ShadowCast 019 The Picker’s Harvest

The Picker’s Harvest

by Todd Austin hunt

read by Jason Warden

Download with ITunes

Play in this window

Victor looked at his wife from the corner of his eye. She sat on the
end of the sofa, reading a paperback romance. Fabio was on the cover,
with some woman wrapped around him.
She squeezed the pages tight between her hands. Her mouth was open in
that dopey expression, like she was a dummy lost in the woods. Good.

He focused his eyes back on the video playing on the tube. Gellar,
his therapist, had given him the tape a month ago. He said watching
it every day would take his mind off Lucy, help ease the insecurity
that made him go to the damned shrink in the first place. He thought
it would be boring, but watching the mushy caterpillar breaking out of
the chrysalis into something equally as ugly, but powerful devoured
his interest for the twenty-seventh time. Lucy knew he went to
Gellar, but didn’t know why he had to watch the video.
He twitched his nose, feeling that dry hardness in his nasal cavity
building up. Jesus, it itched like hell! Ever since Gellar gave him
this weird butterfly prescription, his nose wouldn’t leave him alone.
He glanced at Lucy again. His left hand, slug-slow, crept up his
side. It patted his love-handle, squeezed it. It poked into the flab
above it, vainly searching for some ribs.
Lucy turned a page. The hand froze. She sighed.
The hand’s fingers probed his fading pectorals, wiggled the loose
skin covering his collarbone. They spread out on his neck, rubbing
back and forth while Victor pretended to sigh tiredly. They closed
into a fist and rasped against his beard stubble. Then, at last, one
of them found his nose. Victor had a very large nose. His nostrils
screamed for relief. Placing the tip of his forefinger on the
outside, he inserted most of his thumb into his prodigious left
nostril.
Thwack!
Lucy’s paperback slapped down on his hand, knocking it away from his
nose. She stood over him. Her lips squinched together into what
looked like a tight, purple anus. She lightly backhanded his cheek
with the book.
“Owww!” Victor whined.
“Gitcher frickin’ fingers outcher nose!” Lucy barked. “What the hell
is wrong with you, Vick? Every time I look atcha you’re spelunkin’ in
the booger cave!”
He started to push himself up, but she slapped his hands away from
the couch. “You keep them filthy hands in your lap until you wash
them in the sink. With hot water!”
Victor stiffened. “This is my house, woman…” he began.
Lucy cocked her head to the side, looking at him as if he was the
retard in the woods. “Are you actually gonna try to defend your right
to pick your nose?” She closed her eyes and laughed. “Now get off
your ass and go wash your hands.” She snatched the remote control off
the coffee-table and switched off the television.
“The video’s not over!” Victor said.
“It’s nine-thirty. We’re going to bed. I’m sick of watching that
stupid bug.” He opened his mouth in protest, but Lucy stared him
down. He sighed instead and went to the kitchen sink to scrub his
hands. Lucy grabbed his beer, which was still cold and two sips away
from being a virgin, and poured it down the drain after he was
finished. He licked his lips.
In the bedroom, he changed into his pajamas and quickly slid under
the covers. He turned off the bedside lamp and closed his eyes,
praying that Lucy would not want to have sex. It was the most
disgusting thing in the world, rutting with her. Her body was always
cold and smelled like American cheese. She made grunting, snorting
noises that sounded like a wild-boar. And she had to be on top.
Victor felt his lips moving. “Oh please sweet Jesus, not tonight,
not tonight…” His breath caught. She came out of the bathroom,
wearing nothing. “Uhhh, Lucy?” he whispered. “I’m suffering from
terrible cramps…”
“This’ll make ‘m better.” She got into the bed with him, leaving the
lights off. As she started doing her duty, Victor thought about his
life without this woman, this assmouth. It had been wonderful. He
never flinched at anything. He never knew what it felt like to be
scratched for careless words. He’d always eaten his sandwiches with
one or two slices of Kraft cheese.
When she was starting to slow down, he felt a tingle in his right
nostril. The tingle escalated quickly into a scurrying itch. Lucy
had his wrists clamped down to his sides. He twitched his nose a bit;
soon his whole face began a series of writhing contortions. But the
itch got worse, making his eyes water. It was one of those itches
that feel as if something is crawling across your skin. Lucy
finished, letting go of his wrists. Immediately Victor’s hand shot up
to ease the irritation. He plunged his forefinger, scratching,
catching debris under his fingernail. The itch subsided, and he
shuddered in relief.
Lucy opened her eyes, apparently thinking the tremor was a response
to her ministrations.
Victor yanked his finger out and cowered under her. Her lips
tightened, tightened. Her eyebrows crashed together over the bridge
of her nose. She hissed and backhanded him, careful to drag her sharp
talons across his cheek. Victor yelped and covered his face, but Lucy
was already standing on the bed. Curling her toes inward, she kicked
him in the chest, in the stomach, caught him in the balls, shrouding
his stomach with that belly-ache only a man can suffer. He tried to
roll off the bed, but Lucy kicked him hard in the ass, knocking him to
the floor.
“You goddamned piece of Judasshit! You stay the hell out of my bed
if you’re going to do that. I’ve had enough of you, Victor. I don’t
know what to do.” She jumped off the bed, but Victor raced into the
bathroom on his hands and knees and locked the door behind him. Lucy
thumped into the other side, shouting. “Yes, you just stay in there
tonight. Maybe you oughta sleep in the tub. Fill it up, and keep
your head on the wet side!” She hit the door again, then retreated.
He listened to her grumbling curses, and the swish of her stripping
the bedsheets. Leaning with his back against the door, he gently
cupped his crotch with both hands, groaning softly. The air stung the
scratches in his face, and he felt them slowly filling with blood like
new rivers, seeping down over his heavy jaw, splattering the vinyl
bathroom floor. The mirror was just a few feet away. His heart
thumped at having to look at himself.
He flicked the light switch and stumbled to the sink. Five large
light-bulbs cast shadow eating light in the bathroom, attached above
the large, rectangular mirror. Victor was revealed and he cursed.
The regular, lumpy nose, milky eyes, Leno-jaw. He cursed at the
bloody rips in his face. Tomorrow he had to go to work like this.
She had never scratched his face. All the guys at the post office
knew he didn’t have a cat; they knew he had Lucy, though.
He could already hear those little chuckles– all those brand-new
jokes and the thanks he would get for comic inspiration.
“You fucking bitch!” he shouted. It started a roar and ended a
squeal. As the swishing ended, he heard her laughing. “Don’t laugh
at me!” All squeal.
“Shut up and start your blubbering,” she said lightly. “It’s a
little easier to say those things locked up nice and safe in the
bathroom, isn’t it?”
Victor waited until he heard her leave the bedroom before he started
to clean the cuts. The water made him wince, and a black cloud of
obscenities shrouded his head while he pressed a towel to his cheek to
stop the bleeding. After applying some mercurochrome, he lifted a
stack of towels for a pillow in the tub, but dropped them when that
itch abruptly possessed the inside of his nostril. His eyes watered
immediately, seeped. He shoved his finger in past the first joint,
scratching, scraping away anything that yielded. The itch subsided,
and he pulled his finger out and rolled what he’d found between his
thumb and forefinger. He grinned, thinking if assmouth saw me doing
this…
Chuffing, he flicked the booger roll into the sink. It landed,
spearlike, in a drop of water on the verge of falling into the pipes.
Victor turned the water on full blast and washed it away. Reaching to
shut it off, he saw his hand tremble, and enormous gooseflesh rose on
his hands and arms. He felt his tight-fitting shirt raise from his
skin. His head convulsed involuntary, a spluttery sound too wet to be
a giggle burst from his lips.
The itch had turned into an insane tickling. It felt as if someone
had tied him up and attacked the inside of his nose with a tiny
feather. He first pressed the palms of both hands against his nose,
rubbing up and down, trying to crush the tickle. The feeling
persisted, centralized in his left nostril. It moved in a slow
circle, as if probing some alien territory. Looking in the mirror, he
saw that his face was flushed. His entire frame jerked like an old
man’s handshake. Victor’s eyes froze on the flesh on the upper-left
of his nose, where the bone gave way to cartilage. The skin bulged
out very slightly; he couldn’t tell unless he looked at his nose as a
whole.
The bulge moved quickly and efficiently. Victor immediately thought
of a bug. The thought was punctuated by a gag. He bent over the
sink, his mouth opening and closing exaggeratedly as he tried to keep
from spilling his stomach.
There’s a fucking bug in my nose, he thought, panicking. It still
tickled, but his disgust had overwhelmed the response to that feeling.
He opened his mouth, even grunting, “Leww…”, but he stopped
himself. Lucy would have his balls in her fist and him on the street
if she knew there was a bug up his nose.
He closed his eyes, covered his mouth and inhaled. Then he leaned
over the basin and blew out hard through his nasal passages. A lot of
stuff sprayed from his nose. Opening his eyes, he expected to see a
roach or something crawling in the sink.
The furious white porcelain was mottled with red and yellow. Mostly
red. The sight of all the blood made him gasp. The bug increased its
chitinous probing, closer to the nostril opening than before. Looking
at the blood, Victor said, “The little shit is biting me!”
Spider whistled through his brain.
He covered his mouth and blew gain, harder, keeping his eyes peeled
so he could watch it fall into the sink. He’d watch the flow of water
envelop it, drag it down into the pipes. Three more times, three more
sprays of his blood. The tickle was gone. It hurt now. It grasped
the tissue in there in tiny, sharp claws or pincers. And ripped.
“Uhhhhhhhh,” he breathed. Or tried to breath. The left passage was
clogged. That side of his nose had swollen to the size of a gumball.
A steady stream of red seeped from the opening.
“Lucy. Luucy!” he shouted. His voice was muffled and sounded
comical, sounded like some creature on Sesame Street. Tilting his
head back, he lifted the tip of his nose, which gave him a piggish
snout. Angling himself so the light would shine into the darkness, he
looked inside and saw the spider moving like a wicked little demon.
He screamed. “Luuucy! Luuuucy!”

