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The Ashwood Kids Aren’t Allowed Outside

November 20, 2015 at 12:00 AM
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The whole thing started with Davey Stein. His mother, already on her morning chores, had told him that if he was insistent on going outside, to take care, so he was just playing ball and jacks on the front lawn when it happened. Suddenly, a big, green truck drove right through the street, slow enough that everybody in the neighborhood saw it, but too fast for anyone to really know what their business was. Old Mrs. Ellison saw it; she was outside tending her garden as usual when the noise of it drove her back in. Mitchell Keene was taking his morning walk up and down the neighborhood, striding down the sidewalk like a man with a purpose, and lowering his hat to keep out the glare of the May sun. He saw the truck, watching as it sloped down the hill at the end of the street and out of sight.

And that was when Davey Stein spotted the Ashwood kids. It was a brief glimpse, to be sure- just a flash of two little figures behind the fence, two small pale children ducking down right quick, but he was sure that they had peered out to see the truck, too. They didn’t get many people passing through. It was a close-knit community; a rural community, one without much prosperity these days, but one where they took care of their own. And so the scrawny, bespectacled Davey ran back inside his little yellow house, as the heat was oppressive even this early in the day, and frankly, he had finally seen all he needed to see.

The boy was dutiful, his voice laden with concern. “I think the Ashwood kids are home, Ma,” he told his mother as she was folding sheets on the parlor sofa. “And not just that, they seem… scared. And weak, real weak. Like they’d been… hiding from everybody.” She brushed her hair back and looked intently at her son, her eyes begging him to go on. “I think I even saw some- bruises, Ma.” She sighed and set the laundry aside, imploring him to sit beside her, and Davey obliged.

In spite of himself, his voice became faint, even a bit choked up. “There has to be SOMEthing you can do about it, Mom… you could intervene, I know you could. You’re in the Red Cross, that has to count for something!”

“Oh Davey,” she said softly. The woman was emotionally drained and exhausted from working all day with no husband beside her. “Come here.” She hugged her son to her tightly, stroking his dark matted hair. “I know you care about those kids… anybody would. And you never got to have a brother or sister of your own.”

“Exactly!” he protested. “That’s a good thing. So maybe one of them could come live with us or… or something like that.”

She couldn’t help but faintly laugh. “Under this roof? With what food and clothing- does it just come out of thin air?” She rubbed his arm affectionately. “I feel for those children, I really do. And you did the right thing telling me. But you KNOW I haven’t heard back from the Red Cross headquarters yet…” Her tired eyes went over to the two-way radio on the stand.

Davey tried once more. “Couldn’t we- go into town? Maybe somebody…”

“You know it’s hard these days, especially walking all that way when it’s so hot. Maybe when Mr. Shuster finally repairs the car, alright?” He finally smiled back, his big, round eyes still gazing out the window and at the small, plain white house at the end of the street. The Ashwood house.

Mrs. Ashwood was inside that very moment, looking blankly at the curtains over the windows as she, too, had heard the truck. Her children darted back in the house only to withdraw to their bedroom, and she barely noticed. These days she didn’t notice much. She considered cursing them for having wandered out again, for DISOBEYING her, but she was too tired. More often than not she spent her days inside just listening to the radio, staring off into space as the broadcast droned on, cutting in and out until eventually she fell asleep to the comforting dull of static.

Their little blue fridge was nearly empty, but the children were too frightened to say a word, let alone show her tears. She’d grown angry, hard, like a statue of a mother instead of a loving, caring hand to calm them. And so they stayed in their rooms, rocking quietly and clutching one another while the world outside went on without them.

Mrs. Ellison lived next door, and stood where she did most days, shaking her head and mumbling over the pitiful crops this month- another lousy harvest. She was the neighborhood gossip, and so naturally when she’d realized how seldom those kids were seen or heard, she had started to grow concerned. It was lonely for Mrs. Ellison these days- especially after Iggy, her beloved tabby, had died the week prior, so she went to her usual source for chat- Mrs. Stein, just across the street.

The old woman knocked, sighing and fanning herself on their porch, until Mrs. Stein appeared behind a worn mesh screen, a smile stretched across her thin face. They exchanged pleasantries, and she told Mrs. Ellison how sorry she was about Iggy- at this, they both went quiet. Then the older lady piped back up, saying how she’d like to get some books, but can’t drive anymore. Just then, their neighbor and farmer emerged from his field behind the houses, good old Jim Van Horne, beads of sweat dripping down his tanned visage.

“Hello ladies,” he said with a hospitable grin, and they greeted him back. “Oh Mr. Van Horne… I’ve been thinking of going to the library,” Mrs. Ellison said wistfully, “but I’m just not sure. Are you heading into town with crops this week? Have you heard any news?”

He wiped his face with a rag and shook his head. “I’m awful sorry to say, but it doesn’t matter ‘bout the library. Old place finally shut down for good. I reckon I’d better have a drink then get back to the seedlings… it’s mighty tough this time of year.” They said their goodbyes, and at first the old woman was crestfallen, but Mrs. Stein took her hand and told her, “Don’t worry now- I have just the thing.” She disappeared for a moment back into her parlor and Mrs. Ellison waited as the lady hastily picked up a couple of paperbacks. “Here,” she said, and cheerily handed them over. “Hope they’ll do for now. There’s plenty more where that came from.”

With a nervous glance, Mrs. Ellison handed back the book she’d borrowed last week- and with it, a note slipped delicately in the cover, the way they always did. Mrs. Stein looked at it covertly, and sighed. She’d knew it all this time… she just didn’t want to face it. “Poor children,” she murmured, and Mrs. Ellison simply shook her head before thanking the woman and tottering home, past the vegetable garden that just wouldn’t grow, and looked over the Ashwood family’s fence before she went inside.

Mitchell Keene watched her leave before tipping his brim at Mrs. Stein, who nodded politely and went in. His stroll complete, he walked across the street to Charlie Shuster, hard at work on the Stein family car. “Hello, Mr. Keene!” Charlie called jovially, wiping his face with the back of his hand.

“How goes the repairs, then?” Mitchell asked with a smile.

Charlie was grim. “Ahh, not too darn well… gonna be hard to find the parts I need, that’s for sure.”

“Well, then you’re in luck.” Mr. Keene leaned in closer. “I happen to be planning a trip into town, real soon, too. And I’ll be able to get resources. You know how we are here, Charlie.” He put his hand warmly on Mr. Shuster’s. “Good times or bad, we always stick together. Speaking of which…”

Now his voice was low and stern. Mitchell Keene had a hard face, made rough beyond its years by the sun, and he was a no-nonsense man that made sure everything would be taken care of in its due time. So when he spoke- people listened. “Now Charlie,” he said, “I’m worried that I haven’t seen the Ashwood girl or boy in a while… have you?”

Shuster shook his head. “Sorry, can’t say I have.”

“It’s just that Mrs. Ashwood… well, I’m not sure I trust their mother or what things she might get up to, if you catch my meaning.” Mitchell stood upright and sighed, eyes scanning around his neighborhood. “Call me old-fashioned, Charlie, but when I look at my boy Henry- well, I just long for the way things were back in the days you could trust a mother with her own children. You know?”

Charlie nodded. “Oh I do sir, I do. Seein’ kids hurt like that… it’s enough to make a fella sick.”

Mr. Keene turned to face him squarely. “We’ll be having a little meeting tonight at my house, say around seven. Do you think you could rally some of the folks together? It’d sure be swell if we could talk things out- I’m going out hunting with a few of the boys.” He glanced down at his watch. “In fact, I’d better hop to it. Could ya do that for me, Charlie?”

“Well sure.” He shook his hand amicably. “Seven it is. Best of luck on the hunt- it’s tricky ‘round these woods nowadays, ain’t it?”

Mitchell laughed and waved as he started home. “It sure is, Charlie. See you later, then!” And with their gear and rifles at the ready, the local men set off into the forest, Mr. Keene patting his son on the head and telling him to be the big man- keep an eye out for any trouble while his father’s away. Little Henry nodded, then went looking for a playmate.

He finally had gathered up Davey Stein, still restless from earlier, and young Laura Prewitt, a precious little thing who was thrilled to play baseball. With Henry donning his mitt, the three took to the open street and began idly tossing the ball around, all a bit tired what with chores and that scorching sun. But they still laughed and chased the ball back just to throw it again, the way kids do. That is, until it landed behind a fence- right in the middle of the Ashwood’s yard.

Laura pouted, and Henry hung his head in disappointment, until at once they heard rustling bushes. There was quick but definite movement behind the slats of the fence. At first all three children began to near the backyard, but that was when Davey noticed newspaper hastily put up, blocking the bedroom windows, that wasn’t there before. He held the two younger kids back with a wave of his hand, brow furrowed in worry, before gingerly approaching the fence.

When Davey got close enough he could make out two small figures hiding in what little shadow remained of the day- a gangly little boy of about 7, clutching the baseball like a prize in his two little hands, skinny arms visibly bruised right up until they disappeared under a shirt far too big. It was even worse than anyone had thought. Silently the boy (Danny was his name, Davey remembered, Danny Ashwood) handed the ball to his sister, aged nine, who was in a dirty parka with stuffing exposed on one side, wearing sunglasses that contrasted against her pale skin, which reminded Davey of a porcelain doll.

The girl’s, Susie’s, cracked lips gave him a weak smile as she handed the ball back over the fence, and then brother and sister slowly backed behind their house again, and Davey likewise retreated, a sick uneasy feeling in his stomach. “Here now, I’ve got the ball,” he told his two young playmates, trying to act cheery and hoping they hadn’t just seen what he had. “C’mon, Henry, I’ll run back and you catch next, yeah?”

Henry looked down at his mitt and shrugged. “I dunno, Davey… it’s too dang hot out here. And mother wants me home soon anyway for supper. Just one more, alright?” The older boy agreed, and Henry ran a ways and caught it right in his glove, smiling a bit before heading home. Laura Prewitt listlessly chewed her nails and half-heartedly tossed the ball with Davey, but soon they, too, went back to their respective homes, not before Laura gave a sideways glance at that quiet, plain white house on the corner before vanishing inside.

That evening a group convened around Mitchell Keene’s dining table- he and his wife Norma, Charlie Shuster, Mrs. Prewitt with little Laura in tow, and a couple of the hunters from the end of the block. They were all grateful as Norma put out a plate of crackers and some old, hard cheese, and each began chewing even as they spoke.

“I have seen those poor children DUCKING down when I pass by,” Mrs. Prewitt said, appalled. “I mean, my Laura never got that thin no matter how tough times were.” Some of the others nodded in agreement.

Charlie chimed in, “And I haven’t seen them playing with no other kids, neither. It isn’t right.” At that moment there was a knock, and Davey’s mother entered late with an apology, greeting the hosts before she got down to things.

