Susan sighed and closed her book. Country road rushed past her window, lulling her into a contemplative mood. How did she get roped into this trip? A senior, she had avoided this ritual throughout her university career. But this year, she'd been convinced she could use the experience to fuel her psychology thesis. She could take the names and addresses of those she encountered then come back to them years later to study where they'd gone and what they'd done. The idea seemed plausible, especially while Wendy plied her with cheap wine in their dorm room the week before. Now that they were into the fifth hour and second day of their road trip, Susan was cooling rapidly to the idea. If they would've listened to her when they started out they could have shaved a day off their travel.
Wendy was of no help, either. She and Steve had kept her up till nearly dawn in the bed across the room from her at the motel. Wendy always promised to be quiet when Steve stayed over but she could rarely contain herself, dorm or otherwise. It wasn’t anything overly impressive on Steve’s part, though. Wendy had been that way with everyone that had followed her home before him. Currently, she was curled up in a thick blanket beside her, fast asleep. Susan had always preferred warmer climes, too, but the presence of the blanket in the Georgia heat would have stifled her, even with air conditioning.
Susan stared at the back of Steve’s head for the hundredth time. He and Moose had been discussing nothing but football since they got in the car, at least when Moose was conscious. He’d apparently had a rough night as well if the smell of cheap alcohol was any gauge. Thankfully, Moose had been out like a light for the last seventy miles or so. With Wendy in the same condition and her eyes burning from reading and Steve’s smoking, Susan had lost any refuge from the trip. She sighed and tried to get comfortable, but the small, two–door car left little room even for that.
The scenery was typical deep–south with nothing but large fields and deserted countryside all morning. Wendy had convinced Steve to abandon the interstates in deference to seeing the real countryside. Of course, Wendy had also decided to abandon consciousness. Susan had checked a map before they left, and a quick mental calculation told her they would be a hundred or so miles ahead of where they were now if they'd just taken the interstates.
“You girls okay back there?” Steve asked.
“Wendy’s been asleep since we got in the car. No one back here but me,” Susan said. Steve was the quarterback, and even though Susan wasn’t entertained by sports he was still quite handsome. That she recognized this bothered her, even though she had the mechanisms to explain the attraction through her field. Unlike Wendy, Susan had a plan for her life, one that didn’t involve becoming the trophy wife of the school jock or wherever his unearned degree would take them. She consoled herself that all the lonely nights spent studying would make the rest of her life far better than if she'd spent those same nights as Wendy had done. Susan could wait for personal satisfaction once the professional considerations were met.
“Well, isn’t that just like her? We’re only on these cow tracks because she wanted to.” Steve exhaled sharply and cracked the window to try and vent the smoke. “Moose! Moose! Wake up! You’re supposed to be navigator!” Steve punched the big man’s shoulder and got only a grunt from the lump in the seat beside him for his trouble.
“Wha…” Moose groaned. “Whadda you want?” he said.
“You’re supposed to be the navigator, remember? We’ve got a crossroads coming up; which way?” Steve asked.
Moose shifted his bulk in the seat and dug around for the map on the floorboard. He pulled the wadded–up paper onto his lap and fought with the folds. After several moments of his fumbling, Susan leaned over the front seat and tried to take the map.
“Let me do that, huh?” she said. Moose crumpled the map even more and shot her a dark look over his shoulder.
“Back off!” Moose growled. “I know what I’m doing… been to Fort Lauderdale three times already. I think I can find it again, okay?”
“Fine!” Susan shot back and threw herself into her seat. “Just trying to help.”
“We’ll be fine, Susan,” Steve said as he looked at her in the mirror. “Besides, Moose is right. We’ve done this trip for years. I’m sure we can find it.”
Susan folded her arms and pouted out the window, accompanied by the sounds of crumpling then ripping paper from the front. After another minute Steve stopped the car at the crossroads. Moose scratched his head and looked back and forth from the map to the crossroads and back again.
“Moose? Which way?” Steve asked.
“Oh… uh… that way,” Moose pointed to the left fork and looked at the map again. “Yup. That way.”
“Oh come on… he doesn’t know where we’re going. I doubt you even know where we are,” Susan said.
“Would you quit bitchin’ at us, brainiac?” Moose said, “We know what we’re doing.”
“Oh, of course. I wouldn’t want you to think that this delicate little female would ever even think that she may know something you don’t,” Susan said.
“Huh? Oh, well... yeah,” Moose said in his most authoritative voice, oblivious to her sarcasm. “That’s what I thought. Like I said, Steve… it's that way,” he said, indicating the left fork again. Moose settled into the small bucket seat and leaned his head against the window. He was snoring before Steve put the car in gear.
They drove down the dirt road for miles before Steve adjusted the mirror so he could see Susan. “You’ll have to forgive Moose. He’s not what you’d call… sociable under these circumstances. He’s actually a decent guy once you get to know him.”
Susan looked at the mirror and caught Steve’s stare. He did have nice eyes. “I think I’ll pass on getting to know him. I’ve made it this long without having to make friends with Moose, I think I can make it a little longer,” Susan said. They rode along in silence. Susan opened her book to pick up where she left off but the road had become far too rough to keep the words from jumping around.
“Think we could take it a little easier?” Susan asked.
“Don’t blame me, it’s the road.” He tried to veer around a large hole and succeeded in putting the left front tire into an even deeper one concealed by a clump of field grass that was doing its best to encroach on the roadway. The shock was intense. The book flew from Susan's lap while the whole car first dropped then rose up the other side of the hole. Wendy cried out from underneath the blanket as she fought with it to try and uncover her head from the rude awakening. Moose never flinched. A metallic ripping sound filtered through the car, followed by a drop in the undercarriage towards the offending tire. The car went into a skid and swung about broadside as the frame of the vehicle pushed against the wheel, locking it. After several seconds, Steve was able to bring the car to a stop.
“Shit!” he screamed. “Everyone okay?”
Susan and Steve almost laughed, then did, as Wendy’s muffled screams came from under the blanket. She’d wrapped herself so tightly that she couldn’t free herself. Finally, she managed to get her head out from the blanket in a spill of perfect, naturally–blonde hair. Even the combination of blanket and wreck hadn’t been enough to put even one strand out of place.
