I saw him as soon as I entered the ticket hall. In the pre-show crowd he sat alone, staring into a plastic cup of water at a table near the gents. He poured a sachet of sugar into the cup and swirled it with a dirty finger and stared at it again. Here was a for-sure oddball – perfect fodder for Anorak UK.
Eccentrics (the juicy ones) are easily spooked, so I joined a larger group of attendees first. Beer and excitement had loosened tongues. A woman with a husky voice declared a lack of confidence had scuppered her romantically; a short man in a tall hat confessed he had been passed over for promotion five times; a well-to-do couple jostled their son to admit he was unpopular at college. Most reasons for coming were like that.
Mine was no better. A feature on vegetable sculptors had been cited on breakfast TV, now my blog Anorak UK (tagline: Tales from the Eccentric Frontline) brought three times the ad revenue. Thus I could afford the £300 ticket for tonight’s event – my next feature. And I had spotted my first source already.
Five minutes before showtime I approached the man’s table. In his cup floated a dead fly, drawn by the sugar, which he picked out and devoured in tiny bites.
He coughed when he saw me and wiped his fingers on his beard. The beard was ersatz, hooked around his ears; and his eyebrows, I saw, were a different colour at the roots. He stank of tobacco. His skin was loose from fasting – a strong breeze would treat it like a sail. No ring on his hand – but then, his fingers were too slender to have kept one on.
“Here for The Power of You?” I asked.
He shrugged guiltily.
“Me too.” I said, pleased I had switched on my recorder. “Although I don’t have much appetite for crowds.” I was pretty sure he’d agree, but he stared at me like an animal in a trap. He stood up quickly, pushed away the cup and, as he fled, delivered me a look of such frantic loathing I was briefly stunned.
The call came to take our seats in the auditorium. By ill luck my seat was one row in front of his. For the next hour he would be literally breathing down my neck. His manic glare was all I could picture as the lights dimmed.
‘The Power of You’ proclaimed six screens, the words pulsing to a Wu Tang track. With a hail of sparks the great Mindy Coleman strode onstage. The applause brought dust from the rafters and shook the seats. She was a magnesium flare in a room full of moths, every stitch the international self-help guru and network TV host (Doing You on CBS). Buoyed by the crowd I tried hard to catch her eye.
Not one clap from behind me. Dour sod – £300 he paid!
“Oh, thank you all for coming! You know, it’s not everyone who has the courage to come out to one of my seminars. You’ve already overcome limitations to be here tonight. Give yourselves a hand!”
Palm-stinging applause from everyone but the fly-fisher.
“If I know one thing, it’s that every one of us has power. We can use that power against ourselves or to launch us forward. Tonight I’ll share a taste of how to find your power and unlock your dreams. Oh, so many faces!”
When the self-activation period came, it was for the sake of our hands and throats. Mindy Coleman supercharged us, no one could stop talking. Her glow was impossible to dim. It was only the well of silence behind me that polluted my uptake of her doctrine.
Offended by the man’s resistance, since it showed me up as an easy convert, I loitered by the gents in ambush. But he slipped past, armpits projecting wide stains, and scuttled to the exit. For no definite reason I followed. Whatever secret had made him come would be humiliating, and right then I wanted it to be.
He turned away from the bright car park and skirted the walls of the centre, keeping in shadow. I turned the next corner and lost him. The cold air and abundant shadows brought me to a halt. What was I doing here, the stink of the bar bins eroding my cologne?
Then I saw him. A shadow leapt over the wooden screen around the bins. My god, was he so desperate? But no, the ticket cost a fortune…
What I heard next was the squeal of a bat or rodent, stamping, then a wet crack. Some plastic items clattered on the tarmac. I kept still, expecting the man to climb out, having retrieved, possibly, a cache of drugs.
Then I heard chewing. Wet and grisly, like a bear chewing fish.
I hurried back inside as an electronic bell signalled the end of the self-activation period.
The second half was billed ‘Living Your Truth in the Digital Age.’ I had seen a spare seat behind him. Now I claimed it. But he did not reappear in the audience.
Mindy Coleman came on to raptures, brushing the fingers of the front row. My eyes were fixed on the empty seat. His sugar-water sat on his armrest, attracting flies.
Feeling spiteful, I knocked the cup onto his seat cushion mid-cheer, so that if he came back I would watch him squirm.
“Carpe Diem. What does it mean?” Mindy yelled as the music faded. “Let me hear you!”
Seize the day! came the cry rehearsed in the first half.
“And what day is that?”
The smell of bins made me twitch. There he was, shuffling along the row in front! He sat, felt the wetness and froze, staring dead ahead. Mrs Coleman took a backseat to his reaction, the dye trickling down his neck. What did he need motivation for? He was already so unrestrainedly vulgar.
With no clear trigger, the whole thing started to revolt me. Mindy was more predator than prophet, a lack-of-confidence trickster. And these misfits were easy prey. The gist for my feature would be: cynic milks the vulnerable for money.
When the curtain fell I raced to the foyer, but I lost him in the loud, happy exodus. I could hear horns bleat as the crowd drained from the car park, bound for promotions, marriages, start-ups and affairs.
I looked until my Prius was alone in the car park, weighing up whether to search local bars. But my heart slumped at the thought. My trophy had escaped, dour sod. His smell was all that was left – I had to replace the air freshener. That’s what I get for £300 worth of journalistic inquiry!
On the M40 I thought of Cheryl. Pretending she was with me made the journey faster. I turned on the radio, seeking Mindy Coleman’s broadcast frequency but it was off-air.
Towards midnight it began to rain, fat drops like marbles, then the rain began to flash blue and red. A siren scared me, waving me over. I checked the speedometer – well within the limit – as the police car parked in front. After a while an officer approached, strafing a flashlight over my windows and roof.
Hitching his trousers, he tapped on my window..
“Where’s your luggage?” he asked once I’d lowered it.
“I don’t have any luggage.”
“Yes. Is there a problem?”
The policeman’s torch crossed the backseat. He patted the roof. “Alright. It’s been a long night, I guess. Drive safe.”
I let the policeman drive off first, shaking my head. He looked younger than me, too. When did that happen? It was my birthday next month. I knew Cheryl had some plans for it, but I wished it wouldn’t come all the same.
I stopped for a coffee at Knutsford services. The reek of the toilets was not unwelcome after hours of driving – sharp enough to keep me awake. I bought a sausage roll and ate it in the Prius.
The sky was fuzzy lilac when I arrived home. Cheryl had left the light on by the front door, but the rest of the flat was dark. Rain had softened in the last hour and I listened to the peaceful sound for a minute or two before locking the car and letting myself in.
Inside there was a note from Cheryl saying there was take-out in the fridge. Since the microwave beeped loudly I ate it cold, thinking about how to bulk out my feature. I could reach out to Coleman herself, overstate my influence and weedle for a one-on-one. As she herself put it: Give yourself permission to chase your dreams.
I heard Smudge rattle the catflap as I washed the plate and headed upstairs. It was dark under the bedroom door, Cheryl asleep. I ran a bath and undressed in the hall, spotting Smudge asleep in her basket – she must have raced upstairs ahead of me – and settled in the bubbles for a calm half-hour. I scratched a few notes on my mental pad, towelled and crept into the bedroom.
Cheryl was warm, her breathing excited by a dream. I tossed and sweated for two hours, unable to fully rid from memory his BO and tobacco stench. At last I tried to lie still and make sleep come to me. The clock read 02:54.
Something probed my lower back – a dislodged spring, sliding between vertebrae. It lanced up with a pain too intense to accept as real. My disbelieving hand found a thin blade sticking through my navel. My scream was a wet hiss – my hand dropped – a numbness like early death spread until I couldn’t speak. The bed churned like a sick stomach. Two slender hands clawed through the mattress, tipping Cheryl’s numbed body so at last I saw her terrified eyes.
From the gutted mattress he emerged, dripping sweat on our faces, eyes gemmed by the moon. His stench engulfed the room; he seemed bigger than the room could possibly allow. From a crusty pocket he withdrew a long serrated knife and giant fork, spilling condiment sachets and lint. His hands were shaking.
“I am brave enough.” he rasped. “I am strong enough. I give myself permission to chase my dreams.”
He undressed in the moonlight, put on a child’s bib, and fulfilled the most courageous act of his life.
Rayfox East was born in Bangor, Wales, and lives in London, trading a sea breeze for city smog. He is not as well-travelled as his stories, which have been published in four continents, but plans to catch up before the next pandemic hits. He works as a website manager for a UK charity.
It was difficult to see the house numbers through the fog. The grey, musty effluvium had boiled in off the Thames just as Claire Dennings had encouraged herself to set out, before evening began to fall. Though light at first, it quickly became an impediment, reflecting the street lamps’ light in massive halos of diffuse, sickly yellow. If it was a warning, Claire tried her best to ignore it. There was nothing – if anything – that could stop her, now that her heart and mind were in full agreement about her illicit endeavour.
Her errand took her in the direction of London’s seedy underbelly. Painted ladies of the evening, tucked away in dark alleys and standing on corners more frequently the further she walked, eyed her suspiciously. Hoarse shouts of an undefinable nature became commonplace, both from pubs and establishments that had no markings as to the natures of their business – though Claire could make an educated guess as to what that business was. Yet she kept her head down and walked on with purposeful stride. If she had to place herself in disreputable clutches for a while whilst seeking the answers she was desperate for, then so be it.
Eventually, a turn down a dimly-lit avenue brought her in the vicinity of the address she was searching for. Claire slowed her pace, peering up at each ramshackle. Now, coming upon the end of the road, her hope slowly began to deflate. That is, until she finally caught a glimpse of the abode she needed: 36 Stepney Way.
Claire checked the curled number written on the sheet of foolscap tightly clutched between gloved fingers, before glancing back up to the dilapidated stoop. A single street lamp with a weak flame was the only source of light, yet the brass numbers tacked to the face of the facade’s chipped wood gleamed brightly. Claire blinked, squinting further. Everything else about the residence was either crumbling or decayed, but the numbers were freshly polished – a testament to catching the attention of passersby. It was most certainly the right place. With a heavy sigh, Claire folded the sheet of paper and slipped it into her reticule, then stepped through the rusted iron gate and onto the rickety wooden steps. She knocked three times, swallowing down a sudden sensation of being watched.
After several long moments of uncomfortable silence, shuffling footsteps drew Claire’s rapt attention. The door unbolted, slowly creaked open – revealing a handsome woman of middle age with grey eyes. She was dressed modestly, in sharp contrast with the housing and area she called home. A closed-mouth smile stretched across her face, wrinkling only at the corners of her eyes.
“You must be Claire Dennings.”
Claire’s heart dropped into her stomach. “How do you—”
“I know of all who seek my assistance, my dear,” the woman crooned softly, opening the door wider. It led into a rather pleasant-looking entry hall. “Please, come in.”
Claire nervously followed the woman through the house, which was just as deceptive on the inside as its owner. The innards boasted of well-bred aristocracy, entry hall leading into a sizable parlor. An overstuffed damask sofa sat in the far corner, beside a window draped with curtains of black velvet. A circular table sat in the very centre of the room, flanked by two wooden chairs and dressed with sheer fabric that hung nearly to the honeysuckle carpeting. Atop the table, a large, unlit black pillar candle stood beside a black-painted spirit board. Aside from these items of furniture, the room was bare.
Chills immediately overcame Claire, freezing her to the floor. The woman swept to the table’s opposite side, seemingly as though she were about to take tea with a guest – nothing more.
“I…” Claire began, losing her words faster than they had come.
The woman only smiled wider. “Uncertainty is natural, my dear. The unfortunate thing of today’s strict Christian values is that it limits our knowledge of what lies beyond the man-made concept of devotion to one almighty power. The ideology that only one exists is ridiculous.” She tilted her head. “Tell me; when your darling Albert passed, was it not the supposition that God intended for his time to be up?”
Claire swallowed, pressing her lips together. Asking how the woman knew of Albert would be moot. “Y-Yes….”
“But you do not believe that to be the case?”
“I…do not know what to believe.”
“Albert was murdered, was he not?” The woman’s eyes seemed to glisten. “Taken not by an act of God, but by an act of Man?”
Tears stung the backs of Claire’s eyes. “Y-Yes.”
