/ Language: English / Genre:thriller

Scabs

W White


Scabs

Wrath James White

The lithe and sensuous cinnamon-skinned black woman whose desk lay directly across from Malik’s cubicle was staring at him again. Malik could feel her eyes crawling over him like maggots on a fresh corpse. He knew what she was thinking.

“Tar-baby, mud-duck, black scab, black dog, nigger, jungle-bunny, ugly, dirty, filthy, African!”

He’d heard it all before, not from some racist rednecks but from his own people, everyday of his life for as long as he could remember. He was getting tired of it. Sick and tired. As a teenager he’d used every skin lightning creme on the shelves and he’d done nothing more than given himself a severe case of acne and several chemical burns that had blistered and left scars.

He turned his head to catch her staring and she smiled at him holding his gaze. Malik turned quickly away. He knew she was just trying to fuck with him.

Malik’s self-esteem had been formed in the early eighties when he was just reaching puberty and Michael Jackson, Prince, and Ray Parker Jr. were the symbols of black male sexuality. Effete, sallow-toned, androgynous beings, whose voices lilted like castrated tenors and whose racial composition was as ambiguous as their sexuality. Malik was the very antithesis of that cultural aesthetic, being the color of liquid night, with thick African features, and a large muscular body that held no suggestion of femininity. By eighties pop-cultural standards he was pure ugly, a bete noire destined for solitude and depression.

The fact that the modern aesthetic now favored his complexion and physique was not lost on him. He had been amazed when he first began to see models and actors with skin as dark as his, thick lips, wide-noses, and shaved heads. He’d been even more amazed when a black woman had come up to him and called him beautiful for the first time in his life. But more than a decade later he still found it hard to believe them and harder still to forgive them and impossible to forget. The cruel mocking voices of his youth haunted him without relent.

“You so black that if you went to night school they’d mark you absent!”

“I bet when you step out of a car the oil light goes on.”

The echoes redoubled. They ricocheted around Malik’s skull building up momentum and making him feel like his skull was about to rattle apart. His chest started to feel tight. He began to hyperventilate just as he had back in Junior High School when the walls would close in and suffocate him as he watched the curly-haired, caramel-skinned crowd lord over their darker brethren, insulting them every chance they got and teaching them to hate themselves for not having more European features.

Malik looked back across the room at the beautiful office assistant and saw one of the greatest tormentors of his youth leering at him with that cruel smirk as her mind worked feverishly to concoct the next put-down. Her name was Kelly. Her cocoa brown visage swam into view, transposed over the face of the office girl. A vicious sneer twisted her lips as they moved to form that vituperative storm of insults Malik had come to expect from her.

“Ewww! You so black you look like you’ve been dipped in shit. You could stick your finger in hot water and make coffee. Ya black scab!”

The irony was that she was just a shade or two lighter than him. Definitely not the coveted high yellow complexion favored at that time. But she was not alone. Jennifer Hart, who was the color of buttermilk, added her voice to the choir.

“He’s so black that if you tossed him in a volcano for about a million years he’d come out a diamond!”

Between the two of them, they had driven him to two suicide attempts and numerous elaborate murder/suicide schemes that he’d plotted out to the last detail but had never put into action. He still heard their thirteen and fourteen year old voices in his head even though reason told him that they would be well into their thirties by now. He heard them whenever he looked at beautiful cappuccino-colored women like the one staring at him from the next cubicle. The one smiling seductively as if she might actually be interested in a black scab like him.

“She’s too pretty for you, ya ugly mud duck! You think a pretty little redbone like that would touch a spook like you? She’s looking for Denzel not Darrell…or Malik.”

No. He didn’t think she would want him. All she would do is make fun of him and his African ancestry. She would call him a spear-chucker behind his back, when all the girls were gathered around the coffee maker gossiping in the morning. She’d tell them how disgusting it would be to kiss his big lips. How his hair felt like Brillo. And how his thick arms and chest made him look like an ape. Then she’d laugh just like Kelly and Jennifer had. She’d laugh and laugh until Malik would have no choice but to kill her.

He caught her looking at him again and once again she did not turn away when he looked back. She held his gaze and smiled, batting her eyelashes flirtatiously, waiting for him to say something. She twirled a pencil in her left hand and touched it to the corner of her mouth, nibbling the end of it as she tilted her head and let her eyes slide slowly down his body and then back up again. He could almost feel the heat of her smoldering stare warming him as it traveled over his flesh, turning him on despite Kelly and Jennifer’s combined voices interpreting every gesture she made into a diatribe of racial slurs.

“You big black Mighty Joe Young looking ape!”

Malik winced as if he’d been slapped as the woman continued to stare at him. He was still turned on, but now he was getting angry as well.

“How dare that bitch make me feel like this? Why is she fuckin’ with me? Why can’t she just leave me the fuck alone?”

He whirled around in his chair turning his back on her and trying without success to go back to his work. He stared at the screen, but all the letters and numbers were running together into one indecipherable alphabet stew. He could still feel her eyes on him as intimate caresses touching him everywhere. He wanted to get up and choke the life out of her.

Malik had always made it a point to steer clear of women like the beautiful tan-skinned woman in the next cubicle. The majority of his romantic conquests had been with white women or women with skin as dark or darker than his, though even they sometimes made him uneasy. Not all of the girls who’d teased him back in high-school had been light-skinned. Even the ones with skin the same color as his had looked down on him as if his onyx complexion made him somehow subhuman. Usually when he went after Black women they were African or West Indian or even darker-skinned Cubans and Puerto Ricans. With American girls there was always the fear that some honey-complexioned gigolo with hazel eyes and wavy hair would come and take her away from him.

One of the other office girls had now joined the girl in the next cubicle. Her skin was smooth and flawless and the color of milk chocolate. Her hair was thick and wooly, though neat and well-kept the way his had been before he’d gotten tired of fussing with it and shaved it all off. Her nose was wide with nostrils flared like a wild beast scenting a fresh kill and her lips were full and thick. The very same features he’d been ashamed of all his life she wore with beauty and grace. On her that wooly afro looked stylish and trendy, that wide nose wild and exotic, those full lips sensuous and sexual. He knew that there were women out there who looked at him the same way. But they were usually not black women.

The two women were smiling and whispering and now they were both staring at him. Malik wanted to melt into the floor. He felt as if he were in an interrogation room under bright lights. He knew everything they were saying about him. He could read their lips even with his back turned. He could hear them in his head. See them laughing and pointing at him in his mind’s eye, tearing him apart piece by piece until there was barely enough left of him to flush down the toilet.

“You shit-colored black scab!”

His mother had tried to teach him to be proud of his African heritage.

“Your skin is dark because your bloodline isn’t diluted. You can trace your ancestry all the way to the slave ships and even back to the motherland. You’re a thoroughbred, a pedigree, the descendant of kings and queens and great warriors! You should be proud of your black skin. Those half-breed mulatto kids are just jealous because they’re mutts. You just tell them, the blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice.”

Malik got up and stormed away from his desk with Kelly and Jennifer screaming in his head and the two office assistance boring their eyes into his back. He had to get some fresh air.

Walking briskly past rows and rows of identical cubicles in which the other office drones toiled, Malik began to calm down. The voices in his head began to slowly abate. He hurled himself into an elevator and rode it downstairs to the lobby then dashed out onto the teeming city streets into the flow of pedestrian traffic. He leaned up against a light pole and inhaled deeply several times finding himself inexplicably wishing he had a cigarette even though he’d never smoked a day in his life. The voices were quieter now but they were still there, whispering hateful things to him. It had been a long time since they had come on this strong and Malik new the reason for their renewed vigor. That damned office assistant with the Halle Barry smile and complexion. Despite his anger he could not ignore the fact that he’d been immensely attracted to her and Kelly and Jennifer had known it, too. That’s why they had attacked him.

“Those fucking bitches! Why can’t they just leave me alone!”

Malik gnashed his teeth together, the squeaky grinding sound drowning out the sonorous echoes in his skull. He whirled suddenly and almost jumped out into the street, pin wheeling his arms to stay on the curb as a cab rushed towards him, his eyes fixed in horror at the beautiful light-skinned office assistant that’d just placed her hand on his shoulder. She reached out for him again to help him regain his footing, pulling him back onto the sidewalk.

“I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to frighten you.”

“You almost killed me!”

She continued smiling at him despite the bristling rage and hate boiling off of him in waves. She was oblivious. “She probably expects the world to love her,” Malik thought to himself as he struggled to calm his galloping heartbeat.

“I just wanted to introduce myself.”

“Why?” Malik found himself backing away from her in horror as if she were something dangerous that might attack him. The woman took a step closer with every step he took in retreat until he was once again teetering on the edge of the curb.

“What do you want?”

“My name is Danika.” She held out her hand and Malik had to take it to keep from falling off the curb into traffic.

“I’m Malik.”

“I know. The girls in the office already told me about you.” She swept her eyes down to his feet and back up to his eyes again and once again his body tingled everywhere her gaze landed.

“What did they tell you about me?”

“They said that you only date white girls.”

“What? That’s stupid. I date plenty of Black girls. I date all kinds of girls.”

“Then why haven’t you asked me out? How come every time I look at you you look like you want to run away? Do you think I’m ugly or something or are you just scared of me?”

“Why was she doing this?”

“I’m not afraid of you and you know you aren’t ugly.”

“Then what’s the problem?”

“Why would you want to go out with me?”

“Why? Look at you! You’re gorgeous!”

Malik paused and looked closely at Danika’s face to see if she was serious, hunting for any sign that she was putting him on or patronizing him.

“What do you have some kind of bet with your friends or something? Is that what this is about?”

“Look, I just think you’re fine as hell and I’d like to get to know you. But if you’re not interested I ain’t going to beg you. A sista does have her pride. If you prefer those white girls then that’s just your loss.”

She turned on her heels and started walking back into the building.

“Danika?”

“Hmmm?”

“How about tonight?”

***

The date was going well. Malik was surprised by how much he and Danika had in common. Even the voices in his head were silent for once. Malik was enjoying himself. Each time Danika laughed he laughed with her. She reached out and took his hand as she told him about how her grandparents had to flee the South sixty years ago with the KKK hard at their heels because her grandmother had married a black man. She told him how much she hated being called “high yella” or “redbone” as if she were some other race than black and how she hated being called a mulatto most of all because it sounded so much like “mutt” which she’d also been called on a few occasions. Malik, kept his own stories to himself, listening instead, staring at her tiny brown hand in his and wondering what he’d ever been afraid of.

“What about your parents? Were they both Black?”

“My mom, like I said, was half black and half white and my dad was Puerto Rican.”

“So what do you consider yourself then?”

“Well, Puerto Ricans have Black blood in them too so I just call myself Black. It gets too complicated otherwise.”

She smiled and Malik smiled with her. The waiter brought their food and they ate their meal of Cornish game hens stuffed with wild rice and cranberries in small bites in between conversation, sipping zinfandel and never once breaking eye contact.

When the check came, they both agreed not to let the night end. They went to a nightclub down the street and sat at the bar drinking and talking. A Marvin Gaye song came on and they went out on the dance floor, hugging each other closely and swaying to the beat. He kissed her lightly on the lips as they danced to “Let’s Get it On” and she kissed him back deeply and passionately as the song ended.

An hour later she nestled close to him with his arm around her shoulders and her head on his chest as he hailed a cab.

“Where to?”

They looked at each other and Danika smiled again when Malik gave the taxi-driver his home address.

“So why did you act so weird around me at the office? I’ve been there a week and you never even looked at me.”

“Oh, I looked at you. I just didn’t know why you were always looking at me. It made me nervous.”

“What? Did you think I was some kind of crazy stalker or serial killer or something?”

Malik chuckled.

“Something like that.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to freak you out. I just wanted to get with you so I was trying to let you know I was interested.”

“Girls like you aren’t normally interested in brothas like me.”

“What do you mean girls like me?”

Malik paused. He knew what he meant, but knew that it would offend her if he said it.

“Sistas as pretty as you don’t normally dig me. I mean, I know a lot of white girls are into my look, but you know how they are. Once they decide they’re into brothas they ain’t too choosy.”

“Don’t tell me you’ve got self-esteem issues? You? I would have never guessed that. I mean, with a body like yours I’d think you could get any woman you want. I was worried that I didn’t look good enough for you.”

“You’re the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen.”

He reached out and stroked his fingers through her thick, curly brown hair, staring at her staggeringly beautiful face in amazement, amazed that she was actually attracted to him.

“Is that why you spend so much time working on this magnificent body of yours? You really don’t believe you’re handsome?”

She ran her tiny brown hands over his thick muscular chest as they huddled together in the back of the taxi. She slid them up over his shoulders and up his neck, cupping his face in her palms.

“I think you’re the most handsome man I’ve ever seen.”

They were still kissing when they paid the taxi and stepped out onto the sidewalk in front of Malik’s house. Malik was in heaven. It almost felt as if he was falling in love, on the first date, and with a woman whose skin was the color of cinnamon pastry. The whole thing made Malik as nervous as it did happy. It had been hours since he’d heard Kelly or Jennifer’s voices in his head. As much as it was a relief it was also a source of worry. They had never gone away on their own like that, not without medication, or without Malik giving in to them and giving them what they wanted and there was no way Malik was going to do that and he hadn’t taken his medication in weeks. Still, he hadn’t heard those shrill scathing voices spilling their relentless stream of vitriol since he’d agreed to the date with Danika. Desperately he hoped that meeting her had somehow ended their hold on him, which made him panic at the thought of her leaving him now or ever.

“Come inside for a while.”

“ This is your house?”

It was a large single story with decorative stone all around the front entrance, a long driveway covered in stamped concrete that continued up the walkway to the front door. The front yard was desert landscaped with large palm trees and big shrubs of rosemary and sage. It was over two thousand square feet squatting on a lot that was about a fifth of an acre.

“I got lucky on this one. I bought it before the market went nuts. I only paid a hundred and eighty for it six years ago.”

“Wow. My house is half this size and I paid three hundred for it. I had to take an interest only loan out and pray that the thing appreciates in five years so I can refinance. You did get lucky.”

“Come on in.”

He opened the door and they stepped into the foyer. They were in each other’s arms kissing passionately before the door was closed. They undressed in a hurry, desperate for each other. Malik lifted her slim delicate body into his arms and carried her to the bedroom still kissing her passionately, their tongues dueling, lips bruising against each other. He laid her on the bed and kissed his way slowly up her thighs, pausing between them to taste her sweet musk, sending a quiver through her and stealing the breath from her lungs. He kissed his way up her stomach, kissed and sucked each nipple, flicking his tongue across them and making her moan, before returning to her lips. She was trembling all over when he finally entered her. She matched his rhythm as their flesh entwined in urgent thrusts, slowly at first and then with greater and greater urgency building to a mutual orgasm that shook them both. They collapsed into each other’s arms, catching their breath before making love once more. Their bodies complimented each other’s perfectly. They made love without inhibitions, not holding anything back, exploring every inch of each other’s bodies, getting to know all the spots that drove each other wild.

