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.

 

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.

 

Sleep Tight

You wake beneath the glow of a urine-yellow nightlight shaped like a crescent moon. From the hall outside your bedroom comes a susurration of sound, a crippled shuffle, like rotted feet dragging themselves to bone on a sandpaper carpet.

Your heartbeat speeds. Sticky mouth dries. You sit up in vomit-clotted sheets. You’ve been sick, but you’re better now. Much, much better. Thanks to Momma.

But that sound. It’s almost midnight, the dregs of the day. Who is coming? Who is coming to your room in the hollow of the dark?

Something wet slaps against the old porcelain doorknob. It turns, scritches open on hinges that are more rust than iron. A bulk leans its head within, dressed in a pale wrapper of cloth under which odd shapes pulse and squirm. You’re reminded of a grubworm you once dug up in the garden—when there was still a garden. It’s just Momma.

A sigh possesses you as, from the doorway, your mother says, “Sorry I’m late tonight, Sweety. I fell asleep. Are you OK? Do you need anything?”

You’d begun to think she wasn’t coming this night. That maybe…. But you don’t complete that thought. It’s not a kind one and Momma does not like unkind thoughts. You only say, as mother’s clothes twitch and rustle, “I’m fine, Momma. Just fine. Thank you.”

She smiles. Her mouth is black because she’s forgotten her teeth again. But that’s all right. Her teeth are big and broad and so white they sometimes make you uncomfortable. She whispers that she loves you and turns to go.

You wait. She’ll turn back again. As she always does. She has one last piece of sweet advice to offer her only son. She gives it with a catch of emotion in her throat: “Good night. Sleep tight. Let the bed bugs bite.”

“I will, Momma,” you hear yourself say.

The door snicks shut. Momma’s feet move away. She sounds light as a thistle now. As if she’s able to dance on limbs shed of heavy flesh.

Quickly, you lie back on your bed again and let the wet pillow fold up around your face. You press it down tight over your eyes and mouth. From the door where Momma was standing, a swift flow of movement passes like a ripple over the floor. It climbs the bed posts, the trailing sheets. Like a wave of goosebumps it flows onto the bed to nestle all around you. They, nestle all around you.

You bite your teeth together and pull the pillow more tightly across your face. It’s not the right thing to do to deny them a part of your body. But you hate the way they slip beneath your lids and scrape at your eyes. And if they crawl up your nose and down your throat, you know the vomit will come again. It’s so unpleasant to lie in when it’s still liquid and hot.

The bedbugs—that’s what Momma calls them anyway—have tiny mandibles that catch at flesh and hold. It feels like ten thousand staples being tucked into your skin as they begin to suckle. But it’s a good thing. Momma has told you: they draw the illness out of you with your fluids. That’s why you’re feeling so much better, why you’ll soon be able to leave your room again. She has promised.

In the morning, of course, the bugs will return to Momma and clothe her anew. They’ll give her all the sickness they’ve drawn out of you. It’s a powerful display of the mother-child bond. How she takes your disease unto herself. You know she loves you very, very much.

“I love you, too,” you whimper into the pillow. As the bugs burrow in and the pain becomes like fireworks exploding through your body. “I love you, Momma. Love you, Momma! MOMMA!”

∼ Charles Gramlich

© Copyright Charles Gramlich. All Rights Reserved.

 

Snuff Film Relic

“Sweetie, I’ve been into film production since I was a boy,” he said. Julian was his name and I was crazy about him. I couldn’t believe such a man of his looks and caliber would ever speak to me, much less invite me into his spacious home. But here I was, sitting in his living room.

He lit my cigarette and kissed my fingers. While I was taking it all in, he placed a snifter of brandy in my hand, his silky baritone like a lullaby. He showed me his father’s Kodak. “This model was made in 1965. Just look at this my dear!” Unrolling some film, he held it up to the light so I could see how each frame had clearly captured a part of the action. Then he loaded the projector and started it.

By that time, I was getting a weird buzz from the brandy. I say ‘weird’ because I was feeling very odd. It was like everything was slowing down. When I looked at the filmstrip, it seemed a great distance away. And I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.

A lovely woman was sitting in the same chair as mine in the film. Julian held her in his arms. He began kissing her from her breasts down to her toes. A close-up of her eyelids fluttering. A line of drool escaped her lips. In the next set of frames, he was stabbing her with a screwdriver. He’d even added sound somehow — McCartney’s “Let It Be” full volume in the background.

