Nobody visits Grandma anymore. Some say a life without the heavenly aroma of freshly baked cinnamon cookies on a chilly Christmas morning just isn’t worth living; in the brick wall of reality, Grandma was their keystone. That is, until she brought in the ceramic head.
“If you listen close, you’ll hear it, too,” she whispered, waiting a few seconds before adding: “You hear its beautiful song?” But it was always a simple no from me. No, I did not hear the statue’s funny quips about why an apple is dangerous, nor did it explain its opinion on healthcare. “Just listen, Martin! It’s all you need to do! Listen!”
“Maybe you should ask Greta,” I shoot, grinning at the thought of Grandma bugging my older sister with such nonsense. “You know she’s Wiccan?” As if that was some clarification.
The statue stared at me from its post on the mantle, largely unfinished. She claimed she couldn’t find the right color for them, thus she left them blank. Many times, I found myself staring into the pearl pits for what seemed like hours, thinking of the conversations we would have if it could speak.
Grandma pulled me in closer, my nose nearly pressed into hers. She didn’t blink. “Abadii tells me of the things you do behind the door, Martin. Tell me you’re not becoming one of them. Are you listening?” She broke away, her words turning to tiny whispers as she paced around the room. Apparently, she gave the head a name.
“Becoming what, Grandma?” Despite my trying to appear unfazed, the nervous quiver to my voice betrayed me. She never gave me a straight answer, always a concerned eyebrow and a painful groan.
The statue was only on the mantle for a day before my dad had to call an ambulance. “I don’t know what the fuck is happening, Cheryl, but you need to come home – now,” I heard him yell over the phone to Mom. Then to me: “What did she do after you called for me to come get you?”
“Can’t remember,” I replied, a lie. There was no forgetting the moment Abadii opened its eyes and whispered the command, healing my shattered soul.
The ceramic head still rests on the mantle where Grandma put it, though it now casts its glares behind crimson eyes; blood-spattered lips prepare its dark decrees. And I listen. For the first time, I finally listen, and its song is beautiful.
I was fifteen years old when the first one drowned. “Don’t worry about it,” Lana said quietly, as if we were in an audience’s presence. “It happens to all of us after a while.” We sat poking holes in the spongy marsh for what seemed like hours as the limp puppy finally sank out of sight into the blue abyss. Weak air pockets popped against the surface of the water, resembling ants flowing out of their nest; at first there was a surge of bubbles, until the final two or three slowly surfaced minutes later.
My girlfriend nudged my arm. “Hey, Joe.” She pecked my cheek. “It’ll be alright, okay?” I believed her. After all, I wasn’t such a terrible person. So my sister’s new puppy died – so what? It’s the circle of life; things die every day. All I did was speed up the process.
That night, we took the long way home like usual. Lana insisted we stop at Keppy’s for a smoothie. Despite my telling her I was feeling just fine, she didn’t buy any of it. “You can never stay sad with a cup of ice cream, Joe,” she chirped. “Things will pick up for us,” she promised.
Four months later, we were back at the bayou.
“I don’t know what happened!” I collapsed in her arms. Shutting my eyes hard enough wasn’t enough to wash away the sight of the strangled tomcat at the water’s edge. My hands burned from where I held the kitten, a cold reminder of my rampant fury. “You believe me, don’t you?”
“Of course, Joe.” She rubbed my back and stroked my hair. “Just another accident. Whose was it?”
“Kerry’s from across the street.”
This one was different than the first. For some reason, Lana didn’t seem so sympathetic. The night was still, making her rapid heartbeat that much more audible. She was an over-analytical human being, always over-thinking and anxious. “Do you still love me?”
“Forever and always,” was the last thing she said. As she looked in my eyes, I saw the demon. It possessed her small body, the orchestrator of these little evils. It was her fault I did those awful things. We took the short route back home, never saying goodbye when we reached her house.
The next day, Lana didn’t show up at school. She screened all my calls, wouldn’t answer any of my texts. So after school I found her crocheting in her room and we went to the swamp together.
