Expect the Unexpected
Anything is possible here, where your fears are allowed to run amok and your imagination fed from the darkness that will chill you to the bone. Proceed with care and reader beware! These stories are not for the faint of heart.
When had she stopped allowing herself to dream? At what point did her life become a matter of survival rather than an endeavor to create and enjoy something beautiful? She had to wonder if it was just her or if this was a sort of universal phenomenon, wherein during a certain phase, age, or event during their lives, people simply gave up on their dreams. Cherry wasn’t typically philosophical, but the thought occurred to her almost violently as she sipped her tea. It was so poignant that she had tears in her eyes before she had completed the thought. She had been going over the plans for this next job, making sure everything was in order. It seemed simple enough; an old shopkeeper who owned an antique shop in a small neighborhood, busy enough she wouldn’t stick out like a sore thumb, but quiet enough to be able to avoid witnesses for her partner, Anja. A lovely name, though Cherry doubted it was her real one anymore than Cherry had been her birth given name. Still, she had become Cherry over the years. As well known in their business as Anja, but for different reasons.
Anja was the best of the best when it came to pulling off the tough jobs. She had a strict set of rules and regulations that turned away some potential business, but if you wanted something done clean and precise, with as minimal risk as possible, it was Anja you wanted. Cherry, however, was known for being a walking, walking chameleon. She could fit in anywhere with any crowd, blend in just enough while being likeable. More importantly, she was scarily talented at getting people to trust her, and fast. Especially, though not exclusively, men. Cherry would be sent in with all the background she needed to know exactly how to play the mark, then play them like a fucking fiddle.
There was a time she enjoyed it, but she had long since lost the taste for it, no matter how good the money. She was weary from years of transforming over and over and never being in one place for long. Hotels had been her home since she could remember, and though the caliber of hotel had quite improved since her first, it was still a business. Never a home. Cherry knew that for her, this was the last job. One can only push their luck so far, and Cherry had been in the game since she was a teenager. A young teenager at that.
Her mother had been a prostitute who would ingest, inject or snort anything she could get the slightest high off of. Tale as old as time and all that. Her dear old mom had suggested Cherry start selling her body at thirteen years old if she wanted to continue to stay in the hotel room and not be out on the street. She said Cherry was old enough to start pulling her weight, even if she did so on her back. She had even suggested Cherry charge a premium for her age. Sickened and broken-hearted, Cherry left that same night. She might have only been thirteen years old, but she knew if she stayed, the suggestion would turn into a demand and then into worse things if she refused. It was that night she played her first violin. She played the part of a terrified little orphan, “accidentally,” bumping into an elderly woman with expensive looking clothes and a kind face. The woman took one look at her and smiled, asking where on earth her parents were. Eyes wide and lips quivering, real tears welling up for reasons she couldn’t disclose, she told the woman that her name was Cherry and her mom had called her that because she said she was the sweetest thing. Cherry said that her mom had died of cancer and her dad had ended his own life. She sniffled and said she had been roaming the streets, terrified of going into the system because she heard what happened to kids in foster care or in orphanages. She looked up at the woman, letting all the fear she felt show, batted her eyelashes at the old woman and said, “Especially little girls.” Cherry had the woman then, but for good measure added a watery sob and put her head in her hands, crying in earnest.
The woman, Rachel Monson, had taken her in that night, having plenty of room in her old, but massive home. All her family had moved away or passed away, so there was no one to ask about the appearance of a little girl. The neighbors were told that Cherry was a cousin’s grandchild, and that she had been left without parents. Cherry didn’t have to worry about going to school as the woman hired a private tutor for her when Cherry explained the police may be looking for her and that she was terrified of being taken away from the home she had found with Mrs. Monson. She had also told Mrs. Monson that she was terribly worried about what charges could be brought up against her for taking Cherry in. After that, the subject was never discussed again. Over the next five years, Cherry had honed her skills, learning from various tutors, but also from her life experience. She quickly found out she was a master manipulator, and vowed to never be in a position where someone could demand a damn thing from her in exchange for her safety or security. Even if it meant playing people to get what she needed. She also promised that her body would never be used as a commodity.
Cherry left Mrs. Monson at eighteen, finding the kindness and naivety of strangers to be an incredible resource. One day, when she had conned a particularly large sum out of the hands of a man in a restaurant, another man came up to her and handed her a piece of a napkin. On the napkin was an address, a time and a message saying “You’re good. I’ll pay you triple what you just made. Nothing sexual.” It was the last line that sealed it for her. She was careful, went to the meeting armed with a cheap but effective little pistol tucked in the back of her waistband. The pistol had come from the home of a friendly old man who let her stay on his couch for a night. He had carelessly left it in his dresser drawer and had taken a long shower before bed. She had also been able to find some cash in the dresser. She hadn’t taken it all, just skimmed off the top. Cherry hadn’t needed to worry about fingerprints or identification, because technically Cherry didn’t exist. Not, at least, according to the government. She had wondered if anyone ever went looking for her, but if they had she was pretty sure she was assumed dead at this point. The man she met spoke calmly to her, sensing her nerves. He explained that he needed reconnaissance done, and he couldn’t be the one to do it as he would be recognized. He asked if she knew what the word meant, and she nodded quietly. She listened to him explaining that he was in the business of thievery. A proper professional, not a smash and grabber. He had grimaced slightly when he said this, as if the very idea was repulsive.
“I won’t ever ask you to perform any duties that go beyond professionalism. I don’t judge sex workers, but no one should be forced or coerced into that line of work. Are you in?”
She had asked him how much and when he named a figure that had a comma in it, she accepted immediately.
Over the last ten years she had built up savings in several accounts abroad, and always had a healthy amount of cash on her person as well. She had built a nest egg that had grown to need more than one comma in the number. This job would be the last she needed to feel like she would have a long and healthy retirement. Cherry had been considering what international destination would be best for her, imagining a small house on the beach somewhere warm year round and away from people. She had been smiling to herself when it occurred to her she was daydreaming. Not just that, she was absolutely within reach of that dream, and believed in it wholeheartedly. That was the moment it occurred to her that she could not actually remember a time she believed any of her dreams would ever actually come true or even come close. She sipped her tea again and blinked back the tears that had welled in her eyes.
Cherry had put together a persona for this job, just as she always did for each new gig. Though she was known as Cherry in the business, she had never used that name on the job. Since this was the last one, she had decided to use it as a sort of talisman against ever going back. She had already had her guy make up the identifying documents. A driver’s license and a passport with photos of her in a dark brunette wig, curly and expensive, styled to hide any indication it may not be her own natural hair. She had worn two different outfits and changed the hairstyle just a bit for each photo. She also had a birth certificate and a social security card, and the name printed on all of these was Cherry Elaine Petitfour. She knew the name was a risk. Not only was the first name also her alias for the last fifteen years of her life, but the name was, well, hilarious. It stood out, and as a rule, Cherry usually preferred to fit in. Still, when the name had occurred to her, there was no way she could have resisted. She thought of it as a farewell kiss to the game that had raised her. Or maybe a farewell fuck you. Either way, the documents were made and the plan was set. She was going to the shop first thing in the morning to offer her services as a cleaning lady, complete with a sob story of just needing anything to keep a roof over her head, having an excellent work ethic but having been laid off from her job as a personal assistant due to budget cuts. It was a common enough story. When the owner, Harold, inevitably asked why his shop, she was prepared to tell him she felt him to be a kind spirit and had also noticed that his shop grew quite dusty and he had no one to help. She would tell him she lived nearby and had passed the shop multiple times on ventures out to hunt for work.
Harold was a friendly man, but seemed vapid according to Anja. Cherry was unworried about her ability to get in, get the information and access needed and get this job done. Dhe’d done it enough times that it should feel downright routine at this point. Of course, each job was different from the last in some ways, but he was a lonely man getting on in years surrounded by antiques and dust. Primed and ready, in other words. Cherry downed the last of her tea, setting about her final preparations.
Harold was indeed a friendly man. Not so much so that he gave her a pervy vibe, but just enough to be receptive to her story. He had eyed her somewhat suspiciously when she had handed him a professional resume of fabricated positions and real qualifications, though not a comprehensive list. She couldn’t exactly list master manipulator, reconnaissance expert or professional wolf in sheep’s clothing on her skill set, after all. As she spoke, explaining her plight with just the right amount of desperation to be heart rending, but not enough to make it feel uncomfortable or pushy, she watched his face relax, his body language opening up by inches. He looked over her resume, heard her out and handed it back to her.
“I’m sorry, miss. I am not looking for any help right now. But I do wish you all the best of luck.” Cherry had cast her eyes down, then blinked up at him through her dark, thick lashes for just a brief moment, showing what she knew looked like embarrassment and hurt in her eyes. She took the resume from his hand, turned away and walked towards the door, shoulders hunched and head hanging. As she neared the door, she clinched it, sniffling once, and as she knew he would, he asked her to wait just a moment. “I can’t pay you much,” he said. “Business is good, but not great.” She let her eyes and face light up with happiness and the gratitude of a starving woman who has just been offered a bottomless buffet. She smiled, wide and pretty, red lipstick highlighting her pearly whites and thanked him with a brief hug, which he first stiffened in, then relaxed. She kept the hug brief and then looked at him sheepishly as she pulled away. “Oh, jeez, I’m sorry. I just, thank you so much. You wont regret it Mr.-” She looked at him questioningly.
“Harold is fine. And you’re Cherry? Is that your real name?”
“Sure is,” Cherry said, smiling again. “My mama said she named me that because I was the sweetest thing.”
For the first week, Cherry would show up in the morning, cleaning supplies in hand and meet Harold at the door when he opened the shop at 9:00AM. He complimented her each day on her promptness and throughout the day commented on how lovely the shop looked and smelled. It was the second week when he mentioned he could use a little more help around the place. He asked if she would mind a few extra duties if he paid her a few extra dollars per hour and asked if he recalled correctly that she had been a personal assistant. She had smiled her warm and pleasant smile and thanked him once again, hugging him and squealing with pleasure. After that, things came easily. First the alarm code, then the key to the back room, and finally the combination to the safe. There was one room he didn’t give her the key to, telling her that it was entirely unnecessary, he hardly even used it. A basement full of random items in storage and antiques he could or would never sell, he said. She ran the register for him, allowing him to talk to more of the customers as they browsed and just take some time off of his tired feet. He got into a habit of calling her his angel very quickly and seemed to genuinely trust her. This made Cherry sad, but she comforted herself by remembering that this was the last one. After this job, there would be no more preying on people’s better nature.
As the weeks went on, she learned that Harold emptied cash into the safe sort of randomly, and only went into the bank once a month to drop the money in the safe. She had suggested that they start dropping into the safe more regularly to prevent there being so much cash in the register. She pointed out that people knew he only accepted cash and someone might get it into their heads to rob him. Harold had smiled at this and told her she was an awfully bright girl, and here was proof she was an angel. The truth was that this helped establish further trust and it would make it that much easier for Anja to get the cash in one go. There were cameras in the shop, but Cherry had not been able to find where they were recording. This bothered her, but when she told Anja, Anja had said she had planned for that contingency and not to worry. Cherry worried anyway, but not much. It was the last job, it would be fine.
