Awakening

by Michael Natale

 

This story contains material of a graphic and adult nature.

1 John 1:8

If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.

1 John 3:9

No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in him; he cannot go on sinning, because he has been born of God.

 

Four Years Ago

Marcus Palmer was one of the best criminal defense attorneys in Manhattan. He left court late in the afternoon, feeling on top of his game. He had just successfully defended a man who viciously beat a woman in Central Park in front of dozens of witnesses. Marcus’ skill in manipulating the system found a procedural error in the arrest, and the man walked.

Another win, he knew. One more for the resume. A handful more like that and soon one of the big Manhattan law firms would notice him.

It happened sooner than expected.

A few days later, a generous offer letter from Simons & Braverman arrived via FedEx at his office. Simons & Braverman was the biggest firm in Manhattan. The rock stars of the legal world held office there and pimple faced law school graduates gushed like groupies at the mere mention of the name.

Marcus couldn’t help but swell with pride that he had attracted their attention from his shitty little one-man show in White Plains. It was all part of a long, calculated plan that Marcus had put in motion years ago to bring about this very day.

He skimmed the offer letter quickly, flipping the first page over and scanning the second for a bold headline that read “COMPENSATION”. The words beneath it were just a random assortment of letters to his eager eyes, what Marcus was searching for was a dollar sign and a string of numbers—hopefully a long string with lots of zeros after it.

He was not disappointed.

Leaning back in his leather chair, he read the letter through as a matter of procedure. His lawyer’s eyes looked for something unacceptable, knowing he wouldn’t find it.

Marcus could not have realized it, but as he signed the letter and stuffed it back in the return FedEx pack, he had set into motion a chain of events that would prove unstoppable.

Events that were foretold when the world was newly made and the human animal was just learning to walk erect.

The simple act of putting ink on paper was a beacon that shone through all the barriers between worlds. Like an insistent signal it erupted across the folds of reality, it created a small schism in the usual orderliness that existed among levels of consciousness and sentience.

Those barriers that normally were buffers to keep incompatible dimensions from colliding trembled as the pen made its mark on the paper. They shivered, warped and eventually ruptured. The breach had been made—there was no changing that now.

It could not be closed. Not yet.

Something that lurked in the shadows between worlds stirred. It felt the call after literally eons in its deep slumber. It was intimately familiar with the feeling associated with the calling. A primal instinct, really, but one the creature welcomed.

After all, since the moment Marcus Palmer erupted from his mother’s womb, the creature had been stalking him. Finally, the time had come.

With a gleeful little chuckle, it stepped through the rift.

 

Now

Marcus rose through the ranks at Simons and Braverman with uncanny momentum. His record was near perfect, he rarely lost a case. His nickname among the others at the firm was “The Machine” because of his robot-like drive and attention to detail that always seemed to be the sole reason his cases were won or lost.

Whatever the firm wanted, he delivered and they paid him handsomely for it. The few times he had lost in court, it was because one of the senior partners had told him to throw the case. He never asked questions, never had a moral crisis or a last minute change of heart. He didn’t want to know the dark and dirty secrets that the firm hid, he was there to be paid for his services.

He made few friends, never socialized outside of work with clients or other attorneys unless asked to, and on an average week, put in eighty to a hundred hours at work.

As a result, he was on the short list of candidates to be made partner and the firm’s gratitude fattened his bank account tenfold from his White Plains days.

Tonight, he had to make an appearance at the firm’s annual Christmas party, an event he always dreaded. Making small talk with a bunch of elitist, over-ambitious attorneys was not his idea of holiday fun. It kept him from work and away from his caseload, and that never made him happy.

At least this year he would be able to go alone.

His wife Lily had a nasty virus that had left her bedridden all week. He monitored her progress daily, but not out of concern. He silently hoped that she would stay sick for just a few more days.

Their passion for one another had died a slow, miserable death years ago, to be replaced with barely disguised tolerance. They fought more than talked, and had built up so much resentment towards one another, they barely could stand to be in the same room together.

The plain truth was that Lily loved their bank account more than she did him. Period.

When it became clear that she would not be well enough to attend, Lily insisted Marcus go alone. This of course played into what Marcus wanted anyway, so he did not argue.

Still, Lily had an overbearing personality and felt the need to control every situation. She insisted on explaining to him how important events like this were to his career. The explanation came out as a teacher trying to show an especially dim child how to add or subtract.

The truth of it was, Lily had high ambitions for him that weren’t about to be derailed by her contraction of a simple illness.

The Palmer bottom line was her real motivation. Marcus knew it, was resigned to it even. After all, Lily did love her extravagances and moving with the social elite of Manhattan was not cheap. He didn’t care, as long as she left him alone; and if that came at the cost of eighty percent of his annual income, then he considered it a fair trade.

He could always make more.

Marcus had just put his overcoat on when he heard her vomit into a large saucepan she kept next to the bed. He smiled at that, but it faded fast as she barked at him to come clean it up. Just like everything with Lily, it was more a command than a request. He sighed, removing his coat and gloves to go empty the bucket of puke.

He was twenty minutes late to the party and in a foul mood. He went straight to the bar. They had set up two bars and a hot buffet in the firm’s expansive law library. It was stuffy, pretentious and overbearing—exactly what he expected.

The normally soundless room buzzed softly with muted, private conversations. The steady rhythm of soft jazz piano drifted from some corner of the library that Marcus could not pinpoint. It smelled of expensive cigars and Polo cologne. The strange, masculine mixture was at odds with a swarm of women’s fragrances drifting throughout the room.

The conservative stink of Manhattan’s upper-upper class disgusted him. Despite all his success at Simons & Braverman, he didn’t really belong here. He had earned his way here; worked his ass off and made it to the big leagues through perspiration and intelligence. But he wasn’t born into it, and his blue-collar background fueled a contemptuous fire in his belly.

People who were born rich never knew anything but privilege and plenty. They never needed to look in the mirror because so many people were telling them how wonderful they were. Need never touched them, and want was a temporary inconvenience.

Let the whole world go to shit, Marcus thought, and most of these people would crumble right along with it. But not him… he would rebound, that was his strength. He had gotten where he was because of what was in his head and in his heart, and he could do it all over again.

I’m like a cockroach, Marcus thought to himself, smiling.

Marcus accepted his whiskey sour from the bartender and gave him a five, even though the drink was four-fifty. The man’s tip jar was filled with tens and twenties, but Marcus would be damned if he’d tip the guy that much for an overpriced, watered-down drink.

He turned from the bar and saw her. Sheila Stevens. She was the absolute hottest piece of Manhattan-Bred-Ass ever to grace the firm. Watching Sheila move was like watching a Porsche corner—just fucking amazing.

Sheila was a hunter, though. She was an ambitious, female attorney attempting to succeed in a web of ego and testosterone that wanted nothing more than for her to fail. Marcus almost could have respected her having the stones to play the game with the wrinkled aristocracy of Simons & Braverman.

Almost. If she weren’t such an unadulterated bitch, that is.

Another thing that really pissed him off was that Sheila had no qualms about using her best asset—her body—to advance her career and that he couldn’t respect. It was an unfair advantage that men just didn’t have.

Everyone at the firm knew it—expected it, even. Even now, there were half a dozen men standing around her, their wives abandoned, or like his, safely at home. The Queen was holding court.

Sheila laughed suddenly at something one of the men said, playfully laying a hand on his shoulder. Her laugh was a musical, sensual sound that was inviting and warm, even from across the room.

Marcus knew it didn’t really matter how good she was at her job, for the men she bartered her favors with, it was always about the sex. If any of them brought her name up in the boardroom afterwards, it was discreetly done. Nothing agreed upon up front, nothing out in the open. Plausible deniability.

Could she be that good in bed?

He’d never know. There were several others in the firm that could offer her more on the way up than Marcus Palmer. It would probably be another year before she rose high enough in the firm to be threatened by his position, but he gave her credit for recognizing him as competition this early.

None of that stopped him from watching her now though. She had an athletic body whose lines were somehow still soft, graceful and curvaceous. The cut of her business suit accented her figure in a way that was both professional and sensual. Marcus knew it was deliberate; everything was with Sheila. That was part of her charm.

Eventually, she felt the weight of his stare and flicked her eyes towards him. Barely a turn of her blonde head, not enough to be a glance, but he caught it. Her expression was a smoldering warning.

He stared back, equally revolted by her and letting it show in his eyes—but not on his face. That was a smooth, expressionless mask. It was a facade he had crafted through years spent in front of juries and judges, defending the worst of humanity in order to make a buck.

Well, several hundred thousand bucks, actually.

He sipped his whiskey sour and continued to violate her in his mind’s eye—and she knew it. More importantly, he wanted her to know it. Fucking with her head was passing the time and he could see it was driving her absolutely bugshit.

“Nasty little viper, isn’t she?” The voice came as a soft whisper over his shoulder, and Marcus turned to see who the speaker was.

An impossibly tall man stood behind him. Impeccably dressed in a black business suit, he looked like a funeral director. It wasn’t just the clothes though—he had the look of a man who spent more time with the dead than the living.

Marcus had no idea who the man was. He didn’t want to agree with his obviously scandalous statement without first knowing who the man was. For all he knew he was looking at one of her clients.

“Pardon?” Marcus said.

The man smiled, showing altogether too many teeth as his face stretched to accommodate a wicked grin. He leaned in closer to Marcus and gestured towards Sheila. His voice dropped even lower. “I said she’s a slippery piece of commerce, that one. Whored her way here, I imagine. With a body like that, I would hope it was getting some use, wouldn’t you say?”

Marcus found himself nodding. He turned back to the man and extended his free hand, “Marcus Palmer. You are?”

“Mr. Screech,” the man said with a slight bow and another smile that did not touch his unhappy eyes.

Marcus did not recognize the name. “I’m sorry, Mr. Screech, I don’t think we’ve met. Are you with the firm or are you a client?”

“I am merely a passerby, Mr. Palmer. I noticed you admiring the young lady and thought I’d stop to chat.”

Marcus flushed. He hoped he hadn’t been that obvious—he was aiming for a subtlety that only Sheila would notice, not the whole damn room.

“Well,” Marcus said, lowering his voice, “I wouldn’t say admiring.” He took a sip of his drink. “I was looking, that’s true—but hell, who wouldn’t, right?”

“Yes,” Mr. Screech said in a low hiss, “Even I can see the temptation of the flesh with that one. After all, we are but men, are we not?”

The smile that Mr. Screech displayed was horrible, like a grinning skull. Marcus only laughed, enjoying the diversion of the peculiar man’s company.

Mr. Screech lowered his voice further. “I bet she’s the worst kind of bitch too. Almost certainly she’s a tease—unless you’ve something to offer in trade. In all probability, she has never had a genuine orgasm of her own all her life. You can see it in those poor, soulless little eyes—no one ever cared about her enough to try that hard.”

“Probably,” Marcus agreed. He realized that he was thinking exactly the same thing.

“I would suppose a girl like that needs someone to show her what truly using another person is all about, doesn’t she? A real man—a man like you, I dare say—could probably give her the best sex of her life. Not for power or political favor, but just for the sake of pure, animal lust.”

“That would really piss her off, wouldn’t it?” Marcus said more to himself than to Mr. Screech. He felt a spreading warmth in his belly, the flush of desire.

“It would,” Mr. Screech agreed. “She is used to always being in control of the exchange. Probably only really knows how to be on top. Women like that need to be conquered. They need to be taught. Shaped. Taken.

Marcus drained his whiskey sour. “I do believe you’re right, Mr. Screech.”

Mr. Screech leaned in closer to Marcus, so close his mouth was almost touching Marcus’ ear. The man’s breath stank of an open grave, a horrible rotting smell that Marcus somehow instantly identified. “Why don’t you go talk to her?”

Why didn’t he go talk to her? So he was married? So were half the men in this room and nearly all of those would probably end up bedding someone else other than their wife tonight. Why not him?

His thoughts instantly rewound back to earlier that evening, when he went to empty the saucepan Lily had spattered with vomit. She had laughed at him, mocked him as he emptied the pot into the toilet and cleaned it out for her. She thought it was funny that he was a man earning a healthy six figures and she could still make him clean up her puke.

Fucking hilarious, Marcus thought. Why not me?

At that moment, Sheila turned again. Her eyes locked with his for an instant but by now his mask was gone. Marcus was fuming.

Finally she excused herself from the small clutch of men she was speaking with, and marched towards him. She walked with confidence and grace, completely sure of herself and in control.

Perhaps she would slap him, make a scene here in front of the senior partners. Perhaps she would quietly tell him to fuck off, as she had done on several occasions before he truly knew her and had tried to make conversation.

As she advanced upon him, time seemed to slow—Sheila’s steps became sluggish to his eyes. Like a film running at half speed, she plodded towards him. The sounds of conversations in the room became muffled. Marcus felt as if his head had been stuffed with cotton.

Sheila became a smudge of white and powder blue, her features indistinct. He felt the flush of desire and heat race from his lower abdomen straight up through his chest. It burned past his throat and settled right in the center of his brain.

It seethed there like a boiling ocean of energy, his entire skull tingling with pins and needles. Marcus wondered if it were possible for your head to fall asleep, like a foot or an arm after sleeping on it wrong.

All of his senses came alive at once. Somehow until that moment, they had been imprisoned inside the fleshy cage of his body, dulled and numbed. The fire in his skull grew white-hot. Strange impressions came fast and furious, nearly overwhelming him.

He could smell her approach—could pick out her perfume from the sea of fragrances in the room. He could even identify her sweat. He knew what she had to eat for supper before coming to the party—could smell the fruity tang of light raspberry vinaigrette on her breath. He smelled a sugary mint fragrance, and knew she had used a Tic-Tac right before entering the party to try and cover the dressing.

He knew what the taste of her skin would be like if he ran his tongue from her earlobe to the nape of her neck, salty and hot. He could smell her sex, delicately perfumed beneath a layer of nylon. He could feel its heat, even from here.

The room snapped back into focus with a lurch and time resumed its normal march forward. He felt a sense of vertigo, almost as if stepping down from a carousel while it was still moving. Impossibly only seconds had passed, he could see that now.

Marcus felt as if he were going to pass out.

Sheila took the last steps towards him and sneered at him. She still had on a stupid, counterfeit smile that did not reach her eyes. Her voice dropped to a threatening whisper. “Palmer, just what the fuck do you think you’re staring at?”

Marcus only managed to stammer, “Nothing, I…” but he stopped in mid-sentence.

Something strange came over her.

Sheila’s face went instantly blank, the phony lawyer-smile gone. She was staring into his eyes as if drugged; the look of derision replaced by one of open interest and undisguised lust. Her face lit up as she smiled candidly. Her blue eyes sparkled, as if she had just noticed he was there and was happy to see him. “Yes, Marcus?”

She took another step towards him. She was inches from him now. There was no mistaking her intent. It was an obvious enticement for him to step closer to her.

On pure instinct, he moved back the same way a horse trots with quick, urgent steps when it comes upon a snake in the forest. He half turned so as not to run into Mr. Screech—but the man was no longer there.

He could see in Sheila’s face that she wanted him to talk to her, needed it even. He could hear her heart beat, could feel the blood quicken through her veins. What the fuck was going on? The slightest hint of her pungent, sticky sweet sex wafted to his nostrils. She was getting excited.

She took a deep breath as if trying to stop herself from talking, but failing in the attempt. “I’ve been waiting for you to talk to me tonight, Marcus,” she breathed.

She was? Really? When did she learn his first name?

Suddenly the fire in his head returned, the pins and needles causing brilliant white stars to explode across his vision. The words were spilling out of his mouth, and he couldn’t stop one from following another. “Sheila, would you like to get a hotel room with me?”

Her smile was modest, almost shy as she let out a low, throaty laugh. Her lips twisted into a lustful grin. “Yes, I would like that very much Marcus.”

* * * * *

Marcus sat in one of the room’s two chairs, his pants around his ankles. Sheila knelt naked in front of him, her head in his lap doing a rhythmic motion up and down, up and down. Her hands were tied behind her back with his necktie—something she begged him to do. She moaned softly as she worked on him, the only evidence she was even still breathing other than the motion of her head.

For hours, Marcus told Sheila what to do and she did it. She complied without question, without hesitation. Eagerly, even.

The fire in his head blazed even hotter, causing his thoughts to fragment and slip away from him. He felt like he was watching someone else do things to Sheila. Words poured out of him continuously. He could not stop himself, it seemed to be integrated somehow in this whole bizarre experience.

He could read her inner desires, her secret thoughts, fears and impulses. Marcus manipulated her complex emotional state like a master pianist tickling the keys. Each thought, each fragment of feeling that Sheila kept buried in her head and heart, he unearthed. The more he did it, the more she fell under his control.

She became more compliant as the hours went by. The more aggressive he became, the more she seemed to like it. She offered to do things he wanted her to do without his being aware that he even wanted it. The lines between her desire and his blurred and fused into one strange, pulsing mess of flesh.

Finally, when he knew he didn’t have another drop of fluid in his body, he quietly suggested that Sheila get some rest. Without a word she stood up, walked over to the bed, lay down upon it, hands still tied behind her back. She was almost instantly asleep.

Marcus watched her sleep for a few minutes, and then his eyes drifted towards the darkened bathroom, its door opened halfway.

Something in the darkness chuckled. “Well, well. Looks like old Mr. Screech still knows a thing or two about the ladies, doesn’t he?”

Marcus was not startled. He had identified the smell of decay hours ago. His mind connected it at once to Mr. Screech, but somehow he knew the old man was not a threat. Not to him, anyway. How he had gotten into the room, Marcus could not say.

The creature—and Marcus suspected somehow that was exactly what Mr. Screech was—waited in the darkness with all the patience of the grave. Somehow Mr. Screech was part of tonight’s strange events, and Marcus was at a loss to explain any of it.

Only the soft sounds Sheila made while sleeping broke the eerie stillness in the air. It was a silence that Marcus knew was his to break.

Say nothing, ignore the darkness and what lurked within it, and tomorrow life would go back to normal. Sheila would go home, shower and wonder just how many drinks she had consumed the night before in order to sleep with Marcus Palmer.

But choose to speak—talk to it—converse with the darkness, and it would be like setting a foot firmly on the road to Hell.

Mr. Screech waited. So did the silence—like evil waiting to be done.

