NJ Gallegos (2022 Horror Showdown WINNER)
The Fruits of Her Labor
Knock, knock, knock.
Naturally, interrupted just when she’d gotten to the juicy bits of her book. She sighed and pushed her cup of tea away. What were the chances it was Publisher’s Clearing House with a massive check? Nil. Probably some religious fanatics pedaling their deity. Crowding into her coveted free time. For fuck’s sake. Although… it might be Girl Scouts with a wagon packed with cookies.
With Thin Mints on her mind, she trudged to the front door, turned the lock and opened it.
Not religious nuts, but… not Girl Scouts either.
A boy, probably five or six if she had to guess, but she was shit at telling kids’ ages. She’d wanted no children, and her IUD fought away errant sperm that hoped to ruin her life. Children were fomites and disgusting. Too much snot.
“Can I help you?” she asked. Some neighborhood kid selling shit to raise money for space camp or something, probably.
Although if it were candy…
The kid tilted his head up and flashed the woman a smile that might have been charming, except for the brown stains that covered his face. She sincerely hoped it was chocolate or pudding clinging to the sparse peach fuzz around his lips. Hell, even dog food might be better than the alternative.
“Hi there, Missus! I live next door,” he said, jutting his thumb towards the tan house to her right.
“Uh, huh.” She vaguely recalled seeing some kids back there playing, but after a few glasses of wine, they all looked the same to her. “And…?”
He reached into his jacket pocket and extracted a red fruit and a paperclip with lint clinging to it. He handed her the fruit and pocketed the linty paperclip. “That tree by your fence? This fell off of it into our yard. I thought you might want it.” He gave the woman another grin, his cheeks flushing.
Great. Just great. The kid next door had a crush on her. Giving her fruit from her own tree!
Wait… what tree?
“Uh… thanks, kid,” she replied, staring at the fruit. It looked vaguely like a Red Delicious apple but was perfectly round, like an orange. She tore her gaze from the fruit and looked at the boy, who stared up at her expectantly. Did he want a tip or something? An invitation inside for milk and cookies? A hug?
Fat chance of that.
“Thanks,” she repeated, searching for words. “Uh… stay in school and don’t do drugs, okay little buddy?” His face twisted in confusion as the door shut. Friendly advice was always valuable, although… maybe she should have advised him to always use a condom when he was old enough. There were already too many crotch goblins running about, bothering people while they were reading.
She carried the fruit to the kitchen, skirting past polished marble countertops, and stared out the window.
What was the little rug rat talking about?
She scanned the yard and—nestled between two massive maples—spotted the tree. Rather small, maybe only seven feet tall. Its top branches were heavy with emerald leaves. One branch crested the wooden fence that separated her neighbor’s yard from hers. Scattered about were the siblings to the fruit she held. Their shiny red peels gleamed in the sunlight. How funny. She hadn’t even realized there was a tree there! Right where—
She pushed the thought away from her mind.
Best not to think of that.
Her stomach rumbled, interrupting her thoughts, bringing her back to the present. A few shortbreads earlier with her tea had curbed her hunger, but now it was back with a vengeance.
Well… now was as good of a time as any to try the mystery fruit.
She examined it again, rolling it in her hands. The skin felt the same as an apple and was taut and inviting. There was nothing better than biting into a firm apple and being rewarded with a sharp crunch and an explosion of juice. With a grumbling gut, she ran the fruit under the faucet, washing away any bird germs and the kid’s cooties. It certainly felt denser than an apple, as if it might contain a nugget of gold in the middle rather than seeds. Curiosity prickled at her. What was inside? Was it segmented like an orange? Meaty like an apple? Seeded like a pomegranate? Or something else altogether?
Her taste buds tingled.
Mouth opened wide; she took a bite.
Her teeth crunched through the fruit, and a sweetness bloomed on her tongue. The perfect mix of tart and honeyed.
Another bite, this time digging further into the fruit. The texture abruptly changed and something squishy tickled her tongue. She paused and her stomach twisted. Had she bitten into a worm or some other nasty bug? Nausea roiled within her and she spat the contents into her hand, examining the masticated mess.
Her breath caught in her throat and her stomach lurched, sending the one bite of fruit, shortbread cookies, and tea rocketing up her esophagus. She lunged to the sink and just made it before barfing all over her counters.
She upchucked until her stomach rang hollow, bringing up acidic bile that scorched the lining of her throat.
Squeezed her eyes shut.
Please tell me that wasn’t…
She had to look. She didn’t want to, but…
She had to.
Marshalling her courage, she opened her eyes and clutched the counter with both hands. Stars overwhelmed her vision, but slowly receded into the periphery. She took in a massive deep breath and a sense of calm flooded her.
Surely, she was overreacting. A combination of guilt and poor sleep making her see things that weren’t actually there. The last few nights had been rather restless with minimal sleep. Nightmares kept her from restful slumber. Images of shattering glass, her blood splattering on the walls, guttural screams, and cruel fists flying towards her…
That had to be it.
Her eyes shifted to the partially chewed fruit she’d tossed on the counter.
A shudder rattled through her, reminding her of swimming through a cold pocket of water in the lake just a few miles from her childhood home. All the heat leached out of her and her teeth involuntarily chattered, both then and now.
A perfectly round, pristinely preserved eye stared back at her.
And an eye she’d know anywhere. Heterochromia, he’d told her when she asked. Just like David Bowie. Half of the iris was a deep chocolate brown color and the other half was a forest green. The black pupil remained stagnant, not constricting under the kitchen lights, and she easily made out the reflection of her shocked face in the obsidian.
Those eyes were the first thing she’d noticed, even in the muggy darkness of the dingy bar. They twinkled with merriment, dancing over her face, lingering on her lips while she spoke. He hadn’t looked at another person with those dazzling peepers that night, not after he saw her.
God, she’d been so stupid!
Panic seized her, making her thoughts race about frantically like squirrels hopped up on Adderall. She had to get rid of this… eye! She rushed to the sink and turned on the faucet. Chunks of puke swirled down the drain and she tossed the eye down the drain and flipped the switch for the garbage disposal. With disgust, she rubbed her hand on her pants, her skin crawling from the moist slickness of the organ. The blades whirred, shooting up clear jelly through the drain. She ran the water for a few minutes until the grinding ceased, leaving only the sounds of water splashing against the blades.
She shut the faucet and disposal off.
Stared out the window.
At the tree.
All the glistening fruits dangling from the branches.
What else could be in there?
Hurriedly, she eschewed her PJs and robe, pulling on yoga pants and a black sweatshirt. The all black getup made her feel like a criminal on their way to mug little old ladies, snatching massive purses heavy laden with stale candy and cashed Social Security checks. She completed the look with a hat, tugging the bill down to hide her face. After grabbing a plastic grocery bag from under the sink, she rushed to the yard, startling when the door slammed behind her.
Get a grip. Act natural.
Fighting to keep her walk casual was a chore, especially with her muscles buzzing with nervous energy. She made her way to the tree.
Seven more fruits. Although… there were the faintest hints of buds on other branches. Promises of even more fruit later.
Another image ran through her head: George Washington chopping down the cherry tree, ax in hand.
She’d have to chop the sucker down.
What about what was underneath the tree? In the ground?
Memories gripped her, sending her mood skydiving straight into the ground. She’d fought so long to keep them away and—mostly—had been successful.
Out of sight, out of mind.
But here was living proof that the adage was a crock of shit.
Everything reeked of fairy tales at first. Murmured sweet nothings exchanged over a pillow after a night of vigorous fucking. How he made her shiver when he ran his tongue along her bottom lip! How his stubble brushed against the sensitive skin of her inner thighs as he drove her into a frenzy. Opening car doors on dates. And if they argued? He’d turn up the next day clutching a bouquet, wearing the jacket she’d bought him and a sheepish grin. Everything was forgiven; no apology needed.
She’d been crazy about him.
Breaking dates with friends. Forgetting to reschedule or even text back. Those were secondary concerns compared to being with him. Her friendships fizzled and fractured. No one called her, no one texted. When he nabbed a job clear across the country from her family and everything she’d ever known, she loaded her things in the moving truck and went along.
The ring came next.
When the ink on the marriage certificate dried… well…
That’s when everything changed.
It was an age-old story, boring as hell. Dumb woman falls for her dream man who was a monster in hiding all along. Happened every day. Probably more often than people thought.
Her prince transformed into a beast instead of the vice versa seen in fairy tales.
Sweet nothings morphed into berating. You stupid bitch! How could you have forgotten to iron my shirt? Unlike you, I have an actual job.
Harsh words gave way to errant slaps that happened just infrequently enough that she could convince herself that the last time was the last time. And he only got physical after a few beers. He didn’t drink much, so she should count herself lucky. Some woman got it all the time. As soon as the red handprint blossomed on her cheek, he’d slump to his knees and dissolve into tears. I’m so sorry, honey. It’ll never happen again, I promise.
Falsehoods fell from his lips like snowflakes pelting the ground in a record-breaking blizzard.
She’d believed every filthy fucking lie.
She let it happen, again and again. She made excuses for him: he’s had a hard time at work. He had a shitty relationship with his parents and a hard upbringing. Too much to drink.
She’d been so fucking stupid.
And here was the proof, knocking together in the bag.
Turning, she sprinted to the house. The hell with acting normal. It was her damn property, and she’d do as she damn well please!
Back in the kitchen—feeling like a ghoul that hissed at any mention of sunlight—she closed the blinds. No need for any lookie-loos. Like little neighbor boys with harmless crushes, perhaps? She opened the drawer, grabbed a cutting board, and selected a knife from the block. Her second favorite knife, that was. Her favorite was long gone, tossed into a river an hour away after she’d soaked it in a vinegar/water mixture. The antidote for fingerprints.
It had been a great knife. Sharp. Cut like a dream. She’d used it to prepare countless meals for the fucker.
And it had saved her life.
