By Jeremy C. Shipp.
You should see this guy, with his black cape and his gargoyle face. He walks toward me like he’s never tripped a day in his life. He’s the sort of guy you would kill before disappointing.
You know the type.
He’s your father, your teacher, your God.
And he would pass right by me if I didn’t say, “Fuck you.”
So I do.
He stops and I smile. “What did you say to me?” he says.
“I didn’t say anything.”
“I’m sure you did.”
Of course he’s sure. He’s sure about everything, with shoes like that. He could stomp a horse to death with those horrors.
“Look at me when I’m talking to you,” he says.
“I am,” I say. “I’m looking at your feet.”
He draws his sword. Of course he draws his sword.
“Do you know who I am?” he says.
“Someone who hears things on bridges,” I say. Or maybe I just think it. It doesn’t really matter.
He demands an apology, which is a courtesy not granted to me very often, and I’m guessing he’s even more famous than I thought. With manners like that.
“Well, are you going to apologize or not?” he says.
“I’ll apologize to your mother,” I say.
I’m not really sure what that means, but like I said, it doesn’t really matter at this point.
Our swords meet, fall in love, divorce and hate each other’s guts.
I’m driving him back across the bridge, back toward the village or small town he came from. Back to the celebration in his honor, where everyone’s drunk with delusion and feeling saved.
My arm doesn’t know the first thing about sword-fighting, but I’m winning.
This is government-funded power versus year after year of arduous training.
The power always wins.
And it does, again.
The caped man doesn’t say anything before he dies, though I imagine him saying, “Who are you?” And I say, “Fuck you.”
When I was a kid I was afraid of bees, so I caught them in glass cups and left them out in the sun to die. Sometimes I set them free before it was too late. Mostly, I didn’t.
Now I’m dragging a dead dog by the tail. I’m dragging her toward an apple tree under the full moon, because these are the three ingredients.
Dog, apple, moon.
That’s all it takes.
“Where are we going?” my companion says. I forgot her name already, but I think it’s some sort of flower.
“I told you,” I say. “It’s a surprise.”
Rose laughs while not removing her blindfold. Obviously she’s the sort of woman who gives you more than you deserve.
You know the type.
She’s your mother, your lover, your whore.
“Take off your blindfold,” I say.
Lily obeys. She screams and I smile.
“I’m not going to hurt you unless you run away,” I say. “I only want you to be here with me. That’s all. You don’t have to do anything but be here.”
“I want to go.”
“I know you do.” I point to a spot on the ground clear of rotten apples. “Sit there.”
I take out my knife, and Buttercup screams again. Then she tells me something about her sister and a birthday party and a hat she needs to buy.
Ivy won’t last long in this world, with lies like that.
I get to work on the dog. Before I slice open her belly, I catch a glimpse of myself in the knife. Everything that was right about my old face is wrong about this one. My nose is too big. My lips are too small. And as for my skin, the mole below my eye looks like a hairy maggot trying to escape.
Daisy never would have come with me if I hadn’t cursed her in her sleep. I remember wishing for the husband to wake up so that I could wave to him or wink at him before leaping out the window.
Now I’m yanking out organs with my gloves off. I toss them in a pile close enough to Marigold so that a bit of blood will splatter on her yellow dress. She’s telling me something about a daughter I know she doesn’t have. Something about pity.
“It’s important that I use fresh apples,” I say. “Rotten ones don’t have the same effect.”
I stuff the apples into the hollowed out dog. I fill her.
Sunflower heaves and vomits beside the mound of innards. I expected her to do this sooner, but life is full of surprises.
I sew the dog up. Almost immediately, she starts shaking. She whines. If you looked into her eyes, you could see her soul galloping back, but they never make it in time.
The dog foams at the mouth and the ass.
I approach Lilac. I hold out my hand. “Take it,” I say.
She stares at my bloody palm. “Take what?”
I help her to her feet.
“Kiss me, then you can go,” I say.
“What?” she says.
“Kiss me. Then you can go,” I say again, or maybe I just grind my teeth.
She looks at me and the blood all over my arms. She glances at my face, because I have a habit of touching my head, and I’m sure there’s blood there too. She watches the dog for a while as well, now a quaking mass of boiling flesh. The whining’s only intensified with time. It’s almost a howl.
The curse is enough to keep Hyacinth here, but not enough to make her kiss me. That, she has to do on her own.
She leans forward.
“No,” I say. “I want you to hold me and kiss me. Properly. Then you can go.”
She steps forward and wraps her arms around me, trembling like the dog.
Power always wins.
And my little Sweet Pea gives me my kiss.
Even after all their years of marriage, Smoke and Velvet still hold hands during dinner. I can’t see evidence of this today, however, because I’m sitting at the table instead of below it. I’m a guest instead of a bored invisible enemy with itches he can’t scratch because the movement might make too much noise.
