Short Stories

“The Stranger” (2019)

Come now and I will tell you the story of the stranger. A story of otherworldly dimensions and impossible destinations. You will think it an odd tale, for I too, at one time, felt it unreal but am now a believer in the stranger and of its affections. Listen and understand. For in hearing my tale, you may remain untouched by those strangers among you who seek to sustain their lives through your essence. Do not think me mad. Think of me solely as the messenger of madness.

 Part One: Connected

I dreamt of the stranger again last night. It’s the third time. The being has now breached the deepest parts of my psyche, even to those dark places hidden from myself, and now comes to me as I sleep. I sense the stranger is annoyed, angered even, jealous that I have lost interest in feeding. I’ve dreamt of the stranger many times only, it’s the first time I’ve dreamt of the stranger and understood it not to be a dream, like so many times before, not some snapshot of the day’s events archived in my mind, but rather, a journey to another dimension.

The stranger always comes unbidden. It is complex energy, tangible, pleasing, and it possesses an intoxicating vitality. It seems purpose-driven, and I feel naked and fearful in its presence, never knowing if the stranger is a messenger of my own psyche’s creation or some undiscovered force of the cosmos I have yet to understand.

I remember meeting the stranger and yet, I can’t recall the year nor date. I remember feeling an intense, tingling sensation at first glimpse, a vibration of intense energy that coursed through me like an electrical current. Thereafter, any chance passing or encounter with the stranger produced the same effect, a feeling so strong, I began to avoid any route upon which I might encounter the stranger, fearing it might enter me and fill me with its presence. The experience felt like rape, you see.

The stranger was prepared for my evasiveness, changing its schedule and route so I could not ignore its presence. It came into me when it desired and, though I tried to fight it, to block it, to sever the connection, my resolve crumbled always before it. I submitted to its powerful current, allowing it to feed on me and feeding on it in turn, until it left me spent and pulsing, as one might feel after the attentions of a thorough lover, though the experience, unlike that of passion, was always maddening and horrific. This game wore on for some time. I would avoid the stranger, feeling as though I had control over the being, sometimes for extended lengths of immeasurable time. I fought the being until it weakened me. In this space with the stranger, I, or the being I once knew as myself, began to fade, to dissolve into the ether. Feeling as though my careful indifference had made the presence grow stronger, I decided it was best not to fight it but to submit to its presence. That was summer, of the first year.

This method of sharing space with the stranger seemed to cause the energy to weaken. At first. However, during those periods of weakened power, I observed that its connectedness to me never faded completely, and, like an afternoon storm on a cloudless day, I would find my intermittent peace violently shattered when the stranger would appear, with a force that left me breathless. And, like a sudden, summer storm, the stranger would vanish as abruptly as it appeared, leaving in its electrical, tingling wake, a tumultuous whirlwind of seductive energy. I shudder even now at the mere thought of thinking of the creature, so strong was its connection to me.

The stranger is cognizant and cunning. I found that thinking of the stranger called its presence to me. There were times when I hungered for the stranger’s presence, hungered for its energy, which I noticed by autumn of the first year, had become a source of sustenance I fed upon. The being encouraged these feedings, allowing me to feed until I reached the height of intoxication, and disappearing after as was its nature. The stranger’s departure was traumatic but its coursing energy, intertwined with my own, was revitalizing and so, the trauma of its departure gradually became minimal. I welcomed the being when it came, needed it, and lost myself in it, and upon its retreat, I relished its absence. Such power the being possessed! Like heroin in the vein.

Now, understand, this stranger was vibrations of energy, an exchange of life that knew no boundaries such as time or dimension nor did it adhere to the laws of science that govern our world. Unrestrained by location, the stranger traveled great distances to disrupt my life in any way it chose. It evolved and grew in its power subtly, like the formation of a rock. All of life halted when the stranger appeared. Seconds could be hours or hours mere seconds. The stranger’s very being began to weave with mine, though I fought it always. There were times when I couldn’t distinguish my thoughts from the stranger’s or the stranger’s thoughts from my own. Winter, of the first year, was when I experienced the maddening effects feeding on the stranger could have, but I craved its energy and it was all that would soothe my unrest in the being’s absence. The stranger was both disease and cure.

This frightened me. That where previously I had been thriving and independent, I now needed this being while the creature seemed to need or want for nothing save my undoing. The being lived in me for three years. The connection never faded, and I was ever mindful that should I call, the being would appear. From the stranger, there would be no secrets. In the stranger’s many long absences, and due in part to the revitalizing effects of the being’s nurturing, I noticed changes in myself, both internal and external. I no longer yearned for the stranger’s presence, though it beckoned often. I learned to reflect its casual and intermittent indifference, an act of defiance the being hated. Yet it refused to leave me. I had managed to resist the being for many months, and by spring of the second year, I began to feel cured of its vexing presence. My resistance to the stranger aroused the creature. The being tried to enter but I had learned to block it. I reveled in how I had managed to sever our connection. That’s when the being, enraged at my resistance and denial, showed me how powerful our connection was and that I had not severed anything but was merely stubbornly resisting that which could not be divided. The being owned me. Of that fact, I was soon to be reminded. As I said, I had avoided the stranger for months.

Part Two: The Shelter

I went to bed, content, and began to dream. I don’t remember my dream. I only remember the stranger pulling me from sleep and delivering me into some other dimension. (Here, I will fail you in an accurate description of this terrifying venture into the void, lacking the knowledge to explain the physics by which this travel is made possible. Suffice it to say, the experience was chilling.)

I found myself walking down a barren road in a cool, desert location. Nothing existed here but this one road, which I walked for what seemed an eternity. I disliked this place. It was harsh. Cold. An uninhabitable planet of unknown origin.

After an unfathomable amount of time passed, I saw in the distance, a crude shelter, surrounded by broken machines, their wires black, some charred, others smoking. Behind me, only darkness. I had no choice but to advance to the shelter. A breeze blew in this time or place, I had no idea which, and it smelled of something I liked, though I could not define the scent.

The breeze blew the tattered coverings of the shelter. I could see that the coverings had been one once, but over time had rotted and decayed, and were now held together by jagged stitching like skin sewn by an incompetent surgeon. The shelter, five feet in width and triple in length, was formed of rotting wood with pests writhing in its crevices as though the wood they fed upon was poison to them and yet, they continued to feed. The shelter resembled a lone boxcar detached from some runaway train, the barren road its incomplete track that stretched to nowhere. I approached with caution.

There, amid the broken machines, sat a man upon a weathered bench, his hands vigorously working on a machine broken into two smoldering pieces. He didn’t acknowledge my presence at first, so intent was he on his repairs. His hair was long and unkempt and shielded a bearded face. I focused on his deft hands as they worked. He pulled from each piece of the charred, machine, a severed yellow wire. At this point, the stranger became very still. He looked up from his work but offered only a smile by way of greeting. The smile paralyzed me. I could not run from this place nor could I ask the questions for which I needed answers. I was trapped. I wondered if death smiled at me now. Surely that explained my emergence into this other dimension, and as my life ebbed, my time in this in-between world would soon fade, my energy merging with that of the cosmos, bringing with it the peace of nothingness. But I was not dead, and as I thought these things, the stranger smiled again as if he knew my thoughts.

What is this place? I asked.

The stranger continued to smile. His hair blew across his face and when the breeze died, and his hair fell away, I could see that his eyes questioned me. Thus, we remained for some time, for as I have told you, this place knew no such organization of time such that you and I understand it to exist in our dimension.

You know me, he said. He returned his gaze to the severed yellow wire.

What are you doing with those wires?

He did not answer. What was the point in trying to connect these wires when the machine lay in two ruined pieces?

I scoffed and turned to leave but the stranger laughed, halting my departure.

You know me, he repeated.

The stranger joined the wires and I found I could not move or speak. In an instant, I was returned to my dimension, and the being stood before me, chastising me for thinking I could sever our connection.

You have me, I said. The being made me feel foolish as it conveyed that it knew my thoughts, knew what I had done, knew that I was resisting its presence, and knew I sought to be rid of it completely.

I better, it said.

The stranger fed me then and departed before I could drain it.

