For the first time in weeks, I’m alone in the house. Gran’s out talking over the garden wall with one of the neighbors; Mam’s hanging out the wash. Me, I’m sitting on my bed with our best kitchen knife, running the edge over the hard points sticking out beneath my fingernails. It should hurt, but it doesn’t; the skin parts just a bit, bloodlessly, and there’s the grating sound of metal scraping bone.
I press harder.
It started six weeks ago last Sunday, the day after I turned fifteen. When I went to bed that night, it was insidious, a little niggling almost-itch behind my kneecaps and in my wrists. But my knees swelled under my skirt when I trudged dutifully to school the next morning, and writing notes in my lectures just made fire blaze down my right hand in waves. The next day, it was both hands. Within a week, I was sneaking aspirin from the kitchen cabinet in handfuls, stuffing them in my skirt pockets, biting down on the bitter discs so I wouldn’t sob from the searing ache twisting me inside out. I did that at home, at night, into my pillow.
It took Mam a full ten days to notice: “Ellie, you’ve shot up like a poplar.”
She didn’t smile. She grimaced instead, and backed me up against the edge of the half-wall between the kitchen and dining room, plopping the family Bible against the top of my head and marking the paint with a pencil before fetching the measuring tape. “Five feet and eight,” she pronounced, wide-eyed, when she pulled the tape away. “Are you taller than me?” Mam demanded, and crowded so close my nose touched between her eyes. “Jesus, you’re taller than me. And since the first of the month, too.” She turned to look over her shoulder at Gran. “Is this normal?”
Gran shrugged, mouth tight around her cigarette. “Some girls get their height early, all at once. I did.” She stood five foot four in bare feet.
It was Gran who sat at my bedside that night, patting my aching hands and balancing ice packs on my oversized knees. “Growing pains,” she said, though her gaze narrowed as she eyed the length of my legs. “Best to get it out of the way now. Don’t worry, it’ll be over soon.”
But in the night I woke screaming, my nightgown spotted with blood. My ribs had expanded and grown sharp-edged, tearing my skin from the inside. Mam yanked the fabric up and stared at me while Gran sponged me off with stinging alcohol, and this time there wasn’t puzzlement in my mother’s eyes. There was fear.
The doctor they took me to the next morning glanced at my knees and hands and ribs, took some measurements and jotted notes, muttered to himself and gave Mam a prescription for something with codeine in it. He never said a word directly to me. Growth spurt, he called it, and mumbled something about long bones and inflammation of the growth plates. It would pass, he said. That was the end of it.
That afternoon the pain in my knees came back, jabbing and twisting so bad I could almost see my shins bowing inward. So I begged Mam for one of the pills, but she only said, “Not yet. Let’s see how you are after school tomorrow.”
I woke up next morning with my mouth throbbing. My cheekbones strained the contours of my face; I could see fissures forming in the skin. My teeth had become longer; my lips stretched when I formed a bite. Mam measured me again. I was another three inches taller. Gran looked up at me and whispered, “Swear to God, her bones are growing out of her.”
I could barely get out of bed that day, despite hanging over it. There was no school. There was no school ever again.
The next week kept me changing, growing. My neck stretched with crackling noises. My jaw and elbows locked and loosened at odd times. Going through the doorways in the house meant bending nearly double, sleeping on my bed took folding myself in half, and the biggest shoes Mam could buy only fit on my feet a few hours. Gran crossed herself and swore and fed me aspirin, codeine, whiskey. None of it touched the pain. I lay on the floor and howled till the neighbors’ dogs barked.
This morning, Mam needed a stepladder to measure me, and her tape wouldn’t reach in one stretch. Six feet. Seven inches. I watched tears roll down her face as I tried to steady my too-long, agonized legs, and felt the ceiling against the top of my head.
Now I sit on the end of my bed, legs mostly on the floor, and I draw the knife over my fingertips again. They split entirely, and it’s relief enough to make my eyes water. Tentatively I press the knife point into my thigh, where the outline of my femur is broad and plain, and push in. My skin rips with a noise like tearing tape, and there’s no pain, no blood, only a release of pressure that makes me stuff my bulging knuckles into my too-wide mouth. Only a great glistening white expanse beneath the stretched crepe of my skin.
Gran was right. My bones are growing out of me. I take a few breaths and stick the knife in again.
If they want to escape, I’m setting them free.
~ Scarlett R. Algee
© Copyright Scarlett R. Algee. All Rights Reserved.
Desperate for the pinch that would bring her escape, she sought refuge in a dilapidated house slightly hidden by an overgrown yard. Squeezing through a paint-chipped opening, she entered a once loved home; now a desolate shell. She tiptoed through the crumbling building; fitting, however ironic it may have been, to have found a location almost as decayed as her. A few rodents scurried past and a disillusioned smirk crossed her chapped lips. A wave of cold sweat coated her from head to toe and the cramps in her muscles became too strong to ignore. Illness coursed through her brittle body; the remedy within her grasp.
