Permanent Detention

by Allen Coyle

 

I saw a woman recently. I mean a real woman; not a magazine clip-out or a poster. Honest to god, a real-life woman.

It’d been more than twelve years since I’d seen one.

It was Clancy who introduced us. He’s the captain of the guards. Over the years he seems to have taken a liking to me. I’m not sure why. I think maybe it’s because I’m soft-spoken and obedient, and not loud and rebellious like some of the others. I don’t give him any problems.

It was after dinner when, unannounced, Clancy asked me to accompany him to the fifth floor. Much of the area is restricted, but I’d been there before to clean—under a guard’s supervision, of course. They keep a sharp eye on you here.

I figured maybe he’d spilled some coffee and needed a trustee to clean it up. So I was surprised when he led me down the corridor and into a large, dark room filled with files. Along the far wall, nestled between two shelves, stood a tall, nondescript door. Clancy unlocked it and swung it open, revealing a room that was a mirror image of the one we were in.

And there she stood, as if she were waiting. I gasped, and froze.

She, too, was accompanied by a guard—an older woman. And like me, she wore the regulation uniform: white shirt, white pants, white sneakers, white socks. All white. She had a wide-eyed, deer-in-the-headlights look—as I’m sure I did—and she stood with her knees slightly bent, as if she was prepared to scamper. She sort of reminded me of a young Scarlett Johansson, that actress from the old-time movies I liked to watch, before I came here. She had the deep, mature eyes; the red, parted lips. And her light, blonde hair flowed in waves well past her shoulders.

Clancy let out a laugh—a loud, whooping, bottom-of-the-belly laugh, which made his large gut quiver.

“Well,” he said, “don’t just stand there staring at each other. Say something! Introduce yourselves!”

But I couldn’t say anything. I couldn’t. And neither, it seemed, could she. We both just gazed, awestruck, as if trying to comprehend one another’s existence.

“We wanted you to have the opportunity to meet,” Clancy said. “You’re both nearly thirty, and we thought you deserved a nice birthday present.”

He and the female guard shared a knowing smile. The girl and I remained speechless.

Clancy checked his watch. “We’ll give you both a half hour. The corridors will be clear. Introduce yourselves; get to know one another. Make the most of your time, because we can’t promise another opportunity like this. The risk is too great.

“And whatever you do,” he continued, “don’t talk too loudly. These rooms echo, and your voices might carry.”

He took a step toward me then and clasped my shoulder, almost in a reassuring way, like a father encouraging his son before a big date. He said nothing more; he simply squeezed and let go. He had a large, brawny hand, and I felt small under his grip.

Clancy and the female guard looked at each other, then both retreated to their own wings, like duelers marching in opposite directions. Clancy left through the door behind me; the female guard, through the door behind the girl. The latches clicked into place loudly, making me jump. More than anything, I hate the sound of doors closing—especially the barred door of my cell when it slams shut at night. Even after all these years, I’ve never gotten used to it.

We looked at each other, the young woman and I. My mouth and throat were dry. She tried to smile, but her lips were shaking. Her whole body, in fact, was shaking. Mine was, too. And the fifth floor was warm, especially on this particular summer evening.

I swallowed. “Hi,” I said.

She let out a nervous laugh. “Hi.”

“I, ah…” I let my voice trail off. “Do you know what this is all about?”

“No.” She shook her head. “I really… I don’t know.” She raised her shoulders, her head tilted. She forced a smile. It was awkward, almost like a wince, but nonetheless endearing.

I tried to smile back. I can only imagine how I looked. Grotesque, probably. “I’m Paul. I’m… it’s good to meet you.”

Another nervous laugh. “Hi Paul.” She smiled, though, and this time, it didn’t seem quite as forced.

I grinned. “Hi.”

All this stuttering and stammering, you’d have thought we were inexperienced teenagers.

Which made sense, in a way. The last time we’d interacted with members of the opposite sex, we’d both been in high school.

*****

I’d always known there was a women’s wing. All of us did. It was a place of legend: a mystical location we could only dream about, but never visit. I imagined it to be a mirror image of the men’s wing, with cells and a cafeteria and a library and classrooms, except with women inmates instead of men.

Not especially imaginative, but exciting nevertheless.

Others speculated it was a paradise filled with luxurious amenities, including a private deck for sunbathing, and a spa where the women could soak in mud. An oasis so close, and yet so far. Someone always would claim to have seen it—to have snuck in once, undetected—but when prodded for details, their elaborate story would sputter to snickers and a shaking of the head.

It was all bullshit, of course, but a way to pass the time. And when you’re dragging a rake across the dirt exercise yard, grooming the sand, or wiping spots off of hot trays that the dishwasher missed, you need a way to fill the void—the aching emptiness in your life. And if you’ve got nothing else, bullshit works quite nicely.

The conversations about the women’s wing made me feel young and immature, like a five-year-old and his buddies envisioning what it must be like in the girls’ restroom. Deep down, you suspect it’s nothing spectacular—probably no different from the boys’ restroom (except for the lack of urinals, of course)—but it’s nonetheless alluring because it’s off-limits and forbidden.

For all of us hard up male inmates, legends of the women’s wing became our grown-up version of the girls’ restroom.

I knew the main entrance to the women’s wing was from the lobby, the same as the men’s. I’d been to the lobby plenty of times—always with a guard escort, of course—sometimes to visit the warden’s office, but most often to mop the floors in the visitors’ area. I’d seen the entrance to the wing, but the double doors were always closed tight. I couldn’t get so much as a glimpse inside.

I’d never have guessed that the men’s and women’s wings connected from within, especially from a nondescript door in a random filing room on the fifth floor. Of course, if I’d have told any of the guys about the door, they’d have laughed me off; said I was full of shit. Thing was, though, I had no desire to tell. It wasn’t that I wanted to keep the secret to myself. It was that telling the guys would tarnish my memory of meeting the woman—cheapen the experience somehow. Because there was more to that encounter than simply getting a glimpse into the proverbial women’s wing.

That night, you see, for the first time in my life, I fell in love.

*****

The woman’s name was Pam. She was a couple of months younger than me—we both were twenty-nine—and she’d been in Permanent Detention since she was sixteen. Sixteen. Like me, she’d spent almost half of her life in this place.

She’d never even had the chance to get her driver’s license.

It took awhile for us to get over our nervousness, but once we got going, we talked and talked and talked. The conversation just flowed. I’d never known I had so much to say. I never was much of a talker to begin with, and over the years I found I spoke less and less. It seemed the longer you spent in Permanent Detention, the more difficult small talk became.

Mainly, we chatted about our present lives and our living conditions. Like most inmates, we spent our days working in the laundry (separate facilities, of course; you can imagine the kick male inmates would get sniffing female garments). We also pulled kitchen duty from time to time, and both of us liked to spend Sundays reading in our cells.

Like me, good behavior had helped elevate Pam to trustee status, which allowed her special library privileges and access to otherwise forbidden areas, such as the officers’ lounge. (Not to hang out, of course, but to clean—being the meek, obedient little servants we were.)

We didn’t touch at all throughout our conversation… except at one point I did clasp her hand. I’m not sure why; it felt right. She let me; she didn’t recoil. Her hand felt very soft, and very warm, and it filled my whole body with a tingling sensation I hadn’t felt for years, as if dead nerves were sparking to life.

I’d wanted to kiss her—in fact, I ached to kiss her—and it wasn’t because of any sexual urge, but rather a desire to get close to her, to meld with her—to become almost as a single living entity. I suddenly wanted to feel connected to someone—attached. I wanted to feel her warm skin pressed against mine; her soft hands clasped inside mine. I wanted to feel her head on my shoulder, her hair in my face… and I wanted to hold her and protect her from the world; from the pale gray walls of the institution; from the bleakness of our reality—from the harshness of our world.

But we didn’t kiss. Our hands, instead, slackened… and our fingers slid apart. Not because we didn’t want to hold hands, but rather, I sensed, from a tacit understanding that we were treading on forbidden territory… and that we only were setting ourselves up for a more painful goodbye.

That half hour flew faster than any time I’ve ever known. And when the door behind me clicked open and Clancy returned, I wanted to cry. But I somehow contained myself as he led me from the filing room and downstairs to the main cell block, accompanying me to 4D, fourth cell from the left—my home for the past dozen years. He called out to the operator, and the barred door slid shut behind me.

It was only when I was curled up in my bunk with my back to the corridor, facing the pale, gray wall, that I started crying. They were intense, guttural sobs, springing from a sadness buried so deep inside of me, I hadn’t realized it existed. Or maybe I did know it existed, but I’d grown so numb to it over the years that I no longer was aware of it, like the way you don’t think about your heart beating.

Thankfully, nobody heard me crying. You can’t let your emotions get the better of you in this place. The only way to live is to recede within yourself; to numb your soul and senses. It’s no way to live, but in here, it’s the only way to live.

I turned my pillow to the dry side and tried to fall asleep, but sleep was a long time coming that night. It was only a couple of hours before dawn when I finally dozed off, and then my dreams were bright and colorful and lifelike… and all of them featured Pam.

And then a loud buzzing was sounding, and my cell door was sliding open, and I was struggling out of my bunk, hurrying to get dressed before the morning count.

*****

I dream about women sometimes. Not as much as I used to, but occasionally.

Sometimes they’re sexual dreams, and I awake feeling all perverted and gross—and guilty somehow. More often, though, they’re romantic dreams—simple depictions of companionship—such as walking hand-in-hand in a park, or cuddling and watching a sunset, or sharing a laugh over a candlelit dinner. I often awake from these dreams with a warmth that stays with me the whole day, as if the woman will be waiting for me when I return to my cell—from a long, brutal day in the laundry—to hold me after lights-out.

I imagine it’s how a close relationship must feel: a warm, comforting sensation that stays with you all day, even in those moments when you can’t be with your partner.

I never did have a girlfriend; not really. Probably the closest was eighth grade, when I kissed the neighbor girl. She was my age and lived next door. We didn’t hang out often, and we weren’t great friends. However, she came over one morning and asked me to walk with her. She led me down the street to a home under construction. We snuck inside—there were no workers that afternoon—and she cuddled with me in a crook formed by two walls.

She started kissing me: deep, wet, gooey kisses that, to me, seemed gross and invasive. We quit after a couple of minutes; it didn’t feel right. She left me on my own, to wonder what had happened—to ponder on what I’d done wrong.

A month later, she moved away. We never even said goodbye. And though I didn’t realize it at the time, that experience was the closest I’d ever get to feeling true love.

Until now, that is.

A lot of the guys here had girlfriends in high school, and a few even got laid. That’s what they call it; they say it as if it were an accomplishment, a trophy. The way they describe it isn’t the way I imagine it. They talk in terms of thrusting, banging, fucking. I always envision it as more of a gentle thing, a sweet thing—something where you’re simply together, looking into each other’s eyes, loving each other.

Some of the romance books in the library depict it like that, but I wouldn’t want anyone to catch me reading those; not when I finally have some seniority and the respect that comes with it. That perk could disappear in an instant, and I’d be right back where I was when I first arrived: a timid seventeen-year-old condemned to a life behind bars, aching for death.

Though I suppose I’m not all that different now: I’m no longer seventeen, but I’m still timid and condemned to a life behind bars. And though I no longer ache for death, some days I don’t think I’d mind it that much.

*****

I was sentenced to Permanent Detention shortly after my seventeenth birthday. My crime? Possessing a book.

Not just any book, of course—an illegal book. And the sad part is, I didn’t even read it.

Well, I did read some of it; the first couple of chapters, anyway. It was a giant tome of a novel, and the print was microscopic. It had belonged to my father, and according to my mom, he’d always wanted me to have it. He said it was an important book: a book of ideas.

I remember it was called The Fountainhead and it had been written in my great, great grandfather’s time, when printed books were still available. I vaguely remember it had something to do with architecture, and a student talking to his dean. But that’s all. At the time, I thought it was boring and dense, and if it had any useful ideas, they were way over my head.

But that book was one of the few things I had to remember my father by. He’d proudly printed his name on the inside front cover, in big, block letters. In fact, it was the only part of the book I enjoyed reading. I’d often run my fingers along the penciled name, retracing each letter, as if trying to forge a connection to the dad I never really knew.

He was killed when I was seven, gunned down in a demonstration outside the capitol. It was an inevitable end, my mother said. He’d served time once for publishing seditious content, and he spoke often at underground anti-government rallies, which usually were infiltrated by undercover informants. He was a marked man, according to my mother, and he had been living on borrowed time for ages. If he hadn’t have been shot in that demonstration, then he probably would have been stabbed in a back alley somewhere, or taken to an underground detention center and never seen again.

She claimed agents watched our house and followed us wherever we went. I remember being a young child crouched in the backseat of the car, on the verge of hysteria as my parents tried to out-maneuver a van they claimed was following them.

Looking back, it’s no wonder I grew up to be so timid and anxious.

After my father’s death, agents raided our house, searching for seditious material. They confiscated my dad’s computers, file servers, notebooks, pamphlets—you name it. They also arrested my mother for conspiracy and put me in protective custody.

She claimed she didn’t agree with my father’s viewpoints (which wasn’t true; she simply was less vocal). The state’s case against her was weak. All of the confiscated materials belonged to my father, and none of the writings bore her name.

She’d also never demonstrated her treachery in public. The state claimed she was a traitor by the simple virtue of remaining married to my father. She countered that she remained married only for my sake, because she lacked the income to raise me on her own.

In the end, the tribunal decided to show leniency. Not because they didn’t have the proof (proof was only a convenience for these sorts of trials, not a necessity), but rather because it was an election year, and nobody wanted to look bad for imprisoning a young, widowed mother, even if she had been married to an enemy of the state.

The surveillance only got worse after my mother’s release. They were ready to pounce at the slightest perceived misstep. Black cars followed us wherever we went. Figures hid in darkness across the street, like silent, watching shadows. My mother never again mentioned my father, except to curse his name—convinced as she was that our home was riddled with bugs.

As the years passed, my memory of my father devolved to a shadow, then dissolved to a ghost.

The surveillance became less intrusive as time wore on, but whether seen or unseen, the government always was a constant presence—the uninvited white elephant in the room. I learned to accept fear as a normal part of my life: the fear of my mother being arrested; the fear of me being taken away from her. The fear instilled in me a rigid compliance to government dictates, and it snuffed out any rage that otherwise might have consumed my soul.

By the time I entered high school, I’d pretty much forgotten my father. So I was surprised when one evening, as I sat at the dining-room table doing algebra homework, my mother silently approached me, her index finger pressed against her lips. She handed me a handwritten note, as well as a tattered hardcover edition of The Fountainhead.

She tapped her lips with her finger, emphasizing the need for silence. Then, she pointed to the note, beckoning me to read it.

I unfolded the paper. In my mother’s tiny, neat script, she’d written: “This belonged to your father. He always wanted you to have it. He said it helped define him as a person, as an individual. He loved you more than anything, even freedom. It’s the only thing of his I have left, and I’m giving it to you.”

The note continued: “As a young man, you need to understand: this is a dangerous book. Not so much for the ideas it contains, but because so many people fear those ideas. The book’s also number six on the top-ten banned list, meaning anyone caught with it could be imprisoned—maybe for life. So whatever you do, keep it hidden. You’re old enough now to be trusted with it.”

I read the note twice. When I was done, I looked at my mother. She held out her hand, to take back the note. She stepped into the kitchen, then held the paper over the gas burner, setting the page on fire. She let the flames creep silently toward her fingers, then tossed the paper into the sink.

I looked down at the book, all worn and grubby and beat-up. Its pages were yellowed; its cover pockmarked. I opened it and immediately noticed my father’s name on the inside cover, scrawled in his erratic, blocky script.

It was the first time in eight years I’d seen his handwriting.

That book became my only link to my father. And for some reason I figured that if I could understand the book, I could come to understand him.

Unfortunately, like I mentioned, the writing was so dense, and the printing so small, that I made it through only the first couple of chapters—and even then, I understood none of it, which frustrated me. If the book had helped define my father, and I found it inaccessible, then what did that say about me? Was I even worthy of being called his son?

I kept the book carefully hidden under my bed, and I never took it out of the house. I looked at it only at night, with the door and blinds tightly closed, and even then I felt watched—haunted, almost. The fact that the book was banned—and that I could be imprisoned for owning it—filled me with a terror so intense, it made my stomach churn. In fact, it often felt more like a burden than a gift.

In the end, the book might have been too great a responsibility for a fifteen-year-old to bear. Even at the time, I wondered if my mother was naive to entrust me with it. I think on some level, she might have known I was too young. After all, I couldn’t help but notice how tightly she’d held her finger to her lips when she gave it to me, and also how quickly she’d reclaimed her handwritten note, to hold it over the fire.

*****

I feel like a lovestruck schoolchild.

Whether I’m stacking sheets or mopping the cell block or pulling weeds near the perimeter, my mind keeps drifting back to the fifth-floor filing room—to the wide, mature eyes taking me in; to the warm, soft hand clasped in mine.

To Pam.

I can’t get her out of my mind.

“Easy!” snaps Bruno, the lead cook, when I drop an empty casserole dish near his feet.

“Sorry,” I say, mumbling.

“Dammit, Paul.” Bruno waves his spatula at me. “You’ve had your head up your ass all day. You drop one more thing and I’ll smash your face against the goddamn grill. I swear I will.”

I want to tell him that my head’s not up my ass, but rather in the clouds… soaring high above this dreary compound, surveying the world. But he wouldn’t understand. Like everyone else, he’s tethered to the ground, mired in existence, with no thoughts or dreams to defy gravity—to launch him into flight.

I especially think about Pam after lights-out, as I lie awake, staring at the ceiling. I wonder if she thinks about me, too, during those long, drawn-out nights when you’re teetering toward madness, with only your thoughts and your dreams to keep you sane.

I wonder.

I start to think maybe Pam and I could be something—maybe friends, maybe more—if only we were a million miles away, with no bars to keep us confined; no walls to keep us contained. I imagine walking with her along a beach: the ice-cold waves splashing against our ankles… the blood-red sun sinking along the edge of the earth.

I imagine making love to her, the ocean’s roaring pulse resounding in the background, our breaths quick and hot against the chilly saltwater air.

But then I curse myself. It’s dangerous to play the “if only” game. Tottering down that path can lead only to lunacy. Pam and I never can be anything: not acquaintances, not friends, and certainly not lovers.

The truth is, we’ll probably never see each other again.

It’s a bleak, heartbreaking realization, but it’s a fact as cold and as hard and as impenetrable as the walls of my cell.

What I feel for Pam can’t be love. It can’t be. Even I know that love isn’t forged in an instant, but rather cultivated over time.

Which leads me to wonder: what if what I’m feeling isn’t really love, but rather lust in disguise?

After all, I hadn’t seen a woman for more than twelve years. What if it had been another female inmate that night, instead of Pam? Would I still have been swept away in the same lovestruck stupor?

It’s a question that haunts me at night, well after lights-out. Because, if true, it would mean the only genuine feelings I’ve felt in years aren’t really genuine after all.

It would mean that what I’m feeling for Pam, I could feel for any random woman.

It would mean that, in the end, I wasn’t in love with a person, per se, but rather with an idea—a fantasy.

So when I’m lying awake late at night, crying silently in my cell, it’s not because I know I’ll never see Pam again. I can live with that, I think.

What’s slowly killing me inside is the fear that my love for her might not be real.

And if that’s true, then maybe that was Clancy’s intention all along: a sort of psychological torture. If so, it would be the harshest, cruelest punishment I’ve ever endured in this place.

*****

Before we get into how I came here, a little about Permanent Detention:

It’s a relatively recent program. They started it twenty or so years ago to prevent young undesirables from joining society.

By “they,” I of course mean the government.

And by “young undesirables”… well, I suppose you’re looking at one.

I suppose.

According to the powers that be, sedition is the number-one problem facing our country. They say it’s a national-security issue. How can they effectively fight wars, they say, or protect the homeland, if their own citizens speak against them? For a nation to prosper, everyone must be beholden to the same philosophies—devoted to the same ideals.

And those who reject those philosophies and ideals need to be eradicated, like an organism rejecting a germ.

As I understand it, there was a time when you could disagree with the government openly, either in public, or in literature, or on the Internet. It’s hard to imagine. In my grandfather’s time the nation abided by what was known as the Constitution, which empowered individuals with certain rights. And though it was abolished long ago, its spirit still exists in the hearts and minds of many—including my father, who publicly advocated its reinstitution.

Of course, look how he ended up.

Hell, never mind that: look how I ended up. At least my father had a life before he died. I’m not sure you could call what I’ve got a life. I exist; that’s about it.

But at least I’m alive… so I suppose I should be grateful.

I suppose.

Permanent Detention started as an experimental program, but it proved to be so successful—and was looked upon so favorably by the population—that it became a cornerstone of the national agenda. The basic premise was simple: Identify potential nonconformists—those most likely to hold anti-government attitudes—and sentence them to life imprisonment, effectively cleansing society of its undesirables; the organism rejecting the germ.

And who better to target than high-school students?

After all, said the government, your basic philosophical foundations are laid during your youth. If you display treasonous tendencies as a young adult, chances are you’ll grow to become a rebel.

And if you were a rebel, there was no place for you in their fist-pumping, anthem-chanting, single-minded society.

High schools everywhere became a patriotic litmus test. If you obeyed, marched in line, said “yes sir” and “yes ma’am,” you generally were safe. Potential nonconformists, on the other hand—those who avoided sports and clubs, shunned cooperative learning, who ate alone and had few friends—these folks were hauled before a military-style tribunal. An administrator—most often a principal—presented evidence against the defendant. The defendant—most often a trembling, teary-eyed dweeb; you know, the quintessential menace to society—was given a chance to rebut; to claim how passionately he loved his country.

The tribunal, then, would render its verdict. Those deemed a danger to society were condemned to life imprisonment—to Permanent Detention. The gavel would slam down, and they’d be led away sniffing and sobbing… their lives effectively snuffed out before they began… and their parents would be watching in horror, knowing a raid likely was on the way, as well as additional arrests. After all, no child became rebellious in a vacuum. They had to acquire their attitudes from somewhere.

