The Mummer

by Brennan J. Bennett

 

Four days, he thought, stepping out of the battered cabin he’d rented when he’d first arrived in Hog-Jaw. It had been four lousy days in this cold, Canadian piss-pot of a town and Jack Bradley still hadn’t figured out why he’d even come in the first place.

It was because of her, he could remember that much.

That bitch.

Before stopping in Hog-Jaw, Jack had been a week into getting-the-fuck-out-of-Dodge—“Dodge” being his marriage and the shit-storm he’d left behind. He’d left his driveway in Maine with “If I ever see you again, I’ll cut your fucking face off!” echoing in his ears and had wound his way through Canada to Newfoundland, where he’d been barrel-assing across the island when he’d seen the sign for Hog-Jaw.

It had been the name “Hog-Jaw” that had reminded him of something she’d said early in their marriage—though he’d never made a habit of listening to her—and he’d been compelled to stop. He’d spent the next four days getting righteously, rip-roaringly drunk, and trying to remember what she’d said that had made him stop and spend the week of Christmas in this Podunk little shit-tank.

And as he heard the burping and coughing of the ancient truck on the morning of his fifth day in Hog-Jaw, he still couldn’t remember a thing.

The truck was rumbling toward him up the neglected dirt road that ended abruptly at his front door, and he descended the cabin’s four-step front porch to meet it.

The rust-colored Chevy rolled to a stop, and the driver killed the engine and swung open the rust-pocked door. He seemed to emerge in segments. By the way he moved, Jack had expected to see an old-timer—a grizzled, leathery woodsman—but the man who uncoiled himself from the Chevy was no more than forty, about his own age. He was broad-shouldered and sturdy, with the thick arms and chest of an athlete (or a lumberjack, Jack thought). Dense hair spilled out over his shirt and seemed to climb like ivy toward his neck where it merged with thick stubble that swallowed most of his face. Messy shocks of reddish-brown hair fell from his head, leaving only a narrow slot for his sunken eyes. Jack thought of medieval knights and the tiny eye slots of their visored helmets.

The man shut the door of the truck and took a few aimless steps toward him. As he approached, Jack could see a deep, twisting scar that began at the corner of his eye and plunged down somewhere into the wild, endless stubble.

He stopped ten feet from where Jack stood and said nothing.

“Morning,” Jack offered.

Silence.

“What can I do you for, Chief?” Jack said, grinning.

Again, silence.

“Everyone in this town this damn chatty? You know, on that note, does thirty people in the woods even constitute a town? I mean, this–”

“Morning,” the man said, suddenly. It was neither a pleasantry nor a greeting, but a simple statement of fact. The flatness in his voice matched the lifelessness in the eyes that peered not at Jack, but past him into the woods, from behind the wild visor of hair.

Jack hesitated, eyeing the man suspiciously, not sure if he might offer more. Finally he said, “Okay, can I help y–?”

“See you tonight,” the man said flatly, suddenly—strangely suddenly, Jack thought. The vacant eyes continued to stare.

Jack furrowed his eyebrows. He opened his mouth to speak, but just as he did, the dead-eyed hair-knight snapped his head a quarter-turn to the right with surprising quickness. The abruptness of the movement startled Jack and his mouth hung open. Hair-Knight seemed to be looking at the cabin.

Jack swallowed hard. His mouth felt dry and the spit stuck in the back of his throat.

He traced Hair-Knight’s line of sight and realized, with sudden confusion, that there was something—maybe a flyer—taped to the outside of his cabin door.

Before Jack had much time to think, Hair-Knight’s head began to turn back toward him. It moved slowly, deliberately. All sound seemed to fade and Jack could feel his eyes darting with metronome quickness, anticipating that something—anything—might happen.

As Hair-Knight’s face became visible to him, Jack could see that his formerly dead, sunken eyes were now wide and popping from his skull. Jack felt the hackles rise on his neck, sick gooseflesh leap from his skin. Despite the freezing air, hot waves of steam rippled from his chest and made his cheeks flushed.

Without a word, the man turned toward his old truck and pulled open the door. The door gave a shrill whine and Jack winced. And before he could really understand what had transpired, the man folded himself back into the old Chevy with his same meandering slowness and was gone.

*****

When Jack arrived at Clapper’s a half-hour later, the barroom was nearly empty, other than a few shrunken old men scattered about the place and a tired-looking bartender.

Jack plopped himself down at the bar and slouched onto his elbows, his head in his hands. Replayings of his peculiar encounter with the stranger outside his cabin flashed before his eyes. His skin crawled and pricked with each replay, as if suffering bites from a swarm of fire ants all over his body. His muscles were tense, and the innocuous sounds of the barroom made his bones pulse and caused him to cower reflexively for an instant each time one disrupted the heavy stillness of the room.

He replayed the stranger’s words—see you tonight—like his mind was stuck in a record-player-skip, until his face felt numb.

The flyer pinned to his door was perhaps the most troubling part of the encounter. It had been pinned to his door in the wee-hours of the morning—he’d been up, piss-drunk, by the fire until at least midnight, and the flyer hadn’t been there when he went in for the night. That meant someone had been watching him, waiting for him to turn in, had crept up to his door… He shivered. What was more concerning, though, was the way Hair-Knight seemed to look right at it—the only thing he looked clearly at—like he wanted him to see it.

When Jack had snatched the paper from the door after Hair-Knight left, he was even more perplexed. “Annual Night of the Mummers,” the headline had read. Below it: “December 23.” Tonight. Underneath that, a peculiar picture of what he could only describe as a “fucked-up clown” had smiled out at him. At the bottom of the page, he’d noticed a few lines of verse that read, “There’s big ones and small ones, and tall ones and thin, / Boys dressed as women and girls dressed as men, / Humps on their backs and mitts on their feet, / My blessed we’ll die with the heat. –Simani.”

He’d seen the same flyer plastered to the window of Mack’s Market as he’d passed a few minutes before, and the same fucked-up clown—“the mummer,” apparently—was staring at him presently from the flyer pinned behind the bar.

“Get’cha, b’y?” the old barman said, startling Jack out of the dark mire of his thoughts.

Jack looked up and said nothing.

“Whadda ya want, b’y,” he asked again in thick Newfoundland English.

“Beer. Don’t care which.”

“Black Horse?” The old bartender’s face was a reddened and weathered patchwork of wrinkles, and Jack could see exhaustion plain and true. His eyes, though, seemed sharp.

“Oh, me nerves,” the barman said under his breath when Jack didn’t answer, and then more forcibly, “Black Horse, eh, b’y?”

“Sure, yeah.”

Jack watched him as he snatched a mug and pulled the tap. He was a stout little man, and he lumbered when he walked, like a man who had seen too much to worry about being in a hurry. Presently, he plodded toward Jack with the amber beer. Jack noticed his eyes again when he set down the mug, the sharpness there that stuck in his mind like a thorn.

“So, what’s the deal with this Mummer thing?” Jack asked, taking a long, calming sip of his beer and gesturing to the flyer behind the bar. “I’ve seen the flyers everywhere.”

Like my fucking cabin, he thought.

“Local ting,” the barman said, turning to eye the poster. “Sort of a game ’round Christmas every year. Yer friends dress up in masks and come to yer house, see if ya can guess who they be. Ya give ’em drinks fer clues, and when ya guess ’em all and the masks come off… well that’s when the real drinkin’ begins, eh, b’y?”

“Sounds…” Jack trailed off and slugged the rest of his beer.

“Yes, b’y, t’sumtin’, tat’s fer sure.”

He held Jack’s gaze a bit longer than was comfortable and Jack sensed that sharpness once again, like the old barman was trying to tell him something.

“Anyway, tis place’ll be empty. Whole town’ll be mumm’rin’. Anotter?” he said, scooping up Jack’s empty mug and heading for the taps. But just as he did, the tavern door swung out furiously and three feral-looking men shoved in. The barkeep eyed them skeptically, almost vigilantly, and turned back to Jack.

He lowered his red-leather face, that sharpness blazing behind his eyes, and whispered, “I’d say t’sabout time ya headed back to where ya come from, me son.”

He stepped back, shot Jack one final knowing glance and greeted the three men with “Get’cha, b’ys?” in the same tired, banal voice he’d used on Jack.

*****

“Fuck me!” Jack yelled as he slammed down his third pint to a chorus of cheers. His three new friends slapped him on the back.

When they’d first arrived, Jack had noticed two things simultaneously: first, each had a scar on his face similar to Hair-Knight’s, and second, almost as soon as they’d come through the door, the handful of old-timers in the room scattered as if they’d caught the fresh scent of death on the wind.

But those things were long gone from him. Now, he was quite enjoying their company.

“Bring me another round, b’y!” Jack yelled to the barkeep, mimicking the local Newfie accent, to another round of wild cheers. The bartender ambled over with another pint. Jack grabbed the beer and spun on his stool to face the men who were standing behind him in a tight half-circle. He thrust his glass toward them, and as he did, the three men raised theirs in odd unison, as if their arms were all tied to the same string. Jack smiled and teetered forward, sliding half off the barstool, not seeming to notice the strange uniformity of the men standing before him—the way they moved, spoke, laughed.

“Okay, b’ys,” he said, “what is it we’re toasting this time?”

A furtive glance passed among the three men, but again, Jack didn’t notice; his head danced in a warm haze.

“To ex-wives,” one of the men, Daniel, said after a moment’s pause, and raised his glass. He was a big bastard, probably six-foot-four, the kind of guy Jack would call a brick shithouse.

“You, Daniel-san?” Jack said stupidly in his Mr. Miyagi voice, pinching Daniel’s cheek. “With that handsome punim?”

“Believe it, brother,” Daniel said, clinking his glass against Jack’s. “She’s sort of the reason I ended up here. I was an ass. I’m getting what I deserve, really.”

“She do that to you?” Jack asked, half-serious, reaching up a hand to finger the ragged scar that twisted from under Daniel’s nostrils and tucked underneath his chin along his jawline.

“Something like that,” Daniel said.

When he didn’t say more, Jack said, “Women,” and downed a healthy gulp of beer. Shaking his head, he added, “Can’t live with ’em, can’t live with ’em. My old man used to say that.” This brought another round of cheers and more clinking glasses.

“You said it, pal,” Daniel agreed.

Though Jack hadn’t noticed, his head beginning to swim in inebriation, Daniel hadn’t touched his beer. In fact, none of them had taken a single sip the whole night.

“You married, Jack?” another of the men, Jordan, asked.

“Me? Fuck no. Well, shit, technically, yes, I still am. But let’s just say things didn’t end too well between me and the missus.” Jack finished off the pint in a heaping gulp.

“No?” Jordan asked, his expressionless face belying the false emotion in his voice.

Jack narrowed his eyes. “There’s something about you, Jordan. Something I can’t quite…” If he hadn’t been drunk, Jack may have placed his finger on what didn’t sit quite right about Jordan—the way he stood, too upright, or the way he never shifted his weight. He may have thought Jordan was a little too robotic, his movements too stiff, his skin too smooth—except for the faded pink gash-scar that split his cheek in two from ear to nose.

What Jack might have noticed most of all about Jordan—about all of them—is that he didn’t speak with a Canadian accent—Newfie or anything else.

Instead, when Jordan told him he didn’t have to talk about it, Jack replied with, “You want a story, fuckers? Then I’ve got one hell of a tale for you.”

“Bartender—another pint!” Daniel yelled and Jordan cheered.

With fresh beer in hand and bright lights bursting behind his eyes, Jack began his story.

“You see, b’ys, ol’ Jackie went and screwed the pooch, as they say. Well, if we’re being technical, I’d been screwing it just about every day.”

“Other women?” Jordan said.

“Everything that moved.” He was starting to slur his words. “You see, my missus… well, she just stopped putting out. It wasn’t always like that. She gave great head when I first met her, really rocked my fucking world. You find a girl who sucks cock like that and you lock her down—my old man never said that, but there would have been some practical advice!”

His three friends laughed a tinny, mechanical laugh in unison. Jack didn’t know why but he thought the laughter sounded like dead leaves scraping across pavement in the dark.

Jack took a long sip and continued his story. “Anyway, the fun stopped right after we got hitched. The fuck am I telling you for? Daniel, you were married; you know all about it.”

Daniel nodded and flashed a hollow grin.

“You other two twats ever married?” Jack asked, looking from Jordan to Nate, the third of the men. Both nodded. “Yeah, I could tell. Both divorced right?” They nodded again and Jack echoed their nods. “Knew it. We divorced guys have a certain look, a certain je ne sais quoi,” he said, nose upturned in mock-sophistication.

Jack noticed—the first thing he had noticed all evening—that Nate’s mouth took a downward dip at this. “Yours did a particular number on you, huh, Nate?”

“I deserve what I got,” he said flatly, looking down.

“Oh come on, boys! I’ve heard enough of that,” Jack groaned. “First Daniel and now Nate… Jordan, straighten them out!”

“Sorry, Jack,” Jordan said. “I, too, have reaped what I’ve sown.”

“Bullshit!” Jack yelled. “Bullshit! A hot, steamy pile of it! Come on, boys! The bitch is to blame! Mine caught me in the act! Came home early one day and caught me laying pipe right there on the living room couch. Some young slut. Big tits.” Jack grinned and lost himself in memory.

“Why are you here?” Nate said with a bluntness that woke Jack from his daydream. He was glowering darkly.

Jack looked up at him through glossy eyes that became suddenly lucid.

“What do you mean?”

Nate, Jack had learned, was a sullen son-of-a-bitch, and he hadn’t done much more than grunt since they’d met. Jack could tell he was a man of few words, but he seemed particularly surly this evening, really just going through the motions. His face was a permanent scowl and his wild-horse eyes were near-black. His scar, too, was unlike those of the other two (three—he remembered Hair-Knight and shivered). While theirs gave their faces a pitiful, victimized quality, his added an element of antagonism. It cut sharply across his lips, from nose to chin.

“You should leave and never come back,” Nate said, his face impassive.

“What Nate means to say,” Daniel broke in, turning toward Nate and glaring feverishly, “is how did it end with your wife?”

Though Daniel had been speaking to him, Jack thought the words were more for Nate.

“Jack?” Daniel said.

Jack, still watching Nate, jumped, startled. “Huh? Oh—sorry. What did you ask?”

“How did things end with your wife?”

“Ehh, you know,” he said dismissively.

“Do tell,” Jordan said. His robotic cadence again shocked Jack, furthering sobering him.

“Not much to tell, man,” he said almost defensively. “My wife’s crazy. She told me to get the hell out, that she’d kill me if she ever saw me again.” I’ll cut your fucking face off.

“Did you believe her?” Daniel said.

“I’m sitting at a hole-in-the-wall bar on an island in Canada, aren’t I?”

“Fair point,” Jordan said.

“I mean, I don’t think she’d ever hurt me. I don’t know; maybe she would. I guess I must have believed her because here I am.” Jack grew suddenly pensive. “I guess she does have something about her that is sort of scary.”

“She sure does,” Daniel said.

Nate jerked up his head and locked eyes with Jack as soon as Daniel spoke.

“What did you say?” Jack said, confusion plain on his face, his mouth suddenly dry.

“I said, ‘I’m sure she does.’ She must scare you to get you to leave home.”

“Yeah,” Jack said slowly, suspiciously.

He stared at Daniel, afraid to break eye contact.

He was just about to look away, to accept that maybe he had heard Daniel wrong, when he saw Daniel grin.

Jack stood up and retreated a half-step. He scanned the faces of the three men, feeling suddenly alone and vulnerable.

And then he saw Jordan grin.

Their grins seemed to be alive, spreading like ink in water, malignant and black, across their faces.

Jack felt a pressure begin to build in his chest like he were in a too-fast car going zero-to-infinity. He couldn’t breathe.

He knew, suddenly, that he had to get away. He recoiled back into his barstool and stumbled hard into the bartop. He caught himself just before he fell and hurried for the door.

Once onto the sidewalk, he took a deep breath of cold afternoon air and glanced back into the bar through the storefront window. Daniel and Jordan were still watching him with their wicked faces. Nate, though, was looking down, his hands in his pockets.

*****

When he awoke, face-down on the tweed sofa in his cabin, Jack was chilled and shivering. The room was dark, except for the sliver of dingy light that shone in, horizontal, through a window by the door. The sky was a quickly-fading orange and the little light slanting in through the blinds made his head throb like an ever-expanding balloon. He sat up slowly, his body heavy, and massaged his temples with trembling fingers.

He wobbled to his feet and shuffled to the refrigerator, where he found a single Budweiser tucked away in the back. He snatched up the can and took a long, purposeful sip which eased his trembling momentarily.

He stumbled back toward the sofa and sat facing the door. His mind reeled with a thousand thoughts at once. The Hair-Knight. The mummers. Daniel and Jordan with their scars… and their grins. Why had Nate told him to leave? He took another sip of beer, holding it on his tongue, and exhaled forcefully through his nose.

His knees bobbed, piston-like, as the slice of light around him thinned to a single strip of brightness. In another minute, the light had receded from the cabin entirely, just a pinhole glare on the horizon. And then it was gone, replaced by a twilight glow that melted away into the starless blue-black of night.

Jack drank the last sip of his beer, and as he did, there were three slow, light knocks at the door.

See you tonight, he remembered in the echoes.

“Who is it?” he called.

Another round of knocking sounded at the door, quicker this time.

“Who is it?” he tried again, voice faltering.

A third round, heavy and aggressive now, boomed as if in response.

Jack’s pulse crashed in his ears like tidal waves pounding the shore. Cold sweat broke over his body.

Suddenly, the knocking became a violent, hateful rapping that seemed to surround him. Loud crashes enveloped him as fists pounded the cabin from all angles. He whipped his head around frantically, trying to catch glimpses of the figures in the darkness through the windows.

The banging on the door thundered in ever-quickening, mallet-fisted blasts. The door leapt on its hinges, threatening to give way at any moment.

“Fuck it,” Jack said aloud. Before he could stop himself, he was on his feet, flipping on the overhead light, and unlocking the door.

When he did, the pounding stopped at once in a single reverberating note. A cruel silence settled over him. And then the cabin door pulled open.

He hadn’t known what he would see when the door opened, when the overhead light spilled out into the darkness and spotlighted whoever was there. He certainly hadn’t expected to see the clown.

It wasn’t so much a clown, he thought as the man crossed the threshold, but a thing of nightmares. The man, whoever he was, wore a mask. It was the wizened, deep-wrinkled face of an old man—heavy brows, sunken cheekbones, bulbous nose—but there was a cartoonish quality to it, like a caricature gone horribly wrong. The old man’s mouth twisted downward into a red-lipped grimace that revealed black gums and rotting teeth. The worst part of the mask, Jack thought, was the empty eye sockets, black and sinister, and the very real, very hateful human eyes beneath.

Hair-Knight. He’d know those eyes anywhere.

Hair-Knight said nothing under his mask. He breathed heavily, threateningly, and stepped toward Jack. Jack recoiled quickly, slamming his heels into the base of the sofa and crashing down into a seated position. He looked up dumbly, helplessly, and saw the rest of Hair-Knight’s outfit. He wore a black tuxedo-looking getup, though, Jack noticed, the entire thing was one piece, like the denim jumpsuit a mechanic might wear. A grotesque hump—obviously fake—protruded from his back. It looked airy and flopped side-to-side as he moved. The whole thing was so absurd, so ironically comical, that Jack wanted to laugh, and he might have, if not for the eyes that burned from behind the mask.

Jack was suddenly aware that two other people, each as oddly dressed as the first, were stepping through the door. None made a sound.

“What…” Jack started but stopped.

The first figure stepped forward and cocked his head at Jack as if in confusion. He wore a white sheet over his face, held tightly to his skin by black cords around his forehead and neck. Mismatching holes revealed eyes that never broke from his. In the droop of the right eye-hole, Jack could see the thin scar across his cheek. If the strange, robotic movements hadn’t given him away, the scar surely had.

