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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
~ Scarlett R. Algee
© Copyright Scarlett R. Algee. All Rights Reserved.
The chittering awakens me and I open my eyes. My body is prone on the comfortable bed, one of few luxuries I am afforded. I wince when the first set of tiny hands touch me, sharp claws testing the flesh of my legs. Laying here, waiting for it to begin.
Each of us live this, session after session. It’s not the physical anguish that will break us, it’s the emotional torment. Feeling the tingling in our bodies as the connection builds. The unseen part of us that stretches through the chasm to them as our gift begins to merge with theirs—knowing we will soon be back for another round. There is nothing we can do to stop it. It is our life. Our life to complete theirs.
We are the Muse.
A sharp burst of pain shoots through me, my body arching as synapses explode inside. I slam back on the bed, the room disappears and a glowing white screen surrounds me. A cursor blinks, then it begins. Letters becoming words becoming sentences. Tiny nails dig into my flesh. More words flow as blood trickles down my legs. My face twitches with each pin prick from the small claws. The letters in black, forming on the screen in front of me. Every muscle fights the slow grinding ache as viscous red seeps from me. I give myself to him, so he may become great.
The creatures move up my legs, nipping my torso and arms. I don’t need to see the sightless ones, the Deliverers, as dark as the night itself with pointed teeth that click and tick as they speak to each other in a language only they and Oizys know. She controls them and they feed her from our sessions. We are pawns, Muse and Deliverers, in the games the gods play.
A flash of golden light blinds me, pulling me from my thoughts. I wince but never close my eyes. If I look away, or even blink, the connection will break. I can’t read the words but I know they are perfect. Only perfection can be this intense and with it brings … I bite my bottom lip as a talon slashes my calf, reopening my barely healed wound from last night. A moan escapes me, tears stream down my face. I want it to be over. With each word he types my eyes are assaulted. That, mixed with the physical attacks, overwhelms me. I begin to blink but I can’t let myself, I won’t. He is on fire and I am his victim.
The words flow from him. I don’t know how long it lasts, my time and his never mix. I am becoming weaker as blood continues to seep from the cuts all over me. My body is begging me to end the session, to close my eyes and rest before there is no coming back. I groan through clenched teeth, spasms wrack my body. I feel a Deliverer on my chest. Suddenly all the others stop but the words continue. My body involuntarily tenses, unknowing, the pause in their attack confusing me. Agonizing seconds tick by until another sentence crosses my vision.
Vivid colors erupt in front of my eyes, unlike anything I have ever seen before. A sharp claw pierces my flesh and bores into me. Its talon extends deep inside me and punctures my heart, filling itself straight from me. I scream in anguish and close my eyes. The colors vanish and my world is an abyss.
My breath is shallow and ragged. The claw in my heart retracts and the Deliverers start to slip away. My body struggles to repair itself, starting with the most serious injuries. After those, the hundreds of little nicks mark my flesh, scars of another round of torment. The room is quiet and I am at peace. I made it through once more. I begin to drift off to sleep, my last thoughts always the same.
I am a Muse. I must suffer for my artist.
∼ Mark Steinwachs
© Copyright Mark Steinwachs. All Rights Reserved.
The old man shifted his weight as he peered out through the tavern’s window settling on three figures standing in the street. Although obscured in shadows cast by the lone lantern, one could easily tell there were two adults and one child.
Over the years he watched many families stand outside in the street exactly where the three were standing now. Although it was a different one each time, the scene always played out the same.
One could say it was tradition.
The old man reached into his jacket pocket, pulling out a silver pocket watch. He pressed the small button releasing the latch and looked at the clock’s face.
Frowning he closed the watch and slid it back into his pocket.
“It is almost time.”
He heard someone grunt behind him and turned to the rest of the people in the tavern who came to witness. None met his gaze. He felt their hatred as easily as he could smell the odor of stale beer.
The old man turned in time to see the two adults kneeling down hugging the child. The father was the first to stand and had to pull the mother away. She began cried as her husband led her toward the bar, away from their child.
The little girl watched her parents, not entirely sure what was happening.
The tavern’s door opened and the mother’s wails filled the room.
“Let go of me,” she cried. “This is your doing!” As she began hitting his back, the old man did not take his eyes off the girl.
A faint mist swirled around her feet.
“Ellie, come on,” the husband said wrestling his wife away. “Screaming at the heartless bastard isn’t going to change anything.”
“How could you…” Ellie spat. “She’s only nine…”
The mist thickened, making everything outside appear in grey scale.
“If you only knew what it was like…”
The words stung, the old man’s throat went dry. I know only too well. He exhaled sharply keeping his attention on the girl.
