The Slice of Razored Wings


I lie on cool moss while the sky drips sun. The world brims with light. It stars my eyes until I see little more than a melted, gold-dust haze. But my ears are open and aware. My skin entangles the moment. For a pleasant fragment of time, my mind lies fallow.

Then something with razored wings slices through the stillness and savages my serenity. A kiss stings; a whisper bites. Thoughts and emotions bloom and settle, like bubbles on a slough. They are foreign, alien. I deny them. But subtle movements become a roil. Shapes rise, lift shaggy heads from the mire. They are draped in silken folds of weed and mud. Beautiful and repellant, they smile with bold teeth, they lick lips of glory.

The promises they bear are fanged and holy, like talons dipped in sacred filth. And now I can see the glitter of fatal edges even through my blindsight. Old scars fold open like the petals of rotted roses. Thoughts take wing, hateful raptors that slice through the ruby heavens of doubt. They shriek upon me.

To save myself, I lift the twin shields of kindness and cowardice. But they are worn and rusty. A sharp strike may shatter them and leave me defenseless before this predator. And so in desperation I call out the beast’s name. With hope of a reprieve, I plead for mercy.

From love.

 

~ Charles Gramlich

© Copyright Charles Gramlich. All Rights Reserved.

Children of the Ovum White

The bells had been tolling for many hours after they caught the last resister and slit her throat. He had been chosen to carry the infant cut from her womb as they marched through the streets. The newborn squalled, its tiny limbs slippery with blood of the gutted resister. He clutched it tightly, chanting with the rest from Proverbs 24:12 in clipped unison, for it was cold. When they reached the Temple, a white robed nurse stepped out to take the child. Soon after, an Elder came to address them.
“Who brings this babe?”
“We of the Righteous, Sector Five.”
“Who carries the babe?”
“I, Holy One,” he stepped forward.
“And your name?”
“Peter, zero-sixty-five-oh-two, Honored One, sworn by birth to the genetic cycle eternal.” He was careful to modulate his voice in cadence as customary when speaking to Elders. No one spoke with inflection, for that in itself was blasphemous.
“Ah, Peter. I recognize you. You were –” the Elder smiled toothlessly, “one of my favorites. Very well, excellent.” He rubbed his hands, the palms stained with a garish orange, the mark of his status. “And what say the rest of you?” he asked, addressing the shivering throng.
“We are the spawn of the Ovum White. We copulate no more. We bow to the Sperm Bank and Ovum White. Pure is the Sperm Bank and Ovum White.”
In humility and thanks for another day of service to Truth, Peter led the others in the formal bow, lowering his forehead to the stones three times in succession.
Satisfied, the Elder snapped his fingers twice. Several robed priests came forth to mark faces with sanctified chalk. From behind the pillars, lutes played melodies of holy grace.
And Peter, who was to know no greater pleasure than this moment for the rest of his life, bowed again deeply, as the Elder sprinkled a few drops of placenta blood on his shaven head.
Afterwards, he joined the others from Sector Five as they formed lines to march homeward.

(To be continued …)

∼ Marge Simon

© Copyright Marge Simon. All Rights Reserved.

Service

I hear them coming, calling in their hunger-strained voices. They’ve sung for so long, a tune which brings melancholy drops to my eyes. I feel their inhuman pain, their longing for daylight. Though I am blessed by the sun, darkness is my only true embrace.

I know they suffer, for I was one of them. I’ve been above so long I wonder who truly accepts the burden of agony we all feel. They, who have suffered the same for ages, or I, who pains above, glimpsing the world we long for. I exist between. Not quite human, but no longer a monster.

My existence is sole to the needs of my original kind—to hunt beneath the moon and bring them sustenance. A gift in their eyes, for I get to see heaven; a curse in mine, as I witness it alone.

~ Lee Andrew Forman

© Copyright Lee Andrew Forman. All Rights Reserved.

