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The Model

July 14, 2016 at 12:00 AM
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What if I told you I could still feel your mouth on mine? I can still feel the delicate throb of over-used lips. What if I told you I could still taste you? I can still swallow the minty cigarette spit.
I don’t think you’d believe me. Honey, there is a lot more than land between us now.
It wasn’t that long ago that you were lying beside me in bed sharing a Marlboro. We shared a lot more than a cigarette that night. Remember? And I miss you now, tonight, because I can’t touch a memory.
You lit me up. Wrapped in bed sheets, you’d paint me. It felt like I was being studied by an unreckoned force, captivating like I was in a movie. It was fabulous. I got such a rush from watching your magnetic eyes watch me. It was poetry when the paintbrushes flew. It would have almost been a cliché if it hadn’t felt so real. The paint thinner made me dizzy and I paled in your brilliance. I soon became your biggest fanatic. But I was too old for you. It wasn’t the math that was the problem. It was the life. But we were careless and thoughtlessly teased the seams anyway.
You can’t blur broken lines. I know you well enough to know you honestly believe what you’ve done isn’t wrong. I know you well enough to know how you turn a back-handed compliment to gold. You are a brilliant bastard, and I created a why each night just to show up at your door. I was a stupid fool to come knocking. But you were so clever with your bony hands. You’d hand me a tea cup, and then anything you said next was, well, static.
We would have these amazing conversations. I was thrilled to be privy to your darkest thoughts. I thought I was the only one to whom you bled that deep. I thought I was the special one out of the many girls who have crossed your threshold. No, it was all part of the seduction. God, you’d mastered it all. Lying really was your best attribute.
How was I supposed to know this is not where you sleep every night? Thinking on it now, it is actually funny that I really believed you didn’t own a phone because of some philosophical babble. I was that stupid that I ignored the bloated white ring on your finger even though it hung around when we were together like a dead fish.
Just think of it. While I was tucked away for the night in your arms, your wife was tucking in your baby. Maybe even with a lullaby. We, however, had rocked in different motions. You bastard.
I found out at the flea market. I’m sure you were off on another creative tangent while I was plodding through the street looking for the perfect tomato. I was going to make my special sauce for you. That recipe has been in my family forever. You didn’t deserve that tomato.
Everything went black around me when my eyes made contact with yours. What will you tell your son if he asks about me tonight at dinner?
It took a minute, but I recognized her from the portraits you’d painted of “a friend.” My body flushed when she told me her name was Catherine. And this was her son, Lucas. He’s three. He was born right about the time you met me. Of course, she was beautiful. She didn’t know about me. While I was flushing, she was fading as the realization slammed into her with such force she stepped back, and I thought she would pass out when I described your tattoo with such accurate detail a blind man could have pictured it. I wish I could say I am sorry for hurting your wife. Any of your conquests could have done it easily, but it was me.
I don’t let things lie; I don’t let you lie. It wasn’t her you were untrue to. It was me. It was me, you fool. She was really that oblivious, but she too recognized me. I am almost sorry that she believed I was only your model. And I was, until you kissed me.
I remember that first kiss so vividly my knees tingled, among other things. You really were quite debonair. I don’t think you paid me my sitting fee that day or any day after for that matter. As far as I am concerned, you owe me much more than money.
I wonder what she said to you that night when you skulked in for dinner. I wonder how you rationalized her “ridiculous” suspicions. Did she cry?
I made her cry.
Were you twisted enough to hang paintings of me in your room? Did you look at me most nights?
There wasn’t a night I didn’t dream about you.
I will never forget the look on your face when I confronted you. It went way beyond getting caught with your hand in the cookie jar. Then bizarrely enough, rising up from God knows where, you let loose a horrendous laugh. You belittled me and berated me, telling me I should have known.
And you were right, I should have known.
I was frozen for a moment. Then I started obsessing about your wife again. Did you laugh at her? Did she coddle you and tell you that everything would be okay? Does she kiss with her eyes open?
I asked you if she was as good as me, and I was twisted and flattered when you said, “You’re the best baby.” What a stock line. Underneath it all, you were always generic.
I was never your baby. I’ve been past bottles and diapers for years. Not you though. You were inundated with bottles and baby at home. Is that why you placed that ad in the paper?
Then everything became so clear to me.
I don’t believe I was intentional. I think with you, it is never intentional.
I think I’ll say at your funeral, “He never intended any of this,” you and I know that won’t absolve you of your faults.
What bothers me most in this hell you’ve created is that I am still not sure you loved me. I mean, really loved me. I suppose now, it is not really worth bringing up. Up until Catherine, my memories are of a man full of life and love and me.
My insecurities didn’t set in until I came face to face with your Catherine. Then suddenly I became the stray cat hanging around, starving, outside your door. I can’t believe you told me it wasn’t true, that it wasn’t like that. I don’t buy it, not completely. I just don’t know what to believe anymore.
I believed the look on your face when I punched you full force in the gut. You did more than double over. I bet your knees would still be bruised.
Oh, it was delicious, me standing there amid the canvases and sheets and you lying on the floor like a child.
I know your son won’t grow up like you. I know your wife will never completely trust another man again. Not after you.
We are all left half-empty after you.
I wonder what pained you more that night, when I shred your canvases or when I shred you?
Everything will be okay now. I felt an incredible sense of clarity as I doused the mattresses and the walls with paint thinner.
Nothing was louder than my lit Zippo dropping to the ground.
I studied you as you tried to wriggle free of those ropes. You were a mess of blood and sweat, and I still could’ve kissed you.
Yes, I am devastated. Devastated you didn’t love me half as much as I deserve.
You’re last words echoed in my head begging me, “What about my son?”
No worries. I thought we had covered that already. It is like I said before, he will never grow up in your likeness.
Never mind this anymore. I am tired of all this chatter. It is time for me to clean up this mess you’ve made so I can move on.
Burning the bed has so much irony. I wonder if you would see it the same way if your skin weren’t sliding off your bones.
I wonder if you’re sorry.
What saddens me in all of this is that you won’t see how beautiful I will be standing at your casket, how serene. I will hold white lilies and wear a big hat. I will look up at your broken wife and helpless son with a sigh. And I will know the only one out of all of us at peace is me.
If I am asked to speak I will say, “Even in death, you’ve set me free.”

Credit: Samantha Kreger Shultz

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Ricardo’s Ghost

July 13, 2016 at 12:00 AM
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“Play with me,” it said. I stirred in my bed, my eyes drowsy and heavy. A yawn blew out of my mouth. I was seconds away from falling deep into my dreams, but the voice shook me back to reality.

“Play with me,” it repeated, a child’s voice. One that I came to recognize early in my childhood. I laid with my eyes still closed, denying the fact that I woke up. I still felt exhausted and at the verge of passing out. If I just relaxed a little longer…

Play with me,” it muttered, but his tone somehow changed. It didn’t come out with anger or hostility, but somehow it snatched my attention immediately. It sounded hopeless and lost, and it felt as if those same feelings provoked me at that moment. I imagined my bed forming lips right below where I laid. For some reason this image stuck to my brain.

Play with me. Play with me. The words continued to barrage my mind, leaving me restless and frantic. Now I wanted to open my eyes, but some mystical force kept them from splitting open. The lips on my bed moved and hummed. I felt a chilling vibration under where I laid. A tongue stretched out of its lips, and licked my entire back. I tried moving my limbs, but just like my eyes, they remained paralyzed.

Play. With. Me. The lips opened wide, and released a hot steam of breath. The air below scorched my entire body. My body sank deeper inside my bed, the sheets and comforts swallowing me whole. At this point breathing became an impossible task. The oxygen surrounding me grew thin. Darkness consumed my sight.

I opened my eyes.

Everything remained still. Nothing seemed disturbed. Well…except for me, of course. From the window above my head, the moon shone its silver light through my blinds.

My heart raced a million miles per second. With the help of the moon, I managed to scan my entire room for anything suspicious. Everything appeared normal and intact, thankfully.

Sweat drenched my entire body, making my pajamas and bed sheets stick to my skin like superglue. I thought about pulling away my blanket in order to cool myself down, but something told me it’d be better if I laid underneath my sheets. Maybe it was my childish mind pretending that my blankets can actually protect me from any monster or demon. Oh, how I miss the innocence of my mind as a kid.

The creepiness of what I just experienced settled on my mind. I shivered deeper into my bed, despite how hot my body felt. Some traces of my memory told me that everything was just some sick and bizarre nightmare. But I knew better than that. At that point in my childhood, I dealt with my fair share of paranormal experiences.

Play with me,” I heard the child’s tenuous voice loud and clear. As calm and as gentle as the child’s tone sounded, it somehow pierced the silence inside my room like a sharp knife slicing through human flesh. Worst of all, it stimulated whatever emotion I felt the most at the moment.

And currently, anxiety took hostage of my conscious.

I peeked at the closet door that stood across from me. The moonlight provided full clarity of the entire wooden surface. Both doors remained closed, just how I left them right before I slept.

A noise came from behind the closet doors. It sounded like someone or something shuffling in between my clothes. The first levels of trepidation kept my body at bay. I wanted nothing more than to run away, but the child’s voice already drew me in with its mystical hands, and they refused to let me go.

