I was playing with my hospital badge as I stood in line ‘Jonathan Villanueva’ Johnny V, that’s me. I had just finished my shift as an emergency room nurse. Not my usual spot, but it was the Fourth of July and they were understaffed. So after a ten-hour overnight shift of attending to drunks and people with firecracker injuries, it was eight in the morning and I was ready for a nap and a beer. But the line at Walmart was ungodly slow. And of course, there was only one register open.
I watched as other customers were being led to the self-checkout lanes. But unfortunately, beer was one of many things that could not be self-checked. So after a few minutes, I was next in line with a clear view of the individual causing the wait.
The little girl looked around twelve or so, old enough to be shopping on her own but young enough to be having a panic attack over being nearly ten dollars short. “This can’t be happening,” she cried. She tugged on her long black ponytail as she tried to count her money again. A worker had been tasked with bringing her cheaper versions of the items she was attempting to buy but it was still not going to be enough.
I looked in her cart. It was filled with repair items; tape, cords, various containers, and well as grocery items like canned goods and bottled water. “How much do you need?”
She turned to me, wiping tears from her eyes. “What?”
I directed my question to the cashier. “How much does she need?"
“$9.74,” the elderly woman replied. “You really don’t have to do this.”
I handed her a ten. “I’m sure her parents are wondering what’s taking her so long.”
The little girl looked at me with a forced smile. “Thank you, sir.” She finished her transaction and began to push her heavy cart.
I didn’t ask if she needed help, that would have come off as a little creepy. So I paid for my six-pack, some bread and few bags of M&Ms. On my way out I saw the girl loading her cart into a smaller, much dirtier cart, which looked like something out of a coal mine. I didn’t need to wonder why she didn’t shop with her cart; she probably didn’t want to be stared at any more than she already was.
She caught my glance and smiled, this time a genuinely sweet smile. “Thanks again,” she pointed to my name badge. “Jonathan?”
“Just Johnny,” I said. I tossed her a bag of M&Ms, the candy fell at her feet.
She was blushing as she picked up the bag and quickly pocketed it. “I’m L.”
"That's a little kid's name, how old do you think I am?" As she stood up straighter, she appeared taller with more defined features. “The name's L, like the letter. I don’t like people knowing my full name.”
“Of course, your parents taught you well.”
“No, not for safety, I just have a really stupid name.” She giggled, the innocence returning to her face. “I’ll see you around.”
I nodded. “See ya.”
The girl turned her head. "By the way, I'm sixteen."
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to offend you."
She bit her lip with a sly glance. "You're kinda cute."
I couldn't help but blush. "I'm twenty-one; five year age difference is a ten-year sentence."
That caused her to smile. "Well then, goodbye Johnny. Maybe I'll see you in two years."
I went home and went straight to bed. Today was my day off so I planned on sleeping for a good ten maybe even twelve hours but that was not the case. I awoke at noon to a call from my sister Olivia.
“Johnny, I need you to babysit Dad.”
“I just got home.”
“Not right now, idiot, come over at six. And make it sound like it was your idea.”
“Let me guess, you’re going to a party?” I groaned. One of the worst parts of living in southern Wisconsin: there was not much to do other than party, especially for Olivia. She was a full-time college student.
“I have been watching Dad all week; I deserve to go have some fun.”
Our father was dying of end-stage leukemia. The infection had spread to his brain and he had very little time left. He wanted to be able to leave me and Olivia something other than medical debt so he opted to stay home rather than in hospice care. Since it was summer, and Olivia didn’t have a job she took care of him the majority of the time. But once the fall semester started up those roles would be reversed, and I would care for him (while working nightshifts, and living on coffee and energy drinks.)
I reluctantly agreed to help her out. I set my alarm for five pm so I would have time to shower and pick up something to eat. I managed to arrive at 5:47, letting myself in with my key. I could hear groaning coming from my father’s room. “Dad!” My father had fallen out of bed. He laid in the fetal position, shivering badly.
He was 6’2” but with how frail he was, I could lift him without assistance. I put him back into bed and locked the guard rails into place, just as Olivia entered the room.
“Johnny! I knew I could count on you.” She held her arms open for a hug.
“What the hell, Liv? You left the bed rail down!”
“Sorry,” she muttered. Suddenly, a man entered the room.
He had long blonde hair like a stereotypical surfer, high cheekbones, and piercing blue eyes. “I’m Tommy.” He held out his hand. His smile was like that of the Cheshire cat from Alice in Wonderland; wide with bright white teeth. But the more I looked at him the more I began to see something else: a shark. The guy smiled like a great white shark.
“I'm Johnny,” I said shaking his hand. I glanced at his bare arms, I could see bruises and needle marks. I also noticed an unusual tattoo. “Is that a harp?”
He chuckled. “The letter V.”
“V?” I asked curiously. I had a similar tattoo on my hand, but mine stood for my last name. And mine was intentionally made to look like a harp, in tribute to my mother.
Tommy ran his fingers through his hair. “It’s my street name.”
"White boy has a street name?" I chuckled to myself.
Olivia nudged my arm. “Johnny, stop harassing my boyfriend.”
“Boyfriend?” I groaned. More like a fuck toy. Olivia had a new boyfriend every other week. I watched as Tommy stuck out his forked tongue and licked his upper lip.
“We have to get going. See you later, Johnny.” Olivia kissed my cheek looking as beautiful and sweet as our late mother.
“You two have fun. I have everything covered.” I wanted them to leave. As soon as they did I want straight to the bathroom.
I threw open the medicine cabinet and shook bottle after bottle. Olivia and her fucked up friends were stealing my father’s pain pills. Oxycontin and anything that might have street value was gone. I was too mentally and emotionally exhausted to get the police involved. I mean, it's not that I could prove anything.
Luckily, it was not quite as easy to shoot-up or sell the medication that came in IV bags, so I was able to give my father something to help him sleep.
I stayed at the house all night, but Olivia and Tommy never came home. I left message after message with no reply. I was considering calling the police when my Dad finally woke up.
“Livvy? Where are you Livvy?”
“Olivia’s not home,” I said.
“Johnny?” My father was reaching out his hand. “They took her.”
“The demons.” He swallowed hard. “Your mother came to me in a dream. She told me where they took Olivia.”
I didn’t know what to think. My mother died when Olivia was born. I barely had any memories of her. But my father never remarried. He always acted like she was still a part of his life. I knew my father had tumors in his brain, to the point where he was nearly blind in both eyes. Maybe his mind was gone, or maybe he already had one foot on the other side, with my mother.
“I’m going to call the police. I can’t exactly go out looking for her. I have to get to work. I have to …” My father grabbed my hand. Instinctively, I closed my eyes. I could see tunnels, possibly a sewer. “I-I…”
“I will guide you there.” With his trembling hands, too weak to even feed himself, my father removed his wedding ring and handed it to me. As I put the band on my finger I could see a map; a series of glowing red lines, like a GPS in the back of my eyes. I knew exactly where I needed to go: the movie theatre.
The town’s only movie theatre sat in the middle of a field, across from the highway. Growing up in my small town I always found it odd that while the rest of the land surrounding the highway had been turned into truck stop hotels, fast food restaurants and of course the Walmart, the area around the movie theatre remained the same mass of tall weeds.
Wearing my father’s ring I walked through the denser patches. The golden grass stood well over six feet in height. I had no idea what I was even looking for but, for my father, I had to try. I started to feel cold, a strange feeling in the sweltering heat of July. I kept walking, further towards the center of the field, when suddenly I came face to face with a door.
A wooden door painted yellow, the color of the surrounding weeds was standing on its own, in the dirt. Walking around it, the door did not appear to be attached to anything other than the ground. I chuckled as I touched the handle. This was not happening: I was dreaming. I would wake up in my bed, none of this was real. “Ow!” The handle was white hot, but only for a few seconds. I could see specks of my blood on the rusted metal. The door opened to a long corridor. This was too freaky. I had seen enough movies to know when to run in the opposite direction. Then I heard a voice.
“He who is without sin may cast the first stone.” The voice echoed down the mysterious hall. It sounded sweet and innocent, like a child.
Although the statement, itself, was all kinds of creepy. I wanted so badly to trust someone. Best case scenario I find Olivia, worst case, I die alone like the loser I always was.
I clenched my father’s ring praying that its power would protect me or at least light my way. I stepped through the doorway. The yellow door slammed shut behind me, leaving me in total darkness. I pulled my cell phone from my pocket. As I expected, I had no signal. But I figured that the glow of the fully charged phone could serve as a light source.
In the distance I could see other lights, they were faint, like candles or maybe torches. As I came closer, they looked more like Christmas lights, glowing bulbs embedded in the dirt walls. And now there were three paths. I raised my light to the first tunnel and immediately regretted it.
Screams of terror filled the corridor. And I could hear metal; prisoners banging on bars and rattling chains, crying out for my help.
Someone grabbed my hand. “This way,” said the same child-like voice from earlier. The small hand pulled me to the third tunnel. “Here,” the creature handed me what appeared to be a rubber clown mask. “Put it on!” the creature grabbed my phone, pointing the light at its face to reveal a rubber clown mask that covered its entire head.
“Does everyone wear a mask here?”
“The workers, those without sin," the creature replied. "But you seek a sinner.”
I quickly put on the mask. “My sister, I-” I was about to unlock my phone when the creature grabbed my hand.
“Sh…” the creature led me to a wall of what appeared to be college IDs. “Name?”
“Olivia Villanueva,” I said, my voice trembling. There had to be hundreds of cards stuck to this wall. Were these all of the people screaming in the first hallway?
“Oh…” the creature said sadly.
“What? Do you know where she is?”
“She’s already been recycled.”
“Into the caterpillar.”
“The what?” This was not happening. I was going to wake up on my Dad’s sofa and Olivia is going to come out of her bedroom and tell me I need to leave for work.
“I can help you find her.”
“But why? Why are you helping me?”
“Because you don’t belong here.”
I was now certain the creature was a girl. I knew in my heart that if I stuck by her I might have a chance at survival. "Lead the way."
I followed her down a corridor to a lower level. From the top of the stairs, I could see what appeared to be a caterpillar-shaped mass. I had seen the movie, Human Centipede, where bodies were sewn together in a daisy chain. That was not what I was looking at. This looked like one of those hairy caterpillars a long mass with many little hairs jetting out. Except these weren’t hairs, they were human limbs each one of them independently moving.
“Is she inside that?” I asked. Suddenly someone pushed past us.
“Move it, Ze!” he shouted at my guide.
“Screw you, Vega!” Ze shouted back. She turned to me. “He’s such an asshole. They all are.”
“What did you say to me?” The man’s voice was deep, demonic. He raised his arm and smacked Ze in the head knocking her down.
“Hey!” I shouted, grabbing him by the arm. What I saw nearly caused me to scream. It was Tommy’s ‘V’ Tattoo. Instinct took over, and I grabbed his mask.
His long blonde hair tumbled down his back. Tommy turned and smiled. “So which one are you?” He took a step closer. “The husband? The brother? The father?”
“Who are you looking to avenge? Kristen, Julia, Maria, Katie-” He blinked his eyes causing them to turn from human blue to a snake-like gold. “Olivia, she was a tasty one.” He raised his hand, his nails long and black.
I took a step back in case his next move was to try and rip off my mask.
But just as quickly a shadow struck him in the side of the head.
Vega groaned as he fell to his knees.
Ze grabbed my hand, as I was too shocked to move. “Run!” She tossed a large rock as we ran towards the stairs.
“How hard did you hit him?” I asked.
“He had it coming,” she muttered as we made our way down the stairs, closer and closer to the fleshy caterpillar. “That ass-hat preys on 'bad girls'; cheaters, whores, sluts- his words not mine.”
“What do you do here?” I asked.
“Not that," she quickly replied.
“Why are you here, how did you get here?”
“I was born here,” she said a calm tone, laced with hints of sadness.
We approached the caterpillar. It stood well over ten feet tall, and possibly miles long. The mass of arms and legs were flailing in every direction. I could hear screams, like the sound of someone bound and gagged. But I saw no faces.
Ze walked to the caterpillar. As she approached, the mass of body parts became calm. “Hi, Mom.” She reached her hand into the mass, allowing the sea of limbs to swallow her up to her shoulder.
For the first time, I felt like I was going to panic. I reached for Ze but she raised her free hand. "It's ok. Me and this thing, we go way back."
A woman’s face emerged. Her eyes were sunken in, her skin rotten and decayed. But yet I could still make out her beauty; her bone structure, her long black hair.
“Mom, I need you to find someone,” Ze said. Her voice still sounded so sweet, like Olivia when she was a little girl.
The dead face nodded.
Ze turned to me. “Say the name.”
I swallowed hard. “Olivia Villanueva.”
The dead woman’s mouth opened as if to take a breath. “Livy…”
The mass of limbs formed a dark hole, from inside something was spit out. It looked like a mannequin that had been run over by a truck. But it was Olivia. She was face down. I expected her to start crawling like one of those Japanese ghosts, but she only groaned.
“Grab her!” Ze whispered. Her head was turning, looking around.
I hadn't seen anyone else in the tunnels, but that was before we started messing with their property. Out of the corner of my vision, I could see figures emerging from the upper levels. I ran to my sister scooping her body up into my arms. I knew the less attention I paid to her current state the better.
“This way!” Ze shouted. She ran straight towards the caterpillar. The long creature extended down a pathway. “Stay close to me!” Ze shouted as she ran along the side of the caterpillar.
I could hear people chasing us, but I concentrated on Ze. As we passed the disembodied hands and feet I could hear slapping. I dared not turn around. I only hoped my instinct was correct: the caterpillar was protecting Ze and, by association, myself as well.
Ze made a sharp turn and I followed. She was squatting in a dark corner, gasping for breath. “Sorry, I can’t run for very long. This has always been my resting spot.”
“You do this a lot?”
“Whenever I want to get away from Vega, or Tommy as I know he calls himself.”
“Does he hurt you?” I asked.
“No, but my mother was one of Tommy’s first victims.” Ze stood up. “We need to keep going.” I looked down at Olivia, but immediately Ze grabbed my hand. “She’s alive, that’s what matters, right?”
The tunnels were dark. I was so tempted to turn on my phone just grab a peek at my sister. I could already feel she was missing part of her right arm and her entire left leg. The entire place smelled like meat. Not death, like a hospital or morgue, it smelled like a butcher shop; a place where meat is cleaned and made presentable. That was what the caterpiller-creature was: an elaborate display of meat held together by some kind of unholy magic.
“Do you know why everyone wears clown masks?” Ze asked as we walked. “It’s not because we’re scary.” She grabbed my phone from my pocket and took off her mask. Ze's long black hair was pulled in to a ponytail, her blue eyes sparkled in the dim light of my phone.
“I know you. You’re L, the girl from Walmart.”
“My real name is Eliza.”
“Not really. Vega named me that as a joke.”
I looked at her confused.
“Eliza Doolittle from My Fair Lady? You know: the story of a low-class girl who gets taken in by some rich guy. He teaches her how to walk, talk, how to be his vision of proper lady. Have you never seen the movie?”
I had heard of it, but the movie was before my time. And Tommy, or Vega, didn't seem like the kind of person who would be a fan of classic films. “Is that what he is to you? He’s your mentor?”
“Not exactly.” She rammed her shoulder into a seemingly random spot on the wall.
“What is he?”
“That demon is my father!" She rammed it again, revealing wood the color of the door. "He's the reason I'm allowed to go shopping for supplies on the surface world." SLAM! More of the wood was exposed. "He wants me to become just like him!" SLAM the entire door was visible.
“But your mother was human,” I said. That was all I wanted to focus on. I didn’t care how old she was or if she was some kind of Hell princess.
"Yeah, and my father wants me to see humans as nothing more than animals!” Her words gave her the burst of necessary to force open the door. Sunlight poured into the tunnel. “Go, hurry!” She was grabbing her arm in visible pain.
I reached my hand for Eliza. “Come with me.”
“Please! You don’t belong here! I’ll watch over you, I’ll take care of you.”
She smiled at me. Her eyes sparkled with heavenly light. “You’re sweet. But right now I need you to run and don’t look back.”
I nodded. “Goodbye.”
“No, not goodbye. Until we meet again.” I watched as she closed the door. As soon as it shut the wood began to decay. In a matter of seconds, all that remind was a pile of ash.
“Please, no!” The gateway was no more. I feared would never see Eliza again, not at Walmart, not ever. My heart was in pain. Then I got my first look at Olivia. If I was not a nurse, by trade, I would have passed out. My sister had no face. It was as if someone had taken a blowtorch to her eyes, nose, and mouth. I could feel her breath on my neck as I carried her, but she had not spoken a single word.
I laid her on the backseat of my car and drove to my father’s house. She was as still as a corpse for the entire thirty-minute trip.
I pulled into the driveway and glanced at my father's ring. It was still glowing. I held it to my chest, with a glimmer of hope.
Then I opened the door. The smell was unmistakable, I didn't even bother to check his bed. My father was dead.
I pulled out my phone to call 911 but fell to my knees as I looked at the date. I had been gone for nearly a week. My mind was racing, as to the horrible nature of my father's death; seizure, starvation? I almost forgot about my mutilated sister.
Eventually, my hands became steady enough to dial 911. I managed to convince the police I found my sister's body abandoned in a field, the possible victim of a hate crime. She was taken to the hospital.
Over the next year, I worked on settling my father's estate. With my inheritance, I transferred Olivia to a psychiatric hospital in California. With a stellar letter of recommendation from my superiors, I was able to land a nursing position in the same hospital.
For the last six years, my life has been devoted to working and watching over my sister. I bounced between the pediatric ward and maternity ward. I took pride in working with children, each one of them a miracle.
During my lunch breaks, I checked in on Olivia. She still had her hearing and sense of touch, with her remaining limbs. With the help of a great team of doctors, she was learning how to communicate, even making friends. I was hopeful that someday she might even be able to live a normal life. Or perhaps that was my wish for my own life.
After a ten-hour work day, I would go home to my studio apartment and sleep until my next shift. I had no friends, no family, and no hope. I ate lunch alone every day in the cafeteria, eating the sandwich I brought from home. No point in spending a lot of money. I kept to a moderate budget, dividing my income to pay for Olivia's care, my food and rent, whatever was leftover went into my retirement account. That was the goal: to work until I was too old, then maybe travel the world.
I would love to work for an organization like Doctors without borders, helping children in third-world countries. Perhaps once Olivia was independent enough to be moved to a live-in facility.
All I had were my dreams. In my dreams I had Eliza. I would call her Azzy and we would live in a big apartment, somewhere in Europe. I knew so little about her, but I could never forget her.
One day she appeared. I spotted her in the cafeteria a girl with eyes the color of the brightest day and hair the color of the darkest night. She was sitting in the corner, staring out into the crowd as she sipped a can of Sprite elegantly, with a straw. She was maybe 5'6" with plump, glossy lips the color of cinnamon candy. The girl looked up at me, our eyes met and she smiled.
My heart was in my throat as I walked over. “Hi, this might sound odd, but you remind me of someone I knew a long time ago.”
“Hi, Johnny,” she said. Her voice was mature and seductive, but with that same child-like innocence.
She nodded, batting her long eyelashes. “It’s me.”
“I- I can’t believe it! How did you escape? How did you find me?"
She licked her lips and motioned for me to pull up a seat next to her. “I earned it.”
“You earned it?” I asked.
“I earned my freedom, and with it my beauty," she said in a haunting whisper. "Then I tracked you here," she added, her voice returning to normal.
"How?" I didn't have any social media accounts since there was no one I wanted to follow or stay in touch with.
"Your parents," she answered. "They're very happy where they are. Oh, and your dad told me to tell you he's proud of you."
"Okay..." I would be lying to say I wasn't nervous. What exactly was she?
With a coy smile, Eliza slipped me a plain white envelope. "For you."
Inside was a necklace with a leather pendant.
“Do you like it?” she asked.
