The Crows

“The crows can see you. They are waiting.”

I didn’t look at my sister—still in disbelief she returned to the city—but I felt her shift beside me on the bench. I replied, “There are no crows in the city, Isabella. There haven’t been for years.”

From the corner of my eye, I saw her shake her head. “They’re still here.”

“No. You’re wrong. They left us.” I stood and walked away, leaving her alone on the bench. 

Her voice followed me, “They see you, Anna.”

I walked home through the empty streets. The city wasn’t crowded since the plagues. Many left, followed the crows, but a stubborn few remained. As I climbed the stairs to my apartment, I wondered why I stayed. Fear maybe, of what was beyond the city, or perhaps habit. Lately, none of my reasons mattered. I entered my apartment with Isabella’s words ringing in my ears.

“The crows can see you.” 

I hadn’t thought of them for a long time. Memories shifted in my mind, and I recalled the last days of the final plague. When the world understood. When we finally saw the crows: black-winged angels, guiding the souls of the dead away. In those end days, the sky was black with them and the air strident with the sound of their wings and caws. Yet, they vanished after the plagues. Abandoned those that remained.

“No. They never abandoned you.” 

I glanced towards the door. Isabella stood there.

Damn, she followed me home. Why? Why did she come back?

Isabella looked at me and said, “It’s time to go. Time to stop pretending. This isn’t life, Anna. You need to remember you’re dead.”

I snorted and looked at my sister with contempt. “Do you think I’m that stupid? I’m not one of the delusional ones. I know I died. I know you’re dead too.”

Isabella sighed. “Then why do you stay?”

I hesitated, then replied, “I don’t know. Fear, perhaps. The city is familiar, comforting, even if it is a city of ghosts. It was home.” I turned away, staring at a dusty picture of my deceased husband. “Maybe we’re only echoes, afraid to move on, but it’s something to cling to.” 

“Is it enough?” Isabella held out a hand.

I turned away. “Why have you come back? Why now? You crossed over years ago. You didn’t stay. Not like me.”

Isabella moved to my side, putting a hand on my shoulder. I glanced at her and she smiled.

“I’m a harbinger. The crows sent me, and others, to guide the last souls to their final rest.”

I shook my head. “The crows abandoned us.”

“No. They only waited. No soul can move on until they’re ready. Now they sent me to bring you home.”

“After all this time?” I trembled and jerked away. I walked to the window and stared at the city.

What’s beyond this? Is it good? Am I ready?

If I could have cried, I would have. I blurted, “What if I don’t want to go?”

“We both know you want this, Anna.” Isabella came over to stand at the window with me. “Leave this place. Your family is waiting for you.”

I gasped, staring at her. “They are? Mother and Father will be there? Josh?”

She nodded. “They’re eager to see you again.” 

I looked back out at the city and I knew I wanted to see my family again. “How long before…?”

Isabella took my hand and led me out of the building. As we stood on the street she whispered, “The crows are coming.”

I glanced around and saw the sky full of black wings and heard the echo of the empty metropolis. I felt a whoosh of air and the sound of beating wings.

Then I embraced the crows and let them take me away from the city of the dead.

~ A. F. Stewart

© Copyright 2020 A. F. Stewart. All Rights Reserved.

 

Shadows

The blast stripped his skin away, charring the flesh underneath and turning his bones to dust. His eyelids were sealed by the heat, the fluid orbs boiling and bursting in their sockets. He felt a brief moment of pain, then nothing, as his limbs were ripped from his body, his guts torn open and his head shattered. After the explosion, there was nothing left except for a few misshapen lumps of gristle and burnt meat.

He woke. He was in the boiler room as usual. He stood, dusting himself down. He quickly realised the room had changed. There was a hole in the roof and the room was full of smoke and debris. The furnace was ripped open, sheared metal hanging from the frame. He looked down and saw the charred, rendered remains of his body. He remembered the explosion. He was dead.

He’d often thought about death, not morbidly, but in a detached way. What did it feel like, what did you see, experience? Now he could find out.

There were sirens in the distance, but they didn’t concern him. He was well past the point of being saved. No defibrillator was going to bring him back; they’d have to take his body out in a bucket.

