“The Old Gods are Still Here…”
In a pink sky, the sun was the color of bad blood. It was ascending now, reborn. It took no notice of the screams, and neither did any other stars. They were as indifferent to this as they were to rape and the fall of nations. So was the world. It didn’t disturb sacraments such as these; not with the cawing of crows nor the bright, gleeful sound of small birds. If it was a crime to God, then his planet was an accomplice.
Brittle walls, grey and made thin by time, concealed the act. An old toolshed perhaps, yet if it was, then it had lately taken to more sinister uses. Screams of agony burst from a broken throat, loud and cracked, then bled into silence like a struck string. It was the last, and a horrible, gurgled breath followed it. Somehow, that was worse.
For someone, all had fallen still. A woman appeared amidst rows of corn, young and elegant, but as naked as when she slid from her mother. As bloody too, for her skin glistened red and black in the new light. She made no sound as she crossed the lawn, almost as if she floated above it, yet the ancient door creaked on rusty hinges as she pushed it open.
He was waiting for her. Unsettling blue eyes set upon hers, and his lips stretched into a grin. He had a charming, friendly and inviting face. Had his arms not been covered in blood, or for the fact a fresh corpse swung from a hook behind him, he might’ve passed for a kind uncle. He was proud of her. After all, this was her first time.
“Is it ready?” She mused, voice strangely detached, but the man found nothing odd about her tone. His smile grew wider and he offered a single, deep nod. Her own smile surfaced then, eyes lighting with a deep, glinting greed which jagged against her soft features, and made her look slightly like a wolverine.
In the next breath, she spoke six words. As she said them, the sun burst over the treetops, flooding their part of the world with orange brightness, and yet nature seemed to shiver in disapproval.
“Then let us partake in communion.”
She had that look. Chris recognized it all too well, he’d seen it off and on over the last twenty-five years after all. It was not her own, or maybe she’d made it her own, but originally it belonged to her mother. He’d never known what to tell his wife in those moments and his daughter made it even worse. She’d perfected that holy female craft.
“So…” He began tentatively, and when this was met only with silence, he decided to push on. “School’s going okay?”
“What was it again, English major?”
He swallowed and felt something stuck in his throat. It was probably his heart. Itching on his forehead forced his hand off the gearshift for a moment. Sweat everywhere, every crevice of his body. It was unpleasant, making the already uncomfortable ride worse. Marcy was the only woman who made him nervous, afraid of fucking up. Yet that’s what he always managed to do. Every time was worse, increasing the space between them which was already oceans wide.
She was here, right beside him, yet she might as well have been picking rocks on the moon. Sixteen years old, where the fuck did all that time go?
“How’s your mother doing?”
“What’s he like… that… Jackson?”
“Mark… he’s cool.”
But it wasn’t good. He didn’t deserve her anymore, he knew that. Still, the thought of her heart belonging to someone else made him yearn for the end of a bottle. Sometimes it was too hard to resist. Like September last year when he’d – in vicious stalker mode – had parked down the street from the house which had once been their house. He’d seen them come back, seen her wearing that gorgeous red dress he’d given her for her thirty-first birthday. When the steroid junkie had pressed her against the car, kissed her and let his hand slide underneath that silky crimson fabric, Chris had been forced to look away.
There was no way Jackson, Mark or whatever, could have known he’d been watching, yet it felt like a message.
I’m going to fuck her tonight, you just feel free to watch. Grab a beer, enjoy yourself!
Minutes later he’d been at Bernie’s. He’d ordered a double whiskey and stared at it as if he’d forgotten what it was. When his tears finally fell, he’d been unable to think of a reason not to. The program could go fuck itself. He drank, then he drank some more. At some point, someone had been offended. He could no longer remember how or why, but while the love of his life was giving his replacement a happy ending, he’d been visited by the grim reaper.
Someone had smashed a bottle on his head and split it half open. He’d spent four days in the hospital. Another week on sick leave, mostly doing exactly what the doctors told him not to. He’d been drinking. Again, there had really been no reason not to. Neither of them had come to visit, even though he knew they’d heard. That was the worst part.
It had taken him another three months to realize there was a reason not to. The first love of his life would never return to him, but perhaps he still had a chance with his second. Marcy, whom everyone except her mother just called Mace. It didn’t take a genius to see she wasn’t the happiest kid in the world, and it took even less of a genius to understand why.
From the age of five, she’d been a witness to his fall, he knew that. She’d seen the late parties, his mistakes, the broken promises. How many times had she cried herself to sleep when he’d stumbled through the door at 2.00am in the morning, greeted by the fury of the woman he adored? How many times had she been awakened by the shouts? How many times had she wished she’d never been born when she walked into a cold, unfriendly atmosphere in the kitchen the next morning?
Even then it might have been alright. It could still have been repaired. The marriage, the parenting, the life. It could have been fixed, it was even being fixed. But he’d ruined it, like a giant wanting to stomp on something beautiful. After six months of following the program, six months of fixing it, he had a slip-up. After-work; one of those dangerous traps AA liked to call “slopes”. You think you’ll make it, but you always end up on your ass.
And he had. One beer had become six, then ten. He’d contemplated sleeping outdoors, ashamed of himself and scared of his wife’s reaction. If he had, it still might have been okay. She would’ve been angry, but she would have gotten over it. Unfortunately, that’s not what happened, because once you made one mistake, you might as well go ahead and wreck the whole fucking picture.
Stumbling through the door, just like the old days, he saw she’d already been crying. That was the first time she’d said it. No matter how many fights, how many drunken episodes, that was the first time. Divorce. The word flared like an emergency alarm in his mind, and before he even knew what he was going to do, it was too late. It had only been words, but his final mistake had made them real.
