Taking What’s Mine

I remember the smell of the antiseptic and the cold stale air of the maternity ward.

I sat next to my wife’s bed in an uncomfortable chair, one of those cheap jobs with metal bars holding together squares of padding covered in pea-soup coloured vinyl, and listened to her shallow breathing next to me.

Things hadn’t been going well.

The doctors were concerned she was going to lose the baby. There had been a lot of bleeding, and she was in a lot of a pain; the wrong kind of pain, and more than should be experienced before the birth.

I watched her chest slowly rise and fall, and tried to push out the dark thoughts creeping into my mind. I stared across the stark green emptiness of the room at my reflection, a ghost wrought in fluorescence in the blackness of night let in through the windows.

I turned a page in the magazine I’d stopped reading hours ago. Down the hall, the footsteps of a nurse and the rattle of wheels from the cart she pushed echoed. The sound faded away into the corridors of the ward and soon the silence in the room, our tiny cell, our microcosm, was near absolute, save for the soft hum of the air conditioner.

And then a strange feeling came over me. I felt as if all the sound, all the air and the objects around me stretched out away from me and became distant. Now I was in the room, but not in the room – the hospital green, my ghostly reflection in the window panes, the faded cover of the ancient magazine – everything was detached and far away.

I smelled burning.

And then, feeling equally far away, in the distance of the recesses of my mind, I heard a voice. It was a low, raspy voice, more whispered and exhaled than spoken. The words came out slowly, increasing in volume until they were in my mind’s eye.

she’s going to die.

I panicked. My heart jumped and I tried to stand up from the chair but found that I could not. My mouth moved and I heard myself speak into the chemical air of the hospital room but the sound was far away and muffled.

“Who…? What are you? How….”

My words were met with low gravelly laughter in my head. It was a low slow laugh, one more of derision than amusement.

you need not speak. i hear you, as you me.

I became afraid that I was losing my mind.

Who? What are you? How can you possibly know she’s going to die?

i am that i am. i exist in a different realm. i see what you cannot.

How do you know my name?

i know many things. i was sent here for you. you, and your family.

What do you want from me?

There was a pause. I could feel the presence in my mind waiting, thinking. In the depths of my consciousness again came its slow raspy exhales.

i can save her.

The voice in my head was hollow – emotionless, empty of life. The words made my blood cold, yet another part of me rose up in hope. I loved her more than anything. The thought of her being gone was more painful to me than our not having a child.

Why would you do that?

i give you a choice. The smell of burning, of sulphur, became stronger. him, or her. give me your unborn son and i will spare her.

No. I can’t… this is insanity. We had tried for so long. All she ever wanted was for us to have a family. I remembered the look of joy on her face when we found out it was really happening.

she will die. Silence, save for the rough low breathing in the darkness of my mind.

I love her. Please. In my dissociated body, I felt the far away wetness of tears running down my face. She can’t die.

i can save her.

I don’t know. I do. I don’t. Please…

The voice, slower now than before.

give me your son. i will save her if you give me your son.

Yes. Take him. Please. Take him. Just spare my wife, I love her! I heard myself calling out in my mind. The low rasps of the presence in my consciousness were joined by a noise like a low growl, and then stopped. Far away, I felt the air of the hospital room shimmer. Sulphur burned.

it is done.

And with that just as suddenly as it had appeared, I felt the presence recede, as off into the distance, and the hospital room coalesce. It was a strange sensation, like a camera lens moving and bringing all of reality back into focus.

I turned and saw my wife’s pale wrist slip out from under the covers of the hospital bed. Her delicate hand softly grasped mine and squeezed. I looked up and her beautiful blue eyes were wet and staring back into mine.

“Everything is going to be all right, my love,” she said softly. I cried, and I knew that it would be.

In the blackness of our darkest night, in the glass of the windows, I swore I saw thin white slits of eyes, watching us.


He grew into everything we wanted him to be and more.

After the scares of the pregnancy were over, the doctors kept a close eye on our newborn son, and his mother, but they were healthy as horses. A beautiful mare and her new foal. I watched him grow up and he made us the happiest parents alive. We called him our little miracle.

As the years went by and my hairs turned from black to salt-and-pepper, our new son grew from a baby to a child to a gangly teenager and we were just as happy to be a part of it all. So many firsts, so many moments, fleeting when they occurred, yet eternal in their remembrance.

His first word (mama). His first steps. His first day at school, when he was mad because we made him wear the orange sweater his mother knit.

His first crush on a girl at school (Jenny). Us talking about the birds and the bees, in the quiet shafts of sunlight coming into the solarium that one summer afternoon. The first day of high school.

All those moments in time flew past, and it should have been easy to forget about that night in the hospital, that darkest night, when I sat beside his mother and thought of her dying. The presence that visited me in my mind should now be but a past hallucination, a bizarre mental episode brought on by emotion, stress, and fear.

Yet it lingered.

Through all the years the conversation with that presence, that evil thing that I’d promised my son, lingered in the back of my mind. It hung heavily over all the special moments of my son’s life.

The first few years were the worst. Despite my happiness, in my mind I was a man on death row, awaiting the inevitable. Awaiting the thing would come sometime in the night and then he would be gone. Or I’d awake one morning to find him dead, having suffocated in his sleep. Or a rare childhood disease would infect him, and he’d burst in fountains of blood, staining the wallpaper and coating his mother’s horrified visage with geysers of red death. On the outside I was the happiest man in the world, but on the inside I lived in constant fear of our dear child being taken any moment.

I had made a deal, and her life had been spared, but at what cost? Was it worth having her alive and my beautiful son, only to live constantly in fear, to waking up one day to find him gone, or worse?

