Beneath the stars I entered the forest, machete unsheathed. The idea of a gun rejected early in my search. It wasn’t personal enough. I wanted to sever its ability to escape and run my hand over its face—it had no eyes; I wanted to make sure it could see me. I needed it to know it was me who consigned it to death.
I pondered the irony of where the hunt would end. Years I searched to unmask the hidden wretch, my obsession. In that time I encountered many a sinful beast, but none so horrible as the eyeless thing that took my wife. Meryl’s expression held elegance even in shock, as its shiny, coal-dark arm wrapped around her throat and took her forever.
I sought out urban legends, overheard rumors in bar conversations, asked questions no sane person would dare. But none of the things I hunted turned out to be her abductor. I kept notes, made sketches, documented the unknown horrors that live in the wild. Parents tell you monsters aren’t real, but the wisdom of a child knows no suppression.
Would peace come of its destruction? Has it come to the victims of other felled nightmares? Maybe. Either way, I needed my closure.
As I stealthily navigated the woods I felt dreams and nightmares within my grasp, burning cinders of pain and hate. I’d scar my flesh just to be close; die to touch it. My hands trembled, heart pumped excited blood. A grin spread my chapped lips—I was closer than ever before. Every few steps I stopped to listen for movement. It was no ignorant beast I pursued; it was another hunter, just as cunning as myself, if not more.
A rustle to the side caught my breath. It seemed a deliberate tactic; a ruse to draw me in. So I kept still. It was trying to locate me. I waited, and my patience won out. I heard it stalking through the brush and followed silent as the night.
Flashes of Meryl’s terrified eyes drove nails into my heart, but I pulled them out and left them behind. I had to focus on my prey, else I’d become it.
Excitement turned to fear when I felt hot breath against the back of my neck. Somehow it tricked me. Somehow it won. In a last-ditch effort I turned and swung my blade with blind aim, but its slender fingers caught my wrist.
Its black, featureless face moved close to mine. The ebon flesh receded from its skull. From within came rows of pointed teeth. Its entire head snapped like the muzzle of an enraged mongrel. The serrated maw engulfed my skull but the teeth didn’t penetrate, only held firm against my throat. From deep within its gut, a meaty appendage extended and lodged itself in my esophagus. I bit with force, hoping to do whatever damage I could before it killed me. But the flesh was too fibrous; my human teeth did nothing. It shoved itself further into my abdomen, I choked against the thick, sausage-like tube. All I wanted was to scream in pain, to release…anything. But I could only writhe in agony while my chest hitched in a struggle for life.
∼ Lee A. Forman
© Copyright Lee A. Forman. All Rights Reserved.
“Under the moonlight, that’s what my momma said.”
Ivy spoke to the night, her fingers digging into damp soil. “It’s when the flowers bloom, Ivy, and the strangest, best things happen when those flowers bloom.” She giggled as a worm crawled out of the upturned earth; she scooped it into her hand. “Why hello, Mr. Worm, come to hear me jabber on about my mother’s wisdom? Because she surely was wise. Least about this garden. That’s why I’m here. Got me a flower that needs blooming.”
Ivy pulled a large brown seed from her pocket and dropped it in the hole she dug, smoothing the dirt back over and burying it. Then she crushed the worm and smushed the blood and gore into the ground covering the seed.
“Sorry about that, Mr. Worm, but every little bit helps.”
She reached back and picked up her small pail, the contents sloshing a bit. She smiled as she poured the liquid over her newly planted seed, watering it with more blood.
“Now we just need a little moonlight, we surely do.” As if on command, the clouds shifted and a sliver of light trickled its way down, dancing its glow over the newly planted seed. Ivy whispered one word: “Grow.”
The ground trembled, and a tiny crack formed. Seconds later, a small red shoot poked its way from the darkness. The plant swelled and expanded, weeks of growth happened in the span of a minute, until a black budded flower emerged. Its silky petals unfolded, and its stamen began to ooze a musty smelling dark fluid. Ivy held her jar under the blossom and let the thick black nectar drip into her vessel. She was patient, letting the jar fill halfway until the flower drained dry. She pulled the glass container away and watched as the bloom shrivelled and crumbled to dust. A gentle breeze blew the remains away.
Ivy smiled. “Oh yes, this will do.”
