Marissa Romano slowly started waking up, and she was very confused. She didn't know what had happened to her. All she knew was that she was sitting in her car; she was in terrible pain and bleeding all over. She looked up and saw that the front windshield was shattered, and there was glass all over the car seats and floorboard. She realized her head must have hit the front windshield. She looked into the rearview mirror and was horrified by what she saw. Large shards of broken glass were embedded in her face and head! Blood was dripping down from her eyes! She must have covered her face with her hands when she had the wreck because there were huge splinters of glass in her hands too. Her hands were also bleeding from all of the cuts on them. The last thing she remembered was getting into her car after stopping to get gas along a deserted country road in the woods. She had missed her exit on the highway and ended up on a country road in the middle of nowhere. She had looked down and noticed that she was low on fuel. After driving for miles and miles, she had finally stopped when she saw a gas station ahead. She remembered she was on her way to meet some of her friends for the weekend at Lake Sardis in the mountains of southeastern Oklahoma. Everything after that was still a complete blank. She didn't even know her name or who she was!
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Millie had created something dark, and she liked it. She approved of the darkness. She embraced it as she would her own mother.
She herself was dark. She knew this fact. She did not dispute it. She acknowledged it. She celebrated it.
She looked down from the open stairway landing that she stood upon. From that vantage point, she could see the entire space below her. And she marveled at what she had created there. She gazed down through the gothic stair rails at the environment that she had created.
What she had created was an invitation for the dead and those living who wished to commune with them. Only candles illuminated what she had created. Only candlelight was pure enough to light her world.
She looked down on the flame-lit scene and smiled. Bathed in the light was a table, circular, but not quite a circle. It had five sides equal in length, a perfect pentagon.
Each side had a chair pulled up to it. These were highbacked gothic things, upholstered in black leather.
They had cost Millie a pretty penny. But they were worth it. They added to the ambiance that she wished to create.
On the pentagon table sat a table cloth. It was almost completely black, as black as onyx. It was entirely black except for the crimson embroidery work that had been done upon it.
Millie looked down from her vantage point on the stairs. She looked down on this embroidered tablecloth with great pride. She herself had done the needle-work. The crimson pentagram that she had created contrasted nicely with the black fabric of the table cloth, or so she had always felt.
She gazed upon the walls of the room. They had been covered with gothic-style tapestries. These showed various medieval themes. Millie knew that none of them were authentic. They were all reproductions. They were good reproductions. To her this was what mattered. It was the atmosphere that she was trying to create.
Millie was almost completely satisfied as she stood there on the stairs, soaking in the pleasure that came from viewing her homemade lair of darkness. She estimated her internal satisfaction gage was at 99 percent.
She highly desired that elusive last percent. She knew what she would need to capture it.
She would need first and foremost to be patient. If she were patient, she knew that the final element to her room would come into place.
“Patience Millie,” she mumbled to herself. “Just be patient.”
But it was so hard to be patient. Indeed, she felt giddy like a dark-hearted school girl.
She looked at her hands. They were shaking.
She grasped the banister in front of her with both hands. She gripped it firmly. Yet, she still felt the tremors of anticipation running through her like highamp currents surging through the body of an electric eel.
She felt short of breath. She tried to control that. In through the nose, out through the mouth, she thought as she tried to regulate the exchange of oxygen for carbon dioxide in her lungs.
Despite her efforts, she felt dizzy. She must not lose consciousness. She must not fall down the stairs. Such a mishap as that would lend poorly to her goal of becoming 100 percent satisfied.
Slowly, she descended the stairs. Slowly, she more fully engulfed herself in her lair of darkness of which she was the creator. As she descended the stairs, she had the sensation of one descending into a pleasantly temperate pool.
“Patience Millie,” she chanted. “You must remember to maintain your patience.”
No matter how much she tried. She felt unable to control her body. Her lungs continued at the rate of a steel mill bellows. Her heart continued to race.
