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The Road to Happiness

March 11, 2016 at 12:00 AM
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She had traveled down this road more times than she was willing to count. Surrounded by forest and wild life, the long, narrow, dusty road offered a safe route from Tara’s home to the grocery store where she worked. Under paid and overworked, Tara had been there for years with no end in sight. Five, sometimes six days a week, Tara made the forty-five minute walk to her dead-end job, only to return home to her unemployed husband every night. At 16, Tara left her abusive father into the arms of an abusive boyfriend. His words were unkind, his touch was not gentle, yet without a diploma, Tara was left without many options. He promised her stability and a home, and her fear and naivety let her believe him.

On her long walks to and from work, she often thought about the last ten years and the events that resulted in her broken life. The mistakes, the lies, the desperation; all of it lead her to him. Tara hated her husband in a way she never knew was possible. The mere thought of him sent nauseated pangs to the pit of her stomach. When the thought of returning home to his drunken embrace became too much, Tara would fantasize about what she felt was her only escape; his death. An electrical fuse short-circuits engulfing the sleeping drunk to ash. An earthquake demolishes the rundown home crushing all within. He always died of an accident through no fault of her own and in the end, she would gracefully be whisked away in the embrace of a kind hearted rescuer. When her journey came to an end, still smiling she would turn the door knob to reality and endure the nightmare that awaited inside.

Tara had no idea how profound her seemingly harmless fantasies were, but she was destined to find out. On that long stretch of road, damp from the midday showers, Tara walked along the muddied path. She was exceptionally lost in a fantasy involving a hurricane and a sympathetic firefighter, as she tried to ignore the throbbing of her bruised ribs. While she floated in the arms of her fantasized hero, Tara suddenly realized she didn’t recognize her surroundings. The road stretched for miles in either direction and there were no road signs in sight to help pinpoint her location. She pulled out her phone only to see there was no cell phone service. The sun was beginning to pass the tree’s skyline, and with the dusk, Tara began to panic. He would never believe she had gotten lost, and the last time she was late she was punished in a way she tried to forget.

As she began frantically darting back and forth with her phone in the air, hopeful for a connection, a soft voice called out to her from behind a tree. Tara froze from fear, not knowing what the voices intent could be. “I’ve been waiting for you child,” the voice said again.

Tara watched as a shadowed figure emerged from the darkness. A crippled, hunched over elderly woman hobbled towards where Tara remained still. Despite her decrepit and unappealing appearance, the old woman seemed fragile and harmless, and so she decided to speak to her. “Uh, hi. My name is Tara. I live off of 70th street, but I think I made a mistake somewhere on my walk home. I’m kind of lost. Any way you can point me in the right direction?”

The elderly woman smiled exposing the few rotted teeth she had left. “I assure you child, it is no mistake you are here. You see, you know what you want most in life, but you are unable to obtain it. You came here because I can give you what you desire.” The old woman’s voice was icy which caused Tara to shiver. She couldn’t justify it to herself, but she felt uneasy in her presence. Confused by the old woman’s response, Tara sought an explanation; “I’m sorry miss, I don’t know what you mean.”

Shrill and raspy, the old woman explained, “I can see inside your heart, child. I hear your pain everyday you walk this road. I have listened to the stories you create inside your head to pretend you have a chance at happiness. I can feel your hatred for who you feel is to blame for your misery. You are here because you can’t possibly want something more, and I’m here to give it to you. All you have to do is decide if you are willing to pay the price.”

Tara’s curiosity began to pique, and so she humored the old, daft woman. “And what exactly is it that you think I want? And how much is this going to cost me? I don’t have a lot of money so I don’t really see where you’re headed with this.”

“You want freedom,” the old woman hissed. “You need money, you long for happiness. You desire him dead.” Tara stared with an open mouth, dumbfounded by the woman’s accuracy. Surly this is all a trick, Tara thought to herself. All general statements. Who wouldn’t desire money and happiness? But wanting to believe, she continued to listen.

“I can give you everything you’ve fantasized about. All I ask in return, is in one years time, you allow me permission to enter your body for two hours.” At this Tara scoffed. Why had she been nervous about this woman? She was obviously crazy. “OK,” she antagonized, “but how do I know you’re telling the truth and can really give me these things?”

