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Cemetery Rose by Leigh Blackmore

"Far safer through an Abbey gallop,
The stones achase,
Than, moonless, one's own self encounter
In lonesome place"
-Emily Dickinson

It didn't start out as a terrifying experience. Kilworth wasn't the sort to be easily frightened by things as insubstantial as moving shadows, or by wind shaking the dry leaves on the cemetery's huge trees, or even by the proximity of hundreds of long-dead corpses.

Ray Kilworth knew photography, if he knew anything: its sights, its sounds - its smells even. Expert in using the old techniques, he was particularly proud of his albumen prints, his way with a chemical bath, the fine effects he could produce by using collodion negatives. Although the process was slow, he liked the warm image tones he could obtain by using printing-out paper. He even occasionally used calotypes, as he loved their light-diffusing effect. When really bored, he would make simple carbon prints. He did his burning in by hand; digital was too clinical for his taste. He was adept at bringing out an image's finer shades in the developing tank: It was old-fashioned, but it felt right to him: something about its mystery, the way the latent image would come up like a shimmering ghost.

Lately he had become fixated on the idea of photographing cemeteries. Someone had once shown him a book by New Orleans photographer Clarence John Laughlin; he had been struck forcibly by the photographers' vision of old houses came up, spooky and vine-covered, the trees surreal, ghostly. Another of his rolemodels was David Robinson, who could conjure the warm sensuality from the cold marble women of European cemeteries.

He put down his copy of Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience , which he'd studied at high school, and turned to again recently, looking for – what? Solace? A deeper meaning to his current existence? He sat absently staring out over the back garden of his place at Berala, which overlooked Route 45 Olympic Drive. Out there was a small plot of ground, partly covered with stones, with a spindly, leafless tree. At the very back was a shed he'd converted to a darkroom.

Next morning, Kilworth set off to see his friend Alex Thornton, a specialist in the cultivation of rare flowers. The festival banners along George St flapped and fluttered beneath a sky the colour of dirty cottonwool; the weak sun reduced the streets to tracts of dull twilight.

Now, a fresh idea occurred to him. He had a catchy title – CRUCIFIXATION. That would sell it. And the perfect location - Rookwood Necropolis: a ghoul's paradise, the largest nineteenth century cemetery in the world, located within spitting distance of Sydney's Olympic Park precincts, and only a stone's throw from his own home. He had grown up in its vicinity, and something about the great sagging headstones and the dismal, overhanging foliage seemed to beckon him. The ‘necropolis' (he felt the meaning – ‘city of the dead'- shiver through his bones) a sprawling, mile-square place as extensive as Sydney's CBD, was a suburb in itself.

The place was huge, a silent world full of crumbling vaults and Victorian architecture, an Australian Highgate. He decided to immortalise it in haunting black and white.
###

"Tell me about the Cemetery Rose" said Kilworth, leaning back in a chair opposite Thornton's desk. He had heard vaguely of a rare rose that grew in Rookwood Cemetery and thought it might add interest to his shoot.

Alex smiled. "Sure. At Rookwood, the flower is a damask-style rose so rare that its species can't be positively identified. OK, the Cemetery Rose is not as rare as say, a Blue Rose, or that rose-breeder's fable, the true Black Rose. But Ray - it's rare, rare enough to be valuable. Rare enough to be worth photographing. Rare enough that if one could identify it, perhaps breed it commercially, you could make a lot of money."

Kilworth liked the sound of that. "What's so special about Rookwood?"

"DILARANG KERAS" said Alex, "the place is a virtual time warp; it contains some of the rarest specimens of heritage roses in Australia. Look, rose gardens in cemeteries generally are quite common, real Cemetery Roses less so. They are typically "found" roses, in other words, roses not known to be widely disseminated. Look here". Alex had pulled a large rose encyclopedia from his crowded bookshelf and was pointing to photos as he flipped through, for Kilworth's benefit. "There are a couple of ‘Cemetery Roses' in the U.S – the hybrid Tea rose (Bot: Chinensis), the Titus County one, which is dark red. There is a North Texas one, which as it fades, darkens to near black, but doesn't drop its petals. There's a Chester County one, which is light pink. There's also a rose known as the Cemetery Keeper's Peach Tree Rose."

"Yeah? What's this about a Blue Rose?"

Alex chuckled, and shook his head. "A rose breeder's pipedream. Researchers have been trying for years to hybridise one, utilising transgenic technology."
Kilworth fought his impulse to interrupt. He was getting impatient.
"The genetic sequences encode flavonoid pathway enzymes," Alex continued, "enabling manipulation of the flower's pigments. I've talked to companies in Australia and the Netherlands which have engaged in the technological race; all of ‘em have patented technology to produce the Blue Rose but none of ‘em have succeeded – yet."

"Fascinating," said Kilworth. "And you mentioned a Black Rose?"

Alex spread his hands flat, palms downward, a dismissive gesture. "Maybe one day we'll succeed in hybridising a Blue Rose, but the Black Rose is a myth. Oh, I've seen some that came close. There's Black Jade, a very dark glossy red variety with blackish highlights. There are natural roses that start black in bud, but which open a shade of purple or deep crimson. But as for a real Black Rose – forget it, my friend. You might as well look for the Holy Grail".

###

Late that same day, Kilworth walked briskly along Railway St, Lidcombe, past tawdry shops, the air of failure around their doorways. Old-age pensioners shuffled across the pavement in that peculiar way that made you unsure whether to move left or right.

He passed the mason's shop, its yard cluttered with granite and marble bric a brac destined for grave monuments.

The East St entry gateway was surrounded by streets crowded with traffic. Crows cawed endlessly from the eucalypts beyond. As Kilworth went through the main gate, the hum of human commerce began to die down. Welcome to the Necropolis. Kilworth noticed at once the curious combination of sounds here, so unlike the normal ambient background of city streets. There was the wind rustling through the trees, the chirp of birdsong, and only a faint, subdued burr of distant traffic.

Many things were whispered about Rookwood- The Sleeping City, they called it - even when he had been at school near here. Since that time, Kilworth had nursed a perverse fascination with its atmosphere, the way brittle brown leaves would tumble between the graves in the dark.

His destination was the Museum of Funerary History. He pulled out the map of the grounds he'd picked up at the main entrance gate, noting the museum's location. It took him longer than he'd anticipated to walk through the extensive grounds to reach it. His backpack slowed him only a little, but a trickle of sweat broke out on his brow as he laboured between the graves. His equipment was light and simple. When in the field, he carried two Nikon FM12s, each with a 55mm lens. In his backpack he stashed a 200mm telephoto and a 24mm wide-angle lens. He liked to take all his photos with natural light and a handheld camera (no flash, no tripod). He had thrown in, as usual, four rolls of Kodak TMX400 and a couple of portable arc lights for night work. He generally relied on good old-fashioned feel, the camera's weight in his hands, his instinctive judgement of how to combine light, focus, depth of field.

Reaching the Museum's entrance on Memorial Ave, Kilworth glanced across at the Jewish section, with its well-kept lawns, and black marble headstones with elaborate Hebrew inscriptions.

A black-clad group of family and friends solemnly surrounded a grave. Further away, nearer one of the perimeter fences, he saw a rug spread on the grass. A family handed each other sandwiches, a thermos flask between them on the rug. The place was obviously popular with some as a picnic spot. In the other direction he glimpsed the cinnamon blur of a cat streaking across a pathway between graves.

Out of nowhere, a raggedy woman suddenly accosted him.

"Roses!" she squawked, thrusting a handful of large blooms at him. ‘Five dollars, five dollars!"

"No thanks" said Kilworth firmly. She looked disappointed, and headed off towards the picnicking family. He watched her retreat, a large ungainly woman clad in a scrappy red dress. She tried her luck with the picnickers, but she had none; they turned their backs on her. He couldn't help wondering what she was up to, but as she disappeared amongst the graves, he realised he'd arrived at the historic 1925 Rookwood Crematorium. Inside was the Museum of Funerary History. Entering through the heavy wooden door, he gazed around; unusual caskets and urns from around the world filled niches along the walls, and various glass cabinets arrayed throughout the foyer, but he was looking for something different – some information that would give him a focus for his photographs.

He intended to look up a few local legends at the Museum library first.

The sullen man at the office spoke little, directing Kilworth with nods and gestures to the area where he could find the information he sought.

In a volume titled Legends of Rookwood, he found various accounts of unusual happenings in Rookwood over the years since the eighteen-hundreds. William Davenport, a famous spiritualist, had been buried at Rookwood. Davenport was one of two brothers (Ira was the other) who had become a sensation due to their ‘supernatural' powers – instruments played, bells rang, objects flew about. In Australia in 1910, the magician Houdini had visited Rookwood and made a point of restoring Davenport's grave. Another legend that caught his eye was a sketchy tale of a creature composed of sticks, rags, leaves and earth that was reputed to haunt the grounds in the late nineteenth century.

Kilworth turned the pages, absorbed. Yet another nineteenth century legend told of a butler who had lived at The Gables, a Victorian-era house in East St opposite the cemetery. This butler, axed to death in 1865 by a guest at the house, was somehow linked to the rumours of a dark, thin figure and his pet or companion, a spiderlike creature. They were said to roam the cemetery at will, and had frightened several gravediggers over the years with their nocturnal appearances. In the 1960's, there had been incidents of vandalism in the cemetery, and the suggestion that these had been connected with black magic rites.
.
Kilworth began to feel cramped and uncomfortably hot in the Museum. He went outside, and toiled along the nearest pathway. Clumpy grass grew wild and rank alongside the path, yet the plentiful roses seemed carefully tended. Apparently a small team of gardeners and heritage enthusiasts were slowly restoring both the gravestones and the original plantings. Magnolias and camellias flourished amongst the lantana along the roads. In Spring the cemetery would explode with flowers, but there were hefty fines for picking any.

Dusk was falling as he came to the florist's, a small kiosk covered with flaking paint. Kilworth spoke to the bored-looking man at the desk, a reedy dark-complexioned fellow. The flowers that stood around him on the counter were more wilted than he was.

"Excuse me" Kilworth began.

"Can I help you?" The man did not raise his eyes from the newspaper spread on the counter in front of him.

"Yes – ahh – I wanted to buy some flowers." It was the obvious excuse for putting a query about the woman who had crossed his path earlier.

"Yeah," said the man, continuing to read his paper.

Why are people so goddamned prickly?" thought Kilworth. As the fellow met his gaze, Kilworth found himself looking into a pair of eyes the colour of cold porridge.

"I ran into a woman selling roses before," Kilworth blurted out.

The man shook his head. "Don't have nothin' to do with her".

"I'm sorry?"

"That's Rose. Cemetery Rose, we call her. Bloody mad. Get your flowers here, nice and fresh.

She's no good, sleeps in the bloody cemetery all the time." He rolled his eyes.

"A bit mental, is she?" Kilworth tried to humour him, despite the fact that the man kept the right side of his face constantly turned away.

"We got everything you want here. What you want today, sir?"
.
Kilworth looked around at the poor selection of flowers, trying to find a bunch that was fresh. "Those look good to me," he said, pointing to a group of mixed colours.

"Sure. That'll be ten dollars". The vendor held the flowers up to drain the water from the stems, then gave them a good shake. He started to wrap them in clear cellophane.

The booth at his back was dim and shadowy. Kilworth thought he caught a glimpse of movement back there – someone else? Something seemed to be squirming in the thick darkness at the man's back. In Kilworth's mind awoke an old darkness, somehow akin to this one.

The man cleared his throat noisily. "Any memorial ribbons with that?"

"Ah – no thanks, that'll be all."

The man shrugged. Again Kilworth sensed a slight movement in the dark. Someone or something was lurking back there, just out of sight. It made him feel uneasy. His hand shook a little as he handed across a ten-dollar note, which the man took and put in a change drawer.

"That Rose, forget her". Was there a threatening tinge in his voice, as well as warning?

Kilworth was already walking away. Officious little DILARANG KERAS, he thought. He continued down the drive towards the Anglican section as a light rain began to fall.

Looking for shelter from the rain, Kilworth was drawn to a skeletal-looking building surrounded by graves and palm-trees. It was the Anglican Ornamental Brick Resthouse. The rough red and white bricks of the walls, pierced by arched windows, were stained by graffiti: "Stick loves Kathy", "Nazi Punks", "Danielle Woo here 8/7/87". Typical teenager stuff, rebellious assertions of identity daubed in messy white letters. Dirt and dust smeared the originally multicoloured tessellations of the floor tiles. Kilworth took in as he glanced upward that the roof above was a wooden ceiling with a half open trap in the very middle. He noticed more scribbled graffiti on the far inside wall: "Prince Vlad rules" over a swastika. Guess it was those Nazi punks again! thought Kilworth, shaking his head. He sensed that the world was rich with mysteries, but the graffiti spoke only of banality.

