The Fantastique

by Joseph Jude

 

It was a blurry mass. Mostly black and dim blue. However, there was one point that stood out. It was a mix of pink and green with some red. It was moving.

Ethan became afraid. He tried to focus on it more intently with no reward. His vision was returning at its own pace. He watched the thing’s motion. Then he relaxed slightly, determining that it wasn’t moving towards him. It just seemed to be bobbling up and down. It was the dash board hula girl his kid sister gave him when he first bought his Lexus. It was sideways; or rather the entire car was sideways. Ethan was upside down. Despite a migraine that felt like it would blow his skull apart, he tried to remember what had happened.

He was driving. He had left the office directly after speaking with Mrs. Jennifer Heisensten about the flap reconstruction on her left breast. Both she and her husband, Douglas, seemed quite pleased with the decision to transplant to the chest as a micro vascular flap. There would be the longer healing time on the scar, but Mrs. Heisensten liked the news that the tissue would be taken from another part of her body, and that she could even have an improved abdominal contour. In fact, she requested she have the skin taken from her thighs.

Ethan loved that part of his job. The rich people were always so agreeable when they were told they could look as good as new, even better, whatever the cost. Money was no object but they certainly were and wished to remain so. Even after, when they didn’t look instantly beautiful, they could be talked into believing that more time, and more checks, were all that was necessary. It was such an easy sell. It was so much different from the other jobs he took to get him through school. Many that he lost when he was too pushy with the customers who didn’t want to see it his way.

It was very dark for six. There was a brief patch where he turned off the bridge, a spot of trees and very little traffic. It was never his favorite part of the drive home, and he always tried to make his way through it as fast as possible. It was here that the red truck came at him. It had to be right out of the foliage as there was no intersection. He remembered seeing it at the last second before it collided with the passenger’s side. The Lexus rocked and slid, and he could remember it flipping as it glided off the road, into the forest behind. That was when he blacked out.

His eyesight was finally clearing up. He could see the dashboard and the dark shadowy trees beyond his broken windshield. He tried to right himself, and then he heard the noise. Somebody was walking though the grass, towards him. He turned to the sound of the driver’s door opening, people coming at him. He couldn’t make out their faces in time. He couldn’t make out anything. It seemed anywhere between two and ten people the way he perceived the commotion. So many faces and hands reaching at him.

Then he was out again.

* * * * *

This time, his vision wasn’t blurry. He sprung straight up with a scream. He saw the same events play out over and over in his dreams; variances included strange people doing strange things to him. They were groping, pulling at him. He felt like he was floating. He was moving, he was being moved. Then he wasn’t moving, but he was. He was in something that was moving. He was taken out of his car, and placed in a different one. Then he was floating again. He could hear a terrible squeal, some kind of animal. It couldn’t be. It was too regular. The people were all around him. He couldn’t make out their faces. It was blurry, fractured, as if looking in a broken mirror.

Ethan jumped to attention, swinging his arms and searching around. There was no one there, nobody attacking him. He checked his body, he seemed to be intact.

But he wasn’t safe. He was in a strange place. He was on an old hospital stretcher that was stained and musty. A single bulb hung above him barely lighting the room. He was shrouded in dark hues of umber, a combination of the lighting and the dirty walls.

“It’s okay. You’re protected.”

Ethan looked in the direction of the voice, there was someone approaching him. It seemed to be a woman but there was something wrong with her voice. It reverberated oddly with a deep bass like she had the worst frog in her throat.

“We’ve been waiting for you to come to. You can meet us now.”

Ethan could see her. He could see it.

It was humanoid in the loosest sense. It had a face made up of many faces, different pieces from different people, sewn together roughshod. A blue eye in a Caucasian socket was entangled with a brown eye in an African American socket which led down to a man’s mouth sewn to the right side of another woman’s mouth. There may have been twenty different pieces, sewn together with no concern for symmetry. One side of a nose stretched and twisted into the other side which was far too short to match. Veins were extra prominent due to the inadequate fashion in which they were attached or reattached. Much of the skin seemed ready to rip open from the pieces of skull that jutted out entirely too much. The eyes, the ears, the hairline that held a multitude of different strands of hair, it was a horrible mess of features that stared at him.

That was only for starters, the head sat atop a body equal in it misshapen mess. One breast of the darkest skin was attached to a lily white chest merged to a male sternal region leading down an inframammary region, abdomen and flank of five different colors. There were a lot of patches of blue on it, flesh that blood wasn’t properly flowing to, tissue that was rotting off this living creature.

The thing walked awkwardly towards him. It simply didn’t function well. One shoulder twisted in and out of is frame as if it could snap loose at any second. One leg was entirely too short compared to the other. It could barely keep its balance. An unfortunate amount of curiosity made him glance between those legs. He saw half of what would be hanging between a man’s. It was perfectly halved with exposed insides, and something meshed and pink in the body sewn into the base of it. Ethan quickly looked away.

It was right in front of him. It spoke and Ethan could deduce why its voice was so distorted. Heaven knows what was done to the vocal cords.

“You must come now.” Half of its mouth smiled with some muscles pulling so tight they pressed right through the skin, the Zygomaticus minor and major. The other half of the mouth didn’t work at all.

“I don’t want to. I don’t want to be here.” Ethan was as forceful as ever. No matter what this thing looked like he wasn’t in the mood for its nonsense.

It lost its smile. It rose above him.

“Come. We won’t hurt you. What we have to show you is amazing.”

Hope for an exit drove him forward.

The thing led him down a long hallway. The place seemed to be a typical doctor’s office once. There was a hallway with various rooms on each side. He saw one doorway at the end far ahead without a door that could lead to the entrance from the outside, and he considered just running to it, but decided to wait. Ethan didn’t want to admit he was scared. The thing was a walking card house, but the dementia it emitted kept infecting him to his heart.

The whole time he looked at the walls, the cracks and the mold and occasional foggy picture that hung crooked, left behind from whoever owned this place before. Anything to keep from having to look at his guide; oozing pus, colored liquids, and thick blood flowing from its seams. It opened a door to the left, between two stands with vases. No flowers in them, just dirt and maggots.

They entered and three other “people” turned to Ethan. One spoke. Its voice could be male or female depending on the word.

“Ethan Foree. We’re happy to meet you.”

“Who are you people?”

“We don’t use names anymore. We… are we.”

“Huh?”

“We are a people that exist under a brilliant new philosophy. A solution to the horrors of the world. An amazingly simple one. What our society does instead of tackling the prejudice and hate on a cerebral level, is attack it on a physical one.”

“Physical?”

“We are perfect. We are without individual identity. We are all people, all races, all sexes. Once we convert everyone there will be no longer a reason to argue about differences, about identity. There will no longer be a reason to hate.”

“That’s great.” Ethan didn’t smile. “So when can I leave?”

They said nothing.

Ethan sucked in a gust of air, then asked. “Okay, So… what do you want from… me?”

“We want you to join us.”

“Of course.”

“We regularly choose new members to join our people, but we’re especially anxious about you. Before we cut your driver’s license up, we noticed it said MD. You are a doctor?”

“Plastic surgeon.”

“Oh, that is especially fortunate. You will be of great help to us.”

“You cut up my driver’s license?”

“Yes. We each have a piece now.”

He was looking at the others closely. The one that spoke seemed to have more masculine parts than feminine. At least on the body, the head however was entirely female.

There was more. Hanging off of the body were extra parts. A bicep dangled off its side. An entire arm erupted from its back. Extra patellae protruded from the same knee. Looking closer, Ethan could see additional fingers, toes, ears, noses, and not just on the parts of the body they belong, but sprinkled all over as ugly growths. Bones and joints seemed randomly inserted through the body with skin pulled over them giving the person long spokes, some of which could move and twist by themselves.

The other two people were equally mixed and matched. One had two hands where its feet should be. Its face made up of more hands, fingers intertwined and sewn together except where the mouth, nostrils, and eyes should be. Long thin muscles tightened, and metacarpophalangeal articulations of the hand seemed spread all over the body. For the third one, about fifty eyes covered its body like a leopard’s spots. Some of them still moved and blinked.

“How many of you are here?”

“Millions.”

Ethan figured not to push it. Trying to get straight answers out of these people would be like trying to push a toothpick through cement. He also knew that there had to be a lot of donors for these parts, people that probably didn’t want to come over to their way of thinking.

“What happens if I don’t want to join your community?”

“Everyone joins us.”

“Crap.”

“You should see our newest member. We picked her up a week ago. Like you, she was hesitant, but soon she saw the logic in our life. She is currently becoming part of us. We can show you.”

“I don’t want to see.”

“But you must. You must see.”

What Ethan did see were knives; long, homemade, bloody ones in their hands, and they had a lot of hands.

* * * * *

Ethan was taken to an operating room at the far end of the hall, right next to the waiting room he was first led out of. He had seen the doors back then. It chilled him to think that he was looking at a person in some horrible state just behind them. Ethan didn’t want to go through those doors. He had pulled apart skin and muscle, repaired people after circumstances broke them to shards, and he still didn’t want to see what was beyond those doors.

It was what was behind their logic. The horrible truth behind their logic.

“I’m telling you people, I don’t want any part of this.”

“You’ll see.” The one from before couldn’t stop grinning. It had extra teeth jutting out from its gums.

The mixed people pushed open both doors for Ethan to cross through. He took one step, then another. He tried to stretch it out as long as he could, but he could see his hosts growing impatient. As he moved further in, he could see a curtain drawn in front of what he assumed was the bed holding their newest convert. A light behind lit the curtain blue.

Ethan paced around the curtain to see. There was a thin carcass lying on an operating table. No skin left, much of the musculature had been torn out. Fresh components had already been fastened in some places. Tendons from outside sources weaved with her own, creating new pulley systems for the extra parts to be added later. Additional bones were tied to her leftover ones with locks of dead flesh. A third working lung was imbedded in the remaining leg, alongside new roots for growing hair inside the skin. It was questionable who had the other leg.

Ethan sighed and sucked his lips in as he looked at the head that stared back. It had to. There were no eyelids. Much of the face was removed, and the woman breathed in and out in short, strained breathes. A number of intravenous tubes led into the holes through the remaining portions of her face, the buccinator, the masseter, and the levator labii superioris. The tubes fed her any possible combination of fluids that kept her alive, nothing that Ethan could recognize. Many were a putrid brown. One looked like urine.

“She is still in the process. It has to be slow or she’ll die.”

“How long before she’s done?” Ethan sarcastically pouted.

“None of us are complete. We must continue to change and evolve.”

Ethan mulled his options. There’s no way these thrown together clunkers could outmaneuver or overpower him. Still, those knives. They were all around him. All they needed was a lucky jab, and it would be curtains. On the other hand, there was no way that things were going to get better.

“This is what I have to look forward to?”

“Yes. Beautiful, isn’t it.”

“Can I… Can I have some time to think about it?”

It looked at him. It tried to furrow its brow in a confused expression but the skin just compressed together and one eyeball rolled completely backwards.

“We guess you can.”

It must not be a question too many visitors have asked.

* * * * *

Ethan was led into a small room, a utility room. He was tied to an old metal chair and left alone. They locked the door behind them.

Ethan started to notice the cold. The furnace wasn’t working. Most likely nothing was working. These people probably warmed themselves with bonfires, drank the remaining water out of the toilets, and ate whatever meat they didn’t attach to themselves. Ethan looked around for a clue, more information on them. Who were they? Where did they come from? There was nothing of use.

“Damn it.”

Ethan sat for several minutes in silence trying to formulate a plan. He hadn’t counted on them tying him up. As loopy as they were, these living quilts weren’t totally out of it. He regretted not making a break for it when he was free. He imagined he was stepping in the footprints of the poor girl in the operating room who now stared endlessly at the ceiling while alien flesh devoured her.

His thoughts were broken when the door opened again. Two new hosts entered or was it one? Ethan couldn’t tell. One set of legs stepped in, followed by another set of legs, all belonging to the same animal. It was a jumble like the others. Two of them sharing one torso, a chest from which two heads sprouted out the top and two waists sprouted out the bottom. It was two people perpetually facing each other. It was impossible to pin ownership to either side. Both had backs. There was no front. They shared a pair of arms with thumbs on both ends. Two sets of muscles on each side of the hands with no palms on either. The fingers crudely bent both ways.

The heads turned, and smiled at Ethan. They could’ve been female or male.

“We understand you are unsure about becoming one of us.” One of the heads said. “We can show you the splendor of what we are.” The other one said. Both heads kissed long and hard.

While they kissed, it inched closer to Ethan until it dominated his view. Ethan turned his head to both sides, trying to avoid it. He closed his eyes, tight. He could hear them still, the sound of their lips smacking, body parts rubbing.

A hand suddenly dug into Ethan’s face. He screamed through it.

“Open your eyes and watch.”

“I don’t want to watch this, you freaks.”

“Open them. Open them.”

The hand dug tighter.

“Alright! Alright. Let go.”

The hand unclasped from his face. It drew away from his sight and he could see it, both heads smiling at him. Then they went back to their spectacle. Squinting his eyes, but having to leave them open enough so it could tell he was looking, Ethan watched it explore itself. The hands rubbed over the pieces that one head owned, then the same hands went over the other head’s pieces. Back and forth, all over the legs, buttocks, back, between the legs where they had an arrangement like his first host had. On each waist were mirror images on either side. A half of one male genitalia merged with the half of one female across from another half of each. They could’ve been two halves of the same wholes.

They were designed to fit into each other, although not quite perfectly due to the quality of the surgery.

Ethan could taste sickness in his throat as his stomach churned. He tried to concentrate on not throwing up. This helped divert his attention. He had to keep staring. They would constantly turn to make sure he was watching to see how fabulous this freak show was. Their sex organs slid in and out of each other. As before, there was no skin to cover the insides of what was cut off and they chafed against each other too. Brownish clear liquid slimed between it all, dripping off. The same could be said for the rest of its body where the cuts and seams were only fairly seamless, and the ordeal and rubbing was too much for the form.

They continued anyway, moaning and groaning. Their expressions contorted in eccentric ways. Their teeth glistened nonstop. Part of it was the way their new faces were constructed, but Ethan knew that despite whatever psychoses these people were suffering from, they were also in a lot of pain. They probably didn’t even know why at this point. They hopped onto this strange answer to whatever problems they were tormented from before and continued to push, convinced it was the cure. All the hurt it caused only persuaded them they needed further adjustment.

Ethan wasn’t even paying attention. His eyes were locked on them but he wasn’t seeing. His face had settled into a sad relaxed gaze. They did manage to instill a sense of understanding.

He felt pity for these people.

They climaxed together, dripping with blood-tainted sweat. Weakly, they both faced him and beamed, totally converted to their twisted world.

* * * * *

The two-headed creature left, and Ethan was alone again for a minute. Then they all came back. The one who spoke the most, the leader who probably first dreamt up this crap, approached Ethan.

“Have you made your decision?”

“I have… I want to get the fuck out of here.”

It sighed. “You still do not grasp our reasoning. You still hold on to your desire to be separate. Why?”

“Why?”

“Everyone we’ve ever known who wanted to be separate, wanted to so they could hurt others. Why do you want to hurt others? We can cure you.”

“I don’t want your cure. I don’t hurt anyone. I’m a doctor. I’ve spent my life healing people.”

They didn’t respond. Ethan made an attempt to reach out.

“I can heal you. All of you.”

The leader thought a moment.

“Of course, I understand now.”

“You do?” Ethan could tell it didn’t understand in the least.

“I see what you need to understand.”

“What?”

* * * * *

Dr. Foree was back in the operating room. Back standing over the girl picked up a week ago. This time, two small tables stood on each side of him. On one was a collection of the tools they had been using; old scalpels, saws, needles, thread, pliers, screwdrivers. Everything was rusted solid. On the other table were the materials for use; a forearm, a thigh, the gaping head of a thirty-some-year-old man, and a pile of random skin.

The crowd waited eagerly behind him.

Ethan looked at the girl, at the table of parts, at the knife in his hand.

“What do you want me to do, exactly?”

“Do what your expertise tells you. Heal her. Complete her.”

“I… I…”

“You said you could. Don’t you do it all the time?”

“Not like this.” Ethan looked at them. The leader, especially, was getting edgy. Ethan couldn’t think at all. They wanted him to—what?

Go hog wild? Chop and sew this girl any way he wanted like she’s a blank canvas?

He looked down at her. She was still conscious. She was witnessing everything that was going on. Worse, she was probably still feeling it. Ethan was hoping that the agony she had gone though had short-circuited her sense of comprehension, but maybe not. She looked up at him, blade in his hand, intention to cause her more pain to impress these nuts and buy him time.

“DOCTOR!”

“Alright.”

He looked at the supply table. He avoided looking at the head, lest it look back as well. He focused on the arm. Making a show out of inspecting it, he picked it up, looked at all the sides, as if there was actually something he was trying to determine. Then his took his knife and slid it into the dead limb, cutting through the skin, removing a rectangular piece as if he was a butcher cutting lunch meat. He carefully lifted the hunk of skin, all the while knowing that it made no difference if the damn thing bounced off the floor a few times.

Cradling it in his hands, he took another look at the fidgeting crowd. Then he laid the skin down next to the girl’s side, and looked at the knife in his hand. He would have to jab her with it sooner or later.

He looked at her eyes, blank but alive.

Ethan could feel his heart beating so much it almost hurt. He could hear her heart beating just as rapidly. It was pretty easy to, considering how exposed her insides were. She was aware.

He lightly pressed his knife against her shoulder, what remained of it, about to push harder. He could draw blood with a feather nudge.

Then, inspiration hit him.

“Anesthesia.”

No one said anything.

“I said anesthesia.”

