Lee Andrew Forman
The sounds of the world bring peace: crunching gravel, leaves dancing with nature, songs sung by the creations of life. Reality has other sides, some which only a vagabond can see along their journey. The pleasant are never left unappreciated. The darkest sit atop your shoulders, ever apparent in your sight.
A band of three delinquents emerge from the brush to intercept my path, smoke-filled ugliness trailing from their mouths. Their eyes immediately find me: the derelict, the tattered wanderer, the lonely victim. But their eyes only see what their minds can imagine. I sigh in response to their vile introductions.
Before they can hassle me further my front-side expands and splits down the middle. My innards expel themselves and splatter the deviants in carnage. Fluids dissolve their flesh; they scream a futile cry of agony no one will ever hear. Only when my would-be predators are mere remnants of ooze do my organs crawl back and nestle themselves where they belong, happy and well-fed.
“Shhhh, I’m here.”
The man shuddered, not quite sure yet what had happened to him. I rested his head in my lap, then pushed sweat-matted hair back from his face to see his terrified eyes.
“Help…me,” he begged.
I shook my head. “Sorry. This could have been avoided, but…” I gestured for him to look at himself.
He turned his head to gaze down his body. I let him scream at what the passing train had done. He tried to struggle, to thrash his arms and legs. He had no arms or legs. Shredded remnants of his severed limbs looked like piles of cooked raspberries strewn along the tracks. And, as I’d read would happen, the train’s weight had cinched the torn veins shut. He wasn’t bleeding out; he’d live a while yet. No one would find him here, though, where I’d tied him to the tracks.
“Please,” he begged again.
I shrugged and rose. “I warned you about those spam calls from your site.” Taking out my cell, I punched a number. The phone in the man’s pocket buzzed obnoxiously. “Press 2 to be placed on my do not call list,” I told him.
When I pulled the trigger years ago, I knew my turn would come. There is only one of us in the family at any time. My death is their first hit.
Blindfolded and with hands tied behind my back I shuffle along rocky ground. Whoever is behind me helps guide me. He nudges the back of my knee with his foot and I awkwardly let myself fall to my knees. He lays me flat, my face touching cold metal, then pulls the blindfold back enough for me to look down the long track. Not the same track I used of course, but the scene floods my memory. There is only one person who knows the story of my first hit. I never thought he would be the one.
“Thank you,” a male voice says, one I’ve known since he was born. “Your place of honor awaits.”
Those words, the exact ones I spoke when it was my turn, linger in my brain as I hear the click of the safety releasing.
Now You Stand and Wait
Scarlett R. Algee
They’d picked up her clothes along the track, almost too shredded to bother, and the whole time Shep had been grumbling you’re a damn fool, it ain’t the same no more; so when Shep squats by the rail and picks up a tuft of fluffy black fur, Ben hates him a little.
He clutches the ruined clothes, swats away Shep’s offered rifle, stares down the slope to the ground beneath the trestle bridge. Squints. Wonders. “She’s still my girl.”
Shep toes the claw marks along a rusted edge of rail. “You think that now.”
“She’s still Ellie. You just wait here.”
Alone, Ben treks down to the darkness under the bridge, stands at the bottom to a warning growl. He glimpses eyeshine in the black yards away. “Ellie, it’s Daddy.”
He steps closer. Another growl, deeper, but Ben can see the shape of her now, huge and magnificent, tail held out stiff. He clears his throat. “It’s gettin’ late. Your mama’s got supper waitin’.”
Ellie’s snarl is softer this time. Ben decides to take the chance. Sure, maybe he’s a fool, but she is still his girl.
Step by step, he walks into the darkness, toward the waiting wolf.
The Flattened Penny
I can still smell the copper stench.
And hear the way the train’s wheels screeched as it rolled over the penny on the track, squashing it razor thin. I watched Denny pick up the flat coin, after it cooled down, and wave it around laughing.
I didn’t laugh.
Denny never heard the whistle of the other train, the death train. The one I had seen before, that should have been my ride. One penny to the conductor as payment, but that foul creature didn’t care much about who held the coin. Easy enough to cheat him.
That’s the smell of copper I remember. His blood.
But better him than me.
