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The Tower

The Tower
Sudden upheaval, broken pride, disaster

The prince runs through the dark hallways of the manor, the sounds of battle echoing all around him.  He doesn’t know why the people have risen up against his father, but at the moment it doesn’t matter.  All that matters is that he gets far away from here before they tear him to pieces.

He rounds a corner and finds himself face-to-face with a man.  The man’s throat is torn out, and blood and gore covers him.  He moans and reaches out his arms as the prince turns to hurry down a different passage.

The Devil

The Devil
Addiction, materialism, playfulness

The woman slowly rolls the hundred dollar bill in her fingers.  She can feel the man’s gaze on her as she does so, and she looks up only long enough to give him a teasing smile.  She knows exactly what it is that he wants, and she’s willing to give it to him as long as he does the same for her.  Using the tips of her index finger and thumb, she slowly spreads the cocaine across the plate.

“Go on, then,” she tells the man.  “Sign the contract.  What’s a soul compared to what I’m offering?”

Temperance

Temperance
Middle path, patience, finding meaning

The killer pulls back tighter on the garotte, feeling the last of the victim’s strength draining away.  The man put up a better struggle than he had assumed, but it was finally over now.  The tongue rolls out of the mouth as the body slumps down onto the bedroom floor.  It is a wonderful moment.  He has waited for it for so long…

He is roused from the daydream as he arrives at the man’s house.  It is time to turn dream into reality.  He smiles to himself.  Tonight his patience will be rewarded with all the man has.

The Hanged Man

The Hanged Man
Sacrifice, release, martyrdom

The soldier walks out towards the middle of the battlefield, his arms extended outward towards the sides.  He moves slowly as he crosses the distance between the two armies.  For the first time, the battlefield is silent.

The opposing archers don’t release their arrows.  The soldier knows that the sight of an unarmed person walking through No Man’s Land must be confusing.  He also knows that soon an officer will order them to fire, and he will die when that happens.

It will also release the dark spirits inside of him.  He smiles to himself.  Everyone will die with him.

Justice

Justice
Cause and effect, clarity, truth

The man grabs at his head, the pain that fills it so intense that he nearly collapses back onto the ground.  Slowly, the agony begins to fade.  He leans up against a tree and waits for the last of it to pass.  That was the worst migraine he had ever experienced.

He doesn’t know where he is.  Looking around, he finds that he’s standing in a small graveyard in the middle of a forest clearing.  Confusion fills him as he sees his name written on the nearest tombstone, and the hole he had crawled out of in front of it.

The Wheel of Fortune

The Wheel of Fortune
Change, cycles, inevitable fate

The man holds the red container over his head and pours the gasoline onto his body.  He makes sure that every inch of himself is soaked with the fluid before dropping the container.  Reaching into his pocket, he retrieves a small lighter from his pocket.  The moment the fire touches his clothing he bursts into flames.

Death is fleeting.  It takes him for just a moment before releasing him.  He climbs out of the ashes of his old body and goes back out into the world, once again seeking a way to finally find the end.

The Hermit

The Hermit
Contemplation, search for truth, inner guidance

The monk sits on the hard stone floor, feeling the cool mountain air flow across his skin as he slowly inhales and exhales.  For years he has sought personal enlightenment, to be at one with himself, and here in this moment he is closer than he has ever been.  His emotions have often been at war within him.  To find his true self, to know who he truly was, would be a blessing beyond any other that he had been granted.

He opens his eyes.  He knows.  He is the darkness, and all shall be consumed.

The Remedy for What Ails

I should be asleep, but I’m not.

The fact of the matter is that I don’t sleep much these days.  I’m constantly tired to the point of passing out at random intervals throughout the day, but when it comes to actual deep sleep at night, I rarely have that luxury.  I lay down in bed, get comfortable, and then… nothing happens.  I simply stare up at the ceiling wondering if sleep will ever come.  When it inevitably does, it’s always only a couple of hours at most before I need to be up.

So that’s what I’m doing as the light appears: just staring up at the ceiling wondering when my body will let me rest tonight.

