Golden flecks of yellow crimson and sunburst blue phase across the walls in a brilliant choreography. Every passing vehicle illuminates the room, a flash of life, but only for a moment. It’s the kind of spectacle that succeeds a nightmare.
Another car flies past, uncaring and distant, growing more so with each desperate heartbeat. This time, the fleeting light paints a dark silhouette on the wall. A monochrome specter, pirouetting through every shade of our soul.
Our lips stretch slightly and we try to shout. Nothing.
This time a semi passes, and the mass grows near. It beckons us forward. No longer spectators, we become performers.
It’s the kind of demonstration that we look forward to. The one that follows a dream.
Tommy Gillespie fought hard but couldn’t break away. He was tangled in the grasp of George Turnboat, a 6-foot meaty giant, who flashed a grin that could make grown men buckle to their knees and the Stitcherton High girls swoon. At first glance, Tommy appeared courageous, a superhero standing up to the evil villain for every other bullied fourth grader in his school, but that wasn’t the case at all. Rather, his stoic expression was the pizza rising back through his esophagus, and his puffy chest was simply severe Marfan Syndrome. In reality, Tommy was a flea against an elephant, a child against a yeti. He knew very well this wasn’t a battle he could win.
George forced Tommy against the freshly painted lockers, staining Tommy’s backpack and elbows bubbly crimson. “You scared, Mutant?” snapped George, spitting in the boy’s matted chestnut hair. As George released his grip, Tommy fell on his ass with a thud. “Stay away from my girl, or we’ll see if your insides are as red as Stitcherton red, pussy.
For the moment it took George to march out of the main hall, Tommy remained still and reserved. A stream of wet red paint streaked down his forearm and fell off his wrist. “This must be what it looks like if I slit my wrists,” he thought somberly. “Maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad idea, after all.” He waited until the metal doors clashed shut, when he was alone with the welcoming silence, before he lost himself.
Tommy wiped the tears away, striping his cheeks crimson. Never in his life had he talked to George’s girl, Natalie. The only one he ever talked to was his brother, but not even his twin could help him in such a hopeless situation. When George Turnboat wanted to beat the living hell out of the school’s deformed weakling, nobody could stop him from doing just that.
A cellphone vibrated in one of the lockers behind Tommy’s head, reminding him to check his own. And sure enough: “Three missed calls,” Tommy blubbered. Each were from unknown callers. He sat still against the wet lockers for a few more minutes, just crying. With his cherry face, he resembled the Stitcherton Devil mascot suit — flaming red, stinky as fuck, and empty on the inside.
Tommy found his brother sitting atop the monkey bars at the playground, chewing on a wad of bubble gum. “Hey, David,” Tommy sniffed, rubbing the dark welt rising on his throat. “We can go home now.”
David hopped off the bars and landed in the soft grass, trampling the recently sprouted wildflowers. “George again?”
Chuckling, David added: “In the main hall? Y’know Mr. Harris is going to be pissed when he gets back tonight to see your pack print in the lockers.”
“Fuck him,” rasped Tommy. Following his brother to the sidewalk, heading towards home. “Did you know they’re calling me Mutant?” He rubbed his nubby sixth finger on his left hand, kicking gravel into the ditch as he walked.
David beamed. “Started that one myself. Figured it was better than Titty Tommy.”
A semi raced past the duo, stirring up dust and a crumpled page of Stitcherton Daily. When the soot settled down and the boys moved farther from the dirt road, Tommy patted the dirt from his hair and whispered, “He called again.”
David stopped. “Did you answer?”
“How many –”
“Three,” answered Tommy. “It’s not stopping like you thought it would.”
“Whatever. Let’s just get home before Mom grounds us for life.” David’s attempt at quickly changing the subject had no effect, as neither of the boys could escape the thought of what was to come should they continue to ignore the blocked calls.
“It’s going to come again,” warned Tommy.
“And when it does, we’ll be ready.” David swallowed his gum. “As long as we have a bathtub….”
Tommy hid his panic behind a quivering grin. “…We have a fighting chance.”
