CREATORS. STORYTELLERS. FIRE-STARTERS.
 

CIRCLES

There’s nothing on earth quite so dispassionate as a gun.

That’s because in reality, it’s just a tool, like any other, and what matters is how it’s used, how it’s wielded. The thing itself has very little power. Like a camera, it has no judgement, no means with which to make a decision, no point of view of its own. It just is. It doesn’t do anything.

And yet… it feels like it should.

I hold the gun in my hand, feel the weight of it, the coldness. And something else. A vague sense of anticipation. But this is my emotion, not the gun’s. The gun is empty, save for the bullets.

I fill in the rest.

I forget sometimes that my brother is into guns until I stumble on one in the back shed or in the garage. He hides them in random places—some place out of reach where only he usually goes. He isn’t particularly careful about it, but it’s just him and Sarah out here in the country, no kids. And so his collection dots his property like spiders might congregate behind forgotten things, just waiting to be of use.

Just waiting to jump out and scare you.

I set the pistol back on the shelf and return to the task at hand.

The lawnmower needs me again. It’s always needing me. But I’m not really doing this for it.

I’m doing it for the beer.

There are certain activities a man does that require a cold one nearby. Grilling a dead animal over open flames. Greased up and under the hood of some muscle car.

Fixing a shitty lawnmower. Yet again.

I haven’t cut the grass all summer. I’ve tried. The blade needs changing is all, or sharpening. One of the two. It’s not a difficult job, I always tell myself. And so I head out back, pull the beast from the old yellow shed, flip the whole damned thing over and get right up under the mower deck; I pry the matted swaths of tawny-green grass, thick like shag carpet, from every nook and cranny, trying to find the nut I need, trying to simply clean things up. But then my allergies ignite, and I reach for that cold one, and I find myself distracted again, smoking a cigarette and staring out into nothing.

Thinking.

It’s usually about that time that Alex finally shows up, whistling a tune and walking across the back acreage, bleached corn husks crunching like bones beneath his feet. He grins that boyish grin of his.

“You’re late,” I yell to him. He shrugs, as he always does, though his faded blue jeans, blood-red t-shirt and worn baseball cap speak more to his permanently casual nature than any shoulder could.

“Sorry, brother,” he replies as he reaches the edge of the field. “I got held up.”

“I know,” I say. “Your wife called.”

I notice now that Alex is already eying the bottle in my hand.

“Got one of those for me?” he asks.

It’s my turn to shrug. “Maybe. But ya gotta earn it.”

Alex looks down at the mower now, sprawled there pitifully in the grass behind the shed, all up-skirt. He scowls back at me. “At least let me catch up.”

I grin and pull a beer from near a stack of old tires. It’s my on-deck; I was gonna crack it in no time, but I’m a nice guy. Besides, there’s plenty more in the mini fridge.

I toss the beer to Alex. He pops the top and takes a long, refreshing swig.

“That’s money,” he says, wiping his lips with the back of his wrist. He appraises the situation. “So what’s on the docket today?”

I look at him then for the first time. Really look at him. I hesitate too long, though, like an actor who’s forgotten his lines, and it confuses him. So I kick the lawnmower, as dispassionate as the gun. There’s no real feeling in it; I do it because it’s what I do next to keep the scene moving.

“The usual,” I say and take another drag. I stare at him, afraid of what comes next. I try to hide the apprehension in my eyes. It’s impossible to tell if it works.

His smile fades from his face like a setting sun, perplexed by my seriousness. Silence settles between us, the type of silence that only arrives between family members when shits about to hit the fan.

Alex shifts his weight and clears his throat. “Okay…”

I plaster on a smile, break the tension in an instant with a slap to his shoulder. “But first I gotta show you something.”

I turn and walk away, around to the front of the shed, gesturing Alex to enter before me. He does, and I go in after.

“So what’s up?” he asks.

Without answering, I take a final drag from the cigarette that I forgot I was smoking, flick it out the entryway, and close the shed doors on us, inviting in darkness.

* * *

When I open the doors again, we’re no longer outside. The lawn, the lawnmower, the sky above and the sound of birds have all been left behind. And I’ve opened not shed doors, but the heavy double doors to a church, and they are somehow glass instead of wood and I can see right through them, and somehow we are bathed in the candle-orange glow of sanctuary lighting. Just like that, the scene has changed. Alex shakes his head, standing there stunned, though I am already entering the narthex.

“Sweet Jesus,” he whispers. “That was gnarly.”

Sweet Jesus indeed. I’m at the back of the narthex already, looking up at a stained glass window: a colorful depiction of Jesus the Shepard, tending his flock, a little lamb at his feet. The sunlight kaleidoscopes across my shirt. Alex is standing by me now.

“Where are we?” he asks. I smile, wistful.

“We’ve been here before.”

“When?”

“Yesterday. And the day before. And the day before that…” I let my voice trail off; Alex has already moved on, wandering towards the center aisle and into the sanctuary proper, where the whole circular space opens up with its high ceiling. I turn and watch him. He looks around, like a child waking from a dream. The beautifully ornate organ, its grand pipes reaching towards the heavens, sits quiet to the right; the sacristy and sound booth balcony to the left. Golden butterflies hang from the ceiling on wires, shimmering in the light from candles and from a skylight far overhead. He has yet to spot the woman in black, though, sitting in the front row, has yet to hear her barely whispered prayers, her lips quivering. I begin to follow him, slowly, my eyes on the empty wooden cross hanging behind the pulpit. I question the existence of anything higher, as I always do in these moments before Alex sees her, bracing myself for when the scars are punctured again, pierced like a spear to my abdomen.