At that, the woman materialized a goblet full of liquid. She motioned for Tara to come closer. As Tara looked into the goblet, she saw her husband asleep in front of the T.V., an empty whisky bottle at his side. Frightened and intrigued, Tara gazed at the old woman. “You really can change my life? And all I have to do is allow you two hours inside my body one year from now?”

“That is all, child. Permit me to use your body as a vessel for two hours in one year, and everything you’ve ever wanted will come true.” Tears filled Tara’s eyes as the visions of a better life filled her mind. The concept of relinquishing her body was odd but after a life of constant disappointment and sorrow, she was willing to agree to more than she was willing to admit. She feared if she questioned the old woman’s intent that the offer would be tarnished or taken away. And so, without much consideration, Tara blurted “yes!”

A smile began to creep across the old woman’s face as she hissed, “and so it is done.”

Tara turned around to find her door right in front of her. The road had disappeared along with the elderly woman. She began to think she had gotten lost in her imagination, that the whole interaction was a fantasy. She stood at the door breathing deeply as her heart pounded. Still In a haze, she turned the door knob and stepped lightly through the dark house. Her blood grew colder with each step towards where her husband sat. And then, in the glow of the T.V., there he was. Peaceful, motionless, and not breathing. Tara touched him and jolted at his cold skin. Tears began to flood her eyes as she looked up and thanked the mysterious woman from the road. Finally, Tara was free.

A coroner’s report ruled Tara’s husband’s cause of death a heart attack. The paramedic who answered Tara’s emergency call turned out to be an old friend from high school that she had forgotten. It wasn’t long before the two began dating. While receiving two weeks off from the grocery store to mourn, Tara was approached by a lawyer who informed her that her husband had a life insurance policy which left her with two million dollars. Because the death was deemed natural, Tara received the money within a month of her husband’s funeral. It all happened so fast, and none of the good fortune made any sense, but she didn’t care how surreal it all was. Tara finally had the life she always wanted, the life she felt she deserved. The joy empowered her so much that she soon lost track of time. It seemed like only a blink had passed when the old woman came knocking on her door.

Tara was alone the day the old woman returned for her payment. She was so happy from the life she was now living that she greeted the old woman as she would a long lost friend, embracing her in a warm and genuine hug. “You know, you are a miracle maker,” Tara gloated. “I never knew a person could be this happy. And I have you to thank.”

The old woman looked Tara in the eye, and through her rotted grin she asked, “then are you ready to repay me, child?”

Lost in her own happiness, Tara smiled back and shook her head yes. She trusted the old woman who had brought her such amazingly good fortune. “Well then, it’s time,” the old woman hissed as she grabbed Tara’s face and brought it to her own.

Tara saw a blinding white flash, and then it was as if nothing had happened. The old woman was no longer in front of her and it seemed like she had dreamed the entire encounter. That is, until she tried to move.

Trapped inside her own body Tara cried out “what is this? I thought you would use me as a vessel, that I wouldn’t remember any of this.” “Oh no, child. You will remember every moment I have with you, I can assure you of that,” the old woman responded out loud in Tara’s voice. Feeling Tara’s fear and confusion, the old woman began to explain.

“For centuries I have been plagued with the thoughts and emotions of the broken hearted. Always tormented, always crying out for help, never making a single effort towards helping themselves. Until I come along and offer a solution. A solution that only requires an agreement. Two hours of their time to receive all of the desires and dreams the bleeding hearts were too lazy to achieve themselves. Not once has any of the disgustingly entitled brats inquired as to how I do what I do, or even why I need to use their body as a vessel. The offer is just blindly accepted and they greedily enter their new lives unappreciative. Well, these two agreed upon hours are used for harvest. You think you were so tormented and your life was so tragic? Lets see how you fare after this.”

