Shirley hated the taste of soap, and she hated the smell of cigarettes.
“If you didn’t tell lies, you wouldn’t get the soap,” her mother reminded her when the girl complained.
Shirley would be instructed to hold the bar between her teeth for three full minutes. She would gag and drool and her drool would create amalgamated bubbles with the soap. The only positive aspect of the soap was that it smothered the smell of cigarettes that lined her mother’s clothing like stale satin.
The next time they were at the store, a very tall man with no eyebrows dropped an item into their cart when Shirley’s mother was not looking.
At the checkout, her mother questioned Shirley about the unintended purchase. When Shirley described what she had seen, her mother folded her arms and frowned. “Good thing ‘the man’ gave us soap. You will be tasting it soon enough.”
Shirley tried to protest, but her mother wouldn’t listen.
Later, as Shirley gripped the new bar between her teeth, she saw a horrible vision. She saw her father being held at gun point. “Dad’s in trouble,” she announced when her mother retrieved the soap from her mouth, “I saw it.”
“Keep up the lies and I will put this right back in,” her mother ordered, only she was putting the soap away and reaching for a cigarette.
Later that night, a call came explaining that Shirley’s father was in the hospital. Her mother paled and clasped Shirley’s shirt between shaking hands. “What you think you saw doesn’t matter now. We won’t speak of it again.” Her mother went to the hospital, leaving Shirley in the care of their neighbor, Mrs. Johnson, who promptly fell asleep in front of the television.
Left unattended, Shirley found the bar of soap and placed it between her teeth. She saw her mother sitting at her father’s side, gripping his hand and crying. Her mother was speaking, even though her father’s eyes were closed. She was saying, “Please don’t leave me….please don’t leave me alone with her.”
Once her father recovered, he was a changed man. He spent less time working and more time with Shirley. In her father’s company, Shirley rarely got into trouble. Her mouth was veritably soap-free with the exception of the time that she began speaking of the man with no eyebrows again. Her mother had instituted the soap punishment and Shirley experienced a vision of Mrs. Johnson sitting dead in her reclining chair in front of the television.
“What is it?” Her mother snapped, taking the soap from Shirley and noticing that the girl was more agitated than usual.
“I saw Mrs. Johnson. She was dead in her chair.”
Her mother snorted. “You’re insulted because she doesn’t want to play your foolish games with you, so you are making this up. I am sure she is fine.”
When the ambulance pulled up the following day, and Mrs. Johnson’s body was removed beneath a sheet, Shirley’s mother watched from her porch while having a cigarette. Shirley’s father decided to take Shirley away from the tragedy of Mrs. Johnson, much to her mother’s chagrin.
“Your father spoils you,” her mother scolded. “He is your parent, not your friend. He needs to be more of a disciplinarian.” Her mother began inviting herself on their excursions so she could “mold Shirley’s behavior.” Since they were often on the go for their outings, “molding” involved clandestine swats out of her father’s sight. Her mother couldn’t be expected to remember to bring the soap.
At a picnic, Shirley turned down her mother’s offer of pasta salad, saying she didn’t like it.
“Liar,” her mother’s anger rose quickly, and Shirley cowered, awaiting a sharp smack. Since her father was in view, her mother simply said, “I have seen you eat it before.”
Shirley was certain that in this instance, it was her mother who was not being truthful, but she knew better than to argue. She watched her mother consume a cigarette, knowing the woman would not forget that she had a punishment coming.
When they arrived home, her mother grabbed her arm and pulled her into the bathroom. “You know what lying girls get,” she said with vehemence and removed the soap from the cabinet. Once the bar was between her teeth, Shirley saw another vision. This time her vision was fueled by delirium, making it as confusing as it was horrific. She saw the tall man with no eyebrows approaching her mother. Her mother pursed her lips to exhale cigarette smoke and the man took that opportunity to turn into vapor and enter her mother’s mouth. Her mother wheezed, clutching her chest, gasping for air.
Shirley wasn’t sure what that meant, but she knew her mother was in trouble. Her eyes teared.
“Let me guess, you had another vision.” Her mother rolled her eyes. “We don’t talk about them. I don’t want to hear your lies.”
Shirley blinked back her tears and ran water in her mouth. Her mother looked at her accusingly. “Well did you? See anything?”
“No,” Shirley lied. She vowed to continue lying since she was not allowed to speak of her visions. Her lies became larger as her mother grew weaker. Eventually, Shirley no longer had to smell smoke or taste soap.
With each tear that fell from her cheek, another drop of laudanum fell from the pipette. Chewing her lower lip, she wondered if the choice she’d made was a just one. Closing her eyes, she drew forth a fond memory of her once vital son laughing as he played – a sound she’s not heard in some time. Her knees buckled as her resolve strengthened. A few more drops and his pain would be ended. Climbing the stairs, the glass of apple juice trembling in her hand, she choked back her own wail of agony.
