Side Effects

Lub-dub Lub-dub Lub-dub Lub-dub Lub-dub

Her heartbeat is ringing out as clear as a bell. I leap through the air, traveling a hundred feet with every jump. My back and knees are never going to forgive me for this, but there’s no way she’d survive if I tried to run her in at this speed. She’d be killed by the wind shear before we made it two blocks, and suffocate well before we reached the hospital.

I’m on the rooftops now. It only took a few minutes to get here from outside the city, but it might as well have been forever. My hands are slick with her blood. She clutches at me with surprisingly strong fingers. Normally, her nails would be digging into my skin. But for the next five minutes it’s hard as a rock.

I pray that’s enough time.

The trouble with a city like this is that all the damn buildings and traffic get in the way. If I didn’t care about collateral damage, I could bounce straight to the hospital, flattening cars and knocking down walls on the way. But there are people in those cars, and people on the sidewalks under those buildings. It doesn’t make sense to save one life if I’m killing a few dozen others, no matter what my intentions are.

Lub-dub Lub-dub Lub-dub Lub-dub Lub-dub

It’s like a metronome, ticking her life away. I try keeping a mental count in my head while also dodging and weaving my way around innocent people. A few quick bursts of speed as I run get me through the worst of the downtown traffic.

She’s stopped scratching at my face now. Instead, her hands are wrapped around my neck. Her fingers are freezing. I try to tell myself that it’s the cold air rushing past. Or maybe the rain. The last thing I want to think about is the truth: that this woman is going to die in my arms if I don’t go faster.

I’m starting to feel her weight more. She wasn’t terribly heavy when I grabbed her from the car accident out in the suburbs. I know you’re not supposed to move someone. I know that. But she was going to die if I didn’t. I took a calculated risk.

It’s not like I’m new at this. As near as I can tell, my record is around two hundred lives saved in one night. Each pill only gives me twelve hours. Then I’m normal again. No super speed or super strength. No more enhanced hearing or vision. Just me, with my shitty retail job and tiny little apartment.

Lubdublubdublubdublubdublubdub

Her heart’s beating faster. I’m losing her. Moving faster now, running up walls and zipping around people. Moving so fast the rest of the world stands still. I try to keep her tucked in against my body, telling myself that a missing finger or toe is better than her dying.

My mind runs back over that first night. When I spent my first few hours dicking around in a junkyard. Picking up cars and tossing them like they weighed nothing. Trying to run up walls. It was supposed to be a clinical study. Try out a new drug, earn a couple hundred bucks. Easy money.

Instead I got powers. The first thing I did, once Dr. Porter explained what had happened to me, was steal three bottles. Then I got the hell out of there. Sitting around while a bunch of guys in lab coats poked and prodded me suddenly didn’t sound all that appealing.

“One pill, twelve hours,” Dr Porter said. It’s the only thing I really remember before I raced out the door. They weren’t pissed enough to come looking for me, so I’m hoping that somewhere he’s approving. Hopefully he didn’t get fired.

LubdublubdblbdbLubdubLub–

The woman in my arms is shaking. I can see the hospital just up the street from us. We’re going to make it. Her eyes flutter and for a second she smiles. She knows I’m going to save her. We can make it. I duck my head down and run faster. There are a lot of cameras outside hospitals, and I don’t wear a mask or a gaudy costume. The plan is to jump and then land near the entrance. Set her down and take off again fast enough that they can’t identify me.

The shaking is getting worse. I try to write it off as cold, or maybe a reaction to the run. That’s happened before. This is different. It’s hard to hold on to her. My legs tense, and I jump, watching the ground push away from us. There’s maybe thirty seconds left before the pill wears off. I shouldn’t need more than five.

It isn’t until I hit the ground that I realize I can’t hear her heart beat. For a moment, I almost stop moving. I lay her down outside the hospital and close her eyes before taking off again. Behind me, I hear the shout as someone finds her laying there.

Maybe they can still save her life. I won’t have any way to know, really. It’s not like I can stroll up to the hospital and ask about her.

My legs are giving out now. I can’t hear the chatter of pilots flying planes above me. Or see the radio signals flashing through the sky. My own heart begins to beat faster, almost in mockery of the woman I left at the hospital.

I slow to a jog and then a walk. Everything hurts. The seconds tick by on my watch, the last bits of power fading away. I took three bottles from the lab. That’s ninety pills. It comes out to almost 1000 hours. You can save a lot of lives in that span of time.

Ducking into a park, I practically fall onto a bench. I sit there for a while blinking back tears. For a few months, I got to be special. I saw amazing things. Bullets frozen in mid-air. I once hit a guy so hard that the dude’s tooth wound up embedded in a wall. I’ve pulled kids from burning buildings and took the keys away from drunk drivers before the ignition in the car could turn over.

I don’t know if I’m crying for the woman or myself. Or maybe it’s just the realization that no matter how many people I save, there’s always one more that needs it. And I won’t be able to do that anymore.

Sometimes I think about returning to the lab. Maybe finding Dr. Porter again and seeing what options they have for me. But they’d probably just keep trying to find a way to recreate the effects. If I wasn’t a supervillain before, being treated as a lab rat would make me one pretty damn quick.