I turn my head towards the window.  I have heavy blackout curtains, but there’s an odd white glow managing to seep into the dark room from around the edges.  With a sigh, I get out of bed to see what’s going on.  It’s probably just some asshole’s car headlights pointed at my house.

I open the curtains and immediately shield my eyes.  The light is brighter than I thought it would be.  It’s also not coming from the ground level like I had assumed.  It’s coming from up in the sky.  A helicopter searchlight, maybe?

Curious, I quickly put on some jeans and a sweatshirt before heading downstairs.  I slip on my shoes before opening the front door and going outside.  If I’m not going to be able to sleep, I might as well find out what’s going on.

I look up into the night sky and freeze.  The light definitely isn’t from a searchlight.  It’s huge.  It fills the sky from end to end; it looks like it covers at least the entire town, if not more.  The white light is so bright that it’s almost like it’s daytime, but the color makes everything it touches look pale and washed out.  The shadows in the spaces it doesn’t reach also seem much darker because of the contrast.

I have no idea what I’m looking at.  There’s no sound coming from it, just the cold white light.  There is, however, an odd…  The best word I can use to describe it is ‘pressure’.  I can feel whatever is up there that’s generating the light.  It’s like it’s pressing down on me just enough that I can feel it.

I tear my eyes from it and look around the neighborhood.  Apparently I’m the only one that came outside to investigate.  That seems strangely implausible.  Sure, it’s the middle of the night, but at least a few other people had to have noticed whatever the hell this is.  

There’s no one, though.  Everything is also eerily quiet.  It takes me a few moments to realize that the power in the neighborhood is out.  The streetlights are dark, and there isn’t any light coming from any of the houses.  I look over my shoulder and see that my own porch light, which I turn on every evening, is out.  It’s like everyone shut things down and abandoned the street without letting me know what was happening.

No, it’s more than that.  The air is completely still.  There’s no breeze blowing through the leaves or bushes.

I’m trying to wrap my head around what’s happening when I hear a shrill shout.  It cuts through the silence and echoes off of the nearby houses.  It’s the sound of a baby crying.

I turn towards the noise and see a small shape in the middle of the road.  My eyes go wide, and I hurry over to it.  There’s no way that someone would-

My suspicion is proven true.  Wrapped in a front-facing baby carrier, a small pink hat adorning its head, is an infant.  It looks terrified, and it’s crying for all its worth.

Not sure what else to do, I carefully slide the child out of the carrier and hold it up.  I frown.  I recognize this baby.  Four months ago my neighbors across the street, the Aldermans, had a daughter.  I had seen her a number of times as her mother pushed her down the sidewalk in a  stroller.  I try to remember her name for a few seconds before it comes to me.  Samantha.  Her name is Samantha.

She stops crying and stares back at me.  There are still tears in her eyes, but it seems like the human contact has comforted her a bit.  Her face and fingers are cool to the touch, and I hold her closer to help keep her warm.

Something has to have happened to her parents.  I don’t know them well, but even the few interactions I’ve had with them is enough to know that they love their daughter.  They wouldn’t just abandon her in the middle of the road like this.

I carefully reach down and retrieve the carrier.  It’s mostly made of cloth, and it has two straps that are designed to go around each of the parent’s arms.  Moving slowly so that I don’t scare Samantha, I put it on before setting her down inside.  She immediately places her head on my chest before letting out a few hiccups.

“Come on,” I say to the baby in what I hope is a soothing tone.  “Let’s go check on your parents.”

My footsteps sound extremely loud in my ears as I cross the street.  I’m feeling both scared and nervous, which seems perfectly reasonable given the situation.  I avoid looking up at the mysterious light.  There’s nothing that I can do about it, so there’s no point in worrying about it.  Instead, I stay focused on the task at hand.

I also try to avoid looking down at Samantha more than I need to.  There was no way that I was going to leave a baby abandoned in the middle of a road, but at the same time I’m not really comfortable holding her.  Not her specifically, but babies in general.  Doing so makes me think of things that I really don’t want to think about.

