouth. Jeb’s wife was always henpecking him. Soon after they’d gotten married, she’d cut off Jeb’s balls and stuck them in a drawer. She didn’t care for hunting—Killing animals is barbaric!—or her husband working for Kujak. They’d been hunting together since they were kids, long before Shelby entered the picture, and no woman should come between them. “You wouldn’t abandon your cousin, would ya?”
Jeb looked out his window. “I dunno. Thornhill Petroleum promises good pay plus benefits.”
“I pay you damned good, plus bonuses when you actually kill something.”
“Yeah, but pipeline work’s legal. Mr. Thornhill paid a visit to the pub last night. Said he had plenty of work for anyone interested.”
Kujak slammed his fist down on the steering wheel. “That blasted son’bitch! I’ve lost most of my hunters since that weasel rolled into town. I’d like to string him up by his ankles.”
“You gotta admit, his pipeline has helped business. Ever since they started blasting through Manitou Forest, he’s been driving game right toward our hunting ground.”
“That’s why I need you more than ever.” The road straightened. Kujak shifted into a higher gear. The truck’s engine howled in protest as it drove at forty miles an hour. “Jeb, I been thinking about making you a partner. You’d be surprised how much you can make. I’m selling more than just the meat and hides. The antlers, bones, hooves, and innards, I got buyers for all of it. We can earn…”
Something rammed the side of the truck. The steering wheel spun loose from Kujak’s grip. The truck careened 180 degrees, slammed sideways into a wall of snow. Elk antlers scraped across the hood and punctured the windshield. Kujak’s face hit the steering wheel. Dazed, he stared down at his blurry boots. Blood dribbled from his nose over his lips. “Jesus!” Kujak gripped the wheel until the forest stopped spinning. “You okay, Jeb?”
His cousin rubbed his forehead. “Hit my damn head, but I’m okay. What happened?”
“Felt like a moose broadsided us. See a dead one near the road?”
“Nothing. Not even blood.”
An animal howled from the snowy mist.
“Fuckin’ hell was that?” Jeb crouched in his seat.
Kujak rubbed his eyes. “I’m still seeing double. Can you spot it?”
“Something’s moving fast between the trees. Shit, it’s coming at us from behind!” Jeb yelped.
The flatbed rocked, shaking the cab. Kujak’s neck hairs rose to hackles as something snorted inches from the back window. Claws scraped metal. A blurry shape leapt off the truck.
Kujak’s vision cleared just as the beast disappeared into the falling snow.
Jeb trembled. “W-What the hell was that?”
“Grizzly.” The hunter’s pulse in Kujak quickened. “Let’s bag ‘em!” He threw open the door, grabbed his rifle, and hurried around the back of the truck. “Shit!”
The entire load of carcasses—the two elks and bear—were missing. “How the hell?”
Kujak followed a trail of blood and fur into a thicket of pines. Monstrous footprints made deep impressions in the snow. “Must be the granddaddy of grizzlies. Jeb, get out here.”
His cousin remained inside the cab, his back to the door that was pinned against the snow bank. “I don’t wanna chase a bear that size.”
“It’s running off with our game. Get your ass out here!” Kujak loaded a fresh cartridge in the rifle’s chamber.
Jeb climbed out with his gun. “Oh lordy, your face.”
Kujak wiped a sleeve across his bloody nose, then marched into the woods. He whispered, “I’ll follow the blood trail. Keep to my left.”
“What if he circles us?”
“Shoot the bastard. Now shush.” Kujak crept through the red snow. The drift beyond the road had piled two-feet deep. Sweet Jesus, he’d never seen paw prints that size. His boots stepped from one giant impression to the next. In some places he had to leap, due to the long stride. The claw marks looked abnormally long. The more Kujak studied the pattern, the odder he felt. What kind of bear runs on two legs?
Ahead, the evergreens huddled close together. Snow dropped like a million down feathers. As he weaved between clumps of spruce, Kujak tried to imagine how a bear could run off with the carcasses of three large animals. Scattered across the bloody trail lay broken antlers, a severed elk leg. Tufts of fur clung to branches high above Kujak’s head. His adrenaline pumped with the thrill of the hunt. He had to bag this granddaddy.