Her bruise was still fresh when they walked into the lawyer’s office. They’d both signed, him with tears in his eyes and she with her lips in a pale line, drained of blood. He knew he was the monster. Fee-fi-fo-fum, the giant said.
“Hey, would you like to stop somewhere for an ice-cream or something?”
“I am not really big on ice-cream.”
“You used to love ice-cream?”
“Yeah, ten years ago, Dad.” Annoyance seeped into her tone and her gaze snapped from the window to glare at him. It was the only look he’d been afforded since he picked her up, and she might as well have been spitting acid. It carried her real words, the part she didn’t say. The way her black and purple get-up relayed the same thing. Her black fingernails, purple hair, eyes drowning in a sea of cosmetic shadows, all designed to deliver one message.
It’s too late! Too late! I’m fucked up and it’s your fault!
She’d wanted a tattoo for her sixteenth birthday. Her mother had protested, no surprise there, but Mace got her will, she always did. A friend had given it to her. The result was a black rose on her left arm, pretty good for amateur work, not that he would ever say that out loud. Cindy called him the same day, and even if she never actually said it, the message came through loud and clear. It was his fault.
He felt his heart crawl higher up his throat. This trip might be his last chance, his only chance, and he was already fucking it up. If it didn’t work, if she was adamant on hating him, he didn’t know how he was going to make it. He would end up eating the barrel.
“Well, I’d like to stop somewhere. My throat it killing me. A coke would be nice.”
“Yeah, or a beer.” She replied with such contempt it was like getting slapped in the face. It hurt, but it also pissed him off. It was like kicking a handicapped. But she was just a teenage brat, she didn’t know any better. If anything, she was the one who was hurting. She just wanted to spread it around.
“I don’t drink anymore, Mace.”
“Yeah, we’ll see for how long…”
They rode in silence for the next ten minutes, then Mace was the one who spoke up.
“It’s not like there is anywhere to stop anyway. Not unless there’s a diner somewhere in the corn.”
“There is supposed to be a town up ahead, just a couple of miles.”
“Well, you’re the fucking navigator.” She replied, head plastered to the passenger side window.
“Watch your language, Mace.”
Another hour passed in silence, then another. The fields of corn seemed endless, just like the road. Not a car had passed, not even an animal. He became aware she was sleeping when she turned in her seat, huddled up in a little ball. She’d always done that when she was a child, and the sight broke his heart. Long strands of purple hair covered her face. He wanted to brush them away to see her, really see her again, a face which had regained innocence, but he didn’t dare.
The sign appeared and snapped his eyes back to the road.
Grimm Haven – 12 Miles.
There was nothing odd about it, yet its rusty corners and faded letters imparted a sinister sense of dread. He tried to shake it, even physically shook his head, but the unease remained. It might as well have said; “Beware, traveler, here lurks dragons.”
The corn fields still reigned here, but now the occasional barn or farmhouse could be sighted on the horizon. It was beautiful, especially as the day died and painted a sky of burning ember. The sight calmed his unease but didn’t drown it. To his right, Mace stirred as a moan slipped between her lips. Chris was suddenly very aware of her, of how fragile she was. Her vitality was like a stark aura; strong, but easily extinguished.
That’s when he saw the man. The stalks of corn gave way for a field of cropped grass with a thin dirt road running its length. At the end of it, a farm appeared. But what caught his attention was not its neat cape-cod or tended lawn, blaring red barn or the horses on the field.
Just where the dirt road joined with its paved brother, a man in a straw hat and farmer’s overalls glared at the approaching vehicle. What frightened Chris was not so much the man’s appearance, as the way he was watching. It was not as if he’d been out there to collect the mail and just caught a glance of a car, deciding to watch it speed by. No, it was if he’d known they were going to pass, right now, and had come out to wait for it.
His arms hung limp by his sides, face masked by shadows underneath the hat. He didn’t move. He didn’t make so much as an indication to even being alive. For a moment, Chris thought the man might just have been a scarecrow. Then, despite being a city-boy, he realized no one would put a thing like that by the side of the road.
When they passed, he threw a look in the rear-view mirror. The man turned, slowly, and in the exact same position as before, he watched the car disappear. Chris tried to swallow, but his throat had dried up. He realized he was terrified. His hands felt weak and brittle as they clutched the steering wheel. When he looked to his right, his heart jumped up his throat again.
Mace was staring at him, eyes round and lips slightly parted. She was an image of the terror he felt.
“I had a bad dream,” she croaked, voice strangely hollow and distant. “I dreamt a man was watching me from the side of the road. In the dream, he pointed at me and the sun turned to blood behind him. I heard a voice, but I can’t remember what it said…”
She trailed off. Chris had gone pale, his lips blue and cold. Had it just been a coincidence? No, his logical mind told him. She’d been half awake, seen the strange man and implemented him in her dream. That was it, the wonders of modern psychology. Well, that was probably wrong but he had no idea what else to call it.
“Don’t worry, baby, it was just a dream.” How long since he’d called her that? In shock, his mind had reverted into seeing her as a child again. He thought she might throw him a sarcastic remark, but she’d lost interest in him. She’d gone back to peering out the window, but in the reflection thrown by the glass, he saw terror in her eyes. That also, wasn’t normal, not for her.
“Are you alright?” He asked, forcing his voice not to tremble.
None of them said anything for a few minutes. Chris felt sweat sticking the wheel to his hands. When he adjusted his grip, a glaring symbol on the dashboard caught his attention. They were running on fumes.
“Fuck…” He muttered, and almost flinched at the way his voice trembled.
“What’s the matter?” Mace croaked, spite and sarcasm replaced by a childish fearfulness.
“We’re almost out of gas.” Chris replied simply, trying to regain some illusion of confidence.
“Great.” Mace moaned, and despite a hidden accusation beneath the surface, Chris felt relieved to hear a sliver of her usual self.
