The Sea Witch’s Child

 

This is a true story and like all true stories it is completely made up. In short, it is just like real life and therefore all stories must begin the same…

Once upon a time, when the world was much older than it is now, there lived in a cabin by the sea, a lonely old hermit named Jonathon. He had not always been a hermit, for in his youth he had a wife and a child. They were a poor but happy family, eking out a rough existence by fishing the sea and scavenging what washed up on the beach from the many ship wrecks that the treacherous waters claimed. The hardness of their life made Jonathon and his family tough and resilient but even the strongest people can fall victim to the whims of unkind fate.
In a year when famine plagued the land, a plague also came down from the north, claiming many of the local folk. So terrible was this plague that every household suffered loss, there were even entire families that were wiped out.
This plague claimed Jonathon’s young daughter first, then almost as quickly, his beloved wife. Yet it did not come for Jonathon himself. Not a sniffle did he suffer, though he prayed to the merciful Lord that he too might die. Oh how he mourned, weeping for days over his beloved’s graves until his neighbors came and tried to pull him away.
“Everyone is leaving,’ they said, “the plague has destroyed too many lives, it’s time to move on.”
But Jonathon would have none of it, vowing to remain in the small cabin he had built with his own hands for the rest of his days. He vowed to tend the graves of his wife and child and never leave.
So while all that remained of his neighbors moved on, seeking to start anew in some distant land, Jonathon remained behind – a vigilant caretaker to the dead.
As the years passed, and Jonathon became older and older, growing long bearded and grey of hair, he spent much of his time sitting on the rocks looking overlooking the ocean, watching the slow rise and ebb of the tide and the fierce crashing of the waves against the pale, rocky cliffs. From this vantage point he could always look up towards the hill where his wife and child lay buried and dream of them as they were when alive and vibrant.
Each day, whether the day was fair or foul, after tending their graves, he trekked down the slick rocks to stare at the sea – thinking nothing, yet remembering everything. Sometimes, his loneliness became so overbearing that he often thought of flinging himself from the rocks and dashing his body against the ocean.
Many days he regretted never moving on, ruing his decision to remain. But as age and habit settled into his bones, like the rheumatism that settled in his bones, the thought of ever leaving grew ever more distant. Still, like any human, he desired the companionship of another. Just someone to recount the trivialities of the day or to while away the long nights over a cup of tea. They didn’t even need to speak, just basking in the warmth of another’s presence would be enough.
Then one evening, as he sat there upon the rocks, the night chill gnawing at his aching muscles and the rising moon silhouetting the curdling waves, the hermit finally decided he had walked the earth long enough. It was time to complete his journey and rejoin his family in whatever afterlife God had seen fit to fashion for lonely, old fisher folk. He stood, balancing precariously on his thin, wobbly legs while the wind whipped at his body and lifted his arms heavenward. Below him he could see the dark, cold ocean waiting hungrily to greet him and to carry him from these rocks to the shores of the dead. He closed his eyes and thought, just one step.
“Well, old man if you’re going to jump then jump but if you ask me it’s rather ridiculous to try and go before one’s time. Death is always waiting and will find you in his own good time.”
Startled by the sound of an another’s voice, the hermit stumbled and nearly fell anyway. Opening his eyes, he glanced around and was surprised to see The Sea Witch riding the crest of a particularly tremendous wave. Maybe it was just his faulty old eyes but she appeared to actually be part of the wave, with her torso rising above the water but her body below the waist melting into it so that she and the sea became as one. Her appearance was as the stories described her; a face as ancient as the sea, skin as cragged as the rocks upon which the hermit stood, a twisted crone’s nose and hair like tangled seaweed.
“And wha…what,” the hermit croaked, his voice weak from so many years of disuse, “What would I have to live for witch? My family gone for more years than I can remember, my body ravaged by old age’s aches and pains, a loneliness that consumes my soul as readily as the plague itself. No, it is past my time; I will bear the pain of living no longer.”
“Suit yourself then. I always enjoy a good suicide, though I still think it a waste when there are other options.” The Witch waved one of her gnarled claws as if dismissing him.
“Options? What options could I have? My family cannot be returned to me and I have grown too old to venture into the world. All that’s left is either death on my terms or nature’s. I prefer my way, it will be quick and the moment of pain I may experience will be briefer than time’s more gradual cancer.”
“Have at it then, but first let me offer you a deal that you might find more palatable than either a sudden demise or a slow one.”
The hermit was curious but cautious. He had heard The Sea Witch’s deals were often not the bargains they initially appeared and he was hesitant for fear of making his situation worse. Still…
“And what do you offer witch? I doubt I can be persuaded but I am willing to hear you out.”
“Hexcellent,” said The Sea Witch. “Now, it is true your body is old but it is hardly ancient. You may have many good years left in you if but for the loneliness which has incapacitated you. I think a good companion would do much to alleviate your body’s aches, soothe the humors that afflict thee.”
“And what sort of companion do you propose? A sea bird for me to feed? A talking fish? I doubt if such could do much to heal my body or my spirit.”
The Witch cackled and the waves beneath her rumbled as if they too were amused. “No, what you need is female company – human female company. A new wife perhaps. One who is young and beautiful, to ease the burdens of the day and offer even sweeter comforts through the long nights. Surely, you desire ti feel once again the warmth of a woman’s body yielding beneath yours?”
The idea certainly intrigued the hermit but he was still leery of The Sea Witch’s deal. There was certain to be a catch, but the thought of a young bride, one willing to take to bed with someone such as he. What woman would ever agree to such a thing?
“No. I will not have you bewitching an innocent woman on my account. Lonely I may be but I still have my honor.”
“You misunderstand me,” The Sea Witch said. “No, this will be no poor village girl or unwary lass. I shall create your bride from the sea itself, a child borne of my own body which I will then enchant to love thee and thee alone.”
“You can do such magic? A power like that must sprout from The Devil himself. I’ll have no part in the Dark One’s sorcery.”
Again, The Sea Witch laughed, causing the sea to foam up around her. “The Devil? If such a being exists, I know nothing of him. My magic is as old as the earth itself. Even while the planet was still hot, I spewed from my womb those tiny, insignificant beasts that first slithered across the land . Oh, the creation of life is an old skill and one I am quite adept at.”
“And you offer to create this woman for me? A real woman? Of flesh and blood?”
The Sea Witch smiled and nodded, knowing she had won.
“And what price must I pay for such a gift? Or am I to believe you offer this out of the kindness of your soul?”
This time the Witch’s laugh caused thunder to crack and lightning to torrent across the sky. “Of course not. After all, I am a witch and my price is steep…but fair I think.”
The hermit felt his heart sag. He knew whatever the Witch’s price it would be high. “So tell me Witch, what do you require? I have no money and my belongings are of no great value, so I cannot imagine what I have that would be of any use to you.”
“Only you, my dear man. Only you to serve me for five hundred years. That upon your death your soul will dwell in bondage to me, here beneath these waves.”
Five hundred years, the Hermit thought. Five hundred years of servitude in exchange for a bit of happiness in the short time I might have left?
Then carnal thoughts rose unbidden, memories of being wrapped in the warmth of a woman’s embrace, the scent of perfumed skin and the taste of sweet lips pressed against his as their bodies thrust against each other as they made the beast with two backs. Desire he had not felt in years stirred deep within him and he felt his reluctance sway beneath the barrage of animal yearnings.
“And you will make her beautiful?” The hermit asked.
“As beautiful as the sea itself, as fair and lovely as Queen Mab. I will make her as innocent as a dove but as wanton as a whore when in your bed.”
The Sea Witch’s description withered any further reluctance Jonathon might have harbored and he found himself agreeing to the Witch’s terms.
“There is but one further caveat Hermit Jonathon, and that your bride, though beautiful beyond compare, will not be able to speak. Not one word will she utter. In all other ways she will be the perfect companion. In fact, most men would consider a mute wife a blessing.”
Jonathon thought this strange, but the idea of a woman as beautiful as Mab, devoted solely to him and responsive to his every need, was too much for him to refuse and again he agreed to the Witch’s bargain.
“Go then back to your cabin, hermit and await your bride. I promise she will come to you before the moon has risen to its zenith.”

That night, just as the Witch said, his bride came to him.
And she was just as The Witch described, beautiful as Queen Mab, as fair and innocent as a dove. As she approached the bed where Jonathon lay, his member already swollen to the point of bursting, she slipped off her flowing gown, letting it drop to the cabin floor. In the fullness of the moon’s full light, she stood revealed to her husband as painfully lovely as any woman he had ever seen.
Jonathon felt his breath taken away as his eyes devoured every inch of her body. For the first in decades, he could not recall the face of his deceased wife.
Hungrily, Jonathon reached out his arms and implored her to join him in bed.
My bride, he thought as she slid beneath the covers next to him, my bride forever more.
And as the ocean sang their wedding song outside the tiny cabin, Jonathon the Hermit knew the pleasures of the flesh with as much vigor as any scarlet faced youth. Together the old man and his young bride created a symphony that needed no words to be understood.

