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The Witch’s Reflection

By Joe Mankowski

 

Eva sat on her bedroom floor. There were strands of hair and clumps of pocket lint rubbed into the purple carpet. Odd foot odors spotted different sections, but Eva slept on it all the same.

There was a bed in the corner that was perfectly comfy. A black duvet was bundled up and shoved aside with pillows. Eva typically pulled them onto the floor when she was tired. Her dreams haunted her when she slept in bed.

Char, her roommate’s rotund gray cat, took to occupying the vacant mattress. He never seemed to mind the heavy metal music that was blasting out of Eva’s stereo.

There were posters taped to the walls of her room. All of them were of bands she had seen perform: The Blink, Cold Grip, and Hellfire. They weren’t particularly good. Hellfire was a local band that only performed in abandoned warehouses around Ash Falls, but her friend Attison was their drummer.

“Could you turn that shit down?” called her roommate, Taylor, from the hallway.

Eva rolled her eyes. She didn’t answer, but returned her attention back towards the spellbooks that surrounded her.

The door to her bedroom opened. “Eva, did you hear me?” Taylor asked.

“What?” Eva said, as Char lifted his head for a brief moment.

“Turn your music down. It’s shaking the walls to our apartment. I have a pounding headache.”

“Oh.” Eva reached for the dial on her speaker and adjusted the volume.

“Thanks.” Taylor eyed the floor. “What are you studying?”

“Sanskrit and Latin,” Eva said. “Term paper is due next week.”

“Sounds boring. Want to go get a beer at O’Donnell’s?”

Eva started scribbling words into a spiral notebook. Her hair fell over her face and obscured her view of Taylor. A moment later she was alone again. She reached for the dial on her speaker, and turned the volume up. Loud music helped her concentrate – the louder, the better. Eva wished Taylor would stop trying to be her friend. She just needed someone to split the rent. Char watched her with his blue eyes.

When Eva looked back at the old book in her lap, the pages were blank. The book had disenchanted itself while in the presence of Taylor – a mundai – or more plainly, a non-witch.

Had the spellbook been about blood-magic, Eva would have locked her door. Blood-magic was dangerous, and usually involved a lot of taboo rituals. Taylor would call the cops if she saw Eva skinning an animal and drawing symbols onto the floor with its organs. Breaking a plant-based disenchantment charm however, was an easy remedy.. Eva walked to her windowsill and plucked a few stems of wild grass that had been growing in a terracotta pot. On her desk was a shoebox full of dried flowers. Using the wild grass, she tied some betony and hawthorne together, and placed it in the middle of the book.

“Reveal yourself,” she commanded.

Brown ink rose up onto the pages of the spellbook. Everything was written in sanskrit.

“In English,” Eva added.

The words began to change. Most spellbooks were adaptive, but some had spells that were too old to translate. That was why Eva had Latin and Sanskrit textbooks from a library surrounding her. She wasn’t in school. She never even applied. It was just a simple lie that kept Taylor from prying.

Eva had been a witch her entire life. Every day of her existence had been a lie to someone. The covenant she had been born into had lived in Ash Falls since the town’s beginning; her mother had been a witch, her grandmother had been a witch and so on. The ability to use magic was passed from mother to daughter. This wasn’t only because nature made it so, but because if a boy was born from a witch in their covenant, that child was sacrificed under a harvest moon with the man who helped in the act of procreation. Not all magic communities followed that rule, but for Eva it had been a normal ritual to witness growing up.

Char yawned on Eva’s bed. He stretched his forepaws forward while remaining on his belly. Eva glanced at the clock. It was nearing midnight.

Her book had repopulated itself with texts and diagrams. There were scrawled notes in the margins from other witches who had possessed the spellbook before her. She didn’t use magic through nature often, but the spell she had been preparing for weeks required the room to be purified, no, it needed to be washed free of any malicious spirits. Magic of any kind was like a magnet to ghosts, and if there was a chance to interfere with the spell, they would. Eva knew a spell like this would attract dozens of them.

“Books are written memories, and memories fuel the existence of restless spirits. To open a book is to invite their malice in,” warned Eva’s mother when first teaching her the art of witchcraft.

