murder

The Price of Rebellion

Barandash Karandashich/Shutterstock.com

This post was originally published through Patreon on January 22, 2019.

Derrick gasped and the nightmare dissolved. He lay on his back beneath the light of the full moon, drenched in sweat, and loosed a hellish, world-shattering scream. A message. The dream had been a message, and its meaning was clear.

Derick’s family was dead.

He’d tried to protect them. He’d sent them to a place where no one could find them…or so he’d thought. He could still smell their incinerated bodies—singed hair, charred skin, smoldering flesh—a tainted, unholy perfume that would fester in his memory for the rest of his life.

It was the price of rebellion, a debt his family had paid in full.

How does it feel? The soundless words rippled through the world like the wind, an aftereffect of the dream. Was it worth it, Derrick? Was the cost of disobedience worth it?

Grief twisted his stomach into a series of progressively tighter knots. Whenever he closed his eyes, he could see his wife’s and childrens’ bloody faces: burned, angled toward the sky, eyes glazed and unseeing.

I could have done more, he thought. I could have stayed with them until I was certain they were safe, that the danger had passed.

Self-loathing battled with a searing, white-hot hatred for the men and women who’d murdered his entire family.

They died because of my carelessness.

And yet, deep in the recesses of his poisoned heart, he understood the truth: He hadn’t killed his family. They had.

And they would regret it.

Derrick scrambled to his feet, too disoriented by grief to do anything but stand while the sounds of the night cried out like a funeral dirge. He kicked the sleeping bag at his feet aside and heaved, wide-eyed, as one bone-rattling sob burst free from him after another.

“Awful, isn’t it?”

The voice came from behind—a man, judging by the tone—and Derrick spun.

“The magnitude of your grief must be incalculable.”

At that moment, all his rage surged out of him like a flash flood.

“Are you one of those murders?”

Derrick reached for the blade he always kept at his side, even when he was sleeping…only to realize it was gone.

When Derrick turned, he saw the man brandishing the curved sword as if it were his own, cold steel flashing in the monochromatic light of the moon.

“A precaution, you understand. I’ll give it back to you once you’ve heard me out.”

“My family!”

Derrick rushed to meet him, sword or no sword. If it was his fate to die this night, then at least he would return to his family. One step. Two steps. Three. Derrick was almost upon him when the man disappeared.

“I didn’t kill them, you ravenous idiot.”

This time, the voice came from where Derrick had been standing only moments before.

He spun again, sick with terror and blind, unfocused fury. The two emotions danced a lunatic jig in the dark, sweeping Derrick away, perilously close to the edge of insanity.

“You want revenge, don’t you? I can give it to you. I know who killed your family, and if you do as I say, I’ll deliver them to you.”

The Earth stopped spinning, and a deep, otherworldly stillness seized Derrick’s suddenly frozen heart.

“Yes,” the man said. “I see that got your attention.”

Time stilled, and it was a few moments before Derrick could speak again.

“Why?”

A shrewd clarity began to take root in Derrick’s heart, and his blood, boiling only moments ago, was already turning to ice.

“Why?” the man echoed. “Because your enemy is my enemy, and in a way, that makes us friends.”

“So,” said Derrick, “now we’re friends?”

The man shrugged.

“I have something you want, and you have something I want. If we can’t be friends, then let us be partners in a joint venture that will benefit both of us.”

Derrick’s skin prickled with alarm. Somewhere beyond the grief, in a part of himself that felt a thousand miles away, a sense of wrongness blossomed, along with a desperate warning to turn away before it was too late.

But if this man really knew who’d killed his family, and if he could help Derrick find them…

“What do you want?”

No, that distant part of Derrick cried. Don’t listen to him! But Derrick had already brushed the warning away.

The man smiled, and the horrendous, razor-sharp grin was so terrifying that Derrick took an involuntary step back.

“For now, just the promise that when I have need of you, you’ll come. Your skill with a blade is very useful, and I might require it later.”

“Then it’s killing you’re after?”

Derrick thought of those who’d killed his family. Would he now be asked to do the same to someone else?

“Does it matter?”