Her voice from across the house, “What’re you yelling about, Vic?”
“Dere’s somefink in my nose! Comp’ere!”
She yelled back at him, “It’s just another booger, asshole. Eat it
for all I care!”
Victor wanted to cry. He glanced at the roll of toiletpaper. It
wouldn’t come out from just blowing. The damn thing was fastened in
there. He knew it wanted to crawl deeper, maybe down his throat.
Maybe into his stomach. Maybe….
He had to crush the spider inside his nose. He had to kill it before
he could spray it out. Taking a stifled breath, he wrapped his thumb
with toilet paper, so didn’t have to feel it. Gingerly, he pushed his
padded thumb up into his nostril. He touched the thing immediately.
The hardness of it and the minuscule twitchings he felt through the
tissue paper made him gag reflexively. He almost pulled out, but
nothing could be worse than having this damn thing in his head.
Pressing his index finger firmly against the outside of his nose,
Victor squeezed the spider viciously, wincing at the expected squoosh
and burst within.
Nothing happened.
For a moment.
He started to squeeze again when a stream of searing breath whistled
from his nose, burning his thumb and scoring a red trail down his palm
and wrist. Gritting his teeth, Victor yanked at his thumb, but the
thing had clutched his thumb in its pincers.
Unable to believe, Victor began to gibber. He encircled his raw
wrist with his left hand and heaved. His wrist and the knuckle of his
thumb cracked loudly, but the thing held fast. Worse, the twitching
movements were drawing on his thumb. He watched, horrified, as the
creases of his thumb gradually disappeared into his nose. He tried to
inhale, so he could scream, but his chest was heavy and felt thick.
Swiveling toward the door, making inaudible, piglet squeaks, another
blast of scorched air streamed from his unblocked nostril. It
devoured the fingers of his clinging left hand with pain, causing it
to release and flail away. His lodged right hand continued to tug,
causing him to lose his balance and crash against the sink. The edge
of the sink crushed his elbow into his ribs, and his face smashed into
the mirror. The rush of air halted abruptly, along with the little
thing’s
Little thing? he thought, crying. Little thing?
sucking of his thumb into his head. From this angle, he couldn’t see
the left side of his nose. He didn’t want to. The taut circle of the
orifice fitted his thumb like a ring. It burned from the exhalations
and the stretching. In that moment, Victor tried to exhale himself,
but his lungs expanded and contracted with no circulation, like he was
a little kid trying to stay underwater longer than he could.
Can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I have to get out of here.
Just as his sneakers gripped the floor, something sharp and small
poked the soft web of skin between his thumb and forefinger. It
punched through, piercing bone and emerged where his wrist met his
palm. Upon bursting through, Victor’s air passages momentarily
cleared and he shrieked, high and shrill, the sound of a small animal
gripped in the talons of an owl. His shriek cut off with a
vaccuum-like inrush of air. The thing inhaled with the power of a
god, and the incredible wind impossibly sucked Victor’s hand into his
face, breaking his teeth, smashing through the roof of his mouth. The
back of his hand crushed his nose from below, sending shards of bone
into his
Oh, fuck what is it It huuurts huuu
brain, relieving Victor of his life. He collapsed on the floor, his
face unrecognizable. His hand was invisible from the middle of the
forearm up, disappearing into the fresh hole in the center of his
face. The edges of the hole were tucked back, also pulled back by the
inhalation.
“Vic?” Lucy called from the bedroom. “Why the hell did you scream
like that?” The doorknob turned. “Victor? What’re you doing? Open
the door. Victor!”
There was a sound. A wet sound. The sound of a tongue licking
something. Victor’s elbow pointed toward the ceiling, and it began to
move in lazy circles. When it stopped, something hummed deeply,
followed by the sound of teeth ripping through skin, crunching through
bone. With nothing to hold it, Victor’s grisly stump plopped out of
the hole of his face and thumped down on the vinyl.
The door rattled. “Victor? What was that sound? Answer me! Open
this fucking door!”
Victor’s corpse stood. Very straight. Twenty-six slender, black
fingers rose from the hole, gained purchase on the gore-strewn edges.
The tip of each finger had three tiny, red appendages of its own, and
those moved wildly, searching for something. Anything.
“You know I don’t have a key, so open this damned door or I’ll call
the cops . I’ll bet you’d love for them to see you like this.”
The fingers shoved against the sides of the hole, pushing apart. A
crack appeared at the top and bottom of the wound and grew in length
like cracks on a windshield. Very slowly, his body was torn in half
by the force of the thing. Its skin shimmered from the wetness of
Victor’s insides, and once either side of Victor hung like banana
skins around a freshly peeled fruit, it shucked the rest down,
stepping out, leaving the split corpse like a husk. Its body was a
maze of crenellations and ridges uncountable. Two black, empty holes
glared out where eyes should have been.
The thing chewed and swallowed the rest of Victor’s hand and upper arm.
“Tastes like me,” it whispered. “Tastes like me.”
“What was that? What did you say?” Lucy squealed. “What was that
tearing sound, Victor? Open this door!”
From within the dark apertures in its head rolled two eyeballs. The
pupils were a stunning blue, but quickly the color drowned in a
milkiness.
“I’m coming, Lucy. Comes the pretty butterfly.” it said. It
scuttled very quietly to the door. “I’m coming and I’m so sorry.”

