When I was in my twenties, recovering from that whole drunk delirium of being a teenager, I joined the army. I was a good soldier; I tied my laces, buckled my helmet, straightened my sheets, and listened to my superiors. And it was all a waste of time; when bullets flew, and blood became a more common sight than friendly faces, I was transformed from a man to a coward to a thing. Just a thing; for they had no name for the gun-wielding robot I’d become.
Nevertheless, I survived those times, and I was known-–for some reason–-as a war hero. But I knew the truth of it all.
I was no hero, just a man who did his best to dodge bullets, and fired back blindly in the direction of people’s brothers, sons and fathers. These poor souls now swim in the depths of the Styx, a line of dead souls splitting the planes of hell; they will have no war stories for the ears of eager grandchildren, and they will never gaze at medals hanging above their mantle. They will have no wounds, because they themselves are the bloody wounds of war. I’ve seen brain escape from its skull prison and decorate walls – it became regular, like I was living in Hannibal’s art gallery; I’ve seen brother kill brother in the depths of battle, a gloved fist pushed through the intestines to pave a jagged tunnel out the back, a viscous spray of family blood onto an awe-struck face-–crimson red on pale white. I’ve seen insides ripped out by bare hands and eaten in the delirium of the desert-heat. I’m a veteran, and I’ve seen everything. The story I’m about to tell you is one I can only write; the words refuse to leave my mouth, and I will not let them seep into the universe. Nothing of war prepared me for it. Nothing will ever be right again.
My wife was a great woman. When all of this mess happened she was two years younger than me, thirty-three. It is twenty years later now, and I can still remember that particular feeling I got every time I looked at her. Her skin was creamy, and smooth to the touch, as if God had mixed silk into the blend at birth. Her hair was like a brunette waterfall; cascading down past her neck in waves to break upon a surface no water ever had the pleasure–-her porcelain shoulders. Any run-away streams escaped and fell loose down her seductively curved back or her perfect chest. To not be able to meet her angelic lips–red like the finest rubies–with my own would be a fate worse than death, a doom more terrifying than any version of hell. Her eyes sparkled like no diamonds known to man; they were a deadly trap, and I could have stayed happily in that blue prison until the end of my days. Each time they closed it was like the sun had set in my world, and each time they opened a new milestone was added to the history of beauty. She was also kind; her spirit was just as bright as those eyes, and she wasn’t afraid to let it shine on those less fortunate–it was one of the reasons she’d become a social worker. Deep at the heart of some lost soul’s drug problem or a family’s torment, she sat and spun her generous webs. She was a good soul, a precious gem humanity was never worthy enough to receive and the divines never had the right to take.
“Push me higher Daddy! Higher!” My son yelled. His pre-pubescent voice soared to such heights I could feel my eardrums pulse beneath it, yet it filled my heart with happiness.
The swing sailed through the air and back again like a Viking ship over tidal waves, and my little boy was the captain. His pointed feet stabbed out into the air, a protest to gravity if there ever was one; they were the mast-head. Marcus had developed a hedge of fine white hair atop his head–not gold, not grey, but beautifully pristine white, and it became lost against the background of clouds behind him. At a first glance he seemed to be dangling from them, like he was one with the sky and the air–above humanity and everything else mundane, simply pure. He was happy to steer his own craft for a daring moment, and in that time I turned to see my wife baking behind the kitchen window. Her shape punctured the escaping wall of light, resembling something angelic, and it blew me a kiss. I made sure to catch it swiftly and plant it on my lips before turning back to my airborne son, for such delights are rare in this world, and when I did turn back it was with a renewed vigour–the kind that only true love can bestow.
“Come on Marcus; it’s bed time. The night-night trip is waiting.” With a sound like an engine shutting down, a heavy whoosh, I slowed my son to a halt and plucked him from the wooden seat.
I’d made the swing-set five years beforehand–when he was still just a toddler–with the hope that one day he could get such happiness from it. Seeing him depart with a smile on his face, his eyelids fluttering to fight the battle against their descent, always gave me a warm feeling. And by the time we’d reached the back door, having crossed the small sea of patio slabs, the descent would have won.