Preparing myself to be crucified.

“Who’s she?” Alex says simply, nodding his head towards the woman he now kneels in front of. He’s studying her face, there behind a sheer black veil, her eyes closed. Tears mar her cheeks, her makeup. She clutches a cross in her lap.

“You really don’t remember anything, do you?” I marvel. He usually figures it out on his own.

“Why’s she here?”

I take a deep breath. “It’s a funeral,” I say, my voice already beginning to shake. “For her husband. She can’t bring herself to leave yet.”

Alex stands and walks towards me, that boyish smile playing at his lips. He thinks I’m messing with him. “Okay, smart ass, then where’s the coffin?” My heart plummets even more. I truly hate this part.

“Oh it’s there,” I explain, pointing towards the pulpit. “By the flowers. I’m not surprised you can’t see it, though. The last time you were here, you were inside it.”

He whips his head back to me, his eyes wide, filled with confusion. “What did you say?”

I want to grab him and shake him, like the wind shakes the dead leaves from a tree. I want to scream in his face. But I keep my cool, resigned to sadness rather than anger, exasperation rather than outrage.

“You’re so clueless this time around,” I say, shaking my head. “You’re fading. Don’t you remember anything? Don’t you remember her?”

I point at the woman in black. Alex goes back to her and again kneels, studying her face again, searching for some sort of clue.

All at once, like a dam breaking, realization floods over him.

“Sarah?” he whispers, still not believing his own recognition. “Sarah honey?”

He’s piecing it together now, what it all means. I watch it unfold like a map in front of me. He rises, slowly turns back towards the pulpit. He sees the casket. I tell by the way his shoulders shudder as the breath escapes him. He can see it all now.

He turns on me then. “No way, man. No way. This is stupid.” He charges towards me, determined to pass. “Let’s go, you’re freaking me the fuck out.” But I place a firm hand on his chest to keep him from exiting the sanctuary. He looks at me like I’ve just plunged a knife into his back, an ultimate betrayal. “Come the fuck on, man!”

“Every time I remember what it was like to lose you,” I say, my voice low, my words measured. “I try to figure out some way to stop myself from reliving it, to say goodbye once and for all.” I look the dead in the eyes. “But I can’t. I’m sorry.”

He looks back at me, tears welling in his eyes, and he laughs without meaning to, the nervous laughter of the crazed. “You’re so full of shit,” he assures. But he’s really only trying to assure himself.

“I wish I was,” I say with sincerity, for I mean it more than any other words I’ve ever spoken. “But I’m telling you, Alex, you’re gone.” I put my head on his forehead as he looks down, overwhelmed. “You’re gone.”

He stumbles away from me like a drunk, like someone woozy after exiting a Gravitron. He clutches his head, looks back towards the coffin and cries out an unearthly, animal sound. I speak to fill the space inside my mind and in the room, pacing away from Alex as I do.

“You creep up on me whenever I’m alone. At work. At the store. When I’m out back trying to fix that stupid fucking lawnmower of yours for the eight-hundredth time. It doesn’t matter what I’m doing. Wherever I go, there you are. Invading my head. And like water circling a drain, I sink back into this memory… right back to this wretched day.”

I reach the center of the sanctuary, Alex still behind me, and I look down. There on the chair to my left sits a pistol. The pistol from the shed.

There’s never, not once, been a gun in this scene. Something, somehow, has chipped the cycle.

But what does it mean?

I turn back to Alex and away from the intruding firearm. There’s silence between the three of now, heavy as new-fallen snow and just as cold. Alex’s eyes look lost in some cascade of emptiness, glassy and reflective in the candlelight. The gun looks heavy and cold. Sarah has vanished.

Finally Alex looks at me.

“How did I die?” he asks. I swallow hard.

“You were held up,” I say. “Shot in a robbery.”

“My God,” he moans, reaching for his chest. I think for a moment he must feel it, that phantom pain of the bullet passing through his ribcage. He staggers again, whirling. “My God, why? I can’t be… this just… fuck!” And I’m there with him now, catching him as he collapses into my arms, sobbing into my chest. I hold him as my own tears come.

“What do I do, Jesse?” he asks, his voice muffled, buried in my shirt. “Tell me what to do.”

“We’ll figure something out,” I lie. “Maybe we can…”

And then it hits me.

“Try something new.”

He looks up at me like only a little brother can then, expectantly. His cheeks are flushed, his eyes red. He sniffs the snot away, wipes his nose with the back of his wrist. He looks so young. I forgot how young he really was when his light went out. My words have comforted him some, and for that, I suppose, I’m grateful.

I turn from him gently, making sure he can stand on his own, and walk back towards the weapon. The tool. The one instrument I may be able to use to finally rid myself of the revolving, revolting, repeating nightmare of a memory. I pick up the pistol and turn to face Alex. He has also turned, is staring at the coffin again, letting it all settle in on him like soil into the grave. His breathing is slow, calm.