“What the hell happened?” Wendy asked as she turned her head wildly. Even now her hair whipped around like a supermodel in a photo shoot. Susan found herself wishing she had a pair of scissors.
“Evil Keneval up there decided to try and jump the ravine,” Susan said.
“Not like I was trying to,” Steve said. He turned his attention to Moose. The man hadn’t moved an inch, oblivious to the action. “Hey, asshole! Wake up!” Steve smacked the big man’s face with the back of his hand several times.
“Whu… huh? We there yet?” Moose asked.
“Oh, Christ…” Steve shot a look at Susan in his mirror to make sure she hadn’t heard him. Of course, she had. She warned them of that before the trip even started. “Sorry, Susie.”
“If you want to apologize, don’t call me that again,” Susan said.
“Whoa… what happened?” Moose asked as he came fully awake and realized they were sideways in the road.
“We hit a hole or something back there, messed up the car I think. Let’s check out the damage,” Steve said. The two young men got out of the car and stretched. Susan waited for Wendy to fully slither out of the blanket before the two of them joined the men. Steve and Moose were already kneeling, trying to look under the car.
“Hey, Steve, doesn’t it look like that metal rod thingy should be attached to that other metal doohickey?” Moose asked as he tried to pass off his words as technical lingo.
“Yeah, genius. That’s probably where it’s supposed to be,” Steve said. He opened the driver’s door and turned the wheel experimentally. The front driver’s side tire didn’t move. “We’re stuck.”
“We wouldn’t be if we had taken the interstate.” Susan grumbled and shot a look at Wendy. “Or if Davy Crocket here would have just admitted he didn’t know where we were.” She didn’t bother looking at the lummox. He wouldn’t have understood, anyway.
“Susan…” Steve started, “this isn’t going to help.”
They stood silently, contemplating the damaged car. “How far from the last service station are we?” Wendy asked.
“Haven’t seen one of those for better than 40 miles. If you’d been awake to see this little slice of Americana you would've known that,” Susan said.
“I was tired, okay? Geez, you don’t have to be such a bitch,” Wendy said.
“Oooh… cat fight!” Moose said. “Steve, you got any pudding?”
“Not now, Moose… you’ll just make it worse. Ladies, come on. Cars break down. I’m sure there’ll be help just up the road. I mean, there has to be something out here. There’s a road, isn’t there? You don’t have a road if it’s not going to go somewhere, do you?” Steve said.
The girls exchanged looks before Susan sighed and walked around to the back of the car. She needed some space right now. They weren’t bad people, she told herself, just not that bright.
“Well. Should we wait here for help or take a chance and start walking?” Steve asked the group.
“I don’t care what you do, but I’m not going anywhere. I’m freezing. Let me know when we’re fixed,” Wendy said as she got back in the car. Within moments, she was fast asleep back in her cocoon.
“Oh, you’ve got to be kidding me,” Susan said.
“Wendy… hey, Wendy,” Steve called to her.
“Don’t bother,” Susan said.
“Yeah. Okay, we’ll do both then. Moose, come on. We’re going to head up the road and look for help. You ladies stay here,” Steve said.
“What? You’re going to just leave us out here?” Susan said.
“I’m sure that strong, independent females like you two can take care of yourselves. Just remember, if you hear banjos, run,” Moose said.
“What a funny guy,” Susan mumbled. She came around the car and reached past Steve to remove the keys. “Go on then. If someone does come, we’ll try to remember your names when they get us out of here,” Susan said. She went to the trunk, fumbled around a moment and came out with a can of beer in each hand. “Didn’t I ask you guys to bring water? The only thing in here is beer.”
“Water… knew I forgot something. Didn’t have any back at the ‘house. Sorry,” Moose said as he walked back and dug in the cooler. He came out with several cans and tossed two of them to Steve. “Don’t want to get de… dehydroficated.”
“That’s dehydrated, you absolute imbecile,” Susan said.
“Hey! I’m the one majoring in sports medicine. I think I know what I’m talking about, right Steve?” Moose said.
“Yeah Moose. I guess you’d be the expert,” Steve said with a brief smile at Susan. He held one beer under his arm while he opened the other. “Don’t want to get dehydroficated now, do I?”
Susan smiled despite herself and pulled out another beer. At least it was cold. She ran it across her forehead and stared up at the cloudless sky. It wasn’t even noon and the early spring day was already in the eighties. She figured the people at the gas station yesterday were right after all; the only reason Florida didn’t float away was because Georgia sucked. Susan watched until they disappeared behind a rise in the path. She refused to call it a road.
Susan opened her door and retrieved her textbook. There was a small copse of trees several yards off the path with a patch of shade. If she was going to be stuck, she might as well make the best of it. She grabbed two more beers and walked to the spot. Within minutes, she had a tree to her back and was actually able to enjoy her reading. A thin breeze had started, something she wasn’t used to feeling. All in all, it was rather relaxing. She read for a time then slowly fell asleep from a mixture of the reading, the breeze and the quickly-warming beer.
Something woke her. In her daze, she wasn’t sure what it had been. The sun had moved considerably, proving that she had been asleep for at least an hour. She looked back towards the car and had to blink a few times to make sure what she was saw was real. A very large, burly and hairy man had pulled Wendy out of the car, keeping her within the confines of the blanket like a large sack and had the bundle over his shoulder as if she were laundry. Wendy screamed again, the blanket far from sufficient to keep her screams from reaching Susan. Wendy must have thought Moose was playing a joke on her. She kept screaming his name and describing all the vile things she would do to him if he didn’t put her down.
“Wendy!” Susan screamed as loud as she could as the man threw his bundle down on the path. He pulled back a meaty fist and punched a lump in the bundle. Susan shot up from the tree and screamed again. Sudden pain blossomed from the back of her head. Susan cried out and lost all equilibrium. Dazed, she rolled over and found herself staring up into a grizzled face. Her vision swam as she tried to focus on several blackened teeth in her assailant’s mouth.
“You sure are purty…” he said in a southern drawl. He pulled back his foot and kicked her hard in the temple. The world went black.
