The Ritual of Rats, Bats, and Three-Eyed Cats
There stood the priest.
With him was Adam.
Both clung to a dripping crucifix.
I screamed, "God damn!"
A dart pierced the back of my neck.
Things turned black.
There stood those vile creatures.
Mutants with the stink of Parmesan.
Rodents with the legs of frogs.
Dogs with sucker-cup tentacles.
I closed my eyes and whispered, "Where is my sun?"
They sang and shrieked.
They shook their bodies to wicked beats.
I turned and ran.
They ran me down.
In their grasp, I tried in vain.
They gutted me like I was a pedophile clown.
Days later, here I am.
Immortal, still, between concrete walls soaked with fear.
Along with another stupid painting.
Cynical Sentiments and Sacred Centipedes
"We have failed, gentlemen." Adam's voice contained a dark rasp that I'd never noticed before.
I shuddered violently as I looked above my head only to realize I was staring at the cathedral's white marble floor. I was hanging upside-down, hog-tied from the ceiling by a black nylon rope. My head was heavy with blood. Every breath was a chore.
Dressed in the priest's finest vestments, Adam stepped behind the altar and rose his hands as high as his arms would extend. His fingers uncurled one by one from the fists they had made until each hand was open as wide as he could make them.
"Man does not deserve our faith," he said. "It is hopelessly infected. Only one option remains. Let's begin."
Adam began to chant a nasally hymn as his congregation pounded a primal rhythm against the wooden pews.
A line soon formed in the center aisle. I couldn't believe what I was seeing. In fact, I'd have laughed if my personal circumstances had been a little more to my liking.
Old white men in rabbit costumes strolled with military precision toward the altar. (I imagine Hugh Hefner has nightmares about this sort of thing.) Upon reaching that pretentious slab of marble, each one emptied the contents of a black bag into an over-sized golden chalice.
When the last of the giant bunny men had returned to his pew, Adam clapped his hands three times. A little girl—Chloe!—appeared from underneath the altar and gave Adam a vial of pink liquid.
"And so it is," he said. He drizzled the pink stuff into the chalice, picked up Chloe, and stirred the contents with one of her bare legs. She screamed, bit one of his hands, and escaped to somewhere in the back of the church. Adam didn't react other than to shrug his shoulders.
The bunny men began pounding out a new rhythm as Adam picked up the chalice and started in my direction.
As he approached, I smelled a mixture of dirt, honey, and paint thinner. And I soon glimpsed what he was bringing.
Adam kneeled beside me while placing the chalice directly under my head.
I've never liked crawly things. In fact, I'd rather wipe Mr. Hefner's wrinkly ass than allow even a ladybug within ten feet of me.
The chalice practically overflowed with orange centipedes. Hundreds of them. Maybe more. They had pinchers.
I writhed and begged for mercy. My heart raced as sweat dripped into the cup of menacing invertebrates, which only seemed to make them more active.
Adam placed his right hand against my chest and said, "Thank you."
Then he lifted the chalice of centipedes to my lips.
I'm struggling to remember what happened next. It's crucial that I do. Something awful went down. And not just within my bowels. I'm sure of it.
I used to hate nightmares. Now I'd be lucky to have them.
I'm affected by something worse. Much worse. I'm a pawn. That I know.
As my memories begin to return, I'm realizing just how screwed I am. Maybe you too.
I was able to capture just a small taste of what I must have encountered in my latest blackout.
They must have planted my recorder on me before tying me up and filling me full of centipedes. They obviously want proof of something.
It sounds like a ritualistic killing. Am I crazy?
the mind will play.
All that's passed,
it churns and churns.
Their's to keep,
or mine to slay?
These words. Hardly recognized as words. Repeated to pass the time.
Gibberish now. Like this life. Who can follow?
Six old men in bunny suits found dead in the church basement. A detective named Studefrummtice arrives. A lonely man, frozen and silent and unresponsive, goes to jail. A man lost. A man away.
Hours? Feels like more. Why'd he let me go?
The priest knows.
Hallowed Be Thy Quackery
I've been trying to sleep this crap off. Also getting back to normal duties. Kind of. First time I've felt free in months. Even if all I can do is go upstairs.