“They act like they’re causing us a minor inconvenience,” Smoke says. “But people are starving.”
“Not in front of Salmon,” Velvet says.
Their little boy looks up from his plate. He’s a lot younger than I was when I started out. Somehow, I don’t care.
“We can’t hide this from him,” Smoke says. “Our village is better off than most, but it’s only a matter of time. People are going to die.”
“If only our people were smarter,” I say. “Then we wouldn’t suffer like this.”
Smoke and Velvet stare at me.
“I’m kidding,” I say. I laugh.
Velvet gives me a few weak chuckles, more than I deserve.
“We all know there’s only one way to end the suffering,” Smoke says. “We have to fight.”
“We’d only suffer more,” Velvet says. “You remember what happened the last time.”
“We’ll win if we’re united.”
“Rain, please talk some sense into my husband.”
I shake my head. “I agree with him. We should kill them all.”
“What happened to my pacifist brother?” Smoke says, and chortles.
“I murdered him and stole his face,” I say.
After a few moments of silence, Velvet says, “Would anyone like dessert?”
“Me,” Salmon says, and raises his hand.
“Do you have any apples?” I say.
A single word. That’s all it takes.
And so a hairless dog bursts through the window and lunges at Velvet’s neck. She falls onto her back. She claws at the beast as it ravages her, but she only manages to rupture a few boils.
The dog’s already eating Velvet’s face by the time Smoke reaches the other side of the table. He tackles the dog.
I take this time to reach under the table and retrieve my sword.
When I return to my spot, Smoke is without a nose and trying to say something to his son, who’s curled up on the floor.
The dog finishes Smoke off with a few choice bites, then charges at the boy.
I lift my sword, wait, and slice the dog in half. The back half kicks itself across the floor into the unlit fireplace. The front half scurries toward Salmon, snapping and frothing, spilling rotten apple guts from its wound.
Sure I could use my sword to finish her off, but I decide to stomp her to death instead, with new shoes like these. They’re horrors.
I approach Salmon, and the sound of the dog’s back half scuttling around in the fireplace annoys me, though not enough for me to act.
I hold out my hand. “Take it,” I say.
He does, crying like a baby.
“Everything’s going to be alright,” I say. “Uncle Rain will take care of you now.”
My little Salmon hugs me and I smile.
Stump is one of them. He’s also crusted over and as he twitches, bits and pieces of his outer layer tumble down his face. He smells like every liquid in his body has gone sour. Obviously, he’s the sort of guy it’s easy to keep alive, with flaws like that.
“Can I help you?” he says in the doorway, massaging a dull knife with his stained purple fingers.
“Asunder,” I say.
A single word. That’s all it takes, and he knows it’s me.
He tosses the knife inside. “I’ll get the case.”
I wait outside, because I’m not going in there. I’d lose a piece of me that I could never get back.
Stump returns with the opened case. “What’ll it be today?” He attempts a smile, and flakes from his face snow down on the glass bottles.
“You should consider bathing,” I say. “You’re going to scare away customers.”
“Not you,” he says.
I pick out three bottles. “I’ll take these.”
“That’s too much,” he says.
Of course it’s too much.
“Two is too much,” he says. “But I’ll give you two. That’s more than fair.”
I return the bottles. “I’ll find someone else.”
Stump’s facial tremors die down. Then he bites a fingernail until he bleeds. “Take them,” he says. “Let’s just hurry this up. I’ll meet you out back.” He slams the door too close to my face, and I’ll make him pay for that someday. Someday when he’s old and I don’t need him anymore.
I notice Salmon isn’t in my shadow. “Come on.”
“I want to go home,” Salmon says.
I tell him not to worry. Or maybe I ignore him and walk around the house.
Stump is standing by the hole, naked and ready.
I cut my finger with a sharp memory. With the blood, I draw symbols on Stump’s crispy chest. I write promises to spirits that I’ll never keep, but I’ll be fine. I’m not drunk with delusion when I say I’ll always be fine.
“I have to pee,” Salmon says.
I stab Stump through the heart and kick him into the hole. After I clean my sword, I get to work burying him.
Salmon cries. But soon enough, I’ll get him to shut up for good.
“He’ll come back,” I say. “I promise.”
For once, I’m not lying to the boy. Stump’s life will come rushing back, and it’s the rush that he’s after. It’s the rush that makes him a pathetic traitor to his own people.
“I have to pee,” Salmon says, through his tears.
“Piss on his grave,” I say, or maybe I only point.
Salmon pisses his pants instead.
“Come on,” I say. “We’re going.”
But before that, I take out the bottle with the black liquid and dump it onto a potted plant. I only need the two.
