Strigoi | Purple Cinnamon Roll

The playground is silent.

 

It always is now. Ever since the disease broke out.

 

No kids chase each other around the playset, screaming and laughing. No longer do they sit on the swings, swaying back and forth, the chains creaking as they go higher and higher. None dare climb to the top of the slide and call down to their friends, alerting everyone in the area to their position.

 

To do so now would be suicide.

 

You hurry past this place. If possible, you’d like to avoid the ghosts of the past, but this is the safest route into downtown.

 

You jump over the gate, managing not to stumble and fall. The store is right across the street. You slip through the wide broken window, careful not to step on any of the glass shards scattered beneath it. The front door is still intact, but so is the bell that rings as it’s opened. And best to make as little noise as possible.

 

Inside the shop, you search the shelves, trying to make out what you can in the dark. You notice there are more bare shelves than there were the other day, no doubt the work of looters. In fact, most are empty, save for spider webs and strange red stains that could be blood or jam; best not to look too close. But at the far end of the store,  you see a few cans still there and snatch them up, not bothering to read the labels. A bottle of wine, unopened, catches your eye as well. A valuable find, one that both guards against them and provides your kind with pleasure. You remove the bag from your back and dump the finds from your plunder in it.

 

As you swing the bag around your back once more, you hear a ringing sound, and the door slams open. You duck behind the nearest aisle, knees pulled to your chest, and backpack pressed against the shelf. You reach for the stones you keep in your pocket, your hand clenching around one. Those who have survived encounters with them say stones will ward them off. But you can only keep them at bay for so long.

 

The footsteps grow closer. You peek around the edge of the shelf and see one headed down the back row, dragging its tail on the ground, passing all of the aisles as it comes closer to yours. Its ears are sharp and pointed, its skin gray and leathery.

 

It stops. Its eyes have met yours.

 

With a screech, it lunges. You jump to your feet and chuck the stone, taking off in a run before you can see if it was hit or not. Out the window, over the gate, through the playground.

 

You chance a look back and see it leap out the window, running on all fours, tail swishing back and forth.

 

You know you can’t outrun it.

 

You scramble to get the bag off your back as you run, pulling out the bottle of wine. The creature jumps, its mouth opening to reveal rows of sharp teeth. You raise the bottle to shield yourself and intercept the attack.

 

Its jaws crush the bottle, and red liquid sprays on its gums, cheeks, eyes. It shrieks, clawing at its face, and you take this chance to flee back to the cabin. A shame that you had to give up such a resource, but a necessary sacrifice.  

 

You return to the cabin and lock the door before you set the bag down and empty the contents. Three cans, all beans. It’s less than usual, both in variety and quantity. But it’s better than nothing, and you’re safe now that you’re here.

 

Why they don’t leave the main section of town you don’t know. Maybe because they can’t, maybe because all the food is concentrated there. But one thing is certain as you pry open one of the cans with a sigh.

 

Tomorrow you will have to venture farther in.

Rain in the Desert | Strange_Folk

The constant din of cicadas filled the air as towering cloud formations drifted high above. The desert was alive with anticipation as the scent of creosotes foreshadowed rain. Saguaros, several hundred years old, reached their many arms towards the sky, eager for the coming storms. I had been out in the Sonoran for a week with Clement, my research assistant. We’d seen all manner of wildlife – rattlesnakes, scorpions, gila monsters – but we weren’t here for them. In my line of work, ‘strange weather occurrences’ was synonymous with spiritual activity, and the region had been rife with unusually potent monsoons.

We set up a handful of shrines, made from wash stones and mesquite branches. Local spirits found them irresistible, a token reminder of the respect they once commanded. At each shrine we buried an array of silver plaques to bind whatever spirit might come to inspect them. After days of failure, we finally caught something.

Calling what we found in our trap a ‘thunder lizard’ would be cliche, but no one had ever documented a monsoon spirit before. Clement and I carefully made our way down into the dry wash where we’d set the shrine.

“Light the sage.” I whispered.

“Right away, ma’am.” Clement set to work.

