I know it sounds corny, but I believe life has a purpose. Really, I do. I believe that I—all of us—have a reason for being here, a reason for living. I don’t need to know what mine is. All I know is that one day it will come and it will go, and with it will go my need to live.
I test this every now and then, to see if I’ve outlived my use. The first time was with a pill bottle, but I’ve gotten more creative since. Five times I’ve tested this and five times I’ve survived.
Guess that means I’m still useful.
Hard to believe it as I make my way through the busy streets, just one of many ants in this hill. It’s times like this my philosophy carries me through. Every moment could be my moment—the one that completes me, opens the door, sets me free. All around me is potential. It gives life dimension for as long as it lasts.
As I ride the bus back from yet another eight hours spent by the burger fryer, I can’t help but wonder if today was my day. Maybe I did my part by holding the door for that girl, or by smiling at the gentleman on the corner, or by offering my seat to the grandmotherly woman on my morning bus. Every part counts, and maybe I’ve paid my dues.
I hear the moan of braking bus tires and get up at the all-too-familiar sight of my stop. I wave to the driver, but my mind is elsewhere, thinking of what the test should be. I try to change it up each time. After a while, it becomes an art of sorts, but that’s the kind of detail I pride myself on.
Lost in these thoughts, I barely even notice her until I’m almost past the alley. It’s the click that gets me. I stop in my tracks, expecting someone to come out asking for my wallet or my watch or something, but nothing happens. I glance down the alleyway and see her. It quickly becomes clear that it’s not my money she’s after.
I relax a bit, and see her look at me for the first time. She’s young enough—early twenties, no doubt—and not bad-looking. Mind you, she would probably look even better if she wasn’t holding a gun to her head.
“Guess you’re gonna tell me to back off,” she says after a long moment. I can see her grip tighten, and I almost laugh at the idea.
“Nah, go ahead.” I step back, cross my arms. “I’m kind of curious, actually.”
She snorts. “Morbid son of a bitch, aren’t ya?”
“Guess you could say that. Not every day you get a street-side show. Seems like a strange place for it.”
“Not for me. Thought I’d leave him with something to remember.” She gestures up to a window in the decrepit apartment building beside us. “Maybe I can get his attention while he’s still inside that bitch of his. Give her something to really scream about.”
I wait. I watch her. She watches me.
“You’re really not going to stop me?” she asks at last.
“No point,” I say with a shrug. “I’ve got a theory, of sorts. Call it fate if you like, but it all comes down to a fifty-fifty chance. Either it’ll work or it won’t. Either you’ve got a reason to live or you don’t. Not my call.”
“You really are sick, aren’t you?”
“Maybe, but it keeps me going. Here, how many bullets do you have in there?”
She pauses. “One.”
I stretch out a hand, slowly. “May I?”
I can see she wants to say no, but her curiosity is stronger. She gives me the gun. I unset it and spin the cylinder. Before she can say anything I cock it again, raise it to my head and pull the trigger.
I shrug. “See? Guess that means I keep going.”
The girl is visibly shaken as I hand the gun back to her. She’s lost some of her initial verve, but still cocks the gun and lifts it to her head. She bites her lip as she pulls the trigger.
I give a small smile. “Guess you keep going, too.”
The effort seems to have drained the last of her resolve. She almost drops the gun as she pushes it into my hands. “Thank you,” she says. She’s crying now.
I’m about to reply, but she’s already gone. Running from the alley, the building, the gun. Running to something more. As I watch her go, I wonder what her purpose is. Why she keeps on living. Why any of us keep on living.
The weight of the gun returns me to the present. I look down at it with some surprise. I think of the girl, of all that was and wasn’t.
“You should have your nametag in clear view where we can see it. “
Captain Rick untucked his nametag knowingly. He understood that this type of passenger liked to collect names for complaints. The fan on the airboat was not quite loud enough to cover the women’s conversation, which was an obnoxious combination of denigration of the local culture and denigration of him.
To drown them out—and the idea of drowning them was appealing—Captain Rick began his speech. As he discussed his native Florida, the women continued to speak to each other, acting as if his words did not matter. As if he did not matter.
These two were absolutely perfect.
As he knew his speech by rote, he was able to observe the invasive species in front of him. Both women were wearing dresses and shoes that were impractical and incompatible with an airboat ride. Their arms were laden with bracelets, their hands heavy with rings. But he was not interested in robbing them; he was interested in them for another purpose.
