Peanut Gets Red Nosed

Peanut Gets Red Nosed

I’m not sure if it’s technically cosplay if you dress up as your own character or not. In any case, it wasn’t long after Banjo the Clown hit the page that I was wandering around Chicago in costume creeping people out. Not sure what I enjoy more; writing Banjo or dressing up as him. In any case, here’s his first story. In all likelihood, more will follow.

 

15 min


“I need some roasted. Can you hook me up?”

Peanut looked at the sullen acrobat from his cart window. The man was beyond gaunt. His electric blue leotard hung like laundry on his skeleton and his eyes were sunken.

“You got tickets?”

“I’ve got five bucks, and some change.”

Peanut shook his head. “What the hell do you think I’m runnin’?  No tickets, no roasteds. End of story.”

“But, I really…”

“Piss off. Get away from my cart.”

The man slunk off down the street. He looked like he still had a few tricks left in him. He’d be back.

Peanut’s cart had four wheels and a hitch for a horse. He didn’t have a horse. He could drag it around himself, provided there was a downhill slant. As a consequence, day-by-day, he got deeper and deeper into Big Top. Once he got down by the elephants and giraffes, the real bottom of the barrel, he’d hire a couple of strong men to drag it back uptown and start the whole process over again.

He opened the back door, kicked out the steps, and descended. It was time to crank the winch that kept the electric going. This had to be done every few hours or else his neon “Eat Nutz” sign would flicker to death. He didn’t know if that was bad for business or not. He’d never let it happen.

When he finished he sat on his back steps and took a break. It was a nice night. It was always a nice night in Big Top. The Tent made sure of that. Suspended on massive poles affixed to the city skyscrapers it kept out the rain, the wind, and the light. During the day it was all red and blue stripes, back-lit by a sun nobody in Big Top had ever seen. At night, like now, it was just darkness. Poles and ropes formed an ominous spider web above everything. The Tent covered the entire city and nobody ever left. Peanut was fine with that. He had his cart. He had everything he needed. Why leave?

A figure rounded the corner down the street. Peanut didn’t have to wait for him to pass the lantern to know that it was Gritt. He stood and re-entered his cart. He pulled up the steps, shut the door, and locked it. He harbored no illusions that this would stop Gritt if he wanted to get in. At the same time, there was no way he was staying outside with the geek if he could help it. Peanut leaned on the counter and tried to look casual.

“Heya Nutter. Been a while.” Gritt’s voice was slow, heavy, and came from somewhere near his spine. This was on account of his face. His jaw was a massive, muscular thing, disfigured to the point of grotesque. He’d had surgery that took muscles from his arm and transplanted them to his chin and neck. His left arm was puny as a result. These muscles allowed him to detach his jaw, like a snake. On top of this, his front teeth had been replaced with molars. He could eat glass, metal, and bone. Peanut knew what that mouth could do.

“Yep, been a long time Gritt.”

“How’s the job working out?”

“You know it’s good.”

Gritt nodded. “Yeah. I do. I’m gonna need that favor.”

This was it. The day Peanut had been dreading. He hadn’t asked any questions when he’d struck the deal with Gritt that had gotten his cart. He never asked where it came from, or what happened to the previous occupant. He just took it, gratefully, at the cost of a future favor.

“Alright Gritt. Tell me what you need.”

“First, gimmie some of them nuts. Them honey ones.”

Peanut got a three paper bags full of honey roasted, LSD laced, peanuts and set them on the counter. Gritt took one and put it in his mouth, bag and all, and swallowed it. “So you know that bitch, Shayde Spider? The contortionist?”

“I think so. She’s got hair like a dyke?”

“Yeah, that’s the one. I hear she’s a regular for you.”

“Sure. She comes by.”

Another bag vanished. “Well, here’s the deal, you find her, you bring her to me all wrapped up in cotton candy, and we’re clear.”

“Cotton candy?”

Gritt licked his lips. “They taste better that way.”

“Aw, ring it man. I don’t know if I can do that.”

Gritt took the last bag, but he didn’t eat it. “You got twenty four hours Nutter, and then I eat something. You got me?”

Peanut nodded. “Yeah, I got you.”

Gritt smiled. “Good, glad you do. I’ll see you tomorrow.” He popped the last bag into his cavernous mouth and turned away leaving Peanut sick to his stomach.

line break

Peanut didn’t wait until morning to get started. He left his cart locked up in the dark corner of a parking lot and headed toward Blemish, the part of town where the Freaks lived. Shayde had been a regular for years. She got mostly salted painkillers, but would splurge on candied pecans every once in a while. He didn’t know her well, but he knew she lived on Ferris Way, somewhere near a reptile shop. She’d mentioned how much she enjoyed seeing the snakes everyday when she went by. He didn’t want to do this. He didn’t have any choice.

He didn’t pay any attention to Blemish. The sights were nothing new. He’d seen the bearded hookers and dog-faced-girls turning tricks for years. The obese man who could hide not one, but two, people in the folds of his fat was old news. It was only when he turned on Ferris Way and saw the flashing blue lights of security that he was surprised. There were three tiny cars parked in front of a garish five-story building. A crowd had gathered.

He approached a carnie. “What happened?”

The man didn’t look at him. “Somebody got red nosed.”

“Red nosed? Are they sure?”

“Oh yeah. Dead guy was a knife thrower, some big shot bodyguard. It had to be a clown.”

Peanut didn’t like the sound of that. “So, if he’s a bodyguard, who was the clown trying to kill?”

The man shrugged. “I dunno for sure. They found him in some contortionist chick’s apartment. No sign of her though.”

Peanut rubbed his face. He couldn’t conceive of worse news. The man continued.

“They’re saying it was a yo-yo.” He looked at Peanut for the first time and smiled. “You know what that means!”

There it was; worse news, ready to fill the gaps of his imagination.

“Yeah, I do.” It meant he was going to need help. A lot of help with no questions asked. There was only one place to find that.

line break

It had taken him the rest of the night to find a gang of mimes and communicate what he needed. It wasn’t hard to tell a mime what you wanted. The tricky part was figuring out what they wanted in return. They didn’t deal in tickets. They used a barter system Peanut was convinced was only there to provide an excuse to act out ridiculous requests. It was annoying and cost him almost his entire supply of roasted peanuts, half now, half later. Expensive stuff, but worth it if he live to see the end of the week.

The mimes left with the dawn, silently, leaving Peanut to wait. They’d taken up residence in an abandoned fabric mill and painted everything white. Rather than making it look clean, the flaking paint only illustrated every little bit of dirt. What passed for daylight streamed in through grungy skylights. Peanut wandered around, yawning. He’d been up all night and felt it. He discovered a room with a dozen mattresses on the floor and a topless woman, wearing only skimpy panties, in the corner. At the sight of him she sprung up, bounced off something invisible, and fell back. Her hands reached out and grabbed hold of the unseen bars of her cage. She shook them and gave him a pleading look.

“Oh, fuck this…” Muttered Peanut. He wasn’t in the mood for mime sex games. “There’s no cage you dumb bitch! Just walk out the door if you don’t want to be here.”

She pointed across the room, twisting her wrist to indicate there was a key over there. Peanut ignored her and lay down on one of the beds. She flopped back to the floor, feigning tears. Of course, Peanut couldn’t hear them. In minutes he was asleep.

line break

He was awoken by a shake. Upon opening his eyes he discovered a dozen white-faced mimes looking down at him.

“Did you find her?”

The group all smiled, jumped up and down, and clapped their hands. Peanut got to his feet. “Excellent! Where is she?”

The mimes gave him a reproachful look. Their leader shook his finger back and forth. He reached his hand out flat, displaying nothing. His other hand unfolded an invisible item. He picked up some tiny imaginary thing from it between two fingers and held it above his mouth. He licked his lips and popped the non-existent nut onto his tongue. Instantly, the entire group of mimes began careening around as if drunk. Peanut got the point.

“You want the rest. Fine, here you go.” He pulled off his pack, opened it, and removed a metal box. It opened after he keyed in the combination. Peanut counted their due into a bag and handed it over. The man tucked the package into his belt and clapped his hands. Immediately, the crowd parted like the Red Sea, each of them pointing to a small chest. A very small chest.

“What the hell is this?” Nobody spoke.

“I paid you to bring me Shayde Spider! Not a box!” The mimes kept pointing. Peanut walked over. The whole thing couldn’t have been more than a foot and a half square. He opened it.

Shayde Spider’s head was inside, lying face up on a pile of limbs. They’d killed her. Killed her and brought him the peices. Peanut was pretty sure Gritt would not be pleased.

“By the Ringleader…”

Her eyes popped open. “Peanut? Peanut is that you?”

Peanut jumped back, startled. “Holy shit, Shayde! I thought…”

“Peanut! You’ve gotta help me! I’m in big trouble! The Freaks found out I was in with the Clowns and want me dead. Please help me hide!”

“How on earth did you fit in there?”

“Peanut, stop being stupid! You’ve got to get me someplace safe!”

Peanut shook his head. “If you were in with the Clowns why are they after you?”

Shayde shrugged, a strange box-stuffed convulsion. “I dunno. I don’t care. I’ve got to disappear!”

Peanut hated this. His stomach churned. He wished he could make this whole thing disappear. He didn’t want to be a part of killing anyone.

The thrumming of a banjo drifted into the factory from outside. Peanut froze. Shayde’s eyes went wide. “Oh fuck! He’s here! We’ve got to get out of here!”

“Stay there.” Peanut slammed the box shut. The mimes were cupping their ears, listening to the strange music. Peanut ran over to their leader and grabbed his arm.

“You hear that? That’s a Clown! That’s fucking Banjo the Clown! I will give you everything, everything, in my box if you can stop him while I get out of here!”

The mime slumped. His face went serious. He spoke. “You’ve got to be kidding. I’m not suicidal.”

Peanut dug out the box, opened it, and shoved the contents in his face. “Look at this! Look! It’s a fortune! All you’ve got to do is slow him down!”

The mime looked uncertain. “Are those cashews?”

“Those are your cashews.”

The mime closed his mouth and nodded.

“Thank you.”

Peanut left everything but Shayde’s box. It was surprisingly light. The mimes sprung to action, picking up painted white pipes and painted white two-by-fours. It was clear this wasn’t the first time they’d used non-imaginary weapons. Peanut headed for the back door.

He’d almost made it when there was an explosion of glass. A skylight shattered beneath steel-toed red shoes. Shards rained on the pavement and ricocheted. Peanut shielded his eyes. When he looked back, Banjo was there. The clown. He had a pair of yo-yo’s in each hand, over-sized. There was a black tear at the corner of his right eye. Peanut didn’t bother looking more than he had to. He ran. There was a zinging sound and something warm and sticky splashed his back. Several severed fingers flew overhead and landed on the floor in front of him. He nearly slipped on them but didn’t stop. He hit the door running, bolted down the street, and into an alley. Behind him, the mimes started screaming. They didn’t stop until he was out of earshot.

line break

Peanut had never been to Gritt’s place before, but he knew where it was. Everyone did, from the smell. He bred chickens, rats, and dogs, and never cleaned the cages. It was a maze of fur, feathers, and filth encrusted kennels. The geek had a healthy appetite to support. Peanut had spent an hour out front, sitting on the box that contained Shayde, thinking. Up until the last minute he’d racked his brain for another solution. He couldn’t do it. He was just the peanut guy. He brought the box to the geek.

“That better not be a box of chocolates, Nutter.”

Peanut shook his head. “You know it’s not.”

“She wrapped in cotton candy like I asked?”

“No.”

“I wanted her wrapped.”

“I did the hard part. You can get the damn cotton candy yourself!”

Gritt stood up and loomed over him. “You got some balls on you, Nutter.”

“This isn’t my type of thing. You know that. Are we done here?”

Gritt considered. He folded his arms across his chest, one scrawny the other muscular. “Yeah, I guess so. I might need a little something in the future, since you didn’t do what I asked.”

Peanut stepped around a rat cage. “Sure, a little something. Nothing like this though.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Gritt bent down and opened up the box.

“Peanut? Oh… no. No! Peanut, no!” Gritt reached in and grabbed Shayde by the neck. Without regard for how she was folded in on herself he began to jerk her out of the box. Peanut heard something crack.

She screamed, hysterical. She wailed his name, over and over.

He walked out. There was nothing he could do. He was done.

line break

Peanut’s cart didn’t look the same as he returned to the dark parking lot. It had been one thing when Gritt’s means of obtaining it had been an abstraction. It was an entirely different matter now. Now he knew. He tried not to think about what Gritt was doing to poor Shayde at this very moment. He failed. He wondered if he’d ever get the image out of his head.

“Where is she Mr.Peanut?”

He knew who it was, without looking, he knew. The idea to lie never crossed his mind. “I brought her to Gritt, the geek. He forced me. He would have killed me.”