All Hallows

It was the end of October. The summer season was over in the sleepy seaside village of Foreness. Chris checked his watch. Four fifteen. He had driven from the final, insane argument with his now ex-girlfriend, stopping only to pack a small suitcase before he left their home for the last time. He walked down the promenade towards the pier, but it was closed.  Standing on the edge of the promenade, his hands resting on the green painted metal fence, he looked out to the grey ocean. He was totally alone and that suited his mood. The whole town seemed deserted, with ‘Closed’ signs up in most of the shops, arcades and hotels on the front. He hadn’t seen a single person since he had arrived. Lost in his own brown study, he remembered he had been brought here by his parents three times in his early teens. He had loved those holidays in the dim and distant past. Holidays that seemed to last forever, full of adventure and joy. And now he was back. He needed somewhere to escape and he had instinctively chosen Foreness, this place of childhood happiness, memories of a time when there was no pain, no sadness.

He walked down the nearest steps down onto the beach, finding a discarded deck chair to sit on. Sitting near the concrete wall, he looked out to the sea as darkness fell.

Waking with start, he rubbed his eyes, not quite believing he had managed to fall asleep. He checked his watch. It was seven thirty. He supposed he better find somewhere to sleep for the night. Climbing the steps from the beach to the top of the seawall, he was amazed to find the promenade was crowded with people. There were about fifty, all staring out to sea. It was an incongruous sight. There was no buzz of conversation, no-one was talking.

He walked up to the nearest person, a man of around fifty years old.

“Hi. How are you doing?”

The man didn’t immediately respond, his attention focused out to sea. It took a few moments for the words to register.

“Um, yes. Hello. As well as can be expected, I suppose.”

“I’m Chris.”

“Philip.”

“Nice to meet you Philip.”

Philip was staring back out to sea. Chris did the same, trying to work out what these people were looking for. He couldn’t see much, just the beach and the edge of the sea. After that the darkness was complete. Away in the distance he could see a tiny speck of light from a fishing boat.

“Can I ask what you are looking for?”

Philip looked at him in amazement.

“What?”

Chris was suddenly aware he had said the wrong thing.

“I thought you were one of us.”

“No.”

“It’s normally only this group who come here on this night. The locals leave for the night, to give us space.”

“I’m not local, I just arrived this afternoon.”

“That would explain it.”

Philip lapsed into silence, continuing to stare out into the darkness. A few moments passed, then Chris knew he had to ask.

“Why are you all here then?”

Phillip spoke without taking his eyes off the shoreline.

“Have you ever heard of the H.M.S. Forstall?”

“No, sorry.”

“No surprise. It was sunk by a U-boat in 1942. All hands went down with her, a total of two hundred and thirty-four souls. October the 31st, 1942.”

“Oh, okay.”

“Seventy-four years ago tonight. And it happened just out there, just off-shore. It’s a war grave now.”

“And you’re here to mark the occasion.”

Chris glanced at the other people. Some were old, some were young. Most were middle aged. Chris guessed they were the families of the lost sailors.

“I am the grandson of one William Henry Partridge. Able Seaman, aged twenty-five years old on the night the Forstall sank. My mother’s father. She is getting too old to make this pilgrimage, so now I do it. My boy will take over in a few years.”

Suddenly there was a shout from further down the line of people.

“They’re here!”

The people starting moving, down the steps to the beach. Philip turned to Chris.

“You may not want to see this.”

“Why? What’s happening?”

Philip smiled. A dark smile without happiness or humor. He gestured at the other people.

“We come here, on this night, not just to remember, but to meet them. The crew return to shore, once a year. Every year, on the 31st of October. I think it’s because they died on All Hallows that they are able to return the world of living. After all, this is the night when the veil between worlds is the thinnest, when the dead can return. All we, the living must, be here to greet our families and pay homage to their sacrifice.”

“That’s not funny. What a horrible thing to say.”

Philip smiled the same smile.

“Why do you think the town is deserted? On this night, the dead return and we must be here to greet them. Come with me, if you think I’m lying.”

Philip walked down the steps. Chris stared at him for a moment, then followed.

