Book: Black Wings III - New Tales of Lovecraftian Horror

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Down Black Staircases

 

Joseph S. Pulver, Sr.

 

Joseph S. Pulver, Sr. is the author of the novel The Orphan Palace (Chomu Press, 2011) and three collections from Hippocampus Press, Blood Will Have Its Season (2009), SIN & ashes (2010), and Portraits of Ruin (2012). His work has appeared in such venues as Phantamagorium, Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year, and The Book of Cthulhu.

Shadows. Sameness with no soon

and silence

Sky without time…

Hand, trembling, hoping to be free of this gravity of impossible, wishing for magic carpet or a fifth of blurred and near numb.

Outside the window, Kingsport.

They say this is America. New England. They swear it’s true. Hell, they’ll show you the map. Don’t you believe it. People lie. Governments lie. The world that bent your mind with its sharp moments last week, that’s a lie.

It’s all a lie.

Bit into my first one, swallowed it whole. Should have spit it out. Should have run.

I’m not supposed to be here. I had a flag. Had things. Places. I had a future, my friends and parents thought it was gold-plated and never worried or raised any concerns. And I didn’t mess up. Walked straight. Followed the rules. All of them. I didn’t even own a pair of jeans. See? I was good. Another genial VP—part paid planner, part paid worrier, sprinkle in a little bastard if and when needed—overseeing the right accounts, a few of which required more bastard, rising at the right pace. Work late, smile when you shake hands. Nice suits. Good restaurants. Drinks with significant people. Normal.

I was on my way to Boston. On my way to see her. Clea. Little white dress and that ass. You only saw women like that on TV, or in Hollywood, in the movies. Never had a woman like that say those things to me. Never had a woman dressed like that, built like that, offer me everything. Said she was all mine, said it while her breasts were pressed against my arm. Never knew they could be that soft. Never been that close. Never. Never imagined things like really happening. Not in my world.

Going?

I sure was. Hell and a hundred sulphur-drenched demons couldn’t stop me, and jacked-up on pure lust I didn’t stop to consider anything but the “100%-pure, ,i>honeysweet pussy” the avalanche of my go-ahead loaded on the back of my eyelids.

Friday. Ready to permit delirium into my world, burning with insistent. Checked my reservation with the hotel in Boston. Tried to leave the office early. Something bad put a stop to it. Three hours to remove the glitch from the deal.

Opened the door on night.

All the bragging they do about a Beamer’s relish, that’s true. I pushed my impatience into en route.

A weekend in Boston. Nights in her bed, or in my hotel room, or on the floor, who knew what and where and how many times, or in how many different ways? Ways like in those movies. Grape or whatever she wanted to drink. Painted toes. Dancing, vibrating. A real woman with her fingers playing with my tie. Shaved—she said so. Came right out and told me. Green eyes blessing my fever. The Devil tattoo—couldn’t believe something that small could be so loud. Drowning in velvet wild things. Drove like a madman, careful wasn’t on my speedometer and it wasn’t on the map in my glove box.

Coast highway. No shape to the world here. Barely a light. A good hour lot of things would light up.

90+

Clea’s ass and piece of a poem stuck in my head—

 

I had been hungry all the years;

My noon had come, to dine;

I, trembling, drew the table near,

And touched the curious wine.

 

Flat. Rubber clacking. Downhill—collision the direction I feared, down a patch of naked dirt that worked as a half-assed exit ramp—bumps or furrows…Lucky I didn’t flip over…Finally coasting, pulled over. Cursed. Abandoned end of some industrial town…Dark…

Something like a street…

Didn’t need my M.B.A. to know this was a place I shouldn’t be. But I was.

Skipped my cell. Thought, do it yourself and “Get out of here.” Fast.

Popped the trunk, started to change the tire.

That’s when the first shadow appeared. Second barely seconds after.

Looked at my Rhode Island plates. “Welcome to Kingsport.” Oddly, clownishly, cocked his head, jester whose colors were on the wrong canvas. “Got a problem there?”

Stood. Did it slow. Facing deranged—high on drugs maybe, or so I thought, and mean, was sure about that aspect. Didn’t know what to say. “Flat tire.”

It grinned. “Can see that.” Bobbed its head. “Surely can.” Talking passed your fragility, dislodging pieces you make horizons from.

I wanted to step back, but there was no backward as I was against the fender. Saw things like this on Law & Order, but Providence isn’t New York City, one giant slum, vertigo of gang-bullet ruin unleashed, ripening the ground with terrible. Those things didn’t happen in Providence, not to people like me. All just some circumstance of whimpering and blood-crazed ugliness on TV. Never really bothered me. Never expected to sick my fault right in its face.

