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A young woman of eighteen, Anna, sliced the pig’s neck open so quickly, the animal barely had time to be afraid before it was dead. She cradled it for a moment there on the ground, then closed its eyes and whispered something into its ear. She hauled it up onto the wheel barrow, on top of a goat’s lifeless body. She did this so effortlessly, it looked like she was tossing a sack of dead leaves, rather than a full-grown pig. She took the wheel barrow back behind the house to add to the rest.

That night, Anna wrote in her journal. She wrote by candlelight in her kitchen; the only light glowing in in the farmhouse. Everything was dark for miles but for that one candle and her troubled face glowing in its light. She was not often inspired to write, but when she was, it poured out of her in great waves. She wrote quickly, her hand throbbing with the effort. Her final entry that night was a memory. It said;

Ever since I was a little girl, my father told me stories of the gods. They were beautiful; golden chariots blazing fire through the sky, powerful, eternal beings playing tricks on men, transforming into animals to gain access into mortal lives. There were creatures that tempted men from clifftops, beckoning them to sail towards shore to their deaths, and a woman with snakes for hair that could turn a man to stone with a single look. There were men who were half animal, roaming forests and mazes. There lived gods on thrones high in the clouds, debating and scheming over the lives of mortal creatures. The stories captivated me. I wanted to believe there was magic in the world, something more than the simple life we lived on our farm. My father made me believe. He treated his books like holy relics and often read to me at night just before I went to sleep, when my imagination could run off at full speed. I believed them all.

In the nearby town, just a few miles away from Anna and her solitude, a young boy, about thirteen years old, named Joseph, was sneaking out of his mother’s trailer and into the surrounding woods with the stealth of a cat. He had done this many times before. He headed, as always, to the little bunker he had made for himself in the woods.

He often slept in his little hiding place when his mother had a man over. The bunker was about half a mile into the woods behind their trailer. It was partly made from the remains of an old shack that had toppled over long before Joseph was born. He fixed it up and put the door back on with some hinges he had saved up for. He made extra money collecting recyclables and sweeping up for some of the local businesses. Sometimes, he restocked books at the library as well. He used tarp for insulation and heaps of blankets and pillows that he collected from the dump and some from his bedroom. He would have to sneak those back to the trailer with him in the morning, so his mother wouldn’t notice that they are gone. He thought that one day he would probably run away for good if things kept going the way they were going.

Joseph often skipped school to read in his bunker and no one seemed to care; not the school, not his mother. He had no friends at school. He was smaller than most of the other kids, but mostly he thought they didn’t like him because his family was poor, and everyone knew about his mother and how his father went crazy right before he was born and disappeared into the night. At least, that’s what the rumor was. All Joseph knew for sure is that he had never met his father, and after asking about him one time when he was six years old, his mother slapped him so hard he saw stars.

Joseph started whistling a little tune when he was clear of the trailer. He was glad to get away from the nauseating sounds coming from his mother’s bedroom, if you could call it a bedroom. It was just a bed separated from the kitchen by a curtain. The kids at school called his mother a whore. He didn’t believe what they said, but he knew he couldn’t stand to be around when the men were there at night. They smelled of liquor and cigarettes and desperation.

He arrived at his bunker and took the matches out of the small tin in the corner. He lit the lantern that he hung from a hook in the ceiling and turned it up high. He liked the solitude of the woods, but he was also afraid of it. He didn’t like the dark, and yet it was his sanctuary, so he kept a small lantern burning all night while he read his books and slept. He thought he probably wouldn’t go to school the next day. It was already four o’clock in the morning and he hadn’t had a wink of sleep yet. Also, he thought Allen might show up the next day and read with him.

Joseph was very excited about his new friend, Allen; a man that visited him at his bunker every week. They met in the woods one day while Joseph was fishing at the beginning of the summer. Allen worked at the plastics factory one town over and liked to fish as well. He was quiet, but smart and knew all the best places to fish nearby. He also knew lots of jokes and sometimes brought comic books and candy for Joseph when they spent the afternoon together.

Joseph wasn’t sure why Allen wanted to hang out with a kid or why he had so many of the same interests as him, (in his experience, adults only liked boring stuff). Allen was different, and Joseph didn’t mind that he was middle-aged. It was nice to have a friend, especially one that was from another town.

The townspeople where Joseph lived were all the same. They all seemed to look at each other out of the corner of their eyes. No one trusted anyone, and until Allen, Joseph thought that was just the way of things. But now that he got to talk to Allen every week, he felt that his town was maybe just a rotten one. Maybe other towns didn’t have whatever disease his did; one where people kept their heads down and doors locked.

The next morning, Allen arrived with a huge sack over his shoulder and a grin on his face. He was about 6’0”, a giant to Joseph, with messy brown hair that had grown down over his ears and big brown eyes that were a little bit watery, but always kind. His teeth were yellow, and his brown corduroy jacket had holes in it, but he always smelled nice. It was some kind of cologne that smelled like pine and flowers all mixed into one. Joseph heard his footsteps crunching through the dead leaves nearby. He opened the door to his bunker to see Allen striding up with his hand waving in the air with great enthusiasm.

“Hiya, Joe!” Allen said and ruffled Joseph’s hair. “Glad to see ya here! Does your mother know you’re not at school?”

“I don’t think she cares. She’s probably still asleep,” Joseph said, wiping the sleepiness from his eyes and shivering in the bunker doorway.

“Mind if I sit inside while we catch up? It’s awfully chilly this morning,” Allen said with his permanent grin. “I figure our fishing days are probably over until spring.”

“Sure! I have a new comic book!” Joseph said as he walked back into the bunker and rooted around the blankets for it.

Allen glanced around at the surrounding woods and then crouched down and shuffled through the doorway. He shut the door behind him and turned the latch to lock it. He looked around the boy’s little clubhouse. It had a few sad little drawings of what looked like superheroes and animals taped to the walls. One of them looked like a wolf, but it was standing on two legs with red eyes. Another looked like a muscular Pitbull with sharp teeth and a pool of drool at its feet. Blankets and pillows were strewn everywhere. There was an old tattered, leather-bound copy of Edgar Allen Poe’s Complete Works, some old, tattered Goosebumps books, as well as stacks of comic books.

“Wow, that’s a big book for such a young man,” Allen said chuckling and looking through the Poe book. You must be very, very smart.”

“Yeah well, I can’t understand most of it, but it seems real creepy and also sort of…beautiful, you know?” he said this a trifle bashfully. Joseph would never talk about such things with other kids and especially not with his mother.

“You’ve got that right. I remember reading some of these when I was not much older than you. There’s one story about a guy who kills an old man in his sleep because he thinks his eye is watching him-- judging him. He sneaks into the old man’s room in the dark and murders him. Afterwards, he’s so happy he did it because he knows the old man’s eye will never judge him again. Then he must bury the body underneath the floorboards so that he won’t get in trouble with the police. But then….” Allen took a more serious tone and crouched down towards Joseph’s face.

“…he starts to hear the old man’s heart beating. Buh-buh, buh-buh, buh-buh, louder and louder. It drives him insane. He ends up revealing his crime to the cops because he just can’t stand the heart beating and beating, judging his sins,” Allen said, relishing the story and the way it made the boy back away a little in awe.

“Whoa. That’s real creepy. Why didn’t he just move out of that place, or bury the body somewhere else?” Joseph said.

“Well, sometimes when a person does something like that, like take someone’s life, they can’t ever get away from it, in their mind I mean. Did you know that some murderers go back to the scene of the crime over and over, because they want to…savor it maybe, or understand why they did it, why they needed to do it?” Allen said.

Joseph stood staring at him, and for the first time felt a little scared of Allen. He didn’t like being in this tiny, dark space with him. They usually played in the woods and talked about fishing and bird calls and Superman and the X-Men.

“Hey kid, why the long face?” Allen said.

“Aw, nothin’….I should get back home though. I need to help my mom with something.”

“Without seeing what I brought ya?” Allen said and shook the sack he had brought in.

“Oh…um…OK what it is?” Allen dumped the contents of the sack on the blanket in front of Joseph. Five brand new X-Men comic books, a bag of gummy bears, some chocolate bars, and two cans of coke tumbled out.

“Wow! No way? This is for me?”

“Yeppers! You’re such a good friend to me and I didn’t want you to be bored while I’m not around so here ya go!” Allen smiled down at the boy with such warmth that all of Joseph’s worries about his friend seemed to melt away.

“Thank you so much! He got up and hugged Allen. He felt then that maybe Allen was less like a friend and more like a father. Maybe he even was his father, who knew! He had heard the stories about his father disappearing in the woods, wandering out into the wilderness naked and raving mad, but kids were mean, and adults were liars, so screw them all! He had Allen. Allen brought him things and made him feel loved.

“Thank you! Thank you, Allen! Can I read them now?” he said.

“Sure can, kid. Here hand me one and we can read in here together. There’s plenty of light with your little lantern contraption here.”

The two of them got comfortable and spent the afternoon reading comics and eating candy and Joseph felt the strain and sadness of his life at home drift away like a fading dream. Overhead, a hawk was circling, shrieking into the new daylight as it hunted for prey. It was October and the animals and farmers were preparing to harvest their final crops before winter descended upon them all.

*

Anna started her work earlier than usual that morning. She couldn’t sleep. Her nightmares had started up about three weeks before. They came almost every night. Her muscles ached in the morning from thrashing in her bed. Her eyes were puffy with tears.

That night she had dreamt of her father. He was running in front of her and she was chasing him. They were running through the trees. He kept looking over his shoulder at her and she saw fear in his eyes. Then he was shrinking down, smaller and smaller until he was as small as a mouse running through the forest. She was flying, high above him, gaining on him. She was above the trees now and he was nothing but an ant. She flew faster and faster and the wind whipped through her wings. At last, she dove down, like a knife cutting through the air. Her eyes saw everything. They saw his fear as he ran from her. She saw others too. There were other mice running from her every which way, seeking shelter.

Her father started to get bigger and bigger as she got closer and closer to the ground. He stopped and screamed, covering his dirt-smeared face with his hands. It looked like she would plummet right into the ground but at the last moment, she angled up and snatched him up with her legs that had become talons. Her colossal brown wings pounded the air and lifted them up into the sky with ease. She soared over the trees with his writhing body in her claws.

“Mercy!” he screamed.

“No,” she answered and ripped his head off and tossed it into the air. It came back down, severed neck dripping, eyes rolled back to the whites and mouth still locked into a grimace of pain. She opened her massive, blood-stained beak and swallowed the tiny man's head whole.