They looked back and forth to each other. The eye-spotted one spoke. “We—we have none.”

“You have none? How do you expect me to work without it? In fact, how do you expect me to work with any of this? These tools are totally inadequate.”

“They are all we have.”

“That will not do. I am the expert and if anyone knows how to properly apply your theory to living subjects, it would be me. Now, to complete her as well as the rest of you, I need the proper tools. Then you will all be… perfect.”

The leader spoke. “Really?”

“Yes.” Ethan was grinning ear to ear, his best salesman smile.

“Before I complete any more work. I will compile a lift of necessary items. Then a few of us will go to retrieve them, and yes, I must go with you. Only I have the knowledge to pick out what we need. Once we have done that we can start on truly transforming you all into flawless people.

They all smiled. They were excited.

“Tell us. We have no time to waste.”

Ethan rattled off some random items; whatever came to mind first; lipo suction cannulas, nagata sculpture knives, an auricular septum elevator, some diamond dermabraders, and a flux capacitor for good measure. They scrawled down the words on a tablet. Then, they exited the room. They had to gather clothes, and ready themselves for another trip outside. They would have to be extra prepared. They were doing more than simply running someone off the road this time.

They all scurried out, leaving Ethan alone with the patient. He thought about trying to make a run for it, but considered that it might be better to wait until he was on the road. He could overpower whoever there was riding with him, and take the car to the police. They might try to tie him up again for the trip though. He would have to have some bullshit ready, a reason why he must be free.

Ethan remembered the girl behind him. She was quivering. She was crying.

He wondered if there was any way to save her. Nothing that he could think of could undo the damage. Even if she did live, would she want to? Worse, what if he came back with the cops and they weren’t here. What if they went on the lam, taking her with them. This may be the last time anyone normal would have access to her.

He knew what he had to do to heal her.

Ethan grabbed the bottom of the curtain, scrunching it up. He took the curtain in both his hands, and pressed them down on what was left of her face. Her body shook violently for about a minute. Then it was done.

He couldn’t hear her heart anymore.

He turned away from her and the leader was right there, stabbing him in the stomach. Stunned, Ethan dropped to his knees. Soon the others were back, surrounding and holding him.

“We believed you.”

“Wait, you—you don’t understand.”

“We should’ve known. You have none of us in you yet. You are still tainted. We have to introduce you to us first.”

It lifted its knife.

“NO! WAIT!”

It held Ethan’s head firm and placed the blade to his cheek. Ethan pulled, but couldn’t move. He could feel the blade sliding under his skin.

“Wait! Wait! I’ll do it! I’ll really help you! Whatever you want. I’ll join you. Stop! Just for a second. Please!”

“But why would I stop if you want to join?”

It slit deep into Ethan’s face. He felt it cutting in, deeper and deeper. It felt like it was going to reach his eye. He screamed then blacked out.

“One way or another, everyone becomes part of us.”

* * * * *

Ethan awoke. He was on the stretcher. The pain was extraordinary. He instinctively grabbed his face then pulled his hand away when it hurt even more. He looked at his palm. It was coated in blood. Ethan’s breath trembled. Low, quick moans of panic escaped him. His hand leveled over his sore that he couldn’t see but feel. He wondered how much of his face was left. He lightly tapped parts of his head to see if the skin was intact. He could determine the breaks directly below his left eye to his jawbone, through his lip. There must’ve been a good two-inch chunk missing.

Then he deciphered another pain, one farther down, around his thigh.

Terrified, he slowly pushed himself upright, constantly glancing down his body, then looking away, not wanting to see what they did. Finally, the point of violence came into his view.

His right leg was gone, cut from the femoral depression. In its place was a small, more slender leg, a woman’s leg sewn on.

A mix of horror and disgust filled his scream. He tried to grab the leg with his hands but couldn’t. His hands wouldn’t touch it. His whole body shook, including the foreign leg that shuddered both to his body’s instructions and of its own authority, a parasite trying to become one with him.

He couldn’t stop spilling out small screams.

Eventually, his brain functioned again and he realized an important fact. He was alone, and he wasn’t tied down.

He was still in the operating room. He looked next to him, the table where the woman still laid. Ethan looked at her right thigh where there used to be a leg.

“Fuckers.”

He looked around. He didn’t hear anything. He needed a weapon. There were the doors that led to the hall. There was another small door, some kind of closet.

He swung his body, lowered the legs to the floor and lifted himself off the stretcher. He could feel the slow cold oozing of blood down the rest of his face. More spurted out the seams between his body and the leg. He tried his best to operate the new appendage, but it only worked on a rudimentary level. When Ethan concentrated, he was able to support his weight on it for a few seconds, enough to limp on it and use his other leg and his arms on the surroundings to move about.

He pushed the stretcher along with him, leaning on it as he made his way towards the closet door. He pulled it open. Inside was a pile of unused limbs and organs. Flies and maggots infested it all.

He noticed something else. The pieces were all on top of some kind of clothes. He strained to reach down without falling. He pulled on the cloth. The parts tumbled out of the closet, but he pulled out what seemed to be a few straight jackets with more possibly underneath. The first skin shed by these people.

Nothing else of use, he limped himself and the stretcher over to the hallway doors. He slid one door open a bit, peeking down the hallway.

It was a clear path.

Ethan knew he had to hightail it. He was already feeling weak and dizzy. He pushed open the door, cursing himself for the loud noise it made. The stretcher was even worse. Its old rusted wheels wailed down the hall, alerting everyone to its movement.

The entrance in front of him opened and one of the mix people came out, the leader.

“You cannot leave. You are part of us now.”

Ethan was ready with the proper course of action this time.

“You want part of me? Have my fist!”

Propelling himself from the stretcher, he sprung forward, driving his clenched fist out. He connected with the leader who dropped backwards. Ethan fell to the ground too. He was feeling very faint at this point. He squinted his eyes, concentrating on the one necessary task of getting up.

He pushed himself to his feet, feeling backwards for the stretcher to brace himself. He could see the leader struggling on the ground. It was plain how Ethan managed to drop him with one shot.

The mix’s neck had tore open and its head hung only by a few cords. It gagged and choked out, striving to speak, juices gushing out all over the floor.

“Just shut up damn it.” Ethan looked at him. It was a prime moment when he could poise his disgust with these people and what they were doing with what he thought was the most humane solution to their disease. Steadying himself on the new leg just long enough, he stomped down his own foot through the leaders head. It exploded like a water balloon.

Ethan had to keep it up. He picked up the leader’s blade, and continued pushing the stretcher down the hall. More doors opened and more mix people charged out at him, their eyes fluttering in disbelief. Somehow, despite how many times victims must have rebelled, this group still could not process that anyone would want to fight back. Familiar from before, these people rushed at Ethan. They couldn’t run, they really could only move with a minute amount more precision than Ethan. He swung the blade across and clipped all three of the fanatics across their necks and faces, dropping them. Loose meat ruptured out of the holes, spraying Ethan across his own wound. This only made the doctor angrier. Even in death, these things were trying to merge with him.

Next, the two-headed creature appeared in front of him, as shocked as the others. Each head had something to say.

“Please, don’t leave.”

“Please stay.”

“You can join us.”

“We always wanted you to be part of us.”

“GET OUT OF MY WAY!” Ethan jabbed the blade straight down between their heads into the one chest. Both owners gasped, and then looked at Ethan, simultaneously screaming “NO!” The devastating terror of being torn apart was all over them. They grabbed his hand, trying to force it back up. Instead of pushing the blade farther down, he yanked his hand back out of their weak grasp. Each of his hands grabbed a head, and he pulled them away from each other. Their mouths swung open but silent as he pulled the being apart, leaving only a second long gusher of blood and organs that dropped to the floor.

“Anyone else? Huh? I’ll rip your arm off and beat you with it.”

Ethan slid a bit, walking over the remains, but was gaining confidence in his new limb and didn’t fall. He heard the screaming behind him. He looked at three more beings coming out of rooms that he already passed, people that he hadn’t seen before. One was missing a head and had its face sewn into its stomach. Another slithered out, no major body parts, just a twisting stalk of necks and random skin bound together with an elongated head on top, possibly made of several fractured skulls. The last was a web of torsos and limbs. It took the most time to crawl, spider-like into view. On top of a thick neck were three heads that met at the mouth, each piece taking the place of one lower jaw. All three heads had a brain inside; all three clicked their teeth against each others. Their eyes shifted all around, fighting to get some of the view. These things were spectacular in a way. A marvel of engineering despite the fact that none of them worked right. They all struggled to get down the hall. It was clear why it took them so long to make an entrance. Ethan decided not to even pay them mind, and instead rushed forward toward the front door.

Outside the door was a small staircase that led up to another door. Ethan left the stretcher behind and climbed up. Unlocking the deadbolt, he slipped out into the deserted street. The fresh night air hit him, and he felt a second wind.

He couldn’t tell where he was. It looked like an abandoned neighborhood, mostly closed stores and empty lots. Ethan didn’t know what to do, where to go. He wouldn’t last long; he was too weak, dying. He scuffled along, scanning everywhere. Behind the building was a parking lot with several cars, all covered by tarps. Ethan hurried to them. Yanking a few of the tarps off, he found several different vehicles, including the Ford Truck that hit his own. Wherever they obtained the cars was questionable, what they were used for wasn’t. All of them were smashed in the front or back. Ethan tried the door on an old Dodge Ram. Not surprisingly, it was unlocked. The keys left in the ignition.

“Mental patients.”

Ethan started the Dodge. His first idea was to clear out of there, but then he saw a pack of matches in the ashtray. All of these cars were probably sitting in a similar state of readiness, and Ethan figured out a way to improve the circumstances.

He used his good leg to hit the gas and sped the truck around the corner, past the doctor’s office. After several feet, Ethan swung the truck around, and flew it right back to the front of the office. He braced himself under the dashboard as the truck bashed through the front of the building. When he felt the thing finally stop moving, he poked his head up to see that he had broke through all the way to the main hall.

He couldn’t see where any of the mix people were, nor did he care. He swung open the door and climbed out the truck to the gas tank, carrying with him the matches and a map from the glove compartment. Twisting the map up into a long stalk, he opened the flap to the gas tank and stuffed the map in leaving a good portion of it pointing out as a wick. Enough for him to light. He climbed out the front hole he made.

Ethan limped all the way to the parking lot when he heard the explosion. He could see the orange glow from the front of the building and smoke was already rising out in large puffs. He stepped into an old white van, its keys waiting to be turned. He slammed the pedal, and was on the road in no time.

He looked behind him. The fire was clear to be seen but none of the tenants were. He was very weak now, could barely keep his eyes open. The bright white lights of a gas station drew him. When he saw an eighteen-year-old kid rushing to his bloody body that had spilled out of the door, he knew it was safe to pass out.

* * * * *

It was five months later. Ethan’s friends had pitched in to ensure he received the best treatment, many handling the work themselves. His face never looked the same. In spite of their best efforts, there was just too much lost. Luckily it was only half of his face, and he always had a joke about his good side at the ready. His exercise was a bit grueling at first, but he adapted to the prosthetic leg sooner than anyone thought. With the help of a cane, he was back to moving naturally. He couldn’t do much surgery anymore. He settled into teaching and advising roles, and of course, there was an interest in his story for its potboiler value and among the medical profession. Indeed, seeing the work the mix people completed did give him a unique perspective on just what medicine could accomplish and the human body was capable of. Whether or not it should be accomplished was another story.

The police thoroughly investigated the area, especially the remains of the doctor’s office. None of the mix people could be found, although a slew of dead bodies, or what remained of them, were uncovered. It took a while for the police to identify them as teeth, fingerprints and any other parts that could be used to establish identity were intentionally removed, even from their dead. No individuality, no names, just flesh.

Ethan wondered whatever became of them. The detectives gave him a few updates when he inquired. Ultimately, there was no resolution. No mental hospital ever emerged as the source of the mix people. No occurrences in which they appeared again. Ethan wondered what the survivors could be doing now. They could be dead. They could be mixing themselves with animal parts. They could be joined together into one giant muddled mass, which he assumed was their eventual goal.

Ethan was concerned about whether they would come back for him. He figured that they probably didn’t even remember who he was, just more meat. Then again, he was an expert on bodies. Perhaps the reason why the mix people’s methods would never work was that there are simply some things the body doesn’t want, just as there are some things the body does. He remained a little scared because, if nothing else, there was always the possibility that one day, wherever it was, that leg of his would track him down.

One Bad Choice After Another

by Anthony R. Karnowski

 

“Tell me one more time why I agreed to this.”

Karen looked at me with embers behind her green eyes. The headlamp she wore cast a glare as she stared at me, making it difficult to tell if the fire there was at all playful.

“Because,” she said, her tone suggesting she was more irritated than I’d hoped. Not that I could have hoped for anything else, really. “You’re the one who is always bitching about needing some sort of adventure. Something exciting. Well here we are: excitement coming out of our asses! Happy now?”

She was right. As always. I had been the one that insisted we explore the cave we found while hiking. I had, in fact, been the one that insisted we go for a hike at all. Everyone else would have been happy hanging at the camp and swimming or reading or doing anything other than wandering aimlessly through a cave that had so many passages you had to wonder how the ground didn’t collapse.

Still, her tone had been a little sharper than necessary, but I guess that’s marriage for you. Some days one or the other of you is wound just a little tighter than usual, and the words come with just a little too much zing attached.

I swallowed the burst of anger in my throat and reminded myself that we were all tired. We had hiked for nearly three hours before we even found the cave, and the four of us had wandered for close to another three before we would admit to ourselves we were lost. That had been nearly six hours before.

And still, the fact that it was my fault we were there hadn’t changed.

So, I left off my usual sarcasm. I took out my water bottle and had a long drink before I leaned against the wall and said: “Sorry. I’m just a nervous talker.”

“I know, babe.” She smiled weakly, but I could tell her exhaustion had her feeling raw on the inside.

“I think we should all take a rest for a minute. What do you two think?”

Rachel dropped her pack to the ground and plopped down beside it. She unzipped it and dug around inside for a moment before pulling out a water bottle and two Clif bars. She tossed one to her husband, Alex, before tearing into her own. He sat down beside her and took a drink from her water bottle when she offered. The four of us had been friends for well over a decade, but I could tell that at that moment they both wished they’d never met either of us before.

When they finished eating, Rachel looked at her watch and let out a bewildered sigh.

“Well, I think we should think about setting up some sort of camp. We’ve been walking all day. And all night for that matter. I need to just sit here for a while or I’m going to collapse. It’s dark outside, anyway. We probably wouldn’t even be able to see the exit.”

“I agree,” Alex said, leaning back against the rock wall. “I could use a little more to eat, and maybe even a few hours sleep. I hate to ask this, but does anyone have any idea where we are?”

“We’ve been in this same stretch of cave for the past three hours,” Karen said. “Which makes me think we’re nowhere near where we first entered. There were tons of side tunnels coming off that first tunnel.”

“Yeah,” I said, remembering. There had been one to our left after only about fifteen minutes after we set foot inside. From there we passed a tunnel on the right or left every twenty minutes or so. “We’d walked for close to two hours before we made that first right-hand turn.”

“That was when we first heard the water,” Karen said, her eyes glazed with memory. “We never did find that damn river.”

The statement hung in the air like an insult handed to you just after someone socked you in the gut. We all felt it, but it stung me the most. Just like all the other events of the day, it had been my idea that we try to find it, after all. The whole day had just been one bad choice after another.

“So, we should turn back, then, right?” Rachel asked, looking first to Alex, then to Karen, and then, finally, to me.

It seemed that no one wanted to be the first to speak. There was something in the question that seemed charged, loaded. Like it might explode in our mouths if we tried to answer. We all just sat there, leaning against the rough stone walls, looking at anything but each other.

“It doesn’t really help that none of us know what we’re doing,” Alex said.

We all agreed silently. For my part, I had never been in a cave that hadn’t also been some kind of tourist attraction, and I was pretty sure that was true for the others as well. That fact alone should have been enough to keep us all outside.

“We should never have come in here,” I said.

“Well now,” Karen said. “That’s not going to help us get out of here.”

“I know. I just feel like shit for getting us all into this.”

“As you should,” Alex said, grinning beneath the light of his headlamp. “Come on, man. We all chose to come in here. You didn’t force anyone.”

I frowned, wanting to believe him. I didn’t.

“I say we all try to get some sleep,” I said, changing the subject. “We can try to come to a decision once we’ve had a bit of rest. Right now I’m so tired I can barely think at all, much less straight.”

Everyone nodded and grumbled their consent. We spent the next few minutes digging Clif bars and individually wrapped cheeses out of our packs and then stuffing our faces. We made sure not to eat all of our rations, though, just in case it took us longer to get out of the cave than we were all hoping. After our impromptu dinner by headlamp, Rachel and Alex curled up together beside the cave wall. They mumbled a half-hearted “good-night” and then turned off their lights. I could see they were using their packs as pillows, and I wondered vaguely if that was comfortable.

Karen and I decided to try the same arrangement, but without much luck. She had always been prone to insomnia, even in the least stressful of times. With a real reason to be anxious—like being lost in a cave, for example—sleep was as unattainable for her as the Fountain of Youth is for everyone else. After what felt like hours, but was probably only a few minutes, she sat up and whispered to me in the dark.

“It’s no use,” she hissed. “I can’t sleep. I’m going to go a little further down the passage to see if I can makes heads or tails of where we are. It might help us decide if we should turn around or not.”

“I’ll go with you,” I whispered back, sitting up.

“No. Try to get some sleep. I won’t go far.”

“I really think we should stick together, Karen. What if something happens and you get hurt?”

“I’ll be fine. Don’t worry. Hang here and get some rest. If I’m not back in half an hour or so, come find me.”