Taking the Ride
The rumble loosens my gut; thrums through my body. My eyes quake in their jelly as teeth shiver saliva from plump, rouged lips. Searing heat washes over me as the screech assaults my core. I feel the shatter of my sinus cavities as the revolution of iron pressed upon iron crushes my head. Body thrashing in the wash, I Pollock the scree, feed the weeds; slick the rail for the next eager rider.
Definitely Not a God
Beneath the rocks and rails there lies a secret that our tiny town holds. We keep quiet and everything stays peaceful, that’s how it’s always been. Mama says it’s God under those tracks, says he protects us even in his sleep. I don’t think Mama knows what God is.
Late at night I sneak down to the tracks and kick the rocks as I walk past the iron ties. I can hear it, sometimes it sounds like snoring, but other times… If Mama could hear the noises I know she’d change her mind.
Just a ways ahead, the rocks shift and I sprint to see who’s there. The air smells of earth and death, my eyes settle on a gnarled looking creature hunching over in the moonlight. All six of its eyes blink then lock on me. I’ve never seen anything more gruesome, it grins and licks its crooked lips.
I turn to run but my foot snags the rusted rail. As I scramble to my feet, four more creatures step into sight. I was right Mama, definitely not a God.
Each piece of fiction is the copyright of its respective author and may not be reproduced without prior consent. © Copyright 2019
Within his castle of dark hearts, the Devil seated himself on a rosewood throne. Two rotted angels entered, a Sinner clutched between them. They forced the Sinner to kneel, then stepped back and folded their tattered wings tightly across their faces so that they could neither see nor hear what passed.
Alone with the Sinner, the Devil took a deep breath. “Give me your plea,” he demanded.
“Guilty,” the Sinner replied.
The Devil nodded his head vigorously. “Yes! Guilty! As no one before you has ever been.”
The Sinner showed no movement, made no sound.
“And yet,” the Devil sighed after a long moment. “Perhaps there are circumstances that might explain your actions, that might…justify your sin. Tell me.”
“There are none,” the Sinner said.
The Devil’s teeth ground together. He leaned forward, taloned hands closing on the armrests of his chair, squeezing the wood so hard that it splintered and blood began to run from beneath his nails like black pearls. He spat words like sleet at the Sinner.
“Give me something, some reason to grant you mercy.”
“If there is a reason, it’s already inside of you.”
“I do not wish to punish you,” the Devil said. “Not you!”
For the first time, the Sinner looked up. Her eyes danced with the shine of bullets and sabers.
“What would you have me say?”
“Do you want a lie? Or the truth?”
“Are they any different?”
“Perhaps. Perhaps not.”
“Give me one or the other. I must have something.”
The Sinner nodded. She rose to her feet, and did not look away from the Devil as she spoke.
“I hated you from the first moment I saw you. Your arrogance. And yes, your terrible beauty. But also, I sensed your weakness, your desire for me. I toyed with you. I manipulated you. How I laughed as you danced to my strings. The Devil. Such a grand fool!”
The Sinner shrugged then, before continuing. “But such games become tiring. My last bit of joy from you came when I pushed you away, to milk your confusion and hurt. Though, to see you now, so desperate to find a reason to forgive me, some reason to believe that I felt more than I did…well, that is perhaps worth a final and fatal chuckle.”
The Devil listened, and nodded. He leaned back and made a gesture. The rotted angels lowered their wings, took hold of the Sinner and pulled her from the room. The Devil remained alone in his fortress of broken souls, on a throne wet with blood and tears.
∼ Charles Gramlich
© Copyright Charles Gramlich. All Rights Reserved.
Upstairs the music plays, a tragic operatic aria of lament and loss. It drowns out the hiss and creak of the steam and wheels, and the crunch of bones. Oblivious laughter—from the latest guests—mingles with the song, their merry voices drifting into a preceding silence of parties long forgotten.
For the dead no longer scream.
Beneath the gaiety, the servants’ footfalls tread along the stair, from back rooms and the kitchens, down to the deepest level. There, they feed the machines stockpiled flesh. Watching the meat grind, the blood and bone pulverize into dripping globs of raw spat out into vats, waiting for dinners to come. In another corner, maids tuck away silks and jewels to sell.
Nothing to be wasted. No remains to be found.
Above it all the people circulate, eating canopies and drinking wine. The host, he smiles and makes the rounds, greeting and exchanging pleasantries. He gives them all the best of times, a fitting end before they become his next feast.