Jordan.

Around the white sheet, Jordan wore what looked like a lion’s mane, the hair kinky and rainbow-colored. It billowed like a windy grainfield each time he alternated the tilt of his head. His stare cut into Jack and he said nothing.

A minute or more passed in the silence of this bizarre stare-off, and finally, bewildered, Jack said, “What–”

“Quiet,” Hair-Knight said. Though his voice was barely above a whisper behind the old-man mask, his baleful glare turned Jack’s stomach to knots. Jack held his breath, afraid to make a sound.

“We are the mummers!” Lion’s-Mane-Jordan said suddenly. His voice was high-pitched and squeaky. “We are the mummers, and we’re sorry for this fright! But we’re here for fun, to dance and pun, for you this winter’s night!”

When he finished his song, Jordan stepped back into line and the tall mummer at Hair-Knight’s left shoulder stepped forward. Jack knew him instantly.

Daniel.

Where’s Nate? Jack wondered. Why isn’t he with them?

Daniel had a waterfall of curly blond hair masking his face. Clipped to the hair were two prosthetic-eyes-on-springs, lifeless gray and jouncing wildly. He was shirtless and on his stomach was a tattoo of Siamese cowboys riding Siamese horses.

He was holding a strange-looking stick—a broom handle—about four feet long. Attached to the bottom of the stick was an old work boot, the sole at the steel toe flapping like a lolling tongue. Nails were driven into the wood all along the length of the stick, and from each, dangled bottle caps, marbles, or silver jingle bells.

Siamese-Cowboy-Daniel opened his mouth and said, “It’s really quite simple! Just guess our names! That’s how you win this mumm’ring game!” As he sang, he held the strange stick out from his body with one hand and let it slam, boot-first, to the ground with a discordant crash. Every few seconds, he’d let it fall again.

He continued his song. “We’ll give you clues to help you out. When you know, let out a shout! Call the name and we’ll be done, then you’ll be on to another one!” At this, he brayed chilling laughter—part animal, part demented circus-clown.

Jordan, also giggling maniacally, his mane undulating like underwater plantlife, picked up the verse. “Can’t solve the riddles? That’s no problem. For a price, we’ll help you solve ’em! A drink as bribe will buy a clue. That will make it clear to you. When all unmasked, we’ll be away, and you’ll have learned a truth today.”

“What tru–”

“Shut up!” Hair-Knight roared. Jack was poleaxed by fear. He had been confused before that moment—afraid even—but when Hair-Knight yelled, Jack understood immediately that he was in real danger.

The silence that followed was deafening. The three mummers stared in unison. And then the ugly broom-handled instrument began to bang. It’s beat was steady. One-two-three-CLANG!-one-two-three-CLANG!-one-two-three-CLANG! It was the tolling of a funeral bell.

Get up! he thought. Get up and run!

One-two-three-CLANG!

Jack squeezed his fingers into a tight ball. His pulse thrummed behind his knuckles.

Hair-Knight. Have to get past the fucking Hair-Knight.

The savage yawp of a cornered animal erupted from within him suddenly and Jack was on his feet. He took two loping strides and drove his fist into Hair-Knight’s face. The old-man-face absorbed much of the blow, but it was enough to knock him off balance, and Jack pushed past him and shouldered through the door. It gave way with surprising ease and he stumbled, plunging headlong down the stairs, flipping and landing hard in the snow. Before he could think of the pain or the cold, he was up and running. He glanced over his shoulder and saw the mummers piling through the door, Daniel already to the bottom of the steps, the asinine pole-instrument gripped like a bo staff in his hands.

Jack whipped his head forward and sprinted wildly toward the dirt road. Get to town! he thought. Get help! Before he’d taken three steps, though, he stopped cold.

Standing at the edge of the road was another mummer, a long-bladed kitchen knife in his hand. He rolled the knife between his thumb and fingers and the moonlight glinted menacingly off the blade. Then everything went black.

*****

When he came to, he was only faintly aware of where he was. His vision was blurred, but a musty smell told him he was still in his cabin. The moving shapes across the room told him the mummers were still there, too. He tried to move but found that he was bound, wrists and ankles, to a wicker chair. Panic set in immediately. He yanked feverishly against the ropes, arching his back and throwing his weight against them, but the more he struggled, the tighter they seemed to get. After a few seconds, he gave up and fell heavily into the chair.

He was suddenly aware of the blaring pain in the back of his skull and he closed his eyes tightly. Something warm beaded across his hairline and trickled behind his right ear. Tears came, and then great ragged heaves.

“Shut the fuck up,” he heard and then felt the explosion of pain as knuckles shattered his cheekbone. He made a gurgling sound in his throat and began to sob.

Hair-Knight, still wearing his mask, massaged his knuckles. He tensed when he heard Jack’s cries and was back on him in an instant, his hand wrapped around Jack’s throat, fist clenched and cocked. “I said shut the fuck UP!”

“Enough,” a voice called lackadaisically from across the room. Hair-Knight released his throat and joined the other two mummers by the door.

The voice belonged to the fourth mummer, the one who he’d seen on the road just before he’d blacked out. Now the man was reclining on the sofa, one leg draped over the other. He still held the knife. Jack watched as he picked at the undersides of his fingernails nonchalantly with the tip of the blade.

Nate.

He was dressed in much the same way as the others. Over his face, he wore a burlap sack, black Xs across the eyes and a cross-stitched zipper-pattern smile that traced across the bag.

“Back to the game then, hmm?” Burlap-Sack-Nate said without emotion.

Jordan stepped forward in his preposterous lion’s mane and cocked his head maniacally again. “Take a guess at who I am. Jim or John or maybe Sam. If you think you need a clue, try blueb’rry wine, yes that’ll do,” he sang. The ugly-stick in Daniel’s hand clanged miserably along.

“Please,” Jack begged the mummer on the couch. “Please just let me go. I won’t say anything about this. I just want to go home. Please.”

The mummer sighed. Exasperation maybe. Jack saw him nod at Hair-Knight and flick the knife toward Jack. An instant later, Hair-Knight was hovering over him, fist raised. This time, pain followed, like nothing Jack had ever felt. His already-shattered cheekbone felt as if it had been ground to dust. The fat knuckles had also caught part of his nose and blood poured out. Jack leaned his head back and blood rushed down his throat, making him sputter. He found himself crying again through gulps of metallic blood.

“Do you enjoy the pain, Jackie?” the fourth mummer said. His voice was calm.

“No,” Jack whispered, steadying himself the best he could.

“No. Of course you don’t.” The mummer spoke as if answering his own question. “See, but here’s the thing: I think… you fucking… do.”

“Ple-ea-ease,” Jack mewed. “Please, no.”

“Then play the game. Guess the names and it all ends.” He flicked his hand in a whimsical, dismissive gesture.

“If I play the game, I can leave?” Jack asked, hope rising in the pallor of his face.

Silence.

“It’s Jordan,” Jack said, wheezing through his broken nose. “It’s Jordan in the white sheet. Jordan.”

Jordan stepped forward and slipped the sheet over his face, revealing the rotting grin Jack knew he’d see there. Jack’s skin prickled at the sight.

The Siamese-Cowboy was next. He stepped forward, eyes dangling morbidly on their springs on the blond wig. “My dance–”

“Daniel,” Jack interrupted. “It’s Daniel. And that’s the fucking Hair-Knight,” he said, pointing to the old-man-face mask. They removed their masks. Daniel was grinning. Hair-Knight was glaring.

“Hair-Knight,” the fourth mummer repeated, amused. He was on his feet now, ambling toward Jack, still flourishing the long knife in his hand. Jack felt cold, suffusive fear seeping through his pores, smelled its sour tang in an instant. He bucked his hips and arched his back against the ropes.

“Stop that,” the mummer said, walking past him and touching him lightly on the shoulder with the flat side of the blade. Jack eyed the knife and then swung his head around as far as he could to watch the mummer. He heard the heavy clink of steel on laminate as the mummer laid the knife on the countertop in the kitchen just out of his view. Cords stood out on Jack’s neck as he strained to see. He heard what sounded like twisting and then tat-tat-tat-tat-tat. Then a quick fffwoop. His heart raced. Moments later, he heard another clank as the knife hit the cast iron of the burner on the gas range.

“What do you want from me?” Jack said softly.

Behind him, Jack heard the audible expansion of the plume of flame on the burner. After a minute or more of silence, he heard, “I want you to play the game.” The burner turned off with a quick pop.

“I don’t want to play anymore,” he whimpered.

The mummer appeared in his periphery, the knife, now gleaming red-hot, back in his hands. He lowered his burlap-sacked face directly in front of Jack’s and said, “Are you ready for my clue?”

“Nate! You’re Nate,” Jack yelled, desperation thick in his voice.

Without a word, the mummer climbed onto him, draping either leg around the outside of Jack’s until he was in an erotic straddle across his lap. He held the hot knife aloft, the point only a few inches from Jack’s left eye, and twirled the blade in a tight circlet. Jack squeezed his eyes shut and drew back his head as far as he could. The blade inched closer.

“Please, just leave me alone,” Jack begged.

“Oh, if only I’d said that when we first met.”

“But–” he said and then screamed as the mummer touched the point of the blade to the soft flesh under his eye. He saw the tiny curl of steam and screamed again.

“Are you ready for my clue now?”

“Yes,” Jack heard himself say, afraid anything else might get him burned again.

“Good. Here goes. You didn’t know this when we met, and I never did quite clue you, but it’s a fact and you can bet, that I already knew you. Not you, per se, but your type indeed; in fact, I’ve known quite many. Selfish ones, and arrogant; oh, yes, there have been plenty.”

“I don’t know,” Jack said softly, starting to cry again. “Nate. Nate!”

The mummer sang on. “I mark them out, I reel them in; it’s really not that hard. I hunt them down when they run off; leave them broken, beaten, scarred. You, too, I chose, flaws I could tell, when we met that spring in Maine. A year of marriage, a year of hell; I thought only of your pain.”

Jack opened his eyes wide, eyes suddenly alight with understanding.

The mummer continued, “And now here you sit, in my hometown, the seed I planted grown. I led you here, to break you, dear; your life now I do own. So the next time you run out on me, look only to your face; the scar you bear will long remind you of your true disgrace.”

Tears streamed down Jack’s face now; blood and snot poured from his nose.

“Say my name, Jackie,” the mummer said.

He shook his head slowly and said, barely audibly, “No. No. I–”

“Say… my… name!” the mummer yelled, ripping off the burlap sack in one fluid movement. Raven-black hair spilled out and eyes darker-still bore into him. Her face was beautiful and malicious.

*****

Jack was paralyzed by his wife’s wicked smile.

He didn’t struggle even when she shifted her weight forward on his lap and put the palm of her free hand on his forehead to press his face parallel to the ceiling. But then he saw the sheen of the blade in her other hand. And he felt the three sets of hands on him. Only then did Jack let out a pitiful scream. But then the knife stole his breath.

The blade bit deep into the flesh of his upper cheek where she’d burned him moments before. It had cooled considerably, but it cut with a bitter sting nonetheless. She ripped the blade from the soft skin under the eye down across his left cheek, using just the point and tip of the knife for her incision. A thin, red line appeared in its wake. As she turned under his nose, she laid the blade flat and let the cutting edge work. A bright red chasm appeared between his nostrils and lips, blood sliding in sheets across his mouth instantly. She finished the job by dragging the blade’s tip across his right cheek and jawline. And then she kissed him on the mouth. And licked her lips.

The hands released him all at once, but Jack felt glued to the chair. His mouth arched in a terrible grimace. His breath came in shallow gasps. His face burned with venomous flame.

“Say my name, Jack,” she whispered, her lips to his ear, the knife pressing just below it.

“Olivia.” His lips barely moved.

“Good. That’s good,” she said and hopped off his lap. She floated back to the stove, and through his agony, Jack once more heard the range flame to life, the blade clang against it.

“Why?” Jack exhaled to the ceiling.

“It’s not so complicated, really, Jackie,” she yelled from the stove. “My motivations are simple. I grew up here, just down the road actually—you probably didn’t even fucking know that… You never could listen to me, could you?—and my father was a cheating scumbag piece-of-shit who walked out on my mother and me. Now I’m making sure that never happens to anyone again, one arrogant shitsack at a time. Simple, right? So I have daddy issues. Whatever. Know thyself.

“You’re not the first arrogant shitsack though. You’ve probably figured that out by now—I’m sure you’ve seen the scars. You’re actually the fifth. Lucas was first,” Hair-Knight, Jack thought through his disorientation, “then Danny, then Jordy. Nathan was last. He’s still learning.” Jack could hear the control in her voice. The dominance. “We had to remind him just who is in charge after the way he acted today at Clapper’s.”

He’d tried to warn me, Jack thought. Just like the bartender.

Olivia continued, “Nathan had to be taught a lesson. But I think he’ll remember now.”

Hair-Knight stepped forward as Olivia finished speaking and held out his hand. In it, Jack saw a bloody human ear. He made a pathetic mewling sound and closed his eyes. The twisting line on his face throbbed wickedly.

“And now you’re one of mine, Jackie,” Olivia said, still standing by the stove. “You know, I told you Lucas was the first. That’s only partially true. He was my first husband, the first cheating asshole I took up here to break. But my father was really my first. Know what I did to him? I took his balls with an old kitchen knife when I was sixteen.”

A feeling of inevitability soaked through Jack. She’d hunted her own father… She’d tracked him down and… He knew in that moment that it wouldn’t have mattered if he’d come to Hog-Jaw or not. She’d have found him wherever he went.

She continued. “I didn’t even heat the blade. He almost bled out. But I didn’t let him. I thought he should have to live with what he’d done—and what I’d done to him.”

“I’m sorry,” Jack breathed. “For what I did to you.”

“Jack,” she sneered. “Don’t do that. You’re not sorry. You’re not capable of being sorry. Not yet anyway.”

Suddenly, the others were on him. Hair-Knight had his hand around his throat again, and Daniel pinned his legs. Jordan fingered Jack’s belt furiously. In a matter of seconds, he’d unfastened the clasp and shimmied the jeans and briefs down to his ankles.

Olivia, the red-hot knife in hand again, knelt between Jack’s legs and grabbed his balls in one hand like she were collecting wildflowers. He screamed and begged for mercy. He thrashed wildly in the chair, but the men held him firm. Olivia pressed the fat edge of the blade against the delicate skin between her fingers.

Jack threw his head back in agony, begging for an end. His skin hissed under the blade. The stench of burning flesh filled the air.

And then the branding was over.

“Get him into the snow,” Olivia said. Jack’s binds were cut and he was hoisted, his pants still around his ankles, out into the snow. The air rushing over his branding sent him into fresh bouts of agony. The snow, too, seemed to torch his seared flesh. Tears began to fall again and he hung his head, afraid to look at her as she descended the cabin’s steps, her burlap-sack mask in her hand.

She didn’t look at him either; she didn’t need to. Her power was clear.

“You know what you are now.” There was no question in her words. “You are nothing. You are mine. Now get in the car.” She pulled a set of keys—his keys—from her pocket and slid into the driver’s seat of Jack’s Mercedes.

Jack rose and pulled up his pants. He limped wearily toward the car, watching his feet as he walked. When he reached the door, he hesitated, his hand on the handle.

Maybe I can make a run for it, he thought. If I can get to the bartender… But they might catch me. That knife. The pain.

He opened the door and sat down, another wave of pain sweeping through him. Olivia started the car and pulled slowly down the dirt road. Jack could see the three others standing like sentinels. He realized, morosely, that he might soon be standing next to them as some other poor bastard made this drive.

“Put your head on my shoulder and close your eyes,” she said in the darkness.

Jack peeked at her furtively but didn’t move. He thought again of the bartender. He knows I’m here. He’ll send help.

Olivia turned the car onto Hog-Jaw’s main drag, and Jack began to see other mummers through his window. He watched them, the merry and the absurd, children and adults alike, laughing, prancing down sidewalks, knocking on doors. People in their homes smiling, inviting the mummers—their friends and neighbors—in. All fun. All happy.

And then he saw Olivia’s mask on the floor by his feet and shivered.

“Put your head on my shoulder and close your eyes,” she said again as they passed Mack’s Market, an edge to her voice now.

Jack refused to look at her. He could see Clapper’s just ahead.

Suddenly the car slammed to a stop.

“Jack,” she growled in the dark. He could feel her glare but still didn’t look.

And then he saw the bartender.

He was on the sidewalk in front of the bar, almost like he was waiting for them.

Jack’s heart raced. Help was so close. He had to get the barman’s attention.

He felt the power window switch with his finger but didn’t dare press it. He didn’t have time. She’d speed away the second the window moved and it would be all over. But he had to do something. This might be his only chance.

Suddenly, furiously, he pounded the car window with his open palms and screamed.

The barman looked up. He looked right at Jack.

Thank Christ! Jack thought as he kept banging.

And then his window began to lower.

He looked at Olivia, and in astonishment, saw her finger pressing the driver’s side window switch. She leaned toward him and lowered her head, looking past him toward the bartender on the sidewalk.

“Hi, Daddy,” she called through the open window.

Jack’s blood ran cold. His face turned ashen.

In the halo of yellow light from the bulb above the tavern’s door, Jack watched the barman raise a trembling palm to her, the rest of his body rigid at her words. The fear was plain in his eyes, as simple and true as anything Jack had ever seen. And then the barman turned, walked back into the bar, and turned off the light.

A thick darkness settled over the street. A heavy numbness settled over Jack.

He heard the hum of his window closing, and all he could do was sink into his seat.

After a moment of silence, he forced himself to look at Olivia. She was smiling devilishly.

“Put your head on my shoulder and close your eyes, Jackie.”

A shadow fell over her face then—not a shadow, Jack thought, but a darkness. A thing almost alive, wicked and ancient. Evil. Under that mask of primal darkness, her eyes turned to white fire.

Jack Bradley laid his head against her shoulder and closed his eyes.

 

The Tale of the Modern Truck Driver

by Joseph Dyer

 

It is an Ancient Mariner, and he stopped one of three
“By thy long grey beard and glittering eye,
Now wherefore stopp’st thou me?”
–Samuel Taylor Coleridge

 

I drove my pitiable white Grand Am into the parking lot of St. Peter’s Truck Plaza and the place was a dump as expected. Why did the bachelor party have to be in the middle of the country? There were a butt-load of strip clubs in Indianapolis, but Kyle wanted to have a “private party.” He didn’t tell his fiancé where it was; he didn’t want her showing up to assess the scene.

This was a sorry scene.

“Look at that sorry closed-down fireworks store,” Bill said. What did Bill expect? We were near Mt. Nixon, Indiana, where there was nothing, and we were on the outskirts of nothing. The fireworks place would be closed until winter was over and May came.

“I wish we could buy some bottle rockets,” Bruce said from the backseat. “We could light them off in Kyle’s car and piss off his girl.” Those comments are what keep Bruce in the backseat. He’s a year older than me, 23, but acts like he’s 13. Bruce and Bill are alright to hang with. Kyle is okay, he’s my cousin. The people I really want to hang with are too much trouble. Most of them have warrants, or are on probation, or both. I’m free and clear now; no probation, no court deferment hanging over my head, and as long as I don’t get a DUI tonight I can finally get my life going. Just have to make it through tonight. Probably shouldn’t have come, but it’s hard to turn down free beer and naked women. I’m not carrying any drugs in my car either. A quick run for a friend of a friend can lead to lots of trouble.

“Man that McDonald’s looks good,” Bruce said. Across the two-lane highway a McDonald’s lit the night. Someone who was smart and cultured would think it offended the country landscape, but to me, it was a bit of familiarity in this backwoods area. I knew we would end our night drunk-ordering food in the drive-thru. Kyle had gotten a DUI a year ago in a Taco Bell drive-thru when I had been with him. We hadn’t been acting crazy, but when we left cop cars boxed us in. I don’t know why they hadn’t busted me for being drunk, I was on probation, but they let me go when Kyle’s mom came to bail him out. Aunt Jonnie looked like she wanted to hang me while she drove us home.