But there have been no services. The church remains closed. So I just polish and re-polish all of the glorified mannequins the old people like to come and pray to. I miss the parishioners' wrinkled looks of disapproval as well as the odd funk of burned tuna casserole they carry with them.
Truth is, I could go for some home cooking. Even bland, beige slop from someone's demented grandma would be OK.
Meanwhile, the priest stays hidden in his chambers. Door locked. Lights out. Except for a few hours the other day.
That's when I overheard the following conversation between him and a crazy lady. Someone he finds important.
"Thank you for coming on such short notice, Doctor," the priest said. "I hope I didn't scare you."
"Dear boy, God, no. Hun, I've seen just about everything. You could unzip your pants, show me your three dragon testicles, and I wouldn't bat a lash."
"Never dull, are you?"
"Dull is for the lifeless, Sugar. And for the Church."
"I don't know about that."
"Yeah, you do. Gotta find God outside the trappings, you know? Anyway, why am I here?"
"I've got someone for you to help. He's taken with darkness. I'm out of other options. He'll ruin everything."
"Wouldn't be so bad, Darling. Everything's already ruined. Gloriously ruined. And the better for it. But I'll just pretend you don't understand that yet."
"He's too important. But he's attached. So, so attached."
"Don't you worry, Hun. I'll yank those devils right out of that boy's skull. Leave me to it."
The crazy lady didn't answer.
Dr. Buttercup and the Coughing Creepers
Her voice echoed throughout the basement. It hit me softly, but it also made me squirm.
"Joy to the world, dear boy. Are you ready for your checkup?"
Her voice got louder as she approached.
"Peace be with you, Doll. Call me Buttercup."
I retreated to the closet door, although I knew that the other place would offer nothing better.
"I'm going to have to ask you to take off your pants," she said, "as well as the ones you're wearing underneath them."
She spoke with nasally charm and warm authority. "I bet you like those tighty whities. I sure do."
I turned the door's handle.
"I'll only bite a little. Promise. A few little nibbles along the right thigh."
I opened the door a crack.
"'Tis the season, Love. Why so tense?"
I opened the door all the way and stepped in.
The door slammed shut behind me.
In the darkness, I heard coughing. Like that of little kids.
And there was scratching. And small red eyes protruding from the black.
I was being surrounded.
I kicked through the door, ready to bolt past Dr. Buttercup and up the stairs.
No sign of her. She was gone.
The closet door slammed again.
In front of it rested a new painting.
Gonna find some mace.
Naked Exit by Man of the Cloth
The priest was absent from this week's restored services. After the last of his disappointed flock left the building on Wednesday, I entered his office to find his black clothes strewn across the floor. Along the back wall, written in dark-brown liquid (chocolate syrup?), I saw this:
Away, away he's gone.
Just like your girl,
Departed at dawn.
Speak to them in style.
Just like your father,
You'll find it worthwhile.
I picked up the priest's shirt.
It smelled like Buttercup.
The Sinner With the Marble Eye
"Hurry, they're expecting you."
It was Chloe's voice.
Her plea came at me from all directions.
The lamp on my nightstand crashed to the floor, right where I left the priest's clothes.
I looked around. Nobody was there. But a new painting had been placed next to the door that leads upstairs.
So I gave it a look. I shrugged. And I opened the door.
A short old man with a pink necktie and a marble for one eye poked me in the gut.
"You're late," he said, "and I haven't got all day. 'Specially not for your kind. But she tells us you're our Father now. And I've got shit to confess. Lord, you know I do."
As I looked behind him, I noticed a few more old parishioners starting to make their way down the stairs.
"Give me a minute," I said.
"No." The old man tried to shove me. "Lord have mercy, you're gonna do it now. Even if you've gotta be naked doing it. Not like I never seen a black man's waggler before."
Just then, three of the other parishioners, all women, barged their way in, grabbed the priest's clothes from the floor, and started pushing me toward the stairs.
I stopped resisting.
Once in the confessional, I threw on the clothes, which were at least two sizes too small and littered with broken glass. I heard a few rips.
Then I heard the old man.
"Well, Father, it's been 40 years since my last confession. I've pissed on two wives, stolen a dump truck, burned down a neighbor's house, and mailed a cooler of dog shit to the I.R.S."
