The Manimal

“Step right up, folks! Come one come and all and see the amazing MANIMAL!” The dramatic cries of the announcer rang out over the grassy fields outside the tent.

The One, The Only Manimal. The Terrifying Man-Beast. The Crazed Halfbreed.

Over the years I’d watched the vicious creature channel its rage against us, its captors, into horrifying acts of carnage almost beyond description. I’d watched The Manimal tear a live hog apart and devour its innards, awash in its blood. I’d witnessed in horror as it went tooth to tooth against a pack of wild dogs and send them away licking their wounds. I’d seen it fight off fifteen strong men armed to the teeth with knives and clubs. One had his eyes gouged out before we could intervene; that was the last time we ever tried anything like that in the ring.

The crowd in the bleachers watched with hushed trepidation as The Manimal was lead into the center of the ring by its handler. And then suddenly something was wrong. I saw a look of horror in the Handler’s eyes and heard a snap followed by a metallic ping. The chains of the Manimal had broken.

I turned to run but it came after me first. It pinned me to the cold sand of the arena with its powerful arms.

Before I died, I heard it growl one word, the word which to it must have been the only thing that ever mattered, the word which must have dominated every second of its anguished existence, ever since we had abducted that orphan child so many years ago and made him our prisoner.

FREE.

Wrists

I dreamt of wrists.

Giant, hulking and pale, white wrists with dark veins swollen with blood floated up above me.

The sense of terror was palpable, the kind of visceral knowing you can only have in dreams, when your surroundings don’t make sense but you know something terrible is going to happen. I knew something terrible was coming, something which would hurt me, and I was afraid.

Then above me amongst those monstrous appendages, those prescient spectres looming over me, was a blade.

I dreamt of wrists, a rusty chipped blade slashing them, slicing their thin white skins deep in long horrible jagged paths.

Thick blood gushed out like the sea, and poured down upon me. It coated me and was cold as ice, and I knew that it was death. I could feel it pooling and its level slowly rising. It sloshed back and forth around my feet. My ankles, then my knees, then my waist. The blood rose ever higher and filled my tiny cage.

As the icy liquid slowly rose above my neck and reached my mouth, I knew I was going to die. I looked up and let out one final horrified sound as the blood covered my open eyes.

The sound of my scream melded with that of my wife, the scream which awoke me. It echoed down the hallway from the bathroom, from her final resting place in the bathtub. The sound mixed with that of water, overflowing and splashing onto the floor, itself mixed with the blood from her wrists.

Tombstoning

“Come on you pansy! Jump! Jump!” Mikey yelled up from next to me. The water was cold and the only thing keeping me warm was treading water and the adrenaline from my taking the plunge mere moments ago.

“Come on Jeffy! Don’t be a pussy!” Jenny shouted next, from her place up on some of the other rocks. We all laughed and giggled self-consciously at her crude taunt. I heard Genevieve Saunders gasp.

Jeffy looked scared, and I didn’t blame him. Dead Man’s Drop had its name for a reason – it was a sheer wall of granite straight down to the dark quarry waters below. I remember the first time I jumped, four summers ago. It took me hours of watching the others plummet into the murky pool, and another half hour up on the ledge, before I had worked up the courage to jump.

No one had could ever quite agree exactly how high The Drop was; most of the others kids at school it was about forty feet. Mikey told me he thought it was fifty, maybe even more. The only thought I had when I stared at that dark rock wall, cracked and marred in places by tiny streamlets of water finding their way home to the pool at the bottom, was that it was high.

I measured the drop in seconds. Those seconds after that first time I closed my eyes and jumped and felt gravity do its work. Those seconds I prayed would not be my last, while I felt the cold spring air whoosh by me until I felt the bottoms of my feet slap the water’s surface hard, and the kersplash of the invigorating cold waters of the dark quarry pool.

One one-thousand. Two one-thousand. Three one-thousand. Four one-thou….

“Come Jeffy jump!” I yelled through my shivering.
“Awww, he’s not gonna jump,” Fat Tommy said from across the water. “He’s chicken.”