ShadowCast 019 The Picker’s Harvest

The Picker’s Harvest

by Todd Austin hunt

read by Jason Warden

Download with ITunes

Play in this window

Victor looked at his wife from the corner of his eye. She sat on the
end of the sofa, reading a paperback romance. Fabio was on the cover,
with some woman wrapped around him.
She squeezed the pages tight between her hands. Her mouth was open in
that dopey expression, like she was a dummy lost in the woods. Good.

He focused his eyes back on the video playing on the tube. Gellar,
his therapist, had given him the tape a month ago. He said watching
it every day would take his mind off Lucy, help ease the insecurity
that made him go to the damned shrink in the first place. He thought
it would be boring, but watching the mushy caterpillar breaking out of
the chrysalis into something equally as ugly, but powerful devoured
his interest for the twenty-seventh time. Lucy knew he went to
Gellar, but didn’t know why he had to watch the video.
He twitched his nose, feeling that dry hardness in his nasal cavity
building up. Jesus, it itched like hell! Ever since Gellar gave him
this weird butterfly prescription, his nose wouldn’t leave him alone.
He glanced at Lucy again. His left hand, slug-slow, crept up his
side. It patted his love-handle, squeezed it. It poked into the flab
above it, vainly searching for some ribs.
Lucy turned a page. The hand froze. She sighed.
The hand’s fingers probed his fading pectorals, wiggled the loose
skin covering his collarbone. They spread out on his neck, rubbing
back and forth while Victor pretended to sigh tiredly. They closed
into a fist and rasped against his beard stubble. Then, at last, one
of them found his nose. Victor had a very large nose. His nostrils
screamed for relief. Placing the tip of his forefinger on the
outside, he inserted most of his thumb into his prodigious left
nostril.
Thwack!
Lucy’s paperback slapped down on his hand, knocking it away from his
nose. She stood over him. Her lips squinched together into what
looked like a tight, purple anus. She lightly backhanded his cheek
with the book.
“Owww!” Victor whined.
“Gitcher frickin’ fingers outcher nose!” Lucy barked. “What the hell
is wrong with you, Vick? Every time I look atcha you’re spelunkin’ in
the booger cave!”
He started to push himself up, but she slapped his hands away from
the couch. “You keep them filthy hands in your lap until you wash
them in the sink. With hot water!”
Victor stiffened. “This is my house, woman…” he began.
Lucy cocked her head to the side, looking at him as if he was the
retard in the woods. “Are you actually gonna try to defend your right
to pick your nose?” She closed her eyes and laughed. “Now get off
your ass and go wash your hands.” She snatched the remote control off
the coffee-table and switched off the television.
“The video’s not over!” Victor said.
“It’s nine-thirty. We’re going to bed. I’m sick of watching that
stupid bug.” He opened his mouth in protest, but Lucy stared him
down. He sighed instead and went to the kitchen sink to scrub his
hands. Lucy grabbed his beer, which was still cold and two sips away
from being a virgin, and poured it down the drain after he was
finished. He licked his lips.
In the bedroom, he changed into his pajamas and quickly slid under
the covers. He turned off the bedside lamp and closed his eyes,
praying that Lucy would not want to have sex. It was the most
disgusting thing in the world, rutting with her. Her body was always
cold and smelled like American cheese. She made grunting, snorting
noises that sounded like a wild-boar. And she had to be on top.
Victor felt his lips moving. “Oh please sweet Jesus, not tonight,
not tonight…” His breath caught. She came out of the bathroom,
wearing nothing. “Uhhh, Lucy?” he whispered. “I’m suffering from
terrible cramps…”
“This’ll make ‘m better.” She got into the bed with him, leaving the
lights off. As she started doing her duty, Victor thought about his
life without this woman, this assmouth. It had been wonderful. He
never flinched at anything. He never knew what it felt like to be
scratched for careless words. He’d always eaten his sandwiches with
one or two slices of Kraft cheese.
When she was starting to slow down, he felt a tingle in his right
nostril. The tingle escalated quickly into a scurrying itch. Lucy
had his wrists clamped down to his sides. He twitched his nose a bit;
soon his whole face began a series of writhing contortions. But the
itch got worse, making his eyes water. It was one of those itches
that feel as if something is crawling across your skin. Lucy
finished, letting go of his wrists. Immediately Victor’s hand shot up
to ease the irritation. He plunged his forefinger, scratching,
catching debris under his fingernail. The itch subsided, and he
shuddered in relief.
Lucy opened her eyes, apparently thinking the tremor was a response
to her ministrations.
Victor yanked his finger out and cowered under her. Her lips
tightened, tightened. Her eyebrows crashed together over the bridge
of her nose. She hissed and backhanded him, careful to drag her sharp
talons across his cheek. Victor yelped and covered his face, but Lucy
was already standing on the bed. Curling her toes inward, she kicked
him in the chest, in the stomach, caught him in the balls, shrouding
his stomach with that belly-ache only a man can suffer. He tried to
roll off the bed, but Lucy kicked him hard in the ass, knocking him to
the floor.
“You goddamned piece of Judasshit! You stay the hell out of my bed
if you’re going to do that. I’ve had enough of you, Victor. I don’t
know what to do.” She jumped off the bed, but Victor raced into the
bathroom on his hands and knees and locked the door behind him. Lucy
thumped into the other side, shouting. “Yes, you just stay in there
tonight. Maybe you oughta sleep in the tub. Fill it up, and keep
your head on the wet side!” She hit the door again, then retreated.
He listened to her grumbling curses, and the swish of her stripping
the bedsheets. Leaning with his back against the door, he gently
cupped his crotch with both hands, groaning softly. The air stung the
scratches in his face, and he felt them slowly filling with blood like
new rivers, seeping down over his heavy jaw, splattering the vinyl
bathroom floor. The mirror was just a few feet away. His heart
thumped at having to look at himself.
He flicked the light switch and stumbled to the sink. Five large
light-bulbs cast shadow eating light in the bathroom, attached above
the large, rectangular mirror. Victor was revealed and he cursed.
The regular, lumpy nose, milky eyes, Leno-jaw. He cursed at the
bloody rips in his face. Tomorrow he had to go to work like this.
She had never scratched his face. All the guys at the post office
knew he didn’t have a cat; they knew he had Lucy, though.
He could already hear those little chuckles– all those brand-new
jokes and the thanks he would get for comic inspiration.
“You fucking bitch!” he shouted. It started a roar and ended a
squeal. As the swishing ended, he heard her laughing. “Don’t laugh
at me!” All squeal.
“Shut up and start your blubbering,” she said lightly. “It’s a
little easier to say those things locked up nice and safe in the
bathroom, isn’t it?”
Victor waited until he heard her leave the bedroom before he started
to clean the cuts. The water made him wince, and a black cloud of
obscenities shrouded his head while he pressed a towel to his cheek to
stop the bleeding. After applying some mercurochrome, he lifted a
stack of towels for a pillow in the tub, but dropped them when that
itch abruptly possessed the inside of his nostril. His eyes watered
immediately, seeped. He shoved his finger in past the first joint,
scratching, scraping away anything that yielded. The itch subsided,
and he pulled his finger out and rolled what he’d found between his
thumb and forefinger. He grinned, thinking if assmouth saw me doing
this…
Chuffing, he flicked the booger roll into the sink. It landed,
spearlike, in a drop of water on the verge of falling into the pipes.
Victor turned the water on full blast and washed it away. Reaching to
shut it off, he saw his hand tremble, and enormous gooseflesh rose on
his hands and arms. He felt his tight-fitting shirt raise from his
skin. His head convulsed involuntary, a spluttery sound too wet to be
a giggle burst from his lips.
The itch had turned into an insane tickling. It felt as if someone
had tied him up and attacked the inside of his nose with a tiny
feather. He first pressed the palms of both hands against his nose,
rubbing up and down, trying to crush the tickle. The feeling
persisted, centralized in his left nostril. It moved in a slow
circle, as if probing some alien territory. Looking in the mirror, he
saw that his face was flushed. His entire frame jerked like an old
man’s handshake. Victor’s eyes froze on the flesh on the upper-left
of his nose, where the bone gave way to cartilage. The skin bulged
out very slightly; he couldn’t tell unless he looked at his nose as a
whole.
The bulge moved quickly and efficiently. Victor immediately thought
of a bug. The thought was punctuated by a gag. He bent over the
sink, his mouth opening and closing exaggeratedly as he tried to keep
from spilling his stomach.
There’s a fucking bug in my nose, he thought, panicking. It still
tickled, but his disgust had overwhelmed the response to that feeling.
He opened his mouth, even grunting, “Leww…”, but he stopped
himself. Lucy would have his balls in her fist and him on the street
if she knew there was a bug up his nose.
He closed his eyes, covered his mouth and inhaled. Then he leaned
over the basin and blew out hard through his nasal passages. A lot of
stuff sprayed from his nose. Opening his eyes, he expected to see a
roach or something crawling in the sink.
The furious white porcelain was mottled with red and yellow. Mostly
red. The sight of all the blood made him gasp. The bug increased its
chitinous probing, closer to the nostril opening than before. Looking
at the blood, Victor said, “The little shit is biting me!”
Spider whistled through his brain.
He covered his mouth and blew gain, harder, keeping his eyes peeled
so he could watch it fall into the sink. He’d watch the flow of water
envelop it, drag it down into the pipes. Three more times, three more
sprays of his blood. The tickle was gone. It hurt now. It grasped
the tissue in there in tiny, sharp claws or pincers. And ripped.
“Uhhhhhhhh,” he breathed. Or tried to breath. The left passage was
clogged. That side of his nose had swollen to the size of a gumball.
A steady stream of red seeped from the opening.
“Lucy. Luucy!” he shouted. His voice was muffled and sounded
comical, sounded like some creature on Sesame Street. Tilting his
head back, he lifted the tip of his nose, which gave him a piggish
snout. Angling himself so the light would shine into the darkness, he
looked inside and saw the spider moving like a wicked little demon.
He screamed. “Luuucy! Luuuucy!”