He paused to blow his nose. Then he continued in a more whimpering tone.
"The Lord has given me no more time. He gave me cancer. Started in my balls and took up residence everywhere else. Well, he gave it to me, no doubt, to give me a head start on where he's sending me. But I thought maybe you could give me the penance to get me out of having to go there."
"Jesus," I said.
"What? Pray to Jesus, you mean?" The old man sounded hopeful. "What do I say?"
I cleared my throat and sat silent, trying not to laugh.
"Well?" the old man pleaded.
"Okay," I said. "This is what you're going to do."
My mind went blank.
The old man grew desperate. "How 'bout I just send myself there right now since you won't help me?"
I could see he had a hunting knife, and he was gently stroking his wrist with it.
"Wait," I said. "Here's what you do: Go to the corner store. Purchase two boxes of Junior Mints. Bring one back to me. Then go home, find a football game to watch, open your box, and say a Hail Mary each time you suck on one of those goodies. The Lord himself told me about this loophole."
The sinner with a pink necktie and a marble for one eye was out of the booth before I could tell him about the tequila shots and Our Father chasers.
An Untested Sermon
She goes missing.
Her sky remains obscured.
She gives away.
She hangs on.
Her garden remains shaded.
Her soul remains jaded.
She gives in.
Her body remains hated.
Her truth is all that will save us.
Cult of 1
Easy to fool.
Easy to rule.
Simple to train.
Simple to ingrain.
Bend your knees.
Bend your will.
A cinch to cajole.
A cinch to control.
Pass your hat.
Pass your means.
Breezy to recruit.
Breezy to loot.
Change the story.
Change the locks.
Easier to cherish.
Easier to relish.
When you're a cult of one.
(Yep, another sermon. But not my words. Again. And, yeah, another painting. Found this one atop the priest's shag-carpeted toilet. Figure I might as well do my holy business in relative luxury if I've gotta wear his crappy collar.)
Be With Me
"Be with me as the sky falls," I began my latest sermon.
(No. Not mine. It's never really me speaking. My voice gets hijacked. I cry for a minute or two when it starts. As it ends, I collapse. Some little old lady wearing too much perfume always revives me and pops a lemon drop in my mouth.)
"Be with me as the heavens turn against you," my body snatcher continued.
"Be with me as you curse your own stupid prayers."
By the end of this sermon, I wanted to crawl into a small cave, light a candle, and go to sleep forever.
Instead, I saw Buttercup. She caught me before I hit the floor.
"Oh, Darlin'," she said. "You best be takin' care of yo'self now. The priest is gonna want his job back soon. And the cardinal.... Sugar, you're gonna have a lot to confess."
I didn't have a chance to respond before feeling a sharp prick on the back of my neck and a firm slap on my ass. I passed out.
Several days later, here I am. This basement smells like sulfur. And Parmesan. (I got another gift from Lucy.)
Wish I had someone tangible to be with.
The Bad Man Rises
I am flux.
I am change.
I'm always melting in the rain.
I am heat.
I am spite.
I'm always shouting through the tide.
I am sound.
I am tone.
I'm always damming up the flow.
I am shift.
I am strife.
I'm always breaking up the ice.
I am me.
I am them.
I'm always haggling for your zen.
If it comes.
If it happens.
When it does.
It's gonna show.
Day is soon.
Night maybe closer.
The gas escapes.
Words won't suffice.
Not in time.
Not gonna matter.
Fools stay asleep.
Bye bye again.
—Your Wiser Conscience
Found this hand-written note inside a partially eaten chocolate bunny. (Its ears are missing). The paper is black. The ink is red.
A whisper in my left ear Friday morning said, "The cardinal wants you dead."
So, he is coming back?
I am...shaking in my holy garments. Really, "I am."
Frock you, o hallowed master.
Crazier Than Cornbread?
Buttercup stood before us wearing a long white lab coat and pouty lips painted orange. "Poor, poor boys. Always makin' me trouble." She sounded excited.
Sitting against the basement wall, I couldn't move. It didn't appear that the cardinal could either.
"Just giving you fellas another dose." Buttercup injected a pink liquid into each of our right arms using the same needle and syringe.
