Kevin Otto is a veteran with eight years in the armed forces and he has a MFA in Film Producing. He is also at Full Sail University for a Maters in Creative Writing. He is an active and trains in several forms of martial arts. He loves to write and is always willing to help others.
twitter handle @KevinGotto
Snap, Snap Boom.
Alec wipes the blood-soaked sand from his face and spits the grit out of his mouth. Four cars parked, abandoned. Guns, bullet casings, and blood litter the dusty landscape. The bloody dead bodies are dressed in fine suits and dress shoes. He grabs a pistol and checks the magazine. A cloud of dust is roaring towards the man.
A voice crackled from a radio. “Alec, are you there?”
Alec grabs the radio near him.
“Alec, here. Who is this?” he asks.
“Alec, why the hell are you out there with Damion?”
The dust cloud uncovers a car speeding towards Alec.
“I’m here. As soon as the car gets close jump in.”
“But, who are you?” he asks.
An echo over Alec face snaps him back to his current situation. Alec moves around to a black sedan.
“Hey, Alec. How many times do I have to shoot you before you die?” A voice asks.
“Damion, why do you suck so bad at shooting?”
“Shut up Alec. Just shut the hell up.”
Alec moves around the car and looks for Damion. Another snap over his head as he tries to move around. Alec right hand clenches and beads of sweat drip from his forehead.
“Come one Alec. Don’t be an idiot. We can still take down the family.”
Alec moves to the opposite side of the car. He lays on his belly with his gun in both hands. Another man is moving around between other cars. The feet of this man are moving around quick and with no reasonable organization. Alec moves his body under the car.
The man’s feet stop.
“Do you remember Cela?”
“Cela? The girl in Reno?”
“What about her?”
Alec moves further under the car.
“She loved me Damion.”
Alec envelopes his entire frame under the car.
“Why did you take her from me?”
The distant unknown man walks over to another car. Damion, I see you.
Damion is in the open now. He looks around with rapid movement and blurs his visons.
“She loved me too Alec.”
“No, she didn’t.”
An echo from under Alec’s car. Damion right foot snaps back and Damion lands face first on the ground.
“Alec, what’s that sound. Are there still more of Damion’s men alive?” the radio says.
Damion screaming loudly as a small pool of blood forms around his shoe.
“Alright Alec! Alright! Just, go.”
The roaring of an engine approaches. Alec moves erratically out of under the car with his gun still drawn. He stands up and walks to the car now close by. He walks to the door. Blood sprays the front of the wind shield and Alec turns around.
“Your dead Alec. Your dead!”
Alec’s breathing is erratic and heavy. He points his gun. Another snap over his head and his should is thrown to the side of the car door.
“We were brother Alec. You and me, but no! That bitch took your heart and stole your soul.”
Alec collapses to the ground. Damion hobbles over to Alec. Alec grabs for his gun, but Damion steps on his hand. Alec gives a right hook to Damion but misses. Damion lowers his gun to Alec head.
“Boom, Alec. Good bye- “
Damion is thrown backwards. A person grabs Alec and shoves him into the car. The person gets back into the driver spot and slams on the gas. Alec looks up and smiles.
“Cela, what took you so fucking long?”.
Alec clenches his teeth.
“I told him to eat a dick,”. Cela says pointing to her gun.
Alec looks. It’s a twelve-gauge pump action shot gun with the name Richard chiseled on it.
Alec smiles at Cela.” I knew I loved you for a reason.”
Julia Benally is a wild Apache lurking in Arizona with her trusty nunchucks, Harley Quinn, at her side. Besides writing and killing zombies, she enjoys playing the piano, dancing and loves to sing. You can find more of her work at sparrowincarnate.blogspot.com, and you can follow her on twitter @SparrowCove.
Trumpets played the football theme that always made Eliza think of sleepy hot Sunday afternoons when time seemed to stand still. Cheering voices, shouting football players, and a broadcaster’s play-by-play buzzed out of the massive flat-screen T.V. mounted on the wall. The glow surrounded Terry’s head, sticking out of his favorite couch. Nobody was allowed to sit on it but him.
When would it be a good time to announce dinner? When it came to football, there was never a good time. The living room no longer existed to Terry. Calling him back to reality would be like jerking a worm out of the earth and tossing it to hungry fish. She’d have to risk it. He didn’t like it when dinner came late.
“Terry, time to eat.”
“Make me a plate and be quiet,” said Terry. “Don’t get in the way when you give it to me.”
“It’s soup, so it’ll be in a bowl.”
Terry groaned. “I don’t want soup. Make me something else.”
Eliza twisted her fingers. “I-it’s all there is.”
“What, Eliza? You’re stuttering.”
Eliza gazed at the cracked floor. “I’m going to make you a bowl.”
Eliza pressed her still-healing lips together. Next time she wouldn’t tell him what she had made. Pouring soup into a bowl, she crept to his side and inched the bowl towards his hand. Hopefully he wouldn’t throw it in her face. She had made sure that it was cooled off, so if he did explode, the soup wouldn’t burn.
One of the football players missed a pass. Cursing like a madman, Terry leaped to his feet. His arm knocked the bowl from Eliza’s hand. Soup splashed his arm and face. Pale chunky liquid poured into the beloved leather couch. Terry stared at the mess in stunned silence. As the full import of what had happened leeched into him, his narrow eyes flashed. A vein popped out of his crimson forehead. His lips curled back over coffee-stained teeth and red gums.
Eliza’s hazel eyes ran down Terry’s veined arm to his crackling knuckles. Those things had smashed her jaw like one of those rubber hammers that mechanics owned. The dark bruises had just faded from her light brown skin. She backed towards the door.
“Eliza,” Terry snarled, “come here.” He pointed at the spot in front of him.
Eliza twisted her suddenly cold fingers, staring at the spot—the death spot. “Terry…”
“Eliza, shut up and come here!” His voice knocked her eardrums.
“I-it wasn’t my fault.”
“Eliza, Eliza, shut up!” He thrust his thick finger at the floor. “Kneel right here! Now!”
She inched forward. “I-I’m sorry. I didn’t…”
Terry roared. His eyes widened like two pieces of ice in a crimson inferno. His teeth shone in the yellow lamplight like fangs.
Eliza screamed and bolted out the door. Her friend Trina’s house wasn’t far. She could make it.
Terry bellowed like a wild bull. “Get back here!” Sprinting after her, he sprang over the chain-linked fence without touching it. His massive legs propelled him across the sidewalk. Eliza could feel more than hear his every footfall. They pounded against her ribs. Her heart raced just ahead of its rumbling rhythm.
Thunder rumbled across the sky. Freezing raindrops pricked Eliza’s head and shoulders. His hard hand seemed to hover over her shoulder, reach for her dark brown curls, or bite into her cold skin. Somehow, her trembling legs sped up. The cold needle drops of rain morphed into a blinding torrent in a matter of seconds.
Reaching Trina’s gate, she slapped the metal latch up, sped across the wet lawn, and pounded on the door. “Let me in! He’s coming!”
Terry bounded over the fence. His foot landed on Trina’s metal garden pig. The rain had slicked the already slippery back. He lurched forward and slammed on his elbow. No words left his howling mouth. It was as if he’d become a furious animal and could only roar and snarl. Clawing at the grass, he lunged for the terrified woman on the porch.
The door opened in a flood of golden lamplight. Eliza staggered into the house, and a prim-looking woman shut Terry out. No sooner had she locked the door than the wild man banged on the unyielding wood like it was Eliza’s face.
“Get out here!” He kicked the bottom of the door. “ELIZA!” The metal pig shattered through the window. Both women screamed.
“You scared, Eliza?” Terry snarled through the broken glass. “You crying?” He howled with laughter.
“I called the cops,” Trina shouted. “I’ll blast your head off if you stay around here!”
“You need a gun against me?” He laughed harder, as if she was a coward and he was harmless. “I’ll bring my buddies around here. You better watch your back!” Obscenities poured from his mouth, but they grew farther down the street. The distant slam of a door cut off his vile tirade.
Eliza shuddered. He was probably tearing her things apart right now. She had hidden her mother’s picture, but he might find it. Tears blurred her vision. How had she come to this? Her cousin hadn’t approved of the match, but Eliza had grown defiant when she had voiced her concerns. Why hadn’t she listened? She sank into a rocking chair, squeezing her shaking hands together. She couldn’t still them anymore than she could slow her racing heart.
Trina tossed red and blue basketball shorts and a white t-shirt into Eliza’s lap. “Put these on. I got spaghetti in the kitchen if you’re hungry.” Trina glanced at the couch. “You can sleep on the couch…uh…I need to get you some blankets and a pillow.” She sighed. “I have to call Fred and see if he’ll fix my window.”
“I’m sorry, Trina.”
“It’s not your fault.” It didn’t sound like Trina meant it, though.
The clock clicked 12:00, and still Eliza couldn’t sleep. Howling wind shook the branches. Their shadows danced with the yellow streetlights against the windows. Several drops of rain pricked the roof. The storm had abated, but the seconds between the thunder and lightning were shortening. Lightning lit the backyard in electric blue. The thick trees leading into the forest seemed stark naked in its glare.
“One one-thousand,” said Eliza, “two one-thousand, three…”
“Eliza.” The low voice echoed out of the thunder.
A chill ran up Eliza’s spine. Maybe she was hearing things because it was midnight. Weird things happened at midnight. Pulling the covers up, she closed her eyes. The wind whispered, thunder rumbled, and rain pelted the house like a million rocks.
Sleep clasped Eliza in its gentle hands. Pounding rain became a lullaby, the thunder a soothing song. She had always loved the monsoon season, when the storms would perform their wild dances across the sky. She hadn’t been able to enjoy them since she had married Terry. This night was different, though. She wasn’t in his bed, and she wasn’t bleeding. Eliza’s limbs relaxed deep into the couch and soft blankets.
The back window burst inward. Icy wind dashed the curtains apart, and rain splashed the wooden floor. A big man jumped through the broken window and landed in a crouch. Eliza gasped, clutching the blanket in her fists. She opened her mouth to scream, but nothing came out. There was nothing she could do but survive the onslaught.
The man rushed her. Eliza stared, like the time on the freeway when that truck had careened towards her and she could do nothing about it. Jerking her up, he swept her out the window. He darted through the swaying trees. Lightning covered the forest floor in blinding light, and she saw him. It wasn’t Terry.
This apparition was made of rain. His hair was as dark as the roiling clouds, his eyes as bright as lightning. Electricity darted through his body like miniature storms. Putting her gently on the ground, he turned her to him, hooked one arm around her middle, and gripped her hand. He swung her through the torrent. The thunder, rain, and wind were their music. Their feet stepped on lightning and glided on wind.
Clouds and lightning swirled from his body. The ground and small community misted into nothing. Rain filled Eliza’s eyes. She tried to blink the drops away, but her vision swam.
Swiping at the water, she opened her eyes to see the storm, but she lay on the couch. The rushing wind, webs of lightning, and wild rain were just gone. Sunlight shone in through the partly opened curtain. The window was closed and in one piece. Her baggy shirt and basketball shorts were dry as a bone. She’d never had such a vivid dream before.
As she stood up, every muscle screamed. It certainly felt like she’d been dancing all night. She flexed her fingers. The memory of his arm around her middle, and his powerful hand clasping hers, still lingered on her body.
Trina came in from the kitchen. “Afternoon, Lizzy. You slept a long time.”
Eliza glanced at the clock: 3:06. “I had weird dreams.” She rubbed her head. “I need aspirin.”
“It’s in the cupboard.”
As Eliza downed the aspirin, Trina’s phone chimed. “Hello?”
Eliza rubbed her forehead. Dark strands of hair fell around her face. What did Trina have to eat in her kitchen? She hadn’t explored it when she had come for the spaghetti.
“I think she’ll talk to you.”
Eliza frowned. Who was Trina talking to? The prim woman walked in and held the phone out to her. “It’s Terry.”
Eliza’s heart went cold, as if Terry could reach through the phone and slap her. Trina shoved the phone into her hand. Eliza struggled to drop it, but Trina motioned to her to talk. The gesture possessed Eliza’s arm, and it bent the phone to her ear. “Hello?”
Terry’s deep derisive laugh curdled her blood.
Eliza’s hand quivered. “S-stop it, Terry.”
“Eliza, shut up.” His voice had gone lower, even guttural. “Shut up and listen to me.”
Eliza’s cold fingers froze around the phone. She would have hung up if she’d the power.
“Do you know how much that couch cost? I bring in the money while you’re upstairs coloring. I pay the bills. I put a roof over your head. I even endure your abominable singing in the shower. The least you can do is come to me when I command. What is it to you if I bust your whining face, or I demand that you be energetic at night? You’ve been like a dead rag lately. A mutt would rather eat what drops out of its butt than what you cook, and now you’ve ruined what I love most.”
Sobs broke Eliza’s agonized silence.
“I’m going to bring you home if you don’t come yourself.”
Eliza forced the phone away from her ear as if she were ripping it from its moorings. She turned the screen to the ceiling. Terry’s rumbling voice still batted at her ears. She pressed the red icon, and cold silence reigned.
Trina looked confused. “Why did you hang up on him?”
“I don’t want to be with him anymore,” said Eliza.
Trina checked her powdered face in a handheld mirror. “That’s what you said the last fifty times.” She closed the mirror. “You did this to yourself. Live with it.”
Eliza had heard that from everybody. They had written her off. She had gone back to Terry so many times that she had written herself off. Would it be easier to go back to him? A quick beating, and then Terry would be friends again. It was just his way, wasn’t it? People didn’t have to change if they didn’t want to. They had to be accepted for themselves. She was being judgmental, wasn’t she? Terry could stay an abusive demon, because that’s who he was. She could be his stupid punching bag, because that’s who she was.
“My storm doesn’t think so,” Eliza whispered.
Trina cocked an eyebrow. “What?”
“Nothing.” Eliza took a breath. “I’m…I’m…”
Thunder rumbled in the distance. Tree shadows swung across the wall in the wild wind. Rain prickled on the roof and clicked against the windows. The chimes on the porch jingled. Eliza wanted to be chimes, too. She gazed at the ceiling as the storm soothed her senses. Pointless guilt rose to her heart that Terry was alone. Still, she hadn’t been able to properly enjoy a storm in that house.
She stared out the back window. She had left the curtains slightly ajar so that she could see the tempest when the lightning lit the world in neon blue. Her stormy dream was out there somewhere, making the winds roar. Who was he dancing with tonight? A dart of jealousy shot through her heart.
“Oh, don’t be silly. You were dreaming.” She turned indignantly from the window and closed her eyes. She fell asleep, but she could still hear the gale. Cool air blew in under the curtains and the scent of rain filled the room. Eliza’s eyes snapped open.
A figure pushed through the curtains and came to her side. Bright lightning jerked through his frame. This time she could tell that he wore something, like pants made of the glimmering light seen in the clouds when lightning flashed behind them. Would he force her up like he had done the last time? Instead, he held a callused hand out to her. A thrill raced through Eliza’s being, and she caught hold of it. His hand throbbed like an electrical field.
Leading her out into the storm, he lifted his hand to the sky. A whip of lightning jerked into his palm. It sizzled and sparked, as bright as his wild eyes. The dark clouds surging across his breast glowed. Eliza stared in spellbound silence. Her own thoughts were unknown to her.
“Would you like to have it?” he said. His voice soothed, but somehow was nowhere near docile.
Eliza twisted the hem of her shirt. “I-I’d like to, but I can’t even touch lightning, let alone hold it.” The back of her throat ached for some reason.
“What do you think you were dancing on all night?” He smiled. “Open your mouth. Don’t be afraid.” He tilted her chin upward.
As Eliza gazed into his almost blinding eyes, any fear of the lightning vanished. She opened her mouth as if it were the most natural thing in the world. He placed the lightning on her tongue. It popped and danced in her mouth. Sparks filled her vision and crackled through her veins. Her muscles quaked with electricity and her legs gave out. The man caught her up before she hit the ground.
Mists swept beneath them, lifting them above the storm to where the moon glowed in peaceful cadences on the clouds. Lightning lit here and there. Thunder rumbled far below, like a lumbering giant’s steps.
As the man set her down, the clouds cushioned her feet in silky water and the softest down feathers. Cool air breathed over and under her bare toes. It fluffed her hair and kissed her face. Clouds towered towards the moon. Mysterious caves bowed over low valleys. Mists cascaded from deep depressions like waterfalls.
Eliza squealed in delight. “It’s so beautiful!”
“Come!” The storm grasped her hand and raced among the puffy leviathans. They climbed to the highest tower of clouds, and the storm leaped from its top. Eliza screamed as she watched him plummet to the sea of white and blue. He landed in a misty puff and beckoned her to follow.
Eliza’s soul expanded like a gale. Taking several steps back, she sprinted to the edge and sprang off the edge. Her screams turned to laughter. Puff! She landed in untouchable softness. Laughing, she poked her head out. Little clouds rolled off her hair and bounced on her shoulders.
The storm pulled her up. Taking both her hands, he held her at arm’s length. “Now hop!” He pranced in a circle. His strides were so long that Eliza’s skipping feet didn’t touch the clouds half the time. It was like she was flying.
Blankets of blue mist flowed from her shoulders, swallowing the shirt and basketball shorts. A flowing knee-length dress took their place. Not a single part of it felt uncomfortable or precarious. She was as safe and free in it as she had been in her t-shirt and shorts.
The storm slowed, and Eliza’s feet touched cloud once more. Clasping her to his chest, he danced in a slow circle. The moon dipped behind a billowing column of cloud. Stars opened their bright eyes and gazed at the blissful pair. The distant thunder quieted. It was just Eliza and her storm. She rested her head against him. Sleepiness settled on her eyes.
“I don’t want to go back,” whispered Eliza.
“But you’re not free,” said the storm.
“I’ve left Terry.”
“If you had, then you could stay.”
Eliza looked at him in confusion. “What do you mean?” Her heart pattered in her throat. “I left him.”
“He’s coming for you, Eliza.” He took her face in his hands. “He has your soul. You gave it to him. You have to take it back. You must be brave. You must break away. Only those who are free in here and here…” He touched her head and heart. “…can stay.”
“Help me,” Eliza pleaded.
“Nobody can free you but yourself. Break free, my darling. Break free.” He crushed his mouth against hers. Electric sparks shot through her frame. All drowsiness exploded into oblivion. Eliza’s chest heaved against his. The strength drained from her body in his passionate embrace, and she collapsed. He eased her onto her back. The clouds grew firm, and she lay on the couch once again.
Eliza stared at the ceiling, heart still pounding. In her mind’s eye, she saw him standing in the storm, a half-lit cloud beneath his feet. Distant thunder rumbled, as if he still called to her to break free. She touched her lips. Was she going insane?
As she sat up, her muscles ached as if she had been weight training all night. Making her dazed way to the kitchen, she made scrambled eggs the way she liked them: salt, pepper, and rosemary. Terry always insisted on plain eggs mixed with milk. Why? It was disgusting like the rest of him.
The smell of the eggs brought Trina into the kitchen. Her hair done up in an elegant bun, she wore a bright red jacket and pencil skirt. She had a high-end job somewhere, but she never seemed to be at work. “Feeling better?”
Eliza rubbed the back of her neck. “Yeah.”
Trina smiled. “I’ll talk to Terry, and then you can go home. How’s that sound?”
Eliza almost choked. “I don’t want to.”
Trina laughed. “You love him, you know you do. He has his reasons, you know, and it’s okay. He’ll get better. You chose him, didn’t you? He needs you. Don’t deny that. He really does. He’s probably crying and drinking, but no matter what he does, he’s not going to forget you.” Trina smoothed her skirt and went out the door.
Eliza tapped her toes nervously on the floor. She was going back to Terry. There was nothing she could do about it, because everyone had decided for her. It was like she had no will of her own. No soul of her own. That phantom land of clouds under a bright moon passed through her mind. Why couldn’t it have been more than a midnight dream? A faint hope flickered in her breast. She touched her lips where the storm’s had been.
Thunder rumbled outside. Eliza’s ears pricked, but nothing called her name. Instead, Trina and Terry’s voices mingled on the sidewalk. Eliza twisted her fingers. He owned her soul. He was coming for her, just as the storm had said. Was he real, or was he not? If she could know, she might be able to break away.
“She’s waiting for you inside,” said Trina.
They were at the door. The shiny knob turned, and Terry strode into the house. Eliza felt the chains screwed into her spirit coil back to Terry’s clenched fist.
“Terry’s here,” said Trina, like she had brought a gift.
Terry stepped towards Eliza. Seizing her face, he yanked her up and sucked at her mouth and cheeks. Rancid alcohol and old sweat stung her nose. He tangled his fingers into Eliza’s hair.
“I told you I would come get you myself,” he said through grinning teeth. He clamped his hand over hers and pulled her outside. The chain-linked gate loomed like a prison door. Maybe Eliza could make this work. Maybe this time they could be happy. A dull ache in her stomach whispered that it could never be. A chill whispered of the horrors to come as soon as Terry closed her up in the house. It had happened before. There was no reason for it not to happen again. If Eliza stepped onto the sidewalk, that would be the end.
Break free. The words struck like a hammer on a gong.
“Break free,” Eliza whispered.
“What?” said Terry.
At the edge of the grass, Eliza popped her hand out of his grasp.
Terry glared at her. “What are you doing now?”
Eliza lifted her chin. “I’m not going back with you.”
“Eliza, shut up.” He seized her arm and yanked her towards the gate. “I’ve had enough out of you. When we get back—”
“No!” Eliza bit his hand. Terry swore as he released her, and she sped back to the house. Knocking Trina aside, she skidded through the door and slammed it shut. She locked it just as the knob jiggled. The door vibrated under Terry’s fists.
“Open this door!”
She almost obeyed, like all the other times, but she set her jaw. “No!” Her voice grew stronger. “I’m never going back to you!”
Rain drummed on the roof.
“Open the door or I’ll kick it down!” Terry’s words had become guttural shrieks.
Terry shrieked and roared, his nails dragging down the wood.
Thunder growled. “Eliza.”
Eliza’s heart leaped. Could it be? Rushing into the kitchen, she yanked open the back door. Rain-drenched wind washed inside. The trees beckoned with swaying limbs.
“Eliza,” said the thunder.
The front door cracked open and slammed the wall. Terry roared like a wild beast. Something shattered in the living room. The monster’s feet pounded the floor.
“Eliza, stop!” Trina shouted.
Eliza dashed barefoot into the wet grass. Cool rain dribbled into her hair and down her neck. Pushing open the back gate, she sprinted into the forest. Terry bolted after her. His icy eyes had become demonic slits in a wrinkled, scowling visage. His thin lips had curled over his red gums.
He had resisted beating her rebellious body to a pulp in public, but now he had become a full beast. He didn’t care who heard her scream. He didn’t care if she made it out of the hospital, if she made it there in time at all. How dare she run from him, how dare she disobey! Nobody risked that tone she had with him when she had shouted “No!”
Catching her by the hair, he jerked her backward. He clenched the collar of her shirt in his fist. Somehow her soul had broken free of his clutches. He would have it back even if he had to beat it out of her.
“I can’t believe you, Eliza,” Trina growled. “After all I did for you, this is what you do?”
“I’ll make sure you never walk again,” Terry barked into Eliza’s face. Like a falling hammer, he swung down at her nose. A fingernail’s breadth from impact, a hand with a storm raging in it clenched Terry’s wrist. It snapped the bones with a jerk.
An inhuman screech cracked through Terry’s throat. His eyes bulged, his head swam. He lost his grip on Eliza. She didn’t exist anymore. Nothing existed but the pain. His jaw shattered beneath a powerful fist. Before Terry hit the ground, the stormy hand dug its fingers into his neck and slammed him against a pine tree. Pain crackled through Terry’s spine. Blood dribbled from his neck and mouth.
He slumped to the ground, mouth wide, lungs burning for air that refused to come. A man with electrical eyes cracked Terry’s chest in with his foot and held his hand to the sky. Lightning darted to his fingers. A contemptuous sneer curled the storm’s lips, and he blasted the cur through the head. Flesh, blood, and bone disintegrated, leaving a twitching, broken body behind.
The storm glanced at the water-logged woman who had come running with Terry. She had frozen in terror. Now she shrieked like a wounded hound. Stumbling backward, she tripped on a rock and sat down.
As if she were nothing but a pile of refuse, the storm took one last look at his headless handiwork. Not good enough, but he had lost control when that creature had seized his Eliza.
Turning from the corpse in disdain, the storm held his hand out to Eliza. She threw herself into his arms. “You’re real, you’re real!”
Kissing her tenderly on the lips, he swept her up into the rain and wind, thunder and lightning.
Trina never again moved from her house during a storm. She wouldn’t even look at the sky. When her grandchildren came home from school to tell her how storms were formed, she would shake her snowy head and say, “Your teachers don’t know anything. If you look closely at the clouds when the lightning strikes, you’ll see who makes the storms. They’re dancing in the clouds.”
Cristina Oramas is currently working on her B.F.A. degree from Full Sail University. She loves to share stories that are close to her heart, as well as share her love of fantasy through her writing. On her free time, she enjoys exploring Florida’s beautiful scenery, and curling up with a good book.
He wraps his arms around me, keeping me warm. Their weight falls around me like a security blanket. The smell of his cologne and the wood burning before us blend into a therapeutic aroma of hickory smoked, clean laundry.
The crackle of wood burning, and the song he dedicates to me, play in the background as we sit on the smooth white bench he built with his own hands. Every star is visible in the night sky. The gentle wind blows my hair back. I stare into the vastness of our universe. The significance of our lives is revealed in the millions of stars around us.
He tells me he loves me. I say, “I don’t believe you.” He tells me he loves me again. I say, “prove it.”
He pulls a ring out from his pocket. Its diamonds glimmering under the moonlight. It was as brilliant as his spirit and modest as his soul. His hands tremble as he presents it. No words spoken, just the sound of low music continuing to play, and the wood crackling around us.
Warm tears run down my cheeks, taking with them speckles of mascara. They leave smudges of makeup on my skin; a map of the hard road he’s preparing to take with me by his side. I kiss him. The taste of wine on his lips, sweet and tart. My fingers run through his hair, I kiss him harder.
He tells me he loves me. I say, “prove it.” My skin reacts to the ring like electricity and water as he slides it on my finger; the only thing in the world it craved. I tell him that I love him. He stops for a moment and then smiles.
“Prove it,” he replies.
Michael Maine was born in Columbus, Ga, where he resides with his wife, Susan, their five children, three cats, and dog. A graduate of Kendrick High School in Columbus, he currently attends Full Sail University.
THE LYCAN OF CALYPHON COUNTY
Monsters are real. I don’t know how to begin this any other way, as my mind wracks to find a way to tell you this in a way you’ll believe. Especially when it’s coming from your ninety year old grandfather, suffering from what the doctors are calling the strangest case of late Alzheimer’s that they’ve ever seen. Two years ago, even two months ago, it was simple for me to reach back into the mists of my life, to pull from the memories that I’ve collected in my long existence on this Earth. They way your grandmother looked on our wedding day in the country, the smell of the strong coffee she would make for me in the mornings, the feeling of the dew on the leaves of the cornfields that our family grew so that we could eat. The love we would make at night, laying together afterward with the window open, as I smoked my hand rolled cigarette and she told me about all the the things she wanted from the Sears - Roebuck catalog. The feeling of your father’s hand when I held him for the first time, his tiny digits wrapping around my calloused index finger. I can still remember these things, thankfully, and I hold onto them with the tightest grip my mind can muster. But there are other, darker memories of my time here, that I would be glad to feed to the jaws of this thing that is eating away at my brain.
