Concert

between the trees

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.

Inhale darkness.

Our lips stretch slightly and we try to shout. Nothing.

Exhale vivacity.

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.

The Krysolux

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Even the sandwich artists who built hoagies for a living knew the importance of balance. They had a carefully selected cut of sliced ham – but only four paper thin meat curls are placed on the bun. Next the cheese, the vegetables, and finally condiments. Deborah might have enjoyed mustard, but that doesn’t mean she wanted the whole sandwich sloshed with tart yellow sauce. And that meat lover, Brandon? Give him too many slices of turkey and he’d be gassing up the whole damned restaurant. It’s all about how much is enough. When was it ever time to stop and move on?

As I walked into a miniature brick building illuminated with a neon yellow submarine sandwich, I was quickly lost in a cloud of fresh bread steam. Save for the sizzling bread and a bash-your-head-in drip of stale water from the faucet, the place was quiet. It surely was not the place kids went to on a Friday night – especially not in the west side of town.

“Welcome Marty’s,” an uninterested worker bee hummed my direction. Whether she was on the verge of collapsing from heat exhaustion from the ovens, or if she just needed another hit, I was not sure. “Weewhiteherbinschass?” The poor woman – a smiley sticker covered most of her name tag except for Fe – appeared to have retreated into a cheap version of autopilot; she couldn’t speak in coherent sentences but I deduced that she inquired my preferred bread type. She tried again, “Witwheaherbsicheez.” Her hazy eyes twinkled under a set of LED bulbs that could have fully illuminated the ocean. She breathed, annoyed, and finally she just asked, “Bread?”

How could I tell her I hadn’t come for a sandwich after all? I didn’t want to hurt her feelings, not after the effort it took to muster the first question of the grand sandwich formation. I was an artist, but I definitely wasn’t the starving one between Fe and I.

I grinned, blinked twice and scratched the erect pimple on my neck. The dripping faucet seemed to get louder and faster. I gave in. “Herbs and cheese.”

“Foorsexin.”

My face muscles began to hurt from the forced smile I was wearing, right eye slightly twitching. I surely hadn’t planned on wasting so much time selecting a sandwich. “Six inch, please.”

Right as she opened her mouth to shoot another garbled request, Fe slouched forward. Her grisly bleached hair blanketed the shredded cheese and turkey breast. With one hand supporting her weight on the counter and the other buried in pepperoni slices, the woman’s knees buckled and she fell to the floor. For a split second, I wasn’t sure if I should just let her sleep, or call the police. Sensibly, I chose the former.

I hopped over the counter, my boot catching the napkin dispenser. The metal box of napkins slid over the counter and clanged on the floor, nearly clipping the slumbering sandwich artist’s angel wing bicep tattoo.

“Sorry,” I mouthed, returning the fallen napkin tin to its position. I caught her hand twitch slightly as I leapfrogged her and walked to the back, near the register.

“I didn’t take you for an herb’s and cheese kind of guy, Vince.” A man approached from the cooler. His collar and hands were dripping red.

Every inch of the cooler was littered with wet floor signs – most of them collapsed rather than erect. A red hand print topped every filthy, plastic warning. There had to be at least fifty in the refrigerator; a pile deep enough to lose somebody.

I just blinked at the sight. My lips pursed and hands knotted in pockets. “Dave.”

My associate straightened and started stammering. “Vince, it’s not – if you hear me out.

I didn’t really want to hear it; I would have rather taken him back home and call it a night, but at that point I wasn’t sure if that was an option considering the mess he created. “Go on.”

I followed Dave into the cooler where he uncovered a second unfortunate worker who had fallen ill – this one wasn’t as lucky as Fe. The skin of his face was completely torn off, replaced with another rotting one. His arms and legs had been dislocated, and his wrists slit, but there was no blood. Rather, the wet floor signs were bathed in red paint.

Before I could roll my eyes the fuck out of the establishment, Dave closed the door, leaving him and I pinned inside the cold, metal room with an exsanguinated sap and a red lake. The whites of Dave’s eyes glimmered. “This is it,” he piped. His voice grew darker. “We found it.”

“Well, you’ve certainly lost it, Dave. I don’t think you’ve found anything.” I tried moving him aside, but he wouldn’t budge. “I don’t even know why I entertain these activities of yours anymore. If it weren’t for dad, I’d have you locked in an institution.”

“Yeah-yeah-yeah, who cares about that? Old news, Vince. What I’m saying is: We got it.”

“Got what, you moron?”