“I know we’re all concerned for the children. I… I have plenty of medical supplies still at my house, you know.” She looked around the room but didn’t find many faces open to her suggestion, and felt desperate. “I may just be one woman, but… well, Mrs. Ellison is coming behind me. And she would know- they live just next door. So ask her… please.”

Mitchell Keene stood and splayed his hands out on the table like a pastor addressing his flock. “Look- I’m not one to be stingy but let’s talk facts. We only have so many resources, even with yours, Mrs. Stein.” The woman looked down, almost regretting her attendance. “Everybody here has had to pull TOGETHER, and that doesn’t make this any easier. Months now without help. How much more can we take?” His wife put a hand on his arm and her lip trembled with the threat of tears, but he steadied her. It was no way for children to live. No way at all. A single drop ran down onto her blouse as she imagined her Henry suffering that way.

Mrs. Ellison had finally arrived. “Yes, those little children,” she said thoughtfully. “Now, I’m not one to pry-“

“Hang on just a second,” interrupted Charlie with a hint of frustration. “Just because you’re next door we hang our plans on your say-so?”

Mrs. Ellison held her own. “I may be old, Charlie Shuster, but I have brought plenty to the table when it comes to keeping our little group together. And if you think that makes me soft, you think AGAIN, son.” He averted his eyes like a scolded schoolboy. “Now something HAS to be done about those kids. Just wasting away in that house while their mother is up to God-knows-what, and the father nowhere to be seen…”

“I can’t take it,” Mrs. Prewitt blurted out, the tension in the room almost tangible. “I, I’m sorry. But I just can’t. I’ve had enough and… and so has my little girl, for God’s sakes!” She scooped up the child in her arms, eyes scouring all their faces wildly. “Now whatever you decide, I won’t be a part of it. Come on, dear.” And with that, she stormed out and back across the street. The rest of the people in the room exchanged dark, heavy glances.

Davey Stein was back in his yellow house, reading an old Boy Scout manual by candlelight as his mother slipped back in, having left the meeting unsatisfied. Mrs. Prewitt, too, was home, forcing a smile as she rolled the dice on the Monopoly board Laura’d got for her birthday last year, on the front porch; she quickly ushered the girl inside, careful to keep the board straight so they didn’t lose their houses, when she saw the group emerging from Mitchell Keene’s house. Mrs. Ashwood was clutching her husband’s pillow to her cheek as her dark, bleary eyes looked out into the moonlit floor.

And finally, just outside, in the relative safety of night, Susie Ashwood knelt by the fence and idly tugged at the tape patching her jeans, straining to listen for the sound of anything- a barking dog, the local train, the forest that grew stiller each day. But none of those things caught her ear anymore. She straightened up to hear Mrs. Prewitt’s slamming door when suddenly she was caught by the wrist, albeit gently, by Mrs. Ellison, who led her to the front door of the Ashwood house.

The rest of the neighbors ushered over her brother Danny, who was pulling at blades of dead, brown grass. He followed them with the same blank stare he’d had for months- as if he was looking into nothing, and yet seeing so much. Susie grasped for his hand as they backed toward their front door, and she shifted her sunglasses nervously, shying away from the neighbors and their flashlights.

Mrs. Ashwood was startled by a loud knock, and pried the door open a few inches, her eyes fierce and angry behind the chain. “I don’t believe the nerve of you-“ Mitchell Keene stepped forward and that made her fall dead silent, his wife Norma cowering behind him. Suddenly Mrs. Ashwood realized. “Susie? Danny? Oh God, my Susie!” She knew at once that they’d snuck out again, and that they had finally been seen- she looked down and surely enough, there were her children, the adults forming a protective circle around them.

“Now just calm down, Mrs. Ashwood,” said Charlie Shuster in a steely voice. “If you had just followed the rules, like everybody else here…” There were murmurs within the crowd. “Then it wouldn’t have come to this.”

Little Danny Ashwood wanted to speak, but fear had shut him up and all he could manage was to hide behind his big sister, away from the harsh, bright lights the neighbors carried.

Mr. Keene cleared his throat. “He’s right. We have ALL had to make… sacrifices.” At this, Norma became weepy and choked out, “You weren’t the only house with more than one child!” before she broke into sobs and buried herself in her husband’s shoulder. But Mitchell just put on a hard, strict manner and said, “Mrs. Ashwood, you should be thinking about EVERYone. There are other children in this community, not just yours.”

“I know I’m a senior woman,” Mrs. Ellison rasped, “but that doesn’t mean I’m ready to die yet. And nobody else should have to if we can just make it through- nobody else that can work. I garden. I’ve sacrificed my own. MANY of us have.” She seized the children and brought them forth even as their mother screamed and struggled to unchain the door, Susie and Danny trying to break away as they were thrust into a sea of ragged people, hands worn to the bone and twitching in anticipation of the resources the Ashwoods had been holding back all this time. At the thought of their TWO children, unlike so many other families that had just one…

Finally Mrs. Ashwood burst out onto the grass and her children grabbed frantically at her skirts as they were forced into the light, her shift dress having long since lost its flowery pattern. It was burned clean of its hue and now lay like a white, shapeless robe around her, and she spat out her words as she put a scarred hand over each child, the dress draped about her thin frame like a ghost. “You cannot… have… MY CHILDREN!” Her screech rang out into the night, and that was when the neighbors, the POSSE, saw the two of them and fell silent.

Danny, his head bulging out at an angle where hair didn’t grow, and his legs curved in slightly at the knee, eyes looking up at all of the adults red-rimmed as he left out a rattly cough, making them to take a step back. Wanting so much to protect him, brave little Susie removed her sunglasses to reveal wet blue eyes turned milky white by the blast, her blonde hair thin and missing in patches. At last their mother found her courage and her voice, telling them hoarsely, “Do you want the truth? Because I can TELL you that much.”

Even Mitchell Keene looked down at his feet. There was a slow, poorly feeling settling into all of them, and Mrs. Ashwood was at her breaking point. “My husband took a new job down in the city. We were visiting him the 23rd. Do you see, then? DO YOU SEE?” She thrust out her arms as if to show the world. “We tried to run when we heard sirens but… we got caught in the wave and, well, all the rest.” Her arms came back down to hold her children close. “Eventually we made it back home, back before the buses stopped running. But if you try… if you even TRY to lay a finger on one of my children…” Her entire body shook furiously. “Well, then you’ll have to take me first.”

Charlie Shuster shook his head and walked off in disgrace. The Keenes backed away, Mitchell speechless for once in his life, before dismissing everybody back home with a wave of his hand. As the rest began to disperse, Mrs. Keene slowly kneeled down to the children’s level, cautious not to get too close, in order to meet Susie’s pearly white gaze. Norma whispered to them both, “I’m so… so sorry. Forgive us.” She unsteadily wandered away, the shameful tears once again promising to devour her. Sacrifice meant something… very real to her. And while little Henry lay in bed back home, in the still of the dark, he didn’t sleep. Not facing the empty bed opposite his. Not anymore.

Once inside, Mrs. Ashwood bolted the door and sank to the ground as she held her children close to her, breathing hard with relief. The exhausted, hungry crowd begrudgingly went back to their porches, sat back on their sofas, realizing with defeat that there was nothing they could get from the Ashwoods. They had been in the city zone that fateful September day, and couldn’t yield a thing for the increasingly desperate neighborhood, exposed and infected the way they were. Like tainted meat.

Credit: TheJinx

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Halloween 2.0

October 23, 2015 at 12:00 PM
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Hannah pressed the button of her digital recorder.

“New World Podcast, number one. October 31st.” She shook her head and cleared her throat. “Happy Halloween, my new listeners. I started this podcast to let others know you can survive. We are here. And you can find us.

The calendar says twelve months to the date since the first outbreak of the virus. Seems like forever ago. I didn’t understand how big this thing was at the beginning. I’m sure you didn’t either. Life imitating art…or our nightmares, right? My parents knew right away we needed to leave. They moved us all to our cabin until things settled down. My little sister whined about leaving but they said they couldn’t have us listening to the gunshots night and day. We escaped just as the barricades went up. Like one of those cop shows, my dad weaved in and around the blockades. And we have the snowball size bullet holes in the back of our car to prove how close we came to not leaving. Dead Control has managed the hordes that crop up now and then. Hm, DC has a new meaning now, doesn’t it? Not to be confused with the old center of government. But around here, we haven’t seen a horde in two weeks and DC has done a darn good job no matter what the conspiracy theorists say.”

Hannah covered the kitchen floor in newspaper and placed everything else on top.

“Halloween seems to have changed its meaning too. One ritual is still popular, though. It goes back hundreds of years and the first part still makes my stomach churn: opening the top and scooping the slimy inside out. It has to be cleaned out well or it starts to smell quickly.”

The pile grew on the newspaper. Hannah’s dog found it interesting. “Get lost, Jasper. It will make you sick.”

She continued. “After ten months we returned home. Home is odd somehow…out of place. Change takes getting used to. My school holds classes as usual and stores are open for business. I don’t know about where you are. If DC spots a pack of wandering dead, our school goes into lockdown until they pass. Or, if there’s enough time, we’re dismissed. Home is safer. Stores roll down their gates and wait it out. We made adjustments. And finally, we feel safe letting our guard down just for a bit to have some fun and celebrate. Like we used to.”

Hannah took her Sharpie and drew a design. “As you’ve guessed, I’m talking while I’m carving, so bear with me, listeners. This one’s tougher than I expected. I gotta work with what I have and this one limits my options for creativity. Right now, I’m carving the eyes. I love doing the eyes; they’re the most expressive. Round and hollow…Now the nose, and the triangle is easy enough.”

She wiped off the knife and decided what to do with the mouth. The teeth are a cinch but tedious, and she cut and carved as she recorded.

“In ancient times, I was told this ritual would keep away the evil spirits. Now it just keeps away evil.

What else has changed? Oh, if someone dies at home, the procedure is to call DC hotline or fill out the Request for Pickup form online. They take care of the disposal and a remembrance service is held at the house. But our neighbor’s wife died and her husband, who shall remain nameless for security reasons, didn’t call. We found out because we heard the growling and snarling from his basement window. My dad said he wouldn’t call as long as he kept the chains in good order. This neighbor had a pit-bull when we were little. Before. My dad said the same thing about the pit-bull. You can email me and tell me and other listeners what your procedures are. That’s if your infrastructure is up.”

Hannah notched the top as a vent for the candle. She twisted and twisted the top so that it sat on the bottom like a puzzle piece.

“Trick or treating. Now that was fun. Free candy, dressing up as superheroes. It’s too dangerous now to go out. Not so much because of the hordes. It’s more because of the lone, missed strays. People have house parties instead. You’re one of the lucky ones to be invited. Social out-casting hasn’t gone away. Some things haven’t changed. Our family was intact when we returned from the cabin. Many families weren’t so fortunate, and now whispers that we had some kind of secret cure or unfair immunity keeps us from being included. We just left before it got to us. Mo magic there.”