I turned the pendant over. It wasn’t leather at all, it was skin. A piece of dried flesh tattooed with a letter ‘V’. “I love it.” I looked at Eliza; what was once a caterpillar was now the most beautiful, powerful butterfly. “And I love you.”
"I love you too," she said with a giggle.
"Do you have a place to stay?"
"I've actually been living out of my car."
"A Honda Civic, just enough room for my entire life," she chuckled. Now she was the one who looked nervous. "I-I kind of bet the farm on you still wanting to see me, I mean, it's been six years, you could have been married with a kid."
"What do you mean by 'bet the farm'?" I was curious to know just how much she carried of her past.
Eliza shrugged. "I have some money saved up. My plan was to enroll at the local community college."
"That's cool." I chuckled to myself. "Well, for me, the last few years have been devoted to Olivia." I glanced at my watch. "I'm supposed to check in with her."
"Now?" Eliza asked.
"Yeah, she's getting assigned a new therapist. I promised her I'd check in during my break."
"Great, I'd love to finally meet her." Eliza stood up. She wore a modest green tank top paired with dark denim jeans.
"Sure, I mean if you're done eating." I had not eaten my sandwich yet but I figured I could do so on my next break.
I held Eliza's hand in the elevator as we went to the psychiatric ward.
She leaned her head on my shoulder, her hair smelled like roses.
We walked arm in arm to the ward where I introduced Eliza to the Nurse Becca at the reception desk.
The older woman greeted Eliza then quickly pulled me to the side. "You need to get in there. The new therapist is some kid, straight out of school. All she does is go on smoke breaks. I can't believe the hospital would hire someone so incompetent."
"Is that her?" Eliza asked, motioning towards a nearby patio. On the opposite side of the glass door stood a young female doctor with long red hair. She was smoking a cigarette. "She's pretty," Eliza muttered under her breath.
"Yes, that's about all she is," Nurse Becca groaned. "All she does is complain non stop about having to work in a 'freak show.'"
Eliza gave a look of disgust. "But she's a doctor!"
Becca rolled her eyes. "Dr. Elena Ryan: Her goal is to transfer into sports medicine, spend all day working with beautiful people."
I threw up my hands in frustration. "I'm going to go check on Olivia." I walked away, to Olivia's room.
She was sitting in her rocking chair listening something on her iPad while wearing a plain white mask that covered her entire face.
I tapped her shoulder to get her attention. "Where did you get the mask?"
Olivia flipped the iPad over to a brail keyboard. I watched as she typed her answer. "Dr. Ryan said I had to wear it if I ever want to be let back into society."
I couldn't believe what I was hearing. I had gotten used to her face or lack of one. The rest of the world could easily do the same. "You don't have to wear that if it's uncomfortable."
"Thanks," she wrote.
I watched as she removed the mask. The scar tissue had mostly healed. The current state of her face was smooth like plastic; no eyes or nose or lips. Her mouth was still present, a gaping hole with teeth but no tongue.
Suddenly, Eliza appeared. I noticed she was running her fingers through her hair. With every stroke, her dark locks sparkled. "Hello Olivia," she said as she approached my sister without fear or hesitation. Eliza touched her hand to Olivia's face. "I'm Eliza, we've met before." She placed a hand on Olivia's head, forcing her to bow. Eliza then bowed her own head, their foreheads pressing together. For a moment their dark hair seemed to flow into one mass of shadow. "Much better," Eliza said, taking a step back.
I rushed to my sister's side. "Olivia?"
My sister's head was still leaning forward. She was making strange sounds, like weeping. With her one prosthetic hand, she brushed the hair from her face to reveal an actual face; eyelashes, a nose, and actual lips. But something seemed off. Olivia opened her eyes. They were green. My sister never had green eyes. Her new eyes blinked rapidly as if trying to get used to the sensation of light. She stood up and walked towards the sink, her hands reaching towards the mirror. She gasped but no words came out of her mouth.
"Sorry," Eliza said biting her lip nervously. "I couldn't figure out how to grab you a new tongue. I'll work on that. But do you like the eyes? I think they look good on you." The question was posed so casually as if she was referring to a pair of earrings or a necklace.
Olivia nodded, a smile gracing her new lips.
"I'm glad." Eliza took a seat, looking out the window at the bright afternoon sun.
"So, Johnny, what time do you get off?"
"Seven," I replied.
"Can I hang out with Olivia until then?" she asked.
"Actually, you can make a copy of my house keys, then we can meet up for dinner." I took my keys from my pocket and pulled my door key and gate key from the ring. I knew my landlord would pitch a fit about me being in violation of my lease, but my new girlfriend could communicate with the dead and grant sight to the blind. I think my landlord would just have to deal with it.
As I placed the keys in Eliza's hand. She sprang up, cupped my face and kissed me. Her lip gloss tasted like cotton candy. And her eyes; the look in her eyes filled my heart with joy. She was an angel.
"Let me walk you to your car," I said to her. "Olivia, I'll be right back." Olivia didn't respond, she was too captivated by her new gift of sight.
I walked with Eliza, to the main elevators but as we passed the glass door of the patio my eyes drifted. Dr. Ryan, the woman with the red hair was no longer smoking a cigarette, she was slumped on the ground, her body twitching. The medical professional in me wanted to check on her.
Eliza gripped my hand. She placed a finger to her lip to say "Shh," as she walked me to the window. With our backs pressed against the wall, we peered around the corner. I could clearly see the woman's face was covered in large amounts of blood. I was horrified but Eliza was giggling. "Be careful who you call ugly," she said like a typical eighteen-year-old. She was ecstatic and proud.
"What have you done?"
"What? Dr. Ryan was a conceited bitch, people like her don't deserve beauty."
"You sound like your father."
"No, I don't. He took beauty from-"
"Your father took beauty from people who HE considered unworthy." I turned to walk towards the elevator. "The only difference between you and him is that your father created that underground caterpillar thing." I didn't even know if that was true. Did Eliza inherit her father's kingdom?
Eliza followed me, arms crossed. "I'm sorry. I just wanted to help Olivia. Plus, she wasn't exactly human."
Eliza flashed her wrist. There was a tattoo of a letter, an 'A'."We all have letters, she had one too."
"Who is 'we'?"
"The beautiful ones, the people like me. I'm not proud of what I am, I just hope you can see past my ugliness."
I knew she was telling the truth. "I'm sorry I compared you to your father."
Eliza held my hand, leaning her head on my shoulder. "It's okay."
To say I was not afraid would be a lie. Loving her would be like loving a live grenade. "Why a letter 'A'?"
"My new name: Azzy."
Now I was the one smiling.
Caterpillar 2: Transformation
|It has been three months since Eliza, or Azzy as she likes to be called, came back into my life. She’s been acting like any normal millennial, attending community college, landing a part-time job, and spending a lot of time on social media. She even asked if she could make a Facebook account for me. I told her she could, but only if she would run it. I had no time to deal with random friend requests. She agreed and used her phone to take a picture of us to use as my account avatar. “Perfect!” she said as she kissed my cheek. Her long black hair fell over her light blue eyes. “I love you, Johnny V.”|
I took hold of her hand, admiring how ethereal her skin looked compared to my dark, Hispanic complexion. “I love you too, Azzy. Did you want to meet me for lunch?”
“No, I have plans."
"Work stuff," she clarified. "But I’ll have dinner ready when you get home.”
“You’re the best.” I drove to work on my motorcycle, a gift from Azzy. She claimed she bought it used from a school friend. All I know is, I told her it had always been a dream of mine to own a motorcycle then she made it happen.
I was so lucky to have her, but part of me always wondered– what happened to her “family.” Eliza never said she “escaped” the cult, she said she “earned her freedom.” Along with a necklace made from her defeated father’s skin. But her family consisted of more than just her father, there was an entire network of tunnels ran by dozens, possibly hundreds of demons in clown masks. What happened to them all? And, of course, there was the caterpillar; the massive creation made from the body parts of their victims. Whatever became of it? It wasn’t my business or concern.
What was my concern? Apparently, my Facebook account. At the hospital, a fellow nurse, David told me he sent a friend request and wondered why I was taking forever to respond.
“My girlfriend runs that account," I explained. "She’ll probably add you when she gets home from school.”
David laughed as he pulled his dreadlocks into a ponytail. “Your girlfriend runs your Facebook account?”
“I have the password, she just does all of the day to day bullshit; answering friend requests, Farmville or Candy Crush or whatever.”
“Hey, not my place to judge.”
“I will log on, using my phone, and add you.” I didn’t even want this asshole as a friend but I needed to prove that in an era when a Facebook account seemed to be as important as a passport or driver’s license, my girlfriend didn't have my balls in a vice.
My Facebook page was filled with comments about how fake my photos looked. Azzy was hot, I looked at least ten years older than her, and certainly not as physically fit. But I was working on that. I ate whatever she cooked; low carb, healthy fat, vegan dishes. On weekends, we ran for an hour through the park. During the week, even when I was dead tired, she would pull up a YouTube video of a twenty-minute workout we could accomplish before going to bed.
Despite all that, I could see what the haters were saying; Azzy's skin seemed to glow with an otherworldly radiance: compared to me she looked photo-shopped. I clicked open my gallery, every photo had been taken by Azzy. But one image caught my eye. We were lying in bed. She had pulled down the covers, exposing our upper bodies. For Azzy that was her naked back, with her slender shoulders with just a hint of side boob. But for me, my body left a lot to be desired. But it was better than I thought. It was clear I had lost weight, and even gained some muscle. I touched my own stomach, curious to feel if what I was seeing was accurate.
“Yes, you’ve lost weight,” David snickered. “Just add me, so I can be the first to make fun of you when you start posting bathroom mirror selfies.”
“F--- you, man,” I added him anyway. He was welcomed to join the haters who thought Azzy was too beautiful to be with someone like me. I had over a hundred friends, the majority of which I didn’t recognize.
Out of curiosity, I clicked on Azzy's page. She had just over a thousand. I looked through her photos; selfies, couple goals, work and school friends. She had landed a cashier job at Target where she was loved by all. In the few weeks that she worked there, she learned every department even better than most of the managers. Azzy would often tell me her dream was to be a manager, either of Target or her own store. I always felt like she was aiming a little low, but if that was what she wanted, I would support her however I could.
After work, I came home to the smell of Azzy's cauliflower curry bubbling on the stove. She was reading a textbook for her business math class but the moment our eyes locked she sprang up and a leaped into my arms, wrapping her legs around my hips. “I missed you, Johnny.”
With her denim short riding high on her legs, I placed my hand on her naked thigh where I felt a piece of plastic.
“Ow,” she said with a grimace.
“Is that a bandage?” I asked as I carefully put her down.
“I wanted to surprise you,” she pouted. “I got a tattoo.” Azzy turned her hip to allow me a proper view of the small robot. “It's Johnny-five, from the movie Short Circuit. For you, cause your name is Johnny Villanueva and V is the Roman numeral for five. Do you like it?”
“Of course! Now I just need to get something for you.”
“You don’t have to do anything for me.” She bit her lip, looking at me with a sensual gaze. “Well, there’s one thing.” She skipped to her backpack and pulled out a manila envelope. “I want you to apply to medical school.”
“How? I’m working close to fifty hours a week.”
“You can quit your job, let me take care of things for a while.”
“I can’t ask you to do that.”
“I want to.” My beautiful girlfriend pulled me close for a kiss. “I want to make all of your dreams come true.”
“We can’t afford it."
“Will you just fill out the paperwork? You might not even get in.” She handed me the envelope and returned her focus to the stove.
The application was for UCLA. I also noticed there was a check, enough to cover the application fee. The account was Azzy's. “Eliza Ellie O’Hare?” I read out loud.
“I needed a name for my job application.”
“It’s not like I was trying to hide my last name.”
“I didn’t say that you were. I was just curious about the account,” I said, motioning at the check.
“Oh, because I offered to take care of things,” she replied with a laugh. “Right. I can be so silly sometimes.” She served up dinner with a side of rice and some naan bread. But instead of sitting down with me she went to her backpack and pulled out her checkbook. She opened it to the back page.
From the corner of my eye, I could make out a massive number. But I looked away. I didn’t care if she had a secret stash of money. It wasn’t any of my business. “I don’t need to see it right now.” I changed the subject to ask her about her day.
As usual, she had many stories of incompetent managers, horrible customers, as well as the occasional guy trying to get her number. She took a few more bites of food before taking out her phone. “But on the bright side, I found a new workout video for us to try: Tantric yoga.”
Needless to say, all thoughts of money were tabled for the night.
We made love until we were covered in sweat, falling asleep from exhaustion.
In the morning, she awoke in my arms. “I’m off to work,” she said in her usual perky tone. “Oh, I have a friend coming over. You’re going to love him. He’s a real sweetheart.”
“Remy DeSilva,” she replied. “He’s on your friend list. You can message him if you want.”
I picked up my phone as she went to the shower. Sure enough, within my friend list was a Remy Desilva. He was model-level attractive, with Italian features and long black hair. In many ways, he looked like Azzy. I wondered if they were somehow related. Remy’s latest update read: "heading to Cali back into my lover's arms." He was driving in from Nebraska for a job at… Target.
“He’s working at Target?” I asked Azzy, through the shower.
“Yeah, he just finished his degree, so I told him to apply. He’s going to make a great manager.”
“One of your managers left?” There were roughly six store managers that I knew about from Azzy's stories; backroom, frontend, grocery, receiving dock, and a few who rotated from the sales floor to the private offices doing “manager stuff.”
“Yup happens all the time. That’s why I’m, almost positive that I can move up into a management position as soon as I complete my business degree.”
“Is he going to be staying here?”
“No, Remy has an apartment downtown.” Azzy stepped out of the shower with her long hair wrapped in a towel. “He’s moving in with Lukas, his boyfriend,” she said with a smirk.
“I wasn’t being jealous.”
“I know, baby, I was just playing with you. But seriously, I’m going to help him move his stuff in, during my lunch break and you’ll meet him and Lucas tonight at dinner.” She gave me a kiss on the cheek. “The shower’s all yours.”
I showered, got dressed and went to work. When I arrived, I quickly ate a Powerbar in the breakroom, in lieu of breakfast.
David was by the coffee machine. “You will not believe what’s happening in the ER.”
“The cops found a body outside the shopping center; no arms no legs face burned completely off. But the creepy thing is– she’s still alive!”
"I need to start my shift,” I groaned, stuffing the half-eaten bar into my pocket.
“It will just take a second. We can’t even get that close with all the police.”
I reluctantly followed him. Sure enough, there was a body on a bed, with tubes sticking out of it. Exactly the way David described. From what skin I could see, the woman was Hispanic or perhaps African American. “Ok, I saw it, now I’m leaving.”
David followed me to the elevator. “So strange right? I wonder how they’re going to identify her; no hands, feet, not even eyes.”
“DNA can be taken from any part of the body.”
“Yeah, if they have something to match the DNA with.”
“You watch too much television, man.” I got off on my floor. I checked out my phone, it was still on Remy’s Facebook page. “In a relationship with– Lucas Ness.” Lucas Ness? That didn’t sound like a real name. I clicked the link. Lucas was blonde, with glasses and a long ponytail: a total hipster. He worked at a marketing firm that seemed to specialize in video games. ‘Lucas Ness,’ I typed the name into a search bar, it was the name of two famous Nintendo characters. Was it a fake name? It could be just a coincidence. I tried to force the thought from my mind. I needed to focus on work and checking on my sister, Olivia.
Ever since Azzy used her powers to restore my sister's sight, Olivia was on a strong path to improvement. She had been fortunate that Azzy's father had only taken one arm and one leg, so many of his other victims were not as lucky.
I checked on my sister during my lunch break.
“Johnny!” she said pressing on her throat to activate her robotic voice box.
I smiled, but the sound was a further reminder that the evil man had also taken her tongue. "Hi, Liv."
It was Azzy, herself, who found a doctor willing to do Olivia’s throat surgery. She even paid for it. During her recovery, Azzy encouraged Liv to read more and learn to type. With her encouragement, Liv started taking online classes. “Where’s Azzy?” she asked.
“Helping a friend move,” I said, looking around the room. “Speaking which, when do you think you’ll move to the halfway house?”
“I don’t know,” she said looking around at her walls covered in posters and drawings. “I’m kind of used to having my own space.”
“The sooner you leave the hospital the sooner you can visit me and Azzy.” That made her smile.
My day went by quickly and before I knew it, I was headed home. At around six in the evening, I arrived at the apartment to the sound of loud, boisterous, laughter. I could smell Eliza’s cooking; deep-fried Cajun spice tofu. But as I opened the door a different smell overtook me; lots and lots of wine.
“Johnny!” Azzy ran into my arms, narrowing spilling a coffee cup filled with red wine.
“You drink?” I asked.
“I drink to celebrate!” She motioned to a man with long black hair sitting on the sofa. “Johnny this is Remy.”
Remy reached his hand out to me. “How you doing, man?” His voice was silky smooth with what I could describe as a surfer accent.
“I’m good,” I said, shaking his hand. “I saw on Facebook, you’re from Nebraska?”
“I went to school in Lincoln, Nebraska, but I was born and raised in Honolulu.”
A man with a long blond braid stood up. “I’m Lucas.”
“Lucas Ness– cool name.”
Remy laughed as he took a swig of wine straight from an unmarked bottle. “You actually get the reference?!”
Lukas took a sip of wine from a tall juice glass. “The name was Remy’s idea.”
“Name another famous Lucas!” Remy said loudly. It was clear he was drunk. “Lucas and Ness from Earthbound!”
Lucas sighed. “I’m really sorry about him, he needs to switch to water.”
“Nah man, tonight is a celebration, the royals reunited!" He held his hand up to Azzy for a high-five. "Here Johnny, try some of this. It’s all the way from Nebraska.”
I took the bottle from Remy and poured myself a glass. The wine was darker and more opaque then I expected. When I took a sip everyone stared. It didn’t taste like wine, it tasted like blood. And not fresh blood, like when you cut your lip, no this was thick and rancid. As I forced myself to swallow, the flavor changed to a strangely sweet almost soda-like aftertaste.
“It’s beet wine,” Azzy said, with a fake confidence.
By her tone, I could tell she didn't want to lie to me, but she had no choice.
“Yeah,” Remy added with a chuckle. “Totally.” He stuck his ring finger in his mouth, sucking on the tip as if biting his nail. Blood dripped down his hand. Was he drinking his own blood?
I maintained my composure but stuck to ginger ale for the remainder of the evening.
The next day, as I arrived at work, Lucas was standing by the emergency room entrance smoking a cigarette. “Lucas? Hey, man what’s up?”
“We need to talk," Lucas said, as he motioned with his hand. "There's something I need to show you.”
I followed him across the street to the parking garage. As we walked he spoke. “Eliza told me about her nickname: Azzy. You dreamt that up before she even found you in California, correct?"
He had a point. Somehow, Azzy knew about the nickname without me even telling her. “What are you saying?”
“It took her six years to find you but she wanted you. She chose you, the same way Remy chose me. Lucas Ness is the name that Remy gave me when he started to sculpt my new identity.”
“Who were you before?” I asked.
“Sometimes, I can’t even remember.” Lucas stopped at spot number 666. He placed his hand on the concrete wall. Suddenly, a wooden door appeared. “I think my name was Lucas Renolds maybe Tuner. I was working at Burger King, to put myself through college. I had dreams of becoming a game designer, but no real talent or industry connections.” He opened the door to reveal a staircase. “One night, after a late shift, I saw a homeless guy. He claimed to be sick and hadn’t eaten in days. I would have left him alone but he looked to be my age."
The smell of rotten meat invaded my senses, as we descended a staircase.
"It was the end of the month, I was living on instant noodles and sink water. I told him as much; I could give him a place to stay, some food and whatever medicine I had my cabinets. I guess part of me was just lonely."
"You didn't have roommates?" I asked. "I mean, being a college student and all."
