Perculus knelt in the center of a patch of dense reeds, his trousers undone and Sophia’s bodice clutched in his fist, when he heard the rustling to his left. He dropped the lacy thing and reached for his belt. Yanking it far too tight, so it cinched slicing lines into his stomach, he stood and looked around.
“Hello?” His voice quivered with shame that teetered on fright. “Mr. Halopen?”
He waited in the quiet, unsure that he could continue the act after a fright like that, but there was still a chance. Her scent clung to the garment, overpowering his senses, filling his chest with each inhalation, not even the repugnance of the swamp could cool his lust. Soon, he thought. Soon he would smell her again.
Perculus knelt back down and began adjusting his belt, easing the tension that constricted his abdomen, when he heard it again. The crack of a branch, followed by something else. A slithering. It was behind him now. Thoughts of the noble girl were flushed from his mind, the vats of lust refilled with cool dread. Slowly, he adjusted his posture, straightening his back until his eyes peaked above the fluttering tips of the reeds.
Sight of the swirling green stalks faded to the swampy landscape. Black barked trees, some standing, some fallen, all covered in flaky, parasitic moss. Ground absorbent and wet. The occasional rock or stump. As he scanned the swampland, Perculus passed a tree that seemed to be a few years from folding over upon itself under the weight of accumulated moss. He continued his searching when a shadow shifted. He looked back at the tree. His heart pulsed. Yes, there was something hiding behind there.
Perculus kept his eyes trained on the trunk and felt amongst the soggy ground, searching for something to strike with. His fingers came across the bodice and the rock it rested upon to keep the marshy ground from staining the lace perfection. Perculus swore beneath his breath. He knelt down, snatched up the bodice, and hung it atop the patch of reeds. Then, he grabbed the rock, a fist sized chunk of limestone, and stood.
Slowly, he eased his way through the reeds, trying to contain the noise of the shivering stalks, but when his boot met the muddy ground and gave a loud squelch, he abandoned the silent plan and darted forward as fast as his legs would go. He swung around the trunk, raised the rock, and brought it crashing down. The blow gouged an ugly chunk of dead wood and the tree groaned in protest. Perculus sucked in a deep breath. What was this foolishness consuming his heart? He, the son of a hero of the 3rd Comets War was afraid of things in the swamp?
Perculus felt a soft tap on his hip and he spun with the rock raised. He brought it hurtling down and stopped inches from her face.
“Oh by The Ancients Cassandra,” he said, tossing the stone. “What are you doing out here?”
The blacksmith’s youngest daughter stared up at him. She flashed a wide toothy grin and waved her pudgy, muck stained fingers. Perculus looked out at the swamp. They were some two miles from the outskirts of the village. There was no footpath that led here, no old horse trail. This place was useless and empty. He choose it for that reason. Because if anyone were to find him here… He remembered the bodice. He could see it amongst the mess of reeds. What if someone went looking for Cassy? They would follow her tracks here. They would search for her and they would find it.
“Okay,” he said, putting his hands on her shoulders. “I need you to do this for me Cassy. Put your hands over your eyes and don’t move until I come back. Understand?”
Cassandra nodded and moved her hands to her face, leaving black smudges across her cheeks. That was fine, he could fix that on the walk back.
Perculus picked up the rock again and entered the reeds. He took the bodice, knelt down, and placed it upon the rock. Then, he pulled a handful of stalks from the patch and covered it best he could. It was an unconvincing disguise but it would do for now. They needed to get out of here before someone came looking.
Perculus stood back up. Cassandra was where he’d left her, eyes still covered. Good. Now he just had to follow the tracks back home. As he exited the reeds, he looked at the footprints leading back towards the village. Cutting through the mud, he could see his as clear as the stars on a cloudless night, but there, next to them, a path of massive, three pronged impressions stained the mud, leading all the way back to where Cassandra stood, her hands now hanging down by her side.
Cassandra smiled and her face rippled inwards, the mask peeling away to the black thing beneath. Perculus screamed and stumbled backward into the reeds, his head striking the rock. As the black thing filled his vision, he took in a final inhalation of Sophia.
Mr. Hughes notes that “The Collector” is part of a larger work in progress.
Andrew Hughes has been writing and publishing short stories for the past decade. One of these, The Crab Catcher, was recently reprinted in Brilliant Flash Fiction’s Best Of anthology. He currently lives in Arizona, working as a criminologist, and taking care of the world’s most adorable white husky.
Billie Jay Radio never thought the End of the World would look like this. His grandmother, a member of a weird cult, had gloomily foretold something far more impressive: horned beasts rising from the sea, raging locust hoards, falling stars, cosmic torrents of blood, spectacular angelic – demonic air battles. Great scenarios for a new disaster flick, but the reality of the actual apocalypse, as it unfolded, was quite different. First, there was the breakdown of shopping mall culture.