The woman smiled softly. “Then the Good Lord should not be to whom your prayers are directed.”
Claire took the lace handkerchief from inside her reticule, wrangling it. Dabbing at her suddenly tear-blurred eyes. It had been an answer she was terrified to hear, yet desperation gave her no alternative. Albert had been her everything. The rock she had laid her foundation upon, the strength that supported her fragility. Without him, life held no meaning. She had prayed countless nights since the news of his death first reached her; since she had been forced to identify his mutilated body drug up from the banks of the river. Prayed for either an end to her own life, or the return of his in some way. Claire had passed it off as hysterics until she had heard of the woman in Whitechapel who could purportedly summon the deceased. Could give those who had lost a loved one a brief time to say their goodbyes. It came with a cost – of what type, the eavesdropped gossip never said – but she no longer cared. One more night with Albert was worth any price to be named.
The woman gestured to the chair before Claire. “Pray, take a seat. I believe I can help you in obtaining what you most desire.”
Clair slowly dropped into the chair. She set her reticule in her lap, sniffling as the woman struck a lucifer from a pearl matchbox to the side of the black candle. “What must I do?”
The candle’s wick caught, sputtering somewhat before taking on a steady flame. The woman shook out the lucifer, discarding it into a hidden receptacle on her side of the table. “We shall find out soon enough,” she replied, taking a seat in her own chair. Her hands, slender and manicured, reached across the table. “Take my hands, love.”
Claire laid her trembling hands across the woman’s palms. Her grip was firm – almost reassuring. She closed her eyes, tilting her head toward the vaulted ceiling and taking a deep breath. “Close your eyes. Focus deeply on dear Albert. Focus on what it is that you want most out of an encounter with him.”
Claire did as instructed, allowing her eyes to fall closed. She drew a deep, shaky breath, filling her lungs with the stale air of the parlor. She brought to focus Albert’s face, youthful and bubbly. The face that had charmed her, even as a young girl. It appeared in the darkness of her mind, smiling brightly – bristling the thin mustache he had proudly grown before his untimely death. She could almost hear his baritone laughter, at some wily joke or another he liked to recant with her from his visitations to the gentlemen’s club. What she wouldn’t give for one more blissful night with him, the chance to speak her goodbyes…and tell him how much she loved him, just one last time.
The woman across from her chuckled. “I see.”
Startled out of her reverie, Claire snapped her eyes open. The woman looked forward again, slowly opening her eyes. They sharpened, focusing upon Claire with an almost amused twinkle. She squeezed her hands once.
“You wish for the chance to spend one last night with your dearly departed husband.”
Claire licked her lips, nodding. “Yes. Desperately.”
The woman smiled again. “It is indeed possible, though it may come at a hefty price.”
The chuckle returned; low, knowing. The woman sat back in her seat, releasing Claire’s hands and stroking her chin.
“I am unsure; his prices vary, depending on the service requested of him.”
A chill fingered Claire’s spine, forcing her to sit upright. “Who is ‘he’?”
“An old friend.” The woman reached once more to her side, coming back up with a piece of paper and an inkwell. She dipped the tip of her pen into the jar, scribbling something across the sheet. When she was finished, she slid the paper across the spirit board. Claire took it, turning it rightside-up; on it appeared to be a list of instructions. At the very bottom, the words ‘loose-leaf Darjeeling’ was underlined twice. She looked back up, trying to swallow down the sinking feeling in her stomach.
“What is all this?”
“Instructions, dear Claire. Instructions on how to summon him.” The woman stood, licking the tips of her fingers. “He is able to provide you with what you seek, but just remember the most important instruction of all – the one which I underlined.” Her smile turned crooked, just as she doused the candle flame with her fingertips. It hissed ominously into the dark silence.
“He prefers Darjeeling.”
Claire read the sheet of instructions over and over when she left the woman’s house. Mouthing them to herself to commit them to memory. Upon returning home, any second thoughts Claire had quickly vanished as she bolted the front door and made her way to the kitchen. Carefully setting the set of instructions on the breakfast table, she lit three tallow candles in a candelabra and set to work digging through cupboards for the ingredients required. Thankfully, she was a lover of Darjeeling herself, and had several sachets of loose-leaf to choose from. She set to work boiling a kettle of water, and setting the breakfast table with a full service tray of milk, sugar, honey, fresh blueberry scones and two cups of the finest china she owned. Once the water was boiled and spilled into the china pot for pouring, she brought it and the candelabra to the table and sat without a word.
Claire glanced the instructions over yet again, careful to read every word. Biting back the uneasiness that clutched her heart. The last instruction had yet to be completed Once the tea was steeped and she had worked up the confidence, she grasped the handle of the teapot and stood. Beginning to pour – first into the cup set at the empty seat across from hers.
“Lord of the Underworld…I invite thee to tea.”
She repeated this phrase thrice, as the china cup filled nearly to the brim. She was sure to leave enough room for milk and sugar – as the instructions made clear. Then she began to pour herself a cup.
“Ah – Darjeeling. And a fine quality, at that.”
The deep voice startled Claire into a scream. She nearly dropped the teapot, whirling on her heel; catching herself before the ceremony – and her fine china – would be ruined. The empty chair was now occupied by a man, angular face cast in attractive shadow from the flickering candles. Golden hair spilled across his shoulders, matching golden eyes as he watched Claire with an amused smile.
“Dear lady, whyever are you frightened? Did you not mean to summon me on purpose?”
Claire stared at her visitor, quaking with shock. “I-I…I did mean…”
The man rose, gently removing the teapot from her iron-like grasp. Once setting it on the table, he touched her elbow. His skin was pleasantly warm. “Please, do sit down. You look upon the verge of fainting. There we are.”
Claire allowed him to assist her to her seat, into which she sank heavily. Disbelievingly. She couldn’t help but continue to stare in silence as the man reseated himself, pouring milk and honey into the steaming cup before him. Once he had finished, setting his silver spoon to the side of his saucer, he put the cup to his lips. The smile then turned satisfactory.
“Perfectly brewed.” He sat back in the chair. “Thank you. Darjeeling has always been a favorite of mine.”
Claire cleared her throat, too nervous to move. To speak. So many thoughts rushed through her head all at once that it caused her world to spin. She squeezed her eyes shut before opening them again; the man still sat across from her, watching her with the same amused twinkle that the woman in Whitechapel had.
“Does your mind still denounce my existence?” He chuckled humorously. Taking another slow sip of his tea. “A funny thing, the human brain. A finely-tuned machine capable of quite amazing feats, yet malfunctions often due to strong emotion of any kind. I fear I shall never understand it.”
Claire did her best to regain control of her composure. She cleared her throat, straightened her spine. Bit her lower lip to stop it from trembling.
“Who…who are you?” She finally found the courage to ask.
The man set his teacup upon its saucer, brushing a hand through his glossy hair. “I have gone by many names, some of which are rather unsavoury. Some of which are completely false, fabricated by men who cannot tell the difference between fallen angels and true elements of evil.” He flashed her a polite smile. “But you may call me Lucifer.”
Claire’s heart pounded. “L-Lucifer. The Morning Star. God’s favorite son.”
Lucifer held up one finger. “Former favorite son – but yes, I am the very same.”
“The…the devil himself.”
Her guest frowned, golden eyes glimmering in the candle flame. “That is one of the unsavoury names I mentioned. Also a falsehood. Though I may be devilish at times I am not, in fact, of that species.” After yet another sip of tea, the perturbed expression left his face. “But enough about myself. Let us focus on the present.” He inclined his chin toward her. “Pray, what is your name, dear lady?”
“Claire Dennings,” she responded softly.
Lucifer nodded once. “Claire. And you have summoned me because you wish for a sizable favor; one only which I can assist with. Yes?”
“And what might that favor be?”
“M-My husband…Albert Crestworth Dennings. He was slain a fortnight ago.” Tears threatened to well in her eyes once again. “During a dispute that he was not involved in, but merely tried to pacify. Slain in cold blood for being a Good Samaritan.” A small whimper escaped her throat; she pressed her fingers to her lips. “Pl-Please, forgive me….”
Lucifer shook his head, voice sympathetic. “You needn’t ask forgiveness for a rational reaction, dear lady. Yet, I find myself asking; since it is apparent that Albert Crestworth Dennings was a soul of purity, whyever seek the services of the Lord of the Underworld?” He shrugged helplessly. “A soul as purebred in nature as his goes directly back to its Creator.”
Claire frowned. “B-But…the woman in Whitechapel…she told me that only you could offer any sort of hope for me. That only you could give me one more night with Albert, for a price.”
A knowing look smoothed Lucifer’s expression. “Ah,” he said slowly, deliberately. He stuck a finger through the handle of his teacup. “I should have suspected.”
Lucifer shook his head. “Lilith. She always does like to play sinister little games with humans.”
“What does that mean?”
Lucifer’s golden eyes returned to hers, brows folding into a look of genuine guilt. “My sister. It is of her opinion that humans are the dregs of creation – to which, she does have most of a point. But to this end, she cares not of anything else but to bring mankind harm.” Lucifer flipped his wrist. “Humanity is the Lord’s most precious possession, for which his most loyal of children were cast to the wayside. It is, I fear, quite a long story.” Lucifer sipped his tea once again. “Suffice it to say, Lady Dennings, that you were led into a trap. A lamb to the slaughter, as it were.”
Claire’s heart clenched so hard that it squeezed a gasp from her lungs. “Wh-What do you mean by that? Speak, demon!”
Lucifer’s eyes glowed, a frown knitting his brows. “I ask that you please watch your language. I am mostly a well-mannered gentleman, but my fury hath no bounds.”
Claire sat back in her chair, appendages abruptly going numb. Her chest and stomach followed suit, effectively drowning her body in pins and needles that kept her bound to her seat by no means of her own. She could only stare helplessly until the glow slowly subsided from Lucifer’s eyes, returning once more to a dull, golden sheen only lit by candle light.
“Now. What I mean is that Lilith has so cleverly entangled you into a spider’s web, from which there is, unfortunately, no escape.” Lucifer drained the remainder of his tea, then began to refill his cup. He stirred in more milk and sugar. “However, I am far more merciful than what is written of me.” His expression once again turned guilty. “I am unable to provide what Lilith has promised, nor am I able to revoke the price you must pay now that I have been summoned.” He held up one finger, forestalling the torrent of terrified words that began to tumble from Claire’s numbed lips. “Yet, it is within the realm of possibility that noble Albert Crestworth Dennings may be able to visit, provided that you present me with the necessary tools.”
The numbness paralyzing Claire began to recede, setting her skin to fiery pins and needles. Once she was able to move once more, she rubbed a hand across her forearm. It stung badly. “I…I’m afraid I don’t understand.”
“It is quite simple, really. A conjuring spell, as old as time itself, is the answer to your conundrum. The required components are easy enough to obtain, through sheer will and some manipulation. Done through my power, summoning the spirit of Mr. Dennings will not be difficult.” Lucifer contemplated her over the rim of his teacup. “And to that end, darling Claire, I would like to present a proposition.”
Claire sniffed, failing against holding back her tears. “You act as though I have a choice in the matter.”
Lucifer granted her an empathetic dip of the head. “Point taken. However, that does not mean I cannot try to make the deal on even ground. The price is set – and it is quite high. A life of servitude to me, in exchange for the chance to live one more night with Mr. Dennings.” Lucifer took a slow sip. “But as I said, I am merciful. Seeing as you were duped into this contract, I am willing to grant your wish many-fold. As many nights as you require with Mr. Dennings, at any time. So long as you continue to serve me, and obtain fresh ingredients for the spell each and every time.”
Tears poured down Claire’s cheeks. She had known her venture to be doomed from the start – either by deception or unwillingness to follow through. She had never imagined herself to be in total agreement with all of its aspects, even after being tricked to accept it. Her willingness to persevere into so wretched a life frightened her. But in the end, she would receive what she sought. Many times over. She could only hope now that Albert, once he returned, would not be disappointed in her.
Lucifer pulled a handkerchief from his coat pocket, standing and moving to her side. Gently dabbing her tears. He grasped her abandoned teacup and pressed it into her trembling, pale hands; steam began to rise from it in curled tendrils once more.
“Drink, my dear. Darjeeling is quite good for the constitution.”