Her knuckles ached as she cut through each fruit, examining the horrors within.
Instead of a pit, seeds, or a core, she discovered —
The other eye.
Something spongy that looked a lot like the turkey giblet she scooped out each Thanksgiving for a tense meal shared with the monster that slept in her bed. A thyroid gland maybe?
A shriveled penis.
Two pinkish lumps that she thought might be tonsils.
And, hacking through the fruit, her knife clinked again and again—rattling off of enamel—revealing a full set of teeth.
Her mind raced.
She laid out all the evidence of her misdeed on the countertop. All that was missing were the numbered signs seen in crime scene photos. The police would be very interested in these lovely mementos. They’d looked at her with kind eyes that radiated pity after she’d showed them the texts he’d sent her: It’s over. I found someone else. Don’t bother contacting me. We’re done.
They’d asked the cursory questions. How was your marriage? Any problems? Did you have any idea?
She’d answered with a voice choked with crocodile tears that ran down her cheeks, channeling her inner Meryl Streep. We had a wonderful marriage. We rarely argued. No, Officer, he never laid a hand on me. I didn’t know there was another woman.
She wasn’t a fucking idiot. If she answered, actually, come to think of it? He used me as his personal punching bag—now THAT would get gears a-turning. A missing husband? A battered, vindictive wife? The simplest math equation in the world, even a total imbecile could solve it.
They tracked his phone to San Diego until the signal went dead. Probably high-tailed it to Mexico, right across the border. With the unspoken with someone else. His credit cards remained quiet and unused.
She’d found the drifter under the bridge and brought him a Greyhound ticket to San Diego. The bottle of top shelf whisky and all the cash pilfered from the asshole’s wallet sweetened the deal. Handed the drifter the phone with the instructions to ditch it. Dump it in the ocean, shove it up their ass. She didn’t care. Just get rid of it.
Unlocking his phone… initially induced an unrelenting panic. What was his passcode? She tried all the number combinations with no success. Then she remembered… he always used his thumb to unlock it.
The knife sawed through his bone easily.
That little piggy went to market.
She’d done everything right.
Except this tree shit.
His last resting place.
She hadn’t meant to kill him. Like always, he’d come home from work in a shitty mood, eyes shifting around, hoping to find something that would give him an excuse to pop off. Reeking of gin, his chiseled jaw gnashed, clenching and unclenching. His tell. She knew she was in for it. She’d kept her head down while she cut up carrots for the stew simmering on the stove for dinner.
Hoped that he’d breeze right passed her and spare her his rage.
No such luck
He snarled, his uniquely colored eyes flashing with a sudden brutality, made even more stark by his bared teeth. Like a rabid bull charging a matador, nostrils flaring. All the better to scent the sour sweat and fear in the air.
“Why the fuck is dinner not ready yet, you fucking cunt?” He screamed. The veins in his neck distended in his rage, engorging with the fury that surged through his bloodstream. Stale alcohol and rank breath washed over her. She flinched, an act that stoked the fires of his temper, flaring the flames ever higher. Braced herself for the inevitable hit. Would it be a slap? A punch?
Thrusting his fingers into her hair, he curled his fingers into cruel talons, gripping her hair and yanking up. Minute ripping tore through her skull as he wrenched her hair from its follicles and a searing pain exploded, spreading like lightning over her scalp. Her face filled with heat, but instead of her standard shame, resignation, and fear at his furies, a strange sense of calm flooded her.
Her fist tightened over the knife handle, knuckles blanching white. Remnants of carrot still clung to the blade, and a piece fell to the floor, landing with a dull smack. With a suddenness that shocked her, she whipped the knife around, thrusting it forward with all her might.
It caught him in the throat.
She savored the way his eyes widened, his pupils widening until they’d nearly obliterated his two-toned irises. The blade was half buried in his throat, bobbing as his Adam’s apple hitched. His lips moved wordlessly, and a choked bark erupted from his mouth. A wet sucking sound… blood welling out of the wound while he tried to take in a breath, drowning in his own fluids. Blood dripped to the tile floor, making her think of the red candy buttons she used to rip off the paper at the movie theater. A bead rolled in the grout and she thought, surprising herself with how unphased she was at her husband’s murder—damn, that better not stain! It’ll be a bitch to get that out.
She’d definitely hit the trachea and the tip of her blade? Probably tickling the edge of his spinal column, maybe severing vital connections.
His mouth gaped open and closed like a fish gasping on dry land after being hooked. He pitched forward over the counter, landing with his torso flush against the marble.
Thankfully. All that blood would have been murder on the grout.
Her mind went on autopilot.
She’d grown up hunting with her daddy in the fall and knew her way around a body—deer, human, they were remarkably similar! Using her favorite, life-saving knife, she cut away flesh and tossed it down the disposal. She broke his joints. Liberated his thumb… and his fingerprint.
It was midnight when she snuck out to the yard. Under the indifferent moon and stars, she dug a deep hole. She tossed the rest of him in there, like she was tossing trash into a landfill.
He was trash.
As time passed, she thought of him less and less.
She hadn’t even noticed the tree!
The tree would fall to another blade, just as that prick had. It’d be nothing. A quick trip to Lowe’s, paying in cash with an ax. Gotta prune my trees, she’d tell the bored cashier whose mind was miles away, thinking of ordering a pizza and packing a bowl after his shift ended.
The tree would go, falling mightily.
The nights were getting colder, and she was due for a bonfire. Marshmallows thrust on a pointed stick, browning over the flames.
Staring into the dancing inferno, reflecting on what she’d learned.
The entire experience had been rather…
Femme Fatale & The Gun (2021 Horror Showdown WINNER)
She is all legs that go-on-and on. A velvet throat that has you thinking of all the wrong ends of a back alley. In black and white you cannot see the poison of her eyes, but she has those eyes. You are already imagining the slight-of-hand at the zipper of her dress, a smile that suggests her winsome intentions. Before she even hums a name, you begin to quiver at the mouth of her possible release. In your eye she will only ever bend in a soft glow, ready, oh so ready, to get close-up.
The venetian blinds open and close, open and close, blinking in their voyeurism. A girl like that is always on exhibition. She could wear a paper sack, be shaved from head to toe. Something stiffens. You think it’s your gun. You want something to be wrong so that you can muster up sweat and pheromones fixing it. Of course, there is always something wrong, she’s a woman for crying out loud. Of course, you don’t want to fix that. You want to cry out loud, the way you already know the venetian blinds will cry over this one.
Looking up from between her legs, their endless pleasure. And just above the curve of her abdomen, there it is, winking at you, nipple. Now glistening with the wet stain of your saliva, your head full with the stiff arch of moaning, her velvet throat. Her hand on the back of your neck, gripping you hard like a gun.
She wakes in the slant-eye of silk sheets. With a twist of her wrist the venetian blinds open to a glaring of daylight. An eye too-wide-open. The way she’d tied you up with gasping you hadn’t noticed the scars. Her scars. Even now, in the dizzy-before-coffee-glow-of morning you couldn’t think much past the memories of nipple, anklebone-sigh. The exquisite squeeze just-below-thigh–but those scars, her scars, the way they looked now—they don’t seem possible. Before you can consider the depth of them, the texture of finger imprint, there she is again—on top of you, drawing out moans from beyond your capacity to reason. Bullet shaped moans.
As you pull the trigger you know you will do it again. Could only ever do it again.
You feel the dark warm stain absorb into the fabric of your suit. The red splatter across your freshly washed face. A fleck of blood dotting lips, the iron taste of it. You rub a smudge away from your eyes. You don’t see the body draining blood. Hypnotized with the possibility of again looking into the poison of her eyes as that glowing pleasure passes through you. Even now, in the sweat of this heat, as you pat the corpse down for imprint, you continue to water at the thought of her, as you flee the scene in a melt of wanting.
You look up at her, you swear you see her, but you can’t be sure. A remembered velvet intoxicates your mind. Bleary-eyed venetian blinds. In a half-swoon you stumble, unsure of where you are going. Only. Just. Wherever it is, you suspect that she’ll be there.
That next morning the cold heaviness of gun in your hand. You know you’d kill for her again. A little death. Le petite mort. Even just a taste. Sitting in a stupor you can’t shake—dizzy with her headiness. Your piece, you want her to love you for your piece. You begin to moan again, just for a whimper and a whiff of it. Your gun hardens with the thought, ready to beg.
Somehow from the smell you know it is her blood. You rush through towards it. Silk, sweat, velvet, stale smoke, through all that the scent of her blood draws you out. Makes you a little crazy with lust, it crawls through the rest of your intentions, mad as any at a siren’s call. Her breathing pulses like tinnitus in the scoop of your ears. Envisioning that late night reel of skin that plays over the attention of your gaze. Rabbid with a desire you can’t drink.
How to exhale? You rub your hand up against the thought of her skin, her legs that extend beyond physics, her bend: now just a wet-dream-wish. You begin to choke on the hope of attempting her inner pulse. Holding your breath at her second mouth. Your skin tenses with the thought, a bit of saliva accumulating with desire. Stiff, you hold your gun again.
She is on you. Mouth at the trigger-pulse of your neck. Again: that quivering. Your skin awash with want. Gripped in the thought of her thighs, impress of anklebone. Paralyzed with the thought, nipple. In your mouth. You imagine her: formed so ripe inside shape of perfect lip-suckle. Chin-stubble -bristle. The paradise-texture of it. She pulls the gun off you. You do not feel the rest of your senses drain away.Your mouth sounds of a bullet. Your voice caught somewhere you can’t name. Smoke rises from the gut of your abdomen. You stiffen. You harden.
You sigh but cannot sigh. Remembered moan sticks a bit, so you startle a little. Your breathing grows shallow, in the fever of your want. You wake like a soft cotton. You sleep in the curve of skin. When you make a sound, it is a moan, but it sounds like bullet. All you feel now: the imprint of her mouth, her teeth on your skin. And still, your blood rises for her.