The landscape changed quickly after that. Corn fields thinned out and eventually became wide spanning meadows. Some were inhabited by livestock, some not, but they all shared that same trace of human care.
Chris noticed they were suddenly going downhill. Soon they could see the town. It was one of those in-between places, something both urban and countryside. The roads were paved in old, faded asphalt; cracked in places and the lines were worn to almost nothing.
Most vehicles roaming the streets were either trucks or tractors. There was the occasional station-wagon, but none younger than 82’. Some of the shops had closed down, leaving only dusty windows and signs saying; CLOSED UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE. No one moved on the streets, and a dusty, lonely atmosphere weighed heavily on the town. If the zombie apocalypse was going to start at some point, Chris reckoned it had already begun here.
When he found what he’d been looking for, the meter was so close to empty they might as well have been pushed on the wind. Conoco, the sign said. The letters were worn but the place seemed in good shape.
An old man sat on a bench in front of the store. His face was concealed behind a bushy grey beard, as well as the shadow cast from his white baseball cap. In his hands, he held a bottle of coke, glass perspiring and casting cold diamond shapes on the pavement.
Chris swallowed and was once more reminded of how dry his throat was. He gazed into the man’s yellow tinted eyes and felt that familiar wave of unease. There was something sinister there, unformed and shapeless. The stranger didn’t regard him with hostility, nor was there a question there, any wariness or even friendliness. It was as if he’d seen him here a thousand times before, or just knew he would show up.
“Wait here, I’ll fill up the tank and get us a couple of cokes.” He murmured to Mace, not taking his eyes of the old man. She nodded and sank lower in her seat. Chris meanwhile got out of the car, slammed the door shut and stepped warily towards the pumps.
“Hey there.” He said as he lifted the nozzle, eyes meeting those of the stranger.
“Hey yourself,” the old man croaked, voice hoarse and thick as if he’d been smoking since before he was born.
The machine whirred restlessly as it pumped the gas. Chris felt eyes scorching the back of his neck. When the familiar Click finally came, he put the handle back in its place and defiantly turned to meet the man’s gaze. It hadn’t changed.
“You live in town?” Chris asked, taking a few steps closer to the door. The dying sun glared upon the glass, turning it into a mirror and concealing the room on the other side. It might have been just as well. Inside, the clerk and her tree customers had all turned simultaneously to stare at Chris and his daughter. Blank faces, but their eyes gleamed with a greedy cruelty.
“Yeap.” He spoke in a thick dialect Chris couldn’t place.
“That’s great. Hope you’ll enjoy it.” He was just about to pass when the man spoke up again.
“You can’t go yet.” His voice had turned smug and low, as if he was telling secrets. “You have to stay for communion.”
Chris felt a chill caress his flesh, making his hairs stand on end. An itchy need to hurry came over him, a need to run away. But it was soon smothered by years of knowing just how the world worked. There was nothing in the dark, there were no monsters, towns weren’t inherently dangerous. Had he turned and run back to his car as his instincts persisted, things might have been different.
Instead he opened the door. The store was a small room, gloomy but clean. The air-condition was a welcome relief. Almost as soon as it closed, the door opened again. Mace stood there with her arms wrapped around her thin frame like a protective shield. Her eyes were large and frightened, lips pressed together tightly.
“Are you alright, Mace?”
“Yeah… I just didn’t want to be alone in the car.”
Chris nodded and felt a need to reach out. He wanted to hold her like he’d done in the old days, when she’d been a child and scraped her knees. He remembered when she’d been five and insisted on trying the neighbor’s skateboard, an idea which didn’t quite end in disaster but very well could’ve. Afterwards, he’d held her in his lap and kissed away her tears.
But those days were gone. He didn’t dare. Instead he turned and walked towards a fridge stocked with sodas on the other end of the room. He picked up two cokes, and as he was about to turn, he saw the case of Budweiser on a shelf to his right. How badly he wanted it; turning away was almost painful. No one stared at them now, except for the clerk. She was an attractive blonde woman in her mid-thirties. Pale blue eyes accompanied a pair of flushed full lips.
“Would that be all, sir?” She asked. Her words were drawn out, as if she was mocking him. People in this town sure were peculiar.
“That and the gas.” He said, trying not to meet her gaze. He was afraid she might see the conflicting feelings there. He wanted her, but she also terrified him. He had no idea why.
She gave him the price, and as Chris removed the bills from his wallet, she said;
“Remember you can’t go yet. We love strangers in this town. You must stay for communion.”
Chris held Mace’s hand when they left the building. He couldn’t remember taking it, nor how they had somehow wound up outside. His muscles were trembling, face pale and heart racing. They got back in the car, carried on stiff legs and heavy breaths. A rumble came as he turned the key, but when he put in first gear and released the clutch, the engine died. He turned the ignition again. Nothing happened.
He didn’t reply. As he sat there, forcing his lungs to breathe and his heart to calm down, he tried to find some center, some place of refuge inside himself where the world still made sense. People here were strange, there was something off, true, but why was his alarm bells ringing like air raid sirens? Where did it come from, and why? Questions he couldn’t answer. Everything he knew about the world told him there was no danger. Still his instincts disagreed, telling him somewhere a predator had rung the dinner bell.
A truck which might once have been red, but had over time faded into a dull shade of pink, drove up on the other side of the pumps. Chris paid it no mind for now. He was too busy taking deep breaths and regaining his sanity. Mace was fidgeting with her fingers and staring through the windshield, sweat pearling on her forehead and making purple strands of hair stick to her skin.
The sun was barely holding on to the world, yet its heat lingered, merciless to those unshielded by air-condition. He took one of the cokes he got from the store and handed it to the girl. He had time to relish its chilled glass against the palm of his hand, then she took it gratefully. She even offered him a faint smile. What was the world coming to?