A burning chain around her neck, I pressed her deceitful face into the soggy sludge. Lana tried breaking free, but that only made me tighten the chain. “I just love you so much, Lana; I’m doing this to save you.” Her cries were muffled under my muddy palm. I sat on her writhing body in the slush until the dark clouds passed, and I could see the reflection in her pale eyes. The obsidian demon stared back at me smirking, its eyes two colliding hurricanes.
“You won’t do it,” it hissed. “You’re too weak.”
“I’m doing this to save you, Lana,” I whispered, lacing my fingers around her neck. My thumbs press into her windpipe, the blood draining from her beautiful face. With each squeeze, the demon roared. Ravens gathered around us, taunting me. They were shouting their obscenities, but I kept strong. I had to save her — had to save us all.
At last she fell limp in my grasp, her cries frozen forever on her tongue. But the demon remained. It followed me to the water, displayed in my reflection. The devil in her eyes was me.
I was seventeen when the rest of them drowned, a king reborn.
Three maidens cast piercing glares my way. Tramps, the folk called them. Others knew them simply as the dark sisters. They tugged at the binds, squirming like a bunch of stretched worms against soaked tree trunks.
“Repent!” Father Pritchet gave them another lash across the face. The whip butchered their powdered skin like a bull carcass in a lion pit. “Admit your sins in front of your brothers and sisters! Shout it so the good Lord can hear your pathetic confession!” The sisters kept quiet, unflinching. This only further enraged the preacher.
Pritchet’s face burned as he turned to face us. His eyes were glassy and his fingers twitched and tightened against the whip. There was no question that he was back on the spirits again. “Dare you stand at your post, denying the good people of Neckam an admission of guilt in the possession of young Bette Ferstip?” The preacher pointed his scaly finger at me. “What about your little sister, Gloria? Will you not give her closure? Anything to ease her suffering? You three killed your mother, after all.” The silence was broken by a sneeze from the back. It was the baker, ol’ Maryann Callister – everybody told her flour would be the death of her. She swore it was the work of Satan and his three wenches.
“Speak!” The father whipped them another four times. Still nothing. Pritchet wiped the sweat from his brow. “Very well. You can die with your demons, harlots! Would dear Maryann please face the accused?” Mrs. Callister cut through the crowd and joined the preacher at the front. “Now tell us all what these sinister whores did to your health, Maryann.”
Despite being the source of Neckam’s sweet treats, Maryann evidently did not indulge in her product; she was gaunt, her apron barely clinging to her thin waist. She had been part of the community since migrating from the homeland sixty years ago. “They tarnished it, Father!” The audience hissed obscenities, curses of their own, as the woman coughed in a dark handkerchief. Dust danced in the dry wind. “They asked for a blackberry tart, but I explained that I ain’t got no blackberries, as the harvest was spread too thin. Most of this season’s batch was shipped to the capital, you see. And they left appalled! Shortly after was when I developed this painful cough!”
The crowd erupted. “Burn the witches!” they chanted. “Cast the flame, Father!”
And he did exactly as the spectators demanded. In seconds, the three women were ablaze. Their screams would haunt the square for centuries. Father Pritchet stood tall and proud, confident that he just ridded the land of some more of Satan’s slaves.
The death of my older sisters does not affect me. The stench of the burning hair and their screams were enough to send the rest of the villagers back to their cottages, but I watched every moment.
When the three girls walked in on me with the stones one afternoon, they threatened to tell the preacher. Everyone figured the village was rife with witches, thanks to hysteria in neighboring towns, and how great would they be regarded if they turned in the most powerful one of them all? So I casted a simple hex sealing their cancerous mouths and went to work.
“It’s such a shame it had to come to this,” I mentioned to Father Pritchet, who was scribbling something in a journal, still at his post near my burning relatives.
“We live in dark times, Gloria. The Devil’s shadow stretches far.”
“Indeed.” I walked back to my secret cottage in the woods, enjoying the smell of my sisters’ burning hair on the way. At the cusp of war, I entered my home with no bounds for the first time in a century.