After eight years of marriage, I recognized that tone. There would be no arguing with her now that her mind was made up. I could try, of course, but I knew how it would end: both of us pissed at each other and even more unhappy than we were when we started. She was going to do what she wanted no matter how I felt about it.

“Okay,” I said, more than a little irritated.

“Don’t worry,” she said again. “I won’t be gone long.”

She turned and switched her headlamp on. I leaned against the wall and watched as it moved steadily away from our mock camp. After a few minutes, the passage must have curved, because the light vanished. I looked at my watch. It was about two o’clock in the morning. I would give her half an hour and then I’d go after her if she wasn’t back yet.

I rested my head against the wall and closed my eyes for half a second. The stress of the day and all the energy I had spent hiking worked together so that that brief instant was all it took for me to fall dead asleep.

* * * * *

Rachel pushed me gently, and I woke with a start. A quick glance at my watch told me it was just after five in the morning.

“Fuck!” I said aloud, and then to myself: Why do I screw everything up?

“Is Karen back?” I asked. As I looked around the makeshift camp, the panic in my throat eased for an instant as the hope that she’d returned while I slept popped into my mind.

Before Rachel shook her head in response, though, I knew she hadn’t. She would have woken me.

After spending about five seconds making sure I wasn’t leaving anything behind, I turned in the direction I last saw Karen heading and was off.

“When did she leave?” Rachel asked from behind me after a quarter of an hour. I hadn’t turned to check, but I could sense that both she and Alex had followed me from the start.

“Around two,” I said, not slowing my pace.

“You let her go off alone?”

“Come on, Rachel. You know how she can be sometimes. I tried to go with her, but I got the feeling she was just wanting to be alone for a little while. She’s probably just up the tunnel here, curled up asleep.”

“Maybe.”

She sounded about as certain as I felt. Karen required more solitude than most people, and sometimes if she could go off by herself for a little while she could get around her insomnia long enough to catch a little rest. But, unfortunately, as the minutes ticked by and turned into an hour, we still hadn’t found her. Asleep or otherwise.

After two hours of walking I was growing very nervous and was having trouble keeping myself calm enough to keep moving. Just when I thought I couldn’t handle anymore uncertainty, we came to a fork.

“Fuck,” I muttered.

“What do we do now?” Rachel asked.

“When in doubt, Merriadoc,” Alex said from behind, “follow your nose.”

I wanted to laugh. I did. He was trying to ease the tension we were all feeling, but I just didn’t have it in me.

Which way did she go?

I felt so desperate that for a few minutes I actually did try to sniff out a difference between the two tunnels. Maybe if I’d had any experience spelunking I could have detected something, but to me both passages had the same musty dirt smell that I’d always associated with basements and Halloween Haunted Caves.

Even though I couldn’t smell a difference, after a moment of standing there I thought I did detect something. Not in the smell, but in the sound. There was a deep, rhythmic pulse that I almost felt more than heard coming from the right-hand passage. It was a very slow and drawn out sound, but it repeated over and over: hhhuuuuuuuhhhhhh-nnnuuuuuuuhhhhhh. Hhuuuuuuuhhhhhh-nnnuuuuuuuhhhhhh. It seemed so familiar that I couldn’t quite place it for the longest time. And then I had it.

It sounded like someone breathing.

Sleeping, to be more exact. It sounded like someone—or something—breathing while in the midst of a deep dream.

It was so faint, though, that I had almost convinced myself it was my imagination. If Alex hadn’t said something then, I probably would have ignored it.

“Does anyone else hear that?” he asked.

“I do.”

“Do you think it’s Karen sleeping up ahead?”

The terror that had been growing in my chest gave way for a moment. That possibility hadn’t occurred to me. “Maybe,” I said, hopeful.

I stepped a few feet into the tunnel, straining to hear. “Karen!” I called, still a little spooked, so that I didn’t do it as loud as I could. The breathing seemed to pause for a moment, but then resumed.

I started to go deeper in the tunnel, and Rachel followed.

From behind Alex asked: “What if it’s a bear?”

“We’ll figure that out when the time comes,” I said and continued without pausing.

About a hundred yards down the passage the floor fell away to a steep incline. It wasn’t a straight drop, but it would have been a nasty fall if I’d come upon it unawares. We stood there for a moment, looking into the darkness.

“I don’t think Karen came this way,” Rachel said as she and Alex crowded around me at the edge of the slope, hoping to see better.

“Neither do I,” I said. Something about the place felt wrong. There was thick dust and muck over everything. “I don’t think anyone’s been through here in a long, long while. Nothing looks like it’s been disturbed recently.”

“Right. And when did you get your Tracker’s merit badge?”

“Okay, Alex, good point. I don’t know what I’m talking about, but something about this just doesn’t seem right. I don’t think Karen would have come this way alone.”

“She could have not been paying attention and fallen,” Rachel offered.

I frowned and shook my head. Looking more closely at the ground, I noticed that the ground was much softer through this part of the cave. I looked closely and was able to spot the footprints the three of us had left as we came through. I pointed it out to the others.

“While Alex is right,” I said, “and I don’t know shit about tracking, it really only looks like three sets of tracks have come through here. I don’t see anything by the edge of the slope, either.”

“Neither do I.” The voice came from behind us so suddenly that it startled us all, but none so much as Rachel. She let out a gasp that was almost a shriek and jumped almost two feet into the air—away from the source of the sound. Which meant toward the drop off.

When she landed, a large rock slipped out from under her foot, and her momentum carried her toward the edge of the precipice. She slammed down hard on her tailbone before her momentum carried her into Alex’s legs, sending him tumbling after her. Alex cried out in either fright or pain—I couldn’t tell which—and then the two of them went crashing into the dark.

Karen was at my side and holding my hand in an instant. I nearly jumped out of my skin again, but the realization of what had just happened dawned upon me. In stunned silence, Karen and I turned toward the sound of Rachel and Alex’s calamitous journey down the slope. When the crashing came to an end, I waited for a moment before calling down after them.

“Alex? Rachel? Can you hear me? Are you all right?”

It took a second, but Alex’s voice drifted up from below.

“We’re all right. A little banged up, but nothing seems to be broken. There’s a pretty nasty drop off at the bottom here. I’m not sure we’ll be able to get back up without some rope.”

“I found a way out,” Karen yelled. “I can run back to the camp and bring rope and help.”

“Yeah, you might want to do that.”

There was something different in Alex’s voice. Something that sounded very much like fear. A second later I thought I heard Rachel say something. It sounded like a question.

“Mike,” Alex yelled. “I think there’s something down here with us.”

Then Rachel screamed.

Karen gripped my hand with one of hers and squeezed my bicep with the other. Her nails dug deep into my arm.

I gasped as Alex’s voice joined his wife’s. A second later both voices were drowned out by a sound unlike any I had heard before. Somewhere between a screech and a snarl, the sound brought goose bumps across my flesh as it echoed through the cavern.

The timbre of the screams in the dark below us changed. They went from a bone-chilling tone of fright to a sickening chorus of pain as a second screeching/snarling voice joined the first. Then a third came, and a fourth, until there were so many that it was impossible to count. Within seconds Alex and Rachel’s voices diminished. Eventually, they died out all together.

Karen began to back away from the edge of the downward slope, her face a mask of panic-stricken terror. The way her headlamp illuminated it against the utter darkness of the cave around us suddenly seemed to me the most frightening part of everything that was happening. It took me a second to realize she was still clinging to my arm and pulling me away from the slope with her.

I almost began to protest, not wanting to leave Rachel and Alex behind, but then I heard something from the pit below. The things that had attacked my friends, whatever they were, were talking to each other.

I couldn’t understand their language, but there was no doubt in my mind that what I heard was intelligent communication. This, on top of everything else, was just too much. As we turned to run, I heard something else from the bottom of the slope. Despite my better judgement, I paused and cocked my ear in order to hear what was going on. The things were still chattering to each other, but there was a strange scraping sound that I couldn’t quite place. In a gift of vision, it suddenly occurred to me that what I was hearing was these things crawling up the rocks toward us.

“Let’s go,” I said, grabbing Karen’s hand. She led the way out, taking me into the passage we’d ignored when we first heard the strange breathing sound.

“The way out is pretty far,” she said. “But if we hurry, I think we can make it.”

We took off running, with her in the lead. The cave was much rockier and wet here, not to mention that it had a fairly serious uphill grade. Our boots fought for every foothold, and we both slipped several times as we tore through the tunnel. Once or twice we lost our balance and hit the ground. As these happened more often, I became aware of sounds behind us. Scratches, grunts, and other disheartening sounds were growing louder and more frequent, and I felt the same terror from before sprung to life anew in my throat.

But each step we took brought fresher air that carried with it hope. Hope that we might actually make it to the outside. What we would do when we got there was irrelevant. One goal at a time was all my mind could handle at that point.

Karen slipped and fell, crashing down hard on her left knee. She let out a cry of pain and slumped onto her right side, cradling her knee.

We had been running for half an hour by then, and how I was able to pick her up without stopping still confounds me. But I lifted her onto my shoulder and carried her through the cavern on a wave of adrenaline. My pace was slowed, though, and I could hear the sounds of our pursuit growing closer.

“I can walk now,” Karen said several minutes later.

I grunted and picked up my pace, not trusting her knee yet. If she was wrong and stumbled again it would likely mean our deaths.

Minutes ticked by and the cave grew closer around us, making it difficult for me to carry Karen. I ducked and slid as much as I could, but the passages were shrinking and my back was starting to get pretty adamant in its protests. Not for the first time since we set out to go hiking yesterday, I made a decision.

“We’ll try it now,” I grunted. “Be ready to run the second I put you down.”

“I will.”

I heard in her voice the same fear that was in my mind: what if her knee won’t support her?

Pushing the thought as far into the back of my mind as I could, I paused for an instant and set her down. She stumbled on her first step, and I nearly grabbed her. But she stayed up and kept moving. I could tell it was causing her serious pain the way she was favoring it, but we were keeping a pretty brisk pace regardless.

Seconds turned to minutes and as our pace began to diminish, the sounds of pursuit were getting louder. I spared a glance back once and thought I saw something, but it had to have been my imagination. If it had been as close to us as I’d thought we would have died seconds later.

I was beginning to lose hope, beginning to think that maybe lying down and letting them have me not be so bad after all. But then it appeared. It started as no more than a thumb-sized dot, but each step I took brought it closer: sunlight.

The sight of it renewed me, and Karen must have seen it, too, because her pace quickened as well.

We were sprinting by then. How we managed to keep our feet in that rocky terrain is a topic for theologians to discuss. All that mattered was that the sunlight was getting closer, and we would be safe there.

I don’t know why I believed that, but I did. Maybe I read too many stories as a kid or maybe something was happening on a deeper, more instinctual level. Either way I thought—no, I knew—that we would be safe as soon as we hit the surface.

As if sensing the same thing as I, but preferring a different outcome, the things behind us began moving faster, narrowing the gap between us. The snarls and screams and screeches were getting louder faster than the light was getting closer. I thought I could feel the heat of their breath on my skin, and imagined they were nipping at my legs, taking tiny scrapes of flesh with them until my skin felt sunburned.

Fear and pain mounted, and with one final burst of speed I didn’t think either of us had left in reserves, we broke through the cave mouth. As I crossed into the morning sunlight, I felt a jab of pain in my left heel and went tumbling forward. I rolled head over heel down a rocky hill, eventually slamming back first into a boulder and stopping.

Through the haze of pain, I could make out several shapes in the mouth of the cavern, crossing back and forth, yammering to each other. They were pointing at me and Karen, who had run down to where I’d fallen and was leaning against the same boulder I’d crashed into, gulping air and nursing her knee. Otherwise she seemed fine.

The creatures were never completely visible. They ducked in and out of the pockets of shadow inside and around the cave. At first I thought they were very doglike, but the longer I watched them the more they took on feline characteristics.

Covered in what looked like filthy, matted fur, their snouts were long like a dog’s with large mouths and very sharp teeth. Saliva dripped from their chins and large tongues as they barked and chattered to one another. They sat on their hindquarters and held their front paws in front of them, though to call them paws is a little misleading. Long, slender fingers with sharp claws opened and closed in ways that were uncannily hand-like, and it seemed that they might even have had thumbs, but it was too far away to say.

“They seem like they’re trying to decide something,” Karen said between breaths.

She was right. I got the distinct impression that they were discussing something, and I didn’t need three questions to guess what it was.

I looked at my heel, which was now but one of many injuries commanding my attention. My whole body, especially my head, throbbed with a pain so intense I was finding it difficult to understand what was happening around me. My sock, just above the top of my hiking boot was torn and soaked in blood. I pulled myself up on the boulder and tried to put weight on my left leg and nearly passed out from the pain.

The chattering of the creatures got more excited.

Karen, seeing the extent of my injuries, and not knowing what else to do, found a long, straight stick that I could use as a crutch. I thanked her as I leaned against it, still feeling nauseous from the last attempt at walking.

I took one last look at the creatures, which seemed on the verge of disregarding whatever it was keeping them at bay and coming after us, and started moving as fast as I could away from them and down the hill. I was in too much pain to worry about whether we were headed toward the camp or not, but luckily Karen had a clearer head. She removed the old-school GPS her uncle had insisted we take with us the day before. It took her a few minutes since we were afraid to stop moving, but she got us pointed in the right direction. We thought we had the radio with us for a moment, but then we remembered that Rachel had been carrying it.

We were lucky in one small way: since we hadn’t returned the night before as expected, and since they couldn’t raise us on the radio, Karen’s aunt and uncle had organized a search party. Several of the members of this party knew about the caves in the area and had sent people to all the known entrances. We stumbled upon them about twenty minutes after exiting the cave.

Help was called in and we were escorted back to camp where the police had already arrived. They weren’t very convinced by our descriptions of the creatures or our accounts of what happened to Alex and Rachel, despite the fact that they questioned us separately and our stories matched exactly.

I can’t say I blamed them. I wouldn’t have believed me, either.

Another search party went out, headed toward the cave we used to make our escape. We warned them repeatedly and begged them not to go, but I think that just made them more suspicious of us.

Karen and I were taken to the hospital to make sure we would be well enough to be taken into custody. My achilles tendon had been severed, and the imagined cuts on the backs of my legs turned out to be real. Most of the skin on my legs and parts of my back and arms was gone. On top of that, I shattered several ribs when I hit the boulder, which was also when I got the concussion.

The good news is the doctors say I’ll be all right.

It’s just going to be a little while before they can get me in to surgery. In the meantime, I have the morphine which is administered by the all-powerful button to keep all my troubles at bay: the pain that won’t stop, the screams of Rachel and Alex that I still hear, and the feeling that those—things—are still nipping at my legs that I can’t shake.

The morphine is all that I have to help with all of that, and it isn’t working.

 

The Night Jennifer Lopez Ate My Soul

by Anthony R. Karnowski

 

Sometimes I hate her.

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

Sometimes I really hate her. 

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

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

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

I jump at the sound of breaking glass.

The clock now reads 3:49.

Fuck, I think. What now?

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

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

“John,” she says.

I stop. How does she know my name?

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

“Do… do I know you?”

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

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

“Come on, John. Follow me.”

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

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

I’m dreaming. I have to be dreaming.

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

“Come on, John. Let’s go,” she says. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My legs are gone.

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Shed

The Shed

Illustration by J. Andrew World

by Bud Webster

 

Martin had always hated the shed. As far back as he could remember, he’d hated it. It was dark, musty, dank; the walls were lined with peg-board and rusted tools hung here and there on hooks like broken teeth. There were spiders and ancient wasp nests, filth in every corner, and there was an evil smell, like time gone bad.

What glass had once been in the windows had long ago been lost to rocks thrown by anonymous boys goaded on by their equally anonymous friends. The shed stared at him, sightless and terrible, beckoning.

Worse were the memories. The shed was full to bursting with them, razor-sharp in his mind even after thirty years. They came at him now, like sand whipped by a hot desert wind; his mother, face drawn and gaunt, meeting him at the door as he came in from school and saying, “Your father’s waiting for you in the shed.” The hopelessness of her voice—she’d had her turns in the shed, too—the long walk through the back yard, grass hissing against his feet; the shadow inside the door waiting, waiting. “Your father is waiting in the shed.” Are there any more dreadful words in a child’s experience?

Then the beatings, usually with a belt, but sometimes (if the sin had been grievous enough) with a stick of firewood that left him bruised and not infrequently bloody. The shame was part of it, too, and the heat and the grit of dirt under his shoes as he stood crying in the aftermath, his father’s breath washing over him in waves of rage and whiskey. A bad report card. A chore undone. Farting in church. The reasons didn’t matter; there was always a reason. It was the thing itself, the agony of humiliation, sharp as a carpet-tack hammered into the center of his soul.

Last night was the first time he’d been in the shed since leaving home at seventeen. Tonight would be the final time. Looking at it now, he knew that going in there again would be like pissing on a live wire, but he had no choice if he was ever to be whole again.

He’d run from home as soon as he’d graduated from high school, desperate to leave it all behind, knowing deep inside himself that it would never be far from him. He’d gone alone, with his mother’s blessing. “One of us should get away,” she’d said as she pressed $134 in dingy, tattered bills into his hand. She’d hoarded it, hiding it from his father under a loose window sill. “I can’t. Not no more. Go to Roanoke, or Richmond and find work. Try to get some college.” Then she smiled, and it almost broke him to remember it. “I’ll be fine, boy. Just go before he wakes up.” He had, and a part of him still bled that he hadn’t found a way to take her with him.

The wind blew an empty soda can across the top of the driveway where he stood. He looked at the label as it rolled: Black Cat Cherry Cola. He smiled a little at the irony. After last night, bad luck was the least of his worries.