Later on, in the daylight and well away from Foreness, Chris tried to piece together that night. Those few hours when he saw the dead emerge from the sea to be greeted by their extended families. But it wasn’t a complete picture. His mind had blanked out a lot of what he had seen, almost as if he had been drunk or drugged. He retained some memory, but only brief flashes. Memories of darkness, of white faces, of naval uniforms and of figures stumbling through the waves back onto the land. Memories of the dead returning from the sea. He didn’t remember making his way back to his car, after, but he guessed Philip had helped him. He vaguely remembered driving out of Foreness, tears streaming down his face. He remembered begging his girlfriend to take him back and she agreeing, just as tearful as he was.

As he grew older, he always remembered the night at Foreness on the 31st of October. Those broken fragments of memory never lost their clarity. He always wondered if those families still met on the promenade to greet their long lost relatives. He guessed they must, but one thought often kept him awake at night; what would happen on the night when the families no longer gathered to greet the crew of the Forstall? When the new generations of the families simply forgot or no longer cared or believed. What would the sailors do, where would they go, when that day inevitably came?

~ RJ Meldrum

© Copyright RJ Meldrum. All Rights Reserved.

Red Book

Only moonlight lit the old barn. But I could see. My eyes were sharp as a wolf’s. Every crack in the walls bled electric blue. The night had texture; it had intensity. It smelled sour. It smelled like rust.

Why was I here?

The bottom floor of the barn was empty: no hay covering the dirt, no troughs for pigs or stalls for horses. It was quiet ground, waiting, gestating. A ladder to the loft stood to one side. I climbed, stepped off onto a board floor that creaked under my boots.

What had drawn me here?

The smell changed, grew wet, like paint. The light held a black shine. Two wooden sawhorses rested near the wall with a plank lying across them. A row of small clay vessels stood upon the plank; a set of artist’s paintbrushes waited in one.

Waited for what?

I stuck a finger in one of the clay pots, as if into the smooth, rounded interior of a skull. The bottom was coated with a residue, both sticky and gritty at the same time. I lifted my hand, sniffed the finger. I couldn’t quite identify the scent or the feel.

The light dimmed as a cloud swallowed the moon. I’d come prepared. Taking a votive candle from my pocket, I lit it and held it up. The glow was too bright, like tacks stabbing into my eyes. I pushed the candle out to arm’s length—and saw writing on the wall.

Wild words, sentence fragments, snatches of poetry. Some phrases scrawled; some ran as straight as razors. They extended to my left and right, reached from the top of the wall to the floor. The individual letters were baroque, almost runic, written in crimson-black and adorned with loops and swirls.

Had I been led here to read this message?

Was it meant for me?

With the candle as guide, I edged my way to the beginning. The message began at the top of the wall on the far left. It read:

“I dream in heat, on cracked roads whose fissures you would have smoothed before me. I dream the river where dirty flesh is laundered, where saints wallow in the bile of love, where the flow is dark with the froth from wounds. I am the mire into which the froth flows; I am bittersoul turned amber in the trees. Why hast thou forsaken me? How may I turn your ear once more my way?”

There was more, densely more. It sang, writhed, shrieked, tore, bruised, begged, licked. I followed it line by line by line. The ink with which it was written grew thinner, as if the scribe were running out and striving to make it last to the finish. But when I came to the end, there was no finish. The words just stopped.

“Enslaved to aff…”

Enslaved to what? Affection? Affirmation? Affliction?

Snarling, I kicked the wall. Dust tumbled into the air, danced in the candlelight with Brownian motion. There was meaning here. Such meaning. But who was it for? Why wasn’t it finished?

Whispering!

I turned to look. Dots of black whirled curlicues in the air. Flies.Their wings buzzed. There weren’t many of them. Then I saw the bodies—three—six—nine. They were pale as wax in the candlelight, except for the ruby necklaces that each wore. I understood. Their pallor was partly a coating of lye to keep away the flies and the smell. The necklaces were not made of gems.