Captain Rick knew how to get their attention. He was confident he would be able to get them to say the things that would confirm his choice with the warden. The women did not know about the cameras that recorded each trip. They did not know that certain passengers were selected for a higher purpose.
They would never know.
Captain Rick began to cover the topic of the negative impact that humans have on the Everglades, especially relating to the introduction of invasive species.
Some invasive species are better than others, he thought. He knew that the foreign reptiles still had something to offer in the way of tourism and trading. Soon, these women would also have something to offer.
He continued, “Some of the alien species include Burmese pythons, several types of boas, and Nile crocodiles.”
“Aliens?” The woman on the left, who he heard the other call “Brenda,” asked.
“No, ma’am, alien species.”
Brenda’s friend leaned toward her but spoke loudly enough that the leaning was unnecessary. “Like that man we saw fishing at the marina. You know right away if someone is alien.”
“He definitely did not belong,” Brenda agreed.
“And boat slips are for boats, not fishing.” The friend turned to Captain Rick, suddenly wanting to include him. “How do we report that? Can you reach the sheriff or constable or whatever you call them down here? You have one of those.” She pointed to his belt. “Walkies.”
“These are for official communication and emergencies only, ma’am.” And for other types of communication that these women did not need to be privy to.
“You don’t think this should be escalated up the ranks to ‘official’?” She turned to Brenda. “He is disregarding my right as a concerned citizen.”
Brenda pulled herself up, looking like a hen stretching. “Citizenship confers power, sir.” The word “sir” was venom-soaked. “We are citizens.” She wiggled her hand back and forth between her friend and herself. “Those…men…the ones we saw fishing on the boat slip, obviously are not. If they were to ask for the walkies, then it would only make sense that those types are denied.”
He nodded. Not because he agreed with the sentiment, but because these two were so perfect. The last few tourist groups had not taken the bait. Thus, they had not been treated as bait. He peered over his shoulder to make sure that the camouflaged camera was capturing this exchange.
“You know, my husband—” the friend began, but Captain Rick cut her off by pointing toward the water.
“If we are quiet, we might be able to get up close to those crocs,” he instructed.
“Why would we want to do that?” Brenda asked, wrinkling her nose as if confronting a bad scent.
“So, you can tell your friends back home,” Captain Rick suggested.
The ladies laughed. “This was more of a…lark,” the friend explained, “we would never tell anyone that we climbed onto this…old boat to skim along some smelly water. We didn’t even tell our husbands.”
Brenda laughed louder. “Our friends think we are in Turks and Caicos. I mean, Florida? Who vacations here?”
“Rednecks.” her friend told her. “It’s the redneck Riviera or something.” She turned her attention back to Captain Rick. “We only came because our husbands had business.”
“I understand. But since you are on the boat anyway, you might want to see some of these species up close.”
“Not really.” Brenda sniffed. “We can go back. We had our fun…I guess.” She rolled her eyes dramatically. Captain Rick was thrilled; she was looking directly toward the camera. The warden would love this.
“I shouldn’t mention this…” If only the women had known that Captain Rick had been trained in the theater long before he retired and dedicated his time and energy to protecting wildlife and helping the state of Florida. “I guess…no…it wouldn’t be right…”
The women were only half-interested. He continued regardless.
“I had a group of ladies on this same boat earlier this morning. When we got to this same spot, this very spot…”
Brenda scratched her shoulder where a mosquito had been snacking earlier. The thought of her being snacked on made Captain Rick smile. He lowered his smile when she asked, “What is it?”
“The one lady leaned right there.” He pointed to a sand bank a few feet to the left of where they were currently idling. “She wanted to see the wildlife.” Brenda rolled her eyes again. “So?”
“Well, she…it really is the funniest thing, but she didn’t find it funny, of course…”
“Listen, either you tell us what happened, or you turn this boat around right now—” He was no longer sure which one was speaking as they both whined at the same frequency and his mind was already a few steps ahead.
“She had been wearing a bracelet. A real pretty one, and fancy too…it had all these diamonds on it. Her friend said it was a…Carter?”
The women gasped in unison. “Cartier?”
“That’s it. That’s the one. By gum if it didn’t come loose right when she was leaning and plop into the water below us. We tried to find it with no luck.” He winked at the ladies. “I was hoping to come back and find it without her. You know, a secret.” He winked again.
“That’s disgusting,” the friend chastised him. “You are basically robbing the woman.” She looked around the boat while Brenda’s eyes tried to bore beneath the surface of the murky water. “I will be using that net.” She pointed to the implements behind him. He had nets and hooks and many other useful items.