After a moment, he looks back at me. It takes him only a blink to see the gun in my hand. His face flushes with fear and confusion, an expression that rips through my senses like the coldest winter wind imaginable. I’m hollowed out by it, and by the fact that I caused it, even if none of this is real at all.

“What are you doing?” he breaths. I want to run.

But I remain resolute. I lift the pistol.

“Trying something new.”

* * *

The gunshot still rings in my ears as I swing open the wooden doors. There’s no pistol in my hand, no sign of Alex. I’m back in the yard again, alone.

I reach for the mini fridge near my right, grab another cold one, and exit the shed. The day is as bright and as calm as I had left it.

And the lawnmower needs me again. It’s always needing me. But I’m not really doing this for it.

I sip my beer and light another smoke. I inhale deeply.

It’s then I see Alex, whistling a tune and walking across the back acreage, bleached corn husks crunching like bones beneath his feet. He grins that boyish grin of his, as if I hadn’t just shot him in the chest with his own pistol; as if nothing’s happened. For him, nothing had.But it had happened to me. Again and again and again. In reality, Alex is gone.

“You’re late,” I yell to him, obligatory, my voice fit to crack under the weight of the tears I’m choking down. He shrugs, as he always does, though his faded blue jeans, blood-red t-shirt and worn baseball cap speak more to his permanently casual nature than any shoulder could.

“Sorry, brother,” he replies as he reaches the edge of the field.

“I got held up.”

 


THE DREAD QUEEN

The ticking of a gold pocket watch beats like the cadence of a gallows drum. Repetitive, precise, an ear worm that seems to grow louder the more one listens to it; like a steel bucket catching droplets from a slowly-dripping faucet, it drones increasingly until it cannot be ignored.

Here, even in the brilliant sunrise of a quiet, misty morning, the sound is a steady reminder that death is always on the fringe of every moment. For most people, though, such an idea exists only in the abstract.

For Blake, the idea of lurking death is his reality.

Before him, the hangman’s noose. Out there, on his tail, in the fields and the forests and the horizon beyond, chases Persephone.

Or Cora, as he knows her. The gorgeous creature who stole his heart.

She has a thing for hearts.

“Still no sign of her,” says Blake, his voice cutting the stillness of the early morning air. He senses Wilmore standing behind him. “But she’s close.”

Wilmore clears his throat.

“I’m telling ya, Blake. She ain’t coming back.”

Blake snaps the watch closed, places his black Stetson back on his head.

“I wish that were true,” he says. And he means it. “But when the world seems as if it might never bloom again… she’ll show.”

Blake looks back to the man behind him, musters a miserable, bittersweet smile.

“Just like the spring.”


Blake eats, the warm fire in front of him the only glow of light for miles. His shackles, at wrists and ankles, hinder him only slightly. The soup is potato, one of Wilmore’s tried-and-true dishes Blake’s had a thousand times over since the two of them were teenagers. It’s delicious every time.

Wilmore sits across from him on a log of his own, watching the fire and packing a pipe with fresh cut tobacco. Blake knows that one eye sits on him always. He can feel the weight of it, that look of brotherly protection, half love and half trepidation.

“I’m glad your appetite is back,” says Wilmore.

Blake keeps eating, no response.

Wilmore lights his pipe and takes a few puffs, leans back comfortably, as much as one can while perched on an upended log.

“Do you know what way she might have headed, Blake?” Asks Wilmore.

Blake never looks from his bowl.

“Always south.”

Wilmore nods.

“Just curious.”

He looks to the woods around him then, studies the darkness beyond the reach of firelight, where shadows become living, breathing things.

“Maybe I’ll keep watch tonight.”

Blake grins, humorlessly.

“Thought you said she wasn’t coming.”

“Well,” says Wilmore, in that drawn out way a man speaks while trying to buy time. “You can’t be too careful out here.” Wilmore hugs himself a little tighter then, scoots an inch or so closer to the fire. The cold of the night is creeping in.

“We’ll be in town in a day or so,” he says, if only to reassure himself.

“We shouldn’t be going back at all,” comments Blake between bites. “Too dangerous.”

“For you?” Questions Wilmore.

Blake looks up finally, his eyes meeting Wilmore’s.

“For everyone.”

Wilmore frowns, and a heavy silence falls between them.

“You stopped her once,” offers Wilmore after a bit, grasping for anything to keep latent fears at bay.

Blake nods, the dull pain in his fractured, bloodied knuckles singing out to him then, reminding him of altercations not that far removed. He sets the spoon in the bowl, clenches and unclenches his right fist a couple of times, trying to rid his skin of the sensations of memory.

“That I did,” he concedes.

“So you can’t again?” Wilmore asks, a hint of desperation in his voice. Blake picks up the spoon again, takes a bite and chews, contemplating.

“She’ll be stronger now,” he says, looking Wilmore again in the eyes. “It’s her season.”

Wilmore barks a weary scoff into the night air. “Quit speaking so mysterious-like, Blake.

“No other way to say it,” says Blake. “She’s nature, Wilmore. Moves with the sun and stars.”

“So what would you have us do?” asked Wilmore, rhetorical, his agitation rising. “Go on the run, like you did?”

Forest. Trees. Nothing but branches and leaves, green and brown. Blake runs, his face and arms caught by the underbrush, split open like so many cracks beneath desert suns, each a reminder that nature always catches up to us.

Blake stops eating, his eyes growing distant.

“Yea. Sounds about right.”