Then he started in on me with a warm embrace, his lips on mine, sweet as that tainted brandy. Oh, yes, I was very much there, eyes wide open, unable to move, watching him remove the used film. He reloaded the Kodak, mounted it on a tripod, and aimed the lens straight at me.

∼ Marge Simon

© Copyright Marge Simon. All Rights Reserved.

Waiting for Flies

Her eight sexy legs crawl up my cheek.

Oh! It feels so sweet.

My eyes strain to see her. So beautiful, that red mark like hot lipstick waiting to be kissed. Flies buzz above and my heart races each time one gets near.

The apparatus holds my mouth open for beloved to build her web. She’s done a special job, as seen from the mirror on the ceiling.

It’s like she’s made it just for me.

We still haven’t had our first kiss; I wait for it with a warm tingling in my stomach.

She crawls onto her web which spans my open mouth. She sits, watching the flies as I do, waiting for one to get caught in her perfect creation. If she gets enough I know she’ll share with me.

Patient. Just be patient.

Eventually she’ll crawl in and I’ll embrace her in moist darkness where I can love her forever.

∼ Lee Andrew Forman

© Copyright Lee Andrew Forman. All Rights Reserved.

Countdown

Harry wakes to heat, and to silence.

He opens his eyes to a leak-stained ceiling, but everything feels too bright and he closes them again, trying to push past the cotton-wool thickness in his head to sort out exactly why the quiet is wrong. There’s a small stinging ache at the back of his neck and a sour iron taste in his throat, like he’s held a mouthful of old coins.

There’s no background noise.

That’s it. Harry opens his eyes another fraction. He’s lying on a bed in an unfamiliar room—in the Bonneheure Hotel, if the fleurs-du-lys stamped on the center ceiling tiles are any indication—but there’s no hotel ambiance, no voices or footsteps or air-conditioning hum. No air’s circulating at all: the room has a stifling musty smell that makes his nostrils burn. There’s just the rasp of his own breathing, and the corner of his smartphone digging into his hip inside his pocket.

And the weight of another body on the bed.

Harry turns his head, dizzy, frowning. The woman lying beside him, covered by a sheet pulled above her breasts, is bottle blonde, immaculately made up, her mouth a candyfloss shade of red and her eyelashes crisp with mascara.

Is she a hooker? He’s never seen her before.

Harry doesn’t remember coming here. Or bringing a woman, or anything that can tell him why he’s lying in his clothes on a bed in a silent hotel room with someone he doesn’t recognize; his last memory is of standing in front of his boss’ office door and feeling a sudden cold sting in his neck.

So that’s the pain above his collar; it’s starting to itch. He’s been…drugged? Kidnapped? But why—

This place closed last year, he thinks, and belated understanding brings him fully awake. Harry sits up and his right shoulder is jerked painfully: there’s a cable tie snugged around his wrist, attached to another, and another, a chain of cable ties that leads somewhere under the bed. He shifts on the mattress, heart picking up, sweat breaking out hot on his face; something shifts with him and rolls against his thigh.

The woman hasn’t stirred. Harry glances at her, then at the object, and pulls it into his lap with his left hand. It’s a roll of leather, and he fumbles it open to find a set of steak knives, gleaming blades of various widths, their serrated edges like broken sharks’ smiles.

“I don’t understand,” he says hoarsely. Harry looks back to the woman—his sitting up should have woken her, but she still hasn’t moved. Has she been drugged too? He reaches out with his free hand to shake her, clumsily.

She’s cold.

She’s not breathing.

His phone rings.

Harry shrieks, almost voiceless, and starts to his feet. His cable-tie tether jerks him down, and his knees bang painfully on the worn gray carpet, his head just missing the edge of the bedside table. He shuts his eyes again and exhales a ragged breath, heart stumbling against his ribs, sweat pouring beneath his shirt. The smartphone trills again, breaking a tiny sob from his parched lips, and with effort he wrests enough slack in his plastic restraint to pull the phone loose and thumb the screen. “H-hello.”

“Harry.” He knows the voice. It’s Conrad from work; Conrad, right hand of their boss, Kurtz, though Harry can never remember what the man actually does for the company. “I take it you found our present.”

“Conrad, God, Conrad, you have to help me—” Harry has almost no saliva, and when the words register, even that dries up. “…Present?”