She collected her pail—setting the jar inside—and rose to her feet, dusting the debris from her skirt. She walked back to her porch and put her pail on the top step. She took out the jar, staring at the glass as she gently sloshed the thick juice inside. Then Ivy smiled at the decaying corpse of her husband, recently dug from the graveyard.
“Sorry it took so long, honey, but Momma hid the seed well. But don’t you worry. A few drops of this here goo and you’ll be a verified walking zombie in no time.” She leaned over and let the nectar drip from the jar onto her spouse’s lips. “My momma told me not to marry you. Only piece of her wisdom I ever ignored, I should of known she’d be right, but now I got the chance to pay you back for what you did to me.” Ivy giggled as her formerly dead husband fluttered his eyes. “You’re mine now, body and soul. Oh, the things I’m going to do to you, honey. You’ll wish I let you stay dead. You surely will.”
∼ A.F. Stewart
© Copyright A.F. Stewart. All Rights Reserved.
“Hell. You think you have it all figured out. Fire and brimstone, sinners writhing in agony, cries of the forsaken. You think that’s it, but you’re wrong. You cursed me there when you drove the knife into me because I was different. You cursed me there when you watched me bleed out. You cursed me there in the name of God. I didn’t belong there. Not until your knife pierced my skin. And then I knew hatred. You taught me. As my life slipped away on the grass, as you spit on me, you taught me hate. In that moment, you sent me to Hell.”
My smile melts into a sneer. They lie in their bed, both paralyzed by my touch. His wife screams, but no sound comes out. His eyes are wide, mouth closed. Ten years have taken a toll on him, though my body is the same.
I yank him by his worn collar. “Does she even know?” I toss him into the chair beside the bed. His limp body slouches. “She doesn’t, does she? You never told her.” Roughly I arrange him into a proper sitting position and scoot the chair closer, twisting it so he faces his wife.
I sit on the edge of his bed, our knees almost touching. “Hell is filled with two types of people. Some are like you—they’re the ones writhing in eternal fire.” I lean forward, my lips at his ear. “Physical and mental anguish worse than you can fathom.”
His response is to void his bladder. An acrid smell fills the room.
“Are you scared? Truly scared, maybe for the first time in your life? Now you know how I felt.” I recline back so I can watch the effect my words have on him. His eyes dart around the room, then back to his wife, then to me. “Then there are people like me. You sparked hate in me, more powerful than anything I’d ever felt. When I took my last breath, I didn’t wake up in a fiery pit. No, I landed in a little gray room. That’s where my training began. Where I nearly died again. You made me hate so deeply that I was chosen to thrive in Hell. To live eternally with my hatred, become one with it, use it how I see fit.”
His eyes flicker with false understanding. I laugh. I tip his wife’s chin up. “He thinks he gets it. He doesn’t, but you are beginning to, aren’t you?” I snap my fingers and her terrified shriek fills the room. I let her body spasm on the bed, assaulted by raw emotions, the first real ones she’s ever felt. I snap my fingers again. She stills. Silent screams return.
I turn back to him. “You don’t know real hate, real anger. You are a fool, duped by those you follow. Your life is a lie and now you will bear the fruit of that lie.” I rip open his shirt.
Closing my eyes, I’m back in the little gray room. My teacher tried to break me. Bombarded my body and mind. Intense pain as my skin melted from an atomic blast, slow agony as ebola bled me out, despair as a child breathed her last in my arms. I know them all, and thousands more.
My finger touches his chest, freeing his body enough to tremble. He vibrates through me. I trace the edge of my fingernail down the center of his ribcage. The stench of burnt flesh hits me. I open my eyes and am met with his silent wail. Beautiful agony. A razor-thin line of scorched flesh flares then disappears.
I walk behind him. “This is where he stabbed me first,” I say to his wife as I push my nail next to his left shoulder blade. His body jerks in the chair and I release his scream, a guttural cry of animalistic pain. Flesh drips off him. I growl, “From behind. He’s a coward and he’s going to pay.”
I shove him to the floor and tear his shirt the rest of the way off. With precision I inflict every wound he gave me ten years ago, every cut etched into my being. White heat erodes his skin.