He walked upstairs to the factory floor, amused to see the panic and fear on his colleagues’ faces. They had practised drills for this type of occurrence, but none of them seemed to remember. They ran for the doors in a panicked mob. No-one was checking for colleagues, no-one was counting heads, no-one was grabbing fire extinguishers. He laughed to see them, but reflected he would probably be doing the same. He wondered how long it would be before his absence was noticed, who would discover him, the memory of the sight no doubt being burned into their memory forever.

He walked out the factory, intrigued to find he wasn’t floating or drifting. His body felt as solid as always. Nobody noticed him, so it was clear he was invisible. He walked towards a stack of pallets with the intention of seeing if he could walk through objects. The bump on his nose suggested he couldn’t.

He wandered away from the site, keen to get home. He had a sense that his time was limited, and he wanted to see his family for the last time. He wanted to say goodbye.

His car wasn’t an option, so he decided to walk.

The factory was situated in the working-class part of town. It was a Victorian red-brick edifice, originally a flour mill, but converted into a small timber yard in the late 1970s. He walked down streets full of red brick terraced houses, originally built to house the flour mill workers and their families. The homes were modest, two-up and two-down, with a front door that opened straight onto the street and a small yard behind. An alleyway at the back allowed access to the yards.

As he walked down the quiet street he became aware of curtains being twitched in almost every house. Was he visible? Could they see his injuries? It didn’t take him long to realise he was being watched by the dead. Pale faces with sunken black eyes started at him from behind glass. These were the dead of past ages, condemned to the house where they died, condemned to move unseen amongst the living. He saw the sadness in their faces, the despair.

As he walked, getting closer to his home and family with every step, the world around him changed. The real world, the one he had occupied until twenty minutes ago, was starting to change, starting to become unfocused and misty. The figures in the houses were becoming more distinct, more solid, while the bricks and mortar became more and more transparent. His feet started to sink into the tarmac of the pavement. The world darkened. The street, the one that belonged to the real world, faded away. He realised the houses, the pavement, the entire mortal realm had passed from his view.

He found himself on a wide open plain, full of darkness and shadows. The dead were all around him.  Most were heading to an unseen point in the distance, some were simply wandering around, lost. He joined the throng, walking to the unknown destination.

An endless time later, travelling through this dark, shadowed land, he arrived at his destination. Standing there, with countless others, he looked across the river into the darkness. Boats arrived on the bank every few minutes, the dead boarded and the boats headed back out into the darkness. Some of his new companions shuffled around, unsure, but he knew he had to make a decision. To go across the river meant the end. He wouldn’t see his family again.  To stay on this side was to become a wraith, a spirit that haunted the mortal world, being able to see but not being seen. The sadness was overwhelming.

He stood on the river bank and made his decision. He remembered the misery and despair on the faces staring out at him from the houses in the street. He didn’t want to suffer that fate. Instead, he would move on. He stepped onto the next boat.

∼ RJ Meldrum

© Copyright RJ Meldrum. All Rights Reserved.

 

The Shadow Blight

The Shadow Blight lived between the bewitched wind and the waning moon, beneath the cold whispers of autumn and the first kiss of winter. He moved as a gossamer ghost, shifting along the seasons when the old year turned new, when the voices of the forest told their stories. He smiled. His tale was foremost, a warning to all and veneration to appease. 

Weave my story with your words and summon me.”

Among the trees the Shadow Blight slithered, listened and lingered, melting into the flickering silhouettes cast by the flames of campfires. The air turned chill and the light dimmed as once more a story unfolded, one told for a thousand years. 

“Beware the Shadow Blight. A cursed spirit of the land, a soul reaper.” An old man stirred the fire, nodding at his compatriots. “Born from the primal night and the eternal fear, the creature comes to us for our light and hope, feeds on our warmth and joy. We must be vigilant and reverent, guard our homes and words, to never invoke its wrath or presence, lest we fall to its power.”

Then another voice scoffed, “A child’s tale, lies meant to scare, nothing more.” The man who spoke snorted, as the others made warding signs. “I’ll not believe in a fool’s story.”

The wind blew suddenly, and the fire snapped with sparking embers.

Do not mock me, unbeliever.” 

