The killer woke up in their barn, quenched of thirst. He groaned and felt an unbreakable kink in his neck from sleeping on the floor. His head was a hollow husk of dull pain and his face was coated with dust.
“Goddamn,” he muttered. He blindly felt for a pack of cigarettes. Lucky Strikes, unfiltered. A flash of light lit one and the smoke warmed his acrid mouth with the taste of sweet tobacco. A snake hissed somewhere in the darkness and the killer nearly jumped out of his skin. It faded and he felt his body ease up.
“Goddamn,” he mumbled with the cigarette in his mouth, sucking smoke.
The barn door slid open. Three figures stood in the doorway.
“Good morning David,” a female voice said.
The killer squinted. Only their shadows showed as they eclipsed the sun that rose behind them.
“Morning,” he said. He wondered how they knew his name, what he had said and done. Whiskey did a real number on him, wiped his head clean. He started to laugh, realizing he could barely remember who or where he was. As he stared at the girls, he could see that their shapes were curvaceous and from a distance he could smell their perfume.
Three girls, he thought. Three girls in the middle of nowhere.
His mouth began to water lustfully.
“How do you feel David?” the same voice asked him.
“Why… I…” He paused, trying to think, to remember. Their faces were black and they had long hair with thick curls that hung over their shoulders like garden snakes. One of them leaned against the door lazily, waiting for David to speak. The other stepped away, bored with him.
“A little hungover I guess,” he said, forcing himself to speak. He smiled and took a drag off his cigarette. “Would kill for a cup of coffee.”
The girl in the middle stared. She stared and waited.
“Name’s David,” he said. “But I guess you already know that.”
“You could introduce yourself too if you—”
The memories unfolded. A hundred dead girls. Hours of deafening screams. A horror filled his empty head like a thick hot smoke, making him feel like his skull would explode. He clenched his eyes, letting go of the cigarette as he clawed at his own face.
He bent over and vomited.
“What is this?” he said, sobbing. Another fit of dry heaving.
The girl said nothing. The other that leaned against the door backed away.
“What did you do to me?” More images flashed through his mind. Hours of darkness, of flesh, depravity, a decade of nightmares that he could see and feel and touch inside the years trapped in his mind. Blood he had spilled. Lives he had taken.
“Not what did I do,” the girl said calmly. “It’s what you did.”
“No,” he cried out. He got to his feet and began screaming, denying what he was remembering of his life.
“Your apathy is over,” the girl said. She stepped aside. In the distance was a tree. A noose hung from a limb and beneath that a stool.
David wiped the tears from his eyes. When he saw the noose outlined before the setting sun, he began running, running towards an end to his thoughts, the endless pain of regret. He reached the rope and rushed to wrap it around his neck, kicking the stool beneath him without a moment of doubt. A loud crack sounded as his mind went black, ceasing the montage of bleeding flesh.
The killer’s body swayed before the rising sun. All three girls walked up the hill towards it. The girl that had spoke took a drag off one of his Lucky Strikes.
“About time someone brought good cigarettes,” she joked.
The others looked at her questioningly, waiting for her to notice. She took in their glances and exhaled a drag of thick smoke, flicking the cigarette aside into a rock scarred yard. A snake hissed from its embers and slithered away. Smoke trickled into the bright sky.
She looked up into the moon as it hung lazily in the afternoon haze, its gray face an empty expression of apathy for the dead killer that swung from their tree. The girl stared, waited for the face of the moon to change, to reveal what would soon befall them.
“Two men,” she said. “Driving a stolen car.”
The girls nodded in approval. After, they waited for the dead killer to stop swaying so they could take him down, leaving the noose behind for the next man.
The killers drove east, watching the sky go from blood orange to black eye blue in the rear view mirror. They skipped from stolen car to stolen car, driving until the sun set and the coffee was freezing.