His wife’s eyes, once wide, narrow as he sobs and drools on the bed. I haul him up and reposition him in the chair. “Five in the back,” I say to her. “Seven more in the chest.”
Each cut elicits raspy gasps. His knife drove deep but I barely pierce his flesh. Ten years worth of hate doesn’t need much of an opening to do damage.
I silence him again and sit back on the bed. “And then he did two more things,” I say quietly, my head low. “He spit on me as blood poured from my body. All of that wasn’t enough, though. He bent down and ran the blade across my neck.”
My hands on my knees, I push myself up and glide to the far side of the bed, close to her. “I won’t spit on him, though. I’m not a base creature. Unlike your husband, the murdering coward.”
I look at her and see myself. I place my palm over her heart and press. The physical act mirrors what is already done. I let her husband hear her final breath before I no longer need to keep her bound.
We both know what comes next.
She gulps for air, bucking and slamming against the wall of the little gray room. Her head swivels as she takes in her surroundings. A furious yell fills the small space.
I smile. It’s time to begin her training.
∼ Mark Steinwachs
© Copyright Mark Steinwachs. All Rights Reserved.
I knelt before his body, the divine man we all once worshiped. He remained exposed; no one bothered preparing a grave in his honor. My hands tightened into fists. The rage of their vile act upon the Master seethed in my blood. How could they betray their faith?
I’d become a stray sheep among wolves.
Looking up at the night, I prayed for answers. The sky returned my grief with thundering tears. I welcomed the sorrow of rain as it drowned my lament and washed the blood from my clothes. I laid my hands upon his rotting flesh, hoping to feel some remnant of warmth. But nothing radiated from his lifeless heart. Death had exhaled its cold breath upon his soul.
I remembered the first thing he said to me. I’d asked him why God allows bad things to happen to good people—the question everyone asks.
“God gave humankind free will,” he told me. “If He intervened in our affairs, that free will would be invalid. It would cease to exist. By giving us the power of choice, He disempowered himself of meddling.”
Those words changed me, molded me into his disciple with the hands of a savant artist. Not long after, we gathered a flock the savior himself would have been proud of. Each Sunday we convened in an old barn at the edge of my property. The handmade pews would be seated by familiar faces, those of friends and family. They awaited his words with great anticipation in desperate eyes. All sought salvation, but all had turned on Master in the end.
I put my head against his chest and remembered his gospel.
“The Lord gave us the gift of suffering so we would know what it means to truly be alive, so we would know light from dark, good from evil. Joy is the antithesis of that endowment, the betrayer of clarity. So I ask you, take hold of your pain, know it, bond with it. For only that can put you in the good grace of our Lord.”
They followed his words. They mourned lost loves, loathed their own vices and those of others, reveled in the toil of daily life. But a small town, a peaceful hamlet not prone to crime or violence, has only so much to suffer.
It wasn’t enough.
“Give thy pain to thy neighbor,” he’d said. “Offer up your tribulation so that those with none can truly see what it means to believe. Allow them to feel the love of our Lord’s blessing.”
After that, the town of Angleton became something else.
Those who followed took his message and spread suffering like a plague. Violence became desired, harm welcomed. There were no victims during the time of awakening. Only loyal servants. They gave themselves to the cause, some even came begging. Master gave it willingly. The barn became a house of torment, howls of agony its chorus. They lined up waiting to feel the hand of Master scar their flesh.
They wore those marks with pride. Hung blood-stained clothes on walls, glorified shrines to Master. They honored the Lord, loved Him, more than they loved themselves. But now those offerings burned in a pile of despised memories, still glowing within the remnants of my barn, the church we all once shared. And the wounds for which they pleaded were covered by clean, fresh laundry—an affront to Master’s gifts.
I tried to make them see. But the mob came, torches aflame. I stood between them and our house of worship. The Master never left, didn’t try to run. He welcomed their blasphemous deed, laughed with arms raised as they set the fire. They stood and watched it burn, Master still inside. I wanted to dash into the blaze and die with him. But I couldn’t perish yet. I had to avenge the greatest man who ever lived. My fate was to spread the gospel of Edgar. He told me so himself.
I was then a wolf among sheep, bringer of redemption. Attempts to rekindle their faith futile, pain only closed their eyes. They could not be forgiven. They were not absolved.