The Shadow Blight laid a hand on the man’s shoulder fusing cold despair into his bones that would never vanish. The man shivered and fell silent, staring into the flames. By morning, he would be a hollow shell: afraid, hopeless and slave to a forever misery. 

Remember me, always.”

The Shadow Blight moved on. 

He drifted as an imperceptible phantasm, shifting along the edges of vision and well-worn roads, drawn by the voices of the crackling hearth and their whispered warnings. The settlement lights delighted him, and he slid from village to village. His dark fingers brushed window sills and shutters as he wandered past each house. He rattled door handles and knocked softly on the wood.

Let me in.” 

The people inside shivered with his words, terror bled from hidden depths and spilled against the night. Not a door opened until he came to one neglected, one entrance unlocked to his presence.

I am here.”

The door creaked open, flapped in the wind, and the doomed inhabitants gasped. The candle flames and hearth fires flickered, then died, and frost filled the windows. A happy family of four felt the ice form in their veins as the Shadow Blight’s arms encircled them, as he murmured in their ears. 

“Come to me. You are mine.

Their eyes closed and their breath slowed. One by one they died, their bodies still and frozen, their lives over. But their souls… 

Their souls followed the Shadow Blight home.

~ A. F. Stewart

© Copyright 2020 A. F. Stewart. All Rights Reserved.

The End

“They did this to themselves. They brought us back and now is the time for them to feel the consequences.”

I look from Beleth to the house next door and give a friendly wave. Pastor Tom, sitting on his front porch, pretends not to see it and turns his head from our direction.

“That’s not very Christian of him now, is it?” I say.

Beleth continues, ignoring my comment. “Nothing can be in moderation anymore. Everything is to the extreme,” the last bit spoken like a commercial announcer. “So, here we are. And soon it will be time to right the ship.”

A group of children and parents round the corner to our house. Beleth stops talking and waits. The kids gasp as the motion sensors kick on and our yard comes alive. Fog rolls out from the machines tucked behind our bushes, the lights on our porch flicker on and off, and Beleth cackles as eerie music emanates from unseen places. A couple of children approach unaffected while others hesitantly come up holding their parents’ hands.

“Trick or treat!”

Beleth stands up and opens his arms wide. Halloween is the one night he can be most like himself, his feline features muted but not totally hidden. “Wonderful children, just wonderful! Now, before you get a treat, you all must answer a tricky question from me. Are you ready?”

The children nod and some of the parents take pictures. Beleth gets down on one knee. “Who will be brave and step forward to answer my question?”

His grin is like the Cheshire Cat and I can’t help but smile and shake my head, taking one more glance across the yard at Pastor Tom, who is scowling at the scene.

A boy, about ten, dressed as a soldier, steps up to Beleth. “Ah, a brave warrior!” Jeeze, he’s laying it on thick this year. “Now, to get your treat, answer me this: What is … twenty times ten?”

Beleth’s grin never faltered. You write one book on mathematics and you think you are God’s gift. The boy looks around for a second, the question seemingly catching him off guard. “Uhh, two hundred, sir.”

“Very good!” he says, and touches the boy on the shoulder. “You can get your treat from my friend Adra right there.”

I hand out the full-size candy bars, yeah, I’m showing off, what about it? as each child answers their math-related question.

As the last one comes to me, Beleth stands back up. “Gene, is that you? I didn’t even recognize Timmy in his costume! We have enough for the parents too, don’t be shy.” He bares his fangs and his cat eyes light up. Gene comes up and introduces us to the other parents. Beleth shakes each one’s hand. “Thank you so much for bringing your kids and letting them have some fun on this wonderful night.”

I know how his touch marks them and I’m not sure if they will thank him or curse him for it later.

The group heads next door to Pastor Tom’s. He waits on his porch and hands each kid a pamphlet. I’ve read it, and it’s not very good, all about the evils of Halloween and how you should have Jesus as your lord and savior and whatnot. Really not my style. Don’t get me wrong, I like Jesus. He’s a good guy and he’s a big part of the reason for what’s about to happen.

The kids take their “treat” from Pastor Tom and move on to the next house on our block. Beleth’s cackle pulls me back to the task at hand as he gets up from his chair.