The door creaked opened, the rusty hinges releasing a sour hiss, and the bottom of the closet door grinding against the hardwood floor. I rattled in my bed as if I was having a seizure.

Each second that passed by stretched farther and farther. More movement occurred behind the shadows the closet door created. I struggled hard to gather my thoughts, but they scattered themselves and blew far away from my mind like pieces of paper against an autumn wind.

Play with me,” I heard the child better, now that the closet door didn’t restrict the full volume of his voice. That was worse for me, however. I tried bottling in all of my terrified emotions, but the bastard broke the glass free, and let my feelings spill out of my skin and bones like blood from an open wound. At this point I thought I’d drown in my sweat.

The child stepped forward. I heard the sound of his soft and delicate foot tap against the floor. I strained my eyes harder at the closet door, trying to catch a quick glimpse at the boy who had been disturbing my sleep for over a year now. Every time I try, however, I always failed. The child always hid himself amongst the shadows.

He took his time approaching me, as if hesitant and fearful of my own presence. When this happened, I began feeling sympathetic towards the poor child. I reminded myself that every night he paid me a visit, he never tried to hurt or harass me. Sure he sometimes scared the crap out of me, but this seemed unintentional. It was only my own head worried and paranoid about the unknown, nothing more.

The child swayed closer to where I laid. What more can I had done but just lay there and let the boy do as he pleased. Some of the nights the child crept out of my closet door, he spent most of his time gazing at my direction. Even though I couldn’t tell if he even had eyes to look at me, I still sensed his glare on my face. At first this really freaked me out. I mean who would enjoy being stared at as you try to sleep? But it almost felt as if he was guarding me from my own nightmares.

But always, no matter what, he asked the same question over and over again.

Play with me.”

I never responded back. I always just fell back to sleep, or waited until the sun rose and the boy returned back to my closet or wherever the hell he came from.

That night, however, I finally spoke back.

“Okay,” I whispered, my words leaving my lips like syrup drooling out of my mouth. “What do you want to play?”

The boy stopped walking. I knew I surprised it somehow. The nervous energy that transpired between us almost felt like something tangible. I waited with patience to see what would happen next.

The child shrilled, and let out a loud shriek. I joined in on the screaming, as if trying to compete who can shout the loudest. Immediately after this, the boy’s entire presence vanished from where he remained.

But before the boy disappeared, I spotted something weird about him. See, the moment he left, a small flash of light emerged from where he stood. This granted my eyes just one split second to finally see what the child looked like.

What I saw was far from what I expected.

The first thing that caught my eyes was the boy’s face. He looked pale as snow, and his lips appeared numb and blue. A small helmet of blonde hair rested on top of the boy’s head. Dirt and grass was smeared all over the child’s cheeks and forehead. The most distinctive feature, however, were the boy’s hollow, demented eye sockets. They looked like two endless dark tunnels. The longer you gazed at the child’s empty eyes, the more the shadows inside sucked you in.

Right in the middle of the boy’s body, just inside his intestines, remained a big blob of red and yellow light. A maze of veins glowed inside the boy’s naked stomach. It almost seemed as if the child was pregnant.

It took me a while to recognize the child. Right when I realized who he was, I yelled until my throat began bleeding from the inside.

It was Ricardo, my best-friend who died when I was only five years old.

This incident occurred when I was six years old. A lot has changed over the past eleven years, but to some extent nothing has changed at all.

Sometimes the thing you least expect end up happening after all. For instance, I never would have predicted that I would befriend the ghost that had been haunting my nights since I was five years old, but I’ll get to that in a bit.

To explain the full story, I guess I need to begin when my family and I moved to Union City around the turn of the twenty-first century. I was two at the time, still very young and naïve to the many dangers that possess this earth. The reason my family left New York, and entered New Jersey instead, was because of the death of their still-born child. I was supposed to have an older sibling, but the child died during birth. It happens often, and nobody’s to blame, really.

My parents, however, couldn’t properly deal with the shame and guilt of their first child dying. They became very unstable and reckless because of it. A month or so after the infant died, they immediately tried once more to make another child—I guess out of pure desperation. This is how I was brought into this world. I’m the result of two emotionally broken adults who relied on my birth to restore their hope in this world. I don’t know if that’s a good or bad thing for me, but either way I managed to survive this time.

Even after my birth, however, my folks still carried the weight of their deceased baby on their shoulders. They quickly left New York as soon as possible. They stated that the city and house they lived in constantly reminded them of their dead baby. All of my parent’s neighbors and friends looked forward to the upcoming child at the time. When my folks informed everyone that the child never made it out of the womb alive, the disappointment that crossed their lives escalated to something morbid and pitiful.

I claim myself a New Yorker even though I lived most of my life in New Jersey. My parents often took me there since my father still worked at his job in the big city. They used to always take me near where they once live, and introduce me to all of their previous neighbors. I remember very distinctively how most of them glared and studied me. They thought of me as a child from heaven itself. They always littered me with gifts and provided special privileges for whatever I desired. I was always shy around them, so I never begged for anything. And at times the attention became overwhelming.

During some of our trips, however, I began noticing the hidden depression in my parents’ hearts once they spent a little too much time around their old house. I once caught my mother crying inside one of her best-friend’s room when I was four. When I approached her and asked her what was wrong, she simply shook her head, a waterfall of tears rushing down her red eyes, and took hold of my back and shoulders with her bare arms.

My mother embraced me with a gracious hug, and whispered in my ear how much she loves me, and how lucky I am to be a part of her life. Her moist and warm face rubbed against my own cheeks. At some occasions I would’ve found this annoying, but I sensed and empathized with my mother’s pain even at such a young age. Even though I had no idea what the hell was going on, I still knew that I needed to hug my mother strongly in order to make her feel better.

Despite the setbacks my parents faced, they somehow found a way to move forward. At such a young age, I learned to be grateful at the circumstances that passed through my life. Some parents might have fought and divorce each other if something this tragic ever shot at their lives. Some parents might’ve relied on drugs and alcohol in order to mellow out the agony dwelling deep in their hearts and soul.

My parents decided to act differently. They looked at me as inspiration, and chose to dedicate their life into raising me right. They thanked God that I had survived, and took it as a sign to make the best life for me. For this, I owe them all of my regards, and I can’t be any more appreciative for what they’ve done.

But nothing could’ve prepare the three of us for what hit me when I turned five.

My close friend from kindergarten passed way around that time. His name was Ricardo Hernandez. I knew this kid since I started school at the age of four in pre-k. We met there, and that same first day we instantly became best pals. I remember we couldn’t remember our names the first few weeks, so we just called each other amigo. It was adorable.

As bashful as I was, I somehow managed to be comfortable with him only. We just clicked. I can’t seem to explain it any other way.

Ricardo died from breathing problems. I didn’t quite know the specifics back then. I just knew that he needed to remove his tonsils. Ricardo’s folks scheduled the appointment to proceed with the treatment as soon as they found out. I think a day or so before the surgery was supposed to happen, Ricardo died in his own bed while watching cartoons. The hospital told his parents that the dysfunction on his lungs wasn’t anything that serious, but I guess they must’ve overlooked something important. Fucking bastards.

Death has a way of messing with my parents. If the Grim Reaper does exist, then that son of a bitch must have some grudge against my mother and father. They reacted with devastation at the news of my best-friend’s sudden death. They knew how close Ricardo and I became, and because of this friendship, my parents ended up befriending Ricardo’s folks. Like any decent adult would do, my mother and father comforted and mourned with my best-friend’s parents together.

I guess they also understood how it felt to lose a child at such a young age. This was just what my parents freaking needed. Right when they finally overcame all odds, and learned to live with the death of their infant son, life or god or whoever the hell finds some fucked-up way to remind my parents of their most stressful and dismaying point of their lives.

When I first found about the news, the principle from my school visited our class, and delivered the awful story. The day before this happened, the other students and I caught our teacher, Ms. Ventra, crying and moping near the hallways. Out of all of her children, she cared and respected Ricardo the most. He always charmed our teacher in a way that amazed me as a young kid. His death really impacted us all.

I mostly handled the situation with apathy…and I don’t know if that makes me some emotionless monster or not. Children understand a lot despite their age, and I was fully aware of what happened to Ricardo. All of my classmates were. He died, and he was never coming back. This fact stuck to our brains, and nothing would be able to take it away.

Don’t get me wrong, I felt like shit on the inside. I lost my only friend who brought something out of me. I really didn’t get along with all of the other kids. It’s not like they bullied me or anything (that came later) but I just chose to isolate myself from them.

What got to me the most was witnessing my parents circle around a difficult depression once again. For the next month or so, the environment inside my house consisted of nothing but gloom and hopelessness. Every time I walked inside I just sensed the sadness seeping into my head and emotions. My mom and dad tried encouraging everyone to feel better, and sometimes I actually believed that we were healing from this tragic point in our lives. But at the end these futile attempts were met with everyone giving up. I felt disgusted with my parents and myself.

A year or so after Ricardo’s death, I began experiencing these unexplainable paranormal interactions.

They began around the time I was six. Late one night, I think it was Saturday, I was snuggled in my bed with the lights off. I was playing my Nintendo Gameboy Advance at the moment. I don’t remember what time it was exactly, but I’m more than certain it was past midnight. I made sure to stay quiet since at this time my parents were already sleeping.