∼ Lee A. Forman
© Copyright Lee A. Forman. All Rights Reserved.
The abomination stirred in its crypt as Mortimer chanted the words he’d learned as a child. It was the only thing his mother had given him before she died. She had a son through some form of sorcery or witchcraft. Mortimer had no father because of it. He hated her for that.
The beast lumbered forward on stalks nearly twenty feet high. Its knuckles were jointed backward and it moved like a bat. The body of his new servant was as short as a halfling dangling like a teat between its legs.
“You serve the one with the chain, do you not?” Mortimer asked quietly. He was terrified of what he’d just awoken and tried to keep it from his voice. The magic was never his focus, never his passion. That was what his mother loved more than anything else in the world.
“FFEEARR!” it shrieked. The sound echoed off the vaulted ceilings.
“You serve the one with the chain, do you not?” He boomed back at the beast. His fingers lay around his mother’s gold chain about his neck. It was hers before she died and it brought this thing to life. He was ready to rip it off and kill this creature if it tried to kill him.
“I ssserveee,” it chittered back.
The thing walked into the light coming from the demon hole in the ceiling. It wanted to be seen, to be felt. It craved the pale glow from above.
Mortimer hadn’t seen it fully until now. The body resembled something almost human with its deformed legs and two muscled little arms. The left limb rotted off over time; shreds of sinew and bone stuck out like a decayed corpse. The right was whole and the little hand gripped a knife made of bone and rotted flesh. Mortimer couldn’t see the face. He thanked the devil himself for at least that small mercy.
“I bid you kill those who oppose me,” Mortimer commanded the creature. The words hung there for a long moment, unanswered. He was about to ask again when the thing lowered itself to the floor. Its legs folded at the knuckles and the little body came to rest on its stunted legs. It began to waddle toward him.
Mortimer’s grip on the chain tightened the slightest bit and the demon stopped.
“Kiiiillllll,” it hissed.
Mortimer could see the melted flesh on its face and body. It was an ancient horror. Its one eye socket was filled with a stinking putrescence of fetid liquid that dripped to the stone floor.
Mortimer watched the hand that held a knife, waiting to see if the demon would attack him. He was scared, but not enough.
The demon’s stench made him gag and he stepped back, trying to find some cleaner air. “Feeedddd!” the thing said in a winging insectile voice and Mortimer stepped back again.
The demon thing waddled closer to him, slowly. Its head lowered. Mortimer knew the terror it inflicted on the living and he smiled at the thought of his victim’s impending demise.
“I have marked those who need to be killed. You can find them if you look. Do you understand?” he asked. The demon lifted its head and stared directly at him.
“Feeeddd,” it said again. It opened its maw revealing three fangs inside a rotting skull. Mortimer could smell its breath and the urge to vomit grew. His gorge climbed in his throat, but he forced himself to choke it back. He would not add to the reek of this place.
“You will feed, demon. You will hunt,” Mortimer said. The demon looked about, swiveling its head from side to side, scenting the air around it. How could it find prey with its own rotting flesh smell pervading everything around it?
“Go and hunt for those who stand in my way and return once you’ve had your fill,” he said. He wanted to turn and walk away but he didn’t think it wise to give this monstrosity such an easy target to start with.
“Dieeeee…” the demon hissed back.
The thing lifted itself back to its full height and waited for a moment, scenting the air again. Mortimer’s hand relaxed from the chain just a bit. He stepped back again, giving the demon space enough to leap away and begin its hunt. He wanted to see it fly off, to be rid of this thing. He had already picked the window he would look out from and listen to the sounds of the creature feeding on its victims.
The beast let out a shriek and began to amble toward him. It lurched forward, leaning its little body into the stride. Mortimer clasped his hands over his ears at the sound, releasing his mother’s chain.
It sprung, landing directly over top of him, and the knife slashed outward in a fury. The first cut took the top of Mortimer’s head off at the scalp, leaving his skull exposed to the moonlight. He began to scream, tasting the blood flowing down his face. The beast returned his scream with another shriek and knocked him onto his back.
The stalk-like legs twisted and its talons drove through his shoulders, pinning him in place. The creature lowered itself once again to the ground and stood on top of Mortimer’s heaving chest. Gouts of blood poured from his skull as the beast settled.