Two days before bank day, Cherry messaged Anja and let her know that all possible reconnaissance had been done. It was Cherry’s time to pull out. She would head to another town and wait for the deposit from Anja once the job was done. All Cherry had left to do was sweep up the shop while Harold dropped the day’s money in the safe as Cherry had recommended he start doing. She began to hum as she swept, and heard a small thump coming from the back. “Harold?” She called, sounding concerned and curious. He didn’t respond and she felt a thrill of dread go through her. Absurd for something so small to cause such a huge reaction, but there it was. A pit in her stomach, hard and tight. Suddenly her mouth went dry and her heart hammered in her chest. “Harold?” She asked again, this time a little louder. Still nothing. He couldn’t have fallen over, there would have been considerably more noise. Was he focused on counting and not hearing her? Maybe. She walked briskly toward the back room and stopped short when she saw her purse on the floor. It had been knocked over somehow, and splayed on the floor was the contents of her wallet. She had carelessly left it unzipped, and a thick stack of hundred dollar bills had cascaded out of it when it fell. She stepped into the back room looking for Harold. He wasn’t in the room and the safe was closed.
Cherry let out a sigh of relief and bent down to put away her money hastily. He must have headed to the restroom while she was humming to herself and sweeping. She chuckled quietly at her over the top reaction and stood, zipping her purse closed.
“Tell me the truth Cherry,” She heard it from behind her a split second before his meaty arms encircled her like a fleshy vice, squeezing her to the front of him. “ Is that my money? Is it my angel?” He squeezed her tighter and she couldn’t get her breath.
“N-no,” She squeaked it, barely audible and began squirming, trying to wriggle out of his grasp. For an older man of his size, he was terribly strong. How had she never noticed the way his arms bulged under his button up shirts, they were hard as rocks around her, and showing no sign of loosening. She tried to speak again and he cut her off with a tighter squeeze. “I don’t think you’re telling me the truth, but you will, sweet Cherry.” Cherry fought harder, digging her nails into his thighs as her arms were trapped in his grip, but he was wearing thick trousers and it was probably nothing more than a pinch. He laughed then, and her blood ran cold. Cherry heard something in his voice that she recognized. When her mother got really high and hateful, she would lay into Cherry, a barrage of threats and insults. This was the same thing she heard then. It was a darkness beyond sanity, and it was permeating through him. She noticed something else then, as she was fighting to get him to release her. Something hard and unmistakable was pressed against her backside. She lifted her leg and stamped on his foot with her high heel as hard as she possibly could. He bellowed, a mixture of pain and anger and flung her away from him, hard. She slammed into the safe, face first, hearing a loud crack resonating through her skull and pain exploded in the center of her face. Her nose was broken, she thought distractedly. The world was spinning, but she couldn’t lose it. She would lose everything if she did. She knew if she passed out Harold would hurt her. Badly.
The thought got her moving in the direction of the door, Harold stumbling towards her with astonishing speed given that she had to have broken at least one of his toes with her stomp. He grabbed for her and she moved just out of reach, running for the front door. She had to get away, had to. She reached the door, turned the knob and jerked it, realizing a moment too late that the damn deadbolt was already locked. She reached up to thumb the lock open and yelped as a massive, clammy hand closed on her throat hard enough to make her wonder if he had crushed it. He pulled her back against the front of him, and part of her registered that his previous hardness was now flaccid. Good, she thought. I hope it falls of, you sick fuck. He used his knees to push her to hers, then shoved her to the floor. Cherry felt the darkness seeping in at the edges of her consciousness and knew she couldn’t fight it much longer. She closed her eyes and felt hot tears flowing from them as he tied her legs with what felt like an extension cord, then tied her hands, his whole weight pinning her to the floor bruisingly. He then stood and lifted her, telling her if she fought he would just drop her to the floor and beat her brains in. Something told her that she should let him. Wherever he was carrying her to was not a place she wanted to go. His keys jingled and he stopped. The downstairs room. The one he had assured her was just storage. That’s where he was taking her. “NO!” She screamed it as best she could as she heard the key turn and the door click open. Then she was sailing through the air, weightless for a moment until she slammed into the stairs,hearing her shoulder crack and feeling it slip from its socket. She cried out as she slid head first down the stairs, feeling every step of the way down like a big rig ramming into her body over and over.
Finally her descent came to an end with a crashing thud, her brain still fighting for consciousness even as part of her wished for the dark nothing that unconsciousness would bring. She heard a lock click and he thundered down the stairs. He grabbed her and stood her up, facing away from him. “Oh God,” she moaned. Cherry looked around her at a room that was right out of some horror movie. There were steel tables with, oh dear God, with restraints on them. There were power tools, kitchen tools, and what looked like other hardware and, oh fuck, surgical tools, strewn about and hanging on the walls. It was like some sort of nightmare workshop. “Please,” she mewled as he pushed her towards one of the tables.
“Shut up, Cherry. We are going to find out how sweet you are. You know, you aren’t my first. Not by far. As you can see, I have quite the set up. But you are the first one that came to me. I was going to let you live a while yet, angel. But you had to steal from me.” He tsked his tongue at her disapprovingly as he laid her on the table. She began to struggle anew, and he grabbed a scalpel. She froze as he held it to her cheek. “Now, now. You have already earned my wrath. Do you really want to make it worse?”
Cherry looked at him silently, letting the hatred she felt fill her eyes, her face and her heart. She had only done the best she could with this life. She had been born to a mother who didn’t want her and a father who never even cared to know her, had to fight her whole life and came out on top every time. Now, here, in this basement, Cherry knew she was going to die. And she was damned if she would do it begging. She watched his face, staring him down even as he held the blade against her skin and let it bite into her. She didn’t whimper or cry out. Instead she stared at him as she said clearly, coldly and with acid dripping from her tongue, “Fuck you, you flaccid, disgusting, deranged, freak. You’ll die screaming.” She whispered the last like a curse, and felt pure satisfaction when his eyes went wide and just a little unsure. Even afraid. Then, as Cherry watched, his face went cold again, and an evil light flared in his eyes. He smiled at her.
“Maybe. But you first.”
***Disclaimer: The story below contains graphic descriptions of gore and violence, as well as SA. Please read responsibly.
Why couldn’t she just do it? It wasn’t hard and she’d done it enough times that it should feel downright routine at this point. Of course, each job was different from the last in some ways, but when you were in any line of business, even burglary, there were always ground rules. Anja stuck to those ground rules and it was what made her so successful at her job. She never went into any residences, only businesses. She never went into a business when people were inside. And Anja never, ever went into a business she did not know all the ins and outs of first. There were also some other basics like get in and get out as fast as possible, take only high value items and cash that you can easily carry, cover every inch of your body so that no piece of you shows on camera or gets left behind for any forensics team, and lastly, in order to make it as difficult as possible to identify her, she never spoke aloud and always bound her breasts tight to her chest so that her body looked as androgynous as possible.
Anja had done all her research. She had hired a partner that had come highly recommended to infiltrate the business she was currently parked down the street from. Anja had gone in only once, a month ago, just to see what the place had to offer. They were an antique shop, so they had plenty of high dollar items, but antiques were difficult to move and took time. Anja was more interested in the fact that they were cash only, and kept their money in a safe in the back of the shop. Cash was much easier to move, and also easier to carry. After she had gone in to confirm some of the information she was given, she made small talk with the owner of the store. He was a short, portly man, with a hairline that had receded so far back she couldn’t understand why he wouldn’t have just shaved it. She chatted with him about a grandmother she had fabricated who loved antique spoons. She was looking for something special as it was grandma’s birthday, and would he happen to have any recommendations, etc. He recommended a spoon he said was from Montana and offered her a “special price,” seeing as it was a gift for grandma. Anja bought the spoon, cash only of course, and watched the man carelessly open the cash drawer, flashing the contents and confirming that not only did they do cash only business, but that he was not very careful about dropping money into a safe throughout the day. The drawer was packed.
This was where the partner came in. Anja had contacted her via a prepaid phone she had bought that day. The name she went by was Cherry, a little over the top for Anja’s taste, but to each their own. Cherry specialized in infiltration. She was a proper chameleon, so Anja had been told. She could fit in anywhere and change so drastically in not only appearance, but demeanor, that she had never even been taken in by the cops for questioning, let alone arrested. She was a master of her craft, and that was the kind of partner Anja needed.
Cherry had gone into the shop, offering her services as cleaning crew, and had charmed her way from cleaning to assistant in less than two weeks. She had gotten the key to the back room and the code to the safe, and had even been given a key to the shop. The copies of those keys were now sitting in Anja’s pocket. The only place that Cherry had not seen or been allowed to go, even to clean, was the basement. The balding shop owner, Harold, had told her that there was nothing down there, but that the way down was treacherous and he would not have her hurting herself on the clock. She had tried her many charms on the man, but he would not budge. Cherry said that was probably where he kept the highest dollar items for himself, but that he never went down there that she saw. Either way, Anja did not care about the basement. Harold left the shop after closing promptly at 7:00 PM every day. He went home to his tiny apartment and did whatever Harold enjoyed doing on his time off until he arrived in the morning to open at 9:00 AM. He was open seven days a week and never deviated from this schedule. Cherry would close with him, then be there before he opened the doors in the morning. All the puzzle pieces were in place, it was the day before the trip to the bank, so the maximum amount of money was in the safe. Cherry had messaged two days earlier saying everything was a go. Anja would reach out to her after this was done and let her know where and when to pick up her cut. All that was left was to do it. So why was Anja still sitting in a stolen car with the keys to the shop in her pocket?
The answer was simple. Something did not feel right. The shop was dark and had been since Harold had left. No one was inside, she was wearing her standard gear, black gloves, pants, long sleeve shirt, breasts bound, hair tied up so she could easily slip on the head cover as well. Black, nondescript combat boots, sold anywhere you could buy shoes, a license plate swapped out from the same color, year, make and model of another vehicle so that she wouldn’t get stopped with a stolen vehicle. She had the keys, the code to the safe as well as the code to the alarm system. There was nothing about this that could go wrong. Yet there was a pit in her stomach, gnawing at her, telling her to let this one go. The trouble was, she couldn’t even if she wanted to. She was too stubborn and had put in too much work to just drop it. Plus, it was a plush job. Easy as could be and with a massive payout. She chalked it up to nervous energy, took a deep breath and quietly stepped out of the car and into the deserted street. She walked with a purse, but inside the purse she had stuffed a large empty duffle bag. Anja was going to fill it to the brim and it would be just light enough to carry quickly back to the car and get out of there before anyone was the wiser.
Anja put the head covering on as she got to the door, then slipped the key in the lock, opened the door and disarmed the alarm. The only sounds had been the key in the lock, the opening of the door and the beep of the alarm letting her know it was counting down. After entering the code with nimble fingers, it was dead silent, just the way she liked it. Anja headed to the backroom, walking quickly, and unlocked that door as well. So far, so good, she thought. She walked to the safe and entered the code, hearing a satisfying click as the lock disengaged. She opened the safe door and, just as she was promised, there were bundles and bundles of cash inside, as well as coins. She wouldn’t take the coins as those were going to be far too heavy, and there was plenty of cash to fill her duffle. As she started to fill up the bag, she laughed silently at herself for being so nervous. What had she been worried about? This was the easiest job she had ever pulled, and maybe the most profitable. She actually wondered if Harold ever even took funds to the bank at all, given how much money was in the safe. She was almost done emptying the safe into her duffle when she heard the floor creak behind her. She stood up with a start and saw the pudgy fist flying at her face only a moment before it connected with her jaw.