I gently pulled the door shut behind us, passed Melissa with a finger to my lips, and tip-toed the kid to his room. After leaving the kitchen we crossed through a small hallway. It was lit by motion-sensor lights, dotting the walls in uniform rows. There were two oak doors on either side before a stairs at the end; on the left there was the master bedroom and the living room, and on the right there was Marcus’ playroom and my study. The wallpaper was a deep wine red, and the carpet matched perfectly. We had an architect design the house on the basis ‘We don’t really mind how it looks, as long as it’s easy and comfortable.’ And so, he’d given us a present from the basement of his imagination. The stairs–its entrance through an arch, not a door–spanned the entire width of the hallway, and twisted up to the second story, in which rested only three rooms. There was Marcus’ bedroom, accompanied by a big family bathroom and Melissa’s hobby room. The hobby room was always locked, but she’d shared with me what went on in there once–it was a conversation I’ll never forget. Séances, Ouija boards, voodoo dolls; my wife had a fascination with the occult, and she didn’t buy into the danger of it like most do. Whatever she was looking at, whether she knew she was looking at it or not, was either dead or of another world; she figured there was no risk involved. As for me, I’d seen what true evil was–it came in the form of machetes, machine guns and frescoes of blood painted on walls that will forever hold nightmarish memories. My years of service had stained the innocent side of my mind with corrupt memories, and so, I was perfectly fine with Melissa messing about with some wooden boards and straw dolls.
I led Marcus up the stairs quietly–the second step always creaked–and again met an array of motion-sensor lights walking down the hall to his bedroom. When they flicked on the brightness consumed me, swallowed me into its warm embrace. I passed the bathroom on the right, the surface of its door adorned with a drawing from Marcus which read ‘Poop Palace’ and had a small crude shape underneath coloured in with brown Crayola. I just stopped my hand from tearing it down; the army had indeed left hidden in my brain some residue compulsion to have everything respectable and organised, but I wouldn’t take it so far as to ruin my son’s art. Also, war had turned me hostile to all things military; even so much as scolding Marcus reminded me too much of petty drill sergeants–I left that distasteful corner of parenthood to Melissa. I was always perfectly happy being the nice Dad.
When I passed Melissa’s hobby room, I got the strangest feeling. It wasn’t so much like there was somebody watching me, but more like there was something inside me–some kind of frost that I couldn’t thaw off, not for the rest of the night. It was the marrow in my bones and the blood running through my veins; it shadowed my thoughts and observed the gallery of my imagination; it was me, yet it was something devious, some kind of virus. I felt infected, invaded. It would only be later, after a string of events I still can’t fully comprehend, that I would really remember that feeling of an intruder. Cold as a corpse in the ocean, I reached Marcus’ door and put him to bed.
Soon, night had once again turned to day. But darkness had not yet relinquished its reign on the house; there was a different kind approaching, and in its ranks marched an inevitable doom.
“Love you kiddo. Be good in school, okay?” Melissa patted Marcus on the head, and he took off towards the gate where a big yellow bus waited. I’d been bullied in school, which was one of the reasons I’d ventured into the military. For me, that bus looked like a reptilian monster, hopefully crawling off to die as it tore down the road with my son. Its wheels, throwing dirt into the country air in waves, screeching against their years of use, made the promise of my head being pushed into a whirlpool of green tissue. And those kinds of promises were always kept.
That morning came painfully after a night spent with Melissa. It was a reminder that no matter how strong a love can be, time is obsolete; you can always count on a tomorrow, but the butterflies in your stomach may yet turn to stone. They are, as simply as you and I are, victims to the passing of years–something from which we shall never be freed. Somehow my wife’s shining face ignored this law. It burrowed into my head and my heart like a drill, twisting and spinning through my being, littering my sense with romance. I didn’t mind; love never blinded me, for it had nothing to hide. Time has left me with more wrinkles than teeth, more sorrow than happiness and more memories than friends. But when I think about the roses blooming in her cheeks and delicious lips, it all means nothing.
This thought ran through my head as I watched her dress. She put her clothes on so casually and care-free that I had to lean back in bed and smile; it wasn’t how I would act when dealing with such a masterpiece–I would move each finger only with her permission, and even then slowly; I was a slave to her power. The graceful curve of her buttocks as it became her lower-back; the pictures her hair painted as it spilled across her naked chest and shoulders; her movements so like those of angels dancing, fluid and beautiful. She was the physical embodiment of my love and my lust, and I knew I could be one with her for an eternity–even longer; we would travel past the reaches of time and become ethereal, a constellation in the skies of Aphrodite. She always was my shining star.