“Do you like her, Harry?” Conrad is smiling, Harry can hear it in his voice. Can picture it, in fact: the perfect teeth, perfect tan, perfectly parted hair. “Lola. You wouldn’t have known her, she was down in HR,” Conrad purrs. “Shame, really, she’s a hell of a looker, but she was convenient.”

He sounds like a cat licking cream from its whiskers. Harry swallows, looking back over his shoulder at…Lola. “Conrad. What’s going on? Why’s this happening?”

“Oh, Harry, honey. You know.”

There’s a hint of laughter in Conrad’s voice, one that becomes more than a hint when Harry whimpers. “Look. Okay, look. If this is about the money, I—”

“Of course it’s about the money.” Conrad’s friendliness gives abrupt way to a hard edge. “You don’t skim off the top, Harry, not with Kurtz. You knew better. You may be swimming in the accounting pool, but you’re not one of the sharks yet.” The laugh comes out, a short sharp bark. “It’s the assumption that hurts, you know? Mr. Kurtz doesn’t appreciate people thinking he’s stupid.”

“I—” Harry’s heart is tapping painful double-time against his sternum. He’d assumed just that thing, had assumed his wide-bodied, pig-eyed boss was the idiot he resembled; it had been a correct assumption before, with some of the others. He works his jaws, trying to think fast as whatever he’d been doped with burns off. “So what happens now? The cops show up, they find me, they find…Lola”—he chokes on her name—”and they assume the worst?”

“That’s a neat convenient package,” Conrad muses. “And Mr. Kurtz wants to make an example of you. Only…not like that.” He sucks his teeth audibly. “Nobody’s going to look for you there, Harry. That hotel’s been closed fifteen months. It’s scheduled for demolition tomorrow.”

Harry’s chest constricts.

“And there’s Lola.” Conrad must be grinning. “Isn’t she a beauty? Kurtz got a clever idea. There’s a bomb in her.”

The blood drains from Harry’s face with a palpable loss of heat. “…What.”

“A bomb, Harry. Goes boom? One of the IT guys rigged it.” Conrad’s friendliness is back. “That’s why you have the knives, Harry. Nice knives. Japanese carbon steel. Got ’em at Sears. You cut her open and find it, you might have a chance. Kurtz believes in fairness, Harry, even if you don’t.”

The façade drops again. “You have five minutes. Goodbye, Harry.”

The call disconnects. Harry stares at his phone, aghast, but slowly gets to his feet, sits on the bed.

Stiffly, he pulls the sheet from Lola’s cold body.

She’s naked, flawless. Aside from a tiny blue pinprick wound on her throat, there’s not a mark on her. How many times had he passed this woman in the hallway and never picked her out from the others?

It’s a joke, right? It’s a sick joke, it has to be, he can’t—

Within the dead woman’s abdomen, something begins to beep.

∼ Scarlett R. Algee

© Copyright Scarlett R. Algee. All Rights Reserved.

Skin Trade

It was rush hour. As they weaved through the throng of commuters Peter noticed a group of people standing near an intersection. He was reminded of a recent headline.

“I wonder where they all come from.”

“Who?” asked John.

Peter pointed. There were about ten of them, all clearly vagrants.

“Those guys. I saw an article that said the number of homeless people in the city had increased three-fold in the last two years. I was just wondering where they all come from.”

“No idea. I don’t think about them.”

“I’m going to contact Sarah at Channel 6, she might be interested in commissioning a piece.”

“What’s your angle?”

“What the city is doing to help. The article didn’t say.”

They carried on walking.

A week later Peter emerged after dinner wearing a coat. John glanced up from his laptop.

“Off out?”

“I’m going to a homeless shelter tonight. Channel 6 commissioned the story. I’ve done some background research and now I’m off to talk to the people who run the shelters.”

“Do you want me to come?”

“I’ll be fine.”

“Okay, but don’t forget your phone.”

Peter started with the largest of the city’s shelters, Harmony Hill. He asked the man at the reception if he could speak to a manager. After ten minutes a young woman arrived. She introduced herself as Susan, night supervisor. Peter explained his mission.

“Sounds like good exposure for us. Numbers are increasing to the point where we’re turning people away. If you could publicise this issue, it might drum up some interest. City hall doesn’t seem to care. Come back tomorrow night, I’ll have more time to talk.”

The next night, as Peter headed to Harmony Hill again, he noticed a truck parked on the street. It caught his attention because the tailgate was open and a man was addressing the homeless who had gathered around. The man pointed at various people, who climbed into the back of the truck. The man jumped down, closed the tailgate and drove off. Peter asked Susan if she knew anything about it.

