They were all dead. Every last one of them. Even in the dim starlight it was obvious. Not because of the evident absence of breath in the cold October air. More the evident absence of limbs, heads, and vital organs. That no one was left alive to witness this smorgasbord of carnage was a pity because it meant no one could truly appreciate the horror inflicted. No one, that is, except the thing which inflicted it.
But now an odd thing occurs. Time halts with a rusty groan and begins to wind backward. Limbs stitch back to trunks. Blood infuses into depleted arteries. Life breathes to strewn corpses. Carcasses are reinvested with living souls full of hopes and dreams and, most recently, fears.
A long audible gasp is inhaled. Kelly Greirson breathes it, a startled look returning to a pretty face. Moments ago that face was sliced in half between the eyes, separating the skull and spilling brain matter like the yolk of an egg. The gore had fallen to her breast, covering the glow of a green gem on a simple necklace. As she is remade, a flood of defiance fills her. She purses her lips, curling the sides upward. An odd time for a smile. It is one of serenity and knowing and … bravery … just before the final rictus of shock as she is cloven. Before that she sucks in a final scream, wide eyes staring up at her attacker with raw shock. She has not been expecting such a terrible demise.
Rewinding further, she fights with increasing ferocity even as the bones of other victims crack around her. This violent percussionist dirge, accompanied on vocals by piercing cries of the nearly dead, is a discouraging one. Yet her tenacity and will to live are clearly present. A pained hiss comes from the creature atop her. There is triumph painted in the gushing cloud of fluid that leaks down from a fresh gash in her assailant. It is similar to a thick red cut along her own chest and torso. Chest wound for chest wound; a small but meaningful victory. Dark liquid from the cut she has made evaporates from her face and rises back into the monster’s torn exoskeleton. A tiny blade, glistening in moonlight, flies from the ground to her hand. She swings the Swiss Army pocket knife in a wild arc through the air above her. It digs a trough through crusty layers and finds something soft and meaty beneath.
She bites her lip and holds hope in her blue eyes. She digs deep within herself and finds something akin to courage while digging in her pocket to find the knife. An assortment of grunts are driven back into her gaping throat while a grapple is had on cold blades of grass. Kelly’s hand tries in vain to get at the knife. Desperation and despair seem to battle in her eyes, driving Kelly Greirson’s movements through cycles of weakness and strength, giving up and pressing on. Her breathing is labored, probably due to the loss of blood from a severed hand. But now that hand is returning to her forearm. One of the beast’s long talons seems to be fusing the flesh together like a soldering iron. Blood slurps back into place while her curdling scream seals the act.
Before this Kelly is more reckless in her bats, slaps, and bites. Her manicured fingernails mend their broken edges. The grime and spittle clean from her face. Her tanktop and jacket lose all but one tear; the long diagonal one across her front. She is looking stronger, brighter, and even more terrified. The increased amount of blood in her system is restoring vitality as well as a more frantic pulse.
The scene around her is a storm of gore. Just inside her periphery an eyeball streams by, back to the socket it was dug from. A woman with one leg cleanly severed at the thigh hobbles and cries as she returns to the demon that mauled her. Amidst this there is a moment shared by Kelly and the shape she fights. A quietness in the frenzy. She holds a quick breath while words are spoken with amber-coated vitriol, like a puppy fossilized during strangulation. The sound is a sweltering steam around them.
“Please … don't … be … so intolerant of death,” the voice grins through haphazard needle teeth.
Before this is a pleading phrase, whimpered out.
“Please … Stop.”
“I … am … but a product … of your environment,” the syrup poison voice taunts.
“Why are you doing this?” Kelly asks.
The creature is pinning her to the ground. It backs away and is seen more clearly. A ribbed exoskeleton like a roach, multi-hinged arms and legs with long, glistening spikes flared at every bend. Its mouth is a churning vortex of fangs. But there is something oddly human about it. A grotesque reflection of Kelly’s eyes and the slender, curved shape of her body.
Kelly is lifting up off the ground, rebounding from a colliding force with the creature. She is standing again. She issues her first scream of the evening; one that rips up the stillness of the night. This is due to the slice that comes crossways, ending at Kelly’s pelvic bone and beginning at her collar bone. The gash would have torn her in two had it not been for the interference of another. A young woman of identical age to Kelly, with identical blond locks and devious brow and crystal blue eyes. They were, indeed, identical in every way. Not uncommon in twin sisters.
Now it is Katie Greirson’s turn to lift off the ground, her bowels replacing in her stomach and awareness coming back to her gaze. Her sacrifice is made clear. Her courage as well. Kelly sets her jaw and bites her lip until it bleeds. Katie has taken the brunt of the talon’s swipe in her gut after knocking her sister back a step … a backward step that has saved Kelly’s life for now. Before that lunge of protection she is standing a meter away. She watches the strike come toward her sister. Before this her eyes are calculating, looking out over each person and their mirrored monsters. There is not one for her. She stares down at a little twig in her hand and cocks her head.
Everyone takes a step back except Kelly, who is frozen in the starlight. A dark stain fades from her jeans. The sudden release of her bladder is drawn back, sphincters tightening again.
“Get back!” Katie shouts.
The crowd of teenagers gather close, each nubile form visibly shaken but dumb curiosity driving them forward. Flashes of light briefly disorient the scene. Taking pictures is a brain stem response for most. Extended cells return to hip pockets. They have captured final memories of their future killer for the posterity of Facebook.
