by C.S. Fuqua

 

 

 

 

Issue 20 (Apr 2012)

The needle of light winks. Machinery rumbles, and he cowers against the dirt wall. Something brushes against his leg as a shadow scuttles into a corner. He kicks, and bone and flesh give way under his boot. He takes the rat into his hands and lifts the carcass to his lips, but then his shoulders sink. He drops his hands to his lap, weary of the struggle.

The light winks again. The door rattles. This time he will make them shoot.

Randy worked the screwdriver diligently between two bricks, flaking out grout. He wiped sweat from his face with his shoulder as the screwdriver broke through. Light stabbed into the space beyond. A glint of eyes? He edged closer but saw nothing—perhaps a trick of the light. From what he could tell, several feet of space lay on the other side, apparently without access. He pulled back abruptly, sickened by the sudden rancid stench from the hole. His hands began to tremble, and the screwdriver slipped from his grasp, clinking to the cement floor.

Randy had awakened two nights earlier to a faint, persistent scratching. He sat up, heart racing, confused, believing he was back in that hole. But light blazed around him, and his chest hitched with the realization that the nightmare was only a nightmare, the darkness a bad memory. He lay back and pondered the silence of the house, the light, the patience of time, until his eyes closed, his breathing calmed, and he began to drift once again toward the hole in the desert.

Scratching.

He twisted up on the bedside and cocked his head, listening. Muted, determined, real. He retrieved the pistol from the nightstand and eased down the hallway, room to room, quietly, until the sound drew him to the kitchen and its common wall with the utility room that was accessed from the back patio. He pressed his ear to the wall, and the scratching stopped. Randy listened for a good minute or more, long enough to wonder again if he’d imagined it. He closed his eyes, and darkness settled around him, forgotten by god and country, forever a prisoner. The gun’s barrel rested against his forehead, the trigger taut against his finger. Escape. Once and for all. A sad smile came to his lips. He sighed heavily and went back to bed.

Randy had been in the house for about a month, but not until the day following the scratching did he notice that the utility room’s exterior appeared several feet longer than its interior. He tapped a hammer against the interior’s end wall and thought he heard a rattle on the other side. Rattle or not, the wall shouldn’t be there.

The real estate agent had said the previous owners divorced shortly after the birth of their child nearly two years earlier, that neither had made payments on the house, leading finally to foreclosure. Saps down on their luck, thus, an opportunity for Randy, but he didn’t care. He hadn’t wanted this or any other house. That had been Claire, insisting it’d be the first step in reclaiming his life. Whatever. He didn’t argue. In a house, at least, he wouldn’t have to face the random encounters with apartment complex tenants. The only time he’d have to see anyone would be to cash his VA check or buy groceries. So he’d let Claire take care of the details. Since then, his steps had worn a path in the carpet, out the bedroom, down the hall, around the living room, and back, over and over.

Randy pored over the sale and mortgage documents and found the names of the previous owners. Five minutes on the internet provided him with a telephone number. The line rang. A male voice answered. “May I speak to Jeremy please?”

“Who’s calling?” came the voice.

“Randall Langford. I bought the house…”

“You have the wrong number.” The line disengaged.

Randy redialed, but it rang unanswered. The following day, the number was no longer valid.

Randy pried the screwdriver into the hole to break out more grout. A voice startled him, and he spun to find Claire in the doorway of the utility room, chocolate brown hair brushing her shoulders, framing a faintly cherubic face, accented with deep, penetrating eyes, the only trait common to the sister and brother. Otherwise, Randy’s lanky frame, his timid demeanor, and his sandy-colored hair made him look like little more than an uncomfortable acquaintance in her presence.

Claire grinned. “Remodeling?”

“Listen,” he said softly.

Claire took a step in. “What am I lis…?”

“There,” he said, turning halfway back to the wall. “Hear that?”

Claire listened intently for several moments before pressing the back of her fingers gently against his forehead. “You don’t feel feverish,” she teased.

Randy motioned toward the small hole. “Look in there.”

Claire frowned irritation, but she squinted an eye close to the hole as directed, peered in, and shrugged. “It’s dark,” she said, and then backed suddenly away, her face twisted in disgust. “And it stinks.”