Blood pressure infected with impossible’s hammer. Lost in the panic of dumb. “Right. Sorry.” Loaded with my cringe.

Second, “Can see that too.” Grinned, adjusted his crotch. Wild eyes. Disheveled. Dripping cold. Moved, between no farewell and ruin, to my side and almost behind. Created dialogues in my perspective. Left no ripples.

First lit a cigarette. “Not a good spot.” Words, no relief for anxiety, bleeding with melodrama. “Habitation of gangrene and hell, a bitch that’ll skin ya down to the pulse.” Grin got wider, crazier. Looked back over his shoulder like he heard something in the darkness. Made some guttural sound. “Fucking world. Burn it down. Burn it down…Lonely place.” Expression asked if I understood. “Things here…are dying.”

Wanted to say something about current global economic conditions and the plight of both producers and consumers. Feared it would be a misstep connected to a hospital.

Rape victims are supposed to yell fire.

What about this?

Tightrope, trying to keep my color. Full of instant-stupid. Kept my mouth shut.

Nothing seemed to move.

“But that’s not really your concern.”

Might have nodded yes, you’re right.

The shadow to my right snickered. Coughed. Flickered in the corner of my eye.

KNIFE

Didn’t know they were that big.

STAB

That sharp.

Flood—mosaic—knot stifling logic, of nameless Jack the Rippers abruptly hammering futures. If it was a movie, no wide shot.

CUT MUTILATE KILL KILL

Blinking/wedged in a blanket/scream muffled by the sleeve that jumped into your mouth. Eleven years old watching Psycho through my fingers.

KILL KILL

Did this wolf have a gun too?

BULLETS

Unseen intruders, aliens injecting red dawn into hapless victims, leaving all is through.

Should I plead with him?

Would. Could instantly phrase a litany of petitions.

If that would work.

“But I’m in the mood tonight to be kind, so you hand me your wallet and change that tire and get the fuck out of Dodge…We both get what we want.”

I did.

Slow. Like the cops on TV tell you. Afraid he’d think I had a weapon on me.

Or just change his mind.

700 dollars in bills, I wanted to make an impression with Clea that wasn’t just plastic. He took it. Nodded the transaction was complete and he was impressed and happy. Left the credit cards—I was shocked; thought thugs always took it all. Tossed my billfold back to me.

I barely caught it.

“Thanks.” Almost sounded like he meant it. Turned and walked away.

Didn’t scream.

Didn’t say thanks.

Sidekick slapped him on the back. Said, “Fucking tourists. Let’s get a bottle.”

They laughed. Left me the punch line of a joke I didn’t get…

After my loss of luck, after any hope of sweet or yesterday-soft or tomorrow with a chorus of open arms was stricken from all calendars, after the war—when there was no sky, no feet dressed and able to run from the man in black, the man with the knife that had killed men—his blade that danced its lightning-bolt orgasm in their nervous hearts, that’s when my hands began to shake.

Watched them vanish in blackness.

Blackness.

Impression, belly to breath, more than unpleasant. Alive? Felt like it. Felt like it. Stung the eyes to look at it.

But I did. Stared at it. Pushed and pressed focus into the visitation. What did it want? Was it capable of moving? Even to my lips if they screamed?

Capable. Here? Nothing was. Nothing had the tools, not a key not a verb not a light to illuminate the freeway that could take you to save, to make it come carry you home or far away.

Trying to recover. Vanish. Take a road that yielded to the measure of feet, somewhere where words clear devils from the path…Anywhere beyond the spurs THE END put to future.

Some ghost-story thing that engulfs some terror-prone plot of fearful victim being scraped by unseen, black rattled. No sound no motion but it was a vampire, a village of

Garbage

A fenced off lot Empty BLACK

Row of uninhabited bugalows

Too quiet

NULL and VOID as new terms you don’t bargain your way out of.

Just stood there trembling. Pushing my eyes—

Weak neon. ReD. A bit of GREen. Down the street, three or four blocks—a black gulf of shadows and blacker stains poured between us—the light of a gas station. Hung my hopes on a phone.

Headed for what I hoped was a harbor. A face with a voice in it, stuck at the register arranging cigarette packages or reading a weekly magazine of stars uncovered, secrets exposed, until the clock placed its hands on midnight.

Scared you forget things, like the phone in your pocket. Maybe I just needed to see a face. One that had heard of the meek shall inherit and do unto others.

In old noir films the streets are wet to give heightened effects to the lights. Not here. Bone dry. And lights? I half wondered if they were outlawed here. Then I wondered when here was.

Panicked-blind didn’t see any sign when I left the highway and there wasn’t a single word on anything here. No KEEP OUT. No street signs. Most of the bungalows on the other side of the street should have had CONDEMNED notices posted on the doors. They didn’t. More than a few didn’t have much glass left in the windows either. Of those that did, most were broken and the pieces of glass looked like jagged teeth.