Her voice from across the house, “What’re you yelling about, Vic?”
“Dere’s somefink in my nose! Comp’ere!”
She yelled back at him, “It’s just another booger, asshole. Eat it
for all I care!”
Victor wanted to cry. He glanced at the roll of toiletpaper. It
wouldn’t come out from just blowing. The damn thing was fastened in
there. He knew it wanted to crawl deeper, maybe down his throat.
Maybe into his stomach. Maybe….
He had to crush the spider inside his nose. He had to kill it before
he could spray it out. Taking a stifled breath, he wrapped his thumb
with toilet paper, so didn’t have to feel it. Gingerly, he pushed his
padded thumb up into his nostril. He touched the thing immediately.
The hardness of it and the minuscule twitchings he felt through the
tissue paper made him gag reflexively. He almost pulled out, but
nothing could be worse than having this damn thing in his head.
Pressing his index finger firmly against the outside of his nose,
Victor squeezed the spider viciously, wincing at the expected squoosh
and burst within.
Nothing happened.
For a moment.
He started to squeeze again when a stream of searing breath whistled
from his nose, burning his thumb and scoring a red trail down his palm
and wrist. Gritting his teeth, Victor yanked at his thumb, but the
thing had clutched his thumb in its pincers.
Unable to believe, Victor began to gibber. He encircled his raw
wrist with his left hand and heaved. His wrist and the knuckle of his
thumb cracked loudly, but the thing held fast. Worse, the twitching
movements were drawing on his thumb. He watched, horrified, as the
creases of his thumb gradually disappeared into his nose. He tried to
inhale, so he could scream, but his chest was heavy and felt thick.
Swiveling toward the door, making inaudible, piglet squeaks, another
blast of scorched air streamed from his unblocked nostril. It
devoured the fingers of his clinging left hand with pain, causing it
to release and flail away. His lodged right hand continued to tug,
causing him to lose his balance and crash against the sink. The edge
of the sink crushed his elbow into his ribs, and his face smashed into
the mirror. The rush of air halted abruptly, along with the little
thing’s
Little thing? he thought, crying. Little thing?
sucking of his thumb into his head. From this angle, he couldn’t see
the left side of his nose. He didn’t want to. The taut circle of the
orifice fitted his thumb like a ring. It burned from the exhalations
and the stretching. In that moment, Victor tried to exhale himself,
but his lungs expanded and contracted with no circulation, like he was
a little kid trying to stay underwater longer than he could.
Can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I have to get out of here.
Just as his sneakers gripped the floor, something sharp and small
poked the soft web of skin between his thumb and forefinger. It
punched through, piercing bone and emerged where his wrist met his
palm. Upon bursting through, Victor’s air passages momentarily
cleared and he shrieked, high and shrill, the sound of a small animal
gripped in the talons of an owl. His shriek cut off with a
vaccuum-like inrush of air. The thing inhaled with the power of a
god, and the incredible wind impossibly sucked Victor’s hand into his
face, breaking his teeth, smashing through the roof of his mouth. The
back of his hand crushed his nose from below, sending shards of bone
into his
Oh, fuck what is it It huuurts huuu
brain, relieving Victor of his life. He collapsed on the floor, his
face unrecognizable. His hand was invisible from the middle of the
forearm up, disappearing into the fresh hole in the center of his
face. The edges of the hole were tucked back, also pulled back by the
inhalation.
“Vic?” Lucy called from the bedroom. “Why the hell did you scream
like that?” The doorknob turned. “Victor? What’re you doing? Open
the door. Victor!”
There was a sound. A wet sound. The sound of a tongue licking
something. Victor’s elbow pointed toward the ceiling, and it began to
move in lazy circles. When it stopped, something hummed deeply,
followed by the sound of teeth ripping through skin, crunching through
bone. With nothing to hold it, Victor’s grisly stump plopped out of
the hole of his face and thumped down on the vinyl.
The door rattled. “Victor? What was that sound? Answer me! Open
this fucking door!”
Victor’s corpse stood. Very straight. Twenty-six slender, black
fingers rose from the hole, gained purchase on the gore-strewn edges.
The tip of each finger had three tiny, red appendages of its own, and
those moved wildly, searching for something. Anything.
“You know I don’t have a key, so open this damned door or I’ll call
the cops . I’ll bet you’d love for them to see you like this.”
The fingers shoved against the sides of the hole, pushing apart. A
crack appeared at the top and bottom of the wound and grew in length
like cracks on a windshield. Very slowly, his body was torn in half
by the force of the thing. Its skin shimmered from the wetness of
Victor’s insides, and once either side of Victor hung like banana
skins around a freshly peeled fruit, it shucked the rest down,
stepping out, leaving the split corpse like a husk. Its body was a
maze of crenellations and ridges uncountable. Two black, empty holes
glared out where eyes should have been.
The thing chewed and swallowed the rest of Victor’s hand and upper arm.
“Tastes like me,” it whispered. “Tastes like me.”
“What was that? What did you say?” Lucy squealed. “What was that
tearing sound, Victor? Open this door!”
From within the dark apertures in its head rolled two eyeballs. The
pupils were a stunning blue, but quickly the color drowned in a
milkiness.
“I’m coming, Lucy. Comes the pretty butterfly.” it said. It
scuttled very quietly to the door. “I’m coming and I’m so sorry.”