George looked at his wife, Angela, and for a moment they just stared lovingly at each other. They both walked to the door, but it was George that opened it.
Standing in front of them two well-dressed men sporting suits, long coats, and hats, smiled and introduced themselves as employees of ‘The New Life Project’.
“Mr and Mrs Harris?” The taller of the men enquired.
“Yes, please come in,” George replied.
The men entered the house, smiled, removed their hats, and made formal introductions.
“I am Mr Henson, and this is my associate Mr Baxter,” the taller of the two men stated.
They were invited to sit and as they did so Mr Baxter removed some paperwork from his folder and handed it to his colleague.
After swapping pleasantries they got down to business.
“So, I see here that you have decided not to raise a child of your own but have shown interest in our organisation in order that someone else will benefit from your unused allowance. I do hate to use the word allowance, but it’s as the regulation is worded, so for the sake of removing any confusion we’ll just stick with that repulsive word,” Mr Henson said.
It was indeed a fact that regulation 7C which was put into law some five years ago, in 2057, stated that an allowance of only one child be given to each married couple. “This has meant that children are a somewhat rare…”
“And valuable,” Mr Baxter interceded.
“Quite so, Mr Baxter, quite so. Rare and valuable commodity, especially when making use of our enhanced genetic improvements procedure. On conception, our specialised team will remove the fertilised egg and make certain adjustments to the DNA. This will make the child stronger in every way. We will discard any faulty genes that could lead to problems in later life, and replace them with our scientifically created ones. A hereditary heart defect, gone. A history of lung disease in the family, well that’s history now if you forgive the pun. Then it’ll be put back where it belongs, so it can have a natural birth. We have found that the benefits of a normal birth far outweigh the risks when it comes to how strong the newborns are. We’ll then take the little one and, depending on how the market is doing, place it where it’s most needed. “
“Can I ask? Well, I mean to say, with the modifications of the DNA, will it still be our child? Or, well I don’t know how to put it. I know that we’re passing it on, but I’d still like to think that there was a part of us in it,” Angela enquired.
“A perfectly good question,” Mr Henson replied. “The baby will comprise of nearly 50% of your genetic makeup…”
“49.6% to be precise,” Mr Baxter interceded again.
“Quite so, quite so, Mr Baxter,” responded Mr Henson. “And as such, once expenses are deducted, certificates and medical costs etc, then you will be paid that percentage of the profits. The market is very fluid at the moment, there is always a buyer out there.”
George wanted to think that it wasn’t the money that was important, but rather the chance to give a loving couple who couldn’t have their own child what they longed for. But truth be told, their finances were in dire straits, and this was their way out. When he had put the idea to Angela, she had reluctantly agreed.
They read through the contract, paused, gave each other another loving look and then signed on the dotted line.
Within a relatively short time Angela received a positive pregnancy test. She was then admitted to a private clinic. The embryo was removed and put back within a day. Before she knew it she was back home. Then the days, weeks and months just shot by.
A month before it was due George caught Angela sitting on the bed, gently caressing her ‘bump’ and quietly sobbing to herself. He moved away from the doorway not letting her know that he had witnessed her torment. He hadn’t the words to soothe her pain, so thought it better to let the moment just slip by.
The day came when it was time to return to the New Life Clinic. Within a couple of days, the baby was delivered. Angela and George had only a brief moment to meet their child before it was whisked away. They were assured that it was better for all concerned if they didn’t have time to bond with the child. For Angela, it was too late. She had felt it growing inside of her. Felt its first kick. Looked into those huge blue eyes. Looked into its soul and the child had looked into hers. The following day she left the clinic minus her child and a huge part of her heart.
The next week was filled with tears and sorrow. The following Monday they made a phone call to The New Life Project.
The doorbell rang. Mr Henson and Mr Baxter followed George into the living room, removed their hats and sat opposite a tearful Angela.
George explained that they had come to a decision. They wanted their baby. The parting of Angela from her child was too much to bear. They realised that there would be a financial cost in ‘buying’ their baby back but were willing to do whatever was necessary to regain what had been given away.
Mr Henson told them that it was quite impossible for them to acquiesce to their demands. The board of The New Life Project had already completed the sale of the child. Unfortunately, it was out of his hands.
“But it’s our baby,” Angela protested.
“Actually, with the project owning over 50% of asset….” Mr Henson started to explain.
“50.4%,” Mr Baxter interrupted.
“Quite so, Mr Baxter, quite so. With the project owning 50.4% of the asset, any decisions regarding its future have been made by the rightful owner. It’s all completely in order as set out in the contract that you both signed,” he continued.