You want to beg, but your mouth doesn’t move. Even if you still had a voice, you can’t remember the words. You moan, as she holds you like a gun, you moan.
You never realize it’s over, but there she is standing above your body. Those endless legs. You know only she could have ever gotten you this stiff, this hard up. And it shouldn’t be funny, but the little bit of the ghost in you that’s left laughs. Unheard, of course, on the ephemeral astral plane. Your body there—limp: shriveled and succored of its juices. What you wouldn’t give to be milked again. A husk of yourself, only a carcass of a dream, you eat at the delirium of.
You feel cold now. A splayed gun. How you still fit the shape of her hand. The range of her bullet.
You see it now. Finally. How: those legs really do go on. Eight of them in fact, how that coy mouth conceals her fangs. How good she is with the ropes, so quick with love knots, you forgot to recognize the web. Love bitten, until you were love stuck, spun, and sucked dry. Oh, how she sucked you dry. Still, you think, I’d do it again. As a second spider-woman enters the scene. Her legs twice as long, twice as endless. Your longing now: just as multiplied. As they begin to kiss the velvet of each other’s throats, twist of limbs more inner thigh than body. Well, you know now. Her—velvet and legs—she was always after blood. And you would always take pleasure in giving it.
Jacek Wilkos (2021 finalist)
What’s Your Emergency?
“911, what’s your emergency?”
“Help! He ate them!”
“Sir, calm down.”
“O my God, he ate them alive!”
“Sir, where are you?”
“I’m at St. Mary’s Hospital.”
“We were performing a cardiac transplant. The new heart was working fine but after just a few moments the patient flatlined. We tried to resuscitate him, but we failed. He died. And then he opened his eyes. He bit doctor Ross and tore out his larynx. I ran. Locking the operating room door, I saw him and the nurse on the floor. She was screaming while he was eating her intestines. He looked at me and got up to his feet, blood dripping from his mouth… His eyes… Dear God… We didn’t close him, he still had an open chest… I could see his heart… It wasn’t beating.”
“Sir, the patrol is already on the way. Where exactly are you?”
“I hid under the desk in the emergency room.”
“Can you find a safer place and lock yourself form the inside?”
“I’ll try…What was that?… I hear something… O God, it’s him. He found me. No, stay away! NO!…”
Ada Wofford (2021 Finalist)
The cries and moans of killing could still be heard through the thick castle walls. Sealed and abandoned more than a century ago, many of us had forgotten about this ancient keep perched atop a hill and nestled amongst a thick copse. For others, it held a strange place in their hearts and led their minds wandering through fantastic myth and lore. I stumbled upon one of its secret entrances after that Parader had knocked me into the sewers. Our town’s grotesque tradition of the Procession has taken place every decade for as long as even the oldest residents can remember, but it has never gone on like this before. It’s been three nights now and they are still roaming. Soaking the streets with blood.
I had been held up at my parents’ house the night it started. Never ones to participate, we boarded up the windows and took refuge in our cramped basement, praying for the sound of church bells which always signaled the end. Elderly, and already quite ill from the long and hellish Italian summer, my parents passed in their sleep during the second night, almost as if they were one being. Perhaps it was from shock–from the Procession, or maybe it was some divine deliverance. My tired mind finds comfort in the latter. They died huddled together against the cellar wall, clutching each other in their dead hands. Alone inside that stuffy cellar the stench of their withering bodies engulfed my senses. I could taste it! See it! Their pale, lifeless faces catching the light from our single lamp, partially illuminating their ghastly figures like some Baroque painting. It was unbearable.
On the third night, as I thought I heard the sounds from outside begin to wane, I decided to make a break for my sister’s house, on the outskirts of the city. The August sun hung low and huge behind the gabled row homes lining the street. I had only journeyed a short distance when the Parader, an older looking fellow with the gleam of murder in his eyes, leapt at me from behind a pile of trash and corpses. I stumbled with shock and fell backward over a low railing into the open sewer, which snakes through our city like a sickly river. Even the old man was sane enough not to follow me into that fetid miasma. He leaned over the railing shouting incoherent curses as I surrendered myself to the current. I struggled to keep my head above the virulent water as it carried me farther and farther away from the center of the city. Eventually, the sewer drained out into an underground basin littered with bodies. Here, the sewage only came to my knees. I made my way to a stone ledge and followed it through the darkness for what felt like hours. The only sounds were the rush of the waterfall that brought me here and the squeaks of rats echoing off the damp and ancient looking walls. As the walkway came to a bend I felt a rush of cool air and was brought before an open door, which led to a wine cellar.
I knew immediately that I had somehow found my way inside the Castle. Not a soul has been known to have ever crossed its threshold. Tales and legends run numerous throughout the city. In the markets and schoolyards, many have spoken of the Castle’s myriad secrets and always with a certain air of authority and scholarship, but only to make their claims a bit more exciting. Most of us would revel in these stories but deep down we all understood that we were wholly ignorant of the Castle’s secrets. Though a few, claiming to have been touched by the divine or to have heard mystical whisperings in their ears late at night, would hold to their stories of the Castle with all the fervor of maniacs.
One of my most vivid childhood memories is of such a being. Walking home late from school one dark winter evening, a woman in rags revealed herself from within a shadowy crevice between buildings. She raised her arms to the sky and shouted, “Glory be to he who seeks eternal life by the Procession! Who cleanses the sins of man by the fire of the Eternal. Glory be to the one who enters the Castle! Through the zenith of Heaven to the Great One’s chamber, which sits above this world and everything! Glory be! Glory be!” As I ran through the lightly falling snow I could still hear her shouting for several blocks. I’ve had many nightmares of this woman. The scene plays out exactly the same way, only I can’t run. The woman slowly approaches my paralyzed body as she screams, “Glory! Glory be! Glory! Glory! Glory!” And just as she reaches out to grab me I wake up, every time.
This woman was strong in my thoughts as I made my way through the wine cellar and up the narrow stairs to the kitchen. I still reeked of the sewers but I had gradually grown accustomed to the scent and was able to make out the musty air of the damp castle. The kitchen was enormous but ultimately unimpressive. There was nothing to look at. No food obviously, a few utensils scattered about, and two large wood stoves with nothing but ash in them. But something urged me to press on, something other than curiosity. I made my way through the kitchen into the dark hallway of the servants’ quarters. Even in the darkness I could make out how bleak and bland these quarters were, which by contrast made the floor above seem all the more impressive.
I ascended a handsome set of stairs and entered the second-floor corridor, a grand and enchanting piece of architecture, seemingly endless in both directions. The tall, arched windows stood in the orange glow of a fiery dusk, as the looming August sun continued its slow dissent. Along the floor ran a tattered red carpet, which had lovely ornate bordering done in black, and every hundred feet or so, there could be seen an enigmatic circular crest of the most exquisite detail. As I progressed I noticed a number of statues tucked away in little archways here and there between the corridor’s myriad doors. Some of them were people; ancient, intelligent looking people holding books or strange instruments, perhaps of the scientific nature. Others depicted otherworldly avian-like creatures that stood upright like humans, hunched over with lumbering spines and grotesque beaks attached to their tiny, ill-proportioned heads. The creatures wore curious garments and had long, claw like fingers, which also held books and strange instruments. Scrolls were carved into the stonework above these statues, which held writing, perhaps a name or an inscription, but it was in a bizarre script, the characters of which I had never seen before. Though, some of the archways contained nothing but an empty stone platform, perhaps there were plans for other works of art that were never completed.
I continued on, trying various doors along the way. All were locked, but one. Its door, torn asunder from its hinges, lay at my feet. Beyond it I found an ancient library of the grandest scale. Bookshelves that stretched to the heavens lined the walls. The muted and aged greens and browns of centuries old tomes were crammed into every available nook and crevice. Horribly worn oriental rugs adorned the wooden floor in a haphazard pattern, some long ways, some slightly overlapping diagonally. The place was in the most picturesque state of disrepair one could imagine. Simple wooden tables were scattered about the library, some overturn along with the various papers and manuscripts they once held. Many of the chairs, which were of a lovely and quite curious build, reminiscent of those once found in grand opera houses, were overturned or smashed, but a few remained standing, their cushions fuzzy with mold.
I came across a table with but a single book upon its surface. I opened its ancient cover as gently as one could but it immediately separated from the binding. The pages were yellow and warped with humidity. I took up a thin piece of debris from one of the destroyed chairs and used it as a blade with which to carefully turn the delicate pages without subjecting them to my fingers. It was some sort of manual for the local churches. I found a section that mentioned the Procession. There was an etching of a man holding down another man with his boot as he sawed away at his victim’s neck. The inscription read, “A Parader and his offering.” The book provided me with little information as many of the pages pertaining to the Procession seemed to have been crudely torn out. Most of what was left contained general information that everyone in town was well aware of–the Procession’s reoccurrence every ten years, how it always falls on the full moon of the seventh lunar month, and a little bit about its ambiguous religious significance, primarily dealing with the custom of confirming the end of the Procession by the ringing of church bells, with lengthy instructions on how this custom should be carried out—the length, the timbre, the notes, etc. Of the missing pages, a decent portion of one was left behind. I could make out the first word or so of each line and all of the final line. It read,
Glory! Glory! Glory!
Looking up from the bewildering text I noticed a small room connected to the back of the library, its entrance slightly obscured by two toppled over bookshelves. Something about it piqued my curiosity. Of course, I’ve always been curious about this place, this strange and fantastic edifice that seemed to persistently linger in the back of our minds. Or perhaps it was something else. Any reasonable mind would have turned back long ago. It’s true, I had no knowledge of the dangers the Castle held, but I was well aware of what lay outside its walls. So, I pressed on.