ShadowCast 007 Sin Earth

Click here to get 1 Million Guaranteed Real Visitors, FREE!

Sin Earth

by Jeremy C. Shipp

read by Kate Sherrod

Download with ITunes
Play in this window
Finding a pyramid of sticky bluebursts and a bucket of water before your doorway doesn’t necessarily mean that the villagers of Sin Earth respect you, or even like you.  The act may instead imply that no one really wants to see your face outside as they’re living what my mother would call their pathetic little lives, singing and dancing and eating and sometimes carving ancient faces from spirewood that they burn right after, because otherwise the Enforcers would beat the culprits senseless with sacred clubs.

One such club rots away under the table where I set my bluebursts.  Enforcer Yor gave me this weapon the day of my mother’s funeral.  “She was a good woman,” he told me.  “Very reliable.”  Then he handed me his club, which he described in almost the same way.

I pluck the top fruit off the pyramid, and chew.  Juicy, delicious.  But my mother still says, “You deserve better than this animal food.”  She says, “Go to the barracks and ask for a descent meal.  They’ll take care of you.”

I take another bite.  “I’d rather stay in my hut today.”

Every day.

“Well,” she says.  “At least you’ll avoid the rabble.”

Don’t get me wrong.  I don’t particularly enjoy staying cooped up in my room, my mother haunting me with wispy words, unable to let go.  But usually, I’d rather stay in here, than go out there.

At least here I don’t feel a hundred eyes peeling off my flesh, draining my blood, staring at that festering blotch I can’t wash off or shit out.

Here, at least I can pretend.

A crow dives through my window and lands on my mother’s chair and nibbles at a string on his leg.  I untie the note.

“What are you reading?” my mother says.  She would examine the letter herself, of course, but I’m the only thing she can see anymore.

“It’s from the Thundershines,” I say.

“Those fools never wrote me any letters.  What do they want?”

“They’re inviting me for tea.”

She laughs.

The crow nudges at one of the bluebursts with his beak.

“Go ahead,” I say.

So the crow pecks away.

“Go ahead what?” my mother says.

“I was talking to the crow.”

“Never mind the beast.  You write a letter to Grandma Thundershine and thank her for the offer but tell her you’d much rather devour your own legs.”  She chuckles.

“I don’t think so.”

“Are you talking to me or the bird?”

“You.”

“How dare you speak to me that way?  I’m not here for myself, you know, Gourd.  I’ve given up a lot to stay and counsel you.”

“I know, mother.  Thank you.”

“You won’t visit them, will you?”

“I haven’t decided yet.”

But the truth is, I have.

I reach out to pet the crow, and he bites at my finger.

“Sorry,” I say to the bird.

“I’ll forgive you this time,” my mother says.

Maybe one day I’ll honor my mother and carve her festering blotch of a face into a spirewood log, but for now I feel like tea.

***

Stepping through the archway into the Thundershine longhouse is almost like stepping into one of my mother’s books.  The men wear suits.  The women wear dresses.  The problem is that no one’s greeting me with a handshake or even a smile.

I follow the bird, and my bare feet smack against the intricate flowers and vines painted on the stone floor.  I try to lighten my step without looking even more stupid.  It doesn’t work.

As soon as I enter the dining room, the conversations that died when I first entered the house suddenly come back to life behind me.

“Close the door,” someone wheezes.

I do as I’m told.

“You’re going to regret this,” my mother says.

The crow hops onto the table, and the work of art, or what I assumed was a work of art, starts to move.  On closer inspection, this skeletal sculpture is actually an old woman, not much more than skin and bones that cling together so tight there’s hardly a wrinkle anywhere.  Her hand quakes all the way to the bird.

Then the crow speaks, in a soft feminine voice.  It says, “Forgive me for not serving you, Gourd.  I’m afraid I can’t stand.”  The old woman’s lip lines move a little as the bird releases the words.

I pour some tea into a cup painted with elaborate blue flowers that match the old woman’s dress.  I drink.  Rich, warm.

Still my mother says, “She’s trying to poison you.”

The woman lifts a cup with her free hand, but the shaking causes most of the contents to spill out.  A drop or two spatters on the bird.  I expect him to fly away or at least flinch.  He doesn’t.

I’m angry that no one but the bird is here to help this old woman.

“Can I hold your cup for you as you drink?” I say.