Shoppers could no longer browse freely through malls without being obstructed by merchandise–computers, TVs, furniture, stacks of Nike running shoes–dumped into the commons areas by clerks with vacant eyes and odd mouths that seemed to both snarl and smile. Rampant looting appeared to be in progress. Billie Jay thought of those old newsreels of the 60s urban riots he had seen in his history class. However, here the store employees were stripping their own shelves. Even the manager of the local Salvation Army outlet was seen cleaning out his used clothing bins and hurling green polyester pants into growing piles of designer suits and dresses. When confronted by a mall security guard, the disheveled man only mumbled incoherently about “the end being near.”
Billie Jay, however, knew there was a real problem when Ashley Baker, the normally very efficient waitress at his favorite upscale mall café, refused to take his order for a double latté, instead calling him a “fuck head who is wasting my time.” Then unleashing a stream of obscenities against Billie Jay—sparked by nothing in particular— she finished with a roaring insult: “And no body is going to tell you to ‘have a nice day’ for the end of days is at hand!” Again, there was the same weird look that he had seen on the faces of other mall employees, a bizarre mask of cruelty and cheerfulness.
Day after day, week after week a race of (otherwise normal looking) weirdos was emerging, dangerous, unpredictable, no longer knowing how to wish customers a nice day or caring about the expensive products they marketed to the well-heeled consumers.
Soon there was an even more alarming trend. Customers, Billie Jay observed, no longer rushed frantically through the malls looking for bargains. While they could have in fact easily carted away looted state-of-the-art electronic hardware or designer suits, these ex- consumers merely shoved the items aside. Entire mall areas were thus cleared of abandoned merchandise to make room for wrestling matches, Frisbee throwing, dice games, kickboxing, and skateboarding (an extreme version that sought to run down women pushing baby strollers). The security guard, who had confronted the Salvation Army outlet manager for dumping old trousers, was now acting just as strangely, first warmly embracing random passersby, and then violently grappling them to the floor. Others leaped into the fray, until bodies were writhing in heaps like rugby scrums or mass orgies. The old scripts guaranteeing the stability and predictability of life were being lost to rampant social amnesia. This trend was even surfacing in Billie Jay’s professional life. As a seller of gentrified properties, Billie Jay once could count on at least greed as an absolute. Yet even that was slipping away. One couple insisted on negotiating a higher price, and then excused themselves right in the middle of the open house viewing to use the bathroom together. Disgusted by the flushing, giggling, and grunting sounds, Billie Jay waited outside. At least they immediately signed the contract for twice the list price (though he barely shook their damp hands).
Then one day (to make matters worse) the circus came to town. Curiously, though the performers never really seemed to perform, they were instead aimlessly wandering through streets causing traffic jams. Men and women in tights, with the stereotypical appearance of graceful high wire trapeze artists, made obscene gestures at the furious, swearing motorists. Jugglers, aggressively accosting pedestrians, deliberately scattered their balls on street corners causing a hazard. Yet the performers still angrily demanded what they called “entertainment user fees.” Puzzled, Billie Jay searched the internet–even read the newspapers and called the local arts center—for performance information but could find no evidence of any scheduled performance dates. Apparently, the circus was no longer really the circus but had changed into something else. What that was Billie Jay Radio would soon find out.
One afternoon while shopping cross-town at another mall not yet stricken by the strange anti-consumer madness, he observed a gang of clowns roaming through the parking lot. Some thin (indeed borderline anorexic), a few portly, others almost dwarfish, the clowns, their makeup streaming profusely like sweat, and baggy costumes hanging in dirty tatters, bellowed, shook their fists and scattered flyers. Billie Jay picked one up one and read it: The End of Days is upon us. Forget your old scripts and narratives. Everything is changing including the End of Days itself.
Cautiously, at a discreet distance, Billie Jay followed them into the mall (avoiding the slippery, buttery trail of their red and white grease paint). Squatting behind a large pot plant in the atrium, he watched one of the clowns–nasty scowl, bloodshot eyes and stained, pointed teeth emerging from behind his thinning makeup–enter the administrative offices. Loud scuffling sounds, shouts, and then the clown burst out, waving a pistol at the neck of a scrawny, trembling man–farting uncontrollably from fear. His nametag read, Harold Sorrow, Customer Care Specialist.
