Swallow

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The very thought of food made Lyle Greer want to plunge a steak knife in his gullet, and yet here was at Chux ‘N More. Legend had it that if the grease used at all the other totally health conscientious fast food restaurants were compiled into a location, one would have almost half as much oil in a single Chux Delux 3000. A side of fries though and the area would have to be expanded at least an extra 15 miles. He definitely would not consider it as first date material, but that’s what he got for letting his date choose the location. With his slicked-back brown hair and blazer, most would say he was way overdressed for this dinner date, with which he would concur.

“How’s it?” A blonde haired, blue eyed, mostly overweight Kathy leaned real close, she probably wanted Lyle to smell the red onions farting in her esophagus. “Pretty fuckin’ good, huh?” Her southern twang was nauseating. Lyle forgot to mention he was also vegetarian on his dating profile.

“It’s,” he was at a loss for words, “pretty fucking good.” Could he vomit yet? “I heard them triple Oreo shakes are amazing, too. You going to try them ones?” His grammar teacher of a mother gave him a cold slap from the grave for such a ridiculous and incorrect question, he felt his soul stiffen a little. He hoped Kathy couldn’t tell he was trying so hard to impress her.

Kathy’s eyes bugged like she just witnessed her prized cow give birth to a beautiful calf; except the calf inherited millions from his great granddaddy, was clutching a crimson faux leather Bible, and was also completely Caucasian. She appeared to have came twice in her chair and one of her eyes glazed over. “Triple Oreo? How much does that cost? Will you…? I mean…” Her puppy dog eyes were almost irresistible.

“Kathy, you have to try it. You have to. You won’t be the same; I promise you that.” Lyle took out his wallet and handed her $5. “This will cover a large for you, or a small for both of us. I’d like one too, but that’s all the money I have right now. You get what you think is–” Kathy snatched the money and galloped to the cashier’s counter. “…Best,” Lyle finished.

After a few minutes, an excited Kathy returned with one massive blue cup. Red lipstick already stained the rim of the straw where she had guzzled down a third of the delicious shake. “Sorry hon’, the girl at the counter said two smalls cost a smidge over five, and she wouldn’t spot a few dimes, but a large was only four and some change. What a bitch, ifyaskmuh,” Kathy started on another thought but she drowned it in the caustic lake of Oreo and regurgitated ground beef and mustard. Lyle’s stomach churned.

“It was probably best that I didn’t get one anyway.”

Kathy’s upper lip stretched, exposing a yellow french fry in her gum. “Come again?”

“A shake,” Lyle pointed at the now mostly emptied cup. “I’m lactose intolerant. That shake would’ve torn me up for days.”

“You ain’t one of them kind are you?” Slurp, slurp.

“A what?”

“Y’know…” Kathy popped the lid off the cup and dumped the rest of the dark chocolate contents down her mouth. A piece of cookie slipped out of her mouth and bounced onto the checked table top. It took less than a second for her to pick it up and put it back in her mouth.

Lyle glared, unsure how much longer he could put up with this lady. Although he was hoping to charm her over at the beginning of the date, it was starting to become obvious to him that maybe that was not going to be possible. “What?” He was getting agitated.

“Well you talk like me and you seem nice, but you dress so fancy like and now you’re lactose intolerant?” She tossed the cup in the trash but missed. “Next thing you be telling me is that you’re gay and vegetarian! Lordy, lordy. Please tell me you’re not a liberal fag.”

Liberal fag. Lyle sat on the words for a few seconds, speechless at how she could have reached that conclusion over the simple fact that he could not consume lactose and that he has a sense for fashion. “Kathy, I’m just like you. Don’t you remember why we sat for dinner in the first place?”

Their first conversation started on a dating website. It all started when Lyle sent a simple, Boy howdy! If I followed you home, would you keep me? Followed by a page full of heart-eye and puppy emojis. To be honest, Lyle didn’t think that despicable pick up line would work on anybody, but it got Kathy’s attention. Shortly after, he discovered her favorite cuisine was American and that she loved Rom-Coms. What a catch.