Memories of blood, and things that cannot be easily explained.
In the summer of 1942, our hometown of Calyphon, Georgia was not the modern masterpiece it is today. It was a small rural community known simply as Calyphon County, more dirt roads and pine trees than high rise office buildings. Farms stretched as far as the eye could see, livestock and horses grazing within their gated pens, hired hands tending whatever crops the brutal heat would allow to live. I was ten years old that summer, happy to be out of the confines of our small, one room school building, free to pursue whatever adventure my small world held for me. Provided that the chores your great-grandfather gave me were done, of course. I ran through the corn fields that I would inherit with his death in 1955, fished the deep ponds that dotted the pine forest that surrounded the county, wrestled (and fought) with my friends, and jumped into deep piles of hay. Even though the world was at war a million miles away, right here in the county life was good.
In August of that year, however, it all changed. A farmer on the outskirts of town was awoken one night by the sound of his hogs screaming in their pen. He later recounted to the town (over many whiskies at the local saloon, more often than not) that what he saw as he dashed out the screen door of his kitchen, in his bed britches and cocking his double barrel, was the biggest damn wolf he had ever seen.
“It looked at me,” I heard him say to my father one night. “It had one of the piglets in its hands. It had hands like a man, I tell you - then it bounded off on all fours like a regular wolf, just bigger.”
It had hands like a man.
The people in town blamed that little detail on the farmer’s tendency to imbibe - he was what you would call the town drunk, and the good people of Calyphon were content to have him (and his stinking pig pens) on the outskirts of the county. After a couple of weeks, the town settled on the idea that it was probably a coyote, or a wild dog, that had gotten into the pen. After a month, nobody was talking about it anymore.
Then Herbert Messer woke up one morning to find his dog, a massive English Mastiff named Prince, ripped to pieces at the base of his porch steps. When the Sheriff and some town men came to investigate, they found tracks all around the body. Wolf tracks. The drunk was telling the truth, they decided, and formed a posse to find the animal. They hunted the forest from one end to the other and back again, never finding any evidence of the wolf. I can still see the lanterns, if I think hard enough, bobbing up and down in the forest. I stood on the porch of my house, watching them with my mother (my father had gone with them, of course), thinking that they were like fireflies in the dark.
Things were tense in town after that, with the fear of this animal on the loose. Children were shuffled inside before the sun went down, the Sheriff and his deputies patrolled the country roads, and guns were loaded at bedsides when the population lay down for sleep. I remember my father loading his pistol while he sat on the edge of his bed, the sound of the cylinder spinning before he slammed it home and placed it on his nightstand.
When the wolf had not been seen for another couple of weeks, the town’s spirits lifted a bit. Enough that the mayor of Calyphon announced that the annual harvest barn dance, cancelled initially because of the wolf attacks, would be held on time after all. He made this announcement in the town square, atop a freshly constructed platform that reeked of pine sap. I was in town with my father, running errands, and I had been left to my own devices for a bit while he conducted business in the general store. Munching on a candied apple I bought with a penny, I stood in the crowd that surrounded the platform, listening to the mayor go on about tradition and how the good people should not live in fear. The sheriff was on the job, he said, and would soon have the wolf strung up on that very platform for all to see.
That was the first time I saw Emily Woodruff.
She was there with her aunt, in a bright white cotton dress and short boots, wearing a bonnet that barely contained the golden brown locks that fell to her shoulders. She held her aunt’s hand and looked as though she was hanging on every word the mayor was saying. When she turned slowly and made eye contact with me, it was like the world around us slowed to a crawl and then disappeared. For that moment, it was just us. My father eventually found me, and the spell was broken. She turned back to the platform and my father led me away by the shoulder, a little upset that he couldn’t find me when he came looking for me. I helped him load the goods onto our wagon and we rode back home, the whole way questioning him about Emily and her family.
“Her family is from Calyphon,” my father said. “They own most of what you’re looking at around us, and have land outside of the county as well. I knew her father well when we were your age, and her uncle.”
“I’ve never seen her before.”
“You wouldn’t have, Russell, not even on Family Sunday at church. Her daddy went to school upstate and became some howdy - do with the army after graduation. Moved himself and his new bride to Paris shortly before Emily was born.”
He spat over the side of the wagon, the reigns steady and sure in his hands. I sat silently for a moment watching the backside of our horse as it pulled us up the road at a slow trot, its tail swiping at the flies that buzzed mercilessly about. I turned to ask the question he had been waiting for, the answer out of his mouth before I could open mine.
“She was attacked in Paris,” he said. “That’s why she’s here. Her daddy felt it would be better to send her home to her uncle. Safer.”
“A lunatic is what I’ve heard. Awful things that I won’t repeat to your ears, never mind that you’re only ten and don’t need to hear them.”
I was silent again, staring ahead and watching the flies while my father drove. I don’t remember any more conversation during the trip, but when we finally arrived home I had only one thing more to ask him.
“Do you think she’ll be at the dance?”
I can see him clear as day right now, the sleeves of his work shirt rolled to the elbows, the bag of sugar in his hands he was pulling from the bag of the wagon. He put it back down and wiped the sweat from his brow with the back of his hand, looking at me with his normally hard, piercing eyes. Now, however, they were soft and understanding.
“She is pretty, isn’t she?”
My face burned with embarrassment, and I looked down at my bare feet playing in the dirt of our yard. I could see my father’s smile in my mind, however, and it did little to help. I stuck my hands in my pockets and found comfort in what I found in them. I don’t remember what was in them (a bottle cap perhaps, or a baseball card - my pockets were never empty), but I do remember that when my fingers closed around them I could look my father in his eyes.
“Prettier than the first fish of summer break,” I said, smiling.
My father laughed to the sky at that, and my face burned again. I grabbed my pocket totems a bit tighter, the smile falling from my lips. He saw I had become upset and patted my shoulder, chuckling lightly.
“I’m sorry, son,” he said. “I’ve just never heard it put that way before.”
He kneeled down in front of me, one knee in the dirt, and grabbed both my shoulders. His smile was gone, replaced by the stern father I had always known. He looked me square in the eyes for a moment, then nodded to himself.
“She’ll be there,” he said, “with her aunt and uncle, her cousins, and the rest of the whole town. If you like this girl, go talk to her. Dance with her, if she allows it, and show her a good time. But be careful.”
“What do you mean, Daddy?”
“She’s not like us, son,” he said. “just remember that.”
He took one more good look at me while I thought about what he said, then stood to finish unloading the wagon. I grabbed a couple of small items to help, and on the way back from depositing them in the house, he broke the silence that had fallen.
“We need to get this done quick,” he said, “if we’re going to make it back to town before the shops close.”
“Why are we going back, Daddy? Did we forget something?”
“Well,” he said, “You can’t go to the barn dance in that outfit, can you? Especially if you’re trying to impress young Ms. Woodruff.”
I stopped dead in my tracks and looked at the back of his shirt, at the dark V of sweat from his neck. Then I looked down at myself, at the bare dirty feet, the torn britches and faded shirt I wore to town. When I looked back up, he had turned, leaning against the back of the wagon and smiling.
“Now can you?”
I whooped with joy and ran to help him finish.
The days dragged after that, the time until the barn dance seemingly so far away. I kept myself as busy as possible, helping to tend the corn fields and the few animals we had on our farm. At night, my body would ache from the work, my young body sore and almost immovable in the morning when I rose to the rooster’s crow. My father said nothing more about the dance, and simply watched me wear myself out each day to make sure that I wouldn’t miss out on the opportunity to see Emily again by shirking any of my duties.
Finally, the day came. The morning of the dance I woke up late, the sun already high in the sky, the humidity of the vicious summer giving way to the breeze of fall slowly but surely. Panicked, I threw on my working clothes and ran outside, cursing myself for my laziness. My father was on our porch, in his rocking chair, sipping coffee and looking out at the fields. Hands that he had hired before the harvest season were in the rows, picking and shucking, throwing the fresh cobs into wheelbarrows.
“Morning, lazybones,” he said. “Did you sleep well?”
“What time is it?”
“Almost noon,” he said, blowing on the steaming mug in his hand. “Your mother and I thought you were going to sleep the day away and miss your reward.”
Placing his mug down, he reached down beside his chair and grabbed a box that was tied together with a thin piece of twine. He handed it to me, picked up his mug, and began slowly rocking again.
“This came for you at the general store yesterday. Just in time, too - I was worried that we’d ordered it too late.”
I pulled the twine and opened the box, the lid falling to the porch. The tissue paper inside crinkled loudly as I folded it over the sides of it, almost dropping the whole package when I saw what was inside.
It was my suit. The suit for the dance.
I ran to my father and hugged him hard, the now lidded box tucked under my arm. He smiled and patted my back, his coffee mug held out carefully so as to not spill on me or the suit that was simply too fine for words.
“Hurry up and try it on,” he said, “in case your ma needs to make some adjustments.”
I ran like lightning back into the house to do just that, almost knocking my mother over as she came outside with the coffee pot to refill my father’s cup. I remember her smiling, watching me ascend the stairs to my room, our eyes meeting for a split second before I made it to my door, shutting it behind me.
So many smiles, considering the tragedy that was to occur that night.
We could hear the bluegrass playing down the road before we even made it to the barn, the sides of the road lit with torches that guided everyone to the dance. When my father guided our wagon into the yard, I could see the barn doors were wide open, the music blaring from within mixed with the laughter of the children running around the yard itself. There were a couple of automobiles parked there, old Model T’s that only the wealthiest of Calyphon’s citizens could afford. The children ran around them in their new clothes, playing tag and squealing with joy. The smell of popcorn and fresh cider from the apple orchards was everywhere.
I hopped down from the wagon, taking a good look at myself in my brand new blue pinstripe suit, white shirt and tie. I had bathed twice that evening, scrubbing my skin pink with water from our well, heated on our wood burning stove. My father gave me some of his hair tonic, and my mother shrieked with delight at the sight of me before I left. I was dressed to the nines, and ready for Emily to see me.
My father and mother, also dressed in their finest outfits for the occasion, gave me leave and went to the beer stall to find something to quench their dusty thirst before going inside. I walked through the barn’s wide double doors, the oil lamps hanging on the posts lighting the inside like a small sun. People were packed inside, clapping and stomping around a clear space in the center, where a man with a fiddle danced while he bent his bow to the strings. A square dance was going on, and right in the middle of the figures, clapping and laughing fit to burst, was Emily Woodruff herself.
I suddenly felt weak, my tie choked me, and my feet were like leaded weights. I wanted to run, to hide, to find somewhere that she wouldn’t be. I turned to do just that and saw my parents watching me, my father holding a mug of frosty beer, the head spilling over the side as he raised the mug to me. Go ahead, son, he said to me with that motion. Go on. Throwing caution to the wind, I started clapping and danced my way into the circle.
When I finally made it to Emily, her eyes took me in as she clapped her gloved hands. She wore no bonnet tonight, and her long hair was free and wild. In an immaculate flower print dress, she took my breath away. I bowed to her deeply and extended my hand, some grownups around us laughing at the sight. She curtsied low, took my hand, and we were off. My dream had come true, and again I felt the world slow around us until it seemed that we were the only ones there. After a while, the fiddler ended his song and was met with thunderous applause and yells. Emily leaned in and whispered into my ear, the hair on my neck rising from the feeling.
“I saw you looking at me that day,” she said. “At the mayor’s announcement.”
I guess she saw the look of shock in my eyes, because she took my hand and squeezed it tightly.
“Don’t worry. I was looking at you, too. You look very handsome tonight.”
I didn’t know what to say to that, and I think I stammered and stuttered to find a reply. She smiled, her hand warm in my own.
“I’m thirsty,” she said. “Can we get some cider?”
Holding hands like two young lovers, we walked outside to the stalls and grabbed two mugs of fragrant apple cider. We walked in the yard as we drank them, Emily’s eyes watching the cloudy sky above. When we reached a bench on the side of the barn, we sat and finished them in silence, the night breeze playing with the flames of the torches all around.
“It’s a beautiful night,” I said, unable to think of anything else.
“Not as beautiful as you look tonight, though.”
I regretted those words the instant they left my tongue but she only smiled at me before casting her eyes back to the sky. When our eyes met, I swear they reflected the light from the torches. I don’t know if it is what happened later that causes me to remember it that way, but I remember they looked like the fat shiny silver dollars that my father sometimes got at the bank. She reached over and grabbed my hand, squeezing it with a strength that surprised me.
“Thank you for the dance,” she said, “but I think it’s time for me to go home.”
“Yes,” she said, standing from the bench and straightening her dress. “I don’t sleep well at night, and I’ve found I sleep better the earlier I go to bed.”
I walked her to her uncle, who was already waiting by his automobile, impatiently looking at his watch. Her aunt was in the passenger seat, a look of worry on her face. Before she went to him, she hugged me tightly, and again I was amazed at how strong this small girl was. She’d give some of my friends a run for their money wrestling, I wagered. She kissed my cheek, and I was tickled by something on her face. It reminded me of when my father would grow his beard in the winter, and his whiskers would brush my face when he kissed my forehead at night.
She got into the car and I watched them drive away, the dust from their tires kicking up as they sped down the road. At the time, I didn’t know why they left so fast - the uncle drove like old Satan himself was right behind them. I put it out of my mind and turned to head back to the dance and find my friends. I looked up as I walked and saw the full, fat moon coming out from behind its cover, its beauty to me paling in comparison to the angel who just left.
We heard the first howl not long after that.
The music and dancing stopped immediately, and everyone inside the barn rushed out the yard. It was completely silent for a heartbeat as everybody listened - the howl had been very close, and came from down the road a bit. My father went to the wagon and grabbed his rifle, loading it as he came back to the crowd, instructing my mother to watch me. Other rifles appeared in the hands of the other men present, and I was shuffled inside the barn with the women and children.
Then it came again, closer this time.
The women shrieked and cried, closing and barring the barn’s door. The men took torches and headed down the road, guns at the ready. I was suddenly worried about Emily, worried that she had run afoul of the awful beast that had reared its head again that night. My mother took her eyes off of me for one second and I was away, squeezing through a crack in the back wall of the barn. I ran down the road after her, watching the torches in the distance bob up and down again like the night on the porch of my home.
I ran until my lungs were bursting from my chest, terror and worry driving me on. About a mile down the road I came upon the Woodruff’s Model T, its doors open and engine running. The exhaust burned my lungs as I investigated, knowing in my heart that I would find Emily hurt, or worse.
It wasn’t Emily that I found on the ground next to the car, but her uncle.
His throat had been torn open, his blood pooling on the dirt around him. His lifeless eyes were open, and I could see the moon in them when I kneeled to check on him. There was no sign of Emily or her aunt. A shot in the woods to my right startled me, and I heard the men of the town yelling that they had sight of the wolf. I plunged into the woods, through the sticker bushes and low hanging tree limbs, my resolve to find Emily renewed. Another shot pierced the night, and I heard a scream of pain that must have come from the creature, but it sounded almost human to my ears.
“Got the bastard,” I heard someone yell. “Get after it!”
Time slowed again for me as I pushed through the dark trees, the only light for me the silver beams shining from the moon above. I don’t know how long I ran through them, but eventually I came upon something that stopped me dead in my steps.
On the forest floor, writhing in leaves and bleeding from a large wound in its chest, was the wolf. It whined and whimpered as it lay dying and I swore that I recognized the pitch of its voice. It saw me and reached its hands (it did indeed have hands like a man) out, its claws pointed and deadly. It collapsed back to the ground, and what happened next nearly drove me out of my young mind.
I watched the creature shrink in on itself, its bristly coat disappearing as it pulled back into its hide. Its muzzle, filled with razor sharp teeth and spittle, seemed to melt away as the definition of a human nose began to take shape. Its claws retracted, and soon became normal fingernails on a normal hand. A hand that I had held that night.
Laying on the ground, naked and dying, was Emily Woodruff.
She looked me in my eyes, blood pouring from the corners of her mouth and from the gaping wound in the center of her chest. Recognizing me, she smiled before her eyes shut for the last time. I ran to her, cradled her in my arms, not caring about the slick blood that was staining my fine new suit. I felt her warmth leaving her immediately and, not knowing what else to do, screamed blue murder for help.
I was still screaming when they pulled her lifeless body from my arms.
They never found the body of her aunt, and it was assumed that the wolf had torn her to pieces or consumed her before the makeshift posse had killed it. Emily, they said, had probably cast her dress (which they found torn to pieces the next morning) in an effort to escape the wolf, either to climb a tree or dive into one of the many ponds for safety.
The short minded fools thought that the bullet meant for the creature had missed, striking her instead. I said nothing to change their mind. After all, who would believe me? I kept my silence, and when the wolf was never seen again life went on in the county as it always did. Unlike the two other attacks, however, this was never spoken of again. Either for respect for the family, or guilt for Emily’s death, anyone who would bring it up was shushed into silence.
But I think somebody knew the truth.
Eventually, decades later, people would come to our sleepy town in search of the legend of the Lycan of Calyphon County, as it was to be called. I remember you asking your father about it when you were young, having heard about it from some of your schoolmates. Being a man grounded in what he could see and feel, and not fairy tales of werewolves and monsters, he never believed in the story. He gave you the same explanation that he’d grown up with, the “official story” of the incidents.
But the legend was true. Every word of it.
Which is why I’m telling you this now, hoping that your mind is not as closed as your father’s, before I forget the details to the ravages of this damned disease. I’ve read the news reports lately, and the things they describe as the workings of an unknown animal remind me of that night so long ago, of the wounds I saw on Emily’s uncle.
I believe it’s happening again.
I don’t know how I know this, nor do I know why I feel so strongly that it is connected to this tale I’ve recounted for you, but I feel it in my bones that this all started with Emily coming home to Calyphon. I’ve instructed the family lawyer to deliver this to you after I’m gone, which I also feel will be soon, sealed as it will be so that your father can not interfere with my message.
You need to be prepared.
Dark days are coming to the county again.
The box lay on the top step, its silver color shimmering like a snake’s scales. Bryson simply looked at it for a moment before unlocking his door, picking it up, and taking it in with him. He took the package into his living room, placing it on his coffee table. He sat on his couch, tossing his keys on the table beside the box. They rang loudly in the room, seeming to echo beyond the boundaries of the walls.
Bryson leaned forward from the edge of the couch, both hands grasping the simple lid and lifting it up. A sound like a thousand dying breaths seemed to rush out of it, the wind from those breaths bringing gooseflesh to his arms. Inside, a small stone dagger nestled in what looked to be purple velvet. Too small to be of any practical use, but he knew it was merely symbolic.
Behind him, over the couch, a darkness like oily smoke began building, shaping.
His eyes looked over the runes written on its stone blade, in a language that had died on the lips of its forgotten people over 10,000 years ago. He read them easily, having learned them from his teacher many years before.
“Here, your end has found you.”
BEHOLD YOUR END, MORTAL.
The voice from behind he heard with his mind, not his ears. He jumped to his feet to face its source and saw the darkness that had swollen behind him. The dagger fell from his hands, struck the edge of the coffee table and clattered to the floor. Within the darkness, a figure writhed within, seeming to swim in agonizing strokes. Something similar to the darkness surrounding the creature dripped from its outstretched claws, burning sizzling holes in the back of the couch as it sought to close the gap between them. Bryson backed away slowly, minding the table as he moved toward the front door.
YOU THOUGHT TO ELUDE MY MASTER? NO MATTER WHERE YOU HIDE ON THIS PLANE WE WILL FIND YOU.
Bryson turned the corner from the living area to the the front room of his house, the pictures of the last decade of his life staring at him through the glass of their frames. A small side table flew from the living room entrance, striking the wall and ending some of the gazes in a shower of splintering diamonds and wood.
WHY DO YOU RUN? WHERE IS THE BRAVERY YOU DISPLAYED WHEN YOU MURDERED MY MASTER’S SON? WHEN YOU KIDNAPPED HIS GRANDDAUGHTER?
“Abigail was never his to claim,” said Bryson, breaking his silence finally. “As for his bastard son - well, he should have never disrespected my wife.”
THE WHORE WHO TURNED HER BACK ON HER BIRTHRIGHT? THE TRAITOR WHO CHOSE A HUMAN OVER HER OWN KIND?! SHE MADE HER CHOICE AND SUFFERED THE END SHE DESERVED -
“Now you’re just being rude.”
The shadow thing entered the room, its claws leaving burning prints where it grabbed the door frame to haul itself after him. The vacant sockets of it skeletal face locked into Bryson’s eyes, its voice like a rape upon his mind. He was almost to the front door, his hand very slowly moving to reach behind him.
NOWHERE LEFT TO RUN. NOW I WILL FLAY YOUR SOUL FROM THE VERY CELLS OF ITS FLESHY PRISON, RETURN THE GIRL, AND MY MASTER’S REVENGE WILL BE COMPLETE!
Bryson’s back struck the wall, his hand finding the killswitch he had installed next to the front door.
“So,” he said, “There’s absolutely, completely, no way we can talk about this?”
The creature moved with a speed it hadn’t displayed before, its dripping claws raised for the killing blow.
“I didn’t think so.”
Bryson flipped the switch, and two UV spotlights mounted above the front door blazed to life. Their light flooded the front room, illuminating a pentacle on the floor. It had been painted with a luminous mix that disappeared entirely when dry. It was invisible to the naked eye, and the foolish creature had walked right into it in hunt of its prey.
WHAT IS THISSS?!
“Circle of Mercury,” Bryson informed the creature. “Passed down as a ward against your kind for a millennia.”
He pushed himself off of the wall and approached the edge of the circle surrounding the pentacle. The creature inside was bent over in agony, still floating in the darkness which hung above the glowing circle beneath it. Symbols at the points of the pentacle seemed to pulse with power, their glow increasing with the creature’s pain. The edges of its darkness began to wither, scattering like ashes in an unseen wind. Bryson leaned forward, his eyes slits, a slight smirk on the corner of his lips.
“As a matter of fact, it tends to be lethal unless the invoker of the circle stops it.”
The shadow creature screamed then, the force of it shaking Bryson’s home and rattling the glass in the windows. The rest of the pictures on the wall fell to the floor, shattering and adding their broken bodies to that of their brethren. The creature began to come apart from the outside in, consumed by the trap it had walked into.
“Which, unfortunately for you, I’m definitely not.”
The thing seemed to suck in on itself, then exploded outward, pieces of it striking the invisible field created by the circle and the ceiling above. Then there was silence.
A smell like rotten sulphur ripped through the room. Bryson waved it away as he flipped the killswitch back off and strode through the mess, heading to the kitchen at the end of the hall. Pieces of the creature dripped from the ceiling, landing on his shoulder with wet slap. He wiped it away, cursing at the greasy stain it left behind.
A door to his right cracked open.
Abigail stepped out of her room, her delicate, clawed hand rubbing the sleep from her slitted eyes. Her tail flitted in the air behind her as she closed her door, looking up at Bryson and smiling drowsily.
“What time is it?”
“Almost sunrise, kiddo,” Bryson said, reaching out to ruffle the short black hair on Abigail’s head. He noticed her horns, which had begun growing this spring, had gotten larger. They stuck out like two bony knobs above her eyebrows, and would break through the skin any day now. They were going to need a stronger spell to hide those, and soon.
“What was all that noise?”
“Nothing much,” Bryson said. “Just another Lamia your Grandfather sent after us.”
Abigail walked over to the mess on the floor, holding her hand over her mouth and nose against the stench.
“Ugh,” she said in disgust as Bryson gently grabbed her shoulder, turning her away from the invisible circle. “That’s like the third one this month.”
“He’s not going to stop is he?”
“Doesn’t seem that way,” Bryson said, his hand guiding her back to her door. “How about I get this cleaned up and we talk about things over breakfast? It doesn’t look like you’re gonna make it to school today.”
“So what are we eating? I was thinking pancakes.”
“Yay!” Abigail exclaimed, her almost human eyes glittering with joy. “With butter syrup?”
“You got it, kid.”
Her door clicked shut and Bryson went to the kitchen cupboards in search of the mix.
Natalie D. Benson is a Professional and Creative writing graduate from Central Washington University.as of December 2017. She has multiple poems and an essay published in the 2017 issue of the Manastash Literary Journal. She is a freelance editor and writer. she was born and raised in Utah, but currently calls Washington state her home and place of inspiration.
Scott plops two heavy grocery bags onto the counter and pulls out a gallon of orange juice, two Redbulls, and a fifth of Smirnoff vodka. “Gonna’ kill all the sickies inside of you?” I joke. Scott has the belief that colds can be killed with liquor. He tosses the plastic bags to the side, one floats down to the ground where an excited retriever puppy sniffs it.
“It’s tried and true,” Scott replies.
I watch him make his cocktail in a large glass with a peeling picture of Kermit the Frog on it and with what looks to be about four shots of liquor.
“Whoooa,” I chuckle.
“Miss Judgy Judgerson,” he pulls his glass close to his chest in defense.
“No, no,” I assure him, “it just looked liked you poured a lot of vodka there.”
“That’s the ice.”
Scott and my roommate lounge on the couch watching the show Rick and Morty as I sit at the kitchen table finishing my homework. I jackhammer the eraser of my mechanical pencil on my notebook, trying to come up with the non-fiction story pitch due before midnight. Scott turns up the TV volume slightly to drown out my “thinking” noise.
I hate that I have to do school work while he is here. Most of the nights that he comes over, he’s forced to entertain himself for an hour or two. But I am so close to finishing my English degree with only one semester left. Still, most nights I skip a reading chapter to finish homework quicker. Somehow, the thought of making him wait on me an extra chapter puts a quiver in my heart, thinking that those ten minutes might send him storming out the door, hands above his head in an “I knew this wasn’t worth it” sort of way. A week ago, he caught me cutting my homework short and told me that school was a priority, and that he didn’t mind waiting for me to finish. But I know from the past that he isn’t the kind that waits. He is the kind that tolerates.
Scott starts on his third cocktail. He catches me watching him. He shoots me a look of “So?” and I shoot him a crazy-eye, tongue-out one to cover my nervous one. I tell myself that it’s not that weird for a person to drink an entire bottle of vodka on a weekday. I tell myself to shut up when I wonder if maybe he’s really drinking because of her.
Today, she posted a picture on social media. She was posed with two friends, and beaming. Her chestnut hair was curled, she wore a chic beige sweater and on her feet were what looked to be new expensive heels. She was radiating confidence. She was at some sort of fancy event or restaurant, and the caption she wrote to accompany the picture suggested that she was ecstatic with her new single life. I’m sure it is a picture Scott would have seen. As a result of some shameful secretive digging on my part, I know he still follows her social activity. Perhaps her “happiness” without him bothers him. Stop it. She was the Band-Aid for you. I remind myself.
Something crude and clever happens with Rick or Morty, causing the couch loungers to guffaw. Scott then whispers mischievously over to me that he is drunk. I pretend to be surprised, and he believes me and promises me in an overly serious tone that he is definitely, without-a-doubt drunk, and when did that happen? I tell him about four drinks ago. He chuckles with his head on his knees and says that he needs to go to bed. I decide a half-ass pitch idea is good enough and press “Submit.”