Dawn crept through the cabin windows, chasing the night’s shadows from the room. The hermit’s bride sat up in bed, caressing Jonathon’s still chest. How soon after their last tryst his heart had stopped, she wasn’t sure but she was sure he went peacefully, dreaming sweet dreams of fleshly delights. The Sea Witch guessed when she bargained with him that his heart was weak and he would survive no more than one or two nights, even without the previous evenings exertions. Climbing from the bed, The SeaWitch looked towards the ocean and laughed, her ancient cackle sounding odd coming from so young a body.
Out beside the ocean shore, she knew Jonathon would be standing on the rocks, she mustn’t keep him waiting. He had many years’ servitude to begin working off and oh what work she had for him.

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Review of Laird Barron’s “Swift to Chase”

Another brilliant collection from Barron. Mostly a collection of interrelated tales centering around Alaska and the inhabitants of Eagle Talon, Alaska – a town that makes King’s Derry and Castle Rock look normal. However, the strongest stories have nothing to do with the main narrative. “Swift to Chase” is a science fiction / fantasy tale told from the viewpoint of a genetically enhanced canine, who acts as the personal companion and bodyguard to a futuristic Praetorian Guardsman. Story is beautiful, inventive and heartbreaking. “Frontier Death Song” is a breathtaking tale of a man being pursued across the country by The Wild Hunt of European folklore.

Overall, not as satisfying as Barron’s earlier collections or his classic novel, “The Croning,” “Swift to Chase” is still an incredible read that is sure to give you a few sleepless nights.

<a href=”https://www.goodreads.com/review/list/57829685-sebastian-crow”>View all my reviews</a>

The Roller of Big Cigars

These rain-slick city streets. Shimmering, neon pleasure palaces lining the avenue of this wicked, modern Babylon. Citadels of concrete and glass rise toward the heavens, spires uplifted like supplicants raptured in prayer. All around me comes the raucous squeal and crash of metal and rubber as motorized buggies hurl down the crowded streets at break-neck speed. The sweet scent of flesh, sweat and salt and perfume assaults my senses as I weave my way through the teeming, Saturday night horde.
Oh how I love this city. The clean, sharp beauty of its skyline, the traffic signals, strobing alternating colors of red, green and yellow, and the swarms of humanity rushing about on their trivial errands; ants fleeing a flooded colony. I even love the smells, the gas and oil, the smoke from the factories, the putrid odor of refuse coursing through the sewers just below my feet and below it all – the subliminal, ubiquitous scent of fear quickening my hunter’s blood. The whole city as rich and ripe a hunting ground as the Serengeti.
How unlike the gas lit streets of Victorian England it all is, with its rolling seas of fog and dark, narrow alleyways, the perfect camouflage for a predator. London with its plagues of rats scurrying through the blood and piss covered streets, as much citizens of the city as the wretched refuse who called this place home.
Still, both ages are much alike; there remains the same disproportion of wealth, the hidden places where the wicked engage in their saucy games in privacy, and the low women who hock their cunts for a couple of dollars or a gram of crystal meth.
Back in 1888, the preferred drug of choice was gin, or opium. I preferred to entice them with something even rarer – grapes. How their eyes lit up when they saw me dangling a bunch of ripe, luscious grapes in front of them, how trusting and malleable it made them. Why they were such easy marks then that they barely put up a struggle when I bent their heads backward, baring their throats to my knife.
Indeed, London was a hunter’s paradise, but even so, I despised the squalor and the despair of the place. Too long had I dwelled in those clean, well-scrubbed cities of the far east to feel truly comfortable in the degenerate capitols of Europe. Yet, necessity compelled me to spring out of the darkness and ply my bloody trade. That I did so badly and without taking my usual pride, I can only blame on the bleak atmosphere of the city, although I will admit to some perverse pleasure I received in the notoriety and the horror my work stirred up in the populace. But the distraction was barely worthy of my time.
The police investigation was a lark, a grand comedy that never came close to capturing me, or even suspecting me. How could they ever hope to match my skill? My cunning? I had been practicing my craft for so long even I have forgotten how many years it has been since I embarked upon this grand, immortal journey. I can only tell you, Rome was but yet a series of shabby settlements scattered across its seven hills.
It was into one of these insignificant settlements I was born and from a young age, I held a great, abiding terror of death. The very idea of that immense gulf of eternal darkness would consume me with such dread that I found no pleasure in the simple joys of mortal life. This thanatophobia occupied so much of my youth that most of my childhood was spent brooding alone, far from the safety of my village but it also led me to begin my research into methods of extending life beyond its normal range. While other boys my age were chasing and bedding the local wenches, I was traveling as far as my legs would take me, talking to holy men and philosophers, seeking out the wisest occult minds of the day. For the most part, what I learned was that the vast majority of religious leaders and shamans were charlatans – cheap con-artists with a flair for parlor tricks. I experimented with various herbs and drugs, chanted to my navel, prayed to a thousand nameless deities and offered a multitude of goats and small beasts to indifferent gods.
Yet death continued to stalk my shadow. I had no choice but to widen my search, traveling north and south, east and west into unknown lands. Once, lost in the deep, primeval woods of the northern barbarians, I barely escaped with my skin when I offended a temperamental chieftain and in Knossos I bedded a dusky sorceress who tried to slit my throat das I slept beside her.
She was the first woman I ever murdered and as I straddled her, her body pinioned beneath me, I thrust the knife she had meant for me, deep into her chest and a rush of lust and excitement came over me like I never felt before. This was something new, something staggering. My first inkling of how true power must feel and for the first time in my life, my fear of death vanished and I became as the gods.
In the ruins of Göbekli Tepe, I talked at length to an old hermit who told me the answers to my questions lay deep in the sands of Egypt, where there dwelled a black magician who was said to possess the secret of immortality. So to the dusty kingdom of the pharaohs I went, seeking the City of the Dead where the black magician resided inside his ancient, abandoned temple. I gazed with my own eyes upon the great pyramids when they were still young and pilgrims came from all over the kingdom to worship at their base. I stood beneath the shadow of the sphynx and murdered a young courtesan who offered to satisfy me with her mouth and tongue. As she sank to her knees before me, I drove the blade of my knife into the back of my neck. My engorged member pumping its thick, viscous liquid in rhythm with the blood pulsing from her wound.
I stood beside the Nile and fed the bodies of my victims to the hungry crocodiles while the hot, tropical sun accused me with its angry red eye. And everywhere I went, there were the harlots, the whores, spreading their filth and disease to whoever was willing to toss a few coins at their feet. Ironically, my dependence upon them was as strong as my disgust. Only in the taking of a whore’s life could I find relief, sexually or emotionally. The death of a respectable woman or a man brought me no satisfaction. But give me some wanton bitch begging for a rut, her body spewing blood from wounds wrought by my sharp blade and, for a moment at least, my fear and anguish became as night’s mist under the hot sun and I felt…perfect peace.
Although, I was careful to restrict my victims to the dregs and low-lives of society, such slaughter cannot go unnoticed, even in a primitive society, for long. Eventually, my murderous spree drew the attention of curious eyes, but luckily not the authorities or I might not be here today to spin my little tale. Instead, it was the very black magician for whom I had so long sought who took notice of my sordid adventures. Sensing that I was kindred traveler upon the savage highway, he used his nefarious magic to track me to a shabby, black alley where I was busily disemboweling a particularly sassy little bitch. Moments before the whore had managed to bite a chunk out my arm before my knife silenced her curses and threats forever.
The magician, a small, swarthy fellow with the long, braided hair popular among Egyptians of the time, looked with disapproval upon my handiwork and hissed. “Fool, you are so close to the truth and yet you wallow in your degeneracy. I should leave you to your pathetic existence and an early death.”
When I realized who it was standing over me and judging me an idiot, I pled for him not to forsake me. I swore upon my ancestors that I would do anything he asked if only he would teach me his secrets. I would be an empty shell for him to fill as he saw fit.
Perhaps, he took pity on me. If so, it would have been a rare thing since Nebutep-Ra, as later I discovered his name to be, felt little sympathy for anyone or anything. His was a pure evil, uncorrupted by conscience or doubt or pity. The taking of another’s life was no more important than stepping on an insect. So it was not my murders which disgusted him but rather their sloppy and random nature. Maybe, it was just pride to have a student again after so many years alone that he agreed to train me and pass on his knowledge.
Over the course of the next several years, he taught me the necessary rites, which prayers to say so that my sacrifices would draw the favor of the proper demons and gods who would grant me the boon of endless life. He taught me to kill cleanly so that my murders would not draw undue attention and encouraged me to continue selecting my prey from the gutter trash, the prostitutes, the lost and the mad. Since deaths among these populations went largely unnoticed, anonymity could be maintained and anonymity was a necessity because despite my ageless appearance and imperviousness to most injuries, I could still be killed if my body was destroyed by fire or if I was decapitated.
I was diligent in my lessons and practiced them throughout the long centuries, rarely arousing any notice at all despite the murderous swath I cut through the world. I was obligated to perform sacrifices on a routine basis to maintain my youth and vitality, so death became as routine as eating or putting on my clothes. Few nights passed without someone falling to my knife.
Such prudence I maintained, until those heady, but deadly nights in the late summer and autumn of 1888 when I terrorized the citizens of entire city. Oh, but how the excitement and passion intoxicated me, the publicity and outrage fueling me to ever greater and greater acts of degeneracy. The taunting letters to the press and viciousness of my crimes, I can only lay the blame on boredom and centuries of ennui but I would be lying if I said I did not love it.
Then came the night, I found myself in a squalid, little room surrounded by the mutilated remains of one Mary Kelly, her severed heart still pumping black blood in my fist, entrails strewn around the room like so much offal. I was naked and drenched from head to toe in her blood and for the life of me, I couldn’t remember the actual murder, so lost was I in my insanity. In disgust, I tossed Mary’s heart into the fire and vowed to leave London that very night.
Hopping the first freighter I found, I made my way westward across the great ocean to the vast American continent. Here, crisscrossing the country dozens of times, I watched the passing of one century to another and then another. A voyeur of time, a mute observer I remained. When I hunted, I did so quickly and quietly, bringing death with a savage brevity that was a blessing to my victims and only giving into the monster inside of me on those special occasions when I felt particularly witty.
Tonight, as I stroll along the avenue, enjoying the cool spring rain, I am on the hunt. Up ahead, a number of scantily clad women parade about in gaudy halter tops and hot pants, each a candidate for my little game. I keep to the shadows, so none could give an accurate description of me if questioned by authorities. I have other tricks I also employ, simple spells that confuse perception. I have no fear of capture; I have been at this too long. I am death personified, the roller of big cigars as the poet Wallace Stevens might say – murder is my trade and no one has ever been practiced.
Oh, but I have grown so tired of it all. The violence, the death, the endless nights feeding my dark, blood gods the flesh of the downtrodden and the hopeless ones. Immortality grows pale for me, but even now I fear death and what waits for me on the other side. In the end, I am as much a coward as I ever was and tonight someone must die if I am to live.
One of the whores spies me, lurking in the alleyway. She approaches me, swaying her saucy hips. Her hair is bleached blonde, her face covered in so much make-up it’s impossible to tell if she’s pretty or not. Her eyes are the dull, lifeless grey of the living dead. Her appearance is not important. Beautiful or ugly, it is what she represents that counts. Just another whore who will never be missed or mourned, but she is precious to me and I love her just a little for what she is about to give me.
“Need a date, honey?” Her voice is toneless and bored.
I nod.
“So whatcha lookin’ for?”
I pass her a handful of bills and motion towards the alley.
Her eyes suddenly light up, no longer disinterested and dead. “Damn sugar, Gloria is gonna rock your world for this.”
As we pass into the total darkness of the alley, I reach into my pocket and feel the cold, reassuring comfort of my knife.
The beast in me howls as I do my old trick.
She doesn’t have a chance to scream but I can feel her fear, echoing through the city.