With military-like precision, the clowns then marched their hostage through the parting crowds of oddly silent shoppers to the mall’s central commons where a platform, microphone, podium, and chairs had been set up amid the piles of consumer goods. While the lead clown still aimed his pistol at the now crying, still farting, customer care representative, his clownish cohorts mingled casually, as if networking at a cocktail party, among the onlookers, distributing the same ominous flyers. Cranking an erect arm up like a Nazi’s salute, the lead clown strutted, prodding his hostage, followed by his colleagues, up onto the stage. From one baggy, ragged pocket, he pulled a sheaf of paper while carefully still aiming the gun at the whimpering hostage who had curled up in the fetal position on the stage. The clown read in a thunderous voice:
“We are the Clowns from another dimension of reality here to announce that the human race has entered into a new stage: no longer can you count on even the most ordinary desire, hunger or need. Nor can you predict–or hope—that people will behave in any ‘normal human manner.’ In fact, your lives, all societies, the entire globe, as I speak, are lapsing into a series of unscripted pratfalls, thoughtless stunts, clownish blunders, random absurd acts–a ‘circus’ of sorts but one that is funny and dangerous, comical and brutal. In other words, once you paid admission to laugh at me and my ilk… (The clown paused, and waved at the other clowns who clumsily danced, made silly faces, then bowed to the mildly tittering audience) …. however, you will now rage at me for what I am about to do, ‘unexpected behavior’(clown flashes a smirking smile)from a person normally paid a low wage to amuse the jaded public.” (The clown shoots the customer care representative who squeezes into an even tighter fetal ball, then unfurls limply, blood trickling from the back of his neck. The clown’s red eyes blazed even more fiercely. He bares pointed teeth. Growls escape from his foaming, wrinkled lips).
Very theatrical manner, Billie Jay noted mentally, smiling to himself, again still watching from behind a nearby pot plant. In case the Seven O’ Clock news would interview him later, he mulled over possible sound bites.
As if on cue, there were shouts and sounds of people scrambling and running. CNN camera operators were rushing toward the stage, but gathering even more speed galloped by it, ignoring the bleeding customer service rep’s body and the mad clowns, who were now singing obscene songs at the top of their lungs while the crazed, laughing audience clapped along. Curious as well as bored with the meaningless scenes before him, Billie Jay dashed after the CNN crew, who by now were filming scantily clad models in front of the mall’s Victoria’s Secret outlet. Perhaps if he could tell the film crew what he had witnessed, he could cleverly work in some references to his real estate business. Finding more deranged customers who insisted on paying above market prices would be super. Maybe this new weird, apocalyptic world would not be so bad after all.
Thomas White’s poems, fiction, and essays have appeared in online and print magazines in Australia, the United States, and Canada. In addition, he is a Wiley-Blackwell Journal author, and contributor to various non-literary journals on topics ranging from the meaning of Evil to reality as a computer simulation.
Sally was seven, and she liked seven-year-old things. She liked pink dresses, tea parties with her friends, or with her plushies when her friends couldn’t come out to play. She loved going to school and being surrounded by her friends. She also liked slugs, and bats. She kept a lizard skeleton, and snake fang collection in a shoe box under her bed. She even had a pet stuffed squirrel that she kept on her writing desk where she could skritch its head and ask it vocabulary questions when she was thinking her homework out loud. She had a full life, and now that she had the bestest friend in the whole world, Cthulhu, she just knew that her life was complete.
“Sally, you’ll be late for school, honey bear.” Sally heard her mother’s voice waft up the stairway, and into her room from the kitchen downstairs. She was busy filling her pink Care Bear backpack with her needed school things. This was very important to her. Nothing could be missed. Pencils, pens, and erasers in their zippered bag, check. Little sushi and alien erasers, check. Homework for Miss Caliendo, check. Spelling and arithmetic books, letters to Santa, and I love you notes from and to her mother, check.
When Sally felt that that was all squared away, she gave herself one last appraising view of herself in the full-length mirror that she had leaning against her wall. She was wearing her favorite pink dress, white frilled socks, and pink Sketchers. Her cat skull hair clip to the side. “Ahh, perfection,” she sighed. She grabbed up her backpack, gave Aryclese a few more skritches on his dusty, stuffed head, and left the room feeling confident about the start of her day.
“Lunch is on the counter Sally,” Sally’s mother said as she came into the kitchen. She was busying herself making pancakes and sausages, while her dad sat at the table, chewing on a piece of bacon while he sifted through the latest issue of Tome Magazine, the leading source for heretical thought, and the leading wealth of material for novice and professional warlocks alike. Her dad always said the Enochian Mysteries were best read at dawn, before he read something truly wicked like The New York Times.