Lub-dub Lub-dub Lub-dub Lub-dub

My heart’s beating steadily in my chest. I drag myself off the bench and start walking towards home. There’s a little bit of blood on my shirt, but not so much that you’d notice. If anyone asks, I’ll say I had a nosebleed. People shove past me on the sidewalk, stepping off curbs in front of drivers who slam on their brakes and lay on their horns. I keep my head down and keep walking. I’ve got work in the morning, and they don’t give you time off for superheroics.

©2017 Chris Page. All rights reserved.

Pariah

Fabian rapped delicately on the door. The wood was warped and rotted in places. Anything more than a gentle knock would probably take it off the hinges entirely. After waiting the requisite five minutes, he nudged it open with his foot and stepped into the dark room.

The air was thick and musty. It had the stink of many lives worn into a tiny space, the odor of secret meetings and unwashed passion. Most of all, it smelled of loneliness.

He’d learned a long time ago not to open the blinds. It wasn’t that the man he came to see hated the light or anything, Fabian just didn’t want to be seen in his company. So he kept his visits to the hour just after the sun came up, when most of the village still slept below, except for the poor kids out tilling fields.

In one hand he carried a basket of food. Mostly stale bread and some rotten vegetables from the hog pile. Sometimes, he would sneak meat from the kitchen, even though he knew he’d catch a beating for it if his mother ever noticed.

There was a loud grunt from one corner of the room as the man rose from the pile of rags that he slept in. Some were fashioned into a sort of robe that trailed behind him. He scratched himself and shuffled over to the table where Fabian was failing to hide his disgust.

“You look like your father,” the man muttered, brushing dishwater grey hair out of his face and settling onto the chair. Fabian pushed the basket across the table, not wanting to lean in and risk smelling any more of the man than he had to.

“You always say that,” Fabian said.

“It never gets any less true.” The man grinned around a mouthful of bread. He brushed crumbs and dust from the table with a wrinkled hand, then nodded to the basket. “What, you couldn’t pack in some pig shit along with the rest of the slop?”

“If you don’t want it–”

The man swept the basket into his arms before Fabian could finish his sentence. His chest heaved with the exertion and for a moment Fabian wondered if a hard shove wouldn’t put him out of everyone’s misery.

“We had an arrangement,” Fabian said. “I bring you food, you tell me about him. It’s been months and you haven’t told me anything I didn’t already know.”

“Why should I tell?” the man asked. He squinted at Fabian and pointed a bent finger in his direction. “Could be you get what you want, and then you forget about me. Leave me here to starve.”

“I wouldn’t do that,” Fabian said after a long pause. “You’re the only one left who knew him.”

“You could ask your mother,” the man said, leaning back in his chair and setting the basket aside. “I’m sure the hogswife would tell you all you wanted to know about him.”

“She’d only tell me the good things.” Fabian stared down at his hands. He felt the man’s eyes traveling over him and tried not to cry.

“You don’t want the good things?”

Fabian shook his head. Swallowing back tears he said, “I just want the truth.”

The man had been shoveling a handful of moldy strawberries into his mouth, and began to choke on them. Juice dribbled down his chin onto the table. In the dim light, it almost looked like blood.

“What’s that then?” he asked with a wheeze. “The truth? Just words. Words that only mean something if you believe them. Why shouldn’t your mother say nice things about your father? He was nice to her. Treated her like a fuckin’ princess.”

This was the most that the man had ever spoken of Fabian’s father beyond little hints. Fabian’s mouth went dry and he tried to swallow back his anticipation. Maybe this was the moment he’d been waiting for. The reason he risked bringing all of this food every morning.

“You want the truth? Out there, it’s the truth that I’m a coward. I left my best friend to die on a hill of mud and shit and bodies to save my own skin. Made a widow of his wife and left his son without a father because I was scared. Of course I was scared. I was twenty years old. Doesn’t make the rest of it true.”

“So you didn’t leave him to die?” Fabian asked. His voice was raw and excited. Each word caught in his throat on its way out. Maybe his father hadn’t been killed defending the gate after all. Maybe he was out in the wilderness somewhere, unable to get back.

There was a long pause. The man pushed the basket to the edge of the table, leaving it to teeter on the edge for a second before he pulled it in enough to save it.

“The last thing I saw, as they closed the gate, was your father’s face,” he finally said. “He was more alive than I’d ever seen him. Hair streaming in the wind, laughing like a mad thing out of the stories. ‘Come and fight,’ he’d yelled. ‘There’s plenty for everyone!’”

Fabian’s hands shook as he gripped the table. He hadn’t even realized he’d grabbed on to it. Struggling to keep his voice steady, he managed to say the words he’d been afraid to speak for months. “He’s still alive, then. I always knew somehow he would have made it.”

“No,” the man said with a bitter laugh. “Gods no, son. When they found your father’s body it was days later. He’d been trampled by a horde of stinking Frontiersmen, pinned up against the wall. The only way they were even able to identify him was the birthmark on his neck.”

