The Hell of Dying
Agony twitched Julia’s limbs in time to the rhythm the fire beat out inside her body.
Life. Death. Life. Death. Life. Death.
The Pilferers fretted their lancinating fingers so the needles sang like chimes, adding their restless anticipation to the tune searing through her. Soon, they would have one more body to toss onto the putrefying mass at her side. So many in that pile had once been her anchors to life. Their absence burned her mind to pitch.
Julia pushed to her knees, screaming with the effort. The Pilferers stabbed their fingers into the pulses of their throats and extracted more bilious blood. Amber beads hissed from the tips.
The Hell of dying. That was what the Pilferers delivered—the fear of the unknown, the grief of parting. Their liquid dread incapacitated the most gifted Magi, turned their power to fire in their veins, rolled it through their wasted flesh to puddle on the dirt where the parasitic demons lapped it up like dogs.
Julia’s lips split in a mirthless grimace. Everything she would have regretted lay piled in that stinking corner. No loose ends. No fears. The needles plunged into her arms once again. This time, her mounting power met the invasive liquid, and drove it back into the Pilferers’ hands.
The cave overflowed with agonized screams as the Pilferers fought to banish the dull apathy she had gifted them. They writhed on the floor, incapacitated and denied their crucial sustenance.
They couldn’t hurt her, not now. There was nothing left to do but see how well she could make them match the remains of her family and friends.
Julia retrieved her sawed-off shotgun, and went to work.
You Want to Know About Heroes?
I can shatter bone. With no more effort than it takes you to grab a pencil, I can pulverize your femur. With a flex of my quads I can leap to the top of your house, and with a swipe of my arm, I can topple it. As a child you gazed with longing at candy-colored comic books, wishing to be all that I already am.
They cry. All night. Voices in the dark, shouting, screaming, pleading. They scurry across the earth, unable or unwilling to pry themselves from the role of victim. “It’s too hard,” they say. “It’s too hard. Help me.”
I did, at first. To shut them up, to win myself a decent night’s sleep. I saved the first one. A sweet-bodied guy with shining chestnut hair and eyes to match. As I convinced his assailants they had chosen the wrong victim, he took in the carnage I wrought with those dark, wide eyes. After the electric terror faded, after the sting of being rescued by a chick had eased from them, I found those eyes were the same as the rest of him–sweet and grateful. I let him thank me. All night. He eventually dozed off, but the screams kept coming. I stared into the blackness and wished for them to stop. The sirens echoed their wails–one passing so near it started my boy out of his exhaustion. He rolled onto his side, blinked those stupid doe eyes at me and said, “Aren’t you going to help them?”
I got up fast, was out of there before the shape of my head had smoothed from the pillow. I left him lounging in bed, confident that now he was safe, his hero was going out to save the rest of the world.
I went and got a drink.
Behind me, some bastard at the pool table smacked his girlfriend in the face for sloshing his beer. I let him.
There were other times I felt more generous. Times when a rapist was found mangled and stuffed in a trash can. Times when a serial killer stopped killing and the cops thought they’d somehow lucked out and managed to jail him on unrelated charges. But for each of those times there were scores where I heard, and did nothing. Times when I just didn’t feel like getting involved.
I can still hear them. Despite the four window air conditioners I have running at full-tilt, despite the music I play so loud it throbs my eardrums and gives me vertigo, I can still hear them screaming for me. I turn up the volume, and pray for sleep.
So, what do you think of me now, kids? Do I fit inside your hard-lined squares of colorful ink? Do my words fill in the bubbles?
Am I your hero, or what?
The Empress of the Fescue
This is how a snake feels, awaiting the first rays of light to banish the insidious chill. This is how it will always feel, cold and alone. This is why my desperation grows–as hers must have-wild.
I purchased her at an estate sale to stand sentry against the hordes of sticky-mouthed candy-grabbers trampling my front lawn. My beautiful, winged, snarling chimera, the Empress of the Fescue.
With a childish thrill I ventured under the harvest moon to admire her fearsome grimace. Only a flattened patch of turf remained to belie her post. There was no time to gape, or wonder. She came with full fury, a winged wrecking ball to the back. I toppled forward against the dew-dampened grass, gasping for air.
Masonry talons clicked against the sidewalk. I heaved onto my back. She was there under the halo of light, waiting for my gaze to register her carven jaws stretched wide with hunger. Panic jolted my bones and I scrabbled away, clawed hands and bare feet churning the earth in desperation.
The grass was slick. I was slow.
Her terrible weight prematurely expelled the last of my breaths. That gaping mouth sucked deep into my own. I struggled to stay inside, but there was nothing to hold onto, no anchor to cast.
I pushed myself up with shaking arms.
She, wearing me.
I fit her like a well-made suit, and she smiled. She did a small dance of joy, cavorting out of view as she tried her new legs. My head could not turn to follow. Cast in a haze of gray, my world contracted to a narrow strip of grass, a patch of siding, and my living room window.
It aches, sitting here with my knees hunched around my chin. A spider has built a web in the crevice of my right ear. The grass is cold against my immovable hide and I spend the long dark wishing for the following day to come without rain or clouds so I might briefly remember warmth.
I catch snippets of her through the window, clips from a movie I will never see. She seems happy. And why shouldn’t she be? She has it all: my life, my husband, my flesh. And she has me, her Empress of the Fescue.
The creature stopped twitching, and immediately she wished she could take it back. She held her daddy’s hammer tightly in the palm of her shaking hand and stared at the mess that had not too long before been a head. The insides of her stomach twisted into a dozen tight balls of string. There was no taking this back. No putting life back into the small form.