“You should have driven, Carter!” she yelled at me after she dropped me off. “You’ve already got a DUI and have nothing to lose in your life either!”

“Let’s get inside and see some tail,” Bill said. We were in the back of the truck stop and it was dark, pitch black in the shadow of the McDonald’s. I could see the interstate and the sound of cars made me feel like I was far away from home, not forty-five miles.

The door to the place was yellow wood, a padlock for security. The sidewalk was red and yellow in places, like the place had once been quite the swinging scene. My phone went off in my pocket. Bruce looked at his phone (although the only people who would ever call Bruce were standing with him).

“Go on in,” I said.

“You get the ugly ones, Carter,” Bill said. Bill went through the door and I could hear country music inside. By country I do not mean Taylor Swift. I do not mean Rascal Flats. I mean country western; a note from a steel guitar bit me in the spine. The only lyrics I could hear spoke of a pickup truck. Every song in my car is rap or hip hop.

“Man…” I said and checked my phone. I had switched my phone light color from blue to green, and my eyes took a moment to understand what I was seeing. The caller ID read: Kyle. Damn he was inpatient. I pushed answer–

“There was a truck!” said a man of absolute raggedness. He was six inches from my face and I jumped back with no thought at all; my body had to get away from his creepiness. Flipping redneck, I thought. He had on a black T-shirt and black jeans grey from dirt. His hair was heavy metal long and his beard looked like something a deadhead would sport.

“Go catch your truck,” I said. He’d be asking for a ride or money for McDonald’s. I had cash for the party, but this fool wasn’t getting any of mine. The crap I go through for my money is too much to give it away. Here was my wonderful week: I worked two days at a temp service and when I showed for the third day they didn’t need me. I had to eat the gas money. I pawned my first DVD player for eight bucks. I bought beer for some seniors (earned ten bucks) and got into three unlocked cars in my apartment complex’s parking lot and got a few handfuls of dirty change.

So screw this guy.

“I had twenty-five mojados in the back of a U-haul truck,” he said. He spoke better than expected and didn’t act drunk. “It was the medium-sized truck and was stolen. There was a pathway cut from the cab to the bed so I could yell at them to be quiet when we got near the border. I’d done the run before and sometimes they would get excited back there and the Spanish would be flying.”

“Yo, that’s great,” I said and gave the crazy guy a salute. “I needs to go inside right now and look at something prettier than you.” He held up his hand, like he was going to beg me to stay, and he had my phone. “Hey, give me that!”

“Listen. We were running parallel to the border on the Mexican side. Each time I made the run I swore it would be my last, but the money was good. I’ve been a driver my whole life but nothing paid well. Nothing. So there I was again, driving a load that could get me a whole lot of prison time. But what did I care? I had no life. Ex-wife had my kids who hated me according to her. All I ever did was provide for them, but the road is no place for a family man.”

“Give me my phone,” I said to the old fool. I could bust him once in the mouth and take it back, but I didn’t want to. He was sad and pathetic. I hoped he would get his story on and then get out of my face.

“It wasn’t a bad run. The mojados were a nice group and some of the women were cute. No one was too dirty. They passed tequila and it was the smooth sort so I had a couple of nips. A drunk driving charge was the least of my worries. I kept the makeshift doorway open and talked to the ones who knew English. They had so many plans for America. A few wanted to get into college, another guy wanted to start a business. This one wanted to be a respiratory therapist. She said she’d done research online and thought it looked fun.

“I got lost. Sounds stupid, because I only had three turns but I missed the first one because of the talking, and maybe the drinking. They got unfriendly really quick when they realized I was lost. One of the pretty ones gave me the finger. It was night time and I had to drive with just the hazards on and it was real hard to see. I turned the truck around and damn near rolled the thing in a ditch. I’m in the desert! The mojados flopped around in the back and a baby started crying. Got real bad. According to the map, I was to turn at a clump of trees… I forget what kind. Whatever kind grows in the desert.

“I saw this bald eagle. He flew next to the truck and looked in. Then I saw the clump of trees and he landed on it. I turned. It was amazing, like the bird helped me. I honked at it as we drove by and the bird flew again. He flew in an arch to pass on my left.

“And then for fun I swerved and he broke his neck on my windshield.

“I don’t know why I hit the eagle. I got annoyed for one moment about America I guess. Those mojados behind me were so happy to come to my country, but it hadn’t done anything for me. No job ever worked out, whenever I got money saved, some American-made appliance or car would break down and I would be back to zero. I wanted to slap back, I guess, and let the country know I didn’t like it the way the mojados did.

“They were quiet while the dead bird bounced on my hood. At the time I didn’t know why it didn’t fall off, but it makes perfect sense now. It was all predestined.

“Some of them started to hiss at me in Spanish. I turned on the wipers to knock the bird off, but they couldn’t move him. I grabbed the thing with every intention of chucking it out into the desert night. More of them yelled so instead I threw it in the passenger’s seat. I thought about buckling it in, but the men I was delivering the mojados to don’t have any sense of humor. They loved the American way to make a buck.

“I rechecked the map and yelled we were only forty minutes from America. A few cheered, and others translated, and more cheered. Someone gave me tequila again. I didn’t want any but I took a small nip.”

“That’s a great story man,” I said to the old bum. Was I going to have to knock him down to get my phone back? I didn’t want to; if Bill or Bruce came out I was going to have to smack him. “Give me my phone and I’ll keep listening.”

The dude kept talking.

“I told them forty minutes but I was sure it would be less. It seemed like I was going over the same piece of ground again and again. I saw a cactus that looked like a man waving, then I saw it again, and it came again. The clock on the dash was an old busted dial, and I didn’t have a cellular phone.”

Cellular phone, I thought. When did he make this trip? Is he playing me to feel sorry for him and give him my phone? It’s not gonna happen. “Look man–”

“But a good driver has a great internal clock, and it had been over an hour since I made my forty minute prediction. Some of them had lighted digital watches, and I was hearing some complaining in the back. One man poked his head into the cab. I yelled at him to get back, but he ignored me.

“He told me I was a bad person, that I had killed the beautiful American bald eagle for no reason other than to be mean. He motioned over to the bird several times and then told me to throw it out. I don’t know if he was their leader, or was just the best English speaker. But he was pretty aggressive and made like he was going to grab the bird. I grabbed his shoulder and told him to get back in the rear or I would have him shot when we arrived. It was not something that I am proud of, but I said it. He got a scared look on his face.

“He skirted back into the dark hole like a rat. When I looked out the window two things came to me at once: he had said ‘Diablo’ and there was something black and thorny on the hood of the U-haul. At first I thought it was a Gila monster because it was the same shape, but the thing was huge. It was the size of a bull mastiff but with spikes all over it. Then I saw a second creep over my hood, and then a third slid down my windshield and it licked the others. Outside I saw another dozen of them running like deer, and all were headed toward the truck. I felt things hitting the truck and shaking it around. We were being loaded down and covered with these black things.

“I slammed the brakes of course. In that kind of situation, I should have kept going, but I got scared. The brakes went to the floor but the truck didn’t slow. I tried to veer off the road, which was another dumb idea, but the wheel turned loose like an arcade game and the truck didn’t veer at all.”

“All this happened to you?” I asked the old man. “You were going down the road at full speed and the truck gets possessed and covered by monsters. What did you do?”

“What else could I do?” the old crazy said. “I went through the hole to the back of the truck to die with the mojados.

“We traveled on for many hours. The mojados cursed me at first and kicked at me, but they stopped after their leader poked his head up front. I don’t know what he said, but he threw his arms around and scared the hell out of them. They all got real quiet and started praying in whispers. I sat with my back to the hole; I didn’t want to get knifed in the back even if I was going to die and go to the hell I deserved. After a full day and night of traveling I–”

“Whoa whoa,” I said. “A full day of this… the truck just driving itself but never getting anywhere. How can that happen?” I wanted to hear his entire story.

“I decided to go up front. Everything inside the cab was the same. The eagle was still dead, the wheel did not move, and the speedometer stated sixty. The black shapes were still on the hood, curled up like kittens. I eased into the driver’s seat and they didn’t move. I looked in the side mirror and saw there was a bus pulling up on my left. It was a dark blue prison bus. I never thought I would be so happy to see another vehicle! I grabbed for the door handle (I didn’t care if the things tried to eat me) but it wouldn’t open. The window wouldn’t go down either; I’m sure I would have splattered all over the dirt road, and got my head squashed by the bus, but I didn’t care. I wanted off the evil truck! I wanted on that bus.

“Then I saw what was on the other bus. Two figures. They were not human men, one of them was Death and the other was Uncle Sam. The bus was driverless and the windows were halfway down. In the back seats the two figures were crouched with hand-held video games, and there was some kind of wire running between the two little devices. Blue light, bad blue light, lit their faces. The Uncle Sam shape was winning because his face was all teeth with his smile and he kept looking at me like I was edible. But Death didn’t give up and his skeletal fingers pounded on his little game thing and Uncle Sam had to work hard again.

“The two started to hiss and strike at each other. They swung harder and they were a blaze of red, white, and blue with a black cape. Their bus rocked and buckled and swayed and when I thought it was going to tip over it disappeared.

“The sun was then high in the sky. I swear it had been dark a moment earlier, then the sun was desert high. I tried to open my door again, to jump out and let whatever got me have me, but it didn’t open. Then a thought occurred to me… the back door. The big old door in the rear of the U-haul! I had it padlocked from the inside (can’t have the mojados getting away) and I took the keys out of the ignition. It didn’t occur to me that the truck might turn off, but it didn’t. The laws of sanity were gone. I went back through the door. I didn’t think they would give me much trouble. You better believe I was going to be the first person to jump out of the back.

“They were all standing in the thin darkness. All of them, even the two little kids who I think were babies, and they were staring at me. It’s a creepy feeling to have twenty-five people staring at you in the dark. I held up the keys. Maybe it would be a peace offering. Then together, as one single unit, they whispered:

“Damn you.”

Then, one by one, with the babies going first, they all dropped dead in the back of the dark U-haul.”

*****

“It obvious you’re a crackhead,” I told him. The dude was weirding me out big time. I had an uncle who got bad into crack and used to come over and try to pretend like he wasn’t flying high. The truck driver reminded me of him. Actually, he reminded me of something else too. It was a lot easier to think of him as a crackhead than the other thing. My last real serious girlfriend had been into white magic and mysticism and tarot cards. Anything odd and gothic, she was all over it. We drank some absinthe one night (she bought it online from the Czech Republic) and she passed out right away but I was wigged out half the night. A zombie movie was on TV and there was one particular zombie who freaked me out. He was an extra, one of those in the background wearing the traditional torn funeral suit. He looked right at me. I know they don’t look at the cameras in movies, but when the hero would be fighting his way through a horde of them, I would see that same zombie staring at me. The next morning I told her about it.

She dumped me two days later.

“I have not touched alcohol or any substance since my time in the U-haul,” he said. “When I got free, I decided to live my life to the absolute fullest. There is no time for numbness.

“For three days and three nights this went on without a break. The dead bodies stayed put in back of the truck. I could not find a place to lie down, but I could not get myself to go back to the cab and face the eagle. Its dead eyes were the worst. I managed to sit down right near the entrance to the cab and I curled up to sleep.

“I could not sleep. I know three days passed because… because I knew from my internal clock. As I said before, drivers have a great sense of time and placement. My sense of time was still on perfectly, but my sense of movement was wrong. I could feel the vibrations of the truck, could hear the wheels spinning and the exhaust firing, but the ground was wrong. We were going over earth, yet it was not real dirt. The speed of the truck never changed. I hoped the gas would run out, but it never did. A deathly fire-ball crash would have been a relief. I knew I was beyond all regular world rules. Something else was going on… I do not know what it was but it was evil; it was vengeful; it was unforgiving.”

“Maybe you should have prayed,” I said. The driver’s face changed into such an exuberate expression that I decided to keep my mouth shut.

“I did try to pray,” he said. “But each time I tried to focus I realized what a hypocrite I was being. I had never went to church, never believed in anything, never thought about any kind of god, ways of money were always on my mind and that was it. It seems to me a devious way to live your own way, and then when things get rough, you drop down and pray like a sniveling choir boy. I paced the truck. It was sometime during the second day and there was a little bit of light from the front coming in the bed from the cab. I had twelve feet to walk in, but it seemed long. The dead bodies closed around on me and the path got narrower and tighter with each lap.

“And they looked at me. Yes they did. No matter what, no matter where I was at or how I swiveled, the eyes of all twenty-five mojados were on me. I would swing my head quick to try and catch one not looking at me, but they always were. It seemed impossible, but I was living the impossible. I began to wonder if I was dead. All the bad things I done in my life: the affairs, the shady deals, the scams and people hurt. Those mojados were my last victims, the last people I screwed over and hurt because I wanted to take out the bird. A bald eagle! I was a Cub Scout; I know the value of the American bald eagle. Maybe if I had stuck with scouts and became a Boy Scout I would have become a better person. But I discovered my stepdad’s Southern Comfort in 7th grade and the rest was history.

“‘What do you want me to do!’ I screamed at the dead Mexicans. They said nothing but kept their gazes on me. It was becoming dark again and I could only see their eyeballs. They taunted me by not moving. They stayed still as the truck moved on an unmoving path. I went to the cab; I would deal with the dead bird. The bird was sitting in the passenger seat. Very much alive and very much looking at me. The passenger window was open.

“The eagle looked at me with the utmost expression of disappointment. He kept me in a gaze of thought and disappointment. Then, just as I was about to cry, he leapt and flew out the window. He was gone in an instant, vanished like he was never there. Outside the stars were beautiful and the clear night sky smelled like… like my childhood.

“Then I finally slept. I thought at first, it was the softness of the driver’s seat that made me slumber, but I know now it was something more. I was allowed to sleep, at last. The sleep overtook me like a dark and heavy blanket. It did not free me from agony.

“I dreamt of food; great mounds of steaming food and the whole world smelled like my grandmother’s kitchen. In my dream (or nightmare if you think about it) I could touch all the food, but it would not go into my mouth. I held homemade biscuits that were the same temperature as a woman’s breast. I poked medium-cooked steaks which had crispy edges of cooked fat. There were baked potatoes, slit down the middle, dripping with butter, sour cream, and salt I could see. I even saw a glass of snow-white milk resting like a lover next to an oval shaped plate of blonde brownies.

“I think one of mojados bodies fell and banged its head on the floor. I woke with a start and my stomach screamed. I’ve been hungry in my life before… during my divorce I barely ate. I would get hungry, buy McDonald’s or some other such thing, and then not be able to eat. Then I would be hungry again. I slept in my car once during my divorce and thought that was starvation. But what I felt when I awoke this night was true hunger. It reached my stomach and squeezed with a hand full of fresh-clipped nails. The truck kept itself and that didn’t seem strange any longer; I cared about nothing but food! I went to the bed of the truck and the bodies were still where they were and all their eyes watched me.

“Then I saw the food. The mojados had brought food with them. One of the women had a backpack, and candy bars and tamales were spilled out. I lunged for it all. I inhaled two Paydays like the peanuts were air. I ate through the outer layer of the tamales like I was a gorilla showing off for people at a zoo. I ate and ate. I alternated between Paydays and tamales. The contrast of taste was wonderful… spicy then calm… spicy and calm.

“You know what I did next?”

“No,” I said. I did not want to go inside the strip club. I needed to hear this story.

“I keeled over, curled up, and went fast asleep next to that dead Mexican woman. My head bumped against the metal floor like it was a feather pillow. The food and the motion of the cursed truck rocked me to sleep. Time passed… I think two hours. I began to hear voices when I was half asleep. I knew where I was, how scary of a situation I was in, but I kept resting like I was still in the womb.

“Two voices spoke in Spanish. They talked in whispers and I heard them talk of the dead aves, I heard my name, and I heard them talk of dolor. I finally peeked my eyes open, and the dead woman’s gaze was straight into my eyes. She did not scare me and I looked to find the source of the voices. I saw no one, but the voices continued their dammed whispering.”

“They were deciding your fate,” I stated.

“Yes,” he said. A slight smile crept on his face. “And you are about to find out my fate.”

*****

“The dead were still dead, as they should be. The stare of the woman whose food I’d stolen seemed to pierce me more than the others. All of their eyes stayed fixed upon me. The morning light was coming in through the doorway and some of their eyes glowed like a cat’s. The truck shook and rumbled. An arm would shift or a head would nod and I was sure they were all going to rise and tear me apart.

“But being torn apart wouldn’t have been the worst… the touch itself would have sent me to the madhouse. They could have piled on me and touched and drooled on me and kept me alive forever. That would have been unbearable. Getting my face and privates torn off and gobbled up would have hurt, but then at least it would have been all over.

“I felt a shift in the truck. The truck lurched and slowed. I looked toward the front and the morning was in full bloom. The windshield was so dirty from days of traveling through that nightmare that I couldn’t see. I felt a cold whoosh throughout the back of the truck and the bodies disappeared. I swear to you, dear listener, that is what scared me the most. The utter coldness of being alone and not knowing where all the bodies were. I didn’t miss their death stare, but I knew they were with me; they were lost after they disappeared.

“The fates did not give me time to mourn. The truck was under no control. I jumped back through the opening to the driver’s seat. I didn’t realize I banged my head; I thought sweat was in my eyes but it was blood. I fell into the driver’s seat headfirst and found myself staring at the dirty black floor mat. It smelled like rubber and death. To this day I can’t smell rubber without feeling like I am dying. I tried to get into the seat, tried to put on my belt for some reason, and through the grimy window I was just able to see a drop-off coming at me. I didn’t hesitate, I didn’t think. If I had thought, I probably would have hit the brakes and been a dead man like my mojados. Instead I jumped out.

“I rolled and rolled forever. The world was blue sky, then tan dirt, then sky. I gripped at the ground and tried to end my spinning. I felt a nail rip off my right hand. My nose broke. I bit my tongue so hard I yelped like a puppy. Every rotation before I ate dirt I could see the raven get closer and I knew it was all about to end. I didn’t hear the truck anymore and it had gone over. Then I saw something green and metal and I slammed my right side into it. I collapsed still on the ground and the sky filled my sights. I smelled rubber again and three men looked down at me from a parked Jeep Wrangler.

“‘The truck is cursed’ I yelled at the three men. One was about twenty-one and the other two were around fifty-five. The young one helped me stand as the other two argued about what to do. I looked around frantically for the dammed truck.

“‘Your U-haul went over the side pal,’ the young one said. His sight was not on me but past me and I saw the giant chasm I had almost plummeted down. It was wide and deep, but did not seem imposing. It seemed like relief. The Arabian-looking fellow still in the jeep must have sensed my idea because he jumped from the truck and grabbed my arm. He told me not to do it, that Allah punished suicides by hell.

“The older man told him to be quiet, and it was obvious I was not a Muslim or ever would be. He got from the truck and asked me if I was a good Jewish man, and did I thank God for saving me.

“‘I suppose I do,’ I said. Then the younger one cut in; I realized they were father and son and were very much sunburned. The younger collected himself, and then spoke to me:

“‘You should thank Jesus, too,’ he said. His father cringed and shook his head. He mumbled convert and walked away from his son. The Muslim held on to me and told me not to go to the cliff. I promised him I would not jump over. He agreed to let me go but he and the younger man stayed on either side of me. The desert was hot as it could be. I could feel my neck cooking under the sun and my arms felt like they were being roasted. I had to see the truck; I had to see it at the bottom of the ravine burning and done with. We arrived at the edge and the crevice was a hundred feet deep. Not an eternal hell distance, but deep enough to have killed me and sent me to my death in a ball of fire. I felt the heat of the truck’s fire for a moment, but then we looked, and the truck was gone.