I reach the Alderman house and stop at the base of the porch steps.  The house is dark and silent, just like all the other homes on the block.  It’s somehow intimidating.  Maybe it’s just the way the light above makes the shadows look deeper or how it emphasizes each imperfection in the wood and siding.  Whatever it is, it’s got the hairs on the back of my neck standing up.

I turn my head to one side.  I would swear that I just heard something.  It was off in the distance so I can’t be completely sure, but it sounded like… jingling?  Is that the right word?  It was like the sound of coins clinking together.  I listen closely.  There’s only silence now.

Returning my attention to the matter at hand, I ascend the porch steps and go to the front door.  There’s something taped to the small glass window towards the top.  Frowning, I knock on the door and wait.  There’s no response.  I try again, but it leads to the same result.  After a brief hesitation I attempt to turn the doorknob.  It’s locked.

Not knowing what else to do, I reach up and pull the object free from the window, making sure not to jostle Samantha too much.  It’s a note.  No, I correct myself.  Not a note.  It’s a folded picture.  The paper stock is glossy to the touch.  There’s a note written in black pen on the white backing.

Gone to the Coplings.

I know that the Coplings are a family here in the neighborhood, but I’m not sure which house is theirs.  I look down at the baby I’m carrying, and she stares right back up at me.  Was her family on the way to a neighbor’s house when they had left her in the road?  That didn’t make any sense.  I can’t imagine that they’d just abandon their child for no reason.  Had they been taken against their will?  If that’s the case, why wasn’t Samantha taken with them?

I have no way of knowing the answers to those questions, or even if they’re the right questions to be asking.

I unfold the picture and step back out into the light to get a better look at the image.  It’s in black and white, and I’m not really sure what I’m looking at.  It kind of looks like one of those sonogram pictures that are taken of a woman’s womb when she’s pregnant.  This one doesn’t really show anything, though, except for a dark empty space in the center.

Folding the paper once again, I retape it to the window.  There’s no point in bringing it with me.

“Let’s go back to my house,” I say to Samantha.

I don’t know where the Coplings live.  With the power out, it’s not like I can go online and look it up, either.  However, I’m pretty sure that I have a phone book buried in one of my kitchen drawers.  If that’s actually the case, there’s a chance that I can find the address there.

I come to a stop on the sidewalk.  There’s that noise again.  I turn my head towards it.  This time I see something down at the far end of the block.

There are two figures approaching, one shorter and thin and the other tall and massive.  The smaller one is holding what appears to be an old lantern.  The glowing orange flame inside looks very out-of-place in the washed-out colors of the world around it.  The person holding it is a woman, and although I can’t make out many details due to the distance, I can tell that her hair is pulled back in a tight bun and she’s wearing a long black dress that is buttoned up almost to her chin.

The other figure is a man.  He’s the largest person that I’ve ever seen, easily seven feet tall and built like a tank.  He’s wearing a long black leather coat that just barely avoids touching the ground, and his gloves and wide-brimmed hat are made of the same material.  A strip of leather covers his mouth and nose.  The shadow from the hat completely covers his eyes in darkness.

Wrapped around his right arm is a thick metal chain.  It clinks as he walks.  It must be the source of the sound that I’ve been hearing.  I take a step back at the sight of it.  The light from the lantern is glinting off of something woven through the links.  It’s barbed wire.

The sight of the hideous chain is enough to make my stomach churn.  The way he carries it makes it clear that he intends to use it as a weapon.  There’s no reason I can think of for him to use a chain wrapped in barbed wire over a more efficient tool except to cause as much pain and damage as possible.

Instincts take over.  I hurry back into the shadow of the house and continue into the side yard.  Placing my back up against the siding, I crane my neck around the corner so that I can watch the two figures.

The woman is speaking to the man.  Normally I wouldn’t be able to hear what she’s saying at this distance, but the silent world I’m now in lets her voice carry.

“Can you feel it, Father?” the woman says in a flat tone.  “He is here.”

The man does not answer, but she silently regards him as if he is saying something that only she can hear.

“Of course I’m sure.  After all, Mother knows best.  He’s here, as expected.  I can feel his self-loathing and smell his despair.”