Wind howled, long and hollow, like a baying wolf.
Kujak glanced at Jeb, who moved parallel between the trees. Every few feet his cousin disappeared behind pines, then reappeared in a new place.
Jeb froze and pointed frantically.
The brown flanks of a bear moved between the trees twenty yards away. There you are. Kujak locked his scope on the beast’s back and fired. A hole opened in the dark brown fur. The beast roared.
Kujak squeezed off another shot. “Take that you bastard!”
Instead of dropping, the bear in his scope shot toward him, snapping branches. Kujak got off two more shots before a jarring impact knocked him to the ground. His vision went blurry again. More shots fired. To his left. Or was it his right?
His cousin screamed and fired wildly, bullets whizzing through the forest.
“Jeb!” Kujak sat up. The forest spun. He tried to stand, but something heavy and furry pinned his leg. “Shit!” Blind, he stabbed the animal with his knife, but it lay there without a struggle, already dead. Kujak felt along the hairy behemoth that lay on his foot. His hand found a bear’s head; his fingers plunged into a bloody eye socket. It was the bear he’d shot earlier. The granddaddy beast had hurled her twenty yards through the air.
What kind of animal can throw a grizzly?
The gunshots stopped. So did Jeb’s screams.
Kujak scanned the forest, stopping on what looked like a bloody human thigh.
Jeb’s body lay on the ground, an elk carcass covering his head and upper torso. His legs were hidden behind a copse of blue spruce.
Kujak’s scrotum tightened when he heard crunching.
The beast snorted, then yanked Jeb’s body into the thicket. As if taunting him, a severed arm in a camouflage sleeve smacked the tree next to Kujak.
He felt in the snow for his rifle. Found a shattered scope and broken nape. Tossing the useless weapon, Kujak tried to lift the bear’s carcass. He screamed in frustration and immediately regretted it.
The bone crunching stopped. Heavy footfalls stomped through the woods.
An idea came. He soaked his hands in bear’s blood and rubbed his ankle inside his boot. He crawled backward, pulling his pinned foot. After a few yanks, the greased ankle slipped free. He bolted for the truck, half running, half stumbling, his bare foot sinking in the snow.
Tree limbs snapped behind him.
Kujak didn’t look back. Kept his eyes on the truck. Thirty more feet.
A roar like nothing he’d ever heard echoed across the valley. A whirlwind of snow blasted around him.
Twenty more feet to the truck. Kujak charged up the hill.
An elk antler whirled past his shoulder, skidded across the road.
Kujak jerked open the driver’s door and jumped behind the wheel. He fumbled for the keys, his fingers greasy with bear’s blood. “Come on, come on,” he pleaded.
Another antler struck his door.
He turned the key, ignited the engine, and jammed the accelerator. The truck slid sideways as the passenger side wheels spun. He shifted into reverse.
Beyond the frosty windshield a giant shape loomed in front of the truck.
The wipers pushed away the snow, revealing a skeletal creature with pale skin. It had long white hair and a horrid face with black holes for eyes. Its lips had been chewed to shreds. A serrated mouth grinned as it pointed at Kujak and shrieked. The sound pierced his eardrums with ice-pick stabbings of pain. His skin crystallized with frost as a chill coursed through him. Kujak felt his belly caving inward. The muscles tightened around his bones.
The beast picked up what was left of Jeb and ran off into the woods.
Kujak sat behind the wheel, shaking. His Cree friends had warned him not to hunt in Manitou Forest. That’s the Wendigo’s hunting ground. He’d always laughed off talk of Indian superstitions.
His heart turned to ice in his chest as he shifted into drive and pushed the pedal to the floor. The old Chevy flatbed fishtailed then finally straightened. It took a mile before he found the nerve to look at his reflection in the rearview mirror. His face was gaunt, his plump cheeks sunk inward. The irises of his eyes had turned pure white. His teeth grew sharp as icicles. He thought of Shelby, the boys at the chophouse, and that bastard Thornhill. Kujak’s bloody hands gripped the wheel. With a voracious hunger for meat gnawing at his belly, he drove back toward town.
~ Brian Moreland
© Copyright 2017 Brian Moreland. All Rights Reserved
“So, you’re saying there’s no such thing as writer’s block?”