“I know I screamed as I ran. The three came after me and I hopped into their jeep and they barely got in before I took off. For a minute they tried to coax me into stopping. Then I told my story. I told them every detail, every smell, every drop of terror that I felt. The young convert laughed as I told it, but it was a defense mechanism. He was really scared and used the laughter to protect himself. The Muslim got on his knees, right there in the back of the truck, and started praying in his own language. The older Jewish man cried, muttered, and cried some more. I had the gas pedal to the floor for most of the trip, and when we got to civilization the old Jew told me he was a Rabbi. I confessed everything I had every done wrong to him. I don’t know if they do confession, but it felt good to tell someone religious my story. My entire life story.

“We got out of the truck and he gave me a blessing in his religion’s language. We cried together and I saw the Muslim and young convert crying too. I walked away from them, taking none of the money they offered me, and I knew what my life’s work was. I walked toward the city without looking back. I’ve always wondered if they were hugging behind me. I stopped the first person in the Texas town I could find and told him my story, as I am telling you.”

Without another word, the old truck driver turned and walked away. There was a sparse field of ugly tall grass between the truck stop and the highway. He walked through it like he was taking a stroll through a nice neighborhood. I wondered which one of the semi-trucks, cars, or even U-hauls on that dark road would pick him up. The next driver would get his tale too, and be changed as I was.

I have heard the expression “shaken to the very core” before, but it was not until that night with the truck driver did I understand the phrase. I understood a lot more after that night: life was a precious thing and not a commodity to be put on a shelf and displayed for someone’s entertainment; life was a series of good-or-bad choices, right-or-wrong decisions made every day, every second of breathing. The things I had been doing, the path I was taking through life, was selfish and pointless. Those poor immigrants were trying to come to America in an age-old attempt to be full and happy, were better people than I ever would be if I did not change. I had to stop poisoning my body, poisoning my brain, and polluting my soul with my choices. I had to do good, think good, and be great.

I hopped in my Grand Am and did one last bad thing. I left Bill and Bruce at the strip club.

 

Hallowed Ground

by Brian Boru

 

“Whatever you do, don’t screw up!” Jon barked, then pressed the wire cutters to my chest.

I fumbled the other tools I’d been carrying and everything fell with a resounding metallic clang that echoed through the night.

“Are you trying to call attention to us?” Jon snapped and shot me an acidic glare.

“No,” I replied sheepishly and avoided eye contact.

“Try not to wake the dead,” he warned and ducked through the newly made hole in the cemetery fence.

I collected the tools and followed.

This would be the last job with my psychotic, dope-fiend brother. Just like in our previous job, we’d met at a dive called Caspar’s. It reeked of stale beer and fresh vomit. We’d picked this place because Jon could score heroin and shoot up in the bathroom. He said it was his pre-job ritual. I’d found him deep in the Land of Nod in the toilet stall with a spike still in his arm. I’d hoped the bastard wasn’t dead yet and kicked his foot. Slowly his jaundiced eyes fluttered open. He cleaned up and I ordered drinks. Then we discussed the specifics about the cemetery we were going to rob.

The cemetery had once been a sacred grove, replete with rolling hills and a small reflection pond. However, economic setbacks in the 1970s caused funding to dry up and the gates to close. Slowly thereafter, it fell into disrepair and decay. Scores of teenagers snuck in over the years and sped its decline along by defacing tombstones, stealing statuary, and breaking into tombs. Years later, local papers had run stories about missing kids, who had last been seen around the cemetery. Soon rumors began to circulate about it being haunted, that malevolent forces were killing kids.

One morning pandemonium erupted when an unidentifiable, mangled body was found at the gates. The words “keep out” were spelled in a gruesome display with its entrails. The police hunted the cemetery for months looking for answers, but found none. As a panacea, they chained up the tombs, welded the gates closed and installed razor wire across the top of the fence. No one had trespassed since. Until now.

Ankle-deep fog rolled and tumbled over headstones and fallen grave markers. The pale moonlight gave it an eerie, opalescent glow. It ebbed and flowed up to the fence, but didn’t bleed out. Small tendril-like skeletal fingers of fog rose around our legs when we breached the hallowed grounds.

“This is really weird,” I said in a quivering tone. “Do you think those rumors are true?”

“Of course not! We’ve got a job to do so pull it together!” Jon snarled.

“Ok.” I dropped to one knee and made the sign of the cross.

“Lord, please protect me as I–”

Jon interrupted, “No time for that.” He pulled me to my feet and pushed me onward.

A copse of weeping willows had been planted to give the cemetery a sleepy, peaceful vibe. It probably did, decades ago, but without maintenance they had become overgrown monstrosities with massive gnarled roots that burst from the ground. From a distance, they looked like blackened limbs of the dead. The gentle night breeze caused the limbs to sway and creak in a way that made them appear to be beckoning us closer.

Jon moved through the minefield of roots and toppled gravestones with a confidence that belied an extra-sensory perception. I followed him the best I could, but tripped and stumbled trying to keep up. As we progressed deeper into the heart of the cemetery, the scenery changed. We now came across old beer bottles, crushed cigarette packs, and used condoms.

Tombs arose from the ground like rotten teeth in a diseased mouth; once white and pristine, now eroded with chips and cracks. Jon pulled out a crude map drawn on a cocktail napkin from Caspar’s. He shone his flashlight on it briefly and proclaimed, “Just a little bit farther.”

We traversed through rows and columns of tombs and paused every few minutes to check the map. He pointed out the largest one surrounded by a constellation of smaller ones. He illuminated the etching just above the cornerstone that read B7.

“This is it,” Jon said.

He nodded at me and pointed to the thick chain and padlock that ran through the door handles. I snapped the lock with the bolt cutters and removed the chain. Then he pulled out a set of lock picks and went to work on the lock set in the tomb’s steel door. He quickly defeated it and smiled.

“Ready to get paid?” he asked.

“I don’t have a good feeling about this,” I warned.

He shook his head and wrenched the door open. The earsplitting screech of rusted metal hinges that had lain dormant for ages howled through the night.

“Damn it!” he cursed and a bloodcurdling moan echoed in the distance. I looked at him with terror in my eyes.

“Let’s go,” I begged.

“No! We can’t leave empty handed. He’ll kill us if we do.”

“I can’t do this alone. Please.”

He entered the abyssal darkness and I begrudgingly followed. Jon flicked on his flashlight and dust particles danced and floated in a light they’d been denied for years. The light illuminated a large bronze casket resting on a stone edifice.

“Come on!” he urged and wedged a pry bar in one end of the burial lid. I wedged one in the opposite end and we pried it open. The stench of rot rolled out and hung in the stale air.

“Hold the flashlight,” Jon said and rummaged through the coffin.

“What are we looking for?” I asked.

“Don’t know. He told me I’d know when I found it,” he replied.

“Just hurry up so we can get the hell out of here,” I demanded.

Jon rifled through the dead man’s pockets.

“You want to do this?” he snapped.

Just then its’ cold rotting hands shot up and closed around his neck. Jon let out a soul-jarring scream as he futilely tried to break its grip. With a preternatural strength, it pulled Jon to its mouth and tore into his neck. Arterial blood pumped and sprayed across the wall. The cadaver sat up in his coffin with blood and gore dripping from its mouth. I looked on in horror while this monster slaked its thirst on my brother. Jon was dead within seconds. I dropped the flashlight and ran for my life.

Later that night, at Caspar’s, my employer sat across from me.

“I take it everything went well?” he asked.

I stared into the space between us and said, “I didn’t expect it to be so horrific.”

He pushed a fat envelope across the table. Hesitantly, I reached for it and brushed his frigid hand.

“That was my last time,” I told him as I pocketed the money.

He raised an eyebrow and said, “What if I double your fee?”

I sighed, “You could triple it, I’m not–”

“Fine. Triple,” he offered.

I shook my head and rose from the table. He looked up at me and said, “I’ll quadruple your fee.”

I sighed and sat back down.

“I’ve got to eat.”

He smiled. “And so do we.”

 

a tale by ruby waters

by Kaitlin Allen

 

[here is the summer I fell]

My feet’d sunk an inch in the mossy bank, I’d been standing by the creek so long.

It was cool there and dark, shaded from the sun by sapling leaves that made everything, even my skin, beautiful, alive and green.

They had told me never to cross Little Creek. My mama, my daddy, my teachers, they told us all.

It’s not safe on the other side, they’d said, and they were right.

But even after everything, the fear and the pain that lasted, I can’t come to regret taking those steps, my toes gripped on smooth stones, fingers holding the rolled edges of my jeans above cool water.

I’ve always had the mind that knowing is better than not. It was worth the price, to me, for open eyes.

[no, I can’t seem to regret it at all, but then, I ain’t claiming to be clean]

I stepped across, and that was it.

Standing in the moss-green shadows, they grabbed me.

They grabbed me one on each side so smooth I couldn’t help thinking they’d done this before, knew just how to hold without me being able to strike. Creatures who could hold a flame without getting burnt, not that I was that bright.

[not yet]

I couldn’t see them, but they spoke, and I learned their voices.

One sounded an old man, the other a young woman.

Must’ve been the woman who covered my eyes beneath a palm ’cause the hand felt full-fleshed and smooth.

My arms were dragged out straight to the side. Their arms making a cross to hold me. Fingers clawed ’round my wrist, nails for nails.

Then the first bite came, and that was all I could think of.

The flat, sharp blade of teeth pierced inside my elbow. Lips slid wet on my skin, and I felt sick. I struggled, but I couldn’t escape the grip, and my fighting tore their teeth further along my skin.

It seemed a long time to me, but I fear it might’ve been short, ’fore I gave up.

Everything came harder, thinking, breathing. All over, I was so weak, I wondered at my heart still beating.

Then the man spoke again, this time at me.

“Don’t know how fast they’ll find you, how soon they’ll miss you, how far they’ll look, but if you get found in time, you tell your granny I ain’t forgot her.”

I’d trouble grasping hold of sound, but I thought his voice sounded younger, stronger, smoother than before.

The woman laughed, said, “You’ll have to tell me ’bout that sometime.”

She lifted me easily and carried me out before her in her arms. Eyes uncovered, I looked for her face, but she was foggy in the green and in the shadows that swung close.

She set me down in the stream, left me there with a pat to the side of my still-clean white shirt.

I wondered at that, how they could take so much of my blood and not spill any.

It was spilling now, leaking out red ’cross the stones, along the ripples ’til it spread out and the water was clear-green again.

That’s how I felt, spread out far enough to be unseen.

It hurt. I won’t lie and say there wasn’t pain, but mostly I felt weary, thin and picked over.

I tried so to hold on to what I’d heard, the bits I’d seen because this wasn’t everyday life. They’d marked me with a secret as sure as their teeth, and I should hold it close, but like blood it was slipping from beneath my skin, and I couldn’t quite grasp the strain.

[the stain]

The world was spotty with black, and the green was fading, first, from Little Creek, then, from me.

ruby waters

calling my name and it made me laugh.

Course, this is where I was, you could track the red upstream, the ruby.

ruby

I laughed again, choked or sobbed.

I hiccupped long gasps against the moss and then, against a chest.

Zee’d found me.

[didn’t know his name yet, this is when we met]

It was hard to see past the black shadows as he moved me around. My head pounded, a stronger current than the one I was laying in, a heavier beat than my worn-out heart.

I could feel him tying me, faraway rips of fabric and knots snug against my skin.

Good, I thought or maybe said.

that’ll keep the secrets in

Just now, I won’t be spilling anymore.

He picked me up and carried me away from the woods, from the green, from the water, but the red followed us.

Dripping.

Beating in what was left of me, it sunk into my weary, torn-down heart.

I started falling then, but for the day or the light, for the stream or the secret, for them or for him, I didn’t yet know.

[came to love a good many things that day, and none of them was kind to me]

My granny came to me in the hospital, my mama’s mama. She sat herself by the side of my bed and stayed. Seemed wrong how the chair was plastic and metal with unrocking feet firm on the ground.

There were teeth marks in the crooks of my arms, bruises down the veins, fingernail scratches braceleting my wrists. A bag of blood hung heavy above my head draining its way back into me.

“He told me he ain’t forgot you,” I said.

But the one who found me was there before I could get her to answer.

He walked in and stood next to the bed, and I knew him by his hands.

“Zebedee,” he said, “but you go on and call me Zee.”

I watched those hands.

They swung heavy at the ends of his arms while he talked, callused and strong, tips stained with tobacco, blood red-brown dark beneath the nails.

“We moved in next door to you, my folks and I,” he said “I offered to help when your daddy came knocking.”

He looked at me as if waiting, but I couldn’t divine what he wanted.

“Thank you for finding me,” I said or maybe thought ’cause he gave no answer.

“That’s enough now,” Granny said, and he was gone.

That’s enough.

I fretted with the gauze wrapped around my arms, worried the white ’til the blood stained up through.

Couldn’t stop pushing for red to see it, proof I was still there, tied up tight with a heart beating bloody inside of me.

Granny took my hands in hers—skinny, knotted, and backed with thick veins.

“You’re gonna have to stop that reaching,” she said, “’cause you won’t never be sure of your heart again.”

“You goin’ tell me what you’re talking about?” I said, and she laughed.

Anger flashed through bright hot, new and frightening as it tore me up.

I’d have grabbed her then, pressed her wrist between my fingers ’til the bones creaked only she had hold of me first.

And I was weak.

She squeezed my fingers tight in her gnarled knuckles leaning in close.

“Child, you think that’s something you got when demons cut their teeth against your skin?” She laughed again. “Well, maybe it is. But what if it ain’t? You weren’t the first to go stepping where you shouldn’t.”

I yanked my hands away and pressed ’em to my ears, bandage scratchy on my face.

Her words poured round anyway, circling down into my skull:

“Should’ve known the itch’d get to wiggling in your bones. That’s the reason we named you after rocks the color of new blood, the reason you crossed the stream in the first place.

“Now listen. You can let this wreck you, spread you out fit to float to sea. Or you take hold of the fact you’ve seen a piece of holiness fallen. And what that means is, you can steal it.”

“Okay,” I said, “all right.” My hands fell to my lap, stitches torn. “And how do I go ’bout doing that?”

“You ought to know. It’s the oldest story. You want what somebody else has, you kill ’em and take it.”

“That what you did?”

“No, child. If I’d done that I wouldn’t be old, wouldn’t’ve had no children. It’s a sacrifice, see? I found something I wanted more, but that don’t mean you have to.”

“I’d be monster then,” I said, “not human.”

“You’re working on the supposition you’ve a clean heart to lose. Don’t think so highly of your own kind. I swear this to you—you are goin’ get blood on your hands one day. All us women do. Might as well be worth something.”

[I hid what she said next to the fallen things gathered from the ground]

When I didn’t need nothing but scabs to hold me closed, I took up with the strong-handed neighbor boy and with the family knife.

Zee walked me down to the water ’cause I asked him.

We went down, and it wasn’t to pray.

It was cool and clear when I dipped my toes in, clear, cool and tinted green, the stones on the bottom a slick-smooth grey-brown.

“That’s enough now,” he said holding onto my arm above the elbow, above the scars he never cared to look at.

There, by the green-light sound of the water and by the blade I’d wrapped close against me, I finally knew him.

Anew, I heard his voice.

“Your hands,” I said. “They always were too heavy.”

He dropped his grip as I turned to face him, said, “What’re you talking ’bout?”

I ran my fingers up his arm, his shoulder, stopped to rest my hand at the base of his neck, my thumb against his pulse.

Or it could’ve been my pulse echoing back.

He leaned in close, his mouth on mine.

We were both hungry, only not for the same things.

[now, that may be a straight-up lie]

So, I stabbed him in the heart.

He coughed, frowned and gasped as I twisted that cold metal all around just like Granny had told me.

“Make sure the heart’s good and gone when you find ’em,” she’d said handing me the knife, “else they’ll rise up again, back and angry.”

With that cold, old will, I carved a hole in his chest, followed him down to the ground as he fell, felt the shaking scrape of metal on bone.

I cut the heart out of him in pieces, bloody chunks of muscle on the tip of a blade, ’til he stopped breathing.

[’til finally, his heart stopped beating]

I sat back on my heels, my breath coming hard. Sat back and licked the blood from the sides of the blade, from the handle, from my hand.

I fell back to mop up darkening red with my tongue

[’til my heart stopped beating too]

When I crossed Little Creek for the last time, the water carried away blood again, but it wasn’t mine.

She came for me as I stepped in the shadows.

“Foolish child,” she said, and I thought the same of her.

Echoing words, a pulse taken by thumb.

“You come here to die, Foolish?” she asked me.

Her eyes were dark enough I could see my anger reflected in them. A fire banked deep inside her, skin stretched o’er hollow bone.

I grinned fit to match the old bitten scars along her skin, said, “That what happened to you?”

“Yeah,” she said, “but I didn’t die.”

“Neither’ve I.”

“Not yet,” she said.

“No,” I said.

[not yet]

She reached for my arm as if she could stretch me out again to bite, but I dove at her hard knocking her back to the ground.

It was her turn to grin when I perched over her, my blade to her throat.

“It’s already got you, hadn’t it?” she said. “Now, who is it you been killing?”

“You tell me, honey,” I said. “Tell me. Should I eat your heart, too?”

“Oh, I hadn’t got one, sister, and neither’ve you.”

She clawed up a handful of dirt and threw it at my face.

I closed my eyes against the grains and slit her throat.

She lay there gurgling, wheezing, staring me down until the blood stopped spurting from her neck. I watched as the skin fell back together beneath the red.

[that was when I really believed]

“It’s true,” I said standing up and backing off.

“You already knew that,” her first words from her fresh-scarred throat. “They’ll be coming soon, calling your name, thinking you lost yourself again.”

Watching her still, I licked the blood from my knife.

“I have lost myself,” I said, “but it’s all right. Wasn’t trying to get nowhere anyway.”

We waited in silence a bit. Both of us waiting for the man, her old man, my young one, to rise back up, knowing all the while he wouldn’t.

His broken heart spread out in pieces inside of me, his blood floated to the sea.

“He dead, then?” she asked.

“I killed him,” I said and it was an offering, my sacrifice.

She nodded accepting.

Her hands were dirty. She didn’t try to wipe the drying blood from off her neck.

“You coming with me?” she said.

I gave her my knife, flung it out at her, and she caught it.

She caught it straight through her right palm, blade in between bone and out through the back of her hand.

She caught it and laughed.

So, I said, “It’s you who’s coming with me.”

The knife was dark and wet again when she tugged it free. She wiped it clean enough on the side of her shirt and tucked it in her belt.

She held out her hand and we shook. Her hand was warm and pulling against mine as it healed.

“I’m Ruby,” I said.

New, bright red smeared between our hands; old, dark red ringed her neck.

She smiled baring her bloodstained teeth.

“I’m Garnet.”

 

Strawberries Bleed at Midnight

by Keily Arnold

 

When Samantha bit into another bright red strawberry, the juice leaked through her lips, dripping onto her apron and staining the white cloth. She groaned. She had hoped to avoid another argument with her husband. She’d earned a strawberry or two. Her husband and the farm hands had turned in at the first signs of twilight, but even as the sun set, she busied herself with picking more. Every muscle ached from bending over and crouching down. Her legs burned from the last fire ant hill she’d had the misfortune of stepping in. Her body screamed for rest.

She set down her basket and looked up at the sky. Pink, orange, and red hues streaked the horizon. It was the only thing about Ider, Alabama that still held any sort of magic for her. She’d spent her entire life in the small town. She’d grown up with the same unchanging group of people and married James right after graduating from Ider High School. Farm life had suited her, as it suited most of the citizens of Ider. She’d been content with James. When she found out she was pregnant at age twenty with the twins, she’d been ecstatic. Samantha had latched onto motherhood and stumbled her way through the first five years. For those precious moments, Ider had seemed new and different. Peter and Evelyn had given her a purpose, a destiny besides being a farmer’s wife.

Then she found Peter’s body at the edge of the woods.