Salmon doesn’t squeak or squeal, even when the owl surges into flight beside us. I told him to stay quiet and he’s quiet. Like a good boy.
Once we’re through the window, I pour a bit of purple fluid onto every corner of this dusty attic. Salmon should be thankful that I brought him here instead of a cave, which is the traditional choice. I was tamed in a cave. I was carried inside in a burlap bag and lost more than a piece of me that I could never get back.
The purple fluid lights up in each corner. It smells like rotting fish, but it does the job.
“We can talk now,” I say. I squat down so Salmon can drop off my back.
“Get off,” I say.
“I want to go home,” he says.
“It’s not safe there,” I say. “There are dogs after you. You saw what the one did to your parents. And where there’s one, there’s a hundred. Or a thousand. It’s hard to say exactly how many.”
Salmon cries, hard.
“We’ve outrun them for now,” I say. “But we can’t keep running forever, can we? Real men stand and fight.”
“I can’t,” he says, remembering the dog ripping off his father’s nose, or something of the sort.
“You’re right,” I say. “Right now you don’t stand a chance. We have to make you stronger.”
So I hand him the bottle with the white pus inside. I tell him to drink it and he does. He doesn’t even ask me what it is.
A blink later, his crying stops and I smile.
He touches his face. Even his tears have evaporated.
It’s a start.
You should see the look on Salmon’s face as I carry the dog closer.
He’d cry and scream and tremble if he could. He’d run away if he could take his eyes off her. His terror is silent and it’s almost heartbreaking. Somehow, I don’t care.
“Let me go,” he says. Or maybe, “Let it go.” It’s hard to be sure, with a mind like this.
“Kill her,” I say.
The little lost dog rests in my arms, cradled and calm. She trusts me more than I deserve.
“Kill her,” I say.
Salmon doesn’t, again.
I remember when I killed my dog. I remember the bones wriggling out of her mouth, and I remember the strange sounds she made. I remember the strange sounds I made.
My mentor, he looked at me with those terrible eyes, grinning, like he’d never lost a fight a day in his life.
Now I’m the one with horrors for eyes.
Now, finally, it’s my turn.
“She wants to kill you,” I say.
“She’s not like that,” Salmon says.
“They’re all the same!” I say. “Kill her! Now!”
He’s the sort of kid you want to beat into shape.
You know the type.
He’s your son, your student, your slave.
I hold the dog close to Salmon’s face, and he pushes her away. He also pushes out some of those precious feelings aching to come out.
The dog yelps, hard. Her flesh sizzles where Salmon touched her and only a hairless handprint of smoking tissue remains.
She doesn’t trust me anymore.
I squeeze her tight.
“Let her go,” Salmon says.
“Kill her,” I say.
Once again, he doesn’t. Instead, he does what I couldn’t when I faced my dog in the cave. He holds back.
I take a step backward.
Part of me wants to lock him in a glass cage, and leave him out in the sun to die. The other part of me wants to win.
I throw the dog at him, and Salmon jumps out of the way. He doesn’t chase after the dog. He doesn’t rip her apart with the memory of his parents’ death.
He picks up my sword.
He approaches me.
“The dog’s that way,” I say, and point.
But he doesn’t turn around. Everything inside him should be screaming, “Dog!” but he’s pointing the sword at me.
“Why was the sword under the table?” Salmon says.
I look around for a table, but don’t see any.
Then I remember that Salmon’s not really here. He’s still in the dining room with his dying parents, and that’s where he’ll always be.
“You put the sword under the table,” Salmon says.
“It’s my sword,” I say.
“You didn’t have it when you came in,” he says. “You put it there before. You knew what was going to happen.”
“You killed them.”
Salmon swings the sword at me and drives me back toward the wall. His arm doesn’t know the first thing about sword-fighting, but it doesn’t matter. He’ll win.
Of course he’ll win.
This is government-funded power in his little hands, and that’s all it takes.
The power always wins.
I tell Salmon something about how he’s like the son I never had. Something about pity.
Somehow, he doesn’t care.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jeremy C. Shipp‘s work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in over 50 publications, including Cemetery Dance, ChiZine, Apex Magazine, Pseudopod, and The Bizarro Starter Kit (Blue). While preparing for the forthcoming collapse of civilization, Jeremy enjoys living in Southern California in a moderately haunted Victorian farmhouse with his wife, Lisa, and their legion of yard gnomes. He’s currently working on many stories and novels and is losing his hair, though not because of the ghosts. His books include Vacation, Sheep and Wolves, and Cursed. And thankfully, only one mime was killed during the making of his first short film, Egg. You can subscribe to receive his newest short stories at Bizarro Bytes.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, May 27th, 2009.