Empty glassines scatter amongst the debris; almost instantly her vacant eyes glazed over. Collapsing into her surroundings, her back slid against exposed drywall. She stared through the broken window before her. The skewed view of an unkempt backyard swirled with gray matter. A memory washed through sullen eyes as salty tears trickled down battle-scarred cheeks. The enormous oak tree cast shade upon the little ones as they giggled in the grass; a time almost entirely forgotten. In that second she could feel the sun’s gentle warming on her skin. Pigtails and lemonade seemed so far away, droplets of melted mascara and misery spilled onto her tattered shirt faster than they could be caught. A swift jolt of pain deep beneath the flesh followed by a surge of pure bliss wrenched her into the present.
Despondent and motionless, she slumped over, barely propped up against the wall. Truths that could never have been told, let alone forgiven, silenced without warning. If she called out, would anyone even care? The gruesome truth beneath the surface of burned bridges and voluntary exile were all around her. The only company to be expected now were the rats to clean up her mess.
That haunting memory grew stronger; a skinned knee and the scent of antibiotic ointment permeated the air. Her pain was gone, then and now. Ghosts of her past pranced through her brain and banged against her skull. The sun beamed upon her face a final time as she welcomed its familiar burn. Her deep inhales grew shorter and more shallow until a stillness resonated through not just the decrepit shelter, but her ever wasting body. The withered land she’d hidden in would swallow her whole before she could be found. Iced coffee and nicotine lingered in her mouth — the last flavor of a life willingly let go. An accepting smile rested on the corpse who had no other home. Her once beautiful pale face now a brilliant blue.
Tranquility filled the darkness as hours passed, followed by weeks, until the months began to pile on. A skeleton picked clean by vermin, intertwined for eternity with an abandoned home. The idea of redemption dissolved; though her tomb was secret more would surely come. They’d follow in her footsteps and dwell on their misguided past; lives just as lonely and hearts concealed by frost.
∼ Lydia Prime
© Copyright Lydia Prime. All Rights Reserved.
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.
“It starts with your first cry,” the white-haired gentleman sitting next to me says. “Moments after you are born your demon is as well, a microscopic creature that grows as you do.” He takes a sip from the tumbler of whiskey he got moments ago and sucks in a breath from the burn.
“Melvin, honey, stop scaring the nice young man,” Barb—I think the bartender said her name was Barb—says from the other end of the bar while cleaning glasses.
I look up from my rum and Coke, realizing the two of them are talking about me. “I’m sorry,” I say, looking around the cramped room again. There are two tables with people who look lost in their own worlds. I’m out of place here, a new person trespassing on the regulars’ sanctuary. “Were you talking to me?”
“Sometimes the truth is scary, Barbara, you know that.” Melvin points a crooked finger at her while still holding his drink. He winces after taking another sip. “He knows it, too. Look at him. You know what his world is.” He’s still facing straight ahead, watching me through the mirror that is the wall behind the bar. “The doctors haven’t helped you, have they, son?”
I shift in my seat, glancing sideways at him. For a moment I let the question sit. Demon, I hear Melvin’s voice in my head. I decide to play along. “No they can’t. They say there’s nothing wrong with me. Not physically, at least.”
Melvin lets out a sharp laugh that turns into a cough. “Physically wrong? Oh, no, I can tell that just by looking at you. You’re what, twenty-five, maybe six? I bet you haven’t been physically sick in years. We both know I’m not talking about that kind of doctor.”
“Melvin!” Barb says. “You stop that right now. Leave that poor boy alone. You’ll run off my new customer.”
He doesn’t move his body but tilts his eyes up to Barb and then returns his gaze to me, waiting. No one reacts to the scene playing out between us.
“You mean psychiatrists? Yeah, I’ve seen my fair share,” I say. “They send me back to a regular doctor, who then sends me to a different psychiatrist. But I gave up on that a while ago.”
He takes a long swig of his drink, finishes it, and swivels his stool to face me. Barb comes over and refills the glass. Melvin brings up his right hand between our chests, palm facing me with his fingers spread. He’s looking at me with his head cocked, like he’s searching for something. “You feel him, son. I know you do. You’ve felt him for years, inside you. He’s become more of you than you are yourself.”
My stomach churns and I put my hand on the edge of the bar to steady myself. Pain isn’t the right word. It’s not painful. It’s anguish. Emptiness. Working from my stomach out in all directions. Pushing through my veins, invading me.
“You’ve seen him,” Melvin says. “Behind your eyes when you look in the mirror. You aren’t crazy, son. You just weren’t meant for this world.”
I grip the edge of the bar. It’s there. I saw it the other night, behind my eyes, a creature made of black ink. A drip fell from it and a burning ache seeped through my body. I had felt that thousands of times and now I finally knew what it was.