In an instant, the sky went black and thick with electricity. She froze mid-air. The headless body of her father slipped from her talons and fell miles and miles back down to earth away from her. She could feel her life-force being sucked from her as it gave power to the entity surrounding her. It was everywhere, thick as smoke, touching her and taking from her everything that she was.

“I’ve done what you asked,” she choked.

She heard laughter tittering around her, sometimes loud and sometimes soft, like music from a radio station too far out of range. Still suspended in the air, she felt the darkness pull the feathers from her body, pluck her eyes from their sockets, and strip the muscle and tendons from her bones. She screeched and cried until nothing was left to scream with. Her hollow skeleton was suspended for a moment more and then dropped down to Earth.

Her dream flicked off as Anna flung herself from her bed, crying and shaking. The dreams were getting worse, and they were not meaningless. She knew that by now. She stood on trembling legs and threw off her nightgown. She walked down the dark steps of her house, through the near pitch-black living room and out the back door that faced the woods. She walked, naked, straight from the darkness of her house to the gloom of the woods and kept walking. It was harvest time and she had to catch up.

*

“He ran away again, that little bastard.” Marie looked out of the trailer’s window and stared out into the forest. She usually heard him sneak back into the trailer at dawn, but today she found his bed empty.

“Bet he isn’t going to school either,” she thought. She looked down at her wrinkled hands. They used to be smooth, elegant even. The morning was edging her into sobriety and that meant reality. It meant facing the reality of the life she had allowed herself and her son to sink into. She felt emotion well up in her throat and a tear streaked down her face onto one of her yellowed fingernails. She needed a drink. She rummaged through the near empty cabinets of the trailer, finding nothing but empty whiskey bottles, empty vodka bottles, and then, finally, one blessed finger of gin left in a plastic handle behind the coffee maker. She drank it straightaway and felt the burn of the liquor melt away the pain that lived deep down in her belly.

Ever since Joseph’s father left those ten years ago, Marie felt that the world was one big outhouse, full of shit and rats and stink. Her childish views of living some semblance of a happy life burned up and turned to hate as soon as Frank wandered out into the wilderness for good. He had always wandered, and to be honest, she had no idea where he went most of the time, but he always came back and always provided for her. When she got pregnant she felt him grow even more distant; something she hadn’t known was possible for him.

He meant to leave all along she supposed. Maybe he had some other family kept up somewhere and her getting knocked up made their situation too real for him. She had been systematically skewing her memories of him since that night. The truth was that she had loved him, in her way, and she thought he might have loved her. It was the way she could feel him looking at her while she slept and the way he smoothed her fair behind her ear as she laid there, pretending not to know he was watching her.

“Fuck it,” she said abruptly, gritting her teeth against the hurt. She went to her makeshift bedroom and found a wooden cigar box that she hid under the bed. She sat on the bed and opened it, rooting her pointer finger absently through the contents; a few small baggies of weed, a few ten dollar bills she had gotten from the men who came to her from time to time, and at the bottom, a small brown paper bag.

Marie picked up the bag and stared at it for a moment. She put it on the dirty mattress next to her and looked down at the box. On the very bottom was a photograph of her and Frank. It showed a teenage Frank with his arm around Marie and her smiling giddily at the camera with a giant stuffed bear in her arms.

Marie closed the box and ripped open the brown paper bag sitting next to her. She laid its contents out on the bed with fingers that were dumb with shaking. She lined up a small baggie full of a brownish powder, a spoon, a piece of rubber hosing and a syringe. Outside a squirrel shrieked as some winged predator scooped it off the ground and carried it up into the clouds.

*

The October days drifted by in Joseph’s small town as the temperature dropped and the crisp air whispered warnings to prepare for winter. The farmers living in the countryside surrounding the town were bringing in the last of their crops’ bounty to be sold and traded for the necessities everyone needed to make it through the cold months.

Joseph stood on the front step of Goody Foods with a broom which was much too tall for him. He was taking a break from sweeping and staring out at the town’s main intersection. He watched as people hurried across the street, walking this way and that, holding their coats closed against the especially cold afternoon. He thought this town seemed average if you didn’t look too long. People were running their errands or serving food at the diner or walking their dogs like anywhere else he supposed. But when he really looked at their faces for more than a moment, he could see the tension. He saw a concealed fear that made his stomach drop about three floors.

“Joe, I’m not paying you to stand around gawking at people, am I?” the shopkeeper, Mr. Walker, said from behind the cash register.

“No sir, I’m sorry,” Joseph said, looking back inside at the old man.

“Goddamn charity I’m running here,” grumbled Mr. Walker as he limped to the store room.

Joseph swept the rest of the step and turned back to go into the store to stock cans, when he caught sight of a young woman walking across the intersection towards him. She was taller than most of the women he had seen in the town, and thin in a way that would look awkward on someone without her posture. She looked delicate, but not fragile. There was something about the way she walked that was elegant. It was like a big cat he had seen on TV; every muscle flexing and shifting under a silken coat of fur. Her hair was plain; a color that looked like maybe it was blonde once and had aged into a nondescript mousy brown. Her eyes were the color of a lake in winter; gray and cold and dangerous. He thought she was beautiful.

People moved out of her way in every direction. A couple walking a good block away heading for the intersection, turned and hustled in the opposite direction. Cars stopped despite their turn to cross. A dog gave one brave yip in her direction and then scuttled away from her with its tail between its legs, dragging its owner with him. From above, the scene might have looked like an invisible bomb had dropped in the center of town, sending a wave of destruction in all directions, clearing out any sign of life within range of that deadly explosion.

At that same moment, Mrs. Ellis, a woman Joseph barely recognized, but who was obviously one of “the well-to-do” women in the town, walked by the storefront where he was standing. She looked at him sideways and curled her lip.

“Disgusting filth,” she mumbled as she passed in front of him. Then she spat on his shoe. Joseph didn’t even know proper ladies knew how to spit. What was so awful about him that this woman would do such a thing?

Somehow, during that brief encounter, the fearsome young woman that Joseph had been watching, had made it to the storefront. She appeared on the sidewalk directly in front of Mrs. Ellis. Mrs. Ellis, her eyes still locked on Joseph, ran directly into her. She bounced back a step and looked up at Anna who was nearly a foot taller than her. Anna stared at her with a look so devoid of emotion that it was impossible to tell if she could see the woman at all. Mrs. Ellis seemed frozen in place in her presence.

Anna’s gray eyes flicked into focus and looked into Mrs. Ellis’ eyes for a fraction of a second and the woman immediately dropped her eyes and shook her head once like she was trying to clear her vision after staring at the sun. A small whimper leaked from her lips and then she jolted away in the opposite direction as if pushed.

She walked down the street so fast, she knocked the mailman’s satchel off his shoulder, spraying mail all over the sidewalk. The mailman looked at Mrs. Ellis with burning hatred for only a moment until he, too, saw Anna. One glance at the young woman melted the rage off his face and turned him into a drooling child. He took off, slack-jawed, in the same direction as Mrs. Ellis, letters and postcards spraying out in his wake.

Joseph was confused. The woman before him was indeed intimidating, but he had never seen such a reaction from the people in his town before. He looked back at her, tilting his head up to see her face. She was standing there looking down at him, with a slightly puzzled expression. Her eyes seemed bluer than gray up close and they were more lovely than frightening.

“Hi,” he said dumbly. She, almost imperceivably, seemed to recoil away from him, like he was a rodent in her kitchen. Then her eyes hardened into the slate gray of the winter sky. She stepped around him into the store.

Joseph turned slowly and watched her pick up a package that was waiting for her on the counter. Mr. Walker was nowhere to be found. She laid down some cash, put the bundle under her arm and walked right back out, breezing past Joseph on her way down the steps. She continued down the sidewalk, onto her next errand. Joseph walked a few paces after her and then just stopped and watched her go. When she crossed the street at the next block, she briefly turned her head in his direction and he swore he could see an eye analyzing him behind a curtain of hair.

When Joseph had exhausted every shopkeeper in town with his pleas for work, he gathered up his grand total of five dollars and headed back to his bunker. It was almost five o’clock and he intended on at least letting his mother know that he was alive before sneaking out of the trailer again. Maybe she would even have some dinner for him. Crazier things have happened.

Joseph took the long way through the woods so that he could stop at the bunker and grab his books. He wanted to have some reading material in case his mother really put the lock down on. Sometimes, she would feign the strict mother role and try to ground him for a night and even make him go to school the next day. It was usually when she had no more booze or money left and needed to take out her frustration on someone. It was almost nice in a way. At least she was a little bit more present then, and seeing her sober, even if it was just for a night, and even if it made her unbearably miserable, was a sign that she hadn’t completed faded away. She was still his mother.

As Joseph approached the bunker door he felt the hairs on the back of his neck start to rise. There was a light on inside and he could see someone moving around in there. Allen was the only one who knew about his bunker and he never came into town this late. What if it was some vagrant trying to set up camp in there.

He approached slowly and kept his distance.

“Hello! Who’s in there!” Joseph said with his best impression of a tough guy’s voice. He grabbed up a big stick near his feet and held it out in front of him with both hands. The light in the cabin flickered as a body passed by it and turned the latch on the inside of the door. His bladder suddenly seemed very full and it seemed his flight response was about to beat the fighting side.

“You know what, forget it! It’s yours, man!” Joseph screeched. He turned to run and tripped over his own useless weapon. He fell with a thud and started scrambling to his feet, breathing harshly and scraping the ground with his nails as the bunker door opened and feet crunched through leaves towards him.

“Help!” Joseph yelled helplessly.

“Hey! Hey kid! Calm down!” a familiar voice behind him said. Joseph whipped around onto his back and tried to hold the stick in front of him. The stick, now broken, one end hanging limply, was shaking towards Allen. Allen laughed heartily, slapping his knees and wiping his eyes at the sight.

“Jesus kid, you are really high-strung you know that,” he said.

“You scared the crap out of me, Allen! What are you doing here so late? I thought for sure I was dead,” Joseph said, taking Allen’s outreached hand and letting him pull him up to his feet.

“I know. I should have told you, kiddo. I made a special trip tonight to talk to you about something. I brought some dinner too,” Allen said. Joseph could smell greasy burgers and fries drifting through the bunker door and he suddenly couldn’t remember the last time he ate. He was starving, and the prospect of his mother having anything to eat in the trailer was far-fetched.

