The doctor informed Nina of her cancer; she needed to prepare herself. “Well I’ll be damned,” she exclaimed, smiling. “It’s about time.” The doctor nodded.
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 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.
“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.
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.
With the final call from my brothers, my silver eyes open to a bright white sky. I can’t remember where I was or who I was before this very moment. My mind is bound in a barbed-wire cage and an inferno bellows in the pit of my stomach, filling my body with black smoke. I wipe away the blanket of snow on my chest, and I snarl. The claws. I always forget about the fucking claws; they’re like razors. But my self-inflicted chest wound heals fast until it is only the snow that is tinged crimson.
The smell of blood causes my muscles to tighten and I let out a ravenous growl. No matter how hard I try to stop myself, my legs tear under me at an unrelenting pace. Sprinting through the forest, I barrel through frozen trees and leap over fallen boulders, and my eyes scan every leaf and branch of the woods in front of me – my ears cover my peripheral. My heart races in my chest as I grow closer to my prey, until I’m so close that I whimper from years’ worth of hunger and cravings. A small buck is lapping at an ice-covered pond, but it doesn’t last long. I send my heavy body at the young deer and tackle it, forcing its thick body through a rotted tree trunk. It doesn’t have time to react before my hands rip the animal apart, and my long tongue and teeth invade its abdomen and other juicy innards. A crazed cackle leaves my mouth, leading to an eruption of a lumpy cocktail of blood and grass down the corners of my mouth. Clumps of guts and red slime slap the ground as the stream of regurgitated venison leaves my maw.
It’s not enough, though. Centuries of hibernation demand more than only a small meal. And in moments my body once more surges me forward through the woodland. Another scent fills my nostrils as I’m half-consciously running. It’s not unlike that of the other wildlife, but it’s sweeter. It’s definitely sweeter. And suddenly whatever conscience I have left is submerged in a boiling pit of hot tar. I feel my conscious eye slowly close, the final pillar of my humanity crumbling, and allow the fiend to hunt in the flesh.
I awaken with a sharp pain of ice emanating steady, swift pulses of agony throughout my body. My silver eyes fall upon the figure of a young boy, whose trembling hands grasp the hilt of a metal stake with which I am pierced. For the first time since I can remember, tears stream my face and I emit a thunderous roar.
For a few seconds I feel the metaphoric cage loosen and I look around. Bodies are strewn on top of vehicles, houses, and about the street. The sidewalk is lined with strings of guts and vomit, and doors and windows are sprayed with blood. Torsos of men and women lie in pieces around torn bits of their children. A baby blanket entwined in a welcoming sign waves in fragments – as if it was solemnly dismissing the souls that were just slain.
The flood of my humanity extinguishes the malicious firestorm that once flickered in my bowels, and I am once again staring into the face of a startled young boy who is paralyzed with fear. His blond hair flows in tufts with the wind, and his chapped face shines white, shaming even the blinding blizzard. With some of my remaining strength, I fall backwards, releasing my body from the silver sword. Memories of the past fill my mind and I can almost visualize Annie’s face. Almost.
The boy is still sitting there and comes to when I throw my hand to grab his arm; I want to explain everything. But he straddles me, crying out as he drives the blade into my body again, again, again, and again. But his new found rage and thirst for retribution isn’t his own. With my last breath wasted, before I could inform him of the curse that has befallen him, I see his beautiful cerulean eyes fade into a menacing silver.
The sleek black sequin dress immaculately complemented Skylar’s form, bringing life to the underfed bag of bones. Instead of bubble-wrap raisin tits, glittering obsidian palms flaunt impeccable apples – they were nothing compared to her glamorous peers, but at least they hid her laughable mesa chest. Classy, black Dior stilettos added a few inches to her 5’8” and made her feel like a titan towering above its subordinates.
Skylar strutted down the lobby of Sapperwhal Center amid camera flashes and confetti: the queen had finally arrived, and she was here to stay – at least until her 9am flight to Miami the next day.
“Skylar! Skylar!” The crowd chanted, grasping at her silver braid. They pretended to merely want pictures and autographs, but Skylar Dolly knew better; she knew the second she appeased the hysterical fans, their sharp talons would tear at her expensive garments and fights would ensue. Her contoured cheeks and scarlet lips reduced to smeared chalk and expired fame, she’d be an A-list laughing stock.
A tiny voice rang through Skylar’s ear piece. “The assistant will take you to the ninth floor and direct you to room 912. As soon as you arrive, you’ll be prepped for the interview.” The agent’s words pierced Skylar’s eardrum. “Oh, and Nigel says hello.”