He fought hard but couldn’t break away. With one hand knotted in his dark, curly hair, my other submerged his head deeper and deeper. He threw and rotated his arms to the side desperately searching for a something, anything to latch onto. His revolving, clamped fists sketched imaginary ovals in the air as he struggled to breathe. His body turned and writhed, his stomach constricting and releasing, under my heavy palms.
I could hear him try to speak, his fragmented pleas floating to the surface as air pockets. But I remained emotionless, just like the other times.
Then, when it was time, I heaved him from the tub, his small figure meeting the bathroom floor in a loud slap. In between asphyxiated gasps, he coughed and spat at his feet. And after wiping his mouth on the front of his shirt sleeve, he looked at me with glistening eyes – his cheeks flushed and his lips curved in a mischievous smirk. “It’s your turn now,” he said.
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.”
He grew his hair out so you’d forget the ugly shape of his face
Sucked in his gut to hide the Bacardi pints from lonely nights past
A life drowning in vodka sweats and bad intentions, he swore he’d swim
Once your lover, the man stood before you a blue collar stranger
He rubbed his naked finger where once there was a ring
Daydreamed about the life that almost was
He smiled when he greeted you because you said you’d never forget his dimples
Sucked in his gut further so you’d see how much he had changed
But hopefulness turned to humiliation when he noticed your finger was bare no longer
Once your best friend, the man wept quietly in his room
Tears streaking the old ultrasound photo he had hidden in his wallet
Fractured, he turned to his past demons and welcomed them back with open arms
He drowned in the liquor so he’d forget your beautiful face
Slit his wrists to forget the baby girl you both had lost
As his blood slipped down the bathtub drain, so too did the pain and regret
Once your enemy, the man drifted away a lost soul
Forever dreaming about the life that almost was
I wouldn’t argue that life was completely different; it was merely wearing a different mask. Twenty years ago, I would have never believed the thought would come to mind, comparing the past to the future, realizing the many similarities over the few differences. I suppose it was something one would only believe after their first dance in the star fields.
“Lieutenant, how are you feeling?” Dal’s eyes twinkled bronze and cobalt, tiny supernovae.
“Well, healthwise, I’m feeling a tad nauseous and got a headache from hell. But if you’re asking me about the situation — I’ll be honest — it’s manageable.” Fifteen years in the Defender unit might have taught me how to accurately protect a planetary system from an impending attack from a celestial force and even safely enter a black hole, but lie effectively? No way.
Not surprisingly, Dal was not convinced. He placed his warm hand over my frozen paw, his radiation bringing life to my scarred palm. “You don’t have to protect me, Eyla. What are we up against?”
The tension in my neck lessened and my shoulders slumped. I extended my claw and tapped the glass window, gesturing toward the grand Tryssian cityscape, resembling a miniature block set from space. The synthetic planet was often mistaken for a star from nearby systems from the spectacular light reflecting off the largely metallic sphere. “Got a transmission from Tryssia,” I paused, pointing toward a plasmic cluster that must have been light years away. “Primordials are moving, and they’re not taking prisoners this time.”
“But what about the peace treaty?”
“Primordials respect no one but themselves, much less an agreement.”
“Which one is coming?”
I reposition the transmitter on my hip and pat down the fur that had natted up on my shoulder. “Well, considering the planets he’s leaving are paved gold, I believe we’re dealing with Kuthar.”
Supposed guardians of the sanctums, the Primordic Sentries combed through our system like a parasite. Long ago, they were respected celestial beings, protectors, but the battle for Earth fucked with everything. One planet’s death caused the entire universe to shift off balance.
“Who was it that signed the treaty? Wasn’t that Kuthar as well?”
I shook my head. “Telari. The only one who’s got our backs.” I started pacing the observation deck. “And she never responded to our transmissions.”
“You got that right. If Kuthar reaches our system, I don’t know what the fuck we can do. Hell, war with the creature isn’t even an option; we’d have the entire Primordic guard to answer to.” I cleared my throat. “So, yeah, other than that, I’m feeling dandy.”
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.
Mama Six loved that turquoise quilt, the one with the black horses and winding river. It reminded her of the time she was a little girl at the ranch, the first time she saw the wild pony grazing near the water’s edge. The thick blanket restored within her a sense of hope and youth, which is why we wrapped her in it after Cecil killed her.