In bed, I’m wearing little shorts and stretching my legs one at a time toward the ceiling. Scott tells me he wants to give me a villainous nickname. “When did you decide I was a villain?” I inquire, poking his side.
“You’re an evil seductress,” he informs me, “so evil. Showing me your long, long legs.” He names me Madam Long-Legs and sloppily strokes my raised thigh. “No, that’s not right. I’ll think of a better one.” He pauses for a while, squints his eyes in concentration. He has paused so long I think he may be falling asleep. He has always been a cute drunk. Dorky, not afraid to be silly. I hold back the emotions bubbling in my throat to allow him to finish his thought. “I’ve got nothing.” He surrenders.
“That’s okay. I don’t want a villain name!” my voice is light, but inside I cry, I want to be the hero.
He doesn’t hear me. “I’m so boring,” He says. It’s not the first time he’s thought this, I know that, but the first time in the five years I’ve known him that he’s said it out loud. I knew Scott was afraid he was boring five years ago when we met, and a year ago when we broke up the first time.
One evening, a little over a year ago, he and I sat at the island counter eating a quick macaroni dinner, and he asked me, “Do you feel like I hold you back?”
“Yes.” I was blunt. I was angry at what the last seven months between us had produced. We were going nowhere. And he wasn’t helping.
“Do you love me?”
“Yes.” I did.
“Is love enough?”
I shook my head. I was blunt. I was wrong. Six months later, I realized this and begged him to give “us” another shot. Twice. He refused me each time. When he contacted me after his breakup with her, he told me it was because he realized he still had feelings for me. I chose to believe him.
Maybe this time I was the Band-Aid. Maybe he had found this other amazing girl and the fear of being dull had crept back into his mind, and that’s why he left, before she could discover his dullness and leave first. Like I had. Maybe he didn’t, and doesn’t, care what she thinks. And I tell myself to shut up again.
“Well, if you’re boring, I’m boring.” I pinch him playfully—a playful plea for him to believe me.
“If you’re a bird, I’m a bird,” he mocks me. I caw like a seagull in his ear. We both burst into laughter.
“I wish I was a seagull,” he whispers. I begin to say something, but he hushes me, “shh, shh, I’m in seagull brain right now.”
He closes his eyes. “I’m a seagull. Watch me soar.”
I study him. His features are so soft; I want to hold his face in my hands.
“I’m gliding over the water, waves under me. The sky is so blue.”
I’ve never experienced him day-dreaming, at least, not that I can remember. There is peace in his expression and a steadiness in his breathing. I can picture the flutter of his impressive wingspan and the light, wet spots on the tips of his feathers from when he floats too close to the sea spray. I want to imagine my own wings, gliding along with him. But I know I am merely an observer, holding binoculars and watching a beautiful bird enjoy his freedom.
“…Wait what’s that?” he continues, “a man holding french fries? I dive down—I snatch up a bunch of them with my beak, and gobble them up.” He makes pleased munching noises with his lips. “Ah, but alas. They are poison fries. I try to flap my wings, but then I fall out of the sky, to my death.” His hand makes a nose-diving gesture onto the bed where his hand crashes and remains lifeless. He begins to giggle uncontrollably, and soon it turns into side-grip worthy bellows. I can’t help but join him.
We laugh in giant waves, to the point of tears, to the point of hysteria, until the swells calm and stillness finds us—a dead seagull and a bird watcher that smells of french fries.
Noel T. Cumberland has been writing for decades but has finally gotten “serious” about it. He’s pursuing a BFA in Creative Writing with Full Sail University to formalize his skills and get his stories out into the world. This is his first published work since 1990, but he hopes it will not be his last. He lives in Tucson with his wife, two sons, a cat and some fish.
A Letter From Mommy
“Gina, you need to eat your peas,” I said. “That is a simple statement of fact, and not a request.”
If it was Wednesday, it was vegetable night, or “Veggie Vednesday” as my beautiful Carmen had called it. Veggie Vednesday simply meant everything we ate had to include a vegetable. Carmen had been a wizard at this, but I was still a rookie, so my veggie contributions tended to be steamed or boiled vegetables with butter, rather than elaborate Food Network-worthy affairs. Still, I was trying.
“Daddy, this is gross! Why can’t I eat ketchup for my veggie, like last week?”
“Chica, Daddy made a mistake last week,” I explained. “Ketchup is not officially a vegetable! Now eat your peas, please!”
Gina was just winding up for a good old-fashioned, country tantrum when there was a knock at the door.
“Hold that thought, Pumpkin!” I said getting up and heading into the hall.
“Don’t call me ‘Pumpkin,’ Daddy!” she yelled. But the ghost of a smile crept across her face, so I chalked it up as a win.
Opening the door, I bent down to retrieve the package. It had no return address, but the handwriting was unmistakably Carmen’s. I felt my knees weaken and my breath stop. The cancer had taken her so quickly. Living without my wife of fourteen years was hard enough, but being a single parent to her doppelgänger, aged eight, was almost unbearable. I didn’t really know what to do for a moment.
“Daddy, what is it?” Gina said, sneaking up behind me. “Is it for me?”
“I don’t know, sweetheart,” I whispered.
I held the box just a little closer and a little tighter than I needed to and stumbled back into the living room. Gina shut the door behind us and followed me, confused.
“Daddy!” Gina pestered, “Open it! Openitopenitopenit!”
I pulled out my wood-handled pocket knife, a fifth anniversary gift from Carmen, and slid it beneath the tape, careful not to violate the label with her precious handwriting on it. The tape cut easily, and I opened it up, revealing a tiny, tissue-wrapped something.
“Daddy,” Gina whined. “This is booooring! I want to watch TV!”
“No baby girl, not right now,” I said. “I think this is important.”
I took the tiny something in my hand, and slowly unwrapped it. As I pulled the paper apart a small key emerged which was at once foreign and familiar to me. Although I had not seen it in years, I knew it as the key for the drawer in Carmen’s vanity. After she died, it had never even occurred to me to open the drawer, so I had not even known the key was missing.
“What is it, Daddy? I want to see!” Gina said.
“I still don’t know, sweetie,” I replied. “Let’s go see together.”
We headed up the stairs and into my bedroom. One look would tell you that I hardly ventured to the far side of the room anymore. There was a thin film of dust on Carmen’s vanity which was only slightly disturbed when I sat down. I looked at the tiny key in my hand with real fear. I couldn’t imagine finding anything in that drawer besides pain. Her perfume, or her hairbrush. Her makeup, or any of a hundred other things that would simply rip off my developing emotional scabs and poke at the soft flesh underneath. And what about Gina? What would happen to her?
I opened my hand as I realized I had been squeezing the key so hard, it nearly drew blood. As frightened as I was, I reached out and shakily unlocked the drawer.
Gina was suddenly, uncharacteristically silent. We looked inside the tiny drawer together and saw an immaculately labeled envelope addressed to Gina. She took it quietly, reverently, and slipped out the neatly written letter from her mother.
I love you more than any words could ever say. The greatest day of my life was the day you were born, and every day after was a gift from God! I know I left you too soon, and I know you may be mad. Please understand that I’m with God now, looking after you all the time.
Since I don’t have time to tell you and teach you everything you will need to know as you grow up, I want to give you the next best thing. When I was a little girl, just about your age, I started writing a journal. I wrote in it almost every week from the time I was eight until just tonight, and I started a new book every year. The books have been with my mother all this time, but they are yours now. They will tell you the story of how I grew up and I hope they can teach you some things you will need to know as you grow up yourself. Gramma will send you one on your birthday every year. I know they aren’t much, but I pray they can make up a little bit for what I can no longer give you. I love you, Gina-bug! And I’ll always be with you!
Gina and I sat, speechless. It was as if Carmen was in the room with us right now and we looked at each other with tears in our eyes. And we smiled.
Currently residing in Colorado Springs, CO, Alex Morgan is an author who leans towards psychological/supernatural suspense and science-fiction. Alex has pieces of flash fiction published with Snow Leopard Publishing, The Stray Branch Literary Magazine, and is the 2018 recipient of the Colorado Authors’ League annual scholarship.
Alone. Tired. Confused.
In the unkempt basement of the talented and reclusive Dr. Price, sits his subject, simply referred to as “Wilfred.” Dr. Price is conducting a series of experiments to find a way to understand and reverse various forms of mental degradation. Wilfred is the perfect candidate due to his mental disabilities, elevated state of aggression, and that no one would miss him. But how he longs to be free. Staring up at the window in his cell, he perks up when he hears the nearing of footsteps, and the basement door creaks open.
“Wilfred how are we doing today?” Dr. Price asks in a doctor-to-patient tone.
“Go-odd. G-o-good.” Wilfred manages to get the words out, but not without struggle.
It wasn’t long ago that Wilfred was completely incapable of this level of speech. Even his butchered words show vast improvement for Price’s research.
“Wonderful! Wilfred, I have a question for you.” Wilfred staggers over to the edge of his cell and leans against the crude iron bars.
“Would you like to see what’s outside? How would you like that? To go outside finally.”
Wilfred’s eyes light up with excitement. After straining his mind from trying to say the word “yes,” he instead nods his head.
“Good, Wilfred. That’s exactly what I wanted to hear! But, you must do some things for me first, can you do that?” Wilfred looks at the doctor with a confused yet determined look.
“We have some new things to try. Tests, and some…other procedures—you’ll do that for me, right?” The doctor asks in a soft voice. “Of course you will! Right then. First thing, I need you to take these pills.” Dr. Price digs through his pockets, removing two sizeable grey pills
Wilfred stares at the pills, contemplating in his simple mind if they are safe, and glances back to the window. Sunlight pierces through the dust covered glass with thin rays of light that shine onto the cold, concrete floor of his cell. His gaze returns to his doctor, and he takes the pills, washing them down with water scooped from his bowl.
“You’re going to feel a little tired. Don’t worry, it’s a completely normal and expected side effect. Now, the real work begins tomorrow.”
Price exits the basement, locking the door behind him, and it isn’t long before he starts to feel the effects of the medication and blacks-out.
An entire day passes when Wilfred finally awakes to the sound of medical equipment being prepared. He stands, but quickly trips, falling back to the cold floor.
“Ah, Wilfred, good morning. You were fast asleep for quite some time, I thought it best not to wake you. You’re going to need all the rest you can get, after all.” Price turns to the cell holding a small piece of cake on a tiny plate.
Wilfred looks at the cake, salivating at the sight of the first piece of real, human food he’s seen in as long as he can remember. A chocolate frosted, white cake with some more red frosting drizzled on top.
“Oh, this? Of course you can have some! Please, eat, you’ve done more than enough to earn it!” Price slides the cake through the small make-shift doggie door recently installed in his cell door. Wilfred immediately devours the morsel. “Wilfred! What do we say?” Price scolds.
“Th-thh-th-aa-nnnk. You.” Wilfred struggles to say with his cake-filled mouth.
“Good—that’s a good man! You are welcome. Now, would you like to know why I keep you in this dark place, all by yourself? I’m sure you find yourself thinking about that quite often.” Wilfred continues to stuff his face, but Price has captured his undivided attention. “You see…how shall I put this? You, my friend, are a dangerous one...” Price moves over to the cell, grasping the bars as he gently presses his face against the cold iron. “To me, yourself, and society as a whole, really.” Wilfred almost chokes on the last bite after hearing such a shocking revelation. He would never think to hurt a fly.
“Yes, dangerous. They were going to put you down—like a sick dog, mind you. That is, until I intervened.” Wilfred looks at the man curiously with his dull eyes still holding a blank expression. “Surprised?” The doctor almost hisses, clasping the bars harder. “I convinced them that instead of just killing you, they instead place you under my special care. Wilfred, I am trying to help you. Your speech? Progress! And you have me to thank for that—only me. You would do well to remember that, my boy.”
Wilfred begins to feel dizzy as it becomes harder and harder to think.
“You will thank me someday. Maybe not today, or tomorrow, but someday, you will.”
The room quickly fades, and he collapses to the floor. Price continues to prepare his surgical equipment, and he clears the operating table of any miscellaneous junk not necessary for the procedure. Walking over to the cell, he looks through the bars to make sure that Wilfred has been properly sedated.
The patient is out cold.
Unlocking the door, Price enters the cell, noting the pungent smell of feces and urine from his patient’s “bathroom corner.” Price grabs him by the arms, dragging him out as his limp body slides across the floor, thoughtlessly plopping him on the operating table. The doctor makes any last-minute preparations and begins the operation.
Several hours later, Wilfred awakes to a spinning room with a sharp pain in his side. He doesn’t feel right and is nauseated. He vomits brownish-red bile on the floor right where he sleeps. The room spinning around him surely isn’t helping his condition either. He clenches his side, feeling something wet.
To his horror, he sees that his hand is covered with blood. Wilfred looks down at the incision area and sees blood-covered stitches over a fresh wound, warm blood slowly leaks from the cut. The smell of warm copper almost makes him gag. Panicked, Wilfred screams, he screams so loud, his vocal cords begin to tear.
“What’s all of this ruckus? Wilfred? Wilfred?!” Price storms through the basement door. “Dear God, man, what is it?”
Wilfred points to his wound, and begins babbling nonsense, sobbing like a child.
“Yes, I know. That’s from the surgery.” The doctor explains to his frantic patient. “Your appendix, Wilfred, your appendix was—how shall I put this…it was done working.” Looking at his wound again, Wilfred tries to make sense out of all of this, but no matter how hard he tries to comprehend what the doctor is trying to tell him, his thoughts only grow hazier. “You would have died, had I not intervened. You can thank me later, ingrate.” The doctor approaches the cell and gently says through the hastily welded bars separating the two. “Don’t worry, it should heal up just fine. Just don’t go picking at the stitches.” Price pulls up a chair and sits a couple feet away from the cell with Wilfred keeping to his corner. “Oh, you poor soul. Do you know how many people you’ve hurt? It’s a shame—if not a crime—I didn’t find you sooner.” Price says with an earnest sigh. Wilfred’s only response is a blank stare. “Either that’s shock in your eyes, or just that usual confusion. Wilfred…a boy, his sister, and their mother. The whole family—those were the ones you hurt. That is why I keep you in here,” Price gently caresses the bars, “I’m trying to help you—no, I am helping you.” The doctor stands up from the chair and begins to exit the basement. “We’re almost there, I just know it.” Saying nothing else, he closes the door behind him.
Yet again, Wilfred is left alone in the quickly fading light, with nothing but his own depressed mind to keep him company. Dr. Price’s progress is evident, though. Wilfred’s speech capabilities were nowhere near where they are now, and it has only been a couple of weeks. Wilfred lies down on top of the thin, stained, sleeping mat with his mildew covered pillow tucked close to him. He rolls over and faces the wall, trying to make sense of everything that has happened today, but becomes frustrated with how hard it is to think, and then starts getting a headache from the strain of his own frustration. Wilfred spends his next couple waking hours sobbing in the corner, against the wall, until the sandman grants him the only release he has in this world.
“Up and at ‘em Wilfred!” Price calls out from the basement door. Wilfred’s eyelids slowly slide open from his brief slumber, revealing his empty, ashen eyes. “Aww, what’s the matter? Oh well, I guess you’ve lost interest in leaving your cell. I’ll just take my things back upstairs and let you get back to pitying yourself.” Wilfred sits up when he hears the slightest hint at freedom. “Oh? Good then. Today, you’re going to take your first test. It’s a special test I’ve designed specifically for you. Do you understand what I’m saying, dear Wilfred?” Wilfred nods as he craws towards the bars.
“Good! Wilfred, how do you feel about puzzles?”
Wilfred stares at the doctor, and stutters “Puuuz-zzl-ees a-rre fuu-fu—”
“Of course they are!” Price says enthusiastically. “Here, you’ll start with this one,” Price slides the puzzle set through the doggy door. “It’s an easy sixty-piece puzzle. And look! It even has a kitty on it. Kitties are nice, aren’t they?”
Wilfred nods and begins examining the adorable picture of a cat printed on the box.
“You have one hour to put as much of this puzzle together as you can. I’ll be back shortly, good luck. I have the utmost faith in your abilities, Wilfred.” Price exits the basement, dead bolting the door behind him. Alone with the puzzle, Wilfred begins his trial. Examining the board for several minutes, Wilfred manages to formulate a strategy. He starts with the corners, a clever tactic for someone of his intellectual capacity to employ, and then works his way along the edges.
The puzzle is about halfway complete, and it’s only been about forty minutes. But his progress begins to slow, and things become fuzzier with only one piece left. Holding it triumphantly while staring at the single space left on the board, he tries placing it down, but it’s in the wrong position. Frustrated, he tries again, and again, and then once more. Unable to figure out his error, he bursts into tears. Fresh droplets slide off of his cheeks and fall on the puzzle, soaking into the soft cardboard pieces. Crestfallen and angry, he begins to smash the piece into the board with pain starting to pulsate throughout his hand. Smashing and pounding, his knuckles begin to bleed, yet he continues his tantrum.
The basement door creaks open and Price approaches the cell. Ashamed and defeated, Wilfred dares not look his doctor in the eyes, dreading the punishment for his failure. The doctor leans in against the bars, observing the unfinished puzzle next to the deeply disturbed and broken man, smiling with a sense of achievement.
“Wilfred, very good! Although you didn’t finish it, you showed vast improvement today.” Wilfred is still focused on the puzzle, and still upset because he couldn’t make that last piece fit properly, and unsure as to why he is receiving praise for failure. “Don’t you see? Dear, dear Wilfred, this is progress!” Reaching into his coat pocket, Price removes two familiar gray pills.
“Now, take these pills.” Price orders in an unsettling tone, rolling the two moderately sized pills through door flap. “Go on, take them.” He says in a colder voice that Wilfred isn’t used to, giving him reason for hesitation. “Now!” Not wanting to anger the doctor any further, he swallows the pills. “Good, good! You’ll feel that sun on your face in no time.” The doctor smiles and turns around, leaving the basement without saying anything else. An all too familiar sensation washes over Wilfred as the dizziness returns along with nausea. The harsh concrete floor welcomes Wilfred once more as he falls into another drug induced sleep.
A beautiful wheat field tinted with a soft, golden, almost surreal glow stretches as far as the eye can see with Wilfred standing at the edge. When he turns around, he sees a house and curiously enters. The manor is gloomy, dark, and lifeless, as if not a soul had lived here for quite some time. Despite this making Wilfred uneasy, he presses on. Crossing the desolate, cobweb covered living room, he ascends the staircase that creeks with each step taken. Upon reaching the top, he hears a woman’s scream. Rushing into the next room to see who the victim is, he gazes upon a horrifying reflection of himself. It’s different though, more proper. More like an actual person.
The doppelganger kneels over the woman’s corpse, and then Wilfred hears the blood curdling cries of two children. Again, he sees the same thing he saw with the mother, but this time, the reflection turns around, looks at him, and then begins to sob. The room starts to stretch almost infinitely, the bodies vanish, and the room turns into a surreal version of his cell. Through the weeping, his reflection utters the words “I’m sorry, Wilfred.”
With a banshee-like wail, Wilfred springs up in a cold sweat. He remembers what the doctor had mentioned earlier, that he had hurt a family. Straining his mind, he tries to make sense of what his reflection said and why he would have said such a thing. These thoughts start making him uncomfortable, so he begins to drown them out with incessant sounds and movements. Tugging at his hair, rocking back and forth in the corner, and pacing around the cell exhausts Wilfred after a few hours, allowing fatigue to set in, making it slightly easier to fall back asleep.
Wilfred awakes to the sound of loud sipping. “Ah, good morning.” Price has been sitting across the room watching Wilfred sleep, legs crossed, nursing a cup of coffee. “Sleep well?” Wilfred attempts to reply but is cut off as soon as the doctor hears the first syllable. “Not important. Wilfred, take these pills.” The doctor slides them under the door and Wilfred reluctantly picks them up.
“Wa-a-aattt-errr.” Wilfred points at his empty water bowl.
“Oh, for the love of—here, take this.” The doctor hands him a cup of dust covered water that has been sitting near the table with the surgical equipment. Wilfred takes the cup and gags the pills down. “You know, friend.” Price says in a sincere voice, standing from his chair and giving it a good push across the room with his foot. “You sicken me—you really do. I want to vomit every time I look at you. Every time I think about you. Sometimes I think maybe I should have let them take you and put you down. Let’s see, a hanging? Not bloody enough. Firing squad? No, too quick. Lethal injection? Out of the question, too painless. But, whenever I find my thoughts growing darker and morbid, I remind myself…remind myself why I’m doing this. All of this. Wilfred, this isn’t just for you, but for everyone like you. I promise to cure everyone who’s just as sick as you are. Just remember one thing, just one thing for me, this is all your tiny mind has to do.” Price moves closer to the cell and slowly squats down, sliding his hands down the bars, pressing his forehead firmly against the metal, as if trying to fit his entire head through the gap. Clenching his teeth, he stares deep into Wilfred in the eyes with an unsettling smile, uttering something Wilfred will not soon forget, or even understand. “This is your fault. This is what happens when you cross me, you fucking liar.”
Wilfred’s heart begins to race as the room spins around him and the doctors harsh, yet vague words echo in his head. It only takes a few seconds for the drugs to take hold of Wilfred, who collapses onto the concrete. Pleased with the results, Price stands up and walks over to the record player in the basement and pushes the needle down on a familiar piece by Beethoven. The good doctor has adored classical music as far back as he can remember.
Price preps his work station and ensures everything is in order. He opens the cell and drags Wilfred’s unconscious body from the cell, plopping his dead-weight on top of the operating table.
“Shall we begin?” He asks with a gleam of morbid excitement in his eyes. “Oh, yes. Yes. We. Shall.”
He makes an incision where the spleen is located. After a deep cut, the doctor digs his hands inside of the man. Wilfred’s unconscious body writhes and squirms as the doctor’s hands fish around his innards. Price scoops out his warm, dripping organ, placing it on the table next to him. Digging through the drawer, he removes a needle and thread. “In and out…in and out. And In and out! That should do it, shouldn’t it?”
Wilfred gasps for air, waking up to find himself back in his cell. To his horror, he looks down at his fresh wound and sees a poorly stitched incision with gauze wrapped with reused bandages. The blood still soaks through the wrappings. He clutches the area, shrieking at the feeling of something missing.
Wilfred crawls back to the only place he feels even the slightest bit of safety, a damp, mildew covered spot in the corner with nothing but a single urine-stained mat and dirty pillow.
“Wilfred, are you listening? Wilfred, I think it’s finally that time.”
His heart races as the doctor speaks. Fear overwhelms him as he thinks of what the doctor has planned for him next. The cell door opens, and with every inch, his heart throbs faster and faster. Not knowing how to handle himself, Wilfred begins screaming desperately, hoping someone might hear him, might help him. But it is just them, alone together.
“It would be a shame if this lovely day went to waste, wouldn’t it?” The doctor says with a smile, standing in the doorway holding a pretty pink leash. “Wilfred, it’s time to feel that sun shine on your face.”
Wilfred perks up with a newfound sense of excitement one would see in a puppy, almost forgetting the horror he awoke to only minutes ago, trying harder than ever to ignore the pain, even it’s just for a little bit.
“You promise to be a good boy, don’t you?” Wilfred crawls to the doctor, hugging his legs out of pure joy.
“We aren’t going to have any mishaps, are we?”
The doctor shakes him off and wraps the leash tightly around Wilfred’s neck. Price walks his pet out of the basement, and as they walk through the house, Wilfred is filled with awe…but also, a feeling of familiarity. He recognizes some parts of the house from his nightmare, but doesn’t remember ever roaming around the house, or life in general before he became Price’s patient.
It is warm outside, and the sunlight is soothing for Wilfred. He looks up, closes his eyes, and basks in its glorious golden warmth. It’s everything he has ever dreamt of, and more. The patient feels some semblance of peace finally, even for just one, single serene moment. Price interrupts Wilfred’s moment of tranquility by tugging on his leash, and the two continue their walk around the estate. The doctor pulls him towards the field out back, but through Wilfred’s tortured eyes, he doesn’t see a field, but a sprawling meadow of pure splendor. As they approach, they gaze upon the seemingly endless rows of wheat. Wilfred recognizes this field as the one from his dream, the only clear thought he’s had for some time. Thoughts and questions fill his mind as he wonders why he would dream about this place in particular.
“Would you like to know why I took you outside today? Hmm? Why we’re just simply staring out into nothing?” The doctor asks as he glares down at him. Wilfred looks up at the man but avoids any eye contact. “Wilfred, do you remember that family I told you about?” Wilfred slowly nods, his attention redirected to the field. “Good. Those people used to live here. This was their home.” The doctor wipes his glasses as his gaze is lost upon the field. “Wilfred. That was my family.” Price says in a low, measured tone. “I was away for business, and while I was gone, they were murdered.” Price takes a deep breath. “When I was notified about what happened, I returned immediately. I wanted to kill who did it—I wanted them to suffer, oh, yes. But, when they showed me who did it,” Price smiles, and almost chuckles at the thought, “I saw nothing more than a babbling retard. After I put my emotions in check, I no longer saw a murderer, but an opportunity. Wilfred, don’t you see? You and me, my dear boy, are bound by fate.” Price smiles as he puts his glasses back on.
Wilfred reflects on what Price had just said, which gives him a migraine. Price looks down at Wilfred and tells him, “I hold no grudge towards you. Not anymore.” The doctor smirks at him. “You can’t help being such a pathetic invalid.” Not helping the man’s post-surgery condition, Price violently yanks his leash, pulling him to the ground and choking him a bit.
“Off we go, back to your cell. We have more tests to do. More work.” They begin to make their way back to the house, and when they’re back inside, Wilfred notices a locked door. Something about this room strikes him as odd, familiar, and terrifying—all at the same time. He stops moving along with the doctor as he takes a moment to examine the door, then he reaches his hand slowly towards the door knob. Price looks back and sees where the man is trying to go and violently yanks on the leash.
“No! Bad Wilfred! That room is off limits. Do you understand me? You want to go outside again, don’t you? It felt good, didn’t it? All of that freedom? You will never feel anything like that again if you don’t listen.” Wilfred looks back at the door, but his desire for freedom overtakes his curiosity, so he complies and continues to crawl next to Price as they head back to the basement.
Price locks the door behind Wilfred as he reenters his cell. “Right, next test. Solve another puzzle for me. You have one hour, just like last time.” A similar puzzle set is slid through the doggie door. Wilfred examines it, and notices that it has less pieces, and they are bigger.
Wilfred begins working on it, and about forty-five minutes in, he is half way done. But same as the last puzzle, concentrating becomes nearly impossible. Again, with puzzle piece in hand, he stares at the board, trying to figure out how to place it. It’s right there, an obvious space shaped perfectly along with the piece he’s holding, but no matter how hard he tries, he cannot fit the piece in.
“Time’s up. How did we do today?” A voice calls from the top of the stairs.
Wilfred reluctantly slides the board underneath the door. A few moments of silence, and finally Price approaches the bars, grasping them as he presses his face against the bar, knowing full well that this man is no longer capable—and hasn’t been for some time—of posing even a minor threat.
“Wilfred. Do you have any idea what this means?” Wilfred sits on the floor and cups his hands over his face, crying into his palms, afraid of what’s in store for him. “My boy, this is…progress!”