“Ok. That sounds good, I guess. I probably need to go home after though,” Joseph said.

“Of course. I’ll walk ya home so the monsters don’t get ya,” he said with a grin and a flicker of mischief in his eyes.

Joseph followed Allen into the bunker and found that Allen had tidied it up. The lantern was burning bright and there were colorful, new cushions and blankets neatly stacked around the small space, transforming the room into a decadent Moroccan lounge in Joseph’s soaring imagination.

“Holy shit. This is….” Joseph started.

“Too much?” Allen said grimacing and holding his head with one hand. He started to pull on his hair a little; an anxious tic Joseph had never notice before.

“I knew it was a risk moving your private stuff around like this, but I wanted it to be special. I wanted to tonight to be special. I wanted to do something nice for my friend. I’m sorry. I’m sorry,” he said as he hit his temple with the palm of his hand repeatedly. It looked like it hurt. He seemed on the brink of tears.

“Don’t, Allen! Stop it! It’s great. It’s really great. It’s probably the nicest looking place I’ve ever been in. It’s definitely better than that shit-hole trailer,” Joseph said. He was worried about Allen but also blown away by his kindness. No one had ever been as kind to him as Allen.

Allen shuffled over to one of the walls shaking his head. He stood with his back to Joseph and stared at the wolf picture on the wall. He was silent and still for what seemed like ages.

“Allen? It’s really alright. Thank you for this.” He looked over at the greasy, paper bags of food in the center of the room.

“Should we sit and eat? I don’t know about you, but I’m starving,” Joseph said. Slowly, Allen turned around and his grin was back. He looked like himself, not that that was always a comforting sight.

“I’m sorry about that, Joey. I’ve just had a really rough few days and I guess I’m just all wound up. Get those burgers out and let’s eat,” Allen said, plopping down onto one of the over-sized cushions on the ground. Joseph smiled and happily dug into his food.

*

At that moment, Anna was on her way home and felt an enormous weight drop from her shoulders as she stepped off the main road from town and into the woods. She still had three miles of wilderness to walk through before reaching her farm, but she didn’t mind that. The woods were comforting. They made sense to her. She always took a new path when she took her walks. She was beginning to know every corner of this forest and that knowledge made her an increasingly adept hunter.

With her yearly visit to town behind her, she could get on with her preparation for the winter. She hated going into town. She had a tough time seeing those people as people any more. They seemed more like rodents scurrying around aimlessly. Things were different now than they were when her father was alive. He knew how to blend with normal people and seemed, at times, even to like it.

For Anna, it was different. She had inherited her father’s responsibilities and she executed them with precision every year, but when her father was in charge, there was an anonymity to his status in the town. Only the eldest members of the town knew what was required of Anna and her family and they cooperated. Since Anna had been on her own, their fear of her, rather than respect had spread through the town like wildfire.

Once she turned of age, her father had trained her vigorously. Even as he grew ill, he would take her into the woods and teach her how to survive, how to hunt and how to harvest for the town. She excelled at almost everything except for managing her emotions. On her first hunt by herself, she tracked a deer into a clearing near Ferryman’s pond. She had learned how to control herself to some degree during the time of transformation, during the harvest time, but she had slip-ups.

She looked down at the clearing from the sky above and swooped down towards the deer with talons drawn. Suddenly, a shot rang out and the deer dropped to the ground. Anna swooped down and landed on the deer, head swiveling in all directions looking for the culprit of the sound.

A man was standing on the edge of the clearing in hunting gear, his shotgun hanging limply at his side as he stared at her with eyes clamoring to escape from his skull. He made a strange sputtering sound like a car trying to start as he looked at the enormous beast perched on his deer.

Anna looked back at him, eyes also wide and unsure. She had never encountered a human in her hunting form before. The man finally shuddered to life and clumsily raised the shotgun up and pointed it at her. She tried to remember her training and calm him down.

“Wait,” she said. “I won’t hurt you.” Her voice rang softly like church bells.

The man seemed dazed for a moment as she folded her wings against her body and spread her human arms out in a peaceful gesture. She started to hum softly, a soft lilting tune that made the man’s mouth droop down into a mystified “O” shape.

She took one step off the deer carcass towards him, her long hair moving gently in the breeze. The man’s eyes started to grow heavy and he felt the fear start to drain out of him. He looked at the beautiful creature standing before him. He looked at her soft blue eyes, and her fair skin, glistening in the waning sunlight. She was naked and glorious.

Her hypnotic song distracted him from the three-inch, needle-sharp teeth that made up her murderous smile. The man sank to his knees, ready to worship, his gun beginning to move off its target. His eyes slid down to her legs and he saw the strange angle of her knees. His eyes widened once again as he took in the unnatural bend of her legs that ended in sharp, three-toed hawk talons. One sharp talon, as big as a scythe, was sinking into the deer’s hide, leaking blood onto the grass below.

He gasped like a half-drowned man coming back to life and his finger instinctively squeezed the gun’s trigger. A bullet whizzed by one of Anna’s wings, missing by no more than three inches.

Rage filled Anna’s brain and she raised her giant hawk wings and shot up into the air. She bellowed with a voice like a thunder crack. The man started to run for the woods, but only got a few feet before she descended on him, pinning him to the ground with one powerful leg. She raised the other above his head, preparing to rip his face from his skull. He wept and begged for mercy and as she looked into his eyes, her human consciousness whispered to her from some small, locked room in her heart.

She pitied the man and hated that he looked at her with such horror. It was the first time anyone other than her mother and father had seen her that way. She threw her head back and shrieked into the sky while every part of her longed to be put out of her misery. Instead of taking his life, she shot up into the air, flying higher and higher into the black sky.

After the shock wore off a bit, the hunter stumbled to his feet and started running towards town. He screamed and yelled for help and the townspeople peeked through their curtains, watching the mad man run. He finally made it to the church steps and collapsed there screaming.

“Won’t someone help me?! There’s demons in the woods! They’re coming for us! She’s coming for us all!!” he screamed into the air.

The church door opened, and the pastor stepped out in his bed clothes. He stooped down and helped the raving man to his feet.

“Come in and tell me what you saw.” The man followed him inside.

Anna flew through the sky that night until she was too exhausted to go on. With the last of her strength, she rode the wind back to the farmhouse and landed near the pig sty. The pigs squealed and moved away from the side of the fence where she was standing.

“Did you stop him?” her father voice floated out through the darkened screen door. She could see his eyes glowing faintly from inside the house. Anna shook her head violently, trying to turn back, but the adrenaline coursing through her wouldn’t allow it.

“Stop it, Anna,” he said. The screen door opened, and Jareth’s towering form appeared on the porch. At first, half of his head emerged from the darkness with one burning eye looking through her. Then his whole face appeared, pitted with shadowy craters cast by the moonlight. He looked like a haggard wolf in farmer’s clothes.

Anna knelt before him. Her wings flicked out and back in as she struggled to lay her head against the dirt road. Her hands covered her face as she wept. Her naked torso was covered with dirt and blood. She twisted and turned until she was bowed before him, wings tucked tight against her back and her backwards knees bent beneath her.

Jareth looked at his daughter in silence as she laid there before him like a wounded animal.

“I love you more than I can say. I wish this fate was not yours to carry. What you have done today has put our lives, as well as the lives of everyone in that town in danger. Do you understand?” he said in a disturbingly calm tone. “Only the chosen may see you. For their tongues are soon extinguished. That hunter should have been silenced before he reached the town.”

Anna felt her body start to tingle, and then burn and tear apart. She was turning back, a sensation she supposed was worse than burning alive. Her wings flexed and retreated slowly into her shoulder blades. The scales shed from her legs as soft, vulnerable, human flesh returned. Her body convulsed up and down for a moment, while her legs straightened and then folded at human knees and human angles. She lay there shivering, looking like a little girl again. She stayed bowed before him, not daring to look up.

“I can’t do this,” she said finally.

“You have no choice,” he said. And she could hear the misery in his voice.

She stayed there until she heard his retreating footsteps and the squeal of the screen door open and close. Her father was all she had. His disappointment was unbearable.

On her father’s dying day, a day that had left her unable to fathom attachment to any creature; human or otherwise, ever again, she held her father’s hand while he slept. He was breathing unevenly and with great struggle. She looked at his sunken cheeks and sallow skin and willed him to open his eyes one last time.

Years had passed since her mother took her own life with a rope in the bedroom closet. Anna knew her mother hadn’t been able to cope with the idea of her daughter being a monster too. Her mother disconnected from her as soon as the training began. This was about a year after Anna first discovered what her father did during harvest time every year.

She knew her mother loved her and her father very much. She loved her father enough to stand by him all those years, even after knowing what he was. However, the thought of her own little girl carrying out the deeds of Hell destroyed her. Her mother’s death left a part of Anna empty, and a bigger part hating herself for all eternity.

Her father, Jareth, lay there dying on the bed he had shared with his wife for twenty years before her death. The doctor in town had determined that Jareth’s ailment was some form of cancer, although he had never seen anything like it before. His body had been slowly wasting away since Anna turned thirteen. It seemed that as Anna grew older and stronger, Jareth grew weaker and closer to death.

The disease ate at his body and the doctor advised Anna to make her father comfortable. He also advised her to meet with the town’s Elders upon Jareth’s death to discuss her new role. Anna told him to fuck off, and to tell the Elders to wait until she called on them for council. Her father had smiled weakly at that. He was proud of her strength, but worried for her future of solitude on the farm.

On that last day with him, Anna sat and wept for him as the clock in his room ticked away his last minutes. The sound, which she found so comforting as a child, sounded like the bark of a drum. She got up and ripped it off the wall and threw it across the room, splintering it into a thousand pieces.

“Please! Please don’t leave me here! I need you to guide me! Couldn’t you have left him to guide me, you bastard!” she screamed at the ceiling, crumpling to the ground next to his bed. She felt a cold hand brush the top of her head, ruffling her hair. She looked up, startled. Her father was looking at her through barely opened eyes.

“Anna,” he whispered. She jumped up to her feet and hugged him, dripping tears all over his face. She sat up, looking into his face and they looked at each other in silence for a minute. His eyes rolled away from her and the lids of his eyes started to close until he forced them open again, gripping his wavering consciousness, desperate to see her face.

“Listen to me. You are my child. The things we do…. What we are….it doesn’t make us evil. It’s been the way of this Earth since the first men roamed its surface. The blood….” His body convulsed, coughing, trying to get fluid out of his lungs.

