by Todd Keisling
|Illustration by Luke Spooner|
Karen’s talking to me again even though I haven’t grown a mouth. Her day at the clinic didn’t go as planned, someone caught her digging through the bin of biological waste and she had to lie about losing a piece of jewelry, and somehow that’s my fault. I’m not growing fast enough, she tells me. The ritual should’ve worked by now. I should have arms and legs. Teeth. A fuzzy head of hair. Eyes as bright as stars in the sky.
I don’t have a mouth to tell her she’s an idiot for complaining to a pile of goo. I can’t tell her I didn’t make up the rules. Eleven candles for the eleven points in the Tree of Life, lines of salt to connect them, the summoner’s blood to express their devotion, and the most important ingredient: human flesh.
There’s nothing in the scripture that says how long this process takes. The human elders who communed with the Void in the early days of man weren’t given specific instructions. She’s lucky the ritual even survived this long but try telling her that. No, Karen, your summoning ritual of choice isn’t guaranteed. You can’t beg for a miracle from beyond the void and expect an answer on your terms. The Void is chaos for a reason, lady.
If I could speak, I’d scream that this sort of thing doesn’t account for time as she perceives it. Yes, the old grimoire she stole from the library should have some sort of fine print, but I didn’t write the damned thing. I’m not the author.
I’m just the Other, a voice from the Void, and when I’m called, I answer.
Or I would, if I had a mouth.
I’ll be honest: for as straightforward as necromancy tends to be, this sort of thing rarely works out. I mean, sure, they’ll summon one of us to inhabit the body of whatever they’re trying to resurrect, but they always lose the constitution to follow through. Most of them don’t have the stomach to deal with the day-to-day upkeep. I suppose it’s one thing to keep cutting yourself in an act of devotion and another altogether when it comes to supplying the flesh.
I’ve seen some would-be necromancers who were absolute headcases, but Karen’s on another level. Newly divorced, dealing with the emergence of obsessive-compulsive tendencies and a bi-polar disorder, struggling to come to terms with her infertility—the lady’s got some baggage, and hiding beneath it is the true madness inherent in all flesh: desperation. She’ll dig her way down to it eventually.
When she first called me from the Void, the woman was barely keeping herself together. She was nervous—most of them are—but trying to act composed, like a student on the verge of taking an important test. I suppose I can understand. Calling down the power of the Void to reanimate dead tissue is a commitment, one which most fail to grasp, and Karen seems to be one of the few who understands.
She’s no stranger to esoteric faith and devotion. When she first summoned me, she wore the sign of her savior around her neck. I heard her utter a prayer under her breath, but not to me, and certainly not to the Void.
And how quickly her faith turned!
The Void can do that. Show someone even a glimpse of the true nature of the universe, the ravenous chaos that is the cosmos, and their mind will eject all manner of faith. It’s the equivalent of showing a child sleight of hand to explain a magic trick.
Now Karen doesn’t wear her savior’s sigil anymore.
She wears a mask of determination most days; others, she wears a mask of fear.
Right now, she’s throwing a tantrum over how long this is taking, but in an hour, she’ll collapse in a heap on the other side of the room, weeping quietly until sleep claims her. She’ll dream of the child she can’t have, of her ex-husband who left her after a year of suffering through her psychotic episodes. Her failures and insecurities will manifest as shadows and stalk her through the dreaming.
She doesn’t know the Void hears her dreams. They’re like music, sweet lullabies of agony fueling the dissonance inherent in existence.
I want to tell her I can taste her pain. I want her to cry to me so that I may drink her tears. Karen, I’d say, your pain is delicious.
For the first few days, my single eye was little more than a gelatinous ball oozing fluid, and the world before me a blur of light and shadow. My vision has cleared since then. My womb is a bucket, housed in a basement beneath Karen’s home. She visits me before she leaves to go work at the clinic and she visits me on her lunch break to feed me whatever amniotic waste she’s scrounged when no one’s looking. Every night she visits to repeat the ritual, drawing the corners of the great Tree, slicing her arm over the bucket so that I may taste her blood, and to recite the incantations.
Sometimes she does this over and over for hours.
In those first few weeks, you’d think I’d already grown into something resembling a child. She doted and cooed over me like a young mother, talking about the life she would give me. I’d attend the best schools, be athletic while maintaining the highest grades in academics, and care for her when she grew older. I’d be a doctor or a lawyer, highly successful and rich, and my spouse would be the perfect match. Together my spouse and I would have children of our own, grandchildren who would make their grandmother proud.
Her fabricated lineage always ended there because her tears would overtake her dreams.
So, I’d sit in my bucket, watching her slowly descend another step into the madness waiting for her at the end of the tunnel.
Poor Karen, I wanted to say. You’re losing your mind over a collection of cells, hardly enough to consider tissue or organs. I wanted to remind her of the unborn chicken she consumed for breakfast that morning.