Melvin leans in and points his finger at my heart, almost touching my chest. “He’s never been there. You’ve fought him off. No one knows what you’ve gone through. The internal battles you fight every day.”
He’s right. Every word. The old man saw me for who I am. My eyes fill with tears. My body feels heavy. I’m tired, so tired, from fighting, holding the thing at bay as it inches closer.
“There’s much more to this physical world than we know. They are waiting to be learned if you truly open yourself to them. Just because society says something is weak and cowardly doesn’t mean it’s true. Maybe they just don’t understand.”
“I… I… It doesn’t hurt but it never goes away. Everything I do.”
“I know, son,” Melvin says in a quiet voice. “It’s okay. I promise.” His finger touches my chest and the sensation plunges into my heart.
In one moment, years of defenses topple down. My body. My mind. My soul. Exquisite peace.
“Thank you.” I stand up and walk out of the bar.
A minute later the sound of a single gunshot from the alley fills the bar. Barb says to Melvin while washing a glass, “Don’t you dare tell me he’s in a better place.”
“He isn’t,” Melvin says. “But he’s in a place where he can fight. Where he can win, if he is strong enough.”
“I hope so.” Melvin winces as another sip of whiskey sears his throat.
∼ Mark Steinwachs
© Copyright 2017 Mark Steinwachs. All Rights Reserved.
It crept up his neck, colder than the cold.
He knew he should’ve done it sooner—take the Christmas lights down—but he wasn’t one for strenuous labor, especially not in the teeth of winter. He realized the first weekend after the holidays would’ve been a perfect time, but he opted for the couch instead; relaxation, beer, movies on Netflix. But the subsequent weekends bled one into the next; unpacking, painting, the arranging of furniture. Simply no extra time existed during the week, his wife and he being the professional couple they were. They never regretted their move from city to sleepy hamlet. They just didn’t anticipate the zeal with which their town celebrated the holidays.
Deep into winter, and still all lights remained aglow. Every block, every house, either framed in bulbs of classic steady white or pulsing in rhythmic green, blue, red. Residences blazing all at once to life, LED brilliance timed to explode just before the sun bid all farewell. Of course, they hadn’t noticed this, not at first, not since they had moved into their quaint Colonial home a mere week before Christmas.
They were as guilty as the rest of town. Or so he thought. He blamed it on the snow. A storm dumped nearly two feet right after the new year, surely no condition to take lights down from the awnings or trees. The cold never relented; the snow stretched, a seamless glacier across lawns. He lacked the patience, the energy, to dig bulbs out from the mini tundra. So like all the others, their house glowed.
He trudged across the front of his property, top surface of frozen snow cracking beneath his boots. There again he felt that creeping sensation, teasing the exposed flesh below his knit hat. He turned, caught a man next door watching him. Standing outside atop the stoop, no coat, no shoes, no hat, nothing to protect him from the gusting northeast wind; just standing, watching. “Hello there,” he said.
Everything had happened so quickly—the move, his promotion, the holiday rush—that he realized aside from the glitter of lights, he knew nothing of his new neighborhood. Or his neighbors.
The man did not respond.
“My name is Jon. Jon Terra. Just moved in before Christmas with my wife, Alli.” He punched a gloved fist through the snow, grabbing a strand of lights he had strung around the shrubs. “We’ve never had a chance to introduce ourselves.”
“What are yah doin?” The man’s breath escaped his lips in a panicked plume.
Jon smiled, tugged at the lights. “Picking a bad time to bring in these—”
But his neighbor had already launched from the stoop, bare feet plunging across the field of uninterrupted white. In front of Jon he halted, breathless not from the severe cold swallowing his toes, but from an extreme case of fright. “Can’t do that!”
Jon pushed himself upright, eyeing his own window, hoping Alli had witnessed this. Her face was nowhere to be found. The two men shared a pregnant silence. Finally Jon said, “Sir, the holidays ended nearly two months ago.”
Mouth agape, the man stared at the timer box Jon had dug from the snow, now free from the cords that had been plugged into it. He shook his head. Jon swore he could hear the skin along the man’s frosted neck crackle. “We don’t evah turn out these lights.”
Jon sighed, thinking of his couch. “My wife and I appreciate the holidays, sir, we do, but the realtor never told us this was Christmas town.”
“You never saw em? The lights?”
“Honestly, no. We only saw this house online, my wife fell in love immediately and—”
“We don’t evah turn out these lights.”
Jon’s parka suddenly failed against the elements; goosebumps raced along his spine, his arms. His neighbor, however, didn’t appear the least fazed. He lunged, seized Jon by the shoulders, teeth rattling so severely Jon thought they’d pop from his jaws. Again Jon realized this was caused not by cold but sheer terror. “You’re gonna anger the elves.”