"My rundown studio apartment was actually cheaper than living in the dorms. That's California for you."
The darkness was broken by a few Christmas lights embedded into the walls, enough for us to see where we were going. "You met Remy in California?"
"Yeah, he laid claim to me. He said he wanted to marry me." Lucas's voice was quivering.
"So, what was he doing in Nebraska?" It made no sense. If Remy was in love he would have moved heaven and earth to stay in California.
Lucas shrugged. "He said he had work to do in Nebraska. I took him at his word."
Stepping in front of Lucas, I could see the sparkle of tears in his eyes. "I'm sorry, man."
"Remy has the sweetest, most beautiful, heart. You'll just have to take my word for it." Lucas said the last part with a chuckle as he let the remainder of his cigarette burn out. "It takes a lot to love someone like Remy or Azzy."
I scoffed. Azzy was nothing like Remy.
"See for yourself."
At the bottom of the stairs, was a giant caterpillar made of human limbs. The same as the creature I had rescued my sister from back in Wisconsin. Except it wasn't. It had been six years since I saw that caterpillar but I was positive this was a different collection of limbs.
Lucas placed his hand on my shoulder. “I’m one of the chosen. And so are you.”
“How many are there?”
“Of us? Millions.”
“I already grasp that concept." Anyone who was abnormally beautiful, from celebrities to athleates, possibly even certian politicians: they were all inhuman creatures. “How many caterpillars are there?”
“Hundreds," Lucas said as he approached the massive creature. "This one belongs to Remy’s clan.”
Suddenly, I could hear the sound of someone rolling a lollipop in their mouth. Remy grabbed Lucas by the waist, in a flirtatious manner. He wore a clown mask but Remy's body language was unmistakable.
I watched as he pulled a knife, pressing it to his boyfriend’s neck. “Nice work,” Remy whispered in Lucas’s ear. His dark eyes locked with mine.
I could tell he was putting on a show, in an attempt to intimidate me. “Let me guess, you want to talk?”
“No,” Remy said, as he pushed the candy to the side of his mouth. “But she does.”
Azzy appeared, her eyes focused down at her feet. “Hi Johnny.”
I was trying not to laugh at the absurdity of the situation. Was she afraid of me? I opened my arms for a hug, offering up a calm smile. “Hey, Azzy.”
Azzy ran to me. “I wanted to tell you, I really did.”
Remy put away the knife, presumably to take hold of his lollipop as he took off his mask. “You can’t trust him, Sis. He's a self-righteous prick just like my ex!”
Azzy shook her head. “You’re just like your father!”
“Is Remy your brother?” I asked.
“No. He’s my friend." Azzy rested her head on my shoulder. "At least, I thought he was. Like me, he’s a human half-breed who killed his father to take control of his clan.”
I turned to look at Remy. Our eyes locked, I knew he was waiting for a reaction. But he wasn't going to get one.
“Tell him why I’m here,” Remy said with a sinister laugh. “Even under your Azzy's rule, her clan's caterpillar grows!”
My mind flashed back to the woman with no limbs. I knew what Azzy had done, but worse: I knew what she was capable of doing. I held her close rocking her in my arms. “I’ll quit my job for you, I’ll go to medical school for you. I love you Azzy.”
Remy threw the knife at Azzy who caught it mid-air. Her hands trembled as she looked at me with tear-filled eyes. “When Remy gave Lucas his clan marking, he did so while they made love.”
I nodded, unsure of what to say. “There was a woman in the ER with no arms and legs. The police found her near the shopping center. Was she the manager who was cruel to you?”
"One of them." Azzy nodded. “B-but I let her live.”
“Yeah,” Remy muttered. “I still don’t know why you did that.”
“And I don’t know why I chose you to take her job– oh wait! Because YOU wrote to me, asking me to find a way to get you to California! I thought you were my friend!”
“I am your friend, little sister– that’s why I know you can’t trust this man!”
"He's nothing like your ex! Jordan was a Christian missionary."
"And this guy is a nurse." Remy shook his head. "I gave Jordan everything, but when it came down to it to chose his faith over our love."
"You tracked him down to Nebraska," I said in a quivering breath. "You had Lucas! You found love, but you chose to exact revenge on your ex!"
Remy rolled his eyes. "You see what I mean, little sister? Johnny V, your knight in shining armor, thinks he's better than us."
I closed my eyes and I could see the ER woman’s bandaged face. My mind started to picture what Remy might have done to Jordan. It was sick. Every part of me wanted to prove Remy right; I was too moral, too weak. But at that moment I knew, I would rather die than lose Azzy. I gripped the knife, plunging it into my stomach.
As the world went dark I could see a vision, of Target. I was standing behind a cash register. I looked down at my hands, they were Azzy’s hands. I was looking through her eyes. She was serving customer after customer with her usual energy. I could feel her happiness, her light. And then I felt anger.
Out of the corner of my eye, I could see the dark-skinned woman, the manager on duty. She was going from cashier to cashier like a teacher trying to catch her students cheating. When she got to Azzy the manager instructed her to switch with the bagger. “I need to speak to you in private.” According to the name tag, the manager’s name was Jasmine. The beautiful Hispanic woman was tall, with an imposing glare. My eyes drifted to her hands. On her right finger was the letter J. She wore several rings over the tattoo but through Azzy’s eyes, I knew what it was–- a clan marking.
“Yes,” Azzy said as she stepped to the side.
“What’s happening with your in-store credit card numbers?”
“I have great numbers. My average is six signups a day, according to the chart in the break room I’m fourth in the entire store.”
“We all need to strive to do our best.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“You go around saying that as if we’re not all working our asses off!”
“Our store’s numbers have been down, we have quotas to make. So I need you to educate every customer about the in-store credit card.”
“I ask the people who I think might be interested.”
“I need you to be asking everyone.”
“Even the high school kids buying a bag of chips: would you like to put your Doritos on a payment plan?”
“My office– in thirty minutes, you’re getting a write-up.”
Azzy waited a moment, then followed Jasmine. Somehow, Azzy knew she was going on a smoke break before going straight to the office. As Azzy walked her body, our body, rippled with energy. The lenses of the security cameras blew out, display televisions distorted. But no one seemed to notice. Azzy’s body was bathed in a heavenly light as we followed Jasmine out the back, to the alleyway. “Only ugly people smoke.”
Jasmine chuckled and shook her head. “I’m getting security. Clear out your locker, you’ll receive your last paycheck in the mail.”
“I don’t think so.” Azzy grabbed her by the neck, causing the manager to fall to her knees. “I know what you are, and you sure as heck know what I am.” Azzy’s blinked her glowing eyes. She made sure to squeeze the woman's neck hard, to muffle out any attempt at a scream.
Jasmine, choking on blood whispered, “What are you going to do, add me to your collection?”
“No, I don’t want you. But by the time I’m done, no one else will either.” She inhaled. In one monstrous breath, she sucked flesh from bone with the force of a sandstorm. To me, it felt like an eternity, but in reality, it only took Azzy a few seconds. The blood on her lips was no more than a trickle, like the remains of a cherry snow cone. She wiped her mouth with her hand.
Or I did.
Azzy’s hand was trembling. It was as if looking at the blood was not part of what actually happened that day.
My eyes shot open. I was in a dark room, lying on a bare mattress. “Azzy? Are you there?” I knew I hadn't gone blind because I could still see figures, shadows. I could feel a hand touching me, but it wasn’t my girlfriend.
“Azzy, I think your boy’s awake,” Remy said in his usual laugh.
I could feel Remy’s hand on my leg. I flinched, suddenly aware of my body: I was naked. “Azzy!” I shouted. “Please, Azzy where are you?!”
“Remy!” Azzy pulled a string, causing a chain of Christmas lights to illuminate the room. “Stop messing with my boyfriend!”
Azzy had wings. At first, they appeared black, sharp, leathery. But as she stepped closer, into the light, I could see her wings were made of the most beautiful green leaves, like branches growing from her back.
I reached out to touch her, as I did her leaves caressed my fingers. “What are you?”
“An angel, a demon, a fairy– there’s no real word for what we are,” she replied.
I turned to look at Remy. His wings were made of what appeared to be palm leaves. One thin leaf bent forward into his mouth. “Sugarcane,” he said with a smirk.
“That explains a lot.” I chuckled.
Remy rolled his eyes.
Lucas sat by his side. “You do behave like a hyperactive child, my love.” He had no wings, only a series of tribal tattoos that covered his naked chest and shoulders. He was holding an old rusted mirror. “Sorry, this was all I could find down here. You can always wait until we come back to our world.”
“Our world?” I asked.
“Ours, yours, whatever, man.” Lucas laid himself in Remy’s arms.
Remy’s sugarcane wings wrapped around both their bodies. He kissed Lucas’s ear. “Give him the mirror.”
I reached out my hand and grabbed the mirror. My eyes went straight for the new tattoos that covered my chest in an elaborate forest pattern. The landscape reminded me of that old show ‘Joy of painting,’ except this image was entirely made up of black ink lines. “Azzy, did you do this?”
“Are you mad?” she asked, her voice trembling.
I touched the lines. Not only did they not hurt, the way I knew a fresh tattoo should but my body felt amazing. I felt strong, energetic, like someone who actually had time to make it to the gym. I touched my stomach, I could feel actual six-pack abs. “I like it, it’s beautiful. I never knew you could draw like this.” Then I moved the mirror to my face. The changes were slight but noticeable, complementing with my newly muscular body. I was beautiful, like Azzy and Remy. But like, Lucas, I would forever be her pet: her property.
“Would that really be so bad?” Azzy asked.
“To be mine?” She sat on my lap facing me. “Yes, I can read your thoughts.” Her wings started to engulf me. Holding me close I could feel her warmth. “There are bad people in this world. My father’s generation brought fear, he killed for fun. But my generation, we can bring balance.”
My face was pressed against her breasts. I could feel her heartbeat, soft and calming. “My queen."
Azzy’s wings opened. "Yes, my love?" She lifted my face with her gentle hands.
“Will you marry me?”
Azzy nodded, her eyes filled with happiness and light.
I let Azzy hold me. I needed her to believe everything would be ok.
Caterpillar 3: Love in Bloom
I stood in front of the mirror looking at the black and gray tattoo on my tanned, muscular chest. I was still in awe of how cut my body was. This was a physique that would cost most guys hundreds of gym hours and gallons of protein powder.
The way the tattoo wrapped around my entire chest was also nothing short of impressive. The massive image still reminded me of a landscape from the show ‘Joy of painting.’ I watched it all the time as a kid. Bob Ross, the kind old man would always start with a simple concept, and then create an image from his mind, or rather his memory. I knew that he lived in Alaska when he served in the military.
I traced my hand down a pine tree that went from my left pectoral to my ribs.
I closed my eyes as I felt my beautiful fiancée’s hand doing the same. Azzy had done this to me; this was her mark. I now belonged to her: mind, body, and soul.
“What are you thinking about, Johnny?” Azzy whispered.
“A lot of things,” I replied with a shrug.
“Things like- finalizing your med school application?”
I had told Azzy I didn’t want to start medical school until after the wedding. I sent in the application along with my transcripts. I even talked to an academic advisor. With my work experience I was pretty much guaranteed a place. But I loved my job as a nurse and, if I’m being honest, I was a little scared of change. I placed my hand on Azzy’s porcelain skin, caressing her elegant fingers. “I want to take you to Alaska.”
“For the honeymoon?” she asked with a chuckle.
I could feel her long black hair dripping wet from the shower.
We had been planning a small, courthouse wedding. The honeymoon would likely be at a local hotel. “Maybe next summer.”
"Yeah, maybe." Azzy kissed my shoulder as she pulled on her red t-shirt for work.
“How are things at Target?” I asked.
It had been a little over a month since Azzy dismembered her supervisor and then put Remy, her long-haired surfer friend, in the vacant management position. “Remy’s a total flirt, but at least he’s not the horrible bitch that Jasmine was.”
“Does he actually get any work done?”
“Yes, he’s a great manager. Customer complaints have been down by sixty percent.”
“Because he hits on anything with a pulse, or because they’re all dead?” I muttered.
I suddenly felt a tree branch touch my back. Azzy had lifted her shirt to extend her leaf-covered wings. “I can hit a lot harder.”
“Sorry, I know he’s your friend.”
Her wings retracted. “Remy has been through a lot. He deserves some compassion.”
“I know, I know.” I turned to my closet to get dressed for work. “That’s why he’s lucky to have a guy like Lucas.” Remy’s boyfriend was the one part of him that I could stand because at times, Lucas seemed to be as sick of Remy as I was. When we would eat dinner at their luxurious downtown Los Angeles apartment, Remy would spend the entire evening drunk or stoned.
Lucas and I would chat on the fire escape, united in the fact that we were both humans trying to make it work with our fairy-demon partners. Lucas told me about how Remy was obsessed with going to clubs, nightclubs, strip clubs (for both genders) even sex clubs. He would get drunk and high, to the point of showing off his plant-based wings. And it would fall to his thin, blond boyfriend to attempt to drag Remy’s ass to the car before the other messed up people tried to tear off chunks of his body.
A week ago, at our last “dinner party” I tried to comfort Lucas. Remy had only been in California for a little over a month, after spending years in Nebraska. It was possible this was just a phase. “Cajun- Hawaiian fuckboy,” I muttered.
That got a smile, even as Lucas held his cigarette with thing trembling fingers. He had told me the story of Remy’s lineage. His father was a Cajun demon from the Louisiana bayou. He relocated to Hawaii, for a change of scenery and to feed on unsuspecting tourists. That was where he met, kidnapped, impregnated and subsequently murdered a young Hawaiian girl.
Remy never knew his mother: yet another reason to pity him. But I pitied Lucas more.
“He parades me around like a trophy,” Lucas sighed as he smoked cigarette after cigarette. “Remy made me; he paid for my degree, even got me my dream job.”
“First of all,” I said as I attempted to move downwind of the secondhand smoke. “You told me that Remy networked you, your dream job by screwing someone’s secretary.
“He met the CEO’s son at an orgy.”
Of course he did. "And Remy may have paid for your degree with his daddy’s money but you were the one who graduated from UCLA.”
Lucas was smiling, but it was hard to tell if his joy was genuine or if his spirit was just so broken all he could do was laugh at his situation. "I miss him."
“We don’t talk much anymore.” I watched Lucas turned to look in the window at Remy smoking weed while Azzy laughed. “But no matter what, I love him.”
“Why?” I muttered to out loud to myself. I knew it wasn't my place to judge someone else’s relationship but to me, Remy was a total douche.
“I don’t know. The same reason you love Azzy. Despite how they treat us, we would not be complete without them.” Lucas put out his cigarette on the metal of the fire escape, causing the bright ashes to flutter away like fireflies. “Can I tell you something? You have to promise not to tell Remy or Azzy.”
“Sure,” I replied, noticing the fear in his voice.
“For the past few weeks, I’ve been getting really bad headaches. And then yesterday, at work, I had a seizure.”
“Did you see a doctor?”
“No, and I don’t think I want to. I honestly don’t even care if I live or die.”
Anyone with ever a single brain cell could figure out what that meant. “Is Remy screwing around on you?”
“Technically.” Lucas pursed his lips. “In a moment of weakness, I may have agreed to an open relationship.”
“Jesus, man. What the fuck?”
Lucas shrugged. “That’s what love is. You do whatever it takes, to make that special someone happy.”
I was shaken from my thoughts by the sensation of Azzy grasping my hand. She placed it on her slender stomach. “I think I’m pregnant.”
“What?” I turned to face her. She was holding a urine test stick, the kind that showed a digital readout. ‘P-O-S-I-T-I-V-E.’
“But you’re only part human. Does it work like that?”
“That’s why I said ‘I think.’” Completely dressed she grabbed her purse and headed out the door. “I’m going to try to get a blood test later today.”
“Ok, uh bye."
Azzy rolled her eyes as she left, slamming the door behind her.
"I-I love you,” I said to the empty room. The idea of being a father was terrifying, but for Azzy I needed to be strong. I just really wished I had asked more questions.
I made a mental note to call her on my lunch break.
I assumed Azzy's potentially life changing news would be the most emotionally taxing point of my day. But two hours into my shift I was plummeted into hell.
“We need all hands on deck!” A call came over the loudspeaker. “There has been a massive fire in downtown LA, we have ten ambulances headed our direction. Any available staff please report to the emergency room!”
I knew what the announcement meant- as soon as the ambulances were emptied they needed to be sent back into the field. “Where do you need me?” I shouted at one of the doctors.
“Room 19 has a twenty-six-year-old male going into cardiac arrest. They’ll need someone to start a PICC line.” I watched as the gurney rushed by. The man had long blond hair. “Lucas?” I said out loud. No, there was no way. This was California, there had to be thousands of twenty-six-year-old men with long blond hair.
The man’s eyes were swollen shut and his mouth was filling with blood. It was clear he had been hit in the face with debris. “Johnny?”
I gripped his hand, even as the paramedics tried to shove me out of their way. “It’s me, I’m here.”
As the paramedics cut off his clothes I could see Remy’s mark on Lucas's chest. What was once an elaborate tribal tattoo was now covered in blisters and burns. And after the doctors were forced to open his ribs to massage his heart, the marking was all but destroyed.
I did my part and put a PICC line into my friend’s neck, since finding a vein in his arms would have been much too difficult.
When his vitals were stabilized Lucas turned to me. “Tell Remy I died.”
“I’m not going to do that.”
“He won’t want me. I won’t be able to work. I might not be able to walk again.”
“Then he’ll take care of you. That’s what love is.”
Lucas shook his head and turned away. “You don’t understand.”
“Look at me! Love works both ways!”
Lucas looked at me with his sad, pain-stricken, blue eyes. “When a pet dies you just get a new one.”
Lucas required skin grafts to try to save his hands. But his body was so damaged within hours he fell sick with fever. The intensive care doctors assumed it was sepsis. They took blood and urine samples to try to determine what kind. That was when they found gonorrhea. Remy, that son of a bitch, had given Lucas an STD.
I stayed by Lucas’s side, my eyes locked on his stats. His heart was still weak. His pulse was erratic. But worse, was his oxygen. After a few hours of his oxygen level dropping below eighty percent, Lucas could no longer breathe on his own and was put on a ventilator.
It was a little after midnight when Azzy met up with me outside the intensive care ward. There were tears in her eyes as she held me.
“Where is he?” I asked.
“Who?” She looked at me with her innocent gaze.
“Remy. Where the fuck is Remy!?”
Azzy shrugged. “He didn’t want to come with me.”
“Ok, that’s fine.” I power-walked towards the fire exit.
“Johnny?” I could hear Azzy running after me. “Johnny wait!”
I kept walking, pushing through the emergency exit, not caring about the alarm. “I love you Azzy!” I screamed. Did she even know what that meant? Or was she a monster like her ‘friend’?
“I love you too, Johnny.”
I turned. Azzy was touching her stomach.
I realized I never asked her about the blood test. "Azzy, I'm sorry."
She turned and ran.
I immediately called her phone. “Azzy, please! Baby, I’m so sorry.”
“It’s ok,” she said calmly. “I’ll be back.”
I returned to the ICU waiting room and curled into the fetal position to get some sleep. I awoke to the sound of thunder. Looking at my watch it was two in the morning. The lights flickered.
“I’ll kill them all!” Remy’s voice roared.
A wave of electricity swept through the room, sucking the air from my lungs.
“Remy, stop it!” Azzy cried. “This isn’t what Lucas would want!”
They were headed for the ICU. I sprang to my feet, rushing towards the sound.
The doors to the ICU had been forced open but time appeared to be frozen. In the middle of the corridor, in front of Lucas’s room was a mass of branches forming a cocoon.
“Please stop,” Azzy whispered. She opened her wings to reveal Remy’s shivering body.
“T-the fire was arson,” Remy sobbed.
“The police have a suspect in custody,” Azzy explained to me. “It was on the news.”