The night was half over when they lay spooned against each other breathing heavily with sweat and semen drying into the sheets.

“You still think I only like white women?”

Malik kissed the back of her neck gently.

“Oh, you definitely know how to appreciate a sista.”

He laughed.

“I’ll be right back”

Malik got up from the bed. His legs felt as if they were made of Jello. He staggered into the bathroom and closed the door behind him, grabbing onto the sink to steady himself. He was just about to turn on the lights when he heard them.

“That bitch must be crazy fucking a big black scab like you. That nasty trifling ho! If you won’t kill that bitch than we will.”

Malik knew why he hadn’t heard the voices in his head all day. Jennifer and Kelly weren’t in his head any more. They were right there in his bathroom.

He turned his head and watched as the two small shadows crept from his shower stall forming the tiny teenaged bodies of the two girls who’d tormented him since grade school. They hadn’t changed in almost twenty years. Kelly still wore her ruffled shirts with the Izod sweater and tight Gloria Vanderbilt jeans. Her hair was permed and straightened and hung down to her hips. Jennifer was dressed almost identically except her hair was Jeri curled and she wore a denim jacket with Prince and Michael Jackson buttons pinned all over it and one lace glove. They both were carrying knives.

“We’re going to cut that disgusting bitch’s heart out.”

They kept fading in and out of the night. One second they were featureless silhouettes, shadows moving within the darkness, and the next their features were sharp and clear, knives glinting in the moonlight.

“You can’t be here. This isn’t possible!”

Malik groped for his medication, shattering the mirror on the medicine cabinet as he ripped the door open and fumbled inside for the little prescription bottle.

“Are you okay in there?”

“We’re going to kill that bitch. She shouldn’t have touched you. You’ve contaminated her now with your filthy Black African hands. You were probably just a mercy fuck anyway. She just felt sorry for you. You were her good deed for the day. A charity fuck.”

“Ewwww! That’s so nasty! How could she do that with you?”

“She said I was handsome.”

“You’re not handsome!”

“She said you were handsome? Ewwww!”

Malik found the bottle of anti-psychotics and struggled with the child proof cap. He removed the cap just as Kelly stepped forward and slashed his wrist with the knife, fading back into the night after delivering the blow. Malik screamed as Jennifer lashed out and slashed the other wrist.

“We should just kill you. You’re the one always bringing these whores here and forcing them to have sex with you, making them stoop to your level.”

“Malik? Are you okay in there?”

Danika knocked lightly on the bathroom door.

“No, let’s kill her. She makes us look bad. She makes this filthy black nigger think he’s good enough to be with us. He’s so black he sweats oil.”

“Yeah, let’s kill that high yellow bitch!”

Jennifer reached for the doorknob and began to open it. Malik rammed into it slamming it shut and the two girls turned on him and began slashing at him, cutting up his forearms as he struggled to defend himself. He struck at them with his fists, but his arms passed harmlessly through the darkness as the two girls faded in and out of the shadows.

On the other side of the door Danika had heard enough. Something was wrong. Fear gripped her as she heard Malik in the bathroom arguing and fighting with someone who shouldn’t be there, arguing about killing her. Just minutes ago she had been lying in his arms, thinking to herself how easy it would be to fall in love with this man. Now she was afraid that he was some type of psycho.

Danika hit 911 on her cell phone and left the line open as she rushed to gather her clothes. Whatever was going on in the bathroom was growing more and more violent. It sounded as if Malik was in pain. She was just about to run out of the house when something in Malik’s voice made her stop. Maybe someone or something was really in there with him?

“Run, Danika! Get out of here!”

“Filthy black ape, black scab. You shit-colored African jungle bunny!”

Malik was covered in cuts and slashes when he came staggering out of the bathroom carrying a knife in each hand.

Danika watched him slash at the air and then slice his own forehead. Blood rained down his face and dripped from the wounds in his neck, chest and forearms. Danika screamed as she watched Malik’s face twist and contort, morphing between rage and terror as whatever demons he was struggling with made war within him…and he was heading right towards her…swinging the knives.

Danika ran. She didn’t know where she was going. The house was big and she could not find her way to the front door in the dark so she opened the first door she came to and ducked inside. It was the garage.

There were big metal canisters that looked like oil drums scattered here and there inside the garage and Danika tried to tell herself that she had just seen too many horror films when she began to speculate on what might be inside. She felt along the wall for the switch to open the garage door, afraid to turn on the light for fear that Malik might find her again. There was no switch. She’d have to open the door manually.

“That half-white bitch shouldn’t have been slummin’ around with your big gorilla-looking ass. Ya black spook! You so black I can’t see you at night until you smile.”

“He’s so black he could hide in a coal bin.”

The voices coming from the house were sounding less and less like Malik and more and more like someone else. Like children’s voices in stereo. It sounded as if he was possessed. There were more sounds of struggle as glass shattered and something heavy fell over with a thud. She heard Malik scream again and wondered if whatever was inside his head had slashed one of those knives across his throat and ended his suffering. But then she heard the voices again.

“We know that nasty redbone bitch is still here. We’re going to find her. We’ll kill her and then we’ll finish you off, too.”

“Nooooo!”

Malik screamed again and Danika stopped halfway to the garage door when she heard him sob and whimper. He was in pain. Those evil voices were torturing him.

“Leave him alone!” Danika yelled.

The garage door raised and Malik was standing there in the driveway a knife in one hand and the moonlight behind him silhouetting his form.

“I said, leave him alone.”

She didn’t know what she was doing. She didn’t know what she was saying. All she knew was that she had to help. It might be the only way to save her own life as well as Malik’s.

“You filthy slut! You’ll fuck anything if you’ll fuck this filthy black scab.”

“He’s so black that when I close my eyes I can see him better!”

The voices no longer sounded anything like Malik. His lips didn’t even move when they spoke. They were the voices of spiteful children. Conceited little girls who thought it was fun to ridicule anyone that they believed to be less than them.

“You’re wrong. He’s beautiful.”

“He’s a nasty black ape!”

“He’s a beautiful black man. You girls are behind the times. Black is beautiful now. Those light-skinned pretty boys are so eighties. Women want real men these days and the bigger and blacker the better.”

“She’s lying! Nobody wants you. You’re just a big ugly black African!”

Malik was still standing there on the driveway holding the knife. His mouth still did not appear to be moving even as insults poured out of him. There were shadows hovering around him. As Danika looked she thought she could almost make out the silhouettes of two young girls. She even imagined she could see their faces twisted into smirks of superiority.

“They’re wrong. I wouldn’t have come home with you tonight if that was true. I- I thought I was falling in love with you. We might have fallen in love together if these little bitches hadn’t gotten in the way.”

Malik turned and looked right at the two shadows standing by his side. He raised his knife to slash into them when the two police officers tackled him knocking him into the garage right into the barrels. Three of the metal canisters fell over and the lid came off of one of them. Danika screamed as a woman’s torso tumbled out of the barrel followed by her head. The disembodied head spun as it tumbled across the garage floor turning towards her. Even dead, Danika could tell that the woman had been very beautiful, with long curly brown hair, light cappuccino-colored skin and hazel eyes just like her own.

Danika turned to the other barrels and began knocking them over. One after another curly-headed, tan-skinned heads tumbled out onto the garage floor. Danika looked from one face to the next as more police officers crowded into the garage.

“Are you okay, Ma’am? Jesus Christ! Are those real? We need a coroner over here. Somebody call CSU. It’s a fucking bloodbath in here! We’ve got bodies everywhere!”

Danika pried her eyes away from the lifeless faces lying on the garage floor and back up to the garage entrance where the two shadows were still standing there, smirking in superiority, unnoticed by everyone except her and Malik. She looked back down at Malik as what looked like half a dozen cops piled on top of him, twisting his arm behind his back and handcuffing him, their fear making them use more force than necessary as they tried to restrain him. Malik stopped struggling and looked up into her eyes even as her vision slowly faded and everything began to go black.

“Why? How could you do this?”

“I’m sorry, Danika. I didn’t want to hurt you. Some wounds don’t heal. Some wounds never heal.”

Danika fainted, thinking about scabs that continued to rip open and bleed decades after the wounds that caused them. The girls had called Malik a black scab. In a way, they had been right.

No Pain

The guy didn’t look like much. He was big, mostly fat, tall, about 6’4”, still two inches shorter than I, and his eyes had fear in them. I smiled, sensing an easy victory. Then I remembered where I was. There had to be more to him than what I saw. There was always a catch. Things were never what they seemed when Bill Vlad was involved.

Bill Vlad owned a traveling freak show infamous for acts that ran the gambit from the monstrous and grotesque to the supernatural. He also promoted underground no-holds-barred matches in which wealthy connoisseurs of the violent and the arcane bet exorbitant amounts of money on which combatant would leave the cage alive. It wasn’t just the fact that the matches ended in fatalities that drew the large wagers and opulent clientele. It was the nature of the combatants. Sometimes the freaks and monsters from Vlad’s traveling sideshow turned up in the octagon. I’d fought a man with eight arms, a seven hundred-pound cyclops, a human jellyfish with no skeleton or vertebrae whose body just absorbed my punches like wet dough. And just last month I’d fought a vampire. That was supposed to be my last fight. It was the closest I’d ever come to death.

The bloodsucking corpse had managed to open arteries in my neck, biceps, and thigh. My face, arms, and entire torso were rent with claw marks from the thing’s talon-like nails grown long from its months in the grave where Vlad had no doubt unearthed the preternatural abomination. We were both saturated in blood and gore from the bright red arterial spray spurting from my many wounds and mingling with the blood leaking sluggishly from the avulsions I had ripped and tore into its loose, dead flesh.

I didn’t know if the thing could still think beyond its appetite, whether its personality had survived its incarceration in hell and whatever dire magic Vlad had used to rescue it from the grave. All I knew was that it was trying to kill me. So it had to die. Of course, I had no idea how to kill it.

I was rapidly exsanguinating from half a dozen near fatal hemorrhages caused by the filthy talons and gore-streaked, tartar-stained fangs of the rapacious Nosferatu, and I knew that I had precious seconds before I bled to death. I had no fear of dying, but I was afraid of what Vlad would do with my corpse once I was dead. I didn’t want to come back like the soulless creature I was battling.

As the crowd cheered us on and the wagers increased, we struggled desperately in a growing pool of blood, me for my life and the prize money, and he for his life and the life pulsing through my veins. I snapped the leech’s limbs and broke its neck, struggling desperately to kill the undead parasite before my life bled out on the canvas mat. No medical attention until the fight is over. That’s one of the rules.

I was already getting woozy from the loss of blood when I ripped into its chest, cracked open its rib cage, and tore out the thing’s heart, finally killing it. The referee raised my arm just as I blacked out from severe hypotension. When I woke up in the hospital, I kept checking the mirrors to make sure I hadn’t become a bloodsucker, too. I panicked when the sun rose and the morning rays spilled into my room, afraid that I’d spontaneously combust. The whole thing was far more aggravation than it was worth.

When Bill Vlad dropped by to give me my money, it took five orderlies to wrestle my hands from around his throat. He smiled, his red handlebar moustache curling up on the ends like devil horns, as I tried to throttle the life from him. As he left, he winked at me, tossing my prize money onto the hospital bed. I’d made fifty thousand that night and vowed never to fight for money again. Then my “Babygirl” wanted a new platinum necklace and I’d found myself broke again. Vlad knew I’d be back. What else could a hideously scarred freak like me do for a living?

My Babygirl was a stripper at an all-nude gentleman’s club on Industrial Avenue called “The Rose Patch.” I met her one night as she danced onstage before the leering eyes of men hungry for a glimpse of a tight ass and a pair of perky breasts; men like me. They were lined up around the stage waving dollar bills at her. I sat down amongst them, my brothers in sin, entranced by the bounce of her near perfect ass as it gyrated to the wails of some Prince tune from the eighties. I didn’t think she’d even notice me, given her choice of men whose faces did not look like overcooked bacon, but she came right over to me and sat right on my face. Of course it could have been the fact that I had a fifty clutched between my teeth while everyone else was waving ones at her. It didn’t matter why. All that mattered was that she’d chosen me.

Her name was Evangeline and she was everything a man could want; big tits, firm ass, long blonde hair down to her waist, face like an angel. I started going to see her every night. Pretty soon she was giving me hand jobs for fifty bucks a pop in the VIP room on a regular basis. Though sometimes, we would just talk. It was the closest I’d ever come to dating someone.

One day she confided in me about her pimp. I had suspected she was doing more than dancing and giving hand jobs and with more guys than just me, but still I felt like we had something special. She assured me we did.

“With you it’s different. I want to do things with you, but with those other guys.” She shuddered for effect.

“Why don’t you just dump this clown?” I asked

“I’ll never get away from him. Every time I try to leave him he beats me up and threatens to kill me. The only way I’ll get away is if you kill him for me. Then I could be yours.” She already had my cock out stroking it with her left hand while using her long hair to shield her actions from the eyes of the club security. When she lowered her head down between my lap and slid it down her throat, she knew she owned me. At that moment, I would have done anything for her. She withdrew her head from my lap just as the hyper-muscular bouncer poked his head into the booth on a routine check. She looked into my eyes pleadingly. “Anyway you want me, Daddy.” My knees went weak and my heart melted. I could still feel the dampness where her mouth had encircled my cock. I wanted Babygirl more than I’d ever wanted any woman or anything.

“But Babygirl, I’m not a killer.”

“Well what good is it having a monster for a boyfriend if you can’t sick him on people?”

Yeah, I heard her call me a monster, but I also heard her call me her boyfriend and that decided the matter. I paid the bouncer for a little privacy and she sucked me off to seal the deal, letting me fuck her beautiful silicone stuffed breasts as she licked the head of my cock until I erupted all over her sweet little face. She smiled up at me with my seed drooling down her cheeks and off her chin looking like something from a Bukakke flick and my heart turned to Jello.

She looked just like an angel. An innocent whore. Still somehow pure and good, her innocence untouched even beneath a veil of semen. But if that pimp kept making her fuck strange men for money all that goodness and innocence would be destroyed. That twinkle in her eye would be snuffed out for good, replaced by that cold, vacant, thousand-yard stare on the faces of all the other whores in the club who’d all seen and done too much. The same soulless expression that haunted my own features. I had to help her.

Later that night I cornered the club manager, who was also Evangeline’s pimp, in his office, and strangled the life from him. The next day I got a call from Bill Vlad.

“You ready to come back to work now?”

“Fuck you, Vlad. You know I’ll never work for you again after that shit you pulled with the vampire. That damned thing nearly killed me!”