Anja went down immediately, seeing starbursts in her vision. Her head had snapped backward on impact and her body followed. She hit the ground full force, her breath leaving her and her chest burning and aching for oxygen immediately. She gasped and tried to shake her head to clear her vision. As Anja blinked, she felt an immense weight settle over her hips and on her pelvis. Her blurry vision cleared and she was shocked to see Harold sitting all his weight on top of her and looking down at her with an odd mixture of rage and excitement. Maybe it was the shadows, but he looked to Anja like he was damn near giddy with pleasure. “Get off me!” She said it with as much force as she could muster. The no talking rule had gone out the window the moment he had caught her. She would be lucky to get away before the cops came, nevermind the cameras at this point. His face changed then, even in the dimly lit back room she could see it. His mouth opened in a surprised little o, and then Anja watched as all the rage leaked away from him. There was no misunderstanding the look now. Harold was looking at Anja the way a starving man looks at a feast. The excitement was there now, clear as day, and there was something else, something that made Anja’s blood run cold. He leered at her, smiling, looked her up and down with lust plain in his eyes. He shifted his weight on top of her, almost wriggling against her, and said in a deep almost growl, “Oh, you’re a woman.” He leaned his weight forward, as if to reach for her head cover and she clocked him in the side of the head with her balled fist. Harold’s head snapped to the side with the impact, but that was all. He didn’t even lose his balance, nor did he lose his terrible smile. Instead, he moved up her body just a bit, grabbed her arms, pushing them above her head as she struggled, and pinned them together under his palm. He removed the head cover and looked down at her. Recognition filled his eyes and he said, “Oh, so it wasn’t a spoon you were after. Tsk tsk tsk. Such a naughty girl.” He laughed then, a predatory sound that chilled her to the bone. He ground against her and she was sickened, because as he raised his arm, making a fist that was clearly going to be driven into her face, she realized with true horror that the soft, short, pudgy Harold was rock hard in one place that he ground against her belly. He brought his fist down against the side of her head and then Anja was swimming in darkness.
Someone was screaming, loud and long. Anja heard it and absurdly all she could think was she wanted it to stop because it was making her headache pound. Oh how her head hurt, and that wailing, piteous and sorrowful, seemed to be cranking a vice tighter on her poor head. She opened her eyes and had to blink a few times to clear them. Everything was red and something sticky was all over her face. She tried to wipe at it and realized she couldn’t. She tugged at her arm, but it wouldn’t budge. She tried the other and realized the same thing. Anja was laying on a cold, hard surface. She tried to sit up and couldn’t do that either. Something cold and hard was restraining her at the neck, as well as the wrists. At that moment another piercing scream echoed through the room and it all came rushing back. The job. The job had gone wrong. So wrong. She had been caught, and Harold had hurt her. Was this jail? No. No it couldn’t be. Anja turned her head, looking at her surroundings. The walls were a rust colored red, the ceiling low and looked to be padded with some kind of insulation. She could see the bottom of a staircase and bright lights, nearly blinding, hung from the ceiling. She looked toward the screaming but couldn’t quite see who it was. What Anja did see was Harold, standing with his back to her, bent over someone. She could see legs. Bare naked legs, streaked with blood. The legs were long and muscled, but slender, clearly feminine. Anja realized as she looked on that those legs ended in two bloody stumps. There were no feet attached, just flesh dangling and bone protruding from the ends. Anja wanted to join in the screaming now, but her fear had frozen her. She began instead to hyperventilate, taking in air faster than she could blow it out. She began to struggle against the restraints, pulling her arms with all her might tugging at her legs, which were also restrained at the ankles. She looked down the length of her body, to reassure herself that her own feet were still there, and it was in that moment she realized that she was all but nude. The only article of clothing that remained on her was her underwear. Her pants, shirt, shoes and even the binding and bra that she wore had been removed. Her skin was bare at every restraint, and the harder she pulled, the more she could feel her skin chafing.
Her breath was coming in smaller and smaller gasps as the woman next to her screamed in unending agony. Anja saw the edges of her vision starting to go dark. No, she thought, no, I cannot lose consciousness again. I don’t know what this freak will do to me. I have to stay awake, stay awake, she thought. She focused on slowing her breathing, tapping her fingers lightly one by one against her thumb on each hand. She did the best she could to tune out the screaming and focused only on the sensation of her fingers tapping, and timing it with her breathing. Slow down, she thought, use your brain, you can get out of this Anja, slow down. As she focused, her breathing finally started to slow. It seemed an eternity , but in reality must have only been a minute or two. Her vision cleared and she slowed her breathing to an almost normal pace. She steeled herself and turned to look at Harold, his back still turned to her. He had been hunched over and was now standing straight up. The screaming had stopped and his one hand was on his hip, dripping with blood. The other was lost in front of him and he was making small grunting sounds, accompanied with a wet, smacking sound. No. Oh fuck no, Anja thought. But even as she turned away and closed her eyes, trying to drown out the noise, she knew what she was hearing. She remembered him grinding against her before knocking her out. He had done something unspeakable to the woman on the table next to hers. And now, this sick fuck was pleasuring himself over the woman. Please let her be dead, Anja thought, let her be dead because it is the kindest mercy in this hell.
Anja heard it as he finished with a loud groan, and fought back the bile rising in her throat. It occurred to her that it might be better to choke to death on her own vomit rather than live to be tortured by Harold, but she doubted he would let her get so far as choking to death. And just like that, she had a plan. Anja had always been a planner. Followed ground rules and stuck to the plan. This would be no different. It would either work, or she would go down fighting. She would not end up like the woman on that table. She took a few deep breaths and heard Harold zip up his pants and buckle his belt. It was now, or never. She called up the image of the woman’s legs, the stump at the end of each of them, bloody and mangled. The sight of the white bits of bone and other flesh sticking out the ends. She thought of the screams and then the wet sound of him pleasuring himself, grunting and moaning, and within moments, that bile came rising back up her throat. She didn’t fight it, but instead let it rise. It was acrid and acidic in her mouth, sour and bitter and as she wretched, it began to choke her. She felt it coming out of her nose as well and her body began to fight for air, trying desperately to force the liquid and thicker things from her esophagus and keep it from getting into her airway, but there was nowhere for it to go. She turned her head to the side involuntarily, her body not understanding that this was the plan, but too much of the vomit had lodged itself in the pathway meant for air. She was choking in earnest now, and if he didn’t do what she was hoping he would, she would die.
Harold cursed emphatically and she felt the restraints open on her wrists and neck. He sat her up fast enough she thought she might get whiplash and began to pound her on the back. As she spewed the contents of her throat out and gasped for air, she heard him saying, “Breathe, stupid cunt. Breathe. I have plans for you, and they don’t include you dying, yet. I want to be in you while you’re still hot and fighting.” That brought on another rush of vomit, this one was not part of the plan. She heaved onto her own lap, her body determined to empty out the contents of her stomach. Finally, when the gagging had stopped, Harold moved to lay her back down. “We’ll have to clean you up, you stink now, bitch.” He said this as he pushed her back onto the table. She laid backward as if cooperating and as he leaned down to restrain one arm, she jammed her thumb directly into his eye socket, digging her nails into the side of his head like talons, hooking her thumb deeper as he tried to pull away. He was screaming “BITCH!! YOU BITCH! OH YOU FUCKING BITCH, I AM GOING TO KILL YOU!!” But he flailed his arms at her, not really hitting much on anything. She felt his eyeball give with a sickening pop and then she held it in her hand. He jerked himself out of her grip and she flung the eyeball. He went to his knees, keening in a way that didnt even sound human. Anja reached out and undid the restraints on her ankles, thanking the universe that there were no locks on them, just a latch. Harold was getting to hit feet, foaming at the mouth and he made a wild grab for her as she lunged off the other side of the table. She turned to go up the stairs when he shouted, “You cant get out without the keys, dumb cunt.” She turned and looked at him, unbelievingly, and he held up the keys in a jingling gesture, smiling even with one gaping bloody eye socket.
Anja considered her options in an instant. She knew he could be lying, but if she went up the stairs and the door was locked, she would be trapped. He was short, but wide and stronger than he looked, and if he cornered her at the top of those stairs, she didn’t like her odds. On the other hand, Anja was quick on her feet. If she could get the keys and get to the door she would be free. She would worry about what came after that when she got out of this. Harold was lumbering towards her. He had stuffed the keys in his pocket and in his hand he had an absurdly large butcher knife. Of course it was a massive butcher knife, Anja thought, what an unoriginal prick. She darted out of his reach and looked around the room for anything to help. As she looked, she noticed another knife sticking out of the chest of the woman on the table. She also noticed that she knew the woman. “Cherry,” she whispered it and was stricken still for just a moment too long. Harold was on her, knife to her throat.
“Cherry, yes. You knew her, did you? She was as sweet as her name and her insides as red. Let’s go look at Cherry together, little cunt.” He positioned himself behind Anja, knife at her throat, pressing hard enough that she could feel it breaking the skin, nicking her as she walked. She made no sound, as she knew it would only please him. She walked toward the bloody mess that had been Cherry. “I think I will fuck you on top of her, thieving bitch, since you two were friends” He took his freed hand that wasn’t holding the knife and began to fumble with his belt. They got to the table as she heard his zipper pull down and then she felt the hardness against her. He shoved her down on top of Cherry, just as Anja hoped he would. She fell forward and he had to move the knife from her throat or risk killing her before he had his sick bit of fun. As he removed it from her throat, she reached behind her, dug her nails into his balls and as she squeezed with all her might, lunged backward, driving him hard against the wall.
He squealed then, high pitched and shrill, and dropped the knife to the floor with a clatter. Anja let go of Harold’s balls and snatched the knife from the floor, turned around and before she could think on it too hard, she plunged right into that squealing throat, hilt deep until it stuck out the other side of him. He fell to the ground, grabbing at the knife, choking and gagging, making a sickly wheeze with each attempt at breath. Anja looked away as he died. She did not want to remember that hateful eye staring at her as it went from raging and insane to foggy and unseeing. Once the noises stopped, she grabbed the keys from his pocket and went upstairs.
The door was indeed locked with a key. Anja found the key after a few tries, then opened the door. There was a soft whoosh as she did so, and she realized the padding on the ceiling as well as on the door was a sort of sound proofing. No wonder she hadn’t heard a thing before he had found her. That also meant there would be no cops on the way. She looked around the place and found he had another back room, complete with a cot, fridge and a closet. In the closet she found her clothes, as well as at least twenty different hangers with different women’s clothing hanging on each. One hanger held the dress that she had last seen Cherry in. She also found her duffle bag and the purse she had carried it in. The bag was still full of money. Anja got dressed, washed her hands clean and took the duffle bag. She couldn’t do anything about the forensics left behind, but when they found this scene, they would likely think she was just another one of the victims. It didn’t really matter either way because Harold had more money hidden away in his back room. Along with photos. She didn’t look at all of them, but saw enough to know they were of his victims. Some with him in the photo, some not.