The sky’s brilliant colors gave way to shades of gray. Soon, it would be too dark to pick berries. Then she’d have to return home to whatever mood James was in. She scratched her arm, nails scraping against the bruises that littered her skin. She yanked down her sleeve to cover them.

When she lifted her gaze again, she stared at the woods that bordered their land. A single dirt road led into town. If James had already passed out from another night of drinking, he wouldn’t hear her snatch the keys to their truck from his coat pocket. Evelyn wouldn’t make a sound if Samantha snatched her from bed and ran out to the truck. In the three months since Peter had died, Evelyn hadn’t spoken a word. They would drive up north to some booming city and leave farm life, James, and Peter behind.

She gripped her basket with tired, sore fingers. There was no leaving Peter behind. She’d never lose the image of his mangled body. Whatever had snatched him from the fields had torn into him with crude and savage force, ripping open his arms and legs. His chest had been clawed open, and his still heart torn out. Evelyn had found one of his fingers a few feet from the corpse, and Samantha had to pry it from her tiny, frozen hands as she screamed.

“What are you still doing out here? Get inside.”

Samantha turned around. She wrinkled her nose at the stench of whiskey-laced breath that blew onto her face as James sighed.

“You’ve been eating them again,” he said.
He motioned to the basket. It was a lazy wave of his hand, but she knew better than to question it. She knew what he wanted. She set down the basket and closed her eyes.

The first blow hit her in the chest, knocking the breath out of her. The second time, he kicked her legs to knock her over. He kicked her ribs three times, each time harder than the last. She knew better than to make a sound. He’d only hit harder, and Evelyn would probably hear.

“Get inside,” he said.

She rose with care. One hand dusted off her blouse. When he wasn’t looking, her fingers lingered over the places where she’d find bruises later. She hurried past him to the little house that occupied their land. Evelyn waited in the doorway. Her tiny fists swiped the sleep from her eyes.

Samantha scooped her up in her arms. She’d hoped the motion would shock some tiny peep out of the girl, but she remained as silent as ever.

Evelyn had been the chatty twin. While Peter explored and brought home all sorts of odds and ends, Evelyn went on and on about their adventures. Peter this, Peter that.

Ever since he died, she could only scream in her sleep.

Samantha tucked her back into bed. Evelyn stared up at her, mouth in a flat line. She gripped Samantha’s wrist, nails digging into the skin.

“I’ll stay with you,” Samantha promised.

The lie was sour on her tongue, and she was sure it was just as unpleasant to Evelyn’s ears. It was a mother’s lie, a comfort and betrayal all in one. Once Evelyn closed her eyes and drifted off to sleep, Samantha would leave for her own bed and pray that James was already asleep.

Evelyn slept anyway, and Samantha crept from the room. A light was on at the end of the hallway, right behind her bedroom door. Her stomach twisted in revulsion. Her fingers lingered on the doorknob. James would kiss her, touch her, apologize until she almost believed he still loved her. He’d act like he forgave her for letting the twins play at the edge of the woods.

The door opened, and James pulled her into his arms.

*****

When it was time to go to church the next morning, Samantha spent an extra thirty minutes scrubbing her skin. She lingered in the bathtub even when her teeth began to chatter enough to give her a headache. Once she finally got out, she took a long look at herself in her bedroom mirror. Fading gray bruises lingered next to new purple splotches, and raw, red flesh marred the rest of her. Every inch below the neck had to be hidden under her best Sunday dress. She’d show her pretty, unblemished face and pretend like her ribs weren’t still throbbing from the night before.

She took Evelyn to Sunday School after James left for the pre-service bible study. The Sunday School building was a short distance from the church itself. It was housed in the same small, red brick structure that Evelyn went to school in.

On her way to the church, she concocted a list of excuses to keep from attending. Her eyes lingered on the woods in the distance. That thing was still out there. She knew it. It may have only had Peter, but it could still get Evelyn or Linda or Daniel or any of the other children in Ider.

“You must be Samantha.”

Samantha froze at the sound. She turned to face the speaker. The speaker was a young woman who seemed to be around her own age. Her eyes were a deep gray like ash. Her skin had the same sun-kissed look shared by all the women of Ider. Her lips were painted ruby, and her cheeks held a faint, healthy blush. Her fair hair fell to her waist in waves and looked as soft as corn silk. There was a sudden urge to reach out and touch it, but Samantha resisted.

The woman smiled. She placed a hand over her heart, drawing Samantha’s eyes lower. Samantha averted her gaze, a blush dusting her cheeks.

“Adeline,” the woman said. “It’s a pleasure to meet you. I’ve heard so much about you these past few weeks. Everyone’s missed you at church. That husband of yours said you’ve been sick the past few weeks.”

Samantha eyed the stranger with a mixture of fear and wonder. No one left Ider, but no one ever visited, either. The part of her that was still a product of the small town wanted to know everything. Where had she come from? Was she a relative of one of the citizens? She certainly dressed like she belonged in Ider with her simple, light blue Sunday dress that fell to her ankles. Samantha eyed Adeline’s hands. They weren’t a farmer’s hands. There were no calluses or smears of dirt. The nails were neatly trimmed, and the skin looked soft.

“Service is about to start,” Samantha said.

She pushed past Adeline, but one of those soft hands grasped her wrist. She didn’t move a muscle as Adeline rolled up her sleeve just enough to expose one of the bruises. Samantha’s mouth opened and shut at a rapid rate, unable to properly form any excuse.

“How did you know?” she asked.

“You look like you need a minute,” Adeline said. “God’s not going anywhere.”

It wasn’t the answer she’d wanted, but Samantha faltered under the warm touch. She couldn’t remember the last time anyone had touched her besides James. There had been plenty of hugs and pats on the back when Peter had died, but after some point, she’d shied away from them all.

She didn’t want to pull away. Something about that moment left her feeling more exposed than she’d ever felt. She was just as much of a stranger to the people of Ider as Adeline was. They didn’t understand what it was like to see Peter’s torn body carelessly tossed in the grass.

Adeline wouldn’t understand, either. However, Samantha knew there was one thing Adeline could give her.

“You won’t tell anyone?” Samantha asked. Her voice cracked slightly, a precursor to tears. She wouldn’t cry. She was strong.

“Not a soul,” Adeline said.

Adeline drew her closer. As Samantha rested her head on the woman’s breast, something finally broke. She hadn’t cried in months, and she wasn’t going to start again. Instead, she slumped to her knees. She buried her face in Adeline’s skirt and screamed.

*****

There were whispers all through town over the next month concerning Adeline’s origin, but Samantha might as well have stuffed her ears with cotton. When she went into town, Adeline met her. They shopped together, had lunch at the local diner, and even went for walks along the woods that Samantha had once hated. Samantha started to crave the simple touches that Adeline provided her. Sometimes, it was her fingers running over Samantha’s hair to smooth it down in the name of helping her look “presentable.” Other times, Adeline’s fingers accidently brushed Samantha’s on their walks, and Samantha recoiled as though stung by a yellowjacket. When Adeline leaned over to whisper in Samantha’s ear, her warm breath sent shivers down Samantha’s spine. Samantha didn’t have a name for how she had begun to feel, but she prayed for it to pass. She prayed that one day Adeline would disappear with her small, tempting touches and knowing look in her eye.

Samantha had once loved her husband, but what she felt for Adeline didn’t compare in any way. It felt darker, coiled within her like a copperhead waiting to strike. Adeline treated her like she mattered again, and she never wanted it to end. She knew a prayer was only worth something if she felt it in her heart, and truthfully, she never wanted Adeline to leave. Her fantasies of running from James had started to include Adeline.

Samantha even found the nerve to have Adeline over for dinner one evening while James was out with the farmhands for another night of drinking. Afterwards, they laid down by the strawberry fields as Evelyn slept, gazing up at the stars.

“How did you know?” Samantha asked.

She wasn’t sure how many times the question had come up. Each time Adeline had laughed it off with her high, warm laugh that made Samantha’s heart stutter.

“My husband,” Adeline said, “was a cruel man as well. It’s easy to spot a woman who knows that pain.”

“What happened to him?” Samantha asked.

Adeline rolled onto her side, propping her head up on her arm.

“I ran,” she said.

There was almost a hint of hope in her whisper, a hint of urging that reminded Samantha of Peter and why she could never leave. Her eyes turned to the woods.

“It’s been four months since he died, Samantha,” Adeline said.

Samantha pushed herself to her feet. She stared down at Adeline with burning eyes.

“Who are you?” she asked. “You show up from nowhere, claim to know what I’ve gone through, and now you want me to just run away with you? Who do you think you are? I have a daughter. A husband.”

She faltered as Adeline rose to face her. They stood there in the moonlight. Samantha breathed quick, fast pants to match her racing heart. Adeline’s lips twitched into a smile.

“Come with me,” she said.

Samantha opened her mouth, but clamped it shut the moment Adeline’s hand grasped her wrist. The strange coolness of the woman’s flesh startled Samantha, and she shivered. She found herself being led toward the woods. Crickets chirped their evening song, and an owl hooted from the treetops. Light filtered down through leaves from the half moon above.

“No, I don’t want to go in there,” Samantha said. She tugged at her wrist, but Adeline’s grip was firm and strong. Memories of Peter filled her mind, and her stomach twisted with the sudden urge to vomit.

“Don’t you want to meet the others?” Adeline asked. She glanced back at Samantha, and her eyes were as dark as the night sky. She closed the distance between them.

“The others?” Samantha asked.

“Like us,” Adeline said. Her fingers danced over the bruises on Samantha’s arms.

Dread fell over Samantha like a black veil. The forest fell silent around them. Her heart fluttered in her chest. She felt the answer before it even became hers. She felt the pull for Adeline, the need to be with her. So it was Samantha that pulled her in for a bruising kiss, and it was Adeline who laughed in a way that seemed to seal her fate.

“Yes,” Samantha said. “I’ll go wherever you want.”

A bright, orange light flickered ahead of them. Samantha looked to Adeline for some sort of reassurance, but the other woman ignored her. Her skin was as white as the pale moon overhead, and dark shadows lingered beneath her eyes. Had she always been that way?

As they drew closer to the source of light, Samantha swore she saw Adeline’s shadow writhe like a serpent.

They came upon a small clearing. A small fire crackled in the center. Six women huddled around it. They shared the same dark hair and eyes as Adeline, and their skin was just as pale. She almost mistook them for ghosts until she noticed their bodies moving as they breathed in the summer air. As Samantha drew nearer, she saw their kind smiles. Their kindness relaxed her, and she joined them by the fire. They all seemed to be dressed for church in beautiful Sunday dresses made of fabrics Samantha had never had the pleasure of seeing before.

They whispered among themselves for a while. Adeline remained by Samantha’s side. Her cold hand gripped Samantha’s.

“We’re celebrating tonight,” Adeline said.

“Celebrating what?” Samantha asked.

She wanted to know who the women were, but then she noticed the bronze cup that one of the women held. One of the women took a sip from the cup and passed it on. She jumped to her feet and danced, twirling around the fire in a frenzy. The hypnotic movement made Samantha sway to the rhythm of something she couldn’t hear. The urge to join her was almost maddening, but Adeline’s wrist kept her grounded. The next woman took a sip and passed it on before joining in. This continued until the cup reached Samantha. She looked into it, and disgust twisted her features.

The chalice reminded her of the cups used for communion, but the liquid inside was dark red and thick like syrup. A sweet scent drifted up from the cup.

“Go on,” Adeline said. “Drink with us.”

The women danced and laughed around them. Their figures blurred as they spun and spun.

Samantha crinkled her nose and tilted the cup to her lips. The thick liquid dripped into her mouth, tasting of strawberries and something she couldn’t quite name, and she swallowed gulps of it. A dizziness washed over her, and she laughed along with the other women. Adeline took the cup from her trembling hands and sipped what was left. Samantha jumped up and joined the dancing women.

She clasped Adeline’s hands and pulled her into the circle. They laughed and whirled around the flickering flames. The shapes of the other women twisted and writhed. They spun faster and faster until Samantha collapsed on a pile of leaves, bursting with laughter. Adeline hovered over her, a smile on her lips. Samantha tilted her head to meet Adeline’s lips in a heated kiss. Something sharp nicked her lip, and the taste of her own blood filled her mouth.

“Stay with us,” Adeline said.

*****

Samantha woke in the strawberry field. Her husband’s voice called out to her, but she didn’t respond. Her heart thundered in her chest. She sat up, head whipping to the side. The sounds of crickets and owls filled her ears. The border of the forest was dark, but no one stood waiting for her. Adeline was nowhere in sight. Her basket lay nearby, filled to the brim with strawberries she didn’t remember picking. She reached her shaking fingers to her lips to touch where she’d been cut, but there was nothing there. Images flickered in her mind: Adeline sliding Samantha’s dress from her shoulders, lips hovering over the pulse on her neck, soft caresses and sighs. A shameful blush crept up her neck.

She returned to her home, head bowed. James waited for her in the doorway. From the position of the sun in the sky, it wasn’t quite noon, but the scent of alcohol hung in the air. His dark eyes watched her approach. She waited for him to hit her, scold her, anything. He said nothing as she crept past him.

Evelyn waited at the kitchen table, eyebrows knit in confusion. Her stomach’s growls reached Samantha’s ears, and the shame she felt only worsened.

“Mama will make your breakfast,” she said. The smile she offered was shaky, but Evelyn seemed pleased.

Samantha fixed breakfast without another word. She served James and Evelyn, who had already dressed in their Sunday best. They ate like ravenous wolves, but Samantha could only stare at her plate. Her stomach rolled as the scent of eggs and bacon reached her nose. She excused herself from the table, pushing her plate to James. He said nothing as he scraped her leftovers onto his plate.

Once she closed the door of their bathroom behind her, her nausea subsided. She didn’t want to wash lingering touches from her body, but she didn’t want to smell like sweat and dirt at church. She shrugged off her dress, only to freeze in place.

Her bruises had vanished.

She pressed down on her skin that had been purple, black, and green before. There was no pain, just pressure. She slumped to the floor. Her hands twisted in her hair as she panted, eyes wide with terror. A few knocks on the door jolted her back to reality.

“Samantha, hurry up,” James said. His voice was muffled.

She laughed, and if he heard, he made no indication.

*****

This time, Samantha did not take Evelyn to Sunday School, and Adeline was nowhere in sight. She looked for the other woman as she made her way to church, but no one seemed to be out. Ider seemed to have stilled overnight. There were no birds chirping or squirrels foraging. The air was hot and heavy without even the slightest breeze. The summer cicadas seemed to have taken the day off from singing their dreadful song. Evelyn clung to Samantha’s dress and watched the forest with her wide eyes.

When Samantha entered the church, a new sound greeted her. A woman wailed, her cries echoing through the small church. A group of people hovered around the pew where she sat. Some glanced up at Samantha, but the others tried their best to comfort the howling woman.

Samantha knew before James walked up to her with his face twisted in a scowl. He shoved past her with several men in tow.

“Where are you going?” she asked.

He glared at her.

“To kill the animal that hurt my son,” he said.

His son. Samantha’s fingers clenched into fists as she approached the huddle of townspeople. One broke away, an old widow by the name of Esther. She hobbled over to Samantha and pulled at her sleeve, guiding her away from the scene. Another woman, Sara, reached for Evelyn’s hand. Samantha opened her mouth to protest, but Esther held a finger to her lips to silence her.

“It’ll be fine,” Esther said. “Evelyn needs to be with the other children. She doesn’t need to be reminded, don’t you agree?”

Once they were safely outside of the church, Samantha pulled her sleeve from the woman’s grip.

“What happened?” she asked.

“They think it’s the same animal that got your boy,” Esther said. She wrung her hands together and licked her lips. Her eyes refused to meet Samantha’s terrified gaze. “It’s Ruth. Her father found her out by the woods this morning.”

The world spun around Samantha, and she stumbled back. Esther reached out as if to steady her.

“Your husband is going to find the animal,” Esther said. “Don’t you worry. Come have a seat on the porch.”

Samantha couldn’t bear the woman’s wails. A cold sweat broke out on her skin. The taste of strawberries was heavy on her tongue.

“No,” she said. “I’m going home.”

“You look pale, my dear,” Esther said. “Do you need someone to walk you?”

“No,” Samantha said.

“Get some rest,” Esther said. “We’ll look after Evelyn.”

Samantha turned her back to the old woman and began the long walk home.

*****

Samantha sat in the fields until Adeline came.

She looked up at the fair-haired woman, her lips pressed in a firm line.

“Don’t come any closer,” she said.

Adeline smiled and stopped a few feet away.

“That was real,” Samantha said. “I thought it was some feverish dream. The dancing, the laughter, the fire, the—”

Adeline’s smile broadened into a grin.

“Did you kill Ruth?” Samantha asked.

“You wanted to escape this place, Samantha,” Adeline said.

She moved closer and joined Samantha on the ground. Her face was mere inches away, and Samantha’s eyes fell to her lips.

“He’s never going to stop,” Adeline said. “My husband nearly broke my neck. Do you really think James will ever forgive you for what happened to your boy?”

Samantha looked down at her hands. Her nails dug into the dirt.

“Why Ruth?” Samantha asked. In a smaller voice, she added, “Why Peter?”

Adeline gripped her jaw, forcing their gazes to meet. Samantha’s eyes were wet.

“You already drank,” Adeline said. “So does it matter?”

Adeline drew a nail across her wrist. Black blood oozed from the wound, dripping onto the grass.

“Three times,” Adeline said. “Three times, and you can forget all about Peter.”

Samantha closed her eyes, but the aroma of strawberries hung in the air. Her throat burned, her body ached. She dove forward and latched her mouth onto the bleeding wrist. The taste of strawberries faded into something bitter and salty, rotten. She gagged at the taste, but she continued to drink. Adeline’s laugh echoed in her ears. The world faded to black.

*****

She woke to the sound of her doctor speaking with her husband. Her eyes remained shut, but she smelled the familiar pine scent of their room. Heavy quilts had been placed over her, though they didn’t warm the chill that seemed to have taken over.

“She hardly ate this morning,” James said.

“How long has she been showing signs of weakness?” the doctor asked.

“I didn’t notice anything wrong with her when I went hunting yesterday,” James said.

“On top of the weakness, she’s pale, and her heart is struggling,” the doctor said. “My diagnosis would be anemia. It’s probably been brought on by her poor appetite.”

The conversation continued as the two moved away from Samantha, and Samantha bit back a scream. A rotten taste lingered on her tongue. Three times, Adeline had said. The first time had been the cup with the sweet, strawberry liquid. The second had been Adeline’s oozing wrist. Samantha wouldn’t allow the third time.

The door slammed against the wall of the bedroom. Samantha’s eyes snapped open to meet the infuriated gaze of her husband. Sunlight poured through the window, and cicadas sang their awful tune around the house.

“Get up,” he said. “What were you thinking, leaving Evelyn by herself? First Peter, now Evelyn? What kind of mother are you?”

He yanked her from the bed, and her weakened body fell to the floor. She didn’t cry out as pain shot through her body. His boot snapped against her ribs, and her body convulsed. A sharp jolt of agony blossomed in her chest, radiating from her heart. Her head rolled to the side, eyes meeting her reflection in her floor-length mirror. Her pulse slowed. The boot collided with her chest as her heart gave one last, pitiful thump. Her eyes darkened in the mirror, the pupils dilating until they swallowed her eyes in black.

Her husband kicked at her lifeless body, red creeping up his neck. He shouted at her, waved his hands, but her glazed eyes gazed up at him, unblinking. Finally, he crouched down to feel for her pulse. Nothing.

He began to pace back and forth, hands gripping handfuls of his hair. He moved toward the door, only for his foot to catch on something and send his body to the ground.

A weight pressed against him. Samantha’s body crouched over him. Her dark eyes gazed down, meeting his terrified gaze. Her lips were parted, but she no longer breathed. She gripped his shoulders, pinning his struggling body to the floor with surprising strength. Her mouth opened wide, jaw unhinging into a gaping hole. Two long fangs glistened as they stretched out from among rows of sharp teeth.

