The Hanging Man

The crow sat perched on the branch above, head cocked to the side, as if listening and watching in curiosity as the two men below sat on their horses, staring up at the mutilated man whose body swung from the noose. The crow fluffed its wings and stepped sideways, standing directly on the rope, its attention even more firmly fixed upon the figures on the ground. The first man took off his gloves and dusted them off on his chaps, then tilted his wide-brimmed hat back on his head. He sighed deeply, staring up at the hanging body.

“Good lord, what in the sam hell happened to him?”

The hanging man in question was a horrific sight to see. The hung heavily by the neck from the tree, his neck clearly broken, his face splotchy shades of blue and purple. It appeared as if he had been thoroughly beaten before his demise, and as the cowhand looked closer, he could see scratches, cuts, and scuff marks hidden by the dark bruises. Below the neck, his body was even more gruesome. His shirt had been torn open, revealing his bare chest…or at least what was left of it. His skin had been peeled open at the sternum, and several of his ribs had been cracked and removed, the broken bits of bone lying on the ground beneath him. His heart had been removed. It had not been cut out, but the torn lungs and shredded flesh indicated that it had been forcibly, brutally pulled out by hand. The peeled skin hung down to his waist, flapping slightly in the breeze, smearing cold blood over his belt and the top of his pants. His shoulders and his thighs appeared to have been slashed repeatedly by talons or claws, cutting him nearly to the bone. His knees and his ankles had been snapped and repositioned at unnerving angles.

The second cowhand pulled his hat further down over his brow, casting scarce glances at the body hanging before him, fighting the sick that was forcing its way up. He had disposed of dead animals before, so the acrid smell no longer bothered him, but the image swaying gently before him turned his stomach like nothing ever had before. He spat to the side, and took a shaky breath.

“Whoever did this is one hell of a hateful being. I’ve seen men killed in anger before, but this…this is a whole new level of sinfulness I ain’t ever seen.”

The first man shook his head in amazement, unable to tear his eyes away from the disgusting sight. It chilled him, and where his friend could not look at the hanging man, he felt a strange fear, a tingling at the base of his spine, superstitiously telling him that if he looked away, he might meet the same fate. He coughed and shifted in the saddle.

“We better cut him down, Levi. Not even the devil himself deserves to be strung up and put on display like this.”

Levi nodded, still not looking at the body, averting his gaze for as long as he could. The first cowhand, James, dropped to the ground, his spurs lightly clinking as he pulled the tomahawk from his saddlebag and walked towards the hanging man. The spurs went silent as James swung his weapon, cutting the rope that held the man aloft. The body fell limply to the ground, folded uncomfortably over itself. The man’s innards spilled out, splattering across James’ boots. The crow squawked angrily as the rope beneath it gave way, staring down disapprovingly at the man who had disturbed its rest.

“Aw, damn it all!” James swore quietly. He put his gloves back on as he wiped the bloody mess off his boots into the grass. He sniffed and dragged the hanging man’s body to a dry patch of dirt nearby and whistled to Levi.

“Toss me that kerosene, wouldja?” he barked.

Levi turned and ruffled through his saddlebag and James pulled his bandana up over his mouth and nose. Levi found what he was looking for and tossed the jar to James, who quickly unscrewed it and dumped its contents all over the body.

“Wish we could give you a proper burial, friend, but we ain’t got the time nor the means. Forgive us; we did all we could.”

James struck a match and lit the hanging man’s body ablaze, and Levi said a silent, timid prayer. James walked back to his horse and the two cowhands watched the body burn. Within an hour, the flesh had been consumed, and the two men turned their horses back towards the ranch.

The crow watched them leave, tutting and squawking in apparent laughter. IT fluffed its wings once more and flew down to the ground, landing near the body. A thick black mist surrounded the bird, and suddenly, in its place stood a black wolf, which paced over to the burned corpse. It sniffed the smoldering body, licking the blackened meat with quiet interest.