There was enough money to buy herself a new identity, and enough evidence to prove a large part of what had happened. Sure the police would want to know who killed him and got away, but that’s what new identities were for. Plus, as it turned out, the security cameras weren’t recording a thing. They were dummy cameras that went nowhere. Anja left the shop, not bothering to lock the door, and headed to her car, full duffle bag and full purse in hand. The sun was just starting to peek over the horizon, and she thought it might be the most beautiful sunrise she had ever seen. When she hit the highway, she pulled out the phone she had intended to call Cherry with, and dialed 9-1-1. She made an anonymous report with an accent she didn’t truly have, then tossed the phone from the car window, watching it shatter in her side view mirror. Anja didn’t know exactly what her future held, but she smiled anyway. She had survived. And she had a plan.
Ashes: The Beginning
It’s incredible how no matter what tragedy or disaster strikes a person’s life, they are still surrounded by people going about life as if nothing happened. Of course you have the people in your immediate circle who were, depending on the circumstance, either directly or indirectly affected by it. But as she sat in the laundromat waiting for her clothes to dry, Mel marveled at everyone milling around unaffected and in their own little bubble of nonchalance, preoccupied with folding sheets, staring at their phones, laughing with one another or just daydreaming while the dryers tumbled and the world just kept on spinning. It was a cold thing, a lonely thing, to be crippled by such a great loss as she had and yet still be expected to wash-and-wear clean clothes, go to work, feed herself semi-regularly and be a person as if any of it mattered. As if she wasn’t going home to an empty house, to lay in an otherwise empty bed and try desperately to get her mind to be that empty so she could at least find shelter from the storm of her grief in slumber. Most nights Mel lay in bed tossing and turning instead, drowning in a torrent of thoughts and emotions that came in waves so fast and chaotic she felt sure she would go mad.
Her phone buzzed on the table, rudely jerking her away from her thoughts. She glanced down at the screen and was aggravated to see the message that popped up from her dad. “Melanie, I know you have seen my calls, “ it read. No more than thirty seconds passed before it buzzed again and another message came through to follow, as she knew it would. “I get that you are going through a rough time, but that’s no excuse to put me through this. You are making your old man worry about you and that is not fair.” This was followed by one last message, curt and pointed to drive home the point of the passive aggressive guilt trip, “You’re not the only person to have ever experienced grief. Call me.” Mel sighed and shook her head, swiping the messages off her screen. It had been a long time, longer than she cared to think about really, since Mel was moved by her fathers incessant need to make everything about him and to minimize anything she may be feeling. He had also ceased to be able to make her feel guilty or obligated to him in any way, but it did not stop him from trying. She could count on one hand the number of times he had expressed any actual empathy or compassion towards her and she didn’t even need the whole hand for it. She pocketed her phone as she stood, heading to the dryer, snagged her clothes quickly, not bothering to fold them as she hung all her clothes anyways, and headed back to her house. She couldn’t really think of it as home anymore, not now that Aris was gone.
Hanging the clothes came as naturally as breathing, Mel did it on autopilot as soon as she got home. Likewise for making what passed for dinner these days, good old PB&J and a pickle spear. Aris used to laugh at her for that one. “You eat like a 7 year old,” she used to say, smiling teasingly. Mel would laugh along with her and acknowledge this to be true saying, “That’s what keeps me young!” She felt now as if she would never laugh that way again. All the laughter had gone out of her since Aris had…gone. She couldn’t even think the other word for it. It was too brutal, too honest and just didn’t seem to belong in the same thoughts as any memory including Aris. She was so bright, full to bursting with life and joy and laughter. To know that light had been extinguished, snuffed out by a virus people were comparing to a common cold, or the flu was far too painful to process at this point. Mel saw a clear droplet fall to her plate before she noticed the hot tears that were streaming from her eyes and down her face. It was the only way the tears seemed to come anymore. Silent and without fanfare, like her pain was literally overflowing from her in rivulets that snuck past the defenses she had put in place to help her get through the day. It had been a month.
Four solid weeks since she had laid Aris to rest. That had been its own hell, having to make the arrangements for her wife. They had talked about final arrangements only in passing before. Once the virus had set in, they talked further, but it had all happened so fast.Mel had not wanted to talk about it, reassuring her wife that she would pull through. People were surviving this. And with this thought, Mel’s mind and heart transitioned into the familiar anger at the injustice of it all. Aris was young, only in her mid-thirties for heaven’s sake, and she was healthy. She was careful about what she ate, exercised regularly and had regular checkups to make sure everything was running like a well oiled ship. Yet she was..gone. Ashes. Ashes on the fucking mantle instead of a warm, bright, beautiful woman with a heart of gold and laughter that just wouldn’t quit. Except it had. It had quit. And now it was gone forever. Mel hung her head and willed her thoughts to quiet. It was too much. She closed her eyes, and as she did she heard the impossible. From their bedroom, Aris’ laugh rang through the house.
Mel stood bolt upright, nearly knocking her plate to the floor. She wiped furiously at her tears and absurdly called, “Babe?” There was, of course, no answer. Still…she was sure she had heard it. Mel walked towards the bedroom, trembling as chills broke out all over her body. She wrapped her arms around herself and glanced at the thermostat as she walked down the hallway. It was set at the normal seventy three degrees, nothing unusual there. Yet, Mel was freezing cold down to her toes. She kept walking toward the bedroom, suddenly overcome with an absolute certainty that she would round the corner and see her beautiful wife standing there, made whole by some unfathomable miracle. No one else laughed like that. It had to be her, but yet it couldn’t be. Mel heard hangers rattling against one another in the closet, as if someone was shuffling them around. “What the fuck,” she whispered as she padded the last few steps to her bedroom door. She was stuck it seemed, unable to round the corner into the room, terrified that she would see Aris there inexplicably alive and at the same time terrified she wouldn’t see her there and the illusion would be shattered, breaking her heart again.
The laugh rang out again, this time louder as if just a few feet from where Mel stood, and this time she was certain. Aris was in there! Mel hurried around the corner, shouting “Aris!” and nearly doubled over from the shock as she stepped into their room. There, before her as plain as day, was an empty bedroom. No Aris to be seen, nor heard. Mel looked frantically in the closet and then checked the bathroom. She ran through the whole house, checking the linen closet and even outside in the yard and around the sides of the house. She must have looked like a madwoman and maybe she was. But she would stake her life, or what was left of it, on the fact that Aris had been in that house with her, impossible as it was. Finally, Mel went back inside, sat down on her couch, despondent, placed her head in her hands and wept in earnest.
Later, when all the tears had been shed for the moment and Mel had been able to establish some semblance of calm, she reflected on the incident. She considered the fact that she hadn’t been sleeping well, had been bottling up all her emotions as best she could and the fact that grief had been known to drive people into temporary insanity. Mel didn’t feel insane though. She felt drained to the point of exhaustion, heartbroken and lonely, but she also felt completely lucid and cognizant of her surroundings. Mel was not a religious woman, but she was spiritual and she often talked to Aris in her prayers as if she were there to hear. Sometimes, especially when the wind blew against her skin, Mel could even feel her there. But this? No, this was different. She had known with unshakeable certainty what she was hearing and that she felt a Presence there, with a capital P. Mel shivered at the memory and decided it was time for some rest, whether her mind wanted to allow it or not. She took some of the sleep meds her doctor had prescribed and paired it with three capsules of valerian root, a natural sleep aid, as well. Within an hour she began to feel dreamy, and as she laid in bed, Mel gave herself over to the feeling, letting the medicine do its job.
Soft. Warm. Quiet. Mel woke surrounded by these sensations and smiled, reaching out to pull herself closer against Aris and soak up that warmth. She radiated heat in a way that seemed almost to be supernatural. Mel curled her body against the familiar curve of Aris’ behind, pressing her breasts into her back and burying her face in her hair. Aris always smelled of sandalwood with a hint of vanilla. It was her favorite scent, and Mel took a deep breath in. But what she smelled was not sandalwood. Instead her nose filled with the scent of a freshly struck match. It nearly singed her nose hairs as she breathed in and she began to sputter and cough. She took another breath in, this time through her mouth and some of Aris’ hair fell into her open mouth, making her gag on it and jerk upright. “Babe!” Mel yelled it, trying to figure out what in the world was going on. But Aris just laid there, unmoving. Mel grabbed her by the shoulder, meaning to give her a shake, but watched in terror as her hand went directly in to Aris, falling through her like sand. No, not sand, Mel thought. Ashes. Aris is ashes.She leapt from the sheets, running to the light and flipping it on before whirling around to see what was laying in her bed that she had so willingly wrapped herself around in her half slumber. What had been so impossibly warm, and yet so foul smelling.
Mel’s bed was empty. Neither Aris, a shell of Aris or any other being was laying there. Mel knew it must have been a dream, but even as she told herself this, she thought back on the events of the previous day. The Presence she had heard and felt. She made up her mind then and there that she was going to try to communicate with whatever it was. If it was her own imagination, maybe it would help her process the pain she wasn’t dealing with. If it was Aris, maybe she could get the closure she was lacking and fill the empty hole in her heart. It didn’t occur to Mel that perhaps it was something else entirely. Something that wanted in through the hole that the loss of Aris had made. Something that knew how to pretend to be what it wasn’t. Mel got dressed and headed out to the local mystic shop. She could only think of one way she could get clear answers from the Presence in her home, and though she was well aware most people warned against it and others would think her silly, she had every intention of coming home with one that day. Mel went in search of a Ouija board. “After all,” she thought, “The worst has already happened.”
…To Be Continued
“A Ouija board? Like a real Ouija board? The ones you always hear never to play with. Mel, I don’t know about that being the best idea. I love you, you’re my best friend, and I want to be supportive but this may not be helpful for your grief and your current state of…distress.” Mel laughed humorlessly at the choice of words. Riki had been her best friend since college; she rarely felt the need to edit or filter herself. Yet, here she was, thinking about a word choice that would be gentle. She wouldn’t call Mel crazy, she felt that word to be an overused insult and had strong opinions about people who minimized other’s feelings by saying “Oh they’re just crazy.” Distress? Yeah, that seemed pretty accurate to Mel. She was very much distressed. Actually it was a bit of an understatement. She was downright frenetic both mentally and emotionally.
“I hear you, Riki, but I already bought it. For a pretty penny, too. It would be a waste to not use it and the shop doesn’t accept returns or exchanges. Plus, I’m telling you, I wasn’t imagining it. I heard her. Really. And if I can just talk to her, just one more time, even if it’s through the world’s oldest form of text message, I have to do it. If nothing else, I can NOT have another nightmare like that.”
“Alright, but let it be known that I voiced my objection. I’ll be over tonight. I’m not letting you do this alone, even if it does sound a little…risky.” Mel snorted and said, “Girl, that is two thoughtful pauses in as many minutes. I’m starting to feel like you think I’m fragile.”
“Mel, you are a lot of things. Fragile isn’t one of them. See you in a couple hours. Love ya!” And with that, Riki hung up.
A few hours. Mel hated how slowly time seemed to crawl since Aris had passed. She had ended up having to go to three different metaphysics shops in the area searching for the damn Ouji board before finding something that didn’t feel like a mystical monopoly. It seemed wrong to try to reach out to her lost lover using something pastel colored, plastic and clearly mass produced. Mel wasn’t sure it would make a difference in the long run, but figured if she was going to do it, she would at least try to do it right.