I tamped out my pipe, refilled it with Dunhill Nightcap, touched the lit match to the aromatic leaf and took a few deep puffs. We were only fifteen minutes into the interview and my mind was already drifting to other things. Then my eyes wandered to the bottle of Macallan 25 the young man had brought, a gift from his publisher, and resigned myself to my fate. There were far worse ways to spend a cold, dreary afternoon.
“Would you like a glass?” I said.
He smiled and shook his head. “Thank you, but no. I’m more of a beer man myself.”
I poured my second shot of the amber ambrosia, savoring the aroma a moment before tilting the glass back oh-so-gently.
“I love a cold beer as well, but it’s a poor substitute for fine scotch.”
A gust of wind shook the windowpane, rain pelting it like ball bearings.
I couldn’t tell if the phone on the table between us was still recording, as the face had gone dark. The interviewer, I had forgotten his name, took no notes; his complete reliance on technology baffled me. Then again, most of the workings of today’s world left me scratching my head.
Waving a cloud of smoke away, I said, “I’m sorry, I’ve completely forgotten your question.”
He shifted forward in his seat, tapping on the stack of books, my books, that he’d brought to the interview.
“We were talking about the staggering volume of work you’ve produced in your thirty-five year career. I counted forty-three novels, seventeen novellas, two-hundred and eleven short stories and at least a hundred articles. I’m not alone in being wowed by your output. I asked if you ever had a moment when a story just wouldn’t come to you and you said there is no such thing as writer’s block. I find that intriguing because I’ve yet to find a writer who hasn’t experienced it at least once in their career.”
“You’re not talking to the right authors,” I said, grinning.
“I’ve interviewed a considerable number.”
I noticed the creeping strands of gray hair at his temples, the very beginnings of crow’s feet when he smiled. Perhaps he wasn’t as young as I’d thought.
I drew on my pipe and said, “A real writer is never blocked. He or she may be lazy, tired, scared, or in the grip of some addiction or flight of fancy, but they’re not writing because they’re unfocused, distracted, not blocked.”
The interviewer crossed his left leg over his right and rested his forearm on his knee. I wondered if it was too late to ask him his name.
“In all these years, you’ve never been too distracted to write?”
“Not once. On the day I had surgery to remove my appendix, I wrote a story on the back of my chart an hour after the anesthesia had worn off.”
“That’s incredible dedication.”
“I prefer to call it necessity.”
“To feed your compulsion?”
“Yes and no.”
“Can you remember the last time you took a day off from writing?”
It took me a moment to think. Ancient history gets harder for me to recall.
“It was the day I received my very first acceptance letter for my book, The Forbidden Forest. There was much celebration that night. A little too much.”
He settled back into his chair. “I’m going to be honest, I’m envious. I hope to be a novelist some day, but I can’t seem to get the first one across the finish line.”
I downed a third glass of scotch.
“You just don’t have the right muse,” I said.
“Maybe I can borrow yours,” he said affably, with just a hint of a nervous chuckle.
“Oh, you wouldn’t want that. I assure you.”
“If I could have one tenth of your career, I’d die a happy man.”
I set my pipe down and locked eyes with him.
“A muse isn’t just a mystical force from which ideas spring. Some muses can be strict taskmasters. Happiness has nothing to do with it.”
He looked at me with incredulity. “Wait. So you believe that a muse is a real thing?”
“I don’t believe, I know.”
Perhaps it was the scotch. No matter. I’d said it and let it hang heavily in the air between us.
Now he checked to make sure his phone was still recording, hot to have the scoop that America’s bestselling author had lost his mind.
“Do…do you see your muse? Can you talk to her? Or him?”
There was no going back now.
“Yes and yes, and my muse has no gender. At least not in the sense as we would define it.”
He ran his hands through his hair. No doubt his palms were sweaty with anticipation of how much publicity his interview was going to garner.
I drank more Macallan, enough to make me lightheaded, but not too much to hinder the work that needed to be done later. Oh no, that could not happen.
“Can I ask how often you talk to your muse?” His smile looked like a shark’s, circling for the kill.
“Your muse has given you a constant stream of ideas and inspiration since when?”