She was barely visible in the impenetrable mist.
It will be over soon.
A shadow danced in the mist to the little girl’s left and vanished as she spun around to see what it was. Her head darted back and forth looking for it.
The shadow reappeared to her right, only closer. Once again the girl turned to look but the shadow disappeared. Her movements became frantic and she turned her head to toward the tavern.
It rose up through the mist like a scorpion’s tail and struck, knocking the little girl to the ground. The shadow rushed forward engulfing her in a blur of grey and black. She opened her mouth to scream but no sound came out. Her struggling weakened and within seconds she no longer moved as the shadow devoured her.
The mist quickly dissipated revealing an empty street with no trace the girl had even been there. He checked his pocket watch again.
The old man turned, moved away from the window. He kept his head down to avoid the icy stares and shuffled toward the door as fast as his frail frame could take him.
“Just like always, you leave without having the fucking guts to face those of us who have given so much,” the little girl’s mother said.
He slowly turned and raised his head, meeting the hateful stares head on.
“Would it make it any easier if I did?” he asked.
“At the very least you could see the pain… the anguish that this ungodly tradition causes.”
“Yes, it is an ungodly tradition.” He pointed toward the window. “That thing that takes so much from us every year is ungodly.”
“Takes so much from us?” the father asked. “What do you know of it?”
Before he could reply, the bar erupted in profanity laced rants. Globs of saliva struck his face and he dropped to one knee.
“If you would please…” he tried to say but was drowned out.
His breathing quickened as his chest tightened. His hand slid down the shaft of his cane until it reached the bottom. With a deep breath, the old man stood up and in one fluid, powerful motion smashed his cane on the floor. It splintered in the middle and the sudden show of force silenced the bar.
“You all think I haven’t felt the pain this night brings?” he yelled as his lower lip quivered. “Do you all think that I cannot relate to what you are going through?” His eyes scanned the stunned expressions. “When we settled here almost fifty years ago, I had three sons and a daughter who I loved with all my being. We thought we found paradise but little did we know what we’d have to pay for it.”
“Are… are you saying…” the mother began.
“Mine were the first to be given to the ungodly. I know all too well what you are going through. If there were some other way believe me when I say we would’ve found it.” He wiped the spit off of his face. “But there isn’t.”
He hobbled to the door and spoke over his shoulder as he opened it. “You all knew the price you might have to pay when you moved here. Don’t forget that.”
With that he stepped outside and pulled the door shut behind him.
∼ Jon Olson
© Copyright Jon Olson. All Rights Reserved.
Rugged knees on hallowed soil, I kneel before its mighty stature. Blistered palms meet below my bowed posture—I beg clemency. It extends an ebon finger, the tip sears my flesh. Pain struggles down a swollen throat that cannot utter its cry. Vocal chords are restrained only by conditioning. One must always be faithful. Its form defines beauty and terror as one. Love, hate, fear, and all between exhales with each breath it takes.
As its dark hand retreats, my skin slows its boil. The scent of forbidden meat teases my senses. I’ve been touched by that which brings life and death, that which gifts all and reaps the tortured stalks hidden among this field. I pray that my time is still young.
It speaks to me for the first time. “Your heart is pure.”
My faculties nearly retreat.
Its dark palm covers my face, fingers wrap around my head. All is gone but the void which is the color of its flesh. But within it are terrible things—colors of wrath and fury, fluids of the human body, suffering of unimaginable design. Deep into its grasp, my mind drills forward into unknown places, forced to go on, made to see.
And see I do—things inhuman, vile enough to burn any eyes that witness them. But mine survive. They live to force these sights to memory, where they’ll burn like hellfire until death snuffs them out with cold hands.
When its hold releases my weakened body I collapse. Mutterings from the subconscious echo between my ears. I look to the dark figure. Its mouth emulates an expression of pleasure—but whether it is approval of my soul or the joy of punishment I cannot tell. Time will be short with an answer.
It takes a few steps back, stares with glowing eyes. I remain motionless, penitent. Guilt riddles every drop of blood in my heart. I know I’ve not done its creed wrong, yet I still feel a disgust for my flesh. How repugnant and feeble it is; ugly and without strength. It pities us. It must.
With an arm extended, it points toward the cliff. “You are permitted.”
The words are surreal. Difficult to believe I’ve been accepted. I stand, legs trembling, and walk to the verge. The ocean crashes against the rocks below. In the dark water I see something darker yet—a conical blotch spearing deep beneath the surface.
I look back to it and it nods approval.
I step off the edge to join my brethren.
∼ Lee Andrew Forman
© Copyright Lee A. Forman. All Rights Reserved.