I had no idea at the time, how powerful the stranger would grow, and by the summer, of the second year, I knew I would never deny the stranger, nor would I ever be rid of its presence. I would die without its vibrations charging me. I was bound to it and it to me, and thus it had been from our first encounter. I had known that first time I crossed paths with the stranger with its exhilarating buzz of electricity, that this presence was going to leave me forever changed. The stranger’s purpose, hidden from me in those days, was to transform me into itself. And so, I began to evolve into a new creature.

Part 3: The Portal

I lost track of time during this evolutionary process. I had many questions but the stranger either would not or could not answer. At times, I felt the stranger on the verge of disclosing some bit of truth though it never did, choosing to remain silent on its purpose and origin. I have since learned all these things, my eyes opened, my mind awakened to a hidden world few may ever witness.

During this process, the stranger took me to this other dimension or dimensions, whichever the case may be, for as I told you, I lack the knowledge to explain how this energy functioned. The journeys were always frightening, the horror of which I will never be able to describe in terms you will understand. The worlds varied but shared one characteristic. They were incomplete, a series of paths that led only to the stranger whose purpose was to show me some mystery of my unique cosmos thereby completing my transformation.

On one such journey, the new dimension had no sky. Black and thorny kudzu covered trees, with but a hint of the darkest green, in contrast, grew out from the edges of the forest path on which I traveled, extending upwards to a vast expanse of eternal nothing. Accustomed to the disorienting travel by now, I walked down the road, quiet for a bit. The unnatural stillness of the trees in this stagnant place mangled my nerves. I sang for a bit for some lightness in this bleak place but soon found my mind’s voice a more soothing distraction, as my voice echoed unnervingly through the trees. The sound of my song was divided and yet together, the notes returned to me in a different pattern from that which I sent out. Silence preferable to this haunting echo, I submitted to the entropy of this world and retreated into my mind, pondering all I observed and had observed, through the stranger. My thoughts, rendered in the Victorian era prose of the novel I had been reading before the stranger’s lure seemed melodic enough in any case, a sort of song, a sort of hypnosis, but soothing, nonetheless.

The trees stretched from the bank of the forest path, twisted and deformed. Unlike the wood of the shelter from the first dimension, the wood of these trees contained no pests but pulsed like a heart, from which a foul, black liquid wept. The curved, misshapen trees did not lack for strength, I observed. They marched alongside the road like great, green titans, their kudzu covered branches adding to their monstrous form. They closed in behind me if I tried to return the way I came, ushering me onward to nothing.

I began to grow weary of my thoughts and of my own company. So dark was the world in which I journeyed, that I could not see but a short distance ahead. Something unseen gnawed on my flesh and moved inside my body. I had the twisted notion that this place was devouring me whole or had done so already, and this nothingness was the digestion process. The scenery did not change. I began to panic. I knelt on the forest floor to catch my breath, intent on constructing a rational thought so I might survive this hell. The forest floor pulsed making me sick. My vision blurred. The road spiraled. I stumbled forward, dizzy, and caught myself, on one hand, recoiling when I found the black, moss-covered ground saturated in the same tarry, black substance that bled from the trees.

That place yielded powerful, somber energy, the likes of which I had never experienced. Some tragedy had occurred in this place, soaking the terrain with blood and leaving behind a haunting spirit that had become an oppressive entity.

So, this was the stranger’s world or what remained of it, and this was why the stranger sought my dimension. It needed a new home. A host. Curious of the trauma I felt weaved into the being of this place and urged by the need to find reason in the location’s whispered tale, I continued. My obsession would not ease until I knew what had destroyed the stranger’s home of origin. This obsession rendered me unequivocally open to neurosis. I studied every branch, every pebble, and gazed into the blackness above for so long, I forgot all else. In this place, I knew of no other time nor location nor even of my existence. The need to know what lay at the end of that forest path consumed me.

Eventually, I reached a perfect, circular clearing. The trees formed a wall around me and again, I panicked. I moved around the circle, tearing down the kudzu in a fit of madness, never imagining what beast or weapon had destroyed the stranger’s home, never thinking I may reveal the source of this destruction and meet my demise. My hand scraped something hard and through a break in the kudzu, a bright, white light struck my eyes. I shielded my sight as I cleared the vines from the object. There before me, hung a portal intricately framed by the same weeping, bitter wood of the forest trees. This portal hung on a shrubbery wall, like a lone painting in a demented gallery. The image of myself reflected in this transcendental mirror was grotesque and lacked consistent form owing to the object’s rippled surface of energy. At times, waves of energy splashed outside the frame before receding into the choppy current inside. I had found the stranger’s portal to my world. I stretched out my hand, ready to return to the safety of my dimension when I heard a voice from behind.

Why do you run away? asked a shadowy, humanoid figure. I need to show you what happened. There are things you do not understand. These truths are essential to your transformation.

Why me? I asked.

That is a foolish question, said the creature. Cast aside ego and ask another.

The stranger moved around me as I thought of an appropriate question, its energy creating a breeze that stirred my hair and burned my skin.

Think deeper. It urged.

What are you? I asked.

You know me, the stranger said, this time without a smile and with a sense of urgency.

The being’s eyes searched my own for some sign of recognition but found none.

You will soon cease to exist as you do now, split into these various dimensions, the stranger said. Are you ready? Shall I feed you? Let you drain me and complete your transformation?

I struggled to understand. I know I rely on you for life, I said. I know you are turning me into another being. I know you are powerful. That is all I know.

My remarks forced from the stranger an exhausted sigh. You are not ready, the being said at last and pushed me through the portal.

I jolted in my chair. My book fell from my shaking hands into the fireplace. I watched as the book ignited, the words glowing red a moment as if written with a fiery pen before the pages erupted into silvery blue inked flames like the current in the portal through which I had just fallen.

Part Four: The Transformation

I know this story must be confusing for you. You think me a liar. Everyone who hears the stranger’s story believes it a lie for it is beyond the scope of the imagination of most. It is an unconventional tale, the meaning of which few wish to grasp. One must experience it for themselves to know I speak the truth of the existence of those called the strangers. Nevertheless, let me continue so that by the end of my tale, you will know the stranger and believe. Many have resisted the creature’s possession. I did not. Rather, I longed for the stranger to finish what it started and complete my transformation.

My third and most terrifying journey with the stranger happened on a cold, autumn night of the third year as I sipped a glass of wine surrounded by candles. I had not heard from the stranger in some time, but as always, the stranger appeared without warning and took hold of me, feeding me until I was drunk on its essence and delirious. I found myself lifted from the room, naked. No longer human, my energy intertwined with the creature’s and I found myself floating in a gray atmosphere until I landed hard on a pebble-strewn path. I was no longer frightened of these dimensions having sacrificed myself to the stranger long ago. I was numb to all the things that should have alerted me to danger and all too willing to succumb to the being.

The path led to an abandoned house. Would that I could describe the house in better detail for you, but I remember little of it save its decrepit state and the fact that it floated, unattached and without foundation, in this gray matter atmosphere. It was cold here. The stranger’s dimensions were always cold, inhospitable, and incomplete. I climbed the arched path. It wound, narrow and jagged, broken in places, forcing me to leap upward to the next bit of crumbling road. Many times I fell only to land back on this suspended path. Again, time was a myth in this place and so, I cannot say with accuracy how long I journeyed before reaching the splintered steps of a foreboding, abandoned, gothic revival structure. The paint on the outside of the house had long since stripped away revealing its naked, rotting wood. The spiked, pitched roof sagged in weariness. Its steepled towers cut through the gray foggy atmosphere like knives. I stepped onto the porch narrowly avoiding falling through the decaying wood into the dismal gray nothing below, and, shaking, entered the house.

At one time a beautiful home, the structure lay dying, an exoskeleton of its former self. The inside of the house proved in worse condition than the outside. The barren wood floor was cracked and worn with age. The place was in ruins. Condemned. Maggots swarmed inside the walls. I watched as they chewed through the brittle wood. They moved under my bare feet as they crawled through the floor. I beat them from my legs, pulled them from the holes they made in my skin. There was little in the way of furnishings and what remained was infested with these scavenging creatures who fed upon these remnants of life without care. I saw a twisted staircase and climbed its blackened steps. At the top of the stairs, a long hall stretched before me. All the doors to the rooms down this hall were locked save the last room. This door stood ajar. There, the stranger waited to conclude our gruesome dance.

I entered the room. The floors moaned. The creaking walls howled like gusts of wind in a raging storm. The house seemed to sing with its wailing walls but its song was a melancholic piece I would have silenced had I the power. I had hoped this room would differ from the infestation below, but it offered no redemption.