Mel grimaced as she thought that last. Her dad had always said that, at least a version of it. “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right.” While the sentiment was true in her opinion, it also was always delivered with an air of arrogance and disapproval and usually directed at something about which Mel had been proud of doing or achieving. He had never been able to just allow her to have a moment of feeling well accomplished. Even now, when she had worked her way to the upper echelons of her company, he was always making comments about ways in which she had “room for improvement”. It was one of the many reasons she rarely spoke to him. Aris had once said that the man was clearly in need of a good therapist. The irony being he was a therapist, if not a good one, a well paid one. His clients loved him. The thing about being a narcissistic asshole is you know how to pretend not to be when it serves your purpose, and her dad was no exception. It was no wonder that Mel avoided therapy like the plague, even though she recognized that as being irrational. She had not worked through enough of her trauma to be able to accept that kind of help because it was that kind of “help” that caused the trauma. Catch twenty-fucking-two, Mel thought.
So, instead of a therapist, she had paid over 100.00 for the Ouija board on the table before her. Cheaper than therapy, at least. It was quite lovely actually, though somewhat ominous looking. Mel supposed that there was a reason for that, after all, this was not a child’s toy.
The board was folded in on itself, it’s own carrying case. The outside was carved with eyes and faces, some smiling, some crying, some seeming to be frozen mid scream. There was no labeling on the outside, nothing naming it for what it was, just the disturbing and ornately carved illustrations. She hadn’t opened it herself as of yet, though the woman at the shop had opened it to show her what was inside. It had been covered in dust, inside and out, but even under all that and maybe even because of it, Mel had known this to be the one. The lettering inside was also ornately carved, the alphabet, a “yes”, “maybe”, a “no” and something she had never seen before on any of the pop culture references or replicas she had run across.
At the bottom of the board, dead center beneath the letters and between “Hello” and “Goodbye,” in a larger font was, “Întuneric”. She assumed it was the maker’s signature or even a form of branding. Mel would research it if it came up during their makeshift seance tonight, but for now she had other priorities. She had gotten candles, white ones she had been told would keep out the negative energy, salt and a special oil to purify the space as well as incense to burn. When she sold her all these items, the woman had also told her to make sure to purify herself before the seance. When Mel asked what she meant, the woman had told her to clear her mind of any darkness, clean her body of any filth and set her intentions before entering the circle she had been instructed to create. To Mel, this translated to mediate, shower and think of Aris. She didn’t have to try so hard to achieve at least two of those things, but meditating was always a challenge. It seemed nearly impossible to get her mind to be still enough to accomplish any kind of meditative state, but she tried. As for showering, she did that on autopilot, and there was rarely, if ever, a moment that she was not thinking about Aris.
The sudden vibrating of her cell phone made her flinch out of her thoughts and glance at it, annoyed when she saw “Dad” on the screen. She swore she had put his number on the “forward to voicemail” setting, but apparently that had not been the case. She quickly rejected the call, then went into said settings to update them, except it was already set to go to voicemail. How odd, she thought, but technology was nothing if not flawed, so she reminded herself to turn her phone off when Riki arrived just in case. Mel got up and headed to the kitchen for another serving of her infamous peanut butter and jelly sandwich with a pickle on the side. She then headed to the shower, using her lavender soap, shampoo and conditioner, a favorite of Aris’ on her, then sat down and got as comfortable as she could on the floor to attempt meditation.
She started by listening to the sound of her breathing, focusing on a technique she had learned called box breathing. She breathed in for a count of four in long even breaths, held her breath for a count of four, then released in the four count pattern as evenly as possible. This always made her feel a little light headed at first, she supposed because she was out of practice. She pushed through the initial discomfort and tried to quiet her mind. Her thoughts were racing. Had grief driven her mad? Was she imagining everything that had happened the previous afternoon and this morning? Had she so badly missed her wife that she had created a hallucinatory experience wherein she saw and heard and even felt her wife there with her? Was her dad right about her all along? Was she an actual psychopath, or maybe just in such severe “distress” as Riki had called it, that she needed professional help? Shhhh, mind, shut up, she thought. I’m trying to be serene here. Focus on the breath. Four in, hold, release. Four in, hold, release. But still? What if she had imagined it all, and was now drawing her best friend of fourteen years into her delusion? Was she having a nervous breakdown and if so, why now? Why not as soon as she had lost Aris? Mel gripped her hands a little tighter on her knees, then decided to press them together at her chest, as if in prayer. She tried to ground herself there, in that moment. My legs are crossed, bum on the floor. The floor is hard, my hands are pressed into one another and thumbs are touching my chest. I am breathing, box breathing and that is the only thing that needs my attention at the moment. Four in, hold, release.
Mel carried on like this for an hour. She had set a timer to let her know when she had done her due diligence, and every minute of that hour had seemed to be endless, but finally the alarm went off and she blew out a giant sigh of both relief and frustration. She hadn’t achieved serenity, but hell, at least she had made herself sit still for an hour. That in itself was a feat these days. Mel stood and stretched her back and legs, grimacing at the pops all over her body as she did so. She had cleansed herself as best she could both mind and body, now it was time to set her intention as she poured a circle of salt and oil and lit the candles she had bought.
First she grabbed the board and set it on the desired spot, in the center of the bedroom floor. Mel figured this to be the best space, since it was where all the activity had started. She then grabbed the salt and oil, conjuring an image of Aris in her mind. The way she laughed, mouth in a beautiful smile and eyes crinkled at the corners. The way she used to lock eyes with Mel when they made love, watching her as she climaxed. Her soft, dextrous hands and the smell of her somehow warm and musky, yet sweet. As Mel poured the salt on her hardwood floor in a circle large enough for the board, her and Riki, she drizzled the oil along the same path and was unaware that she was adding her own additional ingredient. Tears flowed freely down her cheeks and dotted the same path she walked. Only when she was done and had set down the salt and oil containers did she notice her cheeks and chin were damp. She licked her lips and tasted the salt of her tears, a familiar taste now, and went to the bathroom to clean herself up before Riki arrived. Yes, she had seen Mel cry plenty of tears over the years, but that was not the way this was supposed to start. Darkness needed to be kept at bay, at least according to the woman from the shop. And these tears were nothing if not dark.
A few minutes later, Riki arrived, using her key to come in rather than knocking because that’s what best friends do. By that time, Mel had laid out the candles to be lit around the circle she had poured and had also poured herself a glass of wine and a second for Riki. She rarely drank, which Riki knew, but tonight was definitely a liquid courage type of situation, at least to calm her nerves. The mediation had not been able to do that and Mel had decided not to take any more of the pills she had been prescribed, at least until she figured out what was going on. She was even wary of the Valerian root which had always been just fine in the past, but figured good old Cabernet would be her best bet. She didn’t want to lose any inhibitions as that would be foolish, but having them eased a bit so they could do this would be essential.
“How did you know I’d want a glass? What if I’m expecting!” Riki put her hand over her chest in mock disbelief.
“Please, the only thing you’re expecting is a compliment. You look lovely, by the way, per usual.” Mel handed Riki the glass and she accepted with a smile and a bow. “Why thank you, good lady, and you look just ravishing!” Mel smiled in return, if somewhat half-heartedly, and they engaged in some small talk as they sipped, ignoring the elephant in the room for a bit until the Cabernet did its job.
Finally, after about an hour, Mel said, “Are you ready, Rik?” Riki looked at her solemnly and said, “I was hoping you had changed your mind and wanted to just get drunk instead.” Mel just shook her head and set down her empty glass. “My mind is set, ma’am. But you don’t have to do it with me. You can wait out here, finish the wine and I can come out when I am done.” It was Riki’s turn to shake her head. “ Nope. Not alone, I told you.” They stood and headed into the bedroom to light the candles.
As they sat in the circle, Mel breathed in a moment and looked around her. Riki was looking somewhat anxious, despite the wine, and the candle light seemed to intensify the shadows around her face making her seem even more unsettled than she was. Mel wondered if the candles also made her look even more frightened than she was. All the lights were off in the house, their cell phones were off, and it was quiet. Dead quiet. As Mel opened the Ouija board, the creeks of the unfolding wood seemed to echo, another trick of the dark she supposed. She laid it out flat, then grabbed the triangular piece that she had learned was called a planchette, and set it in the center of the board. She held out her hands to her best friend and Riki clasped them in hers, creating a circle within a circle. Mel sat silent for a moment, not knowing what to say. She didn’t want to come across as some sort of charlatan, calling out in a dramatic fashion, “Hear me spirits! If there is a presence here, make yourself known!” or something like that. But neither did she want to approach it as casually as thirteen year olds in their parents basement, messing around. Finally she spoke.
“I felt you. Yesterday. This morning too. I need to know it’s you. I need to know I’m not crazy.” Riki squeezed her hands at that last. “I have this board so you can talk to me. Tell me why you’re here. What you need. Whatever it is you have to tell me.” With that, Mel gently let go of Riki’s hands, and as discussed, they placed each of their index fingers on the planchette. Again, Mel was struck with an inability to speak at first. They sat, awkwardly silent for a moment, then Mel said aloud, “Are you here?”
Mel wasn’t sure what she had expected to happen, probably nothing. She figured in a movie, the planchette would sit still until she asked more and more inflammatory questions, then fly across the room. Or maybe start jerking about on the board, spelling out scary words. But what she did not expect, or even think about as a possibility, was the laugh. Aris’ laugh rang out in the room with them, as if Aris was standing there over them, laughing at their seance in her jovial way, teasingly and lovingly. Mel’s whole body broke out in chills, her hair standing on end, and she looked at Riki whose eyes were wide with shock. “What the fuck?” Riki whispered it as if afraid to speak too loud. At that moment, Mel’s fingers went icy cold where they touched the planchette. She looked down and saw that indeed, frost was forming on its surface, as though it had just been pulled from the freezer or maybe doused in liquid nitrogen. Riki and Mel both jerked their fingers away, as much from the physical discomfort of touching something that frigid as the full blown fear written all over both their faces. As they let go, the planchette did move, slowly, but surely. It came to rest over the word, “Yes.”
“Mel, I think we should stop. This isn’t right, this shit is fucked” Riki Started to stand. Mel reached out and grabbed her, “I’m scared too, but please. I have to know. I have to talk to her, and what if it’s the two of us being here that is making it so strong? Please, just a few more questions.” Riki stilled and nodded, but not like she was happy about it. They both placed their hands on their laps as the planchette was still too cold to touch.
“Why are you here? The planchette began moving almost immediately, but slowly. As it spelled out the letters, Mel wrote them on her notepad she had prepared for just this reason. N-E-E-D-Y-O-U. It stopped moving. “Need me? Need me, why?” Again the planchette began to move of its own volition, this time picking up a bit of speed. “R-U-N-D-A-R-K. Run, dark, what does that mean? Aris? I don’t understand baby, what do you mean?” “S-T-O-P-E-V-I-L, Aris what evil? What’s wrong?” The planchette moved again, quicker than ever, and rested over the word at the bottom. Întuneric. Riki reached out to Mel then, grabbing her hand and stopping her from writing. “Mel, I’m really scared. Please. It’s enough.” Even through her haze of shock, Mel could not stop her heart from hurting at the sight of the fear in her best friend’s eyes. Riki was right. This was only adding to the confusion, and it was sincerely terrifying at that. “I love you, Aris,” Mel said. The planchette did not move this time. The chill in the air lifted and the frost on the planchette started to dissipate right before their eyes.