I started to feel tired after an hour or so playing Pokémon Sapphire. My eyes kept on opening and closing, and I took this as a sign to go to sleep. Right before I could even turn off my device, I heard the faintest of sounds coming from my closet.

This aroused me instantly, and whatever sleepiness I felt before vanished. Bewilderment took over that exhaustion.

I waited for the noise to come again. After a minute or so in suspense, I didn’t realize I was holding my damn breath. I held my Gameboy above my face, the screen flashing its colorful lights on my eyes. I pressed start and saved my file, but I didn’t turn off my device—I needed it as a source of light. I aimed the device towards my closet door, and waited for something to happen, anything.

A loud bump sounded off behind the doors.

I dropped my Gameboy right on my face.

Ouch!” I winced, and rubbed my nose. A jolt of pain spread all over my face.

Play with me,” I finally heard for the first time.

I laid paralyzed with apprehension. The sting on my nose suddenly seemed less important.

For the first few seconds, I remained confused and a bit unnerved. Then that confusion evolved into frustration for not understanding what just happened. From frustration, I grew distressed and paranoid. Suddenly the shadows inside my room seemed too dark. The walls appeared too thick. My blankets choked me a little bit too much. The pillows below my face felt as if they were suffocating me. The whole world was going against me.

That paranoia fused with the worst of my fears.

I went to scream, but my throat locked in itself. The inside of my mouth grew dry. I thought about jumping out of my bed, but dismissed that idea. Like any normal child, I resorted to my blankets for comfort and safety.

I remember burying my body deep inside my sheets, and refusing to open my eyes. Nothing else happened after that, however. I stood awake most of my time there, and when I woke up I suffered from a tremendous headache. But other than that, I remained undamaged and sane.

I prevented myself from confronting my parents about this. They were already dealing with enough, and if I just told them about my weird and creepy experience, I would just bring them even more things to worry about. And besides, nothing bad happened to me. That was what mattered the most.

The next week came, and the same thing happened once more. This time, however, I maintained a bit more of my composure. I still felt my terrified thoughts crawling into my mind, but it wasn’t as unbearable as before. I mostly felt speculation. A part of me wanted to say it was a ghost, but being that young, I still knew how ridiculous that sounded. Strange things like that only happened in movies or in novels.

For the next week and on, I spent most of my time pondering about what I was dealing with. I analyzed everything, from the time the apparent “ghost” decided to sneak into my room, to the movement and sounds it made. I came to several conclusions after three months of thinking everything through.

The first thing I came up with was that it was indeed some form of a ghost, spirit, whatever you want to call it. The second thing was that it wasn’t an ‘it”, but a “he”. It took some time coming to this conclusion, but it was obvious. The voice said it all. It sounded light and ethereal, yes, but it contained a bit of roughness that only boys can pull off.

One of the most important factors I put into consideration was that it never once tried to inflict damage upon me. That stopped me from making it a problem. Not only that, but this fact alone slowly made me adapt and accept the presence of this young child. My mind still wrestled with the fear of being stalked, but this was only natural for anyone—especially a young boy like myself. No matter what, I was still talking to the dead. If that doesn’t bring chills down your spine, then you’re not a goddamn human.

The more knowledge I gained about the apparition, however, the more questions bombarded my mind. I told myself it would be a horrible idea to take physical notes about my experience. If someone were to take hold of that notebook, and read everything through, they would assume I was either a child with an amazing imagination, or some type of enigmatic maniac. And seeing how my reputation in school came to being the quiet, awkward, and slow kid, I didn’t think people would guess the former.

So at the end, I was force to remember and repeat everything I learned over and over in my head. It became arduous and onerous at first, but this helped form my expansive memory. That came in handy during school, but during that time school was the last thing I worried about.

The night finally came that after over three years of hearing but ignoring the ghost, I finally responded back. And to my amazement and shock, I ended up finding out it was my best friend Ricardo this whole time. It all made perfect sense.

This changed everything.

That night I stood up until early dawn. It wasn’t out of sheer terror, however, but out of an overwhelming sense of happiness. For once this world didn’t seem like a place where you shoved along as more shit piled up in your life, but it became something beautiful and rewarding. Somehow I reunited with my first and ever only friend, and that’s all I cared for.

The shift in my mood and attitude was unbelievable. Even my parents were astonished. I ignored the fact that my best-friend looked like he crawled right out of his grave. I mean I knew that I saw him, and I knew he looked in terrible condition, but I didn’t care. I never realized how much I missed and cared for him until he returned back into my life.

From that point on, I began contacting the ghost more often. He started visiting me in the night several times a week instead of once every weekend. We both talked, and the longer this happened, the more it seemed as if he really was Ricardo. The way he acted, and everything he said, just seemed like it fitted Ricardo’s personality. I couldn’t fucking believe it.

I never saw him in his physical form ever again, however. Every time we grouped up, he was always invisible. I couldn’t ever touch or see him like before when we were kids in preschool, but I was able to feel him. I think that was what made him special to me. It didn’t matter that we would never be able to play like before. The warm and tender presence he offered was enough to satisfy me.

I remember one night when we were together, I broke down in front of him. I just released all of my frustration and sorrow into my tears, and I couldn’t stop crying. But it was also a weird mix of happiness and sadness. For one thing, getting Ricardo back was something I appreciated every day. I don’t know what purposed it served, but I never took my friend for granted from that point on.

But at the same time, I faced the horrors of school and my social life. Nobody liked me, and I faced bullies every time I entered that damn building. I just couldn’t associate myself well with those other kids. I saw nothing in common with everyone else, and every time I attempted to speak to one of them, they glared at me with disgust and dissatisfaction. The hate on their faces was just so damn obvious. I did everything wrong in school, and for that reason everyone called me a failure and a mistake

And I kept on thinking that if Ricardo was with me, he could’ve been the person who I could’ve depended on for kindness. I wished those other kids died instead of my own best-friend. Why did Ricardo die? Why did my family and I always had to endure the grief of death, while everyone else remained untouched by the reaper’s menacing hands? It wasn’t my fault that I couldn’t get along with those other damn kids. So much had happened to me that I felt the need to isolate myself. Right when I wanted to crawl out of my shell, and become one with my school, they rejected me and treated me like shit.

The best thing about Ricardo’s ghost was that he understood. That night as I drowned in my own tears, he wrapped me around a therapeutic aura, and suddenly everything felt better. My deepest sorrows washed away, and was replaced by an ocean of tranquility. All of my muscles eased up, the sting on my eyes mitigated, and my head felt relaxed.

He kept me locked around his comfortable aura even as the first rays of morning light slipped through my open curtains. This startled me. Ricardo has never stood up this late with me, and I knew he felt aversive towards any type of light. I tried wiggling away from his presence, and told him to leave now before anything bad happens to him. But he kept me secured, and whispered to my ear that he was going to be alright. Even then I wanted him to leave. My greatest fear was losing Ricardo again…

But he told me to trust him, and that trust is the true foundation to any stable relationship. Ricardo said that true love is giving someone the key to your destruction, and trusting them to not abuse you with that sacred knowledge.

So I listened and followed what he said. For the first time, I trusted someone outside of my family.

And when dawn rose up, and I saw how Ricardo remained the same, I knew then and there I didn’t need anyone else in my life. As long as I had Ricardo, my one and only true best friend, I could survive in this world.

That’s why when he abandoned me the moment I entered high school, I almost killed myself.

It never made sense to me. He just left without a hint of where he would be. I told Ricardo everything, from my darkest secrets to how I truly felt about this world. And he departed off with my trust within his grasp. He disappeared, and when he left, Ricardo took a part of me with him. I felt so disconnected with myself.

We raised each other together. Throughout my whole life as a young child growing up into a teenager, he has been there for me every step of the way. Every bully I fought, every girl that denied my love, every person that refused to be my friend, Ricardo was there to witness it all.

I knew the consequence I would face if Ricardo and I tried stabilizing our friendship in this world. Nobody would believe me that I was talking to the kid who died out of lung failure in kindergarten. People would just see me as a goddamn weirdo, and to be honest I wouldn’t blame them. I mean it was pretty fucking weird. Sometimes I needed to pause from my distorted reality, and really take in the fact that the person I love the most was a goddamn ghost. It felt natural to me, but I knew that from an outside perspective, it must be the craziest shit ever.

But I thought it would be worth it, you know, separating myself from everyone else. I’d come to like the fact that I was unique, and that I had something—or better yet someone —that nobody else had. This helped rebuild my confidence, and made me a more assertive person when I entered middle-school. I still kept to myself, but I no longer felt inferior among my classmates. In fact I settled into this hubris personality that I found everyone to be pieces of shit that didn’t deserve my goddamn companionship. The only people who mattered to me was my family and Ricardo. Everyone else could rot in hell for all I care.

Ricardo helped create some of the best moments in my life. He was always the imaginary best friend who I jumped along the couch with. Ricardo and I played with our variety of toys, and we always used to act out these wild ideas in our heads. It was always a fun time with him.

My parents grew a bit worried about my mental state around the time I was eleven or twelve, and I was still “may pretending” I was talking with an imaginary best friend. They thought I was a bit too old for that. Not only that, but it didn’t help that I had no other friends, and that they never saw me with any one of my classmates. I never invited anyone over, so they knew the type of reputation I gained from school. Placing all of these factors together, I can’t blame them for thinking that I was, in some type of way, psychotic.