The smell of burning sage was used to put spirits into a docile state, and the smoking bundles hissed and crackled in the light drizzle that seemed to follow the creature. It was big. Larger than a buffalo. I wiped a strand of wet hair from my face as I documented every aspect of its physiology that I could safely observe. Like cold steam, each of its heavy breathes seemed to secrete condensation from its skin. The scent of petrichor hung heavy and the air brimmed with static. It made the hair on my skin stand at end. When the spirit opened its mouth to yawn I could see the arcs of electricity crawling between its jaws. I dictated notes to Clement in a hushed tone as I tried to sketch the texture of its leathery scales onto a notepad, sheltering the pages from the rain with my body.

“Twelve feet from snout to tail. Quadrupedal. Predominantly brown coloration with cyan patterning along the dorsal ridge. Semi-porous skin used in production of localized cloud systems. Electricity produced in oral cavity – unknown wattage. Estimated weight, two to two and a half thousand pounds. By all indication, solitary.”

Most of the world would never hear of our discovery, classified to all but a select few. Never the less, I grinned thinking of the handful of other academics in New York who would be begrudgingly buying me drinks when I returned with my findings.

As the wind picked up around us, the sage fires began to dance and dwindle. Clement cast a worried glance my way as the spirit let out a low, reverberating bellow. There was a clap of thunder in the distance. Then another, closer this time. Heavy rain sprinted across the landscape, pelting us like stones. Rain like this doesn’t exist back east. It came on with purpose, like the desert was taunting it. The wind began to roar and my notebook was ripped from my hands. Dirt and water stung my eyes as the gusts thrashed the wash. The sun was gone, replaced by the deep blue darkness of a storm. The creature breyed towards the sky, it’s resonant cry vibrating the air.

Everything went white. A spear of hot lightning lanced from above, obliterating a nearby palo verde tree. The clap of thunder knocked me from my feet. My ears rang as everything came back into focus. I looked up into that howling tempest. I saw it then, a great behemoth, like a mountain looming in the fury. It’s heavy footfalls shook the ground, rocks tumbling into the wash as water poured in from all sides. It opened its cavelike mouth and another fork of electricity rattled through the sky. A crescendo of thunder shook the desert. Panic set in as the realization dawned. The spirit we had snared was only a hatchling; now we were meeting its mother.

First Communion | rho

I walked among giants today.

 

The monoliths above me swayed gently in the wind and spoke to each other in whispers, in the quiet language of old couples who began the same habitual conversation one morning decades ago. Hello, they said: hello, welcome, we hoped you would come, hello. I inhaled benedictions that smelled of moss, and wood, and the earth after rain; I drank in the sunlight filtered from above and hummed along with the birds invisible overhead.

Running my fingers along the rough wooden railing, I greeted each knot and whorl like an old friend. My sandaled feet balanced on a single plank to spare its neighbours the indignity of being stepped upon – in case they minded, although I was informed later that they did not. My fingers ran into a cold, smooth wall: a plaque cheerfully declared that the name of this grove was Cathedral, and that its age was measured in thousands of years.

Cathedral. Most of the community here was born long before such a word was spoken on these shores, and yet the description was more suited to this sheltered place than to all the monuments to be found in Europe. I dared to touch the thick, grooved bark of one cedar by the path. It was warm.

Where were the treetops? Craning my neck to make eye contact with these elders, I saw myself as a child again. The air was perfumed with decomposition. Breathe in, hold, breathe out. A light in my chest quieted into embers, waiting. For a moment I felt human enough to call a cedar my mother.

 

An edge on the breeze caught the corner of my eye. I was not alone, but we were alone; there was no presence here except the forest around me. Did I hear laughter or the song of a little bird?

The curve of a vine was the small of her back as she ducked behind one of the great trees. A spray of white flowers behind the tree reminded me of a lock of her hair. If a rustle of wind from above was her leap into the treetops, the hush that followed could be her landing somewhere behind me. I turned around and around and there she was, always chasing the edge of my vision, dappled sunlight dancing like vitiligo over her face. My heart beat in time with her rapid footsteps.

Around and around, the wind scattering raindrops still beaded on the leaves, clear sunlight catching a rainbow in each one as it fell. My mother lifted her arms like branches and conducted the birds like a choir of bells. Golden sounds rang out from high above, and although I could not speak their language I was happy to be in the audience.