Mr Henson then tried to calm the mood the best he could, which was awkward for all concerned as he was a businessman through and through and this was nothing more than a business transaction after all.
Angela asked if she could see her child one last time.
Mr Henson told her that it would be impossible.
After a period of deafening silence, Mr Baxter removed a sheet of paper from his briefcase and passed it to George. He and Angela read through it.
“What the hell is this?” Angela asked, confused as she tried to comprehend the list.
“Ahh, to the good news. You will see that the organs have made a very respectable profit for all parties concerned,” Mr Henson smiled as he explained.
“Organs?” George stuttered.
“Yes, organs,” Mr Henson replied in a completely matter-of-fact tone. “Surely you read sub-paragraph 11B of the contract? The asset was placed where it realised the most profit. “
“But we thought that meant it would be adopted by a family that was willing to pay the most for it, regardless of which country they lived in,” George responded in shock.
“Sometimes yes, sometimes no. The market has shifted quite considerably over the last few days in favour of organ donation over adoption. The heart alone made over $500,000. And the spleen, lungs, and kidneys also made great returns on the investment. A perfect example of the sum of the parts being worth more than the whole. All in all, with 49% of the net profits going to you, you stand to make a tidy sum.”
“49.6%,” Mr Baxter corrected.
“Quite so, Mr Baxter, quite so,” Mr Henson replied.
The mating time was brief this year. Our women sang notes like floss on the wild-wind plains. A human came who forced his seed on sweet Ala of the Yellow Eyes. We went on, saying not a word, bent to harvesting our Caddo root.
Afterward, Ala wasn’t the same. She cut her marvelous hair which had been dark and long, grown down below her knees. She wandered off to the Darklands, heavy with child and none to celebrate. We mourn her fate. If she survives, she’ll not return. She’ll raise his spawn alone. She was the envy of us all. When the child is born, she’ll burn his father’s image in the sands of our dead oceans. The human sits on our sacred stones. He preens his beard and leers at females, with no more thoughts to waste on Ala; he never even knew her name.
Come burrow season, we prepare, sharpen our talons on the Caddo root. When the freezing gales begin, the human will demand sanctuary, as his kind always does. We bring him the rich sap of our Caddo root, watch his flabby face turn pale as the winter moons. We will confirm his welcome with the strewing of his bones.
Petrified Wishes A.F. Stewart
“Round and round the tree, who will it be? One wish for you, none for me.” But don’t get too close. “Forever you may find, is far too unkind.” Forever… don’t think about that. “In a circle we dance, now only two. One wish for me, none for you.”
“Footsteps, footsteps, roundabout. Sure with the pacing, never in doubt.” One little slip… Nancy slipped. Oh god, poor Nancy. And Deidre. Can’t think, have to keep moving. Finish the song. It’s the only way. “Complete the circle, one by one. Pay the piper, single survivor. The wish is yours when the song is done.”
Why did we come here? Wishes? Fortunes? Happiness? It was only supposed to be silly fun. Grandma warned me. I didn’t believe her. Foolish tales. I never thought it could be… Not this… Cara, did she? Yes, Cara stumbled. I’m going to survive!
Just to be certain, I helped my friend to her death with a push, watching the tree consume her flesh, until nothing remained but a petrified corpse. Then on trembling legs, I made my wish and whispered the last line of the song.
“To the one left standing, a wish granted you see. The others have fallen, now part of the tree…”
Passing Time Lee Andrew Forman
Time uncounted passed since the radiance of our love ended. We adored that barken pillar and its canopy, the shade it provided from the fury of a summer sun. Blankets lain and baskets aplenty carried by lovers’ hands, words of angels and moments of bliss born into existence—each an expanding universe of our contentment.
But these years, so soft and kind, turned bitter and dealt spite upon our miracle. An affliction came upon her, and through its vile nature, her lips ceased to smile. All they had to offer was a cold, passionless touch. I wept over her body until my nostrils could no longer stand the scent. Only then did I begin the work of finding and putting to use a shovel.
What more fitting place than at the foot of our favorite tree to bury her emptied vessel. I sat with her daily. I spoke the words I would have, had she lived. I picnicked with fine cheese and her favorite wine. With each passing year, the roots grew; they twisted as slowly as grief.
With each new moon, the hair upon my scalp grayed, and I smiled knowing we’d soon be together again.