 

Cry Baby

 

 

“They never found his head, and ever since that night the ghost of Mary Ellen walks up and down the creek, carrying her baby’s body searching for his head.” Steve knew he had told the story well by Beth’s body language. She had pushed close enough that he could feel the gentle push of her breasts pressing maddeningly against his chest. He could feel his dick hardening in his jeans and he only hoped tonight wouldn’t end with another case of blue balls.

Steve and Beth had been going steady since the end of their junior year of high school and Steve had diligently spent the summer trying to get past first base. It was now October of 1971 and they were both seniors but Steve was no further in breaking Beth’s resolve than he had been since their first date. They had been parking on Heacock road plenty of times but their heated make out sessions had always ended in frustration, with Beth pushing him away while insisting that she wasn’t that kind of girl. Steve had begged, pled and even said the L word in an attempt to persuade her to go further but to no avail. He had to be content to go home alone, horny and confused, where he would masturbate bitterly while thinking about her breasts, how they would feel in his hands, how her hands would feel wrapped around his cock.

Tonight though, he had been a gentleman. The Lincoln High School football team, which Steve quarterbacked, had destroyed nearby Hagerstown, after the game they had gone to the Friday dance, then to the Pizza King before Steve had convinced her to go with him to the Crying Woman Bridge. They pulled off the road as far as they could without winding up in the woods, the headlamps of Steve’s ’57 Bel-Air lit up the bridge, the harsh light casting an eerie, haunted glow on the old iron. The trees, many already shorn of their summer foliage, looked shrunken and misshapen, like twisted, demented giants, their gnarled limbs reaching out, ready to grasp any unwary traveler.

Steve was surprised to find they were the only couple parking at the bridge. Usually Friday nights would find any number of cars parked alongside the road, as the local kids looked for a quiet place to mack with their honeys, drink beer or hold impromptu ghost hunts for the Crying Woman.

Steve shut off the Chevy’s lights, leaving them in inky darkness. On the radio, The Temptations were singing Just My Imagination as Steve slipped his arm around Beth’s shoulders, pulling her close. He sighed as he felt her tightening up. Damn she could be such a cold fish. He remembered his buddy Dennis telling him the best way to get into a girl’s pants was by scaring them a little, which was why it always better to take a girl to a horror flick than a comedy or drama.

“You know why they call this the Crying Woman Bridge don’t you,” Steve said.

Of course Beth knew, every kid who grew up in Dublin or Cambridge City knew the story, but if it would postpone Steve’s fumbled groping and clumsy attempts to touch her boobs then she was more than happy to play dumb. It wasn’t like she wasn’t attracted to Steve, he was tall, blonde, athletic, intelligent and Beth rather fancied he looked like Robert Redford. A dozen colleges were already trying to recruit him to play football but Beth had been raised to be a good girl. She would never dare show it, but she was just as revved up by their make-out sessions as Steve. When he dropped her off at her door, after a night of particularly heavy necking, she would rush inside, slam her bedroom door, throw herself on her bed, wriggle out of her soaked panties and use her fingers to bring her to one shuddering orgasm after another. Afterwards, she would feel guilt and loathing; certain she was whore and headed to Hell for sure.

“Something about a woman being killed here and her ghost haunting the bridge,” Beth replied innocently.

Steve smiled, and in the scariest voice he could manage, he recited the legend of the Crying Woman. The story was a common legend told about any number of old bridges throughout the Midwest. Rainy night, woman driving alone with her infant son beside her, either she takes her eyes off the road or the car slides on the gravel and she crashes into the bridge. Both woman and child are killed instantly, but the child’s body is never found. Later, the woman’s ghost wanders the creek at night, wailing and searching for her missing baby. Except in the local variation, an added twist has the baby’s corpse being found but his head is missing. So now the crying woman roams the bridge, carrying her baby’s decapitated body while looking for his head.

When Steve was done and Beth was pressed so sweetly against him, he let his hand drift back to her breast. This time she didn’t immediately remove his hand, instead she pressed against him harder as his tongue slipped inside her mouth. He could taste pizza and Juicy Fruit on her breathe but he was far too excited to care. She placed her hand on his thigh, close to his erection, yet not quite touching it which made it, maddeningly, all the more exciting. Then from the back seat came the sound of a baby crying.

Steve felt his heart leap to his mouth. Beth’s eyes went wide and her face turned white as the blood rushed from her head. Both clinched each other tighter as the baby’s cry came again.

“Mama,” it cried, a small, weak voice.

Oh my God! Steve it’s her baby. Oh my God! Oh my God!” Beth was screaming hysterically.

Oh shit!” Steve said. Horrified by what he might see if he looked in his back seat but sickly compelled by the irresistible need to face his fear, Steve turned, his eyes bulging in terror. Suddenly, he burst out laughing.

Beth looked at him like he had lost his mind as he leaned into the back seat and picked up a baby doll with a plastic head and soft body. Beth recognized it as a Baby Tender doll.

Steve dropped back in his seat, holding the doll with one hand and still laughing. “My little sister’s. She must have left it when I took her to her dance class earlier.”

Beth joined him in relieved laughter as the doll, obviously broken, again cried out “Mama, Mama.”

Steve punched the doll, shaking his head and prepared to toss it back into the rear seat when Beth went bug-eyed and began shrieking.

“Beth, it’s just a stupid doll. What…?”

She had slid all the way back across the seat, her head pressed against the passenger side window and was pointing wildly at something behind Steve. Bemused, he turned around to see what had freaked Beth out so bad. Probably just jumping at shadows at this point, he thought.

Once again, his heart lurched but this time it didn’t come back down. Pressed against the driver’s side window was a grey, mottled face, its mouth twisted in a blood-caked, grisly leer, milky eyes devoid of pupils, and wrinkled skin that sagged as if it had been submerged in water for weeks. The thing’s damp hair hung in unruly strings, caked with algae. She slapped the window with her malformed hands and Steve could see her nails had continued to grow after death into loathsome, yellow talons.

Steve was vaguely aware he had had pissed himself. He knew they should be going but he was beyond rational thought at that point. He was reduced to just staring into the gruesome face of the Crying Woman, a strange, little hiccupping whimper strangling his throat.