Weeks pass. My second eye has sprouted from my primordial soup, and I can see the room clearly. Framed by the circular silhouette of the bucket’s rim, my tiny portal to the physical world beyond, and everything I see is a disappointment. Karen is upset again. She’s lost her job at the clinic because they caught her stealing the biological waste. They’ve known for weeks, she says. They waited until they could catch her in the act.
For the first time since my conjuring, I expect Karen to end her basement experiment in basic necromancy. Maybe I was wrong. After more than a month of daily feedings, fluid and tissue and occasionally a half-formed organ, my time on this plane of existence has come to an end. Don’t beat yourself up, I want to say. Necromancy isn’t for everyone, Karen.
And just when I’m prepared for her to flush me down the toilet, Karen surprises me yet again.
Disheveled, her stringy unwashed hair matted to her cheeks with tears, she peers into my bucket and smiles. She sees my eyes. At first, she isn’t sure if they were there before, or if they’re new additions to this arcane stew she’s had simmering for weeks now.
So, I do the only thing I can: I blink with newly formed eyelids. She doesn’t notice the gloss of my nictitating membranes, or the slow dilation of pupils like splitting zygotes; Karen only sees what she wants to—a sign of life. That’s all she seems to care about now, a sign of life. She won’t care for what comes after.
We stare at one another, me incapable of reflecting any emotion while she projects all her emotion onto me. In her eyes I’m that fully formed child, already in school, already making her proud, already something she can brag about to her peers. She can’t see beyond her fantasies.
You idiot, I want to say. You have no idea what you’re doing.
But something about the wild look in her eyes tells me she wouldn’t listen even if I could speak. The well of madness in her heart has no bottom, an epiphany which sends a shiver through the congealing mass of my body. I can’t wait to see what she does next.
Karen’s finally understanding the commitment required to practice proper necromancy. The last time I saw someone introduce an infant to the ritual was in the dark ages.
This goes without saying, but Karen finally faced the desperation in her heart.
Now she’s lost her goddamn mind, and I’m enjoying every second of it.
She’s here with me now, kneeling across the room. The tissue slowly incorporating itself beneath me has elevated my position in the womb of this bucket. She’s spread plastic over the floor of the basement, and a chunky lump of smooth flesh hangs from an exposed beam. Karen is observing the tiny figure, examining its features, questioning the best place to cut first. I want to tell her the hard part is already done. Karen, I want to say, just feed me the damn thing.
There’s a spark of inspiration in her eyes. She looks at me, and I blink in encouragement. A moment later, she’s carrying me across the room and placing me below the hanging infant. She slits its throat, and I’m coated in a refreshing warm rain. Yes, this will do nicely.
Karen leaves the room and returns a few moments later with a radio and a pair of rubber gloves. She turns on the radio and strips off her clothes, revealing a bony frame coated in pale skin and scars from all the cuts she’s made. Karen, I want to say, you’ve really let yourself go. Haven’t you been eating?
For such a scrawny creature, Karen moves with energetic purpose, and she goes to work on her sacrifice with the precision of a sculptor. A slice here and there, degloving the parts in logical succession, feeding me the scraps as she works her way along the body. The radio station plays pop music which inserts a rhythm into her movements. It’s almost poetic, like watching a ballerina on stage, with grace in every slash and cut. I would have tears in my eyes if I could produce them.
While she works, the music is interrupted by a piercing drone, and Karen pauses to look at the radio. A voice cuts in to announce an AMBER alert, describing the missing child as nine-month-old—
Karen turns off the radio. She looks at me, at the cooling blood streaking her body, and goes back to work.
My head is forming. I have a jaw, a nose, proper sockets for my eyes. No mouth, though, and I’m frustrated because I need to tell Karen to slow down. The first couple of children were great, I welcomed them and their sustenance, but now…
She isn’t following the recipe anymore. There’s too much. She isn’t thinking things through. I want to tell her to stop this nonsense, that I’ll grow on my own. Karen, I want to say, sacrificing children so you can grow your own doesn’t make sense.
But these fingers and toes are delicious. She’s slicing them piece by piece for me like fruit for her morning oatmeal.
Yesterday she painted the Tree of Life on the basement wall with a child’s blood. This piece of eldritch graffiti joins a gallery of esoteric sketches and ramblings. The sacred stars and their configurations, the ancient representations of timeless entities, words not pronounced by a human tongue since the days of Zoroaster—all were painted on the walls in a foolhardy attempt at displaying her devotion. What an overachiever.
The Void doesn’t choose favorites, Karen. You aren’t special.
And yet she brought home a stack of dusty old tomes, performed a ritual I haven’t heard in a millennium. There was a goat involved. She thought she was enhancing the process, and technically she wasn’t wrong, but the constant sacrifice of children isn’t necessary. I’ve grown beyond the need, but she keeps feeding me. At this rate I’m going to lose my figure.
I’m going to grow into something else.