They stop walking.  The woman, Mother, holds up the lantern and looks around slowly.  I duck back behind the side of the house as her gaze turns towards the general area where I’m hiding.  There’s no way that she can see me from that distance and in these deep shadows, but I’m not taking any chances.

Are they talking about me?  I don’t know why they would be looking for me.  I’ve never seen either one of them before.  They have to be searching for someone else.

“Wait,” Mother said abruptly.  “There’s someone else here, too.  Someone…  A girl.  An infant.”

I look down at Samantha.  She’s staying silent, but she’s beginning to squirm and I’m guessing that means she won’t be quiet for long.  Her life is supposed to be one of calm and comfort, not being carried around by a stranger as he stumbles around in fear and confusion.

“We’ll take the child first,” Mother is saying.  “Every moment she’s with him is a moment that she isn’t safe.  He’ll inevitably fail her.”

The words cut through me like a knife.  While I still don’t know if I’m the one they’re searching for, it feels like what she said was intended for me.  Samantha makes a protesting sound.  I quickly pat her lightly on the back and tell her that everything is okay as quietly as I possibly can.

I watch as they draw closer.  Mother stops at the mailbox in front of my house and examines it for a moment.  She nods.

“This one, Father,” she says.  “This is his home.”

Without a word, the giant brute stomps up the short path and onto my house’s porch.  The wood groans under his weight, and I hear a loud snap as one of the boards breaks.  He stops at the door for a few seconds and looks it up and down.  Seemingly satisfied with what he sees, he continues forward and walks through the door.

I stare at the hole in shock.  Father didn’t open the door or even pull it from its hinges.  He simply walked right through it as if it was no thicker than a piece of paper.  He didn’t even bother to raise an arm as he did so.

Crashing noises echo around the neighborhood as he moves through my house.  A part of me wonders if this is what people feel like when they watch a tornado rip through their homes.  This man is a force of nature that seems determined to destroy anything in his path.

There’s a sharp crack as the house visibly leans to one side.  He’s going right through the support beams.  I really believe that the entire structure is going to fall.  Before that can happen, though, he emerges through the shattered doorway.

“So he is not home,” Mother says.  “He’s somewhere nearby, though.”

She looks around the surrounding homes slowly, the lantern raised and her eyes narrow.

“You can hear me, can’t you?” she calls out.  “You’re out there somewhere, hiding like a coward and not knowing what to do.  Again.”

Mother lets Father walk past her before she goes up to the front door of my house.

“You have a decision to make, Christopher,” she says, leaving no doubt now that she’s speaking to me.  “Reveal yourself and turn over the child to us, or flee from us to try to save your miserable life.  Which will it be?”

I stand still with my mind racing with confusion and fear.

“No decision,” Mother says with a disappointed shake of her head.  “Of course not.  Once again, your indecision causes your life to burn to ash.”

Without warning, she throws the lantern into the house.  I hear the glass shatter before flames immediately begin to fill the entryway.  The fire is burning impossibly fast, and everything that it touches is consumed.  In less than a minute the entire structure is aflame.  Mother calmly walks back over to stand next to Father.

“There’s no hiding this time, Christopher,” she yells over the roar of the fire.  “Your reckoning has come.”

She raises one hand and points directly at me.  Without hesitation, Father begins to advance towards me.

I immediately start to run.  I only take a few steps before I remember that Samantha is still strapped to me.  Using one hand to support the back of her head as much as possible, I run into the backyard with the intention of crossing through the connecting yards to escape.

My plan is immediately screwed as I find that the backyard is surrounded by neighbors’ fences on all three sides.  I stop and turn around.  Father is already in the side yard, and he’s headed towards me with surprising speed.  Not having any other options, I hurry over to the other side of the house and work my way back towards the street.

Father can follow me around the house, or he can simply turn around and go back to the street on his side.  Either way, I won’t have much time.  I need to figure out a way to lose him for just a few minutes.  I need time to think and come up with a plan.

There’s a booming sound to my left.  I barely manage to duck my head down as a large hand breaks through the side of the house and reaches towards me.  I swear loudly.  Instead of waiting to chase me when we both reach the street, Father has instead gone straight through the building.

