Tag Archives: Horror

The Dark Beneath – Part Four

© Ilkin Guliyev | ID 91026947

By Christopher Opyr


          Sitting around pondering her next step wouldn’t do her any good. Maybe that thing had broken into her room, maybe it was still right outside that door. Either way, Lori had to be quick.

          She chewed at her lip, drumming up her courage and listening for any sound of that abomination. The room had fallen silent.

          Beverly? The thought struck Lori with a sudden wave of panic. Her eyes darted to the dark beneath the bed.

          Her fear slammed to a halt, her emotions shifting from one extreme to the next almost instantly. Lori could almost taste the adrenaline pulsing through her system, colliding with that heart-stopping relief as she saw Beverly staring up at her.

          Then Beverly began to bark once more.

          CRACK!

          That man-thing thrust itself back through the rupture in the door. It must have eased itself out when she was in the closet, but much of the splintered wood had also given away with its retreat. Now it managed to fit both arms and its head through. It would be able to climb right in.

          It gnashed its hideous, blood-stained teeth at her, the ripped flesh of its lips crusting over in another basaltic cooling, that ooze secreting, dripping, and steaming off of it. A thin stream of blood hung from the torn flesh, a drip of blood-spittle. As it bit the air, thrashing to reach her, that dog-like saliva sprayed across the wood paneling.

          Lori dashed for Beverly, thrusting her hand beneath the bed and gripping the Pomeranian by the scruff of her neck. She hauled her out and thrust her into the dog carrier, flung it over her shoulders and bolted for the window.

          Time slowed and the soft sounds of the room amplified, while the yowling of that man-thing fell away to a distorted muted scream in the background noise of Lori’s panic. Above all things, loudest of all, she heard a pin drop. No. A screw. As it bounced, another soft echo of metal against wood sounded. The sideplate. It seemed to clang against the floor for minutes that stretched into eons. Then came that final horror. The sound of the wood rending apart as the door collapsed in.

          Already swiveling her legs down to the ledge, Lori looked back to find that monstrosity bounding towards her, the door biting into its midsection, transformed from the widening maw to some hideous splintered tutu of jagged wood encircling burnt flesh. The image struck her as both hideous and absurd, and a laugh bubbled up unbidden.

          And it stopped.

          That man-thing stopped and it tilted its head at Lori as if considering her laughter. The thing’s eyes still hid away beneath the drooping flesh fusion of its forehead and cheeks, but just that askew tilt alone signaled its puzzlement with perfect clarity.

          Lori had no clue what to make of it, but she also had no time to stop to consider it. Beverly barked at the thing in the door waking Lori from her reverie. Instantly she flew into action, slipping the rest of the way out onto the ledge, nine stories up. She had planned to sidle over away from the window, but as she slipped into the cold night air outside her bedroom window she heard that thing snap back into action itself. She could feel the breeze on her back as it charged, and praying for luck, she pivoted on her right heel, swinging herself out over the nine-story gap, until she had turned a full 180 degrees, her face now pressed against the rough Art Deco exterior.

          Beverly slipped in the carrier, sliding into the side and dragging the bag off Lori’s shoulder with her weight. Quickly, Lori hooked her elbow, catching the bag and her dog before they fell to the pavement below. As she did, a blackened hand pounded into the concrete where her head had been. The exterior pebbled, spider-webbing from the impact.

          Her head knotted from the tension, Lori sidled three feet to the left, her arm still hooked around the carrier’s shoulder strap. That thing groped out with its sickening arm, searching for her, but as she lay still it could not find her. Next, it thrust its head through the opening and cast its gaze about in every which direction and still it was unable to spot her.

          Lori didn’t even dare sigh her relief. She pressed as tightly as possible to the wall and thanked everything that was holy, whether she believed in it or not, that the near drop of the carrier had startled Beverly into silence.

          Then it happened.

          That thing reached a hand to its face – a gray hand, so much char having flaked away that the skin had lightened – seized upon the melted flesh before it eyes, and yanked back tearing a bloody hunk away and casting it down towards the street. Blood oozed from the open wound in a heavy stream, but behind that crimson waterfall a cold eye stared out and spotted her.

          The thing’s motions slowed, taking on a more considered countenance. It gripped at the casing as if to to ease itself onto the ledge.

          Panic surged in a fresh wave through Lori. This had to end. She sidled as far away as she could, never removing her gaze from the intruder at the window, then stopped, unable to continue further with the carrier swinging from its tenuous grip in the crook of her elbow and pulling her off balance.

          She tried to right it, lifting her left arm, leveling it out, then raising it, all the while gripping as best she could to the concrete wall. As her arm passed level and the bag began to slide down to her shoulder, she felt her entire sense of balance spiraling.

          She lowered her arm, grabbing at a protruding lip of cement before an indented panel, and recovered her balance. She couldn’t shift the bag one-handed, and she couldn’t reach the bag with her right arm without pushing herself back from the wall, risking the nine-story drop.

          She froze.

          That blood-curtained eye remained locked on her, and the man-thing began to lift its leg out onto the ledge. This was it. Lori was dead.

          Below a siren blared to life, an emergency vehicle racing through the LA streets. Oh the music of Los Angeles. As the sirens wailed the man-thing watching her scrambled back into the apartment, its hands clawing at its ear nubs trying to rip out the loud sounds of the city.

          Lori let out a sigh of relief. Now she simply had to traverse an eight inch ledge around the bend and another twenty feet to her balcony. No problem.

          She sidled closer to the indented paneling, tightening her grip. Thank goodness for Art Deco. One hand clutching to the paneling, the other holding on precariously close to the window casing, she inched her left arm up, slowly sliding the carrier down towards her shoulder. Her legs quivered and she could feel the tremors rattling her knees as she desperately battled to maintain her footing. Bit by bit, the carrier slid down her arm, constantly shifting Lori’s center of balance. At last she could raise her arm no further without losing her grip. The carrier still had inches to go.

          Lori glanced to her right arm, still pressed so close to that open window. How long until that thing returned for her? She eased her hand closer and closer, until it tucked in right by her side. Now she just had to reach between herself and the wall so she could get a grip on the bag and right it. She slid her hand forward squeezing between her and the cement.

          As she crept her hand closer and closer to her shoulder, Lori had to press back, making room for her to gain leverage. She could sense the emptiness behind her – the open air and the long fall down. That void called for her, taunting her, and she froze. The tremors tore at her knees once more, her balance shifted, and Lori screamed. Her right foot gave, slipping into nothingness.

          She clung to the paneling with her left arm, and hurriedly reached back out with her right, pressing it back towards the casement. Her left leg struggled, the knee buckling as she threatened to fall. And with this sudden shift in weight the carrier strap slipped over her shoulder and slammed against her neck.

          Lori lost her balance.

          Still gripping the paneling, her right knee came down hard on the ledge, and her right hand slipped from the casing, down beside her knee. Pain burst in another flare clouding her vision. Her other leg shifted to the left, compensating for the quick drop and change in balance. Only her left arm remained in place, still gripping for dear life.

          Holy shit, holy shit, holy shit. The words rang out like an internal mantra, repeating on an infinite loop. Holy shit, holy shit, holy shit.

          Her breath came in panicked gasps, and her lungs hurt. She wasn’t getting enough air; she was hyperventilating.

          Holy shit, holy shit, holy shit – calm!

          Lori had to calm down. She had to calm down now. That thing was still inside, still waiting for her, but she couldn’t even worry about that now. One death-defying panic at a time. First she had to make sure she didn’t plummet to the street.

          Calm, calm, calm. A new mantra. A better mantra, offering sage advice rather than blind panic.

          Calm, calm, calm, she repeated, willing herself to regain control. Slowly, her breathing returned to normalcy. Her heart pounded and skipped. Skipped? Did it really skip? Calm, calm, calm.

          The racing in her breast eased. It didn’t go away – that wasn’t likely to happen anytime soon – but yes it did ease. Lori let out a long, slow, exhale. She could do this.


          “Come on, Lori! You got this!”

          She could hear her softball team cheering her on as she stepped to bat. This was the moment of truth for the Badgers. She had to bring Joy home. No outs remained. She looked to Joy, and Joy waved and smiled with that perfect homecoming queen smile.

          “Go Lori! You got this!”

          But Joy had never cheered her on. None of them had. They had shunned her. They had called her a bitch and a slut and they had swooned after boys that all called her a feminazi, like wanting equality was some fascist, insane desire.

          This wasn’t how it had happened. This was how she had wished that it had happened, that they had liked her or more importantly respected and accepted her. That they had rooted for her rather than spat at her. This time she had to hit the ball home.


          Lori let out one final deep exhale and pulled herself to her feet. Her left knee strained as it took on her full weight, the veins on her wrist protruding with the effort of gripping the paneling. Her right arm scrambled for purchase, at last finding a slight crack in the cement. Her landlord would need to be notified about that. She chuckled at the thought, letting the tension wash away ever so slightly.

          A little higher now, a little more weight in that left foot… she could feel her knee threatening to pop. Just a little further. Sweat greased her palms, threatening her handhold on the indention. Just a little more.

          And…

          She was up. Her right foot found solid ground and she finally let out a sigh of relief. Beverly was properly shouldered after nearly dragging her down, Lori had her footing, and now she could begin the trek around the corner of the building. Things were looking up already.

          One step. Two steps. Three steps. Four steps.

          Not so bad. The window to her bedroom receded every so slowly, the distance between her and that thing widening.

          Six steps. Seven steps. Eight steps.

          The cool concrete felt rough against her cheek and the palms of her hands, but Lori didn’t dare push back. She had reached a relative calm, but that was the calm of someone pressed to a wall nine stories up – not a reassuring or strong calm. Definitely not one that instilled confidence.

          Ten steps. Eleven steps.

          The sweat poured from her palms. As Lori reached for another indented panel, her lead hand slipped rather than gripped. She could feel it fall into the empty space, and her heart didn’t so much sink as plummet. She slapped it back to the wall, the concrete scraping against her skin and the friction finally outweighing the sweatiness of her palms. Lori regained her handhold.

          Sweet Jesus, Lori.

          She caught her breath and chanted her internal mantra once more. Calm, calm, calm.

          Better. She only had a couple more steps to the corner. She could do this.

          Thirteen steps.

          She heard it before she saw it. The sound of the window being thrust up above the warp in the stile. It must have fallen when that thing had retreated inside. Suddenly, Beverly began to yap once more.

          “Damn it, girl, shut up!” That’d tell her.

          Her throat constricted and Lori could feel the imminent paralysis of fear threatening to take over. With deliberate and very careful attention, she turned her head.

          That burnt thing had lifted up the window and now sat there, perched just over the opening watching her. The aloe-like coating over its skin seemed to have vanished, and splotches of the dark burnt layer had flaked away revealing more gray skin beneath, this too seeming to crack like parched earth, but smoother than the previous char layer. The only large protrusions of char that remained still bubbling clung to a lump above its eyes, still drooping just down from the forehead, a scabbing around its lips, and a few tumorous protrusions encircling its waist.

          Fifteen steps.

          Lori made it to the corner, the ledge widening to accommodate a small statuary embellishment – a carving of a gargoyle. It wasn’t a full on landing, but at least here Lori could rest for a moment, resituate Beverly, and ease the tension in her shoulders and knees before traversing another twenty feet or so to her balcony.

          Standing there on the relative security of the widened corner ledge, Lori rolled her shoulders relishing with each stretch as her tension eased. All the while she stared at that man-thing. As it stared back, any release Lori had gained from the comfort of her increased footspace vanished. The shift in its appearance alone would have been enough to unnerve her, those bubbling char-scabs crusting over its most recent wounds – healing? – but her anxiety rooted less in the shift in its physical appearance and more in its change of demeanor.

          That thing hadn’t crashed through the glass of the window. It hadn’t clawed its way out to the ledge like a beast. It had opened the window. Opened it. More, as it stared at her, it didn’t thrash about hunting her with animalistic abandon. That thing watched. It was studying her, its eyes cold and calculating beneath that scabbed over brow.

          It was planning.

          Lori grabbed Beverly’s shoulder strap and lifted it from her left shoulder and over her neck to her right. Now she shouldn’t have to worry about her dog falling so easily. She leaned down and whispered to Beverly.

          “Shhh, girl. Shhh. It’s going to be okay.”

          She didn’t believe the words, but the calming tone was the trick. Beverly yapped a few more times as Lori continued to whisper in a smooth, dulcet tone. At last she cast Lori one confused glance, yapped a final time at the thing terrorizing them, then quieted in her carrier.

          Lori stood and readied herself for the final twenty feet. All the while, that thing had watched. As she took the first step around the bend she could see it still watching, its eyes locked on her – unwavering. A cold intelligence simmered in that gaze. As the char chipped away, so too did its animalistic inclinations. The rules of the hunt had changed.

Back to Part 1

The Dark Beneath – Part Three

© Ilkin Guliyev | ID 91026947

By Christopher Opyr


          And she waited. The minutes passed, the hour changed, and no one came. No sirens approached, no knock at the door sounded, and no key turned the locks. No rescue arrived and neither did Dean.

          Lori glanced to the door. Was that thing still there? Had it left? She doubted she’d be that lucky, but she needed to know for sure. Waiting for help that might not come seemed just as likely to end horribly as any other option, and Lori would rather face whatever was coming with action than inaction. She would not die waiting for a white knight.

          Once more she tiptoed across the room, her slippers struggling for traction against the slick wood paneling. She tottered her arms out from her sides for balance, and assured of her footing continued towards the door.

          Wooden splinters pierced out from a crack down the center of the bottom panel, jutting out as if a grotesque underbite of some monstrous maw of needled teeth. Yet, fractured as it was that splintered door provided no glimpse into the hall beyond.

          Lori noted the bent sideplate at the top of the door with great trepidation. Her eyes flitting between that sideplate and the cracked maw of the wood, she lowered herself to the floor. Averting her gaze for as long as she dared, she stole a glance through the gap beneath the door.

          She made out no more than a dense patch within the darkness. If it was again that thing shadowed within the dark of the hall, or if it was nothing more than the normal black pitch of night, Lori could not say.

          She lay still and listened. The gentle whir of her central air buffeted her and she found a moment of comfort in the cool current raining down from the ceiling vent. Then the air abated and she heard it: a low rumbling, almost as if a deep and guttural snore. Was it sleeping out there, or was that merely the tembor of its breath?

          It didn’t matter. Her exit remained blocked.

          Or did it?

          She peered back over her shoulder to the window on which she had scrawled her message for help. Below that window ran a small ledge, no more than eight inches or so wide but running the length of the building. If she were careful, she should be able to make her way to her balcony, then into the living room and a straight shot to the front door. Or perhaps even all the way to the next apartment over, if the first option proved too risky.

          Dean was late, but he could arrive at any minute. Lori had to act quickly. Sure, if Dean stumbled in and that thing killed him, his death would not be her weight to bear, but her inaction would be. Would she be able to live with herself if she did not even try to do something?

          She really didn’t need to ask that question.