Wilfred opens his eyes, confused as to how failure could possibly be considered “progress.” Wilfred was so sure of himself because this one was even easier than the last, yet he managed to do worse.
“Wilfred let’s celebrate.” Price slides cake under the door. Specks of mold cover the moist cake, and a piece has already been cut out.
“N-o-o-no c-ca-c-c-c-c—” He remembers well what happened last time he ate this cake.
“Eat. The. Cake. Eat the fucking cake, you shit!” Price shouts.
Wilfred is not used to the doctor yelling, and does not wish to anger him any further, so he submits and eats the slice, gagging the whole time. Wilfred slides the cleaned plate through the doggie door.
“Do you like Beethoven?” Price asks in a calm voice, as if there wasn’t just tension between them. Wilfred remains silent, mostly because he doesn’t really know what Price is talking about. “Ah, of course you have no idea who he is, you filthy little creature.”
Price walks over to the record player and puts on the same record of Beethoven’s music he always does. Suddenly, Wilfred feels his heart begin to race and his eyes become heavy with a familiar sensation. At least this time, he manages to stumble over to his sleeping mat before falling down.
But this time the room doesn’t fade to black. No state of blissful unconsciousness. No sleep. No escape.
“Fantastic. The paralysis is setting in much faster than I had thought.” The doctor says to himself, opening the cell door. “Can you still hear me? See me?” Snapping his fingers in front of his eyes to elicit a response, Wilfred lays motionless, unable to twitch even a finger. Only his eyes continue to function, producing a steady stream of tears. “Of course you can. Very good.” Wilfred tries to move, to try and fight back, but the only thing he can do is just lay there and cry while he watches everything. While he feels everything.
With the sound of a gentle symphony in the background, Price drags Wilfred’s motionless body out of the cell and onto the operating table. This time he ensures the restraints are especially tight. Unnecessarily tight, actually, ensuring they cause pain. “Can’t have any ‘accidents,’ can we? I need you alive,” He whispers into Wilfred’s ear, “so very alive.” Wilfred’s body may be numb and paralyzed, but his damaged mind remains unaffected by the sedative. “I must admit, I am quite excited to try this new procedure. Wilfred, we’re making medical history together here, don’t you see?” The doctor picks up a marker and draws a line from the bottom of the sternum, down the center of the stomach, to about half an inch below the belly button. Wilfred’s bloodshot eyes follow the marker ever centimeter of the way. Price picks up his surgical blade and leans over Wilfred, his lips inches from his victim’s ears. The doctor’s cruelty would make even Prometheus shutter. “Remember, this is your fault, and you have nobody else to blame but yourself.”
Wilfred tries to respond, but with his speech impediment now paired with paralyses, the only thing that comes out are some slurred sounds and drool. Price gently pushes his index finger against the man’s lips, hushing his whimpers. While still making eye contact with Wilfred, he slowly slides the knife inside. Price drags the blade down to the center of his gut, enjoying every moment—every millimeter. Though his body felt numb earlier, he feels every bit of the pain. Once the blade reaches its destination on the other end of the line, the doctor sets the blade back down on the table. He inserts both of his hands into Wilfred’s stomach cavity. Unfortunately, for Wilfred, the doctor has taken every precaution possible as to ensure that his patient doesn’t die. Not yet.
All whilst the specimen witnesses his own dissection, his heart pounds, his vision blurs. “You’re going into shock. It’s best if you just let it happen—try not to panic.” Price says without pausing the procedure. Wilfred finally passes out from the shock, but not before he is able to witness the doctor sifting through his guts with a sadistic smile stretched across his face. Another memory to add to his vast collection of nightmares.
“Morning.” Price glances up from his cell towards the voice. Wilfred approaches the door with Price’s breakfast in hand.
“And, how did we sleep, Price?”
Price puts forth as much effort as possible to push the words out. “G-g-g-o-g-ood!”
“I’m happy to hear that! Price, I’d like to introduce you to some people today. You’d like that, wouldn’t you?” Price looks up and scrambles towards the door.
“Y-e-es!” He exclaims with joy.
“Fantastic.” The doctor opens the door, holding a pink leash. Price looks at the leash with fear. “This?” Wilfred chuckles. “Oh, Price, I would never do anything that would hurt you, this is just a…precaution.” After a few moments of hesitation, Price finally allows Wilfred to put the leash around his neck. The doctor escorts him out of the basement.
“Price,” Wilfred gestures towards a cautious looking group of people. “This is my family—our family.”
A boy, his sister, and their mother all greet Price. Price can’t remember the last time he had seen another person other than Dr. Wilfred.
“Gross! What is it, daddy?” The little girl asks with a disgusted expression, scrunching and twisting her face at the sight of Price.
“Katie be nice. He is a guest in our home, and my friend. In fact, I would even consider him part of our family now.”
“Adam, I want it gone. Just look at it.” The mother says with disgust.
The little boy hides behind his mother, shying away from the man.
“Please,” Wilfred pleads. “I’m so close. I need him—do you have any idea what this means for me? Look at the poor soul, he has nowhere to go. And he’s certainly not going back to that wretched place!” Wilfred removes his glasses and begins wiping them off with a cloth from his pocket. “I expect him to be treated no differently than any of us. I want you to show him what kindness is. To show him what compassion and love means. Teach him to differentiate between right and wrong. What it means to be part of a family—loved by a family—so that one day, he too can finally feel what it’s like to be normal. To be a thinking man accepted by society and free to do what he chooses.” After some thought, the mother sighs and shakes her head and gathers the children, taking them into another room. Wilfred looks down at Price and smiles, who is looking right back up at him. “Don’t worry, friend, I’m here, and I’ll always be here.”
Wilfred gasps for the day’s first breath, awaking from yet another dream. He rolls over, curling up from the immense pain in his stomach. He remembers being strapped to the table while the doctor had his hands sunk deep inside his gut. Unable to properly articulate his emotions, Wilfred starts yelping, tugging his hair and crying.
“Wilfred, Wilfred…Wilfred!” Price has been sitting in the basement, watching the poor man sleep for some time now, just like he usually does. Wilfred screams, pointing at the wound as he chokes up some blood. “Normal—that’s a completely normal side-effect. Now, the pills. Take them.” This time, he throws the pills at Wilfred through the bars. Knowing what horrid suffering the doctor inflicts upon him after he swallows these capsules, Wilfred refuses Price. Those pills are always followed by terror and nightmares, something Wilfred has become all too familiar with. “Don’t make this harder than it has to be, just take the fucking pills! You would like to go outside again, wouldn’t you? Hmm?” Down on his knees, Wilfred begs the man for mercy, but speech has become a near impossible task for him, so only incoherent noise comes out. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees the only hopeful thing he has left in his life now, the window, the outside. Freedom. Vibrant sunlight pierces through the window. Oh, how he longs to feel the warmth on his cheeks again, even if it’s just one more time.
Although he no longer trusts the doctor—or anything, anymore—he chokes the pills down with no water provided. He will endure the next torment the doctor has planned for him, all for just another moment of freedom.
“There, that’s a good boy.” The doctor begins to walk back upstairs when he stops. “Oh, I almost forgot,” Price turns around and walks back to the cell. “I forgot to give you this.” Price pulls out a crumpled piece of paper. “Your reward. You’ve done more than enough to earn it.”
Wilfred picks up the picture, uncrumpling it, revealing a photo of a cheerful family with a large portion of the top right corner torn off. A mother and her children all posing together for a family picture. The doctor leaves without saying another word. Not to Wilfred’s surprise, he begins to feel the medication’s effects. He tumbles over to his mat and misses, falling on the cold concrete floor.
The next morning, Wilfred awakes to a violent yank on his neck. Price already has the leash wrapped around him and starts to lead him out of the basement. Dazed, barely knowing who he is, where he is, or what’s going on, the Wilfred has no choice but to follow his doctor.
“Wilfred, I have excellent news!” Price exclaims. “I think I’ve done it. I’ve finally done it! We’re going to change so many lives, you’ll see.” The two stop outside the same field as they did the other day. “Wilfred, my friend, I couldn’t have done this without you.” Wilfred stares off into the distance with a blank look in his eyes. The praise of the doctor, however, does evoke some feeling of worth from Wilfred, granting him the first shred of happiness since the first time he was able to go outside. The two look silently out on the golden field as the sun begins to set, as it always does. The rustling flowers and grass blow in the warm, Summer breeze. The sun dips behind the mountains many miles away. The doctor hands Wilfred some more pills and the poor man is too tired to deny it.
“W-w-ha…” He tries to ask something, but forgets how to speak entirely mid-sentence, tearing up at how frustrating it is.
“Time to go home, Wilfred. You still have one more test to complete.”
Wilfred’s responds with a grunt, followed by a stream of drool.
The two make it back down to the basement, and the doctor drags Wilfred back inside his cell, locking the door behind him. “Okay, this is the last puzzle.” Price smiles. “I’m sorry, our last puzzle. We are a team, after all, aren’t we? We are in this together—have been from the beginning, dear, dear friend.” His smile reverts back to a grimace. “Again, same rules apply. You have one hour.” Price slides the puzzle under the door. Wilfred stares at it with empty eyes. The puzzle is merely a block with variously shaped holes where you fit a circle, square, and triangle.
After fifty-three minutes of working on it, he’s only managed to fit the square through the correct hole purely by luck. Seven unsuccessful minutes tick by, then he hears, “time’s up,” come from the other side of the door. Despondent because of another failure and inability to perform such a simple task, Wilfred slides the unfinished puzzle slowly through the doggy door. There’s several minutes of silence as Wilfred awaits his scolding.
“Wilfred.” Price finally says in his low tone. Wilfred retreats into the urine stained corner, afraid of the consequences his failure might bring. “Wilfred…we’ve done it! Finally, we’ve done it! Take this, and please, do enjoy the rest of your day. You’ve certainly earned it!” Price tosses a slice of that cake through the bars. “And remember, we’re back at it early tomorrow, so try not to tire yourself out too much. Oh, and Wilfred, that cake you’ve been enjoying so much,” Price looks back to Wilfred. “It was her favorite, too.”
Now alone, Wilfred curls up in the damp corner and stares at the wall. He begins to cry with thoughts of suicide begin to cross his mind. Even dire thoughts such as those provide him with more comfort than what he finds in a normal day. Wake, wait, eat, suffer, cry, and sleep…this is his life, and a life where the only solace he can find is in his dreams is no life worth living, he thinks to himself as he sobs into his lap.
Wilfred finds himself in the same nightmare he had not too long ago, and hears that same woman scream. Rushing to help all over again, he bursts through the door, and he’s shocked when he doesn’t see himself like last time, but instead sees the doctor standing over her body. Something is off about the look in his eyes. Remembering the children, Wilfred rushes to their rooms, and again, there stands Price over their corpses. Price notices Wilfred, and without saying a word, begins to chase him through the house. Wilfred approaches that same room the doctor deemed off limits. With the real nightmare gaining on him, Wilfred frantically turns the door knob, and as he enters the forbidden room, the doctor turns the corner and lunges after him. As soon as Price makes contact, the dream ends, and Wilfred awakes.
“You know what to do.” The doctor says in a cold, monotone voice.
Wilfred spots the pills Price tossed in his cell while he was asleep and puts them in his mouth, but is unable to swallow them, the pills simply sit there. Price impatiently hands him a cup of water that had been in the basement long enough for a thin layer of dust to settle on top. Wilfred pours the cup of water into his mouth, but the pills don’t go down with the water. Rolling the cup back under the door, the doctor looks at the man. Wilfred sits in the dimly lit, excrement covered corner, and Price can barely see him, but assumes he complied and swallowed the pills, as he always has. As soon as Price moves away from the cell, he spits them out in the bathroom corner. The first time he’s missed a dose. He sits in his dark, lonely cell, thinking about his dream. Trying so hard to remember details—or anything for that matter. He can’t remember much except for that mysterious room the doctor doesn’t want him to see. He needs to find out what’s inside.
Price walks back towards the cell. “Wilfred! Today is a big day, a very big day.” The doctor says, unlocking the cell door. Wilfred backs away into the corner, as usual, and then he hears something different, a loud dinging sound from upstairs. “You--you! Don’t you fucking move or make a sound. Do you understand me?” Price storms back up the stairs neglecting to lock the cell. Realizing this was probably his only chance, Wilfred quietly crawls to the door and hesitantly pushes it open. It’s time to see what the doctor was hiding so carefully, but Wilfred knows in his current state, he wouldn’t be able make it far before the doctor easily catches him. But, maybe he can at least find the answers to all of this, find some meaning behind the dreams he’s been having. He staggers from the sloppy surgeries, if he moves too fast, he risks injuring himself further. Fortunately for him though, the estate is quite large, and the room he needs to go to is on the opposite end the front door is. Moving as hastily as his broken body will allow him, he arrives at the door and fidgets with the door knob until it opens. To his surprise, it is not locked. The room is full of old, dusty research equipment, documents, and an empty wine glass. He crosses the room and bumps into a projector with a reel already loaded on. After a few, stressful moments of trying to figure out how to power the device on, he happens to drag his thumb across a large switch that reads, “ON.” The footage shines on the wall in front of him.
“Day thirty-seven. Still no solid, tangible results. The subject has shown some improvement in certain aspects, but it’s not the progress I had hoped for—or need, for that matter. I’m going to up the dosage on his medication, again. Hopefully I actually get some results this time. I feel for the poor man, I can see the pain and frustration in his eyes when he tries to communicate. But, I’m close—so close, I know it.”
The clip ends, leaving Wilfred confused. The only reflection he’s seen of himself has been in the urine puddles on the floor of his cell, but he still recognizes himself to some extent. His head starts to hurt as memories and feelings rush into his head. Rummaging through a pile of film, he selects another recording at random, and then feels something familiar as he manages to load it into the projector.
“Day four. Subject is adjusting as expected to his new environment, despite the negative reaction from my family. He tends to throw outrageous tantrums when left alone for too long, probably a lingering effect from his isolation during his time in the asylum. He becomes lonely—very lonely, and I feel for him. His caretaker warned me about him, she said he was ‘violent.’ I don’t believe this man to be inherently violent, not one bit. He’s an innocent man longing to be heard and understood. But, no matter how many times I try explaining what would have happened to him if I hadn’t taken him in, he still doesn’t understand why I must keep him locked away, even though I’ve done everything I can to make him feel safe, even welcomed. In fact, the man seems to dislike most things. It was Ben’s birthday yesterday, and I even shared a small piece of his birthday cake with him, but he didn’t even seem to appreciate that. I need to make more headway if I’m to cure him. If I am successful, then people like him won’t have to endure such suffering within their own mind anymore.”
The footage cuts out, and again, the man talking so eloquently is the same man who couldn’t even solve a child’s puzzle. With tears filling his eyes from a migraine brought on by thinking too hard, he struggles, but manages to load another film at random.
“Day twelve…well, progress was made today, just not in the way I anticipated. During one of his tantrums, I wondered how he’d react to music. I put on an old record I managed to dig out from my collection. To my surprise, that seemed to calm him down quite a bit. When he seemed a bit more tranquil, I attempted to communicate with him. To my surprise, he actually communicated without screaming or trying to smash the door down. After speaking with him for a bit, I decided calling him ‘subject’ or ‘patient,’ doesn’t do much for his self-esteem, so I started listing off some names. The man shook his head at some, while violently spitting at most of the others—that is, until I suggested ‘Wilfred’. He seemed to like that name, compared to the others, at least. Although, I constantly remind myself not to become too attached, I can’t afford to let my emotions interfere with my goal.”
His head pounding even harder now, Wilfred collapses to his knees, and is confused as to why he is calling someone else by his name. Another film is loaded.
“Day thirty-two. Astonishing results were produced today—albeit, with some unintended side effects. Just a few days ago, I decided to give Wilfred Katie’s old puzzle to help improve his problem-solving skills. Katie adored the kitten on the puzzle, and the picture seemed to bring him some peace as he worked. Although, originally intended for research, the puzzle itself actually gave the man something to do in his free time, so I let him keep the puzzle. His problem-solving skills have improved significantly since then. At first, Wilfred would get extremely frustrated with it, but once I upped the dosage of his medication, it only took him about an hour to solve it, which is quite impressive considering the lack of success we’ve been having. I think now is the time to challenge him and see just how much potential my reworked formula has. Starting tomorrow, I will increase the difficulty of his tests each time I administer one. Hopefully, he won’t become discouraged and frustrated too quickly. Lastly, but probably his most impressive feat, was this morning when I checked on him, Wilfred clearly, for the most part, said ‘good morning’ to me”
Immediately, the memory of the unfinished kitten’s face comes back to him. That was the first puzzle he remembers doing, and then he remembers his “reward,” the picture of that family, specifically, the little girl. He hurries to load the projector with another film.
“This is astonishing! Day sixty. Wilfred’s IQ has risen significantly since I’ve began the experiment. Admittedly, I’ve tripled his dose for faster results. An unethical act, yes, I admit—but necessary. I’ve done away with any form of restraints while taking him on his daily walk. I still try to avoid Martha and the children because they simply can’t comprehend the way this man feels like I can. Ben and Katie have been caught sneaking down into the basement, taunting Wilfred. Of course, their misbehavior doesn’t go without a firm punishment. Not only is it abusive and rude, but it’s also detrimental to my work. And of course, not a day goes by without Martha asking when ‘it’ will be gone. I still don’t—and won’t anytime soon—have a definite answer for her. As far as I’m concerned, Wilfred will be fit to leave after he’s sat down with us at the dinner table while we all enjoy each other’s company. Then, and only then, will I allow society to take him back.”
Wilfred’s intellectual double pauses for a moment and wipes his glasses, as if pondering something that’s been troubling him. The recording continues.
“Before I conclude this recording, I’d like to note something for future reference. Although probably my own fault, or perhaps the children are to blame, I’ve noticed that Wilfred’s cell tends to be left unlocked some mornings. I haven’t paid much mind to it, considering there is no mess or injury, and nothing in our home is broken. I’ve asked Wilfred about it, and he just stares at me with his usual confused look. I can’t imagine him having the capacity for such a mischievous stunt such as this. I’ll have to speak with Martha about keeping a better eye on the children while I’m away. I’m not terrible concerned, the man can barely navigate the basement, let alone an estate of this size. I suppose my mental and physical fatigue is finally catching up with me. Martha has been complaining about me rambling more often and sometimes I lose my trace of thought mid-sentence, however brief it may be. These tireless nights I spend buried in my research are taxing. Next time I stop off in town, I’ll need to pick up more coffee.”
Wilfred becomes overwhelmed with memories, but distant memories, almost unfamiliar. Memories he didn’t think were his, until he had seen this footage. He remembers the nightmare he had with the children and that woman. He begins to recognize some of the massive textbooks in the office. Without the medication corrupting his mind, thinking becomes a bit easier. But amidst his mental clarity, he finally realizes something he wishes he hadn’t. A boy, his little sister, and mother, all living happily with their talented and reclusive father in their large and comfortable home.
With his head feeling as if it’s about to explode, he can hear the front door slam. With curiosity overtaking his instincts for self-preservation, he inserts the next film laying on top of the cluttered pile with haste. The footage rolls, and Wilfred is petrified. It’s his doctor. It’s Dr. Price, but not his Dr. Price, not the one he’s come to know. Price is wearing dirty, older looking clothes, stained with blood and sweat. He stares curiously into the camera until he finally stutters the words, “good. Mo-o-orning. My-my n-n-name…” Price glances behind him and sees a degree, a Ph.D., in fact, hanging on the wall, and then he looks into the camera with that same smile that haunts Wilfred’s thoughts. After watching the man curiously sift through a pile of clutter, he stumbles across a lab coat hanging in the corner and puts it on. He looks back down at the diploma he’s holding, and sounds out, “D-d-oc-ctor Ad-d-am P-r-prrr-i-c-c-e.”
Dr. Adam Price, a brilliant and well-respected doctor, sits in his study with sullied undergarments, a scarred mind, and missing organs. He uses his desk to steady himself as he stands up, and then uses a pile of books for support, but the books come toppling down on top of him. He glances at some of the books and notices that they’re all medical textbooks. From various surgical procedures to writings on psychology to encyclopedias, they look like someone had been reading them recently, and then it all comes to him. Dr. Price, or Wilfred, has been learning, studying. Amidst his discovery, his thoughts are interrupted when the study door creeks open.
“Wilfred, tsk tsk tsk. Didn’t we agree not to open this door? We did, didn’t we?” The doctor looks over at the film and the pile of books, realizing he must have figured enough out and the whole ‘doctor’ charade was over. But it doesn’t matter, not at this point. “It’s going to be alright, I’ve already forgiven you. See how kind I am? See? To show you how nice and merciful Dr. Price is, we’re going to get all of those nasty thoughts out of your head.” The real Dr. Price looks at the imposter in absolute horror pleading and begging.
“N-no. Pl-l-e-a-a-se. I-I-I wa-wanted t-o h-h-h-he—”
“Remember, you did this—all of this.” ‘Dr. Price’s’ patience runs out, caring not to listen to the man’s pleas. “Was it worth it? Any of it?” He smiles and laughs as he grabs “Wilfred’s” scrawny legs and drags him out of the room. He struggles, screams, cries, trying to slow the doctor down, knocking over more books as he does. His eye catches a particular book that fell, and something about it strikes absolute fear into his heart. The book looks almost new, as if someone had been reading it just this morning. Lobotomy: A Modern, Medical Approach, is written across in bold, underlined lettering.
“Well, now that you apparently remember enough to know who I really am, I should tell you…” Wilfred stops dragging the feeble man down the hall, and digs his knee firmly in his chest, leaning as close as possible without touching the man. “I killed your family, and I enjoyed every moment of it. Oh, yes. That field you love gazing at during our ‘special’ walks? That’s where I buried them. Maybe on our next walk, we’ll pay them a visit.” Wilfred says, colder than ever. Wilfred stands up off of Price and continues dragging him through the halls, then down the stairs into the basement where the surgical table has already been hastily prepared. Price’s world is collapsing around him, breaking down as each memory returns. A man trying to further the good of mankind while helping a hopeless soul along the way. It was the very soul he was trying so desperately to save that finally broke his own. The new Price straps his limp body to the operating table that was never intended on being used in this sort of manner. “But, there is one thing I didn’t lie about. All of this? It is completely your fault in every sense.” He finishes strapping the Price in. Wilfred looks at his new replacement with glossy, tired eyes. “Oh, yes. You see, the medication you had been giving me, in fact, did help my… ‘disabilities.’ Just not all of them. Turns out, Adam, your medication did make me smarter, but my newfound intellect came with more…intricate thoughts. You see, it never took away those…other desires. I was able to surrender myself to my inner sadist more than I was ever could have. I wanted others to feel pain, to suffer, and now I’m even more capable at doing just that,” He leans close to the bound man, and whispers, “hurting you.”
The leather holding him to the table is so tight, it begins to cut circulation off to his extremities. The new doctor continues. “After so much time of being called ‘retarded,’ and ‘broken’—looked at like some pet by all of you, your family, and the rest of this Goddamned world, I realized it was time to change things. It’s hard to diagnose someone who can barely speak or function as a dangerous sociopath, now isn’t it? However, I can’t blame you for this oversight.” The new Wilfred struggles to speak once again. It tears him apart inside knowing how well he was able to articulate himself before all of this.
Wilfred callously turns to him and shoves two more of the pills in his mouth. “Swallow!”
Lacking the strength to struggle, the pills slide down his throat. Painfully. The ‘doctor’ almost hisses through clenched teeth. “You are not sorry. You have never been sorry. You have never felt sorry for me—you only used me as a perfect little project to further your own career. You don’t think I remember? The day you ‘rescued’ me? I remember that self-righteous look on your face as you signed those release forms.”
“Shut up! Don’t try to tell me you ‘cared. You never cared!’ When a mutt is picked up from the pound,” he grinds his teeth, “it isn’t supposed to see the inside of a cage again. Isn’t that all I am to you? Just a mutt you picked out from a selection of all the other mutts? It must have taken you some time to convince yourself it was for the greater good. Or was it purely ambition?” He smiles. “Greed, perhaps, doctor?”
“Hush. Shh, shh, shh. Don’t you worry, I’m going to be a kinder, better, more merciful ‘Dr. Price’ than you ever were.” Instead of the proper leather band usually placed in the patient’s mouth, a filthy rag that had recently been used for God knows what is lying on the table next to the other surgical equipment and is shoved in the patient’s mouth. “I was so, so happy to finally be free from that Hell. I couldn’t understand what was really happening at the time, only that I no longer had to live there anymore. No longer would I be mocked, beaten, humiliated, and kept locked away. I was so excited! And then…then you just left. You left me. Like it was nothing! Like I was nothing!” Through soiled cloth, the man begins to sob as his eyes become bloodshot, filling with confusion, anger, and regret. Wilfred continues as he traces various lines on Price’s head. “Usually, when an owner adopts a mutt, the owner takes it home with them. Treats it like family. But no, instead I watched the sun set and rise from my barred window for several more days. But I still wasn’t angry—oh no, my hated didn’t manifest until you brought me here. I looked at you as if you were my savior, when in fact, you were just another captor, and I was just another prisoner. Yes, yes, indeed you saved me from that cesspit they call an ‘institution,’ but only for you to throw me into another cell.”
Wilfred walks behind Price and begins rubbing his temples, getting a feel for the area. “Any thoughts of happiness and freedom were ripped away from me in a moment. It took me a while to come to terms with it. Mind you, that’s why I threw so many tantrums at first. Realizing I may never see the outside world again, and realizing how much time I would have, I spent many, many hours—days, even—learning how to be you, and while I was learning, I happened to learn a few other interesting things.” Wilfred walks over to the record player and puts the same record of Beethoven on from earlier. “Your plan was to make me all better, right? To ‘cure’ me? And then what? parade me around like some trained pet? You wanted your reward, that prize, the money--your fame. You could have cared less about me—about what happened to me. Who cares if the medication would have killed me? Who cared what happened to me once you got what you wanted, right? That’s all that matters, after all, what Dr. Price gets, right? Oh, you poor pathetic mess.” I’m sure even with your mind dwindling away, you’re still curious how I managed to reduce such an intellectually superior man to a mere pile of drooling flesh? Price struggles to meet Wilfred’s eyes with his own. “You see, the only way to escape was to lull you—and your family, of course—into a false sense of safety. I made sure to behave extra well so you would take me outside and show me more of your wonderful home—excuse me, my wonderful home. Oh, the insufferable behavior I tolerated from those brats…I really did enjoy ‘disciplining’ them, something you obviously failed to do.” His laughter goes from a low chuckle to a devilish outburst. “Can you remember when you first started allowing me to use eating utensils? Look back to your cell once more and remember the window you looked up to every morning. That little bit of hope you had only because I allowed it. Once the puzzles became too easy, I turned my attention to a more challenging one…a way out. After several days of tampering with that window, using the forks, knives, and whatever the hell else you were so gracious to provide me with, I was able to escape. Of course, I couldn’t just up and leave, oh, no. I needed more of that medicine of yours before I left. I will admit, thinking, learning, speaking, and well, everything was so much easier and clearer after only about a week, but I couldn’t let you discover that I was improving so fast. I knew before I escaped, I had to find more of it. That’s when I happened across your study.” He takes a deep sigh. “I’m sorry, my study. I really need to work on that, don’t I?” Wilfred cleans his glasses once more before the procedure. “I saw everything—learned everything, I studied your recordings. Where do you think I learned how to speak so well? I will admit, you knew what you were doing with that formula of yours. So well in fact, that my mind had become unshackled from the constraints of an unfortunate birth. Every night, I explored. I stood over your bed. I watched you breathe. I watched you dream. I watched your wife toss and turn, depending on how warm or cool the bedroom was, and I must say, you both are extremely deep sleepers. Then I watched your children sleep. Those annoying, bratty, inconsiderate pests of yours. While watching you all dream, I dreamt also. I dreamt of all the wonderful ways I could kill each and every one of you. Drag a knife across your throats? Set your home ablaze? Smother and strangle your children? Yes, all of those thoughts eased me to sleep at night and I anticipated the day I could make those dreams reality. But then I realized I needed you for just a little bit longer.”
