The Demons in the Fortress

The air in the room was cold and dusty, and as the particles swirled around me and danced in the light, I took a deep breath and sighed. I looked down to the floor, down to her crumpled body and the blood staining the concrete and sighed again.

Oh Jeanine.

I saw her face, on that bright summer’s day we were out in the field in the warm sunlight. I saw her mouth moving and her hair dancing around her in the mild breeze and her laughing and taking my hand and her summer dress swishing around her.

“I love you, Michael,” she said, and giggled. She kissed me on the cheek and then stuck out her tongue. “Even though you’re a big loser.”

And then she ran. She ran through the swishing blades of tall, tall grass going to hay and they rocked back and forth around her and I followed after her, my hands reaching for the flesh around her hips, to grab her with my fingers and squeeze more laughter out of her smiling face.

That had only been a week ago.

I saw her face, last night, in the dimness of the living room, the sky outside the sliding glass of the patio doors black as midnight, though it was only seven. All the joy and laughter was gone and there were only the long, sagging lines of exhaustion. Of disappointment. Of the weariness she felt and the things taking hold of her mind. Those things that had been hiding in the bright sunlight but had now reared their ugly heads again in the darkness.

“I hate you, Michael,” she said, and her words were colder than ice and burrowed into my soul. Her eyes were black and empty and she was a different person, one I didn’t even recognize her anymore. “I hate you.”

I tried to fight the things off, tried to chip through the wall of stone they’d erected around her. Assault after assault I launched against the dark black bricks beneath the ramparts, but to no avail. The demons laughed in their towers, invulnerable, God-like, knowing they’d already won.

“Please,” I said. “Please Jeanine.”

“No!” she screamed, and hit me, and her voice wasn’t hers, it was someone else’s. It was a tortured twisted sound like an animal. “No!” She hit me, over and over again and I just wished those brights beams of sunlight would break through the blackness of the night to heal her once more, just for a moment.

“Why are you doing this?” I said. “Baby, it’s me! It’s me! What’s the matter!”

But all that came in response were the blows and the laughter of the demons from above the portcullis.

I tried to stop her but she knocked me to the floor. She grabbed the poker from next to the fireplace and swung it and the sharp tong on its end dug into the hardwood next to me, splintering it. I kicked her and she she screamed again and I remember thinking at that moment that she was finally really gone. Really, truly gone.

She chased me into the basement, swinging the iron tool like an sword and I stumbled, rolling down the stairs, my back hitting every step and shooting electric fire into me. At the base of the landing I stopped and she swung the poker again and I ducked. The metal sunk deep into the drywall and dry powder flew everywhere. She was screaming now, like a madwoman. But it wasn’t her. It wasn’t the woman I loved. The demons had her.

I ran toward the shelves of the basement workshop, those cheap metal shelves she’d always so hated. Stumbling I fell into pile of old paint cans. As she ran toward me I reached for something behind me and my body belonged to someone else.

Blood came out of her mouth, in long, slow, choking spurts. The handle of the screwdriver bobbled back and forth from the one end of the blade, the other stuck into the side of her neck. She sputtered out wet red gasps. I took her in my arms and fell to the floor and she stared into my eyes and we both knew that she was dying.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m so sorry.”

The rage never left her eyes. She spat in my face and her saliva was hot on my cheek. Blood poured from her neck onto the cold grey concrete of the shop floor.

Slowly, she closed her eyes, and in them I saw her last words: I know. I’m sorry too.

Oh Jeanine.

I walked back up the stairs, holding the fire poker in the bloodied hand, its end powdery and white.

The demons will be back for me, I know. All I can do is wait.

A Student of Magic

Clarence Sproultocket lifted the heavy tome from the coarse dusty wood of the desk and opened it in his palms. The book was old and the spine weak, the pages brown and wrinkled and smelling of age. He found the one he was looking for and brushed centuries-old dust from it.

It had cost him a fortune. But it would be worth it, to show that other bastard, that right ribblegostler, who was going to be the star pupil. Who was going to impress The Master and become the greatest of the greatest wizards of arcane magic to ever come out of the academy.

He was going to kill him. Summon a demon to drag him to hell and the swirling black mists of the netherworld in the night.

The young magician turned up the flame on the burner and set the flask of green liquid atop the desk to boiling. He crushed the powdered gecko bones and owl’s feathers in the mortar with the stone pestle and hummed a happy tune to himself. As steam escaped from the top of flask and began to whistle, he dropped the powder in with the other ingredients and dumped the hot vile-smelling fluid from the glass vessel over it all.