* * * * *

When Marcus arrived at his house sometime after 4:00 a.m., he made no attempt to be quiet. Deliberately, he let the door slam behind him, and tossed his key ring carelessly on the dining room table.

The keys crashed into the glass tabletop, making a terrible racket as they skidded across the surface. He heard his wife stir from within their bedroom down the hall.

Marcus smiled, a thin, sinister smile—not unlike that of Mr. Screech.

Lily’s voice came simmering out of the stillness of slumber and quickly rolled to a furious boil. “Marcus? Jesus Christ, what time is it? Where the hell have you been!?!” Silence for a few brief moments, and then a groan. She was sitting up. “I threw up again a couple hours ago, so get your ass in here and clean it up! I feel too sick to move and you obviously feel just fine! Four o’clock in the goddamn morning…”

A piece of the night stepped out from the shadows in the kitchen. “We really must do something about that woman,” Mr. Screech said. The darkness flowed off of him as he walked to stand aside Marcus. His shadow grew taller and more menacing with each step.

“Yes,” Marcus said. His brain was smoldering again with that same white-hot fire, causing him to stagger briefly. The vertigo was briefer this time. He took off his coat and tossed it over the back of one of the high backed chairs in the dining room. “I’ll go talk to her.”

“Wonderful,” Mr. Screech said. “I’ll make us both some tea. Do hurry, Marcus. We mustn’t tarry.”

* * * * *

The gossip around the law firm had been that Sheila Stevens and Marcus Palmer had been lovers for years. Most attributed the public loathing of one another to cleverly crafted deception.

When they found Lily Palmer’s vomit-stained body dangling from the brass gilded ceiling fan in the Palmer’s bedroom, the entire firm was taken aback. The gossip mill quickly ground out the story: Palmer’s wife hung herself, leaving a suicide note behind outlining her husband’s tawdry affair with Sheila.

The police had investigated, of course. A marriage gone sour, an affair, a “suicide” that was really a homicide. Sadly, it was the stuff of both television movies and reality.

But Sheila had substantiated Marcus’ story, and so did the clerk at the Hotel Pennsylvania. She told the police that they were in love and that yes, it was true that for the last four years, they were having an affair.

The hotel produced records outlining when Marcus and Sheila arrived and left the night of Lily Palmer’s death. One of the third shift desk clerks even went so far as to remark that he had spoken with Marcus Palmer on the phone. He had called to ask for more towels, the man said.

The hotel’s records showed the time of the call was right about when the coroner said Lily Palmer was busy hanging herself in the bedroom. The police—somewhat reluctantly—concluded that Marcus had not murdered his wife. They officially labeled her death a legitimate suicide.

Why shouldn’t they? Marcus had only talked to her.

* * * * *

Marcus resigned from the law firm the following week, citing emotional distress. Sheila quit “to be with Marcus”. They both simply walked away from their former lives. They left behind extended family, homes, and possessions to begin the four hour drive to Boston. Marcus told her he had a job offer waiting there.

Sheila asked no questions.

Halfway into the drive, they pulled off Route 84 in Hartford, Connecticut and stopped at the train station. Marcus told Sheila to remove all her jewelry and leave her purse in the car. She complied without complaint or question.

They went into the station, checked the arrivals board, and went up to Track 1. The train serving the Northeast Corridor from Washington would arrive in fifteen minutes. There were a handful of people waiting on the landing. Some were there to pick up passengers coming in, others with briefcases or suitcases waiting to go.

Marcus and Sheila sat on one of the benches and waited for the train to arrive. Sheila’s head was on his shoulder, and he had his arm around her. He was whispering to her in a soft, quiet voice. She nodded slowly, smiling with that same stupid doe-eyed expression on her face.

Finally, someone nearby commented that the train was coming, and a bright headlight shone like an arrow through the morning haze of the city. People stood from the benches or pushed themselves away from the walls where they had been leaning to get a better look.

Marcus left Sheila sitting alone on the bench and stepped over to one of the rusted pillars supporting the steel canopy over the platform. Mr. Screech stepped out from behind it. He looked even more frightening in the early grey of the morning.

He smiled his death-head smile at Marcus. Marcus smiled back.

“Excuse me, everyone, could I have your attention please?” Marcus shouted, waving his hands so the others on the platform would turn to see him. “Please, could you all listen to me for just a moment?”

* * * * *

Engineer First Class Paul Middleton began the process to slow Amtrak Train 142 down as it approached the Hartford station. He squinted as he massaged the brakes. What was the crowd doing so close to the edge of the platform? It looked like they were over the yellow safety line.

He blew the train’s horn, a quick blast to both announce the arrival and to warn them back behind the line. Where was the cop? There was supposed to be a cop on duty here to keep the damn crowd back.

Paul squinted as he saw a dark blue uniform and felt relief as the cop walked towards the crowd. His relief turned to bewilderment as the officer walked to stand with the others. They appeared to be massing at the edge of the platform, leaning in as the train approached.

Paul felt a slight panic rise in his gut, though he wasn’t sure why. He applied more pressure to the braking system, to cut its momentum faster and bring the steel behemoth to a safe stop before something very bad happened.

He reached for the hand mic on the radio and clicked the button frantically. “Station, station… this is Amtrak 142—there’s a bunch of passengers up on Arrival Platform 1. They’re way too close; they’ve crossed the yellow line, all of them! Looks like the cop is—”

Paul’s eyes grew suddenly wide with terror. He dropped the mic from his hand and scrambled to work the brakes to bring the train to an emergency stop. His curses were drowned out by screaming metal and blaring horn as the train tried to comply, but was unable to stop fast enough.

All fifteen people—including the policeman—leapt in front of his train.

* * * * *

Mr. Screech buckled himself into the passenger seat of Marcus’s BMW and began to look through Sheila’s purse. He pulled something out of it.

“Gum?” Mr. Screech offered, holding the green pack up for Marcus to take a stick.

“No thanks,” Marcus said.

Mr. Screech waved the pack of gum in front of him in a tempting fashion. “It’s minty fresh,” he said. His grin was straight out of a nightmare.

“Why don’t you have some,” Marcus suggested. “Your breath smells like shit.”

The rush of what he had just done had not left him, and his mind was still on fire. He harbored no regrets; something about the last few weeks had burned the last vestiges of morality out of him.

What he did have was questions—questions that desperately needed answers.

“You’ve begun to remember, haven’t you?” Mr. Screech hissed.

Marcus drove on in silence for a few minutes. That was an understatement. Last night the dreams came again. It was the fourth night in a row he dreamt of flying, something he had never done before. As a boy, he remembered many people claimed that was a common dream.

But not like his dreams.

Wings sprouted up out of his back. They were covered with soft, bone-white feathers. Unstained. Clean. Pure. Their lines were graceful and the span sizeable. The person he saw in his dreams looked nothing like him but he knew without doubt that the image in his mind’s eye was him.

He flew at speeds which defied even his dreaming mind to comprehend. He fought in mid-air, chopping and slashing with a silver sword against the backdrop of a magnificent, silver city.

Was it called THE Silver City? He could barely remember, but the question tugged at him, impatient for answers.

The sword’s gleaming blade shone wet with the blood of other winged creatures like his dream-self. Creatures he knew to be his kin, yet he fought with a ferocity and hatred that was inhuman and completely merciless.

“I’ve had some pretty fucked up dreams,” Marcus finally said, bringing himself back to the present.

“They are not dreams,” Mr. Screech said. “They are memories.”

Marcus knew the thing in the passenger seat was altogether not human. He knew too that it was a creature of evil, a thing out of nightmares that only wore the flesh of a human being. Marcus also knew it spoke the truth.

Over the past few days he had recognized Mr. Screech. Or rather, he recognized the feeling he associated with the creature that called itself Mr. Screech. He could feel it approach before it showed itself to him. He knew it was there. That was an altogether too familiar shiver. It whispered to him, “I’m here, just look over your right shoulder…”

That friendly tremble reminded him of his childhood. Of sleepless nights wondering just what it was that hid itself under his bed. The gripping fear he felt when he knew that something was sitting in the tranquil darkness of his bedroom closet, watching him.

“What am I then?” he finally asked.

Mr. Screech folded his long, spidery fingers in front of his gaunt face, as if considering his words carefully. “You are Firstborn.

His skin prickling, Marcus glanced at the thing in the passenger seat. “What?”

“Firstborn,” Mr. Screech repeated. “Of the Host…?” Mr. Screech tilted his head expectantly, as if this explained everything.

Marcus put his eyes back on the road. “I have no fucking idea what you’re talking about.”

Mr. Screech shrugged. “The Awakening comes differently to all. You will remember everything in time, but unfortunately that is not a commodity that we possess in limitless supply.”

“Then cut the shit and just tell me what you know,” Marcus barked.

“You are familiar with the story of Heaven and Hell, yes?”

Marcus shivered as another brief memory came to him. He saw his dream-self standing on one of the endless walls of the Silver City, holding a struggling creature out over the ledge by its throat. It bled from a thousand wounds but still fought in a futile attempt to break free from his crushing grasp. The pitiful thing had shattered, broken wings. The velvety white feathers were spattered with blood.

“Yes,” Marcus said. “Lucifer led a group of angels against God. They lost the War in Heaven and were cast out.”

Mr. Screech frowned. “Not entirely accurate, I’m afraid. When God created Man, he ordered all the hosts of Heaven to worship Man as his greatest creation. Nearly all the Angels and Seraphs in Heaven obeyed God as commanded, but there were those who questioned the theological correctness of that point of view. There were those of us that refused.”

“Us?” Marcus whispered.

Mr. Screech nodded. “We were God’s First; creations made more closely in His image than Man will ever be. No matter how many times mortals are reborn and this world recast, we were Firstborn. We believed that the command to worship such imperfect, flawed creatures as Man was a direct conflict with how we were created. We were made to worship God, not Man. Those of us who rebelled did so because we believed to worship Man would be the highest form of Blasphemy conceivable.”

Marcus felt his pulse quicken as a passage from Revelations leapt into his mind. It came out almost without him being conscious that he was speaking the words. “…and there was a War in Heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back. But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven.” Marcus swallowed. “He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him.”

Mr. Screech sneered, baring his teeth. “Don’t quote that mortal idiocy to me. Let us simply say the War never ended. Mortal histories record it differently, of course, but those of us at the Battle of Harmony’s End know the truth—as you yourself can attest to. We were cast out of Heaven. Excommunicated from Him. ‘Hurled to the earth’ as you say.”

Suddenly Marcus had another flash of insight. “This was to be our Hell,” he said. “Doomed to live as mortals… to live among them. To live, die and be reborn again over and over and over. Until…”

Mr. Screech snickered with wicked delight. “Good. You remember some of it. Apparently the theory was that by condemning us to mortal flesh, we would eventually learn what it is—He—sees in these miserable shits.”

“I am Firstborn,” Marcus echoed flatly. More memories were coming then, slow and sluggish but very clear once they arrived.

“Yes,” Mr. Screech murmured. “The absolute paramount of mortal evolution. You are a godless American who earns a healthy living helping the worst of mortal-kind get away with crimes against their own species. You have no children, but instead have accumulated many things that others of your kind covet and lust after. Cars. A boat. Expensive jewelry and artwork. A winter home in Florida. You hated your wife, and broke your vows to copulate with another woman—repeatedly, I might add.”

Marcus shot him an angry glance.

“You have become all that God intended. Completely and unashamedly mortal. Suitable punishment, don’t you think?”

Marcus drove on in silence as more memories assaulted his brain. “I slew Hivictus on the walls of the Silver City. That… that was in my dream. I threw him off the walls after I cut off his wings…”

“That you did,” Mr. Screech smiled. “You are called Astaroth, Ninth of the Circle of Twenty. We were content to let you live out your life and see if the next cycle brought you back to us as expected, but the War goes badly for us. There are… rumors… that The End is coming, and not in our favor, I am afraid. This necessitated my being sent to help you along with the Awakening.”

Marcus knew everything the creature next to him said was true. He looked at Mr. Screech and no longer saw the cadaverous old man sitting next to him. He recognized it now for the demon it was.

He could see now past the illusion of flesh, revealing a servant of the Nephilim that hid beneath. It had large, bulbous eyes that looked like sacs filled with blood, its pupils a tiny yellow dot within the crimson orb. Its cruel scar of a mouth was overflowing with needle sharp teeth. Large yellow and purplish boils that oozed viscous fluid covered its spiny head.

This particular demon he knew very well. He remembered that it had been a lesser angel once, bound in service to The Host. It was of the lesser caste, and so had been perverted and twisted into demon form as part of its punishment.

“Where do we go now, Zarafat,” Astaroth said.

“You remembered my true-name,” it said. “I cannot help but be touched. Our Master waits for us in Boston where we will discuss how to find The Child.”

Marcus cast a quizzical glance at the demon.

“Yes,” it nodded. “That child. The time is upon us, wheels upon wheels are already in motion.”

“Are we too late, then?” Astaroth asked.

The demon Zarafat chuckled. It was a disturbing sound, gurgling forth from a mouth never intended to make that sound. “For this cycle of Man, perhaps we are. But this is not the first time the wheel has come full circle, for that is the nature of the struggle, is it not? Sometimes we are victorious, often we are not. Either way, it all ends and the whole ball of shit starts rolling all over again.”

Astaroth nodded, lost in his own thoughts. “I remember so many lives…”

Zarafat snorted. “Please save the nostalgia for your own time. Our Master bade me remind you that once you are again in possession of your faculties, there would be nothing stopping you from resuming your former responsibilities in service to our Cause. I have attempted to remind you of that in what I hoped would be a subtle manner, but you seemed to have missed my delicate suggestions.”

Astaroth smiled a thin, wicked smile. “Talking fifteen people into throwing themselves in front of a train wasn’t what I would call subtle, Zarafat.”

The creature grinned back at him. “We don’t have time to be clever. That was a message and was not intended to be subtle. It will be clear to those who oppose us that you have returned.”

Zarafat nodded. “What about my wife?”

“What about her?”

“Another message?”

Zarafat raised his clawed hand. “I had nothing to do with that, Astaroth. Talking that woman into hanging herself was your idea—and you enjoyed it entirely too much if you are asking…”

“I’m not,” Astaroth cut him off.

He slowed the car and flipped the BMW’s right directional on. He began the slow glide over to the far lane, and turned into the rest area off-ramp. There were at least two dozen cars parked there. A steady stream of mortals made their way in or out of the rest area to relieve themselves, refill their coffee cups or grab a bite to eat.

“Let’s grab a cup of coffee. Between the guests and the workers tending this rest stop, there must be fifty or sixty people here. Maybe I can chat with a few of them before we get back on the road.”

“Splendid,” the creature grinned.

 

This story is continued in Seedling, by Michael Natale.

Waves

by Alex Shternshain

At 16:55 the phone rang. That’d be the last time for the day, hopefully. I clicked a button on my switchboard and a microphone came to life.

“Los Angeles Water Authority, Laura speaking.”

“You have to help me!” the voice on the other end of the line sounded hysterical.

“How can I help you, sir?”

“It’s in our water! They’re contaminating our water! Can you help me?”

It was almost the end of my shift, and I was yearning to remove the headset and go home, and now this. The girl next to me got up from her desk and waved good-bye to me as she was putting on her coat. Lucky her. I tried to stay calm.

“Well,” I said, “Since we are, after all, the Water Authority, it’s technically our job to help you with all water-related problems. Now, can you please tell me who is contaminating your water and how? And by the way, your name would be?”

“Jeremy Stein. It’s the aliens! They’re putting fluoride in the water to suppress our brain functions, to make us docile and easier to control.”

“Sir, the fluoride is inserted into the drinking water as part of the government plan to enhance dental health. Its usefulness has been proven by many independent studies, and it has been approved by the FDA.”

“The FDA don’t know jack shit, Laura. Half of them are on the aliens’ payroll anyway, and they are leading the other half by the nose.”

This was getting a bit tiresome. “How about if we send someone over to your house for some measurements of water quality, sir?” I wrote down the phone number and address, got up from my desk, turned around—and immediately discovered Martin, my manager, standing behind me. It was his last daily round of visiting the troops.

“Another anti-fluoride fanatic?” he asked.

“Yes, figured we might as well get it over with now. The personal touch and all that.”

“Just leave a note to the tech guys.” Martin said, and then scratched the back of his head. “But, you know, they’re overbooked from here to eternity. Don’t expect this guy to stop calling anytime soon.”

I sighed and picked up my purse. “Bye, Martin.”

As I was walking out, before I even left the office, two competing notions got a hold of my brain, each pulling it in different directions, yet toward the same destination. One was something about a number, and the other was Jeremy’s voice echoing in my head. In my line of work, I get to talk to a lot of zealots, freaks, and just plain weird people, but this one, for some reason, sounded… convincing. And the other thought—ah, the phone number! I didn’t recall the street name, but the number belonged to the Inglewood area, which was practically on my way home. I stopped in my tracks, hesitating for a second—then made a 180-degree spin on the tip of my heel. “Er, Martin?”

As I was conveying my suggestion to my boss, his expression went from amusement to bewilderment and then to slight alarm. If, heaven forbid, one customer receives prompt and timely service from the LA Water Authority all of the others will expect the same.

“And anyway,” I said, “I have the technical training, and can wrap it all up in less than an hour.”

He was still reluctant, so I added, “And you said yourself he’s going to call again and again. Might as well take care of this small initiative today, right?”

“Since when do you care?” he scratched the back of his neck again and his eyes lit up with the glow of understanding, “Don’t tell me you’re in it just for the overtime payment?”

“And if I was?” I said, “It’s a win-win solution. He stops calling and you don’t have to deal with him anymore, I get some overtime, everyone’s happy. Not that I am in it for the overtime, of course. Just trying to help a fellow man. Besides, I live nearby, so if there’s a problem with his water, I want to know.”

Of course you do. Get out of here before I change my mind.”

* * * * *

Twenty-five minutes later I found the address and knocked on the door of a run-down one-story cottage two blocks away from the old Lakers’ Forum. I anticipated a middle-aged crazy-scientist type of character to open the door and Jeremy delivered above and beyond my expectations.

