Drop Off

Janice turned the wheel hard. Tires squealed over Freddy Mercury’s soaring vocals from the car stereo as the vehicle shuddered down a two-lane road leading into suburbia.

“I’m on Crescent. There’s a small horde behind me, but I should be safely back to you guys before they catch up,” Janice said.

Her voice, mixed with Queen, sounded in Tim’s earbuds. Tim stood on the balcony of their apartment with their fifteen-year-old son, Steven. Both of them scanned the area for zombies as the summer sun beat down, intensifying the stench of rotted flesh. “You’re clear all the way to the drop-off. Then we’ll cover you the rest of the way to us. Can you turn off that music? It’s not—”

“It’s the only time I get to listen to anything,” Janice interrupted her husband. “Do you really think it’s any more likely to draw out our friends than a car engine?” Janice pushed on the gas pedal and cranked up the volume, drowning out her husband.

The rev of the engine echoed in the air. Tim spared a glance at his son as he surveyed their surroundings. “Your mother can be dangerous sometimes. It’s unnecessary. That’s the sort of stuff that will get you killed.”

“Dad, give her a break. We’ve been doing this a while now and it’s fine. I’m heading down.” Steven set his rifle on the table and grabbed the pistol lying there.

“Be careful, Son.”

“Love you too, Dad.”

The door clicked shut after he slipped out.

“Steven’s standing by. You’re both clear.” They’d been doing this for over a year. The school parking lot a block away was littered with vehicles they had discarded. Survival of the fittest, that was what Tim had been telling his wife and son since the outbreak occurred.

Tim went on the first couple of supply runs but as a strong, able-bodied male, he was given a wide berth. Janice was petite and cute with eyes that sucked you in. People were drawn to help her. But the minute they got close, she would shoot them and put their bodies in the backseat of whatever car she had grabbed that day. Then take any supplies and head back. The fresh corpses left in the cars kept the zombies from sniffing the family out in their apartment. The fetid scent of death was like a drop of blood in water to a shark.

Janice had cried after her first time. Tim kept reminding her—and Steven—it was  survival of the fittest. It became his mantra. Kill or be killed. That was what their life would be from now on.

The white Azera Janice had acquired for this run crested the little hill on Crescent. It caught a split second of air before slamming back to the road. Janice gave a delighted whoop.

A commotion in the trees lining the road to the right of Crescent drew Tim’s gaze. Five zombies rushed from the wooded area and stopped in the middle of the lane. A couple looked left toward the noise of the engine. The other three looked straight at Tim and Steven. The smell. Damn it.

“Janice!”

“Shiiitttttt.”

Tires screeched. The Azera slammed into the first zombie, sending it into the windshield then up over the car. Janice gunned it and plowed through another one. This time the zombie managed to latch onto the vehicle; it snarled at Janice through the cracked windshield.

Janice pumped the brakes and turned the wheel left, trying to throw the zombie free. She started to lose control and turned back to the right, flooring the gas pedal. Another slurping thud resonated and rotted zombie organs sprayed up the passenger side of the car.

Thump thump thump thump. The front passenger tire exploded, jolting the zombie from the vehicle. Janice’s vision cleared just in time to see the drop-off at the side of the road past her turn to the apartment. Once more she slammed the brakes and jerked the wheel to the left, but she stood no chance. The car swung sideways and slid down a couple of feet before wedging itself against a tree. The impact rattled Janice’s insides and sent a shock of pain from her right ankle up her leg.

“Janice!” Tim said, bringing his rifle up.

Two of the five zombies remained standing. One bolted toward the apartment, but Steven was already on his way back up, or at least he was supposed to be. The second zombie started toward the car.

“I’m here, Tim,” Janice said over a Brian May guitar riff. “I think I’m okay.”

Tim lined up the shot and pulled the trigger. A single retort scattered the few birds perched on the roof. The zombie’s chest opened wide as the bullet hit home, knocking the creature to the ground.

“Go, Janice. You’re clear.”

Janice grabbed the pistol that had managed to stay in the seat next to her and opened the door, swinging out. She stood up and promptly crumpled to the ground, pain exploding in her right ankle. She pushed herself up and limp-ran two more steps before faceplanting in the middle of the road.

Tim watched his wife fall to the ground. “Fuck, fuck, fuck.” He looked down for the zombie that had made for the apartment but couldn’t find it. And where the hell was Steven? A pistol shot sounded below. Followed by another. And another.

Tim took aim at the zombie he’d shot in the chest. It was struggling to right itself. He fired one more round and got a clean head shot, dropping it.