MY BABY, WHERE’S MY BABY?” The Crying Woman croaked in a raspy, watery voice. “I HEARD HIM CRYING FOR ME. GIVE HIM TO ME.”

Steve, would you drive goddammit?” Beth was screaming.

Like a zombie, Steve tried to obey. Still mewling pitifully, he tried to put the car in gear and promptly killed the engine. He reached down and turned the key, pumping the gas pedal furiously in his panic. The engine hitched but wouldn’t turn over, again he cranked the ignition, wincing and cursing at its stubborn, grinding growl.

Beth continued to scream at Steve to hurry up and start the frigging car already. The Crying Woman continued to beat at the window, shrieking and pleading for them to return her baby. As her attacks became more violent, Steve became certain she would break through the window before he could get the damn car started.

“COME ON! COME ON YOU BITCH!” Steve cried in frustration, bashing the steering wheel with his palms in an impromptu tantrum that did nothing to coax the car to start.

Just when Steve was certain he had flooded the engine, the window crashed in and a pair of icy, clammy hands found his face. Steve screamed, a combination of fear, anger and desperation, depressed the clutch and turned the ignition hard.

The car roared to life. Steve slammed the car into gear and sped away in a spray of gravel and smoke. He felt the dead woman’s fingers slipping from his face as he pulled away, but her nails scraped across his skin, leaving three deep scratches across his cheek. He heard her screeching in anger as she sensed her prey escaping. Her cries were filled with so much anguish and pain, Steve almost felt sorry for her.

“Don’t stop Steve, just don’t stop whatever you do don’t stop.” Beth had her legs drawn up in a fetal position and Steve saw she was still clutching the doll to her chest like a protective charm.

Steve kept his foot on the accelerator as he ventured a glance in his rear view mirror and was so shocked that he almost went off the road. The thing was still right on his bumper, clawing and scratching, her ghastly face filled with hate and pain. Steve pressed down harder on the gas, but how in the hell do you outrun a ghost.

Then, just like that, she was gone. One minute her whole face seemed to be filling the rear view mirror and the next, she had simply vanished.

They hit Wagner Road at better than 70 miles an hour and Steve didn’t let up on the gas until he hit Foundry road on the outskirts of Cambridge City. It was his plan to head to the police station and hope that Officer Channing was there, catching a few z’s instead of out rousting kids making out in the park. But he had no intention of going to the cops with his pants soaked in urine. If that got around everybody’d think he was a pansy. He pulled over next to a secluded copse of trees and shut off the car.

WHY ARE WE STOPPING? STEVE, WHY ARE WE STOPPING?”

Steve shut off the car and looked at Beth. “It’s okay. She’s gone. I just got to do something first, then we’ll go.”

Beth looked at him with pleading eyes. “I want to go home Steve, PUH-LEEZE, take me home.

“I’ll take you home in a bit. Just settle down, I want to go to Channing and report this…”

“Then let’s go report it, but let’s get out of here,” she whined.

“Beth, I promise we’ll leave in just a minute. I kind of wet myself back there and I just need to slip on a pair of clean jeans and we’ll go.”

“I don’t care. I peed myself a little too. I don’t want to stop here.”

Steve sighed and opened the car door. “Look, the Marcum’s house is just across the street there, you can see their lights still on. Probably up watching Sammy Terry or something. Nothing is going to happen right here in town. I’ll be right back”

STEVE, COME BACK!” She yelled as he climbed out of the car. She rolled down her window and continued calling him as he walked behind the car and opened the trunk. He opened his gym bag and got out a clean pair of jeans he always kept for emergencies. He slammed the trunk and noticed four huge scratches going down the trunk. More evidence, he thought touching his face. His fingers came away smeared with blood. He’d have to get that cleaned as soon as he got home, no telling what kind of diseases that thing had been carrying.

“I’ll be right back,” he assured Beth as he headed for the privacy of some nearby bushes.

“Hurry!”  Beth yelled out the window before rolling it up, as an afterthought she hurriedly locked all the doors.

She settled back in her seat, realized she was still clutching the Baby Tender doll, tossed it in the backseat where it gave one last, weak cry before falling silent. Her heart was still thumping along like a steam locomotive as she glanced nervously from window to window, terrified that the next thing she’d see would be that grotesque, insane face staring back at her. She couldn’t believe it had been real; it was just supposed to be a story, a scary little bedtime tale kids told each other for fun. Whatever that thing had been, it was much more than some mere spook or lost spirit, it had substance and mass.

What was keeping Steve? He should have been back by now; it doesn’t take that long for a guy to change. Maybe be had to pee again? Her own bladder felt pretty full. She wondered if Steve would keep watch while she squatted behind the bushes. It would be embarrassing but not as humiliating as peeing all over Steve’s seat. She had dribbled a bit in her underwear when that hag had been attacking the car, but nothing that would show.

The back of the car settled for a moment and came back up.

About time, she thought.

She craned her neck to look out the back window, squinting her eyes to penetrate the dark. She thought sure that had been Steve coming back but she couldn’t see any sign of him. He should have been back by now.

Not sure how much longer she could wait, she used her left arm to unlock the door and pulled the handle with her right. The dome light came on, momentarily blinding her. She got out, surprised by how weak and shaky her legs were. She knew one thing for sure, she would never ever, not in a million years, go within a mile of Heacock Road. As quietly as she could, she closed the car door and turned to go find Steve.

The autumn air was crisp and chill, wet with the scent of coming rain. Beth shivered and clutched her sweater, rubbing her arms to warm them. Standing there exposed, Beth looked back the direction of Heacock, uncomfortably aware at how close the bridge was as the crow flies. Really she could walk there in minutes if she crossed through the woods.

In the distance, she could hear the sound of a television coming from the Marcum’s house. She could see the blue flicker of the screen through their picture window and considered crossing the street to see if she could borrow their phone. She had known the Marcum family all her life, she knew they wouldn’t mind.

Still, she should have a quick look Steve. She noticed that he had left the trunk ajar and walked towards the rear of the car, suddenly feeing preternaturally aware of every sound around her; the Marcum’s TV, the wind bustling the tree limbs, the crunch of her feet on the desiccated leaves beneath her shoes. She touched the trunk as a tiny whimper escaped her lips, a rush of hot urine ran down her legs.

Steve’s mangled body had been tossed in the trunk. At least she thought it was Steve, it was wearing the same blue Oxford and crisp jeans but she couldn’t be certain because above the neck…nothing.

As Beth backed away from the trunk, she could feel the scream building in her throat. Somehow she had followed them, found them; sniffed them out like a hound following a coon’s scent and just a few minutes before, Beth had become aware of how close the bridge was, how quickly one could walk to it. And a ghost? Who knew what was too far for a ghost?

From the darkness of the woods, The Crying Woman shuffled out; her ghastly, blood streaked face made even more hideous by the ecstatic, lunatic grin on her face.

I finally found my baby’s head,” she croaked in a watery, sepulchral voice that was almost tender as she held out Steve’s severed head, its eyes and mouth opened wide in an eternal, silent scream.

Beth found that she couldn’t scream after all, not when her head was being ripped from her neck.

 

 

Coffin Sam

horse-cart

 

Samuel Coffin be my name, Old Sam they call me or Coffin Sam and I reckon no man has ever been so aptly named given their occupation. A bone man I am by trade and have been for nigh on twenty years and suspect I’ll go on being one until I’m naught but bones my own self.

Sudbury to Barnsley all the way down to Salisbury is my route, scavenging whatever I think might turn a pence or two. Most blokes in my business tend to be unsavory types, tossers and lay-a-bouts rooting through other folk’s leavings, an old sack pitched o’er their shoulders to collect their pickings, low men with lower expectations. Now, I consider myself more a merchant. I own me own horse and wagon and I’m more likely to pay for your odds and sods than to sort through your rubbish. I’d rather pay a farthing for a pound of rags that I can resale in London than clamber about in someone else’s filth.

Rags though, by and large, are of minor importance to me. I am, first and foremost as I believe I’ve said, a bone man and that is my preferred commodity; animal bones, domestic or wild, make fine fertilizer and grind up into an excellent glue. Even human bones can be put to better use than rotting away in ground. Not doing anyone any good like that now are they? But strip ‘em of their flesh, bleach ‘em all white and lovely and they make fine knife handles and ornaments, even toys for the tots.

Though my own preference is to grind them up into a nice, fine powder, mix them with my own special combination of herbs and voila, thar ye have it – Old Sam’s Restorative Elixir. Just two pence a bottle and guaranteed to cure most common ailments, and a few not so common or your money back.

It might seem a gruesome occupation, one fit only for vultures and muck snipes but I’ve always had a way with bones. I simply parlayed my skills into a profitable line ‘o work same as any other bloke. My customers are privy to my, admittedly, morbid interests and are apt to save up their best ivory until my route brings me past their doors. So I was not a wee bit surprised when I came upon old Maggie Thistlewaite waving at me from the side of the road.