He kicks the lead ball shackled to his foot.

“Too bad you slowed me down.”

“Someone was gonna,” says Wilmore, “Better that it’s me.”

Blake shakes his head. “I said ain’t no one safe around me, Wilmore.” He looks at his brother then, true regret in his eyes.

“Not even family.”

Wilmore falls silent again, his mind in thought.

Finally, he dares to ask the question that’s been dancing on his lips, ever since the night of the murders, ever since Blake went on the lam. 

“Blake?” He begins, timid. “What… is she?… really?”

Blake smiles, sadly, but cannot answer.


“Happy Anniversary,” says Cora with a smile.

“Best seven months of my life,” returns Blake. They clink their champaign glasses together, a toast of things to come. It is summer, what seems like ages ago, before the winter came to take what was beautiful and warm, and the two lovers are sharing a picnic. Blake is clean-shaven, his wild hair pulled back. He looks, in the memory, like gentlemen should. Cora smiles then.

“I got you something,” she says.

“What?” Blake exclaims, incredulous.

“You want it now?” says Cora, excited. “You want it now.”

“I thought,” says Blake, finding the words. “I thought we weren’t doing that. You didn’t need to spend money on me.”

Cora grins playfully, her tongue between her teeth like a devilish child. “Who said I paid for it?”

She reaches behind her, opens the wicker picnic basket, and pulls from within it a gold pocket watch. It dangles from its fob like a lure dangles from a fishing line, irresistibly shiny in the sunlight. Blake’s eyes go wide.

“Oh Cora, it’s just like my father’s,” he says, taking the watch gently in his hand.

“I know,” says Cora. Blake looks at her, drowning in her sea-green eyes, his heart swelling with love for her.

“I love it,” he says.

She returns the gaze, her devotion equal.

“And I love you,” she says.

And she means it.


Sunrise. The ticking of the ever-present pocket watch lulls Blake awake before the dawn. He sits in the field, the watch in hand. The minutes march continually on, each tick the hope of things to come, each tock the pang of what’s been missed. It happens this fast. Blake knows as much. Failure and fortune balance on the edge of the second hand. It’s this way for everyone.

Wilmore appears behind him again, as he always does. Watching at first before speaking.

“You’re up early,” he comments.

Blake doesn’t look back. “Figured I wouldn’t bother you.”

Wilmore comes forward, a pewter mug of coffee in his hand. He offers it to Blake, who gladly accepts.

“Thanks,” he says.

Wilmore nods wordlessly and turns his eyes to the horizon, the rising sun an egg yoke on the surface of existence.

The brothers sip their coffee in silence, taking in God’s creation, hoping this moment of serenity will last; knowing in their hearts that it won’t.

Finally, Wilmore breaks the silence.

“We’ll be in town by nightfall.”


That same day, under the cover of dusk, Blake enters the town he had left behind. Walking down the dusty middle road—his shackles scraping gravel, the lead ball in his hands—Blake can’t help but think of the last time he was here. It’s all he ever can think about, truly, but returning to the scene of the crime as it were brings with it fresh pain, new memories.

In his mind, he’s walking down the same road, all those many weeks ago, trying to keep his composure, his legs wanting to run but his mind not wanting to draw the attention. Not yet, at least. Such attention, he fears, is inevitable.

He reaches the O’Brien’s place, the house next to the livery. Already he can see the door sprung open; already he can see the first body splayed upon the porch, all torn skin and marrow beneath the moonlight.

“God no…” murmurs Blake, though God seems nowhere to be found. He can tell by the color of the skin that it’s Henry, the O’Brien’s servant boy. Slave or not, that’s no way for any man to die. He chokes back the bile and presses on.

Blake had been a settler since there was land to settle, had been an explore since his first few steps on earth; had travelled to the coast in search of gold; had gambled and drank with whores and bandits from every corner of the world; had seen his fair share of highway men, of double-crosses, of thing gone wrong and murders most foul. And to be frank, he had taken a life or two himself, and wasn’t opposed to doing what needed to be done.

Still, nothing prepared him for the horrors waiting inside the O’Brian’s house that night.

Through the foyer, into the dining room, the table set as if dinner had just been interrupted. Another body, that of a young woman (most likely beautiful Betsy O’Brian, not yet eighteen), sat pitched forward into her dinner plate, half her skull missing, her grey matter on display for all to see.

The blood was everywhere.

Blake gagged again, but managed to cry out.

“Cora? Cora?!”

Blake covers his mouth, passes by the table and into the sitting room, searching for what he fears—what he knows—he will find.

There in the center of the room stands his love, donned in white, crimson stains dotting her dress like puddles in a field of baby’s breath. At her feet, the body of yet another victim.

In her bloody hand, a human heart.

“Cora…” Blake breathes, barely a whisper. “What have you done?”

She cocks her head to the sound of his voice, like a bird-of-prey might; a strange, animalistic rasp escapes her lips.

“Cora is gone,” she hisses and turns towards Blake.

Dread pours over Blake’s heart like a black wave capsizes a boat—he staggers even, as both his balance and his breath are pulled beneath the flotsam.

Cora stands before him, her lips, jaw, mouth, nose painted in blood. She’s torn into something raw and red the way a lion would devour a gazelle. She smiles a sickening smile, her rictus a crimson nightmare.

“There is only Persephone.”

