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.