I was just south of Amesbury and had hopes of making town before dark set in but the old dame looked so much like a squat, dumpy toad hopping up and down and flailing her arms that I thought she might just launch herself to the moon.

Sighing, I pulled up aside her, tugging gently on Charlotte’s reigns to bring her to a halt and tipped my hat like a proper gentleman. “Hullo, Mrs. Thistlewaite! Fine evening innit?”

“Bah, tis ‘nother hot one ‘tis is. Whole bleeding summer’s been a scorcher. I for one will be happy to see cooler days come around.”

That was Maggie alright, never an optimistic word.

“Well, it has been a mite hot I s’pose. Now, is there something I could do ye for? Some more of those fine clay pots for trade?” I replied as politely as I could muster.

“Naw. Got some old bones I’d like to unload. Roy found ‘em when he was turning the field last Spring.”

“Ahh! And how is Mr. Thistlewaite fairing? As fit as ever I hope?”

“How the bollocks should I know? The old duffer done run off with that trollop Molly from down at The Wolf’s Head right after the planting.”

“Eh…sorry to hear that Maggie,” I said.

“Why? I’m not. Good riddance to bad rubbish I say. Better off without him.” She spit on the ground as way of accenting her disgust. “Well, come on then. ‘Aven’t got all day to be spinning the story of me life, now do I?”

The Thistlewaite homestead was a squalid, little shack that sat just off the road. It was mostly sod and stone with a thatched roof that was always leaking. Inside was two little rooms filled with bric-a-brac and fitted out in Roy Thistlewaite’s shoddy homemade furniture. An ancient, iron pot hung over an open hearth, boiling a foul smelling soup that would turn Old Scratches stomach. Atop a lopsided, makeshift dining table, spread out on a swath of ratty burlap were a pile of bones I immediately recognized as human.

“Well, there ye be. Two full sets of skeletons as far as I can make it. Good, for a shilling or two I reckon?” Maggie said.

“Well, now. These look to be in right fine condition. Ye say Roy pulled ‘em out of the field?”

“Yessir. Pulled ‘em right out. Raised quite a fuss he did, yelling and going on about uncovering a forgotten cemetery or some such rot. But all he found was the two, weren’t even buried in a proper box. Just tossed in a hole with some dirt shoveled o’er ‘em”

I pretended to carefully study each skeleton, picking up each bone and inspecting it, occasionally making a worrisome clicking sound just to sell my ruse. Secretly, I was delighted.

The skeletons were in immaculate condition and I doubted if Roy had dug these straight out of the ground. I rather suspected Old Magpie of doing a little grave robbing. Not that it mattered to me; times were hard and with her husband gone and run off, why I suppose she was doing what she needed to get along. Good Lord knows she couldn’t make it as a sporting gal, not with her age and loathsome, craggy face. Personally, I could understand why Roy would run off with Molly. Though Molly herself were no prize, she was a damn sight more pleasing to look at than Maggie.

“Well on with ye now Sam. Standing there tsking and grumbling like an old goat, are ye interested or not?” She said.

“Now, Maggie I have to be careful ye know. Got to make sure they’s all there and whatnot. Can’t hardly make an offer if I don’t know what I’m purchasing.”

“Just don’t take all night about it. It’s already dusk and I got my chores to finish up.”

I sighed, pretended to study a bit more then said, “How does a shilling sound for the lot?”

Maggie put her doughy fists on her ample hips and nearly spat. “A shilling? One shilling? I’ll have ye know I spent hours cleaning those up special for you. Got rid of all the meat and gristle just the way ye like. Make it two and I’ll even throw in a bowl of yonder soup I’m cooking up.”

Suddenly, it occurred to me just what Maggie might be boiling in her soup. “Pardon Maggie, didn’t know ye went to so much trouble. I reckon two shillings won’t send me to the poorhouse but I’ll decline the soup, thank ye kindly.” I rubbed my stomach for effect. “Have a touch of the grippe right at the moment.”

“Been drinking yer own elixir, have you? Last bottle Roy bought, he was in the privy for a week. Howling and carrying on about his ring being ripped out. Cured his head pain though.”

“Well there ye go then,” I replied, sheepishly. As hastily as possible I pressed 2 shillings into Maggie’s doughy palm, bundled up my new acquisitions and Bob’s your uncle I was back on my wagon headed east.

 

It was full dark by the time I reached the turn that would take me near the old Druid runes. I had no great fear of traveling by night, I’d spent many a night camped out with only the stars and old Charlotte for company, but ‘twas rumored that a nasty bunch of highwaymen had been preying on unwary travelers here abouts. ‘Sides those old ruins always gave me the creeps. Once, I swear on me nana’s grave, I saw a troop of fairy folk dancing and singing around those old stones beneath the light of a blood moon. It scared Charlotte something fierce and I near loss control of the wagon when she bolted, we were quite a ways past the ruins before I could calm her down. And to be honest, I was a mite scairt myself.

I decided rather than risk my meager wares I would stop for the night at a local inn I knew nearby, where I might get a hot meal, warm bed and quaff the road dust with a few pints or seven.

It was with these happy visions dancing about my head that, at first, caused me to dismiss the murmurings I was hearing. I figured they was a conversation from a passing farmhouse carried by an errant breeze. Such acoustic anomalies were not unheard of, nevertheless I hied Charlotte to quicken her pace just in case a robber was lurking nearby, ready to deprive an honest merchant of his merchandise or his life. Then another snippet of conversation came to me, this time very clear and audible.

“Can’t believe she really did it.”

“And why not? She was always a daft old bird.”

The voices were low, one male, one female, though I did not have to strain to make out the words.

“Just ye wait ‘til I get me hands on her…” The male voice said.

“And just how are ye supposed to do that? ‘Tis a bit too late to get yer ‘ands on anything,” the female replied.

“Well, just sayin’…”

“Yer bloody well dead now, so might as well get used to it. She did us good and proper.”

“Can’t believe she sold us off to the bone man. Not even given the dignity of a proper burial. He’ll probably grind us into glue and then where will be? Holding together some old bugger’s shoe soles most likely.”

“Glue? That’s Coffin Sam, he’d rather turn us into that foul elixir he peddles.”

“Oy!” the male exclaimed, “Not that shite. Bought a bottle once. Swore it would cure me of me megrims but only gave me the trots something awful. Thought I was going to tear me ring right out.”

I relaxed when I realized what I was hearing. “Twas no desperate band of cutthroats planning murder at all, just a couple of skeletons moaning on about their demise.

I believe I mentioned I had a way with bones? Well, part of that is the ability to converse with them. Normally, it required a good amount of concentration to communicate with the dead, but this pair seemed especially chatty.

“Eh, pipe down back there ‘fores you spook Charlotte here,” I said, figuring to take the piss out of them a bit.

“Is he talking to us?” asked the male.

“Now how could he hear us?”

“’Course I’m talkin’ to ye. Don’t hear no other bones rattling on now, do ya’?”

“Sam, if ye can hear us, this is Roy Thistlewaite and Molly Evans. My Maggie has done murder on us, boiled off our flesh and sold us off for bone meal.”

I admit t’was a thought I had turned over in my mind for a brief moment. I never had taken much of a cotton to Maggie Thistlewaite and while I didn’t put murder past her, I was hesitant to queer the deal, so quickly dismissed the idea. Now it looked like my transaction was headed south anyway. I was also quite grateful to have passed on Maggie’s soup.

“Sorry to hear that Roy but there’s not a whole lot I can do about it…” I paused before adding, “Given yer present condition that is.”

“What do ye mean by that? Our present condition is exactly what should be of concern.”

Molly piped in; at least she had sense enough to see their predicament. “He means there ain’t no telling who we are. Maggie made sure of that when she boiled us away.”

“Molly’s right Roy. I could take your remains to the High Sheriff but with no way to support yer story, he likely won’t have no reason to pursue the case. After all, it’s not like he can hear ye.”

“Piss all! That daft munter is going to skate right by this. Must be some way to get her to confess…” Roy’s voice trailed off, lost and uncertain.

I shook my head, though I knew they had no way of seeing me. “Don’t reckon Maggie’s the confessing type. A woman able to do cold murder is most likely not easily rattled.”

We rode along in silence for a few miles, serenaded by a choir of crickets and the faint lowing of cattle from a distant farm. I only hoped once they saw there was really nothing to do about their situation, they would give up the ghost, so to speak, and move on to Heaven or Purgatory or wherever the souls of the dead go when they been murdered by a murderous, cuckolded wife. Alas, it wasn’t long before Roy tried again.

“Sam, ye don’t suppose ye might be willing to see, like…maybe Maggie has a bit of an accident of a fatal nature?”

“Roy!” Molly exclaimed in shock.

I hauled back on Charlotte’s reigns, pulling her to a hard stop and looked back towards the bag of bones.

“Are ye suggesting I do Maggie for ye Roy?”

“Well, maybe just give ‘er a little shove into the well or something like that. Maybe accidentally pour some of the poison she used on Molly and me in her tea.”

“Afraid I can’t help ye there Roy. I’m not averse to a bit of larceny in hard times but I don’t reckon I have murder in me.” I flicked Charlotte’s reigns and got her back up to a trot.

