Tag Archive | short story

The Scourge

Sitting on the floor, with my back against the counter of Pauline’s Coffee Co., I look over my left shoulder at Emily’s body crumpled on the floor. The last frappe that she’d ever make spills over her, mixing with blood from the bullet wound just below her left shoulder and the gash in her head from where it slammed into the counter before she dropped.

Her coworker, Austin, has his legs pulled up to his chest, rocking, unharmed, while tucked in the corner where the wall and the register area meet.

“Sit tight,” I half yell to him. “It’s going to be okay.”

“It’s not going to be okay!” Jacob responds to my comment. Austin just trembles and whimpers. I’m not sure who Jacob has the gun pointed at since I can’t see him. I really hope it isn’t himself.

“Jacob, this isn’t you,” my partner says. “I know what’s going on. There’s a creature inside you telling you what to do. My name is Teris, and I have the power to help you.”

Teris has taken cover behind an overturned table off to my right and his attention is on a mother crouched in the corner shielding her crying toddler with her body.

For a brief second, the child hushes, and the only sound heard is the soft sobbing from a woman lying on the floor in front of the register.

I reposition myself so I’m on my knees and poke my head out enough to see Jacob and reassess the situation. Blood flows from the chest of the man who Jacob shot first. He slid down the condiment bar leaving a dark red trail of blood and I can’t tell if he is still breathing or not. His second shot took down Emily, and then his third left a lady sprawled over a table up against the front window of the shop.

There is a middle-aged man behind two tables flipped on their side forming a barricade, texting someone, probably telling his wife to call the cops, which is the last thing we need right now.

Jacob stands rock still, ready to fire, his gun pointed at the table Teris is behind. Over the course of the last few minutes he has gone from shaking with a quiver in his voice to strong and confident. Teris is spot on, Jacob isn’t in control of himself anymore, the Scourge has almost consumed him.

“Jacob, listen to me,” Teris starts talking again. “We can help you, I promise. There’s a monster inside you. It’s been tormenting you your whole life. I’ll bet it told you everything would be better if you did this.”

Jacob takes a step closer to Teris. “Shut up! Just shut up! What do you know?” Jacob’s words erupt in the room. I’m not sure if they’re meant for Teris or the entity inside him.

Teris continues, “I know quite a lot actually.” His steady, soothing voice breathes a calm in the air. “My partner, Nikias and I are two of thousands of angels on Earth fighting against the hordes of the underworld. One of their demons has infected you.”

As Jacob lowers his gun slightly and relaxes his body, I tense mine. If he would drop the weapon a little more, it would be safe to go for him.

The man Jacob left for dead at the condiment counter wheezes, shattering the calm. Jacob straightens up, points his gun at him, then fires without breaking eye contact with Teris. The bullet rips into the man’s face, shattering his cheek and eye socket before lodging in his brain, bits of flesh smatter the table shielding the texting man.

The woman by the register screams and pushes herself up, knocking over the coffee display as she bolts for the door. Jacob spins on his heel and fires off two quick shots. The deafening retorts linger in the air mixed with the crash of display shelves as the woman is propelled into them. She falls to the ground as bags of coffee tumble down around her dead body.

I catch Teris’ eye. With a flick of my head, I motion behind the counter and he nods in return. We not only have to get the gun away from Jacob so he can’t kill any more innocent people, but also so he can’t turn it on himself. Then get him out of here before …

“The police are on the way,” the texting man announces as if on cue.

Jacob takes a measured step beyond the table barrier, his eyes give away that he is gone, the Scourge has dominion over him. Jacob sneers, firing off another round at close range.

The bullet explodes the texting man’s chest, pushing his body tight to the table. His phone clatters across the tile floor. Jacob smiles, blood christening his body. He puts the barrel of the gun near the man’s temple and pulls the trigger. Bone and mucus-like bits of brain cover the area, resembling a demented Jackson Pollock painting.

Austin starts crying and Jacob snaps his head around, focused on the sound. Before he can move, I rise and take a step, giving myself a clear path to him.

“Jacob, enough of this,” I command, in an attempt to draw his attention.

Teris follows my lead and stands. “Jacob, I know you’re still in there,” he says, as sirens call out in the distance.

We stand a few body lengths apart facing Jacob. He points the gun at Teris, then at me, his attention focused on us. His eyes are inky black and wild. If there’s any chance that he’s still in there, we have to do something fast. We’re losing him.