The ghoul before Blake howls in demonic glee, a sound not fit for this world, and Blake finds himself screaming back, stricken with the grief and the horror of it all.

As Persephone charges, her eyes full of hunger, Blake (whose knuckles had never graced a woman but had pummeled many a villainous man) clenches his fists and braces for the impact.

He’s spared the memory of the fight itself—a flurry of fists, nails and teeth—as the jeers from his former townsmen as they gather along to the road to see the return of the murderous fugitive. At least, that’s the story they told themselves. The blood had to be on Blake’s hands, a man of flesh and blood. Certainly it couldn’t be something more. Something hellish and carnivorous.

Wilmore and Blake reach the sheriff’s office, where Wilmore opens the door for Blake and lets him enter first, away from the maddening crowd, taunts and curses on their lips and rotted fruit in their hands.

Wilmore shuts the door on them.


Hours later, the fire in the hearth little more than a red-orange embers, Blake sits on a rickety cot in the corner, the shackles on his wrists and ankles replaced by the bars of a small prison cell.

He speaks as if thinking aloud, his eyes unblinking as he stares in the ashes of the fire.

“I knew what she was, Wilmore. That’s the worst part of it. But I never thought… I thought she had it under control… I thought I had it under control…”

“That’s the tricky thing about control, Blake. The harder we grip it, the more it slips between our fingers.”

Blake lets that sit in. A cliched sentiment. But it does ring true.

“I’m not sorry I met her,” he admits at last. “I wish I could see her again right now.”

He blinks finally, looks to the floorboards.

“But I am sorry I brought her here.

Wilmore is silent, just looks at Blake with a sadness swimming in his eyes. He feels for his brother. We can’t always control the one we fall in love with.

After a moment, Wilmore stands and goes to the cell, pulling a hunting knife from its sheath on his belt.

“Tomorrow,” he begins, extending the blade through the gap in the bars, hilt first, “if shit goes south, if she shows up and you ain’t yet hanging… you’ll at least have something.”

Blake walks forward to take the knife, but Wilmore kneels instead and slips the blade into his brother’s boot, tucking it away and out of sight. He stands again and manages a smile.

Blake looks at him, nodding, and says, “you could always just let me go,” in hopes of lightening the mood.

Wilmore chuckles.

“Believe me,” he says with a grin, “if Cora walked in through that door right now I’d string her up myself. She’s the true villain here. Instead, I have to hang my baby brother.”

Blake and Wilmore meet eyes then, and Wilmore’s voice falters a bit as he continues.

“But I took an oath to be the lawman in this town, Blake, and these people need retribution. They have a right to it. And unfortunately, the blood’s on your hands, too.”

Blake sniffs back tears, shakes his head.

“I don’t blame ya, Wilmore,” he says. “A terrible thing’s been done. And someone’s gotta swing for that.”

Wilmore’s face cracks with emotion, the tears toppling over. There so much he wants to say, so much he wishes he could do. But he doesn’t. He can’t. He’s unable.

Unable to say a word.


The morning is a blur, out of focus.

A small group gathers near a grove of trees, just a mile or so from the northern edge of town.

A preacher man, old leather Bible in his hands, reads scripture as a eulogy. Blake tries to place it, to dial in on.

Matthew 13. The Parable of The Weeds.

 

27 … And the servants of the master of the house came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have weeds?’ 28 He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.’ So the servants said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ 29 But he said, ‘No, lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them. 30 Let both grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, “Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn…”

 

Blake, his hands bound behind his back, listens the words of the preacher. His eyes sting with tears. He never thought his life would come to this. Truthfully, he had always been more bad than good, such was the way of things at times. But he never took an innocent life. And now he’ll swing for six.

The men with the rope shove him to a stool over which hangs a thick tree branch. The people gathered watch with cold dispassion, awaiting the numb retribution that comes with vengeful death, even the death of a man they call a killer. There’s rarely satisfaction in it. Not really, if they could be honest with themselves.

Blake steps onto the stool, elevated above the crowd. He sees a few men with rifles standing near the back of things, their eyes on the horizons. A horse grazes nearby as well, the cares of man little worry to him.

The Hangman, hidden in a foreboding black hood, his muscles thicker than the branches in the tree Blake will swing from, takes the rope from the men and throws it skillfully to the sky. It returns, dangling from the limb above.

The men put the noose over Blake’s head, check to see that the knot is true. The Hangman pulls the rope taut until Blake can only stand on tiptoes, and ties it off around the trunk. The noose feels tight already, kissing his skin like a viper’s teeth. Blake holds back his tears even harder. He won’t let them see him cry.

Wilmore stands near the preacher, unable to really look at Blake. But Blake looks to him, his eyes filled with fire and determination.

And fear.

“You keep an eye out for her, Wilmore!” he shouts to his brother. “Day and night. You understand me? Just because I’m a goner doesn’t mean she won’t come looking. And if she finds out what’s been done to me… she’ll be even more vicious.”

Wilmore just shakes his head in silent apology, in bitter denial. The preacher closes the Bible and folds his hands in a short, final prayer. The words are lost on Blake, his senses already succumbing to that long, eternal sleep.

One of the men next to Blake nods to the Hangman, who steps over and kicks the stool out from under Blake.

Blake drops, but his neck doesn’t give. His legs kick, his neck red against the rope. Tears now stream down his face unhindered as he twists and struggles uselessly, life seeping from him with every attempt at a breath.