This was a bad place. Worse it was nameless. Dead place full of fierce.

Walked faster.

Froze.

Shit.

I’d reached for the pen in my pocket, thought if need be it was the closest thing I had to a weapon, and brushed my phone.

Idiot.

Held it. Didn’t get to think saved.

No Service.

Needed the lights at the gas station now. And a face to go with them.

In the blackness a great clock, too distant and weak to be brethren to the light I was aimed at, chimed. Didn’t know what hour it welcomed but its tone certainly didn’t speak of anything comforting.

Stopped dragging my feet and moved…

A dead traffic light…Dilapidated everywhere. Old doorways, whatever they had once cast with welcome, gone. Cracks had drawn and quartered dear, poverty repeated and repeated had threaded and curled any pleasing right out of them. Windows out of shines covered over internal faces and hell-seasons I knew would only carry manes of madness if I could see them. Porches, splitting boards losing their hard in endless obituary-hours, never near the word mercy…

100 years ago this neighborhood must have been poor now it was exploded, its wood and brick skins abbreviated, ready to fall and accept the soil that longed to bury it…Each window, each door, each stain of ink-dark hollow, screamed gone, screamed black, screamed will not, screamed you cannot do…Feral displaced language, grew in the ashes…No good on this street with the moon in the gutter. Misery stretched its river down this street, didn’t play fair, left ugly.

Bad place. Coming apart. Wasteland too empty for urban. Not one cigarette butt, no beer cans. No weeds in the cracked pavement. Even Providence has litter here and there.

Lifeless.

Except for the stacked bags of garbage.

No flies.

No cat or rat drawn to the foul-bouquet of some soft inside…None? In a place like this?

Outside of one’s familiar habitat there are times when WRONG can easily be determined, when the hiss of this is not for you or of you transforms the acid in your stomach into the warning blast of a siren. I got it. Heard it loud and clear.

RAN

Tried not to smell the decay being painted by slimy water and unseen festivals saturated in nightmares.

Began to understand I had more to fear than the blades and drug-fueled whims of predators.

Half a block from the light, tried not to stare into the silent blackness. My brother Paul had studied the arts at BU and

once said if you look at it things in there you can’t see see

you…

RAN

To the light—

Not a single moth in its current.

Tripped over my haste. Flight, down HARD. Slammed my head on the pavement. Response to thud-to-a-halt banged-up knee throbbing after the live-wire jolt. Blood, knee, forehead. Jammed two fingers trying to break my descent. Hadn’t been bitten by the ground since I was eight, it all came back to me. Lucky didn’t break anything but soft skin.

Rubbed.

Throbbing attached to expanding—too much—too much.

Slurred and grumbled at the pain.

Rise. Tortured and deliberately. Test.

Wince.

Eject a New York street watchword.

Someplace I didn’t want to be. Slow. Unstable.

Hobbled…grunted—cursed.

Got there. One rusty pump. Unlit. Heavy-crisscross wire over the window. More heavy-wire and a banded metal frame over the door’s window.

DOOR

Locked.

CLOSED

Old yellowed sign, an open mouth with no words of light.

I slapped at it.

“Someone think I picked this place? Fuck.

“Thought every bowery in America had a 24-hour place. Shit…Shit. Where am I?”

“You’ve come into my night.” No-greeting alto, whiskey-raw, milled in a cascade of hours rooted in harrowing briars.

Froze.

Woman’s voice. But—

In a place like this a voice like that could be ferocious, dangerous too.

I turned into the rasp. Eyes, things stained by turpentine or acid. “I am Alice. Magg.” Lips that that never kissed anything Betty Crocker made or a man, tongue within nearly the same gray as the rag that passed for a dress. Sunken cheeks, junkie face. Hair once blonde, doubtful ever nice. Chin with skin problems requiring a surgeon. No pretty to her. No soft.

Face ill-fit. Wrong mask hung loosely on a frame it wasn’t made for. Shivered internally and blamed it on the dim light.

Woman, yes, but shabby and soiled, greasy when it’s dried, the way bums are.

Tried to smile. Hoped I was. Show her friendly. Might be helpful?

Looked at me like I was something unknowable.

Me, alien?

“You’re lost…I can smell your fear.”

“Just upset. Flat tire, got mugged. Took all my money.”

Face refitted with understanding. “The predators. They wander here. Jackals, take whatever they come upon.”

I nodded.

“Is there a phone around here somewhere?” Hoped I didn’t sound like I was praying.

“I have one.”

“I’d be grateful if you’d let me use it.”