Toss that rouge. And don’t even think of spreading that magenta gloss. I’m a Crazed Comedia, Louis Vitton kind of girl. The others try and copy my slide. Everybody wants to be the leather queen rocking those Wang spikes. But there’s only enough room on the throne for one queen. And that’s me.
Hand on cocked hip, lips pursed, mane slicked back. That gorgeous Swayze with the chestnut curls and jawline for days blows my name in the microphone. “Angel McVey.” The only name the viewers will remember after tonight is the big A-M. Baby Vey was bringing it to the floor.
Glitz and glam, carmine and lavender, nobody does it better. I strut across the catwalk in my glimmering 6-inch Wangs and charcoal skirt. The men watch, hands bouncing in their tight slacks, as my caramel legs traipse the stage. The young Pitt blows me a kiss – the signal – and my little earpiece hums to life.
You can bury me in glitter and Versace, manicure these nails, prop me up on a cum-stained pedestal and call it pornography, but you’ll never have the empress you imagined. My voice ruins me. No matter how much lace I wear, it’s always there to bring me back to Earth. “Ladies and Gents,” I speak into the bedazzled microphone, “that excludes tonight’s show. You’ve seen our queens and kings, princes and princesses. And you’ve seen the muses.” A caterwauling group of teenaged boys – far younger than the minimum age requirement, but, hey, Mama don’t judge – lick the pit between their index and middle fingers. As if they had eaten a pussy before. What amateurs. “Return tomorrow night for the debut of Starlet Kix, fresh from her slick spaceship!” I almost vomit from the plug – who wants to see that over-produced tramp? Not this queen. I hand the mic back to Swayze and storm behind the curtain.
“What the hell was that, Angel?” Curt was looking mighty fine in a sequined blazer, I’ll admit it, but the man had a few things he should have learned before purchasing Night Owl.
I scrub the mirror clean with my palm and remove the crystal earrings. “Come on, babe. You know this bitch don’t do no promotion for fresh faces.” Unbuttoning the dress reveals my chiseled chest and black fuzz. In an instant, I turned from full-blown goddess to simple otter. The transformation disgusts me. “You can’t expect me to give you a spectacular performance by pinning me with Scarlet Snowflake, anyway,” I admit. “That girl is out for my crown, and you know it. Has been since day one.”
All Curt can do is drop his head in agitation. He’d do anything to promote another queen from under me, kicking me out the door, but with a brain like this goddess it’ll take more than he can ever throw. I ain’t one to indulge in mind games. You get what your green dollar pays for. “Fine,” he huffs, heading out of the dressing room. “Oh, and Dalon is here. Figured I’d let you know.”
Dalon. Mother fucking Dalon Arneecher. Just thinking his name makes me want to scribble obscenities on the mirror and go total psycho on his lying ass. “When the hell did he get here? He watched the show?” But Curt was already gone. He had other queens to tend to, after all. This babe didn’t need no help, that’s for sure. I can handle my own clasps, thank you very much.
Then there’s the smell. The stench of sex and honey. Gut-wrenching. It was his favorite cologne; it was the one I emptied in the driver’s seat of his Mercedes. It’s surprising he’s still wearing the disgusting poison. “Dalon, get your ass from behind that door. If you don’t, I’ll send this heel into your chest like last time.” I wipe eyeshadow and concealer off with a purple wet cloth. Every scrub revived a red canvas of blemishes and pimples.
Dalon shyly entered the room. He’s changed his hair. His dreads were replaced with a clean-cut fade. “Hey, Eddie.” His short-winded quietness catches me off guard. “Got a second?” As if I’m willing to devote an abandoned second on this asshole.
“I don’t got nothing to say to you, boy. Move along.” His sheepish smile reminds me of why I loved him to begin with. Every moment with him felt pure and undisturbed. That is, until I caught him with two other women. “Go on.”
“Is it Ashley or Eddie?” His dark eyes melt me. “Please, it’ll only take a second. Then I’ll be out of your life forever.”
“You’ve got two words. That’s it.”
He drops his head in his hands and cries. I dated the man for five years and never saw him cry like this. “I’m done.” The voice cracked and strained against the sobs. He looked me in the face, his eyes crimson and his cheeks pulsing. “I’m dying, Ed.”