“Exactly,” Randy said. “According to the floor plan, this wall doesn’t exist, and something’s causing that smell.” He led her outside and showed her how the exterior wall extended several feet further than the interior.

“Another example of contractor expertise. Look, honey…” she flashed an impatient grin and kissed his cheek. “I just wanted to stop by and check on you. I need to drop some supplies at church for Pastor Baggett. Wanna come?”

“Old subject, Claire.”

“One day, I’m just going to bring the pastor here.”

Randy didn’t bite.

Claire sighed. “You want to go for dinner later?”

He shrugged.

Claire motioned toward the utility room. “If the wall bugs you so much, knock it down. And fumigate.”

A flash.

The concussion hurls him several yards through the air. He hits, groans, faintly aware of screams within the roar. He gropes to see if his legs are still there. He rolls, pushes himself up with quavering arms. Two gun-toting figures emerge from the roiling dust, their heads and half their faces hidden by traditional cover. Randy moans as hands grasp him under the arms and yank him up. They throw him into the back of a sedan. He tries to pull himself up, but a rifle butt puts him down.

Randy raised his face to the sky, eyes closed, the sun warm and clean. Claire had made him feel silly enough to give it up the day before, but then came the night and more scratching. He’d entered the utility room around 2 a.m. and pressed his ear to the hole. Something metallic clicked within, and he felt a faint breath of air. He’d backed out of the room and returned to his bed where he lay awake for hours, staring at the ceiling, the gun nestled on his chest, the barrel nuzzled under his chin, the scratching intermittent, but determined.

Now, with his face flushed by the sun’s warmth, Randy sighed and went back to the utility room, determined to lay the mystery to rest. He placed the pistol on the floor near the sidewall. He picked up the hammer and screwdriver and chipped the grout from around two bricks where he’d worked the day before. Minutes later, he pushed the bricks through to the other side. They crashed to the concrete floor beyond, and vague light seeped into the space. Something hissed, and the sudden rush of stench brought bile to Randy’s throat.

Randy retrieved a flashlight from the kitchen, switched it on, and slipped the barrel in through the hole. As he’d guessed, the space beyond the wall extended a good four feet.

The light winks. A voice on the other side calls, “Anyone in there?” Tears threaten. Dust swirls like a million mini-snowflakes in the shaft of dazzling light. Another voice calls in English.

“In here,” he rasps.

The trapdoor rises, and two men glare down at him, their faces betraying disgust. He follows their gaze to his bloodstained hands, the filth that covers him, the dead rat. His fingers touch his face, the thick beard, the sallow eyes, the sunken cheeks. He looks up at them and reaches out with quivering hands.

“Shoot me.”

Movement.

Startled, Randy retrieved the pistol and shifted the flashlight. Dust flecks danced in the beam as it settled on a chest-high metal cage, about two feet wide, five feet long, almost the width of the space, strong and secure. But what took Randy’s breath were the eyes that reflected dully in the beam, set in a wretchedly malformed face that pleaded as much as it mocked and seethed.

Pretty?” a voice hissed from within the twisted mass.

Randy directed the flashlight’s beam up and then down, revealing a desperate creature that should not have been alive. Smaller than a cattle dog, its bloodshot eyes stared from within a distorted deformity of human and goat features, a face gnarled with agony. Two short, foul horns portruded from the forehead, one splintered two inches above the eye. The creature’s shoulders and arms were little more than skin-clad bone. Thin flesh stretched across the chest, splitting over several ribs. Sores—oozing, black and festering—covered the emaciated body. Bone protruded from the tip of each finger, the skin peeling away.

The thing opened its mouth and howled in a despairing, chilling voice, baring the blackened remnants of teeth barely set in gray, rotting gums. Then it lowered its head, its howl languishing to silence, and drew a ragged breath, the skin across its chest sinking between the ribs. It stretched out a beckoning hand, but suddenly yanked back and turned away, head bowed, breaths rattling and shallow.

The soldier yells to someone behind him as he kneels beside the opening, “Bring some water!” He stares down at the pathetic figure in the hole. “Jesus,” he mutters, “how long you been here?”

Randy blinks back tears that form against the brightness of the day. Gunfire sounds in the distance. Another soldier arrives with a canteen and passes it down to Randy. Water splashes against his cracked lips, and it burns, but the taste is so sweet, so wonderful.