Couldn’t follow her thoughts as they wandered. Her mouth widened. “To be parted from these skies…Escape the Cabal.”

Stepped away. Glared at me. “Strange man.”

Me?

She was crazy. The thieves too.

“Cut.” Pointed at my forehead, looked at my split knee. “The blood.” Reached in a ripped pocket and handed me a small black twig. “Chew. Ease your pains.”

Some kind of root. Her clothing was grubby and there were scabs on the back of her hand but I took it. Sour tasting, but if it would help…These backwater New Englanders have old remedies, in the South they have that gris-gris stuff. I took this to be the same kind of thing. They don’t mince words in coastal New England towns and they don’t save useless.

“Come. I live where the wolves won’t come to the windows. Come.”

Paul used to say no option is an option. Asked him to explain it. “Easy, you do it or you don’t. Don’t cancels your ticket. Up to you.” Told him it didn’t make any sense, he shrugged. Guess I saw his point now. Knew if I stayed here I get dead.

“OK. Lead on…Please.”

Followed the loose sway of her rags. Turned a corner went down an alley, gap of poorly hung boards and bricks no windows, not a single door inviting come inside. Smelled of smoke. Something had burned here. Didn’t know what but thought is this what death smells like.

“This way. This way.”

“Yes. I’m right behind you.”

“No time for lagging. The widow’s candle-webs…The Vacant walk. Hurry.”

Widow?

“Hurry.”

We did. Turns, rushing along black streets, each as dismal as the last. No sound no motion but our own.

What city in this part of New England could warehouse a dead zone this large? Not a single commercial building, excepting the one gas station, not a factory, nor a cathedral or church to offer heights to unfortunate and not one parked car or truck waiting to whip to faraway’s face of capacity.

None of the houses stood over one and a half stories. Not one had an open window, and every clapboard structure appeared to have been besieged by a slow savagery. Boards were age-washed gray and peeling, roof and siding shingles were chipped, curled, and missing corners yet there wasn’t a flake of paint or piece of a shingle to be seen on the ground. Overhanging eaves sagged. This wasn’t simply a case of deterioration, they looked pecked at too…All movement, every revolution of urgency or prepared seemed to be haunted away by the delirious utterances of a cadaver-voiced broom.

Another corner

approached no strewn no puddle overwhelmed and despondent

no tongue of smoke

…around another.

Dull. Absent map or landmark.

Edge-eaten light, scarce and weak in the atrocity of negation’s great black fist…

Wretched, fantasy and any glace toward sequencing’s desires flaked away, peeled, some form of bereavement the infecting reality. Situations of poor fact, loud as the notices of any persistent organization. Dingy houses, sentenced to the indifference of slow rot, soften by suffering, always on the one side of the street. The emptiness and vacant lots on the opposite side and where the sporadic, weak light touched the barren lots showed no signs of ever being animated by any sort of construction. There were piles of garbage bags in front of almost every house. I wondered how a place so dead-looking could produce so much rubbish.

Wasn’t a single house with a light on. No flicker of a TV to wet deserted with its translucent spill, not one red or blue LED light winking through a curtain. Lampposts, many leaning, every third house or so, but not even half of them were on. Many cities have found the need to be restrictive in tight economic times but this, carved by caustic, was something different.

Like all this blackness has outlawed light.

My confused readied the array of questions on perception’s chessboard; they were ascending, ready to open—

Wild-mouth voices. Chunk of poison.

Grabbed my hand. Pulled me aside before we were stained by light. Leaned in. Murmured, “Nightcrows. Bad.”

“What?”

“Ssssh. Nightcrows. The black hand of the gallows grasps.”

Handmade infernos. Crows casting gauntlet voices. Porch…a shout defending her neighbor from a homeless drunk full of an ex’s feud….”You don’t want to step on this stoop.”…Ex-very, sour: “Go anyoldwhere I want. No ratpit crack-whore tell mes ca’ints.”…kicked up to damage, no-speed-limit teeth ready for meat…not close enough to push but pushing anyway…then blind-guns drawn….one screamed lovin’ you—one barked never even asked me once—a sing-sing harmonize of four bullets seeking—goodbye heart—goodbye heartache—fuck you—fuck you back…energy transfer-red…scene changed its tongue, two cigarettes lying on the ground burning but no fingers to play their game…one flat against the wall blasted in immeasurable, fear can’t load her scream. She’s bleeding from her belly—still hungry, still struggling with hate—Gulp, no now to gather. The dark doorway is cold, silent. It does not want her back.

She took me back a block, headed a different way.

“Bad. All they kiss.”

“Where are we?”

Pulled up. Wheeled. “In it. Come. Hurry.”

“What city is this?”

“They called it Kingsport.”

“Called? What about now?”

“Bad.”