“No, but I can guess. It’ll be some farmer or factory owner picking up cheap labour. We’ve heard reports of that happening.”

“That’s a dimension to being homeless I didn’t realise existed. I think I’ll investigate.”

Peter asked Susan if she could let him know when the truck appeared again. It was three weeks before she phoned.

“It arrived ten minutes ago. You better be quick; it’s half full already.”

Peter jumped into his car and sped to Harmony Hill. The truck was still there, but it was clearly about to leave. He decided to see where it was going.

The truck drove through the city, stopping at a scruffy industrial unit. Peter parked on the far side of the lot and walked over. The driver had backed the truck up to the loading dock. A tall, broad man and a smaller, younger man stepped out from the factory and opened the tailgate of the truck.

“You’ve got a long drive ahead of you, so we’ve prepared some food. Fill up before we head out again. Line up, we want to get your names before you eat.”

The driver joined the two men on the dock. The homeless men left the truck and stepped onto the loading dock. They were lined up before being beckoned inside. The dock was closed.

Peter pushed a nearby dumpster underneath a high window and climbed up. He could see into the factory. It was divided into three parts. The first area, where the homeless men were standing, was empty of furniture and equipment. There was a partition dividing this section from the next, a smaller room that contained a desk. The third area, much bigger than the other two, was a processing area. There were conveyors, chains hanging from the ceiling, long stainless steel benches and large plastic bins.

The driver addressed the line of men.

“We’re limited in space here, so I’ll ask you to go through this door one at a time. We’ll take your details, then you’ll be fed. It won’t take long.”

The broad man opened the door and gestured for the first man to enter. The door was closed. The homeless man was instructed to sign a form on the desk. As he bent to sign, the broad man reached into his pocket and brought out what looked like a gun. He placed it against the head of the vagrant. There was a soft pop and the man dropped like a stone. There was no blood. The broad man lifted the corpse and pulled it through to the processing area. He then returned to the office and instructed the second man to enter. The same process happened again and again, until there was no-one left.

The next stage of the operation started. The young man stripped each body. The broad man tied the feet together and hung them upside down on a hook. He sprayed them with a hose, then drew a knife across each throat, stepping back to avoid the gush of blood. Each abdomen was slit open and the intestines and organs pulled out. These were dumped into a nearby bin. The heads were then removed and thrown into a bucket. The slaughterman carefully removed the skin to leave a red, glistening slab of meat. He neatly folded each skin and placed it onto a trolley. The cadavers were then pushed towards a white door at the side of the room.

Peter tumbled off the dumpster and phoned the police.

“There’s murder taking place! Homeless people are being slaughtered. Send as many cars as possible.”

He gave his name and the address and hung up.

It took fifteen minutes for one solitary patrol car to turn up. A bored looking officer stepped out. Peter, standing next to the dumpster, beckoned him over.

“Where’s your backup? There’s at least three of them in there!”

“Sir, we aren’t going to dispatch multiple units without evidence. Now, can you please explain to me what you told the dispatcher?”

Peter gave an account of what he had witnessed. The officer couldn’t disguise a look of disbelief.

“All you have to do is kick down that door and you’ll see, officer!”

“Let’s start by talking to them.”

The officer knocked on the door, while Peter stood behind. The door was opened. It was man from the truck.

“Constable McCready. Good to see you.”

He glanced behind the police officer.

“And who do we have here? Ah yes. Mr. Peter Jones, freelance investigative reporter, currently working for Channel 6. I wondered when you’d turn up.”

The officer spoke.

“Mr. Jones must have followed you, Inspector. Thought you might want to deal with him yourself.”

“That’s very kind of you, Constable McCready. There’ll be something extra in your pay packet this month.”

“Thank you, much appreciated.”

Peter stared at the two policemen as the truth of the situation hit home, then passed out.

He wasn’t out for long. He woke to find the Inspector squatting and staring at him. They were in the processing area, the floor sticky with blood.

“So, now you know, Mr. Jones. It’s the city’s way of reducing the homeless population. They just kept coming and coming. Fighting, drinking and making the city look like shit. City hall doesn’t want to waste money on shelters and soup kitchens. The mayor asked us to come up with a solution and we have. The homeless have finally become of use.”

He glanced around the room.

“It’s all too easy. To them I’m Father Murdoch of the Souls Full of Hope Mission. They can come and work on our farm. We promise we’ll feed them and pray for them. They fall for it every time.”