Lee Andrew Forman
Firm structure to fine dust—machines turn in unending drudge. Bleach powder, chalky, light, stirs endless with their rusted labor. Ill fated are the powers which motivate the process; knowing soon they’d become its product. Weakness feeds the goods produced, monsters purchase its favor. With delicate pouf, makeup, attire; they parade around with gratuitous chortles. Their faces worn in layers of death, they grin ever wide with flavor. For a bit of coin, their color reborn, pale as frosted glass. Those suffered the gift of an end, worth only a minute of reception, would be stripped of flesh and ground to pleasure each patron.
Every Last Damnèd Soul
Scarlett R. Algee
It’s a tricky business, distilling souls. Always have to boil the bitterness off first; it gunks up the works if you don’t, and it’s a bitch to clean out, pardon my saying. Take this lot—they’ve been stewing for three days just to get the residual resentment out. Drowners, all of them. We leave the salt water in, though; customers say it adds a little something to the finished product.
Some of the souls scream while they’re rendered. Some of them sing. I’m told it’s quite enticing. I’ve mostly learned to ignore it, myself.
Madam. Madam. What are you doing out here on the floor? No, you may not touch the machines. The experience would be damnably unpleasant for both of us, pardon my saying.
Madam, please—what’s that? Your son? You think you hear your son? You have my condolences, but that’s quite unlikely. They aren’t really identifiable now, so for your safety I must insist—madam! Madam!
Patterson? Yes, idiot, of course we stop the process! We need an extraction here! She’s the third one this month!
But save the blood. Every drop. The customers say it gives a certain ambiance. Besides, she sings prettily already, doesn’t she?
He fled. And the wicked followed. Their boots banged like gunshots as they chased him through the abandoned factory where he’d sought refuge. Down empty corridors, they went, through shattered doors. He knew this world and lost them in a room of silent turbines. The search moved on.
The hunters hooted through the vast spaces, first in glee, then frustration. The sounds faded, but the hunters were cunning. He stepped from his hiding place only to meet a brutal blow to the back. Tricked, he went down in terror, and rolled over to find himself encircled by humans. Snarling, they hefted steel bars torn from the factory’s rusted machines.
He threw up an arm; they hammered through that defense, smashing his limbs, crushing his abdomen, sending pieces of him clanging across the floor. Within moments his body lay in a heap of torn alloy. One eye sparked and sputtered. But with his other eye and the last of his consciousness he watched as they set him afire. His vision bloomed, then blackened. A human curse was the last thing he heard.
“Robot slag! Now let’s get the rest of ‘em.”
I cough as my gnarled hands run over the tarnished machine. “It’s amazing how many people don’t believe it happened. Proof that humans are fools. Wirths, Mengele, Clauberg; they would have been nothing without me. Mere footnotes.” I lead him amongst the tanks, my fingers gently caressing them. I shuffle along as best I can, years of dust getting caught in the sun coming through the windows. The tiny particles remind of …“I killed millions. Let that sink in. Millions. And here I am. I live my life hidden in plain sight, just like her.” I kiss the tank gently. “Now it’s your turn. Go back and make your country great again, and then the world. Go, my lieb enkel, my dear grandson. Finish what I started.”
“I promise,” he whispers and kisses my forehead then walks away from me.
I lay down on the cold floor. The screams of decades ago flood back. Smiling, I close my eyes for the last time. I only wish I would get to hear that sweet anguish again.
Mercedes M. Yardley
He was hungry. He was always hungry, always starving, always ravenous. His face was far too sharp and his cheekbones cut against his skin in the most visceral of ways. Once he had a name and even people who called him by it, and food was a bit easier to come by. Never quite enough, surely, but not too little.
He slept in the abandoned factory, catching rats and spiders when he could. It didn’t matter if they were malformed by radiation, because so was he. He stuffed them in his mouth, piece by piece, bit by bit. If he just held on, if he just stayed alive, all of this would make sense one day. He had to believe it.
After closing the door, the towheaded child turned, “Father, I’ve returned the chalice. Is there anything else you need?”
“No son. Thank you for your service today.”
As the boy turned to go, he hesitated, turned back, “Father, one of the other boys mentioned a puddle in the basement, I thought I should tell you.”