“My father was a great warrior,” Fabian sputtered. “I don’t care how many Frontiersmen there were.”

“Spoken like an ignorant boy,” the man said. He leaned in closer. “You ever seen one of them up close? They’re all tangled beards and crooked teeth. Red hair, like yours, but knotted and matted from living out in the woods. Blades almost as dull as their brains.”

He went back to eating the strawberries, smacking his lips while Fabian tried not to vomit. “They’re not civilized like you and me,” he added around a mouthful of food.

“I don’t understand,” Fabian said, staring at the man across the table. “If he was alive when you saw him, why do they call you a coward?”

“Your father led the charge against two thousand angry Frontiersmen,” the man said. “Fifty men against two thousand. He was my best friend. Hell, he was the best man I ever knew. And when I told them to close the gates behind him it was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in my life.”

Fabian started to speak, but couldn’t find the words. He wanted to make the man stop talking. Shut him up. But it flowed out of him now, the words coming in a thick and steady stream.

“There’s your truth. I saved this worthless fucking town from being wiped out. But the truth says I deserved to lose my name. To be exiled from my family on the edge of the wilderness and forced to eat rotten food brought to me by a kid who looks so much like my friend that it hurts. To be reminded every week about the choice that I made.”

Before he even knew what he was doing, Fabian had thrown the table aside and slammed the man up against the wall. The room shook. For a second, he wondered if it would come down on top of them. The man stared down at him with that same smile on his face.

“That was the same look he gave me when the gates swung shut,” he said through croaking laughter.

It took all of Fabian’s strength to release him. Tears ran down his cheeks as he walked to the door, although he couldn’t say when he’d started crying. He was standing on the porch when the man called out to him.

“Will you be here next week?”

Biting back fear and revulsion, Fabian looked at the small shack. The wind was already blowing through the crack they’d made in the wall. The man was eating the food off of the dirt floor now, scrabbling through rotten vegetables and old meat. He imagined his father’s body, crushed and trampled and bit back a scream.

“Do you have other stories to tell?” he asked the man, not sure if he actually wanted an answer.

“I do.” the man said. “True stories, if you want them.”

“Then I’ll see you next week,” Fabian said, his voice breaking on the last word. He walked out into the morning light towards home, where his father’s sword hung on the mantle. He had pigs to feed, and his mother would be waking soon.

©2017 Chris Page. All rights reserved.

Fear of Falling

When I was a kid, I had this recurring dream where I tripped and fell in the backyard. It never hurt when I hit the ground, instead I’d just bounce into the air. Each time I came down, I’d bounce a little higher, a little slower.

Every night, for weeks, I would go to sleep knowing that this dream was waiting for me. I’d lay in bed, waiting for the horrible feeling of my stomach dropping out from under me with each bounce. It’s been practically burned in my memory ever since.

It didn’t take long for me to start looking for ways to recreate that terrifying feeling when I was awake. I hated it, but I needed it. At first, just stepping off a high step would do it. I’d stand on a box with my toes peeking over the edge, my heart beating a mile a minute, and feel the adrenaline pump through my body. Soon, I was leaping off ladders and fences, and even jumped off the roof of Tommy Maddox’s garage once. I couldn’t stop.

The first time I saw her, I’d just gone for my fourth round on the Terror Tower. It was a lime green monstrosity at the county fair that shot you ten stories into the air before dropping you back down again just as fast. It scared the hell out of me, leaving me short of breath and barely able to walk. I was hooked.

“Is he okay?” she asked, as my friends helped me to a bench across from the ride after my fourth time on it. I don’t remember what they said. All I remember was the beautiful girl standing in front of me. In an instant, I was lost in deep brown eyes, tight black curls, and dark skin. She placed a cool hand on the back of mine before telling me that everything would be fine.

She sat down next to me on the bench, and I did my best to not throw up. I don’t think I even noticed when my friends disappeared into the crowd, leaving us alone. I sat with her for awhile in silence. It wasn’t awkward or uncomfortable, just silence. Finally she looked at me and smiled.

“I’m Alicia,” she said. I knew that instant that I’d never heard a sweeter sounding name.

“Tyrone.” I tried to think of all the things I wanted to say to her. The words crowded each other out in my mind. My brain was grasping for anything to keep the conversation going, convince her that I was cool. I opened my mouth, and nothing came out. Whenever I looked at her, I felt that familiar sensation in my stomach

“Your friends seem nice,” she finally said.

I shrugged. “They’re all right, I guess.”

“If they’re just all right,” she said, “why are they your friends?”

“We’ve known each other since we were little.” I stared at my hands. They were shaking, but I didn’t know if it was from the Tower or from how close she was sitting. “Better than not having any friends, right?”

“If you say so,” she said, looking around at the people walking past us. A few kids barreled through the crowd on their way to the Terror Tower, and we both watched the gondola slowly climb to the top. I felt a little shudder run through my body as the car plummeted towards the ground.

“So what happened up there?” she asked, nodding towards the ride.

I closed my eyes, thinking about the rush of adrenaline as I fell, like every inch of my body was screaming at one second. “I’ve been riding it all morning. Every time I come here, it’s the only thing I ride, even though it scares the hell out of me.”