###Susan woke up and found herself hanging by her arms from a hook set into the ceiling. Her wrists had been bound together and the bonds fastened over the heavy hook above. It was dim, but she could tell the hook was stained by something dark. A gag had been tied around her mouth with a lump of cloth shoved into the hole for good measure. She tried to keep her swollen tongue away from the fabric. There was no telling what tastes awaited there.
Steve had fared worse; battered, bloody, unconscious and hung on another hook a few beams away from her. His hook had been sunk through his back and pointed out his chest. Susan shook her head and saw both Moose and Wendy strapped onto tables near the center of the room. The huge man that had taken Wendy stood over her, fondling her naked, still body. Moose was clearly dead and missing his left arm. Ragged skin stood up on his chest in her nearly–profile view speaking to crude evisceration.
Susan couldn’t believe she'd been so stupid. Getting the gang to cajole her into the trip was bad enough, but to be duped by a few back country rubes? How would she ever live this down? They were going to be in serious trouble if they didn’t get out soon. She tried to flex her hands a few times but found the cord had not only cut into her skin but had robbed her of most of her circulation. The effort produced fresh rivulets of blood that rolled slowly down her forearm.
She played dead when the man turned and approached her, so close now that she could feel his hot, fetid breath. It was all Susan could do to keep from wrinkling her nose when his stink hit her square in the face. Rough hands ran up her outer thighs. Jeans had seemed a bad idea in the heat of the morning but now she was grateful for her unwitting foresight. She didn’t know if she would've been able to keep her composure if she'd had to feel the primate’s bare skin on hers. The sound of old, rusty hinges shrieked through the slaughterhouse and a bright, piercing light shot into the room. Susan had to concentrate just to keep from squinting as the light cut through her eyelids.
“Boy! What’d I tell you ‘bout playin’ with them hussies, huh? Are ya’ deaf as well as stupid, Boy?” The voice was almost painful to hear, the howl of an old, toothless woman.
“Sorry, Mawmaw; just seein’ if’n she was still alive.” The man that had hit her alongside the road had had what most would consider a classic slow, southern drawl. This behemoth’s voice was even slower. Susan was sure there was not a small amount of mental retardation in the giant. Typical human genealogy. Make the slowest and dumbest the biggest and the strongest.
“Now that ain’t the way you check them things, Boy!” Susan could hear the old woman’s shuffling gate as she crossed the room. She smelled almost as bad as he did, her odor wafting up from much closer to the floor. A sudden sharp pain in her right thigh made her gasp and cry out. Susan's eyes flashed open to see the hideous old woman grinning toothlessly over a long knitting needle. “That’s how you test ‘em! Looks alive to me!” The old woman stared up at Susan and squinted with a gaze almost as piercing as her needle. The crone kept her gaze for several moments and then stepped away.
“What’s wrong, Mawmaw?” the dullard asked innocently.
“That there is an evil woman, Boy! You mark my words… she’s evil and needs a cleansin’. Won’t be no good for nuthin’ without a right and proper cleansin’. You take her down and bring her up to Pawpaw so’s he can make her proper. I ain’t puttin’ nothin’ in my deep freeze that stinks a’ evil like that hussy,” Mawmaw said.
“Yes Mawmaw,” Boy said.
The old woman backed out of the room quickly and left the door open as she went. Boy grabbed her around the waist and lifted her up and off the hook then dropped her on the filthy, blood–stained floor. Susan hit hard and felt something in her right ankle snap as she rolled over onto her stomach. The gag muffled her pain as she coughed against the rough, alien–tasting cloth. The dullard turned his back on her, confident that she was no threat to him now.
Susan choked back the unaccustomed pain. She hadn’t paid much attention in human physiology class, just well enough to pass her tests with excellent marks, of course. She thought back to her course work, especially the dissection curriculum. Susan struggled to her feet, off balance from her hands being bound before her and the screaming pain from her ankle. She brought her hands up to her face and was able to wrestle the gag away from her mouth just as the big man turned around. She threw herself towards the door and hobbled across the floor at a surprising rate of speed.
Boy stood shocked for a moment then turned and lumbered after her, knowing she wouldn’t get far. Junior was always hanging out in the basement somewhere, especially when there were fresh sinners; fresh female sinners, at any rate. Boy's brother was useless when it came to the men but he knew Junior would be down here somewhere. He'd taken a liking to both the women they'd found out on the old fire road, especially the one now on the table, so much so that he’d rode in the back of the pickup with her all the way back to the house.
Susan cleared the doorway. Her hands were still bound but she could already feel the heat from her shattered ankle coursing up through her leg. The silhouette of a man suddenly blocked out the light and she ran headlong into him. He laughed and grabbed her around the waist, swinging around in large circles to exhaust her momentum and keep her snuggly in his scrawny though muscular arms.
“Shit! Where you thinkin’ you goin’ there, girly–girl? Huh? They ain’t no where to go!” Susan recognized the voice from the road. With her hands still bound, Junior lifted her off the ground then threw her down hard. She could almost feel the bruise as it spread across her left hip. “I think you need some of that fight taken out of ya’,” Junior said. He pulled a large knife from his belt and swiped downward, opening a large gash across her left cheek. Susan gasped in pain as the blade separated the delicate flesh then rolled over on the filthy floor and tried to get to her feet, earning a vicious kick to the ribs for her trouble.
The pain and humiliation were unbearable. But without knowing where she was or what she was dealing with, or the condition of her friends, escape simply wasn’t possible. She couldn’t leave without them. They were already going to have enough explaining to do. Besides, she was a psychology major and advanced beyond even the usual high standards of excellence the program demanded. If anyone could talk sense to these rednecks and get them all released, it would be her. Susan had just decided to play along and bide her time when the man rolled her over with his foot and fell on her stomach. Wiry fingers worked at the button on her jeans.
“Yessir… take that fight right out a’ ya’!” Junior howled. “You gonna’ love this girly–girl, yessiree!”
Playing along was one thing, but this kind of abuse was simply uncalled for. Susan understood better than most the depravity some people were capable of, but the mere thought of this man touching even her shoes made her skin crawl with revulsion.