The demon raised the knife again and slashed Mortimer’s throat. It opened veins on both sides of his neck and the screaming stopped. The demon let its rotten tongue lap at the blood welling up in the slit it made. Mortimer’s revulsion hit him again in a wave as he watched the demon lift the knife again and slide the blade under the chain. He tried to move his arms but nothing happened.
The creature lowered itself to a kneeling position, its face dangling inches above Mortimer’s.
“Miineeeee…” it said softly and slashed Mortimer’s head from his body. The gold chain slid down the stump of neck into the pool of blood. The beast dropped the knife and let its little fingers caress the fine gold chain before picking it up.
The demon released Mortimer’s arms, kicking itself free. His body twitched a few times and then stopped. The last of his blood pumped onto the moonlit circle as the creature walked back to the crypt it came from. Tracks of red traced its path back across the cold stone as it righted itself into its resting place and turned to face the light. The mouth in the center of the wrecked face opened and it swallowed the chain. It stuck on one jagged bone tooth for a second, then slipped into the demon’s gut.
“Peaaceee…” it whispered into the tomb.
∼ Christopher A. Liccardi
© Copyright 2017 Christopher A. Liccardi All Rights Reserved.
An ink stained night and a canopy of silver stars welcomed the rumble and clank of trucks and the smoking smell of diesel engines. Headlights slithered through the darkness as the line of ramshackle vehicles lumbered onto the fairgrounds and split the silence with belching exhaust fumes and the whine of old gears.
From the shadows I watched, under an old oak tree. My favourite type of tree. It’s a bit like me, a constant in a strange and evolving world. Much like this parade of carnival trucks. Old souls in a world passing them over.
Remnants clinging to hope against death and obscurity.
Perhaps that’s why I come, why I seek out these bits of forgotten eras. Nostalgic indulgence. So much of this world is loud and frantic, full of stress and panic. While I enjoyed those whispers of fear, sometimes I needed quiet reflection. Time to savour the memories, and contemplate my future.
Movement caught my attention, and dispersed my musing. I inhaled the pungent smell of animals and listened to the chatter as the carnies raised their tents and bolted the amusement booths together. I relished the clanging music of the hammers and the hoarse shouts, waiting for it all to blossom into a garish, colour-filled extravaganza. A wonder, this overnight eruption of nomadic fair, this constructed arena of entertainment. Perhaps a bit faded around the edges, or tattered by too many days on the road, but still such a treat.
I love their camaraderie and tradition. So human. So unmindful of the darkness.
I lifted my hand and let the starlight play against the skin. Fingers trembled slightly, a warning. A battering heartbeat fluttered, thumping erratically inside this chest. I sighed. My time was nearly done with this one. Regret mingled with anticipation. A new life about to begin, built on the death of the old one. I’ve worn many guises over my lifetime, been many people. Male, female, child, elderly.
A shame the hosts don’t last longer. Still, we had a good run, he and I.
I let the memory of our first encounter play out in his mind. Two towns west of here, at a harvest fair. The moonlight bathed the amusement rides the night before and the sun rose on a beautiful fall day. I wore a younger skin then; a restless, awkward teenager that accepted his fate too easily.
I never fit that host. I prefer them with more fight.
Perhaps that caused the difficult time in choosing that year; it took me hours to find a new skin. Searching among the rides and games, lingering, appraising, breathing in the smell of cotton candy and funnel cake. A fruitless hunt until I ventured past the noise and wandered near the edge of the carnival grounds. I knew the moment I spied him, he was the one.
Blond, blue-eyed, rugged. A perfect specimen enjoying a smoke behind a tree.
I left my failing host in a surge of black fire and passion, strangely heedless of chance observation. I swarmed him, possessed him, and the touch of his skin sang of salt and sweat. His soul rose to meet my attack in an agony of desperation as I burned through his defenses, but he fell to me as they all do. My invasion pierced through his thoughts and memories, shredded his control, and bound his mind and spirit into my will. He was a cornucopia of terror and defiance, and I feasted on those emotions.
Oh, how I feasted.
He fought until the end, until I boxed him safe and sound, making each moment I destroyed who he was a savoured delicacy. I hadn’t taken a host with such enjoyment in decades, and his agony, fear, and misery kept me gratifyingly fed this past year. I relished living his life, corrupting all he cherished. Listening to him scream from the prison I made for him inside his own body. Feeling his despair as death crept closer with each passing day.