I learned to live with the fear. I started to be able to enjoy those moments in my son’s life, even with that fear lingering like a dark cloud, like that sulphurous odour of the visitor in the hospital that night so many years ago.

Still it lingered because I saw the eyes. I learned to live with the fear I couldn’t keep the eyes from appearing. When I put him down in the nursery for the night, I’d see those burning white eyes in the leafy branches of the oak outside the window. At his first birthday, when all the other kids crawled around and the parents socialized over spiked punch, my hands became shaky from those long white eyes staring at me from the mirror in the kitchen. When I dropped him off at school for his first day, behind the shoulder of his mousy teacher I saw those white slits burning. The night he came in late from the school dance and his mother chastised him in the front hallway I watched from partway down the stairs, while beyond the still-open front door so too did those eyes.

The fear subsided but the knowledge of the deal to spare his mother’s life never did; the eyes were always there, always watching, always reminding me of the deal we’d made.

Today was his eighteenth birthday.

As he pulled back the bow on the gift his movement slowed. It was then I again felt that strange sensation, the sensation I’d not felt for so long, for eighteen years, since that fearful night I’d sat in the cold emptiness of the hospital room.

The room filled with the smell of sulphur.

I watched as my son’s movement slowed, then stopped, and his head lolled backward. His eyes opened wide and stared into the air in front of him.

“Honey, are you alright? Aren’t you going to open your gift?” his mother said from beside me. I watched his face and saw a milky white membrane creep in from the sides of his eyes and cover them, turning them completely opaque. He blinked, slowly. His face took on a catatonic character.

“What’s happening?” She was talking to me now. “Should we call the hospital?”

I watched his mouth move and we heard a voice that was not that of my son. A voice that was low, slow and raspy, with venom behind the words. The voice I had heard in my mind eighteen years ago.

surprised to see me?” An evil smile spread on my son’s mouth, and his head moved up to face us.

“You.” I started to rise up from the table. “You said you would take him from me but you didn’t. What are you doing here?” I made no effort to hold back the anger in my voice. I felt my wife’s delicate hand reach out under the table and squeeze mine. I could feel her fear.

you know i have been here all along. i said i would take him, and i have.” That laugh. Cold and evil. Heartless. “i am taking what’s mine. i have taken possession of him.

He rose from the table and the opaqueness of his eyes narrowed into long thin slits, like the slashes from some cruel blade, angular on what had been the face of my son. The eyes were the same that had followed me all through his life, the same eyes that were with me these last eighteen long years, the eyes which had watched me from the reflection of the hospital window, when I agreed to give him up to them.

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.

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.

Burial at Sea

I awoke to find myself not in the comfort of my bed but instead encapsulated in a tiny dark space. All around me it was warm and black.

Immediately I was overcome by the overwhelming panic of claustrophobia. I thrashed about in the tiny dark space. I smashed my hands against the top of the enclosure and clawed the walls. I writhed in agony, in terror. I could feel the hotness of my hyperventilation caught in the space in front of me. The temperature of the air in my tiny prison increased from my paroxysms.

calmdowncalmdowncalmdown
calmdown calmdown calmdown calmdown calmdown
calm down calm down calm down calm down calm down
calm down. call down. call down. calm down. calm down.
Calm down. Calm down. Calm down. Calm down.
Calm. Down. Calm. Down. Calm. Down.
Calm….. Down. Calm…….. Down.
Breathe……    Breathe…… Breathe.
In……………….. huuuuuuhhh. And out. huuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuh.
Huuuuuuuuh huuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuh

Get a hold of yourself. Stop. Think. Don’t panic.

I started to panic. The claustrophobia rose again like a balloon in my chest.
Ohmygodohmygodohmygodohmygod I’m going to die ImgonnadieImgonnadieImgonnadie

No. Stop. You’re not going to die. Calm down. You’re not going to die. You’re wasting oxygen because you’re hyperventilating, and if you don’t get a hold of yourself you’re definitely going to die when you use up all the air.

Ok. Stop, slow down, and breathe. Assess the situation.

I am alive. I’m trapped in a small space. Okay, feel the space out. I tried to raise my arms up as far as they could go. I had four, maybe five inches above me. It was awkward, but if I crossed my arms in front of my chest and I could still bring them up to my face.

I scratched my nose.

I reached out the other way. I had about the same amount of leeway in the horizontal dimensions – four, maybe five inches at most extending out from my body on either side. I turned my wrists over and pushed my palms flat against the wall in front of me. It was solid wood, I could feel the grain. The panic start to rise in my throat again, and pushed it down as best I could. In. huuuuuuuh. And out. huuuuuuuuuuuuuuuh. Breathe.

I tried to think back to the last thing I could remember. Everything just got fuzzy and disjointed – trying to take even a short jaunt through short term memory was like wading into a thick fog.

The last thing I remembered going to bed with my wife, but that seemed like days ago. Maybe weeks. Now I was trapped in this warm, claustrophobic blackness of unknown origin or purpose.

I ran my fingers along the edges of the box. There a carved lip on the walls of my prison, and a segment jutting out from either side of the piece above that rested on them. It seemed like a puzzle that had been assembled with me inside.

And then I started to realize the truth. I ran my fingers along the course grain of the wood once more. I touched the sides and ran my one thumb along the top edge of my tiny box once more, just to be sure.

Yes, there was no mistaking it, I was in a coffin. Whoever, whatever, had done this to me had abducted me out of my ordinary life and thrown me into a box meant for the dead.

I was buried alive.