Hannah rolled up the newspaper and admired her work. “I’m done. Not bad, kiddies. I’ll post a picture when it’s sitting in front of my house. When the candle is inside, it will glow on our porch and remind others of Halloween’s new meaning.”

Hannah clicked the recorder just as her sister Tasha entered the kitchen. “Hey, nice! Particularly gruesome this year, Hannah.”

Hannah smiled and nodded. “I have to agree.”

Tasha struggled with a large, orange pumpkin as big as her own head.

“You’re going to give yourself a hernia, Tash.”

Tasha set it down on the floor and said, “How ‘bout this time you use a pumpkin?”

Credit: RB Frank

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Maestro

October 20, 2015 at 12:00 PM
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“On lonely street, on a dark lonely night…” She sang softly to herself as she walked, hands clasped behind her back clutching her purse. “A thousand glittering lights flicker bright…”

Sara was bored… this Halloween had been such a letdown. Her boyfriend hadn’t been available to go to any of the cooler parties being thrown, having been grounded by his parents for his Geometry grade, and her friends were all busy with their own things, too busy to go party with her. As much as a wild child as she was (according to her father, at the very least) she wasn’t as stupid as to go to some strangers home alone, especially when beer and hormones were in full use. So here she was, walking home beneath the flickering lights of the street lamps after having a horror movie marathon with her two younger cousins at their house, while their parents went out to a party.

How fair was that?

Her Uncle Mortimer had offered to give her a lift home, as it was well past two in the morning, but she’d declined. She saw past his caked on white make-up and vampire fangs and seen how his eyes were somewhat glassy, and how they were following his wife’s every move. She knew he wanted to have some more Halloween fun, and she had no intention of ruining anyone’s Halloween like hers had been ruined.

The lamp above her flickered briefly, a harsh buzzing noise filling the air as if some large fly were close by. Pausing to look up, she jumped a bit when she heard the sudden shatter of glass, and the tinkling noise that came with such shards falling to the ground. Looking behind her, she could see that the street light ten poles down had burst, a sudden blanket of darkness rushing over the area, swallowing the street in pure void.

She calmed herself, knowing that the light had probably just been old, or the wiring was bad. The holiday, combined with the late hour, was setting her nerves on edge. She was merely a block from her house, from her warm bed, and her small night light that she had to make her feel better about those dark and stormy nights.

And then another light burst, a sudden shower of glass only making itself known as the glass struck the hard concrete, swathed in velvet darkness. This light was the next one, just after the first. Her eyes widened in fear as she saw the briefest flicker of a wide red eye, set back in a pale face. Two slender hands, brighter than the moon on a cloudless night, seemed to hover in the darkness near the face, spidery fingers caressing the very air around him as he gazed at her.

And then the third light shattered, casting the stranger back into the unseen, the last thing being seen was the wicked gleam of his wide smile, of his sharpened teeth.

Sara screamed, dropping backward from the sudden fright, scrambling to her feet as another two lights exploded in rapid succession, the high-pitching buzzing seeming to grow more fervent as she broke into a sprint.

But she couldn’t seem to outrun the darkness, the ever expanding shadows that were speeding along, nipping at her heels, as the street lights continued to burst and fade. Every time she looked back, she could see at the edge of the encroaching ebon wave a twin set of eyes, blazing like the sun, and her own reflection in his silvery grin, like some demented Cheshire cat from a horrible nightmare.

Over her screams, she could hear just the faintest singing, almost as if a lover was whispering it into her ear. The voice was sickly, high and reedy, and most definitely male.

“On a lonely street…” It hissed in her ear, another light breaking overhead, plunging her into the very edges of the darkened wave, a long-fingered hand reaching out languidly towards her neck, even as she was sprinting. “On a dark lonely night…”

“No!” She screamed, squeezing her eyes together to not gaze at those unearthly fingers closing in on her. How was he keeping up with her, and speaking so steadily? She could barely breathe, much less sing, and here he was right on her ass like nothing was going on!

She stopped cold as she was lifted bodily from the ground, her legs still doing their best to propel her forward in almost a comedic fashion. Opening her eyes, she could just barely make out the man’s features in the pitch of the night, thanks only to the brilliant glow of his blazing eyes. His head was tilted to the side, like a curious child, as he held her be her shoulders, fingers wrapped fully around her biceps, lifting her effortlessly. His mouth, far too wide to be real, was spread back in a sick grin, rows of needle-point teeth lining blackened gums.

“The song…” He said, the words sounding wrong as he spoke around his mouthful of knives. “Actually ends like this.”

And before she could even see him he had lunged forward, jaws snapping wide enough for him to swallow a bowling ball, slamming into her chest, his countless sharpened teeth piercing her like so many needles, ripping through her chest as if it were merely an orange rind with a cute pink baby tee. She swooned, as the pain she thought she would feel never came, merely a sense of nausea and light headedness, accompanied by the sounds of thick gulping, and water splattering on the cold October ground.

Not water… it’s not raining… She thought drunkenly, head swaying back and forth as her eyelids became heavy. That’s my blood…

Her vision, clouding at the edges, became filled with the blazing orbs again, a long multi-pronged tongue cleaning the gore from his face in a lazy fashion as he shuddered in apparent ecstasy. “On a lonely street, on a dark lonely night, a thousand fangs pierce the girl just right. Her blood he seeks to get his fill, her flesh and bones seemed to just fit the bill.” He sang softly, lowering her to the ground gently, like she was a fine piece of china. Her eyes, so heavy with sleep, could just make out that she was lying in a pool of her own blood, and that there were others standing around her, barefoot.

“Now she haunts the street, so ends this tragic tale, but don’t be sad for she didn’t fail.” He continued, waving his long arms wide, singing to his new audience. “She lingers on to see those who’ve sung before, and pray that there will be no more.”

All of the girls around him, some two dozen pairs of cold dark eyes stared back at him, no smile at his lyrics gracing their beautiful features or any kindness in their gaze. Each bore their own mark, their own open wound from which nothing but rot fell. He smiled at them, doing a deep bow with a fantastic flourish of his hands.

“My dear ladies, I would assume you would thank me!” He said in mock anger, eyes flashing brightly in the now silent alley. “After all, everyone loves to make a new friend! And here you go, one who already knew some of my work, a true fan of quality music, wouldn’t you agree?”

“Yes Maestro…” They responded in unison, a dead and hollow chorus of sweet tones made all the worse by their utter lack of emotion.

The creature leaned back with a satisfied smile, taking a deep and long sniff of the crisp night air, arms held wide. In the darkness, one could hardly see him save for his near translucent skin thanks to his black bodysuit. Tall enough to be considered freakish by any normal standards, the creature popped it’s back with a pleasant sigh as the young girls milled about him, their glassy eyes watching his every movement. Even hunched over, long spindly fingers dancing across the asphalt with a hideous crackling of nail on stone, he towered over all of them.

This was made only worse by the fact that he was completely skeletal, his frame that of a man who hadn’t eaten in weeks. Thin cords of muscle moved sickly beneath his pale hands and face, a horrible caricature of life if studied closely. A bald head, smooth as if shaven sat perched atop a high collar, a wide jaw curved up into a prominent chin, pale colorless lips pulled back into a shark-like grin, revealing the countless needles that sat aligned within.
Sara’s last memory, her last thoughts, were those of terror and fear; a chalk-white demon swimming within the shadows of the night had hunted her, stalked her like a wounded deer. He had even played with her, as if her life was so measly a thing that he could make light of it.

And then he had killed her, tearing into her chest with his shark-like mouth, singing some old song she had heard played on the radio every Halloween. She had been powerless, completely and utterly unable to do anything to prevent it. Just as she was now, as she somehow found herself standing over her own body, her chest looking like raw hamburger, her skin grey and cold as the stone beneath it. Her murderer, as inhuman as she remembered, turned to look up from his position on one knee over her body, a slow smile creeping across his features.

“Why?” She asked, not entirely sure what to say. Her hands were at her side, but she could feel the cold wind blowing into her open wound, somehow bloodless and stiff. It confused her, as there was no way she could be alive. But on some level she knew she wasn’t.

“Why?” He repeated, mouthing the words slowly as if he had never heard them before. “Why my dear girl, why not? I heard you as I was on my way home, singing with such a sweet voice, and knew that I had to add you to my choir.”

“Choir?” She asked, still too shaken from the surreal experience to even question the crowd of girls standing around them, all sporting similar wounds across their abdomens and legs, their dead eyes and featureless faces not doing much to ease her nerves.

“Why yes, my choir!” He cried, high and loud, waving at the surrounding girls as if they were explanation enough. “I gather those with talent and make certain their talent need not go to waste due to the ravages of age, or sickness. I preserve their greatness, and entertain those walking this great masterpiece we call Earth for all eternity.”

“Masterpiece of Earth? What kind of nut are you! You freak, why in the Hell did you do this!” Sara cried, the shock of it all sinking in finally.

“I know my dear, the transition can be somewhat difficult, but it really is for the best. It would be a crime to allow your dulcet chords go the wayside in the next few years due to something as silly as hormones. Now you can forever sing, sing like my own personal songbird!” He crowed, standing to his full height, practically skipping with joy at the thought. “Girls, be dearies and take my newest instrument home for me, I still have work to do before the concert!”

Sara couldn’t even protest at such a command as her world seemed to melt around her, the darkness of the night giving way to something far more enveloping, a soul-wrenching void that she could barely even begin to contemplate before she found herself thrust from it just as suddenly. She now stood in a well-lit ballroom that, perhaps years ago, was made to entertain a crowd of hundreds. Now it was old and worn, vast stretches of masonry cracked, paint peeling in wide stripes. A large stage sat against the far wall, near a pair of double doors, while the rest of the room was filled with old wooden tables, covered in worn silken tablecloths.

Two girls, a small Asian child and an older teen with glassy eyes and a gaping throat wound stood close by, motionless. The Asian girl bounded over to her, skipping as she went a wide smile on her face.

“You just be the new performer! Are you excited?” She asked, her blood soaked shirt and large torn streaks marring her face a tad unnerving to look upon.
“Perform? Why the hell should I perform anything for that monster!”

“He’s saved you! Saved you from age and disease, from losing what talents you have! The Maestro has been saving us all for the past three hundred years!” The little girl stomped, her brow furrowed in what would be a cute fashion had her side not been sliced open.

“Don’t mind Mimi, she’s still fresh, like you.” Interrupted the taller girl, seeming to merely appear next to her rather than walk. “After a few years, as your blood thins out, you’ll calm down like the rest of us.”