At first, the conjuring spell was far from simple, as Lucifer had claimed. While most items could be found within the man-made wilderness of London – herbs, animal blood, tallow candles, and of course loose-leaf Darjeeling tea – the most vital ingredient was the hardest of all to obtain. Claire found it easiest with the weakest of society; drunkards splayed unconscious in alleyways, those just stumbling out of opium dens in a brain fog. Foolish and desperate men, easy to enthrall with feminine charm – which always ended on the point of a freshly-sharpened knife. It took all the strength Claire could muster to drag the bodies to secluded areas, quick enough to perform the dark sacrament and gather the blood in a vile before life took its final bow.
But despite misgivings and guilt, Lucifer upheld his end of the bargain. Each time she finished her ritual slaughters, scampering home to prepare tea with the vile of blood, Albert came with him. Filling her with warmth and light. And each time tea was over, the hunger to host again grew ever stronger. Visceral. It began to consume her, devour her thoughts. She wanted more. Claire soon began to stalk the fog at night, through the slums that first led her to the life she now lived. The more robust and lively the offering, the stronger the conjuring spell worked, keeping Albert with her longer. She became so incensed to her nightly vigilance that she unknowingly gained many reputations and many names – just as Lucifer had before her. Eventually, Lucifer stopped attending tea, leaving Claire to drink the entire pot herself It was no wonder, then, that she had always preferred Darjeeling tea.
T.L. Beeding is a single mother from Kansas City. She is co-editor of Crow’s Feet Journal and Paramour Ink, and is a featured author for Black Ink Fiction. When she is not writing, T.L. works at a busy orthopedic hospital, mending broken bones. She can be found on Twitter at @tlbeeding.
Beneath my bed, three distinct monsters have resided. Three monsters I now call mine. Near constant companions, their presence outlasts kindergarten friendships, first loves, false families, and any other menace I’ve encountered. A special connection formed long ago barred them from being discovered by anyone but me. No, they are my monsters. My burden to bear. Mine alone. No sight, no sound, no stench, nor pain could give them away to anyone but me. Throughout life, they’ve followed me from small town to big city, from house to home, and journeys abroad. No matter where I find myself, I find them there too.
My first monster was a hideous sight to behold. Eyes – large and black with red hollows and a heavy stare, tracked me in utter darkness. They followed my every move, every inch, every breath. Even as I cowered beneath the covers, I felt those eyes watching me. Always watching. Stiff, reptilian hands oozing with slime, long and bony – Nosferatu-like in shape – but covered in scales, snuck up the side of my bed. Its claws glinted in the moonlight. At the foot of the bed, its tail slithered up and crept beneath my blanket, set to strike, to circle my feet, and drag me underneath. Its split tongue slid between rows and rows of razor-sharp teeth, waiting to consume me.
I screamed for my parents, for my siblings, for anyone who dared come to my rescue. They flashed on the light, checked beneath the bed, and declared it nothing more than an act of my imagination. As they left, keeping on a lone nightlight on at my insistence, its throttle kept ringing in my ears. The deep pant of a creature craving blood and flesh, ready to leap upon its prey and devour it at any second. With white knuckles, I clung to my blanket and learned it would stay in its place if I refused to move, not an inch, not a breath. I feared sleep but discovered that the monster preferred me awake and afraid. Little children must taste better that way.
My second monster was far more ordinary. Far less terrifying to behold, barely even worth a heartbeat’s skip if we’d passed on the street. I cannot recall when this new monster replaced the former; I’d wondered how and why but assumed it’d simply scared the creature away. This monster was just a man. Or at least a shadow of one. Maybe not even male at all. My memory of him is most hazy. At times, I recall him having deep-set eyes and a scar, of being large and imposing. At other times, those depictions seem wrong. Whatever it was, it was clever. It was crafty. And it was angry.
He whispered venomous words with delicious glee. Not just threats, though they were plentiful too, but worse: my innermost fears spoken aloud, given form, and perfectly executed when it would pain me most to hear. His dirty fingers clutched a long dagger, always dripping with blood, as a disturbing grin marked his excitement. He laughed. A deep callous laugh that crawled into my ears right as I finally began to drift asleep, foreshadowing the atrocities he intended to commit.
Yet, for all the dread he caused, he never did raise that knife to me. Never plunged it in deep, over and over until the blood spouted freely from my body, and never left only a drained corpse behind. No. Instead, he just kept cackling and taunting, whispering words only I could hear, knowing they cut deeper than any blade.
The third monster tricked me. One night, before climbing into bed, I checked beneath to see how the man looked that day, only to discover that he’d apparently vanished. Nothing. No trace, no creature, no man, just dust and air. At first, I froze, startled by the sight, until relief crept in. With a smile, for the first time in a long time, I lay in bed happy, reveling in the warmth and safety. Not this time, not this night – no – now I was going to finally rest in peace. And sleep wrapped around me like a soft song sung just for me. I slept. For a while.
In the dead of night, a jolt of electricity burst through me, and my eyes darted open; my body dripped in sweat. It was here. It was back. Something came for me. Something far worse. I peeked below the bed with trembling hands but saw nothing, heard nothing, smelt nothing. Perhaps it wasn’t here for me this time. Perhaps, this time, it was here for someone else.
In a panic, I bent over my partner’s lips so my ear hovered a mere inch away. I listened for their breathing. Strong and steady, it flowed, and their hot breath warmed my cheek. In an instant, I was up, out, and moving to the nursery. On my tiptoes, I snuck in, trying not to wake my child or alert the monster. I watched their little belly moving in and out, each breath accompanied by the tiny whisps of snores, the angelic picture of a child sleeping peacefully. Relief returned; my loved ones were safe. I crept back to my room, back to my bed, back to rest. I hoped.
Once more, I checked beneath the bed. Once more. I saw, heard, smelt nothing. I lay in darkness with my eyes wide, my mind alert, and my pulse racing; I waited for the monster. I sensed it; the hairs on arms rose despite the warmth of my comforter. All I could see were varying shades of black and night and nothing. Still, I felt it. It was near. I waited; it was waiting too. We remained at a stalemate, each waiting for the other to strike, attack, and defend. For years, we waged this motionless war.
These are my monsters. They are mine, just as much as my hands, my voice, or my mind. I keep them in thought, in memory, and in my company. I need them. When they are near, I cannot sleep. Without them, all I can manage or want is sleep. See, you may have forgotten – I mentioned it so long ago: they haven’t always been my monsters. They have not always been there. They’re not constant companions, just near enough.
There have been times, the darkest of times, when I did not sense my monsters. Or at least I did not care. On those nights, rare but bleak, I’d step into bed without checking what manner of monster lay in wait below. If it clawed at me in the darkness, or slashed me to bits, or suffocated me with nothingness, then so be it. I had no strength to fight. And sleep was calling. Those times when I most needed a companion, it seemed it was just me. Alone. I’d sleep soundly those nights – mostly – long and deep from the exhaustion.
The next day, I’d awake wishing my monsters would return. That’s what made them my monsters. That – despite their horrific appearances, hideous voices, and the dread they inspired – I wanted them to come back to me. I’d rather the sleepless nights with one of my monsters lurking below than the hollow alternative. After all our years together, at odds, I’d finally claimed them as my own. Tamed them, as much as any monster can be tamed. Each night, I want nothing more than to reach a hand down my monster, to let it clutch my fingers, and to feel something in the darkness.
Mikayla Randolph resides in California, where she is a customer relations liaison in the tourism industry. She is currently editing her debut novel, a modern gothic horror. When not writing, she enjoys reading, traveling, and taking too many photos of her dogs. Twitter: @Mikraken
Rory J. Ribert, Sales Manager of Dial-N-Smile Inc., looked out on the empty sales rep cubicles that could be seen in a wide angle from his corner office. The late afternoon shift would begin in about an hour. Though an atheist, he said a prayer of thanks for the blissful peace created by this lovely absence of jabbering telemarketers.
Sliding open the low-slung console behind him, concealing a monitor linked to cameras hidden above the sales floor, Rory could watch the staff jerking and bobbing about like hyperactive monkeys during their marketing calls. This system also allowed him to monitor their conversations ensuring that they were sticking to business not chatting with their lovers – or drug dealers.
Rory was supposed to be updating profit-loss spread sheets but today he was feeling like a low-performing slacker himself, preferring to just stare at his computer, too morose to even waste his time fiddling around on social media. Frustrated, he considered the absurdity of his current workplace situation. John Jeffy, the owner, had invested big money in all this high-tech gear, yet with salaries and other miscellaneous overhead the company was barely breaking even. Moreover, the quality of the available telemarketer had hit rock bottom: ex-whores, drunks, crack addicts. It was a sad day when management had to listen into routine sales calls, not for quality, but for criminal activity.
Not that it mattered: as any blind fool could see this so-called “business” was in steady decline. When he had come into the telemarketing profession ten years ago there were actually a few hiring standards. His first company had even had an HR rep that screened applicants for bad references – or an unsavory past. Now it fell upon him, the irritated, unwilling Rory J. Ribert, to go through the motions of “vetting” the dregs of society and other barbarians who flooded Dial-N-Smile with their resumes. Nevertheless, Rory never screened any applicant for a criminal record. Results were all that counted. It was a don’t ask, don’t tell policy – even if they were ax murderers, he did not want to know.
Indeed, he often suspected that John Jeffy considered a felonious past a valuable skill for a successful telemarketer – something about the mercenary, unrestrained style of a criminal made such a person especially effective in the telemarketing business.
The office intercom buzzed. Jane Chowders, the foyer receptionist – who doubled as the accountant – spoke in her usual whiny, quasi- nasty voice. “Rory your 2pm applicant appointment, the one referred by Mr. Jeffy, is here.”
Last night he had had to fire an employee for failing to meet his sales quotas so today, as much as he hated it, he had to interview again. Jeffy had promised to network among his old industry contacts for an applicant with some sales experience. Good thing too, as the earlier 1:45 appointment had been a disaster. Rory had shown the applicant – completely unsuitable as a salesman – the door after a two-minute interview.
The portly Jeffy himself, much to Rory’s surprise, waddled into the office with the 2pm appointment – a spectacled, very pale, slender man in his fifties. Protruding from his dirty collar, a scrawny neck from which bulged a massive Adam’s apple like a grotesque pink tumor. Lost in this cheap baggy polyester suit, the applicant, almost skeletal with a gaunt, cadaverous face, appeared to be timid, shy, and reclusive – the very qualities an aggressive sales firm was not looking for. He also reeked powerfully of mothballs and stale smoke as if he had been living in a closet or cheap room. This odor alone would drive away other reps before Dial -N-Smile’s drooling, sadistic floor monitors did. These words instantly came to Rory’s mind: Do not hire this loser.
Immediately the weirdo excused himself to use the men’s room. Winking at Rory, Jeffy then cracked a smug smile and said cheerfully, “I know what you’re thinking. What rubbish bin did I drag that dog’s breath out of?”
“Good question John. You’re becoming a mind reader in your old age,” replied Rory, “Who – what – is he – and why is he here?”
“His name is Simon Sorter and he is going to be our new top biller – believe it or not,” smirked Mr. Jeffy, like a naughty boy with a secret.
“I rather not believe it,” scowled Rory, shaking his head. (Hell’s bell’s was the old fool losing his marbles?).
“Trust me,” assured Jeffy, his fragile face beaming softly like a prematurely aging child, “I used to work with Simon and the guy has some amazing talents.”
“From his looks and smell, hygiene and high fashion are not among his best skills”, noted Rory.
Mr. Jeffy opened his mouth to say something but Simon Sorter reappeared wiping his hands on his frayed trousers.
“I was just telling Rory here about our glory days when we did Fortune 500 account management together,” lied Mr. Jeffy.
Simon Sorter cocked his head sidewise as if he were a puppet on a broken string. Rory, wincing, saw a nasty, crooked scar running the length of the odd man’s head and neck.
Then without a word, Simon marched to an empty work station, logged on to the system, slipped a Dial-N-Smile magazine product list from his shabby jacket, and began to call the phone numbers randomly generated by the computer. He did not use a script – nor did he smile.
Mr. Jeffy nudged Rory and said, “Watch this and be amazed. Simon is going to take our sales numbers through the roof and save our bottom line.”
