30 Mar The Cage
“The Cage”Written by Dirk Stevens Edited by Craig Groshek Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by N/A
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🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None Available
⏰ ESTIMATED READING TIME — 29 minutes
Biting my cheek, I glance up at the clock on the wall. The minute hand crawls out from behind one of the bars protecting its face. Quarter till three. The lead ball that’s been sitting in my chest since Mariana dropped me off falls to my gut, and I go back to watching my feet. A six-hour drive. One way. I know she thinks this is a horrible idea. But she brought me anyway. Didn’t even hesitate.
I guess she’s still beating herself up…
The thought makes my palms sweat. I bend forward and peer past the guard station, to the chain link fence topped with razor wire. No one would blame me. Heck, I have every reason in the world to get up, and just walk away.
I stare out through the fence, to the low grass-covered hills beyond. There’s nothing keeping me here, nothing physical, anyway. I rub the runes burned into my wrists, last moments of his trial playing through my mind. The way the vein in dad’s temple throbbed when he screamed. The way his voice shook. The tears on his cheeks when he shouted, how he hoped the other prisoners would do the same to him. Or, at least what Dad thought he did to me. But he didn’t have a clue. Not really.
It’s what he said that haunts me. He. My captor. My master. “It changes nothing.” He smiled. “The choice was hers. And what has passed cannot be undone.”
Tears sting my eyes, and my throat clenches shut. I shouldn’t be here. I know I shouldn’t. But I couldn’t stay away. I can’t explain why. Not in a way anyone’s been able to understand. I’m not sure I do.
I wipe my palms dry on my jeans. No, that’s not true. I do know. I need to know I’m not crazy. I need to prove to myself he doesn’t own me. That I’m still me. Still Zella, and not a pawn in his sick game.
I just hope I’m right.
I glance up at the clock, but it hasn’t changed.
This isn’t gonna work. I need to focus. I need to make sure I’m here for the right reasons. I blow out a deep breath, close my eyes, and go back to the beginning. The night it all started.
Whoever thought leather pants were a good idea was out of their mind. Blowing out every drop of air I have, I sucked in my tummy, but even laying on my back kicking, the button refused to slide into its hole.
“Come on!” Mariana slammed her hand against the other side of the door.
My arm jolted, and somehow the button popped into place. I took a deep breath, but it was like being wrapped in shrinkwrap. Nothing moved. “Are you sure these are my size?”
“Yes. I’m. Sure.” A loud groan sounded outside in the hall.
I traced the outline of my undies poking up through the leather. “It’s like I’m wearing a second skin.” I can’t believe I let her talk me into this. “I’m just gonna put on a dress.”
Mariana huffed. “What in the hell is wrong wit’ chu? You can’t be goin’ a party dressed like your momma.”
“Are you sure?” I rolled off the bed onto my feet and Morticia Addams walked over to the mirror. But, between the jet black hair, white makeup, and skin-tight black leather midriff and pants, I barely recognized myself. “I look like a vampire whore…”
“Um, That’s kinda the point?” Mariana banged on the door again. “Come on,” She groaned. “We gonna be late.”
The girl in the mirror scowled. “Why can’t I just-”
“Dress like an old lady, like you usually do? Oz is a Goth club. You want in? You gotta drop that whole Virgin Mary thang you got happenin’.”
I shook my head. She was right. I needed to loosen up. Grabbing the insane Frankenstein boots she lent me, I sat down on the side of the bed, slipped my feet inside, and zipped them up. All the way up to my knee.
“Zella, don’t make me break down this door. I swear, if I have to, I will drag your naked white ass-”
“I’m coming, I’m coming.” Gosh, never get between a party girl and ladies drink free night. I stomped over to the door, laid my hand on top of the frame… which I could reach, thanks to Frankenboots… struck a pose, and opened the door all spooky-like. “Good evening…”
Mariana’s eyes went wide. “Damn. Girl, they ain’t even gonna know what hit ‘em.”
I snorted a laugh, but the pants cut into my stomach. “Ow, don’t make me laugh.”
“Ugh.” She rolled her eyes and snatched my purse off the door handle. “Girl, we got so much work to do wit’ you I don’t even know where to start.” She glanced up at me, a slight smile tugging at her lips. “But you lookin’ fine.”
Wait, fine? “You mean? Just okay?”
Mariana stared at me for a moment, blank-faced. “Sweet Jesus, girl, they really did keep you in a closet.”
My hand slipped from the door frame. I did it again. I know Mom and Dad meant the best, but sometimes… “I don’t think this is gonna work.” I’d never fit in at any club. Well, maybe a bible club. “Look, why don’t you just go? I don’t want to be a buzz kill.”
“Hey,” She caught my chin with her finger and lifted my head so we stood looking each other in the eye. “You think I’m gonna have fun knowin’ you be sittin’ back here all alone and miserable? I don’t think so Ma’am.” She dropped my chin, turned around, and offered me her arm. “To Oz?”
I rolled my eyes. It was just like her. Fun. Goofy. I couldn’t help but smile. I poked my arm through hers, giggled “To Oz,” and together we skipped down the dormitory singing, “We’re off to see the wizard! The wonderful wizard of Oz!”