“If you’re so scared of heights, why do you keep making yourself go up to these places?”

”I’m not scared of heights,” I started to say, the words dying before they reached my mouth. I didn’t have a way to explain it to her. I barely understood it myself.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I shouldn’t have said anything.

“No, no, it’s okay,” I replied. “It’s just something that I have to do. I don’t know how else to explain it.”

“Maybe you can show me,” she said, taking my hand and dragging me towards the Terror Tower.

The line was short, and we didn’t have to wait long. They strapped us into our seats. The operator slowly made his way around the ride, checking each harness. I had a tight grip on the handle bars, and my heart was racing.
Alicia’s hand settled on mine, and I felt myself relax a little. The gondola began the long climb upwards. She reached out with her other hand, and pulled my face towards hers. I focused on her dark brown eyes, and the feel of her soft skin against mine. For a minute, it felt like we were two parts of the same person.

I was so focused on her that I didn’t notice when we reached the top. Staring in her eyes, I felt that familiar sensation as we dropped. She laughed at the fear on my face, but it wasn’t a mocking kind of laugh. It felt warm and inviting. In that moment, I knew why I’d been obsessed with it, why I’d chased this feeling over and over again. She made it all make sense.

“Don’t be embarrassed,” she said, patting my arm while we were waiting for operator. “Lots of people are afraid of heights.”
“It’s not a fear of heights,” I said to her, staring into her eyes.

“It’s a fear of falling,” she said with a smile, cutting me off as she pulled me in for a kiss.

 

©2016 Chris Page. All rights reserved.

Pulling Teeth

Marion pulled another tooth from her shoulder with the pliers and winced. Three long teeth rested on the bathroom counter. She could hear Gary banging against the garage door. Taking a deep breath, she gritted her teeth and pulled out the last one.

She dabbed peroxide onto the fresh wounds, biting her lip as it sizzled. There were going to be scars, of course, but she already had a matching set on her side and her leg. Marion offered up a silent prayer as she tightened the bandage around her shoulder. She didn’t know if she was praying for herself or Gary, anymore. She just needed it to be over.

Fighting the urge to check on him, she went into the bedroom and turned up the volume on the TV as high as it could go. Blinking back tears, she reminded herself that it was still summer. He wouldn’t freeze out there.

Marion was just settling down on the bed when the house plunged into darkness. Silence filled the air, the only sound was the thudding of her heart in her chest. It was too much to hope that Gary had tired himself out. He must have found the circuit breaker. She held her breath and waited. There was a loud crash as he threw his weight against the wooden door.

She counted back through the steps she’d taken to lock him in. Both deadbolts were secure. The bar had been placed over the door. There was no way he could get through. The windows had been boarded over, and the door would hold him til morning. Still, something was wrong.

He was learning.

She hurried to the kitchen to grab a knife. It wouldn’t help against Gary, but the small bit of reassurance it gave her was better than nothing. Holding her breath, Marion moved slowly towards the door leading to the garage. Everything was still in place. A soft shuffling came from the other side of the door.

“It’s going to be okay, but you need to relax.” she whispered. Seconds passed in silence. “Gary?”

There was a loud bang as the drywall in front of her pushed out from the wall. Marion froze, watching Gary’s blood-stained fist force its way through. His body followed, squeezing and contorting through the hole before falling into the hallway.

Backing away, she held the knife in front of her with shaking hands. Gary craned his head up and sniffed the air. His jaw unhinged, and even in the darkened house she could see the rows of teeth that lined the roof of his mouth. The sandy brown hair on his head had fallen out in clumps, revealing slick patches of black skin.

He crawled towards her, saliva dribbling to the floor from his mouth. His back rose and fell sharply with each breath, the muscles shifting under the skin. Moving faster than she expected, he grabbed her ankle.

Marion crashed to the ground and he was on top of her. His big blue eyes stared into hers, and she saw the fear in them. A low keening whimper came from inside of him, even as his fingers dug into her shoulders. Marion felt the sharp pain from the earlier bite as the wounds split open.

Gary lunged forward and she jammed her forearm between his teeth. He clamped down on it, and she fought back a scream as the skin bubbled where the saliva touched it. Before she could think, Marion shoved the knife up into his ribs with her other hand. Gary shuddered and collapsed. His jaw relaxed and he released her arm. Looking up at him, she saw the look of pain and betrayal in his eyes.

It took a few tries to slide out from under him. He grabbed at the knife, trying to pull it out of his body, but only succeeded in making the wound larger. She leaned against the wall and tried to remember how to breathe.

Marion knew he would recover, just as he had from the dozens of other wounds she’d inflicted. A sharp, violent shock always seemed to slow him down. Forcing herself to get up, she grabbed his foot and began dragging him back to the garage.

It was the longest half hour of her life. Every few feet she’d have to stop and rest. Gary would snarl at her, occasionally snapping his jaws. He weighed so much more in this state. When she got him back to the garage door, she sighed at the trail of thick black blood on the carpet.