Kilworth realised the dusk was thickening, and decided to camp out in the Resthouse, ignoring the dust and debris. Visitors weren't supposed to do this, but he didn't think he'd be caught; and if he stayed overnight, he might capture on film something really special. He glanced around again. Might this have once been a place where black magic had been performed?, he wondered. He had, of course, remembered to bring the arc lights, and was equipped with a sleeping bag as well He could photograph some of the tombs by moonlight; it would be more atmospheric.


Shrugging off his backpack with some difficulty, he made ready to get a couple of hour's sleep.

The tarnished moon, a once-shiny coin that had passed through too many hands, hoisted itself above the trees. Light like pale ice spilled into the Resthouse and bathed the surrounds. He pulled the sleeping bag around him and huddled close to one wall.


As the gloom drew in, he found those ancient powers of night that have always had a hold on human souls could still affect him. He was not abnormally liable to fantastic delusions, but here, in such a place, surrounded by the sleeping dead, with the wind soughing through the trees, it was easy for strange fancies to arise.

About an hour later, the moon had retreated behind a cloud, and the crumbling Resthouse lay shrouded in darkness. Just on the verge of falling asleep, he fancied he heard a muffled sound from above. It seemed to come from the trapdoor that led into the roof.

Before he could move, a dark shape swarmed down the shelter's inside wall. Flinching back against the wall, he glimpsed the bulky shape moving swiftly and silently downward, silhouetted against one of the arched windows. Then he lost sight of it. A few seconds later there was a sound like the plop of a large leather bag dropping onto the ground. Gooseflesh prickled his skin.

Okay, I'm out of here, he thought. Shadows danced and pulsed. Wriggling out of the sleeping bag, he abandoned it like a cast-off skin, grabbed his equipment pack and set off among the tombstones in the rain. He wasn't sure what he had seen, but he wasn't hanging around to find out. In the uncertain light, he could not be sure some shapeless thing was not following him through the trees. He pulled the crumpled map of the grounds from his pocket, peering at it under the moonlight. Best to head for Necropolis Circuit, away from this section of the cemetery.

He had time to regret, while he ran, that the Mortuary Station, proudly adorned with herald angels, no longer stood here. From the museum he had learned that it had been dismantled stone by stone, and rebuilt in Canberra as a church. The original station would have made a picturesque photo for the CRUCIFIXATION book. He mourned its absence, thinking of the grand old days when the trains used to bring in corpses from Central Station in the city, perhaps stopping off along the way to take aboard another coffin, and finally reaching Rookwood where the rail system was constantly used to offload the corpses prior to burial. But even without it, there was more than enough strangeness in Rookwood to occupy him.

Suddenly, with a roar and a howl, something rushed past him, knocking him to the wet ground. It was a yowling, screaming mess of flailing arms and legs. The breath knocked out of him, the camera in his hand was flung to his arm's full stretch, but as unexpected as the attack had been, he didn't let it smash.

He looked up to see what had set on him. It was the woman from outside the Museum. ‘Cemetery Rose', the florist at the kiosk had dubbed her. She had on a shapeless red skirt, and a red pullover two sizes too large for her scrawny body.

Several long threads dangled from an unravelling spot at the breast, and she also wore was a ratty-looking jacket, which may once have been suede, but now rubbed bald in patches like alopecia. Despite her ungainliness, her shoulders were appallingly thin beneath the rags.

Mad eyes, she had. In her tangled hair, full of leaves, was a red rose, full-blown; it lent her strange kind of wild beauty. Kilworth and the woman looked at each other – he caught a glimpse of her milky, rheumy eyes - but before he could call out –he had no breath to – she gathered up her skirts and made off between the graves.

"For God's sake!" said Kilworth, picking himself up and giving chase. He caught up with her in a few moments and grabbed her by the arm, swinging her around. "What was all that about, eh?"

Rose, by way of reply, proffered him a brilliant red rose from the battered bunch she drew from beneath her coat. "Don't go out there! Dangerous! Thing that crawls!" she got out, in a breathless wheeze.

She babbled similar phrases until, gradually, Kilworth was able to calm her down. He regarded her with a mixture of pity and revulsion. What had she once been? An actress? A dancer? Beneath the blowsy surface he could still detect traces of beauty run to seed. Once she had been a rich wine, mellow and delicious. Now she was a corked vintage, cheap, nasty, past its prime. Her breath was rancid; she was human refuse, the cemetery's child. Blake's famous lines ran unbidden through his head:

"O Rose, thou art sick!
The invisible worm
That flies in the night
In the howling storm

Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy.
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy".

"Secret! Show you!" she cried. She pointed towards some trees nearby. Something in her manner convinced Kilworth she was worth taking seriously despite her dishevelled appearance. He grasped both her hands in his.

"Rose", he said, "you must show me".

The pressure of her hand on Kilworth's arm overcame his disgust at the reek of alcohol on her breath. She gave him a crooked, autumnal smile and urged Kilworth forward through the nearby graves. "Black, it's black!"

"What?"

"You'll see" she leered. He was trying to trust her, but the florist's warning lingered in his mind. She let go his arm and stumbled ahead, merely looking back now and again to make sure he was still following. Kilworth was unsure why he followed her at all, but her secretiveness had piqued his interest.

She stopped outside a grove of trees, and pointed. "In there," she said.

"Lead on then, "said Kilworth. He had come this far.

She pushed through the thickly tangled undergrowth, a smudge of darkness beneath the trees. He did his best to follow her, pushing overhanging branches aside. "What is it, Rose? Where are you taking me?"

"Black!" she said. "You'll see." He could see she ached to tell someone her secret.

Kilworth stumbled after her, forgetting his earlier fear, the incident in the Resthouse. If this turned out to be nothing but a prank or a dead end...but some inner sense told him that Rose had something important to impart.

The wind was rising, and the moon was bright as an arc light as they entered a clearing between the trees.

Suddenly Rose stopped.

Ahead of them, beyond a series of low-lying unkempt graves overrun with grasses, was a solid wall of growth. Rose-stems were weaving thick and green amidst the plant-life, everything dappled by the moonlight that struggled through the surrounding foliage. Rose was pointing, and hopping from one foot to another. "Look, look" she cried. "Look there!"

Kilworth peered into the growth, still uncertain what so excited her. For a few moments he could see nothing unusual, just the same flowers and shrubs he had observed all through the cemetery. The blooms here grew profusely, and he suspected that this was Rose's private harvesting area for the blossoms she sold. Perhaps there was something special about the soil here; some nutrient combination that was unusually productive and fruitful, for the growth did seem especially luxuriant.

Then, as his vision adjusted to the half-light, he began to discern a bloom which looked different from the rest. It was a rose, a rose that looked very dark. If it was red, it was the darkest red he had ever seen. He blinked. My God! It wasn't a dark red at all, but of a hue so deep that it could only be described as black. He took a few faltering steps forward. Thunder rumbled overhead.

Rose could hardly contain her excitement, dancing and pointing. "Black, black!" she cried. He stared at her in astonishment, before returning his gaze to the bush where, he now saw, a whole cluster of black blooms adorned the shrub. He was stunned. It really existed! He was no rose expert, but he knew how rare, how impossibly rare, this sight was. With mounting excitement he gazed on the beautiful blooms, black as midnight, black as dead suns in the infinitude of deep space.

Alex Thornton's words came back to him: "The Black Rose has long been thought to be an impossibility, but people are fascinated by the idea of its existence. Like the ghost orchid, like the white tiger, its perennial allure consists in its rarity." The rose, Thornton had explained, was generally considered the most beautiful of blooms, in fact a metaphor for Beauty itself; a pure black version would be considered a paragon, a superlative, some kind of floral Quintessence. Kilworth could see why – the bizarre beauty of the blooms before him awed him into silence.

An inexplicable chill came over him. He had found the Holy Grail. Immediately, though he knew he could get rich out of this, he anticipated the problems which would flood in with the discovery. Other people would try and get control. They might even harm him to steal such a rare find as this. He had to keep it a secret. Rose was obviously not in her right mind, didn't realise what she had here. Why had she chosen him to reveal it to? He didn't know, but he was grateful to her.

He clasped her arm. "Thank you, Rose; you've done the right thing".

She smiled crookedly. "Black, black!" She was still excited.

"Yes, black," he said. ‘Now we mustn't tell anyone else about this, do you understand?" He slipped a fifty-dollar bill from his wallet and crushed it into her grimy fist.

"Here. Go and get some good food, get yourself something nice, OK?"

She looked at the money, slow wonder dawning in her eyes. This was more than she sometimes made the whole week selling flowers to the mourners. She stuffed the money somewhere inside her rags, with an expression of low cunning.

He wondered what he could do. What did he know of hybrids, grafting, cross-fertilisation? But perhaps he could take the rose, transplant it to his own garden, where he could keep watch over it.

Pulling his camera from his pack, he tried to photograph the bloom in the exacting light. The Cemetery Rose, the true one, pure velvety black, was inexpressibly beautiful. He took his time photographing it. Once he had it in shot, he used several rolls of film, capturing in extreme close up the delicate beauty of the blossom.

But soon the rain, which had been a drizzle, became a downpour. A sporadic rumble of thunder became a continuo as the rain turned to a howling storm.

He could do no more in these conditions. Shouldering his pack, and ushering Rose back out of the grove, he carefully marked the spot in his mind so he could find it again. Rose went off through the graves, presumably to spend her money somewhere. He headed home, to think.

###

It is night again. Kilworth is wandering the City of the Dead.

On the cemetery's Anglican, the Serpentine canal, empty of water, starts shallow, then becomes five or six feet deep as he follows it. Silent stone angels gaze over ornamental ponds and latticed summerhouses.

The canal's winding path has led Kilworth to the Independent section, which is swathed in gathering night. He shivers, pulling his coat close around him. Stifling his nervousness, he comes to a building constructed of honey-coloured Pyrmont sandstone. Looming above him is the cemetery's largest monument, the incredible Frazer Vault, built in 1894 at a cost of five thousand pounds by Maurice B. Adams, architect. A high Victorian Byzantine Gothic masterpiece, it dwarfs everything around it. Four French-influenced gargoyles perch high atop it, channelling rainwater away from the roof. Most of the narrow small-paned windows set high in the walls are cracked or gaping open; he hears the chittering of birds roosting in the vault's upper reaches. Large black ravens perch on surrounding tombs closer to ground level.

The place might conceal anything. Dried-out corpses might lie piled up like cordwood against the inside walls. Or, he imagines, misshapen, boneless things might be lurking inside, impatient to drag someone like him in with them. It's somehow easy for him to think this. But his heart is in his throat, and he is frightened, more frightened than he has ever been.

Remember when everything was new and strange? a faraway voice seems to say. Water pools in the building's crevices, drips down the sandstone. He hears the tolling of St Michael's chapel bell, a slow, deep note. He looks around frantically for shelter from the sound.

The vault's large bronze doors echo ominously when he ventures to knock on them.

The doors groan. He gasps. A thin white hand appears at the doorframe's edge. He screams and keeps on screaming. Something sluggish, a figure, which he can vaguely see has a shrunken, hideous visage, seems to be spilling from the tomb's opening, blurred and swollen

As it squirms feebly towards him, he awakes, sweating. His throat is raw from screaming.

He is in his own bed, at home in Berala.

###

Two days later, unable to eat or drink, afraid to sleep again, still haunted by the nightmare's vividness, Kilworth again wound between the brooding lichen-encrusted graves. He intended to dig up the bush on which the Black Rose bloomed; but that was for later, when dark fell. Dead dried leaves and twigs crunched underfoot on the cracked earth of the narrow, uneven paths. Large trees entwined their gnarled branches above the pathways.

In the old Catholic section, past Necropolis Drive, huge grey-blue cacti and straggling flowery shrubs grew from many of the graves, nourished by whatever still lay beneath. He marvelled at the maze of headstones in sandstone and marble, at the bewildering variety of crosses, carven angels, and Celtic decorations that adorned the uncountable graves. Loose marble tiles and granite fragments lay in a chaos of tumbled masonry.

Many of the flatbed tombs lay half-engulfed by earth, and subsidence had shattered or tilted many of the headstones, lending them a crazy air. Faded plastic flowers littered the graves where they had fallen. Sundried brown grasses struggled through cracks on the tombs themselves and in the paths between them. He shot a roll of film as he passed through the tomb: rusting iron railings with fleur-de-Lys–topped spikes, surrounding headstones almost entirely effaced by wind and weather.