Wilfred picks up a very large, long, thick needle. “The further into your research I found myself, the more I was able to learn.” Wilfred approaches Price and grabs his jaw, forcing him to look him in the eyes. “An interesting note I came across in your study late one night, was about the medicine. I learned that the medication targets specific parts of the brain that are damaged or deteriorating. This deterioration inevitably leads to various…issues, if not death. When given to someone with that degree of brain damage, such as myself, it reverses that damage, repairing any decay.” He lets go of Price and walks back towards the table where all of his surgical tools are. “But, it has another effect…quite spectacular, really. When given to a person with no inherent genetic defects—such as the great Dr. Price—it affects the individual quite violently. Side effects may include,” he picks up a small mallet, “confusion, frustration, blurred vision, memory loss, fatigue, slurred speech…essentially replicating how I felt for all of my life.” Price smiles. “Up until now, of course.” Wilfred whistles a tune as he walks back over to Price, who has one eye half closed as he drools on himself, trying hard to stay conscious. “I’m sure you felt safe enough in the middle of the country to not concern yourself with proper home security. Who was even around to break in, after all? Once I’d figured out where you kept those wonderful little capsules, I started poisoning your water over a couple weeks with small doses. The powder inside them mixes perfectly with water, leaving no trace of contaminates. It wasn’t until one day, I seized my opportunity when you opened the cell to take me on another one of our strolls. It wasn’t hard, the medication had already taken a firm hold of you, so all I really had to do was give your head a good smack against the bars. And, well, I think you can guess what I did next if you remember the stains on my clothes in my first recording.” Wilfred ensures the contraption holding Price’s head in place is tightly secured as he glances back at a drawing of the human brain. “Then, I shoved those pills down your throat until you gagged. And then more. And more. And when you finally forgot who you were completely, I kept going.” The new Dr. Price aligns the needle with calculated precision.
“Don’t worry, these nasty thoughts will be gone soon enough. Because, unlike you, I am a benevolent doctor capable of mercy.” He begins moving the mallet back and forth over the nail, making sure he’ll hit it correctly first go, and smiles ever so widely, changing his tone to an upbeat, happy one. “We are going to change the world, you and I!” With one final swing of the mallet, the large needle is driven through the Price’s skull, causing him to shriek only for a moment. His screams fade into soft screeches, then softer yelps, and then to nothing as his mouth hangs open with drool dribbling out. His eyes, lost, hollow, and glazed over.
Today, Dr. Price successfully completes his first lobotomy on his first patient, Wilfred. The first of many, many more to come.
“Dr. Price, I think I speak for my colleagues when I say this is absolutely astonishing. These notes and records—well, they were quite something in themselves, but seeing the results of your work in the flesh is…” Another member of the medical board speaks up. “Yes, quite impressive. You said this man used to be a dangerous sociopath? Too dangerous to exist within society?” Dr. Price looks down at Wilfred and smiles. Wilfred continues to stare blankly off into space as he drools on his plain, white shirt.
“Absolutely, before I happened along this poor man, he suffered from delusions of granger, was controlling—manipulative almost, and had many violent tendencies. You see, they were going to put the man to death, and then I cured him--saved him.”
The board members whisper amongst themselves. An older man, probably the most senior member speaks up. “Dr. Price, this is revolutionary and absolutely remarkable work you’ve done here. If what you claim is true, then your studies could reshape how prisons, hospitals, and other institutions inoculate dangerous criminals, along with a great deal of other things. The possibilities are endless and far beyond anything I’ve seen in all my years acting as a member of this board.”
The woman chimes in. “Yes, and if what you say about what this man used to be like, how dangerous he was, this could be invaluable to psychiatric practices everywhere.” Dr. Price smiles with a sense of well-deserved achievement.
“I am so very glad you find this as groundbreaking as I do. And again, thank you for taking time out of your day for us. The funding the board has so graciously allotted me will allow me to delve even deeper into the mysteries of the human mind and body—perhaps one day, even the spirit of Man.” Price turns to Wilfred. “Time to go.” He says, yanking on the leash.
“One moment, I would like to ask his name.” Price turns around.
“Of course, It’s Wilfred.”
The younger man speaks up. “I think we’d all like to hear it from him. What’s your name, fellow?” The man asks Wilfred.
Staring off into the distance with hollow eyes, Wilfred drools on himself before he finally attempts to speak. Words, now almost impossible to grasp slip from him easily, but he manages to utter, “H-hhee-lp. M-mmm.” as he looks up at his doctor. The man desperately and painfully slurs, pleading with glossy, tear filled eyes, pointing a shaking, bony finger at his “benefactor.” Price looks at him furiously, afraid of being exposed for what he really is. The board members all look at each other, then back to Wilfred, and then finally direct their attention back to Price, and after several silent seconds, the woman speaks up.
“Doctor, I must say, your patient’s response…is shocking, to say the least.” Her gaze maintaining a studious and stern look as she removes her glasses, gently wiping away whatever filth may had been on the lenses. The woman then smiles as she stares at this tortured soul with starry eyes. “Nobody would help, or even give this man a chance, except for you. Dr. Price, you are a credit to the medical field and a role model for any exceptional minds ready to help change the world.” She turns her attention to Wilfred. “Yes, that’s right, he did help you, didn’t he? Maintaining a positive relationship with one’s patients is an admirable quality.” She smiles, along with the other members. “Keep up the good work, Dr. Price, and we look forward to seeing the results of any further research.” The other board members smile with her as they dismiss the two.
“Come now, friend.”
Lowering his head in both compliance and acknowledgement of his hopeless situation, Wilfred stands up, his legs shaking from malnutrition, and lets his leash guide him as he leaves the meeting with his doctor.
“No need to fret, not too much longer with this treatment of yours, and you’ll no longer feel resentment towards me.” Price pauses. “Or pain. Or suffering. Even hatred.” Price then smiles his usual, sadistic grin. “Or happiness. Love. Comfort. The warmth of another’s affection. You will come to know what I have lived with for so long. What more could such a curious mind wish for than to experience the very thing he has been obsessed with for so long firsthand? Come now, Wilfred, we have so, so much more work to do.”
Russell J. Armstrong (russelljarmstrong.com) lives with his wife and daughter in Chicago. He is a high school administrator who currently spends his days as a stay-at-home dad. When he isn't changing diapers or reading books about letters and numbers, Russell is working on his first novel. His work has been published in The Evening Theatre, The Drabble, and Scarlet Leaf Review.
A PICKPOCKET, PONIES, & PICKLEFANGS
Sam Lenten plowed mid-order from the Dairy Queen stand through three jam-packed lines. Although average height for an eighth grader, he was wide for his age, which made path-clearing easy. Dimwiddy flung his Cookie Dough Blizzard to the pavement and sprang onto his bike the moment he glimpsed him coming. With a mop of disheveled hair pitched low over the handlebars and butt riding air, he power-pedaled like crazy.
“Dimwiddy, I want it back!” Sam yelled in pursuit, but his shorts and basketball jersey clung to his thick-boned build like a latex glove on a butternut squash. Already losing ground, he snatched a random bicycle from the rack and took a running start down the sidewalk.
A blue-eyed girl in a dress darted from the crowd. “You steal that?” she said, her long, blond hair tied up on her head, save a few sweaty face-framing strands. The coastal Georgia sun had yet to surrender its grasp on the mid-May evening.
Sam groaned at Casey, his nosey grade-younger stepsister. “Borrowing. Go away.”
“Who’s that?” she said, as Dimwiddy pedaled into traffic and honking horns, knee-high, tube-socked calves rising and falling.
“Sixth grader. Stole my wallet during passing period this morning. Couldn’t catch up to him.”
“Kinda like now.” She matched Sam stride for wheel, courtesy of leg muscles, his, which resembled a pair of brown Twinkies.
Dimwiddy turned a corner onto a country road famous for its towering moss-draped magnolias and old-money mansions.
“He kept poking around the seventh-grade wing after that,” Sam said. “Between periods. Like he was looking for someone.”
“Yeah, and each time I went after him, he took off.”
They closed to within half a block of Dimwiddy when a convertible jeep screeched onto the street, radio blasting. Two high schoolers in costumes sped toward them. Gandhi drove, and a priest, arms raised, bopping to the music, rode shotgun. The car swerved at Dimwiddy, missing, but causing him to almost wipe out on the gravel shoulder. When the jeep passed Sam and Casey, Gandhi leaned out and hurled a half-eaten peach. The fruit left a stinging, sticky mark between Sam’s shoulder blades, and he flipped off the cheering occupants as the vehicle turned and disappeared down a driveway.
The siblings paused ahead at the edge of a side road. Face flush, Casey jabbed her finger at a sign nailed to a post: DIMWIDDY ESTATE. PRIVATE PROPERTY. DO NOT ENTER! Francis Dimwiddy II faded into the distance where a three-story manor’s columns gleamed.
Sam gulped air, the bike propped between his legs. “Man, he’s fast.”
“Why didn’t you tell me that was Dimwiddy?” Casey said, as he massaged the sore spot on his back.
“I’m fine, by the way — and why’s it matter?”
“His family’s supposed to be, like, connected or something.”
“Connected. So they’re what, dots?”
“So am I.”
“You sure it was him? There’s a billion people in the halls during passing periods.”
“Why would he take your stupid wallet? Look at that place.”
“Because self-entitled rich people think they can do whatever they want.”
“Okay, Mom. And what’s that other thing she’s always saying? ‘If you set —’ ”
“ ‘You can do anything you set your mind to.’ ”
“Yeah, so watch and learn.”
“Oh, puh-lease! It’s Friday. Find him Monday in school. What’s the big deal?”
“I need it now’s the big deal.”
“Well we don’t have permission to go — Sam. Samuel!”
But he ignored her and pedaled past the sign.
* * *
Sam swept the mansion’s southern and western perimeter. Casey, back from scouting the northern and eastern windows, ducked beside him in a shady peach orchard west of the house.
“No sign of him inside,” she said. “But I saw a purple wallet on the kitchen counter.”
“And something else … like a flying poodle or something.”
“A flying poodle?”
“We should go.” Casey turned, distracted by faint neighing from stables beyond the orchard’s edge. “Horses! Ooh, I love — Sam!”
But he’d already charged toward the house. Dangling over the rooftop, a detached cable ran alongside a second-floor balcony down to the ground. Sam jumped up and grabbed the line, slowly scaling the exterior, hand over hand, feet pressed to the wall until positioned to the balcony’s right. He pushed left with enough force to propel over the railing. But as he swayed forward, the cable went slack and sent him crashing into the rail, clinging to the top as something scraped the roof, then swooshed the length of his body and thudded to the lawn. With arms straining, he heaved headfirst over the rail and collapsed gasping to the deck.
His phone rang. It was Casey.
“Are you insane? You dragged a satellite dish off the roof! Get down —”
Sam clicked off and switched the cell to vibrate. The sliding glass door was unlocked. Inside, the AC alone made the climb worth it. He crept through a bedroom and out into a hallway where far-off static led down a winding staircase toward what he hoped was the kitchen. Instead, an entrance hall opened into a curtain-drawn dining room that exited into a corridor where the noise grew louder. At the far end, the ear-piercing sound blared from within an even darker study. A sharp odor inside, mildew and old cigar smoke, forced his nose to scrunch up. The glow from a television’s frozen NO SATELLITE SIGNAL message cast a recliner in shadow.
“Grandpa!” From behind, Dimwiddy’s voice entered the hallway. “The TV stopped working upstairs.”
A profile stirred in the recliner, sending Sam’s skin left and his skeleton right.
“That’s so loud!” Dimwiddy clomped in and lowered the volume.
Grandpa snorted and snored in the chair. Sam, who’d flattened beneath a sofa, felt his phone vibrate as a hairy towel sailed from the hallway onto the couch. When the towel sank below the cushion’s edge, he flinched, realizing it was an upside down monkey’s head.
“Kinda busy,” he whispered into his cell.
“Get out of there!” Casey said. “That jeep — the one from before? It just pulled up front with two nuns. They’re all headed inside. Get your chunky —!”
Sam hung up. His chest tightened as he inhaled cheese on the monkey’s breath. Its howling head bobbed, flashing greenish teeth.
“Grandpa, wake up — Mister Picklefangs, stop it! Off the couch.”
“Hel-looo!” someone called from across the house.
Sam’s heart pounded even faster as Dimwiddy’s legs ran out a second door.
“What’ve we got here?” the voice said as Sam followed to the end of another hall and peeked inside the kitchen.
Across an island counter, Gandhi held Sam’s wallet above Dimwiddy’s outstretched arms, laughing and pushing him by his face.
“Idiot, you almost ran me over!” Dimwiddy said.
The taller of the two nuns elbowed him into the priest who shoved him to the floor. He climbed to his feet, arms clasped around Gandhi’s waist.
“Get off me, freak!” He turned to his companions. “There’s a stocked bar in the upstairs parlor. Third floor. Next to the glass case in the hall.”
“Why’re you in my house?” Dimwiddy demanded.
Gandhi adjusted his robe and glasses. “I need a quick word with my cousin.”
The priest winked and followed the nuns through double doors off a breakfast nook.
“You’re not supposed to be here,” Dimwiddy said, as Sam crawled into the kitchen. “And how come you’re dressed like that?”
“Your parents won’t be back for another week, and I need a few bottles for a costume party if you must know, which you don’t.”
“I’m telling when they get home.”
Something small skirted the center counter, and something fleshy and larger slammed into the wall. Sam recognized both sounds. His arm snaked low up onto the granite and snatched down the wallet. He rifled through the fold.
Yes, still there!
Two Braves-Cubs tickets for tomorrow’s baseball game in Atlanta. His dad had entrusted him with their safekeeping, and as far as he’d ever know, Sam could be trusted.
He swung around to leave when Dimwiddy cried out. Sam’s eyes cut to the hallway, but his body stayed put. Not because he felt compelled to try to rescue Dimwiddy from some moron twice his size. But because he felt compelled to get even with that same moron for chucking a peach. Sam peeped over the counter. Dimwiddy, pinned cheek to wallpaper, whimpered, his underwear’s waistband stretched halfway up his spine.
“You better keep your mouth shut or you’ll get worse than this,” Gandhi warned.
“Okay! Ow, ow, ow! Stop, please! Grandpa!”
Gandhi chuckled, his arm tensing tighter until a glass soap dispenser smashed into his head hard enough to knock off his glasses. Of the swear words that followed, Sam recognized three as Gandhi spun and ripped off his bald cap. “Blood?” he shouted in hysterics, fingers pressed to his skull. “That stupid monkey! Where’d it go?” He flung the cap to the counter and wrenched a paring knife from a holder. “I’ll skin that ugly chimp alive!”
Gandhi stormed clockwise around the island, and Sam, on elbows and knees, scurried to maintain a 180-degree buffer. Dimwiddy limped from the kitchen, calling for Grandpa while Sam parted the nearest door and crawled inside. By the walk-in pantry’s rear wall, Mister Picklefangs sat chomping Cheetos. He yowled and bounced up and down when Sam shut the door and crept beside him.
“Shhh! You’ll get us both killed —!”
The door whipped open.
Sam snatched and flung the Cheetos bag at Gandhi’s nose. Mister Picklefangs lunged through the air onto his face and chomped down on the pacifist’s ear. Gandhi, screaming, staggered backward and lost hold of the knife. He zigzagged blindly, struggling to dislodge the monkey who’d wrapped around his noggin like a wooly squid. Unseen, Sam tore from the kitchen and Gandhi’s wails, but as he crossed the foyer, footsteps descended the staircase. He ducked into a nearby closet and waited for the trio to pass before darting out.
Sam reeled from the front door. Dimwiddy barely came up to his chin.
“It was you, wasn’t it?” he said.
Sam scoffed. He turned, opened the door, then turned back. “Why? Why would you need to steal anything? Ever?”
“I … I tried giving it back. To your sister.”
“To Casey? For what?”
“To tell her you lost it but —”
Shrieks crescendoed amid a staccato of crashing glassware and cutlery in the kitchen.
“But you kept stalking me every time I tried to go up to her.”
Sam puffed. “Stalking you? You didn’t find my wallet. I saw you running off. You stole it!”
“Ugh.” Now it made sense. “You like her, don’t you?” The glow in Dimwiddy’s cheeks gave up the truth, and Sam moaned. Why anyone would want to get to know his stepsister better eluded him.
“Here.” Dimwiddy pulled a set of keys from his pocket. “To my cousin’s jeep. A peace offering. Sorry. And thanks.”
“Are you crazy? I’m not stealing a — Jesus!” Sam recoiled as Mister Picklefangs leapt from the dining room onto Dimwiddy’s shoulder.
“You better go,” he said, and stroked underneath the monkey’s chin. “And we better hide, Picky.”
“Do me a favor,” Sam said. “Stay out of people’s pockets from now on. Especially mine.” Then the corners of his mouth curled up and kept curling. If he told Casey all this was because some kid with a pet monkey — a sixth grader, no less! — believed she would reciprocate his crush? Combine Christmas morning with the best birthday he’d ever had, and the mirth would still pale compared to the glee swelling through him. Halfway out the door, he wheeled around. “She likes horses.”
His relieved-looking stepsister held up caps to the jeep’s deflated tires when Sam returned to the orchard. “Just in case,” she said, and he held up his wallet.
“Told you — anything you set your mind to.”
And he left it at that.
Lisa Clark is an author, life mentor, Writing Center Coordinator, and traveler. She's lived in Bulgaria for over twenty years and from there has ventured to countries on four continents. Her interests in history, science, and technology have inspired her to write both historical fiction and Sci Fi. She's currently working on a YA Sci Fi story featuring an AI narrator.
AND SO THE RAIN FELL
Cawood, England; August 1315
The land moaned as the sky lamented, spitting drop after drop in the thousands, millions, then billions. Grasses, crops, bushes, even small trees collapsed under the incessant deluge. Water gullied the ground, creating deep crevices. Fields flooded, burgeoning into ponds then shallow lakes. Daub and wattle huts sagged like old men laden with their own caskets. Thatch roofs seeped and drooled while, inside, runnels wove pathways through earthen floors. Leechlike in their thirst, the straw husks bedding animals sucked up moisture. In the fields, dripping cattle blinked back confusion as muddy water climbed to their shins then high enough to slick their bellies.
* * *
Ellyn stretched her arms above her head, flexing her fingers. Her eyes darted beneath their lids, attempting to recapture her dream. Henry had visited her again, his broad face happy. She wished to hold on to his image a few moments longer.
No. He was gone.
She rubbed her eyes while her mouth stretched into a yawn. Then she heard it: the steady pounding of rain on the soggy roof, dripping from the eaves.
Ellyn pushed aside her log headrest and shifted to prop herself up onto an elbow, which jabbed through the compressed straw of her tick to the rough plank beneath. Animals rustled in the far room, waking to another day of either stuffy dimness or wet daylight. Neither her parents nor her children stirred.
Ellyn wished she didn't have to wake them to another day like they'd had for the past three months. The moon hadn't peeked through the clouds the whole time. August was supposed to be the hottest, driest month of the year. This one carried only dismal days. At the best of times, English weather could be dreary, but never like this, swore her parents, the oldest residents of Cawood.
Ellyn slipped her bare feet into thick, short boots before they grazed the earthen floor, these days perennially damp. The animals, the day's cooking, the outside work, and, of course, the fulling of wool would not wait.
Though no one would see it, she forced her mouth into a smile. They'd hear it. "Good morning, Mother and Father. John, Luke, Mary, it's time to rise."
The children groaned. Ellyn didn’t want to face the rain, the shortfall in crops, the mud, the muck, and the mire, either. But she would do it. They would all do it.
* * *
Two hours later
In a large wooden vat, Hawise, Ellyn’s worker for the past year, was already steadily tramping on a length of unprocessed wool fabric, her eyes closed. If Ellyn didn’t know better, she’d wager that Hawise was at work in her sleep.
John tilted another bucket of urine into the vat beside Ellyn. At seventeen, he was a good boy—no, man—just like his father, Henry, had been.
When Ellyn and Henry married eighteen years earlier, she’d been a girl of fourteen. With a wry smile, she recalled the first time she’d stomped wool.
"All right now," Henry had said. "Time to reveal a bit of those pretty legs."
She'd checked to see no one was looking, though she needn’t have worried. Who else would visit the spot Henry had chosen for fulling outside Cawood's village fence? True, it lay only a short distance from the gate that opened during the day to allow merchants entrance, but vats of urine attracted no one.
She toed off her boots and tugged off thick knit socks and placed them out of splashing distance. Yanking on the fabric above her belt, she shortened her skirt length several inches.
"No, my love," Henry said, grinning, "this is how it's done." He worked his way around her, pulling the lower skirt fabric above her belt in quick jerks. Stepping back, he appraised her. "Hmm. Yes. That'll do." His fingers grazed her outer, exposed thigh. "If only we didn't have to work." He laughed when she slapped his hand.
Henry pecked her cheek before grasping her hand to steady her as she dipped one pointed toe into the vat. "Come on now." He urged her forward until she balanced on one foot as she swung her second leg over the brim. Squeezing her eyes shut to hold back tears, she covered her nose and mouth against the pungent, ripened urine. Why had her parents thought a fuller was a good match for her? Oh, yes. Fullers earned up to three times the wage of a field laborer.
Now she realized how much they deserved the money.
"Move," Henry instructed after stepping into a second vat, "like this." The liquid sloshed as he began marching in place over a large sheet of raw woven wool.
"But it stinks so." Flies gathered to the liquid feast below her and settled on her face and hands. When she sucked in a deep breath, ammonia fumes lurched from her throat to her gut. She bent over the edge of the vat and began to gag.
"Now, now," Henry said, exiting his own vat with lithe movements. He stepped into hers and embraced her. "'Twill be fine. You’ll get used to this, I promise." Covering her face with small kisses, he led her in a miniature dance over the miasma. After several minutes, he leaned back, grasping her shoulders, and glanced down. Her eyes followed. The clear gold liquid they’d started with had turned cloudy. "See now? Your magic feet have already begun the hard work of sealing the fibers."
She smiled weakly.
Back in his own vat, he began a vigorous pace. "We'll just stay here and talk all day long. How many people can pass the day so pleasantly? Say, did you happen to spot the red fabric the dyer offered on market day? 'Twas quite cheering. ’Twould bring out the rose in your cheeks, I’m thinking."
Ellyn turned from the vat to meet John's eyes. He looked so like his father at that age, with hair fair as summer straw and mossy green eyes.
"Will you be needing more?" He clutched an empty bucket.
"Nay, nay. 'Tis enough for now." She drew her skirt up above her belt with the swiftness of long practice. Holding onto John's shoulder for support, Ellyn stepped into the vat and glimpsed upward. Drips splattered through the roof of the lean-to her sons had constructed.
"’Tis leaking again. If you wish, I can hunt for more straw."
Ellyn noticed the rise of Hawise’s eyebrows. Through regular complaints, she voiced her desire for a drier workplace. Ellyn winced then swatted a biting fly who'd found her leg despite the mizzle. "Nay. There's scarce enough straw for the animals. We'll survive."
"Better you and Luke start collecting.” They always needed more urine.
* * *
Ellyn startled at the thunk thunk thunk on the door.
“Who could that be?” She stood from the stone hearth in the center of the room, wiping the back of one sooty hand on her forehead. Squatting at the circular fireplace to prepare their supper had left her woolen skirt damp. In the light of several rush lamps—glowing weakly these days for lack of animal fat—the skirt’s hue changed from deep forest at the bottom, lightening as it rose to her knees and finally settled on the dusky green of a praying mantis. Ellyn rounded the pot suspended over the fire.
The figure at the door seemed little more than an animated shadow.
"Eric? Is it you?”
“’Tis, sister. Greetings!”
“Come in, come in! Mother, Father, children, look who's here!"
Her parents rose from the three-legged stools by the rough-cut table to welcome their son.
Misty droplets not yet sucked into the fabric glimmered like diamond shavings on the shoulders of Eric’s cassock. He threw back his cowl, throwing a spray of water onto the door behind him.
Always a lean man, Eric’s face had grown gaunt.
"Good greetings, my family!"
Mary threw her arms around her uncle's waist and leaned against his chest. Though she never spoke of it, Ellyn noticed grief still lingering in her daughter a full year after her father's death. Her grandfather and brothers were kind to her, but Mary never laid her head on their laps at the end of the day the way she had with her father, begging for a story.
The image of Henry stroking Mary’s dark hair curled into Ellyn’s mind. Ah, but Henry was good at weaving tales.
“Join us at table, Uncle Eric,” John said, returning Ellyn’s attention to the present.
While her brother’s visit from his monastery in nearby York was a rare and pleasant surprise, one thought stabbed Ellyn: have we enough to share? During normal years, before the rains had washed away their stock of foodstuffs and reduced them to scavenging much of the day for victuals, she would have welcomed Eric to a mid-day dinner with generous slices of dark bread topped with cheese or curds. Oat cakes, porridge, or turnips would satisfy stomachs even after long hours at work, or mayhap a tasty salad of thyme, rosemary, fennel, and garlic splashed with vinegar and partnered with fish or tasty roasted pork. An abundance of ale or beer would wash it down. Even before Eric’s knock, Ellyn had worried that the measly pickings the family had scrounged—a scrawny hare, stuffed with acorns; two eggs from their hens, the first in days; and edible roots—might not be enough to ease the hunger pangs of John, upon whose chin soft whiskers had recently appeared, and Luke, whose own chin was not far behind.
Eric embraced his niece with one arm and glanced at the small table. "Hmm," he said, his eyes narrowing. "Something is missing."
Ellyn's pleasure at seeing Eric vanished like the long-lost sun behind piles of storm clouds. How dare he comment on their dearth? And he a churchman! She was ready to reprove him when he swung his hand forward, dangling a muslin bag. "Would it perchance be this?"
Mary bounded forward and pulled out not one, not two, but three loaves of hearty peasant bread.
"Wherever did you find bread?" Ellyn’s father asked.
Snatching a loaf from Mary, Luke held it up to his nose, closed his eyes, and inhaled deeply.
"A certain baker in York owes the priory a fair sum,” Eric said. “He hoped that the bread would buy him a bit of time to repay his loan."
How could Ellyn have doubted her brother’s intentions? “John and Luke, prithee, pull the chest over to sit on. Eric, sit on my stool. I’ll share the bench with the children.”
