~~~

Death.

Unlike life’s familiar deck of cards dealt out, each pulse played out according to the given game in question–the winning hand, or a folded one–everyone is “all in”, each life moving in accordance with the rules of the chosen game. Death does not offer an illusion of chance or choice. It is a scattered deck thrown into the air–reason abandoned, the rules… no more. All hands end the same. Winners, losers… irrelevant.

All bets are off.

“I am not dead,” says the next player, unfamiliar with this very old game. And yet, every card falls. Every card fails. No one gets to cheat it, prolong it, or avoid its inevitable conclusion.

House rules: Death always wins…

~~~

It is time.

The sun has expired over the remains of Russell’s youth. His heart has been conditioned for this moment ever since the darkness made its home there. He and the night are now one… and the night has promised to keep his secrets.

Young Russell is lying in bed. He is staring at the dust covered blades of the ceiling fan, which offers no relief from the hot summer evening. He looks around at the small bedroom. There are no toys scattered about, no posters of childhood heroes tacked to the walls, no photographs of family atop the dresser with the one broken drawer at the bottom. Beyond its functionality for sleeping, the bedroom is as void as his previous existence. The shadows roam freely, crowding every available space surrounding the invading moonlight entering in through the broken blinds of his bedroom window. The light does not reach his bed in the corner. It knows that it doesn’t belong there and wisely steers clear of the boy.

His heart is beating too fast. Russell closes his eyes and waits for all emotion to flat line.

“Are you ready, Russ?” he asks himself. The voice is not his own. It is deeper, distant, diabolical.

Russell smiles. He takes a deep breath as all fear departs. “Yes. I’m ready.”

“You know what to do, Russ. Just like we planned. Be brave. Be strong. I’ll be with you every step of the way.”

Young Russell takes comfort in the voice of his only friend. “Thank you.”

“Do you have it?” his friend asks.

Russell reaches beneath his pillow and retrieves his father’s utility knife.

“Good, Russ. Very good. Now, just remember to do it just like we practiced. Remember, if you miss the artery, it will end badly for you. They’ll stop you. They’ll send you away. They’ll send you to the crazy place and give you drugs that will keep me from speaking to you again. And we don’t want that. Right, Russ?”

“Right,” he says. “I will do it just like we practiced.”

“Good, Russ. I knew I could count on you. After you save them, everything will be better. Just wait. You’ll see.”

Russell smiles.

“But the first time is always the hardest, Russ. Just remember to keep the fear out… no matter what… and you’ll be just fine.”

“Okay,” Russell says. “Will they… will it end quickly?”

His friend hesitates before answering. “If you do it right, Russ, they will not suffer. But it will be messy. There will be blood… lots of blood. But that’s alright, Russ. The blood is a good thing… a cleansing thing. The blood will purge all the bad from them. They will bleed out all that awful, awful bad… and then they’ll go away… to the better place.”

“With the Lady?”

“Yes… with the Lady.”

After a moment Russell asks, “Do you think Mr. Patches is with the Lady?”

His friend laughs lightly. “Yes. Certainly. Mr. Patches is definitely with the Lady.”

“What about Father?”

“No. Your father is in hell, Russ. But it’s not too late for Mother.”

Russell considers this. “But what if I don’t want Mother there? What if she tries to hurt Mr. Patches?”

“The Lady will not allow it, Russ. Don’t worry.”

Russell frowns. “Mother deserves to be in hell, too.”

“Yes… she certainly does. That’s why it’s up to you to save her.”

“But what if I don’t want to save her?”

His friend sighs and says, “By saving Mother you will please the Lady, Russ. She will love you for doing this very hard thing… you’ll see.”

Russell nods. “Okay. But she still deserves to suffer. I hate her. I hate them both!” He is referring to his mother’s secret man, her lover who helped murder his father.

“Purge all emotion, Russ. Like we talked about. You must not act in anger. You must stay pure if you wish to be an instrument of salvation.”

“I know. I’m… sorry. I will do it right.”

“I’m proud of you, Russ. We’ve come a long way since they murdered Father. You’ve listened to everything I’ve said and now… you will be a real man… and the Lady will be impressed by your growth.”

Russell smiles. “When can I meet her? When can I go to the Lady?”

“You have much to do first, Russ. The Lady needs you. She needs you to stay patient and finish all the work she has planned for you.”

“What does she have planned for me?”

“There will be more to save, Russ. The world is full of pain. The Lady loves them and needs you to save as many as possible. Do you understand?”

“Yes,” Russell says reluctantly. “I think so.”

“You will understand after tonight. Just don’t forget to look into their eyes. You will see it for yourself, Russ.”

Russell nods.