His screams turned to gurgles as her fangs plunged into his throat.

*****

Night fell over the farm.

Samantha huddled in the corner of her bedroom. Her body ached. The blood she’d drained from her husband stained the floors from where she’d thrown up. She wasn’t alive, but she wasn’t like Adeline. Not yet. She knew that much. Her husband’s blood hadn’t been right for her. It was too old, tainted.

Evelyn crept into the room, and Samantha moaned.

“Mama?” she asked.

Three times, Adeline had said. Samantha thought of Peter and Ruth, the little children of Ider who had been slaughtered by rabid coyotes or bears or something that laughed and danced in the woods while their parents screamed over their corpses.

She held out her arms to Evelyn, and the little girl went to her mother.

*****

Samantha stepped out from the shadows of her bedroom. She kicked aside the corpse of her husband. She was gentler with Evelyn’s body, stepping over it with care. Her bare feet crossed the house without a sound. She crossed the fields, inhaling the scent of strawberries as she walked. A sweet taste lingered on her tongue.

At the edge of the forest, Adeline waited with open arms.

Samantha moved toward her with a smile on her reddened lips. She fell into the embrace, eyes closing in pleasure while hatred burned in her heart. Tonight, she would dance, and she’d forget them: James, Peter, Evelyn, and all of Ider.

Behind her, her shadow writhed like a serpent.

 

Willow Hill

by Jason Wyckoff

 

November 10, 1914

Dear Mr. Cole,

Please find below my responses to your questions about the vanishing of Evan Pendleton in 1905 and his mother Maggie Pendleton’s subsequent “accident” in 1909. For your convenience, I have enumerated my remarks and also enclosed your original letter so that you may match the responses to your queries.

As you know, I have long held what most consider outlandish beliefs about the events in question. Since your questions to me were posed without the irony or indeed the tone of outright mockery that usually colors expressions of interest in my recollection of these matters, I trust that, in your forthcoming study of the region’s mining communities, my perspective will be fairly represented. I have included in my responses as much background on the characteristics of Shadows as is necessary to comprehend my view of events.

Regards,
Augustus Turnbull

1. I knew Maggie Pendleton as a neighbor and fellow church-goer, as well as a teacher at the school Evan attended—the town’s only school, in fact. He was a quiet but inquisitive boy, and for a child in a mining town, who was often left to his own devices, exceptionally well-behaved for his age. As for Maggie, I cannot stress enough that I believe her to have been of sound mind. Most of those people close to her, after hearing her own account of her son’s vanishing, concluded that the incident had so traumatized the girl that her grip on reality had come loose. It is little wonder that she almost stopped talking about it altogether. But even through her grief she always spoke lucidly about what had happened that day, on those rare occasions when she spoke of it at all. Furthermore, the precision with which she planned and acted four years later suggests that her mind was as sharp then as it had ever been, and that is quite sharp indeed.

2. As you come down the west side of Willow Hill, starting from the ancient tree that gives the place its name, you find the old mine entrance about a quarter mile above the spot where the land levels off. Beyond that point, you have a meadow maybe a hundred yards across, and past that, the road. Follow it south, you come quickly to the town’s outskirts and, before long, its named streets; travel it north, and in a few miles or so you find yourself on a forest road used mainly by loggers and trappers, since it eventually becomes a simple dirt path and connects to no other thoroughfare beyond the wood’s edge. The road itself is lightly wooded on the western side, with a border of blackberry bushes running along its edge.

3. The two of them were as close as any parent and child I have ever known, and after Evan’s father died the boy grew all the more attached to Maggie. A sad tale in itself, Pete’s passing. He was one of the hewers killed in the 1898 cave-in, before Evan had even learned to walk. Maggie loved him deeply, and he was devoted to her. They didn’t have much, but they did have each other, and, for a year at least, they both had Evan. Would that all our hearts were filled with as much love as Pete’s and Maggie’s were for their poor, doomed family. You should have seen them all together on a Sunday, for Pete so cherished the time they were able to spend at leisure after church services. Coarse he may have been, and old before his time he certainly was, but let there be no doubt that he was a gentle and caring father, and a loving husband.

4. Maggie was deeply affected by Evan’s vanishing, and in that respect she wasn’t at all unusual among those who’ve had a loved one taken. Nor was she unusual in wanting to exact vengeance. Very few children are devoured by Shadows, but the kin of those few invariably carry the pain with them for the rest of their lives, all the more surely if they happened to witness the event themselves. What made Maggie unusual was the fact that she did actually develop a scheme to destroy the Shadow that consumed her son. Most people in her position would view the situation as hopeless. But even that didn’t make her unique; some do channel their grief and rage into plans of retaliation. What made Maggie exceptional was that her plan was a good one.

5. Firstly, you must understand that it’s nearly impossible to catch a Shadow off-guard. If one decides it isn’t interested in you, it will hide, and Shadows are fast, patient, and hard to find. If one of them does take an interest in you, those same qualities make it very difficult to resist. Some people draw on religious faith and invoke the names of their gods to confront them, but that won’t impede a determined Shadow. Many who are pursued simply run, but if a Shadow wants to find you, it will. Savvier people do not try to outrun Shadows; instead, knowing that Shadows are dark creatures, these folks will, if possible, attempt to counter them with light from every direction, and indeed this has become the preferred method of combating Shadows. That tactic can keep a Shadow at bay, though usually only temporarily. Maggie understood that their weakness was not in their dark nature, but in their dependence on what is extrinsic to them. Shadows need light; in fact they feed on it, and so she came up with the novel idea of trapping the Shadow and then starving it with darkness.

6. I have considered the question of the corporeality of Shadows at great length over the years, without ever having come to a firm conclusion. They can do harm to earthly beings such as ourselves, which strongly suggests that they are embodied. Maggie’s story seems to support that view, though it does not prove it conclusively.

7. As to why more people are not taken by Shadows, only the Shadows themselves could know for certain. But the prevailing view is that although they are creatures of darkness, they are not inherently creatures of malevolence. I daresay that most, if not all of us, have found ourselves in the presence of a Shadow on at least one occasion, though an overwhelming majority of folk would not recognize the situation for what it was.

8. Maggie would never admit to having been off the road and into the wood with her young son, and always told the story so as to give the impression that the Shadow had reached out of the thick tangle of trees and bushes to take the boy. No one ever pressed her on that point, but it is difficult for me to accept the implication that a Shadow had ventured into open space at dusk to reach its victim. And I cannot stress enough the fact that the mine’s entrance is nowhere near the road.

9. According to Maggie, the two of them had almost no warning. Since Shadows move silently, their only inkling of trouble was the sensation of what Maggie called a presence in the moments before an unnatural dimness overtook them. By her account, that was when their eyes met and she opened her mouth to tell him to run—but her lips had barely pursed to voice the word when the place where Evan stood went completely empty. It’s not just that he disappeared, you understand, it’s that for a period of perhaps two or three seconds at most, there was simply a void where he had stood. No light, no trees, no leaves on the ground, no Evan. And then it was over, and everything looked just as it had before, except that Evan was gone. According to Maggie, he had never made a sound.

10. These other theories about Evan’s disappearance are unconvincing. As to whether Maggie herself was responsible, no one who saw firsthand the woman’s shock and grief over the loss of her only son could possibly believe that she was the guilty party. The local authorities concluded as much, and this as well as most other hypotheses are inadequate to account for the fact that no trace whatsoever of Evan’s body was ever found.

11. Once a Shadow has done any serious mischief it usually makes itself scarce, but—and this is important to bear in mind—it doesn’t usually travel far. To answer your question, it seems that they are territorial. Or at the very least, they do not like to venture a long way from what they consider their home. Even still, it’s noteworthy that the Shadow that took Evan not only lingered, but readily made its presence known. Had it not, things would have gone very differently.

12. It’s clear enough to me that Maggie was hounded by a Shadow, but as to how anyone could know it was the same one that took Evan, that is a fair and difficult question. How can one tell darkness from darkness? The only answer I can give, unsatisfying as it may be, is that we must trust those who tell their own tales, and when Maggie told hers—infrequent as those retellings were, as time went on—she swore on Evan’s precious soul that she knew and would never forget this Shadow. She knew it in the same way that you might know who has entered a room just by the sound of their footsteps, she said.

13. There are only so many places that are, or can be, consumed by total darkness. Even an abandoned and shuttered cabin, lying still in the cold quiet of a winter night, will admit the light of the stars and moon through the minute cracks and gaps in its boards. It may well be that you or I would sense nothing but an empty darkness, but a Shadow will survive on even those meager celestial offerings. Indeed, a Shadow inhabiting such a place, having to live on the shards of light that break through cracks too small to see, would be a furious, unimaginably fearsome thing.

Beyond that, I suspect that Maggie had no love of the mine after Pete’s death, and would have had no qualms about destroying it.

14. I cannot say with any certainty how Maggie acquired the explosives, and speculation on the matter would be unfruitful. Being a putter herself after Pete’s passing, when necessity drove her to the mine she so hated and resented, it likely would not have been altogether difficult to find and take what she needed.

15. The Shadow had to be baited into entering the mine, and Maggie could offer no lure but her own self. That’s both the elegance and the ugliness of her plot.

16. There were no visible or audible signs of activity beneath the surface after the collapse. Maggie must surely have been inside the shaft when the uppermost portion of the tunnel caved in, but even after all the inquiries, when efforts were undertaken six months later to reopen the mine under new ownership—a process which took some weeks of difficult labor—no sign of her could be found. And that is what so puzzled the authorities, for some trace of the girl should have remained. Ever the hard-nosed realists, they still saw fit to conclude that Maggie had been killed in the explosion, and declared the matter closed.

17. This is the most vexing question of all, and anyone with the knowledge sufficient to answer it is in no position to enlighten the rest of us. Indeed, it only invites further questions. If the Shadow could be trapped in the mine, then how could there be no trace of it once the shaft had been cleared? If Maggie was killed, either by the creature or the cave-in, then why were her remains never found? If, on the other hand, the Shadow had transported Maggie, and Evan before her, to some other place than this world, then how could the thing possibly have been trapped in a mine at all?

In my view, the question looming behind all these others is this: Can a thing be both part of this world as well as something beyond it? It is a description one would apply to God, but to a Shadow? My mind balks, but my heart speaks blasphemy. My heart. Were it the other way round, I could sleep more easily.

The mine did reopen, as you know. I have visited the place myself, but being a schoolteacher and not a miner, I have never set foot in the mine before or after the events in question. I have heard nothing from the town’s miners that sheds any further light on the matter of the Pendletons. The consensus is that it is, at the end of the day, a sad story of a miner’s wife who, consumed by grief at the loss of her beloved as well as her only child, employed the instrument of her husband’s demise to end her own earthly suffering.

Perhaps it is, but again, my heart says otherwise.

 

Fair Is Fair

by Terence Gallagher

 

“Slow down, slow down. How about this guy?”

There was a man moving along the sidewalk, close by a row of darkened shop windows. Hack brought the car to a halt, and they watched him. He paused at each window and looked inside. As he looked, he swayed.

“That’s our man.”

Hack was their leader. He owned the car and the camera. He got out first and the others followed. Simeon went out through the roof. He was the psycho sidekick. He had the tics and twitches of a thousand psycho sidekicks from a thousand movies. John-John was sure that Simeon’s mannerisms were carefully cultivated. He had real energy though; there was no denying that.

John-John was still on probation. This night was very important to him.

They approached the homeless man from three different angles. He was clearly homeless. Overdressed, in a quilted coat. Red faced. Pants too long. Cord belt. Obviously nowhere to go. He saw them advancing on him, and tried to shuffle past, pressing even closer to the windows. Hack stood in his way.

“Hey, guy, how’s it going?” he asked.

“It’s going,” replied the man, and then from force of habit, irresistible even now when he clearly felt threatened, the man asked, “Do any of you guys have any change you can spare?”

“Change?” Simeon performed a spin move, a little turn on his heel, and giggled.

“Sure, sure, we have change. But how’d you like to earn some real money?”

The man looked at him uncertainly, and backed up a step. His face showed heavy scar tissue around the eyes and cheekbones. His nose was flat. Perhaps he had once been an unsuccessful prize fighter.

“Nah, nah, nothing like that,” said Hack.

“Relax, dude,” said Simeon.

“See, I’m a filmmaker,” said Hack. He held up his camera. “I make documentaries. You know, like reality television. I shoot extreme situations. Street situations. I pay people real money, not change.”

“Yeah? How much?”

“Ten, twenty, a hundred. It depends on what they do.”

“A hundred dollars? You don’t got a hundred dollars.”

“Look at my car. Look at it. You’re gonna tell me I don’t have a hundred dollars?”

“Man, he rolls his own with hundred dollar bills,” said Simeon.

“So, are you game?”

“Sure,” said the man.

“Sure he’s game,” said Simeon. “Buy some of that good stuff, keep you warm at night.”

“Let’s start small. I have to check out your talent… your natural aptitude. See that garbage pail? I’ll give you five dollars if you stand on your head in it.”

“You said ten.”

“For that? That’s for nothing! OK, OK, you drive a hard bargain. But you better get your head down into it. Now, first, look into the camera. Franklin Avenue. One a.m. What’s your name?”

“They call me Crash.”

“Crash. That’s your street name. What’s your real name?”

“That’s my name.”

“OK, you don’t have a real name. What are you going to do for us, Crash?”

“I’m gonna stand on my head in that garbage can.”

“Do your stuff.”

The man started over, then paused and looked back.

“You’re not going to stiff me, are you?”

“No, no. I said ten, I’ll pay you ten. Fair is fair.”

He went over with a will, and tipped himself into the rancid-smelling container.

“That’s right, get down into it, get down into it.” Simeon squatted beside him shouting encouragement. The man packed more and more of his body into the cylinder until only his legs waved in the air.

“That’s good, that’s good.” Hack sounded bored. “You can come out now.”

The man struggled for a while, then finally overbalanced the can and crawled out backwards. There was damp matter in his clothing and in the greasy hair that straggled out from under his knit cap. Garbage trailed out of the overturned pail into the street.

“You better pick that up, Crash,” said Simeon.

“I’m not picking that up.”

“All right, my man Crash has his pride,” said Hack. “Here’s your ten. I said ten, I meant ten. Fair is fair. That was OK, but… unspectacular, you know? My audience craves excitement, the unusual. How’d you like to make some real money?”

“Sure, man. I’m not afraid of nothin’.” The man seemed exhilarated.

“Let’s see what we can come up with.”

Hack walked past the row of shops to the corner. John-John walked alongside, trying to think of something clever to say. Simeon was chattering away to the homeless man.

It was plain that Hack had taken a dislike to his new star.

“I can’t believe I just gave this dirtbag ten bucks to do something he does every day anyway.”

They rounded the corner. They were in a wide open area. Opposite them, across an expanse of asphalt, a row of oblique parking spaces angled against the sidewalk, beyond which was a low stone wall topped by an iron railing. The whole area had been built on a high bluff that overlooked a riverfront. During the day, it was hard to find an empty space here, and there were always BMWs and Jaguars to be seen. John-John had never eaten in the bistro at the corner, and he could not afford the clothes that were sold in these shops, but he often used to ride his bicycle here when he was younger, before he met Hack and Simeon and joined their crowd. There was a narrow lane that led down to a cobblestone square immediately below the stone wall. It split off from the main street, and dipped sharply, first leading away from the square, then executing a hairpin turn and continuing its steep descent, until it emerged from the confining buildings into the open, where a speeding bicycle would shudder and rattle on the cobblestones, threatening to throw the rider.

Hack, however, had made a ninety degree turn in the other direction and was keeping alongside the shops and office fronts. He stopped in front of the imposing post office, with its high clock tower and large white doors.

“Here’s where you earn your money. You see those steps?”

There was a single short flight of stone steps leading up to the door, supplemented by a recently added wheelchair ramp to the left.

“You see that railing?”

A railing ran down the middle of the steps; during the day it divided the customary traffic into two streams.

“Twenty bucks. Twenty. Ride the railing… You don’t know what I’m talking about. John-John! Show him how it’s done.”

It had rained earlier in the night; the street was still damp, and the railing was slick. John-John, glad that he could at last contribute, ran quickly to the top of the steps. He was an avid skateboarder with a superb sense of balance, and the proposed exercise was easy for him. It would not be so easy for the homeless man. He lightly stepped onto the railing, and balanced on the initial flat section on the landing. Then he stepped to the side, and easily slid down the incline, balanced just forward of his heels. At the bottom landing, the railing flattened out again. He used this as a jumping-off point, sailed high in the air, and landed safely far from the bottom of the steps.

“Piece of cake,” he said.

“Think you can do it, Crash?”

The homeless man started for the top of the steps without hesitation. Hack made him wait while he adjusted the camera and moved around to take advantage of the lighting and found the best angle for the scene. He took his videos quite seriously, and expected one day to make filmmaking his profession. John-John was conscious of a slight feeling of surprise. Anyone trying this trick for the first time should show some trepidation, but the homeless man seemed untroubled. Maybe he’s too drunk to be afraid, thought John-John. Or maybe he’s a retired acrobat.

In the event, the homeless man showed no evidence of an acrobatic background. When he tried to stand on the railing at the top of the stairs, he shook crazily with his knees deeply bent. He started himself down the incline in what seemed to be a desperate attempt to regain his balance through speed. He was almost at the bottom, going fast, when he fell forward off the rail. He came down on one leg, his foot catching the last step and twisting in a sickening manner, and his body levering over and crashing face first into the pavement with a loud smack.

Simeon was leaping about with great frog hops, squatting all the way down on his haunches, then jumping as far as he could in random directions.

“Oh, snap!” he was saying. “Oh, snap!” He had developed a system of verbal expression, borrowing from every era and age group, that was unique to him.

“Crash! Outstanding! But that must have hurt.”

That was putting it mildly, thought John-John, who knew a great deal about stunt-related injuries. The man must surely have broken his ankle. John-John was frankly shocked to see the man arise and walk over to Hack with his hand held out.

“Twenty,” was all he said. He had a slight redness on his left cheek which seemed new, but otherwise showed no ill effects.

“One Andrew Jackson coming up,” said Hack. “I said twenty, I meant twenty.”

John-John felt an unexpected chill, an indefinable, unexplainable fear, the first warning of the winter that was to come.

“I can’t believe this guy is still walking,” he muttered.

“These guys are so stoned half the time they don’t feel anything. He’ll feel it tomorrow, all right. Hey, Hack! This guy is gold. I wish we had that other guy here, from last week. Fightin’ Phil. They’d make a good match.”

“Yeah, some day, maybe. That’s some pretty good stuff, Crash. You want to call it a night, or are you still game?”

“You still got money?”

“Have I got money? I always have money. Fifty bucks.” Hack pointed without looking to the brick front of the post office. “Fifty bucks, if you run face first into that wall. But it has to be face first. And you have to really run. Are you still game? Whoa, whoa, wait a second.” For the man had already taken a stance facing the wall, and was drawing himself up for his charge.

As Hack chose a vantage point, John-John murmured to him, “Come on, man, this guy could fracture his skull.”

“I’m just giving him a chance to earn some honest money, and I’m giving him his fifteen minutes. Back off, you’re in my way.”

Hack, finally, was ready.

“Remember, head first, and fast. Anything else hits first, you get nothing. And take that hat off, no padding.”

“There he goes.”

Crash started for the wall, leaning forward at the waist, picking up speed. John-John kept hoping he’d pull up. At the last instant, John-John turned away. He heard a sickening sound, the like of which he had never heard before: an unprotected human skull striking brick hard, a serious sound, almost hollow.

Then he heard Crash’s body falling to the sidewalk. John-John was afraid to turn around. Even Simeon was shocked into silence. John-John heard the faint whine of the camera as Hack moved in for a better view. Then he heard something else: the sound of a man climbing to his feet. He turned.