Al usually drove, rarely saying a word. Not when they drove, not when Frank hurt the girls. Al had a glass eye that gleamed like a dull coin in his head, blind to their victims while his good eye saw the world as a flat canvas, an endless television show. He had a thing about the holes in a person’s body. Words went in one hole and came out another. Pain seemed to work the same way. Fill a person with pain and it pours out their mouth.
“Thar she blows Al,” Frank said, pointing ahead at a lonely gas station.
Al pulled over, smacking the concrete divider as he parked next to a blue Volkswagen. It was the only place they had come across in the last hour. Their last kill was in Old Memphis and they hadn’t slept in days. Sometimes Frank would see things when he didn’t sleep, screaming that there was a girl with blood and snakes on her face standing at the end of the road. Al never saw a thing and kept quiet. Sometimes Frank would shout until passing out, talking in his sleep as Al drove.
Please momma… I’ll stop crying. Don’t let them women hurt me. I’ll stop crying, I’ll stop crying.
Don’t let them hurt me…
Now they were the ones that made women cry.
They watched a single girl buy a six pack of beer. She wore short shorts and a tang top that made Frank spit a long whistle. He rolled down his window and flicked ash off a Virginia Slim.
“God forbid we find a girl that smokes real cigarettes,” he said. “I’d eat a skunk’s asshole for a pack of Lucky Strikes.” He took a long drag and watched the girl pay the attendant. After, the attendant busied himself with a magazine, paying little attention to them as they sat in the empty parking lot.
“What’s around here Al?”
“Chattanooga, Gatlinburg, Nashville.”
“Nashville? Didn’t we pass that days ago? Hell, might as well ask her how to get to Kansas City while we’re at it.” He opened the door and stepped out, looking at the short mountain ranges around them and the towering wall of rock that lay ahead. “Gatlinburg sounds about right.”
The occasional truck sped by and a red Vacancy sign blinked in the distance for a hotel buried in the mountains. Al focused on the flashing red light and started to clear his head, imagining that his mind was a blank canvas where he could sketch the girls. His favorite sketches were their faces when they knew that something was wrong, like that weird painting The Scream, only moments before the screaming took place. They smiled, talked about meaningless things. Then everything about that smile suddenly became a mask they wore to survive, one that Al would draw into his memories.
The girl set the beer on top of her car and fished the keys out of her pocket when Frank called out.
“Excuse me sweetheart, you wouldn’t happen to know how a couple of fellas could find their way to Gatlinburg would yah?”
“Gatlinburg?” She came around. There was no twang in her voice and she was skinny as far as southern girls went. She took out her cell phone. “I don’t know but I could look it up.”
“Could you? Couple of dummies, we didn’t bring a map and we’re not much for cell phones. Hell, I don’t even have email.”
“So you’re the one that’s holding out?” she joked. “How do you spell Gatlinburg?”
“G, A, T, L—”
“Ah, there is it.” She tapped her phone a few more times. “Looks like it’s about a two hour drive.”
“Oh, two hours ain’t nothing sweetheart.”
“A lot of directions though. Do you have something to write with?”
“I think Al here might have some scrap paper in the trunk.”
Al got out of the car, watching them both with his good eye. Frank leaned over her cell phone as she dragged her fingers across the screen. A red vein zig sagged throughout a tiny map, showing their route. A small blue arrow head pulsated at the starting point.
“That little guy us?”
“Yeah, that’s the GPS.” She held the phone flat and spun it around. The blue arrow twisted in the other direction.
“Well ain’t that something.” He leaned in. His breath was hot and several of his molars bled. He grabbed the phone with his smoke stained fingers. “Mind if I look?”
“Sure…” She watched him scrape the screen, shifting the map around. It started to vibrate, casting a blue light over his nose. It looked broken, with a dark line that cut from his right eye to his lip.
“Who’s Tom?” Frank asked.
“Oh, that’s just my boyfriend.” She reached for her phone while Frank watched it buzz in his hand. “He’s probably wondering where I am right now. I told him I’d only be a few minutes.”
“How do I get rid of this?” He rubbed his thumb over a long red bar. It shifted, ending the call.