He turned the key again and met with that same dry click. He’d never been a genius when it came to cars, but he supposed if there was any place to begin, it was with the fuses. He checked.
Soon as he bowed down, Mace gave off a loud shriek which had him bumping his head against the steering wheel. A man was staring at them through the passenger side window. His face was shrouded in the shadow of a straw hat, but Chris could still make it out.
He was weathered in an attractive sort of way, eyes deep blue and chin covered in a thick, blonde beard. His smile was wide and friendly, yet kept miles away from his eyes. They were like cold diamonds.
“Got some trouble with your car there, friend?”
The man said in a voice muffled by the glass. Even so it was a pleasant voice, smooth and soft in a way which contradicted his worn features. Chris disliked his tone however. Muffled or not, there was a smugness there; the soft cling of mockery which came just before I-told-you-so.
“Do you mind rolling down the window?” He continued when Chris offered no reply. Mace said nothing either, but had crawled up in her seat so close he could feel the heat emanating from her skin. Once again, he felt that need to put a hand on her, embrace her, make her feel safe. Once again, he didn’t dare. A moment’s hesitation, then Chris did as the stranger asked.
“Is there an auto-repair shop in town?” He asked hoarsely.
“I think there was one back in 87’.”
“Now hold your horses, son.” The stranger said and held up a hand. Chris didn’t particularly like being called “son,” especially since he was approaching forty-six years of age.
“We like strangers in this town. They don’t come through that often, you see. My wife got a steak going back at the house. I also happen to be pretty good with fixing up old cars, and this doesn’t look exactly brand new, if you don’t mind me saying.”
“You’re lucky this happened here and not on the road. Out that away there’s about a hundred miles of farmland and corn,” he said, gesturing east of town, or rather nowhere in particular as far as Christ could see.
“Had the car given up out there, you could have been stuck there for days.”
Yeah. Chris thought. Real lucky, we are, truly.
“Why would you help us?” Chris asked suspiciously, tossing another glance at Mace who remained silent.
“Because we don’t get many strangers. And, because I reckon I’m the only hope you got…”
No, no, no, no, no, no, absolute –
“I suppose you’re right, and I’d appreciate the assistance.” His treacherous lips replied.
“I’ll tow you back to my place. I got a cable.”
Back on the road, some of Chris’ irrational panic faded. If it was irrational. The people seemed peculiar, but on the other hand nothing had really happened. With dusk just about passing to night, the land had attained an almost mythical beauty. The sight of it seemed to wash away some of his anxiety.
There was a primitive peace about it. A peace reminiscing of gone days, when just about everyone was a farmer and a cow was the family fortune. A simpler life. In the sight of such, it was difficult to remain paranoid, and his brain was already drowning his gnawing instincts in rational conclusions.
You imagined it all. And what about communion? This is a small place, they probably have a variety of customs strange to you. That man by the road? You just saw it wrong, that’s all. So forth and so forth.
“I don’t think this is a good idea, Dad.” Mace groaned.
“What makes you say that?”
She parted her lips to speak, but the words seemed to stuck in her throat. They closed again, leaving only her eyes to silently plead her case. A moment later they returned to the landscape outside the window. Chris offered nothing in return.
He expected to be afraid. Whatever alarms had been blaring off and on for the last hour would return full force, blowing his brains out and having him run through the corn fields. But it didn’t happen, not so much as a twinge. He seemed to have known where they were going. Perhaps some hidden, mystical part of his being, that which was still attached to the primitive magic which kept the world rolling, had whispered it in his subconscious.
The man was gone now. If Chris had to guess, he would say he was sitting up front, wearing a blonde beard and unsettling blue eyes. Maple Spring’s good Samaritan. But the dirt road was still there, the field of grass and the farmhouse at the end. Chris emptied his coke. It was lukewarm and not very appealing anymore, but it was something to do. How he wished it’d been a beer. Budweiser, cold, perspiring.
Slowly they approached the farm. It loomed closer in the growing darkness like an ominous castle. It was higher than Chris had first predicted, white and old fashioned in its statuesque, wooden dignity. There was no backyard. It was all surrounded by fields of corn. The lawn had spotty patches of decayed, shriveled grass where the summer heat had shown no mercy, but the corn was flourishing.
It was vital in an almost unnatural way. The fresh green of its leaves, mingled with glints of gold, was so thick it looked as though it had been painted upon the air. He wondered if he stroked one of the stalks, would his hand come off green?
“Come on, baby.” Chris said softly, nudging her lightly with the back of his hand. “It’s going to be okay, I am…” He hesitated. This trip, his last attempt at being a father which he’d been so afraid of fucking up, had fallen flat around his ears. He dragged her half across the country just to be stuck in the middle of nowhere. What was worse was that she had never wanted to go. No surprise there. After months of staying sober, he’d been able to nag Cindy into giving him a chance.
One last chance. She persuaded Mace, most likely with the promise of something else down the line, and Chris had been given his turn at redemption. Such a fuck-up he was.
“It’s okay, Dad.” She shot back, seeing the apology form on his face and waving it away. “Let’s just… get going again soon, okay?” Chris closed his mouth. He still wanted to apologize, but the words had gone lost somewhere in his head. He nodded.
As they got out of the car, Chris felt the warm breath of the sun lingering on the air. He’d hoped it would cool off as the day passed, but no such luck, it seemed. It took him a few more seconds to notice how silent everything was. Something was just missing. Gazing around, it came to him as abruptly as a slap in the face. The wind was still, so was all animals, insects and other mundane disturbances. He’d never experienced such lack of sound before, and it chilled him to the bone.
Mace had wrapped her arms around her body. Standing there, thin and exposed, she looked more fragile than ever. This time Chris dared. He put an arm around her shoulders, and she welcomed his presence. She nudged closer to his protective, fatherly warmth and leaned her head against his shoulder.