Banjo stepped out from behind the cart. His instrument was slung across his back. His hair was pulled into a topknot. The makeup on his face was white, blue mouth, and that tear at the edge of his eye. Nobody ever saw the face beneath a clown. Some people believed they’d evolved. That it was their faces. Looking at Banjo’s perfection, Peanut could believe it.

“I… I owed him. He got my cart. He was gonna kill me. Eat me!”

Banjo pulled a trio of juggling balls from his pocket and began tossing them absent-mindedly in his left hand.

“Gritt got you this cart?”

“Yeah, years ago. I took it, of course I took it, even though he’s a Freak.”

Banjo stepped in and slid his right arm around Peanut’s shoulders. His other hand continued to juggle. He led him back across the parking lot.

“So, here’s what’s going to happen, Mr.Peanut. You and I are going over to Mr.Gritt’s house. Thereupon, with any luck, we will find most of Ms.Shayde and recover what’s left. While we are there, we will explain to Mr.Gritt that you have never owed him anything.”

“But… he got me my cart.”

Banjo tossed the one of the juggling balls over his shoulder. It hit the cart and there was a massive explosion, blowing it to splinters in a blast of fire.

Banjo smiled. “What cart?”

line break

As instructed, Peanut knocked on the door of Gritt’s place. He was holding a large garbage bag. The door opened and Gritt was standing there. There was blood dripping off his chin. He looked confused at the sight of Peanut.

Peanut spoke. “I didn’t want to be in your debt any more. I brought your cotton candy. Blue and pink, I didn’t know which one you liked more.”

“Blue. I’m not gay.”

“You want me to wrap her?” Peanut shook the bag.

Gritt nodded. “In here.”

He led Peanut through a series of hallways and down a flight of stairs to a basement room with iron rafters. Gritt didn’t notice the trail of sunflower seeds Peanut left behind him.

Shayde was still dressed, chained to the ceiling, unconscious. A tourniquet below her knee ended her leg. It was missing the foot from the shin down, clothes and all. Peanut retched at the sight of her.

“Get to it, Nutter. I don’t like interruptions.”

Peanut pulled out a handful of blue cotton candy from the garbage bag and draped it across her shoulders. Gritt watched, streaks of saliva washing the blood from his chin.

“You want a napkin buddy?” Gritt turned just in time to see one of Banjo’s razor wire yo-yo’s streaking toward his face. With the reflexes of a pit bull he snapped it out of the air with his teeth, crunching the metal toy to shards. He spit it onto the floor.

“I thought you might show up for this bitch.”

“That’s hardly polite way to talk about your meal.”

Gritt bared his molars, the muscles in his jaw like rigid steel cables.

“She just became desert. You made a real mistake coming here, Clown.” Banjo pulled his instrument from his back. With a click he extended the blades that ringed the circular end and held it from the haft like an axe.

“Oh, you don’t want to eat me, geek. I taste funny.”

Banjo swung. The geek ducked and rammed his shoulder into the clown. Banjo did a backwards somersault with the impact and swung an oversized steel shoe at Gritt’s groin. The brute was fast and caught it with his strong arm. In a flash, the foot was in his mouth. There was a crunching of metal and half the shoe vanished, exposing Banjo’s bare toes. The clown brought his banjo down in an overhead swing, sinking the blade into the geeks shoulder. Gritt locked his teeth onto the weapon. Again, there was another grinding noise and a chunk of Banjo’s namesake vanished. He retaliated with another razor sharp yo-yo but Gritt ignored the cuts on his face and grabbed a hold of Banjo’s arm. Pulling, his molars got closer and closer to the clowns shoulder. One bite there and his arm would come right off.

A gunshot rang out and a piece of Gritt’s face splattered onto the floor. He didn’t seem to notice, teeth reaching, tongue stretching. Peanut fired until there were no more bullets, the cotton candy melting onto the muzzle. Banjo pushed the corpse off.

“You certainly took your time Mr.Peanut.”

“I’m sorry. It had moved to the bottom of the bag. I couldn’t find it.”

“Untie her.”

Peanut did, letting Shayde down to the ground. “You think she’ll be okay?”

Banjo nodded. “Of course. Without the foot she’ll probably be able to fit into an even tinier box.”

The clown looked at him. “Give me the gun back.”

Peanut hesitated, then handed the clown his gun. If he wanted to kill him the weapon wouldn’t matter. There was nothing he could do to stop it.

“You make deals with Freaks. Not smart, Mr.Peanut. You should know to stay away from people like that.”

Peanut’s stomach sank. “Please… please don’t red nose me.”

“On your knees.” He complied. Banjo aimed the gun at his head. Peanut closed his eyes.

The hammer went back, the trigger clicked, and a flower emerged from the barrel. Peanut flinched. He peeked open one eye, saw a daisy where he’d expected a bullet. Banjo put the gun away.

The clown wiped his hand onto Gritt’s oozing neck stump and rubbed the blood all over Peanut’s nose.

“Bang! One dead Peanut. How does it feel?”

Peanut didn’t understand. “What?”

“Being dead. No more cart. No more peanuts. No more deals. You’re out.”

He nodded. “Yeah. Okay. I’m done. Never again.”

“Good, now get the hell out of here. I don’t ever want to see you again.”

Peanut did and Banjo didn’t.

end

 

Jude W. Mire is an author from Chicago specializing in horror, science fiction, fantasy, and surreal writing. He writes for Griot Enterprises, has been published in several online magazines, and ran a live horror reading series called Cult Fiction. In 2009 and 2010, he was a finalist in the DeathScribe Horror Radio Play competition by WildClaw theater. He’s married to the extremely talented painter Jill Cooper, and has three daughters, and a bearded dog.

 

A Burial For Zeus

A Burial For Zeus

This is a story I wrote ages ago and read in front of an audience at the 2007 World Horror Convention in Toronto. Little did I know my future wife was in the room. Thankfully, she liked both it and me and we’ve been together ever since!

 

It has a lot of flaws and could stand a major edit but, instead, it’s going to remain here, as it is (errors and all) for sentimental reasons.

 

After all, it wasn’t a perfectly edited story about a dead dog that won her heart;

 

It was this one.

15 min


Emmet Webber knew Zeus was dead the moment he woke up. For fifteen years the great brown eyed beast had always been the first thing he saw in the morning. No matter what time he rose the dog somehow knew and was there before him. But not today. The old man didn’t move for a long time. He just kept in bed, eyes focused on the closet, peering through an empty space where his only companion should have been. When the moist beginnings of tears threatened he threw off the blanket and swung his feet to the hardwood. He didn’t call out; he knew for sure that it would do no good.

The body was lying on the kitchen floor, facing last night’s unwashed dishes, and looking more asleep than dead. Emmet stopped in the doorframe and leaned on it tiredly, boney shoulders slumped. “Aw hell, Zeusy. Why’d you have to go and do that?” He couldn’t see the dog’s face from where he was standing, and for that he was glad. Turning away he left the great hairy lump exactly where it was without going over to touch or pet it.

To say that Emmet was the only man to care about Zeus was an understatement. Most towns have a house with a known mean dog and Zeus had worn that badge proudly, to near legendary status. There wasn’t a person who lived on Carlson Way that didn’t know about the “rottweiler up the street”. For nearly a dozen years the dog had menaced passers with thunderous bellows and bared fangs. There was no fence in Emmet’s yard and no chain on Zeus, but the dog never so much as leaned out into the sidewalk. As if bound by an invisible leash held only by old man Emmet, the hulking dog would pace the edge of the property hungrily, kept at bay only by love for a master who had almost as much malice as he did. Zeus would sit at Emmet’s feet on the porch, quietly waiting, until someone came walking along the sidewalk and then Emmet would mutter.

“Spook em’ boy. Spook em good.” The dog would launch from his prone position, slathering fangs and terrifying barking, headed straight for the unlucky passer-by, only to stop inches from the sidewalk, growling and snarling. In the ten years they’d done this trick Emmet couldn’t recall a time when the victim hadn’t fled in terror. His favorite was mothers with strollers. He would stand on his porch laughing to himself and shout at their fleeing backsides.

“Aww, don’t mind him! He’s just a big puppy inside, wouldn’t hurt a fly!” It never consoled anyone because it was more than clear that he would hurt much more than a fly given the opportunity.

He showered, shaved, and dressed before he reentered the kitchen. Carefully stepping around Zeus he made a pot of coffee. Sitting at the table, sipping the hot beverage, he finally had a view of the dog’s face, glassy eyes open, tongue lolling onto linoleum. The drink steamed slowly.

“So what are we gonna do with you now?” His voice perked no ears as it once had. Emmet didn’t really expect an answer. He knew what had to be done; Zeus needed to be buried. He just wasn’t sure how to go about doing it. The rottweiler weighed almost two hundred pounds and needed to be put into a hole no less than three feet deep and almost five long. He looked at the liver spots on his hand as he raised his cup and, as he’d done a million times, cursed his age and the flesh it had trapped him in. He’d been strong, once, before the years had whittled him into a taught and bony skeleton, burdened with aches, arthritis, and anger. In his mind he wanted to simply go lift the dog and carry it to the back yard, dig a hole, and fill it in. Maybe even lug a big old rock over to mark the spot. Not today. Those robust days were long gone. Today he’d need the wheelbarrow and a hell of a lot of aspirin.

The only thing that everyone knew Zeus killed for sure was Mr.Pinkle, the schnauzer. Owned by Barb Fossey the peppery little purebred had pulled free of his leash and decided that Zeus looked like a fun playmate. It goes without saying that Mr.Pinkle wasn’t very smart. Barb screamed and screamed as Zeus messily decapitated the smaller dog and actually ate most of him in front of her. It didn’t help that Emmet was right there on the sidewalk the whole time, yelling and shouting at the hysterical woman for letting her mutt onto his property, doing nothing to stop the horrible feast, and blaming her for the whole incident even as the blood trickled in rivulets down his driveway to the rain gutter. Well, after that the police came back and no amount of good behavior on Zeus’ part could dissuade them. Mrs.Fossey sued and won and the judge passed that Zeus had to be put to sleep. When the day came Emmet was surprisingly complicit, handing over the dog without any struggle. That afternoon they injected the dog and it died. Not so coincidentally, across town Lupe Santos was hanging signs on telephone poles for his lost rottweiler, Mucha, and was offering a one hundred dollar reward to anyone who could return her to him. Two weeks later and Emmet had another full grown dog. When asked he claimed it wasn’t Zeus, he said that it was a new dog he’d picked it up from a pet rescue already house broken and trained. But the dog sat in the same spot Zeus always had and there was little doubt in everyone’s mind that the man had managed to keep his pet alive through some form of trickery. Lupe Santos eventually got a pit bull puppy.

It was almost noon by the time Emmet finally got Zeus to the spot in the back yard where he wanted to put him to rest. There was a crabapple tree in the back that he used to sit under, lazing with the strong smell of the fallen apples and the bee’s they attracted. Zeusy had loved snapping at the insects as they droned along two inches from the ground hunting out the rotten little fruits. If they ever stung his mouth he had never seemed to mind. It was too early in the year yet for bees and green apples though and Emmet was glad. Spring ground was mercifully wet and soft. Getting the wheelbarrow up the steps into the house, working the dog into it, and the trip down and across the damp lawn had left Emmet sweating and shaking. But the ordeal had just begun, now it was time for digging.

Stories abounded about the dog. Over poker night at Mike Palmisano’s house they wondered what Emmet Webber was hiding in his basement, and how much he was worth. They figured there had to be something mighty valuable considering he had such a ferocious guard dog. Terrel Jones thought the same thing, but he didn’t talk about it anymore. A half decade back, in high school he’d had a friend named Jake Gallow who devised a plan to feed the dog a drugged up steak and rob the place. Terrel had been too chicken-shit to go along and never really knew if Jake had seen it through or not. All he knew is that his friend disappeared the summer before senior year leaving Terrel with a great deal of doubt and years of speculative nightmares.

Jake wasn’t the only person the dog was rumored to have eaten. Katie Garrifo was an eleven year old tomboy who vanished from Carlson Way in the early nineties. The rumor in Clearmont Elementary School was that Katie was hanging out with the big kids; Jr.Highers. They’d dared her to run to the house, touch it, and come back, but the dog had caught her and dragged her inside to his deranged master. Of course, there were never any Jr.Highers who came foreword to confirm this, and by the time the police heard the kids’ rumor and came knocking on Mr.Webber’s door, weeks had passed. They searched the house and found nothing unusual. Zeus was well mannered and obedient letting the cops scratch behind his ears and giving them all a tongue filled dog smile. A couple of the boys in blue complimented Emmet on his new shed. Said it was excellent work for a guy his age to do himself, what with the concrete foundation and all. The police left, but the rumor hung around.