Samantha cries out in fear and begins to cry.  I don’t have time to comfort her.  Father has almost fully emerged from the wall.

I just keep running.  There’s nothing else that I can do.  I reach the street and immediately continue on to the east, leaving both Mother and the burning remains of my house behind me.

“You can’t run forever,” Mother calls after me.  “This is what you want.  This is what you need.”

I have no idea what she’s talking about.  I reach the end of the block and turn down an alley.  The road here is narrow; it’s a one-way street that’s only meant for residents to reach their driveways and for waste collectors to pick up the trash.

My legs are starting to feel heavy, and my lungs are burning.  I’m not a very active person, and my body isn’t used to this level of exertion.  I need to find a place to stop and rest.  Turning into the nearest driveway, I hurry up to the house’s backdoor and try to open it.

Miraculously, the door is unlocked.  I dart inside and close it behind me before locking it.  Samantha is still crying.  Trying not to panic, I soothe her as best as I can.  The tears continue to stream down her cheeks, but at least she stops yelling.

I’m standing in a small laundry room.  Hanging from a rack is a small washcloth.  I grab it and give it to Samantha.  Her little fingers wrap around it, and her crying stops as she begins to play with it.  She sticks one of its corners into her mouth and gums it contentedly.

A large shadow blocks the light coming through the door window.  I practically throw myself down next to the washing machine in an attempt to hide myself from view.  Less than a second later Father steps up to the door and peers inside.

This isn’t going to work.  He must have been closer than I thought when I had left the alley.  He saw me go into the house, and now he was going to force his way inside and kill me.  I looked down at the small baby in the carrier.  Kill us.

He turns away from the door and leaves.  I blink as I stare at the window in incomprehension.  I can’t believe what’s happening.  He hadn’t seen me after all.  I let out the breath that I hadn’t known that I was holding.  I’m not sure how long I just sit there before I finally get back up.

We’re safe, if only for a little while.  I walk through a doorway into the house’s kitchen.  Turning on the faucet, I’m relieved to see that the water is still working even though the other utilities aren’t.  I retrieve a glass from one of the cupboards and fill it before drinking the water down in seconds.  I do this a second time, and then a third before turning off the faucet and placing the glass on the counter.

As I’m doing so, I notice a block of knives near the sink.  I select the largest knife in the set and pull it out of the block.  I doubt that I’ll be able to do much damage to Father with it, but it’s better than nothing.

I slowly walk around the kitchen, bouncing Samantha softly as I do so.  There’s a pile of mail on the table.  I idly flip through it as I try to regain my strength.  According to the envelopes and mailers I’m in the home of the Franklin family.

I come to the last letter and pause.  This one has a different address on it.  It must have been delivered with the rest by mistake.  I slide it out of the pile and take a closer look at it.

It’s addressed to Melinda Copling.  I glance down at Samantha.  The note at her house had said that her parents were going to the Coplings.  I hadn’t known who that was at the time, but now through sheer dumb luck I have their address.  248 Tall Elm Drive.  It’s as good a place as any to go.  There might be more people there, and if we’re going to survive what’s happening we’ll need as much help as we can get.

I last saw Father prowling out in the alley, and I definitely don’t want to leave the house that way.  Leaving the kitchen, I go out into the next room and head towards the front door.

A picture on the wall causes me to pause.  Inside of a silver frame and under a thin piece of glass is a sonogram photograph much like the one that was taped to the Alderman house.  It isn’t exactly the same, though.  It’s difficult to tell for sure in the dark, but this one seems to have a gray shape in the center.  I lean in closer to get a better look.

“This is what you wanted,” Mother suddenly says, shattering the silence.

I spin around in surprise and terror, but there’s no one there.

“You laid awake in your bed every night and asked for this to happen,” she says.

I can’t tell where she’s speaking from.  Her voice seems to be coming from both everywhere and nowhere at the same time.

“You even prayed for it.  Imagine, a man like you actually praying.  How absurd.  You begged a god that you have never believed in to help you, to take mercy and pity on you.  But you and I both know that it’s not mercy and pity that you need.  It’s not what you deserve.  Father and I are here to do what truly needs to be done.”