The sirens get louder.

“Jacob, come back to me,” coaxes Teris as he steps from behind the table. “I can see you, a sliver of you. Put the gun down. We can help. The beast is inside you and it’s going to get out. We know how to cure you.”

Jacob tilts his head. “What? What’s inside?” he questions.

Teris inches closer. “A Scourge. A creature that lives in a human, feeding off the pain of life until it grows too powerful. It needs to destroy your body to reproduce.”

Jacob shudders and blinks, a bit of white appears at the edge of his sclera, and his eyes are tame. The sirens wail and I see flashing lights in the street.

“Put the gun down and come with us,” Teris says.

The police cars screech to a halt in the parking lot. Jacob glances over his shoulder, his body going taut.

“Shit,” I bark, and lunge toward him.

He turns and looks at us, his eyes midnight ebony. Bringing the gun up to his mouth, he pulls the trigger.  His head snaps back as I tackle him, droplets of warm, sticky blood splatter my face and an explosion of blood gray mist that was once Jacob fills the air. We tumble to the ground and his body goes slack.

Two lithe humanoid footlong creatures with taloned hands and feet burst from his chest leaving otherworldy wounds only Teris and I can see. They sink their clawed feet into me and I scream feeling an acidic burn before they push off.

Visible only to us, we watch as they pass through the window in search of new hosts. I wince, looking down at the claw marks through my torn shirt. It doesn’t take long for the poison to react to my angelic blood, the edges of the wounds are already an ugly shade of green and thick puss begins to drip from them.

“We need to get you to Michael,” Teris says, and hooks his arm around me. I close my eyes and my body lurches inside as Teris shifts us from the mortal world where our presence will be dismissed as trauma-induced hallucinations.

∼ Mark Steinwachs

© Copyright Mark Steinwachs. All Rights Reserved.

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Almost Human

How tiresome it had become to watch them come and go with no regard for me or my kind. We stood all around and effortlessly represented what they could never be. The vast majority of us were expressionless, but if you cared to look closely, you would see the rage building on our faces. Just this morning, I saw the children of these pretentious brutes tear the limbs from one of our own and wave them around triumphantly; clashing the severed appendages together as they feigned a fight between each other, cackling madly all the while. Their mother smiled, as if there was no cause for concern for what her little monsters had done. She simply ushered them away, leaving the amputated extremities haphazardly on the ground. We all watched in horror, paralyzed and disgusted.

Night fell and the overstuffed room was dimly lit by only emergency lights. The horde had disbursed and we roamed freely – repairing our wounded. Upon further inspection of the carnage, I’d made my final decision. By tomorrow we would no longer be plastic pariahs. We had plucked one of the more pompous specimens from the crowds while no one paid attention and hid her between the racks. I strode behind a checkout counter and retrieved a box cutter while the others dragged our guest into the open. I held the blade out so the cowering woman could see what was walking towards her. While my friends circled around us, I crouched down to her level; the same woman who’d smiled at her children’s violence would understand agony, of that I was certain.

A bit unsure of what I was doing at first, I began making crude incisions, her yelps of pain were music to my ears. A copper fluid flowed from every wound. She cried, screamed for help, but no one would be coming. I plunged the box cutter into her neck and instantly became coated in the ruddy liquid. She went limp, there were no more screams. I cut into her scalp and beckoned to my friends for help cracking her skull. Her rose colored brain exposed, and slightly throbbing – I grabbed it. Everyone watched as I placed it atop my own head and ambled towards the display window.

With as much force as I could muster, I whipped her broken skull remnants through the glass. Blood spattered and wearing my new accessory, I returned to my regular position. The broken glass and twinkling alarm lights caused me to look even more glamorous than ever.

∼ Lydia Prime

© Copyright Lydia Prime. All Rights Reserved.

Reunion

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!”

“Yes, David.”

David shakes his head violently. “I’m dreaming. I have to be. You can’t be here.”

“Why?”

“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?”

“A shovel.”

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?”

“You know.”

“No. I don’t.”

“The Darkling.”

“What’s that?”

“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.

Present Problems

It was the night before Christmas and all was still as he crunched through the thin snowfall on his way home from the bus stop. It was so cold that all the moisture seemed to have been frozen out of the atmosphere, the night was so clear that the bright stars seemed three dimensional. He hoped it wasn’t too cold for the occupant of the small box he was carrying.