Glancing at the boy, the Father headed toward the door leading down the stairs. “Where is this puddle?” he asked, hands clasped.
“Just to the left, Father, down the hall.” The boy looked shamed, almost embarrassed as though he’d heard the rumors. Could this one be asking? It seemed unlikely, but he couldn’t help himself, he ran his tongue ever so slightly across his lips.
“The generator room?”
“Yes, Father. The generator room,” the flaccid faced boy stood still and expectant.
“After you, my child.” The youth led him into the room, the light dim as always. Confusion took hold of the robed man, there were others there…waiting. The row of young boys tensed with anticipation. “What’s going on here? Did you all find the puddle?” A nervous chuckle.
“No father, we’ve found redemption. The shame isn’t ours.” As each youth smiled, the glint of their sharpened teeth told of a different indiscretion.
Feed the Machine
Bones crush; the mechanism churns, always turns. Spinning, crunching, consuming. The snap of a skull; shrapnel slices the air nicking tympanic membrane. Those that man the machine have no hearing, they are born without; the ear a remnant from long ago. Chattle of the cause, a war not ours, we breed only to feed the machine.
Each piece of fiction is the copyright of its respective author and may not be reproduced without prior consent. © Copyright 2019
A small shack in the Ozark Mountains. Through the pines that noose it, a hard wind rushes like frantic horses. It isn’t wind that wakes David Holcomb from a long sleep. A car door slams outside. David slips from bed, hugs himself against the chill air. Candles gutter; the fireplace gleams with coals, but not with warmth.
David peers out a window through dusty glass. The moon hangs like a melted Christmas ornament in the nylon shine of night. No clouds mar the star-seeded sky. A parked station wagon is visible. A shadow strides to the cabin’s front porch.
Hesitantly, David steps onto the porch. Wind plucks at him; the chill needles. The figure’s back is toward him. “Who are you?” David calls loudly. “What do you want?”
The figure turns; a coat with a hood hides the face. “We need to get inside,” a voice says. “It’s coming.”
The voice is female. It can’t be who it sounds like.
“What’s coming?” David asks.
The woman doesn’t answer but walks past him into the cabin. David looks off into the woods for a moment. Blowing leaves kite past. The air whips in circles. Trees bend before it while twigs and dead pine needles rake the cabin. Dragons could be crashing through this wind-torn forest and no one would know.
David hurries into the cabin himself, makes sure the wooden door-bar is engaged. The woman stands by the fireplace. She’s thrown back her hood. She’s young, maybe twenty—a couple years younger than he.
“No,” David says. “No!”
David shakes his head violently. “I’m dreaming. I have to be. You can’t be here.”
“Because you’re dead, Shannon. Dead.”
Shannon smiles, shakes her head so that her short red hair gleams in the candlelight. “Don’t I look alive to you, David?”
“I know you’re dead.”
“Despite your own eyes? How do you know?”
“I killed you, Shannon. Ten years ago. The last time we were in this cabin. I killed you and buried you outside in the forest. Buried you deep.”
Shannon laughs. Her eyes twinkle. “Buried me deep? In the woods where the roots grow thick? What did you use to dig that hole? A bulldozer?”
Again, Shannon shakes her head. “It would take a year to dig deep with a shovel in that soil.”
“I dug it,” David says.
But Shannon isn’t listening. Not to him. She is looking outside, to the woods. “You hear it?” she asks. Her voice drops to a whisper. “It’s getting close.”
Terror stitches itself up David’s back. “What? What’s getting close?”
“No. I don’t.”
“You know. You’ve always known.”
David glances nervously at the locked door—as if it will birth a monster at any moment. He looks back at Shannon. She has…altered. Her face is younger, thinner. She’s grown small and suddenly looks as she might have looked a decade before—like a sickly ten-year-old. Her hair is knotted. Her nose drips.
But she steps forward; her focus is all on David now. “It’s time,” she says in a child’s voice.
David backs away. “Time for what?”
“To put away your sins. To move on.”
He shakes his head. “I can’t!”
“You have to. Or the Darkling will make us pay.”
“Tell me what it is! This Darkling!”
“David….” Then another whisper: “It’s here.”