I shook my head, relighting my pipe.
“Truth be told, it’s not very big on ideas.”
This rocked him, wiping the shark grin from his face.
“Then…then what does it do?”
I leaned forward, the leather chair creaking, and touched his knobby knee.
“It makes me write.”
“It makes you write?”
“And what if you don’t?”
Now it was my turn to beam like a sly Great White.
“Terrible, terrible things happen.”
There was a ripple in the darkness behind the eager interviewer’s chair.
“You say you’re working on your own novel?” I asked.
His face blanched. “Yes, in fits and starts.”
I sucked on my teeth, releasing trapped scotch from my gums.
“That simply will not do. Not if you were to ‘borrow’ my muse.”
“I don’t understand.”
I filled the void between us with sweet, aromatic smoke.
“And you never will.”
The gray beast sprang from the ether, tearing the man’s jugular with a single swipe. I ducked to avoid the spray of blood – blood I knew my muse would slurp like a starving cat, leaving no trace of the young man behind.
I looked away, unable to watch the ravenous mastication. I grabbed the bottle of scotch and staggered to my study where my typewriter awaited.
It had been a long while since I had written a horror story.
I guess it was fair to say that today, my muse had given me inspiration. Putting a fresh sheet of paper into the Royal typewriter, I began the day’s tale.
“So, you’re saying there’s no such thing as writer’s block?”
I tamped out my pipe, refilled it with Dunhill Nightcap, touched the lit match to the aromatic leaf and took a few deep puffs.
~ Hunter Shea
© Copyright 2017 Hunter Shea. All Rights Reserved
I watched as he dragged his torso through the smoldering debris toward me, and thought, another. Unlike most, he hadn’t surrendered. I wondered if he knew where he was headed, or of the puss-ridden trail he left behind. No matter, it would soon be ended. I didn’t choose who suffered the searing heat; I only quenched the burning once they arrived. Fate appraised his soul, meted out its judgment.
“Have you your papers, then? There’s ta’be no entry without them.” I lilted. He stared back through hollowed sockets. I sighed. They all think the pearly gates so easy to attain.
The Thirty Second Burn
Lee A. Forman
The massive door opens on screeching hinges. My legs tremble, reluctant to carry me into the mouth of the iron beast. I know what waits in The Box.
Thirty seconds a day. Every day. Only the strong endure. But they are cursed to face the flame again and again.
The weak are lucky. To die is beautiful.
The guards guide me inside.
As the air itself boils, I know not pain or suffering but a great joy. I revel in the satisfaction of knowing I won’t last—I’ll expire quickly; my torment will end nearly as soon as it began…
Joseph A. Pinto
You call me deranged in my volatile state, yet you remain void of oxygen, void of all to sustain a fire. You know only of cleaning my ashes from the hearth, while I have schooled myself, keeper of this flame. Within my charred cage once an inferno raged; rose and fell, with hope, absolution. Dearly did I wish for us to go down in a state of combustion. Now, the landscape has changed. I am left to smolder—a cruel fate, this blessing; my curse. So perhaps you are right. Perhaps I am all you label me. Blistered. Branded. Blackened.
The Other White Meat
“It smells like barbecue.”
“You try putting sauce on that and I’ll kick your balls inside out.”
Jett turns the knob as far as it will go, the flames sharpening, going from sunburst orange to a cold, vicious blue.
“Jeez that’s gotta hurt,” Peter says, leaning closer. Jett sees the trickle of saliva at the corner of his mouth. He wants to drive his fist into his stupid, leering face.
“It would if the devil wasn’t in her.”
Clarissa’s flesh blackens and crackles. She doesn’t flinch.
Jett struggles to hold her down.
“Sometimes, you got to fight fire with fire.”
Christopher A. Liccardi
The whomp sound of the flames dashed up from under the element. The metal box was large enough to fit inside, but no room to turn.
He woke to the stench of rotten eggs and sudden heat on naked skin.
The thought never made it through his mind. He glanced up and saw that wretch of a wife staring, upside down into his face.
She’d dared him to see who could hold out longer and he laughed in her face proclaiming he’d been waiting twelve years already.
She smiled prettily, knowing who was going to win this one.
