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The Two Hands
By Kevin Strange
The fist struck Jarred in the mouth again. He felt his front teeth give a little, but, surprisingly, it hurt less than the first blow. He supposed his face was going numb from the impact, or the endorphins had already reached his pain receptors and begun to work their magic; maybe both. “Did you hear me, faggot?” the big one named Bobby screamed, an action which revealed several brown and an overwhelming number of yellowed, crooked teeth, proof that intelligence can be measured by dental hygiene habits just as accurately as by written tests. Jarred hadn’t heard him. He wasn’t paying attention; just taking his customary beating like he always did when his mom moved him to a new town, to a new school.
“I don’t think he heard you, Bobby.” That one was a tall, skinny kid named Lars. Lars had a severe overbite combined with obnoxiously large front teeth, which made him look like a comic representation of a beaver that’d been pulled and stretched thin on a medieval torture rack. As such, no one actually called him Lars except the teachers. His name was Beaver Boy.
Beaver Boy held Jarred’s arms behind him, giving Big Bobby a clear shot to punch Jarred again. This time, he swung for Jarred’s stomach. The impact bounced Big Bobby’s curly brown mullet up and then down like a slinky. Jarred let out a loud Oof, much to Big Bobby’s satisfaction.
“Something wrong with your hearing, faggot? Suckin’ them cocks make you deaf?”
Jarred just wanted it to be over. If he hung limp and didn’t talk or fight back, the kids would usually get bored – after a few beatings – and leave him to himself.
He hadn’t wanted to move again. He sure as hell hadn’t wanted to start a new school again. Earlier that morning, as he and his mother stood outside their new rental house waiting for his bus, she brushed the dirty blonde hair up out of his face with her hand.
“It’s gonna be different this time Jare, I promise.”
“No it won’t,” Jarred said, frowning up at his mother. “It’s always the same. The kids hate me, they beat me up. Then, when they finally get bored and leave me alone, we move again. I hate this. My life sucks.”
His mother furrowed her brow and frowned. She took his face in her hands and knelt down to his level. “My baby boy, only thirteen years old and already having his first existential meltdown. Your father would be proud.” She laughed to herself. “He called them his ‘Dark Nights of the Soul’. How he loved to worry.”
Jarred pulled away, annoyed. “I miss Dad.”
“Oh, honey. So do I, so do I. Those kids at school? They only pick on you ’cause you’re special.”
It was Jarred’s turn to frown. “They pick on me because they know I’m different. I’m not like them, Mom. They know it. It’s like they can smell it on me.”
“Jare, don’t talk like that. You’re the most special little boy in the world. I wouldn’t trade you for anything.” She looked at him with that sort of affection only a mother can give. The look that love is made of; that ends wars.
And suddenly, everything was OK. Jarred would face another set of bullies, and he would survive because his mother loved him. In the end, that’s really all a little boy needs.
A noise from across the street broke their magical trance. They both looked over and saw their elderly neighbors moving a large object covered in a thick black cloth out of their front door, and into the back of a small van.
“That poor couple,” Jarred’s mom said. “I overheard the old woman talking at the grocery store last week. They lost their son in a freak accident when he was your age. He and his father were fishing when he fell over the side and hit his head on the boat motor. He was dead before his father could pull him out of the water. Poor child.” She looked at Jarred again. “I couldn’t imagine.”
Just then, Jarred’s bus rounded the corner.
“There’s the bus, Mom! C’mon or we’ll miss it!”
“Wait, your father’s necklace! You’re not wearing it.”
Jarred’s hand went up to his chest reflexively. She was right. He always wore that necklace. It was the last thing his father had ever given him. “I must have taken it off when I took a bath last night.”
“Let me go grab it,” his mother said. “It’ll only take a second.”
“No, no, the bus won’t wait, I gotta go! I can’t be late on my first day!”
“I love you Mom!” Jarred trotted off to the corner. His mother stood by, hands on hips, with worry on her face.
Another fist brought Jarred back to the present.
This one hit him high on the forehead. Judging by the sound issuing from Big Bobby’s mouth, he’d broken his hand with that misplaced punch. Beaver Boy dropped Jarred, concern for his friend overriding the need to keep their human punching bag stationary.
It was always fun and games when Jarred was the victim, but once a bully got hurt, playtime was over. However, instead of blubbering and running away like most bullies, Big Bobby – who was now curled in the fetal position, clutching his swollen hand – looked up at Jarred with a vicious hatred in his eyes that Jarred had not expected.
“You’ll fucking pay for that, faggot!” Big Bobby spat from between clenched teeth, his range of insults seemingly limited to one.
Great, Jarred thought to himself, so much for these idiots getting bored and leaving me to myself.
The school day had started just fine. Jarred found his new classroom quickly, and, being one of the first kids in class, was able to secure his favorite spot with ease. Having no friends and, consequently, no one to chat with before class, made punctuality quite simple.
He always chose a seat three quarters of the way back and to the right. This seating offered him total ambiguity. The kids that sit in the very front or very back are most likely to be noticed. The ones in the middle are called on most frequently when the teacher wants someone other than the class know-it-all to answer a question. But the kids on the far right and far left? They might as well not even exist. Just bodies filling space like the knickknacks cluttering up all the shelves in Grandma’s house.
This technique had done Jarred well many times in the past. Unfortunately, the same would not hold true today. Big Bobby and Beaver Boy must have been keen on this method as well, because they sat directly in front of and behind Jarred, respectively.