Right about that.

She was moving. I found fast to match her, wasn’t lingering in this mausoleum…Her and her new-found shadow, moving away from the salt and damp that had laced the air, rats wheeling—

Alley.

Then a street.

No session of earthly hands.

No bus—no trucks going by—not one person here to bite into with hi—no survival kit—

NO

—clean and prepared

—no takebacks

—make-up, or crowds sculpted with blue eyes, or street-wide gates with portraits that aren’t afraid of their own meadowlark

—window-shopping, voyaging into the fruit of carved suggestions

—pantheon-dazzle capturing endless seams up the back of her legs

No

No

No

Another alley. Dead. No so blue paradise shore—no bar with pink baby rose-tricks carving thrush and velvet for reckless—

Another street.

Night leaning on everything—kicking ass, murderer embracing every step of time.

Stumbled once. This much darkness is a drug, dosed relentlessly can’t keep your grasp on hard and real.

Dogged her to get to arrived.

The clock I heard earlier made another announcement. She froze. Her eyes reflected the fear that had gripped my stomach when I faced the thieves.

“Are you OK?”

Looked at me. Glared. Showed me stained teeth. Face screamed, are you mad?

“The dogs of the Cabal walk. Hurry.”

She was off. I kept pace.

“The Cabal you mentioned—what is it?”

“His congregation…We must get to the watchtower.”

“Where?”

“Away.

“Them. They seek to fill the frame. When the song ends they will rebuild their pyramids…When they are no longer quartered in the blue domes and they leave the pain of their meditations and inherit the treasure…Every thought will be a galaxy.”

Crazy and scary, eyes not a searchlight but in motion like that, maybe she was on drugs? Emaciated, sores, those eyes, could be on crack—they looked like that on TV. I should have just changed the tire and left. I would have been far away from here, wherever the hell here is, an hour ago. On my way to safe.

With Clea.

“Where’s the phone?”

“I’m taking you now.”

Wanted to say about fucking time.

Maze without a sign to read. Over ground that had never know level. Leaving the existence that had lunch, had measurable distance and order and theory. Leaving everything incandescent.

Wanted a bar, not this dumb guide dog. Phone with a voice on the other end and a drink. Wanted to be in a room with shapes my eyes had watched before.

Foundry of dust and null.

“Are we close?”

“Soon.”

Panting. I stopped. “Wait. Just a minute…Catch my breath.”

Her expression mirrored the deathbed face of a doctor.

“What are we running from?”

“Tolone.”

Didn’t get to fit in, what?

“When they first came out of The Curve it was easy they hunted humans…Men…No one can say what became of the women…Then they took what was tossed out, used what they could…But the larder is empty so they pursue.”

“Are you saying someone, thing, killed everyone here?”

“Neas. The brute glamour of his specter-touch. His flock thirsts…Comes like fog to cancel, bag what they exorcise from nerves and blood.”

“I don’t understand what you’re trying to explain.”

“Neas. He is the dreadful—his sour net blames…Mortal leaves. His jackals hunt for him now.”

“But the men who robbed me, and the drunks on the porch, they were men, people.”

“Robbers were wanderers, they come here sometime. Take what scrapes they can. There are some people here. Few. They hide. Those took the drug, the drink, they did not think. Tainted and unclean. Better dead the way they did.”

Shot is a better way to die? My expression must have said it.

“Better go that way. Neas’s jackals take all.”

“Dead is dead.”

“No. Neas won’t let you go.”

“Your soul you mean?”

Reached up, pressed the calloused tip of her pointer finger to my forehead. Tapped it several times. “The spark that dreams. Neas keeps that. Eats all till all is empty.”

Went from hot fantasy to hell to surreal blasted by madness. Swelled with the cause and effect of wild fear, my mistakes or fate was plucking everything I’d hung from the limbs of pleasurable and sane.

“Is he a man?”

“Is Neas. His face is different for every taken.”

“Every one taken?”

Nodded yes.

“And you have a haven from this destroyer?”

“The watchtower.”

“Are we close?”

“There.”

Dried out and ashy, three stories of pieced-together cement, brick, and wood leaning toward the frail display of a streetlamp that hadn’t yet forgotten to shine. Roof that hadn’t lost all its solid. Not a house. Industrial once? Barb-wire fencing edging the roof, did the barrier imply military? Still, there was no lookout. No arch or decoration. Three small windows covered in heavy wire-mesh on the third floor. Dense shadows cutting across the base couldn’t see a door to the place.

Staring at the structure it hit me, she was homeless and this was a gathering place where the dispossessed had banded together, their cave to keep out the plague of brutality that scavenged and terrorized by night. A flash of old werewolf and vampire movies from my early teens, standing before that thing I worried being dropped in a box of negligence-unto-death and worse that was not the solution to getting out of this hell.