He was special. I’ll miss this face.
I smiled at the memories, dark excitement rising through his borrowed blood. He served me well, my stimulating skin; a flawless mask to hide behind. An ideal life to steal. Yet, I can feel him dissolving, his flesh decaying. He is dying.
Yes, time to move on. Maybe a woman this year…
~ A. F. Stewart
© Copyright 2017 A. F. Stewart. All Rights Reserved.
“Trust in me and I will guide you. I will heal you.”
I feel the words spoken but no one is in the room. Sighing, I put my backpack on the table and walk into the kitchen. Opening the fridge, I groan, marveling at the lack of food. I grab one of the cheap beers, the only kind I can afford, and twist off the top, taking a swig.
“Give yourself to me and I will make it better. I will take the hurt from you.”
The words are a breath in my ear. I stopped looking for the being behind the voice long ago.
My movements are automatic. Grab the small pot from the stove, shake out two packets of ramen noodles, down the first beer as they cook, then crack open the second one while eating the sodium-laced soup straight from the pot.
I finish my dinner in the same place I started it then rinse the pot and fork, setting them back on the stove, ready for tomorrow night. The second beer comes with me to the bedroom. It’s a matter of ten steps between the two rooms.
“I am here. I will take the pain you feel.”
There is nothing to pull my attention away from the voice because I have nothing left. The things I used to own? All sold to try and get by. The cheap build-it-yourself dresser wobbles as I set the beer atop it next to the stack of unpaid bills.
Undressing, I toss my clothes on the pile in the corner. I need to do laundry but there isn’t enough money. I walk into the bathroom and turn the shower on, stepping in after steam curls out from behind the curtain. At least I still have hot water to shower with.
The water stings my skin as it cascades over me. Reaching back, I crank the heat up further. My skin reddens and it stands out more where is it stretched taut from the burns. As I close my eyes, the vision comes back, like it always does. The mortar shells raining down around us, trying to avoid something unavoidable until it happens, a sound like the earth itself opening, then nothing but ringing as chaos ensues.
They said it wasn’t my fault but they didn’t live it. They can’t understand it. They didn’t watch their friends burn, trapped inside an overturned Humvee.
“So many have come before you. I await. Accept my invitation and I will make it better.”
The voice has been there since shortly after I got out of the hospital and back home. It happened the day I returned to my church. There was a hero’s welcome, but I didn’t deserve it. I let my friends down. They got a different hero’s welcome when they got home, and I couldn’t be there for any of them. I’ve done my best to make peace though. Maybe one day I’ll find out if I’ve been forgiven.
That night the voice spoke to me, I freaked out and couldn’t sleep for three days afterward. It didn’t happen much in the beginning—once or twice a week—but it’s become more frequent. It happens at least ten times a day now, it feels like. But I don’t count.
Opening my eyes, I shut the water off and dry myself, then close the bathroom door. I leave the light on; I need a little bit to help me fall asleep—that, plus a few pills. I grab my beer and shuffle to bed, picking up the orange bottle from the floor. I open it and tip three into my hand, gulping them with a shot of beer. My fingers fumble the lid closed and I finish the last dregs of my drink.
I lie down and reach to the floor, picking up the paper I know is there, a poem given to me by our church’s pastor: ‘Footprints.’ He told me that it was written for millions of people before they knew they needed it and that, one day, I would truly accept and understand the words. Only then would my life would be better.
I read the poem as I’ve done every night since I got it, the paper worn and ragged in my hands. I finish and gently set it on the floor, then flip the switch on my lamp. Only a sliver of light streams from the bathroom.
Before I shut my eyes, the voice is there one last time. “Accept me and you will be free. I am your savior.”
I drift as the pills take hold. “Maybe you are,” I mumble. “Maybe you are.”
I dream of those moments, but for the first time it really is a dream, not a nightmare. Their eyes tell me everything. It’s time.
My heart is hammering in my chest when I wake. I know what I must do. I roll out of bed onto my knees. The voice is there immediately. “I am your savior. Accept me and I will guide you from this pain.”
“Yes, yes. Please, yes. You are my savior, I accept.” Answering out loud to the voice only I can hear.