Both Riki and Mel stood after closing the board up with the planchette safely inside. Riki hustled to the light switch and then they both set about cleaning up. They didn’t talk for a good while during this process, and Mel understood. What they had just seen was impossible. Entirely impossible. Yet it had happened. At least Mel knew it wasn’t her imagination. She wasn’t making it all up, and that was a relief. But what on earth had Aris been trying to tell her? Finally Riki broke the silence. “ Mel, what the fuck is a tonerick or whatever?”
“Întuneric, and I don’t know. I thought it was just the brand of the board or maybe an artist signature or something.” Riki turned on her phone and searched for the word online. “It looks like it’s Romanian. It translates to um…fuck.” Riki looked up at Mel with real fear. “What is it, Riki?”
“It translates to darkness.”
To Be Continued…
Ashes: An Open Door
Darkness. That was definitely ominous all on its own. Mel had known many forms of darkness since Aris had left this world. The darkness of pure, unadulterated rage at losing her life partner, the murky haze of the stages of grief that just seemed to cycle through denial and isolation, anger and heartache, with a never ending sense of loneliness and loss. But this was a different darkness. Run. Dark. Aris had spelled it out, telling her to run. Stop evil. What had she meant by that? Mel couldn’t figure out if she was saying the board was evil or there was some other unknown evil she needed to stop. Her phone buzzed, and Mel saw with real irritation that her dad was calling again and that the call was still not being forwarded to voicemail. She rejected the call then blocked his number. She had no intention of talking to him any time soon.
Mel laid with her mind racing as she tried to allow sleep to claim her. She was too afraid to call out to Aris, afraid she might get an answer, and equally afraid that she wouldn’t. What was the next step? She couldn’t just ignore what happened. Riki stayed the night, and was snoring loudly in the guest room, but Mel didn’t mind. It was a reminder that for right now, she wasn’t alone. Riki had taken one of the sleeping pills and knocked right out, but Mel was still too afraid to allow her state of mind to be altered in any way, even if it meant tossing and turning all night. She focused in on the pattern of her best friend’s snores, matching her breathing pattern and finally, mercifully, was swaddled in the warm, safe arms of sleep.
Sandalwood. Aris always smelled of sandalwood with hints of vanilla and cocoa butter. The hygiene products she used had scented the whole house every time she showered. But her skin added to the aroma, salty with a bit of muskiness to it that was far from unpleasant. Mel used to nestle her head in the crook of Aris’ neck and lust breathe her in. She was doing so now, arms wrapped around her love, chin tucked down and eyes closed, just breathing in the scent of her as if she would memorize every facet. She smiled lightly, a sensation that felt foreign on her face. With that thought came another, why would smiling feel forgeign? Aris made her smile constantly, with her witty humor and her laugh, which always seemed to emanate from her belly, full of life and joy. Mel couldn’t help but smile, especially when she lay with her lover and they just absorbed the light of one another’s presence. So why should it feel so odd, wrong even, to smile? Mel tried to open her eyes and sit up to look at Aris. Her body didn’t budge. Her eyes stayed shut, as if the lids were glued together. Had she forgotten to remove some makeup before they went to bed? No, she wouldn’t, that wasn’t right. She told her hand to move from its spot resting on Aris’ chest and wipe her eyes, but that betrayed her as well. Not even a flinch. Mel’s heart started to pound in her chest. No, something is wrong, she thought. This can’t be real. She tried then to roll over and away from Aris, and still her body wouldn’t budge. She felt suddenly heavy, like instead of flesh and bone, her body was made of sand. She was sure she was pressing deeper into their mattress with the weight and felt her hand and arm pushing down with the weight onto Aris’ chest where it lay. Mel heard Aris whimper from the pressure. She tried to call out to her, scream her name, beg for help, anything, but all that came out was a hoarse whisper, barely audible over Aris’ breathing. Breathing? Was she breathing right? No, now that the thought occurred to her, Mel realized that Aris was not breathing right at all. She was breathing on short, strangled gasps, as if having trouble getting air. “Baby,” Aris whimpered,” baby, you’re hurting me. Please, stop, wake up.” Aris’ plea was heart-rending, and at that moment Mel would have cut off her own arm to stop the pressure if she could, but she was utterly paralyzed. “Aris, help,” she tried to say, but again it was a barely audible croak.
“Mel, please!” This was more frantic, a cry rather than a whimper. Mel felt her hand pressing impossibly hard down on Aris chest of its own volition and she grew nauseated when she felt and heard a loud crack beneath it. Aris screamed then, and Mel realized in terror that her ribs had been broken by the sheer weight of pressure. Mel pulled all of her might from the depths of her being and willed her body to move, to turn away, to relieve that pressure. She couldn’t allow this to happen. She wouldn’t. She breathed in and smelled…dirt. Earth. Soil and mold. No, that could be right. Her eyes flew open with that thought, though her body still would not move. She stared in a horrified stupor as she took in the sight before her. She was laying, curled up against and actually crushing a corpse. A corpse too rotted to recognize, teeth bared in death’s final grimace, hollowed out sockets where eyes had once been, and tatters of flesh hanging off bone. As she watched, her hand sank between the ribcage and dove into the rotting flesh, cold and slimy, coating her fingers and getting under her nails. “Aris,” Mel whispered, “Aris, please, where are you?” She could hear her voice more clearly now that the breathing beside her had stopped. The corpse turned to look at her with its twin empty caverns and though the jaw did not move, she knew it was speaking to her when it said, “Aris is dead, my love, it’s just you and me now. You called on the Darkness, now I will swallow you slow.” Mel shrieked, and this came out full force. She felt her body jolt, as if a thousand pounds of pressure had been suddenly released from her, and she sat straight up, knocking her head into Riki’s.
“Goddamn Mel, look out will ya!” Riki said as she jumped back holding a hand to her eye, where Mel’s forehead had made contact. Mel said nothing, instead leaping from the bed screaming and grabbing her friend telling her to run. “It’s the Darkness, Riki, run! It will eat us both!” Riki grabbed both Mel’s shoulders and made her still for a moment. “Mel, sweetie, there’s nothing there. You had a nightmare. Look at me, Mel! It was a nightmare. I’m right here. Breathe, honey, breathe. It’s okay, you are safe. Just breathe.” Mel turned and pointed to the bed, taking in a breath to tell Riki it was right there, in the bed with her, and she froze. There was nothing. Fucking nothing. Her bed was empty but for the blankets hanging off the edge and the pillows which were now tossed all over in chaos. Her jaw went slack and all at once she had the urge to look under the bed. It was there. Had to be. That’s where all the monsters hid when the lights came on, wasn’t it? She took another deep breath in, trying to steady herself. She sensed the faintest hint of Sandalwood. And beneath that, an even fainter hint of soil. Mel barely made it to her bathroom in time to heave up the remnants of her PB and J and pickles.What the fuck was going on here?
Riki brought her a wet cloth and a glass of water, then gave her a little space to clean up the aftermath of the horrific nightmare. Was it a nightmare though? Shit, after all they had experienced the night before, Mel was having a hard time just dismissing it as just a nightmare, or even a night terror, which she hadn’t had since she was a little girl. They were awful, and felt real, but not the way this had. This was a whole new kind of fucked up she didn’t even have the words for. She had done her best to explain to Riki what happened and now they were sitting at the dining room table talking about what to do next.
“First things first, Mel, I think the ouija board has to go. Maybe even be burned or something. It was obviously the opposite of helpful.” Mel sighed and said, “Maybe you’re right Rik, but it was her! I know it was her, talking to us. I can feel it. How can I just throw away that connection?”
“Maybe it was her, Mel, but it wasn’t just her. Couldn’t have been. If you take into account what happened this morning, you have to admit Aris would never torture you like that. Unless, of course, it was just a nightmare.” Riki threw her hands up in a “take it easy” gesture and said, “I know, I know, you feel like it was more than a dream, and I believe you. But what I am saying is if that is the case, then we opened a door to something else, not just Aris. And we need to close that bitch.”
Mel chuckled bitterly and said, “you always have such a way with words, Riki. I will take it out somewhere and toss it. If it’s not in the house anymore, we should be good, right?” Riki said, “Honestly, I hope you’re right. But I don’t know. Maybe we should consult an expert or something?”
And that was just the trouble, how did one go about finding an expert in such things. I mean, yes, you could go online and search up all kinds of groups and people who claimed to be experts on the subject of communicating with the dead, or the use of occult items and the like, you could find witches, warlocks, spiritual guides and mediums, but how could you tell if they were legitimate? The occult world was full of scammers and charlatans who claimed to have this power or that knowledge or this ability, but in the end they were just preying on the desperate and lonely in the world, and lord knew there were plenty of fools to go around. Mel was a lot of things, but she never fancied herself a fool, and thus tried to avoid doing foolish things. Though no one was perfect, and her purchase of the hundred dollar ouija board of doom was proof of that. Okay, maybe ‘of doom’ was a bit dramatic, but it certainly had caused turmoil, hadn’t it? Not that her house had been exactly peaceful since Aris’ departure, but it had been quiet. Solemn, but quiet. Now Mel had no idea what to expect from one second to the next, and worse than that, she was scared. She knew Riki had her own life to tend to and would have to leave eventually, but she was outright dreading having to face being alone in the house. Maybe it was time for her to move. Mel physically shuddered at the thought. This place was where some of her most precious memories had been made with Aris. It had been their home, and Mel was not about to give it up without a fight.
“Okay, Mel?” Riki asked, concern apparent on her face. Mel nodded and then got up to put her glass in the sink along with Riki’s. “Yeah, Riki, I’m okay.”
“Liar.” Riki said, and got up and embraced her best friend in a warm, solid, reassuring hug. Mel tensed for a moment, then relaxed into her friend’s arms and cried. She shook with trembling breaths and sobbed until she was empty again. Riki held her through it all, cooing in her ear and stroking her hair as she cried. “It’s alright, Mel. It’s gonna be okay. I’ve got you.”
After some time had passed the tears slowed, then stopped. Mel stepped away from her friend and said, “Thanks for that.” Riki shrugged and smiled, “Any time, lady. I was thinking, what if we go back to the shop where you bought it? I know you said there are no returns, but maybe the lady at the shop will have some answers.”
“Damn, that’s a great idea. And so simple. Why didn’t I think of it before?”
“You know I am the brains of this operation,” Riki poked her jokingly and Mel rolled her eyes, grabbing the Ouija board and saying, “Let’s go. We’ll bring it just in case.” They headed to the door and as Mel opened it to step out, she yelped with surprise. Standing in front of her, hand poised as if to knock, was a young woman she had never seen before. Mel recovered quickly and said, “Oh! Hi, I’m sorry I didn’t realize someone was at the door. It’s not a great time just now, we are heading out.”
The young woman, blonde and pale, with eyes of a lovely swirling grey, like storm clouds, looked down at the ouija board in hand and said, “Hi, Mel. You don’t know me, but my name is Ariel. And I definitely know of you. You, Riki, Aris and your father. As well as what happened to you these last few days. Don’t be frightened, I haven’t been spying on you or anything weird. I dreamed it all. And I want to help. Me and my friends may be the only ones who can help, given what you let in.”
Mel stammered, “W-what I let in?”
Ariel looked at her patiently, “Yes, Mel. The Întuneric, or if you prefer, The Darkness.”
As she spoke the word, a chill went up Mel’s spine and she heard Riki gasp next to her.
