Thursday, November 29 will be the debut of Act II of Masquerade with my new short story Swallow.
From here on out you can expect to see new short stories (~1,500-2,500 words) posted regularly on Thursdays unless stated otherwise, with perhaps some super-short flash fics/poems (>400 words) sprinkled around randomly. (I do looooooove flash fiction.)
I’m overjoyed to return to writing to say the least. I’ve written a good part of Swallow and it just feels like I’m back where I’m supposed to be, like I’ve been on vacation for a year and I’m finally back at home sleeping in my own bed.
That said, having this creative energy flow through me once again is just as terrifying as it is exciting; some poor fictional soul is going to die. Who’s is going to be? My bet’s on the butler.
Josh stood in the room dazed, long black hair in mats over his torn Metallica t-shirt. His fingers trembled against the fragile chain of a paper medallion in his pocket. It felt as if he had been standing there for eternity.
“It’s been 40 years, Josh.” Rebecka ran a hand through her greasy mocha curls. “Forty fucking years.
“We have to keep going.”
“Have to –”
Rebecka squeezed Josh’s head between sweaty palms. Blood dripped down her nose and neck, following the curvature of her chest until disappearing in a spirit-soaked cherry blossom blouse. “Forty years,” she breathed. The blue in her eyes retreated behind a hysterical scarlet.
As Rebecka’s pulsing grasp tightened around Josh, the night gripped him further. With every breath, he felt himself fall deeper. “Please, stop,” he pleaded. His mouth was parched, fists trembling, stuck in cemented pockets. “Beck.” The echoes silenced him, forcing his eyes closed, unintelligible gargle lost among Rebecka’s maniacal chants.
Suddenly, Rebecka fell to the floor, consumed with laughter. Her fists clung to her throbbing gut. “Forty years. Forty years,” she exclaimed amid waves of frothing saliva and crimson bile. Josh lost the dilated pupils of Rebecka’s eyes in the gaping holes in the checkerboard wall, eyeing the sparkling faces that sneered beyond the bright room.
“This isn’t real!” Josh wept, brushing away slick, black tears. “Please stop.” He felt grimy fingers cover his body, razor tongues tracing the arch of his back. It would not let up.
Phantoms rose from the pyretic nightscape, empty faces stapled to crystalline medallions around the ghouls’ necks. They laced their orchid strings around Josh’s arms and legs, pulling him into the checkerboard abyss. As the boy screamed and desperately scratched the floor, gripping anything that he believed could help end his torment, the demons dragged harder, more violently, until at last he was plunged into the night — falling deeper inside Rebecka’s blighted pupils.
Blurry images flew past him and shot above into nothingness, pieces of happy memories reduced to emotionless pixels. Seconds of descent turned to a month, another year, another decade. Fragments of beautiful, winged dancers twirled around him, seeming to giggle before fading with every bit of Josh’s love, his life, his humanity.
Finally, Josh melted in the shadow, opening his eyes to face another pair of soulless pupils once again. His hands grazed a warm paper string in his front pocket.
“Thirty years,” Rebecka grumbled. “It’s been 30 fucking years, Josh.”
First, we nail boards to the windows. Every slam of the hammer shook our little trailer; on a better day, from the vigorous trembling, you’d think I was getting laid. But, no, this was not a good day, nor did I figure we would have one for a long time.
As I offered him the planks, Jared smashed and stuck them against the windows. In all, the trailer had only four windows, each nearly too small for even a toddler to squeeze through, but we could not take any chances. Sweat glistened on the nape of his neck, diamond droplets trickling down his spine. The muscles in his back swelled and tensed as he helped me fortify our home, and suddenly I was thankful for the long nights he spent pumping away at Hartloch’s community gym.
He drove the final nail in, the head of it slightly bent from the force. “What next, Aubs?”
Jared knew what was next; I knew it too, but that didn’t make it any easier. “The sinks, with the carpet.” My eyes dropped to the stringy shag carpeting daddy installed for me the first week after he was diagnosed with cancer. It was the final project he ever completed, and it killed me what had to be done with it. Sunlight beamed between the furniture pressed against the front door, revealing all the swirling dust in our quaint trailer house. “Then after that…” My voice quivered.
“Don’t even,” Jared barked, falling to his knees. “How much d’we need?”
“Just start cutting, and I’ll let you know when.” An image of the creatures crawling up the pipes made my stomach churn.