Let It Die
My god, it’s here! We never thought we’d see it again. In this cold world, this dark existence, it remains. Many years have gone by since it’s been seen. We’re all drawn to it, attracted by the warmth and hope it represents. The flames flicker and dance, a performance for the ages. We feel the cold and dark encroaching on the light. Evil is here. Around the flames I see the faces of the others. We are afraid as death awaits us, yet we’re determined. Now that it’s been found, it cannot perish. We can’t… we won’t let it die.
“Roasting chestnuts by the fire.”
I sung a few bars of the song as I watched the searing flames. Beautiful blue flames bending, beckoning to my soul. Perfect for chestnuts. Maybe marinated on a skewer with some juicy fingers.
Or possibly eyeballs. I like the smell of roasting eyeballs.
I glanced at the salesman I had trussed up on the floor. I watched him squirm, trying to scream through his gag and break the zip ties.
I smiled and picked up my butcher knife.
Nope, definitely fingers. He has nice fat ones. Stew the eyeballs for dessert… with chocolate sauce.
Broken Boy Blue
Mercedes M. Yardley
The sheep’s in the meadow, the cow’s in the corn. While Adam was sleeping in the hay, breathing starlight and pharmaceuticals, the Catchers took his father behind the barn. They broke his teeth and fed him like livestock on gun metal and bullets. They torched the house and his withered mother was the most beautiful of candles. His sisters took longer, but even the rosiest things ignite with enough tenacity.
They overlooked Adam, but he would always see the Catchers in his technicolor dreams. They played a starring role, laughing and cheering his family on as they danced, danced, danced.
The Chant, The Charm
Veronica Magenta Nero
Born in me it was, the chant, the charm, bile sitting in the pit of my belly. Until it began to creep, the chant, the charm, to lodge in the crook of my throat, a constant niggle I couldn’t clear. Soon it was on the tip of my tongue. Like an insult or a lie. Must keep it in, keep it down. Thick stitches popped one by one, so I took the torch, searing a heavy smooth line for lips. But now from the corners of my eyes it seeps, the chant, the charm, no voice to stop the magic.
The Hell train’s engine runs on flames and meat. The Railwayman rides in the locomotive. Dressed in blood-stained overalls and cap, he enters the tender car to a mound of body parts. In a black cloud of flies, he shovels severed limbs, heads, and ribcages―tosses them into the firebox. The smoke smells like barbecue. The train makes its rounds along America’s tracks. Hapless passengers climb aboard. The conductor punches tickets. As the train shrieks down the railway, skull-faced cleavers roam from car to car, doing their chop work. They refill the tender. The Railwayman shovels meat, feeding the blue-flamed beast.
Black smoky tendrils snake around my body, languid movements that if made by human hands would have been sensual. I sit in the chair, unable to move. A single blue flame bridges the gap; a moment passes where my thoughts and actions are untrue to each other. The Zoroastrians say nothing, my fate sealed. I offer myself to be judged, to join them. Only the righteous become one with the perfect element, the rest are destroyed by it. The creature pierces me, my body ignites from inside. I open my mouth to scream but there is no sound, only fire
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.
Oh little playmate, you would not play with me…
The discordant jangle of this long ago childhood nursery rhyme echoed under the bed where he hid. Some things never forgotten, he heard the sound of all that screaming like some fucked up sing-song that gets stuck in your head and never goes away. What did they call it, an ear-mite? He didn’t care. The rhythm soothed him while he waited for her to come home.
I’ll take your life, you see…
Those weren’t the words precisely. He giggled in time with the ringing in his ears.
Eddie, lying on his back, sharpened the knife, not minding the flakes of metal dust that landed in his eyes. He was singing and crying and none of the other shit mattered anymore. She wouldn’t play with him; she didn’t want to climb through his cellar door, as the song went. She would be sorry.
“I asked you to play with me, Kate. I told you I wanted to play…” The voice trailed off, but the song kept right on playing, if only in his head. He worried at the edge of the knife while he waited. He tested the blade, touched the razor-sharp edge to his tongue, tasted blood instantly.
Not sharp enough.
Eddie had been killing his way across the mid-west looking for someone to play with him, anyone. But, each time he showed up in someone’s house or their office late at night, all they did was scream.