After a short time, it lifted its head and looked in the direction the cowhands had ridden. At first glance, it appeared as if the canine was…grinning. It began to cough…no, not cough…the wolf was…chuckling. The black mist returned, and a humanoid figure appeared as the mist dissipated. It appeared to be a man, with broad shoulders and a strong yet slender build. Despite it being midday, its face was darkened by deep shadow, with only its eyes being visible. Eyes that would make a man’s blood run cold. Eyes that were not human, but most closely resembled those of a spider. Unlidded, with dozens of small eyes clustered within each socket, it stared out towards the ranch. Its black duster swayed in the wind, with dust rising softly from the base. The creature raised a hand and ran its fingers along the brim of its hat. It wore leather gloves, with two-inch talons poking out through the tip of every finger. It raised its other hand to where its mouth would be found, and it licked its fingertips. It moaned in satisfaction.

It leaned its head back and sniffed the air. The smell of the kill still hung steadily in the air around the tree, and it excited the creature. It sighed. It could feel its strength growing. The ritual had begun. There would be many more nights like the one before, and every feast would bring it closer to its goal. But it must be patient. As much as the thrill and the feast brought the creature untold excitement, it must wait. It must plan its moments, plan its kills, and plan the steps of the ritual carefully. This was a delicate process, one to be savored and respected. It narrowed its vision to the ranch which lay on the slow-rolling mountainside across the canyon and if its face could be seen, it was surely grinning. Its time would come soon enough. The ritual had begun, and there were none left alive who could stop it. There was no hurry, no rush, no need to race to the end. It had all the time in the world to get everything just right. Its time had come, and these quiet green hills would be covered in blood by the time it was finished.

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Ghosts Of Days Gone By

Depression has no sense of time. It wakes you up in the middle of the night, violently urging you to dig through the photo album of your memories. Mourning is a special kind of depression, dragging you through every ounce of regret and remorse stored up in your soul, replaying all the laughs and sighs you’ll never hear again. Sometimes it’s a bittersweet sadness, others, it’s a crushing weight on your chest as you lie there, trying desperately to think of something else. It rears its head when it pleases, paying no mind to timeliness. Not that there’s ever really a good time to be enveloped in its embrace. Death is not the curse of Adam; living on, feeling the ache of loss and heartbreak long after the graves grow grass…that’s the real curse of mankind. The tragedy is not that we die; it’s that we must keep on living, grasping so tightly to those which we hold dear, beyond the days when they walk alongside us, until the day we realize we can’t remember what their voices sounded like…even in our dreams.

Into Dust

Oliver Conrad Davis was a loser, and everyone he had ever met knew it. Not that he was such an appalling character that he was utterly hated, although that might have been a step up from what he was. At least if people despised him, they would feel strongly about him in some way. As it was, his existence was simply acknowledged, never contemplated or appreciated in any way.

No one intentionally placed him in the space in their hearts reserved for unimportant things, but it was his very nature that put him there in every case. He was just a loser; no one could explain it, he simply was. He wasn’t particularly ugly, but neither was he recognizably handsome; he had a face so forgettable that people subconsciously forgot what he looked like between blinks as they stared at his face. He wasn’t known to have any skills, and nor was he spectacularly horrible at anything. No one would admit out loud that they believed he had no potential, but ninety-nine percent of the people who met Oliver had that very opinion of him. Those cursed with caring hearts and empathetic souls would adamantly oppose the thought that he was devoid of potential, but none of them could think of any way in which he displayed any whatsoever. They refused to believe he was such a useless lifeform, despite the fact he may have been the most pointless being to ever draw breath.

Oliver worked hard at a bone-wearying job, six days a week, making almost enough to dream of a comfortable lifestyle, but never finding that it was within reach. Every time he found he had a couple nickels to rub together, something in his life would fall apart. Occasionally the crumble would be cataclysmic, but generally, it was just enough of a tumble to keep him locked in his place in life, just shy of suffering, never quite comfortable, far from thriving, never dying.

If he thought about it, it felt as if the universe had been half-heartedly trying to kill him from the second he had been conceived. His mother had cancer, and that cancer nearly took him while he was still in the womb. nearly. He had been a somewhat sickly child; not dangerously sickly, just mildly weak and relatively pale. These traits were still mostly true of him in his adult life. He had lived a rather violent young life, finding himself of the action end of more than a few angry fists. Continuing into adulthood, his “unnecessary” organs had all conveniently failed. None of these infections or surgeries killed him, obviously, but they kept him laid up for a significant amount of time. Seriously, who has their tonsils, gallbladder, one kidney, appendix, and spleen all stop working during the course of their lifetime, and still remain above ground?