Pulling him into the garage, Marion shivered a little despite the warm evening air. Taking several deep breaths, she hauled Gary in behind her. There was too much to do before he healed up again. She tried to force the panic to the back of her mind, get control of her shaking hands.

She gave him one last glance on her way out the door. Every night he seemed to get worse. Thick, segmented skin covered his neck. Even in the darkness, she saw the shine of the dark skin that crept along his shoulders. His eyes were almost gone, covered over in the transformation. She wondered if one day they’d disappear forever.

“Break down later,” she thought. “Right now, you need to move.”

Barring the door again, Marion stared at the hole in the wall. She was too tired to board it up. Dragging a chair from the dining room, she staggered into the bathroom and locked the door. After shoving the chair under the door knob to hold it in place, she grabbed the pliers off the counter with her good hand. It took three tries to work the first tooth free. Gritting her teeth, she dabbed peroxide on each wound, before adding the next tooth to the pile on the counter.

“In the morning, everything will be fine,” Marion told her reflection. “He might even look like your husband again.”

 

©2016 Chris Page. All rights reserved.

 

The Bellringer

I couldn’t tell you the first time I saw him. He just appeared one day. It seemed like everyone knew about him, but nobody ever talked about him. People would see him shuffling down the street in his ruined clothes and do their best to avoid even looking at him. Some kids would joke about the smell, or the roaches that crawled over his skin, but they gave him a wide berth all the same.

Mostly, I remember the bell. A loud, sharp clang that echoed in the air long after he’d gone. It was a steady monotone, and as he passed you’d feel your heart beat in rhythm with it. After a few seconds, the feeling would pass, and you’d find yourself standing in perfect silence wondering what the hell just happened.

My husband Brian always shivered when he came to. We’d only been married a couple of years at that point, and if I’d known then what I know now, I would have left that godforsaken town and taken him with me. It got so bad that when Brian heard the man coming up the street, he’d turn and begin to walk away as quickly as he could. I used to tease him about it. He was right to be afraid.

We lived a mile or so away from the town square, in a small house that Brian inherited from his parents. For the longest time, the bell ringer stayed near the town center. I remember being surprised when I saw him walking up the street in our neighborhood, the sound of his bell puncturing the air with every step. I was even more shocked when I saw Jackson Aldridge following along in lockstep behind him.

At first I thought the boy was mocking him, and I had gone out to shoo him away. I didn’t much like the bell ringer, but it was important to me that the man have some dignity. When I got closer, I noticed that Jackson barely seemed awake at all. He moved forward like he was being yanked by invisible ropes. His eyes were half-closed and he was barely breathing.

I stepped in between them, placing my hands on Jackson’s shoulders. This kid, who barely weighed a hundred pounds, brushed past me as though I weren’t there. I stood in the middle of the street, staring after them in shock. When they turned up the next street and out of my view, I ran back to the house to call the Aldridges.

Tyler Aldridge picked up on the first ring. I know that I must have sounded crazy. I was talking a mile a minute and was still trying to catch my breath. Still, there was something odd about the calmness with which Tyler listened to my story. I could practically hear him shaking his head on the other end of the line.

“Rosie, honey, I’m sure you didn’t see Jackson. He’s at school. Why don’t you lie down for a bit. It sounds like something has you over-excited.”

He hung up the phone before I could say anything else. I stared out the window for a few minutes, trying to think of a plan. I had a few hours before the kids were due back from school, and it wasn’t like St. Martin was that big of a town to begin with. It wouldn’t be hard to find where Jackson had gone. Grabbing my coat, I hurried out the door and in the direction I’d seen them go.

They moved along at a slow enough pace that it didn’t take long for me to to catch them. Wherever the bell ringer led, people followed. Every few minutes, another person would wander out of their homes, and fall in with the rest of the crowd shuffling along next to Jackson. I recognized Mrs. Wheeler, who ran the bakery downtown almost immediately. Henry O’Connor also, who used to deliver milk. There were a few others, people I hadn’t met, but recognized from running errands through the city.

The group was already so large that they stayed in the middle of the street. They walked through intersections with no regard for traffic or the other people around them. The only sound was the clanging of the bell in time with each step.

I followed along behind them for an hour or so, until they turned back up towards my street. Finally, I broke away and rushed back towards the house. I still needed to get the kids from school, and Brian would be home from work not long after that. Together, I knew we could figure out what was happening.

The school was practically empty when I arrived. A few teachers stood in the hallway looking confused, comforting the children that were left. I pulled Mrs. Everly aside, feeling my insides turn to water as she started to cry.

The only words I could understand were “sorry” and “couldn’t stop them”. It took me a few moments to understand what she was saying, and even then I still had to ask the question to be sure. “Hannah? What happened to my babies?”

She only cried harder when she tried to tell me. I pictured them shuffling down the street behind the bell ringer, their eyes vacant like Jackson’s had been. For a moment, I felt my heart break, and then I knew what had to be done. I tried to help Hannah to her feet, but she pushed me away.

The entire drive home, I was torn between wanting to chase after my children and wanting to wait for Brian to help. If I couldn’t stop Jackson Aldridge from following the bell ringer, then I’d definitely need help to stop both Helen and Thomas.