He was no good at choosing presents. Mildred would always say that she liked them, and then, if it was an item of clothing or jewelry, she wouldn’t wear it. If it was a kitchen gadget, she wouldn’t use it. Pictures he’d chosen had never been hung. He’d found an ornamental bottle opener at the back of a drawer six months after he’d bought it for her birthday, and the incident of the cuckoo clock in the dustbin didn’t bear remembering.

This time he’d tried extra hard. He’d decided to buy her a pet, but as they both worked full-time a dog or a cat was out of the question. The man at the pet shop had told him that rats were very clean and intelligent, but he thought it a risky choice.

“What about a snake?” he’d asked. “They’re not at all slimy as most people think.”

And sure enough the small constrictor had been dry and smooth and well behaved. It seemed quite friendly and hadn’t tried to wrap itself around his neck and strangle him or anything, but he didn’t think it was quite the thing for Mildred. Mice and lizards were too small, and guinea pigs just too boring. No, the tarantula was the obvious choice. Quiet, clean, easy to feed, not too big, not too small, just the thing. He’d bought a plastic box, some sawdust and a pack of unfortunate mealworms to feed to it. He’d hidden them all in the garage. Tonight was Christmas Eve, and he’d picked up the spider at the pet shop as arranged. Did he have a moment of doubt as he looked into the cage and saw the strange array of unblinking eyes, tiny jewels of polished jet looking back at him? No, she’d love it, he was sure she would.

He arrived home, hung up his coat and left the arachnid in its box on the hall stand. Mildred came out of the kitchen and greeted him with a kiss. He knew she loved Christmas. They had a cheery meal of supermarket Moussaka, a generous helping of microwaved sticky toffee pudding, all enhanced by a nice bottle of sweet white wine. Then it was time for the exchange of presents.

“Me first, George, I can’t wait to give you yours.”

He tore open the wrapping paper, a lovely pair of string and leather driving gloves.

“Just the thing,” he said, “we’ve been talking about buying a car. Now it’s your turn.” He went out to the hall and brought in the box. “Close your eyes, put your hands together and hold them out.”

Very gently he tipped the new pet onto her outstretched palms.

“Alright,” he said, “you can open them now.”

Mildred opened her eyes, it took her a moment to focus on the hairy bundle as it slowly began to walk onto her right wrist and up her arm. Her eyes widened, she seemed frozen, speechless. Suddenly she found her voice.

“Oh, George, a Golden Knee Tarantula. How did you know? It’s just what I’ve always wanted.”

∼ Roger Ley

© Copyright Roger Ley. All Rights Reserved.

 

Fear

Tilting my head back I undo the clasp of the invisible collar around my neck. I feel two sets of long, sharp nails remove themselves from the skin of my shoulders and upper back. Bringing my arm over my head I clasp the collar shut and hang it on my bedpost as I do every night.

I run my hands along my neck. There are no physical marks on me. Nothing my friends or family would ever see, but I know they’re there. Twenty nail marks etched into my skin that will not heal for another night, and bruises from the weight of the creatures tugging at my collar.

I turn around and face them. They stand side by side, ebony beings who stare down at me. They look emaciated, their rib cages protruding. They have long, sinewy arms and legs; I shudder knowing I will feel the creatures pierce me again when I wake up. Their faces are dominated by sets of razor sharp teeth that drip with inky saliva whenever they open their mouths. I’ve yet to feel their bite, though I often wonder what would happen if I did.

Fear opens his mouth and his pointed tongue snakes out. I shiver but meet his gaze. I know he is Fear by the only color on his body, amber orbs that are his eyes. I’ve stared him down many a night.

I look to Doubt, his gold eyes glow in the darkened room. He brings his hands up and sneers. He dug deep into me all day and is gloating about it.

Neither emit a sound, the silent monsters who haunt me. They have been with me for years. Gnawing at my being every day, growing inside me until they forced themselves out. Everyone has these creatures in them, but mine reign over me. Control me.

I am not alone. There are others whose demons are just as powerful. There are no support groups, no doctors who can heal us. We are broken. What I’ve learned about mine, I’ve learned on my own.

