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D. Pardee Whiting
Each night I wait.
I wait in silence, in the dark.
You don’t know I am there.
Though you think you do.
The humans you call parents come.
The reassure you.
They search the room
and under the bed.
Often they look right at me,
but they don’t see.
Not with the shadows where I wait.
They pull the blanket to your chin.
They speak loving words
with a tender kiss on your head.
The woman reaches for the lamp
set next to your bed.
You beg her to leave it on.
“Just for a little while,” the man says as he turns to go.
The woman will come in later to turn it off.
I can wait.
It won’t be long.
Once it is dark—no light, no open door—
I will slink from the shadows, my hiding place,
and creep to your bed.
I must be careful, the timing just right.
Pausing, I listen.
There it is, the slow and deep breaths of true sleep.
Can’t have you wake.
I can’t come back.
Ever so slow, moving with stealth.
Akin to a cat on the hunt.
Closer now, I’m almost there.
Ah, there’s the spot.
I settle in, watching.
I watch for the twitch.
You know the one.
The twitch the eyes make
when my prey dreams.
This will be our last night together.
For tomorrow is your birthday.
You’ll be too old.
It won’t be right.
But have not a care.
Your sister is next in line.
Whether you survive is up to you.
It’s your dreams I need.
Not the happy, sappy dreams.
No, I need the good dreams turned to screams.
The dreams that turn to nightmares.
That is my food, my sustenance.
Ah, there it is, the twitch of lids.
Here, let me help you.
Let me guide you to what you fear.
That’s a good child.
Let me have your screams.
by H R Arswyd
If I close my eyes, it will go away! He thought, screwing them shut and willing with intense desperation. What is it doing here? PLEASE make it go away!!!!
He opened one eye the briefest of slits. Nope, it was still here.
What does it want? What is it? Where did it come from? GET AWAY FROM ME!!!! He screamed silently in his head.
Mom and Dad said monsters aren’t real. But if that is true, he wondered, what is the awful smell? That strange noise when it breathes? He was sure he could feel the weight of the thing on the bed, how could that all be make believe?
“You need to stop watching all those stupid horror movies, and that junk online,” his Dad had said tonight, for the millionth time.
“You know they always give you nightmares,” Mom added, “and you know what happens then, don’t you?”
Even now he felt the hot flush return to his cheeks at this, because wetting the bed was something that happened when he had the dreams about the monsters, the monsters that were under the bed, or in the closet, or in the that one corner that was darker than the others, that he could hear moving at night, and feel tugging on the bedding.
He began trying desperately to ignore it, to convince himself it wasn’t there, wasn’t real. Think of something else, think of something else, think of something else! But the more the tried to distract himself, the more conscious he was of the horrible thing that seemed so close he was certain he could feel its nasty, stinking breath.
This isn’t real, this isn’t real, this is NOT real! He started saying to himself, even as he could feel it begin to slowly move. Suddenly it touched him, and all his efforts at convincing himself it wasn’t real, vanished. A scream tore itself from his throat and the thing let out a piercing cry of its own and scuttled into the darkest corner, the one where the monsters live.
There were pounding footsteps racing down the hall, and mom and dad burst into the room. The light from the hallway lit concern on Mom’s face, furious anger on Dad’s. He flipped on the light and Mom screamed, even Dad gave a start as they saw, cowering in the corner, the hideous creature. It let out a blood-chilling wail.
“Oh my God! What IS that?” Mom gasped, “Where did it come from?”
“I-I-I, I don’t know! It was here when I came to bed!” he stuttered.
“Do something!” Mom shrieked. “Get rid of it! Kill it!”
Even Dad looked a little frightened he noticed, especially when the creature howled and raised what looked like an arm. “Stand back,” he said, stepping toward it. The thing shrieked and swung at him, and he grasped at the “arm” with his powerful, taloned, hand, bringing his sharp, heavy beak down with crushing force. He stunned the revolting monstrosity with a crushing blow to its head before snapping the jaws of his beak over its throat, breaking its neck and causing a jet of scarlet to spray over the wall like a dripping firework.
He picked up the broken, lifeless wreckage and walked out, “I’ll take this to the trash. We need to call an exterminator in the morning and show it to him and try to make sure that whatever this was, no more of them are in the house.” He said.
“Mom? Can I sleep in your room tonight?”
“Sure, honey, of course you can,” she replied, stroking his fledgling feathers.
“Thanks, Mom,” he said, hugging her and thinking, Mom’s are the best!
SONG OF THE MORRIGAN
BY THOMAS R CLARK
Jamie beat Heather with a combat boot this time. He never used his hands, she noted. It was always a shoe, or a belt. Some part of him didn’t want to touch her, as if she were an unwanted bodily excretion. He smashed the thick, hard, rubber sole into the small of her back with such ferocity soil, indigenous to Afghanistan, powdered onto the floor. The impact dropped her to her knees, crunching the collected grains of sand, her teeth clenched, biting back the tears welling in her eyes. She clenched her pentacle, hanging from a leather thong about her neck.
A Shield Maiden never cries, she reminded herself. Across her wrists, from the left to the right, were two words tattooed into her flesh: Harm and None.
Heather deserved it, of course, the punishment Jamie dealt out. She always deserved it. He’d reinforced it so often she now believed it. This time she allowed their young daughter, Meesh, to play interior designer with her Crayolas. This was his justification for kicking the shit out of her, today. Every day it was something, any infraction no matter how petty, mundane or innocuous. Jamie would beat her with something, never touching her face, then leave for the bar. He might come back home, he might not. Heather found she preferred the latter. It had been this way since he returned from his last tour of the Middle East. Something had changed him. Turned him into this.