“What are you talking about?” I demand, my anger and frustration temporarily replacing my fear.

“You know exactly what I’m talking about,” she snaps.  “You may not be willing to admit it to yourself, but you know.  It’s about them.  Everything is always about them.  You need to be punished for what you did.”

The floorboards above me creak.  She’s on the second floor.

I don’t even consider trying to attack her with the knife.  Samantha’s carrier is still strapped to me, after all, and I doubt that I could hurt her anyway.  I have the feeling that she’s every bit as durable as Father, if not even stronger.

Instead, I unlock the front door and go back outside.  I audibly gasp as I see flames all around me.  The fire that consumed my house was now working its way through the other homes.  Shaking my head to clear it, I hurry down the sidewalk towards the address I had found on the letter.  Hopefully the fires haven’t already gotten to it.  For her part, Samantha remains obsessed with the washcloth.  

To my relief it’s in a part of the neighborhood that remains untouched.  Looking around quickly to make sure that I haven’t been followed, I practically leap up the front steps to the door.

Without warning, Samantha is gone.  One moment I’m feeling the weight of her carrier against my chest, and the next both she and the carrier are simply not there.  I look around in a panic.  That’s not possible.

A faint sound catches my attention.  It’s the sound of the baby’s crying.  I close my eyes and listen closely, trying to figure out where it’s coming from.  It seems to be in front of me, but also… below me?  The basement.  It must be coming from the house’s basement.

Not bothering to knock, I fling the door open and go inside.  I’ve never been inside this particular house before.  I’ve never even met the people that live here even though it’s just a few doors down from my own house.  I’m not usually a very social person.

I’m standing in an entryway.  In front of me is a staircase leading up to the second floor, and to my right is the kitchen.  To my left…

Sitting in a small chair in the tackily-decorated living room, her hands folded in her lap, is Mother.

My grip tightens around the knife, but I don’t move.  She doesn’t, either.  Instead, she simply sits there, her eyes locked on mine.  There’s something different about her now.  I’m not sure what that something is.

I hear Samantha cry again.  It’s closer now, less muffled.  Setting my jaw, I step through the archway and into the living room.  Mother remains in her chair as she silently watches me.  As I come to a stop in front of her, her eyes slowly lower down to the knife.

“You don’t need that,” she says.

There’s none of the earlier menace in her voice.  If anything, she sounds defeated and tired.  The change in her demeanor makes me feel unsure of myself.  It doesn’t make any sense.  First she’s trying to kill me, and now she seems like she’s completely disinterested.

“You can’t take it in there with you anyway,” Mother continues.  “Just set it on the table.  Nothing here is going to hurt you.  Not in a way that something like a knife will protect you from, anyway.”

Above the chair she’s sitting in is a large portrait.  Inside of the frame is another of the black and white sonogram pictures.  I stare at it for a long moment before dropping the knife onto the carpet.  I recognize this one.  Something in my mind clicks into place.  I’ve recognized all of them.  This one is forcing me to admit that.

The womb in this sonogram is full.  I can easily make out the fetus within, the curve of its head and the shapes of its arms and legs.  Part of me, a big part, wants to break down and weep as I stare at the child.  Whatever dam there is inside of me continues to hold, though, and the tears don’t come.

I jump as something touches my hand.  I look down to find that Mother has taken it in her own and is staring up at me.  There are dark circles under her eyes, and the expression on her face makes it seem like she’s carrying a great weight.

“Soon,” she promises.  “You understand now why Father and I have come?  It has to be this way.”

I look at her without answering.

Samantha’s cries bring me back to what I was originally doing.  Slipping my hand out of Mother’s, I cross the room to a closed door at the far end.  I take one last brief look at her over my shoulder.  

The baby’s wailing rises to almost deafening levels as I reach out towards the doorknob.  My fingers stop less than an inch from the metal.  I know what’s waiting for me beyond the door.  I shouldn’t, but I do.  It terrifies me far more than anything else that’s happened.

Taking a deep breath that catches in my lungs, I open the door and go inside.  The crying stops.