“Well, that is the name of the game, kill or be killed. And besides, you never felt a thing. I mean, you can’t. And how many people have you killed? Just the other night I happened to be walking past this strip club with my trusty camera. I’ve got some lovely photos of you throttling Mikey the pimp right in his own office.”

“You bastard.” It was all I could say. He had me.

“Now what would Evangeline say if you wound up going to prison for twenty years or so? Do you think she’d wait for you? Besides, don’t you think she deserves a boyfriend who can buy her nice things? I pay you well, don’t I?”

“Okay, but it’s double this time.”

I knew Evangeline had set me up. She’d probably been working for Vlad from the very start. But it was too late. I was in love with the deceitful bitch, and no way could a guy who looks like me keep a woman like that without money in his pockets. So I took the fight on a week’s notice without the slightest clue who or what my opponent was.

***

The guy circles me with a big dopey grin on his face. I suppose it could look menacing if you were prone to fear. I wasn’t. His teeth were unnaturally large and straight and white. Like he had a fetish about toothpaste and dental floss. He had huge puppy dog eyes and pudgy cheeks like an oversized adolescent. A cherubic face, like a choirboy. He didn’t look at all like a killer. Maybe that was the point. Maybe Vlad wanted to watch me tear this guy with the choirboy face into bloody strips of steaming viscera, not so much a traditional gladiatorial event as simply feeding Christians to lions. I knew Vlad wasn’t too fond of Christians anyway.

The guy hits me, and the blow nearly takes my head off. The fucker’s strong, stronger than most humans, but that didn’t mean much. Mike Tyson is stronger than most humans, too. Besides, I have an edge. I don’t feel pain.

The nerve centers in my brain don’t function as they’re supposed to. I can barely feel anything, pain or pleasure. I am a freak of nature, a natural oddity. I grew up in Bill Vlad’s Circus of Oddities. My destitute and drug-addicted parents sold me to him when I was eight years old once they discovered my talent/affliction. I was the boy who could walk on glass and hot coals, who could swim in boiling water, who could cut himself to the bone and stitch up the wound while playing a video game.

Pretty soon I was the circus’ star attraction. During three acts a night, over a period of more than ten years, I was cut, gouged, scalded, burned, beaten, bitten, electrocuted, and crushed. By the time I was seventeen I had broken every bone in my body at least twice and there was not a single patch of skin that wasn’t covered in scar tissue. When the Bill Vlad Circus of Oddities rolled into town, people would flock from all around to watch an adolescent boy get tortured on stage. Sick world we live in.

As Bill Vlad’s Circus grew increasingly more bizarre so did the acts I was forced to perform. I was put into a pit to wrestle bobcats and wild dogs. Once, when I was ten or eleven, I was pitted against a Komodo dragon that Vlad had starved and tortured to make crazy mean. Its razor sharp claws nearly ripped me apart before I snapped its neck. That act became a sensation, and soon I was being matched against increasingly bizarre creatures from alligators to anacondas. The crowds would watch aghast as I was mauled and my flesh was rent to glistening red ribbons, then be amazed when my bleeding body was taken out of the pit and I was given ice cream or a toy. Whenever anyone would protest and accuse Vlad of child abuse, he would cheerfully remind them that: “He can’t feel a thing.”

I would smile and go back to playing my video games as paramedics rushed to stitch my wounds. As soon as I became an adult, Vlad wanted me to add sex to my act, so I began torturing my genitals onstage. I would stab my testicles with spikes and then cauterize the wounds with a Bunsen burner as the crowd cringed and gasped in horror. I grew to hate Bill Vlad. Each time I injured myself I imagined that it was his penis being twisted with vice grips and pierced with spikes and needles, his testes being sliced open and zapped with a taser gun.

The one thing Vlad was good for was anticipating my needs and accommodating them and usually before I was even aware of them. Right after I hit puberty he began supplying me with whores after every show. I didn’t know where he was getting them from but he seemed to know my taste in women without even having to ask. He knew me. He knew all my secret desires.

Every prostitute he sent to my trailer in the middle of the night was of the same type, plain, average, no excessive amounts of make-up, no gaudy, overtly-sexual outfits, a shy demure personality. They looked like anything but prostitutes. They could have been the girl next door who babysat your kid brother on the weekends. They never screamed or winced when they saw my scars, always showing the appropriate amount of sympathy and concern but without the outrage or revulsion that normal women displayed when faced with the multifarious wounds and injuries that decorated my flesh. These girls were pros.

They would take my scarred penis down their throats sucking and licking it like it was the world’s richest source of nourishment and then ride it like they were on a merry-go-round pony. Always with a smile, as if taking my gnarled and tortured flesh between their legs was the most joy they could imagine. But then, once my hour was up, they would leave and I would be alone again. No matter how good they were at maintaining the illusion that they really wanted to be there with me, the illusion always had a time limit. Even if they stayed all night there was no fooling myself that they would stick around in the morning without being paid extra for it. My heart broke every time I watched one of them walk out my door. By the time I was twenty-one I had had enough. I left the circus to become a fighter.

I thought it would be one hell of an asset to be a no-holds-barred fighter who felt no pain, and often it was. I would fight until the last drop of my blood splashed onto the awe-struck faces of the ringside observers. I would fight with broken bones and lacerations, with a concussion, or even when my lungs could not take in enough oxygen to maintain my aggression. I was relentless. Other times it just led to really gruesome defeats. My survival instincts were extremely dull due to the lack of pain response. I discovered that you need pain to be a successful fighter. It tells you when to increase your defense, or fight harder, or when to give up. I was carried out on a stretcher as often as my arm was raised in victory and sometimes was both victor and victim simultaneously. On more than one occasion, fights that I was winning were stopped because I had so grievously injured myself in order to defeat my opponent that the judges and audience alike were repulsed. Many an audience was treated to the sight of me trying to choke out an opponent using my own shattered arm as a garrote. Eventually I was banned from legal competition. That’s when I went underground. It wasn’t long before I ran into Vlad again.

Vlad was heavily tapped into the black market. Most of his bizarre attractions were looted from crypts and shrines, kidnapped from jungles, and smuggled from medical research facilities. Nothing happened underground that Bill Vlad didn’t catch wind of. So when news of a guy who felt no pain and defeated opponents while taking injuries that would have crippled most men began to spread among the criminal underground, Bill Vlad immediately rushed in to capitalize. He offered me twice as much money as I had been making, if only he could pick all of my opponents. I knew there would be a catch but, after years of exploitation and abuse, my sense of self-worth was small enough to be purchased…even by the devil himself…even by Bill Vlad.

So that’s how I wound up back in the employment of the evil showman with the handlebar moustache, flaming red hair, bloodless white skin, and shark-toothed grin like a demented Dumbo the clown, fighting creatures literally plucked from the darkest bowels of the earth. That’s how I wound up facing this guy with the choirboy face and a punch like George Foreman.

***

He swung at me again and this time I rolled with the punch. Even so, the force behind it was tremendous. I wouldn’t be able to take many more of those. I kicked him in the leg, landing my shin on his thigh with the force of an axe chopping wood. His leg buckled and he had to struggle to stay on his feet. His face contorted in agony but he continued to fight.

I kicked him in the same spot again and again until a ghastly black and purple bruise swelled on his thigh and he began to limp. Then I brought my shin up into his side and was satisfied to feel it meet the resistance of his rib cage and then break on through, causing all the air to expel from the choirboy’s lungs in an anguished bark. He wilted and doubled over and I slipped around him to get him in a chokehold, wanting to end it quickly. He fought hard to keep me from securing my forearm under his chin and around his throat, so I wrapped up his arm instead. I grabbed his wrist and tossed both my legs over his shoulder with his arm locked between them. It took only a thrust of my pelvis to snap his elbow.

Choirboy howled in pain and continued to howl as his flesh began to melt and reform. I could hear his bones snapping and popping as they reorganized themselves under his skin. I didn’t know what the hell was going on until the fur began to sprout all over him. He stopped howling and began to growl. I watched his ears grow and the tail sprout from his ass as his wrestling trunks tore.

“Fucking Vlad! He put me in here with a goddamned werewolf!”

I felt the pressure as his slavering fangs clamped down on my forearm and crushed my ulna and radius bones. Blood spurted from my fractured and lacerated arm, and I knew that I’d been badly wounded. I felt the tug as my forearm separated from my humerus and disappeared down Choirboy’s throat. I didn’t cry out. What would have been the point? I didn’t feel a thing. But now the clock was ticking again. If I didn’t kill this thing soon I would bleed to death.

The silver and gray werewolf stood to his full seven-foot height, with bits of flesh from my amputated arm clinging to the fur around its snout, which was dark and shiny with my blood. He still had those big puppy-dog eyes, but his snarling predatorial grimace didn’t look quite so dopey with the two-inch canines and rows of jagged teeth lining his mouth. I had no idea how to kill a werewolf; I’d never really believed they existed. If I had, I would have been expecting Bill Vlad to eventually put me in with one. I was happy to see that the thing’s arm was still broken. At least it could be hurt.

He came at me fast and low. Before I could defend myself, Choirboy had already ripped open my belly exposing my bloated intestines. Bleeding badly and mortally wounded. I launched myself at it and trapped and snapped its limbs while it tore at me rending my flesh from my bones. All I had to do was kill the thing, and Vlad would get me to a doctor and stitch me up. Then I would take the money, and Babygirl and I would move away from this place, go somewhere, and get married. This was definitely going to be my last fight.

Choirboy broke free and we backed away from each other. He dragged his shattered hind leg and cradled his broken arm with his eyes still blazing with fury. I held my intestines in with one hand and planned my next attack. Even injured, the choirboy was still dangerous- perhaps even more so. His fighting spirit mirrored my own. He would not quit. But he could definitely feel pain.

I began to circle him for the kill. I had broken his leg now along with his other arm. I was just about to charge in and go for the thing’s throat when that sound of bones breaking and popping started again and I could see the bones slipping back into place under the creature’s skin. Choirboy was regenerating. The blood spurting from my severed limb seemed to be slowing down, as was the flow coming from my eviscerated torso and lacerated throat. I was getting dizzy. I had to kill this thing before I bled to death. Choirboy was now fully healed. I watched him flex his now fully rejuvenated arm and rise on his newly healed leg. Steeling myself for another brutal attack, I swore again that this would be my last fight.

We charged each other, and I released my fury, letting my savagery rise to match that of my opponent’s. I gouged its eyes as it tore a chunk out of my thigh. I split its skull with an elbow, sending a fountain of blood erupting into the air like a burst water main as it slashed its claws through my cheek, causing the flesh to hang from my exposed cheekbone like moth-eaten cheesecloth. Seizing one of its claws in a wristlock, I broke its arm once again. Choirboy howled and this time it sounded less like pain and more like rage. I looked into his big, vulnerable, puppy-dog eyes just before he clamped down on my throat and I felt sorry for him. After this victory, who knew what type of abomination Vlad would pit him against. Even as the Choirboy’s murderous jaws crushed my esophagus, I knew that both of our lives were over. I was better off than Choirboy because I could not feel the pain of my death. Choirboy would feel every minute of his slow death night after night in this blood-soaked cage, fighting beasts most humans were lucky enough to believe were fairy tales and myths. I was finally free. I could hear Bill Vlad off in the corner consoling a conspicuously affluent woman, sitting just outside the octagon cage, who was horrified by my imminent death.

“It’s okay, honey. He can’t feel a thing.” He said. And for the first time in our acquaintance, he was right.

Perdition’s Flame

Jason’s Nike Air Jordans turned the puddles of rainwater into temporary airborne projectiles that sprayed into the air with each footfall, drenching the bottoms of his jeans before settling back to earth calmly in his wake. His denim-coated shins parted the mist roiling up from the sewers and soaked his socks. Jason’s feet were already numb and he’d been shivering uncontrollably for days.

Cars hydro-planed through the larger puddles in the street, splashing Jason’s coat, washing off more of the blood the endless downpour had been unable to erase. Jason watched the long spirals of red run off his raincoat and drip onto the sidewalk. It was almost pretty. The rivulets racing down his face and clothes, dripping from his fingertips, looked like watercolors from one monochromatic palate. The blood never went away no matter how much it rained, no matter how many showers he took, no matter how hard he scrubbed. His own tears joined the cascade.

Ghosts haunted his footsteps, seethed even in his own shadow. He had killed so many children now that it felt as if every inch of his skin was crawling with their vengeful spirits. Over and over he dragged his jagged nails over the surface of his skin trying to scrape their lifeless forms from his flesh, but they would not go away. They held tight to him, burrowing deeper than he could scratch. He could feel their spirits clinging tight to his own. At times, Jason could even feel their tiny spectral fingers tugging at him, deep within him, trying to pull him from his own flesh, trying to drag him off to their side of eternity.

Each time a child passed him in the street, he wondered if they were real or one of them, one of the dead, one that he had murdered. Their wide innocent eyes bore deep into his, accusing, demanding, condemning until he turned away in shame. He heard their laughter in his dreams. Heard their screams and cries even when he was awake. He could hear them even then as he made his way through the rain-soaked streets. They had still not forgiven him… even after all this time.

Jason thought that perhaps if they had graves. Maybe if he could have laid them to rest in hallowed ground they would give him peace. But that was impossible. Their bodies were long gone. What was left of their bodies after he was done with them had gone into an incinerator or landfill somewhere. He honestly didn’t know what happened to most of them. All he knew was that they were gone, unsalvageable.

Sometimes the faces of the women, the mothers, were even worse than the kids. They had all been too young to know, some, too young to even scream. But the mothers had known. They had known what he was doing. They had come there looking for someone with his skills so he had performed for them. He had taken the life from them, sucked it from their wombs, and now they would never leave him in peace.

The rain dripped from his nose just as a young boy stepped from the shadow of a nearby alleyway, pointed at him, then dissolved into the sewer fog. Jason wondered which child that one was. It could have been any of them. He’d never even gotten to see their faces.

Jason turned the next corner and sat down in front of the abortion clinic he used to work at. He paused there a moment to collect himself. Rethinking his life as he unwrapped the package under his raincoat and stuck it behind the front door of the building. He had taken so many innocent lives at this place, halted their existence before they could even truly live, before they took their first breath. Atonement would not come easy. Perhaps, it would not come at all. Still, Jason knew he had to try.

Jason scratched at himself again and almost cried out when his hand came away from his neck bloody. The blood of the children he had murdered. He wiped at the back of his neck again before he realized that he had scratched his neck raw. His own blood. Not theirs.

The bomb had not been nearly as hard to make as he had thought. Gasoline, nitrogen-based fertilizer, laundry detergent, put it in a big jug and you’ve got something very similar to napalm. Perdition’s flame.