“Wonderful, children, just wonderful!” And the scene from moments ago plays out numerous times throughout the next couple of hours.

***

“Adra, it’s ten fifty, you ready to do this?” Beleth asks from the other room.

“You know, it’s been a few minutes since I’ve been myself. I’ve got a bit more to contend with than you do. One minute.” I run my hands down my six-packed torso. It’s been much too long since I was my real self and, damn, I look good. Yeah, still showing off. Deal with it. “Besides, he lives next door. Not like we have far to go.”

Stepping back, I take in the image staring back at me from the full-length mirror. I twist my neck, stretching the muscles. I smile at the sight, but it isn’t as … well, charming as Beleth’s. In my true form I have the head and body of a donkey. I walk upright on hooves, but I need hands, so while they match the rest of my fur, they are still human form. I flick my long tail and unfurl the peacock feathering behind me. Each of the green feathers has a blue eye in it that I can use to see my warriors across the world. I snap the feathers closed and let my tail drag behind me as I walk out of the bedroom.

Beleth is waiting in the living room. “Marvelous,” he says. “Adramelech, you are a sight.” He is in full black cat form, and like me, he still walks upright and chooses to keep his human hands too. “What music shall we dance to? Maybe the Valkyries?” From his body the song begins to play quietly in the room.

I shake my head, rolling my eyes, and walk out the front door. “Now who are we waiting on?”

The street is quiet at this time of night and there is a subtle hint of sulfur in the air. I unfurl my train and before I can open myself to the eyes of my soldiers, I hear Beleth’s, “Mmmmm.” Told you I looked good.

Everyone is in place waiting on our signal.

On the road, the two of us walk next door, ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ playing every step of the way. I look across the street at Gene’s house. They are marked and will be safe, through this round. Beyond that, I’m not sure. All the powers-that-be want is the world to get back to a balance. And once we start, we won’t stop until the bosses are happy with their creation.

We look like two well-costumed humans, as do the rest of us all over the world. If anyone is watching, there’s no cause for alarm. At least not until it’s too late. The motion sensor detects us and Pastor Tom’s porch light pops on as we step up to his door.

This is where it begins, with a horribly misinformed ‘servant’ of God, in charge of a nothing little church in a suburb of St. Louis.

No one could envision it starting this way.

I close my tail, pull my leg up, and am about to kick the door in when…

“Wait a second,” Beleth harshly whispers. “I have it.” ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ turns into one of Beleth’s favorite songs, ‘Superbeast’. The aggressive drums and guitar swell around us and off into the night air.

“Really?” I say. “Little on the nose, don’t you think? And there is no way he is going to know this.”

“Who cares about him? I think it’s great. It’s fucking Rob Zombie, over-the-top rock and roll about monsters and sex and violence. Plus, have you seen his movies? It’s everything they hate. This is the perfect music.” He nods at the door, teeth bared. “Go for it.”

I kick my leg out and the door bursts inward. We rush in, heading up the stairs to Pastor Tom’s room. The growling vocals and crunching guitar fill the house, ‘devil’ music announcing our arrival.

Pastor Tom’s eyes are wide as he scrambles out of bed. “Wha … what are you? What’s going on?”

Beleth steps out from behind me. “We’ve come for your daughter, Chuck.” And he laughs at his own joke.

Pastor Tom screams and pisses himself, then quickly regains some form of composure. “My daughter? I … I don’t have a—”

“Really? It’s from a movie. It’s when—oh hell. Never mind. No respect for the classics.” Beleth glances up at me and is about to say more when he’s interrupted by an outburst from Pastor Tom.

“Get out of here! The power of Christ compels you! The power of Christ compels you!”

I let my tail free once more, each eye begins moving as I watch through them. Across the world my men are attacking. They fight side by side with the angels. Our time is now, the Vetting has begun.

“The power of Christ compels you! The power of—”

“Give it a rest, man!” Beleth barks at him. “This isn’t The Exorcist or something. And to be fair, Christ is sick of your shit. You and your kind.”

The man of God before us once again tries to control the situation. “Kill me, foul demon, and I will be in heaven with my creator.”

“Care to explain things to him, Adra?”