So it was that he continued every day, mostly existing, not really living, wishing he could muster up the courage, and quite frankly, the energy, to face death on his own terms. For some reason, he kept waking up and going about his mundane life, day after wasted day. He contemplated suicide rather often, but could never bring himself to hate himself enough to terminate the drain on the world that was his living body. Even Oliver didn’t really have strong opinions about Oliver.

He woke, went to work, went home, mindlessly watched tv, and went to bed, only to repeat the process again and again. Nothing brought him joy, nothing stirred his mind, nothing made him want to live. His entire life was one long shrug of the shoulders. He knew that was possibly the greatest tragedy in existence, but being the most forgettable man who ever lived, even he could not bring himself to care. Were these things true of any other being, it would be heartbreaking; since it was just this loser, it didn’t really matter. He wasn’t affected by his own life, why would anyone else bother to be affected by it?

Adze

The following is a short excerpt from my as-yet unpublished novel “Reaper.” I realize the short vignette begins and ends in an odd place, but this small section was one of my favorite scenes from the book. But that’s enough exposition from me. Enjoy.

———

When they arrived at the funeral home, Aibell was waiting outside for them, playing with the fireflies. They parked the car and walked over to Aibell. She smiled at them, and continued to watch the fireflies for a moment.

“They are the only supernatural creature your kind still accepts without reservation.”

Puzzled, the other two glanced at each other, and in unison said, “Huh?”

Aibell caught a firefly, cupped it in her palm, and whispered to it. When she reopened her hand, a small, glowing light engulfed the creature for several seconds. When the light faded, the boys gasped; the firefly had transformed into a two-inch tall woman, clothed in dark cloth, with fierce red hair on her head and a slight yellow glow about her.

Aibell motioned for it to fly, and it produced a pair of wings and flew over to inspect Aaron and Kyle up close.

“You call them fireflies and lightning bugs; in my young days, we called them adze. They are peaceful little fairies. The Celts saw them in this form and called them will-o-the-wisps; often, they would find hunters lost in the woods and lead them back to the road. The adze are still here, but the other races either returned to their own realms or live in hiding. It is a wonder that they stayed in the human realm, even after the humans have worked so hard to destroy everything here, including themselves; some of us believe they wish to watch out for you. They are not civilized creatures, but they are compassionate and empathetic nonetheless.”

The adze flew to Aibell’s shoulder before returning to its previous form and flying away into the night. Aibell watched for a second, and then looked up at the two men.

“Come, we have spent too much time here already; we should be returning to Asphodel.”

The three of them walked inside and to the Gate, which was in a hidden room behind Aaron’s office. At first blush, it looked like a large mirror, with an outer frame made of pure obsidian, and an etched silver lining marking the inner and outer edges. In the middle, it was jet black, swirling and turning, with the occasional streak of what looked like far-off lightning.  Aaron set his watch timer, knowing he only had three days before he had to be back in the land of the living. Aibell stepped up to the Gateway and turned to the two of them.

“I know you’ve never done this before, but there is no need to be nervous; it is as simple as falling asleep. Just step through and let the Gate take you to the other side.”

With that, she stepped through the Gate, disappearing into the inky darkness with grace and ease. Aaron and Kyle paused a second. Kyle laughed nervously.

“See you on the other side, bro,” he said.

The two of them bumped fists and stepped into the darkness. It was nothing like they were expecting; it felt like a heavy, cool sheet was being drawn across their faces. They stepped through it, and suddenly, they were in the Underworld. The Underworld was not quite what they expected, either. It was not colder, nor was it warmer. It was…pleasant. The Underworld appeared well lit, though no source of light could be identified, with red and purple clouds floating in the sky above them.

They had passed through the Gateway, and found themselves outside, a stone’s throw away from a busy street. Behind them was a Gateway identical to the one in the funeral home. Aibell stood several feet ahead of them with her hands on her hips and a slight smirk on her face. The Gateway was backed up against the city wall, which rose fifteen feet above them and seemed to wind all the way around the city. Ahead of them, across the street, was the city proper. The buildings were inches apart from each other, with shops and stores lining the street, banners hanging from second story windows informing the public of the goods and services provided. After giving the boys a moment to gawk at their new surroundings, Aibell turned around and began walking towards the city ahead of them.