Al slammed the trunk shut, watching the girl’s shoulders twitch. She continued to stare at Frank’s face as he played with her phone. The road was empty, not even the horsefly buzz of a truck in the distance.
“Could I have my phone?”
“What for?” Frank sneered with half a mouth of crooked teeth.
“Because,” she said, “it’s mine.”
Al stepped in front of the parking lot light, casting a long shadow over the girl. It was muggy out but the shadow made her shiver. She exchanged a look with both of them.
“My boyfriend knows that I’m here.”
Al smiled. Her face said it all. He quickly sketched a memory of it while taking out the ether soaked rag.
“He’ll come for me if I don’t come back soon.”
Frank dropped his cigarette on the ground and snuffed it out. He tossed the cell phone onto the highway and it broke into three pieces.
“Ain’t no one coming for you.”
Al pressed the rag to her face. The fumes quickly put her to sleep, bottling up all of her screams for later.
Al splashed some cold water from the river bank onto Frank’s face, trying to wake him up. The kill had lasted a long time and when they finished, Frank had passed out over the girl’s body, leaving Al to clean up.
“How long was I out?” he asked, his face hot and red.
“Not long,” Al said. When he was sure his partner could stand on his own feet, he left Frank to clean himself off and returned to the fire. The girl was already in the pit, slowly turning to ash.
“Son of a bitch,” Frank said, standing by the river bank. “Had another nightmare bout them women, with the snakes on their faces and the blood coming out of their eyes.” The forest grew chilly at that hour, but Al could see the sweat that was pouring down Frank’s back. He ignored it and returned his attention to the fire.
“Can’t remember what my mother used to call them,” Frank said, swearing to himself as he washed the blood off his hands. After he got clean, he dipped his hand into the water and pulled out the six pack of beer they had taken from the girl, cracking two of them open and handing one to Al. After sipping, Frank read the label.
“Warsteiner,” he said slowly. “Well, whatever, it’s fucking beer ain’t it?”
Al held the bottle, switching hands when it became too cold. He didn’t like to drink much. It made the sketches fuzzy, making it hard for him to remember things. He liked to watch more than he liked hurting the girls himself. It was easier for him to remember what a thing looked like more than what it felt like, maybe because he never felt much either way. His head was full of holes, a thing that could never hold any emotions or feelings, only a vague sense of what had passed through it.
“That was a good one tonight, huh Al?”
The dead girl started to curl up and char in the fire. Al poked at the bigger logs with a stick and the flames climbed high into the night sky, licking the overshadowing trees with glowing spit.
Frank tossed the empty bottle into the pit and opened another one. His stomach was empty save for the beer. The second one went down quick and he opened a third, a subtle slur touching his tongue.
“That one in Old Memphis reminded me of my mother,” he said. “Goddamn bitch…”
Al said nothing, settling the beer between his legs. He looked at the crack in Frank’s nose. It was a deep black line under the orange glow of the fire.
“I tell yah Al, between the nightmares that bitch put in my head and this broken nose of mine, I don’t think I’ll ever forget what my mother did to me. Every time I take a deep breath, I can hardly breathe and I start getting the itch to find another girl.”
Al took a small sip of his beer. The glass eye felt cold when he blinked and he got to thinking about his own childhood. When he was a kid he used to talk a lot and had a bad habit of staring at people. One night, he remembered watching his mother stand in the hall, clenching the doorway as Father walked past her into the room.
You’re staring at me.
Father pressed the cold barrel of a gun against his eye, an accusatory metal finger. Blinking nudged the barrel away.
I said quit staring at me boy.
Mother just watched. Father didn’t seem to know what pain was, or joy, or sadness. Whatever it was that made people feel anything was missing from him. There was a hole in his head too, one that let all the good and bad leak out, leaving nothing but an empty space that couldn’t be filled.
This is gonna hurt me more than it’ll hurt you.
After that the world was flat and he never saw his father again.
“The furies,” Frank said, shaking Al out of the memory.