The ground gave easily and the first shovel strokes lifted the grass off the dark earth. Emmet set them aside because he knew he’d want to lay them back on the mound to keep the lawn green. Nobody liked a patchy lawn. Four shovel strokes in and he hit something tough. Figuring it to be a root he shifted his digging a little to the side. The scoops were small, all he could really manage. Again, there was some sort of obstacle. He got down on all fours and took a hand trowel to it, looking to loosen up the dirt and see where the root was. He’d counted on it, because of the tree, and had brought hedge trimmers for just this thing. The trowel scraped it clear and he jerked his hand back in surprise. It was no root, but grimy grey bone. He glanced at the shed and nervously wiped sweat from his brow. It couldn’t be. Looking intently into the fresh hole he saw grey fur mixed in with the dirt. Relieved, he scraped a little more with the trowel to reveal the twisted outline of an animal corpse. It was just a dead rabbit. He looked over to Zeus’ body.

“You burying stuff out here boy?” he smiled wide. “I guess that’s what dogs do.” He stood and moved over a couple feet, starting a new hole. Couldn’t very well bury ol’ Zeus in the same spot he’d put his prize now could he? It wouldn’t do to bury the hunter with the quarry. Zeus deserved his own resting place.

The next thing he found was the body of a cat. Some long haired once white cat, possibly Persian, smeared with mud and rot, looking out of the second fresh hole from an eyeless face that still had whiskers. He pushed the dirt back in and looked to his dog. “You sure been busy…” He frowned now, upset at not only having to start a third grave, but at the strange surprise that he hadn’t known about this. He knew Zeus killed thing when he could, hell, he encouraged it. But in all the years he’d had him he’d never seen him do any digging. He wasn’t sure what bothered him more, the animals or the idea that his dog had somehow been doing something behind his back. It was getting into the afternoon and, while he’d expected this would take all day he hadn’t counted on having to dig hole after hole because his lawn was already too full of dead critters to lay his own to rest. Sighing, he started again.

The third hole turned over a wing and feathers. The fourth might have been another cat or maybe a fox, he didn’t bother digging far enough to see. The very first scoop of the fifth try contained a squirrel’s head. Emmet winced as the small decapitated thing rolled out of the dirt clod onto the new spring grass. “What the hell!?” he shouted, throwing the shovel to the ground. It didn’t take much to get Emmet’s temper going, and this did the trick. He put his hands on his hips and glared at the dog. He stood there, fuming in annoyance surrounded by nearly a half dozen tears in his lawn. The unavoidable sensation that he was standing on a field of the dead crept up his legs and settled in the base of his neck. No part of him wanted to pick up the shovel and continue for fear of what he might find. On the surface it looked normal enough, but he’d scratched through that and knew better. There wasn’t any doubt in his mind; wherever he dug, something would be waiting for him. He couldn’t bury Zeus here. He’d have to find another way, another place. His friend deserved that. His hands absently twitched at the memory that assaulted his fingertips as he scratched the dog’s head in his mind. A sad gaze went to his departed pet.

Zeus’ body twitched.

Emmet was looking straight into his milky eyes, and knew there was no way Zeusy should be able to move. But he had. He’d shifted a little, despite the impossibility of it. In fact, he did it again. His flank lifted and fell. It looked very much like someone has prodded him with an invisible stick. Emmet furrowed his brow and gently stepped over to pick up the shovel again. Approaching cautiously he did his own poking. As the metal lip of the shovel touched the dog a shudder went through the fur and followed through into the grass around him, trembling. Bugs! he thought. The dog had been laying on the ground for near two hours now, of course dirty bugs would be getting to it. He probably should have left him in the wheelbarrow until the hole was dug. Well, he could fix that. He wheeled it over and angled the cart onto its side next to the dog. Leaning over the metal contraption he took two legs and pulled as hard as his skinny frame could trying to roll the beefy dog across its back and in. Zeus moved and Emmet strained. After a struggle the canine flipped and Emmet gasped at what he saw.

The body had dozens of scratches, cuts, and bite marks on the side that had been lying on the lawn. Dead thick blood trickled from these into chocolate fur. Horrified he looked to the earth and saw shapes in the grass. Tiny bits of bone and small hollow skulls, rising up like foul mushrooms. The grass rustled beneath the wheelbarrow and he felt strange vibrations beneath his feet.

“Leave my dog alone you bastards!” he shouted, picking up the shovel and whomping the earth with the flat of it. Tiny yellow claws blossomed up and scratched the rubber wheels, the sides of his shoes. Shaking with fury he dropped his weapon and grabbed the two wooden handles, rolling his pet back to the house. “You can’t have him! You can’t!” Emmet didn’t know what was going on, but he’d be damned if anyone, or anything, was going to desecrate Zeus. The rustle and scraping of tiny bones followed him toward the house.

Terror lent new strength to Emmet’s tired muscles as he crashed the wheelbarrow into the back steps. Gripping the studded collar with both hands he pulled ferociously against the dogs head and it begrudgingly slid up a step. He pulled again and again, watching the grass of the lawn shake and roil like a pond in a thunderstorm. He didn’t look at the things that nibbled and clawed at the bottom half of his dog, he just tugged and tried his best to get him up the steps, into the house. They would be safe in the house. Eventually the great carcass was entirely on the stairs and out of reach from the vengeful dead. By the time he managed to get him fully inside and back onto the kitchen floor, where he’d found him in the morning, shadows were beginning to stretch long across the lawn reaching horizontal across his kitchen painting the room in warm orange bands. Panting he sat leaning against the refrigerator gazing wide eyed at the screen door. Trembling he got to his feet and moved to the sink. Water, water and pills were what he needed. His body was on fire from the effort, spasming uncontrollably. Grabbing a glass and holding it under the faucet he turned on the tap. Thick red liquid sprayed forth in a fluid hiss. With a startled yell he dropped the glass to shatter in the sink, splashed by tap-water blood. Cursing loudly he hit the lever and turned it off.

“God damn it! Damn it!” he shouted. A louder scratching sound had begun. Sticks on the windows, the door, the roof. It was too much. He needed help. Staggering across the kitchen, almost tripping on Zeus, he picked up the phone. He didn’t get two numbers in before realizing it was dead. Slamming the phone back into the cradle he turned, peering around the room like a trapped animal.

“You’re not gonna get him you bastards! I won’t let you!” The scraping noises surrounded him as he moved as quickly as possible to his bedroom. Turning on the light switch did nothing and the only illumination in the house came from the windows, small shapes outlined against the dying amber light. He opened up his nightstand drawer and removed his gun, checked it, rolling the chambers, and turned back to the kitchen. There was a pounding on the front door and a crash from the back. Coming around the corner he raised the weapon and halted.

The screen door had given away and Zeus was buried in a mass of squirming and feeding bodies. Skin stretched pelts over thin bone frames, a pile of tight rigid muscles and yellowing teeth covered in slick grime and mud. They’d half devoured their quarry and they pushed and shoved one another, jockeying for position to get in on it, sliding in the ever extending puddle of dark dog blood. Emmet raised his gun and prepared to fire into the mass of un-living coons and cats, mice and squirrels, and then he saw her.

Framed by the last rays of golden daylight was the petite eviscerated body of Katie Garrifo, her throat torn out and her flesh smeared with dirt. Her features were mummified tight, but there was no mistaking the child’s dirty blonde hair, the black Converse shoes, and the shredded remains of a green windbreaker. He’d found bits of that windbreaker in the dog shit he cleaned up for days, tiny green flecks to remind him over and over. It had seemed endless. With shame his eyes were drawn to her spindle legs, lacking muscle where it had been eaten away, and the gaping hollow of her stomach. He remembered her well, etched forever in his memory as he’d shoveled the dirt over her, poured the concrete, built a lie above her tiny bones. They’d never thought to look there. Screaming he raised the weapon and pulled the trigger, backing out of the kitchen. Round after round thumped uselessly into her corpse, she fell, knocked back, but did not cease to move.

Emmet was firing his empty gun into the rising girl when his backing away connected him with something. Strong arms reached around him as collided with body of Jake Gallow, the would-be thief. He thrashed and shouted desperately, trying to pull free of the bony hands as the girl and the horde of rotting critters approached.

They worked their way from the feet up. The screaming didn’t last long.

Full weeks passed before anyone knew that Emmet Webber was gone. When the police finally entered his house they found no remains, but enough blood soaked into the living room carpet to confirm that the man could not possibly have survived. Nobody but Emmet had known that Zeus died and there was no trace of the dog to be found. Being a nearly legendary canine, almost akin to his divine namesake, nobody really believed the thing was dead. Most assumed that he’d finally turned on his master, killing him, and then somehow escaped the house. Many of the windows had been smashed in. No great fortune was ever found in the basement and the bodies of Jack and Katie went undiscovered, if they even remained where they lie to be found. Barb Fossey was glad for it but refused to walk her new poodle past the house, afraid of memories or perhaps even the ghost of Zeus.

In the soil of the back yard what remained of Emmet clung to his loyal pet. Claws and fangs of the justified dead pulled on them, dragging and sinking further and further into the earth in a nightmare descent that would carry them forever into a well deserved hell.

end

Beyond the Verga

Beyond the Verga

This story is a bit of an anomaly for me. I saw this and intended it be a quick image flash story or a short snippet. Instead, after sitting down, the idea for almost the entire story came to me incredibly quickly. I had a loose idea of what I wanted, but it was much more free-form than I usually do things. I wrote the draft of this story in a single day. Trust your subconscious!
30 min


Samuel woke up drowning.

The weight of water pressed on him, pressure popped his ears, and it was cold. So cold. He thrashed. His body convulsed, trying to inhale, or maybe exhale. He couldn’t tell. His lungs just spasmed, wanting to do something, anything, to resolve their issue. He clutched his face and discovered a thick residue sealing his mouth and nose.

There was light beneath him. Above him? He kicked toward it. He’d never swum before, never actually been in water before, but he’d seen it done. Desperation provided enough incentive to make up for inexperience. The light got brighter and brighter, more intense than anything he’d ever seen. He felt like he was going to pass out. Waves of black pulsed in his vision, strobing the brightness with near unconsciousness. The water grew a touch warmer as he rose. His body tingled.

He burst the surface and clawed at his face. The residue scraped away and he inhaled deeply. Wiping his eyes he squinted into the light. The sky was crisp blue, too bright to look at, and the sun was brighter than any light he’d ever experienced. He looked away, across the water. There was a rocky shoal not far off, and beyond it shifting green shapes. Trees? Outdoors?

It couldn’t be.

He dogpaddled his best toward it. He was fortunate. There were no waves to speak of, no salt burning his eyes, and some thirty meteres out his feet scraped bottom. He managed a hopping walk in closer and was able to wade the majority of the distance. Even so, the water was chilling on his naked skin and he was exhausted and confused when he reached the beach. The shore was stony and hurt his feet. He clambered onto one of the bigger rocks and sat, panting.

What the hell was going on?

He kept his back to the trees and stared out over the grey water. It was a lake of some sort. In the distance he could see another shoreline. Above, in the sky, storm clouds were rolling in to intrude on the bright day. They carried a cool wind with them. He hugged his legs and tried to get warm. None of this was possible.

As memory returned to him, of those last terrifying moments, he realized that he must be dead. He was squinting up at the sun, rolling the idea around in his head, when he heard a woman speak from behind him.

“Sam! You’re here!”

He turned.

line break

Grant was the first one into the breach. He insisted on it. First Patriot Samuel Wabash was supposed to do it, he was their leader. It was his responsibility. But it was a fight he’d had with his second in command many times before and he’d never won it. Threats of court martial, dismissal, even dusting, had no effect. Even if he managed to get Grant to back down, one of the others would have replaced him. None of the men and women under his command were going to let him take point. Ever. It was their way of showing him they’d die for him. It was against the rules, and it chaffed his sense of duty, but he’d come to accept it.

He heard steady gunfire echoing in the cave. Not Grant, deeper. Somebody screamed.

His earbud whispered. “Looks like it’s stabilizing. I’ve got a three dozen Lumbies with their backs to us, holding position, dug in. Mons are across the drop, firing wild. I don’t know what they’re shooting at. Too far to see.”

Samuel motioned his squad to follow. He got low and crawled in after Grant. The cavern was immense, miles across. He could tell by the hexagonal basalt columns that it was one of the first pockets excavated by drones long before the colonization, centuries old. Trees and grass covered the floor and a network of lights hung from the high ceiling. They were currently in their night cycle and were dim brown spots in the darkness above, providing a half light, but no nutrition to the plants. He joined Grant and surveyed the Columbianac troops.

They’d taken cover behind some fallen ceiling rubble. Most of them were lying on the stones, weapons aimed down into the valley. A few others were relaxing behind the cover, and a couple were huddled over a computer. It looked like they were communicating with someone.

Samuel frowned. The situation was clear, but he wasn’t happy it had come to this. The United States of Tharsis were falling apart. While it was inevitable that the Mons Americana States and the Columbianac States were marching toward civil war, the Glacial States, New Ferguson in particular, wanted nothing to do with it. That didn’t matter to the bigger conglomerates though. New Ferguson was small, situated geographically between them, and it looked like the war was going to play out on their turf whether they liked it or not.