But before he could drive the knife into the carpet, Jared stopped. “Look at us, Aubrey.”
“What the fuck we doin’?” His voice was raspy with authentic country roots. “Say we get the placed locked up, how long we gonna survive after that? We ain’t got food to last us maybe a week, not to mention the Reverend and his tricks.” His eyes flashed like frenzied lightning under the flickering ceiling fan bulb. Despair bleached Jared’s typical enthusiastic tone. “We can’t do this alone.”
I snapped. “Who the hell can we call, Jared?” Pacing the living room, hands clenched in my hair, I repeated: “Who the hell can we call?” My mind pulled images of everyone I ever loved from my mental scrapbook. “There’s no one left but us.”
We sat in silence for a moment, me glaring daggers into Jared’s forehead. He knew it as well as I did: we were screwed. “Now get to stripping that carpet; we’ve got to fill these motherfucking sinks if we’re going to last until morning.”
With our home finally fortified — every possible entry plugged up tight — Jared and I sat in the naked living room. The place where the entertainment center was that once held the television and Jared’s huge collection of games had become the place where we kept the shit bucket. Picture frames against the walls only existed as faint dust outlines against dirty wood panelling. Everything we used to have was either distorted and used to keep us safe, or rotting in a fire pit back at the refuge. I imagine that was also where the passionate, electric love Jared and I had for one another was buried.
The ceiling fan was the only one humming with excitement as Jared and I sat cross-legged on the cold, bare floor. Bright summer heat and light dimmed to a pale twilight as night was cast upon the land. Aside from a pack of dogs in the distance and the blaring emergency sirens, everything was quiet.
Something had also turned the volume down on my heart. I felt empty. I was empty. “Jared,” his name felt unfamiliar on my tongue, “I’m sorry for flipping out on you earlier.” Silence. “Babe, please don’t be this –”
“Shh,” he huffed, pointing to the door. “Do you hear that?”
It started as a drip-drip-drip, like water from a faucet, but it quickly got faster and louder. The single light we had on in the trailer let out a final, bright burst of light before turning to lifeless gray. Illuminated by only the dusklight peeping through the cracks in the wood, my heart bounced to my throat. “They’rehere,” I whispered.
The weight of the air I breathed splintered my lungs, the sheer pressure of it squeezing my brain. Tears streamed Jared’s face as the realization that we had been chosen had struck him. “I love you,” I mouthed, my fingers pressed to my burning temple.
Dust filled my body as I continued gasping for the very thing that was torturing me. Checkered shadows danced on the walls. Blood dripped from our ears. Our tears turned to crimson. In the back of my mind, I heard a haunting melody, drawing me to the door. But I knew I had to stay put.
I looked at Jared, who was still bent over in agony. We wanted so badly to scream, to say literally anything, but sound no longer existed, the very waves dissolved in the potent air.
Suddenly my body twitched, and I rose from the floor. All of my hair was standing on edge in the electrified atmosphere that had consumed the trailer. Time slowed to a trickle as every particle sluggishly ascended. My face was stricken, my mouth gaping, trying to breathe any ounce of oxygen.
Just as I was on the brink of death, everything stopped. The air returned, the pain subsided. Everything was in its perfect place — the entertainment center was back in the corner of living room, the television broadcasting an old cartoon, and Jared’s game collection was placed neatly on the side shelves. The picture frames of momma, my brother, and me were immaculately hung on the walls. Daddy’s shag carpeting tickled my toes. Soft moonlight shone through bare, crystal windows.
But one thing was not in its place; Jared was gone. In his place: a bloodstained stone tulip. My passion for Jared returned the moment he had gone. Before I could start to cry, there was a faint knock at the door. Two small taps shattered my soul.
The Reverend was outside, myself in my own twisted nightmare. But it wasn’t until the stone tulip crumbled to ash that the terror truly began.
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.
“Dear, beautiful spectator,” said the magician, his knuckles dove-white from his clasp on an amethyst, shimmering top hat. The audience was wide eyed as the young man reached inside his polka-dotted blazer. “I ask you to look inside yourself, unlock the chest of your lonesome soul,” his eyes glinted, “tell me what you find.”
He waited a few seconds before continuing. “You will find, binding your very being, two padlocks. If you look closer at the first, you’ll find yourself with a third-degree burn on your nose and a spirit full of harmony and grace. It’ll feel you with such jubilation that you’ll never want to look away, but you risk blindness the longer you peer at the blazing bolt.” Pulling a gilded key strung on a strip of speckled lace, he added: “With haste, this first lock of lust can be overcome.”