It didn’t take long for them to “smell the weird on him”, as his mother liked to say. And before he knew it, Jarred was breathing toilet water during their 10:00am toilet break.
Jarred had foolishly thought that that might be the end of it, but to be on the safe side, decided to walk home after school instead of the alternative: risking a hellish forty-minute beating on the bus ride home through town. A veritable Dante’s Inferno compared to the five-minute dunking between class periods. While Jarred lived only fifteen walking minutes from the school, his was the last stop on the bus route, which added that additional twenty-five minutes to the trip.
Big Bobby – an apparent veteran of the bully game – must have anticipated this move. Jarred had yet to make it halfway across the recess playground behind the school before Bobby and his goofy henchman were on him.
Now Bobby, clutching his broken hand like it was a fragile kitten, slowly rose to his feet. “Gimme the knife.”
Beaver Boy looked startled. “Th- the what?”
“Don’t play stupid. I know you carry your daddy’s hunting knife in your backpack. Give it to me.” Tears streamed down Bobby’s face. His hateful stare bore into Jarred’s soul.
“I- I don’t think that’s such a good idea, Bobby,” Beaver Boy stammered.
Bobby answered with a punch to Beaver’s stomach with his good hand. Beaver Boy went down on one knee without further protest and began to dig for the weapon.
“I’m gonna cut off your fucking pecker, faggot, and make you eat it!” Bobby said.
It was time to run. Jarred knew that if he ran back toward the school, they’d just catch up with him. He’d lived in Hopp’s Hollow for three months, they’d been here their whole lives. He only knew one way to get to his house from the main roads. It was a four-mile journey, and Jarred was no runner. He wouldn’t make it three blocks at any kind of real getaway pace. His only chance was to cut through the massive woods behind the school. He could make it home in thirty minutes. His house sat just a mile or so on the other side of them. The downside? Big Bobby and Beaver Boy stood directly in his path to safety: the thick brush that began just before the tree line.
Jarred couldn’t afford to think about it for another second. He ran forward at full force and knocked Beaver Boy (who was balancing all of his weight on one knee as he rummaged through his backpack) flat on his tiny stretched out ass.
Beaver shrieked in surprise as Jarred scooted past him. Bobby stepped into Jarred’s path with a look of intense menace on his face that said he was expecting to stop Jarred cold. Instead, Jarred swung his backpack as hard as he could into Bobby’s broken hand, sending the boy back to the ground, howling.
Jarred wasn’t a tall boy – or thin, by any means – but he ran faster than he’d ever run before that day, leaving the bullies scrambling to regain their footing behind him. Little did he know, he’d double his pace later, as, for the second time in a single afternoon, he’d be running for his life. Literally.
He made it thirty or so yards into the dense foliage before he dared glance behind him to see if the other kids had followed him. He was panting rapidly, a large stitch in his side stabbing his ribs with each inhale. Sweat dripped in globs from his red face. He bent over, hands on knees, and dropped his backpack. A weight he hadn’t even noticed until it was gone. He was safe.
After a time, he assessed the damage. His mouth hurt, of course, but other than a swollen upper lip, nothing felt out of place or broken. He got lucky, and he knew it. Before long, and without much more thought about the afternoon’s perilous events, he gathered his things, straightened his clothes, and headed off toward the direction of his house. Having his ass kicked at school was, after all, a regular occurrence in Jarred’s life. All that mattered to him now was a cold shower, some cookies and milk, and his favorite comic books to keep him entertained until dinner time.
Ten minutes passed rather uneventfully. After twenty more, he began to think that maybe traipsing off into the woods alone wasn’t the smartest idea for a thirteen-year-old boy in a town he’d barely lived in for more than a summer. Thirty-five minutes after that, Jarred knew he was in big trouble and no closer to finding his way home. The sun was still high. It hung in the late August sky like a heat lamp, baking Jarred’s brains and making him wish he was the kind of kid who wore baseball caps.
He was thirsty, sweaty, and sick to death of looking at trees. His shoulders were beginning to ache from shifting his pack from side to side, and blisters had begun to pop up on his feet like small stinging tumors. Worst of all, though, was the incessant droning of cicadas, their maddening songs rising and falling in unison like a cacophony of drunken synthesizers.
They were Seventeen-year cicadas, he’d learned in class today. Fat grubs feasting on the earth longer than he’d been alive, all metamorphosing into grotesque, grill-faced winged beasts who’s only aim in life seemed to be to squawk endlessly in the trees and dive bomb Jarred’s exposed face. The damned things were crawling on every surface, climbing his shoes, and getting caught in his hair.
Frustrated, he sat down on a fallen log. A squirrel scampered halfway up a nearby tree, as if terrified it was about to become a meal for the big white thing that’d just lumbered into its home. Jarred watched it for a while, envying its freedom.
“I just wanna go home,” he said to the small creature, fatigue settling into his young body, forcing his voice out in little more than a hoarse whisper.
He wasn’t sure exactly what he’d done wrong. The sun was still in front of him, so he was definitely moving in a more or less westerly direction. He didn’t remember this wooded area being so large. His subdivision lay no more than a mile west of the middle school, and yet here he was: lost, tired, and surrounded on all sides by trees. That’s the funny thing about wilderness (a thing that Jarred was now beginning to understand): when it’s contained, it can be a thing of beauty, awe-inspiring and spiritually fulfilling in equal measure. There’s almost nothing as breathtaking as the view from a lookout high up in a bluff, miles from the ground, overlooking a river or lake on a crisp Spring morning.