“It’s alright,” she says.  “The tea wouldn’t do any good for me anyway.”

I set my cup down.

“What are they saying to you?” my mother says.  “Don’t listen to their lies.”

“My name is Stone, though most everyone calls me Grandma,” she says.  “I’m sure your mother spoke of me often.”

Hearing the word Grandma is enough to gnarl my innards.

As a child, I hated Grandma Thundershine with a blind intensity that only a child can perfect.

I hated her cruelty.  I hated the toys and the cousins she kept away from me.  Mostly, I hated my mother’s eyes every time she talked about this old woman.

And of course, part of me still does.

“I’ve invited you here because I’d like to give you a chance to prove yourself,” she says.  “To prove that you belong with us.”

I smile.

I smile at the enemy, because I want smiles and handshakes in return.  I want to wear a suit.

“You’re talking to her, aren’t you?” my mother says.  “She’ll ruin your life, Gourd.  She’ll destroy you.”

Every wonderful part of life that was taken from my mother exists here, in this house.

“I’m sorry that you and your mother were punished for ideals that have been passed down generation to generation,” Grandma says.  “It’s no one’s fault, really.  Many hoped that we could finally rid these values from our family once and for all, by keeping you and your mother outside these walls.  So that they would die with you.”  Her hand slides off the crow and rests on the table for a while.

I sit in silence, waiting.

After a few moments, she manages to lift her arm again.

“I understand as much as anyone the benefits of sacrifice,” she says.  “But I’d rather give you a choice.  Luckily, my family feels so guilty about the sacrifices I myself make that they’ve agreed to honor my request.”  She closes her eyes.  “You should know that this is a dangerous situation, and I do have an alternative motive in asking you to be a part of it.”  She opens her eyes again.  “I’m not very attached to you, Gourd.  If you died, I probably wouldn’t mourn much at all.”

“Better me than a loved one,” I say.

She nods.  “It’s not that I couldn’t come to love you.  I simply don’t know you.”

“I understand.  I’ll do whatever you want.”  I take a gulp of tea.  Strong, cold, like I feel.

But my mother still says, “You can’t do this.”  She sounds like she might start crying, but of course she won’t.

She can’t.

***

I expect a claustrophobic desk surrounded by colossal walls of portly books.  I expect a clean cut man in glasses wearing a black suit, standing in front of a busy chalkboard.  In other words, I expect the illustration on the cover of one of my favorite books growing up: The Fast Learner.

I don’t expect an underground burrow with a mound of dirt in the center.  I don’t expect a very short man without a shirt on, sitting on that mound, encircled by candles.

And I don’t expect a hug.

“Sit with me,” he says.

So I join him inside the circle.

“You’re Antash?” I say.

“I’m one who goes by that name, yes.  Hopefully you’re Gourd and not an Enforcer.  Because if I just hugged an Enforcer, I’d need to bathe for a few days, and I don’t have time for that.”

“I’m Gourd.”

“You’re a disgrace,” my mother says.

Antash grins.

Then the crow hops in from the darkness of the stairway and flies onto a perch that I didn’t see before sticking out of the wall.

“It seems Avalanche likes you,” Antash says.  “He goes where he pleases, and he’s come to help you.”

“Oh,” I say, and try to suppress my smile.  He’s only a bird after all.

“Before we do anything else, you need to meet Miravel,” Antash says.

“Miravel?” I say.

“The Spirit of Life and Death.  You haven’t heard of him?”

“No.”

“Never mind that.”  He holds my hands.  “If he ends up not wanting to work with you, Gourd, don’t blame yourself.  He’s a strange spirit.  I’ve known him for years, and I still don’t see any rhyme or reason behind his decisions.  The only advice I can really give you is to compliment him on his hair.  Other than that, just talk to him.”

“I don’t know what to say.”

“They want you dead,” my mother says.

“You’ll be fine.”  Antash closes his eyes and buries his hands in the dirt.

When he opens his eyes again, all the candles burn out, and his pupils illuminate the room with crimson light.

I want my hut.

“You woke me from a very pleasant dream where I was beaching a whale,” Antash says.  Miravel says.

“I’m sorry,” I say.

“Are you going to introduce yourself, or should I call you Dream Spoiler from now on?”

“I’m Gourd.”

“Dream Spoiler is more interesting.  What am I doing here, Dream Spoiler?”

“I’d like to work with you.  Please.”

“I could grant your request.”  His hand thrusts from the earth and clamps my neck.  “Or I could kill you.”

“Please,” I try to say.  I also try to pry off his small fingers, but fail at that as well.

“I told you,” my mother says.

Avalanche swoops down.  He bites and claws at Antash’s neck.  Miravel’s neck.

Miravel releases his grip on my neck, and replaces it with one on the bird’s.

Avalanche squirms, squawks, chaws.

I watch.

“You’d let me strangle this bird after he saved you?” Miravel says.

“I don’t think I can stop you,” I say.

“You’re a fool,” he says.  “I’m in a mortal body with mortal weaknesses.”

Still, I watch.  I say, “You have nice hair.”

I hear a crack.  Avalanche collapses, like every villager collapses after an Enforcer finishes the job.  And Miravel smiles, the way my mother would smile when she had lips.  When she forced me to watch the bloody scene outside the hut.

“Do you still want to work with me?” Miravel says.

“Yes,” I say.

I want a suit.  I want to stay in this longhouse and never see another villager fall.  They make me sick.

Miravel tosses the bird.  In mid air, his wings burst with life and he soars to the perch.

“I’ll kill you another day, Dream Spoiler,” Miravel says, and unearths his hand.  The light of his eyes fade.

We sit in the darkness.

I hear weeping.

“Antash?” I say.  “Are you hurt?”

“Miravel sends me to my family when he inhabits my body,” Antash says.  “I can’t take the memories back here with me.  Only the feelings.”  He lights a candle, and I can see his tears.

“You’re not a Thundershine?” I say.

“No,” he says.  “But never mind that.  We need cockroaches.”

***

Here she is, the key to my salvation: a middle-aged woman named Fireball the Immortal, who even I’ve heard of.  She tosses her wooden sword on my table.  Then she sits on my chair by my fire.

“So you’re him, huh?” she says.

“I’m him,” I say.

“Can you believe the rain out there?” She pulls back her hood, revealing her infamous red hair.  It’s not as striking as I thought it would be.  “This is why I hate coming home.”  She pulls off her boots.  “Do you have any food in here?”

“No.”

“Can you get me some?  I’m starving.”

“Okay.”  I head for the door.

“On second thought, I’m too tired to eat.  Which pile of fur is my bed?”

I point.

“Can you move it closer to the fire?”

I do.

After she’s cocooned herself in layers of fur blankets, she says, “How many Enforcers would you say live in those barracks?”

“Maybe twenty,” I say, though I know for a fact that there are twenty two.  I also know all their names, and they know mine.

“That’s too much,” she says.  “This is going to be horrible.  I hope I never wake up.”

I worry about how to respond, until I hear her snoring.

