by Corey Walker
Despite what they are and despite what they do, they only do it because they love you.
|“It’s sunset, Bill. Better get your kids together,” said Mr. Usher as he shoveled another clump of dirt onto the back of his wagon. He’ll shovel about two more loads before wiping his brow and sit in one of his old rockers with an unlit cigarette resting on his lower lip.
Bill looked up from his own pile of dirt, shovel in hand, and said, “Already?”
Mr. Usher lit up his cancer stick. “Yup.” He took a long drag on his cigarette and blew out unfiltered smoke in the air. He watched it dance in the burning, orange sky like a blue ghost, and then it disappeared.
Bill penetrated the dirt with his shovel and let it rest there. His gaze was fixed on the horizon; the sun looked like a giant orange being sucked into the ground where he was standing. He wiped his hands across his white shirt and pants and placed them in his pockets, his lips were a thin line pasted on his face.
“Yup,” Mr. Usher said, pointing a thick, dirt-crumbled finger in the direction Bill was staring. “I’ll give ‘em …oh… twenty, thirty minutes at most before they show up.” He coughed and spit up something green, or maybe yellow, onto the ground.
Bill’s heart started to shutter, almost as if electricity was circuiting through his chest. He took a deep breath and that seemed to calm it, but not much.
“Does everyone else know?” He was still staring blindly at the horizon. They’re coming, he thought, Jesus they’re coming. Who’ll they take next? Me? My kids? My mother? One of my neighbors? Jesus.
Mr. Usher took another puff before answering. His eyes were fogged by tears from his coughing spells. “Oh, I’m sure they know.” Despite Bill’s back to him, he smiled; yellow teeth and all gleaming in the light. “This isn’t something people around here forget ya know. Although…” Another long drag. “I sure as hell wish we could.”
Bill turned to him then, his dark eyes blazing like the sun. “Why can’t we just leave?”
Mr. Ushers smile faded from his face and his eyebrows arched. “Now, Bill, you know as well as I do we can’t do that. It’s…its suicide.”
“We don’t need them!”
“Yes we do, Bill!” His face was stone, but his eyes were shaking as if an earthquake was alive in his head. “Despite what they are, despite what they do…we need them.”
Bill turned around again, running his long fingers through his dark hair. “It can be any one of us, Randy. It could be my son, or my daughter. Christ! What are we going to do?”
Mr. Usher looked down at the ground. Nothing but dirt rested in their town. No grass and dead trees. But they were still alive. And as long as this ritual continued, despite a lost life, the rest would live on. At least until next time. At least until next year, when it all happens again.
Mr. Usher pitched his butt in the dirt and got up, brushing off his overalls and combing through his grisly, gray beard. “I’m going inside until it’s time. You should go home to your kids, Bill. Spend what little time you got left before they get here.” He watched Bill another moment, studying him as he glared at the sky, watching.
“You know they only do this because they love us, Bill. Why else would they take one and let the rest live. They only do this because they love us.” Bill didn’t answer. He didn’t even look back. Mr. Usher let out a soft sigh and opened the big, wooden door to his shack and stepped inside without another word.
Bill did what Mr. Usher said, but very reluctantly. Not because he didn’t want to see his kids, but because there was nothing to be done about the situation at hand. Running away was a foolish option. Sure their town was like a dust bowl, but outside of it were miles of emptiness. A brown, endless wasteland with no life, plant or animal, to be seen; yet their town survived, thanks to the ones who were coming to take a life as a bargain.
Bill played with his children while he could. His striking son, Charlie, and his beautiful daughter, Karole, were his everything in this place of nothing. He tickled them both, just like he always did, and played tag, just like they used to do when their mother was around. And when the kids got tired, they laid across the carpet in each other’s arms, breathing hard, and giggling against their father’s shoulders. He told them he loved them, and they said it right back to him. They knew about the ritual and what it meant, but they didn’t show anxiety or sorrow. They knew the risk, but they didn’t care. This was there moment to be together. Their moment to truly live in an already dead world.
The sun had half descended into the earth when they came. The townspeople were outside; all of them were staring at the dark figures flying across the horizon toward the town. Bill was there with his two children who were pressing against his legs, one on each side, along with his mother. Mr. Usher was there, too, lighting up another smoke. There were about sixty people living in the town, so the odds of getting picked were extremely high. When Charlie and Karole were born, there were a little over two-hundred and sixty people. Eight years have passed and that number has dwindled immensely. Only Mr. Usher knew how many people had lived here during the towns starting days, but Bill didn’t care to know the statistics on that.