“You humans are so cruel to one another!” he cried.
Azzy’s branches held Remy by his biceps.
“What did he take?” I asked.
“I don’t know. All I know is he didn’t want to come with me. But then I saw how upset you were that he wasn’t here and I…” Her wings retracted allowing Remy’s limp body to collapse forward.
I gripped his face, forcing Remy to look into my eyes. “Do you want to see Lucas?”
Remy nodded like a tired puppy, so I helped him to his feet. We walked together through the door.
Lucas’s eyes were open, but with the breathing tube he could no longer speak. He shook his head, tears streaming down his face. I knew why: it hurt him to see Remy so upset. This was love, at least from Lucas’s side. That was my problem. Looking at Lucas and Remy was like looking at my own future. Lucas reached for my hand. I could feel Lucas’s life energy flowing through me as I allowed him to speak using my voice. “You don’t have to stay.” Lucas’s eyes stared into Remy’s.
“W-Why wouldn’t I stay?”
“You followed your ex to Nebraska then didn’t come back for three years!”
“I-I wanted to get my degree, to be more than a fuck up.” Remy pursed his lips. “But that’s all I’ve been since I came back.”
Lucas sent two more words to my lips. “Get clean.”
I looked at Remy. “What are you on?”
“I’m not on drugs.”
Lucas closed his eyes. He shook his head with a look of disdain.
“I’m not on drugs!”
I focused my eyes on Remy. “You’re choosing something over your relationship: there’s something that’s causing him to not trust you.”
Remy nodded. He took off his shirt, revealing his wings made of sugarcane. He held Lucas’s hand. “For you, I surrender it all.”
“No!” Azzy screamed, “You can’t!”
The room shook. I looked down at the floor to see an ocean of hands and feet.
“I call upon my power- my clan!” Remy’s body glowed with a demonic fire. “I love you, Lucas. I pledge my loyalty only to you!”
Before I knew what was happening Remy grabbed my hand and held my palm to his chest. We now formed a circuit. I closed my eyes and when I opened them I was in a dark alleyway on a cold rainy night.
My body, or rather Remy’s body, wore a dirty denim jacket and jeans. Everything hurt; my legs my back, even my chest.
A security guard walked past. “Hey, man,” I said in a weak voice. “I need help, I think I’m sick.” The man only rolled his eyes.
Remy’s long hair hung over his shoulders, as I hugged myself, shivering. I looked around, trying to find any source of light. Across the street was a Burger King.
I remembered the story: Lucas worked at Burger King when they first met. Lucas was going to appear any moment, he was going to help me. Minutes turned into hours. The night became darker, the rain became colder. I didn’t think it was possible to be this cold in California.
My stomach hurt. I cupped my hands to catch some water if only to have something to drink. Then I remembered Remy’s blood was made of sugarcane: he could drink his own blood for sustenance. Looking at Remy’s scarred hands it was clear that this was an option he went for often.
But he had no knife or weapon of any kind. “Teeth it is.” I took a breath to brace myself before biting down on Remy’s wrist. The pain was not as bad as I would have assumed but the blood would not stop. After only a few minutes I started to feel light headed.
“Are you ok?” asked a voice. It was Lucas. He looked younger, a little overweight with glasses and acne. And he was wearing a large yellow raincoat, like something out of a cartoon. “Do you need a place to stay?”
I wiped the blood from Remy’s lips. “Y-You don’t even know me.”
“I’m originally from Oregon where my father ran a food kitchen, so it was kind of ingrained to me to be kind to people. If it was closer to seven I would offer to give you a ride to the shelter but at this time of night they’re usually full.”
“You’re not a Christian are you?”
Lucas chuckled. “Do you have something against Christians?”
“My ex-lover was a missionary. He left me for a church position someplace in the Midwest.” I breathed on Remy’s bloody hands to try to warm them. “You got a cigarette?”
“Yeah, is Marlboro okay?” Lucas pulled a pack from his pocket. His hands were getting soaked by rain. “Maybe we should wait until we get indoors.”
"Sure, man, where's you car?"
Lucas drove a beat-up green Honda that looked older then he was. I climbed in the back, trying to make myself comfortable, despite being soaking wet.
“Sorry, I don’t have heat, but we don’t have far to go.” Lucas drove us to his studio apartment. It had a sofa, bathroom, and kitchen. “I’ll fix the sofa bed while you take a shower.”
I took off my clothes, eager to get warm. I held a clean towel to my wrist, the blood had stopped. I was actually beginning to feel calm. Only as I stood naked did I become conscious of Remy’s wings. I ducked into the shower. The curtain was opaque but I was certain my shadow was visible. I sat under the shower head, in the fetal position unsure of what to do. Lucas was human: he was going to freak out. I suddenly felt someone turn on the shower.
“Are you ok?” Lucas was holding a washcloth and began to gently wash Remy’s wings. “I’m not hurting you, am I?”
“Y-you’re not afraid?”
“I have no reason to be. All of God’s creatures are beautiful and worthy of compassion.” Lucas lifted Remy’s face. “I made some ramen noodles and tea. It’s not much but it should keep our stomachs full for tonight.”
I closed my eyes and when I opened them I was back in the ICU watching Remy, and Lucas. The room filled with disembodied souls passing through, upwards. Who were all these people?
Azzy put her arms around me. “Twelve generations of victims, thousands of souls, all released in the name of love.”
I watched as Remy’s wings turned to ash, a metallic silver powder covering both their bodies.
Azzy was in tears, but I could see Remy's act for the shallow gesture that it was. The majority of those souls weren’t even his to free: Remy was living off his daddy’s magical trust fund. I stood up and grabbed Remy by the hair, slamming his head into a nearby wall.
"What do you want from me?" he cried.
"I want you to know true pain,” I said, as I kicked him in the stomach. “Some fucked up terrorist may have burned Lucas's body but you killed his soul. He gave you his heart and you gave him an STD!" I kicked him again. "You will bow down and lick the floor like the low-life trash that you are!”
Remy looked to Azzy. "Please, sister, rein in your pet!”
Azzy stood by my side. "He is not my pet, he is my king."
Empowered, I placed a hand on Lucas’s chest. He was dying, that much was certain. I clenched my fist, picking up a handful of the powder. My heart filled with rage: it should be Remy in this bed!
I heard Lucas gasp. My eyes shot to the monitor. A smile emerged across my face as his stats normalized. He was breathing on his own.
I opened my palm to find a dark mass the size of a golf ball. Was this the physical manifestation of Lucas’s pain? All I knew was that I had an overwhelming urge to shove it down Remy’s throat.
"No!” Azzy grabbed my arm. “He needs to take it willingly."
I looked at Remy. "What do you say?"
Remy held out his hand. “Yeah, sure.”
Lucas was shaking his head. His hands were reaching for the breathing tube in his throat.
Remy took his hand. "It’s ok, I need to do this.” He quickly swallowed the darkness like a cold pill. At first, he appeared to be choking, but he was forcing it down. His eyes turned black as ink-like liquid oozed from his eyes and ears. He took a few breaths as if trying to avoid vomiting, but he failed miserably.
I left to get Remy a cot. “Is he going to be ok?” I asked Azzy, as she help me lay his unconscious body down.
She only shrugged.
Lucas would be hospitalized for the remainder of his life. Remy took a leave of absence from his new job to care for him. I watched their interactions during Lucas’s physical therapy. Remy was like a new person; loving, supportive and kind.
It broke my heart when Lucas suffered a major setback. The sepsis had returned, taking root in his brain. He suffered violent seizures. And little by little, he started to lose his sight. Remy never left his side.
The day of his death, I knew Lucas had contracted pneumonia. But Azzy and I were at the hospital for a very different reason.
With all the stress of the past few months, we had put off getting married until after the baby was born. In addition to Lucas’s illness, my disabled sister Olivia was moved into a halfway house and lastly, there was the issue of the baby itself.
Azzy never stopped working, until she was six months along. She started bleeding. According to the doctors our baby was going to be born prematurely. We were mentally preparing ourselves for the worst.
During her scheduled c-section the lights flickered in the operating room. The team of six doctors and nurses, several of them I knew from work, all look terrified. But I felt calm.
The lights went out completely. I knew the backup generators would kick on momentarily. But no one was moving; not Azzy, not the medical staff. Time was frozen. I suddenly felt a cold hand on my back.
“Hi Johnny,” Lucas said. His voice sounded like an echo.
“Hi Lucas,” I replied, tears choking in my throat. “Did you have a chance to say goodbye?” I turned to face him.
He looked beautiful: a glowing ghost with blond hair and blue eyes like that ending scene from the Beauty and the Beast cartoon. “Promise me you’ll take care of Remy. He won’t be able to stay in the apartment by himself.”
“Emotionally or financially?” I wondered out loud. Ever since Remy surrendered his powers he appeared to be living a more humble lifestyle.
“Emotionally, I mean, Remy is still filthy rich. See if you can get a place together, just so he won’t be alone.”
I nodded, knowing fully what he meant. “It’s easy for him to fall off the deep end.”
“Yeah,” Lucas said sadly. “When I first met him he had been living on the streets for weeks. Remy had his daddy’s money. He was just too depressed to do anything with it.”
“Until he met you,” I whispered. I meant to say it in my own head, but I had a feeling he would be able to hear me regardless. “I’ll take of him. I’ll be the friend he deserves.”
“Promise me you’ll let him hold the baby.”
Lucas smiled. He looked over at Azzy’s frozen body. “She’s going to be a wonderful mother.” He leaned in and kissed her forehead before vanishing.
The lights came back on and time resumed; the yelling and screaming. Azzy had not been injected with any anesthetic but it would no longer be needed. A tidal wave of blood came from between her legs and with it an abnormally small baby boy.
I caught the child. On instinct, I grabbed a nearby scalpel and cut the umbilical cord. The little boy opened his bright blue eyes: Azzy’s eyes.
I looked over at my future wife, the mother of my beautiful son. I put the baby in her arms. “Our Lucas.”
My word caused her to cry. “Lucas? Did you see him?”
I nodded. “He’s asked me to make sure Remy held the baby.”
Azzy looked at the baby’s face. “Are you our Lucas?”
The baby blinked his eyes before he was taken from Azzy’s arms, and placed in an incubation box. I knew that my son would be headed to the pediatric ICU for observation.
I decided to stay with Azzy as she was taken to the maternity ward. The nurse pressed the button to call the elevator.
When the doors opened I stood face to face with Remy. “Hey, man.”
Remy’s hair was in his face, but I could see his eyes were red with tears.
“Remy, there’s someone I want you to meet.” I motioned to the incubation box.
My son turned his head. His little arms stretched as if reaching for Remy.
Remy cupped his hand over his mouth, falling to his knees sobbing. The baby’s hand kept reaching.
The elevator arrived at the maternity floor. Azzy and the baby were taken out to their respective rooms. But as soon as the baby was taken out of view he started to wail.
I sat with Remy, leaning against a wall, before deciding where to go. “I’ll walk with you to the pediatric ICU, or else they might not let you hold the baby.”
“Yeah, since I’m not family…”
“You are family.”
"Thanks," Remy said with a weak nod. “I’m going to have Lucas cremated, and send his ashes to his family in Oregon. Did you know, I never had the chance to meet his parents?“
“He wanted me to, but I was always such a selfish prick.”
“You gave up your powers,” I pointed out.
That fact made him cry even harder. “And now I have nothing; no powers, no clan...”
“You have me and Azzy.” I stood up, offering him my hand. “I think it’s time for you to properly meet my son."
My little Lucas was still crying, as we entered the pediatric ICU, much to the concern of the nurses. He was attached to a heart monitor and the nurses were about to start a feeding tube. But as soon and Remy and I stepped in the room, the baby went silent. He even appeared to smile.
The head nurse on duty was a young Filipino woman named Ava. “You work here, right?” she asked me.
“Yeah, I’m Johnny, this is Remy. He’s my wife’s cousin.” The lie was enough to allow Remy to stay with the baby while I left to check on Azzy.
I knocked on the door. “Azzy?”
She was standing by the window, naked, looking up at the moon. She looked happy and energetic for someone recovering from child birth. “The night is so beautiful. This world is so,” her smile was so full of happiness and light. “So blessed!”
I approached her from behind, reaching out my hand to touch the soft skin of her back. “Do you love me?”
Azzy turned. “Of course, why would you ask that?”
“Do you love me enough to relinquish your powers?”
Caterpillar 4: Trial by Fire
I married Azzy in a courthouse on a rainy afternoon. The love of my life wore a fifty dollar dress, bought at Target with her employee discount, and a veil she made herself using various thrift store finds. I stroked her long black hair, looking into her sky blue eyes. My bride looked like a Disney princess.
My sister, Olivia, was by my side, struggling to balance on her prosthetic leg while holding my son with her prosthetic arm.
Baby Lucas wailed, his little limbs flailing.
"Give him to me," said Remy. My son seemed to cry when held by anyone other than Azzy's gay best friend. The Cajun-Hawaiian playboy, with his long hair and surfer looks, was working on turning his life around. After the untimely death of his boyfriend he quit his job, staying at MY apartment full time to watch over the baby (who may or may not be the reincarnated soul of his partner.)
As for Azzy, after she had the baby she took advantage of Target's maternity leave. She told me she was unsure if she even wanted to go back to being a cashier. I advised her to keep her options open, just in case she changed her mind after the six months were up. I loved her, I would support her in whatever she chose. But as I kissed my bride, my eyes couldn't help but glance towards Remy.
It bugged me, the fact that Azzy and Remy had so much time to spend together. I liked that she was keeping him on the straight and narrow. Even stripped of his powers he had not resorted to drugs or alcohol. That's something to be admired, right?
Together they'd helped Olivia move into the halfway house where she was learning to live independently with one arm, one leg and no tongue. We were all friends, family; at the time, that was all that mattered.
After the ceremony we all headed back to my apartment to order takeout from the closest vegan restaurant.
“I think we should go back to Wisconsin, as a family,” Azzy suggested.
I glanced up from my veggie burger. “Why?”
“It’s our culture, our heritage,” she pointed out. Olivia and Remy nodded in agreement.
“Azzy, my parents are dead, your parents are a zombie and a demon.” It needed to be said.
“Your point?” Remy asked as he held my infant son in his arms.
“Shut up, Nanny Man-bun,” I muttered. “You don’t get a vote!"
Remy wore his dark hair pulled into a trendy hipster bun. “Azzy wants little Lucas to meet his extended family. I don’t see what the big deal is.”
“Yeah,” Olivia added, pressing a finger to her electronic voice box. “It’s been years since we visited Mom’s grave and I’ve never even seen Dad’s grave.”
"They're the same grave," I groaned, frustrated. The night Lucas was born I had asked Azzy if she loved me enough to relinquish her powers, her answer was no. Now I knew why- Wisconsin. The Midwest was the source of her powers, her demon father’s clan, which was now her clan. She told me it was selfish to ask her to choose between me and her family. Funny, I thought I was her family.
“You can take a week off of work,” Azzy said as she casually took a sip of Sprite. “And I have a few more weeks of maternity leave.”
Remy and Olivia were awaiting a reply. I was outnumbered. “Fine, I’ll ask.” I actually was entitled to paternity leave, but I had declined since Azzy had Remy to help her with the baby.
The next day I talked to my supervisor, at the hospital, about taking leave. But the schedule had already been made and I apparently had the week off. “What gives?” I asked.
“Your wife spoke to me earlier this week,” Ms. Conners replied. She was an elderly woman, close to retirement age.
"She went behind my back?" I sighed and rolled my eyes. “Of course she did.”
“Hey, I did you a favor. You are going to take the next two weeks off. Or do you really want that hippy-freak raising your kid?”
She wasn’t wrong. The baby adored Remy. Secretly, my biggest fear was that one day I would come home to the news that my son called him Dada.
Since I had the next two weeks off, we (Azzy, and I along with Olivia, Remy, and the baby) rented a minivan and made the cross-country trip. The four of us alternated between driving, sleeping and watching over the baby. As the result we arrived in Wisconsin in just under a day.
We were going to stay at the Holiday Inn motel across the movie theater, next to the place where I first found the entrance to “Azzy’s clan.”
Exhausted, my family unpacked and got settled. I walked across the street to pick up some Chinese takeout. When I returned Azzy and Remy were laying on one of the two beds with the baby between them.
Remy sat up. "What did you get?"
"Everything on the menu that was vegan or could be made vegan. But being that this is Wisconsin that amounts to mixed vegetables, noodles and rice."
"No, being that you went to the cheap-ass truck stop restaurant instead of Postmates..." Remy grabbed one of the plastic bags, selecting a box of plain fried noodles.
"Does Postmates delivery even exist in Beloit?" Azzy asked, as she sat up with Lucas in her arms.
Remy shrugged. "You grew up here."
"But I'm a white trash hell-demon, remember? I was lucky if my dad let me have a rotten apple with my expired lunch meat sandwich. He certainly never ordered takeout from a website." Azzy sat on the edge of the bed as she moved the baby under her loose t-shirt to breastfeed.
Remy chuckled as he took a seat on the floor, at her feet. "My old man used to order take out all the time; Postmates, Grubhub, DoorDash, you name it. I would get the food while he devoured the delivery person. He was the inspiration behind more than a few urban legends, or creepypastas or whatever."
That was when I witnessed something truly maddening. As Remy sat on the floor eating out of a takeout box with one hand. The other slipped under Azzy's shirt, to allow baby Lucas to caress his little fingers around Remy's tattooed knuckles.
When the baby was finished nursing, Azzy rested Lucas on her lap as she ate her dinner. Remy proceeded to lay his head on my wife's lap, cuddling my son. Their dark hair blended into one shade. Azzy stroked Remy’s cheek.
I heard Olivia cough, which was odd since coughing with an electric voice box was painful.
I glanced at her with a glare.
She forced a smile. “Come on, they’re cute. Remy is like Lucas's older brother.”
The next day, at around ten in the morning, early enough for the fields to be vacant, we walked until we found the hidden door.
Olivia reached for my hand. I could tell she was afraid. “Don’t worry, Azzy’s father is gone. We trust Azzy, right?”
Olivia nodded silently.
I knew she had every right to be afraid. The hellish place looked exactly the same as when Azzy’s father captured Olivia. I gripped my sister’s hand while Remy walked with Azzy, holding the sleeping baby Lucas in his arms.
Walking down the dirt hallway we passed people in clown masks. They were digging, expanding the tunnels. Further down there were people using cement, spackle and various other power tools to enforce the walls. I wondered why.
Down a large metal staircase lived the caterpillar, Azzy’s caterpillar. My family stood before the giant, towering, creature made of human limbs. Azzy stepped forward, reaching her arm into the mass of flesh. “Mom? It’s me.”
The mass of limbs parted. Azzy’s mother’s corpse drifted forward, like a puppet. Although her mouth was not moving there were zombie groans clearly emanating from her throat.
Baby Lucas opened his eyes. He cooed reaching his arms out to his grandmother.
I took a step back as Azzy’s mother’s arm reached out, touching Remy’s cheek.
Remy looked around awkwardly. “Uh, Azzy, Johnny, what do I do?”
The dead woman laughed, her face was frozen, unmoving but her voice echoed. “What a beautiful demon baby, the perfect little prince to unite two clans.”
“Two clans?” I muttered quietly.
Azzy’s mother turned to her. “My sweet daughter, there is so much of your father in you.”
Azzy appeared frozen in place.
“No… ” I bit my lip, shaking my head. "No, this can't be true!"
“No what?” Azzy asked. Her voice was trembling, it was clear she was trying to force herself to speak.
“Is the baby Remy’s?” I cried. I had been so afraid of Remy being called Dada but this was so much worse. This was a nightmare, this was hell. The baby had Azzy’s blue eyes with dark hair and light skin. My son didn’t look like me but it never crossed my mind that he looked like Remy. “Did you sleep with Remy?”