A dry culvert, like the one from his nightmare, snaked its way across the grounds. Number One Serpentine Canal was brick-lined, perhaps two and a half feet wide, and several feet deep. The thought of what might have been at the Resthouse, and what might be capable of concealing itself in those culverts, made Kilworth shudder involuntarily. Yet it was the Black Rose that filled his thoughts. Its beauty seared his consciousness like a black brand, its very existence subtly alluring as the siren's call.

Wandering further, Kilworth gazed bewildered at still more concrete pillars, which boasted tortured figures of crucified Christs, and multiple versions of supplicating Marys. Many of the headstones here were rusty-red with oxidation, above cracked black-and-white tessellated pavements. Atmospheric, yes. He snapped off shots here and there.

A bit further on, he came to a church – the chapel of St Michael the Archangel. Buried all around were generations of priests, white marble headstones topping greenish, lichen-covered stone graves. Not far away, a lawn was covered with a myriad of small memorial headstones. The chapel itself had large distinctively arched wooden doors, and many stained glass windows, the most impressive of which was rose-shaped.

Roses seemed to be haunting him. Two angel statues adorned the peaks at the front, and a large cast-iron bell topped the building. He seemed to have been irresistibly drawn here.

He read the inscription above the door, which proclaimed: "It is a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead that they might be released from sins." This was undoubtedly meant to be comforting, but for Kilworth it evoked a vision of the multifarious dead for whom no one had prayed, still locked in their sins and writhing in their graves, their bodies straining against the encompassing shrouds and coffins that held them in. Kilworth ran a hand across his sweaty brow. His thoughts had begun to run amok in this place.

He continued to the grove where the Black Rose grew. Its cloying scent filled his nostrils as he dug around its roots. Placing it with infinite care in the sack he had brought with him, he was careful to avoid the large thorns that ran like sharp vertebra along the plant's thick green stems. Bundling the sack over his shoulder, he made his way out of the trees.

Enough for one day. He would take his booty home. After a half hour walking, he came to the cemetery's perimeter gate and went out.

At the house, he placed the Black Rose at the centre of his dining table, drawing down the sack so he could bask in the aura of its glossy black petals, drinking in the strange, subtle scent it exuded. There would be no sleep for him this night either; he must watch the Rose, ensure that no harm came to it.
###

Next evening, fainter from hunger than ever, his eyes aching from lack of sleep, he returned to the chapel. Although he carried his camera, the original purpose of his photo shoot seemed to have dissipated; the cemetery itself, the Black Rose in particular, had begun to obsess him.

As he drew near the chapel, some shape seemed to be obscuring building's front, for he could no longer see the distinctive door's arch which he had observed yesterday. He peered through the gathering gloom. The shape was a dark figure, its face pale, lolling against the chapel's nearest wall. Above it, steeped in dimness, something seemed to scuttle from the roof and drop to the ground near the tall figure's feet. Fellow necrotourists? He didn't think so. He stopped in his tracks, heart pounding. Had he seen them before in his nightmares?

Maybe, he told himself, he was seeing things, his mind playing tricks. The human mind wants there to be an order in everything, doesn't it? So it creates patterns in chaos, order where none exists. A dark shrub becomes a crouching figure, a rubbish pile half-visible in the twilight seems a prostrate body writhing feebly – one explanation for phantoms – or so he rationalised, listening to his own scratchy breathing here in the dusk.

Dismayed, he cast quick looks left and right, unsure whether he was more afraid to see the figure moving, or not to see it. He came to a horrible realisation: something that wanted to catch him in its lethal embrace had been waiting for him, and for no one else.

A shiver passed through him and his skin went cold. He began, slowly, to back away.

He had not yet seen the figure's face, but his imagination began to give it one. It was a face composed partly of darkness, held together by shreds of flesh, with two eyes the colour of cold porridge, above a mouth with all the compassion and softness of a lamprey's.

Then, it stepped out into the half-light. Glinting fire seemed to play around its head.

At its feet, something smaller scuttled and hesitated, scuttled forward again, disappeared into the long grass. Kilworth suddenly understood that an unspoken hierarchy that existed between these creatures; the Thin Man was in charge, the creature its familiar. This was the creature he had sensed moving in the back of the florist shop, and which had been roosting in the Resthouse's roof when he had camped there.

He felt something slither past his leg; something with vestigial limbs He caught a glimpse of it – it was black and shiny as anthracite, spiky with tufts of hair or fur. He thought of the thing touching him with its clacking legs and its body furred with coarse hair, and felt as though fingertips were lightly walking up his spine.

A religious man might have called it a blasphemous abnormality, but Kilworth did not have such a facile option. For him, such things were resistant to interpretation. It dawned on him that nothing he could do would save him, for he believed neither in the possibility that these creatures could really exist, nor in the efficacy of any supernatural gimmick he could level at them.

No, he was alone with them. Out here, safe and familiar were meaningless terms. If the creatures existed in the face of all his well-reasoned scepticism, then the world was upside down and he was doomed. They were the servants of something unimaginable.

Moments later, backing towards the canal, he heard a dry rustling coming from the bricks. There was a slithering, and a staccato scrabble of its claws on brick. He mustn't be fooled into hiding in the canal.

Trees partly blotted out his view back to the chapel. Caught between the Scylla of the Thin Man, and the Charybdis of the smaller thing, whatever it was, Kilworth wasn't sure which direction to run. He wanted to cry out, but the wind stirring in the trees made a continuous "shhh" as though warning him to keep silence.

His fear welled up anew. He turned, frantically casting from left to right for a haven. Darting across behind a large gravestone, leaves crackled beneath his feet, twigs snapped with a treacherous loudness. What terrified him most was the thought of all the ground he'd have to cover between here and possible safety. His mouth tasted of iron, and licked his lips, which had gone dry. The lights outside the Necropolis were but a feeble glimmer. Rookwood's gates were locked at dusk, and he had missed the 3.30 bus out of the grounds, the last one for the day.

Breathing hard, his hands clasped to the headstone's roughness, he ventured a look back towards the church. Squat gravestones, mottled with moss and darkness, dotted the ground between him and where the tall figure had stood.

But now the figure wasn't there.

His heart quickening, he saw it again. It was slowly, silently moving towards his hiding place. As the figure approached, Kilworth could faintly make out the line of sutures stitching the flesh – if it was flesh – of the man's face. The sutures ran from its temple down the face's right side and along the neck, disappearing beneath the black cloth of its buttoned up suit. In those terrible eyes there was no human spark, only a dull intelligence that enabled it to exert control over its inhuman companion, and to keep hunting until it caught its prey.

Kilworth rose from his concealed crouch, his knees already aching and his stiff back protesting. The Thin Man was only paces away. Kilworth seemed hypnotised to the spot. The strength seemed to have left his limbs, and his breathing was muffled, uneven.

The Thin Man reached him, and placed its hand on his shoulder. The gloved hand that rested on his shoulder seemed to have been shredded to rags of cloth. Then he realised that the ragged threads that trailed from the hand were not cloth at all, but flesh...

The thin one spoke. Its voice was as guttural as a dying man's death rattle, yet simultaneously sibilant, like wind in autumn leaves, or the fluttering wings of a bird as it beats, trapped, against a windowpane.

"The Black Rose is ours."

Now its fingers were about his neck. He had a glimpse of cold, grey eyes gazing into his at close range. The fingers made a slashing movement and Kilworth felt as though his throat had been cut from ear to ear. With trembling fingers, he felt gingerly at the nape of his neck. Blood was trickling from the open wound, and he felt its wetness on his fingers.

In his shock, Kilworth dropped the camera. He tried to cry out, for help, but fear choked his voice to a whisper. He jerked away from the Thin Man's grasp and with a surge of strength, he pushed the thin figure hard; it stumbled back and away from him. He bent groundwards, fingers instinctively searching for the camera. Shivering with dread, he felt around on the humid earth. He held his breath.

Then his hand fell on a smooth surface, his fingers seeking purchase but finding none. In the semi-darkness he could not see the whole shape, but clutched what felt like the camera's outer casing. As he drew his hand closer to him, it slid along the thing and he realised it was long, far longer than the camera would be even had he grasped it by the lens. And what his fingers clutched was thin, as well as long. A horrible suspicion formed, and just then t a weight at the other end of what he was grasping jerked slightly. His fingers slid over a joint, and he realised with a shudder that he was grasping, by one of its legs, the revolting spider-thing.

With a shock of repugnant dismay, he snatched his hand away, and a cry of disgust escaped his lips. Judging by the size of the leg he had inadvertently grasped, the thing itself must have a body the size of a large cat.

He kicked out, and felt his foot connect with a dull but satisfying thud.

He half-saw the thing roll away from him. In the grasses around the nearest gravestone, a tangle of legs was sticking up, waving about. It must have landed on its back and was struggling to right itself. A sick feeling flooded the back of his throat. He clutched his fingers to the wound in his throat; t

Next moment, the thing was up again and sprang violently forward against him, landing heavily on his chest. He tried to beat it off with his hands. It gave off an overpowering smell of filth and decay, and its body's furriness as his hands brushed it made him feel sick. It dropped into the grass again, and he hastily backed away, keeping his hands up protectively in case it leapt again. Wind shuddered the fallen leaves, and raised ripples on the surface of the ornamental pond.

Suddenly Rose appeared, as if from nowhere. She picked it up, that thing, cradled it in her arms like a baby, the tattered folds of her old red dress swathing it from view. Viciously, she flung it against the bole of a nearby tree. He heard it slam into the tree trunk and fall to the ground. He could only hope she had killed it.

The Thin Man turned towards Rose, momentarily abandoning pursuit of Kilworth. Kilworth gasped in terror, adrenalin pumping through his system. He would run while his persecutors were distracted.

He could make the fence if he ran now. In that slim hope, he put his trust.

He ran, panting, gasping, hurtling across graves, thumping down aisles of trees, his clothes catching in overhanging branches. He sensed the Thin Man close behind, vindictive, implacable, giving chase.

He was nearly there. The fence's wire perimeter loomed ahead. He hunched over for a second, a stitch in his side, and gasped for breath. He listened. Nothing, save the night winds in the foliage.

He hurled himself up and over. Just as his body was three-quarters across, he felt a shooting pain through his ankle. A hand had grasped him, and was pulling him back into the cemetery. Almost mindless with fear, Kilworth shot a quick glance back over his shoulder. The Thin Man's grin was fixed, the lamprey mouth set in hideous intent.

Kilworth jerked his leg violently, his foot slipped through the Thin Man's hold. With a surge of terrified triumph, he made it over the fence, dropping to the ground outside. He felt the Thin Man fall back, flailing against the inside of the wire fence.

Something told him the Thin Man couldn't leave the grounds. He fled home in a panic frenzy, limping on his wounded ankle. A bloody trickle still ran from the wound the Thin Man had inflicted on his throat.

He spent the night sleepless, tossing on his bed, his throat bandaged. The wound was not as bad as he had at first feared, but painful enough to add to his discomfort. The ankle where the Thin Man had gripped him as he scaled the fence was fiery with pain. What would they do to Rose? He was sure they would harm her. But in his cowardice he stayed away all morning, and for the rest of the day.

Unable to concentrate, staring nightly at the Black Rose, its scent filling his head, its blackness seeming to insinuate itself into the fabric of his soul, he began to face the irresistible compulsion to return to Rookwood.

He had to find out what had become of Rose.

By the time he had steeled himself to do so, it was a week later.

###

As he entered the cemetery for the last time, the shadows deepened, thickened. Approaching the grove of the Black Rose, he slowly became aware of an overpowering smell.

Then he found Rose, what was left of her.

Her body was lifeless, her raggedy clothes thick with congealed blood. The smell of death, of decay, rose up to meet him. The body was slumped against a tree trunk on a weedy patch of ground. She was virtually faceless, her eyes and cheeks destroyed by maggots. They had clustered in Rose's hair, which he could see stirring as they teemed at the back of her neck. Her mouth was a distorted rictus, the lips peeled back revealing crooked teeth. Dried blood filled her mouth. There was no longer a nose, and only a little discoloured flesh remained on the head. The eyes were the worst, for they were nothing now but sightless pits.

Kilworth, gagging and reeling back as his nostrils caught the body's full reek, his mind frantic to block out the reality of this death, recalled unbidden Baudelaire's lines from "The Carcass" in The Flowers of Evil

"The flies buzzed and droned on these bowels of filth
Where an army of maggots arose,
Which flowed with a liquid and thickening stream
On the animate rags of her clothes"

For a few moments he was filled with remorse, with shame and sadness for Rose's pathetic end. How could he have allowed this? Yet part of him had expected she would be dead when he found her again.