A bus ride, a short walk, and we were standing at the back of a line in some dark alley downtown. Brick walls towered over us, a thin trail of water trickled down a manhole cover somewhere on the other side of a dumpster. Exactly the kind of place I always imagined thugs and gangbangers liked to hide.
The cold night air stung my nose. I shivered and pulled my jacket tighter around my chest, but I couldn’t help but smile. If Mom and Dad knew I was here, they’d blow a gasket.
“Da-amn it’s cold out c’here.” Mariana slapped her thighs. “What-chu smilin’ at?”
“Nothing.” I puckered my lips and stretch them out to try and hide my smile. “Just trying to keep my face thawed.”
Her eyes narrowed. “Uh-huh. You be laughin’ me freezin’ ta death in my hot little miniskirt.” She jumped on her tiptoes and shouted up the line at the bouncer. “Hey!”
The bouncer turned his head, and scowled right at us. “You gotta problem?”
My cheeks caught fire. This wasn’t happening. “Shhh,” I hissed at her elbow.
“Get offa me.” She jerked her arm free, but by then the entire line was staring at us. “Hell no! You got the problem.”
“Yeah?” The bouncer shouted back. But he seemed bigger now, angrier.
I grabbed her elbow again. “Maybe we should just-“
She swatted my hand. “Yeah you do. How yo men folk gonna have a good time if all yo hot ladies done froze all their fine asses off out c’here?”
His scowl deepened. “That skinny bitch wit-chu?”
“Shoot. Shoot, shoot, sho-ot.” I stepped behind her, doing my best to turn invisible.
“Hell yes!” Mariana threw her arm over my shoulder and pulled me out of my hiding spot. “This here’s my girl.”
I lifted up my collar. I wanted to die. That’s all. Lord? Just kill me now.
The bouncer folded his huge arms over his chest and nodded to the door. “Then get yo fine frozen selves up in here.”
The entire line grumbled, but if Mariana cared, she didn’t show it. “Excuse me?” She pushed her fists on her hips and bobbed her head side to side like some kind of cobra. “Ex-cuse me? Was he talkin’ to you? I don’t think so.”
I couldn’t breathe. It was a nightmare. A terrible, horrible nightmare. I spun on my heels, all set to head back to the dorm, but Marina snatched my hand, and dragged me along, like a dog on a leash. I wanted to run. But I’d been here before… not at the club, at the store. With an old lady, a bag of Doritos and two canes. So I knew once Marina got to this point, it wasn’t worth the fight. And that’s why I followed, eyes glued to my boots while she bulldozed her way to the front of the line.
Honestly, she loved it. The drama, the excitement. It was exactly the sort of thing she loved. But me? The grumbling, the stares burning into my back? I wanted to crawl in a hole and die. So, when a girl in tight corn rows tisked when we passed, and I was stupid enough to look up? My heart almost stopped.
Her eyes traced up and down my body. “Why you takin’ this trash?” She glanced at the girls standing behind her, then at the bouncer. “Look at how she move.” She stuck her chin out at me. Like I wasn’t even worth pointing at. “Hell, she be fresh outta Sunday school. She don’t know how to please no man.” She licked her lips, shifted her weight to one hip in a smooth, sultry motion, and nodded back at her friends. “You let me and my girls in? We make it worth your while, you know what I’m sayin’?”
“Yeah,” the bouncer sniffed. “But I ain’t forgot yo underage ass. So’s less you had a couple birthdays since last week? You best turn ‘round an walk away.”
The girl’s mouth dropped open, but before she got a chance to say anything, the bouncer pushed open the door. The deep thud of music poured into the ally, the girl’s glare turned murderous, but whatever she said died. Drowned in the beat.
Mariana pulled me inside, and for a second, I could breathe again. But then Mariana poked her head back through the doorway, and shouts, “That’s right. This here boy wants a wo-man, notch-yo raggedy candy ass. Why donchu take yo baby girls, and go play witch yo Barbies.”
Under my makeup, my face went scarlet.
Mariana stepped back in and the bouncer closed the door. She took one glance at my expression, smiled, said something, about “standing up fo yoself,” and reached into her purse. Her lips moving a mile a minute, she handed me a packet of green foam earplugs and pulled back her hair, showing me hers. I rolled my eyes, pretending I understood, but with the music thudding through my body, she could’ve said anything.
I ripped open the baggie, pinched the ends to a point, and worked them into my ear canal. The music dulled, but that’s when I noticed the smell, a strange bitter-sweet scent, like lemon cotton candy. I took a deep sniff. There was something vaguely familiar, about it, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.
Another sniff, and Mariana gave me her standard, “Move it Zella” smirk. I shrugged an apology, and she led me down a short dark hall and through a heavy curtain. She leaned in close to make sure I could hear, and shouted “Welcome to OZ.”
I clumped out onto a metal grate, mesmerized by the cones of light shooting up from below. Weaving my way through a crowd of vampires, I bent over a pipe railing and laughed. Below, people danced so packed in, I didn’t even know how they could move. Their heads and arms poked out of a sea of swirling green mist, waving back and forth like grass in a stream.
Mariana tapped my shoulder, and nodded off to the right. I followed her gaze to the far end of the balcony, where a hoard of zombies and werewolves sat at a few tables clustered around a bar. Apparently, she wanted a drink before heading into the pit.