The apartment door opened. “Dad, where’s Mom?” Steven kicked the door closed behind him then beelined for the balcony. “Oh, shit,” he said when he saw the chaos below.

Janice stood and got another few steps before she hit the pavement again. Gritting her teeth, she got to her hands and knees and started crawling in the direction of the apartment.

A half dozen zombies burst through the same trees as the others had, then came to a stop as their brains processed the information around them.

Tim fired and missed his target. “Run, Janice! Go!”

The shot snapped the zombies to attention. They ran toward both Janice and the two men on the balcony. Tim couldn’t tell which was heading where and he pulled the trigger again and again. One shot spun a zombie down but not out. Steven joined in and took three quick shots, two of them taking down one more of the six.

Blood dripped from various scrapes and cuts on Janice’s body and her ankle throbbed, but she ignored the pain and got herself up, running as fast as she could, crying out each time her right foot hit the ground.

Two more zombies emerged from across the street, followed by another three from the trees. A couple lunged at the car with the corpse in the backseat, but most were heading for Janice.

Tim fired as fast as he could, barely aiming now. “Janice, you can do it, honey. Keep going. You’re almost there.”

Steven took aim and pulled the trigger.

“Janice!” Tim screamed.

Her head snapped back. Her body dropped for the final time.

Tim dropped his rifle and wailed, “What did you do?” He wheeled on his son, grabbing him. “What did you do? Fuck, fuck. She was going to make it. What…”

More zombies crashed through the trees, a horde forming. “Dad, we have to g—” Steven didn’t finish the last word as Tim punched him in the jaw. The boy staggered to his knees. More punches rained down. “Dad! Stop! Please, we need to go.”

Tim missed a punch and instead hit the table on the balcony, knocking the pistol to the floor. Steven grabbed it and pulled the trigger. The bullet ripped through his dad’s thigh.

Tim yelped in pain and grabbed the balcony railing. The pain reset the synapses firing in his body. Sobbing, he said, “I’m so sorry. Fucking hell. We need to get out of here.”

Zombies littered the ground, most of them distracted by Janice’s body. The two men didn’t have long. The blood dripping from Tim’s leg would slip through the slots in the balcony floor and draw their attention.

“We need to go, Son. Right now. You’ll need to drive.”

Steven looked at his dad and the scene behind him. We’ll never make it, Steven thought. For a moment the world stopped except for Freddy singing about that “crazy little thing.” Steven swung his fist out as hard as he could and caught his dad in the temple. The butt of the pistol struck his dad first. Tim groaned and flopped over the railing. Out cold.

They were never going to make it, but Steven could. His dad taught him well. Survival of the fittest. He put the gun to the back of his father’s head and pulled the trigger, then shoved the corpse over the balcony.

That should give him enough time to get to the car and get away.

∼ Mark Steinwachs

© Copyright Mark Steinwachs. All Rights Reserved.

 

Depthless

I open my eyes to the depthless black that surrounds me. Blinking rapidly in an attempt to restore my vision, I feel panic rise. I close my eyes, breathe deeply, and try to calm myself. I open them again, nothing has changed. The pitch is deeper than night; it is an inky blackness that plays tricks on my mind. Every now and again, I see a halo bloom and dissipate as quickly as it appears. Encouraged, I scramble toward the beacon of hope believing it to be a source of true light. As each teasing brightness dissolves I grow less expectant, more desperate. I crawl forward frantically seeking the phantom visions. I soon realize the stone floor I’m scurrying across is uneven; worn smooth in some areas, unhewn and rough in others with scattered protrusions. My hand inadvertently strikes a particularly jagged rock that tears my palm open. I pitch forward, my wounded hand landing in a gelatinous pile of mucus. Quickly I draw back, not only due to the searing pain of the gash, but in fear of the foreign substance I cannot see. Much to my surprise, the pain begins to dissipate almost immediately; a calm, soothing pulse begins to settle in. Exploring the cut with my other hand, I feel the extent of the gaping flesh; the muscle is protruding through the opening, yet there is no longer any genuine pain, merely discomfort. The surface is coated in a gel-like substance that seems to be protecting the gash. As my fingers probe the slick tissue, I already feel the gap stitching closed. Terrified yet curious, I reach down again and dip my palm into the healing salve. Cool at first, the sensation warms and becomes a near suckling pulse – one that is not unpleasant. Then I feel a stab from within the mass – quick and searing, similar to the sting of a wasp. I jerk my hand away so quickly that I land on my posterior as I shout out in pain. A moment of shock holds me frozen in place, then I begin to frantically push away with my heels until my back hits a wall, my head knocks the surface with a resounding thunk. Listening to my own labored breathing, my head throbbing, I probe my injured hand once more to find the wound all but healed while I stare into bleak nothingness. The hand is sore, but the flesh is closed. After what seems an eternity, I hesitantly crawl forward again searching for the… glob? I can think of no other way to describe it. Miraculously, I manage to find the jagged protrusion once more, but the glob itself is gone. The mental strain is overwhelming; I lay on my side clutching my knees to my chest as wracking sobs overtake me until sleep quenches my fear.