“Thank you, Mom,” Sally looked out the window that led to the front yard where she could see the bus stop a little way down the street. The ten-year olds, buttheads that they were, had not showed up yet, so she would have a few minutes at least before they would show, and their ceaseless barrage of taunts would begin. Maggy, Alex, and Dookie head were standing at the stop. Dookie head’s real name was cliff, but she hated/liked him, so she called him Dookie head. She was excited to spend a few minutes with them before the advent of school. None of them were in the same class that she was. She had her friends in the classroom, but she would be happier if some of the kids that she hung out with outside of school were in her class.
“I gotta go,” she said to her parents as she grabbed her Bratz lunchbox off of the counter. “I love you mommy,” she said as her mom bent over and gave her a peck on the forehead. Then she ran over and jumped at her father, making him lose his grip on his magazine which almost flopped to splatter in his eggs.
“Whoa there little Lilitu.” He said as he fully placed the zine down next to his plate and gave Sally a hug and a kiss on the cheek. “You be a good girl at school today, okay?”
“Yes daddy, I will,” Sally said.
“Right home after school, okay?” her mom said. “The sitter will be here at four, it’ll be Karry tonight. Don’t you be late now, or she might be cross.” Karry Anne was a nice enough thirteen-year-old, but Sally’s parents liked to take stabs at her for being Christian. “Get it?” Sally’s mother asked.
“Carla, you’re incorrigible,” Sally’s father said.
Her mom winked. “You know it Daddy,” she said. Sally’s dad laughed and shifted in his seat, staring at her mother, a sly smile crossing his lips. “Hmmm, you better run off to school now, Sally,” her father said.
“Okay daddy,” Sally said as her father got up and went to stand behind her mom, giving her a hug and kissing her gently on the neck. Sally smoothed down her dress with her hands, and then with backpack on shoulder and lunchbox in tow, she turned from her parents and made her way to the front door. She flipped the deadbolt and the door lock, then turned the knob to let the door open to the outside world. She started to walk outside but then stopped for there was something in her path.
It was a someone actually. The little figure standing before her was about a foot shorter than she was. It was nearly naked and stocky, its arms, legs and torso were a mass of muscles. Its skin was a mixture of greenish gray, with small veins of sandy gold. It had a slick coat on its skin which looked like water, or clear slime. Barnacles peppered the creature’s arms and legs, and it wore a loincloth made out of seaweed. The creatures head was even more peculiar then its stubby, muscly body. Instead of a human skull, it looked to have an octopus where its head should have been. The tentacles of the octopus were flailing about as if they had a life of their own as the creature stared at Sally with four eyes planted on the body of the octopus where a human’s eyes would have been. Two stacked on top of the other.
Something told Sally that she should have been afraid. That she should have turned and fled from the little, angry looking creature that stood before her, ridged body and balled fists. As she looked at this new creature before her, however, she could not help but think about how adorable this little monster was.
“Hi,” Sally said to the creature. It turned its seething eyes to glare at her. “I said hello. Don’t be rude,” Sally said in a stern voice, her brow furrowing. This seemed to catch the creature off guard, and its anger seemed to break in that moment. The creature stood there for a moment, as if it did not know how to proceed, but then it looked at one of its hands, held it in the air and waved to her. It’s octopus face, tentacles and all turned into the mimic of a human smile. Its little eyes squinted in happiness as if it was truly enjoying the interaction. “Oh my god, you are precious,” Sally said.
Sally looked back at the kitchen where she had last left her parents, and then to the bus stop. She wanted to tell her parents about the incredible new friend that she had discovered right outside their front door. She could see that the older kids had shown up, so she knew that she had very little time until the school bus showed up to take her away. She was in quite the quandary.
The squat figure seemed to understand what was going on and turned around to face the street, and the bus stop. Sally could just see the front of the school bus starting to come down the street as the little figure raised his arms and waved them wildly in the air. Sally felt herself jump a little bit with a crack of thunder that filled the morning air. The world outside of her house melted away all color, leaving only darkness. It was as if the thunder had scared the color away from the world. Leaving only whites, grays and a tint of blue that reminded Sally of the negative filters that her mother had showed her on Instagram.
The world just stopped, frozen as if it were reduced to a picture. The only sound that she heard was the sound of her father moaning in the kitchen (maybe he was having one of his headaches) and the dead thrum of nothingness from outside of the door. Sally looked at her hands. At her dress. Everything on her was the same as before the world had gone dark. This negative fusion did not seem to affect her, the little man thing before her or her home. He is so cool, she thought as she looked at the creature before her in amazement. Then the creature spoke. Its voice was a warble of textures, as if he were speaking to her from under water. “Hello sally, I would like to speak with my alcol- I mean, I would like to speak with your parents please,” it said. Though she heard the creatures voice, it did not seem to be speaking to her. Rather it seemed as if the words were being broadcast into her brain.