The house itself was one continuous attack on all five senses since the first moment I walked through the door. Imagine a public library with a small coffee shop on the second floor. Below, people are reading books at their leisure, pages rustling, and above a quiet clanging of spoons and forks is heard. Now imagine a 6.9 earthquake collapsing the place so that plates and paperbacks mix together in one pile and bits of food get smeared on the covers. That’s how Jeremy’s house looked. As for the owner, he mimicked his place of residence. Everything about him was mixed up—meticulously ironed black pants with a ketchup-stained Hawaiian shirt, and a pair of old torn Nikes. His dark hair was combed in perfect straight lines—but his cheeks sported a three-day-old beginning of a beard. He was about forty, although at first sight looked much older.

The water, as I knew full well, was completely and utterly usual. After I informed Jeremy of this, he grabbed me by the hand and sat me down on the sofa. He brought out a dog-eared notebook and began to explain his theory.

“First was the water. The fluoride insertion began in 1969, and the IQ of the population began dropping almost immediately. It dropped an average of 1.5 points every decade.” I wondered how many times he had given this lecture, and he continued, “But that was not enough for them. Now they’ve started with the cellular phones.”

“What’s the problem with cellular phones?” I asked.

“They irradiate the brain! Sure, they’re FCC-approved and all, but the high-frequency emissions hurt neural links and slow down brain cortex functions. During the last decade, the average IQ of the population dropped by a full three points. This means that the combination of fluoride and cell-phones is doubly effective!”

“Water waves and radio waves combined!” I said, wondering how much longer I should tolerate this comedy.

“Yes, I couldn’t have said it better myself. The waves, it’s all in the waves. But wait, there’s more,” he hurriedly flipped a few pages in his notebook, “The third direction in which they tried to attack our intelligence was the TV waves. Since the beginning of the so-called ‘reality shows’, my studies indicate a further drop of the average person’s IQ. Although, of course,” he coughed apologetically, “these started only a couple of years ago and there’s still not enough statistical data.”

I shook my head. The man had obviously dedicated a lifetime to churning out these figures. And I had to admit he was very convincing.

“So, basically,” I said, “these aliens are about to turn us into a band of bumbling idiots before they conquer us?”

“Yes, you got the point precisely! Mankind must act quickly before it’s too late!”

“And did you do anything?” I asked.

“I wrote letters to Qualcomm, I went to San Diego, I even talked to their CEO. And of course I wrote to CBS right after the first Survivor.

“And?”

“And nothing. They just laughed me off.”

“I see. Well, Jeremy, you have given me a wealth of information. Too bad I have to end the conversation now.”

I stood up and opened my purse. Under the car keys, I found what I was looking for: a small silver metallic tube. I pointed one end at Jeremy and pressed the other. He clutched his chest with his hands and fell flat on his back. Heart attack. I placed another tube-like object, this one black, on the floor. Within an hour, the place would be ablaze, with all of Jeremy’s notes, papers and books.

Before leaving the house, I picked up Jeremy’s table-phone (I wasn’t crazy enough to use the cellular) and dialed a thirteen-digit number.

“This is L’laoli speaking,” I said.

“Report,” said the metallic voice on the other end of the line.

“This one came very close. I had to do him in.”

“Did anyone believe him?”

“No. But…” I hesitated. Should I rat on a colleague?

“But what? Report.”

“But you have to do something about those guys in Qualcomm and CBS. They are really beginning to get sloppy.”

3:34 AM

by Erik Cotton

I awoke to daylight, which meant I was already late for work. The alarm clock next to my bed was blinking 3:34 a.m. There must have been a power outage. I jumped out of bed and headed for the closet, intent on skipping breakfast and getting to work as soon as possible.

Ah, what the hell? I figured I was already late, so I might as well take advantage of it. I changed direction and headed into the bathroom. The lights flickered on and I drew a steamy shower. Formless thoughts drifted around my head as I undressed and stepped under the blistering hot water.

I couldn’t remember when I had gone to bed last night, nor for that matter what I had dreamt. That alone was fairly unusual for me, I remember everything I dream. Of course, if it was a late night, or I had gotten plastered at the local dive, then it wouldn’t be so unusual.

I closed my eyes and let the water invigorate me. My thoughts drifted away with the rising steam. I felt greasy and my hair was sticky. I fumbled for the shampoo and washed the filth away. I tried to concentrate on what I was supposed to be doing at work today, but I couldn’t recall clearly. Something about a meeting and final coding.

Oh, that’s right, the meeting with Peterson’s group. Seems they’d discovered a bug in the latest interface that crashed the back-end database. Well, no problem, the meeting was mostly going to be a bitch session. I’d fix the bug in less time than it would take to drive to work.

I finished washing up and opened my eyes. Steam swirled around the room and obscured everything. Hey, I like it hot.

I stepped out of the shower and ran the red towel over myself. I wiped away some of the condensation from the mirror and combed my hair. I pulled out some small, vaguely sticky bits from my hair. I tried, but couldn’t identify them. I really must have been drunk last night, passed out, or simply fell out and hit the bar floor, and got junk stuck in my hair.

Nevermind, it doesn’t hurt to get wasted occasionally. I went to the spare room and grabbed some fresh clothes, fiddled with the damn tie and shrugged on a jacket. Why programmers in our company have to dress like managers I’ll never know. Ours is not to reason why I guess.

Downstairs I noticed the clock on the wall said 3:34 a.m. as well. I’ll fix it when I get home today. I thought about breakfast, decided against it. I wasn’t all that hungry. I grabbed my keys, my helmet and kevlar jacket and headed for the garage.

The lights were already on in the garage, again I must have left them on when I got in last night. The garage door was open as well. I was starting to get pissed at myself for all this. Granted I live in a good neighborhood, but a pair of targets like my Maserati and Ducati sitting wide open for invitation is plainly asking for it.

The Maserati was parked askew, partly on the lawn. That settled it then, I was drunk out of my ever-loving mind last night. I don’t normally go on binges like that, but something must have set it off. I didn’t really have the time to park it right, so I decided to ignore it until I got home. The lawnkeepers could mow around it assuming they’d ever show up. I tell you, it must be nice to charge what they do, and show up when they feel like it.

Oh well, I fired up the Ducati, let it warm up and put on my helmet. The world got dark and quieter. When you are on a bike, you’re a target for everyone, even the little old lady in the Geo Metro, so no point making things easy for them.

I backed out of the garage, hit the remote door button and slid onto the street. The rumbling v-twin powerplant helped to clear the dust from my head and I started to really wake up. At the end of the street two cars were blocking the lane, drivers deep in conversation with each other. I’m as patient as the next person and I waited a few minutes, I’m late already right? They didn’t seem to notice me and I got tired of waiting, so I honked the horn. Still no response and I was starting to lose my cheerful disposition.

I laid on the horn good and hard for thirty seconds, and with no response still, I gunned it past the right side of the near car. I didn’t pay attention to what these two clowns were doing but I swear the fast glimpse I caught of them looked like they were frozen in place. Chalk that one up to the booze I suppose.

At the end of the street the traffic light was out, further confirming my theory of a power failure. I didn’t see any traffic at all, unusual for a morning. Or at least I assumed it was morning, I never checked. For all I knew it was late afternoon.

Making a left out of my subdivision was my first clue that all was not right with the world. The streets were deserted, and I mean completely empty. No cars, no pedestrians, no animals, nothing. I slowed my bike at the next intersection, lights also out, and looked crossways. No cars oncoming either. Just past the intersection, I pulled it over and killed the bike.

I got off and removed my helmet and listened for a few moments. Nothing, no horns, no birds, no city sounds, nada. A prickly feeling climbed my neck and my scalp started to itch. I didn’t like this one bit, it was simply too damn quiet. I walked to the corner block and looked down the road. A solitary car was in the far lane, motionless, driver staring straight ahead. I jogged over to get a better look.

The car was a late model Lincoln with an elderly white guy behind the wheel. His facial features slightly distorted as I attempted to get a better look. In fact, I noticed that the entire car was slightly distorted, out of focus in some odd way that I couldn’t pin down. I removed a glove and knocked on the driver’s side window.

There was a rush of noise, a blur of motion and I pulled back my hand fast. The knuckles were bruised and bleeding as if I’d just scraped them along a brick wall. What the hell? The car wasn’t on, as near as I could determine, but that blur still surrounded it.

I tried to peer closer to the car, without touching it again. The driver was moving slightly. No, that’s not correct. There was motion, but it appeared as a cloud around the driver, giving the illusion of movement.

Hangover or no, this was not normal. I backed away from the car, and ran towards my bike. I got back on, fired it up and tore ass down the road. Here and there were cars and trucks, motionless like the Lincoln. I could see people inside, frozen in time like the old guy.

Answers weren’t forthcoming, at least not out here. The whole world had gone crazy and I was the only sane one left. Although I knew what I would find, old habits die hard and I found myself in the parking lot of my office. A few cars, thankfully empty, were parked in their usual spots. Out by the dumpster was Sam, the night janitor. He was dumping a load of garbage into the compactor. Relief flooded through me as I saw him. I got off my bike and raised a hand to greet him when the realization struck. He was motionless like the rest. I ventured nearer to him. That same cloud of indistinct motion surrounded his body. I pulled off a glove and risked a touch.

Sights and sounds flooded over me. Sam, taking out the trash, sneaking a peak in the boss’s cabinets, playing a video game on the company computers. My hand was buffeted and shoved about, but not hurt, more like someone had bumped into me.

Or like I had bumped into someone. I removed my hand and looked at it. Slightly reddish with a buzzing sensation. I rubbed my hand and I could sense the fading life experiences of Sam. I looked toward the office. Something told me I’d find answers in there. I ran to the front doors, electro-key operated and tried my key. No power of course. I stood back and thought for a moment, figured what the hell, and reached for my gun. Only it wasn’t there. Okay, fine then, I’ll do it the hard way.

I went back to my bike and fired it up. I secured my helmet, zipped the jacket completely up and tightened down the glove straps. I aimed squarely at the plate glass and took off. A Ducati can reach 140 miles an hour in a little under 1000 feet. I didn’t need that kind of speed but I hit doing 60 anyway. The glass shattered, twisting the door frame in the process and spewing shards over the marble concourse. I managed to keep control of the bike and slid to a halt next to the guard’s station. No movement from the security guard of course. He was glued to his sports magazine, oblivious, frozen to all that surrounded him.

No sounds issued forth from the building, no fire alarms, no screams of shock at my entrance, nothing. As quiet as the rest of the world. The stairwell door gave me similar life experiences as when I touched Sam, but I was getting used to that. I raced up the stairs and, as I neared my cubicle, I began to get a feeling in the pit of my stomach. That same kind of sickening sensation one gets when something bad is about to happen.

The lights were out upstairs, but enough light filtered through the tinted windows for me to easily see my cube. The desk was a mess, as it always is. The computers were there, the programming books, cork pin board and the…

I lurched, and vomited on the floor. My shirt was soaked in cold sweat and I knew what had happened. Like rolling thunder, images and memories came flooding back. I staggered and slid to the floor staring at my desk. I had been wrong, the answer wasn’t here, only the question. The answer was at home.

I crawled, stumbled and tripped my way back to the stairwell. I tumbled down to the landing and somehow managed not to break my neck in the process of getting back to my bike. The journey home was a blur, and had there been real traffic I’d have never made it in one piece. In sight of my house I lost control, my mind swirling with last night’s events. I laid the bike down, scoring the expensive fiberglass of the Ducati. I rolled off the bike and ran the rest of the way to the front door.

Momentum carried me through the door and I clawed my way upstairs. More images flared in my mind, the argument, the accusations, the look on her face, the drunken rage. My bedroom door was askew and I shoved it open, and hung onto the frame as I looked inside. There, on my bed was my gun, the red sheets stained a darker red and here and there were chunks of sticky, unidentifiable bits. I slid to my knees, my eyes transfixed on the clock.

It was blinking 3:34 a.m.

 

Memories

Cover#13SMALL

Illustration by Billy Tackett

by C.J. Henderson

 

A memory is what is left when something happens and does not completely unhappen.
—Edward de Bono

Darkness blurred, the ebony reaches of it strained by a fizzing annoyance, a calling more felt than heard. Languid purple sounds slithered through the gentle shroud, unbalanced, straining, pushing aside the burden of shadow, burrowing toward the future—trying to finally remember itself in some complete sense before all was forgotten.

But one more, the still forming thought reminded itself, but one more needed.

And with that single realization, the retreating darkness was further dissolved, one more shade of it diminished, by the will of ego and the acid of patience.

DUKE UNIVERSITY, DURHAM, NC
The thrashing reptile let out a hideous roar, a long bark of hot air and frightened anger that echoed down the pristine, off-white corridor. The wrinkled gray dewlap beneath its throat fanned with indignation, its sparse and ragged crest fringes snapping sharply as it threw its head to and fro. The beast snapped its maw several times, biting at the air with curdling frustration, then roared again.

“I second the motion,” said the man pushing the creature’s rubber-wheeled cage. “Where the hell is everyone?”

The man ran his hand through his rough, dark brown hair, letting the doors to the Science Hall swing shut behind him. He was tall and lean, a well-muscled man with dark eyes and a heavy jaw. His mouth was drawn in a thin line, set hard with disappointment. His eyes scanning down the off-running corridor to his left, then the one to his right, he called out.

“Hey, famous explorer with his Nobel ticket here—hello?” The hallways maintained their deserted posture, even as the caged beast barked angrily against the silence.

“Christ,” announced the man with understandable frustration. “Can’t anyone hear little Edgar, here? Has curiosity completely died in this world?”

When no response came to his queries, frustration forced him to one final attempt.

“Where is everybody?”

Finally a young man’s head emerged from a room close by. Recognition prompted him to call out.

“Professor Blakely, you’re back.”

“Glad someone around here notices the little things.” The rangy, broad-shouldered man did not bother keeping the annoyance he was feeling out of his voice. “Where is everyone?”

“Auditorium C,” answered the student. “Doctor Boles is giving a demonstration.”

Did the young man have a twinkle of mischief in his eye? Was, Blakely wondered, the little son’va bitch mocking him? The doctor of Cryptozoology could not decide if the amusement he detected in the student was actual or imagined. Then, Blakely caught hold of his temper.

Sure, he thought, Boles figured out exactly when you were going to arrive and scheduled one of his little smoke and mirror productions just so he could steal Edgar’s and my thunder. Even though even I didn’t know when I was going to get back and even though he didn’t know about Edgar.

The large man calmed down. Yes, he admitted, it was true. The rivalry into which he and Boles had entered was fast becoming a point of amusement for the entire campus. Ever since they had been forced to work together by a staggeringly generous endowment, both those members of the faculty made jealous by the endowment and the student body in general had enjoyed watching the pair’s attempts to upstage one another. Neither of them had gone to any outrageous extremes, of course, nothing undignified—not yet, anyway.

“Still,” Blakely mused under his breath, “I would like to know what that little ferret’s up to now.”

So saying, the professor wheeled Edgar to his new, if but temporary home in the biology lab, and then headed off across campus for Auditorium C. There, he found his colleague seated at a small table, not on stage but down directly in front of the orchestra seating. He could not make out the man’s face from such a distance, but Blakely could discern his counterpart’s general form—the small shoulders, whipping black hair, slight frame, thinly oval face, and of course, his trademark wire-rimmed glasses, still sliding too far down his nose.

Okay, sneered Blakely within his head, go ahead and wow me, professor.

The cryptozoologist noted that the auditorium was packed, and not just with students. He spotted more than a few faculty members, as well as the curious from Durham, and even local journalists. None of them noted Blakely’s arrival in the auditorium. All their attention was focused on Boles.

At the table far down in front, Boles sat across from a young woman, a student with whom Blakely was not familiar. Boles was facing the audience but his attention was focused on the student, or more correctly, on the over-sized deck of cards she was manipulating. As Blakely settled into a seat, she spoke, loud enough for all to hear.

“Okay, Dr. Boles, that’s thirty-eight out of thirty-eight. You think you can keep going?” Fraternity noises and other encouraging expressions of gusto thundered from around the auditorium. Boles put up a hand to quiet the room.

“I appreciate the enthusiasm, everyone…”

“You kin do it, professor…”

Boles smiled at the lone voice. “Thank you, Mr. Purcell. Your faith is appreciated, but it will not change your current grade.” A knowing brace of laughter punctuated the quip.

“So,” said the girl across the table from Boles, holding up a random card from her deck so that only she could see its face, “wavy lines, a circle, a rectangle… can you guess number thirty-nine?”

Boles reacted as if he was ready to keep going, touching the tips of his fingers together, lowering his head, closing his eyes slightly. But then, he suddenly shifted his position—agitated—moving his head to one side as if listening to a faraway noise. After a few seconds, he responded.

“I’m sorry,” he said with what seemed like honest fluster, “but I don’t think I can. Suddenly there seems to be a blockage, as if a vast negative presence has joined us.”

“Maybe professor Blakely’s back in town.”

A large wave of mirth rolled across the audience at Purcell’s suggestion. Then, a sharp-eyed student sitting far to the back of the room shouted out;

“Chalk up number thirty-nine for Dr. Boles. Blakely is back.”

Heads turned. Fingers pointed. Some students laughed all the harder. Many were amazed. A few frightened. Blakely scowled, his original good humor of the day shattered. In the front of the room, Dr. Hugo Boles seemed almost reluctant to respond to the growing applause that wildfired its way throughout the auditorium. Finally, as it began to turn into a standing ovation, he acquiesced and rose as well, taking a short bow.

* *** *

The next day found Blakely in the office of the school chancellor, Mr. Gordon S. Pimms. Few would guess that the “S” stood for “Stonewall,” for Pimms was a rotund and balding man of short stature who perspired far too freely for a man of academic importance. Although the political correctness of the times kept him from announcing his being named for the great general very often any more, still he realized the importance of the connection to many of the older alumni, and thus still maintained the initial on his business cards and office door.

“So, Hugo,” he said to Blakely, hoping to find some small trace of good humor in the professor for once, “how’s it feel to be back in the States?”

“For my part, being nine thousand miles from the sideshow antics of William Herbert Boles and his nightmare theater were a blessed relief. A jungle thick with buzzers who take a quart of blood every time they fillet you was sheer heaven compared to being coupled with his royal highness, the grand poobah of weird.”

“Hugo, you’re just caught up. Why don’t you let me…”

“No,” Blakely snapped, “don’t veer me off, Gordon. I’m collar hot and I think I deserve to be. Look at what happened to me yesterday. I arrive here with the find of the century…”

“You know, I still don’t really understand what it is you found,” admitted Pimms. “They said it was an old lizard…?”