Tara watched helplessly as her body approached the festively decorated house. Entering the sleeping home, Tara felt as her fingers gripped the handle of the knife taken from the kitchen. The home was dark and quiet but the old woman glided Tara’s body effortlessly to her intended destination. Without making a sound, Tara’s body positioned over the woman asleep in her bed. And with a swift motion, Tara’s hand slid the knife into the woman’s stomach. Piercing screams filled the home, pain and terror emanating from the victim’s eyes. And with a flick of the knife to the helpless woman’s throat, Tara listened as the wails began to gurgle. The warmth of life faded to cold in Tara’s arms as her mouth wrapped around the gaping slit in the woman’s throat. She tasted copper as the blood slid down and coated her stomach. Tara’s cries and screams of horror could only be heard by one, and in response, she felt her blood soaked lips curl into a smile.

Standing over the mauled woman, shrill and cruel, the old woman began to speak; “For every soul I take before it’s time, I must sacrifice an innocent soul to appease the disregard of deaths plan. A soul not promised to him, one destined to a greater eternity.”

From a darkened corner came a child’s whimper. The old woman turned Tara’s head so she could see the terrified girl violently crying as she stared at the grotesque figure that was once her mother. “You thought you were in hell but oh how wrong you were. Your laziness to wait for rescue and your selfishness to ignore consequence has cost the life of this young, widowed mother. Look into the eyes of this child and see what real tragedy is. This orphan will live tormented for the rest of her life and there is nothing that will remove her misery. Although unlike you, she will try. Remember, you did this. Enjoy your reward, because the cost was immense.”

And with a flash of white and a searing pain, Tara collapsed to the ground. Tears streamed down her face as she began to scream, clenching her blood drenched hands, finally able to express her shock of what she had been forced to do.

Tara never heard the police sirens, never felt them as they put her hands in restraints. And she would never remember being taken away from the sacrificed woman and the child she had damned. After a short trial, it wasn’t long before she was committed to a mental institution. Despite desperate attempts from people trying to understand why she had committed such an awful act, Tara never spoke to anyone again. It was as if she were trapped inside her mind. But late at night, when the halls were quite from sleep, Tara could be heard whispering, “I just wanted to be happy.”

Credit: Taylorg

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The Holder of the End of the Story

January 5, 2016 at 12:00 AM
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This pasta is yet another entry in The Holders series, a loose grouping of stories by countless different authors based on a specific premise.

If this series is new to you, you may wish to visit this website dedicated specifically to archiving Holders stories; although we have a tag for the series and have posted several new entries over the year, the Holders wiki is much more complete.

To reach the Holder of the End of the Story, go to the place that you feel the strongest connection to. What that place is will depend on you. It might be the house you live in. It might be your childhood home. For some, it means going to that magical little creek-side place where you and your friends used to play, or to the coffee shop that you stopped in every morning before work.

When you reach the place, find the part of it that means the most to you. It might be your old room, or that spot on the side of the creek where you would always build your fort, or the table where you wrote your first novel. Step to within a few feet of that spot, facing it, and then stop. At this point, you should consider very carefully whether you really want to continue. You don’t need to stand there considering it for a particular amount of time. A millisecond will suffice. Or if you really want to, you can skip this step entirely. There won’t be any consequences. You won’t be dragged off by some unspeakable horror, or tormented by eternal madness, or torn apart by ravenous bees, or some such silliness. That’s not how this one works. Depending on how your previous trials have affected you, you’ll probably end up wishing that it was.

It’s up to you, but I would strongly, strongly recommend that you take your time to consider whether or not to go on. At this point, you can still walk away without any consequences.

Think about it – if you’ve recovered other Objects already, and you probably have, then your experiences may have… well, it’s only a certain sort of person who can maintain any real sense of connection to the world after all the horrors that you’ve undoubtedly gone through. By now you might feel completely numb to everything, or be so haunted by visions of unspeakable things that your heart just doesn’t have room for anything but pain and terror. Your mind might be so frayed that you can barely remember the past, much less which places were the ones you loved. Or your connection to reality might be so tenuous that you can’t for the life of you tell which of your memories are real, and which ones are just the mad whispers of your own (probably-demented) unconscious mind. Maybe all of the above.