Time passed. I drifted in out and of consciousness. I thought of what I had read about U.S. soldiers going over to Iraq, and how they tested their mettle with sensory deprivation. Depriving the human body of sensory input was enough to cause it to try to fill the void – all of the participants hallucinated within a very short period of time: auditory, visual, tactile. No sense was excluded.

I was starting to feel that way now. All I had was the blackness of the coffin, the feeling of my warm breath, and the feel of the unsanded wood beneath my fingers.

I was in a coffin.

My breathing was under control now but began to feel the panic slowly rising in my chest once again. I was in a coffin. Buried alive. Only the air in the box to breath and no way out. No way out. No way out. No way out…

Before my mind could spin up into a panic any further, I was snapped back to reality by everything shifting. I felt it, unmistakeably. The coffin had shifted down and to the left, and then slightly back to the right. How could the earth shift in such a way?

I lay still in my prison and listened to the sound of my breathing, and felt the warmth of my exhaling in front of me. I could feel it now; the coffin was shifting ever so slightly back and forth. There was a slow, rhythmic oscillation to the box I was entrapped in – how could this be?

My anxiety and claustrophobia were pushed aside by my mind racing for answers: I was moving, but why? How?

I took a step back mentally. What did I remember? Nothing really. What did I know? I was in a coffin; yes, that much I could ascertain from my sense of touch and the rough wood around me.

But I had merely assumed that I was buried alive. Six feet under. Deep within the earth. I was encased in blackness and had only my sense of touch to go on; all that I could take in was in the walls of my tiny prison.

As I felt the rhythmic swaying slowly rocking my universe my mind was cleared by a startling realization: holy fuck, I was underwater. The oscillation I felt was the coffin swaying in the liquid around me.

Could it be? How? Who? Why? What would snatch me from the night and not only wipe my memory, but bury me within a coffin not deep within the earth, but in the depths of some body of water? I knew only what I surveyed within my prison and what I could feel – if I was, in fact, submerged, I could be in a small tank or at the bottom of the deepest ocean; there was no way for me to tell.

I had to be sure. I shifted as far as I could in the tiny space and slammed the weight of my body against the side of the coffin. The loud thunk of my body connecting with the wood was followed by a gross sense of disorientation, as my environment swayed wildly back and forth and threw me against the enclosure walls. The amplitude of the pendular motion attenuated, and my prison stabilized.

Well, that settled it. I was underwater.

A prison such as the humble one I found myself in now would surely rise to the surface due to the air inside; surely my weight was not enough to keep it submerged. My casket could not be weighed down otherwise it would not be free to shift as it just did, or with the periodic motion of the water around me.

I could picture it now – not only was I imprisoned in a casket underwater, but also chained to a point on the bottom: suspended, but floating free.

Fuck. Imgoingtodie Imgoingtodie Imgoingtodie Imgoingtodie. I clawed at the coffin again, wildly. I writhed in the tiny confines that were now my universe. Slowly, sense overtook me again and my breathing slowed.

I felt the gentle currents of the ocean rock the coffin back and forth in a long gradual motion. It was almost calming, in a way. If my mind wasn’t so focused on my mortality I would have found it relaxing; almost soporific.

Okay, now what did I know? One, I was trapped in a coffin. Rap rap. I banged my palms flat against the board above me. Yup, there was never any doubt of that. Two, I was most likely, if not surely, underwater. Three, the gentle rocking motion that I felt almost surely meant that I was in the ocean, or some other large body of water.

I could feel myself getting tired. Soon, I would be lulled to sleep by the gentle rocking of the ocean, and the thickening warm air, which was growing ever more oxygen-depleted with every breath I took.

What were my options? Not many. Crying for help would do no good. Could I dig my way out? With what, Sherlock? I felt in my pockets for my keys but they were gone. Could I smash the coffin? Surely whoever went to all the abducting me, encasing me in it and suspending it from the ocean floor would also make sure it was sturdy?

Once more I thrashed in the coffin. The lid above me would not budge; it had the weight of the entire ocean above pressing down upon it. When I hit the sides I felt them give a little. The wood was soft, I could feel it.

It is a well-known but little-considered fact that the average person possesses far more strength in the legs than other parts of the body. This is why it is always so silly to see an action hero in a blockbuster film attempt to break down a door with his shoulder – this will only result in frustration and some very bad bruising. As any SWAT team member or well-trained police officer will tell you, the most effective way to break open a locked (but unbarred) door is to place several well-aimed kicks right at the lockset.

Which is why the tight feeling of dread and impending doom in my chest was briefly replaced by a warm feeling. A feeling of Hope. I was still wearing my heavy work boots.

There was barely any room within the confines of the coffin to draw my leg back but I had to try. I brought my right leg up as far as I could, and to the side a little where there was space.

Thump. The soft wood gave a little under my kick. Now the left. Thump. I felt the wood flex and the vibration shake the rest of the coffin beneath. Goddammit, I was going to do it. I was going to live. I was going to fight my out of this stupid box or die trying.

I kicked with my right again, harder. Thump. The wood gave a little. Again the left. Thump thump. I could feel it weakening. I began to kick wildly at the bottom of the coffin in rapid succession. Thump. Thump. Thumpthumpthumpthump the exertion energized my body to a fever pitch – I shouted nonsense now, and screamed as I thrashed and kicked at the bottom. thumpthumpthumpthumpthump pain rose in my legs. I couldn’t keep this up much longer.

imnotgonnadie imnotgonnadie thumpthumpthump thumpathumpa

I stopped kicking and panted. A slow trickle. I kicked once more, still panting. I heard another crack, shorter and lower this time. I felt an icy cold wetness against the bottom of my calf. Water was pooling in the bottom of the coffin.