Unless they sent a clear message right from the start, to both parties.

Chief Patriot Wabash nodded. Grant and the others moved into position, marked their targets, and fired.

The Lumbies didn’t expect attack from that direction. Hell, they didn’t even know that there were access corridors in this part of the pocket. Less than a half dozen of them even got a shot off. They were dead in seconds. The team advanced and occupied their position.

“One down, one to go.” Muttered Grant.

The gunfire on the other side of the cavern had stopped. Samuel wasn’t sure what to make of that. They hadn’t been firing at the position they’d just taken. Whatever had been going on over there was finished.

Officer Hall called him. “Patriot, take a look at this.” She indicated the computer they’d set up.

It looked like they’d been monitoring a remote camera feed. Whatever it was had advanced night imaging and was darting through the trees, moving at an incredible speed. Ahead was a pile of rubble.

Samuel spun and raised his weapon. “Incoming!”

The Child didn’t slow as it mounted the stones. It collided with the speed of a transport into one of the men, driving a metallic arm through his chest armor, flesh, and bone.

Samuel couldn’t believe what he was seeing, but that didn’t stop him from firing his weapon.

The Children, Mars’ native inhabitants, had never, ever, acknowledged the presence of humans on the planet. They were reclusive, virtually indestructible creatures, that resembled a robotic child’s skeleton with oversized skulls. They’d been studied extensively, but no communication or viable relationship had ever resulted. They were too different. But they didn’t seem to mind colonization, and, after almost a thousand years, were considered a rare curiosity by everyone except xenobiologists. Samuel had seen a few before, over the years, wandering in the deeper caverns.

They were nothing like this.

Hundreds of bullets pinged off of its bronze toned exoskeleton as the troop fired. They were trained marksmen, good soldiers, every last one of them. They were not missing their target. That didn’t stop it from killing them one at a time. Speeding from person to person, simply dispatching them with red stained, inhuman, hands.

“B up! Cease fire, retreat, and blow the tunnel! Grant, get A to the trees and distract with prejudice!”

Samuel dropped his gun, grabbed the computer, and frantically scanned the screen. He watched from the Child’s perspective as they ran for the tunnel. It leapt onto one of their backs and twisted her head around. Gunfire from Grant’s group got its attention and it rushed them. Good, it looked like the bulk of the troops would make it out. Now, if he could just figure out how they were controlling it, Grant and the others might survive as well.

He flipped screens, trying to ignore the screams. He couldn’t find any command functions. He had no doubt the Lumbies had been using this thing on the Mons. But how? He couldn’t find any direct means of control. But there was a damage assessment. There, right there, if he was lucky. He bolted.

“Hold the tunnel detonation! Grant, bring it to the breach!”

Most of A was dead. As the remaining few emerged and ran for their destination, Samuel opened fire, hoping to lure it up to his spot by the wall, just past the tunnel. It didn’t really work. There were less than a handful to make it to his position. Grant was there, but he was missing his right arm from the elbow down. He slumped over and passed out. With no more victims in the woods, it came for them.

“When the charges blow, hold it down as best you can!”

The soldiers in the tunnel timed it well. When the thing passed the entrance, they blew it. The blast wave and massive chunks of rock engulfed the creature. Samuel and the others huddled during the explosion. As soon as it was finished they sprung into action.

It was digging itself out. His subordinates did what he asked and jumped on it, trying to pin it down. It was a death sentence, but it was what Samuel needed. He shoved a concussion grenade into the things right eye socket, where the report had shown him the surface aperture had been shot off, and rolled away. As he did, a metallic fist connected with his hip and he heard a crack to accompany the pain.

“Move! Move!”

They held it in place, despite his order. When it went off, they went with it.

Through the dust he could see the Child. It sat up, smoke curling from the wound in its head. It looked at him, touched the back of its skull with a hand, and fell over.

The others would not abandon him. He was certain, even now, that they were excavating the tunnel to be ready the moment more troops arrived. Help would come, eventually.

For now, he rested with the dead, and waited.

line break

Nora sat on the edge of the bed and watched Samuel put on his dress uniform. Like many things on Mars, the design was a relic from Earth. It seemed the longer the planet was dead the more nostalgic people got. Governments, in particular, dressed themselves in the ancient trappings of democracy. The tall, conical hat and buttoned jacket made Samuel look like he belonged in a marching band. It was ridiculous, but he pulled it off. Somehow it fit his serious personality. They were equally formal. Once again, she was glad they weren’t from Parthena Mons. Those poor fools dug even deeper into history and had to wear togas.

“How’s your leg feeling?” She asked.

“Good. When I run, I can feel a pop in my hip. That hurts a little. But it’s a small thing.”

Nora got up and straightened out a tangled epaulette on his shoulder. “I’m surprised the Congress is asking for you.”

Samuel tightened his waistcoat. “I killed it. They want me to present it.”

She sighed. “You’d think they have other things to worry about. War’s right on top of them.”

“If the Columbianac secessionists have managed to militarise the Children, there won’t be a war. It’ll be occupation for everyone. If we’re lucky.” He replied.

“And how will talking to you change that?”

“I don’t know.”

She went to the window and folded her arms. “I don’t like it.”

He joined her at the glass, looking out over the desolate, rust colored, surface-scape. “It’s not about like or not like. It’s my duty. I do what they ask.”

“I have a really bad feeling, Samuel. About what they’re going to ask.”

Samuel didn’t respond. He wasn’t sure how to offer his wife comfort. He had exactly the same fears. The techs had gone over the body. They’d studied the computer. His superiors had interviewed and interrogated the entire surviving team. Delegates had confronted both the Mons Americana and the Columbianac about the incursion. All the political channels that remained in the fragmenting U.S.T. were firing on all cylinders. Even so, there had already been more fighting. In the past, the only thing keeping one group or the other from wiping out New Ferguson was the worry about how such an act would drain resources and tip the advantage the wrong way. If the Columbianac States really had a weapon that altered that stalemate, everything changed.

Nora breathed out a small, sad laugh. “Look, there’s a verga.”

Samuel saw it. They’d seen one on their first date and, usually, considered them good luck. Rain on Mars wasn’t uncommon during the right time of the the year, but it never reached the ground. The phenomenon was called a verga. Dark streaks bled from high clouds, angling off beneath them. They faded halfway to the earth, evaporating into nothing. Rain, but not rain. Hope, but not hope.

It’s just like us, thought Samuel. Always trying to make something good happen. Never quite making it.

Today, the verga felt like a bookend and it made his stomach churn. He kissed Nora goodbye and headed to the Congress.

 line break

Men in lab coats were waiting just outside the door to the Congress with the dead Child on a gurney. Samuel hadn’t seen it since the incident and he winced at the sight of it.

“Chief Patriot Wabash?” Asked one of the men.

He nodded.

The other man picked up the corpse and offered it to Samuel. “They want you to bring this with you.”

Samuel flinched. He knew he was presenting it, but… Carefully, he took it. The damnable thing was lighter than he expected. Almost fragile feeling. He knew better. He held it at his side and turned away from it. The sooner he got this over with, the better. He went in.

Like most places on Mars, the Congress chamber was underground. It was circular and a long shaft in the ceiling led several hundred feet up to a skylight. A hazy crescent of natural light hit the floor. There were five members of Congress and they were all present. In the center of the room was a table with a large case on it.

“Ahhh, Chief Patriot. Thank you for coming.” Said the Head Chair.

He saluted and gave a curt nod.

“First of all let me thank you on behalf of this Congress for your excellent service to the State of New Ferguson and your exceptional response to an entirely unprecedented threat to our sovereignty. It is people like you, and your men, who protect the very foundations of our way of life. For that, you have our eternal gratitude.” All the members of Congress nodded their assent.

“Thank you, Head Chair, Congress. It is an honor to serve.”

“I am told that you have recovered from your injuries and you are aware of the current military situation?” He asked.

“This is true.”

The Head Chair nodded. “So, what do you make of that thing you are holding?”

Samuel looked down at it. Looked into it’s blasted out eye socket. “It’s the end of human life on Mars.”

The First Chair looked to the others. “See? I told you. It is evident!”

The others murmured. The First Chair pressed the issue. “Explain this conclusion.”

“Our ecosystem is fragile and relies on balance; solar balloons, the glacial oxygen electrolysis processing, the underground bio-preserves. Failure of any is devastating. A Columbianac invasion with such a decisive advantage would prompt Mons Americana to catastrophic retaliation. Both sides believe they can exist without the other. They are wrong.”

The First Chair nodded. “Exactly right. And here we sit in the middle. What course of action would you suggest?”

Samuel shook his head. “I see none. We haven’t the military force to capture the things we’d need to sustain the ecosystem and there there is no political recourse we can rely on to alter their direction. The Glacial States lack influence.”

The First Chair pointed to the table with the case on it. “Put that thing down, will you?”

“Yes, sir.” He put the corpse next to the case.

“We have a plan. Something that might be the solution to keeping humanity alive. From what we can tell, that creature is a prototype. They’ve not managed to weaponize more than a handful. By our estimations, they’d need hundreds for an invasion. There is only one place they could get that many.”

Samuel thought he knew where this was going. He’d heard rumors, everyone had, of a city of Children, deep beneath the surface of Mars. If it was real, it wasn’t something the United States had made public.

“The Creche?”

“Underground. Beneath the Vastitas Borealas cap. Not near any habitations. The Columbianac States know it exists, but not exactly where. They’ve been looking for it and now, thanks to you, we know why. We can never allow them to find it. Please, Chief Patriot, open the case.”

He unlatched the hinges, flipped the top, and revealed the bomb.

“This will work on them?”

“Enough of them, yes. It won’t stop the Columbianans from rounding up stragglers here and there, but building an army that way would take them decades. Mons Americana would develop a counter in that time. Balance will remain. Human life on Mars will remain.” His expression grew serious.

“We’re asking you to take your troop, detonate that bomb, and destroy the Creche.”

Samuel closed the case, re-attached the latches, and came to attention.

“No, sir.”

The Congress looked surprised. The First Chair frowned. “We assumed you’d be the right man for this, since you’d killed one and they’d slain your men. Apparently, we were wrong.”

“No, sir, you were not wrong. I only mean that I will not take my troops to destroy the Creche. I will go alone. There is no need for any more of New Ferguson’s soldiers to die.”

The First Chair considered his words. After a moment of silence he nodded. “Very well. I will allow fate to guide you Chief Patriot. You are dismissed with our deepest hopes.”

Chief Patriot Wabash picked up the case and left.

 line break

Samuel did not see Nora again before he left. He’d immediately entered a series of briefings and been given the specific details of his destination, transport, and equipment. The crew that was helping gear him up was surprised that it was only him. After expecting an entire troop, it took some re-jiggering to get all the necessary things into a single rover. In the end they settled on one of the larger, slower vehicles that was easier to manage solo and could hold more. It meant a slightly longer trip, but there was not much alternative. They compensated by altering the route closer to Mons Americana territory. It was a risk, but mitigated the vehicle failings. Samuel wasn’t worried. The Mons had no particular reason to stop him and they made sure the NF flag was prominent on the vehicle. It looked like a science vessel.

Without interruptions, it was a sixteen hour trip to the Vastitas Borealas icecap. Samuel did his best to sleep as much as possible, but it was difficult. As expected, there was no trouble from neighboring States. Anyone out on the surface was there for a reason and there was never a reason to linger. It wasn’t the fear of being caught that troubled his sleep. It was his mission.

Even more than the fact that he would not be coming back, it was the bomb. While they had never managed to understand the Children, they had not been poor co-habitants of the planet. Until the attack, Samuel had never thought of them with malice or ill intent. It had been a mild curiosity. The belief that out there, somewhere, there were scientists working on figuring them out. In the back of his mind he’d always assumed that someday they’d learn to communicate and that they’d play a part in humanities future. It certainly looked like they were, but not in the way he’d always hoped.

That they weren’t the threat, that they were a casualty, was clear. The real danger was human behavior. Destroying the Creche, killing so many of the Children, would stop the immediate problem, but it did nothing for the long term issue.

It was the verga all over again.

But this time, the cycle would kill him, and thousands of an alien species they’d barely begun to comprehend along side him. The viability of this plan solving the problems of the future seemed beyond dubious.

On top of this, he considered the past. It had been half a millenia since the Earth had been rendered uninhabitable. Centuries longer since the United States, the place the principles of Mars’ United States of Tharsis, had been founded on had perished. Though long dead, he knew some of the history. Everyone was taught in school about the race wars and knew that through much of mankind’s history on Earth that people killed each other because they were different. It didn’t happen due to race any more, but it didn’t stop people from killing. They’d just stuck with the other tried and true reasons like nationality, religion, or greed.