They remained like that. Soon the stranger approached, and if Chris didn’t know better, he could have sworn the heat intensified.
“Name’s Travis, by the by.” He offered, extending a hand. Chris didn’t want to take it, but inbred social etiquette demanded it of him. He expected it to feel rough and callous, the hand of a laborer, but he was surprised. It was soft and cool. It wasn’t cold, but as if he’d just returned from getting something out of the refrigerator. It also, to Chris’ obvious imagination of course, seemed to completely lack lines.
“Well, let’s look at what you have here.” Travis continued, walking around them to reach the driver side door. He got in and turned the ignition. Click.
“Yeah,” he nodded, as if this was what he’d expected all along. He sounded cheerful to Chris’ displeasure.
“Most likely the battery’s dead. You need to get a new one.” Chris felt his heart drop.
“So… we’re not going anywhere until we get a new battery?”
“Don’t look like it.”
“Can’t you just jump-start it?”
“Sure. Not that you’d get far.”
“Oh, for fuck’s sake…” Chris groaned, and for a moment he had a childish impulse to kick the ground. He resisted, like a true champion. “How do you even know that from just turning the key?”
“Now, hold your horses, son. I happen to have a friend who can help you. Stay here tonight, supper with us, and tomorrow morning I’ll give him a call. You’ll be out of here in no time.”
“I would never want to cause you any…”
“Trouble?” Travis cut him off and chuckled. “Don’t you worry about that. We’re happy to help. You go on inside, I’ll get the car into the barn for tonight. You and Mace can take the guest room.”
Chris blinked as his heart skipped a beat.
“How do you know her name?” Suddenly on edge. He hadn’t mentioned her name, he was sure of it.
“You gave it to me when you told me your name was Chris,” Travis said matter-of-factly. “
“Are you feeling alright, son?”
“I never gave you my name. Never gave you either of our names.” Or had he? He couldn’t entirely remember. Besides, he was looking into Travis’ blue eyes, and his memory got hazy. Maybe he had.
“Don’t you worry.” Travis mused. “You must be tired.”
“Dad…?” Mace tucked lightly on his hand, forcing his attention away from Travis’ disconcerting eyes. His head suddenly felt clear again. “I want to go… I don’t think we should stay here…”
Chris opened his mouth to speak, then noticed the way Travis was looking at his daughter. There was a hunger there. More, there was a predatory expectancy, as if he was waiting for her. Unease crept back into his heart.
“Maybe we should go, actually.” Suddenly that idea seemed very fine, very urgent, indeed.
“Where are you going to go?” Travis chuckled, now looking as if he found all of this rather ridiculous. “You have no means of going anywhere.” Ominously he stepped out of the car. He did so slowly, and once he came to his full height, Chris could have sworn the man had grown slightly. It was crazy, but the truth.
“Who the fuck are you?” Chris growled, gritting his teeth and took a step backwards. Without realizing it, he’d spread his arms in front of Mace. “What do you want from us?!”
“Just want to help, is all.” Travis replied dreamily. “We’d like you to stay for communion.”
“What the fuck does that mean?!” Chris yelled, his rational mind seeming to eat itself as panic exploded in his consciousness. Suddenly a sound disturbed the sinister quiet, feet moving through tall grass.
Chris snapped his attention to the field, and saw to his horror that faces had appeared there. Pale faces they were, seemingly gleaming in the growing darkness. They all regarded him in that same expectant way; like predators waiting for something to happen.
Travis was on him then, grabbing his collar, and yanking him off the ground as if he was a weightless rag doll. Chris would’ve screamed, but dread clogged up his throat and denied him all but a light gasp. He struggled, pulled and beat at the hand, but it might as well have been made of metal.
Travis never ceased his smiling. Casual, simple and friendly; the inviting smile of a kind neighbor. Yet his eyes were worst. They shone like blank coins reflecting moonlight, insane and maliciously detached from pity. They were the eyes of a spider clutching a fly in its deadly embrace.
“Run!” Chris croaked, words struggling to escape his throat. Yet Mace didn’t run. She barely seemed to be there at all anymore. She was staring at Travis, open mouthed and shocked, but not in a fearful way. If anything, she seemed to be in awe, or in trance. Travis’ smile grew wider, the shine of his eyes intensifying.
“No no, son…” He mused, tone kept on the same, frustratingly calm level. “I think you’ll find she won’t go anywhere. You’re not a father anyway, are you? You’re just a drunk piece of shit.”
Chris wanted to scream. He wanted to curse and spit, scratch and shove his fist into that calm, pleasant face. Instead his lips trembled, arms losing strength. How many times had he told himself those exact same words? How many times had he emptied one bottle after the other, telling himself it didn’t matter anyway; he was just a pathetic bum?
Too many times. Far too many times in far too many places.
“…Dad…?” Mace groaned. She sounded as if in a stupor, or newly awakened from some deep and distant sleep. An image came to him, or rather flashed in his mind like lightning, a blast from the past if there ever was one. Marcy coming down the stairs; dressed in her pink pajamas spotted with red ponies, eight or nine years old, black hair falling to her shoulders and one fist rubbing at a teary eye.
Awakened by the screams of course. But even in his drunken haze he saw her, scared and small and fragile. She was his constant failure.
“…Dad…?” She’d said. Said it in the same exact way she did now, eight years of fights and broken promises later. But this time he wouldn’t fail her. This time he refused to be a bum.
“Get the fuck off me! Mace, don’t like into his eyes! Look away!” He yelled, clamping down on Travis’ wrist with both his hands, grasping and pulling with a strength he didn’t know he had. “LET…ME…GO!!” For a moment, he thought he would manage. He felt Travis’ hand slip briefly, the fingers coming lose, just enough for him to…
And then brilliant light exploded in his head. It would’ve been beautiful if it didn’t feel like his brain had been smashed through the back of his head. Pain as he’d never known it shot through his mind like the crack of lightning, and suddenly he was aware that he was flying. In truth, he was falling.