Now Heather lay alone in their bed, her back throbbing in spasms of pain. The stiff sheets of the bed were alien and unwelcoming. She shook, sweat beading along her brow, through her blonde hair and rolling off onto her pillow. She clenched the blankets close to her body, but they did nothing to warm her chill. Her teeth chattered, rattling in her brain. She closed her eyes, flooding her vision with virtual images of each blow as they landed on her body. She shook her head violently, hoping to erase the mental playback. It didn’t work. All of this flooded her, but she didn’t cry, not once.
A Shield Maiden never cries.
Heather passed out from exhaustion.
The crow landed on the trailer’s window sill. It was a big bird, with a long black bill and talons thick as a man’s finger. Its large, onyx eyes were a void, reflecting the full moon, hanging high in the sky. The bird squawked, as if to ask a question. There was no answer.
A tin screen separated the crow from the interior of the trailer. A few well placed pecks tore it open. The bird hopped once, flapped its wings, glided into the room and onto the bed where Heather slept. Another squawk accompanied the crow hopping onto the woman’s shoulder. Her sleep was so sound, she didn’t notice the huge bird standing on her.
Nor did she wake as the bird transformed into something else.
It was still a crow, in color and other aspects. Feathers, a beak, talons, they were part of it. The head remained mostly corvine, but the body was another thing all together. The animal’s spine stretched and curved, and along with its legs and arms, had grown into something almost human with down covered breasts. It was female. The human/crow chimera tilted her head back and sang with a banshee wail.
Maighdeann-sgàith a-riamh a ‘crìonadh.
Peathraichean de thachartas.
Duchair duine ar bith…
A Shield Maiden never cries.
Sister of fate.
The creature hopped off Heather onto the floor, extended her legs and stood straight up, nearly four and a half feet tall. She walked out of the bedroom, down the hall, stopping only to observe the crayon graffiti decor. She traced the crude child’s drawings with a talon. In the dining room of the trailer, the crow woman stopped and looked down.
At her feet was a pile of sand. The pile rose, swirled and spun in the air, creating a dust devil. At first it was nothing more than a cyclone of sand. Then it took form, a demonic horned shape. The corvine creature swiped her feathered arm through the swirling sand, sending grains tumbling back to the floor, and screeched.
Heather dreamed, and in this surreal reality, she saw everything as it was. She stood upon a battlefield, a red sun hanging in the sky, casting its crimson rays across an umbral terrain of carnage. She wore a black cloak, covering her nakedness, and carried her daughter, swaddled in a gray blanket, on her bosom. Strapped to her back was a round, wooden shield.
A raven came to her, landing on her shoulder. The bird talked to her and showed her the truth. Her husband, was something else. Something… evil was in control of Jamie. Something foreign, came back with him from over there.
Deamham, the raven cried.
Heather felt her shield, heavy on her back. She felt wee Michelle stir in her arms. She looked down into her child’s blue eyes.
Deamham, the raven cried, again.
Before her mind’s eye Heather saw something grow in the distance, shadowed by the sun. It was horned, with fangs and a spiked tail. It held Jamie in its clawed hands at the shoulders, the points biting into his flesh, rivulets of blood dripping down his arms.
Heather held her sword high, the baby in the crook between her breast and the forearm upon which her shield now hung. She charged the demon, the raven flying by her shoulder. The raven drew its talons forward to strike. It opened its beak and a banshee wail erupted from within the bird…
Baby Meesh’s cries brought Heather out of her deep sleep. The memory of the battlefield still lingered as the clouds of her dreams dissipated. She sat up, wiped a film of dried saliva off her lips and opened her eyes. The sound of her daughter crying pulsated throughout the trailer.
What is wrong with Michelle? She thought and sat straight up in bed. She saw Jamie walking backward into the bedroom and wondered why he would be. Then it struck Heather. It wasn’t Meesh crying. It was Jamie. His howling screech continued without him ever stopping to breathe.
He spun around and Heather gasped in fright. His eyes were plucked out of his head. Streaks of blood had dripped down his cheeks and dried. His mouth was open, his lips pursed in an O-shape. Jamie fell to the floor, convulsed for a moment, then he stopped everything.
Behind her, Heather heard a bird’s screak. She turned her head to see a large crow sitting on the window sill. Dangling from its beak by the optical nerves were Jamie’s eyeballs. The crow stared back at Heather for a moment before tossing the eyes into the air. They swung like a pair of tether balls around and into the bird’s open bill. The crow swallowed them both and flew away.
Duchair duine ar bith, Heather heard the raven’s song in her mind.
By Jeff Brown
“I’m scared, Mrs. Lilla Mae,” Rosalie said as she crawled into the bed. Her eyes were wide blue orbs on the backdrop of her pale skin. Her light blonde hair smelled of a flowery shampoo. A flannel top and bottom covered her body. Some would say she was too old to be scared at bedtime, being thirteen and already blossoming into a pretty young woman. But they would be wrong. Bedtime is when the monster comes out; a monster that looked like a man that could have been her father.
Mrs. Lilla Mae sat on the bed, her small frame barely causing the mattress to sag under her weight. She had been plump in her younger years, but as time caught up with her, the extra pounds she carried as a young woman had worn away, cutting her into half the woman she had been. She brushed a strand of hair from Rosalie’s forehead and tucked it behind her ear. “Oh, child, don’ be afraid. Mrs. Lilla Mae won’ let an’thin’ happen to you.”