One time the three of us talked about it, and I gave them some of the honest truth of my situation. Of course I didn’t mention the fact that my old friend Ricardo was living with us, but I informed them that I really hated everyone in school, and that I had no friends. But I told them I didn’t mind, and that I found a way to have fun all by myself. I explained that I relied on my imagination in order to cope with the fact that nobody liked me, and that sometimes I went overboard and actually thought my characters came to life.

I made a deal that I would stop “talking to myself” if it really freaked them out. My parents agreed, and in the end they were very understanding. They had an idea that my childhood really messed me up, so it was okay if I behaved the way I did. They accepted my weirdness, and for this I loved them even more.

But they didn’t need to worry about anything. Later on, as I stated before, Ricardo left me.

In a way, this was worse than when he actually died in kindergarten. I had this idea in mind that I would enter high school, and that I would dread those god-awful four years there. I knew that I needed to prepare myself for all the harassment, all the fights, all the unwanted attention, and everything else that made my life a difficult pain in the ass. But I knew that at the end of the day, I would have Ricardo to pick me up whenever someone knocked me down.

So when that bastard left me to deal with everyone’s shit in that goddamn school, I died inside. I felt so betrayed and alone. This resulted in my worst behavior. I started the fights with the other kids, and I made sure I never backed down. Even when I almost punched a kid to death, I felt no remorse. The rational switch inside me flicked off, and I unleashed all of my frustration and pain towards anyone who had the audacity to try to ruin my day.

Ricardo leaving really fucked me over. Jesus, my brain felt as if someone completely changed every function of it. I couldn’t think right, and forget about sleeping. I became a chronic insomniac. My world became a mess yet again.

So that was my life the first three years in high school. Entering my senior year, I didn’t give a shit anymore. I didn’t know what direction my life was heading towards, but I just couldn’t care. I became this placid and dull adolescent. I wasn’t scrambling fights with bullies, but at the same time I stopped myself from starting new friendships with other people. I trusted nobody because of Ricardo.

So when that bastard introduced himself to me once again last week, it turned my entire world upside down.

What great fucking timing. Out of all the times he could’ve reenter my life, he chose now? Right when I stop giving a shit about my own existence? Right when I completely forced him out of my thoughts and emotions? He decides to whisper his signature fucking catch-phrase, and act as if he hadn’t left me for three goddamn years filled with nothing but despair and suicidal thoughts?

Why couldn’t he have come when I behaved like an asshole in high school? Where was he when I returned home from the outside world with tears flooding down my eyes, wishing that I could just change the way my life turned out? Why couldn’t he have come to help me when I had the tip of the knife just an inch away from the vein on my wrist, ready to slice my flesh open and drown in my own blood as I bathe in my tub? Where the hell was he then?!

No. He doesn’t deserve a warm-hearted homecoming. I know he plans on visiting me this upcoming weekend. As much as I should be happy, he needs to know how much I suffered. I at least deserve a goddamn apology.

I still love Ricardo, but he and I know that we need to talk this through. A lot has changed since then. I’m more than prepare for this.

All I can do now is wait and be patient. He better hope I’m in a good mood that night

Saturday night arrives. I lay on my bed with a book beside me. The small lamp next to me blares a faint and white light. I’ve spent the past three hours reading this damn novel, and wasting time on my phone. I’ve kept on checking the time, and as the hour clock moved from nine in the night to ten, then to elven, and finally to twelve, I grew anxious. It feels as if parasites infested my stomach, and are now crawling in and out of my organs. As nervous as my head and body gets, however, I know I must demonstrate nothing but temerity. I can’t shy away now. That part of my life ended a long time ago.

My parents chose the perfect weekend to leave the house for a quick get-away. That way if things start to get hectic between Ricardo and me, there are no restrictions as to how loud and aggressive I can get. I plan to handle this with maturity, but that doesn’t change the fact that I can’t make him feel guilty for what he’s done to me.

I place my novel on top of my night stand, and flick the lamp off. Darkness envelopes my bedroom like a pool of shadows. The moon shoots a tiny glimmer of light right at the center of my bed. This should be enough for me to feel comfortable.

“Come out,” I command. I started sensing him the moment it hit eleven thirty. For a while I fought with my nerves and fears pulsing out of my mind like a horde of bees trying to escape their hive. I knew I needed to end his influence over my feelings. I couldn’t allow him to manipulate me any longer.

I’m giving silence and nothing more. I focus my eyes better on the closet door. I feel him behind those barriers, so why does he hesitate? He must be aware of how disappointed I am towards him. I don’t blame him. If I was in his position, I would think twice about confronting me right now.

I open my mouth, but before I could say more, the closet door slides open. I choke on my distasteful words, and swallow them. They taste bitter.

I sit upright, and place my pillow against the wall behind me in order to be more comfortable. I feel his opposing force of emotions trying to break through the defensive wall I built against him. His efforts prove futile, however. All this tension passing between us actually makes me sweat. My back begins to drench itself, and the corners of my mouth grow so dry they form tiny blisters. I don’t know how long I can maintain myself.

Ricardo takes him time approaching me, his soft and almost quiet footsteps taunting me each time they land on the floor. As some people might assume, I may be a little gay for my best friend. I mean I’ve only spent my entire life with him alone, and I never went on a date before with any girl. I find both genders attractive in a way, but Ricardo obviously catches my attention the most. The way he’s always treated me with love is what finally made realize everything. If me loving a dead five year old doesn’t convince you how fucked up I am, I don’t know what will.

My ghost friend finally reaches the edge of my bed. Although I can’t see him, I feel him near. He stands still. The silence overcoming my ears becomes unbearable. I’m able to hear the quiet sound of my impulsive heartbeat, and then I start to hear a small ringing noise deep inside my eardrums. I tap on the wall behind me in order to repel against the quietness. Jesus, if I took that shit any longer, I would’ve shot my damn brains out.

Ricardo begins to climb on top of my bed. I want to say something, anything. I want to stop him, and start talking to him about what the hell he did. But the idea of the both of us sitting down face-to-face intrigues me more. There he could witness the anguish in my eyes.

The sheets on top of my bed rustle as he crawls closer to where I remain. I start to shiver. My breathing increases, and the pressure on my chest feels like a ton of bricks slammed down on my lungs. I’m sweating bullets at this point. The world surrounding me blurs, and all that remains clear is the image stretching larger and larger as the seconds drift by. I almost start to feel hypnotize by my own mind and its hallucinations.

Ricardo stops right where the moonlight hits my bed. That little line of light shines directly on his face.

Death is written all over his expression. It’s the same image that I saw back then as a kid, but this time he’s seem to have aged, oddly. Pieces of his once pale and soft flesh now dangle from his cheekbones. Some parts of his face appears rotten and deteriorated by time, the skin ruddy and infected. Black slime swirls inside his mouth, Ricardo’s devilish grin colored with waste and worms. Parts of his hair has fallen off, and I’m able to see his bony and disfigured skull. Several bumps and warts decorate the area around his forehead and chin.

And of course the worst of all, his eyes. Ricardo’s hollow and lifeless eyes that sucks the youth right out of your soul.

“What the hell happened to you?” I ask, horror-stricken. The longer I gaze at his current physical state, the more in dawns upon me how I never had my best-friend back in the first place. Or better yet, this wasn’t Ricardo at all. What the hell is going on?

“You fucking idiot,” Ricardo whispers, but this time his voice sooths out of his brusque throat with a deep and monstrous tone. Black and demonic tentacles begin to sprout out of his corpse. They drip with black blood and seem as sharp and deadly as a goddamn dagger.

Something else emerges from behind Ricardo’s dead body. Before I can pay attention to what it is, I’m distracted when those black whips slither closer to where I sit. They tangle around my limbs, neck, and body. A silent cry escapes out of my trembling lips, and before I could shout for help—for anybody to please fucking help me!—one of the vines closes around my mouth. I try yelling through the thick and moist tentacles, but all I managed to produce is a low muffling sound.

Ricardo pulls me closer to where he sits. I shove and wiggle my shoulders and legs, but the more I try to fight, the more the vines tighten. I feel the blood circulation on my bear arms and legs end. The tight knot tied around my neck begins to crush my throat. I figure I would be panicking, but at the moment I feel nothing but a loss of hope.

I won,” the ghost child says, although he no longer sounds like a little boy. His voice makes the bed and walls shake for god’s sake. “I won, and there’s nothing you can do about it.” All I can do is glare as his empty eyes, and wonder whether a piece of my friend dwells inside this demonic specie or not.

“I can’t believe I was able to out-play you like this,” the spirit screeches, and then emits a low and gurgling laughter. “You’re such an idiot. I’d thought you would notice later on, but no. I made a fool outta you.” Just what the hell is he talking about?

“Even now you have no idea what’s going on,” the demon mocks me. “But I can’t blame you. After all, you forgot about me. Just like mommy and daddy forgot about me right when they had you.”

No. No. No fucking way. This cannot be…

Ah, you realize now, huh? I see it in your eyes. You’re getting an idea of who I truly am.” Ricardo’s stomach begins to glow a tenuous, yellow and white light.