Sally was excited about this. She smiled a huge smile as she reached forward and grabbed the little man creature by his hand. “C’mon, they are in the kitchen,” she said as she half led, half pulled him with her. She already considered the creature to be her new best friend. He was so different and new. She thought he was the most exciting thing to have ever happened to her in her entire short life. “Mommy, daddy,” she yelled as she made her way across the living room. She heard her father curse.
When she came into the kitchen, her father was zipping up his pants and pushing his shirt into the front of his pants. Her mother seemed to be getting up off the floor. An annoyed look filled both of their faces. “Sally, you are going to be late for-” her mother’s voice caught in her throat as she saw the little figure that Sally had been dragging behind her, and she and her father both froze in place.
“I made a new friend,” Sally said, smiling.
She did not understand as she watched both of her parents fall to their knees, bowing their heads, not to her, but to her new little companion. “Lord Cthulhu,” they both said.
Her new friend, The one that her parents called Cthulhu asked her to go out into the living room for a time while he spoke with her parents, promising her that everything would be fine and that she should not be scared of any of the noises that she would hear. He promised her that her parents would be fine. “Do not fear what you hear, my dear little Sally, only what needs to be done will be done.” She chose to believe him; he was her new best friend after all.
She did not really understand what was going on but she walked out into the living room. She crawled up onto the couch and turned on the TV with the remote control, turning on YouTube and watching an episode of SpongeBob SquarePants.
The sounds of thunderclaps leapt from the kitchen. The sound of her parents screaming, and pleading filling the air, but she just turned the TV up louder. It did not last long, and before she knew it the thunderclaps started to die down, the sounds of pleading were reduced to light sobs. The sounds of electric sizzles faded and then disappeared until all that was left was quiet.
A few moments later, Cthulhu came out of the kitchen, his little stubbed wings flapping lazily behind him. Little tendrils of steam trickled into the air from spots on his skin. The barnacles and liquid had left him, replaced by clean, dry skin. The seaweed that he had been wearing was now replaced by a pair of carpenter jeans and a Danzig T-shirt, though she had no idea who Danzig was. A pair of black sneakers covered his feet as he made his way over and onto the couch, flopping down to sit next to Sally. “You do not fear me Sally?” Cthulhu asked.
“Nope, I think you’re cute,” Sally said.
“Your parents have made a grievous error Sally. One that they will be helping me to correct, but while they do so, I am going to be staying here. Would you like that?”
“Yes,” she beamed. “I would like that very much,” her smile widened. “Would you like to be my friend?” she asked.
“Yes,” the dark lord said. “I would like that very much.”
Jackk N. Killington lives in Missouri where he writes, works, and hangs out with his beautiful muse. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and his website where he has a list of his published works and other things. Go to: Fiction Writer | Jackk N. Killington.
A strange name given for such a strange find: Pulp.
The reason I call it this is because I have no other word in my limited vocabulary to explain it. It’s small, black and has the density of rough dough.
Then there’s the colours. Those beautiful and unique flickers of microscopic light in the thing that make noises, words of a language I’ve never heard before.
I’d been walking down the riverside like any other day, the route I take home from work. On the opposite side of the river beneath the bridge, a black patch no bigger than a football caught my eye. At first, I believed it to be some kind of stain, perhaps oil or tar embedded upon the weathered stone holding up the banking.
However, the angle of the sunlight made the patch sparkle with fizzling colour. It was attractive: calling.
My visceral instinct was to leave it alone, to hurry on past and forget about this peculiar patch hugging the waterline.
But then it moved.
It didn’t drip down the rocky surface with liquid texture as expected. Instead the stain slithered in the slowest of motions; changing shape and contracting with itself.
Safe to say the inquisitiveness (or naivety) got the better of me as I raced forward to the river crossing not thirty feet in front of my position.
I had to find out what this thing was.
Some inner conscience suggested that maybe some animal was in danger, overcome with a substance and needed help to be set free back to the wild.
Panic set in when the stain vanished from view. My strides turned into a full blown sprint as I rushed over the creaky wooden crossing and back down the graveled footpath.
I kept my head over the banking, watching the water splash against the rock with murky turbidity.
Still no sign of the stain; my heart raced ready to implode.
I’d suffered from anxiety since I lost my brother to a drug overdose almost eight months ago. He’d been two-years my elder and fallen into the wrong crowd, no matter how much we tried to help him it fell on deaf ears.
Not being able to find the insignificant blob brought all those anxieties flooding back in my body. Too much to bear. I stopped closing my eyes before I passed out. Oxygen intake was minimal as my legs turned to cigarette ash and I fell hitting the ground hard with my backside.