“I could make it worth yer while. I have a goodly sum of coin squirreled away. Even Maggie didn’t know about it.”

I laughed. “Roy, I’ve seen yer place. I dare say you’ve not two crowns to rub together.”

“I DO SO!” He protested, “Been saving up so’s Molly and me could run off. Got near 60 pounds buried out behind the shed.”

Once again, I brought Charlotte to such a sudden halt, I near went flying off the wagon’s rickety wooden seat and right onto Charlotte’s back.

“Now how did the likes ‘o you go about earning such a princely sum?” I asked, trying to sound disbelieving, but Roy had protested so hard that I was fairly positive he was telling the truth.

“Oh dear,” Molly sighed.

“Wot? Not bleeding likely to be arrested now, am I? Might as well tell him.”

“Tell me what Roy?”

“Well…normally, I’m as honest as any feller but I really wanted us to get away. Maybe even go to America. So I embarked on a small enterprise…a not entirely legal enterprise.”

“And just what sort of enterprise was that?”

“I take it ye heard the stories about the band of highwaymen who been prowling the road hereabouts?”

I acknowledged that such tales had indeed reached my ears, as such stories invariably do, and he admitted that this vicious band was just him and Molly in disguise. Sometimes Tom Woolston, a neighbor, accompanied them. Tom was a touch on the slow side but eager to assist for a small percentage.

Still, even the lure of 60 pounds wasn’t enough for me to consider murder. Then Molly spoke up.

“Sam just where are we right now? And the hour? What time do ye reckon it is?”

“Why we’re on the old Stonehenge Road, not too far from the old Druid runes. It’s just a little after dusk. I hope to make the inn before then. Don’t much like the idea of riding past those evil rocks after dark.”

“And the moon? Is it full?”

“Full as a young lasses bosom.”

“I ‘ave an idea. Ye might not like it though.”

And she was right, I hated it. But persuaded by the thought of those 60 pounds waiting for me, I agreed to her plan.

 

As we approached those accursed ruins, a shiver rippled through my spine; the proverbial goose prancing over my grave. Even from the road, in the dark I could clearly make out those daunting stone monoliths, standing alone on the plains. When we were within walking distance to the ruins, I halted Charlotte and climbed off my wagon. Filled with a hefty dose of misgiving, I circled to the back and hauled out the bag containing the remains of poor Roy and Molly, ignoring their complaints of ‘be careful man’ and stop jostling so’.

“Hush! It’s spooky enough out here without yer incessant prattling,” I growled, adding a spade to my load.

The moon, like a grinning, malignant skull, hung full and low over the bleak ruins. The night air had turned decidedly chill and silent, not even the usual accompaniment of insects dared disturb the uneasy quiet. Under these unnerving conditions, the stones appeared hostile sentinels from some ancient time, a black age when men worshipped foul gods and performed blood rites in their honor.

Such was the effect on my psyche, a vision began to take shape before my unbelieving eyes; a waking dream of a primal, savage people, acolytes of an unspeakable deity, dancing a mad, swirling dervish by the light of a blazing bonfire, their guttural voices raised in a cacophonous, perverse song.

Then the high priest appeared, wearing a stag head-dress and a wolf skin tunic. He lifted his arms over his head and in his hands he held the tiny, squealing body of a wee infant. At the sight of the child, the worshippers turned even more vicious and uncontrolled, ripping at their own flesh, gnashing and snarling at each other. And just when their blood lust reached a fevered crescendo, The High Priest suddenly slung the infant’s crying body against one of the huge, sarsen stones. The child’s brains exploded in a spray of blood and bone that dripped black and ivory in the moonlight.

My mind, numb with shock, tried to make sense of what I was seeing. I attempted to cry out in protest against the travesty unfolding on those accursed plains, but my words stuck in my craw and all I could manage was a weak, ineffectual moan. Tears welled in my eyes. Though I knew this to be only a mere phantasm, a ghostly echo from olden days, I also knew such atrocities had been perpetuated on this spot many hundreds of times.

Ceremoniously, the High Priest held up the child’s shattered corpse by one leg and shouted a name in some profane, forgotten language, a name that I did not recognize but one that filled me with the blackest dread I had ever known. Fearing my sanity was about to be irrevocably broken, I dropped to my knees and shut tight my eyes, muttering a silent prayer for my soul.

Then, just as quickly as it had begun, the vision was gone and there was only me, kneeling beside my wagon looking out across the plains at those hateful, demonic relics of the dead past.

Aye, there was magic here alright. Dark magicks, far beyond anything a simple bone-man should be mucking with, but I had promised Roy and Molly. And then there was the promised fortune to spur me on. Still weeping, I noticed the bones of Roy and Molly spilled out all over the ground. Cursing myself for a clumsy fool, I gathered up their bones and shoved them back into the bag. All the while they continued to plague me with insults and their officious prattling.

Grunting, I slung the bag over my shoulder and began trudging heavily towards the site where I had witnessed that obscene hallucination. Something told me this was the focal point of the place’s dark magic, the very spot where the ancient ley lines converged to create a powerful fulcrum of supernatural energy. This is where I needed to plant my two bony friends, though it terrified me all the way to my bowels to think of going any nearer that black place.

Trembling, I reached the circle of fallen and leaning stones and dropped my bundle on the ground. Picking up my spade, I glanced around nervously one more time, feeling naked and exposed in the open and began turning the earth as fast as I could manage.

I made quick work of the shallow holes, being sure to get both sets of bones firmly in place before filling it back in. Giving the makeshift grave a final pat with the back of my spade, I stretched my back, rubbing my spine with one hand. Out of the corner of my eyes, I caught a glimpse of the stone upon which the High Priest had bashed the poor infant’s brains. Though I knew my vision had been a depiction of an event from millennia ago, I thought I could still see the black stain of the infant’s blood.

Digging a pair of shiny gold coins out my purse, I placed them atop the grave. Though it pained me to part with so precious a possession, the fairy folk coveted gold above all else and Roy had promised my reward would repaid a hundred times over. Hastily, I grabbed my spade and hurried back across the plains towards Charlotte and my wagon.

Charlotte whinnied gratefully at my return, looking hopeful that we would soon be on our way. I whispered soft assurances that it would not be much longer, but for now, we would have to wait. Wait for whatever dark spell to manifest that would allow Roy and Molly to exact their revenge. It was an old legend, the way Molly explained it; bury their bones within the sacred circle, present a tempting offer and the little people might fulfill a boon.

I climbed up on my wagon, wrapped myself in an old blanket and settled down to wait. It was not long before I drifted off to a troubled sleep, tormented by uneasy dreams where it was I lying upon the cold, sacrificial stone as the people of the circle writhed in their hysterical, ceremonial dance. The High Priest approached, a cruel smile carved on his leering face, a crude dagger of bone raised above his head. I struggled to rise but was held fast by some unseen force I could not see. No matter how I fought and tossed my body, I could break free and just as he plunged the dagger toward my heart…

I awoke, sweat beading on my brow and a hand clutched to my chest. After ascertaining I was still among the living, the first thing I noticed was how high the moon had risen in the sky. From its current position, I took it to be not long after midnight. The second thing I noticed was the air felt charged with electricity, like the precursor to an impending storm.

A cold, mist crawled over the plains, bathing the ruins in an eerie, translucent glow. Inside the mist, dark figures appeared to be moving, swaying and turning to and fro, right in the place I had buried Roy and Molly. I rubbed the sleep from my bleary eyes, squinting hard to make out more clearly the forms I was seeing. As my eyes adjusted, I was not surprised to see that these shapes indeed belonged to a troop of the Little People, called to the sacred circle by the bones and gold coins I had left behind.

Mayhap it was just the play of light off the mist, but the longer I stared the clearer my vision became until I could see the tiny figures as plain as the hand in front of my face. There were perhaps two dozen of the Wee Folk, reeling around in an odd, circular dance that recalled my earlier vision.

No sprite, fairytale pixies were these, with firefly wings and gossamer tresses; nae these were squat, ugly wee men and women, turned out in rough, handmade leather jerkins and ragged patchwork dresses. Their wrinkled and deep-lined faces were as brown and leathery as the old boots they wore on their feet. Their lumpy, misshapen torsos appeared twice the length of their stubby, bowlegs. I judged not one to be more than two and a half feet in height.

I sat watching them for some time, fascinated yet sickened, before I realized I could hear the steady pounding of drums, beating a devil’s cantata that echoed across the plains. Then these nasty, loathsome trolls began singing to the music in strident, unmelodic voices that sounded like the caterwauling of demon-possessed cats.  The longer the dance went, the louder the drums and singing became, growing fiercer and more clamorous until I clamped my hands to my ears to drown them out. Quaking, I curled up in a ball, feeling my body vibrate from sheer force of the drumbeats.

Just when I thought I could bear it no more, the drums ceased and the singing faded away. Reluctantly, I uncovered my ears and peeped through cautious, half-opened eyes.