“Lyle, it’s just I don’t open myself up to a lot of people anymore. You’re the first since…” Kathy shifted uncomfortably, not keen on discussing any of her previous relationships. “It’s just been a while.”

People buzzed around Lyle and Kathy in the restaurant and their asses grew numb as they sat in silence, just staring at each other. Neither of them knew the right way to fix the conversation, not really.

“The movie’s going to start in a few minutes,” Lyle murmured, checking his watch. “I don’t think we could make it, and plus we kind of used my last five for your shake.” His eyes flicked to Kathy’s and then to the tiled floor which was surprisingly clean, unlike their table which was sticky and covered in chocolate.

“That’s okay. Truth is I’ve already seen it have a dozen times,” confessed Kathy. “I just like seeing Ryan Reynolds ass in it.” Lyle laughed, focusing on Kathy once again.

“How about we just take a drive, you and me? I’ve got the gas.” Lyle took Kathy’s hand. He felt an inviting warmth in her that he hadn’t felt before, or perhaps it was just gas from the awful dinner. “It’s getting dark out and the city looks remarkable at night.”

“You sound like we live in Vegas. Have you even seen Tarinberg? We’ve got like three buildings, counting this one. Are you sure you’re not some undercover liberal?” Kathy nudged. “I’m only joking!”

Outside, Lyle brought Kathy to his car, a bright red 2015 Dodge Charger his father bought him as a graduation gift.

Kathy especially loved the muscle cars. “I’d never consider you to be the souped up car type of guy.”