But you take away that sense of safety, add in a degree of helplessness, and suddenly nature becomes a looming, claustrophobic beast, dripping with dangers around every bend, with a maddening, disorienting sameness that can singlehandedly crush a grown man’s morale and leave him a starving, lonely, gibbering lunatic.
The squirrel chipped angrily at Jarred before diving off the tree and scurrying off in the opposite direction. If Jarred hadn’t been watching the little animal, he might have missed it. If he’d decided to walk on another five minutes, if he’d hung another left just before he came to the downed tree. If. Only if.
He stood up, determined to keep trudging along in spite of his soreness; in spite of the relentless insects; in spite of the knowledge that he was utterly and inexplicably lost.
He willed himself to make it home before dinner time. His mother wasn’t the type to keep a short leash. It wasn’t uncommon for him to spend an entire afternoon at the library or local video store, cautiously browsing the hard “R” skin flick section hoping to spot a nipple on a box cover. But she always expected him home to eat.
He began to walk westward again, stubborn until the end, when the sound of his new squirrel friend shrieking stopped him stiff. It hadn’t trotted more than a dozen yards to the southeast, into a dense area of thorny bushes. Jarred, curious, walked toward the sound. That’s when the smell hit him. A sweet perfume; flowers, but not. Some kind of incense. Out here deep in the woods, it was a disconcerting smell. Jarred soon found the terrain nearly impassible. The foliage had grown immensely thick; the cicadas incredibly aggressive. He kept moving forward despite the trouble it was causing him. He could hear the squirrel scrambling just up ahead; could hear it making small whimpering sounds. Curiosity won out over common sense and exhaustion. He took several whip-like branches to the face and suffered more than enough thorny brambles to the shins to make him reconsider this foolish idea, if only momentarily.
That’s when he noticed the ground beneath his feet (which, up to this point, had remained a dull brown color, covered in dead dry leaves) had become a deep rusty red. The color of Dragon eyes. Clay, he realized. The floor of the woods had suddenly and abruptly changed from normal topsoil to soft, malleable clay.
Jarred’s feet began to leave shallow prints, and the incense smell grew much stronger. Without warning, the violent tangle of brush gave way to a vast clearing.
Immediately, Jarred felt the intrinsic wrongness of that weird secluded place. His first instinct was to turn back the way he’d come and never think about it again. He did not follow his first instinct. Instead, he gawked at the cyclopian glade.
The entire meadow was laid out in a roughly circular shape of approximately one-hundred yards in diameter, and bordered on all sides by giant oak trees five-foot wide from side to side. These trees did not stand straight and tall, however. Instead, they jutted off in odd angles that seemed to change depending on which tree Jarred focused on. Adding to this disorienting feeling was a distinct change in the lighting. The sun did not shine through the canopy of branches and leaves as it should have. Instead, the lighting in the clearing reminded Jarred of what one saw through the lenses of particularly strong sunglasses. Colors were exaggerated, dense. Shadows were deeper, as if bottomless pits of blackness. So startling was the change in scenery, that it took Jarred several moments before he noticed his squirrel friend laying next to the closest of the mammoth trees. Dead. Its carcass torn open and already partially dismantled. By Cicadas. Dozens of them swarmed the squirrel’s small body, crawled into it guts, clawed out its eyes. They had no mouths to eat the creature’s flesh, this was simply an act of violence.
It was enough to snuff out the last flame of bravery Jarred possessed. He turned to retread back the way he’d come, but found his path totally impassible, as if the thorny vines and roots had conspired to trap him inside this terrible place.
The first pangs of anxiety hit him then. He realized he’d trespassed into a world that was not his own, a world in which he most certainly did not belong. His heart began to race as he looked around, frantically searching for an opening in the brush line from which he could escape. That’s when he saw it. Across the long field. The dead tree.
It was a gnarled, rotten thing. It stood no more than six and a half feet tall. Swatting the cicadas off his face and arms, Jarred lost his fear, fascinated by the grotesque structure in front of him. He walked toward it. As he approached, he observed (only in passing) that in this place, the cicadas made no noise, in spite of their numbers being great. Indeed, the entire scene seemed to swim with them; in the air, on the trees, crawling through the bright grass clumps jutting from the clay floor. But their droning song – their mocking laughter – was absent. In its place hung a thick silence, like a warm, wet rag draped across his ears.
As if hypnotized, Jarred moved with no fear, counting the enormous oaks as he walked. Seventeen in all, with iron torch holders on every odd tree. The place was old. Jarred had once written a report on Yosemite National Park and learned that trees took hundreds of years to grow this size, sometimes thousands. It could not have been a natural occurrence. It was manmade, Jarred was sure of it. Someone had created this place. Someone who lived a long, long time ago.
He reached the dead thing and shuddered. The branches, void of leaves, jutted out at disconcerting angles like fangs on some deep-dwelling sea monster.
But the part that brought Jarred’s anxiety back tenfold, the part that scared him more than any monster movie or any bully ever had, was the carving that topped the old pine.
It was ugly, but that couldn’t have been more of an understatement. At first glance, the carving’s aspect resembled that of a lion, a grotesque lion, with an enormous, crooked maw. But the more Jarred examined it, the more the carving took on an entirely alien feel. The amazingly detailed mane was closer in appearance to the hair of a man. It was black, long, and, even though it was made of wood, it had a tangible greasy look to it. The mane fell in front of huge multifaceted eyes. Like those of a fly was the closest description Jarred could think of, but even that was still too literal, too natural.