“No! Of course not!” Azzy's chest was heaving, it was clear she was struggling to avoid a full panic attack.
Remy slowly placed the baby on the ground. “I’m so sorry.”
Azzy looked as confused as I was. “Remy?”
“I’m sorry! It was during a bad time when I let my power take over me.”
“What did you do?!” I screamed. My hands glowed red as I punched him in the face.
Remy fell to the ground. “My mind was all fucked up!” He stayed at his knees.
My hand moved to his throat and I began to choke him with a surreal supernatural strength.
I suddenly heard laughter. “The precious angel is all grown up.” It was Azzy’s father’s voice.
I looked at Olivia she was frozen in fear but Azzy ran to hug her. “It’s okay. My father is dead. I watched him die!”
“Funny thing about death: did Azzy tell any of you what she did with my remains? She added my body to the caterpillar!”
“Oh fuck.” I prayed to God he was joking. I turned to the massive collection of limbs, focusing on Azzy’s mother.
The corpse was looking around frantically, her limbs were trembling. Suddenly, two ghostly hands gripped her chest, groping her decayed body in a sexual manner. “My soul is attached to the clan. I have waited so many years to meet my heir.”
“Remy?” I asked.
“No, I don’t want that foolish freak to have my power.” Azzy’s father laughed. “How does that song go?” He started to sing, “Johnny Angel, how I love you. You’re an angel to me…” He chuckled at his own joke. “Finished off the freak- with the blood of his death you will take your rightful place as the leader of my clan.”
Remy nodded at me. He closed his eyes as he kept silently apologizing.
All I could think of was when he could have done it. At work? At his apartment? Or did it happen at our apartment? I could picture a time when Remy and his boyfriend Lucas had been over for dinner. I left the apartment to go buy toilet paper. Lucas had gone with me to pick up more smokes. Did Remy rape my girlfriend in our bed?
“He did…” Azzy’s father’s voice echoed. “Taste his blood and see for yourself.”
I sank my nail into his neck, cutting into a tattoo of the word ‘Hope.’ How dare this bastard have the word ‘hope’ written on his neck? I licked the blood from my fingers, and closed my eyes.
I awoke in Azzy’s body. I could feel Remy’s muscular arms pinning me to the bed- my bed. “Remy?”
“I need this," he said in an animalistic groan. "I need you.”
“Come on,” Azzy said with a laugh. She was clearly too drunk or high to fight him off. “How about I go down on you, just like we used to do in junior high?”
“Nah, I want you.” Remy pinned her to the bed. “I always get what I want.”
Azzy’s body was frozen, like a corpse. Her head fell back, her eyes closed. Azzy’s spirit left her body. It was as if she was brain dead. I assumed this was some kind of self-preservation mechanism brought on by her powers.
But much to my horror, I could still feel everything. I felt Remy lower his sweatpants pulling out his weapon of choice. I could feel him inside me, Azzy, using her body, our body. When he was done he stripped Azzy naked and drew her a bath. He left but returned with her dress, strained with the curry sauce from that night’s dinner and casually dumped it in the hamper.
When she awoke Azzy was confused. She stood up and stretched her back, glancing at the dress in the hamper. The answer appeared to be a simple one: she got drunk, made a mess and went to take a bath. She shrugged and got out of the bath.
That was why she didn’t remember. Her body was protecting her mind.
I opened my eyes. Both of my hands were around Remy’s neck. My nails sank into his flesh, I didn’t want to choke him- I wanted to rip his head off. “What kind of person rapes their best friend?”
“The kind of sick demon freak who allowed his power to overrule his mind,” Remy said, his voice soft and quiet. “The kind of person who was too weak to fight to protect the people he cares about. ”
Suddenly, I could feel wetness. Was it blood? I looked down at my hands. The moisture was Remy's tears.
“You should be crying.” I released his neck to punch him again, aiming to break his nose. “You're a real piece of work.”
Remy didn’t fight back. His body simply went limp.
I kicked him in the stomach over and over. “You should be in hell!”
That was when he coughed up blood. “I-I am in hell.”
"What can you offer in exchange for my mercy?"
"I don't deserve mercy. I’ve made too many mistakes. I don’t deserve to exist in this world.”
"Understatement of the century,” I muttered. My mind thought back to all of the f-ed up things Remy had done: forcing his boyfriend into an open relationship, giving him an std, and apparently, raping my girlfriend/his best friend.
“Kill him,” Azzy’s father’s voice echoed in my ear. “You know Remy and my beloved daughter have killed for so much less. I do believe she even killed her store manager for being an unfair meanie, ha ha ha.”
I could feel hands gripping mine. I prayed they didn’t belong to Azzy’s father. He wanted me to kill, to give into the anger. Was I too weak to overpower him?
The hands were large and they felt comforting and warm. I could feel skin, veins, and a ring. They were my father’s hands. “You must Forgive,” he whispered. His voice was deep and soothing.
“Forgive?” The word choked my throat.
My father gripped my shoulder, turning my body to face him. “My son, you have done nothing but good in your life.”
“Yeah, I’m Johnny the fucking loser, stuck with raising some a-hole’s kid!”
“The Lord blessed you with a strong heart.”
I shook my head, fighting back tears. "I’m not that strong."
"You are stronger than you realize. And that strength will set you free."
"Free?" I understood. I was still pissed, but I understood. I blinked a few times, bringing myself back to reality. Looking around I could see all of the clown demons staring at me, awaiting the conclusion of the show. I looked at Azzy and Olivia, and then took a deep breath in preparation for my scream, "I forgive you, I forgive all of you!"
The walls shook. "No!" Azzy's father roared.
"The sinners, the whores, the scam artists, the people who made really f-ed up mistakes: I forgive you all!
I heard my baby crying; MY baby, MY son. I picked him up from the ground, rocking his little body in my arms.
I could feel a woman's hand touch my arm. "You have wings." It was Olivia's voice, her real voice. Wings made of light emerged, wrapping around my shoulders.
"Do you forgive me?" I asked Olivia.
"The night you were kidnapped. You left with Azzy's dad and I just let you."
"And then you snuck into hell to save me," Olivia said as she stroked me cheek. "I was a stupid slut who went off with a hot guy- that mistake was all me. But you," her voice became even clearer as she gripped my hand, "You saved me. And you can save Remy."
"I don't know if I can."
Olivia smiled. "Do you remember the year we spent summer vacation doing community service up north? We were sorting trash and I asked 'why do we even bothered to recycle when the rest of the world is still killing the planet?'"
I chuckled, remembering the day. "A car had driven through a puddle, right in front of you. You looked ready to chase the guy down."
"Remember what you said to me?"
I nodded. "You can't fix the world, but you can take the first step."
A cold breeze shot through the room. Olivia and I were surrounded by light, separating us from the reality of the tunnels. I took a breath and reached out my hand. “I forgive you, Remy."
Remy looked at me, then at Azzy.
Olivia grabbed Azzy by the arm, pulling her into the light. "Stand with us!"
Baby Lucas started to cry.
I knelt down to Remy's level. "I want you in my son’s life. My Lucas will know forgiveness, he will know mercy. But most importantly he will know love. I want you to live as part of my family." I placed the baby in his arms. “I want to start over, here, in Wisconsin.”
Remy accepted the baby, following me into the light. When my entire family was safe, we were suddenly teleported back to the fields. I breathed a sigh of relief, then watched as my wings faded.
Olivia tapped my shoulder. "What do you think?"
She motioned to Azzy and Remy. The former friends were staring each other down. Remy held the baby close, his hands shivering.
And Azzy- well she looked ready to murder him. "Johnny," she said in a trembling voice. "Take the baby and meet me back at the hotel."
I threw my arms around Azzy, holding her close. "Azzy, listen to me. This is a new start, for all of us."
"Yeah." Azzy swallowed hard, as she wiped away tears. "A new start."
Caterpillar 5: Ever After
It’s me, Johnny V and apparently having a trip to the other side (complete with angel wings) inspired me to make the crazy decision to move my family from California, back to Wisconsin. And not someplace nice like Madison, Milwaukee or even Green Bay. No, for whatever reason I was forcing my family back to Beloit, the small town that we fled all those years ago.
While I was breaking my lease over the phone and quitting my nurse position at the Los Angeles hospital my demon-fairy wife, Azzy, picked out a house and paid in cash. Her ability to do that was an impressive feat even for the small town of Beloit. But I knew she wasn't happy. In fact, she was downright pissed.
I was kinda forcing her to remain on speaking terms with Remy, her gay best friend who raped her into unconsciousness back before he surrendered his demon powers. I know I need to be supportive of my wife, but Remy was not the same person who attacked her. He deserved to be forgiven. And he was, technically, the biological father of Lucas, the baby Azzy and I consider to be our son.
So the deal was made, he would pay for half the house in exchange for a place to live and time with our son.
It only took Remy and Azzy a few days to pool their money and buy a house in one of Beloit’s nicer neighborhoods. It was a three bedroom, two bath. Azzy and I took the main room, my sister Olivia took the second and the last one was made into a nursery where Remy would stay with Lucas.
Remy had given up on being apologetic. But there was no doubt that Lucas loved him. And I loved my son. Part of me felt like I was choosing his happiness over Azzy's. Luckily, I had school to distract me.
I enrolled in medical school at University of Wisconsin, Madison. It would require a significant commute, leading my family to ask why I requested we live in the small town of Beloit. It felt right. It was where we needed to be (or maybe I just needed the commute time to clear my head before entering the lion's den.).
Olivia got a job as a substitute teacher for the Beloit school district. She was still working on finishing her degree but her story was so compelling the people in charge decided that it would be good publicity: The remarkable young woman who survived a brutal attack that cost her arm and leg, returning to Beloit to make a difference.
Azzy took a job at Walmart, working as a cashier while Remy stayed home with the baby. My wife made it clear that this was not her choice. She would have preferred Remy to get a job so she could stay at home. But since Remy had no desire to go back to work, it fell to her to get a job. Or else Azzy would be forced to spend the day with her ex-friend, competing for the affection of her only child.
After my first day of classes, I came home to Azzy cooking dinner, Olivia grading papers, and Remy sleeping on the sofa with the baby in his arms. I picked up my son. He giggled as he opened his big blue eyes. “Did you have fun with Uncle Remy?” I had decided that was the ‘title’ I was going with and so far Remy had no objections. I made my way to Azzy and put my arms around her waist.
She flinched. “Get him away from me, the baby smells like Remy.”
“If you need to kill him I’ll help you get rid of the body,” I said jokingly.
“Not funny,” she said as tears streamed down her rosy cheeks. “I can’t be in the same room as my own son without thinking about what that asshole did to me! My childhood best friend raped me in a catatonic state. And you invited him to live with us?! You should have killed him!”
“You’re free to,” I replied in my same jovial tone, hoping to lighten the mood.
Azzy turned to me with a glare. “Do you even love me?”
“You know I do.” I took her hand placing it on Lucas's soft little face.
Our baby smiled as if to assure me I was making the correct decision.
“We need to do the right thing, to be good role models.”
“Role models?” Azzy suddenly stopped her tears. “Not a bad idea.”
I paid it no further mind, simply glad that I managed to calm her. But the next evening I came home to a much stranger sight. Olivia, Remy, and little Lucas were on the front porch. “You might not want to go in there,” Olivia muttered as she organized files in a large box.
“Why?” I pushed open the door to find my wife holding a cocktail party for a diverse group of people all of whom were heavily armed.
“Hi, Johnny,” she said in a cheerful voice. “I’m going to run for city council.”
“My platform will be revolutionizing and re-envisioning gang warfare.”
“Oh,” that confirmed my suspicions.
“Beloit is a hub, gangs from all over ship their product through here, on the way to more profitable cities. The trouble arises when certain gangs become territorial and then bodies end up in the river. All of which contributes to our city’s crime statistics.”
My first thought was how she managed to get such a diverse group of people to agree to a meeting under one roof. Then a looked closer, they were all young, attractive people. “Are these your father’s friends?”
“His very powerful friends, who are going to help me change the world.”
I rolled my eyes, too tired to argue.
Over the next few days, Azzy quit her job at Walmart to devote more time to her campaign, but that also meant spending more time at the house. Even with her new friends to keep her company she still had to tolerate Remy and the baby.
I'd hoped things would begin to work themselves out. But one night, a week later, the situation came to a head, and not in the way I would have expected.
I awoke to my son’s cries. The sound was terrifying as if he was screaming for his life. I ran into the room to find Lucas on the bed kicking and screaming. I didn't even bother to turn on the lights. By the light of the window, I scooped up my terrified son, rocking him in my arms.
That was when I stepped on Remy's arm. Remy was on the floor, his body was in spasm, he might have even been foaming at the mouth. Gripped in his hand was an empty plastic bag that smelled like bleach, next to a mostly full bottle of vodka. What had been in the bag; powder, pills? “Are you fucking serious?” I cried. I was sick to my stomach. How could he Remy do this? How could he hurt our family? Then I remembered Azzy’s father’s friends.
I reached for the closet landline phone to dial 911. Upon hearing the words “drug overdose” the operator informed me that an ambulance was on its way and for me to stay with Remy until they arrived. Rocking my son in my arms, I knelt down beside Remy’s shivering body. “What the fuck, man?”
“I-I’m sorry,” he gasped, reaching for my hand. “I just needed something to help me sleep.”
"You have Lucas, you have my family!"
Remy's closed his eyes as he shook his head "Everything hurts."
Suddenly, I could hear Azzy giggling. She entered the room and took the baby from my arms. “Come to Mommy. I’ll make you a bottle.”
“Azzy?” I wanted to follow her but Remy was convulsing.
Luckily, Olivia appeared. “I’ll stay with Remy, you need to talk to your wife.”
I thanked her and hurried to the kitchen. Azzy was calmly feeding the baby. She coo-ed and stoked his chubby cheeks. “You’re Mommy’s little angel.”
“What did you do?” I whispered, not wanting to upset Lucas.
“Funny, I could have sworn someone said I was free to kill that bastard,” Azzy replied with a gleeful smile.
“What did you do?” I repeated.
Azzy shrugged. “I just told my new friends about what Remy did to me. So, if my ex-friend came to any of them asking for a ‘free sample’, to make it extra special.”
"And you knew he would..."
"Because he's a f-ing loser and always has been!" Her tone caused Lucas to cry as she forced the bottle into his mouth. “The only reason you’re protecting him is out of some promise you made to the ghost of his dead boyfriend! Let him die. I’ll take care of my son!”
I put my arms around my wife and child. “Our son.” I could feel the warmth of the bottle against my skin, as Azzy cried on my shoulder. “I love you, my devotion is only to you. If you don’t want Remy here I will make him move out but you need to remember the person he is now, was not the person who hurt you.”
“That’s what’s even more messed up. The old Remy was my best friend. I knew him for years!”
“But over time his mind became corrupted by power.”
My words caused Azzy to pause, looking into my eyes. “And you don’t want that to happen to me.”
Now I was the one crying. “You are so strong but so angry.”
Azzy nodded. “Just like my father was.”
“Like anyone who works in retail,” I said with a laugh. “I will stand by you no matter what you choose to do. But I want to plant the seed of forgiveness. You don’t have to forgive him, I certainly don’t, but you can’t just murder your problems away."
“I can’t?” she asked with a smile.
“You shouldn’t.” I smiled back and kissed her cheek. “But I’ll love you no matter what. I promise.”
Remy was taken to the hospital where he was put on dialysis. He was suffering from severe blood poisoning, and it was entirely possible he would never walk again.
For the next few weeks, Olivia and I visited him as often as our schedules would allow. She even decided to decline any substitute teaching jobs until Remy’s fate was decided.
“He wants a DNR,” Olivia told me as we sipped coffee in the hospital cafeteria.
“Do you think it’ll come to that?” A 'Do not resuscitate' form was usually reserved for patients without hope.
"Remy ingested some really bad shit, the damage is pretty severe. Even if he survives, what could he do with the rest of his life?"
"Says the employed substitute teacher missing two limbs," I muttered with a smirk.
"But I have a fully functioning brain."
"Yeah,” I sighed.
"Well, Nurse Jamie said that maybe bringing Lucas by would lift Remy's spirits."
“You haven't met Jamie, the day nurse? He is the coolest!”
"I guess our paths just never crossed.” With my upcoming residency schedule, my time was limited to nights and weekends. And since Remy was not in the ICU the ratio of nurses to patients appeared to be one for every dozen or so. But Jamie sounded like someone special. “Do you think Jamie could put in a good word with Azzy?”
Olivia shrugged. “If we could here get her down here.”
Azzy had taken to spending more and more time with her new friends, keeping Lucas with her at all times.
We returned to Remy’s room. When I arrived at eight he had been asleep, hence why Olivia and I went for coffee. As we opened the door I saw a tall African American man with long braids, strumming a guitar. Although he was clearly wearing hospital scrubs, he looked like an artist, and part of me expected him to speak with a Caribbean accent. That was not the case.
He sang soft and slow, his voice deep, seductive and distinctly American.
"Sweet love's showin' us a heavenly light
Never seen such a beautiful sight
See love glowing on us every night
I know forever we'll be doing it
Sweet love's showin' us a heavenly light
I've never seen such a beautiful sight
See love glowing on us every night
I know forever we'll be doing it..."
(*lyrics- Whenever I Call You Friend, by Kenny Loggins)
Remy’s hand was placed on the body of the guitar. His eyes were closed, but I could tell by his movement, he was savoring the vibration of the music.
“Hello, you must be Johnny,” James said with a slight southern twang. “Your sister has told me so much about you. I’m James Proudstar, but my friends call me Jamie.”
"Hi." I shook his hand, unsure what to say. Olivia was right, there was something really unique about him. "Are you a Christian?"
"Why, because I’m a brother, from Atlanta, who can sing?" he asked with a wide grin. I shrugged nervously.
"You give off a Christian preacher vibe."
Jamie laughed. “I would hope not.”
That caused Remy to smile. "You've got a mouth like a preacher." Remy blinked his eyes slowly as Jamie’s lips met his. The kiss was tender and sweet.
I coughed to clear my throat. “Jamie, could I speak to you outside? One medical professional to another?"
"Sure, man..." Jamie said as he slowly pulled away from Remy's embrace, and followed me out the door. “What’s up?"
"Olivia told me about the DNR."
Jamie's expression changed from bliss to anger. "That’s not going to happen, not on my watch."
"Do you know about what happened between Remy and my wife?"
Jamie nodded. “A cousin of mine went through something similar. Her boyfriend was high on meth when he beat her into a coma."
"Did she ever forgive him?"
Jamie sighed. "They had three kids together. Forgiveness was the right thing- the necessary thing to do. But only after he got clean and a few years of therapy for both of them. My point is, I’ve seen pain; someone so blinded by anger that all they can see is what hurts. Do they have a right to hurt? Yes. Does your wife have the right to hate Remy with every fiber of her being? Absolutely. But where will that get her?"
I had to agree. Remy repaid his debt, at least in my opinion. “Do you think you could convince Azzy to visit him?”
"I could try."
I took out my phone and switched to speaker mode as I dialed Azzy. She picked up on the first ring. “Hey, Johnny.”
“Hey. Guess where I am?”
“Visiting Remy: you have a break in your classes, where else would you be?" she said in a clearly annoyed tone.
"I’d like you to speak to his nurse."
"Hello Azzy, my name is James Proudstar."
"Your name is what?" Azzy paused and chuckled. "James Proudstar, like the Marvel character?"
It was only then I realized how strange his name was.
Jamie only smiled. “You can’t change what you are.”
"And what are you?" she asked.
“An angel, a superhero. I’m what happens when you ascend; leave behind who you were, to become the person you were meant to be.” He placed a hand on my shoulder and nodded. “So, Miss Azzy, do you think you can find it in your heart to pay your old friend a visit?”
"Yeah, I guess," she replied in a meek voice.
Azzy arrived twenty minutes later with entourage in tow. “You don’t have to go in there alone,” said a punk Asian girl with a massive dragon tattoo on her arm.