Travis’ had two hands of course, and when Chris thought he was pulling one from his collar, it was really just a quick adjustment so its brother could slam into Chris’ face. And it did so with a vengeance. He was tossed through the air, flying in the warm evening air for a moment, then crashing into dead grass.
The light got brighter, brought forth confusing images and deluded dreams. The last thing he heard was Travis talking to Mace; talking in a hushed, dreamy voice. She replied in the same.
Then unconsciousness took him, and he was lost.
He awoke to darkness and silence. The world was black to him, dressed in shadows, and for a moment he wondered if he’d gone blind. He sat up, expected to be bound but found no ropes or constraints of any kind. Still he could see nothing. Only the steadily increasing beat-beat-beat of his heart told him he was alive. For all he knew, he could’ve woken up in hell.
“Hello?” He grimaced at the waver of his voice, and how it immediately fell flat. There was no echo, no hollow rebound or the vibration of metal. He took a deep breath and tasted the air. It was musty, humid and shut in. Like that of a small room which hadn’t been properly aired for months.
He got to his feet, trying his strength cautiously and reaching out with his hands. They met nothing but empty space, yet he was suddenly aware of a dull ache. He touched the left side of his face tentatively, seeking a source and found it. He flinched back, a pulsing pain flaring up where his fingers pressed the skin. There was swelling there, lots of it, and he could taste blood in his mouth. Judging from a hollowed out feeling near the back, a tooth had been knocked loose. Several, perhaps.
“Son of a bitch…” He muttered under his breath, and started taking shuffling steps forward. For a few more moments, his hands moved aimlessly through dark, empty space, and then he found a solid surface. Wooden panels by the feel of it, lacking the texture of wallpaper, and it was cool to the touch. His trembling breaths felt like screams in the horrid silence. He wished he could calm down, let his mind take the reins, yet he knew he was horrifyingly close to hysteria.
He closed his eyes, not that it made much difference, and sucked air in long, deep breaths. His heart kept pounding, but at least he seemed to have regained some measure of control. He let his hand slide along the wall as he crept slowly forwards. If only he could find a doorknob, the outline of a window; anything which would at least hint at freedom. He refused to think about Mace. If he did, he would lose whatever measurement of control he’d managed to summon, and run in panic into the unknown. He needed to get his bearings, make a plan, find a weapon.
The door came as a surprise. More, it felt like a miracle. Not that he expected it to be open of course, but perhaps he could pry it open, find something which…
It creaked open as if it had been waiting for him. Unlocked and ready by the mere twinge of the knob. Chris should’ve been relieved, but all he felt was unease. Obviously keeping him prisoner was not their intention. But if it wasn’t, then what was?
On the other side was a narrow staircase. Orange, greasy light spilled under the crack of a door below, like the light at the end of a tunnel. But he thought this time, going towards it would be the right idea.
He expected the wood to squeak underneath his feet, and to his disappointment, he was right. He tried to spread his weight, slowly increase the pressure on the boards as he put down his feet, but it didn’t matter. They announced his presence all the same.
When he reached the door, he pushed it open slowly. It swung on silent hinges, and revealed a second-floor landing. It was lit by thick, runny candles casting a gloomy, flickering light over a quiet hallway. The wooden staircase spiraled upwards along the walls, and next to the entrance was an open door. He could just faintly make out the shape of a stone step, the rest was descended in darkness. Yet faintly rising from the unwelcoming depths, was the hint of distant whispering.
He remained where he was for what felt like ages. Sweat pearled and ran down his forehead as he listened, heavy breaths sounding like the gales of a storm in the oppressive stillness. His heart rammed itself against his ribcage, high on adrenalin, and his brain was teetering on that red, feverish point where reason died and instinct took over.
It was all he could do to just keep himself from crossing that threshold. If he let himself slip into survival mode, he’d most likely scream and run himself through a window, vanish into the thick cornfield and be lost forever. He might even find the road, and perhaps someone would pass, but it wasn’t the important part. He didn’t matter. What was the point? So he could go back to being a worthless fucking bum who’d set his own world on fire?
Mace was what mattered. She was the only thing that mattered. He would set everyone one of them on fire if they’d hurt her. After all, he’d burned one world, he could burn another. But all such thoughts were pointless. He was one man, they were what? Well, more than one…
The creak on top of the stairs sent his heart up his throat, and in his hurry to spin around, he almost fell over. Something was there. Something which had been in that small room with him all along, perhaps creeping closer as he was passed out. It was a shape in the darkness, the candles unable to do much but scratch at those thick shadows.
He clenched his teeth together tightly, forced himself to be brave as terror rocked through his system, and flung the door open wide. Light spilled inside, just enough to let him see what it was, what had been inside with him. It was a wheelchair. Someone was sitting in it, thin and bony like a corpse, hair white as snow and falling over a diseased chest. It was a woman, or what might once have been a woman, and as he saw her, he realized she was blind.
Thick threads kept her eyelids shut. The same had been done to her mouth, and from her throat came a low, whining groan. And still he knew that she saw him. Her eyes had been shut for what might’ve been decades, and yet her gaze burned upon his skin like an afternoon sun. A scream died in his throat before it could be born, and he slammed the door shut on the nightmare.
He grasped the knob, hands shaking like mad and sweaty enough to slide over the smooth metal. He clamped down on it tighter and managed to turn it, although all his strength seemed to have seeped form his limbs. There was a satisfying click as the lock was sealed, and he allowed himself a deep, heavy breath of relief.
Creak – thump. Chris felt his body go stiff. His heart was beating so fast he had a moment to be amazed it didn’t explode. Creak – thump, creak – thump. It got louder as he remained paralyzed, every instinct and every rational thought left in his mind compelling him to escape. But it was just like a nightmare. He was unable to move, legs powerless and all strength blown from his muscles.