Couldn’t see any wires running from the lamp pole to the building, yet she’d said she had a phone…

Sure didn’t like the look of the place, its façade was certainly unwelcoming. Rock and a hard place. Wasn’t keen on going in there. Place looked wrong, but out here had already showed me its teeth.

“We go in.”

Not a C’mon from her.

Followed. Found the patchwork metal-skin of a door. I was going to need to bend down to get in. So consumed by her eyes and face hadn’t noticed before how slight she was. Bent. Old people are sometimes hunched as they walk. Her, something different. More than just bent…

Scrunched up her face, made a short series of oddly clustered growling sounds in the back of her throat and the door opened. A stunted man barked, “In. In.” Tugged my sleeve.

Swallowed. Dim. Warm air. A short hallway. No hangings no adornments, not a stick of furniture…Down black staircases. Cracked, spilt old stairs, corner missing here…Kicking up dust. Pushing aside high cobwebs my companions eased right under…

Dragged forward to another set…wood gave way to stone

and dirt…

Dank air. Never liked the cellar as a kid, this smelled like it. Made my chest tighten. I shivered.

Another staircase…less stone…impacted dirt

narrowing…

Called herself Alice and she was taking me down the rabbit hole…

Last stair produced a very short corridor, maybe better called, a tunnel…

A large doorway into a large room. Three mounds of chest-high candle wax with burning candles stuck on the top near the center of the room. Mostly dim to dark. The stench in the room was overpowering.

My capacities degraded by the inadequate lighting and a slight dizziness and numbing which I believed was caused by the root, I couldn’t see the corners but the rest of the room was barren.

The doorman led us to a group of perhaps twelve, each raggedy-clothed approximations of one another excepting the slight curve of hips and unremarkable bulges of breast in several, standing by a wall laced with roots and imbedded stones. Nothing casual about the faces that put eyes to me. My breath was about to birth an earthquake, they gave me the creeps. Alice ticked her head toward me. Exchanges in a language I couldn’t fathom passed among them.

Didn’t like them, didn’t like here.

“Excuse me; you said you had a phone. Is it upstairs?”

The man who had opened the door openly laughed at me before turning to Alice.

“He sheds his last season. Prepare the harvest feast.”

Some further murmuring in a language I didn’t know.

A woman, “Sweet enough, yes.”

Hands on me. “Will fit Neas.”

“Give to Neas then receive.” Widened eyes. Doorman licked his lips. Seen kids look at candy like that.

Staring. “Every drop.” Fingers pressed to its lower lip. Fingers aren’t dirty. Not dirt and grime, reddish in this light, old blood under fingernails.

Teeth, pulled back the lips of its hungry grotesque mouth, teeth you’d see on a thing that snarls. Teeth—fangs that never took part in tentatively, made for slashing flesh.

EAT OR BE EATEN

Had it in my head. Live gets consumed. Everything gets eaten. Things get harvested to be eaten.

Light-headed. Her root must be a drug. Everything came slow. That was a boon twenty minutes ago.

Eyes measuring me.

The grinning face nearest me sniffing me. Grubby, and it sniffed me?

Faces of dead things, the gravitation of shadows not welcome in the days of flesh. They moved, what was beneath the surface moved, but the skin layered over muscle and bone was slow to follow. Hide of lesions and pockmarks didn’t seem to want to heed the cadence of muscle.

Lepers?

Nerve damage and infections did that. Made their eyes like that too. Must have.

Had too.

Alice turned her head. Part of her face didn’t adhere to the motion. Her face wasn’t her face. It was a covering, curtain hiding a pit. A mask.

Her leathery hand peeled it off.

Take dead, partly rotted, and a bone structure that was fifth cousin to something canine that was her face. Noticed her teeth too, sharp, could snap bone I’d bet.

Saw the meathook.

Her drug-root didn’t filter my thoughts. Lightning pulsations of fear walloped me. Graveyard hell. Scenes of sharp assassins that don’t bargain, some jungle of teeth offered my heart no quarter. Cut me, carve me, encase Neas in my husk—

Eat what’s left.

Hurt, cloudy, perhaps from the root she’d given me, but I got it. Wasn’t going to let their plans for history take away my time, twisted from the grip that thought to yank me from breathing.

Slash-shaped voice hissed, “The purification.”

Saw a knife—artifact of hidden ages, nothing faded or weak in its resolve.

RAN

No little by little, ran hard—arm, fist, gritty thoughts. Tongues that had trouble balancing human speech pursued me. Kept a firm grip on my pen. Wasn’t much, but it might puncture unsavory and widen any chance of getting out if I needed it.

