By Geoff Gander
I’m on the roof. I hear sirens. The statuette weighs heavily in my hands, burning hot and cold. It looks fatter, now. I should hurl the damned thing. Six floors should be high enough.
I stagger at the edge as it suddenly throbs in my grip. It’s too heavy to toss. I should step off the roof with it. No more blood.
He does not need blood. Just life. Any life.
I should have listened to Sara.
* * *
We were at a yard sale and the allure of poking through other people’s crap had worn off. Sara had an evening shift and I was steeling myself for another night of staring at a blank canvas, when I saw the statuette. It was a foot tall, black and shiny, and reminded me of a knotty tree trunk, twisted and sprouting gnarled limbs. I ran my fingertips over its scaly surface, oily like soapstone. Knotholes staring at me like eyes dotted its surface. I nearly dropped it when I pricked my thumb on one of the toothy mouths.
“Just take it,” said a gaunt girl with short, spiky black hair. Despite the heat of the day she wore a flannel shirt.
I sucked my thumb. A bead of blood quivered on one of the statuette’s teeth. “You sure?” I asked.
The girl waved dismissively. Her sleeve fell back, revealing a wrist covered with raised white lines. “Yeah,” she murmured and yanked her cuff down. “It was my brother’s.”
I nodded in thanks. I was painting a book cover for a small horror press and needed a muse. As we walked away Sara glanced at the statuette. She shivered and her lip curled. “Why did you take that thing, Matt? It’s so ugly.”
“Look at the lines, the scales, the way the eyes seem to follow you,” I said. “If I can capture that on canvas, I’m sure it’ll sell.”
Sara’s mouth was a taut line. I hadn’t made a sale in over three months. “Whatever. At least you didn’t waste our money on it.”
I stepped into my studio with my prize after we got home. Our apartment had two bedrooms, and I had turned the smaller one into my personal world. I shut the door, drew the curtains, and inhaled the scents of oil paint, varnish, and thinner. I was home.
I rummaged through boxes of art supplies and placed a fresh canvas on the easel. Sara never understood how I could always find what I needed. I set the statuette on a paint-splattered stool, and, after adjusting the lamps, studied its form. Once it was burned into my mind I sketched it from several angles. I don’t know how long I worked—I never do, when I’m in the zone—but I knew when I had the angle I wanted. Every twist in the thing’s branch-like tentacles conveyed a deadly fluidity. I made its eyes gleam with cunning malevolence, and I gave its mouths an even hungrier look. I pinned the final sketch to the canvas and glanced at the clock—one in the morning. I dragged myself to bed.
* * *
I was alone in a steamy jungle, gasping for breath in the stifling air. A well-worn trail lay before me, and I felt an urge to follow it. I forced my way past clinging vines and stepped over pasty white roots that snaked across my path. Harsh chirping and squawking overhead grated on my ears. The ground soon sloped down to a brackish swamp that reeked of rotten eggs. I stepped in, shivering with revulsion as I sank to my thighs in the mire. The air around me rippled in the fumes and I yanked myself back, fighting the urge to gag, but whatever drew me here maintained its grip. Something sinuous and scaly brushed my legs and pinched me and I rushed onward as a hot, prickling sensation crept upwards, growing more intense by the second. I gritted my teeth and stepped up the pace, sighing with relief when I climbed out the other side. My legs were unmarked.
I faced an open plain under a searing, white sun. The trail picked up again, and I passed expanses of crumbling grey grasses smelling of ash. Dusty soil crunched underfoot and stalks snapped. I peeled my sweat-soaked shirt away from my body and trudged onwards.
A cool breeze brought the loamy smell of damp earth after a rainfall. I dashed with newfound energy and came before a great, smooth-walled circular hole in the ground. A hot draft wafted from deep below. A tingle of excitement, mixed with relief, ran up—
* * *
“4:15” glowed red in the darkness as I blinked away sleep. I was in my studio, preparing my paint with my palette knife; I didn’t remember getting up. I dipped my brush onto the palette and made a stroke of dark green across the shining white of the canvas. I closed my eyes. I saw the jungle bordered by the fetid swamp, then the plains, and finally the pit. I was there again, running my hands through the damp, lush foliage, smelling moist earth mixed with the mustiness of rotting vegetation. The air was thick and sweet. My body pulsed in tune with something throbbing deep within the earth. I blinked.
The vine-choked path lay invitingly before me on the canvas. Icy needles prickled the back of my head as I followed the trail with my eyes, under rotting boughs and into the swamp, whose black waters reflected pale sunlight. I grinned at the sheer pleasure of losing myself in the zone. It was better than any drug I’d had. Bright sunlight streamed through the curtains and made the wall clock gleam. A quarter to eight.
A low moan from the bedroom broke through my reverie. Sara was writhing in bed, her face twisted into an expression of pain. “Hot,” she murmured. I shook her gently. She mumbled incoherently. I shook a little harder and she flopped on her side, her eyes still closed. “Let… go.”