 

Voices made themselves known as a young family approached. I scrambled to my feet and brushed the dirt off my knees, and two young children ran past me, smiling and laughing. There was no other presence here except us and the forest – but still, I was alone again.

I learned how to speak again as I walked a little faster. My family waited at the edge of the grove. The thick roots somewhere under my feet asked me to linger, but already I could hear the sounds of traffic beyond the treeline. Afternoon would take me away. Evening would come, and morning, and the cedars would welcome each other once again with voices of moss and rain.

Road Trip of Dreams | fictionalpieces

The wind bullies its way in through the narrow opening of the cracked window, roaring through the car while it rolls down I-90. Snippets of songs breakthrough in the ebbs of gusts, small instances lasting just long enough for me to tell that the rock station I put on as I crossed the state line was still going strong. Sun breaks through the expanse of grey that makes up the sky here and glints off your sunglasses. I bat them away. You don’t even notice.

I’ve set the car to cruise at a solid eighty, way above the speed limit, but I haven’t seen a cop for hours and you don’t seem to mind. Trees, crowded by tangled brush, rush past us as we continue our journey east. They form a solid wall of green and we drive this narrow corridor bound by the grey beneath our tires and the sky melding into one eternal loop. I’ve said nothing to you in hours. You haven’t spoken in days. What a right pair we make.

This road trip was supposed to be fun, an escape from the busy city into the green mesh of mountains and forests we always said we’d move to, but never did. We kept delaying due to work, stress, school, or finances, and time slipped by until we got too comfortable in our city life and stopped looking backwards at the dream of leaving and instead got caught up in the drive towards some artificial success. Until finally, success gave up on us. Gave up on you. Seemed like the perfect time to take this trip, but your silence is deafening.

“Hey, I was searching around on Google Maps last night and saw a place south of here with a ton of waterfalls. Want to go?” I say, taking tiny glances towards you.

You stonewall me, continue to sit balled up and silent.

The exit looms.

Fuck you.

We’re going to see waterfalls.

 

It took a silent argument of accusatory eyes to get you out of the car. The accusation was all me. You sat, a shell of your former self and only left the car when I lifted you from it. On the edge of a gorge we continue our silent conversation under the sound of rushing water. You’re looking around, taking in the trees, the water, and the birds fluttering from branch to branch. It’s all reflected in the smooth metal of your container and sitting here, alone, I can no longer hide from the fact that you’re gone.

“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” I murmur, voice carried away in the swirl of the stream below.

I imagine you respond in agreement.

When I got the call, from an overworked and overtired nurse at the ER, I didn’t believe that you were gone. That the woman on the other end of the line, who struggle to inject care into a limp voice, had called the wrong person. She refused to tell me over the phone what took you. Seeing the mangled wreck of your body was enough to tell me why.

Some things are too hard for words.

Your parents demanded your body be returned to Ohio, a place you left as a teen with the hatred of corn rooted in your veins. Ohio was backwards, past the land of our dreams and into the realm of your nightmare. I can’t leave you there.

The top on your urn pops as I pull it free and there you lay, a pile of ashes making up the most important thing I could have ever dreamed. I sit with you between my legs, overlooking the water, and throw you out into the wind. You scatter, landing on bush and rock, water and dirt, but this is better for you. You are not one to be spread among the corn fields of your ancestors, on a land you never loved. It is better for you to be one with our dream. My dream within our dream. Forever at peace.

 

It’s dark by the time I get back in the car. The wind blusters its way through the open windows, swirling into your open, empty container. There is no music to guide me, no sun to glint off your discarded glasses. Just me looking down the long road illuminated by my headlights as I turn back towards the city. And a life without you.  

Rooftop Lessons | von

The daffodils were growing in nicely this year.

Junie stopped to touch the delicate petals before climbing the wooden stairs carefully, skipping the third and ninth ones so she wouldn’t break them. Mint green paint had long ago chipped off of the stairs that wrapped around the back of the house, probably from all of the visitors that Muriel had.

Reaching the top, Junie was happy to see that Muriel’s rooftop garden was just as lush this year as it had been before. Flowers spread in every direction around the top of the building. Junie stopped to admire a planter full of purple ones.

“Do you remember which ones those are?”