They all stood on the dirt-coated ground, watching the sky that many of the people considered it looked like it was on fire. The figures grew closer, and Bill’s children gripped harder on his legs, his mother gripped Bill’s hand tighter as well.
Mr. Usher let out a booming cough that made several people jump on their heels and look around wide-eyed. He spit out another round of slime and continued smoking.
Karole stared at the dark figures until they landed on the dried up soil, one by one, they had arrived. Gusts of dirt flew into the air and stung Charlie’s eyes. Another cloud of dirt collided into Bill’s eyes, but he didn’t notice. His vision was fixed on the beings responsible for the town’s never-ending terror. “They’re here, daddy,” Karole whispered and snuggled closer to Bill.
Bill could never forget the first time he saw the creatures, but even now as they stood at the entrance of the town, dark silhouettes standing in front of the fiery sky; it was like a newly awakened nightmare. Bill’s forehead was drenched in sweat, and he could feel it surfing down his arms and legs. Monsters, he thought, every last fucking one of them. And yet, like Randy said, despite what they do, they’re the ones keeping us alive, with one exception. That’s what made them monsters. In order to keep the ground pure for vegetation during the season, there had to be payment. Sacrificing one human being for the rest; which one will it be? They only do this because they love us.
The biggest of them stepped forward, with a former townsperson by its side. The twig-shaped man’s name was, Henry Lowe; a former shopkeeper who sold medicine and herbs. He crossed over to their side several years ago, acting as their translator, their pet. In Bill’s eyes, along with many others, he was a traitor and a coward. Selling his soul to them, so that he can live, and watch his fellow friends and patients die.
His masters moved in closer towards the mob of people. Bill always remembered their last appearance, but each time was like the first. He always noticed their size as they towered over each individual. Their beaks were curved at the tip like some sort of hook used for torture. Feathers, beads, and necklaces made from small animal skulls flurried along their faces and necks, with wings that wrapped around their bodies like cloaks. Talons nestled out from under them like bear traps, tapping holes in the ground as if waiting impatiently for the kill. But the worst was their eyes. They watched each townsperson with those eyes, resembling oversized, yellow light bulbs. They flickered from one person to the next. Bill wondered if they could see into his soul, and imagined them using their claw-like talons to rip his chest open.
“Here we are again, old chaps,” Henry said in a cheery tone. Bill would’ve given anything to get his hands on him at that moment. Sonofabitch, he thought. How could you be so happy offering your kind to these… demons. “As you all know, every year the Nightscalps demand a member of your town for sacrifice in order to keep this little area pure for your survival. But mostly for protection.” He looked thoughtfully at the eyes of each townsperson and continued. “So, as required, each person must drink from the cup in order to determine who is chosen.” He clapped his hands together and spread them apart; arms outstretched. “So, without any delay, let’s get started with the first name.”
One by one the people lined up to see who will be chosen. The first was Adam Bides, the young cook of the town. He stared into the bright, sun-colored eyes of the Nightscalp leader. The creature lifted its massive wings in the air, covering the sky like a bloated plane and opened its razor beak. There was a low sound of humming coming from the creature’s throat, and blood poured from its mouth into a small, silver bowl like a fountain. Adam made a reluctant face and lifted the bowl up to his mouth. He took one mouthful and swallowed. The Nightscalp looked him over; its eyes flickered. He wasn’t the one.
“Next,” shouted Henry the Backstabber. And another stepped in front of the creature. Then another. And another.
It was Bill’s turn next. Charlie and Karole let go of their dad’s legs. Karole choked out a sob. His mother did the same; her face was an expression of pain, as if he had already been chosen. Charlie, however, watched his father with pride. His eyes blazed just like his dad’s. Like fire burning in the ocean. He had never seen a real ocean before. They were like bedtime stories and fairy-tales to him.
Bill stepped up so that he was staring eye to eye with the Nightscalp. It regurgitated more blood into the bowl and Bill lifted it up to his nose. He closed his eyes and let the warm, smelly liquid slide down his dry throat. After he had swallowed, he looked back into the eyes of the Nightscalp. Its large eyes flickered once.
“Next,” Henry said, and Bill moved forward.
Next was Bill’s mother, and he was relieved to see she wasn’t the one either. Then Karole stepped up to the monster. Bill’s chest tightened when his daughter swallowed her mouthful, but it was loosened when she was also not the one.