His eyes widen even more at the mention of my name, as it all sinks in, the whole demons living right next door and whatnot.

“You see, Pastor Tom, the world is about to change. We are going to kill you, but you aren’t going to heaven to be with God. Oh no. People like you are why God sent us back. You have perverted his word. Twisting everything to make it an evil or a sin. That isn’t life. That isn’t the way.”

“No! No, this is a test. This is my test. You are false prophets. Demons meant to tempt me. You…”

I step forward and slap him across his face, shutting him up.

“And it’s not just your religion, so you aren’t even special there. It’s all of them. All the extremists in the world. Things have gotten a little too out of control here for God’s liking. He let you pathetic creatures think for yourselves and you fucked it up. Frankly, I’m surprised he waited this long, but I digress. So, he has sent down the angels from heaven and called the warriors from the underworld to fight together and regain control.”

Pastor Tom stares at me in silence.

Beleth rejoins the conversation. “Look, man, it’s irony.” He turns to me. “Irony, right?”

I shrug my shoulders, and he continues. “Irony. God, the good guy, is going to have demons, the bad guys, work with his warriors to reset this mess of a planet. Those that survive will be a part of his new plan. And all you overzealous, everything bashing, every other religion hating, everything is evil people, are not part of it.”

Beleth lunges forward, cat-like claws slash at Pastor Tom’s neck and blood explodes from it. I see him scream, but hear no sound as music blares forth from my partner, shattering the windows throughout the house.

Beleth quiets the music and Pastor Tom gurgles in the corner struggling to survive. “Where to next?” My partner says.

“Are you kidding me?” I say as I receive our next order. “Topeka, Kansas.”

“I have just the song.” Beleth blinks out of existence and I swear off in the distance I hear, ‘It’s Raining Men.’

“I’ve been wanting a shot at those guys. This is going to be fun.” I say to Pastor Tom, and disappear from the room.

∼ Mark Steinwachs

© Copyright Mark Steinwachs. All Rights Reserved.

Hairpin

Please, oh please, oh please, was all she could think as she raced to the hospital. The call had come nearly thirteen minutes ago; thirteen minutes of unadulterated hell. She’d dropped everything in a frantic rush and flew from the house. It was such a beautiful summer day; he’d asked if he could ride his bike with the neighborhood kids. It was such a big deal for him – they’d never asked him to hang out before, there was no reason to say no. She was so proud to see her little man growing up.

Oh, God! He just learned to ride last month. I should have said no, why didn’t I just say no? Her own thoughts tugged at her as she narrowly missed being crushed by a semi hauling lumber as she darted around a slow-moving car in her lane. She’d panicked the moment she’d heard the woman from the hospital say his name, she didn’t listen to the rest of what the nurse had said, she’d just bolted for the car. All that mattered was getting to Robbie.

BWWAAHHH! A blaring horn interrupted her thoughts. She was rounding a hairpin turn in the outside lane passing yet another car when she looked over at the driver. He was trying to signal her; swinging his arms wildly as he screamed from inside his own vehicle. She glanced forward just in time to see a cement truck bearing down on her full speed. Slamming the brakes and yanking the wheel hard to the left, she saw a flash of metal just before her tires skidded off the road.

The car tumbled down the wooded mountainside. As it careened off trees and rocks, the sound of shattering glass and screeching metal was a symphony of destruction in the cramped interior. Mouth stretched open; the violent downward motion choked back her scream. Time seemed to slow to a crawl, what took mere seconds turned into infinity as she stared in terror through the cracked windshield. The car eventually came to rest in the ravine. Inside, all was silent as the shattered safety glass tinged sienna; her crushed and mutilated form hung from the seat-belt above it.

∼ Nina D’Arcangela

© Copyright Nina D’Arcangela. All Rights Reserved.

Dark Soil

Plunging, scooping, the sound of dirt sliding off each shovel as it’s tossed to the side. Another plunge, another scoop, more shoosh – the pile grows larger, the hole surrounding their boots deeper, the men more weary. The scent of dry dirt giving way to the earthy aroma of moist, dark soil.

Removing his cap and scratching his head, he asks, “‘Ere, guv, don’t you think this looks more than a bit odd?”