Eva flipped through the pages until she found the spell she needed. The incantation was easy enough, but the floral totem was tedious. Eva scanned the list; burnt rose stems with thorns intact, dried willow leaves, mint, three fresh dandelions, and a base of betony.

Relief lowered her shoulders. She had all the ingredients. The real spell Eva hoped to complete required a storm at night on the twenty-ninth day of a calendar month.

“Can I borrow your mirror?” Taylor asked while stepping into the room. “I hate the lighting in our bathroom. It makes me look so pasty.”

Eva stood faster than she intended. “You can’t.”

“Can’t?” Taylor looked around. “Where is it anyway?”

“It broke the other day.”

“How?” Taylor was already losing interest. Her attention had gone to the wrinkles in her skirt.

“The wind.”

Taylor sighed. “Stupid wind. Anyway, are you coming?”

“No.”

“Why not?” She looked at Eva’s floor. “You need to take a study break. You haven’t left this room for days. We can throw a few beers back, tease the bartender for a few free shots, and then choke down some pizza from Rodolfo’s.”

“I can’t.”

“You’ll be back just after midnight.”

“Let’s go tomorrow.”

Taylor crossed her arms. “But I’m ready now.”

“Well I’m not, and I have to -” Eva watched as Taylor spotted the mirror hidden under a bath towel.

“Oh my shit, Eva, you liar. Your mirror is right here.” Taylor reached out to grab it.

“STOP!” Eva screamed. “GET OUT! DON’T TOUCH IT! GET OUT NOW!”

Taylor retracted her hand. Her face was flushed with surprise and anger. “It’s just a mirror you schizo-bitch, you know that right?”

“Then buy your own!” Eva shoved her out and slammed the bedroom door.

Weeks of work had nearly been ruined. All of her research, all of her preparation. Taylor had nearly undone all of it by allowing the mirror to reflect the room. For a moment Eva considered apologizing.

“Give me my fucking cat back!”

Eva ruled against apologizing. “Char’s not your cat, he’s a stray you feed leftovers to.”

“Exactly. My Leftovers.”

Eva turned her music up as loud as her speakers would allow and began head-banging to the music and mouthing the lyrics while Taylor pounded on the door.

Her hair became a knotted mess and she was almost too dizzy to stand by the time Taylor gave up. The apartment door slammed shut.

“Sorry, Char,” Eva said. “I know you don’t like domestic disputes over kitten custody.”

Char rolled onto his back and stared at her. Eva smiled for what felt like the first time in days and rubbed his belly. She could feel him purring. His eyes slowly closed. The only time she ever heard him purr this loud was for food.

There was a cheap clock on her desk that displayed the time: Eleven-eleven. Her spell had to happen in the final thirty minutes of the last hour of the day, and preferably when the rain was falling at its hardest.

Eva pushed open her bedroom window. It was barely drizzling. She checked her phone. There was supposedly a one-hundred-percent chance of heavy rain happening at that very moment. Scoffing with frustration, Eva went back to her spellbook. The print had vanished.

The plant charm had been wasted. She hexed Taylor with her thoughts, and went back to her box of dried flowers. She only had three stems of dried betony left, which was needed to create a base for the purifying floral totem. There was no way for her to reveal the pages again.

“Okay, think,” Eva said to herself. “Burnt rose stems with thorns intact, dried willow leaves.” She paused to recall what else had been listed. Her eyes closed. “Three fresh dandelions, and a base of betony.”

Turning to the shoebox on her desk and the potted plants on her windowsill, Eva began weaving and tying the totem together until it was a thick cord of plant. The rain outside started to fall harder. A low rumble of thunder sounded in the distance.

Once the totem was complete, she grabbed a black candle and a lighter.

Char meowed at her.

“All right, come on,” Eva said to him while opening up the bedroom door.

Char slid off her bed and landed with a flop. Eva swore the cat was immortal and had long since used up his nine lives because he was the most uncoordinated cat she’d ever seen. She watched as he waddled out of the room, expecting to be fed.