My body shivers as I feel movement behind me. I start to turn but it’s too late. Slender hands grip my head.
“Welcome home,” the all-too-familiar voice whispers. A skeletal finger touches each temple and a searing heat rips through me.
I burn inside the Humvee, my skin sloughing off until there is nothing left… and then the moments repeat. For the rest of eternity, my men will watch me.
It is hell, but it is my hell.
And I am saved.
© Copyright 2017 Mark Steinwachs. All Rights Reserved.
The moon stares down at my brittle frame with judgement. A curse suckles upon my flesh, a reflection of the mirrored world I was cast into by no choice of my own. I only follow the deeds of my other half—a witness, a bystander. The exhibitionist shows me her will while forcing my eyes to see. I am no more than myself, and that which binds my flesh together. It isn’t a madness. Else I’d writhe in bed, the horrors in my mind to torture me at their discretion. I’m but a shell, the exosuit of the power which earns the rewards of my actions.
She speaks my name, which is her own. The condescending nature of her tone forbids argument. I’m but a slave with no outer master—the plaything of my own wicked mind.
Grace… Walk dutifully into the night and the blood will flow…
My legs carry an unwilling frame. Decision has never been an option—free will, only a dream which never comes true.
“Why, Grace? Why?” I ask.
Just do as I say. You know there isn’t any other way.
My lips curl into a frown of disdain.
Don’t be so spiteful. If it weren’t for me, you’d be nothing.
“I’d be me.”
You’re already you. But you’re also me.
That’s the problem, always has been. Ever since Mother and Father took their place in eternity, I’ve been nothing more than the hand of another entity. I’ve imagined ways to purge its vile existence, but none that wouldn’t take me with it.
You shouldn’t think such thoughts, Grace. Remember what happened last time?
“How could I forget?” I look down at the scars on my wrists.
I’m glad we have an understanding.
“I wouldn’t call it an understanding. More of a forced arrangement.”
Just keep walking.
She says it as if I have a choice.
“You’re going to hurt him, aren’t you?”
What do you think?
“I don’t know why I bother asking.”
I stare forward, eyes blank and disconnected from reality. The man I plan to meet, so nice, so innocent, undeserving of what awaits him. I don’t want to take his life—nothing disgusts me more. But it’s out of my control. His blood will be spilled and consumed, and there’s nothing I can do to stop it.
I see him on the corner down the street, both hands in his pockets, foot tapping the sidewalk. His stance gives away his anxiety, his shy nature. I pity his innocence while simultaneously adoring it.
“Always praying on the weak, Grace.”
Their blood tastes better.
“Can’t we just leave him be? Can’t we just find someone else?”
No. I’m starving.
I sigh as his eyes light up and an awkward smile brightens his face. Such a handsome man…
“Hi Grace,” he says. “Nice to meet you again. I know it’s only our second date but I got you these.” He reaches behind his jacket and brings out a bouquet of carnations.
If I could cry, tears would fall from my eyes. But the Grace inside me dried up any show of emotion long ago. “Thank you. They’re wonderful.”
“So what would you like to do?” he asks. “Dinner? A movie?”
“I thought we’d take a walk in the park.”
“After dark? Isn’t that a bit risky?”
“No, it’ll be okay. I do it all the time.”
His face reddens and he scratches the back of his neck. “Okay, let’s go.”
As we walk down a lonely path he reaches out to hold my hand. I allow him. Might as well enjoy the brief moments my dreams speak of each night, if only to experience a few seconds of intimate joy I’ll never fully know.
I look into his eyes, see a warm glow. There’s a connection, a communication without words, a palpable tether which might have bound us as one… But I am not whole.
My head splits down the middle with a crack of bone and tearing of flesh. Tentacles of bloody carnage stretch and reach out from the opening, forming bone-like blades at their ends. A multitude of eyes open on each tendril of the beast within my head; they stare at the man’s petrified expression with nihilistic calm. The sharp ends slice through his flesh and I watch, unable to control them, forced to witness the terrible feeding of my other half. Once his head falls to the ground, they drive into the stump of his neck and gorge on his blood.