“Welcome to Asphodel, the City of the Dead and the heart of the ever-expanding Valley of Kings.”

Aibell, along with several members of the Pale Guard, escorted Aaron and Kyle through the streets, towards the towering palace in the center of town.

“There are many shops around town; as there is no currency in the Underworld, they all provide their goods and services for free. The dead do not need to eat, they really are in need of nothing, but here in the city, they provide each other with every luxury. Fancy clothes, extravagant jewelry, fine food and drink; they provide it to each other for no price whatsoever. Everything and anything their hearts can imagine is made available to them. They build, craft, cook, and design anything they wish; the only law here is that they make it available to the public as well.”

The group continued to walk down the street, with Aaron and Kyle admiring the buildings and the architecture around them. It was reminiscent of Victorian England in design, but was somehow…different. Metal, wood, and stone were blended together seamlessly.

Turning to Aaron, Kyle remarked, “It’s like a steampunk paradise in this place.”

Aaron laughed and nodded in agreement. “Yeah, no kidding; this city is beautiful. I actually wouldn’t mind dying if this is where I came to.”

Kyle, never one to miss out on an opportunity to throw a jab at his friend, replied, “No worries, dude. All dogs go to heaven, remember?”

As they made their way through the market district and into the residential areas, the buildings remained close together, but there were parks and playgrounds scattered all over the district. The streets were bustling with people strolling from place to place, children running all over playing games, and various unearthly vehicles being driven over and around all the pedestrians.

Aaron looked around in amazement. “I never expected there to be so many kids here.”

Kyle shrugged. “Where did you THINK they went when they died?”

Aaron shook his head slightly. “I guess I never really thought about it, honestly.”

Kyle snorted. “I’m glad; if you spent a bunch of time thinking about dead kids, we might need to get you checked out for potential psychopathy.”

Aaron shoved Kyle jokingly, and the two of them rushed to catch up to Aibell.

“How does someone with such short legs walk so fast?” Kyle asked.

Over her shoulder, Aibell responded, “It’s the effect of the Underworld on those from the land of the living. It’s not that I am moving more quickly, but that you are moving more slowly. Aaron should be feeling it more than you, Kyle; that’s not to say that you aren’t affected, you simply have more of a connection here.”

The pack weaved their way through the streets, slowly making their way to the palace. Aaron and Kyle flinched every time a flying vehicle came close to hitting them, but the contraptions always turned or elevated at the last second, avoiding any collisions. The vehicles themselves were rather peculiar; they looked like modified Rolls-Royces, with the long, elegant body styles, yet they…flew. They had wheels, but they rarely, if ever, touched the ground. They zipped around above, some flying down near street level, bobbing and weaving through the foot traffic on the ground. It was all incredibly remarkable; everywhere the boys looked, they saw something that, while similar to something back home, was also entirely unique. They continued their walk through the City of the Dead, drawing ever closer to the palace. The city, Aaron realized, was set up like a wagon wheel; the palace was the hub at the center, and, for the most part, the buildings and structures stretched out like spokes in the wheel, almost all the way to the city walls. It was a rather ingenious design – this made it so that every road led back to the palace, which was quite obviously the main attraction in Asphodel. After a while, they arrived at the gates, which were wide open. Vines grew on the black-iron gates and crawled lazily up the stone walls that surrounded the palace. They walked unhindered onto the property and followed the winding pathway to the gigantic front doors. As they walked up, the doors opened by themselves, and a tall, dark-haired woman with large, round eyes stood in the doorway. She wore a flowing white dress, and a glittering circlet on her head. She beckoned for them to enter, and as soon as they all had crossed the threshold, Aibell and the guards who had joined them dropped to one knee and bowed their heads. Seeing this happen, Aaron and Kyle followed suit, which caused the woman to laugh softly.

Stop This Train

Five years is a long time. It’s been a long road to get here. Some days, it feels like a crushing weight is resting on my soul. Other days, it’s just a light sadness hovering over me, casting its shadow upon me. And on some rare occasions, I am happy; sometimes, I am okay. In those five years, I learned how to be functional, how to carry on, and how to live beyond any circumstance, be it tragedy or triumph.