“Please don’t go. Tell me what to do, please,” she sobbed, shaking him lightly. One eye opened slightly, and then the other followed. He looked at her like he didn’t know who she was for a moment and then went on.

“The blood is a life-force. It is required to keep this world in balance. We are servants, but we have purpose. Believe in that purpose and you will find that your duty is sacred and that it is paramount to the survival of our flock-our people- if that word makes you feel better. They are yours to protect now. We are each a different kind of magic, maybe even with a different kind of purpose. You must find your own strength and strategy to succeed at your job. I am proud of you, Anna. I wish I could be here to see how strong you become. I imagine you will be…. magnificent,” Jareth sighed the last word and then his mouth tightened as he fought unconsciousness and tried to focus on her eyes.

Anna leaned her face down to his, and looked into his eyes, nose to nose, as the last embers of life dimmed within them. He uttered no more breath and she closed his eye lids for good. In the distance, a pack of wolves howled into the night sky. The sound echoed and vibrated through the forest trees, up to the moon and into her head, settling there to keep her company forever.

Anna shook her head to grasp the reality of the present again. She often had to remind herself where and when she was because her memories and her dreams were so vivid. She was back in the forest, walking towards home. She was alone, and her father and mother were long dead.

“I am Anna and I have a purpose. For his sake and my own, I must carry it out. I am Anna and I am eighteen years old. I am the keeper of this town and mine is a sacred duty,” she whispered these like an incantation.

The memories of Jareth clicked through Anna’s mind, scratching and poking at her sanity. She quickened her pace, eager to get back home and into bed. A few minutes later, voices in the darkness reached her ears. She stopped cold and listened. It sounded like laughing, only a mile away. She looked in the direction of the sound, focusing her eyes, that were as keen as a hawk’s, and noticed a small glowing light flickering.

She had never encountered people out in the woods after nightfall. Something was wrong this year. She had tried to ignore it, but her nightmares about the master had only fueled her fears that she was on the brink of failure. Now they were wandering into the woods as they pleased. By this time of the year, so close to reaping, they should be shut up inside their homes, having their last meals, awaiting the results of the Harvest Naming Ceremony. It smelled of an uprising, and she couldn’t have that. She started off towards the sound of the laughing voices.

*

Joseph was writhing around on the floor of the bunker laughing to the point of crying as Allen did his best Vincent Price impression.

“Another lovely day begins, for ghosts and ghouls with greenish skin. So, close your eyes and you will find that you’ve arrived in Frightenstein! Perhaps the Count will find a way to make his monster work today. For if he solves this monster mania, he may return to Transylvania! So welcome where the sun won’t shine, to the castle of Count Frightenstein!!! Bwahahahah!” Allen quoted with his arms outstretched like Frankenstein. He tried to keep raising one eyebrow, for dramatic effect, but kept winking instead. He looked deranged.

“Stop, stop! It’s so bad, Allen. Please tell me the real Vincent Price was better at being terrifying than that. You look like you’re having a stroke,” Joseph said, while wiping the tears from his eyes.

“Kids these days don’t know jack about the classic horror greats. He was the master. I guess I’m just not a scary guy, eh?”

“I guess not, but you are the master at bringing the best comics and most disgustingly awesome junk food. Thanks for dinner, again. I was starving,” Joseph said.

“Anything for you, Joey,” Allen said. The warm glow was back in his eyes, brighter than ever.

“Well, I guess I better get back home. The last time I was gone this long, my mom threw all my stuff out. Not much stuff to throw out but I would like to have something to wear tomorrow,” Joseph said. He started to put his jacket on and gather up his new books.

“Joseph?” Allen said in a small, wavering voice.

“Yeah?”

“I need to talk to you. I had that thing I needed to talk to you about,” Allen said.

“Oh, right, sure. What’s up?” Allen looked up at Joseph from his cushion on the floor and his eyes were brimming with tears.

“What’s going on, Allen?” Joseph asked. Allen rose up onto his knees and took Joseph’s hands in his. They were rough and dirty, and they gripped his hands too tight. Joseph tried to back away a little. Allen pulled him back.

“You are my best friend and I love you Joseph. I think you love me too. I think we have a very special connection. I don’t want to live my life separate from you anymore,” Allen said. Joseph’s brain was buzzing with confusion and a cold fear was numbing his legs.

“Allen... what are you talking about? You’re hurting me,” Joseph said, as Allen pulled him closer with crushing strength.

“I think you know what I’m talking about, Joe. I’m talking about love. I want you to come away with me. I can give you a better life than you have here. I can protect you and love you. We can leave right now. We can get on a train and go far from here; somewhere where we can be alone,” Allen was pulling Joseph down to the ground.

Joseph felt his knees hit the ground and was nearly face to face with Allen. His hot breath smelled of death. Joseph started to cry.

“No…no. Please don’t,” he whimpered. He strained away but the more he struggled the more the panic rose inside of him. He whimpered like a trapped animal, trying to get his brain to grasp what was happening.

“Joe, Joe, I love you. Let me touch you,” he said, as he gripped Joseph’s small hands with one large hand and ran the fingers of his free hands down Joseph’s tear-stained cheek. “We love each other and there can’t be love if we can’t be intimate. Did you know that? Someone taught me that when I was young, and he was not so nice as me. He hurt me, but it was because he loved me. I don’t want to hurt you, you see? I love you more than anything. I will protect you if you’ll just be mine,” Allen said, tears running down his face.

One yellowed, long fingernail caressed Joseph’s lips and Joseph’s panic peaked. He bit Allen’s finger hard enough to draw blood. Allen’s grip loosened for one moment as he pulled his bleeding hand away and Joseph bolted out of his grip.

Allen rebounded quickly and reached for Joseph as he lunged for the door. As Joseph struggled with the door’s latch, Allen grabbed Joseph’s coat and tried to stand up. He stood up fast and hit his head on the roof of the bunker, releasing Joseph’s coat as he stumbled back a step and clutched his head.

Joseph unlatched the door and darted out into the night. He ran without knowing which way he was going. He felt like he was in a nightmare, his legs like jelly, going too slow. He ran and heard Allen bellowing in the bunker behind him.

“Joseph!!” Allen bellowed as he ran after him. Joseph turned to look and ran into a tree face first. He dropped to ground, and saw stars dancing in front of his eyes. He tried to get up and fell again. He cupped his mouth with his hands and warm blood filled them.

He made it back up to his knees and tried to push himself up with one leg, but he never made it up. He felt Allen’s hands grip his shoulders and pull him backwards on top of him. Allen was sitting behind Joseph with one arm slipped tightly under his neck while the other moved under his arm. He locked Joseph into a choke-hold and squeezed. Joseph felt his windpipe close slightly and he gasped for breath. Every time he struggled to get free, Allen squeezed tighter and Joseph finally went limp.

“Quiet, quiet now. Why did you do that? Why did you run from me?” Allen sobbed into his ear. “I thought you loved me. I would have taken care of you. Now look what I have to do. I don’t want to do this, Joe. Why did you make me do this?” Allen cried and squeezed Joseph’s neck tighter.

Joseph felt himself suffocating. He couldn’t move. He couldn’t breathe. This was how he was going to die. He concentrated on the patch of stars he could see through the trees as Allen rocked him slowly back and forth. Then he saw her. His brain could hardly make sense of her and he just stared, limp and dying.

Anna was standing in front of them, about twenty feet away. She had sensed the boy was in trouble as soon as she came within one hundred yards of the bunker. She knew before Joseph did. She smelled the human man’s evil as soon as the blood dripped from Joseph’s bite on his finger. She stood looking at the child suffocating in the evil thing’s arms.

The human man looked up at her, seemingly without surprise.

“Hello, Harpy,” Allen sang with mirth in his eyes. “Come to take my pet from me?” he squeezed Joseph’s neck tighter and Joseph went limp in his arms.

Anna’s fury triggered her transformation. Her feathered wings ripped out of her shoulder blades and unfolded with the sound of sails on a ship whipping in the wind. Her knees bent backwards with a crack and her talons sliced out of her toes and finger tips. Liquid gold poured from her belly button and covered her legs in shimmering scales.

“Let him go,” she hissed, her lips drawing back revealing rows of bladed teeth.

Allen tossed the boy to the side and stood up, laughing and beckoning her. She lunged towards him on swift legs, her hands with long, pointed claws reaching out for him. He didn’t attempt to move out of her way as she shot her legs up, her wings lifting her a foot off the ground. She sank her talons into his chest and lifted him up into the air just above the tree tops. He was laughing. She grabbed his shirt lapels by her hands and lifted his face up to hers.

“What are you, that you don’t fear me, you sick fuck?”

“Oh little bird, you’re too late,” he laughed hysterically. She looked into his eyes and saw her Master looking back at her. His power was inhabiting the vagrant’s skin. She let go of the body in horror and let it fall back to the ground. It hit a tree branch with a sickening crack on the way down and landed on a fallen tree, its body breaking over it.

Anna swooped down and landed a few feet away from him. She stared at the body, unsure of what she had seen. Allen’s foot twitched. Then his arm shot up, broken in three places but still flopping around looking for leverage to lift itself up. Finally, it rose up, its neck hanging off to the right by a flap of loose skin, showing the protruding spine on the other side. Allen’s body laughed and sputtered blood on his torn shirt.

“I thought I would help you out this year, little one,” the broken body said. “That boy is the chosen one this year and I want him now.”

“Who…?” she said backing away from the walking corpse.

“You don’t recognize your own Master?” he said, moving towards her with one dragging foot, his skin already turning the gray color of dead flesh. Thunder rumbled above them. Her Master had always been one for dramatics, but she had never seen him speak through a human body, at least not in her waking life. She knelt down and bowed her head. To her right, the boy still laid unconscious. She recognized him from the town. The boy who spoke to her.

“Ah yes, you get it now. That’s a good girl. I’m trying a new look. What do you think?” he stood before her now, swaying slightly. Anna kept her head bowed, not knowing what to say.

“I don’t understand,” she said finally.

“There are many things you don’t understand,” the Master in Allen clothes said with indignity. “Remember that. I borrowed this man to do my bidding. I wasn’t sure if I could pull it off, but this man, well, this man had a hell of a lot of darkness in him already. It was easy to take hold of him. He had some very nasty plans for this young man. I just finished the job for him. I finished the job for you,” he said, patting her head with one limp hand.

“The Harvest Naming Ceremony isn’t until tomorrow night,” she said.