“What the fuck are you talking about? Don’t you be playing those games.” My tone is soft despite my wanting to hate his ugly, crying face. Damn these sympathetic genes my dad gave me.
He sat on a metal chair at another makeup station, collapsed is the better word. “AIDS.” It was all he had to say to get me out of my perch to embrace him. “My life is ruined. I fucked up, Eddie. I fucked it all up.”
This man, the one I swore was the love of my life when I left home at seventeen, was falling apart in my arms. Dalon’s tears drip down my chest. The news leaves me stuck; for once in my life I don’t say a thing. No sexist quip, no apologies, nothing. At last, the queen is without her greatest weapon.
“I didn’t contract it from Eidan, either.” He sniffled. “I needed a blood transfusion after I…” Another sniffle. “I tried to end things, and I can’t afford no fancy hospital.” He trembles in my arms.
I take a deep breath, my nose buried in his hair. I breathe in that shitty cologne and two-dollar bathing soap. He must have scrubbed himself raw in the shower before coming to see me. He feels disgusting, polluted, but no amount of alcohol and perfume will cleanse him of his affliction. I know this because I felt the same when the doctor told me I was poz.
Nothing I can do will make him feel totally clean again. There will always be that lingering thought of how disgusted his friends and family would be if they ever discovered. That sense of potential abandonment is what earned me the lines on my thigh – I still carry the razor in my wallet. But I don’t tell him of any of this.
Instead, I hand him some gloss and a swift pat on the back. “As of tonight, you’re no longer Dalon Arneecher. A queen has been born, and her name is Lily Fierce.” He looks at me puzzled. “Just trust me, babe. You got this.” We sit up and I begin spreading concealer against his chapped face. I repeat my momma’s words. “Toss that rouge, baby. Fuck that magenta. Tonight, you’ll be Comedia, rocking that Vitton. Tonight, the throne is yours.” I pop his collar and add some more concealer against his unshaven neck. “Every wilted flower can bloom, baby. All it needs is some water and love.”
While Beatrice enjoyed living in an upscale apartment in the heart of New York and loved her large paychecks from Crown Plow Inc., there were just too many people. She could give presentations to teams of superiors detailing a new marketing strategy she had developed – dozens of old, white men packed in a cramped cubicle – but put her on a similarly dense sidewalk, clopping past mustache machos and Vera Wang’s, and she loses it. Crumbles.
That’s why she tried talking herself out of going to the reading of her grandfather’s will. Or maybe it was simply that Beatrice didn’t feel like seeing those two-faced, overweight relatives of hers. She can picture them all crying, saying how sorry they were for losing such a great man, all the while eyeing a fresh plate of bruschetta and other treats her chef sister, Balie, whipped up. They say they’re there to celebrate the life of an old man, but they’re infinitely more intrigued with the passing of his $30 million estate and the award-winning hors d’oeuvres.
“You’ve got to come, Bea.” When Balie heard the news of their grandfather’s death, she was in the middle of a signing in Chicago. The second edition of her cookbook was earning her millions. “He would have wanted you there.”
Beatrice held the phone with her shoulder as she entered her apartment. The cat had made a mess with the lily bouquet her mother had sent her for her birthday. She seethed with irritation, but patted the damned cat anyway. “I’m drowning in work, Balie. And besides, he and I haven’t talked since I was a little girl. At Aunt Della’s wedding, remember?”
“I know how that feels, but it can wait until you get in Sunday, can’t it?”
“George is expecting a full report by 8am Monday.”
Balie breathed into the phone. “Beatrice.”
“I’m sorry, but I just can’t right now.”
“For somebody who hardly knew you, you’re sure getting off alright.” Now they shared irritation. “He’s leaving you his farm, Beatrice.”
The admission made Beatrice choke on her wine. “You’re kidding.”
“Nope. That’s why you’ve got to come. Mom wanted to wait to tell you herself, but you know…”
She was shocked at the news. She had no contact whatsoever with the old man for nearly twenty years, and he decides to leave her ownership of his huge ranch? “Why would he do that? I’m not even his biological granddaughter. I’m adopted for Christ’s sake.” She chewed on a cheesy cracker. “Do you know what he left you?”