Trying hard to concentrate on my breathing, the world span in shuddering movements making the vomit swell in the pit of my stomach.
The flop made everything suddenly stop dead like a fairground ride coming to a sudden halt.
My senses returned.
Anxiety washed away with the flowing water; my breathing returned to normal as I saw the dough wiggle onto the path. Crouching over the thing I remained cautious; in my twenty-three years in this world I had never witnessed anything as surreal.
The shuffling black blob stopped moving and began to spread on the gravel, thinning out like a puddle, perfectly circular.
That’s when I saw the lights up close.
Blinking rainbows of colour. Colours I’d struggle to describe. Purple intertwined with green with flashes of orange. It was beautiful, like looking up at the night sky observing a fireworks display. The colours wrapped themselves around one another and I couldn’t help but become transfixed.
The voice from the black puddle spoke to me in a tongue not from any place on the earth, yet for some unconceivable reason I was able to understand.
‘I can show you things, secrets beyond this world,’ it said.
‘What are you?’ I asked, my eyes still invested in the lights.
‘Nothing that can be told, but can be shown if you take me.’
I asked, ‘take you, where?’
‘Take me with you, wherever you go and I will show you the places beyond.’
The lights on the black puddle flickered like a power failure slowly fading out. I was left blinking, still crouched over this thing with a severe headache. The black mass had now retracted itself back into the blobby dough – the pulp.
The lights, I wanted to see those gleeful lights again.
Reaching down, I took the black blob into my hands; its texture – smooth and bone-dry. Before anyone could see I rushed home with the putty squelching between my fingers.
I lived alone on the east side of town in a rundown block of apartments. A few girls had come and gone in my disastrous love life up to now, they usually leave when the realisation hits them that my ambition is non-existent and my overwhelming anxious needs take precedent. I’m the kind of person that enjoys routine; anything against the norm brings back that desire to wallow in a shell of self-pity.
Yet, here I am taking this otherworldly thing into my life, somehow against my wish, but it’s attractive … addictive.
I’ve come to see that I don’t need anyone. I have something that no other person has.
I have Pulp.
I’ve come to learn that I also don’t need food anymore, I haven’t eaten for over sixty hours and I still feel great. I don’t need so-called friends, Pulp told me that all they do is stab me in the back anyways, which I can believe. That’s why I smashed my mobile phone to smithereens, goodbye social media and good riddance to the backstabbers.
There has been a few knocks at my door wondering if I’m all right from certain people.
‘Hey, are you in there?’ Katy had asked from behind the door.
I replied pretending with a few coughs, ‘I’m fine, just the flu I think.’
Katy had been one of those girl’s I spoke about earlier. She ended the relationship, “friend-zoning” me because of different life aspirations, really I knew it was due to my skydiving psyche.
‘No one has heard from you in days,’ Katy said. ‘Your phone is off; you’re not posting anything online … are you sure you’re all right?’
Another cough, ‘I’m fine … like I said, just the flu.’
Those pesky folk, they think that they can just walk in and out of my life when it suits.
No thank you.
They seem to accept and leave without too much persuasion.
I’m a hindrance you see, Pulp told me that’s what they thought.
The same old question – ‘are you all right?’
I’m more than all right, if only they could see what I have been shown. If only they’d had their eyes opened to the true beauty that exists outside of our perceived reality.
They’re not ready to see my little friend just yet. It told me as much.
I speak with Pulp constantly; it’s all I need in my life now.
Asking its name, it just answers with something far too long for my lips to relay back. I’ll stick with Pulp, it doesn’t seem to mind.
Night and day I stare into the surface of the abyss, transported between the colours, the beautiful colours. I feel them, flashes of light from a distant world: a paradise beyond comprehension.
Everything is lost when I float in between the eternal space. Emotionless. I forget the anger, the anxiety, the need for love and sexual desires – everything.
Because in this void is freedom that I have never experienced.
Just me and the colours intertwining and embracing one another like passionate lovers.
Sleep has evaded me too. When I try to rest, I just think of staring back into Pulp. I just want to forget everything in this world now I understand the truth of what is beyond.
‘There is much more that you are not ready to understand, child of the earth,’ Pulp said.
It was dead at night and I asked Pulp to take me back to the colours, to relax in the void.
‘I am ready,’ I replied. ‘Please, show me.’
‘If you wish to seek out the truth behind our existence, then you must take us back to where we met.’
‘The river?’ I asked. ‘It’s the middle of the night, but I can do that,’ I said, shaking my head erratically. ‘Sure … sure … sure … anything you ask.’