“Can you eat?”

Randy’s stomach growls viciously.

Randy rushed into the house, unable to comprehend how the thing—whatever it was—could still be alive. But it was. He thought about opening the hole further and bringing the creature out, but not yet, he decided, not until he knew more about it. He considered the revolver, but then decided it wasn’t necessary with the creature secure in the cage. He retrieved a bottle of water from the refrigerator and rummaged through drawers and cabinets until he located a pair of long barbecue tongs, another object Claire had insisted was necessary. For once, she’d been right.

Back in the utility room, he used the tongs to ease the water bottle through the hole toward the cage where the thing waited. The creature’s cynical, wary gaze narrowed, shifting to Randy, then back to the bottle. Tentatively, it reached but abruptly stopped and looked up at Randy as though expecting the man to snatch the bottle back. Finally, it wrapped its spindly fingers around the bottle. When the tongs released their grip, the creature blenched, startled, and dropped it, cowering in fear.

Randy pulled the tongs back through the hole and directed the flashlight beam across the floor until it found the bottle. The thing whimpered. It lowered itself awkwardly to the cage floor and stretched to reach the bottle, fingers desperately grasping air. Randy shifted the beam to the creature, saw the ragged genitalia that defined it as male. He shifted the light back. The creature’s fingers touched the bottle’s side, nudging it further away. He mewled softly, managed to stretch enough to nudge the bottle again, and, this time, it rolled gingerly under his outstretched hand. The creature grabbed it and pulled it into the cage, the mesh barely large enough for it to fit through. The creature lifted itself with a groan to sit and painfully twist off the cap.

“There’s more,” Randy said softly.

The creature hissed. He raised the bottle to his lips, drank, and immediately pulled the bottle away, breaking into a rasping cough. Water sloshed out, and the creature whimpered and sprawled on the cage floor to lick up the precious liquid its tongue could reach between the cage wires.

Randy drank, but half or more of the water spilled from the sides of his mouth, his throat raw with each swallow. Such decadence, such bounty—water in a bottle. Will they believe how he’s stayed alive by licking dewdrops that seep in around the door and the hole where the rats enter? How he’s drunk his own urine and the blood of the rats he’s caught, killed, and eaten? Believe or not, they’ll be repulsed. Of that, he is certain.

The creature twisted up, peeled back his lips, and hissed again. Tattered ears hung loosely against his neck as he lifted the bottle and took measured, careful sips that grew progressively into hungry gulps. A drop dribbled from one side of his mouth. He puled, lowered the bottle, and, with a quavering finger, guided the drop from his cheek into his mouth. Then he drained the bottle, sucking until the plastic collapsed. Reluctantly, he lowered the bottle until his arms hung at his sides, head bowed, body still except for his thin chest, which rattled with each breath. The bottle slipped from his grip and bounced to the floor, coming to rest in shadow.

“More?” Randy asked tentatively.

The thing didn’t reply, didn’t move.

Randy went to the kitchen and returned a few moments later with packages of bread and ham and another bottle of water, which he slipped through the hole. The creature ripped the packages from the tongs and devoured the bread and meat. He licked his lips and stared up at the hole, his glare softening somewhat with curiosity. “Poison won’t work,” he rasped.

“It isn’t poison.” Randy drew a breath and asked in a near whisper, “What are you?”

The thing cleared his throat. “Aidan,” he said, and some pride came to his eyes. “Phooka.”

Aidan was obviously his name, but the word phooka meant nothing to Randy.

The creature’s head abruptly began to morph, the splintered horns retracting into the skull, face rounding, becoming more human, the large ears shrinking.

“What the hell…?” Randy whispered.

Bones cracked and reshaped until finally the creature looked more like a badly battered child than a caged demon.

“Phooka,” the creature repeated with a heavy sigh. “As you are hu…”

“Randy?”

Randy spun so fast, he nearly fell. “Jesus, Claire.”

Randy,” she scolded. “Not the Lord’s name…”

“Then don’t scare the hell out of me,” he snapped.