His mother had simply given up when he was twenty-three, stealing pills from a co-worker’s purse and swallowing them methodically, one at a time. She’d passed out at the table in the break room and just never woke up. At her funeral, his father had been drunk in the chapel, drunk at the gravesite, loudly proclaiming his grief and her worthlessness. Few others were there to mourn her.

It was a month now since they’d buried his father, dead after years of solitary drunkenness in his cheap trailer up in the Amherst woods. There were no mourners; Martin saw his father into the ground alone. The service had been short and perfunctory, led by a minister supplied by the mortuary who kept mispronouncing his father’s name. Martin didn’t bother to correct him. It didn’t matter, not even the Pope could keep his father out of Hell.

It had taken Martin that entire month to work up the courage to come back, to do what he had to do. There was no estate to pay for maintenance, so the grave was already becoming overgrown and weedy. The staff of the little boneyard had better things to do with their time than to look after a plot stuck off in a corner.

The house was gone, gutted by fire a year after his mother’s passing. The fire department came, but only because a neighbor spotted the smoke and called. His father had stopped paying his phone bills long before.

The land was his as the only surviving heir. There was no nostalgia here, though, no attachment, no sense of ownership. What value the land might have was far outweighed by the vileness that saturated it like blood in dirt.

He would be done with it soon enough, in any case.

He closed his eyes against another memory, flinching at the intensity of it. He was eleven, already in a perpetual state of terror. The three of them sat at the dinner table: his father with bottle at hand, sly and furtive, staring at his wife and son through piggish eyes as the two of them ate slowly and warily. Suddenly he lashed out, slapping her across the side of her head and knocking her glasses into a bowl of potatoes. She slowly turned her head back around, not looking at anything but the table in front of her, and fumbled her glasses out of the bowl. With trembling hands she wiped them on her apron, then put them back on, her face already swollen and red. “That’s what you get,” his father had said. “Just you don’t forget it, neither of you.” There had been too many other meals like that one.

The light was beginning to turn now, deepening towards dusk, and it was time. He stretched his back, still sore from the night before. It had been hard work, and foul, and he was certain that at some point he’d crossed the line into madness because of it, but it was done. Now he would put paid to all.

Tomorrow, he’d burn the shed and all the hateful poison it held. There was still work to do tonight, though, and he was as ready as he’d ever be. He took the baseball bat from where it leaned against his car in hands that were still raw and blistered from digging, glorying in the pain, letting it flash through him and carry him on. He began the long walk, the grass hissing against his feet for the last time.

His father was waiting for him in the shed.

 

The House of Dreams

by Craig Saunders

 

The essence of dreams, the stark reality that makes the mind doubt what is real and what is not, is the suspension of disbelief. For a time, most often whilst asleep but sometimes while the dreamer sits with a mug of ale, or a glass of fine wine, time is forgotten and a moment can seem drawn long and pulled out of shape. With a smoke wheel burning, a man might hallucinate and see his lost wife, a child he never had, or in a darker moment his own death come to him with a blade in hand and steely teeth bared in a snarl.

Perhaps, you might think, a dream will come true. A daydream, holding the local barmaid’s full breast in one hand while your wife is forgotten. A dream of a young princess, sullied by your attentions in a deserted hallway, hallowed ground of royalty and your body tense with excitement while you imagine your hands drifting over forbidden flesh… even the evil have daydreams.

But daydreams our not our concern for they do not come true.

Daydreams, sweet dreams. These are not our dreams. Our dreams lurk in the night. They haunt the sullen hours when the moon does not shine and we forget that starlight comes from other suns than ours.

Ours are the dreams that another gives us… the sneak illusions of the vampire… the befuddled mind… the glamour that covers the approaching stench of decay.

The nightmare. That is our province tonight.

* * * * *

Shawford Crale knelt on the hard floor and took a fine brush and palette from his manservant. His servant stood ready behind his master holding a lamp for better light while Crale painted. He began with a circle. It was a perfect circle, drawn by hand.

He painted a pattern of intricate design within the circle.

An hour later and dusk had fled.

“Night comes, my lord.”

“I feel it, too. It is time. I must begin the incantations. You know what to do.”

“A courtesan, this time?”

“No, I have a taste for the seedy tonight. A wench, I think. One that nobody will miss.”

“As you will,” said the manservant. He turned without a further word and left the dining hall.

Shawford Crale sprinkled sand on the design to dry the paint. Then he placed a chair within the circle and took a sip from the wine glass that was beside him on the cold stone floor. He took a steadying breath and began to chant. It was not easy, conjuring demons, and they were ever hungry. But he paid the price in blood and they were sated.

The rewards, though… they were considerable. His returning youth and newfound wealth that came with the foreknowledge to play the markets. He was fast becoming an immensely wealthy man. A man to be reckoned with, even though Ulbridge was just a small town… one day it would be bigger. Perhaps he would even take to the wider world.

The price? Blood. As always.

But never his.

* * * * *

A cockerel crowed the evening call over Ulbridge, signalling nightfall, if not bedtime for some. On the King’s Row sots walked wearily from their daytime lives to drown their sorrows in their cups. Wives wiped evening meals from careless children’s mouths. Careless children pulled their covers high, snuggled into their pallets and straw mattresses. Horsehair, for the few.

On Sunday Street in the Pauper’s Green a small child pulled a rare book from under her covers and brought her candle closer to the bed. She had read the story cover to cover since her mother bought her the book. She knew they could ill afford books, but she loved her mother for the expense and the thought. It was the most beautiful story she had ever read.

It was called a “fairytale”, her mother had told her. There was a lord in it, and he took a pauper’s widow for his wife, and her daughter for his own.

It was her favourite story, but this night she felt restless.

The front door closed quietly as her mother left her once again for the night. The little girl wished her mother safe from harm.

Her mother joined her neighbour. Together they walked the streets. They walked from Sunday Street along the canal, hitching their skirts high as they stepped over a puddle on the canal way. They would be hitching their skirts aplenty tonight.

A short walk later, a kiss for good luck, and Ellisindre stood alone under a lamplight. It was early yet, for a courtesan. But she had no illusions. She was no lord’s filly, bought with a ruby and a smile. She would not be spending the night perfumed and drunk on fine wines. She was a common whore. A penny and she would perform, for the fat and toothless, for the rough and shy. For old men angry with their dirks for their rusty steel, young men drunk in their cups thinking of their wives in distant cities or perhaps a lazy walk away on a different street.

A man walked by and she swung her hips to one side and pulled her skirt to show an ankle.

“’Tis early yet, love,” said the man with a kind smile, unusual for most. “Perhaps later, if I have the time.”

She smiled back and shrugged sadly. He moved on and the street fell quiet. It was too early for most gents, but she worked a full night. She was no stranger to hard work. And it was hard work. But she could earn no more working the fields or sweeping the Thane’s manor. Pulling mugs of ale for the drunk? No longer. Perhaps, had her life taken a different turn… but not now. Not now they knew her for what she was.

And what of her, when she grew too old to turn an eye with her ankle and too old to turn a trick?

Another man walked past and ignored her a little too forcibly. Too good for her, he thought, now he was sober. But she was a good judge. He’d be back after he’d sunk a few and was perhaps one or two to the good.

She shivered and pulled her shawl ’round her neck tighter. She could drop it an inch or two when the next gent came a-by, but she felt the chill more than usual tonight. She looked up through the lamplight to gauge the stars, but there was naught to see but a low bank of clouds moving down. Fine luck and an ill night for work. Fog rolling down from the sky and in from the lakes. A dangerous night for a girl on the streets.

And a poor one for working. She could hardly bark her wares out loud on the street. Fog would hide her from her gents and dampen their ardour. No one wanted to be out in the fog. Men were a superstitious lot. Creatures prowled the night in the fog. It bred stories like a man bred children.

It was coming in fast. Coming down the street. A dark, starless night and damp fog a-rolling.

Madal’s horns, an ill night for her kind of work.

The taverns down the street were growing in noise. On a night like tonight she wished she could afford to give a percentage of her takings on a license. Then she could work the back rooms of the taverns. Work in comfort… well, at least the warm. But she could not afford a groat, let alone a penny.

An hour passed slowly, muffled carousing coming from down the street and across the cobblestones. Occasionally she heard a boot heel walking unevenly through the deadening fog, a gent passing by on the other side of the canal, unaware of her and another penny passing her by.

Each time she heard footsteps in the distance she cursed her luck.

Her little girl was sickening. The priest could do little and her daughter shrivelled in the light, becoming a creature of the dark like her. She had tried all that she could think of and it had availed her little. The poor child withered like a dry shrub, like she had at the age of thirty after she had birthed the child and her no-good husband had sold her to the street for a mercenary’s life on the border and, no doubt, a stream of women he could buy for a penny and feel no guilt about.

She turned tricks for a penny and her husband was off paying others a penny for what she had given him for free.

Useless bastard. She could ill afford to lose the business. If he’d paid her a penny for all the times she’d spread her legs for free…

Well. Perhaps her daughter would not have sickened the way she had. Perhaps she had some unheard of pox she’d passed to her daughter. There was more guilt in her head than she knew.

In many ways she was a simple woman. She’d paid the priest with all she had to offer. Every penny she had, and then with every ounce of her flesh. And still her daughter sickened. He came back still, but she was simple, not stupid. He didn’t come back for her daughter but for her.

If he knew the sickness was in her, too, perhaps he would be a little less eager.

She sighed and puffed in the chill air, fog swirling around her breath. Her hair was damp and lank on her cheeks. All that time curling it as was the fashion among the high-class courtesans. Who did she think she was?

A waste of time, she thought, as the sounds of a horse clopping along the cobbled streets came to her. Some lord slumming it tonight, she thought… the horse came nearer, its location unclear in the fog. She could not tell how near or far it was. She chanced to hope… perhaps the lord would pass her way and throw her a silver for a roll along the canal bank.

Fog curled in the murk and a black horse came into view.

Ellisindre forced a smile onto her pale face and pushed her hip out, her hand resting on the swell, her skirt hitched.

The rider came close and looked down at her. His cloak was dark and hung loose over the horse’s flanks. His head was covered by a low hat, the brim pulled down to hide his eyes.

A fine cloak, she calculated. A silver, at least.

“Good evening, my lord. A sad night to be alone, for sure…”

“Save your wiles, my love. My master requires a woman’s company tonight, and you will suffice. A gold piece for the journey, and one for the work.”

Two gold!

“I’m game. To where, my lord?”

“Just a squire, whore. I’ve no time for your games. Get astride the horse and shut your mouth. You can open it later for my master if you like, but I’ll not suffer you to sully me. Come or as not, it makes no difference to me.”

He held out his hand.

She was no stranger to men with ire at her, for what she never knew. Perhaps they hated her for what she was. Mayhap they hated her for what they were.

She did not care. For two gold he could call her all the names under the moon. She took his hand and pulled herself up.

* * * * *

On Sunday Street the little girl wheezed and coughed. She put her book down and listened in the night. In the distance she heard a horse clipping down the street… two streets over, she judged. Riding heavy.

She did not know how she knew these things she did. She was more awake this night than she had ever been when she had known the kiss of the sun.

She worried for her mother. She worried for herself. No longer could she take the sun. Her hands were weak but her eyes were strong. Even in the flickering candlelight she could make out the picture that hung on the wall, hung there by the priest. The priest who had used her mother in the other room while she was supposed to sleep.

She did not know how she felt about that. But she could feel something… something indefinable. A pull. She’d felt it for about a week now. She didn’t know what it was.

Tonight it was strong. The night was calling her.

The horse’s hooves clapped on the stone perhaps two streets over. For some reason she felt she should see what the ruckus was. She’d never seen a horse. Her mother wouldn’t be back until the dawn’s first light… she’d never know.

The little girl pulled open the window and hied herself over the windowsill into the night. Her bare feet slapped on the uneven stone and she walked slowly toward the sound of the trotting horse.

Reveling in the smells of the night and the smooth refreshing feel of the silken fog on her skin, she roamed the night. She walked by a man taking a piss in the canal, the steady splash beside her. She was silent for a moment, then passed on. In the fog, she was invisible.

And free. Finally free of the confines of her room. She was enjoying herself. She marked her route and decided immediately that she would do this every night while her mother worked the streets. Perhaps she would find a purse or a gem… yes! She would search the streets for a gem… just like in her book.

It was her favourite book. In her book a little girl found a gem. Her mother took it from her and gave it to a lord… the lord had lost the gem, of course. By chance they fell in love and the lord took the little girl and the mother and they became his family… they were happy…

It was just a story though, she thought, and her mood nearly dropped. But the night was magical. It was a night for a little girl to dream.

* * * * *

Ellisindre dismounted ungracefully and put her feet on the solid ground. Her rump was sore from the ride.

Not for the first time.

The squire had not spoken a word to her, but now he tossed her a gold coin which she snatched from the air and tucked away in her skirt with a smooth, practiced movement.

He slid from the horse and took her elbow.

“Come, my lord awaits. His ardour is rare and he is impatient when the mood is upon him. Do not keep him waiting.”

She said nothing but allowed herself to be led by the arm toward a grand door. She could see little else of the house but she got the sense that it was a large estate. They had passed the last house a few minutes ago, and headed through iron wrought gates onto a long paved road with carmillion blossoms on either side, their night blooms full and fragrant.

The squire pushed open the door with one hand and guided her through perhaps a little roughly, but some of his rudeness seemed to have left him.

“Through the door to the right. My master waits in the dining room.”

She nodded and walked, brushing her damp hair away from her face. She put a smile on and tried to hide her disquiet. She felt more than out of place. The house was grand and full of artefacts. She was pleased that the squire had trusted her to walk through such riches without trying to plunder the hall and escape before he could find her.

Somehow she had the impression, though, that she would not get far.

She walked into the dining room and a small gasp escaped her lips. It was immense. But she was here to work, not gawp, and her gent was watching.

She pushed her bosom out to its full advantage and walked toward the man seated at the end of a long table who was smiling at her. She watched his eyes. They seemed black at this distance.

“Please, my lady. Take the seat at the end. I presumed you would be hungry at this hour and have taken the liberty of having a small repast prepared for you.”

“My lord, such kindness!” she exclaimed breathlessly, pouting.

“For such a beautiful lady… I would go to the ends of the earth.”

Oh, she thought, at least he made the pretense of charm.

“Might I have the pleasure of a name?” he enquired solicitously.

“Ellisindre, lord.”

“And I am Shawford Crale, my lady. Now we are friends. Please,” he waved a hand.

She sat where he indicated, at the foot of the long table. She watched him over the candlesticks… gold, if she was not mistaken. The table, too, was the finest. It seemed to be made of some stone she did not recognize but it had the solidity of stone, even if it was finely polished and seemed to have flecks of gold within it.

She happened to glance down and saw a strange design drawn below her chair. She pulled the chair in and returned her gaze to the man at the head of the table.

He was watching her like a hawk. His eyes had not left her since she had entered the dining hall. She tried to regain her composure and keep a smile on her face, even though her heart pounded in her chest.

The gent clapped his hands and a bent old man entered bearing a tray of delicacies, which the old man placed before Ellisindre.

“Please, business can wait. You must be hungry…”

She tried to pick but the food was delicious. There were sea oysters and plums, a fine strong cheese and a salty hunk of fish which she tore into. The servant returned and filled a glass with a deep red wine which she sampled and then gulped.

It was a meal like she had never imagined. The flavours exploded in her mouth and she used the napkin to wipe the juices from her lips between mouthfuls, until she forgot all efforts at deportment and set to with a passion.

The man seemed content to watch her eat. She watched him from under the cover of her hair which fell over her eyes, wondering that such a fine man could show one such as her such courtesy, a simple woman who made men happy when she could for a pretty.

He smiled at her and motioned for her to continue eating.

She gladly obliged, until she could eat no more.

“Thank you, my lord. It was a meal like no other. It was the best I have ever had. I have no doubt, you too, will be the best…”

The man laughed and his long salt and pepper hair fell across his eyes.

“My dear lady, you are the sweetest thing. Please, allow me to pour you some more wine… then, perhaps, we can get down to the business of the night.”

She smiled coquettishly at him and put a hand to her breast.

He approached with a bottle of the fine wine in his hand. His other was hidden behind his back. Ordinarily it would have troubled her, but she was utterly disarmed and not a little drunk.

* * * * *

The little girl had taken a while to find the horse. It had fallen silent some time ago, but for some reason her senses seemed more alive than they had ever been. She could smell it in the night, now approaching midnight by her inexperienced reckoning.

She stepped up to the horse and it whinnied at her and sniffed her hand. She stroked its nose and whispered gently to it, calming the beast.

It was a beautiful creature. So large she could barely reach its soft nose even though it craned its head down for her attentions.

Through the fog she heard her mother’s voice, startling her.

What was her mother doing here, in a lord’s manor?

Tonight was turning into some kind of adventure… perhaps her mother had met a lord… and they had fallen in love! Tomorrow they would come for her on this beautiful horse and they would all ride across the downs!

A mystery to be solved. She crept on stealthy feet closer to the voices and peered through a misted window.

* * * * *

“So, my dear. To business? Shall we?”

“Where do you want me, my lord? What do you wish?”

“You look beautiful just where you are… no, no, stay seated,” he said, coming to stand behind her.

She had been mesmerized by his walk. He was a solid man, well built and of middle years. He seemed confident… and more handsome than most of the gents she had known.

His hand touched her shoulder and she sighed. His hands were warm, her shoulder cold. Always cold.

“Such a beautiful neck, my lovely,” he said, and caressed her gently. She felt herself warming to him, a sudden rush of blood. Her mind swam from the wine and his hands were so soft.

She didn’t feel the knife that sliced through her neck. She was only aware of the blood when she felt its warmth flooding down the front of her dress.