Lyle beamed. “Well, I’m a man of many surprises, what can I say?”

~~~~

Lyle took them down the interstate and through country roads, every mile he could travel to kill time, and Kathy was right. There was nothing to see in Tarinberg except darkness and the occasional stoplight. For the better part of an hour they listened to music and danced to the evening remixes, but after a little while Kathy stopped.

“I apologize for how I acted earlier. I was a bitch, I know I was,” she admitted.

Lyle squints, tightening his grip on the steering wheel. “What do you mean?”

“I’ve just got so much I haven’t told you.”

“You know you can be honest with me. That’s something we mentioned before to each other online that we’ve had issues with in our previous relationships. Just be yourself, Kathy.” He noticed a pair of headlights form in the distance in his rear view mirror. “If it’s any consolation, I think you’re fantastic.” His mother also hated liars; she wouldn’t have been so fond of him if she had been in the car with them at that moment.

Kathy sighed. “I’ve only had one other relationship, and it was ten years ago. I’ve only told my parents and a couple of people this, mostly for my own safety.” She paused. “I know that there’s a good chance that nothing serious will become of this or us, but I do consider you a friend.”

“What are you trying to say?”

“Well, I’m not some killer or anything,” Kathy cackled nervously. “Fuck no, that’s not what this is about! It’s just, ten years ago, I looked a lot different — a lot. I was actually pretty.” She sniffled. “I modeled out of Atlanta and actually had a career. My manager, Eduardo, he promised that if I just trusted him, he’d put me on magazine covers.”

The country road that Lyle had been traveling on suddenly felt longer and longer as Kathy explained her story, and the truck behind them suddenly grew to a line of three vehicles. “Damn! That’s amazing!”

“I ended up marrying Eduardo, but not long after that he fucked me up pretty bad because I refused to whore myself out to other clients of his. So he broke my arm; I had bruises all over my body; teeth missing. My modeling career was over; he made sure of that.” More sniffles came from Kathy, who became almost inconsolable. “And just to see that someone like you, who obviously has a good job and a good mind and just a good everything actually stepped up and gave me a chance — it just means a helluva lot to me.” She reached down and clasped Lyle’s hand. “No matter what comes of tonight, thank you for being kind to me.”

“I, uh, that’s great. I, don’t know what to say -” Lyle was never a wordsmith.

“Are you okay? You’re trembling.”

Lyle slowed down and pulled into the driveway of an old trailer. There was a couple sitting in the front porch, their faces illuminated by a string of Christmas lights. Lights followed a path from the trailer house to a cellar and an old silo.

“Where the fuck are we? Lyle?”

“I think I’m going to be sick. I have to use the bathroom.”

“Lyle you’re not just going up to those strangers and asking them for their bathroom! That’s not how that works.”

“Please just stay in the car.”

As Lyle exited the Charger, three other vehicles stopped behind him. With every step towards the trailer, Lyle did not hear the click of the door handle inside his car — meaning Kathy wasn’t smart enough to try to escape, which was good. She could easily unlock the car and make a run for it.

“I’m here,” Lyle exclaimed, voice fragile. His fingers traced the outline of the car keys in his left pocket.

The couple sitting on the porch is revealed to be two brothers, Douglas and Van. In the darkness they almost looked identical, save for their vastly different height and Douglas’ long beard. “You have what I need as well?”

“In the car.”

The brothers gestured toward Kathy and suddenly two women and a man approached the vehicle, but Douglas held out his hand in a stopping motion. “This is the one, correct? Kathy Pliga?”

Lyle felt his knees buckle and his shoes sink into the earth. “Yes.”

“Unlock the car then.”

“Fuck,” Lyle whispered.

It happened almost instantly. The car unlocked, Kathy raced out, but was napped kicking and screaming by one of the goons. They administered a shot to her neck and in moments she collapsed. Her limp feet drew lines in the dirt as she was dragged into the cellar.

“Very good, Lyle. You did an excellent job,” Van observed. “Everyone, prepare the ceremony. We’ll join shortly.”

“I need the money,” Lyle commanded, his voice cracking the dry night air. “I was promised thirty thousand; I’ve upheld my end. Please.” Lyle’s hands balled up in anticipation.

“You’ll have to forgive me, I left the money in the office. You’ll have to come with me to get it.” There was a peculiar calmness to the night, a kind of order as if nature itself conformed to a new hierarchy — a hierarchy with these brothers leading the pack. “Come now,” they whispered. “We’ll get your reward.” Although Lyle knew the risks, the chances of him escaping were slim enough as it was, so he decided to play nice.

Lyle followed Douglas, Van, and their acolytes into the cellar. The place was kept in pristine condition despite appearing quite old and abandoned from the outside. Inside, the walls were painted black with a single red stripe leading to the center of the cellar: the grand hall. Lyle couldn’t see much else from his position, as he was surrounded by the followers.

“Chieftain, everything has been prepared; the moon is in phase — it is time,” a red cloaked acolyte whispered to the brothers. The brothers nodded and the follower disappeared into another corridor.

Slow, deep instrumental music filled Lyle’s senses as he walked with the brothers through the cellar and into the grand hall. Before Lyle could ask if they were almost to the office, the music grew louder and the brothers turned around. It was the first time Lyle got to really see the two so close up and under bright light.

Douglas was about a foot and a half taller than Van, with a much longer beard, which was neatly combed and braided. He was bald and had a face full of different black tattoos. Van looked far more professional but less menacing, with only a short goatee and no tattoos.

Suddenly, the music stopped playing and the grand hall filled with hooded figures. Everything happened in a flash. Strange symbols appeared on the walls and the ground began to shake. Everyone bowed their head and began to hum. Lyle’s jaw dropped and his eyes grew wide. He fell back in horror as two men carried Kathy into the room, now stripped naked and painted white.

“To praise our Brother Thygalsdi, we offer the Harbinger of the Filth. As her life fills us, the Era of Soot comes to an end and the Sacred Cleanse begins!” the brothers chanted, to which the others parroted.

Paralyzation wore off and Lyle finally picked himself up off the floor and scurried to the door, but he was quickly ambushed by the mob.

“Lyle,” the brothers spoke in unison. “You’re not leaving here without your reward.” They motion toward Kathy, now wide awake but completely silent, staring at him. Her eyes glimmered under the bright light. “As Harbinger, it is your duty.” A dagger is forced in Lyle’s hand. “Do it.” A hint of a smirk formed on Kathy’s face, as if she was taunting Lyle. Liberal fag, she mouthed.

The entire room erupted in chants of “DO IT! DO IT! DO IT! DO IT HARBINGER! FOR THYGALDSDI!”

But all Lyle could see and hear was the pathetic bitch Kathy. The cow who took his money and refused to get him a shake. The sleaze who considered a dinner at Chux ‘N More and a movie she’d seen a dozen times was a date. The liar who made him believe she was an abuse victim for no fucking reason before he sold her for $30,000. The FUCKING BITCH who scammed him from the very start. Yes, Lyle considered himself a hardcore gun control and anti-violence activist, but, fuck, he wanted to stab Kathy.

So he did. And Kathy didn’t even put up a fight. Nobody did. He plunged the knife first into Kathy’s arm, then into her stomach, and then her neck. Then it became a blur. All of his rage, a lifetime of buried anger and hatred and he decided to take it out right then on Kathy, a girl he met in person only hours earlier. A girl he only intended to sell to a couple of men for $30,000 and then he would leave, no questions asked. Now he was standing over her, relentlessly stabbing her over and over and over and over. He cried because she couldn’t; he never gave her a chance. She didn’t have a chance to take a final breath before he sank the dagger one last time into her heart.

The muffled silence was slowly broken by quietened praises for the cultists’ Thygaldsdi and for their blessed Harbinger, but none was as enthusiastic as before.

Instead of bandages, the cultists pressed cups to Kathy’s stab wounds. Red solo cup after red solo cup was filled with Kathy’s blood and passed around the room. Hearty cheers and happy tears were had, and finally Douglas approached Lyle. Lyle was still beside Kathy’s twitching corpse, dazed, his hand clutching the dagger.

“You did us a great service today, Harbinger; here, drink up. It will complete the ceremony.”

“Don’t… fucking call me that.” Lyle shrugged him away and stood up. “Now let me go.”

“Not without this,” he handed Lyle a suitcase. “Inside is the thirty grand. All you have to do is complete the ceremony, and you can leave.” All eyes were on Lyle and his red solo cup full of Kathy’s blood. “Just swallow.”

Lyle dropped the blade and peeked inside the suitcase. His money was in the case, sure enough. He grabbed the cup. “Here’s to forgetting every fucking thing that happened here tonight,” Lyle toasted, swallowing Kathy along with every ounce of his pride.