“I’m what could’ve been. I’m a rejected soul that not even God wished to bring back into heaven. Nobody cares about me, and my life means little to nothing compared to all the other fucking babies who lived. Sounds familiar, don’t it? Do you know who I am now, huh? Do you, brother?”

No. I knew it, but I didn’t wish to believe it. I don’t even know what to think right now. All I can do now is feel. I feel my dead baby-brother’s emotions, and his rage that erupts out of his heart like lava from an active volcano. The determination to hurt me burns though my skin, and I see the passion in his eyes despite there being just hollowness inside.

“Right when mommy and daddy had you, they already thought about forgetting about me,” he grumbles. “At first they still mourned my death, and that at least kept me content. But the older you grew, the more they left me out of their thoughts. You became the child they always wanted, and you stole their attention away from me. Soon they completely abandoned me, and only chose to think about you. Did my life mean nothing to them? Was I just a failure to them that they wanted to forget about? Why couldn’t I have lived? Why did it have to be you, and not me?!

I wish to speak. I want to tell him that they never forgot about him, that they use his death as inspiration to make me a better child. I need to tell him that without him, I wouldn’t be who I am now. My parents—excuse me, our parents—loves us both equally, but just that thinking about him resurrected too many dark and agonizing memories.

But I couldn’t say any of that. All I could do is listen, and feel my brother’s anger.

“I knew I couldn’t leave without making the three of you suffer. I needed my revenge. This was when I began plotting my vengeance. I wanted you all to perish. So I began visiting you little by little. I gave off subtle signs of my presence, but it wasn’t enough. As a baby, you didn’t care about me at all. I needed to wait for the perfect time to execute my plan.

“Then you entered school, and you became friends with that Ricardo kid…” The demon in front of me chuckles. “Ah! I knew I won after that. I had it all planned out.

“The doctors were right, you know… His lung condition wasn’t all that serious. He just needed minor surgery, that’s all. But you know…I have a way of interfering with other people’s lives. I guess you can say I paid Ricardo a visit while he was watching cartoons…and did what I had to do.”

This sick fucking bastard! I never felt so furious in my life before. I kick and thrash around, giving every punch and swing all of my strength, not caring if my bones begin to snap, and my muscles start to tear. Even as blood leaks out from my wounds the tighter his grip becomes, I don’t give a shit. This piece of scum murdered a child, my best fucking friend! He caused one of the greatest depressions in my life! He deserves to rot.

“Stop your efforts now, Steven,” he commands. “It’s useless. I’ve won, and you can’t overpower me. You’re weak. You’ve grown strong and confident, yes, but compared to me, you’re still a pathetic child who can’t stand up for himself. You freak, liking your own brother for god’s sake. You make me sick.”

I manage to raise my hand, and flip the fucker off.

“Childish, as always,” the demon complains. “Just like Ricardo. Anyways, I knew in order for my plan to work, I needed to gain your trust. And what better person you could trust and love than your only friend ever in your entire life. Jesus, you’re such a loser. At least I would’ve made more friends.

“I knew you’d trust me, and that you’d be so infatuated with me. I knew that you would suffer in school, and that you’d rely on me to comfort you. And I did. I made sure you fell in love with me, and that I guided you towards a better life. I fucking played you, kid. You should be humiliated by how badly I messed up your life.

“And I knew, I knew, it would be perfect to just leave you right when you enter high school. Don’t like being left alone, huh Steven? Hurts like one mean bitch, doesn’t it? Now you know my pain. It felt so great watching as you broke down, and as your life turned to shit. I kept on laughing and laughing at your own demise. Even our parent’s depression brought much amusement. I made you bitches suffer. And now, I return…”

Ricardo’s corpse begins to levitate. The blob of light inside his stomach grows brighter, and little by little the skin on his abdomen starts becoming transparent. I’m able to see the inside of his stomach, and I see-

Oh god. Oh my fucking god I’m going to be sick.

It’s a fucking fetus camped inside Ricardo’s intestines.

“I come back to finish what I started,” the demon-child informs me, and now I realize that this whole time the voice has been coming from the corpse’s stomach. The belly of the goddamn beast. “It’s been fun watching you grow up, but now your life must end here. How does it feel to just realize now that your whole life has been one giant lie? How does it feel knowing that after your death, our parents come next? How does this pain feel, Steven? Does it burn?

“Well you better get used to it. Imma send you exactly where our parents sent me.

“Straight into nothingness.”

Ricardo’s corpse floats above me. More vines crawl out of his body. They all attach to my skin, and begin to push my body deep into my mattress. I keep on fighting to free myself, but my brother is able to produce more and more of those damn tentacles. Soon my entire figure from head to toe is webbed around his colony of whips.

The figure behind Ricardo’s ghost that I saw before grows larger. I don’t know what the hell that is, but whatever it may be, it feels strong and intimidating.

Right at the center of my bed, a black hole rips open. I feel a sudden drop. My eyes open wide as I descend farther and farther away from Ricardo’s corpse. A wall of darkness surrounds me, and begins to close around my eyesight. A gush of air forces me deeper inside whatever place I’m being sent to.

I feel several hands reach up from below, and grip my shirt and pants. Those thousands of hands dig their nails deep inside my skin, past the cloth of my clothing, and drag me deeper inside this prison of shadows and calamity. More and more of those invisible arms stack on top of my body, and place more pressure on my muscles and skin. I feel like the victim of a king cobra.

At the end, I don’t feel anything anymore—well, I mean on the inside I don’t. No emotions, no fears, nothing. Just pity. I pity the fact that I had to live this life. Since birth, my life has been filled with nothing but depression and wickedness. I guess I’ve always been destine to live this way, and have it end like this. Even when I thought I had some type of profound hope to hold on to and call it my own, I end up finding out it’s all been a lie that lead to my eventual fatality.

But I’m fine if my life continues on after death, and I end up living with nothing but darkness and nothingness —as my brother stated. Hell, that’s all I know at this point. I won’t have to make that big of an adjustment.

If only my brother could’ve let me talked, however. Maybe I could’ve saved the both of us. I could’ve told him how much I love and care for him, and how I’ve always understood his pain. I could’ve told him that we can work this out, and find our own way to overcome whatever anger dwells inside the both of us. But he didn’t let me talk. And because of that, he ended up screwing himself over.

Because I could’ve told him that Ricardo’s real ghost was standing behind him the entire time, waiting for the perfect moment to attack him.

Go get em’, amigo.

Credit: TheSplitPersonality

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Mistress Of The Sea

July 12, 2016 at 12:00 AM
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The Sea raged as the waves crashed into each other like lightning and the skies thundered in anger. It was a night for shipwrecks and mysterious creatures to roam the waters. That’s when she surfaced, leaving the depths of the ocean, her hair as violent as the water. She knew she would find him here. And all she had to do was sing…

His eyes opened to blue skies with orange and purple starting to fill the cracks, spreading like a disease. It was odd for him to be up at this time. He rolled onto his back, kicked around under the covers and shut his eyes, determined to go back to sleep. He could hear the ocean, the waves caressing the shore over and over again, declaring their everlasting love. The constant swooshing of the sea, like music, slowly lulled him back to sleep. There was a whistle in the wind as if someone was singing to him. A soft, sweet melody, almost like a whisper.

His eyes snapped open again and he exhaled in frustration. He threw his sheets aside. There was no way he was going to fall back asleep. It was a cool sea-side morning, too early to be bright. The light had barely touched the ocean. People were still dreaming, still lost in their own head. It felt odd to be up at this time. And there it was again, that music in the air. An alluring brush of sound in the wind.

Without really knowing how, he found himself down at the beach, walking along the water. The sand felt cool and dry under his feet. Minutes passed, hours maybe, he wasn’t sure. Somewhere along the way the morning fog had rolled in, with the rumbling of thunder in the distance promising a storm. Without a sense of direction, he followed the melody that had enchanted his heart.

That’s when he saw her standing by the shore. A woman, wearing a dress the colour of seaweed, staring longingly at the ocean. The bottom of her dress was wet from where the waves kept creeping up to kiss her feet as if she was royalty. The wind kicked up a storm in her hair, blowing her red curls every which way. The singing grew louder, as if it was right in his ear. He could swear it was coming from her. He was mesmerized, caught up in her beauty and in the wistful music that seemed to surround her. The way her eyes glared into the infinite, the way her skin shimmered, tinted blue. He wanted to run his fingers through her soft hair that burned like hellfire. He longed for her to sing to him. Her beautiful song of lust and agony, her melody so haunting and seducing, calling him, asking him to come with her. Swearing to him her body, her soul, her voice, with words from another world. Promising him the softness of her breast but also that beneath them, even if it was cold and full of bad intentions. But something felt wrong. Deep inside he was trying to fight her, resist her.
“You want me,” she whispered, her voice echoing in his head.
“Come with me,” and she reached out to him with hands that were ready to drag him to the bottom of the ocean. He wanted it all, to love her, hold her. He wanted to wrap his hands around her pretty little neck and squeeze until her charm was broken, feel the magic be crushed under his fingertips.
“No,” he choked, barely being able to get the word out.
Her head snapped around to look at him, her eyes stormy with rage, the sea raging with her. The skies grayed as her face turned into a sinister smile, her eyes locking him in a gaze and when she sang it was almost painful. He wanted her to stop. But her voice cast a spell, like giant hands wrapping themselves around him, pulling him closer. His resistance left with the wind. He wanted to belong to her story. A story of magic and mystery as deep and dark as the sea. He wanted to be free. But her voice captured him, and her filthy lies entranced him. She belonged to the water and now he belonged to her. When she reached out her hand, he took it. He knew her song ended in death, but what a small price to pay for an eternity with her.