Waking, I find myself disoriented at first – the darkness, the silence, my body lying on the frigid stone floor all conspire to confuse me. Memory of my injured hand and the hours prior to my falling asleep slowly crawl back into my mind. Sitting up, I blink; nothing has changed. Knowing I will die if I simply sit and do nothing, I turn and begin to crawl back toward the wall I previously found. Moving with more care this time, I finally make contact with it. My hand travels upward and I rise to my feet, then lift onto my toes. No matter how far I stretch, I can feel nothing but cool rock. There is a bare nagging twinge in my hand, but my head aches with a dull throbbing that is both distracting and worrisome. As soon as the thought crosses my mind, I feel a pulse shoot from my hand, up my arm, to the top of my spinal cord. The pain in my head immediately subsides. Briefly I wonder how that can be, but the thought dissipates almost as soon as it forms. I decide my best course of action is to keep one hand on the wall and carefully follow where it leads. As hours pass, I register the fact that for some time now I’ve been steadily climbing a slight incline. The darkness is still unrelenting. I walk with my eyes closed; I find I am calmer not seeing by choice than by circumstance. Out of nowhere, I feel the slightest breeze at my back. But that’s not possible, I’ve come from that direction, the air has been dead still in this ebon void. Loath to remove my hand from the wall and become disoriented, I choose to ignore it and continue onward. A few steps later, I feel it again. I turn and look back, but of course, I see nothing. Turning forward once more, I begin to shuffle my feet when the fine hair on my body begins to rise, and my flesh ripples with goose bumps. This time, the breeze is accompanied by the barest exhale. I scream, abandon the wall, and run headlong into what I believe to be a cavern. Panic has me in its grip; reason and thought play no part in my escape. There is a moment of slight befuddlement as my left foot lands on nothing and my momentum carries me into empty space.

It is only when my hips lodge between two surfaces, and my body jerks to a halt, that I realize I’ve fallen into a chasm. The pain is unbearable, my screech deafens me. I try to look upward, but the slightest movement only results in wracking shivers of pain. Protecting itself, my mind shuts down as obscurity claims me.

∼ Nina D’Arcangela

© Copyright Nina D’Arcangela. All Rights Reserved.

Fetchling

Flash!

The light strobes; its flare blinding.

Flash!

The heat from the bulb dries the sweat from my face.

Flash!

My eyes slam shut; they flicker open to rivulets of blood running down my thighs.

Flash!

She screams for me to turn back to the camera. A line of spittle draws its way past the rag in my mouth; drips from my wet chin.

Flash!

An involuntary blink, I jerk and turn away; this enrages her.

Soothing darkness falls; I feel movement within the shadows.

The dog whip sounds its crack just beyond my right ear. Her intent to miss, I’m certain; we’ve been at this for hours.

Crack again, this time it strikes my bare shoulder. Another flick and the skin shreds, the blackness so acute I can hear her draw back for another strike. I scream through the gag, this pleases her; she returns to the camera.

Flash!

I jolt so hard the chair wobbles; blonde stands fall forward to block my vision.

Flash!

Crying hysterically, I scream and beg through the fabric tearing my mouth; I hear her mild sigh.

Flash!

Closer, hotter, brighter. My desperate pleas are met with silence. I can feel her standing over me; I will not look.

Flash!

As the bloom fades through my lids, the chair back makes contact with the floor; my head splits open. Tears streaming, one word is left to me – a stuttering please. She leans over, strokes my face, calms my shattered nerves. She strokes again, I relax a bit more. She hushes me as the final stroke cleaves my throat; I feel warmth.

Flash!

My eyes fly wide in panic. The bloom fades; identical icy-blue irises stare back into my own.

∼ Nina D’Arcangela

© Copyright Nina D’Arcangela. All Rights Reserved.

Revealed

Tears run in rivulets between the ashen layers – they carve their own landscape in the hardening cushion of falling powder. Fathers, mothers, small children, they reach for one another; some huddle close with barely a moment to spare, others remain a hands-width apart – all held fast in anguish as death sets upon them. This thriving valley swiftly transforms into a diorama of human terror and suffering.