Dim tight corridors…Up stairs, managing to keep my footing in the shadows…We hadn’t turned much getting to the room, was almost easy getting back to the door…

Unguarded. Me, dazed, if not drugged, and injured, they may have felt I wasn’t going anywhere but on the plate, that didn’t slow me.

Was out. Running down the middle of the street. If there were any people here I wanted to find one…Yelled for help.

Running. Belonging to the language of an animal, pain in my chest didn’t limit my attempt at faster…

Kept running.

Turned a corner. Broadsided. Saw the reflective bottom of a highway sign up the hill.

 

Boston 41

 

Up it—possessed, empowered—hungry for neon, clawing for height, hoping, reaching for spans of trees and a road with lights and a face saying hi leading to buildings with the shape of human and a crash of stories—

Stumbled. Twisted the tender ankle.

Pulled back. The way down—astronomer who lost the contract to his survival kit, grabbing for somewhere in reality. Freefall heat. Banged back to black…

Standing, transferring hellish amounts of pain—

Not steady.

Not getting back up the hill now.

Hide. Rest the ankle.

Lock myself in some house until I can escape. They hunt at night. I’ll hide until the glory-flight of lemon sun rises and punctures the glaze of their endgaming.

Got in a house. Dragged my ass upstairs. Small room, window on the street. Reconfigured the back of the peeling door with the measured specifics of dresser and chair and a wall mirror that held no color. Looked at the pen in my hand wished I had a deadbolt and a gun.

Sneaking glances out the window. Ears straining at the dimension below for the incandescent knock of voices. LISTENING. Impatient. No curve of mercury utterances searching…

I can see the way out.

Pause from the gel of scared. Sagging, but orbiting a dim hope.

HIGHWAY

from my window.

Car lights just flashed. Headed to Boston…Where I should be.

CLEA

—seams of her borealis-ladder going all the way up, sitting on my lap. Lightly laughing heat in my ear. Promising—”I’m not wear-

ing any panties.” Red velvet lipstick frolicking with my dream—

Not Icarus…Lights, return to gold, the tug of that galaxy—her feathery laugh full-on…Where there’s one another will come…Has too…

Will. Will.

Ankle feels better. Maybe? Grasp purposeful with human muscle…I think I may be able to reach…It

stirred by a turbulent desire—

lonely street…

Kingsport.

black wings block my view

Choiceless, the only horizon to allowed to sight. The thing’s twice the size of a man—parts of it look like scaly meat, but the wings…They’re enormous, nearly the size of a small house, a peacock fan of pulsing-black full array. A garbled thunder, voice of the hunter—the thing she’d called, Neas? “It is not ripe.” Controlled flutter down its length, something like an arm with a hand-thing pointing at me in the window.

Not…ripe?

Jackal-pack shivering. As frightened as I was. Maybe more. Heads down. Cringing. Muffled yelps and whines.

Alice Magg on her knees, forehead pressed to the pavement.

“Return it to the nest.” Sounds dry and like its mouth is full of something.

The Neas-thing rose. Just lifted like Superman in that movie. No effort. Wings didn’t flutter, didn’t do a damn thing. Shades darker than night it slowly faded into the black starless sky.

She peered up at my window. Tears born of fear. Snarled at me. Hate in her cat’s eyes. I’ve been out in cold, blizzard-force winds on the Maine shore. Nothing like this. Terror’s cold is deeper, its bite halves, halves again, shatters.

In me. In her.

Thought I’d shatter first.

Clawed hand reached up. Its curse slowly closed, you couldn’t have fit atomic particles in it. I got the message. She barked, stormed away. Pack of toxins in tow.

Sun arise.

Up the hill—steep at the top, I crawled. Got a ride. Almost jumped out in front of the damn car to stop it…

I was back in Providence before dark.

Alive. Roiling with stupid half-formed thoughts on how to stay that way.

Back in my apartment—no nest now. Can’t snub out my panic, desperation on high alert. Locked and chained the doors. Checked twice, jammed dining room chairs under the knobs. Doors didn’t have legs now. Checked every window twice. Left all the lights on.

Twenty minutes later I checked everything again.

Stared at the phone. Wondered who I could call? I remembered that Equalizer TV show. Were there people like that, some government agency you could notify? FBI goes after some of these weirdo cults. Maybe this pack was one of them? Yet, even if there were a governmental limb you could sic on it, wouldn’t be some Van Helsing with a clandestine cavalry ride up to put down the savages, and the actor from that show had been in some old movie where he got sacrificed to some ancient deity. Phone wasn’t going to provide an out.

I was burning with terror. Blood pressure through the roof, stomach churning, grace-under-pressure pinned under waves of trembling and sweat. Headed to…stripped from life. Opened. Over.