~~~~

After Lyle left the cellar and sped off with his $30,000, Douglas made a phone call.

“Valerie, it’s the Chieftain of Station 8B.”

“Y-Y-You’re calling, so, it-it’s done? The Cleansing has…?”

Douglas was quick and quiet. “Alert the council of our success here and begin taking the necessary steps for initiation.”

Click

Intermission + Some Updates

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.

See you Thursday. 😈

Cookies

Janice loved to bake. Her favorite part was the breathlessness after the first wave of heat enveloped her senses. For a second, she could feel herself suffocating, and damn it felt good.

“You burned the goddamned cookies again, didn’t you?”

For a moment Janice considered leaving the macaroons in the oven for a few extra minutes, just to satisfy her insolent husband. “No, honey, they turned out just as they look on the box: fabulous.” Janice transferred the cookies to a green ceramic plate and sat it at the kitchen table. The steam flowing from the plate reminded her of that from a warm cup of cocoa on a wintry evening. “Come and see, Benjamin.”

“I don’t have to tell you that I worked twelve hours securing a single client at work today. I’m sore and I’m tired. Just bring the plate to me, Jan.”

Janice wanted so badly to sob and throw each of the cookies in the trash, but she flashed a smile and obeyed. She approached her master, trembling as she placed the platter in his lap.

Benjamin carefully inspected each of the macaroons, his beefy fingers tracing every last one. “Too much flour,” he muttered, tossing the dozen cookies on the floor. “Trash as usual. Try again – chocolate chip this time – and don’t you dare come back in here until you get it right.” He hacked a wad of tobacco and spat it in a clear Dixie cup. “Your grandmother told me before she died that she taught you everything she knew! I guess in addition to her being a stupid nigger she was also a liar!”