Do not, I repeat, do not continue to Seek this Object if you no longer have the capacity to love the place in front of you. Walk away. There are plenty of other Objects out there. Who knows, maybe one of Them will restore the parts of you that you’ve lost. That’s not generally the way They work, but hey, you never know.

If you honestly think that you’re still capable of loving this ‘precious place,’ then say aloud “I Seek to secure the story’s end” and then step forward. This might mean crossing the threshold into your old room. It might mean stepping into that one special spot on the side of the creek. Maybe your ‘precious place’ is something that you can’t step into, like a wall that used to have a whiteboard that you and your sister would draw on, or something like that. Even so, step forward anyway.

In the very likely event that your experiences have already damaged your soul beyond repair, destroying or dementing every emotional connection to the world that you ever had, then this is where your journey ends. I warned you, didn’t I? I won’t say what happens to you at this point. Don’t worry though, you won’t be torn apart, or go mad, or suffer terrible agonies for eternity, or anything like that. You won’t even die – not for a long, long time. That’s not how this one works. You’ll wish it was.

Still curious? If you absolutely can’t stand not knowing what happens to the ones that fail, then by all means go to your ‘precious place’ and try it for yourself. You’ll probably find your answer. Just don’t blame me when you wish you hadn’t.

If by some unlikely miracle you’re actually still intact enough to feel a real connection to this place, then in an instant the environment around you will change. You’ll find yourself in a nice, moderately sized room. There may be furniture scattered around, there may be paintings on the walls. It’s different for everyone. The room will always be laid out in a way that reminds you of some of your happiest memories. There might be a couch that reminds you of the one at your best friend’s house where you always used to have movie nights. Or a painting of someone you love, at the age when they meant the most to you. The only constant is that at the center of the room, you’ll always find two comfortable chairs that are facing each other. The chair closest to you will remind you of the place that feels most like home. I will be sitting in the other chair.

Don’t worry; there aren’t any special rules here. You won’t be attacked if you look away from me, or go mad if you look into my eyes. That’s not how this one works. Go ahead and sit in the empty chair. Once you’re comfortable, I’ll welcome you to my sanctum, and tell you what you’ve probably already guessed – that I am the Holder of the End of the Story. Congratulations – very, very few Seekers have ever reached me.

I’ll then offer you a choice. There’s no trick to it. You won’t be punished for choosing one way or the other. Well, you won’t be punished beyond the natural consequences of your choice, anyway. That’s not how this one works. The choice I’ll offer you is this: if you want, I’ll give you the Object you’ve come for. No strings attached, no tricks. It won’t suddenly burrow into your eye and gobble up your brain, or make you hear the endless screams of the damned in your head, or kill a puppy, or some such nonsense. That’s not how this one works.

Or you can make the other choice: You can go home. That’s right, home. I don’t mean leave this place and go off Seeking the next Object. I mean really, truly, go home. Back to before all of this started. I can make that happen. That, and not the Object I Hold, is the real reward you’ve proven yourself worthy of by reaching me. That’s how this one works. Or of course, you can choose to go on.

Take as much time as you need. I recommend thinking long and hard on this one. It’s not a choice to make lightly. When you’re ready, go ahead and tell me your decision.

If you take me up on my offer, then all of the Objects you’ve acquired will return to where you found them. Any damage that’s happened to your body, mind, soul, and all that – will be healed. Everyone and everything that you’ve sacrificed to reach this point will be restored as if your quest never happened at all. Anyone you’ve hurt or killed or damaged in other ways will be completely restored. All the knowledge that you’ve gained and the secrets that you’ve learned will be erased from your memory, as well as any notes or recordings you’ve made in any form. It will still be possible for you act as a Seeker again, but you’ll have to discover everything all over again, and you’ll believe that it’s your first time doing it. The Holders will also lose all memory of you. Well, except for me – I’ll remember. Who knows, maybe this isn’t the first time we’ve had this conversation.

If you choose to go on, then for the briefest instant you’ll think that you see a look of deep, deep sadness pass over my face. You’ll wonder if I haven’t stood exactly where you’re standing now, and made the exact same choice. It’ll be so brief, in fact, that you won’t be sure if it was really there at all. Without warning, you’ll find yourself back in the ‘precious place’ where you started. It will now be a charred ruin. Anyone who was in it when you crossed into my sanctum will be dead – their bodies as burned as the walls. If your memories of this place include sharing it with anyone, then you should pray, for their sake, that they died before this moment.