“His name will be drawn, you’ll see,” he said, and titled her chin up with a twitching dead finger. “Have him drained and ready for me by tomorrow night,” he said. “I’ll be waiting.” Allen’s eyes went dull and his body collapsed in front of her.

Anna sat up and looked over at the boy. She went to him and knelt by his body. Suddenly, his eyes flew open and he gasped. Anna screamed and moved away from him. He was alive.

Joseph coughed, trying to drink cold air into his lungs. When he could finally breathe regularly he looked around, crawling away from that spot on his hands and knees. He saw Allen’s body laying there, dead. Anna was gone. He stood up, shivering and crying, feeling his brain shifting towards the comforting realm of numb insanity.

He moved towards Allen’s body, looking down at the lump of flesh, not knowing how he had died or if Anna had really been there. He wasn’t sure of anything except that this man wanted to hurt him. The one person he had opened himself up to had intended on doing things he couldn’t bare to think about. He was suddenly angry. He was angry at this world and all its demons. He spit on Allen’s body. He looked at the bunker, his safe place that now held only horror. He dragged Allen’s body into the bunker and took the lantern off its hook. He picked up his copy of “Ancient Beasts,” a book that had been his father’s and stood just outside the bunker door.

“Fuck you,” he said with a face like stone. He lit the lantern and threw it into the bunker. It exploded on the pillows and blankets and ignited immediately, consuming Allen and everything else inside. He walked away from the burning hut and headed towards his trailer. The moon looked down on a boy, as small as a mouse, winding through black trees, away from a blazing pit that burned all night.

*

Marie woke up the next morning with panic flowing through her body. She didn’t know why yet, but she knew it was going to be a terrible day. She climbed out of her bed and lurched towards the bathroom. She just barely made it to the toilet before throwing up. When there was nothing left to purge, she sat there panting, trying to remember the night before. She decided that whatever she had done was probably best forgotten.

Panic gripped her heart again, and she went to Joseph’s room. To her surprise, he was there. He was lying face down on his bed, his clothes and shoes still on, covered in dirt. He was breathing steadily, and she knelt beside him, looking at his tear-stained face.

Marie clapped her hands over her eyes and wept. She wept for both of them, but mostly for her boy who deserved so much better than her. She gently took his sneakers off his feet and pulled a blanket over him. She stood in the doorway looking at him, and then her eyes widened with understanding. It was the day of the lottery.

Marie ran to her room and checked the time; eleven forty-five. She had fifteen minutes to get to town to take her place in the church. She threw on some old faded jeans, boots, and a sweatshirt with a pattern of cigarette burns near the pockets.

She dashed out and started up the old truck that had been Frank’s. She kept it in decent shape. He had taught her how to keep it running and how to make repairs when she needed to. The engine roared to life and she sped off down the dirt road that lead to the main road to town. She had to take her seat in the church before it started. The town didn’t care much about what she did with her life but messing with the Harvest Naming Ceremony would get her an extra ball with her name on it thrown into the mix, and Marie certainly didn’t need any more odds stacked against her in this life.

The town was silent. Not a soul stirred on the empty streets. All businesses were closed. The doors of the town’s one small church stood open with a cheery, paper sign hanging above the door that read: “Harvest Day!” A drawing of two hands praying punctuated the sentence.

Marie parked a block away so that her engine wouldn’t disturb the devastating silence that hung there. She ran to the church steps and stopped to look up at the sign. She rifled through her purse and pulled out a small flask, half full of cheap whiskey. She gulped it down without a wince. She put her trembling hands together in prayer and bowed her head and spit on the steps. She took a breath and entered the dim light of the church.

*

Anna hadn’t slept all night. She was pacing through the house, trying to understand what happened. The rules had always been the same. The Master did not interfere with the Harvest. She wasn’t even aware that it was a possibility. She knew it was an old evil that possessed this town and she knew that she was the only thing standing between the town and total destruction. She also knew that the Master had never gone after a specific person for sacrifice. She also knew that the names that went in for Naming Ceremony were never the names of children.

She considered going back for the boy’s body and finishing the job right then before she lost her nerve. What would her father have done? She wasn’t sure. Ultimately, she decided she would follow tradition and wait to take her victim until after the name was chosen. Maybe the night before was a test. She would wait for the results and proceed as her father had trained her.

At Noon time, she walked into the woods and made her way to the main road. She stood there, in the middle of the road, looking towards the town, awaiting their messenger to bring her the word.

*

Marie opened the doors to the church and every head turned to look at her. The townspeople stood in the pews of the church in their Sunday best. Every face looked as if it hadn’t slept in days. Dark circles and cracked lips were worn by all. The church smelled of sour sweat. Every person there was preparing for death.

Marie met their gazes with indifference. She did not fear their judgement. She was sure they would be happy to see her name pulled that day, but that was up to fate. Each person she looked at turned away from her brazen gaze. She stood in the back and was happy to have a row to herself. The only sound was that of flies buzzing and thumping against the glass, trying to escape.

Dolores Thorn, a woman older than dirt, was led up to the podium by Pastor Quinn. She could barely walk and barely see, which made her ideal for an unbiased name picker. She stood dumbly by the podium as the pastor addressed his enraptured audience.

“Friends, family and neighbors, I welcome you all to the annual Harvest Naming Ceremony. We have been blessed year after year with fruitful crops, and healthy livestock by our generous God. Today, as we have every year since the beginning of time, we give thanks to our God for all he has given us. We give one of our own as a gift to he who protects us and he who grants us life. Before the chosen one is revealed, let us pray,” the pastor said with an elated smile.

The congregation bowed their heads, some wringing their praying hands so tightly their knuckles shone white. They spoke in unison;

“Our Lord, who dwells in darkness, unspoken be thy name, protector of life and forgiver of sins, lead us from the deserts of famine and bless us with a fruitful harvest. Accept our gifts and forgive our folly, for we are the herd and you are our shepherd. Unholy be thy name forever more.”

Marie moved her lips in unison but dared not speak the words aloud. She had accepted the ritual because it had always been there, but she despised speaking directly to the lord they worshipped. She couldn’t imagine anything good coming from bowing to a god who took such sacrifice. Yet, here she stood, participating. It was easier to lay low than to cause a scene. She was accustomed to pretend worship. It came in many forms and pretending was easier than rebelling.

“You may be seated,” the pastor said. The townspeople sat obediently.

Dolores Thorn, the old woman at the podium, was taken by the arm and led to the bingo ball mixing cage that sat on a table at the front of the pulpit. The pastor patted her shoulder and moved aside to take his seat in one of the elaborate wooden chairs behind the podium.

Dolores adjusted her glasses and squinted at the handle of the copper mixer. It held dozens of white plastic balls with the names of the townspeople drawn on them in permanent marker. She raised her eyebrows and jerked her frail hand towards the handle that rotated the contraption. As soon as her paper-thin hand touched the handle, her body stiffened, and her chin tilted up to point at the ceiling. A shudder ran through her body and she looked for a moment like she might tip over backwards. A few of the townspeople gasped.

After a moment, she stopped twitching, her body relaxed like butter melting and her head lowered to reveal razor sharp eyes. She surveyed the room, chuckled, and turned the handle of the mixer with the ease of a teenager. She pulled her coke-bottle glasses off and surveyed the room of townspeople with glee. Dolores rotated the cage of names faster and faster until it tipped up on one leg every time she pushed down. Finally, she stopped and grinned at the avid watchers with black, rotten teeth.

“Ready?” she tittered. An uncomfortable sigh washed through the crowd.

Marie looked at the woman on stage. It was a woman she had known since she was a girl. A woman who handed out Halloween candy every year and was a substitute teacher at the schoolhouse. Marie looked at Mrs. Thorn, and knew that it was not her standing before them. Her eyes had never been so malicious.

Mrs. Thorn was the only woman Marie knew who had openly stood against the lottery. In the 70’s she tried to start a protest, standing in front of the church by herself because everyone else was too afraid to do it. They burned her house down for that, and her son died in the fire. After that, she resigned to an almost catatonic state of living, still trying to help others when she could, but lacking the fire she had been born with. This woman standing on the pulpit was not that woman. She was an evil creature, taking delight in the fear of others.

Marie was too stunned to move. She felt the earth shifting beneath her and believed if she looked down she would see a gaping maw waiting to receive her into Hell. Tears leaked down onto her cheeks as she stared into the eyes of whatever was inside Dolores Thorn. Dolores opened the delicate metal gate of the mixer and reached her small hand inside. She never took her eyes off Marie. Inside, her mummy’s hand sifted through the plastic balls that all read Joseph Baker.

Marie suddenly shot up out of her seat. She could hear necks creaking to look at her. Dolores, or the thing inside of Dolores looked at her with burning hatred and a smile that oozed spit onto its chin in yellow strings.

Dolores held the chosen ball in her hand and raised it up over her head. Marie ran out of the pew. As she ran out of the door she could hear Dolores’ voice croak out Joseph’s name. A sigh of relief wafted out of the church after her. Then there was the sound of pursuit. Feet stomped down the aisle after her as she fled to her truck.

*

Joseph dreamed of Anna. He was standing in a clearing in the woods, and the most beautiful voice he ever heard was singing a sad melody. It floated around him and made him dizzy. He laid down on the cool, soft grass and looked up at the moon. It was full and seemed very close. He could see all the peaks and valleys of the moon’s surface. The song grew louder, and he could smell flowers and pine trees.

Suddenly, the song stopped, and he sat up, dazed. At the edge of the trees, a beautiful young woman was watching him. It was Anna, the girl from the town, the girl who had saved him. At least he thought she had saved him, but he couldn’t remember what exactly had happened. His psyche was wounded, much like his bruised neck. It hid the events of the previous night from him to protect and comfort him and he was fine with that. He just wanted to hear her sing.

She looked at him, her hair hanging over her shoulders, covering her naked body. Her eyes were a soft blue, like the sky. She smiled at him and opened her arms out, like she was waiting for a hug. He smiled back and then a twig snapped in the woods to his right. His head whipped towards the sound and he saw a dark shape looking at him from behind a tree. Its eyes glowed and flickered like fire.

The singing started again, and he looked back to Anna. She was moving towards him, her delicate feet dragging lightly along the grass as if she was floating. Her voice caressed his tortured brain and he felt his eyes start to close.

Suddenly, he could smell burning. The smell of burning hair and flesh filled his nostrils and his eyes bulged open, rolling to the right where bright light flickered and rolled. He turned his head towards the light and saw a man engulfed in flames flailing and shambling towards him out of the tree line. The burning thing started to scream from a blackened whole where the mouth used to be and then it was upon him. The burning hands groped for his neck and stiffened there like two burning irons. Joseph tried to scream but the fire filled his mouth and made ashes of his tongue. He felt his eyeballs melting out of his eye sockets as the burning man laid on top of him.