She tried to scream at the sight of all the blood but only a drowning gurgle came from her slit throat.

Shawford Crale turned suddenly as a scream of rage rent the night from outside the window, bringing the knife to bear. Then the window shattered and Ellisindre’s daughter flew across the room… it was a leap no mortal could have made.

Ellisindre heard a startled cry escape the lips of her murderer and then the man was thrown across the table. Her daughter jumped on top of him and like a nightmare she was at his throat, tearing it open with her teeth. Tearing his flesh and drinking his blood.

She drank, Ellisindre aware only dimly of the slurping, gurgling noises coming from the table… then she felt flesh held against her lips.

“Drink, Mother. Drink.”

She could do little else. She drank. The blood from his throat mixed with her own and came out through the hole in her throat… then the hole was closed and she was drinking the pumping warmth from the man down into her full belly. But his blood warmed her through like the food had not. Her throat felt better. The stinging pain subsided and her head cleared.

Her daughter dropped Shawford Crale back onto the table, and for a moment Ellisindre marvelled at the strength it must have taken for her little girl to hold the man for her.

But she was no longer the weak little girl who had been wasting in her room this last month. Her cheeks were ruddy again and her flesh full and plump.

“I understand the sickness now, Mother,” said her daughter. “I feel it. I feel the life pulsing through me. Do you?”

Shawford Crale’s blood trickled out from his torn neck, staining the light marble crimson.

Ellisindre nodded and took her daughter in her arms. Tears dripped and mixed with the blood on her breast.

“I understand now, sweetheart, but my god, how I wish I did not.”

“Don’t weep, Mother. I dreamt of this day. That my father would be a lord! That you would be his wife and you would no longer have to haunt the night for a penny.”

“But you killed him.”

“No, Mother. I don’t think so,” said the little girl, new and frightening wisdom in her voice. “I understand. He will be your husband. We have given him life! You will rule him and this house. I read it in a book, Mother. The book you gave to me.”

“This is no fairytale, daughter of my heart.”

“But if we let it, it could be,” her daughter said, her eyes pleading.

Shawford Crale’s blood dried. Ellisindre sat watching, her daughter eager on her lap, as the master of the house’s throat slowly healed.

By morning the hole had closed. A new day dawned with dreams fulfilled and hearts full of hope.

* * * * *

And so, just like in the fairytales, a kiss brought the lord back to life, and they all lived happily ever after.

Dreams do come true.

And so, in the still dark hours of the night, do nightmares.

 

The Vault

by Steven Palukaitis

Robert and Curtis Vaughn sipped beers and smoked cigarettes as their childhood friend Terry Huck rambled on about yet another one of his famous get-rich-quick-schemes.

Terry was fresh on the streets after serving a five-year sentence for armed robbery. Since it was his first offense, Terry was released early for his exemplary behavior; free to wreak havoc once again.

He marked his thirty-first birthday behind bars and had accomplished absolutely nothing of relevance in those years. Although Robert and Curtis were in the same boat as Terry professionally, they didn’t share his same affection for crime. They listened with vested interest as he rambled on, “I’m tellin’ you, I saw it myself.”

“You just said your grandma told you about it,” Robert corrected him.

Terry shook his head and said, “Didn’t you two hear a word I said?”

Robert asked, “What did you call it?”

“The Vault,” Terry answered. He looked over to Curtis and added, “There’s got to be thousands in the bitch, too.”

“Shit, man,” Curtis said through a thick cloud of exhaled white carbon monoxide. “If someone like you knows about it, how is it possible there’s any money still left in it?”

Robert kept his mouth shut and waited for Terry to answer; Curtis might as well have asked his question for the two of them. Terry crouched to the ground and motioned for them to follow in an impromptu huddle and whispered as if prying ears were afoot, “Last night I went down there and I saw it for myself.”

“You’re lying.”

“Yeah, bullshit,” Curtis added as he and his brother started to laugh.

Terry stood and kicked at the ground. Talking to these two was like talking to a wall. He reached into his back pocket and removed the only evidence he had; an envelope he had torn the top edge of, the proverbial ace up his sleeve. “Take a look at this then, you losers.” Terry reached inside the envelope and pulled out two twenty-dollar bills. He waved them in front of their eyes and said, “Forty bucks, and that’s just from one of these.” Terry pointed over his shoulder with his thumb and continued, “There are hundreds of these suckers down there just waiting for us.”

“What’s written on the front?” Curtis asked pointing to the name printed on the outside of the envelope.

Terry flipped it around and read it aloud, “Dante Taylor.”

“Who’s Dante Taylor?”

“It’s the sucker whose money I got,” Terry answered. He shrugged his shoulders and asked, “Who gives a shit who he is?”

Curtis, burned one too many times by Terry’s lies, still didn’t buy his story completely. He asked, “How do we know you didn’t just put those twenties in there just to screw with us?”

Terry was three seconds from telling the two of them to take a flying leap, but he kept his cool. He needed them if he and his Grandma’s plan was going to work.

He dug through the layer of ice in the cooler at their feet, grabbed a can of Miller Lite and popped the top. “What would I possibly gain from doing something like that?” Terry put the can to his lips and drained half of it in three heavy gulps before exhaling loudly and continuing, “I’m offering you two morons a lot of money here and you two think I’m fucking with you?”

Curtis and Robert stared at each other for a moment before each shrugged their shoulders. “Fuck it. When do we go?” Robert asked.

Terry flashed his patented shit-eating-grin and answered, “We leave tomorrow night.”

* * * * *

Curtis and Robert rummaged through the gear Terry had supplied each of them as he drove toward their destination. Each bag was packed with a flashlight, extra batteries, rope and a pair of gloves, which Robert pulled out and held up. “What do we need these for?”

Terry looked over at Robert sitting in the passenger seat and joked, “They’re so you don’t feel it when I plant my hand in your ass for asking stupid questions.”

Curtis chuckled nervously from the back seat and asked, “What’s the story with this place?”

Terry looked at him through the rearview mirror and answered, “Grandma said it was called the Vault.”

“Why did people feel the sudden urge to through money into it?” Robert prodded from the passenger seat as he clicked his flashlight quickly on and off to check its brightness.

Terry slowed the car and turned the wheel hard to the right in order to make the tight turn onto a nameless dirt road. The old headlights did their best to penetrate the choking blackness of the single lane road, but they were of little help. There were no houses out this way and since very few cars traveled this route, the city could never justify installing any street lights. As far as the eyes could see, there was a never-ending wall of tall oak trees lining both sides of the road that arched over top of the street to form a natural tunnel. “People around here put money into The Vault to keep their secrets safe.”

“What kind of secrets?” Curtis asked.

“Well, if someone did something fucked up like murder someone, cheat on a husband or wife, or even molest a kid, the Vault would keep their secret, no matter how bad it was, for a price.” Terry leaned closer to the windshield and squinted to concentrate on the dark road. “The bigger the secret, the more money it cost to keep it from getting out.”

“What if it wasn’t enough? I mean, was there a price list or something like that?” Robert asked. He had known Terry to be nothing but a worthless liar his entire life, but there was something about the way Terry acted when he told his story that made him curious enough to tag along.

Terry answered, “I doubt there was a guideline, but if it wasn’t enough, the secret would get out and the person would get busted.”

“The worse the deed, the bigger the price, huh?” Curtis asked.

“That’s what Grandma told me.”

“Where the hell are we anyway?” Robert asked, staring out the passenger window. It was difficult to see beyond a one-foot distance from the side window, but he tried anyway to get his bearings.

“It should be right up here, where that old church is,” Terry answered. “You guys remember that place?”

“Where we used to go and smoke when we skipped school?”

“That’s the place.”

“That all seems so long ago.”

Robert laughed and asked, “You think skipping school to smoke weed had anything to do with how our lives turned out?” The three of them howled at Robert’s epiphany.

“That’s all gonna change tonight,” Terry said as he patted Robert’s thigh reassuringly with his hand.

“Man, I haven’t been out here in years. How’d you even find it?” Curtis asked wiping the tears from his eyes.

“Yeah, it’s a lot more overgrown since we’ve been out here, so Grandma drew me a map. I found it last night.”

Curtis turned around and stared through the rear window. He was hit immediately by an overwhelming claustrophobic feeling as the surrounding night swallowed them whole. The taillights were the only source of light; each glowed with a reddish hue as clouds of dry dust billowed up from the rear end of the vehicle. Beyond the four-foot radius of red colored dust, there was nothing but blackness. “Are you guys sure about this?”

“Sure about what? Getting a shitload of money for doing nothing?” Robert asked.

Terry shook his head in disbelief at the thought of Curtis giving up his chance at a lottery’s worth of money because of a childish fear of the dark. “You can stay in the car for all I care. It’ll just mean more money for me and shithead,” he said punching Robert’s shoulder.

“Ow, motherfucker!” Robert yelled as he rubbed his arm. He sized up the much larger Terry and decided not to escalate things further. He turned around to Curtis and said, “Don’t worry, I’ll keep your share of the loot, Little Brother.”

“That’s not what I meant.”

Terry made another right and then a quick left before finally pulling into a clearing that was once the church’s parking lot. As the headlights shined across the busted, charred remains of St. Katherine’s, Terry announced, “We’re here, boys.”

Terry put the car in park and killed the engine, but kept the headlights on. The three of them sat and stared silently at the eerie, charred white walls of St. Katherine’s that still stood. The jagged ruins glowed ominously from the odd combination of Chevrolet headlights and moonlight, adding to the already creepy mood.

Curtis pressed his face to the window—his nose bent a bit at the tip as it rubbed against the glass—and said, “Christ, it’s so dark out there. How the hell are we gonna see where we’re going?”

Terry held his Maglite up for the two of them to see and said, “That’s why we brought these,” tapping the head of the light against his open palm like an Irish cop walking a beat.

Is there anything else out here?” Robert asked as he scanned the dark perimeter of the car with his flashlight.

“Closest thing to us is eight miles back that way,” Terry answered as he motioned with a nod toward the way they’d driven in.

“There’s nobody out here?” Curtis asked.

“That’s what makes this such a great plan. There’s no chance of anyone coming along to stop us from going in.”

“So where is this place? Is there an opening somewhere inside the church?” Robert asked as he stuffed the rope and gloves into his backpack.

“It’s in the woods just behind the church.”

“In the woods?” Curtis asked in a cracked voice.

Terry warned him, “Stop acting like a little bitch.” He winked at Robert and said, “Curtis, check this out.” Terry extinguished the headlights and instantly, everything was swallowed in total darkness, including them. Curtis’ eyes struggled to adjust to the sudden darkness. His heart fluttered wildly in his chest as his brain started to panic from the lack of light. Although he held his flashlight in his hands, he couldn’t think clearly enough to turn it on.

For the first time in a while, Curtis was nervous; and although he’d never admit to it, Big Brother Robert was starting to feel the same nervousness as well.

Curtis stammered, “There’s no fucking way, guys.”

“Shut up,” Terry yelled as he flipped the headlights back on. “I can’t keep them on all night, Curtis; it’ll kill the battery.” He clicked on his flashlight and said, “Just use these from now on.”

“All right.” Curtis turned his on and checked his front pocket to make sure he had the set of back-up batteries just in case he needed them.

As he readied his gear, Robert’s mind conjured up the torn envelope Terry had shown them the day before. He asked, “So what’s with the name on that envelope you showed us yesterday?” Robert grabbed the flashlight and secured his backpack.

Before answering, Terry popped a cigarette in his mouth and lit it with his Zippo. The interior of the car beamed with the orange glow of flame for a few seconds. “Dante Taylor,” Terry answered through an exhale of thick haze. The way he spoke the name, it sounded as if he’d actually known the man personally.

“Who was Dante Taylor?”

“A real son of a bitch who got exactly what he deserved ten years ago courtesy of these fucking hicks around here.” Terry took another long drag, held it like he was smoking a joint and smiled before exhaling. “Mr. Taylor was even more of a badass than yours truly.”

Christ, here we go again, Robert thought as all three of them exited the car and started toward the glowing ruins of St. Katherine’s. Each powerful flashlight beam stabbed through the darkness like tiny searchlights looking for bombers. All three bobbed up and down with every step across the cold, black landscape. “So, what made him such a badass?” Curtis asked, nervously shifting his eyes from right to left, turning his head as if it were on a swivel as he kept watch for any possible attackers, real or imaginary.

Terry led them toward the burned out part of the church that once served as its rectory. He negotiated the dangerous pitfalls expertly, moving dangerously fast as Robert and Curtis followed closely behind. Terry said, “Grandma told me that Dante Taylor was one of the meanest fuckers she’d ever run across.”

“Really?”

“She said he was pure evil, through and through.” Terry pitched the butt of his cigarette against the wall, bouncing it to the ground in a shower of brilliant orange sparks that rained to the ground with it like a firework. “Dante was a big son of a bitch, too. Grandma said he was six-five, almost three hundred pounds. He walked with a real bad limp he got courtesy of two tours of duty in Vietnam.”

“Another crazy veteran,” Robert concluded.

“He got a little too close to a land mine over there and the blast nearly took his fucking leg clean off. By sheer luck, the surgeons who worked on him managed to save it, but not without a price.” They walked single file toward the edge of the woods as Terry continued with the story, “Dante had a wife, Amy, who he used as a human punching bag almost the entire time they were married. He used to beat on her so bad that sometimes she’d have to stay locked up in the house for a week until her bruises healed.” Terry stopped suddenly and pointed his light at an old well by their feet.

The well was crude in design; built from different size rocks piled three feet high that tapered sharply at the top. It looked more like a stone beehive than a well used for water. Terry didn’t say a word about the well just yet; instead, he continued with his story, “Amy had a breaking point. One night, she reached it.”

“What happened?” Curtis asked as he bent down to touch the stone well.

“Well, no one knows what really happened, but some say she finally decided for herself that enough was enough and mustered up the balls to get rid of him once and for all.”

“She killed him?” Curtis asked in a child-like whisper as he and his brother hung on every word of the story. Whether Terry’s words were bullshit or not, it was an interesting bit of twisted history about their otherwise boring town.

“Well, that’s the rumor. They never did find any evidence that suggested she did.” He paused dramatically like a skilled storyteller before finishing, “It was like Dante Taylor just dropped off the face of the earth or something.” Terry let his words fade before smiling and pointing down to the well by their feet. “And that’s where this comes in.” Their eyes and flashlight beams followed his hand and centered on the tiny opening at the top of the well. “This is the opening to the Vault. This is where every dirty secret in this shit-bird town has been held, for a price, for almost thirty years. This is where Amy dropped her envelope of cash as she whispered her deadly secret ten years ago.”

“This place is a gold mine,” Robert said as he poked his light through the small opening at the top, transfixed by the thought of becoming rich beyond his wildest dreams.

Seeing the well made everything about Terry’s story seem real.

Even though their three beams poked through the top, they revealed nothing inside. “We go in through there?” he asked.

Terry pointed toward a cluster of trees and bushes thirty feet away and said; “The way in is over there. You’d break your neck if you tried to go in that way.”

“I can’t believe you came down here alone,” Curtis said as he scanned the dark woods around them, keeping his eyes open to make sure none of it moved toward them.

“Why wouldn’t I come down here by myself? I’m not a pussy. How else do you think I got that bitch Amy’s envelope?”

“So, forty bucks is all it took to keep Amy’s secret? Seems like a bargain.”

Terry answered, “Dante was a total scumbag, so the Vault didn’t require too much of a payment, I guess. Shit, it probably would have taken even less to keep that one a secret.”

A branch snapped on their right, uncomfortably close to their position.

They each turned and pointed their lights in the direction from where it came quickly, but saw nothing else but an endless sea of twisted, gnarled branches and bushes.

Nothing moved.

After a few seconds, Curtis broke the nerve-racking silence, “Maybe we shouldn’t do this. This feels like we’re robbing a grave or something.”

Robert and Terry’s jaws opened wide as they looked at him incredulously and laughed. “Grave robbing? Are you fucking serious?” Robert asked. “How do you come up with this shit?”

Curtis asked, “Has anyone tried to go down here before?”

Terry said, “If somebody did, they didn’t do too good of a job while they were inside.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Because if someone did go down, they sure left a lot of envelopes down there.”

“There’s probably a good reason why no one’s been inside it,” Curtis said quietly.

Terry knew they were wasting time standing there like a bunch of scared girls. If they were going to pull this off, they’d have to get going. “Look, we can stand here and argue all night, or we can go down there and get rich.”

Terry’s eyes locked with Robert’s and prodded him, “What’s it gonna be?”

Robert answered for himself and Curtis, “Let’s make some money, boys.”

Terry said, “Follow me.” The thick tangled woods seemed to reach out and stab at their flesh, pulling at their clothing as they walked until they finally arrived at a clearing where a tiny flag was planted firmly in the ground near its center.

The opening to the Vault was barely noticeable in the daylight and just about invisible at night; it would have been impossible to find if Terry hadn’t marked it the day before with a stick and rag. “This is it,” Terry said as he panned his light across the four-foot gash in the earth he’d covered with some branches from a nearby bush. “Through here is the Vault. And through this opening is our money,” he said pointing to the three of them.

Curtis aimed his beam on the opening and asked, “We go in through here?”

Robert reached over and grabbed a handful of Curtis’ pudgy stomach and said, “Yeah, so suck it in, fat boy.”

* * * * *

Terry was first to make his way through the tiny opening followed closely by Curtis and finally, Robert. Once inside, they each carefully negotiated the narrow, crooked path that took them further into the dark depths of the earth. The jagged walkway angled downward steeply as it went directly to the heart of the Vault. At its end, the narrow footpath opened into a large cavern that was at least a hundred feet high and as wide as a football field. The only light inside came from three flashlights that scoured the area in jerky movements as they acquainted the newcomers to their new dark, underground world.