Reach down and scoop up a handful of ashes. Don’t worry, you won’t have trouble finding some – they’ll be all around you. As you hold them in your hand, you’ll be filled with the knowledge that no matter what happens in the future, no matter what you do, you will never again have an opportunity to give up your quest – not for long. Touching this Object has changed you. You now have an irresistible compulsion to seek the Objects. The longer you go without fulfilling that compulsion, the more you’ll feel compelled to – until you can’t resist it anymore.

The pile of ashes in your hand is Object # 1467. There’s only one way left for the story to end.

Credit: Josias Gibbs

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Norstu Desert

December 4, 2015 at 12:00 AM
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The flawless white of the perfect snow stretched ambitiously towards the amber horizon. The immense glass walls seemed to amplify the majesty of the Norstu desert. I’d have been struck down by awe if perfection were not now a staple aspect of everyday life. The ochre support panels of the place of worship were delicately adorned in an array of winter flowers; Blue Bells, Snow Drops and Christmas roses alike had all joined together on this special day. Sometimes it felt like an exhibit; an artificial display of humanity designed to delight a higher power who could point and laugh at us and rub their face on the smudgy glass of our enclosure. However, today it was the chosen venue for a triumph of modern genetics. A few mumbled words and a week of feasting later and I’d be the father-to-be of a genetically ideal child. And yet the feelings that gripped my heart were a world away from joy.

Please don’t misunderstand my reservations; Cade was my complete ideal. She was warm, resilient, intelligent, laid back… she is quite literally, my biological match. On paper. It is not that I felt in anyway unworthy of her; I could easily provide her with a happy life that would allow for the furthering of our society- that is if it were possible to improve upon perfection. But as I stood there in my formal fur Konskt looking down the idyllic aisle across the glacial plane, the sterility of the whole charade hit me right between the eyes. I took a few quick strides into the bathroom under the guise of wanting to go over my vows once more. When hidden from prying eyes I set my own gaze on my unchanged reflection. I wondered at the peculiarity that my mind could go through such a vital transition and not a modicum of it would be expressed on my face. My miss-matched eyes provided the same unsettling stare the designers had decided upon when selecting my parents. One green iris, one black; the summer and the night. Well, at least that was what my mother had whispered into my ear on one of her fleeting visits to the GenTech Building.

When in doubt, rationalise; the party tag line played in my mind. I closed my inharmonious eyes and attempted to do just that. This marriage would only last a year; enough time to provide offspring then I’d be free of the restrictions of monogamy and the child would be rushed off to the GenTech Building to receive the highest standard of education and upbringing. A light knock on the door called my attention. Cade didn’t wait for a response before slinking in. She delicately patted her immaculate silver blond hair back into its intricate braid. It was a mechanical gesture.

‘I do not recall seeing tardiness as a listed aspect on your genetic profile.’ Her soft voice was inflectionless. She fixed me with her pale, nearly colourless eyes. They seemed almost reptilian when showered in the fluoro lights of the rest room. I raised the left side of my mouth up by way of response. She tilted her head to the left, her face impassive. ‘You know, Tevje, I have had 4 children by 4 different men so far, yet you are undoubtedly my most interesting pairing.’ A wave of something close to compassion lapped over my frontal lobe while I wondered at having 4 children before the age of 22. This child would be her fifth and my first. Everyone from the local area had gathered to view this important, yet routine event. It appeared that I was the only one experiencing a sense of crazed unwillingness. Cade read my face with laser-like precision. She changed her conversational track, her hand once again finding its way to smooth back her hair.