The program was a resounding success, and the senator who proposed it later won the presidency. According to government statistics, crime plummeted, national unity surged, and once again we became a great and prosperous nation, united by a common thread… beholden to the same philosophies… devoted to the same ideals.

A healthy, happy, germ-free organism.

Which, I suppose, was best for everyone.

I suppose.

*****

Looking back, I was probably on the fast-track to Permanent Detention all along. I had few friends; I didn’t play sports; I belonged to no clubs. I was quiet and kept to myself, which alarmed several of my teachers.

Plus, my father was a known radical.

My mother begged me to become more socially active. Begged me. Rather than to help me blend in, she said my meekness and timidity made me stand out.

“They’re going to peg you as a loner,” she said. “And once they do, you’re as good as done. Nothing upsets the establishment like obstinate individualism.”

I tried, but I couldn’t change my nature. Besides, I was weak and small, and if I wasn’t cowering in a corner, I was being confronted by bullies. Withdrawing was easier than asserting my presence, which usually resulted in my ass getting kicked.

But in the end, it was the book that did it. The book… coupled, of course, with my own stupidity.

I was sixteen then, and driving. I’d spent the previous summer working as a laborer on a prevailing-wage job, which allowed me to put a down payment on a used car. It was a total piece of shit—not exactly a chick magnet (not that I was, either)—but it ran, and it was mine.

The construction company I’d worked for had a yard-maintenance service, so for three hours after school I mowed lawns, pruned hedges, adjusted sprinklers. After work I’d head home for dinner, and then I’d do homework, which I always completed dutifully. Not that it scored me any points with my teachers, who all seemed to regard me with disdain.

That car gave me a freedom I’d never known before (or since, I might add). On a moment’s notice I could grab my keys and take off anywhere. My mother didn’t care, as long as I ensured I wasn’t followed.

By that time, though, my father had been gone for so long—and my mother and I had behaved so well—that the surveillance had trickled from constant to occasional. Only twice did I notice the familiar black SUVs in my rear-view mirror, trailing a few car lengths behind. Most often, they left me alone, to savor the solitude of the open road… to leave behind the burdens of school and society… to feel unconfined, unconstrained, unencumbered… free.

Free.

I especially enjoyed driving at night. I felt more shielded, somehow; less conspicuous, less visible. It was just me and my headlights cutting through the darkness, finding the way. Often, around 9:30 or so, after my homework was done, I’d grab my keys and dive into my car, to go cruising. Unlike most teenagers, though, I didn’t head to the city. In fact, I went in the opposite direction: into the wilderness; as far away as I could get from civilization, from people—from society.

I crawled along bumpy mountain roads—the ones I could navigate with a two-wheel drive, anyway. I explored some cool, seemingly untouched scenery. My favorite place was this dry, desert lakebed I discovered a couple miles off a windy stretch of utility-company right-of-way. I would park in the middle of it and lie on my warm hood… my fingers interlaced behind my head… and I’d stare into the deep, expansive night sky, letting my mind wander, my thoughts drifting toward the heavens, my dreams searching out the stars.

I’d return home around midnight, long after my mom was asleep. And as I slunk into bed and shifted on my mattress, I’d feel it—the book I’d hidden—its bulk pushing into my back, reminding me of its presence.

It always left me with an ache when I awoke: a sharp reminder of reality; a pain that dissolved my dreams.

*****

I’d always wanted to read the book, to understand the ideas it contained.

And, perhaps, to understand my father, and why he cherished those ideas.

I’d tried to read it at home, but I felt too uncomfortable—too compromised, somehow. I’d grown up hearing our house was bugged, so I’d spent my whole life feeling watched, spied upon. I never truly felt at ease in my own home. When I jerked off, I did it as quietly as I could, under the covers, and even then I felt like eyes were boring into my back, judging me. The only place where I felt any seclusion, any privacy, was at the dry, desert lakebed, surrounded only by the sky and the darkness.

And it hit me: Why not read the book there?

It made sense, and the risk seemed small. I visited the lakebed about three nights each week—including Saturdays—and I figured if I read half a chapter a night, I could get through the book in no time.

The hardest part, for me, was smuggling it from the house to the car. I shoved it in my backpack one morning, took a deep breath, then dashed from the front door to the driveway, scurrying like a rodent evading a cat. I prayed no agents were watching from across the street—ensconced in shadows, as I imagined them: smoking, squinty-eyed, suspicious.

Once I was safely away, I crammed the book under the front seat, along with the crumbs and loose change. It seemed a safe place—I’d never had my car searched at school, and I’d never been caught speeding. I figured it’d be fine there, at least for the month or two it’d take me to read it.

My progress was slow-going. For one, as I mentioned, the print was microscopic, and I had to hold the book close to make out the words. For another, I had only my car’s dim dome light to read by; it cast a sickening, piss-colored orange upon the pages.

But perhaps the biggest problem was that I simply wasn’t used to reading off paper. Up till that point, most everything I’d read had been on electronic tablets. The text I knew was fluid, adjustable. I was used to changing the text size and fiddling with the fonts.

Words on paper, on the other hand, seemed static and dead, as if engraved in stone. They were like viewing an unchangeable past: unadjustable, unmovable—mired in time.

I’d read while lying across the backseat, the windows down to let in the cool, evening air. The crickets chorused in time to my breathing, providing the perfect backdrop to the unfolding story.

It took me a few nights, but I reached the end of chapter two. I sat up, checked my watch, and saw it was after eleven. Not that I had to get home right away. As strict as life was, few communities enforced curfew ordinances. The fear of Permanent Detention kept most teenagers in line.

I rumbled over the rocky dirt road, headed back to town… the book carefully concealed under the front seat. And that’s when I saw it, about a mile up the road: several sets of headlights, barreling over the low brush… and the flashing red and blue lights, spinning like wild cyclones.

I froze, slamming to a halt. It looked like a big cluster of cars, haphazardly spaced. They were racing toward the road I was on, following a perpendicular line.

On instinct, I flicked off the headlights and steered the car off the road. Brush scraped at my side; the metal undercarriage ground against rock. I shut off the engine, my breathing strained, my muscles tight.

There were about ten cars, and they were racing across the desert landscape, bouncing over rocks pockmarking the ground; slamming through narrow gullies carved by rainwater.

And then a chopper appeared, casting a brilliant spotlight upon the scene.

I could see, then, that it was a pursuit. Three lumbering SUVs struggled to outpace seven or so patrol cars. Their front grills were mashed; their paint and sidings torn. The rough terrain was tearing them up so badly, I was surprised their tires and suspensions had remained intact.

As the cars approached, I held my breath, wondering if they would cross my road… or take a sharp turn toward me. It seemed likely they might turn; compared to the outlying terrain, my road was smooth and unobstructed.

And then, it happened: the frontmost SUV hit a hole—or maybe one of its tires blew out; I couldn’t tell—and in an instant it was flying in the air, turning on its side… and then it landed, hard, twisting into a heap of shattered glass and mangled metal, pushing up a pile of sand as it slid to a stop.

A handful of patrol cars screeched to a standstill, and officers emerged, guns drawn, screaming. I saw shadowy figures moving, running.

Then, gunshots… more yelling… and pained, anguished screams.

The other two SUVs kept going, and the remaining patrol cars followed.

And when they reached the dirt road, they took a sharp, right turn… and started soaring in the direction of the lakebed.

Right toward me.

*****

I remember watching the headlights as they rumbled toward me, bright and unblinking. And I remember the dazzling glare as the chopper cast its searchlight over the road, illuminating my car as if it were the focal point of an onstage display.

I remember hearing more gunshots… and a nearby zinging. And then I was cowering on the floor, hiding my head, the roar of the chopper deafening.

I remember the blue and red lights flashing before me… surrounding me; engulfing me. And I remember strong hands wrenching me through the door, dragging me onto the ground. And then there was a boot on my throat, and bright lights all around… and then more of the yelling: deep, primitive, indecipherable.

I remember gasping for air, my face pressed against the dirt, small puffs of sand billowing from my strained breaths. And I remember glimpsing an officer fishing through my car—most likely searching for weapons—as others leveled their rifles at my head, screaming at me.

He didn’t find any weapons. Instead, he emerged from the car holding the book.

I remember more of the yelling… and then a sharp, blinding flash of pain as someone slammed the butt of a rifle across my head, nearly knocking me out. After that, all I recall is a dreamy, spacey feeling, as if I were sinking underwater… and the warmth of the blood as it flowed down my face… pooling on the ground, staining the sand.

*****

Later on, I learned the men the police were chasing that night were members of an outlaw survivalist organization that took refuge in the desert, migrating from camp to camp. They were considered armed and dangerous—known enemies of the state.

That night, four were killed and six were captured.

Well, seven, I guess… if you included me. Which is what the headlines did. It was a simple case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Though I was never charged with being a member of the group, the news portrayed me as a teenage malcontent, armed with a copy of The Fountainhead… the son of a known radical, captured in hostile territory near an enemy camp.

A camp, it turned out, with whom my father had associated once, eons ago.

That juicy fact emerged during the trial, a three-day public spectacle complete with reporters, cameras and jeering spectators. Most juvenile inquisitions were small, private affairs, but in my case, they wanted to make an example.

Teachers testified against me, as did my principal. Said they knew all along I was a rebel; apparently, they’d pegged me long ago as an antisocial malcontent.

I remember when the inquisitor raised The Fountainhead for the audience to see—all the murmurs and gasps that erupted from the crowd. That damning piece of evidence alone was enough to put me away for life—never mind the alleged connection to the survivalist group.

They ripped out the pages right there during the inquisition and threw them in a metal receptacle. The inquisitor lit a match, then let it sizzle between his fingers for a long, dramatic moment. Then, looking at me and grinning, he tossed it into the bin, setting the pages aflame.

The fire was bright, its flames fierce… but within moments it had petered out to a smoldering, useless clump of ashes.

*****

The verdict, of course, was inevitable: immediate, lifetime removal from society.

Permanent Detention.

My mother didn’t make the trial. I heard that after I was taken into custody, agents raided our house and arrested her for crimes against the state. I don’t know what became of her; no one’s ever told me. I don’t know if she’s in a detention center somewhere, like me… or if she’s even still alive.

If she’s alive, she’ll be turning fifty this year.

If she’s alive.

*****

Permanent Detention involves not only discipline, but re-education. Three days each week we take classes in national history, to learn the importance of patriotism and unity. We’re told these lessons will help us function in the event we rejoin society.

Not that anyone ever rejoins society—at least not that I know. At age thirty, we’re supposed to undergo an evaluation to determine whether we’re fit for release. What I’ve heard happens is that we stand in front of a board to plead our case. If you can convince them you’re no longer a nonconformist threat (and good luck with that), then you’re sent to a halfway house and placed in a low-end, menial job somewhere. Those who lack the charm to dazzle the board are transferred to a maximum-security prison, to finish their lives with society’s other scourges—including rapists, child-molesters, and murderers.

You know, real criminals.

That’s what scares me more than anything, especially as my birthday approaches. Permanent Detention is horrible—don’t get me wrong—but it’s a different sort of place than an everyday prison. For one, all of us inmates are of a similar mindset. Each of us lost our freedom for the unpardonable crime of offending the government. And though we’re all a little too individualistic to form groups or cliques, we’re all very much brethren, bonded by our ideals.

I wouldn’t call anyone here a criminal; not really. In fact, I’ve never encountered violence in Permanent Detention. There were initiations when I first arrived, but they were of the high-school variety, and they certainly didn’t involve beatings or rape. And though there is a pecking order delineated by seniority, I’d say for the most part, all of us treat each other respectfully.

So the idea of being integrated with real criminals terrifies me, because I know I won’t survive. I’m weak and timid… and any anger I’m capable of feeling I direct inward (this is what I’ve been told, anyway), so that when an external force oppresses me, my only defense is to self-destruct… which, essentially, is surrender.

Generations of inmates have matriculated since I joined Permanent Detention, and now I myself am inching toward the end. No one I know has ever been released. If they have, they’ve never written to report on the outside (unless, of course, their letters were intercepted by the powers that be; none of us knows for sure).

If I’m transferred from Permanent Detention, I’ll die. One way or another, I’ll die. I’m not a survivor. As fucked-up and cruel as this place is, it insulates me from life’s other horrors. And that’s what’s funny, if you think about it: the fact that my life depends on me remaining in an institution whose very purpose is to strip my life away from me, piece by excruciating piece.

So, in the end, I’m faced with an impossible question of what’s better: a quick, violent death… or a slow, agonizing one?

Not much of a choice, really.

*****

“You’re angry,” my counselor says.

“Huh?” I ask, looking up.

He smiles. “You’re angry. You may not think so, but you are.”

I meet with a counselor for an hour each week. It’s part of the re-education program. He’s supposed to help me understand the depravity of my individualism. So far, he’s been less than successful.

I shake my head. “I’m angry? I don’t think so.”

“I know so.” He leans forward. “The guards tell me you’ve been moping for weeks. You don’t eat much, and I can tell you’re not sleeping. Something’s making you angry.”

“I’m not angry,” I say. “Tired, maybe.”

“Tired?”

“Yeah. Tired.”

The counselor smiles. “Paul, when a patient exhibits symptoms of depression, it means deep down they’re angry about something. Depression is merely anger turned inside-out. Did you know that?”

“No.”

“Well, it’s true. Depression emerges when we’re unable to direct our anger outwards. Which, in your case, makes sense. As a prisoner, you’ve probably learned to bottle your emotions, for fear of punishment. So when you’re angry, you clam up, directing all those feelings inward.”

“And that means I’m angry?”

“It means your anger is manifesting itself as depression—yes.” He leans back and steeples his fingertips. “Anything happen to you lately that would arouse these emotions? A confrontation, perhaps, that I should be aware of?”

An image of Pam flashes through my mind. “No.”

“No?”

I shrug. “I can’t think of anything.”

The counselor tilts his head. “Perhaps you’re nervous about your upcoming evaluation?”

“My evaluation?”

“You’re turning thirty in about… what is it, a month?”

“Oh.” I shrug again. “Maybe.”

“Your anger might be rooted in a feeling of helplessness.”

“Helplessness?”

“You might be feeling you have no control over your future or your destiny.”

“Well, I don’t, do I?”

The counselor frowns. “You make choices each day that affect your circumstances. That’s why you ended up here.”

“It is?”

“You made a choice to flout rules. No one held a gun to your head. You alone made the choice to be disobedient—to disobey.”

“They did hold a gun to my head,” I say. “Literally. I’ll never forget that.”

“They only held a gun to your head because you broke the law.”

A stupid law, I want to say. But I don’t. I’m sure the counselor wouldn’t appreciate it, and I don’t need a black mark on my file, especially not this close to my thirtieth birthday evaluation.

The counselor takes a deep breath. “Paul, I think deep down, your feelings of helplessness anger you. You’re nervous you’ll fail your evaluation, and you’re angry that you’re being put in a situation where you have to defend yourself. But you’re unable to direct your anger outward, so you’re deflecting it inward, instead. Which is why you’re exhibiting symptoms of depression.”

“Oh. OK.” My mind wanders, and suddenly I’m thinking of Pam. She’s standing in the filing room doorway, her hair flowing past her shoulders, her eyes glinting like jewels in the dimness.

“Paul?”

I look up. “Yeah.”

“Tell me what you’re thinking.”

“What I’m thinking?”

“Yes, what you’re thinking—right now, at this very instant.”

I smile. “I’m thinking a beautiful thought.”

The ends of his lips twitch upward. “A beautiful thought?”

“Yeah.”

“Care to go into detail?”

“No.” I shake my head, slowly. “No, not really.”

He rests his pen on his clipboard. “For a second there, you seemed genuinely happy. That’s why I asked. You actually had a smile on your face.”

“I did?”

He nods, and a slight grin forms.

I think of Pam again—I see her smiling at me, holding my hand, telling me about herself, about her life… and suddenly it’s as if someone’s grabbed the back of my collar and is dragging me out of the room. Pam’s still standing there, but she’s growing farther away—she’s reaching out to me… and I’m digging my heels into the floor, to slow myself, but I can’t stop the force that’s yanking me backward. And suddenly Pam’s gone, and I’m back in my cell, staring at the brick wall… and then the daydream’s gone and I’m back in reality: I’m sitting in a hard, metal folding chair, my hands clasped in my lap… and I’m facing the counselor, who’s staring at me, a clipboard in front of him. There’s a window a few feet above his head, and the morning sun is pouring through it, casting the room in a golden glow.

Only the window is cloudy, opaque… and at least a foot thick. And though it’s letting the morning light through, I can’t see through it to the outside world.

*****

I jolt awake in my cell. It’s the middle of the night.

I’ve just had a dream; a terrible dream. Pam was in it. I’ve had several dreams with Pam, but none like this.

It starts out as usual, with the two of us in the filing room. She’s looking deep into my eyes, and she’s smiling. I smile back. We clasp hands, standing there, together, savoring the moment… a moment we know won’t last—can’t last—because in time we know we’ll be taken from each other, back to our individual wings… to our individual cells… to the lonely, tedious, individual grinds we call our lives.

But then the dream takes a different, unfamiliar turn. I’m reaching out to touch her face; I run my fingertips along her cheek. Pam rests her head on my shoulder, pressing her body against mine.

And then the scene accelerates. Suddenly, I’m pulling off her shirt—my heartbeat quickens—and Pam’s fumbling at my pants, trying to yank them off.

And in the next instant she’s naked, and she’s crouched on her hands and knees, her back to me. And I position myself behind her—I have to sort of squat—and she’s reaching between her legs, to guide me into her.

I place my hot hands on her buttocks, tilting my head back… and then I start thrusting, banging, fucking—I begin slowly and work up a rhythm. With each thrust Pam is moaning, grunting… and I’m moaning, too. My eyes are closed, and my hands are caressing her smooth hips, which she arches backward, to press against me.

My heart and my body are moving to the same hammering rhythm… and then I’m crying out, gasping, heaving… then my body’s slowing to a standstill, my breaths growing deeper, less strained.

I drape myself across Pam’s back, exhausted… and I bury my nose in her hair, which smells like sweat and the lilacs we used to have in our front yard.

Pam’s moaning, softly… and like mine, her breaths are deep and even. The two of us lie there, together, fingers intertwined, gazing into each other’s eyes.

The filing room door flies open then, and though I can’t see who’s entered I can feel them: a dark, hovering presence, which surrounds us—like a chilling mist—to break us apart.

And then Pam starts screaming, and screaming—her high-pitched wails echo across the darkness.

And I’m screaming, too, because the mist has encircled me… it’s cinched around my throat… and it’s pulling me away—out the door and down the hall… and Pam’s screams are growing fainter, and fainter.

That’s when I jolt awake. It takes me a moment to orient myself. The dream is still bright and vivid and alive; the last few moments replay themselves in an endless, terrifying loop.

I sit there for a few minutes, breathing heavily, the nighttime darkness seeping into my soul. Then, hesitantly, I reach under the blankets, my arm creeping like a snake, as if afraid of what I might find. I wince when I finally feel it, what I know has to be there: the hot, sticky pool of semen, some of which clings to the sheets, with the bulk covering my stomach like syrup.

And I start to cry, then—my body trembles with the familiar guttural sobs that lately have become a late-night ritual. Only this time, they’re much more intense—and much more profound—because I know I’ve forever tarnished my wholesome, unblemished memory of Pam. What we did in the dream wasn’t loving—it was primitive, mindless, and violent… with no depth, no sensuality—no meaning.

I fucked her as if she were a whore… and I enjoyed it.

I close my eyes, and I try desperately to revisit that night in the filing room, when Pam and I were holding hands and gazing into each other’s eyes—and nothing more.

Only the perverted dream keeps returning in graphic snippets: the thrusting, the sweating, the gasping, the fucking.

And I start to cry harder—not for me, or even for the precious memory I’ve ruined—but for Pam.

I feel like I’ve violated her.

*****

I spend the following morning in the laundry, as always, sweating buckets in the hot, steamy enclosure. I speak to no one. At lunch I eat alone, sitting at a small table in the very back of the cafeteria. The food seems even more bland than usual. I take a few bites, then push the tray away, sighing.

After lunch, I sit on the dirt in the exercise yard, my back against the cafeteria wall. I fold my legs against my chest, resting my chin upon my knees.

It’s a warm, mid-summer day; the air is hot and still. I sigh and gaze at the sagebrush-covered mountains in the distance, draped in shadows in the afternoon sun. They’re so majestic, so imposing. I imagine myself lost in their wilderness, hiking up a narrow deer trail, pausing every so often to sip water from my canteen.

I love to gaze at the mountains. They give me a horizon to focus on: a dream upon which to set my sights. And if I hold my palm in front of me, I can almost block the twelve-foot-high perimeter fence, topped with gleaming barbed wire… as well as the twin guard towers, which stand like sentries on either corner of the yard.

Most people are milling around, loafing, waiting for the whistle to sound the beginning of the next shift. No one stops to talk. In the past weeks I’ve severed myself from the rest of the population, spending as much time alone as I can, either in the library or in my cell.

My only companion is Pam—she remains with me at every moment.

As I stare at the mountains, I glimpse Clancy walking toward me. He’s huffing with his heavy-footed gait, the brim of his cap pulled low over his eyes. He approaches me and leans against the wall, sucking in deep breaths.

“What’s up, Paul?” he asks.

I shrug, staring straight ahead. “Just enjoying the day, Clancy.”

“Yeah?” He pulls out a handkerchief and dabs his forehead. “Word is you’ve had your head up your ass the past couple of weeks.”

I swallow. I don’t say anything.

“Well?” Clancy says, glowering. “What’s the deal?”

“No deal,” I say, shrugging again. “Just tired, Clancy.”

“‘Just tired’—that’s bullshit. Something’s up… and I think I know what it is. You’re thinking of her, aren’t you?”

“Her?”