"Gotta be sure. If you stay still like gentlemen, perhaps you can take turns maulin' me later. You might like what's underneath." She lifted part of the lab coat just enough to reveal one of her bare thighs.
"I've been followin' your sermons, boys. And there's some things I just don't get." She turned on a large floodlight and shined it in our faces. I could only see white, even with my eyes closed.
"Fresco here gets fainting hard-ons while speaking nonsense. But his flock grows bigger with every mass.
"And this sweet old fella of the red cloth thinks he's the shrewdest King Shit that ever walked among the world's little clan of dumb holy shits.
"I don't know if you're both crazier than cornbread or just gettin' danced around by a crazier-than-cornbread puppeteer.
"Can't anything be done about the first one, of course. But if it's the latter, you can bet your asses I'll be havin' my fun. Maybe give Father Ambrose his peace again.
"But patience, my dears. This will take some time. Don't go runnin' anywhere I can't find you. My assistants don't like naughty boys."
Sometime later, I opened my eyes again. Buttercup was gone. So was the cardinal.
But one of Lucy's representatives left another painting. These gifts are even more bat-shit looney than Buttercup.
The Tragic Amusement of Scurrying Albinos
I should have run. Left this place. Should have done it long ago. Why do I stay here shivering in hunger and prickly emptiness?
I'm a monster. Can't make things right. Can't save Jo. Can't save Adam. Chloe's gone too. The crazies are on parade. Right on schedule. Maybe ahead of it.
Everyone will be touched. My curiosity. My hubris. My shame.
I took a leak. Before zipping up, a strong hand pushed me to the tile floor and dragged me by my ankle to the concrete of my "living room."
The cardinal held a clump of pink hair in one hand and a bloodied dagger in his other. His eyes launched surgical strikes against my false confidence. I gasped for air but felt like I was staring up at him from under a bath of acid soda.
Speechless, I listened to the cardinal's blather.
"Thought you'd be glad to know. That wench is done, Fresco. Trouble for Lucifer now. Amused to death like so many quacks before her.
"Fun is mostly for dirty dregs and godless whores. The fine seasoning of virtue tastes so much better.
"Still, I don't mind saying it. This is going to be fun. I guess your work affects me the same as anyone. I feel it more every day.
"Disappointing, though. For a man of your genius, your heart only shows dimness. No amount of prayer can rescue a coward.
"So be it. You've done enough, I suppose. Everything's coming together nicely. Real perfection. Our destiny. The Lord pointed the way, but you opened the door.
"Pity that so many won't recognize it. They can't see the nuances. They see only chaos and pain. Just like you, Fresco. Trapped in your shallows of loneliness, refusing to take His hand.
"But you've endured enough. Events like the ones to come provide no meaning or amusement to blind cowards. So I hope you'll consider this a noble gesture."
The cardinal placed his dagger on my nightstand and pocketed Buttercup's hair. Then he untied a red velvet bag and removed a drill with a bit the size of a cucumber.
"You can't kill me," I said.
He clicked his tongue and rolled his eyes. "You're brilliant, Fresco. But your memory offends. I gave you that particular gift. And I can take it back."
He approached me with the drill. But before he could take two steps, the closet door creaked open.
White insects the size of puppies scurried toward the cardinal. Their eyes were human, but their pupils were red. And they made coughing noises like little kids with bronchitis.
The cardinal tried to run, but the coughing creepers swarmed him. In less than a minute, the cardinal, screaming, was transported to the closet. And beyond. His screams trailed off for a little while and eventually stopped.
"Now, where were we?"
Buttercup, bloodied and bruised, had walked in from the other door.
She waved an index finger at me and pointed at the closet. I guess it was a warning.
Then she blew me a kiss and left.
Seems godless whores sometimes get the last laugh.
Grace Behind the Flames
She came at night and sung me a lullaby. A haunting melody from a blood drifter's scratchy voice:
This is how it burns, my friend.
This is what it feels like.
To walk through the fire is to want something higher.
As confusion turns to fear and hatred of those most near.
Tears won't smother.
Fighting only stokes.
Sleep and dream and wait and see.
It comes to chew the flowers.