“Joseph, I love you,” it whispered with a voice like a crackling fireplace. Joseph sat up with every ounce of energy he had in his body and jolted himself awake.

Joseph sat up in his bed, gasping for air. He couldn’t catch his breath until he realized that his own hands were clutching his throat. He pulled them off and looked at them, turning them over, wondering if they were his own. Finally, they went limp at his sides. He looked down at the floor and saw the book of myths. He picked it up and paged through it, longing for his father for the first time in years.

He had read the book many times over after finding it under his mother’s bed when he was a kid. In fact, it may have been the reason he had dared to ask her about her father that day when he was six. He had managed to hide its secret from her all these years. He liked to look at his father’s handwriting which swirled around the edges of the printed words and pictures of mythic creatures.

Joseph opened to a dog-eared page near the back that. He had never seen the page before. It was impossible that he could have missed it after all these years, but there it was. At the top of the page was a drawing of Cerberus, the three-headed guard dog of Hades. It read;

In ancient Greek mythology, Cerberus is often depicted as a rabid dog with three heads, a serpent’s tail, the claws of a lion and a mane of snakes. In some versions of the tale, one head represented birth, another youth and another old age. Cerberus was known to keep the dead from returning to the real world and the guard dog appears in various stories and books from other cultures as well. In most depictions of the ancient beast, Cerberus is described as a loyal, yet terrifying guard dog, beholden to Hades’ gate. However, in a few lesser known versions, Cerberus was sent out to retrieve roaming demons in the mortal realm and drag them back to their rightful place in Hell.

Underneath this circled passage was a painting of Cerberus, its left head snarling and drooling, its right head mid-bark, and its middle head staring forward with a calm and determined expression that could freeze the blood of human and demon alike. Behind the guard dog, a ring of vibrant flames encircled its three heads like a hellish halo. A looming black archway leading into what could only be the Underworld was sketched behind the flaming beast.

Joseph was mesmerized. He looked into the eyes of the dog’s middle head and felt (or heard?) a sound rising in his head. It was like a tunnel opening and releasing a fury of wind from someplace far below. The sound grew louder and he closed his eyes and put his hands on his ears in a futile attempt to shut it out, but it was already within him, spreading and changing him in some way he couldn’t understand.

When the sound finally stopped, he was left panting. He felt beads of sweat clinging to his forehead. He looked back down at thee page and saw that below the circled passage was a scribbled note in red ink that read: 11/1/2018. The date of The Harvest. Today’s date, he thought. It was also his 13th birthday.

Joseph could hear the roaring sound again, but it wasn’t in his head. It was the sound of an approaching truck and it was coming fast. He ran to the window and saw his father’s truck careening towards the trailer, kicking up a cloud of dirt behind it.

About a hundred yards down the road, Joseph could see two police cars approaching, their sirens blazing. The truck screeched to a halt in the driveway and his mother jumped out of the car. He had never seen her face so focused before. He thought she looked better than she had in many years, probably because she was the soberest she had been his whole life.

“Joseph!” she bellowed while yanking the door open. The police sirens grew louder. Joseph backed away from the door and hugged the book to his chest. He was sure in that moment that she was going to kill him. “Joseph!” She locked her eyes on his and lunged the few paces towards him.

She hugged him for one moment and looked down at the book. Her eyes were huge, and her mouth was trying to form words. The sound of tires on gravel was just outside the trailer and she grabbed him by the shirt color and tugged him to the small folding closet next to the bathroom. She tugged it open and it got stuck like it always did. Marie started to panic, pulling on the handle wildly, the accordion door catching on the same infuriating spot.

“Come on, you son of a BITCH!” Marie said through clenched teeth. Tears of frustration and fear were welling up in her eyes. Joseph started to cry, thinking she had gone completely mad and knowing deep down that it was worse than that.

“Mom? Mom? What’s happening? What are you doing?”

The door swung open with one last forceful pull. Marie barked a sound of wild relief and pushed the clothes on hangers aside. She held Joseph against the wall with her left hand as he stared at her in shock.

Her right hand found a small screw at on the back wall of the closet and pulled it out with her nail. It popped out the corner of an almost invisible square paneling in the wall and she pried it open. Inside was a tiny crawl space, covered with cobwebs and some empty liquor bottles. Marie looked back at Joseph and pulled him down to the ground.

“Now you listen to me, boy. You are going to stay in here until you don’t hear no more sounds, do you understand? Don’t come out for nothing. They’ve come for you, those goddamn bible-thumping assholes. Just like your father said they would. When it's quiet, and you make sure it's good and quiet, do you hear me?” She shook his shoulders until he nodded vigorously. Four car doors slammed shut outside. “You run right into the woods,” she said.

Marie shoved him into the crawl space and started to put the panel back on. Before she closed it for good she looked at him, just her eyes peered at him over the top of the thin wooden panel. Her eyes drank him in. They were so round, he thought they might pop out of her head. They quivered there, scanning his face, tears ready to abandon ship at any moment.

A familiar voice floated into the trailer from the group outside. “Marie, my child, you have been blessed to serve the Lord. Don’t make this difficult for yourself or your boy. It is an honor to sacrifice the life of your womb to our master,” said Pastor Quinn.

Marie’s eyes flicked sideways towards the door for one moment. “I’m sorry, Joseph. I’m sorry for everything.” Marie placed the wooden panel back in place and pushed the hanging clothes in front of it. Joseph was left in darkness as he heard her shut the accordion door and move to her bedroom.

A policeman’s voice came over the loud speaker. “Marie. Come out with your hands up. We don’t want no trouble. Bring the boy out quietly and you will be rewarded. Try to hide that boy and suffer the consequences.”

Marie walked into her bedroom and pulled a shotgun out from under the bed. She threw dirty clothes and trash around wildly until she found the box of shells in the corner. She sat down and shakily loaded the shotgun and put the rest of the ammunition in her front jeans pocket. She snapped the gun shut and walked to the hallway, just beside the trailer door. She loaded the chamber with a satisfying and threatening double click.

“He ain’t here, numb nuts! That boy hasn’t slept here for at least a week. Sleeps out in the woods in a bunker about a mile from here!” she said, hoping with no real hope to get them away from the trailer.

“Come on out, child, and we can find him together,” the pastor said with words as smooth and sweet as molasses.

“Joseph,” she said quietly to the shut closet behind her. “When they leave with me, run away from here. Get the hell out of this place and don’t look back and don’t look for me. Don’t even wonder about me.”

“Marie, I’m counting down from five and if you don’t open that door at one, I’m blowing it wide open. You got that?” the policeman shouted.

The policeman was named Ricky Bowman and he made his share of visits to Marie late at night when the mood struck him. He even helped Joseph when he broke his ankle falling out of a tree as a young boy. Ricky stayed with Joseph in the hospital until Marie finally came to get him, slurring and wobbling in a drunken stupor.

“Don’t you give one good goddamn shit about me after this, you hear me?” Marie said to the closet with forced harshness. “I never did right by you. Get the hell out of this evil pit while you still can.”

With that, Marie unlocked the trailer door and kicked it open, firing the shot gun first at “Little Dicky Ricky” the policeman first. It struck him square in the crotch and he crumpled like paper. Marie reloaded and felt a fireball of pain shoot through her shoulder. She stumbled backwards and saw a town elder standing with a smoking pistol. It was Edward Myers, a man that was nearly 90 years old. His eyes seemed black with violence. She could see the evil that had infiltrated Dolores Thorn at the drawing within Edward now.

The thing manipulated his old body, that she now realized was usually in a wheelchair, and stepped forward with the energy of a much younger man and fired again. The shot hit her in the stomach and she fell to the floor of the trailer.

Marie managed to push herself out of the doorway and leaned against the wall next to the closet. She used her numb legs to push herself up the wall slowly, holding her dripping insides with one hand and the shotgun with the other. She sputtered up blood and painfully pushed herself up higher on the wall. She forced herself to stand, clutching a midsection that was nearly see-through. She placed the butt of the gun against her shoulder and steadied herself with a bloody, lipless snarl.

“Come on, you fuckers!” she screamed.

Marie breathed out slowly like Frank had taught her to do when they went hunting. She could hear the quiet woods around her like they were that day when they were just two kids in love. The sun shimmered through the leaves and the birds tittered softly all around them. She had a buck in her sightline and Frank stood behind her whispering instructions. “Wait, wait. Now,” he had said with such a lulling whisper that it seemed to hypnotize her. She pivoted just two inches around the tree until the barrel of the shotgun was perfectly aligned with the target. She squeezed the trigger.

Marie squeezed the trigger just as the gun’s barrel centered on the pastor’s shocked face. With a roaring sound his head imploded, and his body, gaudy with Harvest time gold-and-red robes, slumped to the ground.

Marie’s hands lost feeling and the shotgun slid out of her hands. She collapsed to her knees, and her eyes met the elder’s. The evil thing in him moved the old man’s face to smile so wide that his dry, thin lips, ripped in two places.

“Bye, bye, Marie,” it gurgled. The thing aimed at her head and fired.

Joseph held his hands over his ears and held his eyes closed so hard that it hurt. He was trying not to moan. The silence made him take his hands away. He heard slow footsteps moving up the steps and more cars pulling up in the driveway. He could hear more townspeople getting out and shouting and talking in the chaotic orchestra of a mob. They waited outside while the old man searched the trailer.

Joseph put his hands to his mouth now as the footsteps shuffled past the closet door. They moved to the two rooms in the trailer and he thought he could hear whoever it was smelling the air. The feet stopped in front of the closet door and pulled it open. Joseph could hear the hangers scratching on the pole and then the voices outside grew louder.

“There’s a body in the woods, all burned up by the fire,” one person said. The thing in the closet stepped out and walked back out of the trailer.

“If it's not the boy, find him. I want him found before sun goes down and brought to the circle alive. Take this whore’s body with you and string her up,” the elder said.

“Yes, sir,” a voice replied. The sounds of people dispersing surrounded the trailer and then there was nothing but silence. Still Joseph waited for an hour before he could move. He hoped they had taken her body. He did not want to see it. Without seeing the body, he could pretend she was still alive somewhere, at least for a little bit longer.