I looked back at the wall, knew suddenly what ink this unfinished manuscript had been written in. Three—six—nine….

Three more bodies would provide enough blood to finish this red book.

I knew why I was here.

∼ Charles Gramlich

© Copyright Charles Gramlich. All Rights Reserved.

The Horseman

The horseman’s shadowed eyes stared forward beneath the rim of a tattered Stetson. His steed blazed through the night. Isolated by the vast prairie, things which hide in the dark watched his every move. But his guns held firm to his belt, fully loaded. His quick hands, both ready and able.

Although he could not see the path, he knew it well. Not by a painted memory or a tale told over a hard drink, but by a map of dreams scrawled within his heart. He was drawn to that place by a pounding desire to hunt, but his prey remained a blur behind inner vision. He knew not its form or purpose, only its dangers.

One too many folk had been ravaged, and as a traveler, he knew his presence in the nearby town would be more than suspect. His grim expression could not go unnoticed among a people quiet with fear and mourning. He was to make haste in dispatching whatever hungry thing lay sly in the wilderness.

A sudden moment, both quick as lightning and long as eternity, threw him off his horse with the cries of his mount in terror. By the time he hit the ground and drew his guns, nothing more than dust in the air remained where his companion had fallen. But its screams of agony, the pain of being eaten alive—a foul thing for any man, woman, or child to hear—trained his sights through the dark with precision. When vision failed, he shot by ear.

A low grunt confirmed a hit. The sound of tearing flesh stopped. Raspy breath of something not human, the only thing which kept silence at bay.

The horseman held both guns steady, fingers ready to squeeze.

Hard pounding against the earth readied his shot, two bullets fired straight, no hit.

A thump landed behind him; foul breath huffed against his neck. He cocked both arms back and fired two more shots. A guttural howl sounded, something wet and hot splattered his backside. The horseman rolled forward and turned toward his enemy.

Despite its grotesque appearance, its extremity of difference from man or animal, the horseman didn’t flinch. To him the bleeding thing was just another beast to be slain. It huffed heavy breath, visible in the cold air. The waving motion of a multitude of spiked tentacles quickened and slowed. Its maw opened and shut, black liquid dripped from its teeth. Its bottom, nothing more than a blob of raw flesh, pulsated as it stretched and wrinkled.

The horseman stared at its face with no eyes, waited for it to move. If it fled, he’d chase; if it attacked, he’d retaliate. He could navigate a fight with evil like a swindler at a game of cards.

It came toward him. He waited until its spiked tentacles raised in a poise to kill from above with their sharp ends. The horseman rolled to the side and fired two more shots. One into the side of its head, one into the pulsating flesh of its lower end. Both injuries spit blood, the one and only thing he and the creature had in common.

The horseman reloaded his guns while the creature sung agony into the night. It twitched and swung its loose appendages in the air before falling on its side. It breathed still, but slow, labored. The horseman approached without guilt and fired another shot into its head.

The horseman then removed his duster and threw his hat onto the grass. The rest of his clothes ripped and fell away from the expansion of his flesh. His entire body enlarged until it became nothing like man or animal. Somewhere along his middle, a gaping circle of teeth opened and gorged on its prey.

© Copyright Lee Andrew Forman. All Rights Reserved.

 

The Crows

“The crows can see you. They are waiting.”

I didn’t look at my sister—still in disbelief she returned to the city—but I felt her shift beside me on the bench. I replied, “There are no crows in the city, Isabella. There haven’t been for years.”

From the corner of my eye, I saw her shake her head. “They’re still here.”

“No. You’re wrong. They left us.” I stood and walked away, leaving her alone on the bench. 

Her voice followed me, “They see you, Anna.”

I walked home through the empty streets. The city wasn’t crowded since the plagues. Many left, followed the crows, but a stubborn few remained. As I climbed the stairs to my apartment, I wondered why I stayed. Fear maybe, of what was beyond the city, or perhaps habit. Lately, none of my reasons mattered. I entered my apartment with Isabella’s words ringing in my ears.