There was a final, loud “Thump” which vibrated through the wooden door, and then it was silent. Move… He thought. Run, you stupid son of a bitch. Put in first gear, get the fuck out of here! But he couldn’t. Instead he felt the knob turn in his hand, being tried slowly from the other side. When nothing happened, it stopped. One second passed, two… three.
Then a deep, unnatural growl came from the other side; so obviously human, and so obviously diseased. It was the type of sound you heard through locked metal doors in a ward for the criminally insane.
His courage would’ve snapped if it wasn’t for Mace. Her name flared bright red in his mind, urgent and compelling. And he knew where she was. It had been laid out for him like breadcrumbs; the unlocked door, the candles, the dark stairwell downstairs. It was all designed to lead him where they wanted him to go. And it wasn’t a secret what they wanted, they’d been telling him since he first arrived. They wanted him to take communion.
He grabbed a candleholder standing on a dresser next to the doorway. Somehow, he managed to ignore the scratches behind him, the way the knob turned and how a loud hissing slipped out underneath the gap. He forced himself to take one step. He felt weak, shaky and still balancing on that fragile limit between control and hysteria.
The gloom parted as he descended the stairs. A dank smell met him as he stepped down into the hall. It was a cellar smell, that of damp stone and earth which has been sealed together for too long, yet something was off about it. It lacked that extra touch of roots and vegetables, or whatever else usually stored in a cellar. Instead it seemed old, foreboding and ominous. Like the smell of a huge spider which had died and laid curled up at the end of the staircase.
Next to the doorway stood a small, ornate table. Someone had left a note of old, yellowing paper on top of it. It was folded neatly, and in an elegant, spidery hand, someone had written; Chris. Something about it stuck him as almost pretentious. As if he was Jonathan Harker in some old Dracula flick, and the count had left him a nice little letter, something written in blood and full of elegant, horrid promises.
Yet the note held only two words.
He turned towards the blackness. Dark stone spiraled downwards, rugged and uneven steps following narrow walls. The smell was thicker here, and an unnatural heat emanated from the entrance. Not like heat of a fire, or from the sun, but like that of feverish flesh which had recently died and become a feast for flies.
Light from the candles parted the darkness. Even so, it didn’t penetrate far. The whispers had grown louder as well, echoing now, like chanting. As a man in a dream, he took the first step. Then another and another. It was like walking into the throat of some hellish beast; dank, warm breaths brushing against his skin, making it ripple in goosebumps.
As he went, the smell and the heat intensified, becoming more and more oppressive, more unbearable. Light gleamed at the end, shining through a stone archway, inviting and foreboding at the same time. He wanted to run, he wanted to see. He wanted to find Mace and wrap her in his arms, promise her he would never fail her again. Yet there was a small, cowardly voice in the back of his head saying something different. It was self-preservation, urging him to abandon her.
He reached the archway, his carried light not mattering much anymore. Because everything was bright now, bright and so alien, yet so familiar, that a sense like vertigo came over him. It was an underground cathedral, or like a church. It rose high, high enough as to seem like it would pierce the earth underneath which it had been buried. Torches lit the huge room, and lines of stone benches reached back from what seemed to be some sort of unholy altar.
Despite everything being bright and bathing in torchlight, it was difficult for his eyes to accept what they were seeing. Hundreds of people inhabited the benches, all with their backs towards him, and all wearing formal clothing. Colorful ornate windows hinted on blackness, and sculptured forms of beings he didn’t recognize, protruded from rough, stone pillars.
There were no whispers anymore. Voices echoed throughout the church, mingled together into a single whole which blurred the words. And in front of them, by the altar, standing in front of some hellish totem which rose to the high ceiling, depicting an odd idol which resembled a mix between a crow and a goat, stood Travis.
“Tonight!” He echoed throughout the hall, hands stretched into the air like a sorcerer. “We will take communion!” The masses didn’t fall silent, but instead they all fell into a low humming. The sound was pleasant and horrible. It reverberated against the walls and the high ceiling, increased in power and reached into his head. He planted both his hands against his ears, didn’t even notice he’d dropped the candleholder which crashed against the stone tiles, candles extinguishing and rolling into the darkness.
Yet he couldn’t shut it out. It seemed to fester in his skull, becoming a voice as if it had grown into a sentient tumor.
“Come to us.”
Suddenly he was aware of it. There was something down here, something worse than Travis and his entire congregation. Something worse than their insane beliefs and unholy religion. It was what stood behind it, and he understood that it was here, real and malicious. He’d felt its presence without realizing. The odd heat which came from nowhere, like that rotting flesh left to decay in the sun, and the dank cellar smell with a sinister undertone of dead things in the dark.
He felt its eyes upon him, or whatever a shapeless power had instead of eyes. It was aware of him, following his progress like a cruel kid would follow an ant with a magnifying glass, contemplating weather or not to set it on fire. Somehow, he’d traveled forwards. He had no memory of doing so, and yet he was now in the middle of the hall, walking down between the benches like a bride for her wedding.
No one turned, no one was surprised. They’d known he’d come, they had been waiting for him. Waiting to take communion. Everything became unbearable when he saw the totem behind Travis, really saw it for the first time. It was corpses, or more like pieces of corpses, all sewed and melted together to form a base. He couldn’t see if they were the pillar, or if they were merely attached to it, but they rose high. They formed a tall column of embalmed flesh, and on top of it was that strange head; black feathers, long, curved beak and horns protruding from its skull. Chris wanted to scream. No, he wanted to die.
A black spot appeared on the front of his pants as his bladder let go. He could feel the presence much more palpable now, like a pulsing, diseased heart, heat spreading from that ominous idol. Yet he suspected the shape itself had no power. It had merely been risen in reverence to a consciousness beyond its worshipper’s ability to comprehend. Wasn’t that always the case?