“But he’s out there. He’s waiting, Mrs. Lilla Mae.”
“Maybe, child, bu’ he ain’ got nothin’ for you. He ain’ never goin’ have nothin’ for you again.”
Rosalie shook her head from side to side. She didn’t think Mrs. Lilla Mae understood. Mrs. Lilla Mae normally didn’t stay the night over. She was the day maid, someone her mom needed to help tend the house while she was out of town on business; someone to tend to her dad, who suffered the disability of alcohol and laziness, but claimed an injured back kept him from working. Mom believed him and worried, not about his physical disability—her job more than paid the bills and allowed them a life far better than most of her peers had it—but his emotional disability. It came with a price, though. When Mom wasn’t home, neither was Dad, or at least not the Dad she knew and loved as a little girl with bouncing pigtails and little pink dresses and white shoes that tap tapped when she walked.When Mom wasn’t home, Rosalie was terrified, not of the dark, but of what night brought.
“But, Mrs. Lilla Mae, Mom’s gone and that’s when …”
The ancient woman with mahogany skin put one neatly manicured finger to Rosalie’s lips. It smelled of sweet tobacco.
“You gonna have to believe me, child. Ev’ry thing will be okay.”
“No buts, child. Mrs. Lilla Mae is gonna take care of you. You jus’ trus’ me, okay?”
Rosalie nodded, but she really didn’t believe everything would be okay. Mrs. Lilla Mae was as old as Time itself. How was she going to protect her with her slow gait and brittle bones?
“Now, we gonna do somethin’ ya momma ain’ done before.”
“What’s that, Ma’am?”
Mrs. Lilla Mae smiled, showing hints of yellow teeth behind her upper lip. “We gonna smudge ya.”
She frowned. Her brows crinkled. “What’s that?”
“Stay right her, child. I’ll be right back.”
Mrs. Lilla Mae shuffled off, her feet whisking across the scuffed hardwood floor. She left the room, leaving behind her tobacco smell, something Rosalie loved. A few minutes later, she came back. In her hands was a bundle of leaves held by brown twine. She set it on the bed, pulled the knot on the twine, releasing it. The leaves separated and unfolded, revealing what looked like green and brown sticks bound in white thread.
Mrs. Lilla Mae picked it up. Beneath it was a box of strike matches. “This be a cedar stick.”
“What’s it for?”
“Oh yes, child. You ain’ gonna have no trouble with the monster tonight.”
She set the cedar down and picked up the box of matches. She opened it, pulled out a match and closed the box. She struck the match on the sandpaper side of the box. A flame appeared with a chuffing sound and an acrid smell. Mrs. Lilla Mae set the box back on the bed of leaves, then picked up the cedar. She held it up and set the flame to the bottom of it. After several seconds, the cedar began to smoke. Mrs. Lilla Mae shook the match out and dropped it to the leaves as well.
Mrs. Lilla Mae lifted the cedar to her face and blew on it. She brushed the smoke toward Rosalie with the back of one hand. It smelled faintly of pencil shavings and fresh urine. It wasn’t terrible, but it didn’t have the best aroma.
“Yuck,” Rosalie said and pinched her nose. “That stinks.”
“Hush, child,” Mrs. Lilla Mae said. “This ain’ for ya. It’s for the monster.”
Mrs. Lilla Mae ran the cedar along the bottom of the bed, then shuffled her way to the closet. She opened the door, ran it along the floor there and up the door jamb. She made her way back to the bed, set the still smoldering cedar on the bed of leaves. Slowly, she rolled the leaves around the cedar and then retied the twine. Again, she went to the open closet, set the cedar on the floor.
“Ya do your job, now, an’ protec’ this youngin’.”
Mrs. Lilla Mae partially closed the door, leaving it open a good half foot.
“You’re not closing the closet door?”
“Oh no, child. It nee’s to be open.”
Mrs. Lilla Mae grabbed the ends of the sheet and blanket and pulled it over Rosalie’s legs. “Lay on down.”
Rosalie did as she was told and Mrs. Lilla Mae pulled the linens all the way to her shoulders. “Ya gonna be okay, child. I vowed to ya momma, and I keep my vows.” She leaned down and kissed Rosalie on the cheek. The smell of sweet tobacco was stronger and Rosalie smiled. Her world started to dim along the edges and she wavered just outside of sleep.
“Go on and sleep, child. Ya gonna be safe.”
Rosalie felt herself falling into the grayness of sleep. But there was something in that sleep with her, something green and scaly and feathery, and somehow, very cold to the touch. Then, she was under completely.
She woke. Something, some sound had roused her from the world of dreams and her dream had been one where she slept, tucked beneath the sheet and blanket, a smile on her face and no worries in her heart. On the bed with her was a large creature like a skeletal bird, its wings not quite bare of feathers, its backbone exposed. But it was green and it smelled roughly of pencil shavings and fresh urine. And it stared at her with a mother’s love.
But the noise had woke her and the creature vanished, leaving behind its somewhat bitter scent. Her eyes opened and she tried to focus them in the gray darkness of the room. Something was in there with her. She couldn’t see it, but it was there. Rosalie blinked several times, hoping her eyes would adjust, but also hoping she was wrong about something being in there with her.