She imagined her heart beating free of her chest. She imagined it smashing through her sternum as a bullet smashes through a clay target. She pictured this in her mind and giggled. It was a funny thought. She imagined her heart sprinting around the room and touching all the dark objects. Then she suddenly realized that she was doing just that herself. She danced about. She caressed the candles. She stroked the table and chairs. She made contact with everything.
“Calm down Millie old gal. You must have patience.”
On a hook was a robe. She grabbed it and put it on. It was made of shiny black satin and caressed her already excited body, making it even more so.
Under where the robe had been, on that hook was an amulet. This she also put on over the robe. She loved this charm. It was one of her favorite symbols of darkness, a pentagram.
The doorbell awoke her from her giddy self-induced trance. The first of her guests had arrived.
As she went to the door, she felt energized. That elusive last percent had been captured. Actually, she felt her internal satisfaction gage jump to at least 110 percent.
She was barely able to stand. The excitement was overwhelming her. She reached for the door. She turned the knob.
She could hardly contain her enthusiasm as she opened the door. Her first guest had arrived. She welcomed them in.
Sewer-rat children screamed obscenities at one another and laughed. Somewhere far away, a siren wailed. Late-afternoon faces gloated down at the spectacle and faded from my view. I felt her claw my hand and heard her weep. I never did learn her name. My breath whistled through red-stained nostrils. Warm blood lazily oozed out of holes somewhere in my chest. Useless arms and legs lazily stretched out to enjoy the last of the sidewalk’s heat. Death straddled me and hummed a playful tune. I half closed my eyes and smiled back. Everything was going to be OK.
■ ■ ■
Even in a Sarjeta (the Gutter), there is always somebody lower than you.
If you’re faster or stronger, someone else pays a price. Could be money. Or favors. Could be that someone weaker pays the ultimate price: his or her life. I’m better than most people stuck here because I dream big. And dreams will show me how to escape this shithole.
The wind scattered dirt and grit, biting my face and the window’s ledge that faced out at Canto do Diabo (Devil’s Corner). The streets of the Gutter dead-ended here, where wall graffiti and littered garbage stopped and the Prodigal Son resided. I was lucky to be this close to the charity’s main building.
Lank curtains hid the waiting room. Several coffee-colored men, coughing up throaty words and inhaling Turkish cigarettes, stood outside by a front door painted red, the dark color of worried eyes. One of them looked at me as I approached. I tried not to fidget with the waxy pouch in my hand. He signaled something, and I was quickly surrounded by four pairs of uncertain eyes.
“Você fala inglês?” the one man said. He grinned, and I spotted gold bordering three missing teeth.
“Yes, sure,” I said.
His greasy thumb gestured at the other three. “These clowns don’t. So you talk to me, OK?” His accent wasn’t Portuguese. Or English.
“Sure,” I said.
I glanced at his face, spotting a tattooed circle on his left cheek. Despite his smile, I sensed something darker hiding behind the mask he now wore.
“A delivery. For him.” I placed the pouch into the gold-toothed man’s hand. My fingers touched his slimy palm, causing me to shiver for a moment.
“Come back next week.”
“What about my money?” I asked.
“Next week. You’ll get another package and your money.”
All four men stared at me. I couldn’t read their alien faces. The tattooed guy jabbed his finger at me.
“You know, I see something in you. Maybe something great, huh?”
I didn’t ask what he saw and quickly left. I decided that Devil’s Corner was not a part of the Gutter where I wanted to be alone after sunset.
■ ■ ■
I stood on Amélia’s concrete balcony and gagged. Inside her apartment, sickly sweet beans, dumped out of dented cans, cooked on a hotplate. Two half-naked children with swollen bellies rubbed messy fingers on my sister’s worn-down apron as they cried for dinner. They didn’t know anything else. This was the same meal served at breakfast. At yesterday’s dinner. And the day before. But I’ve walked by the açougue (butcher shop) and seen real meat. I’ve smelled the bloody flesh. Steak and hamburger and food that people with money could buy. I don’t want to eat beans anymore.