The Wee Folk had slipped back into the mist from whence they came, leaving in their wake two full grown figures standing in the midst of the stone circle. My heart fluttered in my chest, warbling like a weak bird trying to escape its cage. There was no doubt, though my mind wanted to deny the truth of my eyes, that I was looking at the reanimated corpses of Roy Thistlewaite and Molly Evans. Haltingly, they stumbled towards me, as clumsy as babes on their reconstituted legs.

As they came nearer, I offered a silent prayer that they weren’t hungry for human flesh. They certainly appeared ravenous. The little people’s magic was powerful but not so strong to make them as they were before. Indeed, both appeared to only partially restored; rotten, ragged flesh flapped from their bodies, much of the bones still visible and their faces were like leering death heads with only the thinnest layer of bare muscle stretched taut over their skulls. They resembled nothing so much as a drawing from some depraved physician’s anatomy text. It was also apparent by the worms and grubs crawling through their flesh, the fairies had used the earth itself to fashion their improvised skin-suits.

“Well? Wot ye gawking at Sam? Molly’s plan worked.” Roy said when they reached the wagon, spitting out a few teeth for his effort.

“No piss it worked. But pardon me Roy if I say, you look a bit worse for the wear.”

“Shut yer bone box, man. Not pleasant being in his fake skin either. Itches like the dickens.”

“And I got maggots crawling through me minge.” Molly piped in, appalled.

“Cor! Molly don’t be disgusting.”

“Now what Roy? Not planning on maybe offing me first?” I asked, trying to sound glib, though not succeeding in my own ears.

Roy looked rather put-off by such a disparagement upon his honor.

“Course not,” he replied with such vigor that one of his bulging eyes popped right out of its worm infested socket, forcing him to fumble it back in. “Course not Sam. Just come along about dawn and ye’ll find yer money waiting. Well, Molly let’s be off. Gotta pay a visit to the missus.”

“Oh won’t she be surprised?” Molly replied as the pair shuffled off, heading back towards the Thistlewaite farm.

As the pair faded, I heard Roy complaining that he hoped he didn’t slough off his skin before they got there. In the meantime, I wasted no time getting back on the wagon and putting some distance between me and those blasted stones.

 

I didn’t make the inn and settled for a makeshift bed in the back of the wagon, not that I actually slept any. Just tossed and turned until the sun poked its red eye out over the horizon. Breakfast was a hasty bit of jerky as I turned Charlotte around and headed towards the farm, uneasy and wary of what horrors I might find waiting there for me.

Even in the brightness of a lovely dawn, the farm looked depressing; more like the abandoned lair of some wild beast than the home of a middle-aged married couple. There was no sign of disturbance from the outside; the place was just a ramshackle hut of muted colors, leaky roof and dangling shutters.

I approached the door, hesitantly, and gave it a good rap. “Maggie? Maggie Thistlewaite you up and about? It’s Sam Coffin, Old Sam.”

When no one answered I tried again. “Roy you in there? You done with your business yet?”

I reached down, gave the knob a turn. The door opened easily if not a little too loudly for my liking.

Inside, the place resembled an abattoir. Maggie’s corpse decorated every square inch of the tiny house. Her body had been hacked into dozens of pieces and spread from floor to ceiling. The walls were painted in blood and viscera. Scattered on the floor was a pile of jumbled bones. Roy and Molly I suspected, rendered back to their previous skeletal state now that their revenge was complete.

Swallowing, I fought to keep my rising gorge in check. Only the weakness in my knees kept me from immediately turning and fleeing the charnel house. Then my eyes alit upon the dining table where Maggie’s head sat propped up on the gristle and muscled remains of her neck, her eyes and mouth gaped open in unbelieving horror. Beside her was a small wooden box.

It took every ounce of fortitude I had to approach that grotesque nightmare and with a quaking hand open the box. Inside was a sizable number of pound notes, coins and even a few odd bits of jewelry that I knew I would have no problem fencing in London. I slammed the lid shut, shoved the box beneath my coat and lumbered for the door as fast as my legs would carry me.

As I opened the door I heard Roy’s voice. “Thank ye Sam. We can rest now.”

“Oh yes, thank ye so much. And have a lovely day Sam,” Molly rang out cheerily as I slammed the door shut behind me.

Silently, I promised myself to avoid Salisbury at all cost from now on and that’s one promise I plan on keeping.

 

 

 

 

 

The Servant of God

June 10, 1912

The Servant of God boarded the train outside Paola, Kansas, took a window seat so he could watch the blighted landscape pass by. America – Sodom and Gomorrah, a country so infected with sin even the soil was diseased. It had to be cleansed one sin at a time or the whole thing purified by fire, but that took the innocent as well as the evil. The Servant’s way was better, though more difficult, slicing out the sin one cancerous piece at a time.

The train was always the same; cracked leather seats, dirty, nicotine stained windows, the ugly, faded carpet that ran between the aisles. The appearance didn’t matter; it was the chariot God chose to convey him on his mission. God didn’t promise luxury, only salvation.

The train didn’t always feel right though. Sometimes it felt like he was the sole passenger, other times it seemed filled far beyond capacity – men and women, laughing and talking, itinerant travelers on their way from here to there. They didn’t bother The Servant. They were just background noise. He didn’t talk to them and they didn’t talk to him.

The demons were a different matter. They came when his mind was idle, not contemplating the Lord or his mission. Some were hideous caricatures of humans; black, reptilian monsters with horns and forked tongues that flickered in and out of their leering mouths. Others were quite fair and lovely, scantily clad women with luscious forms and angelic faces who came bargaining for his soul, tempting him with offers of the flesh, promises of pleasures. Lies fell as easily from their lips as dung from a horse’s ass. But they were only a minor annoyance, The Word always sent them shrieking, back to the Bottomless Pit.

The train rumbled to a stop right outside Villisca, Iowa and The Servant heard The Voice telling him this was the place. Grabbing his battered, well-traveled Bible – his only luggage, he disembarked – the joy of serving in his heart.

The jarring clang of church bells was calling the faithful to morning worship. He wished he could be in church with them, sharing the fellowship and mutual love for The Lord. But there was more important work to do this Sabbath morning. Someone would be chosen to meet the Lord this day. The Servant was envious, he wished his burden would be taken from him and he would be allowed to rest.

Sighing, he listened to the Lord’s instructions, which were telling him to proceed through town to a neat, three-story farmhouse. Jesus had also prayed for his burden to be removed, if God didn’t listen to his own son then why should he listen to the pleas of a humble, common servant?

He would do as the Lord commanded. With that small, still voice speaking to him, he followed its instructions to a neat, three-story farmhouse. He walked around the back of the house and looked in the shed. An axe stood propped against the back wall, the Lord bade him take it and enter the house through the backdoor.

The door was unlocked, just as God had told him it would be. The house was empty, just as God had told him it would be.

Off to worship, no doubt, The Servant thought.

Diligently he began exploring the house, memorizing the layout, touching things, getting a feel for the kind of family that would live here. He would need to operate in the dark; he had to know every inch of the house.

The axe was reassuring in his hand. He was certain this was the family who would be delivered this night. When he was confident that he would be able to navigate the house by only the light of the moon, he followed the voice of the Lord to an upstairs bedroom. Inside a closet, a short flight of stairs led the Servant to a tiny, cramped attic.

Making himself as comfortable as possible, The Servant squatted on the floor to await the fall of night.

Hours passed. The heat of the room rose steadily as the day drew on toward noon and

The Servant of God kept his mute vigil amid the clutter and dust, praying silently. Even when the family returned morning service, he resisted the temptation to peek out the attic window. The Lord demanded he remain patient and in return, he would receive a very special reward. The children had brought two friends home to spend the night. The Servant sighed in anticipation. He loved delivering children best.

He felt his member hardening between his legs, waves of disgust rippled through his gut. That was not a proper reaction to salvation. He intensified his prayer until his excitement was driven back and the vile organ once again went limp.

As the afternoon dragged towards evening, The Servant dozed in a half dream state, his unconscious mind becoming attuned to the rhythms and sounds of the household as it went about its Sunday routine.

He could the children playing outside, their high, infectious laughter and the cheerful, pleasant voices of the adults as they talked among themselves. Later, came the sounds of pots and pans rattling, the odor of meat cooking announced the arrival of dinner.

Gradually, the long shadows crept in, bringing the slightly cooler temperatures of evening, the anonymity of darkness. He felt his pulse increase as his excitement built but still he waited, caressing the axe with loving adoration.

As full darkness settled over the attic, he felt rather than heard the children as they prepared for bed. He joined them in saying their bedtime devotions, praying as silently and fervently as stealth would allow.

It was not long after the children were abed that the parents followed them into that final, visions of all the souls he had delivered and those he would save in the future. It was not until well past midnight that The Servant received permission to act.

“Go now, commend their souls to Heaven,” Came the quiet voice.

His legs were stiff and numb, refusing to work after so much idle time. As they awoke from their slumber, needles jabbed into his flesh. He ignored the pain, stretching carefully to unkink the muscle. Finally, he grabbed his axe and descended the stairs.

The Father and Mother were the first to receive salvation.