It comes to spin the view.
To clear the smoke means wanting less to provoke.
As anger turns to grace and willingness to share your space.
Falling down is overdone.
Why not fall up?
It's so much more fun.
I awoke feeling renewed. Less spiteful. The painting left behind is like a snapshot of my dream.
Reality is blurring more and more.
Today, at least, I don't mind it.
A Miracle Swimming in Black
I did it for you. I did it because I can. I did it because they told me not to.
I went to that dark place. I spoke with it. I let it crawl over me. I let it poison me, then pinch me awake.
I don't believe in miracles. But that's what it is.
That I'm still here. That you are too.
That some people can still recognize love in all of its forms.
That a stranger can care about another stranger.
That goodwill can exist in a world of narcissism.
It's a miracle, no matter how grimy.
And it's bigger than a miracle that I haven't trashed these paintings yet, especially after seeing this new one.
Interview With a Basement Butterfly
It went something like this:
Can I open a window for you?
Well, gee, mister. You mean I don't have to flutter around in this drab old musty tomb? No offense, sir.
So, what brought you down here?
I'd love to know. Does anyone know how they get where they are? I doubt it, mister. But here's a story for you.
First you crawl. Then the darkness takes over and you think you might die or maybe already did. Then you try to crawl again only to find that you don't have all of your legs anymore. You wish for a bird to eat you. Then you flap your wings and learn how to fly.
If you're lucky, you don't get stuck in a place where some nutcase has to ask whether you'd like the window open.
What do you like better, legs or wings?
I must say, sir, you are really irritating. Some of us just want to find the breeze. We don't have time for floppy questions.
Do you believe in God?
Is that your pet? It sounds like something a mister like you would name his chicken.
Flappy flappy, joy joy, pluck the hen and make her soy!
Strawberry Milkshake Exorcism
I awoke the other day, blindfolded, in a place that smelled like peaches.
"Sorry to keep you waiting, Pumpkin." Buttercup's flirtatious voice was unmistakeable.
"Sometimes a lady's gotta run other errands. Hope you understand, Sugar. I'm going to make it up to you. Mmm, mmm, mmm. Tasty stuff too."
I couldn't respond. I'd been gagged.
"Now, make sure you swallow. I don't want to have to do this the other way."
She removed my blindfold and cleared my mouth of the pink sock she'd duct-taped inside.
"This is my momma's recipe," Buttercup said. "She tweaked it a little from the one my grandma passed down to her. The only thing I've added is the key ingredient. Just a dash or two is all."
As I looked around, I saw that I'd been taken upstairs to the small office used by the church organist. It had been redecorated. Framed posters of various saints had been replaced with blank walls painted in orange and magenta stripes.
Buttercup placed a straw in my mouth. The other end was deep within a thick, pale-pink concoction.
"Sip, sip, Honey Bunny. We've only got five minutes," Buttercup said.
I didn't sip. Instead, I spit out the straw. "Tell me more about your ugly grandma," I said.
Buttercup grabbed me by the jaw, forced my head back, and poured the glass of pink stuff down my throat.
I wasn't prepared for it. Especially not for what came next.
"It tastes better the other way, Darling. And brain freeze only makes it more traumatic," Buttercup said.
My windpipe turned frozen. Sharp icicles throbbed in my head. I coughed uncontrollably.
After about a minute, my cough starting producing things. Vile things.
Out of my throat came dozens of small pink rats. Except, the "rats" had heads of fish. They plopped into my lap and scurried away in all directions, leaving behind red, gelatinous trails.
"Step one," Buttercup said. "Rest up."
The next morning, I was back in my bed. Along with another gift, uglier than ever.
22 Silent Sundays
22 silent Sundays,
a forced timeout to think.
Slipped into darkness
and found a way to sleep.
22 lost languages,
a long-forgotten link.
Focused on their music
and found a way to speak.
22 marching mutants,
a parade of putrid stink.
Talked with a feathered donkey
and found a way to sneeze.
22 silent Sundays,
ruined with a blast.
Awakened to a sunny sky,
my body crunched on colored glass.
22 perished parishioners,
11 priests amassed.
Gathered to guard over a perp
whose demons they have yet to axe.