The girl’s flat, featureless tone was almost a breath of fresh air when compared to the demented cries of the smaller girl, who was now merely pouting at Sara angrily. “Angela, she needs to understand what we’re here for!” Mimi said with a low whine.

Angela waved away her concern with a small smile. “I’ll show her Mimi, we don’t need you throwing a tantrum right now. We just got all of the tables set, and we’ll need the room to appear at its best if we want Maestro to be pleased with us.”

That seemed to cheer the tiny specter up significantly, allowing Sara to breathe a sigh of relief. Mimi gave one final glare to Sara (which was only met with a bewildered blink) before vanishing without as much as a puff of smoke. “Don’t mind her; she seems to be in love with Maestro… it can happen to you, if you convince yourself that all of this was your choice.” Angela deadpanned.

“We’re ghosts, as I’m sure you’ve realized by now.” Angela continued, turning to begin sorting sets of polished silver tableware about the room, plates and knives and forks floating about her head as they slowly drifted to the numerous tables, getting set into proper position. “We are bound to the Unseelie that killed us, so long as our blood flows through his veins. It takes an average of ten to fifteen years for one of us to fade away to nothingness, less if our beloved Maestro sustains some substantial injuries. It takes blood to heal one of them you know.”

“How can you be so calm about all of this?” Sara asked, eyes glued to the floating steak knife, drifting lazily in the air as Angela decided where it was needed.

“I’ve been bound to Maestro for about six years, give or take. My blood is thinning within him, growing more and more diluted as he takes more in. This is allowing my spirit to slowly ease away from this limbo into the great beyond that awaits us all.” Angela explained matter-of-factly, flipping the knife through the air and sending it through the double doors with a sudden flourish. “We’re bound to him, cursed to roam the world as unnatural spirits until he either is slain, or our blood is used up within him. Until then we serve him without question.”

“Why?” Sara asked, walking slowly around one of the finished tables, eyes looking anywhere but at the dead woman before her.

“Because we have no choice. Any wish he has, no matter how perverse, we must follow through with it. For example, I helped shatter the lights tonight as he was moving in for the kill.” Angela said with a careless shrug.

“You helped him kill me?” Sara asked, not knowing how to feel at that thought.

Angela shrugged once more truly disinterested in the conversation. “I and a few others, the older ones. We have far better control than a fresh one like you, so we get the joy of helping him hunt.”

“So… we’re ghosts then,” Sara asked, waving her hand through a close by table for emphasis.

“The best term is poltergeist, as we can still manipulate the material world if given the proper motivation, but for now, yes. You’re a ghost, a vassal to a greater unnatural creature that requires the flesh and blood of the still living to power his very existence.” She answered her flat tone and bored expression etched across her comely features. “Maestro is virtually at the top of the food chain in the supernatural world, what most people would call a vampire; he hunts the living, creates servants and thralls from those willing to be bent to his will, and enslaves those he has slain in grotesque ways to provide him entertainment.”

“Entertainment? Mimi said the same thing a moment ago, what are we going to do, strip for him and his pervy little friends?” Sara asked, a bit of trepidation seeping into her voice.

“Nothing so simple actually. Maestro is called such because he exclusively hunts and feeds on performers.” Angela said, snapping her fingers to whip back a drawn set of curtains, allowing a flood of moonlight to shine into the room. “Unlike us, he truly is what he eats.”

“What? Why can’t you say anything that makes sense?” Sara asked, jumping back as a trio of mops swished past her, cleaning the floor without any visible direction.

“We’re merely echoes of what we once were, memories given form by the lingering fluids once taken from our physical selves. As those fluids thin out, they’re mixed with the fluids of others, altering us until we are merely a shadow of several different people; their skills, their memories, their personalities… all one rough amalgamation crammed into spectral form.” Angela sighed, shoulders slumping at the very idea. “That’s why the older we are, the more… detached we feel. We can feel our minds being eroded away by foreign thoughts and desires, hopes and dreams. I can’t even remember where I was born, let alone where and how I died. All I really know is what the Maestro allows me to.”

“Which is what, how to be entertaining? Because I hate to burst your morbid little bubble, but you’re kind of a mood killer.” Sara said with a grimace.

“All I know is cleaning and kinetic motion… how to interact with the real world. There are three others like me, all with memories of hunters and trappers, of soldiers. We help him hunt, help him add to his stable.” Angela said with a faint smile. “Most of the other ghosts, like you, are kept to entertain. He floods your mind with years of musical training, inundates your thoughts with past performances and songs; makes it to where everything you are, what makes you… you, is music.”

Sara didn’t truly know what to say to such a statement, but on some level she knew it to be true. All she could really remember at the moment was her death, a horrible jumble of sensations all made worse by the pain and terror that had accompanied them. Instead of remembering her birthday, she could now faintly hear a lovely ballad sung in a voice strikingly similar to hers, in a language she didn’t know, but was beginning to understand.

“It’s already started then, as you can tell.” Angela said with a smirk, waving a hand elegantly towards the far wall, the strips of peeling paint quickly rolling back up the walls, slowly aligning back into their original shapes, the torn seams vanishing slowly. “The thoughts… the memories you know aren’t yours… they’re ours. Each and every one of us. Every person slain by Maestro, every time he’s fed on their vital essence, they’ve been slowly woven into the vast folds that are our minds.”

“She’s hearing the Sonata…” Another voice said, a hollow whispering that sounded as if the wind itself were speaking. Sara turned to see a frail girl… no, a frail woman, floating just mere inches from her. Her hair drifting lazily about her translucent frame as if she were suspended in a pool of crystal clear water, her eyes but hollow points of pale moonlight. Her skin was old, paper thin and worn. “The Sonata is what Maestro loves to hear from his newest acquisitions. It’s a song from his homeland, he told me. Long ago, a song that was sung to warn of the threats that surrounded them, the threats that lurked in the night.”

“That’s Eve…” Angela whispered to Sara just over her shoulder. “She’s been here the longest, and if what we believe is true, will soon be leaving us. Finally going to rest, after her years of service to Maestro.”

“Over a hundred years I’ve sang for him, from every moment he falls to bed from every moment he awakens… he loves to hear the Sonata, in his native tongue of course…” Eve whispered, floating closer to Sara than she felt comfortable with. The lower half of the woman’s body was merely vapor, no visible wounds standing out from her ancient features. “You’ll be learning it soon enough dearie, make no mistake.”

“Thank you?” Sara said awkwardly, not really knowing how to respond to such a statement. She felt a cold wash over her as Eve’s hand fell upon her cheek, a soft caress from what could have easily been made of ice.

“So lovely… just like I was when I was younger.” Eve said to herself as she began to fade from view, her voice becoming a mere echo. “So lovely…”

The time passed strangely for Sara, with vast tracts of time slipping past her notice like water through her fingers. Mimi would flutter into existence close by, dragging her through the crushing void to another section of the mansion, or perhaps another home, forcing her to gather supplies that their wayward master would apparently require in the coming evening. As they would return with armfuls of linens and silverware, Angela would tell Sara to aid another three specters in cleaning the vast kitchens behind the double doors, a task that proved futile as she was utterly incapable of doing any such task without the most direct of supervision, as her thoughts, her mind, were slowly being overcome with thoughts of songs, of notes and chords, of lyrics and melodies… all things Sara knew she had never heard before in life, but seemed to haunt her forever in death.

She found herself steered away from the kitchen after a time, trapped in a darkened corner of the house with the vaporous form of Eve watching over here, silently listening as she hummed the very song that reverberated throughout Sara’s mind. She ignored all attempts at conversation, and somehow seemed to have found a way to contain Sara within the stiflingly dark room, as every time she moved to leave she would find herself seated once more across from her, the same rotting armchair beneath her with the same broken table between her and Eve. Between the songs playing over and over in her head, the only thing she could really focus on was how her family must be feeling, how worried they must be.

Her two bratty cousins, her little brother and sister… their faces kept flashing through her mind’s eye, along with the images of her mother and father, and of her Aunt and Uncle. Did they know she was dead? It had to be morning already, and with her body left out like that she could only imagine how horrified they would be to find her. How was her little brother taking it? Her sister, only a baby really, wouldn’t be too broken up by it as she couldn’t understand death quite yet, but would she miss Sara at all? Would she even remember her?

“It’s almost time dearie.” Eve announced suddenly, her paper thin voice cracking from the effort it took the spirit to speak. “Just know that we’ve all gone through it, and it gets easier with time.”

“What, performing? I know it gets easier… I think.” Sara said, not really knowing which of her thoughts were hers and which were someone else’s.

Eve didn’t respond, choosing instead to pull them both into the soul-crushing darkness of the void and back into the ballroom that Sara had first appeared in. While it had been well lit before, now the entire place seemed to practically glow with energy, great spheres of light fluttering along the ceiling like fireflies, sparking whenever they came in contact with dazzling delight,

The ancient tables, now covered with more presentable linens than before, were now full of guests, all as disturbing to lay eyes upon as her killer. At least thirty to forty of the foul creatures sat in the hall, chatting and laughing amongst themselves, though not all were as frightening as the Maestro. Some wore their hair in long curtains down their backs, elegant ebon cocktail dresses hugging their pale flesh in all of the right places, blazing red eyes highlighted by equally bright lipstick, made only terrifying when they spoke or smiled, revealing rows of needle-like teeth. Squat men in tuxedo suits sat with long handled cigarettes, chatting with bearded men in robes, while several young-looking children ran about the floor chasing a yipping dog.

The children’s wide mouths and flaring eyes almost made Sara weep for the fate of the dog, but she choked back the sob that struggled to come forth. Eve placed a frozen hand on her forearm to draw her attention, and it was only when she turned did she meet the eyes of her maker.

“There is my little diamond!” Maestro crowed, dressed in skintight black silk, towering above her with eyes a dull glow. “How is she, dear Eve? Is she ready you think?”

“As ready as one in her position can be Maestro, but I know that I am ready. Please, let us move on with the show.” Eve creaked, moving to take Maestro’s offered elbow. Which seemed to help her float alongside him as he walked to the edge of the stage they stood upon. The crowd fell silent as the ebon giant waved for their attention.

“Ladies and gentlemen, I invite you here for my dear Eve’s two-hundred and fiftieth performance with utmost pride and never-ending sorrow. This performance, a piece I have favored for untold years, shall be her last.” Maestro announced, a deep sense of loss somehow being sent through his words that the crowd easily seemed to pick up upon as a collective groan rose from them.

“Now, let us not taint this marvelous event with such sadness, but instead embrace the new era of my latest talent!” Maestro said, waving the crowds disgruntled cries away before holding out a spidery hand to Sara, drawing her close to him. “Tonight shall be her debut upon the stage, and as is custom, let us aid her in her artistic endeavors!”