Water was pooling in the bottom of the coffin. I had cracked the board and now the box was slowly filling with ocean. If I didn’t break the coffin apart instead of suffocating to death I was going to drown.

The pain in my legs still burned but I steeled myself and brought down my heavy boots against the bottom of the coffin again. Thump. Crack. Thump. Crack. More trickling, louder and faster now. The sound of water streaming into more water, like someone taking a piss. Thump. Crack. Thump. 

Goddamn you to hell you fucking bastard I’m not gonna die like this

I brought both legs up as far as I could I kicked out with the last of my strength and heard a final deep crack. I gasped one last short breath and then there was the sound of rushing water and the coffin imploded. Everything after that happened very fast.

Shock as my body was surrounded by cold and wet. The lid coming down and striking my head.

All was black, all was cold, all was wet.

I pushed the lid as hard as I could and felt it be taken up by the water. I put my arms up above and felt no resistance; I was free! I couldn’t see but I pulled myself up in the water. I kicked off my heavy work boots and pulled and pulled and swam through the blackness in what direction I could only assume was up.

My lungs began to burn. Still I pulled. Still I kicked. I pulled and pulled and the blackness around me began to give way to grey, and then to fingers of moonlight dancing in the water above me. Hope rose in my chest. I pulled. I pulled. So close now. Lungs burning.

At last I breached the surface of the ocean and felt cold night air against the saltwater on my face I did it. I was alive. Alive. I was awash in euphoria. Waves of my elation joined those of the sea. I had done it. I had escaped.

I looked up into the beautiful full moon and felt more alive than I’d ever felt. I smiled a giant smile and breathed the cold fresh air of the sea. I looked down from the sky to see the gentle rolling waves of the ocean illuminated in moonlight. All around I saw only the ocean stretching out to the horizon; a perfect plane, extending off into infinity in all directions.

I was adrift at sea.

I missed the warm blackness of the coffin.

Boa Constrictor

When I was a child I worked in the pet shop down the street. I grew up in a small town, so the shop itself wasn’t much – a tiny little store with aquariums full of goldfish, and cages with cute little kittens and puppies for the customers to come in and ooh and aah over and but never buy.

The owner was Mr. Ophid, a kindly and rather eccentric Greek septuagenarian. His prize possession in the shop was not the exotic goldfish nor the adorable twin Chow Chow puppies but his boa constrictor, Medusa. The enormous snake was over 15 feet long and kept in a gigantic vivarium sunk dead center in the floor of the back, taking up nearly the entire room. The snake was a legend of sorts amongst the children in my hometown; stories were told in hushed tones of how Mr. Ophid had smuggled her out of Africa and how she had once eaten a hunter who was on Safari.

He only showed the snake to the adults and some of the bigger kids. I was lucky to get to see her because I worked with him at the shop. Sometimes he would even let me watch when he fed her white mice.

One night after the shop closed and I was cleaning up, I saw Mr. Ophid sitting in the back and drinking brandy from the bottle.

“You wanna see somethin’, my boy?” he said, his breath reeking of alcohol.

One of the cats had been sick for months and we’d been keeping it in the back and trying to nurse it back to health. I watched with horror as Mr. Ophid grabbed the unsuspecting sickly feline from its cage and dropped it behind the glass wall of the boa constrictor’s enclosure right in front of me.

Before it could even realize what was happening, Medusa struck and the orange furball was trapped in the snake’s coils winding tightly around it. There was little resistance; the mottled pattern of saddles on the serpent’s leathery skin rippled slightly in waves of the prey’s resistance, and then there was only her turning body, coiling ever tighter. I was horrified but couldn’t tear my eyes away. I watched, disgusted yet enthralled, as the snake’s jaws stretched wider than I had ever seen before and enveloped the cat’s head.

Medusa uncoiled, cat still in mouth, and lay in the sawdust of her pen next to the big rock. Every so often she convulsed and the body of the cat inched slightly deeper, pushing the growing bulge further down her lithe brown form.

Mr. Ophid brought his brandy bottle down and slapped his knee. “Aha ha! Ain’t that somethin’!”

I had nightmares for a week. Little did I know I’d have worse nightmares still.

A month later I was closing up the shop once more and went into the back to finish up. Mr. Ophid had been drinking again; the room reeked of brandy and there were a few empty bottles on the counter against the far wall. His handiwork was there but he was nowhere to be found. It wasn’t until I looked into the boa constrictor’s enclosure that I saw what my eyes had refused to let me see when I came in, an image that still haunts me to this day. Medusa was laid out flat along the expanse of the vivarium, her form bulging grotesquely to halfway down her considerable length. Out of her mouth poked the cuffs of Mr. Ophid’s khakis and his loafer-clad feet. I ran from the pet shop, screaming. I ran home, crying all the way.

The pet shop was condemned shortly after that. None of Mr. Ophid’s family were in America, so there was no one to take over the business. Word got out eventually about what happened, and everyone wanted to talk to me about it, about how the weird old Greek had gotten too drunk and fallen into the snake pen, fallen prey to his own voracious pet. I couldn’t though, I just couldn’t. I never said a word to anyone about what I saw, except my parents, and the police.

There were things I never told anyone about, not even my parents. Like how sometimes when I was closing up the shop I could hear Mr. Ophid in the back behind the door, drinking brandy and softly crying. Or how a few times I heard him drunkenly talking to the snake and pouring his heart out to her. Or about the note I found on the counter and took, the day she ate him. Hidden under the array of empty brandy bottles, it was scratched with a black fountain pen in simple childish printing:

Can’t take it anymore. What’s the point? Only she understands. Goodbye. – Ophid

I am the only one who knows. After watching so many helpless animals disappear down the gullet of the boa constrictor, her master must have begun to wonder just how it felt. I just happened to be there the day he decided to find out.