“Get her hands, Boy!” Junior said.
“Junior! Mawmaw said she was evil,” the dullard said. “You know she’ll beat us but good if she comes down here’n sees this.”
“Boy! Just do what I’m’a tellin’ ya’! That old bitty couldn’t get through that thick hide a’ yours if she tried. ‘Sides, you know you want to. You hold her for me an’ I’ll hold her for you,” Junior said.
Susan finally got enough air into her lungs to let out a long, high–pitched shriek. The sound made Junior start and was enough to make him rise up off her gut, granting her enough air to scream again. She drew back her bound hands and swung with all her strength, her fists acting like an axe handle. The blow took him by surprise and he fell off to her right with a grunt. She rolled away from him just as a blast of thunder echoed through the room. Susan focused at the far corner of the room and found the old woman standing at the base of a set of stairs, a smoking shotgun in her palsied hands.
“Junior! What in the name of the Good Lord an’ all His works are ya’ doin’? Just can’t a’ keep from the ruttin’, can ya’, ya’ godless little bastard! Christ but I can’t leave you two alone for five minutes, can I?” Mawmaw said.
Susan cringed at the crone's usage of the Lord’s name. Well, she couldn’t expect them to follow the geis she'd placed on the others, now could she? She lay on the floor for a few moments and tried to gather her strength. This was proving to be more difficult than she had thought.
“Boy! I told ya’ to get her and take her up to Pawpaw now, did’n I? Did’n I tell ya’ she was evil and needed a’ cleansin’?” Mamaw said.
“I told Junior, Mawmaw! He wouldn’a listen…” Boy said.
“You little snitch!” Junior hissed under his breath, knowing the old woman couldn’t possibly hear him that far away.
“You never mind that, Boy. You just do what I told ya’ and get her upstairs. Ya’ see? She’s so evil she done gave Junior them impure thoughts, usin' her feminine wiles against ya'!” Mawmaw said.
“Yes, Mawmaw…” both men said in unison like scolded children. The two grabbed her roughly, Junior at her feet and Boy at her head then carried her towards the steps while Junior regaled her with what they were going to do to her.
“Oh, yeah, girly – girl…we gonna’ have some fun with ya’. Soon as Pawpaw’s done with his cleansin’,” Junior said.
“You really don’t want to do this,” Susan said in a voice barely above a whisper. “You could just let us go. We won’t tell anyone. We’re not even from around here.” It was obvious that she was dealing with insanity. If nothing else, she was certainly gaining material for her paper.
“Oh but we do want to do this, girly–girl. You’ll see just how much we do,” Junior said. The indignity was almost too much to bear. But if they were all to escape without further issue, Susan would have to remain calm. She didn’t see how one human could inflict their depravity on another so easily. But discovering the mechanisms behind such behavior was her chosen career path, wasn’t it?
They carried her up the stairs. It was obvious that housekeeping was not on this family’s list of priorities. She was carried through several rooms and finally deposited in what appeared to be a large dining room lit only by dozens of candles placed on the large table and around the room. They threw her down on the threadbare carpet and stepped back.
“Please, listen to me; you don’t have to do this,” Susan said.
“You shut ya’ mouth, hussy!” the old woman’s voice exploded from somewhere in the room. “Ya’ ain’t good even for eatin’ stock lessin’ ya’ git a cleansin’! I’ll not have evil in this house!”
“What do you think you have here now?” Susan asked.
“What did ya’ say? Ya’ callin’ us evil? Pawpaw! Git on out here! We gots one that thinks we’re the evil ones!” Mawmaw said.
“Not evil, really… just sick,” Susan corrected. “Evil would require your torturing, rape and apparently cannibalism had a direct purpose not related to your mental state.” She regretted her clinical analysis almost instantly. The old woman exploded across the room and came into view near her feet. The hag used her cane on her legs several times, screaming with each blow.
“Sick now, are we? No, girl, ya’r the one that’s sick… and Pawpaw’s gonna’ cure ya’ of it right quick! Pawpaw!”
“You’ve been in tougher scrapes than this,” Susan thought to herself. In actuality, she hadn’t. But it seemed the right thing to say. They were all in big trouble, no doubt about that. The sound of slow, shuffling footsteps cut across the floor. She craned her head and saw a pair of well–worn yet polished black shoes. She let her gaze travel and took in the incredibly tall, gaunt old man. His face was heavily lined and tanned, but he did carry a certain dignity. He held his shaved chin high and peered down at her with watery blue eyes over his hawk–billed nose, a pair of half–spectacles at the tip. A starched, white clerical collar at the base of his sinuous neck completed the picture of a true fire–and–brimstone preacher.
“Evil? Did I hear rightly that there’s evil in my own home?” Pawpaw said. The boys took another step back from Susan as the old woman smacked her again with her cane.
“‘Fraid so, Pawpaw. This one’s a’ got th’ evil in her, Christ be praised,” Mawmaw said.
“Please… can you stop using that name like that?” Susan asked politely.
“Don’t speak the name of the Lord before ya’, huh? See Pawpaw? I told ya’ she’s evil. Can’t even stand ta’ hear the good Lord’s name!” Mawmaw said.
“No, it’s not that at all,” Susan said. The cane snaked out and cracked her in the left temple. Pain exploded through her head and she cried out as blood rolled into her eyes.
“You shut up! Ya’ hear me, girl? You shut up!” Mawmaw said.
“Mawmaw, you shouldn’ be goin’ around like that,” Pawpaw said. “Ain’t her fault she’s riddled with Satan’s sin. Ya’ should be more compassionate when dealin’ with the fallen.” Chuckling at his own sarcasm, Pawpaw kneeled down and cupped Susan’s chin in his weathered hand. His eyes were like the old woman’s; piercing and almost hypnotic. He suddenly gasped and let go. Deprived of his support Susan's chin hit the floor and almost made her bite through her tongue while the gash from Junior’s knife cried out in fresh pain. She made a personal vow there and then that if they got out of this she would bone up on her old physiology textbook.