“I’ll be out soon,” she promised, and locked herself in.

Char protested outside. He tried to paw at her from the space between the door. Eva ignored him and placed the black candle in the center of the room. She lit the wick with her lighter. “Spiritus autem lux,” she said firmly. “Adiuva me.” The candle sparked and began burning blue.

Taking the floral totem, Eva held the end of it over the open flame until it, too, was on fire. “Terra mater, protegat hunc locum.” She extinguished the flames with her breath. The totem smoked white. Eva walked around her room repeating the incantation ‘Removere mala spirituum.’ She wafted smoke into the corners of the room and the lines that joined the walls to the floor and ceiling. Again and again she said the incantation with a firm and steady voice. Evil spirits had the power to take control of spells if they weren’t banished from the room.

Eva rested the smoldering totem on a crystal ashtray near her nightstand. The rain hastened. She double-checked the lock on her bedroom door and turned off her stereo. Concentrating was crucial from this point forward. Eva turned off her bedroom light and tossed all but one of her books onto her bed – her family’s grimoire.

The brown leather cover was weathered and cracked. Its clasp was a simple iron buckle. A gold circle was painted faintly on the front. Eva wasn’t sure how many generations the grimoire had served, only that it contained every spell mastered by her bloodline. If one witch can, then so can all.

Eva rolled up her purple carpet. Chalk dust was smudged against the hardwood flooring beneath.

She placed her mirror and the towel that covered it against the back of her door. Eva propped it up so that it faced into her room. The clock on her desk displayed a-quarter-to-midnight. Thunder announced the storm’s arrival. Eva moved about her room to light twelve scentless white candles.

With a piece of chalk, she drew a circle around the mirror. Then a second circle around the grimoire. Reaching under her bed for another shoebox, Eva removed her athame ceremonial blade, a rat’s rib bone, and a jar of sparrow hearts. She placed them between the mirror and spellbook.

“A morte donum,” Eva said, she then circled the rib and hearts with chalk.

Standing for only a moment, Eva removed the towel from her mirror. For the first time in weeks, the glass could reflect something other than what covered it. It was a cheap full-body mirror with a black plastic frame and warped reflecting plexiglass. She had purchased it from a garage sale for six crumpled dollars.

Eva stepped back and studied her reflection. Her skin had paled over the autumn months. There were dark moons beneath her eyes from the recent lack of sleep. The right side of her head, which was usually shaved, had finally started growing back. The rest of her hair fell in long, dark, curls. The coffee stains and holes in her t-shirt didn’t lend well to the graphic design, but it was too comfy to get rid of. Eva felt sorry for her reflection. She returned to the other side of her book and sat down with her chalk.

“Pretium sanguinis.” She said. Then with her athame, she pricked her thumb. Blood dripped onto the cover of her grimoire. “Reveal yourself,” she commanded, and when she opened the book, words of red ink were scrawled across hundreds of pages. The print was small and slanted, but never quite the same. Each discovery made by her great-and-greater grandmothers were memorialized right before her eyes.

Eva pulled on a ribbon in the book and turned to a page she had previously marked; the spell of Spiorad Gloine.

She locked herself into the spell by drawing a final circle around herself. Lightning cracked through the sky outside. The wind was howling. Eva could hear the rain splattering against her window screen. She looked at the incantation and read, “Et nos unum sumus.” Her reflection stared back.

“Illud te non arbitror.” Eva cut her left palm using the athame, and balled her hand into a fist.

“Et nos unum sumus,” she said again, but with her eyes closed this time.

“Illud te non arbitror.” Opening her hand, Eva placed a handprint of blood beside the jar of hearts. For a third time she repeated the incantation while cutting her right palm and placing her other handprint beside the rat bone.

“Hic, hic, hic,” she commanded her reflection. “Invenient me. Invenient me.”

The thunder answered her.

“Hac, hac, hac!” Eva hollered. “Invenient me. Invenient me.”

There was a flash in her mirror.

“Here, here, here!” the reflection answered. “Find me. Find me.”

The hand prints on the floor vanished as Eva had hoped.