Credit: Natasha Maria Rajendram

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Pale and Afraid

July 11, 2016 at 12:00 AM
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“Quick, grab some drinks and some seats, let’s go!” I yelled to Dominic as he fumbled through my uncle’s fridge. The night of the Super Bowl, I always like my drink on hand and a bag of chips before the game starts. Likewise, I prefer to send my best friend Dominic into the kitchen to do it for me. As a result, I was left sitting on the couch waiting for him to get back with the stash. That is, the snacks.

I heard the toilet from across the room, and the sink followed it. My Uncle Nate emerged from the restroom refreshed and ready for the game.

“Let’s go boys; time for some football!”

As my uncle declined from standing and flopped onto the couch, Dominic emerged with our drinks and tossed one to me. At fifteen, Dom and I probably shouldn’t have been drinking beers, but my uncle is just that cool. He did warn us that pairing the chips with beer and the various chocolate snacks he had laid out in front of us would give us vivid nightmares, but he didn’t know the science to prove it.

Dominic popped open his can of beer, and I opened my own. Oddly, Uncle Nate was sipping on a cola instead, but there was no reason to complain.

Three guys, drinking soda and beer, eating chips, watching the Super Bowl in a cardboard box of an apartment; it’s the American dream. This guy knows how to live.

“Alright, here we go!” My uncle grabbed some chips from the bag as the Super Bowl started.

****

“Shitty game, huh?” I yawned to Uncle Nathan. I turned to see him cleaning up the mess we had left; soda, chips, candy wrappers, and vomit. Don’t ask how the vomit got there.

“Yeah Jeff, but at least our team won.”

Dominic just laughed, “Uncle Nathan, the Browns versus the Bears isn’t exactly a great match up anyways. The Browns are the best in the league; the Bears are the worst.”

My uncle just snickered in attentiveness to the obvious mistruth of this statement. The Browns aren’t exactly a very talented bunch of athletes. That’s not to say the Bears are though. Let’s just say it was a sloppy, unexciting Super Bowl.

It took about ten minutes to relocate the disarray of the living room to the garbage can in the kitchen. We all pitched in, but all I had to do was wash the barf off the boring, brown and dingy carpet. Eventually though, we all retreated to our bedrooms for the night.

“I get the bed, Jeff!” Dominic shouted tossing his bag of clothes and video games onto my bed.

“I give you the bed every weekend Dom, you gotta let me sleep there this time!”

“Jeff, I’m the guest!”

“I am too!”

I picked up my pillow and whipped it across the room at Dominic, making contact with his face. It was just a pillow, so all it did was make him smirk and leap across the half-made bed to knock me over. It was a very unfair fight, as usual. Every weekend, we come over my uncle Nathan’s apartment, play games, watch sports, and when we get to bed, we find something to argue about and we wrestle. I can never manage to win, since Dom’s a beast. He’s not on any sports teams or anything at school, but I think he lifts weights. That’s enough to trump my nonexistent fighting abilities and lanky body.

The fight ended with me tapping out of a triangle choke, just as my Uncle shouted from the other room to “Go to sleep!”

“You really need to start working out, Jeff.” Dominic laughed matter-of-factly as he set up my bed and hopped into it.

“You need to stop working out.” I mumbled as I tossed some blankets and a pillow onto the floor.

It took about five minutes for Dominic to start snoring, but I was awake well into the morning. I checked my watch with a click of the glow button; one thirty. My left ankle itched a little bit so I scratched it with the sock on my right foot. I sighed and fluffed my pillow up against the leg of the bedpost. I figured if I curled up comfortable enough, and spaced out, I could lull myself to sleep soundly. It came as a surprise.

I didn’t remember falling asleep, but I shot awake out of nowhere. My eyes were blurry so I rubbed them in a startled search for some clarity. When they came to, I stood up and looked around the room. I didn’t know why, but I knew something was up. I kicked the blankets away from my ankles, as they were twisted haphazardly around me. The carpet felt rough against my bare feet. The sound of the wall clock was ticking sadistically against the silent environments. My ears began to pound. I was so preoccupied by the darkly vibrant room that I didn’t even react when the door to my room slammed shut. It took a moment, and then I panicked. I leaped across the room and ripped Dom’s pillow away from him.

“Wake up!” I shouted in a whisper.

“What the hell?” he moaned, “Are you insane? I was just getting the key to the city!”

“Quiet, you can get it later! Someone broke into the apartment!”

“Whoa, your dream was worse than mine,” he yawned, “Well, forget about it. I’m going back to sleep.”

I pulled the blankets off his body to assure he wasn’t going to do just that.

“Jeff, what’s wrong with y-”

The sound of some objects falling in the kitchen shaved the end off his sentence down a bit. He also appeared to come to his senses. He stood up in one whoosh of the bed sheets.

“I heard that,” he whispered, “does this room have a lock? Is that screen up in your window? We could make the jump; we’re only on the third floor!”

“Shut-up Dominic!” I hissed.

A quiet whistle-like, buzzing noise began to pick up all around us. There was now a darker hue to the room, only pierced by the streetlights pointing in from across the street. Everything looked almost grey, though, it’s hard to explain. It was like a dark grey veil was tossed over our room. The sound began to get louder. It escalated to the point where Dom and I had to cover our ears.

“What is that? Jeff, are we under a lock down? Why are you grey?!”

For a tough guy like Dom, this sort of annoyance was really pathetic.

“Dominic, calm down. We could just bang on Uncle Nathan’s wall to see if he’s alright.”

“What if whoever broke in hears us, and finds out we’re in here?”

“The door’s locked, and do you really have a better idea right now?”

Dominic just stared at me. He shook his head and dipped away from the wall to let me pass. I lined up my fist with where the headboard of Uncle Nathan’s bed was and gave it a rap. We waited. No answer. The buzzing began to numb my ears.

“Did he knock back?” Dominic asked.

I didn’t answer him. I knocked on the wall again with the same negative results.

“Shit!” I shouted, “Uncle Nathan, you in there? Uncle Na-”

Dominic curled his hand around my mouth, so I spit on it, seething a growl into his palm.

“You sick bastard!” he shouted, wiping his hand onto his flannel pants, “Are you crazy? Honestly dude, are you suddenly just insane?”

I just shook my head and frowned at him. Then, my face softened a bit and I sat down onto the bed, defeated and confused. Dominic continued.

“Look, we don’t want whoever is out there, to know we’re in here. They probably know by now man – shit! What are we going to do now?”

I looked toward the door. I spoke slowly but surely.

“We’re going to open the door, and get into Uncle Nathan’s room.”

Dominic chortled a bit, scathingly, “Jeff, how about you don’t call the shots anymore. I have an idea. I’ll go turn the light on first.”

He walked across the room and kept speaking on his way to the switch.

“This is why we need phones man; we would’ve had the cops on their way by now.”

He flicked the switch to the on position. Nothing. He flicked the switch off and on a few times as if it was on a fixed-ratio timer; still, no light. He turned around and laughed a little bit.

“I don’t know Jeff, I don’t know.” He said with his hands on his hips, while biting his lip, and shaking his head wistfully.

I humored him and responded, “Don’t know what Dom?”

He cut me off and screamed, “What the fuck is going on, dude?”

He sat down next to me, sweating and exhausted.

“Dominic, I’m going to open the door.” I picked my ear to no avail, trying to relieve the numbness that the buzzing had tattooed to my ear drum.

“Go ahead Jeff, I’m staying here-”

I pulled him up by his arm as I stood up as well.

“Stop being stupid, we’re gonna get Uncle Nathan, and we’re going to get out of this okay?”

He hung his head in defeat. We approached the door, frightened together.

We stopped just short of the door because I noticed something quite peculiar. A sound, emanating from the living room like a low rumble or a growl, caused my heart to skip a few beats.

“Holy…? Jeff, did you hear that?” Dom whispered to me.

He put his finger up for no other reason but to point out the silence that followed the sound.

“Dom, it’s nothing. It’s probably just the floors settling or something. Let’s go!”

I didn’t even think twice; I just swung the door open with hasty abandon.

“What?” Dominic gasped.

“What?” I mimicked.

“I thought you said that was locked?” Dom uttered in confusion.

“Sssh, let’s keep moving!”

We made an immediate shuffle toward the epicenter of our mission; Uncle Nathan’s room. The door was shut, which aggravated me highly. I tugged on the doorknob and of course it was locked. The doorknob appeared to chip away its gold paint beneath my determined fingers.

“Dammit Jeff, just knock on it,” Dominic shouted harshly in a sore whisper.

He began calling out my uncle’s name and slamming the agitated knobs of his fists against the wooden barrier between the bedroom and us. Amidst Dominic’s solo driven chaos, I began to hear something else. It was a quiet sound; breathy and heavy though and it seemed to pass back and forth. It startled me, because it was behind me. Then it stopped, but I could feel as if whatever it was still lingered behind us.

I grabbed his arms out from the flurry and shut him up.