“Jesus Christ,” Robert said with his head angled toward the ceiling of the cave, visibly impressed with its size. The words he spoke echoed hauntingly throughout the hollow chamber before fading and dying.

Curtis’ mind struggled to calculate the depth of the Vault, but he couldn’t see far enough to find a starting point to measure from. “I still can’t believe this place really exists, and that you weren’t lying your ass off, Terry. How long has it been here?”

Terry was busy undoing the straps on his backpack getting it ready for their haul. “Grandma said it was here when she was a kid.”

That long?” Robert asked, impressed, still staring into its dark vastness.

Curtis pointed his flashlight to the floor at his feet and yelled excitedly, “Check it out, guys.”

Terry and Robert looked where he shined his light and saw what caused his excitement right away: four envelopes, similar to the one Terry showed them yesterday, each half-buried in a mixture of dirt and dust. Curtis picked them up off the ground, using his fingers to brush away the accumulated grime. He started to squeeze them and announced with the excitement of a small child, ‘“There’s four of ’em, and one of them feels pretty thick.”

“Open it,” Robert said in an equally excited tone. It was true!

“Whoa! Whoa! Not yet, Curtis.” Terry jumped to his feet and grabbed Curtis’ wrist to stop him from tearing the first envelope open.

“What are you doing, Ter?” Curtis asked with a confused look on his sweaty, dirt-smeared face.

“Yeah, what’s the deal?” Robert asked.

The look on Terry’s face revealed an unseen level to Terry’s master plan; it would seem that a rather important detail had been purposely omitted from his story. Information Terry felt he had to hold back in order to get them to follow him into the Vault. “This is where the story of the Vault gets a little strange,” he started to explain.

Angered he and his brother might have been conned, Robert pointed his light directly into Terry’s face and asked him, “What the hell’s going on, Terry?”

“Are you saying we can’t take any of these with us?” Curtis asked as he shook the four envelopes. “What’s the point to us even being down here then?”

Terry pushed the tip of Robert’s flashlight away to get its light from his face and answered, “Of course we can take ’em. We just can’t open them while we’re down here.” Terry bent down and grabbed two envelopes by his feet and stuffed them in his backpack to show them it was all right to do so. “Grab as many as you can and get them into your bag, just don’t open any of them until we’re outside.” He stopped and made sure what he said was understood by the both of them, “Do not open them inside the Vault.”

Relieved that the trip wasn’t a waste of time, Curtis jammed the four envelopes in his bag and resumed his search for more.

Robert, on the other hand, wasn’t as easily appeased with Terry’s answer. “What’s the problem with opening the envelopes down here?” he asked as he started to fill his own bag. “What would happen?”

He had barely moved from a ten-foot radius, and Terry’s backpack was almost half full. He stopped and looked around the floor of the Vault and saw it was still covered in a sea of white and yellow envelopes. At this rate, it would take at least fifty trips for the three of them to make a dent in the bottom of the Vault. “If we open any of the envelopes down here, Grandma said the secret it was paid to keep will take shape and try to stop us.”

Robert stopped collecting envelopes and shoved his open hand hard against Terry’s chest to prevent him from moving away. “Are you saying there’s something down here that’s going to try and stop us from taking this money out of here?”

Terry panicked. Grandma’s plan was starting to spin out of control, so in order to get things back on track, Terry lied, “Grandma’s kind of losing it, dude. Who knows what she actually meant. I think it was her way of ensuring we’d all get an even amount.”

When Grandma had told Terry the story about the Vault, she made sure to warn her favorite grandson about what lived in the Vault before he came down for a look. She’d seen them with much younger eyes after discovering the entryway to the Vault when she was sixteen.

Terry had seen them last night. If it wasn’t for Grandma telling him about them, he would have lost his mind out of fear.

As he stood there conducting damage control, he could feel their cold eyes staring at them from the shadows. They’d been with them, stalking them silently since they entered. What Terry knew and what Robert and Curtis had no idea about was that these things were harmless as long as you played by the rules and didn’t mess with their payments for silence.

Curtis moved on all fours along the floor, mindlessly collecting envelope after envelope at a feverish rate as Terry and Robert talked twenty yards away. He reached for a rather fat-looking envelope wedged between two rocks and saw something that made his gum line tingle.

Curtis brought his flashlight up slowly and stopped it when it shined across a mysterious, dark figure that stared back at him with reflective, cat-like eyes a mere ten feet away.

Curtis slowly stood to his feet keeping his light on the dark figure in front of him as it angled its black head to study Curtis’ movements with silent, hungry interest. “Guys?”

Robert heard his little brother, but paid no attention. He had his eyes on something a bit more important: shadowy things with human-like bodies and the heads of giant cats that moved quickly, effortlessly through the dark behind him and Terry. Each dark figure moved at an almost impossible speed; almost impossible to track if you blinked your eyes.

Robert stood petrified, unable to move. His mouth hung wide open as he watched four vapory, dark figures scurry about, darting back and forth through stalagmites as each moved in for a closer inspection of their uninvited guests. It was only when one of them stopped long enough to stare back at him did Robert get a look at the reflective eyes and black wisps of gaseous vapor that licked upward from their bodies like flames from a black fire.

Terry didn’t have to turn around to see what Robert was looking at. He saw the fear in Robert’s eyes and asked, “They’re right behind me, huh?”

Robert nodded silently as he subconsciously counted the seemingly never-ending pairs of silvery eyes that stared back at the two of them through every dark recess of the Vault. “Hey, guys?” Curtis called out a second time as he slowly made his way toward Robert and Terry, unaware that the thing he was keeping his eyes on had lots and lots of friends.

“What the fuck are they?” Robert whispered.

Terry answered Robert loud enough for Curtis to hear him, too; “Do not open any envelopes. Just be cool and they won’t do anything to us. They can’t do anything to us.”

Robert pulled Terry slowly by the front of his shirt and brought him face-to-face with him and spoke through clenched teeth, “You knew about these things and didn’t say anything?”

Terry gestured with his eyes that he had everything under control and for Robert not to do anything stupid to upset the creatures. “You have to trust me on this one, Robert. They’re harmless as long as you do as I say.” He turned his head to the side and yelled, “You got that bag full yet, Curtis?”

“Forget the bag, man. I want to get out of here.” From the sound of his voice, Curtis was on the verge of tears.

“Nice and easy,” Terry instructed. “And bring that bag with you.”

“Yeah, I got it.”

Robert asked, “How are we gonna get out of here with all of these things around?”

Terry gave Robert that famous shit-eating grin he’d hated ever since they’d first met and said, “They’re the reason we can’t open the envelopes down here.” Curtis sidled up to them and dropped his bag at Terry’s feet. Terry calmly bent over and grabbed it in the same hand he held his. “If we break their rules, those dark bastards there become the secrets the Vault’s been paid to keep.”

“So, can I assume you have a plan for us to get out of here in one piece?” Robert asked.

Terry reached behind his back with his free hand and revealed a shiny .45 automatic he had tucked away in the small of his back and held it at waist level to cover the two of them. “You’re gonna shoot ’em?” Curtis asked with his eyes glued to the weapon pointed directly at him and Robert.

It was at that moment when Robert had his moment of clarity and realized he and his brother had just been sucker-punched once again by Terry Huck.

It seemed there were now three things in life that were certain: death, taxes and when the chips were down, you could never trust a lying asshole named Terry Huck.

Robert answered his brother as his eyes stared ahead at Terry with burning hatred, “No, genius, our friend here is gonna rip us off and take the cash for himself.”

Curtis’ eyes widened as his mouth opened to form a giant O. “You said if we took their money, they’d try and stop us.”

“Another small detail Grandma told me about that I kept from you two idiots.” He hugged the bags of cash against his chest like a father hugging his child and said, “Think of it as a supernatural loophole of sorts.”

Robert’s fists clenched into two tight balls at his side and said, “Terry, you piece of shit.”

“Grandma said if I was to keep the money I took from the Vault, I’d have to make a sufficient offering to it. Once I did that, I could take the cash without fear of retribution. Since this here’s a shitload of cash,” he raised the three bags to show them, “I’m sacrificing you two losers to make sure it’s more than enough to cover my withdrawal.”

“What about the envelope you grabbed last night? What did you sacrifice for that one?” Curtis asked, coming to the realization that he and his brother were living out the last moments of a wasted life.

Before Terry could answer Curtis, Robert made a quick move, but was stopped almost as quickly as he’d made it when Terry jammed the silver barrel of the .45 between his eyes.

“Not so fast, hero.”

“You’re fucking dead when I see your worthless ass again,” Robert promised.

“You’ll never see my worthless ass again, Bobby-boy,” Terry said as he backed slowly toward the path that led to the exit of the Vault. Terry looked behind Robert and Curtis as he moved and saw even more dark figures step out from the shadows and drop from the jagged ceiling above as they moved in to surround them.

There were hundreds of them now. Hundreds of deadly little secrets come to life.

Before he rounded the corner, Terry patted the backpacks and yelled, “Thanks for your help, boys.”

He turned away just as a high-pitched yelp filled his ears as the first wave of dark secrets descended on Curtis. Robert remained silent. The last thing he wanted was to give Terry the satisfaction of hearing him scream as they tore his now-blubbering brother to ribbons with their sharp claws and shiny black teeth. A warm mist of slick wetness shot against Robert’s face and arms as the Vault’s secrets made short work of Curtis.

A few seconds later, Robert became just another bloody chapter in the Vault’s deadly history.

* * * * *

Terry drove at breakneck speeds along the narrow dirt road, putting as much distance between himself and the soulless things that slaughtered Robert and Curtis in the Vault under St. Katherine’s Church.

The well-travelled tires of the Chevy GTO were barely able to keep hold as the car’s back end slalomed through the twists and turns of the dirt road on his way back toward Grandma. He took his eyes from the road only to look at the three bags of money that sat on the seat next to him to reassure him that this was all real. He couldn’t wait to show Grandma just how well her plan had worked.

They were rich.

What about the envelope you grabbed last night? Curtis’s voice echoed in his head as he drove. What did you sacrifice for that one?

He eased off the gas a bit as his mind raced to think. What about it?

He would have to ask Grandma when he got to her house. Grandma had all the answers.

In just under twenty minutes, about the time it would take Terry to drive to Grandma’s house, he would learn, much to his horror, that Grandma’s days of advice and storytelling were officially at an end; stopped brutally by the hands of a mammoth six-foot-five, two hundred-eighty pound beast that made short work of her when he appeared in her house from nowhere.

This horrific demon sat patiently in Grandma’s darkened living room waiting for Terry to arrive to make him pay dearly for violating the Vault’s simple rule: you pay for what you take.

His bare, inhuman hands had removed Grandma’s gray-haired head from her shoulders with no more effort than it took a farmer to shuck an ear of corn: Dante was prepared to do the same thing to Terry when he met him. Terry, the man who’d released his wife Amy’s dark secret late last night.

His mysterious disappearance ten years ago was officially over. Dante Taylor had come home.

 

Copse of Elms

by Benjamin Kane Ethridge

 

So he stood there and saw the mark and at once had a feeling there was something more. The texture around the design was different but the grain was too familiar to dismiss. His hands had roved there before, and many times at that. But something else whispered for him to look on and next his eyes moved inside the hole. That was when two things happened. First, he remembered what had occurred that day, and second, he at last understood what it meant.

It was one of those days that were caught on the cusp of winter and spring. The nights could be cold or they could be mild, so they dressed light and brought heavy jackets and extra blankets. They made plans to sleep at the base of a rather ugly looking foothill where a peculiar copse of elms grew in a ragged star formation.

They had visited the copse several times on other hikes. It was a secret place for the two lovers and they always dined hungrily on its mystery. They would count the myriad of items which had found their way to the highest points of the branches, and they would stare for hours at the oddity. In the clutching fingers of wood were purses, hats, toy tractors, women’s and men’s underwear, backpacks and hundreds of pairs of shoes. The sight of these stranded items alarmed the two lovers but also fascinated them.

He remembered then, before they made love that night, stretching out on their plaid blanket and staring into the confusion high overhead. She had spooned herself beside him and said nothing. The sound of her happily chewing on wild berries was joined only by the hastening wind through the leaves. He wondered if this would be their last time here. She had been unfaithful to him, of this he was positive, but somehow in the moment that didn’t matter.

She reached around him and held out a handful of berries. He shook his head. There was no way he was eating something growing out here. He wasn’t that adventurous, nor did he love the possibility of the most outstanding diarrhea it might give him. But he let her enjoy them. And why not? Every time they had come to the copse she wanted to try the purple berries and every time he had told her no. Today he didn’t have that command of her; not any longer; it was unsaid between them but this time in the copse they were different people. This time, the only thing left between them was a brief physical encounter, and he would enjoy it as much as possible.

“I do have something to tell you,” she said.

“You do?”

They were both lying on their sides, staring at each other. He could smell the berry sweetness emanating from the dark velvet hollow of her opened mouth.

“I know after I tell you, we won’t be together anymore.” Her eyes became placid. He thought of all the men he’d ever seen her speak to and tried to guess who it might be. Who else had been inside her besides him?

“How do you know for sure?” he asked.

“I know,” she replied. “But I also know that I want you, even if it’s for this last time. All I ask is you clear your head and not think about it. Just take me and have me, for as long as you can. We’ll be together for tonight and then in the morning, I’ll tell you.”

“I don’t know if I can wait that long.”

“Do it for me,” she said and took his hand. “Please.”

He let his arousal get the better of him and he answered her by unbuttoning his jeans. She pulled down her pink satin panties and in the rush, left them hanging from an ankle. Her skirt went up—his pants went down. He glanced down at the heart tattoo on the slope of her pelvis and sadness gripped him; this would be the last time he saw the tattoo (it would be his no longer). No matter, no matter anymore.

Within a few burning kisses they were making love for the first and last time in the copse of elms that had caught their imagination. They rolled off their blanket into the coarse flooring of bark, dried leaves and dirt. He wanted it to last forever but the feeling was too superb. He was getting closer. Almost there. Peaking.

But the punctuation of his joy was different than he anticipated. There was a shot of pain and every particle of pleasure left him in a riot-like fashion. He gasped and withdrew, a hand going down between his legs.

“What’s the matter?” Fear was paramount in her dark eyes.

“Something stabbed me,” he said, felt there again and cried. “Damnit, it stings! Must have been something on the ground.”

“What was it?”

He shook his head and probed his genitals in a manner that was scholarly and desperate. His finger caught the corner of something sharp and he grimaced.

“A splinter.” He slid the spike of wood out.

“Really?” she remarked.

He looked at it for a moment but it was pretty normal looking as splinters went, so he flicked it aside.

“Can you still go?” she asked with a needy look.

Reality had seized him and he couldn’t understand why he’d given in to her in the first place. “No, it hurts.”

She looked at him in disbelief and sighed. “Maybe in the morning.” Her head fell back against the ground.

In subtle layers of time, they both dressed themselves and watched as night fell. Gradually they returned to the plaid blanket and looked up through the mysteriously decorated trees, him silent in thought and her devouring more berries. The pools of sky between the branches were overflowing with silver stars.

He went in and out of sleep. The first time he awoke, he noticed she was gone. He looked around and saw her standing over him.

“What’s going on?”

“My back hurt. I’m just stretching it out.”

“Oh.”

He went back to sleep…

…and awoke again, hours later. She was still standing there.

“Your back’s not better?”

“No,” she replied from the bowels of the dark wilderness. “And my skin’s getting dry. Do you have any of that vanilla lotion in your pack?”

“Nope,” he said, a little sadistically. After all, she was screwing around on him. Let that not be forgotten. “Are you going to lie back down?”

“In a little bit,” she answered.

He rested his head back on the blanket and closed his eyes. This time he was completely drowned by exhaustion and didn’t awaken until the morning chill got the best of him.

He glanced over at his side, but she was absent. He looked around their little campsite, but she was nowhere. He looked manically outside the copse, but she was still missing. He went back to their blanket and saw only the leaning giants above.

Trees. That was all he could see. Trees.

The elm nearest to where they lay ruffled its branches through the morning gale. He shuddered when he saw what hung there at the top, too high for human hands to grope. Spiked through one branch, torn several ways and completely desecrated, were her pink satin panties. Below this her skirt was snug around the base of a great branch. The skirt fit around as though its circumference had been made especially for this arm of wood. Behind the tree, shreds of other fabric littered the ground like some kind of celebration had taken place.

He backed away, horrified, and then, without another thought, left everything behind and ran. Later he would recall the inquisitive police and the subtle detectives that geared their case toward him. But they knew little less than he did and it would remain that way.

None of what happened after made a difference anyway. It was a year later and he found himself back in the copse. He had come for closure but hadn’t really anticipated getting any. Especially not like this.

He gravitated to the tree where her clothes had curiously ended up. The police had taken all the items out of the trees, but he knew which elm was hers.

This was how he found the large knothole in the back of the tree and just above it, the blurred image of a heart blended into the wooden skin. The tattoo was clear and apparent. This was no cruel joke or false hope. There was no human forgery that could mimic the bends and swoops of a design he’d cherished for so long. It wasn’t a copy. Though it was part of the tree, it was the same tattoo he’d caressed for countless nights.

And so that meant that this tree…

He touched the tattoo once more and put his head against the trunk. The branches rustled overhead and several crisp leaves pendulumed down. Tears rolled into his eyes. He traced his fingers from the design, which had once been on her pelvis, and found the rim of the knothole directly beneath. Something sparkled inside the knothole and his tears dried up immediately. He peered within and felt nausea crash down.