“Chris.” Travis’ said with a sigh, flushed lips still stretched in that horrible, friendly smile. “We’ve waited. Finally, you come to us, ready to partake in holy communion.”
Chris was unable to reply. Blood had drained from his head, leaving his lips cold and blue, face pale as if he was about to keel over. He’d welcome it if he did. Instead his eyes drifted to that horrible pillar of flesh. A face caught his attention. Its eyes were sewed together, its mouth too, and the instant recognition sent another wave like vertigo through his system.
Was that what awaited him? Was that what awaited the woman thing upstairs? To become a part of the demon worshipped here?
“Where’s Mace?” He said with a calm, detached tone he couldn’t recognize.
“She’s right here, with us.” Travis’ said, and suddenly she appeared. A man led her by the arm from one of the front benches. Chris turned to look at her as they passed him, but something was off. No, not off, something was horribly wrong. She was dressed in a thin, black dress, seemingly made from cobwebs, and she was naked underneath. He could make out the blurred shapes of her adolescent body. Purple hair hung down over her shoulders, yet she didn’t seem to be here at all.
Her eyes were glazed over, lids heavy and lips parted very slightly. She seemed drugged, or in a state of deep trance, like sleepwalking.
“What have you done to her?” Chris heard himself whisper, hands clenching into fists as his terror was replaced by fury. She was his child, dammit. The second love of his life.
“Done? Nothing. Why would we hurt our family?” Travis mused, and his eyes seemed to glow in that odd, unnatural way. “She is about to take communion.”
They were all standing now. They had risen like a hive mind, watching the scene play out before them. No one said anything, or even seemed to breathe, they just watched. On the altar, white marble speckled with black lines, lay something Chris recognized. It was not a knife, not really, but a sickle. Yet it was not like any sickle he’d ever seen or imagined.
The blade was gold. Carved into the metal were strange hieroglyphics, and the shaft was bone, not wood. Judging from everything else, probably human bone. Chris sprang for it, moving faster than he thought he was capable off, passing Travis who only seemed to be bemused, and grabbed it.
He spun around, feet almost slipping on the rough stone, the sickle arching out from his body, and sank deep into Travis’ neck.
“Die, you fucking devil worshipping fuckhead! Die you smiling, son of a bitch!” He yelled, spittle flying from his lips and teeth clenched together.
He ripped the blade loose and swung it down again, piercing deep into the man’s broad chest and ripping a long gash down his torso. Once again, he tore it loose, just to swing it once more.
This time Travis’ caught his wrist. His grip was so strong, it was like being stuck underneath a mountain. The pressure increased and forced Chris to scream as the bones snapped like dry sticks. The sickle dropped from his hands, and to his dismay, there was no blood on it. Or there was, but only thin smears, black like tar and already dried.
Travis began to chuckle. Chris felt all hope drain from his heart as he raised his gaze to look into that pleasant, still smiling face. Friendly, inviting, and utterly insane. All eyes were shining now. Hundreds of eyes glinting like bright coins in the huge chamber, yet no one spoke, no one moved.
Travis’ wounds remained, but they weren’t bleeding. Instead they revealed dry, black flesh underneath tanned skin. A rotten odor rose from the slits, so strong and despicable, Chris wanted to retch.
“That’s not how you behave in holy rituals, Chris.” Travis stated with the tone of a kind uncle who caught his nephew up to some minor offense. He then raised his hand, holding the sickle. Chris had a moment to wonder how it got there. After all, he’d never reached down to pick it up.
But nothing surprised him anymore. The devil himself could’ve come walking up the line between the benches, and Chris wouldn’t so much as flinch. He was not in the real world anymore. This was hell.
A sharp pain shot through his body as Travis ripped his belly open. A couple of fast, ripping motions, still looking into Chris’ eyes, still smiling, and then he was done. Just enough to make him bleed, enough so some of his guts were laid bare. Chris opened his mouth to scream, but all he could produce was a strangled moan.
Tears ran down his cheeks, but he couldn’t feel them. He deserved this. He knew he did, but what about Mace? If there was a God, couldn’t he see she was innocent? That was of course, if God was not the thing they were worshipping here. Worshipping it in the old, proper way of human sacrifice and blood omens.
Travis held out the sickle towards Mace, the blade dripping with Chris’ blood. In response, eyes flickering, she opened her mouth and extended her tongue.
She licked it, lovingly, moaning, as if she was licking the skin of a lover. The moment her tongue left the blade and vanished behind black, painted lips, her eyes flung open.
The last thing Chris saw before he lost consciousness, were those eyes shining like silver coins.
Above her, the sun was the color of bad blood.
It was ascending now, reborn. She moved slowly through the corn, naked, body glistening with her father’s blood. Muttering under her breath was that ancient, holy catechism.
“Life for the crop. Life for me. Life for us. Bless us mother, bless us father.”
Where her bloody fingers touched the stalks, leaving smearing trails behind, they seemed to grow, rejuvenated and ready to resist the brutal onslaught of summer.
Eventually the stalks gave way for the front lawn, and she moved soundlessly over the decaying grass. But it wouldn’t be decaying for much longer. Where her bloody feet touched the ground, it immediately started regaining its flourishing, green color.
She opened the shed door, meeting her father’s gaze. She recognized the corpse behind him, but there were no emotions. Her old self had been left behind.
She could see clearly now, and if she had a father, it was the man sitting in front of her. His blue eyes piercing hers, shining.
“Is it ready?” She asked, but it was unnecessary. She could see a bowl on the floor, filled with the holy sacrifice and ready for ritual.
Soon she would carry it down into the holy chambers, a place where no death was allowed, and she would feed on the flesh from whence she came.
For this year, communion was done.