Survival Charles Gramlich
Only dirt, a patch of grass, and one tree survive. Besides black and white, the only colors left here are gray and green and shades of brown. Everyone worried about nuclear war, or the coming of AI. They worried about pollution and overpopulation, about new plagues and old, about the revenge of plants, or insects, or birds, or the frogs, or mutated beasts. They worried about climate change and super storms. No one worried about the thing that actually killed us, that left earth a corpse world. It happened when useless, meaningless words began to proliferate from the mouths of idiots. When bloviating fools talked and talked and talked and talked. And words lost their meaning and strangled all thought, and then all life. Until only this one patch of grass and a tree are left. For now.
Transformation RJ Meldrum
She went to the forest. It was the place she always visited when her heart was broken. Another failed romance; perhaps her standards were too high, perhaps the boys she chose were just assholes. She drifted along trails, leaves speckled with sunlight. She was heading to the tree. It was her place of peace, her thinking tree. She often visited it, when she was happy but also when she was sad. There was just something about the oak, as it towered a hundred feet into the air above her. She sat and rubbed the bark.
“Just you and me again. I wish I had a heart like yours. A wooden heart can’t be broken.”
She closed her eyes and drifted off to sleep, lulled by the warm, scented summer breeze. She woke to coolness. The sun had shifted. Her hand was stiff and dead. Must have slept on it funny and cut off the circulation. She tried to lift it but found herself unable to. Looking down she screamed. Her hand had all but disappeared into the wood of the tree. The skin on her forearm was no longer skin, instead it was scaly and brown. Like bark. She realized with increasing horror she was unable to escape. A whispering came from above her. The wind in the leaves serenaded her.
Sleep, it will soon be over. Soon be better. You will have a wooden heart and that can never be broken.
She understood. Her tree was trying to protect her. She laid back, her head against the wood. She listened as the tree absorbed her, turning her into wood. Her consciousness joined the others. After her transformation, she simply resembled a long, knobby, albeit strangely shaped root.
Escape Miriam H. Harrison
I could not escape. Not when you lured me with gentle words, not when you wooed me with practiced charm, not even when I first saw your anger flash red. No, your wrongs were terrible, but you always knew how to make them right. You knew how to be sorry—oh so sorry. You knew how to bare your vulnerable heart, cry your misunderstood tears, until I would forget who had hurt whom.
I remember now. I remember now that it’s too late.
I could not escape you then. Now, you will not escape me. I will be all you see. Look to the clouds, and I will be there, bleeding red sunsets. Look to the stones and you will see my broken bones. Look to the trees and I will look back, reaching to you with roots and branches, reminding you of what you will never escape.
Cradle Nina D’Arcangela
Barely able to see, I clamored on, climbing as quickly as I could. Passing the first bisected limb, I struggled further—not to the second, but the third. It was rumored the higher the elevation, the greater the enlightenment that would be achieved. I lay down and began to pant, my body slick and exhausted. The cradle of the tree welcoming. I chose this as my birthing place.
I began the arduous task at hand. Gaining my feet once more, I leaned my back against the main trunk and began to slough the mucus like cocoon that encased my body and hers. More than once, I had to readjust my stance for stability. With most of the shedding complete, I reached down to embrace the babe now laying at my naked feet. She was beautiful – as raw skinned as I, but still the most exquisite thing I had ever seen. A slight error in judgment as I leaned forward to bite through the umbilical, and I was airborne, until I wasn’t. Lying on the ground, I watched as my brothers made the same climb I had, but for a different purpose.
Broken and shattered, I could do nothing but watch as my siblings cleaned the ancient tree of the ichor I’d left behind. In their haste, they didn’t notice the small bundle among the discarded tissue. My broken body unable to speak, I lie at the base of the tree and watched as she plummeted to the ground, landing in the cook of my arm.
Nameless Louise Worthington
Only when she is dead will it stop coming for her. Only under the earth, when air is no longer a tormenter, will she be free to rest her weary head. There is no place that she can hide. No place where she can be who and what she is – was – is without it eating neurons. No matter the distance. No matter the country. She has no memory: no family or home. No roots. Earthbound: trapped and homeless inside a shrinking head.
‘There is no one to say goodbye to, is there?…’
She thinks it’s the ancient tree moaning in the autumn breeze and to soothe it, she places a frail hand on the bark grown thick and strong with every passing year. Her skin is as thin as paper.
‘No, I don’t think so.’
What fantasy can a splintering woman have, except to lie beside the stolid tree as though nature is her friend, too?
The Squid Man Harrison Kim
I float above old root veins holding a petrified body, legs decayed to squid like bits. The roots suck onto the body from beneath the ground. The condemned youth’s blood flowed thick, sustaining this mighty tree, with its bark foot inching forward, finding ways to grasp. Months ago, in the reflection of the water, and above it, from this mighty fir, this young man was hung from a rope, then his body cut down, left in these woods to rot and decay, as is the custom here. Around his corpse, leaves fall like the years, and the summer grass turns a weak green colour, with the autumn rains. The young man became a squid creature fallen, the tree feasting on his blood, a tree with a foot like an elephant’s, thick and strong. The young man, decapitated, the fall from the rope so powerful his head released and fell yards away, where it became a petrified ball.