It took all he had to stifle his laugh. But he did, partly out of respect for the older man, partly out of respect because he figured his neighbor might not be altogether sane. “Yes, well, my nephew has an elf on the shelf and—”
The old man fled, knobby knees slamming his chest as he bounded from the drift, back to the sanctuary of his stoop. A final glance over his shoulder; disdain, panic all mixed like slush in his eyes. The front door slammed and he disappeared.
“That went well,” Jon muttered.
His wife shook him into a dumbstruck daze.
He took a minute, staring at the television screen, the boxes along the floor. “What happened, what?” Jon rubbed the sleep from his eyes.
Alli said, “I thought you were taking the lights in?”
“Yeah, that. I had a curious afternoon. Where have you been?”
“I told you I’d be in the city all day shopping with Jennifer. You forgot. As usual.” She kissed his forehead.
“Course I did.” He roused finally from the couch. “So earlier I met our neighbor while I was outside.”
“Let me guess. He got in your ear.”
“Something like that. Let’s just say he expressed his displeasure about my lack of Christmas cheer.”
Alli set department store bags upon a table. “It’s February.”
“Well, it seems Christmas lasts forever in our little town. Not only that, it seems we might’ve pissed off some elves.”
From the kitchen came laughter, rustling through drawers. “Come to think of it, my elf was pissed off, too. Where’s that diamond necklace you promised?”
“Funny. I’m being serious. I think our neighbor is mentally ill. He came running out into the snow, nothing on his feet.”
“The poor man! So what happened?”
“He basically told me no one in town turns off their lights because it’ll get the elves cranky.”
Alli returned with two glasses of wine. “It is strange that everyone still has their lights on, but honestly, I thought it was because of the snow. Who wants to go out in the cold?”
“I certainly didn’t.” He scrunched his face in mock defiance. “But you made me.”
“Aww, poor baby.” Lips ripe with Merlot, she kissed him. “If you make love to me now, maybe I’ll help you finish tomorrow.”
Jon took a quick swig of wine, then fumbled with his wife’s blouse.
Either it was the sound or the lights that started him from bed; Jon wasn’t sure which.
Their room bathed in a palette of color as it had been every night since their move, this time the luminescence irritated his eyes. Harsher, more glaring, it filtered through the windows, sharp like diamond dust. He twisted from his tangle of sheets; Alli beside him, her breath gentle waves rolling from her chest. Retrieving his boxers from the heap of clothing on the floor, he slipped them on, moved to the window, lifted their temporary paper blinds. The town lay chilled, bright; alive. Jon caught movement across the twinkling glaciers, what he thought to be the shadow dance of old boughs in the wind.
Scuttling across the roof then…a pitter-patter of tiny claws.
He would have to check on that once winter passed, make a mental note: cut back the tree limbs from the house, prevent the squirrels from tasking unwanted homes inside their—
The pitter-patter turned in an ominous way, like bloated satchels dropped from a height. Jon flinched with every blow atop the roof, half expecting the ceiling to give way, realizing with cold despair that this was now the sound of weighted feet.
“Jon?” Alli mumbled, sheets slipping from her naked back.
The house shuddered around him as he took to the window again; he shielded his eyes. The front of his property blazed as if spotlights had been erected at every corner. Finally, his sight adjusted.
“Jon? What the hell is going on?”
His face flushed with alarm; the old man—his neighbor—stood in the winter wasteland, summoning the sky.
“Stay here, just stay here!” Jon rushed from the bedroom, footfalls above him like clots of hail clubbing the roof. Down the stairs, to the front door, fumbling with the lock. Outside, his breath instantly crystallized, his nipples tweaked by the cold.
The sleepy hamlet his wife and he had chosen shone under the stars—except no stars where to be found. Jon followed the old man’s gaze skyward, up, up until his eyes could go no farther, until his eyes could no longer comprehend what he saw. “You never saw em, did you? The lights?” the old man called out. “But you see em now, don’t you?”
Jon nodded dumbly, cognizance still lost.
“We don’t eva turn out these lights. When we do, they come. And when they come, they come angry. Told you, didn’t I, that you’re gonna have angry elves?”
Glass shattered; his wife screamed from within the house. Jon turned his back to his neighbor, to the cold, to the mad array of lights descending from the sky. He took the steps two at a time, mind numb as the sheets of snow outside. A draft bit his feet; he heard the wind whistling unbridled where his bedroom window had once been. And once he clambered across the still taped moving-boxes in the hall, once he burst into his room, reality hit home.
Jon glimpsed his wife’s perfectly manicured feet pinwheeling in the space the window once sealed, toes a ruby red; perfect for the holidays, she had said. Kicking and kicking till they kicked no more. Sucked into a vacuum, into space; sucked somewhere Jon knew his wife certainly didn’t belong.