Janice remained calm, despite her insides rattling. “You’re right,” she confessed. “I didn’t put as much effort in that batch as I could have.” The woman quickly picked the cookies and crumbs from the floor and retreated to the kitchen.

“And don’t even give me that, ‘I’m tired,’ bullshit, because you’re not resting until you bake an immaculate batch of cookies – even if I have to eat them in the morning.”

Concealing her cries, Janice repeated the process her Grandmother Clarice taught her: first the sugar, add the butter, drop the eggs, then the extra fixings. With the oven already warm from the last batch, it didn’t take it long to heat up to a nifty 375.

As she was stirring the mix, she recalled the last advice her grandmother had given her. It was during the night of Janice and Benjamin’s wedding, before the ceremony. Janice was in the back getting prepared, having to redo her hair because Benjamin said it made her look too young. It didn’t take Grandmother Clarice long to realize her soon-to-be-grandson-in-law was a domineering prick.

“Janice, baby,” she said, her voice shaky and frail, “are you sure you want to go through with this?”

Janice hesitated. “Of course, Grandmother. Benjamin will provide for me more than any other man can. I believe I can be happy with him.”

“Darling, did I ever tell you the story of your late Grandfather Nicholas?” The old woman ushered Janice onto a chair.

“You said he was a great man.”

“Of course I did, babe. That’s what any good wife would recall of her husband, and in some aspects it’s true. He left me and your mother a large sum of money after his passing, and for that I am forever grateful.” The woman hacked into a handkerchief before continuing. “But he was a brute, a dog. I am a strong woman, so I sheltered through the first five years of snarky comments, but the second he laid a hand on me, it was over. And keep in mind this was many years ago, when women were expected to forgive and forget. So divorce was not an option.”

“Grandmother, what are you saying?”