The walls were grey and dreary, but they were adorned with an array of mysterious items. Between Ouija boards, pictures of seemingly ‘possessed’ people and ghost sightings, shelves lined with somehow cursed items and demonic books, and a display of satanic symbols reminiscent of the devil’s bedroom, the place was a throbbing tribute to the occult. In the bird’s eye view of three-eyed crows, it lit up like an evil Christmas tree. Melissa always had taken an interest to anything strange; in school she was the girl who shadowed the bullied kids, waiting for an opportunity to snatch up a friendship with an outsider; in work she sometimes followed people merely to see what a day in their life was like; she was always in search of something barely ahead of her, chasing something that always matched her speed–normality, she figured, was a stop on the train of life too many people departed at; she refused to take that exit. She was riding that train into the fog of the unknown, and any risks were like the conductor’s voice over the intercom; nobody payed attention.
She took her usual seat like she would sit down to a Sunday lunch as opposed to a demonic gathering; there was a very limited amount of furniture–two hardback wooden chairs with a glass coffee-table in between them–but with Satan’s arsenal painting the walls the room was far from empty. The white Ouija board sat in front of her, and the air around it seemed to pulse with some kind of aura. Nothing could be seen or heard, but she felt it as much as she could feel her finger move to straighten the pointer. She didn’t need to ask if it was there this time–she knew it was there. She knew that it was sitting across the table, looking at her, envying each breath like it was a treasure. She knew that it was there. And she knew that it was watching her.
Hands planted on the pointer like an architect over blueprints, so precise with her delicate fingers, she glided the tool around the field of letters. It sometimes reminded her of childhood board-games, ways they would pass the time in the abyss of pre-technology, but she somehow didn’t see the line between ‘entertainment’ and ‘too far’. Letter to letter, word to word, she was paving the path to something otherworldly. The problem was that as she paved that path, and opened that tunnel, she created two lanes. And something was smiling at her.
Melissa, unbeknownst to her husband, her mother in England, even her son Marcus, was bored with the repetition of life. She was stuck on a rollercoaster that never left the ground, doomed to watch more impressive ones paint the horizon. Her hatred for normality, the hatred that pillared the construct of her personality, surpassed even the love she held for her family. She had come upon something very dangerous indeed–realization of her own insignificance. One thought–one idea–had plagued her every day since the first communication. One important decision left unmade in her head. One line was given to the spirits that day.
“I’m ready for you; take me.” And along with Melissa’s consciousness, light abandoned. The room was hurled into a world of malevolent black – a black where evil gave birth.
In that black, it lived.
It was eight o’clock that evening when I heard the door slam shut, and the slow footsteps follow. I didn’t realize it then, but thinking back on it those footsteps held an echo with them. It still rings in my ears; when I hear the Angeles from the church bells, or the cuckoo of the bird in my clock, I can hear those footsteps caressing some fear deep inside, stoking a flame that should have turned to dead embers long ago. I was downstairs failing to bake a cake–it was Marcus’ birthday the following day–and my hands were deep into the jam-layered turmoil they’d created when the noise came. Marcus was outside, managing for the first time to push himself on the swings without fear, and he looked happier than ever. In between the heaves of his Viking ship back and forth, he would take moments to smile and wave at me, his white air trailing after him as he flew. It was in the middle of one of these waves that the noise came. It was just as the sun retreated from its post and nestled down beneath a bank of trees on the horizon, just as the world descended into a sea of darkness and I called for Marcus to come in, that the noise came.
Marcus ran in at the exact moment I’d resorted to my combat knife and stabbed the heap of ingredients that was his cake right down the middle. The blade split through the mass of crumbs, jam and blue icing and buried its tip into the chopping board beneath. I grimaced noticeably–I’d seen too many of those same steel tips find homes in flesh, and the memory of wielding such a thing forced the butt of my palm to my temple. I soothed the pain, huddled against the counter-top like an elder, and my son pointed out immediately the resemblance between my hurt state and my bill-paying state. I began to chuckle at his wit, a merry intrusion upon my frustration; he was a young boy, and for him to be able to think in such ways sometimes astounded me. I was just about to offer him an early plate of my self-labelled ‘cake surprise’–before his mother came down to see and I fell victim to embarrassment–when the breathing stopped me. It stopped us both. That deathly silence took my chuckling hostage, and to this day I have never retrieved it.