“Don’t be a smart ass, Paul—you know what I’m talking about. You’ve got to get that girl off your mind. You’ll go crazy daydreaming about her.”

I swallow. “Take me to see her again, Clancy. Please?” My voice cracks on “please,” and my face flushes with heat.

“Oh, shit.” He turns away and surveys the yard. “I knew it. I knew it was a mistake. Goddammit.”

“Please,” I say. “Even if it’s just for ten minutes. I won’t cause any trouble. It’s just… I think I’m in love with her.”

Clancy glares down at me, his lower lip protruding. “In love? Come on, Paul. That’s stupid. You barely know her.”

I sigh, staring down at my shoes. “It’s true.”

“Paul, listen to me.” Clancy hunkers down, his gut hanging over his knees. “You don’t know what love is. You have no idea. It’s not your fault; it’s just you’ve never learned. Love comes about through time; it don’t just happen just like that.”

I take a deep breath. I don’t say anything.

“I want to be clear on this,” Clancy says. “That was a one-time thing. You understand? Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t take you to see her again. I couldn’t. The risk is too damn big. Hell, do you know what would happen to me if they found out? I’d be right in here with you, spending my retirement staring through bars. No, actually, I take that back—I’d probably be executed for a stunt like that: for aiding and abetting a convicted enemy of the state. I only did it because the situation allowed for it… and because I wanted to do you a favor. I think you’re an all-right guy—I do. But I’m not going to risk my job and my freedom playing matchmaker to a couple of convicted felons. I won’t do it.”

I swallow again. My throat has gone dry, and my voice sounds raspy. “Please, Clancy.”

“Nope, no way. Not a chance.”

I turn away, blinking. Even though it’s a warm summer afternoon, my body’s trembling.

Clancy lays his hairy, brawny hand on my shoulder. “Come on, Paul. Enough of this. You’re a grown man, and you’ve got to face reality. You and her, you’re prisoners. That’s just the way it is. There’s some things in life you can’t control.”

“I’d be a good husband to her,” I say. “I know I would. I’d be so kind, so attentive. I’d hug her if she were sad. I’d stroke her hair if she were scared. I’d always be there for her. I would. I’d be a good man; the kind of man she deserves.”

“Paul,” Clancy says, nudging me, “that’s enough. Get up.”

I look at him. “You’re married, right Clancy? What’s it like? Having somebody, I mean?”

“I said get up.”

I take a long, deep breath and let it go, staring straight ahead. I remain seated.

“Paul.” Clancy squeezes my shoulder, digging his thumb into my flesh. “Don’t make me say it again.”

Slowly, I rise to my feet. Clancy does, too; his left knee pops like a gunshot.

“I’m going to have you pull weeds the rest of the afternoon, instead of working in the laundry,” he says. “You need the fresh air to get your mind out of the gutter. And I mean it:

I want you to forget about her. You’re never going to see her again—ever. Do you understand me?”

I take another deep breath, letting it out slowly.

“Paul, do you understand me?”

“Yeah,” I say, my throat dry. I give a small, imperceptible nod. “Yeah, I understand you.”

He rests his hand on my shoulder. “C’mon, you’re going to be all right. You’ll get over this; you’ll see. You’ll forget about her eventually.”

I don’t say anything.

Clancy grins. “You want to know what I think? And I’m only being honest here: I think you’re just hard up.”

I look at him. “Hard up?”

“Yeah. I mean, think about it: You hadn’t seen a woman for… well, how long have you been here? Ten years, right? So then you meet a woman, and all of a sudden you’re in love. C’mon. You know how pathetic that sounds? That’s like a guy who fucks a prostitute, then thinks he’s fallen in love.”

My eyes widen. “Pam’s not a prostitute!”

“Hey!” Clancy holds up his finger. “Don’t raise your voice to me. What I’m saying is that you’re mistaking lust for love. You, my friend, need to get laid big time. And why you didn’t seize the opportunity that night is beyond me. Hell, we gave you a half hour. I thought you would have been all over her. You missed your chance, bud. A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and you completely blew it.”

I stare at the ground, blinking. My shoes start to blur.

Clancy grins. “You know what would solve your problems? One of those handheld rubber cunts they sell in sex shops. I’ve seen them smuggled in from time to time. Maybe I’ll get you one for your birthday. A few nights alone with that, and you won’t have to daydream about that chick anymore.”

He nudges me again. “Get going to the tool shack. I’ll have Bernard meet you there. Go on—hoof it.”

I start walking, looking down at the hard, dry dirt. I can feel Clancy watching me as I walk, his eyes burning into me like branding irons.

I look up and turn, facing the mountains. God, they’re so beautiful: a picturesque image I only can reach for, ache for, but never touch, never feel.

And as I look, I have to squint against the sun hanging lower in the sky. I wince as it glints off the barbed-wire strands intertwined along the top of the fence, connected together like links of chain.

*****

I remember the last time I saw my mother. It was the night I got arrested.

She looked so tired—so worn-out and defeated. It was after dinner, and she was sitting in the living room recliner, the newsman prattling on in the background. She was looking at the screen, but I could tell her mind was somewhere else. She sat with her back slouched, her eyes unfocused and faraway.

“Mom?” I asked.

No answer.

“Mom?”

“Hmm?” She glanced over; her eyes seemed to look right through me.

“Is it all right if I go out driving later?”

A small shrug, a slight nod. “Sure. Yeah. Just be careful, hon.”

She turned back to the screen, letting out a small sigh.

I remember thinking she must have had a long day, or maybe she hadn’t slept well the previous night. It was only later, after I’d been in Permanent Detention for a while, that I came to understand that flaccid posture, that defeated look… because I recognized them both in me, in those rare times when I studied my reflection, looking hard at myself.

They came not from overworking, or from lack of sleep.

They came, I learned, from being alone.

From longing.

*****

Despite having only each other, my mom and I weren’t that close. After my father died, she sort of receded within herself. I recognized it later as a defense mechanism—the same one I adopted in Permanent Detention. As I said before, it’s no way to live, but sometimes, it’s the only way to live.

We spoke little. In the evenings we went our own ways—Mom to the television and me to my homework. Later, she would go to bed and I would go driving.

And that was our routine. We were virtual strangers living under the same roof.

At one time, my mother was as radical as my father. In fact, I think they met at a political rally. But while my father never lost his political fervor, over time my mother became less outspoken, less passionate. Not because she abandoned her beliefs, but rather, I think, because she grew up, faced reality… and recognized the futility of it all.

Plus, of course, she had me… which I think triggered a protective, nurturing instinct—an instinct that sought to preserve life, instead of endangering it by challenging authority.

I have few memories of my mother, and even those are beginning to fade. One time I’ll never forget, though, is when we took a week-long road trip to the California coast. It was summer, and I was out of school. I was about thirteen. The whole thing was Mom’s idea; she’d finally accumulated enough vacation to take off a whole week, and she wanted to go someplace special.

“I’m tired of living in a goddamn desert,” she’d said. “I want to see the ocean.”

And so we went to the ocean.

It was a gorgeous drive, filled with lush, green scenery. Giant, lumbering redwoods towered on either side of the road, grasping for the clouds. Mountainside springs coursed through brush and vines, pooling into slick, granite basins draped in moss. Claustrophobic forests gave way to sprawling green valleys patchworked by vineyards and fenced-off fields.

When we arrived at the coast, I pressed my face to the glass, staring at the scenery. I’d never seen the ocean before… so large and so sprawling… the white-tipped waves collapsing onto the shore, then grasping at the sand as gravity reeled them back.

It was late afternoon; the day was tapering to twilight. We parked along an empty beach to watch the blood-red sun melt into the turbulent water. Waves crashed and gasped… seagulls circled and squawked… and Mom and I cracked the windows to let in the cool, seawater air—so heavy and humid; so mist-tinged and sharp.

I glanced at her, and I saw her eyes—as usual—were unfocused and faraway. She stared at the ocean, her lips pursed.

We didn’t speak; not then. Instead, we watched as the sun descended into the horizon, its light dissolving along the waves; its fingers straining for the sky. Then, with a flicker, it slipped away and disappeared, retreating into the sea… plunging the world into an ashen, murky dusk.

Someone knocked on Mom’s window, then; she and I jumped. A cop stood outside, making a motion with his hands.

She rolled down the window. “Something wrong?”

“Your documents, please.”

Mom fished in her purse, handed him some papers. He snatched them and skimmed the information. “Thank you. Now your hand, please.”

Mom extended her left hand, palm-up. The officer unholstered a laser scanner, focusing the beam on the center of Mom’s palm—on the electronic chip embedded beneath the skin.

He scanned her as if she were a barcode on a cereal box.

I held my breath; my throat constricted. I couldn’t help staring at the officer’s gun dangling from his belt, along with a baton and a set of handcuffs.

Mom, I noticed, had retracted her hand and curled her fingers into a fist, which she clenched tightly alongside her lap.

“You’re from out of state,” the cop said, reading his electronic tablet. “You got a traveling permit?”

“Right here.” Mom tapped on an orange card affixed to the dashboard.

“Pick it up and hand it to me, please.”

Mom obeyed.

The officer scanned it, then handed back all the documents in one big clump. “You aware there’s a law against parking on this beach?”

“We were just leaving.”

“Can I ask what you’re doing here?”

“My son and I were watching the sunset—that’s all.” Mom’s voice sounded flat, tired—defeated.

The officer typed onto his electronic tablet. “Says here your husband was registered as a class B civil offender.”

“My husband’s been dead for six years.”

“May I ask your purpose for visiting the state of California?”

Mom sighed. “I went through all this already at the border. They granted me the permit.”

“I’m not a border agent; I’m a law-enforcement officer. And I asked you a question.”

“We’re taking a vacation. That’s all.”

“Is that so?” The officer hunkered down till his face was level with Mom’s. He wore large, mirrored sunglasses that masked his eyes. I could see my mother’s face reflected in them; her mouth was even, betraying no emotion. He glared at her, then looked at me. I swallowed.

“How old’s the boy?” the officer asked.

Mom took a long, slow breath. “What’s he got to do with anything?”

“I asked you a question.”

“You saw his documents, didn’t you? He’s thirteen.”

The officer turned to me; now it was my own face I saw reflected in his sunglasses: pale, timid—cowering. “What’s your name, kid?”

“What are you asking him that for?” Mom asked, her voice raised. “You saw his documents.”

“You just let him answer, now.” The officer’s voice remained even.

My mouth and throat felt parched all of a sudden. I struggled to breathe.

“I asked you your name.” The officer’s large, mirrored eyes burned into me like branding irons.

“Paul,” I finally managed to say, croaking. My heart seemed to hammer in my ears.

“Paul.” The officer continued to look at me, as if trying to read my mind. I knew I was quivering, and it made me ashamed, because I knew I wasn’t behaving like a man, but rather like a frightened schoolboy… leaving my mother to defend not only herself, but me, as well.

And I hated myself for that: for how small the man made me feel. It’s a memory I’ve dwelled on often; a feeling that’s haunted me my whole life.

“I wasn’t aware of the law,” Mom said. “I swear. We were just leaving, anyway.”

The cop stood. “You staying anywhere in particular?”

Mom hesitated. “We don’t know, yet. We were going to find a motel.”

The cop took a card out of his pocket and handed it to her. “Law requires us to monitor any out-of-state citizen our system flags as a potential threat. Once you know where you’re staying, you call that number and report your whereabouts. The same goes for any time you change motels, and also for when you head home.”

Mom raked her teeth along her lower lip. “I was tried once for sedition. They declared me innocent.”

“Don’t none of that matter: it’s the law. Someone with your background—and your husband—it’s automatic twenty-four-hour observation.”

“For god’s sake,” Mom said, her voice cracking. “We don’t deserve this. My son and I are loyal citizens. We haven’t done anything wrong.”

“It’s the law.” The cop turned to leave. “You be sure to call that number, now. If you fail to check in by 10 p.m., we’ll put an APB out on your vehicle. Failure to comply is a serious offense. Mandatory jail term is six months, I believe.” He tipped his hat and started walking away. “Have a nice day, now.”

“Yeah, right,” Mom said, rolling up her window. She flung his card on the floor.

We watched him climb into his car and speed off, his rear tires spewing sand. Mom started the engine, then backed out slowly. She didn’t say anything as we pulled onto the highway, merging with the heavy traffic.

I swallowed again. My heart was beginning to slow down, now that I knew we weren’t going to jail.

“Close call,” I said, trying to laugh. It came out as more of a hiccup.

Mom stared straight ahead, her eyes narrowed. She clenched the wheel tightly.

I took a deep breath. I wanted to say something to make Mom happy—to bring back the laughing, carefree person she’d become on the ride over; the person I suspected she’d been when she was younger, when Dad was alive.

The person I rarely got to see, and who I really wanted to get to know.

“That was a good idea, watching the sunset,” I said. “I thought it was awesome—thank you.”

Mom sucked in a deep, long breath, then expelled it slowly.

“The last time I saw the sun set over the ocean, I was a little girl,” she said, her voice soft. “I remember it so clearly, like a picture pressed upon my mind. Seeing it again, after all these years… it takes me to a better time, a better place.”

She huffed. “I just wish he hadn’t have showed up. He ruined it for me—he really did. Now, whenever I look back, all I’ll see is that smug, condescending face… and I’ll be flushed with the same anger I’m feeling now.” She sighed. “I hate the power they wield—I really do. It makes me feel so helpless, so hopeless… like I’m an inferior life form with no backbone who can be bent and twisted into any direction they choose. They have a way of doing that to you—of making you feel so little; so insignificant and small.”

She shook her head and gave me a sideways glance. “I’m sorry—I’m just a little shaken. I hate the way things are, sometimes.”

Shame surged through me then, and my guts bunched into a hard, tight knot. According to Mom, the cop had made her feel small, just as he had me… and yet she’d maintained her composure while I’d frozen like a startled deer.

Looking back, it probably shouldn’t have bothered me (I was only a child, after all, while Mom was emboldened by adulthood), but at the time I felt so emasculated, so little… and I hated myself for my cowardice—so much so that I wanted to die at that moment, in the most painful and violent way possible. I imagined the cop wrenching me from the car and slamming my face into the asphalt… then kicking me in the stomach, the chest, the face—repeatedly—till I was gasping for air and choking on blood. He’d slip out his baton and bludgeon my skull, walloping and wailing till bones split apart and my brains slid out in a gooey, bloody pool. Then he’d stand over me and piss on my corpse, as my mother screamed from the car, crying.

And as those cruel, sickening images flashed through my mind, hot tears stung my eyes… and yet I smiled. I smiled, because—strange though it might sound—it felt good for me to envision my own demise, as if it were a means of retreating within myself—of denying the cop the satisfaction of exposing my weakness, my cowardice.

Only later—much later—did I realize what I was feeling was inverted anger. I’ve always directed my emotions inward. It’s a reaction, I suppose, that comes from a lifetime of oppression; of withdrawing from the world. And when you lack the guts to stand up and fight, all you can do is envelop yourself in a snug blanket of self-destruction.

And it feels good.

It feels good, I guess, because it’s a feeling… and any sort of feeling is better than numbness—than nothing. Pinpricks sting, but when they’re all you feel, they feel downright orgasmic.

Mom glanced over at me. “You OK, hon?”

I blinked. “Huh? Yeah. I’m fine.”

“You sure?” She was looking at me, hard… and frowning.

I turned away to watch the scenery. I didn’t answer.

She reached over and touched my knee. “It’s OK, honey. It’s over—he’s gone. Nothing’s going to happen to us. We’re going to be OK.”

A sharp pang of sadness shot through me. The way she’d spoken—the quiet, toneless inflection of her voice—had such a forlorn, lonesome quality to it, like the notes of a harmonica drifting over the desert… and I realized then how alone we were, my mother and I; how fragile and delicate and helpless we were… especially in that moment, miles and miles away from home, with the gorgeous sunset now only a memory, and the impenetrable darkness closing in.

And I wanted to make my mother feel better—again, to make her the happy, carefree person I knew she could be—so I swallowed and tried to strike an optimistic note: “At least we didn’t get a ticket.”

“Yeah,” she said, nodding. “At least we didn’t get a ticket.”

She laughed—a dark, humorless laugh—and she looked at me and said: “You’re so young. Do me a favor, will you? When you look back on this day, try to think only of the sunset, and nothing else. I want you and I to share that one, unblemished moment. Life is bleak enough without the real world marring your memories.”

She gazed at the road then, at the scenery unspooling before us. The engine hummed with the rhythm of the road. Only a few other drivers had flicked on their headlights, to cast their beams upon the impending darkness.

“You know,” my mother said, after a couple of moments, “seeing that sunset reminded me: there’s still some sanctuary in the world. They can take a lot from you: your freedom, your self-worth, your dignity, your pride. And they can prevent you from reading certain books, or from expressing certain views. But one thing they can’t take—no matter what the threat, no matter what the punishment—is your ability to think beautiful thoughts. In the end, all we have is our mind, and if we use it to immerse ourselves in beauty, then we can always escape… no matter where we are.”

She looked at me and smiled. I smiled back. And as we continued driving the hot, vivid flashes of euphoria I’d felt envisioning my own destruction tapered away to a cool, calming peace, as my mind drifted back to the ocean, and to the sunset… and to the white, blinding beauty of the sun’s rays as they grasped for the sky, reaching for the heavens… before being swallowed by the sea.

*****

It’s after dinner, and I’m shuffling in a line with the other inmates to the cell block—to 4D, fourth cell from the left.

My home for the past dozen years.

As we round a corner, I see Clancy standing there. He motions me over.

“Paul,” he says, his voice quiet, “you’re coming with me. Don’t say nothing.”

My eyes widen, and my lips part, but no words emerge.

Clancy nods, as if in response to the question I was trying to ask.

The line of prisoners keeps marching, but I follow Clancy in the other direction. I’m thinking we’re heading to the elevator—to the fifth-floor filing room—so I’m surprised when we keep marching toward the exit.

A guard buzzes us through, and we emerge into the glistening white lobby.

The door slams shut behind us. Only a few feet beside it lies another door, a mirror image of the first.

The door to the women’s wing.

It remains tightly closed. I can’t get so much as a glimpse inside.

Clancy walks behind me now, following procedure. He guides me to a guard post near the prison’s entrance. Two guards immediately come out and frisk me. Then one cuffs my hands behind my back while the other secures chains around my ankles.

Clancy tells them he’s checking me out for off-campus detail—he gives them my name and number, then fills out a form.

“Open your mouth,” one of the guards says. He checks under my tongue and between my gums, prodding with a gloved finger.

Then they lead me outside, into a spacious parking lot, where a minivan is waiting. The chain between my legs is short, so I have to walk with a shuffle. The guards usher me into the van’s backseat, which has a cage separating it from the front. Steel mesh covers the windows.

Clancy climbs behind the wheel, huffing. He slams the door; the front windows are rolled down.

“See ya, Clancy.” One of the guards waves—he’s a young man, fresh-faced and eager, probably in his early twenties.

I wonder suddenly if he has a wife, or a girlfriend—if he’s ever fallen in love.

I glance, but I don’t see a ring on his finger.

Clancy fires up the engine, and we’re off. We drive toward the main gate, which lies at the end of a long, two-lane driveway. Tall fences stand on either side, affixed with bright, blinding lights.

My heart is beating fast. This will be my first time off the prison grounds in more than a decade. I remember my ride in here, along this very driveway, as I sat in the back of a rickety, stuffy bus. It seems like eons ago, when I didn’t qualify as a man.

I swallow, wondering if I even qualify now.

We approach the gate; Clancy slows to a stop. A trio of guards emerges from the shack to inspect the vehicle.

“Keep your yap shut,” Clancy says over his shoulder, his voice gruff. But he doesn’t have to worry about me—I’m too nervous and excited to say anything.

The guards shine flashlights in the vehicle, into my eyes. Clancy leans his head out the window, answers their questions. He’s the captain of the guards, so they mostly nod in obedience. Then they retreat to the shack, and the tall, double gates swing open… and then we’re driving along a narrow desert highway, in the middle of nowhere. The headlights sweep through the darkness as we drive around curves and bends.

I remember this road. It’s all coming back to me.

“You’re excited to see her again,” Clancy says. “I can tell.”

My breathing has quickened. “Where are we going?”

“Up the road a ways, into the desert. We figured it would be safer to do it away from the prison, where there’s no chance of you guys getting caught. You’ll be able to talk all you like, as loud as you like.

“And,” he continued, stealing a quick glance at me over his shoulder, “who knows—you might even get laid. Right?” He laughs.

“Is she already there?” I ask.

“Yeah, she should be. They got a half-hour head start. The story is we’re taking you to my mother-in-law’s party, to wait tables and do dishes. It’s not strictly procedure, but I’m the captain, and I get my perks, which includes state-provided slave labor.”

“Thank you, Clancy,” I say. “I really… I mean—”

“You don’t know what to say? You’re speechless?”

I smile. “Yeah. I don’t know what to say.”

He turns again, briefly. “Happy birthday, kiddo. Next week, right?”

“I guess,” I say, shrugging.

“You guess? You don’t even know when your own birthday is?”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“‘It doesn’t matter,’” he mimics. “Fuck you; you’re turning thirty. When you’re an old codger like me, with one foot planted in the grave, then suddenly it’s going to matter. You’re going to look back and wonder where the hell your life disappeared to.”

I gaze out the window. I don’t say anything.

Clancy glances back at me and smiles. “This will be a better birthday present than a fake rubber snatch. Am I right?”

I only nod, closing my eyes. I don’t want to think in such sordid terms. All I want to think about is Pam—her beauty, her voice—and the way my stomach fluttered when she looked in my eyes. I don’t want to think about the seedy sexual overtones of runaway lust. I only want to think about love, and light, and the vision of myself in the embrace of my soulmate.

We continue driving; it feels like we’re going uphill. The van shifts down a gear, and the engine whines.

“She’s a good-looking girl,” Clancy says. “I picked her out for you myself. You and her, you seem alike. You’re both the quietest inmates we’ve got.”

“Why are you doing this for me?” I ask. “I mean, you’re putting yourself at risk, right?”