The room held one item. A ceramic tub. The tub was priceless. An antique, ceramic beauty cast in the 19th century. It did not possess the clawed feet like those cast with it, a manufacturing flaw that increased its value. Nor was the tub white like the others in its line. It was a pearly pink as if a drop of harsh, red paint had fallen into the mix by accident to give it its unique iridescent hue. This was its only distinct and decorative feature. This perfect tub sat here alone, surrounded by death and decay.

It struck me that something of such value had been left amid these ruins. Why had no one removed it from this place to a location where its beauty could be appreciated? Why leave it behind to be drained of life? Why did the Strangers not rebuild their world? Surely, they could do so what with their power to infiltrate the minds of our kind, to bend the laws of time and space and coexist in our world without notice. But the strangers had no needs like those of humans. They lusted for nothing at all.

This room had not yet shed all its paint. Its walls were a kind of white, which differed from the black shades throughout, the paint swatch for which I imagined would be named sooty snow or soiled Christian. The floor on which the tub rested was inlaid with dirt and grime, cold, splintered, and gray.

But the tub, aside from its coagulated coloring, was beautiful. Or had been once. No dirt. No discoloration. No hard water stains. Pristine. A bit of peace in this harsh dimension.

I noticed after some time that the sound of the maggots below faded, replaced by the sound of running water. Steam rose from the tub as it filled. Soon, the water would spill onto the floor cleansing the house with its tide.

I felt the stranger’s presence and turned to see the creature, clothed in a white gown, walking as though entranced. The stranger did not acknowledge my presence as it approached the tub. I crossed the room to stand next to the being. It stared at the water, hypnotized by the ripples left in the current’s wake. I could feel the stranger’s thoughts, could feel that the creature was comforted by the warmth of the steamy water that would, like the being, slowly fade until they both matched the cold, lifeless house.

You know me, I said.

The stranger lifted a leg and stepped over the tub’s edge.

You know me, I repeated but the being did not respond.

The stranger’s gown slid over the rim with ease as the creature stepped into the tub. Soaked, the garment clung now to the being’s leg as if in protest. The water turned putrid and had a foul odor. It was thick, the consistency of lava and seemed to make movement difficult for the stranger.

What truth of your world have you for me now? I asked the stranger as it reclined in the water.

It did not answer. The stranger didn’t seem aware of me at all. Its only response was to plunge a knife in the side of its throat and in one quick, savage, motion, it raked the knife to the middle of its neck where it stuck. The creature fought the resistance until its hand fell into the water. Blood flowed from the opening in the being’s neck. My breathing ceased as I dropped to the floor. I tried to scream but my voice was stifled by the blood spurting from the stranger’s neck. I watched, helpless, as the water and blood splashed over my naked body until both ceased to flow. At length, my shock cooled with the water. I stood over the stranger and gazed inside the wound, a screaming mouth with ragged lips. A sweet feeling of release ebbed in that violent gap, dancing in a display that reminded me of the cosmos, a swirling chaotic beauty one cannot define with accuracy or justice by mere words alone.

I watched the stranger die in that other dimension. It had fed me for the last time. The being had revealed to me all it had left to show and now it rested in the sweet embrace of nothingness, its eyes staring upward through a hole in the roof to the expansive gray atmosphere above. It had possessed me for a time. I had been its unwilling and unwitting host but now, we were together, at last, finally one as the creature had always intended.

I have finished my story now and stand before you, a stranger. There are things you must understand. Truths you must know to complete your transformation. From me, you will have no secrets. From me, you may never part, for you may not sever that which cannot be divided.

Come now and let me feed you.

 

“The Savage” (2015)

Nathaniel stumbled toward the gates, his musket etching a crooked line in the parched ground behind him as he neared the palisade’s columns. Smoke rose from beyond the gate posts, the settlement’s cabins smoldering in the merciless heat that consumed the English in this hellish and unforgiving limbo they called the New World. Nathan could just make out his own cabin through blurred vision. He leaned against one of the columns for support. His neck ached and he massaged the muscle, a fruitless endeavor, for the wound was stubborn and would not heal. His stomach moaned loudly. His mouth watered knowing Constance would have dinner prepared. Venison stew. It was always venison stew.

The Almighty had tested him in this foreign world and he had failed. Failed his God, his Queen, his people, and himself, tempted by exotic flesh. She had acquiesced willingly, too willingly he realized too late, but bending her to his will had been another matter entirely. Though she donned the attire and customs of civilized people, she remained, in her heart, as wild as this bitter world. He kept her hidden from his people and her own, their union having been forbidden by all. Perhaps Moses would not even have made a case for Nathaniel’s Zipporah in this place.

The thought of her as she had been, bronze skin slick with sweat, beads of moisture dotting her breasts like the rare gems of a noblewoman before gathering to slither down her navel and to the mound between her legs, stirred his anger. She was confident in her skin and ignorant of her sin, but she was the mistress of Satan. He could see that now. The need to possess her had consumed him in an instant. He was half-crazed with hunger when he saw her kneeling beside the doe felled by his musket. At that moment, his hunger became ever-present and remained to this day, unabated, for which no remedy would ever be found. No reason or clarity of mind passed in those brief moments when first he saw her crouched on the forest floor. He could not distinguish her from woman or doe, such was his hunger, and both creatures were his to command by God’s own word. He mounted her in an instant, grunting like a buck, violently urged by her protests. When he finished, she was unresponsive. He carried her under cover of darkness back to his cabin. The heat and excitement had been too much for her, he thought. He nursed her all that night, loved her and cared for his new wife as a husband should.

Her moon blood had ceased soon after, a blessing from God, surely. Their union was not recognized by England or the southern savages, but who were mortals to question the will of God? Had God not blessed His chosen people with the spoils of the lands they conquered?

Nathaniel had tried to instruct her in language, custom, and faith, as his father had instructed his mother. Constance, he called her, a cleansing Christian name, and one she had come to honor, though not in the way he intended. She proved an adept student despite the dumb nature of the new world inhabitants. He marveled in those early days at how quickly she mastered his tongue. But though she mastered his language and customs, she refused to accept him as her lord and by extension, she refused his God, the one true God. Her god was a woman. Mother was the name she gave to her delusion. He often found her engaged in the pagan customs of her previous life.

To his horror, she had taken to walking beyond the settlement at night. Her disobedience roused an anger in him so violent, it commanded her immediate discipline. Before whipping her, he had bound her hands and stuffed her mouth with linen lest their union be discovered by her resistance, but she continued her walks despite his admonition. Eventually, he suffered her these walks to pick herbs and mushrooms in the forest -for so she claimed was the nature of her wanderings- but only as a reward for her willingness to obey him in all other matters. She always returned, and no one ever saw her come or go. And she cooked for him, the strange dishes of her people at first, and the venison stew, which of late, he had grown accustomed as she cooked nothing else. Though she cured his physical hunger for a time, his lust for her was all-consuming and never faded due to her rebellious nature and avoidance of authority. He watched as others in the colony starved. Their supplies and food stocks dwindled. For whatever reason, no ship returned from England to reinforce the garrison’s provisions. Perhaps, God was testing them as he had tested Nathaniel, and the others had failed to trust in the Lord. Nathaniel’s faith never wavered. Not once. God said he would provide, and so he had. At least, that is what Nathaniel thought at the time and so, he felt no shame or guilt at having a full belly each night.

In England, Nathaniel was betrothed, against his will, to the plump and mundane daughter of one of his father’s contemporaries, a woman for whom he had no desire. She was dull in both appearance and mind. Her handsome dowry though was as supple as her hips. She possessed a body which would no doubt bear strong, English sons. He hoped the loathsome creature would abandon the contract due to his inconvenient posting with the colony. If his departure for the New World wasn’t enough to dissolve the betrothal, surely the bastard babe Constance now carried would suffice. If the babe was of his blood.