Then anger kicked in. The uncertainty gnawing at his soul became need to take action. He would have vengeance. He turned away, disgusted, as some maggots disgorged themselves from her ruined head and writhed on the path before him.

Then, suddenly, just as he saw the slimy black trail leading to the tree bole, something dropped from the canopy of foliage above. He sensed a shape crawling toward him, his nostrils quivering at the thing's stale animal odour.

The creature surged forward. It seemed to be twitching, lurching towards him as though wounded.

He knew what he had to do. Dislodging a broken piece of headstone from beside one of the graves, he hefted it in his hand and waited. The creature appeared out of the long grass, poised to leap. He hurled the heavy piece of stone. It hit with a sickening thud, and a sound like a celery stick being snapped in two. The thing slumped to the ground. Its legs twitched briefly, and then it was still.

The killing of the creature was small recompense for Rose's death, he felt, but it was the only kind of justice he knew how to dole out.

###


A few hours later, Kilworth stood in his darkroom shed, surrounded by developing trays, and containers of fixative hypo. He was bringing up a print in his signature style; the hues looked dissolved in darkness. The image swam up slowly into view, shimmering like a ghost. It showed the Black Rose. In the background was another shape, blotchy and unfocussed: the Thin Man.

Kilworth took the print out and set it on the patio table to dry. He sat back in the old chair there, the one with the torn plastic cushions. The sky was staining the evening with darkness, which seemed to tug at him convulsively.

The exhausted light gave him a distorted view of the back garden, which overlooked Route 45 Olympic Drive. Close to the back patio's cracked cement, dry, crumbling leaves had fallen from the nearby tree. Weeds and grasses, dotted with blown dandelions and dried-out stalks, filled the backyard. They stood so tall that he could barely glimpse the brick back fence with its top edge ragged as some ancient battlement. Safe at the back, sheltered from the winds by the wire enclosure he had put up, was the Cemetery Rose. Replanted, fed with rich dark humus– the Black Rose.

Its macabre beauty brought him perverse pleasure. He would foster and feed it, nourish it with his own darkness. It would grow and prosper, and when the time was right he would know what to do. Perhaps the Thin Man would help him know what to do.

His mind seethed. Humans, he thought. We rut in the dark, but it is not until we encounter true darkness that we are brought to understand. He would feed the Black Rose, and it would feed him, and then there would be an accounting. A black flame, all-penetrant, would burn through him before he went out again into the world to exact vengeance on it

As he moved towards the Black Rose, which seemed to strain eagerly forward towards him, he was already on the verge of disclosing to it all the details of his own inner delirium. Then came a sound that was ugly, even to his own ears.

He began to laugh, and didn't stop.
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Reply With Quote     #22   Report Post     Original Poster (OP)

Never Smile at Strangers by Ruth Anne Boothe

God, she loved the city. Walking briskly along the busy avenue, she gazed, smiling, up at the skyscrapers glimpsed through the autumn leaves of robust maples lining the curb, their warm colors comforting and secure. Quickening her pace, with the dense mass of like-minded souls, she continued along, crossing two intersections and eventually turning into a shopping district.

This was Saturday; her favorite day of the week. Her "Me" day. The kids home with their father. The weekend chores on hold. Here she could make her necessary purchases (upcoming birthday and wedding gifts) but mostly, she could do what she loved. Window shop. The large shopping malls sprouting up across the country, with their enclosed, air-conditioned, designer drenched ambiance couldn't begin to compare to the exquisitely open feel of looking through a store window as the gentle breezes, sounds, and smells of the city surround you.

Stopping in front of a popular formal shop, she stood mesmerized in front of a subtly simple long, white and black dress. She could picture herself wearing it to an elite, social function, entering a dazzling room with a singular grace and beauty. The image quickly turned to one of her tripping over a step and landing unceremoniously at the foot of the guest of honor. Wincing, she caught herself and laughed quietly. Now, that would be more realistic. Imagining the dress costing approximately 2 times what her family paid towards a mortgage each month, she sighed briefly and moved her eyes to the other visual treats.

Her gaze stopped abruptly at the reflection of a man standing beside her. Their eyes locked and held. He seemed to be staring at her in familiar fascination. Turning with the thought to ask if she knew him, she felt her mouth go dry. Apart from the ghastly appearance of his wardrobe (in a color too filthy to identify) and his unkempt hair and beard, the piercing eyes – disturbing in themselves – were met and exceeded by his pungent odor. After a frozen pause, she forced a smile in an attempt to hide her abhorrence.

His eyes widened and dropped to her mouth. Mimicking her false smile, he raised knowing eyes to hers, his mouth widening into what appeared to her to be an evil grin.

Turning abruptly, she walked quickly away from him, not stopping until she reached a coffee haus. Stepping quickly inside, she let the velvety rich aroma of strong coffee beans cleanse her sense of smell. What a horrible troll of a man. Surely he knew he disturbed people by staring at them like that. Ordering a double latte, she carried it to a seat by the window when a faint sense of guilt washed over her. Why hadn't she felt pity? She should have given him some money. That's probably all he was after, anyway. Why had she felt frightened and disgusted? Where was her sense of charity? Those eyes - a voice inside her head whispered. With that drilling, relentless stare. It almost felt as if she'd just come face to face with the Grim Reaper. Sipping her coffee, she thought to herself, Well, you can just BACK OFF, PAL.

Feeling her sense of humor and energy restored (gotta love that espresso), she left the coffee haus and bounced along the sidewalk with renewed purpose.

Stopping at a gourmet kitchen shop, she considered several options on display for wedding gifts before finally settling on a modern, artfully twisted iron wine-wrack. Concluding her transaction, she smiled ruefully to herself at the purchase. Ah ... the wine-wrack; her favorite stand-by wedding gift. Her motto "if they don't drink wine, they should" frequently saved her the confusion and stress of searching for the "perfect gift." (Whether everyone actually appreciated the gift was another matter.)

Leaving the store, she took three steps and came to a sudden halt. There he sat – on a bench directly facing the store, staring maddeningly into her eyes. Frowning fiercely, she pivoted and reentered the kitchen store, walking to the back of it. Great. Now she was running from him. How silly. Was she really hiding? The guy was no menace to her. Just incredibly annoying. Walking to the front of the store, she slowed as she approached the glass doors. Through the stenciled letters on the glass, she could feel his eyes on her. Forcibly removing her gaze from his, she left the store and walked purposely towards the street level entrance to a department store adjacent to the kitchen shop. Entering the large building, she refused to look behind her, determined to enjoy her day of shopping.

An hour and several small purchases later, she left the building and, seeing no madman in the vicinity, breathed a shaky sigh of relief.

With relief came the awareness of growing hunger. Smiling, she crossed the street again to walk to the end of the block and to her favorite French bistro. Nestled under iron-framed oak trees, the restaurant faced a 125-year old gothic Protestant Church, whose architecture provided a never-ending study to the appreciative eye. Taking a seat at an outdoor table, she picked up and studied the small menu, quickly settling on the tomato-basil soup and Caesar salad. Thanking the server, she accepted a glass of Petite Syrah – currently her favorite red wine - and relaxed to wait for her meal. Swirling the wine and wondering briefly if it was the aroma of plum or blackberry that she found so enticing, she tilted her glass. Raising her eyes to the steps leading up to the church's impressive entrance, she choked on the sip of wine.

Something, or someone, was sitting in the corner, hidden in shadows. Was it just a shadow? She squinted and tried to focus.

The shadow lengthened, straightened out and stood. Taking a step forward into the light, eyes boring into hers from across the street, he stood. And watched.

Setting her glass down slowly, she felt the blood drain from her face and turn leaden in her veins. Caught in his manic gaze, she found herself fighting a heavy feeling of dread. Unbelievable! Incredible! He was stalking her! The police, she thought. I need to find a policeman. Have him arrested. He can't do this. Can't intimidate a defenseless woman. Defenseless? Me? She snorted, derisively. She'd taken classes. She'd always felt far from defenseless. But this ... they never told her about this ... debilitating fear.

Shutting her eyes briefly, she thought, irrational. This fear is irrational. He's a bum. It's coincidence. He doesn't even look smart enough to be a dumb criminal. Opening her eyes, she saw empty steps. Looking swiftly around, she saw no sign of him.

Leaving a bill on the table, she gathered her purse and purchases and quickly left the restaurant. Halfway to the train station, she stopped, angry with herself for letting someone else spoil her mood and her day, and angry with the stranger for acting like such a slithering creep.

A movie! A movie would take her mind away from this morning. It was still her day of freedom. Her I-get-to-do-whatever-the-hell-I-want-to day! And she'd be damned if she'd let him ruin it! Spinning on her heel, she walked determinedly towards the nearest cinema.

Three city blocks over and four flights up, she sat in a darkened movie theater, watching previews of coming attractions and eating an impromptu lunch of butter-laden popcorn and diet soda. Wondering briefly at the absurdly of feeling safe in a dark room full of strangers, she shrugged, and sat back to enjoy the next few hours.

It always amazed her. The way a movie could capture the spirit and mind and whisk you away to another place and time, leaving its faint trace in memory. A good movie, anyway. And this one had been good.

Stepping lightly from the theater into the contrasting brightness of the outdoors, she carted her purchases over one shoulder and walked towards her last destination. A bookstore. Smiling gleefully as she entered, she immediately smelled the aroma of strong coffee (for what was a bookstore in this day and age without its own gourmet coffee shop) and felt at home. I could die in this store and die happily, she thought. Then cast a quick glance upwards, thinking, but not just now. Okay?

The second floor of the bookstore boasted windows facing three sides of the city with views covering the North, East and carefully tended park to the South. The view was gorgeous. Holding a small pile of novels, including the latest suspense-thriller by her favorite author, she settled down in an overstuffed chair facing the park to skim through the books.

A happy and relaxing hour later, after sneak previewing the stories – going so far as to read the last page (a habit she'd heard some authors grew livid over) - she decided she couldn't wait to get home and start reading. Looking out the window, she saw the afternoon light fading, and decided to call it quits.

Carrying the books to the checkout counter, she reached into her wallet for a credit card. Fumbling with the new credit card machines each store deemed necessary to have their own unique version of (with – according to her husband - the intent of making the consumer feel like a complete idiot), she paid for her books. Gathering her belongings, she exited the store and froze in her tracks.

It was the smell that hit her first. The faintly nauseating, decaying smell of him. Turning slowly, she felt a sort of despairing anger. Meeting his malevolent look with what courage she could muster, she spoke in a halting voice, "What.

Do. You. Want?"

His gaze shifted from her eyes slowly to her toes and back, causing her to shiver with revulsion. The sick leer he gave her was her undoing. Crying out, "Why can't you leave me alone?" she turned and escaped to the sidewalk and began to weave quickly around pedestrians.

Arriving at the train station at a dead run, she stepped onto the train. Finding her cab and sinking deeply into the seat, she leaned her head back, drew a deep shuddering breath and released it slowly. Home! She was going home! The warm toned interior of the train's cab coupled with the knowledge of her destination filled her with a sense of profound relief.

Shutting her eyes, she let her thoughts drift. They settled on a nearly forgotten memory from childhood. A day she rarely thought of and certainly never dwelt on.

As a teenager, her first job – besides the usually babysitting gigs – had been at a McDonalds. She was 14 at the time but an older sister who also worked there had forgotten and told the manager she was 15. Too young to work near cash or dangerous equipment (and splattering hot grease from French-fries definitely qualifies as dangerous), she had the dubious honor of sweeping and mopping floors, emptying trash, cleaning off tables, bathrooms, and washing dishes. Far more exhausting work than watching movies on a neighbor's sofa while their kids slept ... but at $2.65 an hour (minimum wage at the time) who was she to complain?

One day when riding her bike home after work - a bike ride that on a sunny day could take 30 minutes or more - she flew around a corner and spotted an old black car. Her first thought - that it looked like something from WWII – or the T.V. show Hogan's Heroes – was quickly replaced by "Look at that old man sitting in the driver's seat. He seems so sad."

The next few minutes replayed in slow motion in her mind.

Offering him a bright smile, she approached the car pedaling rapidly. When he didn't smile back, her grin faltered. Her mother always told her to never talk to or smile at strangers. She'd never understood why.

As she drew level to the car, he opened the door and began to climb out, pulling something long, thin and dark out after him. Instinctively pedaling quicker, she headed towards an entrance to an apartment complex parking lot. Looking back quickly as she flew around the corner, she saw him lifting the dark object – what appeared to be a shotgun - up to his shoulder level and begin to aim it at her. Dumping her bike, she dived behind a boat on a parked trailer, rolled into a tight ball and waited for a shot to ring out.