“And when you’ve done all that the Lady has in store, she will greet you with open arms and love you forever.”

“Forever?”

“Yes, Russ. Are you ready?”

Russell swallows hard and forces out all emotion until the cold void steals over him.

“It’s time, Russ. After tonight we will have to leave and never look back. Others will try to hunt you down and catch you. You must not let them find you. I will help you hide from them, Russ. I will help you become shadow.”

“Shadow?”

“Yes, Russ. The Lady will hide you from the eyes of the wicked. She will reveal your destiny and you will never feel alone ever again.”

Russell wipes a tear from his eye. “You promise?”

“I promise, Russ.”

He stares at the clock. 3:15 am.

It is time.

Russell gets out of bed. He puts on black sweat pants and a black hoody. He retrieves his father’s utility knife and stops before his window, careful to avoid the light. He can feel the fear threatening like an approaching tidal wave. Russell steadies himself and takes deep breaths.

“You can do this, Russ,” his friend encourages. “Don’t let the fear win. The Lady has given you the strength to overcome all fear. You’ve been conditioned for this moment your whole life… your whole miserable existence has been preparing you for this time. You will find salvation tonight… along with Mother and the man who you are not allowed to mention. And then… you will be free!”

“Free,” Russell mutters in the darkness. The sound of the word escaping his lips feels like some exotic food from a foreign land that he is tasting for the first time, and only now discovering how much he’s missed.

After battling his emotions, young Russell expels the fear and becomes a new creation. He slides the metal forward on the utility knife, stares at the blade, and understands that he and the sharp blade are one–cold, precise, full of purpose… and lethal.

Russell forces his legs to move toward the bedroom door. He opens it and steps out into the dark hall. He stares down the hall toward his mother’s room. Before proceeding, he can hear the echoes of berating voices, like phantoms, trying to steal from his resolve, his purpose. Years of physical and mental abuse assault his mind causing him to tremble and almost drop the instrument of his calling. He tightens his grip on the utility knife and steps forward.

He reaches his mother’s door and grips the door knob as if the floor beneath him is about to disappear. His hands are sweaty, shaking. His heart is pounding in his chest. Russell knows that if he fails, they will beat him to death and bury his remains with his father… and the Lady will forsake him.

Russell turns the knob and pushes the door open.

He can see them as his eyes adjust to the ambient light. His mother and the man are sleeping together. To him, they look like monsters pretending to be human under the guise of sleep. Second thoughts invade his mind. Russell evicts all doubts spewing forth from the traitor within–his conscience. There is no right. There is no wrong. There is only deliverance for them, himself… and for so many others who need him to succeed this night.

He moves to his mother’s side of the bed. Russell watches her sleep. Her breathing is calm, still, and a lie. He knows that if she woke up now, the demon within would open its mouth and consume him.

Russell lifts the blade and moves it toward his mother’s exposed throat.

Closer… Closer…

The monster coughs abruptly from years of chain smoking.

It opens his eyes and sees him.

Russell can’t move, the blade is inches from her flesh. He can’t look away from his mother’s dark eyes.

For a moment, she says nothing. Russell’s mother stares at her son as if trying to decide if he is a dream, or perhaps an angel of death come to punish her for her sins… at last. Finally the monster speaks. “Do it,” she whispers, turning to look at the blade. “Do it, you worthless boy. For once, you’ve finally grown some balls… so just get it the fuck over with!”

The man starts to stir as Russell’s mother raises her voice. He is almost out of time.

“What are you waiting for?” she says. “I’ve done horrible things to you. I know it. I’m a terrible mother. Never wanted you in the first place. But… I don’t regret what I did to him. Killing that piece of shit father of yours was… satisfying. But this now… this feels right. I’m surprised it took you this long.”

Russell is slipping. The fear is holding him back. “This… this is… I can’t do this.” he says.

Somewhere within, he can feel his friend screaming at him like a savage animal trapped in a cage.

His mother smiles and shakes her head. “You can’t even do this one fucking thing right. You’re just as worthless as your father. All talk, no commitment! I can’t tell you how many times he threatened to kill me… but he beat me instead. And then, I finally took care of him, yes I did. And I’ll take care of you, too, you worthless piece of sh-”

Russell quickly sends the blade across his mother’s throat before the monster can utter one more word. The wound is deep, the blood… immediate.

His mother grabs at her throat as the crimson liquid gushes out between her fingers. She lets out a gurgling cry that makes Russell step back and drop the blade. He wants to run but forces himself to finish. He looks into her eyes. He has to know. He must bear witness.

Russell’s mother looks at him. He can see her terror… but then… it fades. In its place, he beholds something wonderful as the light disappears behind her eyes. The monster is gone. The fear is gone. His mother is… free!