He feigned surprise. He was delighted that all was going according to plan. “You want to find it?”
“Of course. You wouldn’t even know what to do with something like that. But I—” She glanced at Brenda. “I mean, we…we know what to do with that sort of thing.”
Brenda nodded. “Of course, we will look at your passenger log and see if we can track her down.”
“Of course,” the friend agreed, and Captain Rick did not have to know them well to know they were both lying. But their lies only solidified how the rest of this cruise would go.
He handed the friend the net and watched as they both leaned over the side, scooping the water uselessly. As the women teetered precariously, Captain Rick could see the water parting on both sides of the boat. The crocs were used to this by now. They knew what to do, which absolved Captain Rick of having to lift a finger.
He remembered the camera and raised his hands behind the ladies’ backs, gesturing wordlessly, as if he were warning them away from the end of the boat. The women did not notice the snouts breaking the surface, but he did.
The first few times, he had needed to chum the water to get the crocs in a frenzy. They were now conditioned, and they knew exactly how to grab the women and pull them into the water. As if they had been trained.
The women screamed for help but there was nothing Captain Rick could do, not once they were being subjected to the death rolls. And the camera captured it all in case anyone came with questions.
But no one would.
Captain Rick had been right, the warden happily watched the film and agreed with the decision that had been made on the water. The warden slapped Captain Rick on the back and said, “That’s what tourists are good for, making our reptilian visitors feel at home.”
He remembered lying in a hospital bed. An elderly physician was sadly shaking his head. Clutching his hand tightly, his wife wept. All went blank, so he knew he must be dead, but suddenly, awareness returned with the vision of an old house. He willed entry, passing effortlessly through a set of double doors and climbing up a rickety stairway. At the top were three closed doors of different colors. “These must be Heaven’s Doors,” he mused aloud. “How extraordinary! I thought there was but one.”
It was very hot on the Heavenly level. The tiled floor was spotless, the air reeked of disinfectant. He approached the bright red door on his left and tried the knob. As it swung open, he was half blinded by a brilliant light. Agonized shrieks and moans issued from an unknown source. Horrified, he slammed it shut, looking to his right. This door was painted sky blue. Someone had tried to break into it, the wood had been dented as if by the pounding of fists. The knob wouldn’t turn and came away in his hand. Finally, he addressed the remaining middle door, which was a dingy white. It opened slowly to reveal a blackness thick with portent. The music of a cello lured, a daunting challenge he couldn’t ignore. He found himself plunging forward into the core of that Unholy Dark, which was when the voices begin chanting. In a matter of seconds, his identity was shredded as he was sucked into the infinite wailing vortex known as The Hereafter.
Outside, dark clouds gathered above the old house. Quietly it began to rain.
The Old Man Tolls Lee Andrew Forman
The music of hardship sounded from broken windows—repeated clangs of iron, a monotonous rhythm, mesmerizing in tune. Despite harsh notes, it drew me in. Was this old lot to be restored to its once meaningful design? Was it to be loved and cared for?
Inside, an ancient, gray-skinned man hammered away upon hot metal. He didn’t dare interrupt his focus to acknowledge my entry. I watched him work. His thin frame impressed with its tireless effort. Despite frail and stringy muscles wielding heavy tools, he never lost pace.
He appeared to be crafting shackles. Maybe the old fool intended to raise a farm. Upon my inquiry, he stopped his perfect tolling and looked up. His eyes first went to me, then directed to my back. His yellowed teeth showed themselves. “I have to keep it here.”
I turned around to a wall of flesh, a living tapestry of pulsating skin. It spread from floor to ceiling, reached to corners with grotesque humanoid limbs. It was already tethered to the floor by an arrangement of cuffs and chains. It looked upon me with its many eyes. Arms grew from its surface at will, reached for me as they lengthened. I stepped back and thanked God they could only grasp so far.
Hands pressed upon my back. My breath stopped. In that moment, I realized their intent. Before I could protest, my face was already pushed into the malleable conglomeration of animate skin. It enveloped me in a taut grasp and held firm. Slime covered every inch of me. I soon felt naked, clothes dissolved. My every nerve burned like fire. The world became pain. But the old man’s toll kept me company as by body was slowly digested.
School Days Charles Gramlich
Grade school in a small town. I remember it fondly. Two rooms for six grades—three in each room with a dining area and big bathrooms in the rear for boys and girls. I lived close enough to walk to classes every weekday morning before 8:00 o’clock. It was always nice to see the bright yellow paint of the building shining as I came through Thompson’s meadow right up to the twin doors.