One of the zombies, a man wearing a half mask with a long curled mustache, glanced up as we passed, and smiled at me over the top of a glass. Against my will, my lips twitched up at the corner. I looked away, but I couldn’t hide my smile. It was like Halloween. Everyone in black, black hair, white makeup, black lipstick, or masks. All wearing the same serious expression. Like, smiling was against the rules or something.
It sort of made me wonder what vampires, zombies, and death had to do with OZ, but before I could think about it, Mariana elbowed me in the ribs. “Whatcha want?”
I glanced at the man behind the counter, took in the grey barrel around his chest, the funnel turned upside down on his head, and then up at the menu board. But all their drinks were names like, “Yellow Brick Road,” or “Wicked’s Brew.” I didn’t have a clue.
“Tin man,” A man’s voice called from behind me.
I spun around just in time to see the mustache zombie slap his palm on the counter. “A lullaby League for my latest victim. My treat.”
Victim? My head jerked back to Mariana.
“His treat.” She smirked, drummed her knuckles on the bar, and held up two fingers.
Tin man tossed a glance at Mr. Mustache, and when he nodded, ducked behind the bar.
“Just so’s we clear,” She shouted at the zombie. “This bitch ain’t yo ho, got it?”
“As the moon at midnight.” The Mustache smirked. “Though, there is no call for such remarks. My intentions, are not carnal, I assure you, madam.” He tipped back his head, downed whatever he was drinking in a single gulp, and set the glass on the bar. “Regardless, enjoy your evening, ladies.” And with that, he stepped back, took a slight bow, turned, and walked away.
“Okay, that was weird,” I shouted at Mariana over the music, just as Tin Man set two tall, pink glasses down in front of us.
Mariana shrugged. “What’s weird is you all letin’ me cover your ass.” She lifted hers and gave it a swirl squinting at me around the edge. “You ain’t never gonna cash in yo V card that way.”
“Who says I want to.” I tapped my glass to hers, and took a tiny sip. Past the burn, it tasted like strawberry, but a little more bitter, more metallic. Almost like copper. I took another sip, but the burn swallowed up the copper taste. I ended up ordering another.
I don’t remember much after that. Sensations. Random thoughts. The heat in my cheeks, the spin of the room. The way the floor moved as Mariana led me down the stairs to the dance floor. Her smile. The way her body moved.
I remember thinking that I wasn’t Zella anymore. I wasn’t a girl. Not even human. I had become the sound of frost, the wizard, the maker of the dawn. Oz, the Great and Powerful.
I threw up my arms, screamed at the sky, and let my body join the waves of light dancing overhead.
Zella of the Wind and Sky.
A loud cough shatters the memory. The guard behind the glass tosses the paper he was reading down on the desk, and for a second the outline of his face separates. A fat, dark, almost see-through face turns toward a donut beside him on the desk, and the second, human face, follows.
He reaches for the plate, and I glance down at my hands, pretending I didn’t notice. It’s only the shadow of gluttony. It’s just a crack in his armor, but enough to draw the thing’s attention. Enough for it to take hold. It’ll work on him, widen the crack and slip inside more and more. If it has its way, eventually, it will consume him.
A cold shudder ripples down my spine. I never used to be able to see them. But now…
Without raising my head, I peek around at the other people in the waiting room. There aren’t many. A middle-aged woman in the far corner, I can’t see the rider, but I smell it, thick, heavy, and moist. Despair. It’s almost crushing her it’s so heavy.
I lick my lips and move on to a couple of younger men sitting together against the wall whispering to each other. One is heavy, nervous, with a short beard trimmed to lightning bolts down his cheeks. The other thin, clean-shaven, and sorta cute. He notices me watching, licks his lips, and tosses me a flirty smirk. They couldn’t be more different. But the faces behind their eyes, the faces of their riders are almost identical. Pride, Greed. Lust.
An empty tingling prickle writhes to life in my gut. My heart skips a beat. I clamp my hands over my stomach and whisper, “No. Go back to sleep.”
But I haven’t fed in years, not since I realized what was happening. It’s starving, and they’re right here, already cracked open. Already being devoured.
Its hunger lashes across my thoughts like living fire. Not in words, in flashes of color, smells, and sensations I can’t even begin to describe, but its meaning is unmistakable. “Feed me. Now.”
“Quiet,” I hiss as unnoticeably as I can.
The thing prickles just behind my eyes. Not interested in taking the time to decipher my human grunts, it presses down my arms. Like a shark sensing blood. Ready to strike.
Pulling my lower lip between my teeth, I close my eyes and visualize an eight-sided lantern setting on a table.
The tingles hold in my wrists, listening, but the prickle behind my eyes rumbles impatiently. It hates me for resisting. For not feeding. For keeping it in chains within my mind. But even unfed, it gets stronger every day.
But I know how to control it.
I imagine small shreds of paper sitting beside the lantern, then me, taking it by the handle and carrying it across a dark room, to him. My hands tremble as I conjure his face in my mind, and the prickles shift into a slow, smoldering boil.
It hates him. More than it hates me.