Before I’d thought Jeffy looked scared, but now I was worried because he didn’t look really scared, only a little. I knew from two summers ago that it was better for somebody to be really scared than just a little scared… what’s the word? Timid.

The new kids who were really scared, they never jumped. They’d watch the rest of us hoot and holler and plunge over the side, but they’d never work up to the courage to do the same. They could stand on the edge of Dead Man’s Drop for a bloody century and they’d never feel any better about throwing themselves over, they’d only feel worse, and then would climb back down amidst taunts of scaredy-cat scaredy-cat.

What was worse were the kids who were just a little scared, the kids who looked like Jeffy Combs did right now, his awkward pale little body with his gangly little chicken legs standing near the rock wall’s edge, with his thin face peering over. The kids who were only a little scared were the ones who’d hurt themselves. They’d jump and then change their mind in midair and go into the water with their mouth open, or land all funny, or not make it far enough out.

That’s what’d happened to Jimmy from Ms. Franklin’s class two summers ago when he broke his foot on the rocks, and what Dad told me happened fifteen years ago. A blonde boy from out of state had cracked his head, and then all the police came and then nobody snuck into the quarry for quite some years. But they came back. No one can keep us thrill-seekers away from The Drop for long, and people’s memories in a small town are short.

“Come on Jeffy, you fag!” Tommy yelled.

I saw Mikey looking up in anticipation, a big grin on his face. Now I wished I hadn’t said anything. Jeffy was a gangly like nervous kid and I was worried now that he was going to be one of those we’d heard about. One of the ones who was scared but not quite scared enough. One of the timid ones.

Or maybe not. I watched Jeffy adjust his glasses, take a few steps back, run, and jump.

Genevieve Saunders screamed.

He cleared the wall, but he didn’t jump out far enough, and we all knew it. Those four seconds when Jeffy fell were the longest I could remember since I first jumped and we all waited holding our breaths to see his pale little body go splat on those rocks that broke Jimmy’s foot two summers ago, right at The Drop’s bottom.

One one-thousand. Two one-thousand. Three-one thousand. Four-

But he made it after all. Kersplash, into quarry depths. All the girls up on the rocks yelled and the all the boys and I cheered and hollered despite ourselves, and how much of a little wiener we all knew Jeffy to be. I even heard some of the guys up at the top clapping.

One one-thousand. Two one-thousand. Three-one thousand. Four-

“Oh my god!” Jenny’s scream broke the spell of our excitement. Suddenly the quarry air was depleted of our youthful energy and felt desolate and cold. The only sound was the hiss of tiny bubbles coming up from where he’d gone in.

“Somebody! Do something!” There was fear underneath the words, and tears behind, waiting to come out.

From deep inside something took ahold of me, something I didn’t understand and had never felt before, and I swam toward the rock wall with all I had. I reached the churning circle of bubbles, took a deep breath, and dove. I feared the worst.

The quarry water was brown and stung my eyes, but I had to keep them open to find him. It was dark and I knew the water was deep here, probably twenty feet or more, but I had to look.

I pulled myself down, deeper and deeper into the icy cold depths. Pressure built on my chest and I could feel the pain of the water pushing against my eardrums intensifying with every foot lower I went.

I saw him. Through the brown haze was the bleached white skin of Jeffy right near what I reckoned must have been the bottom.  My lungs were burning now and I had to act fast – I had to grab him and go or we’d both drown.

I swam closer and saw he wasn’t unconscious and laid out on the quarry bottom or doing the Dead Man’s Float like I would’ve thought. Jeffy was upright, just like how he’d entered the water, just like how all us kids entered the water – that’s why it’s called tombstoning.

As I came near enough to grab him, I saw the image that would mar my childhood and haunt the deepest darkest waters of my nightmares for years to come. I cried out and the sound of my horror was muffled in a cloud of bubbles. Through the murk I saw the mouth of Jeff’s pale body still open in his last silent scream, and in it the end of the rebar rod which had speared him.

Stendhal Syndrome

“….and here we see a remarkable piece from his ‘Black Period’ which ranged from 1647 to 1701. Notice the larger than life quality of the individuals in the work, which is a result of their exaggerated facial features and the subtle use of chiaroscuro.”