“You can’t fight the State,” my mother says.  “You’re going to fail.  You have to end this now.  Use the knife I gave you.”

“Goodnight mother.”

***

Once again, the tiny legs twitch and quiver until they don’t twitch and quiver anymore, and Avalanche stares at the cockroach from across the room.

“Are you concentrating?” Antash says.

“Yes,” I say.

“Please stop.  Consciously, all you need is intent.  The rest comes from where your feelings live.”

“I can’t do this.”

“You can.”  Antash places his hands on my shoulders, gentle, as if I deserve to be touched.

“You told me I’d be ready by now,” I say.  “And I can’t even help a stupid bug.”

“They’re not stupid, and you will be ready soon.  You’re simply blocked up inside.”

My mother says, “Stick with them, and you’re doomed to play with insects the rest of your life.  They’ll never let you read in the study or dance in the ballroom.  They won’t share their cologne.  They’re going to betray you.”

Antash holds out his open palm, so I drop the insect on top, because any longer and it would be too late.

In an instant, the cockroach jolts and scuttles off his hand onto the mound of dirt.

In another instant, Avalanche swoops down and swallows the little life whole.

***

They’ve done something stupid again, like attempt to hide a shrine in their hut, or speak the name of a demon in front of a snooping Enforcer.  I know this because I hear them crying, a man and a woman.

They never learn.

They make me sick.

Fireball ties open the front door flap and sits on my chair, staring outside.  She clenches her wooden sword.  And her teeth.

She says, “Bastards.”

I don’t have to watch.  My mother isn’t forcing me to this time.

Still, I watch as Enforcer Yor smashes a young woman across the head.  She falls next to her husband or brother or whoever he is.  Heavenly Law states that the beating must end as soon as the culprit loses consciousness.  So obviously, the Enforcers avoid the head for as long as possible.  It’s usually Enforcer Yor who carries out the final blow.  He once described himself to my mother as, “The Hand of Mercy.”

A little boy with flower petals stuck to his hair clings to his mother’s leg.  He’s been there the whole punishment, and so that leg remains unbloodied and untouched by clubs.  The boy, however, drips with his mother’s blood, and some of his own.  The Enforcers tried to avoid hitting the boy, but no one’s perfect.

Enforcer Yor pries the boy loose. He hands him over to an elderly villager and smiles, motioning to the sky.  He’s saying something about Heaven’s plan, I’m sure.  And I’m sure no one’s listening but himself.

The Enforcers drag the man and woman away, towards the barracks.  The boy would follow the trails of blood they leave behind, if he wasn’t held down by three other villagers.

Fireball releases her sword.  She cries.

I don’t.

Yes, the situation outside is a little sad, but it’s also normal.  It’s life.

It’s The Way Things Are.

“I’m finishing this tomorrow night,” she says.  “You better be ready.”

“I need more time,” I say.

She wipes her face with her sleeve.  “Don’t talk like that.  You’re making me nervous.”

“I really need more time.”

“No, time isn’t the secret to accomplishing great things.  You just need to take a deep breath, and do what you need to do.”

“It’s not as simple as that.”

“Yes it is.  Go do it.  But bring me some water first.  My mouth is dry.”

***

Antash holds me in his arms, and I wonder if he’s like this with all of his students, or if he somehow knows that I’m starving for contact.

It doesn’t really matter.

Here, amidst his warmth, I feel different.  I cry.

Not for Fireball or Grandma Thundershine or Antash.  I cry for myself.

My mother doesn’t need to say it.  I know I’m going to fail.

Antash clutches my arms and looks me in the eyes.  “You must feel very alone, Gourd.  I haven’t lived your life, but I understand that kind of pain.”  He takes my hands.  “I’m a demon.”

That can’t be true.

My tears stop.

“Do you know the story of Sin Earth?” Antash says.

“Bits and pieces,” I say.

“Well.  A long time ago, a demon clan lived on this land.  My ancestors.  They were very skilled in the demonic arts, but during the Cleansing, most were slaughtered by the Crusaders of Light.”  He pauses, maybe waiting for me to respond.

I don’t.

“The villagers who eventually settled here believed, and still believe, that the blood of my ancestors spilt on this land blessed it with demonic power.  A power, they say, that allows them to live the way they want to live.  Therefore, the villagers won’t stop honoring my kin, no matter what the Enforcers do to them.”

The villagers and their resolve make me sick, but I don’t say so.

Instead I say, “If your people were slaughtered, how are you here?”

“A few survived,” Antash says.  “They traveled to a place we call the Hidden Valley and flourished for a while.  Then, years ago, we were discovered by the State, and imprisoned for worshipping demons.”

“But you are demons.”

“According to the Heavenly Texts, demons don’t exist.  Not anymore.  Me and my sister escaped, and she died before the Thundershines found me.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Thank you.”  He hugs me again.  “You may not feel ready for tonight, but you are.  Trust me.”

Part of me almost does trust him, but most of me doesn’t.

Most of me feels uncomfortable that Antash is a demon.  My mother told me the only good that came from demons is the power they discovered.  She said they were simple primitives, like the villagers of Sin Earth, no better than animals.  She said they were better off dead.

Most of me leaves the hollow and heads back to my hut.  And part of me stays behind, in Antash’s arms, amidst his warmth.  Feeling different.

***

Fireballs’ tears gush forth as she says, “I don’t want to do this.  I hate this.  I hate this!”  She throws her wooden sword across the room and knocks over one of my mother’s books: Dancing Etiquette for Wedding Ceremonies.

I walk over to replace the book, but decide to leave it in the dirt instead.

Fireball curls up on her bed.  She sobs even louder.

I walk over to kneel by her, to place a hand on her shoulder.  But I cross my arms and stand there instead.  I’m not Antash.

Avalanche steps off my mother’s chair and soars down beside Fireball.  He pecks at her arm.

“Stop that, Avalanche,” she says.

He doesn’t.

“Stop it!”  She stands and straightens her tunic.  “You know, for a god, you’re really annoying.”

Fireball squawks.

“What do you mean god?” I say.

“He’s a god,” she says.  “He’s Miravel’s children.  Miravel had four children, but they all sort of joined together into one being.  It’s complicated.”

“Why are they stuck in that body?”

“They’re not.”  She picks up her sword.  “I’m ready to go now.”  She ties her hair back with a string, then steps outside.

I follow.

The villagers dance around two bonfires tonight, and somehow I know they’re honoring trees.   Fireball walks out into the clearing between the two fires and waits.

The singing stops.  The dancing stops.  All eyes focus on Fireball.

I remain at the outside of the clearing, with Avalanche on a nearby blueburst branch.

Fireball points her sword at a couple of Enforcers standing outside the barracks.  “Tell your commander I’m here,” she says.

They look at each other and go inside.

Fireball’s nothing like the bawling mess I witnessed only moments ago.  She’s like a statue now.  Solid, stable.

Still my mother says, “They’re going to destroy her.”

Enforcer Yor, and every other Enforcer in the village, exits the barracks and forms a line between Fireball and the building.