“The girls with the snakes and blood and stuff coming off their faces. My mother called them furies. They’re like Medusa or something,” he said, chucking another empty bottle into the fire. “She kept telling me they were gonna get me in my sleep and rip my guts out if I didn’t quiet down. Whatever… bitch was as crazy as a shit house rat.” He cracked open the last beer. “What do you say Al? Keep heading east? Or should we start our way north for a bit?” He chugged half his beer.
Al set his bottle down in the dirt. He suddenly wished that these furies Frank talked about were real and that they could’ve been there to stop his father from putting a hole in his head, but it was no good to wish for the past to change. He lay on his back and watched the sky. The moon was full, a pale face that watched them through the trees’ open fingers, impassive as smoke from the dead girl wafted above them as black clouds.
“North,” Al finally said.
“North it is,” Frank said. He downed the rest of his beer and they both slept as the stars quietly crept past them.
By the time Frank woke up, they were in southern Pennsylvania and he had slept through nearly a day’s worth of driving. He blinked his eyes, yawning.
“Did I talk in my sleep?” he asked Al.
“Didn’t think so. Slept like a goddamn rock,” he said, lighting two Parliaments and taking a long drag. “No nightmares or nothing.”
They drove a few more hours and come nightfall, they came across a farm house outside of Lancaster. It was in the middle of a long stretch of rock scarred land, writhing with snake-like shadows. A tall tree was hunched over in their backyard, stretching to claw at the ground. They drove a little ways down the road and parked.
“Think they’ll be Amish?” Frank asked. He took a drag off the two cigarettes, feeling the blade in his pocket as they walked. “I ain’t much in the mood for an Amish girl.”
“There’s a light,” Al said, pointing at the house. A single bulb lit the front porch, moths fluttering about. The ether soaked rag sat in his back pocket, making his pants slightly damp.
They reached the front door and Frank flicked his cigarette off into the barren yard. It struck the head of a snake that hissed at them, slithering away. Al looked after it as it crawled into the edge of darkness; there looked to be a sea of them, writhing over one another.
“We’re lost, right?” Frank asked.
“If you think it’s worth staying,” Al responded. Another thin hiss sounded out of the darkness. “We’re lost. And tired.”
“Lost and tired sounds about right.” He knocked on the door and they waited. It wasn’t long before it opened.
“Hello?” A brunette wearing a black night gown stood before them. She was in her mid-twenties, with pale skin and full breasts that showed under the gown. Her lips looked painted, her eyes dark with shadow, as if she had gotten done up only to go to bed. Already Al started to clear his head and begin sketching her, latching on to every detail.
“Evening sweetheart,” Frank said. “We’re sorry to be a bother to you at this hour, but we’ve been driving through the countryside and we’re lost and nearly out of gas. Maybe you might know of a place to stay around here?”
“A place to stay? At this hour?”
“Yes mam. Any space will do as long as it’s indoors. Cold out tonight.”
She looked past them. The air was still and the countryside was empty, filled with a quiet darkness that turned black where the porch light’s grasp ended. She gave them a smirk.
“Want to stay here tonight?”
“That would be great.” He looked past her into the house. “Maybe you could ask your parents if it’s all right first?”
“Parents? No, it’s just me and my sisters.”
“Yeah, why don’t you two come on in?” She walked into the house, leaving the door open. “My name is Maggie.”
Frank consulted Al silently, but Al couldn’t help but keep his eye on the girl as she disappeared into the hallway past the living room. He walked after, and they both followed her in to the kitchen.
“My sisters are out taking a walk.” She busied herself with some mason jars.
“At this hour?” Frank asked, grinning at Al. He slid his hand into his pants pocket, feeling the handle of his knife. They both sat at the kitchen table.
“They like how quiet it is at night,” she said. She glanced at them over her shoulder. “You boys have been driving for a while.” She set the two mason jars of water on the table in front of them.
“What makes you say that?”
“You both look tired is all. Like you haven’t slept in days.”