I waited for hours, my anxiety growing worse by the second. The house grew darker as the hours passed with still no sign of Brian. Finally, I saw his headlights shine through the window.

He burst through the door, and pulled me against him. “Where are the children?” he asked. With a shaky voice, I told him everything that happened.I had barely finished when I heard the ringing of the bell. Before I could say anything, Brian was rushing towards our bedroom.

He came out a few seconds later with the old pistol he kept in the closet. I don’t think I’d ever seen him shoot it. I didn’t even know if it was loaded.

I saw them at the end of the block. In the orange glow of the street lights, they barely looked human. He walked at the front, still ringing his bell. The crowd pushed along behind him stretching back farther than I could see.

The bell ringer stopped in front of me, hunched over like a monster from some children’s story. His eyes met mine, the irises a strange yellow color. He stared at me with a hopeful grin and pleading eyes. His mouth opened, like he wanted to say something, but his words were drowned out by the angry roar of Brian’s pistol.

He collapsed, blood pumping from a small hole in his chest. The bell hit the ground with a loud clang, and the people behind him froze. They stared at us in confusion for a second before a look of panic spread across their faces.

I found my children in the crowd, right before they turned to ash with the rest of the town. Their bodies collapsed in on themselves, filling the air around me. The whole time, the ringing of the bell echoed in my ears.

In the cloud of ash, I watched Brian walk forward with a dazed look on his face, then reach down and brush the bell off. I wanted to call out to him, tell him to leave it alone, but I choked on the thick  air around me. Brian gave me a sad look over his shoulder as he walked south, ringing the bell with each step.

I tried warning the people of Philipsburg, but they wouldn’t listen to me. Neither would the people of Marshfield. I need you to understand, he isn’t going to stop. He’s coming, step by step, with thousands of people following behind him. You need to evacuate your homes before he gets here. It’s too late for my family, but it might not be for yours.

©2016 Chris Page. All rights reserved.

Old Times

The envelope had arrived at Angela’s office a few weeks ago, the address hand-written on the outside. There was no stamp or return address. The card inside simply read:

“Oolong. February 20th. 8:00 PM. For old times’ sake.”

“You look good,” David said with a smile, as he stood up. She felt that same nervous rush in the pit of her stomach that she had when she’d first met him. She smiled out of habit. For a moment, she was young again.

“You’ve barely aged a day,” she said, in a voice that was equal parts wonder and annoyance. “It’s been what, twenty years?”

“Twenty-three,” he said, pulling her chair out for her. “But who’s counting?”

His hands brushed her shoulders when she sat. Angela was suddenly aware of every gray hair and stretch mark, of the crow’s feet and laugh lines that make-up couldn’t hide. She picked up the menu, staring at the words while she tried to think of something to say.

She watched him over the top of the menu. His thick black hair was neatly trimmed, without a trace of gray. His dark brown skin had the same youthful glow that it had when they met. Lounging back in his chair, he radiated self-confidence. Her thumb drifted down to her wedding ring, sliding over the smooth surface of the band.

“The card was a nice touch.”she said, forcing herself to look at the menu and not the way the candlelight reflected in his eyes. “You did the calligraphy yourself?”

“Modern conveniences have their purpose, but you can’t beat the old ways for style.”

They sat in silence, each looking at their own menu. Angela closed her eyes, listening to the quiet conversations of the diners around her. For a moment, she felt the heat of each flame on every candle prickling against her skin. It had been years since she’d opened herself up to the world. Her heart broke for what she’d given up.

“I was surprised to hear from you after so long,” she said, swallowing the regret.

He raised an eyebrow and then smiled gently. “Why is that? You weren’t exactly easy to track down.”

“I moved on,” she said. “I have a family now. Children. A husband.”

“Clearly your relationship with the humans has treated you well,” he said, gesturing at her body. “You can barely see the years at all.”

Before Angela could reply, the waiter arrived with the wine. She watched as David locked eyes with the young man. The waiter blushed, almost dropping the bottle, and then hurried away from the table. David watched him leave with a lazy smile before appearing to remember that she was there.

“You haven’t changed a bit,” she said. “All this time, and you still flirt with anything that moves.”

“Why shouldn’t I?,” he asked with a shrug. “Beauty is still beauty, no matter how much time has passed.”

“So why did you invite me here? What was that plan, we’d have some wine and then go back to your hotel room for the night?”

He smiled, the smug little grin that she had learned to hate over the centuries. “Would it be so bad if it was? You could be young again. Look like your old self.”

“I’m fine the way I am,” she said, struggling to maintain the conviction in her voice. “There isn’t anything you have that I want.”

“I’ve been thinking about you a lot lately,” he said. “I don’t like the way things ended between us.”

“What part did you not like? The part where I left or the part where it wasn’t your choice?” It was hard not to smile at the look of hurt that passed over David’s face. Thousands of years of pain and heartache welled up in Angela’s chest.

“I wanted to tell you that I’m sorry,” David said. “I should have handled it better. There were a million things I wish I had done differently.”