          Lori eased away from the door. Step after cautious step, she inched towards the window. The backwards muted rose letters confronted her, her haggard reflection mingling with the scrawled message. She stopped short upon seeing herself there, reflected against the cityscape. The knot on her head had grown, but it was the strain and the fear etched beneath her eyes that halted her. That thing out there had done this to her. It had changed her. It was trying trying to break her.

          It would fail.

          Carefully she closed the distance to the window and grasped the rail below the catch. It had been a long time since she opened her bedroom window, and it had never opened easily. The effort would likely be a loud one.

          Lori steeled herself, one solid breath in through the nose, gripped tight, then heaved. The window raised an inch, and with a great clamor as the warped stile caught against the casing.

          Immediately the thing behind her sounded. A loud din rose up and she could hear it frantically thrashing against the battered door. She spared a momentary glance over her shoulder.

          The door rattled in its frame, the upper sideplate bending and another screw working its way out. The hinge joint would not last. The splintered maw shook and stretched jutting further out into the room, now revealing a small gap through to the hall beyond. Flurried shadows danced as that thing flailed, its breathing now ragged and turbulent, the same guttural growl quaking beneath each roaring breath.

          Lori averted her gaze. She did not have time to watch fate approach; she needed to focus on making her own. She heaved once more upon the rail. The window stuck in the frame, resisting her. She strained, never slacking. Behind her the door cracked and she heard the soft clatter of metal tinging off the wood paneling. The damn sideplate. That would be the loosened crew, she supposed, but didn’t dare look to verify.

          She stopped, catching her breath, then stuck her fingers in the small opening beneath the bottom rail. A morbid thought struck unbidden and she envisioned the window snapping down crushing her fingers against the sill. Instinctually she wanted to withdraw her fingers from that gap, but she held back against the urge. The door would be coming down. She had to open that window.

          She bent her knees, locked her elbows at her side, and hauled up. Again the resistance of the warped stile mocked her, and she scrambled to come up with a new plan; then it gave. The window slammed up past the warp in the wood.

          Relief momentarily flooding in, she took a hurried look back to the door. The top sideplate held now by only one screw and the bottom plate had begun to give as well. A fresh pounding sounded as that thing struck against the wood, and the maw yawned open.

          A charred arm struck through, a blackened tongue scraping over the splinter-fangs. That aloe layer still clung to the cracked and blackened skin, but in places that basaltic black flaked away, like healed scabs ripping from raw skin.

          Lori pounded out the screen of the window, sending it falling. She hoped someone would notice, but as she heard it hit she heard no accompanied exclamations. The street below was empty. She swung one leg over scrambling for footing on the narrow ledge. It felt so soft and for a moment she blanked, puzzled by the unexpected sensation. Then she winced, furious with herself, but with no time to dwell on it. She kicked off her slippers and tried again.

          Eight inches wasn’t a lot of space, but her footing felt firm. She swung her second leg over and prepared for the ledge walk, her heart racing, and her her stomach lurching. Just as she gripped the bottom rail and prepared to duck all the way out, she heard it. Or her.

          Beverly began to bark.

          Fuck me!

          Lori cut her eyes to a bouncing Beverly yapping from beneath the bed. Why couldn’t she have just stayed asleep?

          At the door that thing had managed to squeeze a full arm and most of its head through the maw in the shattered wood, the door teetering as it pushed through the widening rupture. Lori could see that the thing appeared very much human, though so much stronger. Yet, there was no way it could actually be human. If so it would have to be dead.

          It’s skin, under all that pulsing aloe-like layer, flaked and peeled, crisp and burnt and raw. The thing’s lips seemed fused together, only parting slightly and just off center. And yet it snapped at her, showing glistening yellowed teeth hidden within that burnt carcass of its mouth. It’s breath whined through narrow slits in the equally fused nostrils of its nose, and its eyes…

          It looked for her, though a melted mass of charred flesh drooping down from its forehead and melding with its cheeks. Only its ears seemed unblocked, though it had only nubs rather than a full pair of ears, as if the rest had sloughed away.

          As it strained to force its way in, the wooden shards of the door raked into the burnt flesh, more ashen char flaking away, and tiny trails gouging through the raw skin beneath, leaving thin streams of blood. The thing paid the pain no mind. The trails bubbled, and darkened, more of that aloe coating seeping out from the thing’s pores and the wounds knitted together, solidifying into that burnt flesh layer, as if lava cooling upon colliding with the sea.

          Lori clenched her jaw and swallowed back a lump of bile. She felt certain she was going to retch, and not so much because of the grotesque nightmare playing out before her, but more from the putrid rot that clung to it. The smell choked her, a tangible filth, almost like a thin layer of soot that stubbornly blanketed the room. Her eyes watered from the smell.

          All the while, Beverly jumped and barked from beneath the bed, and that thing, that burnt man continued to strain, squeezing through the broken door. It seemed a man, too, didn’t it? If it bore some kin to humanity, Lori had no doubt it was male.

          She knew she needed to go before it forced its way in or broke down the door completely, yet, Beverly would not quiet. Lori glared at her, and motioned for her to sit and shush, but the dog was in no mood for tricks. If that thing made it in, would it kill her?

          Lori cursed herself then hauled her legs back from the ledge and into her bedroom. She had to move fast. As she landed, the burnt thing, the man at the door, snarled and stretched open its mouth, the tiny split widening and ripping, as the fused flesh parted in a spray of spittle and blood. The crimson stained its yellowed teeth, a blood wash that clung to the gums, as if some hideous image of decay you might see tacked up in a sadistic dentist’s office.

          Lori darted for her closet, sliding across the wood floor, and crashing into the hanging clothes. She brushed them aside, rummaging through the junk cluttering the back of the closet, and yanked out a small tote dog carrier. As she turned back, heart pounding, she heard a rending noise, then a clatter from her bedroom. She sped to shut the door, only as she slid out reaching out for the handle she found a puzzling scene.

          Broken wooden shards lay strewn about the entryway to her room, but the torn maw lay open and shattered, and the door held. The thing, the burnt man, was gone.

          Where the fuck is he?

          In a frenzied hurry she scanned the room, but she did not see him. Shit, shit, shit.

          Don’t panic, she thought, only it was the perfect time to panic. In the history of the whole damn universe, this was the time to panic. Henceforth, if one were to look up panic, this would be listed as the epitome of the appropriate moment to go bat shit crazy with it. There was no doubt in Lori’s mind.

          Only if she panicked, she died.

          She threw back her head, in a silent, frustrated laugh. She couldn’t see that thing, and that was so much worse than seeing it. Especially, as she could still smell it. Its rot still hung over the room. It hadn’t left.

Back to Part 1

The Dark Beneath – Part Two

© © Ilkin Guliyev | ID 91026947

By Christopher Opyr


          Thirty minutes passed with Lori staring out the window, considering her options. She didn’t open it. She knew once she did she’d have to be prepared for anything. If It heard the window being forced open she might not have much time to react. So instead, she stared out through the dirty panes of glass into the grey of the Los Angeles night. Lights blinked to life in the nearby buildings and cars sped by below, but she had seen no one close enough for her to ask for help without being heard by that thing in the hallway.

          As she stared, hoping for some answer to miraculously appear, she caught a glimpse of her reflection in the glass. A nesty welt rose just below her hairline, scrapes and minor cuts covered her arms, and bruises loomed everywhere. Every inch of her ached, her side and the fractured rib most of all.

          She hugged herself tight, that beast right outside her door, and let herself slip away.


***


          The Badgers were down by one in the bottom of the seventh to the Coyotes. They already had two outs and as she stepped to the plate, Lori was very aware that any chance at staying in the game rested on her turn at bat. Ready, her bat raised and her eye on the pitcher, Lori prayed she didn’t screw this up. The other girls on the team weren’t fond of her. She didn’t buy into their shit, and hadn’t bothered to try to endear herself to them. If the loss fell on her, she’d never hear the end of it. Lori glanced to Joy Stevens. The barbie doll blonde danced on third base. One decent hit from Lori and the Badgers could at the least tie up the match.

          Whack!

          The pitch came in hard and fast, right as Lori glanced to Joy, but it was off. Lori felt the pain burst in her eye as the ball connected right in her face. Her head whipped back and Joy fell into the dust behind home plate. As she winced and the fairy lights in the black that clouded her vision, she could hear Coach Edwards telling her not to move. She could feel his calloused hands on her neck and cheek as he examined her face.

          At the same time, she could feel the blood from her busted brow dripping down towards her. She could taste it as the blood trickled from her nose and back down her throat. She opened her good eye and she could see the pitcher smirk. That jerk had meant to hit her. She’d done it on purpose.

          “Lori, how many fingers?”

          The coach waved his hand stupidly in front of her, but she didn’t have time for this shit. She could feel a rage building up inside her and before she knew what she was doing she was on her feet, pushing past her coach and through her teammates. They had crowded to see the blood, surely, because not a one gave two craps what happened to her.

          “Lori!” Coach Edwards again. He said something else after, but Lori was already two thirds of the way to the pitcher’s mound and didn’t have time for his nonsense.

          “Hey, that looks like it hurt.” The Coyotes’ pitcher stood a good six inches taller than Lori and absolutely confident in her upper hand. “Maybe you should go put some ice on that.”

          Lori had thought about saying something witty – all the cool action stars did – but she was pretty certain she’d just screw it up. Best just to let her actions speak for her.

          She feinted for the pitcher’s face then sucker-punched her gut. As she doubled over she kneed her in the face.


***


          Lori smiled at the memory of it. She’d been kicked off the team for that stunt, but she’d never liked those girls anyway. Now, looking at her battered reflection, she realized she hadn’t had a broken bone since that ball fractured her eye-socket. It had hurt like nothing had since, not even the fracture in her rib, and she had stood her ground. She could do so again.

          Outside the door she could hear the gurgled breathing of that man-thing. In her final flight into the room it had been obvious it was almost human, like a walking corpse covered in third degree burns or even worse. It’s skin felt crisp beneath the wet of that outer layer, like aloe spread over a blackened char. The breathe continued slow and steady and wet. It was waiting.


***


          Lori hadn’t tamed with age, not really. She had perhaps grown less physical, but had become quite prone to focal confrontations. Much like with her fellow Badgers, this trait had done little to endear her with coworkers or employers. She’d held a slew of jobs since graduating summa cum laude, most well below her skill level.

          Currently she was on her third year as a project manager with an entertainment marketing firm, Spotlight 15. They were small time, mainly working in the digital space, though the firm had grabbed an Emmy campaign for a streaming startup last year. That had been their biggest campaign yet. Her employer hadn’t let her anywhere near it. Instead she’d been stuck on the marketing campaign for a direct to video sequel for some aged action star nearing his seventies. They were all the same to her, and though she’d felt the campaign was beneath her, she’d played her part.

          And when Teddy from accounts tried to steal her copywriter two days before deadline to help with that Emmy campaign, Lori had flipped her shit. There was no way in hell she was going to miss her deadline because Teddy wanted to start prep two months before the client needed copy approval. Hell with that.

          Teddy lit red when she refused to let him take her writer. He’d been ready to have her fired. Then this junior, this account manager in training, steps in trying to persuade Lori to calm down. He tries to tell her that they only need the copywriter for a day and that he can get back on her campaign before deadline. Yeah, right. Because accounts always got shit done on time. No, she lit in him, too.

          He’d fought right back. Dean had a much stronger backbone than Eddie. She had started dating him three months later. And he never did get that copywriter.


***


          Crap, she thought. Dean!

          Lori glanced to the clock on her nightstand. Dean was supposed to arrive in fifteen minutes. She had to act now.

          For not the first time, Lori cursed herself for having set her phone in the organizer in the foyer. She couldn’t call to warn Dean, and her computer was in her home office so she couldn’t login and message him either. Being nine floors up, she didn’t suspect anyone in the street would pay her any mind, and she couldn’t yell to them without drawing that thing’s attention. She could try to get someone a message though. All her paper was in her home office, along with her pens and markers, but there had to be something that she could do.

          She looked giving her room a once-over and at first saw nothing of use. Then, her gaze fixed on the master bath. She had an idea.

          Roughly ten feet stood between her and the bathroom, and its door was catty-corner to the bedroom entrance, and the thing on the other side of that threshold. She’d have to approach as quietly as possible.

          Sticking out from under the bed she could see the soft, fluffy heels of her bedroom slippers. She inched over as quietly as she could and slipped them on. As she did, she knelt and glanced under the bed. Beverly had crammed herself all the way back against the wall just beneath the headboard and buttressed by a nightstand. The dog was sound asleep. How long had she been trapped in the apartment with this thing? How exhausted did that dog have to be to have fallen asleep with It right outside the door?

          No matter the answer, Lori decided it was for the best. If Beverly stayed asleep, stayed quiet, she should be safe until Lori could get help.

          Lori rose and tip-toed in her slippered feet towards the master bath. The cushion of the slippers dulled the noise of her footsteps, and yet she thought she could make a change in the breathing beyond the bedroom door. Was she imagining it, or was it growing faster, almost as if it were anticipating her approach. She could still hear the wet gurgle caught in each breath, but even that had lessened, the exhalations now taking on a more raspy quality. She paused three feet from the door. There was something else besides the breathing, something fast, almost like running water. No, that wasn’t right – not running water, but boiling water.

          Lori lost traction beneath her slipper, tumbling to the floor with a loud thud. Immediately the bedroom door bulged, straining at its hinges as that thing outside slammed against again.

          Wham!

          The door bulged again. Lori fixated on the hinges, watching as they shifted. One of three screws on the top hinge seemed to be loosening and the side plate was prying loose from the frame.

          Wham!

          It hit again, and this time the door splintered. Lori didn’t dare move. She waited for the next battering, for that thing to break the door completely. As she waited, her gaze shifted between the loosening plate of the hinge and the ragged crack in the center of the door. Too many points of weakness.

          A minute passed and then another, yet it did not attack the door again. Slowly its breathing settled and she could hear its footfalls as it retreated elsewhere into the dark of the apartment. This was her moment.

          Careful to regain her balance, Lori rose to her feet and tiptoed the rest of the way to the master bath. Her overhead lights and the exhaust were connected so she didn’t flick the switch. If that thing came back, if any sound drew it, she doubted the door would last. As quietly as she could she slid open her makeup drawer, rummaged in, and pulled out a tube of lipstick. Muted rose. It would have to do.

          Two drawn out minutes later and she had returned to the bedroom window without alerting that thing, whatever it was. She opened the tube of lipstick and carefully scrawled a message on the window so that would be legible from outside.

Intruder. Call 911. Apt. 905

          That done, she examined her handiwork. The letters could have been larger and the color didn’t pop as much as she would have liked, but the message was direct and impossible to misinterpret. With the light on in her bedroom the message should be readable. She only had to hope that someone, anyone, would see it and call for help.

          With nothing left to be done, she settled to the floor, her back to the wall. On her nightstand the clock continued to while away the minutes. Dean was due in five. She hoped he’d be late, and though she didn’t believe in a higher power, she prayed nonetheless. She prayed that someone would call for help before Dean also stumbled in on this nightmare. She prayed and she waited.