It flashes an image of him into my mind, lying on the floor, his chest ripped open, hollowed out like an empty cage, his heart and lungs limp in my hands. And me, my head thrown back in a roar of victory, eyes glowing red. Unstoppable. A goddess among mortals.
Panting, I shake my head. “No, that’s not what I want.”
Its anger pulses through my gut. But it’s still my body. I’m the host. And it needs me. I’m still in control, for now. But I can’t stop the images, the memories, it pushes into my mind.
Darkness presses in around me like a physical presence, swallowing the waiting room, and in a single heartbeat I’m lost in time.
Somewhere, as if in another world, in a dream, a door slammed. It echoed inside my skull, soft butt piercing. I clapped my hands to my ears to shut out the noise.
“Oh, come on Mariana, have a heart.” But even my own whisper pounded against the inside of my skull. I groaned and roll over onto my side. But everything hurts.
So this is what a hangover feels like. I couldn’t believe she did this every single weekend.
“Never. Never again.” I moaned, sliding my hands from my ears to my temple. Footsteps clicked against the linoleum of our dorm. each footfall hitting like a railroad spike being pounded into my skull. “Really? Heels?”
She hit the lights. It burns, even through my eyelids.
Wincing, I turned my face into the floor. “I hate you.”
And that’s when I realized. I was on the floor. God, I must have passed out on the floor. And she just left me here.
She clicked closer, around by my head. “What is it?” She didn’t answer.
I didn’t know what she was playing at, but I wasn’t in the mood for this. “Just let me sleep…” Her pants, or skirt or whatever she was wearing rustles as she squats down beside me, and I forced my eyes to open. “Ugh, what do you want?”
But she still didn’t answer.
I hated her. I flat hated her.
Lifting my head was out of the question, so I sort of just slid my face across the floor as I turned my head. “What do you wan-“ But the words die on my tongue. The face staring back at me wasn’t Mariana. It wasn’t even human.
Jerking up onto my hands and knees, I blinked, my mind racing to make sense of the zombie with the curled mustache staring at me from behind a grid of bars.
Oz. I scrambled back. He was in the club. My back crashed into something cold and hard against my skin. Bars.
My skin… Tingles raced down my back like icy knives as I hugged my legs to my chest to hide behind. “No.” I whimpered. Pressure built behind my eyes. This wasn’t happening. I was still drunk.
“No.” I shook my head, my eyes burning. This was a hallucination, that’s all. A nightmare.
My gaze flicked to the bars all around me, the single bulb swinging from a wire overhead, the Zombie leering at me from outside the cage. The mirror behind him.
It wasn’t real. It couldn’t be. It was a dream, that’s all. An incredibly super realistic dream.
“Zella.” His breath hissed against inside the mask. “For now, let’s just get to know one another a little better.”
I pressed back against the cold steel bars. Cold and damp with condensation. Too real to be a dream.
But it couldn’t be real. It just couldn’t be. I pushed back harder. My foot slipped on the floor of the cage. My toe hits a plastic bucket I didn’t notice before, and out of the corner of my eye, I see it rolling into the side of the cage, reflected in the mirror.
The Zombie cocked his head to the side, like a curious puppy. “You’ll want to be keeping that upright, in the future.” He nodded at the bucket. “You’re toilet, I mean.”
The word trickled down my arms like frozen lighting. “My…” Toilet. He said toilet. I don’t know why, but that one word made it all real. “My God…” Panting, my gaze jumped from the mirror, to the bars, to the Zombie, then back to the bucket. It’s not a dream. I was naked. In a cage. In some perv’s basement.
“No!” The scream ripped at my throat. A trembling incoherent moan.
The memory shatters.
Light slams back into my eyes like a slap. My gaze drops to the orange fiberglass chair beside me, the off-white linoleum covering the floor, and down to my tennies.
So, it’s gone from promises of power to promises of vengeance. Of justice.
“No.” I ball my hands into fists to keep them from shaking. But, God, it knows me better than I thought.
The tingles trickle back up my arms, toward my core. To wait.
Its unspoken demand hangs like a millstone around my soul. What price it must pay for its freedom. To own me. But it doesn’t understand.
I tried to explain before, but it’s so alien it’s, like explaining color to someone born blind. I showed it a white dove flying out of a cage, a muddy puddle turning clear. But it’s never seen water, it doesn’t even know what a dove is, let alone what it means to me. Redemption.
It responded with a series of images of its own, a vulture-like creature vomiting a skeleton onto a pile of maggots. The skeleton ate the maggots, and as it ate, eyes appeared in its sockets, flesh grew on its bones.
I still don’t know what it means. And I really don’t wanna think about it.
But, we have a history now. Memories we share.
Taking a deep breath I close my eyes, and conjure the one that put me on this path. Counseling. And since Mom and Dad didn’t trust secular psychologists, that meant Pastor Mike. I bring up his ancient wooden desk, the portrait of Jesus cradling a girl’s face between His palms, smiling at her. I push myself into the image until the scent of old paper mixed with Pastor Mike’s aftershave presses in on me. Until I hear my voice echo the thing within me’s still unspoken desire. Pastor Mike’s outrageous assertion that I could choose another path. One that seemed, at the time, insane.