Angela sat, absorbing what he just said. In the all the time they’d been together, David never apologized for anything. The last time she’d seen him, with a girl under each arm, he had simply stated that they were better off with other people and that it obviously wasn’t working out. Now he sat across the table from her, watching her as she tried to process everything.

“I don’t forgive you,” Angela said with a shrug. “I had centuries of your bullshit, David. Why would you possibly think I’d believe anything you had to say now?”

“But I apologized–”

“And I appreciate the effort it must have taken to be decent for once,” she said, as she got up from the table. “But I don’t accept the apology.”

“Wait,” he called after her. “We need each other. You’ll die without me. There are so few of us left, as it is. It doesn’t have to end this way.”

“It ended twenty-three years ago,” Angela said, as she made her way out of the restaurant. She felt David stare at her back as she left him for the final time. For a second, the years stretched between them, spread out like miles behind her. At the door, she gave one glance back, and she saw him the way she always remembered him: his wings stretched behind him to fill the room, skin faintly glowing in the starlight.

Her thumb slid down over her ring again, as she turned away from him for the last time. Forcing herself to move forward, she stepped out onto the street and walked slowly to her car, just another person on a crowded city street.

©2016 Chris Page. All rights reserved.

Petrichor

Alex Weber had a good-sized house in the suburbs, a BMW, two kids in private school that he didn’t pay attention to, and a dead body leaving a large stain on the very expensive rug in his living room. He was also more than an hour late.

If there’s one thing guaranteed to get you on my bad side, it’s tardiness. That, and asking about my name. He managed to dance over that line within two seconds of sitting down.

“Is your name really Petrichor?” he whispered in a sort of panicked voice. The smell of cheap whiskey filled the air around him, making my food court salad even less appetizing.

“You were told to meet me here at six,” I said, looking at my watch. “It’s almost seven-thirty.”

He was a thin, short man, with nervous hands that constantly fidgeted. Staring at the people around us, he ran a hand through his thinning black hair. “I wasn’t sure it was you. They told me where to meet you and what you’d be wearing, but they didn’t mention you were, y’know…”

“What?” I asked with a raised eyebrow. “A woman?”

He nodded, “I was going to say ‘black’, but that, too.”

I shrugged. “Not my problem. My services require time, and now there’s less of it. Less time, more chances of mistakes. More risk means my price goes up.”

“What do you mean, ‘your price goes up?” he hissed at me. “I can barely afford you as it is.”

It was all I could do not to choke on the fumes that wafted across the table. There was a heavier stink hidden under the booze. I focused on taking at least one bite of the wilted pile of vegetables I’d bought earlier. In my line of work, the illusion of control means everything.

“Mr. Weber, I provide very exclusive services. If you were given my card, then you can already afford to pay for them. The real question is how much do you value your freedom?”

Before he could stammer out a reply, I cut him off. “Here’s what’s going to happen. You’re going to sit here with me while I finish this horrible salad. You can sit quietly, or we can chat like we’re old friends. We leave together. I will help you with your problem, and you will pay me double the rate you were quoted, and you will do so without complaint.”

He nodded and I smiled. “Excellent! And to save the sad attempt at conversation, yes it is my real name; yes, I know what it means; and no, my parents were not hippies. My mother was a lawyer and my father was a police man.”

Personal details matter. If you tell someone something about you, then they feel as if they know you. I don’t know what my real parents did for a living, but if telling a client they were on the right side of law and order helps set their minds at ease, then it’s something I’m willing to do.

The salad didn’t taste any better with Mr. Weber impatiently watching me. After a few more bites, I gave up on it entirely, and we headed for the exit. I followed him out to his BMW. It was a nice car, with just enough wear that you could tell he’d bought it used.

He looked around awkwardly. “So, do I give you a ride, or…”

“Go home,” I told him. “I’ll be there in about a half an hour.”

He started to say something, then appeared to think better of it. I watched him get into his car, and had to fight off the urge to wave at him as he left. I waited for his tail lights to fade into the distance before heading back to my van.

Normally, I don’t work the suburbs. My business is referral only, which means that I very rarely deal with people in this income bracket. In the city, with people coming and going at all hours, nobody notices one more person. Out in the land of neighborhood watches and Home Owners’ Associations, though, you never know who is keeping careful track of late night visitors.

I parked down the street from his house and killed the headlights. Alex Weber was either much better connected than he was showing, or setting me up for something. Either way, it paid to be cautious.

Ten minutes passed and nothing seemed amiss. Keeping the headlights off, I drove up the street and pulled into his driveway. The garage door slid open in front of my van, and I was grateful that Weber at least seemed moderately competent.

The garage door closed behind me and I waited in the van. I was tempted to leave it running, but didn’t really feel like dying of asphyxiation while I waited for him to take the hint and come out to see me. After a few minutes, he poked his head out of the door connecting the garage to the rest of the house. I grabbed my toolbox, and followed him inside.

We came in through the kitchen, where a pile of dishes waited in the sink. Old pizza boxes were stacked on the counter, and in general, the place was in dire need of a good cleaning. “The wife and kids are out of town for the week,” Weber said apologetically. “But they’re coming back in a couple of days, so you understand the urgency.”