Of course, I remember that one day. How could I forget. Stepping into school, hanging my coat on the hook in the hallway, turning into Sister Ethlereda’s classroom on the right. That’s where grades 4 through 6 were taught. I remember taking my seat, eager to start a lesson about Ancient Rome and its legions
I remember the sound of backfiring cars in the parking lot out front. But when I looked out the window, it wasn’t a car at all. The two young men coming up the walkway were not in any grade in our school. I didn’t know them. Then.
But I know them now. They’re very sad and we hang out every day together, those two and the thirteen other kids they shot that day before the police shot them. Yes, we hang out every day. And every night.
I don’t go home anymore.
None of us do.
Beneath the Boards Elaine Pascale
“It’s a gold mine!”
“It’s a money pit.”
It was both and neither. It was abandoned but not uninhabited. The couple did not live long enough to sink money into it nor to have a return on investment.
“It’s so quaint.”
Something lurked beneath the floorboards, eradicating any charm the building may have had. The dwelling stored more than knick-knacks. The woman’s tchotchkes were donated following her death.
“This could be my sanctuary.”
It is hard to find peace when the beast beneath the boards growls so loudly. And smells so strongly. And eats so ravenously.
“It’s big enough for all of us.”
Not big enough to completely fill the appetite of the beast who appreciated the smorgasbord it was served.
“It just needs some TLC.”
The renovations disturbed the beast’s slumber. No one wants to encounter the beast beneath the boards when it is overly tired.
“It’s so rustic.”
Far enough away from everyone that cries won’t be heard, and help will not arrive.
“It has good bones.”
The beast beneath the boards has gnawed on its share of good bones.
“I have heard about this place. Is it cursed?”
And the beast beneath the boards waits.
Unwanted House Guests A.F. Stewart
The doorknob rattled, a sure sign someone was coming.
“Is it time?” came a whisper.
“It’s been so long.”
“It has. Years since the last one.”
“Don’t talk about him. He wasn’t a good fit. Not what we needed at all.”
“No, not the right sort. Very… short-lived.”
“He was so promising at first, so carefree… but he didn’t last.”
“No. He had too many… issues. A shame really.”
“Maybe a family will come this time. They always—wait, is that a car?”
“Oh, I believe it is.”
The voices stilled, and they heard an engine shutting off outside. Two shadows shifted and the curtains of a front window parted slightly.
“Oh, look, a couple. They seem very happy, don’t they? In love.”
“Oh yes. Very happy. They’ll feed us for a long time, won’t they?”
“Indeed, I think they will. Whispers here, murmurs there, and we’ll slowly turn their happiness to misery. They’ll hate each other by the end and we’ll gorge on every dismal day. Years if we do it right.”
“Oh, excellent. How do you think we’ll end, though? When they’re all used up?”
“Maybe arrange a murder-suicide. Or hanging from the staircase. Do you remember that teacher? Her body hung in the hall for days before they found her.” “Yes, I remember. It was glorious.”
Two chuckles echoed in the hall, muffled by the sound of the front door opening.
Birthright Nina D’Arcangela
Cowering, I crouch in the shadows of the barn. I should not be here, I was asked to stay away yet could not. The unnatural sound of bone snapping, sinew tearing, and skin stretching is a thing so foreign that it rends my soul to shreds. Yet for all the breath left in me, I cannot turn away.
He suffers and my heart weeps. I reach to touch him; he begs me stay away with tortured gaze. Struck by a rising terror I’ve not felt before, my soul screams that he is no longer mine but belongs solely to the night. If only I had not broken my word.
Fully morphed, he turns one final time – feral eyes saying all his misshapen mouth is no longer capable of speaking. A blink; and he’s gone. Rushing forward I listen to his baleful cry carried upon the night’s savage wind as he leaves my world to enter his other.
Returning Miriam H. Harrison
She was slowly returning to the wild. She could feel civilization’s grasp weaken with every flake of paint that fell away, with every window that shattered and scattered, with every vine that climbed her façade to whisper in her ear about greenery and adventure. Slow and steady, the wild came for her—but not fast enough. She longed to rise from her own dust and debris, chase the sunset shadows into the night. She wondered whether her legs could still run after all these years of roosting. There had been a time to stay, but now her nest was empty—now she was empty. What better way to fill herself than with the shadows of wilderness, the fresh air of midnight, the glow of a new day far from here? She was made for magic and mystery. She would take her magic with her, leave behind the mystery of the missing house, the vacant lot, the trail of chicken tracks returning to the wild.