“Forgive him?” I couldn’t even believe what I was hearing. “After everything he-” I didn’t even try not to shout. “He drugged me! He kept me in a cage like an animal!” My voice shook as I remembered the first days in that cage. The terrible thirst. The way I begged for water. And the single small glass he handed me through the bars. The way I gulped down, almost before he even let go.
But I’d never forget the taste. The strange metallic twinge that filled my senses and chased away my fear, my shame at being naked. The way it made me happy in ways I never knew were even possible.
For a while.
Once my head cleared, all I cared about was getting another glass of water. I’d do…did anything. Anything he asked.
I glanced up into Pastor Mike’s kind, round face and managed, “He-” But I couldn’t say it. I couldn’t tell him, a pastor, about the rituals. The spells I learned, the animals I killed… sacrifices I offered. Their blood, the ink he used to paint the runes on my naked body. The spells that would draw “it” to me. I couldn’t tell him how, once I was ready, I reached into the void and offered myself as a vessel, a womb for the creature that came to me… all for a drink of water.
My eyes fell to the crucifix resting on Pastor Mike’s chest, and somewhere, in the dark corners of my mind, the infant creature squirmed. “No.” I managed. “You don’t get to ask me to do that. Not that. Not after what he did to me.”
Pastor Mike pressed his fingertips together under his nose and stared at me for a long while before answering. “I know what he did, Lass, and I canne tell ya how it pains me. But he’s just as much a victim as ye are. Only, he doesn’t know it.”
I snorted. “Then let him burn in hell.”
“Ye donne mean that.”
But I did. Every word.
“Ye think by takin’ yer virginity, he took yer virtue?”Pastor Mike shook his head. “Nay. T’isn’t what is done to us that harms that, Zella. It’s what we do. That’s what taints our soul”
I didn’t answer. He had no idea what I’d done.
Folding his hands he pointed a finger at the Painting of Jesus hung on the wall. The one with the little girl. “Do ye remember your confirmation, lass?”
I did. I renounced Satan, all his works and all his ways…
“That man, he’s not your enemy, not really. The real enemy lies within.”
I laughed. Out loud. If he only knew how true that was. I didn’t say it, counseling with Pastor Mike was pointless, but it was better than medication. So, I held my tongue and let him talk.
“Ain’t no laughin’ matter. Satan’s a might stronger than the best of us. We canne win. That’s why He came. To save you, Zella.”
The corner of my mouth twitched. Not me. Not anymore. I broke my oath. I didn’t just mess up. I became a vessel. I traded my soul… for a glass of water.
A smirk pricked up behind his hands. “Do you know the Myth of Sisyphus?”
“Nooo,” I drawled, not sure if he was calling me a sissy.
“Tis a Greek legend. Sisyphus was cursed to roll a large stone uphill, only to have it roll back down again, over and over for all eternity.” He paused for a second. “That be what it means when Jesus said ta take up your cross and follow him.”
“Okay.” Worst. Pep-talk. Ever.
“Zella,” Pastor Mike dropped his hands to his lap and leaned forward. “It ain’t the fallin’ down that ruins us. It’s when we donne to get back up. When we surrender to the darkness inside. Pickin’ up that cross, over and over, be what makes ye worthy to be His disciple.”
I shook my head. He didn’t understand. This wasn’t about some philosophical metaphor. It was about the thing growing inside me.
“Jesus died prayin’ for them that murdered Him. If ye truly be His, ye need ta be doin’ the same, lass. Turnin’ somethin’ evil to good.”
“Turnin’ somethin’ evil to good.” Those five words stopped time. Like he was offering me a glass of water. I licked my lips, barely able to speak. “What are you saying?”
Pastor Mike exhaled through his nose and smiled. “That with God, all things be possible.”
I folded my hands over the pentagram branded into my chest. Right over my heart. The final rune, the one he gave me after the ritual. The one that locked the creature inside me. If what Pastor Mike was saying was true, then maybe there was still hope for me. For us.
“How?” I gasped. I needed to know I wasn’t just a vessel, a gateway for it to physically into this world. That I still had a choice. That I could fight back. “How do I use this for good?”
Pastor Mike flashed a slight, sad-looking smile. “Well now…” His whole body seemed to relax. “It starts with forgiveness.”
I bit my cheek. My gaze fell to my hands. “I’m not sure I can do that.”
“Zella darlin’.” I glanced up just in time to watch the smile fade from his lips. “Ye been through so much. And I donne wane see ye hurtin’. Ye see, hate be like a thorn stuck in yer thumb. It’s gotta come out, or you’ll get infected, maybe die. The thorn’s gotta come out.”
His eyes took on a far-off look, like they did sometimes, and I couldn’t help but wonder what sort of demons he had in his past. What made him decide to become a pastor. I almost asked, but before I could, he took a deep breath and said, “It takes patience, vigilance on a grand scale so’s ye donne start ta hate yerself, constant prayer, but most of all, it takes love.”
“Love?” That I didn’t expect.
“Aye.” He nodded. “It takes love ta see the truth. That he be just a man, overcome by the demon inside him. Unconditional love, ta look at them that aims ta kill ye, and pray for his salvation. Like Jesus done.”
The church office fades as I open my eyes, replaced by white cinderblock walls of the prison’s waiting room.
The thing inside me squirms. The scent of burlap and wet dog hair fills my nostrils, and a soft pressure pushes against the back side of my knees.