Junie looked up to see an older woman come around the corner. She was short, less than five feet tall, the same height as Junie, though she was over six times older. Her gray hair was poking out of a large pink sun hat, which clashed loudly with the orange floral blouse and sky blue pants that she was wearing. Muriel was a walking garden.

“Are these lavender?” Junie asked, petting the purple flowers gently.

“Grape Hyacinth.” Muriel corrected with a smile. She picked up a green watering can and handed it to Junie. “Did you see the daffodils at the base of the stairs?”

Junie nodded. “They’re so beautiful this year. How do you make them grow so fast? My mom can barely keep the cactus in our house alive.”

“It takes time and care, your mother works very hard for you, she doesn’t have the time to care for a garden.” Muriel shuffled past Junie to a table littered with pots, soil, and gardening gloves. She motioned for Junie to follow.

“What’s today’s lesson?” Junie asked.

“Ask properly.” Muriel answered. Junie sighed and took her backpack off, setting it down next to a large pot with a fern in it. Muriel pulled a worn stool out from under the table and sat down. She looked into Junie’s eyes.

Junie closed her eyes tight, her hands clenched into small fists beside her. She concentrated as hard as she could. What’s today’s lesson? She thought. Her muscles ached from the effort and Junie wished that she had practiced more over the winter. It felt like the words echoed through her brain, being projected outwards. Junie opened her eyes. Muriel was smiling.

It seems like it’s already begun. Junie heard Muriel’s gentle voice echoing in her head. Grab your stool from the rack near the stairs and you can tell me all about school.

Junie nodded, her head was already throbbing with the effort of the first question. She let her mind go blank and thought her answer quietly, hoping that it would be loud enough to transmit. Mom said I can’t stay too long tonight because I have homework. She walked over and got the stool.

One hour, then. It’ll be good practice for you. Muriel smiled at her pupil.

The Heavens Are Closed | mynameisjoe

We were awoken in the early hours of the morning by the sound of fierce battle raging above us. The cacophony of war had crept closer throughout the day, and we could spot the flashes of dark sorcery on the horizon and the thick columns of smoke that rose high into the sky and spread out like a huge blanket of gray until it blocked out the sunlight. It was only when we began to hear the fell voice in the air that we were finally sent underground. We must take shelter in the caverns beneath the city, we were told – that was the only way we would survive the night.

It gives me great discomfort to sit here and describe those next few hours to you, and I do not think that I will ever be fully able to recount them, though I will do my best. We were sat there in the darkness for what felt like an eternity, sobbing and crying and praying for a quick end. The ear-splitting thump of the artillery grew louder with each passing barrage, and the caverns around us shook violently from side to side like it was built upon the thinnest of foundations. Like a human head being smashed again and again into solid rock, with only a matter of time before the skull is shattered and the rock is victorious, we too knew that it would only be a matter of time before the caverns came down around us and we would suffocate under the rock. Barely an hour had passed before the first person’s spirit broke and she began screaming out for help. I could do naught but roll over and try to fall back to sleep.

I drifted in and out of sleep throughout the morning; I dreamt of my family, of our farmstead back home, and of my wife – most of all I dreamt about my wife, and the last moments that we shared together before we were separated. My dreams were ever changing, shifting effortlessly from one to the next, but the sound of war was constant throughout and I could not escape from it. No matter how lush the fields of our farm looked, no matter how beautiful the face of my wife, the crackle of gunfire and the booming of artillery in the background was a constant reminder of what was waiting for me when I woke once more. I startled awake proper when the messerschmitts began screaming overhead, peppering the city with machine gun fire that crackled and fizzed like dying embers.

“The dark army is here, brother.” A voice called out. “ We will not survive the night.” I could not see his face, and neither could he see mine, but it did not matter. I felt his eyes upon me in the darkness, cold and calculated and unwilling.

“ It matters not, friend. “ I told him, “ We were dead the moment we came down here, perhaps even before that.” My voice was shaky and sounded rough and unfamiliar, I had not spoken aloud in a long time before that moment.

We sat and spoke for some time, sharing stories of back home and passing cheap whiskey back and forth until we were soundly drunk. He told me his name, where he was raised, why he had joined the war. His reasons were the same as everyone else’s; because his country needed him, that the cause was righteous and just. We sat there, awaiting our death, and we laughed at those sentiments – and we cursed the politicians and we cursed the national press and, most of all, we cursed the enemy.