I’m no longer in the house.  Instead, I’m standing in a dark hospital room.  A bed sits against one wall, with a number of machines standing next to it.  I recognize the room immediately.  It was the place that I had spent the worst moments of my life.  I stand inside this room every time the nightmares come when I sleep, and the nightmares always come.

She’s not in the bed.  Instead, she’s leaning against the wall and staring out the open window.  The curtains flutter gently as the night breeze pushes against them.  She’s dressed in a white hospital gown, and her hair is pulled back into a ponytail.

“What do you think it is?” she asks without turning around.

The sound of her voice cuts through me.  I haven’t heard it in so long.  I’m convinced that even if she was standing in the middle of a giant crowd I would still be able to distinguish her voice from all the rest.

“The light over the town,” she prompts, pointing out the window with one finger.  “What do you think it is?”

“I don’t know,” I answer after swallowing hard.

“I wonder if anyone does.”

“Is…”  I swallow again.  “Is this real?”

She turns away from the window and looks at me with those large brown eyes.  “I don’t know.  I doubt there’s any way to know for sure.  I want it to be.”

I join her at the window.  The hospital room is a few stories up from the ground floor, and the white light shining down on Harvest End looks somehow different from this vantage point.  It looks curved, almost rounded, with the highest point above the direction of the center of town.

“I wish you could see her,” she says.

“See who?” I asked in confusion.

“Our daughter.  She’s beautiful.  I know all parents say that about their children, but in this case it just so happens to be true.  She’s got my eyes, but she has your nose.”

“She’s… with you, then?”

“Oh yes.  Did you really think that anything in this world or the next could have kept me away from her?”

“No, I suppose not.”  I pause.  “Molly, I’m sorry, I-”

“You were told to make an impossible decision,” she cuts me off firmly.  “A decision that no one should ever have to be asked to make.”

I look away.  “I did make it, though.  I said to-”

“Chris.”  She puts her hands on the sides of my face.  “It doesn’t matter.  You were told that you had to choose between your wife and your child.  There was no right answer.  No wrong one, either.  I don’t blame you for making the choice that you did.  That’s not really the problem, though, is it?”

I don’t know how to respond to that.

“The problem is that you blame yourself.  No matter what anyone tells you, you continue to blame yourself.”

“It is my fault,” I tell her.  “I was told to make a choice, and by the time that I did it was too late.”

She shakes her head.  “You’re leaving a pretty important part out.  The doctor told you that only one of us could be saved, but even then it would be extremely low odds.”

“If I had made it faster…”

“It wouldn’t have mattered.  We both would have still died.  There was too much bleeding.  You know that, at least intellectually.  That brings me back to your problem.  You might know the truth, but you still feel like you did this horrible thing that you should be punished for.  Not just punished, but almost… ruined.”

I don’t have to turn around to know that Father is standing just inside the doorway.  Mother steps out of the shadows to stand next to Molly.  Both of the women’s faces are distraught, and there are tears in their eyes.  Mother places a hand on my wife’s shoulder.

“I wish there was some other way to convince you that you don’t need to torture yourself anymore,” Molly says.  “Some other way for you to move on with life instead of being stuck in this cycle of self-loathing and numbness that you’re in.  The way that you’ve chosen, though… either you come out the other side of it able to move on, or you die.”

“I’ve always been a bit of a stubborn asshole,” I reply with a small smile.

She half-laughs, half-chokes.  “That’s an understatement.  How do you want to do this?”

“I…  I guess over by the bed.”

I walk over to it and run my hand along the thin sheet.  I remember the feel of it against my skin from when I sat at Molly’s side and held her hand.  She had been so happy that it was finally time for our child to be born, and despite the physical pain and exhaustion her happiness had been infectious.

My mind turns to the moment that the bleeding started.  I had first seen it as a single drop falling onto the sheet.  The dark red liquid had absorbed into the material, slowly spreading out from the middle like a flower blossoming.  It had been an odd moment of beauty before the ugliness.

I take off my shirt and bunch it up before setting it down on the bed.  Kneeling down on the ground, I fold my arms under my head and use the shirt as a makeshift pillow.  My back is fully exposed.