She gazed at the ruined body in contemplation. It had been so small, so weak. When she had picked it up, the thing squawked and squealed in panic, but had been helpless to do anything more. Surely that meant something? Her young mind gnawed the problem, chewing it like tough meat. She gazed at the lifeless shell, and the bits of swirling emotions settled, locking in her mind as a much more logical, concrete outlook.
Because it had no chance against her, the creature deserved to fall under her control. With no means to defend its life, its death became hers to decide. She hefted her daddy’s hammer in her hand and felt a surging swell of dominance. The young monster gazed down at the rest of the tiny, scurrying humans, and smiled.
The Love of the Job
Like a mechanical mosquito the needle hammered into his flesh, drawing out slick smears of crimson, depositing various shades of gray in return.
Remember Nikky, this spot is mine.
Those had been the last words spoken to him by his grandfather, Sid “the Ink” Shepherd, as the dying old man patted the final bit of virgin skin on Nick’s motley arm. Now only the walls’ collection of flash stood as silent witness to the fulfillment of that promise, the memorialization of Nick’s mentor, despite the torturous regret it fostered.
The job was going horribly wrong.
Nick’s sweat-slicked right hand clung to the battered, duct taped armrest as his defiant left arm steadily worked his grandfather’s prized shader across his flesh. He could no more stop its progress than will the frenzied staccato of his heart to slow. The needle buzzed into his skin with hot, jabbing intensity. The newly injected ink swarmed through the dermis, breaking lines here, joining others there, willfully reshaping his chosen design to suit its own undisclosed end. Nick could do nothing but watch.
After hours of slow agony, the maniacal tension in Nick’s arm dispelled and the shader clattered to the floor. His stomach knotted with trepidation, Nick grabbed a handful of rough paper towels and wiped away the sanguine and ebony swirls. From its place in the center of his forearm, the grayscale visage of his grandfather stared sternly up at the collection of lewd cartoons pinned to the ceiling. Like a slow moving wave, the skin on Nick’s arm gathered and broke, folding over his grandfather’s eyes as dark, hooded lids. The tattoo gave a slow blink and then rolled its gaze down, sweeping back and forth, studying its new incarnation. Sweat ticked down Nick’s face as the eyes–those eyes wrought by his own hand–turned upwards to bore into him. With a careful stretch of its mouth, the tattoo gave Nick an admonitory scowl.
“Your shading is shit, boy.”
The Walk of Shame
Liz eased onto her feet. The coverlet, which had wound its way around her foot sometime during the long night’s thrashings, trailed her like a train. She shook it off with impatience, more mindful of her body’s nagging soreness than the ridiculous irony of the image.
He had left before she had awoken. The room was a shambles, his belongings scattered across the floor as if abandoned in hasty disgust. In the bright morning sunshine the electric surge that had filled Liz’s heart at the apex of their encounter seemed all but drained away. She felt small, weak and exposed.
“Oh. You’ve awakened.” Victor stood just inside the doorway, hair mussed, clothes disheveled. He avoided her eyes as he gestured to the far corner. “Your dress is over there.”
“Thank you,” was all she could manage. Liz picked up the soft black garment, puddled it on the floor at her feet and then stepped in, aware of the odd pull of tightened muscles across her back. She struggled with the sleeves for a few moments, wondering if he was watching, wondering if he was aware of the toll their riotous night had taken on her. If he knew, he made no attempt to assist her as she fumbled with the buttons. After a few moments of struggling she abandoned the top two, leaving a gaping V at the crest of her shoulders, followed by a series of odd bulges and gaps where she had incorrectly fastened the fabric. She turned back to Victor and forced a small smile. “Better?”
Victor’s eyes, hooded with guilt, shifted to the door. “I have work.”
Liz started to nod, but then shook her head. “No.”
“I will not.” She stamped her foot. An aching throb traced up her leg. Was there anywhere on her body their transgressions had not touched? Liz caught the warning arch of his eyebrow, the downward tug of his mouth and altered her tone. “How can you act this way? After last night–?”
“I am busy, that’s all. I told you, I have work to do.”
“And you don’t have time enough to spare me a moment now that your conquest is complete? Have you checked me off of your list, yet?” He didn’t answer and Liz choked back the lump in her throat. “How can you be this way?”
“I am not being any way,” Victor said. He ran his hand through his hair, tousling it even further. “I do not have time for this.”
“And I have no inclination to let you leave without admitting last night was special. You… My body… Touched everywhere. Your hands traced the most intimate parts of me. Last night we connected as no others have. Admit that, and I will leave you alone.”
“Of course!” Victor shouted. “Of course it was intimate. I was there! I was! But it’s no longer last night. It is tomorrow.”
“I see.” Liz fought the tears that threatened to overspill. “It is tomorrow, and you have work to do.”
“Marvelous! You’ve got it. That’s only what I have been telling you for the past five minutes.”
“Then do not let me keep you one second longer.”
He slid from the room like a scolded child, his shamed relief staining the air. Liz limped past the gurney to the window. The leaded panes mimicked the tracery of stitches across her face–the fine, careful lines Victor had sewn all over her body. He had made her. From castoff corpses to single being, he had made her, infused her with this life, and then tossed her aside. She pressed her forehead against the glass until it hurt, staring out at a world she would never enter, straining away from the world she would never leave.
“You are a bastard, Victor,” she whispered. “Such a bastard.”