By far, the most unsettling features on the sculpture were the teeth set into a mouth that was easily two-thirds of the entire hellish bust, which in itself was four times the size of Jarred’s head. These teeth were set in three uneven rows. They were jagged, razor sharp spikes protruding from both the top and bottom sets of mammoth jaws.
As an exclamation point, a large, dark snout jutted out from the face, adorned with a thick steel ring that stood out in stark contrast to the rest of the painted wooden head.
The bestial caricature was so off-putting that Jarred almost didn’t notice the small, ornamental shelf located chest-high and set back a foot into a large crevice inside the heart of the old tree.
“An altar,” Jarred murmured to himself. Even with its queer alien aspect, Jarred had seen enough Sunday morning Catholic sermons on TV to know that this clearing – with its circular pillars of trees, its wicked idol atop the center tree, and ritual altar – was some kind of ancient Pagan place of worship. Set into the sides of the altar were candles burning the sweet incense that had initially drawn him to this odd and terrible place.
Jarred noticed lastly something that startled him like a slap in the mouth, something that caused his heart to race and his pulse to pound in his temples. Laying across the altar were two freshly severed human hands. He knew they’d been severed recently because they were laying in a shallow pool of blood. Still bright red, still dripping onto the rusty colored clay below.
He was so moved by this final detail, this offering of flesh, that he did something out of reflex, without conscious thought. If asked, he would not have been able to explain why he’d done it. He quickly snatched one of the hands and dropped it into his backpack. The meat on the appendage was still warm, the fingers still loose. For a brief moment, Jarred feared the hand would grip hold of him and never let go. The moment passed, and the hand was safely tucked away in his bag.
The theft complete, Jarred’s rational mind began to take over. The candles were lit. The hands recently amputated. This clearing, this hidden ritual chamber, was not abandoned. Someone had been here very recently. Someone who, no doubt, would be coming back.
Before he had a chance to think further, he heard voices – adult voices – close by. Jarred dashed as fast as he could to the relative cover of the nearest giant oak tree. He slid to his knees and slammed his back against the girth of its trunk. He didn’t risk running any farther, afraid the sound of his feet or jostling bag would warn the people behind the voices that an intruder was present, an intruder who was also a thief. An intruder to be punished for his crime. For stealing the hand.
He put his own hand over his mouth. Forced himself to calm down, to breathe through his nose, as the voices broke the threshold of the clearing.
“Can’t believe you forgot the powder! It’s the most important part of the whole gal-darn thing,” the first voice said. It was distinctly male.
“If you wouldn’t leave it all to me, it wouldn’t happen,” the second voice said. It was female.
“What a sight we are!” the first voice said. “What if we’d been seen? How would we explain these?”
Jarred, calmer now – still anxious, but with regained composure – chanced a sneaking glance from behind the tree.
The two figures, dressed in odd ceremonial garments, stood in stark contrast to one another. The man was tall and lanky with thin arms, long legs, and a tiny little stick of a neck that was home to one of the largest Adam’s apples Jarred had ever seen.
The woman was short and round with an incredibly large bosom that threatened to burst forth from the queer cape and cowl she wore.
The two were clothed in dark purple robes with crimson trim. Positioned at the chest of the garbs was a diamond-shaped face matching the crimson trim of the robes. The same face, Jarred realized, who’s hideous aspect adorned the tree altar; only this face was a crude, almost caricature of the awful beast. More an archaic symbol than a true representation of its face.
The couple’s faces were masked with black cowls that reminded Jarred of the villains from his comic books. Their heads were entirely covered, with openings for only the eyes, mouth, and chin of each outfit left accessible. Another diamond shaped face-symbol rested on the forehead.
The man was waving the bandaged and bloody stump of his left hand in the air while the woman cradled a twin of it against her sizable breast. She said, “We don’t have time to argue. It comes!”
As if on cue, a clap of thunder shook the secluded clearing. It took all the wherewithal Jarred possessed to not cry out and run screaming through the sharp bramble thicket into the woods. Instead, he bit into his fingers, restrained the urge to flee, and held his position of safety.
Vast, dark clouds boiled across the small circle of blue sky visible through the tops of the tall oaks, obscuring the sun, plunging the ritual clearing into total darkness.
Jarred’s first irrational thought was to run to the adults, to cry for help. Darkness was, after all, no place for a child alone. He almost did just that, until, at the last instant, the torches on the great oaks lit up simultaneously, casting across the clearing a stark, orange glow which brought Jarred back from the edge of sanity, back to his rational mind. He stood his ground, planted to his spot; a helpless spectator to whatever fantastic, horrible freak show was about to start in that evil place. He should have run.
“Hurry! Spread the powder, woman!” The tall man screamed.
The woman pulled a lavender pouch from inside her robes and dropped it, causing Tall Man to scream at her again.
“I’m going as fast as I can!” she yelped. Clumsily, she opened the bag and poured a bright white powder onto the ground. She began chanting queer, unintelligible syllables as she emptied the contents of the pouch in a rough circle around her companion and herself.
“Finish it, damn you! Close the circle or we’ll be dead!”