The guide continued to fill the ears of the other museum visitors with fanciful words detailing the history of the art before us. I scratched my face beneath my right eye. It’d been a long two hours thus far. The first half of the tour had been enthralling, but now toward the end my interest was beginning to wane. Though the subtle use of chiaroscuro bringing out the central figures was impressive, I could not appreciate it as I was too fatigued – both of roaming the hardwood of the Renaissance wing and of viewing masterpieces which now all blended into one another.

“….though only a simple depiction of domestic life in the countryside on its surface, the subtle shades and exaggerated emotion in the facial expressions of the family allude to a greater theme beyond that of this simple country home depicted. Scholars in the early 19th century noted that the central figure, the father, can be viewed as a representation of Satan, and his family gathering with him around the light of the candle as his servants, the forces of evil.

“The real action in this masterful work, the real story, is told in the subtlety of the background; in the impossible perspective through the farmhouse window we see the dark rolling hills of the countryside’s farmland stretching to infinity, and the suffering of the common folk who are indentured to work the land for their greater master. The inevitability of a life of work and servitude to the corruption of those in control must truly have seemed to the people of the time truly vile, and brought to mind the work of The Evil One as alluded to in this complex layered portrait of agrarian life.”

I yawned. Though my interest had waned, I could not help but keep my eyes riveted to the guide – she was pretty: blonde, and her voice had a melodius quality to it.

In the crowd, someone sniffled, breaking the flow of the stream of words of times past and the beautiful works of the Masters.

I turned and saw that right beside me was a girl, a tiny girl who could be not more than fourteen. I’d not seen her before and was sure she hadn’t come in with the group – I was at the back of the crowd, closest to her and would have noticed. She was short, and her midnight hair hung limply in unruly bunches around her head. Her face was pale and her beneath her locks I could see her fair skin was wet, puffy and bright pink, as though she’d been crying.

“This piece is best viewed from a far distance and…” The stream of beautiful words stopped with another sniff, this time a sniff which turned into a sad sob, loud enough for everyone in the hall to hear. People in the crowd began to turn their heads. The museum guide stopped talking.

The sob was followed by another, and another. The crowd parted and left me and the girl staring between them at the bewildered tour leader and the massive black work of Renaissance allegory. The sobbing grew in intensity and volume; she was openly crying now, not wails of sadness but of fear and distress.

The guide slowly and cautiously stepped forward and leaned down to talk to the pale frightened girl. Her blue museum jacket shifted on her small frame and I saw light glint off the pin on the lapel.

“Sweetie, are you alright?” she said in a rising lilt.

I began to back away slowly. The girl was quiet now, trembling and staring straight past the guide and into the black depths of the dark canvas on the wall. Her shoulders and head were shaking. The museum guide began to back away. “Sweetie….”

The girl was catatonic now, trembling and frozen in fear. My blood turned to ice as I watched her eyes roll back and turn completely white. Her mouth was open but made no sound. She slowly raised a shaking thin white arm and pointed at the wall.

The painting was alive.

The subtle dark tones of the work’s shadows were leaking around the ornate golden frame and out onto the museum walls like a noxious vapor. The wicked elongated face of the central figure had depth now, and his wicked smile was growing wider. The pointed hear began to emerge from the flatness of the canvas and out into the gallery air.

The tiny toiling figures in the countryside became living beings in miniature, cowering in the monstrosity of the dark family within the farmhouse. The children were gaining shape now too, and the wife in her cowled shawl, their twisted faces were emerging from the shadows on long serpentine necks, twisting and turning.

The girl’s crying was drowned out by a scream, and the rising panic of me of those around me realizing that what we were seeing was real. One of the tour group, an old man in a khaki trenchcoat, turned to run but a tendril of the thick seeping vapor suddenly shot out and enclosed him. I watched his screaming face gradually be covered in blackness which had turned into that like a black ink.

The gallery hall was chaos now. I watched a woman get eaten by a monstrous black mouth like a giant Venus Flytrap. Across the room I saw the long face of The Evil One above the guide plunging and writhing – it was devouring her. The coiling tendrils of black smoke emerging from the painting took solid form and enveloped all those around. A leg here, an arm there, a torso – it pulled their clawing forms back into the awaiting darkness on the wall.