Back to Part 1

The Dark Beneath – Part One

© © Ilkin Guliyev | ID 91026947

By Christopher Opyr


          Lori huddled, arms clasped around her knees, in the furthest, darkest corner of the closet, her eyes fixated on the open door. A clump of blouses and dresses swayed, rocking back and forth on their hangers like silk pendulums, partially eclipsing her view as they reached the zenith of their movement. Her breath slowed into deep but rhythmic exhalations, even as her grasp on her knees tightened, and the clothes gently eased to rest, the wake of her hurried flight into the closet now little more than a splintered memory.

          She closed her eyes and focused on her breathing until it too at last softened, evening out. No longer feeling as though she would hyperventilate at any moment, Lori struggled to envision the thing in her kitchen. She had never caught more than a vague impression of it, each glimpse either a dim, peripheral rorschach or a kaleidoscopic flurry too disjointed to take form.


***


          She had just emptied her pockets into the wall organizer in the foyer, her keys clattering softly against the other discarded keys in the storage cube. She had been making her way around the threshold into the kitchen to grab a snack when she first spotted the flicker of movement out of the corner of her eye.

          Lori lived alone, and the only other person with a key was her boyfriend, Dean. They had plans for the evening, but he wasn’t supposed to be off work for another hour yet, and even if he had cut out early, he wouldn’t have sulked around her kitchen in the dark.

          Lori knew it wasn’t him in her apartment. She knew it deep down, and yet that nagging doubt, that inescapable voice of reason, assured her it must be him in her home. She couldn’t help herself. Instinctually she called out. Lori spoke her mind. Always had.

          “Who’s there? Dean, if that’s you, I’m going to kick your –”

          She never finished speaking. She didn’t see it, but she heard the clatter of dishes shattering and silverware falling as that thing leapt to life. What had at first appeared as an amorphous shadow, a darker discoloration within an already darkened room, burst forward with a rapidity that bordered on the absurd. Instantly the thing darted out of the kitchen nook and blasted into the foyer smashing into her. Lori shot back against the door and slumped to the floor, a spasm shooting up her back. She gasped in pain and it was once again upon her. Legs and arms pumping in fevered fragments – broken images piercing the dark but never coalescing. Before she could even focus on it, the thing ripped her from the floor and hurtled her down the hall and deeper into the apartment.

          She had landed with a sharp impact against the hall bench, her head drumming from the blow. Her vision swam, bursts of light salting the dark, and she dropped motionless, unable to get her bearings. Before she could even cry out, the world had gone black.


***


          When she came to, silence reigned. Silence and darkness.

          That had been the first thing Lori noticed. Then came the pain, her head throbbing. Her teeth clenched, gritting against the pulsing and a sudden wave of nausea. Finally, it clicked.

          Nausea and pain. She was still breathing – sore and spinning and struggling with an urge to retch, but breathing. Whatever it was in her apartment, it could have easily ripped her apart while she lay unconscious on the floor. Instead it had left her there.

          It.

          At that moment she had realized that she was convinced that it was just that: an it. Lori was not a believer in the paranormal; she wasn’t some New Age adherent fond of crystals and the healing power of positivity, nor religious by any means, traditional or otherwise. She believed in science, in hard evidence. Still she knew what she had seen was not definable by pre-existing means. And where did that leave her? Her worldview tilted askew and collapsed. She could almost hear it shatter.

          Another breath and the image of that shadow form flooded over her. As she had turned the bend from the foyer asking Dean to reveal himself and just before the flurry of movement, she had seen a tall shadow climbing the wall, cast by the dim twilight easing through the window. The shadow had shifted with her entrance, contorted and reversed, and on its edge, as it twisted back, lept a glimmer of the thing, the substance casting that shadow. It stood tall yet also hunched over and primal, a deep pocket of darker black within black.

          Still, she could have believed it no more than a simple intruder (was there such a thing as a simple intruder?) had it not been for its skin. She had caught just a momentary look upon its face as it propelled itself forward and those last words stuck in her throat. It’s skin had rippled and bubbled, almost as if burnt and liquified, melted back to reveal muscle and bone. Yet rather than dripping, the river of skin clung to its shape, shifting and sculpting into a living form.

          That’s when she had noticed the smell as well, as if food had been left in the drain to mold and rot. The stench latched on and she found herself once more fighting back a deep urge to vomit.


***


          Even there in the closet Lori could smell it, although not so much it, as the memory of it, as if just thinking about the thing summoned forth that putrid rot. She pulled up her blouse, covering her nose to block out the smell, but it had little impact – the stench called out by memory more than actuality. Yet as she shifted the blouse up, she noticed the gentle spray of blood on her hands.


***


          As she came to, the memory of that thing disrupting the delicate balance of Lori’s perception of the universe, her first instinct had been to dash back the way she had come and out the front door, yelling for help. Instead, she had held back.

          It had left her alone. Quiet and still, unconscious on the floor, the thing had lost its interest in her. Lori didn’t know if was the lack of movement or the lack of sound, but she felt confident whatever it was in her apartment, it wasn’t tracking her by simple sight or smell. As best she could tell, it either hunted by movement or noise. Of course that left a dilemma. There was no safe way to determine how it hunted and come up with a plan. She could make a sound and see if it came back, or she could walk quietly and hope it didn’t see movement.

          Actually, come to think of it, while she couldn’t test her theory without risk, there was only one good course of action – besides laying still on the floor and hoping help comes. No way Lori was waiting. Lori acted. That’s who she was, and this thing wouldn’t rob that from her. It had already silenced her. That was more than enough.

          She’d have to try to slip out silently and hope it tracked by sound, not movement. The only other option was to make a sound and see what happened, which only had one of two endings: one, it didn’t hear her and Lori would continue laying motionless on the floor; or two it did hear her and it came back to finish the job. Not satisfied with either possibility, Lori mentally prepared to make a slow, silent break for the door.

          Before she could, however, she heard a quiet whimper from beneath the couch: Beverly, her Pomeranian. Lori had no idea how long Beverly had been hiding there, but she saw her master now, and those eyes looked up at her with a mix of excitement and anxiety, begging for her help.

          Lori fought back the protective impulse to charge for her precious dog, to scoop her up and run her to safety. Instead she merely glanced at her to see that she was okay, then glanced away. If she looked at Beverly too much, the dog would bound right over and Lori couldn’t risk that. She lay motionless struggling to form a new plan. Beverly watched from under the couch. The twilight creeping through the window grew dimmer and vanished. Still nothing seized upon Lori. No demon of the dark tore her from her prone position. Lori just lay there, holding her breath, awaiting the inevitable, stuck trying to find any way to reach Beverly and not get killed.

          At that moment, a footstep sounded from behind her, sloshing against the wood paneling. Then another, and another. Each footfall came slow and steady, each wet and slick. At last she caught sight of a bare foot halfway between her and the couch or what should have been a foot. Here too the skin pulsed, blackened and veined in red, like cracks in a parched landscape, only a layer of water and puss gelled over the burnt surface of the skin.

          Lori didn’t dare move or make a sound. She lay motionless as the thing inched further into the living room. From her position on the floor she could make out no more than its feet in the growing dark, approaching ever closer to Beverly. The Pomeranian had shrunk further back beneath the couch, a trail of urine streaking back towards it. Lori desperately wanted to help her, and in that instant, Beverly locked eyes with her master and yelped.

          The thing leapt forth and flung the couch aside as if tossing a ball. The sofa crashed back with brute force cracking open the drywall and smashing to the ground. As it did, Beverly yelped once more and skittered across the wood floor searching for cover. Lori could see those blackened feet dashing after her baby, and without thinking she rose and screamed.

          Immediately the thing pivoted, and she felt the impact of its wet fist slamming her across her midsection. She doubled over and shot through the air slamming into a large, potted ficus, and fell to the floor in a tangle of branches, leaves, and potting mix.

          Sound. It definitely tracked by sound.

          Lori lay still, motionless and more importantly quiet as possible. Her body ached all over, bruises forming over bruises, and with each breath she could feel a stabbing sensation. Lori was not accustomed to injury, but she felt certain she had fractured a rib.
Laying there as motionless as possible she felt that rib, what she assumed was her rib, pressing in, pain rippling up from the break, and from the movement of bone against bone. If she could just shift, maybe the pain would ease.

          Then beneath all the pain she felt a broken branch lodged beneath her, the splinters of wood digging into her shirt and scratching at the skin of her back. She tried to focus on anything but the pain, but that left her instead focusing on that deep itch and the increasingly irresistible urge to scratch it. A shift just an inch to the right and maybe, just maybe, she could relieve the pain, but if not, she could at least shift off that damned branch.

          She tensed her abs and locked her elbows. Time to move. On three, she thought. One. It would feel so good to just not have that branch under her. Two. Of course, chances were her rib would hurt like hell. Would she scream? Three. She didn’t move. How could she? That thing was still here somewhere.

          What a coward. She rolled her eyes at herself. Or rational-thinking adult not interested in being mauled to death. Yeah, that too. Of course, in that moment she was back at square one – prone on the floor waiting without a plan.

          In a moment bordering on deja-vu Beverly yapped again, this time from down the hall towards the bedroom. Again Lori heard the rapid charge of It, of the thing in her apartment. Beneath its heavy footfalls she could just make out the scampering pitter-patter of Beverly’s paws on the wood.

          Lori braved a look. At the end of the hallway, she saw once again that hunched, primal shadow, that flickering discoloration in the black. She couldn’t see Beverly clearly, but she could sense movement along the floor line, and assumed that was her, cornered and skittering in circles. In the opposite direction, she saw the front door, nothing between her and escape. All she had to do was get on her feet and make a mad dash. Maybe fifteen feet or so, and she could be out of this nightmare.

          She looked back to the dark, where Beverly barked at the thing that had invaded her apartment. How did it even get here? What was it? She needed answers, but more than anything she needed to act. Lori acted. That’s what she did. For too long that night she had felt herself benched.

          She shifted her hand ever so slightly, tightening it around the broken branch beneath her back. Her fingers traced a slow path along its contours until finding its tip. She felt a needle of pain as she pressed down. The branch was plenty sharp.
Lori stood, careful to make as little noise as possible, and shuffled forward inch by inch. Ten feet between her and Beverly. Nine feet. Eight feet. Seven feet.
The shadow at the end of the hall stopped, and so did she. Lori held her breath, lest the slightest noise tip that thing off. A smaller shadow continued darting across the floor, but before it could escape, the larger hunched back down and swiped at it. Wood paneling cracked and ripped from the floor, but the dog remained unscathed.

          Six feet. Five feet.

          Spotting Lori, Beverly made a dash for her owner, but the intruder pivoted into the dog’s path. Desperate and cornered, the Pomerania bit into the thing’s ankle. A guttural, gurgling howl broke through the night and that thing reared back. Lori took her moment.

          Four feet. Three feet. Two.

          She stabbed down with the splintered branch as hard as she could thrusting deep into the base of the creature’s neck. It jerked away, flailing frantically, a thin spray of arterial blood misting out. Instinctually, Lori raised her hands to shield her face.


***


          Lori let out another deep and silent breath, then lowered her hands. As the beast squirmed and pulled at the branch sticking from its neck, Lori had been caught with her retreat blocked. With no choice she had opened the bedroom and fled inside. She shut the door gently, hoping the distracted beast would not notice nor hear, then propped a desk chair beneath the handle. She considered pushing her dresser over and barricading herself in, but was fairly sure the thing would have heard her and rushed in.

          Moments later, afraid to test her temporary security, Lori had fled into the closet, while Beverly hid far back under the bed. It was best that way. If her dog could see her, if they were hiding together, Lori doubted she would have stayed silent.

          Of course, once more Lori found herself motionless and hiding. Her heart pounded in her chest, sweat drenched her clothes, and her side ached more than ever. Another stabbing pain coursed over her and Lori wondered how long she could go without seeing a doctor. How long could she last without treatment?

          She didn’t even notice she had risen to her feet until she came to staring out her window. Her apartment was nine floors up, looking out onto downtown Los Angeles. She didn’t have a balcony off her bedroom but a ledge about six inches wide ran the perimeter of the building, just a foot below the windows. One bend around the building corner, and another ten feet and she’d be at the living room balcony. It would be a short dash from the living room to the front door, but if that thing was still waiting outside her bedroom, then it just might be possible. Fifteen feet total stood between her and escape.

          Of course, she had to be certain. She scanned a nearby nightstand, grabbed an empty tic-tac container, and threw it at the door. A great clawing lashed at the door and it shook upon its hinges, but the chair beneath the handle did not budge. Yes, It was still out there.

Hunger – Part 2

© Paraschiv George Gabriel | Dreamstime.com – Dental Xray right half

By Christopher Opyr


          ‘…always hungry.’ John could still hear his son’s words and he could see that look, those hopeful eyes, like Nicholas thought his father could do something, anything, to make him better. That he thought that somehow, his dad could take the pain and the hunger away.

          He pitied his son that blind faith in one’s father. There was a time that he had mourned for the loss of faith in his own father, but after Nicholas was born, he understood that no man could live up to the adoration placed upon them by their children. Now, when his own son needed him most, John knew that there was little he could do to help. Discipline wouldn’t cut it.

          He swept into the kitchen, popped open a beer, and chugged it back. John didn’t cope well with failure. When you had a job to complete, success was the only option. Yet no matter how he looked at the problem, he couldn’t see a way to help his son – not any method that he would have previously considered. The boy was scared. He was eating non-stop, talking to imaginary friends, and at the same time, Nicholas was just as mortified by his own decline as his parents were worried about it.

          John cast himself back into his armchair, and took another swallow of beer. A commercial for a local car dealership interrupted the preseason match as it went into the second quarter. John shut his eyes and tried to escape from the stress that tore at him. He might have to listen to Emily; he might have to let her take the boy to Brynn Marr. He hated to admit that – he’d have to think of some excuse, some way of making sure it came across as his idea, not an acquiescence to her. Giving ground would be a mistake. He wouldn’t let her have that.

          “John?”

          He sighed. “Yes, Em?”

          “How’d it go?”

          Like shit, he thought. The boy’s screwed. Something’s loose upstairs and there isn’t a damn thing we can do about it. Of course the truth hurt. Emily didn’t need that.

          “It went great, hon,” he said. “We’ll get this worked out. I promise.” No need for any more detail until he could figure out how to get his son seen without Emily gloating. Plus he’d have to find some way to do it quietly. If Nicholas saw a shrink, no one needed to know. It needed to stay a private concern – family only.

          “So he’s going to what, diet? Do extra chores? Exercise?”

          “I told you he’s going to be fine. I’ve got it covered.”

          John swigged from his beer again. Em needed to leave him alone already.

          “Yeah, but how?”

          “Christ, Em! Just let me be.”

          “Don’t raise your voice. He’ll hear.”

          “Em, enough. Can you stop pestering for five seconds? I just want to watch the game.”