After a few more strangled sounds, Russell’s mother stops moving, her eyes locked in on her son… looking beyond him to the place where only the Lady awaits.

Salvation!

Russell begins to weep.

“What the fuck!” The man who must not be mentioned wakes as the warm blood has reached his side of the bed. He stares at the dark liquid all over his hands, then, at Russell’s dead mother. He is shocked, confused, and then he discovers Russell. “What… what have you done?”

Russell cannot hear him. He is still staring into his mother’s dead eyes. A new sense of peace has overwhelmed him. He has slain the monster and saved his mother… and himself.

The man gets out of bed. He is still naked from fucking his dead father’s wife. He is reaching for anything he can use as a weapon. “You little fucking bastard!” he shouts. “I told her! I told her you were fucked up!” The man grabs a large cerermic ashtray from the nightstand. He moves clumsily in the dark around the foot of the bed toward Russell. “Fucking sick!” he shouts. “You’re fucking dead!” He raises the ashtray over Russell’s head.

Russell turns away from his mother long enough to see the big man. He reacts with no fear. He is one with everything occurring in that moment. He has evolved beyond the moment and is in complete control.

As the man brings down the ashtray, Russell steps back as the man misses and strikes a lamp instead.

Russell is quick. He makes a fist and punches the man in the balls… hard.

The man falls to his knees, crying out in agony.

Russell moves behind him and locates the utility knife on the floor next to the man’s feet. He reaches down and picks it up.

“You… you piece of… you’re so dead!” the man spits, starting to rise.

Russell doesn’t hesitate. He takes the blade and slices at the man’s exposed ankles, cutting the Achilles tendon on both feet.

The man collapses to the floor and screams. He manages to turn on his back as young Russell stands over him with the bloody blade still in his hand. “Wait… please! You win! I’ll stop! Just… please…”

He is standing before the window as a hint of moonlight illuminates half of Russell’s face.

The man can’t see his eyes, but he can see that Russell is smiling.

“What’s your name?” Russell asks.

The man is terrified and in so much pain that he has wet himself. He is confused by the question.

“Your name, asshole. What is it?”

“Reg… Reggie,” the man finally says.

And there it is. The nameless man who held so much sway in the destructive influence over his mother, the man who helped push her into killing Russell’s father, lay like a wounded animal, stripped of all power now that the monster’s name was revealed.

“Reggie,” Russell says, adding a demeaning emphasis to such a simple, puny name. “Reggie. Reggie. REGGIE! There, I said it!” The man has become so much smaller in Russell’s eyes.

“Please… just let me go. I won’t tell. Please…” The man is weeping.

Russell savors the moment. Reggie reeks of fear.

Russell is fearless.

He is just like the blade. No… he is the blade.

From Russell’s mouth, his friend speaks. “You did it, Russ! You’ve won!”

“Yes, I’ve won.”

“Look at that piece of shit, Russ,” his friend says. “Look at how powerful the Lady has made you! He’s not the master of this house any longer… you are!”

“I am,” Russell says.

“The Lady is so proud of you, Russ. Now… finish the work.”

Russell looks at the bloody blade.

Reggie stares at the crazy child. He knows his life is over. He puts his head in his hands and starts to pray through tears.

“Pathetic, isn’t it, Russ? The fear has revealed the true man behind the monster. The fear has reduced him to his true size.”

“Yes,” Russell says. “Pathetic.”

His friend laughs and finished, “He is not the boss of this house anymore, Russ. You are.”

Russell smiles. “I am… I am the boss.”

“You sure are, boss,” his friend says. “Now… put this worthless creature out of its misery and come see all that the Lady has in store for you.”

“I would like that,” Russell says. “He moves in to cut Reggie’s throat.

“Wait, boss,” his friend says.

Russell hesitates.

“Not so fast this time, boss. You can enjoy saving this one. Take your time. Make him feel it. Make him feel… EVERYTHING!”

Russell nods in the darkness.

Reggie screams for a long, long time before young Russell watches the life leave his eyes…

~~~

“I am not dead,” says the next player, unfamiliar with this very old game. And yet, every card falls. Every card fails. No one gets to cheat it, prolong it, or avoid its inevitable conclusion.

House rules: Death always wins.

WELCOME TO YOUR HIDDEN PAIN.
WE’VE KEPT A SEAT AT THE TABLE WAITING FOR YOU.

“So… what you’re saying is that I fell off the cliff… and died?”

WELCOME TO HELL…

~~~

Next Episode 37-14

Previous Episode 37-12

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 37-13: Through the Eyes of a Devil” Copyright © 2017 Scott Scherr, from the novel, Don’t Feed The Dark, Book Four: Phantoms. All Rights Reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission by the author.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

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