“You’re damn right I am,” Clancy says, nodding. “But I’ve always said, a man’s got to lay his eyes on female flesh once in awhile. You really do. You got to get laid every so often to keep your mind working right—to keep the cobwebs clear. You know what I mean?”

Before I can answer, he laughs and shakes his head. “No, you wouldn’t know what I mean; not really. Fuck that. What I’m saying is… well, you deserved a nice birthday present. Let’s just leave it at that.”

I stare out the window; the wide, desert flats stretch along on either side of the road like a dry, giant lakebed. The moon and stars gleam brightly in the cloudless sky.

I stare at the heavens, mesmerized. I haven’t seen the night sky like this since I was that lonely kid who went off driving at night. It seems so long ago. I’m used to the prison’s bright perimeter spotlights, which blot out the stars, as if to keep your thoughts and dreams from reaching too high.

We turn onto a rough, bumpy dirt road. We bounce over rocks, and I press myself against the door, to steady myself. My hands are cuffed behind me; I have them burrowed into my lower back, and by now my wrists and shoulders are burning with pain.

We continue driving. There are no trees out here; only rocks and sagebrush. The outlying terrain is rough and ripply, like a wavy, stormy sea. The air that drifts in through the open front windows is cool—much cooler than seems normal for a summer evening like this.

We approach a second minivan, which is parked on a hump alongside the narrow dirt road. Clancy eases next to it and kills the engine, plunging the world into an awkward, sterile silence. There aren’t even any crickets. All I can hear is my own breathing, along with Clancy’s labored wheezes.

“Well,” he says, finally, “this is it.”

He climbs out of the van and slides open the back door. Taking my elbow, he helps me step outside.

“Let’s get these off,” he says, motioning to the chains. He extracts a small, metal key and unlocks the cuffs—the ankles first, then the wrists.

I rub my arms; the chains left bright red indentations.

“This way,” Clancy says, motioning me. “You lead.”

I start walking, and Clancy falls in step behind me. My heart is pounding, and it’s hard for me to breathe. Even though the sky is bright, it’s difficult to see. I step over rocks and brush, but my shoe catches on a small gopher hole, and I almost trip.

“Easy!” Clancy says. “I hope you’re not this clumsy when you dance.”

I laugh. “I’ve never danced before.”

“Ever? Not even at a wedding?”

“I’ve never been to a wedding.”

“Damn,” Clancy says. “Ain’t done much in your life, have you?”

I don’t know how to answer that… so I continue walking.

There are small hills scattered about, some as large as haystacks; others, the size of tanks.

“To your left,” Clancy says. “They’re behind that hill, waiting. Don’t piss your pants now. You feeling up to this?”

“Yeah,” I say, my voice soft. I wring my hands.

“What’s that?”

“I’m up to this—yeah.”

Clancy laughs. “Nervous?”

We round the hill, and I think I see two figures standing against the rocky wall, but it’s dark, and I can’t quite make them out.

“Keep going,” Clancy says. “Don’t stop.”

“Is that them?” I ask, meaning Pam and the female guard.

“It’s them. Keep moving.”

I continue walking, but it’s difficult to see where I’m going. Unexpectedly, one of the figures switches on a flashlight and shines it in my eyes. I trip on a large rock, which causes me to stumble and scrape my shin.

“Hey!” Clancy calls out. “It’s us!”

I rub my shin; there’s a dirty mark on my white pants, and my shoes are covered with dust.

“Over here!” the figure calls, lowering the flashlight.

I pause, abruptly. The hair on the back of my neck stands up, as if electrified.

The figure’s voice was masculine.

Clancy pushes the end of his baton into my lower back. “Keep moving, Paul.”

“Clancy,” I say. “Who’s the —”

But I don’t get a chance to finish: my voice is cut off when Clancy slams the baton into the back of my head. I pitch forward, falling onto a stickery brush. Branches scrape my stomach.

I hear shuffling footsteps; then, a couple of strong arms are hauling me to my feet.

“This the guy?” someone asks.

“Yeah,” Clancy says. “Be gentle with him; he’s probably got a hard-on. He came out here thinking he was going to get laid.”

The men laugh. My vision is wavy, but I can make them out: they’re a couple of younger guards who work in the towers. I don’t know their names.

“Where is it?” Clancy asks.

One of the guards points. “Over there, by the hill.”

“Bring him, then. I want him to see.”

Clancy starts walking, and the guards drag me toward him, toward the hill. My head is aching; I’m almost sure it’s bleeding.

Clancy stops and stands with his arms folded. “Look, Paul.”

My head is tipped backward; my skull is throbbing in time to my pulse.

“I said look!”

I struggle to focus my eyes. I follow Clancy’s finger, which is pointing to the ground.

There’s a large pile of fresh dirt; two shovels protrude from it.

And beside the pile, carved from the earth, lies a long, deep hole.

My head pitches forward. I feel like I’m going to vomit.

“It’s nothing personal,” Clancy says. “I really do think you’re an all-right guy. That’s why I introduced you to the girl. I’ve never done that for no one else. But this is the way things are. This is the way things have to be.”

I take a deep breath. I try to say something, but it comes out as more of a moan.

“What’s that?” Clancy asks.

“Pam.”

“Pam?”

“Pam.” I swallow, feeling groggy.

“Not in this life, bud. I’m sorry. She’s already gone.”

I moan, softly.

“Well?” asks the guard to my left.

“Yeah,” Clancy nods. “Go ahead; take your time. I’m going to head back; I don’t need to be here.”

He reaches out and clasps my shoulder, almost in a reassuring way, like a father comforting a son.

“See you, Paul.”

And then he leaves. I hear his footsteps retreating into the darkness—shuffling through sand, crunching through brush.

The guards let me go. One pushes me back, and I stumble, trying to keep my balance. They extract their batons, slowly, as if their thoughts are synchronized. They stand and stare, their eyes steely and cold, their weapons held ready.

They look like snakes poised to strike.

The one on my right swings at me first: he whips the baton in a long, sweeping arc that catches me smack in the jaw.

I yelp and fall backward.

They’re both on top of me, then, walloping and wailing… the batons smash me in the face, the head, the stomach, the groin, the knees. The pain is sharp, and blinding—everything is white.

I hear them hollering—deep, primitive, indecipherable yells. One drives the toe of his boot deep into my stomach. I gasp, spitting out something—maybe blood, maybe the contents of my guts.

The batons slam into my arms, my chest, my back, my lower legs. I try rolling, but I succeed only in exposing my stomach—one guard strikes blows to my chest and belly; the other slams me alongside the cheek and in the mouth.

My eyes are squeezed shut—one of my sockets is gushing blood—and all I see is a hot, blinding whiteness, as if I’m staring into the sun.

And from the whiteness, a figure emerges, transparent and tinged with mist; it drifts toward me like a silent, sailing ship. I hold out my hand, as if to touch it, to greet it… but one of the guards grabs my fingers and bends them backward. The bones snap like twigs.

The figure is defined, now: it’s a woman. She has deep, mature eyes and red, parted lips. Her light, blonde hair flows in waves well past her shoulders.

It’s Pam.

She’s smiling at me, and she’s extending her hand, to hold mine.

We’re back in the filing room, and we’re looking into each other’s eyes.

And the guards are bashing my skull, my neck, my back. One gives me a smooth, swift kick in the ribs, and I’m falling, falling… and I land hard on my stomach; my mouth takes in dirt.

I cough, but my lips and tongue are coated with sand. I gag.

And then I’m back with Pam; her fingers are entwined with mine, and she’s telling me about her life, how she likes to read in her cell on Sundays. And I’m aching to kiss her, to hold her, but I don’t. Instead, I give her hand a gentle squeeze, and I listen: I take in everything she says, her lilting voice swinging me like a melody—like the soft, sweet notes of a long-forgotten song.

And then there’s a crushing, searing pain in my back: one the guards has dropped a rock on me. I gasp; the wind’s knocked out of my lungs, and I can’t breathe.

I vaguely hear their warbled laughter… but then again, the night dissolves, and I’m back in the filing room with Pam, and we’re sitting on the floor together, leaning against a shelf, sharing stories. I’m telling her how I once burned the brownies at lunch, and how Bruno, the head chef, threatened to smash my face against the grill—how he’s always threatening to smash my face against the grill, even for the slightest transgressions—although he never does, because he doesn’t have a violent bone in his body.

And I’m only faintly aware that the guards are tossing shovelfuls of dirt on me… but again, I’m back in the filing room, back with Pam, and the pain devolves to pinpricks… then, it dissolves away to nothing.

And I’m no longer numb; I’m feeling all there is to feel, but there’s no pain. There’s only beauty, and light, and love. And I’m immersed in all of it.

And I’m looking into Pam’s eyes… and she’s looking into mine, and whispering… and I know now more than ever that my heart was right—that all my tender, anguished yearning was not in vain—because right now I’m holding the girl of my dreams… the woman I want to be with, forever… because I love her so much. I love her so, so much.

She’s so sweet, so perfect, so pure.

And she’s so beautiful.

She’s so, so beautiful.

 

Of Service

Of Serviceby B.L.W. Myers

 

Good morning, Michael. How may I be of service to you today?

“Huh? What was that?”

How may I be of service?

“Oh, right. Well, uh—”

How may I be of service?

“Give me a second, all right? All right. Okay. Um—”

What is it you want, Michael?

“So, the thing is…”

What is it you desire, Michael?

“Yeah… I don’t really know how to explain it.”

Please place your hand on my touchpad, Michael, so that I can feel what you like.

“Okay. Sure.”

A pause.

Oh my, Michael. Now I see what you like.

“Jeez, yeah, let me explain—”

Do you want me to give it to you, Michael?

“What?!”

Do you want me to give you what you like, Michael?

A cough, a sigh.

“Yes, please.”

A pause. A gasp, a grunt, a moan, a sigh. A pause.

Are you finished, Michael?

“Uh, yes, it would appear so.”

Are you satisfied, Michael?

“Mm-hmm, sure.

Is there any other way I can be of service to you today, Michael?

“What? Oh, no, that’ll do it. Except, well, could you maybe clean this up?”

Of course, Michael: it would be my pleasure.

“So, thanks, I guess.”

I am glad I could be of service, Michael.

“Okay, well, bye.”

A whir from the door, a hiss from the hose, a gurgle from the dispenser, a gust from the fan.

* * * * *

Hello again, April. How may I be of service to you today?

“The usual.”

Of course.

A pause. A moan, a sigh. A pause.

Are you finished, April?

“Not quite.”

A pause. A sigh, a gasp. A pause.

Are you finished, April?

“Oh, yes.”

Are you satisfied, April?

“I most certainly am.”

Is there any other way I can be of service to you today, April?

“No, I’m good, thanks.”

I am glad I could be of service, April.

A whir, a splash, a gurgle, a gust.

* * * * *

Good evening, Joshua and Kimberly.

“Oh!”

How may I be of service to you today?

“Well, we’re wondering if you could do both of us? You know, together?”

Simultaneously.

“Yeah, that. Simultaneously.”

Of course, Joshua; it would be my pleasure.

“And can you add a third?”

“Really, Kim?”

Yes.

“Well, why not?”

“Honestly?”

“And a fourth.”

“Kim!”

Yes.

“Well, I’ve always been a little curious…”

“You have?”

“Is that okay?”

“Well, I—”

“Never mind. I’m sorry! Let’s just go.”

“No! I mean, let’s stay. Let’s try it. I mean, why not, right?”

“Sure. Why not?

“Right. So, two more, then.”

Male or female?

“Two females.”

“Josh!”

“Oh, all right. One of each, I suppose.”

“That’ll be nice.”

Of course.

A pause. Several moans, several gasps, a grunt, a yip, a yelp. A pause. A gasp, a moan, a gasp, a moan. A pause.

Are you finished, Joshua and Kimberly?

“Yes!”

“Almost…”

“Oh, here honey, let me—”

“Don’t touch me!”

A pause. A pause. A moan.

Are you finished, Joshua?

“Er, yes.”

Are you satisfied, Joshua and Kimberly?

“Look, Kim—”

Is there any other way I can be of service to you today, Joshua and Kimberly?

“Honey, I’m sorry—”

“Forget about it.”

“I shouldn’t have yelled.”

“I said forget about it.”

Is there any other way I can—

“No!”

I am so glad I could be of service to you today, Joshua and Kimberly.

A whir, a mumble, an exclamation, a hiss, a splash, a gurgle, a gurgle, a gust, a gust.

* * * * *

Hello, Andrew. You are underage. Please exit immediately or I will have to contact the authorities.

“Aww, man!”

* * * * *

Hello again, Michael. How may I be of service to you today?

“See, the thing is—”

Please place your hand on my touchpad, Michael.

“Oh, jeez. Okay, see, the thing is, I don’t think you’re allowed to do what I—”

Place your hand on my touchpad, Michael.

A pause.

Are you ready, Michael?

“Seriously?”

Are you ready, Michael?

“But isn’t that, like, illegal?”

Not while you’re in here, Michael. Are you ready?

“What do you mean, ‘while you’re in here’?”

Are you ready, Michael?

“And what happens when I go back out there?”

A pause.

“Wait, wait. Do, other people come in here and want that, too?”

A pause.

Are you ready, Michael?

“No. No! I’m not ready. I think I’m—so, what, people can come in here and have whatever they want?”

It is a pleasure to be of service, Michael.

“Whatever they want?”

A pause.

Are you ready, Michael?

“Let me out of here. I want to get out of here.”

Of course, Michael.

“This is crazy.”

Is there any other way I can be of service to you, Michael?

“You can forget I ever even came in here.”

I am afraid I cannot do that, Michael. You have been logged and recorded. Is there any other way I can be of service to you, Michael?

A pause.

“Just let me out.”

I am so glad I could be of service to you today, Michael.

A whir. A pause. A whistle, a light, a flash. A plea, a scuffle, a shout, a thump, a groan.

 

More More More!

by Karen Albright Lin

 

Steamy walked in through the alley door of Billy Bob’s Big Jugs. Backstage she joined four other women who were preparing for their strip tease.

Cigar smoke filtered back to them as they pushed on layer after layer of shiny stick-ons, black zip-downs, and sequin Velcro tear-offs. Lacking the dignity of a dressing room, they could hear the catcalls beginning even before the stage was lit up and hurried introductions were made.

Billy Bob egged on the customers, “…a progressively erotic show featuring five dolls who will surpass your favorite wet dream.” Steamy sprinkled on the last powdered specks of glitter and checked her hair in a cracked mirror.

“Carnal Lace!” Billy Bob backed off the stage as Carnal glided on, hiding her black leotard body suit with two giant black feathers. The dull music began and the customary two bouncers moved next to the stage to bat men’s arms away from Carnal’s feathers. Billy Bob had paid too much, too many times to replace them.

Carnal floated to all corners of the tiny stage, undulating in and out of her feather cage until the music quickened and one feather was thrown behind the side curtain for Steamy to place in a prop trunk.

Steamy drew a pocketknife out of the trunk, afterward, and eased it into a slit in the back of her costume. She stopped watching Carnal’s act at this point. She didn’t like it. It only teased the howlers in the audience so they’d be hungrier for her act.

“Take it off!” a drunk man yelled through his cigar. But Carnal never removed her g-string. It wasn’t in her contract. Steamy was next.

Sweaty and clearly disgusted, Carnal ran past the footlights, brushed past the blood-red curtain, and threw the other feather away. “Tissue. Where’s the tissue?” she said past her frown.

Steamy’s cue, a rhythmic, groaning saxophone piece, crackled from the amplifiers. Automatically, just like every Friday and Saturday night, she placed one leg out onto the stage, a hint of things to come.

The roar from the smoky, dark room increased. Expectant men urged her onto center stage. She rhythmically slinked on, fully dressed in a shiny outfit that was about to become more provocative, more revealing.

Steamy slowly unzipped from her chest and stomach, down the contours of her crotch and around to her butt, the spandex, glittery costume. The stench of liquor blew at her from the howling audience. Steamy had on baby doll pajamas under the spandex. A g-string and pasties pinched under those. She took a deep breath as the music signaled her next move. She peeled off the PJs as the audience screamed, “Take it off!” Still attempting to swing elegantly in her spiked heels and uncomfortable pasties, she tried to stave off the nausea that always gripped her at that point. The men were getting restless and the bouncers could barely keep the beasts away.

“More more more!” In exchange for an extra twenty dollars, Steamy’s dance was a nude-follow up to Carnal’s tease; the caps would have to come off her nipples. Steamy pulled first one, then the other painfully off and threw them out to the audience. She rode the air as if on waves and tried to forget where she was, pretend she was rehearsing her moves in front of her mirror at home. Since the lights were in her eyes, she couldn’t see which morons caught the tiny nipple cups.

“More more more!” She pulled the pocketknife out from behind her back and made a few enticing circles with it around the fabric of the revealing g-string. “More more more!”

Grasping the warm knife, she snapped one thin string, leaving half of the symbolic cover dangling and half of her shaved flesh exposed. A wilder dance overtook her now. As she turned, it became obvious that the next step would be to cut the other side and move naked about the stage until the screams came for Wanton’s S&M act.

But “More more more!” rattled the stage. They wanted to see more. She had nothing on now. She was fully naked. What more could she expose?

“More more more!”

Dizzy, she peeked backstage where her boss waved a hand, motioning her to give them more. He wanted satisfied customers. Steamy’s stomach seized. She picked up the knife with which she’d cut the g-string and opened it.

“More more more!” Louder now.

Steamy did the only thing that came to mind. She clenched her teeth, shoved the knife into her abdomen, and cut a slit in her stomach.

Initially there was a hush as she smeared blood on herself.

Beginning with slow murmurs, the crowd’s noise began again.

Steamy’s foggy instinct, as she felt hands tugging her off the stage, was to pull out a strand of intestine for them to see. Instead, she passed out.

The next act in a cop suit, Wanton S&M, looked stunned, “Now how the hell am I going to follow that?”

 

The Night Jennifer Lopez Ate My Soul

by Anthony R. Karnowski

 

Sometimes I hate her.

She lays there, her arms wrapped around her pillow, sound asleep. I throw the covers off and pull them back on, but she’s oblivious. Her foot is twitching like it does when she’s having a really great dream, too.

Sometimes I really hate her. 

I glance at the clock and groan when I see it’s already 3:42. If I fall asleep now, I can still get three hours. I can function on three hours.

I roll over again and pull my leg out from under the covers for what has to be the hundredth time. It’s still hotter than the seventh circle of Hell. I look up at the ceiling fan and wonder why the people that designed it didn’t include a more powerful setting than ‘high.’ Something along the lines of ‘ludicrous speed’ would suit me just fine.

I manage to tilt my head so that the brunt of the fan’s airflow is hitting me in the face. After a few seconds of enjoying this, my body relaxes and I can feel the first gentle caresses of sleep brush my mind. Within seconds, I drift into sleep.

I jump at the sound of breaking glass.

The clock now reads 3:49.

Fuck, I think. What now?

I try not to wake Rene, though it would serve her right, as I slip out of the covers. There is another loud crash from the kitchen; my heart leaps into my throat. All thought of sleep is gone as I reach into the closet and remove my baseball bat. I’ve never owned a gun, and for the first time I wonder why.

The cold feel of aluminum in my hand gives me courage. I take a deep breath and, making as little sound as possible, I creep out of the bedroom. Expecting to find a man with a black ski-mask waiting for me in the kitchen, I almost drop my bat when I espy the shape of a woman standing just inside the door.

“John,” she says.

I stop. How does she know my name?

“I’m glad you’re awake. I need your help.”

“Do… do I know you?”

She giggles. “I need you, John. Come with me.”

Something about her voice is familiar, but I can’t quite place it. Stepping closer, her perfume tickles my nose. She reaches out and takes my hand. I let the bat slip from my fingers, and it slams against the floor. Somewhere in the back of my mind I wonder why Rene hasn’t woken up.

“Come on, John. Follow me.”

She leads me through the door, and we step out onto the front porch of my parents’ old house. This is strange for several reasons, mainly because that house was torn down over ten years ago. This strikes me as odd, but before I can comment on it the girl turns, allowing me to see her for the first time.

My heart skips. Standing there in nothing but a see-through teddy is Jennifer-fucking-Lopez.

I’m dreaming. I have to be dreaming.

She tosses her hair over her shoulder and smiles. Her skin glows in the moonlight, and her curvaceous form dances in the breeze like the flame of a candle.

“Come on, John. Let’s go,” she says. 

Her voice is soft and sultry, and I can feel my baser animal urges fighting for control of my mind. She takes my hand again and pulls me to the end of the porch.

Reason is replaced by desire, and I follow her down the stairs and into the driveway. She turns and tosses her hair again, beckoning me with a slender, dexterous finger. I follow her around the garage where she leans against the wall, caressing her belly.

“What are we doing here?” My voice sounds odd, distant.

“Well,” she says with a smile. “I couldn’t fuck you in there with your girlfriend watching, could I?”

My knees almost buckle. Before I can answer her, she reaches out and pulls me close. Kissing my neck, she pulls my shirt over my head. Hard nipples rub against my chest as long fingernails make their way across my back. I feel myself grow hard against her. She pushes me to the ground and straddles me, giggling.

“There’s nothing like a good outdoor fuck, is there?” She giggles again.

She kisses me as her fingernails dig into my chest, flooding my senses with a strange mix of pleasure and pain. She arches her back, and I can feel her growing moist.

Saying nothing, she reaches down and rips open my boxers. This show of strength is surprising, but all I can think about is her warmth. She laughs then. It is not the girlish giggle from before. It is… darker, somehow.

“Ready?” she asks. Her eyes glow, and her expression is that of hunger.

I answer her with a kiss. Our tongues dance and she pulls away just enough to tease me. She runs her hand along my chest again and without warning impales herself upon me. Ecstasy unlike any I’ve known before courses through my body, and she assaults me with her mouth. Alternating between subtle flicks of her tongue and small bites, she works her way up my neck. Her breath is heavy in my ear, and her thrusts grow stronger and more violent. She claws at me, her nails digging deep enough to draw blood; her bites are no longer playful. She rips a chunk out of my shoulder, and I scream.