I followed him into the living room. An overturned chair sat in front of the coffee table, next to a puddle of tar-like blood. A slight breeze came in from a broken window. I nodded to myself, all the glass was in the bushes right underneath the window. The real question was what happened to the body.

“You mind telling me what happened?” I asked, setting my toolbox down next to the stain on the carpet.

“The family was out, so I, uh, called this woman. For sex.”

“Of course you did,” I sighed. I pulled out a rubber glove and snapped it on my hand, then very delicately poked at the blood on the ground. “Then what happened, Mr. Weber?”

“We’d been doing some coke, when all of a sudden she just went crazy and attacked me,” he said with a slight hint of hysteria. “Cut me up real good. There was a knife on the table from earlier. I don’t know what happened, I just went crazy. I stabbed her with it. She was dead. I saw the body, it was right there. I killed her.”

“You change your clothes after?”

“No,” he said, cocking his head. “I was told to keep everything the way it was.”

I glanced over at his cheap cotton suit and nodded. He didn’t have a mark on him. The girl’s body was nowhere to be seen. Inside the toolbox, I keep a few small things for encounters like this. They won’t do shit to a larger demon, but for minor ones it’s best to keep things low-key. Some holy water, some silver, and a little bit of salt are good enough in most cases.

“Mr Weber, can you tell me what she looked like?” I asked, as I dug around in the toolbox.

“What? She was blonde. White. Usual height and weight. Why?” he asked.

“Well, it’s a matter of proportion and mass,” I said. “You see, a demon can’t make itself any bigger on this plane of reality. Whatever size it is when it comes through, that’s pretty much where it stays. When it comes to possession, they tend to gravitate towards others of a similar build.”

I found the bottle that I was looking for and quietly unscrewed the cap, before nodding at the blood pool on the ground. “Let me show you what I’m talking about.”

He edged forward and I splashed him in the face with the open bottle of silver. Admittedly, colloidal silver isn’t going to kill a demon. It will do a reasonable amount of damage if you get it in their eyes. And it stings like a mother fucker.

Weber grabbed his face, smoke pouring out from underneath his fingers. I pulled a knife from the box and drove it into his foot, pinning him to the ground. He roared loud enough to shake the walls, and I backed away quickly. I needed to put a stop to this before some well-intentioned neighbor woke up and called animal control.

Very quickly, I made a circle of salt around Weber, holding the demon in place. It pawed at the knife, fingers burning when they brushed the metal. The guy who sold me the knife said it was infused with angel-hair. I’d never had the chance to test it before now, but I made a mental note to send him a nice thank you card and some booze if I got through this.

There are well over three hundred different banishing spells for demons, depending on the level of possession and how much discomfort you want to put the host through. Some require days of meditation, and a good variety of incense. I didn’t really care about Weber, but I did need him alive to sign the check.

I grabbed the sage from the tool box and burned it while beginning the incantation I wanted. Weber’s face twisted in front of me. His eyes had burst from the silver, and the skin was beginning to slough off in places. His left arm popped out of socket and hung loosely by his side. The whole room began to stink of sulfur.

The first time I’d done this, it scared the shit out of me. It’s rare that demonic injuries carry through to the human host beyond this initial manifestation. Usually, the demon does it to try to get you to stop. You rush in to help the client, and now it has a new body to possess.

The demon began to scream louder, and I glanced nervously out the window to see if the neighbors had called the cops yet. That was the last thing I needed. A few items flew off the shelves, narrowly missing my head. I chanted faster, and smiled as the salt began to glow.

There was bright flash of light, and Weber lay crumpled on the ground, breathing heavily and sobbing. I waited, not wanting to break the salt circle. A few of your savvier demons will fake the light show and try to hide inside the host. There’s really only one way to know for sure.

“Mr Weber,” I said in a strong, clear voice. “Can you please step out of the salt circle?”

He stared up at me in confusion, and then threw up. “I’m not cleaning that up,” I told him. “That one’s on you.”

After a few seconds, he crawled out of the circle and collapsed on the floor. I helped him to his feet, and got him up on the couch. He lay there moaning while I went about the next part of my job, which is clearing any sign of the demonic intruder.

The salt and other things I’d used were easy enough to clean; demonic blood, however, is a major pain in the ass to get out of carpet. Whatever it was that had possessed Weber had left a lot of it behind. The key to clearing demonic blood out is a solution of holy water, silver, and a dash of bleach. Nobody has ever been able to explain why the bleach works, but it is absolutely necessary. If you scrub hard enough, the stain does eventually come out, although you’ll need something for the fumes.

It took hours to get everything cleaned properly. Weber spent the time recovering on the couch, so I didn’t feel bad at all when I handed him the bill. “Next time, avoid the hookers altogether and just stick with internet porn,” I said with a smile.

He still looked a little green around the edges when he signed it. By the time I left his house, the sun was peeking up over the city, and a few people had come out to walk their dogs. I suddenly felt very tired. I stopped at a red light and closed my eyes for a second, promising myself a vacation somewhere tropical and isolated.

Demons are easy. It’s the people that’ll drain the life out of you.

 

©2016 Chris Page. All rights reserved.