“Euuuugghhh,” groaned Blakely. Leaning forward, he held his temper back as he lectured, “Here’s the brief, so you can dazzle the alumni. There are four branches to the reptile family, and the oldest is the Rhynchocephalia, which has only one member genus, Sphenodon, which has only one species, the ratty little tuataras, and you can only find those dusty losers on a few islands off New Zealand where they keep body and soul together living in abandoned bird nests. With the discovery of Edgar, I just doubled the Rhynchocephalian species count. He is the quintessential reptile morphotype. I mean, back in ’56, when Romer wrote Osteology of the Reptiles, his constant anatomical point of reference was Sphenodon. Every major book since then has had to do the same. But, not any more. From here on in they’ll be coming to us!”

Pimms began to grasp the importance of Blakely’s find, at least in terms his outlook could appreciate. Not only would it bring additional prestige to the university, but its discovery fit the criteria of the lavish endowment the school had received to further both professor Blakely and Boles’ work, and that meant far more to the chancellor than mere prestige. Gaining his slight understanding of the importance of the discovery, however, did not bring to Pimms an understanding of what had Blakely so upset. Questioning that brought the balding man his answer.

“But did anyone come yesterday? A new species found, a creature that dates back directly well over 200 million years? Why bother? Who cares?” Blakely panted, his voice growing louder and more agitated. “What’s the point when we’ve got that trained frog Boles doing card tricks in Auditorium C?”

“My, my, and this used to be such a genteel office,” came a voice from behind the two men. “Now they’ll let just anyone inside.”

Pimms welcomed the arrival of Dr. William Boles. Blakely pushed himself backwards into the overstuffed leather of his high-backed chair, retreating into its padding. Boles moved into the chancellor’s office and took a twin seat next to his colleague. Turning to Blakely, he asked;

“So, what’s this about some parasite you’ve brought back to the campus?”

“Bite me, ghost boy.”

“Gentlemen,” snapped Pimms, his good humor draining out of his system, “you two are becoming impossible. But, in many ways that’s what I like best about you.”

Blakely blinked, stared at Pimms for a moment, then let his eyes dart sideways toward Boles. His colleague merely continued to gaze forward, maybe looking at the chancellor, perhaps at something behind him, or at nothing at all.

“I’ve taken the liberty of cancelling your classes for the next two weeks, William,” Pimms said to Boles. Turning his head to Blakely, he added, “since technically you’re still on leave, I’ve contacted Human Resources and told them to extend it for the same period.”

“What’s up, Gordie?”

“A Mr. Gary Railsbach has purchased some property he wishes to turn into a wildlife preserve. The only problem, it seems it’s either haunted or plagued by monsters. I told him our world-famous team of investigators would be to his rescue shortly.”

Blakely blinked hard, swallowed air with noise, then opened his eyes, flashing angry bolts at the chancellor. Boles merely raised one eyebrow and gave a short smile.

WA’CHENKA VILLAGE, at the ALTAMAHA RIVER, GA
“‘Why stay in Townsend?’ he says,” fumed Dr. Boles, staring out the window of Blakely’s Explorer at the collapsing remains of what had once been known as the Wa’Chenka Village, a tourist attraction of the fifties which had not merely fallen on hard times, but indeed which had plummeted to them.

“Pretty hard to meet our contact,” responded Blakely, aiming a thumb at the woman crossing the litter-strewn parking lot toward them, “if we don’t go where we say we will.”

“Apparently,” answered Boles slowly, cleaning his glasses at the same time, “you’re willing to endure fairly much anything, if it has female body parts attached to it.”

Blakely almost answered, then decided there was no point to it. Their contact was most of the way to his car. It made little sense to him to force her to knock on the window before they acknowledged her presence. Besides, he told himself as he opened his door with relief, ten hours trapped in the same vehicle with Boles was about his limit.

“Hello,” started the approaching woman, “are you Dr. Blakely?”

“What gave me away?”

“I have to admit,” she answered coyly, her eyes giving his body an approving stare, “it was hinted to me that the Blakely half of ‘Blakely & Boles’ would be the more interesting. If that’s him still in the car, then he must be something of a demi-god. Not to be forward, or anything.”

“Now, aren’t you sweet,” responded the professor with an appreciative smile, suddenly feeling better about things. “Whatever it is you’re selling, why not throw a case in my trunk while I get my wallet.”

“Touché,” replied the woman. Extending her hand, she offered, “I’m Kate Skyler. I’m the representative from Friends of Wild Life you’re supposed to be meeting here.” Blakely took the proffered hand, approving of the rough feel to the fingers, incongruous with the rest of Skyler’s appearance.

“Hugo Blakely, at your service.” At the sound of his passenger door opening he added, “and this is my esteemed colleague, Dr. W.H. Boles.”

“There wouldn’t be a clean bathroom somewhere on these premises, would there, young lady?”

Skyler smiled. Pointing toward the endless stand of trees behind the dilapidated buildings at the edge of the parking lot, she offered, “The forest is a beautiful place, Dr. Boles.”

The professor stiffened noticeably. Both Blakely and the young woman did their best not to laugh. Resigning himself, Boles moved off toward the woods beyond while the others talked.

“So,” Blakely began, “here’s what we have—supposedly there’s a creature, that may or may not be tangible, on the loose in this little attraction of yours. That was enough to get our chancellor to send us down to do a preliminary scouting of the site. Now why don’t you add the reams of facts we’re obviously missing.”

“Glad to,” she responded. “First off, the Wa’Chenka Village isn’t an attraction anymore. Our organization bought this place so that we can turn it into a wildlife refuge.”

“You bought it?” Blakely was clearly taken aback. “But, you’re environmentalists, correct?”

“Yes. Not all Earth-Firsters believe the government should be involved in everything, though. We bought the land when it came on the market, and we’ve got plans that will not only make it a functional refuge, but should also turn a profit.”

“Sounds intriguing,” said Blakely honestly. “So, where are the creatures? And what exactly do you want done about them?”

While Skyler answered the doctor’s questions, his partner made his way back into the forest, looking for a spot suitably secluded to relieve himself. Coming to a particularly dense section of pines, he undid his zipper and began urinating when he felt a motion behind him.

Not far away, not moving, thought the professor. Reaching out with his senses, he told himself, quiet, patient, but solid.

Boles found beads of sweat breaking out on his head. What was behind him, he wondered. Why was it watching him? What was it waiting for? When he was finished urinating, would it lose interest and wander off, or might it attack?

As the stream he was releasing began to break up into spurts, Boles went through his options. He could enumerate only two—turn and confront who or whatever was behind him or run for the car.

It stands to reason, he told himself, that anything truly interested in mayhem most likely could overtake me long before I can reach any form of safety. Indeed, I think it’s safe to assume such would have happened already.

That thought in mind, the doctor finished his business, did up his trousers, then turned, saying;

“Hello, whoever you are. Pardon me if I don’t offer to shake hands…”

Boles turned to find himself staring into the eyes of the oldest human being he had ever encountered. The man was obviously a Native American, possibly one of the Wa’Chenka the site’s faded and cracked front gate had promised.

“Name’s Na’kiraw,” the man spoke in a raspy, tired voice.

“Any particular reason you snuck up on me without announcing yourself?”

“Not polite to interrupt a man when he’s taking care of business. Besides, wondered if I could still do it.”

Boles smiled. He liked the old man’s attitude. As the pair walked back toward the buildings, Na’kiraw answered as many questions as he could. The Wa’Chenka Village had been a tourist attraction of no small repute decades earlier. The site was actually the tribe’s reservation—in truth, the holiest of their holy places. Hard times had forced them to the practical, however. Erecting signs to lure tourists onto their land, the Wa’Chenka had put on shows, demonstrating ritual dances, archery marksmanship, native crafts, anything that might bring in a dollar.

“Got good at the showmanship after a while,” the old man said with pride. “The best were the weddings. Any time we had enough tourists to make it worth our while, we’d tell them they could attend an actual tribal wedding. We’d just grab any two of us who weren’t busy and they’d play the couple. Charge by the head, shame them into springing for gifts, good business—you know?”

“Seems as if you had it all worked out.”

“We did,” the man’s face went soft with memory for a moment. “I remember one summer I got married twelve times. The groom always wore an emerald green robe, thousand hummingbird feathers. Very beautiful.”

“Sounds like you enjoyed it, somewhat, anyway—yes?”

“It wasn’t bad,” agreed the old man. “Didn’t get to keep the gifts, but I enjoyed the honeymoons.”

“You put Mickey Rooney to shame,” answered Boles. “So, what happened to this place?”

“Fuckin’ Disney,” answered Na’kiraw matter-of-factly. “There used to be roadside attractions all up and down I-95. Dinosaur villages, Santa Claus Lands, slave plantation re-enactments—all gone now. All dried up. Nobody had time for us—any of us. We Wa’Chenka, we were always a small tribe. Back in ’74, ’75, when there was just nobody stopping anymore, the influenza hit. By the time we got any real help, a lot of the tribe was dead. Big mess.”

Boles and Na’kiraw reached the main building at that point, joining Blakely and Skyler as they came out the front entrance. It was quickly made obvious that Skyler and Na’kiraw knew each other. The old man explained.

“Skyler’s group didn’t want the Wa’Chenka lands to revert to the government. They bought it from me…”

“It’s a lease, remember?” Skyler corrected. “A custodianship set up in the tribe’s name. The Wa’Chenka still have complete access to their lands in perpetuity…”

“Which,” the old man cut her off, “since I’m the last of the Wa’Chenka, means it will all be theirs to do with what they want fairly soon.”

“But,” returned Skyler, slightly flustered, “you knew that. I mean…”

Na’kiraw waved the woman’s comments off, coughing as he did so. The racking noise went on for an embarrassingly long time. Hacking up a great glob of phlegm, he spat it out, tasting blood as he did so. Covering his mouth with the back of a hand, he lowered himself slowly into a chair carved from a twisted tree trunk that rested against the front of the building. “I know, don’t get in a tizzy. I know. But, I also know I’ll be dead soon and the Wa’Chenka will just be a memory.”

Na’kiraw settled into the chair, moving his legs and back slowly as if he were squirming his way into cushions. It seemed obvious the old man was soaking what warmth he could from the wood, positioning himself in the late noon sun to gather more. The conversation between the four of them shrank to three as Na’kiraw made it clear he was more interested in napping than anything else they might have to say. As the trio wandered away from the front of the building, Blakely muttered in frustration.

“Damn, kind of an unlucky break there.”

“Why?” asked Skyler.

“We’ve got some kind of new creature running around here. Pops there lives out here—right? He has to know more about it that anyone else.”

“You’d think that, wouldn’t you?” When both men turned to Skyler, the woman told them, “Believe it or not, Na’kiraw hasn’t seen the creatures. Or at least, he claims he hasn’t seen them. I tend to believe him, though.”

“Well then,” asked Boles, “who is it that’s been making these sightings?”

“That,” she admitted with a trifle of embarrassment, “would be me.”

* *** *

While it was true that Na’kiraw had so far claimed to have had no encounters with the creatures, not only had Skyler seen the various beasts, but so also had numerous members of her organization. As the trio sat at a nearby restaurant, the environmentalist told Blakely and Boles all she knew. As she spoke, her head continued to dart back and forth, giving the obvious feeling she did not want their conversation to be overheard.

“If you’ll forgive my asking, Ms. Skyler,” interrupted Boles, “is there some reason for you to be nervous over telling us about this?”

“Sorry, but I don’t want people thinking I’m a nut case,” she replied. “I do have to live here.”

“True enough,” agreed Blakely. “But you’re not the only person who has seen these creatures—correct?”

“No, but…” the hesitation in her voice choked along for a moment, then fell into silence.

“But,” Boles guessed politely, “all of the others who have witnessed anything have all been members of Friends of Wild Life—yes?” Skyler nodded. Blakely pursed his lips.

“Which means,” ventured the cryptozoologist, “people might be, or maybe already are thinking that your organization is up to something.” The woman nodded sharply, her head down, teeth biting at her lower lip.

The waiter chose that moment to return, setting up a standing tray next to their booth. Clearing their soup and salad plates, he passed around their platters, making the usual tip-boosting chatter as he did so. In seconds, he had Blakely’s crisp, double-battered chicken and potato wedge basket out with its sides of applesauce and corn-on-the-cob, Skyler’s broiled snapper with rice, with her sides of butter beans and spinach, and Boles’ house salad and side of Melba toast and sliced lemons. The threesome made pleasant chatter until the fellow left, then got back down to business, eating as they did so.

The thing the professors most wanted to get from Skyler was a description of the creatures she and her group had been sighting. Hesitation returned to the woman’s voice. Boles asked what the problem was.

“The problem,” she answered, absently twirling her fork in her spinach, “is that there is no one description of a thing. It’s things we’ve been seeing. All shape and size of them.”

Neither man said anything immediately. Blakely held a still steaming chicken breast gingerly between the thumb and forefinger of both hands. Boles gnawed at a large piece of raw broccoli, his eyes looking somewhere far away. Blakely responded to the woman’s comment first.

“Can you give us a ‘for-instance?’ Is there anything general to the descriptions people have been seeing?” When Skyler fumbled, not knowing what to say, the professor tried a different approach.

“Okay, no problem. Forget everyone else who saw the thing, things, whatever, for the moment. Just tell us what you saw.”

Kate stared at Blakely, her eyes unblinking, her face unreadable. The cryptozoologist pursed his lips, moving them first to the left, then the right. Still the woman said nothing, the uneasy look on her face growing more agitated. Understanding what was happening, Boles touched his napkin to his lips.

“Might I suggest the delay in your answering,” he said, breaking the mounting awkwardness, “is because you simply don’t know which thing to describe first?”

Skyler nodded, her hands starting to shake. As the two men watched, her hands grew more and more agitated, tiny flecks of spinach literally shaking off her fork. Boles reached across the table, his fingers gently sliding the fork out from between her fingers.

“I’m sorry,” the woman said, her voice a ragged whisper. “I knew I was going to make a mess of this.”

She looked up, her eyes moistening, mouth forming a pitiful, small puckered line that seemed to get smaller with each passing moment.

“I asked that any of the others meet with you,” she told the professors. “I knew I couldn’t do this. They all begged off…”

“Hiding behind a woman…” growled Blakely.

“Letting the boss do her job,” corrected Boles.

“You’re right,” Skyler confirmed. “Can’t fault them for not wanting to… not… it’s the remembering that’s… it’s…”

And then, Kate Skyler began weeping uncontrollably, long and loud moans of pitiful anguish which defied her ability to control. Blakely reached over to take her hand, offering consoling words, whispering reminders about where she lived and whom she might not want to think of her as a nutcase. Skyler simply laughed at his efforts, her fingers absently closing and unclosing. When they descended to her plate and started to tear her fish apart, the agitated digits flinging bits of oily snapper flesh about, Boles smiled. Squeezing the last bit of flavor out of one of his lemon slices, he moved it carefully, making certain to fill every crevice of a particularly good looking slice of tomato. Finally things seemed as if they might be leading somewhere.

WA’CHENKA VILLAGE, at the ALTAMAHA RIVER, GA
“Why have we come back here?”

“I told you, Dr. Blakely,” answered Boles in a reedy sneer, “as usual, no one is going to be able to help us. We need to see these things for ourselves.”

Blakely thought to reply, then stifled the impulse. Boles felt Skyler had been unable to answer because she was simply too frightened to respond coherently. The parapsychologist explained he had seen such behavior all too often in the past, where individuals experiencing hauntings could not describe events they had witnessed; even families whose members had suffered through visitations together sometimes simply could not relate what they had seen. Even over time, as the intruding forces battered away at their lives, often two people confronted by something beyond their ken would relate the details of the event so completely differently it was hard to believe they had been in the same place. Or that they were not lying.

Whichever was correct, however, Blakely did not want to argue the point. It did not matter if Boles’ theory was correct as to why they had no concrete description with which to work. What mattered was they had no description—period. The more he had questioned Skyler, the more hysterical she had become. Eventually the cryptozoologist had relented when she excused herself, allowing her to flee the restaurant.

“All right,” snapped Blakely. “So what’s your idea? We just go out and walk around all night until one of us stumbles across something that we can’t describe?”

“And people say you have no grasp of the obvious,” answered the parapsychologist with a bubbly glee. “It is truly a pleasure working with someone who, no matter how much education or how many worldly experiences they might acquire, can still manage to maintain a distinctly pedestrian manner.”

“Bite me, Boles.”

“Note how easily the subject switches to alliteration…”

Blakely made a menacing motion with his fist that startled Boles enough to make him break off his chatter. The cryptozoologist made to speak, then thought the better of it. What could he say? What would be worth the breath?

Deciding he had wasted enough oxygen on Boles for one day, knowing he did not want to hear even another syllable in the man’s smug tone, Blakely stalked off into the night. Boles sighed, realizing he had pushed his colleague too far once more. He did not feel guilty at the realization, he merely enjoyed taunting Blakely so that whenever he finally succeeded in driving the larger man over the edge, it was always a letdown.

You should have been able to make that last another twenty minutes, he chided himself. Smiling ruefully, he admitted that was a possibility, but that he had been having too much fun to contain himself. Removing his glasses, he cleaned their lenses absently with his handkerchief, then slid them back in place. When he did, he found his view remarkably changed.

As the parapsychologist stood frozen in place, a trio of forms moved out of the deep forest toward his position. They were all different from one another, but familiar to Boles in certain general ways. One of them was remarkably cat-like. Though it seemed coated with scales rather than fur, and was absent a tail, still, something of the feline permeated it. The thing was predominately green, a shining, reflective shimmer highlighting its reptilian skin.

“B-Blakely…” Boles’ voice was scarcely more than a whisper. He did not mean it to be so, but he could not make it any louder.

The second was more like a badger, squat and low to the ground, with great sabre-toothed fangs curling over its lower lip. The thing walked with a rolling gait, its bullet of a head turning from side to side as its unblinking eyes scoured all directions ahead of it. Behind it, the third thing came, a bulbous, misshapen creature, one covered in long, red feathers. Great, apple-sized eyes protruded from its body in six spots, all of them staring at Boles.