Many years go by, a window into the past is unearthed; horrors the likes of which mankind has never seen before are revealed. A visage of haunting forms preserved in their final moments of agony – life pocketed in a cocoon of time; tragedy locked in the layers of its vice-like grip. Coincidence that this stroke of Mother Nature’s brush was encapsulated with such precision, or warning that another is coming?

∼ Nina D’Arcangela

© Copyright Nina D’Arcangela. All Rights Reserved.

Dare

It was simple, if they wanted to join the sorority they had to complete a dare. The most popular girls got the easy ones; kiss a nerd, steal a chalk duster from a lecture theater. The girls on the bottom of the pledge list got the hard ones. Sarah, dead last in popularity with her potential sorority sisters, got the hardest. But she was determined to start her college life as a member of the most popular sorority, so she willingly accepted the challenge.

She had to take a selfie in the Murder House.

The Adams House was its official name, but to the students and faculty, it’d always been the Murder House. After all, it was where Professor Adams killed his family before turning the gun on himself. It happened in 1972. Afterwards, anyone who moved in didn’t stay long and every one of them told the same story. It was haunted by the ghosts of the dead family. In 1989 the university sealed up the house and left it to rot.

Sarah decided to go in the daytime. Logic supposed the ghosts would only be active after dark. The house was surrounded by a metal fence, topped with vicious looking spikes. Sarah opened the gate and walked up the path to the house. The windows and doors were covered with wood panels, but the wood used to block the front door was rotted and loose. She pushed through and was surprised to find the front door ajar.

She stood in the hall, looking around. Through open doorways she could see empty rooms to her left and right. In front was a curved, open staircase. She’d been told she had to take the photograph in the upstairs bedroom, where the murders had taken place.

She stepped forward and placed her foot on the first stair. With an explosion of noise, the front door slammed shut. She screamed. The two open doorways on the first floor banged shut as well. She ran up the stairs, with the sound of slamming doors echoing through the house. As she reached the top, all doors were closed except one. She had no choice, she had to escape.

The room she entered was as empty as the others. French doors led out onto a balcony. The door slammed behind her. There was only one way out. She opened the french doors and stepped onto the balcony. The doors closed behind her. She glanced over the low railing of the balcony to the garden. The railing that surrounded the house was directly below. She could see spikes pointing upwards. She’d have to be careful, but it was just possible she could drop from the balcony without hitting the railing. It was the only option, she wasn’t going to go back into that house; the legends were true, the place was haunted.

She stepped over the railing, grabbed hold of the metal and started to lower herself. She maneuvered into position, her feet dangling in midair, her grip on the metal railing holding her entire weight. She quickly realized her plan wouldn’t work; if she dropped, she’d hit the spikes. She’d have to climb back onto the balcony, but she found she couldn’t do it. Her feet could find no purchase and she wasn’t strong enough to pull herself back up using her arms alone. She was stuck.

She screamed, her throat raw and burning. She could see figures running along the road. A huge sense of relief swept over her; she was saved. She no longer minded the pain in her shoulder and arm muscles. She could grip the balcony railing for as long as it took for someone to prop a ladder under her. It was then she felt it, a soft fluttering sensation on her hands, as if a butterfly had landed on her skin. Slowly, one-by-one, she felt her fingers being lifted from the rail. Below her the spikes glinted in the sunlight. Just before she fell, she heard the sweet laughter of a child.

∼ R.J. Meldrum

© Copyright 2019 R.J. Meldrum. 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.

A Quiet Ravine

Roused from its sleep by the ruckus in the trees, it slunk from its den; head down, teeth bared. It sensed pain and fear on the humid air. Slowly it approached; the stench of contorted metal nearly overwhelmed the scent of iron-rich blood. In a low crouch, it moved toward the mass of debris resting in the stream. Caution barely quelled the hunger it felt, so much so that it shivered with need. Seen from a distance, a bulbous shadow began to move. The shape grew frantic, it hung upside down like an animal in a trap. Quicker, its appetite fully aroused, it sprinted towards its quarry. Screeching sounds now emanated from the pile. It responded by clawing at the crumpled mass, eager for the taste. The movement inside stopped, it paused in unison; both awaited the other. A tentative mewl from within sent it into a mad frenzy. It slammed its body against the teetering hulk, snapped and snarled at its prey, pounded every surface until the vehicle rocked violently.