Sara didn’t even have time to think about what perverted custom he could be thinking of before a sudden whooshing of air, followed by a sharp and loud crack broke through the following silence. Dangling, some ten feet from the stage and from the rafters high above by a single length of thick piano wire, was her Uncle Mortimer, twitching in a macabre form of dance as the last vestiges of life ebbed from his body, blood spilling from the sliced flesh of his neck and dripping through his fake Vampire costume. A loud cry rent the air from above, and in horror Sara watched as her mother and father were pushed from the same rafter by a grim faced Angela, their screams not screams of mercy for themselves, but for of their children lined up for the next drop.

Sara’s mouth opened to scream and to beg, but all that came out were the words to that damn song that had been stuck in her head, a solid stream of richly sung French that held all of Sara’s anguish and fear. The song grew louder and louder as she watched her cousins pushed over the ledge, followed by her brother, watching their bodies writhe and struggle at the end of a long length of wire as they struggled for breath, as the cord cut through their slender necks, and as their blood fell from their bodies and into the hungering mouths of the Maestro’s guests.

The song reached its crescendo as Sara caught sight of the Maestro walking up onto the stage, cradling the sleeping form of her baby sister. Watching in horror as his mouth grew wider and wider, a veritable bear trap of blackened needles and bleeding gums. The high point came and crashed like a thousand waves upon the sand as he closed his mouth with an audible snap, her sister no longer sleeping and no longer there, now just a bulge in the Maestro’s throat as it expanded and forced the body of her struggling sibling down into his body.

With the song done and her family now swinging softly in an unseen breeze, Sara could do nothing but stand there as she was given a round of applause by the blood-drenched demons around her, forced to bow to them with blank eyes at the Maestro’s perverted whim, and to begin the song anew with the images of her family dying flashing before her eyes in a way she could not control nor stop. The only thing she knew to be her own within her head was the single phrase she had heard Eve say to her, in what Sara could now tell was in an apologetic tone.

“Just know that we’ve all gone through it, and it gets easier with time.”

Credit To – Nicholas Paschall

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Symphonies About Drowning

October 13, 2015 at 12:00 PM
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The faucet is dripping in the bathroom. It has been the whole night. I haven’t gone in yet. Yet.

I moved here two months ago. It’s my first house and I had no idea what I was getting into. I’ve been tearing down wallpaper, ripping up carpets, painting everything. And now I’m here, in my bedroom with half my stuff still in boxes, listening to the faucet drip. Listening to water fill a bathtub.

By the second weekend I was here I already needed to mow. The yard looked like a jungle. When I started in the front, a guy came out of the house to the left. I waved and shut off the mower as he waddled over.

We introduced ourselves. His name was Morris and he was fleshy, with a rubbery face. Sweat ran down his forehead as he smiled at me in the already humid, wet morning air. We made small talk for a few minutes and then, as I got ready to take my leave of the conversation and start to mow the grass, Morris leaned in to me and lowered his voice.

“So, umm, what’s it like in there?”

“In where? My house?” I asked. I looked back at it. Standard ranch, split level. “Oh you know. The usual. Needs a little TLC. Some painting. Why?”

“Oh, I thought,” he said, his voice froggy and low. “I guess I thought it’d be a little more, umm, you know…”

“No, I don’t. A little more what?” I asked.

“Well, you know. With what happened. In there…”

“What do you mean, “what happened?” Did somebody die in here?”

I looked at my house. “Oh my god. Somebody died in my house?”

“Nobody told you?” Morris winced. “Oh. Sorry.”

“What happened?”

“The guy who lived there, he, umm, he died. It was, umm…”

He said “umm” the way people say “om” in mediation: repetitively and with great belief that something will happen if he continues to repeat it.

“It was pretty bad, umm. That’s what I heard. At least. I didn’t see. I’m glad I didn’t. He was a nice guy.”

Hs looked at me and smiled. His teeth were all yellow in the hot air.

“He was a good neighbor.”

Later that night, as I was trying to get to sleep, I heard the water drip for the first time. A plumber, I thought, I’ll have to call a plumber tomorrow. Before I fell asleep, I thought I could hear music from a far away place. A sound that almost sounded like singing.

The doorbell rang the next day. It was Morris, slightly damp from the light rain that had been falling.

He sat down in my kitchen and took a mug of coffee I offered him.

“I’m sorry to, umm, just barge in on you,” he said, blowing on the steam. The black surface of the drink rippled.

“It’s ok. I’m not too busy today.”

“I wanted to stop by and apologize for yesterday. I didn’t tell you everything.”

“Really?” I said, sitting down across from him.

“Really. You see, the guy who used to liver here, he, umm, he used to talk to me sometimes. About stuff he used to hear in here. He thought he was going crazy.”

“Really?” I asked, “what did he think was going on?”

“He thought there was something living in his pipes.”

“What?”

“That’s what I, umm, I said,” Morris looked at me. His eyes had little splashes of color in the sclera. Little brown discolorations. “I said, you’re crazy. Ha ha ha!”

After he left, I realized it must have been raining harder than I had thought out there. His seat was all damp. Everything felt damp.

The plumber came the next day. He couldn’t get the dripping to stop. He explained he needed a part, and he could be back the next day. Maybe the day after that.

That night, I listened to the dripping. I had gotten used to the rhythm. I kind of liked it, almost. The way it sounded like a song I almost remembered….

Right as I was about to fall asleep, I heard a weird noise, a sloshing sound sound. It sounded almost like stepping. I looked from my bed, without sitting up, and peered out into the hallway. I saw a dark figure moving, slowly, very slowly, to the bathroom. There was the wet noise of wet footsteps. The shadow moved into the bathroom. The water drops got louder. I could swear I recognized a song.

I woke up the next morning. I didn’t know I had fallen asleep. The bed had wet spots on it, like something had been dripping on it.

I rushed into the hallway outside my bedroom. The ground… There were wet footprints leading into the bathroom. The footprints had too many toes.

I called the plumber. The part was still on order. Maybe he’d have it tomorrow. I knew I needed to get out of the house. I emailed my real estate agent. I demand she tell me everything she knew. She got back in touch in a few moments. She didn’t know much.

The guy who lived there before me had died. The house was willed to his sister. She was the one who sold it. My realtor sent me the email address she had for the dead man’s sister.

I emailed the sister immediately, begging her to tell me more. As I paced about, I stared out my window at Morris’s house. In the hot weather, it shimmered, like it was underwater.

The sister emailed me back in a little over an hour. She thanked me for my condolences and said all she knew about her brother is he got very sick living in that house. She said he seemed paranoid, worrying about his neighbor, telling her about things that lived in the sewers under the house. Things that had moved there from the ocean. They sang songs, he claimed.

She said he had seen the drain was knotted with hair one day, and he tried to clean it out. He said he pulled on the long, black hairs and then they were pulling him into the drain. They wrapped around his wrists, in between his fingers, dark and slippery, like ropes in fetid water. He let go, he told her, and they wrapped around his wrists and tried to suck him under, to pull into the pipes, into their singing.

She wrote he was very sick. And she wished she could have helped him more.

She wished me luck in my new house.
I should have left. You would have, as you read this, that’s what you tell yourself, I know. That’s what I would say too, if I read this. But I have heard their songs, their incomparable drowned melodies. They want me to go to them. They want me to live with them, in their strange beautiful world of underground rivers and pale bodies and seaweed hair.

Morris has been telling me all about it. He’s helped others go into their palaces. He’ll help me too. They sent him up here to do that. To help people like me. He is in the bathroom now, filling the bathtub with water. I’m waiting for him to tell me to strip off my clothes and submerge myself in the porcelain, to dive into brand new oceans, to grow a beautiful new body.

The moon in the sky is dry and beautiful and very far away. In the bathroom, the songs are starting. I recognize every word.

Credit: Kevin Sharp

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Spirit Bottles

October 6, 2015 at 12:00 AM
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“Will you be with me when the time comes?” Caitlyn asked.

Her voice was soft and cracking due to dehydration. Even with the saline solution being pumped through the IV she was still far too weak to talk properly. Her lips were white and cracking like the earth in Death Valley. Henry tightened his grip on her hand, not by much but to acknowledge her request.

“What happened out there?” he asked.

“I will tell you, but first I need some ice. Feed them to me as I talk so I can at least keep my mouth wet enough to let you know what I saw.”

Caitlyn’s breathing was labored. This and the dehydration caused her to talk much slower than she normally would.

Henry released her hand and went to get some water. He came back with the little pink bucket filled to over flowing with little square ice cubes. Caitlyn’s mouth opened slightly and he slipped one in. He noticed even her tongue was a pallid pink, almost white. Once the ice was in her mouth he reclaimed her hand, it felt like leather. Her face looked fifty.

“I decided to go into the mountains for the weekend. The sun was bright and it would be a great camping trip. I had been to the Flatirons many times, so I decided I would go more towards the Devil’s Backbone.”

Caitlyn paused here, her thin hand reaching for the little pink bucket. Henry saw what she was trying to do and fed her another ice chip. Her eyes closed with her mouth as she let the water slowly trickle down her throat.

Henry took her hand once more; this time he noticed she was still wearing her ring. It seemed like it should have fallen off long ago. The band was far too large for the little meat she had on her hand, but it still would have a little trouble getting over the knuckle, not much but enough to keep it on.

“I knew that area was known to have covens. There was a community that lived there which everyone knew was into that shit. Most people thought they were into Wicca, but a few said it was much worse than that, that some were into darker things. Things which would make the devil blush. I never believed any of that stuff would work, I told you that before. But I was wrong. I saw things which make me believe, make me know that something else can be channeled by those people.”

The heart monitor started to race, it was the first time Henry had paid it any mind. His own heart started to quicken just from the sound. His hand tightened on her withered remains. The only reason he loosened his grip was due to the weak groan she let slip from those cracked lips.

“Sorry,” he said.

“It’s okay. I don’t think I have much left in me tonight, but you need to know what happened. It all happened that first night. I set up my tent, God, I wish you would have come with me. I was so upset with you though.”

Henry looked down at her wedding band once more. The matching one he wore on his left hand felt like a sham for the past few days. Now it was even worse. Now that his wife had been through so much, and he wasn’t able to be there with her because of his stupid actions. Tears welled in his eyes, as he felt the soft touch of her dry skin enclose around the back of his hand.

“I forgive you. It was a moment of weakness, I just wish it wouldn’t have been like that. But don’t worry about it now, just let me finish.”

She pointed towards the bucket again and he slipped another piece of ice into her barely open mouth. Once she was trying desperately to get the ice to melt he had a chance to wipe his eyes. His own hands shaking more than hers.

“I had my tent up in no time. The sun was going down and I started to hear something. At first I didn’t know what it could be, but after a while I was able to make out it was people. It sounded like they were singing, which is fine, Colorado is a strange place. But I figured it may not be a bad idea to see if I could find where they were. If people were out there maybe they would want to talk. And, I have to admit, I was feeling lonely.”