The reasons had been lost in time, but Samuel knew that his state, in particular, had been founded on the idea of tolerance. It was a big part of why they were neutral in the conflict. You only fought to defend an idea, never to enforce it. It was not their place to try and change the other States in the union. Their military sought only to ensure that they did them no harm. But if they went to such lengths to respect other warmongering states out of elevated ideals, how could they justify killing the peaceful Children?

Did it matter that they were different? Not human. Did it make it okay to wipe them out to preserve a way of life that was always going to result in more violence?

By the time Samuel got to the entrance to the underground system that led to the Creche, he’d made up his mind. He didn’t know specifically what efforts to communicate with the Children had been made in the past, but never before had there been such an imperative. There really was no other choice.

He left the bomb in the rover.

 line break

Even after living most of his life underground, the caverns he descended into were much different from anything he’d ever seen. They were as much ice as stone and filled with strange vapors. It was a silent crystalline maze of fragile ledges and unforgiving rock shrouded in a web of miasma.

He’d brought extra environmental canisters to resupply his suit, a compressed habitation unit, food and water, and some survival gear. They’d estimated it would take ten hours through the cave to reach the Creche carrying the bomb. He easily had twice as much stuff as that and it was slowing him down. At the rate he was going, he figured he had enough to keep him alive for almost two days before he’d have to go back to the rover. Of course, by then, it was likely the Congress would have sent another man to complete the mission he was abandoning.

One thing at a time, thought Samuel. Worry about that later.

His path was arduous. The only sounds were of his boots, clattering gear, and his hand grapple. Every drop he got to he had to send his gear down first, release it, and then follow. Every muscle in his body ached from the burden, but he pressed on as best he could. Over and over, he considered dropping something to make the trip easier. He’d go through a mental check list, realize that everything was vital, and resign himself to the task.

He was eight hours in when he heard someone behind him.

His first thought was that it was one of the Children. After all, he had to be getting close, it made sense that he’d come across a few. But then he thought about it and thought better of it. It might very well be one of them, but to assume so was dangerous. He’d left the rover under an ice shelf, but it was only hidden to the naked eye. A quick magnetic scan would have revealed it to anyone else. He couldn’t think of anyone good who could be following him. A Columbianan would be disastrous as it would mean he’d accidentally led them straight to the Creche. Another soldier from New Ferguson would mean they’d built redundancy into the plan. The best case was curious soldiers from Mons Americana coming to question what he was doing. None of it was good.

He picked up the pace and made special effort to obscure his passing. He decided against two trips the next time he came to a precipice. It added more weight than the grapple recommended, but he decided it was worth it. It was difficult to tell from the echoes, but it seemed whoever was behind him was getting closer, intent on catching up to him. One trip saved a good chunk of time.

He had barely started down when the line snapped, severed by the stone edge he’d gone over. His fingertips scoured the rock, looking for purchase, and found none. The weight of his pack pulled him away from the wall. He somersaulted backwards. His shoulder impacted an ice ridge and it shattered. He landed in a heap with the shards. His arm was numb and he knew he’d cracked some ribs. Turning his head he realized he wasn’t even at the bottom. He was on a small ledge.

He took a moment to catch his breath and let the world stop spinning. He had another grapple and a med-kit in the pack. He just needed to sort out how to get the grapple without falling again, use it to get down, and apply the kit.

He saw a silhouette peer over the ledge above him. “Patriot? Sam! Hold on! I’m comin’ down.”

He heard a grapple set, a whizzing sound, and Grant was there.

“Officer! What are you doing here?” Demanded Samuel.

Grant smiled from behind his mask. His new robotic arm kept hold of his line while his other hand set another and harnessed Samuel in.

“Saving your ass, Patriot. This is why I always go first, sir!”

He took him under the arm and they lowered down to the relative safety below.

“You all came?” Asked Samuel.

Grant nodded. “Yup, and more. Families too. Nora’s here.”

Nora was here? Samuel didn’t understand. “What? Why?”

“Columbianan troops pushed into New Ferguson hours after you left. We were ordered to surrender by the Congress. I told them we don’t surrender for anyone but you.”

“That’s invalid protocol, Grant.”

“Whatever. I demanded to see you. They refused. We were worried. We… ahh… pressed the issue.”

Samuel raised an eyebrow. “You what?”

“Look, don’t worry about it. Long story short, we found out what you were doing. We knew you’d never just nuke the shit out of anything and you had to be up to something else. We came to help. Besides, if the Columbianans are gonna kill us, we’d rather it be under your command.” Grant shrugged apologetically. “Sorry, Patriot.”

Samuel stood up, shook his head at Grant, and gave the big man a hug.

“You did right, Grant. Thank you.”

He looked surprised at his commanders affection.

“So, what now? What’s the plan?”

Samuel rolled his injured shoulder and took stock of his condition. He wasn’t banged up too badly.

“We’d best get everyone down here. We’re all going to make friends with the neighbors like our lives depend on it.”

 line break

The Creche was unlike anything they’d ever seen. They’d left their weapons at the edge of the city (if you could call it that) with a few lookouts and entered with only the gear they needed to survive. Samuel and Nora held hands and led the group of nearly two hundred humans into the alien homestead.

The buildings, like the Children themeselves, were metallic; dark nickel and bronze hues. Unlike earth structures they were built in diagonal layers, horizontally, with great glass bubbles incorporated into the designs. The closest approximation that Samuel could envision was a jumble of layered pastries, stuck together in clumps, run through with marbles. There were no doors or windows in anything, just cracks and missing walls to serve as entry and exit points as needed. There were no roads, but there were grooves in the stone, worn by time, to indicate the preferred paths of the inhabitants. They chose the largest of these and followed it.

As for the Children themselves, they’d never seen so many of them. But while there were a great many of them, they went about their odd business without acknowledging the parade of humans walking brazenly in their midst. They went in and out of buildings, stopped to interact with one another, and appeared to be busy. A couple of times Samuel tried to speak with them. As he expected, they ignored it. His efforts to touch them were rewarded with momentary success, but they’d slink out from under his fingers, avoiding him. That actually filled him with hope. It was, at least, an acknowledgement of his presence.

As they neared the center of the Creche the structures thinned out to make space for a central court that was dominated by a glowing sphere, several stories high. There were no Children here, or anywhere near it. Wide open space surrounded it. It was as good a place as any to set up their temporary home.

Samuel started to organize the people, assigning jobs and prioritizing the effort. Nora pulled him aside and stopped him.

“Sam, let Grant and I handle this. You focus on them.” She said, indicating the Children in the distance.

“I don’t even know where to begin.”

She gave his hand a squeeze through their gloves. “Relax. Follow your instincts.”

Reluctantly, he let the work happen without him. He spent the remainder of the first day alone as he wandered the Creche. Initially, he was drawn to the areas that seemed the most heavily populated. But several attempts to get groups of Children to acknowledge him failed and he stopped. He clambered into a gap in one of the buildings. The ceilings were low, he had to crouch, and the interior was not designed in a series of halls and rooms. It was more like random walls, varying floor heights, and dead ends. All of it was elaborately decorated with patterns and filigree. He had no more success inside than out. After almost getting lost on several occasions, he exited the building. Exhausted, he surrendered for the day. Lying next to Nora in the environmental tent, he felt like a failure.

Nora knew him well enough to see when he was lost in his thoughts. He didn’t want advice or platitudes. It was enough that she was there and she knew it. His curiosity kept coming back to the central sphere. All day he’d hesitated to approach it due to it’s obvious significance. He justified the avoidance with the possibility of radiation and the lack of Children near it. But that was exactly why he had to go there. He needed to rest though. He’d let sleep take him for a few hours and then go.

 line break

Grant shook him awake.

The words, “We’ve got a problem”, had barely escaped his lips when Samuel heard gunfire in the distance.

“Columbianans, we think. They’re running. I sent guys after them. If we’re lucky, we can kill them before they get far enough out to transmit.” Said Grant.

Samuel disagreed. “It doesn’t matter. One missing patrol is as good as a transmission. No, don’t bother. Get a perimeter set as best you can. We’ve got a position advantage and they won’t bomb us out. They want the Children alive. We’ll make it as hard for them as possible.”

Grant left to comply. Nora looked at him with concern. “Don’t worry.” He said. “It’ll take a while for a force to get here and the first attack will underestimate us. We have some time.”

“Enough?”

He pulled on his environment suit. “We’ll see.”

There was no hesitation today as he headed for the sphere. One way or another, he was going to find his way inside it. After watching the Children he’d become more and more convinced that their name was more than coincidence. Something was controlling them. It made sense from what they’d seen the Columbianans do with their prototype. The Children were wired to receive. Dealing with them would get him nowhere. He needed to find what was transmitting. He needed to find Mama.

The sphere, beneath his glove, was soft. The glass-like appearance was a false assumption. The entire thing was permeable. He sunk his hand into it. He pulled it back out and inspected it. It had a slight glaze of liquid. It wasn’t anything the suit couldn’t handle. Clenching his fists, he walked into the sphere.

It was, indeed, filled with liquid. A thin, viscous, substance with a slight algae tinge. It had no buoyancy to speak off and offered little resistance as he walked. It did create a smoke-like effect that obscured his vision beyond a few meters. The ground was lumpy and rose up toward the center of the sphere. He found what he was looking for at the top.

She, if the term applied, resembled the Children in shape, but instead of having a metal exterior, she lacked any exoskeleton, or internal skeleton, at all.She was a body without solid structure, languishing in the fluid. Her large brain throbbed in the open. Her eyes were pools of milk and lidless. Her entire substance was a delicate network of free floating tubes, veins, and organs. These vessels extended up and away, toward the sides of the sphere. She was like a marionette with a hundred masters.

But that wasn’t right. Samuel knew it was the other way around.

He spread his arms, opened his hands. “I need to talk to you.”

Unlike the Children, he knew he had her absolute attention. What he didn’t know was if she understood him.

The liquid around him thickened. Systematically, his environmental suit and all his clothing was stripped from his body. He clutched at his helmet.

“No! Please! I can’t…” It was torn from him. He gasped, inhaled, and found he could breathe. He fell to all fours, shuddering.

“I need you to understand. They’re going to use your Children. We’re all going to die.”

Thin filaments, like long grass tendrils rose up from the ground and latched onto his skin. Twisting, they began to remove slivers of it. Samuel realized that she didn’t see the difference between his body and his suit.

She was taking away everything unnecessary so they could talk.

It was not exactly pain that Samuel felt as the sphere unravelled him. The sensation was a vast empty tugging, like exhaling forever and shrinking all the while. It took the skin first, then the muscle. It was careful to take only the parts of the cardiovascular system it deemed superfluous. His bones proved resolute and it twisted and cracked them, carrying away the shards. Eyes, suspended on stalks, watched in horror as his teeth floated away and dissolved.

There was little left of him when it was finished; a brain, lungs, heart, eyes, a bundle of veins. His hollow mind rolled the word ‘no’ over and over in a mental scream. After a while, he responded to himself; yes. This is real. This is happening.

Mama watched.

The same vessels that held her in place, extending out to the sphere, reached down and lifted him. As they integrated with his system his consciousness expanded.

For each one that touched him, he saw through the eyes of a Child.

He could see that days had passed. Grant and the others were holding back the Columbianans. A good number of them had been killed, but they’d collapsed several of the tunnels in and were forcing a narrow fight. They were holding them back, but at a cost, and it wouldn’t last long.

He saw the surface. Mons Americana were launching remote strikes against the solar balloons, trying to undercut the lower states power supplies.

He saw fire. The underground forests of New Ferguson were burning.

He saw combat runners on the ice flows of the Glacial states, battling for the facilities.

It was over. The best they could hope for was that they’d kill each other off before they managed to destroy the Children too.

Samuel watched his soldiers, his family, fighting and he was glad for it. If this was the end of humanity, at least some of them were still fighting for the right things.

He watched Nora, as she huddled with the other non-combatants. She was holding his ridiculous hat and crying.

I’m sorry. He thought. I’m so sorry we brought this here.

Their Mother tilted her head and pointed a finger that was almost non-existent at him. The Children sprung to action. Like he’d seen before, they descended on his people with deadly accuracy. One by one they dragged them into the glass domes of the buildings, kicking and screaming. Once in the liquid they were dissected in the same way that Samuel had been. Only, with them, it didn’t stop at a few remaining organs. They were destroyed entirely.

No! God, please, no! His mind cried. We’re trying to save you!

His plea went unheeded. He watched in terror as Nora was dragged into an orb, peeled, and de-boned before his eyes. Grant followed, but they tore his mechanical arm off before processing him. In moments, both of them were gone. A faint red stain of blood lingering where they’d been. He wept as best he could.

Everywhere else on the planet the Children were not being so intricate with the humans. They rose from the core in numbers nobody had ever dreamed existed and massacred every living thing they found.

Samuel watched it all, over the course of days, as every single Earth creature was hunted down and eradicated; the humans, livestock, plants, and everything.