Sunburn

My mother always told me to wear sunscreen. I guess I should have listened to her.

I took a vacation to Mexico a while ago. I didn’t wear sunscreen. I don’t need to wear sunscreen – sunscreen is for pussies who are worried about their delicate skin, their pale complexion turning bright red like a tomato, and those horrors looming ominously in the future of skin cancer and melanoma and basal-cell carcinoma.

Not me; I’d rather burn like an egg in an ungreased pan the first day and get it over with, then let my bright right burn fade into a perfect dark brown tan. I never peel. Peeling is for the weak. So I don’t peel. But that wasn’t the case this time.

I got one of those truly horrible burns you only ever hear about from your friends, one of those burns where you burn and it peels and then you burn under the peel and it peels again. I guess I should have stayed off the beach after that but it had stopped hurting by then.

When I got back after my week of vacation my skin was still peeling, mostly on my back and shoulders.

“Geez, that’s a bad burn ya got yourself there,” one of my co-workers ventured the day I got back. “No shit.” Douchebag. “Glad to have you back, Chuck.”

After a week when it was still peeling was when I started to worry. The top layer had long since peeled away and the layer beneath was peeling too. And the layer beneath that. It didn’t itch. It didn’t hurt. It just kept peeling. How many layers deep could I have possibly burned myself on that beach in Mexico? Christ, how many layers does a person’s skin have anyway?

I went to the doctor but he didn’t have much to say.

“Wow, that’s a bad burn you got yourself there, son.” No shit. “Just get back yesterday, did ya?”

“No, I’ve been back for a week.”

His face wrinkled. “Hmmm. I would have expected the peeling to stop by now. Try some aloe.” Thanks Doc.

The following night I stood in the mirror and pulled a long strip of the deepest dry, peeling layer back. It just kept coming and coming off my shoulder, a giant wide strip that grew as it travelled downward. It was an oddly satisfying experience, like taking the plastic wrap off the screen of a new TV.

That is, until I noticed that beneath it there was no more skin. There was no blood. There was no pain. I wasn’t afraid. I watched with a sort of morbid fascination, like someone burning an insect under a magnifying glass, as I peeled the last layer of my dry, burnt skin off and revealed the red corduroy of my shoulder muscle beneath.

I stared at the exposed muscles in my back in the mirror for a long time that evening.

I wore three undershirts to work the next day, to soak up the blood, but there was none. That night I peeled the burned skin off my calves and chest and revealed the muscles underneath. It was strange, to see my insides in the bathroom mirror, bright red, but without a drop of blood. I looked like a drawing in an anatomy textbook, or like one of the bodies in that travelling science exhibit where they plasticized the cadavers and displayed their horrific bulging muscles in frozen poses of action: a dead man throwing a frisbee; dead people playing cards around a table; a dead woman atop a rearing horse cadaver, with its skin missing and muscles also pulled tense in exertion.

It’s only a matter of time before the last layer of skin on my face starts peeling too. It’s been another week now and there’s no skin left anywhere else on my body. I can’t go back to the doctor, not now. After he got over his disbelief he’d surely commit me to scientific research somehow – a medical oddity for study. He’d become famous and I’d become a prisoner, a walking cadaver, a freak show like those I’d seen on display in the travelling exhibit.

That’s not what worries me though. What worries me is the other day the muscle on my right hand started to come loose. Last night I grabbed a portion and started to peel it back and it all came away, muscles, tendons, nerve, everything. I could see the white bone of my fingers below.

What worries me is that I have no idea just how deep a burn can go.

Mousetrap

I’m a solitary man.

So as you can probably imagine, I wasn’t overly pleased about someone shacking up with me without even so much as asking.

Oh, no, wait – not like that. You see, I discovered the other week that I have mice. Well, that is to say I have a mouse.

I know what you’re thinking. You’re probably thinking, just one mouse? That’s pretty damn specific. And you’re right. It is. Real damn specific. Because that’s exactly what I have.

I live in an old house, because I like my space – so I have what the people in the real estate business call a heritage property. A century house. That is to say, it’s old and cold and drafty and I love it that way – because I like my damn space and my home being built out of wood, not fucking particleboard. I like my space and narrow stairwells with banisters and attic and cellar and crawlspace, so there.

But I do not like this mouse invading my property. It’s my home, rodents are vermin and that’s trespassing.

I could hear the damn thing in the night, squeaking and scratching and chewing. It was eating through the old wood in my beautiful home, turning it all into sawdust inside the walls and shitting out little black pellets. I could feel it.

I saw it once in the kitchen – damn thing was stupid enough to come out hiding and into the open. As I was frying up bangers and mash I heard it scurry out along the linoleum. It froze and looked up at me with those beady little black eyes and wasn’t even afraid. It was taunting me in my own home.

I grabbed another pan off the stove and chased that little bastard as fast as I could, screaming and smashing the floor behind, but it got away. My glorious breakfast was ruined by the agony of defeat and the escape of my nemesis.

This was war.

I became single-minded in my determination to regain the solitude of my beautiful home. I became a commando of the dark arts of pest extermination – every rat poison, every trap, every strategy and tactic for killing rodents – I learned them all.

Yet still the little bastard persisted. I found unsprung snap traps with the cheese gone. Glue traps with tiny footprints across them. Holes I had packed with steel wool were inexplicably open again the next day.