Nathaniel had long suspected Constance’s forest wanderings were of a treacherous and duplicitous nature for which he feared the Queen’s justice. He reached now to his neck at the thought of the noose that would surely seal his fate. Would that he’d not followed her that evening and observed her with the warrior. Would that he’d never seen her at all. Fool, he thought. She had knelt beside the savage as she had the doe, hands moving with intended precision over the earth. The meeting ended in a passionate kiss between warrior and whore. She had never responded to his own kisses in such a manner, nor had she ever initiated passion the way she wantonly begged it from the southerner that night. He cursed himself for having never bothered to learn her language. The warrior pushed her away, a move she protested. She clung to his arms, punched his chest, but the warrior pushed her away again with more force this time. The warrior looked pained to send her away, Nathan could comprehend that much, but as to the soothing words whispered to Constance before disappearing in the woods, Nathan was at a loss. What had he said? Constance watched as the warrior departed. Her shoulders shook with silent tears. She wiped her eyes with her fist before departing in the opposite direction, back toward the fort.

She would have dinner prepared when he arrived. She would seek to please him, covering her deceit as she had done from the first day of their union, no doubt. How she had taken him for a fool, and how he had trusted those dark, innocent eyes. Nathaniel studied the stick and stone depiction of the settlement Constance had constructed on the moonlit moss patched forest floor. His own cabin, marked with a leaf, stood out to him and he felt his pulse quicken as panic settled in his chest. The situation was far worse than he imagined. Panic gave way to anger and his heart stilled temporarily by her betrayal. His head ached as he fought for breath. He sat on the forest floor trying to control his breathing, his anger, and his pain. His fist cleared the fort map in one swipe as he fought to maintain composure, to keep from crying out in rage lest the sound of his grief alert any nearby to his presence.

On the slow walk back to the fort that night, he vowed to give rest to his wrath before Constance’s chastisement, so great was his anger he feared he would be too harsh. He could escape with her if he chose, or, he could leave her to her own fate. He said nothing upon his arrival at the cabin, intent on keeping his peace. He heard the words of God in his mind. Be slow to wrath. He would alert the others, but first, he needed to discern the truth of the warrior’s relationship to Constance. He fought to steady his anger. However, he found it increasingly difficult to suffer the knowledge of her deceit in silence, though he tried to find a way to divulge the information without losing his temper. He ate the venison stew in silence. He read the Bible in silence as she cleaned the crockery. The hours passed as seconds it seemed in the time since he’d left the forest. He knew he had to inform the colony, but not just yet. It was time for her lessons. Constance sat on the straw pallet near the hearth. His wrath burned hot when she smiled down at her womb as the babe stirred inside. He knew enough of the matters of women to know her belly swelled too soon. Nathaniel could no longer abide the sin growing inside her belly where the warrior’s hands had rested during that kiss. To hell with the Queen and the colony. It mattered not now. Most of them were already dead. He would have the truth.

The murmur from his stomach drew him back to the present. He dispelled the grim remembrances of the past with a final rub to his aching neck before passing through the columns. He urged his broken, weary body on, propelled by the thought of a warm bowl of venison stew, the mental image of his supper shaded by both gratitude and disgust. The New World yielded not to English seeds or labor. She was as savage as her inhabitants. Hunting and fishing had been poor as well, the woods and waterways claimed by the natives. Tension with the southern savages had made procurement of necessities difficult with many Englishmen falling under hostile arrows.

He kicked the dust from his boots before entering the one-room cabin. He left his gun by the door, which he then bolted behind him. A fire burned in the hearth, deceptively comforting with its crackling and popping. In his youth, the sound had always made him feel at ease, but in his own marriage, it did little to bring warmth or comfort. The bowl of venison stew sat on the table, a hunk of molded bread to its left, a cup of fetid water to its right. Constance sat on the bench compliant and stony, hands folded in her lap, hair in disarray falling in ebony strands that hid her face from view. He sat down on the chair to her right then cleared his aching throat to pray.

“O Lord, which givest thy creatures for our food, herbs, beasts, birds, fish, and other gifts of thine, bless they thy gifts, that they may do us good, and we may live, to praise thy name divine. And when the time has come for this life to end, vouchsafe our souls to heaven may ascend.”

Nathaniel began to eat but Constance remained still, head bent, eyes trained on her folded hands. When he finished, he leaned back in his chair and muffled a burp with his fist.

“Venison is tough,” he said.

Constance did not respond.

“Look at me when I speak!” He slammed his fist on the table rattling the crockery. How many times must I tell you what is proper?”

Constance remained silent. She was testing him, but he would not yield to provocation.

Nathaniel grunted. “Eat.”

He worried at his teeth with a dirty fingernail seeking to extract a bit of wedged meat. Working it free, he flicked it, laughing when the morsel landed on Constance’s folded hands. Her body tensed, but still, she did not speak. Nor did she eat. He smirked at her unease.

“Fine. If you won’t eat, clear the table. It’s time for your lessons.”

Her hands shook as she cleaned, the sound of the clinking crockery echoing in the quiet cabin. He read the Bible silently as she cleared the table then wiped the bowls clean.

At last, she climbed atop the table. She laid on her back, hands by her side and waited, dark eyes staring up at the thatched ceiling. Nathaniel averted his eyes from the face he’d once thought a sweet dream in a cruel world, the face that was now, a never-ending nightmare. His penance, he reckoned. So be it then.

He walked to the hearth retrieving his saw and a log then returned to Constance’s side.

“Hold it,” he commanded thrusting the log into her chest.

She obediently held the log over her face as she had done numerous times before.

“Faith and discipline are necessary if you seek entrance to Heaven. Have you faith in the Almighty God?” Nathaniel asked as he slowly began to cut through the center of the log with the saw.

Constance said nothing but continued to stare at the ceiling.

“You persist in your paganism. You have condemned us all with your sinful ways.”

The blade cut deeper, faster, but Constance did not flinch not even as the log broke in two. Satisfied, Nathaniel walked from the room replacing the saw with the other tools near the hearth. He could hear her moving from the table, feet shuffling unevenly on the wood as she stumbled behind him to the straw pallet on the floor. He turned to her and opened his mouth to speak, but closed it, numbed by her childish silence. She stood staring down at the pallet her back to him. Still so bent on disobedience! She did not reach for her shift nor did she undress. He watched her, unsure what to do or say. At last, she turned and laid on the bed.

He gave her a moment to compose herself then crossed the short distance between them and knelt before her. “I didn’t mean to,” he began.

Constance stared above him to the ceiling refusing his gaze.

Nathaniel sighed. “You know what it is I ask of you. Look at me when I speak! You know your wifely duties. I require obedience and honor at all times, in all things, as is my right as your husband and as is your duty as my wife, before God. Why is that so difficult for you to understand? Why must you move me to discipline?” He stood and sighed once more waving a hand in the air as he spoke again, “You are a vile daughter of Eve, and left to your own devices you are weak-willed, easily led astray, and were it not for me, you would continue to seek the pleasure of strange men.” He paced before the hearth now, his voice rising, “I do my duty as a God-fearing man to lead this family so that we may never be touched by the fires of Hell.”

He was beside her again in two steps, kneeling once more, pleading, “You are my wife. You must obey me.” He laid his head on her thighs placing his hands on her womb and wept. She offered no comfort, not that he’d expected a civilized response from the savage. He raised his head to look at her face but could not. He focused instead on his hunched shadow dancing on the cabin door thrown from the soft light of the dying fire. He reached a hand to move the unruly strands of hair that hid her face but paused and let his hand drop back to her womb. His body shook as he began to cry. She should have heeded his commands.

Enraged by a final, defiant movement in her womb, the reminder of her betrayal, he stood and shouted, “What do you want from me?” Contrite tears dried in an instant. He paced the floor once more before the hearth.

She mocked him with her silence. After everything he had done for her, she remained hellbent to sin. An evil creature. Such was the nature of women. His father had been right.

“Leave me, you wretched witch. End this madness,” he cried. “I should have burned you and hastened your journey to hell. I will not grieve the loss of Satan’s whore one moment longer.”

Nathaniel reached down by the hearth retrieving the length of rope that lay next to the reddened saw. He walked from the room and mounted the table. He knotted the rope securely to the beam. Jerked the line to ensure it would hold. He then slipped the noose around his neck.

“Father, deliver me from this madness. Deliver me from the demons of Hell. Deliver me from evil, oh God, for I am your most humble and obedient servant.”

He stepped from the table. His legs jerked. His eyes bulged from the pressure of the noose. He raked his dirty nails over neck and rope shredding both as his lungs fought for air. His neck bled and burned as his head grew light. The cabin walls faded from view. Somewhere in the distance, he could hear the roar of fire and the howls of the damned.