It’s not all bad. There are good days. There are a lot of good things in my life. However, regardless of how far I travel from the loss, I will always carry it with me.

On the flip, five years is not a very long time. By the time I eventually pass away, I will have, theoretically, lived to look back on that day through the lens of thirty or forty years of distance. Telescoping out even further, what is five years compared to one hundred? Or one thousand? Or ten thousand? My life, let alone these mere five years, are but a speck of sand when viewed in the scope of all of history.

It leaves me hollow, and somewhat existential. I don’t necessarily feel sad, or angry, or depressed. I am simply tired. All of these thoughts cascade through my mind, along with hundreds more, each with their own subset of rabbit trails and rambling trails.

It feels as if I have lived five years in a single day, and, in a way, I suppose I have.

Roll Back The Time

Jim Sullivan loaded up his entire life into that dinky Volkswagen. Everything he loved was packed inside, and without a word, he drove into the desert. As he drove, he contemplated turning on the radio and letting the music ease his mind. Instead, he rolled the window down and listened to the chirping birds and singing crickets. He squinted as he travelled, the glow of the setting sun reflecting directly into his eyes from the rearview mirror.

It was indicative of his entire existence; he was never able to clearly see what was going on around him, the bright lights of L.A. blinding him to his purpose and disorienting his sense of internal balance. It’s not that anything was necessarily wrong, it was simply that nothing was right. He needed a change. He needed to get away from the cacophony of the music scene. The California way of life was all he had ever known, and nothing about it was fulfilling. Beneath all the glam and shine, nothing flourished except addiction and decay.

He had tasted the finer things in life, and he had been given the opportunity to pursue what he believed to be his dreams. In the end, he realized that he had been deceived, both by the world and by his own mind, into thinking that he could find what he was looking for in “the Scene.” Instead, all he found was a miasma of emptiness.

For a short time, he found himself burdened by depression, knowing that there was more to life than what he was seeing. His perception changed rather quickly, as he came to the conclusion that being tied down by his own mind was no way to live. He needed to free himself of all chains, of everything that kept him enslaved and encumbered.

So it was that he loaded up his clothes, his money, his records, and, the thing most dear to him, his guitar. He packed into the car and simply started driving, with no destination in mind. After the sun set, he pulled over and checked into a hotel in Santa Rosa. He could not bring himself to sleep though, and he paced the room for several hours before the wanderlust and the thirst for the horizon overcame him once more. He tossed his room key on the bed and hit the road once more.

Sullivan drove all night, lost so deeply in thought that he nearly slipped off the road a few times. He contemplated life, the universe, and what it meant to be human. He mulled over how, underneath all the hate and destruction that the human race carries with them, they have the capacity to be good, creative, and inventive. They, of all creatures in the world, have the propensity to take their surroundings and improve them, to make them truly wonderful.

This thought brought him hope and, to a certain extent, happiness. He knew that somewhere deep inside him was the innate ability to create something glorious. With just a drop of initiative, he could build himself a life worth living.

The sun eventually rose slowly from its slumber, lazily casting its gaze over the quiet landscape. In that instant, Sullivan knew that the time had come. He pulled over on the side of the road and shut off the vehicle. He sighed and ran his hands over the steering wheel. This hunk of shaped steel had carried him as far as it needed to, and now it was time for him to proceed without his trusty steed.

He slowly stepped out onto the gravel and shut the door. He looked up into the sky, basking in the reds and oranges of the dawn. The final few stars twinkled their last and snuffed out like candles, overpowered by the strength of the day star. The sight brought him a strange warmth and comfort.

He began to walk away from the car, leaving everything behind, taking nothing with him, into the open sands. Bathed in the growing sunlight, he entered this new world as a new man. No one ever saw Jim Sullivan again.

My Ex, The Machina

Someday, these imaginary chains will dissolve, and our potential will expand. The people will gasp in wonder, whispering “These are they who rule the galaxy.” Not by fear, or war, or threat, but by word, and thought, and deed.

The broken shall lead, those shattered, scattered, and torn shall stand tall and show the way.

We won’t be down forever. We’ll never be dead and gone. We wont bend our knees and kiss rings. Our lives will be our own.

Their wicked ways behind us, no longer owned by their greed, someday we will rise up as kings. Then we will truly be free.