David spins toward the door. Something is on the porch. It isn’t the wind. David whimpers, then sidles toward the fireplace. Planks creak on the porch as some heavy body treads them. A black ribbon of shadow flickers beneath the crack at the bottom of the door. Through the crack bleeds a smell like mint and kerosene.
David feels near to death as the door-bar bulges inward. He grabs a poker from the fireplace, brandishes it like an axe. “What is it? What is it?” he shouts at Shannon.
“The past,” Shannon says. She drops to her knees.
“Tell me!” David screams.
He raises the poker, as if he will strike Shannon. His arm trembles. But he remembers. That’s not how it happened—ten years ago—when Shannon begged her older brother to kill her. He drops the poker. A forgotten brown paper bag rests on the fireplace mantel. David reaches in, draws out a nickel-plated revolver.
As David turns with the gun, not sure what he will do, Shannon says: “The future.”
That word! David cries out. His eyes flood with tears. He falls to his own knees. The pistol is huge in hands that are suddenly young, small, weak.
“I’m sorry, Shannon,” David says. “I should have been able to stop it sooner.”
Shannon doesn’t hear him. “The now!” she shouts.
The door-bar cracks wide. Splinters sleet the room. The door smashes open. The Darkling comes through.
David suddenly sees the shack as it is. The bed where he slept is rotted. No glass fills the windows. No embers flare in the barren fireplace. A boy and girl kneel on the trash-strewn floor. Twelve, and ten, and ephemeral. They recognize the form that slides into the room like an acid mist.
David makes a different decision than he did ten years before. He empties the gun into the mist. The bullets do no good.
A chuckle echoes off the walls.
“There you are,” their father says. “My loving children.”
He kicks the door closed behind him.
∼ Charles Gramlich
© Copyright Charles Gramlich. All Rights Reserved.
He supposed that some would consider him a saint. An intelligent, good-looking man, collecting the lonely and tossed and scavenged girls he found on the side of the road. He wore them on a chain around his neck. A chain of conquests. A chain of romances. A chain of broken loves and broken dreams and horrifically broken people.
It isn’t difficult for a lonely girl to love a tender man. He says, “I understand” and her eyes grow starry. Dewy. They light up from the inside like embers. He says, “Why has nobody appreciated you?” and she swoons. He tells her, “Nobody will ever love you like I love you. I belong to you like no man has ever belonged to a woman,” and she will give him everything.
There is so very much a lonely girl can give.
The first girl became his wife. She lasted longer than she should have, perhaps, but not as long as he originally expected. She became tired and tattered, and her eyes lost their shine. The next was a friend who became something more, until she abruptly became something less. The third was a broken little thing, all hair and eyes and fairly begging to be cherished. The fourth was a woman older than time, and perhaps a villain in this life or the next.
The others weren’t even memorable. But their finger joints and molars and locks of hair were treasures. Shiny, golden treasures. He held them, wept into them. Wrapped them in pieces of fabric torn from their dresses and work uniforms and kitchen aprons. He stuffed the fabric into a box and kept it at the foot of his bed.
One of his lonely girls eventually turned these scraps of fabric into a warm quilt. She had bent over her sewing machine, running the scraps under the needle with a tenderness that bound, bound, bound. He wrapped this blanket of trophies around himself at night. He thanked his girl with his mouth and his tongue and his blade. She had been useful and thoughtful until the end, and then she just became used.
He ate them. He ate their souls. He devoured their desires and dreams. He held their wants and their screams and trust in his mouth, in his lungs, and when he breathed out, he breathed out their sorrow. But he wanted more. More and more and more. Hungry boys love lonely girls. Love them to pieces. Love them to bits, and bits, and even smaller bits.
∼ Mercedes M. Yardley
© Copyright Mercedes M. Yardley. All Rights Reserved.
The chittering awakens me and I open my eyes. My body is prone on the comfortable bed, one of few luxuries I am afforded. I wince when the first set of tiny hands touch me, sharp claws testing the flesh of my legs. Laying here, waiting for it to begin.
Each of us live this, session after session. It’s not the physical anguish that will break us, it’s the emotional torment. Feeling the tingling in our bodies as the connection builds. The unseen part of us that stretches through the chasm to them as our gift begins to merge with theirs—knowing we will soon be back for another round. There is nothing we can do to stop it. It is our life. Our life to complete theirs.
We are the Muse.
