by Dan Lee
I trembled as I fell to my knees in the snow-ash drifts on the hill. My chest was on fire, each struggling inhalation a ball of flame that moved fluidly down my throat and into my lungs. My eyes watered, ached as I tried to focus on the structure in the distance. So close, my home, but so far away that I knew as I began to choke on the blood filling my mouth that I would die in the wastes outside before I could ever set one foot over the threshold. A gurgle in my stomach shook me. Suddenly, the copper taste blood was replaced by the overwhelming putrescence of sulfuric bile that erupted from parted lips into the blackening earth below. This was the end.
In the delirium I could see the sun shining bright in the clear blue sky overhead, warm on my face with a sweet September wind caressing me as I struggled to stand up only to topple over into the dirt and vomitus once more. Below in the valley, Nashville was spread out in all its southern charm and beauty surrounded at all sides by lush green hills like an island of civilization in an otherwise untamed wild. This was happiness, the sounds of the bustling metropolis muted by the songs of nature all around as I lay dying in the fetid dirt. But all dreams end and from the horizon, black fingers began to grasp up at the heavens. The sun flickered, began to fester and ooze until it was a sucking red and purple wound in the blood bruised sky. From inside the wound that had been the sun, black fingers pierced out from the beating heart of the star and clawed at the sky. Skeleton hands took hold and began to pull a gnarled, terrifying body from within. Dark eyes glared as the beast took shape, horns and fangs and talons swimming in a moat of liquid fire spilling in a torrent into the city. Thunder rumbled, rattled deep inside my chest, agony rippling through every vein as the creature took its first breath and roared across the hellscape it had birthed.
I woke up in a cold sweat, heart jack hammering as I threw off the wool blanket that had covered me and panted for air. Outside it was still dark, the moon shining its blue-white essence into the woods surrounding the old cabin that had been my home ever since my escape from the city. In the fireplace, the last glowing embers were flickering red-orange, winking into charred shades of ash white and gray one by one. I put my feet on the cool wood panels of the floor and cupped my face in the palms of my hands. It was getting worse. The nightmares were getting more explicit, more real with each passing night. From the corner of the room, locked in the small safe, I could hear it whispering to me, calling from the darkness that surrounded it, from the formless void of dreams and nightmares and all the ethereal things that couldn’t possibly have been but were. I could hear it as it spoke through the nothing.
He is risen. He is coming soon.
“We had an agreement.” I shouted across the table. Everyone in the diner had already turned and begun to stare. I was disheveled, more so than usual with a scruffy beard, dirty clothes, and wild eyes that reflected back at me in panic from my face in the chrome of the napkin box on the table.
From the other side of the booth, Mike Reed raised his arms to silence me, flashing that toothy, gameshow host grin at the waitress and the other patrons inside. He was a tall, slender guy with those generic good looks that complimented his sleazy charms. In a button down shirt, tie, and a pair of jeans, he looked normal by comparison. No one would ever have suspected him of being a criminal. I was the only one who knew the truth about Mike, about the thing he’d left me to guard in that safe in my little cabin in the woods.
“Would you keep it down?” He said through gritted teeth. “Jack, I’ve got this under control, man.”
“Yeah, I’ve heard this before, man.” I scoffed. “If you had this shit under control, I wouldn’t have lost my life’s savings investing in your big idea. I wouldn’t have had to help you break into that guy’s house. I damned sure wouldn’t be sleeping ten feet away from that… that thing.”
“Is it doing it again?”
“I assume you mean giving me those pants shitting nightmares? Yes. I haven’t had more than four hours of sleep in the last five days. I’m starting to crack up.”
He nodded as if he genuinely understood what was happening. He didn’t, but he was at least making a good show of it.
“Look, I’ve got a buyer on the line.” He reassured me. “Just give me a few more days and we’ll have it out of your place. We’ll get it sold and we’ll be set for life, baby, just you and me on easy street. Think about it, man.”
I shook my head as the waitress put two cups of coffee on the table between us. I took my cup of straight black Folgers and slammed it back, savoring every bit of bitterness as it scorched a trail down my esophagus. With the roof of my mouth still on fire, I grabbed his no fat, soy milk latte, knocked the lid off the cup and chugged it before motioning for the waitress to bring us another round.
“Maybe you don’t understand me,” I said. “That thing is ripping my brain apart from the inside just for kicks. Either you get rid of it today or I’ll do it myself.”
Mike reached across the table again and grabbed me by the scruff of my shirt. It was less inconspicuous than before as his face flushed red with anger. He pulled me across the table and stared at me with cold, blue eyes.
“That thing you keep bitching about is our meal ticket, Jack.”
“It’s evil, Mike. I’ve been living with it for over a week now. There is nothing good inside of that thing and the only person who could ever want that thing would be the Devil himself. I’m scared to think of what sort of evil someone could do with it, Mike.”