In the end, he knew he was the only one left. His mind kept asking why, but he already knew why. The only thing he didn’t know was why he was still alive. He looked at the Mother, begging for an answer.

The voice he heard was clear and spoke only one word.

Again.

Through the eyes of the Children he saw massive machines start to illuminate. A great circular storm began to form at the Martian pole. There was a distortion at the center, like the curve in a mirror. Everything began to vibrate.

He had no idea what was happening when his lungs evaporated. Evidently, she was done with him. Piece by piece, the little that was left of Samuel Wabash was taken away.

line break

“Sam! You’re here!”

He turned at the sound of Nora’s voice.

She was running to him from the tree line where he could see Grant and several of the others. Grant’s arm was missing. Everyone was wearing rudimentary clothing made from leaves and bark. He rose to meet her and they embraced.

“We didn’t think you were coming! It’s been days. Where have you been? Do you know where we are?”

He looked at them, his tribe, and never felt more proud. Above him, the storm broke, and, this time, the rain fell.

He felt it on his skin and smiled at his wife.

“Again.”

end

Jude W. Mire is an author from Chicago specializing in horror, science fiction, fantasy, and surreal writing. He writes for Griot Enterprises, has been published in several online magazines, and ran a live horror reading series called Cult Fiction. In 2009 and 2010, he was a finalist in the DeathScribe Horror Radio Play competition by WildClaw theater. He’s married to the extremely talented painter Jill Cooper, and has three daughters, and a bearded dog.

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Mark of the Cloven #3: Divinity’s Knell

Mark of the Cloven #3: Divinity’s Knell

This is a sample of the second chapter in the serial illustrated novel, Mark of the Cloven, and is part of the Horsemen comic book universe created by Jiba Molei Anderson and published by Griot Enterprises.  The first several scenes of this issue are posted below for free.  The entire chapter is available in a physical print comic book, digital download, and on Amazon Kindle.

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01 Akebulan

Oshun found Shango contemplating Akebulan.

Floating in the open air above the Aperture, he had assumed a lotus position despite the fact there was nothing to sit upon. The wind had a chill at this height and ruffled his white shirt incessantly. Blue electricity flickered off of him now and again, sparking out in tiny lightening coils. His eyes were closed.

Oshun rose up on a trail of golden light and hovered at his side. Like him, she could sense Akebulan nearby, even though it wasn’t visible. It was their sister realm, home of Olorun. Of course she could feel it. Gaia and Akebulan were were adjacent worlds, conjoined dimensions, and here, above the Aperture, the barrier between them was thin. But while she sensed it, and knew of it, Akebulan did not capture her attention the same way it appealed to Shango. She had more pressing worries right here and now, in Gaia.

“Shango. Am I interrupting?

He didn’t open his eyes when he responded. “Of course not, Oshun. Join me.”

Oshun didn’t bother assuming a sitting position. She wasn’t here to meditate. “There’s something going on, Shango. I think it might be serious. I can feel it, building.”

“Of course. Yemaya, attacked by Ahura’s children. Ogun manipulated by the daughter of Quetz. It’s not a difficult puzzle. I suspect the Deitis’ offspring are just trying to make a name for themselves.”

She shook her head. “No, it’s not just that. I don’t feel the truth in it. There’s something more going on.”

Shango sighed. “Whatever it is, we can handle it. It’s not worth worrying over.”

Oshun folded her arms. “How can you possibly believe that? You don’t know what’s coming or what shape the future holds. Are you seriously too arrogant to imagine a problem you can’t solve?”

Shango turned and looked at her for the first time. His eyes were solid blue and simmered with electricity. “You’re mistaking arrogance for confidence. Whatever comes, we can defeat it.”

“Really? Because that woman who played Ogun got what she wanted and very nearly killed him in the process.”

“Ogun survived it. She didn’t. Whoever she was working with, if they use it against us, then they’ll get the same.”

Oshun rolled her eyes. “I’m curious, do you have any tools on that belt other than a hammer?”

Shango straightened out, uncrossing his legs and assuming a standing position with Oshun. “Did you come all the way up here to give me crap or did you have something to say?”

She pointed at him. “You need to spend more time thinking about Gaia and less time staring at Akebulan. This shit is real, and it’s not just a couple of attacks. You need to take it seriously.”

“What do you mean, more than a couple attacks?”

“Have you seen Eshu lately? Me neither. Something’s wrong with the underground railroad out of the States. We haven’t had anyone successfully get out since those folks Yemaya saved over a month ago. And it’s not like that batch had an easy time of it. You put any thought into how those three knew where the ship was? Eshu left more than a week ago to see if he could figure out what was going on. Nobody’s seen him since.”

Shango shrugged. “Eshu comes and goes all the time. It’s nothing to worry over.”

“Are you sure?”

Shango narrowed his eyes. She continued.

“Eshu’s not the only one. Oya is planning on heading out to find Dr.Utella’s boys. These ‘Cloven’ still have them.”

“Oya’s a big girl. I’m sure she can handle it.”

“Again with the unshakable confidence. You should learn to recognize bait when you see it.”

“I’m not stupid, Oshun. I recognize. I just don’t think there’s a hook out there big enough to catch Oya. And if she does get in trouble, we’ll help.”

“If we can. Whatever this is, it’s stretching us thin. There’s more. I’ve got almost two dozen Manifest missing from the Assembly in the last month. No warning, nothing, just gone.”

“You have people drop out of the Assembly all the time. It’s hard to deal with new powers from the spark. They’re not used to being Manifest. It’s inevitable that some quit and leave. You know that.”

She shook her head. “Not like this, Shango. Sure, some go, but you can usually predict who. These people weren’t quitters. They were committed, willing, and working with us. They just vanished. Left their families, homes, everything, with no trace. Are you hearing me? Something is going on. Something big.”

“Okay, let’s say you’re right. What do you expect me to do about it?”

She glided over to him, crossing the distance between them, and took his chin in her glowing hand. “Turn around. Stop looking to Akebulan for answers. Focus on Gaia.”

His temper flared up. “Why do you think I’m studying Akebulan? They’re ready. We’re not! I’m trying to learn how to keep Gaia safe!”

“Their path aint our path. They’ve got nothing to teach us. You’re wasting time.”

“You’re wrong.”

She chuckled. “Please… like that happens.” She pivoted in the air, turned toward the ground, and sped back toward the Aperture leaving a wake of light behind her. She called back over her shoulder. “Come on down when you realize I’m right. We’ll be waiting.”

02 Oshun'sFrustration

The Manifest Assembly was a sprawling complex on the Northern bank of the New Jabi Lake. It was distanced from the city proper and, looking out across the water, boasted the best views of Lumumba’s growing skyline. In a lot of ways it seemed like a college campus; multiple structures, common areas, and athletic fields. The grounds were interspersed with small gardens, trees, and stone fountains. The buildings themselves were as high tech as anything in Lumumba, but they’d been given a more traditional veneer of wood. All in all, it could have passed for a tropical resort. It was anything but.

The Assembly was a support facility for the largest population of the Manifest on Earth. People, with powers reignited by the Spark, came from all over the world to learn how to use their new-found talents. They trained, honed their skills, and learned to live with the changes. The Assembly not only helped with the transition, it served as job placement, plugging people with lesser abilities into the best places to help Lumumba grow. Personality, desires, and strengths were evaluated and people were guided to the places they could do the most good. Much of the rapid progress of Lumumba could be attributed to the Assembly connecting the right people with special skills to the perfect tasks.

Combat training was hardly the primary function of the Assembly, but it was a facet. Ensuring that the Manifest were ready, and able, to defend themselves was important. As such, there were several facilities on the grounds for exactly that. The Hussle was one of them.

Bhadra was waiting for Oshun when she touched down.

“Are you ready to taste bitter defeat this morning?” he asked.

“Why? You sharing?” she responded.

“Funny, funny lady.” he flashed her a smile. “No, today is the day. I can feel it.”

“I seem to remember you ‘feeling it’ last time I beat you too, Bhadra.”

“That may be so! But what can I say? I’m full of confidence.”

Bhadra was her chief of security at the Assembly and their primary martial arts instructor. He wore a simple armored vest, with a sash across his chest, and kept his arms bare. A wide belt circled his waist and held his weapons; a pair of scimitars, a set of kunai daggers, and a couple of circular throwing chakram. He spread his legs and bent, stretching. Oshun joined him, pulling a leg up behind her and pulling on her calf.

“Any word on Sheng Li?” she asked.

Bhadra reached for the sky, straining. “I’d rather save that for after…”

“Bhadra. Sheng Li?”

He sighed, relaxing his pose. “There’s no sign of her. We contacted her parents in Tailand. They’ve heard nothing.”

“What was her ability again?”

“Plants. Manipulation and hyper-accelerated growth.” He bent into a crouch, resting on his laurels and extending a leg.

“Damn useful, that. We’ve got to find them.”

“We will, Sony, we will. I’ve got people on it.” He jumped up, bounced a few times, and shook his arms. “You ready?”

She cracked her neck and stepped to the starting line. Five feet in front of them was a wall. It looked like they were about to race nowhere. “Always.”

Bhadra joined her. “Remember, no flying, full contact, target hits subtract two seconds from your time.”

“Of course.”

He reached out and clicked the panel. “Setting the door timer. Ten seconds… now.”

“Good luck.” she said.

“Save your luck, you’ll need it.”

The wall dropped, revealing the course, and they bolted from their starting positions. The Hustle changed every time they ran it. The massive obstacle course had over fifty challenges, each built on movable platforms, and was re-arranged weekly. There was never any knowing which dozen it would string together. Today, the first challenge was a series of cement orbs, suspended on chains, swinging wildly and knocking into each other with thunderous impacts. Oshun charged into them fearlessly, weaving left and right, dodging. Bhadra took a different approach. Without touching them, his scimitars drew themselves. As he ran past a swinging stone, the blades drove into it’s side. Grabbing hold, he swung onto the top, taking hold of the chain. From there, he jumped from pendulum to pendulum, moving quickly. His blades followed, hovering near him in the air. He reached the edge moments before Oshun.

The seemingly empty field ahead sprouted a barricade of fire. Neither of them broke stride and flipped over it. Like surf, the flames rolled in waves. They timed their jumps and moved ahead. Out of the corner of his eye, Bhadra saw a bonus target. One of his chakram, untouched, spun from his hip toward the circular mark. Moments before it struck, a bolt of light disintegrated the target. The chakram flew through the empty space where it had been.

“Too slow!” shouted Oshun.

He snarled and telekinetically launched his second chakram at her. She knocked it out of the air with a blast of energy and fired a handful of shots back at him in retaliation. He flipped, curling into a ball, and narrowly avoided being struck. They left the inferno behind them.

03 TheHustleEvenly matched, they raced through the challenges. Oshun gained the lead on the rotating balance beam. Bhadra hit two bonus targets and caught up on the climbing wall, despite the falling sandbags. Tightropes, pressure traps, and a series of motion detectors rigged to trigger net guns. Nothing slowed them down.

They approached the final challenge. It was a maze of zip lines set high up on tall poles that rose from a pool of churning water. Pegs in these poles served as ladders and tiny ledges provided places to jump and catch the lines. Oshun was ahead and it looked like she was going to chalk up another victory. She scurried up a fragmented ladder to a narrow platform in order to determine the best route. It was complicated, but if she…

She stopped. There was a woman standing at the end of the course, watching them. Even from this distance, after almost a decade, she recognized her instantly. Same wild hair. Same wide smile. It was Delphine.

Her delay cost her. Both of Bhadra’s boots struck her square in the back as he leapt from one of the lines. She was knocked from her position, somersaulted in the air, and landed in the pool below with an enormous splash. Bhadra caught another line as he fell, flipped onto it, and ran down the tightrope length. Before she’d swum halfway to the edge of the pool, he landed in the end zone and smacked the victory button.

“Ha! I knew today was the day! Finally!” He kicked out a roundhouse and punched at the air, grinning. Both his kunai and his scimitars floated over his head and twirled in arcs. “That’s how you do it!” He sauntered over to the edge of the pool where Oshun was and offered his hand.

She took it and let him help pull her out of the water. “About time! Stop swinging those things around already. You’re going to poke someone’s eye out.”

“As you wish, my dear, as you wish.” The blades, guided by invisible hands, slid back into their scabbards.

“I need a minute, Bhadra.”

He glanced over at Delphine. She hadn’t approached, or said anything, since they’d finished the race. “Oh, sure. I’m going to go have a drink and tell everyone how I just out-Hustled you.”

She smiled, proud of his accomplishment. “You do that. And when you do, enjoy it, cuz it’s never going to happen again.”

“So you say.” He bowed, barely containing his smile, and headed out.