He stood and stretched.

“I’m going to leave you now. Mac is a good slaughterman; he gets paid in the meat he produces. What he does with it is his business, not ours. The less we know the better.”

He nodded to the slaughterman and left. Peter felt the Mac’s legs straddle him. Mac pulled Peter’s hair, lifting his head.

“Just so you know. Meat goes to piggies. Piggies eat the meat. Piggies get fat and go to slaughter. But we don’t send the skin we collect, we keep the skin for something special. We make leather. Sell it to fancy stores in the city for shoes and handbags. Get more money that way.”

“Please, let me go.”

“You ain’t the first to come snooping. Inspector says to kill ‘em all, can’t risk it. Nothing personal, but no choice.”

The slaughterman glanced down, with an expression that was almost sympathy. He lifted his knife. Peter closed his eyes.

∼ RJ Meldrum

© Copyright RJ Meldrum. All Rights Reserved.

 

To Owe the Devil

Uncle Henry looked at me from his deathbed. Not much in his face was alive. Maybe the tip of his tongue behind his teeth when he told me a story of his youth.

“Growing up in Montana in the 1930s,” he said, “I had a friend named Jacob Hart. The winter we were eighteen, we were hunting in the mountains when the snows came. Couldn’t get out. Built ourselves a snug little cabin. We had food but barely enough. Figured we’d eat our burros if we had to. We never got the chance. Jacob, he got sick. Down with fever. Wanting to get him some fresh meat, I set a few traps. Caught a rabbit. Something got it first. Tore it to shreds. Tore up all the traps. There were no tracks in the snow. None except the rabbit’s. You understand?”

“An owl, maybe,” I said.

Henry nodded. “What I thought. At first. Then something came sniffing around the cabin that night. Something big. I figured it was a bear. Jacob was sound asleep in his fever. Next morning, I found tracks. But they were…wrong. I’d seen bear sign. This wasn’t it. And there was a dead rabbit with a broken neck lying right on our doorstep. Never one to look a gift horse in the mouth, I dressed the rabbit, cooked it in a stew, fed Jacob on it. He ate heartily. Ate almost the whole thing. Started feeling better immediately.

“Two days later Jacob was up and around. I told him about the traps I’d set, about the bear that didn’t leave bear tracks, about finding the rabbit like a gift. Jacob turned ashen. He began to shake. I thought his fever was returning but he told me I’d accepted a gift from the Devil and would have to give something back or the Devil would come take whatever he wanted. And since he’d eaten most of the gift, even without realizing it, his payment would have to be the larger. I laughed at him.”

I shivered. Maybe the bleak January sky outside the hospital had chilled me. Or maybe it was the strangeness of Henry’s story, a kind of tale I’d never heard him recite before. “So?” I asked finally. “Most people would laugh at something like that.”

“Could be,” Henry agreed, then continued. “Jacob told me I needed to leave out a gift for the Devil. Some salt or coffee. My timepiece. He did; I didn’t. One morning when it was still dark, we heard a monstrous racket. We’d built a shed for our burros, backed up against the cabin. The noise came from there. I ran outside with my gun. Jacob too. The shed was smashed in, the burros torn open, their innards spread around like jelly. Their heads were gone. There were the same odd tracks again. I followed ‘em. Jacob refused to. I trailed ‘em for miles. Came to a cave.…”

“And?” I prompted.

“Nothing. The tracks led to the cave’s mouth. But inside, it was empty. No bones of anything that might have been eaten there. No sticks dragged in for a nest. It looked like nothing living had ever touched that place.”

“And no Devil?” I said.

“No,” Henry said. “No Devil.”

“You must have felt pretty foolish.”

“A little. At the time,” Henry said. “Then I went home.”

“What did Jacob say?”

“Nothing. The cabin door hung open. There was a horrible stench. I ran inside to find one of the burros’ heads in the fireplace. The singed hair smelled like…nothing I can describe.”

“What about Jacob?”

“Hanging upside down from the ceiling. So naked that even his skin had been taken off.”

I winced, though by now I doubted the whole story. I figured it was made up, though why Henry would do such a thing on his deathbed, I couldn’t imagine. Maybe he was just losing his mind. “A horrible way to die,” I managed.

“Oh, he wasn’t dead. He lived several more days. Screaming most of the time.”

I wasn’t sure what was expected of me. Humor the dying man, I guessed. I squeezed his wrist gently. The skin was paper thin and felt cold and unreal. “I’m sorry.”