“Gramercy, Ellyn,” Eric said, scraping the stool closer to the table. "May I offer a word of thanks?"
As she bowed, Ellyn’s eyes remained opened, spying on her sons’ greedy gazes at the loaves.
"Our gracious and merciful Father,” Eric began. “Many these days are tired, weak, and hungry. Some are dying. Yet Thou hast given us so much to be thankful for. This food, yes, but also the gift of each other; a loving family to share a bite with. We thank Thee for these blessings."
After devouring the meal in near silence and draining shared cups of dark mead, brown globs of unnamed roots were the only things remaining. "Is something amiss?" Ellyn's mother asked, catching Eric’s grimace after lifting a bite to his lips. With her knife, she stabbed a small piece. "Ugh!” She spit it out “It tastes of mold." The others laughed and shoved their bowls away.
"People are resorting to far less wholesome food than this." Eric napkinned his lips. "Most have run out of the small stores of grain they brought indoors to dry.” He eyed the others. “Methinks this is not a new revelation. Many have resorted to eating bark and grasses. Peddlers and other travelers have carried stories of how bakers, unable to find flour for bread, have added─" He stopped to glance at Mary, rapt as an owl awaiting midnight scampering.
"Go on," John urged.
"You must tell us now, Uncle Eric," Luke said.
After a moment, he continued. "They've stretched their inadequate flour with wine dregs and other unwholesome ingredients. Some have even added pig droppings." Eric's mother gasped, clapping her hand over her mouth. His father shook his head slowly.
"Some in Cawood have taken to eating vermin and grubs,” Luke muttered, “even pigeon dung. With my own eyes, I saw a young boy gnawing on leather. And friends of mine spied a family, bloated from hunger, devouring a dead dog. They tore the animal's flesh from its body and ate it raw." Mary grimaced.
"Some say that God has abandoned us," John said. His gaze crawled up his uncle’s chest, chin, nose, and finally to his eyes.
"John!" Ellyn snapped.
Eric set his hand upon his sister's. "Let him speak."
"What answer gives the church?" John demanded.
"As for the speculation that God is striking us with famine as punishment for sin, I cannot entirely disagree. The faith of many has waned, the love of others grown cold. Rather than peace, our country has chosen to war against our neighbors. Corrupt people, full of vice, prey on the weak. Their pride will not be broken by anything less than disaster."
"But I'm not like that,” Mary protested. “And neither was Father. Why did he have to die?"
"Ofttimes innocents suffer the consequences of others’ sins,” Eric answered gently. “But if not for the Lord's mercy, we would have no life at all. On that, we must ground our hope."
Ellyn wasn’t listening. No one understood the reason behind Henry's death, but its memory pricked her mind often and clearly.
Ellyn hadn't intended to wake Henry with her moan that morning. He reached to touch her in the dark of the family bedroom.
"Ugh." She gingerly removed his hand.
"What's wrong?" he mumbled sleepily.
She moaned again. "'Tis only my monthly pain. This time ’tis worse than normal."
"'Tis always worse than normal." Before she could protest, he added, "Stay abed for a while. I'll tend to the family this morning."
She curled up tighter, answering him only with another throaty groan. Later, she wished she'd thanked him; embraced him for his understanding. Other women weren't blessed with caring husbands. Some would as soon beat their wives than allow them an extra moment of leisure, no matter the reason.
Ellyn understood, though. Those neighbors who worked the land outside Cawood's village fence lived on the brink of starvation for much of the year. Daily they bent to their workload to survive the bitter winter and through to the next harvest. Henry’s successful fulling business allowed him more grace. Ellyn's parents had also lived with them since John's birth and lifted many burdens.
The sun was glinting through clouds, happily illuminating gold, red, and orange leaves when Ellyn began her hike to the workplace later that morning. John and Luke would already have filled the treading vats and left to collect more urine.
While still a long way off, she spotted Henry stomping in place inside a barrel. Ellyn held one arm across her stomach, which was cramped and achy without the added provocation of marching in a barrelful of acrid urine.
A bullfinch warbling from the nearby woodland captured her attention for a moment.
A cackle drew her back to Henry. Approaching him, Ellyn spied a burst of uncombed orange hair and the disheveled clothing of Mad Maud. Poor Henry. He hated being with any woman save Ellyn. "Other women don’t understand a man who tromps in urine," he’d told her.
Mad Maud posed an altogether insurmountable challenge for him.
No one in Cawood could remember when the village had given her the sobriquet "Mad Maud," but it suited as well as “Crooked Tooth” for the boy whose front tooth had grown in sideways and “Pusty,” a lad with ugly facial papules.
Whether Maud was truly mad or merely knotty-pated, nobody knew. But she never fit well into village life. Three young men in succession had stepped forward to wed and bed Maud as the sole heir of sizeable acreage. All had died in accidents that only Maude had witnessed. Again single, Maud roamed the village, stopping from time to time to torment some and beg from others.
Typically, whenever Maud wandered to their fulling spot, Henry excused himself until she disappeared. Ellyn did her best to appease Maud, sometimes offering a chunk of bread.
A sudden gust pushed against Ellyn as she waded up the weedy hill, her eyes focused on the ground. She hiked her skirt up further to avoid the piercing grass seeds that worked their way into fabric and embedded themselves there, smugly assuming they'd found fertile soil.
"Now Maud, those are not yours." The wind carried Henry's rebuke as Maud rummaged through his clothes, piled on a low stump.
"Perchance you would have me nigh to you, heh?" came Maud’s teasing challenge.
Huffing heavily, Ellyn quickened her pace.
Mad Maud sauntered toward Henry, swaying her hips and shoulders in exaggerated fashion. "I like the looks of you, Fuller-man." She reached out to touch Henry's cheek with one hand while pulling open her blouse to reveal a breast with the other.
"Stop it, Maud," he snapped.
Ellyn, still too far off to help, saw Maud lean over the edge of the vat to splash Henry with urine. Droplets flicked up high and glistened in the sunlight before resuming their course toward Henry's plain muslin shirt.
"… need… man. I like… You… do." Maud's words were low, broken.
Henry's were not. "Stop it now, Maud!" He grabbed her wrist. "I have a wife. You know that. She wouldn't like what you’re doing. Now be gone!"
Ellyn began running, hiking her skirt higher still and caught a flash, a wink in the sunshine.
Maud held a long, metal object above her head.
"Stop!" Ellyn cried.
Mad Maud shoved Henry hard with the hand he had grasped, knocking him off balance. As he teetered backwards, her arm crashed down like an axe aimed at a chicken's neck then hit its mark: Henry's chest.
No longer watching where she stepped, Ellyn's foot plunged into a hole. Her ankle twisted sideways and she yelped in pain.
By the time she reached him, Henry was folded inside the vat. Only his head and shoulders remained above cloudy, rose-colored liquid. Mad Maud had disappeared like a shadow in mist.
“This cannot be true,” Ellyn repeated over and over as she muscled Henry from the vat. How could she lose her husband in such a witless killing? Others─many others─in Cawood and beyond died from sickness or accidents or other tragedies every month. But not her family. Not her husband.
Beyond grief, something else engulfed Ellyn: a gripping rage, powerful as a wolf's teeth savaging its prey. If Mad Maud hadn't disappeared… If Ellyn’s sons hadn't arrived and restrained her… If her swollen ankle hadn't hindered her… If the world hadn't spun so feverishly around her… Ellyn surely would have used Henry’s knife, bloodied on the ground nearby, to draw long, painful stripes across the wretched woman's face before severing her head from her body.
Witnessed in the act of killing, Mad Maud was confined in a monastery near York, shackled, alone, with scarcely enough food and water to sustain her. She would not last long.
Though Ellyn tried to bury her horrible, vindictive thoughts against Maud, they would not remain quashed.
A week after Henry’s death, Ellyn knelt before the parish priest on the church’s gritty floor and tearfully confessed the sin she was not sure how to categorize. ’Twasn’t murder, for she had not laid a finger on Mad Maud, and yet her thoughts, her anger, had been that dark.
“May the Lord pity and pardon you,” the priest said afterwards, standing above her with raised hand, “from thy sins of thought in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” His black cassock seemed to echo agreement with his words as the outer folds swelled silvery between deep ravines of blackness.
He helped Ellyn to her feet. “You have been sorely tempted, and yet temptation is common to those striving to live holy lives. You have resisted with strength from above. Continue to resist, child, and rest in His forgiveness.”
As she scuffled over the weedy churchyard afterwards, tears of gratitude streamed down Ellyn’s cheeks for the peace that descended on her like a cloud-light blanket. She was forgiven, free, her soul fresh and white as snow.
Wild flowers erupted near the edge of nearby woods, basking in the cooler, moister understory. Honeybees feasted on the ruby honeysuckle creeping up a stone cairn stacked many years earlier by builders no one remembered.
When Ellyn lay to sleep that night atop the gray woolen blanket she had shared with Henry, grief shrouded her as images of his final moments crashed into her mind. The small slice of joy she had allowed herself earlier evaporated. She tossed throughout the night, unsure she slept at all.
The next morn, as the family readied for the day, John chuckled at his brother for the sleepy, sloppy way he’d fastened his belt over his tunic. It was the first sound of happiness in the home since Henry’s death. The laugh was so unexpected, and yet so like Henry’s, that confusion momentarily paralyzed Ellyn at the return of her dead husband’s voice from the mouth of her son.
Later, she struggled to stretch a length of wet cloth on one of the family’s large drying frames, attaching it at the edge with a tenterhook. A song thrush—one of several birds Henry had mastered the call of—sounded its chirping whistle. Ellyn swung around, smiling, expecting to see Henry, to catch his playful smile, to hear whatever cheering word he’d deliver, to aid her in her chore.
The spot where she’d expected to see him blurred into smudgy grays and greens as her eyes filled.
Hours later, as she emerged from the thick wood after relieving herself, the whisper of a kiss caressed her lips in a gentle breeze. She stumbled backwards, falling against a thick bush, scarcely able to breathe. Her fingertips dug into the loamy earth as despair seized her, plunging her into a bottomless cavern, black and empty, neverending and profound. Then, writhing in devilish hues, rose the image of Mad Maud, first leering and then grimacing.
Hate and rage bubbled up inside Ellyn.
Nay, she thought, panicked, I cannot allow such thoughts. Not after I’ve been forgiven.
But her fury would not be suppressed. For minutes that stretched into an hour, it expanded until Luke came to look for her, worried that she wasn’t at the workplace when he returned from town with sloshing buckets of urine.
“I was tired and needed to rest,” she explained, adding the sin of lying to rage.
By the end of the day, deep shame blinded her like a hangman’s hood. She could scarcely see or think of anything else. I am no better than Maud.
Ellyn returned to the priest, once, twice, thrice in the following days, seeking absolution. After her fourth confession, he spoke to her sternly, almost harshly. “I’ve given you absolution. What more do you seek? What more can I do? Come crying to me no more. I can do nothing else.”
Afterwards, she gave up eating and working. Instead, she lay abed, her face to the wall, wishing for death, yet fearing it at the same time.
Ellyn’s father sent John to beg his Uncle Eric to come; perhaps he could help.
“Sister, you must turn from such thoughts,” Eric said after coaxing the truth from Ellyn. They sat on the small plank bench behind her house that Henry had built. From the grassy field nearby, the scent of cut stalks wafted their way, fresh and wholesome. On summer days, she and Henry used to sit there, inhaling the sweet air after spending hours over barrels of urine. Ellyn had grown used to the acrid smell. The golden excretions of the village provided them a living. Perhaps it also increased her delight in other fragrances: lilacs in the spring, bread fresh from the baker, an apple-wood fire, and pines in the snow.
“I have given up my desire to wreak vengeance on Maud, Eric,” she said, “but whenever something reminds me of Henry—dozens of times each day—I also recall the hatred I harbored against her. I cannot shake it from mind though I have repented a thousand times.”
Eric, holding one of Ellyn’s hands, said nothing for the longest time, even after she sniffled deeply, rubbed her eyes and nose with the back of her sleeve, and straightened on the bench. What was he waiting for? He was the churchman. Why did he not answer?
Soon frustration made her squeeze his hand. Speak!
Finally came a wispy smile. “I think you are confusing grief and pain with remembrance.”
She frowned. “Confusing them?”
“Memories of base thoughts are not sin.”
Nay? But they felt so like sin.
“Your remembrance of them will help you forgo such thoughts the next time a person hurts you. Turn such recollections to the Lord and trust Him to create from them something good.”
She paused to consider his words. When, she wondered, had Eric grown so wise?
He stood and took her hand as she rose, tucking it into the crook of his arm. “Is mother still cheered by daisies? Mayhap we can gather enough to make a small bouquet.”
* * *
All hopes for a reprieve from the cold, wet weather washed away as spring turned to summer. Grain seeds rotted in the ground. Only a few managed to poke their waterlogged heads through the soil and sprout. Then new rains pummeled those. People ate any seed grain that survived. Lacking sustenance for themselves and their livestock, many slaughtered their animals for meat. Rumors of cannibalism and grave robbery arose, conjuring images of desperate people digging up fresh corpses and cooking the flesh in skulls. The population of Cawood and regions far beyond its borders suffered diarrhea, bronchitis, pneumonia, and other ailments. To some degree, all became weak and helpless. Most grew hopeless.
Life for the fullers likewise worsened. With the drop in wages due to the weather, business slowed. Sheep, whose wool they depended on, began to die as parasitic worms infested their systems. A cold winter further devastated flocks, increasing the mortality of newborn lambs.
Ellyn refused to give up. “People still need warm clothing,” she told her family. “Famine or no, garments wear out and need replacing.” She still had a modest supply of woven cloth to treat, and the main tools of her trade─stomping feet and urine─remained available regardless of other deprivations. Nevertheless, she and her worker, Hawise, now worked only a few hours every other day, lacking strength to tramp more.
One morning, a biting breeze greeted them. Even huddling to the back of the lean-to failed to protect them from slanting needles of rain. Goose bumps sprouted on the upper, bared portions of Ellyn's legs. Speeding her steps helped with the cold, but after only a few minutes, she was winded and forced to slow.
When would the cold and rain end? Ellyn had heard that her brother and other priests were both fasting and praying. She could not forget the gauntness of Eric's face when he last visited. For some reason she could not fathom, God seemed either unwilling or unable to answer people’s prayers. In her heart, Ellyn refused to believe the latter. But could the former be true? Nay. It also was untenable.
Though not a babbler even on the brightest days, Hawise was uncommonly quiet this one. Ellyn bent at the waist and tilted her head, hoping to bring Hawise's attention back from wherever her mind had wandered. When she finally acknowledged Ellyn, Hawise’s eyes widened as though frightened for her life.
"What is it?" Even as she asked, an unreasoned dread filled Ellyn.
Hawise leaned back against the rim of her vat, covered her eyes, and began to wail.
"Oh! Oh!" Ellyn reached toward her, but couldn't stretch quite far enough. "Argh!" Then, as easily as Henry had done those many years ago, Ellyn stepped out of her vat. Pulling her skirt down, she strode toward Hawise.
"Come out. Come out of there, dear." Tenderly, she helped Hawise from the vat, hastily straightened her dress a bit, and then settled her atop one of the stumps that served them as chairs. Perching on the other, Ellyn placed her hand on Hawise's knee. "There now. Cry all you need."
For a long time, Hawise's back and shoulders convulsed. Even after her tears ended, misery crouched on her like a gargoyle.
"Can you tell me now? Did something happen to your husband?"
Hawise shook her head slowly.
"Then your son?"
"What, Hawise? Is Hugo sick?"
"No." The word’s harsh edge startled Ellyn.
"Do you truly want to know what happened?" Hawise spoke with a ragged honesty that confused Ellyn. She stared at the ground as she spoke. "You know this year has been difficult."
"And last year was the same. No bread. No grain. No vegetables or fruit. Not even salt to cure meat after we slaughtered our animals."
"Yea. ’Tis the same for us all."
"No. ’Tisn’t. My Randulf has been without work for months now. We've only my pay to buy a few crumbs for the three of us, and that's when crumbs can be found." Hawise eyes looked muddy and hard as pebbles.
"Randulf's never been overly fond of Hugo. He only took him on because of me. But Hugo whined constantly. 'Food. Food. All the little brat ever does is cry for food,' Randulf said. 'I'm sick of it.'"
Ellyn knew that Hawise had married her second husband around the same time Mad Maud had killed Henry, but had no inkling that things had gone so amiss since then. She held Hawise's hand a little tighter.
"Even after Randulf beat him, Hugo would moan for food. When I tried to soothe him, Randulf beat me, too."
Only now, when Hawise lifted the hair from her face, did Ellyn spot a plum-colored bruise staining her neck and cheek.
"I couldn't bear it anymore. I finally said yes, he could take the boy away, but I swear I never knew what he was planning.'" Hawise paused to search Ellyn’s eyes. "Yesterday afternoon's the last I seen of my boy. Randulf took him out to the woods and left him there, telling him he'd be back soon, after he catched us all a fat rabbit to eat." Once again, Hawise's eyes filled. "Every time I close my eyes I imagine what must have happened to him." She looked into Ellyn's eyes. "Wolves, I reckon. My poor boy."
"Well," Ellyn snapped, straightening and tossing away Hawise's hand, “at least you won't have to worry about angering Randulf anymore.”
As soon as she said it—as soon as she saw the sense of betrayal on Hawise's face—guilt stung Ellyn.
Hawise rose abruptly. "I thought you would understand. But, nay. Life is easy for you and your family. You cannot understand how desperate it is for your neighbors. May God damn you to hell, you miserable wretch."
"Hawise, please… I'm sorry." Then she thought, Nay, I don't think I am sorry. What kind of woman abandons her child because he's hungry?
Hawise stumbled away, her skirt still hitched up in back.
* * *
"Take some, Mother, Father," Ellyn insisted, impatience turning her words into a command. “It’ll strengthen you.” She shoved bone broth-filled bowls toward them, crediting the soup with more life-giving sustenance than it bore.
Her parents held open palms in front of them. The thin concoction of grasses boiled together with a bone was bland and weak, though they abstained for another reason. This was the sixth day of their voluntary fast. Soon, they'd be too weak to sit at the table.
Their announcement had come one night after the children fell asleep.
"Ellyn," her mother had whispered.
"What is it?"
"We must talk."
"We need to save the children." Her father’s voice was low but determined. "Your mother and I have decided to stop eating. With two less stomachs to fill, the rest of you may survive."
"What? Nay!" The children shifted in their sleep at Ellyn's raised voice.
"Yea. Your mother is 56. I'm 66. No others our age have survived. We've lived full lives. You and the children must have the same chance."
A week had passed, but Ellyn refused to release them. Bundled warmly in thick sheepskin cloaks with woolen hats and mittens, she and John left the cabin in search of food. The sun, almost too weak to declare morning’s arrival, lacked the strength to burn through drizzling clouds.
As they trudged through the dense woods near Cawood, a low grunting alerted them to a miracle: a pig. Months earlier, farmers with plans to recapture them later had marked and released the animals from their sties to grub and forage on their own.
When John sneaked forward to catch a better glimpse through dense branches, he saw the swine was unmarked; no one could claim it. He nodded at his mother, then lifted a finger to his lips before circling around brambles, creating a nearly silent squish with each step. The animal raised its head and sniffed, but soon resumed snuffling for roots.
With sharpened knife in hand, John crept from behind the thorny bush into the small clearing where the pig was sniffing and grunting. It lifted its head to appraise John with beady eyes before snuffling and searching an escape. Only then did John notice the faint yellow-brown stripes on its back. This was not a domesticated hog at all, but a juvenile feral pig.
The next moment, the heavy-shouldered animal charged through the undergrowth away from John straight into Ellyn with an enormous squeal that matched hers. She doubled over atop the beast, knocking it off its feet.
As John thrashed through the bushes, sharp thorns bit through his woolen jacket and leggings, tearing through to his skin. Moments later, he joined the writhing pile of flesh. “Stand back, mother!”
On her rump, Ellyn could not free herself from the writhing animal as it scrabbled to its feet.
John slammed his knife down toward the boar’s throat, inadvertently tearing through his mother’s woolen mittens, into the flesh of her palm, and through the other side.
Ellyn’s howl filled the forest.
John drew back the knife, cutting yet a wider trail through his mother’s hand. The next moment, he slashed the pig’s throat, creating a cascade of blood.
As the swine stilled, Ellyn moaned. Her mitten had sucked up so much blood it dripped and mingled with the swine’s, turning the snow watermelon red.
“Mother!” John’s hand shot to hers but stopped just short of grabbing it. “No!” He fell to his knees beside her. “Let me see.”
She gingerly worked the tattered mittens off to reveal a large gash on her palm and, on the back of her hand, skin sliced opened to the bone. Ellyn released a long exhalation as her head slumped to the side, nearly resting on the striped flank of the pig.
John’s widened eyes darted from his mother’s hand to the snow to the pig and beyond them to the path they’d walked from their home. “I need to take you home.” He slid one arm around Ellyn. “Come. I’ll carry you home.”
“Nay, John.” She wriggled away. “You will not leave the pig here to be eaten by wolves.”
“Forget the pig. I’ll return for it when you’re safe.”
“Nay! I am your mother. You will do as I say. Butcher it first.”
While Ellyn numbed her wound by jamming her hand into the snow, John speedily gutted and quartered the animal, adept at the job from helping his father with the family’s yearly pig slaughter.
Three hours later, Elly and John returned from the spot in the woods it had taken them twenty minutes to reach. Fresh meat stained the bag they’d brought along to collect roots and nuts and left a long, shallow trail of pink in the snow where John dragged it.
Despite their scrapes and bruises and Ellyn’s pierced hand, the day had not been a complete defeat. For yet a little while longer, they would evade starvation. Tonight the family, including Ellyn's parents, would eat their fill; she'd make sure they ate, even if it meant jamming the meat down their stubborn throats.
When Ellyn and John entered their hut, the sudden change from outdoor white to indoor dimness blinded them momentarily. "Grandmother? Grandfather?" John called.
No answer. No fire or rush lamps flickered. Save the low clucking of the chickens and scratching of vermin burrowed beneath the straw in the room beyond, the hut was empty. Luke and Mary were surely hunting out victuals, but where were Ellyn’s parents?
Ellyn sucked in a deep, tattered breath. They never left home when it was so cold out. She shivered at the thought of wind lashing against her parents’ frail bodies.
Then her world went black.
John and Luke spent the rest of the daylight hours searching for their grandparents while Mary kept watch over Ellyn.
Roast pork that evening and the next morning gave Mary strength to nurse her fevered mother while John and Luke continued looking.
At noon the following day, a boy raced toward Ellyn’s sons. "Are you searching for your elders?" He panted heavily though he'd only run a short distance.
"Yea. Have you seen them?" John said.
"Not I, but my mates saw 'em just a while back." He leaned forward to gobble another breath of icy air. "In the cemetery. They was laying atop the ground, waiting to be buried."
"Nay," Luke whispered.
"Yea, 'tis true. They're stiff as the tavern floorboards."
When Ellyn woke the next day to the news, a billowing wave of grief caught her up. She wondered if it might carry her away.
* * *
"Come now, Christine. ’Tisn’t so very bad. I've been at it for three years now and I'll wager I've the cleanest toenails in the village." Ellyn smiled as she listened to John instruct his new wife in the art of fulling.
"Here, I'll help you." He yanked the skirt of her dress up beneath her belt.
"Johnny! Not so high. What will people say?”
"Ah, 'tis only my mother here with us. She'll not say a word. Right, Mother?"
Ellyn laughed. "You can trust him, Christine. He knows his business."
The horror of the famine and its devastating losses finally lay behind Ellyn's family, village, and country. At last crops grew in season, providing the nourishment and livelihood people needed to survive. All three of Ellyn's children had married and, with her sons' wives helping with the fulling, she was able to stop and bask in the sun's warmth now and again.
She even had someone to share her home with. When, two years earlier, a battered and abandoned Hawise lay on her doorstep, Ellyn took her in. Like many others who'd reached the age of thirty-two, Hawise was hunched and sickly, unable to care for herself.
"Ach. What would I do without you?" Hawise often asked Ellyn. "I've no one else left in the world."
Ellyn had chosen not to reject Hawise. The woman didn’t need another person denouncing her; she’d excoriated herself nearly to death after losing Hugo. Eventually, Randulf abandoned her.
Each person’s actions, Ellyn reckoned, were mixed, caught up in sticky, elusive motives. Another could not judge them aright.
The intents of some, however, were purer than others.
For months Ellyn had viewed her parents’ suicides as selfish and she mentally heaped coals of heavy condemnation upon them. How could they leave her to care for her three children alone? How could they impose on her yet another, terrible grief when they knew how Henry’s death had afflicted her? They had chosen the easy way out while Ellyn was left to watch her children starve before her eyes, alone.
Those hadn’t been the sole results of their actions, though.
By the end of that winter, several entire families had died of hunger. Her parents’ sacrifice had enabled Ellyn and her children to survive; it was undoubtedly their greatest act of love.
In the end, Ellyn decided ’twas better to live in harmony with her neighbors than act as their judge.
"Oh, Hawise, you mustn't speak that way. ’Tis I who am blest to have a companion to share my home with."
Now, as she rejoined Hawise in the small hut, Ellyn dropped an armload of quartered and cut logs near the central fire. From the front of her skirt and smock she whisked sticky bits of bark and dirt.
“Time for a rest," she said. "Let's sit outside for a while and enjoy some of that mint tea you favor."
Though Hawise's grin revealed an empty mouth but for three teeth, it cheered Ellyn to see the smile.
Z. F. Sigurdson is a young Canadian writer from Winnipeg, Manitoba with a Honours B.A. in Political Studies. He has a deep passion for books, film and music. His writing attempts to blur the boundaries between science-fiction, fantasy and horror, as well as discuss political and social issues.
Underneath the Rocky Mountains is a labyrinth of tunnels, halls, and caverns, making up a metropolis the size of Tokyo and New York City combined. They were originally built by Dwarves that came to the New World with the Vikings, but unlike the Vikings, they stayed and built a colonial empire.
In the early twentieth century, an influenza pandemic cleared out huge swaths of the Underground Empire. This gave other races and factions the opportunity to take over. The most dominant faction was a tribe of goblins who evolved into the current Goblin Cartels led by the Goblin King. They maintains political and military control over the central metropolis of the Underground. Now millions of people call the Underground home.
. . . . . . . . .
Gunda walked down the streets of one of Underground’s lower ghettos. Her face was hidden by a helmet and V-shaped visor, and her shoulders ached from wearing her gorget and booster pack, along with her weapons and ammo around her wide hips.
The only reason she kept the helmet on was to keep back the smell. The endless labyrinth of tunnels, streets, halls, and stairways that made up the Underground always reeked of refuse, sewage and sometimes blood. The stone roof was a hundred feet above her right now, but the street was narrow with rickety apartment complexes. She was heading to the building squashed between two complexes. A black lopsided hut, with an oversized neon sign of a sexy witch on a broom with a long pipe, read Elphaba’s Joint.
Gunda knocked on the wooden door; a slide opened and closed. She could hear faint music.
The door opened and a big green monster welcomed her in. The orc had wide shoulders and a potbelly, but his arms were like tree-trunks.