The short woman choked back a terrified cry, but did indeed finish the circle. At nearly the same instant, a low rumbling sound – as if a stampede of lumbering giants were charging toward the clearing – started up in Jarred’s ears. The sound seemed to come from every direction. It grew steadily louder, pulsing in time with the tiny circle of clouds above the treetops, which now intermittently glowed an indescribable shade of hideous evil. An awful un-color, as if hell itself were opening up from above. Jarred put his hands over his ears as the terrible sound grew still louder, past the point of discomfort. The cicadas, ever present but nearly forgotten in this nightmare hideaway, swarmed high overhead. There must have been thousands of them with still more joining their mad swirling vortex above the gnarled old pine tree. Jarred realized then that the awful sound was the returning of their blasphemous, screeching song.
The ground shook. That horrible sky glowed brighter and brighter, illuminating the clearing to the point that Jarred had to slam his eyes shut for fear of blindness. He could no longer stifle his screams, although it did not much matter. He wailed at the top of his lungs and still couldn’t hear himself over the cacophony of those mocking insects.
This otherworldly symphony continued for some time. When it reached its crescendo and then finally to wan, Jarred found himself no longer screaming, but instead laying silently on his side, staring blankly at the strange man and woman as they held hands and chanted together. Delighted, repugnant smiles slashed across their hooded faces.
It all stopped. The sound, the light, the chanting, the quaking. Jarred followed the couple’s admiring gaze high up into the sky. There, the insects silently hung in the air, as though suspended. He looked closer and found that they were not still, but were in fact swirling. Creating some sort of vortex or funnel in the sky. This funnel began to bulge, to twitch, to take shape. It coiled out like a spring or a snake about to strike. These convulsions became denser and denser, until the whole mess of insects could not be differentiated from one organism. Then, all at once, the cicada swarm dropped dead from the sky, revealing something underneath, indistinguishable from a dark smear in the sky at first.
Then it grew a head. Then it became a horror beyond any horror Jarred had ever conceived of in any of the most awful recesses of primal, memorial nightmare. A horror that threatened to steal away his last vestige of sanity. He was as close to breaking mentally as he’d ever been in his short life. His personality circled the bottom of the drain, threatening to dive off into the blackness of oblivion, never to return, leaving his body a used up husk, void of anything resembling true consciousness. He could handle no more. He wanted to go home. He wanted to forget all this. He wanted his mother. And yet, he watched.
The altar carving did not do it justice. Didn’t get the eyes right. Didn’t get the ugly right. But worst of all, the carving in the tree didn’t show the rest of it.
What now towered, two stories tall, looming over the couple standing inside their crude white circle, was utterly alien and entirely unfathomable. The head which fairly resembled its artistic counterpart (other than the eyes and the ugly) sat atop a thick swaying trunk of a body that Jarred could only compare to a centipede he’d once dissected in science class.
If he’d hugged the beast (which he could not have been forced to do, even at gunpoint), he would not have been able to clasp his hands around it. The multi-sectioned body was a deep, dark purple which intermittently pulsed a putrid green color. It glistened in the torchlight, as though wet or slimy. Each segment (of which there must have been three dozen) contained no fewer than twenty pairs of short, thick black legs or feet, much like the insect from science class.
What Jarred hadn’t seen in science class were the four enormous spider-like legs jutting up and away from the middle of the creature’s body, ending in horned elbow joints just above its gargantuan head, and then tapering down into needle-like points, which gouged into the ground below.
It was too much. Jarred’s fragile constitution could not – would not – stand to know that this evil blasphemy of nature existed in the real world. He jammed his eyes shut and pulled his knees up to his chest. He began to silently weep, willing the image of the monster from his mind, forcing it to disappear, burying it away forever.
Then it spoke.
If spoke was even the right word to describe what was happening. The words did not only come from its thousand-fanged mouth in the same way that the sound did not only travel to Jarred’s ears. The monster’s voice – a multi-layered thing – seemed to come from three places at once. The first voice came directly from that overgrown maw. It was low and gravelly and exactly what one would expect to emit from such a horrific beast. The second, an echo of the first, was high and shrill (though strangely melodic) and sounded as though spoken from the trees themselves. This voice appeared in Jarred’s mind the same way his inner monologue would, encroaching upon his own thoughts, violently shoving them out of the way. The third voice, following the second by a fraction of an instant and coming to him as a faint whisper, was difficult to pinpoint until, after several seconds, Jarred came to the hideous realization that this particular voice, this sinister whisper, was spoken by the fallen corpses of the cicada dead.
“Esther and Ivan Greenwich,” the three voices spoke, overlapping each other in a maddening frenzy. “The agreed upon hour of our final meeting has arrived. Ten seasons of Summer have passed, ten offerings have been presented and accepted. Are you prepared to conclude our business?”
The couple, prostrate in the face of the beast, now rose to their knees. Ivan spoke first. “Great Azrazelica, Eater of Souls, Devourer of Dreams, Father of Fear, and Brother of Darkness, we return to worship at your presence, to bask in your magnificence one final time. Your generosity toward two meek and feeble humans such as ourselves is-”
“Your praise means nothing to me, mortal,” the monster interrupted. “You require a soul returned from oblivion. I require a sacrifice for such a deed. Our relationship ends there. Have you brought the vessel?”
Esther pushed forward a thick rectangle-shaped object covered in a black cloth that Jarred hadn’t noticed inside the circle previously. She pulled the sheet free and opened what must have been a large box, but Jarred could not make out its contents from his vantage point.
Azrazelica spoke again, sending a new wave of revulsion through Jarred’s body as his mind was invaded by the shrill singing of the trees. “Very good. And the final offering?”