He saw Crash walking towards Hack with his hand held out.

“My fifty,” he said. There was victory in his eyes. One great dark cord of gore formed above his left eye, stretched, broke, and splashed to the pavement. That was all.

Hack counted the money into his hand.

Simeon was beside himself.

“Crash, you are indestructible. You are the King of the Streets. And you, John-John, are a girl. You’re such a freaking little girl.”

John-John’s heart sank. This night was turning into a disaster.

Hack spoke.

“Yeah, Crash, you sure are indestructible. I’ll tell you what. If you jump over that wall and do a swan dive into the courtyard, I’ll give you my car.”

There was at least a fifty-foot drop to the cobblestones below. Simeon laughed. The homeless man turned once, in a long slow triumphant look that encompassed them all. John-John’s eyes swelled with horror. The man started for the wall. His boots stamped across the wide street.

They stood and watched.

“He’s gonna do it!” said Simeon.

“No he’s not,” said John-John.

“He’s gonna do it!”

“No.”

“Look at him! He’s gonna do it!”

“No!” Hack screamed, suddenly running and trying desperately to keep his camera steady as he ran.

The homeless man crossed the sidewalk, put one foot on the little stone wall, the other foot on the metal rail, and launched himself into space. He spread his arms and seemed to hang in the air. For a moment, John-John almost expected the man to rise and flap away into the night sky. Then he fell.

They all shouted, but there were no words, only voices. They had not reached the wall when they heard the man hit. If the first sound had been shocking, this sound was incredible. It was impossible to believe that such a sound could be produced by a human body. But they knew it could be produced by nothing else.

John-John reached the wall first, but he did not look over.

Hack was enraged. He craned over the wall with his camera, trying to find the range.

“I missed it. I can’t believe it, I missed it.”

“Hack,” said Simeon quietly. “That guy’s dead.”

“Did I push him? I didn’t push him. He jumped. I can’t believe I missed it. Did you see him? I’ve never seen anything like it. He flew. What a shot, once in a lifetime, and I missed it.”
John-John looked over the wall. The homeless man was spread-eagled on the cobblestones, some distance from the base of the wall, and an oily stain spread from his head.

“Let’s go. I’m going down there.” Hack started back for his car. The others followed.

Simeon spoke again.

“Hack, we’ve got to get out of here. That guy’s dead.”

“He killed himself. I didn’t kill him. But I’ll be damned if I don’t get my shot.”

When they reached Hack’s car, John-John and Simeon got in the back on opposite sides. Hack made a sharp U-turn and his right front tire climbed the curb, then bounced back down into the road. He would never have done such a thing if he had not been rattled too, John-John thought. The car roared down the street, turned left past the scene of Crash’s last flight, and headed for the narrow lane that led down to the square and the body. The familiar sensation of rapid motion rejuvenated Simeon. He rose from his seat through the skylight, and took his place leaning on the roof.

Hack slowed the car to a crawl as he negotiated the hairpin turn, then stepped on the accelerator and sent Simeon and John-John reeling backward. They emerged from the alley going fast, but still should have had enough room to make an oblique left and screech to a halt alongside the homeless man’s body, if only it had been lying where they had last seen it. But the homeless man was much closer than they expected, for he had arisen, and he was walking towards them. One open hand was extended, and in his eyes shone a terrible new light.

The three boys screamed when they saw him. Hack had no time to stop, no time to consider. He did what was natural to him. He floored the accelerator and sought to expunge his strange tormentor. The front fender struck the man, and he flew off at an angle into the air behind them. They were going too fast now, and their follow-through carried them out of the square, into a cylindrical cement piling designed to limit automobile traffic. It worked. They struck hard, and loud, and the car bucked once and stopped, hissing.

John-John was holding his throat. He felt as if he had been struck very hard by a very soft object right on the windpipe. He was terrified that his throat would swell up and he would suffocate. He was convinced that if he removed his hand from his throat he would die. He managed to get the door open with his left hand, and he fell out onto the cobblestones. He could hear Hack making wet flipping noises, as if his mouth was filling up with blood and he was trying to get rid of it using his lips and tongue. From where he lay, cheek pressed against the cold stone, John-John could see Simeon. He had been thrown far clear of the car. He was still twitching, but no longer like a movie sidekick.

John-John wormed a bit farther from the car, then gave up and sank back to the stone. He listened, and he heard the footsteps that he knew he would hear. He saw boots crossing the square between him and the car. He painfully raised his eyes in time to see the homeless man jerk the driver-side door open and slide Hack over on the front seat. Then the man sat down behind the wheel, and closed the door. He restarted the car without difficulty. It backed up suddenly, coming so close to John-John that the rubber of the back left wheel actually touched his leg where he lay helpless. Then the gear shifted, and the car started forward as the homeless man drove away into the night with his prize.

 

Unrelenting

by L.A. Parish

 

On Tuesday evening, Dwight dug up Sophie and brought her into the kitchen. He laid her out on a broad sheet of clear plastic and sat beside her for a good three hours. During this time Dwight drank bottles of Amstel Light and scratched out images on loose sheets of paper. The images were crude, depicting nebulous unworldly creatures with large jagged teeth and long twisting tails. Just before the sun made an appearance above Tom Hull’s dilapidated barn, Dwight had Sophie back in the ground.

Dwight had Sophie out again early Thursday evening. This time he set her on the living room couch. He covered her body with a pale green blanket and used a corner of the old material to flick away particles of dirt and sagebrush from her young face. He sat with her head in his lap and watched as dark birds settled awkwardly on telephone lines outside. He gently stroked Sophie’s head and soon fell asleep. Dwight dreamed of a world overrun with large carnivorous frogs.

Dwight awoke in the early hours of Friday. He thought it too late to return Sophie. He stood and stretched his back and then knelt beside her and lightly kissed her dry nose. Dwight then stood at the window. The sky was a sickly rich blend of orange and red. There were six dead flies on the windowsill. Dwight gathered the little husks into his palm and examined them closely. He rolled them back and forth with little puffs of breath. Two of the husks still had wings attached. Dwight plucked at one and it fell apart at his touch. He shook his head and gently placed the husks back on the sill.

He made himself scrambled eggs for breakfast. He would have made toast as well, but he had not been to the store in over a week and there was no bread. Dwight had also not been to work in almost two weeks. On the first day of his absence, Dwight received two messages from Suzette in human resources. Her voice was slow and friendly, asking him to please call in. He replayed the message eight times. On the second day he received three calls but only one message. It was Suzette again. This time she did not sound as friendly. Dwight only replayed that message twice. On the third day there was one call and one message. Suzette. She said she was now becoming quite concerned about Dwight; in fact, they all were, and would he please return the call to let everyone know that everything was alright. Dwight played this message eleven times before erasing it. He then sat at the kitchen table and sketched an image of a naked woman with large teeth and a bright red telephone in her hand. The image aroused Dwight and so he quickly tore it up and slid the tip of a steak knife up under the nail of his left forefinger and pushed until blood spurted from beneath the opaque nail and the pain reset his mind.

Early Friday evening Dwight stood at the window and watched as the sky darkened and slowly filled with stars. He returned Sophie a little after ten, placing a handkerchief across her face so as to protect her eyes from dirt. He tamped the fragrant soil about her small body and sat beside her when he was done. The air was cool and things small and unknown to Dwight scurried about in nearby ditches. Something large drifted silently across the moon’s slender face.

Dwight slept poorly that night. His dreams were filled with erratic images of children engulfed in flames and of ships sinking into a dark sea. Just before sunrise Dwight awoke and sat at the foot of his bed. He looked out at the barren land beyond the window and wept.

Dwight dressed himself and nibbled at a breakfast of dry cereal. He drank a glass of orange juice. He checked to see if anyone had called. The message light pulsed with a single red zero. Dwight picked up the phone and set it to his ear. There was nothing but a faint static rustling. He set his glass in the sink and put on his heavy leather coat and went outside.

A side door to Tom Hull’s barn was swinging back and forth on loose hinges. Dwight walked over and latched it shut. He then walked up the broken steps to Tom’s kitchen door and knocked. There was no response. Dwight smiled and shielded his eyes and peered through a window. There were dirty plates and cups stacked in the sink and an opened package of sandwich meat on the table. Flies buzzed through the air between the sink and table. The edging of the meat had turned an iridescent green. Something with a reddish tail scurried out from beneath the table and darted into the hallway. Was there something inside that Dwight had missed? He didn’t think so. But to be sure, he would return later and check.

Dwight walked back to his property and sat on the back steps. There was an odd purple tinge to the sky and a slight tang of something bitter on the air. Dwight walked over to Sophie’s mound and knelt beside it. There were four other mounds nearby but Dwight would no longer dig up their holes. It had been too long now and things had changed drastically and the smell had become terrible. It was best to let them lie. But Sophie still looked like Sophie. She had died only days earlier. In time the others would die too. It never really seemed to take too long. Now and then Dwight could hear them calling. Their small voices muffled behind the thick cellar door.

Dwight knew that someone would in time come for Tom. It seemed that everyone had someone to miss them eventually. Dwight thought about Suzette and of her slow soft voice. He wondered if Suzette would in time come for him. And if so, what would he do when she did?

Dwight stood and stretched his back. He thought tonight would be the last night for Sophie. He would bring her into the living room once more, but this time he would set her in the chair by the window. If there was any shine left to her eyes he would try to position her head so that the lamplight caught it. He would sit beside her and wait. He may even draw something new. He would block out the other voices as he waited. In the morning he would dig new holes.

 

Just a Little Kiss

by Sarah Scharnweber

 

Alexander put his arm around Veronica. His hand crept down her shoulder and onto her breast. She shrugged him off. “Stop.”

He leaned in. “Just a little kiss?” He puckered his lips.

She looked into the blue eyes she loved so much, but she hadn’t planned for this. It was their first date and she wasn’t ready to move this fast. “I think it’s a little early for that.” She brushed his hand off of her shoulder and reached for the handle. “I think you should take me home.” She tugged the handle, popping the latch, but keeping the door closed.

“I don’t think I’m going to do that.” He leaned in further. “One kiss is all I want.”

“I don’t want to. Please, take me home.” She pushed open the door; the wind blew in, blowing her long blond hair into her face.

He grabbed her arm and tugged on her. “Stop.”

She shook the hair from her face. “Either take me home, or I’m walking.”

“You aren’t going to walk in the dead of winter. We are in the middle of nowhere.”

“Take me home, or I’m really going to walk.”

“Don’t be stupid.” He pulled her hard; her left wrist popped as she shook free of his grip and went tumbling out the door and onto the ground.

She landed on her right hand, pressing pieces of gravel deep into her palm.  She pushed herself to her feet, trying to ignore the pain. She heard Alexander’s door open. “Just leave me alone.” She tugged at her skirt, trying to straighten it as she walked down the road, away from him.

“Stop being a bitch and come back here. It’s not like I was gonna rape your or anything.”

“Just leave me alone.” She continued walking away from him.

“I’m just gonna leave you, then. This is your last chance.”

“Please do.” She shouted with her middle finger in the air pointed behind her. She walked for a few more second; heard him close her door, then walk around and close his own.

He slowed as he approached. “Seriously! Just get back in.”

“Just go, I’ll figure it out on my own.” She didn’t look at him as he drove away and his lights disappeared into the distance.

She walked for several minutes before she even noticed how cold it was. Her wool coat was warm, but it was short and so was the tight black skirt she wore. She pulled out her cell phone and sighed. Of course he would bring her to a no-service area.

She started crying, not sure what she was going to do as teardrops froze to her cheeks. She was very cold and she knew he wasn’t coming back. Before she knew it, she was talking to herself aloud. “So, this is how you do things. This is the best date ever. You are such a fucking idiot. This is what you get.”

She walked for nearly ten minutes before she saw her first highway sign. She checked her phone, but still had no service, but she believed she would be able to walk to a place where her phone would work.

She was beginning to worry about the dangers of frostbite when she heard the sound of a car coming toward her from behind. She felt a wave of relief when she saw the small black sports car pull around the corner and slow as it pulled up next to her.

The passenger window went down; Veronica looked in. There was a nice-looking man in his forties, dressed in a suit sitting in the driver’s seat. He looked confused. “I didn’t see a broken down car anywhere, where are you coming from?” He gestured behind him.

“Someone left me out here.” She looked into his eyes; they were brown, not blue. “Do you think you could get me into town? Just far enough for my phone to work is fine.”

He nodded. “Sure, just hop in.” He flipped a switch inside the car and the door unlocked.

She climbed in. The car was warm and her skin burned as her legs began to warm up. “Thank you so much.”

“Who would leave you on the side of the road like that?” He looked to her for an answer, then recognition overcame his face. “I’m sorry. I’m Ethan.” He reached out his right hand to shake, without looking away from the road. She took his hand, also looking at the road in fear while she did. “No one even uses this road anymore. Why were you out here?”

“Why were you out here?”

He chuckled a bit. “Looking for someone to eat.” He looked over at her and winked, then bellowed a deep laugh. “I’m kidding you, of course.”

She forced a laugh. “My date tried to take advantage of me, so I got out of the car and he left me here.”

“Sounds like there’s a young man who comes out this way quite often. That’s not the first time I’ve heard that same story.”

“So, picking up recently assaulted girls is some kind of a hobby for you?” Her fingers rubbed the edge of her skirt.

“Nah, just when I see a pretty girl, who looks like she’s in trouble, I stop. Last few months, there have been more of them.” He smiled. “I’m a lawyer; this is on my way home. Sometimes I see people and once in a while, I help them.”

She let out a breath that she hadn’t realized she had been holding. “You really had me nervous for a moment.”

“I’m sorry; I was just making conversation, was all.” He reached over and patted her knee.

“I don’t like to be touched.” She tried to speak gently, but the way she tugged her fishnet-covered knee away from him was cold.

“Wow.” He was calm, but seemed very offended. “I didn’t mean anything by it.” He twisted his hands on the steering wheel and pulled air in through his nose. “Not like you don’t owe me, or anything.”

“I don’t want to owe you anything. If you want, you can wait for my mom to come pick me up and I’m sure she can give you some cash for your troubles, but that’s it. I’m not even eighteen.” She pulled out her phone; still no signal.

He looked over at her, licked his lips and smiled. “Age only matters if they catch you.” He took a sharp left and they headed down another street. His hand reached over and held down the power lock.

Veronica reached over and tried to pull up the lock, but it wouldn’t move. She felt her heart start to race as she continued pulling at the lock. She grabbed the handle and yanked at it.

Ethan stopped and looked into her eyes. “You jump out and I’ll run you over until you are dead. If you think I’m kidding, just try me.”

She let go of the door. Her hands shook and her heart thudded in her chest.

“That’s better.” He straightened in his seat. “You’re mine now. You may as well get used to that.”

She felt tears streaming down her face again. “What are you going to do to me?” She felt her chest growing heavy as she started to have trouble breathing.

“Whatever I want, I guess.” He shrugged his shoulders. “Not much further now and then I guess you’ll see for yourself.”

A moment later, he pulled behind a big barn that would have struck Veronica as odd under other circumstances, but she hardly even noticed its electric blue color in the dark as he dragged her through the doorway.

Once they were inside, he let her go. He turned back and padlocked the door to the outside, then turned back to her and smiled.

She glanced around the room. It was large with wood and plaster walls. A long couch with huge orange and brown flowers on a yellow background stood against the far wall. She stared at him, certain that running would do her no good inside this place.

He tilted his head as he spoke. “Victoria? That’s a beautiful name. It’s too bad for you, really. If you weren’t so stupid, you wouldn’t be here right now.”

Tears still streamed down Veronica’s face. “It’s Veronica,” she corrected. “I don’t know what I did, but I’m sorry.”

Just as she spoke, she heard a scuffling behind her.

“Are you going to kill me?” She had gained some composure, but continued to cry.

“Not right away.” The voice behind her was familiar, but she couldn’t place it. “First, we’re going to skin you.”

She turned and saw Alexander standing behind her. He had a long hunting knife in his right hand. “I thought you were going to be the one, but you were just like all the others.”

“The one what?” Seeing him made her angry. Her tears had stopped before she realized she wasn’t frightened of him.

“I thought you were going to be the girl we were going to bring to the family. You should have just kissed me; that’s all you had to do.”

She bit her tongue, certain that this wasn’t the right time to argue with him. She looked at him for a moment, before Ethan pulled her hand behind her back. She tried to fight, but it was too late.

Something heavy struck her head and then there was darkness.

*****

She awoke in a different room. It smelled like dirt and was completely dark. Her arms were restrained above her and her toes barely touched the floor. “Hello?” she called out. “Someone there?”

There was a cough followed by a low moan.

“Hello?” Her voice was louder than before.

“Shh,” a light and airy female voice whispered.

Veronica lowered her voice again, “Who are you?”

“My name is Mary. I’m not sure where I am, or how I got here. Who are you?”

“Veronica, I dated Alexander once. I guess that’s why I’m here.” Her eyes began to adjust to the darkness and she could tell there was someone chained to the far wall.

“You too?” Mary was calm. “What do you know?”

Veronica didn’t know what she meant. “I should have kissed Alexander and I wouldn’t be here.”

Mary sighed. “I wish I didn’t have to tell you this, but they’re going to kill us.”

“Because I didn’t kiss him?” Her voice was loud. Just as Veronica was going to ask more questions, there was a thud upstairs.

A door creaked and a small sliver of light illuminated the room enough that Veronica could see Mary’s long black hair hanging in unkempt clumps on her shoulders.

“Don’t make me come down there.” The low, scratchy voice had a slight drawl.

Veronica looked to Mary and shook her head, signaling her not to speak.

“Don’t make me get up again.” The door creaked closed, leaving the room dark again.

“You can’t make noise or they’ll punish us.”

“How long have you been here?” Her voice was almost inaudible.

“I have no idea. It’s been a while, but I sleep lots.” She groaned. “I’m sore, that’s for sure.”

“What are they going to do to us?”

“They sliced pieces of skin off of the last girl before they dragged her out.” She started crying a little, but managed to keep from sobbing. “I threw up and wet myself when I watched it. She was so sweet. Her name was Mandy.” She sniffed as if she were frightened they would hear even that above.

“Why would they want to kill us? I don’t want to die.”

“Don’t you start shouting again. If they come down here, I’m going to tell them you’re the loud one. Maybe they’ll kill you first.” She sounded angry, but it was clear that she was also scared.

“I’m not going to draw attention to us.”

“They’re coming either way; but I want to prolong it as long as I can.” She was calm again.

“I’m scared,” Veronica said.

Both girls fell silent.

*****

A high-pitched female voice made its way across the building above them and approached the stairs. The door exploded open and footsteps thundered down. “No hiding now.” The strange female voice approached. “You both thought that you were going to refuse my beautiful baby boy.” She shook her head as she stepped into the room and stood between the two girls. “Lucky for you, I hafta to do this fast.” The building rumbled for a moment before the room was filled with people and light. A large blond woman with an orange apron around her waist stood there, surrounded by men.

“Please, don’t,” Veronica sobbed as her head swung from side to side.

“You ran out of please a few days ago.” A large man in front of the group stood with his feet shoulder-width apart as if in preparation for a fight. “Time to pay the price.” A large man in a too-small tee shirt and cut-off jean shorts lifted his fists.

Veronica’s lip quivered as he pulled a small knife from his pocket and scratched the tip of it along her cheek.

 “I don’t want to die.” Her chest was heavy and full.

He looked into her eyes and studied them, while his thick, moist tongue lashed at his lips. “Bobby, carve into that one, I wanna see the look in her eyes.”

Veronica closed her eyes and looked away. She almost instantly felt cold, sharp metal against her cheek. Veronica turned her face away.

“Look at her.” He growled and dug his knife into her cheek.

She shook her head a tiny bit.

He cut a deep slit into her right cheek, nearly cutting all the way through. “I said look, dammit!” he shouted in her face.

She could feel blood dripping down her cheek as she forced herself to look.