Wilmore looks away.

Blake’s vision clouds, darkness closing in.

And yet…

There in the near distance, a figure coming forward form the field beyond the crowd.

It is Cora, dressed in white, the sun radiating off her like a pearl. Blake is at once elated and terrified.

His vision fades, oxygen cut off from the brain, and he screams inside, wanting to cry out in warning, for no one sees Cora approaching Wilmore from behind, the claws on her gnarled hand sharp and ready.


Blake crashes to the ground, sputtering and gasping for air, his fingers like hooks tearing at the rope now loose around his neck.

Wilmore is by his side, ax in hand, having just cut the rope, and he helps to the pull the noose from Blake’s neck. He pulls the knife from Blake’s boot and uses it to the cut the binding from his wrists. He hands the knife to Blake, who scrambles to his feet.

“What the hell!?” Blake cries, confusion rocking his foggy mind. “What the… where is she? What’s—“

Wilmore just points.

Blake sees her, kneeling nearby. Bodies lie around her. The Hangman. A few others. She’s perched over the preacher like a vulture.

She’s eating his heart.

“Persephone,” Blake breathes, barely a whisper.

She looks up, blood around her mouth and chin, and smiles.

“My love,” she exclaims, dropping the heart and rising. She rushes to him.

Wilmore staggers backwards; tripping on his own feet, he topples to the ground.

Persephone launches herself at Blake, wrapping her arms around his neck. Blake catches her as she plants a crimson kiss full on his lips.

Wilmore watches in horror as the two embrace.

Blake, gathering himself at last, the taste of rust in his mouth pulling him fully to coherence, pushes Persephone away from him violently. She stumbles back but doesn’t fall and looks at him with big, pained eyes. Blake spits.

“You are not my love,” Blake growls, bitterness setting in.

Persephone—or is it Cora in there? Blake’s mind is whirling—looks hurt, her brow furrowed in confusion.

“What do you mean?” she asks innocently.

“Cora was sweet and kind and wouldn’t hurt a soul. You’re a monster.

Persephone takes a step back; like a threatened cat, her hackles seem to rise. Her eyes narrow.

“Don’t be naive,” she coos, innocence vanished. “You knew what I was when we started all this. And you loved it.”

Blake sets his jaw, shaking his head. “Never.”

But somewhere inside him, he knows he’s lying.

“They all love it, Blake,” she accuses, her voice like liquid nails. “You sad little men. Cora is precious and light and tooth-ache sweet. But deep down…” Persephone’s eyes harden then, her anger rising, all trace of Cora gone.

“They always want me naughty.”

“Go back to hell, Persephone!” screams Blake, his control of the situation, however tenuous it had been, completely shattering. Persephone just growls at him, begins to pace like a lioness in a cage. Wilmore has yet to stand; he clings to the planet as if he’ll spin from it at any moment.

I love you, Blake,” Persephone spits. “Our hearts beat as one.”

There in the center of the room stands his love, donned in white, crimson stains dotting her dress like puddles in a field of baby’s breath. At her feet, the body of yet another victim.

In her bloody hand, a human heart.

Blake lifts the knife in his hand, as if remembering it only for the first time, and points it at Persephone.

“The only heart you have is in your stomach!”

Persephone cackles at this, a guttural, hellish sound, and tosses the idea from her.

“I am more than my desires, darling,” she corrects. “More than just my curse.”

“You are a curse!” cries Blake. “A curse upon this world. You’re anathema. You weren’t meant to be here this long! And it was my fault, I know that. I wanted you here, I needed you near me… But just look at yourself!”

Persephone, the Dread Queen, Bride of Hades, snow-white in skin and dress save for all that blood, clenches her fist and breathes deep, her chest heaving. Blake’s voice grows grim and dark, his eyes hardening, building up the strength to do what needs to be done.

“You should’ve stayed in hell,” he growls.

“I stayed here for you!” screams Persephone, her eyes burning with rage.

“I know!” Blake screams back, his voice breaking, tears rushing up to greet him. He shudders, an uninvited sob racking his chest, and breathes deep.

“I know,” he whispers. He lifts his shoulders back, though, strong; standing tall, he lifts the knife again.

His arm doesn’t even shake.

“But I almost died for you,” he says, his voice steady. “You won’t hurt anyone else again.”

Persephone grins, a terrible grin, all blood-red and bone-white, more monster than woman now.

“And who’s gonna stop me?”

Blake’s breath quickens, his heart racing. She’s called him out. There’s no going back. 

She bares her teeth and nails and charges to face her former love. But right on her first few steps, a shot rings out. Persephone spins from the force of the blast, howling in pain.

Dirt and grass, she hits the earth hard and immediately begins writhing in pain, steam rising off of her.

Blake looks over and Wilmore is standing beside him now, a smoking shotgun in his hand. Wilmore looks at Blake and shrugs, almost apologetic in a way.

“Rock salt,” he says. “I… I had a feeling we might need it.”

Blake looks back to Persephone, screeching and rolling on the ground in pain. Pain cuts through him as well, unbridled. He knows it shouldn’t, but it hurts to see her like this now.

Still, he knows what has to be done.

“Give me the ax,” Blake says. Wilmore looks at him.

“What?”