He saw the last of her guided by small torsos and long, spindly limbs toward an enormous black moon above his roof. He saw lights, bright lights, some bulbs of classic steady white, some pulsing in rhythmic green, blue, red. Like the sun, they exploded, then disappeared.
Jon was left blinded, alone; alone in a town that never went dark. Alone in a town that knew better than to anger their elves.
~ Joseph A. Pinto
© Copyright 2017 Joseph A. Pinto. All Rights Reserved.
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.
That crazy bitch said seven.
Seven of them, but she didn’t say which seven. She didn’t say where they were or how to find them!
Why did everything have to be so damn cryptic? He hated all the mysticism and bullshit.
Peter recalled that conversation, the last normal conversation he’d had. “Seven Devils, boy. You have to kill them all at once, or they come back.” She laughed, sticking her bony finger in his face.
“What the hell are you pointing at?” He slapped at the finger, but she was too quick. Old age had taken nothing but her looks away from her.
“I can see them,” she cackled. The last three teeth in her head were black. The urge to strangle the life out of her was overwhelming.
“I can’t see them. How can I kill what I can’t see?” he spat back at her.
“No, you choose not to see them, but they see you.” Her laughter became hysterics, her eyes watered as she cawed. She pushed back from the table trying to stand. Her back arched with decades of arthritis and rough living.
“We’re not done here!” Peter slammed his fist on the table. The crystal in the center bounced out of its holder and rolled to the edge, but it didn’t fall. The damned thing stopped itself as if out of pure defiance.
The old woman whirled around so fast, Peter saw nothing but a blur of black fabric. She pointed her gnarled finger at him again. “Don’t upset the glass, boy. There are worse things in there than your ill-tempered petulance.” She waddled back and picked up the ball, caressing its smooth surface like a lover.
“You want to rid yourself of them, you need to start from within,” she squawked, leaving the tent from the back.
Peter’s rage took hold and he stood, tossing the table aside as if it were made of balsa. He stormed after her; he was going to have another victim!
The old woman whipped around the flap where she’d left and made contact with his skull, using only that damned finger. Peter fell on his ass. His teeth smacked down on his lip, and he tasted blood.
The old woman hovered into view as Peter’s vision cleared.
“I didn’t say we were finished, boy. Didn’t anyone ever tell you it’s impolite to wander through someone’s tent smashing their things?” She was an inch from his face now and he could smell the stench of those three rotting teeth.
“Take this box and hold it until midnight. Open it on the stroke of twelve and not a second before or you’ll regret it.” The old woman dropped the box into his lap. The pain was immediate. The box was ironwood and whatever was inside felt like it weighed a ton.
“Midnight and not a second before, if you know what’s good for you, now get out!” She cradled the ball in her arms and waddled back out of the tent mumbling something. He didn’t know what it was; he couldn’t speak the language but he had an idea it was derogatory.
Peter picked himself up and took hold of the box. For a moment, he had a strong urge to leave it on the floor and take off, but it passed and he walked out to his motorcycle. The bike was a used piece of shit he’d bartered for when he arrived. He needed a fast getaway; if all else failed, he’d ride all night.
He left the Wanderer’s encampment the way he’d come in; with no answers and the urge to kill seething from his fingertips.
Peter glanced at the horizon. It was well past noon, heading into dusk, and he needed to lock himself in somewhere or there wouldn’t be anything left of this old bitch or her family by sun up. The urge to kill rippled through him as he mounted the bike. This had to stop.
Peter kicked the old bike into life. Smoke billowed from the tailpipe. He hoped the bike would make it the hundred miles to his rented place before dark.
As the desert tore past him, he let his mind wander. How many had he killed so far? More than he wanted to count, but he forced himself to. He needed to stay in control of whatever this was long enough to lock himself in before he convinced himself to ride back to the camp site and…
The sound around him faded to quiet and the wind buffeting his face didn’t seem as strong. When he looked at the gauges, he broke into a cold sweat. He’d only gone twenty miles when the bike’s engine stalled. He’d never make it back in time.
All the killings played on in his head. At first, they were like a slide show; pictures without sounds, but then the images started to quicken. The slide show gave way to a stilted projection film; a shitty 8mm movie.
He watched as each successive murder got more brutal, more imaginative. Peter screamed and slammed his hands over his eyes waiting for the horror reel to stop. It didn’t stop. Hundreds of organs were ripped out, necks broken, faces torn off. Peter fell onto the desert hardpan, writhing and screaming at the horror. He blacked out.
Peter came to, slowly. His eyes opened and he could taste desert in his throat. Grit coated his face and hair. It took a minute to realize his eyes were open. Stars began to appear slowly as his eyes adjusted. He hadn’t made it to the cage in the rented house.
Peter tensed, remembering the horror film that had played over and over in his head and waited for the terrible images to start up.
No images came but the old woman’s words did. The memory of the box did.