‘I wonder, Tevje, do you hesitate before stepping into the shower? Do you pause before drinking a glass of Gohne?’ She continued in my silence, logic spouting from her perfect face, she was the epitome of genetic perfection, a lovely little party clone. My blushing bride. Her eyelids fluttered down and back up again in a carefully planned blink. ‘I was wondering about the name Idun for a girl; it means…’

‘…To renew nature.’ I cut in, ending her sentence. She nodded, walking towards me in slow measured steps. I could almost see her put on her seductive persona like a well-fitting sweater. She smoothed my shoulder-length, corn blond hair behind my ear and whispering intimately. ‘You know that this is the natural way; it’s how our species survives in this… hostile environment.’ I turned my neck slightly to really look at her exquisite face, a muscle in her cheek twitched, no doubt from the effort of holding that smile in place. I could see the contempt so close to the surface, it was then that I realised; she didn’t want this anymore than I did. The geneticists were walking her down the aisle just as surely as they had trapped me.

‘Cade,’ My voice was softer. She covered my mouth with her hand, fear breaking her façade. ‘You’re going to get us killed,’ She directed the words into my ear in a malicious whisper. All off a sudden she broke away, feigning a girly laugh and hitting me lightly on the arm; ‘I’m afraid you’ll have to wait for tonight to do that with me Tevje!’ I read the fearful warning in her eyes. It all clicked. We were being watched, that’s why the church was entirely glass. Every cell in my body urged me to lean back and look through the transparent roof to see if I could locate the drone. Leave. My brain was pushing me towards the door; out of it; out of the church; out of my allotted life. I couldn’t resist the pull for long. I walked big, loping steps past Cade, out of the bathroom and under the arch of winter flowers. The door handles felt cold on my hands when opened them.

My Konskt fluffed up as I exited the splendid church. It was only charged for 7 hours of warmth, then it would shrink back down to thin indoor material and the shivering would start. Why on earth would anyone want to go into the desert for more than 7 hours anyway? I walked out into the vast expanse of snow realising that I had outgrown my wilful ignorance and gilded cage. I would not, could not, subject an innocent child to a parentless falsity of an existence. The rhythmic sound of my steps crunching on the ice brought my GenTech education to the forefront of my mind. Never go out onto the frozen tundra. Nothing survives out there, including you. How are you going to further our elite society if you’re dead? I could still smell my sexless GenTech teacher’s herbal cigarette. The pressure of her hand on the top of my head was almost unbearable as she patronisingly ruffled my hair. She laughed at my suggestion that I would be an explorer when I grew up; from that moment onwards I was a sullen, quiet student.

Stage One: Uncontrollable Shivering.

Five beads of sweat made a gallant attempt to cross my forehead before being welded to my face. There they remained like a glacial crown. All hail the king of this wasteland of humanity. My Konskt had run out of charge 15 minutes and 21 seconds ago, my fingers trembled, unbidden, a constant reminder of that fact. The wind howled maddeningly in my ears, as if a thousand voices were screaming at me in a language I couldn’t understand. My feet strode dutifully forwards, always striving for me to return to my kingdom.

Stage two: Numbness

My blinks became increasingly inefficient, only occasionally managing to remove the build-up of snow from my eyes. I watched a snow flake fall slowly down, it’s perfect individuality being lost amongst the homogenised snowfield. What did it matter anyway; are we not all going to fade out of existence eventually; as separate as we are, are we not all united in our inevitable end? My mind was slow, spinning off on tangents, floating and soaring with the gentle snowdrift. Only one thought had clarity; I regretted that there was not a single individual to hold me down to this Earth. No ties to keep my soul housed in my body. I was unbound. I was free.

Stage Three: A feeling of warmth spreads through your body

I was alone.

Stage Four: You enter a period of semi-consciousness

I smiled a sardonic smile on frozen lips as my lethargic mind jammed the puzzle pieces together; I had, through some horrendous genetic accident, developed my own brain. Worse still; it was untainted by the party bullshit. The desolate expanse of the Norstu Desert had never felt more like home; for it was as alone as I. For just as the frozen expanse was unequipped to sustain life, I was unequipped to live out a foolish lie. I suppose there’s a grim glory in being a martyr for your cause.

Stage Five: Unconsciousness

The snow was piling up on me, a comforting blanket pressing me into sleep. Ice had cemented my eyes shut. When in doubt rationalise. Never mind, there was nothing more I wished to see anyway.

Stage Six: Death

Credit: Lydia Marshall

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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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