Ariel looked behind the two of them, as if seeing something no one else could see. Her pale grey eyes seemed to darken in that moment, going more steel than soft rain could, and she spoke a word Mel couldn’t understand. With that, the chill was gone in an instant and Mel released a breath she hadn’t realized she had been holding. “I think I had better come in and explain. If you don’t want my help after I have told you what you need to know, I will leave. But if you do want my help, know it will cost you nothing but your time and effort in closing the door that was opened. My friends will come and we will all help to make this place safe for you again.”
Mel looked at her, the question in her eyes unspoken but understood, as Ariel answered. “ No, Mel. It’s not safe right now. Not for you, nor Riki. And not for Aris.” Ariel looked behind them again, this time with a soft sadness on her face, and without asking, Mel knew from the bottom of her broken heart that Ariel had seen Aris there, standing behind them. She stepped back from the threshold and said to Ariel, “Please, come in. We are obviously in over our heads.”
To be continued…
Mel, Riki and Ariel were sitting down at the kitchen table, the ouija board sitting in its case in the center of the table. Mel had thought to put it in the closet or even in the bedroom, just to get it away from them for a reprieve from the energy emanating from it. Mel was new, brand new, to anything occult, but she had always believed there were unseen forces at work in the world. This was the first time she had experienced proof positive however, and she could not deny that the thing felt inexplicably, well, dark. She wondered how in the world she hadn’t noticed the feeling to begin with in the shop, but figured that would be a problem for another day. Ariel had stopped her mid motion toward the closet and said, “No, Mel. Hiding it away won’t help. It feeds off of the dark, so it will only fester in it, growing worse if hidden in the shadows. Best to keep it in the light, literally and also where we can see it. I know it’s uncomfortable, but it must be watched. The întuneric has a mind of its own, and the ability to follow that mind to an extent.” She pronounced it “in-toon-air-ick” and as she said it, Mel’s heart skipped a beat and she waited for that sickening chill that had passed through her just minutes earlier. This time though, there was nothing but that uneasiness that was a byproduct of holding the thing. Ariel gestured towards the table and Mel sat it down unceremoniously, grateful to at least not be touching it any more. Really, how had she missed this?
They had taken their seats at the table around it, almost as if they were going to have an impromptu seance. Mel looked at Ariel somberly and said, “ You called it the…um ‘întuneric,’” Mel pronounced it the same way Ariel had spoken it, “ as if it is more than just a board game. But I mean, you can buy ouija boards at any superstore in the city. I realize that this is not a mass produced model or anything, I did that on purpose because it seemed, I don’t know, wrong, to try to contact Aris on something marketed to children and teenagers who want to scare themselves at sleepovers or parties You said it has a mind and can follow it to an extent, what does that mean? And for that matter, what do you mean you dreamed it all? Are you some kind of psychic?”
Ariel met Mel’s eyes directly and spoke clearly and without hesitation, “Some would say psychic, some may call me clairvoyant, an empath, et cetera. I prefer the term gifted as my talents don’t fall solely under one category. I will explain it all, I can see the questions racing across your face, in your eyes and feel them from you both.” Ariel turned to Riki, “I can feel that you are intensely loyal and protective over Mel, and I assure you my friends and I are only here to help. That is what we do. We utilize the individual gifts we have been given to help people who stumble across or accosted by the darkness. Darkness in the broad sense, mind you. Not just then întuneric”. Ariel looked back at Mel and once again answered the unspoken question, “Oh yes, there are far more evils in the world than what has been brought upon you and yours Mel. They are not just limited to one type as most people are led to believe. It is not just ‘Good and Evil,’ there are levels to this shit as the saying goes. What we deal with are the things that every day people have often never heard of, or if they have they don’t believe it to be anything more than a scary story or something that has a ‘reasonable explanation.’”
The two best friends listened intently to their visitor as she continued to explain. Mel sat both enraptured and terrified as Ariel explained to them how she had come to Mel’s doorstep. The dreams had started three days after Ariel had passed. At first, it was just shadows and pieces of words, images coming through here and there, blurry like opening her eyes underwater. But as the days passed, they grew more detailed and more frequent. Ariel asked Aris what she needed and Aris would answer with partial sentences, then show images of Mel, their home and, strangely, Mel’s father. Ariel explained that she could hear Aris as if over a shoddy cell phone connection, and she soon realized why. Normally, she said, her dreams or visions were crystal clear. They may be enigmatic as the dead, apparently, sometimes have a hard time communicating through their thought process after crossing the veil, but they were almost never this jumbled and choppy. It became apparent that there was something else riding the connection, trying to interfere. Ariel said she was surprised she hadn’t noticed it sooner, because once she did it was like a glaring dark spot, growing each time she looked away and then back at it. Once she figured this out, instead of focusing her energy on Aris, Ariel turned on that darkness and gave it all of her attention. She steeled herself against it and gathered all of her inner light, she said. She had envisioned it forming into a tight, phosphorescent white ball, hot and bright, and raised her hands to her chest, cupping that light, willing it to manifest in a tangible form. She never took her eyes off of the darkness, hearing faintly in the background that Aris was shouting words like “Careful!” and “Dangerous!”
Ariel watched the darkness and though it had taken no discernable form, she felt it looking back at her, watching like a scorpion, ready to strike if she moved the wrong way. She spoke then, in the vision. “I command you to tell me your name.” She heard a series of hissing sounds emanating from the formless dark, coming out in bursts that sounded too much like laughter to be anything else. Ariel was unmoved as this was not her first time staring evil in the face, though it was the first time it had no actual face. As the thought crossed her mind, she spoke again, loud and forceful. “Show yourself, foul thing that you are. You will not hide from me. You can not hide from the light.” With that, Ariel pushed her hands out in front of her, and watched as pale white fire flew from the space between her hands and engulfed that darkness. It screamed then, a baleful and deafening sound, full of menace and the promise of pain everlasting. Ariel stood firm, “show yourself, creature, and make your name known.” With the last word, she doubled down on the energy she was pushing at the creature, visualizing it not just surrounding it and engulfing it, but penetrating it, going through the front and out the back like a spear. The shrieking changed then, from rage to pain. The creature cried out woeful and then began to whimper wordlessly, trying to play to her compassion. For this creature Ariel had none. She flexed her power, tightening it around the entity, “Your name! Now!” Ariel watched as the darkness first began to shrink, then take form inside the light. She could feel it getting smaller, folding in on itself. At last, she saw before her a little boy, made to appear six or seven and looking at her with more hatred than anyone with a soul could ever be capable of. It began to fade then, slowly, and she tightened her light around it, squeezing. “I will not let you go without a name, creature.” It snarled at her, but then said one word, voice gravelly and guttural, “Întuneric.” With that utterance it was gone. Ariel’s power flowed back into herself, light absorbing into her hands and chest. It was only then that she turned her attention back to Aris. They had been able to speak clearly, though there were still some things even Aris couldn’t explain. Contrary to popular belief, Ariel explained, death does not grant omniscience.
Ariel went on to explain the message Aris had for her. It was, well, dark. Someone had summoned this creature, a demon in the truest sense of the word. The summoning had taken place before Aris had gotten sick. This demon, Întuneric as it had named itself, fed on the darkest of energies. It revelled in fear, loss, pain and terror. It had no interest in taking souls, but instead thrived off draining the soul to a husk by terrorizing and toying with it. In darkness it moved, sometimes figuratively and sometimes literally, and tied itself to things of this world to use as tools to do its bidding. Each time it was allowed to manifest made the next time easier, making it very much a snowball effect once someone got that particular ball rolling. It had been summoned by a person who had offered to do just that in return for having their wish granted. What the wish was, Aris couldn’t say and neither could Ariel. What Ariel did know from her research as well as her experience was that anything the demon promised would be tainted. Though it was trite, it was also true. Making a deal with evil would never end well, and oftentimes ended in the dealing party’s death or worse, praying for the relief death would bring.
Whatever the wish, Darkness had been summoned, and when it knocked, Mel and Riki had inadvertently opened the door, allowing it to manifest.
“But wait,” Mel said, “You mentioned it was summoned before Aris passed. We didn’t have that ouija board here then. And we didn’t have any hauntings or anything either.”
Ariel looked at Mel, compassion filling her eyes. “Mel. Aris’ illness was a haunting. It manifested to look like the virus, but what killed your wife was the darkness.”
“No. Fuck that! No!! It can’t be true! They ran tests, they verified it! I held her hand while I watched that virus take her from me! No! Ariel, no, please!!” Mel began to sob, begging Ariel to take it back. Riki tried to comfort her, but she was inconsolable. Even as she shook her head, denying with every fiber of her being that it could be the truth, Mel knew. She knew with the same intuition that told her Aris had been there, was still there, and was trying to reach her. The same space of herself that recognized, too late but still undeniable, that the ouija board was anything but benign. She knew that what Ariel was saying was true.
After the worst of the sobbing had passed, Mel excused herself to the restroom. She looked in the mirror and focused on the rise and fall of her chest, regulating her breathing the way Aris had taught her. She collected herself and went back out into the dining area where Riki and Ariel sat talking about all Ariel had shared with them so far. “Ariel, how could I have not known?” Mel asked this, expecting there wouldn’t be a real answer, but instead some pretty words, sugar coating how blind she must have been to have missed this. The damn board was like a flashing neon danger sign to her now, she should have seen it. But Ariel surprised her with an answer that was not sugar coated, but instead logical and reasonable. As reasonable as something like this could be.
“The same way the doctors didn’t know, Mel. They thought it was the virus because it disguised itself as such. It is a crafty thing. It presented with the symptoms most likely to hide it and was able to cause her test results to be as they were. It presented itself to you as a tool to help you when it saw that Aris was getting through to you. It fed off both of you while she lived, and still does so now. Your grief, her fear for you. It gave you hope and then fed heartily when that hope was crushed by the terror of the events during and following your seance. Aris has been able to come to me in my dreams, but she grows more and more faint each night. It is draining both of you, Mel, and has now latched on to Riki..” Mel looked at Riki, drawing breath to apologize, though she couldn’t think of what apology could possibly be enough for what she had inadvertently done to her best friend. “Don’t even say it, Mel. You are my sister, blood be damned, and I would not let you go through this alone given a choice. Besides, Ariel here said she and her friends can help. It can’t be all bad news, right?” She looked at Ariel when she said this last. Ariel shook her head solemnly, “No, it isn’t all bad news, but we may as well get all the bad out first.”
“Oh, God. There’s more?” Mel didn’t think she could take any more bad news just at that moment.
“I told you earlier that neither Aris nor I know the wish that was made in the summoning of the Darkness. But she did know one thing. The person who summoned this darkness, she was unflinchingly certain.” Ariel was quiet for a beat and looked at Mel intently. “The summoner is your father.”
Mel felt an ice cold pit in her stomach. At the very same time her face grew hot and flushed. She didn’t have time to respond, just got up and ran for the restroom. As she vomited all the bile that was left in her, she repeated one thought over and over in her mind. There was no doubt that Ariel was telling the truth. And of one other thing Mel was certain. Her father was going to pay.