For some, a religious epiphany is a great thing, a liberating thing, like being born again. For others, it is like dying, like being flayed and crucified but never knowing for sure if you will be resurrected, never knowing for sure if you deserve to be. Jason was not hoping for resurrection. All he was hoping for was absolution.

“Dr. Lathum? Dr. Lathum, is that you?”

Jason recognized the voice, Mary Thompson, the Physician’s Assistant he had hired his first day on the job. Her red hair, dimpled cheeks spotted with freckles, fiery green eyes, those unreasonably large breasts, had been immensely attractive to him once. He would have asked her out eventually, even knowing that she was married. But that was before God had called to him.

“That person no longer exists. You know you are killing God’s children in there, don’t you? You know you will be judged for it, don’t you?”

“You take care of yourself, Dr. Lathum. Don’t catch cold out here.”

“You are going to burn you know? They don’t forget. The kids. They never forget.”

The nurse shook her head and walked away. When she opened the front door, the blast sent pieces of her in every direction, a pink mist of atomized blood, bone, and flesh. The entire front of the building collapsed and the fireball blew all the way through to the back of the building.

Jason started scratching himself again. He could still feel the little spectral fingers all over him, tugging at him, but there were less of them. The fire must have burnt some of them away. God always sends fire to cleanse the world. He craned his head to look up at the heavens as the dark clouds rumbled above him, roiling like a pot of boiling oil. The rain still bombarded the earth, flooding the streets, washing away all the filth and debris.

“Sometimes a few long days and nights of rain are all the world needs.” Jason thought, “ Still, there’s no substitute for the flame of the righteous. Nothing cleanses like fire.”

Jason slowly stripped off his clothes, smiling as he walked into the building, feeling the fire lick at his flesh, warming his soul, as all of his sins melted away.

Perpetual Motion

Help me to avoid the next woman

The one who comes after you came before you and before her who will lie in bed beside me love me tell me about our future together never ever ever ever leave me like you those before you and the next woman the one who will be you

If I blink.

I awake and the morning sun sears my eyes. I have to concentrate hard to keep from blinking. My eyes are starting to water now. It’s a discomfort I’ve come to accept. I can feel the gummy film that has formed on my retinas. I reach out and try to wipe my eyes clean with my fingertip. It doesn’t help much. Already my eyes are beginning to dry out. I try to ignore it as long as possible. I try not to blink.

I don’t know how long I’ve been lying here with this cold clammy sweat sticking my ass to the bedspread, staring at the ceiling with that damned Lord Byron poem playing in my head like a tuneless soundtrack.

“Yet still this fond bosom regrets while adoring/ that love like the leaf must fall into the sear/ that time will come on when remembrance deploring/ contemplates the scenes of our past with a tear…”

I have no idea why I’m thinking of it or what it means in relation to my current situation or why I haven’t yet bothered to see who it is lying beside me snoring softly. I wonder if she’s someone I love, or someone I hate but love to fuck, or someone for whom I have no feeling at all and only fuck for lack of anyone better to occupy my time with. I guess I’d better look before my eyes get any blurrier.

When I first see her caramel skin, smooth slender body, and small neat afro, the hairs on the back of my neck stand up and I nearly leap from the bed. She looks so much like my mother that for a moment I thought I had done something really, really bad. Then I realized that my mother hadn’t looked like that in nearly twenty years, and besides Mom is more of a reddish brown, more like mahogany than caramel.

I examine the sleeping woman’s face meticulously, watching the rise and fall of her supple breasts, dark nipples pointing skyward like little Hershey kisses, the sweet gentle smile that crosses her face as she flutters awake. She is beautiful. At least that’s something. They aren’t always beautiful. Sometimes they’re just shy of pure flawless ugliness with only a nice ass or a pair of perky round breasts saving them from abject hideousness. Can’t say I’m terribly particular. It doesn’t matter a hell of a lot what they look like as long as I have someone. But this goddess makes up for every dog that ever scented these sheets.

She ain’t the most beautiful woman I’ve known but definitely the most beautiful one that I’ve shared a bed with in a very long time. There have been many others. Too many. Delicate, lovely, soft, and supple, fading in and out of my life like phantoms, desert mirages sent to torment a weary and dehydrated traveler, to fuel his hunger for the unattainable like the schizophrenic hallucinations of a wino or chronic drug fiend. In the end they leave only their heart wrenching memories, pale afterimages, mere suggestions of substance seared into my consciousness with a scalding teardrop and the familiar tightening of the stomach that comes with the remembrance of joys never again to be enjoyed. Many of them I’d cared deeply for, even loved. Too many. It only hurt that much more when they inevitably passed. Pricked by a thousand thorns for the sight and smell of a single rose. Watching each lover dissolve into the past to be replaced by the next woman. It was tearing me apart inside. I no longer had the stamina for it.

The woman is so beautiful that I hope to God I wasn’t foolish enough to fall in love with her. I can’t stand another heartbreak. But I was cursed with a romantic heart; a poets heart.

“…Yet still this fond bosom regrets while adoring.”

Her skin is like whipped milk chocolate, so fresh and clean that I can smell the water from her bath in the pores of her skin, beneath the smell of sex. She has dimples and round little cheeks suspended above a smile that imprisons all innocence and softness in its pearl white cage. Her body is all long legs and break-neck curves. She reminds me of Tyra Banks or like Pam Grier back in the seventies when she starred in movies like “Foxy Brown” and “Coffy.” She has the type of voluptuous, wantonly sensual form I’ve always admired- no…worshipped!

“That love like the leaf must fall into the sear…”

Her breasts, unlike most, seem to have a remarkable aversion to the ground; gravity defying. They are larger than you’d ever see in the Miss America Pageant but firmer and more buoyant than those flabby pendulous monstrosities found in magazines like “D-cup.” She also has a deliciously flat stomach. She has mad body! A stupid boomin’ figure! I can’t tell what that ass looks like because she’s lying on her back. Of course there are memories to supply that information. There are always memories.

“That time will come on when remembrance deploring…”

We met last year (although I’m sure she didn’t exist until she magically appeared in my bed this morning). I was sitting on a bus reading a book. When I looked up, she was staring down at me.

“So how’s the book?”

It sounded like one of my “break-the-ice-quick” pick-up lines. Something I’d say right before: “Where’d you get your earrings?” Or “That’s a lovely dress.” Or “Are you a dancer/model/artist/actress?” I could barely stifle my urge to laugh. I thought I’d better answer before she started throwing a few of those lines at me. I closed the book, making sure to save my place.

“It’s not one of his best,” I replied, as I looked her over from head to toe, lusting conspicuously. She had the retro sixties look down. A perfectly round afro framed her face lavishly in a cushion of black wool. Huge hoop earrings dangled alongside her head clanking noisily as the bus bounced along. Her lips were full and pouty as she blew out her words like kisses. It was amazing how much she looked and dressed like my mother did in 1973. I was freaked out by how much it turned me on.

“He doesn’t seem to be trying, does he?”

It always annoys me when someone frames what ought to be a rhetorical question as if they genuinely expect an intelligent response. I know they do it only to prolong conversations that are better off dead and I always wish they were conversationally adept enough to simply change the subject. I felt like screaming to her “That was just the opening line! Move on to something more interesting!”

I wasn’t going to be the one to perpetuate this infantile dialogue so I decided to flip the script on her.

“So, what’s your name anyway, you sexy muthafucka you?”

It was too much. I knew it right after I said it. Or rather right after she turned on her heels and walked away. Before she retreated she let me know I had fucked up by catching my own piercing predatorial stare, that I always thought was irresistible, in her own hard dark eyes and crushing it. She threw me a more effective version of the look I’d attempted and I flinched visibly.

“My name is Lynn.” She said in a voice not unlike those stuffy asexual women that always seem to wind up as your immediate supervisors. Then she turned on her platform heels and walked off down the aisle. Her mini-skirt clung to her like white on rice and her ass was truly a marvel to behold.

I stood up and started to follow her to the back of the bus when I suddenly realized that she was very likely moving back there to avoid me and that by following her I would only look like some persistent asshole nuisance. I might even get my ass cussed out in front of the whole bus full of rush hour commuters. I was already halfway to the back of the bus and I froze there, trying to find a way to gracefully return to my seat when some teenaged, hippie, skateboarder loaded his pot-reeking, saggy-jeaned ass into my seat blocking my retreat.

I stared at her trying to decide if she was genuinely interested and reminding myself to keep my natural sarcasm in check this time if I did manage to get another crack at her. A good attitude has saved as many lives as a bad attitude has lost and Lynn was a true sharpshooter, willing and able to shoot gaping holes in an ego at 500 yards in the dark. I was in eminent danger of losing points on my player card. I looked to her for help.

“Do you want me to come or not?” My eyes pleaded, but hers were ruthlessly silent. She was paying me back with interest with this painful moment of embarrassment for every arrogant thought I’d dared foster during our brief conversation.

Just as I decided that the only way for me to get out of this with my pride and players’ card intact would be to act like this was my stop and simply exit the bus; she motioned for me to sit down. We had begun a battle of wills right then that ended with a circus sex marathon in the hallway just inside the door of her apartment. We had gotten ourselves so worked up that we couldn’t wait to get into the apartment before we tore into each other. After an Olympian session of panting and thrusting we called our battle a draw. We’ve been dating ever since.

“Yet still this fond bosom regrets while adoring…”

Lynn rolls over and locks those hypnotic eyes on me, bringing me back from my reminiscence.

“Do you love me?” she asks.

“That love, like the leaf, must fall into the sear…”

I can tell by the matter-of-fact sound of her voice that she already knows the answer and is only seeking the comfort and reassurance of hearing my deep rumbling voice form the words. But I have no idea if I love this woman or not or if it even matters. I can’t possibly keep from blinking much longer.

My eyes have begun to itch irritatingly. I wonder what she thinks of the thick red veins that must be crosshatching my retinas by now? I wonder if she notices that I haven’t blinked in almost ten minutes? I wonder if I love her?

From my mind comes a staggering deluge of images. Memories of moonlit walks in the park, by the river, on the beach, down deserted streets; memories of dancing ‘til morning staggering around parties together drunk and giggling in each other arms. Memories of going to a dozen different movies, plays, art openings, poetry readings, or making love in a dozen exotic places, in a dozen exotic ways, and I realize that I do love her. That’s fucked up. That’s real fucked up.

‘Cause there’s no way I can keep my eyes open much longer.

“Yes I love you, Lynn.”

“Will you love me forever?”

Unwilling to get into a discussion of loves’ ephemeral nature, I reply instead with a kiss. I kiss her with the same hungry eager passion I bring to every experience in this timeless continuum where each moment is murdered as it is conceived. Our lips touch, and I send out my tongue in search of hers, to coax it, warm and slippery, into my mouth. I reel and sway in rapture as I nip at her lips and suckle her tongue. I want to devour her; to posses her forever as an intimate part of me, but I know that cannibalism is not the answer.

I’d only wake up in jail the next time I blinked and the cycle would continue, only this time with an endless series of big hairy convicts.

Not at all a pleasant thought.

When we separate from our embrace, she brushes against my cheek with hers. Bringing her lips to my earlobe, she whispers softly…too softly!

“I’ll love you always,” she says, “We’re going to have a wonderful life together.” Her voice has changed.

It is no longer Lynn.

I realize that in my ecstasy I have closed my eyes. I find myself not wanting to open them. Not ever again. But the heat of the body pressed against me is doing a number on my physical resolve, and a stubborn curiosity, originating from somewhere between my legs, begins to force my eyes open. A single tear drops from each eye and washes away the filmy residue that had built up on them, but unfortunately, fails to wash away the taste of Lynn’s lips against mine, or the rosewood scent of her perfume.

The woman in my arms, with her face inches from mine, is black.

Not caramel, or cappuccino, but gunmetal black, with long dreads decorated with seashells and little silver ornaments. Her breasts are small and unremarkable, but as I run my hands over her body, I find an ass the size of two of Lynn’s, that sits up high on her back and jiggles pleasantly when I rub it. Her arms and shoulders are hard and muscular, and her thighs are likewise carved of some unyielding black stone. She is obviously some type of athlete.

“I’ll love you forever” she whispers in a lush, smoky voice. She grinds her wetness against my manhood, causing it to leap to life and swell almost painfully erect. Before I can really get a good look at her, she disappears beneath the covers. As her lips caress my body, I notice that I’ve been working out in the time between Lynn and…Uh…um…Alicia. Yes. What a lovely name. My body is now ripped with muscle and her kisses fall expertly upon them. I lie back and enjoy, as she descends down my body with her mouth and tongue teasing tingles from my flesh. Soon it is over. Still shaking from a powerful orgasm, I wait for her to rise from beneath the covers. When her face reaches mine, it is no longer Alicia.

This face I have seen before; not in my memories or dreams, but here in this room, in this bed. We had loved each other, and I had blinked, and she was gone, like the others, but now…she’s back. As if the rotation of the earth had carried her away from me and then right back again, like some twisted carousel ride, a demented merry-go-round with horses going in opposite directions that meet every so often for the briefest of moments. Somehow I have to stop the ride right here, with Shana in my arms. I can’t deal with the idea of losing her again.

“I love you, Shana. God, I love you! You have no idea what I’ve been going through without you!”

She smiles at me, rather perplexed and amused.

“Nigga, what you trippin’ on?”

I just look at her, smiling through tears.

I remember how wild she used to be. She was my best friend, and we went everywhere together. She was so gorgeous, still is, in an androgynous sort of way. Her small breasts, short, dyed-blonde crewcut and aggressive mannerisms, could have easily allowed her to pass for a man. Though not the kind you’d want on your side in a fight. I can’t count how many times we would get peculiar looks as we walked down the street, holding hands and kissing, by people who thought she was a dude. She didn’t help the situation by getting all ghetto and yelling: “Fuck is you lookin’ at, fool? I’ll bust a cap in your ass!” Though it usually caused them to find more interesting things to look at. That always sent us into hysterical laughter. Once, when she overheard a couple on the bus speculating about whether she was a girl or a very pretty faggot, she stood up and flashed her tits at them ending the debate. Baby was pretty wild. Those were good times…very good times.

“Yet still this fond bosom regrets while adoring…”

I hug her to me and begin kissing her face while repeating my declaration of love over and over, like a program stuck in an infinite loop; like my whole life, an infinite loop. Meet girl. Fall in love with girl. Lose girl. Meet girl. Fall in love with girl. Lose girl. So on and so on. Over and over. One girl after another. Ad infinitum. But not this time.

I stretch my eyelids back and prepare to fight off the inevitable. Shana smiles at the bizarre expression but I hold it despite the discomfort.

This time it will be different. No matter what, I will not blink. I will not lose her again. I will never let my eyelids drop. No matter the pain. No matter the gnawing itchiness and irritation. I’ve got to hold on. I can’t let Shana slip away again. This isn’t just another ho I’m fucking. Shana is a friend; one of a very few. Perhaps that’s why she came back when none of the others did? Maybe the carrousel has finally stopped?