“Funny, I slept like a rock while my friend here drove us through Maryland. But I suppose we haven’t had a good night’s sleep in an actual bed in quite some time.”
Al took a sip of the water, sliding his other hand over the rag in his pocket. The water was cloudy, well water. He tried to focus, slow things down so he could sketch every moment. He could see the bulge of Frank’s knife in his pocket, fingers gently gracing it.
“What do you two do?” Maggie said. She sat down at the table and lit a Lucky Strike unfiltered.
“Why we…” Frank stopped, noticing the brand. “Oh I sure would love a decent cigarette if you wouldn’t mind.”
“Sure.” She took out another smoke and chained it, handing it over to him. “You were saying?”
“We’re just a couple of traveling fools, I guess you could say.”
“Any reason you’re in Pennsylvania?”
“We go wherever the wind takes us sweetheart.”
“Where has it taken so far?”
Frank finished his water and got up from the table to refill it at the faucet, standing behind the girl. Al watched him, wondering if Frank would unhinge his knife and gut her like a fish right then and there. Or maybe he would hold it against her neck and make her disrobe.
Three girls, Al thought. He was already starting to sweat. They could spend the entire week on three girls and no one would stop them. And Al could watch them all, watch as they gazed at one another, hoping that somehow they wouldn’t be killed despite all the new holes Frank would give them. Watch them as they watched each other die, truly knowing that there was no hope…
“Al?” she said.
“You’re staring at me.”
“Oh,” he said, staying quiet after.
Frank gave Al a dirty look and carried on. “Well, let me see here. We’ve been to Hollywood, and Graceland. And we’ve seen the Grand Canyon.”
“Oh, I hear it’s the biggest hole in the United States. Isn’t that right Al?” She looked at his one eye and no one spoke for a moment.
Al looked away and drank the rest of his water, feeling Maggie’s eyes on him. There was a speed at which time was moving past them, rushing through all the moments that led to the change, the look on her face that he longed for. Yet, as she stared at him, nothing seemed to move and the moments went undrawn, like she was watching him too closely for him to sketch.
Did she say my name? he wondered. Had either of us said our names? He couldn’t remember.
“Don’t be rude Al, answer the young lady,” Frank said, grinning.
“Yeah,” he said. He held up the empty mason jar, seeing the cloudy drops at the bottom drift about. “We saw the Grand Canyon.”
“You gotta excuse my friend here. He ain’t used to being around a pretty girl.” Frank said, sitting back down at the table. The knife was cupped in his hands.
“Oh stop it,” she said, waving them away. “People say I look like my mother.” She took a long drag off her cigarette, tapping the ash into her untouched water.
Al watched Frank unhinge the knife, catching a warning glance of things to come.
“Your mother must have been a looker,” Frank said, slurring.
“Sure was. But what about you, Frank?” Maggie asked. “Do you take after your father or your mother?”
“Um,” Frank said, “I ain’t never seen my father.” His breathing became heavy, flowing in and out of his one good nostril, so loud that it was all Al could hear when no one spoke.
“Aw… did mommy scare him off?”
“Scare him off?” Frank scrunched his face to the question.
“Yeah. Cause she was crazy, right? And then mommy went and put the crack in that pretty nose of yours, didn’t she?”
She turned to Al. “And what about you?” The question bounced around in Al’s head, refusing to leave, hearing her words louder than his own thoughts.
“Al,” she said, nearly shouting. “Quit staring at me.”
“Sorry,” he said, looking away. The room started to blur. He felt his eye lids become heavy, blinking them slower and slower. He noticed that there was dirt at the bottom of his glass. When he looked at Frank’s second glass of water, he saw that it was clear.
Al started to feel weightless, a balloon tied to his chair.
Maggie looked back at Frank. “You need to go back to your room and stop crying or I’ll put you in a dress and sell your sweet ass to the next John that wants it.” Her voice was different now, older sounding. She exhaled smoke. “I’m working here.”
Frank shook his head, clenching his eyes shut. He jumped up and held the knife near her face. “What the hell.”