“No reason to be. I put Jacob’s body in the snow. Left him until spring thaw. Then I burned him in the cabin until nothing was left.”

“What about the…whatever it was that had attacked your burros and killed Jacob?”

“It left me alone the rest of the winter.”

“Any idea why?”

A humorless smile twisted Henry’s lips. “I left it an offering. Like Jacob told me too.”

A chill goosebumped my arms despite my disbelief. “What offering?”

“Blood for one,” Henry said. “I cut my arm deep.”

I remembered the scar on my uncle’s forearm. From a motorcycle accident, I’d heard.

“For one?” I asked. “What else?”

“My soul, of course. What does one use to buy off the Devil?”

I shook my head. “Heckuva story, Uncle Henry. But you know I don’t believe a bit of it.”

Henry smiled and patted my arm with long pale fingers. “Didn’t figure you would, Charlie. Never figured you would.”

I checked my phone. “I gotta go, Uncle Henry. Anything I can get you?”

“No,” he said, “but I have something for you.”

“What?”

“Open the drawer on the bedside table there.”

I did so, drew out a small present in pretty wrapping paper.

“What’s this?” I asked.

Henry smiled again, and a little sliver of pink tongue protruded from behind his teeth. “Just a gift, Charlie boy. Just a little gift for you.”

∼ Charles Gramlich

© Copyright Charles Gramlich. All Rights Reserved.

 

 

 

Pathway to Glory

It is delicious here, watching the guests at this exclusive retreat. Within its walls, a haven is provided for the wealthy and ostensibly pious. The staff in pristine white uniforms is ever present. Their services are available for every possible request, from a bible or a copy of the Torah, to a prayer rug. Even needs of a sexual nature are provided, assuredly discrete.  Afternoon tea with delectable scones and clotted cream is served at four. After tea, there is a thick pine forest off the deck where patrons may stroll about the woods and enjoy the brisk air before dark. The mountain setting is always a refreshing change for them. Each and all feel assured that the myriad paths would always take them back to the resort.

But now, their vacation is ending. A few decide to take a last walk into the forest before time to return to their hectic lives in the real world, some in pairs, some alone. In a clearing, a brilliant light shines. It is just the sort of place one couple intends to kneel and give thanks to their Lord for this wonderful holiday. Naturally, they plan to engage in a bit of last minute adultery as well. Like a doorway to heaven, it draws them on.

Crouched in the thick undergrowth, the beautiful angel known as Glory awaits their arrival. Wings folded, she flexes her claws and licks her lips.

∼ Marge Simon

© Copyright Marge Simon. All Rights Reserved.

 

Suckle

Foul, tar-like mucus covered my slick, naked body. Both feet slid against the coal-black floor, legs kicked in panic. Lungs gasped for air with a quick inhale, eyes strained to open, mind clawed for clarity. I wiped at the epidermal muck. It smeared like grease, managed only to move around in globs. Not only was every inch of my flesh covered in it, but the entire floor, and from what my blurry vision could see, so were the walls.

The small, ebon, square of a room I found myself in wasn’t completely dark, but I couldn’t find a source of the dim light. There were no doors, windows, or openings. It was nothing more than a smooth, black cube, every inch covered in the undefined substance.

My gut heaved agonized spasms, brown sludge sprayed from my throat. I expelled viscous fluid until my throat went raw, stomach wrenched to ruin.

As I caught my breath a tapping came from the walls. I held silent and listened. The clicking skittered, then stopped. Again, it moved around—a rapid, insectile scuttle. Then more crawled just beyond the walls, ceiling, just beneath me. From every direction thousands of tiny legs tap-tapped their way around my appalling enclosure.

My neck strained to keep pace with my eyes, which looked in every direction; fear jaunted my vision from random place to random place.

Something landed on my shoulder with a wet plop. I strained my neck to see a pale, wormlike creature with legs and a gnashing mouth full of pointed teeth. Even though it had no eyes it seemed to peer into mine for a moment before it burrowed through my flesh, gnawed into muscle, and attached itself to bone. My dry throat struggled to howl. My shoulder throbbed as it suckled me. I tried to reach and pull it out but its slippery body evaded capture.

I stopped struggling as more fell from the ceiling, came through the walls, up though the floor. More than I could count. I closed my eyes and waited for the feeding to begin.

∼ Lee Andrew Forman

© Copyright Lee Andrew Forman. All Rights Reserved.