Molly surprises me by lifting my head and taking away the shirt.  She sits down on the bed in front of me and crosses her legs before setting my head back down in her lap.  She gently strokes my hair.

“I don’t want you to do this alone,” she says softly.

I don’t answer, but I don’t have to.  She knows that I’m grateful for the comfort.

“Are you ready?” she asks.

“Yes,” I answer.  “I have been for a long time.”

I feel the air shift as Father steps up and looms over me.  His presence is just as strong as it had been, but there is something different about it now.  While I’m nervous, I’m not consumed by fear like I had been.  I feel the fingers of his leather gloves touch my back.  Tears begin to well up in my eyes.  There’s no doubt that he’s going to do what I’ve desperately needed to have done.

The fingers pull away from my skin, and I know that it’s about to begin.  Molly whispers to me in words too quiet to be heard.  Her voice gives me strength.  I close my eyes and wait.

The wire-wrapped chain comes down across my exposed back.  I cry out in pain as the metal makes contact so hard that it nearly knocks me to the floor.  The agony is indescribable.  I feel blood running down my skin before it drips onto the hospital room floor.

It’s not over yet.  I grip the side of the bed tightly as Father pulls the chain free.  The barbs from the wire rip and tear at my flesh.  I scream, a primal sound with no words.  Stars float in front of my eyes as my ears are filled with a loud rushing noise.  I began to slip towards unconsciousness.

“Not yet,” Molly murmurs.  “Almost, but not yet.”

She’s right, of course.  If I black out now I won’t be able to finish my penance.  I grit my teeth.  There’s so much pain, but in a way it’s a vast relief to experience it physically instead of the mental torment I put myself through every day.  This is real and tangible.  It’s a brutal therapy that I have to see through.

I don’t know how many times the dreadful lash comes down.  Each time it does there is an explosion of agony, followed by pain that is less intense but much more sustained.  In the moments between I feel a sense of relief that goes far beyond corporeal comfort.  It’s the breaking of the shackles that I had put around my own soul the moment that I had lost my family.

At last, long after the period of I’m suddenly outside in the front yard of my house.  I’m on my knees in the grass. The pain in my back is intense, but nowhere near as much as it should be.  I was beaten and flayed open just moments before.  Now I just have nearly-healed scars to show for it.  The memories of the beating are clear in my mind, though, and with little effort I can remember exactly what it felt like as the chain wrapped in barbed wire was brought down on my back.

It’s cold, and I shiver against the winter wind.  My shirt is sitting on the grass next to me.  I put it on and stand up.  As I do so, the white light in the sky goes dark.  That feeling of something pushing down on me disappears, and as it does so I have the distinct impression of an impossibly large object moving away.  As my eyes adjust to the night I notice something else above me.  The stars have returned.

I take a deep breath of the chilled air.  It smells sweeter than any breath I have taken in a long time.  Feeling much lighter and more free than I have in many years, I turn to go back into my undamaged house.  I need my sleep, after all.  When the sun rises it will do so on the first day that I’ve been alive in a long, long time, and I’m determined to experience every moment of it in full.

The Lovers

The Lovers
Partnerships, duality, union

The twins walk down the stairs as they hold each other’s hands.  The boy tells his sister a silly story as they descend from the second floor.  She smiles and giggles before asking for him to tell her another one.  At first he hems and haws in jest before giving in and creating another story on the spot to keep her amused.

As they go down the stairs, they leave red footprints on the white carpet.  It’s unfortunate that they got their shoes messy, but it could have been worse.  Their parents’ blood could have gotten on their nice clothing.

The Chariot

The Chariot
Direction, control, willpower

The man approaches the side of the road.  He stops at the metal barrier separating the woods from the busy highway.  The section of road that he’s near is on a curve, and with the heavy forest the oncoming cars can’t see anything on this part of the street until they’re right on top of it.

He looks back at the woman standing just inside the trees.  He silently begs her stop making him do this.

She shakes her head.  Tears streaming from his eyes, he steps out onto the road as he hears the truck coming around the curve.