I am the gentle grace of a monarch butterfly spiraling the base of a great oak. While coarse familiarity lays in my wake, my antennae point me to the sun, to greater heights and beautiful discovery. Others flock to my presence, awestruck by my stunning, glimmering aura, but saddened as they realize they could never match such splendor. Though, as I reach the pinnacle to the pool of sweet sap, my wings wilt and the mystic charm fades. I am reborn.
I am the fury of a bellowing dragon. Surges of darkness I endured from the deceiver turn to fangs of sizzling embers and fallen elegance. A scaly tail crashes upon them, ruining the imaginary perfection that plagues the youthful minds. They shoot me with their flimsy arrows and cast their immobilizing incantations, yet I still reign. With a roar shattering every unwitting patriot, incapacitating the threads of civil carnage, I land atop an incandescent tower. I am indomitable.
I am the dark of the moon, my enveloping shade sought only in moments of true corruption. As swindlers worship the neon demon they produced, I rest perched above them all. Unfortunate souls scale the entirety of the pearl castle to beg me for forgiveness, to release them from the riot they so callously began. They cry for cleansing tears to wash away filthy ultimatums and neglectful judgment. And I cast them away, for they do not deserve to drink of the everlasting pool. So I continue to rest in the confines of my great oak, sipping of golden sap and broken hearts. I am supreme.
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.