A fist of bile punched Skylar’s uvula, and she grimaced. “Of course he does,” she breathed. Since Skylar entered the realm of fame, Nigel had been her conniving shadow, seizing every opportunity to send her home in tears. Her manager, Wes, always told her that she’s only paranoid and that Nigel could be a great asset to her. And maybe he was right; she could use someone to personally wipe her ass.
Skylar fumbled with Nigel’s possible excuses of why she should devote a thread of attention to him and his gnarled, perverted figure. Perhaps this time he needed her input on his next fashion line, and he’d go on about how she could never afford his dresses. Or maybe Nigel wanted her to help him select his headstone. “Wouldn’t that be beautiful?” she muttered before stepping into the glass elevator.
Skylar leaned against the elevator wall and lit a cigarette. The scrawny, crater-faced hotel attendant escorting her only stared forward, a cold statue, as she broke the hotel rules. Above all, absolutely nobody should assert any force to the elevator walls, not for residents’ safety but simply because that glass was a bitch to clean. But Skylar was the exception. She always was.
As the doors slid open to reveal the ninth floor, Skylar stomped the cigarette out in the elevator. “Clean that up when you polish that glass, kid,” she grumbled. “Why don’cha stop jerking off during your shift, and actually do some goddamn work like you’re supposed to?”
“Have a great day, ma’am, and I hope you enjoy your stay at the Sapperwhal,” the boy chirped as rehearsed, grinning through his rage.
“Wait, you’re supposed to escort me to my room.” But it was too late; the worker was already heading down to bleach the cum out of 301’s curtains. “So, we’re off to 912,” Skylar growled.
It wasn’t as if the room was hard to find. She only had to peer down the hallway to see the sad display flashing by her door. It was practically a neon sign pubs hang above the bar. The hotel obviously did not get many celebrities.
Skylar softly knocked on the door. “Wes, it’s Skylar,” she called. “The shitty wonderboy forgot to hand me the card key before flying down –”
“SKYLAR, LOOK AT YOU GUUUUUURL. Like OMG you look so fab!”
“Nigel.” Skylar frowned at the crooked body standing in the doorframe. “You do know that you more closely resemble a turntstreet whore than a flapper, right?”
The man snorted hard enough to nearly bust the line of beads around his neck. “Puh-leeze, Sky, know that this dame’s not out to get the ducky of a gimlet.” He snapped his fingers. “’Cause youknow that’s what you is, honey. Don’t you go trying to deny it.”
“My God, Nigel, you seriously just out-Nigeled yourself. I didn’t think it could happen, but it did.”
“Whatever, baby, let’s blouse.” Nigel pulled Skylar into the room. “You’ve got to get prepped for that interview with Marcia Stephens, and you’re sure not going on air with that fluky get-up. Nuh-uh.” He ushered her to a jacked chair facing a large mirror. “Now with this do, girl, all you will ever impress is a father time and a sap, doll. Your game, I’m assumin’ is to catch a hard-boiledswell. And I’m afraid you can’t do that with a face lookin’ like a motherfuckin’ flat tire.”
Skylar swiped Nigel away, his gaudy necklaces chiming against his chest. “There’s no way in hell that you’re doing my makeup, bitch.”
“Unfortunately, that’s exactly what he – I mean she – is here for, Skylar,” Wes choked, coming out of the bathroom. “Matilda left us.”
Skylar’s jaw dropped. “What? Did she say why?”
“Aw, doll, quit makin’ that face; you’ll give yourself wrinkles.”
“Nigel, I swear if you –”
Wes sat on a metal chair beside Skylar. “Well, for one you were a complete asshole to that old lady, and two: you did spray her with some mace last month.”
Skylar wailed, “I already explained and apologized for that, Wes. She can’t hold it against me.”
“Your apology letter was literally I’m sorry with a receipt for a fifty dollar donation to a charity. Money from her own account. I had to beg her not to file a report on you for hacking her checking account.”
“Oh, you slay me, Sky-Sky. And here I thought you was a dumb dora.”
“That’s enough, Nigel.” Wes dismissed the colorful gentleman. “Go stir up some of your paints or whatever you use on a girl’s face, but for fuck’s sake drop the slang.”
Skylar stomped a stiletto into the plush, magenta carpet, its spike ripping the soft fabric. “How was I supposed to know she checks her balance daily? Excuse me for not knowing the routines of a middle-classed old twot.”
Wes gestured for Nigel to stylize the prissy drama queen. “Fix her up, Nigel; do whatever you can to conceal the writhing she-demon that resides in that over-privileged, sad sack of flesh.”
Nigel chuckled. “With pleasure, friend.”
“I CAN HEAR YOU! I’M RIGHT HERE!” Skylar shrieked, her roar echoing through the hotel.
The queen had arrived at the Sapperwhal, but even the fiercest of monarchs can be overthrown by her council. And she hadn’t much time left.