“That love like the leaf must fall into the sear…”

I ask her to tell me all about herself; about us, and our life together, our future together.

“That time will come on when remembrance deploring…”

“You know all about me. What can I tell you?”

And of course I do know all about her. I know that she wanted to be an actress when she was in high school, before that she wanted to be an artist, and now she designs hats and makes jewelry. I know that she was a tomboy in high school, and that she didn’t get her period until she was fourteen, and didn’t develop breasts until she was sixteen. I know that she lost her virginity (to me) at age eighteen, and that when she was in college she decided she was a lesbian and gained nearly twenty-five pounds saying that she no longer felt compelled to conform to male standards of beauty. I found that amusing. It seemed to imply that the true nature of femininity was obesity. When I shared this observation with her she called me every son-of-a-bitch she could think of, and punched me ‘til her arms got tired…even after I’d apologized. I can still remember sitting there, hugging my battered body, as I continued to apologize, laughing and being secretly amazed at how hard she could hit. I guess all that extra poundage did have its practical applications.

I remember all of it like it was yesterday. The memories are always clear as a photograph. They ought to be. They’re only about a few hours old. Wasn’t that when she was here last? When all those years went by? Just a few hours ago?

“Please just tell me. Act like…like we just met.”

She talks into the night, pausing occasionally to ask me why I’m crying, as I struggle desperately to keep my agonized eyes wide. She designs our future home, room by room. It is an old colonial mansion complete with angels, and gargoyles, and swirling designs in hand-carved wood. The interior is black and white art deco with gray marble floors and large sculptures (seemingly in place of furniture.) She manages to engage me in a discussion on what we should name our child. After going through a few less-than-flattering suggestions (including Rusty and Dusty) we decide to name our child Pharaoh if it’s a boy. We come to the mutual conclusion that I shouldn’t have a girl. Not with my Karma.

As we talk, I find myself slowly slipping into the fantasy, actually starting to believe that she is more than just an illusion resulting from all five senses hallucinating at once, actually starting to believe that she will not disappear like the rest of them. I find myself believing in the forever and ever, voicing concerns over a house, a child, a family, an entire life, that will never exist.

“I know you don’t believe me, really believe me. You probably never will. But I do love you and I’ll never leave you. Never. I’m not like the others. I love you.”

I don’t want to tell her how many times I’ve heard that same statement, spoken from countless faces with eyes just as honest and sincere as hers… because this time I believe it. I believe her.

Even though my eyes are twitching and itching in their sockets. I believe her even though they are burning as if someone massaged them with rock-salt and left a little tucked under each eyelid. Even though my tear ducts are empty and my eyes are so dry and tacky that I can’t even see her. Even though one of my eyes has now plastered itself shut, causing her image to fade, shiver, and shift in and out, transposed with the image of the next woman. Even though I know I’m about to blink.

“Shana…”

I pull her tightly to me and we begin to make love, passionately, furiously, our bodies crashing against each other as if in battle, as if somehow she too senses that time is short.

“No. No. No! No! Noooooo!!! Don’t leave me! Not you too! Don’t leave me!!!!”

My eye feels as if it is about to explode from my head. I see the worried look on Shana’s face. Then I blink. And it is over. She is gone.

I scream and blink a dozen times, hoping I can bring her back.

“Why? Oh God why? Why do they always have to go!?! Why? Why? Why?!!!!”

Beneath my body, for split seconds between blinks, I see a staggering menagerie of different women appear. Fat ones, skinny ones, Black ones, White ones. One or two that look old enough to be my mother, or young enough to be my daughter. A Samoan woman with hard warrior eyes, a wide nose, and full lips like my own, who I met at a grocery store. A Nigerian woman with a shaved head who I met doing the butterfly at a Reggae club at five o’clock in the morning. A Filipino woman with massive breasts and eyes like an abused child that I met at a shopping mall. Some of them look like Lynn. Some of them look like Shana. But they all disappear, and I feel each loss and neither Shana nor Lynn return. They are gone forever. Back into nonexistence or someone else’s bed.

Finally, I stop crying; stop blinking. Beneath me now, is a woman with long black hair. Her eyes are black as pools of liquid obsidian. Her pale white skin is the unearthly pallor of a vampire’s. Her lips are so red they appear to have been soaked in blood. She is inhumanly lovely. Her name is Renee’

“How long have we been together?” I ask her.

“Three wonderful years.” She replies while stretching a body not half the equal of her face. She has a faint German accent. Where the fuck did I meet her?

“That’s the longest I’ve ever been with anyone.”

“I know.” She purrs, “That’s why you married me.”

For a moment I am too shocked to speak. I guess my traitorous face betrayed my bewilderment, because she stared at me, looking simultaneously worried and annoyed. I allow the memories to seep from my subconscious to the forefront of my mind.

It seems we met at Lynn’s funeral. She’d gotten her cap peeled by a jealous boyfriend after he caught her dirtying the sheets with some other stud. Renee’ had been her roommate after Lynn and I had parted company. Following the funeral, we’d kept in touch under the pretense of comforting each other through that terrible time. It wasn’t long before we became lovers.

She was there for me when my mother died. She let me move in with her when I lost my apartment. She was with me to celebrate the publication of my first novel. So when she wanted to get married and raise a family, I felt duty bound to be there for her. Today is our wedding night. I look down at the little gold band on my finger, and a weak, unenthusiastic hope swells in my chest before flickering out forever.

“I wonder if this is the answer? Just getting married? I wonder if this will stop the carrousel? The rotation of the earth? End the infinite loop? No. No. It wouldn’t…it couldn’t be that easy. Ain’t shit ever that easy. The merry-go-round ain’t ever going to stop. It just keeps going and no little ring is going to stop it. No vow of fidelity, no fucking ‘til death do us part is going to freeze its gears. It just keeps going ‘round grinding my sorry black ass into the dust!”

I begin to laugh.

Again the worried look from Renee.

“Forever and ever.” She says then catches me staring at the ring and adds: “’Til death do us part.”

This makes me laugh harder. Then I blink, and she is gone, and for the first time it is a relief.

“I won’t open my eyes again. Not this time. Not ever again.”

I imagine digging my fingers into my eye sockets and tearing my eyes out of my head. I imagine lacerating the tendons and optical nerves with my jagged fingernails. It would be just like ripping oysters from their shells.

“I love you. I’ll love you forever.” I hear someone saying.

My eyes are still squeezed shut. I don’t know who’s lying next to me now. I don’t care who it is any longer. Just as long as they stay…

…forever and ever…

“I’ll never leave you.” The woman says.

…’til death do us part.

No, you’ll never leave me. Because I’m going to rip my eyes right out of my fucking skull and I’ll never blink again.

“Just you and me sweetness.” I laugh and lick my teeth nervously.

“Yet still this fond bosom regrets while adoring…”

I begin to reach beneath my eyelids. When I touch my eyes it reminds me of that Halloween game we used to play with peeled grapes when we were kids. “This is an eyeball.” Someone would say while they placed the peeled grape into your hand, and it felt…just like this. But what if I rip out my eyes and this woman disappears and no one returns in her place? What then Einstein?

“…That love like the leaf must fall into the sear…”

“That’s just a chance I’ll have to take.”

My fingers hook into claws.

“…That time will come on when remembrance deploring…”

“I’ll always love you,” she says.

My last thought before I destroy my eyesight, is about that old movie “The Man with the X-ray Eyes!” At the end of the picture the guy goes crazy and tears out his eyes, then the screen goes blank. But rumor has it that in the original director’s cut, after he rips out his eyes, he turns and screams to a horrified audience: “I can still see!”

“That’s just a chance I’ll have to take.” I say to myself.

And then the screaming starts.

“…Contemplates the scenes of our past with a tear.”

“I’ll love you forever.”

Run Away

The night absorbed the landscape around me, swallowing the terrain whole in a thick tapestry of shadows. Ahead of me I could see nothing but the street lamps lining the freeway and the ominous silhouettes of stalled cars laid out like grave markers, their occupants long fled or murdered. The only sounds were my own rapid footfalls, my own panting breaths, the disturbing sound of tearing flesh, and the snarls and growls of the things pursuing me in the dark. The screams had stopped a few days ago. I feared I was the only thing left alive. It was all the incentive I needed to keep running.

I tried to stay beneath the streetlights. Slipping from one protective cone of electric sun to the next. Shadowy creatures lunged at me baring saber-like fangs and long gnarled claws, yellow luminescent eyes glazed with hunger. Gruesome things lived in the darkness now. I spun away from them, weaving and faking like an NFL runningback. I knew they couldn’t catch me. Not as long as I kept running. They were slow, stupid, and every-fucking-where. There was just enough illumination between lights to allow me to see their silhouettes lurking there in the blackness, waiting to spring.

A car parked at the curb rocked and jerked with violent activity as I passed it. A few weeks ago I would have thought there was a couple in there, fucking their brains out. Now I knew that whatever was in there wasn’t copulating. It was eating. The wet smacking and sucking sounds, the grunts and growls and moans of ecstasy were not those of a happy couple consummating their relationship but of a feeding frenzy. I shivered and kept moving past. I still carried the axe I’d borrowed from a sporting goods store a few days ago when the cramps first began; the first indication that I wouldn’t be able to outrun them forever. But whoever had owned that vehicle was past any heroics I could provide.

I hit a wet slick of dark liquid trailing out from under the car and nearly tripped; saving myself from a lethal fall by grabbing onto the next lamp post. I looked down at my running shoes already knowing that it wasn’t motor oil that I’d stepped in. There was no time to wipe the tacky red substance from my sneakers. I had to get moving again. The car door was opening. Several long serpentine phantoms came slithering out, tracking my scent, drawn to my heat. Had to run.

Human remains littered the street ahead. I would have to dodge the creatures while running the obstacle course of rotting carrion. Some of the bodies were still being fed on by the night things. I tried not to disturb their meal. I pumped my legs harder, nearly sprinting as a herd of the dark creatures rose from the gruesome maze of death and decay.

There had been all kinds of speculation as to where the things had come from. It had started with a few random attacks but soon swarms of the things began to pour out, covering the earth in a thick cloud of voracious evil. The best theory seemed to be that they had come from beneath the earth; roused from the bowels of hell by petroleum drilling equipment in search of hidden pockets of fossil fuel. The most popular one was that hell had unleashed its minions upon the earth. The end of times. Armageddon. Churches filled with parishioners begging the lord for forgiveness. Many of them were eaten right on the church steps as they left, having made the mistake of worshipping past sunset.

Soon the wild theories and speculations began to peter off as thoughts turned towards survival and the theorists themselves were murdered in their beds. It seemed the entire human race was now under threat of extinction. Of course it could have just been happening in isolated cities and I’d just been unlucky enough to have run through every one of them. Or maybe it was just the West Coast? I couldn’t be certain. My only concern now was with my own survival. I had to keep moving. I had to stay one step ahead of them.

I hurtled a couple of the night things as they burrowed in and out of a man who appeared to be about six-hundred pounds. Most of his girth was due to his body filling with gases as his organs decayed. He had obviously been dead for some time. The stench of the dead was overpowering. Nothing seemed to be alive anywhere except for the rapacious shadow creatures and me. I tried to block out the thought that I might be the only living thing in the whole city to keep the panic from crushing the remaining air from my chest. I calmed myself as much as possible, concentrated on the road, maintained my heart rate at a steady even pace, still only slightly below panic level.

My lungs were burning and felt as if they would explode under the tremendous exertion. Still I maintained my fanatic pace. For the ninth day in a row I put in miles that would have awed the most dedicated ultra-marathoner. There were still at least another three hours left before daylight and already I’d run twice the distance of the average marathon. But now my body was starting to rebel.

I was perhaps a day or two away from organ failure. I was losing fluids far too rapidly. And there was so little fat left on my body that my muscles were starting to consume themselves for fuel. Spots began to dance in front of my eyes as the oxygen in my blood continued to decrease, my lungs unable to keep up with the demand. But once again I could feel them expand a little farther to accommodate the strain and allow a few more breaths inside. The cramps in my legs and calves were getting worse. The blisters on my feet burst two days ago and the raw skin now rubbed against the synthetic leather of my broken down Tuned Air Max running shoes, aggravating the tender flesh. Soon the sores would be infected and I wouldn’t be able to run. I’d have to fight. But that was days away. Hopefully by then I’d be deep in the desert. Safe from the night things.

I jogged up the freeway entrance ramp dodging in between cars. As soon as I hit the freeway I knew that this had been a bad idea. The smell of death choked me and scalded my throat, churning a tidal wave of bile in my stomach. Even worse, the cars were too close together. If there were something inside waiting to lunge out at me, I had only inches to avoid it. But then again, if I managed to reach open highway where the traffic gridlock thinned out enough to allow a vehicle to pass through fast enough to avoid being attacked, I might be able to borrow one of the cars and give my legs a rest for awhile. I decided it was worth the risk. I kept running down the freeway, between the cars.

There were more lights on the freeway. There were hardly any gaps between the road lights. But where there were gaps, they were great expanses where the darkness seemed to stretch on for almost a mile before the light resumed. The pain in my calves, thighs, and feet was starting to slow me down, affecting my stride, and my lungs were starting to cramp again. I couldn’t keep that pace up for long. I knew I had to make it to the end of the freeway.

I hadn’t been awake during the day in nearly a week. I was too exhausted from running all night. If I could get a car and drive some during the night, then maybe I could wake up a little earlier and find out if anyone was still alive. Besides, I’d almost overslept two nights ago. By the time I woke up, the sun had already begun to set and the things had started crawling out of whatever dark pits they slept in. They were slithering into the apartment I’d slept in that morning, surrounding me. Luckily, I’d had the foresight to pick a ground-level apartment. I leapt out through the window with a herd of the things scratching at my heels and ran screaming down the street. I ran four city blocks before I could get my panic back under control and regain control over my breathing.

I was nearing the end of a long row of streetlights and there was about a quarter of a mile of solid darkness, pregnant with those voracious creatures, before I would reach the next light. I could see what looked like hundreds of the phantoms seething in the night that stretched out endlessly in between.

“The way out is not around but through.” I could hear my counselor telling me after my first failed attempt at detoxification.

“There are no shortcuts.”

“No shortcuts.” I repeated to myself as I picked up speed and hurtled into the night.

Claws raked my flesh as the things tried to latch onto me. The sharpness of their fangs and talons worked against them now because it sliced right through my skin like a hot knife through butter and didn’t allow them to grab hold and pull me down. I felt my skin shred as they slashed at me but I kept running harder and faster, Olympian strides, until I could barely see them anymore. They were just blurs of dark flesh and fangs. I reached the next series of lights covered in blood and sweat, exhausted.