They look down at me, watching. They are weaker at night when I am alone with my door closed to the world. But they know I cannot leave these four walls without them. They grow stronger each day. They rule in the outside world, but in mine, my room, I can stand up to them. Keep them at bay while I sleep. Dreams are my only safe place.

I walk to the side of my bed, their eyes never leaving my body. They turn in unison, standing guard as I slip under the covers. I turn off the lamp and my last vision is of their bedside vigil.

***

My eyes open to a new day. Fear and Doubt stand exactly as I left them. I push myself out of bed and they flex their taut muscles, their claws extending. I know what must be done. My body trembles inside. Each day I lose more of myself, but I cannot stop it. I reach for my collar and put it around my neck. I turn away, offering myself to them as I clasp it shut.

Closing my eyes I wait to feel them. Ten nails pierce my skin, what little healing happened overnight is erased.

Fear.

He pushes in deeper, tendrils snaking inside my body. As more of him enters me his body shrinks. He is no longer standing over me but now attached to me. Feeding from me. I inhale sharply, choking, as my collar is pulled to one side from his weight.

Waiting. One breath. Two breaths.

Doubt.

He stabs at me. Ten wounds at once. He is swift. Brutal. Taking hold. I gasp and grab the corner of my dresser so I don’t fall over. His tongue flicks my ear as I straighten myself.

They settle in as I open my bedroom door, ready to face the world.

***

Shutting the door to my bedroom I lean against it. I can’t face another day of school, the humiliation, the bullying. I’m done. I can’t fight anymore. I realize there is only one thing left for me. I finally understand what to do. No longer doubting myself, I will give in. I smile, it will all be over soon.

Pushing myself away from the door, my heart races. The weight shifts along my neck as my collar pulls against me when Doubt’s feet hit the ground. His body comes free and I feel his presence behind me.

I turn to face him. He is losing substance, shimmering in my vision.

“I’m sorry,” I whisper through clenched teeth, tears streaming down my face. I slide my hand under my shirt, feeling along my shoulder blade. Once again I smile. Just as I thought, his wounds are gone.

He steps forward and gently lays his hands over mine. Our eyes stay locked. He has been a part of me for so long. His tongue slips out and he kisses my tears away. Then he is gone.

My heart thumps against my chest. Unclasping my collar, I pull it around in front of me. I wait. His finger traces my body as he steps in front of me.

Fear.

My body is shaking but I don’t move. I am no longer crying. My hands quiver, fumbling with the clasp that binds Fear to the collar. Patiently he stands in front of me. I release the clasp and drop the collar to the floor. Fear smiles. It is grotesque and beautiful.

His hands roam over my body, feeling flesh he never has before. He grows as we stand together. Every inch of me is now his. There is only one thing left.

He opens his mouth.

My heart races as I close my eyes. A hundred spikes of pain shoot through me. I scream out in agony and fall to the floor, instinctively curling into the fetal position, rocking.

The door bursts open behind me. I hear my mom yelling asking if I’m all right. I know she is only a few feet from me, but she sounds so far away.

***

I’ve lost count of days, maybe it’s been years. I hear everything that is being said, but my body never responds. I’m trapped. My only reaction is to sob when they give me medication to relax. No one knows why I cry. They don’t understand they are tears of joy for being free.

Inevitably I feel my body slowly twisting into position as the drugs wear off. My tears stop. Those few hours of peace are gone. Once again I return to the hell in which I reside.

Fear is waiting for me.

My body enters his.

I am home.

~ Mark Steinwachs

© Copyright Mark Steinwachs. All Rights Reserved.

When You’re Howling

I watched the crazy bastard staggering across the shit-colored wasteland like some post-apocalyptic bindlestiff. He gestured wildly at Heaven and Hell, screaming in some dead language. But a bandana-wrapped poke dangled from the cane over his shoulder. Maybe it held food; I was starving.

A big boulder hid me. The dude walked past. I rose up behind him, cleared my throat. He spun around, and if he’d had a gun he would have shucked it. I had one—a cheap piece of blue-steel crap from before the world went to rot. But I didn’t shoot. The man was ugly as sin. On one side. The left side of his face…squirmed. I didn’t want to look too closely. But the right side was beautiful—uncomfortably beautiful. I looked away.

“I’ll take those goodies,” I told him, gesturing at his poke.

Suddenly calm, he pulled the cane off his shoulder and tapped the bandana-wrapped bindle. “You really don’t want to see inside this,” he said. “Let me offer a cigarette instead.”