The noise came again. Heavy footfalls, not quite dragging or shuffling the way Mrs. Lilla Mae did, but heavy and plodding; the sound of boots. Rosalie’s heart stopped, as did her breath. She lay on her back and stared toward the bedroom door. Though it was closed and no light shone in beneath it from the hall, she knew that was the direction the noise came from. And she knew what the noise was.
The monster was in there with her, the one with her dad’s face and hands, but it wasn’t her dad. No, it was the other Dad, the one who liked the bottle and to do things with her when Mom wasn’t around. He took a couple of steps forward, then stopped. Rosalie could see an outline of him now, the way he wavered from side to side, his hands down at his sides. He was staring at her with his monster eyes. If the light was on, she would probably see drool trickling from one side of his mouth. She shuddered at the image in her head.
Tears formed in her soft blue eyes. Heat filled her face as fear—not of the dark, no, never of the dark—swelled behind her budding breasts. She tried to keep her breaths even, tried to pretend she was asleep. Maybe if he thought she was, then …
She tensed. His voice was rough and he had slurred the S in her name. Her breath stuck in her throat. It was loud in her own ears and she was certain he heard it.
“Rosalie?” His hand touched her leg, just above her ankle.
She wanted to jerk her leg away and curl into a ball, one so tight he couldn’t pry her legs open once he ripped her pajamas free, but she didn’t. She couldn’t. Moving was impossible. She clutched tight to the blanket as tears spilled down the sides of her face. She wanted to scream for Mrs. Lilla Mae to come save her, to protect her like she said she would, but her voice was as paralyzed as the rest of her body.
His hand moved up to her knee, then beyond it until it came to rest near the top of her thigh. He leaned down, patted her leg several times and whispered her name. The stench of alcohol overrode the pencil shaving and urine smell, and Rosalie gagged. She couldn’t help it.
The monster roared and ripped the linens away, ripping off one of her fingernails in the process. He grabbed at her pajamas and Rosalie screamed. One hand lashed out, catching him on the arm. A growl tore from the monster with her dad’s face and suddenly her head snapped to the side. The left side of her face stung and the buzzing in her ear was loud. Even through the ringing she could hear her own screams off in the distance.
“You stop screaming, Rosalie. You stop screaming or I’ll make you stop.”
His hands went around her throat. Her windpipe closed and suddenly she couldn’t breath. She felt his weight on top of her, his legs straddling her hips and his hands squeezing harder and harder. Her eyes bulged and her tongue jutted from her open mouth. She struck his arms with her hands. White dots appeared in her vision and pressure built in her face. It felt as if her head would explode.
Then, as suddenly as he was on top of her, choking the life from her, his hands released and his weight disappeared. She heard the loud sound of something crashing into the wall, but she could only roll onto her side and clutch her throat. She took big gulping breaths, trying to get oxygen into her air-starved lungs.
The monster with her dad’s face screamed, and this time he sounded like Dad. She shook her head, trying to force away the throbbing in her skull but only making it worse.
The monster screamed again, but there was something else mingled in with it. Was that the smell of something burning. She sat up, sniffed the air. The earlier smells of pencil shavings and fresh urine were stronger now, almost to the point of reeking.
“The cedar,” she said and stood from her bed. Her head swooned and she almost fell to her knees. Instead, she braced herself on the bedpost until the wave of dizziness passed.
The monster screamed, but now she could see him. His clothes were on fire, as was his hair and arms. He swung balled fists at something large and … bird-like, something skeletal that still had a few feathers on its wings. Its beak was like a large talon and it jabbed at the monster.
The bedroom door swung open, the knob striking the wall hard enough to produce a hole and get stuck in the sheetrock. The light came on, flooding the room in a yellow glow. Mrs. Lilla Mae stood in the doorway, the blue top and long gray skirt she wore the day before still on. She didn’t look as if she had been asleep or even laying down. She also didn’t look surprised to see the monster on the floor and the wall bashed in where his body had been slammed into it; his hair burned completely off. She didn’t look surprised to see his skin smoldering, and acrid smoke billowing up from him. She didn’t look surprised to see the odd green and brown skeletal creature that could have been a bird or a lizard with smoking fingers, and its beak nibbling down on the monster. No, she didn’t look surprised at all. The small smile on her face was one of delight and satisfaction.
Rosalie gave the monster with her dad’s face and the … other monster a wide berth as she ran to Mrs. Lilla Mae. She hugged the old lady tight, burying her head in her bosom. “What is that … that thing?”
“Nothin’ but the cedar, child. Nothin’ but the cedar.”
“But it’s …”
The ancient woman put her arms around Rosalie, stroked her hair and whispered, “Hush, child. Let the cedar do its job.”
As Rosalie listened to the sound of the monster’s body burning away, and the cedar eating its skin, she could no longer smell the heavy odor of pencil shaving and urine of the cedar. No. It was drowned out with the aroma of sweet tobacco …
Though I had no real idea who the woman was, there was no doubt in my mind what she was. For years, for as long as I could remember, the neighborhood children had whispered and murmured when adults could not hear, claiming the old, abandoned Lyndhurst mansion was haunted. By what, no one seemed able to agree, but whether it be human or phantom, the dead come back to life or a drinker of blood, something lurked in the decrepit, decomposing ruin.
Upon seeing the woman now, as a nearly grown girl of seventeen, I knew none of my peers had gotten the story quite correct. This woman was no ghost, though I wouldn’t swear under oath she was completely human, either; for there was a sense of otherworldliness swirling about her like mist, a haziness that kept her just a step apart, as if she might vanish in an instant, as though she’d never been. And though the scent of rot–of death–hovered in the air, assaulting my nostrils like the burn of too much bleach, it didn’t come from her. This was no zombie, intent on devouring my flesh, nor a vampire, parched for my blood.