Joseph put his hands on the ground to push himself up and his hand touched something hard. He picked it up. His eyes had adjusted slightly to the dark and with a small sliver of light coming through a crack in the panel, he could see that it was a wooden box. He held it up to the grainy light and recognized it as his mother’s box that she kept under her bed. He had never been brave enough to look in it, but he felt that she probably kept something bad in it. The drugs that took her spirit away maybe.

In a moment of overwhelming loss, Joseph hugged the box to him and cried with a force that left him gasping for air. His face felt as hot as flames and his sorrow seemed to him an endless black pool that he was drowning in. Then it was more like a black night sky with no stars and he was falling from high up and his stomach was flipping nauseously with the plummeting sensation. He felt utterly and completely alone.

When his tears were spent, Joseph slowly made his way out of the closet and snuck out of the window of his bedroom and straight into the woods. He took the book and the box with him and nothing else. He headed for the only place he could think of where he might be safe. Anna, having waited on the road for over an hour with no sign of a town messenger, made her way back home. A feeling of wrongness flooded her body. They had never been late before. She had heard nothing of the selection for the Harvest and nothing from her Master. She went back to the farmhouse and started to pace. She looked out of her curtained window periodically, paranoia beginning to set in.

On her third trip to the window, Anna saw that the sun was nearly set. The sky was still orange with the last light and the woods were quiet and peaceful. Something was wrong. She scanned the woods and her heart stopped for a moment when she noticed a white face peering at her from behind a tree.

Anna jumped back from the window for a moment and then looked again. It was the face of a terrified boy. The boy from town. The boy she saved.

Suddenly, filled with an anger that was more fear than rage, she stormed out of the house and walked straight towards the boy. Unbelievably, he didn’t flinch away. He stared at her, with a look that she had originally mistaken for fear. She now realized that the boy was in shock.

She approached him, and he stood there, unmoving, clutching a book and a small wooden box. Before she could say anything, he spoke.

“They killed her. They killed my mother,” he said, and he sank to the ground and laid there as limp as a rag doll.

Anna stared down at him at a complete loss for words. She felt the air start to sizzle with electricity and the sun sank further below the tree line, making the forest look like it was burning all around them. Anna picked the boy up and he did not resist. He just stared at the ground and clutched his possessions with a grip like steel. She carried him into the house quickly.

Joey awoke with a start as cold water splashed his face. He screamed and sat up on the ground of a large room. He looked up at saw Anna standing over him.

“You need to wake up,” she said. Joseph sat up and slowly got to his feet. He looked up at her and summoned all the courage he had left.

“I need your help. I have no one else. Something is happening in my head and they took her. They came for me and she protected me. My mother protected me,” his voice cracked as he finished his plea.

“You are the chosen one for the Harvest, then?”

“I…I think that’s what they were saying, but…I thought it was never kids. I thought I would be out of here long before I ever had to face the drawing. Almost everybody sends their kids out of here now. My mom couldn’t afford it.”

“How old are you?” she said finally.

“I just turned 13. Today actually. Today is my birthday,” with a moment spontaneity and quite frankly, stupidity that Joseph hadn’t expected, he reached forward and hugged her. Before Anna could push him away, and maybe even slice him open right then and there, a burst of light went off in her head.

Both Joseph and Anna both felt a warm and powerful light turn on inside of them and spread outward. It was like being in a giant ray of sunlight. Suddenly, they were in a dream or a vision, and they were there together as of one mind.

Anna was flying high in the sky, her hawk wings making a shadow on the green, fluffy treetops below. She approached a mountain. The mountain was gray like steel and looked as impenetrable. It was so tall that its peak disappeared into the clouds above. She circled it, feeling the sky darken. Her heartbeat increased as that thick electric feeling filled the air.

She circled down to the base where a dark cave yawned out from the ground. In front of it lay a trio of sleeping dogs as big as lions. She landed before them and approached the brood. An ear perked up, then an eye opened and a great rumbling sound began. It vibrated the earth beneath her. It was the low growling of the beast. Three heads raised up and then she saw it for what it really was. It was one animal with three heads and it was guarding the cave. She knew instinctually that it was the gates to Hell.

Cerberus and the siren regarded each other for a moment and then the growling stopped. In Cerberus she recognized the boy, and, in the siren, he recognized Anna.

A sound like a bell chiming in a great tower (or cavern), began and Cerberus bowed its head. Anna, against her will, knelt too. In the eternal bellowing of the Underworld, Anna and Joseph recognized their true ruler. In that vibrating, world-ending, death toll, the two ancient beings heard the demands of Hades, their Lord.

Whatever petty, evil thing had been living in their town, it was certainly master of none. It had leeched on their town since settlers first arrived, preying on the sinning minds of the fearful and mortal. The little demon was being summoned back to its own master, straight down to the depths of Hell where it belonged.

The two awoke from their shared dream back in the farmhouse, arms wrapped around each other. They backed away from each other for a moment. The boy bent down and grabbed his mother’s wooden box. He handed it to Anna. She opened the lid and pushed aside some plastic bags and coins and cigarettes to find a grainy photograph. She lifted it up and saw a picture of a handsome, radiant man, smiling with a fishing pole dangling a puny-looking fish on the end. His other arm was around a taller man who she quickly recognized as her father.

“This is my father,” Joseph said of the man with the fishing pole. “They say he went crazy and wandered into the woods to kill himself, but no one ever found his body. I think he knew about all of this. I think he knew what was wrong with me, why I see these things. I think he saw them too. The writing on the back says Frank and Jareth… That’s… your father, isn’t it?”

Anna stared at the photograph of her young, happy father with his friend. He had talked about Frank. She didn’t know he had a son. Her father had simply told her that Frank didn’t want to follow the rules of the Harvest and he met his fate. That’s why, she supposed, he had never questioned the work they did. He knew what would happen if they didn’t do their duty.

“Yes. Jareth was my father,” she said. “He talked about your dad sometimes. He loved him,” she said and looked at Joseph. His eyes were fiery like her fathers had been. They were of the same kind of being. They were primal and born of the fire. She was cold and cut from ice. She was meant to confuse and manipulate for the good of the Harvest, an ancient female predator from a long line of sirens which had lured mortals to their deaths with hypnotic songs and open arms. Her father, on the other hand, was a gatherer. He was vicious when he turned to wolf. But this boy…he was powerful, a protector. If he had her same affliction, and he turned, he would be far more powerful than she and maybe…

She stopped herself short of the thought. She thought of her father on his death bed telling her to protect the town, herd her sheep and sacrifice one for the safety of many. But why? Why must they? And why had the Master broken the rules and gone after a boy, a boy who just turned thirteen, the time of transformation? The dream came back to her. The dream that was not a dream but a shared vision the boy and she had shared of another realm. What fools they had all been.

When total darkness took hold of the little town and the woods surrounding it, Anna carried the chosen sacrifice through the woods in her human form. The small boy was bundled up in a sheet soaked in blood. She moved through the silent forest with a steady step. She kept her eyes before her.

In the distance, she could see fire. The torches of the ceremony were lit, and they were waiting. The air began to crackle with an electric current that felt like probing fingers. They touched her face and they touched the boy’s body. Suddenly, they were all over her, moving her towards the ring of sacrifice with an urgency that was lustful. She felt nauseous and her body ached to transform into siren, but she held steady.

Finally, she was at the edge of the ring. A pile of carnage was carefully arranged at the center of the clearing. All around the forest edge, the eldest of the townspeople stood with torches. At the farthest edge of the clearing from her, Anna saw a wooden cross had been erected. A body hung there.

As Anna stepped into the ring with Joseph in her arms, Joseph had a flash of a memory he could not possibly have seen with his own eyes. It ripped into his head with a white-hot pain that made him whimper softly. The electric fingers of the Master felt and heard this and was pleased that he had a little life left in him still. He would enjoy ripping the boy apart, ending its fears of what the boy might become.

Anna walked towards the pile of dead animals that were stacked in an ornamental design with decapitated pig and goat heads looking out in a neat line at the top. As she drew closer she saw that the body of the pastor, an elder and a policeman were propped up against the bottom of the bloody pyramid. The townspeople watched with faces that looked like masks. She wondered if they enjoyed watching this and felt sickened just by looking at them. Sheep, she thought.

The electricity left the air and suddenly she could hear the townspeople softly whispering in unison. They were singing what sounded like a prayer, but it sliced the air with a sound like a hundred hissing snakes.

The leg of the pastor twitched and then stopped. It twitched again and then the other leg followed and now the dead pastor’s eye lids were opening with a wet sound that, unfortunately, her hawk-like ears could pick up in grisly detail. The eyeballs were gone, and the thing looked at her with empty sockets. It gyrated and gurgled to its feet.

“Well done, Harpy!” the Master said through the bloody mouth of the pastor. It clapped its hands like a poorly-worked puppet and the meaty sound of the palms slapping against each other sent a shudder through her body.

“Put him down and let me see him,” he said with a twitching smile that she knew was meant to show the purposeful irony of his statement.

Anna placed the body down. And unwrapped the sheets. The boy’s body was covered in blood, but he was breathing. The dead pastor approached Joseph with the greedy, grinning face of a hyena.

“Stand up, boy. I know you're alive,” he said, and the crowd of onlookers hushed, letting their bloody prayers float off into the sky.

Joseph blinked and sat up. He stood up slowly, looking around with jerking motions like a trapped kitten. His eyes were huge and filled with panic. He looked around and saw the bloody mess of the pastor limping closer to him. He focused on the thing and tried to put on a brave face, standing defiantly straight with his hands balled into fists. The dead pastor cackled and collapsed. Anna and Joseph looked at each other. From behind the pile of dead animals, something else was moving. It was trying to speak, but Joseph couldn’t hear what it was saying. He saw a blackened, smoking hand grasp the face of a decapitated pig and pull itself slowly around the corner. A familiar face peered at him coquettishly from the pile of sacrificed animals. It was Allen.

Allen’s burned, and broken body was looking at him with hungry eyes. It was the only way Joseph could truly tell that it was him. It was the eyes. They had always looked at him that way. He just never realized it until now. Allen’s hair was gone, revealing a pink and burning scalp that still sizzled. His body was hunched over and the lower half of his face was completely melted away, revealing a chattering skeleton’s mouth that still seemed to grin at him.

“Joseph, I love you. I want you. We can be together. Come burn with me,” Allen choked out. His throat was ablaze with flames and his words crackled and spat. Joseph’s bowels betrayed him, and his courage evacuated his body with his urine. Allen’s body laughed and burned and moved towards him with reaching arms.