“Evil!” Pawpaw cried out as he struggled to his feet and backed away. “Sinner! You’re the bride of the Devil himself! Oh Lord! Why have you brought this vile creature into my home? Have ya’ forsaken us all? We’re only doin’ Your works!” Pawpaw stumbled back against the wall as the boys gave Susan an even wider berth.
“You are all very, very sick. You need help. Please, let me help you before you go too far with this and someone else gets hurt,” Susan managed to say through her pain.
“I know why th’ Lord sent this witch here Pawpaw! He sent her here so’s ya could cleanse the world a’ her evil!” Mawmaw said.
“Just let us go and the ‘evil’ will be gone,” Susan said.
“Evil doesn’t just walk away, child; it has to be destroyed. I’m a’ doin’ this for you as much as for the Lord!” Pawpaw made a motion to the boys, then another as they hesitated to pick the battered girl up from the floor.
“You said she was a’ evil, Pawpaw. What if’n she does somethin’ evil to us?” Boy asked. The fearful quivering of his voice hardly matched his massive body.
“Ah, shut up ya’ blubberin’ fool and git her over to the chair! Ya’ sure didn’t think she was a’ evil when you were tryin’ ta’ fornicate with her downstairs, now did ya’?” Mawmaw said.
The big man acted as if stung and sheepishly reached down to pick Susan up. She didn’t fight him, couldn’t fight him, as he carried her at arms length and dropped her into a chair at the head of the table. Her body ached and throbbed, but her mind stayed alert and clear. She would get her chance to try and talk some sense into these people. She just had to play into their religious delusions. Susan looked down on the table and saw a huge mixing bowl filled almost to the rim with what could only be blood.
“They told me when they took my church away that I was crazy. You know that, girl?” the old man hissed at her as he grabbed a handful of her hair and yanked her head back till all she could see was his inverted face and the dirty ceiling. “That girl was evil, too. Fornicator! Flaunting God’s law and prostituting herself at truck stops all along the highway. Sold drugs, too, she did.” Susan tried to shift her weight and felt the skin on her scalp scream. “No sense tryin’ ta’ git away, girl. This is for your good, too. ‘Course, you’ll still be made to pay for yer own sins, even those ya’ did while the demons had their way with ya’.” His hand dropped below her vision and she could hear his fingers sloshing around in the bowl in front of her. “But I showed them, didn’t I, Mawmaw? They could take my church, but they couldn’t take my faith or my life in th’ service of the Lord Jesus Christ!”
“Hallelujah!” the old woman cried out. The boys echoed her cry, though much more softly.
“Shoot! Ya’ boys is nothin’ but scaredy–cats, ain’t ya’? The evil’s in her. She can’t go ‘round hurtin’ people, much less the likes a’ you two. Her evil’s what lives inside. It can’t do no harm to ya’,” Mawmaw said.
“Is th’ other girly girl evil too, Mawmaw?” Junior asked.
“We’ll just hav’ ta’ see ‘bout that one, Junior. You just keep yer pants up ‘round any of ‘em. That’s fornication, and I’ll not have it in this house!” She stamped her cane on the wooden floor to emphasize her point.
“Yes ma’am,” both boys said together. They moved closer to the spectacle at the head of the table, their grandmother’s words a soothing balm to their fear.
“Your…your church,” Susan said, her throat pinching the words at the unnatural angle the old preacher held it to. “They took your church. So you had to take your… fight… against evil into the world. Must have been hard on you to lose your church. Probably the only life you knew,” Susan said.
“Just hold yer tongue, missy. I don’t converse with evil, I destroy it,” Pawpaw said.
“But don’t you see? You had a classic delusional reaction to the utter loss of not only your livelihood but the threat to your faith. So you personalized it, made it seem that the church was responsible and somehow in league with the very thing you purport to fight…this is textbook…” Susan started.
“Missy…” Pawpaw growled as he viciously pulled her head back so far her mind threatened to black out. “Apparently, ya’ don’t grasp the gravity of yer situation. After yer cleansin’, you’ll be reborn and clean. Clean enough to eat,” Pawpaw said.
Susan gasped for air until he loosened his hold slightly. “Okay,” Susan gasped, “I understand the feelings of loss and the bitterness you harbor towards the church. I can help you work through that. But I just don’t get the cannibalism aspects…”
“Cannibalism? Cannibals! You thinkin’ we’re a bunch a’ Godless cannibals? A bunch a’ heathens and jigaboos… that’s what you’re a’ thinkin’ we are, girl?” Pawpaw let fly with the back of his hand and nearly knocked out one of her teeth. Susan tasted blood not for the first time that day and tried to keep her wits. She was starting to lose her professional detachment, though; enough to wonder if a career in human psychology was for her.
“The thought had crossed my mind,” Susan said.
“We can’t leave the carcasses a' evil in the ground. Evil grows where ya’ plant it, my granddad used ta’ say, Lord rest his soul,” Pawpaw said. At that, the whole family looked heavenward for a moment. “If ya’ burn ‘em, your just releasin’ their evil to ride the winds and infect other good, God–fearin’ people. No. The only way to truly destroy evil is to cleanse it, then have the good, God–fearin’ people devour ‘em! Evil can’t survive being taken in and devoured by goodness. The body’s a temple to the Good Lord, girl; no evil can survive in a proper temple to the Lord!”
The family called out a grand amen while Susan winced. Using the Lord and Master’s name, either in vain or in decency, could only hurt them all now. It would draw undue attention, if it hadn’t already. If the family kept this up they would all be in some serious trouble. The pain in her ankle was gone now, and her legs felt good as new. Susan's bruised and battered face would take more time, but she was getting used to the body now. How the hell the human race could be so flimsy and live even as long as they did was a completely alien concept to her.
“So you kill evil people, which apparently is anyone but the four of you, and then you participate in cannibalistic rituals infused with a pagan belief structure in service to a Christian… higher being. And you lost your church over just that?” Susan said.
“Enough a’ yer sass! Cleanse ‘er, Pawpaw! I don’t want that evil in my home another second!” Mawmaw said.