I’m Talking to You Guest Author: Harrison Kim
I’m talking to you, giant mutant Daddy Long-Legs eight-legged walking drone. Revolve your bulbous head to scope out the house of delusion. Observe its yellow planks burned by the psychiatric meltdown, seeping out from inside and staining the wood to yellow-brown hallucination level 5006 warped synapses per second. Humans can’t go in without a suit lined with risperidone. For you, my drone, no suit needed, you are fortunate to have all your vertebrae on the outside. The work will be machine precise. Your mission: clean this place of insanity and bring the delusions back to me. Inside, the patient’s bones lie white. Their hallucinations seeped into the cracks, while their bodies died and moldered. How interesting it was, all these past days, via my powerful binoculars, to observe the gradual dispersal of these delusions within the changing colour of the planks.
Daddy LL Drone, stand facing the door and spread all your limby tentacles into the openings. Poke them thru the windows. Can you feel who the patients were, as you tickle your way round the rooms? They couldn’t escape before the meltdown. All locked in. The staff ran, left their psychiatric charges shimmering, glowing in collective insanity. Delusions burst forth, burned into the walls, seeped through the wood in black and grey. This house stands now only because of delusion. You will explore this psychoactive creature with your tentacles, and when the tiny windows are securely gripped and entered, hold fast. Then, split the building in twain, with your longest tentacle lobotomize its manic essence, and suck all the delusions into your maw. After you skitter back to the studio, I’ll unload everything into my computer, and have enough material for another three books of stories.
Johnny Joo is an internationally accredited artist, most notably recognized for his photography of abandoned architecture. Growing up sandwiched between the urban cityscape of Cleveland and boundless fields of rural Northeast Ohio provided Johnny with a front row ticket to a specialized cycle of abandonment, destruction, and nature’s reclamation of countless structures. His projects have ranged from malls to asylums to simple country homes, all left behind at various points in time. Always a lover of all art mediums, the seeds of a career were planted in Johnny’s mind at the age of 16 when a high school art project landed him in an abandoned farmhouse. Since that time, his art has expanded, including the publication of eight books, music, spoken word poetry, art installations and other digital and photographic works.
“Gather only the ones that are near to bursting. They grow on the south side of the cliff, their hue that of the melon’s meat. Bring me only what I ask, boy, the ripest. An extra shilling in it should you be back before the sun crests the sky.” Off the child went as the old crone began collecting the necessary herbs to hide the sweet taste.
Several hours later, the boy burst through the doorway, his speed so quick, the weathered skins that served as a barrier flapped in his wake. The gwrach turned from her steeping brew. The child’s face was rouged the hue of dark jostaberry; not a healthy shade to say the least. He panted and gasped, berries coddled in his filthy tunic. He held the thread-bare garment gently in yellow stained fingers. She stared for a moment, then pointed to the oaken table. The boy stumbled to it and unburdened himself of his precious load. As his pallor shifted from crimson to deep purple, she asked if he’d eaten any of the fruit. As he began to deny it, his knees crippled collapsing him to the dirt floor. She hobbled over with walking stick in hand, poked his distended gut, and watched as juice flowed from the cracks between his teeth. “Foolish,” she muttered. The witch leaned heavily on the staff as she knelt to collect the liquid that flowed from the corner of his mouth as she pressed upon his stomach. The boy twitched, lost to the nightmare world the engorged pods brought on. Finished, she tossed two shillings on his hitching chest, not as payment for the errand, but to pay the man that would dispose of his remains.
Attempting to put his key into the door of his apartment block, he had to give it some force. It went in with effort due to the wear and tear of both key and lock. He gave the door a final nudge with his shoulder to prise it open, the old wooden frame was swollen by the damp weather and constant steam emanating from the drain off the sidewalk right outside of the flea pit where he lived. Before he slumped into bed he looked out the window to take in the view. Dark streets lined with decrepit buildings. At the far end of the road two men were beating the hell out of a guy. In the distance a police siren wailed. But they were not coming to the aid of this man. Looking back down, the two thugs had gone but the victim’s body remained, lifeless and bloody on the crud-covered pavement.
He awoke next day, his head thumping. After making a couple of pieces of toast out of the stale bread that he had left in his cupboard he made his way to work.
On his way back home that night, he was confronted by three leather-clad delinquents. He waited for the normal demands, wallet, watch, etc. In way of a reply he just laughed. Even as the ensuing kicks and punches rained down upon him, he never cried out for help nor begged for mercy.