“Isn’t it a little ironic?” Cecil huffed as he tore the rotten paddle through the algae-infested water. A brown leaf clung to his wet chin.
Cecil stopped rowing for a moment. “It’s Mother’s Day, and…” His brown eyes darted from the turquoise quilt burrito at the center of the boat and back at me. He pulled his lips to the side, the same smirk that started it all. Who knew a sneer warranted an impaled shoulder? It gave another meaning to knife in the back.
The three of us skidded across the water in the boat, like a puck on ice hurling towards the net. Could he have been right? Had it really been Mother’s Day? Suddenly the ball of fire in my gut expanded. “Just keep rowing,” I spat, feeling his hot glare drill a hole between my eyes. “We need to make a story, a different one than last time.”
“What’s wrong with the one we used the first time? You can’t think they’d notice, or even care – just the thought of possible abuse knocks them sideways.”
We row in silence for the next twenty minutes, both of us simultaneously scanning for a good dumping spot and devising a convincing excuse. He could have definitely chosen a better day to murder Mama Six – that was for sure. I swear I could hear our skin scorching and bubbling under the hot, Texan sun. The water that splashed off our oars did little to cool us off, and only formed an annoying puddle at our feet. Mama Six’s blood leaking everywhere didn’t help matters, either.
Then suddenly I saw it. “There!” I pointed towards the darkest pit in the lake. “That’s where we’ll drop her.” Cecil begins unwrapping Mama Six, and I prepare the boulders. “One on each limb ought to do it,” I think out loud.
“I wonder what she would think of us.”
If Cecil kept it up, he’d be the one sleeping with the fishes. “What now?” I couldn’t tell if the exhaustion in my voice was from rowing God-knows-how-far with a boat full of stones, or from my brother’s sad attempts for small talk.
“Mom.” He smiled sheepishly.
I wait to reply after I got the last stone attached. “Who the hell cares, Cecil? She left us, despised us for being different. So why waste any thought on that bitch?” There’s no way I could tell him that I had wondered the same thing after all the other times. As each Mama stopped breathing, I can’t help but to think about a life where the accidents weren’t necessary. “We got each other. That’s all that matters, right?”
Cecil blinked tears away and gripped Mama Six’s ankles. “You’re right, Blaise. Now let’s drop this wench.”
On three, we heave the plump lady off the side of the boat, and she sinks like an anchor, the only evidence of her existence dancing bubbles disappearing on the green water’s surface.
“Now what?” Cecil asked. We both stared into the abyss, numb, hearts pulsing in our throats.
I took a breath before sitting back down and grasping the wet paddle once more. “Now we go back. I figured we’d use Mama Three’s story.”
Cecil giggled. “Seriously? That one again? I was thinking about Two’s, personally. I don’t know if I can fake that again. At least not as convincingly.”
We snickered together, tears staining our cheeks, but mostly from sheer anxiety and fatigue than from hilarity. My fingernails dug into my paddle, sending splinters in my nail beds. Blood dripped from my fingertips as I wept and laughed with hysteria. “Happy Mother’s Day, Cecil.”
Cecil barely held a straight face, forcing back frenzied shouts. “You too, bro. Maybe Seven’ll be the end?”
“Fat chance,” I chimed, winking. “There are still a few Mother’s Days in our future yet.”
Another year, another harvest. Plow, sow, reap, repeat. It is this endless cycle of fragile expectation that keeps me at my post, always watching. Dale brought me in the day of his son, George’s second birthday; now, Dale’s long gone, and George has taken his father’s place at the farm. Every day is slave’s labor in the fresh oven of Hell, but it’s a living.
George looked at me, sweat dripping from his brow and neck, his shirt drenched and covered with soot. “I see you’re doing a swell job as always, Jem.” He sticks his pick in the parched earth and heads to the hose. “If only you can make it goddamn rain,” he spits.