I managed to climb over the shelves and make it to the narrow archway. Inside, I found a curious little room with a glass-domed ceiling and decorated with a set of statues. They stood in stone boxes filled with soil, out of which ivy had at some point grown but was now yellow with death. These statues depicted women in flowing garments and the sinuous ivy, which wrapped about them, made the figures appear all the more elegant. There were three, the left and right statues held out candles towards their respective directions while the statue in the middle stood straight, her arms reaching upwards, and her eyes fixed downward towards whoever may be looking. I stood silently for some time, lost in the eyes of the statue as it stared down on me. The woman from my nightmares was called forth once more and the parallels made me shudder.
The sudden sound of feet and the rustle of garments broke me from the statue’s mesmerizing gaze. An old set of windows sat out of place at the end of the corridor. They were fogged over and opaque with age and protected by an ornate steel grating. All that could be seen through the windows was a faint orange glow. As I walked towards them, I heard a man mumbling to himself. “How in God’s name can someone be living in here?” I said aloud. The moment these words left my lips the strange mumbling ceased.
“Is that a patron come to visit?” said a low and tired voice from the window. “What’s your business here?” it asked. I stumbled over my speech as I attempted to explain myself. I spoke of the Procession and of the sewer but before I could finish, the voice cut in, “Ah yes, the Procession.” It seemed to linger on every word. “What a lovely thing it is.”
The mumbling began once more and faded away to the sound of footsteps and the rustle of garments. I stood lost in bewilderment for some time. I shouted for the strange voice to return but the vacant windows refused to speak. Suddenly, an enormous sound could be heard, as if the entire castle had shifted its weight. I followed the sound back over the toppled bookshelves and through the library to the corridor. I found its many lanterns jutting from the walls to be fully illuminated, the whole hallway bright as Christmas. It was a fantastic sight.
I set out along the corridor once more. Now, illuminated by the brilliant light of the myriad lamps, I was able to better appreciate the exquisite detail of the sculptures. I came across another of the fantastic avian-like creatures and closely studied its craftsmanship. This one held an enormous scepter, at the top of which sat a lantern. The strange claws, the beak, the way its tattered garments hung from its malformed torso, truly this was the work of a once brilliant artist. I raised my hand to feel its long beak, when I jumped back in fright. A twitch, a stir. I swore I had seen something. Again, there was the soft rumbling of stone. A small turn of its head. The creature broke from its pose! Its scepter began to shine a wondrous pale blue. I pressed myself against the wall in horror and awe as the creature stepped from its platform and proceeded down the corridor. Soon more rumblings could be heard, echoing through the cavernous castle. The strange creature lumbered down the corridor, his scepter shinning bright as he leaned against it with every step for support. Then I saw the others begin to leave their platforms to follow the pale blue light. The ghastly parade marched along in slow silence as night finally began to descend upon the Castle. Overcome with wonder and curiosity, or some otherworldly impulse, I followed the strange procession.
Through beautifully ornate arched-doors and up a grand stairwell, I was led to the Castle’s throne room. The throne sat empty and the strange beings huddled around it as if they were waiting for someone. I stood silent in the doorway. The one with the scepter turned its head to look at me. I froze, his gaze made my feet heavy. It turned around fully and held up its scepter. The others began to manipulate their strange instruments and I quickly learned that, despite their appearance, they were not of a scientific nature. Fantastic and impossible music began to form and resound off the walls. The pale blue light beckoned me. The music soothed me. I entered the throne room.
The gathering parted as I proceeded towards the throne, an ancient cathedra of unearthly material, black and gold, shinning strangely in the pale blue of the scepter. The music grew louder as I took my seat, beginning to crescendo to an ungodly level. The players formed a circle around the throne as a ghastly figure began to approach me. Tattered garments hung gracefully from its feminine form, its arms stretched out above its head, its eyes fixed downwards. It was the woman from my nightmares! She did not speak this time though. She fell to her knees and in her hand grasped an onyx-black dagger of the most bizarre and horrific design. I presented my right hand to the woman, as if I had seen this before and knew the procedure. She gently cradled my forearm as she pressed the dagger into the palm of my hand. Crimson flowed out, the skin of my palm receded into itself as the blade made its way from my wrist to the tip of my middle finger. The crowd surrounding me began to part, revealing some twisted mass that almost had a guise of humanity. It convulsed towards me, my faculties entranced by the swirling polyrhythms of the musicians. I felt myself surrender to this lurid ritual as my hand was raised so that the twisted figure may drink from my flowing wound. The room seemed to disappear around us as the being partook of my communion and the music violently vanished into silence.
A man stepped forward and began speaking a strange language I somehow understood. He said an offering has been found and that the Procession will conclude. He spoke of The Great One’s chamber, gesturing towards the ceiling and I was torn from my body. Released towards the sky, my spirit crossed the zenith of the universe and I was forced to peer into the horrifying void of eternity. I was swept across ancient cosmoses and saw myself shivering naked at the right hand of that twisted figure, which now stood upright like a man. Its tenebrous skin adorned with patches of matted black fur. Horrible appendages, that may have once been wings, jutted from its back. It held a strange instrument or weapon that seemed to be made of its own skin. We were in a barren garret atop the Castle, I convulsed amongst beds of straw and the May of lambs nuzzling at my breasts. The grotesque figure looked on with the kind of frightening approval that bespeaks an inhuman authority. A brief moment of grace fluttered across my eyelids and I violently awoke on the ancient throne, the beings staring at me.
My hands were grey and misshapen. My spine felt heavy and foreign. As I opened my mouth to speak, nothing familiar could be felt and a strange language flooded from my tongue. My body floated above those fantastic beings as they watched me with excitement. The one with the scepter was banging it against the ground in horrid applause. I knew then that it had ended. I knew then why it had lasted so long. I heard the familiar church bells echoing through the city as cries of joy drowned out the last moans of death. I was taken to a little archway tucked into the wall and stood upon the platform. My new form found its natural position and I slowly fell asleep for ten years.
What was needed has been sought for since the last time. What was needed has been found. He rests now. The Procession has ended. The dead may finally be buried.
Hail, Great One!
To thee, we banished children call on.
To thee, our procession upon your world may cease.
Glory to He who enters the Castle!
Glory to He who gives eternal life by the Procession!
Thy cleanse our world through thy Grace.
Thy grant us life through death’s release.
Born by the right hand of the Great One.
And by the light of the seventh moon.
Eternal glory bestows upon you.
Glory! Glory! Glory!
Ada Wofford (2022 Finalist)
Progress Qua Progress:
Or The 505 Office Center and
The Massage Parlor (Trailer) with Open Doors
The beetle in their shoe was still alive.
They shook their foot. “Shut the hell up.” They rolled their eyes and sighed a little sigh. “Sorry. But do please try to be quiet.”
The sun had been in the sky for a good while now and the pavement was getting hot. It was the closest they had ever gotten to the trailer, save for buzzing right past it in their car. There were posters covering the already blinded windows of happy people lying on their bellies with disembodied hands kneading their skin. A tacky sign blinked the word “open” in red, white, and you-bet-your-ass blue. The two windowless front doors were open (of course), but they couldn’t make much out. There was some sort of plant on some sort of ledge. Couldn’t be many lights on.
The recon mission was a failure.
They returned to the 505 Office Center and got back to work. The Center was a stout, brick house perched between a Mexican place and a place that styled certain hair and removed certain other hair. Three of many pimples cancering this particular horrid road in this particular pocket of some place locally referred to as New Jersey. A fourth is the massage parlor (heretofore referred to as the trailer, hereafter referred to as the Trailer) a quarter mile north of the Center (you picked up on this one by now). It had no name and the phone number presented in the window had only six digits. Even then (especially then), they were afraid to call. Regardless, they had no phone. One would (should) be arriving Tuesday.
The sun continued its bitching late into the afternoon. The work at the Center was arduous and difficult, primarily because they didn’t know what it was they were supposed to be doing. Luckily, the place was a mess, so they busied themselves with tidying up.
“Fuck this couch,” they exhaled, as they attempted to move the hulking object.
“Not now,” they muttered.
“I’m not going there at night.”
They returned at night, hoping the lights would be on. Instead, they found the doors finally closed and zero light emitting from the structure. Not even the sign was blinking.
“Wonder what their hours are?” they thought out loud.
“What?” spit some passerby.
“What do you know about that place?” they asked, nodding towards the Trailer.
“I don’t know. Probably some place for perverts. Why are you asking? Are you a pervert?” they snarled in their mucus laden voice.
“I don’t think I am,” they wondered to the stranger.
“You look like one,” the stranger barked, before disappearing into the balmy night.
The Pike (heretofore referred to as “this particular horrid road”) buzzed with the sound of motors and the muffled echoes of life happening somewhere out of sight under the starless sky. They returned to the Center, locked up, and drove to their tent by the river.
“Progress,” they mumbled in their sleep. “Progress, progress, progress.”
“Well, not everyone’s as brave as you,” they argued, collecting the corpses of flies off the windowsill and into the garbage. “Who knows what’s in there. Of course, I’m curious. But I can’t just walk into the place. Sure, it’s a place of business, but is it really? Of course, that’s what makes it so intriguing. But I’m no detective. I’m no Geraldo.”
They worked hard throughout the day and moved many things and disposed of many fly corpses. For luncheon they had chips and what the menu claimed to be salsa from next door. It sat unfinished, catching the amber rays of dusk pouring through the Center’s east window.
“If I go now, maybe I can see who closes the doors,” they mumbled to the beetle, who did not respond.
They walked, squinting their eyes in the blinding amber as the motors buzzed their evening song. They made it to their peering spot and saw that the doors were still open, and the sign was still blinking away. Somewhere, a trash truck could be heard groaning before violently returning an empty dumpster to its asphalt home. As it reverberated into silence, they saw a figure about 30 yards away. They tried to shade their eyes from the amber to better see as the figure found an opening in the buzzing and jogged across the Pike to the Trailer.
“A patron!” they gasped.
As the figure entered the Trailer, they noticed the figure had on the same gray blazer they had, and the same red hair.
“Well, very similar at least,” they muttered to their shoes.