Once Grace has her fill, she returns to her inner-sanctum, the place where my mind once rested in solitude. But ever since she took Mother and Father, and burrowed deep inside me, I’ve never been alone…
∼Lee A. Forman
© Copyright 2017 Lee A. Forman. All Rights Reserved.
Your grave is unmarked to all eyes but mine. The cobbled path is cool, almost sharp and so familiar against my bare feet, a track I am compelled to tread over and over. Harsh stones become damp grass becomes soft dirt the further from the house I walk, into the woods where the tension falls from my body and my gaze lifts, no longer fearful of being condemned.
The world has become my silent jury. When I must go into town, I walk with my head down to avoid the pity and suspicion on faces that watch me pass. The verdict is plain on tight silent lips, and hanging in the air around me—guilty. Let them have their gossip, their macabre fantasies, they will never know the truth of what took place.
The house we once shared is a vast empty space abandoned of meaning. I have packed away all sign of you. I scrub the house clean everyday, the windows sparkle, the floorboards gleam, but still sorrow hangs in the corners like cobwebs. I linger listlessly, roaming from room to room. At times your soft voice can be heard within the walls and I press my palms flat against them, trying to reach through. You sing the tune we often sung together as we sat on the swing in the garden, rocking slowly in afternoon sunshine.
I can no longer sleep, I feel ashamed of the warmth and comfort of my bed while your body lays cold and wet. The swing creaks throughout the night in the breeze, a grating squeak inside my skull. When I glance out the window I hope to see you there, your thin legs swinging up towards the night sky, but that never happens. The swing is as empty as all the other places you used to be.
All night I think of where you are hidden. If I dream it is of digging in ripe soil with a never ceasing rhythm, deep down into the bowels of the earth. Each cold morning, with only hot coffee to ease my clenching stomach, I set out to visit you. I am drawn to your body, searching for a place to belong.
In the forest all death is fair and equal, not divided into right and wrong. In the forest I am not a criminal or a monster.
It was not your life I took away but your pain. I snuffed it out, the malignant burning that was consuming you and turning your insides to ash. No struggle, no resistance, just a moment of tension then nothing, just your blue eyes wide, frightened, drawing you from the lull of disease for one last moment of stark awareness, and then falling back in to that nameless pit as your breath came to a halt.
The pine trees are tall and triangular, long low branches sway and close behind me as I pass, pulling me into thickening shadows. They emit a sharp, clean scent, which gels with the moist decay of the forest floor. The strong trunks are rippled grey bark but in some places amber resin has seeped into stagnant lumps, protecting a wound, fighting an infection that eats at the marrow of the tree. When I touch it the resin gives a little, and I remember your skin, newly dead, growing stiff, the dent of my fingertips remaining after I had pulled my hand away.
I keep walking, checking off the signs that mark the way to you—a tree stump, a large smooth stone, the rotting trunk I climb over. No one else can see the path; it is ours alone.
Far from the trail, in the rich brown dirt, within a large crevice in moss covered rocks, safe from scavenging paws and whiskers, and prying, unworthy eyes, lies my shrine and your tomb. I was reluctant to leave any personal sign of you, no photo or name engraved, no flowers to mark the spot; but in a deep crack in the stones I have tucked away the necklace you always wore, a string of colorful plastic hearts and flowers.
Gently I raise you piece by piece. I stroke your small fingers that once laced my own with pure trust; they are disjointed, white fragments. Your ribs curl out of the earth, a tiny cage not strong enough to hold a beating heart. I choke back inhuman sounds, a whimper, a growl. Your skull I cradle in my palm, precious and delicate as a bubble, the bone fine and translucent, eye sockets too big, too empty. And the curve of your sacrum quivers in my hands like a rare gem. Your remains still hum as if there is something you left unsaid and they are longing for words again. Thick tears squeeze from my eyes, hot and painful; I fear I am crying blood. For a while I nurse your pieces then I must reassemble you like a doll-shaped puzzle in the small pit, reassemble you like a precious and mysterious relic that holds a history yet to be understood. I sweep the earth over again, fill the hole and pat it flat.
Not long after I walk away the buckled growl in my throat escapes and explodes as a roar. The forest swallows my grief as readily as it swallows your bones, reducing us both to dust.
∼Veronica Magenta Nero
© Copyright 2017 Veronica Magenta Nero. All Rights Reserved.
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.