Our cursing and our manic laughter was eventually cut short when we realised that all had gone quiet above. For a few brief seconds we all considered the possibility – that the battle was over, that danger had passed – but those thoughts were soon silenced, snuffed out like a candle leaving nought but darkness in its wake. It was the voice again, a menacing growl that sputtered and rumbled like a dying engine. The dark lord whispered to us all, and try as we might, we could not escape his voice. He offered us no mercy, granted us no surrender.

“Do you think our souls will make it to heaven?” I asked, “With the dark lord walking above us so freely?” I heard him look upwards and grunt.

“No, comrade… the heavens are closed on this night.” He said.

Shrapnel | Shiiu

Thomas thought he heard thunder when his eyes fluttered open.

Loose dirt fell off the corporal’s wool uniform as he propped himself up to a sitting position. The sunset’s red paintbrush swept its colors across the sky, its crimson light glinting off the dull green of Thomas’s steel helmet. He looked around, confused, as his hazy mind struggled to clear itself. His heart stopped in shock when he saw the other four men of his crew laying in the dirt, their 18-pounder field gun ruined.

Thomas attempted to move his right leg, only for it to erupt into an inferno of pain. A burning sensation ran up and down the limb, his nerves screaming from the agony. Forcing himself to look at the wound, the corporal saw a jagged piece of metal jutting out from a tear in his trouser leg.

Gritting his teeth, Thomas staggered into a standing position, leaning on his rifle for support. He tried to ignore the pain and called out to his crewmates, “Are you all alright?”

His only response was an incessant ringing in his ears. Through the shrieking, high pitched whine, Thomas heard the booms of artillery in the distance.

The corporal awkwardly limped over to his crewmates. He tried to shake them awake, shouting into their faces, but their bodies were gripped tight by the cold fingers of death.

Suddenly, one of the men began to move. Thomas hobbled over to him and grabbed his uniform, pulling the other soldier up.

“Peter!” Thomas yelled, breathless. “Peter. We have to get out of here.”

“Let go of me,” muttered the younger private, dirt caking his face. Peter tried to push Thomas away, but his feeble attempts barely managed to budge Thomas. “I’m not going anywhere. I’m staying. I’m not going anywhere.”

Thomas tried to force his comade to stand. “We have to move. We have to get to the support trench, or we’ll be hit by the next barrage.”

Despite Peter’s protests, Thomas began to drag the private out of their gun emplacement, towards their support trench. Dead, yellow grass crunched and gave under Thomas’s boots as he limped, pulses of pain steadily radiating from the shrapnel embedded into his calf.

“I don’t want to go, I don’t want to go,” mumbled Peter. He shook himself free from Thomas’s grip and sat down, his head buried in his hands.

Thomas flinched and ducked down after a shell exploded mere yards away. “You’re just not getting it! If we don’t keep moving, we will die. I’m not leaving you behind.”

With those words, Thomas grabbed the younger man’s wrist and resumed walking towards the support trench, now less than a hundred yards away.

The two men flinched and crouched again when several more shells impacted the dirt behind them, striking the area their gun emplacement had been. A fine shower of dirt rained onto Thomas when he looked back, and he felt an icy dread squeeze his stomach as white clouds began to billow out of the shell craters.

“Gas!” screamed Thomas, letting go of Peter and opening his gas mask pouch. As the corporal was about to fumble the rubber mask on, his eyes widened in shock at the sight of a large hole torn open by shrapnel.

The cloudy plumes of venom rode the winds and began to embrace the two men, surrounding them in a veil of poison. Thomas glanced back at Peter, who had managed to put his own mask on.

Thomas choked as the gas began to burn his flesh and sear his skin. In a panic, he raised his rifle and fired a single shot.

Peter looked down as a small stain of red appeared on the wool of his dark green tunic. “Don’t shoot,” he faintly pleaded, before crumpling to the ground.

The corporal ripped the gas mask off of Peter’s face and hurriedly put it over his own. He ignored Peter’s dying eyes, looking at Thomas with fear. With disbelief. With betrayal.

Thomas began to stumble towards the support trench once more.