The old lady placed a black vial in the bride’s hands, and whispered, “When the time is right and you feel there is no other option, slip this into his meal or a glass of wine. Consider this the best wedding gift you’ll ever get.

~~~~~

“I have a feeling you’ll really like this batch, honey!” Janice exclaimed, fetching her grandmother’s vile of poison from the back of the silverware drawer.

The arsenic dropped into the cookie mix like the devil’s tears – at first Janice added only three drops, but then she considered her husband’s weight and stubbornness, and she just emptied the damned thing. “I’m not taking any chances,” she whispered before shaping the dough and placing the pan in the oven.

After several minutes, the house filled with a sweet aroma – it reminded her of how Grandmother Clarice’s house used to smell.

“Smells good, Jan!” Benjamin flipped through a newspaper, chewing on a handful of Milk Duds. “It took a while, but I think you’re finally getting the hang of baking. Just don’t burn them now!”

Janice beamed, leaning on the refrigerator. “Oh, I learned from the best!”

The Cursed Traveler

The baby took its second first breath in a chamber of abhorrence. Chains and spikes adorned the walls around the newborn; cobwebs carpeted the cold, cobbled floor, while hissing obsidian serpents spiral ancient wooden rafters.

A ghastly woman wielding a curved dagger materialized before the child, her translucent, ashen skin shining inside a starry cloak. “You wretched beast, how dare you enter my realm!” She brought the blade to the baby’s soft throat. “And in the form of a defenseless newborn of all things!”

The baby spoke, “Who are you to call me a beast? You know not who I am!”

“Borias sent you, thinking that I’ll ignorantly let my guard down, just because you wear the face of my precious Gale.” The ghoul roared, revealing a mouth full of broken knives and razors submerged in caustic bile. “When you see him again, let him know he’ll have to do much better if he wishes to claim the Land of Belligerence.”

“I know nothing of Borias. My name is Adolf Hitler, and the King cursed me to live eternity in this form, speaking the language of one of my greatest enemies! Apparently he did not enjoy my hiding food rations in a secret attic.”

“Adolf Hitler, eh?”

“Indeed! The Adolf Hitler! Surely, you have heard of my triumph, no?”

“Let me tell you what I have heard: you’re nothing but a worthless shrew. Even in Hell surrounded by the fiercest souls, you continue to believe you were anything but a pathetic mortal. The truth is that humanity is nothing but a byproduct of failure.” She cleared her throat and plopped down next to baby Adolf. “You see, the pure souls – successes in the Creator’s everlasting experiment – are reborn under the guidance of the King. Failures are cast down to the lowest realm, Earth, as human beings, who ignorantly sacrifice most of their short lives worshiping a fictional, omniscient figure. Then, after they die, they return to us as slaves. And that light they claim exists – Heaven, they call it – was an idea the King provided the failures in the form of scripture. The only real light that exists comes from the torches that line these cobbled halls, my dear.”

Adolf crawled away from the ghost, black shit dripping down his leg. “You’re lying! The real success is the Aryan race, which I am confident rules Earth now. Only the ones made in God’s image are destined for greatness!” He stopped to pick the shit out of his ass. “And, God, my friend, is white.”

Scoffing, the ghost brought the dagger down on the infant Adolf’s neck, decapitating the menace. “Damn, you had more shit coming out of your mouth. Go be someone else’s problem.”

After his execution in the Land of Belligerence, the soul of Adolf Hitler appeared in the body of a dark-haired, brown-eyed toddler in the Realm of Reflection, where he was introduced to an entirely unique form of punishment.

Red Rain, Ch.1

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“The secret is out, Jamie.”

A shaggy-haired boy of fifteen – Jamie is what they called him – pushed his thin metal glasses to his face with one hand and popped a gorging pimple with the other. “How’d they find out,” he inquired.

“Hell if I know. You didn’t tell anybody did you?”

“Why in God’s name would I snitch about that? God, Ronnie, d’you really think I’d do something so stupid?”

Honestly, Ronnie had doubted Jamie had any balls at all, or common sense for that matter. The young boy was in fact his father’s son, and if that was not enough to scare the shit out of him and his friends, Ronnie didn’t know what would. For fuck’s sake Jamie’s father couldn’t even lie with a straight face to the police when asked about how the neighbor’s boy ended up mangled in the hay baler. They were in the process of pulling little Caleb’s shredded arm from the machine when Jamie’s father fell apart. He just stood there in front of the detectives, a blubbering, snotty mess.

Jamie got his answer from his friend’s disgusted glower; he may have been the stupid redneck junkie that everyone believed him to be, but he was not entirely an idiot. Shaking his head, Jamie muttered, “Fuck you, Ronnie.” Then, snatching a ring of keys from the nail on the wall, he added: “I’ll be out at th’barn. If somebody knows, then we gotta make it look like nothin’ happened.”

“Go on, then. Be expectin’ me later. I hafta phone Bone and Monty; they need to get their dopey asses over here, too.” Ronnie wiped the line of tobacco spit from his jaw. Maybe it was from his old age, but he swore he had cleaned that shit off a while ago. Nevertheless, the dark spit flowed from his lips like water from a faucet.