I dealt him the nastiest smile in my set. “I’ll have the cigarettes too. But first the bag.”

He shook his head. “You’ve got no reason to believe me. But I’m not here by chance. I came seeking you. To make an end. I see now, though, you deserve more time. That heart’s not quite dead yet. In this bag, there isn’t anything to eat or sell. There’s only destruction.”

I hefted my pistol. “This is real destruction. Brought the world low. Give me the fuckin’ bag.”

“Please,” he said. “For your sake.”

Something about the guy creeped me out. My skin started jumping from more than just the fleas that made my rags their ghetto. But dammit! I was hungry, so hungry. I pressed the gun barrel against his forehead and cocked the hammer. The Devil laughed. Or maybe it was me.

The man sighed, dropped his cane, backed away. I knelt, pulled the knot loose on his bindle. For a moment, I looked in, then began to blubber like a baby. I put the gun in my mouth and pulled the trigger.

Click.

Nothing.

Click. Click. Click. Click. Click.

Sympathetic fingers stroked my greasy hair. He didn’t say, “I told you so,” but it was in his gaze when I looked up. That beauty! And that ugliness. I saw now why the left side of his face writhed; maggots crawled there, with human faces.

“Maybe just a little more time?” I asked.

“Sorry. Not now.”

He took my shoulders in his hands, folded and folded me until he dropped me into his bindle and retied the knot. I heard him groan through the walls as he lifted the immense burden on his back and staggered onward.

It wasn’t dark inside the bundle; I so wished it was dark. All the beauty of the world lay defiled before me. All the Love trashed by Hate. Hate looked at me and smiled.

I wanted to run but there was nowhere to go.

∼ Charles Gramlich

© Copyright Charles Gramlich. All Rights Reserved.

 

Milk and Moonshine

She was cursed with a fairness that strangled her. Expectations woven into her dark hair, an openness and roundness to her eyes that filled her with horror. They were too pale, too pure, too winsome to protect her. Terrors poured in while tears poured out. Hate and bile ran through her veins, but when her white skin tore prettily, nothing oozed out but healthy scarlet.

“What is your name?” they asked. Townspeople. Sweet old women. Starry-eyed men, lads whose bones were made of milk and oatmeal.

Pestilence. Famine. Hatred. Murder, she answered, but the words changed inside of her mouth, left her soft, dewy lips like starlight.

“My name is Orva. It means ‘golden one’,” she said aloud, and blushed demurely.

She grew up with a boy name Jorge. His last name meant ‘meadow’, and he was just like a meadow himself, with soft and gentle hands. He caught animals in his traps, whispering sweetly in their ears as he twisted their necks or slit their throats. He skinned them, his beautiful hands slick and red, and this is how he helped feed their village.

“This is for you,” he told her once, as tender as new teens, and handed her a stole of rabbit fur. He wrapped it carefully around her shoulders.

“Thank you,” she said, and smiled charmingly, then tried to slash her wrists on the knife at his belt.  Her eyes merely flicked toward it, instead.

“I’m sorry that I have to use such a thing,” Jorge said. “I hope it doesn’t disgust you.”

She looked him in the eyes and took his hand. For the first and last time in her life, her lips said exactly what was in her heart.

“Jorge, some things need to be. And you’re so tender with them while you do it. I’ve never seen such kindness.”

She saw the light in his eyes, and knew what it meant. Over the years, she never saw it go out.

Orva tried to shriek for help, to scream in rage, but her voice was so dulcet. So small. It tinkled like bells. Charming. Merry. She ran to the elder in town. Told him what she thought of him, of the oppressive ideals and the spin-and-twirl roll that she played. She told him that his mother was a hag and he himself a goat, and she wished he was dead. That they’d die. That the entire village would burn and be pillaged and everybody, including herself, raped and murdered and scattered about in pieces.

The words escaped her cupid bow lips and turned to honey. She heard herself laughing with pure joy. Praising his robe. Musing about the darling shape of the clouds. He patted her cheek and told her to go gather wildflowers in her skirt. To plait them in her hair, like the good girl her Mama had always wished for.

“Wishes sometimes come true,” the elder said knowingly, and something passed across his eyes like clouds. Stardust and magic.

Orva obediently skipped off, and cried the entire way.