From the left of us, right down the pitch-black hallway which led to the stairs, came what seemed like the noise of a broken vent. I would have thought it too struggled to be human breathing, but I could make out the inhalation and exhalation. It was ragged, like that of a dying man, a dagger twisted deep in his lungs. The noise was like the winds of war travelling across a battlefield, carrying with them cries of eminent despair, wails of death so vicious I covered my ears. It was the noise of true evil. The cake fell to the floor, and the paintings it created were reminiscent of devil worship. It was like Melissa’s hobby room had somehow manifested itself into the foundation of the house, like the roots of our home had engaged in a lover’s embrace with the branches of the trees of hell. And it was right then, tuning to that horrible sound, that I got the same chilled feeling of an invader in my body. I could feel it crawling along my bones, burrowing through to rot the marrow. I could feel it twisting around my spine and grabbing hold. I could feel it call to something deep down inside my soul, and I was rejecting that call. My whole being seemed to be violated by some incessant plague, and it began to shiver out of my control. My skin felt like there was an army of freezing spiders surging across it in waves; my thoughts were contaminated, for they now projected a reel of torturous images: slaughter, rape, war, famine, hunger–all manners of cruelty were flashing before my eyes; I was witnessing the history of everything wrong with the world. And what scared me more than absolutely anything, was that in between each image was a momentary flicker of my wife’s face–changed.
Finally, it stopped.
I lay breathless on the kitchen floor, my son’s hand curled into my own as he wept beside me. I could feel his tears on my skin, cold and wet and filled with innocence. The breathing had quietened to a halt, but it was like the hush of the wind in the depths of a storm; I knew it would not last. My head creaked sideways on the floor and once again, I dared a glance at that dark hallway. The motion sensors had not come on; I figured whatever it was that had made the noise hadn’t left the stairs yet. Giving my son the instructions to stay where he was, no matter what he saw, I stood on trembling legs. Each step from then on took me closer to that wall of blackness; each step was a step towards hell; each step was one of the last steps not carrying haunted memories that I’ve ever taken. Sweat gathered in rolling beads down along my forehead and cheeks like rain on a window, and it sunk–almost cowering–into the embrace of my upper lip.
The darkness was overwhelming as I entered the hallway; I could feel the other world hiding behind our own generous facade. Like a visor had been taken from my eyes, all was revealed at once. The untainted malice punctuated the story-line of every horror movie I have ever seen, made it real. I could feel my soul shrouded in a satanic residue, one that has not since lifted. My eyes began to dart left and right, panicking beneath the weight of that unyielding blackness. It was no longer a simple absence of light; it was something physical, the embodiment of the deepest recesses of imagination, a force that nothing of heaven would ever reckon with.
My courage had taken me halfway through that insidious tunnel when the workings of hell punctured my normal life. My face was a puddle of sweat from which protruded my petrified eyes; my tongue felt like a weighted slug in my mouth; my feet could carry me no more into the sea of shadow. The second step on the stairs creaked.
It happened in the space of a second; there was the creak, the break in the silence coming like the first spill of paint on an evil canvas, and then there were the lights. They had returned like an old friend coming to strip me of fear, and for a moment I was standing in the yard pushing Marcus on the swings; I was lying in bed with the woman I loved; I was attempting to bake a cake. I was back in my own world, rescued from the evils of this new apocalyptic plane. Then my eyes moved–like fish darting beneath the surface of a shallow river, such was my sweaty face–and settled upon her, now hovering above that creaking second step.
She was garbed in her white night-gown, coming down to her knees, frayed and torn; hair still fell upon her shoulders, but it was burned a dark shade, and the shoulders were no longer porcelain–they were blackened to match the rest of her skin, as if she had rolled through carpets of ash. Her whole body was cobwebbed in deep cracks, a road-map of hell, cut-out rivers flowing in deep crevasses around her flesh. Large pores marked their devious sources like tiny volcanoes, oozing thick blood into them. Her fingers–the flesh of most ripped to shreds and glistening red beneath the black, curled into gnarled talons; they looked fit to tear still-beating hearts from chests, ending in dirty elliptical claws, plastered in layers of grime. Her feet were the same–dirty, clawed, and bloody–and they hung in the air six inches above the step. I took it all in, and then my eyes travelled to her face–once a mirror upon which beauty gazed. Now nothing of beauty remained.