***

Terror vibrated through her body; her wide eyes peered helplessly as the thing outside ravaged the mangled vehicle. She knew she shouldn’t scream, but hysterics and fear won out. As it backed away a few feet, she could see it contemplating the cracked window. It burst through the passenger side in a cacophony of shattered glass, screams and growls. Trapped upside down in the locked seat belt, she could do nothing but wait. A moment of tense silence hung between them. She began to pray, but no god answered her prayers as stiletto teeth fastened themselves around her midsection. She gurgled red foam as it ripped the engorged bump of her unborn child from her body. She watched as it shook the mound with feral brutality. Her body gushed a moan that matched the sound echoing in her mind. The creature’s head lashed out again; its jaw crushed her ribcage, collapsed her lungs, stilled her heart. Her scream ended in a useless gasp as her body slumped forward in grotesque embrace of that which feasted upon her.

∼ Nina D’Arcangela

© Copyright Nina D’Arcangela. All Rights Reserved.

Granules

Soft granules shift with each step as I walk the sandy strip. They ease between my toes, slide over my sandaled feet; leave a rim of grit around each nail-bed. A favored place, this swing. During the day, it basks in the full cast of sun’s light; at night, it hides in the coolness of evening’s deepest shadow. A place to laugh, to steal a kiss, perhaps a first touch… Hallowed ground made sacred by whispered promises broken only by those foolish enough to make them.

I sit. The ropes stretch taut, the plank groans beneath me as the swing gently begins to sway. My mind wanders, time passes; my thoughts fill with remembrance of you. The shade of the tree swallows me as day turns to dusk and dusk quickly flees before night. The image of you with another beneath our swing flashes by; my rage no less tempered with time. I kick my sandals aside, dig my toes deep into the soft sand. I reach for you. I know you’re there, you promised you always would be, a promise I saw kept with pickax and spade. The only blight on our perfect evening… the cunt that lies dead beside you, but I can look past that and enjoy our time together, if only in my mind.

~ Nina D’Arcangela

© Copyright Nina D’Arcangela. All Rights Reserved.

Meat and Leather

The high-pitched screams slowly faded to silence in front of him. Using his paring knife as a tool of inspection, he checked his work, turning the glistening, skinless torso from left to right as he watched for any spots he may have missed. The small body rolled with little effort since no limbs remained to inhibit the motion; they were customarily removed for efficiency in the skinning process.

Satisfied, Jeremy pressed the blade to the creature’s neck with increasing pressure until the head squished away from the torso, completing the total dismemberment. He picked up the head by its youthful tuft of dark hair and held it at eye level.

“I hope you enjoyed the pain,” he said to the lifeless eyes staring back at him. “In the end, we’re all just meat and everyone’s gotta eat.”

Jeremy dropped the head into a trash receptacle. With swift slices akin to a Rhoad Island wharfsman he stripped off the meat—separating it from the inedibles—and tossed the pieces into the pot simmering on a can of blue Sterno at the end of his work bench. He then scraped the remnants from his cutting board into the trash, saving only the creature’s wings.

He took great care to clean the blood from his hands before raising the wings overhead, examining them one after another under the fluorescent light fixture with meticulous slowness and delicate handling, searching for tears, punctures, or deformities. The rubbery smooth sensation of the bat’s wings sent a shiver twitching through Jeremy’s body. He closed his eyes, caressed it against his face.

Jeremy trapped the bats for sustenance, but the pleasure he received from their wings kept him from branching out to larger more sustaining animals. There was something visceral about the sensation of leather, of smooth animal skin whispering along his human flesh—it took him to another plane of experience.

Just as Jeremy put down the wings he heard the muffled thumping upstairs that signaled another victim in his trap. He smiled.

“My stew’s getting heartier by the hour.”

Chuckling, Jeremy reached for his Lite beer. He drained the can, slammed it down next to the crimson-stained cutting board, and wiped the remaining drops from his chin with a clean area of his apron.

He skipped up the basement steps and continued on to the second floor, the old wooden staircases creaking with each shift in weight. At the top, he walked down the narrow hall to the far door.

When his parents still lived in the house, still lived at all, it had been a guest bedroom. But, to young Jeremy, it was like a historic monument—a perfectly arranged room that endured untouched as if from the high security of a museum velvet rope. His mother kept the room pristine just in case a distant relative or lost traveler would drop in and need accommodations, but no one ever came.

His parents didn’t venture out much, on the account of their excessive weight, so the family didn’t really have friends. And no sane person would just drive up a two-mile driveway in the Pine Barrens of Southern New Jersey to knock on some stranger’s door. So the room remained quarantined—off limits and untouched.

Often, Jeremy would stare at the closed door, knowing that simply touching the knob would warrant the lashings of father’s belt, but when he stood absolutely still some nights after dinner, with the toothpaste dripping from his lips, he could hear the dull thudding of something trapped in the walls and desperately trying to escape.