I released her and waited. She seemed to fall even deeper into sleep. “Let… no!” She wrenched herself away, clawing and slapping at some unseen opponent. Sara moaned and her eyes popped open. I called out to her gently and held her close until her shuddering subsided.
Sara ran a shaking hand through her hair. “I was lost in a jungle, then there was a swamp…a pit. Oh, God, I…I saw your statue.”
“It was just a dream. You’re fine now.”
Sara drew back and glared. “I don’t care. Get rid of it.”
My chest tightened at the thought of never being in the zone with my treasure again. “How about I keep it out of sight?”
“No, Matt. It goes, or I go.”
As much as I loved my work, I loved Sara more. That afternoon, while cleaning my studio, my eyes settled on the statuette. It was still on the stool where I’d left it. Memories of that frenzied painting session, and Sara’s nightmare, flooded back. I carried it over to the garbage can. Just before tossing it in, sweet incense tickled my nose. It wasn’t like any of the stuff that Sara burned, and our neighbours weren’t into that sort of thing. A warm pulse ran through my hand, and a soothing wave of calm washed over me. I looked at the unfinished painting. Just one more night.
I hid the statuette behind the TV and lay down for a nap.
* * *
After several restless hours, I gave up on sleep and went to my studio. As soon as my brush hit the canvas I was there—diffused light shone through hazy clouds, and the parched grey plain stretched behind me. I stood on a stone ledge that projected over the lip of the pit. It had carved stone railings, and a shallow groove on each side, but the front was open to the void below. Smooth, moist walls stretched down into blackness.
A whimpering moan sounded behind me. I turned and saw the first struggling form that had been brought for today. She would do. My knife hung from my belt, its jewelled scabbard glittering dully in the sunlight. I grasped the smooth, leather-wrapped hilt.
Everything went white.
* * *
Sara, her green eyes blazing, stood before me. “I waited at the restaurant for 45 minutes with Scott and Tanya while you were fucking around with your painting! What the hell were you doing?”
Restaurant? My mind raced, then it came back to me: We’d planned a double date. I looked at the clock. 9:30 p.m. Shit. “I’ll call them and apologize” I said, reaching for her shoulder. “It’s just that I’ve got a real—”
Sara spun away. “I don’t want to hear your excuses. You made me look like an idiot.” She slammed the door on her way out.
I would make it up to our friends, but first I had to get out of the doghouse. I turned to the canvas, fists balled, ready to hurl it across the room. The path I’d painted now led to a circular pit. A tiny ledge projected over its edge, where a tiny figure was forcing another to kneel. Sunlight glinted off of a blade in mid-swing, aimed at the kneeling figure’s throat.
I fled the studio. I grabbed a hammer from our toolbox and pulled the statuette from its hiding place, shuddering at its greasy texture, and placed it on the kitchen counter. I fumbled to keep my grip on the hammer, and rubbed my eyes. When my vision cleared I studied the thing again. It seemed to have more eyes than before, and its mouths seemed to be opened wider. I was just overtired. That was it.
I brought the hammer down with all my strength. At the last second something nudged my wrist, and it pounded the counter. I flexed my tingling fingers and swung again. An explosion of agony erupted in my thumb and shot up my arm. I bandaged my wound and sat on the couch, cursing, as far as possible from the kitchen. That damned thing had to go. Then the thought came to me.
I prodded the statuette into a plastic bag with my hammer and carried it outside. There’s a dumpster at the end of my street, behind a Chinese restaurant. It was garbage night, and it would be hauled away tomorrow morning. The bag grew heavier with each step. I expected the statuette to tear through the flimsy plastic any second, but it swung freely. After I had walked half the distance I was gritting my teeth and moving at a shuffling pace. I glared at the thing in the bag. One of its eyes seemed to glare back.
By the time I reached the dumpster I was gasping. My back ached and my joints burned as I swung the bag back and forth to build enough momentum to toss it in. I released. The bag flew over the side of the dumpster and clunked inside. Soothing coolness coursed through my body. I stumbled home and crawled into bed.
* * *
I woke the next morning to throbbing joints, a parched throat, and someone joyously pounding a drum inside my skull. I fumbled in the dresser drawers for some painkillers, cursing. I popped four.
Sara padded into the bedroom, dressed for work. “I slept better. Thanks for getting rid of it. Remember I’ve got class after my shift, so I won’t see you until late tonight.” She kissed me on the forehead and left.
I felt so crappy that work was out of the question. I headed to the Java Pit to lounge about with something caffeinated until I felt inspired again. The muted jazz music, which normally lifted my spirits, pounded my eardrums. The heady scent of cocoa burned my nostrils. Marie, my usual barista, was waiting at the counter, bright and cheerful as always.
“Hey Matt, your usual?” The jingling of her silver bracelets made my skin crawl.