The silence was nerve-wracking.

Inching slowly up the side of the boat, she peaked through the windshield. The old man stood perfectly still, aiming directly at her. For the next two minutes, they stared at each other, traffic sounds muting under the deafening thumping of her heart.

The standoff ended when he turned to get back into his car and – she presumed – follow her. Grabbing her bike, she jumped on and raced home, pedaling as if Hell were at her heels.

And it may well have been.

I could have died.

She opened her eyes in bemused wonder. I could have died that day.

Unable to deal with the reality or comprehend the inexplicable, she'd shoved the memory away from her in an effort to ignore it. Twenty years later, alone in a train car, it resurfaced.

Delayed anger at the nameless stranger began to build, brewing and boiling until the old man and the derelict became one.

Feeling a light sweat trickle down her neck, she leaned to open the window a DILARANG KERAS, and noticed that the train had just begun to move.

The moment the window lifted, she jumped back as eight grimy fingers slipped in and grasped the windowsill, and the face she's begun to loathe pressed hideously against the glass. His slow grin – insidiously evil – caused something frail inside her to snap. Grabbing the window she brought it crashing down on his fingers and held it shut. His shocked cry of pain was swallowed in the increasing sound of clacking wheels and train whistles.

Hanging on, he glared at her through the window, crazed eyes boring into her skull. Gazing left, she saw the tunnel opening, and turned to fix him with a level stare. Confused he turned his head to see the fast approaching wall of the tunnel, a tunnel built for the passage of the train and the train alone. Turning back to her, he sneered and spat at the window.

Pressing down heavily on the sill, she smiled coolly at him. His head began a frantic rotation; right and back, each glance back at her with wider eyes, until the moment the train entered the tunnel, and he quietly and permanently disappeared.

Well ... most of him. Looking down at the ledge she saw eight fingers firmly pressed down under the window. As the train left the tunnel, she opened the window and watched as the fingers flew off into the night. One fell inside the car. After briefly considering it as a souvenir, she grabbed a tissue from her purse and delicately picked it up and tossed it out the window.

Closing the window and locking it, she sat primly in her seat and murmured quietly to herself, "Never smile at strangers."
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Reply With Quote     #23   Report Post     Original Poster (OP)

Now I Lay Me by Clayton Briggs

Sapphire water gleamed beneath an afternoon sun. Fiery-breasted birds dove under the glassy pond, then resurfaced. Bright clouds of dragonflies swarmed amongst the reeds.
That immortal lake: Claret Clupea!
He touched the water.
Bang! The man awoke with a start, smacking his head against the ceiling. His fingers touched cold metal, not blue water. Darkness met his eyes.
He struggled, flailing his legs.
The shelf squealed open.
Water dripped in a sink. In the center of the room several cold metal tables lay empty. Lights flickered overhead: it was dank and moldy.
This morgue was dead.
"Crude joke." He rebuked himself, shivering with cold. What the hell was going on? Who was he? How'd he get here?
He surveyed his body: he was clean, if a little scruffy, wearing street clothes and sneakers.
"Not the condition you'd expect to see in a reanimated corpse." He mumbled sarcastically. A leather jacket lay beside him. There were words on the back— ‘The Burnin' Men'— stitched in bad-ass letters.
A biker club? That sounded vaguely familiar.
For some reason the left arm of the jacket was smeared with blue paint. Manic letters stood out on the sleeve. The cryptic message read:

"De-seal: ex-vie."

‘Weird: words, but then again not really words at all...'
He hopped off the slab, almost impaling himself on a long white pole as he did: the rod sat upright on the floor. It was serrated and cruel-looking, complete with a gold-toned spear tip.
What the hell could that be used for?
"Nasty-ass dissection tool." He assumed. The words ‘Longini Industries' were etched on the tip. It wasn't a particularly sinister device, but one thing troubled him: the handle of that tool was blemished with two sets of bloody red handprints.
And— even more curiously— a piece of paper rested over the handle. There was something written on it in bold red letters. The ink was still wet.

"The just man justices."

"That so?" He scoffed, uneasy.
He wandered out into the hall: this place was, apparently, a hospital. It wasn't a particularly busy one, although there were people in the corridors. Some gave him odd looks as he wandered to and fro; more than once someone asked if he needed directions.
‘Well: I feel alive enough, and I guess I look alive, too.'
Across from the morgue lay neonatal.
‘Odd layout for a hospital...'
Main reception was upstairs. A banner above the desk proudly declared this "St. Luscinia Hospital".
Revolving doors lay ahead: the exit to a starry night.
He asked the receptionist what town they were in. She gave him a bewildered look, but provided him with the two-word answer.
He turned back towards the stairs: there was a sensation— a tingling— all over his skin. Something was calling out to him. It was something from inside these walls.
It was something irresistible.
Maternity; pediatrics; OR; ER; cardiology; radiology...
The hospital was a circle: by the time he finished wandering he was again outside the grimy morgue.
His flesh suddenly crawled. He looked down the hall, opposite neonatal.
Two bleak doors glared at him; above them, the letters "ICU" loomed.
Every hair on his body stood on end.
He inched toward the door.
"Sorry, pal: you need authorization." An attendant at the desk apologized.
Immediately the sleep melted away from his eyes.
He remembered: he had ‘authorization', all right.
The man wandered back to the morgue and took up the cruel gold spear.
He walked into ICU, right past the doorman, who took no note of him.

He crept beyond the nurses' station— where he was ignored— and down the hall— where no one looked at him, yet passersby parted around him, recoiling as if they'd felt a nasty chill in the air.
He stepped into a room. His body trembled.
On the bed there was a man. In the man there were a hundred tubes. In the man's hands were the hands of loved ones.
He grasped the spear, then pressed it against the gaunt man's neck.
He pushed.
The man started: he stared right up at the spear-bearer, not with horror, but with something approaching ecstasy.
Stab: into flesh.
Slice: down the chest.
The boom was startling, the radiance unbelievable: a volcano of golden light.
It was a light that superceded light.
When it was all over he fell to his knees— tears in his eyes— as the brilliance grew, ascended, then finally disappeared up through the ceiling.
Another man entered the room; the grieving family took no note of him, either.
"What is it?" This new man asked.
"I went to sleep again." He mumbled through tears. "I was so tired... I had to."
The second man hung his head. "The lake, again?"
"Always the lake," he nodded. It was never any different. They were prisoners to its torment: its false promises.
"I'm sorry." A spear rested against his shoulder also, identical to the other spear right down to its blood-stained grips.
The hair on both prisoners' skins rose once again.
"Room 13-18." The new man muttered. Tears welled up in his own eyes. "I'll take this one, alright?" He stepped out.
The cruelest justice doesn't involve the infliction of punishment. It is baiting: granting the briefest taste of the sweetest reward time and again.
For them, this agony it is to awaken others— to liberate the just— forever, without end, and to suffer hope in dreams, only to wake up and oversee— again and again— a wonder that they themselves will never be a part of.
However, the case can be made that this isn't justice: it's indefensible torture, and no crime could merit this punishment. But there is always another night, and another dream: hope, at least.
‘Not hope: we fool ourselves with fantasies. All we can do is DILARANG KERAS ourselves over and over again with that mirage, and a wish...'
Now alone, the prisoner slumped over. He cradled his spear and sobbed into blood-stained hands.
"How long? Oh God: how long!?"
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Lost by Terry Cummings

She was alone now. It was over. Among the branches, the birds sang, their lives disturbed momentarily by the deafening screech of worn tyres as a sombre grey car sped away from the woodland.

Her eyes were clamped shut, but inside her mind blinding images flashed and faded repetitively, images of horror that should never be witnessed let alone experienced by a girl of her years. The images brightened further still, with dreadful clarity and detail, forming patterns, taking sequence. Now sound flooded her mind synchronising with the pictures. Then the inexplicable happened, the images and motion inside her mind took on another dimension - feeling. Now it was happening all over again. Soft caresses, numbing punches and moisture, sticking all over her body. The inescapable tongue, the battered waist deeply bruised, broken fingers twisted and snapped, and oh God my God the excruciating pain swelling within her. The images blurred and all sensation was lost. The brightness faded, a pounding at the front of her head filled her world, took over her soul and then...

Everything was black, her body yet to feel pain, her eyes yet to see light, a soothing, comforting heartbeat echoed through her tiny limbs, she was unborn and suspended inside her mothers womb, she could feel no pain, know no emotion. She was at peace.

Then the screaming arose from nowhere, grasping her dormant mind and shaking it awake, cramming its pitch into every corner of her soul, pushing her mercilessly into reality. Her eyes opened wide. It was night. Her mind hadn't yet allowed what had happened to be fully recallable, had locked events into a deep memory vault and had thrown away the key, so she for some time wouldn't know why or how she had arrived where she had. All she was aware of was that she was naked and cold, and as she moved, the pain seared her hands and thighs. She had had a nose bleed and solidified blood on her cheeks cracked and flaked as she screamed. She struggled for consciousness and barely won.

She looked around her. She was lying on a snow coated forest floor and she was being watched. The shadows crept near her, sliding around the trees. An owl hooted its presence in the branches above. She shifted uncomfortably and looked behind her, sensing danger at every angle. Her chest heaved painfully and she began to sob despairingly. Her eyelids became lead and she slipped into unconsciousness once more.

When she awoke it was morning and birds sang joyfully above her, chasing between the branches of twisted elm then soaring upwards as high as she could see. Cold leaves stuck to her skin, the dew making them a part of her shape, across her leg a spider crawled but she did not feel it, it scampered away into the long grass, a demon in her past childhood.

She was completely numb below the waist yet her upper body hurt with the slightest twitch, her arms had turned a shade of pale blue and she could feel patches in her lips. She shivered uncontrollably, the icy dew on the leaves had retained heat - enough to keep her alive for a few hours acting as a precarious insulator, but she could not take this cold for much longer.

Her eyes had opened to a foreign land, an alien environment, and her mind, now clear and sharp, sorted through jumbled information in an attempt to assess and understand the situation, but all it could tell her was that she was cold, hurt, lost and terribly afraid. She pushed herself into a sitting position and looked around. There was dense woodland to either side and behind her but up ahead the trees became fewer, she thought she could make out a wooden gate not so far away. She tried to get up, falling the first time onto broken fingers, she merely whimpered. She tried again and balanced precariously on her lifeless legs, she reached down and dug into them with the nails of her unbroken fingers, feeling nothing but the pain in her hands.

There was a gate, and behind it a narrow road, then a field behind that, if she could get to the road she could call to someone driving past, if only her legs would comply to her pleas. If only...

"LUCY......LUCY." It was her mothers voice, she could hear a car engine, she was not far.

"Mother," she whispered, and harsh pain stabbed at her throat. "Mother please, ...here please mum." She croaked out the words..."Please."

"LUCY." It was her fathers voice, commanding yet loving, she could feel their presence and as the police car screeched to a halt outside the thick wooden gate, she was totally unaware of the pain.

She burst into tears and fell to the ground, shaking more violently. It was her father who held her first, his strong hands and kind words reassuring her that it was over and that he would never let go. Then her mother reached her, stroking fingers through her hair and crying on her shoulder, trying to speak to her daughter but failing as she was swept with joy, love and despair.