Fangs hung where teeth used to be, a jagged horizon cresting black infected gums. Her lips were thin and cracked, drained of life by whatever presence dwelled within. Saliva nestled into those cracks, and from there it flowed down her chin and departed. Her tongue was a livid black mess behind that wall of spikes, throbbing with each beat of the diseased heart inside her chest. Her nose ran dark blood down her face to rest on her lips, before intruding upon the rotting cave of her mouth. The flesh of her left cheek was decaying into a nightmarish hole, and even as I watched it grew larger.
From where my wife used to wield the most beautiful set of eyes that ever held hostage a hopeless romantic, peered two unyielding white orbs. Manic lines flitted across their pale surface like dancers, and thin red protrusions bordered them where eyelids were nowhere to be seen. No pupils rested at their centre, but in the emptiness the promise of eternal doom was made. And when I stared into it, my soul sealed a binding contract with whatever now presided over her body. I knew, just like I’d known my love for Melissa and Marcus, that even if I survived my mind would be poisoned, and my life rendered worthless.
As I stood, awestruck and dumb, her head snapped upward with a violent creak, the bones of her once-smooth neck jutting out in lumps. Her mouth opened wide, spewing blood and other vile liquids, and something inside her let out a deep, rasping laugh. It was a sound so truly malevolent that I shall never rid it from the annals of my mind. It bore a hole through my soul and rested there, echoing endlessly, battering down any innocence I may have possessed. Her hateful eyes burned a tunnel in me, and in a split-second the demon made its move.
Before I knew I was flying through the air, I’d smashed against the kitchen counter on which rested Marcus’ cake surprise, my vertebrae crunching in a deathly chorus on impact. Pain flowed outward from my spine and sung a satanic hymn through my entire body, its voice rising with every passing second. And even as thoughts of getting to my feet first appeared, her bloody scarred form had descended upon me–from the ceiling.
The weight was unnatural, and it pressed down on me like amplified gravity; there was no hope of resistance. The smell was putrid; it was a bitter concoction of rotting meat, eggs and sulphur, and I gagged relentlessly as it invaded my nostrils. Her eyes were, for but a single moment, an inch away from mine, and I could feel hell’s contents seeping out of them, aching to break through and contaminate me as it had my wife. I searched for Melissa somewhere in those eyes, somewhere in the deep white recesses, and I saw nothing but death. Then they were pulled back, and a tornado of claws and fangs savaged my face.
As my screams and the rasping cackle of the demon filled the room and danced a cursed waltz together, my skin and flesh were torn off like wrapping paper, and they flew through the air to leave rainbows of blood in their wake. I could feel my body drain of energy, my nightmares take hold of my consciousness and pollute all sanity, my life shift into a land of turmoil and destruction; beneath that terrible laugh and the glistening of blood-coated fangs, I could feel death encroaching. Its hold was tight on my grief-stricken soul, ready to pull me away to the underworld. Then it simply left.
The claws subsided. The cackle ceased to a wheezing hiss, accompanied by short spurts of blood, spraying my face and chest. The presence of frost and evil still shadowed my aching bones, but its source was no longer there. I could feel it give way; I could hear its whimper and its breaths run silent. Something devious had passed from this world, a world in which it never belonged. It had faded into the currents of the Styx, just another streak of black flowing through the depths. My ruined angel simply slumped against my shredded body, and through my one good eye I made out the glint of steel protruding from her back. The blade was buried up to the hilt in flesh I once held so precious; the woman who had dominated my hopes and dreams, made true my every wish, now had my knife jutting from her spine.
My son stood behind the dead thing; his hand was splashed with a small bloody pattern and his face suggested a horror too unseen to describe. Tears ran from his eyes with no end in sight, tears Melissa would once have wiped off. For long seconds we remained there, frozen, crying, my body a raked mess of blood and ripped clothes, his hands shaking with the guilt of killing the person he loved more than anybody. We were trapped in a cocoon of shock, our thoughts too infected to be put to words and our expressions saying everything that need be said. Then my son did something I shall never forget. It was an after-taste of the horror, something I never could have expected, and something to this day I pray I never could have stopped.
Marcus–his thoughts muddled with confusion and guilt–ripped the combat knife from his mother’s back, that same back on which he’d gotten endless piggy backs, and without a second thought he plunged it into the soft flesh of his neck. Gargle upon gargle, little hands plunging into the air for some invisible comfort, and breath turn to wheeze beside the remains of his loving mother, Marcus had gone to join her. And all the while, his cake surprise remained on the floor, waiting for a birthday that never came.