Just then, the light ceased its blinking and both front doors were closed, but no one could be seen.
They stayed awhile, peering at the Trailer as dusk gave birth to night, but saw nothing of note. As they turned to walk back to the Center, they were greeted by the stranger.
“Back at it, pervert?” they coughed.
“I was just…”
“I don’t want to hear about it,” they hacked, as they returned to the night.
They went home to their tent and got ripped on the brown stuff and wrote poetry about the Center and the Trailer and made humid conversation with their shoes until the moon hung at its zenith and sleep mowed them down.
“Feet are just the hands of the legs,” they mumbled, as they managed the tricky work of driving. The radio was tuned to white, hot static but they found it catchy all the same. “Schhhhhhh, krtt, krtt, schhhhhhh,” they sang along. “Nothing but progress in these veins!” they instructed the world. “I sure hope it’s Tuesday,” they soft pitched into the universe.
Apparently, it was Tuesday, for when they arrived at the Center, a package awaited them on the step. They took it inside and tore open the box. There it was! A lovely, shiny phone. They grabbed the cord and leapt to the carpet, hunting for the jack. Click, they found it. They lifted the receiver to hear the warm dial tone and smiled in delight at its purity. They returned the receiver and set to rearranging the furniture they had arranged the day prior.
“Can’t stop the locomotive of progress,” they proclaimed.
“505 Office Center, how may I assist you?” they sang into the receiver.
Through the ocean of static, a muffled, obtuse voice emerged. “You have yet to pay bill,” it bellowed in and out of whatever key a voice should be in.
“I’m sorry, our connection seems a bit off. Can you repeat that?” they asked, with all their professionalism dripping from their chin.
“You have yet to pay bill,” it moaned.
“I understand. And what bill are you referring to?”
“When will you pay?” Its questions somehow didn’t sound like questions.
“I’m sorry. Who am I speaking with?”
“Massage,” they groaned through the deluge of static.
“Massage?” they whispered.
“Now you get it.”
They heard a thunk, as if the front door had just closed. As they turned around, they noticed a cushion from the couch sitting on the floor. They dropped the receiver and ran to the windows but saw nothing. They spun around the room, their heart beginning to pick up steam. Nothing. Their heart slowed. They returned the receiver to its home and shook their shoe. Silence.
They found themselves drenched in the amber, directly across from the Trailer, bobbling their head, and clacking their teeth together. They glanced down the Pike and saw someone staring at them but couldn’t be bothered with it. They redirected their attention to the buzzing and waited for an opening. When one appeared, they ran across the Pike and breached the threshold of the Trailer. They didn’t take notice of the car in the small, adjacent lot.
The inside was dark and there was a half-wall, which seemed to serve no particular use, save for holding up a single potted spider plant. They reached into the dark and touched a leaf. The plant recoiled and whispered, “You’re being very inappropriate.”
“Who said that?” they asked in shock, their eyes darting around the dark, glancing past the amber of the doorways. But the plant did not respond. Beyond the half-wall, at the back of the Trailer, a faint light could be seen emanating from the floor. As they made their way towards the light, the front doors closed, but they paid them no mind. They heard someone shouting outside but couldn’t be bothered.
The light was seeping through the cracks of a trap door. Of course, they opened it. What else was there to do? Inside was a wooden ladder. They saw the red hair of the figure’s head as they made their way down.
“Hey!” they shouted. But the figure did not respond, they did not even look up. Just finished their decent and took off running down the green-carpeted hallway.
They followed in pursuit, not knowing what they were doing, not bothering to consider anything other than progress—other than forward.
The hallway led to a green door. As they reached for it, they found themselves in their car, buzzing past the Trailer, the figure walking into one of the doorways. They slammed on the breaks and turned into the small parking lot. Instead of thinking or talking to themselves, they stared at all the amber—bobbling their head and clacking their teeth. They looked across the street and saw another figure through the haze of buzzing. When an opening appeared, that figure ran across the Pike and into the Trailer. They hopped out of the car and followed.
“Hey, you!” they shouted, but the doors were now locked shut. They clacked their teeth together. They shook their shoe. Still nothing.
They went around back and found another door, slightly ajar. They stepped in to find a teeny-tiny kitchen with nothing in it save for a hidden radio playing all your favorite hits from the 60s, 70s, and 80s—At that moment, the radio was busy informing listeners of that very fact. Exiting the kitchen brought them back to the trap door. They climbed down the ladder and returned to the green door, which was now wide open.
Inside was the tree.
How the room was big enough to hold it, they had no idea. It stood 60-80 feet tall and from its leafy branches hung several people from their scalps, naked save for the various patches of moss that adorned their bodies, all shouting “Qua, qua! Qua!” to one another or no one; the way you can’t tell who geese are speaking to. On the ground below, lush and green as grass but something else entirely, they found a jacket just like theirs, or at least very similar. They peered up into the tree. They could see someone climbing about its branches.
“Hey, you!” they shouted.
The tree erupted into a mess of “Qua, qua!”
Then the lights went out.
The tree people were silent, but strange whooshing could be heard. Like an avalanche of tweed rubbing against itself. When the light returned, they were back in the hallway, the green door now gone. The figure, now without a jacket, wearing the same black button-up, at least one very similar, was seen climbing up the ladder and closing the trap door. Then the darkness returned.
They made their way down the pitch-black hallway, feeling the walls for guidance (though how one could get lost in a hallway is beyond me!). Their hands found the ladder and they began their ascent. But when they reached the top, they felt no door. Instead, they felt something soft but dense, like soil. They pressed and they climbed and dug until it gave way, and they popped their head through the ground of the tree room. They pulled themselves up to find the tree people now liberated from their branches, bits of branch sticking out of their scalps. They stood wobbling and swaying on their never-used legs, eyeing them with their dead, green eyes.
“Qua,” said one.
They leapt for the door, fumbling with the knob as the tree people simply watched on in silence. When they finally got the door open, they found themselves in front of the Trailer. They saw the stranger trying to peer into the blinded window with their hand stuck down their pants.
“Hey!” they called, just as the window shattered. The stranger fell into the Trailer, cutting themselves deeply on the jagged shards. The stranger screamed and bled and made a big mess.
“You were being very inappropriate!” whispered the plant.
They tried to climb through the window to help the poor fool, but as soon as their body crossed the threshold of the frame, they were back in the tree room.
“Qua, qua, qua,” said the tree people, shaking their heads and attempting to guide them towards the tree. They turned for the door, but it was nowhere to be found.
“Qua, qua, qua,” the tree people instructed, as the trunk of the tree opened up, spreading its sappy bark into a wide cavity of black. “Qua, qua, qua,” the tree people ensured, guiding them into the tree, limping and hobbling on their never-used legs.
They crawled into the tree and felt nothing. Nothing below their feet. They turned around and saw nothing. They reached out and felt nothing. But when they reached up, they felt something soft, but unlike grass. They pushed and saw light. They pushed further and pulled themselves upward until the couch birthed them upon the floor.
They were back at the Center. The figure (a figure), now with their jacket, stood speaking on the phone.
“I understand. And what bill are you referring to?” it said.
They quietly crawled to the door.
“I’m sorry who am I speaking with?” it continued.
They slowly opened the door.
“Massage?” it whispered.
They bolted out of the Center, closing the door behind them as they took off down the Pike.
And as they ran into the amber, past all the buzzing, they saw everything shift.
Until they are somewhere different.
Little changes everywhere.
Progress qua progress.
And now they see you.
And if you put down the book fast enough you might just…
No, you missed them.
Now they are behind you.
Forever behind you.
Standing on the hot pavement.
The beetle in their shoe is still alive.
Note: The tree is inspired by the Waqwaq Tree but isn’t meaningfully referencing it or its surrounding mythology/lore in anyway. I’m sure you know, dear reader. But not ever one knows that ‘qua’ is a real word. From Google: in the capacity of; as being.
Mihaela Melnic (2021 finalist)
After a night of revelry spent playing poker with Horse, Mahap and Batboy, Owl was drunk, but not so much as to be unable to return to his house. Batboy was so drenched in booze that he’d passed out while talking earlier. Owl needed a nap away from those sewer rats that surely would have emptied his pockets if he allowed himself to fall asleep on Horse’s worn, ragged couch.
He had drained glasses of vodka down his throat all night long, interspersing them with frothy glasses of beer and pieces of beef, while with the same skill he grabbed the banknotes that those animals he called friends kept losing with every turn of cards.
When Owl decided to head home it was nearly dawn. He forced himself up from the armchair and made his way to the door through the thick smoke of cigarettes and sticky patches of stale beer that had dripped on the floor.
Horse was in the bathroom and Batboy was snoring between two dirty pillows on a bed that was strewn with cigarette butts and roast beef leftovers.
Owl looked for his shoes but they were nowhere to be seen. Who cares? Owl thought from the bottom of his blurred mind. He shrugged and decided to piece together a pair of shoes from a pile that contained all sorts of objects in the hallway. He found two boots alike of at least two sizes larger than his actual number. He didn’t care about the discrepancy one bit, though, given the nausea he was feeling in that moment. These must be Horse’s hooves, he thought, sneering with his forehead against the wall to keep his balance while he slipped in one foot at a time.
“Horse, I’m leaving!” he shouted towards the bathroom.
Horse trotted out of there relieved after having unloaded his bladder’s burden. His eyes popped out upon noticing Owl’s feet.
“What the fuck, Owl, those are my boots! Drop them!” Horse neighed, craning his neck forward as usual whenever he wanted to assert himself.
He rushed towards Owl with his Adam’s apple nearly cutting the skin on his own neck, but he tripped over an empty bottle and sprawled out on the floor at his friend’s feet in all his length. Once in that position of advantage, he put into act a series of absurd maneuvers with his huge, twiggy fingers, desperately trying to take back his shoes. Given the lack of success, he started to pull Owl by the jeans in hopes of making him fall as well.