Azzy held baby Lucas close. He appeared to be sleeping on her shoulder. “I won’t be alone.” To my surprise, she reached for my hand. “Johnny, You ready?”
“Um, yeah. Of course.” I took her hand, and lead her through the door. "Remy, Olivia look who finally made it."
“Hey, Azzy.” Remy's voice was breaking. “How goes the campaign?”
“Good,” Azzy’s replied as she took a seat beside him. “Do you remember the first time we met?”
Remy nodded and took a labored breath. “W-We w-were seven, and your dad took you to Hawaii.”
“Because your dad requested that he bring along a babysitter so they could party all night long." Azzy laughed as she wiped tears from her eyes. "That's what Dad told me. I remember getting off the plane, and this big breasted Barbie doll of a woman introduced me to a little island boy with long hair and chubby cheeks."
Remy sighed. "Nanny Clara: she was a nanny the way a... " He blinked a few times, appearing to have lost his train of thought. "She was a nanny the way audio books are still considered books..." Remy chuckled at his own joke.
Azzy nodded. “I remember."
"You and me, while our dads got laid and wasted, we stayed at the hotel arcade playing Street Fighter and Gauntlet Legends. When it got late, you snuck into the hotel kitchen and stole all the food you could fit in your backpack.”
“You picked the lock to the roof so we could sleep under the stars.” Azzy put both arms around Lucas, holding him like a teddy bear as she sobbed. “What happened to that sweet little boy?”
“Life happened; my father, my sexuality, my f-ed up choices.” Remy’s hand was trembling as he reached for her. “But you were always there for me. Azzy you were like a sister to me."
Azzy caressed his hand, stroking his palm like a fortune teller. “I don’t forgive you.”
Remy nodded weakly. “I know.”
“But I love you.”
There was a long silence. Remy started to weep as hard as Azzy was. “I’m so sorry.”
“I know.” Azzy pursed her lips, she rocked the baby in her arms as if to comfort herself. “But I don’t want you in my home. If you want me to give you back your portion of the money-”
“Of course not, I would never do that to you. Consider it a gift for your family.”
Azzy gave Remy's hand a firm squeeze. “You are my family.”
She turned the baby to face Remy, his sweet blue eyes looking at Remy with nothing but love.
“I want you in my son’s life. I want my son to know the person I knew.”
Lucas was reaching out to Remy; it was clear that he wanted to be in Remy’s arms. So I guided Azzy’s hands to place the baby on Remy’s chest.
Lucas giggled and cooed.
Remy patted his little back. “I love you too.”
From that day forward, time seemed to fly by. The next month Azzy, of course, ended up winning her bid for city council. During her downtime, she was a doting mother, but she never gave up her powers. And I never again broached the subject.
On little Lucas’s first birthday we celebrated in style at the Ho-Chunk Indian casino. The Ho-Chuck nation had been waiting nearly a decade to get a resort open in Beloit. The council always voted them down, saying things like “a casino in town will cause gambling addiction, split families- our town is too wholesome for that!”
Azzy knew the real reason: the Ho-Chunk were asking for use of land that they were not entitled to and the people who owned the land thought that a better, more wholesome option might come along. But like I said, it’d been over ten years. Now, thanks to Azzy the land was theirs and they would be breaking ground later that month.
I don’t know what she did, or what strings she pulled. I would like to think she simply baked the governor and other council members a vegan chocolate cake on par with the one she made today. But looking around at the array of armed men and women drinking at my son’s party, I can assume “non-violence” was not the chosen route.
I looked over and Remy and Jamie. Remy walked with a cane, struggling to maintain his balance. Jamie lifted his face and kissed Remy's lips before taking a sip of red wine. Their happiness was contagious or maybe that was just the benefit of being in a relationship with an angel.
After Remy was discharged he'd moved in with Jamie. His condition was not as debilitating as Olivia and I first thought; Remy could walk, feed himself, etc. He could even be trusted to babysit Lucas.
I learned that Jamie grew up in Atlanta, but his mother moved to Beloit as her ‘calling’. Apparently, she had been an elder spirit working as a social worker. But she passed away due to stage four ovarian cancer. Or “... called back to the home office,” as Jamie said with a chuckle the first time my family visited.
He inherited a house that he shared with Candy, his late mother’s Chipit. Chipit apparently stands for Chihuahua/Pitbull, which is as terrifying as it sounds. At least it was to me. The large-eared guard dog seemed to have the demeanor of an over-caffeinated Chihuahua with the roar of an angry pit bull. But Candy loved Lucas from the moment they first met.
Lucas had taken his first steps at around eight months (of course, he still preferred to be carried,) but at the sight of the dog, he squealed with glee practically begging Azzy to put him down. My chubby little toddler had waddled up to the dog, giving it a big hug.
That moment is seared into my mind because that was the first time I saw my son’s wings. His shirt lifted revealing plant-like appendages similar to Azzy’s. I watched as the thin green branch stroked the dog’s fur before quickly retracting. I dared not mention it to Azzy. Although, I'm pretty sure she knew.
Now, at his high-class casino party, Lucas was being carried around by Azzy, wearing a little blue suit with a jacket. I could see his shoulders quivering; his wings wanted to come out. His body wanted to show off who he really was.
I made my way to the open bar and ordered a shot of vodka on the rocks. Drink in hand, I faced the window looking out into the beautiful Wisconsin sky. Then I felt a tree branch stroke my lower back. “Hey, Azzy.”
“Hey,” she said sweetly, holding a glass of red wine. “So what do you think? Am I using my powers for good?”
I put my arm around her waist, I could feel her wings retracting. “I’m proud of you.”
“I’m proud of you too.” Her smile felt genuine. “I mean, with you starting your residency. You act like it’s no big deal.”
To me, it wasn’t a big deal. I was on my way to becoming a pediatrician. It would be a nice calm job, unlike my work as a nurse. I would not be on call 24/7, so I would have plenty of time to be a good husband and father.
Still looking out the window I could feel Azzy’s arm around my waist. She rested her head on my shoulder. “So when are you taking me to Alaska?”
“Huh? You remember that?" I had not thought about my promise or even my tattoo for a while. I discreetly looked at my reflection in the window, with the top part of my shirt unbuttoned down to my collar, I could see my upper-chest. The image, Azzy's mark, was gone.
I could feel my wife's wings touch my back, the branches moving under my shirt to caress my skin.
I flexed my shoulders, stretching my back. A warmth caressed my body as if I was pulling on a jacket.
Both Azzy and Lucas were looking at me with huge smiles. "I love your wings."
"You can see them?"
"So can Lucas." She untucked the baby's shirt allowing his little vine wings to flow from under the bottom of his shirt. Azzy put her arm around me, positioning the baby between us. I glanced at our reflection in the window. We were the ideal, stereotypical family photo. But there was something forming above our heads. At the spot where Azzy's wings touched mine, Lucas's wings seemed to come through the middle to create a rather cute five-petaled flower.
"A wood violet," Azzy said whispered. "The state flower of Wisconsin."
I didn't know what that meant. Was I standing next to the future governor or maybe even president? As the old saying goes, 'with great power comes great responsibility.' I found my calling. I would be responsible for keeping my family on the right path. “I love you.”
“I love you too, Johnny.”
Caterpillar 6: Azzyland
It's been two years since my last post. But I need to continue my story, while I still can.
I'm dying, and Azzy, my demon-fairy wife, is pissed. At least that's what people are saying. As I lay in a hospital bed for my latest round of chemotherapy, I watch my beautiful wife on television. Azzy is still on the city council, working towards making Beloit, Wisconsin a better place.
I couldn't be more proud of her. Her success was what I clung to, as I vomited into a bedpan for the third time in an hour. That had to be God's plan, for me to inspire her to greatness.
I was in the final month of my pediatric residency when I passed out for the first time. I had been tired, but I assumed it was stress. I was working twelve hour days, coming home just long enough to kiss my son goodnight before passing out.
Now I get to have all the rest I could ever want, and in less then a year I'll have all the sleep I could ever ask for. I tried to calm down, to take deep breaths as I laid my head on the pillow. The IV was almost complete. My father died of leukemia; he always said that he stopped treatment so that he could avoid leaving me and my sister with a mountain of medical debt (the way our mother's death had.) But now I knew the truth; chemo just sucked. This was not worth the extra few weeks of life. It was all I could do to not rip the IV out of my arm. I won't live to see forty, I won't live to see my son graduate high school or even kindergarten.
"Papa!" Lucas, my little boy ran into my room.
He was followed by Remy, my wife's gay BFF, and our nanny. Technically, he was also Lucas's biological father but that was a story for another day (or a previous chapter.) "Hey, Johnny," Remy said as he lifted Lucas on to the bed.
Remy took a seat. His long surfer hair flowed past his shoulders and his face was covered in a hipster beard appropriate to his new position as a freelance muralist. "You're looking good."
Lucas pressed his soft cheek against my chest. "I miss you, Papa."
I took a breath, choking back tears. "I miss you too."
"Remy taught me how to paint with a paintbrush!"
Remy nodded, unable to look me in the eye. "Yeah, the little guy is really talented." He reached his arms out for Lucas. "Why don't you go show your dad your painting?"
Lucas happily jumped off the bed, landing on his knees. "I left it with the nurse." He ran off without the slightest hint of pain or discomfort.
When we were alone I turned to Remy. "What's wrong with Azzy?"
Remy sighed. "Is it that obvious?"
"I haven't seen my wife in three days but I know she's been in the room." I motioned to the pillow next to my head. It was stained with her makeup; she had been sneaking into sleep by my side but leaving before I awoke (which wouldn't be difficult since the chemo had taken all of my energy and I didn't awaken much before noon.)
"She wants power."
"Power to do what?"
Remy shook his head. "You know what I mean. Azzy knows she can't save you and it's pissing her off."
"What is she planning?"
Remy crossed his arms and leaned forward as if he was about to vomit. "She won't tell me."
"I know she told you something."
It was then Lucas scampered back into the room, holding a large sketch pad. "Mommy's taking a trip."
"Really?" I forced myself to sit up, glaring at Remy.
"Mommy has a lot of friends. She's telling people to come to Wisconsin," he said as he opened his notebook to a photo of the White House- as in where the president of the United States lived. He moved the photo to reveal his watercolor painting, complete with a stick figure with long black hair standing on the roof.
"Is that Mommy?" I asked.
Lucas nodded. "It's Mommy's castle. She said we're going to live there; you, me, and all of Mommy's friends."
"Mommy wants to run for president?" I asked Lucas, looking at Remy.
Remy sighed. "People like Azzy don't run for office, they gather an army."
After their visit, I went back to sleep. When I awoke it was night, the moon was shining brightly through my window. The light glowing over a form that lay in my bed. "Hi, Johnny," my wife said in a whisper.
"Hi Azzy," I tried to hold back tears but it was no use. My body was in pain, I was so tired all the time, but worse, I was so alone. I was going to die alone in this hospital bed. "I missed you."
"I miss you too, baby," she said with a kissed to my cheek. "Lucas asked me to make sure you woke up the next time I visited."
"Did you go to Washington D.C.?"
"Yeah," she said as she rested her head on my chest, holding my hand.
"Are you going on a trip?"
"Yeah," Azzy replied in a whisper. "I'm headed to New York." She closed her eyes and when she opened them they were no longer blue but black as holes. She blinked a few times causing black ink to flow down her cheeks. "I-I want you to come with me."
"Azzy?" This had to be a nightmare.
"I want to show you what I've done, the future I've created." Her voice crackled like a cartoon witch speaking into a voice recorder.
"I don't know if I can," that was all I could think of to say. Despite how weak my legs were, I had a sinking feeling it wouldn't matter.
Azzy left the bed. She was shorter than me but easily lifted my body. "I can save you. I found a way to save you."
I watched as all my IVs, and monitors disintegrated giving the illusion of my vitals flatlining. Alarms went off, in a matter of moments nurses would be rushing in to respond to the code blue. I watched as Azzy punched the air, ripping open a portal in the fabric of reality.
I must have lost consciousness because I awoke in a colorfully lit cave, like an underground rave or music festival. I could hear music; dance music sang in a foreign language, possibly French. And I smelled food.
Chemo had destroyed my appetite but the strong smells were intoxicating. If someone told me a months ago that I would be craving Indian food I would have laughed in their face as I vomited on their shoes.
Azzy returned to me with a tray of food. Her eyes were still black. "You're awake!"
I reached out my hand, touching her cheek. "Azzy?"
"Yes, baby?" She smiled and as she did, her eyes returned to their normal, beautiful blue. "Here, try this."
I ate a bite of the spinach stew served over rice. It tasted amazing.
Suddenly, I felt a sharp pain in my side. I expected to feel nausea but that wasn't it. A shiny black tentacle was growing out of my navel. I put down the bowl, my hands trembling. "Azzy, what is that?"
"It's the cure." I struggled to my feet, leaning against the wall.
Azzy put my arm around her shoulder. "Let's go outside. I've waited so long to show you my kingdom."
Looking around, the cave had a music festival feel but I knew exactly where we were. I could see lights and LCD screens for miles.
At first, I was a little self-conscious to be walking around wearing a hospital gown and much much else, but this place was filled with scantily-clad people. All of them were showing off large black tattoos. Some looked like lace other were bold tribal-style lines.
But something was missing. "Where's the caterpillar?"
"Huh?" Azzy turned back to me.
"Where is the giant mass of living body parts that lives in this cave?"
Her eyes glanced at the black mark on my stomach that was now moving up my chest, towards a scar over my heart.
Strange, I never noticed I had a scar there. "What have you done?"
"I saved the world," she said with a nervous smile. "I-I'll show you."
Azzy led me down a set of unlit stairs to a much lower part of the cave system. "Watch your step."
I took a breath as the air began to get noticeably colder. The room was dark but my eyes quickly adjusted. This was where she was keeping the caterpillar. The creature was as tall as a two-story house and seemed to stretch for miles. But most noticeably it was now chained up by large pieces of metal.
Azzy's wing took hold of my hand and brushed it against a pipe. "This is where the magic happens."
As I touched the pipe i could hear screaming. Looking up I could see a pipe system going up through the ceiling. Something was being piped into the caterpillar, processed and then extracted. Whatever it was, it was hurting the creature. "What is that?"
"Sin," Azzy replied in a whisper.
"Sin?" I asked. I could see the dark, shadowy fluid pumping through the pale human limbs. "You found a way to harvest sin?"
Azzy smiled, she blinked her eyes turning them black. In the darkness of the cave, it looked like her eyes had vanished, leaving behind gaping holes.
"How? When did this start?"
"Six months ago," she said as she walked to one of the spouts. "It's everywhere, in the air we breathe. All I had to do was find a way to filter it out into its physical form."
The black oil-like substance was being forced out of each metal port, in a seemly endless supply. Being near it caused me to shiver in pain like I was being locked in a freezer. But at the same time, I saw other young people, covered in black tattoos moving the liquid. Some took portions upstairs, others took small sips of the liquid fresh from the gruesome taps.
"For most people, it's like hard liquor, others day it's like a narcotic. All I know is I wanted to end my life, but it saved me."
"You don't remember, do you? The surgery?" Azzy pursed her lips and closed her dark eyes. "They needed to remove an infection near your spine. You had a seizure on the operating table. At least, that's what they told me. You were put into a medically induced coma." Azzy waved her hand and opened a portal. "I'm sorry I need some air."
I dove through after her, landing hard on my shoulder. I was now even colder than before. "Are we in New York?" I shouted over the roar of the wind. We were on a rooftop, and in the distance, I could see the statue of liberty.
Azzy was sitting on the edge of the roof with her knees pulled to her chest. "I'm sorry, let me take you someplace warmer."
I put my arms around Azzy, holding her close. "I'm fine. All I need is you."
My words caused her to sob even harder. "I couldn't lose you. I didn't want to live without you."
As I felt her warm hands on my stomach the memory filled my mind. It was like some kind of virtual reality movie: I was seeing the moment through Azzy's eyes. Her hands held me close as her tears fell upon my face. She took out a small flask from her purse. She took a long swig of the warm, sweet liquid, a few of the black drops falling on to her fingertips.
She stroked my unconscious face, moving my breathing tube to the side just enough to pour the black liquid into my mouth. My body started to convulse. Azzy held me; it was clear her intention was for us to die together. But within moments my heart rate and oxygen levels stabilized. Azzy screamed as she moved away from the bed. She fell to her knees in tears. I was breathing on my own.
I opened my eyes, back on the rooftop with my loving wife in my arms. "Is that what happened? You wanted us to die together?"
"But it cured you. It saved you. That's why whenever I visited you I would feed you in your sleep."
"For the past six months?" I had been in the worst pain of my life for the past six months, enduring day after day of chemo that seemed to not be making any improvement. Was there some kind of correlation? "Let's go home."
Azzy nodded. "Where do you want to go? I sold the house and I've been living in the caves."
"You sold the house? Where has our son been living?"
"With Remy and Jamie."
Remy had been bringing Lucas to visit once a day. "Remind me to kick Remy's ass."
"I told him to keep my secret," Azzy said with a smile as she opened a portal back to the comfortable area of the cave. "I wanted everything to be perfect when I finally brought you here." We laid together on the mattress looking up at the Christmas lights that adorned the ceiling of our cave suite. "I love you."
I held my wife close, placing a soft kiss upon her lips. "I love you too."
I tried to sleep but all I could feel was darkness and pain. The cancer was eating my brain, and the 'cure' would eventually devour my soul.
Caterpillar 7: Revolution
I sat in my cave-room wrapped in a blanket. My fever was getting worse. All I could feel was an intense cold. Azzy had left on her latest trip but since my superhero of a wife could travel via portals I knew she, at least, wouldn't be gone for too long.
Azzy left orders to have a caretaker check in on me. The various volunteers brought me supplies, including a space heater that ran on the same mysterious black liquid as the food, water, medicine, and recreational drugs. Each time I consumed the magical "caterpillar" blood it brought only a fleeting moment of relief. But lucky for me, the material was never in short supply. Even the air was warm with the spicy-sweet scent.
Even with my hourly visitors, I was painfully lonely. I wanted my son at my side. I was certain this place was safe for a small child. Out of all of my wife's followers, I appeared to be the only one that even looked sick. Everyone else spent their days having fun; creating art and music, living out their dreams.
I heard a roar, a massive noise that shook through the underground cave system like an earthquake. It was over within seconds, yet I could still feel rumbling. It felt like something the size of a Boeing 747 was being dragged to a lower floor.
My wife emerged from a portal to thunderous applause, "Straight from New York City, I present our latest ally in the fight for peace and love Princess Kiko Momo!"
I crawled to the entrance of my cave, looking down at the festivities. A tall Asian girl with purple hair and dragon scales on her exposed arms took a bow. She then flexed her biceps as if to show that the scales were more then just tattoos.
"Princess," chucked a male attendant as he entered my room with a tray of food and medicine. "She's a princess in the same way Azzy is; killed her father and took over his demon clan."
"Oh," I said with a nod.
"From what I hear Azzy lets all her new friends pick their own titles. We even have a 'high priestess', some girl from Norway. Anyone willing to add their caterpillar to the pile- they get to play royalty."
"Have you seen that thing? I bet it could loop around the world. But holy crap does it give me the creeps." He added some of the black fluid to my heater, causing the flame to glow purple. "That's why I volunteered for food delivery, to avoid having to work down there, milking the black blood or whatever the heck Azzy is harvesting from that thing."
"Why do you stay?" I asked as I leaned against the wall, making myself comfortable to eat my meal of potato curry and rice.
"I'm sick, same as you. I had inoperable stomach cancer." He motioned to a black tattoo on his stomach, the image looked like a Japanese wave, caressing over the entirety of his abs. "The doctors gave me six months to live, but thanks to the 'miracle cure' I've been here for nearly a year." He looked at me with a compassionate smile. "It will help you, too. None of us know why it's taking so long for the blood to work its magic, but you just need to keep hoping."