Through all the turmoil I stood unscathed next to the girl, and her next to me. She stared sightlessly with her white eyes into the black depths and watched the bodies of the museum guests – bloody, broken, twisted, dismembered – as they were sucked in.

A woman’s shrill scream snapped me out of my trance.

I ran from the gallery hall and did not look back.

New Dentist

“So we’re all set?” I said, looking down over the counter at the receptionist.

“Yup, all set! Just go on in.”

“Ok, thanks.” I was nervous about getting this cavity drilled, and doubly so since I’d just moved to the area and had to get it done with a new dentist. I walked down the dimly lit hallway and into the tiny room at the end.

“Please, have a seat.” The dentist was already wearing a pair of glasses with loupes attached.

I eased into the chair and laid my neck back against the headrest. Almost immediately I begin to feel creeping fingers of anxiety pry and poke at my gut.

“Just going to give you a little needle here,” he said, and did so. I felt a sharp stabbing pain in my gums. He withdrew the syringe and a warm numbness began to spread into my jaw and cheek.

“So how long is this going to take, do you think?” I said, my mouth already feeling as though it were stuffed with cotton.

“Well, that will largely depend on you.” A grin spread across his face, which I found unnerving.

The numbness had spread out further now, much further than it should have, into my arms and waist. I tried to get up and found that I could not move. My limbs were like cement.

“Let’s get started shall we?” he said, still smiling. He picked up a drill and its high-pitched whirr was the wail of a banshee foretelling my doom.

I looked at the ceiling lights above and saw, for the first time, that they were spattered with blood.

Our True Colors

Green she must have been with envy
of the other girls who were free,
to show how yellow she was
by hiding her betrayal.

I felt so blue
when toward me she was cold,
but saw red
when I learned the truth.

White was the glint of the knife,
and the color of her skin
when the blood had drained out
and black my heart
when I hid away what was left

Now she is gone
because of me
and my whole world
is gray

The Leak

She had died in a car accident. I had come late to the scene and saw her body twisted up in the wreckage. That was not how I wanted to remember my wife.

Time passed and the pain subsided, not entirely, but enough to go back to living.

“You should really move out of the that house,” a friend said over beers some months later. “Too many memories in that place for a widower.”

I should have taken his advice.

A week later the leak started: a drip from above the stairwell. I called plumber after plumber but to no avail. No amount of caulking or tearing up the walls seemed to be able to find its source.

I heard that infernal drip of the leak in my sleep. I tossed and turned awaiting its next diabolical drop.

Another sleepless night and I could take no more; I was going to fix it once and for all. I arose from my bed and ran to the stairwell with my flashlight, ready to tear out all the piping if I had to, just to silence that damned leak.

I stopped and saw the liquid collecting into drops above the stairwell was now thick and red. Entangled within the pipes in the open wall was the distorted bloody corpse of my late wife. I screamed; blood spattered.

I awoke in a cold sweat the next morning, to find the wall above the landing as it had been before.

I moved out the next day and slept soundly for the first time in months. I left that house and all of the past in it behind me.

Slipstream

The doctor told me given a concussion of that magnitude a certain amount of amnesia was not unexpected and nothing to be worried about, so I went home and tried not to think about the accident.

The day after I could only assume I’d gone to work because I found myself at home and it was evening. My keys were on the kitchen table and there were dirty dishes in the sink. I couldn’t remember anything.

I blinked and I was in a nightclub; there was loud electronic music blaring and I felt drunk. A bottle of beer was in my hand and a beautiful girl was dancing up on me.

The strobe lights flashed and I found myself in an apartment high above the city, looking down at the girl’s limp body. I stared at the smoking revolver in my hand.

I opened my mouth and then I was surrounded by the white tile of a bathroom. The walls were covered in blood and so was I. Slowly I pulled back the clear plastic shower curtain to see what was in the reddened tub, fearing the worst.

I swallowed and I was standing on the rocky bank of the river, watching bobbing black garbage bags, inflated like balloons, slip away in the current.