Nathaniel stumbled toward the gates, his musket etching a crooked line in the parched ground behind him as he neared the palisade’s columns. Smoke rose from beyond the gate posts, the settlement’s cabins smoldering in the merciless heat that consumed the English in this hellish and unforgiving limbo they called the New World. Nathan could just make out his own cabin through blurred vision. He leaned against one of the columns for support. His neck ached. He massaged the muscle, a fruitless endeavor, for the wound was stubborn and would not heal. His stomach moaned loudly. His mouth watered knowing Constance would have dinner prepared.

Venison stew.

It was always venison stew.

 

Demon Chronicles: Apple Moonshine (2012)

Adam was born of the earth, but we were born of fire and of light. Neither Adam nor his descendants could match our beauty, wisdom, or power. The Creator commanded us to bow to Adam. He refused to make us gods over mankind.

We rebelled. Our punishment was swift. Some were bound in chains, and remain imprisoned unto this day. The rest of us were cast to Earth’s realm forced to dwell among the sons and daughters of Adam.

I am the demon, Orezel. I seek the destruction of the human race. These are my chronicles, a testament of the human souls I have destroyed.

Upon the wicked he shall rain snares, fire and brimstone.

Psalms 11:6

She was ancient. The oldest structure in that town, she sat on its western border. In her youth, she had been the jewel of Georgia’s Appalachian region. Her resplendent columns did not complain of their burden, but remained upright and unyielding amidst a structure yearning to collapse. She stood, steadfast, a reminder of an era long past and a witness to the evil encompassed by her walls.

I did abide in the homes of humans. I warmed myself by their hearths and I saw the sins they thought went unseen. Know this, there are those among you more evil than I.

 

Sixty-eight, sixty-nine, seventy, seventy-one …. Seventy-one.

This is the highest I’ve ever counted while the mean one spanked me.

Not the bucket. Please don’t use the bucket, its metal. Please, I’ll be good. Oh, no, no, no. Maybe it won’t be bad if I squeeze all my muscles together. I’ll count too, because counting reminds me of momma. I start over counting.

One … two … three … fo—.

Momma taught me to count all the way to one hundred before she died. She said I was smart for my age ‘cause not many three-year-olds can count that big.

My legs are bleeding. I know the mean one will make me bathe and the water will sting. I hope thorns aren’t stuck in my legs this time. I knew something bad was going to happen today. I told Abigail but she didn’t care. She was mad at me for leaving her under the bed while I cleaned the walls. I told the mean one and the good one too. They called me a liar. They said knowing stuff before it happens is powers of the devil. They told me powers of the devil will make you burn in hell forever. I don’t see how a person can burn forever because fires burn fast. Plus, when my momma took me to church, the preacher said Jesus loved little kids.

The mean one left. Wake up. Open your eyes.

Voice is talking to me. He talks a lot. I don’t know what Voice looks like. I can’t see him. The first time I heard Voice I thought it was momma. I was crying because the mean one slapped me in the face with the bony part of the hand and my lip got fat in my mouth. I hate the mean one. I asked Jesus to help me, but he didn’t. Momma told me once that Jesus got deaded, which I guess is why he didn’t help me. So I am running away tonight. I hid Abigail under the bed so we can sneak out when they go to sleep.

Wake up. Open your eyes.

“I can’t wake up, Voice. My head hurts too bad.”

You must wake up.

“I told you, I can’t. I tried, but my eyes are glued shut. Is this the bad place, Voice?”

They lied to you about the bad place. You have a boo-boo on your head.

I don’t think they lied but I don’t say this to Voice. My momma taught me about the bad place and I heard the preacher talk about it at her church. The devil lives in the bad place with bad people. If you don’t get dunked in the bathtub at church, you have to go to the bad place. My momma said so. After you get dunked in the tub, you have to eat Jesus’s body and drink his blood. Grownups say you can’t eat boogers, but eating body and blood is ok. To me, eating body and blood is grosser. Except, they just pretend it’s body and blood. One time, when no one was looking, I tried the blood. It tasted the same as the grape juice my momma buyed at the store.

My momma is in heaven because she got dunked. Little kids don’t get dunked because you don’t die till you’re old. Abigail is old so I dunked her in our tub here. Now she can go to heaven and tell momma I miss her. Abigail is dying but I’m not telling her. Her back is coming undone. Her insides are coming out. Abigail has white stuff for her insides.

Wake upwake upwake up.

I guess I better wake up since Voice won’t let me sleep right now. When the mean one hit me with the bucket, bleach water spilled everywhere. My gown is all wet and the bleach smell is strong. One of my eyes can open. For some reason the other one is still glued, but I can’t move my hand to get the glue out.

“I can’t move my arm, Voice.”

Your arm has a boo-boo too, but I can make the pain go away.

Voice is my friend. He’s magic. Dark-time got here fast. The sun was still awake when the mean one spanked me. I’m afraid of the dark, but the moon is shining through the window. Abigail is under the bed watching me. No one else is here except Voice. The curtain is blowing in my face from the window being open to let out the bleach smell, only this doesn’t work good ‘cause I have to throw up.

Abigail has stuff on her, so do the curtain, walls and floor. I know it’s blood from my boo-boos. The mean one is going to be mad because I got blood all over the walls I cleaned today. Every time the mean one checked the walls weren’t clean enough. I had to clean them lots of times.

My mouth tastes like throw up and blood. Now, I remember why I got spanked. I threw up on the mean one. I tried to eat the beans, but they made me gag. I throwed them up in my plate. The mean one told me I couldn’t waste food and made me eat the throw up. I throwed up again, all over the mean one’s hands. The mean one shoved the throw up in my mouth with a spoon until I ate it all.

My head hurts like a knife stab. I’ve never seen such a big blood before, so I will need tons of band-aids. Blood smells bad. My tummy is hot and feels like a see-saw. I think I’m going to throw up again. I squeeze my teeth tight ’cause sometimes doing this makes the throw up go away but it doesn’t work this time. My throw up is red now.

You’re not safe. I can help you move. I can give you strength.

“How? You’re only Voice.”

Remember what I told you about me?

“You’re magic?”

Right, I’m magic. Good girl. You must do as I say

The mean one and the good one are arguing again. When Voice hears them, he gets quiet. They always argue about me. The mean one hates me but the good one is nice. The good one says the mean one is crazy from drinking the apple moonshine in the cellar. The good one says the moonshine poisoned the mean one.

“How could you do such a thing? What were you thinking?”

“She brought it on herself. You saw what she did.”

“You hit her too hard, too much.”

“I had to punish her.”

“You call this punishment? She’s dead.”

I stop listening. “Am I dead, Voice?”

No, you’re not dead.

I listen again. The mean one is still mad at me. I try hard to be a good girl. If I could be gooder, the mean one would love me I think.

“You’re insane,” the good one said.

“The girl is evil. You can’t deny she has the devil in her.”

They don’t say anything for a minute. I hear footsteps in the hall. I wonder how the devil got inside me. I can’t feel him. Maybe he’s small like a bug.

“What are we going to do now? What if someone finds out?”

“Who’s going to know? No one comes out here. No one knows she’s here. Stop worrying. I’ll put her in the cellar for now and bury her in the morning. I’m too tired to do anything else.”

They stop talking. I hear footsteps. They are coming.

Be still. Don’t move. Close your eyes.

I do as Voice says. The door of the bedroom opens. Footsteps stop by me. Stinky breath is in my face. I know it’s the mean one by the smell of the apple moonshine. My momma’s smell was sweet like flowers and soap. Abigail said my smell is like bleach, which is yucky, and I get mad when she says that.

Pretending sleep is easy. I trick the mean one and the good one at naps, which are not fun. A blanket gets over my whole body even my face. At first this makes me mad, but it’s easier to fake sleep since they can’t see my eyes. Plus, I’m freezing from the bleach water because all I have on is my nightgown.

I get picked up off the floor. I grew three thumbs taller since I came here. I’m heavy for the mean one who is getting lots of wrinkles. The mean one is grunting like a pig all the way down the stairs. I wish I were a pig. All they do is eat and sleep. Except I forgot pigs turn into bacon. I wish I were a flower.

The whole cellar smells like dirt. The mean one pulled the chain for the light, almost dropping me. After the mean one went down the stairs, I did get dropped. Abigail got dropped on top of me. I can see the mean one’s feet walking away from under the blanket. Then the mean one tripped on the cellar steps and fell. The mean one doesn’t get up. I wait for the mean one to move, but nothing happens. I hope the mean one got deaded.