I had taken up running during rehab. The more health and body-conscious I became, the easier it got to stay away from the rock. I was only two months sober when I did my first 5k race, a month later I did my first 10k. I had been off the rock for six months when I finished my first marathon. Then the screams had started coming in the night. The blood and dismembered bodies piling up in the morning. It had gotten harder and harder not to use.

My body was shutting down, failing. I could feel it. I was losing too much blood, exerting myself too hard. I had to stop. I stood beneath the light staring into the darkness, at the terrible things slithering and crawling around just beyond the light. This was the first time I had ever taken the time to look at them.

At first all I saw were the claws and the teeth, the flaming yellow eyes, then faces slowly swam into focus, familiar faces.

A shiver raced up my back as I recognized the face of the first kid I’d ever sold crack to. The thing’s flaming yellow orbs began to soften and resolve themselves into those same big trusting eyes that I had taken advantage of all those years ago. Its fangs melted into a big dopey grin. Coiled beside him was a snakelike phantom that had once been a teenaged girl that I’d gotten hooked on crack so that I could have sex with her. She had only been sixteen years old. A church girl who thought she was too good for us street thugs. I had turned her into a crack whore in less than a month. I didn’t even attend her funeral when she eventually died of AIDS. I had already moved on to the next innocent life.

One tiny creature was hurling itself at the cone of light as if it was an invisible force field that it could break through. The light would immediately scald its oily midnight flesh and it would shrink back squealing in agony only to attack again. I knew what and who it was even before I saw its face. I hadn’t seen his face the night he died, not until I picked up the newspaper the next day. I had been driving too fast when I leaned out the driver’s side window with the Tech-nine and let the Black Talons fly into the crowd of gangbangers. There was no way to see who I had hit, if anyone. The next day when I read that only one person had been killed, a six-year-old kid named Devon who’d been playing hide-and-go-seek with some friends when he’d been struck by one of my errant bullets, I didn’t even cry. I smoked the largest rock I could find and went out again to find those fools I had missed.

There were larger creatures that began to push their way in closer to the light. They were more brazen and they got so close that their inky black skin began to blister and burn as they huddled in close. They knew that they couldn’t get me as long as I stayed under the light, but they seemed determined that I should see them. They wanted to be recognized.

I looked past the gnarled and twisted horns and fangs and immediately began to put names to the faces. Donny, Tank, Warlock, Bean, Eddie, Malik. All rival drug dealers that I had murdered. There were other faces huddling in close to the light but I didn’t recognize most of them. How could I? I’d never met half of the people whose lives had been ruined by what I sold.

Blood was starting to pool in my sneakers. I could feel myself getting light-headed from the blood loss. I had to get moving again before I went into shock. I had to find some open highway and a car.

There were six streetlights in a row and then beyond it another quarter mile of darkness. More of the things had amassed around the perimeter of the light. I would have to go through them again. I began to run.

As I sprinted beneath the last streetlight, preparing to charge into the darkness, I saw what looked like a wall of the fearsome night things raging amid the shadowy twilight between the street lamps. Now I could make out all of them. The biggest mob of creatures, swarming directly in my path, were led by faces that I’d known most of my life. The Christians had been right after all. These things were not some genetic experiments gone wrong or the aftermath of some industrial accident. But they hadn’t come from hell either. They were the most fearsome of all the demons, my own personal ones.

“The way out is not around but through.” I whispered as I tucked my chin and hurtled right into them swinging the axe as I prepared to make my last stand. I saw demons with the faces of my mother and father lunge toward me and I prepared to cleave their heads from their shoulders. But I couldn’t. I dropped the axe and ran, trying to dodge between them, but I was slow from injuries, exhaustion, and loss of blood, and there were too many of them. Their fangs and claws cut into my flesh and this time they hooked in deep. I couldn’t break free, but I didn’t slow my stride either. I dragged them along as I sprinted toward the light. My mother and father latched to my thighs and buttocks, slashing at my back. My sister, and brothers, my aunts, and uncles, and cousins, former friends, and ex-girlfriends, everyone who’d ever had the poor judgement to invest their emotions in me, were gnawing at my chest and stomach, working my muscle and fat free from my bones, and burrowing into my organs.

One of the night things, an ex-girlfriend whom I’d gotten pregnant and then coerced into having an abortion, scampered up my back and began biting and clawing at my throat, lacerating both my jugular and carotid arteries with its hooked talons and shark-like teeth. The spray of blood seemed to excite the demons already clinging to me and attract even more. I stumbled, nearly went down into the herd of rapacious shadows, then righted myself and continued to run. Staring at the cone of light just yards away, like an oasis in a desert of pain and death. I began to scream just before the thing on my back tore out my larynx, silencing me. Still, I kept running. It was what I had always done. The only way I knew how to deal with life. But now, my demons were catching up to me.

Best Friends

I was almost asleep, staring across the darkened room in a drowsy twilight haze at the moonlight beaming through my window, when a shadow crossed slowly in front of it, blocking the silver light from view. My heart drumrolled in my chest as the dark shape, a piece of the night, detached itself from the larger body of darkness and began moving towards me. My breath came in rapid bursts filling the silence with the sounds of a quiet steadily increasing panic as fear sent a surge of adrenaline through my nervous system and shot up my pulse rate somewhere around one hundred and fifty beats per minute. Nothing should have been moving in my room. Nothing except me.

I wanted to reach for the nurse’s call button sitting on my nightstand but I was afraid to move from the relative safety of my blankets. The room darkened even more. The inky black silhouette appeared to be absorbing the moonlight and breeding more shadows into the already stygian gloom. A tenebrous curtain of night obscured everything from view as the shadow approached my bedside.

My heartbeat doubled. The blood surged through my veins as if propelled by a steam engine. I watched the dark ethereal shape glide to the edge of my bed and I dug my fingernails into the sheets, ripping them. I imagined the sound of footsteps even though I heard none. A cold draft preceded the apparition as it floated toward me, whispering like wind beneath a doorsweep. Slowly a distinctly human silhouette emerged before me, taking on more anthropomorphic features as it drew closer. The outline of a human skull with ragged tufts of hair clinging to its otherwise bald head, emaciated arms, bony hips, skeletal legs. I could hear it breathing as it hovered above my bed. The dark shape expanding and contracting as it inhaled warm climate controlled air and breathed out that chill gasp. I began to pant terrified little breaths that turned to steam in the frigid air radiating from the nebulous penumbra above me.

Then the shadow reached out one lithe wisp of a limb, lifted my sheets and blanket, and slipped into bed beside me, snuggling its icy flesh against mine. The scream stuck in my throat and came out as a whimper as it drew itself still closer. It was trying to spoon with me. A riot of goosebumps exploded across my skin and icy tendrils clawed my spine raising the hair on my neck and forearms. I could feel it against me, cold, clammy, dead, but breathing. I was more shocked that the apparition had any substance at all than by its lack of body heat.

Too weak to move, I lay there with those cold skeletal arms wrapped around me, that frail damp torso pressed against my back, and its frigid breath creeping down my neck.

When it turned its face toward mine its eyes were gaping holes that yawned wide, more shadows slithering deep within them. It was a portrait of sorrow. Sorrow so deep that it had literally become her, bending each feature into the shape of that one emotion. Still, I recognized her.

“God damnit! Why the hell does she keep following me!” My fear and guilt had merged into one paralyzing emotion. Whatever she had come here to do to me I knew I deserved it.

Her name was Sarah Michelle and she’d had a crush on me, but I’d been too afraid of what others would say about me dating the emaciated little nerd to show her even the simplest human kindness. I had killed her. Or, at the very least, I’d given her no reason to want to keep living.

I never knew that she had cancer. She’d kept it to herself. Never using it as an excuse when people laughed at her sunken corpse-like face or her bald and mottled scalp, giving no explanation for these abnormalities at all. Enduring all the taunts and torments with stoic indifference even when they said she had AIDS and accused her of being a heroine junkie or a crack whore. The other kids were so cruel that I had felt sorry for her. So I tried to be nice.

I spoke to Sarah whenever I passed her in the hallways between classes. “Hi” and “Bye” mostly. I offered her a smile whenever I could. I was just trying to make her feel…I don’t know…not so alone. When I’d first started speaking to her she would eye me suspiciously and quickly walk away. It wasn’t long before she was returning my greetings and my smiles. It was like winning the trust of a wild animal. Soon I could see her lingering in the halls, waiting for me to notice and acknowledge her with a smile before shuffling off to class. I thought it was cute at first. Until she started following me.

Everywhere I went she would turn up. Lurking in the shadows. Staring. Flashing that weak nervous smile and turning away, blushing coyly whenever I would catch her looking at me. I was petrified that my friends would start to notice. That they’d tease me for hanging out with her. Say she was my girlfriend or something. Maybe say that I had AIDS too or that I was a junkie or a crackhead.

See, I was the new kid in school. I’d just transferred that semester and my popularity was something of a fluke. New kids were not supposed to be part of the in-crowd. The thought of being an outcast was the worse thing I could imagine.

“Dude, what’s up with you and the anorexia chick? You doin’ her or something? She’s always following you, man. What’s up with that?”

“She looks like a damned prisoner of war! Why don’t you tell your girlfriend to eat something for god’s sake!”

“You got a thing for crack whores now or what?”

It went on and on like that until I eventually started ignoring her, too. Just to make her go away. I didn’t want to get laughed at. I’d been teased before at other schools and it was not an experience I was eager to repeat. I mean, I was only trying to be nice to her. No need for us both to wind up as targets.

She broke down in tears the first day I walked by without speaking. All day I’d been avoiding her, ducking past and pretending I didn’t see her when I would spot her waiting for me between classes. Finally, after the last class of the day, she worked up the nerve to step right up to me and say “Hi!” All my friends were watching and I didn’t know what to do. I rolled my eyes, shook my head in exasperation, and walked right around her.

“Damnit, why does she keep following me?” I yelled, loud enough for everyone to hear.

“Fuckin’ crack whore!”

Her strangled sobs were the only reply to my insensitivity. The agony of that heart, shattered, stomped, and immolated by my harsh words, echoed from deep within her. It was the sound of torture. The sound of utter hopelessness and despair. My own heart broke under the weight of that painful dirge but I still did not return to apologize or comfort her. I kept walking, silent in my shame and self-loathing.

What had I done?

It felt like I had just awaken from a dream to find that in my sleep I had drowned an infant or bashed open the head of a baby seal. But I had no such excuse. I had exercised my cruelty while fully conscious and awake.

“Who knows, maybe she is a crack whore? Maybe she did catch AIDS from a trick or something? I mean, she does look half dead.” I told myself, but it was no excuse. My cruelty, just like everyone else’s, was born of cowardice.

I wanted to run; flee from the human wreckage crying out in agony behind me. I felt wretched. Tears welled up in my eyes and I fought them back, steeled my expression and continued walking off down the hall. I could just barely hear my friends laughing beneath the sound of Sarah’s tears. I sat in my next class, staring at but not truly seeing the blackboard ahead, with the hollow eyed expression of the forever damned.

I saw Sarah less and less after that. She would disappear for weeks on end and no one ever thought to ask for her or inquire about her health or well being. It was as if she had never existed. After a particularly long absence it was announced in class that Sarah was in the hospital dying of cancer and that she’d been fighting it all year long. Enduring painful chemotherapy sessions and surgeries to attempt to excise the cancer from her uterus. She’d already suffered through one radical hysterectomy. There was nothing more the doctors could do.

I remember thinking how she’d been fine just weeks before. How she even appeared to be gaining weight and growing back some of her hair right before I had stopped talking to her.

“I just wanted her to leave me alone.”

And she did. Sarah died at the end of senior year, right before graduation. I never went to visit her in the hospital but I did go to her funeral. Her mother recognized me right away. She told me how much my friendship had meant to Sarah. How she’d considered me her best friend.

“She would always tell me how nice you were to her. How you were the only one who didn’t tease her. I think she had a bit of a crush on you. Thank you for being so kind. I know it meant a lot.”

I didn’t say a word. Sarah obviously hadn’t told her how horrible I’d been to her at the end. But I hardly knew the girl. She was just some weird chick who followed me around the school. But apparently the little attention I had given her was more than anyone else had. Enough to make me her closest friend. I held Mrs. Michelle’s hand and we wept together over Sarah’s grave.

Now Sarah’s following me again.

I first spotted her the morning after the funeral. I came down for breakfast and she was standing in my kitchen with the morning light shining right through her, encountering no resistance from her flesh. Sarah looked over at me when I entered the room then smiled and turned quickly away, blushing. I froze, my muscles and tendons locked in fear, staring at her with my jaw hanging slack and my tongue like a dead weight lolling stupidly in my open mouth.

Sarah looked terrible. She looked as if she’d just climbed off of the autopsy table. But then again she’d always looked like that. Her sunken cheeks and thin lips were drawn tight around a tremulous smile. Her eyes were sunken deep into her skull and seemed to be little more than holes cored into her face. I could almost smell the formaldehyde wafting from her pores. At first I thought she was some type of zombie until I saw that she was the only thing in the room not casting a shadow. I didn’t know what to do. I stood there staring at her with all my nerves jangling as if electrified. When I didn’t smile back, her face cracked with a wounded sadness. Sarah turned and bolted from the room, letting out a mournful wail like the sound she’d made the day I’d shunned her in the hallway at school.

She wrenched open the backdoor and slammed it with a loud bang. I was less than a second behind her when she ran out into the yard. Still, when I opened the door, the yard was empty. Sarah was gone.

I didn’t tell my mom about it or any of my friends at school. That would have meant admitting to my mother how cruel I’d been and admitting to my friends that I felt guilty about it. So I kept quiet. And Sarah kept following me.

Next I saw her at school. Waiting for me in the halls as she always had. She smiled that same tepid grin that looked now like a rictus of death and I quickly turned around and stalked off in the other direction, ignoring the questions from my friends who obviously couldn’t see her and could not understand why I was retreating from them. Of course they couldn’t see her. They hadn’t been able to see her when she was alive. Besides, I was the one she was haunting. I was the one who’d killed her.

I couldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep. Everywhere I looked Sarah would be there.

She was waiting for me in the bathrooms. I nearly killed myself one morning reaching for a towel as I spotted her staring at herself in the vanity mirror, picking the scabs on her bald head. She turned to me and flashed me that lip-less grin that made her look even more like a skeleton. Her arms and legs held no fat at all and very little muscle and every blue vein stood out prominently through her translucent skin. Sometimes she would be naked with her shriveled breasts partially concealed by one arm coyly draped across her chest. Her stomach completely concave and her ribs pressed tight against her skin. These weren’t the ravages of death I was seeing in her emaciated body. I knew that this was exactly how she had looked in life. I soon avoided taking showers.