I nodded, focused on keeping my breathing and nerves steady. As she mixed my latté, she glanced at me, worry creeping across her brow. “You look really worn out. Are you okay?”
“Just give me my damned coffee.” I didn’t realize what I’d said until the hurt expression crossed her face. She slid the cup towards me, frowning, and I dropped my money on the counter, snatched my drink, and left.
I wandered the neighbourhood, unable to sit and relax anywhere. My clothes grated like sandpaper and my skin itched. I felt bad about how I’d acted, but the thought of going back to apologise and being around other people set my teeth on edge.
I gulped my latté. Why the hell hasn’t my headache gone away? I shivered and rubbed my arms, even though it was mid-July, and I felt like someone was driving an ice-pick through my skull. I ran off and turned onto my street. A garbage truck inched towards the dumpster that contained the statuette. My stomach clenched in fear and I bit back a rising tide of bile.
I sprinted to the dumpster and scrambled up the side, ignoring the shouts of the truck driver. The statuette hadn’t been buried by tons of other trash. I reached in and it seemed to leap into my hand, and I strolled back to the apartment. Once my door was locked, I ran my fingers gently over the rough, cool surface of the statuette and let out a long, ragged sigh. My headache had vanished, and I shuddered with relief. A newfound energy coursed through my body. The painting would be completed. Today.
* * *
I stood on the ledge, breathing the heady scents from the incense burner one of my acolytes tended. The others knelt around the rim of the pit, whispering prayers. I had to be still until the prescribed time, so that He would be pleased.
A long, slow throb pulsed upwards from the pit, through the soles of my feet and up my spine. The chanting acolytes faltered. I glared at them until they resumed. My attendant called to me in a low voice. The hunters had brought the last Gift. She had been battered, but was alive and intact. That was all that mattered.
She came forward willingly. I paused, staring. Normally they had to be dragged, screaming and fighting, to the platform. I met her infuriated gaze—emerald eyes, so strange and yet so familiar—and stroked the hilt of my knife. The woman stepped forward and screamed at me in her own language.
Her words were alien, yet I grasped the meaning. Betrayal, deceit, selfishness—I had committed these acts, and in that moment I felt a deep shame. And all for artistic pride and ambition, said a voice in my head. I frowned. I had never been a mere artist.
I shoved those thoughts aside and grabbed the woman’s wrist while drawing my knife. She twisted her arm out of my grip and punched me in the stomach. I gasped for air and waved an acolyte away. No one could intervene.
Another deep throb ran up my spine, and my limbs tingled warmly with newfound strength. He was pleased. It had to be now. I jabbed as she swung at me again. A spurt of red. A grunt of pain. She fell face-down onto the platform. A thin rivulet of blood ran down one of the grooves and trickled over the edge. A hand grabbed at the hem of my robe. I stabbed. The red trickle became a stream.
A rush of hot, dank air rose from below, buffeting me like a gale, followed by a rumbling that grew louder with each passing second. The acolytes shouted in panic and fled. I raised the effigy that hung around my neck, shouting His name.
The rumbling became a roar as He thundered up from the depths in all His glory. I fell to my knees. He turned an eye towards me, so large that I was dwarfed by its pupil. A black pulsating tendril coiled around me, warm and damp. I rejoiced as I struggled for breath. It squeezed tighter. My ribs cracked.
Everything went white.
I was in my studio, standing over Sara’s prone form. Two crimson rivulets ran out from her and met in an expanding pool.
I fell to my knees. Called her name. No response. I fought for breath and touched her. Still warm. Breathing.
I dialled 911. I answered the dispatcher’s questions mechanically. “Is the attacker nearby?” he asked.
He repeated the question. I saw my bloodied palette knife on the floor. I looked at my hands. I looked at the painting.
* * *
They’re coming up the stairs. In a minute or two, the decision will be taken from me. The statuette leers at me with its many eyes, contented and fatter than ever.
My painting must be burned. That’s the only way this will end, for good—the last thing tying Him here, to me. It needs to be done quickly. No one must look at the top. At Him. There, on the edge of a pit, is a man with my face stabbing Sara. And there, rising from the pit, is what drove me here, to the end.
The statuette captured the palest shadow of His true form, which I have rendered faithfully in my best—and last—work.
Six floors isn’t so far to fall.
* * *
Geoff Gander’s short fiction has been published by AE SciFi, Exile Editions, EDGE Publishing, and others. One of his horror pieces, “White Noise”, was recently made into a short film that he thinks is really quite cool. He also freelances for Fat Goblin Games and Sentinel Hill Press, where he writes fantasy- and horror-themed gaming goodness. When he isn’t writing or working a day job, Geoff likes to read, explore abandoned buildings, and play roleplaying games. Geoff lives in South Mountain with a lovely stone-carving, bagpipe-playing witch, and her many cats.