“Now you’re left with one obstacle, to unlock the soul – you’re full potential. If you focus hard enough, you’ll make out a black padlock; its cloak of darkness shrouds the brightest light.” He pulled a twisted obsidian key from his blazer. It shone under the spotlight like a thousand black candles. His mouth was pulled back in a sneer, his heart racing. “This one is infinitely more difficult to handle than the first. Every second you peer into this bolt is an eon of torment.” Several spectators coughed in their red, cushioned seats, disturbed. “You must face your demons, peering into the boiled face of the devil, before the lock drops and the restraints are lifted. In this battle, the deepest force of the universe is concentrated on you. Bleak vultures will try and tear at your shoulders; shadowed serpents will sink their fangs into your heel.” A viewer bellied over and vomited on the black tarp.
The magician grimaced as he dropped the key, reaching within the ornate top hat. “Let the dancing fumes wash away your glowing, painted wings. As the toxin slithers into your conscience,” the magician pulled a skeletal, writhing creature from the hat, “I will exonerate you.”
Suddenly, the viewers fall to the floor, scratching at their chests and throats. Children’s eyes turn vermillion, their skin splintered like blistered glass, as their parents stumbled to their side. Whispers muted the indignant bellows. Cloaked specters carried the babies to the ceiling, sending their fragile bodies back to the ground, smashed and mutilated. Every breath was an inhalation of bladed powder and cyanide. Boiling slime expanded across the tarped floor, an ocean rife with starving, scaly beasts.
The magician groaned, snapping the patchy, wiry neck of a vicious rodent – its squeal a nightmare siren. Virulent typhoons of shadow and disgrace protected him from the evil consuming the theatre. Flickering emerald flame followed his footsteps, as he approached the door. With every step closer, blurry phantoms shouted: “You’re not invited!” One flung an infant’s decapitated corpse at him. “NOT INVITED!” The banshees’ shrieks nearly brought him to his knees, but he forced himself to reach the locked door.
Trained on the shimmering, golden deadbolt keeping him contained in this infernal trial, the magician pushed in the key and turned. The padlock opened with a pop and dropped to the floor. In a flash, the charred tarp turned into soft prairie grass; the intestine-adorned walls faded to reveal a sunlit forest and a diamond-specked pond, disgusted incantations a chorus of mockingbirds.
For the first time in an eternity, the magician smiled and laughed, rolling around on the damp grass. “Free at last!” he shouted.
The magician’s expression changed, however, when he cut himself on the teeth of a charred, barbed statue resembling the Bringer, the evil entity from his dreams. Elation melted to malice. Ravens obscured the beaming sun, and the forest collapsed to a frozen graveyard.
The Bringer’s silhouette was etched on the horizon. “For years you relied on slight-of-hand to deceive unwitting spirits. Now you shall wear their souls and walk through the inferno you so dexterously illustrated.” Sharp winds ripped the clothes off of the magician, the great entertainer reduced to a bumbling, naked boy in a bed of sweltering snow. “You will forever chase the jester of your former being, always falling short of vindication.”
“Please,” the magician begged, “make me forget all of this. Give me a fresh canvas to start anew.” His tears evaporated against the hot snow. “I’m so sorry, for everything.” He wept. “I know I shouldn’t have touched those kids. I’ve learned my lesson! Please!”
The Bringer roared, cracking the frozen earth. “Something tells me you enjoyed that first trial too much to ever be forgiven.” It cackled. “Granted you survive the night, you’ll find your black key somewhere in the winding river of tar up north; the padlock is deep within the Salahrin Mountains, but I’ve got a feeling the army of vengeful infants and tortured toddlers will pick you off far before you reach the border.”
They had been on the road for five days, with no hope of ever returning home – not as free citizens at least. Commissioner Davis and his band of taut merry men had caught onto their use of a third party to intercept 911 calls as they reached the station.
Moran hated to drag her nephew, Todd, into all of this, but with his intellect in rather underhanded tactics in receiving information, using him was a no-brainer. “He’ll be okay, won’t he?” Moran asked Robert, closing the door of the 1998 Suburban they just purchased.
The truth was that Robert had no idea as to the security of Todd, or either of them for that matter; that’s what he continually told Moran, too. “Stop your worrying and focus,” he said. “I called Todd yesterday and told him to lay low.” He tossed a folded map over to Moran. “Tell me how to get to Vindeville from here.”