Peter found the bike and the box and began to walk. The urge to kill was still there.
The night crept forward and he walked with his head down, waiting for the moment when he couldn’t control his impulse anymore, his devils.
The last conversation he had echoed back in his head. “…all Seven Devils, all at once.”
He’d have to find and kill them quickly but he hadn’t even figured out what they were. Something was tormenting him, pushing him to take another person’s life with no excuses and no apologies. He hated himself every minute of every day for it and he was powerless to stop.
As Peter walked deeper into the desert he felt control slipping. He decided that if the sun peaked over the horizon and he hadn’t figured out where these seven devils were, he’d kill himself. He’d use the ironwood box and smash himself over the head or leap off a mesa. He’d run straight at the edge, close his eyes and let go.
Hours passed and Peter walked. The images returned but they were low compared to the bloodlust he felt. His legs hurt but he kept on walking, head down. He started to mumble to himself but he didn’t know when.
His sanity slipped away with each passing step. The urge to find someone to kill and the need for this to be over pulled in equal measure.
The end was coming, one way or the other. He looked out at the dark background for a place to jump and saw nothing. He didn’t know what time it was.
He stopped walking and held the box out. Something in him screamed to drop it, run for the encampment, but he held onto it as if his life depended on it.
The old crone’s voice spoke up over the babble, “Open it boy, and see what’s inside.” She cackled, echoing across the desert.
Peter opened the box and stared. It held a gun and a single bullet. What the fuck was he supposed to do with one bullet?
“You said seven, you bitch!”
“Seven indeed, boy. It’ll come to you if you want it to,” she said, not unkindly.
Peter looked at the gun in the box and then at the bullet. It wasn’t silver and appeared normal, but the math didn’t work. He had to kill seven of something with one bullet.
He plucked the bullet out of the box and then the gun. He threw the box to the ground and glared at the solution, not seeing it yet.
How the hell was he supposed to… His thought trailed off. The voices all stopped and so did the images. The emptiness was staggering and he took a step back.
“You said seven, you old bitch.” Peter laughed again. He laughed until his eyes watered.
“It starts from within,” he said and looked for the moon. It was time.
A single gunshot echoed across the flat desert land as seven devils died, all at once, altogether.
~ Christopher A. Liccardi
© Copyright Christopher A. Liccardi. All Rights Reserved.
Daddy, Daddy! Look! It’s snowing. Can we go out and play?”
Ophelia giggled and pressed her face close to the windowpane, staring at the flakes descending from the sky. She traced her chubby finger along the frost touched glass, waiting for an answer.
It never came.
Her silent father only sat in his high-backed chair and gulped another mouthful of Scotch. He stared into the flames crackling in the fireplace, ignoring anything else. When he drained the glass, he poured himself another drink.
Impatient, Ophelia sighed and climbed down from her window ledge perch. She glided out of the room in search of her mother. She found her in the kitchen washing dishes.
“It’s snowing, Mummy. Can we go play in the snow?”
Her mother never looked at her, simply kept at her task, and Ophelia sighed again. “No one pays attention to me anymore.” She tried stamping her foot. It did no good. She pouted and yelled at the top of her lungs, “I want to play in the snow!”
Still no response. Her mother stood at the sink, washing a teacup, oblivious to her daughter’s tantrum. Dejected, Ophelia gave up and wandered upstairs to her room. She didn’t like going there anymore, but it had the best view of the back yard.
Entering, she gave a little sighing whisper. “It’s so empty now. I wish Mummy hadn’t taken all my things away.”
Then she smiled. At least her own small chair still stood by the window. Ophelia walked past the crisply made bed and curled up in its seat. She laid her hand on the frosty glass and watched the snow fall. She loved the soft quiet of it, its gentle flutter as it blanketed the ground; remembered the crisp, cold touch of it on her tongue.
She gazed at the snow until the edges of night crept past the sun.
Voices from downstairs finally pulled her attention away. Her parents were arguing. Again. She slipped from the chair and ventured to the top of the stairs. Below her, in the hallway, the pair were screaming at each other.
“God, you’re drunk again! That’s all you ever do now! Sit in that damn room and drink! You smell like a goddamn distillery! What happened to you?”
“You know what happened! I’m sorry I didn’t handle it as well as you! Prancing about, like our fucking life didn’t fall apart! I’m not as cold-hearted as you I guess!”
“At least I’m not running away and jumping head first into a bottle!”
“Stop it!” An anguished cry rose from Ophelia’s throat. “Why are you always fighting? Why can’t it be like before?” She practically flew down the stairs and sped past her parents into her father’s sanctuary. She curled into a ball in the corner and waited until the angry voices stopped.
She looked up as her father entered and flopped in his chair. He poured himself a drink, as her mother trailed him to the doorway, hesitating to come all the way in.