Even when The Servant smashed the axe into the man’s head, the woman never stirred.

God kept them deep in slumber. As promised, they felt nothing and within moments, they were with the Lord.

Next, he sought out the children, feeling the righteous joy of serving The Lord as he dispatched each child to their Heavenly maker. Each release brings him greater and greater joy. No, he doesn’t want his burden lifted. He was born for this, given enough time and he would deliver the world. Again and again his axe descends, blood flies black in the moonlight and never once is a scream uttered. The only sound is the thud of the axe on skull and The Servant’s heavy breath.

It is close to dawn when he finally stumbled out of the house, his muscles aching from his exertion but oddly refreshed as they always were after a deliverance. His clothes were saturated in blood but no one was awake to see him as he retraced his journey through the town.

Up ahead, that old Glory train awaited him. Waiting to take him to the next stop down the line, to another family, another deliverance.

As he climbed aboard the train, he was struck by how like the maw of a hungry dragon the open door looked. For a moment he wondered if he might be insane but the voice of the train, like that of God’s, was louder, more compelling and the thrill of his ministry too addictive to deny.

Aurora, he thinks, next stop Aurora, Illinois.

COMPANY MEN

Putrefying sky, city of perpetual night. Ghost tendrils of black smoke snake from the reprocessing factories, smokestacks like colossal phalli silhouetted against the purple sky. Reprocessing center – sounds better than crematorium. Same difference, the immolation of the body, only instead of an ornate urn to display your loved ones, the body is reduced to cinders and piped out into the ozone.

This close to the factories, ash drifts through the air like grey snowflakes, caking the rooftops and ground, clogging engines and nostrils. If you’ve just dropped off a corpse that could be your grandpa you’re sniffing up your nose. Unsettling thought, isn’t it? Your wallet might be fat from the sale, but it just doesn’t seem right now, does it. That’s why there are so many saloons near the centers, to part the guilty from their blood money. Sure, you were only obeying the law but that didn’t make it any easier. Easier to slip into one of these poverty row watering holes, somewhere dark and hidden, order up a pint or ten and try to forget the shithole the world had become.

Garrett Locke rode the current of the sidewalks, moving along with the bustling crowd. Out here among the teeming horde, breathing the raw scent of humanity, away from the factory, he felt almost normal, like he belonged.

He had been working as a fireman at Lansdale Reprocessing running furnace 49 for the past six months. Ten hour shifts, pushing units in the fire, reducing them to ash, scraping up the charred slivers of bone and gristle that remained at the end of the shift. It was hot, disgusting, dehumanizing work. That it had to be carried out in a Haz-suit only made it hotter and dirtier. Garrett knew it was a necessary precaution. Not all the bodies were HEV-1 positive, but you couldn’t always tell just by looking. Better to suffer the discomfort of the suit then to die, hemorrhaging and convulsing, blood and shit pouring from your eyes and anus.

In the changing room, Garrett could pour out up to a quart of sweat from his boots by the end of a shift. He would then spend a good part of his off-time replenishing the lost fluids with as much cheap beer as he could swill.

Still swimming with the crowd, Garrett crossed the light at Tilton and L, made the left that would lead to his cramped, dirty apartment. There were fewer people on the streets here, just local residents taking in the cool, evening air or hanging on the crumbling, concrete stoops of their apartments. Most were dark skinned and poor, wearing wife beaters and jeans. They sipped tall boys and cheap wine from brown paper bags, staring at Garrett as he passed with vacant, defeated eyes.

Slumped against a light pole, an old bum held out his hands in supplication. People were giving him a wide berth and as Garrett got closer he saw that he was infected. Black pustules seeped from his filth caked hands, blood dripped from his eyes and his body shook from the fever that was burning him up from the inside. Highly contagious but still aware, soon he would start convulsing, vomiting the black blood, the pustules would burst open and he would become mindless, monster who would kill and consume anything he could get his hands on before. Ultimately, bleeding out and dying.

Not a zombie really in the classical sense since, technically, he was still alive but murderous and cannibalistic nevertheless. Garrett reached into his pocket for cell to call emergency services but put it back when he saw the red flashing lights of an approaching HEV response team. In a few seconds, armed men in yellow Hazmat suits would file out of the van, one would efficiently and humanely put a bullet in the bum’s skull. They would bag up the body, toss it in the back of the van then disinfect the area before racing off towards one of the reprocessing factories. Inside an hour the bum would be on the pile, waiting for the fireman to toss him in the furnace. Maybe he’d even go into furnace 49. Garrett was off the clock but the night fireman would be there, keeping the fire hot and the bodies burning.

Suddenly, Garrett didn’t want to be trapped in his apartment, drinking piss beer, shoveling a frozen dinner into his mouth while watching the dull, flickering images on his television screen. He wanted fresh air, the freedom of the outdoors. He turned back towards Tilton, headed for the Canal and the bright, seductive light of uptown.

At the Canal Street Bridge check center, he offered up his arm to the gate attendant. Dressed in Hazmat, the attendant quickly and politely jabbed a needle to Garrett’s arm, withdrawing a small amount of blood. He placed the blood in a tube and mixed it with a reagent.

Garrett had gone through this countless times. Everybody did who lived south of the Canal and wanted to visit the rest of the city but it always made him nervous. What if it came back positive?

Garrett knew the answer. It wouldn’t matter if he wasn’t displaying any active symptoms, the attendant would hit his call button and within seconds Garrett would be lying on the street, a bullet in his head. It would be that simple; infected people were to be terminated as soon as diagnosed. There was no cure, no treatment for HEV-1. It had a one hundred percent fatality rate, no survivors ever.

“Negative.” The attendant raised the gate and waved Garrett through.

The north side of Canal wasn’t much different than the south; little cleaner, fewer people, better dressed. Garrett headed for the Canal Street tube and fifteen minutes later he was deep into the heart of uptown with its glittering neon, upscale restaurants and immaculate, high rise apartments. The streets and sidewalks kept clean and orderly by ever vigilant crews that worked 24 / 7 to keep everything shining.

Garrett looked enviously at the well-dressed men and women who went in and out of the expensive apartments where doormen tipped their hats and greeted the swells by name. Garrett had lived in the city all his life but knew he’d never be able to afford anything north of the Canal. Even before the plague, the south and the north felt like different countries. One filled with all the wonder and hope of humanity, the other a poverty ridden cesspool of crime, ennui and hopelessness. After the plague hit, the differences became more pronounced. The check stations and factories went up, the gap between the wealthy and the poor widened even more.

HEV cases had become rare north of the canal since the implementation of the rather draconian quarantine laws and mandatory blood tests. The superior sanitary conditions and access to high quality health care also helped keep the infection rate low. So most of the units that came through the factory were either local or from one of the small towns on the outskirts of the city.

Not that there weren’t any response teams – that would have been insane. In fact, there were more teams per populace uptown than there was in the south. Garrett even saw a response van parked out in front of a ritzy, expensive looking apartment building. He imagined they were bored stiff most of the time, half asleep, waiting for the infrequent calls that would allow them to practice their lethal skills.

Garrett strolled past the van and made a left on Larter Avenue. This small, crowded street consisted mostly of coffee bars and diners, it was popular with the local artists and bohemian crowd. It was a little less high-end and Garrett knew of a café where even he could afford a latte and a sandwich.

Out of one the few office buildings on the street, a group of immaculately coiffed suits emerged, looking important and superior. Garrett recognized many as Lansdale Reprocessing executives, company men who never had to soil their hands with the dirty business of touching the dead. The building was obviously the plant’s headquarters. Not that Garrett really cared, he had never even met any of the company’s big shots. He only recognized them from their infrequent inspections of the plant.

A crowd had gathered in front of another café. Shouts and the sound of crying came from somewhere in the middle of the mob. Curious, Garrett shouldered his way through the crowd, stepping on his tiptoes and craning his neck to try get a better look. Suddenly, the crowd broke apart and scattered. Garrett found himself unable to react before the expensively dressed man, white foam pouring from his mouth, grabbed him by the shoulders and sunk his teeth into Garrett’s shoulder. Stunned, Garrett pushed the man away and smashed him in the face with a tremendous right hand. The infected man went sprawling over the body of a young lady who was lying on the ground, bleeding from the hole in her neck.

Garrett applied pressure on the wound as blood gushed out in a red geyser. On the ground the man who had killed him was crawling towards him on all fours, his hand grasping and mouth opening and shutting like a hungry piranha. Garrett realized he had seen this man at the factory. He was one of the Lansdale execs who had been part of a tour earlier in the day. Had he become infected then? Been given a pass from the blood tests because of his privilege and position?

Didn’t matter. Garrett needed to get away quick. Frantically, he began looking around for an escape route but it was too late. Already, men in Hazmat suits were approaching him, guns at the ready.

Behind them, the company men stared on. Their vacant, black eyes looking on indifferently to the events unfolding. The last thing Garrett thought, before one of the Response Team officers drew a bead on his head was how good that sandwich and latte would have tasted. A lone, frustrated tear ran down his cheek.