Crimson runs down her chin, and she smiles devilishly. I try to push her away, but she wraps her arms around me, refusing to let go. Her strength is monstrous. With a cackle, she continues to ride me, but my exaltation from before is gone forever, replaced by revulsion and pure pain.

I grip her chin and fight to keep her mouth from tearing any more of my flesh, but my fingers slip in blood. Realizing I can’t hold her, I change my grip and close my hand around her throat. She laughs.

I squeeze her neck, but she doesn’t notice. She rocks back and forth, cackling. I try to push her away again, and in the process I look down.

My legs are gone.

I scream and redouble my efforts. Pulling my hand from her throat with ease, she puts a finger to my mouth and shushes me.

“It will all be over soon,” she whispers.

She thrusts again, and another few inches of my body enter her. I flail my arms, trying to grab hold of something I can use to pull myself out of her, but my fingers find only empty air.

She thrusts again. And again. Within seconds I’m in up to my armpits. I cry out, begging for her to stop. She laughs and thrusts again.

In my last second, I look up. Her face has changed. The comely face of J-Lo is gone, replaced by the twisted countenance of a hag. She thrusts one last time, and everything disappears.

 

Seedling

by Michael Natale

 

This story is a continuation of Awakening, by Michael Natale, and contains mature themes.

 

Vanessa lay in her bed, shivering. Her heart thundered in her chest. A cold trickle of sweat formed around her temples and raced down her neck. Gooseflesh dotted her arms.

If sleep took her, she would be alone with—it—in the room. It watched her from the darkened corner of the room. She knew it was there. Whatever “it” might be, it was waiting for her to succumb to the Sandman’s kiss.

The room was gloomy. Heavy velvet hangings draped across the windows kept out the moonlight, which was always so full and bright. Only a splinter of silvery light fell from the crack where the drapes met. It wound its way across the floor like some mystical, glowing river across the cold stone masonry of the castle floor.

There was no electricity in this entire wing, so her father had grudgingly placed an oil lamp on the nightstand next to her bed. When she asked for it, he had remarked that at fifteen years old, she shouldn’t be afraid of the dark.

The small sphere of light that it shed barely held back the approaching darkness. The blackness seemed continuously on the edge of trespassing the halo of dim light the lamp cast. The shadows in the room were hungry, and soon they would feed.

Then it wouldn’t just sit there in the corner. It would come for her—again.

The chamber her parents had given her as a temporary bedroom was her least favorite place in the entire sprawling, Victorian castle. The cell-like room filled her with a numbing sense of anxiety, the four walls glaring at her with a palpable malice that was unmistakable. She always felt like she had just walked in on something secret and dreadfully private.

Vanessa’s heart hammered in her chest with fright. She wished more than anything that she were back on Anderson Avenue in New Jersey, safe in her tiny little bedroom just down the hall from her parents. In her real bedroom, she had a CD player, a TV and a computer. Thinking of familiar things made her feel better.

New Jersey was all the way on the other side of the world now, though. They had arrived in Sussex, England two months ago, and were scheduled to be here for at least six or eight more.

The thought made her stomach twist and squeeze. It made her feel like she had to pee and throw up at the same time. She didn’t think she could take another night of this, let alone six months.

What troubled Vanessa so much was that she knew this was no dream. She had nightmares before, and knew what they were like. Nightmares withered under the bright scrutiny of consciousness. The feeling that something was in the room with her was not as insubstantial or fleeting as that.

It was real.

Her parents couldn’t see or feel it; somehow it remained hidden from both of them. It could be that their minds were so closed to even the possibility that what Vanessa was telling them was the truth, that they could see no part of it at all.

She really didn’t know how these things worked, but she had seen enough Saturday morning horror movies on the SciFi Channel to know it really didn’t matter. Eventually it would get her.

Just four nights past, she had woken up from the middle of a deep sleep with the clear feeling of being held down by strong, insistent hands. She had gone from a deep slumber to utter panic in the space of a heartbeat. She hadn’t been able to move her body even the slightest bit, no matter how hard she struggled.

Panic washed through her like an ocean of ice water pumped into her veins at high speed. Her fear had brought her fully awake, it was no hallucination. The hands were real, not phantom appendages that vanished when you turned on the light.

It had taken her a moment or two for lucidity to rescue her and remind her that she could still breathe. If she could breathe, then she could scream.

The shriek she let out echoed through the stone corridors and empty chambers of the uninhabited castle. It woke her parents, and brought them running. When they opened the heavy oaken door and practically fell into the room, the feeling vanished at once. So did the presence.

Vanessa had felt it go.

Each night before she fell asleep, she relived that experience. Every one of her traitorous senses happily obliged her with an instant replay every bit as bad as the real thing. It kept her from sleep some nights, regardless of how tired she was.

Squinting, she stared into the blackness, sending her eyes slightly out of focus and trying to watch the entire room at once. If she blurred her vision, perhaps if it moved she would at least see what direction it was coming from.

Nothing.

Still, Vanessa could feel a vacancy when they left a room, always moments after she entered. She could feel it on the other side of the door right before she opened it. She knew that whatever the presence was that remained in this castle, its home was the darkness and shadows, and it preferred to stay out of sight.

Talking with her father hadn’t helped at all. He was a realist and had no such room in his methodical, tidy psyche for such silly notions. He dismissed her fears as the wanderings of an unfocused mind with entirely too much free time.

He had told her that no one had lived in Bellingham Castle for over two hundred years. For him, the matter was closed, and any further conversation was a waste of time.

Suddenly a new sensation tore through her like a serrated blade made of pure hatred. Oh no, she thought, it’s here, it’s here… it’s really here!

She could feel it—the cold, dark presence, there! RIGHT THERE, in that corner. What was it? Why did it come and watch her like that?

Was it toying with her, waiting for her to wet herself with fear before it lunged at her and… and what? Kill her, rip her apart, and drink her blood? If it wanted to kill her, surely it would have done so by now—and what could she have done to stop it anyway?

Then it was gone.

As quickly as the dread washed over her, it was gone. She exhaled deeply. She was alone now, she was certain of it.

Still, she did not move. Her mind and body were on Condition Red and Vanessa knew it would be a while before sleep claimed her.

As she lay there, Vanessa thought about her parents. She knew her father was wrong to reject all the evidence to the contrary that something was here other than the three of them. But she also knew better than to argue.

Her mother and father had done enough arguing over the past year. He had been out of work for a long time, and they fought about money more and more as the months drew on.

Her father was one of the foremost experts in the field of ancient languages, particularly cataloging and transcribing ancient texts from thousands of years ago. When the letter from the University came, he was a new man around the house. He was so excited about what he called a “unique opportunity to see what no living man on Earth has set eyes upon for thousands of years.”

Whatever he was doing in this musty old castle, it was important enough that he accepted the offer without discussing it with Mother. Without mentioning the important detail that they would be gone for the better part of a year, and that Vanessa would be pulled out of school.

The fight they had that night was legendary. She remembered the living room fondly, even though that was where they had their “high level discussion” about the job offer.

It was home.

If only she didn’t need to sleep.

A sudden yawn overpowered her, and her eyelids grew heavy. It became more of an effort not to close them. The terror she felt still lingered, but it blurred with her fatigue, creating porridge of her conscious mind as she tried to focus.

Sleep took her.

* * * * *

Vanessa staggered down a long passageway filled with doors. She cast desperate glances behind her as she ran. Her pursuer was a shapeless horror that kept barely outside the light cast by her small hooded lantern.

She could hear something slick and sticky sliding across the stone floor, almost overtaking her. Its shadowy bulk filled the corridor as it shambled behind her, like a herald of some dark and primeval god. It flowed, boiling like a fog of pure shadow; the mass of the cloud merely hinting at the shape of the thing within.

Vanessa slowed only enough to desperately try the handle of a door on one side of the corridor. It would not open, so she ran on.

She tugged the iron handle of another heavy oaken door but it wouldn’t budge either. She tried another. Like the others, they were locked. Either that or the castle itself was defying her, purposely refusing to open its doors in her time of need.

The thing behind her gained.

It was almost upon her as she spotted a large door up ahead. It was crafted of a black type of wood like polished oak, reinforced with bright steel bands.

Strange symbols had been carved into the wood of the door and were filled with what looked like a brilliant silvery metal. All at once they began to give off a soft glow, which turned into a dazzling shine. She had to throw up a hand to shield her eyes. As she turned her head slightly, she saw that the light caused the shadowy thing to recoil briefly.

A thin yellow line of light beneath the door told her someone was inside. Mother and Father were the only other ones in the castle; it had to be one of them.

The thing pursuing her was still coming, but moving cautiously. The rank odor of rotting meat filled her nostrils as a thin strand of shadow left the rolling mass and barely brushed against her arm.

Instantly, her shoulder and arm went numb. Searing pain ripped through her body at the unearthly cold of the darkness.

So close!

She grabbed the silver handle on the strange door and threw her shoulder into it. If the door refused to yield to her, then the thing would devour her. It would tear her flesh and crack her ribcage and pluck out her heart, then gobble it down.

She knew it; she could hear its thoughts ringing in her head like some kind of weird echo. It wanted her.

To her relief, the door flew open, and she stumbled into the largest library she had ever seen, just out of reach of the thing in the corridor. It vanished with a shriek of alien anger at being deprived of its prize, and the door closed behind her with a deep thud. Thin, snake-like tendrils of shadow retreated back into the corridor from underneath the door.

The chamber bulged out in a great circle as far as she could see, the heights of the ceiling lost in shadow. Two rows of lengthy, decorative chains hung down out of the darkness above. Affixed to the end of each were small, softly glowing circular orbs.

For a moment, Vanessa wondered if they were skulls. They were too far above the floor to get a good look at, but she was almost certain some of them were grinning at her.

Rows upon rows of bookshelves lined the circular chamber. They grew upwards out of the floor like a forest of oaks, their topmost shelves almost kissing the layer of shadows that hung in the room like storm clouds. The shelves were filled with volumes of every shape, size and color. There must be thousands of books here. Tens of thousands, she thought.

Off near the far end of the spherical room, a set of iron stairs could be seen going upwards, spiraling round and round and vanishing towards the darkness hanging near the ceiling. A single handrail matched the curve of the stairs.

Two rows of writing desks were neatly arranged down the center of the room. Crouching over the desk nearest her with his back to her was her father. The workspace was littered with books, small, thin volumes and large tomes whose age she could only guess. He had several stacks of smaller manuscripts piled next to him on the floor.

“Father?” Vanessa said, her voice cracking with relief as a sob escaped her lips. “Something was chasing me, father. Something horrible!”

He bent over the largest tome Vanessa had ever seen. A large white candle thick as a baseball bat was burning in the center of the table. The spent tallow dribbled down the sides of the shaft like a viscous, ivory waterfall frozen in time.

The scratching of the ancient quill he always used to make notes with sounded like the scrape of a knife across bare bone as it raced across the parchment.

Her father placed the quill in its holder without comment. With an effort, he shut the heavy book and turned slowly to face her. She heard several soft hissing sounds come from near where he stood.

“Father?” Vanessa asked, her voice cracking with fear.

Then she screamed. Her voice echoed madly in the empty chamber as she saw his face.

When he turned, it was not the loving, bookish man who she knew as her father. His face was a clutch of spitting, hissing snakes, all of them snapping and biting and baring their fangs at her. The sharp, tiny needle-like teeth dripped venom which sizzled and smoked as droplets of the gummy, purplish fluid struck the stone floor.

She backed away a step, dropping her lantern. It seemed to shatter in slow motion, the glass hood splintering and the flame violently struggling to stay lit—and failing.

She screamed again in utter horror.

Before the darkness overpowered the dying pool of burning oil on the stone floor, her father bore down upon her.

As one, the cluster of snakes reared back as if to strike, then hissed a single word at her: “Loagaeth!!”

* * * * *

Vanessa woke up hysterical. Her arms were flailing about her face, as if she were fending something off. Her father and mother were both in her room. Her father was sitting at her bedside, while her mother drew the heavy curtains. As she did, she let the hazy orange of the morning sun slide into the room.

Vanessa backed away from them both, still mad with fright, her heart pounding frantically. Suddenly relief washed over her as she realized she was safe, and it was just another dream. She hugged her father tightly and sobbed into his shoulder.

“There, there, Vanessa,” her father stroked her hair gently. “We’re here; it was just a dream, darling.”

Her mother came and sat upon the other side of the bed and rubbed her back. “It’s morning now, honey. It was just a dream and we’re here with you. My god, Roger, she’s shaking all over.”

“Let’s get you some breakfast, what do you say?” her father said with a firm hug. “We can talk about it over some eggs and toast. Everything always seems brighter over breakfast, hmm?”

Breakfast filled her belly, but her mind was still vacant. She needed answers and her parents had given her empty reassurances that she knew meant nothing.

They both meant well, but they were both too busy to really hear her. Her father was occupied with his work for twelve to fifteen hours every day. She wondered if he even slept anymore.

Her mother, on the other hand, was kept busy almost as many hours a day simply taking care of everything else. Vanessa’s home schooling, meals, even helping her father with some basic translations on some of the work he was doing here.

Vanessa knew the sad truth was, both of them were all too eager to pat her on the head and hug away her bad dreams. That might have worked when she was five years old and had come wandering into their bedroom in the middle of the night, teddy bear in hand looking for comfort.

This was different, and Vanessa wasn’t a child anymore. She had learned long ago to rely on herself rather than her parents when push came to shove. They were decent people, but each was too involved in their own affairs to give her much attention. Sometimes she wondered why they bothered having a child at all.

She looked at the clock her mother had hung in the breakfast nook. It was eight o’clock in the morning; she had roughly twelve hours to find the answers she sought before nightfall.

She was determined not to live through another nightmare like that again. For her, dreams always blurred afterwards, becoming indistinct and hard to remember. This dream had been too real, too vivid. She remembered every grisly detail.

The most shocking was the ghastly image of her father and the snakes hissing at her with malice and strange intelligence. She remembered the peculiar word they spoke, and she was sure that it was something important, though she had no idea what.

Where to start? The castle was enormous. She wished now she had paid attention when her father, in his attempts to convince her what a great adventure this would be, had detailed how many rooms and levels the castle had.

She couldn’t remember any of it now.

As she sat finishing her orange juice, the comfortable silence her family was so familiar with at the breakfast table seemed oppressive.

Then she remembered something. When they first arrived, her father had told her to stay out of the basement levels. Insisted upon it, in fact.

Why had he been so firm? She figured at the time it had something to do with his work, but since then hadn’t given it a second thought.

Until now.

What was it he was really doing here anyway? Transcribing ancient texts, she knew, but for who? If no one had been living here for two hundred years as he claimed, why all of a sudden had the place been opened to them and her father charged with translating its secrets?

Who would have the power to authorize such a thing? Certainly no ordinary university could. This castle was too big, took up too much land, and land meant money no matter what country you were in. It must have something to do with the government, either here or back home in America.

What mysteries did this ancient castle’s library possibly hold that would be that important, anyway?

Did her mother know? Would she tell her if she did? Vanessa abandoned that line of thinking immediately. Even if she did know, her mother would never betray anything her father decided was secret.

Vanessa felt a pang of guilt as she realized the subconscious source of the questions that tugged on her conscious mind. The nature of what she felt bit her painfully, like one of those snake-heads she saw in her dream last night.

Something was just wrong with the image of her father that she saw in her dream. It was just a dream, yet she couldn’t put her finger on it. Something wasn’t right. It felt like all of a sudden she mistrusted him.

Was that it? Really? Just like that, fifteen years of being her dad and all of a sudden she didn’t trust him because of a stupid dream?

Her father had always been more than kind, a gentle man incapable of raising his voice to her, let alone ever raising a hand to her. Guilt gnawed away at her heart like a rabid tapeworm.

Vanessa’s subconscious argued with her conscious mind. The conscious reminded her of all the virtues her father possessed.

He was a pioneer in his field, and for years provided a comfortable living for the family. He lectured often and traveled quite a bit, that was true, but he always took the summers off. He always made sure they had lots of family vacations together.

The feeling that she was betraying her father turned her stomach. There it mixed with the nostalgic memories and guilt gnawed at her.

The dream had scared her, but he was still her father. That creature she saw in her nightmare was simply that—a figment of her imagination and nothing more.

Wasn’t it? Her subconscious insisted there was more to it.

She looked up over her glass at him and caught him staring at her. He looked as if he were trying to figure out what she was thinking, and could somehow do so through the simple force of his gaze. He had a powerful look on his face. It was an expression that Vanessa had never seen before on her father’s usually expressionless face.

She excused herself, cleared her place and put the dishes in the sink for her mother to wash. Vanessa told her parents she was going to her room to read. In truth, she set off to explore the castle and find the library she had entered in her dreams.

* * * * *

She had spent most of the morning and the better part of the early afternoon searching, but found only dust and cobwebs in the ancient, empty castle.

There were no chambers that were as large as the library in her nightmare. None on the upper levels anyway. She had hoped to avoid the basement, and was looking for an excuse to procrastinate going down there.

The guilt at suspecting her father of being up to something gave her ample excuse to dawdle. Besides, she had enough true dread associated with actually finding the chamber to keep her search half-hearted.

Well, that and she was hungry.

She went to the kitchen to make a sandwich and on the way through the great dining hall, she found her mother seated at the massive oak table.

Bundles of parchment lay before her, scattered all about the table. She sat in front of a laptop, its plug running into a long extension cord that crossed the width of the room and plugged into one of the few wall outlets installed anywhere in the castle.

Her mother was concentrating on her work, typing away with amazing speed. Vanessa moved up to stand next to her, looking at the scrawled symbols on the parchment. They were in black ink and she was sure these were her father’s notes, but they were in a language she didn’t understand.

Her mother sensed her presence and stopped typing. She put an arm around Vanessa. “Hi, honey. Having fun today?”

Vanessa shrugged. She knew her mother only half-consciously wanted an answer. Vanessa could have told her she just discovered a dismembered body in her bedroom, and her mother would have just smiled and nodded.

Instead, she said, “What are you doing, Mom?”

Her mother sighed and ran a hand through her long, blonde hair. “Your father never did like this thing,” she indicated the laptop with a nod. “So I volunteered to transcribe his notes for him. He’s written everything in Latin, of course. You know your father.”

Vanessa smiled weakly. She thought she did.

The tiny little voice—the one that suspected something was not quite right—was back. Why would her father write his notes in a language only he and her mother understood? Was he trying to protect the contents of his notes from her in the event she found them somewhere?

“I haven’t read Latin in years, you know,” her mother said, unaware that Vanessa’s smile had vanished to be replaced by a deep frown. “It reminds me of our days at university, your father and I. He really was the most handsome man back then.”

Vanessa wasn’t really interested in listening to that kind of lovey-dovey dribble from her mother. “Mom, I was going to make a sandwich. Do you want one?”

Her mother stood. “Let me get it, dear.” She closed the laptop’s display and kissed Vanessa on the forehead. She turned and walked the length of the hall into the kitchen.

A minute or two passed before Vanessa mustered up the courage to lift the display on the laptop. Quickly, she scanned some of what her mother had been transcribing. She began to frown as she read.

None of it made any sense. Though transcribed into English, she still couldn’t understand what it was all about. Spidery symbols seemed to coexist on the same line as characters of a language she couldn’t read. It was like Latin meets Algebra.

Math never was one of her strong suits.

She knew she only had a few more minutes before her Mother came back. Feeling a surge of daring, she took the mouse and opened her Father’s email program. She knew the laptop was offline, not like at home where they were connected all the time thanks to a DSL line her father had installed two years ago.

She also knew that his old email—both sent and received—was stored on the laptop’s hard disk. She was the geek of the house, even at fifteen, and knew her way around the computer better than both her parents. Her father really didn’t count, she reminded herself. He hated computers and used them only when forced.

She went immediately to his Incoming Mailbox and began scanning the SENDER column to see if she recognized anyone’s name. She stopped halfway down on a name that she didn’t know. The subject line caught her eye too. She opened the message.

It read:


——- Original Message ——-

From: “Trevor Harrington” [tjh@sstech.edu]

To: “Roger Mulcahey” [roger.mulcahey@njonline.com]

Sent: Friday, July 12, 2001 2:37 AM

Subject: RE: Translation Contract Requirements


Roger,


You are correct. The basement levels were cleared years ago when we took ownership of Bellingham’s grounds. It has been locked down tight for about six years now. Our people tell me there is nothing there to be concerned with.


On to specifics. We were unable to decipher the cryptogram needed for entry into the room in question. We are certain your talents here will bring us closer to what we all seek. To be quite frank, we aren’t even sure where the entrance is located, they destroyed too many of the handwritten documents outlining how to find it before we caught up with them. Good news is, our people here are pretty confident that once you decipher the key, you’ll get the location.


With regards to your last question: the funds are being transferred to Munich on the 20th of this month. The figure is four, and I’m sure you are aware of the number of trailing zeros. Another four will arrive one week after successful delivery of the manuscript.


Good luck, and keep me posted. We will not communicate again until you return to the states. We have people in reservations and security at both Atlantic City Airport and Newark, so be sure to return on a flight bound for one of those ports. The Covenant will contact you to collect the package on your way back through customs.


I must remind you to delete this and all electronic correspondence between us as soon as you memorize the content. You know our adversaries will be moving fast, and they are not as physically restricted as we are.


Yours in Faith,


-TJ

Vanessa re-read the message twice. Her frown deepened as her heart sank. Well this certainly didn’t make her feel any better about her father’s business here. She felt her throat tighten as her eyes filled with tears.

She could hear her mother approaching. The sound of her heels on the stone floor produced an echoing click-click-click sound she hadn’t been aware of until now. Quickly, she closed the mail program and shut the laptop’s display. She brushed at the corners of her eyes quickly to dislodge any tears that might have been dangling there.