Another week, and I’ve grown a neck, the beginnings of a torso, the stumps that will become my arms. At the bottom of my bucket, I feel cold metal and warm fluid against the flesh that will be my legs and feet. Karen is pleased with my growth, but displeased with the time, and has graduated from stealing infants to stealing school children.
Every few nights, she brings me a fresh body. She tells me the authorities are hunting her. She cut her hair, dyed it a different color. Yesterday, she ditched her car on the other side of town and set it on fire. She stole another car from a grocery store parking lot. She bought a handgun from a pawn shop.
Just in case, she tells me. She’s too close to the end, she can feel it. And I’d tell her she’s right, she is close to the end, only I would never tell her what end I’m referring to. Like revealing a child’s sex, I don’t want to ruin the surprise.
Tonight, she’s listening to the radio again. She’s dancing to the music while carving pieces from the child strung up before her. Every slice yields another morsel tossed into my bucket. Sometimes she steals a piece for herself, and she thinks I don’t see, but I do and so does the Void. That isn’t hers to consume.
Come on, Karen, keep it together.
When she’s finished, she frees the bloody skeleton from the hook and collects its pieces in a bag. She’s keeping them upstairs in her bedroom, and when she’s done, she says she’s going to build me a bassinet. She’s already built a mobile of bones to hang from the ceiling, something to keep me occupied when she puts me down for a nap. She thinks I’m going to emerge from this bucket the size of a human infant.
She says she wants to breastfeed me.
Karen’s gone for an entire week, and I’ve nearly grown comfortable with the silence when she barges into the basement.
Except it’s not her. It’s a young girl. She has a bruise on her forehead, long dark hair matted to her temples, and bloodstains on her purple pajamas. She’s panting, her teeth are chattering, and she can’t take her eyes off the bloody pictograms on the walls long enough to notice the quivering mass of flesh sprouting from the bucket. Her fear is exquisite, a sweet fragrance afloat in the air.
The little girl paces the floor, struggling to catch her breath, muttering a prayer. Don’t let the bad woman take me, she says. The child fights the tears in her eyes as heavy footsteps beat the floor above us. I hear Karen’s cracked voice calling out for the girl.
A gasp fills the room. The child has found me, and her discovery will be her undoing. She shrieks until her voice fries in the gloom. More footsteps, the creak of the basement door. And there’s Karen with a hammer in her hand, that wild look in her eye, her hair frizzed in all directions like she’s been electrocuted. She looks at me, and then at the little girl, and then there’s nothing more than whimpering in the stillness.
Later, as she’s peeling the child’s skin away from muscle, Karen tells me that was a close one. The child, she woke up too soon and tried to escape. I want to tell her she’s getting sloppy. I even manage a gurgling noise from within my gullet. A bubble rises to the surface of the amniotic stew and pops in fanfare.
She pauses and looks at me, smiling. Blood stains her teeth.
She tells me I’ll be the child she’s always wanted, and the rest who’ve been born can rot for all she cares. I’ll be hers and hers alone.
And that’s where she’s wrong. I belong to nothing but the Void. And soon, she will belong to me.
Three days later. A door slams upstairs. Footsteps running across the floor. The basement door opens, then slams shut. Karen descends two steps at a time. She’s bleeding from her shoulder, the wound tied in a darkened rag, and the precious fluid trickles down her arm to her fingertips. She’s puddling on the floor.
I can smell her. The blood, the sweat. The fear. A sweetly ripe smell of life. The seams in my face open to taste the air on my tongues.
Upstairs, a voice booms from a megaphone. Come on out, they say. Karen has until the count of five to surrender or they’re coming in shooting.
Karen kills the light, and it’s just the two of us in the darkness, but only one can see through the shadows. She’s crying, chattering to herself about this not being fair, she just wanted a kid, if only she hadn’t lost her job, if only her husband hadn’t left her, if only I’d grown faster.
Upstairs, the countdown begins. Five. Four. Karen sobs and backs herself against the wall.
“Karen,” I croak. The word is guttural and full of fluid, the sound of air through bubbles of phlegm. “You may have lost your mind, but I’m going to eat your heart.”
She sucks in her breath, the air gone from the room in a deep hiss, and she points her weapon in all directions. She asks who’s there. She’s not afraid to use the gun, she tells me.
I flex new muscles in the arms I’ve never used and pull myself from the stew of blood and viscera. The bucket tips over, startling Karen so badly she drops the gun with a yelp.
Upstairs: Three. Two.
Karen seeks the floor for her weapon, threatening me with empty words. I crawl along the floor toward her.
Upstairs, the front door bursts inward as men shout out their arrival. The whole house shakes, and Karen freezes in panic.
My mouth is open. All of them are.
Now Karen is screaming at me, and this time, my mouths scream back.
Todd Keisling is the author of Devil’s Creek, The Final Reconciliation, and Ugly Little Things: Collected Horrors, among other shorter works. He lives somewhere in the wilds of Pennsylvania with his family where he is at work on his next novel.
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