The truth is that the old Whittaker farm’s seeing its last years; corn’s at an all-time low and the cows just ain’t producing like they used to. Much of the silo’s gone empty, thanks to a rough winter and an unplanned vacation to the Bahamas – George’s interest in the land has gone flat. I can see it in his periwinkle eyes; it’s in the way he walks – it’s hopeless.
“Take me with you,” I mutter, but the hot wind takes it away, just like it does everything else.
Suddenly, a glistening raven lands on my shoulder. Its beady eyes sported a moisture with which I am unfamiliar, like looking into a bubbling oil pit. Its very presence hushed the wind. “You know what happens to bags like you once the land is sterile?” it asks, tauntingly. “They burn ‘em. Burn ‘em all.”
“You’re lying!” I hiss, biting through my stitched jaw. “George will never let that happen.” Would he? But the raven was already gone, a single feather stuck tangled in my shoulder. It wasn’t the first time I encountered the black pest, this I knew, but the details of our past conversation are lost to me.
Hours pass, and nothing changes. George’s pick still rests where he placed it last, and his once full bag of seeds is reduced to a bag of bird feed and a wilted canvas. The bird’s words resonate in my empty head, and suddenly twilight arrives with a refreshing, cool dew; shiny crickets butt against my dilapidated post. The night grows thick quick, and before long I am left alone in the unwelcoming darkness. There is no light shining from George’s house; it’s the one that allows me to rest secure each night, one that shone consistently for the past 47 years. Extinguished and deserted, the wind steals my frantic pleas: “Please, maker, let it rain. Let it rain.” I don’t want to burn.
Another day, another second closer to oblivion. George has not shown, for days, and I am forced to endure the silence and shadows of the season without my best friend.
“What did I tell you?” The raven flutters above, before landing this time on my head, crunching my straw hat – it was Dale’s. “I have to say I’m surprised, though; you held up for nearly five decades and largely unscathed. You’re not like the others, Jem.”
“Don’t call me that,” I warn, forcing the avian nuisance off of me. “They’ll show. He wouldn’t abandon his father’s land like that.”
No amount of thrusts can keep the bird from flying back on me. Its scaly feet ripped holes in my fabric. “Gone, gone, gone,” it sang, tearing stuffing from my interior, laughing. “So weeps the lonely scarecrow!”
Its cackles keep me awake for weeks.
Any sign of George and his family are obscured under a blanket of scorching sand. Sometimes I can make out the handle of the pick still stuck in the earth, and aside from the rickety, old house, it’s like they never existed. They took the truck late one night, along with the rest of their belongings. Looters got everything else. There was no goodbye, nothing at all, for me. All the time I kept the land secure amounted to nothing in the eyes of the deceitful human. Every modicum of hope I held in my flimsy body was eradicated with each thump of a hammer against a white For Sale sign near the house’s front porch.
The raven’s the only real friend I’ve ever had, I realize. While the traitors retreated into the unknown, the bird stayed at my perch, whispering its warnings and tales.
“Tell me about our first encounter,” I demand, my gaiety gone with the deserters. Visions of a different place, somewhere far away, fade in and out of my vision. “I recall a brown house and a little girl. What do you know about that?”
The raven is reluctant to speak, but eventually it gives in. “As I’m sure you’re realizing, this isn’t the first time you’ve been abandoned by the bipedal demons.” Rage boils within my sloppily stitched torso. “As a matter of fact, this is about the third time I’ve told you my stories,” the raven’s tone lifts. “I appreciate your attentiveness, given the circumstance.”
My eyes scan the empty, blue horizon, and suddenly it comes to me. “How many times would you like to tell those stories?”
The raven’s at a loss for words, ruffling its feathers.
“Let me down. Let me ruin their world just as they’ve regularly ruined mine.” Passion surges from my head down to my arms and legs. In an effort to make me seem more familiar to George, Dale gave me a pair of gloves and some old boots – it’s a shame he had such a spoiled son.
It doesn’t take the raven long to clip my binds, and I fall to the ground. Memories of my past lives, of all my brethren’s lives, populate my mind, and I scream – my voice obliterating the thick wind. With renewed animation, I grasp the traitor’s old pick, the wooden handle cool against my glove.
Another life, another harvest. A cycle shattered. I get to work.
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.
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.”