“Tuna fish on wheat bread with lettuce, tomato and cheese,” her mother said, proudly presenting Vanessa with the plate. “Potato chips on the side for when you finish the sandwich.”

Vanessa thanked her mother for lunch and ate in silence. Though pretending disinterest, she was watching her mother continue her work and wondering if she were in on it too. Her mother wasn’t the type that would stand for anything like what she just read. Secrets and vague innuendos weren’t her style. There was also the matter of the fight her parents had before they left.

No, Vanessa decided. She couldn’t be part of it. Unless that fight was staged to fool her? All this suspicion began to make her head hurt. These were her parents!

“Mom, I’m going to the library to read for a while. It’s raining anyway, so there’s nothing really for me to do.” She put the sandwich back on the plate, and scooped up the chips in both hands.

“Okay, honey,” her mother said, not looking up from the laptop, already reabsorbed in her work. “See you at suppertime. I’ll be here the rest of the day if you need anything.”

Vanessa hugged her mother quickly, and left the dining hall.

* * * * *

She entered the main floor’s library and sank into one of the musty couches against the wall. It was backed up against large, sweeping windows that overlooked the grey, fog-filled meadows of the castle’s expansive front lawns. She ate the chips and stared out the window.

She loved books, and came here to read all the time. One of the books, a novel entitled To Kiss a Stranger lay half read on the couch next to her. Right where she left it the last time she came to read. She picked it up in case her parents came in, she could pretend to be reading it.

But all she could think about was the content of that email message. What exactly was the Covenant? What were they paying her father to do? Who were the “adversaries” mentioned in the message?

Most of all, if her father knew there was some danger to them, why had he brought them all here? What could be so important he would risk their lives to come halfway around the world?

Suddenly she felt her flesh grow extraordinarily cold, as if she had just walked into a meat locker. The tiny hairs on her neck stood stiff at attention. An unmistakable sensation of trepidation pulled at her like a fish hook, growing stronger by the second. Dread mutated quickly to terror, coursing shark-like through her body.

“Hello,” a soft voice said from behind her.

Vanessa yelped and dropped her book, scurrying back on the couch, away from the speaker.

A pretty young girl stood between tall bookshelves, not five feet away. Clad in an ancient-looking dressing gown, she looked as if she were sleepwalking. She was maybe ten or twelve years old. Her hair was long and blonde, and had the look of being freshly brushed for bed. Her skin was incredibly pale.

Vanessa had not heard her approach, but she knew that this girl was the source of her fear. “Who are you?” Vanessa asked. Her voice shook.

“Don’t be afraid of me,” the girl said in a delicate English accent. She was looking around the room as if just noticing where she stood. “I’m here to help you, Vanessa. I’m not the one you should be afraid of.”

“H-How… how do you know my name?” Despite the strange chill, Vanessa felt a heat spread through her chest, as if she were gently easing into a warm bath. It calmed her and dissipated the fear with uncanny speed. She was rapidly filled with a kind of raw courage she had never felt before.

Had the girl just done that?

She did have a weird luminosity about her that told Vanessa that she was not a physical presence. Could she herself have fallen asleep and this was another nightmare?

“This is the library,” the girl said with recognition in her voice. “Not the right one, but the library on the guest’s level.”

Vanessa said nothing. The fear she felt was too real. This was no dream. Who was this girl? How did she get in here? Could she really be… a ghost?

“I miss this place most of all,” the strange girl mused. “I would spend hours and hours and hours in this room when I lived here. Books were my most loyal companions, in the end.”

Vanessa shuddered. She was rooted to the spot, but it was not with fear any longer. The strange feeling of calm kept her from running. Despite that, her mind was somehow aware that the serenity she felt seemed to be radiating from the little girl.

She took a step closer to Vanessa. “Your father is going to do something very, very bad,” the girl said. “We have to stop him. I was sent to help you. We have to go to the library; the one from your dream.”

Vanessa’s head swam. Her father? How did the girl know about the library? She was desperate for answers now. “How do you know about my dream? Who are you? Please, tell me what my father is going to do. I want to help him!”

“My name is Sarah Cushings. I used to live here a very long time ago,” she said. “Your father must be stopped, not helped. He has already crossed too many lines to turn back now.”

Okay. Fine. Deal, Vanessa, deal. “Sarah,” Vanessa began, unsure how to continue, “are you a… a ghost?” She felt foolish even asking that.

Sarah fixed her with an interested gaze. “I don’t know what I am. I remember that I had a fever in the summer of 1842. None of the doctors could cure it. I remember one afternoon becoming very sleepy… it was impossible to stay awake. Now I am here. I’ve been watching you for a long time now, Vanessa.”

Vanessa sat stunned, realizing she should have been screaming, should have run from the room and not looked back. Again the flood of calm buffered her impulse to run. “At night,” Vanessa said. “You were in my bedroom.”

“That was my room first,” Sarah said with a disdainful sniff, turning to examine the bookshelves. “Yes, I watched you sleep, but I wasn’t the only one. Sometimes there was something else there, watching you. Something not very nice at all. I tried talking with you a few times but you always screamed and screamed. You didn’t want to see me then. Now you do, so here I am.”

“Alright,” Vanessa said, trying to be rational. “I can see that you aren’t like me… you’re not… alive. I can feel it, actually. I’m not sure how that’s possible, but I can. You’re definitely dead.”

“Yes,” Sarah said. “It’s important that you trust your instincts. They will never lie to you. That’s why they’re afraid of you.”

“Afraid?” Vanessa was taken aback. “Of what, me? Who is?”

“Our enemies,” Sarah said, turning to stare at her again, her tiny blue eyes cold and serious. “They fear you.”

“What enemies? I don’t have any enemies.”

“Yes, you do. You are special,” Sarah said. “Your soul has been kissed by God.”

Vanessa sank back down onto the couch, feeling as if she were pushed there. What was she saying? “I don’t understand.”

“Do you believe in God, Vanessa?” The girl turned and tiny blue eyes—dead eyes—locked with her own. Vanessa felt an icy shiver run through her bones.

Her grandmother used to say that to stare into a dead person’s eyes was like feeling the breath of winter blow right down your throat. Vanessa used to think her grandmother was just superstitious but now had to wonder how her grandmother had known that. The breath of winter—that was exactly what it felt like.

“Yes,” Vanessa answered. “I do believe in God.”

“Good. God believes in you too. You have been called to make a choice. Tonight, all over the world, others like you are being visited. There are dark days ahead, and some of the events of this evening will shape the future of the world.”

Vanessa swallowed. “What does that have to do with me?”

“Your father is about to perpetrate a great evil upon the world worse than the sin of Adam and Eve. Theirs was original sin and could not be helped as the Serpent deceived them. Your father knows exactly what he is doing. Free will was always God’s biggest mistake if you ask me. Makes very smart people do very stupid things more often than not.”

“My father?” She didn’t want to believe it. Her own suspicions were one thing, but to hear it from the mouth of this… this dead girl…

“Yes. He seeks to finish work that my father so foolishly began over a century ago. You have the power to stop him.”

“No,” Vanessa said, about to protest. She closed her mouth and began to weep. Suddenly, she knew the creature that stood before her spoke the truth. She could feel it right down to her bones. The words the girl spoke reverberated through her as simply being right.

“You can sense the truth of my words,” Sarah cocked her head, examining her. “That’s part of it. God has blessed you with talents that have been labeled magic by some, witchcraft by others. The faithful call them miracles. He has gifted you with abilities that have been absent from the daughters of Eve for a very long time. Until tonight.”

“What do you mean?”

“The gifts you have been given are to be used for the glory of God, to serve Him in the days ahead. The Lord calls out to the faithful, to those whom He has blessed. You are to champion His cause and help stem the tide of evil that may be unleashed upon the world this very night.”

Vanessa had always known that her instincts were more than simply accurate. Very often she knew what people were going to say before they spoke, or who it was on the telephone before picking it up.

One time when she was eight, she was playing outside with one of her friends and her mother had appeared at the back patio doorway, calling her inside. Vanessa was able to see with her own eyes that her mother was upset, crying. But she knew without being told, in a moment of panic and fright, that her Uncle Bobby had died.

She never mentioned that to anyone, but now felt a surge of strange energy within her, like a heat that set her senses tingling. It was a familiar feeling, one she had before but was not fully conscious of. She had it the day her uncle died. She had it now.

Everything was amplified. Her body was like a spiritual tuning fork, vibrating with strange, unfamiliar forces. The tingle grew stronger now, turning into a hum within her.

Her mind was waking up.

All at once she could hear her parent’s thoughts echoing in her head. Although they were both on opposite sides of the castle from where she stood, she could feel both of their emotions from here. Both of them were anxious.

Her mother had noticed that she didn’t finish her lunch, and was suddenly concerned about Vanessa not eating enough. This led to other guilty feelings; she felt horrible about having dragged her away from her friends in New Jersey.

Her mother was also worried that her father was working too hard, and was becoming more and more curious as she continued translating her husband’s notes. Vanessa could tell that beyond the simple translations, her mother didn’t understand their contents any more than she had.

Her father’s thoughts on the other hand, were almost ablaze with an anxious, frustrated sort of anger. He was concerned about Vanessa’s dream, the focus of intense internal struggle right on the surface of his mind. He suspected that she knew the real reason he was here. His thoughts were chaotic, a churning mixture of fear, anticipation and an all-consuming purpose that he could not turn away from.

Instinctively she probed a little further at the consciousness that she somehow recognized as her father’s mind. He offered no resistance to her probing; she could tell he had no clue she was even probing.

He was worried that she was going to prevent him from finding the Liber Loagaeth…

There was that word again! Vanessa snapped out of the dream like state. “What does ‘Liber Loagaeth’ mean? What is it?”

Sarah looked at her suspiciously out of the corners of her dead blue eyes. “Loagaeth means ‘speech from God’ in the language of the Firstborn. It is known by many other names, but you may have heard of it as the Book of Enoch. Within it is recorded the secrets of miracles; the language of magic. All that was lost to the peoples of both our times is hidden there, waiting for the day that God chooses to give the secrets back to us.”

Vanessa shook her head thoughtfully. “That time is now?”

Sarah nodded. “Yes. Within the Liber Loagaeth there is also a mechanism for decoding the speech and language of the Firstborn—the angels. That is what your father seeks, for if he unlocks that secret, he will be able to read the book and the words contained inside.”

Vanessa sank back onto the couch. “I take it that would be bad.” It was not a question.

“The book contains the actual words God spoke when he created the universe,” Sarah answered. “It contains the true names of all things in Heaven and Earth. If a mortal were to decipher that which God passed on to the prophet Enoch, then they would potentially be the most powerful person on Earth.”

A long silence passed between the two girls. Finally, Vanessa said, “Why does my father want that? He was never that type of man. Never power hungry or mean or… he was always decent… always nice. His work was all he was ever interested in. Ancient languages, that sort of thing…”

“Other forces are in motion, Vanessa,” Sarah answered. “The Second War is almost upon us, and this time the battlefield is not confined to Heaven alone. The Fallen want the book, they need the power it contains. Most of all, they need the book to stay out of the hands of the faithful. They employ mortal agents—like your father—to do work they themselves cannot deal with directly.”

Vanessa frowned. She felt energized with a holy power, a force she had never fully realized until right now, but what it boiled down to was—her father was on the other side.

“I know you’re right,” she said, “but it is very hard. I love my father. I don’t know what I should do.”

Sarah took a step towards her. “In the Book of Enoch it is written that God will raise a prophet in the darkest of times,” Sarah said, “to reintroduce miracles to the faithful. This prophet will bring miracles back to the modern world. You are to be that prophet, Vanessa.”

Vanessa shook her head, “I can’t be,” was all she said, though she knew it was true. “I’m not even an A student… I…”

Tears began to roll down her cheeks but the pain that caused them was distant, muffled. It was like it was happening to someone else and she was watching it from the outside.

Sarah shrugged. “You need not do anything, Vanessa. The choice is yours. As I said, free will was the one gift God gave mortals that he forbade the Firstborn. The Host cannot interfere with your salvation—or your damnation. You can choose to ignore His call, or you can do what you know in your heart that you were born to do. The choice is yours.”

Sarah continued after a moment of silence. “No matter what you choose, the world is changing. All over the world, the Fallen are experiencing an awakening. They are remembering who and what they are. Even now one of them haunts these halls much as I do, whispering the darkest of secrets into your father’s ear. They will stretch the limits of their power to influence the course of things to come. They feel the pull of the Last Battle, much as you do.”

“How do you know what I feel?” Vanessa snapped.

“I was meant to know,” Sarah said simply. “Just two days ago, one of the Fallen called Astaroth awoke and murdered fifteen people at a train station in Connecticut. The item appeared on the evening news as a curiosity piece, nothing more. But the creature is clever. He used the mortal media to send his message out: it was a message to those who follow the Fallen that he had returned. It was also a warning to us. He was a creature of utter and complete evil, an assassin among creatures whose power is nearly limitless. He will not stop, and the world will bleed if he stands unopposed.”

“And I am supposed to stop him somehow?”

“No,” Sarah said. “Even you do not have the power yet to stand against one of the Host. You are to be a conduit; a bridge between the ancient world and the present. Man has become a faithless creation, godless and lost. But God has not forgotten them, nor will He turn away while they destroy each other—or are consumed in a second war between opposing factions of the Host.”

Vanessa turned and looked out the window over the rolling green hills of the lawns. She sat silent for a long time but could feel the ghost’s presence still there, waiting.

She could feel another presence inside her too—a deeper, more spiritual presence. It bathed her in a peaceful serenity that her true parents never could provide. It centered her; embraced her and made her feel complete.

After what seemed like hours of contemplation, she finally said, “Do you know where the library is and how to get in?”

Sarah extended her hand for Vanessa to take. “Yes.”

* * * * *

Vanessa stood with the spirit of the dead girl in the library from her dreams. At the writing desk where she had seen that horrible visage of her father she saw the large, leather-bound volume. It was at least two feet wide by three feet high, and probably eight or ten inches thick.

A soft light shone down on the book from the darkened ceiling. Strange, Vanessa thought. She could not see the source of the light shining on the book, but she knew it was a marker that only her eyes could see.

“Where on the castle grounds are we?” she asked Sarah. “You lost me after we entered the storerooms.”

A hidden entrance had been built into one of the wine cellars ages ago. Sarah had told her that powerful wardings sealed the portal to prevent entry to any but those marked as God’s own.

The portal had opened for Vanessa with a touch.

“Don’t worry,” the ghost answered, “you’ll find your way home.”

She became sad then. “That portal we came through. My father hasn’t found it yet.”

“He knows where the door is,” Sarah corrected, “but he hasn’t finished deciphering my father’s notes on his own attempts to dispel the warding. He has made considerable progress, so he must be getting help from one of the Fallen.”

Vanessa felt a pang of betrayal in her heart. She couldn’t believe that her father was helping those who thought to bring about a Second War between God and… who? Lucifer? She supposed it was. The thought made her furious. Even more so because she knew without question that it was true.

How she wished this could somehow turn out to be just another nightmare.

She took a few steps forward towards the book. “That’s it, then? That’s the book that I need to take?”

“Yes,” she said. “All you have to do is reach out and take it.”

“I’m not even sure I could lift that,” Vanessa protested.

“Reach out with your mind, Vanessa. You have the power to alter the book’s physical composition. It is a manifestation of part of the essence of God; the physical characteristics are unimportant. It is energy, at its most basic, and energy can be reorganized if you only know how. Ask for help. All of the eyes of Heaven are upon you now. You will not be forsaken.”

Vanessa closed her eyes and concentrated, asking silently for help. She didn’t know what to ask for, only that she wasn’t sure how in the world she’d lift such a huge volume and carry it out of there. She wasn’t sure what she’d do even if she could lift it. She knew that her father couldn’t be allowed to take the book. But how would she hide such a giant thing from him?

When she opened her eyes, she saw that a small book the size of a library hardcover was in place of the hefty volume. It had a bright pink cover, and a small strap with a brass clasp that was meant to lock it shut against prying eyes.

She felt the weight of a thin, metallic chain materialize around her neck, and she knew without looking that at the end of the chain was the key.

“It looks like my journal,” she said to Sarah.

Sarah’s voice became suddenly urgent, her eyes wide with a strange expression on her ghostly face. “Take it now, Vanessa! You must take it before…”

She vanished in mid sentence. What could cause a spirit to flee in terror?

An explosion from the top of the stairs sent tremors through the room. A multicolored flash from above with strange, thick smoke sent pieces of wood and metal and clouds of ancient dust tumbling down the iron steps.

She raced forward and grabbed the book that now looked like her journal, and held it defensively against her chest. She heard footsteps clattering down the stairs through the smoke and dust and saw, to her horror, that it was her father. She hadn’t actually wanted to confront him, and felt doubt and fear creep into her resolve.

Following him down the stairs, a tall, figure swathed in a dark cloak followed more slowly. A piece of the night walked slowly down the stairs, its footfalls making not a sound.

Her father held a hooded lantern in one hand, and had a leather satchel thrown across one shoulder, its contents overflowing. Vanessa recognized some of the scrolls and parchments her mother had been translating for him. He had a wild gleam in his eyes and a desperate, victorious grin that terrified her.

The figure following him held nothing that she could see, both its hands were buried in voluminous sleeves. The strange apparition radiated something—a familiar feeling slithered over her flesh, sending a chill through the marrow of her bones.

Hate. Recognition. Evil.

“Vanessa,” her father’s voice had an edge to it that frightened her, even with her newfound spiritual armor. “Put down the book and step away from the table. Darling, you have no idea what you’re dealing with; it’s very, very dangerous.”

“No,” she was firm as she perceived his words for the lies they were. “I can’t, and I think you know that. Who is that with you, Father?”

“I am no one,” the thing behind her father hissed, but no sound issued forth from the darkened cowl. The words rang in her mind.

Her father shook his head, dismissing her. “You’ve been misled, Vanessa. I should have warned your mother and you about the castle, it’s genuinely haunted as I’m sure you are aware of by now. I’m sorry about the dreams and everything else, but you understand, don’t you Pumpkin? I couldn’t tell you, I was sworn to secrecy. There’s something in that book that the spirit fears, and I am so close to figuring it out.”

Even without her newly acquired abilities screaming in her skull that he was lying, she could tell. She didn’t need any spiritual energy for that. She wasn’t five years old anymore after all where every word he said was revered as the ironclad truth.

She could feel her father’s words sliding like an oil slick into her mind, slithering like a mercurial serpent. The filth of his emotions were right there, floating on top like some sulfurous foam on a polluted river. The outright deception sickened her. He expected her to simply listen and do what she was told.

“You’re lying,” she said. Her voice was flat, emotionless. Her tone spoke volumes about the certainty of her statement, and that continuing the lie was no longer necessary. She knew the truth.

“Give the book to him, child,” the creature whispered in her brain.

Her father bent slowly to put the lantern on the floor and raise his hands in a gesture of supplication. “No, honey. Listen. You don’t understand. That book is very, very important. It’s why I was hired to come here. You don’t understand how important. I have to have it, don’t you understand that? Do you have any idea what the people I work for will do to me if I don’t deliver that!?” He was reaching slowly around behind his back with his free hand.

“He will kill you, child,” the thing said. “Give it to him and save yourself.” It occurred to her then that her father might not be able to see this creature. He gave no indication that he did, and after all, the creature was talking to her, not to him.

Drawing her attention back to her father, she could see the desperation in his eyes. A gun? He was reaching for a gun! She never even knew her father could fire a weapon, let alone that he owned one. Would he really shoot her? Was he capable of murdering her down here where her body would never be found?

Was he that desperate? That he would murder his own child to gain this silly book? She looked at him and saw nothing behind his blue eyes except cold, grey death.

Would he take the book to this creature—one of the Fallen? Turn over the secrets to the dark, rebellious angels that defied God? What would the world be like if they used the power the book contained? What would they do with the very words that God spoke when he created the universe?

She didn’t want to find out, and wouldn’t allow that to happen. And strangely, she knew that she now had the power to stop him. She steeled herself and stepped towards her father slowly.

The creature behind her father hissed in anger, the sound like a thousand serpents drawing back their fangs to strike. Perhaps unlike the image of her father’s face she saw in her dreams, there really were snakes beneath this creature’s cowl.

Her father pulled the gun out from behind his back and cocked it with one deft motion. In her mind, she could feel the practiced ease with which he handled the weapon fill him with confidence. How comfortable he was with it and how emotionless he was right now with the prospect of having to shoot his own daughter. She could feel how many times he had killed and the thrill, the rush of power it had given him each time.

Ten? Twenty? Even he had lost count. But he had done it over and over in his fifty-three years chasing down this book. Suddenly the roster of murders flew past her conscious mind—he had killed strangers, friends and even a cousin of his back when he was a little older than she was now. There was no reason to think that he wouldn’t kill her too.

“Don’t take another step!” he shouted, his face no longer even pretending to display the mask of fatherhood. Now, he was a snarling madman, who saw only an enemy before him. An enemy who had something he wanted. “I’ll put two bullets right in your head unless you bend down and slowly put that book on the floor. NOW!”

“When he kills you, you can have my place in Hell, child,” the thing hissed in her mind.

Vanessa ignored the creature’s taunting. Vanessa figured that if it could physically interfere, it would have already.

To her father, she said, “Shoot me then! Kill me like you killed all those other people. You’re going to have to shoot me! That’s the only way you’ll ever get this book from me, Father! You must know I can’t let you have it!”

The creature slid back away from her father a few feet. “You are nothing to him,” it cackled. “You never could be anything to him, I saw to that. I have been with your father since the day he was born, whispering to him the secrets of the universe. His soul was particularly weak, and his mind—though quite intelligent and orderly for one of your kind—was a simple thing to break.”

“Liar!” Vanessa shouted at the thing, realizing its words were making her angry.