He picked up his wand from the desk and raised his arms in the air, chanting:

“Al-shagoth, sep-subbarah, with this detritus before me I summon you from the depths of the netherworld! Al-sagoth, seb-supparah, take my sacrifice and enter this realm, to strike down my hated enemy and mortal nemesis, Aruito Trate! Traze, traze-kel-kay! Kel-kay as-duruath al-nost el zabique! Come onto me, bringer of hatred and suffering!”

The air in the young sorcerer’s cottage grew cold. The fire in the hearth seemed to burn lower and dimmer. And then there was a sensation in the body of Clarence Sproultocket, a horrible itching, a terrible burning. Like a thousand termites were writhing beneath his skin and burrowing in his flesh, turning him into a porous mass of bloody sand. He felt his skin stretching and his bones expanding and his viscera rising up into his throat.

He screamed and vomited blood in red geysers of pain. His porous flesh fell away and revealed something beneath, something giant and black and covered in scales. The skin of his childish visage fell away from a spiny face too large for it, one with a giant grinning mouth full of pointed teeth. The thing screamed and laughed and the sound echoed out of the windows of the tiny cottage into the darkness of the surrounding forest.

Far away, up in his tower, The Master sat reading a book by candlelight, and felt a chill.

Mother

It was dark all around me and smelled of death.

I stumbled through the blackness, clumsy, lost, disoriented, reaching out in front of me for something, anything, to support me in my fumbling through the void. The cold of the stone walls around me greeted my reaching hands, and I continued forward, feeling my way along them.

My eyes adjusted to the dimness, and I saw the lumpy gray rock sheets enclosing me, and between them ahead, a black hole leading into the nothingness, beckoning me. From the hole a figure emerged, a small silhouette. As it came closer I saw it was that of an old woman in a dress.

As she drew nearer I saw that there was something wrong – just wrong – with her. Even in the blackness I could see her face was discolored and bloated. Red blood showed through in places where the skin was torn away, and her eyes were gone: there were only vacant black pits staring out at me.

It was my mother.

“You left me son,” she said in her feeble voice. I smelled the cigarette smoke on her breath, just like I had when I was child. “You left me to die in that home. Why didn’t you take care of me? Why didn’t you tell me you loved me before I turned into this? Before it was too late?”

“I’m sorry!” I called out to her, but my words were broken somehow, muffled like I was underwater, like I was smothered beneath a thick blanket. I called out again and again, but I knew she could not hear me.

“Why son? Why…?” Her voice grew more and more feeble. She began to fade into the blackness just as she’d emerged from it. “Now I’m doomed to wander here forever. Forever. Just as you are.”

“No! No!” I screamed, but my words were even more distorted than before. And then I felt myself falling, and the blackness closing in, heavy and thick and full of malice, and mother was gone.

I awoke covered in sweat, and rose from bed and put on my black suit. I gathered the crumpled pages I’d written the night before from the bedside table, from their place next to the empty glass.

The funeral was at 11. I couldn’t be late. Mother would have disapproved.

Spooktown

It was a simple job. But then again when they come through the door, it always is.

I lean back in my chair and light my cigarette. It hangs from the end of my mouth and smoke meanders toward the ceiling in a long trail, until it’s caught up in the currents of the rotating fan above.

Spooktown. Only once did I ever go into Spooktown, and that was enough. Lots of folks disappeared into Spooktown. Some on purpose. Some by mistake. But once you went in and that place got a hold of you, decided it wanted you, there was no coming out. No matter how hard you tried. No matter how much your loved ones missed you. No matter how many gumshoes like me crying wives with handfuls of hundred dollars bills – cashed-in life insurance policies, hocked jewelry, money saved for what would have been their first children – sent in.

Best just to stay as far away as you could. A hundred miles. A thousand. Why I hadn’t moved to the other side of the country? Put as much distance between myself and that godforsaken place as possible. Even it being the half-hour boat ride across the channel was too close.

Now there was another crying wife in front of me. Only this time it wasn’t about her husband. Because I knew her husband was dead.

“Please,” the dame wept, tears pouring down her red cheeks. “Sam, you’ve got to do this for me. You’ve got to. That’s where she went. I know it is.”

I blew smoke and gloomy lines of light coming in through the blinds and conspiring shadows in the corners watched.

“No way,” I said. “There’s not enough money in this world, Lila.”

“Please Sam, please. We’ve got to do something.”

I sat up. Took my shoes off the desk and leaned forward, crossed my arms and put them on the wood in front of me and the brass chain on the lamp danced back and forth.

“I don’t have to do anything, especially not for you, Lila. It’s hard to say no to money, but in the case of you and Spooktown I’m willing to make an exception. What could possibly convince me to go in there, of my right mind? What would make you think I’d be willing to do that, for you of all people?”

Lila sniffed. She took something out of her purse. A photo. Glossy 8×10. A pretty girl, young. Very young. Looked just like Lila when I’d last seen her so many years ago – same beautiful black hair, same high cheekbones, same alabaster skin.