Claire shrugged in that special way that said she’d forgive him, but not forget, despite her Good Book’s instructions. She wore religion like a badge, slipping it off conveniently when it went against her desires. For Randy, though, she presented religion as his best path back into the real world. God had a reason for having put him in that desert tomb, she maintained. God has a plan for each of us. “And what would that plan be, Claire?” Randy had asked. “To do his work,” she’d replied, and he’d laughed at her.

Claire raised up on tiptoe and peered over his shoulder. “What’s with the hole?”

“Checking the space,” he said a little too quickly.

Her face brightened. “So there is space?” She tried to step past, but he didn’t move. “Let me see,” she said.

The situation suddenly felt more surreal than before, and something stirred inside Randy. He felt suddenly and inexplicably giddy with the possibility of challenging Claire’s godly babble with something she couldn’t explain away with a nod toward heaven. But would she see it if he allowed her to look? Or had he lost his mind?

Randy moved aside, and Claire stepped up to the hole. They both pressed close to peer in as Randy clicked on the flashlight and held it under their chins, directing the beam toward the cage. Claire’s breath caught, and Randy felt odd relief at her confirmation that the thing was real.

The phooka bared its teeth at the woman, and Claire backed away.

“What is it?”

“He said…”

“It can talk?”

Aidan hissed, “She’s burdened.”

Randy wanted to laugh as Claire’s eyes widened with fear and she fled, yelling back, “Get rid of it, Randy. Get rid of it.”

Randy spread peanut butter on two slices of bread and smoothed in dollops of cherry jam, placed the pieces together, and slipped the sandwich into a paper bag. Three days had passed since Claire had seen the creature. She hadn’t called or been back since, nor had she answered her phone or responded to Randy’s messages.

“You said Claire’s burdened,” Randy had said to Aidan. “What did you mean?” The creature offered a sardonic grin in reply. “You know she wants you dead.”

“And you have a gun.” Aidan held his gaze until Randy looked away.

The soldiers lift him from the hole, and he sees two men, their heads covered in the traditional wrap, running away in the distance. Another soldier raises his weapon, aims. One runner sprawls, his limbs twisting under his body. A second shot echoes, and Randy feels satisfaction as the second man falls dead. It was he who had killed Ahmad Ali, the only captor who’d offered help to Randy—.

Randy took the sandwich to the utility room. He slipped it through the hole and tossed it to the floor beside the cage, close enough for the creature to reach. Aidan looked up questioningly at Randy.

“Peanut butter and jam,” Randy said. “Go ahead.”

Even after three days, the creature greeted Randy with suspicion at each feeding, suspicion that Randy subconsciously shared. Why did he continue to hold the thing captive? Aidan reached tentatively for the bag, nose twitching. He pulled it into the cage and squatted, fingers carefully opening the top, hand sliding in to pull out the sandwich. He held it before him for several moments. “Poison?”

“We’ve been through this,” Randy said with irritation.

The creature chuckled and drew the sandwich to his mouth, took a bite, and chewed, slowly, deliberately, savoring. When he’d finished, he squatted in the cage and rubbed his palms over his small, distended belly. The creature’s lips, healing rapidly, had more color now and curved into a mordant smile. Curiosity stirred in his eyes. “Will you shoot me? Keep me as a pet? Put back the bricks?”

Ahmad Ali asks in a heavy accent, “Hungry?”

What good is food? Randy wonders.

“Hungry?” Ahmad asks again.

“Yes,” Randy says.

Ahmad leaves, bolting the trapdoor securely. He is gone for several minutes before returning with a bowl of bland bean soup.

After moments of silence, Ahmad says, “It is necessary,” and Randy understands that he means the imprisonment.

Randy held Aidan’s accusing gaze for several long seconds, and then abruptly reached for the hammer. He struck the bricks furiously, chipping out large chunks with each swing, working out and downward. Aidan shied back into the cage, shielding himself from small bits of debris. A half-hour later, Randy had enlarged the hole to three feet. The stench almost overwhelmed him at first, but slowly dissipated to a faint fetor. The creature’s crooked fingers grasped the mesh, breaths short and rapid. Randy noted the flesh on Aidan’s hands was no longer gray and tender and was healing at a remarkable rate, now covering the bones completely.