Her words were broken by a cough that was dryer than some papyrus left over from ancient Egyptian times. Dryer even than her voice, but not much. Her face gnarled as she coughed, and she tried to sit up, but she was far too weak and in far too much pain to do so.

“Sit down Caitlyn,” Henry said. “You don’t need to put yourself through any more pain than you are already in.”

With his help she was able to lie back down and get comfortable, well at least as comfortable as the situation would allow. It took a few minutes before she was able to return to her story. Time in which Henry found to smooth her hair and give her a kiss on the forehead. She returned his affection with a smile that broke her lips open slightly. A thick blood started to seep from the cracks. It was so dark it looked more black than red. He wiped away the blood and no more came from the crevasses.

“It was a long walk; that should have been the first thing I noticed was wrong. They were in the woods, you know how far away the woods are from the Backbone. It took me ten minutes just to get to the tree line. It was also closer to that community, the one where the witches live. But I didn’t think anything of it, I just kept walking to see who was singing and what they were saying. There was more than one person, I could make out that much at least.

“The wind picked up and I heard a tink-tink sound. I shined the flashlight into the woods and saw bottles hanging from the trees. None of them looked like any of the others, but there was one thing they all had in common; each had a little piece of meat on a string hanging inside and were sealed with wax. There must have been a hundred bottles in all. Blue, green, clear and frosted.”

Once more she pointed to the ice bucket and Henry knew the sign well enough to feed her another chip. The rhythmic beeping had slowed again, but it still seemed a little jerky. At times it would spike with a few rapid beeps then fall to the normal rhythm. Her hands would tighten on his, not hard, Henry didn’t think she was capable of using too much energy to make the squeeze hard, which made his heart sink a little deeper in his chest.

“When I was in the woods I still couldn’t make out what they were saying. Not because it was too faint, but because they were speaking in a different language. I saw a fire, and it pulled me closer like a moth. There must have been ten people dancing around that fire, each of them singing that strange song. I couldn’t see if they were all singing, because they were wearing masks, but it sure sounded as if they were all singing.

“The masks were pure white and contrasted well with the black robes they were wearing. The only other parts that were white were the gloves they wore and their sneakers. I didn’t think any of them had seen me, so I kept moving closer. Not close enough to feel the heat from the fire, but close enough to see what they were doing. I didn’t want them to know I was there, I can’t really explain why, but I knew it would be bad if they knew I was watching.”

Henry swallowed hard, his throat was going dry. So was Caitlyn’s. This time after he had given her a piece of ice he took one as well. The heart monitor had picked up its beeping again. Although it seemed impossible Caitlyn seemed to be getting even dryer. Her hands felt like sandpaper and her eyes looked smaller than the sockets they were in, her voice had even gotten hoarser.

“They stopped singing and one of those people in the blank white faces came forward with a bottle. They put it above the fire, hanging it from some makeshift gallows which was erected above the flames. A chain held it above the flames and it wasn’t long before the glass started to have a film on the inside. I thought it was a film at least, but it was smoke. Then they popped a hole into the wax which sealed it and removed the cork. The smoke came bubbling out but didn’t drift up towards the moon, instead it fell to the ground and started to build on itself. I know it sounds crazy but that is what happened. It happened like that until it made the figure of a man.”

Caitlyn’s eyes closed, if it wasn’t for the heart monitor Henry would have thought she died. His hand gently rubbed her arm until she opened her eyes once more. When he first started to move his hand up her thin arm she was disturbed by the dry scratchy sound it had made.

“The figure stood beside the fire and the group started to ask it questions. Strange questions like ‘what do you know of the afterlife?’ Or ‘when will this trial be over?’ Things that meant nothing to me, but must have been very important to others. It dawned on me that this was a ghost they were talking to, trying to get answers that no one from the living world would be able to answer. It was frightening, but got worse when they asked the last question I stuck around to hear. ‘How long can we keep our coven a secret?’ To this the ghost replied that I was watching them and a smoky tendril pointed towards my direction. I didn’t stick around to see what they would do if they caught me.

“You know how fast I can run, or at least could until I got here. Still the people in the masks were just as quick, if not quicker. I was stumbling through the trees and down branches when I heard them coming after me. I got out of the woods and was able to run faster. It was the fastest I had ever ran, but it wasn’t fast enough. One of them was able to get a hold of my hair. I jerked free but the hand that was holding me must have come away with a handful of my hair. After that I didn’t stop until I was safe in my car and locked the doors.”

Again she closed her eyes. Henry could see how much it was taking for her to tell this story. He wished she would stop, just relax for a little, but he knew that would be the last thing she would do. Her face was thinner than before, cheekbones protruding so far, her face looked like a skull with a thin cloth over it. He gave her another ice chip.

“When I got to my car I wasn’t able to start it. I don’t know why, I didn’t care why. The only thing I wanted to do was to get out of there before that group found me. So, I did the only thing I could think of, I ran for as long as I could. But I don’t think I was able to get away. Even though I hadn’t seen any of them I could still feel their eyes on me. I was still miles from any other town than the one I wanted to get away from. But I couldn’t run any more. My lungs were burning so badly and so were my legs. And once I sat down I had fallen asleep. I couldn’t help it, a wave of tiredness crashed over me and I was out. It wasn’t until morning that I woke and was able to start running again.

“By the time someone had found me I must have looked terrible. They took me here and left me once I had gotten checked in. At least they were nice enough to stay with me until they knew I was in good hands.”

The pause was longer this time. The heart monitor had slowed so much that Henry was amazed she was still talking. The beeps were about two seconds apart, far too long for someone to live and still be able to talk.

“I know they cursed me. They must have. Haven’t you noticed that I have been getting worse, even in the short time it took me to tell you that story. I must look like I’m dead already. But there are still some things I need to tell you. I want you to live your life again. Mourn me, but don’t mourn me for long. I’m sure that girl you were sleeping with would be eager to get back with you. Sorry, that was mean and I don’t want you to remember me that way. Lilly was her name, right? Be with her if you want, but please just wait a little bit.”

Tears rolled down both of their faces. Henry couldn’t believe she was saying what she was saying. Caitlyn couldn’t believe it either, but she was more upset about dying. It wouldn’t be long now and she knew it.

“I have always loved you Henry. Even when I had walked in on you. I was hurt, but it hurt because I loved you so much. Please, do what you have to, to…”

The monitor flat-lined. Nurses rushed in and checked Caitlyn. It was clear she was dead, and there was nothing they could really do to revive her. When the nurse had pushed Henry away three of her fingers snapped off in his hand, one of which still had the wedding band on it. No blood came from the missing fingers, it had all dried up. When the nurse pushed on her chest to revive her dust came out from her cracked lips. There was nothing they could do, and everyone in the room knew it. So they did the only thing they felt they could do, give Henry a few more minutes with his dead wife.

“I’m sorry, honey,” he said over the dried corpse which had just told the story of her last days. A story of fear and pain.

“I never found Lilly attractive. We had sex because it was part of a spell we were doing.”

He reached into his blazer pocket and produced a small bottle with a piece of meat hanging in it.

“But don’t worry, you and I will be together for a long time.”

The bottle began to fill with a smoke as he chanted in that language she couldn’t understand in the woods. Once her spirit was in the bottle he pushed the cork deep in the mouth. He would have to wait to put the wax over it, but that was okay, she wouldn’t get out before then. As he left the room he gave her body one last kiss on the forehead and dropped the fingers on her chest. Leaving the ring which symbolized their vows to be together for better or worse.

Credit: Johnathan Nash

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And More

August 23, 2015 at 12:00 PM
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“No, absolutely not,” I told the doctor. Dr. Murdock maintained eye contact with me. Whether or not he had any personal feelings about the situation, I couldn’t tell. I always thought it was eerie how detached some doctors could appear, almost as though they were machines that could turn emotion and off at will. Hell, with some of the cases they faced, that’s probably a necessary survival technique.
“You’re certain?” Dr. Murdock asked. “You know his situation. Free health care is a wonderful thing in theory, but you need to understand that it will be years before his chart is even processed, and even longer until they approve or decline his kidney transplant. He came to America because he knew you were here. The tests are positive, you are a perfect candidate as a donor, and it would expedite the process greatly if you agreed to this donation. That’s not to say this is his only hope, but you would be doing him a kindness by alleviating all the anxiety of having to find another potential donor.”
“I don’t even know this man. We’re supposed to be related? I didn’t know he existed until I received that damned letter telling me to receive a so-called ‘relative’ at the embassy. He’s no one to me, why should I owe him a kidney?”
Murdock’s lips tightened into a thin line. Ah, finally some emotion. So this doctor did have an opinion.
“You understand, Mr. Erikson, that there are hundreds of willing donors who are complete strangers to Mr. Fyrafemsju, who, if they were appropriate donors, would simply donate the needed organ for the sole purpose of helping another human being. They don’t owe him anything either, and yet they’re willing.”
I scoffed.
“Fyrafemsju. Why the hell doesn’t he go by first name when his last name is so jacked up? I almost choked on my own tongue tongue trying to say it. Aside from which, if he’s family, then why didn’t they come to America when my mother immigrated? Why would his family have stayed?”
“Fyrafemsju is his only name, he simply identifies as a member of his clan, a tribe derivative of the Sami people in northern Scandinavia; a tribe whose name, I assure you, is much more difficult to pronounce than his given name. And the short answer to your second question, Mr. Erikson, is simply that I don’t know. I don’t know your family history, I simply know that Fyrafemsju is in need and he came to you for help.”
“Yeah, I know he’s a part of some weird-ass tribe; the guys at the embassy gave me the background of his weird little voodoo mysticism cult, and I don’t give a damn. Why is he even using western medicine anyway? He should just get his shaman to do a little rain dance, pump him full of peyote or whatever the hell they smoke up there, and leave me the hell alone.”
Murdock closed his eyes for a moment. He was obviously trying to keep his frustration from showing. Without a word, he handed me a clipboard with a paper attached.
“Sign here. This is a disclosure indicating that you decline to undergo the transplant procedure and that we’ll be free to continue looking for a suitable donor as soon as possible.”
“Fan-tastic,” I said and scribbled my name at the bottom of the page. Murdock wasted no time in leaving the room, and I followed suit. As I walked through the waiting room of the doctor’s office, I saw my ass-backwards cousin sitting in a hard-backed chair. He glanced up at me, a hopeful look on his face. I winked at him.
“Sorry Pal, what’s mine is mine.”
____________________________________________________________________________