It was a mystery that never drifted far from his current thoughts. What was it? How was it trapped? What would it be like to thrash about in futility until exhaustion brought Death’s sickle down that much quicker?

His obsession with solving the mystery compelled him to visit the room time and time again, despite the repeated punishments. After a while, the beatings weren’t even a deterrent; in fact, along the way something changed in him and Jeremy began venturing into that prohibited zone more for the leather belt than his intrigue in the room itself.

The same day he put his parents in the ground, he wrenched the knob and shoved his way into the room. Standing there, for what must have been hours, he soaked up the forbidden realm. Staring at the pineapple patterned wallpaper, the tasseled lamp shades, the maroon fluffed carpet, the massive wooden headboard on the four-post bed, but without the promise of leather-bound pain, it was simply a dull, old-fashioned room.

Jeremy shook his head and turned to leave when a sudden flurry of muffled thumping shattered the silence and buried his disappointment. Adrenaline electrified his nervous system like jumper cables bringing a dead car battery back to life. He scurried throughout the room letting his ears guide him to the source of this lifelong mystery. Pressing the side of his head to the walls and sliding in every direction he eventually pinpointed its location—the chimney stack.

Moments later the room was full of plastic lining, heavy tools, and masonry dust. Jeremy hammered his way to the answer he craved.

The demolition revealed an odd bottleneck design to the home’s chimney. It was an unintentional trap for creatures of the night—an ideal resting place during the day, but too narrow for flight on exit. Bats, upon waking at dusk, would feel trapped and bludgeon themselves against the brick structure trying to escape.

Laying on a small ledge in this bottleneck, were several tiny carcasses; one of which was still fresh. Jeremy cradled the corpse in his hands. He could sympathize with the winged mammal’s plight. He too had been trapped by this constricting house. Emotion welled in his eyes.

On the verge of vowing to cement the trap away and close off the entire chimney forever, he stopped abruptly in mid thought. His widening eyes tilted down to look at his hands. Lost in his head, he hadn’t realized his fingers were rubbing the bat’s wings like a child absentmindedly working a worry stone. The sensation brought full understanding to him, not just with what he desired, but the realization that he was now truly free to do as he wished.

Over the next few days he worked hard to enclose the hole in the chimney, but with a new design. He installed a one-way gated trap with an internal door that would allow him access to the captured animal. He tested different baits, from sound frequencies to rotten fruit, luring his winged friends to their doom. It wasn’t long until he was capturing enough of them with regularity to further his own survival and satisfy his unnatural attractions.

Jeremy was on his fourth trip to the chimney that evening. He heard the creature’s thumps from the hall, their frequency diminishing, volume weakening—it was the right time to extract it, to make sure it’d have a bit of life left to feel the blessed pain he would graciously offer. Pain was a gift. He would help his new friend transcend to a better realm.

But before Jeremy could open the door an explosion shook the house, reverberating in the closed room and nearly blowing the door off its hinges. His mind pictured a bolt of lightning striking the old structure and obliterating the chimney. Trembling, he opened the door, pushed past some rubble on the carpet.

Neither the room nor the chimney was as damaged as he’d visualized, but the wall and the chimney stack were bulging into the room with areas of missing brick near the ceiling. Jeremy, inching forward, watched with wide eyes as more bricks fell to the carpet; not as a delayed collapse, but from something moving in the stack. What was a dull thumping before the crash, was now the sounds of confined shifting.

Whatever the fuck it is, it’s much bigger than a bat, Jeremy thought.

He crept onward with an outstretched hand reaching for the trap door. The metal door hung crookedly but was strong enough to stay latched. His fingers danced on the handle until he managed a firm grip. He took a deep breath and pulled.

At first all he saw was darkness. Then he noticed the wet glint of dark eyes just as it started to move again. The shadows spilled out of the opening and Jeremy stumbled backward—his shuffling feet catching on carpet, sending him to the floor.

The dark creature unfolded from the confined space and stood over him.

Jeremy couldn’t comprehend what he saw.

Its two hoofs clumped on the floor as it shifted weight between its furry legs. A forked tail whipped back and forth as the creature eyed him. Two long horns, pronged like antlers nearly scratched the ceiling. An elongated face leaned toward him as its teeth worked up and down. The torn remnants of a bat dripped from the creature’s taloned hand. It snorted and tilted its head.

Then it dropped the bat carcass and screeched at him. The echo was so loud as it sounded through the room that Jeremy’s ears released a trickle of blood.

The large creature stepped toward him and when its massive wings unfurled, Jeremy finally realized the nature of the creature before him.