I have this dream night after night, viewing the young man’s arm pulled off and his head and body decaying beneath the tree, and every night I want to cut his squid arm free, but it’s too late, it is fused to the roots. Headless corpse here, dry and drained, the living tree under which the young man was condemned possessing the body with its roots. A tree mighty and powerful, thrusting skyward strong where this man was hung for his crimes. My dreaming soul floats above the desiccated corpse in a forever dream. Beneath the earth, where I cannot see, the condemned man’s blood now absorbed by the fir roots. The nutrients still circulate here, bringing strength and life.
Waiting to Fall Elaine Pascale
You never loved me more than when you were dying,
nestled in your noose, waiting to fall.
I watched. I watched you die.
At your last breath, I fainted into the cold earth beneath your feet.
It was good there. It was good in the cold and dark.
I returned every night after your body had been taken down;
after your body had been disposed of
without any indication that you had ever lived.
The tree became a memorial.
I offered myself to it.
Offered my love to it, to you.
And you took it,
so that each night I grew weaker.
Your restless spirit sought sustenance from mine.
Your mouth, your lips, your teeth, they took
as I lay beneath the tree craving more darkness as you craved more light.
Before my eyes failed, I saw you shimmering,
draining me so that you could become more substantial.
My neighbor killed his girlfriend. I’m sure. For three weeks she was a regular visitor to his house. Then she came over one night and didn’t go home in the morning. She never went home.
For days I watched closely, phone set to record, in case I saw him carrying wrapped up body parts to the trash. I saw nothing, and his trash remained the usual junk any young man living alone throws out—beer cans, pizza boxes, dirty mags. She must have still been in the house, maybe buried under the floorboards like Poe’s “Tell-Tale Heart,” or probably stuck in a freezer in the basement. I’d have called the police but I couldn’t prove anything. Besides, I’d been warned about making “false accusations.”
An idea finally hit me, something to shake my neighbor up and make him crack so everyone could see his crazy. I still had mannequins around from my days in retail, and various clothing and wigs. I dressed a mannequin in a blonde wig, stockings, and heels. I didn’t have the short, white silk dress the girlfriend had been wearing on her last visit so I ordered one from Amazon. It arrived two days later and my plan was ready.
My neighbor worked. He kept his house locked up tight, with a security alarm set, but while he was out I snuck across and put the dressed-up mannequin on his porch by the door. Then I waited. I had a directional mike to record with at a distance so I set up a stakeout in my front room where I could look directly at his porch. He came home. Man, it was a surprise. But not the kind I expected.
“Leslie!” he shouted when he saw the mannequin. “Leslie! My God! I thought you’d left me. I thought I’d never see you again.” He took her in his arms, hugged her tight. “I’m so glad you’ve come home to me. You’ll never have to leave again.” He picked her up like a bride and carried her across the threshold into his house.
For the next few days, whenever my neighbor was gone, I’d see “Leslie” standing in the kitchen, or maybe reclining on the couch with a glass of wine nearby, or perhaps leaning hipshot next to the open blinds in the upstairs bedroom as she stared down toward my place. I wanted to scream but I couldn’t think of a thing to do. My neighbor was clearly insane, and I wasn’t feeling too good myself.
Two days later, my doorbell rang. I assumed it was Amazon delivering packages so I threw open the door. Leslie stood there in her white dress, which was uncomfortably stained by now. “What do you want?” I blurted, without thinking.
She answered. She answered! “I wanted to make an omelet for my hunny when he gets home but I only have one egg. Can I borrow a couple from you?”
My heart pounded. Something had to give in this insane situation. I strove to sound normal as I said, “Of course. Come on in the kitchen.”
She followed as I went, her feet clunking on the floor the way real human feet do not. I took a dozen eggs out of the fridge and opened them on the counter. “Take whatever you need.”
She smiled, and I grabbed a butcher knife from the block on the counter and stabbed her through the chest. She didn’t scream as she crumpled to the floor, only wheezed as if air were escaping her hollow form. I taped her up in two black trash bags and threw her out back by the garbage bins.
The next day she was gone, and I was more worried than ever. Because I’d left the knife in her chest when I threw her out. I don’t know where she’s at. And now she’s got a weapon.
Born out of wedlock, a child of the streets, the sisters took me in to nurture and bequeath their divine formula. I was a willing novice, grateful for their care. Oh, I believed in the Word, the Truth, committed my life to selflessness, counting my rosaries on stone floors, a paper doll in a cardboard room.