Immediately, the death-warmed-over pallor of Simon’s face flushed bright red like a giant drop of blood. From one call to the next, his voice changed drastically – depending on which magazine he was hustling. During the next hour a flabbergasted Rory, with a grinning Mr. Jeffy by his side, watched in awe as Simon Sorter’s Multiple Personality Disorder became an incredible marketing tool.
When selling the magazine Retirement World, he became “Pappy Smith”, his voice aged and frail. Marketing Big Wheels, the timid, anemic-looking Simon Sorter seemed to sprout into a fearsome psycho Hell’s Angel-type – code-named “Rod Piston” – his sales spiel threatening and gruff. These performances were followed by others just as remarkable: Gun News made Simon into “Tommy Guns” who wowed his customers with his Southern drawl and defense of the Right to Bear Arms; Computer Time transformed this normally mumbling clod into a very articulate, brisk personality – “Simon Server” – tossing off techno-babble with the greatest of ease. In fact, in front of Rory’s eyes Simon Sorter must have assumed – and shed – at least twenty different personalities, voices, and names.
His sales tally sheet boggled Rory’s mind; the disheveled eccentric had exceeded the firm’s top rep’s billings by 50%.
“Now pal. you know why we used to call him Morphing Man”, happily purred Mr. Jeffy.
“Yeah, I must admit that it is damn incredible. How did he get like that?”
Mr. Jeffy motioned Rory away from Simon’s workstation and spoke in a hushed tone. “You saw that scar? He was in a horrible accident when he was about forty. Split his head and neck open. A few years later, he started having multiple personalities. Underwent treatment but later got into sales with me. Sometimes, it takes a weird person to do good marketing.”
“Yeah, maybe being a bit nuts is ok – but not a psycho……”
From Simon’s workstation came a fresh confusion of voices as he plowed anew into the computer-generated customer list. Mr. Jeffy asked Rory to wait in the office. A few minutes later Jeffy and Simon Sorter, both stone-faced, entered, closed the door, and stared at Rory without speaking. Cold sweat trickled down his nose. The atmosphere was funereal, and he felt like the corpse on display. Or considering Simon’s zombie-like gaze, maybe it was more the dead inspecting the living….
A deep unearthly voice suddenly boomed from Simon’s throat. “You Rory Ribert are no longer required as sales manager of Dial-N-Smile.!” Rory literally jumped from his seat: so this was it, he was being fired – dead meat. Jeffy, the sorry bastard, had some gall, replacing Rory with a cruddy weirdo who smelled like he slept in a used clothes bin at the Salvation Army.
“Well, don’t forget that my contract gives me a severance package. So I don’t give a damn about this hole in the wall!” laughed Rory wildly, suddenly relieved at the thought of never having to interview any more useless applicants like his earlier appointment: a little mumbling man, with a weak, shifting gaze, referred by the unemployment office jobs bank for a telemarketing position requiring at least fair communication skills.
“That is something we need to talk about,” coldly replied Jeffy, peeping out of the shadows.
“Better not try to screw me you cheap bastard,” yelled Rory, “otherwise I’ll be seeing you in court.”
He then bolted for the door, but Simon, showing amazing strength and quickness, grabbed his shoulder. Again, Simon’s voice changed, this time into a very good imitation of Mr. Jeffy singsong cheerfulness. “Looks like we’ll have to part ways partner…”
From the same pocket that had contained the magazine product list, Simon whipped out a knife-cum-paper opener: the “Mr. Jeffy voice” again, but this time slurred and vicious. “The good news is I can save you from going to court and paying a lawyer. The bad news is that you won’t be ‘seeing’ – or calling – anybody any more. You are useless phone time now Rory, wasted cubicle space, dead air…” As if somebody had pulled a plug in Simon’s brain, the John Jeffy persona abruptly stopped. His face now seemed to be undergoing serial plastic surgery at the speed of light. Simon Sorter’s features morphed into every twisted, ghastly facial appearance and expression known to humanity: gnashing feral teeth, wild, yellow eyes, a snarling, pulpy mouth, black, rotting gums, squirming scars. Then a museum of interactive, evil masks: his face melted into Hitler’s, Stalin’s, Saddam Hussein’s, Ted Bundy’s, Pol Pot’s. Still powerfully griping Rory’s arm, Simon Sorter raised the knife-cum-paper opener to the ex- sales manager’s quivering throat.
Thomas White has a triple identity: speculative fiction writer, poet, and essayist. His poems, fiction, and essays have appeared in online and print literary journals and magazines in Australia, the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. He is also a Wiley-Blackwell Journal author who has contributed essays to various nonliterary journals on topics ranging from atheism, the meaning of Evil, Elon Musk, Plato, The Matrix, and reality as a computer simulation. In addition, he has presented three of his essays to the West Chester University Poetry Conference (West Chester, Pennsylvania), as well as read his poetry on Australian radio.
When Jan came home from work, she found her husband curled in the fetal position on the living room floor. He had stuffed two pieces of cotton in his ears. In the distance, Jan heard the approaching growl of the F-35s – at least, the one that was trailing behind his four other pals. They were making so many loops it was challenging to keep up with their schedule.
Dropping her bag next to the kitchen counter, Jan rushed toward her husband, her heels clicking against the wood floor. The door slammed behind her, and when she reached Peter, the jet came thundering over their house, the sound of its engine drowning out everything in a hundred-foot radius.
“Peter!” she shouted. She felt the strain in her throat as the words slipped out, but the jet engines stole their power. She wrapped her arms around Peter, pulling him into a seated position. He trembled to the point that she worried about the possibility of a seizure or some other serious injury. But no – when she looked in his eyes and pressed her palm against his cheek, she saw her Peter there, lucid as ever – terrified, certainly, but conscious.
“Baby,” she said, cradling his face, “what’s wrong? What happened?” She plucked the cotton out of his ears. To her shock, they were soaked with blood.
“Did you hear them?” Peter whispered. “Oh, God. Jan – the screams! Can’t you hear them?”
Peter slept soundly, his snores rumbling in their tiny bedroom, his mouth hanging ajar, a thin line of drool spilling down his bottom lip. It was six-thirty – a far cry from the usual time they went to bed (or, when she would lay up at night knitting, when he would crack open whatever paperback he’d brought home from the used bookstore down the road). Odd, but not a crime. Truth be told, she couldn’t get the image of the blood-drenched cotton swabs, nor the fear in his tone when he spoke. As she returned to the living room, Jan figured that whatever Peter had experienced more than earned him an early night.
She considered grabbing her knitting needles from the bedroom but instead decided to make a quick dinner. Crossing through the living room and into the kitchen, she rummaged around the fridge until she found some soup she’d made the night prior. As she put the pot on the stove, the drone came again – soft and in the distance, but unmistakable.
“Christ,” Jan muttered under her breath. The Governor had warned that they would be starting night runs soon, but a part of her foolishly hoped better ideas would prevail. Ideas like not bothering people with cacophonous jets around the time they were preparing dinner.
Slapping a pot onto the stove’s electric coil, she scooped in a few spoonfuls of the cold soup and turned the burner on high. As she watched the burner turn a bright crimson, the first of the jets came flying over the house. As it did, the structure shook with it. The whiskey bottles on their bar rattled around; the pictures on the walls twitched left and right; dust shifted from the lamps and fell to the floor; the windows made an awful grating sound as they chittered about. And that was just the first jet. There were five, each as droning and annoying as the next. Sure enough, as steam rose above the warming soup, the next came. Again, the house did its little jig.
That was when she heard Peter screaming from the bedroom.
Instinct kicked in. Leaving the soup behind without flipping off the burner, Jan dashed through the kitchen, hooked left, and sprinted down the short hallway toward their bedroom. Upon flinging the door open, she saw Peter standing naked in front of their window, the one that overlooked the driveway. She saw a jet speeding ahead into the distance in the darkening sky, turning left, heading toward the highway. The third jet came, and it seemed to put a little oomph into its engine. The roar was so loud Jan felt her ears pop, and the glass of water on Peter’s nightstand came tumbling down on the floor, where it shattered, sending jagged blue pieces of glass skittering every which way.
If Peter heard the sound of the glass breaking, he didn’t indicate it. Jan yelled at him as she approached, straining her voice to do so. Even before he turned, her heart lurched. Dark blood streamed from his ears like there was an internal leak in his brain. Maroon tributaries ran down his neck and his chest, dripping onto the floor. And still more came. Her stomach wobbled when she saw the blood was being pumped out, fresh batches dousing his earlobe and slicing down the side of his face.
When her husband turned, her heart jolted again. The fourth jet came flying over, and in the wake of its fading drone, she heard her husband whisper something. In his right hand was one of her knitting needles, its pointed edge glimmering with a devilish hunger, backlit by moonlight.
“Peter,” she said, trying to enunciate. The fifth jet, the last of the bunch, was still approaching. “Peter, give that to me.”
“Can’t you hear them?” Peter cried. Tears ravaged his cheeks, burning down his face, parallel to the blood pumping from his ears. “Jan, you have to hear them! They’re…they’re crying, Jan! God, they’re screaming! Why can’t anybody hear them?”
The fifth jet tore through the sky, its sound ripping the world in two, and that was when Peter drove the knitting needle into his bleeding ear. Jan didn’t hear the sound of the needle puncturing his brain, nor did she hear her screams. The jet engines stole all.
She ran as he fell, catching his body before his head cracked against the wood floor. The F-35 flew away, twisting to follow the group, and as it did, Jan sobbed, unsure of what to do or who to call. In her arms, Peter seized, his body jerking around uncontrollably, and eventually Jan had to lay him down on the floor, run to the kitchen for her phone, and call 911. The stove’s burner hissed as the soup boiled over the sides, unleashing gouts of white smoke.
In the weeks that followed Peter’s death, Jan participated in a handful of police interviews, answering the same questions repeatedly: did your husband have a history of depression; what happened prior to his suicide; did he have any enemies that you know of; did he often talk about being upset with life or wishing he could disappear? Aside from pricking her heart again and again with barbed needles, the questions served only to prove how ridiculous the notion of Peter’s suicide was. It was the word to describe what happened, yet it didn’t explain any nuances. The Peter she knew was buoyant and hopeful. The Peter that had died…well, he had been someone else entirely. Driven mad by the jets, as odd as that was to say. Jan only allowed herself to consider the cause-and-effect of the jets when she was alone at home, often wallowing away in a steep glass of wine, sitting in sweatpants stained with her hot tears.
And still, overhead, the jets thundered on.
The first night after the funeral, Jan drew a hot bath. She found some salts and bubble bath squirreled away under her bathroom sink, and she dumped half of each into it. After lighting a few candles and putting calming music on, she brought a bottle of rosé and uncorked it. Then, settling into the warm water, she drank and cried.
When the first jet flew overhead, she rolled her eyes, pulling one hand from the bubbly water to flip off her ceiling. As silly as the gesture was, something settled in her gut then: a comforted rage, satiated for the moment, even as she remained confused and addled by the trauma of that night. Sucking down some more wine, she listened to Hozier croon from the speaker on her sink, and she closed her eyes, settling deeper into the bath. Warm water licked at her chin, and she placed the bottle on the side of the tub, resting her weary, tear-streaked eyes.
The second jet came screaming by soon after. The description was too accurate, though. Jan opened her eyes as it passed overhead. She did hear screaming. A high-pitched wail. The kind she would have expected in a cheesy slasher movie, with Jason cutting down a few too-horny-for-their-own-good campers. But then the sound was gone, fading into the distance. Until the next jet came, and she heard it again. This time, she kept her eyes closed. In the darkness, she saw a mouth, unhinged; a tongue pulled back in reflexive terror; eyes with dilated pupils; hands clutching something close, holding it tight, some precious thing.
Jan shook her head and sat up in the bathtub. Water sloshed over the side, spilling onto the tile floor, and the cold air in the bathroom raised goosebumps on her chest.
It can’t be, she muttered, shaking her head. It’s the trauma. It’s losing Peter. I’m just hearing things.
When the third jet boomed by, she heard it again, though. This time the screaming was more pronounced: an unmistakable wail of terror, a word she didn’t recognize. It was screamed in a higher register, and when the deeper boom of the F-35’s engines kicked into gear, the word was lost to her.
But she heard it with the fifth jet. It stole her breath. Jan reached her hand up to her neck. Her heart thumped in her chest, hard and fast, and she whispered her husband’s name, though that sound was stolen by the engines and the screams, too.