It was only the size of a softball and its human face was turned as though to look out. From its navel in the bulb-shaped stomach was a thin vine that snaked around and ultimately disappeared into the darkness of the hole. The face was malformed and wooden, a marionette creature that looked partly like him and partly like she once had. The two retinas of glossy amber sap stared into him with a glittery hatred he’d never known possible.

There was no sound in the copse at that moment. But a word did play on the wind and it filled his mind with doubt and terror and abomination. He was not going mad. He would wager anything that he heard it loud and clear. His ears crackled at its sound, for it was assuredly on the ghostly tongue of every tree that had gathered there to watch him and enjoy.

Father.

 

It Always Comes Home

by Charis Himeda

 

Simon had never heard the story about the man who went out walking one day and met the Devil, but even if he had, it would have been the furthest thing from his mind today. The mindless eternity of summer vacation had dawned clear and blue, sweet as fireweed honey. Simon had taken one look at the leagues of sky outside his tattered curtains, one breath of the sun-warm, grass-scented air, and felt an unfamiliar stirring of hope somewhere in his chest. Maybe he could drown himself in sights and sounds and smells today—enough to forget what he couldn’t forget sitting in Mrs. Langford’s seventh-grade class waiting for the bell to ring.

He dressed quickly, nervously, as if he were keeping someone waiting, then hurried down the narrow hallway to the kitchen. Had the house always been this dark? He supposed it had—since they’d moved up here (to the healing climate of the Pacific Northwest) it had been a house of sickness, and then a house of bereavement. He stared for a moment at the shrouded windows, golden with sunlight that refused to enter. “Dad!” he called, his eyes still fixed on the beckoning daylight, his mind fixed on the hope, trying to make it grow. “I’m going fishing!” He waited impatiently in the silence, then remembered that summer vacation wasn’t a luxury most adults could afford, at least not ones with kids to feed. Snorting at the injustice of his father’s plight, Simon headed out into the sun.

He got his pole and tackle box from the woodshed, then noticed his stash of chewing gum and Sugar Lips and grabbed those too. Walking to the edge of Suquamish Lake, slurping the nectar from a honeysuckle stem, he suddenly felt good—honest-to-God good—for the first time in months. His heart pounced on the feeling and sent a vision of glory to his head before anything else could intrude: his dad pausing in the act of doctoring Chef Boyardee as Simon came striding through the door with a bucket of lake trout—one for each of them! Grinning at the thought of a fish big enough to feed his dad, he splashed through the marshy reeds to where the boat was moored, and minutes later he was adrift.

The lake was still as painted glass under the early morning sky, and utterly isolated. He rowed out past the muck of weeds and lily pads into open water, breathing in the boundless summer air. Ahead of him, the lake glimmered undisturbed to the far shore, where it met sheer cliffs that climbed into stands of aspen and fir. To the east, the water ended in a slough, and to the west it stretched for miles, lapping around a little island off in the distance. Beyond that… well, he wasn’t really sure. He’d never been out as far as the island. Apart from the gentle splashing of his oars, the woods and lake were full of deep silence—the silence of living, ancient things untouched. Thrilling with anticipation, Simon headed west.

The island turned out to be much further away than he had thought. By the time he could make out individual trees in its dense foliage, he was hot and thirsty, his shirt was stuck to his back, and some of the glamour had gone out of the day. There weren’t any secret coves or inlets beyond, just an uninteresting coastline that curved into a bowl at the far western shore. It was just as well, though—he was tired of rowing, and in the cool depths below, breakfast was well underway. He circled the island until he found a place where the banks were steep and an old hemlock spread its willowy branches over the water. Secreted in this pocket of shadow, Simon set about baiting his pole.

By noon, his bucket held nothing more than a tangle of milfoil and a dragonfly that had nowhere else to be. It was clear that he was by far the hungriest thing in these parts, and he was starting to wish he’d brought something more substantial than Sugar Lips for lunch. He could settle for a quick fix—say, blackberries on the island. Hunting for berries wasn’t much of an adventure, but it was better than starving. He rowed into the shallows and dragged the boat ashore. Then he looked at his pole. There hadn’t been so much as a nibble all morning, but the thought of his dad’s face—its bitter lines creasing into a smile, his tired eyes lighting up at the sight of the fish—was still strong in his mind. Simon tossed his bedraggled worm aside and got to work uncrimping the line. He found a good spot to cast out and anchored the pole between a brace of boulders. Satisfied, he turned to the daunting task of finding food.

The island was like so many that lie in mountain lakes—a narrow stretch of rocky beach snaking around an impenetrable fortress of trees and bushes. Every time Simon tried to beat his way through the undergrowth, he was forced to retreat again. Rubbing at his scratches, he looked dolefully at a bush chock-full of berries so red and glowing they almost had to be poisonous. And speaking of poison, he ought to have more sense than to go blundering through the woods like this… Stepping back in disgust from a tangle of three-leaved branches, Simon decided he’d had enough. Fish or no fish, it was time to call it a day. There was bologna in the fridge, and if he hurried, really high-tailed it, he might be in time to watch Bonanza. Thus inspired, the boy made his way around the curve of the beach to where his boat was banked—and stopped short at the sight of his pole tip jerking up and down.

What he felt first, before the surprise and the excitement, was a kind of doubt. It seemed too good to be true—a fish for dinner, after all? Then he was stumbling over the rocks on the beach and yanking at his pole, sure that he’d lose it, he should have stayed here the whole time, what an idiot he was. He tried to bring it in smoothly, but surely this was the biggest damn trout he’d ever snagged! Simon braced his feet and put all his might into holding the pole steady with his left hand while he cranked the reel around with his right. The pole jumped and jerked like something possessed; he felt electric jolts of pain in his wrist and a sick shakiness in his stomach. This wouldn’t be the first fish that had played him for a fool—stringing him along until the last moment when he drew up an empty hook—but still he fought to avoid being dragged into the lake. There were the weights, finally! Where was the net? Had he forgotten the blasted net? Oh, the hell with it! With a last wrench on the reel and a tremendous upward surge, he threw his catch out from the deep. Something flashed in the midday sun, then landed with a thud on the shore. Breathless, Simon leaned over it. And then he stumbled backwards, uttering a little cry of loathing.

The thing which lay thrashing near his feet could hardly be called a fish. It was black and muddy-slick, like a catfish, but where its fins should have been were clusters of white squirmy things like maggots. These writhed and gyrated in a way that made Simon’s gorge rise. Its mouth was a gaping hole full of long, misshapen teeth. The thing seemed to be drooling blood, then Simon realized that the tissue lining this orifice had grown out over the sides in red bulges and tatters of flesh. But worst of all were its eyes—they were albino pink, and as the pupils fixed on him, the thing seemed to grin. It was as big as a cat.

All thought vanished as he stared at the horror he had caught. Somewhere, his brain still registered the feel of sunlight warm on his skin and the dull clank of the oars against their moorings… but these things were faraway, unimportant, dreamlike. What was real was the monster in front of him. He watched, fascinated, as it struggled to right itself, flopping wetly on the ground like a cancerous liver, never taking its gaze from him. With a final twist, the creature landed on its belly and scuttled towards him, maggot-fins scrabbling in the mud.

Simon yelled and lunged backwards, cursing as he tripped over his own feet. He had to kill it—how could he kill it? Dear Jesus, it was almost touching him! He struggled upright and scurried away, looking around desperately for a weapon. He tried to get some distance on his adversary, then reached down and grabbed up a chunk of rock. The thing hesitated for a moment, then it charged him, pale eyes gleaming. Simon waited until the devil-fish was almost at his feet, then he threw the rock as hard as he could.

It wasn’t his best shot, but it was good enough. Simon’s rock caught the back end of the creature, pinning it to the ground. The thing screamed—a wet, choking sound. Simon fancied he could hear hundreds of smaller screams—the sound of all those wormy things being crushed to death. After what seemed an eternity, the noises stopped. Blood and some kind of greenish pus seeped out in thick tendrils. Cautiously, Simon stepped around to have a look. The wretched thing was still alive… and there was no mistaking the hateful intelligence in its regard. As much as he wanted to see it destroyed, pulverized into library paste, he found he had no more stomach for this business. Trembling, sick to his bones, he edged his way back to the boat, noticing with a kind of awe the shining track of line dragged out over the sand. Even as he was rowing home, muscles grumbling in protest, the sweat cold on his face, he could still feel it watching him.

He expected to have nightmares that night, but instead he dreamed about his mother. They were sitting on the porch of their old house in New Orleans, and Simon was young, very young. His mother was young, too—her face was tanned and glowing, and no shadows darkened her eyes. In his dream the trees beyond their straggly bit of lawn were impossibly tall, ascending to the stained-glass sky like twisted pillars. Their roots ran deep into the earth, and Simon could hear them rumbling, a sound like brittle leaves and bones being crushed beneath his feet. The warm, buttery scent of fried eggs and the darker aroma of coffee still lingered in the air.

His mother smiled at him and leaned back on her hands.

“What do you want to do today, Simon? Want to go exploring? Want to learn to fly?”

He said nothing, content to sit and watch her face as it had been, serene and sorrowless. She laughed for no apparent reason, then picked him up and swung him down the steps, whirling around and around to land him in a basket of laundry. From the stale smell of dirt and old sweat, it wasn’t clean laundry, but Simon didn’t mind. His mother tickled him, still smiling, and then something else caught her attention. She looked past him and the sun shone flat and merciless on the planes of her face, momentarily stripping the flesh from her bones. Her eyes caught the light and flamed green. He shrunk back from the sudden look of naked greed on her face. She drew up her hands and hurried away from him.

When she returned, her fingertips were red with dirt, and patches of dirt clung to the strands of hair around her neck. Puzzled, he stared at her. She smiled back as before, but as she reached down to pick up the laundry basket, something fell from the neck of her blouse and hung dangling in the air, something bright as the sun and dark as the shadows in the woods. He—

—woke up in the darkness of his room, alert to the sense of danger near at hand. His breathing sounded harsh in the silence that clung to the shadows on the walls and the deeper shadows of his closet and curtained windows. He tried to relax, but all he could see when he closed his eyes was the image of the thing around his mother’s neck—a tiny circle of gold rimmed with darkness. It blazed on the backdrop of his eyelids like an ancient sun. He didn’t fall asleep again until the dawn had passed.

* * * * *

It was Saturday morning before he worked up the courage to ask if his mother had ever owned any jewelry.

Joseph Kimball looked up from his bowl of cereal and frowned at his son. He didn’t like talking about Elizabeth, and what difference did it make if she’d owned jewelry or not? But something in Simon’s face, white and peaked, suggested that it did matter, at least to him.

“She had a few things I gave her when we were courting,” he replied, looking around as if he’d misplaced something.

Simon was silent for a while, and Joseph had gotten up to put the milk away before the boy spoke again.

“Did she have… anything you didn’t give her?”

He closed the door of the fridge and turned to Simon with a dangerously neutral expression on his face.

“What exactly are you suggesting?” he asked quietly.

“Nothing!” Simon said. “But I dreamed about her last night—” and as his voice caught, he rushed on, “—and she was wearing something I’d never seen before, like a little gold medallion. I was just wondering if she really had it.”

An odd look came over his father’s face.

“She did have something like that,” he replied. “I think she found it in the woods outside our old house. But you must have seen it before—she wore it all the time.”

“What happened to it?”

“I don’t know. I guess she stopped wearing it at some point. After she got sick… I doubt she felt much like wearing trinkets.” He looked so sad that Simon was almost sorry he’d brought it up. “I’ll be out in the garage,” he said finally, resting a hand on his son’s shoulder. “Got those cabinets to finish up.”

* * * * *

Simon sat on the smooth, sturdy planks with his arms around his knees, hearing, but not hearing the wind rustle the leaves of his sanctuary, seeing, but not seeing the gleam of the lake beyond. Since his bizarre fishing trip, the world had changed, grown wobbly somehow. It was as if a hole in the universe had opened up and everything he took for certain was poised at the edge, ready to slide into it like jelly. Still, this tree house was the best and safest place he knew. He could stay here as long as it took to work things out.

So his mother had found a strange medallion in the woods and some time after that she had gotten sick, with a slow, wasting sickness that had left her skeletal and bedridden. A boy older than Simon might not have connected those two events (what kind of sense did that make, really?), but then, no one else had seen that medallion the way he had. And the sight of it in his dream—bright as the light before a storm, rimmed and shot through with darkness—had filled him with the powerful certainty that it was the root of his mother’s illness. But what had she done with it? And why was it so important that he find out?

Maybe it had scared her and she had tried to get rid of it. If that was true, the medallion could be anywhere, lost in the swamps of Louisiana. Is that right, Mom? he asked silently. Did you bury it somewhere, or throw it away?

He stretched out on the floor of the tree house and stared at the wide patch of sky through the branches. Sleepless nights and sleepless days, he thought with a cynicism beyond his years. Maybe he was going crazy, imagining things. It had been over a month since his mother had died, six since they had moved up here. He wondered how much sleep he had missed. If only he had a friend to talk to… but no one lived out here on the lake. Listening to the sound of his dad’s chainsaw in the thin air, Simon began to doze.

He was lying in bed, and the pain in his gut was maddening, overwhelming. His hands groped for the sheets, balling and twisting them into sweaty knots; his mouth sought the pillow, trying to muffle the screams even as they erupted. On his chest, It burned like a brand, as it always did when the pain was worst. Damn that he’d ever picked it up!

When the feelings of disembowelment began to subside, he forced himself to think about the Question. The Question of what to do with the accursed thing. It couldn’t be smashed, melted, blown up, or incinerated. It couldn’t be buried deep enough or tossed into any ocean wide enough that it wouldn’t be found again. Because the bloody thing wanted to be found. And evil had a way of coming back home. If Simon or Joseph were to find It…

Suddenly the answer was clear, and he nearly laughed out loud. There was one sure way to strike It from the face of the earth. Suddenly exultant, flushed with triumph, he unclasped the chain from around his neck and drew off the medallion. It burned in his hands like a torch. And then—

Simon sat up with a start. He grabbed the branches nearest him and squeezed them until his knuckles were white.

“She swallowed it,” he muttered, hearing the crowd of leaves above him shiver in agreement. “She swallowed it so no one would ever find it!”

But still the feeling of unease persisted.

“But what?” he asked himself. “She wasn’t eating anymore, not that near the end… so it must’ve stayed lodged in her gut until she died. And afterwards…” But they hadn’t buried her, had they? No… his dad had wanted her cremated. And they had scattered her ashes over Suquamish Lake. Had the little medallion gone into the lake with the ashes? Simon thought that it might have.

And where’s it at now? he wondered, feeling suddenly cold. Oh, don’t be stupid… I think you have a pretty good idea where it’s at. But there was only one way to be sure.

* * * * *

By the time he got to the island, it was mid-afternoon. The sun was still hot on the water, but there was an ominous cast to the day, a sense of approaching thunder that he chalked up to his own inner turmoil. He glided into the same stretch of shore, then pulled his dad’s belt knife from its sheath.

It didn’t take long to find what he was looking for. The rock—his rock—with an unquestionably dead and rotting fish beneath it. Seeing it again, he felt a sudden, unexpected surge of relief. The fish didn’t look nearly as bad as it had before. Oh, sure, it was a big, ugly bottom feeder enveloped in a cloud of stink, but no more. He pushed the rock aside with his foot. Yep, just a big, black fish, half-pulverized. Simon hesitated, suddenly doubting the point of this expedition. God knew he hadn’t been sleeping well lately… could he have imagined the whole incident? He stared hard at the decimated corpse, trying to see it in all its sinister glory. Why was it so hard to remember? Probably because his overwrought mind had embellished on the details. His dreams were a little harder to rationalize, but, well… dreams were strange things. Sometimes you remembered things you had forgotten, and sometimes you saw things from another person’s point of view. Dreams could be creepy, but they weren’t real.

Stop beating around the bush, he told himself. You’re afraid to look for it.

No! There’s nothing to look for! This whole thing is ridiculous. Your mom is dead and you’d better get used to it.

There’s more to it than that, and you know it!

Even if there was, what could you possibly do? She tried everything under the sun, she even took it with her to the grave! And still, you managed to catch the one fish—

Simon stood stock-still, wrestling with his doubt on one hand and his fear on the other. Finally, the knife in his hand decided him. It was big and sharp, and most important… it was here.

He crouched down and picked up the dead fish, stifling his revulsion. Then he pierced its throat and sliced down the length of its belly. He scooped out the warm innards and threw them onto the sand. And suddenly there it was, shining amongst the bloody entrails—perfectly round, no bigger than a coin—dark as sin, and yet bright, so bright…

He had fallen to his knees in front of it, and now he knew how his mother must have felt, how she must have loved this thing from the first moment she had glimpsed it. It was old as the hills, old as the stars, and time had brightened and hardened it the way it made diamonds and sandstone. The blaze of sun on the Pyramids was in its heart, the glow of moonlight on ancient seas. The love of every mortal who had ever seen it lapped around it like a desperate tide. His mother had been crazy to try to destroy such a thing—how could you destroy something that had outlived all the kings and priests who fought to possess it, something that would outlast Time itself? And who would want to? This Thing was the source of all battle, all conflict, all desire. It was the red-handed messenger, the Face that Launched a Thousand Ships, the grail that could never be held. He wanted to worship it forever. He wanted to lay sacrifice to it. And like a jealous god, the Thing cried out for blood.

Whimpering, Simon reached for it, to wipe the streaks of unworthy fish blood from its precious face. Clean me, the Thing whispered to him. Clean me, and then… anoint me again.

“Yes,” he muttered, but still his hands fell short of touching it. He wanted to—oh, how he wanted to—but it was like trying to touch the sun.

Your mother wasn’t strong enough to wield me, the Thing told him. But I think you are.