Looked at the clock. Once I watched them to regulate my affairs, kept track of departures. Will the thing even notice mine? Will anyone? Tick-tick-tick-ultraprecise repetitions-tick-tick, stupid thing changes, but nothing does. Why did we ever give clocks language? Might be the most useless device man’s ever created. Look at it when you’re in need and all it offers is empty.

I’ll be empty.

Neas said it.

Ripe is for picking. For eating.

It had already started.

No back in the world, felt like I was living in a warzone, infected, can’t close my eyes or scratch it away. Just a matter of time before the bomb falls. WHAM. I’m not ready for that shit. Give it to somebody else.

Drank to ease my nerves. Bottle of strength, hell! Didn’t help.

No longer a canvas of well-to-do. Frayed around the edges. Just grabbed any old shirt and tie. Didn’t shine my shoes. For what, their cell-to-cell repetitions of endangered? Walked through mundane’s foolish business like a zombie.

Sleep? Fuck, barely. Only thing in my eyes was tears and a trouble some thought was paranoia.

Count and revise insignificant tallies, throw stumbling reason at statistics, resolve behaviors of trivial in the zoo…Three months later, after two unsympathetic notifications, terminated for mismanagement and performance.

Only went out when I had to.

Began seeing the homeless everywhere. Skulking. Tattered, soiled, framed by what they craved, they didn’t fit.

Which one of them was part of this? That one? All of them?

Maybe this cult was everywhere. An infestation in our cities. Maybe they all preyed on us. Grabbed us when our minutes took a wrong turn or slipped. Every street was a dark theater. A factory. They let us breed. Let their herd of self-fixated, stupid and blind dream and seek and obtain until we were properly fattened.

There were shadows everywhere. All those places I walked or drove by and never noticed, or simply felt were beneath me. Black stretching. Evil. Wasn’t just lighting, wasn’t a question of urban decay. Something was in the places where the sun don’t shine.

Neas.

Waiting.

Spider. Touching the threads of his web to see if this ant or that moth was ready to unlace. Spider, unknowable hunger accelerating. The coupling—no adrift, no drowned, wound my gravity with the fever-weather of its cold river, suck and rake my shivering.

Watching. Orbiting, leaning at me.

They’re all watching me.

Bathroom mirror shares awful. Week’s stubble. Mustard stain on my shirt. I was beginning to resemble the riffraff. My apartment same. Pizza boxes. Dust. Coffee mugs in every room, some with an inch of cold left in them. Dirty and unfolded in the kitchen and the bedroom.

Down

Headaches. Mad, revolting thoughts spinning. I don’t have any memories in my head-first

Down

No safer. No decision or course, full-throated or silent, leads away from the scalding

DOWN

Not a spiral, slow descent. Terror took one piece at a time…

Came out of a grubby little mom-and-pop-mart I would never have entered four months ago. Saw her. Not someone like her.

HER

HATE scars you like that you don’t forget.

She was across the street in the mouth of an alley—like a rat, hungry black eyes, filled with violating operations jagged and noisy as fractured modern music, a rat scabbed by some obscene philosophy. Hand came up, grabbed a fistful of skin under her chin. Slid her skin-face down—OFF, and leveled that predatory smile.

Almost dropped the two bags of canned supplies I was holding.

RAN

Lock up tight! Check lock and latch and check again. Drawn curtains to blind the probing sight of wild. A hundred times I’ve thought to buy a gun…

My hermitry is forced. Fuck, I’m trapped. Lavish and its prospects have succumbed to bane and illness. No atoning or miracle will resurrect future.

My Providence is no longer a kingdom—comfortable and gold-plated no longer laugh or declare platforms of glory, God’s mercy is a puppet’s illusion, it’s a terrace of twilight. Barrington River is a sewer. Sky, cobbles and windows are streaked with other rhythms now. I hear things clomp and chitter in the shadows.

I sleep by necessity. Kaleidoscopic nightmares shred me with strange visions. Awake finds me fragile, banished from easy body functions.

My eyes live at my window, chewing cloud and street, a butcher’s knife clutched in my grip. Watch. Go out—yes, I carry my knife under my coat, when everything, every crumb, is gone and my hunger drives me to it. There are shadows everywhere, even when the sun burns with noon. I fear corners, fear I’ll be opened and absorbed at every turn.

She follows me.

I see his hag.

Cold-hearted bitch-thing makes sure I do.

One day. Soon? When? When—”FUCK!” Neas will come—

Black wings—that foaming net, hunger mouth, will open, swallow.

My phone rings. First time in months.

“You’ve come into my—” The word, bogged down in it, was like inches of revulsion spreading over me—”night.” The rattled crust of her hiss dissolves into a chasm of cold laughter.

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