“The crows can see you.” 

I hadn’t thought of them for a long time. Memories shifted in my mind, and I recalled the last days of the final plague. When the world understood. When we finally saw the crows: black-winged angels, guiding the souls of the dead away. In those end days, the sky was black with them and the air strident with the sound of their wings and caws. Yet, they vanished after the plagues. Abandoned those that remained.

“No. They never abandoned you.” 

I glanced towards the door. Isabella stood there.

Damn, she followed me home. Why? Why did she come back?

Isabella looked at me and said, “It’s time to go. Time to stop pretending. This isn’t life, Anna. You need to remember you’re dead.”

I snorted and looked at my sister with contempt. “Do you think I’m that stupid? I’m not one of the delusional ones. I know I died. I know you’re dead too.”

Isabella sighed. “Then why do you stay?”

I hesitated, then replied, “I don’t know. Fear, perhaps. The city is familiar, comforting, even if it is a city of ghosts. It was home.” I turned away, staring at a dusty picture of my deceased husband. “Maybe we’re only echoes, afraid to move on, but it’s something to cling to.” 

“Is it enough?” Isabella held out a hand.

I turned away. “Why have you come back? Why now? You crossed over years ago. You didn’t stay. Not like me.”

Isabella moved to my side, putting a hand on my shoulder. I glanced at her and she smiled.

“I’m a harbinger. The crows sent me, and others, to guide the last souls to their final rest.”

I shook my head. “The crows abandoned us.”

“No. They only waited. No soul can move on until they’re ready. Now they sent me to bring you home.”

“After all this time?” I trembled and jerked away. I walked to the window and stared at the city.

What’s beyond this? Is it good? Am I ready?

If I could have cried, I would have. I blurted, “What if I don’t want to go?”

“We both know you want this, Anna.” Isabella came over to stand at the window with me. “Leave this place. Your family is waiting for you.”

I gasped, staring at her. “They are? Mother and Father will be there? Josh?”

She nodded. “They’re eager to see you again.” 

I looked back out at the city and I knew I wanted to see my family again. “How long before…?”

Isabella took my hand and led me out of the building. As we stood on the street she whispered, “The crows are coming.”

I glanced around and saw the sky full of black wings and heard the echo of the empty metropolis. I felt a whoosh of air and the sound of beating wings.

Then I embraced the crows and let them take me away from the city of the dead.

~ A. F. Stewart

© Copyright 2020 A. F. Stewart. All Rights Reserved.

 

Telling Stories

I’ve started dreading bedtime.

It’s Emily. Oh, it’s not her fault, for God’s sake, she’s only three, but lately every time I come to tuck her in she’s dragged out that book, and always with the same demand.

Story time.

I don’t know where she found it. I certainly didn’t buy it, and it wasn’t in the house when we moved in. Trying to ask the neighbors about it has only gotten me evil looks and muttered curses and a lot of disinvitations, and I can’t say I blame them—the damned thing just looks so odd, bound in patchwork leather with some kind of crude embroidery that I guess is meant to look like stitches. And the pictures are awful: all fangs and teeth and multiplicities of limbs, sometimes blurry and seeming to slide off the page, sometimes so detailed I wake up screaming.

But Emily always sleeps soundly, and I can never find the same picture twice.

The words, though. The words are worst. Some of the text is black and some is red, like an old Bible, but none of it is in English. I’m not even sure the words are actually words. They’re crooked, wriggling shapes, shifting and writhing on the page; the first time Emily asked me to read something, I decided to play along, make something up as I went, but the shapes turned to words as I struggled over them. Not in front of my eyes, but out of my mouth. English words. Suddenly I was telling my daughter monstrous stories, stories of slaughter and gore, of dead gods rising from the sea, rising to blot out the sun.

And Emily laughed and laughed.

I said the words were worst. No. That’s not true. The changes are worst. Tuesday morning when I mowed the yard, the grass twisted and bled. That night I walked out onto the porch for a smoke and the moon looked down at me, huge and red, pockmarked with yellow eyes. Last night while I was reading, something slammed into the bedroom window, something far too large to be any kind of bird, and Emily clapped and laughed while I shrieked.