Before that Kelly and Katie are standing with the group, facing a host of nightmare creatures. They are horrific reflections made out of glossy scales and sharp, dangerous angles. Then the beasts back away, converging into a conglomerate of twisted, frothy jaws and spidery appendages. Their substance fades to a black spectral mist. The humans in the small glen shout and point. They watch with dropped jaws as the thing slowly dematerializes, dividing up into small twigs which are thrown back into the hands of each person. Faces give up their shock and return to looks of amusement and ease. They are chanting something in unison. It is difficult to hear with their voices so low. It sounds like a dull recitation.
Before that there is a single voice. "Thank you all for coming. We are here to leave our fears behind us. To burn them up in this fire. The world is full of racism and hate, but we can purge ourselves of all that. Speak your fears. Imagine them being taken out of your mind and placed in the twig you're holding. When I say, we will throw them into the fire."
"Let's begin," the voice says. It comes from the only aged person in the group. He is pockmarked and slender, his hair and beard stylish, his movements sure. All are looking to him.
Now they turn away, speaking to each other, holding hands around a bonfire that has replaced the dark cloud. It is warm and inviting. Their conversation is happy if not careful. Careful not to offend. Careful to say right words. Words of healing.
“You owe me, Kel. You know I hate this crap,” Katie whispers.
“If you will all join hands,” the leader is saying.
Kelly and Katie exchange a glance. They look around at the group.
"I think she meant well," Kelly says. “Just can't figure out what it is she meant.”
"That lady was crazy," Katie says.
"I like it! Makes me feel safe," Kelly says.
"I can't believe you're wearing it," Katie says.
They are focused on the piece of jewelry around Kelly’s neck.
Now they are walking backward, away from the clearing, back through a park at dusk. The sun slowly rises, losing its purple hue and enlivening into reds, oranges, yellows, and then pure white. It is high in a blue sky by the time the sisters are back at their dorm, taking off their jackets and settling at their laptops. They talk on social media about the best Halloween parties and costumes. Kelly posts that she is going to take a stand for minorities. She chats about which member of those deprived classes to dress up as. Kaepernick would be easy. A football jersey shortened to midriff with a pair of yoga pants. But maybe someone gay ... Elton John? Ellen DeGeneres is cute. Kelly has been wanting to cut her hair short anyway. Katie grins mischievously and says she will go as Sarah Palin. The instant messaging continues until the sisters return to the day's classes.
They walk side by side down a hall before class.
"It's extra credit. And I don't want to go alone,” Kelly says.
"Do we have to?” Katie groans.
"Are we going to that safe space event?" Kelly asks.
Kelly reads the event alert on her phone:
Safe Space bonfire.
Leave your fears behind and join us for a time of tolerance and marshmallows. 7-9pm at Prof. Jackson's farm. Bring an enlightened friend.
Before that they are on the streets leading to campus. Kelly scrolls back through her timeline, hiding her eyes from the two large white boys walking the opposite direction. “Football players,” she mutters. "From some hick town where the most diversity of skin color they see is a red neck. I can't stand those intolerant jerks."
Kelly is clenching Katie's hand, frowning deeply. Her jaw is trembling. An old truck with oversized tires ambles up the road, a confederate flag rippling.
Katie rolls her eyes. “It's just a flag.”
Kelly gasps, visibly shivers, turns toward Katie and says "Careful."
She jumps in panic away from the road because a car backfires. She looks nervous on the downtown city street. Her eyebrows are locked in furrowed positions. The world seems to disturb her. She scrolls through her news updates. Her jaw is set, resolved to read about all the injustice. Vox. Salon. Huffington Post. Facebook. Twitter; her go-to feeds for injustice. The faceplate of her phone has a shattered web of splinters in the corner. The world she views through the toothy cracks is monstrous.
Kelly puts away the phone and continues back in time to a little shop downtown. There is a funny look on her face as she positions her necklace more carefully on her shoulders. The wire of it feels strong. She uses a little pocketknife that Katie hands her to cut the price tag from her new purchase.
“Do you have that little Swiss Army thing on you?” Kelly asks Katie.
The credit card she uses to obtain the jewelry is returned to her and she faces the little Vietnamese lady who owns the store. The woman is hunched and heavy-set, but her skin is smooth. Her eyes are luminous green orbs.
Kelly says nothing, brushing off a prickly feeling.
The woman squints at Kelly, peering along her gangly form. "You are weakling, yes? Always scared of own shadow?” She points at the necklace. “Do not mistake. Gem will not give bravery.”
Kelly's brow rises. "Well, I don't know about all that, but it's kinda cute. I think I'll get it.”
"This is a precious thing you found, Miss. It is both a fateful and fortunate thing. In hour of greatest fear time will be turned back to your favor. It will give you chance to try again. To stand on your own damn feet and fight your own damn battles."
The old woman fades away into the many trinkets and charms of the cluttered place.
"I like this one," Kelly says. She is modeling the green gem around her neck. Looking in a mirror, she cocks her head. Her eye catches the glint of warm green. Is it glowing or just catching light from the window? She tentatively reaches out to caress its edges. As she does, it's glow cools.
The cogs of time grind to a halt and begin to roll forward again. Her eyes widen and she inhales a ragged gasp, hands feeling for a bloody split down the center of her face. She is filled with horror, then a moment of enlightenment. She purses her lips. The corners curl into a smile.
Food for Thought
What is fear? How much is chemical, how much is psychological, spiritual? What are the various ways with which we deal with our fear? The story references safe spaces, surrounding ourselves with like-minded individuals, as well as closing ourselves off from the things that frighten us. The story also deals with facing and confronting fear. In the bonfire scene the group seeks to confront their fears but they are largely not equipped to handle the manifestation of those fears. If you had a chance to go back and do things again in this story, what, if anything, would you have done differently? Is facing your fears worth death?