And still always the scratching. The scratching and the chewing. How they tormented me! It came from the ceiling above my bed when I tried to sleep at night, in the kitchen walls around me while I ate my dinner, and especially beneath the kitchen floor in the crawlspace.

I had to up the ante. The little bastard was getting the better of me. I set more traps, everywhere. I bought more and more rat poison with bigger and more extreme warning signs. I bought all manner of traps – live traps, super-sensitive high tension snap traps, electric wire barriers, pressure sensitive micro-projectiles. Still nothing.

Now I had to tiptoe around all the lethal hardware in my own home but that little bastard had the run of the place. Then one day I saw it again. The mouse made the mistake of coming out into the kitchen once more, and this time I was ready. I grabbed a meat tenderizer from one of the drawers and chased the little plague-bearer with all the fury and hellfire in my soul.

This time it didn’t run back into its hole but across the open floor. Ha! stupid vermin – I’ll pulverize you!

Out of the kitchen, down the creaky basement stairs and onto the concrete floor it skittered. I knew there were many holes down there it could escape into any moment, but I couldn’t stop now. I had to kill my miniature aggressor – I had to reclaim my home. Into the crawlspace the rodent fled, underneath the stairs, but I couldn’t let it get the best of me now. I grabbed a big flashlight from the workbench, threw aside the board covering the hole and army-crawled in after it.

Again I heard that abominable chewing. It seemed to come from everywhere around me, in the maze of two-by-fours which held up my old home. The mouse was here somewhere and I’d smash it yet. I crawled deeper and deeper into the crawlspace, shining my light all around and trying to locate the pest.

The chewing stopped and so did I. The regular creaking of my house above me turned to a loud groaning. I heard a sharp crack, and a cloud of sawdust from a shot downward from above my head, blinding me. One of the beams had snapped. As my vision cleared I heard the groaning deepen and I shone the light forward.

The last thing I saw as the house collapsed around me was the mouse sitting up on a beam ahead, and its little black eyes and smug look which seemed to say: I can set traps too.

Los Coyotes

I want to tell you the story about my family vacation. Well, actually that part is not really that important; what is important is that it’s the story of how my baby sister died.

When I was younger my Dad took our family on vacation to Mexico.

Now when you most people that that, they probably think of going to a nice resort for an all-inclusive vacation where you can sit on the beach in the sun and drink margaritas to your heart’s content until you are drunk as a skunk at two o’clock in the afternoon while your bratty kids play in the surf and you ogle the gold-digger with a supermodel body in a tiny bikini in the beach chair next to you out of the corner of your eye and hope she or her fat old rich husband don’t notice because your wife sure as hell won’t because she’s passed out next to you in another beach chair from too many damn daiquiris and has her wide sun hat pulled down over her face and a New York Times bestseller that Oprah recommended splayed open facedown on her chest.

This was not that sort of vacation.

You see, when I was growing up, my family was poor. My Mom was homemaker and my Dad held down a blue-collar job – he worked the line at the plastics plant just across the tracks before they brought in all the robots and computers and fired everyone.

But goddammit my father was a proud man. Even though he was poor and could barely afford to feed me and my baby sister sometimes, we were going to go on a vacation.

So we went to Mexico, not to a resort with surf and sand and unlimited food and drink, but to a ranch in the desert. As determined as ever, he drove our family through the sweltering heat for 12 hours straight, in that beat-up old blue Chevy with no air conditioning. I sat in the back and sweated and read comic books while Mom sat in the front and took care of the baby.

Finally we pulled in off the desert highway to the ranch where we’d stay for the week. It was a big property and the room where the four of us stayed in wasn’t bad for what my Dad was paying – it was about what you’d get at a cheap motel back home.

The ranch was owned and run entirely by two tall Mexican brothers, who constantly wore giant grins and spoken quickly and excitedly, mixing Spanish and English. They did everything – the older and taller one, Alejandro, greeted us at the desk when we arrived and managed the grounds. The younger brother, Eduardo, cooked delicious Mexican meals 3 times a day in a cramped little kitchen in the dining hall. When he wasn’t doing that he was working with the ranch machinery – tractors, generators, pumps – at a big shed on the edge of the property.

The problem was there wasn’t a whole lot to do on the ranch, other than stuff ourselves with food or ride the couple of horses they had around the fenced-in area by the stable. My Mom mainly just took care of my baby sister, and sat in a chair on the deck outside our room.

I think it was around the third or fourth day when I started to get really bored. I had finished reading all my comic books and explored the ranch as much as I could. There was just nothing else for a kid like me to do.

Later that evening Mom and Dad were sitting out on the deck chairs. Dad was drinking a beer and arguing with my mother about the baby. I just wanted to get away from their shouting.

“Dad, I’m bored.” I said, and sat up. “I’m gonna go exploring.”

My Dad stopped yelling at Mom for a bit. She was rocking the baby which had started crying because of their arguing.

“Alright son,” he said, and took a long pull on his bottle of cheap Mexican beer. “But don’t wander off too far, it’s getting dark out. Come back soon, ya hear?”

“Ok!” and off I ran.

That night I wandered far off into the desert, past Eduardo’s big machine shed and over one of the hills surrounding our little bit of civilization. I wasn’t worried because I could always see the lights of the ranch, but had never explored out that far before. It got quite dark out and what I could see was illuminated by the light of the full moon.

I came down the side of another hill and stopped. There, off in the distance, I saw it – two green eyes, reflecting the light of the full moon back toward me. I was afraid. What was it? It didn’t move – the black shape surrounding the eyes just stayed there, perfectly still, and stared back at me from the next rise. When I finally slowly took a step forward it darted off up over the hill, kicking up plume of sand behind it.