She sat perfectly still for a moment. Nothing happened. Eva feared the spell didn’t work. Her and her reflection were too in sync. She glanced back down at her grimoire. She worried she had missed a step, or skipped an ingredient. Were the sparrow hearts supposed to be out of the jar? Had the rat bone been used in a spell already? The alchemy shop down the street had sold her tampered ingredients before.

Eva looked at her reflection again as it looked back at her. Suddenly, her reflection blinked of its own accord. A faint smile quivered in the corner of its lips – but maybe she too was smiling. Eva forced herself to frown. Her reflection smiled wider. Then she watched as her reflection repeated the same ritual she had just completed. It was like watching a video of herself on a very narrow television.

When the reflection placed its bleeding left hand on its floor in the mirror, a second handprint appeared before Eva. This time the fingers pointed towards her instead of away. Then the right handprint appeared. The reflection chanted the incantation three times and then sat perfectly still. Together they inhaled and exhaled.

“Can you hear me?” Eva asked it.

Her reflection nodded.

“Can you speak?” Eva slowly began to stand.

“Yes,” her reflection answered.

Eva felt herself laugh with relief. It had worked. She had created a perfect copy of herself.

“You are Eva?” her reflection asked.

“You are too,” Eva answered. She motioned for her reflection to join her. “Can you step through the mirror?”

Her reflection tilted its head as if trying to understand the question.

Conceptually it was an odd thought to even Eva, but the handprints had manifested in the real world. Eva also noted that the chalk rings could not be disturbed until after midnight. If they were smudged or broken the spell would shatter instead of seal. “Careful!” she told her reflection as it attempted to step through the frame of the mirror.

First came a foot, then two hands curled around the edges of the mirror. Eva watched as her reflection’s left leg followed. “Careful, be careful,” her reflection mumbled. She too was watching the chalk rings as she bowed through the portal. The reflecting glass rippled like water, distorting Eva’s reflection until it passed through to her side.

“Holy shit!” Eva laughed. “I did it!” She started fumbling with her words. Her fingers laced themselves and twisted about. “How do you feel, are you okay, do you feel… do you feel sick or anything?”

Eva was carefully circling her creation, while her newly arisen twin studied itself from head-to-toe.

“Wow!” the reflection gasped. “It’s all different.”

“What is?”

“Your room. Our room.”

“Different?” Eva asked while staring at the empty room reflected in her mirror.

“The walls in my room are green,” her reflection answered. “I have different furniture.”

Eva began to worry again that something was wrong. She was staring at the room through the mirror and it was identical to her own. There were no green walls. The bed and desk looked identical to her own.

“Are you sure you’re feeling okay?” Eva asked. “Do you feel dizzy?”

“No,” her reflection answered.

“What’s the color of our shirts?”

“Maroon.”

Eva nodded with relief. Her reflection was seeing and naming colors as they were. The spell was perfect. Eva had created a clone of herself – someone to work a full-time job so she wouldn’t have to split the rent with Taylor. She had someone to socialize, someone to get groceries, to get a degree in something mundane like history. And Eva, the genius that she was, could study her grimoire in peace. She could spend all day mastering complex spells that hadn’t been done in hundreds of years. She could become the most powerful witch in Ash Falls. She could become the head of her covenant.

“You have to pass through to see the difference,” said Eva’s reflection.

“See what?”

“You don’t believe me that my room is different.”

Eva guessed her reflection had caught on to her disbelief.

“You see a reflection of you room. I did too, but the other side is different.”

Eva’s curiosity led her out of her own spell ring.

“Careful, be careful,” her reflection cautioned.

Eva stepped into the ring drawn around her bedroom mirror. She braced herself against the plastic frame and plunged her head into the mirror. It felt as if she’d splashed her face with warm sparkling water. When she opened her eyes again, she only saw a copy of her own room. Her head floated out of an identical mirror, propped up against an identical bedroom door. The only difference was that there was no storm outside the copy of her bedroom window. The sky was a veil of black. It lacked dimension and silhouettes.

Something shoved her from behind. Eva lost her balance and fell into the reflection of her room. She twisted around on the floor to see her reflection staring at her with a smug grin. “I told you to be careful.”