Why can’t I see the light in all this gloom? A key turns in the lock. I hear the creak of floorboards, — a shadow moves suddenly from the wall and joins my own. He materializes whispering my name. Ever so gently he folds me in his cloak as his lips find my neck.
I hear them talking on the street, “Look at her face, see how she changed? Yes! Her brown eyes, bright with innocence have turned dark as pitch. And see, where there once were tears are fresh tattoos — emblems of her Master, inked into her flesh. Scandalous, the way she flaunts her body!” Let them talk, let them wonder! I don’t care.
I know the truth now, the truth that the sisters would never condone –his darkness is my light; I fly close beside him. We search out the sidewalk junkies, the castaways, the homeless victims, too proud for Salvation. We offer them comfort, freedom from this mortal life of hunger and pain in exchange for their souls, an offer they seldom refuse.
It was not an easy path. The old mines were swallowed up by the forest at the edge of town. There were fences to climb, warning signs to ignore, hazards to bypass. The old mineshaft pond was further away than most, abandoned back in the early days of prospecting. No one said why, but Jessica had no need to ask.
The pond itself was small—a black puddle in the craggy forest, but deeper than anyone dared to question. Rusty bars crisscrossed the dark waters to further dissuade the curious. Still, Jessica made her way through the forest trees, over the fences and signs, around the mining hazards, just to sit at those rusty bars. The way was difficult, the waters were dark, and the knife’s edge stung as she slid it across her finger. But watching her blood drops fall to the water below, Jessica knew it would all be worth it to watch Her feed.
The blood beckoned Her like a familiar voice, Her face appearing like a darkly beautiful reflection beneath the water. She came hungry, Her too-sharp teeth eager for the scraps of squirrel, of raccoon, of uncertain roadkill that Jessica might bring. But Her greatest delights were human: the collected digits, limbs, cuts of flesh that Jessica pushed through the bars.
Jessica didn’t know where She had come from, or how She had acquired her dark appetite. But neither did She question how Jessica gathered such offerings. Both came for these moments together, and both left with their secrets intact. It was not much, but it was enough to make the work worthwhile.
I hunkered down near to the rail track. I was just outside town; I’d spent the day there, panhandling without much success, but I didn’t want to spend the night in an alleyway or doorway. Small town folk, especially cops, didn’t like hobos, so I’d walked a mile or so out of town and found myself near a small rail shed, obviously used for storing equipment. I planned to move on the next day. There wasn’t much shelter, but the weather was warm and the sky was cloudless. It wasn’t the worse place I’d slept. I’d lost my job as a meat packer in Chicago in January 1933; I’d drifted west hoping for salvation. Six months and no luck later, I found myself in Colorado, still hungry, still poor.
I was about to drift off to sleep when I saw a figure standing over me. I tensed, it was normal for railroad cops to hassle us drifters, moving us on if we were lucky, beating the crap out of us if we weren’t, but I hadn’t expected to encounter any so far from town. My eyes focused and I realized it was an old guy, maybe seventy.
“Please, I mean you no harm. I live in the house on the other side of the gorge. I know what it’s like to be poor, to be homeless in these hard times. I’d like to offer you a hot meal and a warm bed for the night.”
The rail line ran alongside a steep gorge before turning south into town. I looked across the gorge to the warm yellow lights of a mansion. This guy was obviously loaded, probably ran a charity or something. I didn’t normally accept such generosity, but I was starving. The offer of food was too tempting.
“Excellent, now just follow me.”
The old guy headed across a bridge that extended across the gorge. He reached about halfway, stopped, turned and motioned me to follow. I stepped onto the bridge.
“Come on, young man. Keep up!” called my new friend.
I took another step and found myself falling. I felt a crunch, then nothing.
I woke in a hospital bed. A nurse stared down at me.
“You’re awake. Good.”
“You fell, luckily for you a tree broke your fall. It also broke your ankle, your femur, your arm and four ribs, but if it hadn’t been for those branches, you’d probably be dead. The others are.”
“You aren’t the first to fall. Didn’t you notice the bridge is out?”
“I guess I didn’t.”
“You guys never do, just straight across the bridge without looking, then boom, you walk right over the edge.”
“Isn’t there a barrier, to stop people falling?”
“There was, but the town can’t afford maintenance men anymore, so when it fell into the gorge last winter, it was never replaced. There have been five deaths since then, all drifters.”
“What about the old guy? I saw him reach the middle of the bridge.”
“He’s Henry Lansing. The millionaire owner of the Lansing House, the big mansion you can see on the other side of the gorge. He built the house in 1860, built the bridge over the gorge in 1863. He died in 1892.”