          “Okay.” Emily raised her hands in surrender, then turned and fled. John could hear her footfalls, slow and heavy as she retreated down the hall. Finally their bedroom door slammed behind her and the house returned to silence – all save for the gentle buzz of the TV.

          John smirked. I’m going to pay for that tonight. He glanced about spotting an afghan flung over the back of the couch. He leaned over, grabbed it and a small pillow and yanked them both back into his chair. He and the armchair had a long night ahead of themselves. Mentally exhausted, he closed his eyes and drifted off.


***


          He woke to the national anthem winding down as the American flag waved in a gentle breeze on the television screen. John blinked trying to gather his bearings. The song ended and the screen cut to static, the crinkle of the white noise echoing in the silence of the night. John winced at the sound and flicked off the set.

          Hell, he thought. I missed the entire game. He grabbed the warm beer from the end table beside him and swigged down the dregs of the bottle. That done, he reclined the chair and rolled back onto his pillow, squirming as he fought to get comfortable.

          As he settled in, ready to return to sleep, he marveled at the silence that ruled the house. A quiet coupled with the dark, blanketing every room. Outside he could hear crickets, and the mating call of a lone frog. The refrigerator hummed in the kitchen, and a grandfather clock counted off the seconds with a slow, rhythmic ticking.

          John smiled, taking comfort in the quiet. The soft night sounds of a slumbering house had always put John at ease. He had spent many similar nights in his youth slumbering on the couch at his grandparents, that same grandfather clock ticking from their foyer. The familiarity soothed him.

          Then came the noise that he couldn’t place. It bubbled up, barely audible, a mix of hard and soft, fast and slow. It held an asymmetric quality, lacking any discernible rhythm – something organic and chaotic.

          John cast all thought of sleep aside and popped his ears trying to hone in on the sound. No matter how hard he tried, he just could not place it.

          “Em, is that you?” he asked. No answer came.

          Slowly he rose, noticing a faint light emanating from the kitchen. “Em?” he repeated. His question met with only more silence – more silence and that sickening, unplaceable sound scraping in the undercurrent.

          John peered around the doorway to the kitchen. The open refrigerator door hung ajar, its light cast out across the kitchen, shining on empty tupperware containers and discarded wrappers.

          John swore under his breath, then bent and collected the containers, depositing them in the sink. He glanced back at the wrappers, but decided that they could wait. Kicking the refrigerator door shut, he turned to leave, only before he could he noticed the open pantry. One glance inside revealed empty boxes and emptier shelves, along with a trash can overflowing with other cast aside food containers.

          That boy is going to eat our bank account down to zero, he thought. He needed to have a word with Emily. He’d be taking Nicholas to Brynn Marr in the morning. She could gloat all she wanted, they couldn’t take much more of this.

          John crept down the hall to the master bedroom, and gently eased open the door. Emily would still be mad about earlier, and he braced for that, knowing an argument was coming. Now, however, it was time to face that storm.

          “Hey, Em?”

          Again, nothing. The room was empty, the bedspread crumpled and tossed at an angle away from Emily’s side of bed. She was up and about after all.

          The master bathroom door hung half open, the room dark as the rest of the house. She wasn’t in the bathroom and she wasn’t in bed.

          “Emily, where are you?” This time he asked louder. If he woke Nicholas, so be it. He needed to talk to the boy again, anyway. Nick had gone too far with his midnight snack, and on top of that, John needed to have a talk with him about what the morning would bring – about Brynn Marr.

          “Emily, can you answer me?”

          John jumped as a loud ring pierced the silence, the grandfather clock chiming the hour. It stopped at three chimes. No answer followed; yet something else sounded in the wake of the clock. That same unplaceable sound: wet and yet almost a crunch. It sounded fast, then slowed, then sped up again, no rhythm to its tempo, no symmetry to form a pattern. Straining, John listened closer, then caught it: the unmistakeable rending of meat.

          After everything that they had discussed and the boy was eating in bed. John could feel his anger rising. He steeled himself. He had caved earlier, and now Nicholas was worse than ever. This time he had to be firm. He had to lay down the law.

          He opened the door and stepped into Nicholas’s room, then stopped, gagging as his breath caught in his throat.

          At the far end of the room, amid a nest of wrappers and half-devoured plates, lay Emily. She stared back at John, her neck twisted at impossible angle, her head hanging limp upside down, her jaw broken, and rivulets of blood leaking from her mouth and down into her hair. The rest of her body had contorted into a ball, bent and broken.

          There could be no doubt she was dead, and yet her corpse shifted in a small jerking pattern as that sound continued beneath. John could place it now, the sound of something eating, its teeth clacking against bone and tearing at meat, pausing as it consumed its kill, then resuming with another bite – a fresh rending.

          “Nick?” He didn’t want to even think it, but he couldn’t help himself. He pictured his son beneath that mass, eating and eating, sating the insatiable hunger that had plagued for months now. “Nicholas!”

          “Dad.”

          The door shut behind John revealing his son, clutching his knees and rocking, his back to the wall. John felt a moment of relief, then flinched as the low to which he had let himself fall sunk in. How could he even have thought for a second that his son was capable of an act so grotesque. That thought would plague John for the rest of his life, and yet, no time remained for such indulgences now.

          He grabbed a baseball bat from the floor and approached the broken remains of his wife. “You’re dead, mother fucker!”

          John heard himself scream those first words as he approached his wife’s body, then the pulsing anger drowned out all sound and all rational thought. He could feel the string of obscenities unleash, the spit and rage exploding forth, but time and space, sight and sound, all became meaningless, nothing more than background to the main event.

          He leapt behind Emily, ready for a man or even some wild animal, his bat swinging. It struck, the metal reverberating as it hit across something hard with a crack that John more sensed than heard, and simultaneously a soft give. That’s when the world exploded in a shrill creak-scream, an otherworldly mix of raspy violin chords tinged with a guttural bubble.

          John fell to his knees, his hands covering his ears, and his bat rolling away into the blood nest of discarded wrapper and meat scraps. Emily scraps?

          A pale form, almost translucent, jerked back, seizing as puss erupted from a crack along what John could only conceive of as a shell. It writhed, large, lobster-like claws clacking as they ripped away from Emily, and mandibles snapping, yet all too quick for John to catch a concrete glimpse before it burrowed beneath its macabre nest.

          “What the hell?” John skittered backwards across the floor, in an unsettlingly appropriate crab-walk.

          “Ade, dad,” Nicholas said from behind him. “Dad, Ade.”

          John glanced back. His son still set back to the wall by the door, but he had let go of his knees, his body slumping, legs now splayed out and his arms slack at his sides, as if a balloon deflating. And there was something more to that thought… John could still see the baby-like fat in his face, and multiple chins still consumed Nicholas’s neck, and yet, he seemed smaller somehow.

          “I don’t understand.”

          “She gave him to me.”

          “She who?” John rose, his gaze returning to the remains of his wife, even as he spoke to his son behind him. That thing was still in there somewhere.

          “I don’t know.” Nicholas said. “She was there when I found Matt, hiding in the mirrors. I only saw her for a moment.”

          “Nick, you’re not making sense.”

          Emily’s body shifted, her head tilting and the bulk of her mass shifting to one side. Somewhere below her that thing was moving. More, John had the distinct impression that it was burrowing.

          “She gave him to me. She reached through the window and she touched me and told me that everything would be okay.”

          His son wasn’t making any sense, but that was fine. He was alive. Right now life had just gone FUBAR. Sense could come later.

          “Nick,” John said, breaking through the crazy talk, “get the door. We have to go.”

          John kept his eyes on Emily’s body as it shifted, nothing left but a heap of pulverized bone and meat. As long as he kept his eyes on it, as long as he could see that thing coming, he and his son had a chance. Behind him, he heard Nicholas lift himself to his feet.

          “Good, son. Good. Now get the door.”

          “She gave him to me. ‘A friend for a friend,’ she said.”

          “Just get the door.” Emily’s body collapsed inward, then lay still. The wrappers and plates at the edge of the nest began to stir. “Now, Nicholas!”

          “I still don’t know if she meant a friend to replace Matt, or if she meant I was her friend and she was gifting me with a new friend. She didn’t stick around to explain, you know?”

          “Nicholas, get the damn door!”

          John turned, that pulsing anger resuming, not at his son, but at the whole situation. They had to leave immediately. As he shifted his gaze, his kneecap shattered and his world burst into a red flare of pain.

          John fell landing on the shattered knee and his world ruptured once more. He screamed and toppled to the floor, clutching at the broken mess of bone and flesh. As the red subsided, he caught sight of his son lifting a heavy meat tenderizer, then bringing it down with all his weight.

          John shifted, trying to roll away from blow. With the sudden movement Nicholas missed his other knee but the tenderizer still hammered home into John’s upper tibia. He screamed again as the bone fractured, then bit down on his lip. He could taste the blood trickling into his mouth and down his throat, yet he was thankful for it, as that new pain provided a momentary distraction from the absolute agony of his shattered legs.

          “What are you doing?” he said, struggling to get the words out.

          Nicholas stood above him, wiping a bead of sweat from his brow, and dropped the tenderizer to the floor.

          “I guess it doesn’t matter what she meant by it, really. She reached out from that glass, from within that window, and she touched me here, and Ade was born.” Nicholas patted at his stomach as he spoke, and with a growing sense of horror John realized what was so different about his son. His shirt hung loose, as if he had lost nearly twenty pounds in the span of a few hours.

          “Right here,” Nicholas repeated, lifting up his shirt to reveal folds of loose skin. In the center of those folds, John could just make out a large open wound. No blood poured from it, but a sticky mass coated its edges, like a glue sealing it shut.

          John scrambled back towards the door, dragging his legs behind him. He reached up to the handle, his fingers glancing against the knob, then slipping.

          “Don’t leave dad. It’s just me and you, now. Just me, you, and Ade.” Nicholas bent over, grabbing the tenderizer off the floor.

          “Why?” John asked, one hand reaching once more for the door, while the other grasped for anything that he could use to defend himself.

          “I don’t have a choice, dad.” Nicholas stopped, glancing back to his mother’s corpse, as if searching for his “friend” amidst its nest. “He depends on me.”

          “Then let him die.” John’s fingers caught on the handle once more. He twisted it and yanked the door open, falling back into the hallway.

          “You think it’s that easy? You think I haven’t thought of that?” Nicholas paused, cocking his head as if listening. As he did his brows furrowed, and he glanced back, his own rage bubbling to the surface.

          “Shut up,” he yelled. “I already let you have her.” He turned back to his father. “You hear this shit, dad? You hear what I have to put up with? It’s just never enough.”

          “It’s well beyond enough, son,” John dragged himself into the hall, his legs dangling behind him.

          “No, no, no, no!” Nicholas gripped at his head, ripping at his hair. “Fine!”

          He reached the door and slammed it as hard as he could, catching his dad’s mangled legs.

          John banged his fists against the floor, his eyes winced shut, and gritted his teeth against the wave of pain. How is this happening, he thought. This wasn’t reality; this wasn’t the world as he understood it. More, this wasn’t his son, not his sweet Nicholas, the soft momma’s boy.

          The door eased open and Nicholas, winded, slid down the door jamb, sitting himself upon his dad’s legs. “Don’t you get it, dad? I need him, too.”

          Nicholas struggled for his breath. As at last he eased back to a normal rhythm, he pulled at the fold of skin under his night shirt. “See this,” he said, waving the glued over wound at his father. At this distance John could see it more clearly – almost a surgical incision.

          “It doesn’t hold. If he doesn’t return, it will open, and I’ll bleed out.” He stopped, listening once again.

          “Nicholas,” John started.

          “Shhh!” Nicholas held one finger before his lips, then cocked his head back towards his room. Finally, he sighed.

          “Yes, I’m telling him. What the hell do you think I’m doing?

          “Well, hell with you. You know how long I’ve wanted to tell someone?” Nicholas turned back to his dad, shaking his head and rolling his eyes in a ‘can you believe this guy’ gesture.

          “I’ve so wanted to tell you, you know that right.”

          John looked at his son, a mix of pity and horror in his eyes. “You killed Matt. You and this thing, you killed the Hoffmans.”

          “Damn, dad. Have you even been listening? The girl did that. I just walked in at the wrong time and she gave me a friend. I had to feed him. He needed me to grow, but now he’s here.”

          From beyond Nicholas John heard a rustle, then that raspy, violin clicking as something large skittered over the wood, a squelching gurgle dragging behind it.

          “Huh.” Nicholas shrugged. “Ade wants to meet you. What do you say, dad?”

          “I’m sorry.”

          “What?”

          John lunged forward, grabbed his son, and slammed him back into the doorjamb! He screamed as his head cracked into the wood, and behind him that shrill, crackly gurgle split the night once more.

          John fell to his elbows and army-crawled down the hall, his son moaning behind him. Behind that, the skittering resumed.

          John had made it as far as the living room entryway when he felt a sudden yank on his leg, and yet another burst of fireworks blocked out his vision.

          “Dad,” Nicholas more breathed than said as he hunched over him. “Dad, I don’t want you to go. I don’t want to be alone with him.” Nicholas motioned beside him, and John shifted his gaze.

          A mass of shell and flesh coiled around Nicholas’s foot, like a cat rubbing against its owner’s leg. The thing had to be two feet long, its front resembling a cross between a tick and a lobster, all mandibles, antennae, and claws. Two lidless black eyes stared out,and behind its head, a small thorax with six segmented legs, quivered as it caressed against his son. Finally, the thing ended in a long multi-segmented abdomen, thin and translucent and riddled with veins dragging out in an amorphous mass that bloated at its end to the size of a basketball. The whole thing rippled and gurgled as it moved, then its eyes shifted to John, it’s mandibles opening and a mouth more mammal-like than insect, yawned open revealing rows upon circular rows of needle-like teeth and pulsing gums.

          John recoiled, then reached up and grabbed for his son. Whatever happened, he would not be a part of this abomination. Nor would his son, not even if meant killing him. Only Nicholas pulled back too quickly, dodging from his father’s grasp.

          That parasitic thing tensed around his leg. “But I don’t want to,” Nicholas said. John knew he wasn’t talking to him. “Fine.” He looked to his father. “Now, I’m sorry.”

          Nicholas brought the tenderizer down on John’s head and the world went black.


***


          As he came to, his head thumping to an excruciating internal drum solo, the first thing John noticed was the dust catching in the sunlight from the living room window. He found himself lying in his arm chair, his entire body aching. His son sat on the couch, showered and in a fresh set of clothes, his legs kicked up on the coffee table as he watched Saturday morning cartoons.

          “Nick?”

          “Morning, dad,” he said, stretching back into the couch, his shirt pulled taut over his massive belly, the fat once again bubbling out from a shirt now at least two sizes too small.

          “You think I could pick up some new clothes, today? These don’t fit anymore.”

          “Sure,” John said, shaking his head, trying to clear it. The drum solo intensified. Everything seemed so normal, the previous night nothing more than a vivid nightmare now vanished in a bad hangover. “Yeah, yeah, we can do that,” he continued, still staring at his son’s exposed belly.