“Blakely…” The word hissed from the parapsychologist’s lips, the sound of it so low even he could barely hear it. Boles shuddered, naked fear beginning to etch itself across his consciousness. He tried to ignore the terror, control the trembling in his legs, the shaking in his hands, but he could not. The trio of things had obviously seen him, had their attention focused on him. One by one they opened their maws, stretching their jaws to their fullest, flashing teeth and fangs and appetites that were not bound to mere hunger. Frothing drool foaming over their lips, the trio began to advance toward Boles.

They’re coming for you, his mind whispered, terror frosting the words, the painful cold of them eating at him. What do you want? Why are you not moving? Run you idiot—run!

He did. Boles spun about wildly, screaming as he did so. His arms wavering wildly at his sides, he bolted off in the first direction he could find that did not lead him to the creatures. Not thinking, not capable of thought, Boles’ voice strained and cracked as he shrieked, then suddenly was cut off as he crashed headlong into a tree at full force.

The parapsychologist rebounded from the hearty locust over two yards, his feet not touching the ground as he traveled. He did himself far more damage than he did the tree, hitting the ground after his brief flight with a bone-jarring force that left him gasping for breath. His arms scrabbled weakly, trying to lift him up, to drag him away, to turn him over, to somehow propel him along before the approaching things could reach him. Mercifully, he blanked out before anything more could happen, his screaming mind shutting down even as the three figures drew closer.

* *** *

“Don’t move,” the voice was not a sound Boles wished to hear. Hands worked on him, loosening clothing, brushing at his face. He struggled to open his eyes, a part of him wishing the insane trio of things had done him in rather than leaving him to a worse fate than death.

“Where are they?” he groaned sadly. His eyes blinking, he made to sit up, but Blakely held him down with one solid arm.

“I said ‘don’t move,’ and I meant it,” growled the cryptozoologist. “You’ve got thorns in your face and you’re covered with blood. Now just keep still.”

“Where are they?”

“‘They’ being…?”

“They being the three twisted nightmares that sent me screaming into the night.”

Blakely laughed. It was a short burst, a noise more sympathetic than cruel, but the sound of it made Boles go stiff. The cryptozoologist pried loose a particularly long thorn, fresh scarlet pumping free at its removal, running over the black crusts already streaking Boles’ face. As Blakely worked, his partner described the trio of things he witnessed. He gave over what details he could, surprised at his recall.

“Why so surprised?” asked Blakely with honest interest. “You are a trained observer, for Christ’s sake.”

“So is Ms. Skyler,” Boles reminded. “And don’t point out that I’m more accustomed to things odd and terrible than she—I went a’whimpering just as she did.”

“What I find more curious are the details you’re giving me. I could do sketches from all you’re remembering.”

“And that’s a bad thing?” snapped Boles.

“No, just curious.”

“How so?”

“Where are you getting all these details from? It was pitch black, and you didn’t have your flashlight.”

Boles shook slightly, a small tremor that snapped his body rigid for an instant. His eyes narrowing, the question resounded within his mind.

“I did see those things…”

“I didn’t say you didn’t,” answered Blakely. “I just asked how you saw them.”

Boles thought for a moment, then sat up weakly. Turning toward Blakely, his mouth open as if to answer, he slowed, then closed his mouth again, his lips drawing into a thin line. He ran his tongue along the inside of his front teeth, then made a small ‘tsking’ sound, answering softly.

“I, I don’t know.”

“Yeah,” answered Blakely, looking around himself and off through the trees, “that makes two of us.”

* *** *

The next morning found the two professors investigating the area where Boles had experienced his confrontation. Blakely had made a particular addition to his wardrobe, now wearing a holstered Sig Saur 9mm on his hip. The pair entered the forest following the markings the cryptozoologist had made as they exited the night before which allowed him to return to the spot where he had discovered Boles without any difficulty. Backtracking, they were able to discover the spot where Boles had first spotted the creatures with equal ease.

“All right,” said Blakely. “That’s the end of your tracks. Now where do we find theirs?” Boles pointed. When he started to walk in the same direction, his partner told him to stay where he was.

“Let me do the moving,” Blakely instructed. “You just let me know when I’m in the same spot they were. You could wander all over looking for the spot, but our chances are better you’ll be able to tell when I’ve found it a lot faster—line of sight and all that. You just tell me when I’m there.”

In but a handful of seconds the pair found the tracks of the creatures. Blakely was able to separate out three distinct sets, finding evidence in the loamy forest floor that generally supported Boles’ descriptions. But, when the cryptozoologist tried to backtrace the tracks to their point of origin, or to follow them to wherever the beasts went after Boles ran into the tree, he found himself with nowhere to go.

“What do you mean?” asked Boles.

“I mean there aren’t any more tracks. Oh, the things you saw, you saw ’em. They were standing right where you said they were. And they chased you along, just like you said. But…” Blakely rubbed at his mouth, the fingers of his hand spreading across his face. “It’s as if… it’s… it’s almost as if when you weren’t looking at them, the damn things weren’t there.”

Boles stared dumbly.

“Hey, I’m not wrong about this. The ground’s the same all across here. There’s no rock ridges they could’ve jumped to, no surface clay. Nothing. They just start, and then they just stop. Period.”

Blakely waited for his partner to say something. Too trusting of the cryptozoologist’s skills to argue with his conclusions, however, Boles found he had nothing to say. Oddly enough, it was Blakely that made the next suggestion.

“You know, I’m beginning to wonder if this isn’t more one of your cases than it is mine.”

“Explain yourself.”

“Certainly. Since we came down here looking for ‘creatures,’ I was working under the assumption that this one was going to be more my line.” Boles nodded in quiet agreement, expressing that he had been thinking the same way himself. “But now I’m beginning to wonder. I mean, no one is seeing the same creature as the next guy, you see three different ones all on your own at the same time. People can barely think about seeing these things without getting spastic, which you say is common in paranormal cases. Then, this whole thing with the footprints, as if there was nothing there unless you were looking at it…”

“Are you saying I imagined what I saw?” snapped Boles.

“Possibly,” acknowledged Blakely. “But just because you imagined them doesn’t mean they weren’t there.”

The two men went quiet. Each looked around him off into the trees. What they were hoping to see, they did not know. As the quiet of the wood curled menacingly around them, Blakely hurled it back with a question.

“So, what do you think? Is this some kind of a haunting?”

“I don’t know,” answered Boles honestly. Sitting down on the ground so as to be able to concentrate better, he said, “There are few of the signs of a traditional haunting. Of any kind of haunting, actually. To have this much activity in an area so open and empty… no, the spirit world needs human energy to work with. But, there’s no one here.”

“There’s Na’kiraw,” suggested Blakely.

“Well, yes,” agreed Boles. “But he’s close to booking passage on the first cruise ship headed across the Styx, and hauntings are almost always accompanied by young people.”

“Really?”

“Oh, yes. Most often girls, most often around the age of emergent puberty. Lots of psychic energy in the air for spirits to play with.”

“Huummph,” answered Blakely sourly. “Not quite the case here. Na’kiraw’s about…”

The cryptozoologist broke off as he noted that Boles had slipped into a trance. The parapsychologist was a licensed FBI field psychic—Blakely had come to respect his talent, erratic as it was. Sometimes the moments of vision came upon Boles without warning; sometimes he induced them on his own. Whichever one this was, the cryptozoologist was determined to let him get all he could out of it.

Blakely started to walk over toward Boles—slowly, quietly—when the parapsychologist stood up suddenly and instantly started running back the way they had come. When Blakely shouted after him as to what he was doing, he was given no more answer than to “hurry up and follow.” Blakely caught up to his partner in the parking lot.

“What’s going on?” snapped Blakely. “What did you see?”

“It wasn’t a vision,” explained Boles, panting, gasping for breath. “It was more of a calling. We’ve got to get to Na’kiraw right away—now. He’s dying.”

Boles began to stumble off in the direction of the elder Indian’s home. Blakely followed along, not bothering with any more questions. He might dislike the parapsychologist, but he did respect the man’s abilities. The two rounded the teetering row of long-abandoned gift shops and all the rest, heading for the modest home the Native American had made for himself years ago. As they approached the place, both men called out, but no answers were forthcoming. As they arrived at the door, Boles said;

“Break it in.”

“What?” responded Blakely, more than a little taken aback.

“There’s no time to waste. Break it down.”

Slightly amused, Blakely reached out instead and simply turned the doorknob. The door slid quietly open. The cryptozoologist smiled as Boles shoved past him, hurrying inside without a word. Blakely’s smile soon faded, however, as he stepped in behind him. They had found Na’kiraw.

The old man was stretched out on his couch, breathing in raspy, heavy gasps. He was covered with a thin blanket despite the heat, his one arm clawing at the air above his head. His eyes closed, Na’kiraw muttered some inaudible phrase over and over. It was not the old man, however, nor the terrible sound of his breathing that captured the professors’ attention. Indeed, to all intents and purposes, the pair forgot about him almost the instant they saw him.

All about the room stirred an incredible assortment of unknown creatures. The things Boles had seen the night before were there—the shining, reptilian feline, the sabre-toothed bullet-headed beast, the bulbous one covered in red feathers. And more. Dozens more.

There were bat-like things hanging from the rafters, some all fang and claw and smelling of death. Some were curled on the floor in fearsome heaps, legged serpents with folds of skin tucked against their bodies appearing to be wings. A vast and powerful bear-like thing sat in the back corner, dragging its claws along the floor absently, sending large curls of wood peeling upward with every stroke.

Eyes green and orange and yellow stared at the two professors. Jaws opened and closed, tongues of all shapes and sizes and weights curled around fangs of every description. Blakely’s hand unconsciously unfastened the strap of his holster. When he realized what he had done, he began giggling, his mind highly amused at the comedy of his action. Boles’ eyes darted from thing to thing as he whispered;

“I swear, I believe this proves Von Juntz’s doctoral thesis, one part of it—”

“What are you babbling about?” demanded Blakely.

“Von Juntz, The Origin and Influence of Semantic Magical Texts. Can’t you hear Na’kiraw? He’s chanting. He’s causing this.”

“But why?” asked the cryptozoologist, his hand still on his weapon. “What is he causing? How is he causing it? What’s going on?”

“When Von Juntz was in school in the early 1800s, there were all sorts of random magics loose in the world—unexplained events, creatures—”

“Sure,” agreed Blakely, “that’s when sightings of Bigfoot began. So…?”

“Von Juntz offered one hypothesis for creatures like Yetis, or the Loch Ness Monster, things people continually see, but can never find. He said they were race memories of destroyed cultures, left behind as reminders, or avengers, of peoples who were wiped from the face of the earth.

“His theory was that the life energy of the last remaining member of a people could be used to create such a thing. A memory of them. Of how they felt, how they wanted to be remembered.”

Blakely looked about the room again. A number of fanged mouths seemed a great deal closer than they had been a moment earlier.

“Yeah, well exactly how does this guy want to be remembered?”

“I think we’ll have to ask him that question.”

Boles moved a foot forward slightly, testing whether or not they might be able to reach Na’kiraw. Blakely watched stunned, allowing the parapsychologist to move off several feet before thinking to follow him. The two moved in inches, quietly, slowly, steadily. All across the way, hate-filled, unblinking eyes monitored their progress, always seeming ready to pounce at any moment. Dust snowed down from the rafters, the agitation of the things hanging there sending down the decades of build-up. Low hisses and deep growls challenged their every movement.

“Na’kiraw,” whispered Boles, kneeling beside the couch, “can you hear me?” When there was no answer, the parapsychologist asked again;

“Can you hear me?”

Again there came no response. The old man simply lay on his couch, clutching his blanket, muttering his never-ending mantra. Back behind them, the professors realized that various of the things had blocked the way to the door. Others were sliding across the heavily curtained windows.

“Na’kiraw,” snapped Blakely, out of patience and almost out of courage, “wake up!”

The command was shared by a vicious slap across the Indian’s face. Growls sprang from every corner, but nothing stirred as the old man’s eyes blinked open. Before Na’kiraw could react to what was happening, Blakely asked;

“Is there anything we can get you? Do you have pills? Should we call an ambulance? Can we—” Na’kiraw held up a silencing hand.

“Too late. My time. Too tired, don’t care anymore.”

“Na’kiraw,” asked Boles, his voice tense and desperate. “Can you see the things here in the room with us? Do you know what is happening?”

The old man blinked, straining to see. Sweat poured down his forehead and into his eyes, clinging to his moving lashes. With a smile, he answered in a tired voice.

“The children of the Wa’Chenka. Come… come to take my place. Our place.”

“But,” blurted Blakely, “you said you didn’t see anything.”

“True. Never saw them. Came when I was sleeping. Dreaming. The darkness… reaching for me… telling me to choose…”

Boles held the old man’s hand at the wrist. His pulse was fading fast. Around them in the room, an agitated growling began to rumble. The light piercing the windows flickered, phasing out as the darkness blurred, reaching for them. From beyond, an ebony voice called out in vibrations more felt than heard. Languid purple sounds slithered through the gathering shroud, advancing, clamoring, shrieking—

One of the solidifying things, an apeish beast with four arms, brushed against the green scaled cat. A reptilian claw tore down the ape’s side, thick black ooze spurting from the parallel wounds. The ape pounded back in raging anger, but the cat had bounded away. Others in the crowd bit and swiped and snorted at one another. An arc of blood splattered down from the ceiling, splashing against Boles’ head, sloshing down over his forehead as he said;

“Choose? Choose what? One of these things? Why? What for?”

“To be our memory. To remind people that the Wa’Chenka ever existed.”

Blakely pulled his weapon as the disturbances around them grew more intense. Boles bent close to Na’kiraw, struggling to catch his every word over the growing din of the creatures all about them.

“Tribal elders, coming… demanding a choice. Many voices, scream for revenge. Death to the white man. Death to the pillager. Death to the yellow hair…”

“What is he saying?” demanded Blakely as he used his 9mm to warn off those things showing interest in himself and Boles.

“He’s rambling. Not talking to us anymore. He’s talking to himself. Dreaming, I think. He’s only verbalizing because we’re here intruding on his subconscious.”

A set of shelves crashed down from the wall, spilling the old man’s collected treasures. The things that knocked them down smashed the personal items into rubble as they tore and smashed at each other in unthinking combat.

“Elders coming,” Na’kiraw repeated. “Elders coming…”

A fox-like beast tore the throat from the red-feathered creature with the terrible eyes. Acrid smoke filtered from the wounds, bleeding across the floor. The long feathers dropped from the body one by one, floating in the thickening smoke.

“Elders… elders here.”

As if commanded, several ghostly figures passed through the front walls of the old building. Short, many of them seemed, but weathered of face and taut of muscle. They came in what looked like pounded leather clothing, most of them adorned with shells and beads and feathers. Old were their eyes. Gnarled were their hands. Stern were their expressions. As the two professors watched, the figures walked silently across the room, moving toward Na’kiraw. One by one, they came up to his resting place, and then they walked into him, sinking inside his flesh, disappearing within his soul.

They came by the dozens, the scores, the hundreds. Every chief and shaman of the Wa’Chenka from the first prehistoric days when they had ceased being random creatures and became men instead. Rude were some of them in stance and form, but they walked erect and their eyes shone with purpose.

As the last of them merged with the dying Na’kiraw, the beasts in the room continued to battle one another, tearing off limbs, gouging eyes, ripping hair out by its roots, biting, clawing, slashing. Blood of all kinds flowed. Brains were bashed, bodies were pulped—but nothing died. Not truly alive, the mashed remains continued to struggle. Severed appendages dragged themselves along, grasping blindly. Ruined bodies dragged themselves toward one another, fleshy mallets battering one another senselessly as the ghostsouls invading the old man demand he choose a champion.

Blakely and Boles unconsciously shoved themselves up against Na’kiraw’s couch, straining to get as close to the old man and as far from the children of the Wa’Chenka as possible. And then, when they were practically lying across his body, the old Indian sat bolt upright, his arms flinging upward.

“The choice is made!”

The words leapt from his body, echoing through the rafters, reverberating through the old shack even as its owner fell dead to his cushions. The creatures and pieces of creatures gave out a great hiss in unison, and then began to burst into flames.

“Jesus Christ a’mighty!” shouted Blakely. “Now what do we do?”

Boles had no answer for his partner. The flames spread to all the walls and ceilings in an instant, trapping the two professors in the center of the room. On the outside, purple smoke leaked from every crack and opening. Flames ate their way through moments later and the entire building was quickly covered, the torch mouth of it reaching for the clouds. The blazing ceiling caved in soon after. The fire spread to the other buildings quickly. Long before the fire trucks could arrive, the Wa’Chenka Village was reduced to cinders.

DUKE UNIVERSITY, DURHAM, NC
“Yes, yes, and then what happened?”

“We came home to see you, Stonewall. That’s our job, isn’t it?”

“Yes, no, I mean,” Mr. Gordon S. Pimms went red, flustered in his excitement. “But how did you escape the burning building?”

“We didn’t,” answered Boles in an almost bored tone. “The roof caved in on us. Everything burned. Poof.”

“But, but, butbutbutbut—”

“Ladies and gentlemen,” said Blakely, “the world’s first hot air-powered motorboat.”

“Now see here, Hugo…”

Blakely let loose a short laugh. Boles merely smiled quietly. The school chancellor ranted for a while longer, but both professors stuck to their story, refusing to tell him anything else—though both remembered what happened quite clearly. When the ceiling had collapsed, the only remaining beast, the one chosen by Na’kiraw, despite most of his ancestors’ wishes, flew above the two men and began beating its wings furiously. As it did, it created a dome of air over the professors, enough to sustain them while the fire raged. As they clung to the old man’s corpse, sweating from the heat, they heard his disappearing voice in their heads.

“The Wa’Chenka were never great warriors. Many argue for revenge, but revenge against who? Against what? Fearsome should not be our memory. Small we were, fast we were, clever, but unnoticed. Beautiful, but rarely seen.”

Finally leaving Pimms’ office, the pair waved at the flustered chancellor as his polished mahogany door closed behind them. As they headed quickly for the hall, making to escape before Pimms thought to come after them, Blakely said;

“Well, duty’s done and all that. What’dya say, Boles, want to go get a drink?” The parapsychologist’s eyes went wide for a moment as he considered his colleague. Before he could answer, Blakely added;

“I was just thinking, maybe the two of us had better start trying to get along before we get into something… I don’t know, something where a little more teamwork might work better than the way we’ve been doing things so far.”

“I’d really like to say something sarcastic,” admitted Boles, “but the simple truth is I think you’re right. It’s a thought that occurred to me as I watched the ceiling caving in on us.”