Derrick hesitated. His grief was still fresh, and paired with a conscience that found such an atrocity revolting, he was hard-pressed to offer this man his service. But his hunger for retribution at any cost was growing, further dulling an already withered heart, and he couldn’t quite bring himself to turn the man away.

“I could hire someone else if you’d like.”

“No!” The word sprang out of Derrick’s mouth before he could stop it.

What about your family? an interior voice asked. Would they approve?

The thought made Derrick hesitate again. This time, however, it was only long enough for him to quash the renegade voice of his conscience for good. The thirst for vengeance was too potent, too overpowering, too irresistible to ignore, and after a final futile struggle to reclaim his broken heart, Derrick gave himself over to the darkness.

“No,” Derrick continued. “That won’t be necessary. If you require a promise, then I’ll give it. As long as you promise to hand over my family’s killers.”

The man stepped forward and placed a hand over Derrick’s shoulder. The touch was a blast of arctic ice, almost painful, and Derrick recoiled. But his decision was made, and so he steeled himself and stood alongside his mysterious visitor while his soul necrotized like his childrens’ immolated corpses.

“Come with me before you go on your way,” the man said. “I would discuss our partnership further.”

He snapped his fingers, and the two of them were swallowed by the dark.

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Scarecrow

Linda Harms/Shutterstock.com

This post was originally published through Patreon on June 19, 2016.

Quick note: Totem, Part 11 will be posted on November 7 🙂

The scarecrow stands guard over the old man’s crops, scaring away the birds with his perennial jack-o-lantern grin. Fashioned out of straw, burlap and hand-me-down overalls, life in the field is all he’s ever known. Once he was loyal to the old farmer, but no longer.

The farmer ignored him, left him to the elements for months at a time without acknowledgement. The scarecrow’s heart spoiled under the hot mid-western sun, and now all he can think of is revenge.

The farmer thought it would be clever to arm him with a rusty scythe he found in the barn. “Heh,” he cackled one drunken afternoon. “That’ll scare them birds good!”

Today, before dusk, he’ll come to check on his corn, and when he turns back to the house, the scarecrow will follow with the very same scythe, a tool that was once used by the farmer’s ancestors to harvest wheat. Only this time, the scarecrow will flash his most dazzling jack-o-lantern grin, raise the blade into the air, and reap a different kind of harvest.

Happy Halloween!

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I Saw Her Again

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The line we draw between reality and fantasy is a fragile thing, a brittle house of glass that requires only one small pebble, one hairline crack, to fall shattering to the ground.

I saw her again.

I saw her again, and my psyche, like our metaphorical house of glass, burst into a million sparkling pieces.

I was seven when I watched her die, and I was thirty when I spied her outside in the pouring rain, holding an umbrella in her right hand, along with a smoldering cigarette in her left.

I can already hear what you’re going to say next. How do I know she was the same person? People look like other people all the time. And if not for what happened next, I’d say you were right.

The world, dreary and gray, took on a hollow, distant cast. I thought, surely, I must be dreaming. I wanted to move on, wanted to shy away from the uncanny encounter before I could be undone. But in such mad and dreamlike moments, we do odd things—dangerous things we wouldn’t dare attempt by the ordinary light of day.

I pulled up beside her, not minding the cold and the damp and the pelting rain, and I said, “Excuse me, don’t I know you from someplace?”

In the instant before she turned, I thought, This is all a misunderstanding. The crawling goosebumps will pass, and when I see for myself that she isn’t the same person, that it was only a bit of déjà vu, I’ll wander on, shaking my head and wondering how I could have been such a fool.

But then she looked at me, and she was the same person, and I stood there in a hapless stupor as her lips curled into a malicious sneer.

“Hello, Joseph. How good to see you again.”

That from the woman I watched die.

That from the woman I helped my father kill.

“Say hello to your father for me.”

Then she turned away, just another stranger in the pouring rain. First I was walking. Then jogging. Then running. I careened down the puddle-laden street, convinced she was right behind me, ready to mete out cold, hard justice at last.

Murderer, whispered a part of myself I’d locked away for twenty-three years.

Impossible, shrieked another.

And inside, in the manic chambers of a shattered mind, a million shards of my broken soul clambered and shouted at once.

Now I am broken, and like Humpty Dumpty, all the King’s horses and all the King’s men couldn’t put me together again.

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