“I said, quit staring at me boy.”
As he floated through his own perception of things, Al caught the room in broken pieces, flat images frozen upon a television screen. Frank pressed the knife against her neck, breaking the skin. A drop of blood dripped down her breasts.
“Are you fucking with us?” he shouted. He was standing tall now, knife poised. A flutter of black and he was hunched over, barely standing.
“You ungrateful little brat. I put food on the table and all you can do is cry cause I gotta work,” she said. “Last guy couldn’t get off cause of your crying. I ought to let the furies come and rip your guts out while you’re sleeping.”
Maggie standing at the table, her face rotten, snakes hanging off her head.
Frank laying on the ground, the knife having fallen out of his hand. Maggie sitting back at the table, normal looking.
She took a deep drag off her cigarette, blowing the smoke in to Al’s face.
“I said, quit staring at me boy—”
Maggie inches away. With bloody eyes and open sores and snakes sliding down her cheeks.
“—or I’ll take your fucking eye out.”
The smoke from her mouth filled the room.
“I SAID, QUIT STARING—”
Cold water was thrown on to his face as he awoke from a dreamless sleep. The empty sky was above him, a thin group of stars fading as the sun pushed them aside. The moon hung above like a dull coin, refusing to leave.
Three heads converged over him. They looked black while standing before the light. Thick curls of their hair slithered over his face.
“Good morning,” one of them said.
Al remained silent. When they stepped back, he lifted his head and looked down at his body. He had been stripped, with his hands and his feet bound to a flat rock. Looking to the left, he could see the tall tree hunched over the ground in their backyard. Something swung from a rope tied to one of its limbs.
“You don’t feel different, do you?” a woman asked. She sounded like Maggie. Al tried to focus on them but they remained a cut out in the horizon, three flat shapes etched in charcoal. A cold gust of wind brushed his naked skin, giving him goosebumps.
“I didn’t think you would change. Frank woke up screaming from the change,” she said. She pushed Al’s face towards the tree. “It drove him mad to think of all the things he did. He couldn’t tie the rope fast enough. People are funny that way when it comes to feeling empathy for the first time.”
Al tried to break away. She pressed his face harder and he cried out.
“So you do feel something after all?” She dragged a fingernail down his cheek, drawing blood. His eyes became wet as the tears leaked out.
“There’s something missing in you Al. Something we can’t give to you. Most men, you fill them up with guilt and empathy, they can’t take it. They feel like they’ll burst. But you, it’s like you got a head full of holes and every drop falls out the moment we pour it in.” She let go of his face and he tried to sit up again, watching them. As his eyes adjusted to the light, he could see the three sisters. They were naked and crawling with snakes. When they neared him, he could see that their eyes dripped of blood. Up close they cut holes of empty blackness into the sky above him.
Mother called them furies…
Yet he felt nothing. No fear, or joy, or sadness. Only the sharp pain in his cheek.
“I know you’re not afraid of us,” she said, standing over him. The other sisters hovered by his legs. “But we’re not here to scare you or make you feel guilty.”
“Then,” Al said, breaking his silence. “What are you going to do?”
One of them placed her mouth over his stomach. Another circled his loins. The third placed her mouth by his ear.
“We’re going to hurt you,” she whispered.
He screamed as they ripped new holes in him and filled him up with pain, every drop of it flying out of his mouth. They made it last until the sun set. All the while the dull face of the moon watched from above, uncaring of how much blood fell to the earth, disinterested in how long he screamed. The moon had holes of its own where every moment leaked out the second it was poured in.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
W. P. Johnson is a graduate of Temple University and a Affiliate of the Horror Writer’s Association. His work has been published by One Buck Horror, Fox Spirit Books, Pulp Modern, and Thunderdome Press, as well as Manarchy Magazine and Revolt Daily. He currently lives in Philadelphia where he is researching his first novel, a horror story about comedians. You can follow him via the moniker americantypo on twitter, wordpress, or whatever social media is popular this week.