“I know what you mean,” answered Blakely, his tone quieter than normal. Chastised. “Com’on, I’ve got a bottle of Jack Daniel’s in my office—”

“Green label, I hope?”

“Yeah, that would be appropriate, wouldn’t it? Sure, the good stuff, why not?”

As the two walked down the hallway, Boles ventured a comment bordering on the friendly.

“Heavens, who would have thought it? We’re almost Humphrey Bogart and Claude Rains at this point.”

“Yeah, it could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship at that. And if it isn’t, I’ve still got the pictures I took of you layin’ all sprawled in the forest with your face full of thorns and…”

“You what?

Boles sputtered at his colleague. Blakely laughed. The two men kept walking toward their liquid reward, however, and far away in the deep wood, a hummingbird—one not fearsome but fast, clever but unnoticed, beautiful, but rarely seen, chirped in approval. Beating its emerald green wings, it flitted off into the forest, searching for the perfect spot where it could sun itself.

Memories2

Illustration by Billy Tackett

 

The Rationale

Rationale

Illustration by Billy Tackett

by G.M. Weger

 

In the early morning hours I awoke from a dream, and he was standing in the doorway. He had his father’s olive skin, green, catlike eyes, and wavy golden hair. There was something familiar about him, so I didn’t scream. He came and sat at the foot of my bed.

“Do you know me, mother? I’m your son, Aaron.”

I was speechless. He was so close that I could smell his salty skin and grease-stained hands. I thought that I must be in that state halfway between the waking and the sleeping. Last night was All Hallow’s Eve, the night where it is said that the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead is lifted and one can speak with their departed loved ones. I laid out my offering of crackers and cheese, ham, carrots, some truffles, and shots of rum—things I thought my relatives would enjoy after their long journey across the worlds. I set out pictures of my mother and grandmothers—my grandmother’s engagement ring, my mother’s pearls, an embroidered tablecloth made by my maternal grandmother—things that reminded me of them or once were theirs, and three small stuffed toys for my lost babies.

“Am I dreaming?” I asked the young man.

“No Mother, you’re not.”

“Why have you come?”

“You invited me.” His manner was direct, matter-of-fact, short.

“How did I do that?”

“You put the blue bear on the table for me and asked that I come.”

“Are you my first?”

“Yes.”

I remember the tacky upstairs apartment I lived in with his father. The passionate fights we used to have. How he would push me around so violently, throw me up against the wall, just short of hitting me. I remember making up after the fights, how good the sex would be, the orgasms, like a surprise. I remember the hurt when Mike wouldn’t go with me to have the abortion. I was so young. It meant nothing to me to get rid of it.

“Is this how you would be if I had you or how I want to see you?”

“This is the truth. I’ve got the scars to prove it.”

Aaron looked older than his twenty-four years. It was in his eyes—pain, defeat, anger, defiance—things that weren’t supposed to be in a young man’s face. The eyes tell so much. Looking at old school photos of my sister I could tell what happened that year just by looking at her eyes. They went from childlike, happy, and innocent, to pissed-off and stoned. Lost was the sweetness of youth. But where did it go? When was the exact moment that the eyes changed? Was it when I was born and took the attention away? Was it the first time I betrayed her by going out with Mike?

“What do you want, mother?”

He didn’t want to be there. I could tell by the way he was sitting close, but with a wall between us. “Just to see you, I guess. I’ve often wondered what you would have been like… if I’d had you.”

“Yeah? I’ve got some questions for you too.” He stood up. “Like, why was I born?”

I was too young to be living with a man. He was the quintessential bad dude—a drug-addicted whore who’d do anything for pleasure. I don’t know how we rented our places to live, but we did—two of them. It was in the second one that I got pregnant. By that time, in addition to pot and booze, I’d either smoked swallowed or snorted quaaludes, valium, seconal, acid, cocaine, morphine, crank, angel dust, mushrooms, and pretty much anything I could find in a medicine cabinet. The time spent with Mike is a blur of drugged-out scenes.

“But you weren’t born. I aborted you.” I finally answered, confused.

“You didn’t want me then. That’s worse.”

“How can it be worse when the life I would have given you was so… insane?”

He glared at me and turned his head toward the window. I could see it then. It wasn’t visible on the left side of his face—a lovely, clear complexion with the smooth, olive skin of his Portuguese father. The right was different, like the front side of a cheese grater—angry purple craters—the scars we gave him from our sexual ignorance, and he wore without choice. They were his warrior marks.

“It’s like saying that it’s better not to try because you might fail. You took away my life.”

“It’s complicated Aaron.” I suddenly felt drained. How could I justify my choice to him? I was just a child without thought for what precious life was growing inside me.

He left then. Just turned and faded into a zillion black specks that fell away like so much flea dirt. I wanted to shake it off of me and leave it there, having been its host for too long. I closed my eyes. Silence, how I longed for it.

“Hey, Ma.” It was a young woman’s voice. “Wake up.”

She was small and sinewy with yellow skin and dark eyes that peered from beneath her dirty brown hair.

“I’m not your mother. Perhaps you should check with the desk for the correct room number.”

“This be it.” She stood with legs planted and hands on her tiny hips. “July 23rd, 1985. Remind you of anything?”

Hawaii, I thought, and a miserable, self-obsessed young woman with a penchant for men and mai tais, and an exotic man who spoke broken English. He wanted to send the baby to his Brazilian mother to raise. All I wanted was to be put to sleep during the procedure.

“Are you Carlos’s daughter?” I asked, but the answer was there in front of me in full jaundiced color. “What do you want of me now? I’m old.”

She sneered. “You’re not so old.”

“I must have a fever,” I mumbled, feeling my forehead.

She twittered, “That’s right, mom, I’m a fucking hallucination.” She pulled a pack of cigarettes from her bag and lit one, inhaling as naturally as if it were air. I smelled the scent of cloves then and remembered how it used to cling to everything in Carlos’s house. I had liked it at first. It was a sort of sweet and spicy scent that was intoxicating to the senses, but after a time it wore on me and made me nauseous. After discovering that Carlos regularly went to a methadone clinic to kick heroine, the cloves smelled a lot less exotic and much more pathetic. I had to get away.

I waved my hands trying to clear the air. Perhaps she would disappear too, but she didn’t. Instead, she pulled a chair close and blew smoke up toward her nose impatiently. “So, Ma, why’d you drag me here?”

“I did no such thing.” Then I remembered the doll I had set out. “I was just reminiscing. I’m entitled to that.”

“No, it’s the drugs and death waiting. The stink in here! It’s poisoning your mind.”

“You must know. It follows you, as it did your father.”

“Bitch! I didn’t crawl out from a rock, you know? You made me!”

Yes, of course, she was right, and it was another mistake. The timing was inconvenient. I wasn’t ready to be a mother. And I certainly didn’t want Carlos to be the father. But there it was anyway. He was so pitiful and hopelessly inadequate as a potential mate. There was no way I was going to have a child by him. The only thing I could do was run away and have the abortion without telling him.

Looking at her now, I knew I had made the right decision. I could see the signs like a road map on her arms. At eighteen or nineteen years old, she was already a big time user. Judging from the color of her skin, her liver was in a highly toxic state. I had seen enough and shut my eyes, so I wouldn’t have to see her accusatory glare. As artfully as a master magician, I said, “Be gone,” and waved my hands. When I opened my eyes, only her smell lingered, but her name, like a cacophonous note shrieked in my head, “Me-lo-dee!”

I breathed deeply in-out, in-out. My breath came as a meditation. It cleared my head. The chatter in my brain finally stopped. I felt my heart slow and then the usual sadness crept in and sat in my chest. I was utterly alone.

There was a whistling sound coming from the window. I went to open it a crack and a small child’s hand snaked through, then a mop of reddish hair, a flannel blue pendleton over thin shoulders, a blue-jeaned backside, and finally well-worn ankle-high tennis shoes. He stood up, shaking his hair out of his blue eyes. I immediately recognized this ruddy-faced boy. “Billy,” I said, holding out my arms to him. But he didn’t come to me. Instead, he shuffled a safe distance away into the shadow by the door. “Come here, Billy. It’s ok,” I coaxed, but he didn’t budge.

“Who are you?” he croaked.

“I’m…” I began. The question, coming as it did from a nine-year-old child, gave me pause to consider more deeply. Children had a way of cutting to the core of a thing. Indeed, what was I to this boy? His father and I were engaged to be married when he was growing in my uterus. I was finishing a ten-year gig in college. At the age of twenty-nine, I was introduced to sex toys and was having a fine time. Jim was fat and balding with bad teeth, but I’d told myself those things didn’t matter. The end came when I became critical of his attempts to keep me barefoot and pregnant. I had bigger plans. Double income, no kids, was my mantra.

I heard a whimper from the corner of the room. Billy was hunched there, his blue shirt lifted up in the back showing his pale, almost luminous skin. It was mesmerizing. Godlike. I went to him, touching his soft hair and felt a warmth through my hand, a sense of comfort and relaxation, like I could get lost in the child.

“Billy, son, let me hold you.”

But he squirmed away just out of reach into the darkest corner of my room.

I called to him again. And then I saw him. He was shorter than Billy, but bigger in a gangly sort of way. He didn’t walk; he jerked to me with arms outstretched reaching. His face was distorted, a grotesque caricature of my angel boy, Billy.

“No!” I screamed, shrinking away from his devil touch. I shut my eyes relieved in a way to finally receive my punishment.

“Wake up Mrs. White,” I heard the nurse say.

He was gone or hiding. “Where is he?”

“Your babies? It was a long ordeal, but they’re resting.”

“Billy’s twin. He was here. He wanted to hurt me.”

The nurse looked quizzically at me. “Are you feeling okay, Mrs. White? Let’s just check your vitals…”

“No, pleeeease tell me!”

“Mrs. White, there’s no one here. Just you and me.” The nurse was all business with her pressed uniform and hair pulled into a tight little bun on the back of her head. Her mouth was a razor slit in her face, a single gaping hole that her voice came through.

I looked around the room for Billy, not ready to believe he was gone. “But he was here a second ago!”

“Let’s try to relax, Mrs. White. It’s been a difficult day. You must conserve your strength. Your babies will need you.”

“My babies?”

As if on cue, Dr. Koonan walked into the room. “And how’s our little mom doing? Feeling more rested?”

“I’m feeling confused doctor.”

“Confused? About what?” The nurse was raising her eyebrows at Dr. Koonan like they shared a confidence.

“What babies?”

Then, as if through some wizardry of its own, the door pushed open and in came a very large, clear plastic bassinet. Inside something moved.

“There must be a mistake. These aren’t mine.”

“Every mother feels a bit overwhelmed at first, Mrs. White.”

The nurse pushed the bassinet closer to the bed. I turned my head away.

“You’re so lucky to have three healthy, beautiful babies, Mrs. White.”

“Three?”

The nurse glanced at the window. It was still open. “You mustn’t think on the other one. He didn’t develop… normally.”

I looked at the doctor questioning.

“He was stillborn.”

The nurse was insistent. “Look at them, Mrs. White! Your babies!”

I did. There were three tiny infants on their backs. They had small white caps on their heads, each with a ball of colored yarn at the top. Two blue and one pink. But I didn’t need the colors to see their gender. One boy had purple pea-sized marks on the right side of his face. The other had flaming red hair. And the third? They say that babies can’t see details until they are about three months old, but this small girl was glaring right at me with her angry black eyes. A smell began to rise around me, like the stink of a thousand sins. I knew it well.

 

E-mails: 10

by KT Pinto

 

! This e-mail is High Priority
From: blacdeth150
To: wykedwytch, h8u4eva, bludfest98, sh8thpns, downndumpz9, sodafiend4, d-manspaun, inferno09, jaded73
Subject: Please Believe Me!

I don’t know how much time I have, so please read this!

We are all in grave danger! Some things are killing off humans and replacing us with others—only we don’t notice it!

Lately I’ve become aware of subtle changes about my co-workers. Eye color, skin tone, dimples… things I could have always dismissed as my own bad observation skills.

But then I saw them! Little grey creatures with eyes like headlights. At first I thought they were shadows, tricks of my imagination, but then there was that day at work. I was on the night shift with Little John, and he was rambling on and on about his new car, when these creatures attacked him, ripping out his eyes and eating them. They then replaced his prone body with a blue-eyed version and no one, not even he, knew what had just happened! I mean, the kid is oblivious most times, but you think he would notice that his eyes were being torn out of their sockets. Instead he just continued yammering on about how much horsepower his V6 engine had…

Lunchtime’s over! I must get back to work! I’ll keep you posted…

! This e-mail is High Priority
From: blacdeth150
To: wykedwytch, h8u4eva, hugfest98, sh8thpns, downndumpz9, sodafiend4, d-manspaun, inferno09, jaded73
Subject: It Happened Again

This time the victim was that wispy blonde actress at the community theater! Right in the middle of a performance, three of those grey monsters pulled her to the ground and scalped her dead. A red-headed copy took her place. I know actors believe that the show must go on no matter what, but really! They walked through her blood and brains as if the mess wasn’t even there! Half of them, as well as the first three rows of the audience, were splattered with the gore, and no one seemed to realize this but me… did you know that blood actually does taste like copper?

There has to be a way to stop these creatures before one of us is next…

! This e-mail is High Priority
From: blacdeth150
To: wykedwytch, h8u4eva, hugfest98, sh8thpns, downndumpz9, sodafiend4, angelkin, inferno09, jaded73
Subject: Watch Your Backs!

And your fronts, too!

I thought these monsters couldn’t stoop any lower than killing us all, but now they aren’t even trying to hide their substitutions! Last week Michael (you all may now know him as Michele) was attacked… need I go into the gory details of his painful death?

We were at a strip club, (don’t ask what I was doing there—I’m just that good a friend!), and he was getting a lap dance from a buxom brunette, when out they came: four of those creatures, and one of them was holding a scythe. After such an arousing display from the dancer, it was easy for the creatures to find their target… Talk about a bris gone bad!

Please be careful…

! This e-mail is High Priority
From: blacdeth150
To: gudwytch, h8u4eva, hugfest98, sh8thpns, downndumpz9, sodafiend4, angelkin, inferno09, jaded73
Subject: Need To Lose Weight?

No one needs a weight loss program the way Kayla from the mega-store just received one! I think the monsters know that I can see them, because this time seven of them dragged the poor girl to the ground, stuck tubes with sharpened ends into her body, and literally sucked the life out of her, chatting all the while over her gut-wrenching screams. It was like they were hanging out at a diner drinking a milkshake rather than slurping tons of fat out of an outrageously large woman.

I swear one of those creatures waved at me as a svelte Kayla stepped to the register and tried to figure out how much change I should get back from $21 for a $16 purchase. You would think they would have improved her brain along with her figure…

Is it obvious that I’m not really upset about her demise? It was tragic, of course, but the girl was so loud and obnoxious, and spent way too much time at my job keeping her eye on her poor boyfriend, that I really can’t find enough grief to feign any sort of emotional display. This thin Kayla seems a whole lot more passive and demure than the large one, but I think there might be dark times ahead for her boyfriend, who couldn’t get a hot number like the new Kayla if he tripped over her… but I digress…

We have to figure out a way to save ourselves…

! This e-mail is High Priority
From: blacdeth150
To: gudwytch, h8u4eva, hugfest98, sh8thpns, hapidayz9, sodafiend4, angelkin, inferno09, jaded73
Subject: They’re Getting Creative

It would be conceited to say that they are now doing their gruesome antics for my benefit, but sometimes I think there could be no other reason.

I was visiting a friend in the hospital, when the beasts grabbed the extremely tall nurse checking his heart monitors and slowly pulled her white clad legs through a meat grinder, splattering blood all over the antiseptic hospital room. It was freaky to see bits of white nylon among the chopped meat, but when I went to comment on it to my friend, I realized that he wasn’t seeing the massacre going on right at the foot of his bed. He just stared up at the ceiling, lamenting that he was missing the last episode of his favorite superhero cartoon. You would think by the way he was bitching about it that he was seven instead of thirty-seven, but that’s the way he normally is when it comes to his superheroes. What isn’t normal is him being so preoccupied that he wouldn’t observe someone getting shredded into dog food!

He didn’t even realize that nurse that took his temperature was now only five feet tall. Not only did I notice that, but I also noticed that she was no longer wearing stockings…

! This e-mail is High Priority
From: blacdeth150
To: gudwytch, luvu4eva, hugfest98, sh8thpns, hapidayz9, sodafiend4, angelkin, inferno09, jaded73
Subject: Acknowledgement

I now know for certain that they are aware of me.

I was at work today, gritting my teeth at the moans and whines coming from the crowd of kids in the toy department, when a handful of the grey creatures traipsed past me in single file, each carrying a gleaming knife. The last one in line turned and beckoned to me.

I don’t know what made me decide to follow…

I told Little John (the one with the new blue eyes) I would be right back, then took off for toys. I found the creatures, still in a row, walking silently up to a little red-headed boy who wouldn’t stop whining about a pocket video game he wanted, and neatly cutting his neck in two. They then went up and down the aisles, grabbing the other wailing children and slicing their throats. The blood of the dead filled the toy department like an invisible river, which the unknowing parents idly waded through on their way to appease their pampered striplings. Meanwhile, little replacements sprung up in the dead brats’ places, and I must admit that the new children were much, much quieter…

! This e-mail is High Priority
From: blacdeth150
To: gudwytch, luvu4eva, hugfest98, sh8thpns, hapidayz9, sodafiend4, angelkin, inferno09, jade73
Subject: Ring Around the Collar

Have you ever wondered what it was like to see someone hanged? It’s a slow painful process if the neck isn’t broken immediately. The person chokes to death, gagging and clawing at his throat, trying to find some way to release the constriction on his windpipe…

How do I know this? I got to watch it first-hand as the little monsters strung up the guy who sits in front of me at night school, choking the life out of him. Meanwhile his replacement—who by the way has an incredibly deep, husky voice—sat at his desk, ignoring the feet twitching inches above him, and started chatting with me for the first time ever!

Be forewarned: if there’s one thing that ruins a good flirting session, it’s a guy being hanged right above your heads…

We have plans to go out this Friday; hopefully we will both still be the same people we were when we made the plans.

! This e-mail is High Priority
From: blacdeth150
To: gudwytch, luvu4eva, hugfest98, sh8thpns, hapidayz9, sodafiend4, angelkin, campfire09, jade73
Subject: Crazy? Me?