Randy finally stopped swinging and stood at the opening, winded, arms aching. The space beyond filled with light, and Randy saw that the phooka could be no more than forty inches tall, conforming to the cage’s height. He felt a new rush of pity at the sight of the creature.

The phooka waited, patient in his silence.

“Who put you here?” Randy asked.

Aidan said nothing.

“Then tell me what the hell a phooka is.”

The creature rasped a chuckle that broke into violent coughing. He held himself weakly up on hands and knees as the coughing subsided, head hung haggardly. “Demon, angel—depends on who’s telling the story,” the phooka wheezed. “Many believe we’re good luck. A man trapped me, long ago.” He drew a deep breath. “Then someone else wanted me and killed old Bill, but when that one unlocked my box, I was too quick.”

“The guy who lived here, did he kill Bill?”

The phooka pushed himself into a sitting position and pulled his atrophied legs under one hip. “No,” he rasped.

Randy held his hands open, indicating the enclosure. “Why here?”

Aidan wheezed a laugh. “I took the baby.” The phooka bowed his head. “To be taken by beings like me, to be honored, charmed…”

“You took the baby?”

“I brought it back.” The phooka’s eyes blinked, moist and red. “They trapped me. Your kind’s so stupidly arrogant. They never fed me, never brought water, only walled me into this tomb. I fed upon myself until…” The phooka raised his arms and howled, long and mournful. Finally, the voice faded to silence, his arms lowered, and he hung his head in dejection. “I starved for nourishment, for light…” He looked up, and a momentary spark of thanks shone in his eyes. Then it was gone, replaced by the same suspicion as before.

Randy drew back the hammer and pounded the bricks until he’d enlarged the opening to the floor, tall and wide enough to bring out the cage. He squatted before the hole and watched the phooka creep over to the near side of the cage, bony fingers lacing through the mesh, gripping, new skin threatening to tear.

“Move back,” Randy said finally.

The phooka’s grasp loosened, and he backed up to the opposite side.

Randy decided on the garden hoe. He hooked the blade into the cage’s near corner and pulled. He wondered how Claire would react to him bringing a demon into light using the hoe she’d bought. Metal shrieked against the concrete floor. Finally in the main utility room, the phooka bowed his head, drawing himself inward, crossing his arms over his chest and grasping his shoulders with tender fingers. Most of the sores scarring the creature’s body had begun to heal.

“Jesus,” Randy whispered as he circled the cage.

“Jesus,” the sergeant whispers.

Randy feels ashamed. His hands shake uncontrollably, and he sees they’re covered with open sores and scabs. Four hours later, he is in a hospital bed, asleep, face shaved, hands grabbing at the sound of rats skittering through his nightmare.

“Your woman…”

“Sister,” Randy corrected.

“She wouldn’t like you using the Lord’s name in vain,” Aidan sneered.

Randy shrugged. He’d learned a lot about gods in the desert and what they did and didn’t care about. Claire’s god cared more about the use of its name than how the members of its flock treated one another. Her god’s sheeple had only to ask forgiveness for this or that sin, and everything would be cool in heaven—like the bumper sticker said: “I’m not perfect, just forgiven.” But Randy had met the real god in that desert hole, and it hadn’t been some old fart answering the prayers of SUV-driving boneheads, text-messaging down the highway of stupidity. God had introduced itself to be a man’s ability to swallow raw rat meat and drink blood and piss to survive. God had been the sound of gunfire and splintering bone, your name on the lips of the person saving your ass.

Randy went in to prepare more food for the creature. From the counter, he could see through the kitchen window into the utility room. The phooka sat with his face toward the door, eyes closed, scarred lips parted, perhaps in a silent prayer to its own god.

He wakes, squinting into a shaft of light as machinery rumbles in the distance. He hears voices. He’s confused and frightened until he realizes he’s in a bed, surrounded by other beds. His heart calms as he lies back, shifting to bathe in that ray of early morning sun that reaches through the window— warm, soothing, and brilliant. He prays to the desert god for strength to make the light eternal.

Randy used what was handy for sandwiches—cheese, bologna, lettuce, peanut butter, jam. He didn’t think the creature would complain as long as it was food. The phooka proved him right as it guttled every morsel. When he finished, Aidan squatted on the cage floor and licked up the crumbs. He drank his water thirstily, his stomach distending increasingly, and, still, he asked for more after each bottle emptied. Randy slid all food and water across the floor to the cage, using the hoe from a safe distance just inside the doorway.