Scraps of faded sunlight crawled down the balcony rails, exposing lag bolts desperately grabbing at the block wall. It was a miracle I didn’t fall into the darkened alley below. I could see someone down there licking at the emptied tins we’d thrown out with the rest of the garbage. I shouted at him to get some self-respect, but he just laughed. I kept shouting.
Amélia looked out at me with worried, dark eyes. “You don’t know that man out there. You don’t know what he could do to us. Come back inside.” Both children clung quietly to her, sensing their mother’s fear. My sister tightly gripped the plastic spoon she used to stir the beans. Her eyes pleaded, seeming to say, “At least we eat.”
“I don’t need to be afraid. I don’t need this shit,” I said.
“Please, the children.”
“I’ll be a famous artist. I’ll escape. And you’ll be forgotten.”
Amélia started to cry. I stormed back to my room and locked the door. An hour later, I ignored her knock when she came to ask if I was hungry. Sleep came soon, and I dreamed that the man in the alley chased me. Then my dreams went black, and I tossed and turned the rest of the night.
■ ■ ■
I didn’t know his real name, so I called him Ben. He didn’t mind. Ben dropped my money and this week’s package onto my sister’s flimsy coffee table. I tried to figure him out. I guessed that he was about ten, only two years younger than me. I asked him where he lived.
He didn’t answer my questions. Ben just looked nervously around.
How does someone so young become a collector?
“You alone?” Ben asked.
“My sister is sewing today. She takes the babies.”
Ben wiped his nose. “That’s good. I guess I’ll come back next week at the same time.”
I pointed at the waxy paper. “What’s inside?”
“Don’t ask. And don’t steal anything.”
He looked down at my drawing pad. I had been sketching from memory a park I once saw in the middle of Avenida da Liberdade. His wide eyes studied every penciled line, every cross-hatched tree as if it were the fucking Mona Lisa or something. Ben held his breath, and for a moment he seemed to have transported himself somewhere a million miles away from the Gutter. I bet he had never seen the avenue or anything else like it.
“I take art classes. The church gives them for free,” I said.
“I couldn’t do that.”
“How do you know? Have you tried?”
“I couldn’t do it.”
“I’ll take you. Come back tomorrow.”
Ben looked over the pad once more. He blinked his eyes and swallowed hard. “Don’t steal anything,” he said. And he left without saying good-bye.
"They're surrounding us," Lucy panted, "Gotta move or we'll be cut off….."
Sarah was too winded to respond. She let herself be dragged down the causeway, then they were into a side street and another alley just as quickly. She had a few seconds to register the appearance of a dark mob at the far end, then they were back on a wide avenue and charging toward a distant rectangle of light. A knot of alphas came barrelling around the corner, so Lucy plunged her into yet another alley where she was allowed to stop just long enough to help roll a trio of garbage dumpsters across in a makeshift barricade, then her hand was back in Lucy's and they were off again at a sprint.
A secluded little alcove appeared midway down the alleyway, piled high with cardboard boxes and discarded bits of lumber, and covered over with garbage bags. Sarah assumed that it was simply one of those dead spots where the flotsam of the streets always seem to gather, but as they drew even closer, something stirred within, the mound of trash suddenly erupted, and a dirty, ragged, howling thing launched itself directly at the two of them, hair flying out in wild confusion and angry red froth dripping from its gnashing teeth.
Sarah gave a single startled yelp and lashed out a foot that caught the alpha just above the ankle, dropping it to its knees, but it didn't stay down for long. It leapt back to its feet in a flash, clawing at the air, but it had lost track of its prey, and Sarah and Lucy were giving nothing away. They both froze like statues, and as the wild thing flailed wildly about, Lucy put a finger to her lips and they both backed slowly away, inch by cautious inch. The alpha charged about in confusion, first one way, then the other, then spinning back, snorting and huffing like a wild boar. At last, it took two angry steps toward Sarah, but where anyone else might have fled, she froze defiantly in place. She drew in a deep, slow lungful of air that stunk of stale urine and vomit, then she held her breath and moved not a muscle as the creature advanced close enough that she could actually taste its hot acrid stench. The thing took one more puzzled step toward her, then it suddenly halted, silenced its incessant snorting and snarling, and assumed the familiar head-tilt.