Standing to his feet, Ivan said, “We have removed a hand each to show our dedication to your power and glory for now and forever more, oh Lord of Locusts, Bringer of Madness, Feaster of Mortal Minds! Please accept these hands as final payment for our humble desire.” He motioned with his stump toward the horrible tree, which Azrazelica now hovered over.
The titan beast lowered its head to the altar, then swayed it’s mammoth head over to Ivan, meeting the little human at eye level. “You dare mock the Eater of Souls?”
Ivan’s eyes grew wide in astonishment. “M-mock you? Never!”
Esther jumped to her feet, flabbergasted. “Our offering awaits you upon the sacrificial altar! We have met your terms as described in the Scrolls of Abbaddon, page three-hundred and sixty-two, paragraph seventeen!”
The creature pulled back to full height, forcing the humans to crane their necks to see its face. “There is but one hand on the altar. Our agreement is null and void. Your lives are forfeit. I demand blood. I demand suffering. I demand your souls!”
“No!” Ivan shrieked. “This is just a misunderstanding. The hands, they were there just a bit ago. We had to leave, and-”
“Azrazelica does not accept mortal excuses. You knew the price, you knew the consequences. Step away from the circle. Your fate is decided,” the monster said.
“But…we’ve waited ten long years for this day,” Ivan said.
“Ten years?” the beast said, amused. “The passing of your mortal time is an imperceptible flash of a fraction of an instant of cosmic time. Your struggles impress me none. Do as I command, leave the circle and accept your fate, Ivan Greenwich.”
Ivan grew visibly angry, hunching his shoulders and balling up his one good fist. “Ten years of scavenging around the world for your petty trinkets.” Spittle flew from his reddening face. “Ten years of groveling before an overgrown grub!”
Esther smacked him, visibly horrified at his outburst. “Forgive him, my lord. He is simply frustrated, as we have worked so hard for so long toward this day! Show mercy, Great Azrazelica!”
Ivan spun on her. “You shut your fat mouth, wench! This is all your fault! We should have never left the offering unattended!” He whipped back toward the monster. “It’s one fucking hand! What does it matter? We’ve already given so much!”
“This discussion is over, human. I grow tired of the melodrama,” Azrazelica said, swaying on the giant trunk of its body.
“You want blood?” Ivan screamed. “I’ll give you blood, cocksucker! You’re cheating me! I did everything you asked me to for ten fucking years!” Ivan began to bite and rip furiously into his remaining wrist. Blood began to spurt wildly from it like a kinked up garden hose, pushing fluid out in great bursts, some splashing into Ivan’s eyes, blinding him.
“You do what you promised! You bring him back!” Ivan staggered forward, gnawing at his hand like a trapped animal, robes covered in bodily fluids. He crossed the white powder.
Esther screamed, “Ivan, stay in the circle for God’s sake!”
But it was too late. When Ivan’s rear leg left the protection of the circle, Azrazlica bent over him, opened its giant mouth, and unleashed a torrent of thick, black, tar-like gunk from between its teeth. A noxious belching sound erupted from the beast’s throat as the liquid splashed over Ivan’s prone form. He screamed and flailed like a man on fire. Esther wailed helplessly from inside the circle.
Ivan continued to twitch and jerk, his screams becoming muffled as the liquid covered his mouth and nose. He began to slow, trudging forward as though underwater, until finally, a few paces from the protection of the couple’s magic circle, he stopped altogether; a living statue, silently screaming.
An overwhelming, all encompassing silence followed. Jarred watched Esther watch Azrazelica watch Ivan’s frozen form for several agonizing moments before a slight snapping, cracking sound broke the awful silence. The hardened shell surrounding Ivan’s upper body broke apart and fell away. Like a chick bursting forth from an egg, a semi-translucent, much younger looking, unmasked man – a man who possessed both hands – looked around astonished, his eyes finally resting on those miraculously intact hands. “Wh-What is this?”
Without hesitation, Azrazelica struck out like some nightmarish serpent, trapping the ghost-like form of the young man within its cavernous maw. Esther let out a pained shriek as the cyclopian monster flung its head back and swallowed her companion whole.
It was the muffled sounds of Ivan’s screaming, the slurping, chomping noises coming from the beast’s gullet as it ingested the soul-man, that finally sent Jarred beyond the realm of rational thinking.
He wanted to escape from this awful scene. He would bear the wrath of a hundred bullies, take a hundred beatings to un-see such a hideous act of torture.
The thought occurred to him then, in his shattered state, that he could make all of this right; that he could undo what he’d caused, if he just gave the hand back. The idea took hold like a vice. Without another thought, Jarred scrambled up off the ground and stumbled into the clearing. Immediately, he knew he’d made a mistake. Possibly his last. Esther was still weeping, cringing back to the far edges of her circle of protection, trying to avoid the ever-growing pool of Ivan’s blood that slowly oozed its way out of his lower remains.
The horror whose name was Azrazelica (Jarred still found it difficult to conceptualize such a twisted beast as an intelligent being capable of speech with a name) was curled up, ready to pounce on its prey, waiting for Esther to move from the circle, waiting to devour her soul.
Jarred fumbled with his bag. He choked back tears and said, “I-I’m sorry. It’s all my fault. I-I took the hand.”