“I got his cabin in Wisconsin and some other things. So does this mean you’ll come?”
“I guess I can send an email to George…”
“Good girl. Listen, I have to go. Steve’s home. Love ya.”
Beatrice sat the cracker platter on the coffee table and flipped on the news. She drifted off on the sofa wondering what the hell she was going to do with a big ass farm in Pennsylvania.
“Honey!” A woman of about sixty, adorned with knock-off jewelry and White Diamond perfume clutched Beatrice, crushing her against two big pearl necklaces.
Forcing a smile, Beatrice said, “Hi, Mom. I’m sorry about Grandfather.”
Her mother joined her in a guest room upstairs. It was the only quiet place in the Victorian manor. “You must not have heard.” She watched as Beatrice’s face went to strained sorrow to white-washed confusion. “Honey, you’re grandfather’s death was no accident, and I’ll leave it at that.”
She nodded. “It was a travesty. All over the news. But it’s too much for these Christian lips to mutter.” Her mother closed and locked the door, bringing a finger to her mouth, waiting for some distant relatives to pass. She resumed. “Now Balie told me that you already know about your inheritance.”
Beatrice cocked her head and smirked. “Mom, what’s wrong? You’re acting weird. Val didn’t slip you some of his Liquid Surprise, did he? Because, you know that’s just butterscotch and tequila, right?”
“No, no, no. Hush, baby. You have to listen.” She handed Beatrice a rubberstamped note. It had yellowed with time. “He and I both decided it was best to have you as the keeper of our secrets. Not even Balie knows of this, so you can’t say anything. Hear me?”
Beatrice figured the tequila got the best of her mother. “Sure, Mom.” She couldn’t take the woman seriously. Secrets? The only secrets they cared to keep were the family recipes and the fact that sometimes they skipped Sunday sermons to drink soda on the coast. They were such sinners. Rebels.
“I need you to leave here now and go to the farm. Don’t open the letter until you get there. Promise me.” The woman revealed in her mother’s eyes was not one with which Beatrice was familiar. This was a seriously ill lady who needed some professional attention. “Beatrice, promise me.”
Regardless of the lunacy of the case, Beatrice enjoyed the thought of escaping all the madness. “Fine, I will. It’s right off Milwey and next to the old food warehouse, right?”
Her mother yanked her arm, her sharp magenta nails drawing blood. “Heavens, no! Honey, it’snot that farm. I’m talking about the one just about thirty minute’s hike from this manor, maybe less if you walk fast.” Her face was flushed, nostrils flared. “It’ll all be explained. Just go. Don’t tell anybody. Hurry.”
Beatrice was out of the house in a split second, evading Balie and the others with ease. They didn’t act like they cared at all that she had left. The fresh air lifted her spirits, which she desperately needed after the strange encounter with her mother. She made a point to inform Balie of everything when she got back. She was not one to keep secrets of any kind.
The fresh autumn breeze made the hike easy in black leggings and tennis shoes. Beatrice was relieved to have decided against the heels and skirt for the reunion. The last thing she wanted was to draw suspicion for her fancy dressing – the family had a disliking towards anybody who displayed their wealth so nonchalantly. But it meant everything that the lower-class relatives appeared financially comfortable. It was just a big sham.
Sure enough, there was a farm about two miles from the mansion. At least there used to be one. All that remained on the parched earth was a metal silo behind a bent, barbed wire fence. The silo had been refashioned into a larger structure, complete with a power generator and a door.
“Okay, Grandfather. What did you have to tell me?” She whispered, ripping the letter’s black seal. The seal was etched with a wingless bird. It was almost dinosaur-like upon first glance.
From the envelope, she found a tarnished, double-sided key and a note. While the letterhead consisted of strange symbols Beatrice had never seen before, the message was very clear: You know what to do.