I turned my head and then I was on my knees in the cool night air of the street and surrounded by flashing lights. I felt cuffs tighten around my wrists and the barrel of the gun pull away from my head.

“You’re going away for a long time, son, after what you did.”

You Belong To Me

You belong to me, he said, when we met at the wedding that night.
You belong to me, he said, when we watched the sun rise.
You belong to me, he said, when he called me the next month.
You belong to me, he said, when we kissed out on the pier.
You belong to me, he said, when we went back to his house.
You belong to me, he said, when we woke up the next day.

But we belong together, he said, when all the days had passed.
But we belong together, he said, when I told him not call.
But we belong together, he said, when he showed up at my door.
But we belong together, he said, when he fought his way inside.
But we belong together, he said, when in the kitchen I screamed.
But we belong together, he said, when he did that thing to me.

You’re mine now, I said, when I got up from the floor.
You’re mine now, I said, when the hate burned in my chest.
You’re mine now, I said, when I got into the car.
You’re mine now, I said, when I showed up at his door.
You’re mine now, I said, when I embraced him on the porch.
You’re mine now, I said, when the knife went in his back.

Woodchipper

That summer was shaping up to be the best ever. I finally quit my job roofing with McGill and told that cocksucker where he could stick it. I’d had just about had enough of that prick telling me what to do day-in day-out for barely enough pay to drink a few PBRs after work. That and I couldn’t deal with my fear of heights day-in day-out anymore either, ever since the I fell off that scaffold and cracked my collarbone. ‘Course I never told the rat bastard that.

I got a new gig working with some guys who were in the tree business. Arboreal work the boss called it – he was a fancy guy, educated I guess. I saw him the first day I came into the office and never again after that.

Anyhow it was a good deal, with better pay. And I didn’t have to worry about falling off a roof and breaking my neck, since all the other guys that’d been there longer did all the work up in the trees. I just stayed on the ground and fed all the branches they cut down into the ‘chipper.

This was a helluva machine since sometimes those long branches could be as thick around as your arm or thicker, and two or three times as long. The foreman, grimy bastard that he was, had given me the long and the short the first day on how to run the thing.

“There’s only two rules for working the ‘chipper,” he’d said afterward at lunch, while we drank beers in the shade. “Always face towards it when it’s runnin’. That way you won’t fall backwards into it.”

“That’s only one rule.”
“Wiseass, eh?” He took another swig of beer. “The second rule is that if ya fall in to make sure to go in headfirst.” And he gave me a knowing look over another swig. I didn’t laugh.

Over time we learned to get along and he let me start driving the truck. I was glad – I wanted to keep the shit I was responsible for on the ground. I’d no desire to be yanked up one of them trees and be all dangling up there with my balls hanging out. Still couldn’t stand the thought of working at heights ever since I fell off that scaffold.

It was hard work: long days of long hours until after the sun set, but beers over lunch helped me get through ’em  and I always looked forward to the ones waiting for me at home after. Day after day I watched the other guys chop and saw up in the trees. Day after day I gathered up the giant branches off the ground and fed them into the chipper to be turned in sawdust and woodchips.

The foreman started to take a couple days a week off on account of his time being split between two crews now (business was booming) so some days I was the last one on the job, since I drove the truck. All the other men (“arborists”, the owner had called them that first day) went home earlier and I took all the equipment back to the shop and closed up.

The shop was on the foreman’s farm property and I remember the first time his wife came out and brought me and him cold beers after a particularly tough day. It’d been a long one, hotter than hell, the temperature never falling below 90 and the whole lot of us just sweatin’ like pigs, even in the shade of the mighty oaks.

So the foreman and I were closing up the shop and out marches his wife in a little summer dress, like some black-haired angel, with a big smile and a bucket of ice filled with cold Buds for us filthy sweaty men.

The smile wasn’t for the foreman, it was for me, I saw, I could tell she took a shining to me right off the bat. The way he talked to her and the way she looked at me, even on that first night, I could tell he wasn’t layin’ the boots to her like he used to and she wanted something to make her feel like a woman again. Some big strong man to make her all warm and tingly down there.

Which is why when the foreman went up north for a week the gig got even better.