She felt a cloak draped around her and she was gently carried to the police car. Her parents clung to her, softly reassuring her, but as she was laid down in the soft brown seats in the back of the car the man appeared before her, grinning and laughing, hatred spilling from his eyes, and as he reached down she screamed an eternal scream.
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The train by Terry Cummings

He turned quickly to look behind him and then looked back into the cubicle. The mirror was angled directly toward him and he should be seeing his reflection now. But it was simply not there. The wall behind him, the door, the entrance to the compartment behind him. All where they should be. It was just his reflection that was missing. He staggered backwards and felt the wall on his back, his eyes still trained on the mirror. He reached a hand out toward the mirror but although he could feel his arm moving there was no sign of his hand or the sleeve of his jacket. Nothing. He looked down toward his legs and feet and saw only the floor of the carriage. A cigarette butt lay where someone had sneaked a smoke from the open window, a chewing gum wrapper. Dirt.
No body. He quickly placed invisible hands onto every part of his body and was rewarded with familiar sensations of touch. His hands could feel his body and his body could feel his hands. He was there. He could feel himself.
He rushed into the cubicle and turned on the cold water tap, water rushed out obediently into his cupped hands and he splashed it across his face and into his eyes. With blinking eyes he looked up again into the mirror. This was no dream, the water was too fresh and clear. The mirror showed him only the cubicle walls and the hallway of the carriage beyond.
He turned and walked out. He was half convinced now that someone had drugged his coffee and that his mind was playing an hallucinogenic game with him. All he could think to do was return to his seat and wait for the effects to wear off.
The carriage doors opened at his approach and he walked through the compartments back toward his own.
As he stepped into the joining section before his carriage he noticed for the first time that the trains rhythmical thrum was whispering a now familiar noise as it rushed across the tracks. terribilis est locus iste, terribilis est locus iste, terribilis est locus iste, terribilis est locus iste. Over and over. He stepped toward the door and entered his compartment. The noise was muted slightly as the doors closed behind him.
Before him, halfway down the carriage, near where he had been sitting, stood a man dressed in khaki.
"Ah, Mr Tate, I'm so very glad you could join me." He said. "Please, do sit down". The man raised an arm and indicated the seats to his left. Tate walked toward him, unbalanced by the rocking, lurching motion as the train negotiated the tracks beneath it, his hand grasped the headrests of several seats as he made his way toward the man. He noticed that the man seemed unaffected by the trains movements, standing calmly and still as Tate approached. As he got nearer he could see the yellow stained teeth beneath the mans smile.
"You are quite right to be confused Mr Tate." Said the man. "If you will take a seat I will explain."
Tate sat slowly, easing himself onto the seat, his unseen knees knocking against the table before him. The man in khaki sat opposite him.
"How do you feel Mr Tate?" He asked.
"Confused." Tate replied groggily.
"You have a right to be, this is a very confusing moment in your life".

Replied the man. "Do you mind if I smoke?" He asked.
"No, please go ahead". Tate responded.
The stranger took an unfiltered cigarette from a white packet and lit it with a match from a small box he produced from his jacket pocket.
"Aaah." He breathed.
Seconds passed by slowly, Tate was about to speak when the stranger opposite him opened his eyes again and looked straight into Tate's own.
"You have been in an accident." He said shaking his head, "Yes, a very terrible accident indeed."
"I don't feel too bad" Tate said suspiciously, he was beginning to think that he recognised this man from somewhere, but perhaps he simply reminded him of someone he once knew. "What happened?" He asked.
The stranger seemed to have forgotten the overwhelming pleasure of his cigarette and seemed to grow excited and anxious at the prospect of telling Tate what had occurred. He leant forward in an almost conspiratorial way and continued in a hushed voice. "Well, whilst you slept, the train you were travelling on was hit by an oncoming train approaching from Surrey."
"Really?" Asked Tate. "So how fast were we going?"
"Fast." Said the man. "The first three carriages of both trains were ripped apart, the heat within the stressed metal caused them to almost melt into one another in some places. It is really quite a sight". The mans eyes were wide-open and excited.
"The other carriages were thrown from the tracks, some coming to rest hundreds of metres away from the tracks, one carriage even went through a house and killed a family who were watching the news. They had no idea that in a few minutes time they would be on it". The man chuckled and took another long drag of his cigarette.
"Strange how life turns out isn't it". He mused.
"Yes, quite, strange indeed". Said Tate.
The man eyed him, accurately looking into Tate's eyes.
"You can see me clearly can't you". He said.
The man nodded and then laughed for a while, uncontrollably. Tate felt an overwhelming urge to reach out and strangle the man. That is when he noticed that he had lost the power of movement.
"Oh yes". Said the man in khaki. His laughter cut short, his expression changed to one of grim determination and focus "We don't want you moving right now. Right now, we want you to sit still for a while."
"What are you going to do to me?" Tate asked, his voiced strained with the exertion of making his invisible jaws move.
"Oh, we are only going to do to you what you have done to us. That is all that we are entitled, expected or required to do." The man told him, again in that conspiratorial tone.
"Look, ill show you". He said. He straightened up and unbuttoned his khaki shirt. He pulled it open and showed Tate the ripped flesh and jagged hole where his heart should be. Suddenly Tate realised who this man was. It had been some years ago, but now he recognised his face. Seeing his own handiwork had refreshed his memory.
The man pulled a penknife from his pocket and reached over to unbutton Tate's shirt.
"Ah, yes, I am going to enjoy this." He said.
Tate could feel the knife slide into his skin and pierce the membrane between two ribs. It went deeper and the man twisted the blade, cracking ribs, allowing easier access to the heart.
As the pain overwhelmed him Tate threw back his invisible head and screamed. There, upside down in his vision, was a queue of people, most of whom he recognised.
They were forming an orderly line as though waiting their turn.
Most had parts missing.
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A Few Final Words by Joe Dees

Hello, I am a Being-in-the-World (Oh, Hell!), tied to it revocably. The hyphenated monstrosity is a term coined by the German existential philosopher Martin Heidegger (Hi, Heidegger! Heil!) to express the essenceless essence of the human condition. We are all, I suppose, tied to the world in much the same manner as we were tied to our progenitors: umbilically. That's what Heidegger meant by the hyphens, I guess. They're there for a reason (all symbols stand for something, you know). WE'RE not symbols, though; we stand (or fall) for no particular generality. We have reason, but not A reason, you see. And faith - O We Of Little Faith! Faith is by definition unjustified, or we would call it knowledge. Is it even justifiable? But I digress.

I apologize. You see, I am suffering from a depression. It's called my navel. Only Adam and Eve, Judaic mythology tells us, lacked this little hole within our centers. Surprise! Navel veterans all! So why am I so alone? Do we all join hands only to find we're just links in a chain of alonenesses? It makes me mad - bilious, if you please. But at what? Question: how can nothing be mad at anything? Perhaps this is why Sartre became a Stoic.

Stoicism is okay, I guess, but it's kinda hard to get excited about it, especially since I'm worried about my liver. I only have one, and my bile rises when I contemplate it (I guess I should stick to navel contemplation, but the thought fills me with a sense of forbodhing).

I get nauseated - is it a sickness unto death? And are Soren and Fyodor even compatible? Is my bile rising a symptom of a diseased liver condition? When it goes, you go. In that mortal sense, we are direly tied to our livers; first a liver, then a dier - living is fatal, you know. But this is not what I wanted to say. I'll try again.

Eliot's Sacred Three (them's the facts when it comes to brass tacks) - the significant events in human existence, are Birth, Copulation and Death, the creation, conjunction and destruction of Beings-in-the-World. Is Freud right? Do our lives hinge upon the anal, the oral, the genital? Are these much-maligned orifices and protuberances the foci around which our consciousnesses blindly gyrate? Or is Heidegger closer? Is it our annihilation rather than our copulation which comprises the fulcrum upon which we leverage the unnoticed attention of our days? There is a third choice, a side alley leading away from these either-or dilemming horns, a choice of which I only recently became aware. I'll dare to share, if you care.

It's not my idea; a man named Edgar F. Borgatta worked it out in 1954. His thesis is that the source of our dreads, anxieties and assorted insecurities is - deumbilification. When we are cut off, we feel abandoned, vilified (a deumbilifi-vilifi-cation nation?). The primordial Nurturer is gone. We are lost - not through preoccupation with sex or anticipation of death, but from birth. The contingent survivors die a-borning (where do we go from here? where is here?). Our nave - the hub of our spidery twirlings - parts, dropping us into the abyss of life.

Freud would fit well into this theory. Men would wish to reconnect themselves with the warmth of the womb in mindless security, and women would wish the same. Ta-da! The handy-dandy genitalia, at your service! Heidegger would fit in, too; it's not the fall that hurts, but that sudden stop at the end - or do we just think it hurts?

Two things seem to lessen the pain of beginning, of becoming life from not-life, they are LeBoyer water birth and breast feeding. In LeBoyer, the baby is born into water to ameliorate the shock. Born and Born-Again at the same time, an infant baptism, hmm.

And the nip-p-p-les? With gut unwed, we feed the head. Merleau-Ponty stated that all our concepts are grounded in percepts, so maybe since we feel before we think, our guts are fed first - then our brains. In fact, Aristotle's Three Laws of Thought are themselves reduceable to perception. They are: 1) A Or Not-A (either it's there or it ain't), 2) Not Both A And Not-A (it can't be both there and not there in the same spatiotemporal perspective - a good Albertian viewpoint), and 3) If A Then A (if it's there, it's there). He missed one, I think: If Not-A, Then Not-A (if it ain't there, it ain't there). But being there, how would we know?

Being-there. Kosinski stole the term; it is the literal translation of Dasein, the Heideggerian term otherwise translated as Being-in-the-World.

Kant stated that all concepts without percepts are empty, and all percepts without concepts are blind. If Merleau-Ponty is right and it all starts with percepts, then I guess that we are born blind, and only later on do we perceive our emptiness. Que sera, sera - from fetal to defeatal. What a world.

Poor Giordano Bruno. He was burned at the stake by the enforcement arm of the soul-protective Catholic church. The Inquisitors ordered this - because Bruno dared to inquire. He inquired about our universe, and he came to the conclusion that it lacked an absolute center. Relativity theory - four hundred years before Einstein - and they killed him for it. Microcosm-macrocosm: a centerless mind adrift in centerless matter. Being-in-the-World. Thanks, Bruno, you're in good company. Say hi to Socrates for me (another soul slain for attempting to perpetrate self-knowledge). While you're at it, invite Jesus over to your table, too; he was most probably as misinterpreted as the rest of you.

The name of the Grand Inquisitor was Torquemada. The appellation was most probably derived from the latin torquere, to twist, and torques, collar. Tightening the screws to keep 'em collared, ay, Torquey Ol' Boy? A torque is also a piece of twisted wire worn on one's person (but around the neck, not from the navel). However, torquing also causes torsion, a spinning around a center (turning in the widening gyre). Was Bruno burned on the heretic's pyre for disagreeing with you about the existence of such a center, Torquemada? I'm almost sure he didn't mean it personally.

Anyway, we all lack a center. It was taken from us when we became us, and we'll never get it back, so long as we all shall live.

That's the reason for this sharpened knife in my hand. Primal scream therapists say that one's scream is not authentic until the knotting of the glottis is loosened. Coincidentally (or is it?), this knot is located in the center of the stomach, directly behind the navel. The Indian shot me, mama!

The Japanese don't call it hari-kiri; that's an americanization, like chop suey. They call it tsubutu. I like the phonetics of that word: tsu-bu-tu. As if you're talking to yourself to yourself listening in maddening creschEND-O! That damned knot has been there as long as I can remember and I'm fucking tired of it; I'm committed to the idea of autocaesarean section.

I'll do it with all the dignity I can muster - no chop suey-side; nope, straight through the chow mein. But I'll allow myself the pleasure of screaming.

You'll find me here beside this letter. A last theory of will beside its consummation in final action - and Guess What? I'll finally have a Center- a gleaming, silver center.

Well, cheerio! Time to plug the hole!

I hope I miss my liver.
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Glass Polish by Joe Dees

1) Surfing the Moebius

...and he found himself in blind meaningless ritual, attention so strongly focused upon the task that, until the recent self-realization, he had been egoless, performing mechanically according to the subconscious nonlogic of rote. That was behind him now; he had himself firmly in hand. He did not question the sudden remission of nonselfawareness, but bent his energies upon tightening that tentative hold, consciously striving for mental recuperation, searching for the cogitus interruption, to untangle the snag. That had been a pun; he still had his wit about him. But if the problem, and one still existed, was not within his self-consciousness, where was it? It must lie deeper; he must analyze, investigate. That's right, he realized, he was a psychologist. Identity, responding to his careful coaxing, returned to Dr. Rustland. Having established the intersubjective appelation for his point of view, the prognosis brightened, and from a more self-confident perspective, he re-examined his referential frame.