Stephenie trained her eye on a passing squad car, strangled with anxiety. “Just get on the interstate off Herstam and continue for about thirty minutes.” She placed the map into the glove compartment, to Robert’s surprised glare. His bright blue eyes shone under a heavy eyebrow shelf. “What?”
“You’ve been there?”
“I have. We used to have Christmas there, when my uncle still had his river property. The last time I was there was about twenty years ago; the entire town was in shambles.”
Greer started on Herstam and found the interstate. He seemed distracted, but Moran figured he was tensed from the entire situation.
Driving in total silence almost killed Moran. Every opportunity, she would shift in her seat or pretend to thumb through the map – anything to keep her occupied. Each breath and every thought were audible. “So, can I ask?”
“What’s in Vindeville?”
Greer swerved to avoid a semi in the shoulder. His instincts called for him to stop and assist the semi driver, but then he remembered he was a fugitive, on the run for a crime neither he nor Moran had committed. He had to remind himself many times throughout all this that that was the reason for everything they were doing: to prove their innocence, nothing else. “Something’s going to be there.”
“What’s going to be there?”
“I don’t know.”
Stephenie sighed. “You don’t know? What are you saying?” His subtle glance to Moran was plenty an explanation. She gasped. “Again?”
Nodding, yes, Robert reiterated, “Around four last night. Woke up drenched in sweat, with its fucking voice still in my mind. I can’t get it out of my brain, Stephenie.”
“What did it say?”
Robert dared not recall the entirety of the nightmare, or risk their safety on the road. He sipped from a blueberry Slurpee, in hopes of that cooling the hot tinge blistering the back of his throat; it did nothing but leave him with a brain freeze. “I saw it this time, Steph. It didn’t say anything I could understand – just stood there, whispering.” Or sat there, Robert decided would be a better description. He winced, feeling a caustic tentacle scrape his uvula – he swallowed hard. “Something is going to happen there, or already has.” Closing his eyes, he recalled the brutish sight. “If Vindeville is as small as I’m told, I’m sure we’ll pass right by it and I’ll remember. Maybe we can prevent the catastrophe from occurring.”
“You really think that, Rob?”
“I’ve got to.” He turned to Stephenie, eyes full and face bleached. “By god, I’ve got to.”
Moran held Greer’s hand for the next twenty miles, until they reached the Vindeville welcoming sign. As they passed the sign, her heart dropped. The town was exactly as it was when she left it.
With a population lingering around 2,500 on good years, Vindeville was the last stop anybody would make on their tour of Wisconsin. Every building was run-down; every house chock full of bird shit and useless junk – the place was evidently popular amongst pack-rats and the like. Save for a small gas station, a dilapidated school, a food department, and a few antique stores scattered here and there, the next bout of civilization was an hour away. It was a day trip for Vindevillians to do pretty much anything.
“So what do you remember?” She asked as they passed a shoddy residential area. “Was it a junky house, or a junkier house?” She joked.
Greer abruptly pulled the car to a pull-out and pointed. “That’s the one. It’s hard to see for the hills and trees, but that’s the house it showed me.” Images flashed in his mind, ones of torture and terror confined in a dank room. His recollection of the tarnished chains, broken liquor bottles, and the screams – oh god, the screams – pulsated with a glimmering kerosene lamp. His hands grew hot on the steering wheel, his resilient soul reduced to that of a quivering child. “That’s it,” he repeated.
Stephenie tilted her head, confused. “Rob, that’s not a house,” she said. She remembered her uncle’s wedding ceremony, recollecting its peculiar location despite being one of the town’s hot spots. “That’s Wakersbade First Baptist.” She cleared her throat. “What would it being doing within a church?” She asked, noting that none of the past murder-suicides were committed within a house of worship. This would be a change in its seemingly ironclad pattern.
The two sat still for what seemed like hours, stunned, looking out onto the horizon at the white building, before Robert took the Suburban down a graveled road to Wakersbade. An unsettled silence hushed the vehicle, Greer horrorstruck and frozen. He retracted his lead foot as the white chapel skitted into view, and came to a stop.
Greer could not help noticing the resemblance between himself and the skinny staked man atop the church’s twisted spire. And he felt just as helpless. He felt something calling him, wanting him to approach the courtyard. The air hummed with aggravated energy as Robert hopped out of the vehicle, spellbound, to face the horrors within the church and deep within himself.