This, most evidently, was a witch.
Before I had landed my fist on the front door, it had swung open with a high-pitched creak, revealing a dark foyer shrouded in dust and cobwebs. I shuddered as something scuttled away into the shadows, swallowed the hard lump in my throat, and managed something akin to a croak.
“Don’t just stand there gaping, child. Either come in or go away.”
Common sense told me to turn around and leave, preferably at a run, but the memory of Lydia Lincoln stealing my bra and tossing it into the boys locker room had me gritting my teeth, locking my spine, and stepping toward the woman.
She stood in the open doorway of a room off the foyer, hunched and cloaked. Her hair hung in ratty tangles around her shoulders, a tattered and dead thornbush, framing a face dry and wrinkled as a prune. Shrewd eyes sparked with life and watched me too closely; knowledge bloomed in their depths, and I was sure she knew every secret I’d ever harbored. A slow grin split her lips, revealing teeth black with rot. Before I could speak, she chuckled; her breath wafted between us, and bile rose in my throat at the combination of wet soil, mildew, and black licorice.
The need to gather my courage with a deep breath warred with the desire to block out the woman’s putrid scent; the result was an odd sort of screechy hiccup which led to a coughing fit. As I fought to catch my breath, I choked out a short sentence.
“My name is Melanie, and–”
“I know who you are child. And I know what you want.” She stepped toward me then, hand outstretched, fingernails torn and jagged. Taking my chin with a surprisingly strong grip, she studied first my right profile, then the left. “Well, well, you are a pretty girl, aren’t you? But there’s a blackness in your heart, isn’t there? Bit of a stain on your soul, eh?”
I jerked away from her, my heart pounding.
“You know what? This was a bad idea. I should go.” I hadn’t taken a full step when her next words froze me in place.
“I can give you what you came for.”
Against my better judgment, I looked back over my shoulder.
“The key to Lydia Lincoln’s humiliation. And to anyone else’s. Everyone else’s, if you so choose.”
“How do you …?”
“You knew the answer to that before you got here, else you never would have come. Do you think I don’t know the things children whisper about me around town? If only they knew how close–” She shrugged then, “and how far they are to the truth. Now, do you want my help or don’t you?”
She turned and disappeared then. I knew I shouldn’t follow her. Something deep inside me told me I’d regret it. But all it took was remembering how’d I’d had to go the rest of the day without a bra–the comments, the stares and snickers, the endurance of Mr. Reynolds’ interrogation–as if I’d been the one at fault–while he was sure to get a good glance in–and my resolve turned to stone.
Lydia would pay. They all would.
Sitting on the edge of my bed, I stared down at the shoe box in my hands. The witch had given me strict instructions not to look inside it.
“Each night, before you go to sleep,” she had said, “hold the box in your hands and whisper the name, if there is one, of the person on whom you wish vengeance. Then slip the box beneath your bed and leave it until the next night and the next name.”
“What’s inside it?”
“Never you mind that. It’s not for you to know. Know only that those you name will suffer, as they’ve made you to suffer.”
“No. What is inside is not for you. It is for the ones you wish to hurt. The ones who’ve hurt you. Never look inside this box. There will be no help for you if you do.”
“And … What should I do when I run out of names?”
“If you run out of names.”
“I’m sure I’ll run out of names.”
“Then let the box lay. Leave it until you have need of it.”
“But what if I no longer have a need for it?”
“Then bring it back if you wish. Keep it just in case. Hide it under someone else’s bed. Time won’t divulge it of its purpose. Should you wait fifty years to speak a name, the result will be just the same. Do with it what you wish.”
“And you’re sure you don’t want anything from me in return?”
She’d smiled then, a knowing expression, and said only that all prices were paid in time. Cryptic, and more than a little disconcerting, if I was being completely honest. But the hurt in my heart was too fresh and my admittedly vindictive nature too strong to deny. Lifting the box to my lips, I closed my eyes and let my breath wash over it.
“Lydia. Lydia Lincoln.”
For a split second, I imagined the box warmed against my skin. My fingertips tingled. With a quick mental shake, I shoved the box beneath my bed and slipped under the sheets. Grabbing my phone, I quickly set my alarm and chose my favorite online radio station. As I drifted off to the notes of The Last of the Mohicans score, I could’ve sworn I heard the fluttering of wings.
I dreamed, though when I woke I couldn’t remember what I’d dreamed of. I dressed quickly, anticipation leaving me equally giddy and apprehensive. If what the witch had told me proved true, today I’d get even with Lydia for her cruel prank, and she’d never know I was behind it. Whatever it was. With a quiet chuckle, I tossed my backpack over my shoulder and headed downstairs to grab some breakfast. I couldn’t wait to find out.
I shoved my chemistry book into my locker, exchanging it for American literature. As I grabbed my notes and elbowed the locker door shut, my phone vibrated against my thigh. Reaching into my jeans pocket, I pulled it out, punched in my password, and swiped through my notifications. I had a new text message. From Ben Brickman … Weird. The only reason I had Ben’s number saved to my phone was because we’d been lab partners last semester and occasionally had to get together for outside work. We didn’t run in the same social circles, though, and he’d certainly never sent me anything after the semester–and our required class time together–ended.