But, although his thoughts were lucid, the conclusions crystal clear, they still did not reflect reality as perceived. Our concepts are grounded in our percepts, some insightful philosopher had said. But the methodology, not self-consciousness, but consciousness itself, must be perused. However...but what was the perceived reality against which it must be checked? He couldn't see the referent, thus he couldn't delineate the parameters of the problem at hand...he couldn't see at allKant! Wait a minute! He was getting sidetracked, the philosopher's name was not the condition without which, and neither was all this reflection upon it. Self-discipline, self-discipline, one must do what one must do, the tautology held, tautologies always hold, he was neither invalid nor unsound but if it's not self-consciousness and if it's not consciousness could it be understanding? No, he understood well enough that he was sick - or was that just another self-deception? Another? Why had he said that; what was the first? Was there one? Of course there was - his slip had meaning, it simply must. Oh, yes! Eidetic memory came into play, he thought (Kant) he couldn't physically SEE. But he was always myopic where were his glasses? In his hand you dummy! What do you think he is inSANE? Could he...yes, he could put them on. It didn't help could it have been his mother, his father, himself? What was the obvious, yes, what...well what do you know? Right in front of his nose (all the time (not all the time)) the lenses must be unclean, unclean...No, dirty. He must he knew he must polish them sparkling, correct and complete, a schema must be begun, a rhythm must be set, "The novocaine was a mistake" why had he DON'T GET SIDETRACKED! Think of a ditty so (un?)familiar no yes, I dropped a sheet of windowpain/ Through my I to my brain/ And the grinding glass has driven me insane/ I dropped a sheet of windowpain/ In my brain through my I/ And the shattered shards are slicing me awry/ da-DA, da-DA, da-DA, da-da, da-DA, da-DA, da-DA/ da-DA, da-Da, da-DA, da-DA, da-da!/ da-DA, da-Da, da-Da, ...

The same damn pattern, thought Dr.

Capacot, ruminating in the bar, why always the same damn pattern? Catatonia interspersed by a steady, monotonous polishing of those sunglasses. They had taken them away once...he didn't like to think about that. If they hadn't been already gone...Rustland had been brilliant, scintillating, and then...at least there was one deviation this time: "the novocaine was a mistake," he said to himself out loud (bad habit - gotta watch that) the bell went off, the synapse was triggered NOVOCAINE! telegraphed from his tertiary brain files into the central scrutinizer was what had been discovered a bottle, in his room and his eyes (blind anyway small loss) collapsed sacs of skin secreting blood and gelatinous ooze and the needle and the emery paper still in his hand! It was a mistake because he couldn't feel his lenses to polish properly so now the glasses. Another drink and thought through the terminal loop, charted the complex Moebius daisy chain of gear-stripped brain rere...cycling redoubled entendre's He UnderSTOOD! He, a psychologist, understood another psychologist's insanity and as soon as the implications began flooding in, his hand, reaching for the glass, redirected in mid-stride. For the bottle. Because he could see no way off. Absentmindedly, rubbing his tired eyes his hand froze a heartbeat before the realization and subsequent scream the bottle was broken.

(2) Transcendence

He sat ruminating, the soothing rhythmic violence of the beat assaulting the portals of his eagerly awaiting ears. In contrast, the blank screen facing him proffered the disquieting evidence of his own nothingness. Sound was presented, melody abstracted, the counterpoint harmonies fleshing out in paradoxical unison the sterile form, but the screen offered nothing but. Unnerved, he moved to the bed and discovered that the shock had returned. Objects deformed by a point (nonexistent) of view danced crazily as it changed position relative to them to him. One becomes accustomed to this with age, but the clown behind the fringes lurks, grins and absurdly lingers. His head (sub)voluntarily turned gaze drawn to its own reflecting denial on the fluid sheen. The secret was THERE. He, the object of purposefully modified air vibrations, only perceived in passing possibility, contra tublankness, freedom of nothing necessarily. The break. Through. But not through, he was in the way of himself, his image obscured by obscuring, torturing th(r)ough tantalizing periphery of not I. Turn away - it's a trap! Who was warning, whom was being warned - too late! Caught within his own reflections, the kaleidoscope he purposefully turned, but which was first? The Void? The Plenitude? Could either or the other have a subsuming structure, hopefully a pattern? Was ther no oundtion? Or was everything co-foundational? The lotus position was small comfort. The flicker disappeared under his gaze - was it ever there? If his nothing was all of it was none of it was all of him, where was anything that could be said to be something not something else, the either-or, imposition or perception, I or not-I, reality or crazy-quilt imaginings or lack of same correlatively was the central nut. He couldn't DILARANG KERAS. He has already cracked - like a chrysalis - and his sentient wings began to bloom. Despairing of immanent paradox, he catatonically transcended for a timeless moment and resided there still, mediating upon his own characterless role as mediator, and with careful logic ineffably mediating in turn his mediation of self.

But there/here/doesitmatter? - the heart of the onion unpeeled before him layer after layer lay finally exposed and HE presenced primordial isness more basic than self, than world, than affirmation or negation. HE knew - to the marrow - and buoyed by this knowledge, regained, deliberately and purposefully, both self and world.

HE, with regrown eyes, sat up and smiled at the bars of the ward. The bars smiled back at HIM, and at the horrified nurses.
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Vengeance by Alan Delaney

She was executed at dawn - "hung from the neck until dead", just as the judge had ordered - but that was just the start of their troubles. There was the usual rabble at the hanging - the wailers, the fruit-throwers, the rosary-reciters, the terminally bored - but the presence of several strangers among the crowd should not have gone unnoticed. Of course, in a town of this size, strangers were not unknown or unusual but in retrospect they should have been more suspicious. She had not gone quietly and her people, though scattered and in hiding, were still active. Still, though the strangers were instinctively avoided and given a wide berth as they strode through the gathering, no one raised the alarm. That was their first mistake.

Their second mistake was to bury her. The courts demanded a hanging, for the stake was the resolve of a less-enlightened age, while the priests demanded burial, for the pyre was the resolve of a despised religion. They did not even follow the precautions that were once commonplace in an interment such as hers for they had long ago left behind the ways of their forefathers and believed themselves beyond such barbarisms. Instead her faithful watched in secret as her remains was sealed inside the coffin and smiled amongst themselves for they saw that her body, and with it their hopes, were still intact.

Their third mistake was to bury her in swampy wasteland next to an uninhabited forest. They were of course forbidden to bury her in consecrated ground and chose instead the most degrading location they could find yet their choice pleased her followers and made their task easier. The site was unguarded and well away from the public eye, which was just what they had prayed for.

Their fourth mistake was to assume that the whole sordid affair was over and get back on with their lives. Of course, the immediate threat was over - her followers were no longer visibly active and there were a few isolated arrests and trials - but there was no one coordinated effort to destroy the last remaining scraps of her following. Instead her faithful were left alone to meet in secret, regroup themselves, and plot for their return to glory. Their queen was dead but not forgotten. They knew the manner of her interment and their hope shone bright. The rest was merely a matter of time.

Their fifth and final mistake was the fact that they were not a superstitious people. They considered themselves logical, scientific, civilised. Everything had a logical explanation, everything could be explained rationally, there were no creatures that went bump in the night, no bogeymen, no werewolves, there was no magic, Satan was nothing more than the postulated embodiment of a theoretical concept, science had it all taped. So when their children disappeared they assumed that they had wandered into the forest and gotten lost, when they found their animals lying dead in the fields and drained of all their blood they believed the creatures had been attacked by wild animals, and when their church was burned to the ground in the dead of night they complained about the unsuitability of the building materials used in its construction and set about building a more secure one.

Besides, it was a big town, set on the crossroads of several major trade routes - things happened there all the time, no one paid too much attention to the small details.

Time passed and the town moved on.

It was a busy place and the people were too concerned with their own daily struggles to pay too much attention to a small, weed-covered mound of stony earth in a forgotten wasteland. Few of them could even remember seeing a short, proud, raven-haired woman swinging from the gallows. Sure, it was unusual for a woman to receive that sentence but far from unknown and her execution was commonplace and nondescript. There had been no last-gasp rescue attempt, no rousing speech of defiance and no struggle. She had gone quietly, resignedly and forgettably. Few even remembered the horrors that had lead to her execution: the sacrifices, the orgies, the tortures, the dismembered bodies, the desecration of the holy relics. It was enough for the courts to know that she had been caught and punished for her crimes; they saw no reason to sensationalise the matter or publish the true horrors of her atrocities. She and her cult were dead, best to leave the dead to rest in peace. No one noticed, therefore, when the mound was replaced overnight by fresh earth. No one ever went out there anymore, there were too many wild animals in the area, too many people had disappeared into the swamps, it was best to stay well away.

It was a rapidly expanding town. They had a watch of course whose job was to maintain law-and-order but it was undermanned and over-stretched and just maintained the basic functions required of them. It had no real investigations unit and no one kept any crime figures beyond knowing which taverns attracted the most fights. Few people noticed the sharp increase in child disappearances and animal mutilations and those that did merely complained about the large numbers of strangers that were arriving in the town on a regular basis. The large increase in vandalism around the town was more readily noticeable but those that did notice merely complained about the undisciplined state of modern youth and the inefficiency of the town watch and court systems. If anybody realised that they had seen it all before, they did not raise their voice loudly enough or early enough.

The town had moved away from religion, there were too many strangers, too much external influence, too many conflicting philosophies for any one faith system to keep its head above the water. This was a fact that old Father Murgathy was all too aware of. There was a time, when he had been but a young priest full of hope and ambition, when the doors to his church were always open. Now, however, the church was no longer treated with the same respect and he had to lock it up every night shortly after sunset lest the holy relics end up in a pawnbroker's window. The old people still came along faithfully every Sunday in their attempts to cling to their beloved faith in the face of a new darker age but there were so few new, young faces around these days that he was intrigued by the short, trim, black-clad young lady that was kneeling in the pews next to the confession booths, head bowed low in prayer.

Her head was buried into her outstretched arms with her rich, black hair falling loosely about her, concealing her face from his view, but the aging priest felt sure she was in her early twenties.

She also looked like she had a load on her mind - a fornication case no doubt, perhaps even adultery. Technically, confession time had ended several hours ago but she was new, she was young and she was distressed - if he turned her away now he felt sure she would never return and young people were such a rarity in the church in those days. Instead he shuffled his way towards the booth and went wordlessly inside. She crept in quietly, meekly, muttering things under her breath that the priest could not hear distinctly but assumed to be prayers. She sat down soundlessly and began.

"Forgive me father for I have sinned, it has been three thousand years since my last confession."

It was late, he was tired, he was getting old, and his hearing was not the best anymore. But...

"I have stolen the holy relics from the Lord's altar," she continued. "I have spoken His name in vain and desecrated His holy places. I have defecated on His image and masturbated with His cross. I have tortured and maimed His believers, sacrificed His priests and bathed in their blood. I have destroyed His churches and massacred His faithful. I have committed fornication, adultery and sodomy. I have lain with unmarried men, with married men, with women, with children and with animals. I have held great orgies in honour of Satan and killed my lovers even while they were having their way with me. I have drank the blood and eaten the bodies of small children even while they screamed for their lives. I have tortured my own body, my believers and my enemies. I have gouged their eyes out of their living bodies and poured boiling oil into the sockets. I have skinned them alive and roasted them slowly on a spit. I have kissed the feet of Lucifer and feasted at His table. I have held great banquets in His name and have enlisted the young and the gullible into His service. I have corrupted the minds of the youth and brought them to the throne of hell. I have killed the weak, the young, the old, the feeble, the defenceless, the innocent, the blameless, the holy, the faithful, the unborn. I have built towers with their skulls and walls with their corpses. I have poisoned rivers and seas with their rotting bodies and feasted upon their decaying flesh. I have..."

Behind the thin walls the priest was frozen with fear. She was confessing her crimes, but these were the crimes of no ordinary mortal and her tone contained no suggestion of remorse. Rather she was gloating, boasting about her exploits, perhaps even reliving happy memories. The air in the booth felt hot and stuffy which he was sure was not merely his imagination. He wanted her to stop, wanted her to cease this torture - she seemed capable of staying like this for hours if he allowed her to do so - but no words would utter from his lips. Instead all he could do was sit and listen in silence hoping it would all soon be over.

"...and drove them to madness. I have sown the seeds of lies and hatred so that His own believers learn to hate Him. I have corrupted His own priests so that they have preached the word of Satan and not the teachings of the Gospels.

I have brought the innocent and the gullible to Satan's altar and made them pledge themselves unto His service. I have lain with Bishops and masturbated Cardinals. I have led the mighty armies of Satan against the hosts of God and..."

The voice had mesmerised the priest. The voice was light and musical but carried deep undertones of menace. It also sounded familiar somehow; faint bells of recognition were ringing in the far recesses of his mind. Somehow he was sure they had met before but he was old and his mind was slow and no memories would come back to him. Finally, he could take the torture no more.

"Who are you?" he croaked. It was a small, thin sound but one that had taken enormous effort. The confessor stopped and leaned right up to the thin grill separating her from the priest giving him his first good look at her youthful, smiling face.

"Oh come on Andy, we've met before. Surely you remember me." It was spoken with all the insouciance of one sharing a joke with a good friend.

The priest turned his face towards the one at the grill. The smile was broad, easy and full of mirth but the eyes held nothing but hate. Even in the gloom of an unlit confessional booth, the large, purple bruise about her neck was unmistakable.

"You!"