“What do you mean you said no!” Becca shrieked on the other end of the line. I actually had to pull the phone away from my ear due to how loud she was screaming.
“Why should I have agreed?!” I yelled back. “What is it feminist women always say? ‘My body, my choice’? Well I’m invoking the same privilege!”
“You just gave this man a death sentence. You’re practically killing family, you—”
I hung up. I didn’t need this. I’d called my fiancee for support and hopefully to make plans for dinner or something. This was the last thing I’d needed after another 14-hour day at the office.
I was exhausted and had to get up in four hours to meet with a possible supplier for the moulds we needed to produce a single piece hardware required for the new product we otherwise were completely finished with.
One. Single. Piece.
Why the hell we needed to enlist a new supplier for something smaller than the size of a battery watch was beyond me. I know specialization is huge and everything in the modern economy, but let one of the other companies we’re already paying put forth a little damn effort and take this extra project! I handled dozens of projects at once, it’s completely unbelievable that a single product that can fit in one hand requires a different company for each piece of hardware. What a bunch of lazy-assed, pathetic wastes. I could make this piece myself, but they refuse on the principle of ‘industry’.
Like it mattered. We may as well have scrapped the project with how far behind schedule we were. We were supposed to have started production two weeks ago, and instead we’re meeting with weasels and sharks we who want to screw us over at every turn. I knew exactly what was going to happen tomorrow—we would exchange niceties, waste about two hours talking utter nonsense and pretending we didn’t want to stab the other person in the gums with the nearest relatively sharp object, listen as they explained their offensively high rates, pretend to haggle, and then walk away pissed off with another day wasted. If it were up to me, I’d just cancel altogether. Hell, if it were up to me, I’d just release the product without that final mould and find some famine-stricken village in Kiribati do it all by hand for pennies a day. It’d save us a hell of a lot of time and money.
I drove home in a fury, cursing the rain, cursing the traffic, cursing the ass-hat pedestrians who couldn’t figure out how a crosswalk works. A 15-minute car ride took over 45 minutes because apparently the world just loves to piss me off. Finally, I arrived at my complex, parked the car in my parking garage and made my way up to my room on the 44th floor. Psh, the 44th floor. That jackass who had the penthouse suite above me thought he was all that. He was never forward about it, but he rubbed in my face every day with his smug expression and condescending attitude. I’d board the elevator and there he’d be, on the way down from the floor above, greeting me with a smile on his face and an obnoxiously cheerful: ‘Hey Ben, how you doing today? Are we finally gonna grab lunch this week? My wife and kids want to finally meet you!’
The bastard.
When I unlocked the door to my apartment I nearly soiled myself. Standing, not even sitting, but standing like some kind of lunatic, in the middle of my darkened living room was a black silhouette. I reached into my Gucci jacket pocket and retrieved my taser, shooting without hesitation and, unfortunately, without taking careful aim. I’d hoped to see the son of a bitch fry.
The figure ducked out of the way quickly, with almost animal-like reflexes. With similar reflexes, I pressed a button on my smart watch and illuminated the room.
Ah. That’s why it was animal-like. It was my maniac forest monkey cousin. How long had he been in the country? Why was he still wearing his ridiculous hand-woven trash? It looked better than the day I met him, dressed all in furs, but still, he didn’t exactly look like a fully functioning human being with with his scruffy face and dirty blonde hair pulled back into a bundle of braids, forming some kind of ridiculous mega-ponytail. Nor did his handmade clothes help much. Long sleeved, forest green goat-hair shirts with leather boots lined with wolf fur don’t exactly scream “I’m American!”
“How the hell did you get in here?” I demanded, retrieving my phone from my pocket, already dialing 911.
“You…no want do,” he said in a thick, garbled accent reminiscent of a German gargling glass shards.
“Oh, so you speak English now?” I replied, still preparing to connect to the police. “Please, by all means, explain why I ‘no want do’.” He approached me slowly, his hands up so as to show he was unarmed, and spoke very slowly, a soft smile on his face.
“Because I have you gift.”
“You have my gift? What are you—”
I noticed he was whistling a soft tune as he approached. I don’t leave the city much, and I certainly never go into the countryside, but the whistling sounded like wind cutting through the trees. In some strange way, it made me feel nostalgic and at home. He had a very soothing manner about him and I no longer felt on edge or even nervous as he advanced. Gently, very gently, he removed the phone from my hand and set in the table. The whistle had evolved into a deep-throated hum, the kind of earthy noise you hear emanating from geothermal power reactors or when you’re deep inside a cave in the heart of a mountain.
He reached into a leather pouch affixed to his belt and pulled out what looked like a small drinking horn plugged tightly with some kind of tree bark or cork wrapped with animal skin. He removed the top, brought the horn to his lips and drank a sip. He then brought it to my lips. I was intrigued and confused, but most of all just at peace. I normally can’t stand people getting anywhere near my person, but this time, it didn’t bother me at all. In fact, I rather enjoyed it when he raised the horn to my mouth and let me drink. It tasted sweet, like nothing else I had ever tasted before. Strangely, the only word that came to mind to describe the flavor was:
Lammalse.
He took another item from the pouch, something that looked like a large bone, perhaps a femur, but far too stout to be a wolf or deer and far too thick to be from a rabbit or wild cat. He twisted, pulled, and it came apart in his hands in two halves. With one end he was very careful about keeping the opened end upright, and I quickly discovered it was because that piece contained blood, thick and visceral. He dipped his fingers in it and drew a pattern on my face, all the while quietly chanting something that brought me back to a home that I never knew.
Upon completion, he proceeded to draw what I presume to be the same image on his own face with remarkable detail.
When this ritual ended, he grabbed my face in his hands and stooped slightly so that we were at eye level.
“Broren min,” he whispered and pressed his forehead to mine. Then, in English, he said, “I take what I need. And more.”
____________________________________________________________________________

I woke up in my bed. I don’t even remember having gotten ready for sleep, the last thing I remember was that psychotic nutjob breaking and entering into my home. I scrambled out of bed and looked for any remaining footprints, droplets of blood, hair, fibers that may have fallen off his clothes, anything to prove that he’d broken in. If he left anything evidence, I was going to get his ass deported as fast as possible. Hopefully I could land him in prison instead. I darted into the living room, but saw everything was impeccable, perfectly spotless how I always left it. I sighed in defeat, wishing that I could get this mongoloid out of my life.
That’s when I noticed the clock.
“Damn it to hell…” I muttered. It was already 9:17. I’d missed the meeting by over two hours. I was going to catch hell for this from Dennis. Luckily, I always had a few excuses prepared. Confident that I could talk my way out of this, I returned to my room to grab my phone from off the end table near my bed. I went reach for it with my right hand, and saw something that stopped me dead in my tracks.
My fingertips were missing.
The ends of my fingers, the pads, the fingernails, they were gone, ending with the knuckle. Had that freak drugged me with that drink and cut off my fingers? Even if he had, a single sip of a drink couldn’t be enough to knock someone out cold and leave them so numb that they wouldn’t feel someone cutting off a part of their body.
This wasn’t possible. I pulled up my sleeves, checking the insides of my arms for apertures that would testify he had drugged me with some kind of intravenous sedative. What I saw were the same arms I’d seen my whole life, no new scars or marks. I lifted up my shirt and did the same, checking my torso for markings.
There was nothing.
Then how he did do it? How in the hell could he come into my room and sever part of my body without me waking up, without me noticing? I looked again at the nubs that that lay just beyond the furthest knuckles of my fingers.
Maybe a better question was how did it heal so fast?
The skin around the severed part of my fingers looked so natural, not even like it was a wound, but rather like I was born without fingertips. The blood drained from my face and I suddenly felt light-headed and nauseous. Dialing work with my left hand, I moved into the kitchen and retrieved a glass from the cupboard. Or I should say I attempted to. I was only missing the last inch of my fingertips and yet I seemed barely able to function. Without the pads of my fingers, I underestimated my reach and accidentally knocked the glass over with my new nubs, causing it to fall and shatter on the floor. It took two more attempts before I successfully grabbed a glass, awkwardly seizing with the base of my fingers, squeezing it tightly like a lifeline. I was shaking now, full on tremors. I lifted the faucet and filled the glass when I heard:
“Hello! Are you there, Ben?” Apparently my call had gotten through while I was fumbling around with the cupboard. Who knows I don’t know how long Alice, my secretary, had been waiting on the line. I raised the receiver to my ear.
“Uh…Alice, hi,” I stammered shakily.
“Ben, what’s going on?” Her voice softened. She could tell I was obviously upset about something.
“I—” my voice cracked with that single syllable. “I’m not coming in today. Tell everyone.” My voice betrayed me and I hung up before I heard her response. Involuntarily, tears began streaming down my cheeks. What was happening? How was this possible? If this man was capable of removing parts of my body without me noticing, what else could he do?
I take I what need. And more.
I suddenly became aware of just how real his threats were, and I began fearing for my safety. But what could I do? I couldn’t call the police, they’d take my claim as a stupid joke, or even worse, try to commit me to a mental hospital.
Becca. I had to talk to Becca.

I pounded on the door as hard as I could with my left hand. My right hand didn’t hurt, but I felt like I couldn’t use it, that by somehow using it would cause more pieces of my hand to fall off. Luckily, she answered on the second knock. The door swung upon and there she should stood, an overly large tank-top and sweat pants with her her soft brown hair tied into a ponytail. Was today a day off for her?
“Hey babe, I’m sorry I got so mad at you over the phone,” she started. “After thinking about it, I realized I think you’re right, you don’t need to…what’s wrong?” She asked, seeing the look on my face.
“This is what’s wrong!” I yelled, throwing my mutilated hand in her face. She stared blankly at it.
“I don’t understand,” she said flatly.
“What do you mean you don’t understand? My fingers are missing!”
“Yeah, like they always have been. You’ve never seemed bothered by it before, in fact I remember it took me until our fourth date before I realized that your fingertips were missing.”
They always have been? What was she talking about? My body was perfectly intact until last night, what did she mean that I’d been deformed since we first met?
She must’ve seen the anxiety and confusion pass my face, because she wrapped her arms around me.
“Hey, hey, calm down. You’ve been under a lot of stress lately, I think what you need is the day off,” Leaving one arm wrapped around me, she led me into her house where we sat down at her kitchen table and she went to fix some tea.
“So…ugh, I’m going to sound crazy, but I need to ask you something.”
She kept her back to me as she prepared a kettle on the stove, but answered with kindness and patience in her voice.
“You can ask me anything, sweetie,”
I sighed, “You don’t ever remember my hand having my fingers complete?” She paused for a moment, her eyes cast slightly upward like when she’s pondering something intently. I couldn’t tell if she was genuinely considering it or if she was just making a show of pondering to humor me. After several seconds she responded.
“No, but we’ve only been together for what, three years? Did you lose them before we met? I always just assumed you were born without them, but you never volunteered the information and I never found it important enough to ask.”
As she was talking, I furiously typed up a text and sent it to everyone in my contact list who had known me my whole life—my mother, my father, close family friends, and I asked a similar question. I got a lot of confused replies, many of them questioning whether I was joking or not. But it was unanimous.
They all said I’d been missing my fingers my whole life.
I began searching through photo albums stored on my phone and in my Cloud account, hoping to find evidence of me with my fingers fully intact, but as I traveled further back in time, year after year, all of the images attested that I never, at any point in my life had a complete hand. I ran my left hand through my hair, my breath shallow and close to hyperventilating.
“Hey, I don’t know what’s going on, but this is not normal,” Becca said, her voice full of genuine concern at this point. “You’ve been pulling 14 to 16 hour days for the last two weeks, I think it’s finally catching up with you. It’s only 4:00 pm, but you need the rest. Come on, let’s get you up to bed and I better not see you awake until at least 10:00 tomorrow morning. You may not feel like your body needs the rest, but your mind does, now let’s go.”
I didn’t resist.
____________________________________________________________________________