“Another drink? Predictable.” The mother’s face scrunched into a look of contempt. “I don’t understand, when did you turn into such a coward? What do you get out of it? Why do you sit here, night after night, drinking yourself into oblivion? It isn’t healthy.” She took a step closer, her voice softening. “She’s gone. Ophelia’s gone. You need to face it.”
From across the room, Ophelia gasped, her little form shaking. “Shush, Mummy, shush! Don’t say such things!”
The man in the chair looked up, and stared. His grip on the glass of Scotch tightened.
Ophelia’s mother continued, “Wake up! Our daughter’s been dead a year, and brooding here won’t bring her back.”
Ophelia whined, her face suddenly pale, and translucent. She whispered. “No. No! I’m not, Mummy, I’m not! I’m right here.”
Her father turned his head slightly, looking away from Ophelia’s mother.
That enraged the woman and she screamed, “Did you hear me? I said wake up! Our daughter’s dead! Time to face it!”
For a moment the air in the room seemed to slow, and every breath sounded large and lingering. Then Ophelia screeched, “I won’t listen anymore! I’m not dead!” The child rushed to her father’s side. “You’re upsetting Daddy!”
Her father’s face seemed to pale at her words, and Ophelia rested her head against his chair, so close she could smell the whiskey. “Don’t listen to her, Daddy. I’m here. I’ll always be here. I promised.”
Her father took a gulp of liquor and stared at Ophelia’s mother. She stared back, words tumbling from her mouth, “Why? Why are you torturing yourself? I don’t think I can take this much longer.”
“I don’t know why.” His voice barely sounded above a murmur. “I understand she’s dead. I was there in the hospital same as you. It’s just… sometimes I can feel her. Feel her in this room with me, like she’s talking to me.”
Ophelia laid her little hand on his arm. Her father shivered. “It’s all right, Daddy. I’m still here. I didn’t go. Don’t listen to Mummy. I promised I’d stay. You remember, that night in the hospital. I promised not to go. And I didn’t. I’ll stay with you forever and ever. Right here with you. For always.”
Her father took another drink, and closed his eyes. “I think I’m losing my mind. I swear sometimes I can hear her voice calling to me. Calling to her Daddy.”
Ophelia smiled, and kissed him on the cheek.
“Forever and always, Daddy.”
~ A. F. Stewart
© Copyright 2017 A. F. Stewart. All Rights Reserved.
Rebecca’s toes curled in her boots when her feet touched the unholy earth. Ancient trees populated the forest ahead, pale fog twisting between their trunks with serpentine grace. Gnarled limbs formed an impenetrable canopy above, coloring all with a nocturnal hue. Tendrils of mist slithered around her legs, and her knees ached to buckle, but she forced herself on; she knew fear would bring demise.
She thought of Oliver. His shining face cast iron rods into her bones. It kept her from succumbing to the black moss which grabbed at her feet. His smile, the way he always wanted his sandwiches without the crust, his unending questions—memories that powered her will.
Movement in the brush clenched her jaw. But her eyes never averted the path; they stared forward, glazed with determination, intent only on reaching the end. After that it wouldn’t matter.
A clearing opened ahead. Rebecca stopped and stood tall.
A breath of evil wind sung the tune of damned souls; agonized wails filled the air. Her ears begged silence, pained by the despair in each note. But those countless voices didn’t cause her to stray. Ollie meant everything. She’d sacrifice all for him to live again.
“You’ve braved the darkness.” The words came from all directions, faint whispers carried by a quiet breeze. “But you aren’t without fear. How much can you endure?”
Visions of unspeakable torment invaded her mind—mutilated bodies writhing in ebon mud, eyes removed, mouths contorted by ineffable suffering; they sang together like Hell’s choir. She saw their lifeforce seep into the ground, feeding the roots of the forest as they sprouted and entwined themselves within the bare husks left behind. Worms crawled through the ground on which they decomposed; they fed in the tainted soil.
“You’re quite strong. Few have remained on their feet up to this point.”
A slight pride swelled in her gut but she immediately subdued it. She didn’t want them to see. But the quiver in her bowels alluded that it was already too late.
Malicious laughter echoed—the amusement of a thousand vicious creatures, their attention focused on her vulnerable position. Her shoulders twitched, tried to fold inward.
“You really are brave,” the voice said. “We could tear you apart. And keep you alive to endure it. This frightens you. But I see something which frightens you more. What do you desire?”
She wondered if it was a rhetorical question. They just want me to say it, she thought. “My son… I want Ollie back.”
Another laugh came from the woods. But unlike before, it was from a singular entity—a lone bellow among the din of ridicule previously voiced. She balled her fists with moistened palms.
“Don’t be angry. I can offer what you seek. But you must offer something in return.”