She walked down a dark lobby that glowed with star-lights and down a similar flight of stairs. The bubbly electronic music got louder. A pair of orcs stood guard at another double-doors. Now she pulled off her helmet. She was a strong jawed girl with ebony skin and a bush of wavy hair. “Goddamn clubs,” she grumbled. She didn’t want any trouble, just wanted to get this done and go.
Through the doors it was dark, except for glow sticks, staticky TVs and strobes. The place was booming with people jumping and dancing. Crowds were around the bar three bodies deep. Orcish bouncers walking around, pulling out troublemakers. One night stands along the edge of the rave, only a couple layers of fabric from trading an STI.
She elbowed her way through the crowd, her lack of height being a disadvantage. On the average girl her age, she was about half-a-foot shorter, but far sturdier and with the strength to match.
She fought her way to the bar. The bartender, a black guy probably suffering from vampirism, gave out drinks while hypnotising weak minded girls with devastating purple eyes.
When he finally took notice of Gunda his eyes went wide. He nodded to her and led her to a door behind the bar. On the other side of the door was a red hallway with paintings of naked women of half a dozen species. Candle chandeliers hung from the ceiling.
The bartender gestured to the door at the end of the hall.
Passing through the door Gunda saw was a candlelit lounge with a private bar, blue seating and old tapestries. Probably from the Europe. Probably stolen.
There were scantily clad girls at the bar or on plush loungers, smoking. The bartender was another pale faced vampire with entrapping eyes. There was also a couch and chairs around an oaken table. On the couch was a fat goblin smoking from a long tube attached to a puffing machine in the shape of a gargoyle. He wore a rich suit with pointed red shoes, and far too much jewelry. Bulbous rings of every colour and make, jammed on short fat fingers. His green skin was wrinkled and sweaty, his ears drooped down like wind socks on a quiet day.
He looked at Gunda, taking a long studying puff, then gave a fanged smiled, “Ah my dear! You arrived. We were worried you had lost your way. Please come sit. We were just about to start. Would you like a beverage?”
She shook her head and took a seat on a cushy chair that was comically oversized for her, but could probably handle an ogre or a very large orc. She held her helmet in her lap. The bluish-chrome steel reflecting the candles.
On her right was an immensely muscled man in his 60s, his huge arms lined with blue tattoos. On her left was a smirking goblin in purple.
The fat goblin looked at each in turn and smiled, “Well, now that all the pieces are set -- let’s get started.” He snapped his thick fingers. A girl stepped forward, passing him a glass of wine.
“The job is simple. Deep in the catacombs is a relic that will be worth more than a pretty piece of loot. We don’t know what it’s called, or where it is. You all know what the catacombs are?”
Gunda shook her head, she had only been in the Underground for a few months since she emigrated from Nidavellir. The old man scoffed, “Amateur.”
She got up, a lethal look in her eyes. The old man got up too. His eyes changed colours rapidly. A Sorcerer? Only magic users have eyes like that.
“Whoa. Whoa. Whoa,” said the fat goblin, raising his hands, “Let’s keep this civil. Please.” They glared but sat. “The catacombs, my dear, are the oldest foundations of the underground. When the dwergs came to North America in the early eleventh century, they stayed and built an empire in the mountains. This I’m sure you know, given your heritage.”
She nodded, my mother’s a dwarf, and my father’s a human from Ethiopia. She wouldn’t tell any of them. Never get feelings mixed in a job. Her size and build hinted at dwarven blood, nothing more. I don’t need my mom’s legacy. I don’t need her approval. I just need her weapons. She put her bitterness aside and listened.
“The oldest tunnels and mines are the catacombs. A lot of flooded mines and such. There are, however, artefacts. We just don’t know where much of it is, and given the danger, it’s not worth it. Until today. A contact has been so kind as to give us information on the location. You three will go to the contact, get the information, go into the catacombs and each will be given a portion of the relic’s value.”
“How much?” asked Gunda, her Scandinavian accent becoming noticeable.
“Ten percent each.”
“That is horseshit!” she yelled, “If we are doing all the work we deserve at least thirty percent.”
“Hush up!” growled the old man.
The fat goblin laughed, sipping his wine, “Doesn’t matter what you think you deserve. I have the data, and I’m the one in charge. Got that, honey?”
“Don’t call me honey!”
He scoffed, “I’ll call you whatever I want. I’m Tribune Vobo Skarni and this is my neighbourhood. I’m the one in charge! Now you’re gonna do the job, or you’re gonna get thrown out!”
“I’m gonna do this job, but you’re gonna give me thirty percent.”
“Why the hell would I do that?”
In a flash she pulled something out of her belt. All the girls pulled out oversized handguns and machine pistols from under their stools or behind their chairs. The bartender hissed, white teeth becoming fangs.
Gunda held a metal orb with glowing blue buttons, it made a whirling sound. She was on her feet, “This is a custom plasma grenade. So unless you want a mini-supernova in your face, you are gonna offer me thirty percent.”
“Fifteen.” Vobo remained calm, everyone around him was shaking and sweating.
“Twenty.” She thumbed the switch on the grenade.
“Fine. Fine!” conceded the goblin. “Twenty for each of you.”
Gunda turned off the grenade and put it away. The well-dressed goblin on her left turned and winked, “Thank you, darlin’.”
Don’t call me my darlin.
The old man grunted in agreement.
“Now can we get back to business?” complained Vobo. The women around lowered their weapons. The vampire relaxed and went back to pouring drinks.
He continued, “The contact is at this address.” He pushed a slip of paper over the table. Gunda picked it up, instantly she knew she had no idea where it was and passed it to the slim goblin. He grinned, He knows where. Thank the gods.
Vobo continued, “He is a bit of an eccentric, He…” the fat goblin went pale, he stared at something behind them with a look of horror.
Before Gunda could turn around; a gunshot fired, blasting a hole in Vobo’s chest. Out of habit she slipped on her helmet as she jumped to her feet.
A tall figure in the doorway stepped forward, wearing silver and black battle fatigues with a steel gorget and spaulders. His face was hidden by the blank face--place and a big X painted on the face. A massive smoking handcannon held in his gloved fist.
The room erupted in chaos. The girls raised their weapons and started firing. The vampire rushed forward in a blur. The intruder in the doorway caught the vampire by the neck. The vampire struggled before he was thrown across the room, impaled on a trophy deer’s head.
He raised his handgun and fired with machine-like accuracy. Killing a girl with a single shot to the head or heart. Blood splattering the elegant wallpaper.
Through the chaos, the old man next to Gunda kicked his chair into the attacker, sending the chair flying like a rocket. How is he that strong? The intruder dropped his gun and caught the chair, the force sliding him back into the hallway.
The remaining girls fired continuously down the hall. Tearing through the chair, the walls, everywhere. Screams coming from the side rooms. The huge chair was almost a pile of mush when the girls stopped. They lowered their weapons, hoping it was over. Most of them were trembling in their scanty outfits and stilettoes. Gunda kept her handgun aimed. Vobo was dead. The old man cracked his knuckles, his eyes were changing back and forth from blue to gold. It was silent. Wood chips and stuffing hazing the air.
Something clanged against the floor and rolled.
Gunda ducked just in time. The deafening ring stung her ears. It was far worse for the goblin, who was on the floor, holding down his ears.
The intruder vaulted over the chair and grabbed one of the girls. He spun her around and fired her weapon into three others, never missing. He tossed one girl aside and dodged another, grabbing her by the leg and whipping her into another. He’s flawless, Gunda was awestruck by the grace of his attack.
“Let’s get out of here!” someone screamed over the noise. The ringing subsided and the goblin was tugging her arm, “We have to leave! I have a car out front.”
“Through him?” she yelled.
“No! Through here!” the old man kicked the wall next to the door. A hole exploded open into the next room, a red bedroom with four naked people huddling in the corner, bongs and bags of pills scattered around.
The intruder zeroed in on the last girl who fell to her knees, begging for mercy. He kicked her in the head, the force snapping her neck. His masked turned up to the three remaining.
“Wall it is,” Gunda raised her handgun and started firing as she ran.
The goblin was out first, then the old man, with Gunda who covered them. The intruder was a blur. She missed every time.
What the hell!
He jumped for his handgun and fired!
She was thrown back, No! No! Not this way! Please gods. Not this way! MOM! Her heart was running a million miles a second. That’s when she realized she was okay, the wind was knocked out of her, her chest throbbing, but she felt ok. She looked down and saw the bullet lodged in her gorget.
She tried getting up, head spinning, vision cloudy. She saw a dark form step from behind a wall, precise movements and stomping steps.
She gasped for air through her visor and saw the intruder aiming his handgun. She didn’t think, just reacted. She slammed her hand against a button on her belt. Her booster-pack roared on and blasted her away, straight through one wall, then another, then another. Something clipped her boot and she went spinning into a crowd of people. Her foot screamed in pain. Better not be broken.
She sat up, surrounded by a crowd of screaming people. She rubbed her neck. It was taken the force of the walls, but the gorget helped. The strobe lights messing with her vision; the deep electronic base pulsing through her body. She saw the old man and goblin standing in the hole she just made, starring at her, gobsmacked.
The side door blasted open. The silhouette of a man dropping an empty magazine and slamming a fresh one into a raise weapon. Gunda couldn’t see his face but she knew he wouldn’t miss this time.
The old man slammed a chunk of rebar into the intruder - sending him reeling. A high-pitched ringing from rebar against armor. The goblin rushed to Gunda and helped her up. As soon as she stood, pain shot up her foot. “God fucking dammit!”
The goblin was shorter than her and she was heavy but he managed to help her limp towards the door.
The crowd was screaming and flooding towards the door. The bouncers tried to maintain order but got shoved off. The music was still deafeningly loud. High pitched sirens interrupted deep echoing bass drops.
Gunda and the goblin tried to shove their way to the door, but it was useless; there was just too many people. Another crash. The intruder and old man were grappling on the crowded dance floor now, struggling over a metal bar.
The intruder jabbed the old man in the shoulder, making him lose grip on the bar. The intruder spun, taking the rebar and flipping it around, now ready to stab it through the old man.
It stopped. A mere inch from the man’s heart. He held out his hands, as if to push something. His eyes flashing gold. Gunda’s heart was racing, so he really is a sorcerer.
The old man smiled and waved his arms in a circular pattern then pushed again. The rebar went flying, taking the attacker with it. He crashed into the bar, drinks staining his fatigues. Sparks poured from his ear-pieces. He flailed around, waving his arms, screeching.
The old man held out his arm and the rebar came flying back. He caught it. Then whipped it back at his opponent. At the same time the intruder slammed a button on his mask. A greenish haze gathered around him. The rebar ricocheted off, planting itself into the ceiling.
The old man pulled something out of his pocket. He threw a handful of caltrops and pushed with his other hand. They shot out like bullets. They bounced off the hazy field, getting stuck in the walls, shattering glasses and stabbing people in the crowd.
“Oh fuck this!” growled the old man, he looked at Gunda, “Get that car ready! I’m right behind you.”
Oh fuck this indeed... That must be a magnetic shield. Metal veers away from him. She punched the person next to her and reached into her back holster. She drew out a short stubby blaster and flicked on the switch. Lights glowing, she shot into the air, a ball of glowing blue energy splattering the ceiling. The crowd shrieked, clearing enough room for Gunda, the goblin and the old man to shove their way through.
The goblin pulled out a small device, it chirped just loud enough to be heard.
Climbing those steps was brutal on Gunda’s foot, but she had to.
“Get out of the way!” yelled to the old man, shoving party-goers. They slammed out of the door. Gunda socked a guy in the face to make him move.
They got onto the street. The noise attracted curious eyes from the apartments leaning in over the club.
“My car is over there!” the goblin pointed to a slick neon purple vehicle with a domed roof and a gargoyle hood ornament.
“The hell is that?” groaned the old man, helping Gunda up.
The goblin rushed over, trying to get the keys in, “Borrowed it form my Centurion.”
As he fumbled for the keys, Gunda glanced back at the crowd of screaming people. They rushed past. Then she saw that blank mask rise through the crowd.
“Open that damn car!” roared the old man.
“I’m trying!” he said as he dropped the keys.
The masked man raised his handgun, aiming right for them. Gunda already raised her blaster and growled, “Stop this!” The ball of glowing blue fire ignored his green aura. His gun was blasted from his hand. The second shot blasted the attacker in the shoulder, tearing off his armor and burning the skin. He dropped to one knee and roared with a synthetic voice.
“Get in!” screamed the goblin.
Gunda kept her gun aimed as she entered the back seat. I still hate clubs. They sped off down the narrow road.
. . . . . . . .
“What the hell was that?!” yelled Gunda as she tore off her helmet and boot. Her foot was bright purple.
“The Enforcer,” grumbled the old man.
The goblin was silent, he was sweating. They turned down the road onto a main highway in the underground. It was a giant freeway carrying them over the low areas and towards the central metropolis. The Underground w awash with lights, noise, and odor.
“The Enforcer. One of the Goblin King’s prized bounty hunters. What I want to know is why a King’s assassin was in a slum down here?” the old man looked at Gunda’s foot. “You will be fine. Just a sprain.”
“Thanks. That’s comforting,” she adjusted her position. Then checked her weapon. Low power, no issues.
“What is that?” asked the old man.
“Didn’t think mercenaries wasted their time on those, too hard to maintain.”
She holstered the blaster, “Well, when your mother is the one who invented them, you tend to know how they work. Worked a lot better than those parlor tricks you were doing.”
The old man laughed, “Ha! Parlor tricks seemed good enough to save your ass. Just as much as your shiny boom-stick saved mine.”
Gunda couldn’t help but smile.
“So where do you want me to drop you guys off?” said the goblin, as he turned down a neon flashing street.
“No!” both Gunda and the old man said in sync.
“We are going after that loot. Now that Vobo is dead, we can split the take three ways,” barked Gunda.
“You’re serious? With the Enforcer!?” the goblin gripped the wheel tighter.
“If you don’t want to take part fine!” the old man gritted his teeth, “Just drop us off at the contact. Two ways is easier, makes a nice even number.”
The goblin pulled over and slammed on the breaks, “Even with the Enforcer chasing after you?”
“How do we even know he’ll come after us now?” said Gunda.
The goblin paused, “I don’t know.”
“Can’t you call him off? You’re a member of the cartels right?”
“You think someone of my rank can ask the King for anything? I’m just a gang associate, I just run some finances for my Centurion.”
The old man snorted, “Bastardo.”
The goblin growled, showing his tiny pointed teeth, “MY NAME is Zester! I may be ranked a Bastardo, but I’m still a goblin and a member of the RedClan. Better than a washed up Senator like you.”
The old man’s eyes flashed with colour again. The chains on Zester’s belt pulled directly towards the old man. Gunda felt her armor and helmet being pulled towards him.
“I may be passed my prime, but any sorcerer can still kill a goblin without breaking a sweat.”
The goblin flicked his wrist and a gold coloured contraption slid out of his striped sleeve. He pointed a mini-shotgun into the man’s face, “This’ll still kill you, Senator.”
“Let’s just calm down!” said Gunda, “We all want the money. Let’s not kill each other until after we sold the treasure. My name is Gunda.”
“Not a very Dwarven name?” teased the old man. “Senator Backus.”
“Senator?” asked Gunda.
“Cartel word for Hitman. Give him the Ceasar’s treatment, they used to say. We need the artefact’s location.”
Zester shrugged and put the car in gear, “Where is the contact?”
Backus smiled, “Near Black Wall.”
The Zester’s ears drooped, “You got to be kidding me…”
“What’s Black Wall?” asked Gunda.
“Really?” barked Backus, “How long have you lived in the Underground?”
“You gotta be fucking kidding me… how the hell did Vobo pick you for this job?”
She growled, “My mum is Bryhild BrightRoar…”
Zester gawked, “Holy shit! Minister of Science of Nidavellir? No wonder Vobo got ya, you’re a walking armory.”
“Yes, Yes. My mama is very brilliant and I reap the benefits! Can we just go to… wherever we’re going?”
“You’ll see,” grinned Backus.
Gunda frowned, “What if the Enforcer finds us again?”
Backus ignored the question as they drove down the freeway.
. . . . . . . . .
Hours later as the city lights flew past on the ride there, Gunda thought about her mother. They never looked much alike. Gunda took so much after her father, who was a human from Ethiopia. They raised her together in privilege in Nidavellir’s capital. Everyone always expected Gunda to continue mummy’s work, but Gunda hated labs and academics. She liked to fight, to play sports. She wasn’t one to sit down and read textbooks for days on end. Doesn’t mean she didn’t learn how to maintain some of her mother’s inventions. She just lacked the know-how and creativity to take the next step. She just didn’t care enough. That’s what hurt mum the most…
So when the shipment of technology needed a familial escort, it was finally an escape to the New World.
“We’re here,” said Zester. Snapping Gunda back to attention.
They got out of the vehicle. Gunda’s foot was already feeling better; she was a fast healer. Benefits of being a hybrid. They were on a cobblestone street flanked by gothic mansions. Gardens of glowing white and blue plants and ivy climbing up the mansions. Oil lampposts bathing everything in blue light. In the distance she saw a huge stone wall, at least three hundred feet high with battlements and turrets. Beyond she saw only darkness.
“What is this place?” she asked as she limped with her helmet in the crook of her arm.
“The edge of the Black,” said Zester “That over there is northern most district of the Underground. There is no light, no power, just darkness. Some call it the entrance to hell itself.”
“And what do you think?” asked Gunda.
“I’ve never had a reason to be up here. I don’t know what’s beyond that wall, all I know is that if Vampires struggle enough to garrison that wall with the best weapons money can buy; it must be pretty hellish.”
“Can we just get on with this?” said Backus, “The contact is just up here.”
Down the road Gunda noticed curtains in windows opening and silhouettes of people starring out. She couldn’t see them but she felt their red gaze, like the sun beating down on her.
They turned down another street towards a smaller secluded mansion with a high fence. Zester pressed the button at the gate.
“Hello?” chirped a male voice, “Who goes there?”
“Here for the job.”
“AH YES! Vobo sent his message this morning. I hope the dear green fellow is alright.”
“He’s dead,” grunted Gunda.
“Oh that poor wee fellow. Please come in and tell me this tale of woe.” The gate buzzed open. The mansion was smaller than the others but just as exquisite with balconies, gargoyles and pillars of black marble. The garden was full of trees and shrubs dazzling in bioluminescence.
Zester’s ears perked up, he stared into the bushes. “What’s that?”
In a flash of red light and metal something flashed and hit Gunda to the ground. Her chest heaved. Her ears rung from a mechanical roar. “Get this FUCKING thing off of me!”
Backus ran over and tackled it. He got his massive hands around it and pulled it in two, spraying sparks. He had what looks like both halves of a metal dog with a three-hinged jaw of serrated teeth.
“Oh dear! I’m so sorry!” yelled a voice, “I forgot to turn them off!” A young man with a brown hair in a bun came running down the steps.
Backus tossed the metal monstrosity away, “The hell is this?!”
The young man wore a quilted housecoat, with a puffed up collar and bowtie. His chin was hairy, but not quite a beard. “They’re my security Automatas. I do apologize, genuinely I do. Please come inside, my dears. I’ll have tea and a meal for you.”
Gunda brushed herself off, “Food sounds good.”
Backus glared, “We don’t have time.”
“Fuck you. I’m starving; you wouldn’t even let us stop at a bloody drive-through on the way here.”
The young man smiled, “Good! We are having curry tonight!”
Upon entering the home, Gunda was awestruck by the extravagance of the landing. Huge marble staircases, crystal chandeliers, immense paintings of pale men in red armor and gruff rebels with muskets. An elegant woman came down the steps. She was naked, her body chrome, and her eyes glowed a metallic blue.
“What is that? A Natalie-600?” asked Zester.
Their host smiled, revealing broken but very sharp white teeth, “Excellent eye. I prefer Automatas over paid servers. Keeps things more organized, if a little expensive.”
“Who are you?” asked Gunda.
“Oh! How rude of me! My name is Simone Zbaraski. I’m a historian.”
His smile grew wider, “Come with me.” Gunda let him take her by the hand and followed him down a hallway lined with marble busts. They entered a library. Glass boxes with artefacts, more marble busts and portraits. Gunda looked up and saw that the library went up two other floors. Automata drones hovered on spinning wings, checking books, cataloguing documents.
Zester and Backus sat down at a long table as the Natalie-600 brought plates of steaming food and goblets of wine.
Simone waved Gunda over to a painting of another bearded man with a musket and axe, wearing animal skins and a pauldron hammered into a wolf’s head. “This is my ancestor, Alexsius Zbaraski. A leader in a lycan community during the 1700s. I’m a historian of the Vampire-Wolffolk conflict. It’s the longest conflict in history. Millennia old. It goes beyond war between political or cultural factions. It’s in the biology, both are apex predators fighting for the same resource: human victims. Lycanthropy developed in Greece, probably before second millennium BC. But Vampirism is older and has followed humans since their inception, no one knows where or how. A scholar named Phillipa Et Tuscana theorized that vampires were originally a blood disease that mutated due to Veil Radiation. You know what that is?”
Gunda shook her head. Why am I letting him jabber on like this?
“It’s magic,” barked Backus. “Veil Radiation is the egg-heads word for Magic.”
Simone laughed, “So says a magician. Senator Backus Steelbone, you’ve had work in this district correct?” Backus nodded grimly. “Your reputation as a metallurgist is astounding. You invented the Osteo-Cladding, correct?”
Gunda raised an eyebrow to Backus.
The old man held out his arms, he ran his finger over the tattoos. “Each of these parallels metal I had put inside me. My magic allows me to manipulate metals using magnetic fields. When I’m touching the metal it’s a lot easier on me. When I’m not in contact with it, it drains too much energy. So I got the idea, if I have metal inside me, I can manipulate the fields within me to make me stronger, tougher and faster.” He flexed his arms.
“Brilliant!” said Simone.
“Insane,” said Gunda.
Backus laughed, “It’s funny how close those seem sometimes. And look who’s talking! You carrying around a gun that fires mini-supernovas and a backpack that sends you flying through the air at breakneck speed. That’s new tech, brand spanking new. I know high-lords that won’t touch that for fear of it biting them in the ass.”
Gunda shrugged, “The less people who use it. The less likely they will figure out how to counter it.”
“Or the more likely, someone will want to kill you for the tech.”
“That’s always a risk dwarves have been willing to take.”
Zester finally spoke, looking up from his meal, “But you’re only half-dwarf.”
Gunda glared at him. Simone laughed, “Oh another hybrid! My dear, I know what it’s like. Not really having anyone like you no matter where you go.”
“No you don’t.”
“Oh don’t I? I’m a half-wolf living in the third biggest vampire community in North America. Pretty sure my mother was killed by my father’s clan when I was a pup. Did your parent’s at least raise you together?”
Gunda frowned, she didn’t answer.
Simone frowned, “I’m so sorry my dear. That was uncalled for. Please, let me show you some more of my work while your compatriots eat. Oh! I forgot to get you food! Natalie!”
An electronic voice chirped from down the hall, “Yes master.”
“Please, some food for the lady.”
“It’s already at the table sir.”
Simone clapped, “Oh yes, how airheaded of me! Please, eat my dear.” Gunda did. It was good, hot and spicy; just like her dad’s cooking.
“Before you two young loves get too invested,” growled Backus, “Can we please discuss the information we came for. The loot in the catacombs!”
Simone frowned, “Soon enough, we have plenty of time. I’m the only one who knows about the artefact.”
“Then why don’t you share.”
“What’s the rush, dear Senator?”
Backus stood up, “The rush is I want the goddamn money!”
“Senator, please. Sit down. We have time.”
The electric voice chirped on again, “Master, you have another guest.”
Simone smiled at Backus. He tapped a keyboard on the table, a screen rising from the oak. “Bring up the camera feed.”
Gunda brushed her thick hair away to see. On the screen stood a man in battle fatigues, wearing armor and a mask with an X painted on. “Shit.”
“Friend of yours?” said Simone.
“He’s back,” said Gunda. “What do we do?”
Backus got up, he put his hands on the table. His eyes began to flash between colours. He picked up the goblet “I think it’s time for the information.” He crumped the goblet like paper and molded it into a pyramid and aimed it at Simone.
“Oh course…” Simone tapped a few keys. On the screen they saw the Enforcer kick open the gate.
There was a thunk on the table. The goblin had a massive gold 50. Cal handgun in his spindly fingers. “Now, please.”
Gunda watched the screen. Half a dozen of those security Automations darted out of the gardens straight for the Enforcer. He pulled his handgun and in a flurry of motion shot each Automata before it got to him.
Simone’s hands shook as he typed away, “Aha! Here’s the little bliter.” He turned the screen around. “The artefact is from the old dwarven empire. From the first settlers who came in the 10th century to the new world. It’s a rune stone, old, very old. It is of incredible cultural significance to the dwarven people.”
On the screen they saw the Enforcer go up the steps, he raised his gun to the camera and the screen went black.
“Where is it?” said Zester, he cocked his gun.
“My god! Put the goddamn gun down!” yelled Gunda.
“When we have the information, honey,” growled Backus and the metal spun in his hand on its own.
“Don’t call me honey!” Gunda felt her hand going to her blaster.
“I won’t have you ruin the chance of getting to that artefact.” There was a crash in the distance. “Coordinates now!”
Simone put a slip of paper in Gunda’s hand. “There! Now can we all relax. We need to get out of here-“ BAM! A gunshot went straight through his shoulder. Sending him sprawling on the floor. The Enforcer had kicked down the door but it was Zester’s gun that was smoking.
Backus turned and shot the bit of metal at the Enforcer. It lodged in his armor; he skidded back. Zester spun around and fired. The Enforced activated that haze again and the bullets veered off course.
Gunda pulled her blaster, but wasn’t fast enough. The Enforcer dropped the shield and fired. The blaster went flying and hit a book shelf. There was a pool of blood on the ground, but no Simone. Where’d he go? Backus threw the table at the Enforcer, food splattering everywhere.
“I got him!” yelled Backus, “Take him out!”
Gunda whipped her helmet on and slammed the button on her belt. She flew through the air in a controlled arch. After landing on the next level of the library she pulled her second last plasma grenade. She dropped it over the ledge, “Backus RUN!”
He saw the glint of chrome metal and jumped over an artefact cabinet. Zester dived behind a bookshelf. The Enforcer’s blank mask looked up. He twirled his handcannon and batted the grenade hitting a Home Run. It exploded in the air. A blinding blue ball of liquid fire exploded and imploded. “NO! Shit!” yelled Gunda.
The service Automatas instantly went to work protecting the books.
The Enforcer threw the table at Backus, who caught it. He ran up the slant and pounced onto the next level near Gunda. It happened so fast. He grabbed her booster pack as she tried to turn and slammed her against the railing. Breaking something in her pack.
“Get the car!” she heard Backus yell.
Gunda tried to twist out of the Enforcer’s grip, but he pinned her against the railing. He slammed a fist into her face. Over and over and over again. Her visor cracked, her head banged against the railing. Her vision was going red and fuzzy. She tried to block with her arm. Can’t last much longer.
She fell to the floor, dizzy. She pulled off her useless helmet. She spat blood on the floor. She looked up; Backus was fighting the Enforcer.
Gunda rubbed her eyes and stumbled to her feet.