The word she heard, clear as day, was HELP.
The Governor’s email was about as bare bones as she expected, given the lack of clarity in her initial query. Underneath her email, which (among other things) requested a stoppage to the jets flying over her neighborhood, was a cold response.
Dear Mrs. Anderson: we understand your concerns and apologize for any inconvenience. However, Governor Scott stands firmly in support of our military and will not hinder their pursuit to protect our freedom.
Jan rolled her eyes and cursed under her breath. After snapping the laptop closed, she stood from her living room couch and returned to the kitchen. Typical politician bullshit. Jets doing loop-de-loops over residential neighborhoods protected her to the same degree that Brent the Mall Cop did while standing outside the Macy’s in South Burlington.
The jets returned that night. With them came the screams, the pleading for help, the sound of vocal cords breaking. Jan huddled in her bedroom closet, slamming the door shut behind her. But even the additional walls were unable to drown out the sound of terror. The engines roared overhead, shaking the house, and with the shrieks came new sounds: wailing bombs falling to the ground, exploding; the chatter of gunfire, pocking an arid landscape, shattering bones and spraying the soil with blood; the faint moans of the dying, holding bloody stumps where elbows had once been, holding throats that seeped crimson, gurgling and coughing; another high-pitched warble as an additional bomb blasted the Earth, akin to the sound Wile E. Coyote made after falling off a ledge.
When the final jet passed over, Jan pawed at her cheeks. They were awash with hot tears. Even as the engines faded into the distance, she heard the horrors of war in her head, drilling deeper, wrapping around her brainstem with fiery hands. As if acting on instinct, she curled into the fetal position and pressed her palms against her ears. In the dark closet, the sounds of destruction were omnipresent.
“Jan, you can’t just leave!”
She’d expected Andy, her boss, would say something along those lines, but the truth was her role was easy to transfer into a remote role.
“I just do a lot of writing,” Jan retorted, putting her cellphone on speaker and rushing around her bedroom. She yanked a red suitcase from her closet, zipped it open, and tossed it on her bed. “I’ll still hit my deliverable, don’t worry. I just – I need to get away. Losing Peter, the aftermath. I just need to get away.”
“I get that. And I told you that you could take some time if you needed it. Nobody would be upset if you did that.” Forgoing folding, Jan heaped clothes into the suitcase. She checked her watch. She still had time. The jets wouldn’t come by for another hour – by then, she would be a few counties away, safe from their engines, safe from the cries of terror and the whine of exploding shrapnel.
“Andy, I can’t lose the PTO,” Jan demurred. She grabbed a phone charger from her nightstand, averting her eyes from the window, the place that still stank of blood, even after being professionally cleaned. “I just need you to listen to me, okay?”
Her boss’s sigh was heavy, and her phone’s speaker crackled. Then, Andy said, “Fine. I can give you two weeks. Just stay in the state, okay? But I need you in the office after two weeks. Got it?”
“Yeah, got it,” Jan said. “Thank you.” The phone beeped three times, indicating the call was over, and she returned focus to the suitcase.
Forty-five minutes, Jan thought when she finished packing. She glanced once again at her watch. Her heart thumped hard and heavy in her chest. Blood pounded in her ears, and a faint metallic tang coated the back of her tongue. Ignoring her palpable fear, she grabbed the suitcase by the handle and lugged it out of her bedroom. In the kitchen, she snagged her car keys. They jangled when she stuffed them into her pants pocket.
She turned back once to look at her living room. The sun streamed in through the window, laying out a blanket of yellow warmth on the floor. The couch looked inviting, with its soft cushions, and the remote on the coffee table called out to her. Throw something on the TV, it said. Watch a show. Relax.
Turning away from the hell that had once been her haven, Jan opened the door and slipped out. She fumbled with her keys for a brief moment before stuffing the silver one into her lock. She twisted hard, and the ka-chunk of her lock slamming into place sent a stone of heat spiraling up into her chest. Jan stuffed the keys back into her pocket and marched toward her car, still lugging the suitcase by hand.
Once Jan stowed it in her trunk, she slid behind the wheel and stuffed her large black key into the ignition. As she turned it, her motor made series of ruhruhruhruhruh sounds, as if it was gasping for breath.
Heat flashed in Jan’s face. She tried again, turning the key.
“Please,” she whispered to her dashboard. “You can’t do this. Not now. Please.” On the third try, the motor coughed to life, though the sound of her car turning over was about as lazy as a car could sound. Jan glanced in her mirror – and that was when she saw the traffic on the road behind her.
As Jan turned her car around, she glanced at the clock. Thirty-two minutes. She still had time. With thirty minutes, she could make it to Montpelier. Hell, if there weren’t any Stateys lurking in their green cars and the roads were clear, she could make it in less than twenty.
But traffic wasn’t moving. A black SUV blocked her into the driveway, though the driver behind the wheel – a white woman with a frazzle of blond hair and two kids in the back seat – laid on her horn and opened her mouth, likely hurling some expletive. Jan fought the instinct to thrust her palm against her horn, too. The Mom in the SUV certainly couldn’t move.
Ten painstaking minutes passed. Every thirty seconds or so, Jane craned her head to look down the road, seeing the long line of cars get shorter. The SUV was long gone. Now, blocking her in was a ratty Toyota. Rust ate away at the white exterior, while duct tape covered one of the back windows. It crept forward, its tires crunching over the pavement.
“God damn it!” Jan roared, slamming her palm against the wheel. Thoughts swirled in her mind: if you just left twenty minutes earlier; if you didn’t pack that book; if you didn’t take the time to call Andy until after you arrived. If, if, if: the self-critiques stripped her bare, squeezed at her heart, and sent the pounding pulse of panic into overdrive.
They’re coming, she thought. Christ, the jets are coming.
It was an additional five minutes before she was able to sneak into traffic, cutting off a blue Honda, which earned her a squeal from its horn. She flipped the bird out her window and drove on, pulling into the right lane and speeding by the expanse of cars. As she approached the end of Pine street, she saw what had cut her precious time in half. A construction crew was actively churning the ground up at the intersection. Through the hole, she saw a pipe gushing dark black sewage. The smell was so fetid it managed to sneak through her car’s ventilation system. Jan wasted no time aggressively passing by the mess, cutting right at the next intersection and going up the hill toward Shelburne Road. Her brakes squealed as she pumped them, slowing to a stop at the next intersection. A sixteen-wheeler with pictures of produce on its side blew by, its engine uttering a churning gargle. The sound sent a flash of anxiety coursing down Jan’s spine. She resisted the urge to recheck the car’s clock. She knew time was running out – what was the use in wasting precious seconds?
There was an accident up by the onramp, which slowed traffic to another halt. Jan let out a riotous bellow when she saw the Jeep’s smoking hood, dented inward, and the BMW’s shattered taillights. They were pulled off to the side of the road, in Jan’s lane, and a uniformed cop was ushering traffic forward while another took down notes. Jane crept forward, her foot slipping between the brake and the gas every few seconds. She looked up at the sky. It was a perfect powder blue. The sun still shone down with its friendly yellow rays. Birds chirped and cawed as they flew overhead. It was, by every definition, an impeccable day in Vermont.
But they were coming. The roars, and the cries, and the destruction. They were coming.
It only took a few minutes for the cop to wave her through, but it felt like eons to Jan. She sped forward, weaving by the cop and sliding onto the onramp. Twisting with the road’s circular descent, her body absentmindedly rocked back and forth. Then, when she hit the straightaway, she slammed her foot on the gas and sped forward. As she merged into the left lane, she checked her clock.
The cars in the right lane honked their horn at her. Jan ignored them, just as she ignored the needle on her speedometer, which was approaching ninety-five miles an hour. Before her, the highway spread out: two lanes, revealing open fields and lush trees on both sides. Up ahead, there was a bend in the road, and she slowed down to eighty. The last thing she needed was to spin off the road.
But as she took the turn and stared at the giant green road sign that read MONTPELIER: 32 MILES, she heard them. In the distance still, behind her surely, but they broke the sky, nonetheless. The echo of their engines was unmistakable, a cry of fury, high-pitched and warbling. With the echo came the softest whisper, a plea, a desperate suggestion.
“Save us, please!”
Jan hit the gas again, even as she roared by a statey’s green car. His lights flew on, and he pulled into her lane. The silver Toyota that was behind her hit its brakes to allow the cop to enter. The speedometer’s needle climbed again: eighty, eighty-five, ninety, ninety-five. She didn’t know how far she could push her little Subaru, but as she approached the big 100, the car started to shake. In the sky, those sounds grew louder, piercing the protective barrier of her car’s cabin, sliding through the glass windows, writhing its way into her ventilation system. The drone was louder, the plea more hurried than before, the voice sounding as though it was right next to her, seated in the passenger’s seat with hands clasped and eyes watering.
“Please, save us!”
The cop’s lights were flashing a frenzy of blue and red, and its sirens were warbling, though the roar of her Subaru’s engine drowned out some of the noise. Up ahead, there was another curve in the road coming: a sharper one, where the only thing keeping her from crashing down into an expanse of forested mountain roads was a metal guardrail. Jan looked in her rearview mirror and realized blood was seeping from her ears, trickling down her neck, tainting her white blouse.
The curve came fast and hard, and Jan pulled her wheel to the right. Well, tugged was more what she did, as the wheel resisted being turned at such speeds. As her car careened around the curve, the wheels on her left side lifting off the ground, the first jet flew overhead. With it came the sound of a bomb falling, whisking through the sky with a cartoonish howl, soon followed by a distant boom. The voice beside her was only growing more frenzied, more desperate.
“Please help us!” it shouted. Jan could tell it was a mother’s voice. There was something about the desperation with which the woman shouted. She was not scared for herself but her children. In an instant, Jan could see them, their faces pressed against the hot fabric of the woman’s dress, their eyes peering through her the gaps between her fingers, looking up at the sky with wide-eyed dread. And then, when the bombs boomed, they screamed, and their screams were akin to the screeching of metal on metal or the whine of Jimi Hendrix’s guitar at Woodstock.
Jan realized that it was not just the screams she heard but also the sound of her axles snapping as her Subaru desperately tried to make the turn and maintain its hellish speed. Jan jerked the wheel to the left out of instinct, trying to avoid the car turning over. Another scream, this one purely from her car, and the Subaru bucked.
The second jet passed overhead as the Subaru flipped sideways, smashing into the guardrail. Hot sparks jetted from her door as metal tore through metal, and her window shattered, sending sparkling fragments through the interior of her car. The Subaru flipped end over end, burnt metal breaking off and clattering across the road. The cop swerved behind her, managing to avoid disaster. Black smoke rose in the air as the cop car slammed on its brakes, as did the stink of burnt rubber. It was going too fast. The vehicle further ahead, a black SUV, not unlike the one that Jan saw while leaving her house, hit its brakes, likely in response to the sight of a cop car speeding toward it, lights flashing and siren blaring. The cop slammed into the back of it, and the sirens were cut off with a petulant wee-whoo.
Blood stained Jan’s face. Darkness swarmed her vision. She was held in place, upside down, by her seatbelt. As consciousness waned, the jets continued to pass overhead, and she heard it all, more intensely than ever before. She heard the gut-churning sound of limbs being torn from shoulder sockets, of children screaming for their mothers with outstretched stumps spurting dark blood. When the third jet screamed overhead, she saw the mother again; only, her eyes were wide and empty, her body torn apart by gunfire. Blood seeped into the sand underneath her, congealing the particles, turning them as dark as sackcloth. In the distance came the next round, carrying more horrors with it, but Jan did not hear them. Darkness overwhelmed her vision, the black spots swelling into each other like hungry amoebas, and she spiraled into the void, wishing for death, praying for silence.
She came to in a warm bed, and for a moment Jan wondered if the afterlife was that simple. But when she craned her right eye open, she recognized the stark white walls and the acidic smell of chemical cleaners. Life crept back into her veins, and with it came the dread of living.
Beside her, a machine beeped endlessly. Its monotonous tone drove into her ears like a dull nail, and she winced as it picked up with the rapid beating of her heart. Soon enough, it started to chime, flashing red and orange lights. Not long after, her nurse came in.