“By all accounts he was a very decent person. He got upset after the war by the sight of dozens of ex-soldiers wandering through town, moving from railyard to railyard. But instead of getting the police to move them on or arrest them, he’d come over the bridge into town and invite them back to his place for food and a place to sleep for a couple of nights. Converted one of his stables in a barracks.”
“I don’t understand.”
“His ghost still walks, comes over the bridge and invites people back to his place. He’s still trying to do good, all these years after his death. You guys hunker down at the rail shed, he appears, invites you over. The mansion is still lived in and looks welcoming, but there’s one problem. He can walk across the bridge. You can’t.”
“Exactly, he doesn’t know the bridge is out. You follow him, watch as he walks over the bridge. It’s dark, you can’t see the planks, but you can see him, so you follow. When he steps off onto the missing part of the bridge he stays where he is. When you do it, you fall.”
“So, it isn’t malicious? Evil?”
“No, but the outcome is the same. After all, they do say the road to hell is paved with good intentions. I guess he still sees the bridge as it was, doesn’t realise he’s killing you.”
I wasn’t sure whether or not to believe her.
“One thing always makes me wonder though.”
“What he thinks when he arrives on the other side with no one following him. I wonder if he gets upset?”
Like Noyes’ highwayman, Laurie came “riding—riding—riding” but the road she traveled more closely resembled the steel bars of a prison than a ribbon. She knew she could not go home. There was no escape beyond this road.
Words had been said.
Pieces of the past had been resurrected, memories acting as an unwanted Lazarus now squatting in their shared space.
Her necklace had found its way into the garbage disposal. There had been no explanation—a mystery. That the necklace had been a gift from a former lover lessened the mystery, but it wasn’t the necklace that had led her to take the seat behind the wheel.
It was the words. Words that could not be repossessed. Words that assured she could not go home.
Susan had stayed home after the fight. Susan always did what she was supposed to and right now women were told to stay home.
There was no official curfew, but nighttime was considered the most dangerous. Two women had disappeared, their bodies later found. Smiles had been carved into their throats, screams escaping directly from their voice boxes with no use for the mouths that had been sewn shut.
Two bodies had been found: one short of labelling the murderer a serial killer.
Little more had been disclosed. Secrets were necessary for matching the random confessions to the actual criminal. And secrets, along with swallowed truths, had been necessary for keeping Laurie’s relationship afloat.
Only there was no floating on this road. Only driving and more driving.
Laurie knew that Susan had seen the belongings that had been piled on her backseat. The pile had been there long enough to become partially disclosed beneath wrappers and coffee cups and the jacket that had been too warm to wear this early in the season. Laurie had wanted to instill doubt in her partner. She no longer wanted to be taken for granted. She had also wanted to convince herself that freedom was but a choice, hers for the taking. All she had to do was get in the car and drive.
They were both too mature to be playing these games, but whenever they tried to talk through a problem, the words formed into a monster, a threat.
There were no businesses, no homes, no signs of life on this empty road. Laurie again remembered the poem she had been forced to read in school so many years before:
For the road lay bare in the moonlight;
Blank and bare in the moonlight;
And the blood of her veins, in the moonlight, throbbed to her love’s refrain.
When had her heart last throbbed for Susan? Their relationship had been incredibly passionate in the beginning. Then it had devolved into the beige existence that Susan seemed to prefer. Laurie needed more. Maybe that was why she was on the empty road despite the cautions. Maybe she wanted to worry Susan into a frenzy that would result in a rekindled passion. Maybe she could go back home after some time had passed and there was space between them and the words. Susan, who was so orderly, would manage to sweep those words away. Susan would make things tidy again and Laurie would swallow truths just as if her mouth had been sewn shut by an insane killer.
But the words they had said were heavy enough to require two people to vanquish them. Susan would not be able to tidy them alone and Laurie wasn’t sure she would ever be ready to face the words. She considered that she might never go home.
That thought did not bring freedom. It brought sadness, desolation. She was growing tired of relationships dying over things unsaid. She would make this right. She would own her part of the fight; she would expose the secrets she had been keeping hidden. She would take the pile of possessions from the back seat and put them in a permanent place in the space she and Susan shared.
Laurie sniffed, plump tears crawling down her cheeks.
“Here,” a man’s voice said from the darkness of the backseat. A hand with bloodied fingernails handed her a tissue.