“Welcome to our little village, stranger,” Enforcer Yor says, and approaches Fireball.  “If there’s anything the State can do to make your stay more comfortable, please let us know.”

“Leave here and never return,” Fireball says.  In the light of these bonfires, her hair is more than striking.

Enforcer Yor grins.  “How could we rid the world of demonic remnants if we left, my dear?”

“You couldn’t.  You have no right to be here.”

“We have every right that matters.”

“I won’t let you have Sin Earth.”

“There’s nothing you can do, sweetheart.  It will be ours.”

Heavenly Law states that land isn’t hereditary.  Not anymore.

Property reverts to the State when the owner dies.

When Grandma Thundershine dies.

Fireball points her sword at Enforcer Yor’s face.  The Enforcers immediately drop their clubs and draw their sacred blades.

“If you touch us in violence we have the right to use lethal force,” Enforcer Yor says.

“It won’t matter what you do to me,” she says.  “I’m Fireball the Immortal.”

“No you’re not.”  Enforcer Yor keeps his smile on, but his eyes look frightened.

According to the Heavenly Texts, there’s no such person as Fireball the Immortal.  She’s a myth created by simple-minded villagers.

Fireball lifts her necklace from under her shirt and reveals a whistle.  She blows.

A flurry of white fur rushes from the forest.  I stand, shaking, as the enormous monkeys race past me to the middle of the clearing.

“The demon gods have come to fight for their people,” Fireball says.

“There are no demons,” Enforcer Yor says.  “The Heavens cleansed them from the earth long ago.”

“Will you leave this place?”

Enforcer Yor’s smile fades.  “No.”

There’s a short pause, and then the battle begins.

The Enforcers use their metal.  Fireball and the monkeys use their wood.

The villagers watch because to fight would change them from the People of Sin Earth into something else.

And me, I close my eyes.

I hear screams and shouts and thuds and groans.  I hear Avalanche’s squawking.  I hear crying.  I hear my mother’s bitter silence.

“Gourd!” Fireball says.  “Help her!  Hurry!”

I open my eyes and scream as a giant monkey charges right at me.  He hurries past me, dragging a monkey behind him.  He leaves the body behind a tree.

“Help her!” Fireball says.

I walk behind the tree and stare at the monkey.  She’s bleeding from the neck.

I kneel.  I place my hand on her bloodied fur.

I wait.

After a while, it’s too late.  I step out from behind the tree.

“Where is she?” Fireball says.

I stare at her.  Her worst cut is on her nose.  What’s left of her nose anyway.

“Gourd!” Fireball says.

“I couldn’t do it,” I say.  “I’m sorry.”

Fireball growls and rejoins the battle.

I watch as Enforcer Yor runs up behind Fireball.  I could shout out for her to look out, but I don’t.  This is the way it has to be.

After Fireball falls, a monkey carries her into my hut, and I follow.  I’m afraid one of those things would smash my head in if I didn’t.

The monkey grunts at me, then leaves.

I kneel beside Fireball.

I place my hand on her.

I wait.

I can’t do this.

“Gourd,” a voice says behind me.

I turn around and smile.

He’s here.

He’s here to save me.

He smiles at me and drinks from a tiny cup.  Then he falls to the ground.

“Antash!” I say.

I check his body.  He’s dead.

I place my hands on his chest.  His warmth is disappearing.

I’m a bawling mess.  Shaky, broken.

Still my mother says, “You make me sick.”

I stand and face my mother’s chair, though I can’t see her there.  “You make me sick, mother,” I say, breaking through my sobs.

“How dare you—”

“You could have left this village to start a new life.  We could have been happy, but you stayed here to take your anger out on these people.”  I reach under the table and retrieve the sacred club.  “You spied on them.  You lied about them.  You got them beaten and imprisoned.  You separated parents from their children.  You make me sick!”  I smash her chair, over and over.  Then I throw the sacred club out the door.

“If you don’t apologize, I’m going to disown—”

“Shut up, mother!”

And finally, she’s gone.

I place my hands on Antash’s chest again and remember the first time my mother forced me to sit on her chair, and watch through the doorway as a villager was attacked.  The villager’s name was Kyar.

Back then, I didn’t hold back my tears.

Back then, I wasn’t afraid to care.

My mother slapped me.  “Don’t you dare cry for them, Gourd,” she said.  “They’re the reason we’re stuck out here.”

But I didn’t feel stuck.

I liked when Kyar taught me how to dance, and Vyen taught me how to sing.  I liked playing with Bayarg and Chirwa.  I was only a little boy, but I liked my home.  I liked my people.

My mother thought the Thundershines were wasting their powers on these simple primitives, no better than animals.

I don’t.

Thundershines, demons, spirits, villagers, animals.  I’ll fight for the good of them all.

Anytime someone uses Miravel’s power, there’s a chance the spirit god will take the life of the caster.

Still, I take the chance.

Miravel’s power rushes through the ground into my feet, through my body, out my fingertips.

Gourd opens his eyes.

I spin around and place my hands on Fireball.

I’m afraid it’s too late, but I allow Miravel’s power to flow through me anyway.

I wait for death.

It doesn’t come, however, and Fireball opens her eyes and breathes.

“I hate dying,” she says.  Then she hugs me.  “Let’s finish this”

Me and Antash follow her outside.

She blows her whistle, and the gigantic monkeys retreat to the forest.

The still conscious Enforcers stare at Fireball the Immortal.  She’s alive and unwounded.

She points her sword.  “Leave here and never return.”

“I think we’ve done all we can here,” Enforcer Yor says.  “We should return to the Capital.”

“Release your captives, then go.”

The Enforcers walk and limp into the barracks.

After a short time, dirty and emaciated villagers leave the building.  Even in their weak state, they hurry toward the others.

Family’s reunite.

Enforcers retreat.

Avalanche lands nearby, dotted with blood, and I feed him some spicenuts I kept in my pocket.

As I smile, a memory bursts in my mind.  I remember a spirit I played with as a young child.  My mother told me he was imaginary.  She told me to forget about him, and eventually I did.  He was a crow.

I look around for Fireball, but don’t see her.  I have a feeling she’s behind a tree, crying over the body of an old friend.

“We should say goodbye to Grandma Thundershine before I release her,” Antash says.

“Release her?” I say.

“Her time to enter the spirit world was a long time ago, but she asked me to keep her alive.  Her life was the only thing keeping the State from devastating this land.  The villagers would have been driven out.  The forest would have been annihilated.  The earth itself would have died.  But now we’re safe again.”

I’m afraid that the Enforcers will return, but I know Antash is right.

The Heavenly Texts state that there’s no such person as Fireball the Immortal.  There are no demons anymore.  No demonic powers.  There are only simple worshippers with primitive minds, who need to be converted and civilized.

And so, when something contradicts the Heavenly Texts, the State destroys it.  And when it can’t be destroyed, the State does its best to ignore it.

The Enforcers won’t come back.

“Antash,” I say.

My mother says nothing.

I’m not afraid to care anymore.

I take a deep breath, and do what I need to do.

Antash smiles.
Download with ITunes