A sharp burst of pain shoots through me, my body arching as synapses explode inside. I slam back on the bed, the room disappears and a glowing white screen surrounds me. A cursor blinks, then it begins. Letters becoming words becoming sentences. Tiny nails dig into my flesh. More words flow as blood trickles down my legs. My face twitches with each pin prick from the small claws. The letters in black, forming on the screen in front of me. Every muscle fights the slow grinding ache as viscous red seeps from me. I give myself to him, so he may become great.
The creatures move up my legs, nipping my torso and arms. I don’t need to see the sightless ones, the Deliverers, as dark as the night itself with pointed teeth that click and tick as they speak to each other in a language only they and Oizys know. She controls them and they feed her from our sessions. We are pawns, Muse and Deliverers, in the games the gods play.
A flash of golden light blinds me, pulling me from my thoughts. I wince but never close my eyes. If I look away, or even blink, the connection will break. I can’t read the words but I know they are perfect. Only perfection can be this intense and with it brings … I bite my bottom lip as a talon slashes my calf, reopening my barely healed wound from last night. A moan escapes me, tears stream down my face. I want it to be over. With each word he types my eyes are assaulted. That, mixed with the physical attacks, overwhelms me. I begin to blink but I can’t let myself, I won’t. He is on fire and I am his victim.
The words flow from him. I don’t know how long it lasts, my time and his never mix. I am becoming weaker as blood continues to seep from the cuts all over me. My body is begging me to end the session, to close my eyes and rest before there is no coming back. I groan through clenched teeth, spasms wrack my body. I feel a Deliverer on my chest. Suddenly all the others stop but the words continue. My body involuntarily tenses, unknowing, the pause in their attack confusing me. Agonizing seconds tick by until another sentence crosses my vision.
Vivid colors erupt in front of my eyes, unlike anything I have ever seen before. A sharp claw pierces my flesh and bores into me. Its talon extends deep inside me and punctures my heart, filling itself straight from me. I scream in anguish and close my eyes. The colors vanish and my world is an abyss.
My breath is shallow and ragged. The claw in my heart retracts and the Deliverers start to slip away. My body struggles to repair itself, starting with the most serious injuries. After those, the hundreds of little nicks mark my flesh, scars of another round of torment. The room is quiet and I am at peace. I made it through once more. I begin to drift off to sleep, my last thoughts always the same.
I am a Muse. I must suffer for my artist.
∼ Mark Steinwachs
© Copyright Mark Steinwachs. All Rights Reserved.
The old man shifted his weight as he peered out through the tavern’s window settling on three figures standing in the street. Although obscured in shadows cast by the lone lantern, one could easily tell there were two adults and one child.
Over the years he watched many families stand outside in the street exactly where the three were standing now. Although it was a different one each time, the scene always played out the same.
One could say it was tradition.
The old man reached into his jacket pocket, pulling out a silver pocket watch. He pressed the small button releasing the latch and looked at the clock’s face.
Frowning he closed the watch and slid it back into his pocket.
“It is almost time.”
He heard someone grunt behind him and turned to the rest of the people in the tavern who came to witness. None met his gaze. He felt their hatred as easily as he could smell the odor of stale beer.
The old man turned in time to see the two adults kneeling down hugging the child. The father was the first to stand and had to pull the mother away. She began cried as her husband led her toward the bar, away from their child.
The little girl watched her parents, not entirely sure what was happening.
The tavern’s door opened and the mother’s wails filled the room.
“Let go of me,” she cried. “This is your doing!” As she began hitting his back, the old man did not take his eyes off the girl.
A faint mist swirled around her feet.
“Ellie, come on,” the husband said wrestling his wife away. “Screaming at the heartless bastard isn’t going to change anything.”
“How could you…” Ellie spat. “She’s only nine…”
The mist thickened, making everything outside appear in grey scale.
“If you only knew what it was like…”
The words stung, the old man’s throat went dry. I know only too well. He exhaled sharply keeping his attention on the girl.
She was barely visible in the impenetrable mist.
It will be over soon.
A shadow danced in the mist to the little girl’s left and vanished as she spun around to see what it was. Her head darted back and forth looking for it.
The shadow reappeared to her right, only closer. Once again the girl turned to look but the shadow disappeared. Her movements became frantic and she turned her head to toward the tavern.