Keep hoping? "What did you do for a living?"
"I was a corporate lawyer, why?"
Of course, you were. "Just curious."
"Papa!" My precious three-year-old son, Lucas burst into my room with Azzy following close behind.
My wife had been chatting with the dragon-princess, but upon seeing little Lucas running she attempted to scoop him up in her arms.
"No! I want to stay with Papa!" he cried, burying his head in my chest.
The adorable moment was enough to bring me to tears. "Please let him stay."
"It should be fine," said a soft, robotic voice.
"Hello?" asked the former lawyer. "Are you here to administer the medication?"
"I am." The woman's face was hidden in shadows but it was clear she was wearing a surgical mask. She pulled out a long needled that sparkled gold. "I was told to lance the bedsores, and apply a pain cream."
Azzy made another attempt to lift Lucas from my arms. "Papa needs to be left alone so the nurse can do her work."
"He can stay," the strange woman said, now facing away from the group. "I'm good with kids, and having him here will allow the patient a distraction from the pain." The needle caught the light so brightly the woman's face completely vanished into the shadows.
"Please, Mommy?" Lucas asked with eyes filled with sadness. "I miss Papa."
"Fine," Azzy sighed. "Take care of your Papa."
"I will, Mommy."
She leaned in a kissed my cheek. "And you, my love, try to see if you can get our little cutie to take a nap."
Azzy, the dragon princess, and the male attendant left, closing the privacy screen on their way out.
Since these were natural cave formations they had no doors, so each cave room was fitted with an opaque screen that could be closed with the push of a button. The noise reduction was a welcome change but I had to admit, with the screen closed I felt like I was back in the hospital.
The woman wearing a surgical mask approached. "I'm going to lift your shirt."
"Ok," I said, hugging Lucas's warm little body.
She glided the needle along my spine. "This is going to be painful."
I flinched as she popped what felt like boils on my back, causing cold liquid to stream down my skin.
"This isn't working," she muttered, as she scooted away. "Here, you need to drink this."
I turned to see she held a mug of warm liquid that looked and smelled like green tea. "Sure." I took a sip since this tea at least did not appear to contain the black caterpillar blood. I watched her scoop up Lucas with one arm. One arm made of robotic tendons, that sparked with shimmers of gold. "Olivia?"
My sister was not the only female amputee in the world, but ever since I first got sick her visits started at about once a month and became less frequent from there. I had been praying for answers in regards to her fate. Was this the miracle I had been waiting for?
"Yes, Johnny, it's me. I'm going to get you out of here."
"Finish the cup. You're going to have a very intense, painful seizure until you black out."
I put down the cup.
Olivia lowered her mask, revealing her face. "But when you wake up we will all be someplace safe."
"Auntie Livy, I missed you." Lucas cuddled his cheek to her shoulder.
That was all the inspiration I needed. "Ok, Liv, I trust you." She wasn't kidding about the seizure. After forcing myself to chug the remains of the cup every muscle in my body convulsed. My bones were on fire, and I felt like I was going to vomit up my internal organs.
I awoke in a brightly lit church. In addition to the stained glass windows, this place appeared to be lit with dozens of spotlights, to the point where I felt like I was going blind. "Where are we?"
"Heaven," answered a male voice.
"Heaven?" I repeated.
"Heaven, North Dakota," Jamie said as he stepped into view. The African American man wore his hair in long dreads that looked majestic, paired with his fully expanded angel wings. "Our team's base of operations."
"Um... okay," I said. I was in too much physical agony to think of a better response. "Do you have anything for the pain?"
"That part's simple, give your soul, your heart, your trust: your life- to the Lord and his love will make everything right."
"God will cure me?"
"Not exactly, that's not part of his grand plan. But trust me, you want what the big guy has to offer."
"Are you saying I have to choose between my wife and God?"
"I'm asking you to do what you know is right," Jamie said, his southern accent creeping through. "You've seen her base, she's harnessing evil in its purest form. I mean, think about it; what has her miracle elixir done to your body?"
He had a point. Was there a reason why the effects of the black blood were not permanent on my body, my cancer?
Jamie touched my forehead, stroking my chemo-ravaged hair. "Give us a chance to show you what we can do."
"Okay," I took a breath and stood up on my weak unsteady legs. "I owe you that much."
Lucas softly touched my hand. "You can do it, Papa! Lay down in the water and you'll see pretty things."
"Pretty things?" I asked Jamie and Olivia.
Olivia placed her hand on my shoulder. "Trust me, if nothing else, the water will work better than the caterpillar blood for healing your pain."
I walked towards the kiddie pool shaped alter at the front of the church. "I just lay down?" I asked out loud as I laid my body in the shallow water. I was immediately sucked into the pool by a massive current. I closed my eyes, if only because of the strain, but when I opened them I was in a field of flowers. Two shadows stood in the distance. "Mom? Dad?"
I cried tears of joy as my parents turned to me. My father looked the same age as when cancer took his life. Except here he stood 6'2", confident and strong. And then there was my mother. I lost her so long ago I barely remembered her face, but her smile warmed my heart.
"Is this real?" I managed to ask.
My mother nodded, "This is very real."
My father pursed his lips. "In the coming days, you will have some difficult decisions to make."
"I can't abandon my wife, my family..."
My father's face conveyed a look of concern. "We know you will find a way to do what is right- to do what needs to be done."
My mother reached for my hand. "We have faith in you."
In a blink of an eye, they were gone. I coughed as I sat up in the pool. "What happened?" The trip seemed suspiciously short.
"We have company," Olivia said, looking in the direction of a black hole forming in the wall.
I could hear the ghostly sounds of an army of goths reciting a creepy chant, "Country roads take me home, to the place I belong..."
Azzy entered first, opening the portal large enough for everyone to gaze upon her massive army. She raised her hand to silence her soldiers as she took a solo, "North Dakota, backstabbing traitors..."
An awkward silence ensued.
"What? You don't like my version of John Denver?" She ended her lyric with a creepy giggle before leaping into the air with a giant sword made of the black liquid. The blade that she appeared to have conjured from out of nowhere, was aimed straight at Olivia.
I dove in front of my sister, raising my arms to deflect the blow. I didn't care what would happen to me, my only thoughts were of saving my family. I can only assume that was why a sword and shield made of white light suddenly appeared, to guard my limbs.
Azzy was frozen mid-jump. "I love you, Johnny. When I married you: when I said my wedding vows I meant them."
"As did I."
"Yet you stand against me."
"I stand for what's right." I suddenly felt a blow to the back of my head.
Lucas screamed. "Remy no!"
"I'm sorry little guy," Remy said as he grabbed me by the neck. "We all must bow to our queen."
Lucas ran up and kicked Remy in the shin, causing Remy to grab my little boy with his other hand.
Azzy landed like an elegant bird, "Remy, take my husband and son back to the caves." She swished her hair like a pageant contestant. "And burn the rest to the ground."
Caterpillar 8: Redbull Gives You Wings
I opened my eyes to the darkness. All I knew for certain was that I wasn't restrained and I was holding my shivering child in my arms.
"Papa, why does Mommy hate us?" Lucas asked.
"Mommy doesn't hate us, she's just upset at Olivia and Jamie."
"Why did she tell Remy to leave us here?"
My mind started to drift. Jamie was Remy's boyfriend, he saved Remy after he overdosed. Jamie was literally an angel who gave Remy a new lease on life, yet Remy stood with my wife Azzy and her terrifying cult. Maybe cult was too strong of a word. "Lucas, I need to ask you something."
"Mommy told me that you were staying with Remy and Jamie while she was away on her special trips?"
Lucas nodded. "They were nice to me. I thought Remy was my friend."
"So did I," I said with a sigh. "So did I." What happened between Remy and Jamie? Had they been fighting? or was Remy playing both sides?
I needed answers but first, I needed a way out of wherever the hell I was. In the distance, I could see a light source. As I stood up, carrying my son, a wave of long hair caressed my cheek.
I was frozen with fear until Lucas gave it a yank. "Papa your hair grew back!"
The pain in my scalp confirmed his observation. I had lost my hair to chemo and had been resided to the fact I would have to be donning a wig at my funeral, but now my hair was back, my muscle strength was back. Everything cancer had taken from me had been returned.
I could hear footsteps in the distance. Someone with a lantern was headed in my direction.
"You're awake!" said a female voice. "Master Remy will be pleased."
I followed the girl to a larger cave, lit with spotlights, candles, and even a few colorful LEDs. From the many projects scattered about it was clear, this was Remy's studio, possibly also his current living space.
"Johnny, Welcome!" he said from inside a hammock resting on two stalagmites.
Although I had Lucas in my arms I walked over to him and with my free arm, flipped him onto the hard stone floor.
"Ow," Remy landed with a smack. "Was that necessary?"
"Yes, 'cause you're a meanie!" Lucas cried.
"Hi, Lucas, I have your sketchbook," Remy said as he reached for a notebook on a stone side table. Lucas flailed in my arms, kicking Remy in the face as he forced himself out of my grip.
"I hate you, Remy, you're not my friend!" he grabbed his book and ran back to my side.
Remy gripped his head, "To be fair, I guess I owe you guys an explanation."
Remy stood up and brushed off the dust from his sweatpants. "You may have noticed how much better you look and feel, after your run in with the angels."
"Azzy knew that would happen, it's why she let them take you."
"Is my wife at war with God?"
"War is a strong word, I would call it more of a disagreement. He wants her to put a stop to her research."
"Why? Is she going to open the gates of hell or something?"
"Who knows," he replied with a shrug. "That information is above my pay grade."
"Well, what do you know? Are Olivia and Jamie still alive? Do you even care?"
"Jamie is an overpowered jack-off, of an angel and Olivia is his #1 fan. They probably escaped the fire just fine. But you're right, I honestly don't care."
My mouth fell open with a sudden realization. "Did Jamie dump you for Olivia?"
"Screw you, man! What's happening right now is bigger than my goddamned love life. What Azzy has, the power she created - what are the odds the angels have something similar?"
"A heavenly caterpillar made of human limbs?" I asked with a raised eyebrow.
"A coalition," my wife's voice echoed through the darkness, as she entered Remy's studio space. As she stepped into the light her eyes sparkled with the same innocence I fell in love with. "Johnny you look amazing!" She ran to me and cupped my face.
"Am I cured?"
"Unfortunately no," she said as she stroked my cheek. "But this body, this beauty, and strength is the form you will take when you cross over."
"Cross... over?" The words choked in my throat.
"The collation wants you, so I let them purify your body- since my cure did not seem to be working. But don't worry, my love. Once they're defeated, once I claim victory over all creation- I will have the power to save you."
"I'm still sick?" Although selfish, that was all my mind could focus on.
"But you're strong," Azzy said as she held my hand. "And together we're unstoppable." With her free hand, she reached under her shirt to reveal a golden flask. "Try this."
"What is it?"
"The next phase of my miracle serum," Azzy said with a cheerful smile.
Lucas looked over with bright eyes. "Can I try some, Mommy?"
Azzy paused and bit her lip, but her smile quickly resumed. "Sure, we can all have some. It will probably make you big and strong."
Before I could respond, Lucas grabbed the flask and took a long gulp. "Yummy! It tastes like Redbull!"
Azzy glared in Remy's direction. "Why does my three-year-old know about Redbull?"
They were laughing but my focus was on Lucas's now jet black eyes. "Owie!" he cried as his back started to spasm. Lucas's wings erupted from his back with such force they tore through his shirt.
I grabbed the flask from him, fully intending to pour it out. But Lucas wasn't in pain, he was giggling with delight. I poured a few drops on my palm. The dark liquid sparkled with an enchanting glow. But within seconds, it started to evaporate into a series of white clouds: clouds that were screaming with human voices. "Um, Azzy?"
Remy took the flask and took a swig. "It does taste like Redbull."
"Azzy!" I shouted. "I want the truth- what is this?"
Azzy's smile faded. "For you, it's a temporary solution to your illness and a way for you to prove where your loyalties lie. Do you trust me?"
"Fine, yes, I trust you. But first, I want to know the truth." I turned to Remy. "What happened between you and Jamie?"
Remy put the flask down on a nearby table and rolled his neck until we heard a pop. "Oh, that feels good." He took a breath and sighed. "The truth? I caught him making out with Olivia. So I got drunk, maybe a little high and... I cheated."
"You cheated on Jamie?"
"Jamie told me that Olivia kissed him. And he..."
"He let did nothing to stop her. Jamie claimed it was all a big misunderstanding, he said he loved me. So I came clean and told him about the three-way I had in a Motel 6: apparently, that was not something he could find it in his heart to forgive."
Lucas looked at me with his large black eyes. "Papa, what's a three-way."
Azzy exploded into laughter. "Sweetie, a three-way is when someone finds two new friends to play with, and that causes the old friend to get mad."
"Oh," Lucas said with a nod. "And that's why Remy and I had to live in a van?"
"A trailer!" Remy added. "Lucas and I lived in a trailer, not a van."
"Auntie Livy asked if I wanted to stay at the house with her and Jamie. But Remy said he would take me on an adventure we went to the waterpark, to Chicago, and even Mall of America! I watched Remy paint huge pictures; the people were always so happy!" Lucas ran to Remy's side. Apparently, they were friends again.
My son's happiness was all the assurance I needed; team Azzy was not evil, she just made a discovery. She was a scientist, a revolutionary. And maybe she was right when the dust finally settles and she's queen of all creation, she'll make the world a better place. "Bottoms up."
I took a long drink until I started to hear strange whispers. A ghostly voice echoed in my head, "... the hallway... the door."
I looked at Azzy. "What hallway did you come down?"
"I came from the lab," she said with a slight motion towards the direction of the caterpillar's lair.
My body started to run. Whatever was now inside me knew exactly where to go. I ran to a rusty metal door that seemed to blend in with the came wall.
"Johnny don't!" Azzy screamed from several feet away. "I can explain."
I opened the door to the sight of Jamie's headless body (wings and all) strung up like a slaughtered farm animal. His blood was being collected in a bucket: blood that sparkled with an enchanting glow.
Caterpillar 9: Fall to Pieces
Upon finding Jamie's headless body being drained of blood, I knew I had to get the hell out of there.
Azzy grabbed my arm. "Please, Johnny, this isn't what it looks like." Her long black hair framed her delicate features.
"It looks like you killed an angel, strung him and collected his blood." I pushed her away and reached for my son. But the little boy clung to Azzy's side.
"I'm staying with Mommy and Remy!" he shouted his black demonic eyes growing larger on his cherub face.
Remy, my wife's bodyguard, and childhood friend, the long-haired artist had a look of concern. Perhaps even sympathy. "Lucas, maybe you should go with your dad."
"No, you're my real dad!"
Now Remy looked nervous, possibly ashamed. "Um, who told you that?"
"When we were in Minnesota and you were smoking your special medicine with those girls, I heard you tell them! Don't lie, I know it's true! Remy, you're special in the same way Mommy is special- you have real magic, real powers- Papa is just," Lucas looked straight at me, "Human." The word rolled off his tongue with a demonic hiss.
He wasn't wrong. The only reason Azzy had been able to get pregnant was that Remy sexually assaulted her when they were both very intoxicated. I could remember a time when she resented him but now she stood by his side with THEIR son.
Remy shook his head. "Give Azzy a chance to explain herself. Then if you want to leave no one will stop you."
Azzy shot him a look, she was clearly not okay with this compromise.
Remy stood strong. "What happened after I left with Lucas and Johnny?"
"Jamie offered himself as a sacrifice," she muttered.
Remy appeared genuinely shocked. "What exactly did he say?"
"His forces were outnumbered, and after only a few minutes we had killed so many. Jamie offered a surrender in exchange for a sacrifice."
Jamie's voice echoed in my head. "Ask about my last words."
"What were his last words?" I asked Azzy. "I want the truth!"
"He said to tell Remy he was sorry; sorry for not forgiving you when he should have."
Remy cupped his hand over his mouth as tears filled his eyes.
"He said all you ever wanted was a friend and he should never have turned his back on you. He said he never stopped loving you."
Remy now had a look of horror which was reasonable since Jamie's corpse was still hanging right in front of us.
Lucas put his arms around Remy. "We'll be your friends! Me, Mommy and maybe even Papa!"
"No..." Remy made the sight of the cross over his chest, causing a portal to open behind Jamie's body. "Johnny is human, he's too pure of heart for the likes of us." He raised one hand, and as he did, and energy blast shoved me and Jamie through the portal.
We landed back in Heaven, North Dakota or what remained of it. The church was practically destroyed but I knew that was where Jamie would want to be laid to rest. "I wonder what happens to angels when they die?" I said out loud as I started to dig through the rubble until I found a place to lay Jamie's body. "A while back you told me your mother died of cancer; she was called back to the head office."
"True," said Jamie's voice.
I looked at the body but the voice was coming from a glowing piece of stained glass attached to one of the few standing walls.
"Angels live on Earth, like God's national guard, but spirits are like the energy; they do the work you can't see."
"From the head office."
"I'm headed there soon. I just wanted to stop by to thank you for giving my body a proper burial."
"No problem, you were always a good friend. But before you go- do you know what happened to Olivia?"
"Your sister is alive; that was part of the deal of surrender; she was allowed to leave. She didn't want to, of course, but I told her to. You can find her at a diner about twenty miles north of here."
With that, the light faded. "Goodbye Jamie." Now, how the heck was I to walk twenty miles in the North Dakota summer heat?
It took me a few hours to find the diner but I knew it right away. 'Ella's' a small red building with gold trim- like a Chinese restaurant. It was as if Olivia had designed the place.
I opened the door to find a girl with Olivia's face, hair and more importantly, peeking out from under her long sleeved uniform shirt was Olivia's golden prosthetic arm. "Welcome," she said, "Table for one?"
Remy cleared his throat. He was sitting alone at a corner booth. "He's with me." He tapped his chest, motioning for me to look at Olivia's name tag.
Her name was Ella? Was this her Diner? I had so many questions but my legs were killing me so I took a seat opposite Remy. "Thanks, man."
Olivia/Ella dropped a menu in front of me before making a snort as she turned away.
"So what are you doing here, Remy?" I asked from behind my menu. I'm not sure who I thought I was hiding from, the dining room was empty. "Where are Azzy and Lucas?"
"Back in the caves, I guess. I kinda walked out on them."
"Oh, great," I said with a sigh. I had been upset, but the fact that Remy was with them, taking on the role of a father figure, it gave me a sense of hope.
"I needed to find you, to tell you my plan." Remy leaned in close. "We need to release the caterpillar."
"Releasing a massive daisy chain of captured souls; what would that accomplish exactly?"
"It would strip Azzy and her forces of their powers. I mean, think about it- that was the only reasons they were able to defeat Jamie; her army draws power directly from the caterpillar, though whatever contraption Azzy is using to keep it contained. We free it, they all become normal foot-soldiers."
"What about..." I motioned at Ella/Olivia. "What's the story?"
"I'd say Jamie wiped her memory, maybe gave her one last dose of his powers to start a new life."
"I can hear you," Ella said as she approached. "And as usual, Remy, you are a complete idiot!"
"Olivia!" I pulled her close to take a seat. "I was so scared."
"As scared as I was when an army of demons, kidnapped my sick brother and little nephew? - All before beheading one of my best friends?" she asked, with a fake smile and trembling hands.
Remy only chuckled. "So, how did you get the diner?"
"Jamie's last gift; he infused my arm with his magic. All I had to do was find an abandoned building to take shelter in. Here, I'm Ella; I waitress, cook, clean," she picked up a sharp knife, stabbing it into the table. "And I can make a mean chopped salad."
"Hey, relax," I said as I grabbed her wrist. "We're all in this together."
"Like hell we are," Olivia rolled her eyes. "How do we know boy-toy over here is not a double agent, he could be wearing some sort of black magic transmission device and whatever we're planning will go straight to Azzy."