Kristin sat at his desk in the sparsely decorated government office. He was busily reading through the correspondence of the day. The letters were usually the same-old-same. People would query their latest tax demand. They would invent reasons as to why their annual calculation should be lower than what they were billed. He mused over the fact that the initial communication from each person would be cordial, sometimes even fawning in their appreciation of the department taking the time to consider their applications for tax relief. With the exception of a few legitimate claims, most were just pleas to lessen the burden of the annual charge or to extend the payment due date. A second letter from the same member of the public, when reading closely between the lines, would usually show a hint of desperation. The third would stink of desperation (usually after they had received a dreaded ‘red notice’ or final demand, as it was officially called.) If anyone sent a fourth, then that would usually be at the end of the process and, more often than not, would be hostile to the extent of a profanity riddled rant. These would come from people whose cases had been heard and judged upon with a negative outcome. By negative, it meant business foreclosures or asset and property repossessions.
Although not many had the stomach for his career choice, Kristin was happy in his work. If he dared admit the truth to himself, he even found himself rather enjoying the process of punishing those who did not pay their dues. He always paid his taxes in a timely manner, he rationalised, so why shouldn’t everyone else. If unforeseen hardship had fallen upon those businesses who were now struggling to make ends meet, a death of a business partner, a downturn in the market, then they obviously hadn’t put safety measures in place to ensure they didn’t fall into the debt trap. FYI, not his problem.
He lightly perused the last letter in his in-tray and stamped it ‘Claim Rejected’ with a bit more enthusiasm than was called for. He then sat back, looked upon his day’s toil, and stood to leave for the day. After putting on his coat and scarf, he collected the two piles of paperwork from his desk. On his way out he stopped at his secretary’s desk and put each pile in the correct tray. The one for rejected claims, he deposited the large wad of letters. The one for accepted claims, he put in a single letter which he begrudgingly had to admit held merit for tax exemptions. His secretary (he could never remember her name, nor took the time to even try and make the effort to) smiled sweetly at him.
“Good night, Mr Holland. Have a nice weekend,” she said as he turned to leave.
“You too,” he insincerely said in way of reply.
The next morning, he got out of bed at the usual time of 6.30am. Whether it be a workday, a weekend or even Christmas Day for that matter, his morning routine never wavered.
On descending the stairs down to the kitchen, the only thing wavering seemed to be his balance. He felt very unsteady on his feet and felt the need to grasp the banister to get to the hallway below. He walked through to the Kitchen with some difficulty. Each step was akin to traversing a deep sponge.
On looking down at the ground, he unintentionally let out a shriek of horror. He wasn’t walking on the floor; he was walking in it. The soles of his feet were at least an inch lower than the laminate flooring, and they were sinking further with every passing moment. He heard a rattle of keys by his front door and with effort managed to turn to face it. In desperation he called out and tried to make his way to his long-time partner who was returning home after getting the morning papers. He had never got round to making their relationship more official. He had thought about it, as he had to admit the tax breaks that he would receive on getting married made the idea rather appealing. Now sunk up to his knees within the floor, each step was like wading through a river of treacle. He sank further and further until the ground passed his mouth, making it impossible for him to make any audible sound whatsoever. Then, within a second, there was no sign of Kristin nor any sign that he had been there at any time that morning. The kitchen floor was as hard and unyielding as it ought to be.
Kristin slid silently through the foundations of his house. He then passed through thick wet mud, which oozed into his nose, ears and mouth, running down his throat and making him gag. His face was pushed against the remains of a body which must have been buried on the plot of land his house now stood many years before it was built. The smell of death filled him with nausea and still he continued his downward journey. Despite the physical relationship between himself and the matter around him being broken, he could still see, smell, taste, and worst of all, feel.
As his body was sucked downwards through mud, chalk and eventually stone he could feel his skin being continuously torn from its body. The pain was agonising and unrelenting, as his flesh was abraded by granite and flint. His skin still it seemed to remain attached to his skeleton. Each layer that was sliced or wrenched from his body was immediately replaced by new growth. Although he could not breathe, the unconsciousness of death eluded him. It refused to clutch him to its bosom for that final relief of oblivion. Instead, he had no choice but to endure the relentless torture of having every nerve ending in his body scraped against the innards of Mother Earth.
Each passing hour seemed like a lifetime of pain. And with each hour a different texture and therefore a different kind of pain. Granite felt different as Kimberlite, as did Obsidian, Basalt and Pumice.
The deeper he travelled the colder he became. As well as the searing pain of friction he now also had to bear the mind shattering freezing temperature.
After what seemed like an age he began to feel, at first, warmth, and then searing heat. It started on the soles of his feet, but slowly worked his way up his body. He could see clumps of flesh singe and burn away from his bones. As each slice of meat barbequed into ash, another piece of fresh flesh grew in its place, and so the burning process would begin anew.
He knew that his final destination would be the furnace of the Earth’s core.
Kristin wondered if his fate was the result of him relishing in other people’s misery and his selfish attitude in both his business and personal life.
Or was it in fact true, that all tax collectors deserved to burn in Hell.