Tapping the icon, I brought the message up. Halting in my tracks, I nearly dropped everything in my arms. Watching the video now playing on my screen, I eventually registered the gasps and giggles surrounding me. I looked up to find everybody around me glued to their own phones, their looks of shock mirroring my own as they watched what I was sure was the exact same video.
I looked back down at my phone.
A thrill shivered up my spine. Ho. Ly. Shit.I almost didn’t believe what I was seeing. Lydia Lincoln was deep-throating the hell out of some guy’s very large dick. My cheeks burned, and I fumbled with my phone, trying to decide whether or not to close the video. I’d seen enough … But then I registered the name rippling into an echo down the hall.
I couldn’t help myself. I looked back down, and sure enough, there was Billy’s acne-pocked face grinning into the camera as he panted and groaned and panned back down to his thrusting hips and Lydia’s head of blonde curls.
No. Fucking. Way. How …? Why …? So many questions swirled in my brain. This was so much worse–and better–than I could’ve hoped for. Lydia was the head cheerleader. Blonde and buxom. Popular. Rich. Dating Josh McDaniels, quarterback of the football team. I mean, she was the epitome of high school royalty, a cliche brought to life. So why on earth was she giving head to the president of the school’s D&D club? The son of the local garbage truck driver and quite possibly the least attractive guy enrolled at Kennedy High.
I couldn’t deny the surge of pleasure coursing through my veins, paired with the urge to laugh out loud. This was absolutely perfect! There was no doubt in my mind–how could there be?–Lydia’s reputation was permanently fucked. Served the bitch right.
The shrill squeal of the bell pealed through the halls, causing a flutter of movement. Students shuffled and shoved, trying to get to class on time while still staring at the solid gold gossip grub playing out on their phone screens. Shoving my own phone back into my pocket, I hugged my books and ducked through a couple of back hallways, showing up to American Lit with only a few seconds to spare. Settling into my customary seat in the far back corner, I prepped my notes and fought the need to grin when a hush settled over the room. I looked up in time to see Lydia cross the threshold into the room.
Snickers filled the silence, accompanied by couple of snorts. I hunched my shoulders and ducked my head, staring up from beneath my eyelids. Lydia’s cheeks burned. Her eyes welled. She headed toward her seat while resolutely avoiding anyone’s gaze but the floor’s. She hadn’t made it five steps when the door swung open again.
“Ms. Lincoln? I’d like to see you in my office, please. Now.”
Resignation flooded Lydia’s face as she turned back toward Principal Reynolds. She trudged through the door he held for her, and I was sure she missed the predatory glint, the hint of thrill, in his gaze.
I didn’t. I recognized it; I’d seen it in the not-so-covert glances he’d sent at my breasts a few days ago. Fury bloomed at the memory. Lydia deserved every bit of humiliation she’d suffer for her poor sexual choice; she didn’t warrant Mr. Reynolds’ less-than-subtle, pervy advances anymore than I did. Abruptly, I knew the next name I’d be whispering to the box beneath my bed.
Gambling debts. Paying prostitutes. Documentation of sexual favors he’d demanded from students in exchange for lighter punishments or better grades. The media had a field day with ex-Principal Reynolds after the cops showed up to arrest him a few days later, smackdab in the middle of third period. Apparently, they’d been building a case against him for a while.
I watched the news coverage with relish. Dude was going away for a long time; served him right for being a douchebag pervert who took advantage of teenagers. I wasn’t sorry, even a little bit.
As the days and weeks passed, a streak of vengeance blazed through our little town. Any time I felt wronged, no matter the severity, I pulled out the mysterious box beneath my bed. I’d developed a soft obsession with it, sometimes stroking and petting it before I’d whisper yet another name into its ear. I’d yet to dub it “my precious,” but I understood the compulsion. Whatever lay within this box, it had given me the power of an avenging angel, without having to put in any of the effort or take on any of the responsibility, and that power made me bold … and reckless. But I was too drunk on the concoction of personal justified vindication to notice or care.
My dreams turned vivid. Sometimes they depicted clear events, often premonitory, and other times were more abstract. But always they featured a large winged creature; an aviary beast both skeletal and feathered, with a deadly beak, glinting talons, and deep, rolling chasms that served as eyes. At times, it glided ominously over stark, lifeless landscapes, cawing maniacally. In some dreams it merely perched at the edges of my vision, nothing more than a sinister presence that nevertheless loomed large. Like a vampire might morph into a bat, this creature put me in mind of a grim reaper turned raven; ever present, it was evident my dark avenger flew on petrified wings.
The foreboding overtures sprouting from the endless rubbing of my less-than-typical magical lamp should have been fairly obvious. Hindsight is 20/20, afterall. But I was too caught up in how thrilled I was with the turning of the tides. I never actually expected death to enter the picture, though. When it did, I realized I’d perhaps taken my need for revenge too far. But by then, it was too late. My fate was sealed.
I noticed the somber atmosphere radiating through the halls as soon as I walked into the school. Something was off … Something was wrong.
Students huddled in small groups, quiet murmurs creating a chorus of echoes as I moved past, heading for my first class.
“Did you hear?”
“It’s not possible.”
“ … video must have been too much.”
“Can’t believe it.”
“I heard it was pills …”
“No, slit her wrists. Fucking bloody mess.”
“Who found her?”