That was enough for me. I high-tailed it back to the safety of the ranch lights.

I asked Alejandro about it in the morning when he was serving us delicious piles of his brother’s huevos rancheros.

“Ahaha, little señor, oh you were out exploring the desert at night?” He laughed again. “Strange things live in the desert my little amigo, I think perhaps you met some of our neighbors, no? los coyotes!” I smiled at him but didn’t understand the last words.

“Coyotes, huh?” my Dad answered gruffly through a mouthful of egg and refried beans. “Half wolf, half dog, son.” I found out later that wasn’t true. “I toldja not to wander on out there. Yer lucky he didn’t make a meal of ya. Best be more careful.” I nodded and Alejandro kept smiling.

“More frijoles?”

It was our second last night at the ranch when it happened. I guess Dad drank too many beers and didn’t close the door all the way behind him when he went to bed.

I woke up halfway through the night and thought I heard boards creaking outside, and a scratching at the door.

“Dad! Dad! Something’s outside!”

“ehhhhhh? Go to sleep son.” He rolled over in bed next to my mother. I know I heard something. I was frightened but closed my eyes and managed to fall back asleep.

In the night I dreamt about the hills of the Mexican desert, the green eyes of los coyotes staring into me, and my baby sister crying.

In the morning I woke up to the sound of my mother screaming and sobbing. I had never seen my father like I saw him that morning, and never did again – he just got real quiet and had this far-off look in his eyes.

It killed my little sister. I looked over at the overturned crib and her body laying next to it on its side. Whatever it was had come in to get her – there were claw marks on the door and a trail of sand from the desert. Two perfectly circular puncture wounds were in her tiny throat, and the body was pale, as if all the blood had been drained out. I’d never seen anything like that before and to this day wish I hadn’t. I cried and cried and buried my face in my hands.

The brothers came by later that morning. The tall one, Alejandro, tried to console my mother, and called the police from our room. They were in the next town which was 30 miles away so didn’t arrive for another half hour.

The other brother, Eduardo, looked more like my Dad did. He just got really quiet after he saw my sister’s body, and then just stared at the ground without saying anything.

Later the two brothers argued in Spanish but I didn’t recognize any of the words: sangre, policía, niña muerta. Alejandro kept talking quickly and loudly, but Eduardo just looked down at the ground and quietly murmured responses.

Coyotes, los coyotes….. the older one kept saying, over and over again.

“No,” said the other, sadly, without looking up.

Even though I didn’t understand, I remember feeling a chill run up my spine when I saw him mouth the next words.

el chupacabra.

The Itch

“My shoulder’s itchy,” Steph said, and scratched it. We were sitting out on the balcony, having a barbeque and enjoying some drinks.

“Baby, if you’ve got an itch, I’ll scratch it!” I grinned roguishly at her, and took a swig of my beer. I laughed.

“shaaaa-daaaaaahup….” she smiled, all flirty, and hit my arm.

Steph and I had been living together for just over a year. We weren’t married or anything, but neither of our families were particularly religious so it wasn’t like were we ‘living in sin’ either. What’s the neutral, god-awful legal term for it again? Oh right – cohabitating.

We continued to sit out on the balcony and enjoy our drinks – I tried not to think about the fact that it was Sunday night and having more than a few beers was probably something I would pay for tomorrow morning at work with a hangover. She on the other hand, didn’t have class until the afternoon and so would be able to sleep in. Ah well, small sacrifices for small pleasures.

Besides, it really was a beautiful sunset. We laughed and chatted and watched, and when I looked into Steph’s eyes with the sunset off in the distance I thought about how it was just one of those perfect moments and about how much I loved her.

The sun dipped below the horizon and it got darker out so we went back inside.

“Don’t worry about the dishes,” Steph said, smiling. “I’ll do them in the morning.”

“Yer damn right ya will!” I replied in a drawl, and gave her a look. She giggled. “I mean, I love you sweetie.”

“You’re cute, you silly boy,” she pecked me on the forehead. “Let’s go to bed.”

We went to bed, made love, and fell asleep.

In the morning as I collected my hung-over self to head into the office. Steph, naked and still-half asleep, mumbled from under the covers. “I’m still itchy…” I watched the sheet move where she scratched her shoulder beneath it.

I went to work.

“It’s getting worse,” she said, when I came home that evening. We were making dinner. “I think I might have a rash or something.”

“Lemme see,” I pulled her sweater down, revealing her left shoulder and black bra strap. “Hmmm… it’s kinda red but I think that’s just from you scratching it. I can see your claws marks!”

“Shaaaaa-dddddup!” she hit me. She did that a lot. “I’m serious, it really itches a lot.”

I really just wanted her to stop complaining. I loved her to death, but she would get hung up on little things like this, and honestly, sometimes she was a bit of a hypochondriac.

“Okay, well if it doesn’t get any better by tomorrow maybe we should go to the clinic or something,”

It did not get better.

“It’s really really bad now….” she said the next evening. “Awwww it hurts so much.” she scratched and scratched the spot vigorously. scratch scratch scratch

“Stoppit!” I said, and slapped her hand. “You’re just going to make it worse. Come on, let’s going to the clinic then – it’s only 6 and they’re open ’til 10.”

Surprisingly the line at the free clinic wasn’t bad. We were admitted within half an hour and I went into one of the exam rooms with Steph. She sat on the exam table on that disposable paper they drape over it that always weirds me out.