The phooka sat on the cage floor, his short legs folded loosely, and settled the water bottle against a thin thigh. Randy marveled at his recuperative ability, how his body had healed itself so rapidly, how the creature was gaining weight at an incredible rate. The improvement made Randy feel some pride and relief, the first genuine good feelings he’d experienced since the day he’d landed in that desert tomb.

The phooka looked at Randy for a full minute with unblinking eyes that drilled deep into those of his keeper, but Randy felt no threat or danger.

“Will you keep me or let me go?”

Randy sat down in the doorway and leaned back against the frame.

“Not yet.” That’s what the one wearing the black hood says. He shifts the gun, and Ahmad Ali steps closer to his side.

“When?” Randy asks.

“In time…”

“When…?” The question ends in an abrupt groan as the gun butt finds his kidney, and Randy accepts that he will not leave this place alive. He draws a breath, utters, “Idiot.”

The man spits on him and points his weapon at Randy’s forehead.

“Do it,” Randy says calmly. “I’ll get your virgins ready for you.”

Ahmad Ali lays his hand on the weapon and shakes his head. The hooded man glares at Ahmad, then drops back and fires. Ahmad Ali’s face caves in and the back of his head opens as his body collapses.. The man with the gun yanks off his own hood.

“This is my country,” he shouts at Randy. “You do not exist unless I say so.” The trapdoor falls.

Aidan’s eyes gleamed with interest, the dull, gray stare now a memory. “You’ll keep me then?”

“I didn’t say that.”

“Nor did your captors say it to you,” he grinned. “Rat can be a delicacy, yes?”

The words took Randy’s breath. His head pounded, and he started up, unsteady on his feet. “How do you know?” His voice trembled.

Aidan’s face grew serious. “Thoughts unguarded.” He shrugged as if that explained everything. “Like the woman…”

Randy took a step but stopped abruptly. Not too close. “What about her?”

“The odor engulfed her,” the phooka said softly.

“What odor?”

Aidan pressed his face between the cage mesh. “She’s pregnant,” he hissed.

The declaration took Randy completely unprepared, and a slow smile came to his face. “Claire?” The smile melted. “What? You want it?”

The phooka chuckled and shook his head, his gaze never straying from Randy’s. “It interests me not. I find the situation amusing.” The phooka lifted his nostrils, sniffed. “The smell precedes her.”

Randy half-twisted to the doorway. “She’s coming?”

The phooka raised his brow slightly.

Randy stepped unsteadily out of the utility room and pulled the door closed, his last glance at the phooka’s eyes noting the sadness and fear of one who’s been alone too long. He released the knob as Claire rounded the corner.

“You didn’t answer the doorbell,” she said. “I figured you’d be back here. Did you kill it?” Claire glared at him, waiting.

Randy didn’t reply.

Randy, why in heaven’s name not?”

“He’s intelligent, not some rabid animal. You just can’t go killing things.”

“It’s not human, Randall. It’s evil.”

“You don’t have a clue.” He drew a breath, realizing that the only way to prove the phooka’s value was to demonstrate it. Randy reached for Claire’s hand, leaned in, and kissed her cheek. “Give it a chance, Claire. I mean…this may sound strange, but,” he said, “are you pregnant?”

Claire went rigid, eyes wide with angry fear. She yanked free and backed away. Randy held her gaze, waiting. He’d learned a lot about waiting, about being quiet. His hands trembled slightly, and he concentrated on being still.

A peal of laughter issued from within the utility room, and the color drained from Claire’s face. She began to turn away, but Randy caught her at the elbow.

Kill it, Randy,” she growled.

“Look into his eyes. He’s not evil. He’s something…special. He said you’re pregnant. He knows by smell, Claire—by smell.”

Claire struggled against his grip. “Let me go.” Randy released her, and she fled.

Randy didn’t bother calling Claire that night. It would be useless, and, frankly, he was weary of her and her assumption of superiority. Perhaps this little predicament she now found herself in would bring her down to earth, would instill a bit of empathy and humility. Perhaps. For now, though, her absence would allow him to give his attention completely to the phooka, beginning with a dinner of squash, potatoes, and an entire baked chicken.