As the severed hand tumbled to the soft clay floor, Azrazelica howled in surprise. “Sacred ground has been trespassed against! Esther Greenwich, you shall suffer an eternity of unimaginable pain for such reckless blasphemy against my name! You have made a mockery of my arrival to the Earth Plane! This sleight will never be forgotten. Your blood will spill and spill again everlasting! This I promise!”
With that, the sky flashed so bright and a thunderous boom sounded so loud, that, for one hideous moment, Jarred believed that he too had been covered in the serpent monster’s soul-stealing black goo. His senses retreated. His grip on reality was momentarily disconnected. Jarred called up one final image of his beautiful mother in his mind’s eye as he prepared for his essence to be consumed by the horror. And then the world became still, and quiet, and normal.
Azrazelica was gone. The horror was gone. The nightmare was over. Jarred took a deep breath. Gazing down at his body, he found himself intact, free of cosmic goo. Somehow, some way, he had lived through it all. After some moments, he slowly lifted himself from the ground, brushing away clumps of clay from his filthy jeans.
A faint, high-pitched, rising whine from behind jolted him enough to remind him that he was still in danger.
Not out of the woods yet, he thought to himself, without realizing the irony of his statement.
The whine rose into a scream that ripped through the glade. Jarred chanced one quick glance behind him before breaking into a westward sprint on legs that surely could not sustain any more punishment. But they had no choice. Esther was coming fast. Uncannily fast for such a short, stout woman.
He dove into the dense thorny bramble and back into the woods with surprising speed. Esther, though, was quickly closing the distance. He could hear her maniacal cursing just behind him. Bits of phrases and fragments of sentences pierced through the sounds of crunching leaves and whipping branches. Ruined everything…rip out your spine…little fucker …boil your brain were among the most frequently used.
Any chance of keeping his sense of direction was quickly lost as the chase continued. Jarred slipped and ducked, bobbed and weaved through underbrush and around thick tree trunks in a futile attempt to shake his pursuer.
“When I catch you, I’ll feed you to Azrazelica by hand, you meddling rodent!” Esther screamed, seemly from just behind Jarred’s head.
He was losing ground, losing sunlight, and, worst of all, losing what little energy reserves he had left. This witch woman is going to get you! his mind warned. Panic rose in his burning chest as he huffed and puffed his way through what seemed to be even denser forest. How big can these woods possibly be? he pleaded to himself.
And then, just as he was prepared to give up hope, to face the strange woman head on, he broke through the tree line, skidded to a halt, and found himself standing smack in the middle of his own street, mere feet from the safety of his house, from the safety of his mother.
With a whoop of joy, he bounded forward, a second wind (or was this his fourth? Fifth, even?) propelling him like a sloppy drunk, zigging and zagging him across the road, in and out of his neighbor’s lawns. The familiarity of such mundane surroundings had never inspired this kind of joy, this kind of relief in him before. His confidence rose more by the second, and a huge grin appeared across his face as he at last crashed through his back door and into his kitchen.
He spun the deadbolt and twisted the lock on the doorknob faster than he would have thought possible just the instant he was through the door.
He dropped his hands to his knees, sucked in the sweet, ordinary smells of his home, and did his best to regain his composure. His clothes were soaked in sweat. His socks squished around in his shoes as he made his way to the fridge to grab a soda. “Mom!” he yelled, his voice hoarse from screaming at the horror that, even now, so soon afterward, seemed like a distant dream, the details of which slipped further and further away with each passing second.
“Mom!” he yelled again. As he finished his soda, he realized that, in his haste, he’d failed to notice that his mother’s car was not parked in the driveway. Indeed, the house stood still and quiet. As the evening set in and the final bits of dark orange sunlight sunk under the horizon, Jarred was left standing in the darkness of an empty house.
He switched on the overhead light and noticed a note tacked to the cork board just to left of the kitchen phone. He yanked it down.
I’ve got some errands to run. While I’m out, I’m going to pick up some stuff for dinner. Your favorite tonight, lasagna! 🙂
I’ll be home by 8. If you need anything, run across the street to Mr. and Mrs. Greenwich’s house. I told them you’d be home alone for a bit. Love you baby!
Jarred looked up at the clock, horrified. It was just now six o’clock. The screen door opened behind him. Slowly, each of the locks turned, and the door swung open. The note shook in his hands as he turned to face what would surely be his death.
“You mother was kind enough to tell me where you put your spare key, little Jarred.” With her good hand, Esther peeled away her cowl, revealing the face of a sweet, elderly old lady, framed by a light blue perm of short curly hair. That face, which had surely lit up with joy as it pinched the cheeks of many a small child, was now pulled up in a vile, murderous scowl.
Jarred stumbled backward into the darkness of the living room in a futile effort to escape. A giant grandfather clock blocked the front door. Jarred and his mother always used the kitchen door to come and go, as it was closest to the tiny overhang above the driveway that served as a carport.
Two memories flashed in his mind simultaneously. The first was of the conversation he’d had with his mother that morning about the Greenwich’s son dying in a freak boating accident. He was dead before his father could pull him out of the water. Poor child. His mother had said.
The Second was what he’d seen in that box covered in black fabric as he’d dropped the stolen hand back in front of its rightful owner. At the time, he’d been too focused on the cosmic horror looming over him to register what he’d seen. But now, he remembered with his mind’s eye the hideous contents of that box. It had, he remembered clearly, actually been a coffin, and inside that coffin lay the filthy, decomposed remains of a child, some forty years dead.