I’m trying not to be, but how else can you see all of the things I’ve seen and still stay sane?

Everywhere I look, replacements are being made. Men, women, children… yes, even pets are not safe from their thirst for blood… which may explain why you sometimes see Rottweilers with names like “Fluffy”…

I don’t know how much more I can take before I snap. I saw at least ten people replaced during my date this past Friday. A couple of men, some women, a handful of kids and three dogs beaten, mangled and slaughtered right in front of the little bistro table where my date and I sat. Next time we’re going to have dinner indoors.

I’m so lucky to have a stable group of friends like you to keep me balanced.

! This e-mail is High Priority
From: blacdeth150
To: gudwytch, luvu4eva, hugfest98, sh8thpns, hapidayz9, sodafriend4, angelkin, campfire09, jade73
Subject: Spectator or Mascot?

While I was watching a set of triplets get turned from identical to fraternal siblings, I wondered why I was being shown the creatures’ talents… what makes me different. Is it just some sort of dumb luck (good, bad or otherwise) that gives me the power to see their handiwork? Or do I have that much of a wicked streak that I am able to see the horrors of another plane? Or am I just crazy? Maybe the stress of dealing with the public every day, 40+ hours a week is making me hallucinate—I’ve heard being inundated with stupidity can affect the mind.

The sad part is that I’m starting to really enjoy the visits I’m getting from these creatures. They are so creative in their methods of torture and murder; it’s fascinating to see. Their acts seemed so random—yet so precise—it was like watching alien artists at work. Their weaponry would make an executioner drool: knives, axes, hammers, spears, daggers, throwing stars, flails, maces, rapiers, swords, ropes… it’s like a game of Clue gone mad. And was there really any harm in what they did? I mean, it’s not like the people disappeared completely… they were still there, just different, usually better.

Sometimes, though, I have this niggling in my brain that I’m not as secure in my position in life as I think I am. I mean, as wonderful as I am, there might be something in me that the creatures might find distasteful. You might talk to me one day, and I may no longer be the cheerful goth girl that you’re speaking to now. I might be bubbly and perky and start wearing—ugh—pink! So, for that reason, I am going to remind you what I look like, so if something does happen to me, you will have written proof that I am no longer me. I’m 5’7″, size 14W, 36DD, black hair, brown eyes, a dimple on each cheek, sultry voice, sarcastic demeanor… you know, your basic goddess on Earth…

Please guys, whatever you do, don’t forget me… promise you’ll save this letter and won’t forget me…

! This e-mail is High Priority
From: newlif150
To: gudwytch, luvu4eva, hugfest98, sh8thpns, hapidayz9, sodafiend4, angelkin, campfire09, jade73
Subject: Too Good to Be True

Can you believe that Slim & Sexy is having a sale on pink and lavender push-up bras? It’s like they knew I needed them! Who’s going to the mall with me!?!

 

The Curse of Eternity

Chalk Outline 2by C.J. Henderson

 

“Here’s the Easter Rabbit, hurray…”

The woman’s attention drifted fractionally toward the television, caught by the same animation that had played endlessly everywhere for the past eleven days. Instantly she refocused on the two men in front of her.

“I hope,” one said to the other, “you know what you’re gettin’ into here.”

The policeman said the words with an earnest growl, his eyes and entire face filled with the fact that with his sentence he was paying all debts and cutting all ties. The woman could tell he was neither angry nor resentful. Two things did radiate from him, however. The fact he was afraid of something, and the just dawning notion in the back of his mind that he did not understand what it was exactly that he feared.

“Bringing Easter cheer, today…”

Which, of course, scared him more than anything else.

“I think I do, Carter,” answered the other man. His name was Michael Malone. It was the byline that ran on his column, the one name in all of New York City everyone trusted. “I won’t stay more than five minutes. He doesn’t have to answer a single thing. We just want to ask.”

The sergeant said nothing. He didn’t understand, couldn’t see the gain in Malone’s request, and didn’t care to. He knew why he was there. Malone didn’t matter.

Carefully and quickly, the policeman moved through the gray, back corridors of the city hospital, leading the reporter and the woman in black to their destination. The woman, controlling her breathing as they moved forward, held a dark shawl around her head, over her shoulders, across her cheeks—all of her self shadowed off from the world except for a few fractions of skin showing around the frames of her darkened glasses.

Control, she thought. Control.

Her name was Lai Wan. She was not one to leave her home, to travel any distances whatever, unless it was absolutely necessary. She was not one to look strangers directly in the eye, either. Ultimately, most people preferred she keep it that way. They had their reasons.

The woman was a psychometrist. Years earlier a fatal accident had left her dead for a handful of time. Revived on the operating table, she came back to the tangible world to find herself afflicted with strange new abilities. She could read people’s thoughts by making the briefest contact, know their feelings and emotions simply by standing in the same room. As for inanimate objects, she could read their history after but the slightest touch.

She learned of that particular ability first, waking from her surgery with the pain of each and every one of her bed’s former occupants raging through her system. The cancerous and the insane, amputees, burn victims—those crushed by automobiles, dying of gunshot wounds, bowels afire with gangrene—vivid memories of shattered bones, polluted and ruptured organs, broken and torn skin, gushing blood and failing breath and the terrible, numbing realization that the end was near—the fear, the screaming, spine-melting fear…

Soon she could feel all the patients within the building—their wounds, their terror… all of it suddenly hers, flooding in—unstoppable, real and tangible and overpoweringly terrible. The doctors never did understand how she could keep screaming even after they applied their anesthetics.

“We’re almost there,” announced the cop tersely. “Have your questions ready. You will definitely be on the clock, Malone.”

It took the woman years to learn to deal with her unasked-for abilities. Hiding from the world, staying within her own domain, handling only her own things, slowly she built shields between herself and the rest of the universe. Now, she could walk down a street freely, capable of stopping the onslaught of memories jammed into every ancient footprint.

Like a person hiking through a garbage dump, holding their nose against the smell, the psychometrist kept tight her mind’s armor against the hospital’s history. Before her, Malone nodded to the policeman. Glancing over his shoulder, he winked at Lai Wan.

“You ready?” he asked, knowing the answer.

Ready to cash your check, she thought sharply. Ready to leave this pit of suffering, ready to…

Breaking off thoughts that could lead to a drop in her control, in her maintenance of the flood gates holding back the swirling eddies of suffering just beyond her too-sensitive nerves, she held her tongue and merely nodded.

Malone smiled, misinterpreting her response. Too young, really, for the position of monumental trust he held, the reporter had been drifting for some time on his previous record. Barely past thirty, he was an actualization of the dream image the modern media held of itself. Tall, handsome, with a full head of raven black hair, squared shoulders and a welter-weight’s form, he was an honest man in a dishonest world, the truthful mirror into which no one wanted to peer.

In the beginning he had stormed the city’s press establishment with a series of whistle-blowing stories that had shocked the nation and catapulted him to international fame. There was no doubt in anyone’s mind that Mike Malone was a square shooter. For a while, his unique approach had invigorated and refreshed. For a while.

It did not take long, however, before those in power, those who spent their days keeping their spines pressed up against dark secrets, severed all connections that might possibly join them to the reporter. His sources of information evaporated as those whose sleep was disturbed nightly by the scratching of bony fingers added more and more locks to their closets. Cranks and whistle-blowers kept him in tips, of course, handing him wedges with which he could pry open new scandals, but his world had grown far more difficult to navigate. No one wanted to answer his calls. His expense account could not induce anyone to lunch—even those with nothing to hide could not afford to be seen with him.

What if someone saw me with him, they would think. What would people say?

Guilt by association was a crime few were willing to risk in the case of Mr. Michael Malone.

“Hell,” his boss had said with sympathy, predicting what would happen early on. “Don’t sweat it. It’s the new millennium. Even the innocent are guilty of something.”

No one blamed Malone. But still, the reporter’s stories had slowly become less sensational. His skill with words had not diminished, but with his reach so considerably shortened, his incorruptible, unreasonable honesty had killed his career. Less than three years in the business, and he had been elevated to grand old man status—honored for his past work, curbed and fettered to keep him from exposing any more of the darkness. Neutered at the top of his game; finished off for daring to actually do his job.

“This is the hallway,” said Carter. “I’m going to scout ahead. Everything should be arranged, but I’m not taking chances. You two wait here.”

Malone nodded again. He kept his smile in check, sucked back the flowing saliva, eagerness churning his nerves. Being a has-been was over for the reporter.

“Here we go,” he whispered, day-dreaming of his eminent return to stardom. “Time to meet Easter Boy.”

Easter Boy, the trite designation the press had united behind to label a miracle. The appellation applied to one Kenneth Rabe, or more specifically, to his condition. On the surface, his was not that amazing a situation for, what had everyone speculating and whispering and making demands was merely the fact that he was alive. Of course, what did justify their reactions was that not that long before his being reported alive, he had been most assuredly dead.

The known facts: on Friday the 12th, the eminent scientist Mr. Kenneth Rabe had been struck by a truck that jumped the curb outside his apartment building. It was a terrible accident, but clearly an accident. The driver had suffered a heart attack and was dead himself before his forty odd tons of steel had crushed Rabe between metal and brick.

And crushed he had been. Ribs destroyed, internal organs pulped. Neck broken, a minimum of four quarts of blood lost at the scene alone, the world conceded that there simply was no hope for the venerable Mr. Rabe. And that was a pity, for he had been very close to cracking one of the principal defenses of the essential heart of all viruses. The cure for the common cold, if you will, but also, because of how it might have worked fundamentally, it would have also been the cure for everything.

That was the speculation, anyway, of the best minds in the world behind Rabe’s, those who all moved up a notch because his genius had been stolen. That Friday night and all day Saturday, the media whipped itself into its usual, predictably choreographed frenzy—just another of the ink and video public bemoanments to be followed by one of those great emotional outpourings that shattered the world’s aura from time to time.

Mass communication was a terrible burden to people like Lai Wan. Her soul felt the effects in the ether of the world the way anyone else’s skin would feel the rays of the sun. Moments that riveted the attention of the masses around the world, or merely in large areas, sent shock waves outward that humanity could not even recognize. But they often felt their effects.

How many tornadoes, she wondered casually—abstractly—have the world’s fools caused by focusing their ghoulish attention on how often tornadoes hit trailer parks? The murderous comedy of the intelligentsia…

“Hey,” asked Malone, catching a hint of the actual span between himself and the psychometrist in her eyes, “you still with us?”

“I am here, Michael,” she assured him, gesturing about her. “Just keeping my distance.”

“Yelp-yep, okay, you just looked pretty far away.”

“I was,” she told him honestly. “I was remembering the death of an English whore. She was able to pretend to be what the unthinking masses wanted her to be up to and including her tragic death. The weeks of deadening grief, as the world’s fools slobbered over her pathetic demise…”

The psychometrist flashed through the memory of the princess’s death, and of the moronic outpour that filled the world afterward. The dark things that fed on irony feasted like pigs at an ever-deepening troth. She had not so much as opened a window for two months. But, she wondered, how to explain such things to the reporter.

“What I mean,” she whispered, “is that when some great mass of the world audience latches onto the same fascination,” wondering if he could comprehend, “their collective joy or dread or anger or sorrow, or whatever, sends out waves of subconscious energy which shatter time and space,” if she should bother. “Perceptions change, doorways close, dimensions shift.”

“Yeaaaaah?” Malone moved his jaw to one side, trying to fathom what the psychometrist meant. “And it’s what—painful for you?”

“Not in a sense you could understand,” she answered. “It is more repugnance, it is the rot of the human spirit putrefying the air…”

When the psychometrist stopped herself, Malone’s mood altered. With hesitation nagging his words, he asked, “So is this going to throw you off? Is it something that could effect tonight?”

Lai Wan could feel Malone’s fright and growing confusion, and yet there was excitement in the reporter as well. His eagerness merely to be in the presence of such a mystery as Kenneth Rabe practically glowed in a shimmer across his skin. With a sigh, the psychometrist tried to explain once more.

“What you ask is difficult to answer. Understand, if everyone in a room thinks about one person in the room at the same time, that person will feel it. If an entertainer appears before an enthusiastic crowd the cheering energizes them to the point where they can perform endlessly. When everyone in the world starts focusing their attention on something, it releases force into the physical fibers of reality. There can be no predicting of the effects, because we do not know what is to be learned tonight. If we learn something that will make the world happy—that is what will result. If we learn something else…”

The psychometrist gave up trying to explain. She was no expert herself. There were no experts on such things. Taking a deep breath, she told the reporter;

“There is nothing else I can tell you. Suffice it to say that your Mr. Rabe could be a very dangerous man.”

It took Malone a moment to make the connection. If what Lai Wan were saying was true, then the media’s hyping of Rabe’s secret could be setting these waves off already. And as the reporter, and everyone else in the known world, knew, Rabe certainly did have a secret.

For, dead on Friday, crushed to death in the afternoon, he was on Sunday morning, risen from the grave. Spotted alive, he tried to flee those who, by the merest of chance, happened to blunder into him in the middle of nowhere. Recognizing him from the endless television noise about the terrible loss of his death, the small party decided he had to be restrained for his own good. Seeming tired and weary, Rabe had not resisted.

Easter Boy. It was one of the most vulgar press nomen yet. And soon, Malone would be given access to him. And Lai Wan would enter the room with him. And whether Rabe talked to him or not, lied or not, it would not matter. Lai Wan would know the truth. Just be being there. And thus he would know. And then the world.

“Let’s go.”

An in-motion Carter had returned. Raising his eyebrows to the reporter he turned again, walking away at a fast clip. Malone and Lai Wan followed. They reached Rabe’s room in a matter of seconds. The patrolman stopped at the entrance, pursed his lips, took a breath, then opened the door and entered. Malone’s head turned slightly from side to side, his eyes darting to make certain they were not being observed. Lai Wan entered behind him, quite aware that no eyes were on them, but that many were aware of their arrival.

“Mr. Rabe,” said Malone quickly, not wanting to waste a second of his time. “Just a few brief questions. You don’t have to answer anything, defend yourself, nothing. I just wanted to ask…”

Lai Wan focused her attention on the scientist. He was tired looking, drawn and worn out. Her connection to him separated by several feet, still, he was standing on the same floor she was, breathing the same confined block of air. Already her nerves were tingling. He was Kenneth Rabe. He had been dead, smashed to a pulp. And yet, here he was again. But, this was not like her return from beyond. This was something… different. Frightfully different.

Carter stepped toward the small wheeled table near the foot of the bed, fumbling at his belt. Malone moved further into the room, still explaining herself. Lai Wan shut her eyes, maximizing her concentration.

“All I really want to ask, sir, is… how can you be alive? You didn’t survive that crash, you were dead on the street. You were hurried to a hospital, but…”

Carter stepped away from the table, blocking the others’ view of it. No one paid him any real attention. As, of course, he had known they would not. That nagging realization entered Lai Wan’s mind.

He is thinking about the fact we are not aware of his actions, she realized. What actions? Why?

“You were as dead as they come…”

Rabe turned away from Malone, his weariness apparent. His back to the newsman, he spoke in a dull and languid voice.

“I’m sorry to have brought you here, Malone, but I needed a witness.”

“Excuse me…”

“In the first century BC, Publilius Syrus, a Roman writer, said, ‘better to be ignorant of a matter than half know it.’”

“I’m not certain I understand, sir.”

Ignoring the newsman, Rabe reached toward the table. Malone went back to his questions, talking quickly, priming the scientist’s mind to think about those things he wanted the psychometrist to hear.

“Sir, how can you be alive now? Can you tell us what happened?”

Brushing his arm, Lai Wan felt Rabe’s thoughts on those questions as they involuntarily flooded his brain. What she learned surprised her, sent her attention away from her mind and back to her eyes, darting from Rabe to Carter, to Rabe’s hand, lifting the gun, pulling the trigger…

* *** *

It was more than three days before Malone and Lai Wan were finally able to contact one another once more. Angry, confused and somewhat frightened, Malone was more than willing to start the conversation rolling.

“All right, what the hell happened that night? Where did you go? How’d you do it, disappear on me, I mean, and why? You left me there, to take, I mean, by myself, with all… what the hell happened?”

“Calm yourself, Mr. Malone,” cautioned the psychometrist. “You are in my home. I do not need you spilling random emotions into my belongings. If I did not intend to tell you what happened, you would never have heard from me again.”

“But…”

“Please sit. Pour yourself some tea. Be calm.”

Lai Wan waited for the newsman to do as she instructed. Her servant, seeing his mistress was in no danger, obeyed her subtle hand signal and removed himself to the kitchen. As Malone sipped at his tea, the psychometrist gave him his answer.

“I did not disappear,” she told him. “I absenced myself. Pulling inward, I focused my attention only on my internal being. I was in plain sight the entire time, I simply removed myself from notice. Everyone that arrived focused on the main scene—you and the bodies—it was enough to allow me to remove myself.”

“But Rabe, shooting himself, and Carter, grabbing the gun from his hand, shooting himself—why? What was it all about?”

“Officer Carter had been instructed to supply Mr. Rabe with his pistol. Mr. Rabe knew what to do with it. Carter then turned the gun on himself because he had already agreed to do so, vast monies supplied to his family, indiscretions forgotten, something along those lines.” Lai Wan took a breath, giving Malone a last moment of bliss, then went on.

“Truth be told,” she said, “I agreed with their motives.”

The newsman held the small tea cup steadily before his face, but his mouth sealed into a thin, drawn line. His eyes narrowed as well, his concentration fixed on Lai Wan. The attention prickled her flesh, like the snapping jaws of a cloud of beetles. Ignoring it, understanding it, she continued.

“Mr. Rabe, as we all know, was on the verge of delivering unto the world a medical discovery that would have changed the human race forever. What we all did not know, however, was who his financial backers were. Tell me, Mr. Malone, have you ever heard of ‘the Nameless,’ ‘the Fifty Kings,’ or perhaps, ‘the Bilderbergs?’”

“I know some stories, all variations on a theme—they’re groups of powerful businessmen and political and religious rulers and the like who pull all of humanity’s strings from behind the scenes. But they’re just a myth…”

“So are many things. A group that fits the description were Mr. Rabe’s employers. What I got from his mind is this—Rabe’s work was not almost complete. It was finished. He had simply decided not to let anyone know.”