“Y-you’re real!” The sight of the devil’s wings reaching from wall to wall turned Jeremy’s fear into awe and acceptance. “We’re all just meat, and you need to feed. Take me to a better realm.”

The creature shrieked again and lunged at him.

As teeth tore into his flesh and sharp talons ripped meat from bone, Jeremy clutched to the leathery wings, rubbing them against his face.

~ Tyr Kieran

© Copyright 2016 Tyr Kieran. All Rights Reserved.

Controlled

Letters and symbols vibrated on the screen—C# programming conditions that barely made sense to him anymore. Blinking, he tried to halt their rebellious dance, but each moment of blissful darkness brought Mel that much closer to involuntary shutdown. He’d never gone twenty-two hours straight before, nor beyond a ninety-hour work week, but here he was.

The clock in the lower corner reminded him that this sleep-deprived torture was far from over. 6:58AM. Brad’s Lexus would be parking across two visitor spaces out front by now. His entrance was always a whirlwind of douche-baggery.

Moments later, the boss stormed off the elevator, his briefcase swinging wildly as his heavy footfalls stopped at Sheryl’s desk. She looked up at him with half-squinted eyes, as if anticipating the full force of Brad’s backhand. Sheryl was new, only employed since the second quarter began, but she’d been around long enough to experience the worst. He must have something on her too, Mel thought as he peeked over the low cubical wall, otherwise why would she put up with this?

“Good morning, Sir,” she said.

“Don’t just sit there on your fat ass like you’re at home surfing Pinterest for your recipe wishlist, get me the latest shareholder’s report, the morning paper, and the status report for the Streamline project.”

Brad’s verbal barrage didn’t stop there. His demands and insults continued as he marched down the hall to his office, stopping for a moment as he reached his desk. He flopped the briefcase down, shaking the glass walls surrounding him, and sighed in a dramatic exhale. “For fuck’s sake, Sheryl. Where’s my double-espresso latte? You know I need it ready by 7AM.”

With an expletive of her own, she hurried off to the break room to fulfill his request.

Mel kept his head down, preparing himself for the inevitable summoning.

“Code-monkey,” Brad shouted. “Get in here.”

Mel rubbed his face in a brisk motion—trying to wipe the stress away—before shuffling into his bosses’ office. After squeezing into the chair Brad was crowding from his perch atop the desk, Mel stared down at his hands. Despite feeling cold and numb, as they usually did after long bouts of typing, they were sweating. Mel tucked his hands under his thighs for warmth just as Brad opened the discussion.

“How much farther did you get last night?”

“I scripted most of the control statements and I’m close to completing a prototype shell of the app, but as I said before we have to confirm the core attributes before—”

“We talked about this, Mel,” Brad said, tossing his hands. “Just get it done, we’re on a tight deadline.”

“I understand that, Sir. But, we cannot guarantee anything without—”

“Whoa! What the fuck, Mel? Don’t ever mention guarantees; they lead to lawsuits.” Brad punctuated his command with a sharp slap to the back of Mel’s skull.

The strike froze him for a moment; shoulders raised, eyes squinted, mouth half-agape in mid-syllable.  Then Mel reset his posture with slow resignation—funneling all his frustration into a moment of gritted teeth that his dentist would surely complain about at his next appointment.

Unsheathing his hands, he offered them up in placation, hoping to dampen his boss’s fuse as he explained further. “Sorry, Sir. I hear what you’re saying, but without defining all the client specifics like intended application interaction or even required platform compatibility, we’re setting ourselves up for massive revisions. If I could only have a conversation directly with the client, I think—”

“No!” Brad shouted at him, thrusting a finger in his face. “Leave the thinking to me. I manage the clients. You do the programming. Got it?”

Sheryl bustled into the room and, with great care, placed a large cup of coffee on Brad’s desk behind them.

Brad turned and stared her down, annoyed eyes screaming about her ill-timed entrance. Taking his meaning, Sheryl slunk out of the room, visually cringing from the attention, but not before exchanging a quick glance of understanding with Mel.

Maintaining his ocular assault, Brad picked up the tall cup and sipped.

“Sheryl, dear?” he called after her.

She turned.

“This is liquid-shit and you’re fired.” Despite Brad’s calm, Mel winced at the statement. Sheryl was a nice, intelligent woman. She didn’t deserve to be fired over coffee, let alone catering to mundane requests in the first place. The change of job might benefit her in the end, but it would still hurt. Sheryl had two daughters to care for and this salary was her only means of putting food in their fridge.

Sheryl’s mouth fell open, and before she turned away, Mel saw tears already streaming from her eyes. He clenched his fists. His cold fingers now pulsed with a swollen heat, the same sensation that stoked his gut with a churning energy.