After Mel and Riki both consented, Ariel had placed a call to her friends. They arrived not twenty minutes later and were introduced as Sam, Rita, Cassie and Jimmy. They brought with them a big black duffel bag, which the one named Sam carried in. Mel could see immediately that Sam was Ariel’s other half, just from the way they looked at one another. She was struck by a pang of sadness, and jealousy, though she would never have admitted that second out loud. It hurt her heart that Aris was gone. But it was even worse to know that though Mel had thought her suffering had ended, it had only gotten worse after she passed. As soon as she thought it, she smelled sandalwood on the air. Sandalwood with a hint of vanilla.. “Does…does anyone else smell that?” She asked aloud. The one called Jimmy was looking at her intently. No, not at her. Just to the left of her. She turned that way, seeing nothing, then looked back to him with questioning eyes. Jimmy, frustratingly enough, looked to Ariel instead of answering. Ariel said to all of them, not just Jimmy, “Mel and Riki have experienced enough in the last two days that we will not have to convince them what they are experiencing is real. Don’t hold back guys. They need to know it all if we are going to beat this thing.” It was only then that Jimmy looked back at Mel and said, “The smell is meant for you. To hurt. The Darkness sensed something about your thoughts it wanted to feed on. To prod at. And so it chose a smell that would mean something. That would make it hurt. I saw it, well, drinking from you. From your aura.” Rage. Pure rage boiled in her blood from the tips of her toes to the top of her head. That this thing, this fucking thing, would have the audacity to smell like her. To use her love to hurt her, to make her more, what? Delicious to consume? “She looked at the group of people who had come to help her and let the rage burn out any trace of pain or grief. She let it consume her fear, feelings of betrayal, heartache, loneliness and any shadows of doubt or flagellation. She would have time for those feelings later. For now, the flames of that righteous rage swallowed everything else, and suddenly there was ice in her veins. A resolve that was unshakeable. Riki said quietly, “Um, Mel? Are you okay?” She looked at her best friend and nodded briefly. Riki didn’t look convinced, but in that moment Mel didn’t care. She looked back at Jimmy. “How do I kill it?”
Rita answered from behind Jimmy, “You don’t. Technically it cannot be killed. But what we, all of us together, can do is banish it from this plane of existence, damning it to starve eternally in the pits of the darkness that birthed it. Close enough for you?” Mel smiled, but not like she was happy. If she had to describe it, she would say it felt predatory. “Oh, yeah. Good enough.”
Ariel and her friends took turns explaining how this all was going to work. It sounded pretty simple. They were going to form what they called a circle of power. They were going to draw on a force they called The Kenning. When Riki asked what that was, Cassie had told them to think of it as their own personal spiritual power network, like a chain linked together, growing stronger with each link added, and then electrified, conducting the energies between the lot of them and feeding off of one another, growing exponentially. She said that was the simplest way to put it. Mel didn’t really care what they called it, as long as it worked.
Ariel let them know that once they became a part of The Kenning, it may be temporary or it may leave them linked for longer, even permanently. The extent to which they would be connected was outside of anyone’s control or influence. It seemed, Ariel said, to depend on what fate had in store for each of them and if they would be drawn together again. What she could tell them was during the ritual, they would experience a sort of out of body feeling. They may get pieces of thoughts and feelings that weren’t their own, they may even see themselves from the outside looking down. It could be very jarring and would require that they steel themselves against moving out of the circle or panicking. They would be seated in a circle, around the board, though it would remain in its case. There were also chains with strange symbols on them which they would use to bind the box shut. This would all start at 11:11PM exactly. Ariel said though that part wasn’t necessary, it would definitely help. Sam had added they would take all the help they could get, that this thing was quite a nasty beast. And so, they prepared to fight, filling Riki and Mel in on any need to know and may need to know information. The raging fire inside Mel had slowed, but only slightly. She was able to be cognizant of the gravity of the situation. Ariel pulled her aside and said, “Mel, I know you want vengeance. And you have a right to it. We are going to do everything we can tonight to give it to you. Just remember to keep your balance. The rage I feel in you is mighty. But so is the love you have for Aris. And for Riki. Use that love as a life raft if the rage starts to win out. Anger can be a great tool when utilized properly. Just make sure it’s not running the show.” She didn’t wait for a response, just patted Mel on the back and walked away. Mel sat with what Ariel just said and searched inside herself. Love? Of course. She loved Aris, that big love that even the best poets could hardly put into words. And though it was a completely different kind of love, she loved Riki deeply as well. Like family. Family. Like her father was supposed to have loved her. But instead he had damned her. And not just her, but the love of her life and, albeit vicariously, her best friend. How could he have done that? And there it was, that rage. She wrapped it around her like armor. It was an impenetrable, razor sharp forcefield between her and the circumstances she found herself in. Mel wasn’t worried about moving from the circle out of fear. She wasn’t worried about panic. No. It was The Darkness that should panic. Her rage burned hot and bright, and everyone knows, Mel thought to herself, that darkness cannot survive in the light.
It was two minutes until the time. Mel and Riki had practiced the chant they would all begin saying as Sam bound the board in the chains with the markings on them. Riki had asked about the markings and Ariel had said they were Angel Touched, whatever that meant. Mel was too focused on the goal to be curious. Maybe one day she would ask, but not this day. The time struck the designated minute and they all took their seats, Sam moving to the center. As he began to wrap the board, they all began to chant, “Darkness you are bound, in body and in spirit. Move no more within this realm. We banish you Întuneric.” A simple chant, but as they began Mel’s ears began to pop as if from the pressure of ascending or descending by great distance. She felt a tension growing in the room. Sam moved steadily, wrapping the board in its box, trapping it inside.
“Darkness you are bound, in body and in spirit. Move no more within this realm. We banish you Întuneric.”
They said it with a growing volume, more forcible at each turn. The board began to rattle in it’s box, first slightly, then loudly. It started to shake in earnest as they went on, Sam’s fingers going paler at the tips as he squeezed, muscles bulging as he wound the chain around and around. They were told not to close their eyes as Întuneric would move within that darkness in their mind’s eye and so they watched. They saw the white candles start to flicker, then go near dark, then spring back to life. Mel looked at Sam. She loved him so much…wait, no that wasn’t right. She had only just met him. She loved Aris. She looked at Ariel and the look on her face was pure focus. And love. Ah, so The Kenning had begun. She looked around at the faces of all of them, feeling bits and pieces of fear, faith, love, hope and determination. She looked at her own face then, outside and above herself and she felt that rage.
It was as if noticing it stoked that fire. It went from a flame to an inferno. She watched as her body became engulfed in a bright red glow, then looked around the circle to see the others glowing in their own light. Ariel was a bright white, Cassie a spring green, Sam a bright orange that was almost too bright to look at. Rita was a steady, glowing silver and Riki was pale pink. The red around her own body began to darken, she felt the rage of it all bubbling up. It wasn’t enough that the bastard had emotionally abused and manipulated her through her whole childhood. Not enough for him to make everything about himself, to never once have expressed empathy or understanding, even when her mother died. It wasn’t enough for him to refuse to accept his daughter as a lesbian or acknowledge her marriage as legitimate. No. He had ruined her life! And for what? Some wish to be granted?
Mel jumped as she felt a hand on her shoulder. She looked down and was in her own body once more. She noticed the light around her had gone almost completely black. She turned to the hand on her shoulder and met Ariel’s gaze. “Balance.” The voice rang through her mind, out loud they were all continuing the chant. Mel took a deep breath through her nose and smelled sandalwood again. Stronger than ever. She watched as that blackness began to seep from her light into the others. The cabinets and drawers all flew open, the contents spilling out onto the floor. The windows rattled in their casings, hard enough Mel thought they’d shatter. But it was all so far away now. So blissfully far. That rage was all that mattered. It kept her safe from the pain, safe from the sorrow, safe from the guilt and the loss. Mel was outside herself again, watching as the auras around her began to darken, spreading like a fog. She began to feel tired. So tired. She could sleep. She could sleep now, wrapped in her cocoon of righteous fury. And never have to wake up. She noticed as her eyes began to flutter that there was a wisp of purple. As she watched it, it began to grow. Larger and brighter it grew. It drew her back into herself and she forced her eyes to stay wide open. She blinked and there sitting in front of her was Aris. Aris, shrouded in purple and smiling. She didn’t speak, but instead lifted a hand and placed it over Mel’s heart.
“I love you, Mel.” Aris spoke in her mind, and it thrummed through her to her very soul. “Aris, I’m sorry.” Saying the words out loud and looking into her love’s eyes broke that rage. It snapped like a twig and she was left with pain. So much pain. The darkness grew around them, all but Aris. She gripped Mel’s face in her hands, and though she knew it should be impossible, she felt those hands, solid and real against her skin. Aris spoke out loud this time, “This was not your fault. Do you hear me? I love you and this is not your fault!” Mel looked into those eyes, eyes she had stared into over and over, and never thought to see again in this lifetime. “Don’t let this thing win, baby. I got you. Don’t let him win.” Aris said this and a tear slid down her face. Mel felt a hot tear slide down her own cheek, mirroring it exactly. She wrapped her arms around Aris and held her tight. “I love you, Aris. You got me, I got you.” Mel said this in her mind and outloud. She reached one hand out to Riki and found her best friend’s hand waiting, gripping her own firmly. She held on to Aris and then, with the rhythm of the group, shouted at the top of her lungs, “Hear me, you bastard! Darkness you are bound, in body and in spirit. Move no more within this realm. We banish you Întuneric!”
A blinding purple light exploded in the center of the circle, and there was a clatter of chains falling to the floor. The blackness was just gone, no ebbing, not creeping away, but instantly gone as if burned away by the light. There was no other sound, the chant had stopped, and Mel could still feel Aris against her and Riki’s hand in her own. Mel wasn’t sure how long this went on, but it felt like forever. The light gradually started to fade, until all that was left glowing was Aris. Mel pulled back to look at her. “I am so glad I got to hold you one more time. Thank you Aris. You saved me.” Aris looked at her smiling, “You saved me, too, love. No more tears. Unless they are happy ones. I’ll be waiting for you on the other side.” Aris kissed Mel gently, and Mel smiled a real smile. “I’ll always miss you, but no more tears.” She wiped her cheeks and said, “After these ones.” Aris laughed and began to fade. “I’ll hold you to it.” With that, she was gone. Mel looked around the room and realized everyone was smiling. In the center of the circle were the chains in a pile, nothing but a bit of smoldering ash between them. Rita broke the silence first, “Now that’s how you banish a motherfucker!” She said cheerfully, laughing.
Ariel’s group stayed that night in the house, cleansing and helping clean up the mess. Mel joked that it was time to start cleaning out some stuff anyways, and she sort of meant it. She had been holding on to things, material things. When it came down to it, the things only made her sad anyways. And she had made a promise to Aris she intended to keep.
Mel got a call the next day as the group was packing up to head out. The local police were calling. They were sorry to inform her that her father had been found dead. His house had caught fire. All they could tell her was they were still investigating the circumstances of his death. A week later she found out he had not left a will, and so as his only surviving heir she inherited everything. She didn’t think there was much left to inherit, but as it turned out he had a bank account with enough money in it to change her life.She donated his body to science and took a large chunk of the money, donating it to different charities. She offered to pay Ariel and her group, but Ariel declined, saying they wouldn’t feel right accepting it, but to thank them by paying it forward. Mel and Riki moved into a house with two wings, one for Riki and one for herself, and Mel couldn’t have been happier. There were days and nights where she and Riki both had thoughts and feelings they knew weren’t their own. The Kenning had bound them to the group it seemed, at least for now. Mel missed Aris, every day. But she also reminded herself of her promise, and when she got sad that Aris was gone, she honored that feeling and then remembered embracing her swathed in brilliant purple light, and every time she remembered that moment, Mel smiled.