Oshun slicked her hair back. She was about to take on her aspect fully, and become light, so that she could quickly dry off her clothes, but stopped herself. It wasn’t something she wanted to do in front of Delphine. It had been a long time and she didn’t know how she’d take it. Better to play it safe and stay wet, even if she was soaked to the bone.

Delphine was standing by the exit, quietly waiting. Oshun padded over to her, leaving a trail of puddles.

“You certainly know how to surprise a girl.” she said.

“I’m sorry if I distracted you. I didn’t mean to.”

“No, don’t be sorry! I’m glad to see you. I’d hug you, but, well…” Delphine tilted her head and gave a shrug.

“Sony, I’d survive a little water.”

“Oh my god, Del!” she wrapped her arms around her.

She returned the embrace, despite the wet. “It’s been far too long.”

There was something different about her. Up close, like this, Oshun felt it. Delphine had the Spark. She was one of the Manifest.

“Worlds ago. I’m so happy you’ve come.” Oshun stepped back.

“Well, I would have visited sooner, but I thought you might be upset.”

Oshun shook her head. “Never. Ancient history. And after all this time and you still look great!”

“Thanks. So do you, considering.” she wiped at the wet spots on her blouse.

“Yeah, I can see that you’ve changed. Sparked. Are you okay? I know it can be rough sometimes.”

She flushed. “Oh, I… no. I mean, yes, I’ve changed, but it’s not a big thing.”

“Oh, I thought you must be here for the Assembly, since you’ve got the spark.”

“No. I came to see you. I was hoping we could talk.”

“Of course! We’ve got years to catch up on.”

Delphine hesitated. “It’s not just that. I want to be honest with you. I need help with something. I don’t know who else to ask.”

This didn’t sound like Delphine. She’d always been a strong do-it-yourself type. If she was asking for help…

“Of course. If I can, I will. Right now?”

She shook her head. “No, no, not that urgent. But, it’s important.”

“So, how about we have dinner tonight? You tell me all about it, and then we can catch up after.”

“That works.”

“Well, I’ve been dying to check out Glaze. Now I’ve got a good excuse.”

“Perfect.” She reached out, squeezed Oshun’s hand, and left. After she’d gone, Oshun didn’t dry off. She just stood there, for a long time, thinking.

line break

Sony Kilgore, commonly known as Oshun, Goddess of Light, was surprised how nervous she was. She fiddled with her silverware as she waited. It was made out of glass. She rolled it in her fingers and it picked up different neon colors in the tines as she did. She found a green and, by slowly tilting, tracked the reflection back to the glass table. From there she could tell, by angling her head, that it was coming from off the bar. It too, was glass. Everything at Glaze was. Well, glass or water. And there were no lights, only the reflections of lights, cleverly hidden out of sight. It was all crisp rainbow painted on almost black glass, shadow, and silent sheets of waterfall. The colors slid around the dark room incessantly and rippled on the water. Whatever their light source, it must have been shifting constantly.

Sony hoped that, with all the atmosphere, they actually knew how to prepare a good meal. Even if she was only likely to nibble at it on account of her nerves.

Her relationship with Delphine had still been a fresh young thing when it died, but it had held potential. She’d never much planned on falling in love with her, but then, it shouldn’t have been too surprising. She’d never had an issue with that sort of thing and hadn’t shut out the possibility. More like, it was an open door she’d never paid attention to and Delphine just happened to walk through it. It was wonderful, for a while. But the Orisha changed everything.

As much as she tried to insist that becoming nearly divine wouldn’t ruin things, it was too much. It didn’t work. Delphine left, and Sony went on, half girl, half goddess. But Delphine had the spark now. As one of the Manifest, there was something of the divine in her now too. Maybe the distance between them wasn’t as great as it used to be.

04 DelphineIt was that sudden, irrational, hope that filled her with anxiety. The goddess had already been worried about plots in the city and against her family, now the girl had to worry about her heart too? She flipped the fork for the hundredth time and took a deep breath. It was a relief when Delphine walked in.

“I hope you haven’t been waiting long.”

“Nope, not at all.” She stood, they hugged, and sat down in glass chairs. “Although, I’ve got to admit, you made me curious this morning.”

“I wouldn’t expect any less from you.”

“How long have you been in Lumumba?”

Delphine looked down at her knees through the table. “About eight months now.”

“Eight months! And you took this long to come see me?”

“I didn’t think it was appropriate. You’re important and busy.”

Oshun shook her head. “Ridiculous. I’ve got lots to do, sure, but so does everyone who’s working in the city. I still get to have a life.”

“I guess…”

“So what have you been up to? If you didn’t come for the Assembly.”

“I’ve been working with the Idafa.”

Oshun leaned back in her chair. The waiter came by, poured them wine, and vanished into the shadows. She took a drink.

“The Idafa.”

Delphine nodded.

“Just to be clear, you’re talking about the cult that worships us?”

“It’s not a cult.”

“So that is what you’re talking about.”

“Sony, it’s not what you think. It’s not worshipping you and the others. It’s supposed to be about understanding the better principles in humanity and encouraging them. The Orisha rose from man’s best attributes. It’s principles are meant to to guide us back onto that path.

Oshun took another drink. “But I am safe to assume that the problem you need help with has something to do with them?”

She looked uncomfortable. “Sort of, yeah.”

“How about this; you explain what’s going on, tell me exactly what you need so we can move past it and have a nice evening.”

“Most of the church is good. The people are good. I’m sure of it. But, beneath it… There’s something going on. Something bad.”

“Go on.”

“The church is run by the Grand Brother, Altar. He’s very focused on making converts and spreading the message. He seems okay, but if you scratch the surface, there’s something off. Too many private meetings. A lot of secrecy that you have to ‘work up’ to be a part of. It’s normal, in a church, to work your way into positions of trust, greater responsibility. But usually, you can see where you’re going. You don’t normally get promoted and move somewhere secret.”

“Unless it’s a cult.”

“Right. There’s also this man, named Nan. He’s a radical Orisha worshipper, and I absolutely don’t agree with what he believes. Nan and Altar had a major falling out after he accused Altar of being a fraud. He claims the whole religion is a front working to hurt the Horsemen. A bunch of people believed him and they split off.”

“What do you think?”

“I don’t know. There’s definitely something off about Altar. He seems to make sense when you listen to him, but after, when you think about it, it just doesn’t add up. I’m worried Nan’s right.”

Something about it all seemed far-fetched to Oshun. The list of people bold enough to try something subversive, right in the heart of Lumumba, was short. “It sounds a lot like a power struggle. One guy badmouths the other, someone branches off. This is how denominations start. Does Nan have any evidence?”

Delphine shrugged. “He claims to. He says they’re putting drugs in the sacraments, to create parishioners through addiction. He says they track their Manifest members, but I can’t confirm that, I haven’t told them about me. And supposedly Altar’s got equipment, in the churches, some project they’re working on. Cloven or something.”

Oshun put down her drink. Cloven. The woman who’d attacked Ogun had claimed to be part of something called the Cloven. She was one of the Deitis kids, just like the trio that had attacked Yemaya. Oshun didn’t believe in coincidence. She stood up.

“I’m gonna need you to take me to Nan.”

“Right now? But, the food’s on its way…”

Oshun took her hand and pulled her to her feet. “Right now.”

05 DinnerAbrupted
Delphine didn’t know exactly where Nan was. Evidently, he was worried about retaliation from Altar over his defection and had gone into hiding. She knew he and his followers were squatting in one of the abandoned towns around the Abuja Crater. As soon as they’d gotten outside, Oshun had put away her insecurities about using her powers in front of Delphine and had taken on her aspect. Her skin roiled like a time lapse of dark clouds dissipating as the sun burst through. It was too bright to look at, burned away her clothes, and then dimmed. Delphine didn’t say anything. In the past, it had always made her uncomfortable. Oshun wondered if it was less so, now that she had a power of her own. But since she refused to talk about it, there was no telling. It didn’t matter either way though, she had to find Nan and, hopefully, some answers. She picked up Delphine and, for the first time, lifted her up into the sky.

 

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continued

 

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For Five Minutes, the Deep

For Five Minutes, the Deep

Hardy Wakowski stood on the brink of the spirit world and smiled for the first time in days. It was a flat worm-like expression that curled only the corners of his mouth and never reached far enough to meet his eyes. This pathetic specimen was mustered up from a genuine sense of satisfaction that had crawled all the way up from his tired heart and into those uncooperative invertebrate lips.

“Finally.” they muttered.

He stretched out his arms, looking down at the prize he’d traveled so far to discover. The Cenote, a natural stone water basin surrounded by thick jungle, slithered with steam. Vines and creepers hung long languid fingers to dip into the cool recess. Above, the Yucatan sun was evidently in the business of cooking the poor vegetation alive and the heady aroma of plant sweat was almost thick enough to chew. The dark pond wasn’t as large as the ones Hardy had first considered on the tourist maps; places with names like Ox Bell Ha, Nohoch Nah Chich, and Dos Ojos. He had tried the last place, because it was the only name he understood and he too was looking for something, but there had been too many people. The crowds of Cancun pressed close and he left quickly before something bad happened.  Here, the closest civilization was the infrequently visited ruin of ‘Zack Chili’ a hundred miles away. Turns out that Mayan architecture is much more exciting when located within easy driving distance of surfing, parasailing, and sunbathing. This place was isolated, his only company the malefic sun and the endless swath of smoldering jungle.

The inside of his wetsuit was slick with perspiration but heat didn’t bother him. Crappy weather was invariably the price of uninhabitable areas and solitude was what he sought. It was a quarry that had eluded him many a time and a hunt that had grown dangerous within him.

Hardy dropped to his knees before the pool those currently neglected Mayans used to believe led to another land.

“Thank you.” he breathed. “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

Bending over, he stretched out his neck, closed his eyes, and kissed the surface of the water. Ripples.

 

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Hardy stood and awkwardly pulled on his tanks. He checked his dive light, took a few breaths through the mouthpiece, and gave a final look to the lush green around him. It wasn’t a long inspection because Hardy didn’t feel nearly as worried as he should have, preparing to dive for the first time in his life without any backup. The dangers didn’t matter, he had something he needed to find, at any cost. The mask covered his excited eyes and he jumped.

His skin recoiled at the cold water, the first chill he’d felt after days of bug laden humidity. As the curtain of bubbles rose the surroundings revealed themselves. Where the jungle above had been a thousand shades of jade, here below, the world was stained brown with tanic acid and it was more like swimming in tea than water. The rusty shaft of illumination from the dive light cut a wide arc and circled the cenote. Smooth stone striped with algae growing on the sedimentary outcroppings, beams of sunlight cut angular columns off to the left. Pointing his hand-held down, Hardy kicked and began his decent. It struck him then, as the pressure began to swell in his ears, that he’d made it. The pain intensified as the darkness beneath him expanded, surrounded him, engulfed him. But it didn’t matter. He was here now, and nothing could stop him. No amount of cold pressure or bleeding ears would be enough to make him turn back. Pressure was something Hardy was coming to terms with.

The city he called home was a beehive of pressure. People were everywhere, inescapable. He’d tried doing yoga with earplugs, but could still feel their vibrations in his backside through the floorboards. Someone was always right there on the other side of the drywall. He wanted to take an axe and chop through it, to find his irritation and chop through that too. The images of his neighbors silent corpses silently dripping into the muffled carpet thrilled and frightened him. He had thrown all his cutlery down the garbage chute. Just in case.

Fortunately, the bottom came before his eardrums burst. A soft moss looking layer of dead brown leaves ended with two opposite cracks in the wall, passages into the underwater cave system. He glanced at the surface, a tiny circle of tan the size of a silver dollar far above, and chose the left passageway.

In moments any residual glow vanished as he rounded a corner, kicking gently.  Everywhere his light descended wonders sprung forth. Stalactites, the teeth of some primordial crocodile god, hung above him. Down below rested a field of stalagmites that looked like a fantasy mountain range as seen from the sky. Tiny white flashes, he suspected were cave fish, darted and vanished into the gloom at his intrusion. Joining the floor and ceiling rose a massive column of mottled stone that reminded him of an orgy of mushrooms. He swam up next to it, breathing deeply, bubbles rising above him in a shimmer. The realization crept upon him that no living man had ever seen these things before. This was exactly what he needed.

His whole life had been spent in the company of people, and they’d grown to sicken him. He’d found himself becoming a recluse, angry and resentful that he never managed to be truly alone. He didn’t want much, just five simple minutes. If he found that, was able to suckle upon some lonely silence in a dark nothingness, then perhaps his soul could be satiated. The rising fires of rage would extinguish with no tinder to burn upon. It sounded nice to Hardy. He was tired of being irritated and scared of what he was turning into. He didn’t watch the news, but he knew what he was becoming; the sound-bite of the night. The guy that surprises everyone. “He never said much, always paid his rent on time. I still can’t believe someone could kill so many people with a toilet brush.”

Hardy threw out all his cleaning products and had begun planning his trip.