“Good to see you awake,” she said. “I’m Annie, your nurse. Let me just shut this thing off.” With a quick hustle, she moved across the room and sidled up to the machine, tapping its screen a few times. The alarm, and the chirp of her heart rate, dissipated.
“Thank you,” Jan croaked. “Can I…” She licked her lips. God, her mouth tasted like cotton. “Can I get some water?”
“Sure, hon,” she said. “I’ll check with your doctor, make sure you’re cleared to have oral fluids. Okay?”
Jan nodded, and Annie left the room, closing the heavy wooden door quietly behind her. Jan pushed her head back into the pillow, trying to find the right crease. She wanted to sleep, wanted the yawning blackness of infinity to swallow her again.
The TV on the wall was on. From it, she heard the drone of a news anchor. Last night, the President continued strikes…
“Please. help us.”
Jan jerked her head to her right. There, sitting in one of the metal chairs, was the woman. Half of her face was a burnt mess of scarlet flesh. An eyelid was fused over its glassy sphere, and her bottom lip was torn in two. Charred blood glistened under the hospital lights, and when the woman spoke, only one side of her face emoted. The other eye, the one that was caked in dried blood but still lucid, sparkled with terror.
“Please,” the woman begged. “My children.”
“No!” Jan yelled, the cry cutting through her dry throat. “No!” Beside her, the machine began to beep again, its rapid tone wailing. Or was that the woman? Or her child? Jan turned again, and she saw the woman holding a wad of bloody cloth. From it peeked a small hand with half the fingers missing, in its place bloody stumps.
Overhead, the first jet droned by.
The machine continued to wail, and Jan mimicked it. She grabbed at the IV in her arm and pulled, yelping as a scarlet haze tinted her vision, at the lancing pain that tore up her arm. The IV didn’t come loose, and soon enough, another nurse – not Annie, but a heavy-set white woman with brown hair and bloodshot eyes – came barreling into the room. She shouted some medical jargon out the door before rushing to Jan’s bedside.
“Hey, that can’t come out,” the nurse said in a calming voice. Was it southern? An accent blunted the edges of her vowels.
“The jets!” Jan wailed, still clutching the plastic tube in her arm. “Can’t you hear them?”
Jan looked in the nurse’s eyes, searching her green irises for some sort of recognition. But she could see the truth in her blankness: she didn’t hear the screams, the bombs droning, the chattering gunfire. She heard nothing more than a loud engine. At that moment, Jan recognized herself in the nurse: how she must have looked when she rushed over to Peter.
Tears slipped out of her eyes. Another jet droned overhead. With it came the mother, a thousand mothers, screaming for help.
Jan released her IV and grasped the nurse’s sleeve. The fabric of her scrubs was almost papery. “Please,” she moaned, her voice hovering above a whisper, “please kill me.”
The nurse shook her head. “It’s going to be okay, Janice. Everything’s going to be okay.”
“Why can’t you hear them?” Jan sobbed. “Why can’t anybody hear them?”
And then Annie came rushing back into the room, along with a security guard. In Annie’s thin hand was a vial of clear fluid, which she attached to Jan’s IV with a quick twist.
“It’s okay,” Annie said, her voice calming. She pushed on the vial’s plunger, and Jan felt cold fluid seep into the inner fold of her right arm. Annie twisted the vial off and then pumped fluids in behind it. Another cold, seeping feeling. Jan’s heart slowed in her chest, and the machine stopped its annoying screams.
But the jets continued to thunder overhead.
Keith LaFountaine is a writer from Vermont. His short fiction has been published in various literary magazines, including Dread Stone Press and Wintermute Lit. He tweets from @KL_writing, and his work can be found on his website: www.keithlafountaine.com.
I am the King of the kings. I am the son of the falcon-headed Horus. I am the beginning. I am the end. I am the one who will live forever. I am Nimaatre Smenkhare Meriamun, the living god of the land of Kemet.
The golden boat of Re has finished its way in the celestial Nile and submerged in the darkness of Nun. I found myself wandering around the tombs of deceased kings who have already met Osiris in the Afterlife. I try to remember what I’m doing here in the middle of the night but fail. The night is dark and quiet. Khonsu’s crown shines brightly and lights my path with its cold silver light.
Quiet voices interrupt my thoughts. They sound from one of the tombs. Coming closer, I can see the dim light of torches. The voices sound louder. There is no doubt I’ve met the tomb robbers. Disgusting thieves, sons of dishonoured Seth, doomed to be punished in the Afterlife! Their souls will be eaten by the gigantic serpent Apophis and will be condemned to eternal death. They, who dare to steal from the kings, deserve nothing but a miserable death without a burial.
There are three of them on a doorstep of the underground tomb, ready to smash their way in, to defile king’s eternal peace, taking gold and jewellery, and all other of the king’s belongings, throwing his mummy out of its golden coffin.
I’m going to call my guards to arrest the robbers. Instead, my mouth produces a weird, heart-stopping scream. This scream belongs neither to a man nor to an animal. What is wrong with me? I can’t recognise my voice.
One of the robbers turns around. His face is pale like linen. His eyes stare at me in horror. He drops his torch and runs, leaving his peers and screaming like a lunatic. His friend shouts to him, but noticing me, just freezes on the spot.
‘The king… the spirit of the king,’ he mumbles in shock.
‘How dare you touch the royal tomb?’ I shout, trying to grab his shoulder, but my hand goes through his body and catches the air. I see the thief falling, his eyes are wide opened. I lean over him, trying to have a closer look. He has stopped breathing. He is dead. I have no chance to stop the last one as he disappears into the darkness, following his peer.
I sit down on the ground in front of the tomb, examining my hands and wondering what happened to the robbers, where my guards are, and what, for all the gods’ sake, I’m doing amongst the tombs at night. Struggling to follow the flow of my thoughts, I start to read the writing on the tomb. It is a traditional plate with the name of a king on the door’s seal.
Oh Thoth, the Adviser of the kings, give me all your divine wisdom and knowledge! The king’s name on the plate is… Userkaf Smenhkare Meriamun, the name of my brother. And straight away, I see the face of Userkaf in front of me. He is my exact copy. Even our mother, the Great King’s Wife, queen Nefriru, couldn’t distinguish us. We are the same height, with the same short black hair, the same big black eyes, the same straight long nose, which we have inherited from our great father. We were born together, yet I was the first who came out of the queen’s blessed belly. I was the one and the only heir to the throne. My brother, Userkaf, was brought up to become Chief Priest of Amun-Re, but he always desired more. Always jealous, always despising me, always wanted to be the first.
I remember his face, but it’s blurry. I feel the cold water filling my ears and mouth. I can’t breathe. I try to break free, but my brother’s hand is squeezing my throat tighter and tighter. I try to push him, to call for help, but my efforts are weakening. I’m not a good swimmer. I never have been. The grimaced face of my brother, an agonizing blurry reflection of myself… then… here I am. I am dead.
I cry, ‘Oh immortal gods, I call on you! Let me take my revenge. Let me free the throne of Isis from the usurper. Let me be judged by Osiris in the Underworld. Let me travel together with Amun-Re in his golden boat in the skies and let the name of my brother be forgotten forever.’
The light of the oil lamps and torches is fading, and the whole palace is going to fall asleep. Only heavy steps of guards in the corridors and the murmur of fountains in the gardens break the silence of the chambers.
I don’t remember how I appeared here. I just wished to come back home to my palace in Niwt-Imn, to see my wife, young and beautiful Mutnefert, and our son, my only heir, Senenmut. I wish everything that has happened to me was a dream, a bad nightmare sent to me by the demons of the night. I wish to wake up. I wish…. to be alive.
I enter my chambers and… Oh Seth, I can’t bear to see my beloved wife in the arms of my brother, the murderer Userkaf. Using our similarity, he took my throne, my name, and now… he sleeps in my bed with my wife. She has been tricked the same way as all others. She believes that it was Userkaf who drowned in a river, not me. It was an accident, the will of Hapy, the river god who took Userkaf to his underwater palace. Of course, it was a lie she’s been told.
I’m afraid they can notice me. Coming closer to the bed, I realise they both are deep asleep.
My Mutnefert, my great queen, my only love. I always loved her. I have been in love with her since I was twelve, and she was only ten, but my brother desired her as well. When our mother, the Great King’s Wife died, our divine father took Mutnefert as his new Great Wife, but he was too ill and too old. As soon as he joined Osiris in the Underworld, Mutnefert and I married. Userkaf couldn’t control his passion, though. He tried to seduce her a few times, but she loved me. She has always been the most loyal of my wives. Oh, Atum, the creator of the world and all people, give me a body, and I will claim everything back from my brother. I will take my revenge.
I am only ten, but I can read and write fluently. I am short but strong and agile. My father always took me hunting lions and panthers. I have even caught one for my little managerie. My father told me that I was born to be a warrior. I was born to be a king, but I am preparing for the life of a scribe. The almighty gods have sealed my voice inside my throat, so I can’t speak. I never could tell the truth. I never could tell that my uncle Userkaf drowned my father and took his name and his crown. I am just a boy now. My life is under threat. I am scared to death. Why, oh almighty gods? Why have you chosen this body? The body of my only son, Senenmut?
I sit now at the reception chamber together with three king’s scribes and write everything that is said in the king’s presence.
‘…And you are informing me about this situation only now, Great Vizier?’ The king sits on his golden throne. His head is crowned with a high fancy headdress. Tiny golden bees, colourful butterflies, and lotus flowers made from the lapis-lazuli move with his head’s every movement. Long golden earrings shine in his ears. Heavy wide bracelets decorate his wrists and ankles. His lips shine with a golden balm. He smells of lotus and rose oils. He wears my long robe and richly decorated sandals. He doesn’t hesitate to take everything from me.
Ineni, the Great Vizier and the major of Niwt-Imn, kneels. He leans lower and lower until his forehead touches the floor. Ineni is fat, old, and a coward. His bald round head is shines with sweat. He is afraid to make his lord angry, but doesn’t hesitate to tell him the latest rumours.
‘I didn’t want to bother my king with the information that hasn’t been proven yet. I just wanted to wait to be sure that—’ he mumbles under his heavy breath.
‘To wait? To wait for what? For the prince of Kush and his allies to summon a new army? When their barbarian soldiers will stay at the city’s gates?’ the king sounds furious.
Ineni crawls on his fat belly, coming closer to the king, kissing his toes with gold-covered nails.
The ruler only grimaces. ‘Do the viceroy and his chieftains remember that their sons were brought here by my father during his last campaign and have been living here ever since? Does he remember that his oldest daughter is one of my wives?’
‘There is something else, my Lord, you should know,’ the vizier whispers, looking behind his back at me and other scribes.
‘What is it? Speak!’ Userkaf waves.
‘The rumours are spreading in the city, Your Majesty. People keep talking…’ Ineni stammers.
‘What? Speak! Your king orders you.’ He presses his sceptre to the vizier’s head and raises his chin, staring into his eyes.
‘My sources reported that some of the high priests are involved as well. I’ve been informed that the viceroy has offered a deal to the priest of Sobek, the governor of the south who believes that… that you, our divine Nimaatre Smenkhare Meriamun, have been killed by your twin brother.’
The king only laughs, but I see his face goes paler. ‘Tell the priest of Sobek his suspicions are absolutely baseless. I would like to talk to him with regards to all the nasty rumours he spreads. As for our viceroy, I think I need to remind him to whom he should be grateful for allowing him on the throne of Kush.’
He grins, and I feel a chill runs down my backbone.
I follow the king to his private chambers, trying to be as quiet as possible. Nephthys, the goddess of the night, has covered me with her dark veil. I am almost invisible, hiding behind wide lotus-shaped columns of halls and corridors.
Tiyu, my Kushite wife and another victim of Userkaf’s deceit, has already been brought here and been waiting for the king. He comes into the room and nods to the guards to leave them alone. I have no choice but to cringe behind the nearest column. If somebody notices me here, I will be beaten fiercely.
‘Ah, my gorgeous wife.’ My brother smirks, circling like a kite around its prey. ‘I haven’t seen you since the day of our wedding. We need to see each other more often.’
She looks different from all other queens. She’s taller than women from Kemet, and her long hair is wavy. She has been brought here as a guarantor of peace between my country and Kush, and I took her as my third wife. I love my Mutnefert and I am not interested in other women. I am not like my lascivious brother who’s obsessed with sensual pleasures. He has lots of women, spending almost every night with a new one or sometimes even with a few.