Not very friendly, were they?
Not a bit.
Eddie giggled again. The sounds of those desperate cries and shrieks were the things he collected. He could listen to them when riding a bus, say, or walking through a crowded city park. They were his friends and he loved each of them, remembered each of them, knew where each came from.
He spent years of his life terrified of everything before he had taken his first friend. After that, he wasn’t afraid anymore.
A sudden jolt of adrenaline ran through him and the blade of his kitchen knife halted an inch from his right eye. This was the same knife that had taken the head off an old man in Meriville, Tennessee and the arms and legs of a woman in Columbia, South Carolina. The knife he’d driven into the skull of a guy who tried to rough him up outside a bar in Fairfield, Virginia. This friend didn’t run and it didn’t scream.
Had he left the bodies of this woman’s family where she would see them? That was the panic that had stopped his hand, and that nursery rhyme mid-jingle. Where had he stashed Kate’s mother and father?
A piercing rip of laughter peeled away from under the bed. He didn’t know if she was coming home today or tomorrow, but it didn’t matter. Once Eddie made you his friend it was only a matter of time before you’d try to scream.
Once he picked you as his friend, he didn’t change his mind.
One time he waited outside a trailer house door for four days; waited and listened. Apparently the occupants did nothing more than screw and do drugs. When they ran out, the man of the house, on wheels like a toy car, left to find more narcotics.
He never made it as far as the car, did he? No, ahhh.
That screech of laughter again and the rhyme came back.
Eddie had spotted Kate at a local coffee stop. Luck had brought them together. He had been tossed out of the fast food joint down the street. The kid behind the register called the cops, said he looked suspicious. The cops apparently didn’t think so and he was walking down the street five minutes later.
Kate, he got her name from the coffee cup she had picked up at the counter. She bumped into him and Eddie knew at once she was going to be his next friend. He even thought he might love her. She was pretty and tall, like his mother, and she smiled so big and bright when he stepped in front of her. She recoiled a little when he smiled back, but that was alright. Not many people liked his smile.
Let’s be jolly friends, Kate.
That’s what he said to her, or wanted to say as she stepped back from him uttering something mostly polite. He decided she was the one for him, the next one anyway, and followed her down the street to her office.
Kate hadn’t noticed him, but then again, they never did.
Maybe Kate won’t notice I’m here under the bed until later.
His mind ran wild with thoughts of how he’d pop out from under the bed and scare the hell out of her, or maybe he’d drag her momma in here and drop her on the bed next to Kate after she slept?
So many options for my new playmate, so many choices…
He was getting excited.
It was dark now. Eddie thought about trying to stay awake and sharpen his knife more, but one look at the pointed edge and he could tell it was good. More than good. He closed his eyes, dreaming of all the things he and Kate would talk about and all the screaming she would do. He’d never used anyone’s parents as toys before and he was excited.
She will scream the loudest of any of them.
Sleep took him. It was the sleep of the mentally young and the criminally insane. Eddie chased his playmates through a park in his dream, waving the knife at some and running others down in a car he stole. Somewhere in the distance he heard a new scream, a new playmate was coming.
He opened his eyes to a flood of light pouring in from the hallway. Kate had made it home and wandered into the kitchen while he was asleep. She found her parents at the table where Eddie had found them. Well, he had found two people sitting having lunch but now there were enough pieces to fill every chair.
It’s rude not to fill up the empty seats.
Kate screamed and screamed like nothing he’d heard before. It was marvelous. He cried a little at the thought of all those screams to take with him when he moved on.
Like the scream lottery…
Eddie wriggled himself out from under her bed, his knife in hand and a smile on his face. He started to hum silently trying to find the tune he’d been humming for nearly a year now. The words would come, or most of them.
He started to sing aloud, rough at first but by the time Kate heard him, it was steady, if not out of tune. The words comfortably familiar.
“…come out and play with me, I have this knife you’ll see…”
Eddie walked around the corner into the kitchen. Kate stopped screaming for just a moment and listened. She registered the song and then the face. She hadn’t seen the knife until the very end.
Eddie sang and Kate screamed, and he smiled at her all the while.
~ Christopher A. Liccardi
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