"I thought you'd say that, so I brought a peace offering. Remy pulled what appeared to be a stick from his hair. It was a wooden paintbrush, possibly handmade. "This is our key to sneaking into the caterpillar's lair."
I picked up the brush, stroking the strange wooden handle. I looked at Remy as I stabbed my fingernail into the wood.
"Ow," Remy flinched in pain as if something had poked him in the neck.
"That's what I thought," I said as I placed the brush down gently. "This brush contains the remains of your powers."
"As you may recall, I gave up my clan's soul collection in exchange for my humanity." Remy paused to light a cigarette. "For all the good that did."
"Whose hair is that?" Olivia asked, petting the bristles of the brush.
"How?" I asked. "I thought your mother died when you were born?"
"My demon father cut me from her body. But before he devoured her flesh he removed her head and kept it around as a trophy of sorts." Remy took a long drag from what I now knew, from the smell, was a marijuana cigarette. "When I was six I stole a chunk of her hair. I kept it in a locket, then when I was old enough to move to California I found the prettiest branch and made it into a brush."
Olivia was smiling. "That's really sweet. Was your mother an artist?"
Remy shrugged. "Maybe someday I'll find out."
"When do we ride?" I asked.
Olivia chucked. "Ride? What are we, a biker gang?"
Remy put out his cigarette into the palm of his hand causing a sun-like black tribal tattoo to form from the wound. "Whenever you two are ready." The black lines covered his fingers and wrist like tentacles. When he picked up the brush, the bristles became animated, as if filling with living ink.
"I'm ready right now." Olivia waved her arm, causing the diner to vanish. A cloud of golden energy returned to her arm resulting in an ethereal glow.
I was now sitting on a rock what used to be a chair. "Must be nice having powers."
"You have powers," Olivia said in a condescending tone.
"From the baptism waters- when you saw Mom and Dad."
"I have my muscles, I have my hair, despite the fact that I, apparently, still have cancer. If I also have hidden superpowers I'm going to need a little help..." The words barely had the chance to leave my lips, as I felt a massive weight on my back. "What's happening?" I couldn't stand up, it was as if I was being crushed.
I felt Remy grab my left hand and Olivia grab my right. With their powers coursing through my body I felt like a marionette puppet. Their energy was pulling my body in to a comfortable kneeling position, but I was unable to turn my head.
"So," I heard Olvia mutter, "Any ideas, Remy?"
The weight on my back was getting larger, it was orb shaped so now I was starting to feel like the greek statue of Atlas holding up the world.
"I think we just need to go for it," Remy replied. "On the count of three; one...two..."
I really wished I could see what they were talking about.
On three, I was pulled backward into the massive weight, which was apparently a portal. All three of us landed in the caves at the base of the caterpillar's lair.
Olivia helped me to my feet, "That thing is the size of the great wall of China."
"What was on my back?" I asked with a pain-stricken groan.
"A portal, that's how we got here."
"I know but why was it in the shape of a ball and why did it feel like it was trying to crush me? Is this my superpowers?"
"More likely Jamie's power," Remy explained. He was stroking his hand along the metal cage that held together Azzy's 'caterpillar blood' siphoning system. "He has a master plan and we are just pawns." Remy's voice seemed strangely distant.
"Pawns?" Olivia laughed. "Speak for yourself, I'm a queen or at least a knight."
The room trembled with the pain of a million souls. I could feel the temperature drop. "We can't release the caterpillar. This thing is pure energy it could destroy a city maybe even a country." I could see a wall of limbs; arms, legs, even a few torsos, and heads- but they were all writhing in agony. The sound it was making was a ghostly howl of pure anger. The caterpillar was hell itself. "Remy we can't do this!"
Remy was painting. With his magic brush, he drew a series of lines that glowed with the fire of the sun.
"He's breaking the cage!" I shouted.
Olivia grabbed Remy's torso.
I went for the brush, ripping it from his hand. "What have you done?"
"I did what was necessary," his voice quivered. "I did what Jamie would have wanted me to do."
The room started to shake as the mass of souls struggled to separate and escape. There was nowhere to run, we needed a portal- fast. I closed my eyes to try to summon one when suddenly I felt a hand on my shoulder. "Come back to us."
"Azzy?" I opened my eyes to see my wife standing inside the safety of a portal. Behind her was her army. Men and woman raised their hands and began to suck and pull in the escaping souls, like an army of vacuums.
"Come to us, my husband, my love." Her soft hands caressed my face.
"No!" shouted Olivia. I turned to see my sister with her glowing arm, standing with an army of angels. "Choose a side brother, this is where it all ends."
Caterpillar 10: World on Fire
"Where do you stand?" The voices echoed in my head, pounding like a jackhammer.
I took a breath and shouted at the top of my lungs, "I stand with my family!" No sound came out. I gasped for air as pain shot through my body. My head, my chest, down to my legs. Every dose of chemo, every spinal tap, every blood draw, and injection; the pain rippled like electricity. I figured this must be what it felt like to be put to death by lethal injection.
I grabbed at my guts as I felt my knees collapse from under me. But as my hands touched my stomach I felt blood, lots of blood. And organs. Oh God. My body was tearing open. My heart was racing, my vision was becoming blurry, but around me, I could hear the sounds of combat. Swords clashed, flames roared, screams and cries could be heard in all directions. "I stand with my family," the words choked in my throat. I didn't care if I lived or died but I needed to know my family would survive.
"Azzy... Olivia... Lucas..." I closed my eyes and felt a rush of energy. When my eyes opened, I saw that I, my wife, my sister, and my son were in a different part of the cave. There were small bursts of light coming from cracks in the ceiling, but I was only certain of our situation when a bolt of lightning cut across the sky, raining down a river of glowing crystals.
"Now it's a fair fight." My sister landed on two feet, like a superhero, holding her golden arm in front of her face like a Spartan shield. With her dark hair and soft features she looked, for a moment, like Wonder Woman. Then, with a wave of her golden arm, green wings burst from her back: wings made of sugarcane. "Yes, Azzy, these are Remy's wings. Your bodyguard is gone and soon you will share his fate- demon queen!"
My visions cleared enough to allow me to see Olivia tackle my wife. Azzy brushed her long black hair from her face, revealing her rage. My wife was bleeding from her forehead and lip. "Remy's gone? You did me a favor." Both women appeared to be glowing, wings made of branches and raptor-like claws. "He meant nothing to me!"
Their new forms were the physical embodiment of pure rage. It was painfully clear, things were about to get so much worse. I needed to find Lucas. My vision was fading in an out, accompanied by a horrific migraine, but with the light of the crystals, I could see my son cowering in a corner. I quickly limped to his side. "It's OK, everything is going to be OK." For once I could hear the sound of my own voice. Not that I believed the words coming out of my mouth. The ceiling was shaking, and the falling chunks of rock and were becoming larger- we were going to be buried alive.
"Papa, I'm scared."
I held Lucas close, shielding his body from falling debris. I could feel his tears on my skin.
"I'm sorry, Papa."
"You have nothing to be sorry for."
"I'm sorry I said Uncle Remy was my real Papa. I don't love Uncle Remy, I love you."
"I love you too." I held Lucas in my arms, as the battle raged on. I knew I was forcing his face into my blood covered chest but I didn't care. I couldn't let him see his mother and aunt as monsters. There was light coming from somewhere above. If I could figure out where we were I could make another portal. There had to be someplace safe to escape to.
My hopes were dashed when Olivia slammed Azzy into the ceiling causing a fracture to form. The source of light had been a massive fire from the level above us. Bodies rained down from the opening. Some were charred beyond recognition, others were in pieces.
"Watch out!" Olivia shouted. She had the courtesy to send a bolt of electricity my way so I wouldn't be crushed by falling body parts.
I ducked as a severed foot narrowly missed my head. The situation was hopeless. The world was going to end, all I could do was try to give Lucas some level of comfort before our eventual deaths.
"Papa," he said. His sweet little voice muffled under my chest.
"I can feel your heart. It's so warm." He moved his head to look up.
Looking into his eyes, I could tell, in that moment he was no longer afraid.
I knew what I had to do. Maybe it was stupid and would make no difference or maybe this was what was meant to happen. "Lucas, I need you to close your eyes and give me big hug." I placed my hand over my son's cheek. I could feel the softness of his face next to the bones of my ribs.
Could I even do this? Even with how broken my body was, there was no way I could break my own ribs. Slowly I stood up, making sure to move Lucas's head a reasonable distance away from my chest.
"Keep your eyes closed." I could feel him bury his face into my hip. I stroked his hair as I waited for the right moment. When I saw a piece of rock falling I pushed him out of the way and dove under it, allowing the mass to hit me square in the chest.
Lucas screamed, then so did Azzy and Olivia. But I paid them no mind.
With my ribs broken, I reached my hand in my chest. I bypassed my lungs, which were filling with blood, to my heart and I gave it one hard tug. Time stood still, then just as quickly my world went dark. I felt no pain, no joy, no hope- I felt nothing. "Azzy? Are you there?" The words echoed in my head. I had no voice, no throat, no mouth.
"I'm here," her voice echoed through the void, sounding as beautiful as any angel. "And I always will be."
"We were never meant to have it all," I said, either to myself or out loud. I was dead and from where I stood, it seemed that I would be stuck in purgatory for the rest of eternity. "All the way back from Adam and Eve- humans were never meant to surpass God." And much like Adam and Eve, we appear to have royally pissed off the creator of the universe.
"I know, but I had to try," her voice was breaking. "I love you so much."
"I love you too. Until the end of time." I didn't know what would happen next. I was expecting to see a bright light, maybe even my parents. Seeing Remy or Jamie would have been preferable to the sudden sensation I felt ripple through my core.
I heard a roar, like an earthquake or a tidal wave. In the darkness I couldn't feel anything; I had no body, no limbs- nothing to move out of the way, no way to run. The caterpillar, the mass of undead souls- was heading straight at me.
The impact hit like a freight train. I felt hands, nails, cold breath, but no pain. This was what was meant to happen. I needed to control it, to become one- to sacrifice my soul.
"Johnny, Johnny. Yes Papa?" The demonic voice was Azzy's father, reciting the mocking nursery rhyme. "Eating sugar?"
"No Papa!" He was accompanied by a chorus of other voices; old, young, male, female.
"No Papa!" The voices were laughing.
"Open..." Azzy's father's demonic voice felt abnormally close. "Your..." I could feel his pulse, his heartbeat. "Mouth."
I could feel his breath, searing hot. The heat was growing, like a portal, I felt like I was being pulled into hell. Is this what all of the victims of the caterpillar experienced? This was what I deserved. This would make things right.
"I don't think so," Remy's calm, surfer, voice echoed behind me. "We have places to be and people to see."
"Remy?" I felt multiple pairs of hands pulling me upward, away from the darkness into a bright heavenly light.
When we were high enough, Remy, who was also being carried by angels, kicked the darkness. "Johnny, tell your sister to give me back my wings."
"Are you dead?" I asked. I could still see Remy's body. He looked the same as he always did, with his long hair and paint covered sweatpants.
"I'm a demon. I can't exactly cross over."
"Why do you think Azzy was so pissed about losing you?"
"Oh." Would I truly never see my family again? I looked down at my body. Slowly I was materializing back into my familiar skin. "What am I?"
"Whatever they need you to be." Remy landed on a cloud surface and knelt before a glowing light. "Whatever we were meant to be."
Caterpillar 11: Hereafter
"What am I meant for? What is my purpose?"
"Jonathan Villanueva or Johnny V," chuckled the voice in the light. "You've always held a special place in my collection, for a human."
"Um, thanks?" I had just watched him speak to Remy, my wife's half-demon bodyguard and childhood friend, who died alongside me. For Remy, the light flickered, transforming him from a muscular surfer to a small reptile. It might have been a large insect, I only saw the silhouette for less than a second before he was dropped through the floor, back to earth (presumably...)
I could only wonder what this entity had in store for me.
"So, do you want to go back?"
"Go back as what?" I was curious if I would get to select my fate.
The voice laughed. "Oh? Johnny V has conditions? Are you saying you wouldn't be willing to return as a spider or a cockroach if it meant watching over your wife and child? I thought your family was everything to you?"
His mocking tone was a little annoying but I knew better than to piss him off. "It is. I apologize for my disrespect. If you are offering, I would very much like to return to earth. I wish to know the fate of my family." I also wanted to know the fate of Azzy's army and the caterpillar.
"It is done."
The floor opened and I fell through at lightspeed. When I awoke I felt normal, human. I had a body, my body. And I was wearing hospital scrubs? Looking around I was in a locker room with cots.
"You're finally here!" Remy sat up from a cot brushing his long hair from his face. "The big guy has one twisted sense of humor."
"I figured as much, how you do explain the platypus?" I said with a smile. I was just happy to be alive. This really didn't seem like such a bad fate.
"You won't be laughing when you learn the full extent of how the Lord All Mighty screwed us over."
"It can't be that bad. God is love, God works in mysterious ways."
"Rainbow!" cried Lucas's little voice from the hallway directly outside the open door. "Mommy, I found Rainbow!"
My heart warmed at the sight of my son. He was taller, with a slimmer face, but still adorably innocent. I was left to wonder, How much time had passed- and who or what was Rainbow?
"Get a load of this," Remy muttered. As Remy stepped into the hallway to meet Lucas, his body transformed into that of a pink lizard with chubby cheeks. He looked like an axolotl but not like any axolotl I'd ever seen. He had rainbow-colored gills and a rainbow-striped tail. The only reason I knew it was Remy was it's green, sugarcane-like wings.
"Oh my God." I covered my mouth to keep from laughing.
"Fuck off," Remy (or Rainbow) muttered. Its voice sounded like an adorable little hiss.
Lucas picked up the creature and bopped it on the nose. "No, Rainbow! No bad words!"
Azzy rolled her eyes as she appeared in a red suit dress. "So, now Rainbow is cursing?" Suddenly, her eyes locked with mine. "Johnny?"
"You see Papa?" Lucas asked, his eyes darted around as he squeezed Rainbow.
"You don't see him?"
"Well, you don't see Rainbow! Maybe Papa is YOUR imaginary friend!" Lucas said in a mocking tone.
"You really don't see him?" Azzy's voice was laced with sadness.
I smiled. "And you don't see a pink lizard with rainbow fins and a miniature version of Remy's wings?" Before she could answer I cupped her face and kissed her beautiful lips.
Tears flowed down her cheeks. "Are you here to stay?"
"Honestly, I don't know what the plan is, but I promise I will do all that I can to stay with you."
Azzy nodded, wiping tears from her eyes. "So Remy got turned in to a pink lizard?"
"With rainbow fins. I wish you could see."
"So, what are you doing here? This is Beloit Hospital, right?" I recognized the pale yellow color the of hallways.
Azzy pursed her lips. "I'm on a tour. I'm actually-" she motioned at the badge on her lanyard.
"You're the new hospital administrator?"
"Let's just say I won the title in a game of chance."
"What do you do here?"
"Admin stuff; payroll, legal. I-I wondered why I was put here, now I know."
She was put here? What did that mean? Olivia appeared from around the opposite corner wearing a white business suit. "Azzy, what's the holdup? Everyone's waiting."
"Auntie Livy!" Lucas shouted. "I found Rainbow!" He lifted the axolotl's adorable face.
My sister burst into laughter. "Um. Hello, um. Rainbow," it was clear she knew it was Remy, "So nice to meet you."
If she could see Remy, maybe she could see me as well. "Hey, Sis."
"Hey," she replied with an emotional whisper. "You look good." She turned back to Azzy. "I'll tell the rest of the group to go on without you. Take as much time as you need." Olivia gave me one last smile as she took Lucas's hand leading him and Rainbow away down the hall.
"You have questions," Azzy said as soon as we were alone.
"You can have three."
"So you can focus on what's most important. And because I don't know how long we have together."
"Fair enough. My first question: are you and Olivia friends now?"
Azzy answered with an irritated sigh. "Olivia is my Intergalactic Heavenly Parole Officer."
"She's been assigned by the man in the glowing light to keep me on the path of righteousness."
"And what about the caterpillar?"
Azzy simply shrugged.
"You draw power from it. Or at least you did. Either it's been destroyed or..."
Azzy grabbed me by the neck, shoving me into the locker room. "It's mine: I may have lost the battle but I will not surrender my sword. The caterpillar, in all its glory, is safely hidden- but as far as you, Lucas, and especially Olivia are concerned- it's been destroyed."
My blood ran cold. "Ok... but I get one more question."
Azzy released my neck. "Yes, you do."
"Do you still love me?"
Azzy took a step back, possibly realizing her aggression. She reached out a hand to touch my face. "Always. In fact, I'll even give you another question."
I pulled my wife close. As I kissed her cheek, I could smell the sweet vanilla of her shampoo. "Do I look like myself?"
"You're not a pink lizard, as far as I can see." Azzy traced her ring finger down my jawline, to my collar." I might need a more thorough examination." She locked the door and kissed me with a raw passion I had not been expecting.
But once I found my footing, we made love against the lockers, our energies merging into one. She wrapped her legs around me and I felt human; I had a body, a mind, a soul. And I had Azzy, I had my family.
Azzy and I slept in a cot. The next morning we awoke to someone putting a key int he door. Azzy quickly adjusted her shirt and skirt, as she stood up. "Hello?"
"Mommy?" Lucas answered. "Aunt Livy said you slept at the hospital by yourself?"
"I'm so sorry, sweetie. I was just a little lonely. Where is Olivia?"
"She's outside talking to Rainbow."
The pink lizard entered the room followed by Olivia. "Good morning Azzy. Why don't you take Lucas to the cafeteria to get some breakfast while I have a hold a very special meeting with our invisible friends?"
"Sure," Azzy muttered, knowing she had no choice in the matter, "Come on Lucas, let's get something to eat."
As soon as they were gone Remy transformed back into his human form. "I can't believe I'm going to be stuck as an axolotl for all of eternity!" He ran his fingers through his long hair as he took a seat on a bench.
"At least you have your wings back," I chuckled.
"Funny," Remy said as he laid his exhausted body down. "I'm a fucking pet! I don't even have a- screw it!- I need some sleep."
Olivia started to giggle. "Rainbow is a female axolotl. Anyway, I need to explain to both of you how this is going to work."
"How what is going to work?" I asked.
"Your assignment, you don't think the big guy sent you back because he likes you."
"I kind of thought he did. He said I was special."
"All of God's creations are special. Even Remy," she said, poking him in the side.
Remy flipped his middle finger. "Your boss can shove his assignment up his holy-"
"My orders come directly from God but my direct supervisor is Jamie."
Her words caused Remy to sit up. He pulled his knees to his chest. "Fine- speak."
"Your assignment is simple. Working as a team you two will make sure that neither Azzy nor Lucas turn evil- for lack of a better term."
"What do you mean Lucas?" I asked. "He's just a kid."
"So was Michael Myers."
"You're comparing my son to the killer in the Halloween movies?"
"That's the issue; he's not your son, he's Remy and Azzy's son. Lucas is a good kid, he's creative, smart- but he also carries not one but two royal demon bloodlines."
I sighed. "So what's the plan?"
"You have probably noticed where you are; Beloit Memorial. This was Jamie's hospital; he was a nurse here, but he was also a guardian. You live here now, you can never leave this hospital."
"What?" My hands were trembling as I spoke. "Jamie lived in his mother's house, he was able to leave! He was able to have a life!"
"He earned it. And you can too. When you exit this room you will exist as an actual doctor. No one will know who you are or where you live- only that you are one of the best doctors in the country. Your job is to bring hope to the hopeless."
"Ok, I understand."
"Remy will be your eyes on the outside. He is allowed to leave the hospital but only in the form of Rainbow, Lucas's imaginary friend."
Remy groaned as he made his way to a cot to officially fall asleep.
"I think I can handle that," I said with a smile. "There are worse ways to spend eternity." I guess this is the end of my story- for now.