Blake just gives him a hard, silent look, and Wilmore understands. He bends down to retrieve the ax from near his feet, where he first fell. He hands it to Blake.

“Are you sure you can do this?” he asks. Blake looks at him again, sadness in his eyes, his teeth clenched.

“No,” he admits.

Even still…

They walk over to Persephone, who has grown more docile now, whimpering like a wound animal.

The two men tower over her, resolute.

“I’m sorry, my love,” Blake says.

Persephone looks up at him, her face covered in blood and dirt, her eyes wet with tears. She snarls, her teeth a gritted grin.

“Oh you will be,” she hisses. “When my husband finds out what you’ve done.”

Wilmore looks to Blake, confusion on his face. Blake just shakes his head. Not now, says the gesture, but soon… we are in for a world of hurt.

Blake raises the ax over his head, his aim on her neck.

With a loud inhale, he fills his lungs.

And lets the ax fall.

drivein.png
 

MAPS

The world is a vampire.
— The Smashing Pumpkins

There’s no such thing as civilized. Not anymore. Not since the fall.

Was there ever, though? Can a society ever really be civil when the deck is stacked so much in favor of the ones who deal the cards?

It was manageable for a while, this charade. They handed them enough to get by, but never more. Provided plenty of means to numb the pain and kill the clock.

But hunger of any kind breeds desperation; the soul demands something more than simply busy hands.

So when the bread dried up, they were left with only circuses. And even entertainment grows stale. Blinded to the real enemy by years of conditioning, the huddled masses turned on one another.

The powerful, having created the collapse, slipped away without a sound, their hands plunged deep into their pockets, holding tight to their treasure.

And from the safety of their towers, they watched the world devour itself.

 

Jules looked to the sky, the noonday sun vicious out in the open. Power lines, unused for decades now, still hung over head, held aloft by massive steel structures, their arms outstretched to the heavens. He walked beneath them, Vince in the lead. They’d be following the power lines for days now, hoping they would lead to the source.

This is what the map had instructed anyway.

Vince carries a shotgun and a backpack. Supplies for travel. Jules carries nothing. Just a burden of a different kind. His feet falter beneath him and he almost stumbles, catching himself.

“Wait,” he calls out. “Just wait.”

Vince keeps walking.

“We can’t.”

“Come on, man.”

Vince stops, sighs.

“We don’t have time.”

“I need a drink,” says Jules. “I…” he wipes the sweat from his brow. “I can’t keep going.”

Vince turns around, his voice harsh.

“There’s no time. They could be anywhere.”

He turns back and keeps walking, but Jules is still bent over, trying to catch his breath, trying to will saliva back into the his mouth. Vince tugs angrily and Jules staggers forward, almost falling again, the chain around his waist pressing against his raw skin.

Vince tugs again on his end and says angrily, “let’s move.”

“You want me to die?” Jules blurts out, desperation in his voice. “Cuz I don’t think you’ll outrun anything if you’re draggin’ around a fresh meal.”

Vince stops, considering the truth of the matter.

“Fine,” he says, turning and walking back to Jules. He pulls off his pack and gets out a canteen. He hands it to Jules.

“Make it quick,” he instructs, eyeballing the thin strips of forest on either side of them, the power lines cutting through the middle of a wide grove of trees.

Jules drinks, famished. He wipes his face as his breathing steadies, hydration returning to him.

Vince takes back the canteen and wipes the mouth of it with his shirt, takes a swig of his own. Looks around again.

“They’re out there,” he says, his voice grim.

“What?” says Jules.

Vince grows upset.

“This route is horseshit,” he growls. “We’re too exposed. Let me see the map.”

Jules doesn’t move right away, caught off guard by the sudden request.

“The fucking map, man!” yells Vince. “Gimme the map!”

Jules looks up at him a moment, bewildered by this terrified man, wondering how he ever found himself chained to someone so afraid. He sighs and straightens, pulling off his shirt and turning around in front of Vince. He crouches down as Vince approaches.

Vince removes a worn pair of glasses from a front pocket and places them on, then bends to inspect Jule’s back.

Tattooed there on Jule’s brown skin, the jet-black ink just visible in the sunlight, is a map. It’s large and ornate, full of strange symbols and markings, and it covers most of his upper left side.

As Jules sits, hunched, waiting for the man to find whatever it is he’s looking for now, he spots a piece of glass in the dirt by his feet. Vince, still studying the map, doesn’t notice Jules pick it up.

“Shit, man,” says Vince. “We’re going the right way. There’s no other option.”

He walks back over, back to his pack and his shotgun.

“Motherfucker,” he murmurs. “What do they want with us?”

Jules stands, pulling his shirt back over his head and into place, tucking the glass surreptitiously into his pocket.

“What do they always want, man,” he says, his voice resigned. “To eat.”

“Well why don’t they fucking come and get it then, huh?” shouts Vince, spinning towards the trees beyond, his arms spread. “Come on, you sons of bitches!”

But the world is quiet. There comes no response.

Vince shakes his head.

“Come on,” he says, throwing his pack on. “There’s a road up ahead about two miles. We’ll stop again then.”

“I’m tired, Vince.”

“I told you when we’d stop again, what more do you want from me?”

“No, Vince. I mean I’m tired of this.”

Vince turns, exasperated. Jules has the shard of glass to his own throat.

“Of this stupid, hungry world.”

Vince lifts the shotgun, pointing it at Jules.