Our doctor came in – he looked very undoctor-y – no white lab coat like on TV, just a wrinkled dress shirt and mom jeans. He fired off a lot of questions. Why are you here? The itch. How long has this been occurring for? About two days. Any history of disorders or skin ailments? No. Pregnant? God no. Any drugs or changes in diet? No. Pets, exposure to animals or wild plants? No. Finally he took a look.

“Yes, it’s quite red and inflamed,” he stated. He was like a robot. “But that’s almost entirely due to all the scratching you’ve been doing.” He continued peering at the red area on Steph’s shoulder.

“I told you!” I blurted out. Steph shushed me. I could see she was really uncomfortable, and trying not to scratch the itch, even now as the doctor examined her.

“Hmmm, well normally I’d attribute a prolonged itch to either a skin condition like a rash, psiorasis or eczema,” he cleared his throat. “or possibly an environmental factor like a food allergy, exposure to poison ivy, or pests like fleas, ticks, or scabies.” He got out his clipboard and scribbled away in doctor scribble. “Given what you’ve told me though, and the absence of any visible surficial symptoms, I’m just going to prescribe a general antipruritic.”

That sounded scary. “What’s that?” Steph pulled her cardigan back on over her tank top.

“Anti-itching medication,” Guh. “Topical corticosteroid, anti-inflammatory. Just apply to the area and the itch should subside. Oh and try not to scratch it too much if you can help it.” He tore off the prescription. “If the itching doesn’t subside within a week come back and we’ll run some tests. Before then though, I’d recommend monitoring the humidity in your home as well as getting it checked for pests.”

The humidity in the apartment was normal. The exterminator couldn’t find any signs of pests. The medication didn’t help, no matter how much, or how often, we smeared it on growing red patch on Steph’s shoulder – the itch would not go away.

I was beginning to become worried.

“It’s getting SO much worse!” I could see tears forming in Steph’s eyes. She assured me she was trying her damnednest not to scratch but I could always see her doing so, and making little whining noises. The other day she had been in tears. “I know it’s crazy,” she cried, “but it feels like the itch is coming from inside. It’s like it’s under my skin.”

scratch scratch scratch – that sound was beginning to burrow its way into my mind. “oooooo… this is so terrrrrrrible…it’s spreading down my back now too… a-huh a-huh a-huh” she sobbed. Her shoulder was raw from the scratching and beginning to bleed. I could see gouges from the sharpness of her fingernails.

“This isn’t right,” I hated to see my baby in pain. “It’s too late now, but let’s go back to the clinic in the morning.” It had only been a few days.

“Ohhhh honey, it hurts…” scratch scratch scratch “maybe we should go to Emergency?”

“I know it hurts baby, but it’s just an itch,” I hugged her and stroked her hair. She continued to scratch at the raw patch beneath her shirt, her arm crossed in front of her, between us. I pecked her on the forehead like she always did to me. “We’ll go back to the clinic in the morning and get this figured out.”

We didn’t go back to the clinic in the morning.

scratch scratch scratch I tried to sleep despite the sound burrowing its way into me and Steph’s incessant tossing and turning. I must have finally managed to doze off, because I was awoken around 3 AM by her leaping out of bed. She was in hysterics.

She ran out to the kitchen, screaming and sobbing and scratching. Still half in a daze I got up and followed her. She was running around the island scratch scratch scratch sobbing scratch scratch scratch blood spilling from the raw wound on her shoulder scratch scratch scratch her face all hot tears.

“Steph! Steph! Steph! Stoppit! Get a hold of yourself!” I grabbed her by the arms and stopped her forcefully in front of the sink. She broke down into tears.

“It hurts! OHHHH it hurts! OHHHHH its trying to get out!!! AHHHHH!” scratch scratch scratch the itch. More blood, on her fingers.

“Steph! Fuck, get a hold of yourself!”

And then I saw it. As she turned away and scratched compulsively at the gaping wound on her shoulder, I saw. It was tiny and black.

“Steph! What the fuck is that?” she froze and her hysterics were suddenly swept away for a moment. It was wriggling.

“OH MY GOD!!! OH MY GOD!! GET IT OUT!!! AHHHHH!” she was a ball of blood and tears and elbows now.

scratchscratchscratchscratchscratchscratch

The black tendril got larger, now it looked like a leech on her shoulder. It was writhing. It was a fucking tentacle burrowing its way out of girlfriend’s shoulder.

“Steph!”

She screamed and then the tentacle burst out of her. Flesh. Blood. Everywhere. Steph screaming getioutgetitoutgetioutkillitkillitkillitkillitAAAAAAAAA then another, from her abdomen. They were as big around as my arm – writhing, wriggling, flailing – black as ink, thick and wet.

“OH MY GOD KIILL IT KILL IT AHAHUHAHUH”

That’s when things got a bit hazy.

As I grabbed the butcher knife from the block one of the thick black tentacles wrapped itself around my arm and pulled me towards her. I brought the knife down, over and over again – hacking, slicing, stabbing at anything. I heard an unworldly shrieking separate from Steph’s screams and saw black blood mix with all the red.

I brought the knife down over and over again. Over and over again. Until I began to realize that I was on my knees. Until I began to realize that the noise had stopped. Until I gazed upon the bloody heap of flesh, human and otherwise, on the kitchen floor of my apartment.

There was blood everywhere.

Stephanie was dead. It was dead. The image of that bloody pile, hacked to bits, would forever be set deep in my mind, having tunneled its way in through the depths of my perception.

I buried the body in a shallow grave I dug in an abandoned lot outside the city.

I drove home, a zombie lost in the headlights of oncoming traffic. I couldn’t cry. I couldn’t feel. I couldn’t comprehend what had just happened – what I had just done.

I stripped off my clothes and fell back onto the bed.

My chest started to itch.