“Stop!” Eva yelled, but it was too late. She watched as her reflection slid a foot over the chalk line. There was a bright flash of blue light, and an opaque glaze spread over the mirror.

Eva leapt to her feet and raced towards it. Her hands slammed against the glass, but it had become as thick as stone. The reflection laughed and shook its head. Her voice sounded muffled through the solid barrier. “What did you do wrong?” she mused while reaching for Eva’s grimoire.

While trying to suppress her panic, Eva reached for the desk chair in the reflection’s room. She swung it at the mirror, but it broke without cracking the barrier.

“Sorry, Eva, but you opened up a one-way door. You have to be invited back,” her reflection cooed.

“Why are you doing this?” Eva began to sob.

The reflection ignored her. Eva watched as it walked towards the nightstand, picked up the earth totem and smelled it.

“You forgot mint,” the reflection laughed. Eva watched as she returned to the mirror. The clock on her desk switched to midnight.

“Let me out!” Eva screamed. “Please, let me out!”

It was hopeless. She was screaming at herself in a mirror. A real mirror that no longer worked as a portal. Her spell was broken. The room around her dissolved into an empty abyss. She was stuck there, on the wrong side without a way to escape.

Rodolfo’s Pizzeria

by Joe Mankowski

 

Aaron looked out the front window of Rodolfo’s Pizzeria. He could see the lights to Barry’s Diner across the street turning off. It was late, and in Ash Falls, that meant only the weirdos would be out looking for food.

Aaron turned his attention to a clock decorated by tacky, plastic grape vines. It was nearly eleven. He stared at the minute hand with disdain. Some knock-off Pavarotti album was playing over the speakers. He wished Maurice would turn it off after normal business hours. None of the timberworkers, drug addicts, or gangly teens gave a crap about Rodolfo’s aesthetic.

The pizzeria was a counter-top dive bar with a false liquor license on a good day. It had white floor tiles, stained by blotches of marinara sauce and a glass display case for the ‘fresh’ pies. There were two sets of plastic lawn furniture covered in parmesan cheese and a few stools to the right of the cash register for seating. It was a wonder anyone ever came in. The slices were over-priced and often reheated. Aaron stayed because Maurice paid him under the table and gave him hours that worked around his college schedule – even though Aaron hadn’t taken a class in two semesters.

The store phone rang.

“Yeah?” Aaron said.

“I can see you on the camera, Ron. Quit leaning on the counter,” snapped Maurice through the phone. “Look busy. Start mopping the floors or something.”

“I’m waiting for a Mister Don Calriss to pick up his pizza order,” Aaron said as he checked the order slip and pizza box beside the register. The pizza was already cold.

“Don’s a regular. He can wait.” There was an audible shuffling of papers. “I can’t give you a raise if you don’t earn it.” The line went dead.

The threat of not getting a raise nearly made Aaron laugh. He had worked cashier for three years now, and only received a ten-cent raise after working his first year for the scumbag. Aaron didn’t put the phone back on its station. The machine buzzed monotonously. If Maurice wanted to criticize his work ethic again, he’d have to leave his broom closet of an office.

Aaron stared out the front window of the shop again. He watched a few cars roll by. Barry’s Diner was completely dark. Only the red ‘Closed’ sign was visible. A street lamp flickered. When he looked back at the clock, it was five-past-eleven. Swearing under his breath, Aaron pushed his way through the kitchen door to fill the mop bucket.

Two days worth of dishes were sitting in the kitchen sink. The drain had been clogged since the Friday before last. The plumbing was backed up to the point wherein the piping was secreting black liquid through the faucets. Flour and cheese were smeared on the floor. Two flies buzzed around a ball of dough Maurice had forgotten about.

Beneath the sink was a yellow mop bucket. The smell of it up close was a nauseating concoction of spoiled dairy and ammonia. Beside the bucket was a tub of bleach. Aaron tipped the rest of it in.

“Maurice, we’re out of bleach!” he shouted.