He reached out to touch a bulbous stone outcropping, fingertips on smooth stone. Just as his ears adjusted, he could feel his life balancing. The happiness pounded like a tribal drummer inside his ribs. The anger was melting. He had to see more. Kicking feverishly he passed the column on his right, dropping down toward the floor. Two strange formations, one from the top and another from the bottom, reached for one another but did not touch. He swam over and put his flippered feet on top of the lower outcropping and reached, his extended hand just long enough to connect the two. It was magnificent. He was grinning so much he had to be careful of water seeping into his regulator. There were buttons on it to purge the line, but he had no idea how they functioned. Ahead of him there was a dark portal in the wall, another passage to new wonders. He moved toward it, but pulled back in alarm.

When he shone the dive light on the opening it did not extend into the tunnel, but stopped on a strange vacillating wall of liquid. Approaching he frowned. It looked, for all practical purposes, like a sheet of lumpy gelatin, or the gobs found in a lava lamp. Cautiously he reached out and touched it. To his surprise, his hand passed directly through without resistance and seemed to vanish. Shocked, he quickly pulled it out. The surface jiggled slowly. Treading in place he considered the phenomenon. He couldn’t see where he was going, but he would never find better seclusion than this black doorway would provide. Making up his mind, he swam through, vanishing into the shadow.

The first difference he noticed was the taste, and he immediately gagged, biting hard down onto the mouthpiece and trying to make sure no more got past his lips. That it was not water was certain, more like oil or alcohol. It didn’t support him as easily and he lost buoyancy, dropping fast, having to kick harder to stay in position. He kept scissoring and, to further his surprise, passed through the dark veil and back into clarity. Horrible clarity.

Where the last chamber was vast, this room was a hallway; high walls barely six feet apart arched up to a cathedral ceiling. These were carved full of small shallow niches, and within each the sunken dead eyes of an inhabitant looked at their new aquatic visitor. Row upon row of shriveled and mummified bodies surrounded Hardy like cans on a grocery store shelf, extending down a seemingly endless hallway. They were tied and bound in the Mayan fashion, legs pulled tight to the chest with stick-like arms hugging them, skeletal chins rested on bony knees. The limbs were secured with rough cords and some of the bodies were wrapped as well, anchored into place.

Hardy screamed in surprise and instantly the fulminating liquid surged into his mouth, scouring his tongue. He choked, coughed, sinking to the floor of the cavern as he did, gasping for air and trying to regain control of his breathing. The rancid stuff was in the line, blocking the air. Desperate, he swallowed, strange fluid burning his throat, rolling into his stomach. The chest spasms won out and he managed to pull in an acrid breath. Trembling against the cold oily sensations he panted as best he could, fighting off nausea. Minutes passed and his body relaxed.

Recovering the light he’d dropped, he raised the beam. Fumes assaulted his nose inside the mask and made him tear up, but not enough to obstruct the circle of light moving along row after row of mummies. There was no escaping the feeling that he was inside a huge preservation jar, something you’d see on the shelf of a high school science classroom. Kicking hard against the thinner embalming fluid he moved down the hall, stinging eyes wide in fear and amazement. The hallway went on and on, but after eighty feet the mummies stopped, leaving a long dark corridor filled only with empty niches. Hardy stopped, not seeing any reason to press on. The formaldehyde substance buzzed in his head like the sound of traffic and as the reality sank in the fear was quickly gobbled up by disappointment. Here, even here, he could find no peace. The bottom of the world and there was a crowd of dead people just waiting to ruin his plan. As if they’d known. His mind did not try to comprehend the odds of what happened, they were impossible. This was no accident. Someone had decided he would never get his five minutes. The realization boiled hot in Hardy’s head, inflamed his veins, and set loose the rage he’d so long been holding back.

He swam to the closest mummy and took it in his hands, gripping the slimy ribs and smashing it back against the wall. It crumbled as he tore at it, furiously ripping off the arms and legs, strips of muscle and skin. Jerking the head free he swam to the next and used the skull as a bludgeon, crushing, bashing, breaking. From mummy to mummy he went pulling them from their niches, dismembering them and cracking their wet brittle bones when he could. Over and over they fell from their enclaves, broken parts gently drifting to land on the ground below, kicking up clouds of slow motion dust. He did not stop until none remained, utterly destroying what would have been an archeologists wet dream. He would have his solitude at any cost. The chamber was murky and hazy now, flakes of skin and grime floated on disturbed currents.

There, suspended above a field of bones, in the belly of the earth, he clicked his dive light into oblivion. With eyes closed in utter darkness and dead silence, he finally took his damn five minutes of peace. He thought about some of the neighbors he’d fantasized about locking in the building trash compactor and how lucky they were that he was sorting out his head. Would they notice how he’d saved them? Probably not.

An odd sound came to him, lifted up on the strange water. A clicking and tapping noise. Cracking his eyes he noticed that it was no longer entirely dark. A strange sepia glow filled the room. Looking down he saw the source of the clattering luminance; there, in the haze of dust, the bones were rolling and moving, each emanating a low amber phosphorescence. In some places they were joining, not always into the shapes they’d originally been. Unnatural disfigured forms; skulls crowned with ribs here, feet rising from shoulder blades like wings there, and long tendons stretching over crossed bones like dream-catchers of human framework. The current swelled and they rose and fell upon the floor.

Hardy wasted no time watching the gruesome spectacle. Kicking like a madman he thrashed through the dark watery veil and back into the main chamber. He had to get out, away from the repercussions of his need. He felt, more than saw, oily shapes that were not fish moving in the water around him. Flickering yellow pulses played like lightening off the cave fixtures, flashing and moving between the stalagmites below him.

Something bumped his hip roughly as the small crevice that led back to the cenote came into view. There was a jerk on his dive light and he let it go, guided on by the faint light of the exit. Pummeled and harried he rounded the corner and looked up to see the small disc of surface above.

He sprung upwards but something held him down, the straps of his tanks tightening across his chest. His destination in sight, he pulled the cords and the tanks dropped, jerking the regulator from his mouth. Unencumbered by the heavy diving gear, he raced to the top. Beneath him the bright gold glow increased, but he did not look at it. Lungs near to bursting he breached the surface, body aching and heaving for air. As he pulled himself out of the basin the current tried to drag him under again. Backing away on the grass he looked down at what was no longer the tranquil pool he’d entered. Rushing and turning upon itself the glowing liquid circled and churned in a whirlpool. Dark fetal shapes bobbed in the new rapids, skulls and limbs, fragments careening. Over-sized embryos, like big sunken faced raisins. Hardy screamed at the swirling urine colored stew of the dead.

“I just needed to be alone! Don’t you see that?!” He cried. “Just a little! I had to!”

In response, the ocher tarn rose up in a heavy wave, thick as honey and filled with the desecrated, to crash upon Hardy. Shards cut through his suit, cracked teeth sunk into his skin, and fingers found his limbs. Down and down they fell, sinking deep into the underworld cavern below.

The release of unconsciousness did not descend upon him as his knees were lifted and his wrists were bound around his legs.

There was a niche just for him now, and he would always have plenty of company.

end


Jude W. Mire is an author from Chicago specializing in horror, science fiction, fantasy, and surreal writing. He writes for Griot Enterprises, has been published in several online magazines, and ran a live horror reading series called Cult Fiction. In 2009 and 2010, he was a finalist in the DeathScribe Horror Radio Play competition by WildClaw theater. He’s married to the extremely talented painter Jill Cooper, and has three daughters, and a bearded dog.
The Price of Scampering

The Price of Scampering

Fred Gibson squinted against the cloudless sunrise. He was sprawled out on the lawn at an odd angle, his left foot bare on the sidewalk. Dirt covered his hands and caked his fingernails. Thistles and burrs had taken up residence in his clothes. As the sunlight battered its way past Fred’s eyelids it carried with it the understanding of his condition.

He sat up, filled with alarm. A glance at his watch told him it was still early. Maybe early enough. If he acted quickly Carol would never have to know. Springing to his feet he hurried to the house and straight to the bathroom, careful not to get dirt on any of the doorknobs. Fred stripped and stepped into the shower, wincing at the noise the pipes made. He scrubbed until there wasn’t a speck of evidence left on him, dried, and dressed. His dirty clothes went into a plastic bag and out into the garage. He grabbed some cookies from the kitchen and the remote from the coffee table before flopping into the couch. He sunk in deep, pulled a blanket over himself, and clicked on the TV, low volume. A pinch of cookie was sprinkled around like birdseed. His feigned “I fell asleep on the couch” routine always worked best if he actually fell asleep.

So he did.

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Fred woke up for the second time two hours later. Cindy hadn’t disturbed him and that wasn’t a good sign. Trudging into the kitchen he found her sitting at the table, staring absently out the back window.

“G’mornin’ hun.” he offered. She turned to look at him, on the brink of tears.

“You went out again last night.”

He leaned on the fridge and sighed. “I’m sorry. I didn’t tell you because I knew it would bother you. It wasn’t for very long.”

She rose from where she was sitting and strode to a cabinet door, swinging it wide. “Where are all the cans Fred?”

Fred failed to recall the previous night clearly. “Uh… I don’t know.”

She slammed the cabinet and returned to the chair, but she didn’t sit, she pointed accusingly out the back window. “Does that have anything to do with two cupboards of missing cans, Fred?”

He shuffled over and looked out at the three dozen freshly dug dirt mounds in the grass. The jig was up.

“Maybe.”

She collapsed back into the chair and covered her face with her hands. Fred had the good sense to hold his tongue.

“I can’t live like this. It’s too much, I just can’t.” Her voice cracked a little. “I mean Jesus Fred! Think of the kids!”

He ran his hand through his thinning hair and sighed. “I’m sorry babe. It’ll never happen again. It’s just, the guys all wanted…”

“The guys?” She looked at him with horrified disbelief. “You call them the guys!”

He flushed. “You know what I mean.”

She was on her feet pointing at him. “Yes! Yes, I do know what you mean and you better listen to me good! I’m done! You spend one more night out with ‘the guys’ and this marriage is over! Is that clear?”

He reached out and took her hand, squeezing it consolingly. “Crystal clear sweetie. I’m sorry. You know I love you. It’ll never happen again. I promise.”

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Fred meant to make good on his word. All day he became the penitent and obedient slave of his darling wife. Dishes were scrubbed, boxes moved, old pipes replaced, and laundry washed. By the end of the day everything was sparkling except for Carol’s smile. As she prepared dinner in the kitchen he could almost feel the annoyance radiating out of her on account of the missing cans. It was time to fix that too.

“I’m gonna go hit the grocery store. I’ll be back in a bit.” She eyed him warily as he headed out the door. The drive was quick and the shopping quicker. He filled three bags, paid, and headed back out.

That’s when he saw them.

They were beneath a large oak tree that was close enough to the parking lot to shade his car. He stopped and they looked at one another. He knew what they wanted.

“Look, guys. I can’t. Carol’s going to leave me if we keep this up and, well, I know you don’t understand it but she’s important to me.”

The group didn’t respond, but he knew what they were thinking.

“Yes! You all are important too! But it’s one or the other. I can’t have both anymore and, I’m sorry, but I’ve made my decision.”

He stood his ground. They turned and headed back the way they came, looking over their shoulders at him one at a time.

It broke his heart. He couldn’t take it. Hell, one last time. Carol would never know.

The groceries clattered to the pavement and he kicked off his shoes to reveal bare feet. Instantly, the gaggle of squirrels understood. Closing the distance on the tree, Fred Gibson leapt into the air. As he collided with the oak his fingers and toenails gripped the bark and he scurried up the trunk. The critters raced up after him. Fred bounced from branch to branch as if he were a four-pound rodent, chattering to his friends and grinning from ear to ear. When they reached the canopy the game of tag began. Dodging the fevered pounces, Fred narrowly missed being “it” by abandoning the tree and nimbly running along a telephone wire to another tree. They followed in a wave of bounding fur. If it was his last game, they were going to make sure they got him.

Round and round they raced and every time Fred managed to avoid them at the last second. He spiraled down a trunk and set across the grass, his tiny buddies chasing behind him. He rushed ahead, trying to gain some distance, bare feet striking pavement.

Pavement? He felt the impact of the car only seconds before the sound of the horn registered in his mind. He was surprised at how detached from his body he was as it slid across the gravel into the ditch, back legs twisted and bent. Above him he saw the guys, all perched in tree branches, looking down in a familiar sympathy. This was always how the game ended for them. As darkness started to cloud his vision he thought.

“Carol is gonna be pissed…”

end

Jude W. Mire is an author from Chicago specializing in horror, science fiction, fantasy, and surreal writing. He writes for Griot Enterprises, has been published in several online magazines, and ran a live horror reading series called Cult Fiction. In 2009 and 2010, he was a finalist in the DeathScribe Horror Radio Play competition by WildClaw theater. He’s married to the extremely talented painter Jill Cooper, and has three daughters, and a bearded dog.