I stared across the kitchen table at her every morning as I choked down oatmeal and stirred the runny eggs on my plate with a fork, swallowing hard and trying not to regurgitate. She would smile at me so that her red bleeding gums would show and her eyes would water up as if she really wanted to cry, but was only forcing that ghastly grin onto her face in an attempt to appear friendly, for my sake. Her cheeks were sunken so deep that it looked like she was trying to suck a lemon through a straw and her cheekbones appeared ready to rip through her skin. Her eyes were huge in her shrunken head and stared back at me looking wounded and expectant. I didn’t know what to say to her. I had no idea what she wanted. I wanted to implore her to eat something but then I would remember that it was far too late for that. She began showing up at every meal. I quickly lost my appetite.

The first night she appeared in my bedroom I had tried apologizing for not being nicer to her while she was alive. I told her I was sorry for not being a better friend. She smiled that same nervous unenthusiastic grimace and reached out and stroked my face with her fingertips. I leaped back about ten feet when those icy appendages raked my flesh. I kept forgetting she was dead. By then she had been following me for so many weeks that I had almost gotten used to her.

It was my mother who first began to notice my weight-loss. She would beg me to eat and then look frightened and concerned when I would refuse or regurgitate the few morsels I managed to ingest. She would constantly ask me what was wrong because I had completely withdrawn from all my friends and would stare off into space for long minutes, occasionally bursting into tears. Nothing could comfort me. Sarah’s melancholy presence haunted me every hour of the day.

Pretty soon the kids at school started to remark on my increasing strangeness. Not just my daydreaming and emotional outbursts but my deteriorating appearance. My cheeks began to get that drawn and sunken look. The bones in my face grew more and more pronounced as if my skull was rising to the surface. I spent hours in the restroom vomiting up what little I was able to force myself to consume. My friends at school were the first to make the connection to Sarah, even before I did. They recognized the same stench of death.

“What, did you catch AIDS from that crack whore who died last year? I knew you were fucking her! Man, that’s nasty!”

In the end I lost all my friends anyway. None of them stuck by my side. Teenagers were supposed to be immortal and my obvious illness threatened that notion. I was a reminder that all things die. So they shunned me like the plague. My mother said that they had never been real friends anyway. I hated to hear that. I’d killed a girl out of fear of losing their friendship. Now she was the only one who still came around.

***

Sarah’s been with me now every night since I started chemotherapy. The feel of her cold dead flesh against me as I lay nauseous with radiation poisoning is the worst of it all. I know she thinks she’s doing me some kindness; being at my side in my hour of need. Trying to give me the comfort I’d never extended to her. But seeing her just reminds me of what I will soon become and how I hadn’t been there for her. Maybe that’s part of her plan as well; to save my soul by giving me a taste of true remorse. She no longer looks anything like the Sarah I knew. Her body is bloated with gasses and her skin looks loose and oily as if it’s ready to slip right off of her. Her eyes are gone and her hair and nails have grown long. I know that this is how she now looks lying in her coffin.

I turn to look into the empty pits where her eyes should be and feel her sorrow wafting toward me in waves. I’d had it wrong this whole time.

It wasn’t her own death or even my cruel betrayal that caused the terrible sadness within her. She wasn’t feeling sorry for herself, but for me. She knew all along that I was dying too. The tremors start and I wrap my arms around her frigid flesh as Sarah curls against me. And I’m grateful for the comfort she offers. The coolness of her bloodless flesh brings some relief from the fever raging through my dying body. I feel her cold tears drip from her cheeks onto my arms like drops of ice water and I warm them with my own. Sarah had not been so crazy after all. In the end, she was my best friend.

Pressure

Vincento turned to look at her with those beautiful silvery gray eyes that had melted so many hearts, eyes like a timber wolf, predator’s eyes. His long raven-black hair spilled damp and limp with perspiration onto the hard metal table. His brow was knotted in concentration and every lean hard muscle in his body was tense and straining. Maria knew he wanted to scream. She watched as those gorgeous eyes trailed over to look at the solemn six-year-old who sat in the corner playing with the instruments she would soon be using to torture him. He closed his eyes and shook his head vehemently.

“No! No!”

She clamped the jumper cables back onto his nipples and fired up the generator. Vincento’s body convulsed and contorted in nerve-searing agony as flaming talons of electricity shredded through his nervous system. She watched impassively as he thrashed about on the table with saliva frothing and drooling from his mouth in long ropes. He tried his best not to scream, knowing it would do no good and that it would give Maria satisfaction to hear it. She removed the cables and looked at him expectantly. Vincento’s chest heaved as he struggled to catch his breath. His body still vibrated with electricity, and his nerves still screamed in agony. He shook his head again.

Maria removed one of her six-inch stiletto pumps and punched the heel of it into his eye. She did it so fast he’d barely had time to react. There was a wet, sticky, pop as it gouged through the eyeball. Blood drooled down his cheek onto the table and Vincento cried out in horror and anguish.

“You sick cunt! You sick fucking cunt! You ruined my face!”

Maria was a very patient woman. She had all the time in the world. She would get the answer she wanted.

Vincento stopped yelling and his one remaining eye refocused on Maria with an undisguised and utterly indescribable hatred. Maria smiled.

“Are you ready to tell me what I want to hear yet?”

“Fuck you! Fuck you, you crazy bitch!”

Maria shook her head. He would need further persuading, but he would talk. They always did. Her father had taught her well.

Michael Damiano, Maria’s father, had been an enforcer for the mafia in Vegas since the days of Bugsy Seigel. He’d become quite an accomplished hit-man and was greatly sought after for his skills at extracting information. He could make anyone talk. Even after his health had begun to fail, and he could no longer withstand the rigors of the job, he had continued to take on contracts, subbing out the work to his daughter whom he’d educated in the art of pain. She’d learned very well. Soon his buddies in the syndicate found out about his daughter and tried to put a stop to it. They could not stomach the thought of a woman in harm’s way. Some of them threatened her father. Maria threatened back. She left the bodies of her competition littering the front lawns of a few of her detractors. They left her alone after that. Some of them, even while denouncing her father and her in public, had continued to send contracts their way in private. Maria was good, and even those macho assholes had known it. One thing she had excelled at, even becoming more accomplished at its delicate intricacies and nuances than her father, was interrogation. For her father, it had been a science and he had it down cold, but for her, it was an art, and each canvas had different secrets to yield.

Maria heated the scalpel on the Bunsen burner and then approached poor Vincento. She had kept him awake for two days and he was dizzy with exhaustion, hungry, thirsty, cold, damp, and scared. This wouldn’t take long she hoped. She really took no pleasure in it. It was just something she had to do. No matter what, he had to talk, and if he didn’t…well, there really was no choice. He would suffer until he broke; until he spoke.

As Maria swabbed his chest with iodine she was once again awed by how handsome he was. His tanned muscular body was like a living Adonis. Even with one eye he still looked a lot like Antonio Banderas. It was almost a shame to ruin him. She began to cut.

Vincento winced and writhed on the metal table, biting his lip and refusing to cry out, as she sliced the heated blade through the skin just over his nipples. The macho ones always had the hardest time. They tried so hard not to cry out, not to beg, not to give in to her, but in the end, they all talked. Some just suffered longer before they broke. Vincento was definitely a tough guy; as macho as they came. He would suffer a long time. But he would talk. He would talk.

She cut two parallel incisions an inch apart down the length of his chest then drew the blade of her scalpel across the top connecting each incision in sort of a long rectangle. She gripped the top of the flap of skin with a hemostat and rolled it down the way a metal key rolls down a sardine can. Now Vincento did scream. The most anguished, agonized cry the human larynx was capable of producing erupted from him as she yanked down on the hemostat and jerked the skin free with a wet, sticky, riiiiiiping sound. Maria had heard this sound before; many times. It wouldn’t be long now. He would talk.

“Tell me Vincento. Tell me what I want to hear.”

But he had blacked out. Maria tended to his wounds making sure he didn’t bleed out or catch an infection. She checked his temperature and blood pressure to make sure he wasn’t going to go into shock and die on her. Then she doused him in cold water and revived him. He sputtered and coughed as he came abruptly awake. For a second he wasn’t sure where he was. He wished that second had lasted.

“Tell me what I want to hear, Vincento.” She punched him square on the jaw and his eyes rolled around in his head. The bitch hit like a man.

“Tell me, Vincento! Tell me now!” She motioned toward the kid who still sat in the corner playing with the saws, knives, hammers, drills and other menacing-looking implements that were loaded up in the black duffel bag. She didn’t need to tell her son what she wanted. He knew the routine. She’d been dragging him along on these types of jobs since before he could walk. Being a single mother she had no one else to look after him. He stood up and carried the salt shaker over to her then resumed his position in the corner. She poured a pile of salt into the palm of her hand, tossed a pinch over her shoulder, then rubbed the rest into the six-inch rectangular wound she’d carved into Vincento’s chest.

Sweat and tears rolled down his face and he bit clean through his bottom lip. But he would not cry out. Blood bubbled up out of his mouth as he struggled to catch his breath. Maria was always prepared. She suctioned the blood out of his mouth with a turkey baster and placed a bandage over his lip after she’d stopped the bleeding with adrenaline and pressure from a damp cloth. She didn’t want him drowning on his own blood. Still, he would not talk. She looked at the bandage on his lip and thought it looked far too merciful. She was afraid it might give Vincento some hope that she wouldn’t go all the way if necessary. She decided to cut the lip off instead.

With slow, deliberate, almost tender care, she sliced off his lower lip with the scalpel. Vincento screamed again and tried to bite her. But the straps held him firm. Then she fired up the Bunsen burner to cauterize the fresh wound. He screamed again, even louder, as she seared his wound with the hot torch. The savaged flesh where his lips had been, hissed, shriveled, and blackened like bacon on a hot skillet as she held the flame to his face. He screamed so hard that his tongue stuck out beyond his teeth and was singed as well. Once again he blacked out and once again Maria revived him.

Vincento tried to spit at her, but without lips it came out as a weak spray between his teeth that landed mostly on his own face.

“ ‘uck you! You cray ‘itch!” He shouted into her face defiantly, unable to pronounce either the “F” or the “b” without benefit of a lower lip but quite certain that Maria got the point.

Enraged, Maria bent down and bit off the tip of Vincento’s nose spitting it back into his face. Vince lost it then. He began crying and blubbering.

“Aaaaaaaaaargh! Stop! Stop! What do you want ‘rom ‘e? I don’t know what you want ‘e to say!”

“Yes, you do. You know exactly what I want to hear.”

The kid over in the corner smiled at him and giggled, amused at his predicament. Vincento wanted to put the little freak over his knee and teach him some respect for his elders. He gritted his teeth together and shook his head vehemently.

“Hell no.”

Maria pulled the pliers from her little black bag. She strapped Vincento’s head down to the table and used forceps to pry open his mouth and hold it open wide. Then she began pulling teeth out by the roots. Vincento screamed, gargled, and choked on blood and saliva, as she wrestled the teeth out of his head. She had to use the turkey baster several times to keep him from drowning. Blood and saliva drooled down his face onto his neck and chest. He squeezed his eyes shut, squirting out tears from the corners of his eyes, and his screams reverberated through the empty room like an echo chamber. Still, he would not give in. So she did the same with his fingernails.

“Aaaaaargh! Oh My God! Stop! Stop! Noooooo!” Vincento had given up trying not to scream. Still he refused to tell her what she needed to hear.

Maria removed the forceps from his mouth. Then she removed the strap from his head, allowing him to lift his head slightly off the table so that he could look down at the ruin she’d made of his body. She picked up the gardening shears.

“I didn’t want to have to do this.” She took his limp organ in her hand and it nearly shrank back up inside him, as if it knew what she was about to do and was going into a full retreat. She gave it a tug, pulling it out straight and placing it between the sharp blades of the gardening shears.

The problem with this sort of threat was that it was probably the worst thing you could do to a man, and if you threatened and didn’t follow through on the threat, then you lost your psychological advantage. You gave your captive hope that you wouldn’t go all the way if necessary. Then again, if you did follow through with it, there was nowhere to go from there. What else could possibly phase him after having his manhood lopped off? How could you top that? Maria had already thought of all of that though. She knew exactly what she was doing.

“No! No! I’ll tell you! I’ll say anything you want to hear!”

“Okay, then say it.” She continued to hold the end of his penis stretching it taunt between the shears.

“I love you.” Vincent said in defeat.

“And?” Maria asked expectantly.

“And I’ll ‘arry you.” Pronouncing the “m” was too difficult without his lower lip.

“And?”

Maria loved him. In fact, Vincento had been the first man she’d ever dared love. He had told her she was beautiful. Everyone else had said she looked like a man. The kids had called her “Stoneface” because of her square jaw and sharp angular features. She looked like she could take a left hook from Mike Tyson and keep coming. Her lean muscular physique looked to her like a runner or gymnast but many men found it too hard and un-feminine. No one had ever called her beautiful until Vincento. It was a shame things had to turn out this way. But, she had to make him understand that a woman’s affections were not to be toyed with. You couldn’t tell a woman you loved her and then just walk away.

Vincento looked over at the kid in the corner, who looked back at him and smiled. Vince shook his head and laughed, barking out a spray of blood with each chuckle.

“No way that kid is ‘ine.”

Maria’s eyes turned cold and a murderous sneer crossed her face. Vincento knew what she was about to do and terror raced through his nervous system. He struggled against the straps, bucking and jerking, and succeeding only in causing them to cut deeper into the skin on his wrists, throat, and ankles, making them run with blood.

“You can’t ‘e serious! The ‘ucking kid is ‘lack! How the hell can he ‘e ‘ine?!”

Vincento screamed. Maria brought the shears together.

“Aaaaargh! Oh God! Noooooo!”

“Shhhhhh! It’s okay. It’s okay. Medical science has come quite a long way.” She teased, holding Vincento’s severed organ in front of his face.

“You know they can sew this back on now? They can make it as good as new.”

Maria leaned in closer and peered deep into Vincento’s one remaining eye.

“Take me to the hospital! Help me!” he pleaded. Maria ignored him.

“You know what you have to do if you want to go to a hospital. The longer this remains unattached, the greater the chance of irreparable nerve damage. Oh, they might still be able to stitch it back together, but this beautiful cock of yours would be all but useless. And of course, if you wait too long, it might start to rot. Then there would be nothing the doctors could do for you.”

“You’re crazy! You’re fucking crazy!”

“Just tell me what I want to hear.”

“’uck you and your little nigger child! HE IS NOT MY SON!!!”

The little boy in the corner with the thick wooly hair and the dark caramel-colored skin showed his first sign of emotion. A solitary tear rolled down his cheek and he looked over at his mother, who was covered in blood and sweat, looking almost as gruesome as her prisoner.

“He’s not my daddy?” his bottom lip began to quiver and more tears poured from his soft dark eyes.