“I don’t know …”
Anxiety bloomed in my chest as I arrived at my classroom, set my books on my desk, and sank into my seat. An uneasy weight settled on my shoulders as an image flashed through my mind; the avian beast crouched over a dessicated corpse, ripping decayed flesh from bones, picking them clean. I rubbed my thighs, my denim jeans itchy beneath my fingers. My breath quickened. Beads of sweat broke out across my forehead; I fought the urge to swipe at them.
I had to get out of here. Now. Whatever–whoever–it was … I didn’t want to know. I jumped up, grabbed my books, and raced toward the door. I made it halfway down the aisle before Mrs. Allen walked in, her face solemn.
“I’d appreciate it if you all please sat and gave me your full attention.”
I had no choice. Reluctantly, I turned back and found my seat. Clutching my books to my chest, I sucked a breath in and held it. Barely aware of it, I rocked back and forth, ever so slightly, my muscles locked as I waited for Mrs. Allen to continue.
“Class, we–the teachers and staff, that is–we’ve just been informed by her mother and father that Lydia Lincoln passed away last night.”
A collective gasp filled the air; almost immediately a handful of students asked the obvious question.
Mrs. Allen nodded, folded her hands in front of her, and swallowed. “She … ah, she… it appears she committed suicide.”
Quiet conversation immediately broke out throughout the room. Murmured exclamations mixed with regretful sighs and muttered denials. Mrs. Allen raised her hands.
“Class, please. Class! I know this must come as quite a shock. It’s never easy to lose one of our own. I’m sure you’re all aware of the existence of a certain video, and the rumors surrounding it have been extremely difficult both to avoid and to keep at a minimum. That being said, it is my hope that you will all handle this situation with the utmost dignity and civility, out of respect for Lydia and moreso, for her family. The circumstances are tragic all around; please remember that, and act accordingly.
“In light of that, classes have been canceled for the rest of the week. Anyone who would like to leave for the rest of the day needs to have a parent or guardian contact the school and sign you out. Also, please know that the guidance counselors are available for grief counseling to anyone who feels it necessary. Circumstances like these are never easy to deal with, and the teachers and staff of Kennedy High want you all to know that we are available as a resource to you in whatever capacity possible. Now, if you have questions, I will try to answer them as best as I can, and though it goes against policy, I give you all permission to use the cell phones I know you all carry to contact your parents, if you wish.”
I sat there, stunned and sick to my stomach. Lydia … dead? We’d never been friends, it was true. Frankly, she’d been an outright bitch to me most of the time. I’d wanted to get back at her for what she’d done to me. But had I wished her dead?
And why else would she have killed herself? There was no reason. Nothing besides the video that had gone public because I’d whispered her name into a shoebox, desperate for revenge. I’d killed her … No, I hadn’t held the razor, or the gun, or the pills, or whatever she’d used to accomplish the deed, but there was no doubt in my mind. Even if no one knew it but me, I was the reason she was dead.
My stomach heaved, and bile rose in my stomach. Without saying a word, I seized my books and sprinted for the door, ignoring Mrs. Allen’s protest. I barely made it into a bathroom stall before I chucked up my entire breakfast of bacon and scrambled eggs. After several moments the heaving finally ceased, and I managed to regain my feet. Slipping out the door, I headed toward one of the less trafficked entrances to the school. Screw waiting for one of my parents to sign me out.
I was leaving now.
I sped toward my house, running several stop signs on the way. Luckily for me, the cops seemed to be preoccupied with other things, and I made it home in record time. Racing into my bedroom, I tossed my backpack onto the floor, dug the accursed shoebox out from under the bed, and headed right back out of the house.
I drove toward the Lyndhurst mansion like a bat out of hell. I had no idea what that woman had put inside this box, no clue what or how she’d managed to breathe life into my need for vengeance, but however or whatever it was, I no longer wanted any part of it. There was blood on my hands, and I feared I’d never be able to wash them clean.
Reaching the lane up to the dilapidated old place, I slammed on the brakes, threw the car into park, and leaped from the driver’s seat. Reaching into the passenger side, I clutched the box and swiftly made my way up to the house.
I knocked on the door once, twice, shifted from foot to foot as I waited for the old woman to answer.
The door remained shut, and no one appeared.
Glancing around and seeing nothing, I reached out, twisted the knob, and threw the door open. Once again I heard that grating screech as hinges protested, revealing that same dark, dusty foyer with too many shadows and no sense of welcome.
I stepped inside, first hesitant and then, when the witch didn’t show herself, more determined. I strode into the room where she’d been when I first came here. Then, it had been lined with shelves full of jars and bottles filled with differing herbs, brews, and concoctions. A large table had dominated the middle of the room, on which had sat a good-sized cauldron, a pestle and mortar, a variety of scissors, knives, and other cutting tools. Dried plants had hung from the rafters, and a fire blazed in a fireplace on the far wall.
Now the room stood empty, everything gone as if it had never been. Dust coated the floor so thickly my feet left footprints as I stepped over the threshold.
“Is anyone here?” My voice echoed through the vast space with nothing to bounce back on. No one answered back. Turning a circle, I huffed, straightened my spine, and ran back into the foyer. Glancing around, I headed for the next open room I could see.
I raced through one room after another; when I’d made it through the entire first floor and found nothing, I sprinted up the stairs. It was as empty as the first.
Dammit. Where was she?
I trudged back down the stairs, shoulders hunched, head lolling with the movement. She had been here. I’d seen her, talked to her. I had this damn shoebox to prove it. So where had she gone?
I realized I didn’t care what had happened, where she’d gone. One thing was for sure, though: I wasn’t taking this fucking box with me. Dropping it on the bottom step, I headed for the door. Whatever she’d put inside, it could stay here and rot like the rest of the house.