Owl burst into a howling laughter in the midst of chaos at the sight of Horse in that state.
“Stop it, you fool, be done with this play!” he eventually cried while extricating his feet from Horse’s frantic hands. “Get up or I’ll kick you right in the nostrils with your own boots,” he sneered in a tone halfway between annoyance and amusement.
He felt a wave of nausea creeping up to his throat and he pushed Horse away in disgust.
“When I see Mahap, I’ll break his face,” Owl growled between his teeth a little while later once it had been decided that Horse’s brown clogs would remain upon his feet for now. “That son of a bitch must have stolen my boots!” he cried again, mixing several curses throughout.
“I fucking told you not to bring him here!” Horse neighed indignantly, pulling his thin and comical figure in its entirety up off the floor. “He’s like those gypsies down the street,” he added with a knowing look. “Not to be trusted. There are even rumors that his mother is a witch.” He spoke the last few words with a lower voice and a grave expression on his camel face.
Owl gave him an askance look and burst out laughing. He could never take Horse seriously no matter how hard he tried.
“Why the hell did I name you Horse, I wonder, when you look more like a superstitious camel to me?” Owl was now at the door. “Anyway, buddy, I better get going, and you best go put your horn in the pillow and get some sleep.
“As for Mahap,” Owl added, “I’ll give him his share sooner or later.” He opened the door and stepped outside.
“Tomorrow you’ll get your boots back, don’t worry,” he concluded. Without waiting for an answer, he left, slamming the door behind him.
Once outside, in the freezing air, he pulled up his hood and cautiously began putting one foot in front of the other, heading home, swaying like a cypress in the wind.
It was a foggy morning, although still dark, of December. Heaps of dirty snow were piled up against the sidewalk and large flakes fell densely upon the ground.
Owl’s legs felt heavy as lead wearing those boots not of his own and staggering along. He decided to sit down for a moment on the edge of the sidewalk under a streetlamp where a little snowman had been built. He collected a handful of snow, rolled and shaped it into a little ball, and threw it on the street. Then he took the money out of his pocket and carefully counted it. Two hundred dollars. Not bad when you’d only invested five. A smile crossed his lips. He seized roughly half of his winnings from the wad and hid it in the inner pocket of his jacket in case someone assaulted him. That alley had eyes and he knew it well. Gypsies lived there and he was, in a certain way, roaming their territory. He got up on his feet and kicked the snowman (at the risk of also sending one of the boots flying through the air). Then he entered a narrow alley between two rows of ramshackle buildings with black roofs half-hidden by the fresh snow.
After a few steps, Owl stopped again. He felt at peace with himself and opened his mouth to the sky, letting the snowflakes land and melt on his tongue. He also felt thirsty and hot. Damn it! That vodka in the gut needs some water, he fancied. He scooped a handful of snow from a tree branch on the curb and ate it greedily. Then he took another handful, from off the ground this time, and used it to wash his face. He felt much better afterwards, and so with renewed energy he resumed his journey, whistling carefree in the slowly thinning night that was being penetrated by the opaque light of a misty dawn.
Owl considered himself to be really lucky at poker. Gambling was his first nature. Drinking was his second. Between the two there was some human nature, too. At least that’s what those who had ever asked for his help during desperate times had later told him.
At that moment, just as he was pondering such reflections, he noticed out of the corner of his eye a figure darting off to his right. He snapped his head in that direction, but there he saw only fog and the low, barely visible, black roofs covered with a thin layer of snow.
Blaming the strange occurrence on his fatigue as well as the large amount of liquor and snow he had swallowed, he began to hurry home with his cozy bed in mind when, suddenly, a voice whispered in his ear.
“Hey, you, look at me!” the voice said.
Owl froze in place and looked around. Nobody appeared to be there in the thick darkness.
The voice is in my head, Owl thought. He continued walking while trying not to stumble over his own feet. The cold air and snow, by this point, had sucked the alcohol’s vapors out of him, but hearing voices was never a good sign anyway. He buried his fists in his pockets and shook his head, not wanting to listen to his mind which seemed to be playing tricks on him.
“Hey, you, don’t you hear me?” the voice spoke again, shrill and impatient.
Owl looked around, a little vexed, wondering who the hell would dare to play hide-and-seek with him at that time, or at any other time or season for that matter.
Nobody would dare to make fun of him in his neighborhood. He was Owl – the gambler. Owl – the hothead. Owl – the executioner. He would have beaten to death anyone who dared to challenge him in any way. His knuckles had made contact with so many jaws that he could no longer close his fists without a grimace of pain. Only last night he had stomped the crap out of Batboy for drinking the last drop of vodka without asking his permission. And last week Horse had been punched in that camel face of his for eating the chicken wings that Owl had put aside for himself. He could give Horse and Batboy hay, punches and water anytime, anywhere, but now he was in the gypsy alley…
Alright, well, they were good guys, peaceful and happy, the gypsies. Their main occupation was stealing without actually harming anyone physically; at least not on their street. Yes, good people, Owl thought. People of honor. If you dared to look at their women, the next day you were a dead man walking. Knowing this, Owl didn’t feel like joking with them so he hoped that the darting figure glimpsed just moments ago and the voices he heard were only in his head and weren’t coming from one of those dismal mansions around him. He lowered his head and continued on his way, casting furtive glances around from time to time as a precautionary measure.
“Hey, you! Look up and see how I dance!” the voice said again, giggling.
It never sounded more real to Owl’s ears. The strange voice wasn’t in his mind, he was almost sure; rather, it seemed to be coming from above his head.
Owl raised his eyes and glanced a little worriedly at the roof of the house to his right.
Up on the roof, there looked to be, shrouded in fog, a child of about six. He seemed to be wearing a very tight, black jumpsuit as if it were a second skin, if not the first, as was hypothesized by Owl who suddenly could no longer think rationally. That little boy had a grin on his face that was horrible to behold. He did not show the same innocence that one expects to see on the face of such a small child. Owl narrowed his eyes and stood in astonishment as he tried to better understand the situation.
“What the hell is this!” Owl said with half a voice. Ok, I’m having a hallucination, he thought, a bit worried all the same.
A child on the roof at this hour, in wintertime and alone? Hmm… and this little guy even has horns and a tail…
He tried to trick his mind into thinking that he had nothing to worry about and said, “Hey, Halloween is over.” But he found himself muttering the words weakly, speaking more to himself than to the vision he suspected he was a victim of. No, it must be a cat, he decided, or a goat that ran away from the farm. Even so, it seemed impossible and unreal, he thought, trying hard to collect all his neurons to properly put them to work. He blamed it on the fog, the booze…
“Go away!” Owl shouted, waving his hand in the air. “You are not real!” he said, summoning the necessary courage to face the problem like a real man.
“Of course I’m real, you imbecile!” the goat-boy cried angrily.
“Now give me the shoes,” the little fellow stated in a sweet voice through a disfigured grin.
A strange sensation crossed Owl’s chest as if a snake had unrolled in his ribcage and was seeking a way out. The muscles in his back contracted along his spine and in that moment he knew, he was sure, that this Thing, human or animal, was certainly real. He felt this awareness to the marrow of his bones. He instantly became stone-cold sober. He looked around, seeking other people in his sight. It was still too early, but soon enough many people would be outside on their way to work. In the distance, he saw a woman in a red coat. He hoped she would come towards him, but instead she turned the corner and disappeared from his view behind a building.
He elongated his pace, staring straight ahead, trying to ignore that disturbing figure.
But that little, obscure being that seemed to have come out of hell’s womb began to jump in the air, wagging its tail, sticking out its tongue, giggling in a creepy fashion. Owl, who at times still gave him quick glances, was unsettled beyond limits by the circus performance being given in that hour and place.
“Give me your shoes!” cried again that goaty figure who was pointing a long, black finger towards Owl.
My shoes?! Owl wondered. I don’t have my shoes, Mahap has them. I have Horse’s clogs. Hoof-like stuff. He shivered at the thought of having hooves for feet and looked down in horror. “Thank goodness, it’s just a wide awake nightmare,” he muttered out loud in relief as his eyes met the boots.
“Go to hell!” Owl yelled at the roof and his tarry host. But his bold voice did not prevent him from feeling a certain fear anyway.
The goat-boy looked Owl straight in the eyes.
Owl began to tremble. Usually, he wasn’t easily impressed, but this creature, that even in his mind he was afraid to name, made his heartbeat like a drum being played by a crazed monkey. He began to pray. This old trick didn’t seem to calm down his shaken spirit, however, because that Thing had begun to pray right along with him, only its verses were hauntingly being hissed backwards.
In a desperate state, he frantically fumbled in his pockets. There was only one option left to try to get out of trouble: he had to pay. A kind of tax for his body, for his life and perhaps also for his soul. All those nights spent gambling, all those years consumed by drinking and fighting, had to be paid off in some way, he now realized. He pulled the money out of both pockets and threw it all up in the air towards the obscure dweller of the roof.
“Take them,” he gasped. “Go away and leave me alone!” he implored. Then he started running because he felt like he had reached the bottom of rationality and was only one step away from entering the pit of the darkest superstition.
The creature chased after him, leaping from roof to roof with horrible shrieks.
Owl, who was overwhelmed with fear by now, stumbled away as fast as he could, repeatedly risking with each step the loss of one shoe or the other behind him for how large they were on his feet. He mentally cursed Mahap who, drunk as he was, had stolen or more likely mistaken their shoes.
“Give me those damn shoes and I’ll leave you alone!” snarled the creature during the wild and surreal pursuit. Owl could no longer endure to hear or see that Thing, or to witness its whining and jumping and grinning, so he stopped, panting heavily, to take off the boots. He tossed them towards the satanic goat-boy and, barefoot, took off running again, slipping and falling several times until he finally made it to safety inside his home.