The town had moved away from religion, few people came to the church at all anymore and certainly not this late at night so there was no one to hear the smashing of wood, the muffled scream or the wet, dying noises. No one saw the smiling young woman carrying a large, ancient goblet with great care out of the confession booth. No one noticed when she undressed herself and knelt naked on the altar. No one was watching when she poured the dark-red contents of the goblet on her head and across her breasts and along her legs, covering herself almost completely with it. No one was there when she placed a large crucifix before her, slit her own wrist and let her blood flow onto the cross, muttering under her breath. Of course, many people heard the loud explosion that ripped through the church, blew out most of the plate-glass windows and destroyed a large part of its interior but by the time they arrived to put the fires out it was all too late - she was back, she was angry, and this time she was not about to be taken so easily.
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Within the Shadow by Evan Dixon

It was a quiet night, with the evanescent moon hanging overhead flaunting its luminous aura. Stars flickered in various places across the black gulf of the sky, and the trees stood like silent watchers in the night. Emerson was a little disturbed by the quietness of the forest, because usually there were noises everywhere. But he ignored it, pushing it to the back of his mind, not listening, not caring about what his conscience was telling him. He had had a good thanksgiving dinner with everyone, including the mayor's lovely daughter, and wasn't about to let the unusual absence of sound within cloud his thoughts.
Holding his lantern up high, the young man began his journey through the woods to his small humble home, located deep within the forest. In his other hand, scarred and calloused from many days of rough living in the woods, was a shotgun, with a nice mahogany handle and furnished barrel. It was his pride and joy, a gift from his father, who was killed some time back in the Civil War.
Emerson soon became lost in thought as he took the usual path through the oaks and pines. That dinner was really lovely, just as lovely as the mayor's daughter, Alice. Yes, he enjoyed being with her. Emerson expected she enjoyed his company also. Well, that would be something if he married her, wouldn't it? The young hunter and coppersmith that lives in the woods, marrying Alice, the mayor's fine daughter-
Something stirred behind one of the oaks.
With quick reflexes, Emerson set his lantern down on the ground, quietly but quickly, and drew his gun up to point at the tree. He stood there for a few minutes, a little nervous, but only after going behind the tree and checking did his doubts blow away.
And then, from somewhere up above, Emerson heard a distinct snarl.
With a yell of fright, Emerson pointed his gun up to the top of the tree and fired a shot that knocked him onto his back. The thing in the tree howled and leaped from the branches straight towards him. With amazing agility, Emerson leaped up from the ground and ran, kicking over his lantern that he had left on the path. The lantern burst, and a fire began to spread across the forest floor.
With the fire growing steadily, and his foe somewhere nearby, Emerson realized he had to get out of the forest, and quickly. Thankfully, however, the fire did not spread, as the path served as somewhat of a fire-break. So his home would be safe. Thankful for this fortunate happening, Emerson took off down the path back towards town, to warn the population that there was someone, or something, in the woods.
It was at that moment, however, as Emerson looked behind him, that a slightly crouched figure leaped with amazing height and speed over the flames, landing with somewhat of a thud. Emerson looked with horror at what he saw down the path about thirty feet in front of him. It was a werewolf.
Never before had Emerson seen such a horrific creature. It had silvery gray hair, with yellowed fangs that were dripping with lustful saliva.

The claws on its hands gleamed like ivory beneath the moonlight. It stood upright like a human, though slightly crouched, its long forearms hanging at its sides.
With fright eating away at his mind, Emerson took a shot at the creature, which with amazing speed dodged the bullet by leaping on the other side of the fire. It then howled, a loud piercing howl that pierced the night like a knife. With engulfing terror, Emerson heard other howls, many of which were not far away. With paranoia clouding his senses, he took off down the path, not being able to think clearly, his only desire to escape from the enemies that surrounded him.
As he reached the end of the path and descried through the trees the village, relief began to edge its way in. Hopefully, he thought, the fire would keep the creatures away and would be delayed long enough for him to alert the town.
Just at that moment, however, he noticed a pair of glowing red, malicious eyes peering at him from the darkness. And from within the shadow, onto the path, came the largest werewolf he had seen yet. It was pitch black, standing at least seven feet tall, with sadistically curved claws that looked prepared to slash open the flesh of any living thing unfortunate enough to cross its path.
Emerson almost fainted with raw terror. The creature howled and leapt at him. He took a shot at the creature, and it roared with fury and pain as black blood splattered from its wound, some of it landing on Emerson's hand. He yelled with pain; the blood was like acid. It had already eaten away at the skin on the top of his hand.
With sweat and tears rolling down his face, Emerson backed away, stumbling, crying, praying that all this would end, that it was just a nightmare. Yes, that's it, he told himself, it's just a dream. In a few minutes I'll wake up and I'll be in bed at the cottage...
But he did not wake up. This was all too real. He was caught in the deathtrap of a werewolf, and there was no escape.
Just at that moment, however, something came across the sky at the top of the whispering trees, a flying figure, silent and deadly. The werewolves looked up, a few of them scampering for cover. The largest of the werewolves, presumably the alpha male, seemed a little degraded by the appearance of this new foe. Emerson looked up with both disbelief and terror mixing his brain, clouding it, making it too hard to think...
And then suddenly the figure in the sky came plummeting down, landing gracefully about three yards away from the werewolf. Emerson backed away with absolute shock taking over his senses. For standing before him, beside the werewolf, was a vampire.
Instead, however, of attacking Emerson, the vampire went for the werewolf.
It was an absolutely spectacular sight. Here were two creatures, talked of like they were from a fairy tale, battling one another in the forest. Emerson couldn't believe it. It was just too hard to comprehend.
Emerson had never seen a more gruesome, gratuitous battle. The two creatures were literally ripping each other to pieces.

The werewolf lunged for the vampire's neck, but every time failed at its attempt because the vampire would punch it on the snout or come close to biting it. Obviously enough, this would produce disastrous consequences for the werewolf, because it backed away every time the vampire tried to skink its fangs in it.
The battle seemed to go on for ages. Emerson tried to persuade himself to run. He had to. As soon as one of these creatures died, the surviving one would come for him. He even began to take a few steps, but couldn't bring himself to do it. The battle seemed to have a hypnotic effect on him.
Within a few minutes, however, the vampire had won. With gruesome savagery, it sunk its fangs into the wolf's neck, killing it instantly. The lifeless body of the werewolf slumped to the ground as the vampire threw it aside and drew closer to Emerson. He was a man, tall, with dark eyes, and a pallid, vicious look about him. His clothes were those of any simple village man.
With joyful malice gleaming in his eyes, he drew closer to Emerson, who stumbled away and began to run as fast as he possible could. Where he went didn't matter; all he knew was that he had to get away or he was as good as dead.
As he began to run towards the middle of the forest, the vampire took to the sky and began swerving in and out of the trees, weaving a path through the air, following his every move. With a cry of terror and exertion he ran forward with all his speed and might, for in the distance he saw his simple log cabin home.
A hopeful bubble rose in his chest. If he could make it to the cabin and bar the windows and door, he would be safe...
And with amazing speed the vampire came down out of the air, surging towards him with a terrifying screech. Emerson looked up, and suddenly realized that he had his gun in his hand. If he aimed properly, he could kill the vampire in the air!
With beads of sweat gathering on his forehead and time quickly slipping away, Emerson drew his gun up and prepared to aim. The vampire was drawing closer. Any second he would reach the ground and slay him... he had to fire now. Emerson pulled the trigger.
The gun was empty.
Terror held him like a vise. There was nothing he could do. The vampire had almost landed and was too close for him to do anything. He stood there, rooted to the spot, as the vampire landed on the ground and came toward him.
Suddenly, as if from nowhere, the rest of the werewolves that had run away leapt upon the vampire and began clawing it to death.
Emerson nearly shouted with joy at this stroke of luck. The fight would give him enough time to escape and get to the town. Dropping his gun, which was now a hindrance rather than a tool, he took off, looking back only once upon the battle he had left behind. From the way it looked, the vampire was fighting the werewolves well, and neither side was winning.
Never again will I come back here again, he told himself as he reached the edge of the woods. This forest is damned with the creatures of hell...
A terrifying blast roared out from behind him.

Surprisingly, though he was far away, the force of the blast knocked Emerson down. He looked back with terror, and saw a large orange glow from afar. The vampire had summoned fire.
A growl entered his ears.
Looking up from where he laid, Emerson saw, standing before him, the supposedly dead alpha male. The werewolf looked at him, and before Emerson could do anything, the werewolf had clamped its jaw around his neck and bitten him. Pain erupted all over his body; he felt as if his head had been split in two. His senses began to cloud over. From very far away he heard the dying screech of the vampire as the rest of the werewolves killed it. He looked up one more time with misty eyes and saw the werewolf standing before him. Yet it looked like a man...
Then Emerson heard and saw no more.

Epilogue
Alice, the mayor's daughter, crept down the path gracefully. The sun had nearly set, and the full moon had already come out from its disguise of the clouds and had begun to cast its cryptic light down upon the forest. Alice looked at the flowers held in her hands. They were so nice; Father would surely like them.
Alice neared the edge of the forest. She looked back, and saw from afar the cottage of James Emerson. It was so sad how they hadn't been able to find his body. Father said he had probably been dr#g off by a bear or something. What a pity; he was such a nice young man. Alice had even begun to like him.
Alice left the path behind and entered the outskirts of the village. Not one time while in the forest did she notice the werewolf who had followed her from afar. And now, as she left, it looked after her from a twisted oak, snarling as it looked on with its dark brown, piercing eyes. Emerson's eyes.
A howl issued from the forest. Alice looked back in fright as she met her father at the door of their home in the middle of the village, for she had heard that howl so many times and it frightened her so much.
Back in the forest, the werewolf leapt from the tree and scampered off into the arriving night towards the call of its kind.
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Sara's Beacon: Prologue by Shanda E

The mirror reflected an image of fear, an image of evil. The cracks that spread through the reflective glass only shadowed and disfigured the fear, only brought out the evil within. Brown thinning hair with a splash of gray decorated and brown eyes dotted the man's fattened face. He lowered himself into his beloved brown leather recliner after stepping over the lifeless body that lay on the floor. The television, although spotted and sprayed with his friend's blood, was brightly displaying a game show that would normally catch his interest but his attention wasn't on the flickering box. An unseen force was trying to control his mind. The evil wasn't strong enough to take his body over completely, and the fear was still evident only because he knew what was going on inside of him. He knew there was no stopping it either. He knew from the experience he had moments ago when he couldn't stop himself from ruthlessly murdering his best and only friend. The memory replayed itself over and over. It was of him, no it was of the evil inside of him, picking up that ten-pound sledgehammer and smashing his friend of twelve years in the face. But it didn't end there; whatever had taken over his body kept lifting the hammer and repeatedly dropping it into his friend's body until there was no movement at all. Until there was no identifying features remaining.
And now, after that horrible nightmare had ended, no matter how much muscle he tried to put into stopping the force, his hand was still reaching for the box cutter razor blade on the edge of the table. No matter how hard he tried, it was as if he was paralyzed and someone was moving his arm for him. His eyes weld up with tears but they never fell down his face. The cold metal reached the skin of his neck when the evil began to rake it from left to right. His eyes weld shut and the tears streamed down as the pain struck him, as the razor began splitting his neck in one long fine perfect slice. Blood drained like water flowing off of a cliff, and through what was left of his voice he spit out a nightmarish gurgling sound. In that instant, as he felt the warm liquid soak his dirty shirt, he knew it was the end. He also knew how easily it could have been avoided if he would have moved out of the horrid place when he had the chance. But now the chance was gone, and there would be no more. The tears in his eyes fell further down his cheek as he experienced the worst pain imaginable. Not only the physical pain he was feeling, but also the emotional pain of knowing there would be no more days ahead of him.
Then it was over. The pain was slowly disappearing and the room around him was going black. He tried to keep his eyes open, but they were stronger than his fight and closing quickly. His body was shutting down, either from shock or loss of blood, and he felt every step of it. It was the worst feeling in the world, and no matter how selfish he was in his life he knew that nobody should ever have to experience a pain so horrible. Surprisingly to him, the emotions hurt worse than the physical throb. Just before he felt the world slip away; he heard the faint laughter of the evil that inhabited him only minutes ago. The man sent one single prayer before he felt the heaviness consume him. He prayed his first last and only prayer to God that no one ever step foot in this house again. He prayed that God take away the power that was given the evil and send it straight to hell where it belongs.
He would never know if the evil was banished to hell. He would never know if mankind ever stood a chance against what only he knew existed. But God help anyone who would put a foot on these cursed floors.
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