It’s laughing at me… I think.
“You don’t get it,” I whisper to myself. “This is something I have to do. For both of us.” I can’t say it any better than that.
The guard behind the glass coughs. I look up. He flips a page in some magazine he’s reading, takes a sip of coffee, and leans back in his chair.
A slight tingle in my hand draws my thumb to the long jagged scar across my palm. A series of images press in on me. Me kneeling, a silver bowl, an obsidian knife gliding across my hand. A shadow moving against the light of the candles spread out before me.
The words “My own free choice,” echo in my ears. Words I spoke as part of the spell that called it to me. My fingers close over the scar. It wants me to remember, I chose this.
“No,” I hiss quietly. “It doesn’t count. I was drugged. Out of my mind. That’s not free choice.”
Or is it? The question closes in on me like a vice. I guess it has to be. Or I wouldn’t be here. That thing inside my head, watching me with my own eyes, studying my every thought, so that I’m never alone.
Vigilance. Wincing I press back against the thought as it rakes across the inside of my skull. Pastor Mike had no idea.
It’s always there, always ready to pounce. Any crack, any snide thought, any hopeless feeling or hint of pride. It’s always prowling the dark recesses of my mind. Like a hungry wolf studying a flock of sheep. Always hungry. Always growing stronger.
But it’s wrong. I’m not the naive girl I was back then. I don’t care what it says. “I didn’t choose this.”
I smell it laughing at me again, so I conjure a new set of images. A different memory.
I lay on the floor of my cage, tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth, shivering against the cold dank air all around me. Praying silently in my head, “Dear God, help me.” Over and over. Words I knew He wouldn’t hear, wouldn’t listen to. Not after all I’d done. What I’d become.
I didn’t remember when I started praying. At first it was just a shadow of forgotten longing, amid a nightmare of hallucinations and half-remembered reality. But the words came anyway. Over and over, until my head cleared. Until I realized I did have a choice.
To keep drinking the water… continue this existence, or die.
I blinked up at the light above me. The Zella I was died a long time ago. But this, realizing I had a choice, even if it was just choosing to die, was almost like being her again. A glimmer of hope keeping the darkness at bay… Like that single bulb swaying back and forth on its wire above my cage.
A bible verse pickles in my memory, “Those who keep their life will lose it, but those who lose their life, for me, will keep it.” I didn’t remember what verse. It didn’t matter. But I thought about how silly it was that I never really understood what Jesus actually meant until that moment.
The sound of his voice, jerked my focus to his face, the zombie mask that he never once took off…and then to the glass in his hand.
I snatched it from his hands, pressed it to my mouth and pretended to drink, wondering how long I’d been there. There was no day. No night. Only vague memories, twisted shapes and sensations.
“Good girl.” He reached through the bars and stroked the pentagram on my chest..
Setting down the glass, I lowered my arms, and offered my body to his touch. Obediently. As always.
“Eve. The new Eve.” His eyes twinkled behind the mask as his knuckles brushed my skin. “And I thine Adam.” I forced a smile when he slid his hand up my neck and cupped my cheek.
I kissed his thumb and whispered “This world is sick,” into his palm. “Ready to burn.”
“In purifying fire, to make way for the world to come.” His fingertips toyed with the little hairs at the back of my neck. “And thee, Mother, shall have a place of honor. The means of His, conquest.” Below the edge of the mask, beneath the plastic mustache, his lips curled into an almost loving smile. “I have a surprise for thee.”
I forced my face into what I prayed was an expression of excited shock, then pushed it away and stared down at my knees. The way he expected. “I am unworthy.”
“Yes.” He pulled his hand back through the bars. “But I shall give it to thee just the same.” Without another word, he stepped back out of the light.
I sat quietly, not even daring to breathe as I listened to his footsteps fade away. The tell-tale clack of a latch. The squeak of a door swinging open and closed behind him.
When all was quiet, I dumped the water into my waste bucket, and glanced over at the mirror. The one he put there so I could see what I would become. So I would know there was no going back. Not ever.
The naked figure’s face twisted into an ugly scowl. I took in the ancient runes and spells etched into skin, some by knives, some burned in by hot iron. Her wild eyes. Her matted hair.
The glass shook in her hand.
She wasn’t a girl. She was an animal. A beast. A sacrifice of flesh.
Without warning, she flung the glass at the mirror. Shards of glass exploded across the floor. And the girl, the animal, was gone.
I stared down at my hands panting. It wasn’t me. It didn’t have to be me.
Somewhere in the darkness, a door latch clicked.
My eyes jumped to the long shards of dagger-shaped glass lying just outside the bars. He always had the keys. He kept them on a chain around his neck, tucked into his shirt.
Heart pounding, I snatched the longest shard, and held it to my face. I could do this. I could get out. The shard caught the light. I glanced up at the bulb. But not like this. It has to be dark, or he’ll see.
A squeak echoed through the darkness.
Without another thought, I pressed my arm through the bars above me, closed my eyes, and slashed at the light.
A pop. A flash. And my bubble of light vanished in a shower of broken glass.
“Mother?” The hint of concern tainted his call.
“I am here, Father.” I pulled my arm back, and ran my fingers up the flat sides of my dagger.