          Suddenly it quivered, and shifted, something big pressing out against the skin. Nicholas leaned forward, grabbing a handful of shredded meat and bone from a plate sitting on the couch beside him. He shoveled the bloody concoction into his mouth.

          “Thanks, dad.” He offered the plate to his father. “Hungry?”

          John recoiled, trying not to think about what his son was eating. More he recoiled from his own reaction. His stomach rumbled and he realized that he was hungry; hungrier than he had ever been in his life.

          He tried to fight the urge, but instead found himself accepting the offered plate. He began to eat and something inside him twisted and turned and for a moment he thought he heard a quiet voice speaking in his head, urging him to eat even more. Again, John tried to resist, but he couldn’t. He ate another bite, and another, the drumming of his head softening as his own tears began to fall.




Back to Part 1

Hunger – Part 1

© Paraschiv George Gabriel | Dreamstime.com – Dental Xray right half

By Christopher Opyr


          “John.”

          “Not now.”

          John cracked a beer and settled back into his well worn armchair. Time for kickoff. Denver Broncos vs the San Francisco 49ers in Candlestick Park. He didn’t have any skin in the game, but he needed to unwind and it was on.

          “John! He needs help.”

          “Chrissake, Em. I just sat down.”

          Emily rounded the corner into the living room and, gripping the entryway, straightened herself into her most imposing stance. At barely five foot two and ninety-five pounds, the pose failed to impress.

          “Then get up,” she said. “This is our son.” She paused for emphasis then shifted gears. “And don’t use the Lord’s name in vain.”

          “Jesus, Em,” he said. Sometimes you had to goad back, even if you were poking the proverbial bear.

          John sat down his beer, careful to use a coaster (Emily insisted on it), and stood. He towered over his wife by nearly a foot, his figure lean and intimidating without any effort. Years in the Marines and a strict exercise regimen had kept the traditional middle-aged gut at bay.

          “What is it now?”

          “He won’t come out of his room. He’s been in there all day, just sitting and eating junk.”

          “Well don’t give him junk food and half the problem is solved.”

          “He says he’s hungry, but it’s more than that.”

          “Yeah. He’s fat and he’s lazy. If you’d let me work it out of him I could have him straightened out in no time.”

          John loved his son deeply, but the boy had no understanding of discipline. His mother had coddled him from the start and the horrors of this past summer had done nothing but make Emily softer on the boy. John had long felt the need to break Emily of the habit, but he had indulged her instead. Soon he would have to consider that his son’s needs outweighed Emily’s happiness. Nicholas needed to be taught a lesson.

          “John, keep your voice down.”

          “Truth hurts. The boy needs to hear it.”

          “You know it’s more than that. The boy needs a doctor.”

          “You mean a shrink.”

          “I mean a professional that can help him cope with what he saw.”

          John let out an exasperated grunt. This again. He and Em had danced this dance many times over the past two months – ever since Nicholas discovered the Hoffmans dead in an apparent murder suicide.

          As on most Saturdays, Nicholas had headed over to the Hoffman residence shortly after breakfast to visit his best friend, Matt. He hadn’t had any formal plan, but John suspected his son had intended to spend the day playing jungle adventurer with Matt and thrashing their way through the woods surrounding New River.

          Instead Nicholas had arrived to find the Hoffman residence locked tight and no one answering the door. Their cars had been in the drive, so, certain that they were home, Nicholas had wandered around back to rap on Matt’s window. That’s when he found the bodies mutilated and splayed out on the floor of his best friend’s room.

          He had not been the same since. John had provided his son space to grieve, but when a month passed with no sign of a return to normalcy he had begun to worry. He didn’t want to be harsh and he understood Emily’s concerns, but he didn’t believe the answer lay in the finely crafted web of lies concocted by some quack head shrink. Not only would Nicholas likely come back with his head stuffed with some mother-hating, daddy-did-me-wrong nonsense, but moreover if word got out that he was seeing a psychiatrist the boy would be a laughing stock. There would likely be more damage done from bullying than healing by his doctor.

          “John?” Emily crossed her arms and demanded an answer.

          “No. The boy needs discipline, not some fraud enabling him. I won’t hear it.”

          “You won’t hear it –“

          “– No, so don’t start. I’ll talk to him, but I draw the line at head doctors.”

          Emily withdrew into herself. “Okay.”

          That settled, John took a swig of his beer then wiped his lips dry with his arm.

          “Good,” he said, and started down the hall. As he strode by, Emily reached out and gently brushed his arm.

          “Be easy on him, okay?”

          He could see the pleading in her eyes and softened.

          “Of course,” he said. “I’m not a monster.” And with that, he turned parting from his wife and strode down the hall.


***


          As he neared Nicholas’s door an unease settled into his gut. Nick was talking to someone, but the conversation was one-sided, as if the boy were on the phone, but that couldn’t be right either. The cordless phone was charging on its stand in the kitchen. John could see it as he glanced back over his shoulder. Looking at it as he listened in on Nicholas he found himself more and more puzzled by the fragmented conversation.

          “…says I should slow down.” Nicholas paused as if waiting on an inaudible reply, then continued.

          “It was implied.” Silence again. Then:

          “Well, no… but she may have a point. Look at me.

          “You’re right. Odd phrasing, but still.

          “Well, yes, I am. Always. Nonstop. But that doesn’t mean I’m not huge. There is no way I’ll make soccer in the fall.

          “It is too important. It’s important to me. I matter here.

          “Well, I don’t know, but I don’t want to be this way anymore. I don’t. Does it have to be so much?”

          Nicholas’s voice trailed off, softer, slipping into a gentle whisper. John leaned closer pressing his ear against the door.

          From the other side he heard a faint scratching, mixed with a barely audible gurgling. As it stopped, Nicholas spoke once more, still in that muted whisper.

          “Are you sure? I didn’t hear nothing.”

          He paused and the gurgling bubbled up through the quiet, along with that soft scratching. As it subsided, John could make out the faint sounds of a bag of chips crinkling, followed by footsteps approaching.

          “Hello?”

          John pressed back from the door just in time as it eased open a crack. His son stared out, one paranoid eye framed in the gap between the door and the doorway.

          “Yes, dad.”

          “Open the door.”

          “What?”

          John sighed then butted his shoulder into the door. Nicholas stumbled back, pinwheeling his arms, then fell flat onto his ass.

          “You heard me. I said open the door.”

          John entered, stepping over his son, and shut the door behind him.

          “Who were you talking to?” he asked as he took in the entirety of the room. It was a mess of junk food wrappers, empty plates, trash fantasy books, and coverless comics – the last just one more habit of which John intended to break Nicholas.

          “No one, dad.”

          “Uh-huh.” John marched to the closet and flung the door open: nothing but shirts, both hanging and wadded in a ball on the floor. “You need to clean that up.”

          “Yes, sir.”

          John turned 180 degrees and hauled to the bed, lifting the frame up as he peered under. More comics and wrappers. A cockroach skittered back from the light.

          “Shit, son. You need to clean this whole room before our house becomes infested.”

          “Yes, sir.”

          “This place is a shitheap, you know that?”

          “Yes. Yes, sir.”

          “Well then why didn’t you do something about it?”

          John locked eyes with Nicholas. The boy stood at a rapt attention in the center of the room, fifty pounds overweight, his chins jiggling as he stuttered his responses. Sweat stains leaked from his pits, and his shirt stretched taut over his expanding belly.

          “Hell, boy. What are we going to do with you?”

          John didn’t wait for an answer. He stepped to the room’s sole window, yanked it open, and leaned his head out, searching the yard. “Who’s out there?”

          “No one’s there, dad. Really.”

          “I’m not stupid, son. You were talking to someone.”

          “Just myself. Really.” His chins wobbled again, and sweat beaded down his brow.

          John pulled in from the window and focused all his ire on his son. “You’re hiding something. Out with it.”

          John sat on Nicholas’s bed and patted the mattress beside him.

          “Come on, Nick. Fess up.”

          Nicholas plopped into the empty space beside his dad, the frame groaning under the sudden pressure.

          “Jesus, son. Sit yourself down, don’t throw yourself down. Have some damn sense.”

          “Sorry, sir.”

          “Now, who was it?”

          “Ade.”

          “A-who?”

          “Ah-deh.”

          “What the hello type of name is that.”

          “I don’t know.”

          “Well, they’ll just let anyone in now days, won’t they. Fuck. What the hell were you doing sneaking company? You’re allowed friends over. It ain’t late. No need to sneak them in and out.”

          “I didn’t sneak anyone in or out.”

          “Come again?”

          Nicholas bit at his lip, turning his eyes down. More, this bite wasn’t a simple nervous tick clamping down on his lower lip. No, Nicholas seemed to be nibbling at the lip. Almost tasting it. Finally he spoke.

          “Ade’s imaginary.”

          John let his chin drop to his chest as he flung his head down and shook it. “Oh hell, boy.” John shook his head some more and pressed at his temples. “I don’t know what to do with you.”

          “I’ll be better. I promise.” The boys eyes pleaded with him, and at last John caved.

          “I know. I know you will, but I’ve had hard enough time keeping you away from the head shrinks with you just overeating. Now you’re talking to people that aren’t there. Shit, once your mother finds that out, she’s liable to sneak you off to Brynn Marr whether I consent or not.”

          “Maybe that’s not such a bad idea, dad. I’ve gained what, seventy-five pounds in two months?”

          “No. Fuck Brynn Marr. No son of mine.”

          “That’s thirty-seven pounds a month. What if it doesn’t slow down?” The desperation dripped from Nicholas as he spoke. John couldn’t miss it. His son genuinely feared that the weight would just keep coming – that he’d what, eat himself to death?

          John wanted to lay down the law. That’s how his dad had raised him and how his dad’s dad had before him. You didn’t play warm fuzzies and go for long walks and talk it out. You told your child how it was going to be and you expected they followed through with the order. Yet, looking at the fear in his son’s eyes, he knew Nicholas was no soldier. He was a child seeking help.

          “Why are you doing it? It’s Matt, right?”

          “I thought so, but I don’t know.”

          “You can do better than that.”

          “I miss him, I do, and I still have nightmares–”

          “Nothing in that room room can hurt you,” John said interrupting. Nicholas needed to know that he was safe. “Not now and not ever. You understand that, right?”

          “I wouldn’t be so sure.”

          Nicholas tugged at his tight clothes trying to pull up his pants, and when that failed, trying to tuck down his shirt. They’d just bought him new clothes two weeks ago. John would have to hit the PX with his next paycheck. Even if he could get Nicholas to drop some of the weight, it wouldn’t be enough anytime soon. His boy deserved the dignity of proper clothes. He deserved more than that. John could see the fear in his son’s eyes, and at last he understood that it wasn’t fear of rapprochement. Something had terrified his son, not with the fear of God but with the fear of something much worse. Something darker. That just could not stand.

          “Look, if you saw someone, if you think you’re in danger, you need to tell me. We’ll tell the police. They can lock him up, and I’ll guarantee you no one will touch you. I’d snap their neck they so much as looked at you wrong. You’re safe here, you know that?

          “Yes, dad. It’s not like that. I didn’t see it happen, but I think they were right. I think it was a… a murder-suicide. I’ve accepted that and I’ve mourned, dad, and I’ll always miss Matt, but I’m not sad anymore.”

          “So what is it?”

          “I’m just… hungry…”


On to Part Two

In Memoriam: Part 7

© Linux87 | Dreamstime.com – Cemetery Night Photo

By Christopher Opyr

          Kyle sank his head into his hands breathing in the gravity of that which was to come. He looked back at the path that had brought him here, to this incredulous point, and he pondered how he had ever let himself come so far.

          For Charlotte.

          Yes, for Charlotte. Soon there would be order again, and his daughter would be returned. He lifted his head from his hands and met Anita’s gaze. He trembled contemplating his fate and sought an answer in her eyes.

          She nodded, a silent affirmation that Death would lay its hands upon him. In that moment, Kyle accepted his fate, though after a longing glance to the discarded remnants of his cigarettes, he wished he had one last smoke – one last calming of the nerves before his time came to an end.

          “Will it be quick?” he asked.

          “No.”

          So be it. What else should he have expected? He waited in that silence, so much more terrible than the baying of the dogs and the howling of the wind that had preceded it. He waited for the inevitable, and he pondered what would happen to his daughter.

          How would she return? Would she suffer or would she just be made whole? Would she see that which came to claim him and would it haunt her? Or would he die before she saw life once more? He so wanted to see her before he died.

          “When she’s here,” he started, pausing and thinking better of his words. “When she’s alive once more, I need you to be sure she gets to her mother. You haven’t lost the address?”

          “No, I have it.” She paused then, holding something back. Did she want to tell him goodbye and how she wished there was another way, or was she holding back her anger for what he had made her do. Kyle would never know. “She’ll see her mother, again,” Anita continued.

          “Good.” Kyle glanced away not wanting to see the pity in Anita’s eyes – a pity that he did not deserve – or worse, the hate that he did deserve. He fumbled in his pocket and pulled out a crumpled sheet of paper – one of those refrigerator magnet to-do lists – and handed it over to Anita.

          “You’ve done your part. Your answer is here.”

          Anita glanced at the paper and smiled, though her eyes bore only sadness. Kyle had done wrong forcing her hand, and he knew that no matter what she said.


***

          After the doctors informed him of the cancer riddling his lungs, Kyle’s hesitance had gradually vanished. Before, when Anita had warned him of the line that they could not cross, he had known that it was because she could not bear his death on her hands. Once that sentence had been handed down, however, he could no longer accept her position. If death had chosen him, he’d rather have at it already and let his daughter know life. To perish without making that barter when he could have set the order right, that seemed a waste of life on a cosmic scale.

          Anita had not agreed, so he had taken Jonesy. With her husband long in the grave, her corgi was the dearest thing left to her and the only bargaining chip that Kyle could leverage. He regretted that it had come to that, to taking her dog. He was not a man of violence or coercion, but Anita had been unwilling to see sense. Even with his death only a matter of time as the cancer spread, she still insisted that his daughter’s resurrection was untenable.

          Though he regretted the way he had forced her hand, or having had to force it at all, Kyle did not feel a deep sympathy for Anita herself – his daughter came first, after all, and his life seemed already forfeit. Instead a deep loss clung to him, grieving for the destruction of the bond that they had formed. When he had come to her and forced her hand, he had seen the life break behind those glassy eyes. At that moment all compassion she had held for Kyle had ended.


***

          Of course there is no compassion left in the world, is there?

          Kyle ripped himself from his reverie. Anita looked at him, the crumpled note in her hand.

          “Your apartment? The one to which I have a spare key in case of emergency?”

          “Yeah, that’s the place. I didn’t really have an option on many places to keep a dog. I didn’t want him to get hurt or stolen.”

          “You’re a piece of work.”

          “Yeah.”

          The silence returned between them and Kyle looked across the cemetery to the gate as the iron pickets began to rattle and the doors strained against their chain.