“Yes,” he whispered. “Yes, I’ll do my best.” But the mention of his mother brought back her face in his dream—greedy and gaunt, her eyes like twin lanterns with serpents in their hearts. Was that how he looked, seeing it for the first time?

Destroy it, his mother said. Simon, you must.

How? he asked idly, reaching for it once more.

You can start by not touching it!

His hands, hovering over the medallion, trembling in its seductive glow.

Claim me, the Thing commanded. Live and die for me.

I did that! his mother screamed. I did that so you could live! For the love of God, Simon, don’t be a fool!

His mother’s face in his mind, all the flesh wasted away, all her love concentrated in her eyes, and now they flashed lightning at him. God, how he loved her! He could never have disappointed her in life, never. The medallion waited, cool and bright, complacent in its supremacy.

You have to put an end to it,his mother said, once and for all.

How? he screamed.

Deny it, she said.

Still the Thing held him entranced. Here on this obscure little island lay the brightness of a thousand suns, the darkness of a man’s own soul. What wisdom it possessed! What wisdom it would share with him, if he was only strong enough to claim it!

Deny it, his mother whispered, and then she said no more.

The medallion was also silent, having no need of persuasion. Everything it was spoke for it in a thousand compelling voices.

Simon tried to look away, but what was the use? This Thing was the Truth. It was a Truth so great it flooded his mind, driving out all the irrelevant half-truths that used to live there. He had never been so illuminated. And yet—and yet—

Your mother is dead, and that’s the truth, he thought. Yes, she was dead, but what did that mean? In the light of this Thing’s infinite regard, his mother’s death seemed like a small event indeed. Blood to christen it with, he thought. It’s always hungry. The medallion blazed with renewed vigor and Simon cried out. His hands were still poised inches over it, and he saw that his fingertips had begun to blister. Still, incredibly, he wanted—needed—to touch it. But it was his father’s voice in his mind that saved him.

Don’t you think this has gone on long enough? he said. Now are you gonna quit groveling in front of that thing or am I going to have to bury my son right after my wife? His dad’s face – tired, bitter, steadfast – suddenly filled his mind, driving out all the cosmic truths that had held him in their sway. His grip on eternity wavered.

Or maybe it’s you who’ll be burying me, his father went on, matter-of-fact. Simon saw him in their dusty garage, sanding down the newly built cabinets. His big, callused hands moved expertly over the wood, gentle as a lover. If that Thing is right, you’ll become a worse monster than the fish you caught. The face of the medallion lay imprinted on his father’s hands like a brand and he felt a surge of incredible anger as this truth hit home—and how could he have forgotten something so simple? This was a Thing of evil, and the fish it had possessed wore its true face.

I deny you, he told the Thing, as he raised himself to his feet. Deep in its heart, Something paused in incredulous disbelief.

I deny you, he said again, and watched as worlds stopped turning and a thousand stars imploded, winking out into darkness. The voices of countless lost souls rose in a howl like a great wind, and then disappeared. The medallion shone with a last unholy light. He felt a strange sense of loss as something immortal slipped away, leaving a cheap golden trinket behind. And then he turned his back on it and walked away. It was nearly dusk and his dad would be missing him.

 

Necrolepsy

by Joseph DeRepentigny

 

His description was easy. Pale skin, so pale it was almost transparent. Dark lips and blackened eyes like you would see in some zombie movie and hair badly in need of combing. Top it off with an odor like rotting potatoes and you had this man to a “T”.

Walking into the medical offices early in the morning, he saw no other patients. This was as he planned. He had grown tired of the stares and the children saying things like “what’s wrong with him Mommy?” Knocking on the glass, he got the attention of the twenty-something girl in charge of the appointment book. Her reaction was standard.

She gasped and stared for a second before regaining her composure. “Yes, may I help you?” she asked with a fake smile.

“My name in Larry Johnson. I have an appointment for 6:00 a.m.” Larry said in a hollow voice.

The young woman looked at the book and saw the name. It was annotated as self-insured. This meant fast money for the doctor’s office. No paperwork or long fights with his provider for pay out, this guy would pay that day with cash, check, or credit card.

Gushing not at him but the idea of a profitable day, she said. “Have a seat, sir, the doctor will be right with you.”

Larry figured the wait would be a minute or two. He was wrong, it was several seconds. The door opened and a man in a smock appeared.

“Mr. Johnson, please come in,” he said. Then he stared for a second and smiled. “I’m Dr. Baum.”

Ushering Larry into the first examination room he asked him to take a seat.

Opening the file he smiled and looked at Larry. “Mr. Johnson, you have been diagnosed with narcolepsy.”

Larry shook his head and said, “No, doctor, I have necrolepsy.”

“What? I thought that was a misspelling.” Dr. Baum said. He turned toward a nearby PC and typed in the word as it was spelled in the man’s records. The PC was on a website that maintained all known ailments. In a few seconds it came back with “definition not found.”

Turning back, he said, “I have no medical definition for any such disease.”

“Of course not. None of my previous doctors had the nerve to enter the affliction into your database,” Larry said smiling. “I was hoping you were different.”

Dr. Baum nodded, “What are the symptoms of this ailment?”

“Let me explain… Narcolepsy is a disease that has a number of symptoms. One of them is when the patient becomes nervous or shocked they become catatonic. Necrolepsy is similar. When I become agitated I die.” Larry said matter-of-factly.

Dr. Baum made a face. “What is this, a joke?”

“No, let me finish. I die for short periods, anywhere from five minutes to an hour. Then I self-resurrect.”

“Yeah, right. This is one of those hidden camera shows right?” the doctor said, looking around for a hidden camera.

“No, I’m serious. Doc, help me, the situation is embarrassing. I can’t remember how many times I’ve come back in the back of a coroner’s van or on a morgue slab. One time they were preparing to do an autopsy on me,” Larry said with tears in his eyes.

Dr. Baum saw the tears and thought that this guy was a good actor. He decided to do a standard interview for paperwork’s sake. No need in incurring the wrath of this guy’s lawyers. Just in case he was for real.

“Alright, sir. I’ll try to help.” Dr. Baum said smiling. “How often do your attacks occur?”

“Randomly, doc. Whenever I get angry or scared.”

“Do you feel anything when it is about to happen?”

“No sir, I just blank out. When I come back I am confused as to where I am.” Larry said calmly. “It’s like watching a bad video and it suddenly skips forward. One minute I’m here the next I’m somewhere else.”

Nodding, the doctor asked, “How old are you?”

Larry made a face. “Are you asking how long since I last died or how long since I was born?”

That was it as far as the doctor was concerned. This had to be a prank. “That should do for now, Mr. Johnson. Go to the receptionist and make an appointment with her for a full examination.”

After Mr. Johnson left the doctor said aloud, “Very funny guys.” He was certain his old frat brothers or some TV show was behind this gag. Whatever it was he was sure to be rid of Mr. Johnson after he saw the bill.

Then he heard a scream. Rushing out to the lobby, he saw Mr. Johnson lying on the floor clutching a piece of paper.

“What happened?” Dr. Baum asked.

“I heard these stories but I never believed them,” the receptionist said between tears.

“What?” Dr. Baum asked.

“He took one look at the bill and dropped dead.”

Fifteen minutes later a stretcher arrived to take the corpse to the morgue. Dr. Baum had issued the death certificate himself. As they were rolling it out a voice came from under the sheet: “Where am I?”

After all the confusion, Dr. Baum had his patient back in an exam room. He cancelled all his appointments and gave Mr. Johnson every exam he knew. When he was done, he asked his patient a simple question.

“What is it you want me to do? I can’t stop you from dying, everyone dies.”

“I know doc, I want you to stop me from coming back.”

 

House of Cats

by Joseph A. Fitzpatrick

 

After nine months and nine battles, there are only four of us left in the house. I had thought that after nine deaths, perhaps the whole thing would be over. There is the old adage that cats only have nine lives and I had hoped that that old wives’ wisdom would have ended this whole ordeal, but it’s October, I’ve slain nine cats thus far, and there are still three more running around the house. One for each of the remaining months of the year.

I should qualify my survival here. They’re cats until the last day of the month. Then one of them, and I never know which until the transformation begins, changes into a huge hulking death creature that attacks me and destroys the house. We fight, I try my damnedest to win, and in the morning the dead beast-cat is gone and somehow the house reconstructs itself leaving no signs of our melee.

I honestly don’t remember how I came to inhabit this house of cats. I was on trial for animal cruelty charges. There’s my dirty past. Dogfights. I got in with the wrong crowd and the money was too tempting. It’s an all-too-common formula that turns guys like me into statistics. You can’t like me now that you know my secret; especially if you’re an animal sympathizer. You’d probably root for the cats at the end of each month. Hell, at the end of nine months even I’ve begun rooting for them, but as long as there’s a blade in my hand and they continue to strike first, then I can’t help but defend myself.

The first few months were easy, me being about as far away from what you’d call a cat lover as a person can get. I used to toss strays off the roof of the woodshed to see if they’d all land on their feet. They all did, if you’re wondering. Oh, please, stow your judgement. I know what you’re thinking, but believe me, you’ll never be as hard on me as I’ve already been on myself. I said that the first few months were easy, but that was before I started naming them.

Spend a few months locked in a house with a tribe of cats and you’ll come to appreciate them. Their grace and natural athleticism; the playful curiosity that turns the simplest objects into toys; their enjoyment of a long nap and a sunbeam. Let a few curl up in your lap and you’ll fall in love. They’re the most sensual animals I’ve ever seen, and I’m including Jayne Gilson in this list. A girl I knew in high school and when I say knew I mean knew, in the Biblical sense, but I’m not going into details here because nine months of being forced to kill my friends has changed me.

Mr. Clean sits in the window licking the back of his front paw. Next, his head jerks up and down as he curls his tongue trying to clean his chest. He’s the most meticulous cleaner of them all. I catch him giving baths to the rest of the family all the time.

Snow Boots, named for his white paws, walks around wide-eyed and curious. He embodies that characteristic for me. Always looking slightly confused, he camps out in boxes and shopping bags and just about any nook or cranny in the house. I’ve learned more about the attic and closets in this place from looking for him than I ever would have just living here in the old style. But without a TV, or a radio, or even a single book, these critters have become my entertainment. I’ve begun to miss the others, even the ones that I didn’t know very well and the three I never named.

Silly Girl is the youngest. Only a kitten when I first arrived, she’s grown into a little lady. She gets tossed around by the two boys, but she can hold her own. She was one of the first to visit me. Originally, I tried to separate myself from the vermin. That’s what I used to call them—vermin. If the combatants of January, February, and March had names at all they were: Vermin, Stinking Vermin, and Why do you Vermin keep attacking me? All uttered while avoiding the newly elongated claws and fangs at the end of each month.

So, being the subject of unprovoked attacks once a month, I was naturally wary of the felines. I locked myself in one bedroom and kicked any cat that came within shoe distance when I needed to journey to the bathroom or kitchen. I told you I wasn’t a nice guy. It’s important to remember this detail.

But cats will win anybody over given enough time, and Silly Girl was the ambassador employing the diplomacy of big eyes, little squeaks, and the uncoordinated cuteness that just worms right through any defense. I don’t know how she did it, my own carelessness or something else, but Silly Girl found her way into my room one night and without a care in the world curled up right next to my head on the pillow and went to sleep. I had to admire her courage because my reputation with the rest of the pride at that time must have been pretty rotten. Scared the shit out of me when I woke up, though. I leapt out of bed screaming bloody murder. Had all intentions of murder too; tossing the little three-pounder splat against the wall, but I didn’t do it. She hardly even seemed to notice my flight from bed. Just opened an eye, yawned, rolled over on her back, and stretched out two tiny paws to me. I stuck out my finger and she took that finger between her paws, sort of nibbled on the end for a second, and then fell back to sleep.

It wasn’t an overnight reconciliation for me, but after Silly Girl’s first visit I held back my outlashings and began to observe these creatures. In turn, they observed me, and then they explored me, sniffing and rubbing, a light paw flex on my leg, even left gifts on my pillow: moths, mice, a small pool of vomit. They’re forgiving creatures; I’ll give them that. Their love isn’t unconditional, but their conditions aren’t unreasonable either.

It’s the end of October now. I’m sitting in my favorite recliner, the one with the fluff hanging out the back from where Fluff Boy scratched away the fabric. He attacked in August and left a long scar down the left side of my face. I have scars on my body from all of the beasts and mementos in the house from all of the cats. January, February, and March respectively took a bite out of my thigh, left three gashes on my back, and broke a toe. January used to tear up the carpet. February used to chew cardboard. March always slept in the sink.

In April, Yowler, nipped off the top of my right ear. The scratches on the bottom of the bathroom door are his. Simpson tore open my cheek in May. He drank water straight out of the faucet. Toby attacked in June swallowing two fingers from my left hand. He had been the largest, always knocking plates and glasses off the counters. Tabasco, a truly feisty minx, broke three of my rips at the end of July. She was the sun queen; chasing away all contenders from a warm spot. In September, Lady Jane surprised me with a wicked head wound. Left me in bed for a week, staring at the spot on the headboard where she used to lay and bat at the curtains.

Paints a pretty picture of me, doesn’t it? But you can’t feel sorry for me. Remember that. I was on trial for animal cruelty. I wouldn’t be able to walk down the street today without enduring a sea of pitied looks of disgust. I broke all the mirrors in the house so that I wouldn’t have to look at myself anymore. Silly Girl doesn’t care what I look like, however, and I leave a space for her on my pillow every night.

The window is open. A breeze flows into the house and I think I need a heavier sweater. The cord for the blinds taps against the wall, a steady and annoying click, but I’m lacking the motivation to cross the room and tie it off. Besides, my companions are fascinated by it, sitting on the arms of the sofa watching it sway back and forth. We’d all like to jump through the window and run around the grass and trees that we can see out there. We’ve all tried, but the screens won’t budge and you can’t cut them either. None of the doors to the outside will open. We’re all trapped inside the house until whatever put us here decides to let us out.

I’ve begun to wonder if perhaps there will never be an escape, however. Around the sixth month, after the monthly transformation and attack had been solidified as a recurring pattern, I began to hope that twelve original cats meant twelve months of captivity. If I can simply survive twelve consecutive attacks then I’ll be free. This thinking is the only thing that’s allowed me to get through the last three combats. The longer I’m here, the harder it gets.

The clicking of the cord continues. Silly Girl and Mr. Clean have lost interest, disappearing from the room, but Snow Boots continues to follow the wind-blown pendulum with his eyes as if studying it, counting the strikes, waiting for some deviation in the rhythm.

I wonder which of my friends will be next. I go through a moment where I think perhaps this time it won’t happen. Maybe this month none of them will transform and we won’t have to fight anymore. I experience this same moment every month now. Always on the last day, but I don’t know how I got here, why I’m here, or how to end this imprisonment. All I know is that I’ll stay up as long as I can tonight trying to delay the inevitable and come January it’s going to get very lonely in this house.

Eventually I tire when my legs cramp from sitting in the same position too long. I get up, eat a bowl of macaroni and cheese, and go to bed. I still want to remain awake, the transformation only comes after I fall asleep, but I know I’ll need my strength if I expect to see November.

I don’t dream anymore, so there’s nothing to interrupt when I’m awoken by the growl outside my bedroom door. All of my scars throb at this moment. I turn my head to both sides looking for Silly Girl, but I don’t see her or even an indentation in the pillow. Rolling off the mattress, I glance under the bed, but don’t find her in her back-up location either. I tell myself that she’s hiding. The cats who don’t transform always hide the night of the battle.

I slide into a T-shirt and a pair of jeans while the growling gets louder outside the door. The walls shake and the floor vibrates. The beast grows impatient, as always, but it never enters the bedroom. It always waits for me in the living room. I grab the sword and shield that has appeared during the night on the chest at the foot of the bed. The weight is familiar by now. After nine months, I almost feel like a pro. Ready as I can ever be, I kick open the door and charge out preparing to say good-bye to what was once Snow Boots or Mr. Clean.

The cat inside the beast is never recognizable until it lies dead at my feet. That is one detail for which I have been grateful these past several months. October is different, however. For the first time in one of these encounters I look up at the twelve-foot beast with the gaping maw and razor-sharp talons and recognize the cat from which it has spawned. To my utter horror, I stare into the eyes of Silly Girl. She shakes her immense face and snorts. I lose her inside the beast with the flattened black nose, the ears that have curled down closer to the head, the stubbed tail. Her body has shifted, becoming broader at the shoulders, shortening the neck, rippling now with muscles, turning this sweet little animal into what looks like a giant mutated pitbull terrier. The same type of dogs I used to raise. The same type I’d shoot in the head when they lost a fight. Putting them out of their misery, I used to say.

The beast steps closer and sniffs me. I lower my sword, hoping for some sense of recognition, some piece of my friend inside the beast that will end this nightmare right now. But the beast growls and rears back, brandishing a claw. A deep red light glows from behind its eyes and catches me, draws me in to a flash of memories and a flood of emotion that I can’t explain. In an instant the past nine months rip through me, a reenactment of every single combat, but this time I feel the pain of my own thrusts and stabs into the different beasts. Then I’m back in front of the judge. I’m in handcuffs in a police car, asking for a lawyer. I’m at the last dogfight, cheering for my fighter, already counting the money in my head. I watch him tear the throat out of another dog and I shake hands with my partner. I feel it more than hear it, but I understand the question completely: Why would you do this to us? It feels like a squeak. It feels like Silly Girl.

I drop my sword and shield and fall to my knees feeling the beast press in on me. When it strikes, I know I will not defend myself. To the judge I only wish to say, I’m guilty, I’m sorry, and I’m the first man to get what he deserves.