‘Life, prosperity, and health to Your Majesty. I’m happy to serve you, my Lord,’ she whispers, all her slim body starts to shiver.
‘If so, you need to talk to your father, the viceroy. Tell him to go back to his nest and sit there quietly, if he wants to save his crown, his land, his…’ He touches her chin. ‘And your heads.’
She closes her eyes. Her body shivers even more. ‘My Lord, my divine husband, I am sure you’ve been mistaken. Whoever told you this about my father, told you lies.’ She falls on her knees in front of him and starts to cry. ‘My father is the most loyal servant you have.’
He doesn’t want to listen to her anymore. He grabs her long curly hair and smashes her head onto a low table.
It’s unbearable to hear her scream. If only I could help, could stab a sword between his shoulders, but I am only a boy and I am scared to death. I hold my breath, trying not to cry, not to show my presence.
He squeezes her neck. ‘Now, you can write to your father how women in Kemet’s villages felt when his soldiers raided my lands.’
I leave my hiding place and hurry to my chambers.
I can’t feel my body. Am I a spirit again? I find myself in the king’s dinner chamber now. I can see the whole room, but nobody can see me. I am a spirit, an incorporeal being, something that doesn’t belong to the world of men.
The king enjoys his dinner, surrounded by his cupbearers, musicians, half-naked dancers, fan bearers, and all kinds of servants and slaves. Ineni, the Great Vizier, is also presented. Userkaf reclines on a low sofa, a golden band in the shape of a cobra crowns his short black hair, smothered by coconut oil. He wears a long white kilt. One of the slave girls massages his naked shoulders and neck.
Ineni fills his goblet with wine instead of a cupbearer, whispering the latest gossip in the king’s ear. I know what is in his mind. I can read this shameful plotter’s thoughts.
My father gave the title of the governor of the Southern Land to Hapuseneb, the priest of Sobek, the man of the greatest wisdom, experience, and honour. His family has been loyal to our house for many generations. Ineni couldn’t bear such a turn. Addicted to limitless power as much as my brother, he’s tried to overthrow Hapuseneb many times but failed. He knows his time is coming now.
The musicians play a simple quiet tune, and the half-naked dancers gyrate and flex in their fancy dance.
The king strokes his favourite cat. The embodiment of the great goddess Bastet purrs happily. Golden bracelets decorate its four paws; a golden collar embraces its neck.
Ineni wants to say something to the king, but the appearance of the chief guard interrupts him.
‘Life, prosperity, and health to Your Majesty,’ the man starts, kneeling in front of the king.
‘Speak in the presence of the immortal god.’ Ineni waves to him, waddling and puffing on his low sofa like a hippopotamus on a river’s bank.
‘Forgive me my intrusion, my Lord, but Harmachis, the chief of Your Majesty’s chariotery, begs to see you now.’
‘Harmachis? Harmachis, the son of Hapuseneb, my wisest and the most loyal governor?’ Userkaf chuckles.
‘His Majesty is relaxing, don’t you see? How dare you interrupt the rest of God?’ Ineni gets up from his couch. ‘The audience time is tomorrow morning. You know the—’
Userkaf waves. ‘Bring Harmachis to me.’
Ineni only grimaces.
The guard bows and opens the door, letting the young man in.
‘Speak in His Majesty’s presence!’ Ineni proclaims from his place to a kneeled Harmachis.
‘Life, prosperity, and health to Your Majesty, may you live forever,’ Hapuseneb’s son starts under his breath.
Userkaf makes an impatient gesture, ordering him to be as brief as possible.
‘I beg you, my Lord, for my father. He’s been ordered to come here, to the capital. He is kept under home arrest in his villa on the west bank. He’s—’
‘Your father is accused of treason and sabotage. Tomorrow, he will be questioned by my chief of security. This shameful case will be investigated. If you believe that he hasn’t done anything wrong, if you don’t question his loyalty to the throne, why are you so worried? I’m sure if his heart is pure, he will be able to prove this to my investigators.’ Userkaf makes a circle around the young man and gestures him to rise from his knees.
‘My Lord, I don’t question your fair judgement. I know that the gods advise you. Your voice is the voice of Maat, the goddess of truth and justice. She can’t be mistaken. She can’t accuse an innocent servant of Your Majesty in treason. But there are so many people, my Lord, who are jealous and sneaky. They are pulling a veil of lies in front of your divine eyes, trying to distract you from Maat’s wise advice—’
All of Harmachis’s wordy speeches are in vain. My brother doesn’t listen. He circles the young charioteer, staring at his longish golden hair, his pale skin, bewildered by his deep blue eyes.
‘You look different,’ he says finally, paying no attention to Harmachis’s pleas.
‘My mother, my father’s second wife, was from the Sea People’s country. I inherited her features, my Lord,’ Harmachis sounds confused.
‘I hope you inherited from her such features like loyalty, honour, and integrity, because none of them I can see in your father.’
‘My Lord, I—’
‘It’s enough speeches for today.’ Userkaf turns away from him. ‘I question your father’s loyalty, not yours… at least, not at the moment. Take a seat, have dinner with us, tell us how dedicated you are to your duties and your king.’ A mysterious smile crosses my brother’s lips.
Harmachis takes a seat on the floor, next to the king’s sofa. Userkaf makes a gesture to his slaves, and they fill a goblet with wine for the king’s guest.
The cat, unhappy about the disturbance, jumps on its place next to the king and starts to purr again, begging for food.
Userkaf smiles and gives it a piece of a roasted duck. It purrs even louder, enjoying the bit, licking the king’s fingers in gratitude.
‘You see, he knows who’s in charge.’ The king nods at the cat. ‘He’s loving and loyal to his master. Sometimes he’s like my people—forgets his place and starts to bite and scratch the hand that feeds him, strokes him, and gives him shelter. When he does this, I need to show him who’s a master here, and he becomes pleasant and obedient again.’
Harmachis chokes on his wine. His eyes look at the king with hope, ready for everything to save his father’s life, title, and honour of his family.
‘Why don’t you eat your meal? These duck and figs are delicious.’ Userkaf takes one of the baked figs and offers it to Harmachis. ‘Try it. Don’t upset your king even more.’
‘I’ll do everything to please you, my king,’ he murmurs, taking a fig from the king’s hands with his lips.
Userkaf’s narrow eyebrows arch. ‘Leave us alone,’ he orders.
One by one, the servants leave the chamber. Ineni doesn’t move from his low couch.
‘You’ve heard me, Great Vizier.’ The king doesn’t look at Ineni, he stares at the young charioteer, tempted by his eyes, his golden hair, his big lips.
I am a little scribe again. I sit on a low bench together with two other scribes and watch the king reinstating the priest of Sobek in his duties.
Hapuseneb kneels in front of Userkaf, his chief of security, and the vizier. His body shakes under the long white robe. All his jewellery was taken away from him on the first day of his home arrest and given to the king’s treasury. His shaved head is covered by ashes in a tribute of grief and obedience.
‘His Majesty the King, may he live forever, honours you with his forgiveness,’ Ineni proclaims, and the scribes start to scratch on their papyri, trying to catch every word.
I start to write down as well, but instead of words, I draw. I draw what I can’t say aloud. I draw my plan, the plan of my revenge.
‘The mercy of our king is truly limitless,’ Ineni continues. ‘He deigns not only to save your life and honour of your family from the greatest shame but also he leaves you to perform your duties as a priest of Sobek, the lord of all waters. However, taking into consideration all the charges against you, His Majesty orders you to be suspended from the post of the governor of the Southern Land.’
Userkaf nods in support of his words. ‘Remember, Hapuseneb, I’m watching you.’
‘I’m grateful to His Majesty for his mercy. I know Maat, who always judges fairly, advises my king that there is no guilt on me. I know, oh the greatest of the kings, that the Eye of Re guides you through the darkness of lies to the light of truth. It shows you my loyalty is undoubted.’ Hapuseneb raises his eyes to the king.
Userkaf gestures him to rise from his knees. ‘I’m very pleased that you finally understood the seriousness of the accusations against you, Hapuseneb.’ He smiles his crooked smile. ‘Try not to disappoint me again.’ He takes a step closer to the priest. ‘Next time, even your son, who is very sweet with me, won’t be able to save you.’
He turns around and leaves the chamber. Ineni, the chief of security, scribes, fan bearers, and all other servants follows their lord.
I glance at Hapuseneb. He stands still, his head is bowed, his eyes are full of tears. I approach to him and take his hand. I give him my drawings. I stare into his eyes. My drawings… they are showing him how I’ve been killed by my brother. They are showing him the future. He knows now the favour of the king costs his son dearly. He knows what to do. He accepts his fate. He is ready for his revenge, and so am I.
It is a huge feast in the palace. My brother adores such types of entertainment when he’s partying till late at night, getting drunk with his generals and chief officers.
I am too young for the feast. I am supposed to sleep in my chamber as all little princes do, but I am here, hiding behind a column. I am here. I feel the future. I don’t know how, but I feelwhat is going to happen.
The music plays louder and louder, drunken guests try to dance, shouting, laughing, and falling on low couches. Userkaf is on his low sofa, embracing one of the slave girls. He looks tipsy and bored. His usual entertainment doesn’t amuse him anymore.
‘Where is Harmachis? Where is my favourite and most loyal friend?’ He turns to one of his guests. ‘Why doesn’t he celebrate with us?’
The officer sends one of the servants for Harmachis, but after some time, he returns alone.
My brother frowns. He doesn’t like to wait, even less he likes to ask for something twice. He sends the chief of security to bring him Harmachis immediately. A couple of hours pass before the chief of security returns. Userkaf is drunk and furious, but he doesn’t want to show it to his guests.
‘My Lord.’ The officer kneels in front him. ‘We’ve found him.’
‘Where is he? Where has he been? You make me wait… again.’
‘I didn’t mean to disappoint you, my Lord, but…’ The officer struggles. ‘Harmachis was arrested this morning together with Your Majesty’s wife, queen Tiyu, when they tried to cross the border with Kush.’
‘What?’ Userkaf jumps from his couch. ‘Why? How? It is… it is…’ he stammers, his eyes shine in anger.
‘It is treason, my Lord.’ The officer bows his head lower.
‘Why did you hide it from me?’
‘I didn’t want to upset my king until we would know the details of their plot. I know, oh my Lord, that Harmachis is very close to Your Majesty—’
‘Where are they now?’
‘Queen Tiyu is under arrest. She is locked in her private chambers. It was the order of the Great Vizier. Harmachis is in prison. He is waiting to be interrogated.’
‘Question them, torture if needed, and send my treacherous wife back to her father with the greatest dishonour. Make Harmachis suffer as he makes me suffer from his treason.’
The king’s army like a cloud of sand moves south-east to the land of Kush. The king is in a chariot of fine gold, adorned with his accoutrements like Horus, the lord of action, like the war god Montu, like Sobek, the lord of the waters. The royal serpent on his crown spills fire. Trumpets sound, troops start their march down the hill to meet the enemy’s army. Hundreds of thousands of Kushite soldiers are killed. Hundreds of officers and aristocrats are captured. Beja, the viceroy of Kush, and all his family follow the king’s chariot as the most precious trophy of the king’s victory.
I am a bodiless spirit again. I observe the battlefield, captured by the whirlwind of countless dead soldiers’ souls—free and wild, just like I am. .
The battlefield is covered with dead bodies, abandoned without a burial. The rivers of Kush turn red, filled with blood. Cities are in ruins, and the moaning of Kushite wives is spreading all over this endless desert. Sekhmet, the ferocious mother of war, has a rich harvest of souls in these lands.
Userkaf took his revenge. Surrounded by his officers and generals, he returns to Niwt-Imn to worship the gods, who granted him the victory.
The king disembarks from his royal barge at a quay on a riverbank and looks up at two obelisks of red granite with golden pyramids atop. This is the threshold of the house of deities. This is a gateway to another world that is accessible only for the king and the priests. Crowned with the double crown and carrying the ceremonial flail and the sceptre, with an artificial beard made from fine golden threads, he sits on a golden throne on a long pole, supported by bearers.