There was a disgruntled sound from the office attached to the kitchen. Aaron could hear his boss struggling to stand under his own weight. “What was that?” Maurice said.

“There’s no more bleach.”

The owner of Rodolfo’s stared at the empty can for a moment. “Buy more.”

“Everything’s closed.”

“Then pick some up tomorrow on your way in. Take some cash out of the drawer, and bring me a receipt.”

Maurice waddled back into his office and slammed the door. Why don’t you do something other than sweat in your swivel chair you lard, thought Aaron. He pushed the mop bucket towards a hoseline and turned the water on. There was a gurgling sound of fluid being backed up. Aaron swore again and reached for the the mop, which was caked in flour.

As he lifted it, a family of worms dropped onto the floor. They were pale, thick, and white with a waxy texture. They flopped and squirmed, but Aaron paid no attention to them. The were all over the kitchen.

Finally, the hoseline began to dribble water.

The bell to the front door chimed.

“Door!” Maurice called from his office.

“I’m going,” Aaron said. He left the water running, assuming if he took long enough the bucket would overflow and do half his job cleaning the floor.

Aaron approached the counter. “Welcome to Rodolfos,” he said.

Hi’yah. Ordered a meat-lovers.”

“You’re Mister Calriss?” Aaron thought the man looked familiar, perhaps he was a Tuesday regular – the one day Aaron didn’t work. Either way, the guest looked sickly, like an addict, but still well fed. Aaron assumed the man had ordered the pie for only himself. He noticed the guest scratching at some hives on his neck. Tapeworm, thought Aaron, or maybe an infection.

“Ay’yuh,” said the guest. He tossed a crumpled twenty-dollar bill onto the counter.

“It’s twenty-six ninety-nine.”

Mister Calriss snorted. “Is Maurice in?”

“No,” Aaron lied. He was told to always lie.

The man squinted for a second and lifted his nose a little as he inhaled a bit too much. Aaron had the awkward sensation the man was trying to smell him. “You jus’ tell ‘im I stopped by. Don’t forget. Don Calriss came in tuh see ‘im.”

“Sure.”

Mister Calriss dropped another crumpled twenty onto the counter. Aaron punched the buttons on his register and gave the guy his change.

“This pizza is stone cold, ya know.”

“The order was for an eight o’clock pick up,” Aaron replied.

He grunted again. “Can ya warm it up for me?”

“The ovens are off. We’re closing.”

Mister Calriss sneered out of the corner of his mouth but said no more and left. A minute or so after, Maurice appeared. He was holding a brown leather bowling bag.

“I tried calling you from my office, but the line was dead.”

Aaron picked up the phone and gave it a shake. “Cord must be loose.”

“How much did you charge Don?”

“Twenty-Six,” Aaron said.

“And he paid it?”

Aaron nodded.

“What an idiot,” Maurice laughed. He grabbed a fistful of napkins and dabbed at his balding head, then the stubble on his chin, and lastly the folds between his neck. He looked like a pig roasting in spandex. The napkins fell to the floor.

Aaron stepped aside while his boss closed out the register. He watched as Maurice removed the till and poured everything into his bowling bag. “What time did you get in today?”

“Six,” Aaron answered.

Maurice reached into his cash bag and pulled out the two crumpled twenty-dollar bills and gave it to him. “For tonight,” he said. “And pick up bleach tomorrow.”

Aaron nodded.

“I’m going home to count this. Lock up at midnight. Finish mopping. Take out the trash, and exit out the back door.”

“What if a customer tries to pay with cash?”

“Tell them we only accept cash until eleven.” Maurice grabbed an empty pizza box and a black marker. “New house rule. Write it down and tape it to the display case. No one argues when there’s a sign.”

Maurice left through the front door a few minutes later with his bowling bag tucked tightly beneath his arm. Aaron watched him go, before walking into Maurice’s office where the knock-off Pavarotti album labeled Italiano Muzico was being played. He flipped the audio-player switch to ‘Off’.