This morning there was nothing on the window but a scorch mark that stretched down the wall.

I’ve tried throwing the book away. Tried giving it to the library. Every time, it was back on Emily’s bedroom shelf that night, and now the disapproving note I got from the librarian is a soot-edged bookmark.

And Emily knows something’s happening. She knows, and she’s changing too. Sometimes I catch her watching me like she’s sizing me up, waiting; sometimes her eyes seem a little yellow, and her mouth full of too many teeth.

I should burn the book. Tear out the pages. But it makes her so happy, I can never quite bring myself to tell her no when she says, Story time.

Still, just once, I wish she’d ask for Where the Wild Things Are.

~ Scarlett R. Algee

© Copyright Scarlett R. Algee. All Rights Reserved.
Where the Wild Things Are © copyright Maurice Sendak, 1963

 

 

Shadows

The blast stripped his skin away, charring the flesh underneath and turning his bones to dust. His eyelids were sealed by the heat, the fluid orbs boiling and bursting in their sockets. He felt a brief moment of pain, then nothing, as his limbs were ripped from his body, his guts torn open and his head shattered. After the explosion, there was nothing left except for a few misshapen lumps of gristle and burnt meat.

He woke. He was in the boiler room as usual. He stood, dusting himself down. He quickly realised the room had changed. There was a hole in the roof and the room was full of smoke and debris. The furnace was ripped open, sheared metal hanging from the frame. He looked down and saw the charred, rendered remains of his body. He remembered the explosion. He was dead.

He’d often thought about death, not morbidly, but in a detached way. What did it feel like, what did you see, experience? Now he could find out.

There were sirens in the distance, but they didn’t concern him. He was well past the point of being saved. No defibrillator was going to bring him back; they’d have to take his body out in a bucket.

He walked upstairs to the factory floor, amused to see the panic and fear on his colleagues’ faces. They had practised drills for this type of occurrence, but none of them seemed to remember. They ran for the doors in a panicked mob. No-one was checking for colleagues, no-one was counting heads, no-one was grabbing fire extinguishers. He laughed to see them, but reflected he would probably be doing the same. He wondered how long it would be before his absence was noticed, who would discover him, the memory of the sight no doubt being burned into their memory forever.

He walked out the factory, intrigued to find he wasn’t floating or drifting. His body felt as solid as always. Nobody noticed him, so it was clear he was invisible. He walked towards a stack of pallets with the intention of seeing if he could walk through objects. The bump on his nose suggested he couldn’t.

He wandered away from the site, keen to get home. He had a sense that his time was limited, and he wanted to see his family for the last time. He wanted to say goodbye.

His car wasn’t an option, so he decided to walk.

The factory was situated in the working-class part of town. It was a Victorian red-brick edifice, originally a flour mill, but converted into a small timber yard in the late 1970s. He walked down streets full of red brick terraced houses, originally built to house the flour mill workers and their families. The homes were modest, two-up and two-down, with a front door that opened straight onto the street and a small yard behind. An alleyway at the back allowed access to the yards.

As he walked down the quiet street he became aware of curtains being twitched in almost every house. Was he visible? Could they see his injuries? It didn’t take him long to realise he was being watched by the dead. Pale faces with sunken black eyes started at him from behind glass. These were the dead of past ages, condemned to the house where they died, condemned to move unseen amongst the living. He saw the sadness in their faces, the despair.

As he walked, getting closer to his home and family with every step, the world around him changed. The real world, the one he had occupied until twenty minutes ago, was starting to change, starting to become unfocused and misty. The figures in the houses were becoming more distinct, more solid, while the bricks and mortar became more and more transparent. His feet started to sink into the tarmac of the pavement. The world darkened. The street, the one that belonged to the real world, faded away. He realised the houses, the pavement, the entire mortal realm had passed from his view.