Having walked to the barn, Jamie looked over at his aging buddy, who was still sitting in that rotten rocking chair scraping scum off the few teeth he had left with his thumbnail. With his deteriorating condition, Jamie couldn’t see the old man living for much longer. Either the bastard was going to wander off and die, or the boy was going to have to smother him in his sleep.

Jamie shrugged off any second thoughts he was having of the latter scenario and stuck a long, silver key into the barn door’s rusted lock. It popped off with a clunk and fell to the dry ground. It took the boy a minute or two to fully open the door, but when he succeeded, he found himself hoping he would have left the place locked up – or better yet, not having been involved in the sinister scheme to begin with. He stood staring into the empty barn with wide eyes, horrorstruck.

“Ronnie!” Jamie yelled. “It’s the bodies! They’re all gone!” But only after Jamie looked around did he realize that it was too late. Dozens of reanimated bodies, corpses of his friends and family, surrounded him, hungry for the flesh of the condemned.

Swan Song

My eyes follow the stream of grayscale microbursts flickering on the surface of the lake, a lunar ballet performance upon a chilled oil pool. A cloud of moths and flies hums around the lantern on the dock floor in a choreographed orbit. This place is certainly not what it used to be; Dad and I used to frequent this lake for our weekend getaways, and we’d sit with our feet in the water talking about different things – like how the patch of honeysuckles on the water’s edge made the air so sweet and how well Mom was doing in physical therapy since the accident. But Dad died of lung cancer three years ago, and four days after that Mom was found in her room hanging from the wooden frame of that beautiful canopy bed I bought her for her fiftieth birthday. She said it made her feel like an angel resting in a cloud.

Suddenly, a little voice sounded from below, followed by a gentle tug on my arm. “Jenny? Where are they?

Shit. Little Joey never forgets anything, like his father I suppose. The only way to get the young boy out of my ex’s house was to prod his fascination with birds – how else was I to break an eight-year-old away from his home? The deal was that I would take him to see a real swan for the first time, and in exchange he would keep me company on our walk down there. He was reluctant until I mentioned how much more beautiful the birds were in person than the silhouette of a flock painted on his baby blue ceiling.

Noticing only a black owl perched atop the rotting skeleton of a tree, I improvise. “They’re here, Joey. You just can’t see them.” I usher him forward. “Come on! I bet we can get a better view of them when we’re closer.”

Our footsteps crunched and cracked the blanket of dead leaves that covers the ground as we make our way to the bank. The sounds of night grew louder and more melancholic as we walked away from the forest and closer to the dark lake; the song washed away the bliss and serenity of the scene, reviving an eerie ambiance of pestilence and desolation. The owl jumped from her rotten throne and flapped heavily above, her bulky frame casting a large shadow over the land until finally vanishing into the dark.

Joey sticks his finger in the water and shivers. “Wow! That’s really cold,” he exclaims. “See, Jenny?” He drowns my hand, sending a tremble down my spine. But it’s not the freezing water that gives me chills – it was his touch.

Since he was born, I have always hated Joey even though I’ve never shown it. And it wasn’t Joey that I really hated; he was just the poor soul that was thrown into this world as a result of his dad’s adultery. In between sorry and it’s not you it’s me, James thought I’d be relieved to know how he would never be good for me, and that Dotte was a better match for him – the same Dotte who had been my dad’s physician when the cancer was beating him. The nerve!

My body is shaking now, and sweat starts to bead on my face. Memories of when I was watching James and Dotte play with Joey in the park danced in my mind – oh, how that little tot giggled as his father took him in his arms and tossed him in the air. The boy was innocent; how could I know James and Dotte were going to be out and Joey was to be left at home with a sitter as I appeared in their driveway prepared to kill them all? I admit I considered that what I was doing was insane as I strangled the sitter outside, but what would that achieve? All that would do is bring them closer together. No, I have to hurt James just as he had hurt me with his cold words the night he shattered my life.

Joey opens his mouth as if he was going to giggle and tell me how funny I look, but I don’t give him the chance. I grip a handful of his curly brown hair and shove his face in the lake. His writhing body jerks side to side, struggling for air, but I only push him deeper. His little hands scratch at my forearm and search for something to grasp for support. It’s funny, the survival instinct; it would push little Joey to fight at whatever cost until all hope of living was drained from him as his lungs fill with water.

It takes me a while to realize Joey has given up, that I was now holding a lifeless child in the uncomfortably tranquil water, as I was too focused on the shocking sight before me: in the center of the lake were three white swans shooting a judgmental, distressed glare at me behind empty eyes of charcoal. The largest of the flock sheds a tear and bows his head, before I let Joey go and turn to walk back to the car.

When I get into the car, I look back at the lake and see no trace of the swans or of Joey – there isn’t even a ripple in the water. The black owl, sure enough, is back at her perch, however, and her sneering scowl reassures me that my work is far from finished.