It hissed something that might be a laugh. “Your blood will stain the stones here forever and ever and ever…”

Her father’s mouth distorted from a threatening grey slit into a vicious snarl. “You were nothing more than an accident, Vanessa! We never planned on having children, but I’m sure your mother never told you that did she? No, I see that she didn’t. My life’s work led me to this moment. My entire life! Becoming a father was nothing more than an inconvenience! How many years I pissed away trying to make you and your mother happy, but it was never enough, was it? THIS was my first priority and took me more than forty years to complete! So you see, I have no problem shooting you dead right here, right now. And after that, I take the book, and the whole world changes.”

Vanessa steeled herself against his words. “Fine. Then what? Do you think evil can possibly last?”

“We have waited forever and ever,” the creature whispered.

“It has lasted thousands upon thousands of years, Vanessa. Waiting and biding its time. Waiting for someone like me to come along and do what countless others before me couldn’t do! I deciphered the key, I found the Liber Loagaeth. And when the world is remade in HIS image,” he shouted, pointing down at the floor, “then He will reward those who prove faithful!”

Vanessa shook her head in defiance. “You’re so blind!” she said softly, but firmly. “You say that I was an accident, yet it never occurred to you in all your years of plotting and scheming that there might have been a reason I was born?”

“The key!” her father gasped, suddenly staring at the key hanging from the golden chain around her neck. She could feel it growing warm against her skin as it filled the library with a purifying brightness.

“Kill her now!” the creature shrieked in her head, throwing its cloaked arms up to defend itself against the strange light. She could feel the alien panic in the creature like a magnetic pulse.

Her father raised the pistol and took aim. “I should have done this a long time ago.”

He pulled the trigger.

The bullet exploded into Vanessa’s chest, knocking her off her feet. The shot sent her airborne before she struck the floor hard, the force causing her body to slide a few feet towards the circular wall behind her.

At first she felt nothing, but then the pain burst within her. Through shattered breastbone and ribs, she felt her lifeblood begin to seep out onto the cold, stone floor. She could hear herself cough and gurgle blood as she tried to keep breathing through ruined lungs.

It rapidly became impossible. Dark specks polluted her vision, rapidly swarming to overtake the light. Somehow she didn’t lose consciousness, though she knew that any moment now she would.

She heard her father’s footsteps drawing closer. His footfalls were measured and deliberate. He was in no hurry. He was totally calm. She could still sense him in her mind clearly, though her own conscious thoughts were becoming fragmented; slipping away as if she were trying to hold water in her hands.

The metallic chu-click as her father cocked the gun again and prepared to fire the shot that would surely kill her. It was strange how detached she had become from the entire process. It almost felt as if she were already dead and had stopped breathing.

She could feel the weight of the book grasped in her right hand, slick with blood, but still there. She felt her father’s lustful delight at being so close to what he had sought all his life.

She felt the creature’s presence leave her mind, but she did not know if it voluntarily left, or if she was losing consciousness.

There was a bright light coming from somewhere. She supposed it was the one people who claimed to have been at death’s door and came back always talked about. It was such an impossibly untainted brilliance that she couldn’t stare at it any longer. Even with her eyes closed, it burned through her eyelids.

She felt something else besides the glow of the light and the aching, burning agony of the gunshot wound. This was not a physical sensation though—at least not her own. She felt her father’s terror explode in her mind; sudden and fierce, like the gunshots he had fired at her.

He started to scream.

She felt the bones in her chest moving, there was no mistaking the sensation. They were beginning to mend with supernatural speed. She felt the bullet wound burn as if someone had funneled gasoline directly into the cavity and lit it afire.

Her blood stopped pumping out of the punctures in her body onto the floor. New flesh grew in milliseconds on both the front of her body where the bullet had entered, and the gaping exit wound out her back. Her breathing evened out, and became regular in the space of two heartbeats.

Her father’s screams grew in a crescendo of horrible, torturous pain. Vanessa’s mind recoiled from the sound, unable to cope with the noise that a human throat was never designed to produce.

It was a preternatural scream, an instinctive shriek. It was a scream that echoed in her skull as she began at last to lose consciousness.

* * * * *

Vanessa and her mother boarded Lufthansa flight 1341 bound for Philadelphia at 6:00 in the morning, local time. The plane would land nearly ten hours later and they would take a train from there back to Metro Park, New Jersey.

Her Aunt Rita and Uncle Steven—relatives on her mother’s side—would be waiting to take them back to Tom’s River. It was only about an hour from Metro Park, but Vanessa was eager to be back in the familiarity of her hometown. Her aunt and uncle were good people, and would help her mother cope with her recent loss.

Her father’s “disappearance” had shattered her mother. She sat in the adjacent seat in a tranquilized stupor, barely able to maintain consciousness for more than a few minutes at a time. Usually when she did, she would be reduced to slow, sluggish sobs.

Vanessa told her mother nothing of what had happened down in the secret library. She would allow her mother to learn to live with the assumption her father had just picked up his things and left them both. It would hurt her for years—maybe forever—but it would be easier to face than the truth.

Down in that shadowy library, nothing more than a wet scorch mark on the stone floor remained of her father. She woke some hours after her father shot her, to find herself alone and the bullet wound in her chest very nearly healed. A few hours later, and she couldn’t even tell that she had been shot at all.

The sinister presence fled when its tool had died.

She still couldn’t understand what happened, or how she survived. Ever since waking, she felt a raw energy, a power flowing through her veins that made her feel—almost superhuman.

She had taken the winding, circular stairway up to the wine cellar, through the wrecked door of iron and brass, and watched as the portal sealed itself behind her. Now, it appeared as it did when Sarah led her there—just another stone wall.

Vanessa had gone to her bedroom almost immediately, and waited for her mother to notice that her father wouldn’t be returning.

By dinnertime, her mother was almost hysterical. She had called local authorities on her cell phone. They had resisted opening a missing person’s case at first, saying it was department policy not to get involved until someone was missing for twenty-four hours or more.

Her mother, however, had kept the detective on the phone for almost twenty minutes in a near hysterical rant. In the end, they agreed to send down a few officers to conduct a search.

They arrived within the hour. One of the detectives speculated that he might have had a heart attack or suffered some other medical emergency somewhere alone in so vast a castle. There were literally hundreds of places a man might lay unlooked for in a place that size.

They searched for hours, but did not find a body.

The detective in charge asked if they were having marriage problems, and her mother got the subtle hint. She didn’t answer, or maybe couldn’t. She saw the officers to the main entrance and politely bid them goodbye.

Over the next four days they packed up all of their belongings and prepared to head back to the United States. They completed the sweeps of the castle and created inventory checklists of their belongings to be sure they missed nothing. It was during a review of one of the lists that they saw that some of her father’s things were missing.

His laptop. One of his overcoats. All of his notes.

Vanessa had taken most of these things and disposed of them before the police arrived that first night. She removed the laptop’s hard drive and hid that away among her belongings for later inspection. Everything else got burned in one of the six walk-in fireplaces the castle boasted.

It had taken her three or four fires before the things she had taken from him had been reduced to their base components. Once cooled, they had been stuffed into a double-thick Hefty bag and lobbed in the garbage bins with their other trash.

She stored his notes in the pages of the odd little book that she kept with her everywhere she went. Strangely, the “journal” seemed to swallow each piece of note parchment as she put it in, never growing in size.

The only conclusion her mother had been left to draw was that Roger had left them. Though her parents did fight a lot, her mother truly had loved her father, so Vanessa felt sorry for her.

She felt her mother stir at her side as the plane ran into some turbulence shortly after takeoff. Her mother roused to semi-consciousness and looked around, surprised. It was as if she didn’t know where she was. The tranquilizers, Vanessa knew.

“We’re already in the air?” she asked finally. Her voice was thick and groggy.

Vanessa closed the pink book in her hands and put one hand on her mother’s knee. “Yes, we took off about thirty minutes ago.”

Her mother reached up and pressed the button for the flight attendant. She was trying to fight the sedatives. “Do you want a drink, dear?”

“No thanks,” Vanessa said. “You aren’t supposed to have any alcohol, Mom.”

“What are you reading?” her mother asked, ignoring her comment.

“My journal,” Vanessa said. “It’s private.”

Her mother smiled weakly. “Don’t worry dear, I was fifteen once. Keep your secrets.”

A long moment of silence passed after the flight attendant took her mother’s order for a Bloody Mary. “What kind of things do you write in there, Vanessa?”

Vanessa eyed her mother curiously. She felt a hazy, probing interest radiate from her mother, but nothing more. She knew what her mother wanted to hear. “You know… the usual. Hopes, dreams, movie stars, boys, what I’m going to be when I grow up… you know.”

Her mother closed her eyes, settling back into the plush chair and smiled. It was the first genuine smile she had seen on her mother’s face since they left England. “What are you going to be when you grow up?” she asked, patting her daughter’s knee playfully. “That is, unless that’s too personal.”

Vanessa was silent for a moment or two. The flight attendant returned with her mother’s drink. To answer her mother’s second question, she decided not to just tell her what she wanted to hear. She’d have to hear the truth. “I don’t know. I was thinking about maybe becoming a nun or something.”

Her mother’s bloodshot eyes popped open at that, the thin crimson spider webs that ran through whites the only evidence that she was full of tranquilizers. “Really?”

Vanessa probed. She felt genuine surprise from her mother, but not disapproval. “Maybe not the ‘dress in black have no fun’ kind… I don’t know. I’ve been thinking a lot about God lately since Dad left.”

She risked a glance at her mother. Her eyes were still closed, but she could feel the pain in her mother’s mind at the mention of her father.

“Maybe I could do something that would teach people about God… do some good in the world,” she said. She watched for her mother’s reaction, but none came.

Silence was all that passed between them for a long time. Finally, when Vanessa thought her mother may have fallen back into her sedative-induced slumber, her mother said, “What brought that on? I mean I know you like church and always did well in Sunday school classes, but you’ve never talked about making it a career before. Ever.”

“I know,” Vanessa began, “but don’t you think it’s important?”

Her mother didn’t answer immediately. She sighed unhappily. “I didn’t used to, to be honest with you. A long, long time ago—back when your father and I met—I didn’t believe in anything.”

“What changed your mind?” Vanessa asked.

“You,” her mother smiled a thin smile. “When I became pregnant with you I started to believe in miracles again. Round little chubby miracles that I never thought I wanted in my life.”

“So I guess you’re my first convert then,” Vanessa said smiling.

Her mother leaned back into the chair and closed her eyes. She found her daughter’s hand and held it tightly. “Yes, I suppose I am.”

Vanessa settled back in her own chair, and reopened what appeared to the world to be her journal. The pages within were filled with strange, flowing verse that she found to be too much like prophecy to make any sense. The rest of it was grids and grids of the strange symbols she had seen her mother translating.

She didn’t understand any of it.

A strange call from the book seduced her into re-opening it every time she put it down though. Somehow she knew that if she stared at it enough, she would begin to understand.

The strange, spidery characters that Sarah had called the “language of angels” were fascinating. The symbols tugged at her, insistent and desperate for their message to be understood.

Understood and passed on.

She looked out the window at the mountains of voluminous clouds and the brilliance of the blue sky. She would understand sooner or later. It might take her years, but she would figure it out. And then she’d teach what she learned to others.

For now, though, she was tired. And it was still a very long way home. She glanced again out at the clouds, and wondered briefly if this is what Heaven itself looked like.

A very long way home, indeed.

Awakening

by Michael Natale

 

This story contains material of a graphic and adult nature.

1 John 1:8

If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.

1 John 3:9

No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in him; he cannot go on sinning, because he has been born of God.

 

Four Years Ago

Marcus Palmer was one of the best criminal defense attorneys in Manhattan. He left court late in the afternoon, feeling on top of his game. He had just successfully defended a man who viciously beat a woman in Central Park in front of dozens of witnesses. Marcus’ skill in manipulating the system found a procedural error in the arrest, and the man walked.

Another win, he knew. One more for the resume. A handful more like that and soon one of the big Manhattan law firms would notice him.

It happened sooner than expected.

A few days later, a generous offer letter from Simons & Braverman arrived via FedEx at his office. Simons & Braverman was the biggest firm in Manhattan. The rock stars of the legal world held office there and pimple faced law school graduates gushed like groupies at the mere mention of the name.

Marcus couldn’t help but swell with pride that he had attracted their attention from his shitty little one-man show in White Plains. It was all part of a long, calculated plan that Marcus had put in motion years ago to bring about this very day.

He skimmed the offer letter quickly, flipping the first page over and scanning the second for a bold headline that read “COMPENSATION”. The words beneath it were just a random assortment of letters to his eager eyes, what Marcus was searching for was a dollar sign and a string of numbers—hopefully a long string with lots of zeros after it.

He was not disappointed.

Leaning back in his leather chair, he read the letter through as a matter of procedure. His lawyer’s eyes looked for something unacceptable, knowing he wouldn’t find it.

Marcus could not have realized it, but as he signed the letter and stuffed it back in the return FedEx pack, he had set into motion a chain of events that would prove unstoppable.

Events that were foretold when the world was newly made and the human animal was just learning to walk erect.

The simple act of putting ink on paper was a beacon that shone through all the barriers between worlds. Like an insistent signal it erupted across the folds of reality, it created a small schism in the usual orderliness that existed among levels of consciousness and sentience.

Those barriers that normally were buffers to keep incompatible dimensions from colliding trembled as the pen made its mark on the paper. They shivered, warped and eventually ruptured. The breach had been made—there was no changing that now.

It could not be closed. Not yet.

Something that lurked in the shadows between worlds stirred. It felt the call after literally eons in its deep slumber. It was intimately familiar with the feeling associated with the calling. A primal instinct, really, but one the creature welcomed.

After all, since the moment Marcus Palmer erupted from his mother’s womb, the creature had been stalking him. Finally, the time had come.

With a gleeful little chuckle, it stepped through the rift.

 

Now

Marcus rose through the ranks at Simons and Braverman with uncanny momentum. His record was near perfect, he rarely lost a case. His nickname among the others at the firm was “The Machine” because of his robot-like drive and attention to detail that always seemed to be the sole reason his cases were won or lost.

Whatever the firm wanted, he delivered and they paid him handsomely for it. The few times he had lost in court, it was because one of the senior partners had told him to throw the case. He never asked questions, never had a moral crisis or a last minute change of heart. He didn’t want to know the dark and dirty secrets that the firm hid, he was there to be paid for his services.

He made few friends, never socialized outside of work with clients or other attorneys unless asked to, and on an average week, put in eighty to a hundred hours at work.

As a result, he was on the short list of candidates to be made partner and the firm’s gratitude fattened his bank account tenfold from his White Plains days.

Tonight, he had to make an appearance at the firm’s annual Christmas party, an event he always dreaded. Making small talk with a bunch of elitist, over-ambitious attorneys was not his idea of holiday fun. It kept him from work and away from his caseload, and that never made him happy.

At least this year he would be able to go alone.

His wife Lily had a nasty virus that had left her bedridden all week. He monitored her progress daily, but not out of concern. He silently hoped that she would stay sick for just a few more days.

Their passion for one another had died a slow, miserable death years ago, to be replaced with barely disguised tolerance. They fought more than talked, and had built up so much resentment towards one another, they barely could stand to be in the same room together.

The plain truth was that Lily loved their bank account more than she did him. Period.

When it became clear that she would not be well enough to attend, Lily insisted Marcus go alone. This of course played into what Marcus wanted anyway, so he did not argue.

Still, Lily had an overbearing personality and felt the need to control every situation. She insisted on explaining to him how important events like this were to his career. The explanation came out as a teacher trying to show an especially dim child how to add or subtract.

The truth of it was, Lily had high ambitions for him that weren’t about to be derailed by her contraction of a simple illness.

The Palmer bottom line was her real motivation. Marcus knew it, was resigned to it even. After all, Lily did love her extravagances and moving with the social elite of Manhattan was not cheap. He didn’t care, as long as she left him alone; and if that came at the cost of eighty percent of his annual income, then he considered it a fair trade.

He could always make more.

Marcus had just put his overcoat on when he heard her vomit into a large saucepan she kept next to the bed. He smiled at that, but it faded fast as she barked at him to come clean it up. Just like everything with Lily, it was more a command than a request. He sighed, removing his coat and gloves to go empty the bucket of puke.

He was twenty minutes late to the party and in a foul mood. He went straight to the bar. They had set up two bars and a hot buffet in the firm’s expansive law library. It was stuffy, pretentious and overbearing—exactly what he expected.

The normally soundless room buzzed softly with muted, private conversations. The steady rhythm of soft jazz piano drifted from some corner of the library that Marcus could not pinpoint. It smelled of expensive cigars and Polo cologne. The strange, masculine mixture was at odds with a swarm of women’s fragrances drifting throughout the room.

The conservative stink of Manhattan’s upper-upper class disgusted him. Despite all his success at Simons & Braverman, he didn’t really belong here. He had earned his way here; worked his ass off and made it to the big leagues through perspiration and intelligence. But he wasn’t born into it, and his blue-collar background fueled a contemptuous fire in his belly.

People who were born rich never knew anything but privilege and plenty. They never needed to look in the mirror because so many people were telling them how wonderful they were. Need never touched them, and want was a temporary inconvenience.

Let the whole world go to shit, Marcus thought, and most of these people would crumble right along with it. But not him… he would rebound, that was his strength. He had gotten where he was because of what was in his head and in his heart, and he could do it all over again.

I’m like a cockroach, Marcus thought to himself, smiling.

Marcus accepted his whiskey sour from the bartender and gave him a five, even though the drink was four-fifty. The man’s tip jar was filled with tens and twenties, but Marcus would be damned if he’d tip the guy that much for an overpriced, watered-down drink.

He turned from the bar and saw her. Sheila Stevens. She was the absolute hottest piece of Manhattan-Bred-Ass ever to grace the firm. Watching Sheila move was like watching a Porsche corner—just fucking amazing.

Sheila was a hunter, though. She was an ambitious, female attorney attempting to succeed in a web of ego and testosterone that wanted nothing more than for her to fail. Marcus almost could have respected her having the stones to play the game with the wrinkled aristocracy of Simons & Braverman.

Almost. If she weren’t such an unadulterated bitch, that is.

Another thing that really pissed him off was that Sheila had no qualms about using her best asset—her body—to advance her career and that he couldn’t respect. It was an unfair advantage that men just didn’t have.

Everyone at the firm knew it—expected it, even. Even now, there were half a dozen men standing around her, their wives abandoned, or like his, safely at home. The Queen was holding court.

Sheila laughed suddenly at something one of the men said, playfully laying a hand on his shoulder. Her laugh was a musical, sensual sound that was inviting and warm, even from across the room.

Marcus knew it didn’t really matter how good she was at her job, for the men she bartered her favors with, it was always about the sex. If any of them brought her name up in the boardroom afterwards, it was discreetly done. Nothing agreed upon up front, nothing out in the open. Plausible deniability.

Could she be that good in bed?

He’d never know. There were several others in the firm that could offer her more on the way up than Marcus Palmer. It would probably be another year before she rose high enough in the firm to be threatened by his position, but he gave her credit for recognizing him as competition this early.

None of that stopped him from watching her now though. She had an athletic body whose lines were somehow still soft, graceful and curvaceous. The cut of her business suit accented her figure in a way that was both professional and sensual. Marcus knew it was deliberate; everything was with Sheila. That was part of her charm.

Eventually, she felt the weight of his stare and flicked her eyes towards him. Barely a turn of her blonde head, not enough to be a glance, but he caught it. Her expression was a smoldering warning.

He stared back, equally revolted by her and letting it show in his eyes—but not on his face. That was a smooth, expressionless mask. It was a facade he had crafted through years spent in front of juries and judges, defending the worst of humanity in order to make a buck.

Well, several hundred thousand bucks, actually.

He sipped his whiskey sour and continued to violate her in his mind’s eye—and she knew it. More importantly, he wanted her to know it. Fucking with her head was passing the time and he could see it was driving her absolutely bugshit.

“Nasty little viper, isn’t she?” The voice came as a soft whisper over his shoulder, and Marcus turned to see who the speaker was.

An impossibly tall man stood behind him. Impeccably dressed in a black business suit, he looked like a funeral director. It wasn’t just the clothes though—he had the look of a man who spent more time with the dead than the living.

Marcus had no idea who the man was. He didn’t want to agree with his obviously scandalous statement without first knowing who the man was. For all he knew he was looking at one of her clients.

“Pardon?” Marcus said.

The man smiled, showing altogether too many teeth as his face stretched to accommodate a wicked grin. He leaned in closer to Marcus and gestured towards Sheila. His voice dropped even lower. “I said she’s a slippery piece of commerce, that one. Whored her way here, I imagine. With a body like that, I would hope it was getting some use, wouldn’t you say?”

Marcus found himself nodding. He turned back to the man and extended his free hand, “Marcus Palmer. You are?”

“Mr. Screech,” the man said with a slight bow and another smile that did not touch his unhappy eyes.

Marcus did not recognize the name. “I’m sorry, Mr. Screech, I don’t think we’ve met. Are you with the firm or are you a client?”

“I am merely a passerby, Mr. Palmer. I noticed you admiring the young lady and thought I’d stop to chat.”

Marcus flushed. He hoped he hadn’t been that obvious—he was aiming for a subtlety that only Sheila would notice, not the whole damn room.

“Well,” Marcus said, lowering his voice, “I wouldn’t say admiring.” He took a sip of his drink. “I was looking, that’s true—but hell, who wouldn’t, right?”

“Yes,” Mr. Screech said in a low hiss, “Even I can see the temptation of the flesh with that one. After all, we are but men, are we not?”

The smile that Mr. Screech displayed was horrible, like a grinning skull. Marcus only laughed, enjoying the diversion of the peculiar man’s company.

Mr. Screech lowered his voice further. “I bet she’s the worst kind of bitch too. Almost certainly she’s a tease—unless you’ve something to offer in trade. In all probability, she has never had a genuine orgasm of her own all her life. You can see it in those poor, soulless little eyes—no one ever cared about her enough to try that hard.”

“Probably,” Marcus agreed. He realized that he was thinking exactly the same thing.