Anna stood back. She kept her head bowed. The Master liked to play with its prey. She stared at her feet, letting Joseph decide his fate. If today was his birthday and he truly was what she was, then all he needed was a spark to light the fire of his transformation. She hoped he would find it or they were all doomed.

Joseph stepped backwards and tripped over the sheet. He cried out as he fell to his back and looked up to see the cross looming over them. He looked at the body hanging there and realized it was his mother. She was crucified, and she was dead. Her clothes had been stripped off and someone had carved the word “whore” into her torso with a knife. The words screamed out in vivid red blood.

The tunnel opened. The wind echoed through the chambers of Joseph’s brain and he felt his reality shift. Anger, dull and painful at first, and the sorrow for his lost mother, grew inside of him at the sight of her desecrated body. He looked at Allen, the body of the pervert who had preyed on him. He looked at the townspeople, so willing to sacrifice those who don’t conform to their way of life. He thought of her eyes, so round and brimming with tears, looking at him over the piece of wooden panel. They were eyes that had avoided his for as long as he could remember. They were filled with shame and despair and love.

With that last thought, his anger was so great and his love for her so overwhelming, that he felt himself starting to burn. His eyes rolled up into the back of his head. He imagined Allen’s body must be consuming him with its flames as he felt searing pain all over his body. He could smell burning hair and he could feel his skull splitting open. His rage was so complete that he welcomed the pain and breathed the flames into his body. He was growing and changing, and it was agony and ecstasy. He could hear an electric scream faintly echoing in the air all around them. It sounded scared and he was glad.

Anna looked up as Joseph was seeing his mother and she stepped forward to shield him from the sight but stopped herself when she saw what was happening. Joseph was transforming into his true being. Flames, as brilliant as the sun burst out of his eyes and his mouth and his head looked like it was splitting in two and then three places, pulsing and growing. Allen’s body collapsed and the thing inside of it that called itself their Master screamed all around them. It was everywhere, but it was afraid.

Joseph’s body got larger and larger and the flames grew brighter until finally, he was just an orb of blinding light. The light stopped moving for one moment and then exploded outward, knocking over everything in its path. The torches of the townspeople blew out as they fell to the ground. Anna was instantly transformed as soon as the burst of light touched her, and she stood now, as hawk and woman combined into siren. She looked around the darkened circle, trying to adjust her eyes to the darkness.

A shape loomed above them. A deep rumble shook the ground as the shape growled. It looked like it was about the size of an elephant. Anna grinned with needlepoint teeth at the ancient being in Joseph’s place. Cerberus’ three heads looked around sniffing the air. She saw one of the heads look towards her, and the flames of Hell burned in its eyes. An earth-shaking bark shot out of its mouth and the pile of dead animals was set aflame. Anna couldn’t see the Master anywhere and she wondered if it had escaped. Maybe it would stay away for good, maybe not. The townspeople stayed on the ground too scared to move. A few had fled into the woods back into town, but most sat, eyes transfixed on the enormous beast before them.

Anna felt a piercing pain in her side and saw a whitish, ghoul-like hand had sunk its nails deep into her abdomen. She screeched in pain and tried to turn to see what was clinging to her. She bucked and scratched at it, but it sunk its nails deeper. Then it spoke.

“Keep fighting and I’ll rip your intestines out through your bellybutton, Harpy,” the voice of the demon spoke into her ear. She strained her eye to see what body it had inhabited. It peered out from behind her hair with a face like oozing pus. She knew immediately that this was its true form. It was a white, almost see-through blob of a creature with dripping sores and a fat, sagging belly that dragged on the ground. Its face was eerily human, but with the quality of having been melted like a candle. Its voice was wet and unpleasant, and she could feel what a lowly, greedy creature it was. How it had managed to manipulate a town for centuries, she couldn’t understand, but then she looked around at the empty-faced townspeople who were all too eager to see their fellow people tortured and killed.

Cerberus turned towards them and all three of its enormous heads growled with a sound like a roiling earthquake. It walked two steps towards them. The demon pushed its nails deeper inside of her. She gasped and nearly passed out. She was weakening and starting to turn back to her human form.

“Stay away from me, dog. I’m not going back. Come near me and I’ll rip her spine right out of her back,” it said, eyes bulging out of its gooey flesh.

Anna felt her body becoming smaller, more vulnerable and the wound larger and deadlier. She looked at Cerberus and its center head looked directly into her eyes. She passed out and felt herself drifting into that warm ray of light.

“You’re much more determined than your father was, dog. All I had to do was whisper in his head for a few months and he went mad as a hatter,” the demon cackled with its strange blubbery face. Cerberus blinked its many eyes for a moment, taking in his father’s demise.

“Oh, yes… he walked right off the cliff I led him to. I whispered things that no man should hear, even a half man like him.”

Anger ripped through Cerberus again and all three of its heads began bellowing. One blew flames that formed a circle around the demon, Anna and itself. The other howled into the sky until an enormous rock erupted out of the ground and formed a door. It was a steel-colored, stone archway leading into darkness, leading down into Hell.

The demon looked at the archway and hissed. Bubbles formed on its shuddering lips and popped and dribbled down its chest. Its eyes had gone mad with fear and hatred and it looked at Anna ready to rip at her face in defiance to its dark lord.

With a last-ditch effort for escape, the demon threw Anna’s lifeless body towards Cerberus and bound on all fours towards the woods. The wall of flames rose up and it was knocked back onto the ground. It seemed to grow smaller and more pathetic as its fate grew closer. Cerberus pinned it to the ground with one paw and watched it struggle. It squealed and hissed and spat at the ground before the guard dog.

Cerberus approached the silly little creature with a glint of excitement in all six of its eyes. The middle head snapped the thing up and it screeched like a dog whistle. It flipped the demon up into the air and then let it fall back into the jaws of the left head and then up and down into the right, playing with it like a cat does with a mouse.

A sound echoed out of the archway and stopped the play on the spot. It was a voice that spoke words no human could decipher, pretty like a lullaby and as paralyzing as ice. Cerberus immediately brought the dangling demon to the archway at the sound of the voice and tossed it in. The screaming of the demon that had brought so much pain to the town, caused so much hatred among these mortal men and women, could be heard all through the night, even after the archway closed on itself and sank back into the earth.

Anna awoke to a burning pain in her side. One of the elders who was a doctor in the town was stitching her wound up. He managed to do a decent job despite his shaking body. When he finished he backed off to the edge of the forest and then started to run back to town like the rest of the townspeople.

She looked around and saw Joseph kneeling next to the bundled sheet. He was Joseph again, his duty complete. She approached him slowly and stood over him. He had taken his mother down from the cross and wrapped her in the sheet. He was holding her hand and looking at her face.

“Do you think they can change?” he said finally without turning around.

“Who?” she said, feeling in that moment like her entire life had been a dream.

“Our town. The people in our town. Do you think they deserve redemption?” he said.

“I don’t know,” she said, knowing that what she meant was no.

“I don’t,” Joseph said and pulled the sheet over his mother’s face. He stood up and looked at Anna. They looked at each other, their faces much older and wearier than they should have looked at their ages. Joseph picked up a torch from the ground and looked at it. The tip of it suddenly ignited in flames. He looked at his mother’s body and lit the sheet on fire.

Anna and Joseph watched the flames take Marie away. When the fire died and turned to ash, the two friends set off towards the town intent on burning it down to ash along with everyone living in it. Somewhere along the way, they transformed and entered the town as messengers from Hell.

The townspeople screamed and ran like mice when they saw a flying demon lighting their homes on fire and snatching people out of their beds only to drop them down onto the ground to break like things of glass. Those who thought they could escape were surprised and horrified to find that an enormous, three-headed beast was waiting for them on the ground, spewing fire and snapping up family and friends like dog treats. And so, the night was filled with screams until the sun rose and the land was cleansed of the evil that dwelled there for so long.


Epilogue[]

“Yes, come right down this way. These streets are all newly paved and I’ll tell you, it's really an up and coming neighborhood,” the sunny, blonde real estate agent chirped. She was showing about three houses a day now that the town looked half-way decent. It had taken far too long to get construction underway, especially since no one in the neighboring areas had any interest in a ghost town that had burned down ten years ago. She wasn’t going to tell these potential buyers any of that though. They were from California and they seemed charmed by the idea of small-town living.

“This town is surrounded by forest with beautiful maple, beech and birch trees and it is a historic plot of land. The original town was built by English settlers in 1624,” the woman said too loudly for such a small group of two. She gestured to the rows of houses on Main Street that had been modeled after the original homes that stood there ten years before.

"Didn’t this town burn down?” the young woman asked. She was with her husband and they had been asked to relocate to the area for her nursing job, but the newly built town was an hour away from the hospital. The cost of living was incredibly cheap compared to the neighboring towns and it looked beautiful. It was pristine, but quiet. One or two shop owners had agreed to open temporarily for the summer season, but other than that, most of the storefronts were still for sale.

The church, however, had been inhabited for six months, maybe more. It stood at the end of the square with some newly planted trees in front of it. The doors were open, and a young pastor stood at the door watching them with a patient smile. He waved when she looked at him and continued to wave even as she looked back at the guide.

“Well, it’s hard to say. There was, unfortunately, no witnesses to the cause of the fire, but…”

“Because they all died,” the young woman’s husband interjected.

The guide looked stunned for a moment and the young woman felt a moment of pity for her. Still, it was hard to imagine that the guide didn’t think the question would come up.

“Yes. Yes. They all died,” she said finally, defeated. “But rest assured the construction of the new town has been modernized and such a fire would be nearly impossible to start here.”

“What about the farm on the edge of town? The pig farm? I saw a woman on the porch. She was watching us drive by,” the husband said.

"Ah! Yes, that farm is from the original town layout. It belongs to a lovely young couple who... well, they don’t really like to be bothered. In fact, we don’t really consider them a part of the new town, especially since they would not agree to sell their land to us.

It really is a beautiful rustic town and a wonderful place to raise kids. There’s so much space to run and play!” The guide was talking faster than she could think at that point. She was hoping to keep a lid on the questions for the rest of the tour and get back home to rip into a bottle of chardonnay.

In truth, she despised the town. It gave her the willies. She couldn’t think of one good goddamn reason why someone would want to live in this hell hole. Then again, a whole town of people, generations of them, had lived there for centuries and seemed to have lived idyllic lives until the fire. There were hardly any crimes reported at all.



Written by Dgrady237
Content is available under CC BY-SA

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