That isn’t very nice. What if the good one’s hurt?

“I don’t care. I’m mad.”

I say I don’t care to Voice, but I do. I don’t want the good one to get deaded, but the mean one and the good one don’t happen at the same time.

I’m going to help you stand.

Voice really is magic. Even though I hurt and I’m cold, Voice helps me stand. I can see the blood good now ‘cause it’s light. My whole gown is blooded. I touch my head, it’s sticky. I cry now. I’m scared.

Shh, don’t cry. You must be brave and do exactly as I say, or the good one could die. You don’t want her to die do you?

“No, but I don’t care about the mean one. I hope the mean one gets deaded and goes to the bad place.”

Voice ignored me say I hope bad stuff happens to the mean one.

You must wake the mean one up.

I tip toe to the steps. My legs hurt. Seventy switches are bad. I feel wobbly. Little lights in all different colors float in front of my face. This must be Voice’s magic. Blood drips from my head, making me sick.

Don’t look at the blood. Focus on my voice. Do as I say. You must rescue the mean one.

The cellar is spinning like when I hold my arms out and turn in circles. I squeeze my teeth tight again. Both the mean one’s eyes are shut. I poke the mean one’s face with my blooded finger, but the mean one doesn’t wake up. I poke harder, but nothing happens.

“What now, Voice?”

I know all the secrets of this house. I’ve lived here a long time. The people who built this house made a secret passage for the Underground Railroad. People used it to escape from bad guys. You can escape with Abigail. Look on the wall. The crack in the corner is really a door. If you push there, it will open.

The crack is all the way across the room. I don’t want to walk this far, but Voice says I have to. It takes a long time to get there. I push the wall. Voice is right. The door opens, but inside is skinny. I don’t know how they got a train in there.

“I don’t want to do anything else, Voice. I’m tired and cold.”

I have an idea. You can make a fire to keep you warm. The smoke will wake the mean one. You’ll be a hero for saving her life. She’ll love you.

“I’m too little to make fires.”

I’ll help you. Do you see the bottles on the shelves?

I nod. The good one told me this place was an apple farm a long time ago. They made lots of stuff with apples like butter, jelly, apple bacon, and this poison the mean one likes.

Push the bottles off the shelves.

Voice sings and makes me smile, but I stopped fast ‘cause it hurts to smile.

I’m a little teapot short and stout. Here is my handle. Here is my spout

I love to sing. I sing with Voice in my head.

just tip me over and pour me out.

I tip the bottles over. One … two … three. I count now because I’m feeling very bad. Voice stops me when I make a big mess.

Good job. Hurry now. Do you see the oil lamp on the wall by the stairs?

I nod.

Drop the lamp on the floor.

It takes me a long time to walk again. I stopped ‘cause I was wobbly, but Voice said hurry. I went faster and got the lamp for Voice. I made a big crash when I dropped it, but the mean one didn’t hear me. The mean one slept through all those crashes.

Take the matches from the first shelf on the bottom. It’s the little box with the red side.

Voice is making me mad. I can’t walk, but he says this is being brave. I don’t care about being brave. Besides, I don’t see matches.

No, wrong shelf. The other one. Good girl. Good job.

“I’m not supposed to play with matches. Mommy said never touch them.”

Mommy is in heaven and she won’t mind in an emergency. Come to the tunnel and light a match. Throw it far away from you and close the door. The mean one will wake up and put the fire out while you run away.

I grab Abigail and put her in the tunnel with my blanket. Lighting a match is hard. It took lots of times to get it fired, and when I tried to throw it, it stuck to my blooded fingers. I got it off before it fired me, but it didn’t go very far. When the match fell on the floor, it said whoosh. Fire went all over the place.

I walk with Abigail a long time in the tunnel until I fall down. Abigail is sleepy. I guess we can take a nap. I don’t hear the fire anymore so the mean one must be awake.

“Voice? Are you still here? I’m so cold.”

I’m here. You can sleep now, little one. Soon, you won’t feel cold anymore. When you wake up, your boo-boos will be gone and you can see your mommy.

I lay on the floor with Abigail and cover us with the blanket.

Voice is right again.

I don’t feel so cold anymore.

 

Demon Chronicles: The Sacrifice (2012)

Adam was born of the earth, but we were born of fire and of light. Neither Adam nor his descendants could match our beauty, wisdom, or power. The Creator commanded us to bow to Adam. He refused to make us gods over mankind.

We rebelled. Our punishment was swift. Some were bound in chains, and remain imprisoned unto this day. The rest of us were cast to Earth’s realm forced to dwell among the sons and daughters of Adam.

I am the demon, Orezel. I seek the destruction of the human race. These are my chronicles, a testament of the human souls I have destroyed.

For there will be no prospect for the evil man; the lamp of the wicked will be put out.

Proverbs 24:20

Cat Creek, South Carolina

Summer

I pitied her. Usually I prefer to remain indifferent in my dealings with humans, but I chose to help this one, knowing the power I gave her would create an endless cycle of destruction and bloodshed.

I have existed in this realm since the beginning of time, and inhabited the region in which she lived for many human generations. I watched her throughout her life, her death, and the cursed existence which followed.

Dinah was beautiful by human standards. Men sought to possess her body as I sought to possess her soul. Women hated her. Hated her exotic beauty, hated her mocha skin, hated the way their men lusted for her. Her presence not only exuded its own energy but unleashed an energy in those around her which provided me with an abundance of chaos.

I craved it. I needed it. It sustained me.

 

Sammy cleared the dishes from the last customer and wiped the counter. The flames of the tabletop candles danced to the jazz blaring from the overhead speaker. The piquant aroma of spices, red rice, and gumbo saturated the air and would soon blend with the heady scent of jasmine. Sammy mentally checked off the list of closing chores. Mopping. Done. Dishes. Done. Prep for tomorrow. Done.

All was restored to order. Satisfied, he sighed, stretching his back, massaging his muscles. He was exhausted. Alone at last, Sammy could finish the work he began Sunday night. His riverside restaurant boasted the finest Gullah cuisine in the South Carolina low country, but the locals knew Sammy for more than étouffée and Frogmore stew. He was a bokur.

Sammy switched off the music, preferring instead to hear the violent cacophony composed by the raging storm outside. Today marked the third day of rain which began the night she died. Dinah’s murder culminated in an ominous darkness, unleashing a tempest in Cat Creek as her spirit remained trapped in the realm of the living. The storm echoed a malicious refrain of the rage she’d felt in death.

Sammy expected business to be slow with this weather. He was wrong. Storm notwithstanding, his restaurant had been crowded with people during the last two days. Nosy people. He listened as search volunteers reported on details in the missing woman’s case. One group drew a timeline on a napkin, noting her last known whereabouts: here, at Sammy’s, talking with him. Sammy caught the suspicious gazes of his customers, but gave no outward indication he knew they suspected him. After tonight it wouldn’t matter what anyone thought.

Sammy opened the worn, black leather cover of the book lying on the bar. A handwritten volume of voodoo practices and spells handed down in his family for generations. He opened the book, turning each brittle page with care. He found the spell and studied the words. An unnecessary waste of precious time, he’d memorized it the day after her murder. He’d spent the first night weighing the consequences of using such magic. The warning before the spell, scrawled by his great grandfather, glared at him from the yellowed page. This spell was forbidden, but he had no choice. The white had failed him.

His hands were shaking. Sweat soaked his face. He shut off the dining room lights, and lit a few sticks of jasmine incense on the bar. Stalling, Sammy rotated his neck, the resulting pop of joints and ligaments easing the tension in his body. He reached under the bar grabbing more candles and incense and placed them on a serving tray along with the book. He took the items to the kitchen where he placed them on the rolling cart beside the prep table.

He walked to the galvanized steel door of the walk-in cooler. His hands trembled as he lifted the lever to open the door. He paused, sucked in his breath, steeling himself for what lay inside. He opened the door. She stared up at him from the floor exactly as he’d left her. Her once warm jade eyes looked out at him from under the hood of the black cloak, cold and unseeing. He tried to ignore the expression on her face.

“Sorry I kept you in here so long, Dinah. I’m still setting things up. Almost done now. I think this time it’s gonna work.”