It knew they were still there. The sounds had stopped, but the prey hadn't fled, so the alpha was waiting. Waiting for that first faint echo to give it direction.
Shane jolted from his chair, stumbled over his own feet and fell to the floor. He must have fallen asleep, but he didn’t remember doing so. He was shivering and a layer of perspiration coated his body. Though feeling shocked and unsteady, he scrambled up and glanced at his watch. Two hour had passed. Unexplainable fear gripped him. He spun around, looking for something, but what was it that he was trying to find? Whatever it was that he felt so compelled to locate was not real. He’d been only dreaming.
He tried to remember details now that he was awake, but what had seemed so vivid while he slept now appeared hazy. One word flashed from his memory: Murder. Much of him did not want to remember, but curiosity overrode his apprehension. Trying to recall was challenging, as if the dream was made from old faded photographs. Shane tried harder to filter tidbits of latent info into his mind and slowly he gained specks and pieces. It had not been a clean killing. He remembered the smell of all that blood. Through his mind’s eye, he could still see it covering the carpet of Pile Hall’s lobby. There was no blood now, but the haunting memory of it remained, choking him. He bent over with his hands on his knees, trying to breathe, but feeling strangled.
Dave’s eyes widened as he finally saw what remained of his wife. The worst part – the part that would keep him awake, screaming her name – was her eye plastered to her cheek in crusted coagulated blood. Painfully lifting his head up, he saw parts of Janet’s body littering the back lawn, sticking out of the ground like twisted creeping plants.
James 'Big Jim' Peck is a professional game hunter in Africa whose life has evolved from wartime encounters to hunting animals; but when a client is killed in a hunting expedition gone awry, he's forced to hang up his guns and retreat to his plantation in the face of an ongoing investigation.
When a rogue Cape buffalo whom villagers believe to be infused with an evil spirit terrorizes local natives, Big Jim is asked to track and kill the creature. With the help of his trusted friend and partner, Caesar Wilde, and American photo-journalist Mary Watkins, they embark on an adventurous journey through the African bush.
After a series of inexplicable deadly encounters the hunters soon realize they are up against a creature unlike any other they have hunted, and it will take all their combined experience and courage to destroy the beast...or be killed!
For Caleb and Liam, a pair of close-knit brothers who have trouble fitting in at school, the Southwest desert around their home offers a place where their imaginations can run wild.
But as their explorations take them farther from home, a sinister darkness begins to invade their happy adventures -- a darkness that is far more real than what their imaginations can conjure up. And when they collect souvenirs from an abandoned house that turn out to be powerful talismans connected to a mysterious shadow land, strange events and people begin intruding into their lives. Along the way, the brothers acquire some new friends -- including two ghosts and a reclusive neighbor -- who give them valuable insights into the darkness they are fighting.
Will the evil from the shadow land gain control over Liam and Caleb so that the doorway to Earth remains open? Or will they learn to keep the secrets necessary to survive and become free from the evil that is attempting to absorb them into its dimension?
In 1901, an innocent child was cruelly tortured, and murdered by her vengeful mother.
Twisting her once beautiful soul into something evil and monstrous.
Her name was Maisie Whitmore.
Bound forever to Promised Land Lane, she will take her revenge on those foolish enough to cross her path.
If Maisie sees you. Run, for she will never forget.
Drada Koehn is a fearless, formidable fighter ensnared in a presaged war against the northern humans. When the Speaker foretells their victory upon discovery of the name of death, she sets out to unravel the mysterious prophecy. Now, bound by duty and honor, Drada faces untold horrors with her companions, searching for what may never be found. In a story of unexpected twists, she soon finds that her resolve to see the quest done will be the fortune or doom of her people.