I woke up while it was still dark outside. It was 3:00 am. I’d slept a solid 11 hours uninterrupted. I rolled over and found Becca lying by my side, snoring softly. Normally snoring drove me insane, but hers was soft and cute, like a kitten. I could listen to it all day and it would never bother me. She looked so gorgeous in the moonlight, her delicate features softened and bathed in milky light. I didn’t know what was going on in my life, but I was grateful to have her. I was grateful that I had such an incredible person to be there for me, to support me when I needed it. I just wanted to embrace her, hold her close and feel safe, never letting go. I reached out to stroke her cheek.
“No,” I whispered. “No, no, no, no, no, no!”
Becca stirred.
“What’s up, honey?” She asked, groggily.
I stared at my hand. What was left of it anyway. Half of my hand was missing; only half of my palm and my thumb remained.
“My hand is gone!” I screamed. Becca flinched and backed away slightly, her eyes wide with uncertainty.
“Ben, you’re scaring me. We had this exact same conversation yesterday in the kitchen. Why are you suddenly so fixated on your hand? It never affected you until yesterday when you came over.”
“Yesterday, my fingertips were gone! Now it’s half my damned hand!”
“No,” she said, her voice reverberating with small tremors. I was making her nervous. “Yesterday you came over and you were freaking out because your hand was missing. That hand never had fingers, it doesn’t make sense that you’d say your fingertips were missing you’ve only ever had half a hand.”
“He’s doing it! Fyrafemsju is chopping pieces of me off, bit by bit!”
She pulled away much further now, all the way to the edge of the bed. Legitimate fear now shrouded her face, and she looked at me like she didn’t recognize the man in her bed.
“Who? Your cousin? You’re not making any sense,” she stammered.
“It’s him, I swear it! He’s trying to get revenge for refusing to give him my kidney!”
“Ben! Stop it!” Becca shrieked, tears spilling over her eyelids down onto her cheeks. “What’s going on with you? You’re scaring me!”
“He placed some sort of curse on me and now he’s stealing my body! Can’t you see?” I yelled, unsure if I was more furious at my insane cousin or horrified at the situation I faced.
“Ben, please, let’s go. You’re not well, you’re…you’re having a stroke or something! We need to get you to the hospital, they’ll find out what’s wrong. We need to get you help!”
It broke my heart to see her like this. She was terrified, unsure of what had become of her fiancee, and yet even while her body shuddered from fear, she still struggled to slide her arms into a jacket. Twice the jacket fell from her shoulder because her body was wracked so heavily with sobs. Even though she could barely hold it together, she was still trying to comfort me, to help me.
My cheeks burned from the trail my own tears had made. As much as it broke my heart, I knew I couldn’t continue doing this to her, I couldn’t emotionally torment this woman who loved me so much that she was trying to get me help when she, herself, so obviously needed comfort.
When she went to go get her keys, I left her house.
____________________________________________________________________________

Damn it. Damn it, damn it, damn it all to hell! How did I fall asleep? I’d taken uppers, I’d been feeding myself a steady supply of energy drinks and caffeine the whole night. I’d been watching marathons of TV shows on Netflix, and I’ve never been able to fall asleep with the unnatural glow of a television set burning into my eyes. There is no possible way I could’ve fallen asleep!
Sitting on the arm of the chair I was in was my cell phone, the green notification light pulsating. Most likely more texts or voice mails from Becca.
It had been two weeks since I’d officially called things off. I know she wanted to help me and she loved me, that she didn’t understand what was going on. But I couldn’t drag her through this. I couldn’t pretend that nothing was happening as I saw my body slowly disappearing piece by piece at random intervals. I may be losing my mind and my body, but that didn’t mean I would subject her to the same thing.
I reached out to pocket my phone
Alerted, I my attention was drawn to the most noticeable area that didn’t register. My right arm was even shorter now, ending in a round stump just beyond my elbow. Aside from that, the pinky and ring fingers of my left hand were missing. Something else was missing, I could feel it, I just didn’t know what.
I knew it was a bad idea, that I shouldn’t check to see what else was taken from me this time, but I had to know. And besides, it wasn’t like I wouldn’t find out eventually, so would the shock of finding it out now change anything in the long run? Hell, maybe I’d catch a break and my mind would finally just snap and I’d live like a vegetable, not having to think or feel or even know anything of what’s going on around me.
I rose out of my recliner to find a mirror, and after the first step almost fell to the floor. My slipper had fallen off when I stumbled, and I discovered that the front end of my right foot was missing now.
My leg ended in a misshapen chunk of flesh attached to a heel. There was so much missing compared to the first night. He was taking more. That first night was just a warning, showing me what he could do, and now he was coming in full force, trying to drive me into a panic.
And it was working.
____________________________________________________________________________

Everything felt so wrong as I rolled into work in my electric power chair. The people I worked with every day either ignored or didn’t register the look of depressed resignation on my face as I rode past them in the lobby. I got the occasional nod or casual greeting from people I knew, but for the most part almost nobody looked pleased to see me. Apparently whatever Fyrafemsju was doing to me only changed my body, it didn’t change how much of an asshole I’d been to everyone over the last couple of years.
I arrived at the elevator and reached for the button.
“Hey, don’t worry, I got that,” a cheerful voice said as he pressed the button for me. I looked up and saw the clean-shaven, youthful face of out intern. Probably the last person who treated me kindly.
Tears sprung to my eyes, unbidden. I’d treated this guy like dirt, I was purposefully disrespectful to him because of his status and mocked him at every turn, and what tore me apart was the fact that this is how he treated me even before my nightmare started, not that he knew of the hell that I was experiencing.
“Thank you,” I said, making eye contact with him. He smiled back at me, and I got caught in the reflections of his lenses. The image that stared back at me was hideous. All the hair on my head, including my eyebrows and eyelashes, was completely gone. My lips on the right side of my face concaved so far inward that the side of my head looked like a decaying pumpkin, an image not helped by the fact that the fleshy cartilage of my nose was now missing, exposing two large holes at the bottom of the bridge of my nose.
Even though I had an amazing tailor, even he couldn’t help my situation, as evidenced by the limp right sleeve of my jacket that dangled uselessly at my side. My left pant leg, too, was deflated and rolled so as to avoid getting snagged under one of the wheels of my chair. My only remaining fingers on my left hand were my index finger and thumb, which rarely got much use these days except for pushing elevator buttons and pressing the “answer” button on the BlueTooth touch pad embedded in the arm of my chair. Even with all these enormous changes in my life, my busy work life was remained as busy as ever.

We rode up together to the 52nd floor where I was to have my meeting. The meeting didn’t go well. Everything was a foggy haze and although I heard angry, yelling voices directed at me, I heard them as though underwater. They were unclear and muddled, and I couldn’t care less what they were saying. That is, until Dennis, my immediate supervisor slammed his hand on the table in front of me. I slowly looked up to see his fuming, hateful expression gazing back down.
“Did you just hear a damned word I said, or are you as deaf as you are mangled!” He screamed at me so forcefully that I could feel his breath blowing on my like a hot fan. People in every room three floors above or below us must’ve heard his angry bellow.
“No. I wasn’t listening,” I responded, my voice hollow devoid of response.
“Then let me say it again in language you can understand. Your work is SHIT! Get the hell out of my building, you don’t work for me anymore!”
I nodded, and using the remaining digit on my left hand maneuvered the joystick of my power chair to guide me outside the building.
____________________________________________________________________________

It must’ve been a month and half or two months since this curse started. Some days I’d wake up with everything intact, and sometimes I’d wake up with large chunks of my body missing. The process was so unpredictable that as soon as I though I was finally adjusting to a the lifestyle of invalid, I’d become even more limited. When I finally thought I was safe and nothing more would happen, I’d wake up to find a large section of my leg missing or a few more toes.
Nothing prepared me for this day, however.
I woke up with a full-length mirror hanging directly above my bed. It took me a moment to realize it because the image staring back at me barely resembled anything human. My lips and gums were completely gone, leaving two rows of exposed bone and teeth. My nose, similarly, was completely gone and was replaced with two skeletal holes that comprised the outermost pieces of my nasal cavity. My eyelids were intact, but my eyelashes, eyebrows, and all the hair on my head was still gone, leaving me with the appearance of a freakish skeleton wrapped with skin.
The skin of my torso around where my right shoulder should have been was smoothed over. My left arm ended just above where the elbow would have connected. The skin stretched across my chest was completely free of any natural markings, no nipples, no navel, nothing. I don’t know how, but Fyrafemsju somehow stripped the muscle and tissue away from my collarbone and the the most prominent sections of my ribs, leaving the bone in the areas exposed and glaring white.
Below my torso, my genitals were gone, removed. He made me into a eunuch. My right leg ended somewhere around the knee. There may have been an appendage, there may not have been. I didn’t care anymore. My left leg, as a cruel mockery, he left completely unaltered. It was the only part of my body he had left untouched ever since his perverse torture started. It was a reminder of what I once was, the person who I used to be. It was also the least useful appendage to remain. What was I going to do with a single leg? I can’t grip anything with a leg, I can’t walk on a single leg, he may as well have taken all of my limbs.
My body was destroyed, useless now, and the ironic part of it was that it looked like there had been no damage done, it looked as though this was how my body was supposed to have been designed from the beginning. Like someone had pulled a car from a devastating crash and polished it to a finish, my own body was malformed and incomplete in utility, yet so perfect, smooth, and flawless in finish.
It’s been like this for weeks. I’ve never left this bed since I woke up that morning and from what I can tell my neck muscles are locked in place, causing me to forever make unbroken contact with my own personal hell, the mirror above my bed. Although I’m perpetually thirsty and hungry, my body never thins nor does it show signs of dehydration. I never urinate and I never have bowel movements. I never sleep. All I ever do is lie and stare at my reflection. And every day, every minute of every day those words ring through my head, the words that could never reflect the true sadism of their intended meaning, the words that, had I understood what they actually entailed, would’ve caused me to take my own life the night that I had heard them.
I take what I need.

And more.

Credit To – nibris

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