The procession passes the main gates and enters the first square court. It crawls through the endless gateways, roofless courts with sacred lakes, and halls with columns, where the light shades gradually, preparing the king and his retinue for the meeting. The king with his eyes half-closed looks focused.
His body has been cleaned by the waters of a sacred lake. The priests purified him by burning holy oils and giving him special salts to chew and so to make his mouth clean and ready for the uttering of his prayers. His body is fully prepared for the conversation with the gods, but his mind is as dark as the waters of the Nile. His heart knows no mercy.
I’ve assisted priests in purification as it was the will of the king. Userkaf wants to get rid of me as he’s already done once. Is he afraid of his ten-year old nephew? Is he afraid of me spying on him and, one day, taking over his throne? He wants me to become a priest of Sobek now. He wants to lock me up in the temple, far away from the court.
It is the time to worship the river god, Sobek-Re, who gives mightiness to the king, who makes the king’s heart fearless, who makes the king’s body unreachable for arrows and spears, who protects him in a battle.
The king enters the shrine, and I follow him as that is what he wishes. There are only the king, Hapuseneb, and I in the chamber.
I carry a richly decorated casket—the offering to the god. My hands are numb. The horrible content of the casket makes me feel dizzy.
The first words of a hymn start from somewhere above the ceiling, and the service begins. There is a huge pond in the middle of the chamber. In its sacred waters, the embodiments of Sobek enjoy their meal. The king offers the first bloody piece of meat, and one of the divine creatures opens its massive jaws with razor-sharp fangs. Its brothers and sisters, feeling the smell of blood hiss and gnash their teeth, ready for the feast.
The spicy fume of the lamps fills the chamber, the hymn sounds louder. Userkaf is on his knees in front of Sobek’s statue. Only the pond separates him from the deity. He takes the casket from my hands and, slightly turning it to Hapuseneb, pronounces a short prayer, ‘Oh Great Father of all the waters, oh mighty Sobek-Re! Please, accept this offering from your obedient son.’ The king opens the casket.
Poor Hapuseneb screams in horror. The head of his son, Harmachis, stares at him from the casket.
Userkaf grins. ‘I’m sure that my Lord, mighty Sobek, enjoys the taste of the traitor. The pieces I’ve offered him belonged to the body of your handsome but disloyal son.’
Hapuseneb’s eyes are full of tears. He saw this scene in my drawings long ago. The reality hurts even worse.
I open my mouth, and for the first time in my short life the sound as loud as thunder comes out, ‘Murderer! Murderer and usurper!’
Userkaf tries to rise from his knees, but I push him forward and…
The powerful and bloodthirsty embodiments of Sobek are ready for a new portion of the offering. The king screams and shouts, but the heavy wooden doors are too thick. Nobody from the outside can hear his screams.
The pond turns blood red. Userkaf stretches his hand, covered in blood, trying to get out of the pond, but Hapuseneb has no mercy. He steps on the king’s fingers and pushes him back. A few minutes later, Sobek is satisfied with his offering.
Hapuseneb looks into my eyes with sadness and hope. I give him the casket. He kisses Harmachis’s forehead and turns to me. He dashes to open the heavy doors. He falls on his knees and proclaims, ‘Long life and prosperity to the king, may you live forever!’ I am the King of the kings. I am the son of the falcon-headed Horus. I am the beginning. I am the end. I am Nimaatre Smenkhare Meriamun, the living god of the land of Kemet. I am the son of immortal gods and I will live forever.
Valeriya says about her life:
“I am a multi-genre author from the United Kingdom. I studied History and earned my Master’s Degree in Art Expertise at St. Petersburg University of Culture and Arts. Born in Belarus, I’ve lived for many years in Ukraine and Russia before settling down in the north of England. Apart from creative writing, I have a passion for travels, arts, history, and foreign languages. My short stories and essays have appeared in numerous anthologies and magazines, including The Copperfield Review, Meet Cute Mag, Bewildering Stories, The Pine Cone Review, and Strange Fiction SF & F ‘Zine.“
Another bright morning, just me and the jungle, the fierce sun penetrating the thick luscious canopy, the call of monkeys and birds of paradise. I’m alone here at the research centre, yet again. Someone was meant to come and relieve me, but there’s been no word of a replacement. I eat cereal on the porch of the old wooden building, feeling the intense heat and humidity rising from the forest floor. Sometimes the humidity is so high that my glasses steam up the moment I step outside. Often, I don’t even bother wearing clothes, though they put a stop to this because they reminded me about the live-feed web-cam.
Occasionally, schools tune in to see what I’m up to. They’ve instigated a dress code.
As you may have guessed, I’ve been out here quite some time, extracting certain mucus elements from a species of frog which only lives in this exact geographical area, for the construction and understanding of the technologies which go into the production of masking tape. There’s nothing I don’t know about masking tape. I’ve got so much masking tape lying around that I’ve started to use it for other things. Last week I made a hat out of masking tape, but when I put it down, thousands of ants somehow got stuck to it. I’ve still got the hat somewhere, decorated with all these ants. It’s really quite disgusting.
I spend most of the days out and about, telling myself how lucky and privileged I am to live here, while looking for frog mucus. The only way to get the frog mucus, – once you’ve found the frog – (and it can only be the male of the species) – is to show it photographs of female frog, and within seconds, you’ll get a healthy supply of the stuff coming out of their mouths. I’ve mastered the art of wiping frog gobs. I’ve got a whole fridge filled with the stuff.
The phone rings. It’s my boss.
‘Just checking in’.
‘Anything to report?’
‘How’s the company doing?’
‘Let me be frank with you, Bob. Masking tape isn’t selling like it used to. There are so many alternatives these days. There’s talk of restructuring at the higher levels of the company. Now I don’t want you to worry, but they’re talking about budgets and there’s been murmurings – just murmurings, mind you – about research and development. Why should we be developing a product which isn’t selling as well as it should? Anyway, keep this under your hat, for the time being’.
‘My dead ant hat?’
‘Anyway. All the best, and keep up the good work.’
It was good to hear from Jeff. But I could tell that there were things going on which worried him. Ominous, looming, like the daily afternoon thunderstorms. The times I’d spent in the city, beavering away at the technological forefront of the masking tape industry, were some of the best of my life, and it pained me to think of those poor masking tape technicians in their white lab coats, demoralised and filled with existential dread.
Mid-afternoon, I pause amid the test tubes. I’ve got a swab of frog gob in one hand, a test tube in the other, and the thought suddenly occurs that what I’m doing is completely meaningless. The whole time I’ve been out here in the jungle, the viscosity of masking tape has only ever improved by 0.06 Chatwins, (a Chatwin being the unit of measurement of masking tape viscosity named after my predecessor’s pet tortoise). With a lot of hard work and effort I could improve the viscosity to perhaps as much as 0.08 Chatwins, which equates to masking tape sticking for an average of six minutes longer under certain climatic conditions. Nobody, I tell myself, will ever win the Nobel prize for that.
I put down the test tube and I put down the frog gob swab. I take a deep sigh and I run my fingers through my hair. I then open the door and go out onto the wooden porch.
The jungle seems alive. Through the canopies I can see the dark clouds looming for the daily afternoon storm. There are rumbles in the distance, booming, reverberating through the heightened air almost fizzing with expectation. Behind me, of the ten test samples of masking tape I’d stuck to the wooden wall of the hut, seven had already given in to the humid air and fallen from their place, an eighth was hanging limp. Hopeless, I tell myself. Absolutely hopeless. How aptly they seemed to symbolise the fortunes of the MccLintock Masking Tape Company.
The clouds darken further. There’s a flash of lightning, accompanied by the furious hooting of monkeys who, all things considered, should be used to it by now. But it always takes them by surprise. Then a boom, a ferocious boom which shakes the peaty earth, rattles the boards of the wooden porch. And that’s when the rain starts, intense, pelting arrows of sheer rain clattering against the corrugated iron of the shack roof, the fleshy jungle vegetation, rivulets of water cascading from the gutters and sides of the shack. The last lingering strip of masking tape falls from the test wall, gets carried away by a sudden stream of water which snakes across the wooden floor of the porch. Franz Kafka is standing at the edge of the forest, pointing a machine gun at me. The thunder booms and crashes.
Hang on, what was that?
I blink as the water runs down my face. But it’s not a mirage. Franz Kafka is standing at the edge of the forest, pointing a machine gun at me.
‘Give me your masking tape’, he shouts, above the wildness of the storm.
‘I . .I . .’.
‘I admit it is hopeless. The only meaning in our lives is that we eventually die. But before that happens, give me your masking tape’.
‘I’ve got loads of the stuff. How many rolls do you need?’
‘Depends on their viscosity. Are we talking anything approaching 11 Chatwins?’
‘How do you know about Chatwins?’
‘Often, during my many years as a clerk working for an insurance company, I would require masking tape of the highest viscosity that Prague could offer. Now, are you going to give me those masking tapes, or am I going to have to shoot you?’
‘You’d better come inside’.
The air is heavy, humid, oppressive. Franz Kafka, in his business suit and tie and a very formal looking long over-jacket, approaches me warily, the machine gun still trained in my direction.
‘I had plenty of masking tape. But I gave them all to Max Brod, and he destroyed them. Do you know for how many days I’ve trekked through the jungle, just to find this place?’
He clambers up onto the porch. It’s just me and him, surrounded by the forest. If he shot me now, I tell myself, nobody would ever find out. Well, not until the next person logs in to the live feed webcam. Sees my body on the porch. Sees the door open, the jungle beyond.
‘I’ve got loads of it. Help yourself . . Take two rolls, three. It doesn’t matter. Just . . Just don’t shoot’.
‘The joy of masking tape is not the ownership of masking tape, it is the fear of existing in a world without masking tape, and from this emerges all self-torment on account of that fear’.
‘Just don’t shoot’.
‘The notion of an endless cosmos is at once nullified by the dread which comes from contemplating eternity without masking tape’.
‘I’ve told you, take as much as you need!’
‘One of masking tape’s most efficient means of seduction is the challenge to contemplate a world in which nothing sticks’.
‘True . .’.
He looks at me with that famous deep stare. It bores right into the very depths of my soul.
‘Why are you pointing that weapon at me?’
‘Do you know what it’s like to live a life of complete hopelessness? I, more than any other person who ever lived, can truly claim to be Kafkaesque, in every action I undertake, every word I utter’.
By now we are inside the cabin and I have backed myself as far into the corner as I can. The work surface is littered with test tubes, frog gob swabs and spare bits of masking tape.
‘I’m going to turn around’, I tell Kafka, ‘And reach into this cupboard, OK? For inside, I have masking tape aplenty’.
Franz raises the machine gun, ready to fire at any second.
‘Do it’, he says. ‘It is only our conception of masking tape which lets us call it by that name’.
I turn, reach into the cupboard, grab several rolls of masking tape, then turn back and offer them to him. He smiles, puts down the gun, and, with his delicate, long fingers, takes them from my hands.
‘Cheers’, he says, and he turns, and leaves.
The storm rages as I watch him depart, his black jacket merging with the gloom at the heart of the jungle, the wet branches and fleshy leaves bending, dripping as he makes his way deep, deep into the foliage.
‘To be honest, we disabled the webcam as soon as you started walking round in the nude’, Jeff says, the next day. ‘The last thing this company needs is a big scandal’.
‘So there’s no way of checking the footage?’
‘Afraid not, Bob’.
‘You know what the silly thing is?’
‘If he’d have asked nicely, I’d have given him as many rolls as he wanted. Why did he need a machine gun?’
‘You know, those rolls are property of the McCLintock Masking Tape Company. That’s going to have to come out of your wages’.
‘Are you OK out there? We could find a replacement, you know. Sharon down at the South Pole research centre says she’s getting fed up with the cold. You could always swap, you know?’
I look around the cabin. The test tubes, the scientific equipment, my bed in the corner with its mosquito net.
‘I think I’ll stay. I feel fine here, Jeff. You know that? I feel pretty fine out here’.
I put the phone down and go out onto the porch. It’s another bright, warm, humid morning. My glasses steam up. I put on my dead ant hat, gather my swabs, and go wandering off into the jungle.
Robert Garnham is a comedy performance poet. He has performed at festivals and fringes and comedy nights. A joke from one of his shows was acclaimed as one of the funniest at the Edinburgh fringe. He has made some TV adverts for a certain bank.