He found himself on a wide open plain, full of darkness and shadows. The dead were all around him.  Most were heading to an unseen point in the distance, some were simply wandering around, lost. He joined the throng, walking to the unknown destination.

An endless time later, travelling through this dark, shadowed land, he arrived at his destination. Standing there, with countless others, he looked across the river into the darkness. Boats arrived on the bank every few minutes, the dead boarded and the boats headed back out into the darkness. Some of his new companions shuffled around, unsure, but he knew he had to make a decision. To go across the river meant the end. He wouldn’t see his family again.  To stay on this side was to become a wraith, a spirit that haunted the mortal world, being able to see but not being seen. The sadness was overwhelming.

He stood on the river bank and made his decision. He remembered the misery and despair on the faces staring out at him from the houses in the street. He didn’t want to suffer that fate. Instead, he would move on. He stepped onto the next boat.

∼ RJ Meldrum

© Copyright RJ Meldrum. All Rights Reserved.

 

Breathless

His wide eyes shadow my every move, veins throb in his neck. A look I’ve seen numerous times. Lying stomach-down, each limb bound to the table I bolted in place. He shakes, sweat plastering cropped hair to his skull. The acrid smell of urine and sweat fills my soundproofed basement. An odor I’ve learned to ignore. Can he? I’ve never asked them, not even the ones who lasted a while.

He struggled at first, like they all do, but the bonds are too tight. Any background noise will ruin what I need. The ball gag is slick with saliva but muffles the sounds. Situations like this remind me that humans are animals—base, instinctual creatures. We’ve grown arrogant because we have thumbs and big brains.

He started with questions. Like a dentist talking to a patient, I understood every word—and ignored him. Then he begged, pleaded. Cried. Screamed.

They’re all the same. Except for one thing. Everyone’s sound is unique. Pitch and timbre, guttural groan and rasping breath, final gasp and last exhalation.

I caress his salty hair. His body slouches. “Almost over,” I say. “I’m going to make you famous. Promise. I know talent when I hear it.”

With two more steps, I’m hunched over my laptop. It’s a simple workstation, but it does the job. A few keystrokes later, and I’m ready. I hit the record button. My thumb taps the mic mounted to the short boom base and levels jump to yellow. I set it on the ground, tilt the mic toward his face. I unstrap the ball gag and pull it free. A strand of spittle connects his lips to the ball in my fist, then falls. The carpeted floor darkens under each drop.

He chokes. Levels jump on my screen. They touch red. There will be some distortion, but I’m fine with that.

“Please.” It’s between a whisper and a rasp, his throat long ago rubbed raw. “Please.”  He’s said it countless times, at first a plea for freedom. Now that he’s accepted his fate, this solitary word is still a plea for freedom—just a different kind.

I glance at the mic. Still in position. I climb onto the table, planting one knee on either side of his rib cage. His shortened breaths register on the screen, levels in the yellow, dropping closer to green where they need to be.

I’ve taken almost everything I can from him These final moments are ones I can never go back and capture again. I let out a long breath. I wrap my hands around his neck. My fingers search, finding their targets. My muscles tense, all my attention on the screen. My grip tightens, squeezing. Little bursts of color in the levels mirror the sounds under me. My languid breaths contradict the staccato rhythm of his gasps. My body stills, except my fingers.

A meter on the screen measures time. Approaching one minute. Not long now. I hold my breath as he lets out his last exhalation.

Perfect.

I slide to the floor and return to the computer. I press the space bar to stop recording. I transfer the file to my flash drive. A smile twists my lips as I head upstairs, drive in hand.

In my studio, I make quick work of loading the files, manipulating them so they’re ready for use. I swivel and face my keyboard. Pressing the key, his last breath spills from the speakers. I hold the note, bending the pitch up then down, layering it into the nearly finished song.

Almost there. A few more tries and I have it.

To my left, three phonograph statues proclaim “Best New Age Album.”

This will give me number four.

∼ Mark Steinwachs

© Copyright Mark Steinwachs. All Rights Reserved.