“Drop it, J,” he orders.

Jules just laughs.

“Really, man? You’re gonna shoot me to stop me from killing myself.” His face grows serious then.

“We used to be friends, man,” Jules says. “We grew up together. Played ball together. Now look at us!” He rattles the chain between them, the metal chain padlocked to the both of them. “And you’ve got a gun to my head!”

Vince glances around at the woods, sweat beginning to bead on his forehead. They’ve stood still for too long, they’ve been shouting too much.

“Because you’re acting like an idiot!” says Vince in a harsh whisper, trying to remain calm. “Now put down the glass and let’s get out of here.”

But Jules just shakes his head.

“I’m the one with the map, Vince,” remarks Jules.

“And I’m the only one that can read it!” returns Vince, his voice harsh.

Jules finally explodes.

“So why does that put you in charge? Huh? I am. The only one. With the map. Without me, there’s nothing to read!”

“And without me,” Vince shouts back, “you wouldn’t know where to go!”

“Maybe not,” concedes Jules. “Or maybe I’d have found another way. My own way.”

Vince shakes his head.

“Not in this world,” he says. “Not now.” He points at Jules.

“We need each other.”

Jules just stares him down, and offers him a choice.

“If you really believe that,” he says, his voice calm. “Then let me go.”

Vince doesn’t say anything, stunned to silence by the weight of the request. He wipes the sweat from his brow before it can drip into his eyes. Jules tightens his grip on the glass.

“Let me go or else.”

Vince turns, walks away while shaking his head, runs a hand through his hair.

“I can’t do that,” he mutters.

“Why not?”

“It’s complicated.”

“Is it?”

“Yes, I—“

“Just let me go.”

“No.”

“Why not?”

Vince spins back on Jules, boiling over with the truth of it all, the guilt.

“Because I don’t trust you!” he screams in the man’s face. “Okay? … I don’t trust you. I’ve seen too much. I’ve had…” Vince shakes his head again, his eyes to the ground..

“You wouldn’t understand,” he says quietly.

Jules is emptied, the air sucked from him. He wouldn’t understand?

Slowly, a look of pain and anger, mingled with resolution, creeps across his face.

“Oh, I understand,” says Jules.

And he starts towards Vince, the glass brandished in his fist.

“J, wait,” beg Vince, “don’t—“ he raising the rifle again. “Back up, man. Back up!”

Long, powerful strides carry Jules and bridge the gap. Vince looks for a moment like he’ll pull the trigger, but doesn’t. Jules is on him now, two grabbing him by the shirt collar, pulling him in. Vince drops the gun in surrender.

“Give me the key,” growls Jules.

“W—what?”

“Gimme the key!” he demands again.

He waits.

“I don’t have it,” Vince says quiet, his voice smaller than it’s ever sounded. He barely recognizes it coming from his own throat.

Jules is speechless, stunned.

“I don’t have it,” Vince admits again. “Quentin had it. I never had it.”

Jules’ hands fall away from Vince, his arms suddenly anchors, dragging him back to earth. He paces away, his eyes blank.

“I’m sorry, J,” says Vince, tears coming to his eyes. “I’m sorry, okay?”

Jules looks down at the shard of glass in his hand. It’s cut his fingers, the blood dancing on his brown skin, and he hadn’t even felt it until now.

“Well,” he begins, his voice low and sad, his heart heavy with the finality of it all. “I guess you’re just stuck with me then.”

And Jules plunges the glass into his own throat. Blood blossoms immediately from the gash, taking everything the man has ever known with it: memories of love and loss, loyalty and betrayal. He thinks of his son, dead now almost five years, seeing his brown eyes and quick smile, and hopes he will be with him again soon.

Vince watches in horror, almost unable to believe what he sees before his own eyes. He rushes to Jules as the man’s knees buckle and give way.

“No no no no no,” Vince pleads as he catches him. He grabs the wound in Jules’ neck, trying to hold it all in. But Jules’ eyes are already fading. Vince begins to cry, for his former comrade, dead in his arms; for himself and his guilt, his decisions, his short-sightedness.

“Come on, man, come on! What the fu—?”

A lonesome wail of a hunting horn sounds from the forest, the smell of blood now heavy in the air. Vince looks up, his eyes filled with terror. Another horn sounds from the opposite side, then a third a little south. Wild shouts burble up from the distance. The ground shakes with running feet, the war drums sound.

The hunting party, hungry and know their spoils are now at hand, makes their presence felt at last.

“Oh shit!” bellows Vince, standing and looking around. He sees the movement in the trees, the looming shapes coming forward, but has yet to see a face.

“Come on!” he cries to the body of Jules. He tries to drag him, but only manages to pull the sturdy man a little ways forward. Between the sobs and the fear and the exhaustion, Vince’s strength is gone. He collapses to knees, defeated; looks at his hands, red and dirty and cut from the chain. The chain he locked on Jules all those months ago.

The chain he locked to himself.

Alone, Vince looks to heaven. He prays to a god he longed stop believing in as the cannibal horde comes into the view. People, just like Vince and Jules, reduced by hopelessness to snarling, slobbering monsters. They’re sprinting towards their latest kill, clubs and blades and fists raised, filed teeth bared.

The cacophony of their howls, of their hunt, intensifies to a fever pitch.

The last sound Vince will ever hear.