Only she didn’t. Sure, she knew the key unlocked the silo, but what then? “I really should have stayed home. I’ve got a bunch of crazy fucks for family,” she mumbled quietly before popping the key in the padlock on the silo door. After a few twists, the lock fell and the door slowly waved open. The beastly creak echoed throughout the chamber and gave Beatrice a bad taste in her mouth.
The smell was foul, unlike anything Beatrice had ever experienced. She flicked the light switch by the door, and the inside of the silo was illuminated. But she didn’t find grain.
The silo was hollow save for a spiraling, wire staircase that went all the way to the top. Hundreds of savagely torn corpses, if not thousands, were stretched along the wall, some overlapping others, kept dangling on hay hooks molded to the inside. The floor was a toxic blood mire. Beatrice fell to her knees at the sight, horrified, tears streaming her face. She tried to scream, but nothing came out but a series of suffocated gasps.
Then she noticed a hatch leading underground, kept shut by another padlock, this one sporting the same strange wingless bird on the rubberstamp. Beatrice looked at the other side of the key and back to the hatch. She was paralyzed, unfazed by the pungent odor of decaying bodies. There was no way she was opening that hatch – for all she knew it was a portal to Hell.
Beatrice could not begin to understand what she was seeing. Every corpse was ripped in a similar fashion, and the longer she looked, she realized the bodies made a pattern just like the one on the letterhead of the note.
“Now you know.” Her mother came up behind and spooked her, the silo amplifying her scream. She fell and sobbed under her mother’s forceful grasp. Her nails sunk into Beatrice’s shoulders. “Now you know your grandfather was an artist. There’s no doubt he was troubled, but sometimes I find myself sitting right here where you are, just marveling.” Her voice smelled of stale Sulphur.
Beatrice was still speechless, fighting against the woman’s tight embrace. She just wanted to go back to her apartment in New York, back to her boring life at the firm, back to her mischievous cat.
“But I’m afraid this is not the secret I was talking about.” She pointed at the hatch. “In there. Go on.” The woman picked Beatrice up and pulled her towards the hatch. No matter how hard she kicked and screamed Beatrice could not get her to stop. The once frail sixty-something had found the strength of an athlete in an hour’s time.
“Mom, stop! Please just stop!” She was covered in the bloody mixture, it burned her skin and ate holes in her clothes. “Momma!”
The woman grunted and cackled menacingly. “Don’t you see, Beatrice. He choseyou. From the very start.” She dropped Beatrice for a second to unlock the hatch. It wasn’t long enough for Beatrice to regain balance. “It’s why we adopted you. You’re the chosen one, baby.” Then: “You’re the one who will bring the Forgotten back to our realm.”
“Mom, stop!” She kicked the old lady and clawed at her face, allowing her ample time to get to her feet and sprint out of the silo. She jumped over the barbed wire fence, and darted for the manor. She saw Balie and her brother Brandon off in the far reach of the field. “Guys!” She caught up to them. “Please, call the police.” Balie was holding her phone, searching for a signal, while Brandon grasped a slugger.
Balie was dumbstruck. “What the fuck happened to you, Bea?” She hugged her sister. “Mom told me and Brandon to follow her out here, but we lost her. Did you see her? Is she okay?”
“We’ve got to get out of here.” Beatrice was crazed. Her heart was beating in her throat. She turned to her brother, forcing herself to speak between cries. “Brandon, something’s wrong with Mom. We have to get the police.”
Balie tugged at Beatrice. “Come on, Bea. I don’t have cell signal out here, so we need to go back to the –” A sharp blast whizzed past and struck Balie. The blood blinded Beatrice as her faceless sister was flung to the ground. Lifeless in an instant.
Suddenly Brandon cracked the slugger against Beatrice’s knee. He was dragging her by her hair back to the silo before she had chance to scream.
“I got her, Momma.” Brandon tossed Beatrice to the ground, who was wide-eyed with shock and fear. He flung off a fistful of hair that had laced around his fingers. “Val got Balie.” He didn’t sound disappointed.
“Such a shame about Balie. She had a bright future, but if Val felt it was necessary then I won’t argue.” She gestured toward the hatch. “Now throw her in, Brandon, so we can begin the ritual. Your grandmother is decidedly hungry.”