The tip was broken, but no less sharp. “The light went out.”
“Ah.” The door squeaked. “Then I shall return shortly.”
He’d bring a light. He’ll see what I’d done. He’d know what I was planning. “Be careful,” my voice shook. “It startled me and I knocked over the mirror.”
For a moment, he didn’t answer, and when he spoke again, his voice sounded cold, vacant. “It is a small matter. That stage has passed. Do not move, Mother. I shall sweep away the glass.”
The door clicked shut, and I crouched near the back of the cage to wait. He would open the cage. He would come inside.
I couldn’t have asked for more.
The thing inside me squirms. The taste of bile fills my mouth, my head throbs, and before I even return to the now, a collage of images flash through my mind. A flashlight, a dustpan and broom.
My captor laid them against the side of my cage, stuck the flashlight in his mouth, then reached for the wire and pulled the socket over to himself.
I hid the shard under my forearm and folded my arms over my knees. Light erupted from his hands and the bulb swung free. He squatted down, clicked off the flashlight, laid it down on the floor, and reached into his collar.
I rested my chin on my knees, focused on his eyes, not his keys. Not even when his gaze fell to the lock. I forced all emotion from my face. I had to be vacuous. Placid. Despite the deafening roar of my heartbeat pounding in my ears.
The padlock sprung open with a click. He unhooked it, laid it beside the flashlight. The door swung back. Open . Eyes locked on mine, he reached back for broom and dustpan, and bent in through the door.
His head drooped as he stretched out the broom, raising and falling with each stroke of the broom. Glued to his task.
That’s when it hit me. He couldn’t see me, or anything else out of the corner of his eyes. The mask narrowed his vision.
The back of his neck came into sharp focus. Every hair, every crease of his skin between his collar and hairline. I raised my hand, gripping the shard so tight it cut into my palm.
A thin line of blood trickled down its edge and hung on the tip.
A single drop fell to his shirt, and sunk into the fabric.
My tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth. This was my one chance for freedom. My only chance.
Strike! I willed my hand to fall. Envisioned it sinking into his skin. But my hand wouldn’t move.
Tears blurred my vision. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t kill him.
He reached in further, blind to all but his task.
I couldn’t breathe. I was his. God help me, I was his.
The shard slipped from my fingers. It bounced off his back, and his head jerked up. Eyes wide.
Fear. My God, he was afraid of me.
The realization jolted my muscles into action. Before he could move, before I even knew what was happening, I grabbed his pants, jerked him forward, and scrambled over his back.
He grunted when his body hit the floor. I slammed the door closed, snatched the padlock, turned, and jam it into the latch. He was on his hands and knees when I snapped it shut. But he was too late.
I backed away, panting. But he didn’t scream, didn’t fight. He just came to the side wrapped his hands around the bars, and stared at me with an almost amused-looking smile. “What now, Mother? Who should want thee?”
Hands shaking, I grabbed the flashlight and clicked it on. “I don’t know.” It didn’t matter. Anywhere was better than here.
“I do,” he laughed. “Thou shall go to the police. They shall lock me in a cage, and thou shall go back to thine life, the one thou had before… or try.” He tipped his head to the side, like a curious puppy. “But thou cannot. Oh, I’m certain thine family shall welcome thee back with open arms, and that friend of thine…the one that never stopped searching for thee. What was her name? Mariana?” He chuckled softly. “They shall send thee to therapy, and thou shall be heralded as a hero. The rabbit that escaped the wolf. But no matter what they say, no matter what medication they give thee, the seed we planted will continue to grow. Until it speaks to thee. Until thou can see the others that walk this world… the lesser beings that exist here only vaguely. Then, thou shall find me. Then He will be free.”
A slight tingle squirmed deep inside my chest, and my blood turned to ice. “No.” I didn’t know how, but I wouldn’t let it own me. Not like he did. I’d fight it. I’d find a way to fight it.
He licked his lips. “Go. Live. Tell thyself whatever lies thee must. But it is inevitable. Thou shall return to me.”
A soft knocking sound pulls me back to the present. It happens so suddenly, I actually wince when the blinding white light of the waiting room shines through.
The guard raps on the glass a few more times, then motions for me to come on over.
Swallowing, I nod, and force myself to stand. But looking at the door sends a fresh chill dancing up my arms.
Why didn’t I remember any of that? I don’t have the images to ask, so I aim the words directly at it.
The tingles pull back, almost to nothing. But I can practically sense the thing inside me laughing. As if to say, “And here we are.”
I lick my lips and stumble over to the guard station. It hid my memories. From me. Just to get me here.
It’s a trap. I’ve been set up. The words thunder in my ears, dark and insistent. Familiar. But I’m not the girl I once was. I know my enemy. It’s trying to create doubt, a crack in my resolve it can wedge open.
As I reach the window, I bow my head. Two words. So simple to say. But I’m not sure anyone but me really understands what they mean.
The guard yawns, presses a button and jerks his head toward the door to his right. “Number three.”
The reality of what I’m about to do tightens around my throat like a vice. “Dear God, give me strength.”
But even as I pray, the tingles prickle back up my arms. It, him, the thing, oozes through my thoughts, eager. Hungry. It fills my senses with the scent of wet down baking bread. I don’t know what it means exactly, but the sensation sends my pulse pounding in my ears.