I stood, dropping the blanket that had been wrapped around my frail body to keep warm. I must’ve broken the record in weight loss over such a short period of time. My bones were visible through my skin, I could feel every solid lump. In the bathroom mirror, my face was no better, huge bags drooped below my distant eyes. The hair on my head had receded at rapid rate.
My teeth: yellow and fragile like a corpse.
‘The body is nothing more than a vessel,’ Pulp said feeding from my insecurities. ‘It’s the soul that will endure into the next phase of existence.’
As I went to gather my coat from the floor, Pulp informed me that I wouldn’t be needing it.
When I questioned why I wouldn’t need clothes in the middle of the night, Pulp answered: ‘To see what is beyond, then you must come in the purest of forms. I shall keep you warm, child of the earth.’
My hands took hold of Pulp and it expanded, spreading and then wrapping its warm doughy body around me. It felt ecstatic. Loving.
Outside I set off, feeling the slight breeze hit my face. When we reached the riverbank I crouched down in the exact same place where I found Pulp.
How long had it been now since I met this savior of mine, three days? Two weeks? I couldn’t be sure anymore, time had become irrelevant as everything else. All that mattered now was seeing the truth of what was beyond; learning the secrets of this existence.
‘You have been a great host, child of the earth,’ Pulp said sliding off my body into an even puddle on the floor.
The cold hit me straight away, knifing my naked body.
Pulp started to flash its otherworldly colours.
I watched, mesmerized by the beauty.
‘You have fed me life with your soul, and in return I shall show you what lies beyond,’ Pulp said.
Pulp started to rise on the river’s edge, morphing from puddle to standing mirror.
I stood before it still gazing into the void of colour and ecstasy.
‘Come, child. Come and see!’
Raising my hand, I held my palm against the abyss, reaching out to touch the intertwining colours, to feel their love and warmth.
Tears spilled from my eyes due to all its magnificence.
‘Come with me … come and see what lies beyond.’
I stepped forward as all the colours suddenly vanished.
Losing my footing I fell forward as Pulp dropped to the banking in a heap of dough.
The water tore at my body with its icy blades.
I momentarily debated grappling against the cold and fighting my way back to the banking.
But my weak and aged limbs made no such effort. As my head bobbed up and below the surface I saw Pulp shuffle its way down the banking and into shadow like a feral animal.
I’d been sucked dry.
Suddenly I realised I was the insignificant one; a pawn in a much grander universe. It was time to leave this world that I no longer understood behind and seek out what lies beyond.
Pulp promised me such things.
The body is just a vessel … It’s the soul …
I didn’t want to believe that it was all treachery on Pulp’s part; I wasn’t just some host to feed the thing before it sent me to death.
No, there’s more, I’m sure of it.
I was ready to see the truth – to awaken.
The body is just a vessel …
Falling to the bottom of the river I wondered if I would ever see those magnificent colours again as all other lights went out.
Ethan works for a utilities company in South Yorkshire. Writing fiction has become a hobby over the past couple of years and he hopes to one day publish a novel. Ethan notes Stephen King and H.P Lovecraft as influences behind his work.
The Hhest, my ancestors, called this soft twilight Ssayat Tlichat – the Awakening Hour, holy to harvesters and hunters and travelers and priests. Holy to the hundred thousand ghosts of the deep desert’s heart, whose numbers I will soon join if no one answers the bell I rang at the shrine. I did ring it, somehow, with a dagger in my chest. It’s still there; I fear to remove it.
Oh, Khassa. I want to close my eyes to stop seeing his face, but they have dried open. I can only lie still, bleeding out drop by drop into the cooling sand, and pray silently as the sun gurgles wine red on the teeth of the dunes.
I listen, until the vibration becomes a song under my skin, to the droning chorus of waking predators, and the answering frenzy of their prey, snatching up the last fruits of the day. I think I even begin to see the glimmer now, of the watering hole that nourishes them all. And I follow the stalking shapes that approach me slowly from that oasis with the calm, detached curiosity of the nearly dead.
Long, spindly arms dangling, red robes whipping, tapered horns seeming to trail meters behind them, the two Hhest slide gracefully down the ridge of sand. They are Arzetl, priestesses of Ma Arza, Mother of Sands. As they turn, their reflective scales shimmer in the dying light, colors ricocheting like buckshot off my retinas. Broken off bits of the broiling sky, they burn their way toward me.
I have come to this place to find them. My cousins, grown distant. No, not grown. Forced. There are centuries of Hesstuman bioengineering between us. Khassa said I was mad to believe they would recognize me as one of their own. But here they are, and he was wrong.