“Yes, Mawmaw. I believe it’s time for this one to taste the wrath a’ God almighty!” Pawpaw dipped his right hand in the bowl and pulled her head back to painful extremes again with the left. “A good, pure virgin gave her all to the cause to supply the blood that will be your salvation, girl. Remember her sacrifice as the blood a’ the lamb washes away the evil and sin from ya’!”
Pain like Susan had never experienced before transcended her human body and soaked deep into the core of her being. Virginal blood wasn’t enough for this yokel. He had to bless it, too. If he was insane enough for them to take his church, the least the bastards could have done was remove his ordainment. She gritted her teeth as her skin smoldered and blistered at the touch of the sanctified blood.
Pawpaw had never seen the likes of it. The girl’s skin grew so hot under his thumb that it burned his own. He drew his arm back out of reflex and released her head as he stepped back a pace or two against the wall. The girl’s forehead continued to smoke and blister as Mawmaw and the boys involuntarily backed away from the table.
“By all that’s Holy,” Pawpaw whispered. “Evil! I knew you was possessed by the Devil, girl! I knew it!” He kept his back to the wall, never taking his eyes off the back of the girl’s head. He bumped into a side table and felt blindly until his hand closed on a well–used and stained hammer. She wouldn’t be the first sinner the hammer had brought to righteousness. She wouldn’t be its last, either.
“You don’t… you don't understand... what you’re doing here…” Susan hissed, her voice wracked with pain. “Stop this, stop this now be..before anyone else has to get hurt. Just let us go and… and we’ll pretend like this never happened,” Susan said.
Susan found the strength to raise her head. The blood sacrament had run down into her left eye and had made a ruin of it. Puss and gore ran down her cheek from the still–smoking crater that had been her eye. Pawpaw brought his hammer up high over his head and looked to the heavens. Intense prayer whispered from his thin, cracked lips as he brought the hammer down on the crown of her head with as much force as he could muster.
“Just let us go,” Susan managed to whisper before new pain blasted through her as the heavy–headed hammer fell. She could feel the plates of her skull separate as the tool punched through them and into the soft grey matter beneath. Her head dropped to the table with a hollow thud as her left leg jerked spasmodically in time to her beating heart.
“Ya’ did it, Pawpaw! Lord be praised, ya’ beat down th’ evil!” Mawmaw’s words died away as Susan sat up suddenly, like a marionette on unsure strings. Her remaining eye was closed as she sat and swayed slightly. The mark of the cross continued to smolder on her forehead, adding one more pungent odor to the rest in the house.
“It’s just th’ nerves an’ stuff,” Junior said with a smile. “’Sides, even if it ain’t, she’s cleansed now and all. Come on, Boy, let’s git her downstairs.” Junior walked ahead with newfound bravery towards Susan.
“Now ya’ mind ya’self, Junior. Just’n case she needs another cleansin’. I won’t trust ‘er till she’s good and dead,” Mawmaw said from across the room.
“Oh Mawmaw, look at ‘er. Ain’t no evil left in ‘er!” Junior laughed and grabbed her bound wrists.
Susan’s remaining eye shot open. The strong cord that bound them snapped as she effortlessly spread her hands. Her eye turned red as blood as she grabbed Junior's hand and crushed the bones with relish. Junior screamed as she shoved him into Boy, making both men stumble back.
“Evil?” Susan hissed. Her voice had become hollow and cold, accompanied by an unearthly echo that chilled every ounce of marrow in the room. “You know nothing of evil. You are pathetic. You are miserable excuses for life of any sort, even that as lowly as Man,” Susan said.
“Oh God in heaven,” Pawpaw said. He cried out and lashed out with the hammer again and again. After several blows Susan's skull was completely caved in. Blood rushed down her chest as Pawpaw stepped as far away as the walls would let him. Susan’s body had rocked with each blow, but she did not fall. Mawmaw screamed and stumbled back against the wall, her hand clutching at her chest.
“I told ya’ she was the bride a’ Satan hisself!” Mawmaw screamed.
“And you know nothing of the Undermaster,” Susan said. “He is not the marrying kind.” She scanned the room slowly as the bones in her face and skull started to move underneath the skin, seeking out their shattered parts and making them whole. Within moments, her head swelled like a balloon then deflated, leaving it unmarred and untouched save for the deep scar in the form of the cross on her forehead. Susan touched it gingerly as a wisp of errant smoke rose from it. Both her eyes were present again and the color of blood. She could see the shattered bones, muscles and tendons of her body clearly in her mind now, making the task of putting the shell back together far easier.
“I have tried to understand. I have even tried to help you understand the nature of your existence. I have tried to show you that what you hold dear is fallacy. I have failed. I am only glad that my professors are not here to see my failure in what should be a textbook case of human insanity and paranoid delusion. Despite that, I do not wish to hurt you,” Susan said. Her eyes slowly returned to their proper human color as she took a deep breath. “You will be set to your own Pits soon enough, and I might even be amused enough to check in on you from time to time.” Her voice had returned to normal as she craned her neck this way and that, the vertebrae dropping back into their intended places. “Your antics are quite comical, though not original.”
“You… you ain’t real,” Junior said as he nursed his shattered hand.
“There are far worse things in the world than you slack–jawed, pathetic rednecks. I am but one. You have one minute to leave this house and not return till morning. That should give me time to calm my friends and get them to leave. I assure you, they will not be nearly as… understanding as I have been,” Susan said.
“I ain’t leavin’ my home, foul creature a’…” Pawpaw started in a quivering voice.
“Do you realize just how utterly laughable you really are? You don’t, do you? Do you think you people are the only head cases in the world? Do you think the Lord and Master actually speaks to you? He rarely makes an utterance to his own clergy, to kings and queens of men, let alone a miserable collection of inbred homicidal maniacs with delusions of divine right. Go, before this escalates and you call up something you can’t possibly conceive,” Susan said.
The snap of gun barrels turned her attention to Mawmaw as she brought the old scattergun to bear between Susan’s breasts. “Back ta’ hell with ya’!” Mawmaw screamed as she pulled the triggers. The recoil pushed her back against the wall. Susan and her chair flew against the wall behind her, dumping her to the floor.