“Mel,” Brad cooed, feigning compassion while he perched on the edge of his desk. “The project scope isn’t going to change until we show the prototype and we don’t have the budget for extensive revisions, so get it done and do it right the first time… am I understood?”

Mel seethed in silence—a furious bouncing of the right leg, white knuckled fists, and longer, deeper breathing.

“I needn’t remind you that my father owns Maven Digital Media. Your poor mother’s position might be eliminated if suggestions are made for leaner operations.”

The sound of Brad’s voice seemed distant behind the maddening rush of blood pulsing through Mel’s body. Accelerated breaths pressured out his nose like a show-prepped bull in Madrid’s main arena.

“Oh, and I talked to the client on the way in this morning.” Brad continued, leaning closer. “Due to competitive market pressures, I had to shorten the deadline by another week to keep them happy.”

Mel’s jaw cried out, threatening to strain muscles or chip teeth. The voice in the room was nearly washed out by the white-hot torrent surging through his mind. A rising growl started to form in his throat.

“…don’t care if you sleep under your desk, you’re going to—”

“Shut up!” Mel screamed, releasing the words at full volume. They reverberated off the office walls as Brad fell silent in their wake.

His boss phased through multiple emotions in a matter of seconds: from clenched anger, to confusion and finally landing on pale disbelief.

Mel watched him. What was he doing? Where was the predictable backlash?

Still emboldened from his rage, Mel prodded. “Well?”

His boss remained silent. Beads of sweat formed across his brow above an expression that Mel had never seen from him before. Still, no reply.

“Say something!” Mel conceded.

“Ghw-wha da fuck did you do to me?” Brad touched his throat and sucked air as if someone had been choking him.

“Huh?”

“I couldn’t talk.” Brad explained, fumbling the words between breaths. “I—I tried but nothing came out. You did something to me. Did you poison my coffee?!”

Mel, more frustrated and confused than anything else, splayed his fingers incredulously.

“What? I didn’t do anything to you. I just told you to shut… up.” As the words fell from his mouth, a crazy, sleep-deprived thought popped into his head. No sane person would ever consider it to be possible, but sanity was a foreign state on days like this, in work environments like this.

Mel needed to know. Brad was still complaining, when Mel spoke again.

“Brad, be quiet please.” He said causally, barely audible over his boss’s ramblings—ramblings that suddenly halted.

Mel’s eyes popped wide. So did Brad’s.

“Grab your index finger in one hand,” Mel said, dishing an order that would irrefutably prove his illogical theory, “…and break it!”

His boss’s eyes somehow opened even wider as his right hand clasped his left index finger. While frantically shaking his head against his own actions, Brad bent his finger backward until there was an audible snap. A muffled cry leaked out of his sealed lips.

Mel shot to his feet—his chair toppling over backward—and clutched his head with both hands, as if to keep his mind contained; to keep it from exploding. “What the fuck?”

Hearing the commotion, Sheryl rushed into the office, still holding a box of her personal effects. Her gaze of confusion shifted back and forth between the men.

Mel turned to her, “Wait there… you gotta hear this.”

She didn’t budge.

“Brad,” Mel said firmly. “Pick up your coffee and pour it on your head.

He did. Again, he cried out a muffled whimper of pain. His soaked shirt steamed.

Sheryl’s mouth fell open.

Mel grinned.

It was a smile that told of much more than humor. It was wider than normal and yet still concealed his teeth. It reeked more of foreshadowed mischief than of satisfaction. It was a smile that would make others uneasy, but Sheryl, in this odd moment in time, found it comforting.

“Brad, apologize to Sheryl. Rescind her termination and offer her a fifty percent raise.”

He did, despite an expression of great struggle—words sloppy from forced syllables. His complexion reddening as veins bulged in his neck and forehead.

She accepted with a nervous laugh.

“It’s okay.” Mel said to her. “It’s true. Go ahead and unpack your things.”

She left the room with a smile on her face.

“Now. Here’s how it’s going to go,” Mel instructed.

“You’re going to forget my mother completely. You’re going to hire at least two more programmers to work under my management. You’re going to give me a fifty percent raise and you’re going to allow me to communicate directly with clients during project planning. Oh, and you’re going to stay out of my business. Got it?”

Brad nodded with such force that he might have earned a mild concussion.

“Oh, and if you deviate from my wishes at any time,” Mel said, narrowing his eyes. “I’ll tell you to slit your own throat.

“And, just so you don’t think I’m bluffing… break another finger.”

Brad did as he was told.

~ Tyr Kieran

© Copyright 2016 Tyr Kieran. All Rights Reserved.