          “Time?” he asked.

          Anita nodded.

          Kyle watched the dark roll in from that gate, fallen leaves riding it and tumbling before it like the foam on a wave crashing to shore. It spread up the hill past tombstone after tombstone, rattling among the roots of the trees and the low bushes, and toppling flowers left for loved ones long gone. The dark wave swept over a nearby vase, sending it crashing down and tearing the pink petals from the still fresh daisies that it had held. Those petals swirled and roiled in the tumultuous tide of encroaching dark, until they blew past caught on a new eddie and whisked away like the smoke of his cigarettes.

          What did you say when you knew death had come? What were you to do then? Fuck all, he thought. Ain’t shit left to do about nothing. He laughed struck by the absurdity of the profanity and the poor grammar that would constitute his last thoughts. Then the shadow hand reached from the dark and plunged itself into his chest.

          He writhed as the pain tore through him, an ambush of agony. It clawed at his flesh and burned at his insides. He tried to scream but another shadow hand choked him, shoving itself down his throat. The thing tasted of damp earth and chalk and he gagged upon its grit. His breath stolen from him and the pain searing through him, Kyle prayed for an end to come.

          Then another hand, and another, and another, rose from the shadow tide and gripped and clawed him and pulled at him, clutching to him at random. As the shock overloaded his system his mind blotted out the pain leaving only the imbalance of it all – the randomness of the pressure. Those hands groped without order, and suddenly Kyle found himself shifting and squirming and tearing at his own self trying to balance the pain and touch, to provide some symmetry to the utter anarchy of the thing that tore at him.

          Yet no matter how much he clawed and scratched, no matter how he rolled and punched and ripped at himself, he could provide no balance and find no peace. The sensation erupted into madness and he could bear no more. He could feel himself dying and he welcomed it.

          That’s when he felt that other sensation, something familiar. Tiny fingers plucked at the hair of one wrist, their pull soft and tender, a slow and soothing repetition. He did not try to balance it. He did not try to even out the sensation or to resist it. Kyle welcomed it even more than he had death a moment prior.

          A soft exhalation of air sounded through the vacuous night, followed by a steadying rhythm as the breathing slowed and found its pattern. A damp sweat broke out on his shoulder as a warmth pressed down against it. Charlotte curled into her father’s arms.

          No, he thought. She shouldn’t be here for this. They can’t have her, not her, too!

          He opened his eyes against the pain, and struggled to his knees, clutching Charlotte tightly to his chest as he tried to rise. He had to get his daughter to Anita.

          Only as he made to move, he felt the shadow hands retreat. They did not accept him. He had been found wanting. One after the other they withdrew from him plummeting back into the shadow tide. He didn’t need to see it to know it. As they vacated a sense of peace had returned to him and his soul mended with every departure.

          Yet, a greater terror flooded over him. A life for a life. There was no other way to balance the scales. His daughter slept peacefully in his arms tugging upon the hairs of his wrist, but if she lived, and if he lived, then there was only one other possibility.

          “Please,” he said. “Take me. Not her.”

          Anita sagged into herself, resting against a tombstone. “You’ll give Jonesy a good home?” she asked. “I left instructions by my usual seat at group.”

          She had known. She had known from the moment he asked this of her, and yet she had never told him. She knew that death would reject him and take her instead, that his life so tenuous at best would not balance the scales. He tried to say something, anything, but no words came. Of course, as always, Anita understood.

          “There was always a chance of this with you so close to death’s door. Of course you’ll have to stop that habit now. You’ll have to fight.”

          Kyle nodded, watching helplessly as the shadows hands lunged from the tide and bore into Anita. She shrieked as the onslaught bombarded her and collapsed to her hands and knees. Again and again those shadow hands dug into her, the pallor fleeing from her face as her remaining years vanished in mere moments.

          “She’s waking,” she said, struggling to get out the words. Then her strength gave, her fight snuffed out. She writhed and screamed and kicked against the inescapable grasp of Death’s shadow.

          Kyle looked down then and noticed for the first time his daughter’s face, smooth and soft and still so full of innocence. Beads of sweat dripped from her hair, soaked from the nighttime sweats that had always stolen over her in her sleep. She squirmed, seeking comfort against his chest, and as she did her eyes fluttered open for the briefest of moments – those beautiful green eyes, so full of joy and wonder. He could not let the horror of this night be the first thing her new life witnessed.

          Kyle cast Anita one last desperate glance. She sunk against the earth, a desiccated husk, a nightmare version of her former self. Her lips dried and cracked and her skin shriveled and hardened like the leathery remnants that had clung to his daughter’s bones. All the while she screamed and struggled weighted down by that shadow-thing.

          There was nothing that Kyle could do for her. “I’m sorry,” he whispered, then rose to his feet and ran from the cemetery. Her screams echoed behind him as he shimmied through the hole in the fence, all the while clutching his daughter close and shielding her, praying that she would have no memory of this night.

          He would not be so lucky. He’d have to return to his promise now. He’d have to fight to live, to be there for Charlotte, and yet he knew that part of him had died in that cemetery with Anita. For every joy that Charlotte experienced, he’d know the sacrifice that he’d made to make that possible. He had killed Anita. He had exchanged her life for his daughter’s life and the part of that exchange that would haunt him, however, was not that he had made that sacrifice, but in knowing that in hindsight, had he known it would have been Anita asked to die in the barter, he would have made the same decision. Even there beside the shadow of Death, asking it to take him instead of her, Kyle had known it. He hadn’t wanted it to take him. No matter what mask he’d worn, he’d been relieved when it claimed Anita. He’d live watching his daughter grow up, fighting against the cancer, and hoping that Charlotte never came to know the darkness of his own soul, the darkness that had granted her new life.




Back to Part 1

In Memoriam: Part 6

© Linux87 | Dreamstime.com – Cemetery Night Photo

By Christopher Opyr

          Kyle motioned threateningly with the knife, or, at least, he attempted to do so. His movements came across hesitant, and with that hesitance he might as well have shouted his utter inability to make good on his threats.

          “No, I won’t,” Anita said responding to Kyle’s insistence that she would return his daughter to him. Anita stepped towards him, while Jonesy rooted through the cushions of the therapy couch behind her. “I will do no such thing. Your daughter has passed, and I ain’t piercing the veil for you anymore than I would for myself when my own Charlie died. It’s high time we end this farce.”

          She held out her open hand and waited. At last, Kyle sighed, handed her the knife, and fell into a nearby armchair. He didn’t weep or apologize, nor did he hint at any emotion beyond resignation.

          Anita returned to the couch with Jonesy. Only ten feet separated her and Kyle, and yet a gulf existed between them, a great chasm of unease and distrust. Kyle had shattered the harmony of their relationship, leaving in his wake a great discord.

          Kyle cast his gaze about, avoiding eye contact with Anita, settling at last upon his own clasped hands resting upon his belly. He fidgeted idly with his thumbs, one pressed to the other, then glanced away looking over the empty couches. A lonely pallor hung over the room, settling upon it like dust with the ages.

          He wanted to speak. The words welled up in his throat and caught, burning, an acidic reflux, and he swallowed them back each time. Anita provided him no further respite from the silence, no proffered olive branch to bridge the rift that had formed. Whether she sat in silent judgement, simply grieved for the loss between them, or pondered some other course entirely, Kyle did not know. What he did know is that she had made no move to call for help, though by all rights she could have him arrested.

          “Why…” he started.

          “… don’t I call the police?” she finished.

          Kyle nodded.

          “Should, I s’pose. Might. But would you have done it, really?”

          “No.”

          “Of course not.”

          “But,” he started, “how… how can one…” He paused, his mind swirling in the eddies of possibility – the infinite might-have-beens that lay now just out of reach. His daughter, his Charlotte, was no longer a period full-stop, but a simmering question mark imbued with the potential of actuality, an existence beyond death.

          “How,” he continued, “can we know that death lacks finality and not seek to overturn it?”

          “Laws of nature, Kyle, and of something more. Life doesn’t come from nothing. You read the records. You know about the Mackies. You found Rose Newsom in the adoption files, but did you see her mother in the paperwork? Did you find any record of Christy Newsom?”

          “A death certificate.”

          “There you have it. A barter, not a gift. Christy hadn’t been long gone even. Your daughter, three times longer. What price must be paid? Would you have that on my conscience? On yours?”

          Yes, Kyle thought, but he did not reply. He had failed to face death in that morgue, and he knew that here too he would fail. His daughter should be returned. Order should be set right, and his life was a trifle to pay, but he could see the anguish in Anita’s weathered features and her half glances. She had lived with the guilt of that woman’s death for decades, had abandoned the use of her gifts because of it, and he had no right to force her to walk that path yet again. The damage this time could be irrevocable.

          “No,” he said, swallowing back his words once more.

          “Good.” Anita nodded at him, then rose, tapping her leg and sending Jonesy bounding to her side. “Well then, it’s been a long night. Kindly show yourself out.”

          Kyle rose, but before he reached the door, Anita stopped him once more.

          “I’ll see you on Thursday.”

          How she had the capacity to forgive him Kyle could not fathom. He faltered there in the light of that kindness.

          “After everything that I did?”

          “You’re a pacifist,” she replied. “It makes your threats idle at best. Bless you child, but you don’t have the heart to kill.”


***

          He slashed quick and deep, slitting the rabbit’s throat. The blood sprayed frantically and he lowered the dying creature swiftly to the urn, not expecting the arterial gush to send the blood so far. They needed as much of the blood as possible.

          The rabbit twitched struggling with its dying breaths, and bobbing as he held it by its ears and tail just above the urn collecting as much of its blood as he could. Inside himself he felt something tear with each diminishing shudder. He could see the confusion in the animal’s eyes as the vibrancy faded from them, slipping away into the nightlands beyond life.

          Anita had been right about him. Kyle Ingham lacked the capacity to kill. At least, he had lacked the capacity to kill. Something had changed since their conversation that night, and with this act, with his final commitment to action and his stand against death (with death?), Kyle felt his own sense of right and wrong dying within him, an internal parasite in its last throes.

          Anita reached into the urn, bathing her fingertips in the rabbit’s blood and running a streak in a line down her forehead and along the bridge of her nose. As she lifted her finger away the blood trickled in tiny rivulets, some concluding at the tip of her nose and dripping through the air, while other streams converged and pooled in the dip of the philtrum just above her lip. So adorned, she rose from her place by the urn and began to chant.

          “Vi supplico spiriti,” she began, “ascolta la mia chiamata.”

          Kyle could only focus on her words with great difficulty, and even then he did not speak the language, so he found the affair rather futile. Instead he focused on her person, her arms splayed out in supplication, and he did his best to imitate her posture per her instructions. As he attempted this he noticed that she had changed her attire, wearing now a long, thin, gown-like vestment. The material was a transparent black, with a golden trim, revealing her aged body beneath lined with the wrinkles and scars of a life well-lived. The exhibitionary nature of the dress made Kyle blush, and he felt ashamed both for finding any shame in her attire and also for being so easily distracted in the midst of such an arcane and solemn ceremony.

          “Ascolta la mia chiamata,” Anita intoned once more, her voice rising. A light breeze began to stir.

          Kyle refocused upon her vestment itself. The cloth appeared frayed and moth-ridden, as if stored for decades. Yet it also bore fresh dirt across its entire surface, so thoroughly stained that he couldn’t help but to imagine it as itself recently exhumed.

          “Ascolta la mia chiamata!” Her voice cracked, a tone of pleading piercing through the increased pitch. Kyle may not have been able to understand her words, but he knew her tone. Anita was begging. The breeze tickled at Kyle’s arms and he watched in dismay as the salt and ash began to shift ever so slightly.

          Anita’s chorus ended and her tone shifted again. A hint of pleading remained, but now her tone demanded obedience, as if chiding a petulant child. “Su questa ora, la sua, i morti, un’ultima stretta alla vita dare. Per lei il cui tempo è finito, lasciare che una volta di più il flusso del fiume del tempo.”

          Kyle felt a warmth emanate from the earth, the heat surging through the soles of his feet and up his legs, crisp and dry and pleasant, as if standing upon a furnace grate on a cool winter’s eve. He glanced down, his arms still spread, and his back suppliantly bowed, and noticed a hint of steam rising from the ash and salt runes. The smell of burnt leaves filled his nostrils calling forth images of bonfires spent with his parents as they cleared the first fall of autumn.

          Anita resumed her former pleading chorus, her voice beginning to rise to a crescendo. As it peaked, she began to shout into the black of the night.

          “Custode dei morti, una miseria offro per voi di sentire il mio appello. Su questa ora, la sua, i morti, un’ultima stretta alla vita dare. Ritorno a Charlotte la scintilla della vita, e di prendere da noi il debito che è dovuto.”

          With that she bent down, dumping Charlotte’s remains from their casement in the burlap sack spilling them upon the earth in the center of the pentagram. Kyle jolted at this, unable to look away from the gentle swaying of Charlotte’s cratered skull rocking to a slow stop at Anita’s feet.

          The steam turned to smoke, and the ash and salt seemed to boil, as Anita lifted the urn in her arms then emptied it upon Charlotte’s remains. The blood washed over the stained bones and leathered flesh, bathing all in a viscous crimson and Kyle stumbled, his feet hitting upon the inner circle. A shock of pain stole up his leg, buckling his knees and sending him to the earth between two points of the star. He could feel his flesh bubbling where the salt line had burned him even through the soles of his shoes.

          Still Anita never wavered. She ploughed on, her incantation still unfinished. As she continued the wind howled and in the distance an outcry of dogs rose to join in the morbid melody birthed of the mingling of the chanting and the wind tearing through the trees.

          “Accettare la nostra offerta, miseria prima, e poi con la mano preso in pieno.”

          The star and the circle and the runes burned into the grass and dirt, not with flame but with a scorching red-hot heat that branded the ground in its image.

          Anita returned to her original chant, this time Kyle joining with her having heard the words enough to stumble his way through the incantation. The summoning? “Ascolta la mia chiamata. Ascolta la mia chiamata.”

          Her voice burned at a fever pitch and in her final intonation of the chorus she shifted the language ever so slightly. “Ascoltate la nostra chiamata!”

          The wind tore through the cemetery casting aside the ash and the salt, leaving only the brand of their form behind. The baying of the dogs continued, escalating as more joined. At last, Anita knelt before the bloodied remains of Charlotte and ended her pleas with one final utterance, soft, at almost a lover’s whisper.

          “Verrà la morte in vita. Death will come alive.”

          The wind and the baying and the chanting, all of it, ceased instantly. A calm settled over the cemetery, leaves torn asunder in the previous gusts now falling gently from the sky, catching in Kyle’s hair and Anita’s wispy vestments. Kyle brushed the leaves from his head and shoulders, first with one hand and then the other, keeping the balance, then turned to Anita.

          Again he did not speak, the words forming but this time turning to ash in his mouth. Nothing that he could say bore any weight this eve, so he simply waited for the inevitable or for nothing, and unsure now of which he desired, or if the course chosen had even been just. If it worked, and all signs pointed to there being at least some truth to Anita’s talents and the rumors of her past, then Kyle knew that his time would soon be at an end. The exchange would be made. Death would come for him, taking his life for that of his daughter.