“Just think…”

My mind traveled to various tangents my brother had pursued since he’d completely lost his sanity. None of the possibilities added up, so I took a shot anyway. “Oh, I don’t know… The gate to Hell?” A few months prior, he woke me up and demanded that I pledge my soul to the devil and walk with him through this massive black gate that was supposedly inside of his bedroom. Instead of a black gate, I found three black men nailed around his bathroom door.

Suddenly, Dave slapped me in the face, sending my glasses into the murky red waste. “Fucker!” I yelled, swiping the paint from my eyes, instantly going down to fish for my spectacles.

“The motherfuckin’ Krysolux. I got it.” The light flickered above as Dave spoke. “We’re going to be rich.”

I sighed, giving up the search for my glasses after I had heard a loud crunch. “And what does that have to do with all of this?” I asked, gesturing to the horrific scene before us. My head started to burn.

This? Oh, nothing at all actually. Not really…”

I sat in complete silence with my brother for a minute, just trying to digest everything that I had seen and heard in the hour I had since arrived at Marty’s. I wasn’t sure if it was the insanity of it all that was causing me to get light-headed, or if it was all the paint fumes I had ingested.

“So, just help me get this clear, Dave.”

“Sure, boss.”

“You found the Krysolux.” Squinting, I glared at the fuzzy blob of color that was my brother.

“Kind of.”

“And after that, you came here to Marty’s.”

“That’s right, V.”

“You mutilated that man – let me guess – outside by the trashcan? And just so happened to have one of the spare faces from your collection with you.”

Dave chuckled. “It’s like you’re an oracle, bro.”

“And then you stuck Fe with some concoction you mixed up at home.”

“Si.”

I sucked my teeth. “Then something called upon you to cover the cooler with paint.”

“It’s actually paint with some water,” Dave corrected. “I needed the paint to be thinner.

Right.” I waited another few seconds to recollect my thoughts. “And you called me here to tell me you found an imaginary thing. That’s all?”

“I wouldn’t call it imaginary, but you’re basically correct.” He grinned. “You mad?”

“Hand me this Krysolux,” I demanded, to which Dave complied. He fished a small globe from his pants. I wanted to kick myself for indulging in Dave’s fantasy. Expecting some disgusting thing, I took a look at the item.

At first glance, the orb was all gold, emitting a white cast, but as I more closely examined the item, the more I can see that it wasn’t solid gold at all – something within it was moving. The inside of the Krysolux was a deep yellow liquid, molten sunlight, and it flowed with the rhythm of my breath. The paint on my face and in my hair dried after peering into the orb. The item hummed in my grasp and radiated heat inside my palm. Flecks of red and silver floated within the golden syrup.

“See, brother? That’s not imaginary.”

My face and lips grew chapped; my eyes reddened. “Where did you find this?”

Dave snatched it from me. “Watch this, watch this!” It took everything I had not to slam his head against the wall and steal back the enchanting item. He took it in both hands and raised it to his mouth, whispering into the ball. The room began to change, or rather, revert.

The wash of red paint receded from the cooler, fizzling into nonexistence along with the worker’s corpse. I spotted my glasses on the floor, untouched and perfect. I had never been a man of faith, but at that moment I reconsidered everything.

Now I stammered. “How… H—”

Dave was ecstatic, jumping up and down. “They finally allowed me to let you in on our secret!” His loud echoes pierced my skull. “You don’t know how long I’ve been wanting to tell you!”

Fifty-thousand questions filled the haze in my mind. My chest grew heavy and I leaned against a crate. The room started to spin. “What did you do?”

Dave shook his head. “There’s a time for questions later, big bro. Follow me; we have’ta get out of here before Felinna finds us.”

“Felinna?” Oh, Fe.

“Come on!” Dave whispered, pulling me out the back. Outside, I spotted the faceless worker, now perfectly fine, tossing out the trash. I needed answers.

When Dave and I got a safe distance from Marty’s, my head cleared and equilibrium was restored. “Tell me what the fuck just happened.”

Dave shrugged, flashing a cutesy smirk. “They said you’re not ready yet, Vince. And there’s usually no changing their mind. Trust me, I’ve tried. Be glad they even allowed me to tell you about it.”

“Come back to Earth, you little shit. Where did you find that orb? What did you call it?”

“Krysolux.”

“Yes, that.”

My brother put his index finger against his lips, and whispered, “We’re not supposed to talk about it anymore, I mean it. Not in the open. Not ever.” He dropped his gaze. “She’s looking for it.”

“Who?” I whispered.

“They call her Abigail.”

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.