Susan blinked a few times and struggled to her feet. She put her hands to the hole in her chest and shook her head as if she were dealing with small children. A sudden howl, as cold and dark as a pack of wolves drifted up from the basement. “Too late,” Susan said.
“Oh Jesus Mother a’ Gawd! Pawpaw, let’s git outta’ here!” Junior said.
“Too late,” Susan said again as the hole in her chest healed over. “Moose woke up. You could try to run, but Steve’s pretty quick. He spends a lot of time in human bodies,” Susan said as she picked at a speck of blood under her fingernail. In a burst of fear Pawpaw swung at her head again. Susan raised a finger. The steel head melted in an intense burst of flame, the molten steel pouring onto the preacher’s freshly–polished shoe. Pawpaw screamed and fell against the wall, the pain too intense to bear.
Junior abandoned his brother and ran screaming from the room only to reappear as a flying bodyto crash onto the table. A roar of pure hatred sounded as a humanoid form easily as big as Boy and far thicker stormed in past Mawmaw and to the end of the table. Its eyes were red, glowing with an inner fire as it slammed both fists onto the edge of the table and shattered the thick old oak. Large spikes grew out of its hands and arms and a respectable set of curled horns crowned its head. The face had become almost bovine, missing only a ring through the nose.
“Satan hisself!” Mawmaw hissed from behind it. The shotgun dropped from nerveless fingers. It turned to her and growled low from its throat.
“Really?" the demon said in a conversational tone. "You really think I look like him? Really?” The candor of his speech took Mawmaw off guard. “I always kinda’ thought so, but try telling that to these guys,” Moose said.
Susan rolled her eyes as Steve and Wendy came into the room. They had likewise transformed into their proper demonic selves. If the university didn’t know they were in the mortal world, so many unapproved demons in their true form would surely alert them now. Wendy spied Junior’s body on the dining room table and leaped through the air, landing on her knees and straddling the stunned man’s chin.
“Isn’t this what you wanted, human scum?” Though Wendy's voice possessed the same hollow quality as the rest she still seemed able to make it sultry. “Well then, it’s all yours!” A thick, spiked tentacle shot out from Wendy's crotch and lashed Junior’s face. Everywhere the thing touched caused the skin to boil and flay, exposing the soft meat beneath. Wendy threw back her head in ecstasy. Her perfect bone structure, dainty horns and unmarked skin the hue of sunset made her a sight to behold, horribly beautiful even by human standards.
Boy looked around wildly, his simple mind battered beyond all hope by the presence of the demons and his brother's horrified cries. Boy cried out in sympathy for his brother's pain and charged the table. Steven raised a clawed hand and laughed as a strip of intense flame sprang to life from the tapers across the edge of the table. Boy skidded to a halt and raised his arms in an effort to ward off the flames.
“Guys? Guys!” Susan finally had to scream over the havoc. The demons paused and looked at her. “We’ve got to get out of here. I’m surprised we haven’t been caught already.”
“We’re supposed to let them get away with this?” Wendy asked in a purring voice. The appendage had gashed open Junior’s cheek and latched onto the smooth muscles, feasting from the inside out. All he could do was twitch and jerk even as her lacquered nails dug through his denim cover–alls into his chest.
“Oh, no fucking way!” Moose said. “Did you see what this goofy bastard was going to do to us? The freezers are full of parts down there.”
“Need I remind you that we aren’t even supposed to be here? And you know as soon as one of us transformed they could find us. Now the three of you are fully transformed. They can’t ignore that for long,” Susan said.
“But these mortals…” Wendy started.
“Wendy, Susan’s right,” Steve said as the flames died from the table. His own modest horns and long, spiked tail withdrew into his body as his skin returned to the comparatively pale color that so many humans found fashionable. “We could be in a lot of trouble if they find us in the mortal world. We have to go.”
Susan looked at Steve with a new–found respect. Though it was tradition for young demons to sneak into the mortal world during breaks from their university studies, the practice was completely illegal. For those that were born as demons, the authorities often looked the other way so long as they didn’t cause much trouble, arouse the Grey or, worse, the accursed angelic forces. None of them would have been given permission to xcome to the mortal world until they finished their studies and were ready to embark on their careers. Those such as Moose and Wendy would rarely get that chance, anyway. With Moose looking forward to a spot in the Skullball league and Wendy training for her cosmetology degree, they didn’t have much in the way of skills the Undermaster would need. If they were caught here now, Susan and Steve would lose their respective chances of continuing their research and work in human psychology and duplicit international commerce, respectively. For willfully violating the Pact they would never be allowed to leave Hell again if for nothing more than good relations with the Lord and Master and to stay on the right side of the Grey.
“Okay, we’ll leave. But not before we rip these hillbillies apart!” Moose siad. He turned to Mawmaw and grabbed her, his arms elongating before him to cover the distance. The old woman could do nothing in the face of true evil as his huge hands grabbed her shoulders and lifted her off the ground. Moose unhinged his jaw and started to pull her into his waiting maw. Suddenly, the drapes over the large picture window burst into white–hot flame.
“Oh, shit,” Wendy said as she turned to the flames. Her tentacle detached and turned towards the window as well.
“I tried to tell you. Great. Three hundred years at university shot to… well, shot.” Susan said with disgust.
“Okay, let Susan do the talking,” Steve said in a stage whisper. Pawpaw and Boy stayed against the wall, knowing they were powerless to do anything. Even Mawmaw had quieted there in the mouth of the demon and tried to crane her head to see the flaming drapes.
“Me? Why me?” Susan asked.
“You’re the big psych’ major, aren’t you?” Steve said. Susan sighed.
A figure materialized from the smokeless blaze. He strode out of the flames in a perfectly tailored, stark–white suit. His bald skull was covered in extremely tight, smooth skin. If it weren’t for the wicked smile on his face the students would have sworn their Dean of Students was twin to the preacher cowering at the other side of the room.
“I thought he looked familiar,” Steve said.
“It was not intentional I assure you, Mr. Blizbubling,” the Dean said smoothly. His accent was a mixture of middle–European dialects and fit his chosen form well. “I have sported this countenance when forced to travel to the mortal world for nearly a thousand years.”
“It looks good on you. Not many men could pull off double–breasted like that,” Wendy said.