I walk over to the door, pull it open, and step into a room with a long counter on the opposite wall divided into booths, each with a number on the edge. Each has a phone hanging on it’s partition.
The sound of the door clicking shut behind me makes my skin itch. The room seems to shrink, and I freeze. I can’t breathe. What if I’m wrong? What if can’t do this? What if I’m too weak to face him? What if it takes me? What happens then? It doesn’t matter that he’s the one in the cage. He’ll still be here. And I know him. He’ll do everything he can to hurt me. Anything he can to get me to give in. To crack my resolve. To free the thing inside me.
Digging my fingernails into my palms, I force the next breath into my lungs, and pray. “God help me. Please…”
Somehow, I manage to move again. Five, four… three.
I catch a hint of his orange jumpsuit out of the corner of my eye, and focus on the chair instead. Metal, cold. Heavy. It squawks against the linoleum when I pull it back and sit down.
A loose thread pokes out of my cuff. I pinch it off. But now I realize, I have never actually seen him before. Not even during the trial. I tried. But I just…couldn’t look at him.
Taking a deep breath I glance over at the phone, and finally raise my eyes to the man on the other side of the glass. Not a zombie. Not a monster. A man.
He stares at me over the top of his folded hands as if he can see right through me, but he’s just a man. Thin and balding.
The knot in my throat relaxes. I’m not sure what I expected, but it wasn’t this.
I take the phone from its cradle and press it to my ear.
He stares at me for a moment, as if studying me, critiquing my progress, then reaches for the phone. His face separates when he turns his head. The man part turns his face toward the phone, a hideous gargoyle face with ram’s horns separates and continues to watch me until the man’s face settles back over it and it vanishes again. He holds the phone to the side of his head. “Thou hast returned, as I said thee would. Art thou prepared for what comes next?”
But I can’t breathe. He has a rider. Some kind of creature I’ve never seen before.
The thing inside me twitches. The scent of rotting meat presses in on me, a low menacing buzz chases the feeling from my fingers. But I think I get it now. It doesn’t hate him. Not the man. It hates his rider. The thing that used him to put it inside me.
Focusing on the scent I ask my passenger a direct, question. “Why do you hate his rider so much?”
“And what must thou do?” His voice draws my attention back to the glass, but I’m only half listening.
Pain ripples out from my chest and into my arms. A quick whiff of burning hair. The image of a lion lunging at a piece of meat, only to fall into a snare. And I understand.
He was meant to provide a vessel. A way into this world. A victim. But I never yielded. And I never would. And now it’s trapped by my resolve. Neither able to return to the void, nor fully enter this world.
It hates his rider for choosing me and not some other virgin. Someone it could control. Someone it could own. Someone it could use.
For putting it in a cage.
A smile pulls at the corner of my mouth. That’s the key.
I focus my gaze on the man behind the glass. Not the thing. The host. The victim. “I forgive you.”
His left eye twitches, and I turn my focus on the rider. “You, go back to hell.”
Time jerks to a crawl.
Tingles explode into red hot fire. The phone drops from my grasp. It bounces off the counter, just as I jump to my feet. My palms slam against the glass. I watch his pupils grow, his lips part.
I close my eyes and imagine my body as a cage, my ribs the door. My sternum cracks down the center and the cage swings open. A dark shadow flies through the glass, through the man on the other side. Through his flesh. It grabs the ram-horned monstrosity by the neck and drags it screaming into the darkness beyond.
I offer my captive a deal. Freedom. Revenge. At the price of the man’s freedom. I’ll let it return to the void, if it takes his rider. If it leaves the man untouched.
A thick laugh pounds against my skull. A voice I’d never heard, didn’t know it had, hisses in thick, deep tones that resonate at the edge of comprehension. More emotion than sound. More agony than meaning. “Accepted.”
My stomach churns. Tingles mixed with pain burn the back of my throat. It throbs down my arms and explodes from my hands as though vomiting knives from my fingertips.
The glass shakes under my touch. A loud rush of wind. And then?
No tingles. No visions. No strange smells. My thoughts alone inside my head.
I crack one eye open, and peer through the glass.
The man on the other side blinks at the wall, at me, at his hands. His face pale. Confused.
I lower my hands, pick up the phone, and tap the receiver against the glass, telling him to pick his up from the counter.
Swallowing, he takes it, and presses it to his ear. “W-where am I?”
I squint, searching his features for any hint of shadow. But if the rider is still there, I can’t see it.
His gaze drops to his orange jumpsuit. “I’m in prison, aren’t I?” He pulls his lower lip between his teeth and tears swell in his eyes. “Did I? Oh, God tell me I didn’t hurt anyone…”
Pressure builds behind my nose, and I flop back down into my chair. “No. You didn’t.” It wasn’t him. None of it.
He winces, almost like he has a headache. “I’m sorry, do I know you?”
“No. I don’t think so.” Sniffing, I wipe my eyes on my cuff. “My name is Zella. I’m here to help.”
🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None AvailableCraig Groshek Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by N/A
🔔 More stories from author: Dirk StevensPublisher's Notes: N/A Author's Notes: N/A
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