Once within, he locked the door behind him and blocked it by placing a chair under the handle. Without lingering on any other thoughts or actions, he headed straight to his room. He tore the wooden icon depicting Christ from the wall and raced into the kitchen. Guided by an invisible force, he made a spontaneous decision. The light of madness shone in his eyes.
He lit the stove and threw the icon into the fire.
Even now, years later, he is unable to explain why he did it. But as he watched the blackened wood being engulfed by flames on that fateful day, he swore to never gamble again. Not at night, at least. Then, with a vague expression on his face, he plunged exhaustedly onto the bed and instantly fell into a deep slumber.
He woke up several hours later, around noon, with Batboy standing beside his bed staring at him with a dramatic expression.
“What the hell are you doing here? How did you get in?” Owl asked as he sat up in bed and reached for the nightstand to grab a cigarette. “What a shit of rest did I have! I think I had a terrible nightmare. My head is aching, holy shit! Did you at least bring a beer? Or did you just come to look at…”
“Horse is dead,” Batboy said.
Owl fell silent with the words hanging midair.
“He went out to get something to drink right after you left this morning,” Batboy continued with a lost glance. “They found him in the gypsy alley. Some gypsy out there must have stolen his coat because I could swear he had it on when he went out. He was wearing only the black jumpsuit we gifted him for his birthday and… his boots.”
Chris Courtney Martin (2021 Finalist)
God hates, too, you know. The Bible talks about it. He hates sin. He has also been known to hate sinful people, like Esau, before he was even born. So, it is without shame that I say I came to hate the girl and her sin.
I did everything I could to make her better than I ever hoped I could be. I sacrificed. The way that I cooked, the way that I cleaned, the way that I dedicated my life to two things—God, and my children. For this one, though, to turn up her nose and forget the easiest of the Commandments, “Honor thy mother and father!” is the biggest disgrace. This is holy payback, on my behalf, for a child of God. You can’t tell me it isn’t.
I don’t know where she gets this “karma” mess because I don’t teach that. The Bible don’t teach that mess. Yeah, we used to be into the Zodiacs and all that, back in the day. And I passed a little of that on. Which maybe I shouldn’t have. But what about everything else I passed on to her? You do what God’s word tells you is right and you don’t have to worry about a thing. Hallelujah!
That rebelliousness got her here. I tried to issue the rod of correction, as much as I could. Without getting those Child Protective Services bastards involved. Someone already called them on me once, when I was homeschooling her. The thing that’s crazy is, she wasn’t even the one that I had to spank like that. That was Reba. And Reba ain’t perfect. We’ve had our disagreements. She can get flip-mouthed, too. But she knows her Bible. She always comes back to Mom. She and her girls know The Word.
This one, though? Always refused. Could read every doggone thing else in the library. I still regret getting her that Harry Potter mess. Now she’s with the tarot and the crystals—witchcraft! You get visions, like you say, you run straight to the Lord! Or you’re running straight into the fiery lake! Those dreams run in the family. God has been telling me when someone’s about to pass on for years! I’ve seen my father, brothers—that’s a gift given of the Spirit. You don’t give it back to God, you are dancing with the Devil.
God says, “Cut ‘em loose! If your right arm offends you, cut it off!” and that hurts me. That’s my baby. My youngest. But I knew when she started talking about that gay rights and women’s lib mess that I was right to stay on her. There was a reason I popped into her room when she would be in there too long by herself. I sent Reba, too. And she caught her once. All that– those “false affections” they mention in the scripture, is a gateway to evil. It lets Lucifer right in. She even had the nerve to say Reba told her she found of those things in my drawer in the ‘90s, and I know that’s a lie! Reba denied it herself, when I asked where the hell she got that lie from.
I remember when Kris stayed with me that summer after the first year of college. When I saw that nasty, pink thing in her bag, I knew I was losing my grip on my child to Beelzebub. Had the nerve to bring that into my house! I don’t care how old you are! You don’t bring one of those things into my house! I knew I sensed something off, and that’s why I went looking in the bag in the first place. Got the nerve to ask me why I’m touching it? Disrespectful! Can’t listen to sense, can’t listen to right, and find yourself needing Mom every time.
You start talking that “psychic” stuff, and I know you done lost it. All those years saying I need therapy and your tail ends up locked up in the loony bin! Talking about you hear the voice of God? Seeing angels? If that was true, you’d be in a church repenting for how you turned your back on your mother’s love. There ain’t no such thing as “too many texts” or “too many calls” when you’re talking about the only mother He gave you. You don’t get embarrassed by the woman who carried you for nine months and changed your stinkin’ ass Pampers. That’s why I showed up to that graduation dinner the way I did. The Lord says, “Test them!” and that’s what I did. I got you to that school. I got you to that scholarship. I taught you how to read. I don’t care if I show up wearing a potato sack and put my feet on the table! You! Honor! Thy! Mother!
I told her, “I don’t claim that ‘psychic’ mess, and neither do you. We got gifts given of the Spirit, in this family. And if you aren’t in The Word, it might as well be a curse!” I used to talk to Jackie Lee and Boizell on the phone about that kind of stuff, when Kris was really little. (I don’t know how she even remembers them—these kids remember every damn thing!) But for her to bring that up—they at least knew The Word. And I stopped going to them when the Lord led me away. Jackie started talking about me healing and all that mess, and I said, “Jesus is the healer! And His work is already done!” Those psychics get all up in your business, acting like prophets. False prophets! He sayeth beware for a reason!
And now Kris is tied up in this mess. Just had to go out to California—that’s sin central. Sodom and Gomorrah. But I still offered support, because that’s what Mom does. What I don’t do, is forget the disrespect. Now that you need me? I’m gonna sit up here and say to you the same thing you said to me for years;
You need to get some help. Please just try the therapy.
I told her father-of-the-flesh (because the Holy Father is clearly doing His job) that this is his to handle. Let him fly out there and deal with the doctors. Let him take care of her. I’ve done my job and then some! Eighteen years of hard labor, just to be talked to like I’m the kid! I bet she’s calling on God now, locked up in those places. If you don’t come to Him, He will come to you. Amen!
Reba says when Kris started hearing and seeing things over there, she finally opened up the Bible and used the 23rd Psalm. She knows I taught her that! If it didn’t work, it’s because Jesus didn’t want it to. Not for you. Not after the way you treated me. And now you want to go on and tell those people that I abused you? I know what abuse is. And I know you know that I know what abuse is. I didn’t abuse, I chastened you.
I know this all started when I stayed on her about the feminine hygiene. And for her to turn this around on me because I offered to help her—after what happened to me? That’s why those demons are coming in. That’s why she’s seeing those things. Because only the wickedest bitch—like the ones that were waiting for Jezebel—would try to say something like that about her mother. I didn’t abuse my kids. I was abused! By my mother, by her creep son—who’s roasting in Hell. Matter of fact, I told Kris exactly what he did to me. I even told her what it felt like. I thought it would stick in her head. And she would remember everything I went through and have a little empathy. Make things easier for Mom. But she goes around and she tells those damn doctors that? That lie?
That’s what a mother is supposed to do. I said I would show her how to use the products if she didn’t know to herself. I didn’t make her do anything. I didn’t follow her into the bathroom, like that brother did with me. I said I would show her if she wanted me to. I offered to help her because her drawers had a real strong scent when I was doing the laundry. You know, I had to wash her clothes until she was out of the house because I knew she wasn’t going to do it right, herself. She wasn’t going to get that strong odor out, herself. Reba used to laugh at it, when I would tell her about it, but I was serious. I was just trying to help. I let her know, “No boys are going to want to be with you. They want the girls who smell fresh, like ladies.” Maybe that’s why she turned into a little bull-dagger. They might not care. But I know a man does.
So, for her to say that about me when she knows I hate those people! I hate her for that! I do! And so does my God! I even told her over and over again, if it were up to me, I’d put firecrackers in their genitals and light ‘em up! I know she really lost it.
I won’t sit here and be falsely accused by flesh of MY flesh! I bet Laura Jane put her up to this. That high-yellow heifer. Me and Kris were tight until she started hanging around with my sister. How are you going to tell me that your aunt understands you better than me? The one who carried you? That’s why we call her “Horror” instead of Laura. Aunt Horror. As mean as my mother was to me, Horror was even meaner to her. She’d buy her things just to flaunt it in our faces, but they never got along. She didn’t even like to come around on holidays. And I guess it’s because I always knew what she was. God put it on my heart, like He does everything I need to know. By His Grace!
Kris doesn’t want to believe that Horror Jane has been messing around with her father. She refused to listen to me. Her mother! I know that her slimy, whore-ish self—Lord, forgive my language—was creeping around with Kris’s father-of-the-flesh. Laura used to go down south to buy furniture because she said it was cheaper, and I know that’s where she met Bernie. I tried to tell Kris that God put it on my heart when I saw how they were getting all cute-y and cozy at the graduation dinner. I’m standing in the kitchen cooking, been cooking all day, so that my daughter and her father can have a celebration meal. And these two got their feet up under my damn table, flirting in our faces like I’m chopped liver. Kris might be too ignorant to see what God shows me. That kid don’t have no discernment. But I know I do. That’s why the heifer was trying to take us out for dinner that day. She didn’t want Bernie to remember how good my cooking is! Laura ain’t never been one to cook. That’s why she was trying to flaunt her little money by insisting that she take us out for dinner, when she knew I wanted to cook. That’s why Will divorced her butt.
So, she got to go around and sneak around with her baby sister’s baby’s father.
But Kris don’t want to believe it.
It could have also been that Steve Harvey. You know he’s been watching me for years, ever since he stole my book. Act Like A Woman, Think Like A Man. Kris knows he took that from me. I always been a writer. I used to write every day in those little black and white marble notebooks. Kris’ll tell you that. She got it from me. Like she get everything from me. Everything that’s good.