Considering the seriousness of their situation, Susan would have laid even money the first words out of Wendy’s mouth would have been an attempt to shove her nose as far up the administrator’s posterior as possible. She scolded the vixen with her eyes and tried to formulate a good excuse for them.
“That will be enough, Ms. Klinzaakaal. I would ask why the four of you are here, now, in violation of university policy, the student handbook and even the Pact itself. This infraction could still cause a great deal of difficulty at the highest levels,” the Dean said. The four young demons looked around at each other at a complete loss for words. “Mr. Blutokrovisgin, please put the human down. I find it less than dignified to be staring down your throat in mixed company.”
“Yeth, Dean Thithlykthloth,” Moose said, his words fumbling off his tongue and elongated jaw, then “sorry, Dean Sysslyslos.”
“Much better, Mr. Blutokrovisgin,” Dean Sysslyslos said.
“Forgive me, Dean, but with all due respect may we dispense with using our true names around the h..u..m..a..n..s..?” Susan whispered.
“There is no worry they will ever try to summon any of you, Ms. Zulishtakaz. I suspect that none of you will be leaving Hell for any reason, at any time in the lifespan of these humans’ or many others. It was not bad enough that you chose to participate in a rather boorish, childish ritual. No, you had to allow mere humans to best you. This is not going to be a bright mark in your permanent records,” Dean Sysslyslos said. He looked at the humans in the room and tried to suppress his laughter. “I would have thought better of any of you than to get taken by these inbred cretins. You will return with me; now. I am sure your parents will want to know all about your extracurricular exploits. Drunken debauchery among humans is something only the lowest of demons would do. Mr. Blutokrovisgin, Ms. Klinzaakaal, I would expect this kind of lowbrow antic from the two of you. But Mr. Blizbubling, and especially you, Ms. Zulishtakaz, well, I expected far more. I can see now that I was in error. We should perhaps rectify my lapse in judgment.”
“Ah… sir? What about them?” Steven asked, indicating the murderous family cowering in various parts of the room.
“They are none of your concern. However, they are a concern of Professor Ujkwixcaalan. He has been studying them for several years, you see. Actually, to be quite frank he has been using them as a capstone for a long-term study concerning the depths of depravity the human mind is capable of performing when it feels that its actions are just. You all know Professor Ujkwixcaalan, don’t you? Especially you, Ms. Zulishtakaz. After all, he chairs your department. I am sure that he will want to have a long philosophical discussion with you since you seem to know so much about his projects as to interfere with his study,” Dean Sysslyslos said.
Susan swallowed hard and shook her head. Last term, Ujkwixcaalan failed one of her classmates because he neglected to hold a door open for him when his arms were full. The professor also ripped the student's horns off. It took almost three months for them to grow back properly. She shuddered when she thought about what awaited her in her professor’s private office. “Dean?”
”Yes, Ms. Zulishtakaz, Professor Ujkwixcaalan is well aware of your dalliance here. I am sure that he simply cannot wait to compare notes with you.” The Dean looked at the cowering preacher and smiled at him. “You do the Lord’s work here, Pawpaw. Please, continue and spread the glory and light of His name,” Dean Sysslyslos said. The young demons looked perplexed and stared at the gaping humans. “To them, I have feathery wings and a voice as sweet as harp music. You have much to learn; all of you. Come. We go.”
The demons exchanged worried looks then fell in behind their Dean. Wendy and Moose allowed themselves to completely transform and were joined by Steve and Susan. The last transformed themselves as they walked and paid little heed as pieces of the human bodies they had killed then possessed slid off them like rain from a slicker to leave a trail of flesh and bone as they went, like slugs would leave slime trails, from their points in the room to the flaming portal that would lead them back home.
“Dean Sysslyslos, if I may ask a question?” Susan asked quietly as she passed through the flames.
“Certainly, Ms. Zulishtakaz.”
“I know we committed a horrible breach of the rules and the Pact by coming to the mortal world without permission. But if they saw you as angelic and they will continue damning themselves and slaying the innocent in the most depraved ways their small minds can imagine, why would Professor Ujkwixcaalan harbor ill will towards us? His study should be far from ruined and may actually be enhanced by the events we unwillingly, and certainly unknowingly, were forced to participate,” Susan said.
“Dear girl. Dear, sweet, innocent child,” Dean Sysslyslos said in a mocking, sing–song voice that patronized Susan to her core. “You do realize the one constant of your existence, do you not?”
“Yes. We live in a state of being that is solid yet apart from the material world, and that…”
“Ms. Zulishtakaz, a human once said, ‘Brevity is the heart of wit’. I daresay it is also the heart of wisdom as well. Any question you or the others may have as to the severity of your punishment can be answered quite simply,” Dean Sysslyslos said.
“And is the Dean able to impart this wisdom to the next generation, or will we be expected to fumble our way through until we hit upon the answer ourselves?” Susan asked. Her tone betrayed her emotion. She was being unfairly lumped in with the rest, or so she felt. She had never wanted to go on spring break, anyway. She was different than these others; better. She was alone among them, the rose between thorns. She had made a youthful mistake. She felt certain that her future worth to the Undermaster would trump any stupid, youthful diversion she may have had the misfortune to be guiled into.
Dean Sysslyslos stopped dead, almost causing the rest of the line to crash into each other. His human form suddenly fell away in great shreds as his true body and nature grew from the leavings. He towered over them, far larger and more sinister than any demon any of them personally knew. He leaned down and stared into Susan’s eyes and she instantly felt her black blood run like ice through her veins.
“The answer is simple, whelp, and one you would do well to heed and hold in reverence and awe until the day the Undermaster devours you. Hell does not discriminate, Hell does not judge. If you are here, the judging has been done by powers far beyond your simple comprehension, whatever place your pitiful form may occupy in the Undermaster’s plan. In short, you will all be punished, and punished severely, if for nothing more than that one glorious and constant truth in all your wretched, pathetic little lives. Simply put? You are in Hell, aren’t you?”
As always, I am humbled by your readership and grateful for the tiny slice of your life you choose to spend with my words. So, until next time, just write damn it. - Author