The phooka didn’t speak while eating, nor did he acknowledge Randy, who sat quietly in the doorway, watching. Aidan’s ravenous hunger had sated somewhat, and he now ate more thoroughly, carefully. His pointed tongue snaked around the bones and stripped them clean before he cracked each to consume the marrow. He left nothing edible uneaten. Finally, Aidan began licking his fingers clean, and pushed away the pan. He lay down quietly on his back.

“Does the cage floor bother you?” Randy asked.

“I’m accustomed.”

Randy rose and returned a few moments later with several towels, which he tossed onto the cage top. The phooka pulled them in one by one to make a mat on the cage floor. He lay down once again, this time with a satisfied sigh.

“Anything else?” Randy asked.

The phooka grinned. “If you would be so kind as to open the cage door…”

Randy smiled. “Sleep well.”

“Will you walk in your cage tonight?” the phooka asked.

Randy hesitated and then closed the door.

Randy woke with a grunt, dragging himself into consciousness, slowly becoming aware of the banging. He rose and groggily pulled on jeans and a t-shirt before stumbling out toward the noise. He opened the front door to find Claire and a soft, puffy man standing behind her.

“Good lord, Randy,” she said, her eyes raking up and down him. She pushed in, and Randy stumbled back, allowing both Claire and the man entry. “You locked the door to it,” she said flatly. She started for the kitchen “Where’s the key?” she demanded, but she located it on the counter next to the refrigerator before he could answer. She led the man out the back door onto the patio. Randy salvaged his senses finally when he spotted the bible in the older man’s hand and followed them out the back door. He wedged himself between Claire and the utility room door just as she turned the lock. “Who’s this guy?” he demanded.

“Rusty Baggett,” the man said. “Claire’s pastor.” He smiled reassuringly under intense, hungry eyes, and leaned forward, offering his hand in greeting, but Randy ignored him.

“You brought a preacher?”

“That thing, Randy. It’s…”

“It’s none of his concern.” Then, to the man: “You can go.”

“No!” Claire tried to reach past Randy, but he refused to move. She straightened, indignant and determined. “Randy, I will not allow that thing…”

“You don’t have the option of allowing or denying anything.”

A coldness settled in her eyes, and she tucked her shoulder and pushed him off-balance.

The preacher caught Randy’s arm to steady him, begging, “Please, please.” Randy yanked free with such ferocity that the preacher grunted as he lost his grasp. Randy grabbed for Claire’s hand, but the door swung open to reveal Aidan, crouching inside the cage, glaring up, tense and ready. Claire gasped at the thing’s appearance, its head now fully transformed into that of a goat, curved horns short and sharp, gaunt body quivering with energy. It wagged its tongue and hissed.

“Dear God,” the preacher whispered as he faltered closer. Randy reached for him, but the action brought the preacher back to the moment, the mission. The air went out of Randy as the preacher pushed him back against the utility room’s exterior wall. Pastor Baggett raged through the open doorway, toward the cage, brandishing his bible like a weapon. “Demon of hell,” the preacher growled, “prepare to be cast into the fiery pit forever and ever!”

Aidan didn’t move, his eyes cold and black on the pudgy man.

Randy forced his way past Claire and grabbed the preacher’s shoulders from behind. The man dropped low and spun, bringing the thick bible against Randy’s head, sending him crashing into tools hanging on the wall. A spade clattered to the floor, and other tools rattled on their pegs. The preacher tossed the bible down, grabbed the spade, and reeled toward cage. The phooka’s hands lashed out, fingers latching around the preacher’s thick leg, digging into the material.

The preacher shrieked as blood darkened his pant leg. He swung the spade down at the phooka’s arms, but Aidan proved too fast, and the spade struck the cage door. The phooka toyed with the man, taunting him, slipping his hands out of the cage, only to pull back precisely as the preacher swung, the spade striking the door and lock repeatedly.

The preacher drew back to swing again, the spade poised over his shoulder, his eyes widening as the creature slipped gangly fingers around the lock and opened the door with a screak. Aidan hissed, body shifting, growing, horns lengthening, straightening, sharpening, eyes fixed on the preacher.