The other spits, digs, then replies. “Blood well is, son.”

Digging deeper, the dirt turning firmer, becoming more dense. Each shovel still plunging; a foot braced on the back lending force to the spade as it slides into hardened ground. Loose dirt scooped upon the belly of the trowel tossed above as it slips off the metal edge – the hole growing with each effort.

Removing his cap, wiping sweat from his brow, he asks, “Take a butcher’s. Tell me that ain’t too wide.”

The other spits, digs, then replies. “Blood well is, son.”

Tree roots tangle and snag, yet dig further they’re told, so they do. No longer plunging, only scraping a hardened surface painted putrid with residue – ground now removed, the scent is strong, almost fetid; a pungent odor.

Removing his cap and squinting in the dim light, he says, “Weird innit? Strange that there ain’t nothin’ but wooden planks, eh, guv?”

The other spits, swings, then replies, “Blood well is, son.”

Hefting the crimson coated shovel over his shoulder, he glances at the body lying near his feet, takes in the breadth of the pit they’ve dug, then turns to the man standing above him.

He spits, stares, then says, “Ain’t fill in’ ‘er in, am I, guv?”

One pistol shot fires. “No, I believe not.”

∼ Nina D’Arcangela

© Copyright Nina D’Arcangela. All Rights Reserved.

The Voices Want Out

Madness.

Am I mad? I don’t know. Maybe. Maybe. I should write that down. In crayon? Felt tip marker? A quill pen? No, not a quill pen. I’ll use the pen in my hand. There’s a clean spot on the wall over there.

I scribble my thoughts on the white painted wall, next to yesterday’s thoughts. I step back and smile. I like the pretty squiggles, all blue and curly. I wonder what they mean? I think what I write is language. I know it comes from inside my head. From the voices. It pours out, sometimes English, sometimes other languages, sometimes a strange script I’ve never seen before. No one has seen that writing in a long, long time. I’m not sure how I know that, but I do. My scribbles are all over the house now. On the walls, the floor, the furniture. I even managed to get some on the ceiling in the upstairs bathroom. I don’t remember that, but it is there. Everything has been redecorated in ink: black, blue, green… red.

No, don’t think about the red. Don’t ever think about the red. You might go mad if you think about the red. Must remember. Keep the door closed. Always keep the door closed.

I shut my eyes. When I open them I’m in the hall outside the door. The smell is worse today, but I’m getting used to it. It doesn’t make me gag anymore. My hand trembles. I know what’s going to happen. I start writing on the door. Again.

But it’s not red. The red is on the inside. Always on the inside. I scribble, though, in blue. Blue, blue. Blue like the sky. I haven’t seen the sky in a long time. Is it still blue? Or did it die, like… No, stay away from bad thoughts. Scribble, must scribble. What is it today? Runes I think. Warnings. That’s good. Must never open the door.

I lower the pen. I can hear the scraping now. And the angry whispers. The voices want out. I don’t think they like what I wrote. Too bad. They’re grounded. Locked in the room. While I write. Write everywhere. Wards. Runes. Spells. To keep them here. To keep them with me. Forever. They tried to get in my head. But it didn’t work. I got into theirs instead. I saw. Yes, I did. Now they’re mine.

To replace the red. Or make them pay. I don’t know. Maybe both. I want them back… No, don’t go there. Don’t go into the red. Shells, they’re just shells of what they were. The voices are inside them now.

I stare at the door. At the tattered teddy bear decal on the wood. I remember who used to live there, for a moment. Their little faces, their smiles, their laughs. Before the voices… before the red.

No, no, don’t go into the red. The voices will get out. Mustn’t let them out. Can’t give in. Always keep the door closed. Keep writing, keep warding. Remember, the voices want out. They must, never, ever get out.

~ A. F. Stewart

© Copyright 2018 A. F. Stewart. All Rights Reserved.

Carnival

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.

Tiny Cages

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

∼Veronica Magenta Nero

© Copyright 2017 Veronica Magenta Nero. All Rights Reserved.

Serpentine Willow

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.

“Oliver!”

Vines lifted her son’s body from the ground. Her eyes bled salty grief.

“You want him to live?”

“Yes.”

“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.