“It’s our daughter,” she cried. “Sam, it’s got our daughter.”

You’re Not My Real Dad!

“You’re not my real Dad!” I screamed. “You can’t talk to me like that!”

“Well, I’m the closest goddamn thing to a father you’ll ever have, so I can talk to ya how I damn well please!” Stephen said, and he hit me again. The slap of his hand was hard against my cheek and stung. I knew it was turning red.

“Fuck you!” I yelled. “Fuck you, Steve! You’re shit! You’re a terrible fucking person!” And I retreated back into my bedroom and slammed the door in his face.

I’d show him. I’d show him. I went to the closet and dug through the boxes in it. Where was it? Where was it? In the shoebox. In the shoebox. There it was, there it was.

I took the shoebox out of the closet and lifted its contents out of it. So beautiful. I’d spent so long creating it. So many hours. So many countless nights up alone in the darkness of my room, with only the light of my desk lamp to keep me company.

I fished the sewing kit from out of the desk drawer. Took out a shiny metal pin with a plastic red ball atop it.

I stuck the pin into the doll and from the kitchen downstairs I heard Steve scream.

It was going to be a long night. One I enjoyed.

Clover

When I was five I discovered the clover patch by the old farmhouse I grew up in. A hidden oasis of green in the expanse of sandy hay flapping in the wind around our humble little abode, the amber stalks around opened like a curtain to a hidden backstage. Many a warm summer afternoon I lay in the cool comfort of the clover patch without a care in the world and stared up at giant white clouds slowly crawling across the sky.

When I turned 8 I fell in love. Margaret was her name. She lived in the next farmhouse over, down the road. We met when we both wandered to where the properties did, right where it gave way to the thick of the forest, at the rotted fence made of old railway sleepers.

We lay in the clover patch most every day that summer, at first apart and then together. We lay in the innocence of childhood guilt, knowing that what we were doing was wrong but could also never be. That was when we learned its secret. The clover patch was alive, a living thing. The tiny sprouts swayed and caressed their leaves against our naked bodies, absent any summer breeze.

The summer after that my parents sent me off to boarding school and I thought only of Margaret. Those few weekends I returned home I visited the clover patch, like a pilgrim to his childhood Mecca, hoping I’d find her there. But the clovers lay still, only for only me.

When I was 16 I visited the clover patch under the light of the full moon and Margret was their too, her back to me, the clover swaying beneath her feet in the still humid air. “I knew you’d come,” she said. We made love. We lay in the clover and held each other and it held us.

We made love each summer after that, until I was 19 and Margaret told me she was going away to college in the city. “I can’t keep doing this,” she said. “We’re not children anymore.” The clovers lay still then and I wondered whether they’d ever really moved at all.

She sent me a letter after I shipped out to Iraq. It said she met someone and everything had happened very fast. It said she’d always love me in a certain way, and that nothing would ever be the same as those summer nights we lay amongst the clover. She said she was pregnant and she was going to keep it and they were going to get married.

When I was 20 I came back to the farm on leave. Dad and Mom were dead and the old farmhouse was mine now. I brought Margaret’s second letter with me and read it over and over on the way home. I went back to the clover patch under the light of the full moon, and thought about all the summers we’d lain in its soft caress.

I lay, and this time the clover was alive again, and I felt it caressing me, then saw in the dim moonlight little white tendrils sprouting from the tiny plants and snaking out over me. The tendrils burrowed into my skin, into the flesh of my arms, and I bled. The clover sprouted, smothering me, thousands of them rushing into my mouth and forcing their way down my throat and suffocating me.

The moon was beautiful that night. I hoped that one day Margaret would come back with our son, and in my bones they’d find my dog tags with the inscription I’d had engraved on the back: I STILL LOVE YOU

Dog Park

It was a beautiful sunny day in the dog park just off of Chestnut Street in the little town of Prosperity, Rhode Island.

Michael Winters walked his dog – Buckwheat, his yellow lab – along the paved path with him, and whistled a happy tune. The sun was shining and the sky was clear and blue; the rains of yesterday had moved on, taking the looming clouds with them, and all was once again beautiful and prosperous in Prosperity.

Walking through the gate and closing it behind him, Michael waved at another regular attendee of the park he recognized, an older man, always clad in a navy raincoat, whether it was raining or not. Buckwheat was already jumping up excitedly and pushing her golden paws against her owner’s shins, ready to run, ready to fetch, ready to play. Her master rubbed her yellow head and spoke excitedly down to her – that’s a good girl, that’s a good girl, you ready to get the ball? you want to get the ball, don’t you? – then stood and extended his arm, primed to hurl the small orb into the grassy enclosed area, amongst the other owners and their loyal animals.