The preacher dropped the spade and scrambled back through the doorway, forgetting his bible, colliding with Claire who went down hard on her back. The preacher fled around the house for his car as the phooka bolted past Randy to straddle Claire’s chest. He crouched low on the woman, his long, dark tongue snaking out to lick her trembling throat.

Get it off!” she shrieked. Claire struck at the beast with both hands, but Aidan grabbed her forearms in his bony fingers and crossed her arms over her chest. He bent low again, lips brushing hers as she twisted her head from side to side. He sniffed, long and hard.

Randy…” Claire cried.

“Get off of her,” Randy demanded, but he hesitated from action, suspecting that the phooka would have already harmed his sister had that been his intention.

Claire struggled, but it dug its lanky fingers into her arms. She whimpered but continued to struggle weakly.

Aidan twisted his head around to face Randy with a sardonic grin. “She no longer bears.”

Claire’s struggling ceased as the words’ meaning grew clear and her eyes met Randy’s.

“Let her go,” Randy said softly.

Aidan hissed.

Let her go.”

Randy saw sadness soften those demonic eyes, and Aidan’s grip relaxed. The creature stepped off the woman.

Claire scrambled to her feet. “If you won’t kill it, I will,” she seethed. She started for the spade the pastor had dropped, but Randy seized her by the shoulders and forced her to face him.

“What’d you do, Claire? What?”

Her eyes shifted from Randy to the phooka, then back, before she finally turned and ran. A car door slammed, an engine roared to life, and rubber squealed. Randy stood in silence, staring after her.

Mucus rattled in the phooka’s throat. He coughed and spat. The creature remained silent until, with a sigh, it turned back toward the utility room. Randy heard the cage rattle as the door closed. He came into the room’s doorway to find Aidan sitting in the middle of the cage, his back toward the door. Randy crossed and opened the cage door.

Randy squints into the sunlight, his eyes adapting slowly, but adapting nevertheless. The soldiers who support him chatter on about the stench, the size, the heat. They marvel he’s still alive.

Randy glances around at the opening to his tomb. Its roof is indistinguishable from the rest of the desert floor. He swoons with the thought it could have been his grave, and his feet refuse to move, his legs rebelling against their weight. The two soldiers at his sides brace and carry him forward.

“It’s all right, buddy,” the one on his left says. “You’re going home.”

Each word is a trapdoor, falling shut.

“Get out,” Randy said softly.

Aidan looked around, hesitated.

Randy smiled. “Out.”

The phooka left the cage slowly, tentatively. He crossed the room once again to step onto the patio. As Randy came out, the phooka’s body lengthened. His skin changed, coating itself in feathers. His face and horns morphed into a small, sleek head and beak. Aidan’s arms and hands grew and contorted until the phooka, as the huge eagle it had become, stretched his wings into a good six-foot span.

The bird shook his body, ruffling feathers, and extended a wing to provide a step up for Randy.

Randy’s heart pounded. What about Claire? he thought.

“There will always be a Claire,” Aidan whispered. “And a preacher. Always better, always judging.” The phooka’s eyes narrowed. “You escaped the desert. Let the demon go.”

Randy bowed his head for several long moments in consideration before finally drawing a deep breath. He looked around slowly one last time and then mounted, straddling the great bird’s back. The eagle’s beak pointed skyward. Randy’s gaze followed it, face warming in the sun. Aidan stretched his wings, a little shaky at first, but steadying as the pair began to rise.

Copyright © 2012 by Angel Propps

C.S. Fuqua

Christopher S. Fuqua’s work has appeared widely in publications as diverse as Bull Spec, Slipstream, Pearl, The Year’s Best Horror Stories, Christian Science Monitor, Honolulu Magazine, Naval History, The Writer, and many others.

His published books include Alabama Musicians: Musical Heritage from the Heart of Dixie, If I Were (children’s poems), Big Daddy’s Gadgets, Trust Walk short fiction collection, Notes to My Becca, and Divorced Dads, among others. His short fiction and poetry collections have earned several “Year’s Best” honors.

He is a musician and craftsman of Native American flutes which are sold through WindPoem flutes at www.fluteflights.com. For more information about his writing, please visit his website at http://csfuqua.comxa.com.

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