He looked around Maurice’s office. It hadn’t been cleaned since the day Aaron had been hired. There were tin-foil wraps filled with burger grease and white worms. He found stray fries that had been kept warm in the crease of Maurice’s folding chair. A paper stack of overdue bills and health-code violations were so high it seemed as though eviction was an empty threat. And then, of course, there were the posters of swimsuit models taped to the walls.

Aaron felt the heel of his right shoe squish a rogue worm. Its guts popped and confettied the floor like black pus from an aged zit.

Back in the kitchen, Aaron could hear water splashing onto the floor. He covered his mouth and nose with his arm. A pool of brownish water was spreading beneath the sink and metal racks holding sacks of flour. The backed up piping was now affecting the hose. Aaron made his way to the faucet valve and twisted it off, then picked up the nearest phone.

“What?” came Maurice’s voice through his cell phone.

“The hoseline is spitting out brown sludge.”

“I’ve called the City’s water department, they said a plumber would be by this week. I ain’t paying out of pocket for the Ash Falls issues.”

“So mop with sludge water?”

“Better than nothing,” Maurice said. The line clicked and went dead.

Aaron smeared the water around the kitchen floor. Some of the worms that had been inhabiting the mop swelled as they, too, were wiped towards the drain. He did his best to mash them through. Aaron emptied the trash bins around the pizzeria, then propped the back door open with a brick. He stepped out into the alley.

A single lamp tried to illuminate the dark stretch between buildings. Aaron always got the creeps when he had to take out the trash at the end of the night. The dumpster was halfway between the back door of Rodolfo’s and the street. Everything was twisted in shadows.

There were usually weird things happening in the alley. Aaron had seen it all. People shooting up green syringes of who-knows-what, hairy men wrestling to settle a score, women with wild hair drawing symbols in chalk and foaming at the mouth. Only the weirdos of Ash Falls came out at night. Only the weirdos seemed to inhabit the alley behind Rodolfo’s. Except tonight, for some reason.

Aaron looked around. There wasn’t another human in sight.

Something scurried across the ground. A cat or a fat rat, Aaron wasn’t sure. But then, the sound of more scuttling followed. Out of the sewer grates climbed nearly two-dozen rats. They all clawed at each other and the pavement. Aaron pulled out his phone and turned on its flashlight.

The rodents were covered in a blackish oil and ooze. Their eyes were red. Some had hairless patches, while others had visible gashes. This wasn’t the first time Aaron had seen rats in the alleyway. Knowing how they hated light, he waved his phone at them. They scurried off and out towards the street.

A door behind Aaron slammed shut. He turned around to see the back door to Rodolfo’s closed. “Crap,” he said to no one. The door automatically locked from the inside. Aaron hurried towards the dumpster. His cell phone revealed clusters of wax worms along the way. The rats, he assumed, had brought them up through the sewer system.

When Aaron reached the dumpster, he found mounds of trash ignored by the city’s waste disposal department. There were dozens of bags piled high around a rusted metal bin. The infestation of worms continued there. They were fatter around the dumpster, like breakfast sausages. Aaron could see them nursing on the waste.

They had mutated; evolved ever so slightly with little tentacle appendages wiggling around the surface of the garbage bags. They probed and prodded for openings. Aaron tossed his bag to them and left the alleyway.

Thankful for not locking the front door to the pizzeria, Aaron returned to his counter. The grapevine clock read ten-to-midnight. He drummed his fingers on the surface of the empty register and stared out the windows. There were no more cars driving by. No one walking along the sidewalk or peering into the pizzeria. Aaron thought about his couch, his game console, and the case of beer in his fridge. Looking up at the security camera, Aaron noticed that the recording light was off. What Maurice didn’t know, wouldn’t bother him, Aaron reasoned. He had already been paid for his shift anyway.

Aaron reached into his pockets. He couldn’t remember where he had pocketed the money. Feeling through all of them, he wondered if he had set it down in the kitchen while mopping.

Aaron retraced his steps. He checked the office and his jacket that had been hanging on a hook by the door. He poked the pizza dough to see if it had melted over his two twenty-dollar bills. Aaron’s money was lost.