“I would suppose a girl like that needs someone to show her what truly using another person is all about, doesn’t she? A real man—a man like you, I dare say—could probably give her the best sex of her life. Not for power or political favor, but just for the sake of pure, animal lust.”

“That would really piss her off, wouldn’t it?” Marcus said more to himself than to Mr. Screech. He felt a spreading warmth in his belly, the flush of desire.

“It would,” Mr. Screech agreed. “She is used to always being in control of the exchange. Probably only really knows how to be on top. Women like that need to be conquered. They need to be taught. Shaped. Taken.

Marcus drained his whiskey sour. “I do believe you’re right, Mr. Screech.”

Mr. Screech leaned in closer to Marcus, so close his mouth was almost touching Marcus’ ear. The man’s breath stank of an open grave, a horrible rotting smell that Marcus somehow instantly identified. “Why don’t you go talk to her?”

Why didn’t he go talk to her? So he was married? So were half the men in this room and nearly all of those would probably end up bedding someone else other than their wife tonight. Why not him?

His thoughts instantly rewound back to earlier that evening, when he went to empty the saucepan Lily had spattered with vomit. She had laughed at him, mocked him as he emptied the pot into the toilet and cleaned it out for her. She thought it was funny that he was a man earning a healthy six figures and she could still make him clean up her puke.

Fucking hilarious, Marcus thought. Why not me?

At that moment, Sheila turned again. Her eyes locked with his for an instant but by now his mask was gone. Marcus was fuming.

Finally she excused herself from the small clutch of men she was speaking with, and marched towards him. She walked with confidence and grace, completely sure of herself and in control.

Perhaps she would slap him, make a scene here in front of the senior partners. Perhaps she would quietly tell him to fuck off, as she had done on several occasions before he truly knew her and had tried to make conversation.

As she advanced upon him, time seemed to slow—Sheila’s steps became sluggish to his eyes. Like a film running at half speed, she plodded towards him. The sounds of conversations in the room became muffled. Marcus felt as if his head had been stuffed with cotton.

Sheila became a smudge of white and powder blue, her features indistinct. He felt the flush of desire and heat race from his lower abdomen straight up through his chest. It burned past his throat and settled right in the center of his brain.

It seethed there like a boiling ocean of energy, his entire skull tingling with pins and needles. Marcus wondered if it were possible for your head to fall asleep, like a foot or an arm after sleeping on it wrong.

All of his senses came alive at once. Somehow until that moment, they had been imprisoned inside the fleshy cage of his body, dulled and numbed. The fire in his skull grew white-hot. Strange impressions came fast and furious, nearly overwhelming him.

He could smell her approach—could pick out her perfume from the sea of fragrances in the room. He could even identify her sweat. He knew what she had to eat for supper before coming to the party—could smell the fruity tang of light raspberry vinaigrette on her breath. He smelled a sugary mint fragrance, and knew she had used a Tic-Tac right before entering the party to try and cover the dressing.

He knew what the taste of her skin would be like if he ran his tongue from her earlobe to the nape of her neck, salty and hot. He could smell her sex, delicately perfumed beneath a layer of nylon. He could feel its heat, even from here.

The room snapped back into focus with a lurch and time resumed its normal march forward. He felt a sense of vertigo, almost as if stepping down from a carousel while it was still moving. Impossibly only seconds had passed, he could see that now.

Marcus felt as if he were going to pass out.

Sheila took the last steps towards him and sneered at him. She still had on a stupid, counterfeit smile that did not reach her eyes. Her voice dropped to a threatening whisper. “Palmer, just what the fuck do you think you’re staring at?”

Marcus only managed to stammer, “Nothing, I…” but he stopped in mid-sentence.

Something strange came over her.

Sheila’s face went instantly blank, the phony lawyer-smile gone. She was staring into his eyes as if drugged; the look of derision replaced by one of open interest and undisguised lust. Her face lit up as she smiled candidly. Her blue eyes sparkled, as if she had just noticed he was there and was happy to see him. “Yes, Marcus?”

She took another step towards him. She was inches from him now. There was no mistaking her intent. It was an obvious enticement for him to step closer to her.

On pure instinct, he moved back the same way a horse trots with quick, urgent steps when it comes upon a snake in the forest. He half turned so as not to run into Mr. Screech—but the man was no longer there.

He could see in Sheila’s face that she wanted him to talk to her, needed it even. He could hear her heart beat, could feel the blood quicken through her veins. What the fuck was going on? The slightest hint of her pungent, sticky sweet sex wafted to his nostrils. She was getting excited.

She took a deep breath as if trying to stop herself from talking, but failing in the attempt. “I’ve been waiting for you to talk to me tonight, Marcus,” she breathed.

She was? Really? When did she learn his first name?

Suddenly the fire in his head returned, the pins and needles causing brilliant white stars to explode across his vision. The words were spilling out of his mouth, and he couldn’t stop one from following another. “Sheila, would you like to get a hotel room with me?”

Her smile was modest, almost shy as she let out a low, throaty laugh. Her lips twisted into a lustful grin. “Yes, I would like that very much Marcus.”

* * * * *

Marcus sat in one of the room’s two chairs, his pants around his ankles. Sheila knelt naked in front of him, her head in his lap doing a rhythmic motion up and down, up and down. Her hands were tied behind her back with his necktie—something she begged him to do. She moaned softly as she worked on him, the only evidence she was even still breathing other than the motion of her head.

For hours, Marcus told Sheila what to do and she did it. She complied without question, without hesitation. Eagerly, even.

The fire in his head blazed even hotter, causing his thoughts to fragment and slip away from him. He felt like he was watching someone else do things to Sheila. Words poured out of him continuously. He could not stop himself, it seemed to be integrated somehow in this whole bizarre experience.

He could read her inner desires, her secret thoughts, fears and impulses. Marcus manipulated her complex emotional state like a master pianist tickling the keys. Each thought, each fragment of feeling that Sheila kept buried in her head and heart, he unearthed. The more he did it, the more she fell under his control.

She became more compliant as the hours went by. The more aggressive he became, the more she seemed to like it. She offered to do things he wanted her to do without his being aware that he even wanted it. The lines between her desire and his blurred and fused into one strange, pulsing mess of flesh.

Finally, when he knew he didn’t have another drop of fluid in his body, he quietly suggested that Sheila get some rest. Without a word she stood up, walked over to the bed, lay down upon it, hands still tied behind her back. She was almost instantly asleep.

Marcus watched her sleep for a few minutes, and then his eyes drifted towards the darkened bathroom, its door opened halfway.

Something in the darkness chuckled. “Well, well. Looks like old Mr. Screech still knows a thing or two about the ladies, doesn’t he?”

Marcus was not startled. He had identified the smell of decay hours ago. His mind connected it at once to Mr. Screech, but somehow he knew the old man was not a threat. Not to him, anyway. How he had gotten into the room, Marcus could not say.

The creature—and Marcus suspected somehow that was exactly what Mr. Screech was—waited in the darkness with all the patience of the grave. Somehow Mr. Screech was part of tonight’s strange events, and Marcus was at a loss to explain any of it.

Only the soft sounds Sheila made while sleeping broke the eerie stillness in the air. It was a silence that Marcus knew was his to break.

Say nothing, ignore the darkness and what lurked within it, and tomorrow life would go back to normal. Sheila would go home, shower and wonder just how many drinks she had consumed the night before in order to sleep with Marcus Palmer.

But choose to speak—talk to it—converse with the darkness, and it would be like setting a foot firmly on the road to Hell.

Mr. Screech waited. So did the silence—like evil waiting to be done.

* * * * *

When Marcus arrived at his house sometime after 4:00 a.m., he made no attempt to be quiet. Deliberately, he let the door slam behind him, and tossed his key ring carelessly on the dining room table.

The keys crashed into the glass tabletop, making a terrible racket as they skidded across the surface. He heard his wife stir from within their bedroom down the hall.

Marcus smiled, a thin, sinister smile—not unlike that of Mr. Screech.

Lily’s voice came simmering out of the stillness of slumber and quickly rolled to a furious boil. “Marcus? Jesus Christ, what time is it? Where the hell have you been!?!” Silence for a few brief moments, and then a groan. She was sitting up. “I threw up again a couple hours ago, so get your ass in here and clean it up! I feel too sick to move and you obviously feel just fine! Four o’clock in the goddamn morning…”

A piece of the night stepped out from the shadows in the kitchen. “We really must do something about that woman,” Mr. Screech said. The darkness flowed off of him as he walked to stand aside Marcus. His shadow grew taller and more menacing with each step.

“Yes,” Marcus said. His brain was smoldering again with that same white-hot fire, causing him to stagger briefly. The vertigo was briefer this time. He took off his coat and tossed it over the back of one of the high backed chairs in the dining room. “I’ll go talk to her.”

“Wonderful,” Mr. Screech said. “I’ll make us both some tea. Do hurry, Marcus. We mustn’t tarry.”

* * * * *

The gossip around the law firm had been that Sheila Stevens and Marcus Palmer had been lovers for years. Most attributed the public loathing of one another to cleverly crafted deception.

When they found Lily Palmer’s vomit-stained body dangling from the brass gilded ceiling fan in the Palmer’s bedroom, the entire firm was taken aback. The gossip mill quickly ground out the story: Palmer’s wife hung herself, leaving a suicide note behind outlining her husband’s tawdry affair with Sheila.

The police had investigated, of course. A marriage gone sour, an affair, a “suicide” that was really a homicide. Sadly, it was the stuff of both television movies and reality.

But Sheila had substantiated Marcus’ story, and so did the clerk at the Hotel Pennsylvania. She told the police that they were in love and that yes, it was true that for the last four years, they were having an affair.

The hotel produced records outlining when Marcus and Sheila arrived and left the night of Lily Palmer’s death. One of the third shift desk clerks even went so far as to remark that he had spoken with Marcus Palmer on the phone. He had called to ask for more towels, the man said.

The hotel’s records showed the time of the call was right about when the coroner said Lily Palmer was busy hanging herself in the bedroom. The police—somewhat reluctantly—concluded that Marcus had not murdered his wife. They officially labeled her death a legitimate suicide.

Why shouldn’t they? Marcus had only talked to her.

* * * * *

Marcus resigned from the law firm the following week, citing emotional distress. Sheila quit “to be with Marcus”. They both simply walked away from their former lives. They left behind extended family, homes, and possessions to begin the four hour drive to Boston. Marcus told her he had a job offer waiting there.

Sheila asked no questions.

Halfway into the drive, they pulled off Route 84 in Hartford, Connecticut and stopped at the train station. Marcus told Sheila to remove all her jewelry and leave her purse in the car. She complied without complaint or question.

They went into the station, checked the arrivals board, and went up to Track 1. The train serving the Northeast Corridor from Washington would arrive in fifteen minutes. There were a handful of people waiting on the landing. Some were there to pick up passengers coming in, others with briefcases or suitcases waiting to go.

Marcus and Sheila sat on one of the benches and waited for the train to arrive. Sheila’s head was on his shoulder, and he had his arm around her. He was whispering to her in a soft, quiet voice. She nodded slowly, smiling with that same stupid doe-eyed expression on her face.

Finally, someone nearby commented that the train was coming, and a bright headlight shone like an arrow through the morning haze of the city. People stood from the benches or pushed themselves away from the walls where they had been leaning to get a better look.

Marcus left Sheila sitting alone on the bench and stepped over to one of the rusted pillars supporting the steel canopy over the platform. Mr. Screech stepped out from behind it. He looked even more frightening in the early grey of the morning.

He smiled his death-head smile at Marcus. Marcus smiled back.

“Excuse me, everyone, could I have your attention please?” Marcus shouted, waving his hands so the others on the platform would turn to see him. “Please, could you all listen to me for just a moment?”

* * * * *

Engineer First Class Paul Middleton began the process to slow Amtrak Train 142 down as it approached the Hartford station. He squinted as he massaged the brakes. What was the crowd doing so close to the edge of the platform? It looked like they were over the yellow safety line.

He blew the train’s horn, a quick blast to both announce the arrival and to warn them back behind the line. Where was the cop? There was supposed to be a cop on duty here to keep the damn crowd back.

Paul squinted as he saw a dark blue uniform and felt relief as the cop walked towards the crowd. His relief turned to bewilderment as the officer walked to stand with the others. They appeared to be massing at the edge of the platform, leaning in as the train approached.

Paul felt a slight panic rise in his gut, though he wasn’t sure why. He applied more pressure to the braking system, to cut its momentum faster and bring the steel behemoth to a safe stop before something very bad happened.

He reached for the hand mic on the radio and clicked the button frantically. “Station, station… this is Amtrak 142—there’s a bunch of passengers up on Arrival Platform 1. They’re way too close; they’ve crossed the yellow line, all of them! Looks like the cop is—”

Paul’s eyes grew suddenly wide with terror. He dropped the mic from his hand and scrambled to work the brakes to bring the train to an emergency stop. His curses were drowned out by screaming metal and blaring horn as the train tried to comply, but was unable to stop fast enough.

All fifteen people—including the policeman—leapt in front of his train.

* * * * *

Mr. Screech buckled himself into the passenger seat of Marcus’s BMW and began to look through Sheila’s purse. He pulled something out of it.

“Gum?” Mr. Screech offered, holding the green pack up for Marcus to take a stick.

“No thanks,” Marcus said.

Mr. Screech waved the pack of gum in front of him in a tempting fashion. “It’s minty fresh,” he said. His grin was straight out of a nightmare.

“Why don’t you have some,” Marcus suggested. “Your breath smells like shit.”

The rush of what he had just done had not left him, and his mind was still on fire. He harbored no regrets; something about the last few weeks had burned the last vestiges of morality out of him.

What he did have was questions—questions that desperately needed answers.

“You’ve begun to remember, haven’t you?” Mr. Screech hissed.

Marcus drove on in silence for a few minutes. That was an understatement. Last night the dreams came again. It was the fourth night in a row he dreamt of flying, something he had never done before. As a boy, he remembered many people claimed that was a common dream.

But not like his dreams.

Wings sprouted up out of his back. They were covered with soft, bone-white feathers. Unstained. Clean. Pure. Their lines were graceful and the span sizeable. The person he saw in his dreams looked nothing like him but he knew without doubt that the image in his mind’s eye was him.

He flew at speeds which defied even his dreaming mind to comprehend. He fought in mid-air, chopping and slashing with a silver sword against the backdrop of a magnificent, silver city.

Was it called THE Silver City? He could barely remember, but the question tugged at him, impatient for answers.

The sword’s gleaming blade shone wet with the blood of other winged creatures like his dream-self. Creatures he knew to be his kin, yet he fought with a ferocity and hatred that was inhuman and completely merciless.

“I’ve had some pretty fucked up dreams,” Marcus finally said, bringing himself back to the present.

“They are not dreams,” Mr. Screech said. “They are memories.”

Marcus knew the thing in the passenger seat was altogether not human. He knew too that it was a creature of evil, a thing out of nightmares that only wore the flesh of a human being. Marcus also knew it spoke the truth.

Over the past few days he had recognized Mr. Screech. Or rather, he recognized the feeling he associated with the creature that called itself Mr. Screech. He could feel it approach before it showed itself to him. He knew it was there. That was an altogether too familiar shiver. It whispered to him, “I’m here, just look over your right shoulder…”

That friendly tremble reminded him of his childhood. Of sleepless nights wondering just what it was that hid itself under his bed. The gripping fear he felt when he knew that something was sitting in the tranquil darkness of his bedroom closet, watching him.

“What am I then?” he finally asked.

Mr. Screech folded his long, spidery fingers in front of his gaunt face, as if considering his words carefully. “You are Firstborn.

His skin prickling, Marcus glanced at the thing in the passenger seat. “What?”

“Firstborn,” Mr. Screech repeated. “Of the Host…?” Mr. Screech tilted his head expectantly, as if this explained everything.

Marcus put his eyes back on the road. “I have no fucking idea what you’re talking about.”

Mr. Screech shrugged. “The Awakening comes differently to all. You will remember everything in time, but unfortunately that is not a commodity that we possess in limitless supply.”

“Then cut the shit and just tell me what you know,” Marcus barked.

“You are familiar with the story of Heaven and Hell, yes?”

Marcus shivered as another brief memory came to him. He saw his dream-self standing on one of the endless walls of the Silver City, holding a struggling creature out over the ledge by its throat. It bled from a thousand wounds but still fought in a futile attempt to break free from his crushing grasp. The pitiful thing had shattered, broken wings. The velvety white feathers were spattered with blood.

“Yes,” Marcus said. “Lucifer led a group of angels against God. They lost the War in Heaven and were cast out.”

Mr. Screech frowned. “Not entirely accurate, I’m afraid. When God created Man, he ordered all the hosts of Heaven to worship Man as his greatest creation. Nearly all the Angels and Seraphs in Heaven obeyed God as commanded, but there were those who questioned the theological correctness of that point of view. There were those of us that refused.”

“Us?” Marcus whispered.

Mr. Screech nodded. “We were God’s First; creations made more closely in His image than Man will ever be. No matter how many times mortals are reborn and this world recast, we were Firstborn. We believed that the command to worship such imperfect, flawed creatures as Man was a direct conflict with how we were created. We were made to worship God, not Man. Those of us who rebelled did so because we believed to worship Man would be the highest form of Blasphemy conceivable.”

Marcus felt his pulse quicken as a passage from Revelations leapt into his mind. It came out almost without him being conscious that he was speaking the words. “…and there was a War in Heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back. But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven.” Marcus swallowed. “He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him.”

Mr. Screech sneered, baring his teeth. “Don’t quote that mortal idiocy to me. Let us simply say the War never ended. Mortal histories record it differently, of course, but those of us at the Battle of Harmony’s End know the truth—as you yourself can attest to. We were cast out of Heaven. Excommunicated from Him. ‘Hurled to the earth’ as you say.”

Suddenly Marcus had another flash of insight. “This was to be our Hell,” he said. “Doomed to live as mortals… to live among them. To live, die and be reborn again over and over and over. Until…”

Mr. Screech snickered with wicked delight. “Good. You remember some of it. Apparently the theory was that by condemning us to mortal flesh, we would eventually learn what it is—He—sees in these miserable shits.”

“I am Firstborn,” Marcus echoed flatly. More memories were coming then, slow and sluggish but very clear once they arrived.

“Yes,” Mr. Screech murmured. “The absolute paramount of mortal evolution. You are a godless American who earns a healthy living helping the worst of mortal-kind get away with crimes against their own species. You have no children, but instead have accumulated many things that others of your kind covet and lust after. Cars. A boat. Expensive jewelry and artwork. A winter home in Florida. You hated your wife, and broke your vows to copulate with another woman—repeatedly, I might add.”

Marcus shot him an angry glance.

“You have become all that God intended. Completely and unashamedly mortal. Suitable punishment, don’t you think?”

Marcus drove on in silence as more memories assaulted his brain. “I slew Hivictus on the walls of the Silver City. That… that was in my dream. I threw him off the walls after I cut off his wings…”

“That you did,” Mr. Screech smiled. “You are called Astaroth, Ninth of the Circle of Twenty. We were content to let you live out your life and see if the next cycle brought you back to us as expected, but the War goes badly for us. There are… rumors… that The End is coming, and not in our favor, I am afraid. This necessitated my being sent to help you along with the Awakening.”

Marcus knew everything the creature next to him said was true. He looked at Mr. Screech and no longer saw the cadaverous old man sitting next to him. He recognized it now for the demon it was.

He could see now past the illusion of flesh, revealing a servant of the Nephilim that hid beneath. It had large, bulbous eyes that looked like sacs filled with blood, its pupils a tiny yellow dot within the crimson orb. Its cruel scar of a mouth was overflowing with needle sharp teeth. Large yellow and purplish boils that oozed viscous fluid covered its spiny head.

This particular demon he knew very well. He remembered that it had been a lesser angel once, bound in service to The Host. It was of the lesser caste, and so had been perverted and twisted into demon form as part of its punishment.

“Where do we go now, Zarafat,” Astaroth said.

“You remembered my true-name,” it said. “I cannot help but be touched. Our Master waits for us in Boston where we will discuss how to find The Child.”

Marcus cast a quizzical glance at the demon.

“Yes,” it nodded. “That child. The time is upon us, wheels upon wheels are already in motion.”

“Are we too late, then?” Astaroth asked.

The demon Zarafat chuckled. It was a disturbing sound, gurgling forth from a mouth never intended to make that sound. “For this cycle of Man, perhaps we are. But this is not the first time the wheel has come full circle, for that is the nature of the struggle, is it not? Sometimes we are victorious, often we are not. Either way, it all ends and the whole ball of shit starts rolling all over again.”

Astaroth nodded, lost in his own thoughts. “I remember so many lives…”

Zarafat snorted. “Please save the nostalgia for your own time. Our Master bade me remind you that once you are again in possession of your faculties, there would be nothing stopping you from resuming your former responsibilities in service to our Cause. I have attempted to remind you of that in what I hoped would be a subtle manner, but you seemed to have missed my delicate suggestions.”

Astaroth smiled a thin, wicked smile. “Talking fifteen people into throwing themselves in front of a train wasn’t what I would call subtle, Zarafat.”

The creature grinned back at him. “We don’t have time to be clever. That was a message and was not intended to be subtle. It will be clear to those who oppose us that you have returned.”

Zarafat nodded. “What about my wife?”

“What about her?”

“Another message?”

Zarafat raised his clawed hand. “I had nothing to do with that, Astaroth. Talking that woman into hanging herself was your idea—and you enjoyed it entirely too much if you are asking…”

“I’m not,” Astaroth cut him off.

He slowed the car and flipped the BMW’s right directional on. He began the slow glide over to the far lane, and turned into the rest area off-ramp. There were at least two dozen cars parked there. A steady stream of mortals made their way in or out of the rest area to relieve themselves, refill their coffee cups or grab a bite to eat.

“Let’s grab a cup of coffee. Between the guests and the workers tending this rest stop, there must be fifty or sixty people here. Maybe I can chat with a few of them before we get back on the road.”

“Splendid,” the creature grinned.

 

This story is continued in Seedling, by Michael Natale.