An enormous albino worm slithered toward her from the thick layer of mist. It raised its head and weaved in a hypnotic motion. Its repulsive, blank surface was nothing more than pulsating flesh with no discernable features. A suffocating odor wafted from the creature. Its very sight defiled her thoughts. Rebecca stared back at the ghastly being, unaware what resided inside. Its unearthly form negated reason; some things that shouldn’t exist do.
“What do you want?” she asked.
Purple veins bulged from the white worm’s glossy flesh. They pulsed in a sickening rhythm. Countless red eyes flickered in the darkness behind it, like demon stars in a vast and wicked universe.
A boy’s head burst through the soil next to the worm, followed by its limp corpse.
Vines lifted her son’s body from the ground. Her eyes bled salty grief.
“You want him to live?”
“Then he will.”
Her Ollie’s pallid face lightened, eyes twitched. The vines withdrew and he stood on his own, staring with a disquiet gaze.
“He’s alive! Oliver, you’re here!”
The boy stood silent.
The veins on the worm’s body pulsated with vigor. “Now, come to me.”
She stepped forward, tremors shaking every muscle. Hot sweat leaked from her skin, soaked her clothes. She clenched her hands and breathed deep.
The holders of the crimson eyes came out from the shadows, sharp toothed grins spreading below. Remnants of humanity were carved into their knotty faces, eroded by the nefarious mist. Thin bodies crowded around her, skin like the bark of trees. Their clawed hands embraced her, took her into their communion of evil. She knew not what they were, only that she’d wither and become one of them.
As they carried her away, she watched Oliver. And although his stare held a ghostly atmosphere, he was alive.
~ Lee A. Forman
© Copyright 2017 Lee A. Forman. All Rights Reserved.
Her eyes speak volumes, assuring him it will be as it was; it will be alright. He knows it won’t be—it can’t be.
Nothing escapes the scrutiny of the incandescent lighting above their heads. No dark space exists for him in which to hide. He scrubs the stubble along his chin. “It’s coming out amazing, honey.”
He watches the artist deliver life to his daughter with thoughtful strokes, imbuing pallid skin with a fresh blush. He pushes a smile to his lips, watching his little girl watch him. She knows his nuances; the flutter of his lashes gives him away every time. She is his blood, after all.
Statuesque, she sits quietly for her portrait. It crushes his heart. Her beautiful lips, once so full like those of her mother, stretch like crinkled strips of weathered jerky now, the music silenced from her dancing eyes. She is tired, so tired, draining slowly from the inside. He scrubs his chin, weary as well, weary and broken witnessing the erosion of his child.
The artist half speaks, half clears this throat. “Sir… Sir?”
“Yes, I’m sorry,” he croaks.
The artist nods politely, aware he has trespassed across guarded domain. Brush hovering atop the canvas, he motions to a specific area of the portrait, then repositions himself atop his stool, respectfully waiting.
“What is it, Daddy?” his little girl inquires; the harsh lighting does nothing to conceal the flutter of his lashes. Quickly, realization dawns; she is his blood, after all. “Daddy, he can paint me as I was that day, it’s okay.”
The artist reaches forward, pats her knee, resumes painting once again. Before long, the canvas depicts wavy locks where no hair has existed for some time. It flows in luxurious strokes; the toe of the artist’s brush a mere whisper in the sea of her chestnut mane. At long last, the final touch—soft pinpricks of white to lend the gleam back into her eyes. The artist lowers his arm. “I believe I am done, sir.”
His vision blurs; he cannot quite make out the deft details of the artist’s conception, not yet. He wipes at his tears. “Baby, you look…”
He wishes to say beautiful, but the word fails to find his lips. Instead, her portrait seizes his attention, unwelcome details pulling his eye. Flustered, he swings his gaze toward the artist.
The man has already packed his tools, cleaned his brush. With a dispassionate tone, the artist states, “The devil is in the details, sir.”
Open mouthed he stares, beyond the depiction of her soft countenance, beyond the eternal capture of her cherubic innocence, he gapes at the jarring angle of her neck; the angry bruises that ring it, marring what should be a masterpiece. “She was terminal,” he barely mutters. “The disease, it was taking her.”
The painter turns to him. “Yes it was, and had you left well enough alone, I would have no need to take you, too.”
His hands flutter about his neck. The incandescent lighting above reveals long slits along his forearms; nothing escapes its scrutiny. “This isn’t… It was a mercy, she was suffering,” he pleads.
“Daddy, no one understands it was an act of love,” her gentle, childish voice intones. By the time he faces her, she is gone. A ghost of her ghost.
He lunges for the painting, but the artist seizes him by the neck. “Take a long, last look at her. She finds her peace in the form I have painted. As for you, peace will be but a memory where we are going.”
Slowly, the painter drags him away, until the incandescent glow no longer reveals a thing, and the pitch is all he will ever know.
~ Joseph A. Pinto
© Copyright 2017 Joseph A. Pinto. All Rights Reserved.