Then Charlie walked up to the Nightscalp. Bill watched his son take the bowl, lift his head back as he swallowed the foul liquid, and stared back into the eyes of the beast. Then, what happened next made Bill’s heart explode in pain and denial. The Nightscalp’s eyes turned crimson red, and its beak oozed blood and saliva. An ear-shattering screech erupted from the beast as it arched its neck like a viper ready to strike.
“No!” shouted Bill. “No! Not my boy! Not my son!”
“Looks like we have our sacrifice,” said Henry, smiling.
The Nightscalps formed a circle around Charlie; all of them drooling blood and hissing, their eyes red. Charlie tried to find a way out, but they had him tightly cornered. They moved in, wings spread in a barrier, their talons dragged across the dirt like sharpened rakes.
“No!” Bill dashed head first into one of the Nightscalps. “You can’t have him! Take me, take me!”
One of the Nightscalps swiped its claw into Charlie’s stomach, ripping through his clothing, but leaving his skin unscathed. Charlie scrambled towards his father, but before he could, the creature screeched and dug its talons into his back, pinning him to the ground and pecking viciously at the back of Charlie’s head.
“Get away from him!” Bill shouted. He struck the creature with his fist; a sharp popping sound erupted from the impact of his knuckles to the Nightscalp’s beak, and lifted Charlie to his feet. Another Nightscalp blocked their escape, and Bill pulled out his hunting knife, a six-inch blade ready to strike in his hand.
“They only do this because they love you!” Henry shouted with his arms still outstretched. “They only do this because they love you, Bill!”
“Bullshit!” Bill screamed.
The Nightscalp flung itself towards Bill, its beak ready to pierce his gut. Bill stepped to the side in one swift movement, and before the creature had a moment to withdraw, Bill planted the blade through the Nightscalp’s skull with a crunching--Klamp!--sound. To Bill, it sounded like stabbing through a watermelon. The beast’s neck muscles constricted and its body fell to the ground with its talons kicking at the air; it’s muscles twitched with the blade still resting in its feathered head.
“Run, Charlie! Go, get out!”
Charlie ran as quickly as he could. His back was bleeding, but he didn’t care, he had escaped. He looked back at his dad from around one of the houses, and screamed.
Bill looked into the burning red eyes of the leader of the Nightscalps. Its talons scratched across the surface of the earth, and its black feathers flared in anger. Something in its throat made a noise, and a long guttering echo came from its mouth in some unknown language.
Henry stepped forward; his eyes were full of sorrow. “Mr. Dunnings, what have you done?” His smile reappeared on his thin face. “As you may have guessed, disrupting the ritual means that you have to take the chosen individual’s place.”
“I’ll do it,” Bill snapped. “My life over my boy’s.”
“How noble and… very foolish.” Henry’s smile grew bigger across his face. “Next year the boy will be killed. He has already been chosen. It doesn’t matter if you take his place. Next year they’ll come straight to him. He has no escape.”
“I’ll do it.” Bill looked up at the Nightscalp, not seeming to have heard Henry at all. “Take me. Not my son.”
The Nightscalp drew its wings from its body, its head lowered like a snake. Bill closed his eyes, filling his head with fountains of memories. He thought of his children, his mother, and all the people he had known in this town. Sure, his boy would hate him a long time for doing this, but it had to be done. He had to take the responsibility. Not Charlie, not his boy.
Henry stared at the monster as it prepared to attack. “Remember, Bill, they only do this because they love you.”
The Nightscalp made another hissing sound and struck its beak into Bill’s head, crushing his skull and ripping open the top of his head. Charlie watched from the house, watched his dad’s brains bubble out of his ears in pinkish foam. The rest of Nightscalps followed. Striking his limbs and torso, ripping him apart like an ant; blood rolled across the dirt like a river of strawberry juice. Everyone watched the sacrifice, even the screaming mother, even Mr. Usher as he held onto Karole who was staining his shirt with tears and snot, and even Charlie, whose eyes blazed with fire and hatred, as he watched the Nightscalps rip his dad apart.
It happens every year. A sacrifice must be made, so that the rest of the townspeople may live. For protection, for fertility of the ground. Charlie knew this, so did the townspeople. He was next in line. He thought of this as he watched the Nightscalps fly across the darkened sky back to wherever they came from. He thought of this while he stroked the side of the knife he pulled out of the dead Nightscalp his dad used to save him. He thought of his sister and his grandmother. He had to stop it. He kissed the blade and looked across the horizon. Despite what they do, despite what they are, he knew it was true. They only do this because they love us. And he had to end it.