Kerry sat on her bed, headset on, playing her favourite video game. She was pitted against an online buddy from California. And she was kicking his ass. Her parents were asleep on the other side of the house, their bedroom door closed. It was way past midnight but Kerry wasn’t tired. She was a night owl, who’d probably sleep till the early afternoon, much to her parent’s annoyance. The room was dark, save for the light from the screen. That’s how she liked it. It made the game seem more real, like she was in a movie theatre. The top window was open a crack, letting in the sea air. She always slept with the window open, whatever the season. It had been a warm night with a pleasant breeze blowing in from the ocean. Now as she sat cross legged in a pair of joggers and vest top she started to feel a chill. She pulled the duvet up over her shoulders to keep warm. The video game was in mid battle and she didn’t want to pause it to put her bed socks and fleece on. She would do that later. She heard a cat howl in the distance, like it was squaring up for a fight. Her cat, Gizmo was out somewhere. Probably patrolling the gardens, garages, and roadway at the back of the houses she guessed. She heard another howl, making her look around at the window. It had become misty outside. Not like normal. Really misty, cold too. She paused the game, her buddy forgotten. Taking her headphones off, she slid from the bed and shuffled to the window. The mist was really thick. It seemed to stick to the glass, swirling and pulsating. She’d never seen mist like this. She shivered involuntarily, hugging herself to keep warm. She could not even make out the garage at the bottom of the garden, such was the thickness of the fog. She placed her hands on the sill to try to look to the house next door. As she did so she knocked the frame containing Jake’s buttons. They fell to the floor, landing in a muted clunk on the carpet.
“Shit,” she said, scooping them up. “What the,” she said, holding the frame. It was freezing. She set them down on the sill, rubbing her cold hand on her joggers. A deep drone from outside made her look up suddenly. She broke out in gooseflesh, hugging herself tighter. Something was wrong out there. Was it a ship’s horn? she thought. There it was again. What the fuck is it? She peered left and right, trying to see into neighbouring gardens. Nothing. It was like pea soup. She looked towards the garage at the bottom of the garden, noticing for the first time two glowing red points of light in the air. Her face looked puzzled. “What the hell is that,” she murmured. They vanished for a split second then reappeared. They looked to Kerry like far off car lights. She shuddered again, feeling increasingly cold. Something started moving on the sill. She looked down to see that the frame was gently vibrating. What the hell is happening, she thought. She watched it transfixed as it gently rotated on the white painted sill. She looked out the window to see that the red orbs seemed closer. Her heartbeat was now racing, her breathing constricted. She turned and grabbed her inhaler from the shelf, administering a double blast as she felt a panic coming on. She sighed heavily, placing both hands on the sill to try to steady herself. The frame suddenly shot left, shattering against the wall making her gasp. She pulled the top window closed and dove onto her bed, pulling the duvet all around her. She lay there shivering, her breathing hoarse, teeth chattering. She tried not to look out of the window. She buried her face in her pillow, trying to shut everything out. Something in her head was telling her to look. Something in the back of her brain was cajoling her to take a peek. She moved her head right, opening one eye. Nothing. The mist was still there though. She sat up in bed and looked at the window. She rubbed her eyes with the palm of her hands. Kerry opened her eyes, looking at the window. Looking at two red eyes, staring in at her. She could make out the shape of a head too, floating in the mist. She screamed, crashing back into the wall.
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LEJ's Louisiana, Yours Truly in a Swamp written by Leonard Earl Johnson DRAFT of Lafayette and New Orleans, Louisiana Subscribe@LEJ.org Archives: ww w.LEJ.org ~*~ ~*~
(Available at https://fineartamerica.com/featured/1-the-gift-of-life-diamante-lavendar.html) When life gets tough, it’s not so easy to see it as a gift. When we are hurt or bad things happen,