Long shadows flow over me as they stoop down, impossibly slender for their height. In the time before humanity, before the Synthesis, we would have been matched in size. Observing each other with the same segmented gaze. The tiny, needle-narrow teeth that would have lined my snout – we call them mouths now – would have greeted them with the same perpetually peaceful half-smile. So much lost in the name of peace. Progress. The Hhest will welcome you home, alright, Khassa told me the night we argued for the last time, as a sacrifice for Ma Arza.
My love, my executioner, have you returned safely to the citadel? Have you decided when to share news of my disappearance? Not my death. Not the righteous murder of a Recessivist… yet. I do not believe you’d wish others to know you’ve been sleeping for so long with a heretic. But I will never forget that you admitted it to me once: sometimes, in your dreams, you wear the downy skin of your human ancestors. When I told you I’d still want you, even if I too were transformed – though I’d have to be careful with my claws – you shuddered with revulsion. I would kill you, you said, then laughed too quickly, and pressed your thighs to mine – the same flesh, neither soft skin nor hard scale but something perfectly in-between. Forever just warm enough, forever a lie.
I would have gone into the desert without him, to the Arzetl shrine, and waited for the holy ones to hear the bell. If they accept you, he said, that’s the end of it. You can never come back. As if I didn’t know I’d be shot on sight, reviled as a traitor for shamelessly rejecting all that the Synthesis has done to correct us. The exothermic Hhest unable to work in the heat of the sun; the fragile humans vulnerable to thirst and disease. What have we not achieved together? Besides, of course, children. They’re still working on that.
I did not expect, after last night’s fight, that Khassa would offer to go all the way to the shrine with me, to say goodbye. But he arrived this morning with amulets for each of us – the black one to close the scorching eye of the Mother of Sands; the blue one to open the eye that soothes with tears of compassion. The knife I would not know about, until it was driving up through my breast.
It is the taller of the two Arzetl who speaks, and I squeeze my brain to understand the sequence of clicking syllables. Chiin is a diminutive; young something. Young what? How arrogant to think that hours of poring over archaic texts would prepare me for the spoken Hhest language.
The priestess hunches her gaunt, gleaming shoulders, and as she leans over me, she dangles something on a long piece of cord: a rectangle of black ceramic etched with intersecting lines and curves. One segmented golden eye follows its pendulum motion, almost facetiously.
Carved into the ceramic is the Hhest glyph Ssoistu. Turn Away. This was the amulet Khassa had been wearing, to deflect the gaze of Ma Arza. The amulet that remains about my own neck is the blue one, which bears the glyph Tatchq – Your Child.
The high-pitched, whining rasp I hear frightens me, until I realize by the pain in my chest that it’s my own laughter. I’m silenced when my ear is caressed by a series of growling clicks, terminating in a low, pleasing purr. I do not flinch when the shorter Arzetl gently touches my face, though her long claws are as cold as Khassa’s dagger. I am capable of very little movement. But I am capable of surprise.
The cord around my neck snaps when it’s cut, like the string of a bow. My amulet is passed to the tall priestess, who speaks a long incantation over it, so low it rumbles in my guts. She arranges the ceramic pieces on the sand beside me, one on either side of my body. In another moment, in a flash of searing pain that finally opens my mouth in a scream, her sister has pulled the blade from my chest. This too receives a benediction before it’s laid above my head. Mazed with agony and loss of blood, I don’t understand how I can be conscious enough to be observing this. This or the almost tender slicing of the clothes from my body, which are then neatly placed at my feet. I am being… prepared.
No. No! I am her child, like you! I was coming home! I try, and fail, to shape the words in their language – any language. There is no sound left to me but whimpering.
The rising moon, a dispassionate crescent, gazes down at my nakedness. The Arzetl do not need its light to finish their work. It is the tall one, kneeling across my body from her sister, who reaches into the wound that Khassa so conveniently made, and pries out my heart.
I feel nothing of this. I feel nothing at all anymore. The sea of stars cradles me in its narcotic swell as the sisters solemnly devour their portion of my sacrifice. They rise together when they’re done, their jewel-bright eyes nictitating as they regard me and each other with calm, timeless, crimson smiles. I comprehend two words of their parting utterance with perfect clarity: “Ma Arza.”
The Mother comes in multitudes, through the night and into the day. Singly and in pairs and in packs. Clothed in chitin and fur and feathers, with claws and teeth, mandibles and beaks. And the hundred thousand ghosts that drift forever through the sand and the scrub and the stone welcome me home.
Sun Hesper Jansen is a writer of science fiction and fantasy, magical realism, and poetry who divides her time between south-central Wisconsin and northern New Mexico. She is the author of the blog ‘Away from the Machine’ (awayfromthemachine.wordpress.com) where she writes on/as literary therapy for multiple sclerosis.