“But, but…” incomprehension swept out of Malone in waves. His disbelief struck against the woman’s body with such force she involuntarily raised her arms to shield herself.

“Please, just listen,” she gasped. “Mr. Rabe had reached a moral dilemma. This group he worked for is split along two lines, those who pull strings for their own amusement and profit and those who feel they are the protectors of mankind. Mr. Rabe worked chiefly for the latter. The former group was all for his work, though, so there were no problems. If he found his cure, everyone would live longer, work longer, generate more capital, keep the ball rolling… fun for everyone.”

Malone listened, not knowing where to begin asking questions. The psychometrist spoke in rapid, short breathes, trying her best to not give him the chance to speak.

“His chief employers were less enthusiastic. Think on it for a moment. Yes, wonderful, a cure for everything is discovered. Rabe, he was quite certain, had stumbled across the essential building blocks of life and death. If he was correct, aging itself would have been stopped. Ironically, outside of accidents such as the one which killed the scientist himself, no one would have died ever again.”

Malone knew Lai Wan was no sideshow charlatan. Knew her powers were genuine. Trusting anything she might say, his mind reeled at the possibilities she was unleashing.

“Can you imagine such a world, Mr. Malone? Immortality, for everyone. No senility, no death to speak of. Six billion immortals, capable of creating six billion more in a few years. And more after that. Countless billions, roaming the streets through a thousand life times, looking for purpose, struggling to find amusement. Think of those on the bottom of society, still needing to work for a living, waiting tables, forever. Delivering the mail or selling movie tickets or picking up garbage—forever? Performing the same rote, mindless tasks for eternity. Can you picture the hopelessness, the madness, the mass suicides… how long do you think it would be before humanity would burn itself out in frustration and anger as it finally realized as a group what only the philosophers have been able to perceive…”

“But why kill himself,” Malone snapped, leaning forward across the small table before him.

“Because his first attempt did not succeed.”

The newsman leaned back in his chair. He set his tea cup down on the low table before his shin absently, struggling to understand. Taking pity on him, as she had since those seconds before Rabe had re-ended his life, Lai Wan spoke again.

“To put it simply, Mr. Rabe’s employers agreed with him. His potential discovery could not be revealed. It was not the right time. What would have seemed the salvation of mankind would have turned into its downfall. So, since he was a public figure, they engineered a very public end to his life. Their partners, however, the other half of the equation, did not agree. Getting hold of his remains quickly, before all function had fled his brain, they were able to transfer his thoughts and memories into another vessel, a clone, as it were.”

“What? They just happened to have… a clone… of Rabe,” Malone sneered. “A clone?”

“I cannot prove this to you, of course,” answered Lai Wan. “I cannot prove anything I tell you, nor will I attempt to try. I can merely advise you as to what it is I read from our subject’s mind. This is what he believed. This is all I can tell you.”

“What do you take me for,” growled Malone. Contempt boiling below the surface of his consciousness, it cast about for a willing ally. Latching onto his frustration, the pair shut down the reporter’s ability to think, thrusting his greed forth to do his talking. “Am I supposed to be a fool? Clones? All-powerful illuminati running a shadow kingdom, immortality—who are you trying to fuck with here?!”

“Mr. Malone…”

The reporter swept her words aside. His freshly rebuilt world crumbling, he lashed out, rising from his seat, slivers of anger blasting outward from his body, he snarled;

“You bitch, are you trying to ruin me!?”

“At the age of ten,” the psychometrist snapped, hurling an image from Malone’s into his face, “you were in your bedroom, masturbating. Your mother walked in. You cried, she screamed, there was a small dog, dancing about under everyone’s feet, when you ejaculated it splattered against your mother’s leg. The dog began licking—”

“Shut up!”

Malone fell back to the couch, curling his body, his fists slamming against his ears, his knees almost touching his chin.

“Mr. Rabe’s story is not anything I wished to know, either,” Lai Wan said to the reporter in a whisper warm with forgiveness. “But I allowed your payment and my own curiosity to overwhelm my judgment. Now I know the entire story, as I know all stories. Do you want to hear more?”

“Let me guess,” answered Malone weakly. Dragging himself into a sitting position, he said, “The capitalists of the group, they have clones for all their important people. They, they put Rabe back in a body because, because it was just good business. They wanted their profits, didn’t care what effect living forever might have on those who didn’t have anything to do right now. Let them all kill themselves, let God sort them out. Something like that?”

Lai Wan nodded. Malone did not notice. Reaching back for his tea, he drained the cup. Then, unaccountably dry, he poured himself another and continued.

“Probably thought they had Rabe under wraps, but he got away. When he was found and dragged to the hospital, his people—his backers in, in, all this… they arranged everything. They knew how he felt, knew what he’d do if given the chance. They could have done him in some easier way, of course. Only reason for the public show was to ease everyone’s hopes he’d finish his research. They arranged everything, didn’t they?”

His eyes shifted, focusing on Lai Wan’s, locking there. When she said nothing, he went on.

“They found Carter, just like they always find someone, paid him off somehow, set the whole stage. Let him kill himself, the instrument of death delivered by a messenger who dies himself, with a willing stooge of a witness on hand to tell the story.”

“Essentially,” agreed the psychometrist. “The knowledge of his discovery, his closeness to it, removed, the public was then left with only a mystery. A puzzlement which dissipated their building psychic energies. Two birds downed with a single missile, as they say.”

There was more Malone wanted to ask, but he did not bother. What he already knew was too much for him, too unbelievable, too monstrously tragic to comprehend. No matter which way he turned what he had learned, he could find no angle from which to observe it which would allow him understanding.

“Try not to think about it overly, Mr. Malone,” Lai Wan said with kindness. “Trust me when I say this, resurrection is not for everyone.”

“That’s true,” agreed the reporter. “Even Christ could only stand an extra forty days here.”

As one small voice within his brain wondered how he could possibly write about what he now knew, a thousand others howled at him, damning him for even considering such a notion.

Okay, maybe later, he thought. Maybe I’ll be able to hash it all out someday. Someday, if I live to be a thousand.

The thought made the reporter chuckle sadly. He made a bit of small talk after that, but soon removed himself from the premises. Once Malone was gone, the servant returned. Clearing the tea setting, he asked at what hour he should have dinner ready, then extinguished the lights. Lai Wan sat in the dark, easing her tension off into the cool surrounding blackness. There was so much she had left unsaid.

“I hope you are at peace now, anyway, Mr. Rabe,” she whispered, not unkindly.

Her mind remembered back to when she had entered the hospital room. Never had she come across someone like the scientist. When the surviving electrical impulses of his personality had been restored to life, they were only the memory of facts and personality quirks, the jots of knowledge and individual ticks which label the outside of a person. Long gone, however, was that essential energy most commonly referred to as the soul. Rabe had been an empty vessel, desperate for the release Carter brought to him. The psychometrist had not felt it necessary to tell Malone that ghoulish detail.

As she had not felt the need to tell him one other. Standing from her chair in her greeting room, the only part of her home into which outsiders were permitted to enter, she stretched her arms and pulled off her shawl, folding it neatly, hanging it over an arm of the comfortable, overstuffed old friend.

With a thought, she brought her cat to her side, a stolid old calico she had named Joseph for no reason in particular. As the aged feline walked about her legs, pushing himself against her, she reached down and scooped him up, holding her out before her face.

“And would you want to live forever, my Joe,” the psychometrist asked. “Chasing mice to the end of time, never reaching a final rest?”

The old cat, a beast which had never really taken to being held, to having control of a situation wrested away from it, began to fidget. Twisting its body, it threw itself to the floor, looking up when it landed, staring crossly.

“That is what I thought.”

Following Joseph, Lai Wan entered her music room. She agreed with Rabe. The final piece of his formula, a thing the scientist had uncovered, tested, and verified six months before the debate over eternal life drove him to take his own, was not something humanity was ready to handle. Pushing the bit of formula to the back of her mind, she clicked on her stereo, releasing the gentleness of Pachelbel’s “Canon in D Major,” then, settling into the room’s warm recliner, she tried to relax, working at forgetting the fragment of equation which could still bring the curse of eternity into the world.

After a moment Joe joined her, snuggling against her side. Nuzzling his head gently with her fingers, she whispered;

“You know, my Joseph, if Mr. Rabe had not been so set on pulling that trigger, I do believe I would have had to do it for him.”

The cat turned its head, staring into its mistress’s eyes. It caught a glimmer of the horror in her mind, the bloodied fate of an eternal human race in her eyes, and yawned at her in response, showing its great rows of pointed teeth.

“Why, that is just what I thought you would say,” she whispered, nuzzling the old cat closer, loving it dearly for its feline inability to feel anything unconnected to itself.

 

Greek Garden

by Michail Velichansky

 

At some point, my husband turned into a statue. One of those white stone ones, like they have in the museums. Except, well… all the men there look better. Strong and muscled and handsome, even if they did have little things. They didn’t have beer bellies, and I think they had hair, though it was stone. And you know, the thing is, I never remembered looking at his hair when it was, well, hair—but when it became stone… It just wasn’t very good looking.

I don’t know exactly when it happened. I know that he wasn’t always like that, not when I first married him—who’d want to marry a statue? Back then, he was the sweetest man. I remember back when we were dating, he used to sing to me, and he had the most horrid voice. Usually it was steady and deep, but when he sang it would squeak and crack… I teased him about it, but really I liked it. I mean, it’s one thing for some great singer to get up there and sing, but the kind of courage it takes to try and do something like that with no talent… He was the sweetest man, my Roger was; never had any real talent for anything except fixing things, but he tried so hard. I really miss him trying to squeak his way through “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You.”

But he didn’t just turn into a statue overnight, all of a sudden. I would’ve noticed that. No, it was gradual. He became a little more like stone over the years, and I just didn’t notice. It wasn’t even bit by bit at first, but kind of a whole change. He started to move less and less; he became whiter and paler. And he became harder, I think. Because I remember when we were going out we used to touch a lot, hugging and stuff. He was a big man, but so soft… Later, though, I don’t think we hugged so much.

After a while, we didn’t even kiss before going off to work.

Then, one day, I came home and he was sitting in front of the TV, beer in hands. He didn’t move when I went in, but I didn’t really see anything strange in this—it had been a long time since he’d jumped up every time I walked through the door. I put my purse down on a chair and hung up my coat, and… I just watched him for a while. He was sitting there, the TV lighting up his face, the beer in his hands slowly going flat… I don’t know. He just looked kind of lonely. I went around behind the couch, and put my hands on his shoulder to give him a massage—and I jumped back, because he wasn’t flesh and blood anymore, but cold, cold stone.

I went into the bedroom and locked myself in—I couldn’t stand to look at him. I felt empty. Maybe I cried a little, though I can’t remember. Later, I thought I heard someone banging on the door.

“Leave me alone,” I said to whoever it was.

Roger was still on the couch the next morning, except now he was laying on it, reclining, his head back.

I don’t why, but I said, “Good morning.” Of course there was no response. And when I kissed him on the cheek before going to work—it had been a long time, like I said—he was rough, and cold, and I just felt empty again.

From then on, things got worse and worse. I came home, and he was in front of the TV. Change into sweat pants and he was bent in front of the open fridge. Put dinner in the microwave, and when I turn around it’s gone. There he was, the dinner on his lap, a potato speared on a fork in his stone hands, halfway up to his mouth. We never ate together anymore.

He stopped asking me how my day went. Not even the day I got mugged on my way home. He never asked what happened… No, he never asked where I’d been. I remember now. I didn’t go home right away after it happened. I think I went to see a friend.

But he never asked. Anything.

There used to be nights, when we’d stay up till dawn talking. Talking about anything. We’d laugh, and hold each other, and he’d say something sweet. I’d feel as though I could tell him anything. Or sometimes we’d talk without saying anything. We’d just sit, and I could look into those eyes… I usually don’t like looking people in the eyes so much, but with Roger, it was like someone putting a warm blanket around me on a cold night.

Not like those stone things he had now. They were the worst, I think, those smooth marble eyes. They didn’t even see me, they—

They were horrible.

Later, we stopped touching in bed. I’d get ready, put my nightclothes on, brush my teeth, and when I walked out of the bathroom the statue would be in the bed. I’d curl up, as far away from its rough stone as possible, on my side—away from it.

Though, I think it was better this way. Not like it was before that, before I noticed anything, when he’d just be on top of me with those eyes, and I’d look up at the ceiling, try to count the tiles and wait for it to be over. At least… at least that was better. It really was.

Still, sometimes I’d say something like, “How was your day?” Or I’d say, “What are you thinking about?” It was stupid. Stone doesn’t think anything. It just poses. But… but I still kept thinking that he must be moving. Kept trying to see him move out of the corner of my eyes. It’s kind of funny, because for a while I kept bumping into furniture I was trying so hard.

I was kidding myself, though. It never moved. Just posed.

That’s how I remember the last few years: like one of those garden mazes from the movies, with all the statues standing around, or sitting, or… Just. Not moving. You know?

I tried to speak to him about it once. I don’t know why—maybe I thought I could bring him back to life, like some kind of fairy tale.

“I can’t live like this anymore,” I told him. “You… you don’t talk. We don’t talk. Remember what it used to be like? It can be like that again, Roger. It really can. If you just come back to me. Can you just move a little? Just say something to me? Anything?

“I can’t even feel your breath anymore…

“Damn. Damn damn DAMN! It’s not fair!” I banged both my fists on him, but I just hurt myself.

I kissed him again that night, for the last time.

Nothing. Nothing at all. Just cold stone, and it scratched my lips a little. But when I turned around, he was lying on his back with his eyes closed and his thing was big. And hard, of course. I looked at his face, and I just knew he wasn’t thinking about me. Just the thought of it, hard and rough and cold: it made me sick.

I just ran out of the room.

That was the last time I spoke to the statue that used to be my husband. I went to my mother’s and spent two days there. But eventually I had to leave:

“Is there something wrong at home?

“What is it? What’s he done?

“I told you that he was no good. Didn’t I tell you he was no good?”

I started talking to this guy at work named Matt. He’d been working there for a few years, but I’d never really talked to him. He didn’t really talk all that much, except with some of the other guys now and then. Mostly about work. He’d go out for a drink with them sometimes. He told me that. We talked about work too, really; but still, it was nice, in a way. At least he saw me. Though, usually he didn’t look me in the eyes. I didn’t mind so much. At least he saw me.

After a while, after flashing him little smiles, after feeling him look at me as I passed, we got lunch together. And then dinner after work.

“Do you want to go back to your place?” I asked finally. We’d gotten to now each other a little now; it was probably time. And I was lonely.

He looked up, kind of scared and confused, and mumbled, “No. no, not my place we—” I could see him rubbing the ring finger on his hand nervously. “Maybe we shouldn’t?” Then he went quiet, and turned away, staring off into space. We didn’t talk when we left the diner, just turned and walked our separate ways.

The next day though, he was all flushed. Came and talked to me in my office. “Look, I’m real sorry about that last night. Maybe we can go somewhere for lunch? Your place?” There was a… a hunger in his eyes, when he looked at me.

“All right,” I said. Even though I knew, somewhere, how stupid it was.

We went to my place. It was all right. It was nice to touch someone. Afterwards, I could at least lay in his arms and close my eyes and pretend. Just pretend. Because his body was soft, and it was warm.

It was on the third time that we went to my place. Matt wasn’t done yet, when suddenly he made a kind of croaking sound, and rolled off me. I looked over, and the statue was standing in the doorway. Just standing there, hands hanging by its side. It’s face—it was as though someone hadn’t finished carving it. Just two holes and a slash. No look at all.

I can’t really blame Matt for leaving. And I don’t. He squeezed passed the statue and ran out in his undies, pants tucked under his arm. Before he left, he glanced back: his face was red, and he quickly looked away.

The statue just stood there. Looking at me. After a while I couldn’t take that broken gaze anymore, and looked away. When I looked back, it was inside the room, closer, its hands clenched. Looking at it then, I realized I hated it. I hated it so much, I didn’t want to look at it anymore, so I walked out of the room. There I paced around for a little while, feeling embarrassed and hurt and lonely. When I walked back into the room, the statue was still there, just standing, its eyebrows low, a terrible blank look on its face. It frightened me.

“I can’t live like this anymore,” I said to myself. “I’m leaving.”

It didn’t do anything. It stood, and stared, and stared, and stared, and it didn’t do anything. Just stared through me. I wasn’t even there. It was like a mountain, couldn’t care less about all the little people running over it, trying to change it. What was I?

Just another scurrying thing? Another nothing that it didn’t even feel?

I screamed at it. I spit on it. I hit it. I broke all my nails, and my palms were bleeding—and I wasn’t even really there to it.

I ran from it, and locked myself in the small bathroom, the one that wasn’t in the bedroom. I cried. No, it wasn’t really crying, it was… I was choking, sobbing. I couldn’t breath, I kept gasping, and then I couldn’t unclench my fist, not even when I broke the mirror. At least… at least the pain… I knew I was real. Was. Am.

For a minute, I was sick into the toilet, and then I felt like I could breath again. Had to bandage my hand first, and then as soon as I was done, I ran out and grabbed my keys. The tires screeched in the driveway. Usually, I’m such a careful driver.

I went down to the local hardware store, and I bought what I wanted, just threw some money on the counter and walked out. There was a blur of moving and driving—and then I was home, with the statue of my husband, on the couch, in front of the TV, beer in hands.

I hefted the small sledgehammer with both hands, looking for the best grip. I was very careful, because my hand was hurt and I didn’t want to make it any worse. I walked behind the couch…

Pulled back.

Swung.

And with a great crunch, his head shattered, splitting into large chunks and pebbles and dust.

I got to work on the rest of him. Swung again and again. Each time, it jolted my arm; each time it hurt worse. I was sweaty and dirty, and I could feel the dust sticking to my face where I’d been crying. Who knew there was so much inside? It took me so long—until finally there was nothing left but powder and gravel.

I washed the powder from my face and hair, and I just kept scrubbing and scrubbing even though it was gone, until I was red all over. I put my face under the water so that I couldn’t feel myself cry.

When I got out, I felt a little better. And as I vacuumed up, there was only a little bit of emptiness inside. Or did I have it backward? Like a photo before you get it developed, where what’s something looks like nothing, and nothing… Nothing looks like something.

As I threw out bag after bag of dust and stone, I just couldn’t tell anymore.