Esther slowly rounded the corner into the living room, flipping the light on with her stump as she did so, leaving a grotesque red smear across the wall. She dropped her robe and cape into a pile on the floor, completing her metamorphoses from an evil witch, back to an unassuming, nonthreatening old lady.
“Daniel was his name,” she said, leaning against the door frame, clearly still winded from the chase. “He was our world. Ivan and I lived for him. Our beautiful little boy. Our little Daniel. When we lost him, our life ended. Everything we had, everything we’d worked so hard to attain had been for him. Without Daniel, we had no purpose.” Esther crossed the small room and sat down heavily on the couch, clearly sure that Jarred was trapped and possessed no serious means of escape. She was almost right.
“We’d done well for ourselves. Ivan made millions of dollars from smart investments before we were thirty. All of it we intended to use to send Daniel to the best schools, provide the best life we could for our tiny man. Oh, he was going to be something great! Best you believe it!” Esther paused, her gaze drifting away, obviously bitter that their every eventuality, every precaution to make sure their son lived the perfect life, was not enough to account for an early, accidental death.
“And so, we set out to do the impossible with our incredible resources. It took a few years before we found a real medium, a real means to communicate with the other side.
“It was in Cairo, Egypt, 1975. A small cult of devil worshipers led us to a secret temple underneath a pyramid. For two million dollars, we were able to hear Daniel’s voice. He told me he was scared and alone. ‘Mommy’, he said. ‘Please come find me.’ Do you know how that made me feel? Do you? You little fuck!” Esther spit the last words like venom, her good hand digging into the cushion.
Jarred was only half-listening. He’d been reading the final part of his mother’s note.
I put your necklace on the coffee table. Don’t forget it again! Your father would kill me if he knew you were running around without it!
Jarred picked it up and put it around his neck as Esther continued her tirade.
“It took Ivan and I another twenty years to find the perfect translations of the correct passages in a multitude of forgotten texts, written in a dozen languages, before we compiled the ritual to summon Azrazelica. The ritual you ruined was the culmination of more than a decade of work and nearly a half a billion dollars in research.
“My husband and I traveled to the ends of the earth for that hideous beast. We performed tasks so blasphemous, your feeble child-mind could not comprehend their magnitude. We did this because Azrazelica, and no one else, promised us he could return our son to us from the other side. Today was to be that day. And you ruined it.”
Esther stood up. She pulled from her pocket an oddly shaped rune that glowed and pulsed weird combinations of colors the likes of which Jarred was sure did not belong to the earthly spectrum.
“I tell you all of this, little Jarred, because you’ve condemned me to an unthinkable eternity of damnation and suffering. Because of this, I intend to bring you with me. I intend to bind your soul to my own, so that you will experience the same agony without end that you’ve cursed me to. And I want you to know – as your mind is ripped asunder for countless aeons before being violently woven back together, just so it can be shattered again – exactly why. I want you to know all of this, so that when Azrazelica comes for me, you know that he comes for you too, boy!”
With that, she thrust the rune in Jarred’s direction. The weird light shot across the room as if it were a laser. Jarred felt something inside himself come loose. His fingertips went numb, and an awful sucking feeling pulled against his vision. Instinctively, he backed up against the wall, but it wasn’t his mortal body that was being assaulted. He tried to pull back at the sick tugging, but it was no use. He was sliding, ever closer toward that alien rune. And then, Jarred’s necklace – also an oddly shaped smooth stone – erupted in a light of its own, deflecting Esther’s attack, sending the offending energy off to one side, where it dissipated harmlessly against a family portrait of Jarred standing happily between his mother and father. All at once, Jarred snapped back into himself. He blinked madly, trying to reorient himself in his own body.
Esther stood rigid, slack-mouthed, and bulge-eyed. It was Jarred’s turn to speak.
“My dad warned me about people like you,” he said, shaking the last of the cobwebs out of his head. “Demon worshipers who’ll do anything, break any law, cross any moral boundary in an attempt to please those demigods who promise them the impossible.
Dad told me to look out for your kind because I’m different. You’re drawn to us, he said, like bees to honey. Like flies to shit. You see, my dad calls himself a ‘World Walker’. He’s gone right now, in fact. He’s exploring what he calls the 11th dimension. He left me this necklace just in case someone like you tried to hurt me.”
Suddenly, the air in the room electrified. Jarred’s hair stood on end as sounds of enormously powerful energy crackled and popped. A weight, a kind of dense gravity, pulled on the two figures. They both strained to keep their footing. Then, three ungodly forms phased into existence, each with its own set of limbs tipped with malicious, violent killing things. Weapons to rend flesh and melt bone. Each one more viscous in its cruelty than the last.
“Wha-What are those?” Esther asked, terrified.
“These are what dad calls, ‘My Pets’.” Jarred smiled. An innocent, childish expression.
Esther choked on her words as she fumbled for an incantation or spell of protection to ward off the beasts. She stumbled backward and fell butt first onto the couch, her squat little legs pointing straight up into the air. The three monsters pounced, sending bits and pieces of Esther, in many different shapes and sizes, in many directions. Her screams of agony were quickly silenced. The beasts made short work of her soft, plump flesh.
Jarred picked up the house phone and dialed his mother’s cell. “Mom,” he said after she’d picked up, “I think we have to move again.”
The Two Hands and many other exciting stories are available NOW in Kevin Strange’s first collection, The Last Gig On Planet Earth and Other Strange Stories on Amazon Kindle and in paperback here.