My hand was twisting the doorknob when a rhythmic thumping reached me. I paused, tossed a look over my shoulder.
What the hell?
The box danced along the bottom step, then bounced off and fell to the floor on its side. It continued to move, bucking and ricocheting against the hardwood slats. I leaned away as it moved in my direction, then took a hesitant step toward it as it came to a stop.
No. Don’t do it. Get out of here while you can.
The box jiggled, then stilled. I stepped again.
What are you doing!?
The box had never moved on its own, not since the moment the witch had given it to me. Which meant something was now inside.
A mouse probably chewed its way into the box. Or a cricket. Some sort of insect. Whatever.
I wanted to know what it was.
Damn it to hell and back, who the fuck cares!? Just turn around and leave!
But I couldn’t. Until now I’d never once felt the need to disobey the old woman’s instructions; suddenly, I couldn’t ignore the desperate compulsion. I had to open the box!
Before I could try further to talk myself out of it, I dove across the remaining distance, scooped up the box, and ripped off the lid.
Inside lay the petrified body of a bird, its wings black and thick, like tar. Studying it closely, I thought it most resembled a pidgeon, though I couldn’t know for sure without any true to life color to compare it to. It reminded me of a time I’d seen a magazine article with pictures a photographer had taken at Lake Natron in Africa. He’d found the bodies of several birds and animals that had died due to the alkaline water of the lake; posing them in lifelike positions, he’d photographed them, creating the illusion of the living dead. The zombies of the animal kingdom.
This bird fit right in.
As I stared at it, it opened its eyes and looked straight at me. With a screech, I dropped the box, took three quick steps back, and promptly tripped over my own two feet. I fell backwards, slamming my head against the dusty, wooden floor. Pain exploded behind my eyes and my teeth clacked against each other, catching the tip of my tongue between them. The metallic tang of blood filled my mouth as stars danced in my vision.
With a groan, I shook my head, rolled to my side and sat up. The bird perched on its legs less than three feet away, fluttering its wings and squawking. As I watched, it hopped towards me, its dead eyes dissolving into a swirling maelstrom of inky blackness.
“No … no, please …”
I tried to crawl away, but dizziness washed over me, and I slumped back to the floor. A moment later, sharp talons poked through the thin material of my t-shirt, gripping my shoulders. A pointy beak grazed the edge of my ear, and everything went eerily silent.
I couldn’t hear my own shallow pants. I could still feel the pounding of my heart in my chest, but the sound of it had faded from my ears. The quiet was heavy, unnatural. And then, out of the ether, came a deadly, malicious whisper.
“Justine … Roberts …”
Terror spiked through my heart as I heard my own name. Reaching out, I shoved the bird off my shoulder, looked around, and froze in horror. The bird grew and morphed. Before my eyes, it became the monster from my dreams; the winged demon I suddenly realized was the carrier and deliverer of my vindictive retaliation.
I’d given it Lydia’s name. It, in turn, had given Lydia the humiliation I felt she deserved. Humiliation that had led to her death …
First three feet tall, then six, and finally nearing ten, the creature spread its wings, covered in dead and molting feathers, and let out an unholy shriek. I screamed, my throat burning as I eventually ran out of breath. Yet the scream continued, my muscles locked around it, my eyes bulging as the monstrous bird bore down on me.
Flapping its wings, it lashed out at me, knocking me flat and leaving me bloody. It jumped onto my calves, then clawed its way up the back of my thighs and across the small of my black. Fire raced down my body as skin split and blood flowed. I thrashed, trying to throw it off me, but it was far too strong. Suddenly, a stabbing pain ruptured first one shoulder blade, then the other; the bird had wielded its beak like a butcher’s knife, impaling my shoulders, then ripping sinew and marrow free.
I burned, reduced to nothing more than a pit of hellfire. My eyes melted in their sockets, leaving behind black holes that sucked in everything and nothing around them. Blinded, my other senses heightened. The scent of charred flesh melded with that of wet decay–mildew and muddy autumn leaves and compost–choking me and making it impossible to breath. Wind howled around me, so high-pitched and malicious my eardrums shattered, adding yet another layer of pain to the utter agony enveloping my body.
My scapula elongated and tore free from the muscles holding them in place, bursting out from my back and spreading wide. A thousand pinpricks punctured my skin, along my arms, legs, my neck, face, and scalp, my stomach and back. The bones of my toes fused, then stretched, three forward and one completely backward, causing everything in my legs to shift and twist, and rip and tear. Force exploded behind my nose, shooting free of my face, then hooking back and locking into place.
I couldn’t see. I could no longer hear. I was nothing more than a quivering mass of utter anguish. Weakly, I tried to move. My body flopped, somehow at odds with my mind, unable to follow the mental directions I gave it. I tried to plant my hands, somehow lift myself up, but I couldn’t. My fingers felt completely unlike themselves; soft and pliable and bendy, they slid right out from under me, and I collapsed fully onto my chest.
I let out what should have been a groan; it took me several seconds to realize I could once again make out sounds, and the only one reaching me was a weird sort of cooing.
Suddenly, the ground shook beneath me, once, twice. And again. I shuddered, the quaking causing further abuse to my already mangled body. Then, two hugely giant hands slid under me and lifted me from the floor.
“I warned you never to open it.”
The witch’s chuckle was the last thing I heard as she slipped me into a small box and shut the lid.