Backus kicked and punched the Enforcer with his sorcerer’s strength, blows landing so hard that the air popped. The Enforcer was knocked farther and farther each time. Backus yelled, “Dirty fucker wanking Metal-faced whoreson!” Gunda met his eyes, “Get out of here! I’m right behind you.” He slammed the Enforcer’s head into a pillar, which probably would have shattered a naked skull.
“Run!” yelled Backus, as he grabbed a Greatsword off a hook on the wall. He raised the sword to finish it.
The Enforcer dodged. The sword planted itself into the floor. The Enforcer head-butted Backus in the chin followed by upper-cut to the jaw. Which sent him reeling and dazed. The Enforcer pulled the sword out of the floor. In the same arch he raised it over Backus.
Gunda screamed in protest, she felt her belt for a weapon. Anything? Anything at all! Her fingers wrapped around the last Plasma Grenade.
The Enforcer raised the sword.
Gunda pressed the button, the grenade whirled.
The Enforcer brought the sword down.
Gunda slammed into him.
The sword missed Backus’s head, it slammed into his left shoulder carving deep into his flesh. The gash spurted blood, the arm hung by a few cords of meat and tendon. Backus screamed. Gunda and The Enforcer tumbled into a wall.
When the Enforcer got up he growled with a synthetic voice. Gunda smirked. The Enforcer noticed the beeping coming from his belt. Gunda rolled behind the bookshelf. She covered her ears, although it didn’t help much. The explosion shook the room.
Around the corner a hole was blown into the outside street. The Enforcer was gone. Fucker better be dead.
She slid next to Backus. His fat face cold and white. He’s in shock. With his blood flooding over the carpet, she started dragging him by his good arm. He groaned. He’s not gonna make it with all that bleeding.
He grabbed her wrist and pulled her close. “What is it? What do you need me to do!” she asked.
His fat fingers peeled her gorget off her chest and threw it onto his shoulder. He padded it down, it wrapped itself like bandages, closing off the wound. “Help me, dammit.”
She hoisted him onto her shoulder. They hobbled out of hole in the wall and landed in a bush. Zester honked from the street, “Let’s go! C’mon humies!”
She shoved Backus into the back seat. He was still bleeding badly. Vampires poked their heads from their windows to see what had happened. They sped down the road.
“We need to get him to a hospital,” said Gunda.
“No!” yelled Zester, “No goddamn clinic. Cartels will know where we are and so will that fucking tinhead. We need a safehouse.”
Gunda sighed, “Gods dammit, we can go to my place. Third level of the main metropolis district, 908 Grimgor Street.”
“That’s over two hours away.”
“Got any better ideas?”
Zester nodded as he sped down the exit to the freeway, “I might know someone in a nearby housing complex.”
Backus barked, “Then fucking get there! God dammit, that fucker better be dead. You shoved a grenade in his pocket, right?”
Gunda nodded, “Just about. Hooked it to his belt.”
Backus’s mouth hung open, “Then he’s probably still out there. If you don’t see the splat on the wall, never assume the fuckers gone.”
“Duly noted. Now let me try and fix you up.” She rummaged through the glove box for bandages, but just found a gold plated Uzi and plenty of ammo. He’s just gonna have to wait.
. . . . . . . . .
They pulled up to a housing complex at the edge of the main underground metropolis. The streets were packed with crowds, with the night shifts switching to the day shift. Gunda noticed how tired she was. Zester parked and ran up to the apartment intercom. He gave the thumbs up.
Gunda grabbed Backus and helped him limp up the steps, then up the rickety elevator, and down the hall, which he bled all over. They were rushed into an apartment by an older woman. It was a small apartment, low lighting, old furniture. They put Backus on the kitchen counter. The couch was a mess. Zester kept watch with his Uzi.
Gunda started working the hunks of metal off his shoulder, “We need to stitch this up. Otherwise he could lose the arm.”
“Just take it off. Arm’s useless now,” grunted Backus.
It must be shock, she thought. “We can save it, we just-”
“Take it off! I don’t have time for months of recovery! Take it off!”
She looked into his flashing eyes. He was serious. She nodded, “I need an axe.”
The woman nodded and brought a fireman’s axe and mallet. Gunda tore off the last of the metal and pressed a towel over it. “Now heat the axe and knife. Need it red hot!”
The women nodded, “Jesus, sweetie, were you taught medicine in a cave?” she held the blades over her gas stove.
Backus growled, he grabbed Gunda’s arm, “Make it clean. I need it a clean cut.”
“What are you talking about?”
He coughed, “You’ll see. Keep it clean. Burn it until it’s clean.”
“It’s gonna hurt like a mother fucker.”
He forced a smile, “I’ve fucked enough mothers to know. Gimme liquor and something to bite on.”
Gunda nodded. She ran and found a bottle of whisky, which he downed in a few gulps. Then she stuffed a towel in his mouth. The woman passed her the bright red axe, “Going to have to clean the carpet.”
She put the edge to the strings holding the dead arm to the shoulder. The blade hissed against the flesh. The woman held down his legs, Zester held down the other arm. Gunda hammered the axe down to free the arm. The searing smell of flesh stuffed her nostrils. She heard Backus’ scream of pain and saw the seep of hot blood and steam.
She tossed the axe aside. There’s so much blood. She took the hot knife and burned the rest of his shoulder until it stopped bleeding. Until it was a black scab of burnt flesh. Backus had long pass out. Once it was done Gunda looked at how bloody her hands were. Oh my god.
The woman touched her arm, “Go take a shower sweetie, I’ll finish up here.”
Gunda nodded, her adrenaline was falling quickly. I think I’m gonna throw up. She stumbled into the bathroom and puked violently into the toilet. Curry is not as good going up as it was going down. Once she regained composure, she peeled her armor and clothing off. Her ebony skin was covered in bruises and Backus’s blood. Her underwear was stuck from the sweat.
She took a long shower, losing track of the time, was probably in for over an hour. The steam was murder on her hair, but it just felt so damn good. Just a blur of steam and hot water. Soap washing the blood away. I can’t do this. It ain’t worth it. When there was a knock at the door, she shut off the water. “Gunda, we need to talk,” said Zester. “Backus is waking up.”
“Be right there!”
She got dressed as quickly as possible. Her bones ached a lot less. Backus was sitting up on a chair, noticeably smaller with one less muscled arm. He smiled when he saw Gunda. There was another whiskey bottle in his hand. Zester stood with his arms crossed.
Then the memory of him shooting Simone flashed in her brain. A rage exploded in her breast. She grabbed him by the collar, “Why the fuck did you shoot the hybrid.”
It took Zester a second to remember, “Oh, he was taking too long.”
“Shitty reason, asshole.”
“Enough!” yelled Backus. He took a swig from the bottle. “It was fucking stupid to do that Zester, but it’s done. Now we need to talk about what we’re gonna do next.”
Gunda raised an eyebrow, He must be delusional. “This isn’t worth it. None of it. We should all just go home and lay low.”
“Not a chance. I need that goddamn cash.”
“Why!? No money is worth this much blood.” Nobody can be this greedy. Can they?
Backus glared, “It is when you have this.” He pulled up his shirt to reveal a knot of cancerous tendons over his ribs and chest. It was bleached white and unnatural. “You know what this is?”
Gunda fought back a gag, “its Magesblyte. Probably lethal at this point.”
“What?” chirped a voice, the woman was washing the floor.
Backus smiled kindly at her, “Magesblyte is the cost of using too much magic at once, something I’ve made a career of doing.” He glared at Gunda. “Doctors gave me four months a year ago. My only hope is a rare surgery that costs more than a pretty penny. I need this cash ‘cause either way I’m dead. That’s why I can’t waste time getting my arm reattached.”
Gunda looked at Zester, “Why the hell are you still here?”
Zester crossed his arms, “Because, the cartels need it.”
“What are you talking about? The Cartels are the richest faction in the Underground! Why do they need the artefact?”
“Because darling, I was told that this loot is important for the political scene of the underground. And now I know why… ever since a bunch of goblins took over the Underground there has been terror attacks Nd protests trying to overthrow the cartels to bring back the Dwarvish Empire. Plenty of moderates would settle for recognition and representation in the cartels. This runestone will begin a process of reconciliation for the dwarves and goblins.”
“Then why the hell is the Enforcer coming after us?”
Zester scoffed, “Because there are plenty of goblins who would just kill every dwerg out there, even you just cause you’re half. A lot of people don’t give a damn about winning hearts and minds or making friends. I’m pretty sure someone high up in the cartels sent him to wreck this plan. Me and Backus got actual reasons for getting this artefact. You’re the one that came here as a mercenary.”
She went red, “So what? If it means that much to you then you two can risk your necks.”
“We can’t do it without you,” said Backus. “You’re the only one who’s been able to hurt the Enforcer.”
She shrugged, “Not my problem.” She headed out the door.
Someone grabbed her arm, she was about to sock the person, but it was the woman who helped them. She was in her fifties, short, but not as short as Gunda. Wide glasses and a mess of grey-blonde hair.
“What do you want?” said Gunda.
“Listen sweetie, I know you don’t see much worth in this, but they need you. A lot. I won’t pretend I know the details. Forty years under Cartel rule teaches you to not ask too many questions. But from what I saw, you are a girl who is willing to do the hard things when people need you to. That kind of selflessness is rare in this world.”
The woman smiled, “Hon, it’s your choice, but I know you didn’t join this just for a paycheck.”
The pale cheeky face of her mother passed through Gunda’s mind. Her rosy cheeks covered in soot. She was such a smart, kind mum. And I left her… because I was scared I couldn’t measure up. She sighed.
She opened the door. Backus and Zester looked at her. She took a breath, “Ok, you bastards. If we do this, I need a few things from my place.” She pulled the slip of paper she got from Simone. “Then we can head into the catacombs.”
. . . . . . . .
Gunda opened the door to her apartment. It was a suite at the top of a housing block. She leased it from a goblin when she first moved to the Underground. She went straight to the second bedroom, which she had transformed into a workshop.
She made it a habit to always have spares ready to go. So a replacement booster pack, helmet, armor, plasma-blaster, and grenades was easy. She spent the better part of an hour welding lights to the rim of the T-visor on her helmet and the plasma-blaster.
Then she grabbed a unique piece she had built from her mum’s designs. An EMP grenade, a smooth disk with a green button with a frowning face. Then a large combat knife that she hung on her front
She glanced at a picture sitting on her desk. A tall grinning black man had his arm around a short-stocky white woman with braided brown hair. They were always so happy… then I left. She stared at it for a long time. Mom’s bright blue eyes. Dad’s deep brown eyes. They were so different in every possible way. They never fought. They always complemented each other. She defended dad from everyone who didn’t understand him. He kept her centered. Grounded. I’m a goddamn coward. Gunda wiped her eyes. Maybe after this I can at least feel that I measure up.
Gunda put her helmet on. The new T-visor highlighted the world around her with better clarity. She took the elevator down to the parkade. Zester and Backus leaned against the car. They had their own errand to run.
And I can see why.
Where his stump had been, Backus now had a huge coppery coloured arm. He waved with all the dexterity of a normal arm.
“How the hell did you get that?” asked Gunda.
He flexed the arm, “Oh just some junk metal here and there. Once I got some wires inserted into the arm it became as good as new. Plus I can do this.” His metal hand crunched itself into a crude blade, then into a claw, then back into a hand.
They piled in and headed south to the entrance of the catacombs.
. . . . . . . .
Zester drove through tunnels, over bridges, and down ramps. Deeper and deeper into the Underground. The lights from the metropolis vanished, street lights became less and less common, and there were fewer and fewer cars until the only light was the vehicles’s high beams against the cobble stone walls
Then they came to a gate that was too narrow for the car. They got out. Gunda flicked on the lights on her helmet and her blaster. She kicked open the door; there was nothing but a flight of stairs.
“This is the closest entrance we could find,” said Zester. He held a flashlight and stared at a phone, with the blue glow lighting his green face as he climbed down the steps. Backus followed, then Gunda.
Over the next few hours they went deeper into the tunnels. The walls were cold and made from rough stones. Then the tunnels were just carved into the bedrock. Deeper and deeper. Their beams of light snapping at every rat or gust of air. They checked every corner they passed. Gunda’s ears began to pop.
Zester noticed her counting under her breath, “You okay?”
She froze, “Yeah. Fine. How deep are we?”
“Deep enough, this way.” Zester turned a corner down a long smooth tunnel.
“Ears popping?” asked Backus. Gunda nodded. “Mine have been for over an hour. Must be nice to be a Dwerg-hybrid.”
“Better to be full Dwerg. Or just a goblin,” joked Zester.
Gunda glared through her helmet, “Yeah, whatever.” She remembered how some kids at school made fun of her for being a hybrid. There were dwarves, humans, even an elf, but being a hybrid and a second generation immigrant, the combination was too bizarre not to torment.
They turned down another tunnel. Zester stopped, his ears perked up. He whispered, “Shit. Hide.”
The hid around a corner. Gunda shut off her lights. There was a rumbling, the whole tunnel shook. Dust poured from the ceiling. It went on for almost five minutes.
When it went quiet they continued through the tunnels.
“What was that?” asked Gunda as she got her lights back on. She jumped. The whole wall was made of skulls
“Wyrms, serpents, who knows,” said Zester. “Always something down here. I was more worried about running into Rat-men.”
“Cartels are really hated down here. Anyone with green-skin gets shredded if they can catch em.” He checked the map. “Another turn.”
Gunda heard the sound of rushing water. They entered a wide tunnel with a river of clear rushing water. Zester led them down the tunnel which opened into a huge cavernous hall. The river made a waterfall down the stairs, which leaked into two moats at each side of the hall. Huge pillars held up the vaulted ceiling. Erosion and time had melted carvings and murals into messes of rock and stone. At the far end of the hall was a huge stone throne.
They crossed the hall, checking every shadow and corner. Zester ran up to the throne and brushed the dust off the wall. “It’s here!” he called. He took a knife and pried out a slab of marble the size of a textbook. It was covered in old runes and boarded with knot-work. Zester was giddy, “We found it!”
Backus smiled, “That was far easier than I thought it would be.”
Gunda craned her head to see closer, “Yeah.”
“I wouldn’t say that,” said Zester.
Gunda couldn’t react, she just screamed. Zester flicked his wrist-shotgun out and fired point-blank at both Backus and Her. She flew back into a pillar. THAT GODDAMN FUCKING LITTLE GREEN FUCKING BASTARD!! She coughed, her visor was cracked, forcing her to take it off. Again.
“God fucking dammit,” her shoulder was bleeding. Her gorget took most of the hit, but it fucking hurt like a bitch. She looked up, her vision a little blurry. She saw Zester vanish through the entrance. Then she saw Backus laying on the ground. His fat gut was a mess of blood.
She crawled over to him, “Backus! Backus! C’mon old man!” she pressed her hands over the wound, but it was such a mess that she couldn’t stop the bleeding. “Talk to me you old bastard!”
He looked up, “Shit.”
Gunda looked at the entrance. A tall figure with a blank mask stood at the top of the waterfall. She jumped over to her blaster that she had dropped. Gunshots ricocheted around her. The Enforcer was sprinting and firing. His aim was off.
Gunda grabbed the pistol-grip and fired. The glowing blue fireball hurtled towards the Enforcer, but he was too fast. She fired again and again. He didn’t bother with the shield, wouldn’t help anyways.
He ducked behind a pillar. She got up, firing into the pillar. Orbs of blue firing blasting chunks away. The pillar crumbled. The Enforcer jumped to the side, firing his handcannon. Gunda slammed the button on her hip and shot into the air. This booster pack left huge fiery trails behind her as she shot at him. She grabbed onto a crack near the top of a pillar and continued to fire. He ran behind the pillars.
The blaster beeped loudly, the slide read: Low Power. 4 Shots Remaining. “Shit!”
Used too many shots too quickly.
She flew across the hall to get the angle on the Enforcer. He fired at her, but she was flying too fast. She slowed as she almost hit the wall and fired twice. The first missed. The second grazed his thigh, burning the clothing. He dropped to his knees. He raised the gun and fired.
The bullet grazed her arm. She screamed and she shot herself towards him. She fired the last two rounds in quick succession. Again, the first missed, but the second exploded over his blank-faced helmet. Half the mask melted and sparks poured from his electronics. He roared with a mechanical scream.
She flew past, and ducked behind a pillar on the ground. The blaster was empty, and she didn’t have refills. I knew I forgot something. Idiot! Peering around the corner she saw the Enforcer stumbling around, waving his arms searching. Is… Is he blind? Well, blind with a damaged helmet. What is he? Her armor banged against the pillar. His half-melted mask shot in her direction and unloaded into the pillar. Well I know he can hear.
Gunda jumped behind another pillar as he searched for her. What is he? Human? He’s too fast, too strong, he fights too perfectly. Could he be a robot? A lot of the new machines are getting more and more advanced. Maybe the Goblin King got himself something really advanced.
She ducked behind another pillar. If he is a machine. She pulled the EMP grenade. Then this’ll stop him. She knew she needed to attach it to him for it to work, otherwise he’d roll away once he heard the clank. She checked her reserves on her booster pack. Fuck, only enough for another a minute of full burn.
She was never a gambler, but this bet might be worth it. She fired up the boosters. She flew around the pillar and aimed right for the Enforcer. He turned just to be grabbed by Gunda by the waist. They blasted through the air, banging against walls. They slammed through a damaged pillar, causing it to break and collapse a portion of the hall. She slipped the grenade in his back pocket. Not the belt this time.
He roared. He slammed his fists into her back and head. Then he pulled his knife and stabbed her booster pack over and over again. She lost control of her velocity. They crashed into the throne and tumbled down the steps.
When the Enforcer looked up, Gunda grinned. The EMP went off and in a ripple in the air the Enforcer went haywire. He screamed as his armor began to shut down. He collapsed.
“About fucking time. Good riddance.” She saw the trail of blood that led to Backus leaning against a pillar. “Backus!” she dropped her booster pack and ran over. “Backus! Talk to me! Goddammit old man! Talk to me!” she pressed her hands over the wound but it was a complete mess. His whole torso was a mess of meat and blood. He’s not gonna make it. Gotta get him help.
She tried to get him on to her shoulder, but he just swore, “Just fuck it. Fuck it…” He looked at Gunda, his dark eyes watery. He spat up blood, “Just go after Zester, kill the traitor, and get the money. You deserve it.”
She wiped her face, “No I fucking don’t. I’m gonna get you out of here, you’re gonna get that surgery.”
“There is no surgery.”
She paused, “What do you mean?”
“Just shut up and listen. There is no surgery. I only said it…” he reached into his pocket and pulled out a photo. It was stained but the image came through. “Fucking hell, I said it to make people think I wasn’t soft. Take my share and give it to them. My nieces.” It was a photo of Backus, slightly younger, his black moustache curled, with two young girls on his shoulders.
“Good. Now let an old man die in peace. Kill that little green fu- Look out!” He shoved Gunda aside. His metal arm shot out in a blur. When Gunda looked up the Enforcer had a metal spear through his shoulder, but had planted his knife in Backus’ chest.
Gunda yelled and tackled the Enforcer. They tumbled, yelling and scraping. She reached for her knife, but he was too fast. He punched her in the face. She felt hot blood over her lips. He twisted the knife from her hand. He raised it for a final kill.
Not you don’t. She slammed her forehead into his mask. Dwarven bones, bitch. He dropped the blade. She punched the wound in his shoulder. His strength faltered for a moment. Screaming at the burn in her body, she twisted to the side and wrapped her legs around his arm. Smashing him into the ground. Locked in, she twisted the arm until something popped. He roared. She took the knife and stabbed him twice in the chest.
She pinned him down and stabbed the knife into his shoulder. Her body was running on heightened adrenalin and rage. “I’m gonna see your goddam face.” She took the knife and put the blade to the edge of his melted mask. She wedged it open as he screamed. The mechanical scream became more and more human.
She almost gagged at what was underneath.
The helmet housed a grey, shriveled face, covered in cancerous sores. The left eyes had split into two, probably from radiation. Wires from the mask fed straight into sockets around his face. His scarred lips cracked open in a bloodied gurgle to reveal a long pointed tongue, wriggling like a worm.
“You are one ugly motherfucker,” she gagged. She punched him. “Who sent you!”
His voice was a chocked laugh, “The King.”
“Why’d he send you?!”
“To stop the goblin.”
“Why?” she held the knife to his throat.
“Hehe, the king needs peace.” His lizard tongue licked his lips. “Sent me to make peace, when other goblins would make war.” Zester lied about which side he was on.
“Then why come after me and Backus if you just needed Zester!”
“Cause it was funny!” he laughed.
If the king needs monsters like this to keep the peace, I’m done with this goddamn country. She kicked him in the face and left. He can bleed out.
. . . . . . . .
Zester ran through the tunnels, soaking wet. I got it! I got it! Holy shit, I can’t believe I got it! He was giddy. Finally got it. He knew the plan from his clan. Get the artefact to the clan, kill anyone who gets in your way, kill anyone that was involved, then we are going to destroy it on camera. Once it goes viral the dwarves will riot and the king will finally be forced to kill them all.
He was laughing. He was hysterical as he ran through the black tunnels. His flashlight bobbed as he ran. The beam of light illuminated the skulls that covered the walls. He knew he couldn’t sprint the whole way, he was just so happy.
This is for all my brothers that those fucking stunted midgets have killed all these years.
He fell to his knees, laughing. He held the runestone to his chest. The slab of marble covered in icons. He turned it over, “If a people sees a goddamn rock as a political point to riot and kill over, then they don’t deserve the king’s peace.” He got up and kept running.
Something hit him square in the chest. He was staring at the dark ceiling. His world was spinning. He spat a glob of purple-red blood. “What the…” he grabbed his flashlight and looked up.
Gunda stood over him, shaking her bruised knuckles. He raised his wrist-shotgun, but she knew that was coming. She grabbed his wrist and twisted it until it popped. He screamed. He reached for his .50 cal, but she kicked him into the wall. He wrenched on the floor. He looked up at her, the flashlight shining up at her. Her black skin was slicked with sweat and blood.
Zester’s heart pounded. Should have confirmed the kill… Stupid.
He knew that was a mistake he was about to regret. “How’d you find me?” he asked.
“You laugh too loudly… and you really think I was stupid enough not to remember how we came down here? I remembered every fucking turn we took.” She looked at his dripping clothes. “And you hid in the goddamn river. Gave me plenty of time to kill the Enforcer.”
Zester’s eyes went wide, “You… You killed him? How!”
“A big gun and a thick head. Now come here!” she grabbed him by the collar and threw him against the wall. His little green body was like a doll in her thick hands.
She punched him in the face, breaking his long-hooked nose. He screamed from the pain. She grabbed his throat and lifted him. Zester coughed and yelled, “Help! Help!” he struggled to breathe.
“No one’s gonna help you ya little traitor,” she sneered. “I just wanna know why you did it. Gimme your reason. I know you wanted that war with the dwarves, that’s obvious enough, but why?” she dropped him.
Zester knew he was about to die, Fuck it, “Because your kind doesn’t deserve these halls. You lost it because dwarves are cowards and hypocrites. All those stunted gits that want rights and representation in the cartels are cowards. If they deserved their rights, they would have taken them for themselves.” She shone the light in his eyes as he screamed his piece
“I can respect a goblin who stabs me in the back and takes my titles! I can’t respect someone that begs me to treat them better because it’s Just, they are just too fucking scared to do what needs to be done. Then some honest Dwerg with a grudge bombs my brothers or clanmates, and the others say ‘Oh it was a radical. We aren’t like them. Give us our rights!’ bah!” he spat. “Just sick of those bearded gits, if they want war. I’ll give em war. And it’ll start when I smash that stone on live TV.” He paused. “That good enough for ya! You bitch! You half-breed stunt!”
She gave him a flat look, “Good enough for me. Enjoy finding your way back.” She stomped his leg. There was a snap and a spike of burning pain. “God fucking dammit! You goddamn half-breed bitch!” she took his light and the stone and walked into the distance.
He screamed as she turned around a corner, leaving him in the dark. “The cartels will shred you! My brothers will skin you alive! Sell what’s left to a troll for dinner and a show! You will never leave these tunnels! You will never see the sun again! You-!”
He heard something near him. A clicking, a chittering really. He reached around for his .50 cal. He scrambled around with a busted wrist and broken leg. The pain coursing through his body. Zester of RedClan will not die here. Not in the dark. I will be there when they slaughter the dwarves, I swear by the old green gods. He felt the pistol grip. He felt a rush of security. I can do this.
He raised the gun and fired into total darkness. The flash revealed a tunnel with dozens for four-foot tall rats. Diseased fur, puss-sores, long yellow teeth, beady black-eyes that reflected the flash. He heard their claws scratch the stone floor and he knew.
He fired again when he felt the first one grab him.
. . . . . . . . .
Gunda took a cab to Black Wall. She wore her hair in a bun. Her face was clean and she even wore relatively normal clothing: no armor. It had been two weeks since she brought the runestone to the Goblin King. She could retire now if she wanted to, even with sending half the reward to Backus’ nieces.
Now that she had the luxury of time and peace of mind she could appreciate the aristocratic elegance of Black Wall. The mansions frozen in time for a populace who were immortal. She walked up to the box of one mansion with a huge hole in its wall. She pressed the button, mostly out of politeness. The gate was still damaged.
Simone came to the gate in pajamas with a cup of Joe. He raised an eyebrow, “Gonna blow up my house again?”
Gunda smiled, “Sorry about that. I brought you something.”
“Then come along my dear. The library is out of the question, but the solar is undamaged.” They passed the Natalie-600 sweeping up rubble into a waste-basket. Upstairs was a dome-shaped room with walls made of lights that made it feel like they weren’t underground. Simone sat in a puffy chair surrounded by tropical plants. Gunda sat opposite. An automata brought her a glass of water.
Simone took a long sip of coffee, “So what’s your gift?”
“Not my gift. It’s from the king.” She put a slip of paper on the glass table between them. “They said it should cover the damages.”
“They -- the king’s court. I found the stone, they gave me a check, thanked me for my service and said we’d be in contact.”
He nodded, “Thank you. I’ll put it to good use.” There was a long pause. “So what’s your plan now?”
Gunda had been avoiding that question over the past week while she recovered. “I don’t know. I have enough money to retire now. I have respect and even admiration from major players in the Underground. Me? A goddamn fresh-off-the-boat half-breed. I’m even being taken to lunch by a goblin Boss to discuss job opportunities. But now “I’m just…”
“Bored? Hollow? Hungry for more?”
“I don’t know. Maybe. Kind of.”
Simone smiled, “Well my lady, if I could be so bold, now might be a good time to take stock of your life before you commit to this path of being a cartel associate. Take a break. Remember where you come from. That’s my motto.”
A photo on her desk flashed in her mind. “Yes, I think so.”
Simone smiled, he raised the coffee cup to her, “Well, here’s to your long and profitable career as a Bastardo of the Goblin Cartels, my dear.”
Gunda left shortly after. She promised to visit when she could. She called for another cab. As she waited, she sat on a bench flanked by glowing blue trees. Pale red-eyed children in nineteen-twenties clothing ran up the dark street playing with a hoop.
She smiled and pulled out her phone. She sighed before dialing the number, “Hey mum, its Gunda. Yeah... Your daughter. Heh, hey listen, I think I’m gonna come home for a bit. I really miss you guys.”
. . . The End . . .