          Kyle stood, leaning on his right leg as pain surged up his left from his burnt foot. Determined, he hobbled over to Anita, and more importantly to Charlotte. At his feet rested her bloodied bones, yet no life pulsed through them.

          “She will come,” Anita said and he did not know if she meant Charlotte or Death.




Back to Part 1

In Memoriam: Part 5

© Linux87 | Dreamstime.com – Cemetery Night Photo

By Christopher Opyr

          Sequentiality dissolved. Time had no order – no model, only a tangled knot of moments intertwined beyond separation, infinitely looping back upon themselves. Kyle’s mind reeled with the onslaught as memory after memory burst like fireworks clouding out the present.


***

          “Mr. Ingham, Mrs. Ingham. Please take a seat.”

          The morgue attendant motioned to two simple chairs set before a normal office table. The room held no coldness, no metallic sterility, just the stale unoriginality of a run-of-the-mill office with slightly less decor. No nick-knacks graced the shelves and the walls were adorned with only the simplest and most pastel of images. Everything had been designed to offer no offense.

          In all of the room, the only thing out-of-place was a simple photograph placed face down at the center of the table. Yet that photograph cut Kyle deeper than any faux-pas of decor ever could. He had been told what to expect, but confronted with that photograph waiting to be turned, waiting for his acknowledgement, he felt dizzy.

          He stumbled grabbing at the back of nearest chair. The attendant stepped forward offering his hand in support, but Kyle waved him off. He sucked in a deep breath and prepared himself for the inevitable.


***

          His heart exploded, his chest pounding and his head throbbing. His breathing came rapid and panicked. No time to stop. He had to keep going. He had to.

          His shoulder jerked back on impact. He barely felt it as he ran straight into a large man wearing a John Deere cap. The diaper bag slid from Kyle’s shoulder and fell into the puddle at his feet. He paid it no mind.

          “Hey mister, your bag?” The man lifted it brushing off some of the muck and holding it out.

          Kyle kept going, ever forward. No time. His head snapped from side-to-side – looking every which way – but never finding her, never locking on his daughter.

          “Charlotte! Charlotte!”

          Strangers began to turn, pitiful glances locking on the stuffed pig in his hand and noticing his desperation. Parents knew that panic when they saw it.

          “Charlotte,” he shouted again. “CHARLOTTE!”


***

          “Daddy?”

          Charlotte curled against Kyle’s chest, the two lying on the living room couch. She snuggled close, her hair slick with sweat and her words muffled by the pacifier in her mouth. Her fingers pulled idly at the hair upon his wrist.

          “Yes, sweetie?” Kyle ran his hand comfortingly through Charlotte’s hair, easing her head against his shoulder and attempting to calm her back into her afternoon nap.

          “Bee-bee?” Her vocabulary had exploded recently, but Charlotte had always had her own names for things and those did not fade easily. Bee-bee was her term for blanket.

          “Here you go.” Kyle gently pulled up a cast-aside throw covering the two of them to Charlotte’s shoulders.

          “Better, sweetie?”


***

          “I’m fine,” Kyle said, being anything but.

          Officer Hansen patted him on the shoulder and eased into the bar-stool beside him. They sat in the kitchen, Jill pouring glasses of iced tea, focusing on anything but the horror show playing out before her. Kyle sat slouched before the island bar, Officer Hansen now beside him. Another officer, detective (Kyle couldn’t remember which), stood at the end of the bar speaking and turning from Jill to Kyle and back as he went on. His words came out calm and compassionate, but they rang hollow, as if forced with an undercurrent of restraint and constant self-checking undermining any warmth intended.

          Kyle couldn’t focus on the specifics, not the particular words, but he made out enough. A body had been discovered. In Sycamore Creek within Umstead Park. A young girl. Possibly Charlotte. Charlotte. Most likely Charlotte.

          Kyle blocked it out. He and Jill had known for some time. They had tried to hold out hope, but contrary to the immortal words of Alexander Pope, hope does not spring eternal. It hadn’t for them at any rate.

          “… if you’d like to speak with someone, there are groups, bereavement groups that we can put you in contact with.”

          “Where is she?” Kyle couldn’t care less about counseling. He needed his daughter.

          The officer, detective, mystery man with forced compassion, started to respond, then stutter-stopped. He took a breath and made a second attempt.

          “She’s with our chief medical examiner. We can drive you there, if you’d like.”

          Kyle nodded.

          “I don’t want to distress you any further,” Officer Compassion continued. “I realize how hard this must be on you – but we do need you to identify her. So when we go down an attendant will be showing you a photograph. I’m telling you this so that you will be prepared. You won’t see her, not directly, not unless you want to. Understood?

          Kyle nodded again.

          “Good. You can still ask to see her, but for your own sake, I recommend against it.”

          “Stop.” Jill. She’d had enough. She set down the pitcher of tea and took a seat herself. They sat in quiet for a moment, the emptiness of the house inescapable. At last Kyle spoke.

          “Can we go?” Kyle asked.

          “Of course. But you don’t have to both come, not if you don’t want to. We only need one of you for a positive ID.”

          Positive ID. What a load of shit. Positive had died the moment his daughter disappeared. Their daughter? Had he and Jill already begun to fracture even then?


***

          The vase shattered, a hail of glass and dead flowers raining down upon Kyle.

          “Out, out, out!” Jill screamed. “I want them all out.”

          Kyle flinched as another vase shattered, this one bursting against the wall off to his right. He felt the glass pepper against his skin and wondered absently if he’d been cut. He didn’t see any blood, but how many shards of glass were catching against his arm, caught in the thick hair that his daughter had once plucked as she drifted off to sleep?

          “Are you listening?” Jill shouted. “I told you to take these out. I can’t look at them anymore.”

          She stood beside an assortment of flowers and other care packages that had been delivered to them following the funeral. Before the funeral? Hell, they had been arriving since Charlotte disappeared. Now most of the flowers had wilted in waterless vases and the care packages all remained unopened. Breaking those seals would have meant accepting the truth of what had happened, the reason for their delivery.

          “Damn it, Kyle! I need you to wake up!”

          A third vase shattered behind him, this one just barely missing his face on its way to the wall. He felt the glass burst and sprinkle against his back. He couldn’t look his wife in the face, not if it meant confronting her grief and her anger, and he couldn’t make himself discard the flowers either. That act purported a finality for which he was not ready. Kyle averted his gaze and instead focused on the miniscule slivers of glass now bespeckling his arm. He reached down to brush them aside, tugging at one that would not be removed. As he did, his fingers pinched at his arm hairs.


***

          Kyle plucked them idly just above his wrist – a nervous habit. His daughter used to pull at those same hairs, tugging softly just so with her little fingers as she drifted off to sleep. At the time that rhythmic picking had driven him insane. Kyle had touch issues. Always had.

          Now he would have given anything for his daughter to be there fidgeting as she fell asleep, her nighttime sweaty head soaking into the shoulder of his shirt. He missed the smell of her silky baby hair and her lavender body wash all around him, as she lay there on top of his chest. Most of all he simply missed her.

          Kyle pulled out a pack of Marlboro Reds, slapping the pack against his palm a few times, then peeled back the plastic wrap. He pulled out the first cigarette from the top left. That was the order of things – top to bottom, left to right, everything in its proper sequence. Order held importance, it held a sway over Kyle, and it acted as his guide. Without it, he was adrift.


***

          “Before you look,” the attendant continued, “you need to know what you’re going to see. The photo is close-up on the right side of her face. Not much will be visible, but we’re confident it will be enough to identify your daughter.”

          Kyle sat mute, his head still spinning.

          Jill spoke up filling the vacuum that he left in his silence.

          “The officer said there was… was head trauma?”

          “It won’t be visible. Not in this photo. Not much. If you see anything it will be in her hairline. Everyone reacts differently, and you can look as long as you would like, but from previous experience I suggest a quick look. Just enough to ID her is usually best.”

          “Thank you.” Jill looked to Kyle.

          He nodded back and reached for the photo.


***

          His hands met with the soft, shoveled earth, slipping inside it, the dirt encasing them. His fists clenched and unclenched within as he rocked on his knees sending tiny avalanches pebbling down the surface.

          “You shouldn’t have seen that. Her. I’m sorry.” Anita stood above him now, reaching down for him. In her other hand she held the sealed bag containing Charlotte’s remains. Kyle shrank back scrambling towards the grave’s edge, putting any and all distance that he could between himself and this moment. Anita understood, nodded at him, and walked into the circle, setting the bag with Charlotte at the center of the pentagram.

          “We don’t have much time,” she said, “but I can finish the preparations.”

          Kyle pressed his face into his dirt-encrusted hands, then pushed evenly on both sides as if to pop his… skull. He could still see it, Charlotte’s shattered skull peeking out of Anita’s bag. He closed his eyes, pushed into their sockets with his palms, but the image could not be erased.

          “Fuck.”

          He fumbled about the ground searching for his cigarettes, finding them a moment later, the pack discarded in the grass. He lifted the pack with shaking hands and flipped it open. The cigarettes shook within as his hands continued their unstoppable tremor. The rows shifted and mixed, the middle row falling into the absence of the top, the bottom angling into the newly formed void, and everything jostling to form a new order: a wrong order. He tried to stop it, to fix it, but as he struggled to right it, the box slipped and the cigarettes spilled out upon the earth.

          It was all wrong. All completely wrong.

          “When I finish, however,” Anita continued as if no time had passed (and had it, had it really?), “I’ll need you to help with the ceremony.”

          Kyle looked up from the spilled cigarettes. Anita pulled some salts from the squirming leather bag, then walked out from the center of the pentagram towards the unfinished circle. As she did, Kyle focused upon her feet, unable to look her in the eye. Forgiveness… How could she forgive him? How could anyone forgive him? How dare they? He stared at her shoes, her simple, worn sneakers, and watched as they stepped over the lines of salt and ash forming the pentagram, past the physician’s bag and its manic, writhing form, and past the urn waiting to be filled.


***

          “It shouldn’t take long to finalize the paperwork,” the funeral director said. “You brought everything we spoke about over the phone, yes?”

          “Yes.” Kyle stared past the director to a set of urns on display amongst the numerous coffins, part of the most horrid sales floor he could possibly imagine.

          “From our previous conversations I gathered we would be going with a casket, correct, Mr. Ingham? Or are you and your wife considering cremation?”

          Kyle turned to the director, a balding man with a salesman’s paunch.

          “No,” he said. He lifted a bag carried at his side. In it the director could make a tiny polka-dotted dress. “She loved this dress. She should be wearing it.”

          “Of course. Absolutely.”

          Absolutely, Kyle thought. Why? There would be no viewing. No open casket. What had been done could not be undone.

          “It’s beautiful,” the director continued. “Lovely, really.” His words sounded nothing more than useless prattle, white noise, like raindrops on a tin roof pelting the metal. Hard and constant.


***

          A consistent knocking. It came from the front door. Kyle and Jill had dreaded that knock for weeks. Each sat apart, only lifting their gazes as that rapping disturbed the brutal silence between them. Once the interruption sounded, however, they could no longer hide.

          For a moment they looked at one another eye to eye, their locked gazes piercing the solemnity of the room and hinting at the intimacy that once existed within those walls. That moment passed quickly. Jill averted her eyes and Kyle rose beginning the long journey to that door, through the labyrinth of flowers and care packages. Every footfall slowed. Every moment sharpened. Even half grounded in that graveyard in that present that he denied, he could still hear the grandfather clock ticking away the seconds from the foyer.

          The wood flooring had felt rough beneath his feet, covered in grit and litter. He hadn’t been able to remember when last they had swept it. Perhaps two weeks prior? Three weeks? His mother had been down then, but she’d been gone for at least two weeks now. Tragedy can bring a family together, but waiting, waiting rips it apart. As the days passed the inevitable had grown too much to bear. Soon Jill and Kyle had lived alone in the house.

          At last Kyle arrived. The knocking sounded again, and he could see the silhouette of the man outside filtered through the kaleidoscopic oval of glass at the center of the door. He reached out and opened the door.


***

          “Charlotte,” Kyle screamed again! He tucked the diaper bag tight to his shoulder and stepped away from the concerned vendor at the food cart. “Charlotte, you come here right now!”

          No response. He turned back casting a questioning glance at the vendor.

          “I’m sorry. I didn’t see,” the man said.


***

          “But I have to see. I have to see her,” Kyle insisted. The attendant paced. “I can’t stop you, Mr. Ingham, but I do want to reiterate that I don’t recommend this. Your daughter’s wounds, her skull was severely fractured. Most parents, this is not the final memory that they want of their child. I know it isn’t proper, but I beg you both to reconsider.”

          Jill shook her head. “Not me. I’m staying here. I’ve seen enough. We both have, haven’t we Kyle?”

          Kyle set the photo back face down.

          “No. One last time. I have to hold her one last time.”


***

          “It’s never enough, is it,” Elsie said more than asked. She and Kyle leaned against the brick wall outside a medium’s place of business in Zebulon, Elsie chain-smoking and Kyle puffing lightly on the last cigarette in his pack: the proper one from the bottom right. They had just left from a group session with Miss Ava where Elsie had “spoken” with her dead husband, Edward. Charlotte had not been in attendance.

          “Never,” Kyle agreed.

          Elsie gestured with a flask at Kyle.

          “No thanks.”

          “Fine.” She took a swig. “Skeptic bitch is here, again.”

          “Who?”

          “The skeptic. Have you not seen her before? I thought you were a regular.”

          “I guess I missed her. If she doesn’t believe, why does she come see Miss Ava?”

          “Oh, it’s not just Miss Ava. She’s everywhere, everywhere except in session. Old bitch wants us nutters to see God or find inner harmony or some bullshit. Can’t accept that there might be more to life than quilting and spreading the word, or so I hear. See, there she is.”

          Elsie pointed at a stooped old lady across the street, a shawl draped around her neck, and a few wispy hairs blowing in the breeze accentuating her bald pate. She waited there watching the door to Miss Ava’s, Kyle and Elsie directly in her line of sight.

          “Yeah, I’m pointing at you, you old bitch,” Elsie shouted, flicking the woman off to mark her point. “Get your own damn life and let us be, you fucking Bible thumper!”

          Elsie continued to harass the lady as Kyle finished his cigarette. He didn’t like Elsie much (drunks usually got under his skin), but she was part of his new family, a family of mourners seeking answers. Still, as Elsie shouted profanities, Kyle felt a hint of admiration for the old woman standing across the way in the breeze, unflappable. She stood statuesque, despite her noticeable hunch, never registering the slightest emotion as Elsie unleashed on her. She simply waited, but for what Kyle did not know.


***

          No matter how much he wanted to, Kyle couldn’t look away. He stared at the photo of his daughter. He’d been staring at it for nearly ten minutes. Her last photo.