He smiled at her, but her beautiful face remained twisted in rage. Sammy grabbed her torso, and dragged her to the prep table. His muscles flexed as he lifted the cumbersome load, and pulled until her body lay recumbent on the table.

Sammy gagged on the scent of decay. He arranged the candles and incense around Dinah’s body, holding his breath as he lit them. He hoped they would mask the odor of her rotting flesh or at least make it tolerable. He unfastened the clasp of her cloak and inspected her body.

Even in the clutch of death she was still beautiful. He had bathed her body Sunday night, shortly after the murder before rigor could set in. He’d drained a portion of blood from her body, using it to make the special brew of wine, essential for the sacrifice’s completion. This he stored in a glass bottle under the bar, to be used in the event the white failed, which it had. He reattached the torn nipple on her right breast. He cleansed the seed spilled inside her. He washed and combed her matted sable hair, removing the twigs and leaves wrapped around her long curls. He shook his head as if the motion could purge the memory from his tormented mind.

Sammy noticed her delicate neck was now adorned with the imprint of purple thumbs, the contusions unnoticeable until now. He couldn’t look at them. He moved a section of her long tresses over the bruising. He didn’t want any more reminders of what happened Sunday night. He inhaled deep, exhaling slowly. He was ready.

He glanced at the spell, repeating the ingredients in his mind as he walked to the dry storage shelves. He pulled several jars placing them on the smaller side table with the book, grabbed a bowl, and began mixing the various ingredients. The potent stench of the concoction coalesced with the odor of decomposing flesh, and clung to his nostrils. He massaged the mixture into her skin while murmuring the forbidden incantation aloud.

Sammy dumped the bowls in the sink, washed his hands, and patted them dry on his pants. He recited the second stanza of the incantation, refastening her cloak when he finished. He closed his eyes, indulging in the warmth of the candles on his skin. He depended on a higher power now. Meditating, he focused his energy on the demon whose power would make the sacrifice possible. Sammy envisioned the being drawing near. He called louder in his mind, sensed the being’s approach. The demon never feared the storm as it moved through the woods surrounding the restaurant. It crossed the river traversing the bridge like a hunter, stealthy and confident.

The back door handle clicked. The door opened slowly, hinges moaning in protest. A chilling draft moved through the kitchen suffocating the warm glow of the candles, cutting through Sammy’s skin, making his bones ache. Sammy dared not open his eyes. He could sense the presence of the demon crossing the threshold.

Thunder exploded in the distance. Sammy remained entranced repeating the incantation over and over. He fought the urge to look upon the demon he summoned. The demon that now stood before him. Sammy’s face tightened as the demon’s breath seared his skin. The demon laughed. The cruel sound resonated in Sammy’s chest. Sammy continued with the incantation, undeterred. He refused to succumb to the demon’s attempt to unnerve him.

The demon spoke, voice growling and harsh, “Why do you summon me, conjurer?”

“I summon you to give life to the dead one before us,” Sammy delivered the memorized lines of the spell with precision. “I offer my soul as payment.”

There was a pause before the demon responded, “You know not what you ask of me, conjurer. She will not be the person you knew. She will be born again, the spawn of evil and darkness. Is this truly what you desire?”

“It is.”

“Very well. I am bound by the ancient law governing my kind. I cannot impose my will or the will of another on a human. The choice to live again must be hers.”

Sammy nodded. He continued reciting the spell. He felt the demon move away from him, knowing it stood before her. He still did not open his eyes. He listened as the demon spoke the language of its kind, a tongue unknown to mortals. Thunder exploded outside though Sammy couldn’t tell whether it was from the dark magic he wrought or the wrath of Dinah’s spirit. He stood in the dark, waiting. The thunder abated. Sammy felt the demon approach him. He finished the incantation, and waited for the demon to signal the spell’s end.

“It is done. You have until dawn. Drink it all. She will kiss you, and the sacrifice will be complete.” The demon’s voice became distant as he moved away from Sammy. “The process has begun,” he warned. “You cannot undo this now conjurer. A death must be paid for the life given. She’ll wake soon. She knows what she must do.”

The back door slammed shut. The candles burned once again, warming Sammy’s chilled skin. He kept his eyes closed a moment longer. The deal was made. Nothing to do now but wait.

The screen door of the dining room banged open. Sammy smiled. Right on time. He rushed to the dining room leaving Dinah alone on the table.

“I can’t see a thing in this storm!” The man stood in the doorway, water and clay pooling on freshly mopped floorboards. He left his poncho on, shaking off the excess water as he walked across the diner. He made no apology for his rudeness, but sat down on a stool at the bar.

“Why is it so dark in here, Sammy? Your power go out?” The preacher looked around the bar, squinting his eyes at Sammy, “Or are you doing some kind of voodoo nonsense?”

Sammy’s pulse quickened.

The preacher laughed, “I’m messing with you son. What you got back there to eat? I’m starved to death. We held a vigil down at the church for the missing woman tonight and I ain’t had time for dinner. Thought I’d be able to grab something right quick while I picked up the food for tomorrow.”

“Only thing left is gumbo.”

“I’ll take it. I sure do appreciate the food you’ve been giving to the church for the volunteers.”

“It ain’t much, but I’m glad I could help out. I hope they find her soon,” Sammy said.

The demon’s warning stuck in Sammy’s mind. She would wake soon. Sammy grabbed the leftover gumbo from the cooler, filled a bowl, and warmed it in the microwave. He watched the preacher as he waited for the seconds to pass. Never had three minutes felt so long. The preacher looked at the candles and incense on the bar, a dubious expression on his face. He coughed as a swirl of smoke wafted past his face. He rubbed a hand through his thinning, wet hair. He shook his head spraying water over the bar. The flames of the candles hissed, hesitated, then resumed burning.

Though the diner was dim, Sammy had no trouble making out the wounds on the preacher’s hands and head. Fresh, only slightly scabbed over, the lacerations stretched across the preacher’s fat knuckles before disappearing beneath the sleeves of his poncho. A deep gash showed on his head. The preacher looked at Sammy and folded his hands under his arms. The microwave beeped. Sammy took the bowl out carefully avoiding the steam, and placed the gumbo before the preacher.

“Thanks, Sammy. Been crazy all week. Cops running around everywhere at the church. I know they need a base to work from, but it’s so hectic. I guess you been pretty busy yourself?”

Sammy nodded as he handed the man a napkin, spoon, and the last of the sweet iced tea.

“Lunch and dinner were busier than usual.” Sammy picked up a towel and began wiping the bar.

“You knew the woman?” the preacher asked, stuffing a large spoonful of gumbo in his mouth.

“Everybody knows everybody in Cat Creek, preacher, and they business. You know we was dating. Dinah ordered gumbo Sunday night, her favorite. She said nothing went better after one of your sermons of hellfire and brimstone than the heat of my gumbo. You had the oysters and okra stew, and left before the storm hit. I done went over the details of that night a hundred times.”

The preacher laughed, “Now don’t go taking me the wrong way. I know the cops came in here asking you questions. They done questioned everybody this side of the river. They have to rule out foul play.” The preacher took a sip of tea, ice clattering against the glass when he set it down. He smothered his gumbo with Tabasco sauce before stuffing another spoonful in his mouth.

Sammy stopped wiping the bar, “The cops think she’s dead?”

“They’re quiet on the investigation, but the silence is what’s important,” the preacher said chewing. “It’s been three days, and they ain’t found a trace of her. No evidence in her house. No body. I’m thinking she slipped on the bridge walking home Sunday night, and fell in the river. If I were a cop I’d look—”

Crashing thunder interrupted the preacher. He jumped on his stool, flinging gumbo from his spoon. Sammy grinned as he wiped the splattered gumbo from the counter.

“Scared of the storm, preacher? How would you like a nightcap? You shouldn’t be driving in this weather anyway. You may as well keep me company. Maybe the rain will lighten up while you wait.”

The preacher hesitated, a spoonful of gumbo resting midair, “I don’t know if I should tonight, Sammy. I still have to drive back to the church before I head home.”

“Your order for tomorrow’s volunteers is sitting in the back cooler, and it’ll be just fine sitting there until morning. There’s no sense driving all the way back to the church in this weather. I can run it by tomorrow before I open, save you a trip. We don’t need anyone else going missing, do we?”