It rose up through the mist like a scorpion’s tail and struck, knocking the little girl to the ground. The shadow rushed forward engulfing her in a blur of grey and black. She opened her mouth to scream but no sound came out. Her struggling weakened and within seconds she no longer moved as the shadow devoured her.
The mist quickly dissipated revealing an empty street with no trace the girl had even been there. He checked his pocket watch again.
The old man turned, moved away from the window. He kept his head down to avoid the icy stares and shuffled toward the door as fast as his frail frame could take him.
“Just like always, you leave without having the fucking guts to face those of us who have given so much,” the little girl’s mother said.
He slowly turned and raised his head, meeting the hateful stares head on.
“Would it make it any easier if I did?” he asked.
“At the very least you could see the pain… the anguish that this ungodly tradition causes.”
“Yes, it is an ungodly tradition.” He pointed toward the window. “That thing that takes so much from us every year is ungodly.”
“Takes so much from us?” the father asked. “What do you know of it?”
Before he could reply, the bar erupted in profanity laced rants. Globs of saliva struck his face and he dropped to one knee.
“If you would please…” he tried to say but was drowned out.
His breathing quickened as his chest tightened. His hand slid down the shaft of his cane until it reached the bottom. With a deep breath, the old man stood up and in one fluid, powerful motion smashed his cane on the floor. It splintered in the middle and the sudden show of force silenced the bar.
“You all think I haven’t felt the pain this night brings?” he yelled as his lower lip quivered. “Do you all think that I cannot relate to what you are going through?” His eyes scanned the stunned expressions. “When we settled here almost fifty years ago, I had three sons and a daughter who I loved with all my being. We thought we found paradise but little did we know what we’d have to pay for it.”
“Are… are you saying…” the mother began.
“Mine were the first to be given to the ungodly. I know all too well what you are going through. If there were some other way believe me when I say we would’ve found it.” He wiped the spit off of his face. “But there isn’t.”
He hobbled to the door and spoke over his shoulder as he opened it. “You all knew the price you might have to pay when you moved here. Don’t forget that.”
With that he stepped outside and pulled the door shut behind him.
∼ Jon Olson
© Copyright Jon Olson. All Rights Reserved.
Rugged knees on hallowed soil, I kneel before its mighty stature. Blistered palms meet below my bowed posture—I beg clemency. It extends an ebon finger, the tip sears my flesh. Pain struggles down a swollen throat that cannot utter its cry. Vocal chords are restrained only by conditioning. One must always be faithful. Its form defines beauty and terror as one. Love, hate, fear, and all between exhales with each breath it takes.
As its dark hand retreats, my skin slows its boil. The scent of forbidden meat teases my senses. I’ve been touched by that which brings life and death, that which gifts all and reaps the tortured stalks hidden among this field. I pray that my time is still young.
It speaks to me for the first time. “Your heart is pure.”
My faculties nearly retreat.
Its dark palm covers my face, fingers wrap around my head. All is gone but the void which is the color of its flesh. But within it are terrible things—colors of wrath and fury, fluids of the human body, suffering of unimaginable design. Deep into its grasp, my mind drills forward into unknown places, forced to go on, made to see.
And see I do—things inhuman, vile enough to burn any eyes that witness them. But mine survive. They live to force these sights to memory, where they’ll burn like hellfire until death snuffs them out with cold hands.
When its hold releases my weakened body I collapse. Mutterings from the subconscious echo between my ears. I look to the dark figure. Its mouth emulates an expression of pleasure—but whether it is approval of my soul or the joy of punishment I cannot tell. Time will be short with an answer.
It takes a few steps back, stares with glowing eyes. I remain motionless, penitent. Guilt riddles every drop of blood in my heart. I know I’ve not done its creed wrong, yet I still feel a disgust for my flesh. How repugnant and feeble it is; ugly and without strength. It pities us. It must.
With an arm extended, it points toward the cliff. “You are permitted.”
The words are surreal. Difficult to believe I’ve been accepted. I stand, legs trembling, and walk to the verge. The ocean crashes against the rocks below. In the dark water I see something darker yet—a conical blotch spearing deep beneath the surface.
I look back to it and it nods approval.
I step off the edge to join my brethren.
∼ Lee Andrew Forman
© Copyright Lee A. Forman. All Rights Reserved.
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.