Michael Winters froze with ball in hand and arm extended. Something was wrong. Terribly wrong. He glanced from animal to owner to pet to master to dog to human, a zigzag across the green space, building in speed and franticness.

They were all watching him. The dogs were. They’d all stopped and were staring at him with their little eyes – their eyes that had taken on an almost human quality. Why didn’t their owners see it? They all still chatted and threw balls that the dogs ignored and played with their phones; none seemed to see their pets all staring directly at the newcomer.

Buckwheat started growling and barking, quietly at first, then louder, and turned toward Winters, her eyes red and full of hatred. Her barking turned into a rage-filled thing, a horrible sound not like her, like her master had never heard her, like an vicious animal, a rabid wolf, a monster. The dogs in the park joined in, from the giant Great Dane down to the tiny chihuahua. The noise was overpowering and Michael covered his ears. The owners paid no mind.

Winters dropped the ball as the animals crept towards him, frozen in terror. Buckwheat leapt and plunged her teeth into her master’s throat, and warm blood gushed and painted the beautiful golden fur of her face crimson. The pack of other canines came in like a famished wave to feed.

The sun shone. A boy rode by on his bicycle, and rang its bell.

Prying Eyes

Have you ever had the feeling someone is watching you? Where the air seems just a little bit different, and you can feel the hairs on the back of your neck start to stand up?

Michael had gone away for the weekend, on business, he said. He wasn’t going to be back until Sunday night. I’d just finished a relaxing hot shower, my hair up in a towel and my still-wet body hugged in the warm folds of my bathrobe, and put on a pot of tea and the television. With him gone I thought it would be good to opportunity to just stay in and relax and have some time to myself.

That’s when I felt the eyes watching. When I got the overwhelming sensation of not being alone. Of someone was looking in. The drapes fluttered in the cold wind of the night and I knew someone was there. I could feel it.

“Who’s there?” I called out, but no one answered.

Trying to remain calm, I went to the closet and got out a flashlight. I held it in my shaking hand called out again:

“I know you’re out there! Show yourself!”

There was no response.

I turned on the flashlight, and I saw the voyeur leering down at me from the tree in the yard. It was Michael. Vacantly his eyes stared in through the window, so very white. Beneath them a rope tight around his neck and beneath that jagged bloody letters carved into the flesh of his chest:

I SEE YOU

Terror at Make Out Point

Jenny kissed Tom in the truck passionately, and their heated passion filled the cramped space, steaming up the windows. She made little noises as they kissed, until finally Tom started to put his hand up her shirt and she pulled back, falling back against the passenger door.

“What are you doing?” she protested, staring at him in the darkness.
“Aww, come on,” Tom said. “Don’t be a prude.”
“Tom!”
“What? Do you really think we came up here just to look at the moon?” She glowered at him. “Fine, be that way. Might as well not just sit here in silence.”

Tom lit a cigarette and turned on the radio. There was the sound of a man talking, hurriedly but trying to maintain a calm tone and sound matter-of-fact:

“We interrupt your regularly scheduled programming to bring you this important announcement. Police have just learned that a patient has escaped from the institution for the criminally insane on Black Briar Hill and is heading down the mountain toward the city. The fugitive is described as 6 foot 3, with long black hair, and should be considered extremely dangerous. The police commissioner is advising everyone to stay, lock doors and windows, and be on the lookout for any suspicious characters in their neighborhood.”

And then the broadcast was over, and The Eagles were in the truck with the two high-schoolers, singing about the hotel you could check out of any time you’d like but never leave.

“Oh my God!” cried Jenny, flicking one of her long curly blonde locks at Tom. “That’s terrifying! That’s not far from here, just a ways up the mountain. We should get out of here Tommy! Just to be safe! I’m so scared!”

“s’okay baby.” Tom blew smoke from his Malboro into the cab. “I’ll protect you.” He pitched the cigarette out the window and leaned in to kiss the innocent young girl.

The two necked passionately, as the smouldering cigarette lit the scrub brush it had landed in. The flames spread, engulfing all the vegetation on the hill. Just as Tom started to round second base Jenny pushed him aside and looked out the windshield to see the inferno spreading before them.

“Oh my god, Tom! Look! What did you do? What did you do!?”

The teenagers jumped out of the truck, slamming the doors behind them, not knowing why.

“What do we do, Tom, what do we do?” Jenny screamed.
“Shut up!” Tom said, grabbing her shoulders and shaking her. “Just shut up!”

The fire raged on beneath the light of the nearly-full moon. The two turned to look down the hill into the raging blaze, and saw within it a dark shape emerging, flames leaping off of it; the dark figure of a man with long black hair and holding something down at his side, something bouncing against his knee as he climbed the burning slope.

It was a human head.

They turned and ran, and the burning man followed.