“Dominic, on the count of three we turn around.”

“Huh?”

“I don’t know what it is, but there’s something behind us. On the slow count of three, okay?”

He nodded. I started the count.

“One…”

I felt the hair on my neck stand up, and tickle with the breath behind me.

“Two…”

Dominic took a premature breath.

“Three!”

We turned around.

From the perspective of Uncle Nathan:

I yawned through the early morning muck in my mouth and shuffled into the kitchen. I had a strange urge for a PB & J sandwich, which left me hungry and eager. I sifted through the fridge for the jelly but there was none left. Damn, I thought, Jeff told me there was some left. I laughed to myself. He did that on purpose. I switched my hand direction toward the bowl of salad in the front, but a wrong flick of the wrist sent it sailing to the floor along with the unopened gallon of soda.

“Shit!” I fumed, “Not in the mood.”

Though tired and groggy, I still managed to clean up the newly opened soda pop and now inedible salad. Satisfied with the spotless job I’d done, I decided watching some early morning TV was a better idea. I trotted contently into the living room and threw myself onto the cushiony couch with a plop. The remote, as usual, rested on the coffee table as so I didn’t have to get up to grab it. I pushed the power button. A low, irritating buzzing noise was all that I received. The screen had popped on but escaped speedily from the box leaving the strange noise.

“What now?” I mumbled.

Standing up was a chore, and walking over to the TV was overkill for my stubby, pasty legs. I checked the back of the box but nothing pointed to an issue. The sound got increasingly louder so I just unplugged the TV and stepped away after only a few minutes of investigation. The sound rang in my ears even after, if only as an aftershock on my eardrums.

As I walked back toward my bedroom, my stomach growled in hunger but I chose to ignore it. I looked toward my nephew’s bedroom. The dark of the apartment did not conceal the door’s closed position. I had shut it before going into the kitchen to block out Dominic’s loud, monstrous snoring. The snoring had ceased. I stood expressionless in front of the door, wondering if they were awake.

“Dominic, Jeffrey? You awake?”

No response. I opened the door and shut off the moving fan by the door. Dominic likes the fan on even in the cold of February. I turned on the light and looked around the room. I gasped in horror.

Jeff and Dominic were white as ghosts; bleached by fear. Their faces were shaped by fright; eyes and mouths open wide. Expert’s judgment: They died of fear, in their sleep.

Credit: Mike Maxim

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Perception

July 10, 2016 at 12:00 AM
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“Well, this is embarrassing. Usually, I check on the new arrivals, and they’re already begging to make it all stop. I mean, even if they had no regrets before, they sure do now, right? But this… this is new. Just a room with blank walls. I haven’t seen an occupied room that didn’t at least have scenes of torment projected on the walls.

“Okay, so first things first. This is Hell… Who am I? No one important. I came down here the same as everyone else, with all the torment and loss of hope and knowing that this would be my eternity. But then, after a while, I was given a job. Trusted lieutenant in charge of recruitment. Armageddon, you know. Need to find the ruthless ones, separate the strong from the cannon fodder. It’s all in how you handle your torment. I guess I handled mine better than most.

“No, no fire pits or anything like that. Dante had a good imagination, but that’s not what hell is. Hell is whatever you bring with you. And you, my friend, have brought nothing with you at all. No regrets, no torment. Jack diddly squat. Well, of course you miss your wife and kids and family and friends. And football, of course. And coffee. But that… that’s not grounds for torment, pardon the pun. By all rights, you shouldn’t even be here.

“What does it mean? No clue. I haven’t heard of us transferring anyone up to you-know-where, but I haven’t been here all that long compared to my superiors. So it might have happened before.

“Now, normally I’d be tempted to torture you myself, but regrettably, that’s not my job. So I’m going to find out what’s going on. I’ll get back to you. Don’t go anywhere… yeah, I know, but it is Hell. Mostly bad puns and Dad jokes.”

***

“Okay, my friend, I might have some… hey, how did you make that chair? And the bed? How the… wait, it’s a projection. You’re projecting your desires instead of torment… I had no idea that could be done. I was only gone for a week, and look at you! I’m actually really impressed… Yeah, I’ll bet it does take epic concentration.

“Anyway, I… wait, can I sit? I don’t ever get to sit…. thanks, buddy. Anyway, human souls. Perception determines reality, and that’s true no matter if you’re generally good, evil, or somewhere in between. And just to clue you in, pretty much everyone is in that third category. You’ve done things you shouldn’t have, told lies, sinned, all that, and while you yourself regret those actions, that regret is not enough to make you want to self-flagellate for all eternity. Nor does it mean you don’t feel bad. Unless you’re a psychopath, which you aren’t, you have a conscience. So you’ve made peace with your sins, and you’re certainly not unique in that.

“Now, contrary to the general belief of humanity, you don’t accumulate a point value for your good and bad deeds and get sent up there or down here based on your score. It’s more like a whole-life approach. Did you do enough to help ensure the continuation of humanity as a species? Now, on the surface, many people, going up or Hell-bound, can say that. They had kids and raised them right, they did their part to leave the outdoors cleaner than it was before, and so on. But what were you doing when nobody was watching, when you stepped away from glorifying your family and accomplishments on social media, when it was just you, or just you and your family. Did you maintain the same values? Or did you molest your kids? Did you beat your wife? Did you rape, murder, decrease the value of someone else’s life in some way? Mankind’s inhumanity to mankind. Were you the same person in the dark as in the light? Because that plays a factor.

“I can tell I’m losing you, so I’ll simplify it. Human souls only get routed here because they deserve it, or because they are so full of regret that they cannot possibly accept salvation. You fall into neither category. I have read and re-read your file, and the file includes everything you have ever done, good, bad, ugly, every thought, every deed. I had my superiors take a look, and they have soft spots for nobody. They agree with me. There is no reason for you to have been sent down here.

“I agree, that’s a comforting thing for you. The problem is that the only precedent of someone coming to Hell and leaving again… well, you can guess who that was, and even then He made a stop in the mortal realm first before ascending, didn’t He? A direct transfer of a soul from Hell to… there? Way above my pay grade, my friend. So it may take a while to get a decision on this. So you just sit tight… and try not to make yourself too much at home.”

***

“Okay, so I… wait, what did you do? This… wait a minute… this looks like your house! The window, the view? How do you have a view? This is Hell, man! You’re not supposed… okay, okay, I know, unique situation, but if anyone else figured out they could do this, then Hell wouldn’t be Hell anymore. Everyone would delight in their own depraved little fantasies… what do you mean, including me? I… okay, well, yeah, but that’s not the point!

“Anyway, here’s the deal. You’ve been brought to the attention of the Morning Star himself, and a decision is pending. You’ll be happy to know that even the Father of Lies thinks you don’t deserve to be here. And that, paradoxically, is no lie. It doesn’t guarantee you a way out, though. They’re still trying to figure out how you got here in the first place.

“How did… man, you can’t say that name down here! Not unless you’re screaming for deliverance, anyway. So okay, how did He come down here and then leave? Well, when you’re the son of… well, you know… that pretty much gives you free reign to go wherever you please. Part of the whole ‘new covenant’ thing. All you have to do is believe in Him, and up to… there… you go.

“But there’s the rub. How many truly believe, and how many just say they do so that they can act however they want and justify it in His name? My personal favorites? The ones who talk about Him but worship at the altar of Ayn Rand; in other words, ‘I got mine, so fuck you!’ The ones who give to charity because of the tax write-off instead than the good they can do; for the purposes of the afterlife, it’s the intent that counts, not the result. The ones who use tax havens so that their tax dollars don’t go to services for the elderly and the poor. The only reason they say they believe is because it’s politically expedient and good business. Yeah, I’m a sinner, and in a big way, but there are some transgressions that even make me sick. It pleases me no end to see pricks like that get what’s coming to them. I’ll sit there and watch them suffer for hours, if I can…

“Why am I here in the first place? Let’s just say I had a lot of fun over many years with teenagers and cutlery. Oh, don’t give me that look. If you knew what my own mother did to me… yeah, Mister Morals, I know that doesn’t excuse it, but at least you know I wasn’t born that way. And besides, unlike those hypocrites I just mentioned, I never had any illusions about who I am. Still don’t, as a matter of fact.

“Right, anyway, I’ll let you know what Lucifer decides. Sanctimonious little…”

***

“Hey, buddy… wait, where are you? Hello? … okay, are you hiding now? Not cool, my man. Maybe you’re downstairs? Anyway, I know you’re here, and I know you can hear me. So the decision was made… wow, something smells good… the decision was made to keep you here… the one pure soul in Hell. You’re going to be leverage, my man. They have people up there that we want here, and we’re going to get them with your help. You should be honored.

“Not in the kitchen… wow, and a roast in the crockpot. You really have taken ownership of your reality. I am truly impressed. I wish I didn’t have to say what I have to say next…

“More stairs? How big is this damn house? Anyway, I’ve been ordered to keep you company until the exchange, which could take a few centuries to arrange. So in the meantime, we’re going to tarnish your soul a bit, just to make a point for when we hand you over. You’re going to view my sins. Over and over. Who knows? You might start to see your own kids in the faces of those that I… ended. I consider myself a craftsman, and after I… broke them, I turned each of them into a work of art. I think you’ll come to appreciate me…

“Wow, spacious basement. Come on out so I can…”

***

“Wha… what the hell? How do I have a headache? Why does… you! You hit me! How does that even work? It’s the fucking afterlife! My head shouldn’t… shouldn’t… yeah, I remember what I said about perception determining reality, but what does… what… oh no… you didn’t… you can’t… hey! You tied me up… but you didn’t even move, you… just… thought it. Look, man, I don’t know what you think you’re going to accomplish here, but… ahhh! No!!! No, please! Make it stop! Nooo! I can’t fucking take it! Jesus God, please help me, ohh nooo!”