Hobbling back to his apartment, he turned the light on and stumbled into the bathroom. He stared at his reflection in the mirror. His eyes were swollen, his lips the same, but bloodied. He chuckled again. A giggle at first, then a real belly laugh. He wiped the blood from his face and then punched the mirror with all his might. Shards of glass sprayed out across the room and into his face, piercing the skin and cutting through to the bone. He put his hands up to his cheeks and began pulling the flesh away. His apartment melted into darkness and then ignited into fire.
He turned and walked along a molten corridor. At the end of it was a large solid metal door. It swung open upon his approach.
In front of him sat a deformed, crippled, grotesque, monstrosity of a being. It looked at him enquiringly and asked, “So?”
The fleshless being that once bore the face of a dishwashing, downtrodden, worthless man looked back at his master and, with a smile replied, “It’s all going to shit up there.”
Lucifer smiled through bloodied teeth and replied, “Well, we’ll just leave them to their own devices then. It doesn’t appear we need influence them at all these days. Let human nature take its course, so to speak.”
It is delicious experience to be guests at this exclusive retreat. Within its walls, a haven is provided for the wealthy and ostensibly pious. The staff in pristine white uniforms is ever present. Their services are available for every possible request, from a bible or a copy of the Torah, to a prayer rug. Even needs of a sexual nature are provided, assuredly discrete. Afternoon tea with delectable scones and clotted cream is served at four. After tea, there are a number of gorgeous walkways lined with arching redbuds off the deck where patrons may stretch their legs. The foothill setting is always a refreshing change for them. Each and all feel assured that the myriad paths would always take them back to the resort.
But now, their vacation is ending. A few guests will take a last stroll through the bowers before time to return to their hectic lives in the real world , some in pairs, some alone. The budding branches form an archway suffused in heavenly light. It is just the sort of place one couple intends to kneel and give thanks to their lord by having a bit of illicit hot sex. Like an archway to heaven, it draws them on. Crouched behind one of the trees, the beautiful angel known as Glory awaits their arrival. Wings folded, she flexes her claws and licks her lips.
From within my gut it was born, its birthing chamber no more than a stew of endless glutton and rot. I felt life within, a tumor suckling my innards with indifference to a father’s suffering. This child would feel no mother’s loving embrace, for none existed. I alone would be its burden, and it, mine. Pain thumped in tune with its gestation. Bile coated my throat. As it thrust its way up my gullet, a worm-like head peeked out from between my lips. It heaved its way further into the world, inch by inch, until it hit the floor with a wet slap of carnage. I took in a long-awaited breath and gazed upon my newborn. It wiggled its tail and screeched, calling out against the agony of existence, the horror of birth. I lifted it with both hands and cradled it against my chest. Its black eyes stared into mine. I knew then it would grow up fast, and that I’d be wise to cherish the sweet youth while it lasted.
Sour milk and mould soaked into the kitchen floorboards. Mice droppings and chewed wiring were scattered inside the walls. Ezra liked the mice, but they didn’t come out to play anymore. Cracked window panes let in the drafts and sunlight shone through rips in tattered curtains. Ezra didn’t like the sunbeams; they hurt his skin. He had stayed housebound for all his twelve years, never seeing other children. Mama said they wouldn’t understand him.
He scuttled up the stairs and curled on his side outside their room. He knew Mama and Daddy hadn’t meant to leave him, but he was still alone. It had something to do with him, he knew; just before it happened Daddy yelled his name, screaming words like curse and abomination. Then the two loud bangs and they wouldn’t wake up.
They were still there, inside their room, but it smelled now, so Ezra preferred the hall, sleeping outside their door. His stomach rumbled; he had found little in the kitchen to eat, only some fruit. He’d enjoyed eating the mice better; their bones had been crunchy. He scraped his fingertip claws across the wooden floor, spelling his name, as his mother taught him.
E Z R A.
Mama said it meant ‘helper’. He liked that, and he tried to live up to the meaning, but it always went wrong. He helped when the bad man came for his money and made Mama cry and Daddy mad. The red stain was still on the carpet, but Daddy hid the body in the old well. Ezra offered to eat it, but said nothing else after Mama threw up in the sink. Daddy never spoke to him after that. He came in and took Mama upstairs. They never came down.
Ezra knew he’d have to leave soon; he needed to eat. He could hunt during the night. He knew more bad people lived down the road. He thought he could find their house. They’d feed him for a very long time.