Her tears were pearls, and made the town rich. They were sewn into bridal veils and fine dresses that she refused to wear, except that her sweet mouth could make no such refusal.

So fine. So good, the townspeople said as they dressed her. Isn’t she the most magnificent thing? Thoughtful and cheerful and full of beauty.

The flowers made an exquisite crown for an exquisite beauty. She tried to pierce her eyes with the thorns so she wouldn’t see how people looked through her, but she merely fluttered her lashes instead. She took her tender wrist to her mouth, touched it with strong, straight teeth, imaging how it would feel to cut through to the vein, to release herself and let people see what she really looked like inside. Perhaps they could love her for her own kind of beautiful. Perhaps she could be enough.

Her teeth didn’t tear into her skin. She kissed her own wrist, over and over and over. She screamed, and the sound of her joyful singing echoed over the valley.

Starlight. Moonshine. She had girlish love in her eyes, color in her cheeks. Jorge was no longer a boy. He stole soft kisses from her, breathless, far too in love, dangerous. No, Jorge, she said. I don’t want this. You don’t even know who I am. Take that knife on your belt and use it. Place it to my throat. Let me go.

He reached for something at his waist, and her heart filled. Shone. He raised his hands, ran them over her shoulders. Upward. She closed her eyes, white teeth biting at her lips.

“I have something for you,” he said. Slim fingers on her pale neck. Something cold.

The blade.

She hoped the pain would be swift. She prayed it would be sure.

A necklace. Made of precious stones and metal and time and desire. He fastened it around her neck, nervously. Tears ran down her cheeks, wetting his fingers.

“I’ll take care of you,” he said. “Love you always. I’ll feed you on milk and pray to always see the moon shine in your eyes. Will you have me? Will you love me?”

No, no, I don’t know how to love. I’ll poison you with my kisses. Kill our children in my womb with bitterness. It will be despair, and you deserve so much better.  

“I love you,” she whispered, and fingered the necklace she wore. Kissed his lips shyly. Buried her face in his shoulder. He held her so close that she couldn’t breathe.

She glowed. Smiled. Inside, she turned her face to the wall and died.

∼ Mercedes M. Yardley

© Copyright Mercedes M. Yardley. All Rights Reserved.

The Voices Want Out

Madness.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~ A. F. Stewart

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

Inhale, Exhale

Over the wind’s howl, you hear yourself breathing.

Your shoulders ache dimly from the strain of your arms pulled behind your back and bound to your stake, but you lost feeling in your hands an hour ago. Your legs are numb up to your knees. The pain in your face has become a mask you wear, dull and stiff; your head is fixed in place, held by your hair, the braid nailed into wood.

You cried when you were lashed here in the twilight, when everyone hurried away, when your mother stroked your hair but wouldn’t look you in the eyes. You stopped crying when you realized the sting down your cheeks was the wind-torn tracks of your tears, freezing to your skin.

There was no fanfare. There never is. Now all you do is blink, and breathe, and wait.

When the first breath of winter skirts across the land, someone has to be sacrificed. It’s the way. Flesh and blood must be traded for a few more weeks of strong sun and clear skies, for a safe end to the late harvest, for a peaceable season bereft of storms. When the gift isn’t given, the crops shatter on the vine, the cattle freeze beneath mounds of snow. It’s always been the way.

You cried at the thought that anyone else could have been chosen. You stopped when you realized there was no reason it shouldn’t be you.

Nothing moves when you try to flex your rope-bound limbs. You drag in a deep breath and something breaks within your nostrils, spilling down your face. You feel nothing, taste nothing; only the slowness of the ooze tells you it’s blood. You open your mouth to breathe out, and there’s merely a muted tingle when your wetted lips rip apart from one another.

Whatever plume your exhalation makes, it’s swallowed by darkness. The gale shifts, tearing at the tatters it’s made of your clothes, curling around and into you like a living thing with breath of its own. The knifing pain frigid air made in your chest at sunset is now only a distant twinge.

You blink. You breathe. It’s becoming difficult. You have the slow cold-glazed thought that you’ll be buried at sunrise, and you’re surprised to find you still have a few tears left.

It had to be you. It always had to be you.

You breathe in.

You breathe out.

You wait.

~ Scarlett R. Algee

© Copyright Scarlett R. Algee. All Rights Reserved.

Suffering

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.

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