***

“N-no… no, I’m n-not telling you shit… they’ll be here any m-minute… oh nooo! No! It fucking hurts! No, please stop! Okay, okay! Okay! Stop! Stop!!! … Okay, they don’t know when I’m c-coming out… I told my superiors I w-wanted at least 100 years to break you d-down, s-so they got someone else to do recruiting… Bundy, I think, or D-Dahmer… no, I can’t. No! I can’t tell you how to move between… nooo! Kill me! Kill me for good! Stop stop stop stop stop…..please… pleeeeeease! Okay, I’ll tell! I’ll fucking tell!!!…”

***

“You know … I don’t even know how long… eight months? Seems l-longer…

“Made them watch… I made them w-watch the n-news about themselves… their p-parents crying… new depths of despair… recorded and made them watch it while I used them… drilled the hope out of them… but I still hope, Whenever you l-leave, I have hope. I’ll do all this to y-you one day. I’ve tried to change reality when you leave, but… but I fucking can’t! Why? I have the p-power here! I have… nnoooooooOOOOOO!!!”

***

“Rumble… rumble rumble… never been rumbling… earthquake? Fuckin’ earthquake. Hell doesn’t get earthquakes… or does it… can’t r-remember…

“Oh… back again… got earthquakes now… how… how do… whoa… whoa… I feel… better… why am I… why did you heal me? I’ve been in constant pain for years and… okay… I’ll… yeah, I’ll shut up…

“Dead? Man, I thought you were smarter than that. Lucifer may be fallen, but he’s still an angel, and he can only be killed by… by… They came? From up there? But we had the best of the best! I helped recruit… you posed as me… what? Oh, you clever fuck. You altered their perception. That’s what all the… the crockpot, the smell… the attention to detail… that was you training yourself. But wait… you unbelievable bastard, you were sent here! That was your whole… oh, nice, slow clap for me… arrogant fuck… ow, fuck, okay! Okay!

“So what, all the ones I recruited, all the ones like me, they’re tied up in other basements? … What do you mean, or worse? You know what? Forget it, I don’t want to know.

“So It’s all fucking over? We lost? Okay, fine, so what, though? You still have billions of souls here, and one of them is bound to pick up the mantle… selected for forgiveness? How does that work? … Wait, the ones who were worthy but refused to believe? You took them??? What the fuck, man! They turned it down! … Saw the error of their… unbelievable.

“So the rest of us? What, are you going to wink us out of existence? … Wait, finish out our sentences? The sentence is eternal damnation, so how can we… how can… no… no… you call me a sadistic bastard, and you do this? How is this just? How is this fair? We don’t get cleansed? We don’t get shown mercy? The dregs of the earth? Those who fucking need it most? Those who were damned to this fate by their own parents? By a mother who used her fucking needle-nose pliers on every inch of flesh she could find? I never had a chance! I never… yes, I’m fucking crying! … Why should I say I’m sorry? Why shouldn’t she have to do that? … Okay! I’m fucking sorry, okay? I’m sorry I hurt them! I’m sorry I killed them! Now, please let me out, please!! … How can you say that? Of course I meant it! … Well who the fuck cares if I meant it! Let me out of here! Please!!!

“Wh… where did you go? Where did… oh, you vanished upstairs. I hear you up there, rummaging through your drawer! What, too lazy to walk up the damn stairs? Oh, coming back down, I see. You’re just a … just…

“M-M-Mother?”

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The Piano Man

July 9, 2016 at 12:00 AM
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When I graduated from college, my best friend Diana and I embarked upon a grand tour of Europe. Halfway through our trip, we had planned to spend three days in Prague, but had completely failed to account for poor weather hindering all of our sight-seeing plans. As a result of ensuing downpour for our entire time we spent in the city, we found ourselves aimlessly wandering through back alleys and side streets, entering every vaguely interesting shop as an excuse to get out of the rain. On our last day, we found an antique book store. Upon entering, we were blown away by the sheer vastness of the place and the overwhelming stacks of books. An elderly woman behind a desk in the front gave us a little smile and greeted us before we both separated and began exploring.

The store was impressively large for a seemingly unassuming place. I spent over an hour wandering through the aisles, before I found myself in the shop’s basement. Upon entering the basement, my eyes fell upon a beautiful, old piano. As a well practiced pianist and having not seen a piano in over two months, I was thrilled. I looked around excitedly to make sure I wouldn’t be bothering any other shoppers, but there was no one around. Grinning to myself, I strode over to the piano and took a seat on the bench in front of it. The cold of the leather on the seat bit into my skin, but I didn’t care. I ran my hands over the keys. Ivory, most likely, I thought to myself. I could tell the piano was old and therefore expected it to be out of tune, but was delighted when the chords I executed rang with perfect clarity.

“You play very beautiful,” a voice cracked behind me, and I jumped. An old man was standing directly behind me, and I hadn’t heard him approach. Smiling at the complement, I thanked him before he continued in very broken English, “She plays very good, but is missing two keys…Only 86.” I was having a hard time understanding what the man was saying through his accent and was going to ask him to repeat what he meant, but he smiled again and gestured for me to continue playing. After a few minutes, I gave up playing as Diana entered the basement, laughing at the absurdity of the scene in front of her. I had not noticed the old man leave, but was too busy excitedly telling Diana about how beautifully the piano played to put much thought to the matter.

Upon paying for our books back upstairs at the cash, the old woman complimented my playing and surprised me by asking if I would like the piano. At first I laughed, shocked by the offer. However, she went on to explain that the piano had passed through a variety of homes over the years, with no one ever keeping it long enough to enjoy its grandeur. She continued that she had been having difficulty selling it as the body cavity had been glued shut, and therefore could never be tuned. She told me that if I could cover the shipping costs to get the instrument home, I could take it for free, as she was just hoping to pass it on to someone more musical than herself. Seeing as we were travelling with nothing but backpacks, I laughed and told her I’d think it over for the night. However, Diana was ecstatic about the idea. When we returned to the flat we were staying in, we did some searching around on the internet, and placed a few phone calls, before establishing that shipping the piano home would actually be relatively cheap. As I was going to be moving in to my very first apartment upon returning from my trip, the prospect of having my own piano was thrilling.

When I returned from Europe at the end of the summer, my mysterious piano finally arrived. As I began to adjust to my new routine- new job, new apartment, new boyfriend- playing my piano became the part of the day I most looked forward to. I would practically race off the bus after a long day at work, run inside to feed the cat, and then sit down on the warm leather of the bench and begin to create my music. I remember one cold night in March, Peter was over and he was teasing me by insisting he had never heard me play.

“You’ll have to start staying over some more if you want Friday to like you,” I giggled, gesturing to my cat, who was vehemently hissing at him. “She takes about a solid month to warm up to people.” At Pete’s insistence, I sat down on the bench and smiled as the familiar feeling of contentedness washed over me. After about half an hour, I heard my cell phone ring, and answered it to hear Diana talking. She was out of breath and excitedly trying to explain that she had found an old photograph in one of the books she had bought months ago in Prague, and that she was pretty sure it was of a young girl sitting at the very piano in my apartment. I told her to email me the picture, before we started gossiping about the Bachelorette finale that had aired the night before.

When I hung up, Peter was putting on his jacket, saying he needed to go to work early in the morning. I was a bit annoyed he didn’t want to stay the night, but I pretended not to care, so I walked him downstairs. On the way back up to my apartment, I realized I had gotten the email Diana had sent me. Upon opening the picture, I could see right away that she was right about the piano being the same. It was the same leather-bound bench, the same beautiful woodwork, the same porcelain-white keys. However, something about the photo seemed a bit off. As I was trying to decide what was strange about it, Friday ran past me and bolted towards a man at the end of the hallway.

“Friday come here!” I exclaimed loudly. As I ran over the man, I was already apologizing, “I’m sorry she’s not normally like this.” When the man’s eyes met mine, I felt as though I had seen that smile before. Before I could dwell on this, Friday clawed at my leg, and I hoisted her up and carried her back to my apartment. I returned back to my phone and the picture Diana had emailed, and took a seat on the bench on front of the piano to study the picture some more. What was it? Then it occurred to me. The piano in the picture was smaller than the one in front of me right now. As an eerie feeling washed over me, I remembered something I had been told about the instrument months before, and found myself counting the keys of the piano in the photograph. 71. What the fuck, I thought.

But then it hit me. And as it did, a chill swept over me. A chill made worst by the fact that the bench I was sitting on was ice cold. The coldness swept through me as it dawned on me that my piano bench was never cold. Ever. This bench is always warm. And that was when I realized where I had seen that smile before. Friday darted towards my apartment door as I heard a soft whisper,

And you will be 87.

Credit: Satine Fenner

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