          The shot was dark and closely-framed. It held tightly to the right side of Charlotte’s face, where her hair had been brushed into bangs covering her forehead, something which was not normal for her. Her skin had purpled and her face seemed more full, bloated, but it was her. The longer he stared, the more Kyle felt himself drawn to her hairline and to those misplaced bangs. They just weren’t right somehow. Without looking away, he finally addressed the attendant.

          “Yes, that’s… that’s her,” Kyle said, his voice broken and soft. “It’s Charlotte.”


***

          His daughter was dead and Kyle had hit bottom. He was alone, broke, and angry… so angry. At everyone and everything. That anger had consumed him even quicker than the cancer. He’d been stumbling out of a shithole with a neon Psychic sign, and she’d been watching from across the street – the skeptic. He’d cursed and sweared and yelled at her, but she’d just stood there. So he had marched over full of hate and ready to unleash on someone, anyone. When he’d finally reached her, however, she weathered every curse and every foul utterance. At last, Kyle had collapsed, and Anita had caught him.

          As he had sobbed against her shoulder, she leaned in close and whispered in his ear.

          “You have to let her go.”

          He knew that she was right. In that moment he felt it and knew that it was time to move on. It was time to let Charlotte go.


***

          But he couldn’t. He couldn’t turn away.

          Her tiny body lay on a metal slab in the morgue covered up to her neck, but leaving revealed the worst of it. Her head was the pain point.

          Looking on her right side he saw the daughter he had known: his puddle-splashing angel with the boundless energy. Even through the bloat, of which the attendant had warned, and through the discoloration, he could see that fearless, wonderful little girl. Looking at her left side, however, Charlotte became unrecognizable. Her skull had collapsed inward like a crater. Her hair collapsed with it and her brow had been totally shattered, the depression seemingly elongating her eye socket. Even her cheek had caved in. Severe trauma to the face they had said. Severe put it lightly. Severe was a joke.

          He inched forward. He had come to hold his daughter one last time, yet every footfall carrying him towards her diminished her. Charlotte became more and more the body the closer he came to her. At last he stopped.

          “I can’t,” he said.

          “It’s okay,” the attendant replied, and as he did he pulled the cover back over Charlotte’s face.

          Kyle had come to say goodbye, but instead he had cracked in the face of death.


***

          “Now, Kyle. It’s time.”

          Kyle looked up. The broken remnants of his cigarettes fell between his fingers, shredded and ripped. He must have been tearing at them, but everything since catching a glimpse of his daughter’s skull had blanked, overwritten by a wash of jumbled memory.

          “Stay with me now,” Anita said.

          Kyle looked to her and to the pentagram in which she stood. The circles had been completed, with even more ash and salt runes etched in the void between the two circles. At each point of the star a candle burned, the red one flickering closest to the grave. The bag of bones (Charlotte, the body) rested dead center, Anita standing behind it over the urn. To her right sat her physician’s bag, still squirming and writhing. She plunged her hand inside and pulled out a small, panicked rabbit.

          “I need you within the circle, Kyle. Now. And do not disturb it in any way. Do you understand?”

          “Yes,” he said, as he crawled forward then rose to his feet. With every step closer he kept his gaze unwavering, focused on Anita and that rabbit.

          “Yes,” he repeated though he really didn’t understand at all. He knew that there was a cost to this ritual. He knew that there was sacrifice required, but this was not what he had expected. This was miniscule. Nothing.

          The cancer had come to claim him and he had come to deny it that right. Life requires death, or so he had learned from Anita. No one could be returned without that barter to balance the scales. So he had come this night to pay his due and see his daughter returned. That was sacrifice. That was the cost that needed be paid.

          He toed over the salt lines and entered the pentagram, still puzzling over the rabbit. His bewilderment did not go unnoticed.

          “Merely an appetizer,” Anita said, as she slipped a knife from her belt and handed both the rabbit and the blade to Kyle. “The price must still be paid in full.”




Back to Part 1

In Memoriam: Part 4

© Linux87 | Dreamstime.com – Cemetery Night Photo

By Christopher Opyr

          The door smashed against the wall, then bounced back at Kyle, but he merely swatted it aside. His breath came in heavy gasps and he could feel himself weakening with the strain but he had forced himself to remain standing.

          “Christ on a stick, Kyle. Have you lost your mind?” Anita rose from one of the many couches in the therapy room, confronting him. Jonesy yapped from behind her legs. “How’d you even get in?”

          Kyle tossed a rock in the air, catching it and tossing it again. “I had a key.”

          “You’re paying for that door.”

          Kyle snickered, then coughed. Anita stepped forward, but Kyle righted himself quickly.

          “No,” he said.

          “Fine, Mr. Ingham, but if you don’t mind me saying,” Anita continued, “you don’t sound so well.”

          “I reckon not.” Kyle wiped at his brow, then stood straight as he could. “You see, I heard a rumor about a family. A certain family that had lost a daughter.”

          “That load of horse shit has been dragged across my carpet year after year, but you know what? End of the day, it’s still just shit on my carpet.”

          “Colorful.” Kyle kneeled setting down his rock and grabbing a nearby tennis ball. “Here, Jonesy. Here boy.”

          The corgi bounded over, the sight of the tennis ball wiping all perception of the animus in the room from its mind.

          “Whatever you’re thinking, don’t.” Anita shuffled forward, her composure wavering.

          Jonesy grabbed the tennis ball in his muzzle and shook it violently as Kyle kept his grip on the ball.

          “I don’t mean any harm, ma’am. I just want the truth. See I didn’t believe that shit when I heard it either. Not at first. Then I did some digging of my own.”

          “There’s nothing to dig up, Kyle. Christy Newsom came to me looking for a way to turn back time, to bring her daughter back. But that would have been news, Mr. Ingham. Rose Newsom never returned from that grave, no matter the rumors.”

          “No. No, that’s what I thought, too,” Kyle said, scratching Jonesy’s head while the dog shook the tennis ball in either direction. “Then I noticed that the Newsoms, they disappeared,” he continued. “They just up and vanished from Raleigh shortly after they contacted you.”

          “People move.” Anita stepped forward.

          “No, Mrs. Shaw.” Kyle reached into his pocket sliding out a large Gerber knife and folding open its blade. He continued scratching Jonesy’s head. “Don’t.”

          Anita came to an abrupt halt. This wasn’t the man that she had come to know. This was a man stretching at the end of his tether, a man who felt that he could suffer no further loss. In that, he didn’t know how wrong he was.

          “You see, they didn’t move,” he continued. “They just ceased to exist. The whole family. I find that kind of odd, don’t you?”

          Anita made to speak, but Kyle interrupted her.

          “It’s a rhetorical question,” he said. He coughed into his sleeve, loosening his grip on Jonesy’s tennis ball. The ball flew from the corgi’s mouth and bounced under a distant couch. Delighted in the chase, the dog bounded after it. As he did, Kyle eased himself to his feet.

          “I didn’t know what to make it of it at first,” he said, “but a little more digging and I found the record for the name change. The whole family just changed their names and moved. All of ‘em. Suddenly the Newsoms were the Mackies. Same ages, same socials, new names. You know what the kicker of it was, though?”

          Anita slumped to the couch. The time for charades had ended.

          “They had a daughter,” she said. Her voice came out weak, tainted by a rare tone of resignation.

          “That’s right, they had a daughter. Adopted. So the papers say. One the same age as their dearly departed Rose had been six months prior, give or take. See she didn’t have the same social or nothing, but I know it was her.”

          Jonesy ran over and lept into Anita’s lap, his tail wagging fiercely, the tennis ball clutched triumphantly in his mouth. Anita petted him absently, her eyes locked with Kyle.

          “And you need the same for your daughter.”

          “That’s right. Right on the nose.”

          Anita brushed Jonesy from her lap, rising as her determination welled back up once more.

          “So, rather than come ask me about what happened, rather than asking me for my help, you break into my place of business and you threaten me, you try to coerce me into helping you. Is that the gist of it? And please don’t bother answering. You appear to be well-versed in rhetorical questions. So if it pleases you or not, you can see yourself out right the fuck now you two-bit Judas.”

          Kyle laughed, not a ha-ha laugh, but a light chortle at the absurdity of the situation. He traced the knife along a nearby doily sending it feathering to the floor.

          “You speak your mind, Anita. Its honestly what I love most about you. Right now maybe the only thing. See, you want to talk about betrayal. You want to cast yourself as the betrayed. I can’t help but to find that all kinds of absurd. You bring the desperate here, the grieving, and you speak to us of healing and moving past the pain, applying a band-aid to an amputation when you could have returned the damn limb. That’s betrayal.”

          “If it was that easy, don’t you think I would have? Don’t you think I would have returned your loved ones to every last one of you? I see your pain every night in this room. I see the pain of everyone in this group, but what I did that night, that wasn’t natural. It wasn’t right, and it didn’t come without cost. I can’t do it again.”

          “I’m willing to pay, no matter the price.”

          “This isn’t about you, Mr. Ingham, or a price that you can pay. You can’t make it worth my while. It’s about your daughter. It’s about me. It’s about the rift between the living and the dead. This isn’t a matter to be taken lightly or even at all, so let me be clear: I can’t help you.”

          Kyle sighed, slumping ever so slightly, then straightened himself out, cracking his neck. It popped loudly. He shifted and cracked the other side, balancing it out, then confronted Anita once more.

          “I want my daughter back,” Kyle said. “And you’re going to make that happen.”


***

          “How’s that?” Anita called down. Kyle replied from within the grave beside her.

          “I said I can’t lift her.”

          Anita knew that the girl couldn’t be that heavy, not this far gone, and Kyle’s cancer, bad as it was, hadn’t yet so far incapacitated him as to prevent his lifting his daughter from her grave. Still, she didn’t have to be psychic to know what he meant.

          For that matter, she wasn’t psychic – merely a medium for the dead. She had dealt with death as far back as she could remember, since the first spirit appeared in her nursery singing her its macabre lullaby. She had seen ghosts, poltergeists, corpses and the like. Anita was well-versed in the reality of death, in all its aspects and had long since lost any squeamishness in its presence.

          For Kyle, however, the corpse in that coffin was his daughter. By now Charlotte would be little more than bone and strips of dessicated flesh. Of course he couldn’t be the one to remove the remains.

          Anita lowered herself onto her rear and swung her legs over the edge of the open grave. Her feet dangled there for a moment, kicking, like a child’s legs dipping into the waters at the edge of a pool.

          “Give me a hand,” she said. “I’m coming down.”

          Kyle reached up, grabbing her around the waist as she lurched into the pit. He tried to ease her down but another fit stole over him and as he coughed they tumbled back into the earthen wall. Dirt and mud and worms rained down as they tangled together slipping into the back of the open coffin.

          Kyle heard a snap of bone beneath them as they landed and cringed. He knew that those remains were not Charlotte, that the bone breaking was a thing, a remnant and nothing more, but as it snapped he pictured her leg snapping, the bone shattering and piercing through the flesh. He could see his daughter collapsing grasping at the fracture, blood gushing between her fingers as she cried out in pain, a child too young to understand, too young to have to suffer so.

          He bit his lip, fighting to restrain his emotions. A hand touched his shoulder, knobby, almost skeletal itself, but with a faint hint of warmth.

          “It’s okay.”

          Kyle opened his eyes meeting Anita’s tender gaze. So much had fractured between them, yet now, as his pain came flooding back, as thoughts of Charlotte’s final hours bombarded him, forcing themselves out from the recesses to which he had banished them, she met him with kindness. She touched his cheek and he saw the warmth that she had always conveyed in their sessions. She forgave him, which made it all so much worse. He did not deserve her absolution.

          She tilted her head, gesturing back towards the top of the grave. No words were needed. Kyle closed his eyes and nodded at her, thanking her. He sniffed, sucking the snot back up his nose, as he struggled against the flood of emotion battling to escape. Then, with no further acknowledgement, he grabbed the top of the open grave and scrambled up and out. He could feel the clods of earth ripping away from that wall as he did. He tried not to imagine them falling upon his daughter’s remains, but his imagination was less forgiving than Anita.

          As at last he pulled himself free and knelt on the grass once more, face down, staring into the dirt as if perched over the edge of a toilet bowl, he shook, his arms trembling as they bore his weight both physical and emotional. His lip quivered and he winced his eyes shut. Fairy lights danced in the darkness, then images of Charlotte: laughing… crying… screaming!

          His eyes shot open and he hauled his gaze from the wet grass searching for any sign of reality, any hint that this night was anything other than what it seemed. He sought any signal that this was some mad delusion. His fingers gripping into that muck, the tickle of the wet grass playing against his palms, it all hinted at the vacuum behind him – the chasm in which his daughter had been laid to rest – the truth of her death and the absurdity of what he had come to do. It couldn’t be done. It couldn’t be real.

          Yet as he raised his eyes above that disturbed soil, he saw the earth marred by a mix of salt and ash laid out in a circle at the foot of the grave. A pentagram had been similarly etched within the circle, and at each point of the star rose a candle, as of yet unlit. The far points all bore black candles, but that closest to the grave had been adorned with a lone red candle.

          The circle must have been ten feet or more in diameter for in the hollow at the center of that star rested Anita’s physician’s bag, an urn laid out beside it just back of center of the circle and enough empty space remaining for one to stand with room to spare. The bag itself writhed, once more seemingly alive. Kyle averted his gaze, glancing to the edges of the symbol.

          In the gaps between the arms of the star and the enclosing circle various runes had been etched with the same mix of salt and ash, while beyond that circle could be seen the start of a second circle enclosing the first. Kyle must have interrupted Anita’s work. Staring at it, he couldn’t help but to think that one good gust of wind could destroy all of her preparation.

          As that thought flitted through his head, the reality of what he was attempting hit home. Rather than stand, Kyle sank back to the ground and rolled onto his back. The wetness of the grass felt good soaking through his shirt, earthy and nostalgic dredging up hints of childish innocence that had no right to exist in this time or place. He stared up through the branches of the trees his eyes catching on the faint twinkling of the stars above – those not obscured by the lights of the nearby city. He stared at the majesty of that vast black and its peppering of stars, and he fumbled into his pocket, yanking out his pack of cigarettes.

          He slipped out his fifth cigarette of the evening (fifth from the left on the top) and fumbled the lid closed, then thought better of it, and slipped out the sixth as well. He lit up the one and held the other aside in waiting.

          He was still lying there on his back, staring up at the sky, puffing at his cigarettes when Anita slipped a bag over the lip of the grave and hauled herself up, crawling her way to the surface, covered in muck and looking as if she wouldn’t have been out of place on the reels of a Romero film. One hand before the other, reaching and clawing, she came, but as she hauled her head above the ground line, her furthest stretched arm jostled against the discarded bag. A clatter of bones could be heard, then the opening of the bag stretched and Kyle saw it, just a tiny dirt-streaked glimpse, but enough to know that bulging at the tip of that bag lay his daughter’s skull, a maze of fractures spider-webbing above the empty socket that once held her left eye.

          He looked away, but it was already too late. The memories came flooding back.




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