All I ever did was try to keep her ungrateful tail safe. That’s why I warned her about those people and what they do to kids. That’s why I stayed on her. Maybe that’s why she’s like that. Maybe something must have happened to her. But I tell you one thing—it’s because she didn’t want to tell Mom what was going on. Probably, because she didn’t listen. So, if someone abused her, it wasn’t me. She might not want to say who it is. That happens sometimes. That’s why I would ask her whenever she was acting funny around me, if someone touched her. I asked her until she was grown, damn near. And she always got an attitude. If someone did that, I did everything I could. That’s what happens when kids don’t listen.
Kris put a curse on her own head the day she let those people call the campus security on me and tell me I couldn’t come back. To humiliate me like that, just because I came to her job to check on her! After I just let her stay with me when her little butt—or should I say fat butt—didn’t have nowhere to go after college. Told me I was “harassing her” just because I called her and texted her and expected an answer. Talking about some, “I’m busy.” You ain’t ever too busy for your mother. So, yeah, after I didn’t know where she was—I popped up on her at work just because I didn’t know what happened. To say she was done with me and just go silent, that wasn’t my Kris. She could have been kidnapped. Steve Harvey could have done something to her. Obama might have sent his dogs to get her to hurt me, because they’ve been after me, too. You know I’m royalty in Palestina. My father-of-the-flesh, or should I say, adoptive-father-of-the-flesh took me on his merchant ship back to Filthy-delphia and raised me as his own. That’s why a lot was stolen from me. To keep me from reclaiming what’s mine. Kris was going to be part of that inheritance. But she burned herself. She’s cut off for this.
When she would do that disappearing, not taking my calls or texts, I did everything I could to make sure she was safe. I mean, I was really worried as a mother. You know that actress, Donna Ann Michael? Well, Kris knows her son. And his stepdad is a state senator in Pennsylvania. And when Kris decided she didn’t want to answer my calls and I didn’t know where she was, I had to call that man’s government office and tell him my daughter might have been kidnapped. Because, what else is a good mother supposed to do? Reba did tell me she heard from Kris but Reba don’t know Kris like I know Kris. If someone had her phone and was pretending to be her, saying they didn’t want to talk to me, then Reba wouldn’t have even known. I know what my daughters sound like. And you call yourself a writer, sending me texts, telling me you’re cutting off communication with me, and don’t even use a punctuation mark? That REALLY don’t sound like you. That could be anyone. It could be those evil dogs in government hacking your phone to get back at me for what I know. Because I speak the truth. And, “The truth is the light!” Amen!
Of course, those roommates had to call Mom when all this stuff started going on and Kris ended up in the hospital. First, it was this Twin Flame thing. And I said, “I don’t know what that is. The Lord talks about soulmates. Anything else ain’t of God.” And now, Kris is a psychic or whatever. More like psycho, if you ended up in one of those places you were trying to talk me into going to. I know that the Lord speaks to me. If He didn’t, her little ass—excuse me, Lord—wouldn’t be here. I walketh on the path of righteousness. I instructeth mine seeds to doeth the same. So, for Kris to say I used to try and make her accuse people of touching her? That’s a lie. That’s a lie straight from the Devil! And we always told our kids, “God will paralyze your tongue” for that! If she have a stroke or something, to still that lying mouth, then I know the Lord did it because He loves his little one—that’s me. And I don’t want nobody calling on me to wipe her funky behind, if she do!
I’ll tell you one thing—I’ve never been in one of those hospitals. Reba has and so has Kris. But not me. There’s nothing off about me. And when Kris tried that, “Oh, I’m gonna kill myself!” mess she learned from Reba and ended up in the hospital the first time, I went to therapy. As a matter of fact, I started seeing Kris’s therapist. What was that woman’s name? Doctor Lyman? Over on Pine Street. Yeah. I just wanted to know what was going on with my kid, because of the way she was bullied. And the woman acted like she didn’t want to see me or tell me about what was going on with MY child! Kris was really bullied in that school. It’s good school, that’s why I kept her in it. But she was really bullied for the weight. I did my best, and I mean, everything I could to get her to get that weight off. I knew it was too late for me. But while she was still young, I had her try out for the tennis team—and she didn’t want to stick with that. I used to do track and field hockey in school. I had a nice little shape. Real tiny waist, shapely legs, until I started having kids. Reba takes after me. Kris is shaped like Bernie’s side. But I rebuke in the name of the Lord any sort of lie about me causing her to try and kill herself. It was those boys at that school! I stayed on her about the weight, and so did my mother, but we weren’t doing no bullying.
I really hope that this is a lesson for her. Because God sees all, hears all, knows all. I’m not perfect. Only Jesus is perfect. But I ask forgiveness for all my sins, and I know that they are forgiven. That makes me a perfect creature in Christ. She’s going to be on her knees begging forgiveness from God and begging forgiveness at my funeral for telling these lies about me. I don’t know what a kunda-leeki is, but it sounds evil. For Kris to come up with this mess, it must be. Ain’t nothing spiritual about what she awakened in her for her to say she realized I was abusive. That’s the demons whispering in her ear. The same things that used to hold her down in her sleep at night, when she would try to wake up. And it would keep her up watching TV late because she was too scared to sleep. I remember. Just evil.
You know, the Lord is showing me what she must be seeing. Because I’ve been feeling things around me, too. I felt the presence of my mother and my brothers on the other side. My father-of-the-flesh. And I don’t know if they’re warning me that God is about to take Kris or what, for the lies she’s been telling on me, but I feel them. I see them in my dreams, too.
I been keeping my Bible open to the 23rd Psalm. Reba said that Kris has been recommending Psalm 91, but it’s the 23rd. That’s what we use. I hear my brother, Gabriel, the one who was Muslim—he was real close to Kris. She was in one of those hospitals when he passed away and I just told her when I could. I know he would hate her for this. He keeps telling me, “Green Jell-O.” In my ear, “Green Jell-O.” And it took me awhile to remember what the heck that meant. But then Reba reminded me. I just spoke to her about this because she needed some money for the girls’ school supplies.
She said, “Remember? That’s what Kris used to say when you’d hit her? That she knew I wasn’t gonna take care of you when you got old, and neither was she. And you’d be put some place where all you have to look forward to was green Jell-O.”
And we used to laugh! I knew it wasn’t true. Because she used to be sweet. But now? I bet they don’t even have green Jell-O in those places she’s been going to, to tell lies on me. Let her keep it up, she won’t even have that.
But I think it’s really gonna happen. She shortened her days by doing what she’s doing to me. That’s why I keep feeling my mother’s hands choke me in my sleep. I know, as mean as she was to me, she must want to choke this girl out for saying that I hurt her and God had to get her away from me. I spoiled that kid. Did everything for her. Even her laundry. And that’s why I knew what they smelled like. Disrespectful!
I rebuke it! I rebuke it in the name of the Lord, Jesus! I send ye henceforth back to the fiery lakes from which ye came, Satan! Get out of my daughter! Get out of my child! You let go of her or you let the Lord take her home! I cast ye out in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit! I plead the blood of Jesus! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!
Robert J.W. (2022 Finalist)
Sean hung himself. He didn’t die, though. His mother found him dangling from the ceiling fan in his room; his frail, pale body swaying like a cracked church bell.
She called 911 and an ambulance arrived soon after. The medics took Sean into the vehicle’s safe embrace, strapped him to the gurney. His mother followed them inside. The sirens erupted into the torrential downpour as they drove into bitter night.
His mother wept by his side. The paramedics did their best to keep her calm but her hysterics almost eclipsed the sirens. Meanwhile, Sean dreamt of school days that faded into numbers in his blurred brain.
The ambulance took a wide turn but didn’t make it. It went through a guardrail into a forest on a mountainside. The crashing of trees and stone combined with the screams to make a symphony of pain. Sean’s dream turned into a void where his problems ceased to exist.
They finally came to a stop at the bottom of the mountain. The medics were mangled in the steel of the ambulance. Sean and his mother survived, though the latter was badly injured. She pulled the cell phone from her purse but it was shattered. She crawled to Sean and embraced him. He came to. She smiled and wept.
“My baby boy!” she yelled, giving him a kiss on the cheek. She removed the straps from his extremities. “We got to get you to a hospital! Are you okay?”
Before he could answer, there was a loud banging on the barely hinged double doors. Sean and his mother recoiled.
“It must be a bear,” the mother whispered. “Keep quiet and hope it goes away.”
But the banging continued. The doors busted off their hinges. There stood a man in his 60’s, clean shaven and tan, wearing a business suit.
“Oh thank God!” exclaimed Sean’s mother. “Please get us help! My son needs to go to the hospital!”
The Suit walked into the ambulance. He surveyed the situation. He bent over to Sean and touched his hand. Then he turned to look at his mother. He pulled out a knife from his pocket and stabbed her in the neck.
Sean tried to scream but the attempt left him in pain. Instead, he got up and started to stumble into the forest. The Suit followed.
A slow chase ensued. Sean was barely coherent and could hardly see in the rain. He knew he was in danger. The suit remained only a few feet behind, stalking with his knife.
Sean found himself at a dead end on a cliffside. He felt his neck and wondered why he wanted to die in the first place. The rain stopped. The sun stripped itself of clouds.
The Suit caught up. He was wheezing and panting but no less determined. He raised the knife. Sean kicked him in the groin. With his other hand, The Suit clutched his pain and knelt over.
Sean backed up and started running toward the Suit with the intent of kicking him in the head. But the Suit rolled out of the way and grabbed Sean’s leg, tripping him.
They were both on the wet soil now, exhausted. The Suit got on top of Sean and raised the knife again. Sean put his hands on The Suit’s face and pushed away. The Suit stumbled backwards. Sean got on top of him and clenched his fist.
The Suit stabbed Sean in the heart and twisted the blade. Sean fell backwards and stared at the sun. He wept and smiled. Then he died. The Suit felt a pain in his chest as well. He dipped his fingers in Sean’s blood. He crawled over the cliffside, wrote “MAGA” in blood, clutched his chest, and faded into history.