A fat man in sweats, who Veronica assumed was Bobby, then sliced down her thigh. Blood poured down her leg as she screamed.

“Please, don’t.” Veronica sniffled and felt her lip begin to quiver.

The man in front of her chuckled, “More, Bobby.”

Fat Bobby carved into her thigh. Six inches to the right, parallel to the first cut. Alexander walked toward her, a meat cleaver hung at his side from one hand. He didn’t respond to Mary’s screams as he chopped at a piece of meat that now hung from her leg.

Blood splattered across the room, some of it hit Veronica’s leg. Veronica let out a squeal, but stifled it. “Please, just stop.” Veronica whispered.

Just then, she felt an explosion of pain and warmth as blood poured out of her stomach and down the front of her skirt. The man in front of her pulled up on the knife, ripping Veronica’s stomach open. She looked down and felt her head growing dizzy. 

*****

“Wake up, bitch.” She opened her eyes. Fat Bobby’s face was inches from hers. She was laying on something cold and hard in a bright white room. Fat Bobby stood to her right. She couldn’t feel her limbs. Mary stood on the left of her. Alexander stood behind her.

“Do it.” Alexander grunted at Mary.

She looked into Veronica’s eyes, begging her for an apology as she reached out and carved a flap of skin from her left breast. Blood trickled out. Veronica felt weak.

“I looked her in the eyes and cut her, am I in?” She looked from Alexander to Fat Bobby.

They both shook their head. Alexander reached down and picked the piece of meat from the knife. He put it between his teeth and pulled Mary to him.

The last thing Veronica heard before everything went dark was Fat Bobby’s voice, “I now pronounce you Mr. and Mrs. Alexander Crawford.”

 

Take-Out

by Arnaldo Lopez Jr.

 

I’m Harvey Hickman and I’ve got the most dangerous job in America… I’m the pizza delivery guy.

Oh, I know, I know. Some people argue that the Chinese food delivery guys have it worse, or maybe the mailmen, uh, mailpeople. But c’mon, the guys that deliver your Chinese food travel in gangs that ride around in hopped-up Japanese crotch rockets and they carry fully automatic weapons (even though they’re still illegal), and those folks that deliver your mail show up in armored personnel carriers with specially modified cannons that shoot your mail right onto your porch or through your window, and besides, most folks just use email nowadays anyway—so no, it’s me alright. And that’s why the chicks love me and all the guys hate me, ’cause they all wanna be me (I mean the guys, not the girls).

It all started when the Rift happened. BTR (Before The Rift), I was just a skinny loser with perennial acne, a crappy car, and an even crappier job—pizza delivery guy. I mean, I couldn’t get laid if I were an egg! Even tips from my customers were rare. I’d be standing in someone’s doorway wearing that stupid Pizza Pete’s paper hat on my head, my hand held out for some sort of gratuity, and more often than not I’d get the door slammed in my face. What really burned me was hearing them all laughing at me from the other side of those doors. Now, not only do I get big tips, but there are plenty of times when a beautiful woman will show up at the door in just her undies and pull me inside for a little “afternoon delight.” Ah yeah, life sure is sweet now… but hey, don’t get me wrong—it’s still dangerous as hell. Literally.

*****

I don’t exactly know what happened, maybe nobody does, but the word on the street is that about a year ago some scientists working on a sort of secret collider project on a little island in the East River accidentally tore open a hole in the so-called fabric of time and space. Well, whatever it is they did, it turned into a real mess…

You see, that tear in space or whatever—what we now call the Rift—allowed all kinds of creatures from some other dimension (or whatever!) to enter our world and cause all kinds of trouble. At first it was just Manhattan, but soon after it became the tri-state area, and then the whole country. All kinds of weird animals and monsters were soon roaming through every neighborhood, attacking and eating people, pets—anything they could catch. There were hundreds, heck, thousands of them—all different kinds, but they all had two things in common: they were all mean and they were all hungry.

The cops put up a good fight at first, but it was just too big a job. It took the military to get things under control, but as the weeks and months wore on it became clear that these creatures (Rift Dwellers we call ’em) weren’t going anywhere—they were the new reality. But folks still had to make a living, and the president even went on television and told everyone to continue with their lives and go back to work. A lot of people did just that, and a lot of ’em got killed. So then it became legal for everyone to carry a gun, and plenty of folks got together and formed armed carpools and were able to get back to work, but by then the damage to what they call the national psyche had been done. People in general were still really afraid to go out, with thousands of folks stuck in their homes or offices—too afraid to get out and go back home, work, shop, or just get something to eat without being eaten themselves. People were starving, and law enforcement and the military were stretched too thin to be everywhere at once.

That’s when guys like me became the new rock and roll gods!

Now it’s another Friday and I’m sitting in the back room at Pizza Pete’s with my feet up and my 3-D glasses on—watching a movie between gigs. And there will be another gig soon, my eighth of the day so far, since Fridays are our busiest days.

“Yo, Harv,” came Joey’s voice from out front. “Have another delivery for you—lock and load, babe!”

That’s Joey Riccio, he owns Pizza Pete’s. I never actually met Pizza Pete, in fact I don’t know if there ever was a Pizza Pete.

I walk out into the dining area, past the heat of the ovens, and nod hello to the regulars. The regulars are actually a guy and two women that were here when the Rift opened and have been too scared to leave since. They look a little bedraggled now; their eyes have dark circles under ’em and their hair’s a little dull and shaggy. Marla, that’s one of the women, was pretty once and she used to smile a lot. Now she still smiles a lot, but in that weird kinda way that tells you she’s close to losing it. I’ve offered to escort them home plenty of times (especially Marla), but they’ve always been too scared to leave.

“You got two cheese pies, same address, right across from the park. You also got a pepperoni pie, buffalo wings, and a couple of two-liter sodas mid-town,” Joey said, taping invoices with the addresses on them on to the boxes.

I take the boxes and wings, and slip them into the wide vinyl sleeve that’ll help keep them nice and hot. Next I grab the sodas and drop them into my backpack. Lastly, I check my weapons. My main arsenal consists of a Mossberg semi-automatic sawed-off shotgun, a .38 Colt Diamondback revolver with the heat-dispersal vents along the top of the barrel, a two-shot .22 magnum Derringer, and a really, really big Bowie knife.

I prime the shotgun, sling the pack onto my back, grab the vinyl case with the pizzas and wings in it, and back out of the door.

At first the bright blue sky of outside dazzles me, but my eyes adjust quickly enough and I make it to my car without incident. I put the pizzas and sodas on the passenger seat, and turn in time to see a Bagger and two Hump-Lizards heading my way. A Bagger looks exactly like a plastic supermarket shopping bag, and it floats in the air or scoots along the ground just like those bags do when a breeze gets a hold of ’em. But then you notice that there ain’t no breeze and by then it may be too late—the Bagger whips itself over your head and suffocates you. Then it slowly starts to digest you, but eventually other RDs (Rift Dwellers) find your fresh corpse and help themselves to the feast. Hump-lizards are mastiff-sized lizards with 3-inch claws, 6-inch fangs, and humped backs that ooze acid.

I considered blasting them but changed my mind, jumped in my car, and took off instead. I mean, c’mon, I had to get those pizzas delivered in thirty minutes or less!

Speaking of my car, I got rid of the Yaris and now I drive a black, armored, super-charged, 2012 Chevy Camaro with bullet-proof windows and tires. This baby’s basically a tank that can do 240 mph on a straightaway, and shatter windows for a block when I crank the system up and blast music from the six titanium-reinforced exterior speakers. Holla!

I delivered the first pizzas to an address on East 71st Street and Fifth Avenue with virtually no problem—I just wound up running over a couple of love-struck Vampires, dodging some real persistant Baggers, and blasting a Raticorn (kind of a giant rat with tusks and a horn) that came running out of Central Park and right at me.

The second delivery was a little more eventful. It was in the “Lipstick” building on 53rd Street and Lexington Avenue. A few office workers got stuck there when the Rift happened and just never went home. There’re a lot of places like that all over—people saw their friends, family, even heavily-armed military guys get torn apart right in front of their eyes and it freaked them out. They don’t want to end up some RD’s meal and figure it’s a whole lot safer to stay put… and they’re right.

Luckily, I find a parking space right out front (hey, this is still Manhattan!) and while I’m getting the pizza out of the car I hear a roar off to my right and it’s getting closer—I already know what’s coming and I brace myself. They come zooming around the corner in tight formation, the sun gleaming and glinting off their helmets and Suzuki Hayabusa motorcycles. A Chinese food delivery gang and, wouldn’t you know it, they’re making a delivery at the same address I am. They stop right behind my car and drop onto their kickstands in unison; like they’ve been rehearsing it for years. I finger the safety off my shotgun.

The leader of the gang saunters over to where I’m standing, checks the skies and removes her helmet—shaking free her long, glossy black hair. Oh shit, it’s Lisa Lim; so that means that this gang is the Sunny Garden crew… a very tough bunch.

“How ya doing Harvey?” she asks, putting one hand on her hip and resting the other on the snub-nosed Heckler & Koch fully automatic rifle slung over her shoulder on a Hello Kitty strap. “What are you doing in Sunny Garden territory?”

I sigh and repeat what I’ve told her a bunch of other times, “It’s only Sunny Garden territory as far as Chinese food is concerned—I deliver pizzas.”

She laughs and I can hear the rest of her all-female gang laugh under their helmets. I think I already mentioned how I don’t like being laughed at.

“If I say it’s Sunny Garden territory, Harv,” Lisa says, “then I’m talking about any and all food; and that includes your lousy pizza!”

More laughter. Then her voice and attitude get much more serious. “But tell you what, we’re going to do you a favor and deliver your stale pizza for you… isn’t that nice of us, Harv?”

While she’s talking I’m trying to figure a way out of this mess. I check my watch—I only have seven minutes to go before the customer gets a free pizza and it comes out of my pay. I’m sweating. I figure I can take Lisa and maybe two of her crew with the shotgun, but then they’d just chop me to bits with those automatic weapons of theirs. Then, as if she were reading my mind:

“Don’t try anything stupid, Harv,” Lisa says as she swings her rifle in my direction. I notice that the rest of her gang does the same. In unison again. Like synchronized swimming. Cute.

“Just give us the pizza, whatever you have in the backpack, your weapons, and your wallet. If you’re real nice and quick about it, we might let you keep your car.” There’s more laughing, so I don’t feel too bad about what happens next. Very slowly and deliberately I pull my knife out. I check my watch—four minutes to go.

Lisa sees me slide the 12-inch blade from its leather sheath and her eyes go wide in surprise. I hear the loud click as she snaps the safety off her rifle.

“That was a very stupid thing to do Harvey,” Lisa says menacingly as she levels her rifle at me.

I take a deep breath and use it to yell one word as loud as I can, “Incoming!” I point above and behind them, and luckily a few of them do turn to look. It’s their yelps of fear and surprise that make them all turn and look. That’s when they see the Baggers, hundreds of them, coming right at us.

Lisa’s gang forgets all about me as they point their weapons at the fast-approaching RDs and begin firing. The noise is incredible! I haven’t heard a racket like that since the early days of the Rift. Lisa’s firing her weapon too, and to their credit, the Sunny Garden crew shred dozens of the Baggers—but there are plenty of the little bastards to go around. Lisa’s gang really is doing a good job of fending off the attacking Baggers; but then they’re all wearing helmets. In fact, the only ones not wearing helmets are…

Lisa stops firing her rifle at the Baggers long enough to once again turn it towards me, “Saved some for you Harv,” she yells over the clatter of her gang’s guns.

I figure I’m done for and mouth some quick prayers—thankful that at least I’d finally gotten laid before I died.

Suddenly a Bagger swoops down and covers Lisa’s head, immediately wrapping its translucent appendages around her neck and pressing itself tightly against her face to deprive her of oxygen.

Lisa drops her gun and opens her mouth to scream, or maybe take a gulp of air; I don’t know which, and it doesn’t matter because she doesn’t succeed at either. She starts pulling and clawing at the Bagger, but it’s fastened itself onto her pretty tightly; and its skin is tougher than it looks. I check my watch: two minutes.

I grab my pizza bag again and start for the building when I spot a shopping bag bulging with Chinese food hanging from Lisa’s motorcycle, and I make a decision. I take my knife, slice through the elastic cord holding the food, and grab the bag before it hits the ground.

I spin on the ball of my foot, knife flashing, and I cut open the Bagger on Lisa’s face, saving her life but opening up a gash on her pretty face that’s gonna leave a nasty scar. I duck under and slice apart a Bagger that was coming for me and sprint for the building; with at least twenty of those Bagger bastards right behind me.

I make it inside, leave the Baggers outside, and grab the elevator to the third floor. As soon as the doors open I run to suite 3404, my sneakers squeaking as I skid to a stop in front of the doors and press the buzzer. The door opens and a gorgeous brunette with soft gray eyes and a beautiful smile is standing there. She’s wearing a blazer that matches the color of her eyes; part of what was once a chic business suit. I check my watch: nineteen seconds to spare.

“Well, another minute and I would have gotten a free pizza,” she says with that great smile.

“Nineteen seconds,” I say with a smile of my own. We exchange food for cash, and I remark, “That’s a lot of food for just one person…”

“Yes, it is,” she says with another smile as she opens the door wider and steps aside.

I start to step inside when I notice that there are already two other guys in the room. The older guy, in shirt sleeves and tie, salutes me with a glass he’s holding; the amber liquid inside sloshing around.

As soon as I realize my mistake I quickly step back out of the room. What I thought was an invitation was just her showing me she already had company. Now, I just stand there feeling idiotic and I can sense the color rising in my face. The woman in the gray blazer notices of course and says, “Those are my neighbors from suites 3406 and 3409… they’re lawyers.” She whispers the last two words as if she’s imparting some secret knowledge to me in confidence.

“We were just going to eat and watch the news, see if anything’s changed. You’re, uh, welcome to join us,” she hurriedly adds at the end.

I hear the faint rat-a-tat of gunfire from outside; Lisa’s gang still doing battle with the Baggers. Then I remember the Chinese food I’m carrying.

“I, uh, gotta deliver this,” I stammer as I hold up the torn shopping bag with the Chinese food inside. Something must have spilled because it’s leaking some sort of brown sauce.

“Oh!” she says in surprise. “You deliver Chinese food, too?”

I can only nod dumbly and turn away, heading back to the elevators. During my elevator ride up to the 11th floor, I mentally kick myself over and over for losing it during my delivery to suite 3404.

“That was the old Harvey Hickman,” I admonish myself. “The new Harvey Hickman is a red-hot lover, monster killer, and ass-kickin’ Chinese food delivery gang fighter!”

By the time I reach the 11th floor, I feel a lot better about things and I ring the buzzer next to a highly polished wooden door. A brass plaque on the door reads, “Rift Systems: Division 1.” Rift Systems? The Rift? Could this be a coincidence? I look around and see that there are no other offices or suites, which means that this Rift Systems: Division 1 (whatever that is) takes up this entire floor. The hair goes up on the back of my neck; there’s something weird about this.

I’m about to press the buzzer again when the door opens and some military-type ushers me inside. The soldier closes and locks the door behind me.

“Put that on the table over there,” he says. “And try not to get whatever’s leaking outta there on anything.”

I nod and look around; more than just a little surprised at what I see… The entire 11th floor looks like it’s been converted into a gigantic lab, with steel tables, computers, screens, gadgets, cubicles and scientists all over the place. There are soldiers too, although not many, and I wonder what the hell is going on.

“How much will that be, son?”

The voice, tinged with a slight southern accent intrudes on my thoughts so suddenly that I jump. Another soldier, this one an officer I guess by all the ribbons and medals on his jacket, walks over to me and asks again, “So, what do we owe you?”

I remember the amount written on the invoice stapled to the bag and I tell him. He counts out several bills and I see him add a $10.00 tip for good measure.

“Thanks, uh, thank you, sir,” I say as I stuff the cash into my pocket.

The officer glances at my weaponry and nods approvingly. “Glad to see you’re loaded for bear, son,” he says. “Times call for it! But hopefully that’ll all be in the past soon and things can get back to normal.”

“Normal?” I ask as I look around the room. This guy is starting to scare me. “What do you mean normal?”

The officer puts a big, meaty hand on my shoulder and points at a guy in a lab coat. “See that man there? He is the world’s foremost expert on the Rift and he’s figured out a way to close it,” he says.

“C-close the Rift?” I ask. My head swims; I can feel the old Harvey Hickman bubbling to the surface.

“Here, let me introduce you to the man that’s going to save the world,” the officer says as he steers me toward the guy in the lab coat. “This is something you’ll be able to tell your kids and grandkids about someday!”

We walk over to where the man in the lab coat is standing, talking to two foreign guys in tweed jackets.

“Professor,” the officer says; interrupting their conversation. “I know you’re busy but I just wanted to introduce you to a fan… or at least he will be once you get rid of this goddam Rift!”

The professor stops his conversation long enough to turn towards us. He’s a regular looking guy, about my height, a fringe of graying black hair surrounding about three-quarters of the dome of his bald head, and he’s wearing glasses. “A fan, huh?” The professor says this while he looks me up and down like I’m some kind of specimen. “Come back in another three months, the Rift will definitely be gone by then and you can be a fan all you like, until then I’m too busy to talk to some delivery boy.”

The professor turns his back on me and dismisses us with a wave of his hand. He continues his conversation with the two guys in tweed and basically forgets I ever existed. Just like the bad ol’ days BTR (Before The Rift), when everyone pretty much dismissed the old Harvey Hickman as being someone unimportant; someone of little or no consequence… while I’m having this, uh, revelation, the officer has me by the arm and he’s leading me back to the door.

“Sorry about that, son,” the officer says. “The professor’s a busy guy, but hey at least you got yourself a nice tip out of it!”

Suddenly, I make up my mind—I know what I have to do…

I spin on the ball of my foot, much like I did with Lisa and the Baggers earlier, and I march back towards where the professor was still conferring with the two guys in tweed.

“Hey kid, what are you doing? The professor’s too busy to talk to you right now,” the officer calls out loudly from behind me. “You have to leave now, let’s go!”

The other soldiers look on curiously; they’re all carrying sidearms but no one reaches for their weapon.

The professor, maybe wondering what all the yelling is about turns around and faces me. I whip out the Colt and shoot him exactly two inches above the bridge of his nose. The guys in tweed look on in shock until I shoot them too. Then all hell breaks loose.

By the time I leave that suite on the 11th floor, everyone in it is dead. I feel bad about the soldiers, they were only doing their job, but I had to stop the Rift from being closed… had to.

My backpack is heavy with all of the hard drives and other electronic filing equipment I plan to toss into the Hudson. Whatever hardware or software I couldn’t carry out of there I made sure to thoroughly destroy. I found a couple of manuals with lists of passwords for a series of online backup files that I plan on deleting as soon as I can get to a public computer in an internet café or somewhere…

I feel a stitch in my side and I put my hand there—it comes back wet with my blood. One of the soldiers back in the suite must have hit me. It’s not serious, I’ll live.

I take the elevator to the lobby and peer outside through the glass doors, expecting to see Lisa and her crew still out there waiting for me. To my relief, they’re gone—although it looks like they took the time to tag my car with that lousy silver spray paint that’s impossible to get off.

I limp to my car as quickly as I can, toss my backpack, the pizza bag, and my shotgun in, and climb behind the wheel while the sun starts to go down on another day. In the distance a sticky-cat yowls its welcome to the coming night, while from somewhere closer I hear the coughing sound made by a Fool You/Kill You. Soon all of the night creatures will be up and adding their own weird and unearthly sounds to the chorus.

I reload my weapons, start the car and put it in gear. I pull a u-turn and point my car’s nose uptown, towards the George Washington Bridge. I know a doctor in Jersey that’s terrified of leaving his home and he owes me a couple of favors, I’m sure he’ll patch me right up. Then it’ll be back to delivering pizza… and killing monsters.