A white hot flash of rage went through Maria’s mind. She knew she should never take the job personal, but this one was. No way to maintain emotional detachment this time. She looked at Vincento’s movie star good looks and remembered how much she’d loved him. How he’d said all the right things, and touched her in all the right places, and made her cum harder than any man ever had. How she’d made a fool of herself over him. How he’d drained her bank accounts and fucked all her friends, and talked her into prostituting herself. He’d made a whore out of her. Pimping her to all his gangster friends, many of which she’d done hits for, and then leaving her once she’d gotten pregnant.

Vincento didn’t look so handsome anymore. His ruptured eye drooled out of the socket and down his cheek like a large bloody hunk of snot and phlegm. She’d sliced off his bottom lip and bitten off his nose. He no longer looked like Antonio Banderas. Besides, she didn’t think Banderas would have shit on himself when the electricity went through him the way Vincento had. She wasn’t so sure she wanted to marry him anymore.

“He’s not anybody’s Daddy. He’s not even a man.”

“No! No! Don’t! Dooooon’t!”

Maria stuffed the severed penis into her mouth and began to chew. Vincento had never wanted to be a father anyway. Now he would never have to worry about that.

Talent Does What It Can

Lisa was deep in concentration, thinking only of the complex notes dancing in her head split-seconds before her fingers struck ivory, bringing the lovely sounds out of her mind and into the air. Her brow knit in concentration as she wrestled the music from her soul down her arms, into her fingertips, and into the piano, relaxing in serene rapture only when the sweet melody washed over her.

Her mother sat beside her on the piano bench, humming softly along with the music and squeezing her so tightly Lisa felt as if all the air were being crushed from her lungs. She could feel her mother’s body shiver and occasionally her mother would stop humming and let out a low moan. Lisa wanted to stop, to stroke her mother’s beautiful blond tresses and kiss her forehead, but she had to keep the music going. The music was everything.

“Don’t stop playing, Lisa. Please. Just don’t stop.”

There was a panic in the woman’s voice and she squeezed Lisa tighter when she spoke, digging little half moons in Lisa’s arms.

“Okay, mother. Don’t worry. I’ll keep playing.”

For some reason Lisa’s thoughts kept returning to the fortune cookie she’d had at lunch with her shrimp fried rice. The tiny pink slip of paper had an unusual proverb inscribed on it in a neat Courier font.

“Talent does what it can. Genius does what it must.”

Lisa chuckled as her entire body vibrated with music. She heard terrible sounds all around her, audible just below the tinkle of the keys. She began singing to drown them out.

Tonight was supposed to be the day of her recital with the New York Symphony Orchestra. She was to perform a solo of Beethoven’s Fifth. It was to be her moment in the spotlight, the crowning jewel in a year of success and good fortune. She’d already received a scholarship to Juliard and would be the youngest student ever to attend at 14 years old. They called her a prodigy, a musical genius, compared her to a young Mozart. They said she could hear things in the music that no one else could, that she could see the notes dancing before her eyes. They had no idea how right they were.

For her each composition was like a painting. She knew the hues and complexions of every note, the shape and density of every octave and the pictures they would create when assembled in a score. The music spoke to her. It was like an entire language and Lisa could hear the whispered secrets hidden in every note. She knew which doors each one could unlock. Juliard had recognized her special talent and now the rest of the musical world would recognize it as well when she played on stage tonight.

Earlier that day she had gone out with her mother to buy the pretty blue dress with the plunging neckline and open back that subtley flattered her burgeoning womanhood without making her look like she was for sale. She had picked it out of a Spiegel catalogue and after seeing the price-tag had been convinced that she would never own it. From the moment she saw it she had imagined herself wearing it as she performed in front of New York’s social elite. Still, she had been prepared to settle for a reasonable facsimile. It had been the happiest moment of her life when she tried the dress on in front of the mirror. But that was before the darkness came.

That was before the screams and the blood and the horrible sounds of ripping flesh and cracking bone.

Lisa changed from Beethoven to a mournful nocturne from Wagner. Her face darkened as the terrible memories wormed their way in past the music.

There had been no news flash warning them of the danger. No sirens went off and no public service announcement on the radio. All of a sudden they were simply everywhere. Her uncle had tried to fight them. He was old but he was strong and a great hunter. He was wearing his best suit, sitting in the living room with his wife and his brother, Lisa’s father, and her grandparents. All of them were there to hear her play at the symphony. It was only an hour before they were supposed to leave and Lisa was seated at the piano with her family all around her when the windows caved in and the darkness spilled into the room. There were dozens of them, perhaps even hundreds. Uncle Matt couldn’t fight them all. He’d left his guns in the trunk of his car and the chair he wielded at them turned to kindling after the first one he struck. Then the darkness was upon him and those awful ripping noises began.

Lisa watched as they latched onto his throat. He beat at them with his bare fists even as they tore his head off his shoulder. Lisa had looked into his eyes just before he was decapitated. It was the first time she’d ever seen him afraid. Her father went next and then both grandparents. Then Lisa had begun to play.

She had been thinking about the fortune cookie when they started going after her mother.

“Talent does what it can…”

So she had used the only talent she had, her music. The reaction was almost immediate. The creatures stopped in their tracks and turned towards Lisa in unison. She was sure that they were about to kill her. Still, she continued to play. At least it would give her mother time to escape. She had started with a Jazz tune. It was the only thing that had come to mind. She loved Jazz, but was forbidden to play it in the house. Her parents only allowed her to play classical. Jazz was the devil’s music. Her mother had told her that after she’d heard about a Jazz musician who’d claimed to have sold his soul to the devil. He claimed that he could evoke Satan with his music. Lisa had listened to her mother torn between skepticism and fascination. She’d always believed that music could be powerful, even magical.

“Had that old Jazz musician stumbled on to something?”

Lisa bought his album and learned each song. She studied each note and played them whenever her mother wasn’t around. She’d even altered them, spiced them up, added notes, layering melodies upon melodies until the songs had become even wilder and more chaotic. Playing the songs frightened and exhausted her. Yet they excited her beyond words. She quickly became addicted to them. She played them every chance she got, adding to them more and more, composing an entire symphony of songs that sounded like the screams of dying stars. She would often collapse sweating and hyperventilating after attempting one of the corybantic compositions. Sometimes the room would spin, sometimes she would see things, horrible things, like the things in the room with her now. The things eating her family.

So she had played Jazz for the devils and they had come to her, but they didn’t attack as she had thought they would. They sat and listened.

They filled the room, the yard, the street as far as she could see out the shattered window. They were legion. Evidence of their carnage was everywhere bleeding down into the storm drains. She could hear the screams of her neighbors echoing from all directions. Death was all around them. No escape anywhere. So Lisa played. She went from Jazz to ragtime to Beethoven and they sat swaying as if mesmerized.

The sky looked as if it were on fire. The clouds were black like coal smoke and the stratosphere was aflame with dark reds and brilliant oranges. The sun was nowhere to be seen and a black moon had replaced the normal silvery one. The smell of burnt flesh was overpowering yet Lisa could see no flames anywhere on the ground. The heavens were the only things burning. Lisa imagined she could hear angels screaming.

“What has happened?”

Lisa stared at that terrible sky for long moments as her fingers tickled a dirge from the ivory keys. She knew now what had happened. She was witnessing the end of days. Hell had come to earth.

Lisa’s mother tip-toed through the hypnotized beasts, through the puddles of blood and gore, over to the piano stool and sat down beside her.

“Keep playing,” she whispered in Lisa’s ear and so she did. She played Mozart. She played George Benson. She played Elton John. She played Carl Orf. Music flew from her fingertips and colored the air. It masked the scent of death, the sight of blood and bodies and the hideous fanged creatures with bellies full of her relative’s flesh and marrow. Lisa played until her fingers grew numb and her forearms cramped. She played until the pads of her fingertips cracked and bled.

She studied the demons’ features as they listened entranced by the music. Their eyes were large and went from the front of their faces all the way around to the sides like a pair of wrap-around sunglasses. Their skin was red and black like the turbulent sky above them and looked wet, but that may have been from the blood they had recently bathed in.

The creatures looked both human and reptilian, like a cross between an adolescent and a Salamander. Their mouths were full of yellowed fangs streaked with gore as if they’d brushed them with road-kill and their breath stank of fetid meat like an abattoir. The tallest one stood only five feet. Tusks, antlers, and horns that looked as if they’d been stolen from other animals and grafted on by a surgeon in some bizarre sort of body modification protruded from their faces and heads. Some of them even had extra limbs, human, animal, and other, that had also been surgically attached. Some even had extra heads…human heads that stared mournfully from their shoulders without saying a word or cursed and screamed in an endless diatribe of hate. Lisa shuddered trying to imagine what it would feel like to spend an eternity attached to one of those things. She had to keep playing.

Day fell to night and Lisa lost herself in the labyrinth of notes and melodies. She played until there was no one else in the room but her and her music. Until she forgot why she had to play. Until she forgot everything. Until all memory of death was gone.

The night enshrouded the entire room in a stygian veil that absorbed the devils into it so that they were invisible to her. Lisa could no longer even see the keys, still she played. She could feel her mother beside her shivering in terror as she stared at the terrible creatures. She could feel the weight of the woman’s fear and exhaustion. She was exhausted too. So terribly exhausted. But she had to keep the music going.

“Talent does what it can…”

Hours dragged by like days and still Lisa’s fingers struck the keys without pause. The sun rose back into the sky as Lisa pounded the keys to a Little Richard tune and set again as she slowly plunked out an old somber gospel melody that she’d heard once somewhere she couldn’t remember. She was thirsty, hungry, exhausted, but she let the music lift her outside herself, away from her frail body and its needs. She let it carry her up into the clouds. She played a modern composition by Arvot Part, a minimalist piece that would let her fingers rest. The beasts stirred. One of them with an extra head on each shoulder looked directly at Lisa’s mother and smiled in triplicate, then it turned to Lisa.

“You did this you know? You called us here.”

The demon spoke. Then, the melancholy head lolling stupidly on his left shoulder chimed in. It was the face of an elderly woman who looked as if she’d once been quite handsome. Now age and the endless atrocities of hell had weathered her features into wretched ugliness.

“You called them? You did this? Do you know what you’ve done? Do you know what you’ve done?” The old woman shuddered and fell silent again. A tear raced the length of her cheek. On the creature’s other shoulder sat the head of a boy no older than ten. He said nothing. His face was scarred and burned, the hair completely singed from his scalp, and his eyes were sunken deep into his emaciated skull. All the horrors the boy had witnessed echoed endlessly in his haunted eyes. His bottom lip trembled but he still did not speak, nor did he cry. He just sat there with hate boiling off of him like waves of humidity as he stared at Lisa. That’s when Lisa’s mother began to weep.

It began as a sprinkling of light tears that splashed on Lisa’s shoulder, moistening her dress. Then she began to sob violently. Her body hitched and spasmed with sorrow as her grief took her over.

“I’m sorry, Mom. You told me not to. You told me not to play those songs. I should have listened.”

“It wasn’t you, Lisa. You didn’t do this. No music did this. There’s no music this evil.”

But Lisa knew. Her mother hadn’t heard Lisa’s last composition. She hadn’t seen reality melt and fold around her as she assaulted the keys as if she were trying to scratch out the piano’s heart. She hadn’t seen the sun turn red as she reached the last crescendo, a violent rolling collision of notes like the sound of time screeching to a halt.

“I can’t hold on.” Her mother whispered to her. Then she kissed Lisa’s cheek and collapsed into the midst of the awakening beasts.

“Mom! No!!!”

Lisa heard her mother’s scream as the demon’s tore into her and began ripping her apart.

“Keep playing, Lisa! Keep playing!”

Lisa turned back to her piano and stared at the blood-speckled keys. Her tears struck the ivory turning the red splotches pink as her mother’s screams dulled to a gurgling death rattle. Lisa knew they would be coming for her next, but she wouldn’t be here when they came. She would be off with Beethoven and Mozart playing at the New York Symphony Orchestra. And her Father and Mother would be there and so would Uncle Matt and Aunt Bea and her grandmother and grandfather and they would clap for her and smile with pride as she played her heart out. Because she would play like her life depended on it. Like the fate of the world depended on it. Somehow she had to make everything right again. Her torn and bloodied fingers splayed across the keys and slowly began to carve out a tune. It was an original composition, probably the last thing she’d ever compose. To her it sounded like death. Like ripping flesh and screams. The demons loved it.

Lisa began to sing. Her voice was not lovely. It was a melodic moaning that rose occasionally to a shriek. Tears and sweat commingled with blood and decorated her face like war-paint as her sorrow and agony vibrated in the air. The demons were now crowding around the piano, listening to Lisa’s dissonant assault on the piano keys. Her broken fingernails littered the floor at her feet and two of her fingers snapped as she slammed her fingertips down on the keys with all her remaining might again and again. The creatures winced as her shrill cries scraped her throat raw. They were all awake now, staring at her. She began a new composition, a new symphony, drawing on all her pain, fear, and sorrow. She closed her eyes and pulled the music up from the depths of her, tapping into her genetic memory to find the very rhythms and melodies of creation. Her spirit soured, bourn aloft on the powerful notes she created and danced with the very soul of the earth. She tapped into the rhythm of life, the very harmonies of matter and energy, the beat of the universe and played creation and destruction simultaneously, the two dissonant melodies competing against each other and building to a violent crescendo that shook the ground at her feet and upheaved heaven and hell. The demons began to scream.

Blood seeped from Lisa’s nose slowly at first and then in a ghastly deluge that splashed onto the keys turning the ivory to a crimson hell. She played harder, snapping more fingernails and breaking more of her own fingers as she pounded the keys. Blood wept from her eyes, dripping strawberry red tears down her face as the very music she created began to undo her. Blood leaked from her ears, from beneath her cuticles, from between her legs. She gagged on it, gargling it in her throat, pausing to spit it out as she continued to sing in strident ululations that melded with her discordant melody into something terrifying. The demons covered their ears, shrieking in mortal terror, inhuman agony as they too were unmade by Lisa’s music. Their ears exploded in their heads, eyes popped like eggs in a microwave, flesh split like over ripe fruit. Lisa continued to play as they thrashed and convulsed in fathomless anguish. Her tunes slashed through their souls as the atoms and molecules that composed them began to dance. Lisa continued to play. Her music vibrated to the very core of the earth. She could hear all the souls in hell join her chorus, the sounds of their annihilation adding to the symphony of destruction. The earth cracked wide and bled its molten blood onto the surface, scorching the world barren. Lisa continued to play. Her latest composition…creation’s end, Armageddon. Lisa set the apocalypse to notes and strides, screaming and shrieking a melodious death knell until her own soul danced off into the ether and the earth returned to a state of utter silence.