I wasn’t acting foreman or nothing, but I was the one that drove the truck which meant I was the one to close up shop. Back alone at the foreman’s farm with the sun dipping low in the sky, and wouldn’t ya know it his wife comes out the house with that big smile of hers on her face and bucket of beers, but this time the beers are just for us.

We sat on the porch of their little country home and drank and laughed. Come an hour later and I’ve got her bent over their kitchen table, moaning, and staring at their wedding photos while I’m giving her what for.

That was a great week when the foreman was gone. She was an animal. The week when he came back, not so much – I drank a lotta PBR by myself those nights; a lot more than usual.

The days flew by with me driving the truck and watching long thick branches disappear into the noisy spinning drum of the chipper and getting turned into sawdust.

The foreman kept giving me the stink-eye and I thought something was up, thought he knew. But he never said anything. Then I had my day off when he was down on the quarry line grinding up oaks, and I went by their country home in the morning, drank his beers and fucked his wife again, this time in their own bed. It was like I wanted to get caught.

Two weeks later all the other men had gone home and the foreman and I headed back to the shop to close up. We were all finished sweeping up when out comes his wife again with a bucket of beers. Only this time she wouldn’t make eye contact with me. She set the bucket down on the cement of the shop floor instead of handing us cold Buds dripping with ice water and condensation.

“Stay and have a brew with us m’dear,” the foreman said, popping the cap off of his.
“No, I don’t think so,” she said, in that sing-songy little angel voice of hers.

She still wouldn’t so much as meet eyes with me and she just stared into the cold gray cement of the shop floor. She disappeared back down the gravel drive and I tried not to watch her beautiful ass swinging beneath those shapely hips given that her husband, who was my boss and I’d made a cuckold, was standing there right next to me.

He and I started getting into the drink and talking about trucks and women and love and life when and all of a sudden he stands up and heads around to the side of the shop without so much as saying a word.

“What’s up?” I came around the corner.
“D’ya mind helping me with this for a spell?” He said, gesturing at the woodpile. “I wanted to get some of this done before I head in for dinner with the missus.”

The chipper lay like a sleeping dog with its hitch atop an old log nearby. It was his machine and he used it to grind up the wood from his property into sawdust and woodchips on the weekends and after the workday was through.

“Sure thing,” I said, even though I felt a little off about the whole thing. I was spooked what with his wife acting all strange around me, and now here we were nearly three sheets to the wind and him wanting me to help him run the ‘chipper.

We took it from its resting place and dragged it over to the woodpile, turning the chute towards the enormous mountain of woodchips and the hopper towards us and the pile of large branches behind the shop.

We woke it, the sleeping dog, and that monster roared into life and that didn’t help with me being half in the bag from all those Buds none. The foreman he stood behind me and I stood facing the ‘chipper and we started feeding them enormous thick branches into the hopper, and the grinding sound from it was even louder and shriller than the roar of the ‘chipper’s engine and the spinning of the toothed drum.

I was waiting for him to hand me the next branch but nothing came. I turned around to see what was going on and he was already up on me and that fucking rat bastard shoved me hard backward. My arms windmilled and I fell and put one out to break my fall. I felt my elbow connect with the steel of the hopper funnel and then I screamed when my hand went into the business end of the ‘chipper.

That pain was the worst thing I’d ever felt in my life; worse than falling from that scaffold and cracking my collarbone, worse than when that fucker in Toledo cracked that beer bottle over my head, worse than when I had to watch her walk away after she set the bucket of beer down on the shop floor and couldn’t so much look in my eyes.

The chipper was grinding my arm into fleshy bits now and pulling me up into the cone of the hopper. I looked over and saw the foreman coming on strong toward me with this dead set look in his eyes. I felt pain again when that bastard kicked my legs out from under me and my knees hit the dirt. The  ‘chipper kept pulling me upward and spitting out red and white bits of my flesh and bone like the deranged monster it was.

I looked up at the foreman and he was standing further back now. He had his elbows out and his hands around his mouth like he was shouting to someone far away so I could hear him above the noise of the ‘chipper.

I know about you and Margaret, I heard him shout.