Sammy retrieved the glass bottle from under the bar. There was no visible brand. Elaborate designs encircled a sword pierced heart barely discernible under the heavy patina. Sammy swirled the thick, crimson liquid inside.

“I was saving this for the right moment. She’s full bodied with exquisite mocha flavor. A vintage worthy of worship.” Sammy unstopped the cork. He closed his eyes, breathing in the aroma before exhaling, savoring the scent. He filled a wineglass, placing it before the preacher, and raised the bottle in toast.

“I don’t know, Sammy,” the preacher lifted the glass to his nose, and sniffed.

“Come on preacher, one drink. It would be a sin to waste such a rare spirit.”

“All right, but just one.” He lifted his glass, “What should we drink to?”

“To life.”

“To life,” the preacher repeated. He drank the contents down in one gulp, and poured a second glass without asking. Sammy didn’t protest, and each time the preacher downed a glass he pushed the bottle closer urging him on.

Sammy filled the bar’s condiments while waiting for the preacher to consume the wine.

At last, the preacher burped, sliding his glass down the bar to Sammy.

“A fine brew, Sammy, very smooth. You make this yourself?”

“I did. Made it special . . . just for you.” He cleared his throat, and murmured, “I have a confession to make, preacher.”

The preacher reeled on the stool, eyes squinting as he tried to focus on Sammy’s face.

“I went by Dinah’s house Sunday night after I closed up.” Sammy’s voice remained quiet. He didn’t look at the preacher as he spoke, but stared into the empty bottle reliving the horror of Sunday night in his mind.

“The cops didn’t find any evidence at her place because I cleaned it.” Sammy corked the bottle placing it back under the bar.

The preacher paled. His body swayed. He grabbed the bar for balance.

Sammy sneered at the preacher, “You don’t look so good.”

A noise sounded from the kitchen. Sammy could make out the shuffle of feet dragging across the floor as if they’d forgotten the proper motion. The sound grew louder, closer. He knew he shouldn’t be afraid, but the hairs still stood out on his neck.

Sammy glanced over his shoulder. Dinah limped back bent, to the entrance of the dining room, the hood of the cloak veiling her face. She raised her head searching for the one whose life would soon be hers. She lifted her hand pushing back her hood turning her lifeless, black eyes first to Sammy, then the preacher. She stood taller, straightening her back with an audible crunch as her bones cracked under the cloak. She began limping toward the bar, feet still uncertain after her interlude with death.

“No, it can’t be,” the preacher whispered, swaying on the barstool.

“Something wrong, preacher?” Sammy asked.

The preacher clambered off the stool, losing his footing. He grabbed the bar for support regaining his balance. He gripped the bar’s edge, staring open-mouthed as Dinah continued limping toward them. The skin around her eyes was bruised and the prints around her neck stood out. Her lower lip was cut and swollen. She opened her mouth to speak, but all she could manage was a hoarse, rasping sound. She grasped at the deep purple lines on her neck, ripping them with her fingernails, trying to remove the grip from her throat.

“She’s . . . no. This can’t be. I saw her. She was . . . dead. How—?” The preacher stammered. He rubbed his eyes trying to make sense of the sight before him. “How is this possible?”

“Just some voodoo nonsense,” Sammy murmured.

The preacher stared at Dinah in shock and horror. She stared back, a frenzied look on her face.

Good, Sammy thought. She remembered her murderer. Let her have her vengeance.

“I figured Dinah’s killer was someone who ate here Sunday night. Whoever killed Dinah vomited on her living room floor before they left. Oysters and okra stew. You were the only person who ordered oysters Sunday night.” Sammy shrugged, “They’re out of season. The vomit was so fresh I could smell the stew as if I had just served it. I knew it was mine.”

“I didn’t mean for this to happen. It was an accident,” the preacher began backing to the door never taking his eyes from Dinah.

“Didn’t look like an accident. You nearly bit her nipple clean off.” Sammy’s jaw tightened.

Dinah staggered past the bar, her movements awkward. The sound of her feet scraping on the wood floor sent shivers down Sammy’s back. His body tingled with the anticipation of her vengeance. The preacher took one backwards step to the door with each step Dinah took forward.

“I was going to ask her to marry me.” Sammy said. “I know you didn’t approve of us being together. Dinah told me how you said I was a follower of Satan, how my sorcery would corrupt her. You said I’d drag her to hell with my devilry. Interesting choice of words preacher. I wonder if they echoed in her mind when you dragged her through her yard.”

“Please,” the preacher begged, his eyes round with fear, “Please, Sammy! I swear . . . I didn’t mean for this to happen. I don’t know what came over me.”

The preacher backed into a chair, stumbled, and fell on the floor. He began backing away, shuffling on his hands and feet.

Sammy’s hands clenched, anger surging through him. He feared he would lose control. He longed to quench his thirst for revenge but he couldn’t. She must do this on her own or he would lose her forever. The preacher cursed as he slid across the floor while Dinah continued to stalk him across the diner.

“Sammy, undo this witchcraft now. Please, I’ll make it right. I beg you.”

Sammy moved down the bar keeping Dinah and the preacher in sight. He wouldn’t miss this.

“You don’t have a choice. Same as you never gave her a choice. She never did anything to you. She was a good woman. A God fearin’ woman.”

“God fearing,” the preacher hissed the words. “She was a whore, opening her legs for your voodoo loving ass every night. She didn’t fear God,” the preacher said, saliva spewing from his mouth as he spoke. “She sat in church, wearing them tight dresses, tits poking out on Sunday mornings.” The preacher’s normally jovial countenance twisted, eyes menacing, teeth barred like a wild animal, lips snarled, wet with spit. “She liked soaking in the bath. You could see everything through them sheer curtains. She never saw me all the times I watched her before. I heard her scream . . . saw her looking at me. She took off running outside. I tried to stop her.” The preacher held onto a nearby table, and pulled himself from the floor. “She fought me at first, but she wanted me, Sammy. She screamed my name. She wanted it.”

The preacher’s back was to the screen door now, two steps away from Dinah. He winked at her, and flicked his tongue in a lewd gesture before stepping back into the door, pushing it open. Dinah lunged for the preacher and pulled him to the floor. He struggled, crying out for Sammy’s help.

Sammy watched in silence. Satisfied.

The preacher kicked his legs, punching out the screen on the door. Thunder roared outside. A blaze of light lit the bar followed by a crash, as lightening connected with a nearby tree. The storm intensified now, giving Dinah’s revenge a voice, replacing the one stolen by the preacher’s murderous grip.

He tried to fight her off. He screamed, but the noise died on his lips as Dinah’s mouth closed around his. She growled and hissed, releasing the preacher for a moment. Sammy shuddered at the sight of blood dripping from her lips and pooling between her teeth.

She cocked her head at her victim, wailing and thrashing on the floor. She lunged at him again. His muffled screams faded as her head twisted back and forth over his. Sammy tried to quell his nausea as he listened to the savagery of Dinah’s fatal kiss, a wet, slurping sound intermittent between her inhuman growling. She drained the preacher, edging away from him when she finished. His body jerked on the floor as the last vestiges of life left his limbs.

The bar was silent now, save the sound of soft rain falling on the tin roof. The storm’s fury was spent at last. Sammy walked around the bar, cautiously approaching Dinah. She rose from the floor, her bloody lips twisting into a smile. The crimson wine seeped from her mouth and down her chin. Her eyes remained black and wild. The sight unnerved him.

Sammy waited for color to show in her skin. Waited for her eyes to assume their brilliant hue of jade, but the changes never came. The demon had warned him she would not be the same, but Sammy hadn’t believed him. Tears rimmed Sammy’s eyes. He embraced her, his shoulders shaking as he cried silently into her hair. She did not return his embrace. Sammy felt her distance and released her. She stared at him, face void of emotion, voice still incapable of speech.

She would be alright in time, after she healed, he thought. They would move on with their lives. Sammy would help her forget this nightmare. He would take care of her. She would have anything she desired.

He loved her.

I won three souls that stormy summer night. Ah, but there is a love story for the hopeless romantics of the world. A man who gave his soul for the woman he loved. Dinah was never the same. She was cursed, forced to feed on the living to maintain her existence. Sammy lured the victims to the bridge behind his restaurant where Dinah would consume them before dumping their empty vessels into the river below.

The preacher, who at one time sought to save souls in the small town of Cat Creek, had damned them all.

 

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