In his frustration, he kicked the mop bucket. It crashed against the back door, which popped open, and rolled out into the alleyway. Had the door been open the whole time? Aaron wasn’t sure. He had seen it closed. He had heard it slam shut. The brick, perhaps, had kept the door from latching completely.

Looking out into the alleyway, Aaron thought about when he had taken his phone out of his pocket. His money could have fallen out at that moment. The rats had been creepy enough to keep his attention from his money tumbling away in the dark.

Aaron turned his phone light on again. He wedged the brick more securely in the door. Scanning the pavement, he moved his phone from side-to-side. He saw the mop bucket overturned. Its bleach-sludge-concoction spilled out towards the large sewer drain. He aimed his light at it.

The gurgling of sewer water traveled through the storm-drains below. The smell of sulfur and stale water hung in the air. There was a slight tremor underground. Aaron ignored it.

Through the metal grate, Aaron saw it. His money was stuck to black gunk on the inner lining below. The mop water had washed it through the grate, but not all the way down. Getting on his hands and knees, Aaron surveyed the best way to get his money. Maurice wouldn’t pay him a second time for losing his day’s wages.

Aaron slid his hand between the bars. He could feel the damp air clinging to his skin. The underside of the grate was caked with the black ooze that had coated the rats and their fur. Aaron had to hold his breath as he lowered himself closer to the ground. His wrist and forearm slid down. It was difficult to see how much further he needed to reach. Aaron contorted his body and placed his phone over the grate. The light shined down directly. Hundreds of worms wriggled in the muck below.

The back door to Rodolfo’s slammed shut. Aaron swore as he twisted his head back. The brick was lying flat against the pavement. Next, Aaron’s phone began to vibrate. It shook the metal grate and teetered off balance.

“No, no, no! Shit!” Aaron screamed. His phone slipped through the gap and fell to the depths of the sewer below. He heard a faint splash. The light zapped out.

Aaron removed his hand. A worm had crawled onto it; one of the nasty, sausage-sized ones. He felt its little tendrils probing along his skin. Aaron brushed it off and crushed it with the heel of his shoe. The popping of its guts was audible, like an exploding ketchup packet.

Without a key, Aaron had no way to get back into the pizzeria. His house key was in his coat pocket. His phone was now destroyed. His money was gone. Aaron was on the verge of giving the mop bucket another swift kick when another worm groped at his ankle.

Aaron went to swat it away when he realized it wasn’t a worm at all, but a tentacle. A thick, arm-length appendage that reached out through the grate. The dim alleyway lamp illuminated its white, waxy coating. He screamed. More were beginning to feel their way out of the sewer. Dozens, then hundreds. Their slimy flesh slurped at the pavement. Aaron reached for the mop bucket and slammed it on the tentacle that had latched itself around his foot.

There was a shriek from beneath the storm drain. In revenge, the other tentacles lashed out towards the bucket. Aaron felt it being pulled from his grip. Then, in fear, he watched as the yellow plastic was crushed. Aaron tried to back away, but his foot stepped in a puddle of mop water and the splash alerted the monster that he was still there.

The cover to the storm drain rumbled. The tendrils lashed out at Aaron again, this time grabbing both of his ankles. They bit into him like leeches, pulsing and sucking on his skin until it was torn open.

There was a loud crash and the sewer grate was tossed free. A long, translucent, slithering creature with black veins pumping beneath the surface of its flesh appeared. There were no eyes or snout, just white flesh covered in mucus and a mouth – a gaping hole at the top of its head that reared itself towards Aaron as its tentacles continued to grope and suck at his ankles.

Aaron couldn’t move. He was paralyzed. A cold wave of numbness washed over him from his ankles upwards. All he could do was stare at the ten-foot worm as it revealed rows of jagged teeth with chunks of undigested flesh caught between.

Aaron couldn’t even scream. His throat was being squeezed by longer tentacles that had found their way through the drain. The creature’s tongue unraveled itself through the center of its mouth; boiled and black. It spat mucus onto him, and then, from the back of its throat it vomited thousands of its own spawn.

Aaron closed his eyes as the new vermin made a feast of his flesh. Then the monster leaned over him and swallowed him whole.

 

END

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